Monday, September 26, 2011

The DCnU 52 - week 3

Week 3 of "The New 52" brought to mind two thoughts (and since I didn't read Catwoman, one of them wasn't "I love boobies"), the first being that the DCU has become egregiously more violent than it was a month ago. Sure there was a lot of violence before, but it wasn't quite as graphic as it's gotten now.

In Nightwing a couple of cops had their throats slashed out as Dick Grayson ducked and avoided an assassin so that he could change into Nightwing without revealing his identity. "That's on me" he said, which is about as meaningful as the badly grammatical "My bad." At least he acknowledged it, but still, how much is it really going to affect dear old Dick in his nightly crime fighting. If it actually does have an impact, I'll be really impressed.

Over in Wonder Woman, a couple of horses got their heads lopped off so that human-esque upper torsos could crawl their way up out of the neck-holes. Later, Diana tosses a blade which lops off the arm of one of these centaurs. I wonder if another mini-human torso will grow out of it.

In Batman, the Dark Knight Detective comes upon a scene where the victim has been strung up in a Virtuvian Man-style position, only with dozens upon dozens of blades sticking out of him, as noted in the scene, "whoever did it missed every one of John Doe's major arteries -- on purpose. Meaning they wanted to hurt him very badly, for a long, long time."

[If you want to see the grand guignol Bleeding Cool has combined the greatest hits for ya. We try to run a clean ship here.]

I'm not prudish, and I don't mind excessive violence [or sex, for that matter], but I think things like having the Joker's face peeled off at the end of the first issue of the flagship title for the company, or having a guy force-fed his garden hose in Batgirl #1 might not be the impact one wants to have... or maybe it is. I suppose it's a matter of context as well, as I didn't flinch at all seeing King Shark chomp off a guy's arm in Suicide Squad, but then that's what I expected from that book. I'm not sure I expect a full-on, tits-out affair from a Catwoman ongoing series (Vampirella, Lady Death, yes). If you came at us with a "mature readers" Catwoman: The Night The Tights Came Off In Georgia, then yeah, I would expect it there . Is the excessive violence of the bisections and crushed-heads sort that Geoff Johns has fondly delivered in his comics the intended status-quo for "The New 52"? Should it be?

You see just as much on your average episode of CSI or Sparatacus:Blood and Sand, but I thought, and I guess I thought incorrectly, that DC was looking to attract new readers to their books, and by new readers I had assumed younger readers, since their most loyal (or perhaps just vocal) audience came in around the post-Crisis reboot era at a young age, when comics were still relatively accessible to that age group. This leads directly into my second point, that DC has issued, 39 books so far, and not one has had an anything less than a "T" (for Teen") rating.

Where are the books that the kids can read, that can transition them in their pre-teen years from the Tiny Titans and Brave and the Bold/Young Justice/cartoon-tie-in comics to the DC Universe proper? You should have gateway books with characters like Static or Blue Beetle or Supergirl, all of which produced relatively clean first issues, but with a "T" rating I don't know that a younger reader won't be exposed to neck-slashey-face-peely-bodice-rippy material an issue or two down the road.

In some respect I understand that DC isn't "going dark" or "grim'n'grittiy" again, but that their entertainment is just, in many places, reflecting the entertainment that pervades popular culture at large. Every book isn't going to Saw-like torture porn, just like every book isn't going to be Jersey Shore-sex shenanigans (where Starfire is the only character to come close to matching Snooki's particular skin tone), or a gothic horror, or a military action set-piece or space opera or whatever.

But at the same time DC is saying they're diversifying their line with the types of stories they're telling, they're not trying very hard at diversifying the audience they want to be telling these stories to. "T" for "Teen" seems to be the main point, with sensationalistic imagery in places it's truly like they want teenagers to show it to their friends and say "you gotta see this, this shit is sick" (you know, in the way that they say "sick" meaning "cool" meaning "rad" meaning "good"*) or perhaps also meaning, well, sick, as in depraved, or morally incorrect, or abhorrent, or unwell.

This isn't to say DC isn't producing some good books, and that I'm not enjoying wading through "the New 52" like it was pilot season, because I am, but I wonder if, after the novelty of examining the new DC Universe through a critical lens, whether most of the books and the new universe itself will still be at all interesting beyond a few exceptional titles.


My current top ten favs of "the New 52" (having read 22 out of 39)

1. Batman #1
2. Grifter #1
3. Batwoman #1
4. Supergirl #1
5. Animal Man #1
6. Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E. #1
7. Wonder Woman #1
8. Action Comics #1
9. Suicide Squad #1
10. Men of War #1

* not sure the kids even say "sick" anymore?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

DCnU, week 2

So last week's grumbling about the art of the "DCnU" books doesn't bear as much weight this week. Of the seven books I picked up this week I can say that I loved the art in over half of them, I mean J.H. Williams III on Batwoman and Doug Mahnke on Green Lantern are two of the premiere artists in comics right now. Then there's the lesser known CAFU and Bit on Grifter (their ultra-clean lines impressed me on T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, and just as much here) and Fernando Dagnino on Resurrection Man may not be the conventional "hot" artist, but his Gene Colan aesthetic is so perfect for the title. That said, the other three books I picked up, the art didn't leave me so keen. I talk about how Gianluca Gugliotta fails Mister Terrific in this week's Thor's Comic Column , but I forget to mention that he doesn't even seem to understand Terrific's mask is supposed to be a "T", and not just a mask. Had Marco Rudy (whom I called attention to on this blog waaaay back) handled the duties on Suicide Squad I would have liked the book a lot more than I already do, as it stood it had two decent artists with somewhat competing styles on the first issue making it look like a rush job. While I just plain didn't care for the art on Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E. from Alberto Ponticelli. Ponticelli has a loosey goosey freehand style which reminds me of JJ Birch (aka Joe Brozowski), another artist with a similar style who illustrated two of my favourite books (Firestorm and Xombi) yet I've never appreciated his work much. Ponticelli wouldn't be a bad fit for the Frankenstien book if it were mainly monsters, but they coexist with some wild super-science like Ray Palmer's microscopic fortress inside a floating, 3-inch indestructible sphere that you have to teleport into. Plentiful tech and architectural flourishes need more structure, freehand doesn't quite cut it, unless perhaps you're Geoff Darrow, but this guy isn't Geoff Darrow.

Another word on art. I picked up a copy of Animal Man #1 this week (and for cover price, not $22 bucks on ebay thank you very much) and it's a solid solid read, however Travel Foreman's art looked, well, awkward, like it was fading away on the page, while on the various previews I've seen on computers and even my iPod, it looked a lot better. Same goes for Ponticelli's work on Frankenstein. Even just looking at the panel on screen above it looks pretty good, yet reading over the title twice, I really, really didn't like his art. Could it be that some artists work just look better digitally or in a compressed form. I wonder if Animal Man or Frankestein were printed in Archie digest-sized whether it would look better on paper?

On the non-art front, something else I noticed (as mentioned above) is "super-science" seems to be making a comeback, featured quite prominently in both Frankenstein and Mister Terrific. As soon as these concepts were busted out (like the S.H.A.D.E. base or the T-Sanctuary) I started to smile. These kinds of things have been somewhat abandoned in the past couple decades as superheroes have driven for a more natural or plausible or grounded-in-(quasi-reality) sensibility, and I'm glad to see Eric Wallace and Jeff Lemire bringing the fun back. Hopefully we see more of this.

One of the other trends I've noticed with "The New 52" so far is the plethora of compressed storytelling. People have long complained about how "decompressed" comics have become, well, to them I say take a look at Static or Mister Terrific or Resurrection Man or Frankenstein or Stormwatch and in some cases you might find yourself overwhelmed with information to process (Mister Terrific is example-prime). Hopefully they temper their info-dumps in future issues.

So I'm going to rank the titles I've bought so far from top down what I've enjoyed the most to the least:

The Great
1. Grifter (seriously, this book is amazing, like if They Live starred the character Sawyer from Lost instead of Roddy Piper)

2. Batwoman (J.H. Williams III and W. Hayden Blackman may not be as phenomenal writers as Greg Rucka, but they're still pretty great, and Chase is back! This doesn't really miss a beat from Batwoman's last issue of Detective Comics, so it's still kind of feels like the warm comforts of the old DCU.)

3. Animal Man (oh, it's as good as you heard, and if you haven't heard anything about it, then it's better than you're expecting, wonky art and all)

The Good
4. Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E. (it's funny that Jeff Lemire is working in the shadow of Grant Morrison on two titles yet forging his own way with both of them. Despite highly disliking the art I loved everything else about this book)

5. Action Comics (if you're going to reinvent Superman, this is a pretty damn good way to do it. It's not perfect but it is pretty exciting, and certain better than anything in 10 seasons of Smallville)

6. Suicide Squad (okay, they de-aged and sexy'd up Amanda Waller, which is, you know, really wrong, about as wrong as tarting up Harley Quinn, but this book has what it takes to be successor to the Secret Six. Issue two is going to be ah-may-zing).

The Not Bad
7. Men of War (would probably rank in "the good" were it not for an unspectacular back-up feature lofting the price up $1)

8. Resurrection Man (I love that he's back, I like where it's going, I'm super keen on the artist, this first issue just moved too quickly and robbed us of seeing the plane crash)

9. Stormwatch (It was a bit of a whirlwind of introducing characters and identifying the tweaks to them, as well as establishing Stormwatch's rich, Planetary-style history. With this issue out of the way it should get better)

10. Green Lantern (Doug Mahnke's art is some of the best stuff ever, and I like Sinestro as "the" Green Lantern, but, jesus, Hal's a crappy character).

The I Hope They Get Better
11. Mister Terrific (It'll get better if a] Eric Wallace takes it easy on the sub-plots already, b] they get a new artist, which I hear is in the works, and c] I learn how to spell "terrific" without spell-check)

12. Static Shock (Pacing, Scott McDaniel, pacing. I love Static and really want him to succeed, but the first issue just didn't click)

The I Just Don't Care
13. Batgirl (meh)
14. Justice League (meh)

Thursday, September 8, 2011

"The New 52" (so far)

Devon and myself (and the whole Thor's Comic Column crew) are in the midst of preparing the first week of reviews of "The New 52" (EDIT: it's up now. We aren't running the full gamut (we're far too poor, far too limited in time and there are far too few of us to do so) but what we do have covered should be pretty good... if I do say so myself... which I do.

As I noted in the last post, I have just under two dozen of "The New 52" in my pull list for this month (which seems about three times as many as anyone else I know), but ultimately I'd like to try them all out for myself, as much as an academic exercise as a consumerist endeavor.

Firstly, I should note that this week at my LCS, things were buzzing. Number 1s were flying off the shelf and unlike Justice League from last week, many of this weeks books seemed seriously under-ordered. Men of War was looking pretty thin, and word was that Batwing was close to selling out. I've heard others talking of sell-outs at their LCS, so at least this first week (or first month) seems to be a success. Although I would hope that the people coming into the shop are new, or at least lapsed comic book readers, I'm skeptical, thinking instead that most of the books are being picked up by people like myself: long-time comic book readers who don't really know anymore which of "The New 52" they should pick up, so they're trying an unusually higher volume of comics this first month.

This first week (let's face it, the one title debuting last week doesn't quite count), I've taken in Action Comics, Batgirl, Stormwatch, Men of War and Static Shock. I skimmed through a few others at the LCS, and a few more previews on-line. My initial impression is purely a reactionary one. I'm disappointed in the art, almost uniformly. This isn't to say there isn't some good work being done, just none of it, so far, has really made an impression.

On Justice League, I'm not, nor have I ever been, much of a Jim Lee fan (I generally prefer cleaner lines, and less of them), and quite frankly I think he's well past his prime, or perhaps gone soft from lack of regular flexing of his illustrative muscles. I've read a lot of praise for his work on the book last week but I found it kind of sloppy to look at. I didn't hate it but it didn't scream the work of a "premiere artist" to me.

Rags Morales, on Action Comics, is an artist I've liked since way back in his Black Condor days (circa 1992). His work has varied in quality (from good to phenomenal) depending on the inker he's working with, and in recent years I've found his work striving too much for realism. Mostly, I just think as of Identity Crisis he draws eyes real creepy-like, and wish he'd stop. He's a solid, proven artist, and a decent fit with Grant Morrison, but he's still not a big, big talent like, say, Steve McNiven over on Captain America with Ed Brubaker or even a surprising under-recognized talent in need of a big break like Jamie McKelvie (who's just started an arc on Secret Avengers with Warren Ellis).

Adrian Syaf on Batgirl and Miguel Sepulveda on Stormwatch both put in a solid effort but neither really stand out. Syaf's style isn't particularly distinguished in any way, while Sepulveda can go big (he did well on Marvel cosmic stuff a while back), but I find the consistency of his character work, particularly faces, to be off-putting. Tom Derenick on Men of War is very well suited to the military genre, so no real complaints there, but again, nothing spectacular. Static Shock's Scott McDaniel is perpetually tolerable to me. I really don't care for his style but I can appreciate it at times.

Looking at some other books, Travel Foreman's work on Animal Man is so exceptionally clean, it looks like an Ikea catalog. It's not necessarily a bad thing, as I tend to like that style a lot, but it also looks a little too minimalist at times. Tony Daniel, some people love him, I'm not one of them. He's good, but he's not stellar. Dan Jurgens on Green Arrow gets some much needed pep from inks by George Perez, but it's still Dan Jurgens, a fully capable visual storyteller but dull dull dull. Aaron Lopresti on Justice League International is a veteran workaday illustrator, the kind of guy you should be glad to have on a middle-of-the-road book like Justice League International, still very few people are reading JLI because Jurgens is writing it or Lopresti is illustrating it.

Of this week's illustrators, four should be taken note of... Yanick Paquette (on Swamp Thing) should have become a superstar thanks to his collaborations with Grant Morrison, yet, he's not. Swamp Thing with Scott Snyder isn't a bad placement, but it's not A-List like Batman Incorporated was, or had he been reteamed with Morrison on Action.

Keith Giffen looks like he's channeling Kirby full bore on OMAC, just such a shame the character design is so much more hideous than the old, hideous Kirby OMAC design. Also a shame: he's working on the book with Dan DiDio, who must have some dirt on Giffen to get him to help him out all the time. DiDio's Outsiders was such a disaster that I put him on my "permanent boycott all work with his "written by" byline on it" list.

Rob Liefeld. Hawk and Dove. Say what you will, Liefeld gets attention. He has his fans that give it to him, and he has a legion of detractors who also give it to him. His artwork, from all examples I've seen of this book, is as horrendous as it's ever been, as if he's made it extra-special-awful just for those who love to complain about how awful his work is. It's like he knows, and giving his nay-sayers more of what they want. The guy is a super-star, and for as long as he's on Hawk and Dove it will be a minor hit (I just don't think he's going to be on it past the first five issues or so, after which it will shortly be canceled).

Finally, there's Ben Oliver on Batwing. I have no idea who this guy is, but of every title I've looked at this week, his work is the only one that popped, and may actually entice me to buy this otherwise maligned-in-advance book. He's perhaps a little light on the background department, but his sense of light and shadow is absolutely remarkable. I'm not certain Batwing's going to be the breakout character of "The New 52" but Ben Oliver just might be the breakout artist. I guess we'll know when Marvel poaches him to put him on a status title.

This went on longer than I thought.

Other impressions, in brief:

The heroes of the new DCU seem to generally be at odds with the police/military, and, perhaps with the public, and, perhaps, with each other.

Gail Simone seems to be transferring her more twisted tendencies from Secret Six to Batgirl. I'm not sure that's appropriate.

The books seem to be making a pointed effort to establish new villains right out the gate. So far only Lex Luthor in Action has made any real impression.

Most of the books seem to be trying to start already in a new status quo... it doesn't seem like the most friendly route for new readers (or even old readers). Not that I want 52 new origin stories either...

Of the five books I got this week, the only one I'm firmly not getting again next month is Batgirl. Though Gail Simone owned Barbara Gordon over the past decade, she doesn't seem to know what to do with her now.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Devon Interviews Howard Chaykin

I had the sincere honor of interviewing Howard Chaykin for the TV show Fantastic Forum last year. Chaykin has, for over twenty years, been a true hero of mine, having followed him from his works on his creator-owned series, American Flagg! to the upcoming Avengers: 1959, a mini-series he'll writing and drawing for Marvel.

From being on the forefront of the 80's creator-owned wave to having a hand in creating some of the first Star Wars comics, Chaykin is sincere and incredibly forthcoming about being one of comics' true pioneers.

Take a look...

Friday, September 2, 2011

Bedside Manner

I was knocked down with the flu this week, a combination of post Toronto Fan Expo physical fatigue, many nights lacking proper sleep, and, oh yeah, my daughter projectile vomiting her fever germs all over me. It was some serious Linda Blair exorcist shit going down (little girls are not made of sugar and spice, but rather strawberries and vomit I discovered). Anyway, laid up in bed on Wednesday I decided to take care of the mess that lay beside it... the mess of paper and staples, bags and boards. There must have been, I kid you not, 200 comics, thirty graphic novels collecting there.

My first step was to sort through, separating the things I've read from the things I haven't. Easy enough. My to read pile consisted of about 20 books (a handful of Unwritten issues, a bunch of Free Comic Book Day titles, and a few stragglers from the past few weeks) and about a dozen trades (I'd just acquired the complete run of Buffy Season 8 at Fan Expo days before so that comprised most of them, the rest were massive omnibuses which always tend to gather dust once I put them down, generally getting about halfway through).

The next step, sort by title, grouping any one-shots or mini-series into one pile to conserve space. To my surprise I (well, we, as my wife is complicit in this too) wasn't collecting as many titles as I thought, with only about fifteen total ongoing series, making the fact that I'll be checking out nearly two dozen new DCU titles pretty ridiculous. I also realized that I hadn't sorted my comics in some time, as there were upwards of seven issues in some stacks.

Step three is bagging the suckers up. I should really do this step more often as some of my loose copies tend to get a little dog-eared with my daughter trying to squeeze between the comic stacks and the bed, or slightly crinkled as the cat uses them as a launching pad to get up to the window. But then my collector days of comics are long gone. I don't buy and preserve them like I used to. I certainly don't individually bag and board each issue. I now tend to group, stuffing in as many comics into a comic bag as will fit without rounding at the edges. It's my nod to conservationism. It's probably not great for their resale value but fuck it, I'm not in it for the money, it's entertainment.

Once I've sorted and bagged, the comic bricks get put beside the bed, for dispensing to the basement shelves ("the keeper pile") or to the long boxes in the shed (the "get rid of someday pile"). What I've noticed, however, is the "get rid of someday pile" is just as large as the "keeper pile" which means I'm buying a whole lot of books that, essentially, I don't really ever want to read again. That's not only a lot of wasted space in my house (or shed) but also a lot of wasted paper and printing and machining and transportation etc. on something that's not worth keeping around. I'm not even concerned by the money aspect, after all, I got whatever entertainment out of it I wanted.

For my reviewing gig, I've had the opportunity to read more digital comic than I can count, and I continue to have that opportunity, but I cannot stand reading comics on a computer. Reading PDF comics drives me bonkers. Scrolling up, zooming in, scrolling right, zooming out, scroll zoom scroll zoom... I hate it. It's not the comics reading experience I like or want. I do it from time to time but I am resistant to it. I'd much rather have the tactile.

But this Wednesday, again, laid up in bed, I couldn't make it out to the comics shoppe, and even though I was undecided about whether I was going to read the first issue of the new Justice League, the first offering from the New 52, I have to admit my curiosity was piquing. I was actually planning on browsing the book and making a game-time decision at the store whether I'd take it home or not. Chances were, considering what a light week it was, that I would buy it, but at the same time, I didn't want Justice League, just as I don't want so many of those books that are sitting beside my bed. I do want to read them, I just don't want them around. This is where the digital comics come in... they allow you to read them, but you don't have them in the physical sense, they're available but they're not taking up any real space, and getting rid of them requires minimal physical effort (a few keystrokes or screen taps and they're gone).

So, curiosity getting the better of me, I downloaded the Comixology app for my iPod Touch, I purchased Justice League #1, and I read it.


To my surprise, I liked the experience. I liked it quite a bit. The comic itself was okay (Devon has a good review dropping later today that almost fully mirrors my own thoughts), but that's not what I'm talking about. The Comixology app, firstly, is free... as should any shopping app be. Secondly, it's fairly easy to use. Browsing their shop is relatively simple (though a search function would be nice), organized in different categories (series, publisher, genre, creator, story arcs, free comics) it's layered nicely to indicate the amount of content you will find within each layer, and once you get to your selection it provides enough useful detail (writer, artist, release date). The Free Comics section is particularly well-stocked with first issues of various indie titles and some original content from DC in the form of character primers (that take you all the way up to Flashpoint, but are, I guess, irrelevant now) and lots of preview books.

What the store doesn't have is a Search function, which is disappointing, nor does it have a graphic novel section which would make it easier if you were looking for collected stories or original graphic novels instead of having to wade through the individual categories. As a plus though, the store does have a "Day and Date" release section on its title screen showing all the new releases of books coming out the same week as print editions (which is handy now that DC has gone D&D) as well as a "just released" area for new-to-digital books just being offered.

Finding the new Justice League book wasn't hard at all, and buying it was even easier as an "in-app" purchase it was paid for through my Apple store account. This means I didn't have to give my credit card info to any new sources, though I'm going to have to investigate how the App connects to the Comixology on-line in case I want to access my comics through there (ah, turns out I already have Comixology account from before).

Reading the comic on the iPod isn't the same experience as reading a physical comic, and on such a small screen a lot of the flavour of the comics visual storytelling process is lost. You don't really get to see full page's layout, so I imagine reading something like J.H. Williams III Batwoman stories from Detective Comics wouldn't translate very well, but for the most part you see one panel at a time through the Comixology's "guided view". Basically as you thumb through it, it takes you from one panel to the next, sometimes it takes you to a zoomed-in section of the panel first either to note details or read text, then zooms you out to see the full image (you have the option of zooming in or out at your leisure as well, though you rarely get the option to view the entire page unless it's a full page spread). It's actually a bit more cinematic reading this way, partway towards being a motion comic in some sense. The "guided view" technology gets in the way occasionally but helps more often then not, and makes reading the story rather smooth.

As well, being able to zoom in closer on the art and see details is both good and bad. Jim Lee's not really known for his minutiae, and his backgrounds are so loose, almost impressionistic in a sense, so zooming in on his artwork doesn't really reveal anything but a mess of lines. His work is best viewed as a whole image. I imagine this would benefit looking at a George Perez book or even Sergio Aragones' work.

One of the other things the guided view does nicely is it saves you from "the spoiler on the next page" or even "the spoiler on the same page"... you know, when something surprising happens on the adjoining page or later on the same page and it's the first thing you saw when you flipped the page, and you say "holy shit" before you've even gotten to the "holy shit" moment. Well, with the guided view the "holy shit" moment will sneak right up on you. Not that Justice League had any holy shit moments, but I can see how it has its pluses.

The further advantage is, frankly, it makes comics readable on a bloody iPod/iPhone. I'm not sure I'd want to read all my comics on an iPod (my eyes are already paying the price of tiny-screen-eye-strain from so much Peggle and Angry Birds) but it's a nice option to have for toting around some reading material without actually having to tote around reading material or worry about having a page-flipping hand free while holding onto a handrail on a manic stop-starting bus.

Of course, the only real issue I have with it is paying the same price for a digital item as opposed to a physical item. I understand the logic behind it, especially for DC and Marvel, who can't afford to undercut their brick-and-mortar, and I appreciate that DC will be dropping the price of each new-release book when the next issue hits the stands by a buck, but there's still, at least to me, a lack of value to digital media, especially such as this where it's a proprietary item, usable only by a specific format and never actually yours. If Comixology goes under, poof, so does your digital collection with it. So while $3.99 for a 24-page story was excessive, especially for a digital edition, I'm willing to do it once. I think after the first month of the DCnU I'll be waiting for the $1.99 editions of anything I want to read, but don't want.

I've already lined up a few of those 22 new DC titles as digital only purchases, and maybe even catch up on some older stories this way. I doubt a fully digital transformation is happening anytime soon, but I'm actually, finally excited about the option it presents.