By Allison Eckel
All the “New 52” titles from DC Comics are revealed and we can now step back and take it all in. The roll-out of the #1s through September was exciting and comics readers young and old found much to draw them in. Well, not young; let me qualify that. Adult comics readers – only – found much to draw them in. Every issue carries a rating of Teen or higher because the action and drama are more serious, more violent, more “dark.”
Even titles I hoped would be okay for my tween to read turned out to have bloody surprises buried in the subplot. For example, Fury of Firestorm the Nuclear Men. Viewers of the All Things Fun! Vidcast have heard me say that Firestorm was the first comic I actively purchased on my own, with my own 60 cents (that was Fury of Firestorm, launched in 1982 by Gerry Conway and Patrick Broderick). Title character Ronnie Raymond was a likeable every-student caught up in a crazy world of heroics through a catastrophic nuclear-related accident. The result was that at will, he and the brainy science teacher who was with him at the accident could transform themselves into Firestorm – Ronnie controlling the body and Professor Stein giving him science lessons in his head. I loved this comic and counted the days until the convenience store half a mile away got a new shipment so I could walk there after school. I was in the second grade.
Jump ahead thirty years to last month when I eagerly purchased Ronnie’s rebirth, created at the hands of Ethan Van Sciver and Gail Simone. The new twist is that the brain of Firestorm is another student this time plus the world may know more than one Firestorm. Compelling layers to the new mythos. But the graphic terrorist subplot in issue 1 means that I can’t share it with my own fourth grader. I know that terrorism happens in the world, but if we didn’t have to see it so graphically displayed, then I could have brought a new life-long reader into the fold. Those scenes felt like the creators ramped up the violence so that Firestorm could earn its Teen rating. In other words, purely for shock and not actually necessary for the story.
That trend, I’m afraid, ran rampant through the #1s of the New 52. As a long-time reader looking forward to passing the tradition of DC Comics superheroes to my own kid, I am almost completely disappointed. Almost. A small selection of titles were okay for a younger reader, but I can’t trust that they will always be. My son read Justice League #1 by Geoff Johns and Jim Lee and he loved it. He wants to read #2, but I will have to read it first to make sure something isn’t thrown in just for the sake of shock and awe.
My son also read Aquaman #1, which is also written by Geoff Johns. Yes, a fisherman was eaten by the Trench monsters, but the action happened "off screen," with just red water and our imaginations to fill in the details. I think in the hands of different creators, we would have been "treated" to the fisherman's horrified face while monsters rip his body to shreds. I am thankful that the Aquaman team seems to have more class than that.
Among the few books I will offer my fourth grader are Static Shock, Flash, Teen Titans, Blue Beetle, and possibly Demon Knights. This last one does include a demonically possessed infant, but the rest is such a fun ride I really want it to be okay for him. Demon Knights is written by Paul Cornell, who I find to be such a good writer that he doesn’t need shocking images to compel the reader.
I am left befuddled. Many of the new 52 are very well written, but too many, in my opinion, are more horror books than hero books. Because of this, I am no longer buying most of Batman’s core stories. I can see where Batman is the hero closest to the horror genre, but I just don’t read horror, no matter how well written. For me, that also leaves out Swamp Thing and Animal Man, two very well written books. The real world is scary enough; I don't need horror in my escapist entertainment.
NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast recently discussed DC's New 52. Glen Weldon, NPR's book critic and comics blogger, also felt that the New 52s were not o.k. to give his kid. His statement is dead on: This is “a massive missed opportunity to not indoctrinate [younger readers].” He explained how Scholastic sent his family a huge box of new books for review. His kids were so excited to pour over them. Then, DC Comics sent him the entire line of New 52 for his office to review. He spread them out on the conference room table and the adults reacted with, “Meh.” Kids – the middle graders from about third grade on – get super excited by heroes with gadgets or magic or whatever. By moving the whole universe to Teen plus away from “All Ages,” they are actively working against their own need to widen their market reach.
At the same time, DC has increased its superhero-licensed toy lines for preschoolers. This blows my mind. While I am excited that three-year-olds now have an Fisher-Price Imaginext DC Super Friends Green Lantern Planet OA " target="_blank">Oa playset and Fisher Price Little People can share the zoo with Little People DC Super Friends~Wonder Woman & Batgirl Figure Pack " target="_blank">Wonder Woman and Batgirl, I have to wonder how kids even know who these characters are anymore. They are listed withe the DC Super Friends registered trademark, which goes with a great comic DC no longer publishes. Preschoolers are too little to see the PG-13-rated Green Lantern movie. Wonder Woman’s new comic is rated Teen, and the always fantastic Batman: The Brave and the Bold cartoon is going off the air. If DC has a plan for bringing age-appropriate stories to younger readers, I would really like to hear it.
Alternatively, we have begun to check out the quality work currently published by other companies. CrossGen’s series Mystic by G. Willow Wilson and David López is rated Teen-plus, but by issue 2 contained nothing inappropriate for my fourth-grader (side note: He really enjoyed these stories, too). Over at Image Comics, Super Dinosaur continues to thrill (when it actually ships), and Gladstone’s School for World Conquerors is as fun and irreverent as Despicable Me. Following a hilarious intro on Free Comic Book Day, I have ordered Th3rd World Studios’ The Intrepid Escape Goat as well. And of course, I have been a collector of DC Comics since 1979. So, I am thankful that I have hoarded my comics so my fourth grader has 4,000 fantastic DC Comics superhero books to pour over. Nearly every one of these is okay for him to read because the publisher had to submit to that pesky Comics Code Authority. It may have bugged creators, but it truly enabled publishers to keep their market broad.