Doomsday Clock #8, or, The Attic is Flooded

Spoilers ahead for Doomsday Clock #1-8

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KITTY CAT ATTACK

“Superman’s going to clear this all up and everything will be okay.”

“I can trust Superman, Professor. Because everyone can.”

“Superman speaks not for America, but for all people on this planet.”

Thus far, reading Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s DC Comics/Watchmen crossover Doomsday Clock has been akin to watching a slow leak steadily flood a subterranean house with an above-ground attic. As the DC Universe has steadily filled with increasingly dire, real-world horrors over the course of the series’ first seven issues only Superman has remained dry, above it all. But that leak has intensified in Doomsday Clock #8, with Syrian refugees, detained children and a war-declaring Vladimir Putin seeping into the DCU and finally, three quarters of the way through this sprawling event, Superman’s socks had been sufficiently soaked after fiery tempers and clumsy misunderstandings lead to tragedy in Russia.

At the end of last issue, after meeting with and being dejected by Doctor Manhattan, Ozymandias violently declared he could save everyone and everything. At the start of this issue we find him having broken into the oval office, absconding with mysterious files. Are Ozymandias’ actions here and his scheming in general to blame for Superman’s collapse into unforgiving grit and reality, or are his schemes still pending, desperate attempts at altering or avoiding the future Manhattan cannot seem to peer beyond?

And what of Manhattan’s machinations? He has references a cataclysmic moment in the future which he cannot see beyond. Does his “experiment” in the DCU seek to avoid or assure that moment? In Watchmen readers are led to believe Manhattan experiences all of time at once, but has no ability to affect or change it. That doesn’t seem to be the case within the DCU, but just how much more powerful has Manhattan become in burrowing into the less realistic DC Universe? And will the increasing realism the DCU is being subjected to in Doomsday Clock affect that power?

The clandestine actions, ambitions and motivations at play in Doomsday Clock #8 and the distressing outcome they bring about reflect some semblance of the weariness the series’ first issue conjured so well – a feeling of utter helplessness in the face of powers seemingly so beyond the scope of any single human being. Here, though, the dread of that first issue takes a backseat to confusion, as there is still so much yet to be divulged eve as we approach the story’s homestretch.

Every  issue of Doomsday Clock thus far has proven to be a delight to read and reread, but the pacing this far into the proceedings has left me wondering if this book’s finale will ultimately prove to be a prologue to something else, rather than a true ending.

Regardless, we seem at least to be taking definitive steps towards Manhattan’s (and marketing’s) promised brawl between himself and Superman. That that brawl’s apparent inciting incident only just now occurred, 75% of the way through the story, is perhaps perplexing, but nontraditional pacing has always fascinated me and Doomsday Clock is no exception. With the Man of Steel finally entering into the global discourse of the Supermen Theory fists first, it would appear the entire DCU has at last been flooded with the grit and grime of the Watchmen universe, closer to our world and its overwhelming problems and evils than ever. At last the stage is set.

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Doomsday Clock #7, or, That Sinking Feeling

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“Chaaaaaaapstick…”

At long last, on the outset of the back half of Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s Doomsday Clock, Doctor Manhattan has been revealed, as has the site of his intrusion into the DC Universe. In Doomsday Clock #7 we learn that in 1950, Manhattan moves a magical green lantern six inches, causing the death of the otherwise would-be original, mystical Green Lantern, Alan Scott and creating untold temporal ripples (a.k.a. The New 52) from there on out, to include some mysterious involvement with actor Carver Coleman.

The long awaited arrival of Doctor Manhattan did not disappoint, but I found the most fascinating aspect of Doomsday Clock #7 to be the exploration of Manhattan’s influence on the DCU (and thus the metatextual influence of Watchmen on DC Comics), through the juxtaposition of his effects on Batman and Superman. It’s an exploration that proves fascinating for Doomsday Clock, and conjures thematic tendrils between this DC Comics event and other recent and concurrent DC Comics events, namely Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Dark Nights: Metal and Tom King and Clay Mann’s Heroes in Crisis.

Throughout Doomsday Clock #7 we’re barraged by news footage from across the globe. Metahumans breaching international borders. Metahumans engaged in political espionage. Metahumans being called to task for the political implications of the actions of their peers. The real world, our world, has come to roost in the DCU as we’re given examples of superpowers being used not in the fantastic and colorful ways we might expect in a comic book, but in the calculating and cynical ways they might be applied here and now. Much like the multiverse being weighed down and sinking into the dark multiverse in Metal, here we’re shown what should be a resplendent comic book world sinking down to our level, as if Manhattan’s passage from his world to this one left a hole for the grit and grime of Watchmen to seep through and weigh down the fantastic, the spectacular, the astonishing.

Our heroes are being forced to grapple with issues not of their world, but of ours, not unlike the basis for the recently debuted Heroes in Crisis, in which the heroes of the DCU come face to face with the psychological effects a decades-long war on crime and villain might have on an individual.

As eluded to in previous issues, with the riots in Gotham and the familiar effigies burned in protest of the Supermen Theory, Batman is perhaps the most susceptible to Manhattan’s presence, just as the character within literature is one of the most susceptible to gritty aesthetics. It’s no coincidence that the first title released in DC’s new “mature-reader” line, Black Label, is a Batman book. Colorful as his 60s exploits may be, few characters can be counted on to slip into darkness and despair quite as reliably as Batman, and within his own universe he proves no different. As the ever-perceptive Ozymandias asserts, Batman is “the cornerstone of the ever-growing problem your world is being swallowed up by.”

Inversely, as that aforementioned barrage of news reports illustrates, Superman fares far better against Manhattan’s influence. Despite an increasingly-insular world closing its borders he still crosses them freely, his selfless actions speaking for themselves. He is globally trusted, that “S” still meaning something beyond any one flag. Where Batman is a character who almost insists on being dragged into the muck and filth of crime-infested allies, Superman is one who resists it without effort, simply by virtue of being a colorful boy scout. But, as Doctor Manhattan explains, “I saw a vision of the most hopeful among them. Heading toward me. Now hopeless.”

It appears there will come a time in the near future where even Superman falls to the imposing dread, fear and cynicism Manhattan and his source material represent.

Doomsday Clock #7 sets up the end game. A knock-down-drag-out brawl between an omnipotent infection that has influenced the DCU and DC Comics for decades and the original, septuagenarian Man of Tomorrow. And if Manhattan’s visions, or lack thereof, of the future are any indication, it will be a bout with wide-reaching effects on the DCU.

Doomsday Clock #1, or, True Grit

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That guy who’s way to excited for the Justice League movie.

When the intermingling of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s comic book classic Watchmen and the rest of the DC Comics universe was first teased last year in the comic DC Rebirth it was immediately framed as a battle between hope and grit, between the wholesome hope of old school Superman and the intellectual grit and despair of Doctor Manhattan. After 30 years, the Superman of yore was finally going to stick it to the grime and misery that has pervaded superhero comics since the heralded arrival of The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen and bring back hope and color and fun.

Enter last week’s Doomsday Clock #1, the first issue in the aforementioned crossover, written by Geoff Johns and illustrated by Gary Frank.

Much of the first issue of this twelve-issue limited series is concerned with setting up the status quo of the world of Watchmen after the events of the original series, and it’s a status quo that is a slog to internalize. Set in 1992, the world we’re shown in Doomsday Clock is a frightening one. It’s funhouse mirror reflection of our world today make it particularly upsetting and paranoia-inducing. I found myself becoming more worried about the real world and what could become of it while reading the pages of Doomsday Clock. And then I found myself wondering, “is this what it was like to read Watchmen in 1986?”

One of the first comic books I read, I encountered Watchmen on a summer vacation in 2008, after having seen the trailer for the then-upcoming film adaptation during repeated viewings of The Dark Knight. It blew me away and still does every time I read it, but for me it will always be something of a period piece. The world it satirizes and discusses is one that predates me and so while I can read it and understand that it is gritty and grim, that grit and grim has always been mostly aesthetic rather than directly indicative of the world around me.

And perhaps that’s the problem. Perhaps that’s why so many were quick to sick a colorful, smiling, curlicued Superman at the patient zero of grit and grime like a cheerful attack dog. Where the vein of bleakness in Watchmen was a direct reflection of the world that produced that work, in many works since then that darker tone has become an imitation of Watchmen itself, a reflection of a reflection that loses its poignancy somewhere between mirrors.

Doomsday Clock #1 isn’t the condemnation of grit some might have expected, rather it’s a recontextualization of it. A reminder of why Watchmen was the way it was. Doomsday Clock is more a reconstruction of the equation behind Watchmen than the end result. The darkness in this first issue isn’t an imitation of its predecessor, it’s an imitation of its own time and place, which makes it incredibly effecting.

As a reader, by the end of Doomsday Clock #1 I felt more concerned about the world than I had before I read it. That’s a vulnerable and unpleasant journey to be taken on by a story. After Doomsday Clock’s first steps I’m left to wonder about what I suspect will make or break this story: what will the issues to come do with the vulnerability the first issue elicits from me, and how authentically will it be done? One expects some semblance of hope to prevail, but would that hope ring as true as despair does here?

Classic funny books!

Justice League, or, Has Anyone Made a “League of Their Own” Joke Yet? There’s No Crime in Bat’s Hall? Something Like That? I Don’t Know.

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Batman v. All Kinds of Folks: Noon of Justice

“You’re not brave. Men are brave,” Batfleck told the Man of Steel in director Zack Snyder’s cumbersome Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. I hated that line. To me it had seemed the epitome of the over-the-top, macho bullshit Batman is always in danger of succumbing to in the wrong hands.

“You’re not brave. You’re a little boy. I’m a big strong man, because I’m tough and grim and that’s what a man is, and by the way I just discovered the work of Frank Miller.”
I walked out of Batman v. Superman angry. Not disappointed. Angry. But it stuck with me. It stuck with me and despite myself my mind would return time and time again to various moments throughout the film. I found myself considering it. Digesting it.

“You’re not brave. Men are brave.”

Macho bullshit, or theological outrage?

“You’re not brave. You’re a god. You don’t know fear and you don’t know bravery because you don’t know what it is to be human. You don’t know what it is to be fragile living in a world that can kill you by accident. You cannot save us from ourselves because you will never know what it is to be us. You’re doomed to frustration and failure. And what then?”

Zack Snyder’s superhero films have no interest in being the Marvelous “world outside your window.” They’re more attempts at reflecting Joseph Campbell’s monomyth against a battle of minds and souls and ideologies. Hefty stuff. A reach that neither Man of Steel or Dawn of Justice were able to close fingers around. But they were each a helluva reach.
Justice League doesn’t feel that way. Very much an empty bath tub, Justice League feels like a panicked response to the backlash against Dawn of Justice in which all of the tropes of a Snyder film were numbed, rather than just the problematic ones.

I often found myself frustrated with Snyder’s previous films because of the contrast between their best and worst moments, between their potential and their actuality, between the leap taken and the distance traveled. But Justice League feels like less of a leap than a hop, like Zack Snyder’s ambitions have finally started to bear the weight of critical reception.

A lot has been made of the possibility that Justice League would feel like a battle between two voices, Snyder’s and Joss Whedon’s, who was brought in to complete the film when Snyder dropped out for personal reasons. But the only tug of war I felt in the film was between the lofty, operatic vision of Snyder and a very corporate, frugal sense of uncertainty holding that vision back.

There’s the slimmest thread of Snyder’s ambitious storytelling here, a messianic thread that casts the five marketed Justice Leaguers as sort of apostles, with Ben Affleck’s Batman playing the role of a repentant betrayer trying to make good. At times the film very much feels like Man of Steel 3, a third act following that familiar but fascinating template of life, death and rebirth. But the scope of that narrative, which reigned unshackled in the two previous acts, is downplayed in Justice League.

There are also hints of Snyder’s more problematic tendencies. The film opens with a laughably bleak montage of a world without Superman, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that Snyder’s camera has less respect for Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman than Patty Jenkins’ did. But even these more irritating quirks are toned down. Peaks and valleys alike are buffered and filled in so that unchecked ambition is replaced by a sense of noncommittal, corporate safety.

Writing about Justice League I feel myself warming up to it, coming to terms with what it is rather than mourning what is isn’t. But I can’t shake the feeling (and it is just that, a feeling) that Snyder was reined in on this film because of the lackluster response to Dawn of Justice, and because of that it’s follow-up is, if not outright worse, at least exponentially less interesting.

The Late Scapegoat, or, The New 52: An Obit

DC Rebirth

I don’t know, some kind of sports joke or something?

The New 52 is dead. And it seems like some folks are celebrating.

The 2011 DC Comics publishing initiative more or less rebooted the entire line of comics back to issue #1. It was a pretty ballsy move, not because it reset the numbering of comic books that were on their nine hundredth plus issue, or because it retooled seventy plus years of continuity, but because with the New 52 DC Comics made an executive decision to make an appeal to prospective new readers rather than continuing to placate existing ones.

It’s a debatable decision. It’s easy to spin it as corporate interests turning their backs on longtime, loyal fans in favor of younger blood. Maybe that’s exactly what happened. But as the younger blood in question I can’t help but mourn the euthanizing of the New 52.

I read my first graphic novel well into my teens and dabbled in further readings once a summer or so until The Dark Knight trilogy concluded and I wanted more Batman. I read the pillars of Batman mythology before moving on to Superman books and then I found my way to Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern, which got me hook, line and sinker, so much so that when I caught up on the trade paperbacks I couldn’t wait for the next one and decided to brave a real live comic book store and pick up actual floppy comic books.

I had no intention of reading any other book, but when I looked down the rack at the Batman comics and the Aquaman comics and the Justice League comics they weren’t at issue #999 or even issue #99. They were on issue #12. That didn’t seem so daunting. I could catch up with that. And I did. And now I read comics.

Sure, now I understand that the number on a comic doesn’t really mean as much as the creative team does and that Detective Comics #69 isn’t required reading for Detective Comics #666 (I’m assuming) but back then if I’d looked down the rack and seen Batman #1,000,000 my curiosity would’ve been far outnumbered.

But the reset numbering wasn’t fandom’s biggest point of contention with the New 52. The New 52 didn’t do a hard reset on continuity. Green Lantern, for instance, pretty much picked up where it had left off. Batman had an eerily similar status quo that alluded to events in old continuity without ever firming establishing a timeline. The biggest overhaul, however, was the idea that in New 52 continuity superheroes had only been a whole “thing” in the DC universe for five years. So books like the Teen Titans, featuring a lineup of teenaged former sidekicks, got pretty confusing, as did the fact that Batman had four Robins after being active for only five years.

Condensing the timeline squashed and confused a lot of character histories and dynamics that had been established over the course of decades. Popular properties like the Teen Titans never really got to shine and for many the convoluted, sloppy continuity of the New 52 was to blame.

Enter last week’s DC Rebirth, the 80-page one-shot by Geoff Johns and a stable of top-shelf artists (Phil Jiminez, Ethan Van Sciver, Ivan Reis, Gary Frank) that ended the New 52 in style. The book is built on the sentiment that in the New 52 DC Universe “something is missing.” It calls the New 52 to task for being dark and brooding and hopeless and apparently pissing on the lineage of DC’s greatest heroes.

It’s a great book, but it can be a bit much when it comes to flogging the New 52. For fans who were brought into the fold with the New 52 it kind of feels like being invited to a party by an acquaintance and then watching them extensively apologize to the assembled for inviting you.

The New 52 is not to blame for DC’s lineup of gritty books any more than it is to blame for fans of the Teen Titans not getting an iteration of the team they like for the last five years.

That all comes down to what’s on the page.

I’ve got no problem with the New 52 coming to an end, but people have gone far beyond letting the door hit it on the way out. Changing continuity doesn’t just magically make a publishing line more optimistic and fun. Declaring the New 52 over doesn’t just magically make the Teen Titans great again. It comes down to the individual comic books themselves.

When I’m reading an awesome issue of Batman I don’t give a shit what the status of the Multiverse is, or whether Superboy Prime is canon or who was responsible for Flashpoint. The only thing that matters is what’s on the page.

The New 52’s condensed continuity might have been contradictory and convoluted but it didn’t terminated the potential for a cool Teen Titans story any more than it guaranteed the certainty of an excellent Batman book. Whatever “something” was missing from the New 52 had nothing to do with the state of the DC Universe or its continuity.

All the New 52 did was turn the gaze of the DCU toward the uninitiated because comic book fans get old and die and have to be replaced with new comic book fans.

I loved the New 52, but I’m excited for DC Rebirth because of the wealth of new talent and creative teams it’s bringing to its characters. For better or worse when the spiffy, post-New 52 Teen Titans book shows up on stands it’ll be that talent that will be on display on the page creating the story, not a publishing initiative and not continuity.

 

Permission to Treat the Batman as Hostile, or, Batman Versus Superman Colon Dawn of Justice

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LOGO MASH-UP ATTACK

With 2013’s Man of Steel it seemed director Zack Snyder was intent on applying Christopher Nolan’s gritty Dark Knight aesthetic to Superman. Structurally, Man of Steel very much feels like Batman Begins and one would be forgiven for thinking that Snyder was something of a Nolan acolyte. With that film’s successor, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, however, Snyder proves himself a far more loyal disciple to the likes of comic book writer and artist Frank Miller, whose distinctive insistence on redefining what popular culture thinks of the Dark Knight can be felt throughout the film.

With Man of Steel, Superman was course corrected, moved toward the operatic grit of Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. The tone of Superman was adjusted to mimic the tone of Batman, and in response, the Batman of Dawn of Justice is proportionately moved further into the bleak shadows to compensate. On a scale where a sad face is Batman, a smiley face is Superman and a neutral face lies somewhere in between, Man of Steel flattened out Superman’s smile and Dawn of Justice knocks Batman off the scale completely.

The Batman of Dawn of Justice, played by Ben Affleck, isn’t just bleak. He’s hostile. Not just to the criminals he brands but to the audience. He dares you to like him. He dares you to tell him what Batman does and doesn’t do. He aggressively challenges what Batman is supposed to be in 2016. He embodies the sort of confrontational maverick spirit of Frank Miller’s Batman texts.

Frank Miller wrote Year One, for many the defining Batman origin story, and The Dark Knight Returns, widely considered to be the greatest Batman story ever put to paper. His Batman is a one-eyed man in the land of the blind, cursed to be the only one able to see through a soft, shallow world of senseless violence and half-hearted political correctness. He’s better than the world around him, he knows it, and he’s less than gracious about it.

He’s a jarring reaction to the biffs, pows and bams of Adam West’s caped crusader of the 60s, a whiplash-inducing course correction.

He’s also kind of a dick.

And that was in 1986.

By the time Miller wrote All-Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder in 2005 his Batman was still reacting to popular culture’s perception of the character and, adjusting for inflation, had gone from kind of a dick to an all-out sociopath having sex on rooftops to the soundtrack of screaming criminals burning to death on the streets below.

A little over ten years later Snyder carries that torch forward, continuing Miller’s tradition of presenting popular culture with a Batman it doesn’t necessarily want, and one that doesn’t seem to want them either. The Batman of Dawn of Justice carries on less in the tradition of Nolan’s gritty realism and more in the vein of Miller’s blatant hostility towards the concept of what Batman should be. Like Miller’s Batman of the 80s it proves to be something of a reaction to what the world thinks of Batman. Like Miller’s Batman of the 00s it proves to be an overreaction no one necessarily wanted.

There’s an inarguable difference in quality between Miller and Snyder’s Batmen, undoubtedly because the latter is largely an adaptation of the former. It seems pretty clear already that Dawn of Justice will never garner the reverence of Miller’s best texts. Even its best Batman moments lack compelling context, and are best when you mentally pry them free of the film they’re buried in. But the feeling I get watching Ben Affleck’s Batman operate with such glorified cruelty is the most accurate filmic representation I’ve encountered of the sort of weary fascination Miller’s Batman instills in me.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is burdened by a script that too often forces you to do its work for it, putting the onus of rationalization, logic and character motivation on the viewer. By design it isn’t really fun, or funny and it seems content to wade in a tone of helpless despair. But if nothing else, it manages to mimic the confrontational hostility of the Frank Miller Batman texts that have become inseparable from the character.

While Zack Snyder hasn’t created a triumph akin to Dark Knight Returns, he has still rather successful emulated one of the most important creators to ever interact with Batman. Dawn of Justice is not Snyder’s Dark Knight Returns, but it just might be his All-Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder.

Questioning Authority, or, DC Comics v. The Man

Now that I’ve said my piece regarding DC Comics’ universally-loathed, split-screen advertising strategy, and now that said advertising strategy seems to be over (at least for the time being) it’s a lot easier to reflect on the actual content being put out under the publisher’s new DC You banner.

What DC’s books arguably lacked in the wake of their New 52 reboot at the end of 2011, and what Marvel has become prodigious in nailing down, is a sense of here and now. Where an issue of Marvel titles like All-New Captain America, Daredevil or Ms. Marvel often feels like a specific response to the cultural discourse of the day DC’s titles as of late have had a certain timelessness to them.

DC’s New 52 titles often felt like reactions to themselves, insular examinations of the decades old history of their stable of characters. I adore Geoff Johns’ Justice League and Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang’s Wonder Woman and have zero hesitation strongly recommending them to any prospective reader, but aside from modern storytelling sensibilities nothing about either book screams of the world outside of your window.

DC You aims to fix that and as of the start of the new line’s second month the publisher is right on target, telling stories that feel like they’re unfolding as you read them, rather than in some chronal literary vacuum. Not only has DC diversified their roster with books like Black Canary, Cyborg and Midnighter, they’ve started to tell stories that look outward into our world.

This timeliness is particularly prominent in books like Action Comics, Green Arrow and Batman, all of which have entered into a conversation about authority and the role of law enforcement.

CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE ATTACK

CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE ATTACK

The last story arc in New 52 Action Comics was a zombie yarn examining Superman’s ties to his hometown in Kansas. Conversely, in last week’s Action Comics #42 Superman is literally a barricade between an enraged public on the verge of rioting and a heavily armed police force wielding batons and riot shields. Artist Aaron Kuder concocts thrilling, captivating imagery that makes the 75 year old character feel like he was born in 2015. Writer Greg Pak examines both sides of a community on the brink, illustrating just how volatile and multifaceted a situation the encounters between authority and citizenry we see on the nightly news can be. By the end of the issue my stomach hurt.

The last I read of Green Arrow was Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino’s fantastic run, which concluded last September and saw Oliver Queen trotting the globe to uncover the mysteries of The Outsiders, an age-old organization comprised of clans with ideologies surrounding various primitive weapons. An awesome adventure story, but one that again relies on interaction with the fictional world and mythology of the title character, rather than the world we the readers occupy. Now, under the stewardship of writer Ben Percy and artist Patrick Zircher, Oliver Queen is going up against racial profiling drones that are specifically targeting African American and low-income citizens. Worse still, Oliver has found out that through his own disinterested approach to managing his company he’s inadvertently supported the development and deployment of the drones and their systematic discrimination. So while a mysterious, white as the moon villain assaults a group of peaceful protestors Oliver grapples with the fact that he has unknowingly helped prop up a system that actively disenfranchises whole segments of his community. Green Arrow has gone from taking on the spear clan and Count Vertigo to battling white privilege and institutionalized oppression.

ROOF CROUCH ATTACK

ROOF CROUCH ATTACK

Even Batman, a book that has managed to often enough buck the New 52’s insular nature with threads exploring mental illness and modern cultural fears, has taken a further step into our world in its questioning of authority. Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s latest arc, Superheavy, explores law enforcement and its relationship with citizens via a Batman who works inside the law enforcement system. Yesterday’s Batman #42 saw the new Dark Knight admit that there are segments of Gotham in the lowest economical bracket that are time and time again failed by the system that is supposed to protect and support them, acknowledge the injustice of that disparity and actively try to fix it.

The writers and artists at DC have spent the decade putting out some truly extraordinary books that will no doubt be remembered for years to come for their literary prowess and craftsmanship. But with stories like the ones now being told in Action Comics, Green Arrow and Batman, DC is also releasing material that readers will be able to return to as a window into the cultural landscape of 2015, much the way Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns can provide some insight into the cultural climate of 1986. The DC You banner is becoming synonymous with stories that are specifically not timeless. And that’s a good thing.