Posted by: erikmona | October 3, 2011

NEW 52 REVIEW 31: Captain Atom #1

Captain Atom #1
Writer: J.T. Krul
Artist: Freddie Williams II

Like Blue Beetle, Captain Atom was a Charlton character inserted into the DC Universe in 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths. DC published another seminal comic maxi-series the following year, featuring a modified take on all of the Charlton characters with Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Moore’s genre-redefining take on a superhero team and the world that contained it was so bold that DC suggested he use analogues of the Chartlon characters, rather than the originals. In this way the faceless, crime-solving detective the Question became the similarly attired Rorschach. Blue Beetle became Nite-Owl. And Captain Atom became Doctor Manhattan.

Thanks to the huge popularity of the Watchmen franchise, Doctor Manhattan is today a more widely known character than Captain Atom. The latter starred in the Justice League in the 80s, but has always been a member of DC’s second or even third tier. I’ve read a lot of his appearances in big crossovers and stuff, but I can’t say I’ve ever read a story that featured Captain Atom as the main character.

J.T. Krul’s take on Captain Atom is to basically make him Doctor Manhattan completely. Doctor Manhattan in the Watchmen is at the pinnacle of power. He can create duplicates of himself, rearrange matter, basically anything. Captian Atom himself has never really been portrayed as that powerful, but from the first pages of the story right on through, we see Captain Atom experience a significant fluctuation in his power level. When coupled with the fact that Jose Villarrubia’s colors depict the Captain as completely blue and that the formerly hirsute character is now almost completely bald, and the Manhattanization of Captain Atom is in full swing.

Unfortunately, J.T. Krul is about as far from Alan Moore as the New 52 has yet provided, and like his previous effort in Green Arrow #1, all we get is a bog-standard superhero comic that feels like it could have come out of the 80s or 90s, with very little fresh or new to hook new or returning comic readers.

We get a lot of Captain Atom worrying about his powers (unless he concentrates, his body itself starts to lack molecular cohesion and lose its form), some stilted dialogue between the Captain and his colleagues at a high-tech research facility called the Continuum, and a plot involving a volcano popping up in the middle of Manhattan for reasons that aren’t yet clear. What we don’t get is much of a sense of who Captain Atom is, what drives him, what he believes, or really anything other than the present situation about his powers growing dangerously.

There’s nothing here to surprise or delight. Just more of the same superhero stuff they’ve been shoveling out for decades. If you’re looking for a fresh new take on superheroes, or even just a comic that takes more than six minutes to read, you’re going to have to look elsewhere.

Status: On the Bubble.

Posted by: erikmona | October 2, 2011

NEW 52 REVIEW 30: Blue Beetle #1

Blue Beetle #1
Writer: Tony Bedard
Artist: Ig Guara

With all the angst and the David Fincher crimescenes and the reshuffled storylines of the New 52, it’s sometimes difficult to remember that comics are supposed to be fun. I have no background whatsoever with this new version of Blue Beetle, but Bedard and Guara use the debut issue of this series as an effective introduction to the Blue Beetle mythos and the latest incarnation of this classic comic book character.

The Blue Beetle is kind of poster child for the sort of cathartic hiccups DC goes through every few years. Often these reboots clean out unnecessary baggage accumulated by bad story ideas or “clever new takes” that don’t pan out with readers. But the company also occasionally uses them to incorporate characters from other companies it has accumulated. The company used 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, the blueprint for DC reboots, to incorporate characters previously published by Charlston Comics, and the Blue Beetle played a significant role in the 12-issue maxi-series.

Incidentally, that version of the Blue Beetle, Ted Kord, got shot in the face during another world-shaking maxi-series “event.”

This new Blue Beetle is Jaimie Reyes, a high school kid in El Paso, Texas. After a brief intergalactic prelude showing an alien wearing Blue Beetle armor trashing his home planet, the rest of the issue focuses on Jaimie as he struggles through his school life. There’s his gangsta pal Paco, their lovely young friend Brenda, and a bully named Joey Gonzalez. Brenda is throwing a big party at her rich aunt’s house, and everyone wants to go.

Brenda’s aunt, it turns out, is a well connected criminal. She has employed a trio of local supervillains (a werewolf, a flying scarecrow, and a Day of the Dead-themed gymnast ninja-guy) to steal a Blue Beetle space probe that has been passed around since it fell to earth in Mayan times (in the prologue). But the aunt’s goons find that another group has beat them to the site. Brotherhood of Evil members Phobia, Plasmus, and Warp already have the Beetle in hand, and are about to teleport back to Paris.

As the two groups of villains battle out in the street, Jaimie and Paco drive by, slamming into the combatants. Somehow the Beetle shakes loose of its bag, and attaches itself to Jamie’s spine. In a beautifully drawn final spash page, we see Jamie in full-on Blue Beetle power armor, looking very much like the homeworld-destroying alien menace in the opening scene.

Boy, that Blue Beelte armor looks cool. The previous guy’s costume was neat and all, but he was really just a guy in a spandex suit with some goggles. This version (which predates the reboot, but which I haven’t really looked at before) manages to look fresh and modern while at the same time classic. The mask’s design and the juxtaposition of contrasting colors takes a cue from Mister Miracle, giving the look a Jack Kirby appeal. From the exciting cover it looks like this Blue Beetle can turn his hands into guns and stuff, which ought to be fun.

While we haven’t seen much of what the Blue Beetle can do, the focus on Jaimie helps to establish an empathic link with the character. I think I get a sense of how this guy navigates his school and family life, but how he handles his life as a superhero is what will make or break this comic, and we haven’t seen enough of that yet to know whether or not this will work out in the long run.

For now, Bedard and Guara provide a good hook into their character, a good jumping on point, and an authentically diverse voice fitting Jaimie Reyes’s Latino origins. I don’t know yet if this comic is for me, but I’m pretty sure it will find its audience easily enough.

Status: We’ll See.

Posted by: erikmona | October 1, 2011

NEW 52 REVIEW 29: Birds of Prey #1

Birds of Prey #1
Writer: Duane Swierczynski
Artist: Jesus Saiz

The original Birds of Prey comic, pre-reboot, featured a core team of the Black Canary and Oracle. Black Canary, one of DC’s original female heroes from the 40s, was the field agent, and Oracle provided computer and technical support from the home base. Oracle was the latest identity of Barbara Gordon, who had to give up the mantle of Batgirl after the Joker shot her in the spine. Over the years, the Oracle version of Barbara Gordon became arguably more popular than the Batgirl version, and especially at the hands of writer Gail Simone, Birds of Prey became a popular midlist title for DC.

It’s also a very important title for DC in the light of this new relaunch because Birds of Prey was always a fairly popular comic with women readers. Among the women I know who regularly read comics, almost all of them read Birds of Prey, and almost all of them have a lot of affinity for these characters. And let’s face it, so far (and especially in several of the comics I haven’t reviewed yet), DC’s reboot is not exactly kicking ass in female department. While the company has shown remarkable dedication to increasing the ethnic diversity of its hero lineup with the reboot, in some ways it seems to me that the treatment and depiction of female characters has taken a step backward.

Add in the complication that the reboot fixed Barbara Gordon’s spine and returned her to her place as Batgirl (and removed her completely from Birds of Prey), and you have a book with an awkward relationship to its past incarnation, and a responsibility to keep female readers interested by presenting its all-female case as something other than a bunch of objectified sluts.

For the most part, Birds of Prey #1 is up to the challenge of its mission. While the two primary team members featured in the issue (Black Canary and a new gun-toting woman named Starling) are both good-looking women, Jesus Saiz’s art does not linger overlong on shots of their cleavage, little bits of their lingerie poking through their costumes, or close-ups of their asses. Given the all-heroine cast it would have been really easy to turn this into a T&A book, and Saiz mercifully resists that temptation. Beyond that, the art isn’t really anything special. Most of the panels have no background details to speak of. The figure work is all very clean and well done, but his style is not particularly interesting. It’s good enough to not distract from the narrative, but it doesn’t add much to the story, either. It just gets the job done.

Swierczynski’s script is a little more ambitious, cutting scenes out of chronological order to add interest to what is otherwise a straightforward story about a Gotham Gazette reporter who has been following the team at the behest of a mysterious tipster who, it appears, is trying to use him to flush them out so they can be killed. This leads to a couple of fights with invisible ninja assassin dudes, one of whom kisses Black Canary with what I assume is poison lipstick, a trick that would have seemed impressive if I hadn’t seen it four times already on Doctor Who.

The cover shows new team members Katana (who has a pretty cool costume redesign) and Batman villain Poison Ivy (can’t wait to see how they fit her in), but neither of these characters actually appear in the issue. We do get an awkwardly staged reunion between Barbara Gordon and Black Canary that leads to more questions than answers. I’m sure the powers that be felt this scene was necessary for all of the existing Birds of Prey fans, but I think it was more trouble than it’s worth.

For starters, it’s unclear that the old version of Birds of Prey ever existed in the new continuity. We still don’t know of Barbara was ever Oracle, for example. The dialogue dances around this topic. Black Canary says “You know I’m still putting together that team. I wish you’d reconsider,” and Gordon declines. The script seems to suggest that Gordon won’t join at least in part because Black Canary is wanted for murder (I presume this is a plot point carried over from the pre-relaunch), but since the last panel of this month’s Batgirl comic has a cop screaming that Batgirl just acted as an accessory to murder, at first I couldn’t tell which character was the alleged murderess. It’s confusing. This scene probably should have just been cut from the issue entirely.

Beyond that, we’ve got a competently told story about a team that could turn out to be quite interesting. I’m not sure this is fully up my alley, but I’m willing to hang out for a few more issues and see what happens.

Status: We’ll See.

Posted by: erikmona | September 30, 2011

NEW 52 REVIEW 28: Batman #1

Batman #1
Writer: Scott Snyder
Artist: Greg Capullo

Two weeks into DC’s New 52 relaunch, and I’m already getting sick of Batman. Not only is he in every third comic as a cameo, but his name is in at least one title every week of the relaunch. His former Robins are also all over the place, popping up in books like Nightwing, Red Hood and the Outlaws, and Teen Titans. So far, in Detective Comics #1 and Batman & Robin #1 we’ve seen pretty routine Batman stories. All of the Batman story points are presented, the Batmobile, Alfred, the Bat Cave, etc., you check off the “classic villain” box (it’s good if the answer is the Joker, Two Face, the Riddler, or Killer Croc, but others are acceptable), and maybe throw in a scene set in Arkham Asylum. For bonus points, include a conversation between Batman and someone else and have Batman vanish silently while the other character is talking.

It’s all so routine that I think the pattern has become comforting for a lot of readers. I sometimes wonder if Batman fans are really fans of the character himself, or simply the comfortable repetition of Batman tropes that get trotted out in almost every Batman story. Sure, sometimes a writer manages to arrange all of these tropes in a slightly novel way to create a Batman story that stands out from the pack, but mostly they are run of the mill.

Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman #1 is one of the times the writer got it absolutely right, and despite a pretty firm adherence to the Bat-Formula I criticize above, this is an excellent introduction to the Dark Knight, an excellent expression of the Batman mythos, and an excellent comic book.

Detective Comics #1 in Week 1 had a cool look to it and an exciting final panel cliffhanger, but featured muddled storytelling. Week 2’s Batman & Robin was pretty fun, but ultimately pretty shallow. Batman #1 features a great, tightly plotted narrative and fun art that puts character over realism in a combination that makes it the best straight-up Batman comic in the entire New 52 relaunch.

Of course, in Batman’s case the relaunch isn’t a relaunch at all, as most if not all of the preexisting continuity is intact. Snyder still gets into the spirit of things by providing a “ground zero” issue for the character. It helps to know a little bit about the three Robins that feature in the comic (Dick Grayson, Tim Drake, and Damien Wayne), but you don’t really need to in order to follow the story.

With captions from a Bruce Wayne speech about the urban redevelopment project hinted at in Detective #1 (they seem to really be going through with it, despite my earlier suspicions) that narrate the entire issue, Snyder also gets the award for best framing device of the relaunch. After reading a lot of frankly pretty sloppy comics over the last few weeks, it’s clear that Snyder put a lot of thought into how the words of Wayne’s speech and the visuals of the story work together.

The comic is also a great example of a trend that seems to be present in a lot of the relaunched DC titles: extreme, graphic violence. In particular, this issue features a crime scene with a full-on image of a man in his underwear crucified to an apartment wall by at least 23 throwing knives. His blood-soaked corpse is reminiscent of a scene from the movie Seven, which would have been scandalous 10 years ago, but which is just more or less ho-hum in the brave new DCU. This type of thing isn’t really out of place in a Batman comic, but it is present in way more than half of the books in the DC relaunch, and this is yet another bit of gross, graphic violence on an already teetering pile. Hey, kids! Comics!

Anyway, the issue ends with a cool sequence implicating one of Batman’s greatest allies in a scene that turns Bruce Wayne’s whole narrative from the speech on end, and the last page gets the series rolling with one of the great requirements of an excellent Batman story: a mystery.

Status: Safe.

Posted by: erikmona | September 29, 2011

NEW 52 WEEK 2 SUMMARY

We’re just more than halfway through all 52 of DC’s relaunched titles, and with only two true stinkers this week, my “safe” pull list is now in the double digits. I’m enjoying a large number of these comics, and while I look forward to the point where my list becomes a little more manageable and I don’t have to kill myself to review issues in a semi-timely manner, I think it’s going to take a lot longer than I might have hoped for the plan to play out.

I’m keeping a lot of books.

Early reports from retailers are that DC’s New 52 reboot has been a phenomenal success. It brought me back to comics after 7 years of not paying attention to them, and now I’m headed to the shop every Wednesday and I’m going to end up keeping at least half of the books on my pull list several months from now. Speaking from the perspective of a lapsed reader returning to the fold, I’d say this relaunch was a smashing success. They are certainly making a lot of money off me!

With stunning, gorgeous art, a cool villain, and a touch of genuine diversity, Batwoman #1 is my Book of the Week. Even the lettering in this comic works to add fluidity and rhythm to the dialogue, and I’m interested in nearly every aspect of the story. If you get only one Week 2 book, this is the one to grab. If Williams can keep his production up, I think this has the makings of a fabled run that will be remembered for a long time to come.

Although my mind reels at the historical stories opened up by the Dark Ages framework of Demon Knights #1, my award for Most Interesting book this week goes to Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E. #1. From a headquarters stuffed into a three-inch-diameter flying sphere populated by microscopic super-scientists to a cast of characters that riffs on every type of classic monster movie, this book shoots out “big ideas” in rapid succession. It’s drawn in a distinctive style that fits the subject matter perfectly. Part of the goal of the reboot was to do something thematically new and different, and in this respect Franknstein really delivers.

Most Disappointing this week goes to Mister Terrific #1. Long a mainstay of the Justice Society of America, this was Mister Terrific’s first chance to step out from the shadow of his legendary team and anchor a solo book. It was also a chance for DC to establish a strong black leading man for their diverse new era. Instead it was a pedestrian superhero comic with muddled storytelling, bad plotting, ugly art, and a ham-handed treatment of race and gender issues.

With absolutely zero callbacks to past continuity and a succinct summary of the main character’s powers and personality, I’m giving Ressurection Man #1 the award for Best Reboot this week. I knew nothing about the character’s previous adventures, and left a single issue feeling like I understood him. Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning establish a long-running conflict in the battle between Heaven and Hell for the soul of the Resurrection Man that could fuel the entire series, and in doing so produce the best entry point of the entire week. I’m calling it right here. Resurrection Man is going to be a sleeper hit of the relaunch, and this issue alone will generate enormous interest in the character’s series from the 1990s. Getting the character’s original writers back for the relaunch was a stroke of genius.

STATUS SUMMARY
Here’s how the Week 2 books stack up relative to their safety level on my comics pull list.

SAFE
Batwoman
Demon Knights
Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E.
Green Lantern
Ressurection Man
Suicide Squad

WE’LL SEE
Batman & Robin
Grifter
Legion Lost
Red Lanterns
Superboy

ON THE BUBBLE
Deathstroke
Mister Terrific

DROPPED
I’m going to give all 52 titles at least two issues to grab me, so I won’t be dropping titles for another three weeks.

That’s it for Week 2! Week 3 features some of the most controversial comics of the relaunch so far, so things are bound to get interesting from here…

Posted by: erikmona | September 28, 2011

NEW 52 REVIEW 27: Superboy #1

Superboy #1
Writer: Scott Lobdell
Artist: R.B. Silva

Last time I paid attention to Superboy he was simply a younger version of Superman living in Smallville with Ma and Pa Kent. That version of the character, which formed the basis of the recent Smallville television program (that I didn’t watch), was pretty much wiped out of DC continuity following John Byrne’s 1986 “Post-Crisis” reboot of Superman’s history in the famous “Man of Steel” limited series.

Since then there have been a handful of characters named Superboy, none of whom have really been all that popular (and one of whom was a major villain). This new take on the character seems to be a clean reboot of the last version of the character, a clone created from the DNA of Superman and Lex Luthor. He has telekinetic powers that not only grant him the illusion of Superman’s strength and ability to fly, but also allow him to move objects and give him increased awareness of his surroundings, like what’s going on behind shaded glass in the next room.

The action begins in a secret laboratory of an organization called N.O.W.H.E.R.E., which seems to have created the clone as a sort of living weapon of mass destruction. As the story opens, Superboy is floating in a tank of nutrient fluid while technicians monitor equipment that tracks his various life signs. Captions narrate the scene from within Superboy’s mind. He’s been alive only about three months, near as he can tell, and in that time he’s intuited an enormous amount about his creators (or are they his jailers?).

For starters, he seems to share some sort of empathic bond with an orange-haired technician he calls Red. This bespectacled young woman appears to be a psychologist, and while a computer screen suggests that her first name may be Caitlin, I strongly suspect she will turn out to be long-time Superboy love interest Lana Lang, who has featured in most of the various Superboy incarnations. N.O.W.H.E.R.E.’s instruments don’t register Superboy’s brainwaves because his alien DNA distributes his mind evenly across every cell in his body, and since the clone has not really moved since its birth, Red’s senior officer decides to terminate it. As cyanide flows into his tank, Superboy snaps into action and flies out of the tank and across the room like an out of control pinball, blowing up machines as he crashes into them. This kills a whole lot of people, including the superior officer, who is engulfed in flame just as he is about to tell Red the identity of the human DNA donor.

They’re playing it up like a mystery, but it’s obviously Lex Luthor. For starters, that’s what it was last time. But even with no knowledge of that, the book clues us in by depicting Superboy in this opening scene as totally bald. Later in the comic, when trying to explain Superboy’s apparent lack of empathy, Red says “So unless Superboy’s human cells originated in a deeply pathological, megalomaniacal narcissist the likes of which the world has never known… it means we did something wrong.”

Or it means that one of Superboy’s two daddies is Lex Luthor. Which is a great premise for a comic about a clone of Superman, so I’m glad they decided to stick with this idea, even if I never bothered to read much of the previous version. I mean, that character originated in the early 1990s, and for a while there he wore a totally radical leather jacket and sunglasses. I wasn’t going to be caught dead reading about such a dumb-looking character, but at least here it looks like the Superclone is at least going to be pretty cool-looking.

Anyway, after trashing the labs and killing lots of scientists (pretty much accidentally, but still…), Superboy drops into Red’s arms, unconscious. Cut to a month later, and now Superboy is enrolled in school in a Kansas town that looks just like—but isn’t—Smallville. One of his classmates is a somewhat nihilistic white-haired girl named Rose Wilson, whom longtime readers know is the daughter of Deathstroke, the Terminator (who also had a new comic this week).

This version of Rose turns out to be a “Mary Sue” avatar of Red, who has been monitoring the whole situation from a laboratory. Not-Smallville, it appears, is simply a holographic program meant to dredge Superboy’s “cellular subconscious” for memories of his parent donors. The real Rose Wilson shortly arrives in the real world, and makes it clear that she has been hired to kill Superboy should the clone go out of control again.

Superboy himself is not fooled by the VR ruse, but goes along with it. He seems to lack empathy, as he doesn’t notice or refuses to help a woman screaming from a burning building. There’s something wrong with him, presumably because of Lex Luthor DNA (but the comic hasn’t made this explicit, and plays it as something of a mystery). Or is it simply that Superboy’s powers allow him to sense that the fire and the danger is not real, so he simply ignores it?

What exactly Lobdell is going for here remains opaque to the reader, but I’m not sure if that’s intentional to build up mystery, or simply a bit of sloppy storytelling. Lobdell has been at the comics game for a long time, so I’m going to give him credit and assume that Superboy is aware of the fire and doesn’t bother to help because he knows it’s fake, but I do wish the story provided at least one piece of evidence one way or the other.

One of Red’s fellow doctors, Umber (they all have color code names, you see?) fears the multi-national, possibly nefarious nature of N.O.W.H.E.R.E., and contacts the only uncontrolled journalist he knows: Lois Lane.

Then, some high-up named Templar arrives, and decides to release Superboy into the world ahead of schedule. He has several unusual problems he needs solved, and he thinks Superboy is the solution. A final splash panel showing Superboy in costume posed with other members of the new version of the Teen Titans suggests that Templar wants to use Superboy as a sleeper agent within the Titans organization.

Lobdell does a nice job establishing the basics of the character. All of my questions have to do with how longtime DCU elements like Lana Lang, Rose Wilson, and to some extent even the previous Superboy fit into this story. A brand new reader wouldn’t know about any of that stuff, and wouldn’t care. I suspect that reader would have no problem identifying with Superboy (the captions help get a sense of his character and personality).

R.B. Silva’s art works perfectly about 80% of the time. His fine lineweights grant a certain elegance to his illustrations helped with excellent colors by “The Hories” (whatever that is). At times, though, especially when Red is talking with her boss on page 4, they almost feel too light, more akin to the kind of speed drawing you see in a lot of manga than you’d expect in traditional western comics. Incidentally, inker Rob Lean probably felt guilty cashing his check for this issue, as Silva’s style is all about thin lines with very little shadow. Lucky break for that guy.

All in all, Superboy accomplishes everything a new #1 needs to accomplish. I’m not sure I’m all that interested in where the story is going in the long term, but it stands a good chance of looking pretty cool along the way, and I’ll keep buying it until it gives me a reason not to.

Status: We’ll See.

Posted by: erikmona | September 28, 2011

NEW 52 REVIEW 26: Suicide Squad #1

Suicide Squad #1
Writer: Adam Glass
Artist: Federico Dallocchio & Ransom Getty & Scott Hanna

Unlike its members, the Suicide Squad is a title that never seems to die. The premise is brilliant. In exchange for their release from prison, the supervillains who make up the Suicide Squad conduct missions for a secret branch of the United States government. If they fail, the government denies involvement. If they succeed, everyone wins and the villains can eventually earn their release.

Before I get into the meat of my review, I should point out up front that DC made a major editorial mistake with a scene at the end of this issue featuring the long-time government leader of the team, a brassy no-bullshit bureaucrat named Amanda Waller. Waller is that rarest of comic book characters in that she is African American. Even more rare, she is fat. Yes, Amanda Waller is a big woman, and her stature helps to back up her stand-offs against some of the toughest customers in the DC Universe. Waller has been one of the few constants throughout the various incarnations of the team, so you’d think fans would have been thrilled to see her again.

Except in the new DC Universe, Amanda Waller is a huge-boobed rail-thin bombshell that bears no physical resemblance (save that she is still black) to the original character. This was done, apparently, to have the character’s official incarnation look more like Angela Bassett, who apparently played Waller in that Green Lantern box office turkey no one saw, so as not to confuse new readers. But this Waller doesn’t even look like Angela Bassett. She looks younger, and hotter. The one panel we see her, she’s even got her blouse open enough to see just a hint of her bra. She is, like every single other woman in the entire DC Universe, sex-ay.

This change infuriated a lot of people when the book came out two weeks ago, and the controversy was drowned out only when two even more grossly offensive books came out last week. I’ll get to those in due time, but let’s just say that while DC deserves a lot of high marks for improving the racial diversity of their universe, they seem to be making a lot of casual blunders on the issue of gender and making their comics more accessible to women.

In the case of Suicide Squad, the editorial decision to change Amanda Waller puts a “NO FATTIES” sign above New 52 Party Central, and a lot of people are pissed off about it. Fair enough, says I, and I agree that it was a dumb, unnecessary, un-diversifying decision.

But from the point of view of a new reader, I’m frankly not sure this Amanda Waller business really matters, and I’m trying to come at these reviews with as little baggage from the “old” DCU as possible. And putting the Amanda Waller kerfuffle aside, Suicide Squad #1 is actually a pretty good comic.

The action begins with the team tied up in a dank basement. They’re being tortured by a bunch of creepy Leatherface guys wearing leather aprons and burlap sacks over their heads. First we see Deadshot, a master sniper and classic Batman villain, as his flesh is exposed to ravenous rats. His torturer wants to know who sent the villains, but Deadshot isn’t talking. Instead we get a nice retelling of the encounter with Batman that sent him to prison.

Next up is a fire manipulator with demonic-looking black tattoos all over his mustard-colored flesh. I think this guy is named El Diablo, and he’s a sort of hispanic gangster type of bad guy with fire manipulation abilities. We learn this via a flashback while he, too, is being tortured. But he won’t tell his tormentors who sent the team there, either.

Neither will Harley Quinn, the Joker’s girlfriend from the Batman comics. Here we have Harley dressed in a more realistic, sluttier version of her comic costume, very similar to her look in the Arkham Asylum video game. In one of the more graphic scenes in the comic, the torturers attach the clamped leads of jumper cables to Harley’s cheeks, and shock her. This leads to a gross flashback that shows Harley slow dancing with a man you at first think is the Joker, but who turns out to be one of the lawyers who put him away. Harley has carved a wide grin into the dead man’s face, and she promises the Joker that she won’t stop until she has danced with all the men responsible for his recent capture. Black Canary crashes into the scene to arrest Harley, and is more sad than angry at the pathetic villain.

The bad guys have another villain, King Shark (a guy with the head of a hammer-head shark), tied up under harsh ultraviolet lights, presumably drying him out. He hasn’t moved for a long time, and the torturers think he’s dead. When one checks on him, King Shark bites his arm, shredding it into a bloody mess. “HA HA!” King Shark declares, pumping his fist. “MEAT, MEAT, MEAT!” It’s pretty awesome.

Other victims include an electricity villain called Voltaic, some kind of masked dude called Savant, and an armored guy called Black Spider. Savant buckles, and reveals that they are called “Task Force X” on paper. He recounts how they all came together for a mission to extract a rogue agent, dead or alive, from a rural safehouse. The group breaks into the house, and Deadshot immediately shoots their target through the head, which doesn’t impress El Diablo. “What part of dead or alive don’t you understand, Jalapeno?” asks Deadshot. There’s a reason this character has been in almost every incarnation of the Suicide Squad.

But the murdered target is a dummy filled with dynamite. The place explodes, and the villains wake up here, in torture town. And instead of freeing Savant, as promised, one of the butcher torturers pulls him into darkness, and presumably murders him as the traitorous villain cries out “I’m sorry! Help! I’m sorry! Help me! Please! Help meeee-!” This is the best sequence in the comic, as we see a six-panel montage of the team’s reactions to what is going on. Deadshot says “Savant, you idiot. They were going to kill us no matter what.” El Diablo says something in Spanish. Black Spider says “Good riddance.” Voltaic, face down in a puddle, says “Cowards.” King shark screams “MEAT! MEAT! MEAT!” and Harley Quinn just grins evilly, clearly enjoying the sounds of Savant’s painful death.

“We’re done here,” says one of the torturers, and the bad guys knock out the villains with cattle prods. When the villains come to, they’re in full costume on a plane flying through the sky. Armed men give the team one more chance to sell out the leader of the squad, but none of them take up the offer.

Then, via radio, Amanda Waller herself congratulates the team on passing their tests, and tells them they are ready for their first mission. Waller tells them their first mission is at the Megadome, in Mississippi. “Which lucky fan gets the bullet?” Deadshot asks.

“Negative,” says Waller (looking rather hot). “Your mission is to wipe out the entire stadium. Sixty thousand people. You have six hours.”

And with that, the cabin doors open, and the Suicide Squad tumbles into the sky above the dome, plummeting to earth while still locked into their restraining chairs.

This comic featured supervillains being tortured like a scene in a graphic horror movie, which will be more than a lot of readers will want to handle. It’s also a clear set-up, and doesn’t feature much action from the main cast (unless you count bleeding). It does provide a lot of “character moments” that establish insight into who these guys are, even if we don’t yet know their full stories.

The flashbacks were a nice element to the story, but the fact that Black Spider, Voltaic, King Shark, and Savant didn’t get them kind of set the team into two tiers of importance, at least in this first issue.

Body count has traditionally been quite high in previous Suicide Squad books, and the teaser at the bottom of the last caption suggests that the first casualty will be coming next issue (I guess Savant, who didn’t make the team, doesn’t count. Is he really dead?)

Glass’s script shows a deft touch, and the book’s pencils match the mood nicely. While I would have preferred DC not lose its most interesting fat character this side of Bouncing Boy, I’m willing to forgive that sin in the spirit of the clean slate provided by the relaunch.

Consequently, I thought this was a fine start for what I hope and expect will be a fun incarnation of one of DC’s most interesting comic concepts.

Status: Safe.

Posted by: erikmona | September 26, 2011

NEW 52 REVIEW 25: Resurrection Man #1

Resurrection Man #1
Writer: Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning
Artist: Fernando Dagnino

I know nothing about Resurrection Man beyond the fact that he used to have a comic I didn’t read. Still, some of my favorite New 52 comics so far have had a horror slant, so I came to the title with an open mind, eager to be entertained. What I got was a concise summary of Mitch Shelley’s powers, a better internal monologue than any in the New 52 so far, and a fun story with a clear beginning, middle, and end.

While I didn’t love the story told here as much as Grant Morrison’s Superman romp in Action Comics #1, I think this issue might have the most proficient storytelling of all the titles I’ve read so far. There are absolutely zero callbacks to previous continuity, enough of the character’s personality to sympathize with him, an interesting mystery, a bit of violence, and the promise of interesting stories to come.

Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning do an excellent job with captions and dialogue, and while the story told can’t be considered an origin in that it doesn’t explain why Mitch comes back to life with a different super power every time he dies, we see the cycle twice in this issue, and there’s enough that we understand how his powers work even if we don’t know the specifics, and that’s good enough.

The issue opens with Mitch coming back to life on a metal gurney in a coroner’s office. “Coming back this time tastes of metal,” he says. We later learn that Mitch has come back with power over magnetism, and we get a sense of him “feeling out” the room, describing each metal object within as Mitch becomes preternaturally aware of its taste.

In addition to a different power, Mitch also comes back with a compulsion to do something. In this case it’s to catch a plane to Portland. As he waits to board, he takes an inventory of the other passengers. Who is he here to help this time? The heavy metal kid? The young mother and child? The sky marshal?

A strange woman with a red teardrop face tattoo sits next to him on the plane. Some time into the flight, she transforms into a sort of monstrous angel of vengeance creature. “It’s time to go, Mitch,” she says in creepy red letters. “Your soul. It’s overdue.”

The angel’s razor-sharp wings shear a hole in the plane. When the sky marshal shoots her, she says “Seriously?” and slices a gash in his neck with her sharp claws. Mitch, apparently using his metal powers to manipulate the angel creature’s metal arms, manages to force the creature out of the plane.

Fernando Dagnino’s pencils don’t do much to help, but Mitch apparently also uses his metal powers to stay attached to the chassis of the plane while the angel harries him from the air as the plane keeps flying. Looking at this sequence for too long makes me think about how fast planes fly in the sky, and how high, but whatever. The guy is hanging on to the plane and the angel keeps up. Just go with it.

While we’re on the subject, Dagnino’s pencils are the issue’s weak point. They have a darkness and moodiness appropriate to the tone of the material, but on a competence level they would best be described as “serviceable” if they indeed did service to the story. Unfortunately, unless the captions explain what exactly is happening (and they usually don’t), it’s difficult to tell when Mitch is using his magnetism powers, and how. He just sort of stands on top of a speeing plane. You just have to assume he tosses the angel aside because she has metal arms. (And why does an angel have metal arms? If you guessed “so the plot works better,” you’re probably right. But it looks kind of cool, so no harm, no foul.) So if “serviceable” isn’t the right word to describe the book’s art, I guess I’m going to go with “competent.” The script is of significantly higher caliber, so it would be nice to get an artist fully up to the challenge of the material.

So anyway, Mitch is attached to the top of the plane (I guess), and the angel tells him “This flight was doomed before it even took off. Fate had decided that. These people were never going to reach Portland. Your soul’s overdue, Mitch. It’s become very precious. A prize!”

Mitch yells “No!” and creates a magnetic field around the angel, drawing a strike of lightning that seems to destroy the creature. The resuling “sskkzzakkttkk” throws Mitch from the plane and well, into one of its jet engines. “The screaming engine chews me up,” he narrates. “I die. The plane crashes. Everyone dies.”

Mitch awakens some time later at the crash site (his resurrection powers apparently also regenerate his clothes). He wonders if he caused the deaths of all of the people on the doomed flight, and freaks out about it. He knows he won’t be able to answer any questions when the authorities arrive, and to the approaching sound of sirens, he takes off through the forest.

This time, Mitch’s power allows him to turn into water. “I taste tears,” he narrates, “and I flow away.”

Cut to two hotties demanding information about the missing John Doe from the staff at the coroner’s office from page 1. Incidentally, a sign on the fence outside the building says “CORONER’S OFFICE”. The same sign, shown from the same angle, is on page 1, but there is no writing on the sign. This doesn’t really take away from the issue, but it is an annoying little error that I’d expect the editor to have noticed.

Anyway, the two hotties are total bitches, and they start torturing and murdering the staff. Who are these nasty chicks, and why are they looking for Mitch? We aren’t told.

Then we cut back to the crash site, and one of the fire and rescue guys is on a cell phone. “I had him, but he slipped away,” the man says, and as he approaches we see a red teardrop tattoo on his face. OMG! It’s the angel from the plane! “I know how much you guys upstairs want him… And, man! That soul of his. So bright. Like it’s polished from coming back so often… Plus I think the basement office is interested in him too. I can smell them coming.”

In fact, I suspect the agents of “the basement office” are the two hottie BTK fiends from the corner’s office. So what we have here is a war between Heaven and Hell for the polished soul of Mitch Shelley. That’s a fun premise for a book about a guy who keeps coming back from the dead, and I think it’s good for a really entertaining arc, if not as a hook for the entire series.

There’s a last-page scene with a tarot card reader laying out her cards. “No matter how many times I shuffle,” she says, “the Resurrection Man always comes back.” I think this is supposed to be a DC character called Madame Xanadu that’s all over this relaunch, but I have no way of telling for sure. It’s clearly set up for the next issue, and it does seem a little tacked on. But despite my bagging on Dagnino’s art earlier, the last page is beautifully drawn.

This is one of the better ones. I’m intrigued, I’m entertained, and I’m eager to see what happens next month.

Status: Safe.

Posted by: erikmona | September 26, 2011

NEW 52 REVIEW 24: Red Lanterns #1

Red Lanterns #1
Writer: Peter Milligan
Artist: Ed Benes

From afar, the DC “summer event” crossovers Brightest Day and Blackest Night looked like just about the stupidest things imaginable. Now, instead of just Green Lanterns, we got a Lantern Corps for every color in the “emotional spectrum.” Judging from comic covers and action figures, at some point just about every character in the DCU joined one of these space patrol parties, so everyone got to be some kind of lantern for a day.

Whatever.

I’m sure the whole thing was better than I make it out to be, but I’m glad I didn’t read it, and it’s exactly the sort of thing that caused me to stay away from comics for a while. The prospect that the New 52 reboot would erase that dumb stuff was a major part of what got me interested in the first place.

Imagine my surprise, then, that it appears the Green Lantern continuity is not getting much of a reboot, and a lot (if not all) of those events are still considered to have happened in the new DC Universe.

Foremost among these developments is the retention of the various different colors of lanterns. We’ve already seen Yellow Lanterns in this week’s Green Lantern, and Red Lanters focuses on, well, a bunch of Red Lanterns.

So if Green is associated with willpower, Red is associated with rage. All of the members of the Red Lanterns are, essentially, evil, and most of them look like monsters.

The comic opens with a bunch of lizardman space pirates torturing some poor sap on their ship. The captain has grown jaded, and ordinary torture just isn’t doing it for him anymore. But never fear, for sensors have detected a creature flying in space nearby. Perhaps they could torture it!

It turns out to be Dex-Starr, a kitty cat with sharp claws and a Red Lantern uniform. Dex flies around and scratches the hell out of the space pirates, who want to skin him for fun. The cat does pretty well against them, but the tide turns with the arrival of the cat’s owner, a hulking, skull-faced Red Lantern named Atrocitus. This heavyweight brawler, with sharp claws of his own, kills the rest of the pirates and rescues his kitty-cat.

It’s a fun action scene with a bit of humor thanks to the space cat, but one thing bugged me. Both Dex-Starr and Atrocitus are constantly barfing up bubbly red fluid that seems to float around their heads. As the scene shifts to Space Sector 666, home of the Red Lanterns, we see that all of them do the same thing.

What the heck is up with that red spittle? For such an in-your-face effect, repeated as often as it is, not to have an explanation in the debut issue was a mistake. It’s not central to the plot, or anything, but it is weird enough to want to know what’s going on with it. It’s not fair to expect a new reader to understand this element of the story, and I’m still not sure myself.

The other Red Lanterns don’t have much character, but they look like an impressively evil bunch. There’s a guy with a skeletal goat head, and a guy who’s a big round head with tiny arms and legs. There’s also a sexy succubus type creature named Bleez who seems to be shaping up as a rival to Atrocitus’s power.

Atrocitus, you see, just doesn’t have the heart for unmitigated rage anymore. He’s got good reason to be bitter—the Guardians who control the Green Lanterns were responsible, via their rogue agent Krona, for the death of his family and the destruction of his home planet.

He makes a blood sacrifice in an attempt to see the future. The universe reveals to him a new role: to punish those who deserve retribution as an instrument of vengeance.

That sounds ok, but honestly Milligan’s script did such a good job of portraying Atrocitus’s inner struggle that I am more interested in a super-evil guy running a team of super-evil minions while at the same time falling out of love with his super-evil self and wishing for a less destructive existence. You don’t expect that kind of heavy story from characters that look as metal as this, but it sure would be interesting to read.

Bleez seems to think that Atrocitus has lost his touch, and begins to foment rebellion among the other Red Lanters (who mostly just fight mindlessly in the background). With his new “spirit of vengeance-style” life goal in heart, he turns to his fellows for help just as Bleez’s insurrection comes to fruition.

There’s also a 3-page sub-plot involving the violent death of an old man on Earth, and his fighting grandsons. This sequence, I think, is meant to root the book to the real world a little, as it otherwise would be totally about weird evil creatures on an alien planet. Unfortunately, the alien stuff is pretty interesting, and the grandsons sub-plot isn’t. It’s also unclear how it ties into the Red Lantern story beyond a broad stroke similarity on the basis of rage and vengeance. But why this example, from this one family? We’re not sure, yet.

Ed Benes’s art is definitely on the “Jim Lee clone/Early Image” spectrum, but I really liked it. He did a great job with the background characters, whom I’d like to learn more about. He also does well with Atrocitus himself, managing to make him sympathetic despite his horrific appearance. I wasn’t as pleased with his take on Bleez, who is almost uniformly depicted showing off a bit of ass. I get that she’s supposed to be a sort of over-sexualized demon creature, but it was a bit gratiutous.

From the feral space cat to the team leader losing his lust for rage to his untrusting (and untrustworthy) allies among the Red Lanterns, I found this to be surprisingly enjoyable and a good introduction to the main character of the series.

I expected this to be an awful comic, but I actually enjoyed it. I’m not ready to commit to keeping it safe yet, but I am cautiously optimistic about #2.

Status: We’ll See.

Posted by: erikmona | September 25, 2011

NEW 52 REVIEW 23: Mister Terrific #1

Mister Terrific #1
Writer: Eric Wallace
Artist: Gianluca Gugliotta

Mister Terrific is a character DC’s been trying to get right for a long time. The original Mister Terrific appeared in the 1940s. He was essentially a “man of 1000 talents,” a self-made millionaire who found renewed interest in life after fighting crime in a goofy costume with the phrase “Fair Play” written on it. He was eventually killed off in one of the old classic Justice Society/Justice League crossovers. This modern version, Michael Holt, appeared in a 1997 issue of The Spectre. DC’s resident superghost came to Holt as he contemplated suicide, and inspired him with a vision of the Golden Age Mister Terrific. Holt took up the mantle, and then disappeared until James Robinson created a new incarnation of the Justice Society of America a few years later and recruited him (along with just about every modern incarnation of a Golden Age character) into the new team.

Back in that Spectre comic, Michael Holt was basically just a dude with no costume beyond a leather jacket. In JSA, he had a black T-shape on his face, and the arms of his jacket said “Fair” on one sleeve and “Play” on the other. It also had “Terrific” written in cursive on the back, which was naturally drawn differently by every artist who drew him. The version presented here, in his own ongoing title, ditches the jacket, updates the T on his face, and adds “Fair” and “Play” on each arm as tattoos. I think this is the best Michael Holt has looked since his introduction, and hope that he can settle on it for a while.

I’m not so enthusiastic about the rest of the comic, unfortunately. Wallace’s script offers a serviceable introduction to the character as he chases a powersuit-wearing supervillain through the streets and skies of London. Holt narrates the sequence in captions, providing exposition alongside the action. These captions provide the first “huh?” moment for me, as Wallace lurches into hyperbole. “Need to use the landscape to my advantage,” he has Holt say. “Unfortunately, what I know about London could fit into a two-part episode of Doctor Who.”

I know Wallace is just going for a quick joke and a fun Doctor Who reference, but I call bullshit. I run a small roleplaying game publishing company, and my business has taken me to London twice. Holt is supposed to be in charge of Holt Industries, a rival of LexCorp, Waynetech, and Queen Industries in the high-tech realm of the DC Universe. With that resume, I suspect Holt would have at least working knowledge of one of the most important cities in the world.

But whatever. That’s more of a nitpick, but it does point to an overdone hyperbole that creeps into Wallace’s script several times. For starters, there’s the absurd notion that Holt is the “third smartest man in the world.” In a world that includes things like the Thinker, robotics geniuses like Hector Hammond, Lex Luthor, and the like, it’s a pretty dumb notion, especially for a guy who doesn’t know anything about London. You’d think the third-smartest man in the DCU would have the city’s maps and phone books memorized, no?

At one point Michael Holt talks shit about a math problem that would “give Stephen Hawking a headache” (I guess that maroon isn’t even in the top 10!). At another point, Holt claims to hold “more degrees than half the faculties of Harvard and Yale combined”. I mean think about that, for a second. Unless the janitorial staff counts as “faculty,” on the merits that would mean that Michael Holt has hundreds of degrees.

According to Wikipedia, the pre-reboot Holt had 14 degrees. I’d be willing to bet that 14 degrees is more degrees than any one member of the Harvard and Yale staffs, but that’s not what Holt claims. Either Holt has increased his college degrees by an order of magnitude in the reboot, which seems unlikely, or he’s simply wrong, which means he’s far stupider than the comic wants us to believe. In any event, is that sort of over-inflated claim really something that the third-smartest man in the world would make?

Of course, he could just be exaggerating, puffing himself up to make him seem better than he really is, but does that make him a more likable hero? Is that in the spirit of the “Fair Play” motto Holt believes in so strongly that he tattooed it to his body?

Or is Michael Holt just kind of a dick?

So Mister Terrific flies through London and defeats the bad guy by magnetizing his armor and attaching him to the London Eye. Then Holt’s narration says “Yes, that’s me. An honest-to-goodness superhero. But it didn’t used to be that way. Once upon a time, I was just a guy in love.”

This leads to a recap of Holt’s origin. One day, he’s driving to meet his pregnant wife for dinner, only to find her overturned car snarling up traffic. She’s been thrown from the car, and has seconds to live after his arrival. “Educate the world,” she tells Michael with her dying breath. “Like you did for me. Like you would have done for our son.”

This throws Holt into depression. He gives up on religion and throws himself fully into science. After an experiment to open a dimensional rift fails, he plans to commit suicide by pushing a big red button labeled “SELF DESTRUCT SYSTEM.”

There’s no Spectre to be seen in this version of his origin. Instead, he is visited by the ghost of his unborn son, who appears as a young man in a column of energy. “I have a message for you. Don’t give up… Educate the world. The future depends on it.” Then Michael passes out and the scene cuts to black.

The next page we find ourselves in Holt Mansion, high in a skyscraper in downtown Los Angeles. Holt has been narrating his origin to his fuck-buddy, Karen Starr (who we know will become Power Girl, but who seems like a normal human here). I say fuck-buddy because the scene is staged in such a way to suggest that they just had sex. Holt invites Karen to a dinner fundraiser for a science-supporting Republican senator at the Conscientia Institute.

A word here, on the transition from Holt’s caption narration of the first 9 pages of the comic to the “live” discussion between Michael and Karen. On pages 1 through 5, in London, Holt is clearly talking to himself. The captions are an inner monologue, complete with “note to self” type observations.

At the bottom of page 5, Holt gives the “yes, that’s me” origin segue I quoted above. Who is he talking to, there? The reader? Karen Starr? The narrative reads ok as you skim over the issue on a light read, but when you read it closely, it drives you absolutely nuts. Did the third-smartest man in the world just subject his readers to a jarring point-of-view switch?

You know who really hated this comic? The fourth-smartest man in the world. Right now, that guy must really think that life was rigged against him.

So elsewhere in town, a guy in “a cafe in downtown Los Angeles” (which I guess is better than “a place in a town”) starts going nuts while eating lunch, because he’s getting smarter and smarter every minute. Too smart for his own good, in fact, as he starts getting really nasty to the waitress and other cafe patrons. He berates a homeless guy in the street, and eventually snaps the poor fellow’s neck.

The authorities call in Mister Terrific, because the super-smart killer left a piece of paper with difficult math equations at the scene of the crime, and Terrific is their science crime expert. Holt takes the evidence to his hidden lair, the T-Sanctuary (I was hoping for T-Zone, but oh well), an extradimensional hideout/laboratory located at fixed coordinates within the ninth dimension. Having already mentioned Doctor Who, Mister Terrific now gets his own TARDIS.

Cut to the party at the Conscientia Institute, the main branch of Holt’s non-profit foundation for scientific research and development. Karen is there, in a dress with a round boob window that foreshadows her Power Girl costume. Also present is one of Holt’s coworkers, Aleeka, who gets into a very awkward discussion with Karen about Michael’s affections. The conversation shows remarkably little finesse from both a racial and gender perspective. Both characters come off as catty, and the “stay away from my man/I’m sorry, I’m just feeling really pathetic” theme of the conversation seems more fitting to something like Millie the Model or Lois Lane, Superman’s Girlfriend comics of another era than part of the new “diverse” relaunch of the DC universe.

Meanwhile, Holt gives the senator a tour of the facility, including a super-tech device that keeps the building stable in the case of an earthquake. During their chat, Michael hears a weird high-pitched sound, and he too begins to experience accelerated intelligence like the guy back at a cafe in Los Angeles, and in no time Michael goes nuts, flips the super-tech do-hickey into reverse, triggers and earthquake, and splits giant rifts in the structure of the building.

“Why in God’s name would you want to do that?” the Senator asks.

“To kill you, Senator,” says Holt, glaring down with fists clenched. The end.

So in this issue we get a bland opening scene against a no-namer villain, a recap of Terrific’s fairly boring origin story, a cameo from a minor character only established fans will fully appreciate, a neat scene in the hero’s lair, and a bit at the end where our hero goes nuts and attempts to kill a Senator.

Unless this is the first issue of a major turn in the character’s history, where he becomes a fugitive and gives up his giant corporation and all of his material assets, I think we’re looking at a fairly standard mind control “hero gone bad” scenario that will likely reset itself to the status quo by the end of the story arc.

When coupled with Holt’s propensity for hyperbole, this heel turn at the end is a poor way to connect the new reader to the character. I don’t feel like I know what Mister Terrific is all about, even with all the exposition. I get that he’s supposed to “educate the world,” but educate them about what? Would a basic cable TV show on the Science or Discovery Channel do the trick? Does he have to tutor junior high school kids in math on a one-to-one basis? I don’t get it.

I also don’t get the appeal of Gianlucas Gugliotta’s art. His characters either look overdramatically posed or contorted strangely. His faces tend toward the ugly and misshapen. It’s not for me.

Narrative misfires, ugly art, and bad story choices undermine this book’s ability to drum up any real enthusiasm in me. I’ll give it another week only because I’m giving every comic a second chance.

I don’t expect it will redeem itself.

Status: On the Bubble.

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