A longtime showbiz journalist and fan's thoughts on comic books, movies and other cool stuff.

Month: October 2011

Ranking DC’s New 52

We’re now about halfway into the second month of DC Comics’ The New 52, and I’m now at the point where I have to pick and choose which books I really want to follow and plunk down my own money for. So I made a list and found it quite interesting.
The good news is that I am buying more DC Comics than I was before the relaunch, when I was pretty much just getting the core Batman books. 
Starting with the books I liked enough to stick with, these are the titles I have bought the second issue for already:
  • Action Comics
  • Animal Man
  • Batgirl
  • Detective Comics
  • O.M.A.C.
  • Batman and Robin
  • Batwoman
  • Batman
These books I definitely plan to buy the second issue of:
  • Justice League
  • Wonder Woman
  • Superman 
  • I, Vampire
That’s 12 so far, just one title less than a quarter of the New 52 offerings. 
These books I am very likely to pick up, availability and funds allowing: 
  • Supergirl
  • Aquaman
  • Batman: The Dark Knight
  • Superboy
  • Green Lantern Corps
  • The Flash
So if I pick up those books, that means DC got me back for 18 of the 52 books. Again, that’s not too bad — it’s a lot more than I was getting. 
These books just missed the mark for me, and I could reconsider:
  • Green Arrow
  • Swamp Thing
  • Deathstroke
  • Green Lantern
  • Blackhawks
  • Teen Titans
I admit that I had picked up Green Lantern #2 at the store last week, but changed my mind and put it back once I saw Love and Rockets: New Stories, Vol. 4 was out. 
These titles were the mediocre group of the bunch — not bad, but also neither interesting enough or good enough to make me want to come back. And I’ll admit, some of these surprised me.
  • Batwing
  • Hawk and Dove
  • Justice League International
  • Men of War
  • Static Shock
  • Stormwatch
  • Demon Knights
  • Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E.
  • Grifter
  • Legion Lost
  • Mister Terrific
  • Resurrection Man
  • Birds of Prey
  • Blue Beetle
  • Captain Atom
  • DC Universe Presents
  • Legion of Super-Heroes
  • Nightwing
  • All-Star Western
  • The Fury of Firestorm
  • Green Lantern: New Guardians
  • The Savage Hawkman
  • Voodoo
That’s a full 23 our of 52 books that fall into that category, nearly half of the line.
And then, there’s the titles I actively disliked or thought were flat-out terrible.
  • Red Lanterns
  • Suicide Squad
  • Catwoman
  • Red Hood and the Outlaws
  • Justice League Dark
Again, not bad, but the relaunch hasn’t really improved the quality of DC Comics, despite all the hype. I wish that the publisher had taken the time to dig deeper in terms of talent and offered up more surprises. They only get one shot at this — at least for the time being — so I would have liked there to be more comics that I could wholeheartedly recommend to both lapsed fans and new readers.

FF Re-read: The Fantastic Four #11 (Feb. 1963)

“A Visit with the Fantastic Four” and “The Impossible Man”
Script by Stan Lee
Pencils by Jack Kirby
Inks by Dick Ayers
Letters by Art Simek

Another, much more successful experiment than the previous issue, this is a rare issue with two FF stories that is refreshing, fun and entertaining. Interestingly enough, Stan Lee writes in the intro to the second Marvel Masterworks volume of Fantastic Four stories that this issue was extremely unpopular at the time. Fans in particular disliked the Impossible Man as being too “silly” for so “serious” a comic book as The Fantastic Four.

Meet Willie Lumpkin, who Stan
played in his cameo in the 2004 Fantastic Four movie
This issue starts off with the behind-the-scenes story that Lee writes was inspired by the many fan letters Marvel had been receiving on the title. It has a lot of really fun little moments, starting with fans lining up at the newsstand to get the most-recent issue of the FF comic and a kid running down the street thrilled that his letter got published on the fan page. This great little story offers lots of fun bits, including the introduction of Willie Lumpkin and a lot of background on the FF themselves. 
That background offers some particularly interesting tidbits, including details of Reed and Ben’s service in World War II. This book has them in college together before the U.S. entered the war, so that would mean Reed and Ben would have have roughly been born in the early 1920s. That would have made them both about 40 in the comic – roughly the same age as Stan and Jack themselves were when they did this story. Not sure how old Sue’s meant to be, though she can’t be too much younger than Reed as it’s said they have known each other since childhood and grew up as next door neighbors. Johnny, of course, is supposed to be about 16, which makes it unlikely he cheered on Ben during his football years, as the story says. I also liked the detail of Reed having worked with the O.S.S. in the underground behind enemy lines in Europe, which is not a detail that had registered with me. 
Don’t dis Sue in front of Reed and Ben — you don’t want to make them angry.
Then there’s the best part of the story, which is the defense of Sue from the critical letter writers. For some reason, fans have always wanted Sue out of the book and I remember it still being an issue when I was reading the book in the 1980s. I like this idea of having the characters defend her, rather than Stan doing so in a letters column — it just has a bit more weight and is more effective at pointing out the idiocy of such comments. 
I suspect this story was pretty much all Stan’s idea — it’s light-hearted, heavy on the dialog and very character-centric. Maybe it was just an idea that didn’t lend itself well to the kind of blowout splash page that Kirby has done in the past, but it is a very well written and well drawn story that demonstrates just how far the comic has come in its short lifespan.
The Thing hanging off the side of the Fantasti-car
is perhaps the only panel in the second story I really like. 
The second story, introducing The Impossible Man, is a little more standard but still goofy enough to make it a good pairing with the first tale. The Impossible Man himself is fairly annoying — kind of an impish character similar to Bat-Mite or Mr. Mxyzptlk. And the way the story pans out isn’t exactly the most innovative thing ever put on paper. But, like the first tale, it does demonstrate the overall improvement in the book. There’s a lot more consistency in how the characters look from issue to issue, the dialog is better and fits better with the overall pacing and storytelling. The silliness of the Impossible Man is mitigated by this being a short, 11-page story — a full issue of this guy would have been way too much. 
Lastly, this issue wraps with a regal pin-up of the Sub-Mariner in his underground lair. It may also be of interest to note that this issue was previously presented with the stories in the opposite order in older editions of the Marvel Masterworks series. I think the order is significant in this case — the genial nature of the fan visit tale makes the Impossible Man story go down a bit more smoothly.
All in all, this is a surprisingly satisfying issue, and truly off-beat. I wonder if the reaction fans had been more positive, if we might not have seen more two-story issues and visits with the team from Kirby and Lee. 

‘Captain America,’ ‘Punisher’ and ‘Daredevil’ relaunched with unexpected style, substance

Before I delve back into DC waters, it’s been interesting to notice that Marvel has been relaunching a lot of titles lately as well, though without anything like the fanfare that DC has been getting.

In addition to next month’s relaunch of Uncanny X-Men — the very last long-running title from Marvel or DC to get a new first issue — Marvel recently relaunched Captain America, Daredevil and The Punisher. I had started thinking about this piece a while back when only one or two issues of each was out, but now there’s four issues of DD out and three each of Cap and Punisher.

Let’s start with Captain America, which seems to have gotten a new first issue to coincide with the release a few months back of the movie. That’s not a bad move on Marvel’s part, and it’s one I’m surprised they haven’t used to greater effect in the past.

This isn’t much of an introductory first issue, but it really doesn’t need to be. Comics fans know who the characters are and the basic setup, while readers new to the character who saw the movie will be in pretty much the same place. There’s a nice connection to the movie with the first issue opening on the funeral of 91-year-old Peggy Carter that also introduces Sharon Carter, a.k.a. Agent 13.

Unlike most of last month’s DC debuts, Captain America has a very distinct tone and feel to it that is tailored quite well to the character. My original thoughts were that it was a bit decompressed, but on a second read I think it’s far from being the worst offender in that category. The second issue does drag a bit, however, with much of the first half of it devoted to back story before stuff starts happening. The third is another good issue, and writer Ed Brubaker has surprised me by writing comics arcs that are structured like they used to be, with enough going on in each issue to keep me interested.

The best part of this series, though, is the exquisite artwork of Steve McNiven on pencils, Jay Leisten on inks and especially Justin Ponsor on the harder-than-it-looks task of coloring. McNiven does a terrific job of truly choreographing the action scenes. When Cap hurls his shield, you can follow it on its ricocheting path with a clarity that’s usually lacking. And the fights are overall realistic and yet suitable to a character with Cap’s abilities.

Not only that, but the art is pristine in its clarity and full of details that add to the story and not distract. Leisten deserves a lot of credit for doing a fantastic job of old-fashioned inking — making everything look better, sharper and clearer.

Ponsor’s colors also are detailed, and normally I dislike when the colorist adds to the image through highlights and shading that wasn’t there in the line art. But those details are done extremely well, and bolster the excellent palette of colors that Ponsor brings to the book. This is light, airy and clean, where a lot of coloring is dank, dark and muddy.

A few final notes: I like the cover design, which puts the logo front and center and very large so it’s easy to read and, in fact, hard to miss on the stands. The one drawback is that this is one of Marvel’s $3.99 books, and if I didn’t enjoy what I read so much and appreciate the care that went into this book, I’d complain about it a bit more.

Moving on to The Punisher, which boasts Greg Rucka as the writer and Marco Checchetto as the artist. This is a character who seems very tough to write and do well, because most fans have different answers to the questions of how realistic The Punisher should be, how violent and how much he should interact with the Marvel Universe at large. Rucka delivers a solid mix of all three, without ever becoming excessive — a pretty amazing feat in itself.

This opening arc sees the Punisher getting drawn into a gang war after a clash at a wedding kills some 30 people including the groom. Most of the story is told through the eyes of others — the cop who’s slipping info to the Punisher, an aggressive young reporter, and a few of the bad guys. The Punisher himself is scarcely seen in the first issue, but his presence is felt very strongly. By the third, the Marvel interaction becomes clearer with an appearance by the Vulture, who looks a lot different than the old Spider-Man villain I remember.

Rucka definitely writes good crime stories, and this is a very slick, very entertaining crime story with the Punisher at its heart. It’s complemented by some very sharp visuals from Checchetto — an artist I’m not familiar with — and good coloring from Matt Hollingsworth that brings definition to the murky world Checchetto is drawing. Even the production value is high, and the book’s slick paper and high-quality reproduction all add up to a very nice package. As with Captain America, the covers by Bryan Hitch, Paul Neary and Paul Mounts are well designed and eye-catching, with the logo spread very big and very legibly across the top.

The result surprises me. I haven’t read much Punisher in ages, but find this one quite interesting because Rucka’s put enough story into each issue to make it so. It also helps that, after the extra-long first issue, the price dropped from $3.99 to $2.99. I’ll keep buying it for a while at that price.

This also is what I would consider a very good first issue. If you had never read The Punisher, this introduced Rucka’s conception of the character and the story well enough to be entertaining to a new reader. Quite a coup, when this is something like the seventh Punisher #1 Marvel’s published in the last 25 years.

Lastly, there’s Daredevil, a character whose definitive run was the then-groundbreaking visceral violence and grittiness that Frank Miller made his specialty. DD has been rebooted a number of times — not as many as Punisher or Cap, but this is I think the third first issue for the character since 1964.

Writer Mark Waid does the unexpected in Daredevil — rather than try to one-up the Miller version, he goes back to the original, lighter version of the character and then modernizes it to make it feel completely and utterly modern. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anyone pull this off as well as it is in the first four issues of this comic.

Story wise, there’s a lot going on and a lot of things that look like they’ll continue to pay off. I hadn’t noticed until re-reading them that this series starts — just like in The Punisher — with a crashed wedding that involves mobsters and a key event set at the Cloisters in New York City. There’s also some old Marvel villains from the fringe, like Klaw and Spot, though they’re used to great effect.

The real key to pulling off Waid’s stories is some of the best art I’ve seen in a superhero comic in ages, from Paolo and Joe Rivera, with excellent colors from Javier Rodriguez. Issue #4 and a back-up tale in the first issue feature art from the also-excelling Marcos Martin, colored by Muntsa Vicente. The art is more than just pretty pictures — though they are that — it’s excellent storytelling applied with a degree of economy, clarity and style that is all too rare in comics. From the first issue alone, the way the Riveras draw how Daredevil sees a character like Spot and Klaw is simple, inventive and something that completely works as a 2-D drawing. The two-page spread of Matt Murdock and Foggy Nelson walking the streets in the back-up story of the first issue, the way Captain America temporarily blinds DD in the second issue, the oddness of Klaw in the third and a fight with lions in the fourth issue are all extremely well done. The covers also are excellent — the first and fourth issues in particular are clever, graphic and extremely appealing.

Daredevil is a seriously fun comic book and an absolute joy to read.

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