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Monday, December 5, 2011

DC's New 52 - 3 Months In (Part 1)

And now, because it's been a while, something for the comic book fans...


 For those who don't know, in response to both dwindling sales and a lack of enthusiasm for most of their superhero line, DC Comics launched a fairly gutsy initiative 3 months ago to try and garner some fresh interest in their line of comics. Along with some generally hideous redesigns of some pretty damn classic superhero costumes (I'm looking at you, Superman!), they also rebooted/ relaunched every single one of their books - well 52 of them, anyway - with a brand new #1 issue; started selling digital copies of their comics on the same day the physical copies are released and committed to keeping their 20-page comics at $3, as well as sticking to a set schedule every month. Financially, the move worked brilliantly: for the first two months, at the very least, they have owned the sales charts, outselling their main competitor, Marvel, significantly. Whether this lasts or not is anyone's guess, but the real question is whether or not this move has made any impact on the overall quality of DC's output.

Now, it may surprise you to hear that I can't actually afford 52 comics every month so if you're looking for a definitive take on the entirety of "The New 52", I suggest taking a look elsewhere. The guys over at did an especially great overview of all 52 first issues during their weekly Pick of the Week podcasts throughout September. They have one of the best comics websites (and podcasts) anyway so check them out if you have a chance but, for now, here is my take on the dozen or so New 52 comics that I am actually reading.   

This will be split over at least two separate posts, simply because there is so much to say about what is still a moderately hefty selection of comics.

On the Chopping Block.

Catwoman by Judd Winick and Guillem March.

Thanks to Ed Brubaker and Darwyn Cooke's superlative work on the character about a decade ago, I have been a longtime fan of Selina Kyle (Catwoman) but, to be honest, I had no interest in sticking with the book once Brubaker left. With the New 52, however, I thought it was past time to give the book another go - especially because the creative team had the potential to knock it out of the park. Sadly, this is a long way away from the brilliance of those earlier, character-defining works.   

That said, there is what to enjoy here. The artwork may wonder a bit too far into T&A territory at times (more on that in a bit) but it's still a beautiful looking book and, there's no two ways about it, Judd Winick does know how to put together a decent street-level comic book story. The problem, though, is Selina Kyle herself. Gone is the intricately drawn, morally complex anti-hero of the past decade, back in is the much less sympathetic and compelling "Bad Girl" thief.

Also off-putting is the tone of the book. Winick pitched this book as a bit of "violent and sexy fun" but it mostly comes across as nasty and on just the wrong side of exploitative. Much has been made of the Catwoman/ Batman sex scene that ended the first issue but that never troubled me in the slightest - indeed it seemed oddly appropriate considering their, shall we say, strange relationship. What doesn't work for me, though, is both the over-the-top violence that the story never seems to have earned (unlike Brubaker's at times even more brutal Black Mask storyline) and that much of the sexuality is more crass than sexy.

I say this not because I'm a prude - some of my favourite comics of all time feature plenty in the way of sex and violence (Preacher, Scalped) - but because, however much Catwoman is a character that is served well by a more "adult" touch, in this particular case, these elements undermine, rather than boost, the story being told. The result is a book that can't decide between being a sexy, irreverent adventure comic and a more gritty crime drama and lands up being a distorted, ugly hybrid of the two.     

I'm done with this after the first arc.

Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E by Jeff Lemire and Alberto Ponticelli

This is a book that I really want to like but, despite coming close to finally grabbing me with its second issue, I find it oddly unengaging. The art doesn't help, I admit, because even if Ponticelli's rough, scratchy line work is actually a good fit for the stories being told, it's simply not really at all to my tastes. The writing, though, really should be right up my alley. Colourful characters? Check. Inventive ideas and world building? Check and check again. Dollops of genuinely funny, dry humour? Check again. For all this, though, it still leaves me cold.

A big part of the problem, surprisingly enough, is that this is actually a comic book with way too much action. That's right, I said it: too much action. It's really, really hard to give a crap about the characters or to get involved in the story when you're this busy trying to keep up with all the explosions, swordplay and grizzly dismemberments taking up every inch of every page. I certainly understand that this would make Frankenstein a favourite for many readers but I have reached a point where story progression and characterisation is simply far more crucial to my enjoyment of a comic book than 20-page battle scenes.

This series also suffers from a sense of over-familiarity. Comparisons to Hellboy, BPRD and The Umbrella Academy are all more than justified but, even just within DC's own line, Demon Knights offers a better version of a similar conceit, only substituting DC's  magical characters for Frankenstein's horror monsters.

I will have plenty of good things to say about Jeff Lemire later on but this series just isn't for me.

Stormwatch by Paul Cornell and Miguel Sepulveda

Speaking of comics that I really wanted to like, no other DC title disappointed me more than Stormwatch. Paul Cornell has proven through his work on Captain Britain and MI:13, Dr Who, Action Comics and his own novels to be someone who is brilliant at both ideas-driven science fiction and fantasy and at infusing his characters with personality and humour. Sadly, what should have been the perfect fit for him, has ended up being a bit of a mess.

To be fair, Cornell may have simply dropped the ball here but I don't think it is (entirely) his fault that Stormwatch isn't working. The book has both fun, snappy dialogue and a cast of intriguing characters but the storytelling is a real problem. As such, most of the blame must surely be be laid at the feet of penciller Miguel Sepulveda and colourist Allen Passalaqua.

Not only do they not complement each other - the colouring is vibrant but it flattens Sepulveda's line work, but they both seem to be potentially talented artists who are still getting the hang of applying their trade to sequential storytelling. There are the odd panels that do look very impressive but the overall result is a visually muddy and narratively confusing comic book that is never as good as it really should be.  
Not to worry, though, Cornell fans: he is responsible for one of the New 52's most pleasant surprises...

That's it for part 1, folks. With the weaker books on the way, we can move onto the stuff that has really impressed me in parts 2 and 3 - coming very soon to this here blog! 

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