Thursday, September 22, 2011

Some first issue thoughts

I finally broke down and bought a couple of DC's new 52 books. Well, that's not entirely true, one of them I was already planning on getting. While I've been going to the store each week, most of the new #1s have failed to have really the right combination of characters, creators, concepts or tones. Such as Batwing sounded like it could be interesting, and I find Judd Winnick a decent enough writer for a series for a year (he just tends to outstay his welcome), but the painted artwork  didn't appeal. Stormwatch's artwork looked cool in b/w online but the over-colored printed version obliterated that. Detective looked interesting a few pages online but the printed version, when leafing through it was just a dense, complicated looking mess of panels and confusing layouts that it was difficult to get a sense of the story (Batgirl had this same problem, I like Simone's writing but just scanning through the book, it looked like it would give a head-ache to try to read. Sadly, Green Arrow, JLI and Hawk & Dove had almost the opposite problem. Clear and easy to read artwork betraying there didn't seem to be enough interesting going on to warrant picking up. Swamp Thing... I had to check to see if Kevin Nowlan was inking but nope, the artist seems to just draw faces in that same constipated or sour-faced way. It's nit-picky to be sure, but it's hard to read a comic when you cannot stand how the faces look. Meanwhile, I must be the only person that sees something fundamentally wrong with Omac, a series that is built upon the names of characters, ideas and concepts by Jack Kirby but doesn't make use of the actual character by Kirby and then it's drawn in a Kirby pastiche style as if to give it some legitamacy. Can you say "rip-off"? I thought you could. And, it's being done by creators who are championing freeing DC up from continuity and supposedly old concepts. Then why aren't they doing something that's truly new than ripping off Kirby without actually trying to get the character right? So they can get credit for "creating" Omac? And, really, you might have a case saying that every story of a character cannot be kept in continuity, but that was never really a concern was it? You can keep five Robins in continuity, the convoluted mess that is now Green Lantern, but a character whose entire publishing history is hardly two dozen stories has it all jettisoned?

So, what made it home was Legion Lost; Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E, and Resurrection Man.

Legion Lost: Based on previews I had hopes for. I liked the idea that some Legionnaires aren't entirely human looking so there's a certain fondness for Tellus and Gates. Dawnstar was always hot and the tragic love between her and Wildfire was always interesting. And, Timber Wolf has long been one of my favorites though he hasn't had a decent costume since the 1980s. But, this story is a mess. These and the other Legionnaires end up in our present tracking a criminal about whom very little to nothing is revealed. The heroes don't do anything more other than complain and vomit and when they catch up to the villain who has destroyed a small town, he's already unconscious. While taking him to the future, something happens and he blows up while two Legionnaires are apparently killed either through their own ineptitude or something else, the artwork is unclear. This leaves the remaining characters stranded in our time. As a first issue, there's no effort given to make readers want to return the next issue. Instead of showcasing the heroes, they are shown to be ineffective and quarrelsome. You aren't made to care about the characters who are killed, and the villain is a complete cypher. Thanks to previews and solicits we know he's returning so we'll probably learn more in the future, but here's the crux of that. It's ok to make a character seem a cypher if it's actually given proper set-up as a mystery or sub-plot that will be explored later. As presented on the page, he just seems a plot device to strand the heroes, set up the status quo and then promptly gotten rid of. Likewise there's no build-up or presentation of the Legion to readers, to give an idea of what the characters have "lost" by being stranded here.

Resurrection Man: It has some of the same problems. I was looking forward to this book as I was a fan of the original series and there's little to no reason that changes in the continuity or history should overly change the series that much. And, it was being handled by the same writers. However, they do much the same with the hero that Legion Lost did. We get the main character's name and powers, but nothing else about just who Mitch Shelley is or how he got that way. It was a big part of the character and mystery of his first series, but it is neither recapped nor presented as being intentionally a mystery to the readers. As such, why should we care about him? It took me a while to figure what else bothered me about the story and then I realized it was because, there actually was none. There are some scenes including a fight where a bunch of people die. What we got was just several set-ups of long reaching plotlines but no story in and of itself. A sequence of events is not a story. Even so, it's confusing. Why was the demonic angel (angelic demon?) on the plane. Was it to cause the crash and deaths of the passengers? To simply insure that Mitch didn't alter things and save those fated to die? To try to kill Mitch and collect his soul? All of the above? Why are the two women torturing and killing people in trying to get a lead on Mitch? Exactly who are they and what abilities do they have?

This is like an episode of Supernatural or other similar show where it is giving you all these hints and teases to the larger season-long plot and down the road pay-offs but forgetting that it still has to deliver a more immediate story and concern as well. These long form plottings are fine for writing for the trade, and some fans like it, but I thought that was something the writers were supposed to be getting away from.

Artwise, I was a little concerned with having to have someone else in Butch Guice's shoes. His scratchy artwork grounded the original series with a level of realness, dirt and grime that the typical super hero comics didn't have. His character had a certain world-weariness, homeless look to him. The book still looks good though. The artwork is a bit cleaner but it still goes for a more realistic look without looking traced in every panel. Once or twice I had to linger to figure out the point of a panel, I still don't understand the handshake panel, the woman is holding out her hand but the text asks if she doesn't know how to give a handshake properly... is it because it's her left hand?

Since I get so few titles and fondness for the original run, I'm willing to give this at least one more issue to prove itself.

Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E.: This was the surprise hit for me. Not really a fan of the artwork, but the idea seemed appealing enough. It comes across a bit as DC's version of B.P.R.D. with a little more focus on action and no frogs. I liked the Monster Commandoes but wonder just how much supernatural went into their creation. The vampire is listed as being the result of a variant form of the Langstrom (Man-Bat) formula for instance. Which then makes me wish they had actually used Langstrom instead. The time period is a little unclear as it implies that the public presence of Superman and Batman is recent, but the official line is that the events of Justice League and the public debut of the heroes is about five years ago. Still, it managed to live up to the title's premise, introduce the characters and set up a monster-invasion plotline and deliver plenty of action. Definitely picking up the second issue.

Mystery Men: The final issue rushed the ending. There's little to no character fall-out from the events of the last issue making the inter-racial relationship little more than a plot excuse to have the team break-up. After all the build-up, the General is taken out too quickly and then the little twist at the end robs the heroes of a clean-cut victory and makes a supreme sacrifice needless. For once, maybe a story was too compressed, needing another issue to properly fill it out beyond moving from Point A to Point B. Yet, the little touches in the story, such as the almost crossing swords with one of Marvel's big name bad guys make this title still a fun read, worthy of picking up the trade if you hadn't gotten the monthlies. Will we see them ever again?

Kirby Genesis: With no breaking of the fourth wall this issue, the comic moved up a notch. It occurs to me that so far it's still mostly just talking and a travelogue of Kirby characters and concepts with no one really doing all that much. As such, the only way we know the heroes from the bad guys is because we know some of these characters already. The villains haven't done anything particularly villainous yet other than half of them being pursued and shot at by other-worldly bounty hunters and pursuers. One culture's villains may be another culture's Freedom Fighters.

Kirby Freeman almost has a theory that puts everything together before he loses it. The hints laid down make me wonder if it's something akin to Clifford Simak's Out of their Minds. I like the look and feel of the Phantom Continent, but if the U-Boat commander has been there since WWII and the two kids almost that long... where do they get their bullets and cigarettes?

The coloring so far has actually been top notch, given a painted look without feeling computer generated (maybe it's not?) and without overpowering the line-work and robbing it of its energy and vitality.

That ole sinking feeling..
Interest in the new Aquaman series continues to flounder. In the December solicit, we have our hero again stabbing a foe through with his trident and blood going everywhere. This seems to be in keeping with many of the books featuring characters that should be more all-ages marketed. In the Red Lanterns and Green Lantern Corps titles of the Green Lantern family of books, there's dismemberment and gore everywhere. Detective is about a villain who cuts off faces and concludes its first issue with a fairly gruesome sight. The Hawkman book is selling itself on being savage and gory. I expect certain lines of books to be more violent and explicit, especially with titles like "Suicide Squad" and "Deathstroke". But, it seems wrong when it's the mainstream versions of some of the core hero books, characters that people are going to be most familiar with. If their goal is to really attract new readers, shouldn't they aim at not turning their stomachs when they pick up something that is supposed to be a super hero book with characters that are featured in all-ages cartoons and such?

Johns follows up though with heaping high praise on the Peter David run on Aquaman. Don't want to call him a liar, so let's be generous and say it's mostly spin and him throwing David's fans a bone, because otherwise he's just delusional when he says:

Yeah, great book. Peter David's the only one that's gotten Aquaman right, beyond his creator. I don't think anyone's been close to getting Aquaman into a book that's sustainable or very interesting, except for Peter David. I say that because I'm going to go a very different way than Peter David.
Really? David's run was better and the only one to get the character right other than his creator some five decades earlier or other writers the two decades after? First off, David's run was nothing like the character created by Mort Wiesinger and Paul Norris who only did a handful of small stories anyway. Much of what we associate with Aquaman was done by Robert Bernstein (The Tom Curry-Atlantis origin, Aqualad Garth), Jack Miller (Mera, the marriage) and Bob Haney (Black Manta, Ocean Master). With that single statement he pretty much insults all the other writers over the years that wrote Aquaman in his own strip, one-shots and the JLA and kept him in character when David did not: Steve Skeates, Otto Binder, Gardner Fox, Haney, Denny O'Neil, Gerry Conway, Len Wein, David Michilinie. Not to mention the art alone of those decades, Aquaman drawn by Ramona Fradon, Nick Cardy, Jim Aparo, Don Newton, Dick Dillin. They all made him look heroic and epic, worthy of standing next to Batman and Superman without having to make him look edgy. It's one thing to say you like David's version better than the others, but to make a statement that he got the character better than anyone else in seventy years of history when his run is predicated on changing everything about the character and grafting on the typical snarky "i play dirty" personality that David tends to give all his leads. That's just wrong.

Much of the success of David's run was that at the time he was one of the hot writers and fans followed him from book to book. The book was sustainable as long as it was David that was writing it. Thus, it's hard to say if what he was doing was really good for the character in the long run or not. Some creators can make something work, as long as they are the ones doing it. But, once they are gone, it's a struggle to build on or even maintain those concepts and readers. It's a reason why resets and reboots at DC are felt like they are needed. Allowing creators to take concepts into extreme directions is often damaging to the long-term viability even though profitable in the short-term.

We can look at the works by the other writers that handled the character from 1959 to the early 80s and say that they did keep the character viable and sustainable. They developed his world and mythos in long-lasting ways from giving him an extended family from sidekick, wife, and baby. He was dealt with as an equal member of the JLA of the likes of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman without needing justification (or acknowledgement of so-called comic fans' jokes). And, post-David, writers and artists have been working over time to getting more back to center. Indeed, if Johns and DC really felt that David's run was all that sustainable, we'd be seeing a take on that. If he really thought that no one else made the character interesting or sustainable, then why is he obviously going for the look and characters of the 1960s run, where he fought human opponents as well as underseas monsters alongside his supporting cast? I think what we're seeing is Johns following David's cue in making the character seem more bad@$$ by giving him a lethal weapon that he doesn't mind using and upping his powers considerably but giving him a silver-age coating of the old costume, inclusion of Mera. And, we can look forward to him expanding Aquaman's family as he seems to want to turn every book into a team book. In other words, it'll be like the 60s run all over again. Just with more blood-shed.