One week in, and I have to say: I’m impressed. It’s not that all of the books are winners. They aren’t. There’s a fair bit of mediocrity here. But it’s the sort of mediocrity that SELLS. It’s the kind many people like. While I found the Batbooks lacking the ambition of Morrison’s run or the strong characterization and storytelling of Snyder’s run, the fact is that all of them are solid executions on a formula that works. Outside of maybe Hawk and Dove (the only book I put down without having a solid grasp on what it wanted to do or say), every book on here stands a fair chance of finding a loyal audience – and what’s more, there’s an awful lot of ambition on display.
But what has really impressed me is the variety of stories on display. Whether it’s the way Morrison and Morales have shaken up the way Superman is ‘supposed to’ look, act and sound, the way Jeff Lemire and Scott Snyder are effortlessly blending superheroes with horror or the way Ivan Brandon gives war a terrifying new dimension in a world full of superhumans, the New DCU seems to have something to offer everyone!
Let’s get this out of the way first: Grant Morrison’s Action Comics #1 should have come out last week. You wanted to see a new status quo for the DCU? You wanted to hook readers with a thorough, engaging story that gives people plenty of content and should appeal to teens? This is the perfect book for that. It introduces enormous chunks of the Superman mythos without seeming out of place. It tells a story that has a beginning, middle and end. It sets up future stories. THIS is what people needed to read, solid, grade A storytelling.
It isn’t perfect, but it’s a great introduction to the DCnU. People skeptical that anything has changed, or interested in seeing what the new DCU is all about, are urged to check it out. Also on your prospective pull list? Jeff Lemire’s Animal Man #1 and Ivan Brandon’s Men of War #1, two well-realized books that offer their own unique spin on the DC Universe.
Animal Man #1 is, for my money, the first A+ of the DCnU, an almost flawlessly executed exemplar of superhero horror. Travel Foreman and Dan Green provide eerie, minimalist art that initially makes the book seem chillier than it really is, but their art comes together quickly and gives the book of memorable, creepy closing image. Compare that to Scott Snyder’s Swamp Thing #1, another book with strong overtones of horror, but one that takes far more of a slow burn, and one that is much more heavily dependent on pre-existing continuity. Artist Yanick Paquette is a good choice, and Snyder sets up the beginnings of something fascinating, but it didn’t leave me breathless and thrilled the same way Animal Man did. If I had to give it a grade, I’d say B+ is fair, but Swamp Thing is hard to pin down. Still, it’s a solid first issue, and one I recommend.
Men of War #1 doesn’t open nearly so strong, but it does provide something important: a unique point of view. I know that Marvel and DC have both published war comics before, but Men of War stood out for me for the way it chillingly introduced superhumans into war. Corporal Rock, our POV character for now, is an extremely skilled soldier with some authority issues. Recruited into a special assignment after a recent dust-up with his superiors, Rock joins Sgt. Tomisi’s squad as they infiltrate a warzone – one that involves superhuman combatants capable of leveling cities. A so-so back-up gives us a more standard war story, but with a little tweaking – a more suitable art team and a better sense of pacing are particularly necessary – Men of War could become a cornerstone of the new DC Universe. As it is, though, it’s a B grade book still unquestionably worth a look.
DC’s most reliable money-maker is Batman, a character that appeals to Marvel fans, to non-comics readers, and basically to just about everyone alive, so it makes sense that Batman would have a strong presence in every single week of the relaunch. This week sees two books on the peripheral of the Batfamily (Gail Simone and Ardian Syaf’s Batgirl and Judd Winick and Ben Oliver’s Batwing) as well as DC’s flagship title, Tony Daniel’s Detective Comics.
Gail Simone’s Batgirl #1 is the strongest of the three, though not by as much as it should be. Unfortunately, Simone’s talents for dark humor and strong character work are both largely lacking in a first issue far too dedicated to Barbara’s struggle to escape the wheelchair – a noble goal, perhaps, but one at odds with the issue’s extraordinarily mundane Batfamily storytelling. Hovering somewhere between a B- and a C+, it is one of the least memorable things Simone has ever written.
Neither Batwing #1 nor Detective Comics #1 are quite as strong, but both have the advantage of lowered expectations. Tony Daniel is an uninspired writer in general, but his long stint on Batman appears to have prepared him well: the book, an extremely typical Batman story featuring the Joker and some chase scenes and not much else at all, ends on a gruesomely creepy image, one Batfans will probably find fairly memorable. Staunch fans of the Caped Crusader will find it passable. Batwing, likewise, is a perfectly average Batstory – albeit one with an African Batman patrolling an African nation. Still, outside of a few small suggestions of a fascinating back story, Winick does little to make good use of its African locale. With room to breathe, Winick could have a definite, undeniable winner here, but he’s starting off slow. I’d give each a C+.
Another disappointment? Hawk and Dove #1, easily the weakest of the issues with a C- and the only one I have a hard time picturing lasting more than a handful of issues. Written by Sterling Gates, Hawk and Dove have a bickering, stressed relationship, in part because they’re relatively new partners forced together when the previous Dove died. The issue has some solid ideas – the politicized Washington DC setting has potential, while science terrorist Alexander Quirk is a neat creation, and I like the idea of ‘Monsters of Mass Destruction’ a lot – but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. Rob Liefeld’s art remains a bad 90’s holdover, the fights are static and dull, and the drama between Hank and Dawn is forced and uninteresting.
Justice League International #1 fares a bit better. Though it’s slow going, Jurgens has a solid group of characters to play with. The first issue only gives us a brief glimpse into each of them, particularly newcomer Godiva, a British heroine about whom little his known, but it nails the essential character beats. One particular subplot involving the bombing of the Hall of Justice seems out of place, but the rest of the story is solid, if unspectacular. It’s largely redeemed by Aaron Lopresti’s memorable art, knocking it up to a B-.
One particularly pleasant surprise? OMAC #1, a book I think few people expected much from. It isn’t great, but it is fast paced, weird and fun in a way I don’t think anyone could have predicted. Introducing a whole lot of mythology at once – but in a largely naturalistic way – OMAC #1 is basically an issue-long fight scene that never quite answers the question: is the OMAC a good guy, or not? With a potentially killer last-page twist (that will mean nothing whatsoever to new readers) but extremely static, uninteresting fight choreography that hurts when there’s as much action as this book has, OMAC is a solid C+… but one that has already displayed an awful lot of potential to grow stronger.
Static Shock #1 was another one of the relaunch’s most pleasant surprises. Do you like Spider-Man? If you answered ‘yes’, then you owe it to yourself to pick up Static Shock. Virgil is a brilliant teen nerd who, when suited up as his heroic alter-ego becomes an cocky, quip-heavy teen hero. John Rozum did fantastic work on the recent Xombi, and while this doesn’t quite live up to that book, it is definitely an appealing book featuring a well-realized, interesting African American teen hero. A solid B+, and perhaps the best comic for younger readers, particularly young teens, to premiere this week.
Comics as a whole has done a great disservice to younger readers, something that’s shown through in this relaunch. Teens and younger children love Batman, too! Of course they do. Everyone loves Batman. And yet, of the Batbooks released this month, one features an enemy named Massacre decapitating and murdering dozens of people before making altars of their corpses, and one features a nude Joker murdering a man wearing a mask made of human skin before he himself gets his face cut off and nailed to a wall.
Aside from Static Shock there is really only one book geared towards the under-18 set: Morrison’s Action Comics, which sets a template I think more of the relaunch should have followed. Action Comics reimagines Superman as a young man, probably only 18 or 19, crusading for what’s right against a world of wealthy, powerful, untouchable adults – no matter what the cost. He’s a punk rock superhero, a powerful kid who isn’t about saving the world, but about changing the world. There’s not much by way of graphic violence, the storytelling is propulsive and the art is eye-catching and energetic. It feels vital. It feels new in a way that few other books in the relaunch do.
For a stunt seemingly geared towards luring new readers in, this week was a mixed bag. Animal Man should catch some eyes based on its unique storytelling and art and the positive reviews it has been getting. Same thing with Swamp Thing. Action Comics is an obvious success, too, while Men of War has a chance – albeit a small one – to capture the attention of the public.
But most books read as just more of the same. Detective Comics gets by on some creepy imagery, but otherwise it recycles the same Batman/Joker tropes that have been done to death a thousand times. Heck, Batwing recycles similar tropes with characters that aren’t even Batman or his rogues! JLI, Hawk and Dove, even Batgirl (to a lesser degree) all suffer from a similar lack of ambition.
There’s a lot to like about the new DC Universe. Overall, one week in, I think it was the right call: it let genuinely challenging books that would have been quickly relegated to canceled cult favorites get noticed in a way they rarely have before. But many of the books, particularly the biggest name books, from Justice League to the company’s namesake Detective Comics have all the same problems that have been driving people away from comics for years.
So which side will win? The DC that innovates? That takes risks, pushes boundaries and experiments? Or the one in which the Joker spends six trade-friendly issues menacing Gotham before being captured at the last minute and sent to Arkham?
We’ll see. But after this, I’m definitely excited to find out.
MUST READ BOOK OF THE WEEK:
Animal Man #1
Chilling, weird and unpredictable, Animal Man #1 is hands-down the best book of the relaunch so far, and if anyone deserves to become a breakout A-lister in this relaunch, it’s Buddy Baker. Lemire has given us a twist on the standard superhero story (and hero) that blends flawlessly with supernatural horror, and art team Travel Foreman and Dan Green have given the book a unique, eerie look. It’s like nothing else you’ll read this month, and I mean that in the best way possible. This should be on everyone’s pull list.
Runner-up: Action Comics #1, Swamp Thing #1
MOST PLEASANT SURPRISE
Men of War #1
Runner-up: Static Shock #1, OMAC #1
Gail Simone is better than this, and her past work has definitely earned me giving her another couple issues, but she might have bitten off more than she can chew. Heavily mired in continuity and with no memorable character beats, little wit and none of her signature humor, Batgirl #1 is rote, typical Batfamily storytelling from a creator capable of some of the most fascinating books in mainstream comics. It isn’t bad at all: Simone would have to be truly, genuinely off to produce something horrible. It’s just painfully mundane.
Runner-up: Hawk and Dove #1, Batwing #1
Swamp Thing #1 and Animal Man #1 sold out shortly after I left.
BOOKS I’LL BUY NEXT MONTH
Action Comics Animal Man
Men of War Static Shock
– Cal Cleary
For more reviews of DC’s New 52, click here!