Polite and brave and honest?

DC’s hit-and-miss attempt to make its superheroes inspiring again
By DOUGLAS WOLK  |  April 27, 2006

SupermanNightwingMonthly comic-book sales have been dribbling downward for years, as the economy of the comics industry shifts to book collections and manga. So DC Comics’ latest plan to give its periodicals line a shot in the arm is pretty audacious. As of last month’s issues of the 22 ongoing superhero comic-book series DC currently publishes, the story line abruptly jumps one year forward. (Battlestar Galactica did the same thing recently, although the similarity is coincidental.)

The whole One Year Later project, or OYL, as it’s sometimes called, spins out of Infinite Crisis, the immense, frantic, space-operatic non-fanatics-need-not-apply crossover that’s been running for the past six months. Beginning May 10, a weekly, 52-issue miniseries, 24-ishly called 52, will explain what happened, week by week, during the missing year. I’d attempt to explain the plot of Infinite Crisis, but a master’s degree (at least) in DC continuity is required to make sense of it (it’s supposed to be a huge shock that the Superboy of Earth-Prime is wearing the Anti-Monitor’s armor, if that gives you any idea).

The subtext of Infinite Crisis, though, is much clearer, and writer Geoff Johns has been hammering it in good and hard: something has gone terribly wrong with superhero comics in the past twenty years; their heroes are grimly twisted or ineffectual — or both; they’re no longer capable of being as exciting and inspiring as they once were; we need to go back to first principles and core values. Johns knows that that idea has some flaws: “We’re going to have good heroes again!” one character declares in the most recent issue as he beats another one to a pulp. “Heroes who are polite and brave and honest!” But the point of the series is, inescapably, to hit some sort of big reset button (so much so that we learn in OYL that Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman have been out of action for a year).

The point of OYL itself is twofold, and almost contradictory. On the one hand, it’s meant to be a convenient jumping-on point for new readers; on the other, it’s meant to provide an intriguing hook for people who’ve already been reading each series for years. It’s generally much better at the latter than at the former — and it’s not too great at either.

A big part of the problem is that comics writers have become morbidly fearful of exposition. The bare minimum a reader has a right to expect is that a “starting point” will explain who the characters are, but a lot of the OYL stories fail that test miserably. Someone picking up Nightwing for the first time with the OYL issue (#118, for instance) should be able to know that the character used to be Batman’s sidekick, Robin, and that when last we saw him he’d just gotten engaged to Barbara Gordon, the former Batgirl. To understand the plot, it’s also crucial to know that Jason Todd, another Robin who died in the line of duty, has come back to life to seek bloody revenge (in an interminable story line in Batman).

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THE ONE YEAR LATER SERIES

The five best . . .

Superman/Action Comics
A crossover, and the only home run of One Year Later: Clark Kent hasn’t been Superman for a year. An ingenious plot, and a great starting point.

Birds of Prey
The Birds, radically changed, try to bring in a defector from the villains’ team. Crammed with plot, and a treat for long-time fans.

Hawkgirl
Formerly Hawkman , now a horror title. Howard Chaykin’s grainy, stylized artwork is terrific. Too bad the plot makes so little sense.

Supergirl and the Legion of Super-Heroes
Considering this is a blatant contrivance to graft Supergirl onto the 1000-years-in-the-future team, it’s surprisingly fun, and the cliffhanger is very clever.

Detective Comics/Batman
A crossover: Batman is back in Gotham City, and somebody is murdering his old enemies. Designed to restore the old status quo. 

and worst . . .

Blood of the Demon
Sadistic, addle-pated horror that barely acknowledges a yearlong gap — or offers any means of access to new readers.

Nightwing
There are two Nightwings running around, one a murderous imposter. Insultingly stupid, violent, and, if you haven’t been following the “Red Hood” story line in Batman, confounding.

Outsiders
One of those Nightwings is leading a covert action team into Mali. Nothing but setup, bluster, and pose-striking.

Green Arrow
Rote superdude action that gives away its “shock ending” on the cover: Green Arrow’s secret identity has been elected mayor. 

Firestorm: The Nuclear Man
Firestorm has mysteriously merged with Firehawk, and all the explosions in the world can’t make us care.

Phoenix Literary Supplement

How to speak Yiddish: from the Talmud to tukhes and back. By Josh Kun

Med noir: the bloody Continental take on an American genre. By Dana Kletter

An icon's icon: death becomes all superstars. By Peter Kadzis

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