Sunday, October 2, 2011

The End of the Line: The DC Reboot, Week Four

And here we are in the fourth and final week of the DC Reboot. I mean, all these books will continue along with their new status quo after this, don't get me wrong. But this was the final week that DC will be debuting new books en masse. So how'd they do? Patience, Grasshopper, patience. First, let me review the funnybooks of Week Four...

I, Vampire #1
Written by Joshua Hale Fialkov
Art by Andrea Sorrentino

I was really looking forward to this book, and for that reason I'm just the tiniest bit disappointed in it. It's not a bad comic at all, mind you. Far from it. It's just not quite as good as I'd hoped. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

For the uninitiated (which, I'd guess, would be the vast majority of you), I, Vampire was originally a strip that ran as the lead feature in DC horror series House of Mystery in the early 1980s. I read it and loved it as a kid, which is something I'm sure I'm pretty much alone in; of all the little-known franchises being given a new lease on life in the reboot, this has to be the most obscure. But because I loved it so much, I really wanted this relaunch to work. And, considering that it's written by Joshua Hale Fialkov, whose comic Tumor is one of my favorite indie books of recent vintage, I had high hopes that it would.

And for the most part, it does, offering up a nice slice of epic vampire fiction and in the process almost effortlessly quieting the Twilight jokes that abounded when that cover was released. I'm still not sure why Our Hero's shirtless up there, other than to appeal to the Twilight market, but hey. His girlfriend's nekkid except for some weird vampire body paint, so maybe it's just equal time.

Anyway. Epic vampire fiction. The story here is at once grandiose and intensely personal: Andrew and Mary are four-hundred-year-old vampire lovers who've come to an impasse. Mary wants to lead vampire-kind on a war of conquest against humanity, while Andrew thinks that's a sure way to get them all killed, and prefers a peaceful co-existence (there's some reference to drinking cow's blood in there somewhere, too, which I suppose makes Andrew some kind of wussy "vegetarian" vampire, but what the hell). They still love each other, but their irreconcilable differences are going to inevitably lead them into bloody conflict.

So that's love, blood, and rhetoric, Tom Stoppard's trifecta of great (or at least entertaining) drama, and indeed, it's a damn fine basis for fiction. Fialkov unveils it all pretty cleverly, as well, wrapping Andrew and Mary's final attempt at reconciliation around a sequence of Andrew out staking freshly-made vamps lying amongst what are seemingly mountains of bodies. It's all very skillfully done, character and philosophy and motivation playing out between the two scenes in such a way that Andrew's vampire-slaying becomes increasingly sadder the further we get into the issue.

And the morality's not all black and white, either. Andrew's clearly the hero here, and Mary clearly the heel, but the way he goes after these new vampires is a bit merciless. He clearly believes them to be innocent victims of this crazy war his girlfriend has started, but that doesn't stop him from killing them outright, before they have a chance to, you know... decide whether to be a monster or a stand-up kinda vamp. That, coupled with Mary's accusation that Andrew's really some kind of controlling aristocratic jerk who just wants to tell her how to live her life, adds a level of complexity to the proceedings that I really like.

And keeping up with all this solid scripting is the artwork of Andrea Sorrentino. Sitting somewhere between Jae Lee and John Paul Leon, Sorrentino's moody, inky-black lines are fine accompaniment for the story being told. The layout and camera placement are nice, too, especially in this, maybe my favorite page in the issue:

Of course, the seeds of my discontent are also present in that picture. The assembled vamps in that first page-wide horizontal shot are pretty comical, in an "I am trying my damnedest to be scary" sort of way. I think they're supposed to look cool, but many of their poses smack of effort, and that's NEVER cool. This happens in a few places, mostly when the vampires are getting all hissy and baring their fangs and such, and I snickered a bit every time. Because, please!

Fialkov never goes that far over the top with the dialogue, thankfully, but he commits what I see as an equally-damning sin: every once in a while, he gets cute. And (as I've noted numerous times before) I have no patience for cute. Don't get me wrong; it's not like he turned into Joss Whedon or anything. But once or twice... For instance, there's this bit where Mary turns into a wolf while Andrew's talking to her, and she quiets him by saying, "Shhh. I'm hunting wabbits." Which... Look. I love Elmer Fudd as much as the next guy. Maybe even a little more than most. But in that situation, coming out of that character's mouth... It's a grab for a cheap laugh, and it doesn't fit. There aren't many moments like that, but the ones that are here kind of stick out like a sore thumb, if only because the book's so generally well-done otherwise.

So yes, I'm nit-picking a bit. But, man. They almost nailed this one, and such glaring tiny flaws really sting in that context. Still and all, though, it was a good funnybook, and I will be back for issue two. Which I suppose is all that really matters from DC's perspective. But it was so close to an A...

Grade: B+

Justice League Dark #1
Written by Peter Milligan
Art by Mikel Janin

I think I turned against this book when Madame Xanadu started tossing out totally made-up Tarot Cards featuring the various members of the team. And considering that's page one... That ain't good.

Granted, it had a tough row to hoe with me, anyway. Why, you ask? Well, for one thing, it's called "Justice League Dark," and that's gotta be the worst funnybook title I've heard in a good long while. And for another, this is the book that brings both John Constantine and Shade the Changing Man back to the DC Universe proper after 20 years of "Mature Readers" treatments with DC's Vertigo imprint, and I've been skeptical about that plan since they first announced it. Not that I'm averse to different versions of the characters; that sort of thing's certainly never hurt Batman, after all. No, I was more skeptical about anyone in DC's stable of writers having the chops to do the characters justice.

And that is why I picked up Justice League Dark at all: Pete Milligan's name in the writing column. Both the writer of Shade's 90s Vertigo series and the current writer of Hellblazer, Milligan has more than enough talent to handle all-ages versions of the supernatural grifter and reality-warping alien madman I've come to love.

And does he deliver? Well... Yes and no. He's establishing a cast of mentally-damaged heroes of the type he excels at writing. And there are some hella-cool ideas here, too, like a Kansas windstorm filled with dirty teeth, or a cow giving birth to a mechanical meat-slicer. That stuff feels like vintage Milligan: ugly, creepy, skin-crawlingly mad ideas I'd like to see more of. Everything else about the story seems a bit rote, though, like a just-slightly-sub-par piece of spandex fiction. A just-slightly-sub-par piece of spandex fiction in which one of the heroes keeps conjuring up imperfectly-remembered duplicates of his dead girlfriend, granted, but just-slightly-sub-par nonetheless.

On the art side of things, Mikel Janin delivers some pretty, if slightly stiff, pages that probably look worse than they really are in comparison to Ryan Sook's gorgeous cover work. But Janin's good, there's no doubt about that. He shows some talent for making his characters act, and his two-page title spread of a massive freeway car crash also demonstrates some facility for action scenes. That stiffness I mentioned keeps his work from being really great, and contributes to that rote feeling the book gave me. But if he can get beyond it, he might be a truly formidable talent one day.

And that kind of sums up my feelings on Justice League Dark in general: the seeds of greatness are here, but it's stiff in ways that keep it from living up to its potential. I may give it another issue, just because I've loved Milligan's work so much in the past. Or I may not, because he sometimes chafes under the constraints of having to write plots that make sense rather than glorious nonsense that feels right. We'll see.

Grade: B

The Flash #1
by Francis Manapul and Brian Buccelato

Picked this one up on a whim, really. My local funnybook store sold out of all the big-name DC stuff before I got there last Wednesday, and I hadn't put it on my pull list, so I didn't get one. But on that very same day, I got myself a shiny new tablet computer as an upgrade from my Kindle to something with a big enough screen to handle funnybooks (might as well have all my digital reading in one place, I figured). That, of course, meant that I needed to find a funnybook to read on the thing, so I fired it up and off to Comixology I went. I'd read a couple of complimentary reviews of this book, so I picked it as my digital comics guinea pig. And I'm glad I did.

Francis Manapul and Brian Buccelato have put together a nice little funnybook here. They're credited as co-writers, with Manapul handling the line art and Buccelato the colors, making them some kind of two-headed writer-artist combo the likes of which the comics industry may not have seen before. And while they've hardly reinvented the wheel, what they have done is turn in a pleasantly entertaining little super hero story, refreshingly free of over-stated angst and tooth-clenching macho posing. What we get instead is a fast-moving story about an unassuming hero, filled with surprisingly natural dialogue and plotting that establishes Barry Allen's new status quo without a lot of painful exposition. Like its hero, this comic is simply and quietly effective.

But also like its hero, it's occasionally, well... flashy, busting out a kind of dynamic visual storytelling that's far too rare in mainstream comics. I'm not talking about splash page money-shot crap like we got in Jim Lee's Justice League debut, either. Manapul's actually enhancing his story with the flashy tricks. Just check out this page of the Flash saving himself and a villain from certain death in a fall from a great height:


Much digital ink has been spilled, of course, on the "tragedy" of DC dissolving the marriage of Barry Allen and Iris West. But I'm not worried about it. Iris is on-hand here, and is a more vital, living, breathing character than she's been in any Flash comic I've ever read. So as far as I'm concerned, she's come out of this for the better.

As has the Flash series in general. The book's not perfect, of course. The plot moves a bit clunkily in places, and (good as it generally is) there are a few places where the dialogue doesn't flow between characters the way it should. But I haven't enjoyed reading a Flash comic this much since I was a kid. There's a vitality to it, a love of its own new beginning, and that's something too few of the DC Reboot books have captured. Like Action Comics, this book's all about the new, about moving forward, and I like that. Too many of the Reboot books I've read have been bogged down in their own history, which is an odd approach to take for the sort of new beginning DC's been promoting.

None of that here, though. It's full speed ahead for the Flash, and that is as it should be.

Grade: B+

DC Digital Preview
by Various

Along with the Flash, I also picked up a copy of DC's free weekly digital preview. This is a compilation of sample pages from everything they publish in a given week. I'm not sure if they were doing it before the reboot, or if they'll continue it now that we're past the first month, but I was happy to get it this week. My local funnybook store, as I said above, sold out of a lot of the DCs before I got there this week (and considering that I came in only two hours after they opened... good for them!). So I didn't get to do the flip-through I've been giving all the Reboot books, but this gave me a chance to do the next best thing.

I won't comment on every preview I read. Most of them were for the kind of typically underwhelming comics-as-usual fare I avoid, and I was only getting about three pages of each anyway. But a few caught my interest enough that I thought I'd expend a couple of paragraphs on them, if only to give you all a taste of what I'm like when I read a funnybook I don't like...

Superman, by George Perez and An Artist Whose Name Escapes Me

The book that deals with the life of Superman in the present-day comes across as over-crowded and messy in these preview pages. Superman fights a fire monster, and Perez tries to tell the story from the perspective of the entire cast. But it's all too much. Rather than feeling like an intentional and orchestrated attempt to capture media overload, it's just kind of a mess. These pages didn't make me want to read the book, and in fact gave me a pretty negative impression of it overall.

Plus... I can't remember if he showed up on these preview pages, or if I saw him on-line, but... They've made Perry White into a ruggedly handsome man of middle age. No shit, he's square-jawed and buff! What is up with the prettification of DC's supporting cast? First Amanda Waller got turned into Alicia Keys, then Commissioner Gordon lost his grey hair. And now, this! What, has DC declared war on average-looking people? Does everyone have to be young and pretty now? He's Perry White, for god's sake! He should be crotchety, pale, and unattractive! I'm fine with a younger Superman, the erasing of the Lois/Clark marriage, even getting rid of the red trunks. But this is where I have to draw my line in the motherfucking sand!

The Savage Hawkman, by Tony Daniel and Philip Tan

My two least-favorite of Grant Morrison's Batman artists team up to try and make Hawkman marketable for the umpteenth time. The full issue might be better than these preview pages, but what I read here was just freaking stupid. Carter Hall has decided to stop being Hawkman, so he takes his costume out back and shoots it. No shit. He shoots it. Then it explodes or something and (I'm told in other reviews of the full issue) rises up like Venom and enters Carter's body, from which it can spontaneously form some kind of pointy battle armor. No shit. If any character would have benefited from a fresh start and a clean slate, it's this one, but they've opted to actually deal with his impossibly convoluted backstory. Unbelievable.

Aquaman, by Geoff Johns and Ivan Reiss

Whoo, boy. So apparently, Geoff Johns thought that the best way to get people to stop making jokes about Aquaman was to confront those jokes head-on. And to do that (at least in these preview pages), he has the poor schmuck walk into a seafood restaurant. In full costume. Carrying a trident. And sit down to order up some fish and chips.


Now, in a different context (or perhaps in the hands of a better writer), this scene might have been a lot of fun. It might have been an opportunity to demonstrate that Aquaman's so cool with himself, so comfortable in his own identity, that he really does walk around in public dressed like that, all the time, and doesn't think it's weird (though he could at least have left that trident strapped to his giant seahorse or something). But in Johns' hands, this set-up is an opportunity for Aquaman to cop an attitude and testily inform the hapless innocent at the next table that he doesn't talk to fish.


I hear that the rest of the issue goes pretty much like that, with Aquaman going from situation to situation confronting all the jokes people have made about him and explaining why he's actually really cool. With ~ATTITUDE~! Which... much like the trying-too-hard vampires in I, Vampire... automatically makes him... NOT cool. Sorry, Aquaman. Namor wins again.


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