DC’s 2021 Review Part 5: How Can DC Comics Improve?

2.2.0 4 Places where DC can improve

2.2.1 Superman and Queer Storytelling

DC has had a stellar year in terms of diversifying the line. There were a couple of significant misses this year, however, in their handling of queer relationships. One of the biggest misses occurred during DC’s Round Robin Tournament, where DC created a March Madness-style bracket of potential books that they could publish, including Blue Beetle: Graduation Day, Jesse Quick: Control, Etta Candy: Holliday Hero, Inc., and other books. The primary problem with the event came from the eventual winner, Robins, and the first book it faced, Justice League Queer or JLQ.

The basic idea of the event was that in every round, voters would get more info about the books up until the final face-off. When JLQ and Robins were up for a vote, however, the obvious winner was Robins. Fans have been clamoring for a Robins book for a long time and this was DC saying, “Hey, we’ll give it to you,” in spite of already having released an unrelated Robins webcomic in the form of Wayne Family Adventures. Meanwhile, JLQ was pitched as a queer DC book — the only queer book DC would release that month. It was then placed against the tournament’s easy favorite in the first round, basically being doomed to fail before more information could come out about it. Fans, only knowing the name JLQ, had to choose whether they wanted that or a long-desired Robins book. The answer was relatively obvious.

Previously: Part One – The Road to DC Infinite Frontier

By making fans have to vote to get a diverse book, DC forced them to fight for it in spite of the long odds. There’s a long history of the queer community being pressured to fight for queer books because corporations don’t traditionally advocate for queer representation outside of Pride Month. DC perpetuated that with this move. If JLQ had had more time to pitch itself and excite fans, we could have gotten something compelling and exciting. On top of that, Robins eventually lose favor with a lot of fans anyway as more info about it came out. The art and previews were not particularly exciting, and Robins lost on Twitter by a thin margin, though it went on to win overall.

Queer relationships were all over the place in quality this year too. Of the many queer stories this year, the worst written was Superman: Son of Kal-El. The book from a Superman perspective was fun, but as a queer story, especially one that got Fox News and CNN involved, it was a serious disappointment. Jonathan Kent’s relationship with Jay Nakamura and their kiss in #5 felt undeserved and sudden. One of the many problems with the relationship is Jay Nakamura not being developed significantly as a character. Secondly, from Jonathan’s perspective, there hasn’t been any groundwork between the two of them leading up to the kiss. There are none of the elements of mild awkwardness, personality, or figuring out one’s sexually that define the best queer stories. Older Jonathan Kent instead reads more like a straight man. Jonathan Kent’s romance isn’t a queer story, but rather a straight story that happens to be gay.

To better understand the distinction between good queer storytelling and heteronormative storytelling, look at Tim Drake’s coming-out in Batman: Urban Legends #4-6. The story opens by looking at the state of Tim Drake. Barbara tells him, “You need to slow down and take a look at yourself… you’re so incredibly scared that if you use that big, brilliant brain of yours to analyze yourself, what you find is going to change you” (Batman: Urban Legends #4). This line is one that defines the closeted experience common to gay men. Personally, I am a cis, bisexual man who has in some ways stayed closeted to people I knew pre-college, including my parents. I’ve never actively hid being bisexual, but I never bring it up. I know my parents assume that I’m gay, but I don’t give them the information they want. I don’t want to make my journey about the people in my life who told me constantly to “take a look at yourself and figure yourself out.”

What Tim Drake is experiencing from those around him is a line unique to the queer experience. He is going through emotions that define the awkwardness of being bisexual in a way that Superman: Son of Kal-El never does. When Tim sees Bernard for the first time, he’s nervous, but can’t help but be immediately comforted when he sees Bernard noting “he still looks… he looks…” — clearly struggling to finish the sentence with some variation of cute or hot. The comic captures this dynamic of nerves mixed with comfort that is common in queer relationships.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Kent doesn’t have similar levels of doubt or nerves. His kiss comes from Jay being nice to him. No awkwardness about the decision to kiss Jay, with whom he is confirming and sharing a bit of himself that no one knows about. He just kisses Jay in a way that feels sudden and not as natural. A girl being nice to a guy followed by the two kissing is a common trope in media. But in good queer storytelling, a young adult relationship is about finding confidence in yourself and dealing with the awkwardness that comes from growing up in a society that drills heteronormativity into your head from a young age. While I don’t know Tom Taylor’s sexuality, I do know that when non-queer writers write queer relationships, they don’t land or feel as natural or powerful. For a story as significant and public as Superman: Son of Kal-El #5 to not tell a powerful queer story is disappointing.

Apart from the specific handling of the Jay/Jon relationship, older Jonathan Kent doesn’t read like a queer character. He’s more of a carbon copy of his dad, dedicated to stoicism and big masculine poses. When he was ten, Jon was full of non-masculine behavior, which is what made him so loved. The Supersons dynamic was always about Jon being more feminine and Damian being a more emotionless, masculine figure who slowly softened and began to feel like he could be himself around his best friend. Older Jon has been stripped of the elements that made him wholesome and compelling and replaced with a more flat interpretation. I love Jon as a character and it means a lot to me that he is queer, but he’s not being written as a queer character, and I hope as 2022 progresses that Tom Taylor and other writers can find the side of his personality that made him such a standout. Similarly, as we head into the rest of Dark Knights of Steel, Tom Taylor is writing a Wonder Woman who is leaning more into her bisexuality by dating a girl. I hope that he can give Wonder Woman the love she deserves as a queer character who is often not allowed to be queer in comics.

When queer writers write queer stories, they are more natural, diving deeper into queer themes. From Harley Quinn: The Eat, Bang, Kill Tour to Harley Quinn #10 to Batman: Urban Legends’s Tim Drake story, there are many great examples of queer storytelling that tackle queer themes and capture the authentic queer experience. When a non-black writer writes a black character and dives deep into the black experience, it doesn’t feel as authentic, and queer storytelling is similar. It’s unfortunate that the biggest queer story of the year feels like it’s not a queer book.

2.2.2 Too Many Books and the Purpose of Story Selection

One issue DC has run into this year is book bloat. The initial promise of Infinite Frontier was partly centered around eighteen books which meant you could more or less read every book at a pace of roughly four to five books a week. Unfortunately, as the year went on, the number of books continued to rise. While many of these books contained essential stories that helped diversify the line like Wonder Girl, other books like Task Force Z and Arkham City: The Order of the World have been more filler-y and self-contained. Meanwhile, many mini-series have finished and left readers asking, “So what?.” For example, Mister Miracle: Source of Hope was a great six-issue mini-series, but it ended without a clear roadmap for where the story would continue. Maybe we can get a Shilo Norman Mister Miracle sequel, but more than likely, readers will be left waiting for more Shilo Norman stories for a while. Similarly, the story could probably have been shortened a little, or been a four-issue mini, to make it tighter and easier to read. Instead, it was extended. Lobo and Crush was a good book (7/10 on my tier list), but I came out of it wondering how many issues were necessary and what the effect of the book is on the rest of the world.

Heading into 2022, DC comics should make sure to focus on three questions: One, why is this story a good idea for DC? Two, how long does this story need to be? Three, what effect will this book have on the rest of DC’s stories? A great example of following this rule is Shazam by Tim Sheridan. First, it gives a story to a character who has a movie adaptation. Similarly, it lets Tim Sheridan look more into Billy Batson, who hasn’t gotten a lot of time in Infinite Frontier otherwise. Secondly, it’s only four issues, with each issue having an important goal. The first issue sets up the plot and stakes, the second and third issues set up Nethermore and lead to the Black Adam from Future State tease, and the final issue wraps up the story. Finally, the goal of the comic is to help bring Future State into the Titans Academy story while setting up Dane for the role he will have in the final story of year one. The book is meaningful, short, well paced, and important.

A bad example is Suicide Squad: King Shark. The book was selected because it wanted to capitalize on the release of The Suicide Squad. The book is six issues long with multiple scenes that could be cut out, including Amanda Waller talking to dolphins. The book also seems to serve no purpose. Technically it has to take place in continuity, but it doesn’t make sense in any part of the current continuity and seems to have no consequences on the rest of Infinite Frontier. Instead the book wastes readers’ time, more of a pet project than an integral part of the line. Books like Suicide Squad: King Shark add bloat that give former DC writers jobs without adding anything. I’m not judging the quality as much as asking if it should be marketed as an Infinite Frontier book. I want to know if this book is worth the limited space DC and readers have each week.

Issue bloat isn’t a healthy thing for comics. The comics crash was the result of story over-bloat. Many stories existed for no other reason than to be another comic book on the shelves. New 52 similarly faced overbloat and many books were quickly dropped from pull lists and canceled, partly because of their quality, but also because there were too many books for readers to sustain. Infinite Frontier needs to watch out for instances of bloat and/or filler books and try to tighten stories, both to save readers money and to encourage more readers to check a book out. As we head into 2022, there’s already a tendency for book creep where the number of books being added is higher than the number of books ending. Book creep leads to diminished quality in the line and can lead to bloat. I hope the new books of 2022 have a clear objective and can feel important because at the end of the day, more than anything, readers want to feel like their time has been rewarded. Hopefully, DC will be more deliberate with their stories this year.

2.2.3 Incoming-Event Overload

In the same way bloat can come from releasing too many comics, it can also come from having too many events. Event bloat is slightly different in that it comes not only from the number of events, but also the type. Events are generally big moments that define the major stories of a publisher. They focus on encouraging everyone to read them and promising dramatic changes to the stories after the event ends. They are designed to be must-read comics series, and there’s a lot of pressure for them to be polished, important, and fun. There’s also an expectation that an event is infrequent. Unfortunately, DC’s 2022 seems poised to have event bloat.

In the first three months, there is a twelve-part event called Shadow of the Bat. There’s also three traditional crossovers in March — Shadow War, War for Earth-3, and Trial of the Amazons — and a smaller two-part crossover between Nightwing and Flash. While many of these stories have been slowly built up over the last year, all four happening at the same time is a very obvious example of having too many events. Let’s say a reader only reads a couple series that they like, and then the events. Well, suddenly March is looking to be an expensive endeavor. On top of that, the Batman Family just came out of a three-month event and then went straight into Shadow of the Bat. While Shadow of the Bat seems more self-contained than Fear State, DC needs to give the Batman books an event break.

The three March events are all interesting and important in different ways, but they will end up eating each other. Trial of the Amazons is the first Wonder Woman family crossover comic in DC’s history and deserves the press and marketing that this story deserves. Unfortunately, DC will be spending less of their resources in March so that they can market another al Ghul-oriented event. The League of Assassins have been the feature of many different events already, and in fact Talia al Ghul running a Leviathan organization is literally a repeated plot line from a decade ago. While I’m sure that Shadow War will be a good event that will answer a lot of questions and lead to something exciting, I’m not certain it needed to be an event instead of an arc in the bimonthly Batman. Similarly, why does War for Earth-3 need to be a big crossover with Titans Academy, Flash, and Suicide Squad? It could easily have been the next six issues of Suicide Squad alone. Flash and Titans Academy haven’t been building to a war on Earth-3; instead their titles are being interrupted for a Suicide Squad event. I actually think all three of these events will be good, but I have to ask if four events at the same time is a good idea.

Finally, I worry that DC isn’t letting their stories breathe. For example, Action Comics: War World Saga is currently coming out, but is expected to change after Death of the Justice League. I’m really enjoying this book, and want Johnson to take as much time as he needs on making War World the best it can be. Unfortunately, DC’s big event means that the story won’t be able to continue. Similarly, when Fear State came out, Nightwing had to take a three-issue break from the Bludhaven storyline to fight the Magistrate. While I thoroughly enjoyed the Magistrate story, it definitely hurt the pacing of Taylor’s Nightwing. And I haven’t even mentioned the upcoming Dark Crisis and Death of the Justice League, which will have huge repercussions themselves. Big events that massively change the line are great, but they often come at the expense of other stories.

2.2.4 The Darkness Comes

Joshua Williamson’s Dark Crisis is coming and I am excited, but very nervous. One of the biggest mistakes superhero lines make is when they go too dark. New 52 was a very dark and gritty era with many more edgy, dour takes. One of New 52’s core problems was that it got too dark and unlikable. Rebirth’s second half had the same problem (as discussed in the first part of this series).

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