With weeks 3 and 4 over, DC’s “new 52″ titles are now all out of the blocks, ready to lose that lustre of newness and start getting snarled up in continuity all over again. Read on for a roundup of the highs and lows in weeks 3 and 4 of the reboot.
You know you’ve been reading comics for too long when a book presents the otherworldly Hermes, messenger of the Greek pantheon, nine foot tall and ocean-eyed, resplendent with his winged heels and canonical helm, and you think to yourself “Heeee, he’s got Jay Garrick’s hat on!” Or, to put it another way: you’re doing Wonder Woman #1 a disservice if you read it as your typical superhero comic. This is an unusual book, cinematically structured and surprising, with the feel of the prologue to a mindbending movie. That’s not to say it’s scant on action: there’s a centaur fight; the mortal wounding of an immortal; some top-notch lasso dynamics; and a distinctly upsetting bit with a couple of ponies. Just that it’s heartening to see a comic with so much evidence of big ideas in the background, and to sense that the plot hooks – and boy, do they bite deep – in this first issue are threaded with truly epic concepts. They’re not what you’d call staple superhero concepts, either: this is big stuff, classical – even, Classical – in scope, and it has as many of the trappings of horror as it does of superheroics.
Cliff Chiang’s lines are as clean, his character designs as distinctive, and his women as gorgeous as ever, making this one of the best-looking books in the new 52. Colourist Matthew Wilson has brought a rich palette to this comic, where the presence or absence of sunlight looks set to be a major plot point, filling the Virginia sky with burning sunset clouds while London sleeps and Singapore edges toward a literally fiery dawn. Writer Brian Azzarello has always done a fine line in realistically disjointed dialogue, and it makes the clear, cogent lines he gives to Wonder Woman stand out all the more. If you’ve been avoiding Wonder Woman because the character’s not “relatable”, this storyline looks unlikely to change that – instead, it’s presenting the character as deliciously distinct, awe-inspiring and truly super-human – but warm and inspiring all the same. (4/5)
If it’s remote, epic-scale heroes you like, then aspects of Captain Atom #1 will also appeal: at least, inasmuch as they’ll remind you of Cap’s more famous facsimile, Watchmen‘s Dr Manhattan. Cap here is all blue glow and empty eyes, spending his time in a huge CERN-like facility in the company of a bunch of physicists. But JT Krul is at pains to distinguish his version of Captain Atom otherwise, with the line “I was a pilot, not a scientist – remember?” surprisingly poignant: it’s delivered in an austere lab, in that rather touching past tense, by a character whose life is gone but whose humanity is not. There’s enough personality there, and in the “acting” rendered appealingly by penciller Freddie Williams II, to make you feel that if the threat lined up in the plot closes in, someone “real” will have been lost. For that, I give the book a pass on a totally OTT plotline (“My God – in Manhattan – it’s not an earthquake. It’s a volcano!” Pfffff), including a “B” plot that connects with the main storyline not at all, and for some dodgy monster design. (3/5)
Birds of Prey #1 does a better job than many of the new 52 with that ol’ over-used favourite writerly trope, the first-person narrative caption. Here, writer Duane Swierczynski uses them to lend a hard-boiled vibe to his interesting new take on the Birds – as an outlaw outfit, well-organised but wanted – and it works really well. The script’s economical and the action well-paced, and Jesus Saiz’s art is sexy without being exploitative. (Fancy that.) It looks like we have a new hero, too, in the capable but hard-drinking Starling, who looks an awful lot like the old Wildstorm villain Rose Tattoo, but seems more plausibly on the side of the angels. (3/5)
Clinging to a beloved version of the character has never been a quick route to happiness as a Blue Beetle fan, so I’m sure true believers will have adopted the brace position prior to cracking Blue Beetle #1. Perversely enough, then, this latest take on this much-relaunched character preserves a surprising amount of pre-reboot continuity. The well-loved supporting cast mostly return (in name, at least); the El Paso setting’s as distinctive as ever; and there’s a spine of snappy humour running through the dialogue. The scarab, source of Jaime Reyes’s new powers, retains a familiar backstory too, though breaking its link with Egypt kind of trashes the symbolism a bit.
Somehow, though, the charm is gone. Where the last incarnation of Blue Beetle thrived on its good-natured, well-rounded hero and his open, warm relationships with family and friends, this Jaime Reyes reads like a brattier, more belligerent version of Xander from Buffy. True, the last volume’s origin story suffered from major-event tie-in confusion – it launched during Infinite Crisis, and trooped half of the Justice League through the book’s pages – but it also set up Reyes as a legacy character par excellence: he was something new and exciting, that all the same respected, reinterpreted, and built on the old status quo. Now, there’s no legacy to belong to – no bonkers Golden Age legends of Dan Garrett, no grieving friends of Ted Kord to help Jaime find his feet – so there’s none of the enjoyable tension of watching an exciting new character make sense of his role in a bigger saga. This story, then, feels slight and indistinct, and the character changes all steer it toward the generic. The artwork makes most of the characters look far too old to be attending a quinceañera, and though Ig Guara’s style works well for the book’s villains and monsters it lacks the cartoonish charm of Cully Hamner’s original designs for these characters. It feels a little unfair to compare this book straight up with its pre-reboot incarnation, but so little of the setup and cast has changed that it’s hard to avoid the sense that we saw this exact story told better very recently. (2/5)
I am going to call The Flash #1 the straight-up most fun book of the new 52. And I say this as someone not hitherto very moved by the idea of Barry Allen. This book is just so thick with enthusiasm, and so damn gorgeous to look at, I defy you to read it without wearing a big damn grin all over your face. It’s Barry Allen! He goes fast! He wears jumpers! Pleasant banter! Iris West! Underwater chase scene! Loves his mum! Obviously still excited about the iPad! The whole thing is plain adorable from start to finish, from the gently-snark-laced supporting-cast banter to the energetic action sequences (spoilers: he does some running), to the panel where he’s lying up to his neck in sewer water with the most beatific expression you are likely to see in a superhero comic, all because he’s clocked a certain Central City reporter for the first time. With creative team Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato collaborating on both story and art, this is one of the most cohesive and coherent-looking books in the bunch, and though the plot’s not desperately thick it’s clear, interesting, and very well-paced (you should forgive the pun). This is the kind of fun comics ought to be: zappy, a little funny, a little tense, and very sweetly sincere. (4/5)
Blackhawks #1 is a Nineties-lookin’, G.I. Joe-rehashin’ shoot-em-up whose fans probably already know exactly who they are. If that genre’s not your usual cup of tea, there’s not much here to snare you: the cast’s so big (and so devoid of Zinda Blake) there’s no time for writer Mike Costa to develop much character, and the personalities that do come through are straight from central casting (hard-headed girl warrior; taciturn muscle-bound guy; crazy cyborg remote-control villain-woman). The art’s a good fit for the style, all gnarly faces and competent military architecture, but the opening sequence is tough to follow and the middle sags into expository talkiness. Still, if you like your comics nostalgic for the Cold War and peppered with folk in gratuitous dark glasses, this is probably the one for you. (2/5)