Monday, October 31, 2011

Captain Atom #1

DC Comics, 20 pages, $ 2.99

Writer: J.T. Krul
Artist: Freddie Williams II
Colorist: Jose Villarrubia
Letterer: Rob Leigh
Cover artist: Stanley Lau

This is the character who inspired Watchmen’s Doctor Manhattan, of course. I’m not very familiar with Captain Atom beyond that, but the story suggests that Krul is broadly taking a cue from Manhattan’s portrayal: Atom is growing more powerful, and he’s worried about an increasing detachment from the world—both physically and psychologically.

Which I always find an interesting approach to superheroes, because it’s the perfect launch pad for stories that, at least in theory, explore and go beyond the established boundaries of the genre—see Soldier X, for instance.

But in this case, the execution doesn’t even come close to tapping that potential. The story boils down to two extended fight scenes with generic villains (a giant robot and a giant mutated rat) and even more generic inner monologues, plus an interlude that introduces the hero’s generic supporting cast (mad scientist type, sympathetic young assistant). As far as character motivations, conflicts or even just mildly interesting moments of character interaction are concerned, the script completely fails to deliver. There’s nothing there beyond the barest bare bones of an utterly generic superhero set-up.

Who is Captain Atom? What does he want? Why is he floating around to fight super-villains? I don’t know. And I don’t care, either, after reading the story.

Williams and Villarrubia take a fair stab at giving the book a unique look, and they succeed with the protagonist. Largely thanks to the color scheme, their Captain Atom looks vibrant and interesting. Unfortunately, the world around him—which means everything else in the book—is so muddled and downright ugly that it makes me wonder if anything went wrong during the production process.

In the story, the hero has to worry about accidentally dissolving his own substance and disappearing into the ether. Judging from this debut issue, I fear it’s already too late.

Grade: D

Friday, October 28, 2011

Batman #1

DC Comics, 24 pages, $ 2.99

Writer: Scott Snyder
Penciler: Greg Capullo
Inker: Jonathan Glapion
Colorist: FCO Plascencia
Letterer: Jimmy Betancourt

I was looking forward to this one, based on Scott Snyder’s Detective Comics work and the unexpected match-up with Greg Capullo, who hasn’t done any major Marvel or DC work since the mid-1990s.

As it turns out, Capullo holds up his end of the bargain. Stylistically, his stuff looks much more attractive and distinctive here than I was hoping for, based on the X-Force and Spawn stuff I remembered from way back. And as a storyteller, he’s grown by leaps and bounds. Arguably, the image of Bruce Wayne presenting his new vision for Gotham City looks rather underwhelming—I get the sense that the story calls for it to be a bigger deal than just the bunch of megalomaniac, Dubai-style skyscrapers we get to see, anyway. Overall, though, Capullo’s storytelling is rock-solid, and his art is crisp and plain fun to look at.

I expected more from Snyder’s story, though. First up, it seems oddly reserved, in terms of how the characters and the plot are presented. Granted, this is the flagship Batman book—which, perhaps surprisingly, ended up beating Action Comics for the No. 1 slot of the Diamond chart in September—, so I can see why Snyder didn’t want to hit any potential newcomers in the audience over the head and slowly rebuild Batman, Bruce Wayne, the supporting cast and Gotham City from the ground up, to make it as accessible as possible. That’s fair enough, and he’s doing it well.

As far as the plot is concerned, though, I think he’s playing things a little too close to the vest. Will anyone in the audience buy into Dick Grayson as a murder suspect? I’m skeptical. Even if you take the book on its own terms and pretend that you’ve never heard anything about Batman stories before, he’s presented as the kind of character who’s “safe,” as far as the notion of running around as a killer is concerned. He doesn’t work as a red herring, and if Snyder honestly wants to pursue this road, he’s running the risk of undermining his protagonist with the audience, because everybody but Batman will already be wise to the fact that Grayson is a red herring.

Other than that, though, Batman is as well-made as any of the “New 52” relaunches, in terms of how the scenes are constructed or how the characters are introduced. It also helps that Snyder knows how to write prose, which, judging from those 52 debut issues, is a dying art among superhero writers. My reservations on the story notwithstanding, it’s a relief to get a Batman comic by a writer who knows what he’s doing, and who takes his craft seriously.

Grade: B-

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Birds of Prey #1

DC Comics, 20 pages, $ 2.99

Writer: Duane Swierczynski
Artist: Jesus Saiz
Colorist: Nei Ruffino
Letterer: Carlos M. Mangual

Just last year, writer Gail Simone returned to her signature title Birds of Prey, relaunched it and re-established it as a well-received title with solid mid-level sales. For its “New 52” relaunch, DC decided to switch creative teams again anyway.

Reading the new book, which stars a group of DC Universe superheroines, doesn’t make the decision any less puzzling. Duane Swierczynski and Jesus Saiz offer up a rather bland action story with some awkward storytelling hiccups.

In one particularly baffling sequence, one of the protagonists ends up dangling from a rope around her neck that’s shown to be cutting into her flesh while she’s surrounded by invisible assassins. You’d think the situation was kind of pressing. The creators disagree. They forget about the character entirely for one page and then have her wallow in an extended—and random—flashback, before it occurs to her that, hey, why not draw my knife and cut myself loose from this rope that cuts me seeing as I am dangling from it in the middle of a bunch of invisible assassins, dang it.

Towards the end of the issue, the art shows one of the attackers to have a similar face as the guy who was just rescued by the heroes. One of the protagonists sees him, but seems more surprised by the fact that he tries to kiss her. Is it meant to be the same face? Why doesn’t she mention the incident to her teammates? I have no idea what the scene is meant to be communicating.

It doesn’t really matter, though, because there isn’t a single distinctive character in the book. I couldn’t even remember their names without looking them up, let alone what their mission or the conflict was supposed to be.

What a non-starter.

Grade: D

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Green Lantern Corps #1

DC Comics, 20 pages, $ 2.99

Writer: Peter J. Tomasi
Penciler: Fernando Pasarin
Inker: Scott Hanna
Colorist: Gabe Eltaeb
Letterer: Pat Brosseau
Cover artists: Doug Mahnke, Christian Alamy and Randy Mayor

“If my weapon hadn’t have run out, you Lanterns would’ve been cooked!” says the villain dude in the Green Lantern Corps #1—emphasis mine. He doesn’t talk funny in general, so I presume that’s a typographical error, there in the very first speech balloon on the very first page of the comic.

On the two subsequent pages, then, there are a couple of graphic disembowelments and a beheading—followed by a genocide decorated with cute-looking alien creatures bleeding from spikes on the final page of the issue. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Because, first up, we’ll have to make it past page 4, which takes it away Grand Guignol style and shows us a huge dismembered finger hovering above the title of the story: “Triumph of the Will!” (Exclamation mark mine.)

As far as first impressions go, I think it’s fair to say that this one is off to a bit of a rocky start.

Luckily, though, the 15 pages in-between the first four and the last one are actually pretty good. There’s a lot to like about Fernando Pasarin’s art, for starters, whose style comes with a certain J.G. Jones-iness but still looks like its own thing. Pasarin—who worked with Peter J. Tomasi on another Green Lantern spin-off before the relaunch—is the right choice for the space-opera-type story Tomasi is going for here. And, more importantly, he can also draw regular characters with authentic clothes, faces and body language. It doesn’t matter if we’re seeing a bunch of people in a waiting room or two Green Lanterns looking down at the Earth while sitting on a satellite—Pasarin doesn’t just get it right, but makes it look good, too.

Tomasi’s characters are more convincing here than over in Batman and Robin. He’s communicating Guy Gardner and John Stewart’s personalities efficiently, for the most part, and while there are one or two heavy-handed moments, it’s solid enough character work overall. I enjoy the interplay between the two, and the story allows me to understand what being Green Lanterns means to them.

So, despite the typographical errors, ham-fisted hyper-violence and cringe-inducing title, Green Lantern Corps turns out to be a surprisingly solid and entertaining read on most of its pages. If a crossover with the other, rather less enticing Green Lantern books weren’t inevitable, I might have been tempted to stick around.

Grade: C+

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Blue Beetle #1

DC Comics, 20 pages, $ 2.99

Writer: Tony Bedard
Penciler: Ig Guara
Inker: Ruy José
Colorist: Pete Pantazis
Letterer: Rob Leigh
Cover artists: Tyler Kirkham, Sal Regla and Nathan Eyring

I’m not trying to be cruel with these books, but if you’re doing 52 new superhero titles and one of them is like Blue Beetle, then that’s as good a sign as any that maybe 51 would have done. It’s not so much that it’s a bad comic, or some great, abysmal failure. It’s more that, within the 20 pages of this book, there isn’t so much as a flicker of anything to suggest that the creators were aiming for anything but another competent, run-of-the-mill superhero book.

The protagonist is a Chicano, and that’s certainly something that’s at least nominally different from the other “New 52” protagonists. Once again, though, that’s where the creators stop in their ambition to make the character distinctive. Like Static Shock, what we got here is another soulless and thinly veiled Spider-Man rip-off. You’d think there were other ways of doing teenage superheroes, but apparently not.

You’d also think there were other ways of impressing the reader than to display genocide, excessive blood and gore and disfigured bodies. But, again, apparently not—you could make a drinking game out of the times another alien race is extinguished, another character disemboweled or tortured to death in DC’s “New 52” debut issues.

Finally, you’d think there were other ways of having characters with diverse nationalities than to have them blabber silly fragments in their native languages. But, you know. Why try to be creative when something worked in 1975.

You know, I quite like superheroes. It’s an awesome genre with a potential that can be literally limitless. At the end of the day, though, run-of-the-mill competent is as far as Blue Beetle gets. It’s completely unoriginal, unambitious and unimaginative, and its attempts to impress the audience with depictions of death and cruelty reek of creative desperation and helplessness.

Grade C-

Monday, October 24, 2011

Grifter #1

DC Comics, 20 pages, $ 2.99

Writer: Nathan Edmondson
Penciler: Cafu
Inker: Jason Gorder
Colorist: Andrew Dalhouse
Letterer: Wes Abbott

The good news is, if you like Nathan Edmondson’s creator-owned action thriller Who Is Jake Ellis? and expect more of the same from Grifter, you won’t be disappointed. Like the hero of the aforementioned miniseries, Grifter protagonist Cole Cash is disoriented and constantly on the run, hears voices in his head and doesn’t know what’s going on.

What’s different here, though, is that Cash is a rather less credible character than Edmondson’s own creation. In Jake Ellis, the hero’s frequent “dialogues” with his imaginary friend provide a frame of reference for his actions that’s missing here. It’s clear that the audience is meant to share Cash’s confusion, but without that framework—without knowing what’s at stake for him—he comes off as a cypher who acts erratically and in ways that are hard to understand—or to care about. Not knowing what the events of the story mean to the character means not being able to empathize with them, which in turn means I’m judging the protagonist for acting irrationally, rather than to be drawn into the story.

Grifter is pleasant to look at and easy to follow, but there’s so little information on anything in the story that your interest fizzles away rather than to be fanned.

Grade: C-

Friday, October 21, 2011

Superboy #1

DC Comics, 20 pages, $ 2.99

Writer: Scott Lobdell
Penciler: R.B. Silva
Inker: Rob Lean
Colorists: The Hories
Letterer: Carlos M. Mangual
Cover artists: Eric Canete and Guy Major

Based on Scott Lobdell’s work for Marvel and his brief, mad run on Wildcats in the 1990s, I expected a fast-paced, maybe melodramatic, maybe somewhat dumb, but ultimately entertaining action comic from Superboy. Instead, this first issue reads like Lobdell has to get all the faux-Claremont exposition that he didn’t get to write in the last 10 years out of his system, all at once.

The story is dull as dishwater. You see, Superboy is this clone created from a combination of Kryptonian and human DNA, and he’s being kept in a gigantic test tube in the middle of a secret laboratory, and they’re conducting tests on him, and so forth—his humanity needs to be asserted.

So it’s the Pinocchio thing (again), by way of the clone trope (again), but Lobdell is treating it like the whole idea of a dehumanized clone with superhuman abilities made as a weapon by the government was so astonishing and new that nothing else is required beyond that.

And so, instead of compelling characters, engaging interaction or conflicts or even just loud straightforward action, Superboy offers page upon page of static, non-eventful indoor scenes choked with stacks of unremarkable exposition that feeds you things you already know—with a spoon, until you gag. R.B. Silva’s art has potential, but his figures look a little stiff here and there. And Lobdell’s story certainly doesn’t help.

Superboy isn’t the worst of the “New 52” titles by a long shot in terms of sheer craft, but it’s the most boring of the bunch by far. The prospect of a crossover with Teen Titans, as teased on the final page, doesn’t exactly win me over, either.

I like the Canete cover, though. Unfortunately, the comic is nothing like it.

Grade: D

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Suicide Squad #1

DC Comics, 20 pages, $ 2.99

Writer: Adam Glass
Pencilers: Federico Dallocchio and Ransom Getty
Inkers: Federico Dallocchio and Scott Hanna
Colorist: Val Staples
Letterer: Jared K. Fletcher
Cover artist: Ryan Benjamin

For all intents and purposes, Suicide Squad replaces Gail Simone’s fan-favorite Secret Six as DC’s resident villain-themed title. And, of course, it carries the title of another fan-favorite series from the 1980s—but without having fan-favorite writer John Ostrander’s name in the credits. Finally, the title revamps fan-favorite characters Harley Quinn and Amanda Waller, exchanging their recognizable and unique visuals for ones that are rather less so.

In other words, many of the book’s potential readers were probably predisposed to dislike the book from the get-go.

As it turns out, the creators don’t seem inclined to change anybody’s minds, as Suicide Squad is a mediocre, run-of-the-mill book more than anything else. The story introduces the characters and the concept with a plot that’s well-worn but just about does the trick. The artwork—shared by two artists whose styles are not a very good match—is competent, but looks rushed and, in places, just plain ugly. There are extended displays of violence and torture, too, but to be fair, a book titled Suicide Squad is a better place for them than most of the many other “New 52” debut issues that have them as well.

It’s a dumb, mean-spirited, sometimes ugly, mostly competent but completely unoriginal action thriller about a gang of super-powered psychopaths working for a shady government program run by a sadist. If you like this sort of thing, you may find Suicide Squad intermittently entertaining.

Grade: C-

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

“I've Been a Lucky Bastard”

At the Frankfurt Book Fair last Friday, I had the opportunity to talk to Charlie Adlard, artist of The Walking Dead (which I’m translating into German) about his work on the award-winning comic-book series, his career in comics, his other creator-owned work, his collaborations with Joe Casey and the industry at large. Here's a video of the whole panel.

Red Lanterns #1

DC Comics, 20 pages, $ 2.99

Writer: Peter Milligan
Penciler: Ed Benes
Inker: Rob Hunter
Colorist: Nathan Eyring
Letterer: Carlos M. Mangual

When it comes to Peter Milligan’s mainstream superhero work, opinions differ. Some say it tends to be a bit rubbish; others are rather critical. Given that Red Lanterns is a series about space monsters who are puking blood all the time thanks to their special magic rings, prospects for a less controversial reception were especially slim, in this case.

The sequence in the first seven pages of the book features a blue-furred cat in rompers who wears its ring around its tail. Rompers has speech balloons saying “RRRRRR,” “GRRRRRR” and—my favorite—“MIIEOOOOO!” and is puking blood in nearly every panel. Rompers is attacked by a group of evil monster creatures in “Space Sector 666.” Rompers proceeds to tear the evil monster creatures up a bit. Rompers is about to be subdued at last by the evil monster creatures when a big red blood-puker boss dude named Atrocitus smashes through the hull of the creatures’ spaceship. “What are you doing to my cat?” says blood-puker boss dude, and then he kills them, and he pukes the blood on them.

Unfortunately, the rest of the debut issue does not live up to the high standards set by the first seven pages. There’s some serious-like gobbledygook about fraternal strife and such and the whole dramatic-like origin of the blood pukers and the blood-puker boss dude, and it is about as fun as I imagine puking blood would be if you couldn’t kill evil monster creatures with it like Atrocitus can. Also, the art of Ed Benes is not very good when he has to draw real people and not monsters and so the two brothers with the fraternal strife thing talk and dress like college students but look like middle-aged men.

Umma feel dumber now than before the Red Lantern comic by the Milligan man.

Grade: D-

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Demon Knights #1

DC Comics, 20 pages, $ 2.99

Writer: Paul Cornell
Penciler: Diógenes Neves
Inker: Oclair Albert
Colorist: Marcelo Maiolo
Letterer: Jared K. Fletcher
Cover artists: Tony Daniel and Tomeu Morey

Maybe this will read better in the first paperback collection, but as a debut issue, Demon Knights #1—a fantasy book starring characters like the Jack Kirby creation Etrigan and Grant Morrison’s revamped Shining Knight in a medieval DC Universe setting—is a frustrating comic.

Mainly, that’s because the creators spend the first 10 pages—half the bloody issue!—on two preludes with information that may become relevant later on, but contributes nil to the introduction of the protagonists. Did we really need six pages devoted to another version of the “Fall of Camelot” to get the gist of that? Did we need four pages to see the advent of a fairly generic bunch of bad guys? It’s all narrative baggage that won’t be of any relevance to the story until we know what it means to the heroes, most of whom only show up in the latter half of the book.

Artist Diógenes Neves has a pleasant style and gets some good mileage out of the material, to be fair, but overall, you have to wonder what they were thinking. Even as DC is bending over backwards to maintain the $ 2.99 cover price, reducing the page count by 10 percent, Cornell and Neves turn in an issue that takes forever to get to the point and has the kind of storytelling you’d expect from a fast-paced 64-page comic—three of the book’s 20 pages are single-image splash pages, nine more come with three panels or less. Which would be fine if there was a story-related reason for this approach, but most of the big panels seem to be there because Cornell didn’t have time to write a proper script. A generic knight here, a map there—what’s the creative rationale for wasting a whole page on this stuff?

That said, once the main characters actually show up and the story gets underway, the book starts to be a lot more fun. But frankly, that’s too little, too late, and, not surprisingly, there’s not enough space left to introduce them properly. After Cornell’s half-baked Stormwatch debut, Demon Knights is another disappointment. It’s not a bad comic, but by Cornell’s standards, it’s an awfully mediocre start.

Grade: C+

Monday, October 17, 2011

Resurrection Man #1

DC Comics, 20 pages, $ 2.99

Writers: Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning
Artist: Fernando Dagnino
Colorist: Santi Arcas
Letterer: Rob Leigh
Cover artists: Ivan Reis, Joe Prado and Rod Reis

I’ve never read the original series that ran from 1997 through 1999, but Resurrection Man, written and created by the prolific British team Abnett and Lanning, basically reads like a cross between Highway to Heaven and the stuff Warren Ellis did for Marvel in the mid-1990s, like Hellstorm or Druid in particular. It’s about a melancholy trench-coat wearer with a white mane and supernatural abilities who gets entangled in the affairs of heaven and hell—Michael Landon by way of John Constantine, if you will.

Spanish artist Fernando Dagnino’s style and approach to storytelling even evokes the work of his Argentinian colleague Leonardo Manco, who was Ellis’ collaborator on the above-mentioned books. Everything’s bleeding over the edge of the page all the time, and it’s all dark and grim and gritty in a very 1990s kind of way. Which isn’t a bad thing—it’s just style, after all. Dagnino does it well enough, and it fits the subject matter of a hero who is almost instantly reborn when he dies, each time with a new superpower, and is hunted by angels, demons—and super-model assassins, evidently.

The book doesn’t really work, but that’s not the artist’s fault. For one thing, it’s saddled with a terribly contrived premise. A guy who is reborn all the time? That means that the creators have to keep coming up with new ways for him to die, which I imagine gets pretty repetitive pretty quickly. For added complication, there’s also the superpowers aspect. And by the time the heaven-and-hell stuff shows up, it’s at least one gimmick too many.

Also, despite the fact that the character gets a fair amount of screen time and interaction, there’s not much to sink your teeth into. At the end of the issue, he’s still pretty much your generic shabby-looking trench-coat stranger with a heart of gold, and that doesn’t cut it if you want me to come back for the next issue. Some clue as to what’s going on or why I should care would have been helpful.

And, if we get picky, that purple-cloaked character that evidently appears in the background of all 52 debut issues isn’t in the background here, but in the foreground. So, unless she’s going to play a major part in this particular series, which I doubt, that’s a bit of poor, gratuitously distracting storytelling.

This isn’t a terrible comic, overall. The execution is sound enough, mostly, but in a market where dozens of superhero books are vying for attention every month, baseline competence isn’t enough to win anybody over.

Grade: C-

Friday, October 14, 2011

Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E. #1

DC Comics, 20 pages, $ 2.99

Writer: Jeff Lemire
Artist: Alberto Ponticelli
Colorist: Jose Villarrubia
Letterer: Pat Brosseau
Cover artists: J.G. Jones and Hi-Fi

Frankenstein is a comic about a group of creature soldiers—led by Frankenstein’s Monster—that fights other monsters with swords and guns, and it’s pretty well-done. I’m not sure what else I could say at this point that wouldn’t be rendered redundant by that first sentence, but I’ll try anyway.

The main reason why this works is that Jeff Lemire—usually known for equally odd but considerably less over-the-top comics like Essex County or Sweet Tooth—has a ton of mad ideas that he throws at you in perfect deadpan fashion.

S.H.A.D.E., in case you are wondering, is an organization that fights supernatural threats with weird science. Its headquarters is situated in “The Ant Farm: a mobile, 3-inch indestructible globe,” which can only be accessed “via a hybrid of teleportation and shrink technology.” Who are its agents? A vampire, a werewolf, a mummy and an immortal in a little girl’s body, among others. Plus, of course, Frankenstein. Who are they fighting? Just-plain-vanilla monsters.

Which is awesome. The villains are big, colorful generic monsters with scary claws and teeth who come out of the woods and take over a town—which S.H.A.D.E. responds to by building a wall around the place and shooting at the monsters from the outside, until Frankenstein and his group of horror heavy hitters are ready to go in and sort things out.

There are some promising bits of character interaction, too, but to be honest, this book gets by well enough on sheer unadulterated playful madness and the obvious fun the creators have with that. The art by Italian Alberto Ponticelli, fresh off a Godzilla miniseries, is perfect for this type of book. Beyond being a good storyteller in his own right, Ponticelli brings a style that’s appropriately expressive and rough, but still somehow makes it easy to follow the story through all the chaos.

When I first heard of the book and its creators, I had kind of a platonic ideal of what to expect, and this is pretty damn close. Great, great fun, by creators who make this look way easier than it can possibly be.

Grade: B

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Deathstroke #1

DC Comics, 20 pages, $ 2.99

Writer: Kyle Higgins
Penciler: Joe Bennett
Inker: Art Thibert
Colorist: Jason Wright
Letterer: Travis Lanham
Cover artist: Simon Bisley

In theory, I can see myself following a shallow, over-the-top action thriller starring a badass, one-eyed hired killer—especially if it happens to be drawn by Joe Bennett, who’s one of the more underrated artists working in the field, probably because people still remember his work on Alan Moore’s Supreme or Amazing Spider-Man in the late 1990s, which obviously came to soon in his career.

But that was 15 years ago. Bennett has gown by leaps and bounds since then as an artist. Sadly, he rarely gets to show it. If you want an idea just how good he is, read his (all too short) run on The Crew with writer Christopher J. Priest, for instance. Bennett deserves better gigs than he’s been getting.

This includes Deathstroke, unfortunately. I appreciate that Kyle Higgins wants to re-establish Deathstroke as a first-class amoral bastard who’d sell his mother if the price was right. In this story, it doesn’t quite come off, though. Instead, we get a generic dude who does generic badass things because that’s what generic badass dudes do. There’s nothing in this book that you won’t have seen a million times before, and mostly done better.

Look: If you want me to be shocked or even surprised by those last three pages, the story needs to give me an emotional and intellectual frame of reference for Deathstroke’s actions so I can even attempt to tell what they mean. Otherwise, I don’t care what he does. And so I don’t, here, because neither the protagonist nor any other character in the book says or does anything memorable, let alone entertaining.

This is just a boring rehash of stock action tropes. It sure has neat art by Joe Bennett, though.

Grade: D

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Batwoman #1

DC Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99

Writers: J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman
Artist: J.H. Williams III
Colorist: Dave Stewart
Letterer: Todd Klein

Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you were probably expecting this to be a great-looking comic. The question, with regard to Batwoman, was if the writing was going to hold up, now that J.H. Williams’ collaborator Greg Rucka, who wrote the “Batwoman” strip that ran in Detective Comics in 2009 and 2010, has moved on.

As it turns out, there was no reason to worry. Batwoman is, in fact, one of the most well-written books to come out of the relaunch. The story’s a pretty straightforward crime/mystery/superhero genre hybrid. With all the half-baked nonsense DC has been throwing at people, it’s a refreshing change of pace to just kick back and enjoy a solid, well-crafted piece of writing by people who know what they are doing.

There’s a lot going on here, but Williams and Blackman get the plot—involving a mysterious woman that abducts and drowns little children, evidently—underway and introduce a well-rounded and diverse supporting cast that promises some intriguing conflicts down the road. The characters and the ways they talk and act seem authentic every step of the way, which is doubly impressive if you consider that the protagonist was infamously labeled a “lipstick lesbian” by the press when she was first introduced five years ago.

That said, the real selling point here is the artwork, of course. Is there a better artist working in superhero comics than J.H. Williams III right now?

Okay, maybe you could find someone whose page-to-page storytelling is as good. Maybe somebody who’s as good at drawing actual, living and breathing characters and authentic-looking settings, too. And maybe there are a bunch of artists who are as stylistically variable or as inventive when it comes to page layout. But is someone out there working in the genre right now who’s even half as good as Williams in all of those disciplines? I seriously doubt it.

Williams’ character work and backgrounds are impressive, and for all his flashy layouts, he knows when to tone it down and draw a simple grid, too. His play with light and shadows is nothing short of spectacular, and there are no fewer than seven double-page panoramas that don’t just look breathtakingly beautiful, but actually serve the story.

Another big part of the book’s visual appeal is down to colorist Dave Stewart and letterer Todd Klein. Two masters of their trades themselves, Stewart and Klein always keep up with Williams’ playful stylistic and tonal shifts.

As a story, this doesn’t reinvent the wheel—it’s solid genre entertainment populated with credible, intriguing characters and coming with the expected thrills. In terms of the artwork, though, Batwoman #1 is as beautiful and stunning as anything you’re likely to find in a comic.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Batman and Robin #1

DC Comics, 20 pages, $ 2.99

Writer: Peter J. Tomasi
Penciler: Patrick Gleason
Inker: Mick Gray
Colorist: John Kalisz
Letterer: Patrick Brosseau

As the title would suggest, this book is very much about the relationship between Batman and Robin. The big difference, compared to its previous incarnation, is that Batman is now Bruce Wayne again, and that may be part of the reason why this title is considerably less successful at what it does than Grant Morrison’s take.

Whereas Dick Grayson—a.k.a. Nightwing, a.k.a. the first Robin, who had succeeded Wayne as Batman in the last series—is a much more lighthearted, more joyful character than the brooding, snotnosed Damian, who still appears as Robin here, Wayne himself—Damian’s father—doesn’t offer much of a contrast. He’s different from Damian, all right, but ultimately, it’s just a different, more mature kind of brooding and snotnosed, and that dynamic is much harder to pull off. Tomasi and Gleason don’t really manage to.

The creators’ handle of Damian is solid enough, but Tomasi’s Batman seems phony more times than not. It seems wrong for Batman to spend a lot of time pondering whether it makes more sense to honor his parents’ death or their marriage. It seems wrong for him to be talking about something like this, certainly, even to his son.

His overall behavior towards Damian seems preachy, negligent and unduly cruel all at once, which I doubt is what Tomasi was going for—Batman takes his 10-year-old on a mission, watches him almost get killed, watches him kill people, and then even blames it on the kid and gives him a dressing down? If the point of the story were to portray Batman as a dangerous lunatic who should steer clear of kids, then fair enough. But I don’t think that’s what Tomasi had in mind. You can make this story work, but here, it doesn’t.

Tomasi also takes some rather cheeky storytelling shortcuts. There happens to be a big handy swimming pool right above the nuclear facility? Get out of here. Patrick Gleason’s art is quite fun, on the other hand. He’s a good storyteller with a pleasant and distinctive style, so the story works on that level, at least.

I can see how a book focusing on the new Batman/Robin dynamic can be worthwhile, generally, but this isn’t there yet.

Grade: C-

Monday, October 10, 2011

Mister Terrific #1

DC Comics, 20 pages, $ 2.99

Writer: Eric Wallace
Penciler: Gianluca Gugliotta
Inker: Wayne Faucher
Colorist: Mike Atiyeh
Letterer: Dave Sharpe
Cover artist: J.G. Jones and Lovern Kindzierski

In principle, it’s a laudable goal to imbue the DC Universe with more diverse—meaning “not white, male and heterosexual”—characters. In practice, it gets us books like Mister Terrific, unfortunately.

The dude looks cool, certainly, particularly on the cover. And Eric Wallace makes a conscious effort to steer clear of the usual clichés here, as far as his hero is concerned. Mister Terrific is, pretty much, an old-school science hero who’s basically just very smart, and neither anger nor race issues seem to be on his mind much—so far, so good. Gianluca Gugliotta’s art has a kinetic quality to it, even if the proportions and perspectives look a little wonky here and there.

In terms of making the protagonist stand out, however, there’s not much to sink your teeth into here. His origin story is that he was smart and rich and had everything, and then his wife died, and then someone from the future showed up and told him to make the world a better place, and so he did. This can work, in theory, but the manner it’s presented here is way too slapdash to be convincing. What really drives this guy? What’s his defining moment? What makes him different from the 100 other costumed crime fighters he’ll have to compete with every month? A tragic backstory—even a convincing one—is a good start, but it’s not automatically an origin. It’s Spider-Man’s own involvement in his Uncle Ben’s death that makes his origin so effective, not the mere fact that Ben died.

There are a lot of familiar bits in here: a little Batman, a little Reed Richards and a little Iron Man, and so on, but the character lacks a theme of his own that makes him stand out.

Another thing he lacks is good dialogue. “You did the right thing. This is exactly the kind of situation I envisioned when I provided the L.A.P.D. with a way to contact me securely,” he says out loud in the presence of other human beings, for instance. Now, this may come as a great surprise to many of the “New 52” writers, judging from what I’ve read so far, but, believe you me: Clunky exposition does not suddenly disappear from view if you turn it into adverbs or subordinate clauses. It’s still there.

And as much as Wallace avoids making his protagonist a cliché, the same cannot be said about his British bystanders. (“Wicked.” Etc.) By the time we get to the Dr. Who reference on page 4, I’d be more than happy to just look at the pictures—let me hazard a guess and suppose that Mr. Wallace, just like Mister Terrific, happens to be familiar with Dr. Who and like the show, as well. What a coincidence that would be.

As a story, this doesn’t really hold up, either, since the cliffhanger hinges on your concern for a generic supporting character who just appeared a couple of panels ago. It doesn’t work, obviously, and it’s baffling that anyone thought it might.

Mister Terrific is another rather half-baked effort. There is effort, certainly, and that’s good. But ultimately, the story mechanics and the dialogue are too poorly thought-out to be engaging, and the hero remains way too bog-standard to have anything going for him other than his visual. If books like this one fail, it’s not because the title character isn’t white—it’s because the material doesn’t cut it.

Grade: D

Friday, October 7, 2011

Legion Lost #1

DC Comics, 20 pages, $ 2.99

Writer: Fabian Nicieza
Artist: Pete Woods
Colorist: Brad Anderson
Letterer: Travis Lanham

Technobabble, time bubbles and colorful superheroes stranded in the distant past—which just so happens to be our present—while in pursuit of a fugitive time-traveler who’s evidently trying to take revenge for something that’s about to happen, but hasn’t yet: Legion Lost is, in many ways, the Star Trek-type superhero title in DC’s “New 52” line-up.

As such, that’s a perfectly valid approach to doing superheroes, if you want 52 different flavors, particularly for a Legion of Super-Heroes spin-off. And writer Fabian Nicieza and artist Pete Woods do a solid job of making this an accessible debut issue—even if Brad Anderson’s colors are a bit on the garish side, especially towards the end of the book.

Then again, an accessible comic isn’t automatically a compelling one, and exposition is no substitute for effective characterization. The characters here look like a diverse bunch, certainly, but the creators fail to make to make them distinctive in the ways that count. When a couple of them die at the end, there’s no way to gauge what that means for the group, because the reader never gets the chance know them or their relationships with each other.

Legion Lost sounds interesting in theory, but in this first issue, the story never rises above being competent and serviceable. The creators are doing a very familiar formula here that can carry this sort of book, but they never really fill it with life. This could turn into a fun series, but it needs to ramp up the characterization dramatically to do that.

Grade: C

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Green Lantern #1

DC Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99

Writer: Geoff Johns
Penciler: Doug Mahnke
Inkers: Christian Alamy and Tom Nguyen
Colorist: David Baron
Letterer: Sal Cipriano
Cover artists: Ivan Reis, Joe Prado and Rod Reis

The Green Lantern concept is one of the most frustrating ones in comic-book history. In theory, you’ve got a guy with a magic ring that conjures up anything he can imagine. In practice, “anything he can imagine” gets you heavy chains, a telescope and a garrote.

To his credit, Geoff Johns is trying to make this accessible. Starting out with a Hal Jordan who’s been forced to retire as the Green Lantern and a reluctant Sinestro taking his place is an effective way of introducing the characters and the concept while getting the plot underway.

But the whole Green Lantern Corps thing still seems like an R-rated and particularly harebrained version of the Care Bears. On the one hand you’ve got “Green” and “Yellow” Lanterns and mustache-twirling bad guys named “Sinestro,” while on the other hand somebody gets killed with a garrote over four panels. This fetishized mixture of grade-school-level complexity and extreme graphic violence is typical for Geoff Johns, of course, and he’s clearly found an audience for it in the comic-book stores. That said, though, it’s also creepy and disturbing, and not in a good way.

The kinky fetish quirks aside, Johns also proves to be utterly tone-deaf when it comes to writing characters with emotions resembling those of actual human beings. His Hal Jordan displays the emotional intelligence of somebody raised in a cave by wolves. More generally, for someone who’s been working in this medium for a long time, Johns’ lack of comedic timing in the dinner scene is embarrassing. I’m sure a good writer—or anyone who knows when to get the hell out and leave well enough alone, basically—could have made that old gag work. Johns doesn’t.

I’m a big fan of Doug Mahnke’s art, usually, but for some reason, he’s for the most part decided to trade in his stylistic range and expressive visuals for a take that somewhat recalls Gil Kane and George Pérez, but in a terribly wooden and bland fashion.

Then again, it’s not like he’s got much to work with here. Green Lantern—like Justice League as well—is emblematic of a massive and depressing failure of imagination among the people who run these companies. They could literally have dreamed up anything here, and what they come up with are chains and garrotes and a general approach to storytelling that makes Top Gun seem like a bright and sophisticated experience by comparison.

Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.

Grade: D-

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Action Comics #1

DC Comics, 29 pages, $ 3.99

Writer: Grant Morrison
Penciler: Rags Morales
Inker: Rick Bryant
Colorist: Brad Anderson
Letterer: Patrick Brosseau

One of the things Grant Morrison can be relied on to do when he approaches a corporate property is to take the title literally, see where that takes him and make sure that it’ll end up being writ large all over the DNA of the book—in every sequence and scene, page and panel. Enter: Action Comics.

Morrison and Quitely’s All Star Superman is as bright and as multifaceted as a diamond and jam-packed with anything that’s come to define the character since his creation in 1938 across his many comics, television and film incarnations. Action Comics, in contrast, takes much looser, more straightforward tack. This Superman is still young, for starters, brash and flamboyant at times—a good-hearted farm boy from Smallville, Kansas, who wants to change the world. Clark Kent is still confident and humble (“I’m just doing my job.”) and emanates a great deal of warmth and concern for others, but he doesn’t hide the fact that he enjoys being Superman tremendously, either.

As Superman, he wears a flimsy-looking makeshift cape and a T-shirt that’s more a familiar piece of merchandise than a costume. From the waist down, he seems to have borrowed his wardrobe from Bruce Springsteen: blue jeans, heavy leather boots. Also, like Siegel and Shuster’s Ur-Superman, he’s not nearly powerful enough (yet) to stop a train or a tank without breaking a sweat, and while he can “leap tall buildings in a single bound,” he hasn’t developed the ability to fly yet. It’s Superman Unplugged, so to speak.

As much as Frank Quitely was the perfect fit for All Star Superman, Rags Morales is the right guy to draw Action Comics. Morales’ grip on body language, facial expressions—making characters seem real and alive, basically—is impeccable. His Metropolis is a real city inhabited by real people. In theory, when Superman jumps down a building and hits the ground, fights a tank or—the classic—stops a runaway train, the first inclination of the audience, these days, would be to shrug and take those feats for granted, and most artists would draw them as familiar things that we’ve all seen before. But Morales and Morrison make them the spectacles they might have been in the 1940s Fleischer cartoons.

After one issue, Action Comics is already the meatiest, most fully realized of the 52 relaunch titles. It comes with a well-rounded protagonist and a fully developed concept that lives and breathes in every aspect of the book.

Grade: A

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Swamp Thing #1

DC Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99

Writer: Scott Snyder
Artist: Yanick Paquette
Colorist: Nathan Fairbairn
Letterer: John J. Hill

Scott Snyder has a degree in creative writing and counts Rick Bass among his influences, according to his Wikipedia entry. Judging from Swamp Thing, both things are easy to believe, although Snyder doesn’t do much beyond introducing the protagonist and establishing the tone of the series here.

Like a lot of Bass’s work, Swamp Thing is set in “the outdoors,” and Snyder’s approach to writing has more in common with literary stories than with most genre comics. He has a handle on the standard tropes of the mystery and superhero genres, but he also knows how to construct a proper scene—everything in the book seems to be precisely where it’s meant to be.

When protagonist Alec Holland, a scientist living in a self-imposed exile from his old job and surroundings and now working woodland construction, talks to one of his colleagues or is paid a visit by Superman, the characters never seem less than alive, worried about their own concerns and in pursuit of their own agendas.

Artist Yanick Paquette also does an amazing job here. I think I first saw his work in Marvel’s Gambit, more than 10 years ago, and after watching his storytelling and style evolve through books like Seven Soldiers: Bulleteer and Batman, Inc., it’s safe to say that each book he’s done has been better than the last. In Swamp Thing, the gestures and facial expressions of the characters and the composition of the pages are those of an accomplished storyteller with a unique, attractive style.

It’s just fun to sit back and watch the creators at work. They are bringing a lot to the table here, and it’s adding up to a lot more than a superhero mystery series would suggest. It’s not clear yet where the book is going, but Snyder, Paquette and company make you want to come along for the ride.

Grade: B

Monday, October 3, 2011

Animal Man #1

DC Comics, 20 pages, $ 2.99

Writer: Jeff Lemire
Penciler: Travel Foreman
Inkers: Travel Foreman and Dan Green
Colorist: Lovern Kindzierski
Letterer: Jared K. Fletcher

Thematically, Jeff Lemire’s Animal Man picks up where Grant Morrison’s Animal Man left off, pretty much.

At the end of the Morrison run, the writer himself showed up in the story to bring his hero’s family back from the dead and leave him on a happy note—just because he could, and as a conscious change of pace from all those “grim and gritty” superhero comics that used to be all the rage in 1990.

In Lemire’s story, some time has passed since then, and some Animal Man adventures have, too, but overall, it still seems to be the same (mostly) happy protagonist Buddy Baker and his (mostly) happy wife and kids that Morrison left behind. Okay, Buddy’s appearances as Animal Man have become rarer, and although he’s something of a cult hero who gets interviewed by The Believer and play (mostly) himself in cult films by cult directors—such as one Mr. Ryan Daranovsky—, he doesn’t really have a job and leaves the money-making to his wife, but hey—who needs to make a lot of money when you’re (mostly) happy, right?

As the story goes on, that “(mostly)” grows like a cancer. You can pick it up between the lines of the interview on page 1, and after overwhelming Buddy in his dreams, it breaks into his reality in full force—and with bone-chilling effect on the reader—on the final page. Lemire and Foreman and Green and Kindzierski and Fletcher’s Animal Man is at least as much a horror book as it is a superhero book, but the connective tissue that holds it all together is the authentic characters and the subtle drama of their mostly happy suburban life.

It’s not quite clear yet where this story is going, but what’s clear is that the creators control it fully. Lemire knows how to walk that fine line between leaving things too vague and making them too obvious that makes or breaks this type of book. In Foreman, he seems to have found the perfect collaborator. It’s been a few years since I last saw Foreman’s art, and he’s grown by leaps and bounds since then. His everyday scenes of a family talking in the kitchen are as breathtaking as his elaborate nightmare scenarios—also thanks to Lovern Kindzierski, whose colors, or sometimes lack thereof, are crucial in bringing both to life.

In many ways, Animal Man goes back to the classic Vertigo formula here, offering a truly creepy and unsettling post-superhero story grounded by authentic characterization. But it’s certainly been a while since it was done so well. This debut issue is a tour de force by everyone involved.

Grade: B