In the course of talking to comic creators this year, I started to think about their unique talents and what I think they would be best suited to. Inspired by all kinds of wonderful ideas I’ve seen online and heard from creators, I’ve put together my New 52. These are the 52 books I would publish if DC’s offerings were up to me and, as my friends and I have had a good time discussing them, I thought I would share them with you.

I tried to consider the actual feasibility of these titles, not only in the sense of immediate sales but in their ability to expand DC’s brand long-term. I also recognize that this is a dramatically simplified version of what DC actually has to do. As such, I made a couple of rules for myself.

First, as I don’t have the same knowledge of the creators’ availability and timeliness as an actual editor, I decided that I would allow myself access to any writer currently working in comics, but that I could only assign a creator to one book. Second, I tried not to put a writer on the same book that they’ve already worked on, though some were moved to similar concepts or allowed to expand short work they’ve already done. Finally, while an actual relaunch might do well to include some new books, I limited myself to preexisting titles and IPs for this project.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, on why I’m right, why I clearly screwed up, who should be illustrating the series, etc. But, regardless, I hope you enjoy.

As the Golden Age petered out, the superhero genre began to decline. A few survived, while others were reborn for the Silver Age, but in the interim another genre took root. Between the Golden and Silver Ages was the era of the Western.

Riding the wave of popular interest, DC retitled the Justice Society’s All-Star Comics to All-Star Western and began introducing cowboy heroes to their universe. You can see some pretty distinct trends of the era in these comics and many of the characters have faded into relative obscurity, but the success of the New 52 revival of the title proves that there’s still a market for a western book if it’s well written.

 

ALL-STAR WESTERN BY JASON AARON

Stories are frequently labeled by the structure they obey or the setting they play out in. Fantasy, for instance is more or less a setting; you can have all kinds of fantasy stories. Mystery is a kind of story; there can be a Fantasy Mystery. But Westerns are interesting partly because they’re both a setting and a type of story.

The original All-Star Western technically embraced both definitions, telling stories set in that unclear haze of a concept we call the Old West and a handful of similar stories set elsewhere in America. That gives us options, but, for this revival, I think it’s best to place the emphasis on the setting and not worry if we’re meeting our gun duel quotas.

This decision also has at least a little to do with the format of the book. The two volumes of All-Star Western were spotlight books with featured headliners. Sometimes the book would include one long story and others two shorter stories. Charming as I find the concept, this All-Star Western can’t afford to not know who its stars are. In fact, if yesterday’s installment would draw primarily on Wonder Woman for inspiration, this series would look to the New 52 for its own. While there was a Jonah Hex series going by the name All-Star Western, I actually think the best model for this series would be Demon Knights (a book ironically described by its writer as a medieval Magnificent Seven, a Western that was itself inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Genre is a tangled web, my friends). Like that series, I see All-Star Western as an ensemble series, bringing together some of DC’s greatest characters from a very different era.

A time when men were men, girls were men, and sideburns were sideburns…

But while Demon Knights was a tale of swords and souls eternally retold, set in Britain and written by an Englishman, we’re going to need someone who understands Amur’ca to make this one work. I think that should be Jason Aaron. As Bryan K. Vaughan wrote in the introduction to the first volume of Scalped,

“Jason [Aaron] isn’t just a great writer who happens to be American, he’s a great writer largely because he is American.

And before all the international readers out there start tucking their Euros back into their wallets, let me be clear that I’m not talking about rah-rah jingoistic bullshit. If you’ve read THE OTHER SIDE, Jason’s staggeringly beautiful Vietnam story, you know that he’s able to write about the United States with both the burning passion and the uniquely vitriolic rage that’s difficult to balance if you didn’t gestate inside the loving belly of this cruel beast.”

Based on an admittedly incomplete knowledge of Aaron’s work, I have to agree with Vaughan’s assessment. In fact, I would say that it extends beyond just America, Jason Aaron is a writer fascinated by the bullshit lie we in America call ‘The Majority’.

I capitalize that because it clearly doesn’t care about statistics. Women outnumber men but firmly remain outside The Majority and an American can walk off a plane for a safari into an entire country, an entire continent, full of Minorities.

By any modern metric Jason Aaron is, to my knowledge, a privileged soul. White, male, American, heterosexual, cis-gendered, unafraid of impending poverty, to all appearances he is The Majority. But the thing about Jason Aaron’s books that makes them work is that he’s lived that experience and seen what it’s like and knows what’s rotten about it, what needs to be cut out.

From his extensive work with Wolverine to the critically acclaimed Scalped to the female-led Thor he just launched to the Penguin one-shot he contributed to DC’s Joker’s Asylum anthology, Aaron’s stories have tended to pick apart modern masculinity like a bitter vulture on a corpse. As I alluded, Scalped is a similar creature, a gritty noir-tinged reminder of how we Anglos have treated our ‘hosts’. There is a real ferocity in there and it’s powerful stuff, but Aaron knows to nest it in humor and, most crucially within the very structures of power that he turns his scathing eye upon to drive it home to the Majority audience.

What exactly makes an “honorable man” is a crucial question for many of Aaron’s projects.

I really like that for this series. While it may reek of Northeastern arrogance, Western stories are of a very specific time, in actuality and popularity, that tends to reward nostalgic thinking at the expense of actual history. Put simply, it tends to be a very white and male centric genre, or at least it does in the form that reaches the general public. While it shouldn’t be the primary focus of this series (I’d actually love to do that book in some theoretical wave 2 of the New Year’s 52, though I would hope we wouldn’t need one for quite some time), I’d have to insist that the series broaden its horizons beyond the standard archetype of the Western in that regard and I think Aaron presents a good balance of deconstructing such ideas without alienating readers who aren’t interested in the perceived preachiness of social justice.

Yes, that’s a white man dressed like a stereotypical ‘Indian’ trying to scalp a supposed pacifist selling a gatling gun to an enemy of the Union army. To say DC’s Western books have some… complicated baggage when it comes to race might be an understatement…

It helps that books like Scalped and Southern Bastards have shown Aaron to have an understanding of the South and the situation of Native Americans. The South and the West have long been connected in America. Particularly considering the biggest character to come out of All-Star Western, I imagine that will be a good skill for our writer to have.

I’d also mention that Aaron has demonstrated an appreciation for the role of the past in stories. Obviously all stories draw on their pasts, but Aaron’s made it a big part of many of his characters, such as Dashiell Badhorse in Scalped, Wolverine (notably in the Red Right Hand arc), and the entire premise of Thor: God of Thunder. Working in a historical setting, especially one employing mythic time, and featuring many heroes with dramatic pasts, this trait of Aaron’s also seems appropriate for All-Star Western.

And before I get back to the book itself, I should reiterate that Aaron’s comedy isn’t all black. While much of it is built on the past suffering of his heroes, Aaron is not only capable but seemingly drawn to uplifting and humorous stories. Especially on team books, humor can be an essential device in communicating exposition and character and it’s nice to know that Aaron is a known quantity in this regard.

Thanks to the boom in Western stories and the lack of any Batman-style breakout characters, DC has a wide selection of Western heroes. Admittedly some of them could probably use an update and more than a few play into very similar clichés of the genre, but I think there are more than enough to support this series. The hope is that together they would encourage people to buy the book that none of them could hold on their own and that, in the process, DC would make new fans of the characters. While it might be hard to encourage such growth, due to the temporal divide between them and the rest of the DCU, that could create a greater demand for a series in that era going forward, which would in turn allow characters to gain fans, starting the cycle over. But of course that only works if the book sells, so who are the draws?

The Barbary Ghost is one of the few new additions to DC’s Western universe, but I think she’s got what it takes to make a name for herself.

As I said, there are a lot of good characters for Aaron to choose from, but there are definitely a few I’d be interested in seeing his take on. Names of particular note include: Bat Lash, Super-Chief, The Barbary Ghost, Scalphunter, Cinnamon, and Pow Wow Smith. The team would also necessarily include Jonah Hex and I might consider adding a reinvention or previous incarnation of the Vigilante in order to give us another familiar name. Obviously that’s too many for one team, and that’s only the short list, but it would depend on Aaron’s preferences.

The tricky part of assembling this team is how similar many of the characters are to one another. Scalphunter and Jonah Hex are both white men raised by Native Americans while Pow Wow Smith is an NDN who choses to live among white people; Cinnamon and the Ghost are both out for revenge on the men who killed their fathers; Vigilante, Cinnamon, Hex, and Pow Wow Smith are all primarily noted for their marksmanship; heck, Cinnamon and Pow Wow both justify their tacky names by saying that they hate it but can’t get people to stop calling them that! This is by no means the limit to the similarities, either. There are a lot of other characters who fall into these categories, but we could be here all day that way.

Regardless, how to give the team enough individuality? Well, diversity of character is a good argument for the pacifistic Bat Lash. The Barbary Ghost’s Chinese background opens up a different western experience and her explosive skills provide a different visual and strategic identity on the team. Pow Wo- Ok, not calling him that anymore- Ohiyesa Smith actually started in Detective Comics and is renowned for his detective skills, plus he’s actually a real Native American, which is surprisingly rare it seems. Saganowhana, who I would have to insist not go by his English name, Super-Chief, is actually an Algonquin (or Iroquois, it seems a little bit confused) from the 15th century, but his Manitou Stone has given him many superhuman powers, including an extended lifespan, making it possible for him to join the group. It would certainly add something different to the group’s dynamic and having an out-and-out superpowered brawler would provide him a distinct place in combat, but I’d understand if Aaron or the editors didn’t want to throw in a sole superpowered character.

Jonah Hex also presents unique problems and advantages. Obviously any DC Western series is going to feature Hex, it’s just a poor marketing move not to. After all, Hex is the only non-superhero DC character to receive his own live-action feature film, poorly received as it was. Hex is also a pretty great addition to a team dynamic as long as you can justify his sticking around. He’s surly, skilled, atheistic, and knowledgable, all things that would make him a good addition. That said, I think Jonah Hex is a much stronger supporting character than a lead. I don’t know that this series will really have a proper lead, but Hex strikes me as the Batman of this team, less likely to change than his peers and always quick to turn out a deadpan quip or judgmental comment. Given his role, I could even see Hex’s backstory being tweaked slightly to set him apart. I’m sure there are die-hard fans who could explain to me why I’m wrong (and I encourage them to), but I don’t know that being raised by Indians adds all that much to Hex’s character. Doing so would free Scalphunter up as an option for the team (I think I’d have to institute a one white guy raised by Natives who becomes the best in the tribe per book rule), though I could also see Scalphunter rebranded as a Kiowa, himself, possibly under a new identity or at least as ‘Savage’. I’m also not sure that on a team book it’s as important to walk the awkward tightrope of having Hex be a Confederate soldier but totally not down with the slavery. Obviously there were plenty of men in that situation in the Civil War but it feels a lot less like an accurate history than an attempt to be both edgy and safe and I’d encourage this book to do something about that one way or the other.

The fact that I’m able to just ramble on with various non-ideas about these characters demonstrates how much potential there is in them. Imagine what an actual writer of Aaron’s caliber could do with them!

Though the Western may not be the dominant paradigm again any time soon, I think there’s definitely at least one space for it in the New Year’s 52. Aaron’s proven himself on a myriad of crime stories and superhero books that connect to the likely themes of the book and his indie comics are more than respected enough to draw attention to one of the line’s outliers.

Tomorrow… The DC Universe’s premier badass spreads her wings.

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