52 has, for a long time, been one of my favourite stories in superhero comics. This is probably because it focuses on a lot of the B- and C-list characters who I’d always felt got shortchanged and also covers the gamut of the kinds of stories superheroes tell well: ruminations on the nature of power and responsibility, wild space epics, weird twisty soap operas and the like. Add to that that it’s all ostensibly one story told through various narratives in a structure not entirely unlike a lot of major Epic Hourlong Television Series and if I were (as I originally planned) giving out ratings for ambition and execution, I know that at least the ambition side of things would get a solid 5 out of 5.
As for execution…
The short form, before the deep-cut babbling starts, is that this thing doesn’t read as being very welcoming to beginners. You get enough information about each of the main principals that you could probably figure out what their deal is and if you picked up the trade, I think you could probably get invested by the end of it. You’ll figure out who everyone is and that Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman aren’t around for… reasons and that there are a lot of disasters that people are recovering from in the background.
It’s sadly very FAR in the background.
But that’s from a guy who already knew about or read most of the Big Events referenced in the book because I like a big, dumb superhero event comic quite a bit more than those big, dumb superhero event comics deserve.
The places where the story shines is when it’s not trying to tie into the larger superhero universe, when it’s not talking about what’s going on with Batman or press conferences for the JLA. Those are the moments where I, in my suddenly-skeptical state of mind regarding the superhero, started getting uncomfortable.
Because for all this superheroic universe is built on the foundation of Superman/Batman/Wonder Woman, the levels to which the people in the universe act as if this is the case is sometimes distressing. You won’t see a lot about police except as occasional roadblocks for one character, nor will you see much about members of government or the voting public in general except as a necessary footnote to a Green Arrow sideplot that takes up about five of the 1000-ish pages or as entities in league with various criminal or supervillainous organizations.
There’s also an entire arc about whether heroes are born or made or something else that waffles back and forth and for all it comes to a fairly satisfactory ending… it doesn’t quite work. It’s “resolution” feels more like fiat than actually deciding anything more than that the superheroes we know and love are, indeed, heroic.
I think overall it succeeds more than it fails and as someone who’d always been aware of the complicated comings and goings of the DCU, it was a great way to get me engaged in those characters the first few times I read it…
Now I’m not so sure.
It’s still good but it’s not really at “very good”, though at times it does brush up against it.
Now, I’m about to go more in-depth so for simplicity’s sake, I’m just going to try and break things down to the major arcs and just sorta go on about them a little.
Oh and while this thing’s a few years old now, I feel it only proper to warn that SPOILERS follow.
Booster Gold/Supernova/Skeets: This is, for me, the A-story. Perennial fuck-up/quasi-anti-hero Booster Gold came back through time with a D-student’s knowledge of the past to get rich and make a name for himself and is quickly upstaged by new favourite superhero Supernova just as his life is going to shit. On top of that, his robotic best friend is malfunctioning all over the place and also turning evil. It all goes into some fun stuff about time travel and our self-obsessed hero learning that whole power/responsibility thing. It also led into a Booster Gold series which was one of the best things Geoff Johns ever wrote. While, structurally, it would be hard to take this arc out and run it on its own (given that we’re made to think that the protagonist is dead for most of it), it’s also one of the two that works best for me.
Renee Montoya/the Question/Batwoman: The other one that works best for me is the Gotham run. We start with a depressed detective drowning her sorrows in booze and women who, in noir style, gets invited into a profitable Last Case that just spins out of control until our Renee has teamed up with her ex-girlfriend (who has recently become Batwoman) and has raged against the cancer that kills her new best friend, leaving her to assume his (super?)heroic identity of the Question.
If Booster is the A-story, I often feel like Renee is the B. While Booster, Skeets and Supernova are out doing their things, we see Renee investigating, busting heads and fighting impossible odds not only against human frailty (her own and Charlie/the Question’s) but against Gotham City’s religion of crime, filled with some lovely none-too-subtle nods to the Fourth World (oh, to be someone who knows the stuff…). Renee, like Booster, starts out as someone for whom we feel more pity or empathy than admiration and becomes someone who causes no end of fist-in-the-air whooping and cheering.
Steel/Natasha Irons/JSA/Everyman: This one is, regrettably, the one that falls flattest for me. I like Steel/John Henry Irons and his neice Steel/Natasha Irons’ conflict where he thinks she’s abusing her armour privileges and skipping out on a good education where she’d like to keep using her armour to spend more time being a superhero. Natasha signs up for Lex Luthor’s “Everyman” project which would give super powers to people if they could afford them and John isn’t sure that someone’s bank account is a valid reason for them to get powers and go around superheroing.
Eventually the Everyman project goes bad and we find out that powers have been given to bad people or for bad reasons and it’s up to John to save Natasha from Lex Luthor who has given himself a version of Superman’s powers. Then Natasha saves him and…
I want to like it. The first few times through I really did like it. But the more I pick it apart, the weirder it seems. ’Cause I know that John absolutely built the Steel armour(s) on his own but it’s not like you can build a set of awesome Iron Man armour if you aren’t loaded yourself or know someone who is and for him or, later, the Justice Society of America (the superhero elder statesmen, sorta) to be upset that money rather than… well, differently-aimed money or pure dumb luck should determine who gets to be a superhero feels a bit off.
The recipients of the Everyman project who aren’t Natasha don’t come off very well, either, and for all I think it’s supposed to be a reaction to the superheroes-as-celebrities that’s been a plague in a lot of hacky superhero deconstructions, it doesn’t quite work there, either. No one has a real motive except to be vaguely annoyed that some people were born with super powers which… yeah, if I felt condescended to by someone who’d lucked into superpowers, I’d probably be a little standoffish, too.
Having them suddenly turn tail and run near the end of the series didn’t help much, either. One of those moments where you really remember that a story is just a bunch of things that happen because writers say so.
Never a good thing to be reminded of.
Black Adam/Isis/Osiris: This one is one of the most inside-baseball-y of the lot. Black Adam (look, I agree; it’s really fucked that in 2008 we were still using the prefix “black” to connote evil) is the antiheroic fascist version of gee-whiz-golly naïf Captain Marvel (the “SHAZAM!” one). Following off some plot stuff from before the story began, he’s decided to team up with a bunch of Not-America Countries to start a kind of superpowered protectorate to tell those American superheroes that, no, they can’t just keep busting into sovereign airspace whenever Terra-Man (a time-traveling cowboy) eludes capture oh and also Intergang and the Crime Religion try to turn Black Adam’s antiheroic righteousness into a tool for their use. They try to bribe him with a lovely woman called Adrianna. He murders the fuck out of them (he murders the fuck out of a lot of people) and Adrianna points out things he could do that aren’t murdering super-gangsters that would be good for his people. He later goes and finds a magic amulet to give to her, letting her become the goddess-avatar Isis (like the show from the 70s that I know about but have never watched) before they find Adrianna’s brother and turn him into Osiris using Black Adam’s gods-granted powers.
Then everything goes wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. Isis and Osiris are fridged by the Four Horsemen (see Will Magnus/Mad Science Island below) and Our Antihero goes a bit nutty and, well, murders the everliving fuck out of the Four Horsemen and a lot of people who helped Science Island make them before getting captured and tortured by the folks at Mad Science Island.
Adam’s story is one I’m on the fence about. On the one hand, I really love the idea that with the proper perspective change and the right motivation, even a guy who tears apart time-traveling cowboys on international TV can become something better.
On the other hand, having some characters I’d actually grown fond of be tortured and destroyed for the sake of returning him to a grim-n-gritty version of his old status quo rubs me the wrong way. I like some of the last-minute details OF the destruction, like when Adrianna goes back on her hope message and her last words are, essentially, “They ruined our shit: fuck them up”. I can even get my head around how having her world torn down around her would make our saintly Adrianna turn into something like Adam himself at the start of the story…
But it’s also one of those times where I’m suddenly and uncomfortably aware that if all these characters were white people from a fake western European country, this whole thing would have played out a lot different.
Ralph Dibny/Dr. Fate(?): Another of the really solid arcs. Ralph is a retired superhero whose wife was recently murdered (wow, there’s a lot of dead ladies in this thing) and he’s not taking it well. Which, y’know, I think we can all get behind (the not taking it well, not the murder), even if that puts dear Sue Dibny in the refrigerated club. And in an inspired choice, Ralph’s soul-searching in the wake of this tragedy is literalized when he’s approached by the mystic helmet of magician/hero Dr. Fate who takes him across time and space to see if there’s any way to bring Sue back to life.
There’s… not actually a lot to say about this one. Ralph journeys through various netherrealms and has quick, sometimes violent, sometimes almost violent meetings with members of the superhero community before Dr. Fate is revealed to be an evil magician in disguise, leading to one of the finest payoff moments in the series.
Seriously, Ralph explaining all the ways Felix Faust, the magician in question, Dun Fucked Up is one of the most satisfying things in all of comics. That the third-to-last-page setup for Ralph and Sue Dibny: Ghost Detectives never became a series remains one of the greatest tragedies in superhero comics.
Starfire/Adam Strange/Animal Man/Lobo: Arguably the most “comic book”-y of the plots (the arguably would be because it’s also a pretty bog-standard space opera just with superheroes instead of, I dunno, Jedi) wherein we find Titans mainstay Starfire, pulp-hero-inspired John Carter-meets-Buck Rogers-wannabe Adam Strange and sometimes metatextual, sometimes in non-canon Vertigo books Animal Man stranded in space because of some crazy shit that happened just before the story started.
Their plot is simple: they want to get home. Then lots of things get in their way. Well, mainly two things: the first is cosmic bounty hunter Lobo (recently named the Archbishop of the Church of the Triple-Fish God), who is trying to provide succor to the thousands of refugees from the second complication, the Stygian Passover, led by Lady Styx.
Lady Styx is pretty transparently the writers trying to make a new Cosmic Big Bad. Which is fine because the DCU doesn’t have very many and she’s scary in a lovely body horror kind of way.
In the end, Our Heroes survive with some apparent losses (they think Animal Man is dead but he’s brought back to life by the metanarrative aliens who gave him his powers in the first place—not to be confused with the metanarrative aliens the Monitors from Final Crisis) and everyone gets back home having had a pleasantly freaky, if not terribly world-changing, space adventure where they saved the galaxy but almost no one will ever give them credit for it.
Since it’s been retconned out, we may never see Lady Styx again but she’s such a perfectly blasphemously awful villain and I’m sad that she didn’t get more love from the DCU after this.
I honestly don’t have much feeling about this adventure. Lobo was funny, Adam was angry, Animal Man was comic relief-y and Starfire was violent and pragmatic. Things I like seeing but not done in an amazing way.
Will Magnus/Mad Science Island: I go back and forth on this plot thread. Will doesn’t really have an arc on his own except to set up a new Metal Men miniseries after this whole thing’s over. He shows up as an advisor to a couple other characters at the start but never really comes into his own until his evil mentor (when you’re a superscientist, your mentors tend to be evil) causes him to get press-ganged into a group of mad scientists on Oolong Island who have infinite budgets provided they finish creating the bodies for the Four Horsemen of Apokalips. A few of the mad scientists go madder but mostly Will is deprived of his medication which has been regulating his emotional state but also quashing some of the madness that made his mad science work. In the end, the mad scientists all get a win over “the jocks” in the form of Black Adam before Will helps free him, defeat the evil egg-monster running the facility, rebuild his Metal Men and, in a final moment of “good on ya”, saving his evil mad science mentor.
Which… debatably not all that heroic but for a C-Plot to make some of the later B-plots explicable, I think it was pretty fun.