Earlier this week I looked at three comic book series from The New 52, and found that the first issue of each wasn’t very newbie-friendly, contrary to what DC had advertised. Let’s analyse three more titles today and assess their jumping-on adequacy.
Authors: J. H. Williams III (writer/artist), W. Haden Blackman (writer), Dave Stewart (colourist)
Website: still no series information at DC.
A lot of people seem to like this series, or more precisely, J. H. Williams’s art. I for one found it too sexploitative even by mainstream superhero comics standards, and consequently didn’t bother to read Batwoman past this first issue. The story starts with a supernatural crime case which both Batwoman and the Gotham City Police Department try to solve. Intercut are some scenes of Batwoman training her sidekick, and of a mysterious organisation that is probably more prominently featured in later issues. This setup is straightforward enough to grasp the basics of this setting, but then again there are many references to previous events, such as the double page on which Batwoman talks to her father about the past, with a background filled with scenes that are inscrutable for the new reader.
Swamp Thing #1
Authors: Scott Snyder (writer), Yanick Paquette (artist), Nathan Fairbairn (colourist)
As I’ve written in my previous reviews of this series, Scott Snyder doesn’t make it clear right away whether or not protagonist Alec Holland really is the Swamp Thing. In his dialogue with Superman, Holland says that he once was Swamp Thing but has renounced this superhero identity. At the end of this issue, Holland and the Swamp Thing (or ‘a’ Swamp Thing) are in fact shown as two distinct figures talking to each other.
Again, past events are referenced heavily in this book, but this time, it feels more like a deliberate, clever element of ambiguity, rather than as if you’re missing out on something if you haven’t read all previous Swamp Thing comics. For those readers already familiar with Swamp Thing, there are several easter eggs to be discovered in the drawings in the form of fictitious company names on labels which pay tribute to the original Swamp Thing creators.
Justice League Dark #1
Authors: Peter Milligan (writer), Mikel Janin (artist), Ulises Arreola (colourist)
I’ve already written about the art of this series in a previous post, but let’s focus on the story here: as in some of the other comics, mysterious supernatural things happen, and superheroes investigate. The Justice League fails, though, and the clairvoyant Madame Xanadu assembles a team that is more apt to deal with mystical threats – the eponymous Justice League Dark (although that name isn’t used here). Thus, this first issue is a typical team origin story. Each member is introduced briefly and we learn about their respective powers, except for Deadman, who is only featured on two panels for the time being. This book requires some basic knowledge of the Justice League, e.g. Zatanna’s affiliation. More importantly, the Justice League members refer to the villain, the Enchantress, as a familiar figure, although new readers probably won’t have heard of her.
To sum up, hardly any of the six New 52 number ones I’ve read are particularly good jumping-on points. This is mainly due to the editorial decision to maintain the status quo: if you have all these characters and their backstories and their established settings and back-up casts, why not continue to use them? Any major change would have angered the old readers, and DC didn’t want to risk that. That’s why their comics are still not attractive for new readers.
Apparently, DC’s business strategy is to hold on to the old readers and make them buy as many comics as possible, which is why they let “crossover mania” break out in each New 52 title. Before too long, the continuity of the DC universe will be so messed up again that the next half-hearted “reboot” will be necessary to unravel it. Eventually, the target audience won’t take note anymore.
In September 2011 – two years and eight months ago – DC started this New 52 thing. So it’s hardly “new” anymore, but they still put “The New 52” on their comic book covers. Maybe this time is as good as any to ask: was it all worth it?
First of all, what is The New 52? Some people call it a relaunch, or a reboot. Essentially, though, it was a renumbering: all of DC’s monthly comic book series were set to “#1” in September 2011. Therefore, Action Comics #904 from August 2011 is followed by Action Comics #1 in September instead of #905. Likewise, there is no Detective Comics #882, and so on. This seems like a risky idea, but commercially, it worked wonders for DC, at least in the beginning. By now, it looks to me as if the sales boost effect has waned, judging by the estimates published on The Beat, for instance (see e.g. this column by Marc-Oliver Frisch on DC’s July 2013 sales).
Back in 2011, the goal behind this move seems to have been to make people start reading DC comics who had not been reading them before, advertising the new “first” issues as good “jumping-on points”. The problem with these #1 issues was, they were not actually “relaunching” or “rebooting” their respective series, at least not in my understanding of these terms. A proper relaunch or reboot would have been to wipe the slate clean and start from scratch by introducing the characters and their settings again, without relying on knowledge that readers have acquired through other, previous material. Although the creative teams of each series changed and new story arcs began, it was never clear how much the new series built on the old continuity, or to what extent that backstory would be retconned. Later, DC tried to alleviate this problem and fill in the blanks through events like “Zero Month” (or the current “Secret Origins”). At any rate, I don’t think DC did a good job at catering to new readers (probably in order not to lose their old core readership), as I will show in this two-part blog post using the example of six number ones from The New 52. Here are the first three, in no particular order:
The Flash #1
Authors: Francis Manapul (writer/artist), Brian Buccellato (writer/colourist)
Website: the links given on the DC website are all broken.
I picked up the first Flash trade paperback mainly because of Marc-Oliver Frisch’s glowing review of #1, and because I wanted to see how this unusual creative team setup (writer plus writer/artist) worked out. The merits of this comic aside, it’s not a particularly good jumping-on point for readers unfamiliar with its eponymous protagonist. The title page on p. 4-5 briefly tells his origin story:
Struck by a bolt of lightning and doused in chemicals, Central City police scientist Barry Allen was transformed into the fastest man alive. Tapping into the energy field called the Speed Force, he applies a tenacious sense of justice to protect and serve the world as The Flash.
Seriously? Lightning? Chemicals? “The energy field called the Speed Force”? We’re in the 21st century now, but this reads like some Golden Age origin story full of magical thinking. And it doesn’t explain where Barry got his ring from, from which his costume somehow emerges and wraps around him. The Flash’s basic superpower – speed – is easy enough to understand, but on p. 8, he uses two secondary powers that aren’t as easy to grasp: levitating things by producing vortices from his hands, and vibrating through solid objects. Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato surely didn’t make these things up, but that is of no help to the new reader.
For readers who are somewhat but not overly familiar with The Flash, it may be confusing that there’s this character called Iris West, hinting at the possibility that Wally West, another Flash, might still be introduced later in the story to complicate things further. Another weak point of this story is the characterisation of Barry, or lack thereof. In the next few issues, the supporting character Manuel seems more fleshed-out than Barry.
Authors: Scott Snyder (writer), Greg Capullo (penciller), Jonathan Glapion (inker), FCO (colourist)
From its launch up to now, Batman was always one of the best-selling comics book series on the American direct market, regularly outselling all other series except for new launches, crossover events or other special issues. (On the other hand, it is the only series with estimated monthly sales consistently over 100,000 copies, which says a lot about the current state of the industry.) It probably couldn’t have enjoyed that success on the basis of its title alone, so I eventually read the first TPB and wasn’t disappointed: Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo did craft a gripping story.
It is also a story that is accessible to new readers, although it may help to know who e.g. the Joker is. There are only two scenes that might be problematic for the newbie: one is Batman fighting a multitude of villains at Arkham Asylum at the beginning of the comic, some of which are quite obscure and “wasted” as extras in a melee. The other is the brief introduction of the “Bat-Family”: Dick Grayson a.k.a. Nightwing, Tim Drake a.k.a. Red Robin, and Damian Wayne a.k.a. Robin. Only one of the three is relevant to the story, so they’re only introduced here for (intra-New-52) continuity’s sake.
Animal Man #1
Authors: Jeff Lemire (writer), Travel Foreman (penciller), Lovern Kindzierski (colourist)
Animal Man is another comic that I only bought in collected form, probably around the time of the crossover with Swamp Thing. Jeff Lemire is, beside the aforementioned Scott Snyder, the other new “superstar” writer to emerge from The New 52. That status, however, wasn’t enough to prevent the cancellation of Animal Man with #29 two months ago.
Initially, Animal Man’s superpower was to temporarily gain one single ability of one single nearby animal, e.g. strength from an elephant, or flight from a bird. A goofy but fun concept. Later (but still before The New 52), he gained the ability to take on powers from all living beings, not only those nearby. That made him one of the most boring superheroes ever, as he can now at any time gain superstrength and flight etc., like so many other superheroes.
In Animal Man #1, this leads to clumsy storytelling by way of internal monologue in captions, such as “I just take on the weight of a bumblebee”, or “I reach out and grab the napping ability of a cat” (p. 14). Anyway, unfortunately for new readers, the story in this issue isn’t so much about Animal Man and his powers, but rather the beginning of an arc that puts Animal Man’s daughter Maxine in the foreground as the “avatar of the Red”. This new metaphysical concept of the three struggling primordial forces, the Red, the Green and the Rot, is relatively well explained in the following issues, but it overshadows Animal Man as a character.
Another potential problem with this comic for old and new readers alike is Travel Foreman’s art, which is certainly distinctive with its expressive lines and scarce but heavy cross hatching. I for one never got used to it. Readers already familiar with Animal Man will notice how similar the setting is to that of Grant Morrison’s acclaimed run from the late 1980s, with a focus on Animal Man’s domestic life with his wife and two children. This raises the question, though, how these runs are interconnected, or why all the familiar characters are still the same age as back in the 80s, even though the story is clearly set in the present day.
For two other interesting takes on The New 52 and its convoluted continuity, see Vaneta Rogers’s blogpost “The NEW 52 Two Years Later: The Reboot’s Biggest Surprises” at Newsarama and Paul C’s “The New 52 Continuity: It ain’t so bad!” at Last of the Famous International Fanboys.
Last month I looked at Before Watchmen: Ozymandias, the storytelling of which I found disappointing. This month I’m going to look at two Before Watchmen titles which refer to the original Watchmen series in somewhat different ways.
Authors: Darwyn Cooke (writer/artist), Phil Noto (colourist)
Pages: 26 (#1) / 22 (#2-3) (+2 pages of backup story)
The fourth issue is already available (see e.g. this review at Major Spoilers), but as always I have to wait for the next mail order shipment to get it, so this review covers only the first three issues.
I imagine writing Minutemen must have been both easier and harder than the other Before Watchmen books: easier because not as much is said about them in Watchmen, which gives the writer more freedom, and harder for the same reason, because all the bits of information on the Minutemen scattered throughout the original comic need to be put together and integrated into a coherent story.
The framing narrative is Hollis Mason writing his book “Under the Hood” shortly after his retirement as the first Nite Owl in 1962, reflecting on his Minutemen days, and re-telling their story once again. This time, his story goes into more detail than what we have read in the “Under the hood” excerpts in Watchmen, and his words (caption text) are accompanied by pictures. As a result, we’re getting a much more fleshed out account of the formation of the Minutemen.
However, it’s more complicated than that. While Mason’s words refer to the pictures they’re placed in, it becomes clear that the art doesn’t merely illustrate the captions. We’re seeing things (and reading things in word balloons) that Mason cannot have seen (and heard), because e.g. in the episode on Hooded Justice in issue #1, he was standing in front of a building, but we get to see what happens inside it.
In issue #2, this narrative mode stops after the first ten pages, and from then on the text is only in straight dialogue (apart from a quoted poem interwoven with the main narrative). Mason’s 1962 voice returns in issue #3 for three pages, and then it’s word balloon text again, this time with the ironic addition of inserted panels from a fictitious 1940s “Minutemen #1” comic book. This more straightforward storytelling approach lends itself better to the episodes Darwyn Cooke tells: the ones that are not covered in Watchmen, e.g. the first Minutemen mission, or the expulsion of the Comedian after he had raped Silk Spectre. Other episodes contain scenes that explicitly show the homosexuality of Captain Metropolis, Hooded Justice and the Silhouette. Although Alan Moore/Hollis Mason strongly suggests this in Watchmen, showing it unambiguously takes away some of the mystery surrounding the Minutemen, so I’m not happy with Cooke’s choice to do so.
In general, though, I’m more comfortable with the storytelling approach in Minutemen than the one in Ozymandias. Add Cooke’s impressive reduced layouts and drawing style, and you end up with a solid comic book.
By the way, did anyone recognise what is depicted on the first panel of the second page in issue #1? All I can see is a manhole cover and rain, but what are the yellow and brown areas, and where exactly is that place supposed to be?
Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○
Review of Before Watchmen: Rorschach #1-2 (of 4)
Authors: Brian Azzarello (writer), Lee Bermejo (artist), Barbara Ciardo (colourist)
Pages: 24 (#1), 22 (#2) (+2 pages of backup story)
The outline of Rorschach is quite different: instead of fleshing out Rorschach’s origin story (which he himself tells in Watchmen), we’re following him on what could be an average day in his life as a masked vigilante, as he is going after a drug dealer ring. The story is set in 1977, 13 years after Walter Kovacs first donned the mask of Rorschach and 8 years before the beginning of Watchmen. Is this version of Rorschach any different from the one we’re familiar with from the original series? Maybe. I found both his caption text monologue (his journal) and his speech bubbles too verbose, his way with the Gunga Diner waitress too friendly. Either Brian Azzarello is going to put Rorschach through a change that will make him more like he is in 1985, or his Rorschach is just slightly different from Alan Moore’s.
Despite this possible inaccuracy in the writing and the so far unassuming nature of the story, this series is still a good read, mainly due to Lee Bermejo’s striking, timely (i.e. for the 21st century) artwork, and the brilliance that Barbara Ciardo’s colouring adds to it.
Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○
I confess: I have read and purchased copies of several Before Watchmen issues, and plan to continue to do so. For some people, this is an immoral act, equivalent to slapping Alan Moore in the face. Other people say Moore made a mistake when he signed his contract with DC, and now he has to pay for it. In any case, I was curious to see how the Before Watchmen books would handle the unavoidable intertextual challenges that come with such a task.
In preparation, I re-read Watchmen, to be better able to get all the references in Before Watchmen. Maybe that was a mistake, because it raised my expectations towards Before Watchmen even more. Consequently, I decided to read all seven #1 issues and then select which series I’m going to follow.
The books that I dropped after the first issue were Nite Owl, Comedian, and Dr. Manhattan. With Nite Owl and Dr. Manhattan, I found the stories were too close to the original series and didn’t add much to it, whereas the storytelling in Comedian was too slow-paced to convince me that the plot was going anywhere soon. That leaves me with Minutemen, Silk Spectre, Ozymandias, and Rorschach. Ozymandias is the only book so far of which I have read two issues, which I consider the minimum for a meaningful review. (Minutemen #2 came out earlier, but due to a mail order fail I didn’t get it yet.)
Review of Before Watchmen: Ozymandias #1-2
Authors: Len Wein (writer), Jae Lee (artist), June Chung (colourist)
Pages: 23 (+2 pages of backup story)
The framing narrative here is that Adrian Veidt tells his life story on October 11, 1985. I instantly recognized some of Veidt’s words as Moore’s, and thought that Len Wein just wanted to flesh out Veidt’s autobiography as told in Watchmen chapter XI (“Look On My Works, Ye Mighty…”). However, reading both sequences side by side reveals vast differences: in Watchmen, Veidt’s monologue takes place much later than October 11. The wording is different – sometimes considerably, sometimes only slightly, e.g.: “Strangely, before subduing Phoenicia, he had struck north toward Gordium” (Wein) vs. “Strangely, before subduing Phoenicia, he struck north towards Gordium” (Moore). And there are inexplicable visual differences too: in Watchmen, the gravestone of Veidt’s parents is rectangular with a rounded top, whereas in Before Watchmen he is standing at two gravestones in the shape of celtic crosses. So unless Veidt is randomly dropping roses at strangers’ graves, Jae Lee or Len Wein altered the appearance of the grave, presumably to make it look cooler.
The completely new things that Wein adds to Veidt’s origin story aren’t convincing either. As Jennifer Cheng already said in her review of Ozymandias #1 at CBR, it is hard to believe that the reason why Veidt would become the masked vigilante Ozymandias is to avenge his lover Miranda. Furthermore, given the importance attributed to this relationship, what are the readers supposed to make of Veidt’s homosexuality that is clearly hinted at some pages earlier?
Then again, the selling point of the book isn’t its plot, or its unlikeable protagonist. It’s Jae Lee’s spectacular art, as several other reviewers have pointed out. The success of Lee’s contrast-heavy style depends on good colourists, and luckily, June Chung is more than up to this job. Thus, Before Watchmen: Ozymandias is a series that makes me want to read more by Jae Lee and less by Len Wein.
Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○
As for “The Curse of the Crimson Corsair”, the backup story by Len Wein and John Higgins: while “Tales of the Black Freighter” was smartly interwoven with the main story in Watchmen, an independent pirate/horror story spread across all Before Watchmen series doesn’t make sense to me. I wouldn’t mind reading a well-written and well-drawn standalone comic book in this genre, though (and the success of the Pirates of the Caribbean films shows that this genre has market potential).
Unfortunately, Andrew Garfield isn’t Tobey Maguire. Sadly, Emma Stone isn’t Kirsten Dunst. Regrettably, the Lizard isn’t the Green Goblin. And it’s a pity that James Horner isn’t Danny Elfman.
It was daring, to put it mildly, to release The Amazing Spider-Man only five years after Spider-Man 3. Many filmgoers still remember the Sam Raimi trilogy well, and are well able to compare it to Marc Webb’s reboot. There was no way that The Amazing Spider-Man could come off well in this comparison, and indeed it turned out to be inferior to the 2002 Spider-Man in every aspect. (However, I’m aware that some other reviewers apparently like the new film better, so this might be a matter of taste.)
That being said, ASM raises the question whether it makes sense to reboot a film franchise shortly after three previous films of that same franchise in the first place, or, generally, what to make of the endless torrent of sequels and remakes that Hollywood pours out. That topic has been extensively discussed for years, but at the cinema, the bleakness of the situation dawned on me with full force, when I got to watch not only Spider-Man 4 but also trailers for Madagascar 3, the Total Recall remake, Bourne 4, Prometheus a.k.a. “Alien 5“, Twilight 4.2, and Christopher Nolan’s third Batman film. The only original advertised film (yes, there were a lot of trailers) was, if I remember correctly, Brave.
And yet, people don’t seem to mind to spend their money on films they’ve basically already seen before time and again. Box Office Mojo reports ASM‘s worldwide gross at 521 million dollars, which is more than twice the production cost. So while economically this self-plagiarism makes sense, it strikes me as a sign of a creative bankruptcy of the US film industry. The immediate effect of the apparent popular demand for such films is that they run in the theatres for months, thus blocking the screens for more original but less commercially promising films that are dropped after a week (if they make it to your town at all).
To end this review on a more positive note, not everything was bad about ASM: Webb’s film reminds us that, with Gwen Stacy and the Lizard, there are two classic characters in the Spider-Man comics that were neglected in the Sam Raimi films but whose stories might be worth to be told, possibly in a film. But they deserve to be told well. Maybe another time.
Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○