Does Batgirl herald a postive new direction for DC?

Does Batgirl herald a postive new direction for DC?
Before this post begins in the main, a caveat: any discussion of DC's style of comics or publishing strategies that follows should be considered to relate only to whether it makes us, or in this specific case me, want to buy their comics. Personal preference is everything, and it's not for us to say that DC's books aren't "working" when they're topping the sales charts with reasonable consistency. But for us, when we say that a comic "works", we mean that it provides an interesting and engaging story, that it shows faith and trust in a creative team that works harmoniously together, that it has distinctive, individual art and/or bold storytelling choices, that it stands a good chance of attracting new or lapsed readers, that (where applicable) it can inspire younger readers, and that it shows an interest in expanding the diversity of characters in the field.

With that in mind, I think it's fair to say that, ever since DC's New 52 line launched in September 2011, for the most part (and with some notable and honourable exceptions) its comics have skewed towards being a type of book that simply doesn't appeal to the sensibilities either of us here at Panel Beats, or of most of the people we tend to talk to about comics. With no disrespect intended to many of the creators involved (and a little disrespect intended to some of them), they've often felt like comics created on a production line, or by committee - concerned largely with pumping out a stylistically homogeneous set of titles, with storylines that skew towards the grim and violent side of things, which exist largely to perpetuate certain character brands for Warners/DC rather than to foster individual creative expression.

It's clear that these comics do have an audience, but to us, they don't feel like comics we want to read, or discuss, or champion, or recommend to new readers. They're just there. And for those of us who are longstanding DC fans (that's me, more than James, obviously), this is disappointing. DC have some fantastic characters and concepts, and for sustained periods (particularly throughout the 1980s) have put out some of the most inventive and character-driven superhero comics ever published. It shouldn't be hard for them to publish comics that are better than Marvel's - they just have to publish comics that are quite like some of the best of Marvel's current/recent stable (She-Hulk, Hawkeye, Moon Knight, Superior Spidey and so on), but using their characters.

I'd all but given hope on them actually doing this under the current management, which is why it seems surprising that some of their most recent launch (or relaunch) announcements seem to be showing an inclination towards doing exactly that. Most obviously, of course, the new direction being taken by Batgirl seems specifically designed to appeal to Marvel readers - and in particular, a young and predominantly female audience. The new costume design, by Cameron Stewart and Babs Tarr, is a world away from the Jim Lee-driven look of the rest of the company's major characters - it looks (although I'm not suggesting that Stewart and Tarr are merely aping someone else's style), like the excellent recent Marvel costume work of Jamie McKelvie. Along with a changed setting and character focus, the whole book looks cool, basically - and "cool" is categorically not a word you'd associate with anything DC have done in the last few years.

Case in point.

Perhaps more significantly than it looking distinctly cool and modern, however, is the fact that Batgirl looks fun. Admittedly it's hard to know whether or not this will actually turn out to be the case until the book comes out, but that certainly seems to be the intent - and again, that seems at odds with the grim nature of a universe where events like Trinity War and Future's End have become the norm.

It's not immediately apparent exactly where this change in approach has come from - it's not as if DC don't still have the same people running the show as they did three years ago, after all - although when it comes to the Batman books in particular, it's difficult not to draw a line from recent editorial changes. That's backed up by the announcement of two new launches - Arkham Manor and Gotham Academy - of which the latter certainly seems to come from a similar aesthetic place to the new Batgirl. I'm not necessarily swayed by its premise, but hiring Becky Cloonan as co-writer feels like a positive creative step.

And then there's Grayson, another Batbook - one that's attracted rave reviews for its somewhat irreverent, carefree nature, and which also seems quite far removed from the prevailing recent DC style. What makes that book's bright, colourful tone all the more surprising, of course, is that it spun directly out of some of the most relentlessly grim stories the company have told in a while.

These titles, of course, represent a small part of DC's publishing output (if we assume that they're still publishing 52 books a month, then it's a little over 5%, but buggered if I know if the number's still valid these days), and they're all concentrated in one particular area. But still, there are signs elsewhere of a possible creative renaissance. Geoff Johns and John Romita Jr's Superman got off to a good start with issue #32 last month - it's not the greatest thing Johns has ever written, but it feels like a good, classic-style take on the character, and he seems to be deliberately sweeping away some of the more questionable character decisions that have been made since 2011. And Justice League United, while not quite living up to the promise of its first issue, has certainly worked well as a fun, straight-down-the-line trad superhero title.

To me, it's important that a publisher that puts out over fifty books a month should have a healthy dose of variety. If they have readers that want the nineties-style grit, then fine, cater to those readers - but I would hope that the success of many of the Marvel Now! books has shown that there is a market for something different, too. And many of the best ever comics owe their existence to a publisher's willingness to take risks, to print something unconventional. After three years in which DC's entire publishing strategy seemed to be to take as few risks as possible (beyond, y'know, the initial risk of rebooting their entire universe and all of that), something as simple as this Batgirl announcement stands out by virtue of its apparent rejection of their recent course.

None of this suggests that DC are close to hitting the level of some of their previous creative peaks just yet - hell, we haven't seen most of these comics yet - but it's encouraging. If they can start to put out three or four books a month that don't actively repulse me, then I'll be happier with them than I have been for several years.