Reader’s Guide to the New DC Universe

The DC Relaunch: Week Two Gives Hope

Sometime you just have to wait a week before making declarations.

When I wrote about the first full week of the DC relaunches, with clear disappointed surprise, it wasn’t so much that I thought the overall quality was significantly lower than I had expected, it was that I was genuinely baffled by the kinds of stories that were told in those first issues. Many of them were unappealing, and even the competently-produced debuts were nothing that couldn’t have appeared a year ago, or a decade ago, regardless of context as part of a massive company-wide reboot. Largely, they just didn’t feel like new beginnings, except for rare exceptions like Animal Man and Action Comics. And Animal Man was the standout because it had an authorial voice, a bit of ambition, and art that wasn’t something you could find in a cheap subway ad.

This week’s DC relaunch titles are better. More sure of themselves. With an overall higher quality – I would rank 8 out of the 13 as “good or better” which almost doubles last week’s totals. And not all of the art is to my taste this week, there’s still something about all of these books that screams, “this is a relaunch, and we’re going to hit hard.” Last week, it was a lot of, “um…here’s a mediocre comic book. Enjoy?”

So this week I won’t spend my time ranting about how misguided the relaunch is. It has righted itself already, and even if the bulk of this week’s releases aren’t astonishingly great slices of comic book entertainment, they are mostly worth your time, and some of them are even what I might call “quite good.” Plus, there’s something at work here, some mojo beyond whatever press outlets DC has reached or whatever second printings they’ve announced or whatever successes or failures are perceived by long-time comic book readers. Because my ten-year-old son, who has been barely interested in superhero comics even though they surround him in this house of ours (maybe because they surround him in this house of ours), well, he’s been reading most of these DC relaunch books of his own accord.

Last week he read a few — he liked Static Shock and Hawk and Dove and Action Comics and Swamp Thing, didn’t like Animal Man so much. This week, completely unprompted by me, he read almost all of the new DC releases in the mornings before school. He laughed out loud at Red Lanterns, giggled at the absurdity of Frankenstein, thrilled to the new adventures of Batman and Robin, and, without ever having read a Rich Johnston or Chris Sims article in his young life, noticed that there was a mysterious hooded woman who appeared in every story, and excitedly pointed out his findings to me last night.

Something’s working here, when judgmental old readers like me and brand new wide-eyed readers like my son can read and enjoy the same batch of comics, even if the ones he likes are not my favorites and vice versa.

Let’s run through this week’s DC comics, shall we? We’ll start with the weaker entries, because then I can jump past them and move on to the good stuff.

The worst of the week is, as expected, Suicide Squad. I know what you’re thinking: “You listed that as the least-anticipated comic of the relaunch, and you were biased against it before you even read a single page.” Fair enough, but I assure you that I tried my best to clear my mind of such preconceptions, and even when I opened the cover and saw that Marco Rudy never even drew a page of this published story I still read through the story with nothing but generosity and kindness. It didn’t deserve that approach. It’s a nasty, ugly story (with striking art by Federico Dallocchio, wasted on this tale), one that takes a horror-porn angle with superheroes and supervillains but doesn’t give the reader an entry point for enjoyment within the filth. If there’s a comic book equivalent of the Gathering of the Juggalos, this is it.

The second-worst of the week was a surprise: Grifter. I had been anticipating Nathan Edmonson’s debut in the DC Universe, and thought he would bring a unique voice to the relaunch. To those who would listen, I claimed that Grifter would be one of the sleeper hits of the fall. Unless it becomes a substantially different comic in its second issue, this one is a dud. It’s a generic Wildstorm story on par with what we would have seen during one of the many attempts to revive that line in previous years, complete with a nonsensical visual image in the final scene which “explains” where Grifter’s mask came from.

But those are really the only two comics that didn’t work at all this week. Last week, those might have been middle of the pack. Suicide Squad, for all its vile nature, is still a more interesting take on its core concept than last week’s vanilla Green Arrow or Justice League International.

Other comics from this week weren’t really my taste, but I could appreciate the ferocity of their approach and the well-crafted machinery of a strong first issue. Deathstroke gives us a vicious monster as a protagonist, and provides a fake-out that’s not necessarily unexpected, but still surprising coming from a mainstream DC comic. Resurrection Man is a bit messy, but that seems to be the vibe it sought to engender, with a hero who can die and come back with a new power. It has a strong hook, and it seems to be developing its supporting cast effectively. Demon Knights isn’t nearly as compelling as I’d hoped, and like Paul Cornell’s Stormwatch, it tries to introduce a large cast instead of actually tell a story, but it ends with a dinosaur dragon attack, so all is not lost.

Mister Terrific was far better than I expected, giving Michael Holt a less-brooding demeanor and more of a science-hero spin. This is the kind of thing that I expected from last week’s comics and so rarely saw. A first issue that gives us a distinctive take on a character and concept. Mister Terrific isn’t some extraordinary masterpiece, but it earns its place in the DC relaunch, with a confident debut.

Legion Lost stumbles a bit with trying to give characterization to its large cast, but I’m happy to report that Pete Woods has returned to a more fluid drawing style and abandoned his recent reliance on photo-reference for character compositions. This is a dynamic-looking comic, and though it doesn’t quite reach the “must read” level, it sets up its premise quite nicely.

The rest of the week’s comics are legitimately good. The kind of comics I would enjoy reading anytime, and all of them do a great job serving as first issues and getting right into telling the story, building anticipation for the whats and the hows of the next set of plot twists and character moments.

The biggest surprise here is probably Red Lanterns, a comic that looks like a glossy, but gross, Image comic from the 1990s but knowingly maxes out its humorous potential. If this were drawn with someone with a cartoony line like Mike Allred, it would be hailed as a savage parody of superhero excess. It is maybe a bit harder to get the joke when it looks like its contributing to the genre it mocks, but with Atrocitus as a space-monster version of Hamlet and the gleeful madness of the mighty Dex-Starr, this series might just be able to walk that line that leads to some readers enjoying the over-the-top violence for its own sake and other readers enjoying the implicit satire within. The first issue indicates that it will.

Superboy was also surprisingly good, showing that any of my reluctance to praise Scott Lobdell was off-base. I knew the book would look great, with R. B. Silva’s clean line. But it also presents a new take on Conner Kent that doesn’t radically change anything about the character, but tells the character’s story in a way that feels comfortable. One of those, “it should have been told this way the first time” kind of things. That seems like a great way to go about it, and this first issue pulls off a strong opener.

Green Lantern and Batman and Robin continue from where the series and characters have left off pre-relaunch, but yet these first issues do act as appropriate introductions. They also look amazing, with Doug Mahnke drawing, as always, a regal yet edgy Green Lantern, and his former studio mate Patrick Gleason doing some of the best work of his career on Peter Tomasi’s Batman and Robin script. It helps that Gleason’s inked by Mick Gray who gives Gleason a thick brush line that’s plain gorgeous.

That leaves the J. H. Williams III’s Batwoman and the Jeff Lemire/Alberto Ponticelli Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. as the top two, and I’m happy to see two comics I so eagerly anticipated surpass my own expectations.  Batwoman is the best-looking comic of the relaunch — I’ll say that now with confidence, even with two weeks left to go — and Williams III (with Haden Blackman) picks up the narrative threads from Greg Rucka’s Detective Comics run and streamlines the character and the backstory into something that can propel itself forward with style. Batwoman is a great comic, all around.

So, for the second week in a row, a Jeff Lemire comic comes out on top. Frankenstein is an even better first issue than Animal Man. The interior art’s a little raw, particularly when contrasted with J. G. Jones’s rubbery-clean cover artwork, but Ponticelli doesn’t shy away from noodly details to help set up the strange sense of place, and his vigorous linework gives the issue a feeling of movement even when characters are standing still. What makes the issue superior, though, is the density of the story combined with its unrepentant absurdity. Father Time has been reborn into the body of a little girl, and she’s still as tough as nails. The S.H.A.D.E. headquarters is inside a three-inch indestructible globe that flies over the city, and the heroes must use Ray Palmer’s shrinking technology to come and go.

Frankenstein is a great monster hunting, superhero, secret agent, action comic book, with intelligence and a relentless pace. Read the heck out of it, why don’t you?

I wasn’t sure I’d be saying that after Week One, but after all the excitement from what I just read, now I’m looking forward to DC Relaunch Week Three.

Tim Callahan writes about comics for, Comic Book Resources, Back Issue magazine, and his own Geniusboy Firemelon blog.


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