Tuesday, June 28, 2011

DC Reboot Round-Up, Part Four: The Test Tube Babies

Previously, on the DC Reboot Round-Up… In an attempt to prop up flagging sales, DC Comics has decided to hit the reset button on their super hero continuity and go for a more action-oriented (some say, “Nineties-Style”) focus. The degree of change to each character is predicated entirely upon sales. So Batman barely changes at all, while Hawkman (for instance) gets a major overhaul. Other changes include Wonder Woman getting pants, and Superman losing his underwear.

Now we move on the experiments, books DC’s launching in hopes of capitalizing on the more diverse interests of the wider digital audience they hope to find waiting for them out there on the world-wide interwebs. There are war books and westerns, but first we’ll be looking at something that I (though not DC) am calling their “Dark Line.” A group of books that seem designed to be a sort of “Vertigo-Light,” corporate-owned supernatural characters having adventures that, while perhaps a bit… well… darker than your average DC super hero title, don’t go the Mature Readers route, either.

This is the sort of thing out of which Vertigo itself grew, of course, back when DC was having such good luck with their mature readers Swamp Thing, Hellblazer, Animal Man, Doom Patrol, and Sandman titles that they decided to create a separate imprint for them. And they did something similar a few years later, when Starman, The Demon, Hitman, Chase, and maybe a few others formed a small group of edgier (but still all-ages) comics set in the DCU. So this is hardly new territory for them.

If anything in the reboot seems geared toward me and my interests, these books are it. So let’s see how they fare…

Justice League Dark

The Team: Peter Milligan and Mikel Janin

The Premise: When threats too weird for the regular Justice League arise, that gap is filled by the team of Shade the Changing Man, Madame Xanadu, Deadman, Zatanna and… John Constantine?!

The Appeal: The sheer “what the fuck” factor will no doubt spark some Fanboy interest here. I know I’m planning to check out the first issue, anyway, just to see if Pete Milligan can pull this off. It’s Constantine that’s the problem, of course. The rest of these guys can function just fine in the spandex world. But Constantine? I don’t have a problem with them re-establishing him as a citizen of the DC Universe. It’s fun to have him pop up and put one over on Superman every now and then. But having him join an organization that would call itself the Justice League of anything just seems… Wrong? Silly? Out of character? Maybe all of the above.

As for mainstream interest… Maybe? Constantine’s the only character anyone who’s not a huge funnybook dork is going to be familiar with, and they’re probably going to wonder why he’s not American…

Swamp Thing

The Team: Scott Snyder and Yanick Paquette

The Premise: Just when Swamp Thing thinks he’s out… they keep pulling him back in!

The solicit talks about Alec Holland getting his life back, and the Green forcing him to defend the earth from some kind of evil thing rising out of the desert. So it sounds like we may be returning to the slightly adversarial relationship Swampy had with his predecessors when he first learned about them. Which is fine. Alan Moore certainly milked that conflict for good stories in his day. Of course, Scott Snyder’s no Alan Moore…

I also wonder about that mention of Alec Holland. One of the hallmarks of Moore’s early work on the character was his slow acceptance that, while his intellect was based on Holland’s, he was a separate entity. This reversal sounds like the sort of thought that goes into these revamps when they don’t know why they haven’t been able to make a once-profitable character sell: “People can’t identify with him anymore! Bring back his human identity!” When the real answer to why the later Swamp Thing comics didn’t sell was simply that they sucked. That said…

The Appeal: Pretty wide, I should think. Swamp Thing is one of those characters that seems, for whatever reason, to have stuck in the public consciousness. And on top of that, this run shouldn’t suck too hard, either. Yanick Paquette almost seems born to draw this book. And I know I made a crack about writer Scott Snyder above, but come on! “Not as good as Alan Moore” isn’t much of a criticism. While I haven’t liked any of his comics to date enough to pay for them, I also wouldn’t call any of it bad. So as long as Snyder sticks more to a horror tone than an adventure one with this book, I think it has potential.

Animal Man

The Team: Jeff Lemire and Travel Foreman

The Premise: Buddy Baker (not the NASCAR driver, but the super hero) has retired from the spandex game to raise his family. But now his young daughter is manifesting powers, which draws Buddy back into a dangerous game.

The Appeal: Tough call. The only time this character has ever been truly compelling was when Grant Morrison was writing him. And the appeal of that run came from Morrison’s peculiar mixture of gee-whiz Silver Age fun coupled with a degree of realism that put the spandex stuff in bizarre (and sometimes terrifying) relief. Lemire says that he’s going for more of a horror feel with this run, and that’s a direction that never worked on the later iterations of the character‘s Vertigo series.

There will be Fanboy interest, just because the Morrison run is so well-remembered. And Lemire’s solid hand at writing relationships, especially family relationships, may garner interest from the mainstream, as well. If he displays it, that is. While I love his series Essex County and Sweet Tooth, his work-for-hire stuff has thus far been pretty limp. It feels like the work of an entirely different writer, and one that I don’t like nearly as much. This sounds more like his more personal work, though, so I’ve got my fingers crossed.

Frankenstein: Agent of SHADE

The Team: Jeff Lemire and Alberto Ponticelli

The Premise: Frankenstein works as an agent of the Super Human Advanced Defense Executive to secretly protect the Earth from things even more horrifying than himself! Even though he is vilified by his superiors for his very existence! Co-starring the Creature Commandos!

So that’s the movie version of Hellboy, then. Co-starring the Universal Monsters in super hero drag.

The Appeal: By all rights, I should love this book. It’s based on a Grant Morrison concept, it features Secret Agent Frankenstein, AND they found a way to pull in the Creature Commandos, one of the most bizarre Grade-Z concepts in funnybook history.

(For those unfamiliar with them: the Creature Commandos were a World War II commando unit comprised of a vampire, a werewolf, and a Frankenstein-like monster. They combined two of the things I loved the most as a kid: the Universal monsters, and a World War II setting. It was hard to find issues of Weird War Tales in my hometown, but I ate up every single appearance I could get my hands on.)

So I should be primed to love this. Except that the concept’s already made its debut in the currently-running Frankenstein Flashpoint mini, and the first issue of that (also written by Lemire) may be the worst comic I’ve read this year. I’ve seldom been more disappointed by a funnybook, and at this point I wouldn’t touch the follow-up regular series with a ten-foot pole. And if I’m not gonna read it, when it would seem to have been crafted specifically to appeal to me, I don’t know who is.

I, Vampire

The Team: Joshua Hale Fialkov and Andrea Sorrentino

The Premise: Andrew Stanton is a heroic vampire whose centuries-long truce with his former lover Mary, Queen of the Damned, has kept mankind safe from a horrifying vampiric onslaught. But now Mary’s broken the truce, and things are about to get bloody!

The Appeal: Though it comes a little late in the mad media rush to capitalize on the success of Twilight, I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that this could be a surprise hit. Why? Well, there are still lots of Twilight and True Blood fans out there, of course. But more importantly, this series is being written by Joshua Hale Fialkov, the guy behind two of my favorite funnybooks of recent vintage: Elk’s Run and Tumor. Both were inventive genre takes with refreshingly real characters and an obvious intelligence guiding them. Fialkov is exactly the kind of guy DC should have been seeking out for the reboot, and I hope this book does well enough to justify the decision.

It’ll probably have to do well with the mainstream, though, because the Fanboy reaction to it thus far has been little more than derisive laughter. I will, of course, be reading it. I love Fialkov’s stuff, and I was a big fan of the original I, Vampire strip when it ran in House of Mystery when I was a kid. It might very well tank, of course; DC doesn‘t have the best track record of late with indie comics innovators (that they let Marvel hire Nick Spencer out from under them is mind-boggling). But if Fialkov brings his best work to the show, this one could break big.

Resurrection Man

The Team: Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, and Fernando Dagnino

The Premise: Mitch Shelley just can’t stay dead! But now he’s come to the attention of forces who’d like to know what makes him tick, and won’t mind actually killing him to find out!

The Appeal: This book has a neat premise, one that I always thought should work better than it did. It survived for about two years (and, I think, one character revamp) in the late 90s, and though it’s fondly remembered by many, it’s just never caught on in Fanboy circles. Will the mainstream readership change that? Maybe. It’s the stuff of good B-Movies, anyway, and the presence of the original writing team ensures that it will at least stay true to itself. If DC’s happy with modest success for it, the book may find better luck in this century than it did in the last one.

Demon Knights

The Team: Paul Cornell, Diogenes Neves and Oclair Albert

The Premise: It’s the Dark Ages, and Madame Xanadu and Jason Blood (aka The Demon) must put together a team to combat a barbarian horde poised to crush civilization!

The Appeal: Potentially pretty big. Medieval fantasy epics do well outside of Fanboy circles, and writer Paul Cornell has a decent fan following inside Fanboy circles. He has a breezy, entertaining style that plays well in the mainstream (as his success in writing for the BBC kinda shows), and I’d say that he’s one big run on a major character away from funnybook superstardom. The Demon isn’t that character, of course, but still. This could at least catch on with fantasy fans, and they far outnumber Fanboys anyway.

And that’s the “Dark Line.” How did it fare with me? Well… I, Vampire is a must-buy, and I’ll be giving the first issues of Justice League Dark, Swamp Thing, and Animal Man serious consideration. And that’s the first time I’ve been tempted to buy four DCU titles in the same month in a very, very long time. So even though I suspect that only one or two of these will wind up being keepers, I guess that’s still job well-done for the reboot.

Now, on to the rest of the experiments…


The Team: Mike Costa and Ken Lashley

The Premise: The Blackhawks are an elite military force, outfitted with the latest in cutting-edge hardware and vehicles, who seek to combat and stop modern high-tech terrorism in its tracks!

So that’s DC’s answer to GI Joe. And I’m not just being flip there; the DC brass have described it that way, too. And I have no problem with that. The Blackhawks (originally a WWII fighter pilot squadron) pre-date the modern GI Joe team by a few decades, and seem ripe for an update.

The Appeal: Lotsa people like GI Joe, both inside and outside the Fanboy Nation, so it’s potentially pretty broad. Unfortunately, the Blackhawks don’t have a massively popular toy and TV cartoon franchise to back them up, so… We’ll see. If nothing else, this book could capture a mainstream audience of people who like colorful action teams, but think super heroes are kinda silly. Of course, since it's being written by the man behind the script (if you could call it that) for the first Transformers movie... Sounds like it'll still be plenty silly anyway.

Men of War

The Team: Ivan Brandon and Tom Derenick

The Premise: Joe Rock commands Easy Company, a team of former military men turned soldiers of fortune on battlefields made doubly dangerous by the emergence of super powers in combat!

This is a sign of the times, I suppose: Easy Company, formerly a collection of average (if colorfully-drawn) American soldiers is now turned into a bunch of mercenaries in an attempt to update them for the modern world.

The Appeal: In spite of the mention of super villains in the solicit, this looks and sounds like the hard-edged war book of the reboot, and I’ll be curious to see how it fares out there. Certainly, there’s a large mainstream readership for military fiction, even if there’s not much of one in the Fanboy Nation. The question is, can DC attract those readers to a medium that’s long since abandoned the sort of thing they like to read?

One heartening note here is that they’ve tapped Ivan Brandon to write this one. Though he was already working on the company’s (now-apparently-abandoned) Doc Savage series, he’s really another impressive indie talent. Brandon’s comic Viking is a fun sort of manly-man adventure book, and he seems well-suited to pull off a successful 21st-Century war comic for the Spike TV crowd.

All-Star Western

The Team: Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti, and Moritat

The Premise: Jonah Hex stalks the mean streets of Old West Gotham, in search of a serial killer!

No word on if this will be a new on-going Jonah Hex series, or if the lead feature will rotate among DC’s other Western properties as the title kind of suggests.

The Appeal: Hard call. The current Jonah Hex book is one of the more critically-acclaimed funnybooks DC proper has produced in recent years, and they’ve kept it going even though sales have hovered low enough to kill most books. So the Fanboy Nation appeal is, obviously, limited. But there’s a bigger market for Westerns out there in the mainstream, so maybe they’re banking on that to push sales up to an acceptable level. I certainly hope they don’t think the movie audience is going to come running to this one, though. Because, man…

And that’s all for tonight. What’s left? A bunch of super hero stuff, not all of which really warrants a full analysis. One thing I will be looking at in-depth, though, is their decision to incorporate so many of DC’s… acquired properties… into the mainstream DCU. Because, of all the reality-altering changes they’re making, those fascinate me the most.


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