Many of DC's rebooted comics have been explicitly sexist in their portrayal of women, such as the new Catwoman.
courtesy DC Comics

The failures of The New 52

How DC's attempt at a new beginning has turned into a sexist, convoluted mess

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Last September, DC Comics launched ‘The New 52,’ the largest single publishing initiative in the legendary comic book company’s history. Every series published by the company was relaunched and rebooted, resulting in 52 new #1 issues. Along with instituting same day digital copies for all issues, the idea was to attract new readership to the company’s comic books, particularly targeting those more aware of the characters through their media adaptations than the comics themselves.

Despite a roster of well-respected and bestselling comic book writers and artists, the new books launched a flurry of controversy. Longtime readers were upset that their favourite characters were being recreated from the ground up, but it soon became apparent that there were far more glaring issues in The New 52 than simple continuity issues, costume changes and other standard sources of fanboy griping. Widespread sexism, racism, poor editorial oversight and general unpleasantness dogged the response to early issues in the media. But one year later, it’s possible to look back at these public failures as well as the genuine artistic successes that have come from DC’s attempt to wipe away 77 years of storytelling and start with a clean slate.

Perhaps the biggest immediate issue in DC’s new style was its objectification of female characters. Granted, comic book women have always been depicted in an exaggeratedly sexy manner, but the initial issues of The New 52 were especially troublesome in their unabashed adoption of the mantra ‘sex sells.’ Catwoman spent her first issue getting in and out of her leather catsuit and it finished with a splash page of her graphically having sex with Batman on a rooftop, their once playful yet dangerous flirtation now something much less subtle. Popular Teen Titans character Starfire, formerly a free-spirited and confident heroine, found herself transformed into an emotionless sex object — multiple pages were devoted to her getting wet and cavorting around in a bathing suit. A character who was once a heroic role model for young female comic book fans was turned into largely a masturbatory aid for male fans who already have an Internet full of unofficial fan art for that sort of thing. The peace-loving Amazons of Wonder Woman’s Paradise Island found themselves no longer magically immortal, instead perpetuating their civilization by means of kidnapping men and forcing them into sexual servitude before murdering them, all in the name of giving the hero a darker, grimmer backstory.

The order of the day was largely to make DC’s stable of characters more ‘adult,’ where adult apparently means gratuitous sex, violence and unpleasant themes where there was once imagination, heroism and a legacy of classic stories. Most revisions seemed solely designed to attract media attention — Alan Scott, the original Green Lantern, was outed as gay, while a new Green Lantern was depicted as a gun-wielding, ex-criminal Arab American. The handling of the reboot was sloppy, with poor editorial oversight. Some characters, such as Batman, found their histories largely intact, but Superman quickly became a focal point for editorial dispute. Acclaimed writer Grant Morrison wrote stories in Action Comics of a young Superman at the start of his career, while veteran comics creator George Perez told stories set in the present day in Superman, but the two books often contradicted each other as there was no coherent editorial mandate to link them — neither writer knew what the other was doing. Perez publicly quit in frustration, and soon afterwords Morrison announced his retirement from superhero comics. Soon other big name stars like John Rozum and Rob Liefeld were quitting, citing similar negative experiences with the antagonistic editors at DC, with repeated claims of scripts being rewritten under the noses of writers and without any constructive responses from editors as to why. DC Comics has responded with statements to the effect that the big name star creators were simply not used to working under a corporate structure, which is laughable.

However, with 52 monthly series being published, there have been some successes. Animal Man, Swamp Thing, Wonder Woman and Batman have been met with consistent critical acclaim, though these books have largely ignored the simple and clean mandate of the line. Scott Snyder’s Batman continues the arcs and themes of the pre-reboot series and relies heavily on continuity not only from Grant Morrison’s Batman stories earlier this decade but stories from as far back as the 1970s. Brian Azzarello’s new Wonder Woman has reinvigorated the Amazon warrior with a storyline steeped in classic Greek mythology. And the greatest artistic success of The New 52 is undoubtedly the new Animal Man and Swamp Thing, precisely because writers Jeff Lemire and Scott Snyder have brilliantly built upon the work of Grant Morrison and Alan Moore in the ’90s and ’80s, who themselves built on the work of Dave Wood and Len Wein in the ’70s and ’60s. These critical successes show that good, creative work can use the 77 years of publishing history that DC has, rather than tossing it away and ignoring it in favour of what’s new, hip and supposedly edgy.

The New 52 accomplished its main goal, pushing DC’s sales over Marvel Comics for the 2011–12 financial year. But with critics, fans and creators abandoning the company in droves, it becomes clear that much of the reboot was designed as a publicity gimmick, with little attention being paid to storytelling, art or entertainment. Just because something is a commercial success, does not mean it is an artistic one.