Thursday, September 8, 2011

A Little More than a Week in the New DC Universe

As mentioned earlier, DC decided to reboot/revamp ("reboot" being what the fans call it and "revamp" being what DC calls it) by resetting their universe so that everything we think we know from over 75 years of continuity may or may not be true any longer. Starting on 31 August, other than one title, all their comics would go back to issue #1. DC promised big change and stellar writer/artist pairings in a tidal wave of hype that lasted for a good two months. In the meantime, store owners were troubled by how to order these new comics—do you base your orders off the numbers of whatever titles were restarting (and if so what do you do with brand new titles?) or do you just go with your gut? More difficult was planning for the second issue—how do you predict what titles were going to do well and which weren't…and how do you compare that to initial orders that you were making based on hope and a prayer?

On some levels, DC's restart was a tremendous success—the interwebs were abuzz with theory conjecture and, yes, more hype. Even mainstream media bought into it as articles sprang up on USA Today, Entertainment Weekly, and the New York Times. May of this year was the first month since probably the 40s when no single comic book, from any company, sold more than 100,000 copies, and yet one of DC's titles had over 200,000 preorders and several more were over 100,000. At the same time though, attention was being turned away from the existing comics—new readers weren't going to pick up series that were about to end and long-time readers were being pushed to focus on the new stories as well. And for the final few weeks, the stories really suffered, making long-time readers wonder why they even bothered: Justice League of America featured single-page synopses of story arcs that would have taken place had the comic continued in its original path. Teen Titans featured a special 100th issue—a major milestone for most comics—that cost more than "regular" issues did but wrapped up the ongoing story arc in slap-dash and hasty fashion while padding the rest of the issue with single-page pieces of art showcasing someone's love of the Titans.

And so the great experiment began on 31 August, and DC had to balance attracting new customers with keeping returning customers happy. How'd they do? (I should note here I am only reviewing the titles I bought, so there was a little weeding out prior to my purchases. There were some titles that I just could not be convinced to buy.)

31 August

Flashpoint #5 – The last comic book from the "old" DC Universe. Like almost every other recent big event from DC, this was written by Geoff Johns and featured a lot of action, some average dialogue, and a "meh" ending. How exactly the Flash caused the universe we have long read to be completely be replaced by another, of which we have had pretty much no indication, remains unresolved. And there was the expected hard yank on the emotions as Bruce Wayne gets a letter from his father-surrogate from another timeline. We even get to see the Batman weep as he reads his not-father's heartfelt words. Average storytelling at best, and the only real value lay in it being a portal to the New DC Universe. At least Andy Kubert's art had some nice cameos.

Justice League #1 – Here it is--the new universe itself! With a cover featuring Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, and Cyborg in their newly redesigned new universe costumes. Unfortunately, only four of those characters appear in the issue itself, one of whom isn't even the hero he appears to be on the cover, and the biggest sell, Superman, only appears in the last panel. This story probably means far more to ongoing readers than new ones; Batman and Green Lantern, the two characters in the focus, are extreme examples of how they have long been portrayed in their own titles. Batman is totally by himself and when the police and military see him, they try to shoot him down. Green Lantern is a gung-ho hothead, convinced he can do anything with his magic ring. He is also cocky beyond belief, even when Batman continually shows him up. Early on, we are told this story takes place "five years ago" so we must assume these are younger versions of the heroes that will eventually be involved in the stories. New readers are very likely to be confused by the characters' differences from their reputations and perhaps also a little dismayed by the lack of other characters and very little Superman. But then, this mirrors the Marvel deconstructed story, a concept those same new readers probably have very little knowledge of. Jim Lee's art is pretty, but again, the story rates a "meh."

7 September

Action Comics #1 – A relatively young Superman/Clark Kent tries to make his way in Metropolis as a hero and reporter. Again, new readers are likely to be disturbed by the movement away from what they think they know about Superman: he is wearing jeans, Lois Lane doesn't know who Clark Kent is, and they even work for different newspapers. This story by Grant Morrison is also actually set in the past of the new DC continuity, but there is actually nothing in the comic itself to indicate that. And while ongoing fans probably know this from the numerous stories about it on various comic news sites, the new reader is just going to be lost. A little introduction would go a long way to make those readers happier. For long-time readers, this is actually some quite good Grant Morrison. His writing is crisp and connected, as opposed to the evil Grant Morrison who writes with gaping plot holes that the reader is supposed to somehow fill in with guess work. And as always, the artwork of Rags Morales is just splendid. This one gets a thumb's-up, especially in the depiction of the new Luthor and his twisted plots, but I worry that it will not do a good job keeping new readers.

Batgirl #1 – I will read anything that Gail Simone writes; she has won me over with tight scripting and dazzling storytelling for years now. And she does not disappoint with Batgirl either. There is a major bump in the road for long-time readers, since Barbara Gordon has been crippled for decades in the old continuity. Simone has a couple of choices, devoting a lot of a first issue to how she got better or finessing it, and she chooses the latter, making a smoother story, if not one that satisfies the fanboys. Barbara Gordon has just started her secret life as Batgirl, and she makes rookie errors in this issue. But Simone has never written flawless heroes; what makes her characters excel is their humanity and their ability to overcome their flaws. Batgirl is vibrant and filled with life, just fun to read despite the continuity passover. And Ardian Syaf's art is pleasant. This one also gets a thumb's-up.

Detective Comics #1 – Wow. Just wow. This one is the pick of the week. Batman is apparently still pretty new in his hero's role, he has to deal with the character that was his arch-nemesis in the old continuity, the Joker. Joker is written a little closer to the character in Christopher Nolan's epic The Dark Knight but writer and artist Tony Daniel still give the Joker some psychopathic wackiness that the always-serious movie version lacked. Batman is completely outclassed by the Joker and realizes it, and yet is so new at his job that he doesn't realize that the Joker's capture was far too easy. The last three pages of this issue could be used to teach graphic story-telling, especially the last panel, a full page, that turns both the expectations of the old-time reader and the new reader completely on their ear. This one is a keeper and one to share with people who are unsure about reading comics.

Hawk and Dove #1 – And then there's the stinker of the week. My caveat—I love Hawk and Dove. I have every issue of every comic that is about them, going back to their first appearance in the 60s. The series in the 80s is still a favorite, one that a good example of solid storytelling that remained fun, until it got blown away by poor decisions in DC editorial. This series harkens back to that earlier series both by circumstance—Hank Hall has been Hawk for a while and has just lost his brother Don, the original Dove, replaced by Dawn Granger—and by creative team. The original artist in that 80s series was one Rob Liefeld, who performs art duties here too. And that's where it all ends. Liefeld has become a horrible artist, a parody of himself with no real sense of proportion and grace. He tries to restrain himself through this issue but the moments when he fails are so excessive that it makes the entire comic really painful to read. Sterling Gates's writing is okay, though there were overarching decisions I just do not understand—why are they the avatars of War and Peace rather than Order and Chaos? Unfortunately, the entire issue is a lot of build-up, that might have been better handled by an artist who appeared to give a damn, leading to a big splash page at the end that doesn't reveal and surprise so much as confound. I SO want this series to succeed, and I'll give it a few more issues, but this is just not a good start.

(If you are unfamiliar with the egregious nature of Liefeld's art, I delightfully point you to

Justice League International #1 – Between veteran writer Dan Jurgen's clean storytelling and Aaron Lopresti's lovely art, this is a fine primer for people new to comics reading. JLI is the best at merging old expectations with newcomers' explanations and it does so the genre of storytelling that works best most often in comics—the team book. Several disparate characters are introduced and brought together. They squabble as they try to find chemistry and they go fight. Most of the characters in this story will be complete blanks to newcomers and so don't have to carry the weight of mainstream expectation. There are also subplots galore, along with humorous moments, especially those between Rocket Red and August General in Iron. Newcomers may be excused if they keep expecting "One punch!" and who knows?—maybe this title will give us that extra-special moment in comics. This one is definitely a keeper.

Stormwatch #1 – This was a terrific comic, but again I fear that readers new to comics will be completely lost. The original Stormwatch series was a sort of third generation comic, building on the storytelling shorthand of the golden and silver ages to bring modern sensibility and thoughtfulness to over-the-top adventure. This version of Stormwatch does this also, making it treacherous for newcomers. At least the characters in JLI might be a little familiar; I'm pretty sure that most of America has never heard of Jack Hawksmoor, Jenny Quantum, Apollo, or The Engineer. The characters all know each other and so the story has to assume that we know them too; there is no reader-friendly set piece where everyone gets introduced. It's no help that one of the main characters is a shapeshifter as well. But for fans of good comics, and especially fans of the original series, this is darned good stuff. Writer Paul Cornell has gotten the flavor of those original stories down, even though he's changing up the characters a bit. And while artist Miguel Sepulveda's panels can be cluttered at times, most of the issue's art is a throwback to that original series. This issue even has an editorial note referring the reader to an event in a comic that has not been released yet. Even long-time readers will read this one slowly and enjoy it, and I just have to recommend new readers hang on if this ends being anything like the original series.

The tally? A decidedly mixed bag. I think one severe weakness is that the issues are a victim of their own hype. It was hard not to be disappointed with a summer-long promise of "everything changes" even though I knew that it would be just about as valid as it is every time a comic company says it. But DC actually seemed to be going through with the motions by restarting every title and so I believed. By and large, it mostly felt like I had picked up a week's worth of independent comics, featuring writers and artists I know and characters I was only slightly familiar with. The whole experiment may go very well, but DC has to resist the urge to give winks to the old continuity and treat every story as if it is a new one. I'll be fascinated to see in December and January what titles will get axed first. And the sales numbers of month 2 are going to be fascinating.

No comments:

Post a Comment