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25 July 2017

SDCC ’17 Panel: The Engine of New at DC

By // Books

Click Here to read all of our coverage from 2017 San Diego Comic-Con

This year, DC Comics is attempting one of the hardest games in comics: inventing new heroes. This happens all the time in comic books, shows, and films, but it seldom sticks the way characters did back in the Golden Age of Comics (when Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko were pumping out new heroes every week; Lee has admitted he doesn’t entirely remember creating Spider-Man because of the break-neck pace of throwing out new ideas every week to see what would stick). There are, of course, exceptions to this rule; most notable Harley Quinn who began as a character in Batman: The Animated Series and proved so popular that now you can’t throw a rock in any direction without hitting one of her various iterations on the Con Floor (please note: don’t throw rocks at Cons. You’ll just end up with a bunch of bruised Ricks and Harley Quinns). But new characters are damn hard. They need to be distinct enough, which is hard given the sheer number of characters in comics, and grab audiences who admittedly already have a favourite character and are invested (both financially and emotionally) in another book.

Nevertheless, DC is taking its biggest-ever attempt at this (what they’ve dubbed ‘The Engine of New’) coming out of its major summer event METAL: its first major event since Rebirth and the company’s attempt at proving that it really is listening to fans and is bringing fun back to comics. Coming out of it, DC will be releasing at least eight new titles loosely dubbed the Dark Matter line, featuring some familiar characters on new teams, but largely consisting of brand new characters, developed through their new ‘artist first’ methodology, which allows often underutilized illustrators to be the lead in the character development, rather than writer-first, their traditional method. This is being championed by the spectacular team of Greg Capullo and Scott Snyder, whose Batman run is easily one of the greatest in the company’s history. The two started out with a slightly contentious relationship: Snyder, a writer’s writer (who teaches writing) was admittedly nervous taking over the flagship Batman title of the New 52 and would send full scripts, not just dialogue but also perspective angles and visual descriptions, to Capullo (best know at that point for his run on Todd McFarlane’s Spawn). Capullo was having none of that, and sharply responded that Snyder leave the visuals to him, as that was his job, his training, and his damn business. The effect was immediately felt as the two formed an extraordinary partnership and friendship based on this understanding and the pair became, as they constantly refer to each other, brothers. With Snyder, one of DC’s top writers, ceding larger and larger creative control to Capullo to tremendous results, DC took notice and has launched this new initiative, present in the post-METAL comics, to encourage more writers to give artists greater hand in the books.

Which brings us to METAL, Snyder and Capullo’s magnum opus and the culmination of story threads they’ve been seeding in their books for the entirety of their run on Batman and, as described by both at the panel, “like being at the most amazing rock show in the world and getting to rock out with them.” As an event, METAL promises to be something that is big, personal, and reminds you of being a kid going into a comic book store and seeing something that looks too awesome not to read (Batman rides a dinosaur, at one point. Sold.) The event focuses on the Dark Multiverse, a realm of volatile, molten nightmares that are being plucked out by the main (unrevealed) villain and used to invade our reality (beginning with the Dark Knights, nightmare versions of Batman’s fears and the product of him defeating the Justice League heroes and stealing their powers), and all the heroes both popular and obscure of the DC Universe coming together to fight back. With two prequel issues already out, you can already see how much of DC they’re pulling in, while still promising the event will stand alone (here’s hoping! Otherwise, I’ve got a lot of Hawkman reading to do…)

On a personal note, seeing Snyder and Capullo, who I’ve heard interviewed a number of times and avidly follow on Twitter, together on-stage was everything you could want it to be. Snyder came out in a bald cap, sunglasses, and goatee and imitated Capullo’s famous bravado for the first few minutes of the panel, leading Capullo to come out and imitate Snyder’s child-like earnesty (he’s known for declaring that every new arc is ‘the most personal story we’ve ever done’, and while he’s not wrong, the loving ribbing was like hanging out with two old friends). These guys are exactly who you’d hope they’d be and I couldn’t help feeling that this must be what it would have been like seeing a couple of the greats in conversation back in the day. I was grinning like an idiot when they revealed the Dark Knights and the crowd was grinning along with me. This felt like Comic Con proper: a bunch of comics fans getting together to whisper conspiratorially about their favourite characters and what was coming up for them. While I appreciate the ways the event has grown to include so many (I started going to Cons before I was back into comics, so myself included here), it was nice to get a taste of what these events began as. A comic book convention.

Throughout METAL, we’ll be meeting these new characters and new teams (several have already been name-dropped in the prequel issues) and the hope is that their involvement in METAL will hook readers and carry their interest beyond the event series (to their credit, Snyder and Capullo have a good track record with this, having introduced and championed Duke Thomas as one of Batman’s newest recruits and soon to have his own series The Signal, as well as new villains The Court of Owls, who have already made the leap to film in the animated feature Batman vs Robin and television in FOX’s delightful bonkers Gotham).

Details about these new characters were slim at the panel (ever mindful about spoilers), but here’s what we’ve got so far:

Damage: a hulking monster character that looks like a cross between The MAXX and The Hulk (already showing the effect of artist-first thinking, there’s a subtle visual element to the character that anything it touches gets damaged somehow); The New Challengers, characters with hourglasses tattooed on them that signal how long they have to finish a mission before they die (reset by completing it), that will have a LOST vibe; The Immortal Men characters inspired by the long history of the DC Universe and what characters who’d lived through it could bring to the story; Brimstone: a hellish demon looking character who will explore the horror side of the DC Universe; Sideways who reminds me a cross between Overwatch’s Tracer and Lucio and of whom we received no details; Silencer: a female assassin working with Talia al Ghuul and the League of Assassins; and The Terrifics: a team that is essentially DC’s answer to the Fantastic Four (who have been absent since Marvel’s Secret War event, largely due to bad blood between parent company Disney and Fox, who owns the rights to Fantastic Four) that promises classic high adventure and tonnes of heart.

The panel also included the surprise return of Jeff Lemire, the prolific artist/writer behind Essex County, The Secret Path (which he co-created with The Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie), Sweet Tooth, Roughnecks, and most recently of Marvel comics. Lemire will be working on the new Hawkman: Found book, which lead to a huge cheer from the assembled crowd.

But the greatest moment of all, was when a kid got up to ask a question…and proceeded to school the entire room with his encyclopaedic knowledge of the DC universe, most notably saying, “I don’t know if you noticed, but…” and proceeding to point out that Plastic Man’s costume in the promo image was the same colour scheme as Plastic Man’s son’s (the character Offspring). Lemire practically blushed before saying, “I DID notice that, it’s a big clue about the series.” The room exploded into cheers, moreso for this kid than for the news: he and his incredibly quick and acute love of these characters and comics had found something that a lot of people in the room (myself included) had missed, and reminded us of why and how we got into comics in the first place.

I’m always hesitant to get excited about new characters, but I am excited about the thought that has gone into them and the people DC has tapped to create them, and this – perhaps – is what the maturing of my comics palette looks like: years ago, it was just the characters I was interested in, but now that I’m getting to know the people behind the stories about those characters I enjoy, I’m starting to see where the real value and potential lies. There will always be good and bad stories about our modern mythological heroes, both in film and in comics: the trick is following the people you know can create the good ones.

We’ll see when Dark Matter launches later this year.

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