DC’s New 52: Week 4

The Flash #1Finally, my take on the last batch of DC’s new titles.

Again, here’s my ratings scale:

Pull = I’m putting it on my pull list, picking up every issue

Ponder = I’m wobbly with it, and may stick with it for another issue or two, but haven’t yet committed.

Pass = No thanks; not working for me, and there’s too much else out there to give this any more attention.

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All Star Western #1 – Written by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti, art by Moritat
While crime, fantasy, horror and SF all contend and mix with the dominant superhero flavor, other genres are few and far between. The western, ruler of the roost a half-century ago, is one that keeps flickering along on the margins. Here, DC promises a serialized anthology of their stable of wild western characters, though this first arc is led by their most famous creation, Jonah Hex. And it’s not technically a western, but more of an “Eastern,” with Hex brought in to 1880s Gotham City to deal with some gruesome murders. While this is somewhat standard Sherlock Holmes/League of Extraordinary Gentlemen stuff, its urban American setting is a nice variation. Moreover, this past will connect with the further reaches of the DCU past as well as its present. In addition, Moritat’s direct yet grotesque art, and Gabriel Bautista’s outstanding sepia coloring, keep this stylistically separate from the present. While I hope we do get out west, and see some other characters (e.g., the much-neglected Cinnamon), this is a great start.  Recommendation: Pull.

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Aquaman #1 – Written by Geoff Johns, art by Ivan Reis
Poor Aquaman. Always the after-thought of the top level of DC characters, and usually considered a joke (based largely on his exposure in Super Friends in the 1970s and 1980s) as the guy who talks to fish. DC’s continually tried to make him relevant (and frankly, butch him up a bit), going so far in the 1990s as to lop off his hand in favor of a big hook. The reboot gives yet another chance to redo Aquaman, though it’s doubtful that this version will fare any better. Johns acknowledges that most people in the DCU don’t think much of Aquaman, with criminals, cops and civilians shown dismissing and laughing at him. However, he’s still a pretty powerful being, on land or water, much to their surprise. He even eats fish and chips. Noble intentions here, with a creepy new deep-sea menace and the trademark solid work from Ivan Reis (this generation’s Gene Colan). However, the chip-on-his-shoulder-“I-am-too-a-superhero!” tone could get tiresome quickly. Recommendation: Ponder.

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Batman: The Dark Knight #1 – Written by David Finch and Paul Jenkins, art by David Finch and Richard Friend
How many Batman-led titles can DC sustain? The magic number seems to be about three. This title is number four. While Detective is standard (despite some hatred for it out there), Batman & Robin expansive, and Batman superb, The Dark Knight is a bad hodge-podge of dusty story elements. Political intrigue for Bruce Wayne? Check. Mysterious beauty? Check. Trouble at Arkham Asylum? Check (and double-check: ripping off the Arkham Asylum videogame as well). This is paint-by-numbers Batman, with no soul or pulse. Finch’s too-calculated style borders on Liefeld-land; pretty stuff, for some, but too belabored. In a strong lineup of Batbooks (including the above, Batwoman, and possibly Batgirl), this is conspicuously superfluous. Recommendation: Pass.
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Blackhawks #1 – Written by Mike Costa, art by Graham Nolan and Ken Lashley
This is another example of updating an old idea, making over the WWII Blackhawks air combat team as a 21st century, stealthy quick-strike anti-terrorism unit. Conceptually, this could be fascinating, and fans of high-tech speculation, team-based shooters like Battlefield or Call of Duty, and (yes) anime will find much to enjoy here, with some bold ideas (e.g., saliva-borne nanotech weapons). The execution is solid, with Nolan and Lashley’s art giving it the requisite sweep and punch. That said, the tone’s a bit too over-the-top for me, and feels out of synch with the rest of the books. Good stuff if you like sexy body-armor clad badass warriors bristling with guns and spouting military jargon, but if you don’t, it’s meh. Recommendation: Pass.
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The Flash #1 – Written by Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato, art by Francis Manapul
Despite some convoluted continuity, the Flash has been one of the most popular and significant characters in the DCU for years. Indeed, he’s apparently solely responsible for this reboot in the first place, via Flashpoint. DC sticks by its decision to make Barry Allen the Flash (sorry Wally West fans: no sign of him yet), and Manapul delivers the goods. This is textbook 21st century superhero storytelling, involving both Allen and the Flash, laying out some of the character’s key complications and relationships, and setting up an intriguing mystery from the get-go. Moreover, Manapul’s art successfully conveys the speed and movement of the character (always a favorite challenge of DC’s artists over the decades). The constant lightning bolts are a nice element in this regard, instantly conveying his instability. Great stuff, and next to Wonder Woman, the best relaunch of one of the A-List. Recommendation: Pull.
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The Fury of Firestorm: The Nuclear Men #1 – Written by Ethan Van Sciver and Gail Simone, art by Yildiray Cinar
Firestorm’s long been an intriguing, but difficult character for DC, fusing the worlds of magic and science like no other, and embodying a core psychological complication (two identities in one body). This reboot attempts to embrace these contradictions, combining both earlier versions of the character (Ronnie Raymond and Jason Rusch) into hybrid superbeing. While I’m sure this looked great in brainstorming sessions (and particularly the opportunity to address race dead-on), the execution is a mess. Perhaps it stems from an uneasy working relationship between Van Sciver and Simone; the latter has reportedly already left the book. The terrorist subplot is way too grim for the overall material (e.g., a family is tortured and killed to open the issue), and is poorly grafted onto the story of Ronnie and Jason. Cinar makes what he can out of the mess, but the damage has been done. A bold idea, but completely botched. They need to shut this down quickly. Recommendation: Pass.
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Green Lantern: New Guardians #1 – Written by Tony Bedard, art by Tyler Kirkham
Here’s your Kyle Rayner fanservice, and it’s actually not bad. After a neat condensed origin story, we’re whisked into a story involving multiple lantern rings converging on poor old Kyle. Again, as with the other GL titles, you’re either into this sort of thing or not. I’m not. Still, as with the previous week’s GL Corps, this is entertaining and appropriately epic in its scale, with a few touches of humanity and wit. Bedard’s an underrated writer, with a good sense of plotting and ear for dialogue. But again, I’m not on board with the whole Lantern concept, so… Recommendation: Pass.
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I, Vampire #1 – Written by Joshua Hale Fialkov, art by Andrea Sorrentino
Vampires are to popular culture in the early 2010s as cowboys or processed cheese were in the early 1960s: ubiquitous well past the point of banality. So here we have more vampires, only this time set in the DCU, and they’ve decided to come out into the open. Apparently vampire plots are as banal as vampires. Anyway: immortality, desire, betrayal, bloodlust, superiority, blah blah blah. That said, Sorrentino’s stark and moody art is outstanding, and raises the material much higher than it deserves. Sure, it’s more than a bit reminiscent of Mignola, but he’s set the bar high for this sort of material, so fair enough. She’s a rising star, and deserves more exposure, and better story material to work with. I’d love to see her on some of the other dark/magic DC titles. Recommendation: Pass.
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Justice League Dark #1 – Written by Peter Milligan, art by Mikel Janin
Here’s where things get complicated. Take the dark magic of some Vertigo characters (most notably John Constantine) and blend it with the relatively primary colors of the mainline DCU. The result is uneven but definitely intriguing. Milligan wisely foregrounds the weirdness and horror of magic (even to the likes of Superman and Wonder Woman), keeping the stakes clear and high. The mysterious and terrifying images and plot points here (a massively multiplied amnesiac woman, a raging storm of Enchantress’ teeth. Yes: teeth) keep the events moving briskly. It’ll be interesting to see how the component parts of this odd Justice League come together over this arc, but Milligan generally has a good grasp on team dynamics (e.g., X-Statix at Marvel). Janin’s art bridges the gap between these worlds effectively, leaking the nightmares into otherwise normal-looking scenes. Recommendation: Pull.
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The Savage Hawkman #1 – Written by Tony S. Daniel, art by Philip Tan
Like Aquaman, Hawkman’s a perpetual second-line hero. His unique properties are intriguing, but not enough to keep him consistently in the A list. However, over the years a rich (though convoluted) backstory has developed around him, which has made him more interesting, but has also kept him more on the margins than others. This reboot strips away a good chunk of this backstory and restores the mystery around him. The “Savage” in the new title is also meant to raise the character’s stakes: think Wolverine or even Hulk, rather than the stoic warrior of the past. Tony Daniel’s story is all physical and emotional, with a lot of torment, and people shouting “RAAAARGH!” This isn’t a whole lot to go on, though there’s a leanness about it that’s not totally unappealing. Philip Tan’s expressive lines (coupled with Sunny Gho’s painterly coloring) is well-suited to this tone. Still, that’s not enough to make this a compelling read. I’ll prefer Hawkman as a role player in the Justice League. Recommendation: Pass.
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Superman#1 – Written by George Perez, art by George Perez and Jesus Merino
As Grant Morrison showed in Action Comics, you can’t go too wrong with the classic notes in relaunching Superman. Here, this comes via George Perez and Jesus Perino. This is a dense script; there’s much more dialogue and action here than in the standard decompressed 21st century style of quiet panels and simmering gazes.This is talky, noisy, old-school action, with the requisite big throwdown with a giant monster, but also a huge and complex story of the role of journalism and the fate of the Daily Planet. There’s more than one hero here. Perino’s art, following Perez’ lead, is well up to the task, loaded with expressive faces, actions and textures. Bold and dynamic but also very much the classic, ideal Superman that we hoped for. Recommendation: Pull.
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Teen Titans #1 – Written by Scott Lobdell, art by Brett Booth
Another legendary DCU team, though even more change coming. In the boldest relaunch of this team since 1980, Scott Lobdell offers up both new characters (or at least points to them showing up soon) and new versions of old favorites. Only Tim Drake’s Red Robin seems close to the character left behind in the old DCU, with Kid Flash, Superboy and Wonder Girl more emotional and unstable than before. Unfortunately, all this energy takes the whole thing off the rails, with Drake chest-deep in international metahuman intrigue already, and Cassie Sandsmark (i.e., Wonder Girl) hamming it up as a larcenous schizophrenic with expensive and dangerous tastes. Brett Booth’s meaty, exaggerated art is a good vehicle for this material, but the book as a whole comes across as too energetic and chaotic, like a 15 year-old after a couple of energy drinks. If you’re already pegging the action meter at the start, where can you go? Recommendation: Pass.
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Voodoo #1 – Written by Ron Marz, art by Sami Basri
The last of the controversial books of the new 52 which have led many to wonder how the men at DC relate to actual women. The eponymous character is a mysterious stripper who happens to be a mysterious and dangerous shape-shifting alien. While there’s a lot to applaud about the mystery in general (we can’t tell where this story might be going, what/who she really is, or whether or not she’s even “good”), it’s unfortunately rendered under a thick layer of unapologetic cheesecake. Most of the book is set in a strip club, resulting in a whole lot of flesh and leering looks (e.g., no less than 30 panels of cleavage). It could be argued that we’re meant to feel shame (like the title’s only interesting character, Fallon), but the environment is rendered so meticulously and seductively that any ambiguity is drowned out. Worse, the book culminates this display with graphic, bloody violence (though directed at the smug male agent pursuing Voodoo). There’s certainly room for all sorts of depictions of women in comics, and it has to be said that Sami Basri’s art is legitimately gorgeous in that regard. I defend DC’s right to publish this, and fans to read it. It’s just that this is yet another wasted opportunity to change the discussion, to broaden the landscape of representation, to offer something significant. Instead, like too much in comics these days (see for example the entire ouput of Zenescope), its particular mashup of fantasy sex and fantasy violence functions largely to stimulate straight pubescent fanboys. Comics should aspire for more. Recommendation: Pass.
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