Saturday In The Stacks, DC Edition

I am rude about a lot of the new books DC's been putting out lately. I'll own it. But it doesn't mean I don't want to like them. I bought two new trade collections from DC this week, in fact, and one of them I liked a lot. The other one struck me as one-stop shopping for everything I really don't care for about the New 52.

The good one first, because clearly no one currently at DC cares about it or has any interest in promoting it as far as I can tell. The trade collection of Joe Kubert Presents instantly became one of my favorite books in our home as soon as it arrived.

The hook for it seems to be "Joe Kubert's FINAL WORK!" like he was racing the clock to get it drawn while he was on his deathbed or something. But it's actually been in the pipeline for quite a few years, it was initiated under the Paul Levitz regime. Because Kubert was an editor as well as an artist, he knew how to put together a project and the vagaries of press scheduling and... well, all the different things that, for some reason, a great many editors today don't seem to know. So he didn't want it even solicited until there were at least three issues in the can and according to the book's afterword the entire six-issue series was mostly done before it went on the schedule.

So what is it? It's Kubert's dream project, his final thesis statement on Comics He'd Like To See More Of. After reading this book, I can only say, "Geez, me too."

The book simply reprints the six issues in order as they appeared. The anthology format was built around a lead feature from Kubert himself, usually reaching back to one or another of the classic series he made his rep on. Hawkman, Sgt. Rock, The Redeemer, something like that. Each one just a stunning tour-de-force.

Then there's an installment of Sam Glanzman's wonderful U.S.S. Stevens-- new stories of his memories about serving in World War II.

This is usually followed by Brian Buniak's delightful take on Angel and the Ape. This was one of my favorites from E. Nelson Bridwell and Bob Oksner back in the day, and Buniak does them both proud.

And an installment of Spit, a brand-new Kubert strip about a cabin boy aboard a whaling vessel.

Plus some unusual new original piece, maybe from Kubert in collaboration with someone else, maybe something brand-new.

The entire collection retails for $19.99, which is the hell of a deal for 300 pages of comics even if it wasn't being discounted from online dealers (and it is; if you can't find it for half-price, you're not trying.) I don't know how I missed it in the $4.99 48-page single issues but I'm kind of glad I did because the book is such an incredible bargain.

So why is it such a great example of what DC can do? Because it calls on the company's legacy, of both bringing great new artists into the mainstream and also of their vast history of doing great strips in a variety of genres. As many of us in the blogosphere keep trying to point out, this is a feature, not a bug. When DC stops trying to run away from their history and just does what they can do really well, we get great stuff: Solo, New Frontier, Batman '66. It frustrates me because there's so much talent out there and the older folks largely get ignored because they aren't the cool kids. Writing and drawing, for God's sake, is not the same thing as being a pro athlete-- it's not such a physical job that those in the profession age out after a few years. Talent tempered with experience is always better than just raw talent. Steve Gerber, Nick Cardy, and Joe Kubert were doing sharp, smart work right up to the end of their lives. What's more, this is exactly the kind of book many fans claim to want-- no need for tie-ins or crossovers, no big continuity issues, just good stories. And yet DC is putting this book out stealthily, almost as an obligation they are feeling ill-tempered and surly about fulfilling, despite the fact that it's gotten rave reviews from everyone who's seen it.

On the other hand, the new collection I picked up of Justice League of America is everything that annoys me about the whole New 52 sensibility at DC, conveniently between two covers... and they are pimping this turd all over the place.

But Greg, I hear you saying, you knew going in this was Geoff Johns, you knew it was spun out of a Justice League book you didn't really care for, so why would you go back for more punishment?

Well, I did feel stupid afterwards, if you must know. Especially since David Finch's art is just as over-rendered and vaguely unpleasant to look at as I remembered. But I have enjoyed Geoff Johns stories in the past-- I liked his JSA, and his opening arc on Aquaman worked for me, as did his first arc of the relaunched Flash up to the "Flashpoint" event. It's not an automatic "no" for me when I see his name on a title, unlike some other folks.

Moreover, I like the Justice League as a premise, I always have, and this sounded like kind of a cool idea-- worried about the original Justice League being too powerful, the U.S. government in the person of Steve Trevor and Amanda Waller recruit Katana, the Martian Manhunter, a new Green Lantern, Hawkman, Green Arrow, Catowman, and Vibe, among others, to be on a new government-sanctioned team, the Justice League of America.

It opened pretty strong with an unfolding mystery running parallel to the recruitment and gathering of the team, all leading to a battle with a new version of the Secret Society of Super Villains. It was done well, though as usual a bit grimmer than I'd like for a Justice League book, but it was entertaining me. And the personality clashes of the various heroes were amusing.

The new takes on characters like Vibe and Katana worked well enough for me and I was starting to think I could get behind this.

Then, about four issues in, it all started falling apart. Finch, as per usual, couldn't sustain a schedule and the art was all over the place-- a very jarring mix of styles, Mike Deodato, Doug Mahnke. The trouble is that for whatever idiot reason, DC editorial-- which is basically Geoff Johns himself, at least in part-- decided it would be a fine idea to interrupt the initial story arc for some ridiculous crossover thing called Trinity War, and rather than include any issues that ran up to that, they just printed the chapters of the crossover that ran in this title.... which is confusing enough, but additionally the characters crossing over from other titles were never introduced properly, I had no idea what the hell was going on-- and I've been steeped in DC lore for over forty years. God help any kid who buys this because it's the Justice League and it's got Oliver Queen from Arrow on the cover. After that, they had the brass to just stop in the middle and blurb it as To Be Continued in TRINITY WAR!

So the headliners, the JLA, are in two stories-- one unfinished, the other randomly excerpted. This is a "volume one" hardcover, the initial experience that's supposed to get people interested. Here's a hint, DC-- the initial experience is vastly enhanced when you get a complete story.

So I went from being mildly intrigued to being hugely pissed off. There's a bunch of Martian Manhunter backups also, from Matt Kindt with art by Manuel Garcia that are okay, I guess... but I couldn't even get through them because I was so irritated. Why not use those pages to, I dunno, set up your goddamn stupid crossover that I didn't want? Even a recap page or something would have helped.

The whole book just reeks of contempt for the readership and inside baseball. If you're not up-to-the-minute on the New 52, well, the hell with you, apparently.

Let me spell this out in small words, before I'm swarmed for violating the DC loyalty oath. This reaction is coming from a fan. I was all set to LIKE this thing. I was on board for the first half, despite it being done in the New 52 house style where every part of DC history that's referenced has been given a largely humorless, ultraviolent makeover. I have a wall full of DC team books and a great many are written by Geoff Johns.

And even after all that, they lost me, who was already forgiving a lot. No reader new to the DCU is going to give this thing a second look. Because this book is just terrible. Terrible design, terrible structure, and the art's not very attractive. It's not being a 'hater' to call a bad book bad.

Who the hell are book collections like these aimed at? Clearly not new readers. Not even older fans like me who are up on the DCU lore and want to sample the title. Nor are they for those fans who like the New 52 but are 'trade-waiting' since this mess was all in VOLUME ONE and no other trade collection exists yet to follow up with. It wasn't a case of, "well, you expect a certain confusion when you start in the middle." This was the rollout.

The worst part is, even if I was insane enough to invest in trying to follow this story and buy a boatload of back issues to catch up-- and I'm not, it wasn't that good-- it doesn't really matter because chances are good the whole thing will be overturned in under five years, given DC's history.

But the damn thing sells, apparently. I have no idea who the audience is, and I'm hard put to explain the appeal of a book that goes nowhere and leaves you hanging, but this got the fancy hardcover treatment and lots of hype. Meanwhile, the Kubert book that's a master class in how to do it RIGHT is kissed off with a discount paperback with no hype at all.

The current editorial staff claims to love DC's history and stable of characters-- and they must have some affection for the stuff because they keep name-checking it and giving it new kewl makeovers-- but I don't think they have the faintest idea of why the stuff worked in the first place or what the original appeal was. I know for damn sure that it wasn't this Christopher Nolan Batman-style dark, edgy, let's-do-the-classics-but-with-more-death-and-sex approach to frigging everything. Part of what DC used to do really, really well was diversity of genre and also of tone. Not any more. Worse, they can't even manage to tell a complete story using the one-note 'adult' approach they've settled on.

On the other hand, one for two isn't bad. I guess I should be glad the quirky off-brand stuff exists at all, but given recent trends, I fear for its continued existence.

See you next week.

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