THIS WEEK: As 2021 draws to a close, we look at the year that was for DC Comics, and what we’re hoping to see in the new year.
DC Comics fans entered 2021 with a fair amount of uncertainty. The previous year had seen a number of major shake-ups at the publisher, with executive editor & co-publisher Dan Didio’s sudden departure the most high-profile of back-office changes since AT&T’s acquisition of DC parent company Warner Brothers in 2018. Some were concerned that the changes were evidence that AT&T was going to be taking a stronger hand in DC’s day-to-day activities; a few even worried that the phone company would dissolve DC altogether and opt to license its iconic characters to other publishers.
Whatever the reason for the shake-ups, it feels safe to say from an outside perspective that, far from uncertain, the DC Comics of the past twelve months is the most confident we’ve seen in years on nearly every front. The two-month Future State event that kicked off 2021, which prior to its launch felt like an avenue for the publisher to burn off remaining stories from the scrapped 5G reboot/relaunch, was instead a wildly ambitious initiative that succeeded creatively and also served as a springboard for everything to come for the rest of the year, from creative teams to new titles to in-story threads that have loomed over the line ever since. It’s also been great to see the world introduced there continue on in the pages of Future State: Gotham, a totally standalone series that (if I’m not mistaken) is also DC’s first ever black-and-white ongoing series.
Beyond Future State, the mainline DC titles feel more focused than they’ve been in at least a decade. The Infinite Frontier #0 one-shot that kicked things off in March served to both unify the line as existing in a shared continuity – another fear that people had coming in to 2021 – and to give each title the room it needed to do its own thing and exist in its own space. Events occurring in one corner of the DC Universe impact things happening in other areas and titles, but where in the past that sort of coordination felt like a storytelling shackle it now feels like creators have the freedom to acknowledge or ignore those elements as much as they want. The end result has been stronger storytelling and more enjoyable comics across the board.
There are also books coming out now that it feels like we just wouldn’t have seen from DC under the previous leadership. Of particular note is the amount of LGBTQ+ representation present in the overall DC line, from ongoing series with openly queer leads like Harley Quinn and Green Lantern (if you consider Jo Mullein to be a co-lead of that series, which I definitely do) to miniseries like Aquaman: The Becoming and Crush & Lobo, and that’s not to mention DC’s massive Pride initiative in June and this year’s big news that both longtime Robin Tim Drake and new Superman Jon Kent are bisexual. The publisher has also upped its representation in terms of POC lead characters, with the aforementioned Aquaman: The Becoming and Green Lantern, along with I Am Batman, Black Manta, Mister Miracle, and more all featuring Black leads. There’s still work to do in all those areas, for sure, but it’s clear that that work is being done, or at least actively considered by the people working on these books, and it’s incredibly heartening to see.
Outside of the main line, there’s also been a great diversity of work done across DC’s different imprints. Extra-continuity miniseries like Batman ‘89, Superman ‘78, and Justice League Infinity that tie-in to beloved movies and TV shows were a no-brainer, and it’s been great to see them recapture some of the magic of their inspirations. The return of Milestone with relaunches of Static Shock, Hardware, and Icon & Rocket has also been a real breath of fresh air, with the line’s characters now more relevant than ever in a post-Black Lives Matter world, albeit one that still needs these characters as much as it did when they originally debuted in the ‘90s.
The Black Label imprint saw perhaps the best continuation of the Sandman Universe ever in G. Willow Wilson and Nick Robles’s The Dreaming: Waking Hours, as well as the return of creator-owned work in James Tynion IV & Alvaro Martínez Bueno’s incredible The Nice House on the Lake, not to mention the line’s regular alternate takes on classic DC heroes. Mattson Tomlin & Andrea Sorrentino’s Batman: The Imposter was a shockingly fresh, beautifully illustrated look at the Batman mythos, and the recently-launched Wonder Woman Historia: The Amazons from Kelly Sue DeConnick & Phil Jimenez and Catwoman: Lonely City from Cliff Chiang are instant contenders for definitive stories featuring those characters. If those three books are an indicator of what’s yet to come from Black Label we’re in for a spectacular time.
It’s impossible to talk about the year in DC without addressing the flying rodent in the room. Batman and his extended family have dominated DC’s publishing lineup this year. The Bat-family has even extended out beyond physical comics with the debut of Batman: Wayne Family Adventures on WEBTOON. It all makes sense – he’s an immensely popular character with the general public, and books with ‘Batman’ in the title sell – but what’s impressive is the way that DC has utilized Batman to tell interesting and diverse stories. The Batman: Urban Legends anthology brought readers extended stories starring Grifter, Azrael, and Tweedledum & Tweedledee, just to name a few, not to mention the aforementioned Tim Drake story that saw him explore his bisexuality. It also helps that, across the line, all of the Batman-related titles have been really solid, and came together for the Fear State crossover nicely without disrupting the flow or ongoing storylines of the individual books and creative teams.
That’s really what feels like the true success of DC’s 2021: creative autonomy. After years of line-wide relaunches and timeline tinkering, it’s been wonderful as a DC fan to read comics where it’s evident the creators are free to tell the tales they want to tell. The results have been stories featuring what feel like the purest forms of these characters. Sure, some of the trappings may be different – Superman’s losing his powers as he leads The Authority on Warworld, Nightwing’s a newly-minted billionaire, Robin Damian Wayne’s fighting in a tournament on a mysterious island where people die and come back to life regularly, Green Lantern John Stewart’s de-powered and protecting an alien race on a far-off planet, Wonder Woman’s lost her memory and traveling through various different afterlives – but at their cores, these are still the characters that fans have known and loved for years, perhaps moreso now than ever.
Going into 2022, there’s no uncertainty left about DC, at least in this writer’s mind. I’m excited to see smaller, creator-driven crossovers like the Joshua Williamson-written Shadow War and the Robbie Thompson & Dennis Hopeless-penned War for Earth-3. I’m excited for Trial of the Amazons to unite all of the Wonder Woman titles, and for the launch of Mark Waid & Dan Mora’s World’s Finest title (I didn’t even talk about how spectacular Gene Luen Yang & Ivan Reis’s short run this year on Batman/Superman was!). I’m excited for more multiverse adventures from Williamson in Justice League Incarnate and the as-yet-unannounced third act of the Infinite Frontier saga. Above all, though, I’m excited for the things I’m not expecting, the books that haven’t even been hinted at yet that are new and boundary-pushing and oddball and classic and everything in-between. Here’s to DC carrying the full head of steam it’s built up over the past twelve months into 2022 and beyond.
DC had a full slate of titles out this week, and overall they were pretty solid across the board, so let’s look at some of the standouts.
- The week’s big new DC release is Jeff Lemire, Doug Mahnke, and David Baron‘s Black Label Swamp Thing: Green Hell #1. I know there’s been some Discourse about dudes and Swamp Thing, but I’m a guy (if not a dude) who’s never really gotten into the character. Green Hell #1 is pretty firmly a horror book, and has some interesting twists that I wasn’t expecting. It feels a little bit like the post-apocalyptic world of Sweet Tooth, but with Swamp Thing instead of animal hybrid kids. I’ll see where this goes.
- Action Comics #1038 continues the Warworld Saga as Superman and The Authority get beaten down some more. Zack wrote last month about how great this current storyline has been, so I will just add that the direction Phillip Kennedy Johnson, Miguel Mendonça, and Adriano Lucas have taken this story is brutal and feels unlike anything we’ve seen in a Superman comic in decades, and the interaction between Superman and Midnighter in the final pages has to be one of the quintessential Superman scenes of the 21st Century. Incredible stuff.
- In the ‘so weird it’s amazing’ category, Aquaman/Green Arrow: Deep Targets has been an utter delight. Brandon Thomas, Ronan Cliquet, and Ulises Arreola employ some fun storytelling tricks in this week’s third issue of the series, and answers begin to come into focus as to how Arthur Curry and Oliver Queen switched lives. If you haven’t been following this book, it’s well worth catching up on if you’re looking for a light, entertaining read.
- I’m really digging Deathstroke, Inc., and this week’s fourth issue is no exception. I have no idea where Josh Williamson, Howard Porter, and Hi-Fi are going with this, or how, as Williamson has promised, it ties in to the larger Infinite Frontier storyline, but it’s been damn fun so far and I’m enjoying the ride.
- And speaking of enjoying the ride, Task Force Z is a comic that I inexplicably love. Jason Todd leading a team of zombie Batman rogues is, frankly, nuts, but Matthew Rosenberg, Eddy Barrows, Eber Ferreira, and Adriano Lucas are making it work. Again, no possible idea where this is going, but I’m on board for it.
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