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.

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