With DC starting another weekly series and Figs anxious to continue his Morrrison-athon, this seems like a good time to take a look back at 52.
<SPOILER ALERT> .... Due to the amount of plot building and foreshadowing in this series, spoilers aplenty will be tossed about. You have been warned. ... <SPOILER ALERT>
The granddaddy of DC's weeklies would be the Millennium crossover series. I suspect this was issued weekly because DC wanted to confine its annual crossover to the summer. Millennium started off with a bang but ran out of steam quickly after the initial Manhunter reveals. One could argue that the story was forced to move too slowly to wait for each monthly to have a crossover. In any case, DC’s takeaway was that another format would work better for their crossovers.
DC’s next weekly project was Action Comics Weekly. This was run as an oversized anthology title with six different features; a Superman 2 pager, a Green Lantern 8 page lead, and four rotating 8 page features. After 42 issues ACW was reformatted back to a regular length title, once again spotlighting Superman. A number of the features received new titles and minis but DC did not try an anthology title again until the Showcase series in the 90s.
The triangle Superman titles were DC’s next go at weekly storytelling. DC had four titles that were telling Superman stories, Superman, Action, Adventures of Superman, and Superman: Man of Steel, and they decided that rather than having each creative team look for a different perspective to differentiate their title, they’d have each storyline continue from one title to the next. To make sure there were no gap weeks, Superman: The Man of Tomorrow was added to cover 5th weeks. This system required lots of coordination and editorial control but lasted for a number of years, until the titles had a reason to separate after the death of Superman.
It was many years before DC tried another weekly, finally giving it a go with 52. 52 was a comic that DC put a lot of resources towards, essentially putting five of their top writers on one comic. Greg Rucka, Mark Waid, Grant Morrison, Geoff Johns, and Keith Giffen crafted an anthology comic of interweaving stories set during a time the rest of DC’s line was restricted from using, except through flashbacks. The comic was supposed to chronicle what went on during a missing year, and did to some degree, but ultimately wound up focussing more on the stories of its lead characters. DC intended to have a puzzle that would be filled in, showing how the one year later status quos came about, causing fans to become more invested in their characters. Fans became invested in 52 and its focus characters, making 52 DC’s most successful weekly to date, allowing most of the key characters to spin off into either minis or ongoings, and showing that people will read both weeklies and anthologies if the circumstances are right.
After the success of 52, DC almost immediately started another weekly, Countdown (To Final Crisis). Once again, Countdown was set up as an interweaving anthology. This time, the series was set up with one main writer and in the same time frame as the rest of the DCU. Whereas 52 was off on its own, Countdown made a concerted effort to act as a “spine” for DCU current events. This proved to be unwieldy for continuity and unsatisfying as a story. Countdown proved to be a critical failure, mostly ignored going forward. However, sales were high enough that DC decided to try another weekly the next year, Kurt Busiek’s Trinity.
Trinity was a more focussed story, with bigger name characters to increase its draw. It initially focussed on the relationship between Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman but quickly veered into an alternate reality story about how the DCU would differ if Supes, Bats, and WW were removed. By going with an alternate reality story, Trinity removed the need to coordinate with the rest of the DCU, however, it also became less “important” in the context of the DCU. Ultimately, Trinity didn’t do as well as its predecessors, whether this was due to problems with the story or because Countdown poisoned the well is debatable.
The next weekly from DC was a departure in format, the broadsheet comic, Wednesday Comics. This was an anthology set up like newspaper comic strips of old rather than comic books. This had big names, working on varied characters, over a shorter time frame. Each strip had its own flavour as the creative teams were varied and were not bound by comic book continuity. Although, widely considered a creative success, more volumes have not been forthcoming.
This leads us to DC’s latest attempt at a weekly comic, Before Watchmen. Before Watchmen is different from its predecessors as it’s more accurately 7 minis with a common backup and trade dress. It remains to be seen if the backup will in some way relate to the other stories or if the minis will have any themes in common beyond working towards Watchmen. Regardless though, with its scheduling and a backup that requires all the minis for the full story, this has to be seen as a type of weekly comic.
So, as DC turns away from the interweaving anthology weekly in favour of linked mini series, the time has come to take a look back at 52 to determine what made it so uniquely successful.
IIRC, in Man of Steel #6, the newly-minted Post Crisis Superman got the Encyclopedia Kryptonica burned into his brain and he knew everything about his very bleek homeworld and immediately decided that it didn't matter. He was born on Earth, raised on Earth and was loyal to Earth!
In fact, the Post-Crisis Jor-El's motivations were not clearly known nor could they automatically be presumed to be benevolent!
In the first Superman movie, he would have had a lot easier time of it, if he hadn't told Lois all his secrets for mainstream publication.
As you admit in your answer, the post-COIE Superman shared a lot less of his heritage with the general public. For most of his existence he didn't know too much to share.
Even by the time of 52 Superman's Kryptonian background and his relationship to it had probably changed.
Of course, Byrne's bleak, cold and rational Krypton wouldn't have had a resurrection cult or any belief in the next life.
Instead they would just stuff your body in the mulcher as soon as you were cold.
That was Fire, not Jade, Figs. Booster felt guilty for not taking Ted Kord's warning seriously, though to be fair, no one did!
I might be remembering wrong, but I thought Booster did take Ted seriously, he was just injured and couldn't do anything about it.
52 # 5 - Stars in Their Courses
Day 1: Animal Man’s wife learns he’s MIA in space and decides that means there’s still hope. Lex Luthor announces he can manufacture synthesized human variant metagene which can give regular people super powers. Steel goes to help out at a hospital where the returned space heroes are being treated. Montoya gets questioned by her former boss about the warehouse.
Day 7: We find out Starfire, Animal Man, and a blind Adam Strange are stuck on a faraway planet with a broken spaceship.
This was almost certainly a heavy Morrison issue with a metahuman hospital, human variant metagene, and Animal Man taking centre stage.
At the hospital, we’re told that, “metahuman care is the fastest growing area of medicine”. Apparently, it’s staffed exclusively by metahumans, giving Dr. Midnight some competition/co-workers, (the heroes can finally seek a second opinion). Meanwhile, you’ve gotta love those new time freezing drugs, (showing that not all the mad scientists are locked up). Well, I guess if you’re going to have someone else’s body parts, this is the place to go.
This issue really handles the metagene announcement well. It stands to reason that it would be on par with man’s first step on the moon, Kennedy being shot, the towers being hit, etc. So we get to see a broad section of people’s reactions. Where were you when Lex Luthor discovered the metagene? It seems that with Superman out of the picture, Lex is finally helping humanity... well, somewhat. (As Philip mentioned, he’s substituting Steel as an adversary, he’s using his science to expand humanity’s possibilities... Lex has a Superman shaped hole he’s trying to fill.)
- Did Renee and the Question clear out the weapons or did the criminals cover their tracks after they left?
- The Red Tornado’s “last words”, (reminds one of Sunnydale, the only place on Earth where you need the plural of apocalypse), state that 52 is coming. That wouldn’t seem to apply to the parallel worlds, so what is it referring to?
Other items of note:
- Once again Starfire is bathing/swimming naked, but in this case it doesn’t seem exploitive, it’s for the characters benefit instead of the readers.
“If you think you can fondle that spaceship back to life, be my guest.”
Apparently, it’s staffed exclusively by metahumans, giving Dr. Midnight some competition/co-workers, (the heroes can finally seek a second opinion).
Or they won't have as long of a wait.
The writers' commitment to the characters is probably a big factor in 52's success. Rucka was very committed to Montoya. The critically praised, but hardly read Gotham Central ended with Infinite Crisis, and Rucka probably knew that the only way to continue with Montoya would be as a superhero.
According to Greg Rucka at the time, once Ed Brukaer left for Marvel he could have continued Gotham Central but decided not to.
The little waspy woman is Karen Bleecher, the Bumblebee from the mid-70s Teen Titans. She was a STAR Lab scientist and the girl-friend/wife of Mal Duncan AKA The Guardian III, Hornblower and the Herald. She never was a shrinker until her appearances on the Teen Titans animated series but that was carried over into her run on the last Doom Patrol volume.
I think she was a big influence on the way the Wasp is portrayed on The Avengers cartoon.
The hospital scenes give us something dramatic and also a laudable bit of 'realism': they show us the consequences of getting involved in major conflicts and putting yourself in physical danger. They are well-pitched in that we are shown how much danger the survivors are in of dying, how much work their doctors have to put into keeping them alive.
The consequences of violence aren't something that superhero comics do well. Usually someone's arm in a sling in the last two panels of a story is about the height of it.
The consequences of violence, the price paid in the lives and wellbeing of young people, is a worthwhile focus of an issue of a comic like this. The mid-noughties context is the slow buildup of killed and wounded arriving back from Bush's wars in the real world.
The grounded realism up to now and the work done building up the personalities of the characters and building their world makes the outer space cosmic craziness section seem more consequential and 'real' than it probably did in Infinite Crisis, whatever the hell is going on there.
On the old board, I asked a few times what exactly was the mission that Donna Troy embarked on with her troupe of heroes during Infinite Crisis. There was a scene in the Supergirl comic where she was recruited. But I don't think we ever got a clear picture of what they were supposed to be doing, or why they set off.
In this comic, Green Lantern says he was in charge...
Anyway, we see Bumblebee getting shrunk by one of the Cosmic Mojo rays, whilst Hawkgirl is made bigger. Perhaps this is the first time the comics character was shrunk.
Whatever they saw out there was something to do with the basic building blocks of time and reality and the multiverse of the DCU. That turns out to be important in the later issues.
52 # 6 - China Syndrome
Day 1: Booster pays an actor to play a villain he can beat to get more publicity. GLs, Hal Jordan and John Stewart, pursue Evil Star into China and run afoul of China’s protectors, The Great Ten. Black Adam intervenes on the side of the Great Ten but the skirmish crosses into Russian territory and the Rocket Reds convince the others to defer to the Green Lanterns. Dr. Magnus visits Morrow again and we find out the “secure facility” is secretly being monitored by Egg Fu.
Day 2: Booster Gold and Skeets locate Rip Hunter’s base however no one appears to be home, but he did leave a note... or more precisely a bunch of ominous ramblings and portentous scrawl.
This issue had a couple of firsts, a ton of hints, a nice dollop of foreshadowing, and even the introduction of an important plot thread.
As far as I know, this was the first appearance of the Great Ten, broadening DC’s international diversity. It’s also, I believe, the first appearance of one of Rip Hunter’s time boards, a plot device that will get lots of use in the Booster Gold series and elsewhere.
The bulk of the issue focussed on the Green Lanterns but most of the big reveals were in the Booster sections. (Not unlike the series as a whole where the GLs are the biggest characters still on the board but they’re not that important to the story.)
Green Lantern/ Black Adam
This is the first mention of the “Freedom of Power Treaty”, with Black Adam building a power base outside the States. In a way, it’s a reversal of Legends where the heroes were banned from the USA; this time the American super heroes are being banned from the rest of the world. (Ironically enough, the Rocket Reds are siding with Green Lanterns initially but will soon be aligned against them, same as during the Legends period.)
The Green Lanterns are trying to stop yet another alien arms’ smuggler... it seems to be a trend.
Black Adam is stopped by the threat of causing a war. He just doesn’t have the incentive yet.
Booster & Skeets
Booster is apparently paying false villains to make himself look good. This begs the question, has not knowing the future shaken him so badly that he feels the need for this added security or does he feel there’s a pressing need to build himself up? His being dismissive and forgetting the name of his accomplice makes one wonder if he’s trying to mentally distance himself from his actions or if he’s putting on a show for someone else?
While they’re breaking into Rip’s lab we get a couple of repurposed lines. Booster claims to hate time travellers, (just like the Flash), but making less sense, as he actively chose to be a time traveller. Skeets claims that the Kord tech in the lock is an ancestor of his, (echoing Hourman’s relation to Tyler corp.); a little too linked for me but YMMV.
The board and lab are full of references and hints of things to come, (I think I’ll let someone else break those down), but what really struck me was how clear a hint the “52"s wrapped in overlapping circles was in retrospect. It seems pretty clear they knew what 52 was going to represent right from the beginning.
Other items of note:
- Morrow cracks an egg while being spied on by Egg Fu.
- The Green Lantern rings have certain preset manoeuvres.
“You thinking what I am?”
52 # 7 - Going Down
Day 1: Adam Strange is trying to fix the spaceship but isn’t getting any help from Starfire or Animal Man who are gorging themselves on some weird fruit. Despite being blind and not receiving help, he expects the ship to be ready to take off by the planetoid’s sundown.
Day 2: Montoya decides to follow up on the warehouse mayhem by getting info from Kate Kane.
Day 3: While Booster is being hassled over the phone for not paying a certain actor, Ralph arrives for a visit to get help tracking the Superboy cult. Booster blows him off, claiming to be too busy, giving as an example and impending violent outbreak. Ralph proceeds to blow a gasket for Booster not warning him about Sue’s death. Meanwhile, in Gotham, Montoya meets with Kate and asks her to look into the warehouse. Back in Metropolis, Booster saves a crowd from a disaster but while he’s meeting with Lois Lane to discuss it, the actor confronts him and starts a scandal, sparking another tirade from Ralph. Finally, back on the planetoid, Starfire becomes aware that the humans are not alone.
This is the first issue where two of our story strands really interact and it feels a little forced. Why would Ralph look up Booster just because he’s getting some publicity in Metropolis? The logic’s a little weak there. However, looking past the shallow set up, Ralph and Booster work well off each other thematically and drive forward each others stories; Ralph exacerbating Booster’s fall and Booster holding up a bit of a mirror to Ralph so that his grief expresses itself as anger.
The irony of Ralph confronting Booster can’t be lost. Ralph rails against Booster doing things for acclaim and sponsors when he was the first DC hero to go after publicity. If Sue had died at some villain’s hands, one would have to wonder if this wasn’t Ralph being angry at himself for revealing his identity and setting up the circumstances. Perhaps it still is anger at himself, but in the more general sense of simply becoming a hero and setting up the dominoes. (Anger doesn’t have to be logical.) Meanwhile, Ralph’s anger at Booster for not using his foreknowledge to warn him does make more surface sense, but again, with a nice dollop of irony. Ralph claims Booster only thinks about himself but he’s not concerned about the imminent problem outside, he’s totally focussed on his concerns with the Superboy cult and Sue.
The actor suddenly deciding to out Booster doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It guarantees he won’t get any money and it opens him up to criminal prosecution. Add in the facts that he can’t be reached when Booster attempts to call him back and that this issue he’s claiming his name is Bob and not Bill, and we have to conclude there’s more to this story. Was he paid by another source to discredit Booster? I’m not sure this is ever followed up on. Likewise, why Booster was going to such “heroic” measures to boost his profile. It’s a good setup for his series but I don’t know that it ever made too much sense in the context of 52. (As an aside, maybe the reason Booster couldn’t originally get the actor’s name right is because it was stated differently in the historical documents. Of course, that implies Booster was more in the historical know than he was letting on. I’m anxious to get to later on in the series to see if this is ever addressed.)
Montoya suddenly deciding Kate Kane might have information about the weapons smuggling seems like a bit of an intuitive leap in context, and yet, like a standard step a cop would follow. So, does she have good instincts or has she forgotten her instincts? It’s interesting that the Question has nothing more to do with her until she decides to follow up and ask more questions... a test perhaps?
In space, the biblical reversals continue. Starfire and Buddy eat the fruit and lose knowledge. Then, Adam Strange has them stop eating the fruit and they’re kicked out of paradise.
Other items of note:
- Someone has covered Montoya’s cast in question marks. Another indication he’s getting her in the right frame of mind?
- Ralph asks Booster if it’s a bad time while Booster is concerned about time being “bad”.
- This Kate Kane doesn’t seem like the character Rucka will develop. Her back story seems to have changed.
- Most of the early Luthor story happens off camera, a different but pretty effective approach.
“Wasn’t it a thrilling sight Mr. Dibny?”
“Hard to tell, Skeets, I didn’t ready my camera.”
52 # 8 - Thief
Day 1: While his niece, Natasha, works on a new suit of armour, John Henry’s chest turns to steel. Meanwhile, in Star City, Ralph visits Green Arrow and enlists his help tracking the Superboy cult there.
Day 2: Steel gets himself checked out at STAR Labs and realizes that Lex Luthor gave him a metagene treatment against his will.
Day 3: Supernova makes his first appearance in Metropolis.
Day 4: Supernova saves some more lives.
Day 5: Supernova makes more headlines and Booster Gold blows a gasket while being interviewed by Clark Kent. Natasha, unaware of the circumstances, realizes her uncle has received a metagene treatment and storms out of the house. Adam Strange and Animal Man go looking for a missing Starfire and get caught in a trap.
Day 7: Lex Luthor admits Natasha into his metagene treatment program.
This was a fairly quiet issue, although it did have a couple of items that will build and be important later. Supernova makes his first appearance, almost immediately moving into the heroic void left by Booster, (one would almost think there’s a link there). Also, a frustrated and angry Natasha ignores her uncle and her prior knowledge of Lex Luthor and enters Luthor’s metagene program, (teenagers and their impulse control issues). Finally, Ralph puts the idea into Green Arrow’s head that he should go into politics, (probably the first step in the series towards a “one year later” outcome).
Other odds and ends:
- It makes sense that civilians would wear the star spangled bathing suit, but is it official WW merchandise?
- Didn’t Booster learn Clark’s identity in JLA? If so, then Booster was definitely rebooted in Infinite Crisis.
- If Natasha destroyed the armour she was making that easily, it’s probably for the best that she didn’t complete it.
- The powers appear to be targeted but at least they go about it more gently than they did in Invasion.
*On a personal note, whenever I see an issue that relies so heavily on facial expressions, I feel nostalgic for Kevin McGuire’s work.
“He said ‘Stop Thief’. I aimed for the guy charging thirty bucks for disposable diapers in a disaster zone.”
52 # 9 - Dream of America
Day 1: Steel busts into Luthor’s party and is sent packing by Natasha and the other newly created meta-humans. Animal Man, Starfire, and Adam Strange escape from Devilance, taking his equipment to finish repairing their ship. The Question looks up Montoya in a gay bar, revealing his identity and bringing her up to speed on Intergang.
Lex’s “new American dream” of every man becoming a superman would probably have a lot of traction but it does beggar the question, is it only open to Americans? If so, it certainly makes Black Adam’s world against the US stance a whole lot more reasonable. On the flip side, considering how much of a problem Lex had with just one Superman, you just have to know he has some way to keep himself above them. In essence, he’s attempting to make Superman less special while putting himself at the pinnacle.
The 52 walls of heaven comment leads to some interesting possibilities. Does each universe have its own Source Wall or do the New Gods see it as one gigantic whole? Maybe Devilance isn’t referring to the Source Wall but instead simply vibrational barriers of the universes themselves. Perhaps the key part of the statement is seeing beyond, as in, into the home of the Monitors. (The idea that the New Gods interact with multiple universes, that the DCnU comic Earth 2 seems to running with, may have been introduced here first.) Regardless, Devilance talking in the present tense is yet another early clue that parallel worlds weren’t just scrapped in Infinite Crisis but are coming back.
Other items of note:
- Animal Man realizes he can tap into alien animal life.
- Adam Strange plays some word games, using controlled manually in a way that’s the exact opposite of its normal meaning.
- Does the metagene treatment include something that ramps up aggression or does Natasha just have some issues?
- Is Devilance a character that’s been seen before in the Fourth World?
- What happened to the weapons from the warehouse?
- How long has Batwoman been following Montoya?
“You know this is a lesbian bar, right?”
“So no men’s room, huh?”