New DC Comics, Part 5 – The Dark Series

DC’s relaunch has involved a surprising number of “dark” books. There’s a lot of variety in this, from true horror to dangerous magic to pulpy monster hunting, but it definitely is distinct from the classic view of moral heroes and ineffectual villains. Maybe it’s surprising that DC would go in this direction right when they are aiming for new readers, but maybe they expect that new readers will be intrigued to see a different side of superheroes. Either way, here are reviews of three of the new darker series.

Though the sixth issue has come out for all of these titles, the reviews are based on the first five. Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. begins a new storyline with issue #6, so I am putting it off until after this review, and I disliked the other two enough to stop reading them. Well, I guess that gives you a hint of what these reviews will be like. (I should say that I certainly don’t dislike comics just for being dark. For example, see yesterday’s review of Animal Man and Swamp Thing.)

cover to Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. #1

Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E.

Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E.

Frankenstein is the obvious heir to Xombi‘s status of “the weird series”. Where Xombi was about cramming as many crazy ideas as possible into each page, though, this takes the (arguably more commercial) path that Hellboy forged: A big bruiser action hero goes in with fists and weapons against forces that might be better fought by priests and mad scientists. Admittedly, I never became a fan of Hellboy, so maybe it’s just me that thinks this is a big step down from Xombi.

The creative team is solid, though. Jeff Lemire plays the characters off of each other well, and maintains the fast pace that would be expected when Frankenstein’s Monster works for a top-secret government task force. He and his team are clichéd, but weird enough to work. For example, the crusty old boss who may have a sinister agenda is a being named “Father Time” who is currently inhabiting the body of a young girl. The art works decently, too, with Alberto Ponticelli’s style being halfway between a mainstream superhero look and the expressive sketchiness of Lemire’s solo work.

The opening story relied on special powers and technologies coming up whenever needed, and glibly embraced genocide of alien races, but it did feature cool monsters and some misguided townsfolk whose story is more haunting for being only partially told. Issue #5 was promising, though, despite crossing over with a title I wasn’t reading (the already-cancelled OMAC). That quick issue hinted that the current status quo might be changing soon, and proved that Lemire and Ponticelli could keep fight scenes interesting and full of personality.

I’m not yet sold on Frankenstein as a substitute for Xombi, but it is worth watching.

Grade: C+

cover to Justice League Dark #1

Justice League Dark

Justice League Dark

This series tries to bring various magical characters back into the DC fold (when most of their appearances lately have been Vertigo titles) by joining them together as a counterpoint to the Justice League. The characters admit frequently that it’s a crazy idea: They’re dysfunctional loners, and not the selfless heroes of the mainstream group. However, Peter Milligan has earned a lot of trust when it comes to writing these characters, and he gives it a shot. Unfortunately, the result is an even bigger mess than I was afraid of.

Milligan shows the story potential here by defining the characters with several iconic scenes: John Constantine loses bar fights because the self-destruction makes him receptive to magic, while Deadman and Shade the Changing Man both try different pitiable gambits to end the loneliness that their natures cause. But these are all individual scenes. Not only are they at odds with the versions of these characters appearing in other current DC titles, but these people never start working together during this initial story arc. With a focus entirely on the protagonists’ personal problems, it seems false and jarring every time the comic tries to remind us that they are facing a villain that threatens the world. And the conclusion to all of this is less of a satisfying plot arc than just a decision that it’s time for one character to step in with a spell that will create a morally ambiguous ending.

The art should be an embarrassment to DC. Mikel Janin draws individual figures with realistic detail, though I suspect that it’s heavily photo-referenced. That would explain why individuals are so stiff, don’t fit together in scenes, and often seem disconnected from backgrounds. The frequent images of crying characters are especially distracting, since the tears streaming straight down the faces look entirely out of place in scenes that are supposed to be realistic.

There is already a new creative team planned for this title, but I have trouble believing that the Justice League Dark concept can recover. There is room for the dark magic-users in the DC publishing lineup, but it’s not going to be here.

Grade: D

cover to Resurrection Man #1

Resurrection Man

Resurrection Man

The old Resurrection Man series gained a cult following from its concept of Mitch Shelley, a man who comes back to life with a random superpower every time he dies. I didn’t read the original, though, so my opinion is based entirely on this new series. It’s easy for a new reader to pick up, fortunately. All you need to know is in that first sentence of this paragraph, and the main character doesn’t understand much more than that himself. He’s trying to remember his past and figure out the mystery behind his situation, while various denizens of Heaven, Hell, and Earth all try to collect his “overdue” soul.

This has the same writers as the original series, Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning. If this is indicative of their old work, though, I’m not sure how it gained its fanbase. It reads like a reject from Top Cow, Image’s half thought-through T&A imprint. Artist Fernando Dagnino only seems inspired when he’s focusing on the sexy women (an angel and two sorority-wannabe agents) trying to track Mitch down. Abnett and Lanning’s scripts let those characters act more like cartoonish airheads than supernatural forces engaged in life-or-death struggles.

Beyond that, the story is ok. There are hints of a larger plot unfolding, and we get glimpses of an unfriendly cosmology where Heaven may not have our best interests at heart. The characters don’t show any depth, though, and teasers for future issues can’t do much unless the current ones are more interesting.

Grade: D+

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