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.

DC’s New 52: Week 3

Wonder Woman #1, art by Cliff ChiangFalling behind a bit, but such is academic life. We’re deep in the run of second issues already, but here are my thoughts on Week 3 of the relaunch, with far and away the most controversial of the new books. Week 4 will follow shortly.

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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Batman #1 – Written by Scott Snyder, art by Greg Capullo and Jonathan Glapion

This is one of the most assured books in the reboot, smoothly continuing Grant Morrison’s setup, and locating Bruce Wayne at its center. Most importantly, this isn’t a one-note brooding Batman: he’s got a dry wit and a definite soft spot for his three sons (Dick Grayson, Tim Drake, and Damian Wayne). His detection skills are on full display as well, leading to the shock climax (with repercussions with Nightwing in particular). Capullo is a good match for this style, similar to Cameron Stewart or even Kevin O’Neill, with just enough exaggeration and flourish to keep the tone fantastic rather than grim. One of the definitive cornerstones of the new era. Recommendation: Pull.

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Birds of Prey #1 – Written by Duane Swiweczynski, art by Jesus Saiz
Despite having some significant fears (no Gail Simone?!?), I found this book to be one of the most pleasant surprises of the entire batch. Swiericzynski pulls back a bit on the banter and  madcap tone that defined Simone’s run, and instead gives us a story that’s not only well-paced and action-packed, but also surprisingly grounded, with well-drawn (in every sense of the word) characters and a distinctive team vibe. Moreover, unlike a few other titles this week, this is a comic that respects women beyond their appearance. Saiz’ style is conventional but fresh: there’s no doubt Black Canary, Starling, and Katana are superheroes, but they’re defined much more by their intelligence and actions than by their cleavage. While we’re still a long, long way from gender equity in mainstream comics, Birds of Prey (alongside Batwoman and the new Wonder Woman, and so far, the new Supergirl) is a solid step in the right direction. Recommendation: Pull.
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Blue Beetle #1 – Written by Tony Bedard, art by Ig Guara and Ruy Jose
Arguably the only truly interesting character created at DC in the 2000s, Jaime Reyes was a lock to return to the DCU as Blue Beetle. All of the elements of his high school and family life in El Paso are retained, with a few subtle shifts (Brenda’s Tia Amparo now lives on the US side of the border), enabling these relationships to continue (if started from scratch again). The most significant change has to do with the Beetle scarab itself. While its powers and intentions were always a bit mysterious in the last version, here the reader is presented with the scarab as a weapon of invasion of subjugation, and a long-time foe of the Green Lanterns. Jaime doesn’t know this yet (the scarab has just infected him at the end of the issue), but his version of the “power/responsibility” superhero dynamic looks to be more challenging this go around. While this likely means this darker take won’t be as Buffy-esque in its humor as the original, it will certainly keep things intriguing if played right. Too early to commit, but the potential is there. Recommendation: Ponder.
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Captain Atom #1 – Written by J.T. Krul, art by Freddie Williams II
Oddly, one of the most forgettable of the titles, and I’m not sure why. It’s tone and remit screamed Watchmen‘s Dr. Manhattan, so much so that I’m still sure DC has something up its sleeve to actually go there. But so far it feels more derivative and less a homage to Moore and Gibbons’ character. There’s nothing wrong with the story and art; I like Williams’ new character design. There’s nothing all that remarkable about it either. I may give it one more issue to see if the Dr. Manhattan allusions go anywhere, or if Krul can successfully advance a completely different take on this idea (the near omniscient science-created super-being), but otherwise there’s nothing compelling here. Recommendation: Ponder.
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Catwoman #1 – Written by Judd Winick, art by Guillem March
I really wanted to like this. I even re-read it a few days later to give it a second shot, but nope, there’s now no doubt: this is a tragic failure. Selina Kyle was one of the five best characters in DC in the 2000s, a model superhero who worked by her own code, which often left her stuck between the more conventional battle lines. Unfortunately, this relaunch basically channels her self-esteem away from the grim determination and sheer smarts she showed in her 2000s run and towards her body. More specifically, her breasts, with many panels featuring them perilously close to spilling out of lacy D-cups. While the situations presented could be intriguing (if not so narratively confused), Winick and March rely entirely on the suggestive appearance of her body. The hugely controversial spur of the moment hook-up with Batman that closes the issue is actually narratively and thematically fine (it’s certainly happened before); it’s the execution here that’s so, so wrong, culminating in a page causing many to ponder the design of each of their costumes, and the sexual maturity of both writer and artist. Don’t even give this a look; hopefully DC will end this travesty shortly. Instead, read the fantastic run of Ed Brubaker, Darwyn Cooke and Cameron StewartRecommendation: Pass.
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DC Universe Presents #1 – Written by Paul Jenkins, art by Bernard Chang
This is a great title to resurrect, because it offers stories featuring characters that may not be enough of a draw for their own book. This is the perfect sort of short-term relationship with a title that many readers are seeking. Deadman kicks things off here, with a moody and effective first issue that introduces him to new readers, centering on his voice. Boston Brand was more or less the star of Brightest Day, and that’s the version we get here as well: sad, regretful, resigned to his fate, but also dutiful. The twist at the end is that precisely who or what he’s being dutiful for may have betrayed him. Great story, and great art from Chang. Recommendation: Pull.
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Green Lantern Corps #1 – Written by Peter J. Tomasi, art by Fernando Pasarin and Scott Hanna
Another week, another GL book. This one’s not bad for what it is, actually. Centered on the odd couple of Guy Gardner and John Stewart, GLC focuses less on threats to Earth and more on the galactic scope of the Lanterns. In this case, it’s the threat posed by an invisible baddie slicing right through Lanterns. Pretty grisly stuff in the opening pages, but done well enough for what it is. Again, I’m just underwhelmed by the entire concept of the Green Lanterns, so this book isn’t quite for me. Recommendation: Pass.
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Legion of Super-Heroes #1 – Written by Paul Levitz, art by Francis Portela
Sigh. You think there’s a lot of X-Men? There are no fewer than 16 Legionnaires featured in this issue alone. While some of them can be intriguing in doses, the overall effect is disorienting. Who are these people? What’s going on? Again, as with Legion Lost, this seems to be written exclusively for existing Legion fans and nobody else. I expected something a bit more open and pragmatic from Paul Levitz. Portela’s art is passable, but limited due to the sheer scope of settings and characters involved. Recommendation: Pass.
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Nightwing #1 – Written by Kyle Higgins, art by Eddy Barrows and J.P. Mayer
Not a radical reboot here, and more of a return, like slipping on a favorite jacket found in the back of the closet. Dick’s done with being Temp Batman, and back to being Nightwing, with a clean slate to start things off (no apparent backstory with either Barbara Gordon or Koriand’r), though he’s visiting his old circus and opening those wounds. In addition, he’s the target of a new violent assassin (a storyline that ties into the flagship Batbook). This is meat-and-potatoes stuff, competently done, with lots of interior monologues and a couple of well staged fight scenes. Its lack of grand ambition (thus far) is almost refreshing, but it may take a bit more to make it more than a passable but thoroughly inconsequential part of the DCU. Recommendation: Ponder.
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Red Hood and the Outlaws #1 – Written by Scott Lobdell, art by Kenneth Rocafort
When people who don’t read comics complain about comics, it’s issues like these that unfortunately show they might have a point. This issue embodies what way too many people working in comics apparently consider “mature” material. See, this is “grown-up” stuff precisely because the characters are violent, amoral and have emotionless sex. While all three principals (Jason Todd/Red Hood, Roy Harper/Arsenal, and Koriand’r/Starfire) have been substantial characters in the past, here they only exist to look cool and spout zingers. The most insulting thing about the much-derided bikini page isn’t as much that Starfire looks like that as it’s presented as the end-all of her character. As several reviewers and fans have noted, this approach takes the Starfire girls might have loved from the DC Animated Teen Titans (2003-06) and turns her into a sexbot. This feels cold and calculated all the way through, aiming precisely for the 15 year-old lizard brain of het masculinity. The saddest part is that both Lobdell and Rocafort are and have done better; this is beneath them. Recommendation: Pass.
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Supergirl #1 – Written by Michael Green and Mike Johnson, art by Mahmud Asrar
Supergirl was another one of the intriguing female characters potentially cut short by the reboot. While she’s certainly been controversial (particularly in the first couple years of this iteration of the character, which made her out to be a panty-flashing badass), she’s also been a good counter to Superman. Thankfully, this relaunch distills the most intriguing parts of her character (in particular the fact that she has memories of life on Krypton, and is thus much more Kryptonian than Superman), and puts us in her shiny red boots as an outsider who finds herself on our primitive world. The writing and the art complement each other well: lean and assured, keeping to the basics. She’s portrayed here as understandably disoriented, but also strong, smart and resourceful, and far from the hypersexualized fembot she could have been. One to keep an eye on. Recommendation: Pull.
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Wonder Woman #1 – Written by Brian Azzarello, art by Cliff Chiang
This is the book of the week. WW is the character that everyone wants to succeed, but whose books have always been overshadowed and underappreciated by the readership. She’s been an integral part of the action in recent years (particularly in the aftermath of her murder of Maxwell Lord), with great runs written by Greg Rucka and Gail Simone (respectively). Unfortunately, the last run, by J. Michael Straczynski, hasn’t been as assured. Thankfully, Azzarello and Chiang are well up to the task of forging a new Wonder Woman. They draw from the best of the older versions of her character, delving back in particular to the essence of Greek mythology, and present a tough, no-nonsense, decisive, no-BS heroine. The tone is one of vague supernatural menace, with moments of shocking but quiet violence, and silent panels of movement and action. This is clearly the best of the new books, with a fearless ambition and style. Highly, highly recommended. Recommendation: Pull.

Bonus: Here’s another Laura Hudson piece, with comics creators discussing the representation of women, and what can be done about it.

DC’s New 52: Week 2

Week two of the new DCU sees a wealth of titles in the “Dark” and “Edge” categories, including a fair number of previously obscure characters now headlining books, as well as more relaunches of A-list books and characters.

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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Batman & Robin #1 – Written by Peter Tomasi, art by Patrick Gleason and Mick Gray
Excellent recap of the Bruce-Damian relationship to set the scene (including how they even fight differently), emphasizing the father-son dynamic. As has been the case with Damian ever since his introduction, however, it remains unclear how he’ll develop as a character. His ice-cold pre-pubescent assassin persona was intriguing on first glance a couple years back, but is now seemingly stuck. That said, there’s a great intro to a new, invisible and ruthless villain, who takes out the Russian Batman and apparently has an issue with the whole Batman Inc. concept. Appropriately moody artwork from Gleason as well, including a clichéd but appropriate call-out to the ur-moment of Bruce Wayne’s inspiration to become Batman. Recommendation: Pull.

Batwoman #1 – Written by J.H. Williams III, art by J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman
Finally. After two years of teases and promises, the stand-alone Batwoman series has arrived. As expected, Williams’ jaw-dropping art is the star attraction here, and fulfills the promise of his 2009 Detective Comics run with Greg Rucka. Visually, this is quite simply one of the boldest, most innovative comics produced today, regardless of genre. Williams’ meticulous and poetic layouts are the sort of thing that no other medium can do. His writing is also up to the task, especially given all the necessary re-introductions to Kate’s world. There’s a nice exposition dump, one of the best in the relaunches,  in a two-page spread to catch people up to the tension between Kate, her father, and her mysterious (and presumed dead) twin sister, aka the villain Alice. Kate and Batwoman just look right throughout, with Williams’ interpretation likely being definitive in a way few characters are today (I’m talking Ditko-Spider-Man, Kirby-Thing, Adams-Batman definitive). The smart use of a second artist, W. Haden Blackman, for flashbacks, was also an effective way to share the burden and give stylistic motivation for the change. That said, the coloring’s off a smidge on a few pages; does Kate have to look as pale as Miss Goth Universe? Still, there’s no denying the immense appeal of this character and title. The new, chilling storyline involving missing and drowned children is also a compelling plot to kick things off. Recommendation: Pull.

Deathstroke #1 – Written by Kyle Higgins, art by Joe Bennet
Frankly, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this one, as scowling, badass mercenary assassins are generally about as interesting to me as Egg McMuffins. However, the verve  and malicious pleasure expressed in this title surprised me. Slade Wilson, aka Deathstroke, is a textbook scowling badass mercenary assassin (albeit with metahuman strength, stamina, refelexes and intellect), but overall the tone here is much less Punisher and more James Bond film as done by Robert Rodriguez: swaggering, excessive, stylish, and just campy enough to sell it. Oh, and incredibly, even shockingly, violent. This semi stand-alone intro sets up the character perfectly, with sparse dialogue and Joe Bennet’s bold, assertive lines (this is the sort of muscular art Liefeld thinks he produces, but actually doesn’t even approach). Intriguing, and worth keeping an eye on. Recommendation: Ponder.

Demon Knights #1 – Written by Paul Cornell, art by Diogenes Neves
A refreshing break from DC’s usual contemporary urban thriller sensibility, the Demon Knights are basically the Magnificent Seven as itinerant magical misfits in the Dark Ages. Cornell places these cult, but underused characters together in a pub, as a marauding army just happens to invade. The result is sheer fun above all, with a dash of nasty violence (especially the opening scene) as the baddies (the Horde) attacks, and the Knights introduce themselves, bicker, and fight. Great character moments abound (like when it’s revealed that Lady Xanadu is cheating on her partner Jason Blood, with his alter-ego, the demon Etrigan), keeping things at a constant pace. DC’s track record with its magical teams isn’t great (remember Shadowpact?), but there’s certainly enough here for everyone, and lots of potential stories to tell. Recommendation: Pull.

Frankenstein and the Agents of S.H.A.D.E. #1 – Written by Jeff Lemire, art by Alberto Ponticelli
DC needed to go out on some limbs in the reboot, and this title is great example of how that can pay off. The title character is indeed the monster of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, a sad, noble, smart and dutiful gentleman who just happens to be cobbled together from several corpses. He’s teamed here with an amalgam of mad DCU science (provided by Ray Palmer, aka The Atom), dubious science, some classic horror icons (a vampire, a werewolf, a mummy, and even an amphibian monster), and a bossy Father Time in the body of an eight year old schoolgirl. Totally bonkers, but considerably more interesting than most of the new 52. Lemire’s touch is just right for this material, knowing when to lay it on, and when to back off, as he’s proven already with Sweet Tooth and the new Animal Man. Ponticelli’s art is also right on the mark, its wobbly lines and slightly chaotic feel perfectly matching the book’s monstrous tone. Again, DC has a history of not supporting this sort of thing for long, but hopefully readers will stick with it for a while. Recommendation: Pull.

Green Lantern #1 – Written by Geoff Johns, art by Doug Mahnke and Christian Alamy
The Green Lantern books and mythos have become to DC what the X-Men and (more recently) Avengers have been to Marvel, with multiplying characters and titles, and an overarching influence on the entire line. Indeed, Johns’ ascension at DC is directly related to the sales success of his Lantern titles and the Lantern-themed mega-events, Blackest Night and Brightest Day. However, their gaudy amalgam of space opera and superheroics are also arguably the most weathered of Silver Age tropes. While Johns, to his credit, has deepened and varied this universe and its characters, the whole concept of cosmic policemen with power rings still feels more 1960 than timeless (in the sense of Superman and Batman). Moreover, they’re insular, full of continuity, and not especially welcoming to outsiders. Accordingly, it’s not a good sign that they decided to relaunch the flagship Lantern title by focusing on Sinestro’s reluctant acceptance of the green power ring, and Hal Jordan’s seeming transformation into Harvey Pekar. Again, both Johns and Mahnke deliver the goods, but they’re rote by now, and sadly exactly the sort of thing people who are afraid of comics think all comics are filled with. Recommendation: Pass.

Grifter #1 – Written by Nathan Edmondson, art by Cafu
Grifter is another one of the imported Wildstorm characters, which ideally should deliver on the promise to shake things up in the DCU. In this case, however, there’s not much of interest to go on. Cole Cash (seriously?) is a con artist who finds himself confronted by otherwise invisible malevolent beings and decides to adopt a mask to go after them. The characters are passive throughout this book, as stuff just happens to them, and they react. The situation and dialogue are surprisingly stilted for such an outlandish concept; even a mid-air escape comes across as dull and matter-of-fact. The characters are ciphers,  with Cash in particular badly channeling Lost‘s Sawyer. That said, Cafu’s art is impressive, if a bit standard, adding some dimension to an otherwise dull title. Recommendation: Pass.

Legion Lost #1 – Written by Fabian Nicieza, art by Pete Woods
The Legion of Superheroes is another Silver Age remnant of the DCU, a complicated futuristic space opera that appeals to its diehard fans and precisely nobody else. The concept and characters aren’t without appeal in principle. However, it’s become so bloated and contradictory over the years, with incompatible timelines and dozens of characters, that it’s difficult to jump in and expect to follow. Sadly, Legion Lost replicates exactly those problems. It feels like issue 7 or 31 or 74 of an ongoing series, rather than issue 1. While I appreciate the attempt to open in media res, this is not the way to do it. The only way to have a clue about who these characters are or what they’re doing is to have a pretty solid working knowledge of the Legion mythology. Without it, the reader’s just as lost as the title characters. Recommendation: Pass.

Mr. Terrific #1 – Written by Eric Wallace, art by Gianluca Gugliotta
As a sometimes fan of the 2000s JSA, I had high hopes for this title. Sadly, however, this is one of the worst of the relaunches. Michael Holt may well be the “third-smartest person on the planet,” but as he’s portrayed here, he’s likely also the third least-interesting person on the planet. While his character has a backstory, he’s so perfect and pure that it negates any internal drama. Perhaps he only works in the context of a diverse and  not always agreeable team like the JSA. On his own…yawn. The only interesting thing that happens in the book is via a new villain’s mind-control manipulations, but even this lacks texture. Gugliotta’s art is also substandard, aping the general conventions of the day without differentiating it in an interesting way. Worse, it tries to pass a generic US city skyline off as “London.” I appreciate the attempt at diversity by giving Mr. Terrific his own book, but this is a huge missed opportunity. Recommendation: Pass.

Red Lanterns #1 – Written by Peter Milligan, art by Ed Benes
The good news is that the lineup on this book is rock-solid. The bad news is that the concept isn’t all that interesting. The Red Lanterns (fueled by rage) were intriguing when introduced a few years back, but by now the idea’s overexposed. Turns out that perpetually angry, hyper-violent space soldiers who literally spit blood gets old fast. I’ll grant the Red Lanterns have a solid fan base, but that says more about the state of comics fandom than anything else (again, Green Lantern continues to be a drag on creativity). For all too many comics fans and creators, the stylized hyperviolence ushered in by Image in the 1990s has become equated with comics in general. For the rest of us, it’s as if Jersey Shore knockoffs dominated prime time TV. Fine in its own niche, but utterly boring in its ubiquity. That said, Milligan and Benes gamely give it their best, wringing every bit of quality from this one-dimensional concept. As an introduction, it’s actually quite good. Hats off to Milligan in particular for giving Atrocicus a bit more texture. It’s just that there’s nowhere all that interesting to go from here. Recommendation: Pass.

Resurrection Man #1 – Written by Dan Abnett, art by Andy Lanning
This is another attempt to pluck a character from obscurity into the spotlight, and graft a bit of Vertigo grit onto the DCU. In this case, it mostly works. Our title character (aka Mitch Shelly) is sort of the Captain Jack Harkness of comics: every time he dies, he comes right back to life. The twist is that each time this happens, his powers change completely. He must relearn what he is with every new life. It’s sort of a Stephen King kind of character and setting, and it works well, with grim scenarios and soul-stealing demons on his tail. Andy Lanning gives it the right amount of exaggeration and mystery, reminiscent of the best horror comics. It’s a perfect inclusion for the new “Dark” line, and there’s a lot of potential. That said, it could also turn into The Fugitive or The Incredible Hulk TV series if Abnett et al aren’t careful. Recommendation: Ponder.

Suicide Squad #1 – Written by Adam Glass, art by Federico Dallochio
The concept of supervillains forced to perform dangerous missions of dubious legality or ethics by a top secret government agency is still pretty damn cool. DC’s gotten fair mileage out of it for many years. Adam Glass dives even deeper into the concept with this iteration, amping up the violence and hard-core personas of the squad members. This works OK in principle, particularly as the characters are nicely varied (including the likes of Deadshot, Harley Quinn, King Shark, and a couple of intriguing new baddies). That said, its tone is a bit too cruel and unfunny. Those looking for something like the depraved but deep characters, zany madcap plots and fantastic dialogue of Secret Six will have to look elsewhere, unfortunately. Suicide Squad is potentially an intriguing title, but it’s going to have to find more secure footing first. Recommendation: Pass.

Superboy #1 – Written by Scott Lobdell, art by R.B. Silva
Another reboot of another almost-A-lister, Superboy mostly goes along with the origins of the last version of the character (Conner Kent), as an attempted Superman clone. Given the still unfolding narratives of this new continuity, the exact origins of this Superboy are still a mystery, though it’s firmly hinted that he’s a fusion of Kryptonian and human DNA (apparently via one of the scientists who developed Superboy, Caitlin Fairchild, another imported Wildstorm character). While it didn’t strive too far from the rough path established by the last version, it’s clear that he could still be an intriguing character, as an unstable biotech hybrid with uncertain ethics. Lobdell’s busy script ably introduced key characters and concepts, kicking off the title well. There’s certainly potential to fold him into the overarching continuity in interesting ways, but there’s also an equal likelihood that he could simply replicate what came before last time out. Recommendation: Ponder.

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DC’s New 52: Week 1

Week 1 of the “new” DCU has come and gone. Here’s some brief observations on each title; I could say much more about each, but I do actually have other work to get to. While it’s usually not my purpose here to be an evaluative critic, this event demands that sort of reaction. In other words, as is typical in regards to not only comics but every other form of media in our infoverse (music and television in particular), if something happens on this scale, it’s helpful to get some context, even if only to determine whether or not it’s worth your time and money.

In order to make this even clearer, I’ve indicated my thoughts on each title at the end of each review:

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

Action Comics #1 – written by Grant Morrison, art by Rags Morales

One of the two most controversial relaunches, this takes us right back to the ur-moment of the entire DC Universe: the beginning of Superman. Morrison is the perfect choice for this task, steeped as he is in superhero mythology and lore, but always with a more meta sense of genre and medium. Here, in an arc set roughly six years back in the new continuity, Superman is a freakish mystery figure picking fights with crime lords and protecting the powerless. This is a deliberate revival of the original 1938 Superman,who had an attitude, and a stronger sense of social justice. Given the similar economic and social times, this Superman seems appropriate. However, he’s also clearly just starting out: his “uniform” is a beat-up t-shirt, jeans, work boots, and (nicely incongruous) a short red cape. Clark Kent is a dirt-poor struggling social activist journalist; he hasn’t even met Lois Lane yet. Lots of familiar landmarks, of course, but bracing nonetheless (and all without having to go all the way back to Krypton, Smallville and the Kents, which we’ve seen umpteen times in recent years). Rags Morales’ art is a great compliment to this style, being classic (in a Neal Adams or George Perez way) without being an overt rehash. Recommendation: Pull

Animal Man #1 – written by Jeff Lemire, art by Travel Foreman and Dan Green

A-Man’s Vertigo run was legendary, though he’s not been much in the mainline DCU for a while (a great run in 52 nothwithstanding). As many of the Vertigo and Wildstorm characters are now fully part of the DCU, the trick is to maintain that slight edginess while keeping it stylistically consistent. Lemire (currently writing the acclaimed Vertigo post-apocalyptic oddity Sweet Tooth) has a great grasp on this challenge, balancing conventional superheroics and Vertigo weirdness. There’s a deliberate resonance with Alan Moore’s Watchmen (the first page, a mock magazine interview, in particular), and some nice, vaguely David Lynchian moments as well (the last page, which pegs high on the weirdometer). Moreover, there’s an intriguing cast of characters (Buddy Baker’s family), and a compelling serial pull already. Really looking forward to seeing where this is going. Recommendation: Pull

Batgirl #1 – written by Gail Simone, art by Adrian Syaf and Vicente Cifuentes

This is arguably the toughest relaunch of the entire line. While the wider public might remember Barbara Gordon as the original Batgirl, in the DCU for the last 20 years she’s instead been Oracle: paralyzed after the Joker’s assault (in Alan Moore’s classic The Killing Joke) and limited to a wheelchair, but functioning as the strategic and technological leader of the Birds of Prey (alongside her “soldiers” Black Canary, Huntress, Zinda Blake and others). She was the smartest, most powerful woman in the DCU, and didn’t need a spandex costume to prove it. In addition, her successors as Batgirl, Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown, had become compelling, popular characters in their own right. In a case of well-intentioned misfiring, DC has opted to bring Barbara Gordon back to Batgirl (the other two characters are rumored to be “out there” in the DCU ready to be reintroduced, however). Awkwardly, the events of The Killing Joke happened in this relaunch: Barbara was paralyzed for three years, but “miraculously” recovered (i.e., probably as one of the many side effects of the Flash’s universe-reconfiguring run in Flashpoint #5). So, we’ve got a powerful differently abled character “saved” from the wheelchair and reintroduced as a smart young hottie in spandex. Oof. That said, Gail Simone is hands-down the best writer to take on this task, having written Oracle for many years in BoP. While the narrative box will unfortunately be tighter than what she was able to do on BoP (and the deliciously twisted and criminally underrated Secret Six), I’ve no doubt she’ll invest the character and title with as much as she can under the circumstances. As a clean start, it’s not bad, with Babs as a kind of Veronica Mars with a cape. It’ll ultimately succeed on how much it can escape the shadow of this mourned past. Recommendation: Ponder

Batwing #1 – written by Judd Winick, art by Ben Oliver

One of the most intriguing characters to emerge from the past year’s Batman Inc. storyline (as Bruce Wayne/Batman mentored and bankrolled similar heroes across the planet), Batwing takes the idea of Batman to central Africa. The main character’s (David Zamvimbi) alter ego is a police detective, and this provides a great narrative perspective. This is also an Africa that’s based on real situations (e.g., child soldiers, warlords, stressed states), but also firmly in the DCU (with superheroes and villains). This setting alone is intriguing, and a great change from the usual Gotham City/Metropolis/outer space DC locales, although it does share Gotham’s penchant for gruesome, bloody villains, apparently.  Judd Winick’s always had a great ear for crunchier dialogue and intrigue, and is well-suited for this title. That said, Ben Oliver’s gorgeous and terrifying art is the star attraction; this is one of the best-looking and compelling of the new books. That said, occasional incoherence (the uncanny valley of photorealistic, Alex Ross-ish comic art) crops up in places, but I’d expect that to subside down the line. Recommendation: Pull

Detective Comics #1 – written by Tony Daniel, art by Tony Daniel

This is the Coke Classic of the reboot, with a violent, down and dirty Batman vs. Joker first course to set the tone, but leading to a larger menace (as the jaw-dropping last two pages indicate). We’ve certainly been here before, but if there’s one thing the last few decades of DC has shown, it’s really hard to go wrong with Batman snooping around at night and busting the bad guys. No revamp necessary; everybody gets Batman by now. If you’ve read just about any post-Dark Knight Returns Batman story, this is tasty comfort food. Fantastic Tony Daniel art as well (love the early two-page spread of the Gotham skyline in particular), but I’m guessing he won’t be able to keep up with both writing and pencilling the title for long. Recommendation: Pull

Green Arrow #1 – written by J.T. Krul, art by Dan Jurgens and George Perez

Green Arrow (aka Oliver Queen) has long been a cult favorite of DC fans, the snarky wiseass with a proudly bleeding heart, a taste for a fight, and a stormy relationship with Dinah Lance (Black Canary). He was still a fun character in Judd Winick’s mid-00s run, but has gotten less interesting with each readjustment. They went with a full-on reboot, the most jarring of any of DC’s front line (then again, we haven’t gotten to Wonder Woman yet…). After being a 40something cranky liberal playboy for decades, Ollie’s now a 25 year-old cocky idealist tech wunderkind, with a small support team and HQ. The overall tone is reminiscent of a 1990s syndicated action series, full of action poses, flashing computers, and pious moralizing. On top of that, Jurgens and Perez’ art, while certainly up to their usual high standards, is sadly unadventurous, standard superhero style. Nothing wrong with the book, but nothing all that interesting either. Recommendation: Pass

Hawk and Dove #1 – written by Sterling Gates, art by Rob Liefeld

I’ve never understood the appeal of these gimmicky one-dimensional 1970s characters, but some fans love ’em. Hawk is all anger and aggression, while Dove just wants to solve problems and keep the peace. Get it?  This reboot delivers standard action set pieces and typical first-issue exposition. As with Green Arrow, the story isn’t taking any apparent chances, or detours from usual superhero drama and shenanigans. The two diversions it does make (both concerning Dove) actually require some knowledge of previous continuity to register in any significant way. Rob Liefeld’s art is notoriously polarizing: while some hailed him as a maverick and genius in the 1980s and 1990s, others despised his spiky, overbearing style. I’m in the latter camp, and this issue did nothing to sway me: everyone’s jagged and grimacing, as if constantly constipated. You really don’t want to see that in comics, or anywhere. Recommendation: Pass

Justice League International #1 – written by Dan Jurgens, art by Aaron Lopresti and Matt Ryan

This is one DC’s greatest concepts of the past 25 years, and was ripe to revive. This has a great pedigree, as Jurgens has been writing and drawing many of these characters off and on for years. There’s lots of potential for ensemble drama and comedy, as it was in its “bwah-ha-ha” heyday under J.M. DeMatteis and Keith Giffen in the 1980s and 1990s. That said, this version is relatively straight-up so far, with a more serious Booster Gold and Guy Gardner facing off. The story and style aren’t pushing any envelopes, but at least they’re going more interesting places than either Green Arrow or Hawk & Dove. That said, new character Godiva adds some spicy wisecracking, as does Rocket Red (though they need to keep a leash on his Yakov Smirnoff dialogue). As a team book that’s not exactly Justice League, this might fit the bill. Recommendation: Ponder

Men of War #1 – written by Ivan Brandon, art by Tom Derenick; backup feature written by Jonathan Vankin, art by Phil Winslade

This was certainly an intriguing concept, updating the classic WWII-era Sgt. Rock war comic to a contemporary, DCU setting. However, it feels surprisingly satisfied with knocking off Call Of Duty videogame cliches (e.g., lots of callout boxes explaining acronyms, as if the reader just pushed the “menu” button on their controller), instead of engaging more with possibilities at a narrative and meta level. After the compelling accounts of war in Vertigo’s DMZ and the Unknown Soldier, as well as many indie works of the past decade, and some revealing graphic journalism, this feels like a retrograde step that avoids controversy in favor of mundane soldier stuff. The title should have been a dead giveaway in this regard, I suppose. On top of that, the art is even fairly pedestrian as well, aiming for Joe Kubert-level pathos, but not getting there. Recommendation: Pass

OMAC #1 – story and art by Dan DiDio and Keith Giffen

Speaking of emulating the masters, here’s some rehashed Jack Kirby. This is the weakest of the books so far, attempting to revive this Kirby character and milieu in a full-on replication of Kirby’s art and sensibility. In the wake of the Kirby estate’s ongoing lawsuit against Marvel, it’s probably not the best idea they could’ve gone with. Longtime DC writers and editors DiDio and Giffen loves them some Kirby, and they’re clearly having fun with running with this concept. However, it feels a bit much like this was funnier and more exciting for them than for us. If we want Kirby-esque action, we can go back and read some actual Kirby, rather than an odd homage (or even the brilliantly nuts Gødland). Recommendation: Pass

Static Shock #1 – written by Scott McDaniel and John Rozum, art by Scott McDaniel, Jonathan Glapion and LeBeau Underwood

This is more what this reboot should have been doing: focusing on interesting, underutilized (and unburdened by too much continuity) characters. In this case, Static is one of the handful of great and much-missed African-American Milestone characters introduced in the mid 1990s and then sadly ignored for many years. Unlike the rest of those characters, Static’s had a somewhat wider media life, including a DC Animated series, and has been popular enough to surface every now and then. Hopefully this title can be a launchpad for other Milestone characters (Hardware looks to be a regular, for one), because it does exactly what it should do: lots of action (propelled by McDaniel’s dynamic layouts and expressive pencils), and just enough serial intrigue to hook new readers. Nothing paradigm-shattering, but certainly satisfying superhero drama and action. If anything, it feels a bit like DC’s answer to Bendis and Bagley’s Ultimate Spider-Man, which is not a bad place to start. Recommendation: Pull

Stormwatch #1 – written by Paul Cornell, art by Miguel Sepulveda

One of the boldest of the new titles, by one of the boldest comics writers today, Stormwatch folds the cult Wildstorm team into the DCU, and it’s a perfect fit. While the team was essentially the Wildstorm universe’s Justice League, here they’re more like the Torchwood of superhero teams: secretly protecting humanity from all sorts of magical and extra-terrestrial threats for centuries. Cornell elegantly introduces the team and starts unfolding the story in witty and intriguing scenes as some of them track down and recruit a new member (with a nice shout-out to real people slash fiction), and others investigate mysteries in the Himalayas and on the moon that look to be setting something big indeed for the whole DCU. Martian Manhunter, always one of the oddest ducks of the JLA, is a perfect addition to this motley crew. And Apollo and Midnighter? Still comics’ top gay superhero couple, and here we see them meet for the first time. My favorite new book thus far. Recommendation: Pull

Swamp Thing #1  – written by Scott Snyder, art by Yanick Paquette

This reboot was planned to come out of Brightest Day, but was pushed back to be part of the new 52 relaunch. While those initial scars are still there (including probably a bit too much continuity and fanwank for a first issue), this looks to be one of the more thought-provoking and challenging of the new books, as befits the character’s legacy. Alec Holland’s not quite sure about this “swamp thing” figure in this first issue, but is haunted by foreboding nightmares about plants. This is as good a place as any to set this series in motion again, though dragging in Batman, Superman and Aquaman from the get-go is a bit much. Still, Snyder’s given Holland an interesting voice, and Paquette’s meticulous artwork is gaudy and gorgeous; the layout alone in the last several pages is reason enough to give this a shot. Not a knockout debut, but certainly compelling enough to continue. Recommendation: Pull

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Why comics and media studies?

The Spring 2011 issue of Cinema Journal (50.3) featured a series of essays pondering the place of comics in media studies. While there’s no shortage of “why comics?” pieces in other places, these articles are aimed at film and media studies, and attempt to make the case directly in one of the field’s most prominent journals. Each of the contributors has at least one foot in the “traditional” purview of film and media studies, but has also researches, written and taught extensively on comics. Collectively, they make a compelling case for including comics in film and media studies, but also recognize the unique qualities of the medium that keep it in a permanent liminal state between various disciplines and modes of analysis. However, as with film, television, video and digital media, this uncertain state should be regarded as even more justification for its study as a form of “media.”

Each piece situates particular questions about comics at these practical and formal junctures, and they’re all well worth a read. Greg Smith’s search for pragmatic comics pedagogy and scholarship is especially resonant for any television scholar, where similar issues of the parameters of the text have long been debated. The most important thing is that we keep doing”comics studies,” regardless of field or approach. Comics have always been a poorly understood and relatively fragile medium (particularly and somewhat peculiarly in the Anglophone world), and the least we could do is expand the former so that we bolster the latter. While I agree with Bart Beaty, that it may be too tempting to make a direct analogy between comics studies now and film studies in the 1960s, at least film, and other media, offer models of not only scholarship but discipline-building that comics scholars can and should examine (while certainly not expecting to copy).

There’s never a bad time to start reading and studying comics. UK comedian/TV host/writer/comics superfan Jonathan Ross has a particularly nice justification along these very lines. That said, right now is particularly great moment to start. Finding a “jumping-on” point has never been easier, with decades of work from dozens of publishers in print and increasingly available on digital platforms. As DVD distribution has opened up exposure to decades of film and television, the last decade has seen a similar explosion of older works (especially newspaper strips) being restored and reprinted. Moreover, comics criticism is plentiful as well these days. Aside from the copious news from The Beat, Bleeding Cool, CBR and Newsarama, great commentary and reviews can be found at CBR (here and here), The AV Club, and at Douglas Wolk’s weekly round-up. If you like your comics criticism a bit tweedier and crunchier (leaning more R. Crumb than J. Kirby), try the Comics Journal.

In addition, at least one publisher has boldly proclaimed “START HERE” with its entire line-up, as DC Comics “new 52” reboot kicks into gear this week. Last week saw the pivot point between the old and new continuities (in one two-page splash panel in Flashpoint 5, below), and the launch of the new Justice League. I’m going all in on all 52 titles for at least their debuts, and I’ll report back here each week with some thoughts about them, and what the whole endeavor augurs for comics, and for its place in media studies.

Flashpoint 5 splash pages

Comics, History, TV, Politics and other Things We Used To Take For Granted: dkompare vs. 2011-12

While this blog hasn’t seen anything new for quite a while, I’m still here. It’s been a busy 2011, albeit one that has missed this outlet thus far. A new school year always means a new chance to embark on new projects, or re-embark on old ones. So here we are.

As you can see from the lack of new CSI reviews, my interest in writing granular single-episode criticism more or less vanished. While I certainly respect the diligence of the many critics currently writing in this form, and enjoy reading their work, I’ve found it difficult to maintain engagement at that level. I’m admittedly even finding it difficult to maintain engagement in even watching television (not just CSI) at that pace anymore, let alone writing about it. So what you’l mostly find here instead this year, in the interest of more consistent output, is a wider, big-picture scope.

One of the areas I’m going to address more directly this year is comics. While my film and TV viewing is still in flux, I’ve returned this year to the relative pleasures of “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer,” as Scott McCloud put it in his famous definition in Understanding Comics. More specifically, I’ve returned to the medium’s traditional place on paper. While I’m certainly intrigued by the aesthetic, cultural and industrial possibilities of digital comics, I appreciate the particular, irreplaceable qualities of ink on paper. Just as some insist on the primacy of film as a “big screen” event, I’m still quite attached to actually holding comics in my hands. That said, I’m much less medium-phobic about the written word, which might as well be digital.

My renewed interest in comics is broad, taking in the form in its many iterations. While I considered abandoning superheroes entirely after years of disappointing and redundant mega-events, I’ve decided they’re still a fascinating component of the medium, and popular culture more broadly. Still, “capes” are only a sliver of all that’s out there in comics; imagine if the full extent of television studies was the traditional multi-camera sitcom. We–and I include myself in this admonition–have neglected the range of comics for much too long. The recent Cinema Journal In-Focus essays on comics’ place in media studies reiterated the importance of both broadening and deepening our understanding of the medium. So there will be a major emphasis on comics this year, beginning with some thoughts on the issues brought up in CJ, followed by an examination of DC’s controversial “new 52” reboot of its entire universe.

Beyond comics, I’m continually interested in what I like to call Things We Used to Take For Granted, like cable TV subscriptions, blockbuster movies and pop stars. These and similar practices and concepts have been shifting for quite a while, but I suspect the next 5-10 years will see some significant changes as creators, consumers and industries adapt to new circumstances. To take one example, we cancelled our cable subscription in April, so these four months have been a relative terra incognita for this TV scholar, who’s frankly never gone without it. It’s compelled us to explore alternatives to the expectations that “cable TV” has long promised, a journey I highly recommend (not least of which because it will save you $50-100 a month).

Additionally, lest you think everything’s all new and shiny here, you’ll see a renewed commitment to history. At the risk of sounding too much like those stodgy commenters in articles on digital humanities in the Chronicle of Higher Education, in our rush to do more, faster, and probably with fewer resources, we run the increasing risk of neglecting our histories. In this new era of the thoroughly “digital generation” (born since 1993), my primary concern in this regard is for my students, and particularly the coming generation of media scholars. As I stated in my reflections on the field of media studies at last spring’s SCMS conference, all of us are stewards of scholarship, and of the very idea of higher education. While we should of course continue to explore the ramifications and qualities of “the digital” and new technologies in media and in our lives, we shouldn’t sacrifice our understanding of the past. Sometimes I fear that access to the past will become another one of those Things We Used to Take For Granted, and that we’ll lose it entirely if we’re not careful.

Finally, a word about politics. In case you haven’t noticed yet, these are trying times. They’re certainly the most trying times in my forty-odd years of existence. Moreover, the scope and depth of the issues we face are catastrophically ill-served by what passes for context and understanding in what’s left of the news business (that Thing We Used to Take for Granted as “journalism”). The only thing more disappointing? The deepening inefficacy of the political class, which in this country at least, now runs the gamut from timid corporate apologist on the “left” to bellowing apocalyptic fascist on the “right,” with a grotesque array of slick operators and tea-stained brownshirts in between. The events of the last decade (and particularly of the last three years) have convinced me the problems we face are far, far beyond any party affiliation, nationality, religion, gender, or category of identity. The good news is that the tools to deal with them are right in front of us. So, while you might not expect such commentary from a media scholar’s blog, it’s all connected; indulge me.

So: welcome to 2011-12! I’ll be right back. In the meantime, check out the discussion I had with Alex Juhasz and Jay Bushman about the contentious concept of the “acafan” (i.e., the academic who also self-identifies as a fan…and/or vice versa) over on Henry Jenkins’ blog. I haven’t yet caught up with the other discussions in this ambitious summer series, but I’ll offer some extended thoughts on them here as soon as I do.

"I wear a lanyard now. Lanyards are cool."

The 2009 Frames All-Star Team

As 2009 dawns, I thought I’d recognize all that made my 2008 bearable (and occasionally inspiring). Since my year divides roughly into two seasons — college football, and the rest of the year — I’ve decided to name an all-star team. These were my MVPs, on both sides of the ball.

OFFENSE

QB – Barack Obama – For keeping cool in the pocket, and methodically moving the ball downfield. That said, under the circumstances, winning this election was comparatively easy compared to the real task at hand. Keep cool, Mr. President.

RB – Ben and Rose Kompare – To be honest they drive me a fair way up the wall most days, draining between 60 and 80 percent of my energy and attention. However, they keep right on moving forward, and remind me what it’s all about.

RB – Heath Ledger (RIP) as The Joker – Full disclosure: we just saw The Dark Knight a few days ago (life with little ones = summer movies in winter on DVD).  I was literally haunted by this performance, dreaming of the Joker after seeing the film. The rest of the production was also compelling, but Ledger’s Joker was on another plane, taking a well-worn character that’s been around for over six decades and making him exactly of the moment. One could easily imagine that weird, uber-smart, misanthropic and vaguely scary guy you knew in high school or college showing up like this, and meaning it, a decade or so on.

WR – everybody involved in Battlestar GalacticaThey’re all done with it, having wrapped production a few months back, but we’re still to see the last ten-plus hours of this existential saga. Even when they get a bit sloppy, as with the shaky Mutiny on the Bounty arc, it’s compelling (like, say, Miles Davis on an off night). Like the best receivers, they go deep, and make things happen. Bring home the cat, guys.

WR – Henry Jenkins – The very model of a 21st century media scholar, and a helluva person in his own right. Consistently pushing, never staying put, and generously bringing us all along. And in 2009, he’s literally moving forward to what looks to be a more prominent position at USC, after many years at MIT. Good luck, Henry!

TE – Tim Anderson – After some challenging times, Tim’s had an amazing 2008, with a new family and a new job, and he’s poised again to challenge Media Studies. Plus, he’s kind of built like a tight end.

C – William Petersen – Having reviewed all 190-odd episodes of CSI for my book this year, I am in awe of Petersen’s nine-year performance as Gil Grissom. It’s kind of the inverse of Ledger’s, all underplayed and thoroughly normative, but at the same time carrying heavy burdens. Grissom has been through hell the past three years in particular, and Petersen’s made that transition subtle yet compelling. Hats off for nine years, and for seeing Grissom through to his end.

OL – Google apps – They’ve made my life so much easier, to the point that I scarcely run anything that’s not anchored in my web browser anymore. Gmail alone is a godsend, but Google Reader and Google Maps are incredibly versatile apps. It’s been the reinvention of the personal computer.

OL – Sean Griffin – I’ve several amazing colleagues in my division at SMU, but only one Sean Griffin. Tireless, brilliant, dedicated to our little community (and to the Meadows School in general), and always doing it with aplomb and good humor. And he always throws a heckuva soiree.

OL – Lifehacker – This site is crazy addictive, but also thoroughly useful, with everything from video conversion tips to coping with job loss. It protects us fearlessly, making our lives easier.

Willie Tuitama, in his last college game

Willie Tuitama, in his last college game

OL – Willie Tuitama – The four-year starting quarterback of my University of Arizona Wildcats, he’s not flashy like Florida’s Tim Tebow or those Big 12 guys, nor as rock-solid as USC’s Mark Sanchez, but he’s as good as it gets when he’s on, calmly toying with opposing offenses. Four years of highs and disastrous lows ended with a sharp, flawless performance against BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl on December 20 (I was there!). He holds every significant QB record in UA history, and, more importantly, weathered the storm of uncertainty alongside Coach Mike Stoops to finally (finally!) get us back to a winning record and a bowl game.


DEFENSE

OLB – Mad Men – It’s on defense because it represents all that has been great about the medium of television for the past sixty years; i.e., defending it now from becoming irrelevant. Moreover, in its rich vision of the early 1960s, it waves the flag of historiography, i.e., of critically examining its sources and not pretending to be a window to that world.

MLB – Sally Kompare – She’s defended me more reliably and more readily than anyone else has for half of my life. In 2008, she made some major changes, and we’ve both grown more as a result. Plus, she’s very effective against those shifty running backs, Ben and Rose.

OLB – My iPod – Oh, iPod, what did I ever do without you? In 2008, you served up gigabytes of my standard writing music (soundtracks and classical), helped me organize fixations on 1950s-60s pop and contemporary indie, and kept me enlightened with scads of podcasts. And you kept the world out when I needed it most.

DE – The Colbert Report and The Daily Show – Unbeatable as always, but particularly on-target in this crazy election year. Nailing the opposition relentlessly, four days a week.

DT – Daily Kos I only really get into the Kos in an election year, and although I’m only a lurker there, I found its diarists reports, commentaries and calls to action invaluable in 2008. After an entire existence in the Bush years, it’s going to be interesting to see how the community, and the whole progressive blogosphere, evolves now that the Democrats are the government.

DT – Russ Pennell – Having only been hired on Lute Olson’s staff last spring, he took the reins of the men’s basketball team in the wake of Olson’s surprise November retirement. Even though he has to wear the badge of “interim,” and will almost certainly not be around next fall, he’s completely redesigned the Wildcats’ style. This team could have completely folded, but they’re 9-3, and look to be a legit threat in the Pac-10. Memo to UA athletic director Jim Livengood: don’t rule him out entirely for the future.

DE – Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow – For expanding the challenge to the Fox (or, in CNN’s case, Fox-esque) mentality, and reawakening my greatly lapsed faith in television journalism.

CB – Console-ing Passions @ UCSB – The best conference I attended this year, in many respects. True, the incredible California climate and jaw-dropping beach views might have swayed me a bit, but this was an academically solid event through and through. Excellent feminist analyses of television texts and social contexts, and a well-managed theme of “women in production.” In these leaner times, conferences per se are looking more and more like extravagances. But if they can maintain this high standard, they’re well worth the expense.

CB – Heather Hendershot – The incoming editor of Cinema Journal inherited a very solid title from Jon Lewis, but has upped the ante with a swath of new departments and a more varied structure. These are changing times for SCMS and for academic organizations and publishing in general, and Heather’s meeting those challenges with verve and thoroughness. In 2008, I also loved geeking out with her over BSG, and am more and more convinced about her fifth Cylon theory.

George Carlin, 1937-2008

George Carlin, 1937-2008

S – George Carlin (RIP) – He’s been vital for the last 35 years, but perhaps never more so than during the last eight. Thank you, George, for shouting the truth and never letting up.

S – 30 Rock – Yes, television comedy is in a pretty sad state at the moment (as is all of television, but that’s a larger story). Thankfully, we have Tina Fey. The more I watch, the more I realize how amazing this show is. I’ll still go with Arrested Development as the sitcom of the 2000s, but 30 Rock is a suitable heir to a “backstage” TV comedy tradition that goes back to The Dick Van Dyke Show, where completely implausible characters and situations thrive. Where else on TV are you going to get an updated take on Ted Baxter and Georgette (in the forms of Tracy Jordan and Kenneth)?

SPECIAL TEAMS

Catherine Tate as Donna Noble

Catherine Tate as Donna Noble

K – Catherine Tate – One of the truly fantastic things about Doctor Who has been its consistent ability to surprise us, and one-up itself. Many people (myself included) were dubious about the revival of Ms. Tate’s Donna Noble, this time as the regular companion. But, like a place kicker under enormous pressure, Tate nailed it every time, fleshing out the fairly one-dimensional character seen in “The Runaway Bride” with pathos, wit, intelligence, anger, and joy.

P – Grant Morrison – Faced with writing two universe-shaking DC Comics titles this year (Batman and Final Crisis), Morrison fearlessly aimed high, challenging readers, artists, and fellow DC writers to keep up. While the end results of these dark narratives have yet to be seen, they’ve provided a hell of a ride thus far.