New DC Comics, Part 1

We’re now entering into the sixth month of DC’s relaunched universe, and the situation looks similar to what the first month promised: Plenty of bad titles, but also quite a few good ones, with several unusual series that would never have gotten a fair chance under normal circumstances. At this point, I think that there have been a few more disappointments than I expected, but the DC Universe still seems healthier and more promising than it did beforehand.

These series are now mature enough to be harsh reality to set in. It seems that only about half of them still have the same creative team that they started with, and DC has already announced the first six cancellations. But the most cynical predictions haven’t been borne out: The customer base is still supporting more monthly titles than DC had before, and every title has stayed on schedule. The matter of scheduling has been one of the bigger surprises, actually. DC and Marvel have both been notorious for delays in recent years, but since the relaunch, DC has been quick to swap out creators or provide fill-ins where necessary. It sometimes hurts the quality, but it maintains the thrill of a monthly story, and is probably part of a strategy to keep new readers who aren’t committed enough to follow favorite creators through inconsistent schedules.

I’ve tried out twenty-two of the fifty-two series, though that number is dropping heavily now that I’ve seen what I like. My plan is to review all twenty-two of those this month. To start with, here are four basic superhero titles that reached a good conclusion with issue #5, so I’m ready to review them before #6 arrives in the upcoming weeks.

cover to Aquaman #1



(Based on issues #1-5)

Geoff Johns has his finger on the pulse of DC fans everywhere, and he often uses that to rehabilitate second-tier characters. But Aquaman may be a tougher project than Green Lantern or the Flash: Even non-superhero fans know him as a joke character who just talks to fish. Johns’ solution is to tackle this issue head-on, by making Aquaman a badass A-list hero who keeps showing up people who have the same doubts that the readers do.

It’s amusing sometimes. Cops patronize him, villains underestimate him, and no one knows his wife’s name. But Aquaman comes across as petulant and insecure, threatening straw-man bloggers with his trident and haughtily correcting the people around him. The comic is eager to impress on us how cool he is, but has little to show for it.

The story itself is pretty generic superhero work, with Aquaman protecting a town from previously-unknown sea monsters, and the art by Ivan Reis is competent but unspectacular. Really, one’s enjoyment of this will all come down to how much you enjoy Aquaman. This new series has made several converts – as I said, Johns knows his fanbase – but for me, it just replaced an ineffectual hero with a whiny know-it-all.

Grade: C

cover to DC Universe Presents #1

DC Universe Presents

DC Universe Presents

(Based on issues #1-5)

Among the fifty-two new series was this anthology title, with the stated goal of shining a spotlight on some of the characters who hadn’t made it in to their own book. I find this a strange idea for a number of reasons: Anthologies are not strong sellers these days, and Deadman, the character they chose to start with, already has a supporting role in the Justice League Dark title. These first five issues have all been devoted to him, and the covers have given the name “Deadman” top billing, with the comic’s actual name in tiny print.  Why aren’t they just doing separate mini-series for characters like these, which would be easier to brand and more appealing to most buyers?

Regardless, this opening story about Deadman was perfectly decent, even if nothing about it or the comic’s marketing convinced me that its events were going to matter in the future. It features a typical ret-con, examining a classic, somewhat innocent, superhero story and giving it a cynical spin. In this case, at least, the darker take is appropriate to the character: Boston Brand, the Deadman, died long ago, but has the ability to possess and aid the living thanks to the intervention of the goddess Rama. But what is Rama’s true motivation?

Paul Jenkens’ script captures the spirit of a daredevil breezing through the realm of gods and magic, but artist Bernard Chang seems to be in a little over his head in a story that calls for more metaphysics and gothiness than superhero action. This passes as a decent, if forgettable, “Vertigo-lite” take on an underused character. While it never wowed me, it provided a fair ending and did leave me interested in what would happen to Deadman next. That’s what a series like this is supposed to do. Too bad it’s already lost in the rush of new DC comics.

Grade: C+

cover to The Flash #1

The Flash

The Flash

(Based on issues #1-5)

This is one of the pleasant surprises of the DC relaunch. After years of directionless, depressing Flash stories, Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato (both sharing art and writing duties) have made the character fun and dynamic again.

The art is the real star, making this second only to Marvel’s Daredevil as an example of how a superhero’s powers should be showcased. The Flash’s super-speed is a natural fit for clever panel breakdowns, and they also have fun with the way they integrate sound effects and flashbacks into the page. Writers of The Flash have always been inventive about the tricks he can pull off with his powers, and it’s good to see an artistic team that can keep up with that.

The writing is only passable, though. This first story arc featured decent character introductions and new villains, but was sometimes messy to follow. The powers that they gave him in the first few issues seem dangerously strong if The Flash is going to fit into the greater superhero universe, but a new problem that pops up at the end threatens to make him too weak. This is perhaps the best of the new pure superhero series, though, and the creative team has more than earned the right to show us where they plan to go from here.

Grade: B

cover to Mister Terrific #1

Mister Terrific

Mister Terrific

(Based on issues #1-4)

Of the six titles that have already been cancelled, this is the only one I was reading. I can’t say I was surprised, though; I’d already stopped buying it before the announcement. Mister Terrific doesn’t do anything terribly wrong. It’s problem is that it never does anything right. Despite a lot of potential, it couldn’t be a more mediocre and by-the-books superhero story if it were trying.

The set-up sounds great: Mr. Terrific, “the third smartest person in the world,” fights crime as much with his inventions as his combat skills. He has some mysteries in his backstory, with a time-traveler who claims to be his son guiding him towards his destiny. And not only is he one of DC’s rare black superheroes, but he’s perhaps their only outspoken atheist. Despite all that promise, though, author Eric Wallace doesn’t know what to do with it: one or two mentions of race are awkwardly shoehorned into each issue, and Mr. Terrific’s collection of futuristic tools are less impressive than Superman’s or Mr. Fantastic’s. He uses his brainpower to drive out mental intruders and performs the occasional MacGyver trick, but I’m never convinced that he’s actually smart. The art doesn’t help: Gianluca Gugliotta’s pencils use unnatural camera angles to emphasize weirdly elongated heads, and Wayne Faucher’s colors are garish even by superhero standards. And, of course, the corny name and “Fair Play” tattoo make no sense on a modern-day hero. The new DC Universe has jettisoned the history that would have explained it, and the series as yet has made no attempt to make this less strange.

It’s disappointing to see such a rich idea turned into another bland story, especially when this is DC’s attempt at injecting some diversity into their cast. (Two other black superheroes got their own titles, but one, Static Shock, is also on the chopping block.) We should expect more from a major publisher.

Grade: C-

  1. February 7th, 2012

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