Thursday, September 22, 2011

Bats and Crap: The DC Reboot, Week Two

So we're still running a little behind schedule here on the Dork Forty. We went on vacation at the start of the month, and it's thrown our coverage of the DC Reboot off. But tonight we play catch-up, with not one, but two posts, covering both Weeks Two and Three. Once again, I'll only be looking at the books I actually bought. And once again, I'll be trying to take the wider audience into account at some point in each review. So without further ado, let's get going with Week Two...

Batwoman #1
by JH Williams III and W Haden Blackman

A fine launch, and a good follow-up to last year's ground-breaking Detective Comics run. The artwork of JH Williams is the real draw here, of course, and he does not disappoint, delivering another issue of pretty pretty pictures and innovative layouts. This is one of those rare occasions in funnybook history where you feel like you're reading something creatively historic, watching an artist create new rules of comics storytelling out of whole cloth.

Williams has, thus far, been accomplishing this through two main tricks: panel borders that become character motifs, and slightly altering his drawing style on different aspects of the story. Batwoman panels, for instance, are arranged in creative, fluid layouts, and often happen in the shape of lightning bolts, the better to herald the electricity of her arrival. And they're drawn in a style with a heightened sense of reality, where the ink lines soften and stark color does much of the work on defining shapes and figures. When she changes out to her everyday life as Kate Kane, however, everything snaps to a traditional panel grid, and everything in those panels is defined by hard, thick lines colored with more of a pastel pallet. The artwork is no less beautiful, mind you. It's just that everything is much more sharply defined (if a bit less "real").

Williams even has a sort of "in-between" style for the "in-between" pages with Kate training or doing detective work in her Bat-Tree-House. The layouts are still on the creative side, but they tend to be a bit more structured and squarish, and the artwork's done with a lighter line and a mix of the stark and pastel colors. There's a pretty stunning two-page spread done in this style featuring Gotham detective (and Batwoman love interest) Maggie Sawyer at a crime scene. It's a nice style choice, and an even nicer layout, built around the motifs of the opening arc's villain, La Llorna:


Please oh please click to embiggen

(Please excuse the red circle. It's got something to do with the Reboot's meta-mystery plot involving some mysterious woman who they keep inserting into crowd scenes. I don't really care about that, but my scanner's not big enough to handle a two-page spread, and I stole the best web image of this one I could find.)

Williams also introduces yet another style for a couple of pages that bring back one of my favorite DC concepts of the 90s: Chase and Mr. Bones, agents of the Department of Extranormal Operations. Here, he's defining things much more with shadow, in a style reminiscent of his own work (along with JG Jones) on the original Chase series:

click to embiggen

And I'd feel remiss if I didn't share a spread that's among the best bits of mainstream funnybook exposition I've ever seen:

click to embiggen the awesomeness

Boom! In a cascade of images and hard panels, Williams and Blackman have told you everything you need to know about Batwoman time as the lead of Detective Comics, and they've done it in such a way that it fills new readers in without boring old ones to tears. The uneven distribution of the panels both conveys the high emotion of the scene, and captures the feel of memories bubbling up unbidden, even as we see the memories themselves to either side. Williams even works in the David Mazzuchelli art style he used for the "Year One" flashback scenes.

It's a brilliant performance, folks, the sort of funnybooks you get to experience maybe once or twice in a lifetime. If you're not checking it out, you're missing out on something special.

What's that? How's the story? Well, the story's not the point here, but since you asked...

It's pretty good, actually. While I worry that the writing will lose some of the thematic depth it had with Greg Rucka at the wheel, I also have hope that Williams will dispense with some of the more mundane and by-the-numbers plot elements Rucka tends to bring to his work. This first issue, for instance, stripped of its lyricism, features a crazy dead lady with drowning powers as its bad guy. That's pretty awesome, right there, and totally in keeping with the gothic tone the Bat-Books are so good at. Likewise, the dialogue mostly rings true, and it's free of painful exposition, which puts it ahead of most of the main DC line these days...

How will it fare with the wider audience? Well, Williams turns in some awfully pretty artwork, the story's cool but accessible, and there are a couple of costume change scenes that put an awful lot of skin on display. All of which sounds like a successful 21st Century funnybook to me. I'm sure there'll be some on the far right who object to the book's matter-of-fact lesbian romance angle, but they are most likely not in the majority, so... Fuck 'em.

Grade: A

Grifter #1
Written by Nathan Edmondson
Art by Cafu

And here's a textbook case of a good script being scuttled by poor artwork.

Nathan Edmondson (whose excellent Who is Jack Ellis? should be out in trade soon) turns in a nifty little piece of sci-crime writing, complete with double-crosses, alien conspiracies, and exciting action on-board a jet airplane. It's a stylish script, and a far better background for this Wildstorm Studios mainstay than the original one. Where he was a generic soldier of fortune with a really cool mask, now he's a con man (an actual grifter) with past Delta Force training. And he gets to keep the mask. There are cool mysteries (not the least of which involves exactly how much time he lost to an alien abduction event), an actual reason for him to wear a mask, and plenty of dangerous people out to get Our Hero. This book is smart, engaging, and should be right up my alley.

But artist Cafu screws the pooch on it top to bottom. He manages to get the basic story beats across, but he does so awkwardly, and without much flair. I had to stop and think about what was going on in what should have been basic action scenes, and those moments of confusion make the things that are supposed to be confusing (like the time gap) feel like mistakes. His artwork itself is kind of stiff and unimaginative, too. He seems to have trouble convincingly drawing people in hats (which is a problem since that seems to be Grifter's go-to look out of costume), and he renders one of the most ridiculously roomy passenger planes I've ever seen.

That last bit may seem a bit nit-picky. After all, planes are always far roomier in films and comics than they are in real life. Makes it easier to stage dynamic action scenes. But the center aisle of the plane in this issue is wide enough for someone to lie across it and still have room for someone to walk past on one side! It's like a flying barn! And that detracts from the scene. At this point, Grifter can hear the aliens' telepathic communication, and thinks he's losing his mind. So the tight, claustrophobic environment of a more realistically-proportioned aircraft would have played well to the crazed paranoia of the scene. It also would have rendered the ensuing fight sequence a lot more interesting if Cafu had staged it in the more confined area, so that Grifter (and Cafu) would have to get creative. As it is, Our Boy's swinging elbows right and left, and at one point holds an arm high up over his head. He might as well be on a city street!

With that lack of visual inspiration going on, a lot of the snap goes out of the script, and the comic as a whole doesn't really seem like anything special. There's a ground-out production-line feel to it. That's a feel that haunts much of the DC Reboot comics, and one that we'll come back to in a minute. I've said before that this might not hurt the books with the wider audience, but the more I think about it, I'm not so sure. Comics-as-usual sells okay. But it takes a book with a certain extra something to really garner the kinds of numbers DC seems to be looking for with the reboot, and I'm not sure this is it.

Grade: B-
(B+ for Story, C- for Art)

Mr. Terrific #1
Written by Eric Wallace
Art by Gianluca Gugliotta and Wayne Faucher

Another book with a comics-as-usual feel that ensures I won't be back for a second issue. Don't get me wrong: I like the book's "big science" underpinnings and political smarts. It's nice to see a "fun" book that doesn't play things too cute. It's also nice to get a black lead who's a successful businessman and scientific genius instead of the ghetto- or ex-con-based backgrounds we usually see. It's the execution that's lacking. The writing's a bit too obvious, too on-the-nose, for my taste, and it's a little careless, too. The introduction of what I presume to be one of the book's major characters is handled poorly enough that I wondered who she was and why I was supposed to care that she had a problem with Mr. Terrific's super-model-gorgeous Friend With Benefits Karen. The fact that I don't remember this woman's name, even after flipping back through the book to figure out who she is, just isn't good.

And the art is no better. While there are a couple of nice panels that show a little pizzazz, for the most part it's muddy, unimaginative, and a bit of a mess.

All that said, it's not bad comics, really, and might have been something I'd have liked just fine when I was a younger and less sophisticated reader. So it may have some appeal to the mass audience. I especially hold out hope on that front because of that lack of cuteness I mentioned above. The approach taken here makes Mr. Terrific's interest in science and fair play seem cool instead of silly, and that in and of itself is a triumph for any character with that name.

Grade: C

Frankenstein: Agent of SHADE #1
Written by Jeff Lemire
Art by Alberto Ponticelli

Considering how much I hated Jeff Lemire's Flashpoint take on these characters, I surprised myself by even picking this comic up. But his Animal Man debut was good. And it looked like this new series would feature a fresh start, separate from the over-stated monster-hating angst of its predecessor series, and instead embrace the "21st-Century Mad Science" tone hinted at in Frankenstein's original Seven Soldiers mini-series of a few years back. And that it does. SHADE headquarters is a riot of bizarre ideas and characters, with the seeds of at least a half-dozen future stories planted inside it. I'm not yet sold on Father Time's new form as a member of the Umbrella Academy...

click to embiggen

...but the rest is cool. It's especially nice to see Ray Palmer hanging around in this book. If we're not going to get him in an Atom on-going with this book's POV on weird science, at least we've got him here.

I don't mean to make it sound better than it is, though. Good as the concepts are, there are too many of them. Lemire might have pulled it off if the script had a more frenetic tone, a sort of "Look at these incredible ideas!!!!" excitement. Instead, the story moves with something of the stately grace of Frankenstein himself. Which is a nice touch in its own way, but it doesn't serve the book's information overload approach very well. The multitude of new ideas are explained (sometimes in more detail than necessary) by the SHADE computer system, which works to make them seem less like crazy-cool concepts and more like mundane facts of life in SHADE HQ. Don't get me wrong; their coolness still manages to shine through, but it's severely muted, and that leaves this premiere issue feeling rushed and over-packed instead of cool and overwhelming.

And, much as I hate to say it, the Creature Commandos just don't work. An old DC World War II property, the Commandos are, essentially, the Universal monsters turned into a good guy fighting unit. It's the kind of audaciously stupid idea I normally love (and did, as a child). But in this updated version, the Commandos aren't actually monsters, but SHADE agents genetically altered to serve as Frankenstein's back-up unit. Each of them has a generic action movie stereotype personality, and seem to exist only to annoy the piss out of me. Except for their medic, Khalis, who is actually a living Egyptian mummy, and thus the only cool character in the bunch.

On top of all that, the book is also burdened with some pretty generic-looking design work courtesy artist Alberto Ponticelli. He's got a pleasingly rough line and distinctly European style that might serve the Frankenstein character well, but he shows an unfortunate lack of imagination in his monster designs. And since the plot revolves around a small town that's mysteriously being over-run by monsters, and stars monsters in all the featured roles... That's not a good thing.

So I'm really torn on this one. All the pieces are in place to make this series something I might really enjoy. But the execution, once again, leaves something to be desired. I'm not even sure how the wider audience might take to it. It lacks any sort of over-the-top edge, preferring instead a more naturalistic pacing. But it also lacks the kind of depth that sort of pacing calls for. It's neither fish nor foul, and I wonder if it can survive long enough to figure out which it wants to be.

Grade: C+

So that's it for Week Two. I bought one less book than I did the week before, and I'm only likely to shell out my three bucks for one of those next month. And that one was, technically, a book I was already following before the reboot. Not so hot, and indicative of my reaction to the reboot as a whole. If I'm not reviewing a book here, it's because it's either from a creative team that I already know I don't like, or because it looks so much like generic comics-as-usual crap that I'm avoiding it unless I hear something really great in the reviews.

This is pretty much what I expected after reading the solicitations, of course, and as I said in my coverage of Week One... Many of these books aren't aimed at me anyway. Still. I am a bit disappointed that some of the books that do seem aimed at me are coming up short, and it leaves me feeling a bit pessimistic about the new DC here at the halfway point of the reboot.

How will they fare in Week Three? You can find out in just a few minutes...

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