Pipeline: From Miller's "Holy Terror" to DC's New 52

Tue, October 4th, 2011 at 1:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist
3

HOLY TERROR: A REVIEW

I mentioned last week that my opinion of "Holy Terror" keeps changing as I read it. What was once going to be a negative review has now morphed into something that's somewhat positive, though not enthusiastically so. It's a frustrating work that has me both loving and hating it, often on the same page. It's not a book that I'd go back to and read again years from now when I had a few spare moments, but it is a book I'm glad to have read.

The story is thin, and the parallels to the Batman family (which this book began its life as part of) are obvious and entertaining, so much so that I'd go so far as to say that Miller didn't push away from the books origins enough to make it feel like it's own work. "Holy Terror" feels like thinly disguised Batman fan-fic. To sum it up: Gotham City is the victim of a major terrorist attack, with buildings blowing up and razor blades and nails falling from the sky. Batman and Catwoman are caught up in the middle of it, and Batman pulls no punches in taking down the terrorists from Qurac. Catwoman gets tied up in ropes that cause her chest to stick out, which means this book would fit in perfectly with The New 52, as a bonus.

Just substitute in all the appropriate non-DCU terminology in the last paragraph if you like. I doubt there's anybody reading this book who isn't reading this as if it was a Batman book. I've read the book a half dozen times now and I can still barely remember the characters' "real" names.

Miller uses your knowledge of Al Qaeda to be his shorthand for the bad guys. He doesn't dig into their characters and try to make sense of their viewpoint. He doesn't rewind to sympathetic childhood traumas to explain why these men are blowing up buildings. He's skipping past all that stuff and going with the action story of the one horrible day their attacks came to be. It's an honest choice, one that lets Miller skip to the action parts and not drown the reader in needless origin stories or clichéd pop psychology. For many, though, it might make the book feel half-baked, like Miller isn't showing you why these are happening, just that they are. I'm happy to supply that back story from real life, though, and move on.

A grid of characters fades away to indicate the death toll hitting the city

Miller's art looks half familiar -- the body language and layouts of "Sin City" or "300" immediately come to mind. The dizzying silhouetted cityscapes are there, and Miller plays a bit with sequential narrative, using panels in different ways aside from just moment-to-moment storytelling. The best example of this is the sequence where Miller shows the death of hundreds of Gothamites by showing a grid of faces fading away, and then their panels getting smaller and more numerous on successive pages. It's a trick that only works in the comics medium, which is half of what gives it its strength. Miller may have aspirations towards being a serious (and successful) film auteur, but he still gets comics. He's not afraid to use the comics medium in a way that's not directly translatable to film. (OK, so you could translate this directly to film fairly easily. Picture the opening from "The Brady Bunch" and project out from there. It would just look forced.)

Miller returns to the static grid pattern on a couple of other occasions for different reasons. It's to pack in a wordy conversation in a small space. Miller must loathe having to draw talking heads pages, so he gets them out of the way in the most perfunctory manner, with silhouetted headshots and lots of little word balloons. This is meant to be an over-the-top action book, though one with direct references to the real world to either confuse the issue or to strike parallels that maybe Miller doesn't hit as hard as he had hoped.

One of the stylistic tricks he uses in the book is to show terror scenes surrounded by panels of caricatures of well-known people, mostly politicians. I'm guessing this is Miller's attempt at sparking memories of "current" events from the past decade to go along with the action on the page. It's not so much a direct plot reference as it is a mood and thematic element. Again, this isn't a trick that would necessarily work in film so well -- short a rapid fire multi-cut sequence bound to give the audience epileptic seizures -- but one Miller uses as a comic book artist and not a Hollywood deal maker. I'm not so sure the technique works well as it's too broad and unspecific, but it's a stab at something. I wouldn't be surprised to see it used in another comic somewhere in the next six months. These little tricks have ways of entering the comic artists' shared mindscape.

Miller also shows off his design sense, not just in the way he uses the opening titles as a double pages spread, but in the way he lays out a page. The best examples here are the pages in which we see razor blades and nails exploding toward the reader after a building explosion, while our protagonists race across the page. Miller freezes the action well. In the midst of the chaos, you can hear the world go silent, except for the sharp sound of metal weapons clinking against the ground, the buildings and our protagonists. Miller chooses a dramatic low angle on his characters, with the blades frozen in mid-air, falling from the sky but still twisting and turning. They're fat black items surrounding their hapless victims. After that, Miller returns to ground level to see the results of the falling debris, as Batman and Catwoman run off for cover. It's like everything speeds back up again, and the surround sound fills our ears. Miller is borrowing from movies here, and adapting it in a strong way for comics. It reminds me a bit of the opening from "Saving Private Ryan." You hear the bullets whizzing by you as the soldiers struggle through the water, slowly and nearly quietly, but then everything gets loud and chaotic when they come up for air.

Miller falls in love with splashing ink across the page, scraping it off, and then adding some more shadows

The downfall of the comic, ironically enough, comes from the art, itself. While the storytelling is strong and the angles are dramatic and the design is cinematic, the actual lines often look grotesquely cartoony or messily chaotic. There are panels and pages that I still stare at to sort out. And I've read the book multiple times! The first time, obviously, was the worst. "What's the black splotchy area in front of the scratchy white line over there? And what's the splatter effect for? Are those straight lines random power cords? What's going on?"

If your reader has to fight through your art, there might be a problem.

The characters are uniquely Miller's, and you can see their elements going all the way back to "The Dark Knight Returns" and even "Daredevil." But the ink line now is so wild and out of control at times that the style looks sloppy, not evolved. This isn't a complaint about an artist growing; this is a complaint about an artist almost taking it for granted that his audience is familiar enough with his work to sort through what he puts on the page. While I understand the desire to maintain the energy on the page through to the final inks, I think some more precision and carefulness might have clarified the story for me.

In case you couldn't tell which end is up, Miller provides a color guide for you

And I need to weigh in against spot coloring again. It's the bane of humanity. Have you ever gone past one of those cheesy picture places in the mall, where there's a window full of samples of some parents' kids in black and white with a colorful flower being held out in front of them? Who thinks that's attractive? Do you want your kid to be the background of a picture of a pretty (plastic) flower? No, your kid should be the star of the photo. So why are Catwoman's boots colored? Does Miller have a sponsorship deal with Nike, and is Nike planning on releasing those shoes to an athletic store near you soon? As creatively bankrupt as that would be, at least there'd be a reason for it. Right now, the only reason it exists is because, well, it worked for one story in "Sin City" 20 years ago and Miller has adopted it as a crutch ever since.

It's time to retire the trick; Miller has lost its meaning.

Even with all the complaints, though, there's still a lot to recommend about the book. It's Miller, so there's lots of grisly characters and in your face violence, and the sense of a creator who's willing to go too far, rather than pull himself back. That separates this book from a sea of other titles that are worried with not offending people, or merely pleasing the same small group of fans over and over again. It's macho and it's humorous and it's unlike anything else on the stands. I like its perverse sense of humor, such as when the Batman analog says, "We engage in postmodern diplomacy." next to sound effects of "SNAP" and "BLAM" and "KUNCH" and "SPUK" as he beats up and tortures terrorists. Who hasn't wanted to say and do that in the past decade?

A week later, I'm still debating the strengths and weaknesses of the book. Writing it out certainly helps. In the end, I think "Holy Terror" is an interesting comic, and I'm all for more of those. I might have to come back to it in six months again to see what I think then.

DC'S NEW 52: THE LAST 13

Thank goodness, we've arrived at the last week of DC's relaunch. I've discovered a new kind of event fatigue. This one centers around the sheer number of comic pages being read -- and I didn't even read all 52 titles. I read a majority of them, though, and still think I might go back and pick out a few of the stragglers to catch up.

I'm a bit out of steam, though, and am happy to take a little break this week.

"Teen Titans" #1 is interesting, but there's very little at work in this first issue besides attempting to bring disparate parts together. Even then, we only get to half the team pictured on the cover. We have introductions to a Robin who hates his code name, a Wonder Girl who hates her code name, a Superboy who didn't make his codename and probably hates it and Kid Flash, who's an obnoxious twit who stole the base of his name from The Flash. Until we lock all four of these personalities in a room together, we won't know if this book has a strong future. Maybe next issue? I hope.

I'm happy to see Tim Drake survive the relaunch, completing the set of three male Robins in the current DCU. Too bad about Stephanie Brown being M.I.A.

Yes, the book has a definite 1990s feel to it, but since I didn't hate everything in that decade the way everyone tells me I'm supposed to, I'm not bothered by it. Brett Booths' art has its limitations, but with a good inker and a strong bright colorist, I think it looks good in this issue. You wouldn't want to teach an art class from this issue, but it's serviceable with moments of excitement.

"All Star Western" #1 was a fun gritty book, with art from Moritat that stole the issue. It's not that Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Grey's story was bad, but I think in the hands of a lesser artist, it would have been less memorable. With Moritat's line work in front of it, the images are stronger in my mind. Jonah Hex in the big city is a great concept for a story; see "Reed Gunther" over at Image for another western title doing that plot. You also get an extra bunch of story pages, which is why the cover price is $3.99 here.

"The Flash" #1 looks good. The problem is that I don't remember it at all. In fact, I had to go open up the book again to see if I had read it or not. But the art is interesting enough on its own to get me to come back for another try. It needs to grab me more to keep me around, but it's earned a chance.

This is the book being written by Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato, who also provide the art and colors. I like what Buccellato is doing with the coloring style, making the book look different from the way most superhero comics look like today. There's a lot of that going on in the DC relaunch, which I'm happy to see. This week alone, take a look at the new Hawkman title to see another different coloring style. I wish the major companies would play with this more.

"Aquaman" #1 is a lot of fun. This is the one title I was worried about. I wasn't sure if fans would enjoy Geoff Johns' response to recent public jokes about the character, or they'd see it as treason in the comics community and burn Johns in effigy or something. So far, the commentary I've seen on the book is overwhelmingly positive, so it looks like it's working. I liked it, too, though the obnoxious blogger was a bit annoying. I have to believe that character comes from a creator who's been burned by the internet once or twice. Here's his revenge. Not a bothersome thing, but a small blip on an otherwise entertaining issue.

Ivan Reis' art is beautiful, in a similar school to what so many artists at Marvel are doing, like Steve Epting, Alan Davis, or Butch Guice. But the colors are brighter here.

Of everything I read this week, I think this one is my favorite.

"Blackhawks" #1: I want to like this issue more than I think I do. There's great potential here for an undercover team storming the DC Universe and saving lives, but there's one item in the issue so insanely dumb and obvious that I wonder how anyone in DC editorial could approve it. It looks like future storylines for this series will rely on it, so it's not like they can sweep it under the rug. It's just lazy nonsensical storytelling, and that bothers me.

To whit: If you have an undercover team that you don't want being identified, why the hell does your team have a logo displayed on its plane? It's such an obvious thing that it bothers me that nobody thought of it.

After that, you have a solid action book with some character interactions that show promise, and a twist at the end that promises more turmoil and strife from within.

The art is a little overdone. While the great 90s Batman artist Graham Nolan handles layouts, Ken Lashley's final art is a bit too angular and scratchy for my tastes. It comes close to overrendering. It muddies the art up too much. If the art can be simplified a tad, it would help the book. Let this book be an action military/spy book with an emphasis on the planes, give it a bit of a "G.I. Joe" feel, and let it loose. That's where its future success would come from. Let's see if it goes there.

"Voodoo" #1: After last week's fracas over "Red Hood and the Outlaws" and "Catwoman," this was the title everyone was expecting to be the next breakout blog frenzy. As I write this column, it looks like that never fully materialized. Reactions are mixed, but there's no "Grab your pitchforks and let's storm the castle" campaigns going on.

Yes, it's set in a strip joint, but it doesn't rely on that and appears to be abandoning it by the end. No, the strip joint wasn't completely necessary, and I'm sure a rewrite could have set it almost anywhere. Voodoo could be a diner waitress or a Walmart greeter or a parking garage attendant, I don't know, but this choice at least gives you something visually more interesting. Ron Marz's script doesn't shy away from its setting, but it also doesn't rely on it. By the end, with the big revelation, he's created the potential for a whole new book. It might not be The Single Most Original Idea, but it has worlds of possibilities. I'd be willing to give it a few more issues, at least, to see where it goes.

The art from Sami Basri is beautiful. It's a solid combination of art and colors from Jessica Kholine to create an overall look that's soft and colorful. Basri and Kholine don't shy away from letting the color tell the story, nor letting a variety of colors do the work. This isn't muddled monotonous work here. It's bright and lively. It'll be interesting to see how it works next month when the locale isn't necessarily as, er, exotic.

For more on the coloring work, check out Ron Marz's behind the scenes exploration of it in his SHELF LIFE column a month ago.

(And, no, there's no way Voodoo could have been a parking garage attendant, because comic book artists hate drawing cars and no writer in his/her right mind would ask an artist to draw that.)

"Superman" #1: Of the 52 books DC has published as part of this relaunch, this one wins the award for the single clunkiest stops-the-issue-dead-in-its-tracks page. It made me laugh out loud. It's a complete non sequitur. In the middle of this super dense story about The Daily Planet, Metropolis, Lois Lane, journalism's march away from print and Superman, there's a single page setting up a sub plot for "StormWatch," a book published three weeks ago. The page has absolutely zero to do with Superman. It's a small event of a creature blowing a horn and then dropping it, followed by a captain box that says it's to be continued in another comic that doesn't even feature Superman or any of his supporting cast. It couldn't stick out like any sorer a thumb. Completely random.

George Perez's script is far too heavy handed. It's too heavily narrated. I know comics read too quickly, but this snoozer is not the answer to that problem. He does a good job in identifying all the characters and making sure you know who they are. He puts a lot of balls into motion and packs a lot of story into these pages, but the end effect is like reading a comic from 1970, where you're slogging your way through the explanatory caption boxes and non-conversational word balloons to get to an event. I think if Perez could have done away with the too cute faux journalistic writing, the issue would have read better. But an opening 8 panel page that features nothing but panel after panel of the Daily Planet globe with caption boxes on top of it is a tough hill to climb.

And that's a wrap. Starting tomorrow, it's a whole new world for DC. Sales will remain high for another month or two, but then things will settle down quickly, and by year's end, I'm sure we'll hear about a few of these 52 titles being canceled, or restarted as something else.

September 2011 has been a big boost for DC, which did a lot of good, overall, even with the few remarkably painful points it introduced. The trick now is to capitalize on that and convert it into long-term momentum. If there's one thing we know about comics fans, it's that we're a fickle lot. Today's hot fad is tomorrow's overused cliché and next week's point of derision. Creators and characters go from Hot to Not overnight. But it's been a fun month, overall, hasn't it?

IN CONCLUSION (AT LAST)

If you're making a superhero-themed costume this Halloween, New York City has an entire store devoted to selling spandex. Good luck, and good dieting!

Next week: The best DC book that DC didn't publish. And Carl Barks. I can't wait to start writing this one.

I have a photography blog, AugieShoots.com, where I'm posting all sorts of pictures, including some from a recent street fair. VariousandSundry.com hasn't been updated in a little while, but that's where I go to vent on all the other topics in my life.

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TAGS:  pipeline, frank miller, holy terror, dc comics, new 52, dc relaunch

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