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Hey kids, comics: a Grumpy Old Primer

by  in Comic News Comment
Hey kids, comics:  a Grumpy Old Primer

I am always glad to talk comics with Carla Hoffman, especially when she makes me think hard — and that’s the case today.

In her capacity as a retailer, Carla has been wondering about the relative accessibility of any given DC title, preferably in single-issue form (to accommodate those who, reasonably enough, might not want to start with paperbacks).

This raised all sorts of questions. What’s the standard for “accessibility” these days? How new-reader-friendly should a single issue be? How deep is the average superhero reader’s knowledge base? During the Silver Age, DC’s books were considered less sophisticated than Marvel’s because they weren’t that dependent on continuity. These days, the roles seem reversed, such that DC’s superhero line appears too mired in labyrinthine mega-stories. Considering the publisher’s string of annual Big Events, that criticism isn’t entirely unfair.

DC has also acquired a reputation for spinning its events out of (or basing them around) obscure points of trivia. Civil War was “gubmint outlaws superheroes,” but Final Crisis featured the Miracle Machine and Blackest Night is extrapolated from that Alan Moore/Kevin O’Neill story. This is especially ironic considering that DC’s characters are pretty simply drawn: “last son of Krypton,” “dark night detective,” “Amazon princess,” “fastest man alive.”

Timing is important too. Odds are that any given issue will take place in the middle of an extended storyline, especially this year. In addition to Blackest Night, DC’s most familiar characters are occupied with stories which reach back several months and won’t be over until at least 2010. By that reckoning, the only “accessible” DC titles may be those set apart from the regular DCU: Batman Confidential, Superman/Batman, and The Brave and the Bold. Even among those books, though, only B&B consistently tells single-issue stories.

So should readers penalize DC because it has followed the trend of extended story arcs? Again, it depends on both reader expectations and the publisher’s marketing goals; each of which can be self-fulfilling and/or self-reinforcing. Readers can only buy what’s published, and publishers only publish what they think will be bought. Today, that means stories “written for the trade,” and therefore a new set of pressures on the individual issue.

Regardless, the single issue can still succeed, thanks to a couple of factors. We may be stuck with a fairly rigid single-issue format (22- or 8-page stories, the occasional double-sized issue notwithstanding), but comics professionals can endeavor to make those installments as standalone as possible. If that’s not practical — or perhaps regardless of its practicality — each issue’s goal should be to encourage the reader to pick up the rest. Back issues are still readily available, after all; so who knows? You may be so moved that it’s worth it to spend $5.98 on a couple of single issues rather than wait for a $14.99 or $19.99 paperback.*

(Granted, determining whether it’s more cost-effective to sample individual issues or go for a trade seems about as complex as deciding whether to go for two, but still.)

With all that in mind, here are my thoughts on the relative accessibility of DC’s various superhero titles.

GREEN LANTERN/BLACKEST NIGHT

At this point, I think the two GL books and the various Blackest Night tie-ins are tough calls in terms of accessibility. By now there’s just so much BN material out there that anyone who hasn’t been following the books from at least BN #1 may have a hard time getting on board. On the other hand, the main BN miniseries has been moving pretty slowly, focusing on various Black Lantern attacks and only introducing the Special Surprise Villain in the latest issue (#4). Also, by itself the Black Lantern idea is fairly simple, such that regular series which feature the BLs shouldn’t require a lot of explaining.

BATMAN

Apart from the big changes behind the Batman and Robin masks, the Bat-books themselves are about as reader-friendly as they’ve ever been. In fact, Batman himself (ex-Robin, ex-Nightwing Dick Grayson) is more friendly, although the prickly new Robin (Damian Wayne, Bruce’s illegitimate son) balances that out. Essentially, there are a handful of “fiefdoms” in the Batman line. The Grant Morrison-written Batman And Robin sets the tone for the new Dynamic Duo, especially Damian/Robin. Batman itself is currently in the hands of writer/artist Tony Daniel, with writer Judd Winick set to return next spring. Paul Dini writes two ancillary titles, Streets Of Gotham (with Marc Andreyko writing a Manhunter co-feature) and Gotham City Sirens, which stars Catwoman, Harley Quinn, and Poison Ivy.  A couple more degrees separated from the main Bat-action are Batgirl, Red Robin, and Azrael, each of which is encumbered by backstory.  For the traditionalists, classic Bruce Wayne stories appear in Batman Confidential; and under Greg Rucka, Batwoman and the Question have a new home in the original Bat-book, Detective Comics.

Indeed, if I had to give a new reader only one Bat-book, it would probably be Detective. Not only do Rucka and artist J.H. Williams III produce a stunning 22 pages every month, they are essentially building Kate “Batwoman” Kane from the ground up. There’s a lot more to the character than was revealed in 52, so this is an excellent opportunity for folks to get into the series. It’ll cost you about $20.00 retail (5 issues @ $3.99 each), but it’s worth it.

(Actually, since the most recent issue kicked off a new arc, detailing Kate’s origin, you could even go cheap for just $3.99.)

If my hypothetical new reader wanted more Batman in her Bat-book, Batman And Robin is my no-brainer recommendation. The sixth issue just came out yesterday, so for about $18.00 she’ll be up to speed. She can even take her time reading those six issues, since the series will be on hiatus until January.

Otherwise, if only Bruce Wayne will do, Batman Confidential just started a new arc (involving the Blackhawks), and it’s also still $2.99.

SUPERMAN

For all practical purposes, there are four monthly Superman titles, each having something to do with the overarching “New Krypton” storyline. Here’s what you need to know:  thanks to an Evil Government Conspiracy, the Kryptonians (Brainiac’s prisoners until recently) hate us and we’re not too keen on them.  Thus, Superman’s gone to live on New K. while some of his friends pick up the slack back in Metropolis.

In Superman: World Of New Krypton the man himself is part of the Kryptonian military and must deal with local and interplanetary politics, like having his aunt rule New Krypton. Meanwhile, Action Comics stars the Kryptonian soulmates Nightwing and Flamebird and co-features Captain Atom; Superman stars Mon-El and the Guardian; and Supergirl, oddly enough, still stars Supergirl. Personally, I’m enjoying the heck out of “New Krypton,” but I don’t know where to tell a new reader to begin.**

Actually, that’s not true: the 4-issue World’s Finest miniseries, which started last week  (written by Sterling Gates and drawn by various artists) may be a good way for readers to sample the new Superman and Batman players, if not the status quos themselves. The first issue featured Tim “Red Robin” Drake and Chris “Nightwing” Kent, and subsequent issues will have similar team-ups. Classic World’s Finest-style action can still be found in Superman/Batman, and Geoff Johns and Gary Frank are only two issues into Superman: Secret Origin. Finally, Johns and artist Francis Manapul are spotlighting Conner “Superboy” Kent in the fairly-new Adventure Comics – but they won’t be on the book too much longer.

If I had only one book to recommend, I suppose it’d be Secret Origin. It’s the Superman setup most familiar to the general public, and I bet it will have some effect on the regular titles.

WONDER WOMAN

I don’t know whether Wonder Woman would be “starter-level,” because right now there’s a bit of backstory. Diana has been “voted off the island,” pretty much literally, and in the latest issue so has her mom (replaced as Amazon ruler by Achilles).  Also, a bunch of Amazons are mysteriously pregnant, and Donna Troy is still mad at WW for reasons which probably boil down to mind control. Basically, there are a lot of subplots, but I don’t think they’re terribly hard to follow.  If collections were part of this equation, I’d recommend starting with the Rise of the Olympian collection, which came out last week.

JUSTICE LEAGUE and JUSTICE SOCIETY

All things considered, this is as good a time as any to sample Justice League of America.  New writer James Robinson and new penciller Mark Bagley have begun (in last month’s issue #38) a 3-part Blackest Night crossover which is also supposed to segue into January’s new lineup. While that lineup includes a few characters from the Superman books (Mon-El, Guardian, Doctor Light) and some from the Cry For Justice miniseries (Green Lantern, Green Arrow, Congorilla, the Atom), everyone still has to be introduced to each other, and thus to the readers. It might be redundant for those who are reading the other books, but that’s not the hypothetical new reader, now is it?

The Justice Society books are also at a crossroads, with the team having split just in time for December’s new title, JSA All-Stars. I haven’t been reading regular old JSA, so I don’t know how much buildup the new book has gotten. Obviously a new series has to cater to potential new readers, but a lot of the characters on the cover of issue #1 were introduced in the existing Justice Society book, and that may mean a steeper learning curve. My impression of Justice Society of America is that it trades very heavily in character interaction among an ever-expanding cast, so I’d be extremely hesitant about giving it to a new reader who didn’t want to dive right into the deep end.

Two Justice Socialites have solo series, Power Girl and Magog; and of the two, I’m tempted to give the accessibility edge to Power Girl. Her origins are a continuity tangle — she’s basically a more mature Supergirl from a parallel-universe’s Krypton — but since they’re pretty much off-limits, that makes her a somewhat generic superhero. Her first storyline (issues #1-3) was a straightforward “villain holds Manhattan hostage so he can hijack hero’s body” tale, and in fact it devoted the bulk of an issue to the villain’s origin. The second arc, which wrapped up last month, apparently involved a trio of extraterrestrial party-girls. Power Girl is taking November off and returns in December with an old Superman supporting character, the gregarious Vartox.

TEEN TITANS and TITANS

Personally, I’d hold off on both of these for a few months. Titans is about to go through a significant roster change, because half its membership will be joining the Justice League. Teen Titans’ roster is more stable, but Raven and Beast Boy are about to come over from Titans and I suspect Superboy and Kid Flash will be rejoining before too long.

SECOND-TIER TEAMS

At first glance, Doom Patrol (written by Keith Giffen, penciled by Matthew Clark) looks like a stereotypically impenetrable DC title, “revived” by way of rolling back its status quo to the Silver Age. However, the book has several things going for it. The DP is based on Oolong Island, an independent nation made up of mad scientists. The Patrollers are all longtime DC superheroes, well-known to their peers, but each with various types of neuroses. The series is still new enough that finding all the issues shouldn’t be a problem, and the current issue (#4) does a good job incorporating Blackest Night into the proceedings.

I have to admit, I don’t read either Outsiders or REBELS, and neither seems especially new-reader-friendly. They’re both revivals from decades past, so the characters aren’t particularly familiar to begin with. Outsiders was organized around (classic) Batman, and without him the title seems to have lost a lot of direction. Word about REBELS is more positive, although again, it stars Adam Strange, Captain Comet, Brainiac’s son Vril Dox, and other space-oriented heroes (including the Omega Men) with whom a new reader probably isn’t conversant.

Accordingly, in this category I’d recommend the anti-heroes of Secret Six. Last week’s issue #15 (guest-written by John Ostrander and guest-drawn by Jim Calafiore) was a standalone spotlight on Deadshot, but it was also a good example of the dark, complex characters which populate the book. Besides, next issue begins a new arc, and the Sixers have a new leader, Batman’s ostensible opposite number Bane. Regular writer Gail Simone and regular artists Nicola Scott and Doug Hazlewood consistently produce one of DC’s best books month in and month out, so a new reader could do a heck of a lot worse.

THE PROFESSOR AND MARY ANN

I’ve drifted away from Green Arrow And Black Canary for various reasons, including budget; but it’s not an overly difficult book to get into. Currently the eponymous characters must deal both with Cupid, Green Arrow’s murderous stalker, and a Green Arrow impostor whose involvement recalls the book’s inaugural storyline. Writer Andrew Kreisberg and penciller Mike Norton produce 30 pages of story and art every month, so you get a lot for your $3.99.

You remember The Brave and the Bold from last week, right?

DC’s “Red Circle” revival started in August and continues with ongoing series The Shield and The Web. Both are $3.99 titles with 22-page leads and 8-page co-features.  These are venerable characters once published by Archie Comics, and DC is basically introducing them new, so you’d think they’d be fairly accessible.

Much the same analysis applies to The Great Ten, the new miniseries which just debuted last week, over three years after the characters debuted in 52.  Hey, it took Batwoman a while to get going….

However, my there-can-be-only-one recommendation goes to Booster Gold, written and drawn by Dan Jurgens. In this week’s issue #26, Blackest Night gives Jurgens (with an art assist from Mike Norton) an opportunity to recap Booster’s origin and the origins of two Blue Beetles, as well as surveying Booster’s supporting cast. Probably the most obtuse scenes involve Booster’s ancestor Daniel, who’s also the misfit superhero Supernova; but that’s a minor quibble. For a series rooted firmly in esoteric DC history (including the mysteries of Rip Hunter’s blackboard), Booster Gold excels at making that history meaningful.

* * *

As always, your results may vary. I thought Trinity was pretty accessible to casual superhero fans, but I know a lot of folks disagreed. Regardless, there’s a lot out there for the superhero reader who wants to sample DC’s fare. Booster Gold might make all that history less intimidating. Power Girl is full of old-fashioned action. World’s Finest and Justice League are designed in part to sample other books’ heroes, while Batman Confidential, Superman/Batman, and Superman: Secret Origin deal in classic interpretations. Finally, Secret Six and Detective Comics are simply excellent examples of the genre.

Of course, it’s not always wise for any work to be completely upfront with its readers.  When I was getting back into comics after what seemed like a long time away, I enjoyed catching up on what I’d missed.  I still pick up back issues and collections of old books in part because I miss that thrill of discovery.  Today, the Internet makes a lot of that research more efficient, but somewhat impersonal; so I envy those folks who can come to a new superhero comic with truly fresh eyes.

+++++++++++++

* [Prices not adjusted for whatever discount(s) you may enjoy.]

** [Look at this week’s Action:  a character returns from being thought dead, a couple of longtime DC characters are brought more fully into the storyline, a new/old villain is (re)introduced, and everybody’s wearing “S”-shields on their costumes again.]

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