Sunday, 18 September 2011

DC's New 52 ( well, some of them... )

DC Comics' brand new, rebooted universe is now a couple of weeks old and even this jaded old blogger has been intrigued enough by the event to pick up some of the titles. I'm not sure if I've just been sucked in by a successful advertising campaign but the fact is I've walked into local comic shops and parted with cold, hard cash for some brand new comics, instead of back issues for a change... and DC comics at that. I've always been more of a Marvel guy really, with only the occasional trip into the DCU. So what do I make of the new version?

Justice League
is first out of the starting gate and is a strange beast for the beginning of a brave new world. It's set "five years ago" and details the first meeting between Batman and Green Lantern as they encounter a destructive, shape-shifting creature, seemingly intent on destroying Gotham City real estate. Jim Lee's artwork is as dynamic and detailed as ever, but not too self-indulgent, with only one double-page spread, and plenty of kinetic action. Geoff Johns provides some enjoyable dialogue as the Emerald Avenger and the Dark Knight Detective get the measure of each other's abilities:
"What are your powers, anyway? You can't fly. Super strength? Hold on a second... You're not just some guy in a bat costume, are you? Are you freaking kidding me?!"

My biggest problem with this comic is that, beyond the title, the Justice League themselves aren't even mentioned. I can understand the concept of the slow build of the story but, if this story had been told in the Silver or Bronze Ages ( here he goes again... ), this entire 24-page story would have warranted about 3 or 4 story pages as purely set-up for the main plot, the origin of the team itself. I can even imagine this hypothetical story beginning with the League in action against an enemy ( Starro, say... ) for the first few pages and then flashing back to how the characters all met. This all probably sounds corny to today's creators but I'm sure it would be a better hook for new readers, who could pick up this New 52 version of the League and be justified in wondering where exactly the titular team are. And new readers, not 44-year old lifers, are what DC need to keep their business alive...

Action Comics
is an audacious attempt to take the world's most famous, iconic hero back to his roots. This story is obviously set even further back than his last-page appearance in Justice League #1, for this early Superman wears a home-made costume of jeans and T-shirt, with the only concession to superhero chic being a small, almost silly, cape. He is young, idealistic but tough, and unsure of his developing powers, more of a super boy than man. In keeping with the character's early days way back in the 1930s, this Superman is a crusader, rooting out corruption, standing up for the common man, not fighting alien menaces or super villains. The iconic Superman cast of characters - Clark, Lois, Jimmy and Lex - are all introduced to us and each other, and it should be interesting to see how their relationships develop. The script is Grant Morrison at his most mainstream, without his more bizarre concepts or plot twists, but there's nothing wrong with that. The story powers along with some beautifully clean-lined, expressive, Wrightson-esque artwork by Rags Morales. I'll definitely be back for more...

is my first introduction to the work of Gail Simone. I know, I know, where have I been? She's a writer who comes highly recommended ( especially by ace blogger, Colin Smith ) as an important female voice in a mostly male-dominated medium. The story sees Barbara Gordon tackling some particularly brutal criminals, attempting to step out of her police commissioner father's shadow, finding herself a new home, and trying to come to terms with the memory of her shocking assault by the Joker. ( I admit I'm not up on recent DC continuity - I thought Barbara was still confined to a wheelchair. There is some mention of a "miracle" that somehow cured her, but I don't know any more than that. ) The artwork by Ardian Syaf is what I think of as "generic DC", with some decent story-telling but also some dodgy anatomy, while Ms. Simone's script is suitably hard-bitten but refreshingly concerned with a heroine who is racked with self-doubt and nerves. Oh, and the Adam Hughes cover is gorgeous.

is a team I know little about. I never read the old version of the comic, or even the more well-known follow-on title, The Authority. ( Shame on me. ) I'm vaguely aware of the characters from reading Ellis / Cassady's excellent Planetary and, of course, I know the Martian Manhunter, but that's about it. So I'm left with a story about some mostly unlikeable, globe-trotting characters trying to save the world from an ill-defined alien menace, while fighting amongst themselves. There are a few nice visuals from Miguel Sepulveda, but the story is a disappointment from the usually reliable Paul Cornell.

Swamp Thing
however, is an old favourite character of mine. The issues by
Wein / Wrightson and Alan Moore / various are two of my most-loved comic runs ever, so this new creative team have a lot to live up to. And this first issue is very promising. Alec Holland is now human again and is working for a logging company, trying to forget his superhuman and supernatural past. A spate of mass unexplained animal deaths brings Superman ( the "present day" version we haven't really met yet ) to Louisiana to check up on Holland and to offer support to our disillusioned botanist. At the same time a group of archaeologists uncover something very nasty indeed, which seems to point to the rebirth of old Swamp Thing villain, Anton Arcane.
Scott Snyder writes a very wordy, intelligent script with plenty of fan-pleasing references to old Swampy stories and creators, while Yanick Paquette's artwork is beautifully detailed and often reminiscent of the baroque Starman work of Tony Harris. One to watch, all right.

Animal Man
also brings back an old fave, Buddy Baker, he of the animal powers and fourth-wall-breaking insanity back in the Grant Morrison days. Buddy seems confused these days: is he a superhero, an animal activist or a stuntman-turned-actor? After some lovely, naturalistic domestic scenes, Buddy digs out the old costume to help end a siege in a hospital, but finds his animal powers are causing him problems; he feels stronger than ever but using his powers causes him to unexplainably bleed from the eyes. Which can't be good. And after some disturbing dreams of his family suffering and dying, Buddy wakes to find his daughter Maxine has developed some scary powers of her own...
This is a very promising debut issue, with some alternately scratchy and intricate artwork from Travel Foreman ( that's a real name? ) and a fine script from Jeff Lemire, expertly balancing Buddy's family life with foreboding glimpses of a future, supernatural threat. But the most disturbing thing is probably Buddy's son, Cliff's, haircut - mullet alert!

is an update of one of Jack ( King ) Kirby's lesser-known DC characters. It's a very slight story of a rampaging, blue-skinned bruiser smashing his way into the Cadmus Project, DC's multi-purpose secret scientific organisation. Old Kirby Fourth World characters, such as Mokkari and Dubbilex, pop up to try and stop OMAC from reaching the company's mainframe and... doing whatever it is he's doing. This OMAC is a hulking brute, remotely controlled by orbiting AI, Brother Eye, and seems very different from the crusading One Man Army Corps of the old 1970s series. Keith Giffen does his best Kirby impression but it all feels too insubstantial.

And that's all I've read of the New 52 so far. I went to Excelsior Comics in Bristol today, hoping to buy Paul Cornell's Demon Knights ( and maybe a few others ) but it was sold out, and none of the other new titles really grabbed me. There are still a few more first issues to come over the next couple of weeks, so expect some more half-baked reviews in a little while.

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