Grumpy Old Fan | Relaunch roundup, Part 2

[Note: all this was written before I read any of this week’s comics.]

As mentioned last week, part of this look back at my New 52 reading is the chance to see where I might drop some titles. Not that I want to be negative unnecessarily, but it’s always good to make sure you really like what you buy. While I do buy some books “just because,” it’s very easy simply to fall into the habit of reading the same things month in and month out, neither looking forward to them nor missing them when they’re gone.

Therefore, let’s push through some bad vibes and talk about a couple of books I let drift away. Besides Superboy (covered last week), there was Red Lanterns (written by Peter Milligan, penciled by Ed Benes) and Grifter (written by Nathan Edmondson, penciled by CAFU). Originally I liked Red Lanterns because I thought it had recast Atrocitus as a distracted middle-management type, questioning his place in the universe while his functionaries went down their own demented paths. However, as the months went by the series never really built up any momentum, and for a premise based around the blood-spewing power of RAGE!!!1!! that’s not so good. Much the same applies to Grifter: thought it had potential, but it didn’t hold my interest.

That definitely wasn’t the case with OMAC (written by Dan DiDio and Keith Giffen, penciled by Giffen and Scott Kolins), perhaps the most unexpectedly-entertaining title in the New 52's original roster. OMAC didn’t come close to the sly nihilism of a Nextwave, or even the witty blunderings of a Guy Gardner comic, and its characters and plots weren’t particularly deep. Its exuberance made up for a lot of that, though; and its cancellation leaves it firmly in the burns-shortest-but-brightest category.

I also followed Blackhawks (written by Mike Costa, penciled by Graham Nolan and Ken Lashley) and Men of War (various creative teams) throughout their abbreviated runs, and while I appreciated what they tried to do, in hindsight neither was especially memorable, nor seemed particularly essential to the New 52 landscape. In fact, as much as I don’t like being told to buy a book for its supposed importance, some of that might have helped these titles. Blackhawks was often compared to G.I. Joe, but a more direct S.H.I.E.L.D. parallel could have solidified the team’s (and the book’s) place in the larger superhero line. Similarly, Men of War could have played up its average-soldier perspective on superheroics. The final issue featured Frankenstein, but clearly came too late to make much difference. From what I can tell, the current GI Combat has more super-fantasy connections, but I haven’t had the time to check it out.

The other two since-canceled series I read this past year were Static Shock and Resurrection Man. I wanted to support Static (written by John Rozum, Scott McDaniel, and Marc Bernardin; penciled by McDaniel) partly on structural grounds, because when it first launched it seemed like a good way to work the Milestone characters into the overall superhero line. Indeed, I liked the first issue a lot, because I thought it was a good reintroduction both to Static and to his extended supporting cast. Unfortunately, turmoil on the creative team ended up making the book scattershot at best. It’s a shame, because Static and the other Milestone characters appeared in some very fun comics, but have never really been treated well (or at least treated well consistently) since their original books ended. Moreover, with low sales on this title and on the pre-relaunch Xombi, I don’t think DC will be eager to revisit the Milestone characters anytime soon.

Resurrection Man (written by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, penciled by Fernando Dagnino) started slowly, but appears to be finishing well, with a final arc bringing Mitch Shelley back to the place where he got his powers. This was another title which got away from me over the course of the year, such that I had to catch up with it in a big chunk. Essentially it went from being a quirky take on super-powers to a somewhat familiar reluctant-hero-takes-on-shadowy-agency plot. It was still entertaining (particularly the fight with the Suicide Squad), and I’m glad DC brought it back, but I can’t say I will miss it.

By contrast, Dial H (written by China Mieville, drawn by Mateus Santoluoco) has moved quickly to establish its own quirky take on super-powers. For that matter, since the H-Dial “creates” a new superhero with each spin, it kinda-sorta covers some of the same ground as Resurrection Man’s different post-death powers. Any similarities end there, though: Dial H has dived deep into a unique, inventive mythology which only looks random and/or crazy.

Speaking of which, Frankenstein: Agent Of SHADE (written by Jeff Lemire and Matt Kindt, penciled by Alberto Ponticelli) also trades heavily in only-in-comics spectacle, but in a (relatively) more restrained way. Where Dial H is gradually revealing the structure behind its weirdness, Frankenstein is more about imposing order on the weirdness of the world. As in Grant Morrison and Doug Mahnke’s Seven Soldiers miniseries and its Flashpoint-ified follow-up, SHADE is your basic super-spy organization, only with terrifying creatures instead of Steranko-esque hotties. If Blackhawks could have been the New 52's S.H.I.E.L.D., Frankenstein is (as many have pointed out) its B.P.R.D. However, so far Frankenstein has focused more on the aforementioned spectacle than on Hellboy’s darker horrors. That’s still fine, because DC’s superhero line can always use a nice shot of spectacle.

Keeping the transitions going, spectacle is a big part of I, Vampire (written by Joshua Hale Fialkov, drawn by Andres Sorrentino), which looked at first like it was just updating the old House Of Mystery feature for the emo-bloodsucker crowd. Lately, though, it’s turned into something a little more fast and loose. Since the Van Helsing organization brought its ancient-Egyptian magic to a battle with Vampire Nation out in the lonely desert, things have escalated in all sorts of ways. This was another book I let slide for a few months, but catching up with it all at once gave the story a nice kick. I’m hoping that carries over into the monthly grind; but even if it doesn’t, my interest in this book is enough to make me want to re-read the whole thing.

I want to re-read Justice League Dark (written by Peter Milligan and Jeff Lemire, drawn by Mikel Janin et al.) for a slightly different reason. Despite an obvious reason for existing (there are just some things the regular Justice League can’t handle), it started off somewhat directionless, with the putative team members all throwing themselves in front of the Enchantress’ latest rampage. It had lots of atmosphere, but not much plot. Since Lemire came aboard, though, things have settled into a more traditional super-team format. Ordinarily I might not think that was a good thing (why go traditional if you don’t have to?), but in this case the book probably needed it. Anyway, in what may be unintentional irony, the additions of solo-stars Frankenstein and Amethyst are making JL Dark into an all-star book like its namesake. Even so, JLD remains just different enough that, unlike other auxiliary Justice League books, it doesn’t need so much to justify its own separate existence.

Arguably, Stormwatch (written by Paul Cornell and Paul Jenkins, penciled by Miguel Sepulveda et al.) falls into the same category, despite it being originally something of a Justice League pastiche. I only read the first couple of Authority collections, so while I understand why Authority fans would be disappointed that this book doesn’t quite have its predecessor’s bite, I think it works more often than not. Certainly I can see a big crossover (perhaps as soon as “Trinity War”) bringing the Justice League(s) into direct conflict with Stormwatch, with predictable “go to bed, old man!” results. (Naturally, just this sort of thing was done a decade ago, and it resulted in the 12-issue Justice League Elite miniseries.) Accordingly, Stormwatch might not be as potent as The Authority was in its prime, but it’s still more enjoyable than the current Justice League.

That brings us to the more obvious Justice League parallels in the Earth-2 books, Earth 2 (written by James Robinson, penciled by Nicola Scott) and Worlds’ Finest (written by Paul Levitz, penciled by Kevin Maguire and George Pérez). While it might have been nice to see a more traditional, well-aged, Golden-Agey Earth-2, I do like both of these books pretty well. Having Earth-2's proto-Justice Society influenced as much by magical/mythological forces as by science is a nice nod to the more magic-based heroes of the original, and its Apokoliptian invasion gives it a “postwar” feel without making it overly grim. I do have high hopes that Levitz and company can give the new Helena Wayne a meaningful relationship with her “Uncle Bruce,” like the old one had; but perhaps that’s a little unrealistic in these cynical times. Regardless, these are both well-executed superhero comics, both as alternatives to the main universe and in their own right.

Now into the homestretch, with the last group of main-line superhero books. First up is Fury of Firestorm (written by Gail Simone and Ethan Van Sciver, penciled by Yildray Cinar and Van Sciver), a title that I think has potential despite not having the smoothest of starts. Prior to the relaunch, Jason Rusch and Ron Raymond spent most of the Brightest Day miniseries literally trying to find Firestorm’s place in the cosmic scheme of things, and running afoul of the Anti-Monitor in the process. This too had potential. However, the New 52 started virtually from scratch, keeping only Ron and Jason’s mutual antagonism (which, from what I remember of Ron’s brief appearances in Jason’s series, seemed rather forced). Instead, the new series revealed that the “Firestorm Protocols” were responsible for a multinational group of nuclear-powered super-people, each representing his or her homeland in a new kind of arms race. That would be fine too, but FOF kept throwing new elements into the mix: racial tension, shadowy agencies, planned communities, the Hulkish “Fury,” and a new “Firestorm”-type character in almost every other issue. It’s been a lot to assimilate, and quite frankly I look forward to incoming writer/artist Dan Jurgens as a calming influence. Jurgens may set FOF on a more sustainable path, or he might just bring the title to a dignified end. Either way, I thought FoF’s various creative teams tried to build a convincing new mythology in the book’s first year, and it was mostly entertaining even if not entirely successful.

One of the New 52's unqualified successes is The Flash (written by Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato, drawn by Manapul, and colored by Buccellato). I really liked Manapul’s graceful, kinetic take on the Scarlet Speedster when he was drawing Geoff Johns’ scripts, but he’s really kicked out all the stops on the current title. His page designs rival J.H. Williams III’s work on Batwoman, and his inventive layouts serve the stories extremely well. The Flash -- especially the Barry Allen Flash -- comes with so much ancillary material (the Rogues, the Speed Force, Iris, etc.) that any relaunch would be practically forced to deal with it, if not incorporate it all outright. Johns tried to do the latter in Flash: Rebirth, and I think Manapul and Buccellato risked alienating longtime fans by rebooting the book more thoroughly. However, speaking as one of those fans, they’ve done a good job so far. The character’s in good hands.

Speaking of Geoff Johns, his eight-year run on Green Lantern (penciled by Doug Mahnke) continues apace, despite the relaunch implicitly waving away much of GL history (probably including some of Johns’ own stories). Still, the relaunch let the book focus on the Hal/Sinestro relationship, which Johns has explored pretty much since GL: Rebirth, and which he has used to good effect over the past year. I will say that the prospect of yet another “Guardians Gone Bad” storyline doesn’t especially thrill me, particularly since Johns has never been subtle when it comes to the Guardians. And yes, it’s been four years since the Alpha Lanterns were created, but by the same token, it’s only been four years since the Alpha Lanterns were created, so the idea of another set of hardcore enforcers doesn’t seem all that fresh. I’m hoping Johns is getting all the Guardian-scheming and alternate-Lantern business out of his system. If that’s part of his victory lap, he’s earned it. If it means even better GL stories over the next eight years, so much the better.

Unfortunately, Green Lantern Corps (written by Peter Tomasi, penciled by Fernando Pasarin et al.) has suffered by comparison. After a decent Lanterns-in-action arc, the book put John Stewart on trial for having to kill one of his colleagues, which in turn set up a Corps-vs.-Alpha Lanterns arc, which now informs the “Rise of the Third Army” storyline. While I like John and Guy Gardner well enough, I do think this book’s potential lies in the wide range of GL stories it could be telling. Instead of a serialized format which presently exists as backstory for the larger state of the franchise, it could be a smorgasbord of all kinds of Lantern action told all kinds of ways. Even the serialized stuff could spotlight new and/or different Lanterns. I want to like this book, but I feel like it’s restricting itself unnecessarily, and I hope that changes once “Third Army” ends.

By contrast, Animal Man (written by Jeff Lemire, penciled by Travel Foreman and Steve Pugh) and Swamp Thing (written by Scott Snyder, penciled by Yanick Paquette et al.) have felt symbiotically-connected almost since their first issues. They are similar in tone and subject matter, and even similar in their depictions of the Red and the Green. As such, they play off each other well. Sometimes the backstory can get a little too convenient, as with recent revelations about how our heroes came into their respective roles, but on the whole both titles excel at creating a palpable sense of creeping dread.

Finally, there’s Wonder Woman (written by Brian Azzarello, drawn by Cliff Chiang et al.), which started out as one of the more stealthy relaunches but which has since grown into one of the New 52's standout titles. While I continue to have qualms about the Amazons’ revised history, I can’t deny that Azzarello and Chiang have given readers a dynamic, compelling storyline over the past twelve months, with the promise of even bigger things to come. Wonder Woman stands on its own so convincingly that the romance with Superman feels unnatural, not least because it comes from outside the book. If the past year has taught us anything, it’s that you don’t mess with this Wonder Woman.

* * *

So where does all this leave me at the end of the New 52's first year? Some books are still in a holding pattern, including Superman, Green Lantern Corps, Batman and Robin, and Firestorm. I think it’s fair to say that some creative teams, like the ones on Flash and Wonder Woman, have sold me on their books’ changes where other teams might have failed. However, as I said a few weeks back, creating an engaging environment counts for a lot with me. Books like Demon Knights, Animal Man, Swamp Thing, JL Dark, I, Vampire, Dial H and Frankenstein have each managed to carve out their own corners of the New 52 landscape. That may not have been possible under the old rules, and I think that helps justify the relaunch. (Not completely, mind you, but it’s not insignificant.)

Those are all “Dark” books, which probably says something about how well the Vertigo-style titles transferred to the main superhero line -- well enough to feel integrated, but separate enough to feel independent -- but it applies also to some of the more traditional superhero books. Flash, GL, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman can stand alone to various degrees, and while there’s been some crossover among Batwing, Firestorm and Justice League International, it hasn’t felt forced. The point is, as much as DC wants me to, I shouldn’t feel like I’m reading 30-odd pieces of a 52-piece puzzle every month. My biggest problem with a shared universe is overstimulation. While I like it when the connections are acknowledged, I don’t want those connections unduly emphasized -- so the more discrete, the better. In this respect I think the New 52 is finding a good balance.

In terms of overall quality, obviously I like most of what I still get; but I do think that many of the New 52 books are done well. If I have problems with them, I’ve tried to lay those out in these posts. Absent budgetary concerns, I can’t think of too many titles I’d drop tomorrow, although there are some I’d drop more quickly than others. At the same time, I don’t think I have missed out on much by not following some books. Probably I’m most curious about Birds of Prey, because I have heard good things, but I can’t say I’m that interested.

Generally, I’m not sure the New 52 has affected my buying habits appreciably. At times it seems to be making zero-sum tradeoffs -- expanding the the superhero line’s scope here, arbitrarily rewriting old continuity there -- even as it perpetuates some of the pre-relaunch books’ casual indifferences. On top of all that, I am still not convinced that it won’t be rolled back, at least in part, in the next few years. Some of the New 52 books (including, admittedly, some I don’t read) just don’t feel sufficiently grounded to stick around without significant retooling.

Therefore, to say that “most books are working on a basic level” is probably not the most ringing endorsement, but as a blanket statement it’ll have to do for now. As with the pre-relaunch books, there’s a range of quality. With so much on deck for the next 12 months -- and, for that matter, with the next big thing apparently coming in January -- all my assumptions could be overturned by the time Year Two comes to a close. Here’s hoping for more fine-tuning along the way.

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