When Words Collide: The New 52 First Quarter Review

Mon, November 28th, 2011 at 2:58pm PST

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

Last week, I answered some reader questions, but I purposely ignored a big one: "Three months in, what do you think of DC's new 52? Which ones are you still reading?" That was a popular question, probably since I'm no longer doing weekly reviews of new comics, and I'm not doing any kind of regular podcast anymore, so getting my thoughts on current superhero books is dependent on a close reading of my Twitter account and hanging out at my local comic shop on Wednesday afternoons.

It's not a big audience.

But, yes, I do have opinions on the new 52 -- particularly after thinking about them all summer and reading every first issue in September -- and I'd say my overall take on the initiative boils down to this: I'm currently reading over twice as many monthly DC comics now as I was a year ago. The baseline quality is certainly higher. Most of the best books, by the way, didn't require -- or really even take advantage of -- the line-wide reboot. But as a reset button, I can understand why DC did it, even if inconsistencies about the "actual" history of the new DCU have already popped up. Coordinating 52 titles plus fake previous continuity is no small task.

Moving on.

Let's dig deeper into what I'm still reading on a monthly basis from DC, and why.

In December, I plan to get 27 of the new 52, and I think that number will hold steady for at least a few more months. I've either already dropped the series that I was wavering about, or the third month was enough to get me to commit. "Blackhawks" and "Deathstroke" were both in that latter category, with strong third issues that clarified the direction of their respective series and impressed me enough to stick around after some doubts with issue #2. I would have put "Voodoo" in that category as well, but seeing Ron Marz booted from the series doesn't sit well with me. I know what he was trying to do with that comic, and it was fun to watch a duplicitous alien murderer as a lead character in a DC book, but with a new writer coming on, I have no idea what to expect. Mostly, though, I've just pared away stuff like "Resurrection Man," "Stormwatch" and "Grifter," all of which were far more disappointing, three months in, than I ever would have expected. The first two suffer from inconsistent art already, with a whole bunch of noise and not much substance, and "Grifter" is the dullest, by-the-numbers series of the entire relaunch. Well, except for "Justice League International," which at least has the benefit of Batman's presence, but that's not even close to enough to make it worth reading.

What is worth reading? "Wonder Woman," definitely. It's the best of the new 52. Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang are telling a clean, poetic story with a strong mythological pull and a fierce warrior of a Wonder Woman. The series revamps Wonder Woman's origin, but it does so in a way that implies a history of the sculpted-in-clay birth of the character, as if that had been the status quo for decades. Which it has been, before the relaunch. No reboot needed for this new angle to be told. But it's a good one either way, and even though Tony Akins is no Cliff Chiang, his upcoming issues should be suitable replacements until Chiang returns to this, the best-looking, sharpest of all the DC superhero comics right now.

One of the interesting things about "Wonder Woman" is how exterior the series has turned out to be so far. It's a strong approach, fitting for a character who is all about physicality -- appearance and strength -- and it contrasts with some of the other top DC comics right now. "Animal Man" and "Batwoman" and "Justice League Dark," for example, all comics that would make my current DC Top 10, are viciously interior stories. Even when the plotlines become expansive, they are about what's going on inside the minds and hearts of their characters -- or an intimate look at the relationships between characters -- while "Wonder Woman" plays out its conflict on a battlefield for all to see. Appropriately enough, for a heavily mythological comic book series, its filled with characters who symbolize emotions and actions, and those characters fulfill their story obligations with distinctive style thanks to Chiang and Azzarello. Yeah, it's good. I recommend it.

I also recommend Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's "Batman" along with Jeff Lemire and Alberto Ponticelli's "Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E." Those two comics would round out my DC Top 3, going into December. Snyder follows up his strong "Detective Comics" run with a more traditionally superheroic take on Batman -- Bruce Wayne is back as the one and only man behind the cowl, after all -- but with a lingering mystery that makes the series part detective-work, part establishing Bruce Wayne's coolness and part superhero action. The danger here is that Snyder's long-form approach to the series (he has a year-long story underway right now) will require some patience from the reader as plot threads and clues may not fully reveal their meaning for months, but Snyder tempers that with explosions and twists and turns and issue-by-issue cliffhangers. In short, Snyder has already proven with "The Black Mirror" arc that he can do lengthy stories that work well in smaller chunks, and he's doing something similar -- though with a wider scope -- here. And Greg Capullo's expressive art isn't nearly as hollow as I had feared. He's a strong addition to the bat-team, for sure, and looks like he's getting better with every issue.

I expected Lemire and Ponticelli's "Frankenstein" series to be entertaining, but after the relatively measured pace of Lemire's "Flashpoint" take on the Frankenstein universe, I didn't expect this ongoing series to be so rapid-fire. If there's a "stuff-per-issue" ranking for the New 52, "Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E." would be #1. It's packed with characters, crazy ideas, and thrilling moments. Lemire may be working in Grant Morrison's shadow on both of his monthly superhero books, but "Frankenstein" is the one that edges closest to the high-octane, but smart, Morrison of "Seven Soldiers" and "Final Crisis."

Ponticelli's scratchy linework doesn't have the sleekness of J. G. Jones's covers, but it has charms all its own. It gives an earthiness to the series, and an edge. It's not pretty, but in a comic about monsters that protect the earth from even scarier monsters, how pretty would you expect it to be?

Did I mention that Ray Palmer plays the role of genius super-science advisor in the series? Well, he does. And though he hasn't yet donned the Atom costume, it's the best portrayal of the Atom since that time he travelled into Batman's brain and steered the caped crusader's body.

Looking at the new 52 overall, and thinking about why I'm buying some comics and ignoring others, it tends to come down to the basics of execution, but also: (1) ambition and (2) acceleration. If it's a slow-burn kind of story, then it had better be particularly well-executed and show some ambition with the character(s). "Animal Man" and "Justice League Dark" fall into that category, as do others like "Flash" and "Superboy." Though, if I'm completely honest, I'm buying those last two more for the art then the story. Something like "Birds of Prey" or "I, Vampire" are close to making the cut for me -- I liked the first couple of issues of each, but don't plan on reading it monthly anymore -- but with both of those stories, the potential ambition of the stories lies on the outskirts, and while things may happen, those things don't seem to matter much yet. Neither of those two series has enough of a hook to keep me interested, even if the execution is slick and good-looking.

And what about the surprises of the new 52? Which ones ended up really grabbing me in ways I didn't expect. Well, I keep mentioning "Justice League Dark," and that's a comic in the classic pre-Vertigo mold of the late 1980s. Moody, emotionally-charged and weird, it's Peter Milligan doing superheroes without feeling the need to throw any outside obstacles in their way. These characters are screwed up enough just dealing with their own problems.

"All-Star Western" is also one of my favorites after the first three months, and though I expected it to be good, I didn't expect the shift to Gotham City to make as much of a difference as it does on the saga of Jonah Hex. But pulling Hex out of the West, and giving him corruption and crime in the city to deal with, well, it just provides a new approach to the character. Plus, the serialized nature of the story makes each issue more compelling than the done-in-one issues of the last Hex series.

"Batman and Robin" is another series that has cracked my DC Top 10. I didn't expect it to rise to the top so quickly, but the series has two major assets: First of all, Mick Gray provides the inks for Pat Gleason's pencils, and he's not only one of the best inkers in the business, but he is the best possible inker for Gleason. With Gray, Gleason looks like a superstar artist. The other asset is that "Batman and Robin" is the only series to heavily spotlight the Bruce and Damian Wayne father/son relationship, one of the most interesting relationships in all of superhero comics right now. Damian has a lot to learn, but so does Bruce, and Peter Tomasi charges it all with conflict that sizzles throughout the first three issues, regardless of the external conflicts that come their way. But those are interesting too. It's a good comic. If you're reading "Detective Comics" or "Batman: The Dark Knight," do yourself a favor and drop both of those and stick with "Batman" and "Batman and Robin" instead. Those are the ones worth your attention.

Three months in, I'm having fun reading DC comics. Twenty-seven of them, at least. And that's a more than respectable amount.

A WHEN WORDS COLLIDE APPENDIX: THE CALLAHAN 27

Here's my current ranking of the DC monthlies -- the ones I'm still reading. I suppose you could call this a "Best of…" list, but I'd prefer to think of it as, "What Tim Recommends from the DC Lineup," in order of overall quality and potential entertainment value:

  • Wonder Woman

  • Batman

  • Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E.

  • Batman and Robin

  • Batwoman

  • Animal Man

  • All-Star Western

  • Green Lantern

  • Justice League Dark

  • O.M.A.C.

  • Justice League

  • Swamp Thing

  • Aquaman

  • Action Comics

  • Deathstroke

  • Hawk and Dove

  • Mister Terrific

  • Flash

  • Nightwing

  • Red Lanterns

  • Demon Knights

  • Blackhawks

  • Legion of Super-Heroes

  • Voodoo

  • Legion Lost

  • Green Lantern Corps

  • Superboy
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

TAGS:  when words collide, dc comics, new 52

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