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.


  1. Hahaha. That writeup of Red Lanterns is spot-on. I knew who they were, and I kinda liked it, but yeah, it is very incoherent. They are one of the new Corpses that Geoff Johns has introduced these last few years (those allies of Sinestro in yellow uniforms are another one), and they get their power from Rage, as the Green Lanterns get their power from Will...

    I had some hopes for this title, as I think the worldbuilding Geoff Johns has made over his run is by far the best part of what he has done, and this seemed like a book that would have to do even more of this. But this first issue was dissapointing. There was also an offhanded remark by one of the Guardians recently, something along the lines of the Red and the Green lanterns both giving something to the wronged, but the Red lanterns offering Vengeance instead of Justice. That seemed interesting, and something that could be build on. But this was boring. Blood and butt-shots, a bad-ass kitten, and nothing else.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Frederik.

    I really wanted to like Red Lanterns, not because of the characters (I'm pretty new to most of this DC stuff) but because Peter Milligan is just such a great writer when he's really on. The Milligan who wrote Shade the Changing Man and X-Statix and a bunch of other great stuff could've made this a really fun, inventive series. Instead it's a laughable mess. Oh well. I may come back for a second issue just to see if it improves, but I'm not too hopeful. Johns' Green Lantern was definitely a lot better, and I got a sense of a coherent, complex universe of ideas and characters in a way I certainly didn't with Red Lanterns.