52: Real-time comics

What do a drunken ex-cop, a social crusader with no face, the ruler of a Middle Eastern nation, a grieving detective, a man from the future and a moral scientist have in common?  52, that’s what.  Read on… 

I am a comic geek.  I try to appear terribly literary and cultured, trotting off to Shakespeare plays and reading eclectic European novels from time to time, but I also have a fondness for the adventures of people with fantastical powers and costumes.  Greek gods are the acceptable face of this joy, super-heroes not so acceptable to the world at large.  And do you know what?  I don’t care!  They’re often silly, often soapy, often stretch the suspension of disbelief to breaking point and beyond, but I like comics (both super-heroic and otherwise) and I don’t need to justify it.

Instead, I shall witter briefly about 52, one of my current most-anticipated reads.  I’ve mentioned it before, as it is the comic where the ludicrously controversial Batwoman is to make her debut.  52 is a real-time comic, or as real-time as it can get (like 24).  An issue comes out each week, and each covers a week of time, so by the end, a year will have gone by in the ‘DC Universe’.  The comic features oodles of characters, but focuses on the 6 second-string folk I listed in the first paragraph, with sidebars on others such as a depressed roboticist and a lost space-farer seeking his way home.  Their stories are mostly separate, but occasionally overlap (like Lost).  It really is quite unlike anything else attempted in comics before.  It’s a grand experiment and a big risk that could have been either wonderful or terrible.

Thus far, eight weeks in, it’s wonderful, in my view.  It’s written by committee, but you’d never know it, and the main characters are better developed than most denizens of the fists and spandex world.  Few of them are admirable, but they are all intriguing.  How far will Black Adam, ruler of Kahndaq, go to keep his country safe?  Has someone really found a way to bring Ralph Dibny’s beloved wife back from the dead?  How low can Booster Gold or Renee Montoya sink?  And as Dr Irons gains super-powers, how does this affect his relationship with his niece?  There are hints of big super-heroic splashy things to come, and there have been some ‘whoa’ moments, but it’s mostly about the characters, giving us a perspective on the world of superheroes that I’d like to see more of. 

What I particularly like is the glimpses of what it’s like to live alongside the larger-than-life heroes and villains of the world.  Montoya is a refugee from one of my favourite comics, Gotham Central, a recently-cancelled series about the Gotham City police force, where Batman was at best a supporting character.  This sort of thing is great.  I like real people looking in on the world of near-gods, which is probably why I enjoyed the recent Doctor Who episode, ‘Love and Monsters’ with Marc Warren, so much.  Real people, with real drama, with the extraordinary people as catalyst.

52 is a great experiment, and at the moment I’m loving it.  A great high-concept, thus far executed really well.  It won’t be collected into bookshelf-sized volumes until it finishes next May, but it’s a great read.  It probably wont turn you on to comics if you don’t like the things (Strangers in Paradise, Fables or Sandman are much more likely bets for that), but in its own way, it’s something a bit different, and things being a bit different tends to make me happy.  I assume I’m not the only one.

  1. OK, you’ve sold it to me. Must… seek…. 52…..

    There’s a brilliant comic shop in front of the British Museum, so this shall not in any way be an epic quest. Almost disappoining.

    I love Sandman. And League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. And otherwise I am really rather ignorant and must remedy this forthwith because I think comics really are the great forgotten art form.

    And I have degrees and Shakespeare and eclectic novels all over my living-room. I firmly believe, the more literary and cultured you are, the more you can appreciate Good Stuff wherever you find it. It’s like all the fuss people used to make in the 1930’s when they discovered all these Great Scientists and University Professors absolutely adored detective novels, then regarded as cheap trashy entertainment for the masses. Why do the brightest like trash? Maybe… it’s not trash….

    I think a lot of people ‘dis’ comics out of sheer insecurity. They daren’t look because they assume it makes them seem childish or not-very-clever, and so to make themselves feel better they put something else down. I remember when I was discovering Sandman (which, incidentally, has some fantastic riffs on Shakespeare, here and there – but you knew that) some Relatives Who Shall Be Nameless practically accused me of having pretended to be clever up until that point, because anyone enjoying a comic [Graphic Novel – Ed] can’t possibly be clever. And there I sat, surrounded by the paraphernalia for my MA, for which I had won a bursary, clearly, by being very stupid and shallow REALLY. [Vanity, thy name is Reed. Done boasting? – Ed]

    It’s too hot for much in the way of tea or coffee. So I am having real trouble subduing the Editor. Or myself. This HAS been a long rant hasn’t it? I’ll take myself off now to explore the possibilities inherent in iced lattes.

  2. I hope you like it. Please don’t kill me if you don’t. I reckon you’d get a kick out of Fables (which is ‘what if all the characters from fairy tales had to escape to our world and live in hiding?’) and Rex Libris (a kick-ass librarian). I *love* League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (try Watchmen, another great Alan Moore thingummy!), but the film version was such a disappointment. And the Midsummer Night’s Dream issue of Sandman is one of my favourite single issues ever.

    The way to tell a good comic shop is by what the staff will suggest to you – if they actually listen to what you like and dislike, they’ll find something that you’ll love. If not, they’ll just point you in the direction of something that’s currently ‘hot’. ‘Hot’ can sometimes be ‘good’,but is more often just ‘fun’ Not that ‘fun’ can’t be ‘good’…

    • Phil
    • July 4th, 2006

    Hmmm. I really must get round to reading Watchmen (and probably V for Vendetta as well).
    As was sung a long time ago now “Alan Moore knows the score”.

  3. Which reminds me…I’ve never read V for Vendetta. I really ought to correct that oversight! I deliberately avoided the film so that it wouldn’t spoil anything, and then I forgot to read it anyway…

    • Claire
    • July 4th, 2006

    Well, I seem to be unable to stop myself putting in my two pennies worth (if it is actually even worth that much!) so I must tell you the only comics/graphic novels I have ever read are Maus and a couple of Terry Pratchett things turned into graphic novels. Although I did used to read copies of my brother’s Eagle comics when I was younger – they were a bit bloodthirsty for my liking though, and not sure if they are they fall into the same category as the things you’re talking about.

    Husband knows more about these things and has read Sandman and V for Vendetta, which he recommends. He also says “Alan Moore is well good”.

    • Alexander
    • July 4th, 2006

    I’m happy that 52 is getting some love here, I find it’s far more exciting and well written that a lot of monthly or quarterly comics are (having Grant Morrison aboard helps sell it to me too).

    If you haven’t read it already, I would also highly recommend Planetary, by Warren Ellis. It has some similarity with Moore’s League of… but instead of literature it features comic book and pulp novel characters. The art, by John Cassaday is wonderful too.

    Back to 52 for a moment, if anyone hasn’t come across it already, there is an excellent blog that provides notes and analysis. It’s updated weekly too! here’s the link: http://52-pickup.blogspot.com/

  4. Claire – I’ve still got your/hubby’s copy of Maus. I must finish that and get it back to you. It’s wonderful, but a bit harrowing due to subject matter.

    Alexander – Planetary certainly appeals, but has somehow passed me by. I’m not a fan of The Authority, which could be why.

    I rather like the 52 tie-in web-site, with the mockups of Daily Planet stories etc. It hasn’t been updated recently, though. Boo. 😦 http://www.52thecomic.com

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