Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Comic Review - Action Comics #1, Animal Man #1, Batwing #1, JLI #1.

As a guy who hasn’t read a D.C. Comic in his life, looking through the New 52 at the local comic book store was a little intimidating. There were so many names that I’d heard of - Superman, Green Arrow, Batgirl - and so many which were new to me - Swamp Thing, Static Shock, Animal Man - that it was hard to know where to begin. Wasn’t this, however, the scenario that D.C. had hoped to create with their relaunch? To draw in new readers? Armed with only what I knew from film adaptations and strange midnight detours on TV Tropes, I went over to the checkout and asked if they could point me in the direction of some good reads for a newbie.

I’d only read a few comic books before: I’d split my childhood pretty evenly between the old Sonic Comics, Beanos and Dandys. I’d only started reading superhero comics a few months ago, having wandered into Forbidden Planet on Free Comic Book Day and been handed copies of Spiderman, Captain America and Thor, and Baltimore/Criminal Macabre. They’d hooked me in enough that when I saw Marvel Platinum’s The Definitive Captain America (something I’ll be getting around to reviewing later), I’d picked it up and started reading. Convinced that I’d like to follow up a few more superheroes, the relaunch seemed like the perfect place to start.

Thanks to some rather helpful advice, I picked up a quartet of books, dropping just under £10 for four very different styles of books. Both please and nervous about just what I’d let myself in for, I left with copies of Action Comics, Animal Man, Batwing and Justice League International tucked away in a black carrier bag, as well as a schedule of release for the rest of the New 52, so I’d know the dates for any others I might want to pick up.

So what did I think, now I’ve had a chance to read them a read a few times over? Well, let’s start off with Action Comics #1...

Action Comics #1.
Story: Grant Morrison.
Penciller: Rags Morales.
Inker: Rick Bryant.

I picked this one up because it was the closest to what I’d consider D.C.’s ‘big three’ (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman) I could see: Detective Comics, which I’m very reliably informed featured Batman, was out of stock, and Wonder Woman, which I’m definitely interested in reading, doesn’t come out for a few weeks. I’ve heard great things about Grant Morrison’s writing, so this seemed like a good combination.

The story begins with Superman crashing the party of one Mr. Glenmorgan, where he beats up the man’s goons and has him held over a balcony by the time the Metropolis police arrive. Dropping him over the edge when he refuses to confess but ultimately catching him before he hit’s the pavement, Superman gets his confession before fleeing the police, who order on a radio to ‘activate the city’. Here, we learn that Lex Luthor has set traps for Superman in Galileo Square involving civilians, on orders to deliver him before 8pm. Superman quickly saves the civilians, giving the police enough time to deploy tanks and try trap Superman in an electric net. This angers Superman, who destroys a tank with a wrecking ball before being blasted. Before the tanks can finish the job, however, the civilians put themselves between the machines and Superman, giving our hero time to escape and change into Clark Kent. Clark then phones Jimmy Olsen, who is with Lois Lane on the subway stalking one of Glenmorgan’s men. Superman learns of a bomb threat on the train that Jimmy and Lois are on and moves to try stop it, warning Jimmy too late to stay off the train.

This was NOT the Superman I was expecting it to be. Perhaps I’ve been sold wrongly on what the character is about, but this seemed like an unpolished hero, one who knows what he stands for but doesn’t know how to go about it. One thing that was particularly enjoyable was seeing Superman when he was light-hearted, enjoying using his powers; a good number of which were demonstrated. The standout moments of the comic was Lex Luthor, who spent the entire thing casually sipping away at an energy drink while watching the destruction he rained down on Metropolis. It was so casual and callous that it was hard not to love him, and it put him at the polar opposite to what we saw Superman standing for.

The artwork felt very traditional, serving as an excellent way to ease many new readers (who will no doubt pick this up, like me, because of the Superman name) into D.C.’s world. When I first decided to start reading comic books, this is the sort of thing I thought I’d see a lot of. This is not true for all the books here, as we will see. The one thing which stood out about the art was that the now-youthful Clark Kent, with his shaggy black hair and round glasses, looked a lot like Harry Potter sans lightning scar. Strangely this worked for me, as it was not obvious that Superman was Clark, and vice versa.

While not as good as I was expecting, I did like seeing Superman using his powers, as well as the rivalry that has been set up between him and Lois Lane, who is now a reporter for a rival newspaper. I also really enjoyed how casual Lex Luthor was, giving him an air that he didn’t care how evil his actions were because what he was doing was, in his eyes, right. I’ll give this another chance to see how the story progresses, but it’s unlikely that Action Comics will be a regular purchase for me.

Animal Man #1.
Story: Jeff Lemire.
Penciller: Travel Foreman.
Inker: Dan Green.

Told by a man behind the comic book store counter that Animal Man was one of the darker comics brought out this week, I decided to pick it up to contrast the more upbeat-looking Action Comics and Justice League International. I’m incredibly grateful to that member of staff, as he pointed me in the direction of a fantastic read.

Buddy Baker, who possesses the ability to take on the properties of any animal, is a very relatable hero. The issue begins with an interview between ‘The Believer’ and Buddy, who has put his role as ‘Animal Man’ on hold in order to shoot a film. From there, we jump to Buddy at home, reading the same interview and dealing with family life. When his son tells him about a hostage situation at the local hospital, Buddy is reluctant to help, but his wife Ellen encourages him to go. Arriving at the hospital, Buddy tries to reason with the hostage taker, who recently lost his daughter to cancer, before being forced to use his powers to stop him. It seems that not all is well, however, as Buddy’s eyes seem to bleed momentarily, though the hero decides it would be best to sleep it off…

This issue introduces new readers to the character of Buddy very well, with the interview filling in any back story which is needed while the rest of the comic develops the relationship between him and his family: while Buddy does his best to put his family first, his wife would much rather he spent some time as Animal Man if it means that he was happier. He also finds himself having to turn down his daughter’s request for a real pet, as it will affect his powers, as well as his son’s eagerness to go film his father superhero exploits. It’s a very real set of relationships, making Buddy a relatable character.

My only real criticism of the book is the artwork. While it definitely worked as the comic took a left turn into the weird-as-hell during the last half-dozen pages, I didn’t particularly like it at the beginning, and actually found it jarring with the home life we see. Regardless, it didn’t limit my enjoyment of the book, just threw me. I guess it was so different to Action Comics, and what I later read in Batwing and Justice League International, that it threw me off kilter. If it grows on me, great! If not, let’s hope the writing can keep to as high a standard as it is here.

Regardless, of that one criticism, Animal Man was a terrific read. The character was well-developed for a newcomer and entirely likable. The ending few pages, when Buddy start to dream, were complete standouts, and the cliffhanger really hooked me enough to make me want to carry on reading. I’ll be picking up Animal Man #2 when it comes out.

Batwing #1.
Writer: Judd Winick.
Art: Ben Oliver.
Colours: Brian Reber.

I remember reading a little while ago about Batwing: I can’t remember the details, but I’m sure it was news of D.C. showing off his armour and wings which had found its way onto one of the websites I regularly frequent. It was this which jumped into my mind when I saw Batwing #1 displayed on the shelf in between Batgirl and Green Arrow. This was a more spur-of-the-moment purchase than any of the others (and that’s saying a lot), as I was going to take a copy of Green Arrow before changing my mind at the last second.

This felt like an origin story, more so than the other three. Set in the Democratic Republic of Congo, it begins with Batwing fighting the bloody villain Massacre, who is trying to murder a (literal) busload of civilians. It is from there that we flash back to some time before, where Batman is helping David Zavimbe, who works with the Tinasha Police Department, to build a mythos around his new superhero Batwing. Following a string of gruesome murders, we discover that a retired superhero has been killed, leading to new questions which build until the comic’s gripping climax.

Batwing was easily my favourite comic. David Zavimbe was a guy trying to do good in a place where criminals rule - not dissimilar to Gotham - but with a police force in the pockets of the rich: evidence in David’s conversation with Kia Okuru, a fellow police officer, about taking bribes. What little we saw of Batwing made him seem like a capable hero, albeit one still learning how to translate the ideas of Batman Inc. for Africa.

The artwork seemed to me to be more digital than the other three (which would explain why Ben Oliver is credited for his ‘art’ rather than a ‘penciller’), and it really helped to strike the grittier tone that Batwing seems to be striving for. At no point did it get in the way of the action, and there were some lovely retained moments, such as Batwing and Batman attacking a jeep, and the look of Massacre.

Batwing #1 was a fantastic read which travelled at a good pace, setting up the characters and ending on a point which really made you want to know more. Like Animal Man, I’ll be buying issue 2 as soon as it’s available.

Justice League International #1.
Writer: Dan Jurgens.
Pencil Art: Aaron Lopresti.
Ink Art: Matt Ryan.

Ah, Justice League International, what a confusing relationship I now have with you. Originally picked up because I wanted to see a team of superheroes, this issue is one I’ve been mulling over in my mind for quite a long time. This review, especially the plot synopsis, will be more in-depth than the one above, because, while there are few things that would really count as spoilers here, a lot did happen in this issue.

Justice Leag- Screwing it, I’m writing JLI from now on! JLI begins with Andre Briggs, head on UN Intelligence, meeting with representatives of Russia, England and China to discuss assembling a superhero team to respond to international threats. They suggest various superheroes to recruit, eventually settling on a team with Booster Gold at its head as he will be easy to control. As a protest outside the Hall of Justice takes place, we see a UN research team swallowed whole as the earth opens beneath them. Meanwhile, Booster Gold is called to the Hall of Justice, believing he is there to join the main Justice League. Instead, he is introduced to the team he will be leading. Guy Gardner, a Green Lantern, disapproves on the situation and leaves, only to be confronted by Batman, who urges him to trust in Booster Gold’s skill. As the team is sent off to investigate the disappearance of the research team, with Batman in tow for good measure, we see a group of protestors attack the Hall of Justice…

This issue definitely felt like the first of a two-part story. The same can be said of Action Comics #1, but here we got to see virtually none of the superhero’s powers in action, instead just getting teasers of them. Some were painfully obvious: Guy Gardner has the powers of a Green Lantern, Tora ‘Ice’ Olafsdotter can summon Ice, and Batman is… Well, Batman! However, I had to visit wikipedia to find out what Dora ‘Godiva’ Leigh’s and Zhifu ‘August General in Iron’ Fang’s powers were. Booster Gold’s powers were, again, shown, but we didn’t get them explained to us - he shot what looked like energy blasts and we saw him fly, but according to various wiki he can do much more. A page with each member of the team explaining their powers to each other would have been nice for new readers - Booster himself tells Andre that he doesn’t know what half his team can do. Fingers crossed that next week, with the monster that appeared at the end, the team will show off their powers to the readers.

That said, I did like the conversations between some of the characters, in particular when the members of the JLI were being chosen: the Russian ambassador saying Plastic Man was “too whacko” and another commentator saying of Batman that “the idea was a team we could control” made me laugh out loud, and a lot of the character interactions were great to read, with the rivalry between the Russian hero Rocket Red and the Chinese armour-clan Iron General in August giving the writer a chance to flesh out the team’s relationship.

The artwork was nice and colourful, rather like Action Comics, and each character had their own distinctive look. Occasionally eyes were left completely white, but this was often because the characters were too far back in the frame to allow Lopresti and Ryan to fill them in. Otherwise, the art here was great for drawing the reader in.

While I do give JLI marks for filling in a hell of a lot of story into what was a very small space, I was a little disappointed that I picked this up expecting to see a team using their powers and didn’t really see much of it until the last 3-4 pages. I also like the concept of a superhero team working under government authority, though whether D.C. have done this before I couldn't say. Like Action Comics, I’ll give this another week to hook me in, but if not I doubt I’ll continue reading.

Closing Remarks.

While I’ll be picking up all of the second issues here, Action Comics and JLI will need to go something awesome to keep me on board. However, Animal Man and Batwing both did really great jobs at setting up their heroes and making me want to read more. I have a few more comics I want to get my hands on (I heard great things about Batgirl, and I want to read Teen Titans, Wonder Woman and Birds of Prey when they come out), but so far I’m very happy with my foray into D.C.

Also, I saw the red hooded woman… That also has me intrigued, though I’m in no fit state to speculate.