Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Good 52

I apologize that this update has been so long in coming. By the time I finish this thing most of the comics I'm reviewing will be almost four months out. Quite a wait for a fucking follow-up.

We kind of sort of planned to do a follow-up podcast to our episode on DC Comics' "New 52" (which is the wonderfully branded name of the entire relaunch/rebirth of the DC universe), but, like most of our plans that fell apart. So, instead, you're stuck with this blog entry that I've been writing for about a month.

I'm not great at this and its a damn shame.

Anyways, here goes nothing--

Batman #1 and #2

My friend and one of our three confirmed listeners called it very "Batmanly." He's right. I've skipped most of Grant Morrison's run (mostly due to DC's resistance to the idea of people reading their stories in trade) and, now that I think about it, I've maybe bought five actual issues of Batman. The few trades of the Dark Knight that I own are Batman: Year One, The Dark Knight Returns, and Batman: Year 100. Like the X-Men, most of what I've experienced with Batman comes out of movies and cartoons (and internet articles and second-hand information). With all of these caveats in place, I think it's safe to say that this is going to be one hell of a Batman book.

When it does enter into the short list of great recent Batman stories, I know it will be because Scott Snyder is writing the book, he of American Vampire and Detective Comics. That man is a phenomenon. Over the past three or four years he's come out of relative obscurity to write some of the best books on the market and now he might be writing the biggest one. It just goes to show that when you put somebody good on a book instead of somebody well known (*cough*Loeb*cough*) you'll actually get a good book.

Shocking, I know.

Since I started writing this issue two has come out (and by the time I finish this, I'm sure issue three will be out) and I picked it up. Issue two has ramped up what made the first issue good, which was Batman acting like a badass dude against the kind of violent madmen that only he can handle. Unless I'm misremembering it the second issue has slightly

Luckily the strength of the art and the freshness of the story allows me to ignore the fact that Batman can avoid death by falling off of a building by having a time cut in between panels (the same kind of strange cut that allows Batman to ramp a bike off of literally nothing onto the top of a subway train). In this issue Batman continues his battle against a mysterious group of owl-based villains that he simply refuses to exist. It's great because it combines the sort of gritty ass-kicking that makes Batman such a fun character to read with a kind of texture and horror that make it worth reading.

(BONUS: Here's a fun write up on Snyder from an actual real-live newspaper. . . well, a write-up from USA Today, anyways).

Animal Man #1 and #2

More than a few years ago I got into an argument with some cipher on the internet about how good our libraries were regarding comic books. He insisted his was better, I insisted mine was better. The argument, while brief, carried on to the point where he stated where it was-- which I couldn't even believe he had to do, my library was the best, I read Sandman, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Watchmen, and more than a few others, my library was obviously the best.

And, against all odds, he names the Pasadena Public Library as the place where he got his comics. That's my library.

I say this because they had some of Grant Morrison's run on Animal Man there and I'm really trying to stall as long as I can before I tell you that I don't like Grant Morrison. Some of it, I read, and I had this moment flipping though it that I realized that I didn't give a flying fuck about anything between the cover and the back. This moment was when Animal Man stared at the reader and went, "I can see you!" Not for long. I shut the book and threw it back on the shelf. I have rarely ever had the time for post-modernism, especially not in bullshit heroes that are really into peyote.

That has nothing to do with Jeff Lemire's run on Animal Man, thankfully. Like Morrison, he does seem to be interested in breaking apart Animal Man's world and taking him into some new frontiers. Like Batman, this series seems to have a desire to do something new even though it is obviously dependent on the High Grand Shaman's influential run.

I greatly respect Jeff Lemire as his comic book Sweet Tooth is easily one of my favorite comic books running today. He doesn't quite write like anyone else out there and ten years from now, like Jason Aaron and Scott Snyder, he's going to be someone that nerds in high school are arguing about on the internet.

(Again, slight update: The second issue carries on with the same quality and art, and, luckily, the panel layout is slightly less clever than it was last time. It's clearer than it was in the previous issue, which is nice. Despite a few solid jokes, the person I'm going to call "Animal Girl" sounds less like a six year old girl than a person trying to sound like a six year old girl. It's bizarre, but the whole series is bizarre. That's the point, isn't it?)

(FURTHERMORE: I haven't picked up the third issue, but I do plan to pick this story up in trade paperback, which I'm sure DC will be kind of enough to release somewhere towards the end of the next five years.)

(Go to his website, won't you?)

OMAC #1, #2, and #3

When I signed up for comics, this is what I had in mind. OMAC isn't a brilliant or deep comic book by any means, but it sure as shit is a COMIC BOOK. Which is exactly how it should be written when used in reference to this book. COMIC BOOK. All caps. Yelling. Being told to sit down. COMIC. BOOKS. Wall to wall, cover to cover, this thing is bleeding and sweating COMIC BOOKS. It's a head-on collision of Ditko and Kirby which was then hit with gamma radiation. It's a mad aberration of a book and it is wonderful.

The new OMAC ("One Man Army Corps") is based off of a short-lived and well-regarded Jack Kirby comic from, I imagine, the 1970's. This new book carries on the spirit of the idea-a-panel writing of Jack Kirby with more modern and coherent storytelling (which, as much as we all love Jack, let's face the facts, part of the charm is how clunky and operatic his stories are. He's not a god and he is capable of missing the mark, but when he does fail, he's moving at such a pace and moving into such weird places, that by the end of the issue you're waiting for him to stop so you can forgive him. Kirby's storytelling simply doesn't have the room for nitpicking.

This COMIC BOOK follows in that tradition. The first issue catapults from the origin of the new OMAC to the destruction of a secret underground weapons lab to battling genetically altered psychics to OMAC basically turning into DC's answer to the Incredible Hulk if the Incredible Hulk was freebasing William Gibson's medicine cabinet. The second issue moves with the same sort of frenetic energy, but doesn't add much to the whole series besides the reveal of a familiar face as the man responsible for the OMAC having to destroy everything sight.

The third issue has been the worst of the series. I can't tell if this is for real reasons or because one can only maintain this train of insanity before it derails and explodes into the station. I will stick with this comic because weird and psychotic comic books like this are exactly the kind of stories that this world needs. Also: COMIC BOOKS.

The second issue is the first second issue of any of the new 52 comic that I have purchased(did you follow that one?). This is mostly because the first runs of Animal Man and Swamp Thing sold out and I had to wait for a re-print. Regardless, it's a fantastic book and, besides Batman and All-Star Western has the best chance of me seeing it to the end of the arc.

Swamp Thing

Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing is a book I've heard far more about than I've ever actually read. Besides the rare few reprints that sneak in here and there most of what I know is from the mouths of people on the internet and a documentary on the history of modern comics that I may or may not have imagined. Because of that I always felt bad about not having any real affection for the character. Plus, despite Eric Powell's cover art, apparently the last re-launch of Swamp Thing was pants.

I mean, what kind of an asshole thinks that he could ever follow in the Great Bearded One's Footsteps?

Well, apparently Scott Snyder is that kind of an asshole. Fortunately Snyder (again, the guy behind the new Batman story) is one of the budding young talents of the comic book industry and he has begun to craft an interesting and unique horror story. It seems to be keeping its feet firmly planted in its proto-Vertigo roots while at the same time dipping its toes into the new mainstream DC continuity. It's the right mix that this story needs and its the mix that Moore used to great affect in his run.

I've read the first three issues and while it isn't moving at the pace I want it does have a few things going to it: A compelling main character with both an internal and external conflicts, a shockingly good scene with Superman, a whole lot of crazy dreams, disgusting villains, pedophobia, and a chick with cool hair on a motorcycle shooting possessed humans with a shotgun.

In the same way that this is moored in both the main DCU and its Vertigo line, this is moored in both pure action-adventure stories and sensational pulp horror stories. You half expect a Nosferatu-type to haul a buxom woman off to his underground lair. In fact, I will be mildly disappointed if that doesn't happen. I imagine this is the kind of book that EC Comics would have pissed off so many people with back in the day. It's sensational without being tawdry and, as a guy who isn't really into horror, this makes me start to wonder what I'm missing.

All-Star Western

The only thing I common these books have-- besides the general fact that they're well written, well drawn, and generally smart and entertaining books-- is that with the exception of Batman-- they're two horror books, a western, and a crazy sci-fi Kirby whirlwind. They're all basically old-fashioned genre books, if inflected in slightly different ways. What's odd about this is that for the first time in a long time I didn't have to go to Dark Horse or Image or Oni or anyone else to get my fix. For the first time ever, actually, I'm buying these kinds of books from DC Comics. The fact that one of the Big Two (the other being Marvel) has had this much success selling mostly non-superhero books isn't important, but it's odd enough to note.

For those of you worrying that the Hex-man (that's what I call him) was going to lose some of his edge moving from his pretty-darn-good 70 issue run to this Western/Batman, that hasn't happened. To assuage your worries: Jonah Hex kills a lot of fucking people. And it is beautiful. Hex remains as the same magical gleaming asshole that we know and love, but this time instead of great vistas and Indian-infested deserts, he's in the putrid streets of Victorian Gotham. The only real difference is that the stories are connected this time and they've got a lot more stone work and wrought iron. that's a change I can live with comfortably.

Despite the 3.99 price tag, this is easily my favorite book of the whole run. While OMAC sates my thirst for balls-out super-powered madness All-Star Western simply sates my thirst for blood. And nervous detectives. And Victorian architecture. And secret societies of white men with funny facial hair wearing rings. There is a lot of sating going on in this book is what I'm saying.

I will say that if this book was a woman she would be quite well built and have a good personality and I will leave that at that.

Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti are writing the story, which involves a Jack the Ripper-like murderer running loose in Gotham, the identity of which might be linked to the Lords of Crime, a powerful sect of madmen that secretly run the city. On the killer's heels are Hex and Amadeus Arkham, the namesake of Gotham's famous asylum. Moritat (who is best known for working on Elephantmen, a book I can't seem to quite wrap my mind around) is drawing the ass off of this book.

I won't get into the gory details of each issue, but I will tease you with this: In #2 Hex slaughters an entire gang of criminal cultists dressed like the klan. Hopefully in the third issue he scalps a dude or shoots a dude in armor with a cannon.

The second issue has a back-up from Jordi Bernet, as well, who is one of the great cartoonists of the past couple of decades. Lately, he's been known best for his work on Jonah Hex (having drawn my favorite Hex story of all time, which I can't seem to find on my shelf and I don't feel like looking for) and is currently working on an arc of American Vampire (see how it all connects?). I can't say that I care for the story he's working on in the back pages of this book, but it's Bernet, how bad could it be?

God's holy trousers this book is fantastic.


It's funny. The whole relaunch of the New 52 made it seem like it was trying to head in directions that the comic industry had abandoned a long time ago. While these books do seem to be doing new things and exploring unusual territory of all of the books I bought, when you boil them down are still superhero books (with maybe the exception of All-Star Western, but the fact that it's in Batman's haunts tells me they don't want to put this book flying too far out of orbit). They're cleverly concealed superhero books and they're horror books or science fiction books before that, but they're still about super-powered humans struggling against something else that has way too much power for anyone's good.

I'm contradicting myself here, I know it. All I mean is that these books are both genre books in their own right, but at the same time they aren't completely separated from mainstream superhero books. It's a delicate and strange move that DC has managed to make and it's a good one. At the very least if it means that a superhero doesn't have to wear a mask and/or a cape, that's a good thing.

With that said, this makes me realize that the New 52 has fixes something that to comics that I've been lamenting for years. I saw some potential in Flashpoint, which used pre-existing characters to create something fresh and new that wasn't impinged by flabby continuity and ugly preconceptions and, in some cases, it was very good. The New 52 seems to have done this on a much larger scale. It takes the things you know both well and vaguely, and uses that as a launching point for exciting and new books that you wouldn't have picked up if there wasn't this massive swell behind it.

Basically, what I'm saying is that I'm right and DC's editorial and corporate overlords should have been listening to me years ago.

These books are what superhero books should be. They should be more than just men in tights trying to keep people from crashing the moon into China. They can be horror books or inflected with animal rights or environmentalism or David Fincher in sequential panels or Benzedrine-hazed bursts of imagination. They need not be the same old thing over and over again. The market deserves better than that and so do the readers. Hell, even characters I don't like deserve better than being turned into Sisyphus.

I hope that DC can maintain this momentum for at least another year or two. As a comic fans I'm sure Beer, Joe, and myself are aware that sometime soon the reset button on the DCU is going to get hit and we're going to go back to the way things were. Until then I'm just going to enjoy my comics and I'm going to support good comics the only way I know how: By buying them and then complaining about them on the internet.

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