Having last week discussed how comics can use their shared universes and continuities to their advantage, it is almost my duty to speak about how they can be used badly.
Happily, this week 52 Week 50 and the World War III event came out, providing me with the perfect example.
52 itself is merely bad this week. The Black Adam plot has always been the least interesting thread in the story, and this issue brings it to its tedious conclusion. It read exactly like an issue of Infinite Crisis and it's depressing to note how quickly comics are recycling themselves these days, Justiniano and Wong's art highlighting the similarities of this issue to the Day Of Vengeance mini, part of Infinite Crisis that came out only about eighteen months ago. But it came after one of the best issues of the series yet, and it hints that the next one will be something incredible (Booster Gold returns after 3 months), so I'm OK with that.
World War III, on the other hand, has absolutely no reason for existing. Other writers have pointed out exactly how bad these comics are (Douglas at 52 Pickup going for the point-by-point dissection while Jog gives a more general overview of what is wrong with them), and I'm not going to belabour the point - I could literally spend days pointing out problems with these comics ranging from continuity (since when can Bulleteer fly?) through characterisation (J'onn J'onzz sitting round moping rather than taking action), tactics (I suspect Sun Tzu never said "Get every powerful individual in the world, plus some people like Green Arrow who will be totally useless, and get them to stand in one spot, looking dramatic and giving the target ample
warning"), character design (Andrew Bates and Amanda Waller are drawn as absolutely identical), importance of the story (why would these characters feel so threatened when less than a year ago someone had nearly destroyed th' entire rang-dang-do multeyeverse?), storytelling...
But the reason the WWIII comics are so dreadful is that they have literally no reason for existing.
When 52 started, the idea was that it would explain the 'One Year Later' changes many of the characters in the DCU went through. As the story progressed, the plans changed somewhat. This is more than understandable - 52 is a story of a type never before done by one of the main comics companies, and the writers are very obviously realising that while 52 issues seemed a lot at the start of the story, an extra three or four would be very useful about now. This has led to things like James Gordon's return to the Commissionership of Gotham, which in the Face The Face storyline last year seemed to be an interesting untold story, being reduced to one panel and 'welcome back Commissioner' in 52. These things happen.
But as 52 is coming to an end, there are a huge number of OYL-related changes that have not been explained even in this cursory fashion. So what DC decided to do is put out a four-issue mini, all four issues coming out this week, showing what happened to every character during 'World War III', which this big fight scene has suddenly become.
Leaving aside the minor objections (why four issues rather than just one giant size one, for example) , this leaves the major one - there's no story here.
World War III is not a story - it's a fight scene. And furthermore it's one that many of the OYL changes don't even tie into - the major events in Aquaman, Manhunter and Supergirl's lives just coincidentally happen this week as well. Each of these changes is given between a panel (Hawkwoman being glad Dr Midnight made her non-giant off-panel) and two pages, observed by J'onn J'onnzz for no good reason, with no attempt to tie them together into anything like a narrative.
Not only that, but far worse, these changes have no narrative impact by themselves. Even assuming a familiarity with every character (dangerous - I read my fair share of DC comics and didn't recognise more than a few) and their pre- and post-Infinite Crisis stati quo, the impact of these changes is somewhat muted by them just standing around expositing to each other.
The original impact of the One Year Later jump came from the idea that there was a year's worth of stories we'd not yet read! Comics aren't history books, supposed to record dryly the facts of a character's life, much as some of the more obsessive element of the fandom seems to want them to be (hence the popularity of universe handbooks and the like). Just saying "Father Time changed from black to white because he got his face ripped off and grew a new one" is not in any way interesting or exciting.
Some of these changes held the possibility of being good stories (I'd have liked to have read of Harvey Dent's year in Gotham, for example) while others should just have been forgotten. But this is trying to turn universe handbooks into narrative, much as the History of The DCU backups were in the early issues of 52.
Once it became clear to the creative team that the story they were telling wasn't 'the missing year of the DCU' - which according to DiDio was as early as the second issue - there were several options open to editorial. One would be to put a little text explanation at the end of the comics, instead of DiDio's 'DC Nation' thing, saying what had happened over the missing year in that title. Another, probably even more lucrative than this way and certainly more satisfying, would have been to bring back annuals for one year, and have the regular creative teams tell the story. Hell, have them be '52 Specials'. They'd have sold.
So if you want to know how not to deal with a shared universe, it's this. Don't do a four-issue crossover between every single one of your comics which can only be understood by someone who reads all of them, which contains little or no new information for such a hypothetical reader, and has literally no reason for existing.
In other 'news', Newsarama, a comics website mostly devoted to promoting Marvel and DC stuff, has five 'countdown to countdown' articles on its front page, covering the histories of the characters we're going to see in Countdown. The more I see about this, the more enthusiastic I get - I've always found the Kirby characters and the Marvel family more interesting than the 'legacy characters' and Bronze Age characters DC seems to concentrate on at the moment. While I'm not expecting this to be Seven Soldiers good, it looks like it will have more of that flavour than of World War III, and that can only be a good thing.