Six months after DC’s historic line wide relaunch, it’s become clear that the artists have taken over. The four best books from the first wave — Wonder Woman, Flash, Batman and Animal Man — all have talented writers, but with all due respect to Messrs. Azzarello, Lemire and Snyder, the art is the primary appeal. It’s all about Chiang, Manapul, Capullo and Foreman.
Quick(ish) confession: I have a troubling tendency to attribute the authorship of corporate superhero books to the writer by default, particularly when the art’s mediocre. Sure, I spend time thinking about the choices made by the pencillers, inkers, colorists (and sometimes the letterers), but tend to consider them contributors to the writer’s creative vision. It’s an easy and astonishingly lazy way to read comics, but that’s the way they seem to marketed most of the time. Still… no excuse.
The writing has only been interesting to the extent that it serves the needs of the story that the artists are telling. Batman‘s entertaining because of the contrast between Capullo’s post post Bronze Age art and Snyder’s horror/thriller inspired writing. Animal Man is great because of how Lemire’s absurdist gothic horror prose complements Travel Foreman’s body horror. I love Wonder Woman and like Brian Azzarello, but without Cliff Chiang’s spare, expressive art, the story loses some of its meaning: it goes from a gripping tale of a warrior struggling with family and identity to a pretty standard superhero book. Chiang strips the book of the artifice that’s bogged down earlier volumes while retaining the iconic quality that’s central to Wonder Woman. His action scenes are plausibly staged and brutally efficient in a way that grounds a story steeped in Greek mythology. Tony Akins does a nice job and all, but it’s an entirely different book in his hands.
The other books I’ve sampled from the first relaunch wave have been maddeningly inconsistent. The first few issues of Action Comics and Batwoman were pretty good, but painfully slow pacing, reduced page counts and questionable storytelling choices have wasted much of that early promise. Williams is growing as a writer, and Morrison still shows some flashes of brilliance, but there’s something missing from both books.
So, some thoughts on the new 52 books:
Batman: “Guys like Wayne… they don’t get the way the city works the way we do.”
Scott Snyder is now one of my favorite authors of Very Good Superhero Comics. He doesn’t reinvent the wheel with Batman, but his story is crisp and engaging. After all the postmodern gymnastics of Morrison’s run, there’s something satisfying about effective genre work. The first arc is a well told mystery/thriller/horror story, complete with a shadowy conspiracy rooted in Gotham’s untold history.
The elevator pitch? Starlin/Wrightson’s The Cult meets Morrison’s Leviathan mega-arc in Batman Inc. It’s a story that we’ve all read before, but Snyder and Capullo don’t lose sight of the fact that horror/thriller narratives are far more effective when the protagonist at the center of the story is a relatable human. Good horror requires a genuine emotional response from its audience, and its very difficult to provoke one if the audience doesn’t feel a sense of investment in the fate of the protagonist. We need him/her to serve as our surrogate. We need to imagine that if circumstances were a little different, this could be happening to us. I think this is particularly necessary for superhero comics, a world where the stakes are always low because we all know how these stories are going to end.
Another Quick(ish) Aside: With all the practical, editorial and genre constraints, I’m honestly amazed that anyone can write a half-competent long form superhero story for the Big Two. It’s easy to imagine how someone could write a cute 8-22 page story inspired by some by-gone era of comics, but it’s a lot harder to picture how a modern writer can tackle a multi-issue run of a book like The Avengers. It just seems impossible to balance the demands of the marketplace, which want stories about their favorite characters that are new but feel familiar, with evolving standards of writing and art. We expect creators to tell emotionally honest, plausibly staged stories with naturalistic dialogue. We also want them to tell the stories that appropriately evoke the stories we recall reading as children with characters who can’t evolve in an unchanging world (the world must always look like the one outside your door). It’s certainly possible to do both. It’s just that if one’s telling stories about characters whose lives are not the sum of their experiences (to paraphrase Noah Millman, they don’t have pasts, they have histories) in a static world, it’s hard to explore real world issues in an honest way. It’s a tough needle to thread, and I don’t envy anyone who has to do it for a living.
Anyway, back to the point. Snyder’s Wayne is relatable. He’s the brilliant, capable and arrogant man we all recognize from modern Batman comics, but he’s human in a way that he hasn’t been for a very long time. Capullo’s character design and figure work close the deal. His version of Bruce Wayne is friendlier, more open, quicker to smile. He’s not happy, but he’s someone who’s capable of joy, of mischief.
After reading the first three issues, I realized that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen Bruce Wayne smile so much. Snyder and Capullo’s efforts to make Batman a more human character infuse the story with added meaning. Snyder and Capullo’s supporting characters are equally engaging, from Lincoln March and Commissioner Gordon to Alfred and Det. Bullock.
Snyder’s plotting is top notch – read the first six issues in a sitting and you feel a creeping sense of claustrophobia and panic as Batman’s world slowly collapses and he begins a journey into madness.
If you’ve been reading Grant Morrison’s Batman, this might sound familiar. Consider this a remix – same story beats, different arrangement. Snyder explores Batman’s brainwashing through the lens of horror (I’m reminded of a poppier Shock Corridor) while Morrison seems to be channeling late Bond. Both writers trap Batman in an endless recursive maze, but in Snyder’s version, Bruce doesn’t look like a brave hero struggling against a psychological assault. He just looks like a victim in a traditional horror narrative.
Capullo’s art takes this book to the next level. His clean, dynamic art upsets expectations about what a dark thriller comic should look like, and is a perfect counterpoint to Snyder’s narrative.
His Batman feels classic, which heightens the impact of Wayne’s psychological breakdown in the fifth issue.
I also love the parallels they draw between the illegal surveillance state erected by Batman (the bunkers, the scanners in the coroners’ office) and the dark opposite of that state created by the Court of Owls, with lairs secreted in Gotham’s power centers and an underground labyrinth.
That’s not to say there aren’t some issues. I’m willing to accept that the Court of Owls has operated in Gotham from the shadows for centuries. But the little details bug me. For some weird reason, the notion that Gotham City has its own nursery rhyme about the Court feels ridiculous, as does the notion that five gangs run the smuggling rackets in Gotham and have divided the five subway lines between them.
Unfortunately, Batman falls back to the pack with the sixth issue. The art is still great and the story is competently executed, but everything resolves a little neatly. Batman recovers from the psychological attacks of the previous issue too quickly.
I’ll keep reading, but the book has lost a little bit of its charm.
Batman’s a fun, diverting read. It is not a transcendent masterpiece. But it’s worth your time.
Action Comics: A man whose books demand to be read twice
I don’t quite know what to feel about this book. Okay, cards on the table. After Grant Morrison’s infamous comments on Superman, DC Comics and Siegel and Shuster in his interviews promoting Supergods, it’s hard to be emotionally engaged with his work for hire superhero books. There is a war going on that no one is safe from, and he’s on the wrong side. It’s one thing to do work for hire on a character or book that’s been the subject of an ugly copyright dispute. It’s another to deliberately misrepresent the industry’s sordid history of exploiting creators or to pretend that contracts aren’t always subject to interpretation (or fail to address unanticipated advances in technology or changes to the marketplace). I refuse to believe that Grant Morrison doesn’t know that contracts are always subject to interpretation and frequently fail to address unanticipated advances in technology or changes to the marketplace. I don’t think that he’s unaware of the complex facts behind the legal dispute. Now, to be fair, I also disagree with Abhay and Sean Witzke’s suggestion that Morrison wrote these things to justify changes to the Superman property that would strengthen DC’s hold on the franchise. First of all, I don’t think that Morrison’s changes to the property will have any impact on the Siegel/Shuster litigation. But more importantly, I think we should take Morrison at his word. Morrison may have just been expressing his sincerely held beliefs. One possibility is that Morrison wasn’t talking about the past, but about the present and the future. The “big two” publishers are still evil (maximizing profit, minimizing labor costs), but the information asymmetry that defined the first seven decades of American comics has declined. There aren’t many unforeseeable uses for superhero properties anymore. Creators have more options and a better appreciation of the potential value of their work. The contracts are still borderline adhesive, but they aren’t on the backs of paychecks anymore. I think Morrison may have been trying to suggest that modern creators should go into contract negotiations with their eyes wide open, and appreciate the risks of opting for short-term gains (immediate compensation) over long-term uncertainty (the property which may be more valuable than you thought).
Of course, even if you disregard the curious analogy between Golden Age and modern creators, there are still a lot of problems with Morrison’s statement. He seems to assume that creators have the resources and bargaining power to modify contract terms that would reallocate risk/ownership, which is ludicrous.
Or maybe Morrison’s just a lot more conservative than we thought he was. We make the mistake of defining creators by their work and public image. Just because a guy is capable of writing brilliantly subversive fiction doesn’t mean that he can’t be an economic conservative with a strong belief in the free market and creative destruction.
I’d like to be angry. I want to write some six thousand word screed about how the publishers are villains, the creators are exploited, the readers are fools and the press are cowards. It’s true. But I knew that when I first started reading comics on a regular basis back in the 1980’s, and my dad told me about what Marvel Comics did to Jack Kirby. I knew it when the Image guys left Marvel Comics. Or when I went to conventions and saw the lack of creator diversity. If you’ve ever gone to a convention and talked to the poor old men who gave their productive lives to an industry that treated them like garbage, you know exactly what you’re supporting. I’ve known what this industry was like for most of my life. I’d feel like a hypocrite if I treated Morrison’s comments, or the Siegel/Shuster litigation as the straw that broke the camel’s back. I understand why people are boycotting Marvel/DC, or writing strongly worded essays about DC’s recently announced Watchmen projects (the less said the better), but I’ve never had a honeymoon with the industry. I’ve always known they were all bastards.
With that said, I can’t pretend that Morrison’s comments don’t color my opinion of his work or dampen my enthusiasm for any of his future projects. I picked up the first few issues of Action Comics and the recent double-sized Batman Inc. special, but the magic was gone. Profundity turned into ‘rhymin’ for the sake of riddlin'”. I used to enjoy the annotations written by David Uzumeri and the fine folks at Mindless Ones for the insights they provided into Morrison’s work, but now I just read them for entertainment value.
So, Action Comics.
This is what every origin story should look like: a compelling story that introduces the reader to the characters. At the end of the first seven issues, we understand Superman and Luthor without knowing their biographies. We don’t always need to start at the beginning.
Morrison and Rags Morales (with a welcome assist from Adam Kubert) deliver a multilayered narrative that explores Superman from multiple perspectives: his future supporting cast, his current and future antagonists, his romantic interest, and even the ship that brought him to Earth. Although Morrison and Morales demand the active intellectual engagement of the reader, who must continually interpret and fill in gaps in the narrative, the burden is somewhat lessened by their clear storytelling and frequent pay-off/”holy shit” moments. It also helps that Morrison/Morales evoke the spirit of the classic Silver Age Superman stories here: when you think about it, this is essentially a youngish Superman confronting Luthor, Metallo and Brainiac. The two issue interlude with the Legion of Superheroes goes from good to great when you realize that it’s modernizing all the good parts from those classic Superman (or Superboy) team ups with the Legion in the 1950s and ’60s. These nods to the past are the sugar that helps the medicine go down.
The only problem with a story that aims to deliver a holistic exploration of a character as iconic as Superman by focusing on his early adventures is that unless the reader feels fully engaged with the characters, she might be alienated by the absence of drama/stakes. Even though I love Morrison’s clever games with structure and chronology, they have a distancing effect that’s not (yet) entirely offset by his character work.
Quickish Aside #3: I don’t generally have a problem with alienation in fiction, but I’ve always thought that the contrived elements of the Marvel/DC narratives (the various suspensions of disbelief and the commercial/marketing decisions behind creative choices) make emotional engagement more important. I need more than intellectual engagement from my superhero comics, regardless of whether the creators involved are telling plot or character driven stories. I need to feel like I’m following well rounded, fully realized individuals making meaningful choices that don’t feel overly deterministic. In short, I need a story with real emotional stakes, and for all the cool bits in this book, I don’t think Action Comics has any. The outcomes of every conflict in this story are never in doubt.
I appreciate how difficult it must be to simulate risk in a Superman comic. He’s Superman, after all. Readers of superhero comics are commonly asked to suspend their sense of disbelief in a number of ways. We are asked to believe that these characters can do amazing things, that the laws of physics can be warped to accommodate epic fight scenes, or that people with powers will automatically put on costumes and become heroes or criminals. A person who didn’t read Superman books could be forgiven for imagining that the biggest logical leaps with the character relate to his powers or secret identity or the fact that an alien from another galaxy looks just like a handsome European guy. But that’s not it. When you read Superman books, you’re asked to believe that there’s some chance that the most powerful hero in the universe will not prevail over his enemies.
Morrison comes tantalizingly close to solving this problem while thankfully avoiding the conventional origin story arc by focusing on a point in Superman’s career where he had all of the idealism that we recognize without the wisdom or almost perfect judgment that make Superman a mythic (and legendarily difficult to write) character.
We don’t start with the destruction of Krypton or Superman’s first adventure in Metropolis. We start with a recognizably human Superman who instinctively wants to solve everything, but knows little about how the world really works. Morrison’s Luthor is equally strong. He combines the traditional elements of the character – vain, power hungry genius who hates Superman – but adds characteristics that make Luthor a little bit more relatable. I’ve loved past versions of Luthor, particularly late Bronze Age Luthor, corporate raider Luthor and early President Luthor, but this is the first one who feels like he could be a real person.
Morrison almost solves the stakes problem by focusing the reader’s concern on Superman’s struggle for acceptance in Metropolis instead of his conflict with Luthor or his later battles with Metallo and the Terminauts while laying the foundation for the threat of Brainiac.
We’re never asked to believe that Luthor and the rest have any chance against Superman, but it’s easy to imagine that Superman might lose (or be unable to gain) the hearts and minds of the citizens of Metropolis. The only problem with this is that Morrison doesn’t really have the space (at least in the first seven issues) to turn Metropolis from a generic New York like city into a place that feels authentic and filled with real people; contrast Metropolis with Opal City from James Robinson’s late, lamented Starman. At this point in the series, it feels like Superman’s trying to gain the approval of a generic city while fighting enemies that pose almost no real threat to him.
The two issue interlude/flash-forward featuring the Legion of Super Heroes was pretty good. There were some of the flashes of the brilliance that I’d expect from a Morrison comic – an elegantly structured plot involving time travel, a clever update of an old Silver Age trope, an unbelievably audacious hiding place for super-villains – but the villains were so rote and one dimensional that the story was a little unsatisfying.
Morrison’s always been great at telling stories with fully realized characters (even his more schematic/didactic ones), but the lack of stakes in the book so far has a distancing effect that’s hampered my enjoyment of the story. It’s the dark side of telling stories that take place early in a hero’s career, particularly if that hero is Superman. I admire Morrison’s structure, am a bit intrigued by the characters, but just don’t care about the story so far.
For all my Morrison talk, the success of this series is entirely dependent on Rags Morales. If he gets the tone right on a consistent basis, this will be one of DC’s strongest books. If not, it’ll be one of Morrison’s interesting failures. The results have been mixed so far. His art was especially effective in the first issue. The storytelling was crisp and effectively communicated the scope of the story. The sequence with Superman and the train was particularly well done…
…but I was a little less enthused with Morales’ work from the second to the most recent issue. His figures looked rougher, more unfinished and his storytelling became a little less clear. That wasn’t the worst part. The worst was the googly eyes. Too many distracting panels where characters’ eyes were pointing in different directions.
I’ve still got hope for Morales. His work in the most recent issue, particularly the storytelling, dramatically improved. Most importantly, his take on Luthor is genius: slightly pudgy and resentful looking. I also love the timelessness of Morales’s Metropolis. It almost feels like the book is taking place in the thirties and the twenty teens simultaneously.
Given Morrison’s track record, it’s only a matter of time before his plots start to catch up with his structure. I know it’s easy to clown Morales, but I feel like there’s a lot of potential for growth here. Some of the sequences that I found frustrating the first time were pretty good on a second read.
I’m still conflicted. I’m not totally happy about enjoying a comic written by a guy with such problematic views, but I think I’ll keep reading. After all, I’d probably still buy books from Miller and Byrne if they were any good.
Justice League: “I’ve always hated talking to masks.”
Justice League is all surface. This first arc is about getting the band together and into conflict with Darkseid, and that’s exactly what we’re getting. No nuance, no layers, no commentary about anything. I enjoy commercial superhero action comics targeted at a wide audience, but I think it’s fair to expect that even those projects should have something, anything to say about conflict, the nature of heroism or the world we live in.
There was one good scene in the first two issues. It happens early, when Green Lantern meets Batman. The brief conflict between the two is less predictable than I would have expected. The third issue was less amateurish, but still pretty abominable. After that, I just decided to stop.
Jim Lee still draws pretty pictures, but his layouts are either confusing or purely functional. It’s not bad, exactly, but there’s nothing particularly interesting going on. Johns is not at his best, with flat characterization, generic action scenes and dialogue that feels lifted from a mid-90s van Damme movie.
I know this makes me sound like a cranky old man, but I’m also not interested in the superhero team as rock band metaphor, where everyone is an arrogant, over-entitled jerk. I kind of miss the days when the members of a superhero team were decent, altruistic people who had some kind of personal connection. That’s not to say that we should go back to the milquetoast Silver Age. I think there’s a lot of room for interpersonal conflict and intrigue among people who are fundamentally decent. It might take a little bit of work to explore that conflict, but I think the results would be fruitful (and a little less predictable).
Next time: Francis Manapul’s Flash and Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang’s Wonder Woman.