New DC Comics, Part 3 – The Unexpected Titles

DC’s comics are based on superheroes, but the fifty-two relaunched titles allow a lot of room to experiment. Here are three of the series that go furthest beyond the standard expectations of a DC story. Don’t expect realism, romance, or anything too different, of course, but these show that there is some territory at a major comics company beyond men in tights punching each other.

cover to All Star Western #1

All Star Western

All Star Western

(Based on issues #1-5)

A direct continuation of Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray’s Jonah Hex title, this sees the bounty hunter moving to Gotham City. It’s largely the same Old West comic as before, but Hex is now teamed up with Dr. Arkham and discovering the dirty secrets of the town that will someday be Batman’s home.

All Star Western is a decent comic, but it should be a lot better. For one thing, it costs extra so that it can have additional pages with uninteresting backup stories. For another, it features the vastly underrated artist Moritat, but his work here often seems rushed. He excels at pulpy drama anchored by realistic figures and smooth action, which sounds like a perfect fit for this series. Sometimes it is, and plenty of pages act as evidence to his skill. Others, though, feature people out of proportion to each other or large scenes with a single flat color over everything. For the most part, Moritat’s art has been good since the second issue, which is a promising sign. Maybe he was just put on the series with too little notice to start.

If the art has gotten more promising, though, the writing has started spinning its wheels. The idea of Hex fighting the corruption of Gotham City is a natural fit for one good story, and the first three issues covered that. Afterwards, the writers need some unusual characters or situations to drive the plot, and they haven’t found it yet. It’s becoming obvious that the odd couple of Hex and Arkham would never stay together this long, and Hex’s threats to leave the city sound less believable now that he’s stuck around after his first job ended.

I wish I had listened to all the people who told me to read Jonah Hex. The writing skill here is undeniable. But now, despite being given a star artist, this is saddled with a new editorially-mandated direction and formulaic backup stories. The potential is still here, and I hope that the title will rediscover its purpose. Despite some great individual scenes, though, I could see it going either way.

Grade: C+

cover to Demon Knights #1

Demon Knights

Demon Knights

(Based on issues #1-6)

Another title set in the past, Demon Knights is a team-up book from a mythical dark age sometime after Camelot’s fall. The characters include a few big names from DC’s history, including Etrigan the Demon and Madame Xanadu. There are also more obscure characters such as the Shining Knight (in a version somewhat like Grant Morrison’s interpretation) and new ones like an exiled Amazon. There’s a good deal of cliché here, but with enough originality to keep it interesting: A soft-spoken Muslim man of science is perhaps the most creative new comic character in recent memory.

Artist Diógenes Neves is able to handle the chaos of this team book, but it’s Paul Cornell’s writing that really makes it work. In only six months, it already seems like each of the seven main characters has already had more than a full issue’s worth of spotlight time. Their motivations and personalities are widely different, but he keeps them working together and believable. The main plot has been slow, having to divide its time among the different characters, but it feels fast and breathless for the same reason. This comic sounded like a sure disaster when I first heard of it, but Cornell has guided it deftly.

These characters are not all heroes, and it wouldn’t even be accurate to call them anti-heroes. The Demon’s motivations are outright evil, and he is willing to send good people to Hell for little reason. One character has already apparently betrayed the team, and another has accidentally led an innocent to death. But they are, more or less, aligned against an evil army that threatens the world. Many superhero stories try to add infighting, and moral lapses to seem edgy, but it rarely feels as appropriate as here. And despite the fact that some of the main characters could easily be villains, it’s easy to enjoy their fight for justice.

Interesting, varied, and unpredictable, this is a surprisingly good series.

Grade: B

cover to I, Vampire #1

I, Vampire

I, Vampire

(Based on issues #1-5)

Vampire stories are generally about the contrast between those creatures and humanity, which is a difficult approach to take in a world populated by superheroes. How is a vampire going to feed on Superman or Wonder Woman? Nevertheless, Joshua Hale Fialkov writes I, Vampire in the traditional gothic mold, with angst-ridden characters weighing the lure of the dark side against their loss of humanity. Andrew Bennet is an old vampire who has always tried to live with humans, but his lover Mary “Queen of Blood” wants to rule the world and treat people like livestock. The story opens as these two finally break apart and begin a war.

The main thing that I, Vampire borrows from the superhero tradition is the exaggerated bombast. Rather than telling about a few characters hiding out in New Orleans, this is about the world’s most powerful vampires, with clear good and evil sides, in a battle that could consume entire cities. If the character motivations and structure of the battles feel like superhero material, though, the art is pure vampire fantasy. Andrea Sorrentino’s pencils and Marcelo Maiolo’s colors are impressionistic and moody. The muted colors, splattered highlights, and extreme shadows are like nothing else in DC’s catalog. Whether you think of vampires as alluring and intense, or as mere shadows of humanity, you’ll find support in these images.

The series has been one of the surprises of the DC relaunch. It’s easy to see it sinking into cliché from here, and arguably it has succeeded so far just because we didn’t expect this specific set of clichés in a superhero line. But on the other hand, I do intend to give it the benefit of the doubt. The early issues established the unexpected status quo with aplomb, and the last couple have shown that it can cross over with other characters (Batman and the magician John Constantine) successfully. If I, Vampire could consistently surpass expectations for the first five issues, it’s worth seeing where it will go from here.

Grade: B

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