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."

CSI 11.12 – A Kiss Before Frying

Greg and Ellen

"Forget it, Greg. It's Vegas."

The pastiche was once a radical choice in mainstream television. Layering the tropes of different (and usually older) genres atop familiar storyworlds offered intriguing challenges for writers, cast and crew, and challenged viewers’ ability to juggle multiple references and allusions. Experiments are peppered throughout the 1950s through 1970s, but it was in the 1980s where it became one of the key markers of a series’ aims for “quality.” Shows like Moonlighting, St. Elsewhere and thirtysomething ostentatiously aired the occasional episode drenched in pastiche, self-consciously reveling in the exercise. A few entire series in those years and thereafter (e.g., Max Headroom, Northern Exposure, Twin Peaks) even made such exercise their primary flavor. It’s not for nothing that these moments have long been hailed by media scholars as postmodern exemplars.

By now, however, these episodes are hardly radical. They’ve moved through a baroque phase and have now settled into being just another sort of pleasant, easy-to-enjoy, unthreatening bit of television. Older viewers have seen the likes of this for going on 30 years, after all. If anything, they’re now even more reassuring than normal episodes, in that they trade largely on nostalgia (not only for the past, but for the distilled present). After 11 seasons, CSI is certainly no stranger to these waters, with everything from Frankenstein to Rashomon to (of course) Casino and even Word Wars getting pleasantly Bruckheimered. Thus, it is to the series’ credit that they know that we know the score, and instead of trying hard to surprise us, they let us kick back and watch it all unfold, just as we’ve seen it many, many times before.

In this case, the source material is proto films noir: i.e., the classic detective films of the 1940s (best exemplified by The Maltese Falcon) filled with odd characters, double crosses, and dark secrets. The grainy, brutal, and quick circa 1940s-looking monochrome opening tipped us off, but the second the woman claiming to be Ellen Whitebridge (a fantastically Hammett-like name) slid into the lab (on a tour) and made eyes with Greg, the pieces all fell into place. He was smitten. A schoolteacher moonlighting as a burlesque performer, she was a classic femme fatale, seemingly pure (as the driven snow, they used to say), but “drawn that way” (as soul-sister Jessica Rabbit once described herself).

There were some effective moments of uncertainty, at least initially. The shock revival of the grotesquely burned first victim was a nice “gotcha!” moment, and the side trip into the South African apartheid enforcer feinted to an entirely different kind of revenge story. But the revelation tying the cryptic footage from the teaser to the present was as comforting as the umpteenth novel from your favorite mystery writer. While hardly plausible, the clues add up, and the show delivers the familiar flavors with verve. We know just what’s going to go down as soon as Greg gets that call in the last few minutes, and that’s perfectly fine. It lacks suspense, but scores some style points.

Particular notice to Eric Szmanda, who still rarely gets the leading turn to this degree, but delivered nicely here; renowned neo-burlesque queen Dita Von Teese, coolly vamping it up as both Ellen and her doomed grandmother, Agnes La Plouffe; and writer Evan Dunsky, who duly laid on the clichés yet never made them too tacky (a lesson Weddle and Thompson still need to learn on their run on the show). Great, genre-specific lines include Greg telling Nick: “She’s a beautiful woman who has no idea how beautiful she is,” Catherine comforting Greg at the end: “I’ve been blinded by lust once or twice…I’ve got an eye for the rotten ones,” and Ellen’s lovely parting line, “For what it’s worth, I’ve loved you since Tuesday.”

Again, none of this was earth-shattering, but that’s not the point anymore. This was a series unwinding a bit more in its old age, taking us on a familiar trip, and letting us relax and enjoy the scenery.

NOTES:

Semi-Obligatory Grissom Reference: None. Holding back for 1.13, “The Two Mrs. Grissoms,” probably.

Going Off Shift: Although it ended badly for him, it was nice to see Greg get to unwind on screen, getting flirty over martinis and dinner with Ellen. Sara again did not appear in this episode, but will have much to do coming down the road.

Morbid moment: Stolen from Se7en, true, but the “I’m not dead yet!” shocker in the open was a nice surprise. I loved Dave’s deadpan response as the almost-corpse is put an ambulance: “Call me if his condition worsens.” Similarly, Ray had fun putting together his own electric chair and zapping a gel dummy.

I remember this one time…: Lots of apocryphal Old Vegas lore undergirding the revenge tale; I wonder if the life of Bugsy Siegel is just fair game for such speculation. In addition, both Catherine and Nick offer Greg some earned advice (seen several times over the years) on getting carried away with lust.

CSI coverCSI

by Derek Kompare

available now from Wiley-Blackwell


CSI 11.11 – Man Up

Nick pays off Greg

Worth $100?

One of the truly great things about Las Vegas (in myth, and to an extent, in reality) is its invitation to let it rip. “Sin City” beckons, and we can’t resist. “C’mon. Go for it!” This license is still one of the most compelling aspects driving CSI, enabling hapless characters to embroil themselves in all manner of ostensibly “bad” behavior. When the fatal “bad” decision crystallizes years of frustration and inadequacy, as has been the case many times throughout the series (including already this season), the moment, and consequences, are even more intriguing.

Such is the case for this episode, a mid-season trifle, but a pretty tasty one nonetheless. While the broad threads of the A-plot have certainly been seen time and again on CSI (guys from out of town go a little wild, local sex worker ends up dead), as I indicate above, I never tire of this plot. And here we get an oddly arch treatment of the whole endeavor. Not comic, per se, but faintly ironic. The whole thing starts from a level of detachment, with Greg, Hodges, Mandy and Nick at the lab, debating whether or not a “body” appearing in a photo on sleazy Vegas true crime website is real or not, with all the zeal of discussing a mildly entertaining YouTube video. Nick and Greg have a $100 bet over this, and it sets off the whole investigation; they wouldn’t have even discovered the body otherwise.Throughout the episode, Nick, Greg and Brass have seen this all before, and although they’re never outright dismissive, they pursue the case with a detached bemusement. Seeming far from his usual empathy, Nick basically shrugs and nods at the killer’s confession.

That is, he lowers the stakes, further undermining the killer’s ridiculous motive (i.e., he was tired of being branded a “loser”). What really makes this work is the emptiness and joylessness of the Vegas adventure plotted by the three Chicago guys. Like all hopped-up frat boys in Vegas (even ones in their 30s, as these three are), they think they’re doing their own version of The Hangover, when really they’re just being massive pains in the ass. The casting here worked particularly well, with Rich Sommer more or less channelling a 21st century version of his Mad Men sad sack Harry Crane (gone homicidal), Kevin Weisman giving us a pathetic, hungover, “F it all” take on the lovable Marshall Flinkman (from Alias), and–swear to God it works–freakin’ Carrot Top, as himself, apparently a bored, hard-partying Vegas celeb who lets his fans drink him into a stupor in a limo and post the photos on Facebook.

As with the plot, so with the narration. Again, like the regulars, we’ve seen this all before, but director Alec Smight and the cast and crew still get a little more out of even the usual investigation montages (the sequence with the cash from the ATM was particularly well done). Accordingly, this is perhaps my favorite episode this season: far from great, but standard-issue CSI at its best.

That said, the B-plot, involving Hodges busting a couple of textbook redneck salvage yard operators, is pointless and so dull that even a spectacular head-on bus collision is wasted as an aside. It could have been plopped down anywhere this season. Appearing suitably bored, Ray just stands around letting Hodges do the heavy lifting (fair enough: every lead should have a few “mail it in” opportunities each season, I suppose). Still, Hodges, out in the field, actually gets to be Grissom-like in his final confrontation with the greasy pair.

NOTES:

Obligatory Grissom Reference: None. Hm. Maybe they’re finally moving on?

Going Off Shift: Hodges’ vintage motorcycle infatuation is apparently part of his post-Wendy crisis, which he realizes when questioning the dead biker’s ex (a Wendy lookalike), much to Ray’s embarrassment. Sara does not appear in this episode.

Morbid moment: The gore was light this week. That said, the fake murder re-enacted in an actual murder (of the same woman) a day later was a nice wrinkle.

I remember this one time…: Catherine claims to have come up with the idea for the Greek warrior costume (at one of her Dad’s casinos) when she was a kid.

CSI coverCSI

by Derek Kompare

available now from Wiley-Blackwell


CSI 11.6 – Cold Blooded

Ray examines the T RexThis is a typical two-case outing, with two unrelated cases offering distinct flavors of CSI: serious and silly.

Here, the latter is provided by the murder by T. Rex of a jealous paleontology student after an animatronic dinosaur show. This provided plenty of eye candy for promos, and, as with the gator a few weeks back, lots of opportunity for puns and allusions. Ray is paired with Hodges, who, of course, geeks out at the prospect of seeing these virtual lizards up close. The student’s death by teeth turns out to be due to his girlfriend deciding to go “carnivore” and reject his nerdy vegan ways. Bizarre and completely implausible, but not nearly enough so. The coding of a “natural” female sexual desire as carnivorous-like-a-meat-eating-dinosaur was offensive, but that was to be expected. What was unexpected was how flat all this was. Ray looked bored all the way through.

The serious side drew from a series staple, the old case. Like the return of the repressed, prior cases and convictions inevitably seep or crash back into the present on CSI, drawing our heroes into unresolved traumas. The trigger this time was a case involving two missing girls from “five years” back (though not from a televised episode, for a change), where a killer confessed and was convicted, but the bodies never found. The father of one of the girls turns up dead, and the mother of the other is the prime suspect. What eventually transpires shows how grief can be ruthlessly exploited, and closure never quite resolved. While this storyline should have used a bit more Catherine, who spent most of the episode on the sideline in her office, it was quite rightly centered on Nick, who is our default, grim Bearer of Bad News.

While the dino-plot was too pedestrian, the case of the missing girls was fairly compelling stuff. More than anything, though, this episode showed how multiple cases like this should be the norm, rather than the exception, to allow for variety and for just enough narrative space to work well.

NOTES:

Obligatory Grissom Reference: None, for a change, not even from Hodges.

Obligatory “Celebrity” Cameo: Ladies and gentlemen, Katee Sackhoff, playing against type as tough, feisty and physical. “I’ve been working on my sensitivity,” she quips, right before kicking in a door. That’s our Katee!

Going Off Shift: Hodges takes pictures of himself with the dinos.

Morbid moment: With the dinosaur death played for laughs, the genuinely awful revelation of both the dead girls was a graphic reminder of memory and grief. The slo-mo montage of the discovery of the second girl, and Nick’s notification of her mother, was a standard moment, but that was the point: this is something these guys do all the time, and it never gets easy.

I remember this one time…: We had a flashback to “five years” ago, and the initial case involving the girls, but not from a televised episode.

CSI coverCSI

by Derek Kompare

available now from Wiley-Blackwell