Reviewing the latest round of DC’s New 52 

Reviewing the latest round of DC’s New 52 

Last year, DC Comics embarked on a company-wide reboot that introduced 52 new first issues of comic books both old (Action Comics, Wonder Woman, etc.) and new. Oliver Sava and Keith Phipps reviewed all of them. A few months in, they decided to check out a handful of the Second Wave New 52 books like Earth 2, while seeing how the line as a whole was holding up.

Earth 2
Oliver Sava: I’m opposed to introducing multiple Earths to the New 52 this early, and it needlessly complicates a universe that’s already struggling to balance old and new continuity. Alternate universes are one of the most eye-roll-worthy elements of comics, and it makes me nervous to see DC Comics pushing that direction. Yes, there are always exceptions like Grant Morrison’s Action Comics #9, which uses the multiple-Earths concept to delve into the mythos and history of Superman in an unexpected, progressive way, but Earth 2 isn’t one of them.

The mid-’90s Marvel-ization of DC’s line is my major problem with the New 52; the sudden resurgence of creators like Scott Lobdell and Rob Liefeld in positions of power has led to nonsensical stories that focus more on being extreme than developing characters or accessible stories. Earth 2 has a Heroes Reborn vibe that doesn’t inspire much confidence. After reading last month’s issue of The Goon, it feels like Earth 2’s focus on Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman is as much about selling Earth 2 action-figure variants as it is storytelling. James Robinson used to get a free pass from me for his Starman and The Golden Age stories, but he fell out of my good graces with his recent Justice League work. He’s redeemed himself with the consistently excellent The Shade miniseries, but seeing the Justice League at the start of Earth 2 recalls memories of the Robinson work I’d rather forget.

The issue starts with shock and awe as Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman fall in battle against the hordes of Apokolips, but do we really need to see Wonder Woman get impaled on a sword? Superman and Batman get the dignity of dying in explosions, but poor Wonder Woman gets kabobed straight through the chest as Robin and Supergirl watch in horror, then fly through a portal thingy into their own book.  This opening has about as much emotional weight as you can expect when you jump into a story at the very end. 

After the Trinity sacrifice sequence, the book starts to get to the actual action of the Earth 2 title, introducing young versions of Alan Scott [Green Lantern] and Jay Garrick [Flash]. We don’t spend much time with them, but Scott looks to be a Bruce Wayne type, while Garrick is a directionless post-grad who discovers a Greek god in his backyard. Robinson helped bring the Justice Society back to prominence in the late ’90s, and hopefully he can recapture that same spark with the cast of this book, which will apparently add Mr. Terrific and Hawkgirl in future issues. 

The selling point of Earth 2 is Nicola Scott’s artwork, and I think she’s one of the best classic-superhero artists working in the business. She can draw big, bombastic action sequences, but she brings an expressiveness to her characters that helps sell the emotional stakes. This is the kind of high-profile project that Scott deserves, and hopefully she’ll be able to bring more of her own creative vision as the book progresses. She has to work from designs by artists like Jim Lee and Kevin Maguire for most of this issue, and I’d like to see what Scott can do when given full control over the look of this world. Were you a bigger fan of this book than I was, Keith? How do you feel about the revival of multiple Earths in New 52 continuity?

Keith Phipps: I have no problem with it, in theory at least. While I agree that the New 52 remains a place with lots of weird continuity glitches no one seems to know how to sort out, to me that’s actually a good reason to introduce the idea of multiple universes. And Earth 2 is a chance to create a true clean slate. It’s always bugged me that DC’s The Golden Age characters seemed in danger of being wiped out of the new continuity, so this gives them a planet to call their own. 

It also gives them a writer who, with The Golden Age and his Justice Society Of America work, has shown a real affinity for older DC characters. But like you, I’m not really feeling that here. This first issue is almost entirely about taking care of the business of introducing everyone. That’s unavoidable, but there’s not a lot here that compels me to come back for more. Still, I will anyway. The concept is intriguing, and the talent suggests better things to come. I just wish what’s on the page did. I’ll give Earth 2 this: Featuring Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman and then killing them off is a pretty ballsy move. (Although it certainly helps that DC has a spare set over in the other universe.)

Worlds’ Finest
KP: Worlds’ Finest (note the placement of the apostrophe in the title) is the less ambitious of the two books coming out of the Earth-Two concept, but I like it better. In Earth 2, we saw Supergirl and a female Robin skedaddle from the slaughter by way of a mysterious portal. Worlds’ Finest picks up with what happens next as they make lives for themselves on Earth-One as Power Girl and Huntress. We’ve seen both characters already. Power Girl’s Karen Starr alter ego made appearances in the canceled Mister Terrific book, and Huntress has had her own miniseries, written by Worlds’ Finest writer, veteran comics editor, and former DC president Paul Levitz. 

Levitz’s storytelling is pretty meat-and-potatoes, but appealingly so. In fact, this almost seems designed to appeal to long-time fans in search of some meat and potatoes. Levitz isn’t the only vet on board. George Pérez provides the detail-intensive art in the sequences set in the modern timeline, while Kevin Maguire supplies the flashback segments set shortly after the heroines’ arrival on Earth-One. Conceptually, there’s no reason for Pérez’s images to represent the present and Maguire’s the past. But if it means getting a book filled with Maguire and Pérez art each month, I’m not complaining. This is an undemanding but, so far at least, satisfying new title. Call me on board for one of the best new titles of 1988!

OS: I enjoyed the first issue of Levitz’s Huntress miniseries largely because it was a solid depiction of a female hero after the Catwoman and Starfire debacles, but I ended up losing interest in his by-the-numbers storytelling fairly quickly. Worlds’ Finest looks to be more of the same, but I was bored before getting to the end of the issue. Maybe it’s my lukewarm feelings about Earth-2 carrying over, but I have trouble caring about the conflict in this book, which seems way more complicated than it needs to be. I’m of the mindset that a book starring two female heroes should appeal to a female reader, and I don’t see Worlds’ Finest achieving that. I’m sure there are women who enjoy reading stories about quantum tunnelers and multiple Earths and irradiated men with silly names, but if you look at the comics that resonate most with female comic readers, they don’t look anything like Worlds’ Finest. I’m always up for new work from Pérez and Maguire, but I’d really like to see these artists attached to a story that challenges them, rather than drawing a book they could have worked on 25 years ago. 

Dial H For Hero
OS: I read this book once and loved it. Then I read it again and loved it even more. It’s an intense, funny, enigmatic, dense read, and it sets up an impressive amount of material in its 22 pages. China Miéville’s story moves at a breakneck pace, and he has a lot of faith that readers will keep up. Re-reading the issue will allow you to appreciate Mateus Santolouco’s gorgeous artwork without worrying about the various plot threads set up in the script. Miéville is a foreign name to me (there are books that don’t have pictures?), but he’s the kind of fresh voice that superhero comics could use more of, using the Dial H concept to play with the genre in fascinating new ways. 

Like Animal Man and Swamp Thing, Dial H is a Vertigo title in superhero clothing, with a darker visual style and more sophisticated narrative voice than most of the DC lineup. Nelson Jent is overweight, unemployed, almost 30, and just had his first heart attack, but when his best friend is attacked, he steps into a phone booth and dials the four numbers that change everything. After a blinding flash of light, he emerges as Boy Chimney, a lanky, dapper man who controls the torrent of smoke that billows from his top hat. He’s essentially a walking cigarette that speaks in abstract poetry, and he’s just the first bizarre hero to come out of that phone booth in this issue. The second is Captain Lachrymose, a hilariously over-the-top emo hero who takes down his enemies by recalling their most depressing memories. 

Miéville throws a lot of balls in the air with this first issue, establishing a shadowy cabal of villains along with the supporting humans and heroes that will populate the title. There are more than a few mysteries at work here, although my favorite questions are the ones Nelson asks post-transformation. How does he know who he is when he becomes a new hero? Where do these powers and memories come from? Miéville has said that he plans on delving into the history of the H-Dial with this series, and this debut issue has me anxious to see what kind of backstory he devises for one of my favorite obscure DC properties.

Mateus Santolouco’s artwork is reminiscent of American Vampire artists Rafael Albuquerque and Sean Murphy, and he brings appropriate grit to Miéville’s story while staging some outstanding action sequences. Boy Chimney’s fight scene is laid out on the page in a chaotic web of panels, jumping between images of Boy Chimney kicking ass and Nelson watching from whatever unknown location he disappears to after dialing H-E-R-O. It captures the full scope of the bedlam that follows in Boy Chimney’s wake, while also visually representing the effect that the transformation has on Nelson’s psyche. I’m most excited to see Santolouco’s designs for the future heroes that Nelson becomes, as future covers reveal a slew of new faces set to appear in the book. How do you think this book holds up to the Dial H legacy, Keith? Did you have any qualms with this title that I didn’t?

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KP: Nope. Though I’m not sure there’s that much of a Dial H legacy to talk about, is there? It’s a goofy concept—a magic dial briefly turns its possessor into a superhero—that’s been kicking around the DC universe for decades, and Miéville twists it to his own ends. (I did like the last version of the concept, the 2003 series H.E.R.O., written by Will Pfeifer. There’s an issue with a caveman discovering the dial that’s especially terrific.) This version is, as you say, dense, but worth the effort it demands. In spite of Jason Heller’s ceaseless praise of Miéville, I had not read anything by him until this comic, but now I’m curious. The idea of the dial-summoned heroes stemming from the protagonist’s psyche is rich with possibilities, and Santolouco exploits them well. Boy Chimney, for instance, is disgusting in an almost-tactile way. I’m not sure how all these ideas cohere into an ongoing story, but I’m curious to find out.

G.I. Combat
KP: New titles in the New 52 mean old titles have to give way. So out goes Men Of War and in comes G.I. Combat. Although honestly, both fill the same slot in DC’s lineup, continuing the tradition of publishing war comics. Where Men Of War updated the idea of Sgt. Rock, G.I. Combat instead revives two other old D.C. concepts: The War That Time Forgot and the Unknown Soldier. The former drops soldiers in a prehistoric-like lost world out of Arthur Conan Doyle or King Kong—or, most directly, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land The Time Forgot, which featured World War I soldiers fighting dinosaurs. Here, the action is set in the modern era—the first scene features a U.S. soldier Skypeing with his wife and kid, and the action is set somewhere near North Korea—but the premise seems to be much the same: soldiers fighting dinosaurs. 

That’s a pretty thin idea for a comic. Dinosaurs don’t make for particularly complex villains, and if there’s something else behind the story, writer J.T. Krul doesn’t get to it with this first issue, or develop his heroes beyond stock types. Dinosaurs are, however, pretty visually arresting, but the art by Ariel Olivetti feels lifeless and overly posed. This is a big, dumb blockbuster movie of a book, but not a particularly fun big, dumb blockbuster. The Unknown Soldier backup story, co-written by the usually reliable Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti, mostly left me confused. Could you sort it out, Oliver?

OS: I had to re-read those first pages of “Unknown Soldier” a few times before I realized that the art is on a separate track from the narration. The narrator is describing how the squad came to find Unknown Soldier, and the images are showing what happens during Unknown Soldier’s four-day disappearance from the outpost. Palmiotti and Gray could have done a better job making that separation clear, but otherwise, their story is much stronger than J.T. Krul’s. Their version of the Unknown Soldier is basically the Punisher in Afghanistan instead of on New York City streets, and there’s a surprising amount of backstory in just a few pages. I get a sense of who the man is, what he’s fighting for, and where the story is going to go. Those are all things that are missing in Krul’s soldiers-vs.-dinosaurs story. You compare it to a big, dumb blockbuster, but it reads more like a videogame to me, especially with Olivetti’s stiff, digitally augmented artwork. 

Batman Incorporated
KP: This isn’t a new title, but the continuation of Grant Morrison’s largely great series of Batman books. Batman Incorporated is the latest—and if I understand correctly, last—act in a run that gave Batman a bratty, dangerous son named Damian, “killed” Bruce Wayne, turned Dick Grayson and Damian into a new Batman-and-Robin team, dragged Wayne through centuries of Gotham history on his way back home, and most recently found Wayne franchising the Batman idea by growing a global network of Batmen called Batman Incorporated. This second volume of Batman Incorporated picks up where the last one left off, with Batman and his allies doing battle against a villainous force headed by Talia al Ghul, Damian’s mother and the daughter of his arch-foe Ra’s Al Ghul.

The first volume of Batman Incorporated was plagued by delays and ran up against the New 52 reboot. I enjoyed it, but gave up on it after awhile, assuming it read better as a collection than on an issue-by-issue basis. I think that’s usually true with Morrison’s writing, which I don’t mean as a slam in any way. That said, there’s a strong sense that Morrison’s Batman stories have been building to this stretch of Batman Incorporated, which unfolds breathlessly, thanks in no small part to Chris Burnham’s clean, dynamic art. Here, Batman and Robin square off against animal-masked bad guys and assassins as Talia attempts to tighten the noose around the father-and-son duo and their international allies. It moves briskly, features the funniest conversions to vegetarianism since Lisa Simpson, and ends on a cliffhanger. Good to have Morrison back in Gotham.

OS: Batman Incorporated is the book to read if you want to pretend the New 52 never happened. Beyond the cosmetic changes (no more metal codpiece for Batman) and a reference to Peter Tomasi’s Batman And Robin, this book is keeping its distance from the rest of the DCnU [DC’s New 52 Universe], allowing Morrison to finish his Bat-epic with minimal interference. Batman Incorporated is easily my favorite book of the Second Wave, with Morrison reining himself in to give readers a strong entry point into his long-running Batman story. With an opening fight scene drenched in cattle blood, a superhero headquarters hidden under a sex shop, and an international conspiracy at its center, Batman Incorporated is still the most out-there Batman title on the stands. It’s just easier to follow now, and Morrison is beginning to connect all the disparate elements of his run as he reaches his grand finale.

Even if Morrison’s story goes off the rails, I’m going to be checking out this book each month just for Chris Burnham, who is turning in some of the most gorgeous artwork of the New 52. His improvement from the last volume is remarkable, and his style is evolving into a hybrid of Morrison’s past Batman artists, combining the superhero theatricality of Andy Kubert, the inventive panel layouts of J.H. Williams III, and the hyper-detailed characters and environments of Frank Quitely. Batman Incorporated is going to propel Burnham onto the A-list, and working with Morrison is going to keep pushing him to grow as an artist. After the delays and artistic inconsistency of the past, how great would it be to get an entire act of Morrison’s Batman on time and drawn by one artist? 

The Ravagers
OS: Because no one demanded it: Howard Mackie’s return to superhero comics! The man who had an integral part in, arguably, the worst Spider-Man story of all time, “The Clone Saga,” joins the rest of the ’90s Marvel writers at DC for one of the most cliché-ridden reads of the New 52. The cover for The Ravagers reads, “From the pages of Teen Titans,” which translates to, “If you haven’t read Teen Titans, this book will mean nothing to you.” Spinning out of “The Culling,” a crossover involving Teen Titans, Legion Lost, and Superboy, Ravagers follows a group of young superheroes including Caitlin Fairchild (formerly of Gen 13) and Beast Boy (formerly of the Teen Titans) that are on the run from evil organization N.O.W.H.E.R.E.

Beyond the crisp artwork of Ian Churchill—who returns to a more traditional superhero style after taking on a cartoonish influence for his creator-owned Marineman—there’s not much here beyond hormonal heroes fighting and dying. The entire issue reminds me of the god-awful Teen Titans East Special from 2008, also featuring art by Churchill, in which Judd Winick killed off a bunch of young heroes in one fell swoop. The stakes are supposed to be life and death, but the story has no emotional weight because the characters lack dimension. Launching a new series out of one of the most pointlessly convoluted crossovers in recent memories is bad enough, but throw in Mackie’s overwrought narration, one-note characterizations, and utterly lame cliffhanger, and you get a book tailor-made for 50-cent bins.

KP: I missed Mackie’s ’90s work, and this doesn’t make me want to check it out. Nor do I feel inclined to keep reading, for all the reasons you cite above. “Hormonal heroes fighting and dying” just about sums it up. Someone get Beast Boy out of this book. He’s too good a character to waste here.

Thoughts on the “old” New 52
KP: While we’re talking, we should have a conversation about the first wave of New 52 titles. Have your opinions changed, Oliver? Are you surprised by which books have lived up to their initial promise? Which ones have fizzled out? It’s tricky to judge any comic by its first issue, so let me start the conversation by talking about a book that surprised me by exceeding my first impressions: The Flash, co-written by Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato, with art by Manapul and colors by Buccellato. The first issue struck me as a beautiful-looking book without much driving it beyond being a beautiful-looking book. I judged it a bit too soon, though, as this has been one of the titles I’ve most looked forward to each month. The scripts still aren’t as innovative as the art, but they move well, and Manapul and Buccellato have fleshed out the characters. Also, did I mention this is one beautiful-looking book? At least one spread per issue is head-spinningly ingenious. What about you, Oliver? Anything creep up on you?

OS: I’ve been similarly enjoying Flash, although I agree that the art continues to outshine the writing. My favorite book of the New 52 has turned out to be All-Star Western, which has only gotten better with each issue. I only read Palmiotti and Gray’s Jonah Hex sporadically, and that was largely for the art, but the switch to a long-form serialized story has made All-Star Western a book I return to each week. The European sensibility of Moritat’s artwork gives it a look unlike any other title DC offers, and the backup stories expand the world of DC’s Wild West with top-class creators like Jordi Bernet and Phil Winslade.  I wish DC would just give Palmiotti and Gray complete control over G.I. Combat so they could do something similar to All-Star Western, with a long-running main story and a connected backup.  

The fringe DC books like Demon Knights and Frankenstein are the ones I’m enjoying most, largely because they’re incorporating other genres to make the titles feel less like standard superhero stories. The books I was most passionate about have largely retained my interest (although Batwoman is trying my patience), but most of the titles I was ambivalent about have fallen off my reading list. I’m still reading more titles from DC than I was before the relaunch, so they’re doing more things right, but there’s definitely room for improvement. Moving away from the past months and looking toward the future, what are your feelings on Before Watchmen? In spite of the project’s ethical issues, I’m genuinely excited to read those books, especially after getting a peek at some beautiful preview pages. 

KP: I can’t get excited about Before Watchmen, in spite of the involvement of some of my favorite creators, like Darwyn Cooke. I’ll read it with an open mind, and I won’t be surprised if I end up enjoying it—I saw those preview pages too!—but even putting aside the ethical issues, I’m having a hard time getting past my feeling that the whole thing just feels unnecessary. And I’m a little worried about it coloring my feelings about Watchmen. When I next read it, will I try to square it with the plots of the prequels? It just seems like unnecessary noise. (But I’m certainly going to check it out anyway.)

What leaves a bit of a sour taste, and I’m hardly the first to point this out, is, where is the new Watchmen? And, to bring it all back home to the New 52, where are the new titles to inspire excitement? I’m as big a fan of the iconic characters as you, Oliver, and beyond The Flash, I’m currently really enjoying Batman, Wonder Woman, and a few other major superhero books (Throw in Animal Man and Swamp Thing, both of which are usually at the top of my to-read pile.) But like you, I’m also excited about Demon Knights and Frankenstein, neither of which feature new characters, but both of which break out of the superhero mold while dusting off and reworking some lesser characters. It’s a cliché to point out that the Big Two lean too much on old characters and rehashed ideas. But as someone who loves old characters and doesn’t mind rehashed ideas, up to a point, I wish (nearly a year in) we’d have seen a bit more of those.

OS: In my review of Minutemen #1, I talk about how it’s the first book in DC’s post-New 52 climate that really stands out as a piece of art, not just a superhero story with gorgeous images. Frankly, I don’t think we’re going to find the next Watchmen at DC or Marvel right now. Those companies have become so reliant on established characters and ideas that it’s unlikely we’ll get the kind of groundbreaking stories and fascinating people that Moore and Gibbons introduced to the world. I’m not sure how many new directions for superhero comics there are, but if anyone’s really exploring the new frontier right now, it’s Image. They allow their creators complete creative freedom, and the results, especially this past year, have been spectacular.

Not much about the New 52 has been truly new. The experiment has been like trading in your old car for an upgraded, streamlined version of the same model, rather than buying a completely new vehicle. I want to see the kind of superhero machine that is built when people like Scott Snyder, Jeff Lemire, and Grant Morrison are given full rein to create. I love what they’re doing with characters I’m deeply familiar with, but there should be more books for the people that aren’t familiar. 

That’s what I’m loving about Dial H: It feels alien and a little bit disorienting. It’s unlike anything else DC is putting out right now, and could evolve into something truly great. Unfortunately, these are the types of books that tend to sell poorly and get cancelled after eight issues; this makes people wary about taking a chance on an unknown property. Imagine a new DC superhero created by Joe Hill.  That’s a book that would sell, and probably be completely awesome. He’s probably not interested in doing superhero comics, but it’s unlikely that DC would ever put him on anything but one of their top-tier books. Once DC starts embracing the possibilities of truly committing to the New, we’ll start seeing the books that push the medium to its full potential.

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