Every issue is someone's first: short reviews of four #2's

As Stan Lee sayings go, "Every comic book is someone's first" isn't quite as well-known as "With great power comes great responsibility," but it's nevertheless one that comics editors and creators should integrate and internalize just as thoroughly. It's probably much less true today, now that comics are sold primarily through specialty shops (and, increasingly, online)  instead of on newsstands and spinner racks, than whenever Lee first said it.

But regardless of whether Executive Assistant Assassins #13, Fearless Defenders #7 or Tarot Witch of the Black Rose #81 — to pick three titles from this week's shipping list — will actually be anyone's first comic book, as long as publishers continue to sell comics as serialized stories, then the thought that one of those could be someone's introduction is a pretty good guiding principle for creating those comics.

With that in mind, this week I read a handful of second issues of some prominent new books from the biggest players in the direct market, with an eye toward how friendly the material might be toward a new reader starting the series — or comics in general — with that issue.

Astro City #2: I'm not sure that there is a bad jumping-on point for Astro City; generally, any issue of that title you pick up will make for a rewarding read in terms ofquality and clarity. This is the second issue of the current series, which is now being published through DC's Vertigo imprint, and it reads just like a first issue, offering a complete, done-in-one story with a beginning, middle and end ... although the end is not so final that it doesn't lead in to the next installment.

The main character of this story, "Welcome to HumanoGlobal," is Marella, a young woman who applied for a job at a call center, went through what seemed like an extraordinary amount of screening, and ended up working as part of the enormous support staff that helps The Honor Guard, Astro City's Justice League/Avengers analogue team, screen and prioritize various distress calls and tips.

As is always the case with Astro City at its best, this issue sees writer Kurt Busiek thinking about the real world and real people that would exist around superheroes, and engaging not only in clever, impressive narrative world-building, but wringing human drama out of it as well.

Similarly, artist Brent Anderson draws a "real world" around their superheroes and supervillains, filling the civilian cast with realistic designs that look like the people you might see in your neighborhood or at your office, rather than the two to six default character designs still found in far too many superhero comics.

Despite the huge "2" on the cover, so big it looks like it's part of the title, this is as good a place to start reading Astro City as any. And, I imagine, as good a place to start reading comics as any.

Batman/Superman #2: Jae Lee's art is by far the most noteworthy and most interesting aspect of this book, and his designs, renderings and storytelling choices are the main reasons to pick up this Greg Pak-written, New 52 version of the old 2003-2011 Superman/Batman team-up comic.

Which is why it seems odd that his art doesn't serve the story all that well. In the previous issue, Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne met for the very first time, and then Superman and Batman met fort the first time, all spurred by a possessed Catwoman on a killing spree in Metropolis, and then the villain teleported the stars to somewhere or somewhen else.

In this issue, there are then two Supermen, two Batmen and a second Catwoman, all with rather slight differences in their costume designs that Lee's art hides more than accentuates (in some pages, for example, all of the characters appear exclusively in silhouette). The narration confuses matters even further, as the two Supermen and two Batmen all narrate, sometimes offering dueling accounts, and I actually found myself pining for a thought bubble just to know which Batman was thinking what while fighting which Batman.

Two more female characters appear in this issue — Lois Lane and Wonder Woman — and although they both look exactly like Catwoman, Wonder Woman at least is distinguishable by her costume.  I think "our" Superman and Batman have been transported to Earth 2 (the New 52 Earth 2, seen in the pages Earth 2, at some point before the Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman of that world were killed in Earth 2 #1, but that's a guess based on costuming more than context clues, the latter of which echo pre-New 52 Earth 2 in a few ways).

Whatever's going on, Lee and colorist June Chung make it pretty enough to justify not only that confusion, but the fact that their work makes an already dense story a bit denser.

That means the second issue of this series is as good a place to start as the first, I suppose. On the downside, you'd be missing some swell Jae Lee art by skipping Issue 1 (I really liked how insane his Gotham City park looked), but on the upside, this issue is all Lee, whereas the first issue had an awkward transition to Ben Oliver art in the back.

That's if you've already read some comics before, of course. As a first-ever issue of a comic book, it's hard to imagine a worse single issue to start with.

Superman Unchained #2: Scott Snyder is a good comic book writer, and Jim Lee is a good comic book artist. But I'm not convinced they're a good team, at least not judging by this issue, my first exposure to the pair working together.

Snyder opens with some rather lengthy and detailed narration by Superman in which he explains his current situation and the background of an antagonist while thinking to himself how on Earth he's going to stop a skyscraper from collapsing without any of the many, many people within it dying in the process. In addition to getting the exposition work done, it's a rather fascinating look at how the super-smart, super-fast brain of Superman works, as he runs through the near-infinite possibilities his powers give him to problem-solve until he reaches the near-perfect, no-one-dies solution. All while fighting a giant robot intent on stopping him.

Lee's art, meanwhile, is just your standard splash pages with an inset panel, or three or four big panels, per page, making for a herky-jerky read. The art works, and the words work, but they're not working together, and these pages actually read an awful lot like those few and old collaborations between Jim Lee and Chris Claremont, with too many words per panel.

Superman fights a robot. He consults with Batman. He checks in with Lois Lane. He has a stand-off with the U.S. military's General Lane. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor breaks out of jail and a sorta goofy-looking new villain shows up (he has the same head shape as the villain from the Lee-illustrated "Villain's Journey" arc of Justice League, and a big, gray rocky-looking body, with lots of red energy streaming out of it).

General Lane litters, and drinks coffee so viscous it looks like gravy:

There's a nicely illustrated, two-page epilogue drawn by Dustin Ngueyn, but it doesn't serve much of a purpose, other than filling up a few more pages, and thus perhaps helping to justify that $3.99 price tag (well, there's that, the thicker cover stock and the Lee/Snyder portion is 23 pages long rather than 20).

Having not actually read the first issue and having enjoyed this one just fine, I'm going to assume this one is an OK  issue to start with. But then Superman comics, like Batman comics, are almost always safe to pick up and start reading whenever. Who doesn't know Superman and Batman and what their deals are?

If you were new to comics? This might not be an ideal gateway comic, but it wouldn't cause you to run away screaming either.

X-Men #2: I was more grateful than usual for the explanatory "Previously ..." paragraphs on the title page, as it clarified the nature of the villains and conflict from the previous issue, and why the climactic event — the one character I don't remember ever hearing of taking over the body of another character I don't remember ever hearing of — was being presented as something of a big deal.

That I needed a few paragraphs to catch up between the first and second issues of a new comic book series, a pause to explain to me what just happened in the first 20 pages or so before moving on to the next 20 pages or so, is itself something of an indictment of the series. Granted, I'm only a very-occasional reader of X-Men comics — I didn't realize Beast evolved into another new animal form until this issue, for example — but shouldn't it take a few issues before you start to lose your readers in continuity confusion?

I'm guessing the enormously warm reception this book has received is due in large part either to affection for the creators (Brian Wood writes, Olivier Coipel pencils, and Coipel and two other artists ink, while three colorists are involved), or to a big chunk of the sizable X-Men audience (and/or even more sizable potential X-Men audience) liking the idea of an all-female X-Men team ... or simply the particular characters chosen.

Because the comic is the very definition of nothing special; it's just a good, old-fashioned superhero fight comic, with a pre-existing villain returning to cause trouble in a different way than last time, and the various members of the team fighting an antagonist that means them harm.

The plot is generic, the dialogue standard, and Wood doesn't even seem particularly adept at juggling the characters — few get to say or do much of any interest in this issue, and Beast, who's not officially on the team (and is male), gets more panel time, more dialogue and plays a more active role in the plot than just about any of the women who appear on the covers.

It is really handsomely drawn, though, and it's certainly possible that the book's unpretentious insistence of being just another superhero comic is part of why so many folks seem to find it so charming. Here's an X-Men book that's not about Wolverine and Cyclops having philosophical differences or the fate of the mutant race, and maybe that's enough to separate it from the pack.

Given that the prose paragraphs at the beginning tell the story of the first issue more clearly than the first issue did, this is a perfectly fine jumping-on point. I think you'd need a pretty good background in the X-Men — at least a season or two of one of the cartoon shows — to know who the players are and what they're doing exactly, though. Rogue's and Kitty's actions don't make much sense if you don't know what their particular powers are, and especially how the latter's interact with technology.

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