Monday 15 September 2014

The Comics Ramble: Hope Springs (Batman) Eternal

You want to know my dirty little secret? The thing that I keep at the back of my mind in a world of constant disappointment, dashed hopes and thwarted expectations? I want everything to succeed. I don't expect everything to succeed but I want it to. I want Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice to break the pattern of DC film offerings and be a fantastic movie. I want to like whatever old or obscure junk my friends point me to on the internet. And do you know what? Bitch and moan as I do I want The New 52 to be the game-changing, artistically inspiring revival DC was hoping for.

The New 52 has outlasted my expectations, no two ways about it. When it was announced I thought it would last a year, two at pinch and here we are three years down the line and it is still DC's main publishing continuity. Three years is a long time, long enough that I'm a different person now than when Justice League #1 came out and this experiment has had a good while to validate itself. So has it? Just in my own highly subjective personal view?

Eh... very nearly almost.

Now, one of the problems I had with this idea out of the gate was that DC was mixing soft and hard reboots within the same initiative. Batman and Green Lantern (Green Lantern especially) were basically continuing where they left off with a slightly adjusted past timeline, soft as it comes. Wonder Woman was getting a new cast and status quo but that's just what happens to Wonder Woman and she's never needed a reboot for it, that's what she calls “getting a new writer”. Meanwhile the Teen Titans suddenly have a whole new history: Tim Drake is their founding father now, the Dick Grayson era Titans were never a team, in fact only three of them seem to exist in the New 52. That's an astonishingly hard reboot compared to what Hal Jordan and Bruce Wayne went through.

Reboots happen, though, and what mattered to me then and matters to me now are the stories being told in this new framework. Does what has been done creatively validate the business decision that started it all?

As I said: very nearly almost, in a few cases, a bit.

The simple fact is that after three years DC is finally getting its collective head around what it wants and how it wants to achieve it. This should probably have been a realisation that came a bit sooner (preferably three or four years sooner) but here we are and at least it does feel like the moment has arrived and that moment is called Batman Eternal.

I already mentioned in my Tim Drake/Harper Row post (and the series really needs to return to them at some point) that I liked the series but I want to get into the real nuts and bolts of how Eternal works and why it works. You see, the whole series is devoted, on multiple layers, to asking and answering one question:

How in the hell does Gotham City work?

The answer is presented mechanically by removing one of the city's most essential moving parts as Jim Gordon is indicted for multiple counts of manslaughter and watching the whole thing fall apart. And here we have the crux of the matter: with this move DC is finally taking advantage of the door they opened when they made everyone younger and less experienced. The pre-Flashpoint Jim Gordon was practically as sainted a figure in the fiction as he was within fandom. He'd been Commissioner forever, he'd pretty much succeeded in stamping out police corruption in the GCPD or at last at Gotham Central itself and he was damn near untouchable on a moral and ethical level.

New 52 Jim is younger and has been Commissioner for about six years. He's not as popular as he was pre-Flashpoint and his crusade against corruption isn't as advanced (look at his immediate successor for evidence of that). From a storyline perspective there's more weight to the public siding against him than there would have been before. Yes, we know he's innocent because he's Commissioner Gordon but the backlash is at least believable.

It's not just Jim, either. Eternal finally integrates the new Tim Drake into the Bat-family. Death of the Family and a few stray guest appearances where he was a visitor notwithstanding this is genuinely the first time we've seen this Red Robin operate in Gotham. He has his own base in the city, possibly even several, and this causes tension between him and Bruce but obviously the tension is manageable or even a joke since Tim still has his Gotham privileges. Y'know, not that I think even Bruce could revoke those from Tim even if he tried. The fact is, though, that this relationship is subtly different from their pre-Flashpoint one: Bruce is a former mentor Tim isn't too worried about pissing off instead of the stand-in father he wants to surpass, which is probably down to this Tim not being an orphan.

And that's not even mentioning the two characters Eternal has introduced to the New 52: the Spectre and Spoiler. Corrigan we've seen the least of but this version seems actively afraid of the Spectre which, whilst not out of line with past interpretations, is at least an interesting choice of several potential angles.

Spoiler meanwhile... well, they really thought that one through. We're finally at a point where she has a costume and has chosen her hero name but they've actually thought about how the word she chose to describe herself has changed in the years since her original introduction:

Spoiler is now a vigilante with a blog!

This isn't me being a sad bastard and identifying with a character because of my hobby, by the way, which was obviously what DC was courting when they did a similar thing to Superman. This is me laughing with DC at a cool idea that ties in with not only modernising the character to include an angle modern, baggage-free readers would actually expect and a funny little acknowledgement of the role internet fandom has played in her enduring popularity and multiple resurrections.

And dear God they have finally worked out what they want to do with Jason Bard. This guy again. This guy just turns up and I don't know what he was originally but I've seen him used as a street level PI free of Bat-connections, a uniform cop witless foil for Barbara Gordon, a dirty tricks man for Tim Drake and now as “l'il Jim Gordon” with a twist. So, yes, this angle is interesting, this angle is good, let's run with this, see it through and maybe then we can finally say we have the definitive Jason Bard interpretation and move on. Still, though, this is a case of using an existing character name and the broads strokes of their past incarnations to wrongfoot the audience because what nearly every version of Bard has agreed with is that he's a bit shady but ultimately on the side of law and order. This creates expectations of the new version and that you can play with and DC has, gleefully.

Now, I'm specifically singling out Eternal because there's enough meat for a whole Comics Ramble in it. It isn't the only example. Wonder Woman has been taking advantage of the new start from day one; the latest Teen Titans run under Will Pfeifer is examining how superheroes and social media would interact; Justice League United shows huge promise; and I am absolutely fascinated by Grayson. Like I said, the New 52 is on its way to being validated as an experiment...

if its lucky. 

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