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Trouble with Comics

The New DC 51 - Action to Animal

So with the new 52 DC reboot/restart/re-imagining and with the joyful enthusiasm of “Hey it worked for Casino Royale and Batman Begins so it can work for us!!”,  the big question became this…

What to buy, what to buy, what to buy?  52 re-launches with a bunch of new creators.  What to buy?

Fortunately my local comic shop (the legendary and fabulous The Beguiling) was kind enough, like many shops, to lure people like me who were sitting on the fence into making a complete commitment: for one low price I would be able to purchase all 52 issues and save myself the hassle of making a decision.

So I figured “What the heck, why not?”  After all, enough of the books interested me that I may as well just kill that annoying curious cat and get them all.

And, yes, that means when faced with making a decision or making a commitment, I went for the non-decision commitment.  Oh if only ice cream and women were that uncomplicated.

My critical measuring stick for the 52 books is therefore not equally balanced: there are those books I would have bought, the ones I was somewhat curious about, and the ones I would not have touched even if someone had offered me free chocolate as an almost -irresistible incentive.

To be completely transparent, of this week’s 13 new releases I would have bought 3 of them, flipped through 4 of them, and the rest would not have earned a glance even if Rosario Dawson was giving complimentary foot massages with each purchase:

Would have bought: Action Comics, Swamp Thing and Animal Man.

Would have flipped through:  Detective Comics, OMAC, Stormwatch and Static Shock.

Not even with chocolate or Rosario Dawson: Batgirl, Batwing, Man of War, JLI, Green Arrow and Hawk & Dove.

Okay, but now that I have committed to all of them, how to sample them?  Do I read my anticipated favorites first, or inverse it and do the more mature and responsible equivalent of eating all my vegetables before I get dessert? (And as I think about vegetables, it’s ironic to note that the is the cover of Swamp Thing (looking very Bissette & Totleben) is right in front of me.)

Well, nothing says random reading quite like ‘alphabetical order’ and so that was how I decided to approach Week One.  Which means we start with…

Action Comics #1.  Right from the first page and its bottom panel it is very apparent that this is a different kind of Superman.

“I’m your worst nightmare” is a most un-Superman-like statement.  Batman, Freddy Krueger or Kim Kardashian might say something like that, but for the Man of Steel to utter those words… well, it certainly indicates that this is a very different take on the hero.

Writer Grant Morrison created the great and now classic All-Star Superman with Frank Quitely, but anyone expecting that kind of homage to The Silver Age is in for a rude surprise.  This Superman is younger, angrier and a lot less certain of his place in the world.  Reading like a “Year One” take on the character, the traditional majesty and nobility that were synonymous with Superman have been pushed aside for a more working class, “willing to get his hands dirty” kind of hero.  And while that’s all well and good, I don’t know how far Morrison and other creators can stray from those classic, defining characteristics and still have him remain “Superman”.

Or to put it another way:  I enjoyed the Superman in Grant Morrison’s Superman Beyond from Final Crisis much more than I did this Superman.  I would rather have Superman as a leader and a beacon of nobility than yet another angry superhero.

A strange aspect of the story is revealed part way through the issue when one of the characters says that this new “Super-man” has been around for six months and yet he still remains a figure of mysterious menace (very much like the early appearances of Batman in Gotham City).  But I couldn’t help but think that six months in today’s world is the equivalent of several lifetimes in the days of old media  scrutiny, so I’m amazed that hero hasn’t been You Tube’d, Facebook’d and Google’d to the point that all the mystique is gone.

It’s my understanding that this story takes place several years before the rest of the books in the new DCU (with Justice League being another exception) and maybe that’s why it’s been six months since he first appeared, but it makes me wonder how necessary it was to introduce Superman outside of the current timeline of the other books.  It’s often been expressed that Superman should be the first hero, but if it’s this Superman who is the first hero, it’s difficult to imagine him inspiring a lot of other heroes to follow in his footsteps.

The book’s major downfall is the fact that there aren’t any brilliant ideas or terrific new insights into any of the characters.  Instead, there’s just a lot of anger, red-glowing eyes and a fairly goofy-looking Jimmy Olsen.  And after Geoff Johns’ recent Secret Origins and Straczyski’s Superman Earth One, the launch of this book had to be something spectacular.  And it’s not. Action Comics #1  reads like an early issue of Ultimate Spider-Man albeit better-paced and with less of a focus on the hero’s  origin.

The bottom line is that I expected Morrison to deliver something more mind-blowing than merely a slightly better Bendis.  Having said that, I’ll stick around in the hope that Morrison brings his A-game for the upcoming issues.  But if I didn’t have such faith in Morrison, I’m not sure if I’d buy #2.

Animal Man #1.  Oh cruel, cruel alphabet: making me move from a slightly disappointing Grant Morrison debut to a book that once had him at his very, very best.

Writer Jeff Lemire certainly has huge shoes to fill with this comic because although Morrison’s take on Animal Man is more than 20 years old, it was his 26 issue run on the series that rescued the minor DC hero from complete obscurity, it remains the definitive take on the character and it also launched Morrison’s own career in North America.  So not only does Lemire have to do Animal Man and his family justice, he gets do so as he works in the shadow of Morrison’s classic, creative genius.

Lemire dances the fine line (as do all of the #1’s creators) of introducing the character as if he were completely new but at the same time not completely ignoring the past and risk alienating all of the nostalgic fans of the original series.  And he manages the creative dance quite well, establishing (and to some extent perhaps even over-establishing) the fact that Buddy Baker and his family are the main focus of the story and all of the superhero shenanagins are incidental.  

The first part of the book reads like something from Pixar’s The Incredibles (although Morrison’s Animal Man predates the movie) with Buddy and his wife debating the challenges and financial insecurities of being a superhero, their daughter screaming for their attention and their son being mildly annoying.

But then Buddy has to do his Animal Man duty and spring into action. 

And that is when the weirdness begins to intrude on their lives.  While things may have been quite domestic and common at the beginning, it all starts to unravel.   And when things go bad, it is terrifying and grotesque and quite brilliant to behold.

I’m not overly familiar with Travel Foreman’s artwork but it is knockout friggin’ gorgeous.  There is a black & white sequence at the end of the issue that is glorious.  Unfortunately there is also a full page splash early in the story of Buddy in flight that looked like it was Warren Worthington III (aka Angel) from the X-Men circa 1980s John Byrne that simply did not belong in the rest of this beautiful book.  While I know Animal Man’s costume is supposed to look less than inspiring because of his low status on the superhero totem pole, I’m hoping the costume design is merely Jim Lee’s bad idea and will get pushed aside very quickly.

Lemire and Foreman do not disappoint with this issue.  Well-written and beautifully illustrated, I hope they get a chance to work together for a long time.  Because there might be greatness to come.

—Kevin Pasquino