I realize at this point that Outsiders has become my fixation in the same manner as the late Nightwing Was for Tucker. That's OK: I freely admit this comic fascinates me. Why does it exist? Why does it continue to exist when there is no justifiable reason for it to do so? It doesn't sell. It changes creative teams every other month. It changes premise about as often. All it really does is tie-up half-a-dozen moderately recognizable second- and third-string characters who someone at DC thinks should be regularly featured . . . somewhere. But if this is really the best they can think of to do with Black Lightning, Metamorpho and the Creeper? Well, maybe they should just let them lay fallow for a while. And we're not even going to mention Katana, Looker, Halo and Geo-Force, who might as well change their collective name to "we have no popular appeal whatsoever."
(OK, I admit I actually like Halo and Looker. They're have identifiable personalities as well as some small potential - especially Halo in her current iteration - but contemporary DC doesn't have a great track record - in terms of taking underperforming characters and refurbishing them by plugging them into compelling ensemble casts - in the same way that Marvel lately has. Just look at Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers: The Initiative for great examples of how to effectively and consistently rehabilitate Z-list characters. DC hasn't had anything like that since 52, and the lack of successful spin-offs indicates that even that series was only partially successful as a rehabilitation engine. End of digression.)
So here we are with another new beginning, another new creative team . . . and the result is strangely schizoid. On the one hand, the book actually does seem to have a new direction and a legitimate new tone - on the other hand, the new direction doesn't make sense and the new tone is just flat-out unpleasant. The new premise is that Geo-Force wakes up one day and decides he's become a joke and is going to become a more effective monarch for the little pissant imaginary country he rules, and in the process turn the Outsiders into an arm of Markovia's newly-muscular foreign policy and defense apparatus. (I think it's called Markovia? I can't remember and I can't be bothered to look it up.) So far so good, except for the fact that no one else in the book is Markovian - everyone else is an American citizen, except for Katana who is Japanese. So, um, why are they sticking around? There are even conversations in this book about the fact that multiple team members have no reason to stick around - so why are they going to stick around and be a part of this new iteration? Especially since their "friend" Brion is acting like a douchebag and in the process severing ties with Batman's extended family? The only reason the team ever existed in its current form was to pick up after Batman's sloppy seconds, so . . . why is Black Lightning going to stick around? So he can risk losing his American citizenship by fighting for a foreign government whose new national policy is overtly belligerent to that of the United States?
Does this make sense to anyone? It really is hard to avoid the impression that this book exists for no other reason than that it currently makes just slightly more money than it loses. But then there's the fact that this is the first issue to be written by DC EIC Dan Didio - which means, basically, that he has taken a personal interest in ensuring this comic does not fail. Again, why? Why is it so important that this comic succeed when it has been proven time and time again that there is nothing but a big pile of steaming consumer apathy where a loyal readership should be? The other option is that Didio really likes writing but couldn't justify giving himself a vanity project unless it was something as low-tier as a failing book like this, a dogsbody assignment that he could take over with little in the way of fuss? I don't actually think there's anything wrong with that: most people working in comics are there because they like comics, and this decade's tendency against having editors freelance on the side marks a very conscious break with accepted practice. Mark Gruenwald, Bob Harris and Tom DeFalco all produced some very fun and readable comics when they were occupying the top three spots in Marvel editorial, for example. Obviously Dan Didio is no Mark Gruenwald, but if he wants to put his money where his mouth is by putting his own work out for public consumption, more power to him. This is a rocky start, no doubt about it, but I live to be surprised.
Why does this book exist? Another good question, only this time there is a reasonable answer: for some odd reason, after having languished in low-selling purgatory for quite a while, Deadpool got moderately hot, so they decided to start pumping as much Deadpool onto the streets as they possibly could. This would be a bad thing, except for the fact that - um - this is actually a very good book.
I know, I know - what the hell? But bear with me: if you absolutely, positively had to have a Deadpool book, what should it be? Why, the most over-the-top, consciously, willfully absurd and exploitive action comic conceivable. Whereas Wolverine, for instance, is at least a nominally sober and self-serious figure (and his endless spin-offs are therefore comically self-serious and unreadable), Deadpool is comic relief, a joke even in his own book. All the people working on the new crop of Deadpool books seem to accept the idiocy of their premise and are proceeding accordingly: no one is trying to write any kind of "grim & gritty" Dark 'Pool Returns, not yet at least. This book here? It's got Deadpool (with his disembodied zombie head in tow) being shot around the multiverse and encountering alternate universe versions of himself, including a humorless hard-ass Nick Fury version, a female version, and even a Wild West version. In the process, we've got a seamless switch between the art of Kyle Baker and Rob Liefeld - yeah, bet you didn't see that one coming. It's positively moronic, and yet it works as sort-of a low wattage Ambush Bug - absolutely wallowing in the worst excesses of crass T&A action comics while at the same time mercilessly lampooning them. It actually seems as if the people involved in this book have put some thought into making Deadpool: Merc With A Mouth a fun, enjoyable comic book in the most unabashedly populist manner possible. I don't even mind the fact that Bong Dazo only shows up for three pages - he's my new favorite mainstream artists, just about, primarily because he seems to be having the time of his life with every page he draws.
How long can it last? I dunno: Lobo was funny, too, once upon a time . . . right up until the moment he wasn't. But in the duration, back when they were putting out massive quantities of Lobo spin-offs, one-shots and prestige-format books (roughly 1991-1994), some interesting stuff snuck out under the aegis of good creators who had some fun with the premise. Deadpool is a similar character who fulfills a similar function, story-wise, so maybe we'll see some similarly interesting results from this current commercial overexposure.
I think at some point there must have been a bar bet between J. Michael Straczynski and someone in DC editorial that he couldn't possibly write a series so consistently bad as this - and every month as it gets progressively worse, he wins like, I dunno, ten bucks or something. Here we have the eighteen-billionth hero-has-to-save-the-Joker's-life story, only this time with the Atom. And the story actually begins OK, with a group of doctors telling the Atom that only he can save the Joker's life, and the Atom saying "Hell. To. The. No." The story should have ended there, with the Atom watching M*A*S*H reruns and falling asleep during Leno. But no, he eventually assents, goes in, saves the Joker's life even though he gets a headful of the Joker's memories in the process.
All of which adds up to - wait, wait a second. I thought the Joker didn't have anything resembling a canonical origin, and that this was part of the character's mystique? Now that Ray Palmer has seen the Joker's childhood and family life, with no caveats for it being a possible origin or a possible lie, that sort of changes the character's dynamic. "Hey, Bruce, you know all those times you tried to get to the bottom of the Joker's life and family? Well, have I got a story to tell you!" Seems like a big revelation for such an unimportant story.
But back to the crux of the action. The reason this story exists is due to a wrinkle in the makeup of contemporary super comics, wherein the heroes' moral code was formed in an age of sanitized children's entertainment, and became an absolutely inextricable part of their personality makeup, even as time passed in the real world and their villains' schemes metastasized into murderous, genocidal rampages. The only reason a character like the Atom has to save the Joker's life is his own personal ethical squeamishness, which doesn't even make any kind of sense - are heroes just so incredibly, overly sensitive to their own ethical development that they would lose sleep over passively letting a mass murderer die of an otherwise incurable disease? OK, let's see a show of hands: how many people would expend a lot of effort to deliver AIDS medication to Ted Bundy? I'm about as far left as you can get, I don't approve of the death penalty in 99/100 instances*, I'm 9/10ths a pacifist - but I'm not going to lose one iota of sleep over the life of a psycho serial killer. If you have a clean shot at at John Wayne Gacy? You take the shot. That's not something I think I would regret at all, you know? So when the Atom finishes by saying "I have to save his life, or I'll be no better than him!" it doesn't really make any sense. Or rather, it only makes sense if you consider that these books only exist as little passion plays put on for the sole purpose of testing the heroes' moral fiber. Which, I know, technically they are, and the endless citizen bystanders in these books are just lines on paper - but still. They might as well be admitting that no one else on the planet is as important as them, and that they see no ethical responsibility beyond the consequences of those actions for which they are directly responsible. The categorical imperative - who still does that? The Justice League, apparently.
The Joker? He should die because what is wrong with him is so far outside the spectrum of normal human behavior that his continued existence in any capacity is a threat to the safety of the body politic. And if you think it's wrong to compare real-life butchers with the Joker, it is, but that's the explicit comparison DC makes every time they put out a story with a mass-murdering Joker being held to fairyland ethical standards. Most people, if they saw someone like Albert Fish or Gacy or Bundy walking around on the streets, would not argue the ethics of putting them down like a rabid dog, and neither would you. If Batman has qualms about that, well, who the fuck elected him, anyway?