Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
Whether by accident or design, this week was dominated by female leads (four, not including Starfire in Red Hood) and Bat-titles (four including RH; five if you count Birds Of Prey). It is tempting to say the woman-led titles ran the gamut of experiences from A to D, but thankfully it is a little more complicated than that. As you might expect, the week produced issues of varying quality, although I found something to like about each one. Sometimes it was harder to find that one thing, though….
Naturally, SPOILERS FOLLOW.
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In theory, the DC Universe Presents anthology has a longer lease on life because its sales can’t be judged fairly on the basis of only one arc. I suppose that, given Deadman’s relationship with one of Hawk & Dove’s headliners, that book’s readers might be interested in this one. By and large, though, the audience for this title is made up either of DC stalwarts waiting for a good Obscure Character X story, or (less likely, I’d say) impulse buyers. Such an approach might have been a great way to introduce a totally new character within the context of the New 52, and piggyback that feature on the rest of the relaunch’s popularity — but I’m not surprised DC chose Deadman, fresh off Brightest Day.
It was a good choice. Paul Jenkins’ and Bernard Chang’s first issue is a sweeping, emotional journey across several of the lives Boston “Deadman” Brand has inhabited in his post-corporeal state. There’s a succinct summary of Deadman’s origin and a good sample of his adventures. (It does make me wonder where his White Lantern career fits in, but that’s probably beyond the scope of this arc.) Boston’s also got the end of his spiritual mission on his mind, a subplot which culminates in the issue’s cliffhanger. Regardless, getting to that point is quite engaging, especially a sequence where Deadman jumps into a dozen or so people in the course of “chasing” an old acquaintance. Chang’s work is clean and effective, portraying an appropriately wide range of everyday people. This is a story where the fantastic elements facilitate the character’s journey, and aren’t an end unto themselves. I really liked this issue, and I’ll be back next month.
Both Nightwing #1 and writer Kyle Higgins’ other New-52 title, Deathstroke, open with similarly-paced action sequences (including a double-page spread on pages 2 and 3) punctuated by expository internal monologues. I did not take this as a good sign, and ultimately I found Nightwing to be fairly unremarkable, even for a Nightwing comic. New readers may disagree, but I have seen too many “Dick re-establishes himself outside of Bruce’s shadow” stories, complete with a new apartment and a return to his acrobat roots, to be wowed automatically by yet another one. Moreover, while penciller Eddy Barrows choreographs Dick/Nightwing fairly well, his designs for the character are just a little too beefy and gruff. I was afraid that returning to the Nightwing role would bring back all the frustrations readers (and probably writers too) have felt with the character, and so far I was right.
Somewhat more remarkable, although in a much weirder way, is Catwoman #1 (written by Judd Winick, drawn by Guillem March). We’re introduced to Catwoman in a few quick panels, as she grabs a few personal items (along with a few pets) on her way out of her apartment, a few steps ahead of some masked goons. It provides a good segue into the issue’s plot, which requires Catwoman to go undercover at a nightclub in order to steal from Russian mobsters (speaking of last week’s Deathstroke…). The recon goes south when Selina recognizes someone from her past who she needs to pummel, and Catwoman ends up escaping to her “borrowed” penthose — where Batman is waiting, and where, somewhat improbably, they get it on. This being a main-line superhero book, and not something claiming “maturity,” there’s no nudity, although the characters’ actions and eventual positions leave little doubt as to the creative team’s intent. I have mixed feelings about the sequence, not so much for its own sake as for its place in the context of the issue, and especially in the context of the first issue. It tries to establish Catwoman’s independence within the Bat-clan, by showing definitely that she has a certain power over him — but by the same token it feels too easy to trot out the old sex-is-a-weapon trait, especially since Selina had already pulled a Jennifer Garner-style fake-out to beat up a bad guy just a few pages earlier. So yes, we get it, Catwoman is her own person and she is not afraid to be sexxay. That said, I did like this issue for its relatively-fast pace, its efficient storytelling, and March’s fine work.
An almost-too-cute flashback structure didn’t bother me that much, but generally Birds Of Prey #1 (written by Duane Swiercynski, drawn by Jesus Saiz) is kind of a mess, marred by stilted dialogue and unengaging characters. Chief among the latter is Starling, Black Canary’s new partner, who is supposed to be plucky and sassy but who ends up grating. In fact, the whole issue is like that, since it centers around the Birds basically destroying an old cathedral in the course of protecting a too-nosy reporter from shadowy ninja types. There are a couple of nods to the pre-relaunch BOP — Barbara Gordon appears briefly and Canary’s problems with the law (from the first arc of the last volume) inform the current setup — but those only remind the reader of the style this issue lacks. On a positive note, Saiz’ work was nice and uncomplicated. However, as with Nightwing, there’s just not enough to get me to come back.
Few will consider Wonder Woman #1 uncomplicated, but writer Brian Azzarello and artist Cliff Chiang establish a distinctive tone immediately, and deliver a bloody, propulsive first issue. This is certainly not a Wonder Woman (or a Wonder Woman-style story) familiar to the casual reader. Instead, it’s an apocalyptic mystery involving strikingly-rendered versions of characters from Greek mythology, most of whom are out to kill a scantily-clad young woman named Zola. For now, that focus distances Wonder Woman from the reader somewhat, which is a little odd for an introduction. Still, it works, even for an issue where characterization takes a back seat to violence. Much of this is due to Chiang’s expressive designs (Zola especially carries herself well for someone in underwear and flip-flops), which really sell the collision of dark mythological forces and the everyday world. Azzarello’s script includes some clever touches, particularly a brief-but-good scene for the god Hermes, and while we don’t get much insight into Diana or her adversaries this issue, I expect it won’t be long. In its way, this book is as much a reinvention of Wonder Woman as Action Comics is of Superman, and it looks very promising.
By contrast, Supergirl #1 (written by Michael Green and Mike Johnson, pencilled by Mahmoud Asrar, inked by Dan Green) is almost all setup, as the Girl of Steel arrives on Earth to a predictably violent reception. Accordingly, it’s an issue full of Supergirl-vs.-battlesuits, taking them out one by one while discovering her powers along the way. There’s not much characterization, and really no plot beyond a rote misunderstanding, but the art is pretty (especially Dave McCaig’s colors) and the issue is paced well. About the nicest thing I can say is that at least the preliminaries are over, I like the creative team well enough, and next issue should be better.
The nicest thing I can say about Red Hood and the Outlaws #1 (written by Scott Lobdell) is that Kenneth Rocafort draws Jason “Red Hood” Todd who actually looks like he could be a slightly-older ex-Robin. After Superboy exceeded my minimal expectations last week, I was a little more open to RH&TO. Unfortunately, it is front-loaded with attitude, and that has proven too much for me. Specifically, the opening sequence is a barrage of captions, cluttered panels, and confused storytelling. The issue does get better once things settle down and the characters have a chance to relax, but neither Roy Harper nor Koriand’r demonstrate much nuance — he’s a mimbo and she’s a thinly-disguised adolescent fantasy. Exposition from a fourth character, Essence, then teases a larger plot which brings the issue to a cliffhanger. As with Supergirl, there is the hint of a decent series in all of this. These characters are damaged outcasts who either deny, or have forgotten, their old lives. However, Lobdell assumes that the reader is familiar with those old lives, and cares enough to stay with these three beyond their sketchy (re)introduction. Ironically, if this were a pre-relaunch title, that might be enough to keep me around. As it is, though, there’s just too much to infer, and too little reason to care.
Like its Sinestro-starring sibling, Green Lantern Corps #1 (written by Peter J. Tomasi, pencilled by Fernando Pasarin, inked by Scott Hanna) feels like the next issue in the pre-relaunch series. The difference is that GLC hasn’t had as drastic a change to its status quo. Tomasi educates new readers on the book’s headliners by showing Guy Gardner and John Stewart trying to fit into a regular workplace, with Guy even giving a little primer on the Corps for anyone who might have needed it. The larger plot isn’t anything special at this point — a mysterious brute shows the Corps it can commit genocide — and once again Tomasi seems uncomfortable with too few words. Overall, though, it’s a fine start to a new arc. I’m just not sure who, beyond existing GLC readers, will find this essential.
After last week’s helter-skelter Legion Lost #1, I was hoping Legion of Super-Heroes #1 (written by Paul Levitz, drawn by Francis Portela) would be more accessible. Certainly it’s more subdued, dividing its attention between an undercover mission, various character subplots back at headquarters, and Colossal Boy off the team. Portela does a good job keeping everything straight, and Levitz’s script is a welcome throwback to the days when exposition was expected. In other words, everyone still wants to talk about what just happened, to just enough of a degree to make new readers curious. Perhaps as a nod to those new readers, the issue focuses on two rookie Legionnaries, each a bit too confident in his or her abilities. It’s not a bad way to ease into what must be a fast-moving stream of continuity. Even so, there’s just too much going on, at least on first reading. Maybe a later look will give me more insight into the characters, and thus more of an incentive to find out what happens next; but for now, it’s a bit overwhelming.
Captain Atom #1 (written by J.T. Krul, drawn by Freddie Williams II) was a frustrating read. It’s not a particularly bad book, but it doesn’t feel that original either. Essentially, Cap has a pretty broad power set — flight, energy blasts, energy absorption, Firestorm-style transmutation — but when he uses them, he risks tearing apart his own atomic structure. At the beginning of the issue he fights a guy in a giant battlesuit, and at the end he must stop a volcano from destroying a New York nuclear plant. This is all fine, except that no one in the book feels like a real person. Thus, what’s frustrating is the fact that pre-relaunch, DC’s Cap (himself relaunched pretty much from scratch almost 25 years ago) was built around a terrifically twisted man-out-of-time concept. He had all kinds of power, but all he wanted was his old life back. By contrast, the current Cap is a generic superhero with a wispy design and an illusory death sentence. Freddie Williams’ new style is nice, in a Chris Samnee/Michael Lark sort of way; but again, it’s not quite enough.
As for another ex-Charlton title, Blue Beetle #1 (written by Tony Bedard, pencilled by Ig Guara, inked by Ruy José) was a lot of fun. It’s probably not fair to lump this Beetle with Captain Atom’s old colleague Ted Kord, because Jaime Reyes only goes back about five years, all of them with DC. This first issue basically compresses various elements of Jaime’s pre-relaunch series into a tighter plot, centered around pal Brenda’s mysterious aunt Doña Cardenas. Of course, she’s really a high-powered criminal, using a group of supervillains to steal a certain powerful blue scarab; and of course Jaime gets said scarab fused to his back at a key point in the issue. Leading up to that is a great set of scenes spanning the galaxy, from a distant planet attacked by another scarab-owner to Jaime’s own high-school hijinks. It’s all rendered with style and quirk by Guara and José, and scripted deftly by Bedard. Here’s hoping this one’s around for a while.
Finally, Batman #1 (written by Scott Snyder, pencilled by Greg Capullo, inked by Jonathan Glapion) was really something. Snyder’s script is a close examination of a more well-adjusted Bruce Wayne/Batman, seeking literally to build a better Gotham while mysteries swirl within mysteries all around him. Even the obligatory Bat-moments — fights at Arkham Asylum, a double-page Batcave spread, multiple Robins — are woven seamlessly into the story. Capullo and Glapion make an excellent team, quirky and sharp, instantly giving the book a signature style which complements Snyder’s portrayal. Everything about this issue says “new beginning,” and it’s about as accessible as one could want. I can’t ask for much more out of a superhero comic.
Recommended: Batman, Blue Beetle, DC Universe Presents, Wonder Woman
Could get better: Catwoman, Supergirl
Could go either way: Captain Atom, Legion of Super-Heroes
Sticking regardless: Green Lantern Corps
No thanks: Birds Of Prey, Nightwing, Red Hood and the Outlaws
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Next week: the thrilling conclusion, with All-Star Western, Aquaman, Batman: The Dark Knight, Blackhawks, The Flash, The Fury Of Firestorm, Green Lantern: New Guardians, I, Vampire, Justice League Dark, The Savage Hawkman, Superman, Teen Titans, and Voodoo!