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Thursday, December 22, 2011

DC's New 52 - 3 Months In (Part 4)

Finishing off my look at a few of DC's relaunched comics, four of their biggest and best titles...

Action Comics by Grant Morrison and Rags Morales

To be entirely upfront about this, if I included its massively underwhelming fourth issue in this evaluation, Action Comics may not have quite made it this high in my list. Hopefully issue #4 was just a misstep though, because this series has been pretty damn terrific otherwise.

Grant Morrison has already written what may well be the definitive Superman story in All Star Superman and, though Action Comics isn't on that level, it is a remarkably fresh take on the Man of Steel. It's kind of astonishing that no one thought to do this before but Morrison revitalizes (at least his section of) the monthly adventures of Superman by taking the character back to his 1930s roots.

With a brasher, less experienced, less powerful and rather anti-establishment Superman, I suppose it would be tempting to say that the reason this works so well is because Morrison has made Superman "edgier" and "more relatable". I don't buy it. Superman isn't Peter Parker - he can be relatable but mostly he's supposed to be someone to aspire to, someone that is frankly better than us. And "edgy"? Superman? No. Just no.

This is clearly early on in Superman's career, which is why he is a bit less saintly than The Man of Steel's we're used to but it's clear that he is going to get there eventually. What's truly brilliant about what Morrison is doing here though, is that he demolishes the idea of Superman as a government/ corporate stooge or a figure of the establishment. This is Superman as social crusader - someone who truly believes in "Truth, Justice and the American Way" but, when it comes to the latter, the "American Way" is more about living up to the ideals on which America was founded, rather than some blindly jingoistic flag-waving. He is more than willing to stand up to corporate heads or government officials if they don't live up to this ideal. Morrison gets Superman like no one else today and Action Comics is simply more proof of this.

As for Rags Morales' art, I'm generally a fan of the guy - even when he's drawing stories that are way beneath him (*cough*Identity Crisis*cough*) - but he's clearly suffering under the monthly schedule. His layouts and storytelling are as good as ever but when it comes to his character work and background details, this is far from Rags at his best. Hopefully, with Andy Kubert (yay!) taking over for a two issue arc, he'll get a chance to take some time and he'll return and deliver work on a level closer to what we expect from him.  

Batman by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo

I may be much more of a Superman fan but I would be the last person to deny that Batman is far easier to write. While it's pretty rare to read a truly impressive Superman story, good to great Batman stories are a dime a dozen. Which is probably why Batman is - along with, inexplicably, Green Lantern - the character that is least affected by the DC reboot. Still, with all that said, few writers write a Batman story better than Scott Snyder. And Snyder, a guy who has been writing comics professionally for all of two years, is clearly only getting started.

Prior to the reboot he had a year-long run on Detective Comics and while most of the rest of DC's line clearly needed a swift kick in the pants, Detective was pretty much a perfect comic book. Understandably, DC decided to keep him on the character. Things have changed though. Not only did he move from Detective Comics to Batman (a strange move since he clearly writes Batman as a detective before anything else) but the incredible alternating art teams of Jock and Francesco Francavilla were replaced by former Spawn artist, Greg Capullo. Also, he's moved from writing about former Nightwing/ Robin, Dick Grayson as Batman (long story) to the rather more traditional Bruce Wayne as Batman.   

Changes or no changes though, this is still Snyder on Batman and the result is still one of DC's best books. However much I would have liked a continuation of Snyder's exploration of the more upbeat Dick Grayson tackling Bruce Wayne's darker and more twisted world, his characterization of Bruce Wayne is still pretty spot-on and he has come up with a terrific plot with which to challenge a character as unflappable as Bruce Wayne usually is.

It's a simple and fairly brilliant idea. If there was one thing that Bruce could always count on, it was his knowledge of Gotham City but Snyder aims to change all that with the introduction of The Court of Owls, a secret organization that have been running things behind the scenes for well  over a century. The result is a mystery story that is rather different in tone to the gritty noir of Snyder's Detective run but he is apparently equally adept at both. Add to that some wonderful repartee between Bruce and his supporting cast and a fair amount of action and you have a marvelously enjoyable and intriguing read.

As for Capullo, his dynamic, expressive artwork is a perfect fit for the story being told and, though I would love to see Synder work with the previous artists again, he's actually a better fit for the tone of this book than either of them would have been. One minor quibble though, his faces are a bit too similar to one another but, in one case at least, I'm starting to wonder if that's not on purpose.

The Flash by Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato

I was expecting great things from Action Comics and Batman but the same certainly couldn't have been said about The Flash. The Flash is quite simply my favourite superhero but I had all but given up on reading the character's ongoing adventures after half a decade of middling stories and utterly befuddling creative choices. From turning Wally West - the former Kid Flash who had more than earned his status as this generation's Flash over twenty years of genuine character development - into a pale shadow of his predecessor, Barry Allen, to getting rid of Wally and replacing him with his cousin and current Kid Flash/ former Impulse, Bart Allen and then killing Bart to bringing back Wally with fully grown kids but never really do anything with that to bringing back Barry Allen but having him written as a totally different character to who he was in the past. Don't worry if you didn't get all that. As I said, it was a horrible, horrible mess that is really not worth bothering with.

And so we come to the latest relaunch of the Flash franchise. The signs were not promising. Geoff Johns' most recent run on the character had turned Barry Allen from a likeable, bookish science nerd into a brooding, unlikeable jerk, all the while alienating the legions of Wally West fans by all but shoving that character into a barely noticeable supporting role. Along with all that, Johns altered Barry's motivation from his wanting to be a hero simply because he is a decent guy who finds himself with awesome powers to having him become both a police scientist and a superhero because his mother was killed when he was a kid and his father framed for her murder. Johns effectively took a great, singular character and made him into Batman-lite. With all this is mind, who did DC get to try and breathe some life and fun into a long purifying franchise? None other than the artist and colourist of Johns' woefully misjudged run (pardon on the pun) on the title, two guys who had never written a major superhero comic book before.  Chalk this up as another in a long run of fatal mistakes that the powers that be at DC have made with The Flash, then?

As it turns out, no. Not even close.

With all the odds stacked against them, Manapul and Buccelatto - now working as co-writers, while still providing the art for the series - have not only entirely reinvigorated The Flash but, with just three issues under their belt, have managed to come up with the best pure superhero book on the stands. It probably says it all that they have managed to do this without directly addressing Barry's origin or the whole Wally West debacle.

There's a simple reason that their take has been such a resounding success: they brought the fun and they brought it in spades. Ignoring Johns' bleak version of the character, Manapul and Buccelatto have reintroduced a classic version of Barry Allen: smart, good-hearted, slightly socially awkward and instantly likeable. A man who is driven not only to do right for its own sake but by a sense of wonder as well. With this in place, the duo also keep the story light and enjoyable and, even if the main plot feels pretty secondary (the book's main flaw right now), have set up a great supporting cast for the now-single Barry Allen to play against. Plus, as if all this wasn't enough, they have come up with some of the most inventive uses of The Flash's speed that I have read in my two decades of following the character(s).

As for the art, they have stepped up to even greater heights than their already stellar work on the previous volume. Aside for JH Williams' untouchable work on Batwoman, Manapul and Buccelatto have made The Flash the best looking DC book around. By tailoring their writing to their art (and vice versa), they exhibit a kind of synthesis between art and story in a way that only the best writer/ artists can. From highly kinetic action scenes to the title's quieter, more intimate moments, every single panel of these three issues is a beautiful piece of art worthy of framing but, taken together, they add up to some of the strongest visual storytelling around.

It's been such a long, long time since I could say this, but it truly is a terrific time to be a Flash fan.

Wonder Woman by Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang

I have never really been a huge Wonder Woman fan. Despite enjoying the animated Wonder Woman film and enjoying her character in varying supporting roles, I have simply never been able to get into any of her regular comics. Until now, that is.

It's hard to pinpoint exactly what Azzarello has done that makes his take so compelling but compelling it certainly is. His Wonder Woman is tough, smart and sexy but she is also written with a pleasingly sardonic, prickly sense of humour that is, as near as I can tell, something of a change for the character.

It's the mythology that Azzarello has built around her though, that is truly intriguing. In interviews before the first issue was released, he constantly referred to the title as a horror book but, while there certainly is a certain amount of that on display, the real draw of Wonder Woman is that it is a dysfunctional family drama. Granted, the family in question is a pantheon of Greek gods, but they're a family nonetheless. Their conflicts and problems though, do tend to play out on a far grander scale than your average family and Wonder  Woman is caught right in the middle of it.

Great as the writing so unquestionably is though, you certainly shouldn't overlook the art. Cliff Chiang has always been a brilliant artist but his work is truly something here. His linework is as crisp and beautifully unfussy as ever but, after years of working on a computer, his newly rediscovered traditional, hand-drawn style adds a certain grittiness that is a perfect fit for Azzarello's often violent and unflinching writing.

This is simply good comics and I gladly recommend it even to the staunchest Wonder Woman agnostics.

And that should do it for the New 52 for now. I may well take another look at it in a broader sense down the line but, if nothing else, I hope I gave some indication of just how many good to great books have come out of this frankly gutsy initiative. Sure, this is only a small portion of the 52 relaunched comics but considering that most of them are more than worthwhile, it does mean that DC currently has a far higher batting average than they did in the months leading up to the relaunch.  

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