Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
Let me be clear right from the start: I don’t think that Dan DiDio, Geoff Johns, and assorted other DC functionaries had this week in mind whenever they decided to kick off a cycle of crossover-driven carnage which Blackest Night brought to a close. I don’t think they said to each other, back during George W. Bush’s first term, “we want a miniseries starring the Hawks, Aquaman and Mera, Captain Boomerang, Firestorm, and Black Adam Jr. We’ll bring Deadman back to life, and he’ll tie it all together. Oh, and we’ll bring Barry Allen back and launch his new book the same day.”
It’s a neat thought, though, isn’t it? Barry was the avatar of the Silver Age, and his new #1 drops the same week as the first issue of the you’d-think-it-would-be-peppy Brightest Day. They’re both written by DC’s new Chief Creative Officer, Geoff Johns (BD is co-written by Peter J. Tomasi). Heck, DC should’ve gone for broke and called April 14, 2010 the start of the Brightest Age. Some loose ends notwithstanding, I think we are done for a while with the annual Event That Changes Everything — and before I bury the lede too deeply, I’m not entirely sold on BD, but I liked Flash #1 a lot.
(SPOILERS FOLLOW for both books…)
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Anyway. If this truly is the Brightest Age of DC Comics, I expect the publisher to be back in the business of telling stories, not massaging setups. Re-reading Infinite Crisis over the weekend makes me think this may actually be the case. Separated from its feeder series, Infinite Crisis is a frenzy of posturing and mechanics. I was amazed at how many elements it tried to pull together, and its character arcs had to compete with all the fighting, destruction, and changes of scenery. Comparing Infinite Crisis to the relatively compact Blackest Night sure shows how much Johns has grown as a writer — for one thing, it makes Blackest Night look downright subtle.
Nevertheless, like Blackest Night, one of Infinite Crisis’ priorities was to invite readers into a deeper exploration of the larger DC superhero line — or, in simpler terms, to get them to buy more DC comics. Infinite Crisis did this in two ways: first, by jumping all its regular titles ahead by one year; and second, by filling in that year with the weekly series 52. As I understood it, the idea was to disorient everyone, old hands and new readers alike, with a changed status quo that would take 52 weeks to explain. That worked well enough for 52, and not so much for the “One Year Later” books. Accordingly, Blackest Night’s follow-up, Brightest Day, makes things simpler: a dozen (mostly) familiar DC perennials each start from the same just-been-brought-back-to-life point.
Brightest Day #0 also reminded me a lot of 52 in that both had their loosely-connected characters trying to find their places in a subtly-changed world. Brightest Day doesn’t share 52’s devotion to structure, and most of its characters were Justice Leaguers, so it’s not as eclectic or as entry-level as 52 was. Instead, picking up practically from the last page of Blackest Night, and exploring some of its lingering plot points, BD aims to tell us why these twelve characters were brought back — and also, probably, will ask indirectly which of the twelve deserves a solo series.
Thankfully, also like 52, BD appears to be a story first and a marketing tool second. Because it’s still early, it’s hard to say how good of a story BD will be. Issue #0 was devoted to introductions and orientations, with the Barry Allen Flash, the Ray Palmer Atom, and a handful of Green Lanterns helping the former Deadman bring any new readers up to speed. As such, there were only hints of actual plots: Jade and Aquaman are reminded of their Black Lantern iterations, Max Lord attempts large-scale mind control, someone’s stolen Hawkman and Hawkgirl’s original bodies, and J’Onn J’Onzz and Osiris have plans for their homelands.
That means Brightest Day #0 is a mélange of character thumbnails so familiar they caused my mind to drift off on tangents surely unintended by the writers. For example, why is Captain Boomerang in the maximum-security Iron Heights prison if he’s just been brought back to life? Are there laws in the DC universe which reinstate any unserved portion of your sentence if you are lucky enough to be so revived? Shouldn’t Ron Raymond be older and/or more mature? And was it just a bit too clever to have that baby bird die so vividly right on the first page?
Some of BD’s problems also lie with its penciller, Fernando Pasarin. His work is mostly clear and easy to follow, but early on it is a bit confusing. An establishing shot of Aquaman and Mera’s lighthouse calls undue attention to the damage atop it, as opposed to orienting the reader to the appropriate indoor scene. A few pages later, a flashback image in the middle of a place-to-place transition almost makes it appear that Hawkman and Hawkgirl have themselves relocated to the Andes, when really the sequence intercuts between the Hawks in Louisiana and the Andean expedition.
Brightest Day #0 does get some things right. I think Johns and Tomasi have a decent handle on Aquaman and Mera, both clinging to each other as they try to make sense of their Blackest Night experiences. I liked the J’Onn J’Onzz sequence, although I did expect him to raise a giant clockwork mechanism out of the Martian desert. I am looking forward to some continuity-diving, both with the Hawks’ connection to the Star Sapphires and the source of Osiris’ powers. And after complaining last week that Hawk was too obscure, I thought he and Dove got a fine reintroduction this issue.
Finally, at the risk of going too obscure myself, I’ll compare Brightest Day #0 to the old Super-Team Family title. Once upon a time, it featured a storyline involving the Atom enlisting the help of various Justice Leaguers and other DC heroes as he chased his imperiled wife across the universe. It was a story which could easily have worked in the context of Justice League of America, but arguably it was too personal for a team-oriented title. Brightest Day has the potential to be more than either Blackest Night’s coda or a trial run for a new Hawkman or Aquaman series. I don’t think it will be the foundation upon which the Brightest Age is built, but it might not be too bad.
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I am, however, considerably more optimistic about Johns’ and artist Francis Manapul’s tenure on The Flash vol. 3.* Much of this is due to Manapul’s work. He portrays super-speed very effectively, depicting Barry’s traditional afterimages clearly and directing the reader’s eye to each one skillfully, and otherwise using blurs, speed lines, and “lightning trails” to suggest super-fast motion. Even Manapul’s sketchy style suggests something so fast it doesn’t seem quite finished — but combined with Brian Buccellato’s colors … oh my goodness this is a great-looking comic book. (Manapul also throws a little artsy-panel layout, which makes me smile just thinking about it.) On Flash: Rebirth, Ethan Van Sciver drew Barry and company with such power that you could sense the Speed Force propelling them forward, but Manapul goes more for grace and the moments between eyeblinks.
And oh, right, Geoff Johns … well, he’s good here too. In the first few pages (previewed all over the place) he and Manapul set up the techno-deco Central City, introduce Barry’s wife Iris, and drop us in the middle of a high-speed car chase with the Trickster. Before the issue is over we’ve gotten a look at Barry’s job, at his relationship with Iris, at the infamous Rogues’ Gallery, and at his latest case — and that last looks like a real doozy, very much in the spirit of Barry’s original adventures.
Johns keeps Barry humble, of course, without much of the ego which drives Hal Jordan over in Green Lantern; but a bit of hero-worship still slips through. That sequence must depend on it being Take Your Child To Work Day,** because otherwise I can’t figure how else the Flash could have been in the right place to leave a youngster so starstruck.
I also have a nitpicky problem with Iris Allen’s age. I like that she and Barry both still look to be fairly youthful (late 30s, probably), but up to this point she’s been portrayed as older, at least in her 40s. Next to Wally she should look like his aunt, and next to Bart she should look like his grandmother — not Aunt-May-old, but not unreasonably young, either. Like I said, just a nitpick.
Flash #1 closes with the familiar preview page, only this time it’s two pages advertising 2011’s “Flashpoint” event, drawn by Andy Kubert and Paul Neary. I know I just spent the top of this post claiming that (to paraphrase Bill Clinton) the Era Of Big Events Was Over, and goodness knows it could morph into a Blackest Night-level thing in a year, but for now I imagine it’ll be a “Sinestro Corps”-style regular-series arc. Looks pretty good, though … probably set on Earth-3.
None of that dampens my enthusiasm for Flash #1. Back when Rebirth began I thought Johns would follow it with a series of self-contained storylines, like he did with Green Lantern, and that sure looks like what he’s doing. Most important, though, is the tone of freewheeling adventure which is key to any Flash series. Between Rebirth and Blackest Night, Barry has been a big player in the DC universe over the past year, but Johns doesn’t bog down Flash #1 with gratuitous references. He certainly could have — after all, it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to think that his readers would have read those other miniseries. Instead, he hits the character’s highlights: devoted wife, tech-y police job, and most importantly, runs real fast. This was an excellent first issue, and DC should keep it in mind for whatever comes after Brightest Day.
* [To me, Vol. 1 combined Jay Garrick’s Flash Comics #s 1-104 and Barry Allen’s The Flash #105-350; Vol. 2 was Wally West’s Flash #s 1-247; and Bart Allen’s series was properly called The Flash: The Fastest Man Alive.]
** [The kid wears a “visitor” tag, which I didn’t notice upon first reading.]