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Trouble with Comics

The New DC 52 Week Two, Part Two

As I tuck into the next steaming plate of DC reboots, I find myself sympathetic to the editors and writers in charge of this, let¢s be honest, pretty much impossible mandate to present a refreshed DC Universe that is accessible to new readers while honoring not just existing readers, but also servicing the numerous trademarks of characters a truly fresh relaunch would have made defunct.

Take Batman and Robin #1, by Peter J. Tomasi and Patrick Gleason, which reads very much like the pre-relaunch version of the book, except now Bruce Wayne is fully Batman and it is he, not Dick Grayson, teaming up with Bruce¢s son Damian in the role of Robin. Now, although it hasn’t been made very clear, probably by design, but Bruce has obviously been Batman for at least five years. If only five, that means that Dick, Jason Todd and Tim Drake have all not only had brief careers as Robin, but have grown up enough to leave the nest/cave and strike out on their own, with new superhero identities. That’s preposterous, but since DC has to service these trademarks, there you go. Obviously, it would have been better for only Dick to have been Robin, followed by Damian (if you even need Damian). I don’t know intellectual property law, but does DC think that if they don’t use these characters all the time, Marvel or Image are going to publish their own Red Robin or Damian Wayne comics?

Anyway, it¢s a curious issue, with little action, and most of what we see being Bruce trying to get Damian to get what he¢s trying to do with respecting the memories of his dead parents while moving away from being obsessed with their murders, and Damian acting like a heartless little shit. I didn’t mind that, as Damian is often written that way, but of course there is more to him than that. And I like the idea of Bruce now honoring only his parents¢ wedding anniversary rather than the date they died, which is a nice idea of Tomasi¢s and a smart way to sort of shut the door on one era and open a new door onto maybe a brighter one. On the other hand, shame neither Tomasi nor Gleason realized it was sort of dumb to have this bright start result from the same clichéd shot of Bruce brooding in his dark old mansion. How about some renovation to visually sell the new outlook?

Suicide Squad #1 by Adam Glass and Federico Dallocchio is a book I wanted to like, being a big fan of the original series, but it has a lot of work to do to get me past this initial bad impression. We meet Deadshot, Harley Quinn (in a racier, non-harlequin ensemble), King Shark and others, being tortured for what they know about the Suicide Squad. We flash back to the group on a mission, showing what they can do. Back to the present and one guy is willing to talk, which gets him killed. Everyone else is tight-lipped, and we find out it was just a test by a younger, thinner Amanda Waller. Since the remaining victims/prisoners/operatives know how to keep their mouths shut, there is hope for them to eventually earn their release, or at least keep doing the government¢s dirty work a while longer.

Nothing really wrong with the idea or the structure, but Glass¢ execution is gratuitous with the blood and torture, and all the characters are loathsome. Deadshot and Harley have been shown to have dimension in the past, but not here. Sure, it is just the first issue, but there needed to be a reason to care here, and I didn’t find one. And while I can appreciate that Dallocchio went for a different style in the flashbacks than the current time, well, the flashback wasn’t far back enough to need it, and neither style is all that interesting.

Green Lantern #1 by Geoff Johns and Doug Mahnke was entertaining enough, and well-drawn, but almost all of the story beats depend on some familiarity with Green Lantern to make sense, or at least have the desired impact. First, we get someone reciting the famous (for Green Lantern fans) oath, and then, whoa, is that Sinestro reciting it? That’s a real shocker (for Green Lantern fans). If you¢re new to it, it doesn’t mean anything. Then we get the Guardians of Oa, whose role is not explained, agreeing to let the green-uniformed Sinestro go protect his sector with the ring, because the ring chose him, even if they disagree with his methods. Only Ganthet is against the idea, so he is tortured. So, that’s kind of interesting, in that in some way maybe we¢re supposed to root for Sinestro, the nonconformist. Got it.

We next meet broke Hal Jordan, attempting to kite a check for overdue rent, but he is interrupted by a scream for help that makes it through a closed windown in the apartment across the street. It looks like a guy is going to rape or kill her. Hal jumps from his balcony across and through the window, only to find that it’s a (non-porn) movie being shot in the apartment, and its then that he sheepishly realizes he fell for the same thing Peter Parker did 40 years ago.

No worries, because Carol Ferris bails him out of jail, and Johns adds the odd touch that she somehow knows the policeman on duty. Hal explains what he was doing, but Carol tells him he¢s not Green Lantern anymore (why he isn’t isn’t explained), and though he wants to be a pilot again, he¢s uninsurable (as an insurance guy, I would say it¢s unlikely an insurer would dig into the flying careers of each pilot, but whatever), but he has a job in another capacity if he wants it. We find out he had to give up the ring but not why, and that Carol also had a Star Sapphire ring but hasn’t worn it lately and doesn’t plan to (which would only make sense to fans).

We catch up with Sinestro passively watching (via green telescope, which isn’t made clear is created by his ring) a bunch of guys in yellow uniforms restraining, blasting and killing people, and then suddenly he is attacked by one who feels Sinestro betrayed their Corps. Sinestro garottes him and says he betrayed nothing, and for all non-fans know, he may be right. It isn’t made clear that Sinestro used to be in charge of these guys in yellow, but I suppose most readers will at least understand he has been away awhile and needs to put his house in order.

Back to Hal, who has asked Carol to a fancy restaurant, the kind with stainless steel lids over the entrees, waiters in vests, and patrons wearing pearls. What a great place for a guy with no money to ask his new/old boss and apparent friend…to cosign a new car loan? He rightly gets ice water in the face, and in Johns¢ defense, he has no need of continuity crutches to write Hal as a selfish, manipulative asshole. 

But that’s okay, because we aren’t supposed to care that much about Hal, right? Its Sinestros book, and that’s why he gets the last, full page word, telling the now-evicted, no-options Hal that if he wants his ring back, he has to do whatever Sinestro tells him.

This part is actually fun (although much moreso for fans), because while I was kidding about whose book it was, it might be a good story to have Hal serving Sinestro, who clearly isn’t a hero in the classic mold. Maybe the humbling will make Hal a better person, and maybe he will have to be resourceful to get out from under Sinestros black-laquered thumb. For this and the clean art, Im in, though it really would have been nice if DC just provided a Marvel-style summary of what went before, so Johns and other writers didn’t have to labor to work in (or in this case, completely blow off) the exposition.

Red Lanterns #1 by Peter Milligan and Ed Benes does a much better job setting up its main character and where he has been before this point, and I have only read one or two comics where he briefly appeared. A big ugly red guy using a power ring fueled by rage, named Atrocitus, is honestly a lot less to work with than Sinestro, much less Hal Jordan, but damn if Milligan doesn’t make him sympathetic and efficiently present characters much less sympathetic, in both the blue aliens trying to kill his loathsome, vomit-spitting cat, Dex-Starr, and the other Red Lanterns themselves, that make Atrocitus look much better by comparison. This is the kind of thing Johns sort of whiffed on in his scene with Sinestro and the Sinestro Corps. I can¢t say I am a big Ed Benes fan, as his skills with big muscles and glinting metal are somewhat undone by his misinterpreting the intent of some scenes. I mean, this inarticulate, vampire/Harley Quinn-looking chick—we are supposed to despise her in this scene, not drool over her great ass. This would seem to be B-level Milligan work, but subpar Milligan is still better than a lot of scribes out there. I¢ll be sticking with this one for now.

—Christopher Allen

The New DC 51 - B is for a better Bat?

Continuing the alphabetical tour of Week One of the new DC, the next three books happen to be in the Dark Knight’s corner of the universe.

Batgirl #1 showcases the return of Barbara Gordon, now out of the wheelchair where she’s been since The Killing Joke, back in costume and ready to fight crime in Gotham City.

A small confession: I really don’t care who Batgirl is.  I haven’t followed the various Batgirl incarnations throughout the years and I haven’t read the various Birds of Prey books that had Barbara Gordon as their leader.

Having said that, I liked the character of Oracle and I think her absence leaves a void in the superhero world (and, yes, I can’t help but wonder how all of this effects Batman Inc.).  I’m hoping that someone has plans for an Oracle-type character.  But if Barbara Gordon is the new-old – or is that the ‘old-new’? – Batgirl, that’s okay by me.

Oh and for those who were concerned about the sudden improvement in Barbara’s condition:  yes, she was shot by The Joker.  Fortunately this Barbara Gordon did not suffer a permanent injury.  She recovered.  She may have even been Oracle.  But she’s all better now.  (Writer Gail Simone deftly takes care of that bit of business in a couple of panels, so I hope that I’m not spoiling anything for anyone.)

There.  Now that those bits of business are taken care of…

The new-old Barbara has an interesting combination of cockiness and uncertainty as she resumes her career as Batgirl.  Simone manages to capture the swagger of someone who has experience with bad guys, but manages to balance that with someone who has been on the sidelines for three years.  It makes for a captivating character and allows her inner-dialogue to give us insight into the character rather than just act as a way of delivering exposition.

Unfortunately too much of the issue is spent establishing a new villain, having Barbara say goodbye to a much-younger-than-we-are used-to Commissioner Gordon, search for a new apartment and then getting a new roommate.  There’s a lot going on in this issue and much of it is good, but a couple less balls being juggled might have made for a more captivating comic.

I am somewhat curious to see what the story holds for Barbara and where Simone takes the character, but I’m not feeling completely hooked on the book.

Batwing #1 focuses on a new character, the so-called “Batman of Africa”.  There’s even a reference to Batman Inc. (and there’s me again worrying how the new 52 effects Grant Morrison’s best book) and how the new character was recruited by Batman to fight crime.

Let me start off by saying that the artwork in Batwing by Ben Oliver is lush, creative and a pleasure to look at.

But the story…

The thing is this:  writer Judd Winnick has been given a blank slate to create a brand new Batman-type character.  Go crazy, Judd!  Go wild!  The world is your oyster!  Let your imagination soar!

But instead of creating something amazing, fresh and new, we get this:  the new character is a cop in a corrupt police force.  But he’s idealistic.  He’s going to change the force from the inside.  But difference is this… he’s in Africa!!!

The young Batwing also has an older Alfred-type assistant and of course there’s a beautiful young cop on the force who is both a romantic interest and is also the only other honest police officer on the force.  Add to all of that a group of formerly unheard of old heroes who are introduced as if they’ve always been around but it turns out they all disappeared under mysterious circumstances!  Even Batman was unaware of their existence, and he’s the goddamn Batman!

Everything in this book has been done before, been done better and been done to death.  Yes, it’s pretty to look at.  Otherwise it is a massively wasted opportunity.

Detective Comics #1 is the first full-issue appearance of Batman in the new DCU and after reading the book I have two major problems:

The first is that I can’t make sense if this Batman is like the Superman of Action Comics and the story takes place before all of the other books that are being published.

Having read three Bat-books in a row, I simply cannot get a sense of Batman’s role in this new DCU.  In Batwing we hear mention of Batman supplying computers and equipment to his African protégé.  In Batgirl Barbara Gordon has a poster of Batman on her door, confirming the aspect of her origin that had her inspired by his heroics years ago.  And the first page of Detective Comics has Batman stating that The Joker has been responsible for “one-hundred fourteen murders over the past six years.”  So I have to think that the story takes place ‘now’ in the new DCU.

And yet later in the issue the police force are screaming for Batman’s arrest and blowing things up as they attempt to capture him. 

So Batman is literally the poster boy who inspired Batgirl and his reputation as a hero is powerful enough that he’s recruited a hero in Africa.  But in Gotham City, the police are hunting him and Commissioner Gordon is his only ally? All of this going on while the cover of the soon to be alphabetically read Justice League International has Batman swinging into action with a bunch of other heroes?

I acknowledge and accept the conceit that the various Batman books exist in their own little corner of the world where Gotham City is its own dark, dangerous place.  I’ve always approached the books as if these stories take place in a more gloomy, more serious Bizarro Bob Haney mini-universe, and when Batman appears in Justice League he’s a different character in a different alternate world.

But shouldn’t there have been more thought given to how Batman operates and is perceived within the various Bat-books?  He’s been a heroic inspiration for years in one book, he’s a financial provider in another, but a hunted menace in his own Detective Comics?  I’m not demanding iron-clad and inflexible continuity in the first week of the line’s re-launch, but a tiny bit of consistency wouldn’t have been a bad thing.

The story itself is serviceable and Tony Daniel certainly has some good-looking drawings to accompany his fairly-good words.  I’d even go as far to say that the book, while over the top and incredibly self-important in its seriousness, is good until the story’s final pages.  But those final pages plunge the issue into a grand guignol of gruesomeness.

And that’s my other major problem with the book:  why would an editor allow a book this grotesque to be one of the cornerstones of the entire company’s re-launch?  I have to wonder what was going through editor Mike Marts’ corporately-mandated head.   

At the book’s conclusion it becomes obvious that the main character in the book is not Batman, it’s The Joker.  And instead of Detective Comics being a book for the 21st Century, it’s a book transplanted from the heyday of the Image Comics-inspired Dark Age.  It reads as if the worst aspects of Watchmen were its inspiration and Tony Daniel was instructed to top the shock (and shlock?) value of that that classic story.

The final pages of this issue are something out of Silence of the Lambs or its more lurid sequel, Hannibal.  It is impossible to reconcile this book’s conclusion with the action in Batgirl.  I don’t even know how both books can exist in the same universe.

Scott Snyder’s run on Detective Comics was at times macabre and over the top, but there was always the underlying sense that light was struggling against darkness and that there was always hope that evil could be defeated.

This new re-launch of Detective Comics merely wallows in its own gloom.  And because of that, it’s a giant step backwards for this shiny new universe.

—Kevin Pasquino