Tuesday, March 06, 2012

The Problem With Earth-2

Over the last week or so, DC has been releasing various teases regarding its upcoming series, Earth 2. I think it’s safe to say that it’s not what anybody expected. Thinking about that fact got me thinking about the concept of Earth-2, where it came from, what it’s for, and what the brand (because, it seems, everything is a brand now) means to the audience. All that thinking, combined with the teaser material, has led me to a conclusion:

This book’s gonna be a tough sell.

That’s not a knock at the creative team, James Robinson and Nicola Scott (although Robinson’s own brand still hasn’t recovered from the backlash against Cry For Justice). It’s not a knock against the concept of doing an Earth 2 book, either. Heck, it’s not even a knock against the material released in the teasers. (Although, full disclosure, it doesn’t look like my kind of comic.) It’s an acknowledgment that, like the title says, there’s a problem with Earth-2, an obstacle to its success in the modern market. It’s one step up from the elephant in the room, because people do talk about it, but they either gloss it over or treat it as the opposite; not a bug, but a feature. And it has played a major part in the success of the concept over the years. But it’s still there. DC’s definitely trying to address it in the new series, but it’s those very attempts that lead me to believe that this book is going to have a hard time attracting a readership.

OK, so enough being coy. What’s the problem, you say? The problem is this: Earth-2 is inexorably tied to the Golden Age of Superhero Comics. That’s roughly 1938-1949, depending on who you ask. It covers all the original superheroes, teams like the JSA and the Seven Soldiers of Victory, WWII, etc. After the war, interest in superheroes waned, and the adventures of the original Flash, Green Lantern, Atom, and their buddies eventually ceased.

Nobody then ever called it Earth-2, though, or any other Earth. That came later, with the Silver Age, when DC (then National Comics) first introduced new versions of the Golden Age characters they had the rights to, with new secret identities, origins, and costumes. Then, in what was probably intended as a cute little one-off, had the new guys meet their old counterparts. Where did those counterparts live? Earth-2, an alternate universe from the one presented in the new titles. The new guys lived on Earth-1, and every so often, the heroes would cross over from one universe to another (hence the term) and share an adventure. And over the years, DC added other Earths, with other old heroes they acquired as those companies went out of business (sometimes as the direct result of DC’s actions, as with Fawcett and the Marvel Family). But we’ll set them aside for now, and focus on Earth-2 and its problem.

When Earth-2 was created, you see, the Golden Age fans were still around. That was why Earth-2 was created in the first place: To give those fans a wink and a nod, saying that their old pals were still out there somewhere, fighting the good fight. Predictably, those fans ate it up, and a new publishing niche within National was born. Time may have dwindled the numbers of the Golden Age fandom, but not their enthusiasm. One of them, Rascally Roy Thomas himself, even brought in new generations of fans with books like All-Star Squadron and Infinity, Inc., telling the untold history of Earth-2 and bringing it into the modern day with new heroes, the sons, daughters, and sometimes just copycats of the originals.

Then Crisis on Infinite Earths happened, and Earths 1 & 2 (along with several others) got combined. This actually didn’t affect the Earth-2 characters all that much; it just turned out that Jay Garrick and Barry Allen had been sharing the name of Flash ever since Barry got his powers. Even characters like Power Girl (the Earth-2 Supergirl) and Huntress (daughter of Earth-2 Batman and Catwoman) stuck around, getting new origins and identities. Even without Earth-2, its focus on the heritage of the original superheroes remained. Indeed, that was the hook, from the continued adventures of Infinity, Inc. up through the JSA title of the last decade.

With this new title, though, DC has the exact opposite: they have Earth-2, but they don’t have its hook. And that’s where the problem comes in. Up until now, they’ve sold the characters on their history. The part of the audience that cares about that history has been the solid core of the fanbase, and they just lost their reason to be reading. There’s a Jay Garrick in the new Earth 2 book, but he’s not the Jay Garrick they’re used to reading about, any more than the post-Crisis Huntress was Helena Wayne. (Oddly enough, the new-new Huntress is Helena Wayne, but not the same Helena Wayne she was pre-Crisis. And she won’t be in Earth 2.)

So the new Earth 2 is going to have to survive on its own merits. And that’s the tricky part. You see, to the audience outside the Golden Age fandom, these characters have always been “the other guys.” The other Flash, the other Green Lantern. Why read about them when the real guys are appearing in the real Flash and Green Lantern comics? They’ve always needed an extra hook to get interested, and they’ll need one now, too.

So what’s the hook? As of now, uncertain. DC appears to be selling the book as important to whatever big universe-spanning story they claim to be telling with this New 52 initiative. The fanboy core seems to go for that, but results vary. Some arms of the overplot they seem to like, others less so. I can’t find a pattern to it, but if DC thinks it has, more power to them. Beyond that, the message is muddled. Robinson and editorial seem to differ on the overall tone of the book – never a good sign – and the lack of a clear character or plot focus thus far is worrying. If this were 30-40 years ago, the book might be able to stand on quality alone, but in the current market, I’m left wondering just who they’re expecting to show up for this one.

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