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.