Sunday, October 16, 2011

DC's New 52

If you're in the know, you'll be aware that DC recently did a big relaunch of all their comic titles, now distributed across 52 lines. This has meant a number of shakeups both in terms of creative team and internally to the story and characters of the DC universe. Obviously this was to a significant extent a ploy to sucker people like me into buying more comics, because what better time could there be to get into these stories than now, with new number 1s and new volumes for everything? So being the good little consumer that I am I've been visiting the comic shop over the last month picking up various titles. Now that I've read my fill, I decided to post some thoughts here. Instead of posting for every issue, which seems excessive given their relatively short length, I decided to just go through title by title here and give some opinions. Obviously I didn't read all 52; I couldn't give two hoots about Firestorm or Aquaman or whoever "Resurrection Man" is but that's DC's problem for not making me care, not mine. Anyway, here we go.

Action Comics:
I really enjoyed this one. Often these days we see Superman spending his time fighting burly aliens or averting disasters. Here, however, we have a younger Superman, early in his career, who's using his powers to fight crime. It was an interesting scenario, because normally this is the purview of the unpowered heroes like Batman and I thought it was an effective way of displaying how a superhuman could operate in a vigilante scenario. Superman doesn't have to trick or manipulate people the way Batman does; he knows the police can't hurt him any more than the criminals can, and it's really entertaining to see Clark being threatening towards the cops and crooks alike as his idealism rubs up against the corruption of Metropolis. Grant Morrison's writing of this scenario is excellently assisted by Rags Morales' pencils, which are very clear and easy on the eye whilst equally conveying the power of Superman and his potentially sinister nature. Consider the third frame on page six where he grins at the cops, face shadowed with nothing but heat vision for illumination. It's a very readable combo.
What I also appreciated was the sheer amount of content; we have enough space allocated to both Superman's activities in the crime bust and Clark's reporting duties later on. My only quibble would be that the plot becomes rather rushed and difficult to follow towards the end as the train hijacking and Luthor's plot to incapacitate Superman become piled on top of each other and at times I wasn't really sure what was going on. Often instances seem to occur with cluey characters like Supes and Lois where they know a good deal more than the reader and we're left to draw plot links which may not be astoundingly evident.
I may as well give a mention to the second issue as well, featuring the study of Superman in custody. While this was a more predictable encounter I enjoyed the characterisation of Luthor. My main complaint, and it's kind of a big one, is that obviously there was some issue resulting from the use of two artists, with Brent Anderson and Morales sharing the credit, because there are some extremely ugly pencils in the second half of the issue, especially featuring Lois and a frame where Superman appears in an elevator and looks bizarre. Nonetheless I'm glad I looked into Action Comics; it's an interesting exploration of Superman's origins.

I wasn't expecting to read Batgirl but I have to admit I was intrigued by the idea of Barbara Gordon returning to the cowl after all these years. Frankly I always considered her paralysis in The Killing Joke to be a rather crass and somewhat shallow piece of shock vaue on the part of Alan Moore and I agree with the notion that a universe where characters can recover enormous injuries and come back from the dead made her permanent disability a somewhat uncomfortable scenario. People have complained about Barbara regaining the use of her legs but I think it was time for a change. I found this to be surprisingly enjoyable; it's rare to see an intellectual outlook from the younger characters in comics and I appreciated her characterisation as her somewhat self-conscious and self-deprecating inner monologue was contrasted to her combat and detective skills. The plot wasn't bad either, and in another reference to the second issue I thought the idea of the villain Mirror was quite interesting. The point at which Batgirl "chokes" when a gun is pointed at her was quite powerful too. I must confess myself intrigued, although I think I would like to see the crime fighting family connection reinforced by having her team up with or at least encounter Bruce Wayne sometime soon.

You can always count on Batman comics to be good value. He's a universally appealing character, and as long as the plots don't become too ridiculous in relying on science fiction or magic for their progression and stick to devious crimes and criminal investigations there's always something you can find to enjoy about the story of an ordinary man who does extraordinary things. This first issue of the second ever volume of Batman is a strong opener, with a good hook and some nice writing. Of course Batman's inner monologue is pretty par for the course these days but it's strong and punchy here. The 'Gotham is' section is a nice reintroduction to Batman's personal ethos, the setting and the villains, and the teamup with what appears to be the Joker is an intriguing twist. Batman's attitude is also nicely compared to Bruce Wayne's plan to revitalise Gothamn. It's not pushing any serious envelopes but it's a solid piece of Batman writing. If I had one complaint it would be that the art is a little inconsistent. While Batman himself looks good I feel that he looks to young as Bruce Wayne, as well as a little too scruffy. Maybe that's my personal quibble as one of the last men on Earth to actually comb my hair. The shot of Bruce, Dick, Tim and Damian standing around in Wayne Manor also reinforces how awfully similar they all are. I personally would have made Dick a little taller and Bruce a little older. Even Tim seems too short; having Bruce a full head taller than Dick makes him look absurdly oversized.
I also thought the villains at the beginning were a bit of a mixed bag. While Two-Face and Killer Croc look good, Riddler and Mr Freeze look kind of silly. Nonetheless it was a strong opener and I'll be curious to see how this story develops.

Batman and Robin
You can never really have too much Batman. I wasn't too familiar with Damian as Robin, however, and what I had read was of course from the era of Bruce Wayne's absence where the rather dour child was contrasted with a much more light-hearted and facetious Batman in the form of Dick Grayson, a reverse of the normal scenario. Now we have Bruce and Damian as a father-son Batman and Robin team and I have to say it works really well. They're both dark and brooding characters, but in different ways. It's very striking to see Batman lightening up in a sense, deciding to no loner commemorate his parents' deaths but rather their marriage, and the way this is contrasted with Damian's apathy and emotional disconnection. That being said the plot is a little hard to follow at times and the sense of a not-yet-relevant arc was a little frustrating. However the art is good and if Damian occasionally looks a tad awkward I can forgive it in a medium where the characters are normally adult and built like yaks. It's worth it simply for the cleverness of how two equally serious characters are turned into foils for each other in some very elegant writing and characterisation.

Batman: Detective Comics
I must say that Detective Comics is traditionally my favourite Batman series. I have a bit of a soft spot for crime fiction and I'll take the mystery and intrigue of a good detective case over mindless action any day of the week. However I felt like the first issue didn't have enough of this. While we did get the seeds of a good arc mystery in regards to this 'Dollmaker' person I can't help but feel like having a rather long-winded run-around with the Joker was kind of missing the point and also didn't contribute a great deal to the development of Batman's arch enemy. The art was nice and appropriately gruesome at the right times and having read the second issue I want to see where things go but I think there was a missed opportunity here: having Batman hunt Joker down doesn't necessarily entail an interesting investigation, and I feel like the title can feel a bit stronger when the arc is supported by individual cases rather than just having a chase to tease towards bigger problems.

Captain Atom
I've always had a bit of a soft spot for Captain Atom. I was always a fan of Doctor Manhattan in Watchmen and as a result I've become intrigued by the character upon which he was based. I appreciated the characterisation of Captain Atom in this opening title: he is actively trying to embrace the instinctive side of humanity's animal nature and reject the notion of specialness. Obviously he has to include himself to avoid the conception that he's somehow above or superior to other people purely due to his great power. I also enjoyed the idea that a lot of his energy is derived from being able to perform nuclear fission upon the atoms of his own body, and that if this procedure occurred in his brain he could lose his identity or his life. It was a nice way of introducing a bit of plausibility to his powers. One thing which gave me pause was when Atom tells Dr Megala "I was a pilot, not a scientist." It'd be interesting, I think, if a guy who'd become a walking nuclear reactor had taken an interest in science and was trying to learn. Similarly the "volcano in New York" scenario was just bizarre and kind of silly. I desperately hope that it gets a worthwhile resolution in the next issue. Nonetheless it's good to see some love being given to one of the second-stringers.

The Flash
I don't buy into the whole Barry Allen/Wally West divide in fandom. Wally was the first Flash I read but Barry has similar strengths. My problem is that ever since he was brought back I think Barry has lost some of the robustness and solidity which was inherent to his Silver Age character. These days writers seem to go too far with his idealism and good old fashioned Mid West values to the point that he comes across as naïve and ineffectual. Geoff Johns made him tiresomely angst-ridden and wracked with self doubt but with Francis Manapul's writing he just feels like a cipher. His date with Patty seems slightly forced and hard to believe; Barry says he's "methodical", which seems like the kind of self-relection he wouldn't really do, and Patty replies "Methodical is kind of hot." Huh. Not the most vibrant dialogue, huh? Sure, Patty lampshades the weirdness of this remark in the very next frame but it's easy to see how prosaic the whole thing is. "This tech symposium is amazing!" Barry remarks redundantly, since we can see high-tech stuff and socialites wandering around right there in the frame. There's a lot of telling rather than showing going on and it's kind of dull. It's not helped by the army of generic-looking high tech crims who show up to steal some McGuffin and scarper. It only adds to the sense of blandness. In my opinion if they wanted to go for a snappy opener they would have had a battle with a traditional foe like Mirror Master or Captain Cold, or even a few Rogues together. None of this is helped by an equally bland art style which is probably most disserviced by pallid colours which lack a sense of depth and substance. Failing to give Barry his traditional clean-cut look further serves to make him seem like just a "boring guy" rather than a bit old-fashioned and curious. Then there's some silly flashback to Barry's past and he flirts with Iris West and so on. I don't really care that Iris and Barry are pre-relationship again but it seems like unnecessary titillation. The ending was pointless and predictable, as we're asked to care about some old friend of Barry's who we don't really know who's been cloned and who runs with Barry for no reason. Overall it was kind of unimpressive and as a Flash fan I found the whole thing to be a bit of a disappointment.

Green Lantern
I've never been a huge Green Lantern fan. As I stated in my post on the film I have two main quibbles with the line. The first is that I find stories about guys flying around in space having punch ups with aliens and shooting different coloured lights at each other to be a bit boring. The second is that the main Green Lantern, Hal Jordan, is an idiotic character who is written in a way which I find completely unlikeable but which apparently is meant to make us love him. So when I heard that the first issue of the new Green Lantern would be starring Sinestro, not Hal, my interest was piqued. I could forgive space punch-ups if Sinestro was involved too, because he's simply an interesting character. Unfortunately I was let down by the fact that about half of the issue was about Sinestro while the other half revolved basically around Hal being hopeless and incompetent on Earth without his ring. I think it was meant to be heartwarming and funny but I found it cretinous and dull. There was simply not enough Sinestro. When he was there I was enjoying myself but whenever it cut back to Hal being a doof I was disappointed. Geoff Johns needs to learn that not everyone is in love with this fictional character the way he is. The art is pretty nice but a little simplistic. The thing where Hal jumps in to stop an assault but is actually interrupting a film set, however, is ridiculously cliché and stupid. It was only worth it to see Sinestro killing his own dudes, of which there was not enough. Fortunately all this was redeemed to an extent by the second issue, which had Sinestro and Hal together for a better balance. It's nice to see the extremely ruthless, utilitarian Sinestro being praised as a hero. I think I'll have to see where this one goes. I'm not as blind as some Green Lantern fans appear to be.

Green Lantern: New Guardians
I like Kyle Rayner. Maybe it's because I don't really like Hal but I've often found Kyle to be a more interesting Lantern than his predecessor. He's an artist, which works well with the whole 'ring construct' idea, and it makes him easier to empathise with than the usual 'cop or army guy turned hero' thing we have with Hal. As such when I heard that Kyle was getting his own series where he was part of a team of Lanterns from each colour Corps I thought it could be kind of cool. The reintroduction of Kyle's backstory and his public perception as one of the "secondary" human Lanterns was interesting enough. My main complaint would be that the issue felt like so much introduction. I was hoping the all-Corps Lantern team would get going straight away. However, a good deal of space is spent showing various other Lanterns losing their rings. While it's slightly amusing and kind of disturbing to see how utterly without hope most Lanterns would be if they lost access to their one source of power it does feel like it takes us a while to get to where we need to go. Nonetheless it's good enough for Kyle and the concept alone and I'm looking forward to what happens once the premise has been firmly established.

Justice League
One of the big selling points for this title was that we were returning to a traditional conception of the Justice League: the traditional 'Big Seven' of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, the Flash and Aquaman with Cyborg replacing Martian Manhunter presumably for reasons of slightly forced ethnic diversity. However it looks like we're going to have a bit of a drag before we get anywhere, because for all intents and purposes this first issue is a Batman and Green Lantern story with Superman not appearing until the very end and the other heroes completely absent apart from a brief and completely unrelated Cyborg scene. It's meant to be set five years before the DC Universe's present as the League comes together but it's a little too obvious that Geoff Johns just wanted to have Hal team up with Batman. I really can't think of much to say about it; it just felt like time-wasting. We really needed to see Wonder Woman, Aquaman and the Flash as well.

Justice League International
Traditionally this has been the 'funny comic' of DC team-ups and while that isn't strictly a hard and fast rule it was disappointingly absent. The first issue of JLI really was quite bland and boring, albeit redeemed by a surprisingly strong second issue. While the idea of choosing Booster Gold as leader was a very interesting idea the political side wasn't handled in a very interesting manner and the journey to an exotic locale to fight mud men and robots felt a little old hat. On the plus side I like the choices of heroes such as Rocket Red and August General in Iron, who could be sure to be interesting in future, and the exploration of a UN-representative hero force was one which might work well. As I say, the second issue was a good deal stronger and more enjoyable. Perhaps it was just a matter of the series finding its feet.

While perhaps not as strong an opener as we received in Action Comics this was still a good Superman story. Once again the focus on the ownership of the Daily Planet grounded Clark Kent's activities squarely in the tension of a superhuman dealing with matters of a more mundane variety, which was nice to see, especially in terms of his conflict with Lois and resultant awkwardness. It wasn't helped, however, by the giant flame alien which he fought in the second half of the story. There was also a segue in which we the readers were encouraged to invest in the first issue of Stormwatch, to my irritation. You'd hope that Superman of all things could stand on its own. As I say, though, the battle with the fire alien, although not devoid of interesting elements, felt an awful lot like action for its own sake. Nonetheless I'm keen to see where things go and it was nice to see the journalism element, so integral to Clark Kent's character, playing a role in the storytelling itself. If Superman comics are to maintain their effectiveness they have to continue exploring the tension of how a man who could live without rules fits into human society.

Wonder Woman
This one was just bizarre. It was rushed, the plot didn't make much sense and Wonder Woman was barely in it. This isn't to say it was bad per se but it was hard to follow. What made up for it was some delightfully grotesque imagery, such as a horse being decapitated so that the man-part of a Centaur can grow from the stump. I wish things had been explained better, however. Too much of it was left until the end, making a great deal of the events just feel like random bits of dialogue and action with no connection to each other. As I said, for a Wonder Woman comic it didn't feature Diana in a role beyond that of fighting bad guys, which was unfortunate. I believe in the rule of three, however, which I'm applying to these comics. If they become good by issue 3, then I'll keep reading. At this rate Wonder Woman is really the only one which still hasn't proven itself, so I suppose I must give kudos to the writers and artists at DC for making a good start on their new 52.

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