Each week, Big Issues focuses on newly released comic-book issues of significance. This week, they are All-Star Western #16 by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray (Power Girl, Human Bomb) and Moritat (Elephantmen, The Spirit) and Batman Incorporated #7 by Grant Morrison (Supergods, Action Comics) and Chris Burnham (Nixon’s Pals, Officer Downe). These two titles show that staying away from the major happenings of the DC Universe is the best way to ensure quality as the publisher struggles to find a strong direction in the post-New 52 landscape.
This Wednesday, DC Comics announced the new “WTF Certified” initiative, its latest attempt to grab headlines, as well as an all-too-apt description of the current state of the publishing company. In April, all of DC’s superhero titles will feature gatefold covers along with a “WTF Certified” stamp to reflect the allegedly surprising plot developments within, including the return of Booster Gold, a superhero team getting stuck in a bottle, heroes changing colors, and, of course, a character death. At this point, the only thing that could elicit a genuine shock from DC readers would be if the company decided to quit all the cheap storytelling tricks and actually push its books in a genuinely character-driven direction. Since launching The New 52 in September of 2011, the publisher has been emphasizing plot over character, and while there are certainly exceptions, there seem to be fewer with each month that passes under the editorial leadership of Bob Harras and Bobbie Chase.
Bob Harras was editor-in-chief at Marvel Comics when it filed for bankruptcy in the ’90s, and while that wasn’t necessarily his fault (most of the blame belonged to the company’s financial executives), Harras was still in charge during one of the darkest times in the publisher’s history. “The Onslaught Saga,” “Heroes Reborn,” and the abysmal “Clone Saga” all helped drive readers away from Marvel Comics, and the current wave of crossovers at DC doesn’t bode well for its future. (After Harras’ exit from Marvel, inker Al Milgrom inserted a goodbye note in a panel of Universe X: Spidey that contains the hidden message, “Harras, ha ha, he’s gone! Good riddance to bad rubbish, he was a nasty S.O.B.”)
The new year has already brought a fair share of controversy over at DC, with a string of cancellations, including critically acclaimed but low-selling titles I, Vampire and Superman Family Adventures, and the dismissal of writers from books before their runs even begin. In their CBR column, Harras and Chase broke the news that Robert Venditti was off Constantine one month before the book debuted, replaced by Jeff Lemire and Ray Fawkes, who have become two of the publisher’s go-to writers. DC can do far worse than Lemire and Fawkes, who have a celebrated history in the world of creator-owned comics, and they already write John Constantine in the pages of Justice League Dark, so it’s not horrible news. That’s not the case with the replacement of Jim Zubkavich, writer of the immensely enjoyable Image fantasy series Skullkickers. He’s been replaced on Birds Of Prey by Christy Marx, whose Amethyst story in Sword Of Sorcery was not only one of the worst things published at DC last year, but started off with an attempted gang-rape. That doesn’t engender a lot of excitement for a book with an all-female cast. The fact that Marx worked with DC Co-Publisher Dan Didio at ABC back in the ’80s makes the change stink of nepotism, especially when her comic-book work has been so abysmal.
These sudden creator shake-ups pose problems for retailers, readers, and creators. Retailers and readers can no longer have faith that the solicited creative teams will actually be attached to the books come publication time, and incoming creators on titles now have to deal with the possibility that they may be taken off at any time with little warning. It’s just a horrible way to treat talent, and it’s no wonder that DC creators like Paul Cornell, Joe Bennett, and Frazer Irving have recently moved to the competition.
Yet with all this chaos, there are still some bright spots in DC’s lineup. Brian Azzarello’s Wonder Woman continues to push the character in an exciting new direction, China Mieville’s Dial H is a delightfully oddball and unpredictable superhero adventure, and Grant Morrison’s Action Comics embraces the history of its lead character while presenting fresh takes on classic Superman concepts. This week saw two exceptional new releases from DC that are noteworthy for how distant they are from what’s currently unfolding in the rest of the publisher’s line.
Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray, and Moritat’s All-Star Western was one of the top superhero comics of 2012, telling Western stories set in a late-18th-century Gotham City, following Jonah Hex and his unlikely partner, Amadeus Arkham. Palmiotti and Gray had been writing Jonah Hex for years before The New 52, and the move to Gotham gave the book a boost in sales over its predecessor while giving the stories a deeper connection to the history of the DC universe. Despite being set in the past, the title has been part of crossovers in the present-day DCU, tying into “The Night Of The Owls,” with Hex and Arkham encountering one of the Court of Owls’ Talon assassins, and the Eclipso-centric “Black Diamond Probability,” with Dr. Jekyll using bits of the Black Diamond to create his Hyde formula. These are the most minimal of crossover tie-ins, and haven’t derailed the stories whatsoever, because they take place more than 100 years in the past.
The most recent Jekyll and Hyde storyline has resulted in great moments like Arkham turning into the type of maniac that will eventually be housed in his Asylum and Jonah Hex breaking his leg, forcing him to give up his bounty-hunter lifestyle as he heals. All-Star Western #16 picks up a month after Hex’s last encounter with Hyde, and he’s not taking his recovery too well. Holed up in Arkham’s home and having just finished the last bit of booze, Hex has become an irritable mess, but he finds the smallest measure of comfort in Arkham’s crazy mother, who confuses him for Jane Eyre’s Mr. Rochester when he comes to her room to murder her for screaming all the time. Palmiotti and Gray’s script is a wonderful character study of a man who’s used to being in control, emphasizing the loneliness that comes with his loss of power. The antihero’s initially antagonistic relationship with his nurse transforms into something gentle and poignant after his encounter with Arkham’s mother, and when Hyde shows up to finish what he started, the nurse is the person who throws Hex his gun and gives him the opportunity to finally put Hyde to rest.
Much of the success of All-Star Western is due to Moritat’s gorgeous artwork, and considering how detailed and atmospheric his visuals are, it’s astounding that he’s drawn every single issue of the series. He does remarkable work evoking the time period through architecture and costuming, and his vision of Gotham is one of the most striking in recent memory. His storytelling is smooth and clear during the more low-key moments of the script, and the title page of this issue, which shows Hex sitting in silence as he cleans his gun in a garden, is a perfect reflection of the isolated despair that’s overtaken the character. He has a firm understanding of body language and facial expressions, capturing Hex’s stone-cold anger, his nurse’s frustrated compassion, and the wistful sadness of Arkham’s mother. His eye for design is on full display during the scene of Hex in the room of Arkham’s mother, which has clutter of dolls and thorny roses in the background to give the conversation an extra-creepy atmosphere. This is still a Western, though, and the artist’s action sequences are brimming with brutal intensity. Paired with Mike Atiyeh’s painterly colors, Moritat is providing some of the most distinct visuals at DC, which has become more and more reliant on a house style that is a mix of Ivan Reis and the Kubert brothers.
Batman Incorporated is another title with outstanding artwork that has remained completely separate from the rest of the DC Universe, but that’s the kind of privilege that comes with being Grant Morrison. The writer has completely ignored the changes that came with The New 52 so that he can finish the Batman epic he began in 2006, and it’s resulted in one of the most wildly entertaining superhero comics on the stands. With Batman Incorporated #7, he begins the final six-issue sprint to the conclusion of his run, and it’s a rollercoaster of action and intrigue, with Bruce Wayne’s son Damian at the heart of it all. Between Morrison’s work on this title and Peter J. Tomasi’s work on Batman And Robin, Damian Wayne has become the most captivating character in the DC Universe, a murderous child who is desperately trying to fight against his programming to gain the love of his father.
Things are looking especially bleak at this point in Batman Incorporated, but Morrison understands darkness is meaningless without moments of humor. Knight has just been killed, Batman is captured and locked in a safe, Wingman gets double-crossed by The Hood, Nightwing and Commissioner Gordon are attacked by brainwashed children, and Red Robin nearly gets blown up, but Damian has Alfred, the new Bat-Kitten, to introduce some brightness to the gloomy proceedings. As Damian argues with Alfred about how none of this would have happened if his father allowed him to continue acting as Robin, the kitten plays with a toy bat, as Bat-Cow and Titus the Bat-Hound watch in the background. Morrison loves goofy Silver Age ideas, and the growth of the Bat-Menagerie in this title is one of the silliest, but also completely in line with what the writer’s been doing for the past seven years.
While the relationship between Bruce and Damian is still developing, the bond between Damian and Alfred is fully formed, and this issue ends with one of the butler’s best moments as he disobeys Bruce’s orders and offers Damian the Robin costume. “Master Bruce has been wrong before on several occasions,” Alfred says as he goes to grab the uniform. “I’ll tell him you overpowered me, sir.” Damian says that he could easily do that, and tells Alfred to add that he fooled the Batcave security protocols by impersonating his father’s voice. When Alfred notes that he’s not sure Bruce would believe that, Damian clears his throat and says, “Wayne. Bruce. Priority access.” The doors open on a badass shot of Damian with his fist in his palm, ready to kick ass the way only Batman’s son could.
There’s an undeniable Frank Quitely influence on Chris Burnham’s artwork, but Burnham is a much quicker penciller than Quitely, and doesn’t sacrifice quality for speed. There’s a dynamic sense of movement in Burnham’s art, beginning with a sequence of Batman falling from a building depicted with four vertical panels that emphasize the height of the drop. The last panel has Batman getting grabbed by a Man-Bat and pulled off the page, adding a sense of mystery as to where the hero is being taken. Burnham’s Gotham is drowning in rain, and all the extra rain lines on the page contribute to the chaos of Talia’s attack on the city. Jason Masters contributes three pages of artwork this issue, but his style is very similar to Burnham’s; if it weren’t for the issue’s credits, the change would be unnoticeable. Burnham’s bold, cinematic style is exactly what Morrison’s script calls for, and hopefully these two will continue to work together once Batman Incorporated wraps up.
This week, both All-Star Western and Batman Incorporated deliver multiple WTF moments, but unlike the majority of the current DC Universe, Morrison and Burnham have built up confidence that all these twists and turns are going to pay off in the end.