Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
So here we are, the last week of the New 52 rollout, and I must say it’s been a fascinating — sometimes exhausting — ride. It’ll be good to get back to more normal posting next week, but I have enjoyed these marathon stream-of-consciousness reviews. Although DC has said over and over that these books are all part of the same revised universe, there are so many different styles and approaches on display (The early ‘90s! The mid- to late ‘90s!) that the line seems a lot more heterogeneous than it did five weeks ago.
Moreover, the realization that these books are the new status quo is only now starting to sink in. Overall it’s a good feeling, but bittersweet too. After all, I had 25 years to get used to the last line-wide revampings.
SPOILERS FOLLOW, as always.
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To start off, let’s go back just five years. As part of 2006’s “One Year Later” relaunch, the Powers That Be at DC decided that the problem with Hawkman was, well, Hawkman — so they renamed the book Hawkgirl, Walt Simonson wrote it, and Howard Chaykin drew it. Now, on paper that looks like a pretty formidable team. It was enough to get me to try Hawkgirl, and I hadn’t had much interest in any Hawkman title regardless of who’d worked on it. Accordingly, Tony Daniel (writer) and Philip Tan (artist) can take some comfort in knowing that, while The Savage Hawkman #1 really didn’t work for me, the difficulty level has been set pretty high. TSH starts off with Carter Hall shooting (?) and then burning his Hawkman gear — we know not why — but it turns all Venom on him, merging with him somehow so it can pop out again when an extraterrestrial bad guy named Morphicius threatens Carter’s scientist colleagues. In a way, I guess it’s good that this issue ignores just about all of Hawkman’s convoluted continuity, but that deprives Carter of any meaningful motivation which might endear him to a new reader. (Beyond “I don’t like Hawkman either,” that is.) Tan’s work is fine, sporting more of a watercolor style than he’s had previously. His Hawkman redesign is decent, if a bit on the pointy side. In addition to the thin plot, Daniel’s dialogue tends toward being labored. Carter tries to work “death and taxes” into a world-weary quip, and later on a character who should be excited says, flatly, “I am giddy.” That makes one of us.
Blackhawks #1 (written by Mike Costa, layouts by Graham Nolan, finishes by Ken Lashley) begins with a jumbled hostage-rescue sequence, made more confusing by some odd layouts and the use of counterintuitive nicknames. For example, one of the team is listed as “Lady Blackhawk,” but the woman we follow for most of the issue is “Kunoichi.” Things settle down a little after the mission, when a garden-variety bureaucrat from the United Nations arrives at headquarters to a) help explain the book’s premise and b) deliver some bad news. (By the way, between the Blackhawks and Justice League International, the New-52 UN seems to be covering its bets on unconventional teams.) There’s also some bad news for one Blackhawk in particular, and that provides the issue’s cliffhanger. Overall I thought this was a fairly superficial first issue. It tries hard to introduce a handful of major characters and a couple of relationships, it gives some backstory on the first arc’s villain, and it leaves a couple of plot threads dangling. Although it’s put together well for the most part, there’s not much in the way of depth or nuance to any of these characters, and there’s certainly nothing like the ad hoc, multinational-mercenary angle which helped make the original Blackhawks unique. That said, I thought it was good enough to warrant a second issue, in hopes that the players are fleshed out more.
Similarly, Justice League Dark #1 (written by Peter Milligan, drawn by Mikel Janin) is all setup, building a mystery* around a small army of identical blonde women. Many of them appear suddenly in the middle of a busy street, and the resulting two-page spread of carnage made me wonder if this is just another DC comic insensitive to violence against women. Seriously, I found it pretty disturbing, which I suppose is part of the point (but still…). In fact, the issue does a good job setting an ominous mood and showing that the regular Justice League is helpless against an implacable magic force. As for the JLD’s ostensible members, Milligan — who uses an omniscient narrator, to good effect — does best with the vignette introducing Shade, the Changing Man. John Constantine and Deadman pretty much have cameos, and while Zatanna and Madame Xanadu carry more of the plot (and a lot of the exposition), Milligan apparently thinks his readers are already familiar enough with them — and, for that matter, with the Enchantress. I’m not familiar with Mikel Janin’s work, but stylistically it reminded me of a cross between Nicola Scott and cover artist Ryan Sook: clean and detail-oriented, even if some of his characters share the same face. I liked it well enough, and I’ll be back next month.
It was hard not to let Twilight-related prejudices slip into my reading of I, Vampire #1 (written by Joshua Hale Fialkov, drawn by Andrea Sorrentino), but for the first few pages I couldn’t tell whether our hero Andrew was wearing a shirt, and I am tempted to say that pretty well sums it up. Actually, though, IV reads more like the first bookend in one of the old-style summer-Annual crossovers DC and Marvel did in the ‘90s, only this one would follow Andrew and his evil ex-(?) girlfriend Mary around the superhero line as Mary’s vampiric war on humanity escalated. If that’s IV’s premise … well, it’s not Twilight, but it’s not quite the tragic tale of doomed love that Fialkov and Sorrentino also try to establish here. I’m on the fence about this one. The art is fine, appropriately muddy (thanks to colorist Marcelo Maiolo) and heavy with blacks, and like JL Dark, the mood is somber with a slow burn to apocalyptic. I wouldn’t mind seeing a superheroes-vs.-vampires epic, either (even if it didn’t remind me of 1993’s Bloodlines event). I’m just not that invested in Andrew and Mary at this point.
Considering that much of Voodoo #1 (written by Ron Marz, drawn by Sami Basri) takes place in a strip club, with most of its female characters appearing in various states of undress and/or in overtly sexual poses, I wonder if DC scheduled it to come out the week after Catwoman and Red Hood so it would look thoughtful and tame by comparison. What there is of a plot feels like an excuse to linger over the Voodoo club’s array of exotic dancers, and the characters generally are drawn from Central Casting. Naturally, the issue ends on a cliffhanger (a familiar horror-movie one, in fact), but since we don’t know a whole lot about the main characters, it’s hardly clear what the ending means. I did like Basri’s art — I’ve been reading Power Girl paperbacks, and this makes me more eager to pick up his issues — but he doesn’t get to do much beyond (purposefully detached, I suppose) T & A. Honestly, DC, at this point I am flat-out bored with these attempts at exploitation, and I won’t be back for #2.
All Star Western #1 (drawn by Moritat) is written by longtime Jonah Hex chroniclers Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti, so Hex is front and center in this issue; but primarily as partner to Dr. Amadeus Arkham, himself cast as a Holmesian consulting detective. Indeed, because their case begins with a murder and a foreign word scrawled in blood, it initially recalls “A Study In Scarlet.” The comparison probably ends there, although I did like how Arkham has Watson’s role of narrator, introducing the reader to Hex’s borderline-amoral perspective. I thought this was a strong first issue, even if its Gotham City setting seemed a bit gratuitous at times. Moritat’s work is intricate and expressive, and colorist Gabriel Bautista gives it depth and texture. The book looks great, on par at least with Cliff Chiang’s Wonder Woman art. From what I understand of Gray and Palmiotti’s Jonah Hex series, they tended to go to the dead-prostitute well fairly often, and sadly this is no exception. Still, they keep things moving, using the murders to explore the relationship between the march of progress and the desire to hold onto power. Definitely on board for this one.
Even with George Pérez writing and providing layouts, Superman #1 (finished by Jesús Merino) was going to have a hard time competing with the new Action #1. If Action evokes the late ‘30s, Superman goes straight for the Bronze Age, framing a fairly standalone story with a change in ownership at the Daily Planet. Pérez’s primer on who’s currently who in Metropolis establishes Lois Lane as one of the last honest journalists, producing TV coverage for Galaxy Broadcasting while still reporting for the Planet. Clark Kent is still a crusading reporter, but now he’s working for the Planet and having frank philosophical discussions with Lois. Superman has a shaky relationship with the Metropolis police (and a hazy one with the public) and Jimmy Olsen keeps getting into trouble. This time, Supes has to save Jimmy from an alien fire-creature bent on turning Metropolis into a city-sized torch. It’s a decent start, and it’s enough to keep me coming back, but it does have some rough edges. Pérez’s dialogue can be clunky, and I presume the fire-creature is connected to the hornblower from Stormwatch #1, but that’s not made explicit here. Merino’s work sometimes doesn’t blend that well with Pérez’s layouts, and his characters’ faces tend to look scruffed-up. However, I’m content to see this as a spiritual sibling to Marv Wolfman and Jerry Ordway’s Adventures Of Superman from the ‘86 relaunch — a straightforward superhero soap which is more familiar than it is groundbreaking.
I didn’t like David Finch’s first first issue of Batman: The Dark Knight, and while the second Dark Knight #1 in a year (co-plotted and scripted by Paul Jenkins, co-plotted and pencilled by Finch, inked by Richard Friend) is an improvement, it seems to exist primarily to give DC a Batman title for each of the four regular ship weeks. I mean, there’s another Arkham breakout, there’s Bruce Wayne talking about Gotham’s future, there’s a mention of Batman, Inc., there’s a new girlfriend-in-waiting — all things which remind me of Bat-books I have enjoyed more. It doesn’t help that the yes-we-can! speech Bruce Wayne gives to a presumably-forgiving audience starts out as overwrought Bat-narration about fear, parents, and cannibals (with one of the big applause lines apparently “I’m not cut out to be the parent of a cannibal”…?). Later, we’re told that the Arkham breakout involves 300 inmates and may already have cost 65 policemen’s lives, but for some reason Batman is keyed specifically on Two-Face. While it doesn’t go over as poorly as the new Detective Comics, it’s not as appealing as either Batman and Robin or last week’s Batman, and I can live without it.
The bulk of Aquaman #1 (written by Geoff Johns, pencilled by Ivan Reis, inked by Joe Prado) is aimed squarely at a strawman which holds that Aquaman is the lamest of DC’s main characters. Accordingly, the issue opens and closes with a menace-from-the-depths which presumably only Aquaman can defeat, while in between are scenes of our hero foiling a landlocked getaway, trying to order fish at a favorite childhood restaurant, and reaffirming his mission to the surface world alongside a devoted Mera. Along the way the public marvels at how wrong it’s been. Johns may have figured he didn’t have much choice but to hang a lantern on Aquaman’s perceived inferiority, but the end result is awfully transparent, almost desperate. Although there is “showing,” the “telling” which goes with it actually undercuts it. Too bad, because otherwise it’s a fine first issue, explaining the Sea King’s powers, origin, and heritage fairly economically, and setting up the aforementioned deep-sea threat. Reis and Prado are reliably good, as usual. I’ll be back for issue #2, but I’ll be hoping the self-consciousness is out of Johns’ system.
The plot of The Fury Of Firestorm, The Nuclear Men #1 (written by Ethan van Sciver and Gail Simone, drwan by Yildray Cinar) rests on a giant leap of logic; and no, it’s not the “God particle” underlying Firestorm’s powers. Instead, it involves a decision made prior to the issue’s start by a character who currently isn’t around to explain himself. I’m sure we’ll get more insight as the series unfolds, but for now it seems like a threshold question: if you’re willing to accept that plot point, the rest of the issue should be no problem. See, there are these mercenaries (one of whom, amusingly enough, shares a name with a longtime Firestorm antagonist) brutalizing their way through the lives of innocent people, looking for magnetic bottles which turn out to be Very Important. On a collision course with this group are star quarterback Ronnie Raymond and ace high-school-newspaper reporter Jason Rusch, each struggling with their prejudices about the other. It sounds like I am being overly sarcastic about the issue, but in fact I liked it a lot. Broad as their characterizations may be, Ronnie and Jason have the makings of a good dynamic — in fact, arguably a better one than the pre-relaunch Brightest Day had to work with** — but they need to get past the rough edges and develop some nuance. As for the art, Cinar’s work is quite good, at times reminiscent of George Pérez and (her again!) Nicola Scott. Having been a Firestorm fan since the Flash backups, it sounds a little hollow to say I’m sticking with it, but I’m glad to say I am.
It’s not that it’s hard to reconcile the frenetic Teen Titans #1 (written by Scott Lobdell, pencilled by Brett Booth, inked by Norm Rapmund) with Lobdell’s more meditative Superboy #1. It’s just that Teen Titans moves so quickly, and tries so very hard to be cool, that having the two books dovetail makes this one harder to ignore. The Titans introduced here include Kid Flash (probably Bart Allen, although Wally West wouldn’t be out of the question), with a handmade costume and more brains than smarts; Red Robin (Tim Drake), recast as something of a cyber-activist; and the Dianna Agron lookalike Wonder Girl (Cassie Sandsmark), subject to what is either jarring mood swings or capricious dialogue. It may well be that I am too old for this book’s retro-‘90s style, and in a funny way I’d be okay with that. For now, though, there’s nothing beyond the Superboy connection to entice me back.
I’m not clear on why Green Lantern: New Guardians #1 (written by Tony Bedard, pencilled by Tyler Kirkham, inked by Batt) felt the need to spend its first seven pages — about a third of the issue, mind you — on Kyle Rayner’s origin, because it doesn’t appear to have a lot to do with the balance of the plot. In fact, said plot involves various other Lantern Corpsmen (including one from the Sinestros, one from the Star Sapphires, and a Red Lantern) losing their rings to Kyle. Maybe Kyle’s experience, despite its unique circumstances, is meant to be illustrative? For someone who was already reading the GL books, and (perhaps more importantly) was emotionally invested in either Kyle or the other Lantern Corps, this plot might be intriguing. As a first issue designed to attract new readers, though, it’s just sketchy, and probably confusing. I liked this creative team well enough when they were on the pre-relaunch GL Corps, but they haven’t sold me on this series.
Finally — finally! — there’s The Flash #1 (written by Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato, drawn by Manapul), a nifty reintroduction to the guy who made all of this possible. Some of the dialogue is a little awkward, including in the opening sequence, but the real attraction is Manapul and Buccellato’s art. Manapul’s style is very light, almost as if it were reproduced directly from his pencils, so Buccellato’s colors help shape and define it, separating Barry/Flash from his backgrounds and helping him race across the pages. Manapul’s layouts are equally expressive, incorporating panel-sized sound effects (as well as the Flash masthead itself), using inset panels to break down the super-speed action or to illustrate a character’s jumbled thoughts, and keeping the plot moving ever forward. This issue never really stops, even when a character is simply standing and thinking. Now that Flashpoint is over, it’s not weighed down by artificially-imposed angst or Speed Force mumbo-jumbo. It’s a simple, straightforward, and effective superhero comic about the Fastest Man Alive, and I look forward to issue #2.
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Recommended: All Star Western, Aquaman, The Flash, The Fury Of Firestorm, Justice League Dark
Could get better: Blackhawks, I, Vampire
Could go either way: Green Lantern: New Guardians, Teen Titans
Sticking with regardless: Superman
No thanks: Batman: The Dark Knight, The Savage Hawkman, Voodoo
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Next week: December solicitations, and probably a bit of September wrap-up.
* [That one’s for the Sarah McLachlan fans….]
** [I do miss the dueling-experience aspect of Ronnie and Jason’s pre-relaunch relationship, and especially their mutual affection for Professor Martin Stein, who of course was a big part of the original Firestorm. I was looking forward to each being a backseat-driver for the other, since Jason had the more recent experience — not to mention helping to “rebuild” Firestorm with Stein’s help — but Ronnie would naturally assume a senior-leadership role. Moot now, I guess.]