Reader’s Guide to the New DC Universe

The DC Relaunch: Week Four Comes and the 52 Goes

For a week in which Patton Oswalt quit reading DC comics forever, the final batch of new DC debuts were quite tame. There were no great travesties of inappropriateness like Catwoman, nor were there any stand-outs of the caliber of Wonder Woman or Animal Man. This month of relaunched comics ended with a casual stroll across the finish line. 52 new titles in one month, some of them going back for multiple reprintings, all of them helping to bring new (or lapsed) eyes to the comic book side of the DC Universe.

Though I don’t have as much to say about this week’s tepid DC releases as I did about the last three Wednesdays, a few of the new #1s stood out as better than the rest.

All-Star Western wins the Best of the Week Award, and the Better-Than-Expected-And-I-Expected-Goodness Award, so it’s a definite double-threat. As I wrote in my preview of the series, it looks like the serialized nature will benefit the story, and the first issue ends with a compelling hook. Really, though, the $3.99 comic is an extra-length showcase for Moritat’s elastic, lush, evocative artwork.

You know how there are all these art books about Alex Toth and Al Williamson and Bill Everett coming out these days? Moritat’s work on the First Wave Spirit comic and his work on this All-Star Western will be given that kind of retrospective in another decade or two. He’s of that caliber, and he seems out of place among the typical DC superhero fare because of it.

Luckily, Peter Milligan and Mikel Janin’s Justice League Dark doesn’t qualify for that last category. Janin’s ink wash provides an almost pastel fluffiness under Ulises Arreloa’s delicate coloring, and such a style provides a fantastical underpinning for the schizophrenic tragedy and general unease of issue #1. It’s definitely a Vertigo-ish take on an alterna-Justice League, and when Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman show up, it recalls the proto-Vertigo tales from Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing or Grant Morrison’s Animal Man. In other words, these shiny heroes don’t fit into this world, and seem corrupted by the experience.

The best of the traditional superhero comics of the week comes from the hands of Geoff Johns (does that guy ever sleep?) and Ivan Reis, as they provide a take on Aquaman that pulls the general audience reaction to the character into the text itself. This is an Aquaman who knows he’s seen as the lamest of the superheroes, and this first issue directly addresses that point, as the King of the Seas directly addresses some of his most dismissive critics, played here in the form of an annoying blogger. While that may seem like a goofy contrivance, Johns and Reis nicely balance the genuine nobility of the character with the metatextual critical elements to reinforce the idea that, yeah, Aquaman actually is cooler than you might think. And with the horrors brewing beneath the ocean’s surface, he may not get to remain on land as long as the new status quo might have you believe.

All-Star Western is great, Justice League Dark is good, and Aquaman is a fun reconceptualization of the character, but the rest of the DC books this week don’t have much gusto behind them. George Perez’s Superman was a throwback to the same kind of stories we would have seen from him 20 years ago, and Mike Costa’s Blackhawks was even closer to the G. I. Joe in the DCU template than I imagined. The problem with the latter is that a superhero espionage book of this sort falls short of the best of the Nick Fury stories from Marvel, whether it’s the Jim Steranko visual thrills or the Jonathan Hickman clockwork narrative. Blackhawks is a clean first issue, but it doesn’t demand attention.

Ron Marz and Sami Basri’s Voodoo #1 subverts some of the sexual politics that derailed a couple of last week’s comics, and though a cursory glance at this first issue would give the impression that this is just another gratuitous, sexist comic from DC, Marz upends reader expectations by providing a horrific twist. But there’s not much to the first issue beyond that, even if the final two sequences in the comic point toward a direction for the series that could provide the potential for even more surprises. Put this one in the category of Has Possibilities, Revisit in the Future.

Teen Titans provides some rebooted versions of some of the same characters we’ve seen in comics with this same title for almost a decade, and yet it’s just as stale as any generic, uninspired comic you might pick up that involves a fast car and a looming attack helicopter. It’s like a mid-range sports car insert comic, with costumed characters flying around because the ad exec used to like to read comics when he was ten.

Philip Tan busts out a new style for The Savage Hawkman, or maybe Sunny Gho provides a heroic coloring job to make sense out of Tan’s normally murky panels, but this is ultimately a comic about a Hulked-out Hawkman, and neither lives up to the Indiana Jones meets alien artifacts premise nor provides a clean reboot that positions the character for a new audience. It’s not a complete mess of a comic, but it’s just messy enough to be quickly forgotten amongst all the rest.

I, Vampire is a full issue of stage setting, and if you can hook into Andrea Sorrentino’s Jae Lee pastiche, and the accompanying somber mood, this comic might sink its teeth into you. But Joshua Hale Fialkov doesn’t give us more than a nibble of a story so far. This one’s lightweight for a single issue, and, as predicted this summer, will probably read better as part of a collected edition.

The Fury of Firestorm: The Nuclear Men (a name changed as the book was in production, and we’re all grateful they didn’t go with “The Fury of Firestorms” as their plural of choice) is a reboot of the entire Firestorm concept, and it’s one that would have seemed clumsy even during the days when DC was trying to sell readers on something like Chris Claremont’s Sovereign Seven. The Flash is even less substantial than any issue of the previous run of the series, and Green Lantern: New Guardians reboots Kyle Rayner’s origin for no apparent reason, then repeats the scene half a dozen times with different colors of the rainbow.

Batman: The Dark Knight is ugly on the inside and outside and all around. Any potential readers of this comic should flip to the final page of the story. If that splash page (a) looks good to you, and (b) seems like an interesting direction for the pictured characters, then (c) you might actually like this comic. Everyone else in the world is better off staying far, far away from this hair metal version of Batman and Gotham City.

All in all, though I was doubtful after Week One, most of the DC titles do work as opening issues. They do provide some kind of fresh perspective on these characters, even if it’s not always a perspective that particularly interests me as a reader. But I’m not their target audience. I know this because, unlike Patton Oswalt, I took the Nielson survey about the new DC relaunches, the online version at least. I dutifully filled out the first page, which had me rank which of the new 52 I purchased, which ones I considered buying but didn’t, and which ones didn’t interest me at all.

When I clicked the bubbles for all 52 issues, in the “I bought this” column, the survey ended immediately, saying, “Thank you for filling out this survey. Unfortunately, you are too far gone for us to help. Looks like you’ll buy anything we slap together and staple in the middle.” Okay, it didn’t actually say that, but it did tell me that I didn’t qualify to take the survey after I answered the questions on page one. I’m not who they’re trying to get to read their books.

As I wrap up this final post about DC’s new 52, I suppose it makes sense to look back on my predicted Top 10 and my actual Top 10, at least after the first set of opening issues. I’ve said all along that the real evaluation of the success of the DC relaunch, both aesthetically and financially, will come over the winter months, when the initial art teams start to miss deadlines and enough issues have been released to get a true sense of the quality of each series. First issues are easier to do well than third or fourth issues, usually, and it’s rare that a comic kicks up in quality that quickly. It’s happened before, with Scalped, with Sandman, with Preacher. But we’re not talking about many of these new DC comics reaching that kind of caliber. Not many at all.

So, my original, predicted Top 10:

  1. Wonder Woman
  2. Action Comics
  3. Batwoman
  4. Swamp Thing
  5. Batman
  6. Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E.
  7. Animal Man
  8. OMAC
  9. Aquaman
  10. Stormwatch

My real life Top 10, after reading all 52 first issues, after a bit of thoughtful reflection and eager re-reading :

  1. Wonder Woman
  2. Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E.
  3. Animal Man
  4. All-Star Western
  5. Batman
  6. Batwoman
  7. JLA Dark
  8. OMAC
  9. Swamp Thing
  10. Batman and Robin

Seven out of ten, with the biggest upward movers being All-Star Western, JLA Dark, and Batman and Robin, completely knocking Action Comics, Aquaman, and Stormwatch off the list. Overall, I was pretty spot-on with most of my predictions from the summer, if the first issues are indicative of what’s to follow. Even with my grumbling or mockery over the past few weeks (or months, if you count the full DCU Guide), I do have to admit that the overall quality of the DC lineup has significantly increased post-relaunch. DC may have had a handful of comics worth reading a year ago, but now they have two dozen. And while even the best of the best (aka my Top 10 list) may not go down in history as great accomplishments in graphic narrative, many of these new DC books will surely contend for Best of the Year material. One issue in, these are some of my favorite comics coming out right now, and I look forward to reading more.

Was the DC relaunch a success? Sure. Now what’s next?

Tim Callahan has read far more than these 52 comics this month. And now he needs a nap.


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