Sunday, September 18, 2011

After I wrote about my problems with Justice League #1 the other week, my lovely wife and I talked some more about our issues with the story. We realized that leading their relaunch with a Justice League series pretty much highlights our biggest problem with DC in general. The DC “universe” isn’t interesting in and of itself just because it’s a shared universe. It’s interesting because the individual characters and their stories are interesting, and the fact that they can interact is just an added bonus. By relaunching their line with a team book, DC is once again putting the cart before the horse, focusing on their overall universe at the expense of interesting stories.

However, this week, DC began restarting those individual stories in full force, and I found a number of them more satisfying that Justice League #1. So I thought I’d share my thought about them.

While, with one notable exception, most of the comics read like good, accessible jumping-on points, almost none of them read like complete restarts. That’s fine; there are very few comics fans today who would have started reading any DC superhero comics from the very first issue any more. We would all have started the story somewhere in the middle. Most of these issues felt like the first step into an already-existing universe, by which I mean it didn’t feel like we’d come in on the middle of the story, but it did feel like these characters had lives before we joined their tales.

My two favorites this week were Action Comics #1 and OMAC #1, for different reasons. Action Comics, by Grant Morrison and Rags Morales, showcases the early days of a Superman who is both radically different from the character we’ve come to know, and at the same time very true to the character’s roots. This is a Man of Steel who is using his powers to fight for justice wherever he sees the need, not just working to keep the system in place. In a world where we’ve lost faith in our government, big business, traditional media, and other social institutions, this feels very relevant and contemporary. If this is what the “new” DC is going for, they definitely succeed here.

OMAC, by DC executive editor and Keith Giffen, is easily the most fun new DC comic I’ve read yet. It’s basically a big fight scene, but well-choreographed by veteran artist Giffen. He’s wearing his Jack Kirby influences on his sleeve here. That’s completely appropriate, since not only is the original OMAC a Kirby creation, but this issue incorporates a number of other Kirby creations. The issue leaves a lot unexplained, but it’s in a way that tantalizes the reader. It doesn’t feel like the writers assume we know the back story; instead, it’s clear that they’re setting things up to be explained as we go. The book has the most energy and excitement of any of the new DC comics I’ve read so far, and I’ll eagerly follow it.

Another winner was Paul Cornell’s Stormwatch. Aside from a clunky bit of expository dialogue, as a character explains her powers and origin, this felt like a fresh, interesting take on the wilder side of super-powered adventures. (Though they’re not superheroes; they make that clear right up front.) It’s the sort of story where characters get in a fight with the moon, and that makes perfect sense.

A surprise for me was Hawk and Dove, by Sterling Gates and Rob Liefeld, who I used to really not like. Liefeld still produces some awkward panels, but overall, his storytelling is clear, fast-paced, and interesting. I’m even more impressed by the writing by Gates, more economical here than in Supergirl. This series, more than most of the others, comes with a great deal of history, with Hawk having issues working with the current Dove, who replaced his brother. Gates manages to encapsulate all that history in a few pages, in a way that sets things up clearly without making the reader feel like they need to go back and reread all the previous issues.

Less effective at dealing with past history was Batgirl #1, by Gail Simone. Featuring Barbara Gordon back in her costume, after spending the past 20 or so years in a wheelchair after being shot by the Joker, this series has aroused controversy by taking away one of comics’ only disabled heroic characters. DC has made it clear that her paralysis still happened, as is evident from the amount of time Batgirl reminisces about it as she fights some masked killers. However, the only reason given for her recovery is “a miracle.” If we weren’t going to get an explanation for her recovery, then there doesn’t seem to be a need to dwell on it as much as this issue does.

It would have been a cleaner introduction if they had just shown Batgirl on an adventure, and then explained her backstory, including her paralysis, as they story progressed in later months. Instead, it feels like DC and Simone were rushing to reassure readers that Barbara Gordon’s years as Oracle still happened. That’s something directed more towards longtime readers, not the new readers DC is ostensibly courting with this relaunch. And it truly does make the new reader feel as if they’ve missed something.

As frustrating as Batgirl #1 was, it pales in comparison to Swamp Thing #1. Rather than focusing on the introductory story, about something weird going on with the world, causing mass deaths of populations of wildlife, writher Scott Snyder chooses to focus on how Alec Holland has returned from the dead but still somehow has all the memories that Swamp Thing had, because Swamp Thing thought he was Alec Holland while Alec Holland was dead. If I hadn’t read the issues leading up to this story, that wouldn’t make much sense to me either, and this is a series ostensibly intended for readers who haven’t read those stories. Again, I feel that Snyder should have led with the mystery, and then fed in the character backstory as it went along.

I don’t actually have a lot to say about Detective Comics #1, Green Arrow #1, or Justice League International #1. I enjoyed them all; they were all perfectly serviceable superhero stories. The art, particularly, was very nice in all three.

Animal Man #1 was another nice surprise; it’s a great mix of superheroes and weirdness, which gives it a nice edge. I know from interviews that writer Jeff Lemire and Swamp Thing writer Scott Snyder are friends and talk about their books a lot. Hopefully, Snyder will learn from Lemire’s example, and Swamp Thing will improve as it goes.

Finally, Men of War #1 was a book I was looking forward to a lot. It’s been too long since DC has tried anything besides superhero books. While this is set squarely in the DC universe, I like the idea of ordinary soldiers having to deal with super-powered beings as weapons. I also like the idea of straight war stories as a backup feature, although I thought the dialogue in the first installment of Jonathan Vankin’s Navy SEALs story felt a little too Robert Kanigher gung-ho.

So, overall, the new DC universe seems to be producing a decent line of mainstream superhero comics. The biggest successes seem to be the ones in which the creators have the confidence to forge ahead with new stories, instead of feeling the need to drag along the weight of the backstories. Since that’s what’ll help bring new readers aboard as well, I hope we see more of that as the line progresses.