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Trouble with Comics

DC 51 Week Four, Part Two - Racing with the Flash to the Finish Line (FIXED)

Here it is, the final part of the four week tour through the new DCU.  And while I’ve never run a marathon, I can only imagine this is how a runner feels after the 25th mile of the run: it’s been like a massive endurance test but I… just… have… to… make… it… across… that… line.

And the conclusion, as it moves reverse alphabetically to the very end (just like running a race backwards)…

 

Green Lantern: New Guardians #1 is yet another new book that manages to screw up the whole idea of a re-launch.

The primary problem with this comic is the fact that the story starts with a flashback that doesn’t reveal that it’s a flashback until it’s seven pages into the book.  So what seems like a shocking and amazing beginning actually took place years ago and simply retells how Kyle Rayner got his ring.  Initially the comic seems to open with a “Wow!! What the hell has happened?!?  This is crazy!!!” moment that is then utterly deflated when it’s revealed that the events took place before “The Present Day”.  The flashback doesn’t even explain if Hal Jordan went all Parallax-y in this new universe or what caused these events in the past – it just re-hashes the story of how Kyle became a hero.

This un-announced flashback wouldn’t be such a horrible sin if it served some sort of function in the comic, but it fails to add anything new to Kyle’s origin and does not serve any purpose in this particular issue.  The only thing the flashback succeeds in doing is robbing the main story of seven pages.  It is not a great start for the comic.

As for the other “new guardians” of the title, they are introduced as jaw-clenching, spandex-clad one-note characters that go by professional wrestler names such as “Fatality” and “Bleez”.  Their most distinguishing characteristics: Fatality is a Violet Lantern/Star Sapphire who always displays her large breasts, while Bleez is a Red Lantern who always shows the reader her oh-so-very shapely butt.

To summarize: pointless recap of the hero’s origin; Star Sapphire’s breasts, Red Lantern’s butt and a story about stolen Lantern rings that is a re-hash of what was previously done in the Blackest Night saga.

This comic, like the other three books in the Green Lantern family, lacks focus or purpose.  The books aren’t inter-connected at this time but they all read like that they should be and they’re doing their best to resist that almost magnetic temptation (You can almost hear the books collective plea, “Must… resist.. the crossover.  Got to… stand… on my own.”)

Geoff Johns might have a masterplan for all the various Green Lantern books, but until that intergalactic emergency reveals itself, all four comics look poised to just meander for a while.

 

The Fury of Firestorm takes the single best aspect of the character — the fact that two human beings with completely different personalities have to combine in order to make one hero — and jettisons the premise for the notion that two characters can turn into two heroes who can then combine into one bigger hero.

And I simply don’t understand why the change was made.  Why ditch the original concept just to create two identical heroes with (apparently) the same name?  It’s not like the idea was improved upon.  It’s just been changed for the sake of change.  Maybe this is all part of a grand design, but after this first issue it just seems to be tinkering with a concept for no reason.

But even if this is only Step One in the character’s journey, it’s difficult to enjoy a story that has part of its focus on teenage angst and a jock arguing with a bookworm, while elsewhere in the book a family is murdered, a man is tortured and a high school coach is killed in front of his students.  The distance between ‘jock vs. bookworm’ and ‘terrorists slaughtering innocent victims’ is huge and The Fury of Firestorm doesn’t show how the two can possibly exist in the same book.

Artist Francis Manapul takes over the writing duties with Brian Buccellatto for The Flash and, after reading a ton of books that have been filled with torture, T&A and mindless murders, this comic is a breath of fresh air.

Barry Allen is back as a younger, less experienced hero and the first issue does a good job of presenting  him (in Geoff Johns style) as new and yet familiar.  He’s still a scientist, still in Central City, but to the creators’ credit, he isn’t doing battle with his traditional Rogues Gallery of villains (well, at least not in this first issue).

This is in striking contrast to three of the four Batman books which between them made sure that every possible villain made an appearance.  Manapul and Buccellato deserve praise for crafting a solid first issue without using the old, familiar bad guys as a crutch for their story.

My only complaint: Barry and his wife, Iris, had one of the strongest relationships in the old DC Universe.  He battled time, the speed force and death itself to be re-united with her.  It’s disappointing to realize all of that has been shoved aside just so he can be single and date different young women.  Perhaps it’s silly on my part, but I hope the creators have plans to get the two characters together again.  But perhaps that’s just me, because otherwise this was a strong start for the speedster.

 

Blackhawks #1 suffers the same problem as Men of War:  it’s almost impossible to do an action/war comic in a universe overflowing with superheroes.

With Blackhawks it seems that there is a desire to create a S.H.I.E.L.D. equivalent in the new DCU but it’s difficult to imagine what their role is in a world where everyone seems to be invulnerable to bullets, can shoot lasers out of their eyes or is so rich that they inspire and finance followers around the globe.  And it’s especially difficult to suspend disbelief when the Blackhawks are supposed to be a super-secret special ops unit that chooses to plaster its Blackhawks insignia on all of its uniforms, planes and helicopters. 

The old Blackhawks concept with its international cast of soldiers could make for an great updated story with a sense of intrigue, mystery and danger.  But this update sure isn’t the one anybody’s been waiting for.

 

The fourth Batman book, The Dark Knight, isn’t the weakest of the Batman bunch but it does seem strangely redundant.

In this book Bruce Wayne makes a speech to the ultra-rich elite of Gotham City (just like he did in Batman #1), there’s a riot and escape attempt at Arkham (again, just like in Batman #1) and the final splash page of the comic has a huge reveal about one of the hero’s greatest villains (just like in Detective Comics #1).

Uniquely and bizarrely, there is a one-panel appearance of a woman in a bunny costume whose super-power seems to be the ability to dodge bullets as she flashes her luscious derriere at Batman and various members of the police department.  The police don’t recognize her and Batman says something like “She shouldn’t be here.”  No one can believe what they’ve just seen:  it’s as if the buxom bunny character is like the giant rabbit in the movie “Harvey” but with a much nicer, sexier butt.

The Dark Knight therefore combines the worst aspect of the various Green Lantern books (and their relentless fascination with a woman’s shapely posterior) with some of the best and the worst story elements from the other, recently published Batman stories.

Maybe this issue could be forgiven for its redundancies if those comics hadn’t all been published within the past three weeks,.  But I can’t help but wonder why the book’s editor, Mike Marts, didn’t speak to one of the creative teams and say, “Umm, guys, I’ve got a story with a lot of similarities to this in one of the other books.  Do you have any other ideas and maybe we can just shelf this one until later?”  After all, isn’t that what a group editor is supposed to do?

Because right now, only one month into the re-launch, the four Batman books are already suffering from a “been there, done that” lack of originality.

 

Before being made DC’s Chief Creative Officer, Geoff Johns was the company’s go-to guy when it came to revamping and re-invigorating old, tired heroes.

Superman, Green Lantern and The Flash were all transformed by his particular style which combines nostalgia with a kind of ‘new car smell’.  He takes the character back to his basics and yet somehow makes him seem fresh and vital.

If he was in marketing he would brand his product as “new, improved and classic.”

And now, by turning his attention towards Aquaman and doing the voodoo he does so well, Johns’ immediately elevates the character’s status from the minors to the big league.  Aquaman instantly becomes a book that, deservedly or not, fans are interested in. 

But having said all that, does it work?

The first issue certainly establishes Aquaman’s role in this new DCU.  He is perceived by the public as being more alien than Superman:  he’s the guy who lives in the ocean, talks to fish and is the king a country of a mythical undersea country that no one believes exists.

He is also the only DC character that, in the new 52, has managed to keep his marriage intact.  Clark and Barry lost Lois and Iris, but after the events in Brightest Day, Aquaman has been allowed to keep Mera.  Their interaction in this issue, while brief, indicates that story will be as much about them as the menaces they battle.

In just one issue Johns and artist Ivan Reis manage to make Aquaman majestic and interesting.  And the character has been given the best aspects of Superman and The Flash before their reboots: integrity, experience and a strong marriage.  In other words, Aquaman is one of the few adults in the new DC Universe and that maturity (it’s kind of sad to note) makes the hero very unique among these re-launched characters.

 

 

And the marathon run finally comes to the final book, All Star Western, a comic I wanted to like a bit more than I did, but one that I will still keep reading.

 

The series that took place before the re-launch, Jonah Hex, was a great comic in the old-fashioned “one and done” tradition.  Each issue (with the occasional multi-issue story) told the tale of a man who would ride into town, get into trouble and then, usually after a lot of shooting and killing, he would ride away.  The stories could jump to different parts of his life without a need to explain when it took place and how he got there.  He was Jonah Hex: wherever he went, trouble couldn’t be far behind.

 

But it appears this new book is going to settle Hex in the old wild west days of Gotham City, complete with the ancestors of The Penguin and other characters.  So rather than being a dangerous and unpredictable force of good/evil/indifference, Hex will become a known commodity and maybe even a common citizen.

 

I trust writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray with the character, but I do worry about this new concept.  The first issue, with Hex riding into town and staying because of the “This time it’s personal” conceit doesn’t fill me with confidence.  But as I said, Palmiotti and Gray have done brilliant things with the character before, so I’m sticking around.

 

Having said that, if Hex becomes the sheriff of Gotham City, I’m exiting faster than a vulture plucks the eyes out of a dead man.

—Kevin Pasquino 

The New DC 52 Week Four, Part Three – The Dark and the Not So Bright

The Fury of Firestorm #1 by Ethan Van Sciver, Gail Simone and Yildiray Cinar has one good element at its core (I guess that pun is intended) and that’s the issue of race. Before high school quarterback Ronnie Raymond and school reporter Jason Rusch are linked to the Firestorm Protocol, they are just kids who don’t get along because Jason accuses Ronnie of racism. It′s not that Ronnie says or does anything to provoke this, which shows Simones subtlety and sure hand; its that Jason is angry and maybe jealous of Ronnie′s minor celebrity and plays the race card, with the effect of actually getting Ronnie to wonder why it is he and his mother don’t have any black friends, even as he′s angry at Jason for bringing the question to light. 

That’s the most interesting part of the issue, with the rest being rather unconvincing stuff involving a threesome of handsome American terrorists tracking the remaining particle to Jason, leading to the transformation of our two male leads into the superpowered version of The Defiant Ones. None of that is very interesting, with average, Bob McLeod style art from Cinar and the same made-up teen lingo (″Ill casket you!″) Simone used to ill effect in Batgirl. I give it credit for trying to be about something for half its length, but its not enough to keep me around.

Teen Titans #1 by Scott Lobdell and Brett Booth is one of many DC books determined to bring back the ′90s. Hey, the title of the issue is even, Teen Spirit, and you’ve got ′90s X-writer Lobdell and ′90s Image artist Booth, looking about the same. Lobdell doesn’t do such a bad job, though gathering just two heroes together for the eventual team seems a little sluggish. Red Robin, the Cassie Sandsmark Wonder Girl, and Superboy—none of these are characters who I feel like I′m missing out on. I actually liked Lobdell′s Superboy debut, so hopefully I can just read that without having to follow this one.

I, Vampire #1 by Joshua Hale Fialkov and Andrea Sorrentino is the most Vertigoesque of the new books, a nod to Twilight and True Blood with its star-crossed lovers and that one special vampire guy who sees humans as more than walking blood bags. This vampire, Andrew, has been (un)living for 400 years with guilt over turning the sweet Mary into what she is today, a bloodsucker about to go to war against humanity with the rest of her kind. This isn’t an original comment, but yes, Sorrentino′s art does look a lot like Jae Lee, and that’s a good thing, as the book calls for a style that’s someber and still, though maybe Fialkov could have broken things up a bit with a flashback to sunnier times. I think Fialkov may be in for a tough go trying to reconcile this world with the rest of the metahuman-filled DCU, but for now, we′re off to a good start.

The Flash #1 by Francis Manapul and Brian Buccelato is a nice-looking book that brought me back a little bit to the first time I ever was interested in The Flash, the Waid/Wieringo run. Oh, its not that Manapul is busting out fresh concepts like the Speed Force or anything, but what as a new writer he may lack in making Barry Allen much more interesting than the norm, he makes up for with an engaging, softer art style that looks like color over pencils, sans ink, and a willingness to play with page layouts and an organic use of sound effects that stands head and shoulders over what we can now say with authority is an overwhelming lack of artistic ambition on the part of 90% of the other DC artists.  I think Manapul could do a better job introducing his supporting cast for maximum impact, but I do like that he seems to understand that one way to make boring Barry more interesting is to have two women interested in him. 

Justice League Dark #1 by Peter Milligan and Mikel Janin is the most interesting and competent of the many team books DC has unleashed the past month. As he has shown the past few years in Hellblazer, Milligan is expert at damaged characters who still have something to offer, and now, in addition to roping in John Constantine and early success Shade The Changing Man, he has the scarred soothsayer Madame Xanadu, the daft, haunted June Moone, the resourceful but insecure Zatanna, and even the searching Deadman, who are all being slowly drawn together to go up against The Enchantress, who has already defeated the regular Justice League. 

Janin is a new name to me, but I like the style, which is dark but grounded. Obviously this is a title that’s going to call for some out-of-the-box storytelling, so hopefully he can keep growing in that regard. I guess my only concern is that Milligan has his work cut out for him trying to make each of these strange loners distinct, but I trust he will be up to the task.

And that’s it, the whole 52 aside from Green Lantern Corps, a title that I missed. I think that’s thorough enough. I can say that the majority of these books are not ones I will continue to follow, but I will say there are more I liked than I expected, so that’s something. The ones I wont stick with mostly fail by being mediocre, the titillating or offensive elements unfortunate but probably overly remarked upon. I don’t think reaching more women, kids or non-Caucasians was ever a serious goal, and the few who are offended are likely to keep reading anyway. What folks should really be more demanding of are better stories, more adventurous art, more risks taken. The relaunch has been considered by many to be a kind of last ditch attempt at new readers and relevance, and so the problem is not that Starfire is a slut or Catwoman and Batman get it on, but that to those writers′ minds, and their editors, this represents risk and a bold attempt at taking the characters into new territory. At the same time, maybe 15% of the books show some inventiveness and fresh approaches that aren’t based on exploitation, with another chunk of the books being familiar but competent entertainments. That’s not a bad average overall.

—Christopher Allen

Flashpoint #1 (and Flash #11 & 12)

Writer - Geoff Johns

Artist - Andy Kubert (Scott Kolins and Francis Manapul on Flash #11 & 12)

Publisher - DC Comics. $3.99 USD.

I try to be fair. I cop to not being a Geoff Johns fan, but I like the Flash and I like alternate reality stories, so I thought I’d give Flashpoint a try. And to be fair, I figured I’d read a couple issues of The Flash, since it leads into the story. So here we go with #11, and it honestly only takes three pages before I flip out. A red-haired kid, who’s witness to somebody aging at an alarming rate, hasn’t given his story yet. Barry Allen, who I always thought was more of a CSI type, is apparently running the investigation, so he tells a bespectacled female coworker to talk to him. She takes the kid, who by the way is wearing a red and yellow shirt, so with the red hair you know he’s probably going to be a new Impulse or something soon, off to the cafeteria. Another detective asks Barry, “You really think it’s smart to hand over this witness to a wallflower like Patty Spivot?”

Now, I let Barry’s “How did someone age eighty-plus years in a matter of seconds…And why would they do it?” slide, even though in the context of the scene the how and why meant exactly the same thing. But this line really threw me. “Wallflower?” Really, Geoff Johns? Just because your story involves unnatural aging doesn’t mean you’re supposed to write like Stan Lee in 1963. If, somehow, this comic was slipped under the white door of Steve Ditko’s apartment, he would read this and go, “Wallflower? Isn’t that expression kind of outdated?” And this is a guy who still thinks men wear fedoras. Does Johns even know what wallflower means? Is Patty’s inability to dance in public going to cause the witness to clam up? (Clam up is also an antiquated phrase, but we actually still have clams in 2011, and they do close up tightly, so living people can figure out what it means)

Of course, what Johns is trying to do is cram two idea-dicks into one vaginal dialogue balloon (known in the comics industry as DP), which is that Patty, this character with a last name that sounds like a plumbing fixture, is 1) a nerd, and 2) as a nerd, not to be trusted with the important child witness. But why? What’s wrong with the plain Jane policewoman? Should only Type A hard-on cops be grilling a scared-to-death kid? It makes absolutely no sense. 

Things get a little better with The Flash #12, although Johns treats Barry Allen’s goodness as a kind of virus that makes not only him but everyone around him earnest and boring. We get an intervention from wife Iris and other speedy types, because Barry’s been working too hard (guys—he was vibrating in another dimension for years, cut him some slack), and then in #12 there’s a lot of touch-feely with Barry admitting he’s still upset about his mother’s death, but Iris is there for him, and then there’s a douchey scene with Barry telling Patty he just wants to be friends, because of course the hero with no testosterone or sex drive is going to be irresistible to his female coworkers, blah blah blah. Johns is certainly not alone in this, but there’s just a very programmed feeling about the whole thing, like he’s just hitting plot points but without bringing any life experience, insight, humor or life to them. Surely someone has had a heart-to-heart with Johns about something, and maybe it wasn’t over coffee and involving lots of hand-holding? Maybe it was in a cab, or while brushing teeth before lights out, or something not so Hallmark/Lifetimey about it. Surely he knows what it’s like to have let someone know he’s not as into them as they are into him? You could have done this with other characters interrupting, to increase the awkwardness, or with both of them trying to work at the same time, or something not so damn pat and flat. 

I’m not saying Johns is without feeling, because clearly he’s a very loyal guy, keeping Scott Kolins around despite the artist’s work deteriorating over the years into a stiffness in his figures he didn’t have a decade ago. If you want an argument against digital pencils, it’s Scott Kolins, and it doesn’t help that the coloring is similar to ads for roast turkey, where the meat is sprayed to look browner and shinier than real life. 

I don’t mean this as a nonstop rip on Johns, because it would be ridiculous to suggest a guy who has reached his level of success can’t write a decent comic now and then, and as it happens, Flashpoint #1 is prettty good. I say this with some qualification, though, as it’s not that hard to make the first issue of an alternate reality superhero comic work. You change the status quo as much as possible, have dead characters now alive and/or living ones dead, and present plenty of different costumes and codenames. Johns does all this, and it’s perfectly fine. As with Johns’ past successes, he’s looking to give some second-tier characters as much attention and chances to shine as the big names, so here we have Cyborg as the leader of the ragtag resistance force against the two threats to civilization, Aquaman and Wonder Woman. Does it really matter why The Question is called The Outsider here, and looks different, or why Thomas Wayne is the Batman? No, because this will all be wrapped up and put right in five issues. Am I interested in finding out the answers? Yeah, kinda. I do think Johns could have bucked convention, and his own dark impulses, and presented an alternate reality as less grim than the regular DCU reality. It might have been fresher for the heroes to be a little more naive, to not have experienced such darkness, so that the Aquaman/Wonder Woman invasions would hit them that much harder. It’s okay, though. Andy Kubert has gotten way too fussy with drapery and other faces, though. It’s like a Greg Capullo issue of Spawn or something.

—Christopher Allen