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Trouble with Comics

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

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