New DC Comics, Part 6 – The Big Three

Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are sometimes referred to as the “big three” superheroes, because they are the only ones who have had a series stretching back continuously since before 1950. The distinction is a bit misleading, since it’s often obvious that DC only keeps a Wonder Woman comic going due to that history. It’s been rebooted and renumbered frequently as they try to work out what to do with her character, while Superman and Batman have both supported two ongoing series as well as frequent others dedicated to supporting characters.

Still, the recent DC relaunch is one time where the status of these three characters is obvious. The company assigned high-profile talent to all of them. I’m reading four of the five core books for these characters (I skipped Batman’s Detective Comics, and from what I’ve heard, it’s generally considered to be awful). Here are the reviews.


cover to Action Comics #1

Action Comics

Action Comics

(Based on issues #1-6)

Action Comics is one of the most frustrating new DC series. Written by Grant Morrison, the mastermind behind the modern classic All-Star Superman, and with art by Rags Morales, it should be a great title. Instead, it’s only intermittently good.

This series is covering Superman’s appearance “five years ago”, with a modern take on the 1930’s concept of a blue-collar hero fighting for the common man. These portions are decent, if unspectacular. It’s believable that Superman would be at odds with the establishment and still figuring out his place in the world at the start of his career, so it’s forgivable if this doesn’t always feel like a proper Superman title. But while this is a well-timed reimagining, launching in the opening days of Occupy Wall Street, it has yet to lead to any really interesting stories or clever ideas.

The imaginative Grant Morrison elements have instead appeared in scenes that diverge from the core story. The flashbacks to Krypton show a beautiful and interesting place. The most recent issue featured a time-traveling future Superman and crazy aliens in a story that culminated in a microscopic battle inside Superman’s brain. These diversions have been more interesting, but are also a real change of focus from the common man’s hero in the opening issues. It seems unlikely that this will all come together as a cohesive whole.

I read a rumor that Morrison was put on this book against his will, just because DC management had pigeonholed him as a “good Superman writer”. I don’t know whether that claim has any credence or not, but it does provide a perfect explanation for this series. Morrison’s brilliance is on display here, but without any sign of the master plan that usually drives his writing. I’d love to be proven wrong – it wouldn’t be the first time I missed the larger picture early in a Morrison story – but so far, Action Comics appears to be a decent but skippable work.

Grade: C+


cover to Batman #1

Batman

Batman

(Based on issues #1-6)

Batman is a perpetually popular character, but it can be difficult to do anything with him. He’s either unbelievably perfect or being broken down by over-the-top adversaries. Scott Snyder makes this formula work by emphasizing a more human core. Yes, the first issue opens with Batman facing down his entire rogues gallery and then features Bruce Wayne debuting even more advanced technology, but he soon finds himself struggling against “The Court of Owls”. A secret society whose stealth and flair makes them an understated foil to Batman, their assassins best him with knives and superior plans. It’s always one step away from a traditional Batman story, but Snyder’s horror sensibilities give Batman a human frailty that he usually lacks.

This still might not work if not for Greg Capullo’s artwork. Expressive and moody, it captures the psychological essence of a Batman story. Like Snyder’s story, it treads dangerously close to parody – all three Robins look like photocopies of Bruce Wayne shrunk down to different sizes – but stays on the right side of that line. His designs set a standard of cartoonish exaggeration that supports the comics’ violent realism but can still focus on the abstract feel of fights, shadows, and even hallucinations. Capullo has an exceptional control over the storytelling.

I’m not sure that I’ve ever read a take on Batman that seemed so surprising and fresh, even while staying so close to the series modern tropes. It’s not the same as the more original stories that Grant Morrison was telling with the character recently, but it is the comic that every hack who has worked on Batman in the past decade has tried to write.

Grade: B+


cover to Superman #1

Superman

Superman

(Based on issues #1-6)

If Action Comics seems disappointing due to wasted potential, the other Superman title is just mediocre. George Pérez was a star artist, but he hasn’t had any hits in years. Here, his art is nicely detailed, even if the huge hair and chiseled features he gives many characters seem reminiscent of Pérez’s 80’s heyday. But the art doesn’t necessarily flow well, especially with every action scene hampered by detailed narration. It’s almost as if the writer and artist are at odds with each other, except that Pérez is also writing this.

The writing is not Pérez’s strong point. It has a decent idea for an introductory story, asking questions about whether Superman is good, but it never gets interesting. The opening issues are all somewhat standalone stories about different aliens attacking, but with that overbearing narration and lack of action. Nearer to the end, the pieces all come together in a similarly bland fashion. Most of the explanation comes out of nowhere thanks to mind-reading in the final issue, and the rest is just obvious. (Spoiler: Of course Superman is a good guy.)

Pérez has been mostly missing from art duties for the last few issues, and he is scheduled to be off the book entirely before long. I’m not sure what the future will hold. Superman can be a great character, but he’s also very difficult to write properly. Even DC seems to have no idea what to do next.

Grade: C-


cover to Wonder Woman  #1

Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman

(Based on issues #1-6)

DC also rarely seems to know what to do with Wonder Woman, but fortunately Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang have some ideas. They’re not the first ones to play up Wonder Woman’s warrior nature and connection to Greek mythology, but they may be the first to make the mythological world so foreign and dangerous. Chiang’s art is beautiful and iconic. The action scenes flow like no others in DC’s lineup, and the character designs are creative and memorable. Many of the gods don’t even look human. Even when they do, Azzarello’s writing reminds is that they really are not like us. They scheme, kill, and perform rituals would seem more at home in a horror story than a Greek myth. This is structured in some ways as a family drama, but the gods break all the rules of a story like that.

Azzarello’s best decision is to make Wonder Woman the lynchpin between the classic mythological figures and some relatable human characters who are discovering that they have a connection to the Greek gods after all. Unfortunately, this has separated her from her fellow Amazons of Paradise Island and brought her closer to the level of the gods. That’s right, it’s another DC relaunch that changes the character’s backstory and takes a dark path. However, these have often been the best new titles. Wonder Woman may stand out because of the concept, but its solid writing and art that make it successful.

Grade: B


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