Friday, June 17, 2016

Afterbirth: DC's "Rebirth" initiative, week three

Titans: Rebirth #1 by Dan Abnett, Brett Booth, Norm Rapmund and Andrew Dalhouse

The sole "Rebirth" one-shot this week should be of particular interest to fans and/or readers wondering what, exactly, the fuck is going on with the structure of the DC Universe after the events of DC Universe: Rebirth, starring as it does pre-Flashpoint Wally West, newly arrived in the post-Flashpoint DCU and centering on a new version of an old team that forgot they were ever a team because of...Fuck, I don't know.

DC was apparently banking on the fact that sticking the new (read "old") Wally West on the cover would be all it would take to generate that interest (read "sales"), because the book doesn't haven't anything else going for it. It's by far the worst of the Rebirth one-shots so far and it is, to use the proper critical term, garbage.

Abnett's brief story amounts to this. Wally West, now decked out in the new red-and-silver (and cool-looking!) version of his Kid Flash costume, breaks into Nightwing Dick Grayson's apartment. Dick attacks him and, when they touch, Dick remembers who Wally is. Then "The Titans"--Donna Troy, Garth, Arsenal Roy Harper and a green character that is apparently the post-Flashpoint version of Lilith (although she looks more like Ragman)--all appear in Dick's apartment simultaneously and attack Wally.

Every time one of them touches him, they get a jolt of his silver lightning and then flashback to a memory of their time as the Teen Titans.

The end.

It is not particularly well-drawn. I'm not sure why Brett Booth keeps getting relatively high-profile gigs, but a quick flip-through of this should demonstrate why he should not. I suppose it's possible he's enormously popular with a certain sub-section of DC Comics fans--though sales on the books he has worked on does not seem to indicate that he brings tens of thousands of fans with him to these projects--but he has a lot of trouble drawing things like hands and feet. It's not just his style, which obviously different readers will have different opinions regarding, but it's his the mechanics of his art. He's just not a really good superhero comic artist, which is why it's a little weird that he keeps getting hired to draw superhero comics for one of the two biggest publishers in that particular market. (Again, I do love that Wally West costume though. I think Booth designed that? It's a good design!)

There is an inherent problem with this series as it fits into DC's currently fucked-up continuity, but it's so complicated that I don't really know how to get into it. The events of DC Universe: Rebirth indicated that during the creation of The New 52, someone (Doctor Manhattan) stole ten years from DC continuity while it was being rejiggered by The Flash, Reverse-Flash and Pandora. Only Wally, and the people he's told, know anything at all about this though.

The implication here is that these group of characters--who reunited during the fairly awful Convergence spin-off Titans Hunt, of which I only read the first two issues, and could stand no more--are "remembering" their pasts that they had somehow forgotten.

Whether someone or some force made their pasts so that they never happened or simply made them forget are two very different things, though, and it's unclear here which it is. The flashback scenes show the various characters in "new" or New 52 costumes--Dick Grayson is wearing the Tim Drake-inspired New 52 Robin costume, not the pre-Flashpoint one, for example, while Roy and Garth similarly have new old costumes. Meanwhile, Wally and Donna are dressed in versions of their pre-Flashpoint Teen Titans costumes during the flashbacks.

But then, we've seen the birth/creation of Donna Troy, and it happened long after Dick and Roy were introduced. She emerged from a witch's cauldron on Paradise Island as a grown woman, some sort of evil magical golem created to kill Wonder Woman. She's like, maybe a few months old in DC time. Maybe Abnett, who also wrote Titans Hunt already explained that, but it doesn't make any goddam sense in the context of this, which really should stand on its own, as it has that "#1" on the cover and, like the rest of DC's "Rebirth" initiative, it is meant to be a jumping-on point, selling future series and/or franchises (This leads directly into Titans #1, featuring this grouping of characters, as opposed to Teen Titans, which will feature the current Teen Titans).

At any rate, as far as I can tell, there were at least three changes that the characters are struggling with: 1) Their rebooted past (in Flashpoint), 2) The loss of ten years of continuity (as revealed in DC Universe: Rebirth) and 3) the loss of their memories of each other and their time as a team together. It seems as if these things should all be related, but apparently they're not.

Further confounding things is the fact that Wally finds a scrapbook in Dick's apartment, featuring a photo of the Teen Titans line-up from their time as Teen Titans. If that happened in a different universe, than that photo is some sort of weird artifact from a past universe that somehow survived this one's cosmic reorderings (not unlike Batman's letter from his Flashpoint dad, which we've recently seen under glass at the Batcave). And if it happened in this universe, it means that Dick Grayson kept a scrapbook in which he posed for a photo with some teenage superheroes he had no memory of ever being on a team with, or even knowing existed, as is the case with Wally.

I honestly can't make heads or tails of this title, and the fact that the art is so poor, I don't even want to try. I suspect DC would have been in much, much better shape if they let Geoff Johns handle any of the books that are going to directly focus on his reboot stories and how they make sense. Sure, elements of DC Universe: Rebirth were dumb, but they made sense. Maybe Johns would have been able to apply them to titles like this and still make sense in a way that Abnett can't, simply because he's not the guy who wrote all of the cosmic continuity shenanigans that painted these particular characters and this particular shared setting into the corner they and it are currently stuck in.

Batman #1 by Tom King, David Finch, Matt Banning and Jordie Bellaire

The cover kinda sorta spoils the ending–in which Batman meets two super-strong, flying superheroes who call themselves Gotham and Gotham Girl–but then, the PR blitz that has accompanied DC's "Rebirth" initiative likely already did that before anyone who was terribly excited about this book had picked it up anyway.

The entire issue spans only a few minutes, as Batman races to try and save a jetliner full of people from crashing into downtown Gotham after it's tail is blown off by a shoulder-mounted missile launcher stolen by a terrorist (with Kobra, rather than any real-world organization). In so doing, we see the new Batmobile--which looks like that of The Animated Series, save for a Batman head mounted on the front--and his two Oracles, Alfred Pennyworth and Duke Thomas.

By the climax, Batman is able to save everyone on the plane and in its original path--thanks to math and the mini-jet engines he apparently carries in his car--but at the cost of his own life. It's a pretty nice, touching moment between he and Alfred, really and, as they say, it would have been "a good death"...if not for the intervention of the caped strongman, who saves Batman's life.

I have some questions about the direction--I'm particularly curious about Duke's role and his eventual codename*--and about changes that were probably already answered in an issue I missed somewhere (How James Gordon was reinstated as police commissioner--and why he started smoking again--and the whereabouts of Julia Pennyworth). Overall though, it's a very effective, action-oriented script that goes along way towards detailing aspects of the current status quo and introducing a big, unusual conflict.

There is one rather questionable aspect, in which a mystery antagonist is introduced; he apparently killed the Kobra agent and took the shot himself...or did he kill the agent after he took the shot...? Either way, it's a mysterious figure seen in an extreme long-shot, apparently dressed in a long-ish coat, who talks to himself, telling Batman to "watch the clock."

Given the events of DC Universe: Rebirth and the promise of more Watchmen nonsense to come in it's last pages, I wonder if that is meant to be Ozymandius...? Hopefully not! (Tom Spurgeon posted a link--and additional commentary--to something Ed Brubaker wrote about DC's recent use of Watchmen, and why it is so disappointing. I go a lot farther than Brubaker--I do blame everyone who worked on Before Watchmen, and think their doing so was incredibly scummy, but then, I'm lucky enough that I'll never be forced to have to choose between making money and doing something I find morally or ethically reprehensible...and, for all I know, Lee Bermejo had a relative who needed an expensive operation and Brian Azzarello has dozens of kids he needs to feed).

The artwork is by David Finch, and the best thing that can be said about it is that, given the fact that it is David Finch, it could have been much, much worse. And it will likely will, based on his past performance and his relationship to deadlines.

It boggles my mind that this is who DC thinks should be drawing their number one book, but then, they boggle my mind pretty frequently.

Green Arrow #1 by Benjamin Percy and Otto Schmidt

Huh. Well, they didn't exactly attempt to draw any will they/won't they tension out of the Green Arrow/Black Canary relationship, did they? While this is from page eight of the first issue of the new Green Arrow series, I suppose it's worth remembering that counting Green Arrow: Rebirth #1, Green Arrow #1 is actually the second book of the new Green Arrow series by. So they drew it out for 27 pages pages, rather than just seven.

I still like Schmidt's art quite a bit, and I particularly liked the way that his version of GA's goatee actually looks a bit like an arrow in terms of its shape. Percy's script is fine, but it's already started to bore me with its straightforward employment of generic superhero comic tropes--but then, maybe someone who has been reading DC Comics for 25 years no isn't the intended audience?--and inclusion of the elements of the New 52 Green Arrow that are new and unfamiliar and therefore unappealing to me personally (Ollie has a little half-sister who is also a skilled archer, he works with a male Oracle type named Harry, et cetera).

As I said of the Rebirth special, Green Arrow seems more readable than it has in years. I'm afraid I'm just not interested, though.

Green Lanterns #1 by Sam Humphries, Robson Rocha, Jay Leisten and Blond

Writer Sam Humphries and artist do a pretty fine job of presenting Green Lanterns Simon Baz and Jessica Cruz as space cops, in the way they talk and they way they hold their rings like guns and so forth, but the portrayal seems a little off for these two particular Green Lanterns, as Jessica has never trained with anyone in the Corps, and while Baz has, Humprhies seems to be playing him up as a rookie too, as if he got his ring a few weeks rather than years ago (It's difficult to tell how time moves in comic book universe's, but based on Damian Wayne's birthday cake in DC Universe: Rebirth, it's been three years since Green Lantern #1.

Both characters have pretty crappy attitudes, dictated by the bickering partners premise, and neither are all that much fun to hang around with (Which I find surprising, as I genuinely liked Baz during Geoff John's run on the previous volume of the title). I find Cruz's agoraphobia pretty compelling for personal reasons, but I kinda wish she looked and acted a little bit more like someone who has suffered debilitating anxiety that kept her inside her own apartment for years, rather than just another superhero character.

Overall, it's fairly mediocre super-comics, but then, mediocre is better than bad. It's certainly head-and-shoulders above the Green Lantern where it left off prior to "Rebirth."

Superman #1 by Peter J. Tomasi, Patrick Gleason, Mick Gray and John Kalisz

So that's a picture of the smoldering corpse of Goldie, the pet cat of Superman and Lois Lane's son Jonathan White. How did it get into that state? Well, an apparently enormously large and powerful hawk swooped down and carried the cat off. When young Jonathan tried to stop angrily stop the bird, he let loose a powerful burst of heat vision that incinerated both the bird and the cat, the latter's corpse falling right at Jonathan's feet, the bell on its collar tinkling as it its the ground.

Pardon me if I misread it, but I was fairly certain that the Geoff Johns-written DC Universe: Rebirth one-shot that kicked off this line-wide relaunch all but promised a return to a lighter, brighter, less grim and cynical DC Universe than that of The New 52. And yet, here's a drawing of a cat's corpse, accidentally murdered by a little kid.

It's not the only dark scene in the book. While it is played as some kind of grotesque joke (note the bell, landing like a punchline), the climax of the issue features Jonathan and his dad Superman arguing about whether having secret identities makes them a bunch of liars or not and being sent to his room.

Later, Batman and Wonder Woman show up to converse about him with his dad, and there's a creepy scene where all three look up at him as one. The cliffhanger ending is a splash page of Superman, bathed in shadow, telling his son he needs to come with him immediately. Now, Tomasi and Gleason both do a decent job of showing how the world of adults--especially serious adults who are acting in a child's best interests, whether the child sees that or not--can be scary. They put the reader in Jonathan's shoes. But jeez, it's a pretty unusual take to a story that amounts to "What if Superman was your dad?" (Based on what promotional materials DC has released regarding this title, Superman probably isn't taking his son out to be murdered by Batman and Wonder Woman or anything like that; he's taking him out to begin training this new Superboy in the use of his emerging super-powers).

As with DC Universe: Rebirth, Superman: Rebirth and Action Comics #957, what exactly is going on with the Superman franchise is still up in the air. Tomasi reminds us that it's probably not as cut-and-dry as Old Man Superman carrying on the legacy of the late New 52 Superman on the first page, when the former visits the latter's grave and something weird happens, and he remembers being told by a "Mr. Oz" that they aren't what they seem.

This issue rather reiterates the White family's status quo: Lois White writes books under an assumed name, Superman is a farmer (although he has now shaved off his disguise of a beard and stopped wearing the all-black costume in favor of a new one with the red and blue colors) and they are raising their half-Kryptonian son on an isolated farm in Hamilton County, in whatever state Metropolis is in. Jonathan seems to be the focus of this issue, at least, as not only is he slightly traumatized by accidentally killing his own cat, but he's also seen doing it by a neighbor girl.

The storytelling, despite the choices Tomasi and Gleason are making, are pretty superb, and there's a really fantastic double-page splash that uses its space to draw attention to an extremely basic action in many Superman narratives, but here making it seem new, fresh and completely monumental.

So far, Superman looks great, and if you're patient to wait out the explanations of what the shifting status quo will eventually settle into and don't mind DC's apparent inability to not tell dark superhero stories anymore, then it's definitely a worthwhile comic.

*A commenter on the first installment of "Afterbirth" guessed Golden Bat, which isn't bad...but I'd rather see it applied to a Japanese character, myself.


Robert Jazo said...

In all fairness, Donna Troy's origin / membership in the Teen Titans has never made sense. Why should it start making sense now?

Matt D said...

I'd think that it was not necessarily DC that can't manage the tonal shift (though, ask me again in six months?) but Tomasi, who has been ingrained forever as a high prince of gore and gloom over at DC and I'd say somehow under the radar as such because he usually tags along with a higher profile creator while doing it.