Checking In With DC’s “New 52” (Part 2)

This is the conclusion to my reviews of the DC comics that started last year. Note that I’m not yet reviewing Animal Man, Swamp Thing, or Frankenstein, as I want to wait for them to finish their ongoing “Rotworld” epic.

Again, each comic title before the reviews links you back to the initial reviews I did at the six-month mark for the title.


cover to Superman #7

Superman

Superman

(Based on issues #7-10)

Despite my disappointment with the first issues of this, I stuck with it to see if a new creative team (Keith Giffen, Dan Jurgens, and Jesús Merino) could make it any better. And while they did, they still couldn’t make it nearly good enough.

Superman is a difficult character to write. By definition, he’ll win almost any physical confrontation. Too many modern stories either try to give him equally strong opponents – which leads to boring panels of punch after punch, followed by an arbitrary announcement about who won – or question the underlying point of Superman, without much to actually say about him. (The first issues of this fell into the latter trap somewhat, though its main problem was just poor story-telling.) There’s a reason Superman’s heyday was the Silver Age, when the stories could be based on clever puzzles or unironically celebrate his goodness. Unless you’re Scott McCloud (of the underrated Superman: Strength) or Grant Morrison (All-Star Superman), these things are difficult to pull off today.

The new team understands this challenge, fortunately. But they haven’t found a solution. Superman faces opponents who offer conundrums beside their power, but there’s never any tension to it. Of course the alien dictator who tries to recruit him will be turned down, and the alien fades away unceremoniously once the punching begins. A girl who hits hard and can’t be hit back is finally calmed down when Superman takes the time to understand her feelings, but she also fades away without resolution. Perhaps that’s still one stumbling block that this team didn’t address: Leaving every plot open-ended undoes the satisfaction of a clever solution. The only thing that does get resolved during these issues is a sub-plot about a blogger who is convinced that someone else is Superman’s alter-ego. But that, too, feels uneventful compared to similar stories in the past where something actually happened.

Grade: C


cover to Action Comics #14

Action Comics

Action Comics

(Based on issues #7 – 15 and #0)

Grant Morrison does a better job with Superman in his comic, but it’s admittedly a bit of a cheat. Retelling the days of Superman’s early career, he is able to put his own clever twists on a lot of the hero’s classic stories. Many of these characters, especially Brainiac and Mxyzptlk, are now part of an intertwined epic that gives Superman his first planet-threatening danger. Clever and sometimes confusing, it has all the hallmarks of a Morrison classic. I’d rather see forward momentum than clever remixes of the past, so this will never rival Morrison’s own All-Star Superman in quality. However, it is turning out to be interesting.

The story took its time in building, though. In my initial review, I said that if any groundwork was being laid for a larger story, I had missed it. It turned out that most pieces weren’t even started at that time. The “blue collar hero” angle of the early issues ended abruptly without forming a complete story, and the sci-fi action that’s replaced it has included a few unrelated adventures. (One entire issue took place in an alternate universe that had nothing to do with “our” Superman at all.) Some of this misdirection has been good, and others parts have seemed like the author stalling for time while he figures out his next trick. Overall, this is turning out well, but it doesn’t provide any better answers than Superman does for what makes a good Superman story: This is a story about existing stories, rather than a story about Superman.

Grade: B-


Cover to Batman #8

Batman

Batman

(Based on issues #7-14, #0, and Batman Annual #1)

I closed my review of Batman’s first six issues by calling it “the comic that every hack who has worked on Batman in the past decade has tried to write”. In the time since then, it’s become obvious that that is even more true than I thought: Scott Snyder doesn’t write new stories, but he has a real grip on what makes the Batman clichés work. That introductory story about the Society of the Owls succeeded because it was all build-up: The creeping menace, Bruce Wayne being slowly broken down, and the unraveling mystery were all gripping. It wasn’t until the climactic “Night of the Owls” event that the reader realizes how often we’ve seen these tricks. (Don’t worry: Batman gets a second wind, defeats the villains, and discovers a connection to his parents. But the villains aren’t fully defeated, and will be back someday…) That event also spread into other Bat-family comics, a few of which I read. They were mostly disappointing, as the story is pretty simple without Snyder’s hand guiding it, but DC and Snyder should be congratulated for making those cross-overs optional for readers of the main title.

There is already another event underway, the Joker-centric “Death of the Family”. It opens with promise, in a tense police stand-off that feels as much like a horror movie as a superhero comic. But soon enough, we’re seeing the standard elements of a Joker story being checked off: He’s different this time, and scarier than ever! He’s going to do some things that tie in to popular old Joker stories! And his plan involves the way he and Batman reflect each other! The story is just ramping up, but I feel like I have a good idea of where it will go. It also spills over to all the related series, but I feel comfortable skipping them this time.

This isn’t meant to be too cynical, though. Good Batman stories are rare, and Greg Capullo’s excellent artwork makes this one of DC’s premier titles right now. If the clichéd endings to the big events sound disappointing, issues #12 and #0 provide fun, pitch-perfect stories. (Again, their patterns are familiar and they are setting up events that may be less interesting later, but these issues are great.) It’s also nice that for once a comic designated as “important” is also enjoyable. Batman will keep you up on the storyline of one of DC’s biggest characters, but still tells a good story.

Grade: B+


cover to Blue Beetle #8

Blue Beetle

Blue Beetle

(Based on issues #7-12)

Blue Beetle is another series I’ve stopped reading already. It had good and bad ideas, but as a relaunch of a very recent title, every misstep felt like a betrayal of the series it was replacing. The character of Jaime Reyes was defined by family, community, and teen idealism, and Tony Bedard’s new version turned him into a runaway who felt betrayed or powerless everywhere he turned.

At the end, it started to seem that Bedard was setting up a long journey to make Jaime earn that status quo that he had in the previous series. That could have worked out eventually, and it almost got me to stick with the title after all. But remember yesterday when I said that I don’t think I’d regret it if I stopped following many of these series? This is one example of that. Bedard was possibly turning this around, but I just didn’t feel inspired to keep paying for that chance. The best possibility for Blue Beetle was that it would someday feel equivalent to a series I’d just bought a few years ago. With that perspective, it’s no wonder that this failed; Shortly after I stopped buying it, DC announced the title’s cancellation. It was never bad, but it never had a reason to exist either.

Grade: C


cover to The Flash #12

The Flash

The Flash

(Based on issues #6 – 14, #0, and The Flash Annual #1)

With Francis Manapul and Brian Buccalletto credited as both writers and artists, this series made an excellent argument both for and against writer-artists. On the one hand, they were able to design this to showcase a lot of fun visual tricks. On the other, the plot was kind of confusing and aimless. Now that the series is established, those highs and lows have evened out a little. It still jumps between plots unexpectedly, but it’s had time to jump back and demonstrate that they will all resolve eventually. The art, on the other hand, hasn’t found any new tricks now that the old ones are familiar. I still like the soft coloring and the dynamic panel-work, though.

This remains the only readable Flash series in years, and the current issues with Gorilla Grodd show the creative team’s strengths. The Flash feels less essential than it did at launch time, but it’s still worthwhile.

Grade: B-


cover to I, Vampire #8

I, Vampire

I, Vampire

(Based on issues #6 – 14 and #0)

Most series start out with a high concept, but then flesh it out once they have the reader’s attention. On the other hand, I, Vampire seems to become more about high concepts as time goes on: A primordial vampire! A vampire dog! Vampire hunters who are also zombie-vampires! The vampire civil war that was set up in the first few issues has been forgotten in favor of magical chaos in which characters change powers and allegiances more often than in Axe Cop.

I have to believe that Joshua Hale Fialkov is writing this with a coherent story arc in mind, though I don’t know if it will be as easy to care about the characters whenever that path finally becomes apparent. Fortunately, the moody gothic feel, enhanced by Andrea Sorrentino’s art, is still present, and this comic doesn’t feel like a complete waste. Just a bit confusing and hard to stay invested in any character long-term.

Grade: C+


cover to All Star Western #12

All Star Western

All Star Western

(Based on issues #6 – 14 and #0)

This series has become pulpy fun, once the reader accepts that our Old West heroes will keep running into people and places that have relevance to superheroes 150 years later, and if you stop worrying about why the odd couple of Jonah Hex and Dr. Arkham would staying together. The comic’s pacing is a little strange, with chapters starting and ending in the middle of issues, but it has found enough ideas to keep it interesting. A visit to New Orleans added variety, and a female version of Hex was pretty clever.

One of the series’ main problems is still there, though. This should feel like a quick, pulpy read, and instead this is one of those series that costs an extra dollar per issue because of additional backup stories. I don’t mention this in every comic that costs extra, but in this case, the stories are consistently boring and weigh this simple comic down. I think DC is doing this because it has no other comics set in this time period, so it’s up to All Star Western to flesh out a complete world. One of the characters from the backups has actually shown up in the latest Jonah Hex story, and I have to admit that that added to the impression of a larger superhero world. Even, so, though, these are not worth it.

Grade: C+

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  1. About Superman: I loved the choice of introducing Helspont as a new Clark’s villain, because the integration of the Wildstorm world into the DC universe has a great potential, in my opinion. The Wildstorm world has a lot of intriguing superheroes and villains who never met the DC ones, so their union is a potential goldmine of brand new stories.
    About Blue Beetle: I’m a big fan of slice-of-life moments in superhero comics.
    That’s why I enjoyed so much Blue Beetle: it didn’t focus only on his fights with this villain or that, but also on his school life, his best friend Paco, the girl Jaime had a crush on, Brenda… also, the moments he shared with these characters were not useless: on the contrary, those relationships deeply influenced his career as a superhero, because one of his main villains was Brenda’s aunt, and Paco became a villain too after some years.
    This series was interesting also because of the attention given to family, Mexican culture and mythology. Blue Beetle never showed just a superhero kicking a villain’s ass: there was always something more intriguing and instructive to read.
    It’s so sad that a series that landed right in my comic reading sweet spot is gone for good.
    Comic book readers tend to be very aggressive when you criticize their favourite characters or authors, but don’t worry, I don’t suffer from this “nerd rage”: on the contrary, I’m not an aggressive person at all, and I don’t really see the point of forcing someone to like what I do.
    I cried out my love for Blue Beetle not because I wanted to contrast with your opinions, but because nobody considers him, so, for once when I found a post about him, I thought it was the right occasion to write a deeply deserved epitaph for this fantastic series.

    • Don’t worry about disagreeing with me – I’m happy to hear other opinions.
      I’m not very familiar with the Wildstorm universe, so I judged that Superman story only by how it seemed to me there. Does it have more meaning if you’re already familiar with Helspont’s character?
      I agree with you about what made Blue Beetle good. I really liked the series a few years ago that introduced Jaime’s character, because it did a good job with his family, friends, and teenage troubles. I didn’t think this new reboot was doing as well, though. Things like the Spanglish and Paco’s gang associations seemed thrown in to make it edgier, but felt forced to me. And then Jaime spent a lot of the series as a runaway in New York without their support. (Though his grandma was a fun new character.) Overall, it looked like it might have been heading back to what made the first series good, but it had taken a year and not gotten there yet. I think a lot of the old fans lost patience.

      • I think so too. A character doesn’t lose his audience after years of success without a reason.
        About Helspont, I think that it has more or less the same meaning. Thank you for your reply! : )

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