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DC’s 2021 Review Part 2: Future State, Infinite Frontier, & Fear State

1.2.0: This Year in Comics

2021 featured three big picture moments. The year opened with Future State, a two-month event that gave readers a sneak peek into the future. Then DC began their soft reboot with Infinite Frontier #0, which spun out into various series and the event mini-series Infinite Frontier by Joshua Williamson. At the end of the year, the Batman family came together for a big story combining the past year’s Gotham plot threads from Fear State. Each of these 2021 events had positives and negatives, but overall they reminded fans of what the DC universe can be.

Previously: Part One – The Road to DC Infinite Frontier

A lot of these changes in Future State and Infinite Frontier came from a large editorial change. Alongside Dan DiDio’s firing, DC hired Daniel Cherry III as General Manager and promoted Marie Javins to Editor-in-Chief. Both of these diverse editorial executives were a sign of change in DC. On top of that, DC cut ties with many sexual harassers, sexual groomers, and other problematic individuals, clearing out toxic staff who took up a lot of the space. DC made changes to make sure that their future would be healthy and diverse.

The new slate of writers in 2021 represented a seismic shift in the industry as new voices got to share their ideas. Many longtime DC comics writers from Rebirth left or took on reduced roles in favor of new people from film like Tim Sheridan and Robbie Thompson, indie writers like Stephanie Phillips, and up and coming queer writers of color like Vita Ayala. Javins also helped writers who were on smaller books or short runs get larger ongoing stories, including Ram V and Mariko Tamaki. Twelve of the eighteen launch books of Infinite Frontier had main stories written by writers who had only been at DC for a year at most. The only veteran launch writers: James Tynion, Brian Michael Bendis, Joshua Williamson, Tom Taylor, and Gene Luen Yang. Many of the veterans had previously written “B tier” titles for DC, proving themselves to be worthy of the top-selling comics. With the exception of Bendis, all were younger, newer voices in the comics industry.

As such, Infinite Frontier is being led by the next generation of comics writers – a generation ready to change what DC could be. From the biggest focus on the Wonder Woman family in comics history to introducing and building up new diverse characters to giving queer characters roles they have historically not been allowed, this new group of writers spent the year changing DC for the better.

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1.2.1: Future State

As exciting as having a bold, fresh, diverse set of new writers is, there are some worries that inevitably come up about skill. Many great authors and writers of film struggle to write for comics because the medium is so different. Pacing, clarity, knowing when to rely on visuals versus words, panel layouts, etc. are new skills that require practice, and with a bunch of brand-new teams, it was fair to be worried about how they would do. One of my favorite comics writers is Ta-Nehisi Coates (I may or may not have taken a college class about him where we just read his writing for a whole semester), who notably really struggled with his first couple of comics. They could be confusing and hard to get through, but you could tell the potential was there. By the time he got to issue #4 and #5, his Black Panther run quickly became one of my favorite comics stories ever. However, it took some time for him to translate his prose and essay writing skills to the comics medium. In many ways, Future State was the perfect solution to this problem.

On top of helping writers practice using the comics medium before the ongoings started, DC also used this as an opportunity to figure out and practice organizational work. The premise of Future State was a two-month event full of two- or four-issue mini-series where each writer would give a sneak peek at where their Infinite Frontier run could end after the passage of five, ten, twenty thousand, or millions of years. At its foundation, Future State was based on four timelines: Justice League, Batman, Superman, and the Titans. Each of these timelines told multiple stories alongside multiple creators, from the main story to the various back stories. And various writers had different approaches to this writing challenge.

The Batman Family told the story of the Magistrate, a private police force, and Gotham under their control. Masks are illegal, but that didn’t stop the Batfamily from fighting back. Every story took place on a timeline (sometimes intentionally and sometimes not) that led to the Batman story feeling like a mystery. Piecing together the timeline, readers begin to see a narrative about the rise of the resistance as they start to fight back with a series of victories. We got to see new writers like Oscar-winning John Ridley IV reveal that the next Batman is none other than Jace Fox, and we learned of Red Hood’s deep undercover operation. The Batman Family built a timeline full of compelling tools and interesting character developments, a story that would eventually continue in May with Future State: Gotham.

The Titans timeline, on the other hand, took a very different approach to storytelling. Four unconnected stories were eventually revealed to be a part of one timeline, beginning with the corruption of Wally and leading to the eventual end of the universe over millions of years. An unknown event in the Titans Academy leads to the unleashing of the Four Horsemen, who corrupt Wally. (Barry later discovers Wally can’t be saved in Future State: Flash.) The remnants of the Titans from Titans Academy, alongside Red X, fight the Four Horsemen and trap them in Rock of Eternity (Future State: Teen Titans). The only way to trap them is to lock Billy Batson in the Rock: as long as Billy remains chained to the Rock and Shazam never resummons him, the Four Horsemen will be unable to escape. But in the future, a version of the Justice League notices that Captain Marvel never becomes Billy and that he’s been killing people at night. So they possess him with the help of Deadman and make him say “Shazam!”, thereby unleashing the Four Horsemen on the world. Millions of years later, the Four Horsemen have evolved and started conquering the universe, killing everything except Black Adam’s utopic planet. Realizing the universe is over, Black Adam travels back to 2021 to warn Billy of what will happen. While most of the eight issues aren’t great, the Titans team used an incredibly interesting technique to tell the whole story, which sets up the premise of the Titans Academy as “Will they prevent the unleashing of the Four Horsemen now that Billy knows he needs to stop it, or will they fail and let the Academy be destroyed?”

The Superman and Justice League stories took less ambitious approaches. Superman focuses on the El Legacy across the timeline, from Jonathan Kent, who is making mistakes as Superman, to the far future, where the House of El stands as a major force against oppression and Darkseid. The Justice League timeline features a bunch of new characters including Yara Flor, a new Brazilian Wonder Woman, Andy Curry, Arthur’s daughter (now grown up), and Jess Chambers, a new non-binary Flash from Earth-11. Each of these new characters proved to be breaths of fresh air, with Yara Flor being a particular standout. Impulsive and full of ego, she is very independent and feels very fleshed out. She was so beloved by DC that they wrote a pilot TV episode for her (though it ultimately wasn’t picked up).

Other than writing, however, DC comics had a second problem that Future State solved: giving editorial time to plan. One issue with Rebirth was that editors rarely had time to sit and spend a month planning the goals of the coming year of stories. Future State gave DC the opportunity to prep and make sure that 2021 would be more organized, with all stories having a direction that will connect with other books in the long term.

While many of these stories were kinda rough (as expected for many of these writers’ first published comics), there are a couple of stellar gems including Future State: Swamp Thing, Future State: Justice League, Future State: Immortal Wonder Woman, Future State: Wonder Woman, and Batman: Dark Detective.

Make sure to check out my reading order of Future State, which tells you the order to read comics in so you can follow the whole timeline of stories.

1.2.2: The Promise of Infinite Frontier

In the lead up to Infinite Frontier, DC treated us to four images that teased multiple “families” of comics. Each image included the characters that would be relevant to the group of comics: Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and the Justice League. The most notable inclusion was the Wonder Woman family. Historically, Wonder Woman hasn’t gotten enough support from DC to have her own “family” of books, so the tease of a Wonder Woman family was surprising and exciting. Eventually, this teaser resulted in three books: Wonder Woman, Wonder Girl, and Nubia and the Amazons. This was an unprecedented level of effort into showing Wonder Woman’s supporting characters. Finally, the whole cast got to shine.

Other than being a beautiful drawing by Travis Moore, this image highlights the future for Wonder Woman in exciting ways that would come to represent what Infinite Frontier has been about. The most important character in the teaser is Nubia, a Wonder Woman character created in the ‘70s that DC more or less forgot. In the last decade, she appeared in a total of only ten issues in New 52 and Rebirth, where she had guest roles and appearances, but never a story where she was the focus. With Infinite Frontier, things changed as Hippolyta planned to be the next Wonder Woman. Hippolyta appointed Nubia to the role of Queen of the Amazons, placing a character of color into a position of power. The title of Queen of the Amazons is especially important as the Wonder Woman comics head into the event Trial of the Amazons. DC actively gave Nubia a central role after she had been minimized and/or excluded for many decades.

Nubia is a great example of how DC is changing with Infinite Frontier. Nubia, a queer black woman, is replacing the leader of Themyscira and even getting her own series in Nubia and the Amazons by queer black writer Vita Ayala, and co-written by Stephanie Williams. DC is elevating Nubia not by making her Wonder Woman and forcing readers to feel like Diana is gone, but rather by giving her a driving role in the larger universe that is of equal importance to Diana. DC has learned from Marvel about the best story approach to elevating minorities, following a similar pattern to Marvel’s All-New All-Different Era. Marvel initially elevated minority characters by replacing traditional characters (like Sam Wilson replacing Steve Rodgers), then walked back those developments. DC is taking a different approach by giving the newer characters comics and roles that work in parallel with the older established characters.

Take for example the biggest DC comics news story of the year: Superman coming out as gay. Jonathan Kent is a newer queer character who is in essence creating a role parallel to his father’s. The story that Tom Taylor is telling about Jonathan Kent is similar to stories that could have been written about Clark Kent, but with a slight Gen Z and queer twist. Instead of Lois Lane, he has a new boyfriend, Jay Nakamura. Instead of the outdated “Truth, Justice, and the American Way,” the new phrase is “Truth, Justice, and a Better Tomorrow.”

At a broad level, though, the story still feels like what readers expect from Superman stories. Jonathan Kent is still facing similar foes to those that Clark dealt with, as is evidenced in Superman: Son of Kal-el 2021 Annual, where Lex Luthor came back into the picture and played chess with Superman. Rather than replacing Clark, Jonathan Kent is protecting Metropolis, giving the first Superman the ability to fight a cosmic foe. Superman’s current arc, “The Warworld Saga,” has been built up as “the biggest Superman event since The Death and Return of Superman” (DC’s October Solicits). Among the core premises of The Warworld Saga is the idea that Clark is getting older and slowly losing his powers. With a younger Superman keeping Metropolis safe, Clark gets to tell a new type of story that leans on his age and the ‘80s nostalgia that keeps comics in a referential, looking-back type of story. Via the inclusion of legacy characters, DC is able to tell new stories with developments for both Clark and Jonathan Kent that feel natural and meaningful.

Similarly, Batman is undergoing a series of changes that showcase the parallel developments that DC is moving towards. While Bruce fights the Magistrate and Scarecrow, John Ridley IV has been developing a new minority character to be Batman as well. Jace Fox, formerly known as Tim Fox before changing his name to reflect how he is a different person, has been slowly moving towards being “the next Batman.” In The Next Batman: Second Son, Ridley fleshes out the Fox family, which serves as Jace’s supporting cast, while also setting up who Jace is and what he values. He is different from Bruce in his views on money, and has a different perspective from his father about the intersection of money and race. As Jace slowly approached putting on the cowl, he became a more fleshed-out and nuanced character. In I Am Batman #0, Jace puts on the suit, but he isn’t replacing Bruce as Batman. Instead, in 2022, Jace will be the Batman of New York City with his own criminals, culture, and supporting cast. Jace is receiving a role that will serve to tell Batman stories without replacing Bruce outright. DC’s inclusion of these parallel roles works because the legacy characters are taking roles that do not interfere with their counterpart while still being important and influential.

Outside of these parallel characters, other characters with smaller roles are also seeing more diversity. In the Wonder Woman family, Yara Flor is becoming a new Wonder Girl and expanding the Wonder Woman mythology to include Amazonians from the Amazon Rainforest, while in Nubia and the Amazons, there is a new Amazon who is a trans woman. In Batman: Urban Legends, Tim Drake is exploring his sexuality after over a decade of queercoding, and Cassandra Cain is getting to be Batgirl again alongside Stephanie Brown. On top of that, Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy have kissed for the first since the awful Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy mini-series purposefully tried to reestablish Harley and Ivy as being in a heteronormative friendship.

In Aquaman: The Becoming, Jackson Hyde is getting a larger focus, while in Teen Titans Academy, new students include a non-binary effigy named Stitch, disabled black woman Bolt, and potential confirmation that Miguel Montez, the hero from 2019’s Dial H for Hero, is queer (he asks Matt Price “to go out with me” in Teen Titans Academy #8). In Action Comics, gay man Midnighter had a back story, and in Green Lantern, the plot primarily revolves around three black Green Lanterns. Meanwhile, Lobo and Crush is primarily a story about a lesbian breakup. DC is making considerable effort to diversify their line-up of heroes and while there is still work to do, the company deserves a lot of praise for that.

In September, twelve titles featured primarily POC casts, compared to three the year before. Meanwhile, seven titles this year featured queer characters whose plot focused on a queer relationship in some capacity, as opposed to a single story the year before. With fifty in-universe issues releasing in September, 24% of DC stories had BIPOC leads/casts and 14% featured characters whose queerness was a factor in that year’s story. In total, 34% of DC’s line-up in September featured non-cis straight white characters, which means DC’s representation has more than tripled over the pastyear. On top of this, DC has announced plans to expand diversity in hiring. The Milestone Initiative, which was announced at DC Fandome 2021, revealed that DC plans on helping talented new black creatives learn the skills needed to succeed in comics and find jobs in the industry. With the efforts they have made, DC is not only moving in the right direction, but setting an example for other companies to follow.

DC solved other major problems from Rebirth, too. Continuity and connectivity were often confusing and difficult to explain in Rebirth. In Infinite Frontier, there have been minimal continuity issues. Instead, the comics are working together to set up plot points for each other. For example, in Suicide Squad, Robbie Thompson and Ram V worked together to tell a story between Thompson’s Suicide Squad and Ram V’s Swamp Thing. Amanda Waller, wanting to test Peacemaker’s loyalty, sent him to get a piece of Levi Kamei as the Swamp Thing. Peacemaker’s interaction with Swamp Thing happens primarily off-page in Suicide Squad with the exception of the final moments of the Peacemaker/Swamp Thing fight. That moment leads directly into Peacemaker preparing to take down Waller. In Suicide Squad, readers get context about Waller’s motivations. But in the pages of Swamp Thing, Ram V tells an extended version of the fight, as well as how it affects Kamei’s psyche and helps change how he feels about being Swamp Thing. This crossover works because both writers were able to work together to tell a shared story with clear continuity between the two. Each series informs the crossover more and enables readers to get more out of it.

Even so, if a reader reads only one of the Infinite Frontier series, they can still enjoy it without needing to read the others. Smaller connections like this are part of how DC delivers on tighter continuity. I have already written about the Batman Family’s connectivity, but a great example of this is a plot from Catwoman that would lead directly into Harley Quinn and Catwoman coming together in a way that felt natural and right. When Wally West finally gets to be the Flash with the family he always wanted, DC makes sure that this change in his life is reflected: when he shows up in Teen Titans Academy #8, for example, he’s trying to see if the school is the right fit for his kids. When Roy Harper comes back to life, he goes to see the Roy Harper Titans Academy, and Titans Academy picks up on that plot thread only two months later. When Levi Kamei goes into the green, he encounters two different Ivys, which reflects the current events of Batman. Even many smaller moments, like Red Hood using his new weapons in Task Force Z after Chip Zdarsky’s “Red Hood: Cheer” from Batman: Urban Legends, help breathe life into the world and keep the universe feeling connected and important. When books work together, each one feels like it adds to your experience and makes reading more fun.

This faster delivery of plot threads is something that DC has really excelled at this year. When Darkseid was teased as the main villain of Infinite Frontier, that story was continued three months later. When Alan Scott came out to his family, we got to see his story continue in Infinite Frontier’s event and in the DC Pride Special. Roy’s return to comics occurred in March, and his next story was less than two months later. When Poison Ivy was revealed to have been stashed away, Catwoman got her out three issues later, and Harley Quinn arrived another three months later. While this pacing might seem slow compared to past DC projects, it is actually much faster than the last decade’s tempo.

A great example of slow plot development ruining momentum is Hickman’s X-Men run, where the Moira plot thread took over two years before showing the next development. When Doctor Oz captured Tim Drake in Rebirth’s Detective Comics, that plot thread wasn’t developed further for another twenty-six issues. A lot of casual fans who would have read Inferno if it had occurred at the end of the first year were no longer interested by the time it came around. While those stories were double shipped, taking over a year to develop a plot further can lead to readers losing interest and slows down the hype and momentum of a run. DC has clearly shown much more interest in faster plot threads . Moving into the second year of content, many of the big plots have planned conclusions and big developments coming in March.

There was one final major promise of Infinite Frontier that hasn’t necessarily played out great: fewer books. The opening line-up of Infinite Frontier had only nineteen monthly titles. At most, there were five books from DC that readers needed to check out each week. As such, readers could read everything without breaking the bank, and early on, it was common to read all of Infinite Frontier’s books in an hour. Fewer books helps keep continuity tighter. Each month, though, new series have been added, and readers have had a harder time following every development and story. DC went from nineteen books in March to thirty-nine in December. Some people argue that more stories can lead to more characters getting stories, but there are also stories that haven’t proved their importance to the larger universe like Suicide Squad: King Shark, Task Force Z, and Blue and Gold. DC didn’t follow through with maintaining manageable levels of content, and it is disappointing.

Many of these are mini-series, though, which serve a role that is more unique to typical eras. Each of these mini-series serves to highlight a character and then set a specific goal that will tie back in later. For example, Shazam by Tim Sheridan tells an important story to the plot of Teen Titans Academy. While focusing on Billy, the series also brings a clearer focus to the impending Future State plot thread, as Billy learns about what will happen in that timeline. Along the way, a new hero, Dane, gets significant developments that are clearly very important to Teen Titans Academy. The miniseries Aquaman: The Becoming and Black Manta will lead directly into Aquamen in 2022. In Checkmate, the presence of Lois Lane’s brother and the fight against Event Leviathan have direct effects on Bendis’s Justice League. These mini-series are more important than those of past eras, and as such, the books are more rewarding. These stories encourage readers to check them out by promising a small commitment, while still giving them a story worth their time.

1.2.3: Fear State

Fear State was the final major event of this year, and I think it’s the best constructed event of the last decade of comics. To be well constructed, an event must have answers to four fundamental questions. One: is there a lead up to the event that is compelling and sets the scene? Two: is the event’s main story compelling? Three: do the event’s tie-ins significantly affect the main story, without being so important that the main story can’t make sense without them? Four: are the consequences of the event significant?

The lead up to this event was phenomenal on a couple of different fronts. Almost every story in the Batman Family led to Fear State in one way or another. While Batman was the primary driver, Catwoman had an important role to play in setting up the Poison Ivy plot thread in Alleytown. Meanwhile, Harley Quinn focused on Hugo Strange and slowly revealed his connection to Simon Saint, and Detective Comics focused on Nakano. Each of these plot threads slowly connected together and led to the Magistrate invasion against Alleytown. From there the event split up into three primary stories: Alleytown, the Clocktower, and the main story. Each of these focused on a different element of Fear State and helped lead to the take down of the Magistrate, Seer, and Scarecrow.

The Alleytown story was the culmination of Ram V’s Catwoman run while also tying the Wight Witch plot together and concluding Harley’s efforts to find Ivy. The story managed to balance these goals across three different series while keeping each book consistent with readers both tonally and plot-wise. When the plot of Catwoman was necessary to read Harley Quinn, Harley did a meta-explanation of what readers missed, without requiring readers to buy the other book. Catwoman, on the other hand, purposefully made sure that Harley Quinn was present without making her story essential. In other words, reading either series helped your understanding of the events of Alleytown, but neither was required to enjoy the book.

The Clocktower story focused on the Batgirls, Nightwing, and Batwoman. Centered primarily onOracle’s watchtower, the story saw big consequences for Barbara and the Batgirls, while sharing multiple story beats with Nightwing and a moment with the Batwoman story. Similarly to the Alleytown story, none of the three stories require each other to be enjoyed while still having a meaningful impact on the plots and stories of each, and there are moments where the stories cross over and help your understanding of the events.

Then there is the main story, Batman #112-117, which somehow manages to bring together the many different plot threads that led to Fear State into a fun, connected story. It tried to give readers a bit of each of the Clocktower and Alleytown stories, while still balancing the Peacekeeper, Unsanity Collective, and Scarecrow’s stories into a cohesive book. For the most part, it succeeded. Unfortunately, the two biggest issues with the main story come from how quickly and suddenly the story wraps up, and how similar the story is to Joker War. The story is, in essence, a slow buildup to a second Peacekeeper-01 fight. However, the main villain of the event is Scarecrow. For the finale’s final fight not to be centered on Scarecrow, itcan feel underwhelming. Similarly, the final standoff between Miracle Molly and Batman didn’t land, as Miracle Molly’s character development up to this point doesn’t quite justify what happens at the end. While the event is well constructed and well planned, it doesn’t necessarily deliver the thrills that make the best events special.

Both Fear State and Joker War are stories about villains who take over Gotham City by scaring people with their respective gasses. While the Joker’s reasoning is unpredictable and chaotic, Scarecrow’s goals are less exciting. And while the Joker’s relationship to the Batman is long and storied, the Scarecrow’s is less so. Unfortunately, the villains of the event are less exciting and compelling than those in Joker War. This problem is further compounded due to a less than twelve month separation between Joker War‘s end and Fear State’s beginning. As such, many people complain that it is too early for another big Batman event. Even though the plot threads of Infinite Frontier have been leading to the big event, many fans felt that it occurred too soon. Personally, I think the build-up of the story and the connected nature of the Batman family this year merits the event’s presence. The Batman series have been more connected than Rebirth and encourage readers to read all the Batman books. On top of that, the events of Fear State have been clearly built up since Future State. As such, I feel like Fear State was a natural extension and finale of the story Tynion and crew have been crafting.

Nathan Payson:
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