State of the DC Universe

DC Comics: But where have all the women gone?

Megan Purdy

DC Comics: The New 52 #1
DC Comics: The New 52 #1

The New 52 debuted in August, 2011. A year and a half later, many of the original 52 titles have reached their 16th issue, while others quietly faded into the comics ether.

But while DC dominated sales in 2011, Marvel took back the top spot in 2012 and has held it since. (One wonders if another crisis, reboot, or relaunch, is on the way). Critics continue to love titles like Aquaman and Swamp Thing, while opinions are mixed or souring on some of the cornerstone books.

I can say without hesitation that the New 52 brought DC attention, and a solid sales bump, but I do hesitate to call the relaunch a creative success. Some books are good; some books are bad. But the overall vision of the DC universe? I still haven’t bought in.

I talked to DC superfans Sistermagpie, Tali Adina, and Ragnell about their New 52 feels.

* * *

As a whole, does the DCnU work for you as a fan? And does it work for you as a critic?

Tali: Before the New 52 I had never read any DC comics, but I grew up watching the DC animated shows (along with Marvel). So when the new 52 was launched I was excited. I haven’t read every title, but I am reading a lot. As fan, it’s a good introduction into the DC universe. Not great, are the characters who are missing from the universe or have been sidelined (Static Shock). As critic it’s been okay for me, I haven’t given any bad reviews until this week for Wonder Woman #17. So in short, the whole experience has been meh.

Sistermagpie: I guess in a way it’s unfair to judge the reboot as one thing, since it’s made of many different books. Some I felt really benefited, others not so much. I wouldn’t say that as its own entity the reboot really feels like it works for me. I don’t feel like there’s a real unifying vision that ties this new universe together vs. the old one. The books that work best for me, kind of started more from scratch. If I felt like the original had problems, that was a good thing. Other times they changed the origin stories, and I didn’t think it was as strong as the original. And of course as someone who’s a Bat fan…is that even really a reboot? It’s like… just as much complicated backstory with less emotional weight or something.

Ragnell: I think it’s fair to judge the reboot as a whole. They went for a uniform voice and tone across the line. It’s all very dark and violent, even the more creative books like Animal Man and Swamp Thing have the same humorless tone as the flagship books. The straight-line superhero books have been going darker for years, and that is not necessarily a problem, but most of the books added to them were also in the same mood. The genre being folded into the DCU is horror. Regardless of quality, it’s clear that they intended to narrow the line in terms of creative diversity.

I’d still agree that there were some good books at the start, but for me they’ve lost their steam in the past year. As a reader, I no longer have much interest, and that’s a direct result of the reboot. As a critic, I don’t have the energy to complain about it much.

Sistermagpie: That’s true–there is definitely a tone. I find a lot of the stuff I have read doesn’t stick with me the way many things did pre-reboot. 

Is there a sense in which everything in the New 52 feels transitory? Subject to reboot, in case of poor sales? Could that be why things aren’t sticking (to borrow Magpie’s language)?

Tali: I think so, considering that it feels like every week they’re changing creative teams on some of the books. But I can’t compare this reboot to past stuff, since I’m a newbie reader to DC.

Sistermagpie: Of course, everything always felt subject to massive change due to poor sales, so that’s not new. But I admit that I do find myself reading a lot of the new stuff as though I’m waiting for things to go back to the old universe. I even sometimes find myself thinking of it as New Coke–which I might be dating myself by mentioning. It just doesn’t feel so well thought out that they won’t wind up falling back on old ideas. I don’t know if it it would necessarily be a big official re-re-boot, but a lot of people want some of those same old things. Much as they wanted Classic Coke. So they’ll find a way to do it.

Ragnell: It feels like they’re throwing everything they can at the wall in the hopes that they can recapture the 90s boom. When that fails, and it will, they will try something else. This group might be fired. Comic writers have a long-standing habit of retconning away stupid ideas from previous writers so that they can write stories like the ones they grew up with, so I imagine most of the failed ideas will be retconned away in favor of a traditional setup. If the comics department at DC Entertainment survives this.

Looking back, what titles and in-story events surprised you? Pleasantly or otherwise.

Tali: I would say Rotworld was my favorite (I love Swamp Thing and Animal Man), and then Court of Owls and Night of Owls. Death in the Family was good too. Storylines that I hated: Static Shock–Dwayne McDuffie (R.I.P.) would be pissed–and the whole Hades arc in Wonder Woman.

Swamp Thing #11.
Swamp Thing #11.

Sistermagpie: I don’t know if I’ve often been surprised, exactly, since I was ready for anything. There have been some massive changes that dismayed me, but sadly a lot of them didn’t exactly surprise me. For instance, the whole Superman situation of getting rid of his marriage. It was a big change, but it’s very in line with the way comics seem to work these days that somebody like Lois wouldn’t be valued that much, that type of relationship. And playing down the family aspect of the Bat family. Aquaman was certainly a pleasant surprise. Always nice to see Aquaman get some respect.

Ragnell: I hadn’t expected to like the sorts of changes they made to Wonder Woman as much as I did in the first arc. I hate using Hera as a villain (I also hate her as a victim, though, so at least there was that change) for Wonder Woman. I hate the idea of Zeus being her father. I hate killing gods. These were ALL major plot points, but it was massively entertaining and probably the best thing they put out at the time. I was also pleasantly surprised by the first 7 issues of Justice League, though that went downhill later on. Action Comics surprised me by being lackluster on the first reading, but pretty enjoyable the next time through.

The thing that caught me the most off-guard was the Green Lantern books. If asked for some of my dream plot turns, Hal having to work with Sinestro again, John taking a front role in the GLC book and Kyle being the leader of the mixed Corps group would be on the list. And I found them all extremely boring. I ended up dropping all the Lantern books from lack of interest and that is very unusual for me.

My biggest surprise has been Supergirl, which I’ve really enjoyed. Just in terms of look and pacing, it’s a book that stands apart from a lot of other New 52 offerings. It’s been slow-moving (in a good way), and has taken the time to explore Kara’s pretty awful situation.

I wonder if some of these surprises are down the the relative strengths and weakness of the creative teams?

Sistermagpie: Oh, I think creative people can make all the difference. Even when saddled with something bad from editorial an inspired creative team can find ways of injecting something good or surprising in it. I felt like Wonder Woman benefitted from that. And certainly that’s the case with writers like Scott Snyder on Batman. I loved his work because he really made me enjoy the characters.

Ragnell: Definitely. I don’t think anyone can follow Azzarello on Wonder Woman without a massive retcon. He’s done things that only a very skilled writer can handle without robbing the character of her power.

Tali: I agree with both of you. That’s why I’ve been enjoying Wonder Woman, even though there are certain things (Amazons raping men) that I’m scratching my head at. Cliff Chiang’s art is amazing! And Synder is awesome on Batman and Swamp Thing (I’m gonna miss him and Yannick P. on that book).

I recently caught up on Action Comics and Superman, and I have to say, a large part of my disappointment with those books was the uninspired art. A good creative team makes all the difference.

Part of the controversy surrounding the reboot was the disappearing of female creators and characters. Although there are women working behind the scenes, DC is still light on high profile female creators. The recent firing/hiring of Gail Simone doesn’t help any. Nor do creative decisions to sideline, or diminish popular female characters. To be honest, it all seems like more of the same. Let’s talk first about the culture of DC Comics, and then we’ll get into the treatment of female characters in the DCnU.

Creators have always complained about editorial overreach, but the complaints have gotten pretty loud in the last few years. On the one hand, without strong editorial oversight, we get confusing, self-contradicting events like Civil War. On the other hand, hold the reins too tightly and creators bail. What do you make of the relationship between creative and editorial at DC right now?

Tali: Well, I’ve heard that they don’t want teams complaining, or spilling the beans when they’re let go, which I think isn’t a good idea. And then there was the firing of Gail Simone, where there was some issue that the editor had with her, and now she’s back. She now has editor(s) who work with her–I think she recently tweeted about that. On some books they have good editor/creative relationships. On others, they don’t, and that can affect the book in a major way. There should be balance between editor and creative team.

Sistermagpie: I feel like this relationship is something I can barely understand from the outside. There have been times where you can see Gail Simone twisting in the wind, trying to balance the two–trying to be a team player and being excited about books she’s doing–but sometimes having to contradict herself to do it. I’ve worked on tie-in series where there are things that come down from on high that you can’t do.From my position as an ignorant reader, it sometimes does seem like there’s a lot of arbitrary things coming down from on high that turn out to not really be that thought-out. At the same time, I guess I can sympathize with editorial trying to keep some control. Still, when Grant Morrison gets an idea he seems to have a lot of power!

Ragnell: I am completely self-interested in this one. It comes down to whoever has the better ideas, whoever has the idea that I want to read. There really are some times a writer should have been told “No” or simply asked the right questions to avoid a huge plot hole. But that’s not necessarily an editor being overly dictatorial and writing the stories themselves, that’s just a firm hand.

This kind of exceptionalism was common at Marvel too, when it came to Bendis and company. Big-selling, star writers and artists get a lot of leeway–and for good reason. I think, though, that both companies could benefit from sticking more closely to series bibles, and thoroughly vetting ideas from even their top-selling stars.

Sistermagpie: This is probably also harder with the current focus on tying everything together. If every book was its own universe it would be very different. I don’t know if it would be better or worse, but the need for a strict continuity that crosses all books is a pretty recent thing and we know that sometimes it stifles creativity. And makes the universe less real–characters will just barely get a book going and then get yanked into a crossover.

Ragnell: It doesn’t help that they haven’t been very good about that strict continuity.

Tali raised an interesting point about secrecy, which is hard to keep up in so small an industry, with so much overlap between fans and working stiffs. Does this push to keep to the ‘company line’ sour relationships between creators/editorial, and fans/publishers?

Tali: I don’t think that a huge company like DC should threaten their employees over maintaining secrecy, but at the same time, I don’t think that creative teams should pull a Rob Liefield. It’s hard to keep quiet, especially when fans want to know what happened, and writers and artists want to tell their side of the story. Especially if they were wronged. So it’s a hard thing. You have to take the high road, I guess.

Casting news and spoilers in Soap Opera Weekly.
Casting news and spoilers in Soap Opera Weekly.

Sistermagpie: It’s an inescapable thing in the modern world, really. Everyone knows everything–because internet. And comics often use this to generate interest–it’s like soap operas, where half the “story” nowadays seems to be fans hearing spoilers and knowing who’s coming and going. The comics industry almost has to maintain a dialogue with fans to keep interest, but that can come back to bite them. As you said, it’s a very small world. The politics have become part of the story.

Ragnell: And no one wants to give money to someone they dislike. The constant public arguing between fans, creators, and editors/publishers has all the readers taking sides and making their purchase decisions based on that.

Absolutely. The meta story of comics isn’t just driving sales through hype, it’s helping to determine where those sales go. Reputation matters to the internet comics crowd. 

The public face of DC Comics is overwhelmingly male. What did you make of the firing/hiring of Gail Simone, the actual hiring of Ann Nocenti, and before that, the promotion of Bobbie Chase to editorial director?

Tali: As to the Gail Simone issue: W.T.F? Hiring Ann Nocenti and the promotion of Bobbie Chase were great moves. But they keep moving forward, and taking steps back, so it’s like they’re at a standstill.

Sistermagpie: Totally agree. It’s not enough that a couple of women are hired, even if in important positions, to change what needs to be changed. The voice is just too limited, imo. Not just male, but white, straight, etc. And that comes out in a thousand little ways when it’s an echo chamber like that. In the past couple of years–particularly with the introduction of Damian Wayne. I’m amazed at how many discussions there are explaining that such-and-such sexist thing was not so bad in the story. (See: Wonder Woman’s getting slapped on the butt just this past week…)

Diana getting slapped in Wonder Woman #17.
Wonder Woman #17.

It’s not a case of gender essentialism, where women bring X pov and men bring Y, but you need that diversity. I don’t always love everything Gail Simone does, but she’s a female voice, and that gives her a different pov. They need more of that. There’s just so many things you miss when you’re only having this one type of person speak. And I think a lot of the changes to the New DCU reflect that as well. There’s a value system at play in what they change and keep, what they see potential in etc.

Ragnell: Yes. Their diverse voices are still told to aim towards that particular, narrow audience and edited by people who are aiming towards that particular narrow audience, and are fired if they don’t appeal to that particular narrow audience. Until that audience is all that’s left.

Tali: Also, what about women of color writing for DC? I read an article this week about the lack of diversity from the big two. Marvel has never had a black woman write for them, and DC had two write for them–in the 70’s. There are women of color who can write for them. It’s 2013, and the demographics in the US are changing, so DC and Marvel need to change with them.

There are women of colour working in indie/small press comics and cartoons in a variety of roles: editors, writers, pencillers, colourists. But so far, there isn’t much crossover to the big two. But then, there’s so little crossover happening regardless. Maybe the indies should storm the gates of the big two? It doesn’t seem like they’re going to be opening up their hiring practices any time soon.

[While we’re on the subject, check out this 2011 interview with Cheryl Lynn Eaton, on Jackie Ormes. Eaton, a comics creator and blogger, and a woman of colour, started the Ormes Society to support women of colour working in comics.]

Ragnell: They were supposed to get Felicia Henderson for Static Shock. Something happened to stop that, though. And they ended up tanking the book anyway. That’s the only instance I can even think of with a woman of color even being rumored to take over a DC book.

Over at Marvel, Marjorie Liu and Sana Tekada are getting steady work. That said, I can’t think of a single black or South Asian woman regularly working in superhero comics.

Sistermagpie: And it becomes a cycle–comics are unwelcoming to a diverse population, so fewer people get excited about working for them. They turn to other things that are already more welcoming to them. It’s like the whole “girls don’t read comics” idea, with hugely successful comics marketed to girls.

Rangell: Manga doesn’t count, due to the magic cootie rays around black and white comics.

Sistermagpie: Yup, and it says a lot that instead of looking at that success and trying to get in on it, they define themselves against it. Or at least a lot of their audience does.

Somewhere in the shuffle of relaunching their universe, DC lost a whole host of popular female characters. Or did they? Are characters like Stephanie Brown and Cass Cain just collateral damage in the company’s quest for a core, iconic DCnU? Or are they (and the older versions of characters who did survive the relaunch, like Diana and Babs), just not compatible with who and what DC wants to be?

Tali: I want to know why Stephanie Brown is “toxic” right now. They are compatible, and it just blows my mind that DC is willing to lose a lot of money because they won’t use these two.

Sistermagpie: I’m sure people could argue that they are just collateral damage, too new, not core, etc. but it doesn’t actually hold up. Damian Wayne’s still the star. And if they’re cutting down on those later additions, why is Jason Todd still resurrected? And why on earth does this version of Tim Drake even exist?

I think in some way these characters weren’t compatible just because the people making the decisions aren’t excited about them or don’t see the potential in them that they see in the characters they do choose to save. It’s arbitrary and subjective.

Ragnell: Still, there’s no reason to erase them from existence. I get why Connor Hawke is gone. I don’t LIKE it, but I get why they got rid of him. I don’t really get why the spare Batgirls have been chucked out the window. I don’t get why they will go out of their way to recolor details like hair in the background to avoid even a nod of one of them. I’m not even a fan of her, but it sticks out to me. There seems to be an active dislike of certain characters, like Brown. Maybe like Queen Hippolyta too, since she gets offed so quickly and so often lately. And I think there’s a real strong antipathy towards Lois Lane. She’s just too well-known and entrenched in the franchise to erase from existence.

Sistermagpie: Yes, it’s really hard to not wonder what Lois Lane represented in the minds of TPTB that they wanted her gone.

I’d compare it to Marvel’s weird attitude to Mary-Jane. They don’t want her with Peter, but they can’t seem to get rid of her entirely. She still carries a lot of weight in the story–and maybe for some creators and editors, that’s annoying. This inability to erase from the minds of the fans, and the books themselves, the things they don’t like.

And speaking of complicated romances… Clark and Lois! Clark and… Diana? Clark and… dead Lois? What’s going on with Superman’s Elseworldsian romantic life? It’s getting the company a lot of attention, but are any of the stories good?

Tali: I’m not familiar with the Elseworlds but I don’t think Superman and Wonder Woman go together. Now if it was Batman… I mean, they focus a lot on Superman and not Wonder Woman, and they make her… less than him. I mean, she’s a demigod, you know? I don’t like it. Clark and Lois for life!

Cliff Chiang fixes that kiss for you.
Cliff Chiang fixes that kiss for you.

Sistermagpie: On the one hand, I don’t have a handle on exactly why the DC editors ship what they ship… but Superman/Wonder Woman is a big shift from Superman/Lois, and it seems to say something about how they’re trying to change Superman. (Or else maybe they think Wonder Woman’s hotter or something!) Superman/Lois is just so central to Superman’s original characterization and what he meant; that he had relationships with very human people and in particular, this woman who was the only person on his tail who suspected the ‘real him. Even when this was put forward in totally humiliating ways in the 50s. (Thanks 1950s!) By putting him with WW they’re casting their vote for the alien demi-god Superman rather than Clark Kent the farmboy who fell in love with a city girl.

Ragnell: Superman and Lois have been integral to the franchise since Action Comics #1, but there’s a longstanding trend of people disliking it. They want him with Wonder Woman, and I thought we’d seen the worst of this in the 90s during the Elseworlds. Waid killed off Lois in Kingdom Come as a way to show that Superman did NOT get his Happy Ending, and suddenly it became a fad. I can barely count the Elseworlds put out that killed off Lois and then slid Wonder Woman into her place without a thought for whether or not this is somewhere Wonder Woman would BE if it was HER story.

The bottom line from the Superman side of things, is that it’s the way to show the world is bad.  If Superman is a video game, the good ending is that he ends up with Lois and has a few half-human half-alien babies with her. The bad ending, he can’t prevent Lois’s death and he ends up married to Wonder Woman rather than be alone. Note, this is not the Wonder Woman game. The Wonder Woman game does not have Superman other than as an occasional Justice League contact.

Somewhere people got the idea that they liked this ending, even though it was nearly always a dystopian hell, and there’s a section of fans that love it.

On the Wonder Woman side, I will never forgive George Perez for this. He aged out her love interest and his replacement idea was a crush on Superman. So we had 25 years where he was the best option for her, with her being unable to be with him because he was married to a woman she respected and loved. So there’s Wonder Woman fans who consider this her happy ending.

Personally, I never thought they’d really do it. I said for years it would make Wonder Woman a supporting cast member to Superman and their corporate franchise integrity would never allow it. But they did it. And now we’re seeing stories where he’s stopping the power of Eros on his own and breaking free of her lasso.

Sistermagpie: All the things that would clearly be the dangers of Superman/WW. Dangers which you usually avoid with Lois because of the different dynamic. It’s like WW is allegedly his equal because she’s strong and can fly, so she’s free to become a supporting character. One of the great things about Lois was that she always had to be a fighter by nature; a fighter ready to take on people bigger and stronger than she was.

Tali: I like that about Lois, and I like that shes a journalist. She’s a human being and that, I think, helped Clark with understanding humanity and finding it within himself.

Ragnell: She also complimented him. Her personality worked well with his, it wasn’t so similar that they didn’t gain anything from each other. They made up for each other’s weaknesses.

Sistermagpie: That’s the first thing I always think of with SS/WW. I don’t see how they compliment/contrast as much as Clark/Lois. Also maybe why Clark/Lois always seem more natural being funny to and about each other. Humor between Superman/Wonder Woman seems more like…how about those puny people who are all weaker than we are?

Ragnell: And that is ALL they discuss. Everyone else and how different they are from humanity and passing among humanity. There’s no real substantial conversation I’ve even seen.

Roy Thomas wrote the best Superman/Wonder Woman story ever. In Wonder Woman #300, she’s having anxiety dreams about her upcoming wedding to Steve. She worries she’d have married just any dude who crashed on the island, and one dream is Superman falls on the island. She marries him, and they have to divorce eventually because they are just too much alike.

You may have heard: Geoff Johns is leaving Green Lantern. Panic in the Streets! Or not. The sales bump from the relaunch is gone, but the Bat books have wrapped up an old-style crossover, there’s this Trinity War thing, and plenty of DC’s books are producing comfortable sales figures. But what’s next? This is your chance to make predictions and proclamations: What will DC do, and what should DC do in 2013? And seriously, how long until the whole thing gets reset again?

Tali: I hope that they make better decisions concerning their characters and storylines. They need to diversify more concerning who they hire and the characters that include, and don’t make a half-ass effort at doing that. It might a few years before they reset again.

Sistermagpie: I can’t even imagine quite where it’ll go. Seems like now they’re in the period where the reboot’s happened so that’s not new anymore, and they have to come up with stories for the new situation. That’s going to be easier for some than others. I’ll be pleasantly surprised if they make some changes that seem bigger, like a real honest push for diversity

Ragnell: What DC will do is probably not what they should. They SHOULD focus on quality, and not greenlighting morally reprehensible stories, and not being dickish about fan favorites they don’t want to use. They should take a break from upending each franchise every storyline and settle into a status quo they can get interesting stories out of. They should focus on good story structure rather than arranging a plot around a series of “Cool moments.” They’re not going to do that, though. They’re going to double down on all of this until it is an undeniable failure.

And then, maybe, they will gradually retcon things closer and closer to the pre-boot universe and bring back some of the creators they’ve alienated. I don’t think they’ll do another line-wide reboot. Maybe a soft boot like Zero Hour that lets them do all the little retcons they want, and a slow return to the old status quo while keeping the few elements of the reboot universe that caught on.

Sistermagpie: If there’s one thing it seems like they really need to put effort into, it’s coming up with good, solid standard stories that aren’t always trying to Change Everything. Or be shocking because they’re even more gory and violent than the last story. Can anybody write a good mystery? With clues and things? Not everything has to be world-changing. If we don’t get to know and like these characters when things are normal it doesn’t matter if something big threatens them. Until now they often relied on the decades of previous continuity to establish that. But it’s amazing how popular little character, quiet stories often were. That seems to be the type of thing they’re trying to get away from, somehow.

I don’t have any predictions, except that I won’t be doing any panicking in the streets.

Ladies, it was a pleasure.

Megan Purdy

Megan Purdy

Publisher of all this. Megan was born in Toronto. She's still there. Philosopher, space vampire, heart of a killer.

2 thoughts on “State of the DC Universe

  1. Animal Man is my favorite DC series (along with Batman: Arkham Unhinged).
    What makes Animal Man so special is the way Lemire deconstructs the superhero mythology. For example:
    1) Superheroes tend to monopolize the attention of the reader, while Animal Man is constantly upstaged by the supporting characters of the series.
    2) Superhero comics usually don’t give much importance to the private life of their main character (they tend to focus only on the “costume on” part); in Animal Man, on the contrary, the private life of Buddy is the main theme of the series. In fact, it is rather infrequent to see Buddy with his costume on.
    3) Buddy is not perfect, and is not perceived as perfect by other people: in fact, in the 11th issue, when he tells his wife “It’s going to be okay”, she replies “Don’t give me anything of that superhero crap, Buddy.” That cut and thrust perfectly enlightens the philosophy of the series.

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