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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

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