Thursday, September 29, 2011

The New 52's A Crowd


For one glorious month, I read comic books again. Always a DC Comics die hard, I'd been estranged from the DC Universe (and comics in general) for over a decade. But now, DC Comics has rebooted their Universe, wiping the slate clean (sort of) with 52 #1 issues meant to lure back lapsed readers, excite new readers, and most importantly, galvanize its vast pantheon of the World's Greatest Superheroes.

The result: I read more DC Comics in the month of September 2011 than I had in many, many years. So here's what I thought about what I read, week by week.

WEEK ONE:

Justice League #1. Click the link for the full review.

WEEK TWO:

Action Comics #1. Click the link for the full review.

Animal Man #1. Were it not for Action Comics and my supermarkdom for Superman, I'd call this the best comic of the week. And it probably is, actually. I was never an Animal Man reader and mainly knew him for his brief stint in Justice League Europe, but this new Animal Man is terrific. I loved the Alan Moore Watchmen-style interview with Buddy Baker that opens the book and re-introduces him. Animal Man balances strong characters, superhero action, family elements, and then takes a twist into the truly bizarre and grotesque horror that reminded me in the best way of reading trippy early 1990s Vertigo books. Again besides Action Comics, Animal Man is the title I've read so far that makes me want to keep collecting to see what happens next. 

Batgirl #1. Here she is. Barbara Gordon, back in black. Character-wise, it's real good. Gail Simone knows Barbara Gordon intimately. She's brave, smart, human, and flawed. Not a lot happens, really. A new villain is introduced, and the crux of the story is a basic Batgirl saves a couple from a home invasion by both skill and luck. (Joker shooting her in The Killing Joke was a home invasion.) Later, Batgirl meets the new villain, which touches back on her dread of the day Joker shot her and put her in a wheelchair. How can she walk? The book doesn't really say. "A miracle happened." But what? We know now The Killing Joke happened three years ago, and Barbara was paralyzed for those three years, but now she's once again mobile. She was once Batman's star pupil. She is again Batgirl. The best moment is how Batgirl reacts when the new villain, Mirror, points a gun at her gut. Good first issue. It's quite nice to see the real Batgirl back.

Detective Comics #1. A good read, nothing revolutionary, just a solid pure Batman vs. the Joker story; ultraviolent, bloody and incredibly grim. Not for young readers. It reveals very little about Batman's new status quo, except that Batman has been in Gotham much longer than Gotham knew he was there, and how many people Joker has killed in six years. It weaves in a lot of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, right down to Heath Ledger's Joker's preference for using knives. Then it turns into Face/Off at the end. Am I seeing things or is that the Black Lantern logo in Joker's eye in the extreme close of up of him tied up in Arkham Asylum? And while I'm at it: I noticed that the new Batcave in this rebooted universe still has a giant penny and a robot tyrannosaurus rex in it. What the fuck? Where did those fucking things come from? Are those 1950s stories still in continuity? Why does that shit need to be in the Batcave in 2011?

Green Arrow #1. At Comic Con, I attended a panel moderated by Jim Lee about his New 52 costume designs. The crowd hissed and moaned as he showed photo after photo of the new costumes, but when he showed the new Green Arrow suit, someone yelled, "That one you can keep!" which popped the crowd. The new Green Arrow is basically 95% the design from Smallville. And that's a good thing. The Robin Hood beard is gone, which I think is great. He looks and acts a lot like Smallville's Green Arrow, with a global crime fighting network called Q-Core, a separate entity from Queen Industries. He's Green Arrow mixed in with some James Bond and a little bit of Steve Jobs with his Q-Phones and Q-tech. It's a pretty good superhero adventure book. And it's impossible to read and not hear Justin Hartley's voice in your head.

Justice League International #1. Sucked. Boring. Remedial superhero team book, trite dialogue and characterizations. Uninteresting.

Stormwatch #1. Brilliant! By that I mean, I had no idea what was going on. Barely understood what was happening, who those characters are, why Martian Manhunter was with them. I'd read very little of The Authority in the past so I had a rudimentary knowledge of those characters, but as an intro to new readers, which I essentially am, I think it failed. Didn't get me interested in learning more.

Swamp Thing #1. Nothing will ever match early 1980s Alan Moore, but this was pretty good stuff. Weaves in recent real life phenomena of groups of animals suddenly dying, and then re-introduces us to Alec Holland, who's living a Bruce/David Banner life on the run. He used to be Swamp Thing, or has memories of being Swamp Thing, but somehow isn't anymore. The dialogue and weaving of real life science and botany with the supernatural elements was compelling. Not as successful to me was the appearance of Superman. When Alec first meets him, he says, "Superman! What you doing here?" but my reaction was, "Superman! What the fuck are you wearing?!" The new Jim Lee suit, the "ceremonial Kryptonian armor" is ghastly. Anyway, like Animal Man, a bizarre dream sequence with grotesque creatures leads to a shocking twist ending as Swamp Thing appears. Neat.

What fun to read comics again, DC.

WEEK THREE:

Batman and Robin #1. I see DC's penchant for murder and grotesque ultra-violence that they developed in the 2000s continues in the revamped New 52 universe. That said, this was an entertaining introduction to Bruce Wayne working along side his son Damian. As his father navel-gazed, pledging to stop dwelling in his parents' death and start celebrating their lives, Damian got all the good lines: "This constant tribute to death's a waste of time." "Dead is dead. I'm glad you're putting this sentimental nonsense behind you." And my favorite: "You were easier to look up to when you weren't around." I know just what Robin means. Batman and Robin leap into action to foil a chemical theft at Gotham University. Meanwhile, in the grotesque murder department, a new villain with a Bat symbol on his chest named Nobody brutalizes and executes the Batman Inc. of Russia. Boiled in acid, like Terminator 2. And like the Terminator, thumbs up. For Batman and Robin.

Batwoman #1: Beautiful art. I had no idea what was happening. Is every woman in this book a lesbian? Diversity!

Deathstroke #1. I miss Wintergreen. Whatever happened to Wintergreen, Slade's old man servant? They had a prime opportunity in this reboot to re-design Deathstroke's colors so the supposed most bad ass metahuman killer on Earth isn't wearing orange and blue, but they blew it. The story was okay; the cadre of nerds Deathstroke suddenly had working for him weren't nearly as amusing as how Deathstroke dismissed them from his service. I liked the idea of the clones with Clayface DNA, but overall the book felt sparse and light on details. 

Demon Knights #1. What the hell? Etrigan doesn't rhyme. Why doesn't he rhyme? Nevertheless, I liked this a lot. Camelot, Merlin, Excalibur, Mordred, Madam Xanadu, Vandal Savage, the Shining Knight (not the one I remember), dragons! The DC Dark Ages is pretty weird and establishes that King Arthur was real in the New DCU. This is the second appearance of Madame Xanadu this week; she also appears at the end of Resurrection Man. 

Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E #1. What a weird book. Weirdly awesome. From Jeff Lemire, author of Animal Man, and leave it to him to deliver the New 52 book of the week (again). Holy shit, this was weird. It's the Frankenstein monster! He fights evil monsters and has for over a century! And he vacations on Mars! And he's estranged from Bride of Frankenstein. And he says, "Hrmm" like Rorschach. His boss is a man in a little girl's cloned body. And the S.H.A.D.E. base is a city in a 3 inch sphere flying across the world microsized by shrink technology created by Ray Palmer. And then the Creature Commandos show up. And they fight monsters. This is preposterously entertaining, like a creature feature League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Green Lantern #1: I haven't read any Green Lantern since the start of the Sinestro Corps War. Apparently, you were expected to keep up with all things Green Lantern because Geoff Johns provides no backstory or catch up details for any new readers. Sinestro is now a Green Lantern despite being imprisoned on OA and the Guardians let him go on his merry way with the green ring and Lantern. Meanwhile, Hal Jordan is no longer a Green Lantern, is back on Earth, broke, and pisses off Carol Ferris for asking her to co-sign a lease on a new car. Sinestro has a fatal confrontation with a Sinestro Corps member when he finds his homeworld Korugar has been enslaved by the Sinestro Corps, and he shows up at the end with some new scheme to get Hal Jordan's help in exchange for his ring back. Oh, and the Guardians seemingly lobotomize Ganthet for talking back to them. Don't argue with the Guardians, Guardian! The whole book took like 5 minutes to read. Eh.

Grifter #1. What if Sawyer from LOST hears voices in his head? I don't know the character of Grifter from the kerchief he wears over his face, but I know a Sawyer knockoff when I see him, freckles. Art's really good, but it's a quick, decompressed flip through, all set up. Interesting, though, that like Resurrection Man, a lot of the pivotal action revolves around fighting the supernatural in an airplane mid-flight. Last week, Swamp Thing and Animal Man shared a common theme of dead animals coming back to life. I wonder if this is intentional?

Resurrection Man #1. I'd never heard of Resurrection Man, but it turns out to be a strange riff on Highlander, with a man who dies and comes back but with a different superpower every resurrection. Plus he's being hunted by demons from Hell and supernatural forces from Heaven. I like how he has to figure out what new power he has every time he comes back to life. This was really good.

Suicide Squad #1 is no great shakes. Although I like the absurdity of the Hammerhead Shark Man, whatever his name is. I consider that guy "good" goofy looking as opposed to Harley Quinn's unfortunate bustier costume (puddin'). Biggest news to report out of Suicide Squad: Amanda Waller is like 200 lbs lighter! I guess to synch up better to Angela Bassett playing her in Green Lantern. So where are the people complaining that Amanda Waller is no longer fat? The most powerful and most dangerous fat black woman in comics was just beautified into a supermodel. Where is the outrage? Diversity!

Superboy #1. I dug this a bit more than I thought I would. Never read the old Teen Titans or Young Justice so I had no attachment to Conner Kent. That's not even who this new Superboy is. Caitlin Fairchild as "Red" is kind of weird. The VR Smallville reality was kind of interesting, especially how Superboy was clearly in the Kent Farm by a different name, but they didn't use "Hubbard" since Geoff Johns brought the Richard Donner movies' Ben Hubbard neighboring farm into continuity. Interesting, too, how they somehow don't know Lex Luthor (presumably) is the human half of Superboy's genetic makeup. I'm not sure how Superboy is "the most powerful living weapon on the planet" (more powerful than Superman, a full Kryptonian?) but whatever.

All right, DC, that's it! I can't read any more of your gd [copyright Grant Morrison] comics this week! You're bleeding me dry.

WEEK FOUR:

Batman #1. This was really good. I liked the neat little shout outs to Batman 1989, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Scott Snyder wove in. And Batman does a lot more detective work in here than he did in Detective Comics. Continuing the stuff set up in Batman and Robin #1, Bruce Wayne is implementing a massive initiative to rebuild Gotham and secure its future. This leads to a neat scene involving Bruce in black tie with all three of his "sons", Dick, Tim and Damian. But before that is Batman in Arkham fighting off a prison riot by Two Face, Clayface, Mr. Freeze, Killer Croc, and others with help from... The Joker?! (But how does this fit into the Face/Off last scene in Detective #1?) It ends with a big mystery involving a shocking murder suspect who once wore green underpants and a yellow cape. No, not Jason Todd. Or Damian Wayne. Or Tim Drake. Batman #1 was really well written, rich in characterizations. Warner Brothers, just back a dump truck of money to Scott Snyder's front door and offer to let him write the post-Christopher Nolan Batman movie.

Catwoman #1. This was more interesting than expected. And by "interesting", I mean "softcore pornographic." Judd Winick's Catwoman is in full-on sex kitten mode, speaking of. Anonymous people torch her apartment, which leads to introducing her new handler in crime, and leads Selina into a Russian sex club filled with hookers and gangsters. Then a wild left turn: she sees an old Russian gangster who turned out to be the man who murdered her mother in front of her eyes as a child. So Selina corners him in the rest room, seemingly murders him, and then makes her escape as Catwoman. Then Batman shows up in the penthouse Selina is squatting in, not remotely angry or even aware she killed someone, and they get to humping. Bat and Cat humping. The last few pages becomes a sex book. And it's not the first time they've humped. Batman and Catwoman are total fuck buddies. 

Supergirl #1. I've always had a soft spot for Kara Zor-El, including the Jeph Loeb/Michael Turner teen sex kitten. The new Supergirl lands in a meteor shower in Russia with no memories (though she first assumes she's on Krypton which indicates the new Krypton is not an ice crystal world). Then a bunch of Russian soldiers in ED-209 battlesuits attack her and she fights them, slowly confusedly discovering some of her powers. That's it, really. She doesn't speak English or Russian. And then Superman shows up in the last page, just like he did in the last page of Justice League #1. A lot of fighting and action, but not much more otherwise.

Wonder Woman #1. I'm a worshipper of George Perez's 1986 reboot of Wonder Woman post-Crisis, so that's the standard I hold all Wonder Woman to. This was pretty good, though. I liked the re-design and reinvention of the Greek gods. Zeus is missing, and he's up to some shenanigans involving the usual... impregnating human women. Hera seems to be hunting down his latest conquest, a girl named Zola who's unaware she's pregnant by Zeus. There are centaurs and Hermes is reimagined as a N'avi from Avatar with bird feet. As an introduction to Wonder Woman, it's not really. We don't learn anything about her we don't already know: She has the classic costume, slightly tweaked with dark boots. She has bracelets and a magic lasso. Her power levels aren't clear; don't know if she can fly or not. But I thought the new look gods were intriguing, especially Apollo, who's rich and uses three hot women as Oracles atop a skyscraper. It's different, but I guess I liked it.

WEEK FIVE: 

Aquaman #1. Cons: It's a quickie 5 minute read. Pros: Everything else, including being a very good quickie 5 minute read. Geoff Johns lovingly establishes Aquaman with a wink; his first appearance in the book is stopping an armored car robbery like a real bad ass, even getting shot by a machine gun point blank and shrugging it off, while the cops and the robbers both mock him. "Do you need a glass of water?" It goes a little over the top when Aquaman visits a seafood restaurant his father took him to as a child (complete with flashbacks) as the patrons (including a Harry Knowles lookalike) annoy him with the famous "Don't you talk to fish?" assumption (No, and Aquaman clarifies exactly what he does). Then Aquaman gets really annoyed by a fanboy blogger {"You're nobody's favorite superhero!"), storms off, and in a scene with Mera, sets up the new paradigm that he no longer wishes to be King of Atlantis and will protect the seas from the shore. Meanwhile, grotesque, piranha-man looking creatures rise from the bottom of the ocean and attack a fishing boat. Good stuff.

Batman: The Dark Knight #1. This was fine. Good art, writing was fine, but, not in the league of Batman #1 last week. Also, it's confusing: it featured an Arkham riot by all the super villains incarcerated that Batman faces down, but is this the same riot as the one in Batman #1? Or was this another riot? It ends with Two Face revealed looking all jacked up as Bane, and... huh? The most interesting stuff was Bruce Wayne facing a Gotham Police internal affairs agent who ham fistedly demands Bruce tell him who in the force is aiding and abetting the Batman?! Uh, why don't you just use binoculars to watch the roof of Police HQ and see who turns on the Batsignal? There was also a new very hot potential love interest for Bruce Wayne, but whatever. This was just "more" Batman; didn't seem essential. And I think after all these Bat-books, I'm Batman-ed out.

Flash #1. Flash Fact: I've never dug the Flash. Any Flash. Never really read him. Flash #1 didn't change that. I mean, I guess it was good. Good action, nice art, established Barry Allen as single and having dated Iris West, but avoids her when he has work to do. Introduced a (new?) old friend of Barry's and a mystery, but it just didn't do anything for me. 

I, Vampire #1. Moody vampire love story DCU style. Not much happens, actually. Andrew Bennett is a vampire who hunts and kills other vampires. His eternal life mate, Mary Queen of Blood, is sick of being a fourth class citizen in a world with Kryptonians, aliens, Amazons and masked men running around. She has declared war on the human race, despite Andrew's objections. Rules of vampires in DCU were established: Sunlight only weakens them and nullifies most of their powers; otherwise they can do everything Gary Oldman could do in Bram Stoker's Dracula. The art is pretty great, if you like this sort of thing. I only felt a little gay for reading this.

Justice League Dark #1. Like Justice League #1, it's a set up first chapter of how this team comes together. Unlike Justice League #1, it at least features every member of the team in the issue. Why, it even features as many members of the JLA - Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Cyborg guest star, showing them ill-equipped (especially Superman) and failing against a crazed Enchantress hexing the world. Meanwhile, Madam Xanadu has a vision of a team that could meet mystical threats. Zatanna, Shade the Changing Man, June Moon, Deadman, John Constantine are all here but not as a team yet. It's real light on characterizations and expects you to know who all these obscure characters are. The threat itself isn't particularly clever. But the art is spectacular. Though I liked what I saw, I think I'll wait for the trade to see this one through.

Teen Titans #1. This was a lot like Justice League #1. It was basically a Red Robin and Wonder Girl meet/get to know each other adventure that didn't feature the Teen Titans, per se. But before that, it's a lot like the start of Marvel's Civil War: Kid Flash is an egocentric glory hound who uses his superpowers in an idiotic way that creates a tragedy and gets innocents killed. It gets kind of interesting in a series of news reports citing the rapid influx of superpowered metahuman teenagers in the world (echos of Kingdom Come). Tim Drake is kind of the Ozymandias of the teenage heroes and decides it's time to act and put together a group. Then he's attacked by Agents of N.O.W.H.E.R.E., the same people who are experimenting on Superboy. I didn't like or hate Teen Titans. I did hate Red Robin's wings. He's basically Hawkboy.

Superman #1. Didn't love it. The best stuff happened in the first few pages when the history of the Daily Planet is narrated before the building is blown up to make way for the brand spanking new Daily Planet skyscraper. (Why it needs four helipads is beyond me.) A black, bald, goateed, Avery Brooks-looking Morgan Edge's Galaxy Communications purchased the Daily Planet. Perry White is still editor, Clark Kent is a reporter (unlike in Action Comics when he worked for the Daily Star five years ago), and Jimmy Olsen has a new female partner named Miko who Tweets and hacks into security systems. Lois Lane (whom Edge, her boss, still calls "Miss Lane") was the local news anchor of GBS news but now she's Executive Vice President of New Media (hey, Shane McMahon's old job! Sort of.). Also GBS news renamed itself PGN - Planet Global Network. A stupid and redundant name. There's also some sort of creature in the Himalayas with a giant horn tying into Stormwatch #1. As for Superman, he's more or less how he should be, flying around with all his powers intact. Superman takes on a mysterious flame being in a prolonged action sequence as Lois coordinates the news effort to chronicle the story for RATINGZ!! Clark scores an interview with Superman for a front page scoop (not titled "I Spent The Night With Superman"), but discovers Lois has a new boyfriend. And it's all just okay. Not Super.

And thus ends my month of comics. What did I learn? The New 52 is touch and go. There's a lot of garbage, which is to be expected with 52 books. I also am much more interested in the 5 years ago era of the New 52, the dawn of the superhero, and I think DC sorely miscalculated by only having two books, Action Comics and Justice League, servicing that era. How many months will it take for the Justice League to assemble in its own book? Meanwhile, the JLA of "today" pops up in other books and every appearance takes the wind out of the sails of the Justice League "coming together" story.

The same with Superman; as fun as I found Grant Morrison's retro-revision of Superman, we now see that ugly armor aside, he's pretty much the same as before. Lois having a new job and there being a new Daily Planet building aren't exactly the revolutionary changes to the mythos DC advertised. Will Lois Lane being EVP of New Media for PGN rake in new readers? No, of course not.

Hell, will most of these books rake in new readers a few months from now?

On a personal note, I had no idea who Scott Snyder and Jeff Lemire were before The New 52 and now I love them and their Batman, Animal Man, and even Frankenstein something fierce. Without The New 52, I'd never have read their work. Call that a win, DC.

Even after this first month of books, reported massive spike in sales aside, it's too early to call this thing a success or a failure. But I'm reading comics again until further notice, so win. But honestly, a twelve year old reading comics is worth five of me. Did they get those new readers they wanted?

Overall, I sort of like this new DC Universe. I do think it's a cleaner palette (though "clean" maybe the wrong term in some corners, the ones Catwoman and Starfire's 38DDs occupy) to craft superhero stories. As ever, it's up to the creators' talents and the decisions of editorial and management to guide this ungainly new DCU behemoth they've wrought. I think, for a while, they'll be fine.

Until some jackass decides it's time for a Crisis.

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