Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
This week, I count at least five New-52 books picking up pretty much where they left off. Chief among these are Green Lantern and Red Lanterns; followed by Batwoman, which was supposed to come out months ago. Batman and Robin keeps its previously-announced regular creative team, and Legion Lost spins out of the pre-existing Legion of Super-Heroes. Overall I thought this week was pretty strong, but there were a few clunkers, including at least one book which really disappointed.
Just think — after this week, we’re more than halfway done…!
SPOILERS FOLLOW, but not too many.
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In the better-late-than-never department, once I realized I could download Batwing #1 without having to make a special trip to the comics shop — and once I figured the extra $2.99 for the download was basically gas money — I did in fact read the issue online. That’s right, online, with my old wooden eyes. What’s more, I liked it: issue #1 (written by Judd Winick, drawn by Ben Oliver) lays out the real and reasonable differences between David Zavimbe and his American patron, establishing the “Batman of Africa” not just as part of Batman, Incorporated, but of this part of the world’s own superheroic tradition. True, if “superheroes” as DC-Earth understands them are only five years old, maybe it’s not quite the Justice Society. Still, like the Batwoman stories in Detective Comics, this book balances effectively between standing on its own and trading on the larger Bat-mystique.
I hope the theme of Green Lantern’s latest arc (written by Geoff Johns, pencilled by Doug Mahnke, inked by Christian Alamy) can be summed up by the statement “your life doesn’t have to be about a job.” It’s not a bad way to approach being a Green Lantern, and it could prove insightful into both Sinestro (as a returning GL) and Hal Jordan (as an ex-GL, once again). That it’s uttered by Carol Ferris, who for decades anchored Hal to Earth (and, by implication, away from every other planet in Sector 2814), may also pay off in a re-examination of their relationship. On its own, this is an efficient (re)introduction to the Johns/Mahnke GL, and while it may not be the most new-reader-friendly, I like where it’s going.
Sticking with the power of concentrated emotions, Red Lanterns #1 (written by Peter Milligan, pencilled by Ed Benes, inked by Rob Hunter) starts off with an almost-absurd sequence featuring sadistic extraterrestrials and a certain fan-favorite RL. If Green Lantern argues there’s more to life than one’s job, Red Lanterns similarly explores the ennui which accompanies too much of the same job. Of course, it does so with over-the-top violence, improbable female choreography — seriously, Benes is probably making excuses for butt-shots at this point, just to see how the Internet reacts — and a certain amount of pathos which borders on emotional manipulation. I liked it more than I thought, but I expected it to be more baldly operatic than it was. Still, any comic which casts Atrocitus as a manager frustrated with himself and his employees has got me for at least a few issues.
In fact, Batman And Robin #1 (written by Peter J. Tomasi, pencilled by Patrick Gleason, inked by Mick Gray) seems more interested in the satirical value of ultra-violence, here personified by Damian “Robin” Wayne. B&R’s big change finds Bruce and his son visiting the site where Thomas and Martha Wayne were murdered, one last time, so that Bruce can move on before Crime Alley is finally turned into something other than a grim reminder. There’s more than a little metatext in the Dynamic Duo’s dialogue: as Batman describes the familiar slow rain of pearls, Robin interrupts impatiently — like many readers, he’s heard it all before. Meanwhile, there’s a new villain out to get Batman, Incorporated operatives, and Batman and Robin must stop a trio of outclassed spies from stealing Gotham University’s radioactive widgets. Tomasi’s dialogue tends to be overwritten, but not so much here; and Gleason and Gray continue to do good work.
“Continued good work” is something of an understatement when it comes to Batwoman #1 (written by J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman, drawn by Williams), a book which largely lives up to lofty expectations. Williams’ art is lush and expressive, educating the reader on the character’s history through mural-style streams of expository panels. While Greg Rucka’s distinctive, no-nonsense patter is noticeably absent, Williams’ and Blackman’s dialogue makes up for it with a new dynamic: Kate pushing away her dad and putting her once-and-future sidekick (Bette “Flamebird” Kane) through more intense training. It’s a lot to take in, and Williams’ layouts especially reward multiple readings, but new readers should seek out the Batwoman: Elegy collection just on general principles. For the rest of us, who’d been waiting since the spring, Batwoman #1 is well worth it.
I was prepared to like Frankenstein: Agent Of SHADE #1 just on the basis of Jeff Lemire’s Flashpoint-facilitated miniseries. However, when I saw it would be drawn by Alberto Ponticelli, who’d done such earthy, dynamic work on the most recent Unknown Soldier series, it only increased my anticipation. Considering that Unknown Soldier was an all-too-realistic look at the horrors of violence in Africa, it’s crass to say it this way — but Ponticelli brings the same sort of energy to secret headquarters and invading monsters. Although Frankenstein (yes, I know he’s properly “the Monster,” but he’s long since taken his creator’s name) and the Creature Commandos return from the miniseries, Lemire’s script introduces their boss, Father Time, and disapproving scientist Ray Palmer (whose Atom adventures Lemire wrote, pre-relaunch). It feels a lot like Hellboy, but that’s not necessarily bad; and this uncomplicated issue is endearing on its own merits.
The week’s other monsters-as-superheroes book is Demon Knights #1 (written by Paul Cornell, pencilled by Diógenes Neves, inked by Oclair Albert), which also refuses to take itself too seriously. Since last week’s Stormwatch #1 connected itself to this super-team of centuries past, it’s tempting to call this “Justice League Medieval,” but truthfully, it’s a decent tale about the few survivors of Camelot’s fall. We’re introduced initially to Etrigan the Demon, his unwilling host Jason Blood, and Madame Xanadu. By the last page we’ve seen them brought together with the loutish immortal Vandal Savage and the self-styled “Shining Knight,” Sir Ystin, to fight the forces of the wizard Mordru and “the Queen,” who I take to be Morgan Le Fay. All are quite familiar to longtime DC readers, but each has been tweaked at least slightly, so us oldsters will probably have to get acquainted all over again. Etrigan seems particularly unlike his conventional rhyming self, and is a little more chummy to boot, but (without looking at the hardcover on the other bookshelf) this doesn’t exactly fly in the face of Jack Kirby’s original stories. Cornell’s script is more accessible here than Stormwatch’s was; and while I know I’ve seen Neves’ and Albert’s stuff before, I don’t remember it being this crisp. Like Frankenstein, this is a relatively straightforward first issue which has me ready for more.
That brings us to the HardCore! XXTreeme! run of books, and we begin with Deathstroke #1 (written by Kyle Higgins, pencilled by Joe Bennett, inked by Art Thibert). I was not looking forward to reading this, mostly because the character seems pretty far removed from his ‘80s and early-‘90s heyday, and besides the book looked like it would be long on attitude and violence and short on anything appealing. Reading the issue, though, I think that’s only half right. There is a lot of attitude, much of it from Deathstroke but a good bit of it from the cool-kid team of teenaged wannabes with whom he’s paired. It’s their job to be obnoxious, so Deathstroke looks cool by comparison. As for the violence, it’s there right from the decapitations on pages 2 and 3. The story’s self-contained, with a grim twist at the end and a dangling plot thread intended to entice the reader to come back. Although I am curious about the latter, the former didn’t work for me. Like the last page of last week’s Detective Comics, I understand it’s intended to make a point about the character. However, the point it made told me this book is not for me. Deathstroke #1 is not a poorly-constructed issue — Bennett and Thibert are fine storytellers, and Higgins’ script does what it needs to — but I wasn’t sold on this anti-hero.
Neither was I too fond of Suicide Squad #1 (written by Adam Glass, pencilled by Federico Dallocchio, inked by Ransom Getty), whose climactic twist is nothing new. Essentially it introduces the new-and-improved versions of Deadshot, King Shark, Harley Quinn, El Diablo (a somewhat pleasant surprise, I’ll admit), Savant, and Black Spider. However, none of them have particularly redeeming qualities, and since we see them either being tortured, or doing unsavory things in flashbacks, there’s not much pleasant about the book. Just as Deathstroke was originally a villain with understandable, relatable motives, so the ‘80s Squad was run by people who wanted to do right, albeit with hardened supercriminals. This isn’t that. It’s like someone decided the best thing about Secret Six was the gore and the anything-goes amorality, and got rid of everything else.
There’s gore in Grifter #1 too (written by Nathan Edmonson, pencilled by Cafu, inked by Jason Gorder) — an injury-to-the-eye, as the price guides say, right in the first sequence — but at least the main character is reluctant about it. That kind of surprised me, since I am pretty much only familiar with Grifter through his appearance in 1997’s JLA/WildCATS crossover, and he didn’t seem like the “oh God I just killed someone” type there. This issue feels like the first part of an origin story, although when Cole Cash (ha ha, I get it) puts on the mask at the end, it doesn’t look homemade. (I guess he picked it up in that costume shop earlier.) Anyway, the issue has our pal Cole apparently murdering random innocents, although we know (because he knows) that they’re really killer extraterrestrials who tried to assimilate him too. That’s all fine — Edmonson, Cafu, and Gorder do a good job with that part of it. However, the part at the end, where it’s revealed that Cole’s brother is the military guy assigned to bring him in, is where the book’s credibility got stretched a little too far. Yes, I know I am accepting killer body-snatching extraterrestrials, and not brotherly feuds, but the latter was just too coincidental. Still, a minor complaint, and I’ll be back next issue.
The last group of books is more traditional superheroes, starting with the all-new-all-over-again Superboy #1 (written by Scott Lobdell, pencilled by R.B. Silva, inked by Rob Lean). Fans have complained that this is not the same old wisecracking, hunky Kon-El/Conner Kent they came to love, and he isn’t. However, while this Superboy is a pretty standard “detached observer of human behavior,” he’s got a nice self-aware relationship with his surroundings. As part of those surroundings, Superboy revamps two very familiar characters (one from the, shall we say, greater DC family) as the ostensible Boy of Steel’s handlers. Silva’s work is as good as it was on the “Jimmy Olsen” backups in Action Comics, and Lean finishes it well. Although that by itself makes a strong case for sticking with this book, I was very pleasantly surprised that Lobdell’s approach grounded Superboy’s character so well. I didn’t expect to look forward to Superboy #2, but there you go.
It pains me to say that Mister Terrific #1 (written by Eric Wallace, pencilled by Gianluca Gugliotta, inked by Wayne Faucher) tries too hard, but boy does it ever. Page 3 contains the phrase “stepped up their mercenary efforts to weaponize the world,” and it doesn’t get much better from there. This is a book which, yes, tries very hard to be full of nifty ideas and heroically tragic people, but it ends up feeling forced. Plus Mister Terrific is kind of an egotistical jerk, and not even the twist I saw coming midway through the book makes up for that.
Happily, Resurrection Man #1 (written by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, drawn by Fernando Dagnino) delivers a tight standalone pilot-episode story. Mitch Shelly gains a new superpower (and reason for using it) every time he dies, which apparently happens pretty frequently. This time it’s magnetism, combined with a cross-country plane trip. Mitch thwarts the villain du jour, but at the cost of you-know-what, and by the time he’s revived, we see a few different agencies — human and otherwise — out to get him. Like I said, pretty tight, and a good introduction to another character I barely got to know the first time.
Finally, we have Legion Lost #1 (written by Fabian Nicieza, drawn by Pete Woods), a title which seems oddly scheduled, since you’d think DC would publish the main Legion book first. I’m a lot more familiar with the Legion than I am with, say, Grifter or Mitch Shelly, but this book dropped me into a fast-moving stream of plot and characters and didn’t let up much. Basically a team of Legionnaires from the 31st Century travel through time chasing a guy who blames all of humanity — fairly or not, we don’t know yet — for the catastrophes in his life, and who’s brought some dread future disease back to our present. Beyond the Legion’s specific appeal, there’s not much to distinguish this title from any other super-team book. Indeed, its premise has been tried a couple of times before, both by sending half the team across the universe and by sending a different set back to our era, and both times it depended on a certain contrast with the regular Legion setup. Thus, without knowing just what the regular Legion setup is, readers themselves might feel a bit lost, as it were. Still, Nicieza and Woods do a good job creating tension with the general ticking-clock setup, and if this were, say, Legion of Super-Heroes #564, I’d feel better about it. Accordingly, Legion Lost suffers primarily because it’s a number-1 issue, and it does nothing to get around the Legion’s stigma of impenetrability (whether or not said stigma is deserved). In other words, as nice-looking as it is, this is a Legion book which is about as accessible as the average person expects a Legion book to be.
Next week: Legion of Super-Heroes (cough), plus Batman, Birds of Prey, Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, Catwoman, DC Universe Presents, Green Lantern Corps, Legion of Super-Heroes, Nightwing, Red Hood and the Outlaws, Supergirl, and Wonder Woman!