Thursday, October 20, 2011

Books I read: Batgirl, Batwoman, Frankenstein, Shade, Batman, Wonder Woman

I know I promised to feature some non-DC/Marve comics on this blog this month, but you know how it is. Life gets in the way. But I will get to them eventually. Aside from my regular pull list, I've also gotten a few graphic novels of interest lately: Nate Powell's Any Empire, Craig Thompson's Habibi, and Daniel Clowes' Death-Ray. I hope to write about all of them, so thanks for your patience.

Meanwhile, here are some very quick thoughts on the DC books I read the past couple of weeks.

Batgirl #2
Written by Gail Simone, pencils by Ardian Syaf, inks by Vincente Cifuentes; colours by Ulises Arreola; DC.

I find myself disliking the art in this book a lot more than I ever expected to. Ardian Syaf's action scenes are confusing and his faces are inconsistent and weird. And the colours by Ulises Arreola are positively garish. Storywise, we find out what the villain's deal is and it's a bit more complicated than what I was expecting. I'm not really sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing. I feel like it's too soon for me to really care about this villain's backstory and I wish Gail Simone had waited a bit longer before giving us that information. Meanwhile, she continues to tease about the "miraculous" way Barbara was cured, which is fine for now, but I hope it doesn't drag on for too much longer. Bottom line is I'm still very curious about where all this is going, but not completely sold on it either. I want to give Gail Simone a fair chance, though, so that's as far as I'll go with my analysis for now.

Batwoman #1 and 2
Written by J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman; art by J. H. Williams III; colours by Dave Stewart; DC.

The first issue sold out before I could get my hands on it last month, so I grabbed the second printing last week along with the second issue. J.H. Williams doesn't disappoint. He delivers exactly the kind of spectacular art that everyone was expecting, with incredibly complex and ultra-stylized layouts. As impressive and beautiful as it is, though, I find it a little bit exhausting. I'm a big fan of simple, elegant design and grid layouts, and sometimes I find myself wishing that J.H. Williams would show a little bit more restraint. I'm a little bit sick of those double-page spread layouts with the panels forming a giant bat symbol, which we've seen him use in Elegy as well as in the Batman stuff he did with Grant Morrison. I feel like there's only so many times you can pull that off before it starts to feel like a gimmick, and Williams is getting awfully close to that limit. I've also read at least a couple of comments from people saying they're finding the unexplained whiteness of Kate Kane's skin kind of distracting, and I tend to agree. It was fine as a stylistic choice at first, but now I keep asking myself what is wrong with that woman's skin and why doesn't she spend more time in the sun?

Still, I'm being critical here, but that doesn't mean I don't get any pleasure out of this beautiful art. Besides, all these pretty pictures would feel more superfluous if we didn't get some good stories to support them, and so far I'm liking what Williams and Blackman are doing with the characters. It might not be on the level of Greg Rucka's excellent and defining run writing the character, but it's good enough to keep my interest. Also, the fact that Amy Reeder is going to be drawing the next arc gives me something to look forward to. It's going to be a nice change of pace.

Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E. #2
Written by Jeff Lemire; art by Alberto Ponticelli; colours by Jose Villarubia; DC.

I enjoyed this issue a whole lot more than the first one, and I think this title might turn out to be one of my favourites of the New 52 after all. Lotta fun, good art, good colours. What's not to like?

The Shade #1
Written by James Robinson; art by Cully Hamner; colours by Dave McCraig; DC.

This is going to be a 12-issue mini-series, with each arc by a different artist. If you've read James Robinson's seminal Starman run (or even just part of it, as I have), then you know how awesome this character can be. I really enjoyed this first issue, despite the appearance of one of my all-time least favourite villains in the last few pages. And Cully Hamner's art - wow! This just made me want to rush out and buy more of his books. (PS: What do you recommend?)

Batman #2
Written by Scott Snyder; pencils by Greg Capullo; inks by Jonathan Glapion; colours by FCO; DC.

This is good. Of course it's good. What else would you expect from a Batman comic written by Scott Snyder? There isn't really anything about the story that's blowing my mind yet, but I can tell that Snyder is slowly putting all the pieces in place and when the shit hits the fan, our minds are going to suitably blown. Greg Capullo's art, which I wasn't all that thrilled with at first, is starting to grow on me. It still kind of seems like a weird fit for this book, but it's good.

Wonder Woman #2
Written by Brian Azzarello; art by Cliff Chiang; colours by Matthew Wilson; DC.

And this is my favourite book of the batch this time around. As unconvinced as I am about the idea of Zeus being Wonder Woman's father, I have to admit that so far it definitely looks like Brian Azzarello knows what he's doing and he's got a good story to tell, so let's wait and see what he does with it. Cliff Chiang's art is juts phenomenal. I don't know what else to say. This book is just full of awesome, and right now it's competing with Swamp Thing for the #1 spot in my heart out of this relaunch.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

About that kick in Huntress #1

I've seen a few reviews of Huntress #1 take issue with some of Marcus To's art, and in particular with one panel that shows Helena's body twisting in ways not humanly possible to kick one of the bad guys in the face. This is the offending panel:

Marcus To takes the criticism seriously and has responded on his Tumblr by pointing to a scene in a Tony Jaa movie that inspired the move and a picture of a gymnast standing in a similar position, while also acknowledging that he did screw up some of the details, like the orientation of the foot.

All of which is cool, but the thing is, I don't really care. This was one of my favourite panels in the book. It made me laugh out loud, not because I thought it was ridiculous but because I thought it was delightfully absurd in the way that superhero comics inherently are (or should be). These are the kinds of panels that automatically put a smile on my face. Criticizing it for being unrealistic sucks all the joy out of it.

I appreciate some level of realism in my comics. Artists that play fast and loose with anatomy and perspective sometimes bother me (for example, Jim Lee's art in Justice League #1). But I also want comics to be fun and I want these heroes to pull off move that nobody else can pull off. And if that means a little bit of cheating from time to time, I'm perfectly fine with that.

It seems like a strange thing to pick on when readers and reviewers seem to fully accept anatomically impossible female bodies with tiny waistlines, twisted so that their boobs AND their ass are pointed at the reader, in high heels and an unzipped suit, supposedly being "empowered." At least To's art is respectful of the character. The above panel is meant to show how incredibly skilled Helena is. It doesn't emphasize her crotch or her boobs. There's nothing objectifying about it.

In my opinion Marcus To is one of the best artists working for DC right now. His layouts are simple and elegant. His lines are super-clean. He can make any costume look great. He never goes for cheesecake. He's always on time and never needs fill-in artists to finish his pages. Sure, there's room for improvement (I find he has a limited range in body types and faces, for example) but his strengths as an artist far outweigh his weaknesses.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Books I read: Action Comics, Animal Man, Huntress, Swamp Thing

Yes, I do plan on spending some time this month reviewing some of the non-DC/Marvel comics on my pull list. But that doesn't mean I stop covering the New 52. Here are some quick thoughts on the new issues I read this week.

Action Comics #2
Written by Grant Morrison; pencils by Rags Morales and Brent Anderson; inks by Rick Bryant and Brent Anderson; colours by Brad Anderson; DC 

One of my biggest concerns with DC's relaunch is that their commitment to shipping all the books on time will lead to more unsolicited fill-in artists. I hate unsolicited fill-in artists with the passion of a thousand suns. I understand that artists need a break from time to time. But I think how much work an artist can handle should be planned into the schedule. Either alternate between two art teams, or plan for guest artists between story arcs. It's simply not acceptable to announce a book with one creative team and then ship it with a different (and most of the time inferior) creative team.

Consistency of art is really important to me. I have a feeling that I'm in the minority, but whatever. As a consumer, I'm just not willing to keep supporting books that constantly disappoint me in that department. I've learned my lesson from DC in recent months, and one of the conditions I set for myself when I decided to try out some of these New 52 issues was that the moment an unsolicited fill-in artist would appear in a book, that book would get dropped from my pull list.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, Action Comics made it through one-and-a-half issue before Rags Morales needed some help. The art in the second issue is wildly inconsistent. I'm assuming that the pages not drawn by Morales are the ones that feature Lois Lane. That would certainly explain why she looks like a completely different character in every panel she appears in.

The patch-up art job is already enough for me to stop buying this book. But there's another reason. This book costs $3.99. If I remember correctly, the justification for the extra dollar on some of the New 52 books (despite DC's much publicized "holding the line" campaign pre-September and their promises to stick to $2.99 till the end of the year) was that it's a longer than the standard 20 pages we get in other books. Well, I counted the story pages in this issue and there are 20. The rest are bonus material, ads and a preview for some Batman graphic novel. So where's my extra dollar going? Hint: It's not "bonus" material if I have to pay extra for it.

All this ranting and I haven't even talked about the content yet. Is this a terrible comic? No. It's an average comic book that I already wasn't that stoked on after the first issue, but I figured I would give it a chance. I did. And now it's over. I will not be buying issue #3.

Animal Man #2
Written by Jeff Lemire; art by Travel Foreman; colours by Lovern Kindzierski; DC

I didn't enjoy this issue quite as much as I enjoyed the first one. I think it's because of the way Maxine feels more like a plot device than a character. I find it a little bit of a cop out that Buddy doesn't really have to do any work to figure out what is going on. All he has to do is listen to his daughter explain everything to him and guide him to this magical world nobody knew existed just 24 hours earlier. It's just awfully convenient that Maxine has all the answers.

In spite of that, I did enjoy the issue. I still think the art is visually striking and original. I think those who weren't sold on the art in the first issue will probably have even more problems with it in this one, but I actually find it refreshing to have a comic that is so stylistically different from anything else that DC puts out each month. It's about as far away from a conventional "house style" as you can get.

Still a strong title and in no real danger of getting bumped off my pull list for the foreseeable future.

Huntress #1
Written by Paul Levitz; pencils by Marcus To; inks by John Dell; colours by Andrew Dalhouse; DC

This is the first of a six-issue mini-series. The first thing that struck me about it is how unfortunate it is that DC hired Guillem March to do the covers instead of letting Marcus To handle them. The difference between the tacky mess of a cover and the gorgeous, classy art inside is almost shocking as you open the book. Marcus To was fantastic on Red Robin and here he continues to impress me with his clean lines and layouts. The only criticism I have of the art is that there isn't much to differentiate the women's faces from one another, but that's a very common problem in comics. In any case, it's not really a big enough deal to take anything away from my enjoyment of this first issue.

Paul Levitz has a good handle on the character. This was a good, introduction to what seems like it's going to be a pretty straightforward (but potentially very satisfying) story. Helena's character doesn't seem to be affected by the relaunch at all (from what I can tell), so if you're a fan of the character you won't be disappointed.

Solid first issue. I'm onboard.

Swamp Thing #2
Written by Scott Snyder; art by Yanick Paquette; colours by Nathan Fairbairn; DC

The first issue was good, but this second issue is even better. Paquette's art (helped by Fairbairn's detailed colours) is blowing my mind.

A large part of this issue is mostly just an info dump, as (one version of) Swamp Thing explains to Alec Holland what the deal is with the Green, the Parliament of Trees, and his connection to Swamp Thing. I was a little bit worried when I found out a few months ago that Swamp Thing was coming back to the DCU and that Alec Holland would be resurrected. I don't worship Alan Moore's work, but I think some of the concepts he established in in run on Swamp Thing are really rich and fascinating, and I didn't want to see that get wiped out of continuity.

What's amazing is that Scott Snyder somehow manages to honour Moore's run while establishing a new status quo for the character. Instead of just retconning Moore's run, he adds new elements that force us to reinterpret it. I don't know how interesting it is to new readers, but I thought all the back story in this issue was great. And now I'm really excited to see where it's all going to lead.

Scott Snyder is simply amazing. There's no doubt in my mind now that he's the best writer working for DC. I am so completely sold on what he's doing here and in Batman (and in his creator-owned work) that I'm basically just going to buy anything and everything he writes from now on. You want good comics? I suggest you do the same.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Is It Wednesday Yet?

Coming this week is the first batch of #2 issues from DC's New 52. On my pull list are:

  • Action Comics #2
  • Animal Man #2
  • Swamp Thing #2
In addition, DC also has two new miniseries launching this week:
  • Huntress #1
  • Penguin: Pain and Prejudice #1
I'm definitely getting Huntress. In spite of the rather awful covers by Guillem March (why does everybody but me think this guy is a good artist?), the interior art by Marcus To promises to be absolutely gorgeous and well worth the cover price. Paul Levitz is writing. There's a preview here.

I think I'm gonna pass on the Penguin mini, though. It's written by Gregg Hurwitz with art by Szymon Kudranksi, and I'm not familiar with either of their work so that's neither a plus or a minus. But I already have way too much Batman-family titles on my pull list, so I'm not really looking to add yet another. 

Other stuff on my pull list:
  • Sweet Tooth #26 (Vertigo)
  • Severed #3 (Image)
  • Mystic #3 (Marvel/CrossGen)
  • Superior #5 (Marvel/Icon)
Sweet Tooth is Jeff Lemire's magnum opus, which just keeps getting better and better. Severed is a Scott Snyder horror project involving cannibals. Mystic is G. Willow Wilson's fantastic mini-series that I wish could go on forever instead of being a mini-series. It may be the best book of the year, due in no small part to the wonderful art by David Lopez and gorgeous colours by Nathan Fairbairn. Superior is the long-delayed Mark Millar/Leinil Yu fantasy about a boy who gets transformed into his favourite movie superhero, an analogue of Superman/Captain Marvel. I believe this is the penultimate issue.

Finally, IDW has a graphic novel called All-Ghouls School that might be worth a look.  I'm not going to pick it up right away, mostly because I can't afford it right now when there are so many other books on my waiting list (more on that later). But it looks like it could be fun. There's a cheesy trailer for the book here.

Full list of new releases is here.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

DC New 52 debriefing + a mini Daredevil review + indie October

Phew. September is over. One month of relentless hype, debate, outrage, excitement, confusion and snark. Fifty-two new #1s, all sold out. A tremendous success in terms of initial sales. And there's no doubt about it, DC has dominated the comics internet. To the point where maybe we're a little exhausted and sick of hearing about them.

It's going to take a lot more hindsight before we can fully grasp what just happened and start to analyze its full implications. But I can tell you this: The dude who runs the comic book store I got to told me that before September they had about 90 reserves (i.e., clients who subscribe to books and have them set aside for them until they can pick them up) and now they have over 150. So it seems like a lot of these new readers, wherever they're coming from, are in it for more than just the first issues.

I'm impressed. I wasn't at all convinced that this would work. I'm still not sure that this is an altogether positive things in the long run as far as what I personally want out of mainstream super-hero comic books from the Big Two, but I have to admit that DC seems to have hit its short term goals. Remains to be seen whether they'll be able to turn these into a viable long-term strategy.

Out of the new 52, I only read 13 books. Here they are, sorted from best to worst:

1. Animal Man
2. Swamp Thing
3. Wonder Woman
4. Batman
5. Action Comics
6. Frankenstein, Agent of SHADE
7. Batgirl
8. Demon Knights
9. Fury of Firestorm
10. Supergirl
11. Static Shock
12. Stormwatch
13. Justice League

Of these 13, only Justice League was a true stinker. The top 4 were excellent. The next 5 were okay. The bottom four books are off my pull list. I'm going to stick with the other 9 for at least a few more issues to see where they're going.

Noticeably absent from the list is Batwoman, which I wasn't able to get my hands on before it sold out at my store. I have the second printing on reserve and am looking forward to it. Other books that I think might have been worth a look, based on reviews and comments I've seen online: Justice League Dark, All Star Western, maybe Nightwing (especially because it seems like it's gonna tie in with Snyder's Batman), maybe The Flash (I love Francis Manapul's art, but Geoff Johns' run kinda turned me off the character), maybe even Teen Titans (if only because the reviews I've seen are quite positive - I still have a hard time getting past Brett Booth's awful art and Tim Drake's ridiculous new costume).

Everything else I think can pretty safely be ignored.

I'm going to resist the temptation to comment further on the issue of sexism in some of these books, because I would just be repeating myself at this point. (I will say, though, that I'm pretty disgusted by how the discussion about sexism in comics has morphed into a discussion about whether we're allowed to talk about it. If I read one more blog post about how all we have to do is ignore the bad books and promote the good ones for everything to magically fix itself, my head is going to explode.)

My overall impression of the relaunch, based on what I've read and the comments and reviews I've seen online of the stuff I haven't read, is that although there are some good books, there isn't a lot of variety in the tone. You'll notice that my top four books above are all pretty dark/mature/serious/whatever. I don't hold that against them, because they do it well. But I get the impression that DC could really use a few light-hearted fun books.

Again, this comes down to the fact that DC seem to be putting all their eggs in the same basket. Their primary target audience is males aged 18-34. (They've stated this officially, so I'm not making it up.) The problem is I don't think that demographic is large enough to support 52 books, so I don't understand why they didn't try to aim some of their new titles at different readers. Besides, it's not like males 18-34 are a uniform group.

The perfect example of the type of book I think is missing from DC's line would be the current run of Daredevil, written by Mark Waid with art by Paolo Rivera. That book is probably my favourite thing that either of the two publishing giants are putting out right now. The art is fantastic and tone of the writing is light and fun, without making the story or characters seem trivial. It's colourful and flashy without being weird or inaccessible. I think it's a book that almost anyone can enjoy (I don't think I've seen a single negative review of it anywhere). It's almost like Mark Waid set out to prove that comics could be awesome without being grim and gritty, and he hits it right out of the park.

I think DC could learn a thing or two from that comic. I like how dark and violent Azzarello and Chiang's Wonder Woman is. But I don't need every single book that DC puts out to be brutal or serious. The days when DC comics needed to prove to everyone that "comics aren't just for kids" are long gone. It's okay to lighten up a little.


October's here. Since September was all about DC, I want to spend this month focusing on some other publishers. Over the next few weeks, I'm going to make an effort to post about the titles on my pull list that are not set in either the DC or Marvel universes. Just to make sure people don't forget that there's a lot of variety out there. Comics are awesome.

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