Trouble with Comics

The New DC 52 - Week One Scorecard

Looking at the late-August release of Justice League #1 as a kind of preseason game, how did the new season of DC Comics pan out for its first real week?

Action Comics was heavily favored, written by Grant Morrison, with art by the solid Rags Morales. It was okay but very restrained, as if Morrison was trying to hold back the usual torrent of ideas to see what the other kids brought, see if this experiment was going to flop. Could be he is less interested in trying to match or top All Star Superman and is instead playing games with himself, trying to come up with a Superman who is pretty much the opposite of the All Star version and see if that can be compelling, too.

Animal Man was the best book of the book, so let us get that out of the way quickly. The Believer bit was clever, and a good way to get exposition out of the way quickly, leaving room for not just good characterization of Buddy Baker and his family, but a done-in-one menace (of sorts), AND a creepy, suprising twist. Add to that that he honors Morrisons star-making run on the book by somehow introducing Moore Swamp Thing elements, and color me impressed. Artist Travel Foreman makes a mistake or two with perspective, but that nightmare sequence is stunning.

Swamp Thing by Scott Snyder and Yannick Paquette is a solid, attractive book, though one of many where it isn’t clear what is still considered canon and what isn’t. Alec Holland used to be Swamp Thing, but isn’t anymore, but clearly he will be again, or somehow bonded with ST. And Superman knows him. Paquette has some nice Nowlan-style art here and while hes always been a bit stuff, dude does work hard and is always consistent. Some interesting, creepy stuff that oddly enough has some parallels with Animal Man, though unintentionally.

Those were really the three books I will definitely continue with. Ones on the fence or securely on the other side of it…?

O.M.A.C. by DiDio and Giffen is better than I thought, a fun remix of the Kirby semiclassic series, although I wanted D&G to bring more of their own ideas to it. Also, O.M.A.C. himself isn’t very cool. I would rather he had that crazy otherworldly swagger and command of all kinds of crazy weapons and gadgets, but here he is kind of a mindless thug.

Batgirl by Gail Simone and Ardian Syaf suffers from an ugly costume design, awkward dialogue and narration and a character reboot that fails to honor Barbara Gordons time as Oracle, which is to say, the past 20+ years. Honestly, it would have been better to completely ditch her paralysis entirely than make it a spinal injury that she was able to utterly overcome, physically, yet causes her to mentally freeze when someone points a gun at her. If she was mentally strong enough to get herself back in superhero shape, she should be mentally ready for anything. And as far as that costume, isn’t the appeal of Batgirl, and most young female superheroes, that they present a contradiction, a litheness and unpadded fragility and abandon that flies in the face of the danger they are in from bigger, stronger opponents? When you give them armored costumes and clunky boots, it takes the fun out of it. The one positive thing I would say about the book is that at least its somewhat lighthearted and is the only one to even attempt to give the lead character a friend, though she (the new roommate) is pretty unrealistic so far. Is there a lamer attempt at activism than painting Fight the Power on your own apartment wall? Another security deposit sacrificed to the Cause.

Men of War is one I am kind of torn on. I think Sgt. Rock meets Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is a great tag, but not sure theres enough here to make anyone put down their controllers. Also, for a book that spends so much time on military jargon, one would think it would be a heavily researched war series, but all of a sudden it looks like these guys are up against a supervillain? I will give it another issue or two, but I don’t know quite what this book is supposed to be. Im all for war stories of impossible odds, but when that means regular guys against superpowers, maybe that crosses the line from brave patriot to fool?

Detective Comics by Tony Daniel is…well, I give Daniel credit in that I have studiously avoided his Batman run after the first couple of pretty poor issues. His art has improved since then, and he writes a coherent Batman. And yes, I was very surprised by the gross-out twist at the end, both as a reader and as a guy who wonders who oversees how DC handles their franchise characters. So, it may be a good deal of morbid curiosity, but I will be back for issue #2.

Batwing by Judd Winick and Ben Oliver is one of the better-looking books, but Winick fails to distinguish the character enough from Batman. Well, hes more like Jim Gordon as the only good cop on an African police force, who also puts on Bat-armor at night. The character isn’t interesting enough and the setting isn’t used well enough.

Green Arrow by J.T. Krul, Dan Jurgens and George Perez is a pleasant surprise. Krul doesn’t do anything very impressive here—Ollie Queen is kind of Tony Stark, kind of Bruce Wayne, the corporate superhero playboy—but at least the pace is quick and with the Jurgens/Perez art it looks a lot like the comics I read in the 80s and 90s that were probably crap in retrospect, but at least they were my kind of crap. I would prefer Krul get to work developing one interesting villain, though, instead of unleashing a torrent of codenames and powers who only want to bust stuff up and upload it to YouTube.

Static Shock by John Rozum and Scott McDaniel is too energetic and goodhearted to come down too hard on. I generally like teen heroes who are still recognizably teens in their behavior, and Rozum keeps Statics Peter Parkery science nerd thoughts going along rapidly, humorously and pretty endearingly. I didn’t love the book or felt like there was anything new, but its enjoyable.

Justice League International by Dan Jurgens and Aaron Lopresti is thoroughly average. I don’t have anything against Booster Gold, Fire, Ice or the other lightweights on this team, but either make them real interesting real quick, or treat them as punchlines the way Giffen and DeMatteis did back in the day. Jurgens isn’t sure which way he wants to go here so he never adopts a consistent tone, as if hes trying to please everyone. To be fair, with the heavy hitters on the real Justice League, writing these guys is like managing the Pittsburgh Pirates. You cant beat fun at the old ballpark, but theres a lot more talent on other teams, in other ballparks. Having Batman cameo smacked of desperation, and has anyone said anything about the plot? No, because its dull. Team gets together at the behest of two characters we know nothing about, and after farcical meet and greet, go off to find a missing UN research team. Question: aside from the real world value of making this a Justice League title, why would you name your UN-sanctioned team after the independent superhero team with which youre not associated and don’t control?

Stormwatch by Paul Cornell and Manuel Sepulveda is one of the bigger disappointments of the week, although to be fair, that’s partly because at one time I gave a shit about Stormwatch/The Authority and never cared much about Batgirl, Green Arrow, Static, etc. Having the Moon threaten Earth seems kinda like something Warren Ellis might have come up with, although he would have used some science in there somewhere, right? How is this giant Moon-fist going to break out of its orbit? Its like when you put your hand on a kids head and hold him far enough away from you that he cant punch you. Doesn’t that happen to you? Anyway, Cornell is tasked with restarting Apollo, Midnighter et al pretty much from scratch, except now with 100% more Martian Manhunter, and some new would be badass called Eminence of Blades or something. I think he lives through this but gets his ass kicked. I didn’t mind it overall but it was underwhelming, much of which could be laid at Sepulvedas feet, as he fails to make cool what Cornell gives him, while at the same time, Cornell doesn’t do a very good job of reintroducing these characters by having them do or say interesting things.

Hawk & Dove – I didn’t read it. And yeah, Rob Liefeld had something to do with that, but no more than Sterling Gates did. No thanks.

—Christopher Allen

Morrison @ Marvel: Marvel Boy

About a year and a half ago, I embarked on a project to read (or in many cases re-read) everything I could cobble together written by Grant Morrison. I started with Zenith, and between reading other stuff, working, writing, and occasionally speaking to my wife and children, I finally made it to his Marvel-era work recently.

Looking at the full overview of his career, the Marvel years seem more like a detour of sorts than any sustained period of focused creativity. Morrison’s New X-Men run gets plenty of attention and praise, but other than that, he produced a grand total of two miniseries for the publisher. I’d even argue that while at Marvel, the best work he did may have been for Vertigo, the maxi-series The Filth

Though I have a nasty habit of proclaiming massive writing projects on blogs and then failing to accomplish them, I thought I’d tentatively commit to writing about Morrison’s work while at Marvel, especially from the viewpoint that I’m honestly not sure how good a fit the two were for each other.

Take Marvel Boy, his debut work for Marvel, regarded in some corners as his “mission statement” on the work he was about to do for the publisher. Before we even dive into the quality and themes of the work itself, the mere idea behind it is kind of a dodge. It’s a “mission statement” about the Marvel Universe that’s set on the fringe of the Marvel Universe we recognize. In fact, not knowing better, I assumed it was an alternate reality; thank you, Wikipedia, for setting me straight.

That may be a nitpicky point, but there’s a big difference between engaging a big fat shared corporate superhero universe and working with what you find there (like Electric Boogaloo Superman in Morrison’s JLA run) and taking the easier path of a tiny corner story where you can build only the toys you want, using only the pieces you like, and create work that’s largely without consequences. 

Morrison does pack a hefty dose of thematic and conceptual meaning into Marvel Boy, no question about that. Chad Nevett has a terrific essay covering many of those layers of meaning. And I certainly like Morrison for the resonances he creates throughout his work—resonances with his own past work, other stories from comics history, pop culture, and metaphysical concepts, to just name a few sounding boards off which he bounces his scripts. Morrison himself said in an interview around the release of Marvel Boy, “I wanted to go back and explore some of the possibilities of comics as music,” which is like some kind of quintessential Morrisoninan statement — completely lucid yet absolutely inscrutable. 

If Marvel Boy is “comics as music,” then it’s a pretty thin pop single with some assymetrical guitars and cliched lyrics. It’s got a beat and you can dance to it, but it’s not clear why you would want to. It’s a lot of surface with no heart, no insides — though certainly a gorgeous surface by J.G. Jones with the kind of metatextual hijinks Morrison is known for. It’s got enough good ideas packed in its six issues to fuel a lesser writer’s career in comics. Beneath those ideas, it’s just empty.

In reading all of this Morrison stuff, it’s striking how little credit the man gets for the true scope of his talents. Morrison himself complained about this very thing in a piece he wrote for the first issue of Mark Waid and Peter Krause’s Irredeemable:

"…no matter how watertight I might try to make my plots, no matter how well-structured my narratives became, no matter how conventionally I organized my ideas, I would always be regarded in comics fan circles as the madcap purveyor of free-form gibberish."

Morrison is certainly known for his “free-form gibberish.” He’s the “giant crazy idea guy” and he has plenty of those. But he’s also remarkably adept at characterization, dialogue, and relationships. His Animal Man run gets remembered for its “I can see you” metafictional elements, but the backbone of that series is the warm and surprisingly normal relationship Buddy Baker shares with his wife and kids. Even years later, when Morrison again wrote Animal Man in 52, the foundation of his character arc was a pretty simple desire to get back home and see his family. 

Given those gifts, it’s disappointing that
Marvel Boy is an fundamentally cold work, with little of the character and dialogue abilities Morrison has brought to his other projects. It’s telling that Marvel Boy occurred shortly after his work with Mark Millar, on Flash and Vampirella. There’s a definite Millar flavor in the way Morrison sets up his scenes and character interactions; Morrison’s notorious for having the story often happen between the beats he depicts, so that the reader must piece together events for himself. But where he’s usually expert at selecting just the right moments to construct a plot and reveal character, here his characters speak in slightly-polished superhero cliches. It’s the kind of action movie surface writing that exists only to propel the plot forward with an “aw KEWL” veneer of aspirational bad-assery, the worst elements of “widescreen” decompressed comics. Perhaps that’s his intent, but it doesn’t necessarily endear a reader to what’s happening. 

At the risk of attempting to criticize
Marvel Boy for what I think it should be, rather than what it is, I have to wonder where Morrison was aiming with this. It has elements of a “Marvel universe in a blender” piece, such as the villain Doctor Midas, who seems to be an Iron Man/Doctor Doom mash-up. But then Doom himself never appears; nor do the Fantastic Four or Spider-Man, both of whom are referenced in the piece. Without engaging the Marvel Universe at large, what kind of statement can he make, really? 

Ultimately, I don’t know that Morrison is a good fit for the Marvel Universe. I think there are characters he would work well on; his
Fantastic Four and X-Men material, as we will see, has much to recommend it. But those are characters where you have not just the foundation of strong characters to work from, but plenty of opportunity for that “free-form gibberish.” He’s a well-rounded writer but his “sweet spot,” for me at least, is that goulash of the cosmic, the personal, and the inexplicable. Just dropping Grant Morrison into the midst of Smilin’ Stan’s 616 to do what he does…if this is the result, then I’m glad he ended up back at DC.

— Matt Springer