For the last couple of years my enthusiasm for superhero comics has been steadily waning. This is not because I’ve somehow ‘grown up’ or ‘got over it’ or any of that nonsense, but because DC Comics have very deliberately, consciously, chosen to lose my custom.
While the “DC or Marvel?” question is, of course, a meaningless one – “do you prefer your superhero adventures to feature trademarks owned by Time Warner or trademarks owned by the Disney corporation? Which dead, elderly Jewish bloke’s family do you want screwed over more, Jerry Siegel or Jack Kirby?” – the fact is that everyone who reads superhero comics at all *does* have a preference, and in my case I prefer DC to Marvel. It’s not an unthinking or absolute preference – I’d choose to read a good Marvel comic like Nextwave over a bad issue of Green Lantern, because I’m not an idiot – but all else being equal I’d rather read a Batman comic than a Wolverine one, a Superman rather than a Captain America.
But over the last few years, DC Comics have been deliberately trying to drive me away. I don’t say this from paranoia or anything like that – they have obviously identified a target market, and gone after it with brutal efficiency, and I am very far from that target market. As a result, pretty much every comic DC have put any effort into promoting over the last few years has gone as follows:
“Oh no! You know Heroman, that new, young, funny superhero who just recently started fighting crime?”
“The ethnic-minority one, who had a fully-rounded personality and a great supporting cast, whose comic Andrew Hickey really liked?”
“That’s the one. I’m afraid he’s been brutally raped and then eaten by the Ultra-Humanite!”
“Wow, that’s bad. We’d better kill all the villains ever and be angsty about it.”
“Don’t worry, because here’s the Silver Age Heroman!”
“He’s back from the dead! And he has just as little personality as ever!”
“Be fair, he’s got daddy issues now!”
“But he’s still got a blonde crew-cut, and a job in the police or military, and that’s the important thing.”
“Yes it is. Hope has triumphed over despair! Now let us never mention that minority kid ever again.”
So for the past couple of years I’ve been reading fewer and fewer DC comics, and enjoying those I have been reading less and less. Some have begun to feel like a chore rather than a piece of exciting superhero entertainment, and there are some recent comics that I’ve bought out of habit but will now undoubtedly never actually read.
The only two bright spots have been Grant Morrison and Keith Giffen. Morrison’s Batman work has been wonderful, imaginative, and everything a superhero comic should be. Giffen, meanwhile, has been doing great overlooked work. His run on Doom Patrol, in particular, was wonderfully inventive – things like the entire issue that was an Aristocrats joke, or the final issue of his run, where he wrapped up the big conflict he’d been building for many issues by just having Ambush Bug explain to the villain that Dan DiDio had cancelled the title so they’d better just go home.
Which is not to say that other writers and artists weren’t doing good work, but it wasn’t good enough to rise above the sludge and disinterest.
But this month DC are rebooting their entire line of comics, and while the announcements of the new comics stopped me from getting my hopes up too much (apparently DC thought they had too many disabled characters, too many women working for them, and character designs that were too good), just the sheer amount of new comics they were putting out meant that there must be *something* worth reading there. Right? Right?…
So today (the only day this week I’m working less than ten hours) I’m going to read through the first batch of new DC titles I’ve got and comment on them. I’m not buying them all (though I’ve heard such good things about the new Animal Man I might add it to the pull list) and have at least one comic that’s only there because I couldn’t pick up my comics myself this week (Justice League of America), but I’ll be updating this post over the next couple of hours with my as-of-first-reading thoughts on Justice League, Swamp Thing, OMAC, Batgirl and Action Comics.
Remember, I’m only buying those titles that look like they might have some merit, so theoretically I *should* love at least most of these. Check back in a few minutes for my thoughts on…
Justice League #1
writer Geoff Johns
penciller Jim Lee
inker Scott Williams
colourist Alex Sinclair
And so far, it’s not looking good, is it? Lee and Williams draw at least ten trillion lines per panel, in the hope that the completely random cross-hatching will distract the reader from the basic inability to tell a story and lack of anatomical understanding. It features three characters on the cover who are not in the story (such as it is) inside, but the cover *does* also have Green Lantern using his magic wishing ring that can do anything to… make a gigantic gun.
Which about sums up the imaginativeness of this comic. Essentially one long fight scene (apart from one cut away to show that Vic Stone can play American football quite well, though given that this is meant to be our introduction to these characters we’re given no indication in this issue why we should care about this).
There is nothing here that could be described as a ‘plot’ – merely a sequence of not-very-interesting events. Batman and Green Lantern meet each other for the first time and exposit to each other about their powers or lack of them and their entire backgrounds, while alternating between acting like macho pricks and punching a Parademon, which self-immolates. They then fly to Metropolis, where Superman comes out of nowhere and punches Green Lantern for no reason.
Now given that in the new continuity this is our first introduction to any of these characters, we can’t say that anything here is out-of-character *as such*. But it’s certainly an… interesting… choice to take DC’s three most currently-visible characters, have two of them act like macho self-aggrandising idiots and make Superman into a character whose very first reaction on seeing someone who is no threat whatsoever is to fly into them at full speed and punch them on the jaw so hard they fly at least about 70 feet and into a nearby car, knocking it over. It wouldn’t be *my* choice for how to portray these characters, and I wouldn’t want to read anything more about these characters, but maybe someone out there likes that.
There’s also the problem that Lee and Williams are incapable of representational art. Lee has many admirers, so presumably there are things to admire about his work, but one thing that’s certainly true is that his work is not a model of clarity. As a result, the ‘show, don’t tell’ maxim of so much writing has to be ignored, and the expositional burden passes from the artwork to the dialogue.
This would be OK, if Mr Johns had ever heard a human being speak English, but I’ll just leave you with one line, which seems to sum up the general incompetence of this ‘flagship’ comic:
“It combusted into fire!”
Well, maybe Swamp Thing will be better…
Swamp Thing #1
Writer Scott Snyder
Artist Yanick Paquette
Colours Nathan Fairbarn
It is. Much better. This is a good comic. It’s not great, but it sets up a bit of a mystery, it introduces our central character, Alec Holland, and gives him something approximating a nuanced characterisation (he’s a botanist, but he turned into a swamp monster, and now he’s become human again he’s scared of plants, but he still uses his old knowledge to help people). Even though Holland is portrayed as weak and scared, he’s still more heroic than the ‘heroes’ in Justice League, in that he actually does something to help someone else (recommends to a friend that his sore knee will hurt less if he wraps cabbage leaves around it).
The main fault with the story is that it spends several pages at the beginning establishing definitively that it takes place in the DC Universe, in order to satisfy those fans who care about these things (Swamp Thing, for those who don’t know, started as a DC Universe title, and the character used to interact with Superman, Batman and so on occasionally, but later editors ignored the superhero titles so they could tell whatever stories they wanted).
I’m not hugely familiar with Yanick Paquette’s art, having only read a handful of issues he’s drawn before, all to Grant Morrison scripts, but the work here is far more impressive than anything I’ve seen from him before. Especially impressive is the middle section of the book, which is clearly inspired by J.H. Williams’ work on Seven Soldiers 0, with similarly inventive layouts and panel bordering. Fairbarn’s use of different palettes for different sections is also unusually inventive for mainstream superhero comics.
The main weakness in the art is that while Paquette is an excellent layout artist and good draftsman, he’s comparatively weak as an ‘actor’, and a lot of the facial expressions seem to betray an overuse of photo-reference (see e.g. Lois Lane’s expression on the bottom of page one).
But I’ll definitely keep buying this title until it’s inevitably cancelled in about twelve issues’ time. It’s not a world-changing, fantastic piece of art, but it’s a good, enjoyable comic made by people who obviously care about doing a good job. It’s the kind of thing that should be the bread and butter of the big comics companies, but feels like a revelation because the level of quality is usually so low.
I wonder what I’ll think of OMAC…
story and art by Keith Giffen and Dan DiDio
inks Scott Koblish
And this is Keith Giffen in 70s-Kirby tribute mode. Essentially one big fight scene, this just sets up the situation, reintroducing a load of Kirby characters and situations (OMAC, Cadmus, Dubbilex) and variations thereon (Gobblers, wonderful little monsters that are like small versions of Angry Charlie).
The dialogue and captions are perfunctory at best – presumably the work of DiDio (given the credit and Giffen’s normal way of working I imagine this was done Marvel-style, with DiDio and Giffen co-plotting, then DiDio scripting over Giffen’s finished art) – but they don’t get in the way of what is essentially just an excuse to have Giffen do his Giffen thing while trying to throw in as many Kirbyisms as he can.
If you want just twenty-something pages of Keith Giffen drawing like Jack Kirby, this is the comic for you. If you don’t, there’s nothing in the story so far to make you want to stick around. Luckily for me, I do want that, so this is another keeper.
But what about Batgirl?
writer Gail Simone
pencils Adrian Syaf
inks Vicente Cifuentes
colour Ulises Arreola
This is another very competent comic, but it saddens me.
For those who don’t know, Batgirl used to be Barbara Gordon, Commissioner Gordon’s daughter, but after she was shot in the spine in the story The Killing Joke, she became Oracle, a unique character in superhero comics. Oracle was a character in a wheelchair who was still able to be a superhero through her intelligence and skills as a librarian – she became the intelligence and data expert for most of the superheroes. Batgirl is just a female Batman knock-off, Oracle was an interesting character in her own right.
Now, however, Barbara Gordon is Batgirl again (explained in one line in this comic – “a miracle happened” – maybe this has been explained in some crossover I didn’t read). This not only gets rid of the fascinating character of Oracle, who still had a huge amount of potential, it also gets rid of the new Batgirl who had replaced her (whose comics I didn’t read but was apparently a good character in her own right – my friends Debi and Jennie both enjoyed that title, but given that DC have stated that they want to appeal to twenty- to thirty-five year-old males with this relaunch, their opinions probably don’t count). Not only that, it’s to fill a void that didn’t really need filling – there’s already a red-haired female crimefighter in a Bat-outfit in Gotham, Batwoman, and her comic is drawn by J.H. Williams so will be much better than this.
Not that this is a bad comic – it’s far from that – but it’s a sign of DC’s insistence on making everything like it was in 1985 again, rather than moving forward and doing new things, and the comic isn’t good enough to overcome that. I’ll probably pick up a few more issues to see how it goes, but this is a comic that just isn’t worth the character destruction that took place to create it.
And now to the one I’ve been looking forward to most… Action Comics.
Action Comics #1
writer Grant Morrison
pencils Rags Morales
inks Rick Bryant
colours Brad Anderson
Only the second-best first Superman issue Grant Morrison’s ever written, this is still clearly the standout of this bunch of comics. Restoring Superman to his 1930s roots as someone fighting against corrupt businessmen, abusive husbands and so on, this takes quite a few elements from the very first Superman story and puts them into a structure based on the old radio show introduction – “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings at a single bound”.
Morales’ art is not up to the standard of Morrison’s writing, unless that can of cola in Luthor’s hand is meant to shrink to about a quarter of the size between panels, but this story of a Superman at the beginning of his career, still physically vulnerable and not yet up to his full powers, is clearly the best of these, though like most of Morrison’s work it gives the impression there’ll be a lot more to say about it in a few issues’ time, so I’ll reserve further judgement til then.
And that’s it for now. Overall, the quality of these has been far higher than the recent dire levels DC had sunk to, and the only really bad one is Justice League, but at the same time there’s nothing here that’s truly fantastic, or worth the company-wide reboot to achieve. This is just *what they should have been doing anyway*.