Grumpy Old Fan | Relaunch roundup, Part 1

Because it’s the first week of the New 52 Year Two, the time has come to review where I stand at the end of Year One. It also happens to be the week I’m away on a bidness trip, unable to react to whatever dern-fool thing DC did on Wednesday.

That would probably take a back seat anyway, because I’m a little curious myself to look back at these books. In terms of reading habits, it’s been a rather funky year. Some weeks I wouldn’t have time to read everything I bought, and sometimes that meant books just dropped off my radar. I caught up with a few of these, but a few I just didn’t miss -- which, of course, is never a good thing.

You’ll remember that last year I bought all 52 first issues, and talked about each as September proceeded.  Of those which remain, I am reading 27: Action Comics, All-Star Western, Animal Man, Aquaman, Batgirl, Batman, Batman & Robin, Batwing, Batwoman, Blue Beetle, Catwoman, DC Universe Presents, Demon Knights, Detective Comics, Firestorm, Flash, Frankenstein, Green Lantern, GL Corps, I, Vampire, Justice League, Justice League Dark, Stormwatch, Supergirl, Superman, Swamp Thing and Wonder Woman.

Additionally, I was reading six titles that have since been canceled: Blackhawks, JLI, Men of War, OMAC, Resurrection Man and Static Shock. For a while I also read Grifter, Red Lanterns, and Superboy. Filling in some of those holes are second-wave titles Batman Incorporated, Earth 2, Worlds’ Finest and Dial H.

To keep your eyes as glaze-free as possible, this will be a two-part survey. Today we’ll look at the Superman and Batman families, the “historical” titles, the main-line Justice League books, and a few others.


Action Comics (written by Grant Morrison, penciled by Rags Morales et al.) started strong, but as the year went on I feel like it got a little too quiet compared to the rest of the superhero line. I don’t have any real complaints about Morrison and company on Superman. Certainly Action Comics is more self-assured than Superman, but the latter has been plagued by editorial caprice and the lack of a consistent creative team. In other words, I think Morrison has gotten to do what he wanted with the character, but ironically it seems like the thrill wore off fairly quickly. So far, the highlight has been Issue 9 (featuring the Superman of Earth-23), mostly because it showed Morrison simultaneously at his most audacious and his most reverent. All that said, Morrison will be a hard act to follow. Action is one of those books I’m very reluctant to drop, but I’m on the fence pending the next creative team.

I wrote about Superman a few weeks back, and not much has changed. We know George Pérez had a frustrating experience, we saw Keith Giffen co-write a few issues with Dan Jurgens co-writing and penciling, and now Jurgens has finished his brief stint as writer/penciler in favor of Scott Lobdell and Kenneth Rocafort. Maybe things will settle down under the current team, or maybe that’ll have to wait until Morrison leaves Action Comics, taking his shadow with him.

Lobdell isn’t a deal-breaker for me, in large part because I enjoyed the first few issues of Superboy (penciled by R.B. Silva). After a while, though, the Boy of Steel’s journey of self-discovery simply failed to engage me, and I stopped getting the book right before the Teen Titans/Legion Lost crossover. Perhaps I would like it if I got caught up. Still, there’s no real impetus for me to do so until this fall’s Super-book crossover, and that doesn’t look particularly inviting.

By contrast, Supergirl (written by Michael Green and Mike Johnson, drawn by Mahmoud Asrar et al.) has been a very nice change of pace. Instead of approaching Kara Zor-El as a relatively innocent youngster, eager to live up to her cousin’s example, Green and Johnson have recast her as inexperienced but pragmatic. Even as she tries to find her way around her new home, she doesn’t really have much of a bond with Superman. For someone who really enjoyed the Bronze Age Supergirl, when she was old enough to come into her own, it’s both shocking and refreshing. (To be sure, Superman isn’t exactly the inspirational figure of old these days, either.) Asrar’s art is earthy and dynamic, emphasizing Supergirl’s capabilities over her appearance and complementing the more downbeat scripts pretty well. I’d drop Superman before I stopped reading this book.

After eight years, Geoff Johns’ work on Green Lantern is remarkable for its intricacy. Pulling together various elements of GL history into a relatively cohesive narrative about the Guardians’ secret history and the perils of the various Lantern Corps is no small achievement. Before seeing the latest rumor, I thought Johns would write Aquaman (penciled by Ivan Reis) long enough to craft something similarly ambitious. However, Aquaman’s problem is that too much has been done to him already in the name of accessibility, from the hook-handed Peter David days through the sinking of San Diego and the Sword of Atlantis relaunch. Compounding this is the notion that you can’t just take Aquaman back to basics, because everyone apparently thinks the basics are stoopid: talks to fish, needs water every hour, wears orange, parodied on “SpongeBob.” For some reason, also verboten is the tremendously fun walking exclamation point of Batman: The Brave and the Bold. At first Johns put Aquaman in situations where a super-strong, bullet-resistant King of the Seven Seas could be effective, like stopping invaders from the sunless depths and getting stranded in the middle of the desert. Recently, the Black Manta arc has taken a hyper-violent turn, with Aquaman going all stabby on random henchmen. This reminds me of similar attempts to gin up interest in Wonder Woman by embracing her warrior training (and perhaps also to live down bad ‘70s TV?). I think it’s Johns and Reis, not the violence (yes, they’re separate) that is fueling renewed interest in Aquaman, and I suspect this is just an arc-specific phase. Still, it makes me wonder what Johns will leave behind. I’ll stay with Aquaman as long as Johns does, but after that I’ll probably re-evaluate it.

I never read any of Justin Gray & Jimmy Palmiotti’s Jonah Hex, but I may have to, because All-Star Western (penciled by Moritat) is all kinds of entertaining. On one level it’s very much a familiar odd-couple setup -- Hex the jaded, grizzled, uncouth gunslinger and Arkham the effete intellectual -- but the lively scripts and Moritat’s evocative artwork make the difference. Although ASW opened with an arc set in 19th-Century Gotham, it wisely broadened its scope, and is a good example of how a non-superhero title can work within the larger universe.

Almost by necessity, Demon Knights (written by Paul Cornell, penciled by Mikel Janin) hews a bit closer to superhero sensibilities, but it’s more of a fantasy title than it is Justice League Medieval. Like ASW, its setting makes it more free to play with standard superhero tropes, and that gives it a certain anarchic energy.

I like Blue Beetle (written by Tony Bedard, penciled by Ig Guara et al.) pretty well, but there’s nothing especially groundbreaking about it. Jaime is an appealing protagonist, he’s surrounded by an entertaining supporting cast, and he gets in fairly straightforward adventures. Sometimes you just want to read an uncomplicated superhero book, and -- except for the occasional out-of-left-field plot twist from a heretofore-unrelated Annual -- Blue Beetle is just that.

As a fan of anthologies, I was glad to see DC Universe Presents (written and drawn by various creative teams) in the New 52, and I continue to support it despite its ups and downs. The ups include the five-part Deadman arc and the three-part Vandal Savage story, while the downs have been the Challengers of the Unknown three-parter and the one-off Kid Flash issue (which failed to draw me into the Teen Titans conclusion). Anthologies haven’t done so well lately, so sticking with DCUP is probably less of a commitment than I might think.

Considering that Batman (written by Scott Snyder, drawn by Greg Capullo) spent its first year on the extended “Court of Owls” storyline, it may be premature to evaluate its merits going forward. For example, the fact that it spent a year on one storyline doesn’t necessarily speak to Snyder’s overall approach to the book; and neither might a reader’s reaction generally to the Owls (who, it must be said, seem pretty well-received). Still, that story effectively introduced the by-now-ubiquitous Owls as a convincing threat. Snyder had already established his Bat-bona fides on Detective Comics, and Capullo proved to be a fine creative partner. Most encouraging, though, was Batman #12 (drawn mostly by Becky Cloonan), which offered a good glimpse into how the book would look on a more personal scale.  It's all very promising.

On the other hand, Batman and Robin (written by Peter J. Tomasi, penciled by Patrick Gleason) can at times seem almost too eager and/or too earnest. I hesitate to call a comic book which showcased an adolescent assassin’s lethal tendencies “earnest,” but bear with me. As he did on Nightwing, Tomasi wants to highlight how these ostensibly dark, driven characters are all family, and thus how that bond trumps virtually all other considerations. That’s not a bad goal, particularly as a response to the Bat-books growing ever grimmer. However, after a while it becomes so obvious that it threatens to overshadow the book’s other merits. Tomasi keeps things hopping, and he and Gleason make a good team. They just don’t seem confident that you’re getting their message.

If it’s unfair to judge Batman on the merits of its year-long story, that may be doubly true for Batman Incorporated (written by Grant Morrison, drawn by Chris Burnham). Not only is it the continuation of Morrison’s six-year-and-counting macro-mega-arc, it stretches back explicitly to pre-relaunch continuity -- that is, when it’s not completely reinventing a couple of main characters’ origins to fit the new five-year timeline -- and it’s still hugely entertaining. I have no idea whether this title will survive Morrison’s departure, and I’m not sure I would want it to. As long as it’s around, though, I’m in.

Part of me thinks Gail Simone simply transferred her particular set of Birds of Prey skills to Batgirl (penciled by Ardian Syaf et al.), because it doesn’t feel like it belongs with the rest of the Batman line. This Babs isn’t exactly Oracle, just healed and back in costume, so there’s no overt connection to those stories. Instead, Batgirl works on a more personal level, as the story of a young crimefighter learning to trust herself all over again. It reminds me as well that Simone is arguably better-known for ensemble books than for solo titles, but when she gets into a good groove on one (like All-New Atom), it’s worth it.

Batwoman (written by J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman, drawn by Williams, Amy Reeder, et al.) is another Bat-series that doesn’t trade much on traditional Bat-trappings, instead picking up from where Kate Kane’s Detective Comics adventures left off. I have no complaints. It just chugs along nicely, kicking into an especially high gear whenever Williams draws.

Batwing (written by Judd Winick, penciled by various artists) was one of the books I was prepared to defend on principle, even though principle seemed to be all it had going for it originally. “Love-or-hate-him DC mainstay writes the Batman of Africa” seemed trainwreck-ready, especially compared to the brutal honesty and well-researched nuance of Joshua Dysart and Alberto Ponticelli’s stellar Unknown Soldier. Not that I expected subtlety from a Batman series (or from Judd Winick), but still. Now, after a year, I like Batwing pretty well. It’s not Unknown Soldier, but it’s done a good job building its own corner of the New 52. Although Batman’s been in just about every issue (maybe for insurance), neither he nor the other guest-stars overshadow Batwing and his supporting cast. I don’t know where this book goes post-Winick, or for that matter post-Justice League International, but so far, so good.

I talked about the first arc of Catwoman (written by Judd Winick, drawn by Guillem March et al.) with Michael May a few months back, and by and large that still holds true. If Winick wanted to distinguish the New-52 Catwoman from the Chuck Dixon/Jo Duffy/Jim Balent ‘90s, or the Ed Brubaker/Darwyn Cooke/Will Pfeifer ‘00s, he surely did. The question is, did he need to? That I can’t answer -- but I did think Catwoman was a consistently engaging anti-hero book. Occasionally it strained belief, in terms of both physics and characterization, but not prohibitively far. I’m optimistic about incoming writer Ann Nocenti, so I’ll stick with Catwoman for now.

For the past year Detective Comics (written by Tony S. Daniel, penciled by Daniel et al.) was my mulligan. This is one of a handful of DC books I will read virtually by default. I’ve been reading ’Tec for more than 25 years straight, my collection of consecutive issues stretches back almost 30 years, and I’ve been reading it off and on almost 35. At the very least, that represents a strong inertial drag -- and by and large the creative teams have been very good -- but this past year I stopped reading the issues as they arrived. Finally I caught up with them a couple of weeks ago, and the story of Batman fighting a radiation-powered bad guy never really seemed much more than a decent attempt. From what I can tell I’m in the minority, since the book has been selling well. Looking forward to John Hayman and Jay Fabok, though.

Justice League (written by Geoff Johns, penciled by Jim Lee et al.) is one of the other DC books I’d read regardless, and again, this year that’s especially true. By now you should know my feelings about Justice League’s potential, and why I don’t think it’s lived up to that potential. Still, in that respect I do think it’s gotten one thing right, and that’s as a clearinghouse for the next Big Event. If a catastrophe is big enough to affect the whole superhero line, the League should be first in line to deal with it. Whether or not that makes Justice League a gateway to the larger universe (and I would argue it does), the book should be at least representative of the line as a whole. However, over the past year I believe Justice League has more often demonstrated the New 52's most superficial, stereotypical qualities. It needs to get better.

The thing about having two Justice League books going simultaneously is that one will always be the “real” League. For a few years in the early ‘90s, Justice League Europe played with this notion by including mostly old-school Leaguers like Aquaman, Green Lantern, the Flash and the Elongated Man, and having Batman and Wonder Woman guest-star. The upcoming Justice League of America arguably does the same thing, by putting the B-listers with the A-list name. Ironically, though, often this means the “other” team ends up going on more traditional superhero adventures, because the main team has gotten so good at doing its own thing. Accordingly, the early years of Justice League Europe saw them fight the Queen Bee, the Extremists and Starro, while over in Justice League America Beetle and Booster were opening the KooeyKooeyKooey casino.

So it was this past year with Justice League International (written by Dan Jurgens, penciled by Aaron Lopresti et al.), which mixed a couple of fight-heavy storylines with the perpetual threat of being disbanded ... on the way, as it happens, to being canceled after 12 issues and an Annual. Although I always enjoy Aaron Lopresti’s work, JLI suffered from some of Jurgens’ clunkier dialogue, and the series never really gelled. Even so, between the stabs at U.N. politics and a diverse super-team, JLI tended to have more going on than its higher-profile sibling. Maybe that’ll be true too for the new JLA.

Next week: more of the “dark,” plus the Earth-2 books, Firestorm, Flash, some Lanterns, Stormwatch, Animal Man, Swamp Thing and Wonder Woman!

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