Friday, June 8, 2012

Owning Comics (Part 3) : Superheroes and The New 52

We've talked a bit about how to read, and I've introduced you to a few classics to get you started; now we're going to delve deeper into what to read. We'll be getting into manga (Japanese comics), indie comics, movie/novel/game tie-ins, and a few other categories. [ETA: This may not happen for a while.] But first...

We're going to talk about superheroes.

First of all, let me apologize to the Marvel fans. I'm a fan of all kinds of (good) comic books—Marvel titles included—but I will admit to reading and enjoying more DC. Some people are cat people and some people are dog people. I'm an animal person (dare I Animal Man?), but I'd probably prefer to own a dog. Because they love me...and they have Batman.

My own metaphor is confusing me.

I'll try to give Marvel some quality time later on, but for now, we're going to focus on DC's superheroes, specifically the New 52. They say write what you know, and I've been devouring New 52 titles lately; they're where my heart and enthusiasm are currently hanging out drinking beer.

Even if you're new to comics, I'm sure you're at least vaguely aware there are two big dogs (oh, so now they're both dogs?) in the world of comics, Marvel and DC. They each have their charms, their flagship characters, their own ways of doing things. The only way to get to know them well is with time and experience, but here's the short of it:

Reader, meet Marvel.

And this is his big brother, DC.
(It's short for "Detective Comics," but he doesn't really like it when you call him that.)

(Intimidated by the ridiculous number of characters? Don't be. Just pay attention to the front row or two. When in doubt, remember: Marvel = Avengers, Spiderman, X-men. DC = Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman.)

DC is the one we're concerned with today, specifically the New 52 titles. I'm going to list some of my favorites for you to check out, and we'll talk about where and when you can get a hold of them, but first, a little history lesson about "continuity":

DC comics has been making comic books since 1934. Back then, the concept of comic book continuity was in its infancy. Superman and the other heroes just...did stuff, and that was enough for a long time. But as comic series continued to run, the fans grew more savvy and sophisticated, and soon, the demand for a shared universe where cause-and-effect would carry over from issue to issue couldn't be ignored. Soon, continuity became one of the defining facets of comics, sometimes for the better, other times taking precedence over storytelling. (It's not hard to imagine how decades upon decades of continuity, encompassing the creative decisions of dozens of writers and artists from different time periods, could become something of a creative buttplug* in the hole of the industry.) Eventually, continuity became a straight-jacket, strangling the life out of the stories it had been intended to deepen. Survival of the fittest kicked in, shrinking the fan base down to only the most obsessive and dedicated, fans willing to interact (and put up with bullshit) on a level the average person couldn't. Woe.



In late 2011, DC made perhaps the best decision anyone ever made ever period and rebooted their entire line of titles, and the New 52 was born.

What this means for you: 

1) Instead of seeing Batman issue #704 on the shelves, you'll (currently) see issues in the #1-9 range. Let me say that again: In a lot of cases, you can easily find ISSUE NUMBER ONE of Batman, Superman, etc. This is a big deal. For collectors, sure, fine, but mostly for freakin' readers! You can find the beginning of the story! Being able to start at the beginning, the sense of involvement and ownership that gives you—that's magic.

2) The comic books are better than they've ever been. Freed from all that bulky continuity, the writers and artists of the New 52 are able to do better work that we've seen in a long time. They're free to pursue good craft, not just good continuity, and it makes all the difference in the world.

3) You have a rare opportunity to engage in something old-school, yet palatable to modern tastes. Reading the New 52 is like watching The Avengers at a drive-in theater while drinking a root beer float. There is something timeless and charming about a good, ol' fashioned serial reading experience—the delayed gratification of buying issues monthly, enjoying a small piece of the story each time, having it to look forward to. There's nothing quite like it.

The New 52 is currently the biggest thing happening in comics. It is to comics themselves what Marvel's Avengers movies were to comic book movies. The New 52 is the now of comics. And it can belong to you. You can own Superman and Batman the same way previous generations did—not just the paper and ink and staples of the books themselves, but the characters, the iconography, the pure superhero-ness of them—and not as an amusing piece of American nostalgia, but as something relevant and fun, something you read because you want to read it. Now that's pretty amazing.

(I swear to god, I am not on DC's payroll.)


Without further ado:

(It should be noted, there are freakin' 52 of these series, and I have read only a small percentage of them. This list contains some of my favorites, compiled with a bit of consideration for general importance and artistic merit. I've excluded a few for being either too niche—like Blue Beetle—or too guilty-pleasure-y—Catwoman. The order is spongy, and I'll probably want to come back and revise this list every time I read another good title, but as a general list of good shit for beginners to read, this will do fine.)

1) Batman - There are lots of New 52 Batman titles (Detective Comics, Dark Knight, etc), but good ol', standalone Batman is still the best. This is top notch work in every way, and it belongs on the shelf next to The Dark Knight Returns and Batman Year One and The Killing Joke. I really think in ten years, people could put this story in that same category. This story presents Batman with an all-new threat to face, the mysterious Court of Owls, a body of masked, aristocratic manipulators and their deadly assassins (known as the Talons) whose roots go deep into Gotham's history and infrastructure. This series can be read on its own or as the core of the memorable Night of the Owls story, a comic book event spanning several titles (continuity used correctly!). The hardcover recently made the New York Times Top 50 Bestseller list. (Not the graphic novel list; the big list.) Don't miss out.

2) Aquaman - I never thought someone could make me care about Aquaman, let alone rocket him into the tip-top of my favorite superheroes, but Geoff John's smart, self-aware writing takes every joke you've ever heard about Aquaman and throws it in your face in the first issue. (He goes to a sea-food restaurant for shit's sake. It's gold.) But even if you've never so much as heard about Aquaman, you'll be captivated by the story of this noble, selfless person who sweats and bleeds to protect people who misunderstand and ridicule him. And, come on, after so much time spent gazing at city skylines, a trip to the ocean can be a welcome change of scenery.

3) Animal Man - This title literally gave me nightmares, and I'm a tough dude to disturb. This book has a maturity, depth, class, and boldness that reminds me of Sandman (my favorite comic ever, remember?). Here we have a less-recognizable superhero and really likeable guy living out his everyman existence with his family, and the shit hits the fan in a big way. It's surreal, it's touching, it's grotesque, it's inspiring, it's devastatingly creative, it's—just...just read it.

4) Justice League - This is a fantastic introduction to the Justice League, a who's-who organization of superheroes containing flagship characters like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and Aquaman (among others). The story itself is secondary in this book, serving as a backdrop for the real fun of watching these iconic characters meet each other for the first time. In many cases, the banter is on par with the Avengers movie. Pure fun. (Oh, and there's the ice cream thing with Wonder Woman. ... It's not what you're thinking.**)

5) Nightwing - When he was a boy, Dick Grayson was the original Robin. Now he's grown up, he's spent some time filling in for Batman, he's grown tremendously, and he goes by the name of Nightwing. Dick is one of the most likeable characters in the New 52. I didn't know him well before this, but I've become a fan. He's the kind of guy you just want to spend time with. The story is not only entertaining, it feels important. Other than Batman itself, this is the most important series dealing with the Court of Owls. We get to go back to Haly's circus where Dick's parents died. We get to see Batgirl. It's a ton of freaking fun. Highly recommended.

(I'll get into where you can buy individual issues later on, but for now, I've just linked to the trade paperbacks and hardcovers on amazon. Some of them haven't been released yet, but this way you can wishlist them if you'd like. If you'd like to know more about what comes out when, here's a list of the titles and when the various collections will be out.)

To learn more about the New 52 and all its titles, click here. Don't neglect the abundance of good reviews online. A quick google search can help you sort out the must-read titles from the must-skip. Happy reading!

See you next week when we'll be getting into "Owning Comics (Part 4): Manga."

*If you clicked this link, you are a very brave soul. Now go clear your history.

**Cute doesn't do it justice.