After a promising, albeit safe, start with last week’s Justice League #1, DC Comics began its relaunch in earnest this Wednesday with thirteen brand new number one issues hitting comic shops and iPads everywhere.
After reading all thirteen comics, my initial reaction is more disbelief than anything else: the company banked their future, and the vitality of the entire mainstream comic book industry, on this stuff?
I wouldn’t say I was shockingly disappointed with the initial batch of titles. If you’ve been following my Reader’s Guide to the New DC Universe this summer, you know that I recommended you skip more new DC comics than you should actually buy on a monthly basis. But I was optimistic about the whole endeavor, and what I didn’t expect was the overall lack of ambition in these opening issues. Sure, a couple of them were better than I hoped, and a few were significantly worse than I feared, but as a stack of comics, these were bland, generic, often exposition-heavy first issues that can’t possibly work to expand the readership for mass market comic books.
For all the excitement and midnight openings and announced sell-outs and immediate reprintings (and, I will admit, I was eager to see what the new DC line looked like, certainly), I suspect that the enthusiasm will die down quickly, once lapsed readers and brand new readers realize that they’ve jumped into a DC Universe that’s largely filled with a bunch of sub-standard comics. I don’t know how to put it more clearly than this: these, as a whole, are not great first issues. With all the potential new eyeballs on these comics, they should have been something fresh and different and at least somewhat interesting. Instead, they mostly read like stale attempts at doing stale characters in the same stale way.
It’s the equivalent of announcing some big new musical extravaganza that will revitalize the song-and-dance business and then you pull back the curtain and it’s the old Six Flags guy doing his yah-dah-da-da-dah.
Shame on any of us, I suppose, who thought there might be something more to the show.
Largely, these aren’t even among the better comics featuring these same characters, and they certainly aren’t as good as some of the other work by these writers and artists, with one major exception: Animal Man, by Jeff Lemire and Travel Foreman. Animal Man pulls together the best interpretations of the character from his past (originally crafted by Grant Morrison and Jamie Delano, mostly) and provides a superhero/horror blend that is genuinely haunting and still human. Travel Foreman pushes at the boundaries of representational cartooning for the domestic scenes, but unleashes expressive rendering when the issue veers into more emotional, or dream-like, directions. It does what all the first issues needed to do: establish a world, evoke a mood unique to the series, introduce the main characters, tell compelling chunk of story, and provide a hook. Few of the comics from DC this week actually manage some of those things, and none of them do it as well as Lemire and Foreman.
Animal Man #1 is a legitimately great first issue, regardless of its context as part of the DC relaunch. Compared to the other twelve comics from the company this week, it’s some kind of genius masterpiece.
Out of the remaining twelve (and I suppose I can lump Justice League #1 into the mix to make it an unlucky thirteen), another handful are certainly worth reading, even if they don’t land as successfully as the Animal Man premiere. Scott Snyder and Yanick Paquette’s Swamp Thing is the second-best book of the DC batch, with luscious art (as predicted), a haunting quality that’s similar to the Lemire/Foreman comic, and a few eloquent captions. It falters a bit in its focus on establishing everything instead of moving forward. It’s a lot of telling and not a lot of showing, but it has an underlying intelligence and it looks amazing. If Justice League #1 came out this week instead of last, it would probably slip in as the third best debut DC comic of the week, with its attitude-filled portrayals of Batman and Green Lantern. It’s absurd bombast, but it’s done well, and I can see that it would appeal to new readers.
But Justice League is last week’s story, and so the Keith Giffen and Dan DiDio OMAC hits as third-best. It’s a narrative mess. It’s page after page of declarations and a big blue guy smashing stuff. The words are practically inconsequential. But, ah, the art. It is right up there with Animal Man and Swamp Thing as a comic worth leafing through, just to gaze at the visuals. I can’t imagine that new readers would get the same thrill out of looking at it that I do. They probably want some kind of substantial story or something crazy like that.
I figured Action Comics would be one of the best superhero comics of the fall, and it might still become that, but the first issue isn’t even close to the best DC comic of the week. Grant Morrison, who wrote a pained yet austere, omnipotent yet utterly human Superman in All-Star Superman, returns to tell the story of the young hero in Metropolis, and, maybe it’s the art by Rags Morales, but it reads like an inferior First Wave spin-off. First Wave was DC’s recent, aborted, attempt to tell stories about pulpy heroes like Doc Savage and the Spirit, and this new take on Action Comic has that same faux-gritty, utterly cornball, grey-and-brown, clumsy approach that caused First Wave and its brethren to limp to completion with barely a whimper of audience recognition. Action Comics has Morrison, and he has rarely written a comic I didn’t enjoy, and so there is some life to this series, and even a bit of verve to the Lex Luthor in the opening issue and the sheer oppressiveness of this young Superman’s vigilante violence, but it’s not a strong beginning. At least it has potential.
Hawk and Dove also has potential, with immediate action, quickly-established mysteries, and instantly iconic characters. Rob Liefeld continues to get grief for his style, but his pages have more life than seven or eight other DC comics of the week. And Sterling Gates doesn’t try to overcomplicate things. He knows he’s writing a Rob Liefeld comic, and he gives Liefeld monster-zombies to draw and then mock, and he provides characterization that fits the larger-than-life look of the series. It’s goofy and fun and comic booky, in the way that tends to turn off casual readers or long-time superhero fans who want to see more Alex Ross “realism” and less tenth-generation-twice-removed cartoonish anatomy. Still, if this weren’t part of a line-wide relaunch, I probably wouldn’t buy another issue of this comic, and that’s how I feel about the rest of the bunch from this week.
Even Stormwatch, which cracked my Top 10 for recommended DC relaunch reading, is a small disaster full of unstylish, ugly artwork and pages of dry exposition. Batgirl, Men of War, and Detective Comics are readable, competent comics, but nothing worth seeking out, and far, far short of the best Barbara Gordon, Sgt. Rock, or Batman comics ever produced. Batwing is a dull, leaden crawl with a vaguely interesting hook: the mysterious death of a superhero. But you know what else begins with that hook? Watchmen. And that comic is still available to read everywhere. Justice League International, Static Shock, and Green Arrow are forgettable, offensively bland products all around. They’ve been done vastly better before.
Is it silly to compare these comics to some of the best DC comics ever created? I don’t think so. Yes, it will be difficult for these new issues to live up to such standards, but when a company rebrands its entire lineup and promotes a new direction and a fresh start, it wouldn’t make sense to expect that these new issues would be middle-of-the-road-or-worse comics that read like second-hand, inferior imitations of comics that have already been released. But that’s what DC has launched into the world with this first batch. You can find better versions of these characters and these stories in trade paperback collections at your local comic shop. I can’t imagine that was DC’s motivation, to get readers interested and then drive them to pick up old collections. But there’s no other way this relaunch, produced with this overall lack of quality in the first week, makes any real sense.
Tim Callahan writes about comics for Tor.com, Comic Book Resources, Back Issue magazine, and his own Geniusboy Firemelon blog.