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DC 51 Week Two - Bats, Demons and Suicide

As I head into Week Two of the new DCU I find myself asking the question: who would have thought the alphabet would be so cruel?

In Week One the A’s were kind enough to bring Action Comics and Animal Man but then it was a slog (with the surprising arrival of “O is for OMAC”) until I arrived at the alphabetical conclusion with Swamp Thing.

But I know that if I completely eliminate the structure I will skip right to the dessert and never sample the liver, brussel sprouts or sautéed mushrooms.  I’d just stick with the stuff I like and never take an honest and open-minded taste of something new and potentially delicious.  So, yes, the alphabet will be my guide, but this time it will be writers not titles that lead the way.

Having said that, the books are starting to lose their individual resolution and distinctiveness.  For instance…

Writers Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning share a problem with Nathan Edmonson: they’re tasked with writing books that have characters that have been out of service for awhile, both books have a fan base, but neither of the re-launched books manages to make the character accessible to anyone who hasn’t read their previous adventures.

Abnett & Lanning resurrect Resurrection Man but fail to explain what the book is all about.  The main character has some kind of weird “Dial H for Hero” power that changes every time he is killed and brought back to life.  But who our hero is, who the bad guys are and why all of this crazy stuff is happening – all of it is left unexplained and largely unexamined.

Similar problems plague Grifter #1.  The story’s timeline bounces from place to place, the hero is undefined, the villains and supporting cast are a dull mystery and nothing memorable happens in the book.

As a matter of fact as I once again flip through the two of them, it’s amazing how the books have blurred into one.  Both books have a character that reacts to something rather than taking action.  Both books have sadistic villains who kill innocent people.  Both books even manage to have their heroes thrown out of a plane.  And, I’m sorry to say, both books have characters that I’m not going to read about again.

Moving down the alphabetical ladder, the next issue is a book that was due at the beginning of the year, was delayed and then previewed in the back of DC books for an April release, was again delayed, and now it’s finally arrived.

Batwoman #1 must have been ready for publication a long time ago, but The Powers That Be must have told the creators that the book had to wait for the re-launch of the whole universe.  And, to his credit, J.H. Williams shouldered the scorn of questioning fans and kept quiet about the reasons for the book’s delay.  He was a good corporate player and never once said “It’s not my fault!  They’re delaying the book!  Not me!!”

So, was it worth the wait?  Is the artwork as gorgeous as remembered from the Greg Rucka penned Elegy?  Is it the best looking book so far from the new DCU?  Is it a good thing that Kate Kane has returned with J.H. Williams doing the art and co-writing the book?

Oh hell yes.

To flip through the pages of Batwoman #1 is to sample the work of a stunning artist and amazing craftsman.  Simply put, it is a thing of beauty.  Over the years Williams has worked with Rucka, Alan Moore, Warren Ellis and Grant Morrison.  It’s obvious that he’s learned from some of the industry’s greatest modern writers and his artwork is inarguably among the best in monthly comics.

As for the story itself (because pretty pictures alone do not a comic make), there are some minor problems that co-writer W. Haden Blackman and Williams fail to overcome.  Because there are a couple of bumps in the road as the book attempts to re-introduce the character in this new universe.

For instance, there is a photo of Renee Montaya on display on the police department wall as if she was killed in action and it’s uncertain if she’s dead in this new universe or the photo is there solely for its dramatic weight.  And since it’s left unexplained, the scene shouldn’t be there. And on the same note, there is the unexplained addition/presence of Bette Kane as Batwoman’s side kick.  Plus there is the confrontation between Kate and her father that obviously occurred before her appearances in Batman Incorporated because in that book Kate and her father have reconciled.  Much of the confusion with her father might be due to the re-scheduling of the book, but it makes the book feel like it’s been on the shelf, awaiting the okay to finally be released.

Having said all of that, those issues become minor qualms in a comic as stunning as this.  The arrival of a certain government agent, not fully explained but wonderfully teased, is a pleasant surprise and Williams has artist Amy Reeder lined up to keep the book looking gorgeous and on-schedule.  This is a book that came burdened with perhaps unreasonable expectations and still manages to fulfill them all.  It is the best looking book on the shelf.

Writer Paul Cornell has a large stable of characters to deal with in Demon Knights #1 but unlike last week’s Stormwatch he doesn’t have a well-remembered old series to be measured against.  And perhaps it is because of that fact this book is more creative and energetic.  With this book he manages to reward old readers but still make the book accessible for new arrivals – a task that he didn’t quite achieve in Stormwatch.

Cornell enjoys a freedom in Demon Knights that few other creators in the new DCU are being allowed: set in DC’s past, the book doesn’t feel overcrowded with continuity challenges and that awkward “Who are these characters now?” reboot curse.  The Demon, Madame Xanadu and others are quickly introduced (to varying degrees of success) and then they’re thrown into action.

Compare Demon Knights to Suicide Squad #1 and it become apparent what one does right while the other book does horribly wrong.

From the awful revamp of Harley Quinn (who in both costume and character suffers a strained and unnecessary flashback to an editor’s note Detective Comics reference) to the oh-so very bloody introduction of each character, the whole book is just nasty, nihilistic and pointless.  One of the key elements in the original Suicide Squad and the more recent Secret Six was that the characters had a chance at redemption with the potential of being something besides just evil.  This gang of villains, especially Harley Quinn, is established as being so violent and loathsome that any attempt to portray them as anything besides psychos will be forced and ham-fisted. 

Cornell manages to have some fun with the characters in his book.  Writer Adam Glass manages to make each character in Suicide Squad an irredeemable maniac. Why DC decided to take Harley Quinn and make her an S&M corset and hot-pants wearing maniac is a mystery.  In three panels Cornell does more with The Demon than the entire issue of Suicide Squad does with any of its characters.  And it’s those three panels that make me want to read more.

—Kevin Pasquino

The New DC 52 Week Two, Part One

So the first week of DC′s relaunch went pretty well, as Action Comics, Animal Man and Swamp Thing became three series I wasn’t reading that I now want to follow, and a couple more I′m on the fence about. Counting the prior week′s Justice League, which I will stick with a little longer, that isn’t bad at all.

So here we are in Week Two, and here are my first impressions of what I read on the first night, in the order I read them.

Deathstroke #1 by Kyle Higgins and Joe Bennett wasn’t anything I had any real expectations about. Aside from his appearances on the Teen Titans cartoon several years ago, the character of Slade Wilson only registered for me during a brief period in the 80s when I followed the Wolfman/Perez New Teen Titans. But I liked this just fine. Higgins understands that when you have a character who in the minds of most is a villain—a paid killer—you have to give the people some sympathetic quality. The Punisher has the fact he does what he does because his family was gunned down. With Deathstroke, it′s…well, it′s that he′s battling ageism. OK, that’s not a great hook, but I quite liked the old dog having to prove he still has what it takes against a new breed of snotty, classless, high-tech young assassins. Obviously, the series cannot hang on this for much longer, but it made for a good debut, and Bennett′s precise, crisp style matched up well with the material. I liked this one. And you know, as much as the relaunches have taken some heat for some old hat talent, you can put Higgins on the list of fresh names that could help this thing actually work.

Grifter #1 by Nathan Edmundson and Cafu is a book that, quite frankly, I read next because I wanted it to fail in comparison to Deathstroke, the other tough-solo-guy book this week. Who said critics were objective? And…mission accomplished, though it isn’t so bad. We meet Cole Cash in an agitated state on a commercial flight, able to hear the disturbing thoughts of aliens masquerading as fellow passengers and crew. I read enough WildC.A.T.S. to know these must be Daemonites, though I don’t remember if this was always one of his abilities. We get a little flashback action to find that Cole is a, well, yes, he′s a grifter, though it isn’t clear what the deal was, and the vagueness of it suggests writer Edmundson isn’t interested in setting up long cons in the book. Rather, it′s going to be action-packed semi-superhero stuff, and that’s okay, too. I wish we had gotten a little more story here, but even more, I think Cafu is not the right choice as artist, because he draws faces too smooth. I understand from the script that Cole is in only his late 20s, but the hat and muttonchops just don’t fit with the unlined, innocent face. A successful grifter has presumably been around the block a time or two. I appreciate that DC lined up another gig for Cafu after they canceled T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents too soon, but a better choice would have been…

Mister Terrific #1 by Eric Wallace and Roger Robinson presents ″world′s third smartest man″ Michael Holt, a kind of Reed Richards with a touch of Tony Stark who has lost the woman he loves but soldiers on, throwing himself into his scientific work. Wallace presents Holt as a likeable, pragmatic man, but I felt like this was more of a miniseries. There just didn’t seem to be enough to base an ongoing book on, but we′ll see. Robinson′s non-dynamic art doesn’t help. I think you need someone with a cleaner, brighter style, like Cafu. Also, honestly, I think the ″Fair″ and ″Play″ tattoos are ridiculous. What would a multimillionaire industrialist be trying to prove with them?

Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. #1 by Jeff Lemire and Alberto Ponticelli was the best of the small sampling so far this week. Lemire strikes gold again after the impressive Animal Man debut with this supernatural team book starring a prissing, 700 year old Frankenstein′s Monster, his kick-ass wife, and at the end, cult favorites the Creature Commandos. That could make for a thin Hellboy/B.P.R.D. ripoff, but Lemire brings plenty of fun ideas to it, like a three inch floating headquarters, courtesy of Ray Palmer′s shrink technology, a mad scientist leader in the body of a young girl, and Frankenstein′s marital troubles, which have apparently been going on for a century. Ponticelli brings enough weirdness in his style while still being able to draw things as cool as they need to be. Very fun.

Legion Lost #1 by Fabian Nicieza and Pete Woods, is not a fun book. Im only a casual LOSH fan, but I don’t think my problem with it had anything to do with only knowing half the team. It just wasn’t compelling. We get a group of Legionnaires appearing on modern, 21st Century Earth, trying to find a villain who is going to unleash some sort of virus that will wipe out humanity or somesuch. Timber Wolf goes off, trying to track the guy, and dialogue between the others lets us know that he isn’t the type of teammate to ever wait or listen to others. Okay. We get to know very little about the other characters, despite most of them getting opportunities to gab with each other. They do find the guy, are unable to stop him, and then fire up their time machine again to go to their timeline, where we suspect the virus will mean that everything has changed. I didn’t have a problem with the plot, but the execuion was uninvolving and Pete Woods has turned in much better art before. Rest assured that there will be another team handling the Legion before too long, and this will be undone or ignored

—Christopher Allen

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

The New DC 51 - Five Comics, Only One Pony

After the huge disappointment of Detective Comics I felt as if I was in the middle of a cruel and disappointing joke: here I am desperately searching through a huge pile of manure because I know that there has got to be a pony in there somewhere.

It couldn’t get worse after Detective Comics, could it?  Could it??  The alphabetical journey of Week One continues…

The aged, liberal-leaning, slightly cynical and more than a little caustic Oliver Queen is replaced by a younger, richer industrialist who fights crime as he travels the world in Green Arrow #1.  This new Oliver Queen is so good at what he does that he actually phones into business meetings while he hunts for bad guys.  Chew gum and walk at the same time? – Hell no, Oliver Queen can make multi-billion dollar business deals as he fights crime and shoots his trick arrows.  As he says, “Multitasking is my speciaity.”

On top of all that, he also has a pair of operatives who assist him, there’s a hint of some kind of mysterious past that haunts our hero, and it looks like he’s going to fight a whole ton of villains in the next issue. 

After reading the story it is apparent that this new improved Green Arrow is an amalgamation of the TV version of Oliver Queen from Smallville and the movie version of Tony Stark from Iron Man: an ultra-rich, somewhat arrogant ladies man who still finds time to do the right thing as he makes his millions.

But does it make any sense for Green Arrow to be battling a gang of super-villains?  The final splash page has ten super-villains looking very pissed and out for some payback.

As I came to that final splash page, the little part of my brain that I usually turn off when reading comic books flicked back on and said, “Hey, shouldn’t those villains be taking on the Justice League and not just poor Green Arrow? – There’s no way he can avoid getting his ass kicked.  There are ten of them!”  And in no way, shape or form was this my brain squealing in anticipation of next issue.  This was my brain saying, “This doesn’t make any sense.  I give up.  Can we move on to something better?”

And I have to say that sometimes it feels good to listen to my brain.

One more thing: either give Green Arrow a beard of or give him a shave.  The chin scruff looks stupid.  The front cover makes it look like he’s about to transform into a werewolf.

Hawk &Dove #1 spends almost a third of the issue explaining who the title characters are, how they got their powers, and what their relationship is.  And then it wraps it all up with a final page that is so poorly illustrated and darkly colored that I couldn’t figure out if it was supposed to be one of the heroes or it was someone completely different.  I ended up having to flip back a bunch of pages to try to figure out what was going on.

The issue also has Dove flying through the city as she has a long chat with Deadman.  But after all of the time that the story takes to explain the origin and relationship between Hank, deceased brother Don and replacement Dawn, there is not a single mention of who the bizarre guy is with the red suit and the big ‘D’.  And that wouldn’t be such a bad thing if so much of the issue hadn’t been dedicated to explaining Every Little Detail about the main characters.  So on the one hand the issue rehashes everything needed to know about Hawk & Dove, but  on the other hand it figures that every reader will either know or not care about this Deadman fella.

And they were right, because at the end I didn’t care about any of it.

Justice League International #1 would probably make more sense if readers had a better concept of what the true status of superheroes and the Justice League is in the new DCU.  Unfortunately the issues released up to this point have Justice League #1 set in the past, Action Comics #1 set in the past, and Detective Comics #1 seeming to conflict with Batgirl andBatwing in their portrayals of Batman’s status.

This comic starts with a splash page of DC heroes on a huge monitor (including Frankenstein, The Creeper and Congorilla?!?) as a secret U.N. council votes to put together its own Justice League.  Everyone gets to both vote and veto potential members for the league.  The Russians are pleased that Red Rocket is part of the group, England gets a member, China is represented, etc. etc.  But India, the Middle East, France, Mexico, Germany:  none of these countries or regions had representatives at this clandestine gathering so they don’t have any heroes in the JLI.  (I guess it’s too bad that DC didn’t’ have any pre-existing heroes from those areas that could be pigeon-holed into the group.)

Who the members of this U.N. council are, how they were chosen to vote for the League members and how they have the authority to draft all these heroes is never explained.  The whole thing is like an updated version of the Global Guardians concept but it never feels all that updated.  The comic itself, with its Saturday morning cartoon cast of characters, seems both unnecessary and blatantly concocted:  “What do you mean?  How the hell can we only have 51 books?!?  We need 52! – Okay, how about dusting off the Super Friends concept, filling it with minor characters but making sure they’re from all over the world and then slapping the “Justice League” label on the cover.  That’ll work.”

Oh, and Batman also joins the League for no apparent reason other than it never hurts to have Batman on the cover of a team book.  Once again illustrating that DC doesn’t know what Batman’s role is in this new universe.

With regards to Men of War #1:  I tried.  I really, really tried.  I even read the whole book.  Made my way through the whole thing.

But the constant footnotes (S.AW. = squad automatic weapon, GOOSE = Carl Gustav recoilless rifle) which explain every bit of military jargon got on my nerves, the cliché about a “young soldier refusing his destiny” bugged my ass, and the pages and pages and pages of explosions  became wearisome.

But the book’s biggest fault is that it is set in the new DCU which means that while the main characters are human, non-powered soldiers they are fighting in a combat zone that is being destroyed by a crazed, unknown super-villain.  The book is supposed to capture the drama of soldiers as they go into battle, but it turns out that a super-villain is doing all the damage.  How are normal soldiers supposed to fight a villain who can fly, appears indestructible and has “done more damage in five minutes than a year of armed men could do.”   This juxtaposition of reality and superheroics doesn’t work and the whole thing collapses due to the absurdity of the concept.

And the $3.99 price tag for a war comic? – I’d like to have someone explain the logic behind that one for me.  It’s almost as if DC wanted to say there was more than just superhero comics in their re-launch, but they then purposely priced the books to fail.

And finally a comic I enjoyed.    

OMAC  #1 is an entire issue of Keith Giffen channeling Jack Kirby.  And that is a very, very good and entertaining thing.

There are pages and pages of OMAC battling bad guys, ripping things apart and huge sound effects like “FFRRAATZZ,” “PA-THOOM” and “BASSSH” to accompany the destruction.  Everything is big and chunky and huge and glorious. 

My only complaint with the books (and it’s a surprisingly minor one)is that I wish that someone other than Dan DiDio was co-writing it.  DiDio has an annoying habit of shoving redundant descriptive boxes into panels and pages where the finished art has already done the work.  For example there’s a terrific double page splash where OMAC is ripping apart a building with a terrific “FRRZTTTZKKK-RRAAACK” and Didio feels the need to insert “In an unimaginable display of raw strength and power, OMAC tears through the final obstacles in his way.”

Yes the book is a pastiche of the classic Stan Lee & Jack Kirby tales, but just because Smilin’ Stan used to shove stuff like that into a comic doesn’t mean that it’s right.  I hate to sound incredibly harsh, but I can’t help but wonder what a real writer (rather than DC’s co-publisher) would have brought to the tale.

(Speaking of The King, for some reason the credit “OMAC created by Jack Kirby” isn’t in the book.  I trust that was merely an oversight and will be quickly corrected.)

I confess that with OMAC  I finally found something worth savoring after seven comics of varying degrees of disappointment.  It’s loud and silly and beautiful to look at.  It succeeds because it doesn’t take itself too seriously and isn’t a re-boot attempting to deliver something cool and modern.  It actually reads like a good idea rather than just another book to get the count up to 52.

I would love for this book to exist in its own Kirby-verse but it seems unlikely after seeing how superheroes were forced into Men of War.  Nevertheless I’m hoping that Batman, Superman, Green Lantern and the Justice League never make an appearance in the book.  I know that probably won’t be the case, but I can hope.

—Kevin Pasquino

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

The New DC 51 - Action to Animal

So with the new 52 DC reboot/restart/re-imagining and with the joyful enthusiasm of “Hey it worked for Casino Royale and Batman Begins so it can work for us!!”,  the big question became this…

What to buy, what to buy, what to buy?  52 re-launches with a bunch of new creators.  What to buy?

Fortunately my local comic shop (the legendary and fabulous The Beguiling) was kind enough, like many shops, to lure people like me who were sitting on the fence into making a complete commitment: for one low price I would be able to purchase all 52 issues and save myself the hassle of making a decision.

So I figured “What the heck, why not?”  After all, enough of the books interested me that I may as well just kill that annoying curious cat and get them all.

And, yes, that means when faced with making a decision or making a commitment, I went for the non-decision commitment.  Oh if only ice cream and women were that uncomplicated.

My critical measuring stick for the 52 books is therefore not equally balanced: there are those books I would have bought, the ones I was somewhat curious about, and the ones I would not have touched even if someone had offered me free chocolate as an almost -irresistible incentive.

To be completely transparent, of this week’s 13 new releases I would have bought 3 of them, flipped through 4 of them, and the rest would not have earned a glance even if Rosario Dawson was giving complimentary foot massages with each purchase:

Would have bought: Action Comics, Swamp Thing and Animal Man.

Would have flipped through:  Detective Comics, OMAC, Stormwatch and Static Shock.

Not even with chocolate or Rosario Dawson: Batgirl, Batwing, Man of War, JLI, Green Arrow and Hawk & Dove.

Okay, but now that I have committed to all of them, how to sample them?  Do I read my anticipated favorites first, or inverse it and do the more mature and responsible equivalent of eating all my vegetables before I get dessert? (And as I think about vegetables, it’s ironic to note that the is the cover of Swamp Thing (looking very Bissette & Totleben) is right in front of me.)

Well, nothing says random reading quite like ‘alphabetical order’ and so that was how I decided to approach Week One.  Which means we start with…

Action Comics #1.  Right from the first page and its bottom panel it is very apparent that this is a different kind of Superman.

“I’m your worst nightmare” is a most un-Superman-like statement.  Batman, Freddy Krueger or Kim Kardashian might say something like that, but for the Man of Steel to utter those words… well, it certainly indicates that this is a very different take on the hero.

Writer Grant Morrison created the great and now classic All-Star Superman with Frank Quitely, but anyone expecting that kind of homage to The Silver Age is in for a rude surprise.  This Superman is younger, angrier and a lot less certain of his place in the world.  Reading like a “Year One” take on the character, the traditional majesty and nobility that were synonymous with Superman have been pushed aside for a more working class, “willing to get his hands dirty” kind of hero.  And while that’s all well and good, I don’t know how far Morrison and other creators can stray from those classic, defining characteristics and still have him remain “Superman”.

Or to put it another way:  I enjoyed the Superman in Grant Morrison’s Superman Beyond from Final Crisis much more than I did this Superman.  I would rather have Superman as a leader and a beacon of nobility than yet another angry superhero.

A strange aspect of the story is revealed part way through the issue when one of the characters says that this new “Super-man” has been around for six months and yet he still remains a figure of mysterious menace (very much like the early appearances of Batman in Gotham City).  But I couldn’t help but think that six months in today’s world is the equivalent of several lifetimes in the days of old media  scrutiny, so I’m amazed that hero hasn’t been You Tube’d, Facebook’d and Google’d to the point that all the mystique is gone.

It’s my understanding that this story takes place several years before the rest of the books in the new DCU (with Justice League being another exception) and maybe that’s why it’s been six months since he first appeared, but it makes me wonder how necessary it was to introduce Superman outside of the current timeline of the other books.  It’s often been expressed that Superman should be the first hero, but if it’s this Superman who is the first hero, it’s difficult to imagine him inspiring a lot of other heroes to follow in his footsteps.

The book’s major downfall is the fact that there aren’t any brilliant ideas or terrific new insights into any of the characters.  Instead, there’s just a lot of anger, red-glowing eyes and a fairly goofy-looking Jimmy Olsen.  And after Geoff Johns’ recent Secret Origins and Straczyski’s Superman Earth One, the launch of this book had to be something spectacular.  And it’s not. Action Comics #1  reads like an early issue of Ultimate Spider-Man albeit better-paced and with less of a focus on the hero’s  origin.

The bottom line is that I expected Morrison to deliver something more mind-blowing than merely a slightly better Bendis.  Having said that, I’ll stick around in the hope that Morrison brings his A-game for the upcoming issues.  But if I didn’t have such faith in Morrison, I’m not sure if I’d buy #2.

Animal Man #1.  Oh cruel, cruel alphabet: making me move from a slightly disappointing Grant Morrison debut to a book that once had him at his very, very best.

Writer Jeff Lemire certainly has huge shoes to fill with this comic because although Morrison’s take on Animal Man is more than 20 years old, it was his 26 issue run on the series that rescued the minor DC hero from complete obscurity, it remains the definitive take on the character and it also launched Morrison’s own career in North America.  So not only does Lemire have to do Animal Man and his family justice, he gets do so as he works in the shadow of Morrison’s classic, creative genius.

Lemire dances the fine line (as do all of the #1’s creators) of introducing the character as if he were completely new but at the same time not completely ignoring the past and risk alienating all of the nostalgic fans of the original series.  And he manages the creative dance quite well, establishing (and to some extent perhaps even over-establishing) the fact that Buddy Baker and his family are the main focus of the story and all of the superhero shenanagins are incidental.  

The first part of the book reads like something from Pixar’s The Incredibles (although Morrison’s Animal Man predates the movie) with Buddy and his wife debating the challenges and financial insecurities of being a superhero, their daughter screaming for their attention and their son being mildly annoying.

But then Buddy has to do his Animal Man duty and spring into action. 

And that is when the weirdness begins to intrude on their lives.  While things may have been quite domestic and common at the beginning, it all starts to unravel.   And when things go bad, it is terrifying and grotesque and quite brilliant to behold.

I’m not overly familiar with Travel Foreman’s artwork but it is knockout friggin’ gorgeous.  There is a black & white sequence at the end of the issue that is glorious.  Unfortunately there is also a full page splash early in the story of Buddy in flight that looked like it was Warren Worthington III (aka Angel) from the X-Men circa 1980s John Byrne that simply did not belong in the rest of this beautiful book.  While I know Animal Man’s costume is supposed to look less than inspiring because of his low status on the superhero totem pole, I’m hoping the costume design is merely Jim Lee’s bad idea and will get pushed aside very quickly.

Lemire and Foreman do not disappoint with this issue.  Well-written and beautifully illustrated, I hope they get a chance to work together for a long time.  Because there might be greatness to come.

—Kevin Pasquino 


IDW’s Star Trek (Ongoing) #1

IDW is continuing the adventures of the young crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise introduced in director J.J. Abrams’s 2009 Star Trek film, and the first issue is just about everything I could have hoped for.

I wrote about my lifelong appreciation for Star Trek a few days ago, on the 45th anniversary of the airing of the first episode of the original series. With that anniversary in mind, now’s a great time for IDW to launch a new ongoing series, and I am pleased that the first issue reflects the same quality and attention to detail that we’ve seen in the publisher’s other Trek offerings. From Countdown, a canonical prequel to the 2009 movie, to the movie adaptation itself, and sidelights like Nero and Spock: Reflections (both of which expanded on and enhanced the events of the 2009 movie), IDW’s creators and editors show that they get what Star Trek is about, and what a comics adaptation of it requires, more than any publisher in the history of the series. IDW’s Star Trek comics are exciting where DC’s were dull. They feel grounded in the world of Trek, unlike Marvel’s quasi-superhero tone; they make sense and the characters look and feel like the same characters we’ve seen on TV and in the movies, unlike Gold Key’s bizarre, atrocious Star Trek comics.

This new Star Trek #1 features a retelling of the second pilot from the original series, “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” That was the first episode produced that featured William Shatner as Captain Kirk, and the story centered on Kirk dealing with a longtime friend and crew member, Gary Mitchell, accidentally acquiring the powers of a god in an accident at the very edge of the universe.

This new comic is and isn’t that story. It’s a perfect evocation of what I want from the new Star Trek from here on out, touching on the events of the “Prime” universe of the original Shatner/Nimoy episodes while exploring the very real consequences of the fact that history has been changed and anything can happen, now. I’m not saying every movie, comic and TV episode (if that ever happens) produced from here on out has to be based on an old story, but what I am saying is that, when appropriate, and when it can be done in a thoughtful and interesting way (as it is here), those old stories should be used as one part of the foundation of exploring the new Trek universe. Yes, new stories can and should be told, independent of all the old baggage, but the opportunity is there to have fun with a lot of the old mythology, and that’s what happens in Star Trek #1

See, in a new universe like this, branching off from an older reality because of a change in history due to time travel, some things will be exactly the same. And here, they are. Some events proceed exactly like they did in the 1966 TV episode. But some events diverge. Doctor McCoy was not yet aboard in the original episode, the ship’s doctor was a different actor. And as a result of that literally trivial fact, the Gary Mitchell story plays out differently. One key character from the episode is not present, because McCoy’s presence changes things.

Writer Mike Johnson and creative consultant (and 2009 movie co-writer) Roberto Orci introduce this idea organically and for anyone versed in Star Trek history, the result is a delightful divergence from what we know, and an indicator that we’re all coming to this new chapter in Trek history on pretty equal footing. No matter what we think we know, there are surprises ahead, and that feels pretty good. Factor in artist Stephen Molnar’s careful balance of attractive, dynamic artwork with a fidelity to the appearance of the actors who play the characters, and I really can’t imagine anyone who likes Star Trek, new or old, not loving this comic book.

Alan David Doane

A copy of this issue was provided by the publisher for the purpose of review. 

Justice League #1 (2011)

Justice League #1
Writer – Geoff Johns
Penciler – Jim Lee
Inker – Scott Williams
Publisher – DC Comics. $3.99 (print)/$4.99 (print/digital combo)

The New 52 starts here, with the flagship title. This is the one that’s the easiest sell: The biggest superheroes DC has, on a team, starting from scratch, as written and drawn by two of their best-loved talents. I am fairly certain there has not been a positive review of a Johns-written comics on this blog, and it would be pretty easy to rip this one, but it isn’t really that bad. We meet Batman in action, hounded by police, and Lee draws him well, with noticeable but unobtrusive extra seams in his costume as a kind of nod to the Christopher Nolan movies, or perhaps just an ingrained artistic fussiness. And he meets Green Lantern, who performs his shtick to any new readers, though not as impressively as he should, since it looks like too much precious space was used on Batman close-ups. There is a menace of sorts in what appears to be an Apokoliptian parademon, setting off a bomb on behalf of Darkseid, and the mystery of this is the engine that gets GL to abscond with Batman to find the other superhumans that are starting to make the papers, like that guy in Metropolis, who ends up being a little more prone to punching first and asking questions later than we might expect of Superman. And we get a glimpse of young high school quarterback phenom Vic Stone, who has a dad who neglects him. And that’s your twenty-two pages.

Johns does fine with Batman firmly in the arrogant, brilliant loner mold which has defined the character half my lifetime. The Hal Jordan Green Lantern as a cocky hothead is fine, and presumably Superman will be revealed as more thoughtful once introductions are made. There is a chuckle or two in the Batman/GL meeting, but I don’t think many people think of Johns as a really witty writer. It’s a utilitarian effort, and while it makes sense to write a lot of action and big panels for Lee, it also means there isn’t a lot of story here, and nothing we haven’t seen before. For his part, Lee is Lee, with maybe some Neal Adams panel angles in his bag of tricks now, but nothing surprising or ambitious. I get it: this is meant to be DCs most accessible book, so no one is going to experiment in anything but little decorative details, like giving Supermans costume a little collar. I mean, the JL could be in much worse hands than this, and has, many times. That doesn’t mean this is anything to get very excited about.

—Christopher Allen

Asterix and the Black Gold

Writer/Artist – Albert Uderzo

1981.

This is my first exposure to the venerable series about the shrewd little Gaulish warrior and his dimwitted oaf buddy, Obelix. I understand it’s the second album (#26 in the series) to be both written and drawn by Uderzo after the death of co-creator/writer Rene Goscinny. I also understand that many prefer the ones where Goscinny was writing.

In this one, the two friends travel to the Middle East to find more “rock oil” (petroleum), as their village druid Getafix has run out and needs it for his various potions. They’re joined this once by Roman secret agent Dubbelosix, who is drawn like late ‘70s Sean Connery and has all manner of steampunk gadgets like a folding chariot. They have many hardships, dangers and all manner of confusion in their search for the oil, though nothing too serious. The copy I was loaned still shows a 1981 copyright and $9.95 pricetag, so maybe later editions have better printing and coloring, but I found it indifferent here, though I can tell Uderzo has a pretty supple line and the art style of bulbous noses, big feet and exaggerated postures works just fine for the humorous set-ups, while here and there he does stop to draw some very nice establishing shots of Arab architecture.

As far as the gags, I was a little surprised, given how successful the volumes are worldwide, that so much of the humor is verbal rather than visual/physical. I like puns better than most, and the idea of using the Gaulish –ix or Roman –ius suffixes afford a few opportunities for at least a smile, with names like Surreptitius, Dubbelosix and such, though Uderzo stretches the idea a bit far with on-the-nose mouthfuls like “Ekonomikrisis”. Uderzo also has pretty low standards for some of these jokes: what’s so funny about a tired camel thinking, “Being humped about really gives me the hump?” What does that even mean? Maybe it’s the translation. There are some witty James Bond bits and an ironic running gag about the nastiness and useless of “rock oil” that contrasts with the modern reliance on petroleum. Reading more about the book, it’s clear Uderzo worked pretty hard, including lots of then-current references and even using a character modeled on Goscinny as a kind of tribute, so no doubt longtime fans, or those still familiar with the current events of 1980, will get more out of it than me. I liked it but aside from a mild interest in reading one written by Goscinny to see if it’s funnier, I don’t feel a great urge to return.

—Christopher Allen

August 10, 2011

The Mighty Thor Omnibus

Writers - Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Robert Bernstein

Pencilers - Jack Kirby, Al Hartley, Joe Sinnott, Don Heck

Inkers - Joe Sinnott, Dick Ayers, Al Hartley, George Roussos, Paul Reinman, Chic STone, Vince Colletta, Frank Giacoia

Publisher - Marvel Comics. $99.99 USD

It’s appropriate that Thor finally gets the Omnibus treatment, as this book weighs as much as a sledgehammer. The Mjolnir-wielding Norse god made his first appearance in Marvel’s anthology series, Journey Into Mystery #83, starting a long, unbroken run that first had him in just half the book, but within a year or so the main Thor adventure was backed by the beloved Tales of Asgard. All the Thor material from #83-#120 and Annual (“Special”) #1 are here.

Jack Kirby had done a version of Thor in one DC comic before this, but the basic set-up of having Thor sort of sharing the body of lame (in both definitions) Dr. Donald Blake seems like more of a Stan Lee “hero with feet of clay” device, perhaps inspired by the Fawcett Captain Marvel/Billy Batson idea (and which would inspire Marvel’s own Captain Marvel/Rick Jones set-up). Blake finds a cane through improbable means and when he strikes it, he turns into the God of Thunder, aware of what happened while he was Donald Blake and yet not sharing or at least not interested in Blake’s knowledge; ie you wouldn’t ask Thor to perform surgery on you. 

There’s the added gimmick that Thor cannot be separated from his hammer for more than 60 seconds (Asgardians measure time the same as us, even if they are immortal), or he turns back into Blake. Lee handled a lot of Marvel books back then, so he only plots many of these stories, letting brother Larry or Robert Bernstein script them, and of course it’s difficult to determine how much Kirby himself added. Even at his angriest, most anti-Marvel/Lee period, Kirby probably wouldn’t want to take a lot of credit for the first year or so of Journey Into Mystery’s stories, as most were pretty poor. Blake’s medical practice was left vague enough that one day he could be performing surgery in a hospital, while another day he could be working at a clinic, or as a kind of proto-Doctor Without Borders in a banana republic. Whatever happened, he would have some reason to become Thor, who so excites his beloved nurse, Jane Foster, but she is always kept at arm’s length due to misunderstanding or a desire to keep her safe from his dangerous double life.

This romantic thread is often irritating, and invariably gets in the way of what should have been a grand, mythological adventure book from the start, though I suppose something can be said for Lee’s ability to make even godlike characters relatable with dating woes, or Thor’s difficult relationship with his dad, Odin. Odin is basically a bigot: he loves his son, but can’t understand why he wastes his affection on Jane Foster, a human woman, and thus beneath him. There is something charming about Thor pining away and moaning in public over his girl trouble. And of course, Loki is a classic villain, the evil stepbrother who might have been better if he had been the favorite son…but probably not.

It takes quite a while for the series to get going. Aside from Loki, who appears constantly, Thor’s rogues gallery is pathetic, with losers like “Sandu the Supernatural” and “The Carbon-Copy Man.” Even decent villains such as The Radioactive Man, The Executioner, The Enchantress, The Cobra and Mr. Hyde aren’t all that interesting in their first appearances. Lee really misses an opportunity to draw parallels between Thor and The Executioner, both saps for love. It has to be said, though, that unlike, say, the Superman books of this period, Lee/Kirby & Co evolved the series beyond its confining status quo. Little by little, the Tales of Asgard become not just abbreviated versions of myths, but original adventures themselves, and also the main series draws more inspiration from the wonders of Asgard, making room for characters like Balder the Brave and Heimdall to play more of a part in Thor’s life. 

—Christopher Allen