DC has embarked on the radical step of revamping its entire line of comics, rolling out 52 first issues beginning with Justice League on Aug. 31. Some are new titles. Some restart long-running titles like Batman and Action Comics. Some promise new concepts, while others offer new takes on old characters. Oliver Sava and Keith Phipps are reading and discussing all of them each week as part of an ongoing Crosstalk. Up this week: 13 new titles, including Action Comics and Swamp Thing.
Action Comics #1
Keith Phipps: The first first issue of Action Comics appeared in 1938 and introduced a character named Superman. 73 years later, this second first issue of Action has the formidable task of reintroducing The Man Of Steel. Formidable because, all these years later, what else is there to do with the big guy? His origin has been told and retold. He’s been driven mad by red Kryptonite, sent into space, killed off, resurrected, traveled through time, taken on and lost Kryptonian comrades and superpets, been made an orphan, married, and foiled villains from Lex Luthor to Brainiac again and again. More problematic still: How do you tell an interesting story about a guy who’s virtually invincible? Or at least that’s what’s frequently cited as the problem with Superman. I think the invincibility problem tends to get overstated. The biggest problem with Superman is that what he stands for has become vague over the years. He’s become all things to all people, a paragon of virtue, but virtue broadly defined.
With the new Action, Grant Morrison sidesteps all three problems, giving us a just-starting-out Superman—like Justice League and, I think, Detective, this takes place in the recent past—with limited powers and a narrower mission. Hearkening back to Superman’s origins as a sort-of hard-edged New Deal Democrat, Morrison’s redefined him as a short-tempered protector of the underdog and an enemy of deep-pocketed fat cats. Every choice pays off brilliantly with this issue. Last week one of our commenters said of Justice League #1 that it needed to redefine what the character was all about, a la Alan Moore’s “Anatomy Lesson” issue of Swamp Thing. (The comment also cited Morrison’s All-Star Superman, a previous, and much different, reinvention of the character.) This is that sort of issue. It casts the character in a new light, opens up fresh storytelling possibilities, and pushes it all forward with dynamic Rags Morales art. I loved it. I wouldn’t say that it was worth rebooting the whole line just for this title. But more titles like this is all DC needs to justify the step.
I’m in the minority, but I think the costume redesign for this book is brilliant and allows Clark’s character to come out through Superman. Superman’s cape becomes something more akin to Linus’ blanket, and the jeans-and-T-shirt combo strips the superhero of his regality, reflecting his fight for the common man. Morales is one of the best artists in DC’s stable, and his style is classic without feeling dated, detailed but not stiff or photo-referenced. I could do without Jimmy Olsen’s bowl cut, but that’s a small complaint for an otherwise gorgeous issue. I’m nervous to see how George Perez’s Superman series will compare, because right now this is the version of Clark Kent I’m interested in reading about.
Animal Man #1
OS: My favorite of the bunch. Jeff Lemire has become one of the most reliable names in comics, and this first issue of Animal Man combines family drama, superhero action, and macabre horror into a cohesive story that is unique, yet still true to the history of Buddy Baker. Beginning the issue with an all-text magazine profile on Buddy has the potential to be clunky exposition, but Lemire’s strong handle on dialogue creates a charming image of Buddy before we even see him. As one of the few family men in comics, Buddy’s most endearing quality is his relationship with his wife and kids, and Lemire keeps that the focus of the issue. Buddy’s wife is supportive but frustrated, struggling to give her kids a normal life, and when Buddy stops a bereaved father opening fire in a hospital, all he can think about is what he would do if he lost his kids.
Travel Foreman provides sleek, meticulous art that grounds the book in reality, and he uses inventive page layouts during the scenes in the Baker home to create visual excitement where the situations are less fantastic. The full-page splash of Buddy accessing his powers is a stunning interpretation of the “life grid” he taps into, and the revolting designs for the Hunters Three are like visual Cliffs Notes for all the nasty qualities of the animal kingdom. Then there are the zombified animals, which are always reliable for a good scare. Buy it now, thank me later.
KP: It’s not an interview with just any magazine that opens the book: It’s an interview with The Believer, which makes perfect sense. Buddy Baker is one of the most earnest, well-intentioned characters in comics. It’s natural The Believer would be into him. I’m into him, too. Grant Morrison’s Animal Man is a favorite book of mine, and it was nice just to be back in the world of Buddy and Ellen and their two kids at first. (Though why Cliff is still sporting an awful mullet in 2011 I’m not sure.) Lemire has a nice handle on the domestic scenes, which feel settled in and stable but still home to some disappointments, and I hope the superhero-as-family-man continues to be a strong element in the book. With so many newly single heroes, it’s refreshing to have at least one who has a family and responsibilities to live up to.
I figured, in keeping with its status as a Vertigo import, the book would take a dark turn at some point, but I didn’t expect it to go that dark. Like Swamp Thing, which we cover below, there’s a sense of horror derived from the parts of nature we choose not to think about for our own sanity. Lemire also taps into some fears inherent to parenthood. My daughter’s too young to ask for a dog—or much of anything, yet—but I’m already starting to experience anxiety that I’m not doing everything right. I’m guessing that my parenting won’t result in a yard full of zombie animals, but even so, you worry about making mistakes, and as a parent, you simply don’t have control over everything, try as you might. This book gets that, and it’ll be interesting to see if it develops further.
Travel Foreman’s art feels perfect for the title, capturing domestic life and pushing it gently but insistently toward the horrific as the book progresses. Plus, Animal Man is just a cool, odd character, grounded in the real world but still very much a superhero. What other character could offer this bit of narration as he falls asleep: “So I reach out and grab the napping ability of a cat.”
Detective Comics #1
OS: Books like Detective Comics worry me. It’s the first Batman book of the relaunch: a kid wants to read it, parent takes a peek through it, gets to the last page, decides maybe a new Diary Of A Wimpy Kid might be more appropriate than comic books. A lot of this week’s books have ended with disturbing images, but at least the cover of Animal Man suggests that the book will be on the darker side.
That said, I liked this more than you did, but it’s still a standard game of cat-and-mouse between Batman and the Joker, albeit with more extreme violence. If Alfred is now a computer simulation, I will not be pleased, as that character has a much greater purpose than being Bruce Wayne’s housekeeper. Alfred is Bruce’s surrogate father, and it’s going to be hard to mine any sort of emotional resonance from a hologram. Daniel’s art has definitely been improving over the years, but with Jim Lee directing the DC house style, this doesn’t look all that different from the rest of the books on the stands. There’s not much investigating in this book, and if Daniel wants readers to stick around, he’s going to have to bring the detective back, because gory shock tactics will only get him so far.
Swamp Thing #1
OS: I always feel like I’ve learned something after reading a Scott Snyder comic. You can tell the writer does his research, and he uses facts to enrich his stories and bring an added layer of intellectual sophistication. After reading Swamp Thing, I now know what really causes wood to rot and how to use cabbage leaves to alleviate knee pain, but the information is used in context to build botanist Alec Holland’s character. Snyder often has the narration on a separate track from the action portrayed in the art, and while the stories are different, they share a thematic connection. In this issue, he uses the narration to provide Holland’s history while establishing the character’s current circumstances in the main track, and like Gail Simone on Batgirl, Snyder doesn’t spend too much time reconciling how the past fits into the present. Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing stories happened, but they happened to Swamp Thing; this story is about Alec Holland, and he wants a fresh start despite retaining the memories of his arboreal alter ego.
KP: I wouldn’t presume to make a judgment about that one way or another one issue in, but I did like this issue. I’m not quite sure how Holland and Swamp Thing are separate entities or how the old history of the Moore (and post-Moore) books will fit into the current story. I think it’s smart to make those questions part of the story, although at some point the book will have to become about something other than piecing together the old with the new. That seems likely to happen, though. It also seems smart to make a break of some kind with the Moore era of Swamp Thing, which is a tough run to top.
I’m relatively new to Scott Snyder, whose work you’ve been recommending to me for a while, but this issue felt like a confident first installment in a bigger story, one that brings Swamp Thing’s world back into the DC Universe but keeps it at that universe’s darker fringes. Since they’re about a being tied into the earth itself, Swamp Thing stories are often about the big picture, and the opening pages—with their mysterious animal deaths in Metropolis, Gotham, and beneath the sea close to Aquaman—suggest that Swamp Thing is part of a delicate balance that keeps the earth in place. Presumably Alec Holland is part of that as well, as I suspect we’ll soon find out. I hope, too, that we get a better sense of who Holland is in future issues. Though he’s front and center, and provides narration, he’s still kind of a cipher. But there’s time for that and I’ll definitely be checking back in to see where this goes.
Justice League International #1
That said, I liked this first issue, which sticks pretty close to the old JLI superheroics-with-humor model. The resemblances don’t stop there: Both the lineup and the setup are much the same as when JLI first appeared in ’87, consisting mostly of second-string (if that) heroes operating under a UN sanction for slightly exasperated bosses. Jurgens puts Booster Gold, a character he created, front and center and treats everyone around him with affection and humor. It’s not as unabashedly comedic as the old JLI—no “Bwa-ha-ha”s here… yet—and Aaron Lopresti’s art, nice as it is, doesn’t aspire to the old JLI whimsy, but I liked this book more than I expected, and plan to stick with it and see where it goes.
OS: I similarly love the Giffen/DeMatteis series, but this issue fell flat for me. I know it’s going to sound hypocritical after my comments on Justice League #1, but I would have liked to see this team come together, if just to give the characters more personality. Unlike Batman and Superman, the cast of this book is probably unfamiliar to casual/new readers, and right now they’re more stereotypes than characters (especially Red Rocket). The B-plot has a group of protesters bombing the Hall of Justice, and I wish that Jurgens had the team go up against that threat first instead of fighting bland automatons in Peru. The humor feels forced to me, probably because the characters aren’t yet firmly established, but I did like Booster defending himself against Guy Gardner’s claim that he sells adult diapers. While Lopresti is an artist with solid storytelling skills and consistently clean pencils, it’s hard to match the facial expressions and body language of Kevin Maguire’s art. With the setup out of the way, hopefully Jurgens will take some time to let these personalities solidify, because it looks like JLI will be the only place to find a lot of fan-favorite characters.
OS: If you’re looking for an explanation of why Barbara Gordon can walk again, Batgirl #1 doesn’t have the answer. The Joker still shot her, she still spent time in a wheelchair (three years), and now she can walk again. I trust that Gail Simone will elaborate on the “miracle” that cured Barbara Gordon’s paralysis, but for now the writer is focused on reestablishing Barbara as Batgirl, not tracing the steps that got her there. What I like about Barbara in this issue is how she immediately jumps back into her old, bubbly superhero self, unaware of how the Joker’s attack will affect her in the field. She manages to stop a gang of homicidal home-invaders, but her legs won’t stop shaking and she’s about to pee her pants.
Barbara’s struggle to overcome her fear and get back to where she used to be will be harder than she thought, and when new villain Mirror points a gun at her waist, she freezes up before a shot is even fired. And while Barbara is afraid of being put back in the chair, she doesn’t look at it as a prison, acknowledging how it helped her grow as a person. I’m hoping that means Oracle still existed in this new timeline, as I feel Barbara was more interesting in that role than as Batgirl. Ardian Syaf’s art is very much the current DC house style, and it works well for Simone’s story, but I think the piping and textures overcomplicate Batgirl’s costume. Granted, that’s a line-wide complaint, so I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon.
I liked the book itself, though I don’t yet love it. Syaf is working in the house style, but he doesn’t bring much else to it. It’s kind of dull, to my eyes. Fortunately, Simone does bring more to it. The plot doesn’t seem particularly distinctive yet—see our caveat last week about judging first issues—but I like the voice she brings to Barbara, and though I don’t know how they’re going to explain her magic recovery, I’m happy that they’re keeping her time in a wheelchair as part of her story and a key part of her personality. A hero whose baggage makes her occasionally too scared to be a hero? That’s something we don’t see that often.
Keith Giffen’s art has always been Kirby-influenced, but he goes into full-on King Mode this issue, covering pages in Kirby krackle, exaggerated musculature, and otherworldly architecture. His action sequences are flashy and easy to follow, and despite his simplistic page layouts, the energy of each panel keeps the momentum moving until O.M.A.C. completes his mission. This book doesn’t fit the tone of the rest of the DCnU, but it’s been announced that it will be crossing over with Frankenstein in January, and the appearance of New God Makkari connects the title to the Darkseid action in Justice League. Didio and Giffen are going to have to establish some kind of emotional hook for the character to sustain a series, but the tone is a refreshing throwback as the DC universe gets increasingly darker (see Detective Comics #1). You’re more familiar with Kirby’s work than I am, Keith. Did you find this book as charming as I did?
KP: It’s pretty charming. I’m not sure there’s much to this beyond paying homage to Kirby, but Giffen and Didio get it right, from the breathless pace to the odd logic that powers the book’s technology. Billed as a “startling look into... THE WORLD THAT’S COMING!” the original O.M.A.C. one of those pure Kirby books that takes place somewhere on the dividing line between genius and madness. It’s full of big dystopian concepts like artificial friends—the Build-A-Friend we see in this issue—and bold visual expressions of those concepts. Where Kirby played it straight, Giffen and Didio wink quite a bit, but it’s an affectionate sort of winking. It could be a great book if they found a way to build on Kirby’s concepts, but it’s pretty fun as-is, and Giffen’s Kirby act is delightful.
Green Arrow #1
OS: How could you miss out on junkie Roy Harper cradling a dead cat in his half-robot arms? Rise Of Arsenal was probably the one of the most unintentionally hilarious books of the last decade. There’s nothing shocking about Krul’s new series, it’s just Oliver Queen and his goatee hunting down supervillains in Paris, with just a pinch of corporate intrigue to add some variety. Amping up the character’s technology just makes the arrow gimmick more far-fetched than it already is. With all the resources at Oliver’s disposal, why arrows? And what’s up with all these new supporting characters? Couldn’t they have put Connor Hawke and Mia Dearden in this book? They’d have to age Oliver Queen a few years, but was anyone begging for Green Arrow to go back to his 20s? It’s Green Arrow Extreme, but it’s not very good. The story and art feel dated, and with all the creative switch-ups, I’m left wondering why Krul was kept on the title when his previous run was so lackluster.
Static Shock #1
I’m not the biggest fan of McDaniel’s art, but he does best with action, and there’s a lot of that this issue. His pencils can look a little sloppy sometimes, and I wish he had a more controlled inker, but the facial expressions are stronger than his usual work, and his character designs feel like a natural evolution of the Milestone style. Static Shock is a solid title that will definitely appeal to fans of the character, but it’s a fairly standard teen hero story that I’m not sure I’ll stick around for more of.
KP: Fun fact: McDaniel used to work as an electrical engineer until he was able to earn a living in comic books. I can only assume that was part of his pitch for the book and the source for some of the real-life details about electricity that make it into the first issue. I appreciated that. Otherwise, I’m pretty much with you on this one. There’s a lot of potential to the character, but not a lot of it gets developed here. There’s only so much you can do with 22 pages, of course, but it all felt pretty superficial. It’s not bad, and I’ll probably keep reading to see if it gets better, but apart from a couple of scenes like the one where the annoyed crowd turns on Static, it mostly left me bored.
Men Of War #1
KP: With the revamp, DC hasn’t just revived old comics characters; it’s also revisiting some old concepts and genres. Hence a Western book (All-Star Western, though the line already had Jonah Hex), some horror titles, and Men Of War, a war comic in an age when nobody’s really doing war comics anymore. The first issue, featuring two stories, left me intrigued but not overwhelmed. The first story, written by Ivan Brandon and Tom Derenick, stars a young soldier named Corporal Rock who’s clearly a bit sensitive about living up to the reputation of his grandfather, one Sgt. Frank Rock. It’s set in an unnamed Middle Eastern country where the U.S. military is battling some insurgents. The twist: Superheroes are also part of the action. It’s long on atmosphere—the appearance of a superpowered character, seen from a distance against the moon, is remarkably eerie—but short on rich characterization. Brandon’s decision to throw in military terminology, explained below the text, helps sell it. I’m not sure if there’s anything to the book beyond the novel combination of military grit and superpowers, but it definitely is novel.
OS: Seeing a gritty take on superhero warfare from the eyes of ordinary soldiers is a fantastic idea, and Brandon’s script excels at capturing the chaos and devastation superpowers can inflict on an environment. Derenick’s art is fine and he’s trying to bring more roughness to his usually clean pencils, but I think a more inherently gritty penciller like back-up artist Winslade or Michael Lark would be better suited for Brandon’s story. The next issue blurb suggests that we’ll be getting more of the new Sgt. Rock’s backstory soon, but I agree that this issue could have better established the character. The back-up story doesn’t do much for me, with cliché dialogue exchanged between stereotypical military characters (do Navy SEALs really yell “Hooyah!” that often?), but Winslade’s art is always a pleasure to see. Men Of War has the concept, now it just needs to bring the character if it’s going to sustain a monthly.
OS: Nothing creates drama like piles of chopped-up corpses, and we get not one but two piles this issue. I know there are atrocities in Africa, but I’m not sure if Judd Winick is the writer to address these problems with any level of subtlety. I do like the set-up for the character, although I’m not sure how David is going to patrol an entire continent while somehow balancing his day job. I’m a fan of Oliver’s art, and while I don’t have a problem with the coloring, I don’t care for the overuse of silhouettes and lack of backgrounds. It reminds me a bit of Adi Granov, and I guess some visual shortcuts are necessary if Oliver is going to meet a monthly schedule (which Granov is incapable of). I’m intrigued by certain aspects of Winick’s story, primarily the idea of an African super-team, but I just don’t have any connection to these characters after the first issue. Hopefully that will change once we learn their origins and motivation, although I’m not sure how much depth we can expect from a character who yells, “All I need is for people to die!”
KP: I think it will be interesting to see how they fit. Titles like The Authority—the Wildstorm book I know best—got their charge from doing things that you couldn’t do in the DC Universe. Post-Flashpoint there’s apparently no reason you can’t tell those stories within the DC Universe, but it still feels a little off. All these hard-edged, dark-witted, violence-prone heroes battling cosmic threats seem like they shouldn’t be sharing space with Superman and his ilk. And seeing Martian Manhunter as part of the team feels a little wrong.
As for the book: I felt a little lost and would probably feel even more lost if I didn’t know some basics of the Wildstorm mythos going in. But I’ll stick it out for a while because I liked Paul Cornell’s Knight And Squire and his Doctor Who work. And if anyone can bring wit and cosmic action together, it’s a Doctor Who veteran.
Hawk & Dove #1
The continuity on this title makes no sense, alluding to events from Crisis On Infinite Earths and carrying over plot points from Brightest Day. Someone needs to explain where those events fall in the new timeline, because otherwise things are going to get really confusing very fast. Gates doesn’t incorporate exposition into the action, and having Hank “Hawk” Hall literally sit down and explain to his father how he got his powers is a clunky way to bring readers up to speed. Hawk’s catty attitude toward his partner is unfounded and just there for drama’s sake, same with Dove’s reluctance to tell Hank about her relationship to his deceased brother, the first Dove. Gates can tell good stories when he wants, but as I mentioned in my Infinite #1 review last month, having Liefeld as an artist severely limits the amount of emotion and reality a writer can bring to his script.
KP: I didn’t care for it either and I’m not sure I have much to add to your litany of complaints. If only your “permanently clenched teeth” were an exaggeration. Hank Hall’s dad is in the grand Liefeld tradition of older men drawn as if they were in their 20s apart from the white hair. I can’t see this bringing in new readers, but anyone nostalgic for the bad old days of the ’90s will love it.