Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Retro Review: Fifty-Two

Ten years ago this week, DC launched 52, something longer than a miniseries but with a definite end built right into its short title. The title and concept of 52 play back on itself in a variety of ways. The series ran 52 issues in 52 weeks, from May 2006 until the same month in 2007. The number itself occurred many times within the story, often as an Easter egg for its own sake, but ultimately as a clue to a mystery. After DC had shown a propensity for delays on other, more modest, projects, the idea of a weekly series with several collaborating writers seemed like an unrealistic goal, but 52 came out on time each and every week, a creative success in each of its separate subplots.

52 was built on an unusual base of concepts: It was set in the year immediately after Infinite Crisis and was given sole power to tell the tale of that year, with all other DC comics skipping ahead "One Year Later." Consequently, it seemed that any monthly comic might contain spoilers for 52, but that seems to have been prevented either by good preparation or the simple fact that 52 and its four writers – Grant Morrison, Geoff Johns, Greg Rucka, and Mark Waid – focused on minor characters who didn't headline in the monthlies.

The stars of the main subplots of 52 were as follows:

• Animal Man, Starfire, and Adam Strange
• The Question, Renee Montoya, and Batwoman
• Black Adam and Isis
• Will Magnus and other prominent scientists
• Booster Gold, Skeets, and his rival, Supernova
• Ralph Dibny
• Steel and Lex Luthor

Effectively, DC got a tremendous proportion of readers to buy about seven full issues' worth of material concerning each of those subplots, something that could not possible have been achieved by scripting and publishing the stories separately: Imagine how few readers would buy a seven-issue Elongated Man series.

So, initially, it seemed to cynics like a sales job based on promises: A series so central to DC's plots that readers would feel compelled to read it, but based on unimportant characters and the seemingly imminent risk of failed deadlines. The result, however, was a delight: The quartet of writers and their army of artists managed to hit every deadline, and the stories were without exception worth reading. 52 made a collection of minor characters worth reading about with the most important element in fiction – engaging, original storytelling, full of surprises. Each subplot in 52 was something more than it seemed to be; someone – usually more than one someone – was involved in deception, and the stakes were always bigger than they seemed to be. What seemed at the outset to be sullied and selfish motives ultimately proved selfless. Time and time again, 52 took the high road, giving each of its constituent stories another level than first impressions seemed to indicate.

In retrospect, 52 employed somewhat of a formula across most of its plots. There were characters who seemed good but had a hidden evil identity in at least five of the plots: Black Adam's stepbrother was befriended by an anthropomorphic alligator, Sobek, who stuttered and claimed to be fearful, but was really a murderous double agent for Intergang. The team of superheroes made by and working for Lex Luthor had one very bad egg in the form of Everyman, real name Hannibal, and like Dr. Lecter, a sociopathic cannibal. Dr. Cale, the beautiful blonde scientist who warms up to Will Magnus, was another double agent, loyal to Apokolips. Two plots have a golden toaster-sized traitor: Doctor Fate's helmet is actually Felix Faust, intent on stealing Ralph Dibny's soul; and, Booster Gold's sidekick Skeets has been taken over by Mister Mind. Other deceptions abound: Lobo pretends to be living according to a vow of nonviolence, but he breaks this vow three times, twice by design. Supernova, a hero who fills the void left by Superman, is actually the very man he seems to antagonize, Booster Gold. And, the ongoing mystery of what the Question plans for Renee Montoya is resolved when she – and we – find out that the Question intends for her to become the new Question after her death.

The pattern of deceptions across every plot in 52 plays into the larger pattern of sneak attacks, common to many Morrison stories in the decade after 9/11. Enemies who could not overpower their foe directly set up plans that come crashing into them when they're least expected, perhaps most shockingly when Sobek tricks his "friend" Osiris into saying the magic words that remove his superpowers, then crunches into his flesh with powerful jaws, killing him in his moment of vulnerability. In this subplot, evil plans come to fruition, but in the two subplots, the savvy heroes have prepared counter-sneak attacks of their own, just as the Seven Soldiers and Batman do in Morrison's other works. Ralph Dibny deduces early on that "Doctor Fate" is not what he seems to be, and plans a very clever sacrifice that cheats not only the magician, but also the Devil himself (in this case, Neron). At the end, we learn that the gun that Ralph pointed at himself in issue #1 fired wishes, not bullets, and that the flask he kept sipping from held power-giving gingold, not liquor. Rip Hunter intervenes to give Booster Gold the tip-off he needs to outwit Mister Mind, so the two of them can save the Multiverse. In the other plots, the heroes have to work hard to make up for their unpreparedness, and they manage to salvage the situation after initial setbacks.

The big plot, covering most but not all of the subplots, is that Intergang is preparing an era of crime on Earth, serving their dark lord, Darkseid. They win a few skirmishes in 52, leading to millions of deaths, but, obviously, fail to achieve the victory they seek, but we know by story's end that they lurk in the shadows, and have something else planned. Separate from that main plot is the impending threat of Lady Styx, an interstellar bringer of death who is killed by Lobo, but only temporarily. Distinct from all of that is the return of the Multiverse, and the immediate threat to it posed by Mister Mind. Along the way, 52 makes some big changes to the DCU, killing Vic Sage and Ralph Dibny, depriving Black Adam from his powers, and giving us a new Batwoman.

Another Morrisonian device is the way that Mister Mind is ultimately defeated: Rip Hunter and Booster Gold send him back in time, where, in his larval stage, he meets up, seemingly haphazardly, with Sivana, who imprisons and torments him. This is stunningly parallel to what happens at the end of Return of Bruce Wayne, in which Batman and his allies – including Booster and Rip – put the Hyper-Adapter into a time machine and send it into the past, where it is vanquished by a familiar DC villain, Vandal Savage. Other time loops bring Ralph Dibny back to his wife's death and Booster Gold back to the day he meets his best friend, Ted Kord. There is also a considerable parallel between All-Star Superman and the Steel-Luthor subplot, with a superpowered Lex Luthor being defeated at the end by someone in Metropolis who out-thinks him, turns off his powers, and then punches him out. The abundance of Morrisonian patterns in 52 suggests that he had more influence on the plotting than his 25% share of the staff might seem to imply.

The stories make use of other literary reference: the three lost space travelers are on a journey home like the Odyssey, with lotus-eating, a Cyclops (the Emerald Head of Ekron), and a suitor (the unspectacular Roger) wooing Animal Man's wife, Ellen. The Four Horsemen constructed by Intergang obviously come from the Book of Revelation, as echoed in the Crime Bible. And DC lore is mined quite effectively in the small details everywhere, with Isis being adapted from the 1970s Saturday morning live action show, the new Batwoman being related ("Kate the younger") to the 1950s Batman love interest, Supernova being adapted from an alternate identity of Superman back in World's Finest #178, and a depowered Clark Kent jumping from a window in order to get a scoop a la Lois Lane.

Though 52 is devoted to the minor characters, DC's stars cross the stage in cameos, with Clark Kent, Diana Prince, and Bruce Wayne all making appearances, the last of those very key as a prequel to Morrison's Batman run. The JSA, the Green Lanterns, and a wide sweep of other major heroes all play a role here and there. Though it's an excellent thing to read now, unusual as a work of that length with a pre-planned beginning and end, it was scripted to suit the needs of its times, launching the post-Infinite Crisis DCU with panache and intrigue. And, just as 52 begins quite literally in the wreckage left by Infinite Crisis, it drops ominous clues to something coming down the road, something that would prove to be Final Crisis.

52 was an impressive accomplishment, one that was extended, but poorly, into another yearlong series, Countdown, which mirrored its structure (weekly issues for a year; leading into, rather than out from, a crisis), and counting down just as 52 counted up. But the success of 52 was not repeated then, nor has that format been repeated since. 52 was a singular thing, a start and a finish, with the final panels of both its first and last issues asking the reader, "Are you ready?"


  1. Great review! I am big fan of this series and had so much fun with it as it was coming out. I think I have a lot of fond feelings for this era of DC.
    This story worked really well and DC tried to replicate the success many times over but never hit the heights '52' did (in my opinion). Other weekly series like Trinity or Batman Eternal felt longer than the actual story warranted. New 52 Futures End felt completely pointless except for the plot detail involving Braniac. Brightest Day left me disinterested and the series' plot went basically no where since the DCU was rebooted shortly thereafter with Flashpoint. Countdown to Final Crisis is such a mess that I think I have come to actually enjoy it, in the same way one might enjoy Troll 2 or a similar really bad movie.
    '52' felt to me like the DCU was full of unlimited possibilities and amazing concepts, and that it was the start of an even more interconnected universe. I loved trying to figure out the mysteries with my friends and was proud of myself for deducing Supernova's identity early on. The tpb's for this series are wonderful in that they provide writer's commentary after each chapter, an awesome and insightful bonus that I wish was featured in more tpb collections!

  2. That's a good list of comparable stories, Jonny. I was acutely aware of Countdown, which had the same numbering (in the opposite order) and immediately followed 52, but which disappointed on so many levels. Of the ones you mentioned, Brightest Day is the one I really liked – even though it gained perhaps its greatest interest by serving as a sequel to Blackest Night, which was itself a better story.

    Kudos for figuring out Supernova's identity… I can't even document what I was thinking about it at the time, but I don't think I was on the right track there.

  3. Rikdad -- Yes, "52" was a rare success in weaving intricate subplots into a greater thread in long-form fashion. Heck, there are six-part stories that can't achieve that.

    The measure of the success of the storytelling is that I can still recall at least 12-15 distinct powerful moments that left me thinking, "Wow." Sobek's betrayal stands out the most, obviously, but I enjoyed the end of what I believe was issue #19 when it is revealed that "Skeets" is evil and it flies off saying of Rip Hunter, "He knows." It was a cinematic moment, scripted and paced perfectly for maximum impact. The game had changed.

    I suspect the reason we don't have more such collections in our archives is that the four writers amounted to the comics equivalent of The Beatles. (Morrison as Lennon? Waid as McCartney?) That much talent and distinct vision staying together for a long period and meshing their energies really paid off.

    The week after "52" ended, I sensed its absence at the shop. What a great ride.

  4. MWTE,

    Indeed, Sobek's portrayal is "the" moment of the series. Ralph Dibny's grand reversal vs. Felix Faust and Neron was perhaps second. The reveal of 52 universes coming out of Infinite Crisis was spoiled about a week early, in an editorial column by Dan Didio.

    And, the "He knows" you cite is yet another Morrisonian touch – that's exactly what the White Martian says regarding Superman deducing their identity in "New World Order."

    Likening those four writers to the Beatles is a nice comparison. Rucka did some great stuff with the Batwoman side of things, and I really liked his Final Crisis: Revelations.

  5. I loved 52. It amazed me from week to week. On an specific point, when you think about Everyman it surprises me than nobody then even mentioned than his name was composed by the name of two well known fictional killlers: Hannibal (Lecter) and (Norman) Bates. Not one even pointed on that quality.

  6. Great point, Alvaro – I noticed Hannibal, but not Bates. Morrison used Norman Bates in Arkham Asylum, which should have made it even more obvious.

    The clue that seems most obvious to me on re-reading it is that Ralph Dibny keeps drinking from a flask… that had a fantastic payoff when he suddenly exhibits his stretching powers in the final showdown. I loved it.

    Everyman's sinister disguises are definitely impactful, as well, and remind me of John Carpenter's The Thing.

  7. A pattern that I hadn't noticed before: Morrison has sent at least *three* villains back in time where they are promptly defeated:

    Mr. Mind in "52" (captured by Sivana).
    Vandal Savage in DC One Million (nuked by an atomic blast first shown earlier in the same story; being immortal, he would survive, but it has to hurt).
    The Hyper-Adapter in Return of Bruce Wayne (killed by Vandal Savage).

    Perhaps there's an even bigger pattern behind these, or more instances that I'm not thinking of.

  8. Grant Morrison is a time-obsessed writer and thinker. He also does interesting things when HEROES go back in time.

    "Final Crisis" to Batman 702 to "The Return of Bruce Wayne" is the most obvious example. Batman more or less goes back in time and creates his own myth.

    There's Justice Legion A, which goes back for ostensibly meaningful reasons (celebrating the emergence of Superman-Prime from the sun)yet runs into betrayal and a centuries-long plot before the day is saved.

    Many are simpler: Billy Batson warns the himself of one day earlier of Dr. Sivana's threat in Multiversity, for instance.

    And then there is the time-shifting of Dr. Carter Nichols in Batman 700, one of the most complex stories Morrison ever told, since so much happens "off screen." A key moment is the good doctor going back in time to make a phone call to the Gotham PD.

    This would be even more interesting if Joe Kelly's "Obsidian Age" were a Morrison story. I'd like to think Kelly had some Morrisonian inspiration as he sat down to sketch out his own time-spanning epic.

  9. MWTE,

    The list of heroes and Morrisonian time travel is a good one; nice catch on several of the relatively obscure ones, and a reminder that all of those are worth another look. (I just read DC One Million last week, as it happens.)

    The bullet in Final Crisis is an inanimate object that underwent a time loop. Perhaps there are others.