DC’s year-long super-hero epic, 52, is a significant exercise in myth-building on the publisher’s part. The weekly schedule and the effort to incorporate continuity elements from DC’s entire super-hero line must be daunting for the series’s four writers, several editors and many artists. It’s a massive undertaking, but one that’s clearly paying off for the publisher, as is evident in the monthly sales charts from Diamond Comic Distributors.
One of the reasons the book is proving to be such fun is that writers Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka and Mark Waid have included such a diverse (even odd) array of characters from throughout DC’s publishing history. The most recent issue features not only such well-known characters as Green Arrow, Martian Manhunter and Firestorm, but Ambush Bug and the Bulleteer.
After reading 52 Week Twenty-Four, it struck me that this title reminded me a lot of a guilty-pleasure comic book from my youth: DC Challenge. The brainchild of writer Mark Evanier, the notion was to tell an unpredictable, epic super-hero story, with each issue being penned and illustrated by different creators. Now, while, 52 reportedly has clear plans and plots to guide it from beginning to end, the challenge of DC Challenge was that each writer would have no idea what the previous issue’s scribe had planned. Each issue also ended with a cliffhanger intended by the writer to be seemingly impossible to resolve for the man at the helm of the next issue.
Obviously, DC Challenge differs radically from 52 in many ways. While 52 is produced on a rigorous schedule, DC Challenge was perpetually late — the result of new writers being forced to wait until he had read the previous issue’s finalized script before he could begin. DC Challenge, set in pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths continuity, began in 1985, with Crisis already well underway. It wouldn’t finish until new stories, set in DC’s new single shared universe, were being told. An emphasis on organization and meticulous continuity defines 52 in part, whereas DC Challenge was a series of seemingly random story ideas were forced into a single ending.
By all accounts, DC Challenge was a great deal of fun for writers Evanier, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, Dan Mishkin, Paul Kupperberg, Elliot S! Maggin, Mike W. Barr, Paul Levitz and Doug Moench. A story that started out with Earth’s alien heroes being hunted, persecuted and accused ended up incorporating Jonah Hex, Enemy Ace, Son of Vulcan and the Silent Knight. It was a bizarre exercise that one could argue was more about entertaining the creators than the readers, but it’s a campy, goofy book that celebrates the publisher’s diversity of characters and creators.
I believe 52 actually does have some traits in common with DC Challenge. Instead of 11 writers trying to outdo one another, we have four. C’mon, can’t you imagine noted continuity buffs as Waid, Johns and Morrison trying to outdo one another? Super-Chief turned up in the two most recent issues of 52. Why? The character actually contributed little to the plot (so far, anyway), but his inclusion does incorporate color and fun. And I’m guessing his presence is the result of one 52 writer’s challenge to another or the others to include such an odd figure.
DC Challenge featured a multitude of different art teams, and 52… well, I’m not sure how many different art teams have contributed thus far, but it certainly feels like a dozen or so by now.
Another distinguishing characteristic of DC Challenge was the inclusion of text pages in which the previous issue’s writer commented on how his successor continued the plot, even suggesting how he would have done things differently. Now, we don’t see any kind of creative commentary in the pages of any particular issue of 52, but this is a different time. With breakdown artist Keith Giffen’s roughs posted on DC’s website and 52 editors answering readers’ questions and providing teasers of coming issues, there’s definitely an interactive component that’s comparable to DC Challenge‘s editorials.
52 has been a gamble from the start for DC Comics, one that’s definitely paying off. It’s not only a gamble in terms of its usual publishing practices, but it’s a creative experiment that seems to be working fairly well. There’s been some talk from DC that another ambitious project — perhaps a biweekly book — will follow. I have no doubt that Marvel Comics is eyeing 52‘s success and is brainstorming new formats and creative experiments of its own.
Wouldn’t it be entertaining and cool to see the DC Challenge format revived? Mind you, pretty much the entire series would have to be in the can before a publisher could release the first issue, but DC and Marvel often announce projects a year ahead of their publication (Stephen King’s Dark Tower, anyone?).
There it is, super-hero storytellers: a challenge. It’d be something if someone picked up that spandex gauntlet.
God, that sounded lame.