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What the Joker Was Doing Naked

Attempting to explain the DC Comics reboot

The most enduring fantasy character in the world of superhero comics is the New Reader. The myth of the New Reader goes like this: Somewhere out there, there are supposedly these people who don’t currently read comics, but don’t have anything in particular against them, either. And (supposedly) these New Readers even go see movies based on comic books from time to time, and afterwards some of them charge across the (figurative) street into their local comic-bookery, full of bright-eyed, openhearted curiosity and eager to read a monthly periodical with Green Lanterns in it. And then, per myth, they’re confronted, there at the new-release rack, with a paralyzingly broad selection of comic books so clotted with incomprehensible backstory, so custom-tailored to the arcane expectations of superhero-comics lifers, that they might as well be printed in Dothraki or C++ or Nadsat instead of English. Plus, the guy behind the counter is usually kind of a dick. So instead of buying anything, the New Readers slink out of the Android’s Dungeon confused and deflated and maybe ashamed, and an angel loses its wings, and superhero comics slip a little further into cultural and commercial eclipse.

And the other part of the myth is the idea that this doesn’t have to happen — that if superhero comics could just figure out how to speak to the people it doesn’t currently speak to, if the medium could do away with or at least downplay the qualities that make it seem juvenile or stodgy1 to outsiders, if comics could just put on a clean shirt and some jeans that fit and order a real drink and stop making tentacle-rape jokes in front of the New Readers, everybody on earth would suddenly get what’s so great about them. This is first and foremost an argument you hear from comics creators and people on the business side, but it’s one that gets echoed by fans and comics-blog types all the time. And it’s weird that fans even care about this, but they do; no other niche pop-cultural fan-cohort is as concerned with how the thing they like is perceived by the world at large. As the great comics critic Chris Sims once joked, being a comics fan is like being a conservative, because you’re always complaining about the mainstream media.

Last month, as DC Comics rolled out its “New 52″ initiative — a line-wide continuity reboot in which the vast and frequently confusing metastory of DC’s fictional universe would begin again, younger and fresher, in 52 new #1 issues released over the course of five Wednesdays in September — people like DC co-publishers Dan DiDio and Jim Lee did a lot of interviews with the mainstream media, and the New Reader thing got a lot of play. “It’s all about getting comics into the hands of new readers,” Lee told Today.com. DiDio, in the Washington Post: “We told [the writers], ‘Leave the past behind. Look to a new audience.’” DiDio, in the Village Voice: “This isn’t about rehashing stories, but providing things that new readers can relate to.” And on and on, in USA Today, on the front page of the “Arts” section of the New York Times, on ABC News and MSNBC and Wired and Ebony.com and MTV Geek, in so many places you’d think they’d killed Superman again — and that was just the first week. This was comics in a shirt with a collar, standing up straight — two industry heavies acting like representatives of a major-media-company subsidiary with a branded-entertainment experience2 to promote.

This isn’t the first time DC’s hacked away at the Gordian knot of its own master narrative in order to render its books more accessible and not so, y’know, old-seeming. The 1985 miniseries Crisis on Infinite Earths introduced a villain called the Anti-Monitor who was bent for reasons I can’t remember on wiping out all the parallel universes and alternate timelines that were supposedly making DC’s books hard to follow. Written by Marv Wolfman and drawn by George Perez, who managed to give force and energy to some of the most incredibly overpopulated panels the form has ever seen, Crisis was a massive in-story solution to an essentially extra-narrative problem — the fact that DC’s universe, unlike Marvel’s, which was basically created all at once in the early ’60s by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and a few other people, has always been way more ad hoc and random, an edifice built up around a bunch of characters who were never supposed to share a world. At the end of the book, after a lot of fighting and screaming and heroic dying, that world ceased to exist, kind of, and a new and more internally consistent DC Universe was born.

Crisis ended up being a nerd-culture turning point; it made it OK to futz with time-honored continuity if the futz itself was part of that continuity. (Think of how J.J. Abrams & Co. jumped through all manner of narrative wormholes to establish that their 2009 Star Trek movie wasn’t a wholesale reboot, just a new story set in an alternate timeline created by Romulan Eric Bana; very post-Crisis, in that it was an ingenious workaround for a problem 90 percent of the audience didn’t even realize was a problem.) And while it wasn’t explicitly touted as an attempt to modernize the DC Universe, the notion that the cosmic odometer had been reset to zero gave DC’s writers an in-story excuse to excise whatever they wanted from the official canon, including a lot of goofy stories and characters dreamed up in the ’50s and ’60s by earlier DC creators who assumed (correctly, for the most part) that they were writing for an audience of children who didn’t care about realism. New titles launched post-Crisis included Man of Steel, about an ’80s Superman who’d never had whimsical adventures as Superboy or owned a superdog named Krypto, and Frank Miller’s paradigmatically gritty Batman: Year One.

Anyway — and I swear I actually left a bunch of stuff out of the previous paragraphs for clarity — the New 52 is DC’s biggest Ctrl-Alt-Delete moment since Crisis, but it’s happening in a completely different cultural landscape. In 1985, comics mostly competed with other comics; the four Batman #1s DC launched in September are competing for the attention of people who like Batman with the latest leaked footage from Christopher Nolan’s next Batman movie on YouTube, with Batman games for Xbox and PlayStation, and the DC Universe Online MMORPG featuring Batman, and the Cartoon Network’s Batman: The Brave and the Bold, and also all other comics, and girls, and the outdoors, where it is sometimes sunny. Obviously, there are Batman die-hards out there with the time and money to blow on all of the above, but the subtext is that DC no longer has the market cornered on the experience of Batman — and that comics in general no longer have the market cornered on the experience of superheroes, and that comics people should maybe be wondering if all these movies and video games and TV shows based on their work are actually making it easier for a generation of potential New Readers to leave comics alone. And yeah, most superhero movies are terrible — but a 14-year-old who digs superheroes these days is more likely than ever to have caught that bug in a way that bypasses print media entirely, and that evolution is only going one way.3 The New Reader myth says that rising water lifts all Bat-boats and the omnipresence of the Caped Crusader as a transmedia figure will somehow trickle down to comics. But to believe that, you have to believe that screens can somehow lure people back to print. But ask anybody who used to work at a magazine how that’s working out.4

A lot of smart people have written a lot of smart and/or funny things about what’s wrong with the New 52 books. There’s a fair amount of sex in these books, and a fair amount of violence, and it’s been pointed out that it’s the kind of sex and violence that sends a fairly unambiguous message about exactly what kind of New Reader these books seek to service. The stripper superheroine in Voodoo who’s naked or almost-naked on 15 of the book’s 20 pages, and the Saw-grade torture-porn in Suicide Squad. The slash-fictiony Batman/Catwoman rough-sex scene at the end of Catwoman #1, complete with a postcoital-Batman panel you’ll want to unsee and dialogue you’ll want to unread (“This isn’t the first time. Usually it’s because I want him. Tonight I think it’s because I need him. Every time … he protests. Then … gives in. And he seems … angry. But that doesn’t slow either of us down. Still … it doesn’t take long … and most of the costumes stay on”). The portrayal, in Red Hood and the Outsiders, of Starfire from the Teen Titans — who’s got a lot of preexisting brand awareness among young girls thanks to the Cartoon Network’s Teen Titans series — as a brainless fuckdoll who offers no-strings sex to one of her teammates before the first issue’s half over.

I should point out here that (1) it’s been a while since I’ve read any DC book regularly, except for Scalped, which is part of the company’s exempt-from-the-relaunch Vertigo imprint, so I’m technically a New Reader, and (2) I actually bought and read all 52 of these books, and more than a few of them did not make me die inside.

I liked Animal Man #1, a kitchen-sink horror story written by Jeff Lemire and populated with spindly, extruded-looking humans by artist Travel Foreman. First page of that one is the cleverest piece of exposition in any of these books — a fake Believer magazine Q&A with Buddy “Animal Man” Baker that reproduces the Believer‘s house style right down to the display-type fonts. (In addition to being a superhero, Animal Man’s an animal-rights activist and a part-time movie stuntman; he’s totally the kind of superhero the Believer would interview.) I liked the way Men of War #1, a War on Terror update of Sgt. Rock, manages to set a war-comics story in a superhero universe — when the superheroes turn up, they’re just red and blue projectiles moving so fast and causing so much collateral damage that they’re more dangerous to the grunts on the ground than the insurgents they’re supposed to be fighting. I liked the pure mainline insanity of Red Lanterns #1, which was basically 20 pages of aliens vomiting blood and soliloquizing about the hatred burning in their “napalm hearts” and played like Alan Moore on bathtub ‘roids or a glossier, more purplish update of Vice cartoonist Johnny Ryan’s demented Prison Pit . I liked Keith Giffen’s art in OMAC #1 — rubberized Jack Kirby homage, but colored like a packet of Smarties. And — I should point out that these are in descending order, by the way — I liked Aquaman #1, in which Geoff Johns confronted the main problem facing anybody trying to make Aquaman cool (namely, the fact that every hack stand-up comedian has a joke about how Aquaman’s not cool because all he does is talk to fish) by having a central-casting emo-kid blogger interview Aquaman at a seafood restaurant and ask him what it feels like to be nobody’s favorite superhero. Steer into the skid, baby!

So that’s five titles out of 52, at least three of which I’ll be sticking with, at least for a while. There are at least five more books from the initial run of #1s that didn’t necessarily blow me away as comics-qua-comics but read the way really competent TV pilots play, which, in a comics marketplace increasingly dominated by comics that read like movie pitches written by really smart parrots, has to count for something. But the ones with the strippers and porno-Starfire and jumper-cable torture? Those were as bad as everybody says they are. And their badness had conviction. These books were really going for it with the not-right. Personally, I’m still trying to process Detective Comics #1, the first new Batman title out of the gate. It starts with Batman thinking, “I’m trying to figure out what the Joker was doing naked”5 while driving back to the Batcave from a crime scene. It ends with somebody cutting off the Joker’s face with a knife — at the Joker’s behest — and nailing it to the wall of his cell in Arkham Asylum.6 “That felt … fangasmic,” the Joker says. (Welcome, New Readers! The Joker just fangasmed! Detective Comics! Rated T for Teen!)

Brand-wise, there’s something superweird about DC deciding that the face they want to show the unconverted is a face that’s bloody and clown-white and nailed to a nuthouse wall, no question. But ultimately that doesn’t really matter. The fact that these books are still as rife with confusing continuity as they’ve ever been — Superman’s a sneering, dungarees-wearing social-justice crusader in Action Comics, a scary alien from Krypton in Justice League, and an upstanding original-flavor benevolent-demigod Man of Steel in Swamp Thing and Supergirl — doesn’t matter, either. Because the thing about the New 52 line is that very little of it actually feels like it’s aimed at New Readers. There’s a lot here for readers who already know they like superhero comics but need a cleavage shot or a disembowelment on every other page to reassure them that they’re not wasting their time with children’s literature. Lots of books scripted or penciled by dudes who made their bones in the tulip-frenzyish-speculator-market-driven gold-foil-stamped comics of the ’90s, too — writers like Scott Lobdell and Fabian Nicieza, artists like Lee and Rob Liefeld, names that evoke as much ’90s nostalgia in certain circles as a sweet live version of “Yellow Ledbetter” does in others.

And there’s enough somber first-person I am a character and here is my motivation derp derp derp narration7 to ensure that any novices who do run across one of these things will have no trouble grasping who Nightwing is and how he feels about being Nightwing, and enough window-dressingy references to YouTube and smartphones and blogs and WikiLeaking and “basement-dwellers who spend all day whining on the Net” to ensure that all these comics will someday be carbon-datable to third-quarter 2011, regardless of how many of them were actually created by dudes who’ve been deep in the game since ’92. What’s not here is verbal/visual storytelling that actually attempts to echo the brain-voice of readers whose approach to narrative consumption has been shaped by YouTube, smartphones, and blogs.8 I’m not even sure what that would look like — a little bit like Crank, maybe, and a little bit like Joe Casey’s info-noise-saturated teen-superhero comic The Intimates, which came out way back in 2005. Can you imagine if they’d tried, though, instead of just pushing the rough trade further into hard-R territory? Comics that want to look and read like they’re from the future, starring superheroes with decades of symbolic weight behind them?

Instead, these are just superhero comics, except for All-Star Western, and even that one’s set in Gotham City. There’s a ceiling on how many people are going to need this sort of thing in their lives. So call it a retrenchment move disguised as a reimagining. A company doubling down on the kind of stuff that has, historically, brought surly 16-year-olds and grown-ass men with the taste of surly 16-year-olds in the door. That’s a stereotype, but that’s what target audiences are — straw men with money. The tits and gore aren’t there because anybody’s confused about how to speak to their intended audience; they’re there because DC knows exactly what it’s doing, and when other media are eating your lunch you play to your base, and you print the books in a language called Badass. Movies can give you a Joker played by Heath Ledger and video games can give you a Joker you can punch in the nads, but no one in those industries would sign off on a Joker who’s naked and asking to have his face flayed. Only comics can give you that, because only comics would.

Alex Pappademas is a writer for The New York Times Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @pappademas.


Previously from Alex Pappademas:
The Frustrating Unlikeability of Treme

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Alex Pappademas is a staff writer for Grantland.

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