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Trouble with Comics

DC Week Three – Birds, Bats and (thankfully) Some Wonder

To be honest, DC almost beat me to the ground with their insulting Catwoman / Red Hood and the Outlaws combo punch to my four-color inner faith, but the rest of the books for this week couldn’t be that bad, could they?  Could they?!?

Well, thankfully, the answer is no.  So in UPC order…

Supergirl #1 manages to be a pretty good start to the series but having said that it feels wafer thin.  Supergirl crashes to Earth, fights a bunch of guys who are wearing armor and her cousin arrives on the scene.  The End.

But as thin as the story was, it does manage to capture the confusion and fright that this young alien feels as she arrives on a strange planet and finds herself with all these amazing powers.  Hopefully her origin has been well thought out, because in recent years Supergirl has had more reboots than the Legion of Super-Heroes.  Hopefully this one will stick.

Ahh Wonder Woman.  Ahhhh Cliff Chiang.

Writer Brian Azzarello does a great job of introducing Wonder Woman because he assumes, rightfully, that we know who she is.  She’s tall, she’s an Amazon and she’s got some connections to the Greek Gods.  Anything else (and anything that’s been changed, enhanced or modified) about the character doesn’t need to be established this issue because, as I said, she’s Wonder Woman.

Wonder Woman #1 is a strange book because not only does it read better the second time, it almost demands a second reading.  Azzarello expects the reader to keep up with the story and if you don’t know who the weird guy is on page one, well you can re-read the issue and it will all come together.  And after comic after comic that spoon-feeds everything about the characters, his style is refreshing.

As for artist Cliff Chiang – his stuff is simply gorgeous.  Some people aren’t huge fans of his art and I don’t know what they’re not seeing.  The Wonder Woman he draws conveys compassion, power and strength.  He even manages to make a nude Princess Diana appear majestic and powerful rather than the bimbo-ized and lobotomized cheesecake we had to endure with Catwoman and Starfire.  Diana is nude in bed because she’s an Amazon; Catwoman has her breasts exploding from beneath her costume because the creators didn’t know what else to do with the character.

Wonder Woman and Batwoman don’t make up for the awfulness of Catwoman and Red Hood, but at least they have characters that are strong and intelligent rather than the awful wish-fulfillment fantasies of the latter two books.  If Wonder Woman could now lose the ridiculous (and probably Jim Lee mandated) necklace/choker/WW thing around her neck – that would be a good thing. 

DC Universe Presents #1 is the awkwardly named anthology series that will have mini-series after mini-series featuring a character not quite strong enough for their own on-going book.  This issue presents Deadman and while there is some really good stuff going on, it fails in one aspect.

Boston Brand is back as Deadman and the issue explains what a wretched human being he was while he was alive and how he is given a chance to redeem himself.  The part of the book that deals with him meeting with ‘god’ is powerful and moving as he is shown how his soul teeters on the edge, but there is an opportunity for him to redeem himself.

The problem is this: it’s never made clear what Deadman is doing now that he’s back and temporarily taking possession of the living’s bodies.  The old series had Deadman trying to find his killer and then he would pop around the DC Universe as a guide or to help some hero out.  Most recently he had a starring role in Brightest Day that had him alive and then dead again.

But now that he’s back to being just plain old hopping-from-body-to-body Deadman, we have no idea what purpose he has.  This issue is just intriguing enough that I’m curious to see where it goes, but hopefully the next issue will show us where the character is heading.  The concept of Deadman has always been great, but they need to show why the character matters, otherwise he’ll always remain a secondary, background hero.

Batman #1 is what a good Batman comic should be: a fight scene or two, some interaction with Alfred and the other cast members, a sense that Bruce Wayne is on the cutting edge of technology and that Batman is always twenty steps ahead of everyone else. 

Scott Snyder proved that he could handle the character (even when it was only Dick Grayson) in Detective Comics and his transition (and graduation?) to Bruce Wayne is flawless.

The artwork by Greg Capullo is a bit of a mixed bag: utterly gorgeous at times (his depiction of the villains in Arkham and, later, a double-page spread of the Batcave are stunning with one being monstrous and the other feeling huge and isolated), but confusing at other times (the heights of Dick, Tim and Damian seem wildly out of proportion, and a mayoral candidate could be Bruce Wayne’s double if it wasn’t for a slightly different hairstyle and a difference in the ties they’re wearing).

But it’s a very promising start to the series.  And, yes, this Batman once again has the police co-operating with him, which again makes me wonder what went wrong with Detective Comics.  But since I’m quite happy to forget that comic, it makes the quality of Batman #1 even more enjoyable.

Birds of Prey #1 is, like a lot of the new DC books, filled to the brim with our heroes exposition-ing their way through the entire issue.  The book serves as a nice introduction to Black Canary (who is obviously not married to Green Arrow anymore because he would look like a child next to her—but having said that, I shouldn’t give DC any ideas for their next spin of the wheel for the unlucky winner of “Who’s the next heroine we can turn into a busty, bra-breaking bimbo”?)

Unfortunately because the issue focuses so much on establishing a backstory for Black Canary, the other characters are left out in the cold and, for instance, there is no attempt to explain who this Starling character is.  I’m sure if I read the previous books or if I searched around the internet I could find out, but the point of these books is to introduce and then pull new readers into the stories.  There’s no mystery about Starling, she’s just never explained. 

Put it this way: I’ll happily hop on-line to enrich my reading of a Grant Morrison book because that’s part of the reading experience with his works.  But I don’t feel inclined to do so with Birds of Prey because I don’t think it will add anything to the story, it will just clarify something that the writer didn’t bother to explain.

And the final book of the UPC-guided week is Green Lantern Corps #1.  And you can tell this book belongs in the Geoff Johns corner of the universe because a couple of Green Lanterns are slaughtered in the first three pages of the book: one character has her head cut off one character while the other is sliced in half.

There was once a time when the death of two members of the Corps, even two obscure Lanterns on the edge of nowhere, would be a cause for alarm and a signal would be sent across the galaxy for everyone to hunt down the killer. 

But in this book the murders occur early in the story, and then the rest of the issue has Guy Gardner and John Stewart moaning about how tough it is for them to lead normal lives (a theme that was echoed by Hal Jordan in Green Lantern #1).  It then isn’t until the last four pages of the book that anyone seems to care that someone is wiping out members of the Green Lantern Corps and the characters finally spring into action to find out what’s happened.  All of this paced for the climatic, final page where the body count just mounts and mounts and mounts.

Under Geoff Johns’ guidance, the various Green Lantern books have become more and more morbid, as if there isn’t any drama in the story unless someone gets a hand sliced off or a Red Lantern is vomiting on someone or an entire planet is wiped out solely for the purpose of leaving the Green Lanterns a message.  The books are teetering on the edge of becoming parodies of themselves as each death, slaughter or maiming has to top the one before it.  And considering the fact that one of the books is populated with characters that puke red energy onto their victims, the slide towards utter and inescapable farce doesn’t seem that far away.

Since the various Green Lantern books are a cornerstone of the new DC (with four books being published), I’m not sure if self-parody is what they’re hoping to achieve, but I believe that they’re just a vomiting budgie away from being there.

—Kevin Pasquino

The New DC 52 Week Three, Part Two - Turn Me On, Deadman

So now that we′ve covered the Batman related books of the week, what about all the rest? As usual, there are some old standbys and a few solo books for characters who have never been able to support them for long. First, though, we′ve got a book starring one of the heavy hitters of the DC Universe.

Wonder Woman #1 by Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang is, as expected, a train wreck. The posturing, macho Azzarello would seem an odd choice to write Diana, and indeed, shows very little aptitude for her here, relegating her to a detached role, the focus more on the human Zola, a pretty, short-haired blonde who finds herself menaced by centaurs and other creatures from Greek mythology because she is apparently carrying the child of Zeus. She is saved by Hermes, who is later wounded terribly. One of the villains has charcoal skin and would seem to be an angry son of Zeus, but as much as I loved the Robert Graves book as a kid, his identity didn’t jump out at me. 

I find mythological elements can be nice in contemporary stories but it′s easy to overdo them, and Azzarello goes full court press here, jamming the pages with magic and symbolism so that there is barely time to meet a sleeping Diana and get her dressed in a silvery, non-patriotic variation on her classic attire. How soon do I miss the ′90s leather jacket of last year′s muddled, aborted Straczynski reboot. 

Cliff Chiang does a terrific job, but with one more bad career choice like this it is getting harder to drum up sympathy for why he isn’t a superstar. As for Azz, I will say that by the end, he has stood by the courage of his trumped-up portentous bullshit enough that it almost gets over, but one comes away from this book scratching one′s head and wondering why it was more important to him to explore the mystery of how Zeus fucked this human girl and she didn’t know it, than to try to make the star of the book interesting.

Captain Atom #1 by J.T. Krul and Freddie Williams III makes me think I misjudged Krul unfairly by the secondhand reviews of his previous Green Arrow and Arsenal miniseries. Well…that Arsenal thing really did sound awful, but hey, this marks two good books from Krul this month. Part of the appeal is Williams′ art, which has evolved to a freer, sketchier style that is surprisingly refreshing when depicting all the nuclear energy blasts and such. It′s like he′s making science fun. And I′m not saying Krul is knockdown brilliant or anything, but as with Green Arrow #1 he is using a formula that works: 1) see character in action; 2) present his supporting cast; and 3) present the ongoing problem, which in this case is the reliable premise of the hero whose powers may end up killing him. I like that he gets away from the overly militaristic hardass or government stooge role that Atom is often given, and the energy hairdo lifted from Firestorm actually looks pretty good on him.

Blue Beetle #1 by Tony Bedard and Ig Guara defines workmanlike. Unimpressive artwork, a get-it-out-of-the-way flashback explaining the origin of the scarab that will give Jaime Reyes his Blue Beetle abilities, and several uninteresting scenes leading up to that contrived moment. I think the Beetle redesign from a few years back, which hasn’t changed much here, is terrific, and I′ve liked Jaime fine the few times I′ve seen him, but this was not a good start for, Jesus, is this Volume 9 of Blue Beetle?? Volume 10 should be just around the corner. 

Supergirl #1 by Michael Green and Mahmud Asrar presents a Supergirl who doesn’t know where she is, fighting for her life against guys in mech suits trying to contain her. Naturally, she′s freaked out and we are sympathetic to any creature who doesn’t know why something unpleasant is happening to them. Kind of reminds me of something John Byrne would do, and I mean that as a compliment. Simple, but good storytelling, and I like Asrars style. Hey, maybe I won′t like the character once she assimilates into the DCU, but for now, good start.

DC Universe Presents #1 by Paul Jenkins and Bernard Chang is one of the nicer surprises of the week, a mature take on Boston Brands karmic balancing journey. You may well ask why such an admitted jerk in life as Brand would get the opportunity to live on through others after death, but its clear that this is, if not a curse, certainly a burden he will have to carry for a long time until the goddess Rama finds him sufficiently enlightened and selfless. I could take issue with an Eastern deity being so on-the-nose and really spelling out for Brand what he has to do, but overall it looks like Jenkins has a good handle on things, and Chang is a good choice on art, as he is can handle the everyday stuff as well as the more mystical or superheroic elements.

OK, so while I missed getting this week′s Green Lantern Corps #1, I did find last week′s Superboy #1 by Scott Lobdell and R.B. Silva and liked it, certainly a lot better than Lobdell′s Red Hood book. I don’t know Superboy too much, so maybe having him as a kind of lab project combo of both Superman′s and Lex Luthor′s dueling DNA has been explored before, but I get the feeling the patient, calculating genius aspect of the character is new, and I like it. Silva is kind of stiff but it does fit the character so far, and the idea of Superboy in a virtual reality his creators aren’t aware he knows is fake should be good for a lot of mileage. 

Legion of Super-heroes #1 by Paul Levitz and Francis Portela was my least favorite book of the week, which may be surprising to read after how I tore into Wonder Woman, but at least that caused a strong reaction. I want to be sensitive because I know what its like to follow an artist for a long time, long enough that you can find bits of their old magic where someone less familiar cant. Like, take new Bob Dylan or Van Morrison records and old fans may fine wonders while new listeners hear croaks, grunts and wheezes. 

So Im just saying that I missed the time when Paul Levitz was good enough on LOSH to create all the warm memories that fans have of his run. In reading this (and I did read the first couple of his last LOSH as well), its not even like the feeling one may have from reading a past-prime Claremont or Miller where the style is so distinctive that if you give in you can maybe get swept up in it even if its ridiculous. I don’t really see much of a Levitz style, unless you call metronomic, low impact character introductions a style. Here is this guy talking about why he is upset to this girl who misses so-and-so and this guy cant be a Legionnaire anymore and this girl is married to this guy and this guy has almost the same powers as this other guy but lets just seem them both anyway because some folks are fans of one and some prefer the other and this one is complaining that they need to recruit more Legionnaires because we have only seen a dozen so far and theyre all sitting around doing nothing except the really smart one who is doing something with his computer and this Legion must be made of money because they can afford to keep two dozen or more heroes sitting around and waiting for something to happen that usually requires the efforts of five or six of them. 

Listen, there is something cool about the Legion. I have read pretty good runs from four or five writers, and I would give Levitz the benefit of the doubt that back in the day, his run was good, too. But it is just not happening here. This is just formula without fire. I don’t understand how you can put out two Legion books with dozens of characters and tons of history to draw from, and they can both be botched so badly. I don’t get any passion here, any attempt to do something fresh or sincere or layered or anything. ZZZZ.

—Christopher Allen