Sep 9 2011 12:20pm

DC Relaunches its Line: But are the Comics Any Good?

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, Comic Book Resources, Back Issue magazine, and his own Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Nevin Steindam
1. TheNevin
There is a certain pleasure in watching a serialized story unfold. For that reason, I'd prefer to give a new reader a GOOD new series than a GREAT completed story. Admittedly, not everyone has the same preference as me there. Some people would rather read Watchmen and wait to hear what else they should pick up as a collection a couple years later. But over all, I think it's ok for the DC relaunch to be less than Watchmen-quality.
Other than that, I agree with everything you said. I bought Action, Stormwatch, Animal Man, and Swamp Thing this week, and I was looking forward to each. But only two of those four were even good, and it doesn't sound like I missed out on anything else. So far, we have one series (Animal Man) that I'd recommend to a new reader, and one more (Swamp Thing) that people already comfortable with DC books can enjoy.
Not an auspicious start.
2. Simmered
The idea that JL is better than Action Comics is just insane. At least Swamp Thing is pretty - but neither of them actually had anything happen, which puts Action Comics way, way above either of them.
3. David J Davidson
On a friend's recommendation I bought two consecutive Fables trades before I decided it wasn't for me. That's 10 single issues. Perhaps if readers are interested they'll give DC more than just a single issue to decide the same. Especially considering the good word of friends (or the internet) and a helpfully cajoling marketing scheme.
4. matthewcharles
I mostly agree with everything you've said with the exception that I thought JLA was not very good. It says something that the best comic so far (Animal Man) had no need at all for the continuity reset to tell its story.

That said, a lot of the more promising titles like Wonder Woman, Batman and Frankenstain are still to come.

The one I had the most mixed feelings on was Batwing. I thought the pages individually were really, really nice, but the whole book was either inside bland rooms, or when outside only the foreground was rendered. I am assuming that although it is set in the DR Congo that Americans are largely the target audience. Batwing is operating in an environment totally foreign to most Americans, and the way the comic is drawn it is asking us to imagine it out of whole cloth.I think that is a big mistake for an otherwise promising title.
5. coryJ
@Tim_Callahan: Exactly right Tim, as usual.

I took your recommendation with regards to Animal and bought it. It was awesome. I hope Lemire gets to do more creator-owned work though.

I had this intuition that Grant Morrison's Action Comics would suck. Turns out I was right. I refused to buy it. I had read some interview with Grant Morrison that took place after Comicon and he was transmitting this really angry subtext. I got the sense he was really pissed off about what DC Editorial had done to his plans. I therefore concluded that his heart really wouldn't be in Action Comics, especially since Geoff Johns hogged all the good "available" artists for himself (namely, Doug Mahnke and Ivan Reis. Jim Lee is as banal as usual).

The numbers for November and December for DC should be interesting. There's a good chance DC as a comic book company will severely reduce operations in 2012. Maybe they'll just publish Batman, Superman, and Vertigo.
Geoffrey Dow
6. ed-rex
I'm old, and stopped buying (or reading) superhero comics not too long after the first Crisis on Infinite Earths way back when, so I don't have a dog in this fight, but I have to ask how it can be that you're surprised.

That is, how can anyone have expected that 52 corporate-controlled comic books, all on the same theme (super-powered good guy battles Evil), would have been "fresh" or "different" or even "somewhat interesting" 52 times?

It's one thing to have say, Frank Miller or Neil Gaiman come along and bring new life to one or two corporate properties, but to think - let alone to expect it - to happen all at once to all of a given companies properties is, I'm sorry to break it to, naive in the extreme.
7. Bill Reed
Nope. Static Shock #1 did everything right-- it was busy, it introduced all the characters in a way that didn't feel like force-feeding, it had a dynamic action sequence with clever use of science-y powers (just like that Flash comic from 1956 that started the Silver Age), and it looked snazzy while doing it.
8. SF
A different take on some of the first issues:,61540/

@coryJ They really seemed to like Action, along with Animal Man, so maybe it's worth a look. Definitely haven't gotten a resentful vibe from any of the Morrison interviews I've read. And the art in the previews looks pretty good.
11. josh f
I thought Detective Comics was the best-looking comic Tony Daniels has ever drawn, but he's gonna be in trouble when he runs out of panels from 'Dark Knight Returns' to steal.
12. Pendard
I bought six of the issues: Action Comics, Animal Man, Batgirl, Men of War, Swamp Thing and Stormwatch.

I've cut way back on comic reading in the last few years, and I never read much DC at all except for the Batman Family, so I'm looking at this relaunch as a chance to get to know some of the DC characters a little better.

From that perspective, I thought Action Comics was the best Superman comic that I've read other than All Star Superman. I found this version of Superman much easier to relate to than the usual one, I enjoyed the way "more powerful than a locomotive" was worked in and I liked the less naive, less bumbling version of Clark Kent. I think this was a great first issue and it has a lot of promise.

Animal Man, as you said, was the best of the lot. It really blew me away. I have never read Jamie Delano or Grant Morrison's work with this character but I instantly felt like I get who he is and I'm very drawn to the story.

Swamp Thing was also good, I guess, but it didn't draw me in so much. I'll definitely buy the second issue, but I'm not necessarily loving the story with Alec Holland and the Swamp Thing both being alive and in separate bodies -- it reminds me a little of the first story in the Vertigo relaunch a few years back, which isn't a good association. I'm also wondering if the walking skeletons in Swamp Thing are related to what's going on in Animal Man.

I have never read any Stormwatch before and I felt like this first issue introduced a lot of characters to me fairly clearly. The villain seemed interesting too. Nonetheless, I doubt I'll buy the second issue. I don't doubt it will be a solid comic, but I find I just don't really care about what's happening. It didn't grab me.

Batgirl... I think I was very good at keeping an open mind about the whole "un-paralyzing Barbara" thing. I could see both sides of the argument. But I don't see the point in turning her from Oracle back into Batgirl for this. First, I didn't understand why she would automatically become Batgirl again just because she can walk. She obviously has some post-traumatic issues with violent crime, and she's still a kickass hacker -- why not stick to what she's good at? What's her motivation to become a superhero again?

Men of War: I knew I wasn't going to be a repeat buyer for this comic, I just bought it because I was interested in/curious about DC's attempt to work non-superhero properties into this reboot, which I think is a great idea. I'm also going to check out Demon Knights and All Star Western for this reason, though I doubt I'll be a regular. That said, I liked this even less than I thought I would. I'm a huge fan of old war movies and the main story in Men of War seemed like an artless pastiche. It left no cliché unturned. Except there was a superhero. It was weird. The back-up story was much better -- if the main story had been about those guys, I might have bought #2.

Overall, I don't feel as hard on it as Tim does. I'm really looking forward to next week, when I'm test driving Batman & Robin, Batwoman, Demon Knights and Buffy. Wait, Buffy isn't DC? Well, I'm still looking forward to it...
Jack Flynn
13. JackofMidworld
I haven't read many superhero comics of late, either (sticking with the Whedonverse & some of the novel adaptations - Anita Blake, The Stand, etc.), but I picked up Justice League & Action to give them a go.

Thought JL was a great intro, loved the artwork & liked how it pulled you in and left you wanting to see the next issue.

When I put down Action #1, I kind of looked at it, then looked at my wife, then scratched my head. I guess it just wasn't quite what I expected. I'll get the next one, probably the next couple, but I thought maybe it was just me; reading this review, I realize that's it's not.

Stil looking forward to Frankenstein & Wonder Woman, and I really hope that Deathstroke doesn't disappoint.
14. Raskolnikov
#6: I'd agree with that. Doesn't seem that this is any worse than would be expected from this brand.
15. TheMegaSage
The majority of people don't want to be challenged all the time. It's all about balance. Sure, you want to sit down and watch an Inconvenient Truth and have a discussion about it afterwards, but sometimes you just want to put on True Blood and turn your mind off.

Some comics will make you think. Some comics will make you roll your eyes and reconsider why you buy them. And some comics will make you turn your mind off and leave you grinning after you're done.

That being said, I prefer my comics to be strong in story over pretty in art. So with that in mind, I give you my thoughts on the first 13 comics:

5/10 - Meh. A little bit too obvious, a little bit too boring.

8/10 - Pretty good. I like the new 'young' Superman, who can be hurt and feel pain. I also really like the direction they're taking with Lex Luthor. He's not a cackling super-genius, but just brilliant and totally amoral. The end panel was pretty excellent as well.

9/10 - Sleeper hit for me. The art is stylized, with very little in the way of background. The story is the key here, and I have high hopes for this one. The end page was chilling.

7/10 - Decent. Interesting characterization, in that this is BatGIRL, and she does show a lot of insecurity (and is slim and of 'normal proportions'). I like this character, and will be interested to see her arc. That being said, I HATED the last panel. Some super villain has just thrown a murderer out of window, minutes after having killed a policeman. Batgirl, confronting this villian, is overcome by fear because of her memories of what the Joker did to her, so she doesn't stop The Mirror from throwing this low life scum out the window. So what does the partner of the killed policeman (who is herself bleeding and almost dead) do? She turns her gun on Batgirl - "You let that bad guy throw that murdering scum out the window, so YOU are a murderer, and I will train my gun on you EVEN THOUGH THE ACTUAL MURDERER IS STANDING BESIDE YOU." The was pretty weak, and made me roll my eyes. Comic writing at its worst, in my opinion. Actually, I am going to dock a full 1.5 marks for that last panel. The new official rating for this is 5.5/10!

7/10 - African Batman. I liked it. Interesting visually, as it wasn't the typical bombastic art style. Very tight writing. Excellent last two pages.

8/10 - One of the better #1s. Batman in detective mode, and a truly psychotic Joker. Definitely the most "WTF - where are they going with this?!?" last panel so far.

8.5/10 - Honestly, I really liked this one. I heard SUCH bad things about it, so I am somewhat questioning myself over this one, but ... damn, I just liked it. I think it's because this is one of the only #1s where the hero actually kicked ass. It feels like every other comic ended with the hero getting schooled, or ending in dire peril. In this one, Green Arrow was just a badass. This was a fun comic. I liked it.

4/10 - Eh. Good art. Weak story. I didn't like the characters that much (seriously, one of Dove's super powers is 'compassion'?).

6/10 - Eh. Good art. Semi-interesting story, but filled with a bunch of D level heroes. It has potential.

3/10 - Tied for my 2nd least favourite comic this week. I found the war angle to be boring. It's basically GI Joe in 2011, which holds no interest for me.

O.M.A.C. #1
3/10 - O.M.A.C. is some super powered dude (like the hulk, it seems) who can turn from human to said super powered dude. He's being controlled by a giant eye in the sky, who actually says "you and eye will be an unstoppable force". Seriously.

6.5/10 - Surprisingly decent. I found the hero to be grating at the start, but his characterization grew on me through the book. It's not the type of book I would read, but I can see it catching on with the public. It also had an EXCELLENT last panel.

1/10 - UGH! I had such hopes for this book. I HATED IT. Disjointed. Stupid 'heroes' who totally suck. Three of them are taken out by one dude in about 4 seconds at the end of the book. It jumped between 3 or 4 different teams, allowing zero time to get to know these characters. And all the teams got their asses kicked in one way or another. It was HUGELY disappointing.

7.5/10 - I liked it. Very stately pace. Above average art. The most cerebral book this week. This will probably end up in my top 10. The comic itself was relatively weak, but it's set a very interesting table.
16. Reader Ben
I've only picked up 4 books so far, JL, Action, Detective, and Stormwatch, and right now I'm leaning slightly to the better side of "meh" for the relaunch. I'm still on the fence about getting Animal Man, I have zero interest in the character, but everything I've heard makes me want to get it on artistic merit alone.

Justice League was fun, pretty much what I was expecting. Like the art and the characterizations so far. Hope the rest of the team is done as nicely. Action wasn't bad either, so far this feels like the character with the most distinct changes. I liked Detective, it definitely leaves you with that WTF? feeling, I'm interested to see where they go with this. It was also surprisingly brutal. Stormwatch was a head-scratcher though. So many characters introduced in such a short amount of time was a little overwhelming, but it's just the first issue, it's not like you need to know everything about every character right away. I did like some of the imagery though (giant eye in the moon, anyone?).

I'm picking up about 10 or 12 more books, and I'll give every one of them until the end of the first arc before I decide which ones I'll keep and which ones I'll drop. If this first batch is any indication, I have a feeling I'm only going to keep reading about half of what I'm starting out with.
17. Musicbear
DC is not about creativity. DC is about marketing brands of which they have a thousand or so. Those brands remain healthy in the status quo. Changing them means non comic reading movie goers will not connect to the brand and not want to see it. Thus you will never have real change, creativity or depth to their comics. That being said, having an opportunity to revamp, refresh and gain new eyeballs to their brands, this was a pretty luke warm way to do it. If this was my company, and I was starting over, the LEAST I'd do is branch off these thousands of god like beings into their own universes. The Justice League and their solo titles in one universe, the Lanterns in their own universe, the teen heroes in their own universe and the occult / horror stuff in it's own universe. The characters would be roughly the same, but the creators would get to have new storylines and new villians and heroes to develop. All this reboot did was say, for a few months, the heroes don't know each other and they bicker! Did they think that would substitute for characterization? Most of it is not HORRIBLE, just a little bland, but that's DC...a little bland.
18. Michael B Sullivan
That Stormwatch page you excerpted is shockingly ugly.
19. Pendard
@Musicbar (#17): Sadly, that might be true. The point of the relaunch probably isn't to have 52 really top notch titles, which is impossible, since there probably aren't enough talented writers and artists who want to work in the superhero genre. It's more to make a break with what has gone before to give new readers an opportunity to start reading.

I, for one, really appreciate that -- I've always liked DC in theory but the only books I read in the late '80s/early '90s (early post-Crisis) were the Batman books and the rest of the universe has gotten too complicated since then. I tried to read Final Crisis a few years ago and was totally lost. So I'm glad to just have everything reset so I can figure out what's going on. And if the reset spawns a few really great series like Animal Man... well, works out great because I only want to read a few good ones anyway!
20. TheMegaSage
The second batch of books is out (13 comics per week, 4 week rotation), and this set had a few major winners in it, and was all around better than week 1.

Batman and Robin
7/10 - Robin is the 10 year old son of Batman. Spoiler alert - I think he's the clone of Bruce Wayne. I think this series has definite potential.

7/10 - Alternate lifestyle Batwoman. Very nice art, and non-traditional panels, which is a nice change of pace. In the end, I thought it was a solid comic with potential.

9/10 - I loved this one. The story was exciting, the art was above average, and the hero has a considerable lean toward the 'anti' side of things. If you can only buy one book this week ...

Demon Knights
8/10 - I had high hopes for this series, and it didn't disappoint. High concept backstory. Beautiful art. Decent writing, if a bit too 'modern', given that this story takes place after the 'fall of Camelot'. Still, I am not disappointed at all by this first book. If you can only buy two books this week ...

Frankenstein - Agent of S.H.A.D.E.
5/10 - Didn't like it. The art didn't do it for me, and the concept, while decent, fell flat in execution.

Green Lantern
4/10 - The less said the better. I find I am liking the non-traditional comic series so far. This is traditional to the extreme.

8/10 - Solid. Think Sawyer from Lost if he were being chased by aliens. And if he could jump out of airplanes and survive a fall into the ocean. I think this will be an exciting story. Looking forward to it.

Legion Lost
6.5/10 - Decent. Heros from the 30th century follow a rogue villain back in time (or something), and now they're stuck here. Decent story. Decent art. Decent.

Mr Terrific
4/10 - Too much expository dialogue; I consider this type of writing to be a huge weakness in comics ("Let me explain what I have done while you are being electrocuted by a giant ferris wheel"). Another 'typical' comic where are the women have 40DD breasts and 16 inch waists. No interest.

Red Lanterns
7.5/10 - I liked this one. Lots of potential. Really colourful art work that POPS. Worth it just to see the first double page with a cat in a costume spewing blood from its mouth in space. Probably the best looking comic this month (ahead of Demon Knights).

Resurrection Man
7/10 - You know what's weird ... this had pretty much the same plot as Grifters. It even has the hero pushing / being pushed out of an airplane after being attacked by a woman. Weird. Anyway, instead of the aliens from Grifters, you have angels and demons after the Resurrection Man. I preferred Grifters, so this gets 7/10.

Suicide Squad
8/10 - FUN! The various villains that Batman has put away in Arkham Asylum are made into a team and coerced into doing missions (bomb on the neck and all). Harley Quinn (rworrrr) and King Shark are my favourites so far. I see this book taking off with the public.

7/10 - Very (VERY) anime art style. Above average writing. Depending on how they progress this series, it could be very good.

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