Sunday, September 18, 2011

Three Outta Five Ain't Bad: The DC Reboot, Week One

Say one thing for the DC reboot, it's got me buying more DC funnybooks in September than I've bought in many a moon. How many will I be buying in October? Well, that remains to be seen. We're two weeks in now, and even being selective, very little has blown me away. Of course, as I said when looking over the solicitations this summer, that may not be a bad thing in regards to the wider market.

Or, as Warren Ellis put it: The New DC comics stuff looks so much like stuff I would never read that it oddly fills me with hope that they are targeting the core audience they want. If a 43-year old man looks at most of this promo stuff and goes meh, then that’s very probably a good sign for them.

So there you go. With that in mind, I'll be reviewing each of the new books (the ones I bought, anyway) in two parts: my impressions, and my thoughts on how the book might do with an audience that's... not me. And, since I missed writing about week one in a timely manner due to a vacation, I've got lots of ground to cover. Today we'll deal with the first week's books, and try to get to week two before week three hits the stands this Wednesday. So let's get started with what many people are seeing as the real flagship of the reboot...

Action Comics #1
Written by Grant Morrison
Art by Rags Morales

I joked that I'd only be truly satisfied with Grant Morrison's "back to the beginning" take on Action Comics if Superman went after corrupt landlords and threw wifebeaters out windows the way he did in his early adventures. Well consider me truly satisfied, then, because damn if that's not exactly what he does in this issue! Okay, so the wifebeater thing happens off-camera. But I didn't expect it to happen at all, so it counts.

But I'll get to all that. First impressions first. On the surface, this book is a pleasing action-oriented thrill ride that establishes some surprising things about its star. It opens with Superman going after a rich developer named Glen Glenmorgan (the afore-mentioned corrupt landlord), bullying a confession of wrong-doing out of the man, and declaring in no uncertain terms that he has no faith in the criminal justice system. It's quite an introduction, and quite a far cry from the bastion of the status quo we've been conditioned to expect.

Not that we're given much time to reflect upon it, as Superman then leaps into action against the police and military, and saves some squatters living in a condemned building that's demolished in an attempt to bring him down. He runs and jumps from set-piece to set-piece (runs and jumps because he can't fly yet), getting hurt but getting back up every time (he's also not quite so invulnerable as he'll later become). Then he spends a couple of pages (an eternity in this fast-moving book) transformed into scruffy young crusading reporter Clark Kent (he musses his hair as part of his Clark disguise), warns his BFF Jimmy Olsen of an impending crisis on a Metropolis bullet train, and leaps right back into action to stop said train before it blows up, killing everyone inside.

In even marginally less-capable hands, this would not be a good read. Exciting, perhaps, but packed with so much breakneck action that it would be devoid of character, charm, and depth. Thankfully, those things are Morrison's stock in trade, and he's blessed with an artist who can handle packing the pages so he's got room to make it work. Rags Morales is a nice choice for the book all the way around, in fact. His realistic cartooning lends weight to the proceedings, feeling simultaneously old-fashioned and thoroughly modern while delivering on the flashiness in posing and camera angle that the action demands, to boot:

Do yourself a favor: click to embiggen

But again, it's the little touches that make this book work, and Morrison knows how to pack them in even while delivering on the action that the series' title promises. An all-too-human police detective given the thankless task of bringing Superman in goes a long way in that regard, but so does Morrison's take on the Superman persona himself. Young and cocky without being obnoxious, he's fun to read about, and gets off some nice dialogue at his pursuers' expense along the way. Every character here is fun to read, though, up to and including Lex Luthor, who's just as young and cocky as his soon-to-be-arch-nemesis but considerably less easy to like.

Luthor has a point, though. His antipathy toward the Man of Steel is grounded in hard science: Superman is an alien organism of a type that tends to wreak havoc on local biospheres, causing irrevocable change and toppling the natives from their positions on the food chain. In a very real way, he's worth being scared of. So it's hard to disagree with the man's logic. Of course, as readers, we know that Our Hero only wants to see justice done. And since Luthor's attitude and methods make him easy to hate... we do disagree with him. And so the classic rivalry is born.

Speaking of Luthor's methods, though... In typical Morrison fashion, the revelation of Luthor's Superman-killing plan at the end sends plot-ripples all the way back through the issue, and reveals that there's a lot more going on than there appeared at first glance. As the story opens, just as Superman arrives on Glen Glenmorgan's balcony, we see Glenmorgan sealing an undisclosed deal with an unusual-looking man. That same man is on-hand when the bomb goes off on the bullet train, implying his connection to that event. And then we learn that Luthor's plan to deliver Superman to the military was to point that very train at Our Hero, and that he was only able to do it with the aid of Glenmorgan. So on the first page, we see the deal go down that seals Superman's fate on the last one. Clever lads, Morrison and Luthor both.

Of course, we also get some indication that Superman himself is pretty clever, too. When Clark calls the Glenmorgan story into his editor (a Mr. Taylor, no doubt of the Daily Star, where Kent worked in the very earliest Superman stories), we learn that he didn't expect Glenmorgan's confession to lead to any sort of conviction. He terrorized the man just to confirm hard evidence that he'd already dug up in his guise as a reporter. Which is still, perhaps, morally sticky, but one hell of a lot smarter than it looked in the beginning. This wasn't just simple thuggery on Superman's part, nor was it a naïve belief that making the man confess in front of a bunch of cops would bring him down. It was part of a larger plan, Clark the reporter using Superman as a tool to add weight to an expose that really could bring down a man so powerful that he's known as "Mr. Metropolis."

It also puts the lie to Superman's stated mistrust of the criminal justice system. If he didn't believe in it, after all, he wouldn't be going to all this trouble. And that speaks volumes about Clark and Superman, and how much of a pose either persona really is. As Superman, Clark is brash and confident, and even takes on less formal diction. "That ain't Superman!" he says in his opening speech to the cops. Clark, meanwhile, is kind and humble, and has good grammar. It's almost as if Clark's trying to make Superman seem dumber than he really is, though I'll need more evidence of that before I think it's something Morrison's doing intentionally. However it pans out, I think we can look forward to some nice work being done on the birth of Superman's secret identity, and how he manages it.

But I think we can look forward to good work all around on this book. Already, Luthor's mapped out the overarching theme: this will be a story about Superman entering the Metropolis ecology, and how he changes it forever. He's already in the process of taking out "Mr. Metropolis," after all. How long can it be before he takes that coveted position in the food chain for himself? I like this idea in particular. We're accustomed to the story of Batman coming in and cleaning up Gotham City's cesspool of corruption in his early days, but that's not a story we're used to seeing with Superman. But if he's as successful as I think he'll be, it'll go a long way toward explaining the character's change over time from socialist firebrand to protector of the status quo: the societal norms he'll be protecting, after all, are the ones he establishes himself.

Which is all well and good. I like complicated adventure stories with thematic depth. But what might this book look like to...

...the Wider Audience? It'll be okay, I think. Even if you choose not to dig deeper into theme and plot, this is still a very entertaining funnybook. With the understanding going in that this is a Superman: Year One approach, I think casual readers will find an engaging mix of action and charming character work. The narrative may, at times, be a bit more challenging than your average adventure fiction, but readers will often rise to that sort of challenge. So I think it'll do fine.

It's the hardcore dork audience that's having trouble with it, I think. I've seen some perplexing accusations leveled at this first issue, my favorite of which is that Superman's initial costume of a t-shirt, jeans, and boots is pandering to hipsters, and causes self-identifying nerds to disconnect with him as a character. Because, as we all know, nerds walk around in spandex circus outfits in their day-to-day life, making the character's original costume much more relatable... Seriously, I'm not even sure where this "hipster" thing is coming from. The knee-patched jeans and work boots look a lot less hipsterish to me, and a lot more like what a Midwest farm boy might consider "working clothes." Considering his "hero of the working man" status here, in fact, that seems a far more likely archetype for the look. It's a good look for him, too, far better than the more formal armored look he'll be sporting in the present. But I already went off on that in my Justice League review, so I won't repeat it here...

Grade: A

Stormwatch #1
Written by Paul Cornell
Art by Miguel Sepulveda

click to embiggen

I really wanted to like this book, but I don't. Warren Ellis' work on the original (and its follow-up book, The Authority) redefined super hero comics for a decade, and I was hoping this version would bring some of that one's fire to the table. And it tries, certainly. Paul Cornell's reborn Stormwatch is composed mostly of the characters Ellis created, and they express a similar anti-super hero pose. But that's all it is here: a pose. Just because some of them don't wear the pervert suits doesn't mean they're not super heroes. In Cornell's hands, they lack the edge, the attitude, the... ineffable quality of cool that made them work in the first place.

Or maybe it's not so ineffable. All the rough edges have been filed off. Jack Hawksmoor is no longer "The God of Cities," but a reasonable bloke who explains his super powers far more prosaically, at the drop of a hat, without really being asked, and makes them sound silly in the process. The Engineer's nipples have been quietly removed from her silver body-shell. Problematic figures like drug-addicted shaman The Doctor are nowhere to be found, replaced by a living search engine called The Projectionist (who also explains her powers, in painful detail, with little or no provocation, to people who should already know how she works). And the one DC marriage that was worth preserving, the one between the Midnighter and Apollo, has been erased like all the rest. So despite their protestations to the contrary, Cornell's Stormwatch is just another super-team like any of a dozen others. And that makes me sad.

Even beyond the inevitable (but unfair) comparisons to the title's past glories, however, this just isn't a very good funnybook. The "here's how my powers work" scenes are painful to read, filled with awkward dialogue and inevitably landing in the middle of an action scene that's way more interesting than they are. They're the very worst kind of exposition, the kind that not only reads poorly and bores the reader, but that also stalls out the plot. Cornell's turned in a clumsy, overburdened script that's not as clever as it needs to be.

And Miguel Sepulveda's artwork, while far from incompetent, is a bit lackluster. There's a touch of Mike McKone in his work, seen most obviously on the cover, above. And that's a nice starting point, I'll grant you. But on the interiors, Sepulveda's figures are often stiff, and sometimes people's joints don't work the way they're supposed to, as you can see in the title splash:

What the hell's wrong with Hawksmoor's arm?!

And that pretty much says it all about this book. It's not awful, but it is stiff and awkward, and feels like exactly the sort of rushed-out production-line funnybooks-as-usual schlock I don't spend my money on.

The Wider Audience view of the book may be more forgiving. Rushed-out production-line funnybooks-as-usual schlock often does just fine sales-wise. That's why there's so damn much of it. And, to be more fair to it, even Cornell's cleaned-up version of these characters may feel sufficiently fresh to readers who aren't familiar with them that this may fly as something genuinely different in the eyes of some. There will also be people for whom this friendlier Stormwatch is more palatable. Not everyone likes prickly, flawed, and unusual heroes, after all.

I far prefer them, however, so from me it only rates a...

Grade: C

Animal Man #1
Written by Jeff Lemire
Art by Travel Foreman and Dan Green

The surprise hit of the DC Reboot, and deservedly so. Jeff Lemire has successfully synthesized all the various takes this character saw in his 90s series into a cohesive whole that allows him to play to his own strengths as a writer. Family relationships are at its core, and around that he's playing to the more horrific aspects of the Animal Man powers. When Buddy Baker takes on animal abilities in the story, it's kind of scary. Which seems ridiculous on first blush, but honestly... Any human being in real life who could be described as having become bestial is essentially disturbing, and that's the sort of quality Lemire and Foreman have tapped into here.

Foreman, especially, delivers on the animal scenes, pulling out creepy visuals worthy of someone like Steve Pugh (himself a former Animal Man artist).

click to embiggen

Scenes like that one are so good, in fact, that I can forgive him the relative sketchiness some of the domestic scenes take on. Those are Lemire's best scenes, of course, family relationships being his specialty. While I wouldn't call the book exciting, it is refreshingly grounded and real, which is a draw in its own right, and a good basis for horror. Speaking of which, this book has a genuinely horrifying ending, one that's too good to spoil here, and that's what's going to bring me back next month.

The Wider Audience, I think, would have a similar reaction to mine, for once. While this book's not for straight-up spandex action fans, I think there's a market out there for super-horror, and I hope they find it.

Grade: B+

Swamp Thing #1
Written by Scott Snyder
Art by Yanick Paquette

click to embiggen

I must admit, I was a bit anxious about this book. Swamp Thing's been poorly-treated by DC for a long time, and I wasn't a fan of the continuity-wanking that brought him back to the DC Universe earlier in the year. Since I knew this series would be following up on that, I was wary. But Snyder and Paquette pulled it off, turning in the best Swamp Thing story I've read in years.

Paquette impresses in particular, with inventive layouts and marvelously detailed backgrounds. His work on the plant life (a pretty important artistic aspect of any Swamp Thing comic) is especially nice, and I can't wait to see him start drawing the title character with more regularity. He's also adept at drawing horror, as we'll see below.

But Snyder brings the thunder, too. We're still stuck with the resurrected Alec Holland, rather than the sort of clean slate we could have gotten with the reboot. But Snyder makes the best of it, establishing him as a separate character from the Swamp Thing we got to know in Alan Moore's classic run. Doctor Holland makes some interesting observations about the slow violence of plants (sadly prophetic for his future, I fear), and tries to find a new life for himself while getting his head straightened out. Like Animal Man, it's not particularly exciting stuff, but it's grounded in an interesting way that makes even a visit from Superman feel low-key.

Then, however, this first issue shifts gears into a top-notch horror sequence that put me in mind of the series' highlights, and cements it as classic Swamp Thing. A group of archeologists investigate what appears to be a case of fossil-poaching, and find something far worse.

click to embiggen

It was when the flies started crawling in the men's ears that I started to think we might be seeing something a little bit special. By the time their necks twisted around on them, this book had won itself a fan. I'll definitely be back next month, and I'm pretty sure any fans of horror fiction who pick it up will be, too.

Grade: A-

Men of War #1
Written by Ivan Brandon
Art by Tom Derenick

Nice cover, eh? Too bad it's all down-hill from here...

I suspected going in that this "21st-Century war comic" wasn't really for me, but I was curious enough about DC's wider genre plans that I picked it up. And, yeah, I was right: it's not for me. It's a humorless tale of clench-toothed military dedication, macho in the extreme and devoid of the kind of essentially human characters that make Garth Ennis' war comics so engaging to me. It's so macho, in fact, that it worries me.

The main feature is the story of a new Sgt. Rock, the grandson of DC's World War II hero. And instead of looking at war from the perspective of a US military grunt like the original series did, this book kind of craps all over the regular military in favor of mercenary forces. It goes well beyond the familiar good-natured griping of front-line dogfaces against their bosses, actually coming right out and saying that the normal military chain of command is fucked, and that the only people who can really do any good are the mercenary groups who work outside normal channels. This straight-faced glorification of mercenaries seems wrong-headed to me in the face of such outfits' real-world track record of carelessness and torture, and I'm kind of surprised it hasn't raised more eyebrows out there.

But the series' politics aside, is it any good? Not really. I mean, if you like humorless clench-toothed military fiction, I'm sure it's fine. Tom Derenick's art gets the job done but doesn't impress me over-much, and Ivan Brandon's script functions on a similar level. But more importantly, this modern Sgt. Rock strikes me as a bland automaton, tactically brilliant but essentially inhuman, devoid of anything that makes him interesting as a character beyond his dedication to his fellow soldiers. It's a war comic with no life to it, and that life is what ultimately makes them worth reading.

The one positive thing I can say about the lead feature is how it handles super heroes. Because, yes, that's the book's real hook: it's all about how normal men fight a war in a world where, as Rock's mercenary mentor puts it, one super-powered "accident of nature" can do "more damage in five minutes than a year of armed men could do." That, at least, is an interesting idea. But it's the only one Men of War has, and that's not enough to bring me back for more.

Grade: C


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