Pipeline: Weighing In On "Batman," Justice League"

Tue, June 5th, 2012 at 2:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

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DC'S NEW 52: BATMAN

The two biggest hits of DC's rebooted publishing line are arguably "Justice League" and "Batman." The former was a pre-determined thing. You can't put Jim Lee on a superhero team book featuring all the big name characters and not expect it to top the charts. "Batman" isn't a complete surprise, but I think it has performed even better than expected, both creatively and commercially. Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo are doing their jobs well in putting out a book people want to read and look at every month. Both series have their first storylines collected now and I want to talk about both this week. Let's start with the Bat book.

"Batman: The Book of Owls" collects the first seven issues of the "Batman" series from Snyder and Capullo. With a storyline that promises big changes to the so-called "status quo" of Gotham (isn't that every six months, really?) and coming off a successful run on another Bat-title before this, Snyder's success here doesn't come as a surprise. He's giving the people what they want and he's doing it well, playing with core parts of the mythology while maintaining suspense, giving readers a reason to turn every page and flip to the next issues. Snyder gets so much right in modern comic storytelling that he's one of the writers aspiring scribes should look at for storytelling advice.

This story is all about establishing a secret society in Gotham fashioned after owls, the natural predator of the bat. They have a long and dirty history, and Bruce Wayne is about to meet them head on in spectacular fashion. Meanwhile, there are questions of trust between members of the Bat Family, explosions, hallucinogens, near death experiences, Gotham architectural history, murders, and more. Snyder keeps it all under control and accessible, so any first time reader could start here and pick up what they need along the way.

Despite all of that, the first thing most people will think of when it comes to this book is Greg Capullo's art. After spending the last decade and a half or more working for Todd McFarlane after a short stint at Marvel (remember "X-Force"?), this book is Capullo's second coming party. Removed from the straight-up horror of McFarlane's world, Capullo's illustrations return to superheroics and noir street-level detective work. Given his style, which some would likely call "cartoony" at its core, I wasn't sure how well the fit would work here. But it does.

His artistic quirkiness -- Bruce Wayne's monster jaw, for instance -- gives the reader something unique to look at. But he's also able to draw a dynamic Batman action page as well as a tense talking heads scene with some extra detail in the background. What his art reminds me the most of in this book isn't Todd McFarlane's, but rather Joe Quesada's. There's something about the faces and the hands, in particular, that strike me as similar to Quesada's style. There's an openness to the line and a certain style to his posing that has echoes there.

You know what? A combination of Joe Quesada's style and Todd McFarlane's isn't such a bad thing to aspire to. The big advantage "Batman" has over "Spawn," though, is panel density. McFarlane's "Spawn" scripts sought to spotlight the artist by giving him lots of large splash panels. Three panels to a page was often considered enough. Although it might be counter-intuitive, I prefer the opposite. Give me pages with more art on them, even if it's smaller, and I can be better impressed with art. This is part of the reason my collection of original art is exclusively interior pages. They look better to me. Snyder's scripts give Capullo plenty to draw, results in a better density to his art that improves it. And when Capullo plays around with his storytelling, it's done for a good reason and to great effect. Yes, you will need to turn the book upside down at one point, but it all works.

The hardcover collecting this book ends at a decent enough resting place in the story, but you know there's a big crossover coming up right after it. The New 52 couldn't last too long without resorting to old tricks to goose sales, I guess. It's unfortunate. And while I'm sure DC will make the argument that you can read just "Batman" to get the story without reading the other series, they'd probably also tell you to read the other books to see everything that happens. Confused yet? Yeah, they try to please all audiences and satisfy none. Why can't I just read one book I enjoy without feeling like I'm missing whole chunks of story? That's the danger of a company comic like this, I know. I was just hoping for better from DC's new publishing program. Meet the new line, same as the old.

For $25, though, this is one book I can wholeheartedly recommend. You even get a bonus issue, as this book has the first seven issues of the series underneath the cover, whereas "Justice League" (see below) only gets six. You also get the alternate covers, a script sample, and the black and white versions of all the covers along the way. As house styles go for reprints, those are pretty nice. You get a good story, enjoyable art, and nice packaging. Can't ask for more than that.

DC'S NEW 52: JUSTICE LEAGUE

I came of comics age at the right time to make me a fan of Jim Lee's artwork. I've followed his art since 1990 or 1991-ish, and have rarely been disappointed. Usually, the disappointment comes when Scott Williams isn't inking him and the final effect is a Jim Lee clone-like finish over Lee layouts.

In reading the first hardcover collection of the new "Justice League" series, something about Lee's art bothered me. I don't think it's a case of liking an artist's old stuff versus his new, because I liked his "Batman Hush" stuff when it came out, and I would make an argument that his "Superman For Tomorrow" is some of his best work, period. Nobody else liked that book, but I though Lee's art was meticulous in it. But this "Justice League" work is pretty variable, mostly going downhill at the book progresses. The bones are all there. The characters look like Lee characters. The drama and the action and the speed are all present in the final art. But something is off.

I think there are two things wrong. The first is that it's overproduced. Lee's art is covered up by heaping gobfulls of coloring and post-production work. It's a limited effect, but the blurring of art to indicate speed always bothers me. Knocking out black lines to give the final art a look like it was drawn in color to begin with bothers me even more. This book has both. You can see it in the green light constructs of Green Lantern's ring, most prominently. But there's also plenty of smoke and fire and explosions and dramatic moments that wind up looking busy and "plastic" under the weight of the art's post-productions. That's not to mention the overlays of Cyborg's tech views or the overwhelming brightness of a boom tube and how everything in its wake fades out. The colors are almost "too" primary, with bright reds dominating a lot of pages in the second half, often fighting for your attention with whatever else is on the page.

The second problem is an age-old Jim Lee issue: the inking. I didn't realize it until afterwards, but there's a secondary inker credit after Scott Williams. Three familiar WildStorm names are credited with additional inks: Sandra Hope, Batt and Mark Irwin. I think that's where the book falls apart. You can watch the book degrade as you turn the pages, with Lee's pencils getting further buried under a dizzying array of crosshatches, parallel lines and ink dirt. As big a fan as I am of some heavily-detailed art and the popular early-90s "Image"-style, this started to overwhelm me here. Compare the simpler inking style seen in the beginnings of the third issue where we're introduced to the inks on issue six during the big brawl. Lee's background art was filled with fine architectural detail. The close-ups on the faces didn't results in a scratchy look. Even the demon army unleashed above Metropolis is restrained with no solid black areas and clean thin lines dominating. It's almost "Flash"-era Scott Kolins level work there. By the time you get to the fifth and sixth issues where the superhero melee is in full effect, there are ink lines sticking out everywhere, attempting to shade things that the coloring can already handle, thanks very much.

I can envision the scenario behind the scenes at DC. They committed to getting these series out on a monthly pace no matter what. "Justice League" became the first series to miss its monthly deadline. To make up for lost time -- in fairness, Jim Lee had a new child added to his household, which is enough to destroy the hardiest artist's schedule -- DC brought in the extra inkers to do multiple pages at once. Maybe Lee's art got a little rougher and the new inkers worked a little extra too hard to make up for lost lines. The book got back on schedule, but the final product is compromised. Yes, all art is compromised by time, but this is a little bit more than I'd have liked to see.

I love the art in the first half of the book. The Wonder Woman issue is a standout piece of work. But the downhill slide is too great after that. Shame.

Geoff Johns' story is meant to put the team together for the first time, and he does a great job in arriving at that point. Along the way, he gives us the mandatory Superhero Misunderstandings Leading to Fights, along with clashes of strong personalities, multiple powers working together triumphing over individual pursuits and the newbie with power he can barely imagine, let alone control. It's stock superhero stuff done with style and a few cutting bits of dialogue, but it works.

But Johns also adds in little character touches that are only possible because of The New 52. Wonder Woman's introduction is hilarious. She's hellbent on fighting something, like DC's female version of Groo. At the same time, she's new to our world and still finding magic in the simple pleasure of ice cream, neatly juxtaposed with the big honking sword she carries and the demons she takes delight in slaying with no advance notice. Green Lantern -- not the gay one -- is overconfident with his ring's powers, leading to confrontations both verbal and physical. Nobody knows yet quite what to make of Superman. Batman is a solo guy who is, in his own way, also full of himself. The Flash is burning the candle at both ends. And Aquaman is battling public jokes while being a ruler who knows what he's doing. Cyborg is just a kid who doesn't know what he is yet, so he has the greatest opportunity for development in this series. He also doesn't have his own monthly series in addition to this book, so Johns can run wild with him. He's the character to look out for.

"Justice League: Origin" is available everywhere today. It's $25 for the six issues of the series, alongside some bonus material in the back and reproductions of Lee's pencil work from each issue's cover. It's worth a read and, for the most part, enjoyable. It just falls into some sad traps of deadline trouble that reduces the biggest selling point of the book: the art.

LITTLE LINKS

    • Oh, DC. This whole "Before Watchmen" thing is generating enough controversy and ill will for you. Did you have to make it worse by insulting the nit-pickers, the grammarians, and the didacts? I was almost with you on this publishing program until you sprung this ad in your comics:

      "Judgement"? C'mon, you can do better than that.

      * For another take on "Before Watchmen," I point you to Image publisher Eric Stephenson's blog. Sometimes, a book cover speaks volumes.

        Rian Hughes talked to Robot 6 this week about his work for Valiant Comics and design in general. Loved this bit:

        If I can put my typo pedant's hat on for a moment, there's nothing in typography that makes by eyes bleed more than artificially distorting type, stretching or condensing it to fit. Well, other than having ten random fonts in ten random sizes at ten different alignments or spacings all together on one cover. Which I have seen. I counted them. I'll refrain from saying which cover that was, though—and maybe someone can better that count?

        Anyone care to speculate on what cover that was? I'd love to see that train wreck.

          Nate Cosby and Chris Eliopoulos' "Cow Boy" graphic novel is now available in a print edition. I mention it now because I reviewed the book back in November. Didn't want you to forget about it. . .

            One tip for this week: "Spawn" #220 is a must-purchase for old-school Image fans. Remember "Spawn" #1? You'll be surprised at just how much you do when you pick up this issue. That's all I'm saying. . . Nice issue from Todd McFarlane and Symon Kudranski. And check out all the cool covers they have lined up, too.
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    TAGS:  pipeline, dc comics, batman, justice league, before watchmen, watchmen, scott snyder, greg capullo, jim lee, geoff johns

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