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Trouble with Comics

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So last week, there were two different DC Comics-related news items that received instant scorn and outrage. First, Batwoman writers J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman quit the series as of issue #26, citing DC’s decision not to allow the long-planned wedding of Batwoman Kathy Kane and her girlfriend, Maggie Sawyer. It was seen by many as an anti-gay marriage stance. Since then, DC co-publisher Dan DiDio has explained, at a comics convention, that DC is very committed to the character of Batwoman (and challenged the audience to name a publisher who has shown more commitment to a character, before he quickly answered his own challenge that there was none), but that superheroes should not have happy personal lives, so it’s more of a general policy against marriage for superheroes in the New 52. As with most things DC, there are inconsistencies, as Aquaman is currently married, but if this is now their stated policy I suppose it’s fair to accept this as true for the moment and see if they live up to it. Personally, I think their superheroes would be a lot more interesting if they were more diverse, and I don’t just mean having more ethnicities represented. How about a married superhero, a superhero with an adopted kid with M.S., a superhero with a deaf boyfriend, a superhero in couples counseling? Of course, superheroes can’t have endlessly joyous lives and still be fun to read (although on second thought, DC sold its most comics back when that was the case, but I know there were other factors), but aren’t the traditional personal life problems of the single superhero (girlfriend in distress, girlfriend suspects you’re a superhero, no time for romance because crime fighting) pretty well played out by now?

The other item was a kind of tryout to be in an upcoming Harley Quinn comic, where prospective artists would illustrate four seemingly unrelated panels, most consisting of Harley in suicidal situations, the fourth panel also describing her as nude. So people complained that it was exploitation, sexist, and hey, since when has Harley been suicidal? Psychopathic and murderous, yes. Suicidal, not so much.

Co-publisher Jim Lee had damage control duty on this one, tweeting examples of how panels taken out of context can appear very different than their intent, and that this wasn’t exploitive and the writers were actually poking fun at themselves, or something. Fair enough. But both of these stories illustrate how poor DC’s PR department is doing at anticipating negative reaction and getting in front of a story. Obviously a big name like Williams III quitting a book over an editorial decision is going to get out—why wasn’t DC letting people know about their anti-marriage thing, and pointing to their, um, one other gay superhero character as proof of their LGBT friendliness? Why announce a contest that makes drawing a female super villain naked a requirement? That seems like a case where they mentioned the nudity precisely to get a reaction, but it wasn’t the reaction they wanted. After all, they certainly aren’t really going to show Harley Quinn naked in one of their comics; it might be suggestive, but undoubtedly most of her naughty bits will be submerged in bathwater. So even if the original intent was tongue-in-cheek, the announcement ends up being skeevy. And note that in neither case does anyone at DC apologize. No, it’s the fans who misunderstood what they’re doing. For his part, at least Lee acknowledges his writers, though when he talked about the Batwoman debacle, he basically said the talent has to follow the editorial direction laid out for them, no matter how late in the game, tough shit, creators. He said it in his affable Jim Lee way, though. 

It’s a bad situation for fans of DC’s characters these days. There’s still some talent there and despite everything, some good stories will make it through relatively unscathed. But look, I’m currently reading nothing from DC, and I tried over 90% of the initial New 52 titles, and several that debuted after that first wave. With Before Watchmen and their treatment of many other creators, and retrograde decisions like this anti-marriage thing, how can anyone feel good about buying these books? I feel bad for someone like Marc Andreyko, a decent writer (I really liked his Manhunter in the pre-New 52 days not long ago) who is stepping in as the new writer on Batwoman. It should be noted that Williams III, a co-creator of the character, started writing her when original writer and co-creator Greg Rucka abandoned DC and their interference. Andreyko is inheriting maybe the only interesting, well-designed character in DC’s stable in the past decade, and yet she’s been sullied and abused, an important part of her cored out. I was joking (bitterly) to a friend the other day that it was “about time she (Batwoman) got back to her roots as a superhero not in a loving, committed relationship.” Sounds fun, huh? 

—Christopher Allen

The New DC 52 Week Two, Part Three

I give DC credit: Never did I think I would be reviewing every one of these new #1s, but even when the books aren’t that good, I¢m still having fun writing about them. Note: I wrote in the last review that T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents was canceled before its time, but indeed, it¢s being relaunched. Sorry—hard to keep track of 52 new comics.

Resurrection Man #1 by Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning and Fernando Dagnino is the second book of the month with the hero falling out of a plane (is it 9/11 anniversary anxiety?), but other than that, and a sort of Dial H for Hero concept, it feels pretty original. We¢ve got a guy who dies often but keeps coming back, and each time with a new power. The inherent problem, of course, is that this is a hero for whom death is even less of a concern than it is for every other superhero. I kind of liked how D&A wrote about each new power as if it had a certain taste, though hopefully they will slow things down enough soon so we get some idea what this guy is all about, how he feels about these resurrections, how it changes his outlook on life. I could do without the psycho gals torturing people for fun, but am interested in this group of supernatural beings in human disguise who are hunting our hero, and Dagnino has a gritty style that would fit well in Hellblazer if and when this book shuffles off its mortal coil.

Demon Knights #1 by Paul Cornell and Diogenes Neves is an odd but amiable book. I¢m plenty Anglophile, but found Madame Xanadus Sod it s and yearning for a quiet pint kind of low-yield shtick, though I had a great time with similar stuff in Cornell¢s Knight & Squire miniseries. And Neves has his moments, but overall is a little too pedestrian to really bring the Dark Ages to life and make this book a must-read experience. On the other hand, it is becoming quite clear that the more interesting of the DC relaunches have characters and settings off the beaten-Metropolis/Gotham/Star City path, where such and such odd guy and/or gal can do their thing without having to worry about a Justice Leaguer butting in. Cornell has a great opportunity to essentially rewrite a lot of early DC Universe history here, especially as it relates to the immortal and/or magical characters, so I hope he comes up with more than just, Hey, that’s Vandal Savage cameos and The Demon and Xanadu being fuck-buddies. Yes, you read that right. It is kind of funny, but leave it to DC to have all their supposedly relatable heroes never getting off and sexuality only being okay when its between a witch and a demon.

Okay, so I would like to keep the streak going, but I just didn’t get the Scott Lobdell-written Superboy. I hope we will all be able to move on with our lives.

Batwoman #1 by J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman is not only the book with the most aristocratic-sounding creative team, but it is also the best of the week. Williams and Blackman pick up smoothly from Greg Rucka¢s abortive Batwoman storyline in Detective Comics, not skipping a beat or seeming to worry much about this New 52 stuff. Batwoman is Kate Kane, she¢s gay, she¢s cool, and she still is able to shake it out and have something of a normal life when she takes off the tights. The Religion of Crime is still a major focus, but this time out, Batwoman brings her cousin, Flamebird, along for the ride. Not a lot happens, but it¢s only about 14 pages of story. It¢s probably unfair that Williams terrific layouts are a little less impressive now that he is pretty much doing the same thing he did last year in Detective, but hey, it’s a critics job to be demanding. I actually still love the love of the book, and the real shame is that 90% of the books out there don’t have this level of either ambition or execution.

—Christopher Allen

DC 51 Week Two - Bats, Demons and Suicide

As I head into Week Two of the new DCU I find myself asking the question: who would have thought the alphabet would be so cruel?

In Week One the A’s were kind enough to bring Action Comics and Animal Man but then it was a slog (with the surprising arrival of “O is for OMAC”) until I arrived at the alphabetical conclusion with Swamp Thing.

But I know that if I completely eliminate the structure I will skip right to the dessert and never sample the liver, brussel sprouts or sautéed mushrooms.  I’d just stick with the stuff I like and never take an honest and open-minded taste of something new and potentially delicious.  So, yes, the alphabet will be my guide, but this time it will be writers not titles that lead the way.

Having said that, the books are starting to lose their individual resolution and distinctiveness.  For instance…

Writers Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning share a problem with Nathan Edmonson: they’re tasked with writing books that have characters that have been out of service for awhile, both books have a fan base, but neither of the re-launched books manages to make the character accessible to anyone who hasn’t read their previous adventures.

Abnett & Lanning resurrect Resurrection Man but fail to explain what the book is all about.  The main character has some kind of weird “Dial H for Hero” power that changes every time he is killed and brought back to life.  But who our hero is, who the bad guys are and why all of this crazy stuff is happening – all of it is left unexplained and largely unexamined.

Similar problems plague Grifter #1.  The story’s timeline bounces from place to place, the hero is undefined, the villains and supporting cast are a dull mystery and nothing memorable happens in the book.

As a matter of fact as I once again flip through the two of them, it’s amazing how the books have blurred into one.  Both books have a character that reacts to something rather than taking action.  Both books have sadistic villains who kill innocent people.  Both books even manage to have their heroes thrown out of a plane.  And, I’m sorry to say, both books have characters that I’m not going to read about again.

Moving down the alphabetical ladder, the next issue is a book that was due at the beginning of the year, was delayed and then previewed in the back of DC books for an April release, was again delayed, and now it’s finally arrived.

Batwoman #1 must have been ready for publication a long time ago, but The Powers That Be must have told the creators that the book had to wait for the re-launch of the whole universe.  And, to his credit, J.H. Williams shouldered the scorn of questioning fans and kept quiet about the reasons for the book’s delay.  He was a good corporate player and never once said “It’s not my fault!  They’re delaying the book!  Not me!!”

So, was it worth the wait?  Is the artwork as gorgeous as remembered from the Greg Rucka penned Elegy?  Is it the best looking book so far from the new DCU?  Is it a good thing that Kate Kane has returned with J.H. Williams doing the art and co-writing the book?

Oh hell yes.

To flip through the pages of Batwoman #1 is to sample the work of a stunning artist and amazing craftsman.  Simply put, it is a thing of beauty.  Over the years Williams has worked with Rucka, Alan Moore, Warren Ellis and Grant Morrison.  It’s obvious that he’s learned from some of the industry’s greatest modern writers and his artwork is inarguably among the best in monthly comics.

As for the story itself (because pretty pictures alone do not a comic make), there are some minor problems that co-writer W. Haden Blackman and Williams fail to overcome.  Because there are a couple of bumps in the road as the book attempts to re-introduce the character in this new universe.

For instance, there is a photo of Renee Montaya on display on the police department wall as if she was killed in action and it’s uncertain if she’s dead in this new universe or the photo is there solely for its dramatic weight.  And since it’s left unexplained, the scene shouldn’t be there. And on the same note, there is the unexplained addition/presence of Bette Kane as Batwoman’s side kick.  Plus there is the confrontation between Kate and her father that obviously occurred before her appearances in Batman Incorporated because in that book Kate and her father have reconciled.  Much of the confusion with her father might be due to the re-scheduling of the book, but it makes the book feel like it’s been on the shelf, awaiting the okay to finally be released.

Having said all of that, those issues become minor qualms in a comic as stunning as this.  The arrival of a certain government agent, not fully explained but wonderfully teased, is a pleasant surprise and Williams has artist Amy Reeder lined up to keep the book looking gorgeous and on-schedule.  This is a book that came burdened with perhaps unreasonable expectations and still manages to fulfill them all.  It is the best looking book on the shelf.

Writer Paul Cornell has a large stable of characters to deal with in Demon Knights #1 but unlike last week’s Stormwatch he doesn’t have a well-remembered old series to be measured against.  And perhaps it is because of that fact this book is more creative and energetic.  With this book he manages to reward old readers but still make the book accessible for new arrivals – a task that he didn’t quite achieve in Stormwatch.

Cornell enjoys a freedom in Demon Knights that few other creators in the new DCU are being allowed: set in DC’s past, the book doesn’t feel overcrowded with continuity challenges and that awkward “Who are these characters now?” reboot curse.  The Demon, Madame Xanadu and others are quickly introduced (to varying degrees of success) and then they’re thrown into action.

Compare Demon Knights to Suicide Squad #1 and it become apparent what one does right while the other book does horribly wrong.

From the awful revamp of Harley Quinn (who in both costume and character suffers a strained and unnecessary flashback to an editor’s note Detective Comics reference) to the oh-so very bloody introduction of each character, the whole book is just nasty, nihilistic and pointless.  One of the key elements in the original Suicide Squad and the more recent Secret Six was that the characters had a chance at redemption with the potential of being something besides just evil.  This gang of villains, especially Harley Quinn, is established as being so violent and loathsome that any attempt to portray them as anything besides psychos will be forced and ham-fisted. 

Cornell manages to have some fun with the characters in his book.  Writer Adam Glass manages to make each character in Suicide Squad an irredeemable maniac. Why DC decided to take Harley Quinn and make her an S&M corset and hot-pants wearing maniac is a mystery.  In three panels Cornell does more with The Demon than the entire issue of Suicide Squad does with any of its characters.  And it’s those three panels that make me want to read more.

—Kevin Pasquino