Thursday, September 29, 2011

DC's New 52, Week 4 (September 28, 2011)

This is the final week of DC's New 52 initiative. As with the other weeks, it's a bit of a grab bag. There are no books here as strong as the best titles from previous weeks, but there's still some good stuff, a few surprises (I never expected Firestorm to be any good) and some stuff that I'm not sure why it's even being published.

1. Justice League Dark #1 - Now this is the kind of comic Peter Milligan is meant to be writing. Despite the title, this series is DC's attempt to fold a whole bunch of its Vertigo magical/supernatural characters into the mainstream DC universe, with a catch-all title dedicated to what's bound to be a pretty loose grouping of unconventional heroes. This is Milligan's forte, and that's immediately obvious as he spits out page after page of crazy reality-warping concepts and purplish prose. It reads like a pastiche of some of Milligan's peak work — particularly Shade the Changing Man, the title character of which is one of the main heroes here, and his short stint on Animal Man — but that's OK when he's coming up with something this entertaining and strange. Identical women hurl themselves into bloody traffic accidents, cows given birth to machinery, and a storm of razor sharp teeth slice Superman to bits while he muses that the teeth smell insane, which in turns prompts a narration box to counter, "but what is the smell of sanity?" The inclusion of the Justice League deliberately makes another old favorite Milligan point, that sometimes the world is just too strange to be understood or confronted by solid, noble heroes like Superman and Wonder Woman — sometimes the most damaged, wacky people are precisely the ones who can best cope with the world's lunatic shifts. The comic moves at a frantic pace and avoids the exposition trap by interspersing the obligatory character introductions with all the insane goings-on caused by the Enchantress. Mikel Janin's art is excellent, particularly in the epic sequence where the Justice League attempts to face the Enchantress. There's also a sly sense of humor here that manifests itself in things like Superman sensing that Cyborg is anxious by monitoring his oil levels.

2. The Flash #1 - This is just a joyous, spirited superhero comic, as quick on its feet as the Flash himself. Writer/artist Francis Manapul (who gets some writing help from colorist Brian Buccellato) has delivered an energetic and fun first issue that gets everything just right as far as straightforward superhero antics go. Manapul's art is crisp and clean, with some inventive page layouts that communicate the constant sense of rapid motion that constitutes the heart of Barry Allen's power. Best of all is the page where the Flash, falling from a plane full of bad guys, tumbles down a series of panels in the center of the page, with the rest of the city rendered in the grid around him, so that the page as a whole looks like a segmented diagram of the city, with Barry's freefall ending below the street in the sewer that sprawls across the bottom of the page. It's all bright and beautifully colored, moving at a brisk pace without sacrificing the necessary character beats that establish the hero as an earnest, deliberate, serious young man in contrast to his hyper-kinetic powers. The pace is frantic enough and the art gorgeous enough that the initially generic-seeming villains aren't too much of a concern, and the issue ends with a series of quirky twists that suggests that even those stock, faceless baddies are pointing towards a much more interesting sci-fi plot ahead.

3. All Star Western #1 - It's great to see DC stretching into the past of its universe with this book, which focuses on Jonah Hex and Amadeus Arkham trying to solve a series of murders that are reminiscent of Jack the Ripper. This issue is especially fascinating in relation to Grant Morrison's travels into the history of Gotham City in The Return of Bruce Wayne and the rest of his Batman epic, and there are some obvious connections here in the characters of Hex, Arkham, the Wayne ancestors, and a secret society of wealthy Gothamites with some sinister secrets. More importantly, this is very well-done. It's wordy but well-written by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray, and Arkham's narration, with its attempts at analyzing his reluctant partner Hex, is engrossing and fits perfectly with the period setting. And then there's the art by Moritat, whose bold, thick lines often make each page look like gritty stained glass compositions.

4. Superman #1 - While Grant Morrison's Action Comics chronicles the early years of Superman's career as a feisty urban crusader, the hero's name title (written by George Perez and drawn by Jesus Merino) takes place in the present day of the new DC universe. This is an older, more established Superman, who still shows signs of the moralist hero of the common people established in Morrison's title, but without the same fiery anger and playful sensibility. The result is a solid superhero yarn that lacks the leaping, bounding excitement of Action Comics #1 but nevertheless seems to be setting up a fine superhero saga. The bulk of the issue concerns the first day of a new Daily Planet that's been taken over by a rival that the muckraking Clark Kent sees as a lousy gossip factory. As the merger goes into effect and Lois Lane takes charge of the new enterprise, Superman does battle with a mysterious alien fire monster. The action is fairly rote, and there's a random connection to Stormwatch #1 that suggests an eventual crossover but doesn't do much else. Still, it's interesting to see a Superman who seems so remote and lonely, and in that respect the last page, on which a dejected Clark slumps into an elevator while using his super-hearing to listen in on Lois chatting with her boyfriend, is especially effective and affecting.

5. The Fury of Firestorm: The Nuclear Men #1 - This is a weird one, and one where I didn't really know what to expect beforehand. Co-written by Ethan van Sciver and Gail Simone, and drawn by Yildray Cinar, it turns out to be an unlikely combination of high school melodrama, violent mercenary action, and explosive sci-fi craziness. Surprisingly, it winds up being a pretty entertaining issue that sets up a rivalry between two high school students: one black, one white; one a jock, the other a reporter for the school paper. The differences between these two are drawn pretty broadly, especially in the rather heavy-handed dialogue about race, but in formal terms the parallel editing and alternating narration streams keep the comic interesting. Cinar's art is very nice-looking, too, with lots of heavy blacks and strongly defined lines. The book's tone alternates, for much of its length, between action and high school drama before suddenly erupting, literally, with the transformation of the two leads into the superpowered fire creatures of the title. This is a fairly strong first issue with an interesting premise.

6. Aquaman #1 - This is a very self-aware Aquaman comic that knows that the titular hero is, for most people, kind of a joke, so writer Geoff Johns inserts plenty of nods to the jokes while trying to establish his hero as a badass with no sense of humor about his reputation. It's not great, and some of the dialogue in the later half of the book, when Aquaman visits a diner, is especially forced. An interview with a pushy blogger provides an opportunity for some clumsy faux-casual exposition, and Aquaman's humorless stoicism doesn't make him a very endearing hero. Just about all he does here is silently glower while everyone he meets wisecracks about fish and mermaids. More promising is the framing story involving some creepy-looking deep-sea Creature From the Black Lagoon outcasts, who provide a horror frame for Aquaman's on-land adventures.

7. The Savage Hawkman #1 - This is written by Tony Daniel, so of course it has a gritty, wordy tough guy voiceover running all through the issue. It's a style that's pretty common in these New 52 books, actually, though Daniel seems to be the worst offender. At one point, Hawkman calls himself "bud" while looking in the mirror; it's that kind of hard-boiled or maybe just overcooked narration. And the issue opens with Carter Hall taking his Hawkman costume, burying it in the ground, and shooting it with a gun as a symbolic gesture. That said, despite Daniel's tough guy posing, this is a decent first issue, especially when a sinister — and very Venom-like — alien threat is revealed in the later pages of the book. Most of the credit has to go to artist Philip Tan, whose detailed, textured work is gorgeous whether he's portraying ordinary scenes of archeologists at work or the increasing alien weirdness of the final few pages.

8. Teen Titans #1 - Well this just whizzes by; when I got to the last page and saw that it was over I was pretty shocked because it barely felt like I'd read anything. Which is both good and bad — it's certainly not plodding like Men of War or the Legion books, but it's also pretty fluffy. It's an assembling-the-team kind of issue with Tim Drake monitoring some other superhero teens so he can get a team together before a mysterious organization can get to the kids first. There's a very Speedball-during-Civil War moment involving Kid Flash, but other than that it's mostly about Tim and Wonder Girl, with a final page that ties back into Scott Lobdell's other book, Superboy. (I guess it's just fortunate that he doesn't seem to be tying the execrable Red Hood into these two titles as well.) It's a fast-moving book with a lot of attitude, even if some of it seems more than a little misplaced (like Tim Drake blowing up his penthouse).

9. Voodoo #1 - Considering that this is pretty much exclusively known as "that series about the stripper," everyone should know what to expect here. This makes Catwoman #1 look positively demure in comparison. Ron Marz sets this whole first issue in a strip club where the title character is one of the dancers, so naturally there are plenty of women posing in lingerie or with arms draped across their chests. It's basically a whole book of cutesy cheesecake drawings by Sami Basri, whose style is undoubtedly well-suited to drawing pretty ladies in their underwear. There's not much else here, of course, and since the issue ends with a grisly bloodbath that signals where the series is headed next, it seems like the creative team wanted to get all the sexy stuff out of the way up front before leaving the strip club setting behind. At this point, you might as well as just read a bona fide softcore porn comic, since this amounts to more or less the same thing. It doesn't have the playfulness and goofy fun of Catwoman, and though Basri's art is attractive he's no Guillem March, but neither is this as hateful as Red Hood and the Outlaws #1, still the low point in DC's treatment of its female characters. This just doesn't have much to offer besides pretty pictures and recycled clichés about strippers.

10. Green Lantern: New Guardians #1 - I'll give this issue credit for trying to approach the reboot in a slightly different way than most of the other New 52 — it rushes through an origin story in a couple of pages and then tries to introduce a whole bunch of other characters and a big cosmic plot by the end — but it just doesn't work. It reads like a condensed summary of a few issues at least, especially since central character Kyle Rayner is introduced, steps outside to go to the bathroom, gets a power ring, quickly adjusts to it and is then shown cruising around as a Green Lantern saving people. There's hardly any time to pause in order to establish him as a character or show his reactions to what should be a shocking event. Tony Bedard's trying to cram way too much into one issue here, and the result is that everything rushes by without having any impact; the main character's still a cipher, let alone the swarm of multi-colored alien Lanterns who show up to fight him by the end of the issue. The art, by Tyler Kirkham, is pretty good, and especially shows an affinity for creative visualizations of the Lantern powers: upon receiving his power ring, Rayner instantly turns the alien who gives it to him into a manga-styled imp, and later constructs a group of glowing green construction workers to catch a collapsing crane. This is pretty forgettable otherwise, though.

11. Blackhawks #1 - This is one of those issues where I'm really not sure what to say. It's not bad, exactly, just boring and undistinguished. It's about a team of UN paramilitary commandos, and they have clever nicknames like the Irishman (he has red hair!) and two of them have a secret romance that they have to keep from their superiors. And I'm getting a little sleepy just thinking about it, frankly. The art by Graham Nolan and Ken Lashley is sketchy and finicky but kind of stylish at times, but overall there's just nothing too interesting here besides some rehashed Bond movie action scenes and lots of technobabble.

12. I, Vampire #1 - Some editor at DC obviously realized, a few years after the rest of the world, that vampires are pretty hot these days, and that's clearly the only reason that this is a relaunch title. Whatever. It's boring as hell, and the structure is a mess with stilted dialogue between the two lead vampires running throughout the whole thing in caption boxes. All the usual vampire clichés are present and accounted for, of course, including the tortured vampire romance angle that's all the rage with the teens. Joshua Hale Fialkov's dialogue is mostly the kind of high melodrama that's supposed to suggest, for some reason, beings who have lived a very long time, with occasional diversions into cutesy vernacular that are all the more jarring for the general self-seriousness of everything else. The last thing anybody needs is this half-assed vampire book.

13. Batman: The Dark Knight #1 - What is the point of this book? Out of the 52 titles in DC's current relaunch, there are 11 titles about Batman or characters associated with Batman, including 4 titles that actually star Batman. I get it, DC wants as much Batman on the shelves as possible, but this seems like more than overkill. Particularly since this issue is just total junk with absolutely nothing to offer, treading over very similar ground to the other Batman first issues released during this month. Things do not start promisingly since the very first line of the issue is a caption box that reads, "fear is a cannibal that feeds upon itself." All of Paul Jenkins' writing is of a similar caliber: awkwardly phrased narration and stiff dialogue. David Finch, who co-wrote the book with Jenkins in addition to drawing it, contributes equally stiff poses, including a gratuitous pinup of a generic Bruce Wayne love interest in a super-short dress, lending more fuel to the fire of those decrying DC's unfailing sexualization of female characters. More than that this is just dumb, and utterly redundant when measured against the other Batman titles coming out now. Bruce Wayne goes to a party and gives a speech about Gotham's future, then faces a mob of escaped Arkham inmates, then squares off against the final page reveal of a buffed-up Two Face worthy of Rob Liefeld. It's like Jenkins has shuffled up the contents of Scott Snyder's far superior Batman #1 and filtered out anything smart or subtle or fun. This has some of the worst writing out of the whole New 52, and it absolutely has the worst last page out of any of these comics.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Love and Rockets: New Stories #4

Love and Rockets: New Stories #4 (Fantagraphics) - Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez have been writing and drawing Love and Rockets for so long now that their newest work has become like the ever-growing peak of a tremendous mountain that stretches back through all previous incarnations of the series and the iconic characters that they keep returning to. New Stories is the third volume of Love and Rockets, published on a yearly schedule in a squat bookshelf-ready format meant to take advantage of the increasing shift away from magazine-format comics.

In this volume, Gilbert offers up a two-part tale, of which the first is a pulpy vampire riff in the style of his series of fake B-movie "adaptations." While seemingly a standalone story full of all the usual Gilbert tropes — big-boobed women, sex, violence, monsters and supernatural occurrences — Gilbert's second story, later in the book, follows the lead actress from this movie into her ordinary life. I can't quite tell who this character is, if she's someone from previous Love and Rockets stories or not. It's not Fritz, the star of Gilbert's other B-movie comics, so my best guess is Mark Herrara's (ex-)wife Mila, who appeared in the Fritz stories that eventually formed the collection High Soft Lisp. But quite frankly all of Gilbert's big-boobed, tiny-waisted women are starting to look the same, and his genre comics are weird and entertaining but not as substantial or enduring as the work he used to do in his prime, in the old Palomar stories and even in much of the post-Palomar work concerning Luba and her top-heavy sisters. Like most of Gilbert's B-movie comics, "King Vampire" is beautifully drawn — even considering the grotesquely proportioned main character and a similar-looking vampiress who kind of looks like Luba — but feels a bit empty and unsatisfying. Much like the kind of trashy sexploitation flicks that Gilbert is channeling here, I suppose.

Gilbert's other piece in this issue, "And Then Reality Kicks In," is another story altogether. This fifteen-page short is the kind of elliptical, emotionally charged storytelling that Gilbert does best, where all of the substance lingers unspoken between the lines, slowly accumulating force through his whimsical, charming dialogue. Indeed, this piece is all about dialogue; it's a conversation between the actress from the vampire film and a young man who was or is or could be her lover. They simply walk down the street, stop at a diner, then walk some more. And all the while they chat, talking about work and religion, exchanging sci-fi fantasies about the future, playing verbal games based on an agreement that they should try not to ask any questions of each other. The dialogue is sprightly and spirited, and crackles with the kind of strange energy that always infuses Gilbert's best work but has perhaps not been seen as frequently in recent years, at least in my opinion.

At every level this feels like a real relationship, like a real conversation, in a way that Gilbert hasn't seemed as interested in for a while now, as he's channeled his talents more into surrealism and trashy genre pastiches and self-consciously vapid stories about vapid people. This is a simple, moving story that uses the earlier vampire piece as a way to talk about aging, as these two people verbally dance around the unarticulated subtext of their potential romantic connection and their shared history, whatever it might be. It's all left ambiguous in the end, with a final panel of the couple staring silently at one another after all that multi-layered talk. This can comfortably rank as one of Gilbert's finest character-based miniatures.

The fact is, though, that I've always preferred Jaime's work to his brother's, and this book is no exception. Jaime is here continuing (and concluding) the "Love Bunglers" storyline that he started in the last issue of New Stories. Jaime's work has, in my opinion, only gotten better and better over the years, perhaps because more than any other artist I can think of, his art depends a great deal on the power of accumulation and addition. His long Maggie and Hopey saga has been running more or less continuously since 1981. He's written other things, of course, and developed other characters, but much more than his restless brother Gilbert, Jaime's has been a single-minded art, built around the pleasure of following these characters throughout their lives, from goofy punk teens to the middle-aged adults they are now. They've grown up with their creator, and they've grown up with those reading these stories, so that by now they almost seem like real people, so rich and complex are their emotional foundations and life stories.

"The Love Bunglers" is another chapter in the long, on/off romantic relationship between Maggie and her sometimes boyfriend Ray, who started off as a peripheral character in the earlier days of Love and Rockets and has since moved towards the center of Jaime's work along with everyone's favorite curvy, aging heroine. Taken as a whole, along with the separate but connected flashback stories in this issue and New Stories #3, "The Love Bunglers" now stands as one of Jaime's very best works, and one of his most emotionally devastating. It feels like something of a summing-up, like a final statement, though I hope very much that it is not. It's as though Jaime is saying goodbye to his characters, giving them the moving, bittersweet endings they deserve after all this time — it's hard to imagine him simply picking up again with Maggie and Hopey after this story, and I wonder if he's preparing to move on to other stories, other characters. If that's the case, though I'll be sad to know that I won't be able to check in on Maggie and Ray and Frogmouth and all the rest anymore, I'll still be very satisfied with where this epic has wound up.

There's a sense of finality here because "The Love Bunglers" ties together so much of the tension that has been percolating in Jaime's Maggie stories for such a long time. Like so much of Jaime's recent work, it's a story about aging, about the weight of all this history that longtime readers will feel acutely because the panels of flashback provide a real sensation of flashing back to the past — not only to the pasts of the characters but to the past of when these stories were new. Just as the present-day story in New Stories #3 was woven together with a childhood flashback involving Maggie and her brother Calvin, this issue's main story is tied to a story set in the past, told from the point of view of Maggie's childhood friend, which gives some insight into the young Maggie dealing with her parents' divorce and all the baffling changes in her life.

"The Love Bunglers" itself is just stunning, though, the work of an artist who really knows and loves his characters and their long, tangled histories. The final act of this story is jaw-dropping in its audacity, and the last ten pages whip by in a rollercoaster of conflicting emotions. Jaime's craft is absolutely assured. At one point, Maggie and Ray, across town from one another, hanging up their phones after yet another inconclusive conversation, face one another in separate panels, then get up out of bed and kick into motion. They seem to be heading towards one another, each tier of panels mirroring their actions so that they seem to be on a collision course — a course that's suddenly, shockingly altered in the next few pages. Equally effective is the two-page spread in which Jaime, drawing on the history of these characters, depicts them in panels that gradually age them from their earliest appearances up to the present.

By the end, "The Love Bunglers" has checked in with many of the important characters and unresolved relationships from this saga, and hurtles forward to a moving and startling conclusion that would satisfy anyone who's followed and loved these characters. The final pages of this book literally gave me chills: as I read the last page (which I won't spoil, of course) I felt a chill pass up through my body from the tips of my toes to my head, like a bolt of electricity passing through me as tears welled in my eyes. I can't think of any other work of fiction that has affected and stunned and charmed me like Jaime's Hoppers epic has. This latest installment is a new apex for his work, an overwhelming catharsis that, if it is not quite the ending, at least feels like one possible (and very satisfying) ending.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Weekly Comics: September 21, 2011

The Boys: Butcher Baker Candlestickmaker #3 (Dynamite) - I'm usually very down on the idea of "guilty pleasures" — if I like something, I like it, so why feel guilty? For some reason Garth Ennis' The Boys has always seemed like an exception to that rule, because it's pretty much the definition of a guilty pleasure: dumb, violent, the extreme incarnation of Ennis' adolescent desire to shock and disturb readers. The series is often just a parade of typical Ennis tropes: deviant sex, swearing, drinking, lots of blood and violence, all of it delivered with a mix of gleeful exhibition and hypocritical moral scolding. So why am I still reading it? I guess it's just that Ennis, whatever else he is, is a great entertainer, and this ridiculous, blood-splattered series remains big dumb fun, month after month. This spin-off miniseries, on the other hand, is a more restrained affair, focusing on the origin of main character Butcher, providing an explanation for how he became the psychopathic killer that he is. This issue is entirely about Butcher's affair with a beautiful redhead, and in typical Ennis fashion it's broadly, exaggeratedly sweet and innocent and happy. So of course next issue I'm sure the girl's going to be dismembered in some outrageously horrible manner and Butcher will go crazy thirsting for revenge. That's Ennis' familiar pattern, and it's wearing a little thin in this series while he pretends he can tell a serious story in the midst of this thinly disguised excuse for creative cursing and disemboweling. Plus, artist Darick Robertson, whose blocky, somewhat ugly figures are usually so perfectly suited to Ennis' broadly satirical tone and blunt action, doesn't fit as well with this issue's upbeat romance.

Daredevil #4 (Marvel) - So this new series is really awesome. I've read the previous acclaimed takes on this character by writers like Frank Miller, Brian Michael Bendis and Ed Brubaker, and what they all have in common is that they're extraordinarily dark and bleak, pushing Matt Murdock to the limits of physical, psychological and emotional endurance. Mark Waid's new run doesn't ignore that brutal history, but in terms of tone and style this is a fresh, self-consciously distinct approach to the character. Waid's style is light and witty, and his Matt Murdock is a man who's been through every possible kind of hell and come out the other side convinced both that he can handle anything and that he should appreciate anything he still has left. There's a hint of the manic in this Murdock that suggests that the darkness could yet return, but this is so far a refreshingly light-footed and charming book. The art, whether it's by Marcos Martin as in this issue or Paolo Rivera in previous ones, is just as lively and visually inventive, particularly in devising clever ways to visualize the way the blind Daredevil "sees" the world.

This issue starts with two simple, visually elegant pages that immediately demonstrate Martin's graphic acumen: panels of black shadows on a blue background alternate in a grid with black text panels, slowly dealing out minimal visual and aural information about the trouble soon to erupt for Daredevil. It's a stark and effective intro. Otherwise, this isn't quite as exhilarating as the previous three issues of the series, mainly because there isn't the punchy hook of each previous issue: the bounding enthusiasm of Daredevil at a mob wedding in #1, the clever weapon-switching battle with Captain America in #2, the visualization of sound in #3. This, on the other hand, has a lot of nice little moments and provides a sense of what amounts to mundane life for a guy like Daredevil. Martin's art is agile and fluid, a perfect fit for an acrobatic crimefighter like this, and there are plenty of subtle touches to admire, like Daredevil's satisfied smirk as he glides along a high wire towards a pair of machine-gun-wielding crooks. Colorful, exciting and fun, Waid's Daredevil is a great new series.

The Unwritten #29 (Vertigo) - This series has a great premise: Tom Taylor's father was the writer of a series of Harry Potter-like magic novels, in which a boy very like Tom himself is the hero. Now that Tom's father is gone, he finds that he actually has the magical powers of his fictional alter ego, and is set against a secretive cabal that seeks to control and manipulate the power of stories. Writer Mike Carey is exploring territory very similar to the "all stories are true" themes often mined by Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore, but The Unwritten has enough of a unique slant on these ideas to feel fairly fresh. This issue continues the current storyline in which Tom probes into the early years of his father, who once worked for the secret organization that Tom now opposes. Not much happens in concrete terms, but the themes set up by the earlier issues of this arc are fleshed out as Tom learns about the tragic conclusion of a story involving a woman who wrote a superhero comic. There are obvious parallels here to the early years of Siegel and Shuster's Superman. This is a satirical stab at the dismal treatment of comics creators by the big comics companies, as well as criticizing the marginalization of women in the field. Peter Gross' art is clean and crisp, as usual; his minimal style isn't always well-suited to this comic's more magical and fanciful sequences, but he captures the more grounded scenes very well indeed. There's little enough magic in this issue, but one panel is especially striking: as Tom travels into the past via his father's diary, a series of overlapping pencil drawings depict Tom sequentially transitioning from his "real" self to the cartoony, simplified figure of his fictional counterpart from his father's novels. The flashbacks to the 1930s in this issue are inked by Vince Locke, who provides more of a scratchy, grimy look to set off these scenes from the more solid, clearly defined present. In its quiet way, this is a visually very striking issue.

Special mention should also be made of Yuko Shimizu, who has done the covers for all 29 issues of The Unwritten so far. Shimizu's covers are always gorgeous, but he's outdone himself here. This is his best work yet, in a run where he's consistently overshadowed what Gross is doing inside each issue. This cover's tribute to pulp novels and old comic books perfectly captures the spirit of the era that Carey is exploring here. This is amazing, and as always I just wish that Shimizu would or could draw the entire issue, to bring this level of artistry and imagination and glistening, unreal color to the interiors of the book.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

DC's New 52, Week 3 (September 21, 2011)

The third week of DC's New 52 is here now, with 12 first issues released this week. This was a pretty fun week, with a couple of titles I had low expectations for that actually surprised me. The first two weeks were largely predictable in terms of what I figured I'd like and what I guessed I wouldn't, so it was nice to get a few fun curveballs this time around.

1. Wonder Woman #1 - This was the book I was most looking forward to this week, and it does not disappoint in the least. In fact, if anything it still managed to surprise me with just how great it is. Brian Azzarello brings a gritty, horrific sensibility to this title that at first seems jarring against the bright, bold colors of Wonder Woman but actually makes perfect sense considering all the blood, betrayal and gore involved in the Greek myths that form the foundation for these characters. This first issue dispenses with the exposition-heavy approach of a lot of the other New 52 debuts, and just hurtles into the middle of what looks to be a satisfyingly bloody, imaginative epic. Artist Cliff Chiang has a cartoony, thick-lined style that makes the bloodier moments pop off the page, and there are some really great images and ideas here: best of all the mysterious figure who chops the heads off a pair of horses so that human torsos can grow out of the severed necks, creating a bloodthirsty centaur warriors. Chiang's Diana radiates red-cheeked beauty and purity, a shining icon of strength and goodness, coolly slicing through any obstacles in her way. This is exciting, energetic comics storytelling. Azzarello's writing isn't as pun-filled and pulpy as it can sometimes be, as his excesses wouldn't be a good fit here, but there's still some clever, punchy writing. In particular, there's a thread of clever caption boxes that epitomize the mix of creepy and whimsical that makes this issue so great. One of the most fun and vibrant of the new DC books so far.

2. Batman #1 - Scott Snyder is tackling Batman's name title coming off of a very strong run on the other big Batman book, Detective Comics, just before the reboot. This issue doesn't immediately hit the heights of creepy, suspenseful greatness that that 11-issue run had, but that's because like most of the other New 52 first issues, Snyder is starting slow here, taking his time to introduce the characters. To that end, the issue starts with a brawl that introduces a few heavies from the rogues' gallery, and then has Bruce Wayne attending a party with three generations of Robins in tow, where he meets a few more of Gotham's regular residents. The device that Snyder uses to introduce these characters through captions is a bit clumsy, but probably is necessary considering that the new readers that DC is aiming for here presumably aren't familiar with the fact that there has been more than one Robin, for instance. In any event, Snyder seems to be setting up another grisly mystery, and there's a lot of pleasure to be found in the details — like the fact that the Riddler, glimpsed in the middle of the introductory Arkham Asylum battle, has his hair shaved into a question mark, or the red sneakers that Bruce's son Damien wears with his tuxedo. Greg Capullo's art is quite nice, too, just gritty enough to be a good fit for Snyder's Gotham.

3. Catwoman #1 - If there was any doubt as to what this comic was going to be about from the glossy pin-up cover, the very first panel of the very first page erases that doubt: it's a closeup of Catwoman in a bra, or more accurately a closeup of her chest, since her face is mostly out of frame. And more or less remains that way during the subsequent rushed chase sequence as she puts her costume on halfway, escaping a few steps ahead of some murderous thugs coming to kill her. The pacing and framing is frenetic and suggests the chaotic movement of this ace thief gathering up her few possessions — including a carrier full of entertainingly startled-looking cats — and leaping away from danger. This is a fast-paced, garish, sexy-silly comic propelled by the bold, sexualized art of Guillem March, which has the smutty European vibe of a Milo Manara, with lots of curvy female bodies and cartoony, expressive faces. There's sex, action, blood, and only the briefest interludes for some shreds of character development before a fetishy sex scene between Catwoman and Batman that, amusingly enough, provides the issue's title: "And Most of the Costumes Stay On." It's dumb and regressive as hell, but writer Judd Winick seems to know it and wallow in it, so it winds up being weirdly charming and entertaining and self-aware.

4. Green Lantern Corps #1 - This is some good cosmic fun courtesy of writer Peter Tomasi and the art team of Fernando Pasarin and Scott Hanna. This book is built around two of Earth's Green Lanterns, Guy Gardner and John Stewart, who seem to be having as much of a problem fitting in on Earth as Hal Jordan over in Geoff Johns' main Green Lantern title. Seems to be a theme: it's tough being a Lantern when you're not in space beating up alien bad guys. This first issue establishes a mysterious and apparently very deadly threat — there's some well-done, methodically drawn gore that has a creepy horror-in-space vibe — and then sends Guy and John off to confront it, accompanied by a bunch of generic alien Lanterns. The art is better at cosmic weirdness than humanity or Earthbound drama, but that's fine since the series seems to have quickly left Earth behind anyway. This seems like a solid set-up for some bloody, enthusiastically mindless alien action.

5. Supergirl #1 - As an origin issue where Supergirl crashes to Earth and fights off some armored-up government storm troopers, this issue does a decent job of establishing the character in the midst of an extended fight scene. She's confused by her surroundings and reacts believably to what she only slowly realizes is not a dream, which gives a charge of energy and emotion to what could've been a by-the-numbers origin story. One neat meta touch: when Supergirl's super hearing kicks in, flooding her senses with random snippets of sound, she hears bits of dialogue from some of this week's other DC issues. It helps that it's all attractively drawn by Mahmud Asrar, whose art is kinetic and distinctive, with thick, strong linework. Superman shows up at the very end to tease the next issue, dressed, unfortunately, in his ridiculous-looking, unnecessarily elaborate new costume — if this is the alternative, it's too bad he's not sticking with his jeans-and-t-shirt look from Grant Morrison's Action Comics. This is a basic superhero first issue but it has some promise.

6. Captain Atom #1 - Wow. This comic has a really big disconnect between the quality of the artwork and the quality of everything else. This is one gorgeous-looking book, courtesy of artist Freddie Williams II, though in fact as much if not more credit in this case has to go to colorist Jose Villarrubia, whose bright tones and colored-pencil-like shading define the art style of this issue on equal terms with Williams' linework. This is very striking work: the titular Doc Manhattan-like hero seems to glow and radiate energy, and the high-contrast world around him is shadowy and bold, delineated by huge blocky areas of black that make the glowing blue Captain Atom stand out even more. The problem is that the writing doesn't come anywhere near this level; this isn't as bad as JT Krul's abysmal Green Arrow, but it's still really pedestrian, packed with clunky, overly wordy dialogue and awkward internal monologues. The only thing sillier than the disaster movie conceit of a volcano in Manhattan is the way that Doc, oh sorry Captain Atom actually addresses the volcano like it's a supervillain: "Okay, what do you say, hot magma? How about we cool you off — big time." Not to mention the fact that the book's best aspects, like the identity-blurring nature of the hero's powers, are largely cribbed from Alan Moore's Watchmen. This is certainly a good-looking book. It's just a shame it's not actually a good one.

7. Nightwing #1 - A lot of these New 52 first issues aren't bad so much as standard, and this one is pretty much the definition of that tendency. Dick Grayson's always a decent character, and he's got some new wrinkles now after playing Batman during Grant Morrison's Batman and Robin, but this first issue doesn't add a whole lot to that foundation. Dick fights a couple of boring supervillains and visits the circus he used to belong to before his parents were murdered. There's a bit of a hook in the late-issue line about "the fiercest killer in all of Gotham," which presumably ties in to the revelation on the last page of Scott Snyder's Batman #1, but I'm not sure it's enough to come back. The workmanlike art by Eddy Barrows and JP Mayer is OK, and some of the fight scene splash pages towards the beginning aspire to second-rate JH Williams III, but all in all this issue is just average and uninspiring.

8. Birds of Prey #1 - This one's disposable and almost instantly forgettable, as rather generic heroines Black Canary and Starling square off against a bunch of literally faceless foot soldiers. Writer Duane Swierczynski tries to spice things up by shuffling the narrative chronology, flashing back to earlier scenes to break up what would otherwise be an issue-long fight scene, but there's nothing to these characters and it's all very dull and rote. Likewise, Jesus Saiz's art is competent enough but not exactly exciting, and the colors are alternately washed-out and glossy so that things don't seem to quite fit together as part of a coherent visual world.

9. Blue Beetle #1 - This is another of those undistinguished titles about which there really isn't much to say. It's kind of the Spider-Man template, the high-schooler who suddenly gets great power, but there's not much to make this take on that familiar concept stand out. Other than all the Spanish dialects, I guess, since the characters are mostly Hispanic — which means, of course, that there has to be a gang member with a red headband. Whatever, it's all silly and slight.

10. DC Universe Presents #1 - This title is intended to be a catch-all for various characters who can't sustain their own titles — although considering some of the dodgy, pointless characters that DC did give books to, it's hard to imagine who would meet those requirements. As a matter of fact, at least for this first arc, the book will be about Deadman, who is actually a pretty interesting and unique character. Or he should be, anyway, but this is mostly just dull, despite one nice sequence in which the body-hopping Deadman leaps from one host body to the next trying to speak to an old acquaintance. The upshot of this series is that, with the right characters and the right creative teams, this could be a good vehicle for short stories and standalone arcs that wouldn't sustain an ongoing title. This first arc doesn't look like anything special, though.

11. Legion of Super-Heroes #1 - Oof, this is just lousy. This group of futuristic heroes is connected to the ones unmoored in time in the similarly bad Legion Lost, and this issue suffers the same failings as that one, only magnified. This is a HUGE cast of characters, none of whom I've ever heard of before, and it seems like there's three new characters introduced (with caption boxes listing their names and powers) on every page. It's exhausting, and it makes my eyes just glide off the page when all that seems to be happening is handing out sound bites for twenty or thirty interchangeable aliens. This would be bad no matter what, but it's especially galling since the stated mission of the New 52 is to streamline things and bring in new readers, and I can't think of any other book in this whole relaunch that's less friendly to new readers. Maybe that's unavoidable — it's hard to imagine this nonsense ever being readable, let alone good — but it's still a big failing.

12. Red Hood and the Outlaws #1 - I didn't think it was possible, but this is pretty much as dumb as Hawk and Dove. I don't know much about former Robin Jason Todd's return to life in recent years, but if the character's always been this bad he should've stayed dead. Here he seems to be a low-rent DC version of Deadpool, a mercenary who's constantly cracking wise, making jokes of a staggering level of badness. (I was actually stunned by the corniness of a certain "tanks" pun.) A whole bunch of pages are totally given over to ogling yellow-skinned alien Starfire in a bikini, making much of the fact that she has sex with pretty much anyone who comes into her orbit, which is about the extent of her characterization. And when she's not center-stage, the rest of the issue is spent ignoring the fact that there's been a reboot, choosing instead to refer extensively to the continuity and pasts of these characters in the most ambiguous and confusing way possible. Seriously, the issue ends not with the conventional "to be continued" but "to be explained," which is really not a good sign.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Weekly Comics: September 14, 2011

Here are some thoughts on the comics I've read this week other than DC's New 52 titles.

American Vampire: Survival of the Fittest #4 (Vertigo) - This is a spinoff from Scott Snyder's gleefully bloody vampire series American Vampire. It's not so different from the main series, which tends to leap around in time for each arc, telling connected but distinct stories set in various eras of vampire history, from turn-of-the-century America to World War II in the Pacific. This miniseries (which will conclude next month with its fifth issue) is also set during World War II, with a couple of anti-vampire operatives infiltrating a German castle filled with squads of Nazi vampire commandos. It's pulpy as hell, and Snyder has a lot of fun delivering on the grindhouse promise of Nazi vampires. The plotting's sometimes a bit lazy — a double agent abruptly reveals himself for a last minute rescue, while time spent in a cell provides an opportunity for confessional bonding — but the propulsive action sequences and the appearance of an imaginative new type of ancient vampire provide enough thrills to excuse the issue's flaws. There's also the pleasure of seeing artist Sean Murphy (who did such brilliant work on Grant Morrison's Joe the Barbarian) take on Snyder's dark horror world. Murphy's angular figures and subtle cartoony flourishes provide a unique, idiosyncratic slant on Snyder's characters and the darkly hatched, shadowy world they inhabit. His art, along with the last-page promise of a mayhem-filled final issue, makes this miniseries, if not the best or the most substantial American Vampire arc, then at least one well worth reading.

Criminal: The Last of the Innocent #4 (Marvel) - This latest Criminal miniseries by the team of writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips has been some of their very best work yet. The unusual premise of this series is that it's a noir take on the characters of the Archie comics. Archie stand-in Riley returns to his hometown for the death of his father, and finds that his best friend Freakout is a messed-up recovering drug addict. Riley also comes to believe that he made the wrong choice when marrying one of his high school sweethearts: he chose the dark-haired bad girl and now regrets opting for her over the good-natured redhead next door. The series so far has been an examination of nostalgia and memory, with the memories of Riley rendered in the bright, clean tones of Archie's Riverdale, a perfect youth, at least as he chooses to remember it.

In this final installment, Brubaker and Phillips continue to explore the nature of memory and the rosy nostalgia that always makes the past seem so much brighter and happier than the present. The series has been structured in an interesting way, with most of the action happening in the first three issues, so that this fourth issue is a coda in which Riley's life is definitively split between appearances and reality. He's building a new life for himself, one modeled on the dreams and fantasies of his youth, but the reality upon which this artifice is constructed just gets seedier and seedier. Brubaker for once doesn't delve into a classically tragic noir ending, but the end of the issue is all the more devastating for its restraint, hinting at the darkness and ugliness that lurk just below the sunny, smiling figures of Riley's Archie-like teen years. Phillips' cartoony renderings of the past are the key to the series' poignancy, because implicit in these bold, brightly colored scenes of teenage bliss is the knowledge that these memories, filtered through the cleansing lens of nostalgia, are actually the foundation for all the squalid events of the present. What could have been a mere gimmick — the striking contrast between the shadowy noir present and the cartoon perfection of the past — becomes a very profound examination of how we remember (and misremember).

Optic Nerve #12 (Drawn & Quarterly) - I've never been much of a fan of Adrian Tomine. His clean, unobtrusive drawing style is attractive but kind of bland, and in many ways his writing can be described the same way. There's something so unassuming about his work; it's readable and occasionally offers up some minor pleasures or a flash of insight, but never cuts deeply or really bowls me over. This latest issue of his infrequently published series is mostly taken up by two short stories that do little to change my essential impression of him. "Hortisculpture" is formatted like a daily newspaper comic, with a series of 4-panel strips (plus full-pagers in color for the Sundays) about a middle-aged gardener struggling with seemingly universal indifference to the sculptures he makes out of clay and foliage. The newspaper format means that each strip ends with a gentle gag line, usually showing the protagonist suffering some defeat or moaning about his failures. It's hard not to think that this is Tomine's way of weeping about the difficulty of making art with an uncertain audience — especially when coupled with the 2-page autobiographical strip at the back of this issue, in which Tomine gripes about the obsolescence of pamphlet comics in a market dominated by "graphic novels." This kind of self-deprecating schtick has long been a tic of far too many indie cartoonists, and it's more than gotten old, so Tomine's stooped-shoulder irony, either in "Hortisculpture" or the autobio strip, is simply tiring.

The other long strip here is "Amber Sweet," and it's better but still pretty slight. The story concerns a young woman who looks almost identical to a porn star, and whose life is made difficult as a result. It's an intriguing idea, but executed clumsily and broadly, so the questions about identity, sexuality and the Internet raised by this story simply glide along the surface. Tomine's ideas — that real-life women often have to compete with porn stars in bed, that the Internet creates some pretty unusual connections — are basic and not particularly original. His main character's plight is moving (if not always especially believable) and the art is typically nice, with cool colors and elegant linework. But as usual it's the definition of tasteful and pleasant, without really tapping into the roiling emotions or fully exploring the ideas at the heart of this story. Tomine is too content to stay at the surface level.

Severed #2 (Image) - This series is definitely off to a great start with its first two issues. It's a slow-burn horror piece set in 1916, which presents the large, scary world through the eyes of kids who live on the road, prey for all the terrifying predators, human or supernatural, who dwell in the urban shadows. Writers Scott Snyder and Scott Tuft have paced the series patiently, spacing out the moments of horror and gore in between passages of careful scene-setting. Attila Futaki's moody art and sensuous colors provide the perfect sophisticated style for what Snyder and Tuft are attempting here, giving the impression that there's danger lurking beneath every ominous night sky, in every shadowy back alley. There's nothing here as brilliant as the way the first issue achieved a shivery thrill from a few methodical panels of a disguised monster taking out his false teeth, but the few real scares are still chilling.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

DC's New 52, Week 2 (September 14, 2011)

This week, I continue my examination of DC's New 52 initiative with my reviews and rankings of the 13 books from the second full week of the new line. My reviews of the first week's releases are here.

I'll also be following up on Monday with my thoughts on a few other non-DC releases. Once the New 52's first month is over, this column will be expanding into a proper roundup of everything I'm reading week by week.

1. Batwoman #1 - The Greg Rucka/J.H. Williams Batwoman stories in Detective Comics were some stunning, exciting comics, largely because of Williams' brilliant layouts, with their kinetic intensity and startling double-page spreads. Now Williams has taken this great character — a red-haired ex-military lesbian who's taken up the mantle of the bat — into her own solo series, and Williams has also gone (more or less) solo, writing and drawing with some writing assistance from W. Haden Blackman. This character hasn't been changed a bit by the reboot; Williams' Batwoman was already in progress before the relaunch, and he reportedly only made a few tweaks to slot the character into the new status quo. The long-awaited result is gorgeous, as expected, and apparently no amount of exposure to Williams' idiosyncratic style can get one used to it, because it's still pretty overwhelming. In one of the best double-page sequences, a police crime scene investigation is arranged in panels circling around the central image of a skeleton, but in contrast to the grim procedural in the radial panels, the skeleton itself is almost whimsical, a dreamlike, haunting image that's an eerie evocation of the story's supernatural themes.

Batwoman, who unlike her iconic model is defined as much by red as by black, is a perfect fit for Williams' bold style, and the fight scenes where she goes tumbling and leaping across the page are as astonishing as they were in Detective Comics. Williams has a keen sense of motion, and that motion is communicated as much by the placement of panels as by the figures within the panels. This is great, all set-up like so many of the other New 52 books, but in this case one hardly notices and it's all over too quickly.

2. Demon Knights #1 - This is just a straight-up blast. It's one of the oddball outliers in the New 52, set in the Dark Ages with a cast of warriors, magicians and demons. It's written by Paul Cornell, who wrote last week's Stormwatch #1, and while it's saddled with a few of the same speaking-in-exposition problems as that title, the overall tone is much breezier and cleaner, and Cornell is much more successful here at setting things up without getting bogged down in the details. Instead, the story moves at a propulsive pace to introduce the demon Etrigan, trapped in the body of a man, and his companion Xanadu, and rapidly throw them into what promises to be an epic battle, with sorcerers and dragons on the opposing side. It's good fun, briskly readable and clever. The art, by Diogenes Neves and Oclair Albert, is gorgeous, too, finely detailed and expressive, with an Old World sensibility that's perfectly suited to the story and the setting. The best moment, simultaneously creepy and exhilarating, is the scene where the evil sorcerers speak to a demon through a possessed baby, a sign of the kind of warped imagination this series will have to offer. This promises to be a gory, riotous romp.

3. Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E. #1 - Banking on the appeal of Grant Morrison's version of this iconic character from his Seven Soldiers project, writer Jeff Lemire recasts Frankenstein's monster as a member of a superhuman organization tasked with dealing with the paranormal. And now he's got a team of partners similarly modeled on the famous Universal monsters. As one would expect, Lemire and artist Alberto Ponticelli deliver a fun, freaky tour through the world of S.H.A.D.E., with the organization's headquarters — a microscopic complex housed in a 3-inch metal ball that floats through the world — providing an array of magic and pseudoscientific delights. Ponticelli's loose but detailed art is perfectly suited to both the crowded high-tech corridors of S.H.A.D.E. headquarters and the bloody chaos of the big fight scenes at the end of the issue. In comparison to last week's Animal Man #1, this was always going to be the comparatively conventional Lemire book from the new DC line, but it's still a promising start.

4. Green Lantern #1 - Green Lantern is, along with Batman, one of the characters whose status quo isn't changing much during the New 52 relaunch, so it's definitely to the credit of writer Geoff Johns that, even though I haven't been following this series, I had no problem at all getting caught up to speed as he leaps back into the already-in-progress story here. The pink-skinned Sinestro is a new Green Lantern, somewhat against his will, former Lantern Hal Jordan has been stripped of his powers and is struggling to readjust to life on Earth, and these two come together by the end of the issue. It's set-up for what looks to be a war against Sinestro's own one-time allies, who have enslaved his homeworld. It's not the most exciting issue, but it does a good job of setting up the characters and the conflicts; it's clear, concise Storytelling 101. A lot of these first issues (notably last week's Stormwatch) have struggled with exposition overload, but Johns gets all the necessary information out quickly without making it seem like his characters are spitting out constant plot summaries and descriptions. On the negative side, the Earthbound story with Hal and his girlfriend Carol Ferris is not especially compelling, and Johns resorts to well-worn clichés like the scene where Carol thinks Hal is going to propose, but instead he just makes an innocuous financial request. I also couldn't believe Johns included the laughable scene where Hal, still thinking like a hero, busts in on what looks like domestic abuse but is actually just a movie set. Seems like every struggling hero does that at one point or another. Still, despite some of the lame plotting in Hal's story, this was a decent first issue that had a tougher job to do than some of the other debuts, since Johns isn't really working with the clean slate that most of the other titles have.

5. Superboy #1 - Despite the reset continuity, most of the DC New 52 aren't telling origin stories for the characters. This book is an exception, tracing the early life of the clone Superboy, raised in a tank in a government lab until he breaks out just before being terminated. It's a decent origin story, internally narrated by the self-aware (and overly wordy) Superboy, but the art, by R.B. Silva and Rob Lean, provides most of the pleasure here. The style is bold and cartoony, with thick black lines defining the outlines of characters and objects. The ending is very abrupt, and seems to be setting up Superboy's involvement with the Teen Titans, but before that rushed conclusion this is fine if rather standard superhero fare.

6. Batman and Robin #1 - Much like last week's Detective Comics #1, this is a safe, even boring middle of the road Batman story. The idea that Bruce Wayne wants to finally get past the founding trauma that made him Batman is nice, though the dialogue between Bruce and his son Damian (the newest Robin) in that scene is really heavy-handed. Peter Tomasi's dialogue is awkward in general, actually. The rest of the book is basic superhero action, with a radiation-themed villain hiding in the shadows and dipping people in pools of glowing green sludge to "erase" them. The art by Patrick Gleason and Mick Gray is good enough, the writing is clunky ("because I'm tired of marking the night I watched my father bleed out from his sucking chest wound and my mother from a hole in her throat.") and the whole thing is fairly unexciting. It does have the most laugh-out-loud ridiculous cameo appearance of the purple-hooded woman who apparently appeared in the Flashpoint miniseries that initiated this reboot. This woman appears randomly in the background of every New 52 first issue, which is very silly to begin with, but her glowing purple form in the background of a swim meet here definitely takes the prize as her goofiest manifestation yet.

7. Deathstroke #1 - For some reason this week seems to be a dumping ground for a lot of DC's grim and gritty blood-splattered titles. Of those books, Deathstroke acquits itself best, because it at least shows some traces of a sense of humor, and because it makes an attempt to give its central character some personality and some emotion. Even if the latter basically amounts to Slade Wilson's anger at realizing that he's a mercenary whose rep has lost its luster, that's still more character and motivation than is seen in some of these other first issues. Joe Bennett's art, balanced between gritty/gory and cartoony, strikes the perfect tone as well, and the fact that there's room here for a tossed-off joke at competitor Marvel's expense — Deathstroke slices the head off a startled J. Jonah Jameson lookalike, sending his cigar flying — suggests that this isn't a comic that takes itself too seriously.

8. Resurrection Man #1 - This issue contains a pun that's one of the most cringeworthy pieces of writing I've come across in the new DC comics so far: "I can taste the metal of his piercings. Thankfully I can't taste the metal playing on his iPod." Ugh. So yeah, it apparently took two writers, Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, to come up with that. This comic should probably get trashed just for that, and for some of the other clunkers sprinkled through the dialogue, but in spite of its lame writing it does have an intriguing central character, a guy who's always coming back to life with new abilities. The Resurrection Man himself is cool enough that the two scenes here where he comes back to life are the definite highlights. The art, by Fernando Dagnino, is rough, sketchy and shadowy in a way that recalls a lot of old Vertigo series; it's sometimes appealing and sometimes really awkward-looking, especially in some of the postures and the sexed-up drawings of the female bad guys. So this is a really strange book: poorly written, unevenly drawn, and yet somehow still just a bit compelling if only because it's not yet another forgettable superhero riff. This isn't a strong start, at all, but at least there's some hope of improvement.

9. Mister Terrific #1 - This issue starts off well enough, with a light and charming aerial fight sequence that feels like what last week's Static Shock was trying to be. Then the main character, a tech entrepreneur who calls himself, with a mix of humility and arrogance, "the third smartest man in the world," goes into the inevitable flashback exposition mode, which inexplicably transitions into him telling his story to a girlfriend. Then there's some mystery, some heavy-handed sparring between the girlfriend and one of Mr. Terrific's admiring assistants, and finally a last-minute twist with Mr. Terrific turning bad. It's fun enough, and has some enjoyably cartoony art by Gianluca Gugliotta, but it's not exactly memorable or substantial in any real way.

10. Grifter #1 - Not a whole lot to say about this one. Grifter is one of the Wildstorm characters who DC has absorbed into their main universe with this reboot, but his DC debut isn't terribly thrilling. It's written by Nathan Edmonson, whose dialogue is pedestrian but at least not as ugly as some of the worst offenders from the New 52. The story's a really basic one, about a con man who gets mixed up with some kinds of aliens and is now being pursued by them as well as by the American military and the people he's cheated in his last con. There's some pointless chronological jumping around — a gimmick that a lot of these books engage in, seemingly just to jazz up what's otherwise a very straightforward story. But at this point the threat isn't very well-defined, nor is the central character, so I don't see much point in sticking around.

11. Suicide Squad #1 - Yeah, you know what you're getting the minute you take a look at the cover of this one, which features the Joker's sidekick Harley Quinn with a new busty look and a new super-skimpy costume. This is sheer brains-free mayhem, which opens with the Suicide Squad — a team of death row killers conscripted by force to perform secret missions — captured and being tortured for information about their latest mission. The team is introduced (and tortured) one by one, with the pain triggering flashbacks so we get a glimpse of each member's character and history. It's "gritty," and kind of flippant in its casual brutality, and totally superficial. It'd be redeemed by a better sense of humor, but writer Adam Glass unfortunately doesn't seem to have much to offer in that department.

12. Legion Lost #1 - This is just mediocre in every way. The titular team seems to be a bunch of generic temporally displaced heroes who try to stop a catastrophe in the past (our own time, roughly) and get trapped there instead. Pete Woods' art is some of the worst to mar any of the New 52 books: not as aggressively bad as Rob Liefeld's, but it's lazy and personality-free, which may be even worse in a way. Fabian Nicieza is the writer, and he doesn't add much personality either. The DC editorial edict of explaining everything as if to an audience of two-year-olds continues to be galling, and this book suffers for not really having anything else to offer. Certainly the characters are non-entities: two of them apparently die at the end of the issue, to little effect, both because it's fairly obvious that both could have and probably did escape, and because even if they did die, who cares? And who cares about this comic?

13. Red Lanterns #1 - Maybe it's because I have no familiarity whatsoever with any of these characters, but... what the hell is going on with this comic? It's about these aliens who spit blood from their mouths, and they have a lot of rage, and there's lots of blood and other fluids being spilled, and they're all fighting constantly, and did I mention they're really angry? The word "rage" appears on almost every page. Considering that this whole DC relaunch is supposed to make the DC universe more friendly to new readers, this book can only be considered a failure on that point, since it borders on incoherence. The bulk of the book is exposition, as the main character, Atrocitus, narrates his past and explains why he's so pissed off all the time. Everything around him is a hash of ugly, garish nonsense courtesy of penciller Ed Benes, and the main idea (the universe is an awful place, violence is everywhere) is continually hammered home with not a trace of subtlety. But then, this seems like the wrong place to look for subtlety or intelligence. I do like that there's a (blood-spitting, rage-filled) alien cat that isn't depicted as a humanoid with a cat's fur and head, but actually moves like a cat, on four legs, and pounces on his enemy's heads. This is pretty dismal stuff, though, which is a shame since Peter Milligan at his best is one of the most imaginative and exciting writers in comics. No trace of that writer here.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

DC's New 52, Week 1 (September 7, 2011)

Beginning this month, DC Comics is completely rebooting its entire line of comics, starting every comic over from issue #1 and re-imagining their characters, not entirely from scratch but definitely making some changes. It's a move intended to bring in new readers to the continuity-heavy world of superhero comics, and since I've only occasionally read DC superhero comics myself, I figured this was a good time for me to check out what they have to offer. This month DC is unfurling 52 new issue #1s, and I'll be reading all of them and briefly reviewing them here, week by week. This week, I review the 13 first week titles, plus Justice League #1, which came out last week as the debut of the new line. I rank them below from best to worst; by my count there were 3 very good DC comics this week, a few more that were variably enjoyable and/or promising, and then some mediocre junk. Anybody else following this initiative?

1. Animal Man #1 - This book is just fantastic. I wouldn't be surprised if this winds up being the best out of all 52 comics when this month is over. It's a mix of family drama, horror, and superheroics, balancing all these different tones without seeming all over the place. Writer Jeff Lemire packs a lot into 20 pages, economically reintroducing this character, his family, and the themes and conflicts that will drive his story. And the art, by Travel Foreman, is amazing, especially since it shifts fluidly from sketchy domesticity to punchy superhero action to surrealist, horrifying dream sequences. This looks more like an indie book than a big DC superhero title, so the aesthetic is especially striking and invigorating in this high-profile context. The art is so attuned to the nuances of the storytelling, and the style morphs to fit each new wrinkle perfectly. This is a must-read book, one that already seems poised to match the high standard of Grant Morrison's classic run on this title.

2. Swamp Thing #1 - Definitely the second-best book this week, though not remotely in the same jaw-dropping way as Animal Man. Instead, this is just a solid introduction with some very good storytelling by Scott Snyder. I'm not very clear on what exactly is going on with this character, not having followed the pre-reboot DC universe, and in that sense this book doesn't seem as new-reader-friendly as most of the others. The character's history is left pretty vague and confusing, maybe deliberately since I sense that a big part of the book's early arc is going to be figuring out just what's going on with Alec Holland. But the essence of the character and his status quo come across and there are some great sequences of horror that really make me excited to see where this is heading. The whole scene where the big threat is revealed is chilling and creepy and genuinely frightening; I won't spoil it but it's true horror brilliance, wonderfully visualized by Yanick Paquette.

3. Action Comics #1 - I really dig Grant Morrison's new take on Superman as a populist crusader with an attitude, definitely a fresh perspective on the character. It's obvious that Morrison is deliberately taking a different approach from the mythic boy scout of his fine All-Star Superman miniseries. Even Superman's costume feels more approachable and human. The first half of the issue really pops as it introduces this new Supes in action. The second half gets a little jumbled and isn't as strong, but overall this is still quite good. It's also the most straightforward comic I've read from Morrison in a while.

4. Justice League #1 - This issue is actually from last week, since it was the debut of the new DC line. It's pretty good, nothing mindblowing or anything, and I don't know why the debut of a whole new reboot wasn't made more exciting, but it's still not bad. Mostly based around some amusing banter between Batman and Green Lantern, and then the badass new Superman shows up at the end. It's more a teaser than anything else and it works in that sense, but it's not much of a story. This issue takes place five years earlier than most of the other reboot titles (with the exception of Action Comics) so it's meant to show the early days of the new status quo, when the heroes are just getting to know each other.

5. Batgirl #1 - Just a fun, basic superhero story with a lot of heart and emotional complexity. I like that in restoring Barbara Gordon to the Batgirl costume, they've kept her history from Alan Moore's The Killing Joke, so that trauma continues to haunt her even though she's regained the use of her legs. That darkness is contrasted against a refreshing enthusiasm in the dialogue and narration that's really infectious, and makes her seem like a girl who's just happy to be out kicking ass. Not exactly substantial, but pretty enjoyable nonetheless.

6. Stormwatch #1 - This is visually pretty interesting. Every few pages there's some slightly nutty cosmic concept that provides a very striking image. (Although the character drawings are a little stiff.) The problem is that the characters are all so flat and undistinguished, and writer Paul Cornell seems to know that a lot of readers will be unfamiliar with these characters, so virtually all of the dialogue is exposition and explanation. Lots of characters talking about themselves, explaining their powers, saying things to each other that they really have no reason to say except to explain something to the reader. That could get better now that the 1st issue is out of the way, but it still suggests a pretty unimaginative sensibility that jars against the visual imagination on display here. I'll check out a couple more issues of this to see which direction it heads.

7. OMAC #1 - A book that's totally in love with Jack Kirby. Not even a pinch of originality here, but it's fun enough, lots of Kirby dots everywhere, lots of superpowered enigmas pummelling each other. Entertaining and fluffy as hell. I imagine the Kirby pastiche will get old fast so I'm not sure how much longevity there is in this concept, but as a single issue it's a blast.

8. Detective Comics #1 - Pretty standard, even generic Batman stuff. There's lots of Frank Miller-style "I am the terror that flaps in the night" overwrought "gritty" writing. Not terrible, but not especially interesting either. And the Joker isn't funny, which is always a bad sign. The last page is nicely creepy, though.

9. Batwing #1 - Even more standard and generic than Detective Comics, despite this being about an African Batman, a protege of Bruce Wayne. Not exactly bad, but there's not much to it. It's one of those books where it's hard to point to what's missing except, well, anything that would differentiate it from countless other nondescript hero comics.

10. Justice League International #1 - I guess this is supposed to be the lightweight, fun, funny book where a bunch of D-listers hang out. The problem is that while it's certainly lightweight, it's not fun or funny at all, so it's pretty lame and pointless. Really bad dialogue, really bad all around.

11. Static Shock #1 - Yet another really boring one. It's trying for the light-footed teen superhero style of early Invincible, but its attempts at hip dialogue seem forced and the wisecracking tone doesn't produce any actual humor.

12. Green Arrow #1 - Not sure what to say about this other than it sucks. Totally generic, every line of dialogue is a clunkily delivered cliche, the art is static and bland, and all the Youtube references are obvious, desperate grabs for relevance that fall far short of the mark. This is somebody's laughable idea of "media criticism" I guess.

13. Men of War #1 - This. is. so. goddamn. boring. There were 2 stories in this, both straightforward war stories full of all the clichés you'd expect. I got through the first but my eyes started to glaze over just thinking about reading the second.

14. Hawk and Dove #1 - There might be 2 panels in this whole thing where someone isn't grimacing with that same damn I'm-squeezing-out-a-poop-right-now expression on their face. Actually, Hawk is the one who always looks like that. Dove, with her constantly gaping mouth, looks either perpetually surprised or like she's always ready to give a BJ. Rob Liefeld, man. This is terrible.