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Truth, justice, and plenty of violence

By Bella English
Globe Staff / October 15, 2011

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Lois Lane shacking up? Superman graphically tortured in an electric chair? Batman and Catwoman having sex on a roof?

DC Comics has relaunched 52 of its comic book series, with popular characters and story lines starting over from scratch and getting a decidedly edgy makeover. In the six weeks since the rollout began, more than 5 million copies have sold, stimulating a stagnant market. DC officials say sales are the highest in 20 years.

But the changes aren’t pleasing everyone. The blogosphere is abuzz with complaints about the extreme violence, hypersexualized women, and bad language in the new issues - the sorts of things that the Superman of yore would have swooped in to conquer, never countenanced.

Long considered family entertainment, superheroes over the years have become darker and racier, geared more toward young adults than youths. Though the superhero makeovers aren’t as raw as some of the others DC has reissued - “Voodoo,’’ for instance, seems like soft porn - the content is nonetheless aimed at a more mature readership than ever.

“Comic book sales have been slipping in recent years, and we needed to make changes,’’ DC Comics copublishers Jim Lee and Dan DiDio said in a statement. “We needed to energize our existing fan base, reconnect with lapsed readers, and introduce our storytelling to people who know our characters from films and TV but have never read a comic book.’’

DC Comics and its main rival, Marvel Comics, introduced superheroes to generations of young readers - DC with Superman in 1939, Marvel with the Fantastic Four in 1961. Among DC’s other super characters are Batman, Catwoman, and Wonder Woman. Marvel’s roster includes Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Hulk, and Captain America. Marvel revamped some of its characters in the 1990s but has not done a complete overhaul like DC’s.

But readership has been dwindling over the years. Comic book sales, which have decreased steadily since 1996, plunged 27 percent from January 2010 to January 2011, according to Diamond Comics Distributors. DC is hoping to slow that trend, with the remake of its heroes.

Early indications are positive for DC. Justice League, the first re-release that came out on Aug. 31, sold out in five hours and has gone through four reprints, making it the highest-selling comic book from any publisher this year. Most of the comic books retail for $2.99.

“Every single [issue] went at least to a second printing, and that’s unheard of,’’ said Jaben Wyneken, a buyer for Newbury Comics’ 29 New England stores. The first reissue of Justice League sold 2,500 copies among Newbury customers; the last issue before the relaunch sold fewer than 200.

Of the new batch, one that has drawn much online attention is Red Hood and the Outlaws, which features a scantily clad heroine, Starfire, from the planet Tamaran. Dressed in little more than pasties and a thong, she was “born a princess, raised a slave.’’

In one scene, she asks a young man to have sex. He is happy to oblige and asks if there’s anything he needs to know “about making love to a Tamaranean.’’ She replies: “Just that love has nothing to do with it.’’

Sex is part of the storyline in several of the new comics, including Batman, Wonder Woman, Catwoman, and Superman.

In the Superman remake, the Daily Planet has been sold to a tabloid newspaper company with a reputation for illegal wiretaps and lies. Lois Lane is placed in charge of new media, but mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent resents the takeover. Later in the first issue, he drops in on Lois at home, only to find her with a half-naked guy. Downcast, Clark says goodbye and leaves. The story ends with Lois telling her overnight guest: “Shut up and get back in bed!’’

DC Comics rates its own stories, and the new series - like the old ones - are rated T (12 and up) or T+ (older teens). Children haven’t been the target audience of the mature superhero action comics for a generation, but the focus on older readers is growing more intense. Indeed, DC Comics has its own line of comics specifically for children, featuring E-rated (“Everyone’’) superheroes, like the Tiny Titans.

Many comic book stores have special sections for children. Chris Famulari, manager of New England Comics’ Norwood store, steers parents there first and answers any concerns.

“I feel as if I am the last line of defense,’’ he said. “I tell them if they have concerns, look through the book first.’’

Richard Rizzo, a Boston firefighter and a self-described comic book fanatic in his 40s, said he has some problems with the increased sex and violence in the new releases.

“Starfire used to be a very girly girl, a golden girl, and you have all these girl readers who grew up with her, and now she’s totally vamped-up, sexed-out, a very different character,’’ said Rizzo, who is attending the New York Comic Con this weekend. The new Superman is more violent, he said, and Batman more aggressive. “These are all geared to college kids and above.’’

At Newbury Comics in South Shore Plaza in Braintree, Adam Greenberg, 29, an engineer who lives in Duxbury, was buying some of the new releases. He said he hadn’t read many of the older DC comics and figured the new ones would offer “a good jumping-in point for me.’’

He has decided to drop Superman but will continue on with Batman, for now. The second issue of Superman is ultraviolent, he said. “They had him handcuffed to a chair, shocking him, doing medical tests on him,’’ Greenberg said. “I guess I’m not interested.’’

As for Batman, there’s also “tons of violence,’’ he said, adding that he doesn’t think either of those two comics are appropriate for young teens.

Other veteran readers feel betrayed by the new storylines.

“They don’t look familiar to me at all,’’ said Ed Rizzi, 27, of Randolph. “I like the original Batman and Superman.’’

David Irons, 22, has been reading comics since he was a teenager. When DC Comics announced the new rollout last summer, fans were “freaking out,’’ said Irons, who teaches at Thayer Academy in Braintree. So far, he said he likes what he sees. “Change is good sometimes,’’ he said.

One such change: Superman trading his tights for jeans. “Tights just didn’t seem that practical,’’ Irons said.

Bella English can be reached at english@globe.com.

DC Comics

relaunched 52

of its superhero

comic book series.