Yeah, I was excited last September when the first books of the relaunch started trickling out. Grant Morrison on Action Comics, years after his amazing All-Star Superman? Scott Snyder writing Bruce Wayne after turning a tautly compelling run where Dick Grayson was Batman? The return of Batwoman to print? Hell, yeah I was excited. And I gave various titles room to show me where they were going. One by one—The Fury of Firestorm, Teen Titans, Savage Hawkman—books started disappearing from my reading list. I found some surprises, though. I, Vampire was a title I'd written off as a cash-in aimed at the Twilight set but it's managed to be an entertainingly tortured vampire tale. Terrible name and raison d'etre aside—to bring Vertigo mainstay characters back into superheroland—I've enjoyed Justice League Dark. Same goes for Swamp Thing and Animal Man, books living under the shadows of beloved runs by iconic creators that managed to find strong voices of their own.
Then, my monthly diet settled into a core of titles, determined mostly by the creators I wanted to follow. But, lately it feels like there's a malaise underneath all the new romances, plot twists and origin stories of the New 52. Too many of the books from DC feel like they did before the reboot: rushed to print, narratively meandering and creatively conservative. Too many characters feel trapped in hackneyed, repetitive iterations where ultraviolent trauma is the only applicable impetus to altruism.
Take new Green Lantern Baz, for example. Introduced in last week's Green Lantern #0. The latest Earthman to join the intergalactic police force seems to come from the same overused template as so many other latter-day creations. Parental trauma? Check. Edgy anti-authoritarian attitude? Check. Fumbly gestures at thematic depth? Check.
Baz may never have appeared in print before from a magic ring but he doesn't feel like new. And that's the problem I have with so much of DC's output now. Much of the superhero offerings from the publisher feel like they're on life support. The Superman title—y'know, the one starring the first superhero ever—is an atrocious read and has been almost since the start. And the middle range of the line—titles like Ravagers, Grifter and Suicide Squad—feels bloated and yearning for direction.
Let's look at the new run of Wonder Woman for inspiration, then. It's a highlight of the New 52 because it feels like it owes very little to the conventions of past iterations of the first female superhero. Are the basics there? Sure, they are. A lost tribe of Greco-Roman woman warriors, the Olympian pantheon and a young upstart who breaks away into the larger world… writer Brian Azzarello hews to all of that. But he also jettisons parts of the character's origin to streamline and modernize it and creates a tonal variation that makes Diana interesting again.
Also, the Bat-books feel well-executed and clearly defined like little else in the New 52 line-up, for the most part. Most of those titles home in on an aspect of their lead character's personalities to strong effect, whether it's Nightwing's empathy, Batgirl's resilience, Batwoman's passion or Batman and Robin's charged father-and-son relationship.
Part of the problem might be that modern-day comics readers get to know too much. We know that there's another crossover coming or that comic storylines need to be aligned to mirror movies or TV shows that may not even happen. But, it's still possible to craft good stories in the midst of all that transparency. One problem seems to be that DC's editorial triumverate struggles to engender the same kind of creative relationships that let Marvel, Image or other publishers draw on stores of loyal or freshly discovered talent.
I know longtime readers scorn the New 52 reboot. I didn't and still don't. But what does concern me is the creeping suspicion—and disconcerting proof—that so much of this reinvention is being made up as it goes along. The New 52 feels less like a lasting legacy and more like a desperate improvisation. The powers-that-be shouldn't have to reboot a reboot but that's sure what it feels like they need to do.