Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
This is a pretty big week for DC.
I know I said that four weeks ago, when Brightest Day #0 and The Flash vol. 3 #1 appeared in comics shops, and I don’t want to take too much away from that.
Still, today saw the debuts of The Return Of Bruce Wayne #1, the relaunched Birds Of Prey #1, and Keith Giffen returning to his old charges from Justice League International. Not unsurprisingly, each of these comics builds on many years’ worth of stories, and each nevertheless aims to be accessible to the uninitiated. Therefore, this week let’s see how effective these four introductory issues are.
SPOILERS FOLLOW for Return Of Bruce Wayne #1, Birds Of Prey #1, Booster Gold #32, and Justice League: Generation Lost #1.
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Birds Of Prey vol. 2 #1 reunites writer Gail Simone and artist Ed Benes, so that they can in turn reunite Black Canary, Oracle, the Huntress, and Lady Blackhawk. Although a new origin blurb explains that “when the heroes are in trouble, they call the Birds of Prey,” there’s really not much more to the team than that. And that’s fine — I’m not complaining. It leaves Simone and Benes ample room for individual vignettes, including an eight-page prologue/fight scene featuring Black Canary and two pages each for Huntress and new recruits Hawk & Dove. After a subsequent sequence connecting H & D to the rest of the team, the first arc’s plot begins in earnest, and the issue finishes on an intriguing cliffhanger. I think I know who the mystery villain is, but I’m not sure.
When Ed Benes drew Justice League of America a few years back, he regularly took a lot of flak from the fans for his cheesecake-y portrayals of female Leaguers. Although I thought his storytelling was decent enough, I was therefore a little concerned about his work on this title. Well, he still puts the Birds in a couple of questionable poses — I’m thinking of Lady Blackhawk cocking her hip awkwardly on page 9 and Huntress doing a high kick on page 10 — but nothing particularly egregious. (In other words, I saw panels where Benes could have twisted boobs and/or butt towards the reader, and he didn’t.) His storytelling is pretty good here as well. Much of it is fight choreography, and sometimes all those flying bodies get a little confusing. I would also have liked more special effects on the Canary Cry, mostly for the sake of those hypothetical new readers. Usually I see Benes’ work inked in a more scratchy style, but here he is helped by Nei Ruffino’s intricate colors. They add weight and dimension, and they especially establish an ominous mood in the first sequence.
I haven’t kept up with everything these characters have been through in the year or so since Vol. 1 ended, so I was pleasantly surprised to find Oracle in the original Batcave and Canary and Lady Blackhawk still working together. This looks to be a more Gotham-flavored title than it was before, with Hawk & Dove apparently patrolling “the nice part” and a familiar Bat-villain showing up towards the end of the book. I suppose that shouldn’t be a surprise, considering that Simone’s Secret Six stars three characters who began as Bat-foes, and it’s visited Gotham a couple of times in its young life. There’s a reasonable amount of backstory, some of it conveyed in stylized blurbs, but the book risks feeling exposition-heavy in the Black Canary prologue. It’s not clear from this issue whether that will figure into the rest of the arc, so right now it seems a little disjointed.
Speaking of Secret Six, new readers shouldn’t expect to find as much of that book’s brand of twisted humor here. (A Gotham gang dressed as killer cheerleaders is about as close as it comes.) While Black Canary, Huntress, and Lady Blackhawk aren’t squeaky-clean, they are still superheroes, and Simone is careful to contrast Canary’s solo action here with her time leading the Justice League. The threat is both well-suited to the Birds’ particular talents and scary enough to keep the reader intrigued. At the end of these first four issues, Simone clearly intends to establish a unique place for this team within DC’s superhero community. That’s no small task — a good bit of DC’s teams are variations on the Justice League — but if this issue is any indication, she and Benes are moving confidently towards that goal.
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Probably the most accessible of these four issues is Batman: The Return Of Bruce Wayne #1, written by Grant Morrison, pencilled by Chris Sprouse, and inked by Karl Story. It is exactly what its cover describes: Caveman Batman, the 21st Century’s Bruce Wayne thrown back in time to fight … well, you can probably guess, if you know your DC cavemen. There are callbacks to Final Crisis as well, but a) I’m not inclined to research them right now and b) I suspect they’ll be explored throughout this miniseries. Sprouse’s and Story’s art is exquisite, and Morrison’s script is very entertaining. (The setup for Batman’s “team-up” is particularly subtle.) It does go a little too far in one respect: I have a hard time believing that caveman-language is as close to English as one of the gags suggests.
Now, a lot of this goodwill comes from seeing the familiar Batman elements reconstituted in prehistoric form (and not, I feel compelled to add, having them come across like something from “The Flinstones”). If ROBW turns into six issues’ worth of “this is how Pirate/Cowboy/Zoot Suit Batman invents the Bat-Signal/Batarang/Batmobile,” that won’t be good. However, a helpfully expository page sets up the overall plot pretty efficiently, and adds a necessary degree of suspense. This was a very good start to what should be, at minimum, a fun diversion.
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And that brings us to the last couple of first issues, Booster Gold #32 and Justice League: Generation Lost #1. The common denominator (some might say the lowest one, ha ha) is, of course, Booster himself, once again guided by plotter/breakdown artist Keith Giffen. BG is scripted by Giffen’s longtime collaborator J.M. DeMatteis, while Judd Winick handles JL:GL’s dialogue. Chris Batista pencils and Rich Perrotta inks BG, and Aaron Lopresti and Matt Ryan draw JL:GL.
Whew! Now that that’s out of the way…
As if you didn’t know, the Giffen/DeMatteis duo made its reputation on a five-year run of Justice League International books back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Since then they’ve reunited for projects of similar bent, including a five-issue Defenders miniseries for Marvel, Boom!’s Hero Squared series, and the recent “Metal Men” co-feature in Giffen’s Doom Patrol. Naturally, their work has a distinctive rhythm, expressed mostly in rapid-fire back-and-forth bursts; but they know when to slow things down, and in one Justice League arc, they even tried to get serious.
Booster Gold doesn’t quite have those rhythms — or, more accurately, it tries to incorporate Booster’s narration into the dialogue’s cadences. Booster’s narration certainly isn’t morose, but neither is it as zippy as what comes out of his mouth. This makes it a little harder for issue #32’s plot to get going. It finds Booster on the ravaged planet Daxam, trying to receive an ancient MacGuffin-esque artifact while keeping a handful of refugees safe from the world’s death throes (and other dangers). This distills Giffen and company’s approach pretty succinctly: Booster is a harried, witty time-traveler who nevertheless must deal constantly with issues of life, death, and destiny. The Daxam scenes take up most of the issue, but they end rather abruptly, and almost conveniently. The last few pages deal with Booster’s colleagues, android sidekick Skeets and guide/“boss” Rip Hunter, and there’s a segue into JL:GL #1 … but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Overall I thought Booster Gold #32 was a nice mix of humor and pathos, similar in tone (if not rhythm) to Giffen and DeMatteis’ other collaborations. Much of that has to do with penciller Chris Batista. This issue flows differently than previous Giffen/DeMatteis offerings, which again goes back to the R-word I’ve been using throughout. Most of the Justice League pencillers, from Kevin Maguire and Ty Templeton to Adam Hughes and Bart Sears, emphasized facial expressions to complement the dialogue. The result was a more comedic effect, whether the comedy was broad or subtle. Here, although his characters have appropriately expressive faces, Batista’s focus is more on their movements. Since Booster and crew are dodging debris and navigating a ruined city, the panels are very cluttered and the book feels claustrophobic, so the characters need to stand out somehow. Still, as with the use of first-person narrative captions, it’s perhaps a more traditional approach than I’ve seen out of Giffen and DeMatteis. It’s not ineffective or unfamiliar, just different. Most importantly, I thought it was funny, and I think this team has potential.
Justice League: Generation Lost #1 has a slightly different set of issues. Artists Aaron Lopresti and Matt Ryan did bang-up work on Wonder Woman, and here they are nicely reminiscent of the young Adam Hughes’ work on Justice League International from over (gasp!) twenty years ago. They can handle facial expressions fine — for example, a six-panel sequence where (a very Hughes-ish) Ice’s expressions convey much of the mood — but they are also adept at action. Lopresti and Ryan’s style is very similar to Batista and Perrotta’s, but the former’s work feels a little tighter and more focused.
JL:GL is not an out-and-out comedy, and it doesn’t try to be as funny as Booster Gold does. In Judd Winick’s script, characters yell at each other with no hints of affection, and the expository captions occasionally went on long enough I started to wonder if I was missing an omniscient narrator. Winick makes JL:GL read like any number of modern superhero comics, and his Booster doesn’t sound much like DeMatteis’, but he does a credible job bringing the disparate ex-JLIers together. For now, the plot’s the thing, and JL:GL is about setting up Maxwell Lord as the most dangerous man alive. This it does well, not just by recapping Max’s involvement in the run-up to Infinite Crisis, but by showing Max killing a couple of unsuspecting policemen. Giffen and Winick even give Max a halfway-credible worldview.
Accordingly, JL:GL isn’t a return to JLI form for Giffen and his collaborators. Instead, it’s more in the style of his Doom Patrol or that 52 Aftermath: Four Horsemen miniseries from a few years back. Like those titles, Generation Lost leans pretty hard on continuity and prior knowledge of the characters. I’m looking forward to watching the friction between Checkmate’s Fire and the ex-Air Force officer Captain Atom, but that doesn’t come so much from the issue itself. And to be fair, this isn’t the kind of series which cries out for new readers.
It’s not Justice League International either, although that’s not to say it couldn’t be. (It doesn’t look like it will be anytime soon, but there are still twenty-five issues to go.) Giffen, DeMatteis, and Kevin Maguire had two fairly successful JLI-reunion miniseries not that long ago, so Giffen probably doesn’t feel that conflicted shepherding these characters through what amounts to The OMAC Project’s sequel. In a perfect world, I’d have liked a little more bwah-ha-ha from Giffen and Winick, but for now I can find that in Booster Gold. I liked Generation Lost #1 for what it is: the start of a promising, well-told superhero story.