Last Friday Dan DiDio explained the mysteries of the first Countdown teaser, perhaps more familiar as the “Colorforms” image, which featured alternate, emo, or otherwise off-model versions of prominent DC characters. On Monday, DC released a second image, this time focusing on villains and following a Last Supper motif.
I’m not going to speculate about the hidden meanings behind this new image, because DiDio’s explanation of the first one didn’t exactly reveal a play-fair-mystery mentality; and the same goes for Tuesday’s brief conversation about Image #2. Several years ago, the covers of the “Bruce Wayne: Fugitive” installments included actual puzzle pieces which, yes, one could copy (don’t cut up your comics, kids!) and assemble. The last piece was held out until the final installment. Still, that puzzle was a freakin’ road map compared to the woolly reasoning on display now. DiDio’s “Secret of 52″ column was more in line with the puzzle pieces, but also a lot easier to figure out, so it’s not surprising that the clues here would be more esoteric.
These cryptic images speak directly to fans who have read enough DC books — and here I am raising my hand high, make no mistake — to opine about the symbolism. They’re about swapping theories, encouraging discussion, and generally building “good buzz.” Naturally this encourages people to buy the books, if only to find out how accurate their guesses were. The downside is that such contests could also make fans throw up their hands and wait for the Internet to reveal the secrets, and then buy the books if the revelations look promising enough. A lot of it’s about hints, clues, and innuendo, though, isn’t it? Brad Meltzer has based his whole Justice League run on those kinds of things — apparently figuring that by creating the illusion of familiarity, he’ll draw in new fans who want to be a part of such a cozy group.
Such a strategy was arguably on display in Star Trek: First Contact. It’s a pleasant movie, mostly about recruitment. Picard, Riker, and company encourage Zefram Cochrane and Lily Sloane to build the society which leads to the Federation. The Borg Queen tries to recruit Data by seducing him. The movie itself, like the rest of the Star Trek engine, tries to be accessible enough to recruit new fans. However, as much as I like ST:FC‘s talk about how great the Federation is/will be, and as moving as the actual first-contact scenes are to this longtime fan, there’s something a little too self-congratulatory about them. The movie does a decent job establishing the Borg as monolithic and implacable enemies — the opening pullback of Picard in the Borg ship goes a long way in that regard — but there are still many subtle cues which are fan-friendly and not necessarily accessible.
Likewise, the two Countdown teaser images probably look to the uninitiated like a) a collection of troubled superheroes, arranged in disarray around Lady Liberty’s head; and b) a collection of mostly happy supervillains and evil-looking superheroes. Put together they say Bad Moon Rising, but if you haven’t been reading DC comics for the past three years you probably don’t even know where in Wikipedia to start your research.
We know those images are for the die-hards, though, DC will say. That may be so, but shouldn’t the die-hards be equipped better to recruit from there? The developments advertised — or at least spun out of speculation — are specific enough to be meaningless to (again) anyone who hasn’t been reading DC comics for a while. While Ray Palmer might be coming back, is the Atom sufficiently resonant as a concept for a newbie to care?
First Contact avoids that particular problem by setting its climax around an event familiar to longtime fans but never before depicted: the “origin” of Star Trek itself. Maybe I’m not being fair to the general public when I say this, but the movie assumes that its viewers recognize the original Trek pairing as humans plus Vulcans. Otherwise, the stiff, wide-eyed guys with the pointy ears get a reverence they might not appear to have deserved.
The same could be said for the big reveal on the last page of the Sinestro Corps special. It makes sense for that bad guy to be involved, but only if you know DC history going back at least a couple of decades. I suppose DC’s hope is that Sinestro Corps has built up enough of a new reader’s goodwill by the last page to inspire that Internet-research jaunt.
I hope I won’t need to romanticize the “Year of 52” as a relatively tranquil time when DC’s superhero titles could catch their collective breath before declining sales figures spurred another round of Big Events. However, it’s starting to look that way. The kind of long-form storytelling in which DC has been engaged seems very hard to sell in midstream, regardless of its quality. Continuing with the Star Trek comparison, imagine being plopped into the last few episodes, or arguably even the last season, of “Deep Space Nine.” Taken out of context, and released far before the fact, the image of Kira in a Starfleet uniform would have started me speculating for sure, as would notions of a new Defiant, new Dax host, etc. … but that’s because I would have tried to fit them into the context I already understood. Without any context, they’re just soldiers and spaceships.
52 and Countdown both include educational backup stories, but the more they try to explain, the more awkward they are as narratives. DC has also been mining its back-issue library to collect relevant stories, and while those are mostly fun to read on their own terms, they still represent a lot of research. Not everyone will spring for supplemental material on every aspect of the current mega-story. More to the point, not everyone will be persuaded to invest the time in “studying.”
The thing is, DC seems constantly to be in medias res, ever on the way to the next thing. Marc Guggenheim sees this as a strength: “One of the things that’s great with what DC is doing these days is that things are plotted out very far in advance with a great deal of intricacy between the various books. A year from now, or two years form now, you’ll be able to go back to this book, and say, ‘Oh yeah – that’s where it all started.’”
A year? Two years? It’s been like this for three years already!
One of the nice things about the Sinestro Corps Special was that it felt like the start of a story with an end. It might take several months to play out, but it has to end with Sinestro being stopped, presumably by one or more Green Lanterns. By contrast, the Countdown teasers aim to be harbingers of doom, but they end up just as a malaise of Trouble On The Way.