Tuesday Comics Reviews: Stormwatch, Batgirl, Batwing, Animal Man, Detective Comics, Action Comics, Men Of War, Swamp Thing, JLI, Green Arrow, OMAC, Hawk & Dove, Static Shock

Posted by September 6, 2011 Comment

Thank you Orbital Comics for your midnight opening. The only shop in London to bite the bullet, selling DC’s thirteen New 52 titles at midnight. There were doughnuts. And Tony Lee. They’ve also done a review podcast which should be up around now…

So, what do we have?

Stormwatch #1 by Paul Cornell and Miguel Sepulveda.

Possibly the most disappointing of the first week of titles. A title steeped in Warren Ellis, and Micah Wright Stormwatch, this feels like the blandest possible reinterpretation of those comics. The Stormwatch that in many ways made Warren Ellis’ name challenged the very basis of superhero comics, this feels like the weakest possible version of The Boys. A bunch of characters, some known, some new, that stand around saying that they are not superheroes, but not acting in any differently. It’s not just been neutered, it’s been castrated.

The book does confirm that even if DC is just being relaunched, Wildstorm is being completely rebooted. Nothing that happened… happened. Jack Hawsmoor with speedy tracks on his hands noe as well as his feet, is part of a Stormwatch that protects the Earth from alien menaces, rather than protecting it from itself. The politics that always made this book and its spinoffs stand out has been removed, along with the snark and mocking attitudes. This is DC’s “Stormwatch Done Right” and there’s nothing to it.

New characters The Projectionist and The Eminence Of Blades are media manipulator and swordsman respectively. With Jack Hawsmoore Martian Manhunter and The Engineer, trying to recruit Apollo in Russia and fight a sentient Moon. And Jenny Quantum is one of hundreds of “century babies” being cared for another new team member, Adam. Ticking boxes, but ultimately dull. And in a comic pitching the Moon vs the Earth, that’s really hard.

The art is also dull too, a collection of unconvincing faces, and a rather boring way of portraying the incredible, with only a scene with a transformed Martian Manhunter to save it. There is an interest in that we discover that Stormwatch is the present version of whatever Demon Knights were, when that comic launches. And some continuity will tie in with the new Superman #1. There are teases as to what may be behind Stormwatch, as well as a major threat in the future – possibly the kind of thing the Strange Woman was talking about. But nothing really sticks and for a first issue of Stormwatch that’s a sin.

I don’t know if this is a case of too many editorial cooks dulling what should have been a spicy, tangy broth, or if it’s an inability to live up to what has come before. And it’s not the worst comic DC published today. But it’s the one I am most disappointed by.

Batgirl #1 by Gail Simone. Ardian Syaf and Vicente Cifuentes

Very possibly the best title published by DC today. And not one I was expecting either. Firstly we have a central character whose internal voice and external voice differ, oppose, fight with each other. She has more than one mask to wear.

We are given no more explanation for her ability to walk, jump, kick and do the splits, other than a “miracle”. But her paralysis is not forgotten, it haunts her, it affects her, it is a character in this book in its own right. And the villains are intricately designed, delineated and motivated, just as much as Barbara Gordon is, whoever she is playing.

The book is fast, smart, funny with an art style that sits somewhere between Phil Jiminez and Jim Lee, detailed, with an awareness of anatomy and objects operating in space, but with a flashy splashy veneer and panel design that tickles the eye.

And it flatters the intelligence of the audience as well. One example of many is an ironic fist bump not shown, but implied by the language tone, letting the audience fill in motivation and action in the gutters.

Such a small example of why this comic works on a larger scale, both in the story it tells and the way it tells it. Worth every penny of the $10 it’s selling for on eBay already.

Batwing #1 by Judd Winick and Ben Oliver

This is one of the better looking comics of the relaunch by a long way. It would be the best if it weren’t crippled by a lack of backgrounds. But this book achieves that rare compilation, believable action, real panel to panel movement and a painted look to the art. Indeed it actually has the kinetic nature of Rob Liefeld’s work combined with a better understanding of… well, everything else. This is such a rarity in painted work which tends to make the subjects stiff and statue-like rather than creating the illusion of movement that comics does so well.

But for a comic aimed at an American audience showing an unfamiliar African country, backgrounds were what was needed. There’s not enough of a sense of location in the art, though the story makes up for some of that. It’s only a brief twenty page journey but there is a sense of how the country works in this comic, a small sense of the history of superheroes pre-dating Batwing here, and even nods to Watchmen in the concept of retired superheroes being wiped out.

In terms of structuring a first issue, it’s the show-a-major-scene-then-flash-back-to-the-beginning approach that Bill Jemas hated so much. Weirdly, the cliffhanger is totally negated by the beginning of the book, even if there is a symmetry to it. I’m not sure how much of this was intentional.

Animal Man #1 by Jeff Lemire and Travis Foreman.

The comic opens with a printed interview in an unnamed magazine. I wasn’t expecting that. It plays against type and already gets me to sit up and pay attention. And then spend five minutes on the first page of the comic. And it makes for a great info dump – that can be read now, or referred to later if clarity is needed. Wonderful. Because we get to know, straight away that Buddy Baker, Animal Man used to be a superhero. And now he’s an actor. And an icon to the youth. We haven’t been shown, we’ve been told. But in a most entertaining and unexpected fashion.

And it doesn’t stop, we’re straight into suburban middle class family humdrum chatter in the kitchen that tells us so much about his world now. Inspired by the existence of the article, it’s a natural, interrupted conversation that brings us all up to speed on Animal Man as he was and is now, in rather naturally efficient fashion.

In fact it’s a shame when the superheroics kick off, and I suddenly Travel Foreman seems ideally suited to kitchen sink drama and less so to big blockbuster action. That’s until he turns his powers on and we get a combination of Bill Sienkiewicz and Gilbert & George as Buddy Baker twists and turns through animalistic powers. It’s a real shock to the system and twists audience expectations instantly, before returning to normality – but the bizarre now stays with us, the art style, the line weight, the shading altering ever so slightly from before. Things have changed. And then everything changes again when Animal Man dreams…

It’s rare that I’ve seen art styles change to suit the twist and turns of a story to such a degree – it’s no mistake that I mentioned Sienkiewicz earlier.

But the book keeps its emotional core of family. This is the superhero with great responsibilities that have nothing to do with his great powers and they both inspire and temper his actions.

It’s not a perfect comic however, do understand that. There’s a sound effect that should be placed before a caption, not after it. And that’s about it.

If Stormwatch seems to abandon what made it special, Animal Man has preserved it, specifically that Jamie Delano/Steve Pugh run which I still hold close to my heart, concentrated it and portrayed it with a writer and artist working like one.

Oh and monsters. Wonderful, wonderful monsters. In dream and then in flesh…

Action Comics #1 by Grant Morrison, Rags Morales and Rick Bryant

It’s the business. Simultaneously set in the present with some futuristic touches as well as the tone of the nineteen thirties, this comic is an anachronistic marvel. A Superman who runs and jumps from mission to mission without a real action plan and not thinking about the long term consequences, versus a man who plans and plans and plans. And uses every plot twist and turn to put Superman in the right place and the right time for his own ends.

This is a manic comic, constantly on the move, faster than the speeding reader, but Rags Morales not losing detail in the telling. He arrives on the wind, he’s a force of nature, joyous in everything he does. He’s the crusading journalist as a superhero, righting the wrongs that he exposes but moving so fast he can’t see the bigger picture. But in constructing the first tale of the first superhero, Morrison seems to have looked more to Spider-Man for Clark Kent. A loner, down on his luck, doing his best, responsible for all he can be. Indeed, it’s not so much the comics, as it is scenes from the second Spider-Man movie, ripped from the screen and planted in the comic at least three times.

This is a clumsy Superman, it’s an act-first-think-later Superman, a Superman trying to do the right thing but sometimes not quite realising what that is. And it’s his downfall. If you’re looking for the weirder and wonderful Grant Morrison here, you won’t find it. But the perfectly constructed superhero comic that plays against expectations and creates its own language in the process. Right here, baby, right here.

Detective Comics #1 by Tony Daniel and Ryan Winn

I’ve never really come to terms with Tony Daniel’s Batman. He’s often been up against better writers and better artists on competing Batman books and he’s suffered by comparison. But this week his is the only Batman book, it’s his moment to shine.

And he takes it.

And initially gives us a very good Batman story. Aside from a few lines along the costume, nothing has really changed her. It’s Batman as we’ve known him, with the Gotham police on the twitchy side. And this comic, the Batman tracking down the Joker with a few elements not quite right sees Daniel give us a kind of best of Batman. From the Miller/Mazzuchelli’s set of tricks with shadows and tiny panels highlighting half faces to the McFarlane silhouettes to the Neal Adams grimaces to Breyfogle character acting and the Jim Lee big angular vertical panels and explosions. All with the feeling that, even though everything is the same, something is off.

He packs a hell of a lot in here as well. He gets the same twenty pages that most everyone does but he fills them. And then leaves you with an ending that… well…

It’s the best ending of all 52 comics. Should touch everyone with any familiarity of Batman. I can see a lot of people just stopping and staring for minutes, as I just did. Not sure if that T For Teen rating is quite appropriate. Where do we go from here? Issue 2.

Justice League International #1 by Dan Jurgens, Aaron Lopresti and Matt Ryan

All those people asking whether Killing Joke was still in continuity, and no one thought to ask whether the Giffen/DeMatteis Justice League was. And it appears not. This is the very first Justice League International. All United Nations, no Max Lord, and even though a rather foxy Margaret Thatcher appears to be Prime Minister of Britain, it is very much set now.

There is a lightness combined with a sense of danger to it. This is a hell of a lot better than Jurgens’s first take on the book back in the nineties. The only problem is that the Retro Active Justice League International came out a couple of weeks ago and that was leagues ahead. This Justice League International #1 is a fun, entertaining comic. Nothing too special, but better than the norm. The international cast bicker, flirt and show off. National identity and pride comes to the fore, especially between Rocket Red and August General In Iron, bouncing around in ways that see Guy Gardner flouncing off, Batman doing his restrained presence, Booster’s optimism not being taken seriously by anyone… the book goes through the motions, it just never gels together as the sitcom we know it can be. Is it fair to judge the book by what it has been rather than what it can be? No. But that’s what I’m doing. Sorry.

At least Godiva uses “sod off” correctly…

Hawk & Dove #1 by Sterling Gates And Rob Liefeld

This was always going to be the whipping boy for the DC Relaunch. Bete noice, Rob Liefeld, welcomed back to DC with the book that began his career.

And yes, you get impossible anatomy, less feet than you might rightfully expect, grimaces, fakes technology and perspective that just doesn’t work.

But what you also get is a mass of melodrama, with the relationship between the pair exposed, raw and bleeding with loss and secrets and resentment and… a lot more complexity than you’d expect in this sort of thing.

Basically, this is Michael Bay directs EastEnders and it’s rather fascinating as a result. There Zombies On A Plane (and then in a swimming pool), national monuments in danger and squabbling between the diametrically opposed pair of superheroes but nothing quite so explosive as the secrets they hide.

Many won’t care for the melodrama. Others won’t be able to see it over the impossibly high shoulders. But it’s worth the look.

If you can find a copy, that is… another sellout/second printer.

I know.

Swamp Thing #1 by Scott Snyder and Yanick Paquette

The most beautiful book of them all this week. Oh my word.

We start with Superman, Batman and Aquaman encountering a sudden death of animals around them. Pigeons, bats and fish. The world is wrong, and it turns to Dr Alec Holland, the man who used to be Swamp Thing. Except he isn’t. And he never was. But just as the Swamp Thing had Alec’s memories, now Alec has the Swamp Thing’s.

You know, that’s a really insulting name for people to call him. No wonder he preferred to go by Alec.

Anyway, this is the story of Jonah, The man who runs away from his destiny only to be punished and have circumstances drag him back to where he needs to be. What he is, who he is, what he needs to do, that’s to come. Here was have a story of a man being pursued by his past, in the most beautiful and alluring fashion. Plants and animals to pore over, and a Kevin Nowland style characterisation that just plants them in the page, pun intended.

Oh and zombies with back to front heads. You know, for shits and giggles.

Green Arrow #1 by JT Krul, Dan Jurgens and George Pérez.

It’s weird how both Green Arrow and Hawk & Dove open this week with a tall vertical panel on the left of page one showing a tall building and sky above it, with a location and a line of dialogue. Almost as if they are intended to be linked in some way.

And they made the change. They really did it. He lost the identifying beard and got his secret identity back with it. With his own Oracle-style team providing back up, suddenly the man with the bow and arrow doesn’t seem quite so ridiculous. Not when a well placed bow can hack into a boat’s driving controls. Take that, boxing glove.

And we get a bit of heist movie with superpowers here, it’s all rather fun if a little by the numbers. Although I’m still wondering what happened to the virtual boardroom meting he was in on while out in his superhero identity. Did he just put them all on old despite his boast of multitasking. It was rather left hanging…

This has glamour and excitement, Parisian setting and beautiful people doing beautiful things on the Seine with the Eiffel Tower lit up in the background. There is a shallowness at the heart of this though, this is superheroes fighting super-villains without any real motive other than that. It’s gang warfare played out on the streets while the heroes boast of their own pure moral motives. I don;t know if that’s intentional and their heading for a fall. But as it stands, it all feels a little weak.

Still, nice sun sets over Paris.

OMAC #1 by Dan DiDio, Keith Giffen and Scott Koblish

Jack Kirby didn’t just bring a sense of wonder to his world. He also excelled at a certain skeeviness. A feeling of something nasty under the skin just scratching to get out, which he brought to the fore in his Fourth World books. And that feeling is right here, literally even, when faces are peeled back to reveal weapons, the skin still stretched around them.

This battle royale surrounded by office politics. Where a super being fight has become something monstrous, but corporate. Where commercial espionage sees the summoning of inhumane creatures and perfects the art of showing maximum power in the hands of someone that shouldn’t have anything close to it, no matter how big they are. With Giffen’s expert hands, there are some truly Kirby moments that one would think the big man might be proud of.

I’ve never really warmed to Dan DiDio’s writing before, but I can feel myself thawing with this. It’s fun, odd, exciting and bewildering.

And of all this week’s DC books, this will be the one I’ll be rereading over and over… if only so I can work out the intricacies of what was going on. If there are any.

A lot of people aren’t going to like it though. Will you be one?

Static Shock #1 by John Rozum, Scott McDaniel

While Action Comics #1 may show Superman with Spider-Man tendencies, this is the book that has the greatest injection of Ditko/Lee. Teenager, albeit one with a nuclear family, nevertheless finds himself drawn between responsibilities, doing his utmost best and showing real intelligence while doing so, yet never gets an even break.

Here, transplanted to New York, a city apparently with very few super beings, he’s at school but also working in STAR Labs, so that he can keep an eye on the weirdness that emerges.

He has Hardware as a buddy, throwing him new gadgets like dog biscuits. And in this first issue he succeeds at taking down a threat to the city, but only in a way that pisses most everyone off and leaves him none the better off. Indeed, now he’s a target, quite literally. And he ends the book missing a very important part of himself.

The art bounces and crackles along, pulling the readers eye, drawn to the action. For such a fast moving, wall bouncing comic, calling it Static seems such an ironic title. But it’s so perfect that I’m only just getting the gag.

Welcome to New York, Static, I don’t think even Spidey had it this bad.

Men Of War #1 by Ivan Brandon and Tom Derenick with Jonathan Vankin and Phil Winslade.

This is the book Garth Ennis was born to write. Except he doesn’t work for DC any more. But Ivan Brandon does. A combination of two Ennis tropes – a hatred of superheroes combined with army procedural in a time of war when men must be men, suffer the consequences and keep honour, if only to themselves.

An American armed forces, with the nephew of Sgt. Rock amongst its members is sent to recapture a missing politician from insurgent central. The plan, such as there is, is going to plan until a superhero arrived. While Ennis would have most likely played this for laughs, here it’s more like Marvelman, unseen save for his outline, this superhero is a force of nature, unseen, unknown despite as one of the men says the likelihood that he is “on our side”. The fear and the anger from the troop as their planned actions are ripped apart by this force is visceral, and far more effective when aimed at a flying blur, one that seems to have its own share of problems. And then everything goes to hell.

This smacks of Carlos Ezquerra in places as the very earth around them is ripped up, scorching the earth. And a new Sgt. Rock is born. Nothing like I was expecting. But a bloody good comic.

It also runs a back up strip straight out of Ennis’ DC comic War Games, with non-superheroic, non-fantasy war tales told by Jonathan Vankin, with art by the ultra-detailed Phil Winslade. Anyone reckon on straight out war comics from the New 52? No, me neither.

So that’s where we are. Thirteen comics. All issue 1s, all from DC, on the shelves at thirteen comic stores in Britain. Let us know what you think when you all get your copies tomorrow…

Comics courtesy of Orbital Comics, London. Check out their New 52 podcast here.

(Last Updated September 7, 2011 7:03 pm )