Some Thoughts on DC Universe: Rebirth

Some Thoughts on DC Universe: Rebirth

I’ve been excited about DC Universe: Rebirth in a way I haven’t been excited in a comic in a while.  Of course, there have been new series I’ve been excited to check out, and the latest chapters in comics I consistently love, both of which have me eager to get to my comic shop on a Wednesday, but this was a different type of excitement.  This was the kind of anticipation I felt going into the first issues of Infinite Crisis, Final Crisis, Blackest Night, the best kind of event comics where you know as you start that you’re about to read something huge and epic.  When this was announced, I was certainly intrigued, but it wasn’t until the release was impending that I realised just how ready I was for a comic like this.  And it delivered on my high expectations.

Now, when I went into my local comic shop, one of the staff there I know had positioned himself next to the comic, and was warning passing patrons picking up the comic not to look inside, not to spoil any of the experience contained within.  He said it was better to read this totally fresh, and I wish I had.  I wanted to, but key details were spoiled for me on social media.  I didn’t know the specifics so I was still able to enjoy the execution, but I’d have been knocked out of my chair reading that stuff without any prior knowledge.  As such, I’m containing my very spoilerific thoughts to this review rather than posting it on my Facebook wall and risking sullying anyone else’s experiences.  So, here it comes…

SPOILER WARNING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

There is plenty I’ve liked about the New 52.  But one of my regrets of the whole thing, five years on, was how much of the DC Universe’s history was lost.  Yes, yes, I know, the comics on my shelf didn’t burst into flames so I can never read them again just because they were no longer canon.  But comics like The Multiversity served as a reminder of how much I loved the DC Universe in all its bonkers complexity, rewritten timelines, legacies and death/resurrections included.  And suddenly this old, lived-in universe with decades of accumulated gravitas was new-car shiny and fresh.  Superheroes had only been around five years, everyone was younger, and a lot of the big events in these characters’ history, along with many of the great friendships, rivalries and romances, had never come to pass.  It was always a controversial decision, but whether you were in support or opposition, I imagine that all DC readers were sad about at least one thing they loved no longer factoring into the stories they would read going forward.

If you felt that way to any degree, this is the comic for you.  It’s not regression, as some feared.  It’s not lashing out against diversity or progress.  It’s not retconning the New 52 out of existence.  This 80-page special (and for $2.99, that’s a hell of a deal!) gets off the ground running with a simple adjustment to the premise, but one with catastrophic implications that, I think, makes the whole thing much better.  The New 52 isn’t just something that happened to us, the readers, at an editorial level.  It is something that happened to the characters, within the world of the story.  This is no longer a case of the characters are just now 10 years younger, and many of the experiences and relationships that defined them never happened.  This is a case of these characters having those years, experiences and relationships stolen from them.  And so, on some level, even if they can no longer remember it, all the stuff that happened to them before still happened.

The agent for conveying all this to the reader is none other than Wally West.  Not the teenage Wally West of the current comics, the pre New 52 Wally West, the former Flash.  This was one of the big reveals of this comic that was spoiled for me beforehand, and I think the commentary about it that I caught took his appearance in the wrong context.  There has been discussion about how the restoration of this old Wally West was about catering to the latent racism of fanboys, that the only possible reason people could want this Wally West back was that they didn’t like the new version being black.  I don’t think that’s the case at all.  Oh, of course, I’m sure there are some mouth-breathers out there who hated Wally being made black.  But for me at least, my sadness over the loss of “my” Wally West was much more down to the history I’d shared with him.  It was the Geoff Johns/Scott Kollins run on The Flash – with Wally in the mantle – that turned me from a Batman fan into a DC Universe fan, not to mention making me love the mythos of The Flash.  Barry Allen being restored into the role was a tough pill for me to swallow at first, and really it took a combination of the beautifully illustrated Francis Manapul/Brian Buccaletto run on The Flash’s New 52 launch and the excellence of the TV series and Grant Gustin’s performance in it for me to finally fully embrace Barry Allen back in the role, not to mention Barry being injected with many elements of Wally’s personality.  I love Barry Allen now and am totally down with him as The Flash, but it still made me a bit sad that those original Johns/Kollins comics I had been so fond of now starred a character who no longer existed.

But to get back on point, the return of this pre-52 Wally West works so well because he is an emblem of what was lost with the New 52.  Perhaps more than anyone else he is a standard bearer for the change and legacy the DCU was once known for.  He began as a child, becoming Kid Flash.  He grew into a teenager, becoming a founding member of the original Teen Titans.  He became an adult, and took over the mantle of The Flash.  He grew from cocky young man struggling to escape his predecessor’s shadow to a great hero in his own right, becoming so entrenched in the role in this era of temporary substitutes that, by the end of his tenure, I believe he had actually been The Flash for more years (in our time) than Barry Allen had!  He married Linda Park, they had two children, who grew from infancy to being fully-formed 8-10 year olds with personalities and superpowers of their own.  He lived a full life before us on the comic page.  And then in an instant that was all gone because such a life couldn’t possibly exist in a condensed 5-year timeline.  Reading the four-page montage in this book – masterfully illustrated by Ethan Van Sciver – where Wally chronicles his full history from Silver Age through to Flashpoint, I got chills, seeing all that stuff being referred to in a central DC comic once again.  Who better to be the agent through which the events from before the New 52 are put back on the table?  And that they are.  For example, I never got round to reading Flashpoint, but now I absolutely want to read it, as it feels important and relevant again.  Stories from before the New 52 have teeth once more.

That’s not to say that the New 52 is thrown under the bus.  As I said above, there has been a lot to like in the New 52 as well, and we see elements from various books picked up on here, be it the developments of this week’s issues of Justice League and Superman or references to Swamp Thing storylines from a few years ago.  But in amidst that, new wrinkles are being factored in, more remnants from the world that was being brought back into the mix.  Old and new all forming a ragged yet fascinating tapestry.

And, to go back to more Flash talk, I loved the characterisation of Barry Allen here.  We had a whistlestop tour through a lot of familiar heroes and villains, but I think The Flash was my favourite.  Even the little touches demonstrating his remarkable decency and optimism, how more than any other hero it’s the Fastest Man Alive who takes the extra time to ensure the people he rescues are happy as well as safe.  But on a bigger level, having him be the one figure within the New 52 Universe who can remember everything from before Flashpoint and you knows about a malevolent outside force working against them all puts him in a real centrepiece role within the DCU, poised to be a crucial figure in yet another Crisis down the line.

And yes, about that malevolent outside force… that was the other thing spoiled for me in advance.  It turns out that the figure behind the disruption of the New 52 is none other than Doctor Manhattan, of Watchmen fame.  The characters don’t know this yet, and we are left in the dark about the specifics of how and why, but the world of Watchmen is now somehow in play within the DCU.  That’s going to upset a lot of people, I know.  And I am wary of disrupting that perfect, self-contained clockwork industry of the classic comic.  And yet, I can’t deny that the reveal of that smiley face button in the Batcave got my heart racing even without it being a total surprise.  The sheer audacity of it has sparked my interest, and I absolutely need to know how this is going to play out.  Geoff Johns has successfully implanted a longform mystery into the heart of this DCU rejuvenation, with a conflict not quite like anything we’ve seen before.  And even though we don’t know the specifics, the stakes are laid out: this is a battle between the bright and hopeful optimism of the DC heroes and the bleak cynicism of Watchmen.  We’ll see what happens next!

But in talking about all these fascinating mechanics and intriguing developments, and looking into this as a new beginning, there’s something else that’s worth pointing out.  This is also an ending.  For now, at least.  This is Geoff Johns’ last comic for the foreseeable future, with him transitioning fully into the executive role that has been occupying more and more of his time in recent years.  And in that context, DC Universe: Rebirth reads a lot like a swansong for his decorated comics career.  We are taking a tour across various characters Johns has written for, touching on numerous stories he contributed to.  Wally West as our guide through all this becomes appropriate, given how he was the protagonist of one of Johns’ first major DC writing gigs.  And The Flash’s significance is fitting as Johns has always called The Flash his favourite character.  As a writer known for his big, epic events and in particular his breathtaking setups for those events, it is fitting that his final bow be a setup for the biggest event of all, handing the reigns over to others to see it through.  After giving us a Green Lantern: Rebirth and a Flash: Rebirth, Geoff Johns leaves us with a DC Universe: Rebirth.

 

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My Top Ten Comics of 2012

We’re back a bit earlier this year, so apologies to any groundbreaking comic that comes out of nowhere in the last two weeks of December and blows me away.  This marks the third time I’ve run this feature on my blog, which I guess makes it a tradition of sorts.  There’s been an interesting shift in the tides as far as my comic reading goes.  Last year I spoke of DC’s dominance in my reading list, but one year on and the new car smell has faded from much of DC’s New 52.  The very best of the bunch are still going strong, but my DC reading list has thinned considerably in 2012, with yet more titles still hovering on the precipice of being dropped.  Marvel, meanwhile, has enjoyed a slight resurgence, with me sampling and enjoying a few of the Marvel NOW! launches and jump-on points.  But the big story of this year for me has been Image, who have been on a real roll, launching intriguing new titles left and right throughout the year and enjoying perhaps their best year ever.  Taking everything into account, the field of contention for the year’s best comics is so strong that, as of the writing of this intro, there are several comics still in the running to claim the #10 spot.  One honourable mention that was incredibly close to inclusion on the list was Thor: God of Thunder, by Jason Aaron and Esad Ribic, one of the best debuts of the year.  The only thing holding it back from a top 10 inclusion was that, with only two issues released, I thought I needed to see more of the series before I could fairly judge its merits in the context of a whole year.  Maybe in the 2013 list! Will the New 52 debuts that leapt into the top 10 last year retain their placement on the list?  Will the mighty Scalped emerge as the winner for the third year in a row?  Read on and find out!

10.  FATALE

Fatale3aThe first Image comic to make the list, but not the last.  Fatale was the first in a wave of high-profile new series launches for the publisher, with the powerhouse pairing of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips launching a new creator-owned slice of pulpy noir to accompany an impressive portfolio that already includes Criminal, Sleeper and Incognito.  After arguably the high-point of both their careers thus far with last year’s Criminal: Last of the Innocent, I was highly eager to see what the pair had in store next.  What sets Fatale apart from its stablemates is that the noir aesthetic is filtered through the lens of the horror genre.  Drawing in equal parts from Lovecraftian pulp and Satanic horror cinema of the 1960s and 1970s (The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, a good dose of Hammer Horror) the result has been a narrative that substitutes overt shocks for a gradual, creeping dread that steadily built over the course of the first arc.  The second arc, while not quite as focused, still retained some degree of this finely cultivated atmosphere.  The story revolves around Josephine, an apparently-immortal woman who is gifted/cursed with the ability to make any man fall madly in love with her if they so much as look at her.  The narrative has strands spreading along both the present and various eras of the past, becoming increasingly intricate as it goes along.  It’s a limited series, but Brubaker says it keeps on getting bigger as he realises there’s more and more story to tell.  The comics themselves are fine packages, published on nice quality paper, and complete with various fascinating essays about pulp and horror fiction by Jess Nevins.  Not as immediately gripping as some of the comics higher on the list, but a quietly commanding comic that certainly merits recognition.

9.  CHEW

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After dropping out of the list last year, Chew makes a return to the top ten.  There was never really any substantial drop in quality; this offbeat series about a near-future world populated by various strange and delightful characters with food-based powers has always remained a consistently fun read, but perhaps that made it easy to take for granted as shiny new titles vied for my attentions.  But with the excellent Special Agent Poyo one-shot spinoff and the recent “Space Cakes” story arc, Chew has really upped its game and re-established itself as one of the most inventive comics on the market.  Everybody loves Rob Guillory’s gleefully demented artwork, such an integral component of the book’s identity that the very thought of a fill-in artist is horrifying.  But perhaps not enough credit is given to the deceptively intricate writing of John Layman.  With the way each issue works so well as a standalone caper, it would be easy to assume Chew is lightweight comedic fare.  But while there’s no doubt the book is funny – I laugh out loud at least once every issue – when you actually look at the ambitious narrative that has been crafted over the course of the series, it’s a surprisingly dense mythology.  We’ve now reached the halfway point of the series, and with the heartbreaking shock of issue #30, we could be heading for a change in dynamic for the second half.  But whatever lies in store, I’m certainly onboard for the long haul.

8.  WOLVERINE AND THE X-MEN

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I’ll confess, I’m shamefully late to the Wolverine and the X-Men bandwagon.  I almost picked it up at the beginning.  But that was when my interest in Marvel was at its lowest ebb, and when DC’s New 52 was making big demands on my pull list, and one of my favourite writers, Jason Aaron, was launching two new Marvel titles – Wolverine and the X-Men and The Incredible Hulk – in the same week.  I didn’t want to add more than one new Marvel comic to my monthly reading list.  So I chose The Incredible Hulk.  Now, I quite enjoyed Aaron’s run with the Green Goliath, it had some engaging ideas behind it.  But based on the tidal wave of positive feedback I’d been hearing for Wolverine and the X-Men, I began to suspect I may have made the wrong choice.  My decision to sample issue #19, billed as the Marvel NOW! “jumping-on point” for new readers, confirmed it.  Fun and accessible – two words I haven’t typically associated with X-Men comics – the strength of the issue encouraged me to pick up the previous few issues at my LCS, which included Wolverine and the X-Men #17, the Doop issue drawn by Mike Allred, perhaps one of my favourite single comics of the year.  That sealed the deal.  I went back to the start, and have been gorging myself on collected editions and back issues to get caught up.  What I love about this series is that every character earns their place.  No one is here because they were popular during Claremont’s run or whatever.  This is an ensemble piece, and every character – be they student or teacher – has something to contribute.  Which brings me to perhaps my favourite aspect of the series: the return to the school dynamic, previously crucial to the appeal of the X-Men franchise, but all too often overlooked amidst the more general superheroics.  I might have been late to the party, but better late than never!

7.  SWEET TOOTH

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Much like Chew, Sweet Tooth is a series that has been consistently great each month since its beginning, but which slipped from my top ten last year, only to return to the rankings in 2012.  In the case of Sweet Tooth, the fresh burst of momentum has come from the title’s impending conclusion.  Over the course of this year, all the plot threads have been getting drawn together and paid off, with – as of the writing of this list – only one issue remaining before the whole series is wrapped up.  Jeff Lemire has been doing very well with his work in the DCU, but this post-apocalyptic drama about a young animal/human hybrid boy, a battle-hardened old man, and their travels through a wasteland ravaged by a global pandemic – both written and drawn by the Canadian cartoonist – remains his best ongoing series.  And it’s a title that I feel has long been unfairly overlooked.  It is so well-crafted, filled with heart and characters you care about, and Lemire does some really interesting, ambitious things with his art, his layouts, and at times even the very structure of the comic itself.  I’ve talked a lot about what a void in my comics-reading life the end of Scalped will be, but I might be almost as sad to see Sweet Tooth go.  On the plus side, I’ll be first in line to check out Trillium, Jeff Lemire’s follow-up Vertigo project in 2013.

6.  THE MANHATTAN PROJECTS

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And to think, I almost didn’t buy this comic.  I’m afraid I must confess that, before The Manhattan Projects began, I wasn’t the biggest Jonathan Hickman fan.  I’d tried a few of his Marvel titles, but they’d ultimately left me cold.  But the buzz around the first issue, along with the enticingly high-concept proposal for the series – an Expendables-like team of famed scientists from history teaming up to engage in bonkers super-science – was enough to whet my appetite and make me give it a try.  I’m glad I did.  Each issue has at least one moment where I have to stop and say to myself, “That’s utterly demented!”  And, unlike lesser comics that I feel have been cynically engineered around an “Oh shock, WHAT A TWIST!” beat as a cliffhanger each issue, The Manhattan Projects manages to introduce a genuine shock revelation with each chapter in a manner that feels organic, because it tends to come from the characters and inform their portrayal.  This series has really made me a fan of Jonathan Hickman and his approach to storytelling, and since enjoying this I’ve picked up the first couple of issues of Secret, dipped my toes into his epic Fantastic Four run, and devoured The Nightly News, a wonderful comic that’s probably my favourite thing he’s done.  I’ve also become a fan of the offbeat artistic stylings of Nick Pitarra, whose visualisation of this crazy world have very quickly become definitive.  A gem of a book, that keeps going from strength to strength and getting better with each issue.

5.  SCALPED

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What’s this!?  Scalped at last toppled from the number one spot!?  I assure you, its lower placing on the list year is down to the insane quality of the comics above it, rather than any decline in the series itself, which came to an end this year.  The year in Scalped began with the dramatic conclusion to the “Knuckle Up” story, before segueing into “Trail’s End”, the final storyline that brought the saga’s major storylines to a head while still managing to leave a few tantalising loose ends dangling at the end.  This final victory lap made for some highly rewarding reading for loyal Scalped readers, as some of the catastrophic events we’ve been waiting to inevitably happen for years finally took place.  But even as the end drew near, Scalped never felt like it had checked out early.  “Trail’s End” immediately threw us off-kilter by picking up after a leap forward in time, with the status quo of several characters suddenly shifted and us left playing catch-up.  And from there, Jason Aaron steadily turned the screw and built up a sense of dread and uncertainty where, even right up to the last issue, we weren’t sure how it was all going to end, who would live and who would die.  There ended up being quite a few surprises with the way all that worked out.  And one of the biggest joys of Scalped this year is that, if I can recall, all the issues released in 2012 were drawn by the mighty R.M. Guera, who added so much to the rough, rugged aesthetic of the book.  It will be greatly missed, and my 2013 Top Ten Comics list will feel emptier for its absence, but Scalped has, for my money at least, cemented its status as one of the greatest comic books of all time.

4.  IAIN LAURIE’S HORROR MOUNTAIN

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There is perhaps no comic I’ve enjoyed continually rereading more this year than Iain Laurie’s Horror Mountain.  Given its lack of distribution it may be unlikely to appear on many other top ten comics lists this year, and that’s a great shame, as this is one of the most original, darkly inventive comics of 2012.  Horror Mountain is a standalone collection of shorts introducing various warped and depraved characters from the shadowy recesses of cartoonist Iain Laurie’s mind, with such unforgettable monstrosities as Captain Tits and Nazelbahhn.  The resulting end product plays a bit like a sketch comedy show broadcast in Hell.  By turns surreal, horrifying and strangely hilarious, Iain Laurie’s Horror Mountain is perhaps the purest, rawest expression of a singular creative voice in comics you’ll read all year.  Iain Laurie is one of the most exciting creators in comics right now, and I can’t think of anyone more deserving of having a breakout year in 2013.  I imagine his work best presented in the oversized hardcover format of X’Ed Out and The Hive, the recent output from Charles Burns.  The only thing preventing Iain Laurie’s Horror Mountain from getting higher on this list is that there isn’t more of it.  If you’re at all the kind of person who reads through these year-end “best of” lists to figure out what comics to buy next, then this should go to the top of your list.  BUY IT NOW. (Also available digitally for just $1!)

3.  BATMAN

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Last year I predicted that Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s fantastic work on Batman would earn the comic a high placement on this year’s list, despite the book not placing in the 2011 top ten: I opted to go for Scott Snyder’s Detective Comics instead, since the Batman run had at that point just begun.  Sure enough, here it is.  In the intervening 12 months, Batman has emerged as unquestionably the crown jewel of the New 52, not just in terms of sales, but in terms of quality.  The Bat-titles are strong in general right now – I currently read and enjoy Batman & Robin, Detective Comics and Batman Inc – but Batman reigns supreme.  The year got off to a blistering start for the title, with Batman #5 soaring out of the gates as an early contender for the best single comic book of 2012, not to mention one of the best single issues of an ongoing Batman comic I’ve ever read.  Featuring Batman trapped in a labyrinth by the Court of Owls and gradually losing his mind, with trippy, boundary-pushing artwork by Greg Capullo, this saw Batman pushed to the brink of defeat and despair in a way that shocked many readers.  This was the high watermark for the “Court of Owls” saga, and though it might have faltered slightly in the last chapter or two, for the most part “The Court of Owls” was a textbook example of how to tell a gripping, high-stakes Batman epic.  And now it looks like the all-star creative team is set to top it with “Death of the Family”, the currently-unfolding storyline featuring the hotly-anticipated return of The Joker.  Scott Snyder has done a stellar job of injecting a sense of genuine danger and peril into the “illusion of change” world of superhero comics, crafting nightmare scenarios where even jaded comics readers are left on the edge of their seats wondering how the hell Batman can possibly prevail.  And Greg Capullo is giving us perhaps the finest work of his celebrated career.  If Batman can maintain this dizzyingly high standard, I fully expect it to rank highly on next year’s list as well.

2.  SAGA

Saga4aIt has become very fashionable for everyone to gush about how amazing Saga is, and under that sea of hyperbole it might be easy to overlook how good this series actually is.  I’ve read the first issue several times now.  I read it two times in a row on the week I first bought it, before reading any of my other comics from that week, and I remember doing this because I was more excited about rereading this mind-blowing book than reading of my other purchases, none of which could hope to live up to Saga #1.  Since then I’ve periodically returned to that first issue, and recently downloaded it free on Comixology so I can reread it even more on my iPad.  Though I should clarify that the other 6 issues to follow have been great too, establishing a unique, vibrant sci-fi/fantasy world that feels like the basis of a fresh and exciting mythology I’m incredibly excited to explore and learn more about in the years to come.  The best of the crop of new Image comics to launch this year, Saga marks the return of Brian K. Vaughan to comics.  Given how much I adore Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina, that alone was enough to guarantee my interest.  But Vaughan doesn’t rest on his laurels, and isn’t content with just coming back to do what he did before.  No, he’s pushing himself with what could be his most ambitious narrative yet, a huge, sweeping space opera that incorporates various planets, species and cultures, a tale of star-crossed lovers on the run with their baby, and a long-running intergalactic war with unsettling real-world parallels.  But at its core Saga is a book about characters, and it’s amazing how quickly readers have come to care about Marko, Alana, Izabel, Prince Robot IV, The Will, Lying Cat and the rest.  And the art, oh God, how can I not mention the art!?  Fiona Staples has very quickly emerged as one of my favourite artists in comics, and of the breakout comic stars of 2012.  As artist and colorist (and occasional letterer when it comes to Hazel’s narration), Staples is crucial in giving the book its visual identity, crafting an aesthetic that often abandons hackneyed genre tropes where you’d expect to find them and instead crafts something new and often a bit crazy in its place, making Saga feel like no sci-fi or fantasy story you’ve ever encountered before, in any medium.  So integral is Fiona Staples to the book that, when the announcement came that the book was taking a hiatus of a couple of months in between arcs to let her get caught up on her art, the usual grumbling was pretty much absent, with a “Yeah, that’s fair enough, because a fill-in artist would be unthinkable” response proving to be the norm.  This is the comic I look forward to each month above all others.  When Scalped finished this year, I did not expect any comic to fill that “monthly comics crack” void.  I certainly didn’t expect it to happen so soon.  But Saga could very well be the spiritual successor to Scalped, and I can’t think of a better compliment to give a comic than that.

1.  THE UNDERWATER WELDER

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After all that fawning over Saga, it might be hard to believe it only made it to #2 on my year-end list.  Believe me, pretty much right from its stellar first issue, I thought it had the “Best Comic of 2012” spot in the bag, and it would take a very special comic indeed to top it.  It’s a good thing, then, that The Underwater Welder is a very special comic indeed.  Essex County is Jeff Lemire’s masterpiece, and stands as one of the finest comics of the past decade, not to mention one of my all-time favourites.  So, as much as I’ve enjoyed Lemire’s work in the DCU, I had been eagerly anticipating The Underwater Welder – his next graphic novel for Top Shelf– since I first heard about it last year.  And while it doesn’t quite surpass the mighty Essex County, it could very well be Lemire’s most accomplished work since that breakthrough book.  It is very much a thematic cousin to Essex County, given its exploration of fathers and sons and life in a small community, but this tale – of an underwater welder still haunted by memories of a father he lost in childhood as his wife is expecting with a child of his own – takes an unexpected, Twilight Zone style twist into supernatural territory that sets it apart.  While many may know Lemire primarily as a writer, The Underwater Welder shows his outstanding ability as a cartoonist, with a nigh-unparalleled gift for wringing a surprising amount of emotional heft out of seemingly simple images.  Lemire’s artwork feels a lot more precise and polished than it did with Essex County, but still retains that rough, sketchy quality that some might find initially off-putting.  I, however, love it, with Lemire simplifying much of the extraneous detail and honing in on the emotional truth of a moment.  And it’s surprising how immersive the worlds he draws can become, as we build up an emotional investment in the characters and gain a strong sense of place from their surroundings: this book left me seriously wanting to visit Nova Scotia.  Lemire also does some impressive visual experimentation, composing some of the year’s most breathtaking page layouts for this story.  But more than anything else, what I adore about The Underwater Welder is its heart.  Lemire has a gift for telling stories that can feel nakedly emotional without ever coming across as sappy or maudlin, and he does it again with this moving, unconventionally heartwarming tale.  I wish Lemire all the best in his work on ongoing comics.  But I hope that no matter what heights his career as a mainstream comic writer takes him to, he will always find the time to come back to writing and drawing graphic novels like The Underwater Welder, because when he does projects like this, Jeff Lemire is better than just about anyone in the comics medium today.

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REVIEW: Swamp Thing #1

Back in June, when the DC relaunch was first announced, the first comic that emerged as being at the top of my hype list for September, the one I really couldn’t wait for, was Swamp Thing.  I’m a big fan of the character, was excited about him returning to the DCU, and the pairing of writer Scott Snyder and artist Yanick Paquette seemed like a real dream team.  So, I plunged back into the old Alan Moore run, buying all the lovely hardcover editions DC has recently released.  Rediscovering this landmark run, I found it to be even better than I remembered, arguably Moore’s finest work, and I found a whole new appreciation for what Stephen Bissette was doing with the artwork, years (if not decades) ahead of his time.  Swamp Thing is, in my opinion, one of the best characters in DC’s roster, and him getting his first non-Vertigo series in around 20 years is a big deal.

However, as the months have worn on and the big day has drawn closer, my interest in the new Swamp Thing #1 waned ever so slightly.  Don’t get me wrong, every new art preview or interview from Snyder impressed me, but other books, such as Action Comics, Snyder’s own Batman, and more recently Stormwatch, began to surpass Swamp Thing in my personal anticipation stakes.  Oh me of little faith.  Today marks a vintage comic week, and a creative triumph for DC.  I was treated to great comic after great comic from this week’s offerings in the New 52, but standing head and shoulders above the rest as the best of the bunch was Swamp Thing #1.

There is an effective narrative device that Scott Snyder has used in a few of his works.  He begins both the first issue of American Vampire and the first part of his run on Detective Comics with the protagonist, through voiceover, reminiscing about a childhood memory, while the images being shown on the page cast these memories in a sinister new light.  This recurring motif also pops up in Swamp Thing #1, but what makes it all the more intriguing this time round is that the protagonist in question, Dr. Alec Holland, is a character who, until now, is known more for his death (and what followed) than any detail of his life.

At first glance, people might be put off by a Swamp Thing comic without Swamp Thing.  Based on the plot synopsis of this first issue, a rhetorical question seemed to hang in the air: “Should people care about Alec Holland even if he isn’t big, green and leavy?”  In short: yes.  Holland is presented as a man haunted by his past as Swamp Thing, a past that is hounding him, trying to reclaim him.  Plants and greenery seem to follow him wherever he goes, whether it towers ominously in the background or grow in vines and creepers around his feet.  One of the highlights of the issue is Holland’s monologue about the violent nature of plants, which has the unusual combination of being both educational and laced with menace.  But beyond this, Snyder’s characterisation of Holland gives us a sympathetic depiction of the survivor of a monumental trauma; a normal man who has gone through the death and resurrection cycle common in comics, but normally saved for superheroes.  This is best portrayed through a conversation between Superman and Alec Holland that makes up the centrepiece of the issue.  The idea that these two people – on the surface, worlds apart – are united by a common experience, is quite a powerful idea.

But this isn’t a comic that’s all about meaningful conversation and soul-searching.  Out in the desert of Arizona, something awful is happening.  Swamp Thing is a comic that has earned a reputation for delivering some moments of genuinely bloodcurdling horror, and Snyder is able to carry on that fine tradition with a truly gruesome sequence near the issue’s climax.  As this monstrous new threat reveals itself, some iconography comes into play that will be familiar to longtime Swamp Thing readers.  Those who are still haunted by memories of the Invunche – one of the most gruesome creatures to appear in Moore’s run – will get a chill at the fate met by some characters here, and it all but goes without saying that you can’t use a fly in a Swamp Thing without drawing up unsettling memories of Anton Arcane.  This is a story that I believe is totally accessible to someone who has never read a Swamp Thing comic in their lives and wants to see what all the fuss is about, but little Easter eggs like this make the road ahead all the more tantalising for those of us a bit more familiar with the mythos.

I’ve done a lot of gushing about Scott Snyder’s writing, but I would be negligent if I didn’t shower equal praise on the incredible contribution of Yanick Paquette.  Quite simply, this comic looks stunning.  From the very first page, with a cinematic zoom-in from the Metropolis skyline to Clark Kent’s face, followed by a macabre yet beautifully arranged double-page spread, we are immediately immersed in the world of the story.  Paquette is really channeling the spirit of Stephen Bissette here, with inventive layouts that turn each page into an intricately designed tableau, and panels packed with a deceptive level of detail.

Paquette uses all kinds of clever tricks to ensure Swamp Thing looks unlike anything else in DC’s New 52.  Something as small as making the panel borders black instead of white instantly sets it apart, DC Dark indeed.  And it’s in the panel borders where Paquette puts to use a trick that I found particularly clever.  Whenever the ominous, looming threat casting a shadow over this story makes its presence felt on the page, the neat, cirsp panel borders break down, turning ragged and uneven, and the panels within them become more wild and erratic in their layout.  It’s as if this primal embodiment of death and decay were eating through the very fabric of the page, rotting the images and the paper and seeping through to get us.  Indeed, when we see its giant, fly-covered eye, it seems to be staring out of the page, right at us.

This comic is a masterpiece of technical craft, both in art and writing (and let’s not forget the rich coloring of Nathan Fairbairn: this is a comic where green packs as much dramatic punch as in Green Lantern), and is the most exciting first issue of any comic I’ve read in quite some time.  It has human drama, it has horror, and it has mysteries and unanswered questions, including a big one that acts as the first issue’s cliffhanger.  But it doesn’t feel decompressed.  I got plenty of satisfying content in Swamp Thing #1.  But all the same, the wait for Swamp Thing #2 is going to be agonising.  One thing’s for sure, though: I won’t be forgetting what comic I should be looking forward to most this time.

REVIEW: Action Comics #1

When news of DC’s relaunch first hit the web, and it was announced to much excitement that Grant Morrison would be writing Action Comics, the famous writer talked about how he and artist Rags Morales would create a new language for comics in their Superman saga.  Some wondered what this meant: was it anything more substantial than vague marketing hyperbole?  Then I read Supergods – Grant Morrison’s history of the superhero genre/partial biography, released shortly after the relaunch was announced – and all of a sudden the answer was clear.

As one can probably imagine from any history of the superhero genre, the first chapter sees Morrison talk at length about Superman.  The whole passage (and indeed, the whole book) is fascinating reading, but of particular interest to me was his in-depth case study of the original Action Comics #1 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.  He imagines approaching the book as a reader in 1938 – the initial ambiguity over whether this mysterious Superman was a hero or a villain, the awe at him engaging in amazing feats far beyond the reach of his pulp predecessors – and praises this landmark comic (which now sells for millions of dollars) for inventing a new kind of storytelling, creating the superhero comic.  And from there, it clicked: this new Action Comics #1 is the first Action Comics #1 since that first one that launched the superhero genre, and Grant Morrison and Rags Morales are approaching this comic with the goal of recreating the experience readers felt back then for today’s jaded audience.  Just reading Morrison’s description of that first Superman comic having non-stop action from panel to panel – bam, bam, bam – something new and exciting constantly happening with every image, I imagined what a modern version of that might be like… and it really had me anticipating this comic.

Action Comics #1 lives up to much of that promise.  As was the case with the Siegel and Shuster original, we begin the action in media res, and the pace doesn’t let up until all 29 pages of story have flown by.  In a lot of ways, I think Action Comics could have been more deserving of being the one DC comic to lead the charge and launch the New 52 last week than Justice League.  Not only is it a better comic, but it more powerfully conveys a sense of newness to this world.  We’ve all gotten so used to Superman, and he’s become such a safe, iconic character, that it takes quite a lot of skill to take us back to a place where he was new, even threatening, but Morrison and Morales pull it off.  Morrison’s plotting seems to put us forever one step behind him, in the perspective of those observing him as they struggle to keep up.  Morales’ art, meanwhile, gives us a Superman often cast into shadow, glowing red eyes glaring out at us, enhancing the alien qualities of the character.  As for the much-maligned T-shirt and jeans outfit, in the context of the story, it works.  It gives us a Superman that’s almost believable, casting aside the familiar iconography of the superhero genre and making us think what it might actually be like if someone in a world not unlike our own started to manifest these incredible powers.

Based on the preview that was released last week, which featured Superman throwing around corrupt businessmen and taunting negligent cops, some folk on the internet were unhappy with Superman’s characterisation, saying he came across as a “jock” or a “douche”.  I didn’t think that someone who shows zero tolerance for injustice and bullies qualifies as a douche, and in the context of the issue as a whole I think my stance has been further vindicated.  Though the government, the law and the corrupt fear him, regular people, particularly the downtrodden, love him, and in one touching sequence, protectively encircle him when he’s confronted by the military.  This is Superman as man of the people, again taking him right back to his roots.  He’s also a Superman who bruises, who bleeds, who can’t yet fly, someone who has not yet reached the peak of his powers.  He’s relatable.  That carries over to his alter ego as well.  Clark Kent is still a journalist, but rather than dressing him up in a suit and giving him a 1930s nerd chic combover, he dresses younger, more casually, looking more like a farmboy in the big city.   He lives in a small apartment and struggles to pay his rent, perhaps feeling more in touch with young professionals who might now be the most likely target audience for a comic.  We also get a sense that Clark Kent the reporter is more than just the convenient disguise for Superman: the pursuit of truth at the core of journalism is something Clark passionately believes in, and it would appear his superhuman persona is in fact an extension of that, as the nasty individuals he’s investigating are the same people he goes after as Superman.

And of course, even in the early days, you can’t have Superman without Lex Luthor.  Superman’s ever-evolving nemesis now finds himself in the role of independent contractor doing freelance work for the military, offering scientific insight into how best to stop and capture this mysterious alien being.  Luthor is largely in the shadows in this issue, but we do get glimpses into his personality and motivations.  Him constantly referring to Superman as “it” rather than “he” was a nice touch, and one speech talking about how the introduction of foreign creatures in the animal kingdom can result in the eradication of indigenous species was particularly effective.  We have seen from All Star Superman that Morrison writes a great Lex Luthor, so I can’t wait to see how his role expands as this story develops.

The artwork of Rags Morales has its odd ropey moment (in particular, Lex Luthor’s age, facial structure and body shape seems to change almost on a panel-to-panel basis), but for the most part, he excels in bringing to dramatic life every amazing feat Morrison’s script calls upon him to portray.  As touched upon above, his Superman is great, always the most interesting part of every page he appears on.  With the way his body language is laid out, you can feel the effort that goes behind every move for this young and inexperienced Superman, bringing new life and excitement to all the famous gestures we can often take for granted.

As for Morrison, this is the master of the dizzying high-concept at his most open and accessible, telling a story that I think can appeal to everyone, from loyal Super-fans to dubious cynics.  I had high expectations for Action Comics #1 from the moment it was announced, expectations that rose even further after reading Supergods, so it’s a testament to the quality of this comic that those expectations were mostly fulfilled.  This is the Superman comic we’ve been waiting for.

REVIEW: Detective Comics #879

I almost never picked up the first issue of Scott Snyder’s run on Detective  Comics.  It arrived at a period when I was trying to trim down my monthly comic buying habits, and I had made myself a strict statement of intent that the only Batman comics I needed to be reading where whatever ones Grant Morrison happened to be writing.  His jawdropping, landmark run with the character is going to be looked back on one day as one of the all-time greats, and I felt that it gave me all I could possibly need as a Batman comic fan.  But after reading all the great reviews for Snyder and artist Jock’s debut on the title, I grudgingly decided to give it a go, just for one issue.

I’m glad I did: it’s become one of my most anticipated titles each month ever since, and on weeks when their respective scheduling means I can pick up both Snyder’s Detective Comics and Morrison’s Batman Inc, as big of a Morrison fan as I am, I must admit Detective gets read first.

Even more than Morrison did on his Batman & Robin run, Snyder truly gets into the psyche of Dick Grayson, and lays out what makes him unique, and different from Bruce Wayne, as Batman.  And more than that, over the course of his run he has made a potent statement about Gotham itself, with his first arc, “Black Mirror”, and its follow-up, “Hungry City”, both showing the city as almost a living entity, shifting  and changing to reflect the worst nightmares of its current protector.  I truly believe that, years from now, even once Bruce Wayne is long re-established as the sole Batman and the idea of Dick Grayson wearing the cowl has become an obscure, almost-forgotten historical curio, the strength of this story will be enough for it to operate outside of current continuity and have a healthy life in the graphic novel market.

But as much as I’ve enjoyed Snyder and Jock’s main storyline of Dick Grayson’s trials as the new Batman, I think the subplot involving Commissioner Gordon’s difficult reunion with his (literal) psychopath son James, Jr has been even better.  It began as the back-up story for the series, and when DC canned those, Snyder shifted things around  so that every fourth issue of the title would become a full-length Gordon story.  Issue #875, “Lost Boys”, was the first of these Gordon spotlight issues, and it still stands as the single best issue of this entire run, and quite possibly Snyder’s finest hour in any of his comics thus far.  Issue #879, “Skeleton Key” (after 4 paragraphs, he finally gets to reviewing the issue!), doesn’t quite top that masterpiece of comics storytelling, but is at least the best issue of Detective Comics SINCE #875.

A big part of what makes “Skeleton Key” – and the rest of this Gordon subplot – so brilliant is the artwork of Francesco Francavilla.  Jock’s interiors in the “A-story” have been great too, and rightly celebrated, but in my personal opinion Francavilla’s work might be even better.  Of course, it’s two different styles for two different stories: the kinetic, exciting layouts of Jock’s artwork reflects the high-octane acrobatics of Dick Grayson as Batman.  This Gordon story, however, owes more to the psychological crime thriller, even horror, and that is reflected in Francavilla’s heavy shadows and claustrophobic panel construction.

But perhaps more than his crisp, noir-tinged artwork, it’s Francavilla’s colors that really set the tone of his work here.  The use of bright neon pink, purple, orange, yellow and red (especially red, lots and lots of red) might initially be a bit overwhelming for some.  It reminds me of the original coloring for Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke.  I know Bolland wasn’t a fan of that look, and had it recolored in more muted tones for the recent hardcover re-release, but I was always a fan of those original colors and the nightmarish funhouse vibe it gave the story, making it feel like a bad acid trip.  The word “nightmarish” also springs to mind for the effect it has on the story here, with Francavilla plunging us into a world that feels sinister and off-kilter.

Of course, much credit must also go to the writing  of Scott Snyder.  Here is a Batman comic where Batman doesn’t once appear, and thanks to the stellar characterisation of Gordon, we don’t miss him.  Jim Gordon is a character I’ve long been fond of.  As much as Batman: Year One is hailed as one of the definitive Batman stories, I think at it’s core it’s really a Gordon story.  Even in the films, as talented as Christian Bale is, I think Gary Oldman’s better.  Here, Snyder engages in something he has shown a skill for: opening up unexplored pockets of history and exploring how they impact on the present.  In Gordon’s case, he has brought back the long-absent James, Jr – seen as an infant in Year One, and rarely since then – as a malevolent figure.  For a while, the menace of the character came from us not knowing his true motives, and whether his words could be taken at face value.  After last month confirmed our suspicions about James, Jr’s true nature, here we see Gordon come to that same realisation.

The actual main narrative development of the issue is probably the weakest aspect of the comic.  When we discover what James, Jr’s plans are, it feels to much like a supervillain’s evil scheme.  A really clever evil scheme, it must be said, but part of what made James, Jr such an unnerving presence is that he didn’t feel like just another larger-than-life  supervillain.  He was a monster that was a lot more uncomfortably close-to-home than that, and as such Gordon – and by extension, us – didn’t know quite how to react to him.  By going from something not quite tangible to being “the villain”, the obvious solution becoms “flip on the Bat-Signal and call in Batman.”

No, the real strength and power in Snyder’s writing here comes in the smaller moments.  Perhaps most potently of all, near the end – once he learns the full extent of his son’s darkness and is rushing to stop him – Gordon is haunted by fragmented images of his son as a smiling, innocent child, a child that is now long gone.  If the overarching story of Snyder’s run is about Gotham acting as a “black mirror”, the corruption of his son is the ghoulish reflection Gordon sees staring back at him.  This is a story about parents and their children, and as such a large chunk of the issue depicts the relationship between Gordon and Barbara.  Snyder doesn’t hammer us over the head with it, a lot is left unspoken, but the absolute trust, faith and love the two have for one another is clear.  As the ever-worsening grimness of the James, Jr story plays out, this more positive relationship for Gordon serves as a beacon of light, however dim.

Oh, and The Joker shows up too.  The Joker is probably my favorite character in comics, if not all fiction, so I always love seeing how new writers and artists will handle him.  Here, hidden behind a Hannibal Lecter style mask for the entirety of his appearance, inhuman eyes bulging out of the narrow slits, he fits in effortlessly with Francavilla’s neon-noir horror vibe.  His words (lettered by Jared K Fletcher in their own distinct, ragged font, heightening the aforementioned “inhuman” effect) are an elaborate mind-game for his captors in Arkham, but take on a whole new significance when juxtaposed against the Gordon family drama: “It’s a story about LOVE!  LOVE!  LOVE!”  I’m of the opinion that every story becomes that little bit better if you put The Joker in it (The King’s Speech would surely have won even more Oscars if the Clown Prince of Crime went on a killing spree in the third act), and so I can’t wait to see how he works into the narrative in the remaining issues.

If you’ve not been reading Detective Comics these past few months, you’ve been missing out.  It’s a shame that we’re now entering the endgame of this  particular saga, with the DC Relaunch in September drawing ever closer.  The good news is that Snyder will be jumping over to Batman #1 with the arrival of the New 52, and so I’m pretty sure that title is in good hands.