Sunday, 30 December 2012

On Gail Simone's Secret Six, Oracle, Batgirl & The New 52 (part 2 of 3)

In which the blogger continues the piece begun here. The reader might like to know that what follows was largely written in the period between Gail Simone being sacked and then rehired as the writer of Batgirl. The reader might also like to be warned that there's a limited degree of overlap between this post and yesterday's piece about Simon Baz, the new Green Lantern, given that both were concerned with the New 52; 

Little speaks as badly of DC as does the characters and themes which were abandoned when the New 52 was jerry-rigged into place. This is particularly true where the wiping from the slate of Secret Six and Oracle is concerned. In so conspicuously excluding both properties from the newly minted DCU, the reboot was revealed to be largely - if not exclusively - unconcerned with issues which might fail to play to the presumably conservative values and peculiarly constrained tastes of the targeted bloke-fan audience.

The company's lack of interest in representing the physically disabled, for example, can be noted not just in the reversion of Barbara Gordon to the guise of Batgirl, but from the absence of any new version of Oracle from the line in the 16 months since the New 52 began. There’s been more than enough time, you might imagine, to introduce another take on the concept, and it would hardly have been a difficult business to achieve. Just as a previously-unknown member of the Gordan clan was introduced to fulfil the by-the-numbers stereotype of a yawnsome family psychopath, so too could another sibling have been placed on the board to function as Oracle. Or, as is the way with the superhero book, any number of sub-genre tropes from clones to alt-world look-a-likes might have been put productively to work. But no, DC's concerns have quite transparently been elsewhere.

Indeed, there's an unpleasant irony in how the corporation's post-reboot books have so frequently focused on superheroes suffering extreme examples of body-horror while rarely experiencing any long-term physical or psychological after-effects at all. Writers such as Chuck Dixon and Gail Simone had worked with compassion, intelligence and insight so that Oracle's experiences might reflect both the reality of traumatic injury and the subsequent process of adaption and growth. DC now often appears to be knee-deep in gratuitous scenes of extreme physical anguish largely for the lad-thrilling hell of it. To even begin to list the super-people in the New 52 who've been impaled, stabbed or run right through would require a considerable post of its own. And though I may well have missed books which took the longterm mental and material consequences of such adversity seriously, those I have come across have typically shown few convincing repercussions at all. What mattered, it seems, was the shock and the gore, indulged in for their own sake without reference to any of the more human issues which might have been discussed. No surprise then that DC's output has seen such crass exploitation tactics increasing in number and scale. How else to keep the attention of an audience which has been so often encouraged to dwell on vicious spectacle far more than emotional substance? And where might such a process end up, given how swiftly desensitisation inevitably kicks in?

Secret Six once proved that the audience could be offered the most perverse and challenging of material while also being encouraged to both think and feel. Gail Simone’s purpose on the title was clear. Even as she was keen never to disguise how disordered and dangerous the Six were, and to do so in a form that was thoroughly entertaining, she always emphasised how damaged and tortured her anti-heroes were. In short, their inhumane acts were used to accentuate rather than diminish their humanity, and the worse they behaved, the more their kinship with the reader was emphasised. There but for the grace of God, ran the theme of Simone's tales, and they remain some of the most remarkable in the sub-genre's history.  For at the heart of the Six was a demand that the audience emphasise with characters they'd traditionally been encouraged to disdain, fear and loathe. Instead of simply being faced with the irredeemable, appalling Other, the reader was also made aware of the psychological disorders which stood between the Six and the possibility of their enjoying a more sane and meaningful existence. As such, Simone constantly returned to the debate between free will and determinism, and in doing so, took her stand against reactionary and callously over-simplified attitudes to punishment and control. Where so many superhero books have implied that death is the only possible solution to the well-nigh uncontrollable killing sprees of super-psychopaths, Simone's work on the Secret Six argued that crime is a far more complex and challenging business than that.

Just in case I'm not making myself clear here; Of course, explicit body-horror isn't incompatible with moving, enjoyable, ethical storytelling. Nor should spectacle be considered the opposite quality to substance, as if the two can't work to their mutual advantage. As in Batgirl, fingers can be removed, captives mutilated and abdomens stabbed in such a way as to enhance rather than diminish the emotional and moral content of the work, as we'll discuss in the last part of this post.
In the long months since the Six’s cancellation, the Bat-books alone have played host to a range of deadly, torturing, almost-unrestrainable, often-interchangeable psychopaths. From young mister Gordon himself to numberless Owls, from the Joker to Professor Pyg, Gotham City has been constantly terrorised by cureless, conscienceless maniacs. Though some of the stories have been better than others, the cumulative effect is as enervating as it's distasteful.  Few of these tales have focused on the raising of any ethical issues at all. In their so-often desperate rush to bad-ass the reader into buying the next issue, the image of criminal as well-nigh unstoppable Other has been placed at the centre of events. Where once the superhero helped society keep order, now society is so powerless, incompetent and corrupt that it relies upon costumed crimefighters simply to maintain an nightmarish state of constant insecurity and terror. In this, little has apparently often mattered on the page beyond the piling on of an excesses of fear and violence seasoned with a few laddish sniggers. As such, the sight of Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason ending a chapter of the current Joker crossover with Bruce Wayne expressing his love and pride for his son seems far more shocking - and welcome - than have any of the Event's many bleak and grimy headline atrocities.

As if attending to the paranoid fantasies of readers who believe that the world really is out to get them, and that no form of society can either enrich their lives or protect their interests, one thinly-drawn child of Lecter after another has stalked Gotham. Of course, such figures free the tale's heroes from a great deal of the need to reflect anything other than the bloody-handed, self-pitying conventions of frontier justice. Innocents can be wounded and slaughtered, tearful heroes can be punctured and swear righteous vengeance, and heroic punishment can be meted out. But then, that's what the New 52 has so often celebrated, with its Bat-books often seeming to portray a permanently traumatised America, where anything is permissible in order to protect the poor pathetic citizenry against the endless hordes of insane master-killers.

to be concluded;


  1. I was watching Lois and Clark recently, and there was a joke where Lois is in Smallville and explaining what a fax machine was to Clark's parents, and this triggered me recalling all the horror stories of writers being sacked by fax and latterly via email at DC, and I am now utterly fascinated by the thought of how DC editorial would have fired employees before the advent of these distant and faceless technologies as they would have had to do it to someone's face. A hand-written note, perhaps, or skywriting, or a door-to-door singing minstrel?
    Then it struck me that there are actually much fewer such stories before the age of the fax and the email. Weird, huh? It's almost like technology had to be invented to accommodate the cowardice.

    I will be a little controversial here and say that I prefer Babs as Batgirl more than I do Oracle. Anyone could be Oracle, but there's decades of media and a string of z-list replacements playing musical chairs with her cowl testifying to the fact that only Babs can be Batgirl*.

    I do feel your pain as regards the Bat-books, too, and find it disappointing - but probably telling - that they're collected in jumbo-sized anthologies and sold in Tesco and WH Smiths alongside the Beano and Doctor Who Adventures.

    * apart from the Batman and Robin movie and the Birds of Prey tv series. I am one of the few who actually liked Batman and Robin for its brash cheek in trying to be an unpretentious child's film with a good heart after nearly a decade of po-faced self-parody, but even so, Batgirl was rubbish. Birds of prey was not a good tv show - let us simply leave that one where it is.

    1. Hello Brigonos:- "It's almost like technology had to be invented to accomodate the cowardice."

      Your point is well-made. The sheer callousness of the act, and of others which were discussed by professionals in its wake in places such as Twitter, is hard to come to terms with.

      I can see why Barbara Gordon would get your thumbs up as Batgirl. The Killing Joke - and the decision to place it in continuity - is the inciting incident of this long running comics-tragedy. Everything after that is an attempt to shove back the - let's be kind - miscalculation into the box.

      But there was no reason why Batgirl and Oracle couldn't co-exist. As I blethered on about in the above, there's any number of ways in which that could have been made to happen. It's that decision - and the fact that it's been held to - that makes the whole situation so - let's be kind - distasteful.

      I share your concern at those Batman reprint titles, which are indeed being flogged next to a host of kid's titles. Everytime I see them next to Thundercats, the Beano and the like, I want to move them up a shelf. At the least.

    2. Oh, I certainly take your point that there are storytelling outs and ways to have and eat the Batgirl/Oracle cake in a single continuity at the same time, but then they would lose part of the hook of the new/old Batgirl: every time there's a crossover event, there's always that carrot of crippling the character again to dangle as a potential sales gimmick in front of the rubes.

      Cynical of me, I know, but... tell me I'm definately wrong, Colin. I would certainly like to be.

    3. Hello Mr Brigonos:- You are often a remarkably cynical chap, but that doesn't mean - of course - that you're often wrong. But oh dear, your point is worryingly plausible where the corporate chain-of-command is concerned. I'd love to say that the corporation has shown itself above such a calculation, and yet ... well, it hasn't, has it? For all that there are good and able creators and editors at DC, there's been so many poor and indeed unethical decisions that've been made that I'd struggle to reject your suspicion out of hand.

      Mind you, I do have every faith that Ms Simone wouldn't tell such a story without making it work in an ethical, moving fashion. But based on all that we've seen, I don't trust everyone in the chain of command with such a degree of faith.

  2. Like you, my chief complaint with the New 52 is not the prevalence of shock and gore, but rather the sheer dissonant artlessness with which they are typically delivered. The line-wide tendency toward atrocity seems to also come with an irritating squeamishness about its presentation, and so each comic exists in a strange, absurd realm where a severed arm is business as usual but an f-bomb is beyond imagination. This is the age of the Human Centipede, DC -- the age of the internet! Who are you trying to protect?

    I would like to offer a note of praise, however: Death of the Family has proven a reasonably enjoyable read thus far, although I've taken pains to avoid ancillary titles like NIGHTWING and BATGIRL. Despite its prelude, The Removal of the Joker's Face (which I found disgusting more for its narrative randomness than its ostensible physical grotesquery) Snyder and Tomasi have done a solid job at bringing real depravity and horror to the Batman titles, with B&R #15 an impressive standout.

    I concede this sort of thing may not be for everyone, but I would offer a point of nuance in suggesting that the nature of the Batman makes him uniquely well-suited for this sort of nastier fare -- he does live, after all, in a city named Gotham. That said, Death of the Family strikes me as simultaneously a compelling example of how shock and gore can be done well, and a compelling argument for why it should not be done universally.

    -- Jacob

    1. Hello J:- I'm so pleased to read your comment, and to know that I did succeed in expressing the fact that it's not the - as you say - artless spectacle so much as the lack of substance than I struggle with.

      You do put your finger on one of the New 52's main problems in your last sentence. Even if it is credited that the Bat-books are suited to this particular kind of psycho-drama with this degree of gruesomeness, there's no reason why so much else of line has to share it's storytelling style and shock/horror! content. The homogenisation of the New 52 in terms of style and content is a ridiculous conceit, and there's no surprise that sales outside the major franchises are generally - if not exclusively - doing poorly.

      I had the same response to the Joker-face tale as you did, but then, I've enjoyed Tomasi's Batman & Robin too. By which I mean, even within the Bat-books, there's a range of approaches and differing degrees of achievement. Yet so many titles sharing so much of the same faux-dark approach ... It strikes me that there's a particularly narrow niche being targetted here, and as a business as well as an artistic enterprise, I can't see any value to it beyond the next quarter's profits.

      But I do agree that the Bat-books are more than capable of featuring such bleak fare. Not every book, every month, sharing the same basic paradigm. And I do wish that society's members and institutions were portrayed as something other than helpless, useless, actively incompetent or even malicious.

      But then, we're back to where we started from! There's nothing to stop a comic being filled with all the darkness in the world and still being well-worth the reading. But pulling that trick off is far more demanding a task than many folks at the corporation appear to grasp.

  3. Sergeant Hartman1 January 2013 at 10:44

    Not much more I can add to what's already been said, but I will say that all of these tawdry tales of graphic violence and sexuality that we've seen in the New 52 thus far remind me a lot of the 90s Image comics. I guess that should come as no surprise considering that Jim Lee is now Co-Publisher at DC.

    I don't think its all cynical to assume that DC would compromise artistic integrity for the sake of a finite sales increase. They've proven time and time again that they are more than willing to do so.

    1. Hello Sergeant Hartman:- That link between the current DC and Image during its first few years is a worrying one, isn't it? In particular, it seems to suggest that influential folks at DC believe that the first wave of Image books lost their readers solely because the books didn't come out regularly enough. Because where a great many of the New 52 is concerned, there's little that's different beyond frequency of publication.

      Oh, dear.

    2. Sergeant Hartman1 January 2013 at 12:03

      Its particularly bothersome because Jim Lee and Bob Harras (who just got promoted to SVP) are two of the chief culprits that helped bring about the near destruction of the comic book industry in the 90s. I haven't seen anything thus far that would suggest that these two gentleman have learned from their mistakes during that era.

    3. Hello Sergeant Hartman:- It's worth saying that Jim Lee sells comics by the shed-load. His very presence on a title ensures that it's a best-seller. And he has had one best-seller after another for DC. By which I mean, if there was a desire to create a line of comics which predominantly - if not exclusively - followed a particular blueprint, Jim Lee would probably be your choice as ur-artist. I struggle with his art, I fear, but I can see why he's held in such exceedingly high esteem. (He's also spoken highly of by the likes of Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill as a boss too.)

      Do I enjoy seeing a DC which appears to have Jim Lee's style as one of its key influences, just as Geoff Johns scripting style is? Nope. I'd rather the thousand flowers bloomed etc etc. But I can see why he has such a prominent place, and degree of influence, over DC.

  4. Sergeant Hartman1 January 2013 at 15:09

    Oh I don't deny that his art sells comics, but from what I've observed of him throughout the last 20 years or so, he's not a true visionary and is ill-suited for the position that he's in. He also seems to have a fundamental misunderstanding of some of DC's most iconic characters (he once suggested that Superman's relationship with Lois Lane was no more significant to the character's narrative than the length of his cape).

    After the sacrilege of Before Watchmen, I doubt that Alan Moore still thinks very highly of Mr. Lee. :)

    1. Hello Sergeant Hartman:- Good point about Before Watchmen! And I doubt it's helped Mr Lee's reputation to be so closely associated with DC during a period when its treatment of a considerable number of starff has been so poor.

      All I meant, however, was just to say that if a regime wanted to develop a narrow model of what styles drive sales, then Mr Lee would be a logical choice. Indeed, THE logical choice. Of course, the lack of logic lies in choosing to laud any one style when a greater range of them could and should have been pursued. Am I suggesting that Lee's style is in some way the house style for the New 52, as Kirby was for the first decade and so of Marvel? Well, if it's not, a great many folks at DC are accidentally and coincidentally converging at a take on Lee's style.

  5. Bringing Barbara Gordon back as Batgirl strikes me as the righting of a great wrong from the past. Between -A Killing Joke- and -Watchmen-, if Alan Moore is the great genius some people say he is, then he used his genius for evil. Those two books sum up what's gone wrong with the genre.

    It's too bad that the rest of the 'new' DC universe continues Moore's legacy of gore and deconstruction all too eagerly.

    1. Hello Steve:- I think I'll have to respectfully disagree with you here. If a way had been found to bring Batgirl back without wiping Oracle from the continuity, then I'd have been happy to see it done. The choice between righting a wrong to a fictional character and removing a character who represents important issues of social justice is no choice at all where I'm concerned. Yet, of course, I fully understand that my opinion there is exactly that and nothing more.

      I am however with you that The Killing Joke was in many ways a badly misjudged book, and nowhere more so than with the shooting of Ms Gordan. Yet Moore always had problems with Batman. Elsewhere, much of his work for DC ranks amongst the very best that the company has ever produced. As for gore, I see little evidence of it, and where it can be seen, it nearly always an exceptionally good reason to be there. Perhaps you might enjoy - if you haven't already - Moore's various Superman tales, which are to an story warm-hearted, inspiring and touching.

      That the new 52 has shown itself constantly capable of using Moore's work in an soulless and exploitative fashion is, I think, no reflection on the Bard of Northampton himself.