Tuesday, July 26, 2016

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

Batgirl and The Birds of Prey: Rebirth #1 by Julie Benson, Shawna Benson, Claire Roe and Allen Passalaqua

The most bizarre aspect of DC's current "Rebirth" re-branding effort was the not-terribly-coded admission by writer (and company Chief Creative Officer) Geoff Johns in DC Universe: Rebirth that the four-and-a-half-year New 52 was a failure, and that it was essentially all Alan Moore's fault. Characters from his 1986-87 Watchmen comic, which DC recently produced a suite of prequels to over the vociferous objections of the Moore, were presented as villains in the storyline, and at least one of them as the true in-story engineer of the New 52  (A more generous-to-Johns reading is that rather than my oversimplified, half-serious analysis, what Johns was attempting was some sort of mea culpa on behalf of his publisher, saying that they've collectively learned the wrong lessons from Moore's Watchmen, but, given their exploitation of that material lately, if that was Johns' point, it doesn't seem all that sincerely made).

DC has had a weird obsession with the work of Moore pretty much ever since 1987, relying on his creations and concepts to an often comical degree, while, in more recent, post-Paul Levitz years, seemingly never missing a chance to refer to some minor point of his work or un-do an innovation of his. But while the company has labored to turn the complete, standlone work of Watchmen into some sort of franchise, or to restore Swamp Thing to his Len Wein-conception rather than the more popular Moore version and so on, the company really, really loves the fucking Killing Joke (Moore's one-off, out-of-continuity 1988 prestige format collaboration with artist Brian Bolland), which has become the one, single story in the company's 75-years worth of stories that was explicitly not knocked out of continuity during the events of Flashpoint...despite the publisher's reversal of one of Killing Joke's single lasting impact on DC continuity (Barbara Gordon's irreparable paralaysis).

When the most recent Batgirl writing team of Cameron Stewart and Brenden K. Fletcher took some pains to try to un-do aspects of The Killing Joke, rather subtly implying that the sexual abuse of Gordon that followed her shooting was simply a false memory planted in her brain to torture her by a villain who had seized control of her memory, it seemed like they had infused enough equivocation that at least the most unsavory aspects of Barbara Gordon's role in that story that readers could see it either way they wanted.

So in the first appearance of Batgirl Barbara Gordon in the "reborn" DC Universe (which, unlike The New 52 did not come about due to any kind of continuity-shifting cosmic event, but is at this point just a branding initaitive), new-to-DC writers Julie and Shawna Benson recap Barbara Gordon's origin and, of course, a chunk of it is devoted to the events of The Killing Joke:
The events are slightly different in several ways from the 1988 original, of course, as they were following Flashpoint (Originally, an older Gordon had retired from crime-fighting at that point, her father was much older and grayer, it happened earlier in the respective careers of all of the characters involved, etc). There are still more differences here, including Barbara's outfit and the presence of marshmallows in her hot cocoa, but as for the sexual assault component? Well, this comic doesn't go any further into the events of Killing Joke than the above panels, and Barbara's narration, but it's strange to see the scene repeated here, as its importance in the Barbara Gordon story is, after the events of Flashpoint, not too terribly relevant. Rather than a turning point in her life, it was–or, at least until this weird issue anyway–something that benched her temporarily from her career as Batgirl until she got better. Not unlike Jason Todd's death at the hands of The Joker.

Except the Bensons actually do a pretty hard reboot of the story of Barbara Gordon and The Birds of Prey in this issue, restoring aspects of the post-Crisis, pre-Flashpoint continuity. Now Barbara Gordon was super-hacking crime-fighter Oracle during the time she was in a wheel chair, she did work with Black Canary as her field agent and they were called The Birds of Prey...contrary to what you may have read in the post-Flashpoint Batgirl and Birds of Prey, two of the books one would expect to be most relevant to a new book called Batgirl and The Birds of Prey (Instead, Black Canary and Grayson are much more relevant than the previous, third volume of Birds of Prey).

This drastic change in the history of these characters–which, remember, is only five to seven years their time and just under five years our time–would make sense if DC Universe: Rebirth did include one of DC's now regular continuity reboots, but it didn't; rather, it just alluded to the fact that the last one was an orchestrated attack to weaken the DCU.

But wait, there's more! We haven't even gotten to The Huntress yet! The post-Flashpoint Huntress is pretty complicated. As far as I understand it, she was introduced as Helena Bertinelli in a six-issue, 2011 miniseries called The Huntress...but it was later revealed that she was really Helena Wayne from Earth 2 (the first Earth 2 of The New 52, the one seen in the pages of the first Earth 2 comic), who had come to Earth-0/The New 52-iverse and assumed the identity of the late Bertinelli and the new superhero codename to hide the fact that she was really ane extra-dimensional alien named Helena Wayne who had operated as her world's  Robin alongside her father, Earth 2's Batman). Then DC introduced a new, second character named Helena Bertinelli who didn't look anything like the previous two Helenas in the pages of Grayson. She was an agent of Spyral, not a costumed vigilante. But here in this issue she adopts a new codename and costume, and is revealed to have a similar back-story to that of the pre-Flashopint Bertinelli.


So now that we've gotten through all that ridiculous continuity bullshit in this issue presumably meant to be a good jumping-on point–"What the hell is a matron of Spyral?" Meredith texted me while she was reading it–we can address the important question. That is, how is it, as a comic? Well, it's not very good.

I vacillate on how harshly to judge writers new to the comics medium, and the Bensons evidence a common, practically ubiquitous weakness in all writers new to comics, be they professional from the world of television, prose or even film and even, in some cases, longtime comic book artists trying their hand at writing but not drawing a comic: They are way, way too wordy. There is a lot of narration in this book, much of it redundant, and too much of it poor.

The first groan their writing elicited was on page two, after Barbara riffs to herself about the saying "Time heals all wounds" for a while, culminating in "Time in on my side...but time is a terrible sidekick."

The second groan, by the way, came when she made this particular observation, without any trace of irony or awareness that it's a completely core element of The Joker's very conception and portrayal for over 75 years:
Ironic. A guy named The Joker took away our laughs.
Ugh. Yes. That's terribly ironic, Barbara/Bensons. The Joker may dress like a clown, he may call himself "The Joker," but he's actually an evil villain. And that has never, ever occurred to anyone ever before. Very astute.

Their plotting is dependent on the changes they've instituted to continuity. While crime-fighting as Batgirl, Babs discovers that someone code-named "Oracle" is providing intel to criminals. Since she was Oracle now I guess, she decides to re-recuit Black Canary, and they go after the bad guys. But going after the same bad guys in The Huntress, dressed in a pretty cool new costume (seen previously in Nightwing: Rebirth #1), who is intent on murdering various mob types in Gotham City with her artfully designed crossbow.

Barbara and Black Canary are opposed to this course of action–at least that means Babs and Helena aren't actually yelling at each other on the cover over who has dibs on Dick–but more so because they need info from the bad guys, rather than because Punisher-types aren't generally welcome in Batman's Gotham City.

The story will continue in Batgirl and The Birds of Prey #1 (remember, this was Batgirl and The Birds of Prey: Rebirth #1), and it's all set after the first story arc of the new volume of Batgirl, which doesn't even begin until week nine.


The sole bit of good news here is that artist Claire Roe draws really well (That's Yanick Paquette's cover, by the way, not hers). Babs is still in her "Of Burnside" costume, but Canary and Huntress wear their new "Rebirth" costumes. Roe's Barbara doesn't look nearly as fashionable or sexy as Babs Tarr's Barbara when out of her costume, but then Tarr's vision of Burnside and its fashionable twenty-something population was perhaps uniquely fashionable and sexy; she even made temporary fill-in Batman James Gordon look kinda hot...for Jim Gordon, anyway.

These characters may have appeared in more stylishly drawn books before–the post-Simone Batgirl, the short-lived Black Canary–but this is the best-drawn Birds of Prey book in...well, I can't remember the last time a Birds of Prey comic was really well drawn. Sometime during the first volume of the book, I guess, before the "Brightest Day" era relaunch.

Oh, and if one wonders overmuch why there's a Killing Joke scene repeated yet again in this comic, the last page of the comic might offer some indication.

Here's the ad on the inside back cover:
So, corporate synergy? Maybe. If so, the Bensons and DC decided to focus on the shooting, rather than the sexual assault (which may or may not include rape, based on what I've heard of the animated film) and not on the other super-unsavory aspects of the film (Batman's sidekick-with-benefits relationship with Barbara) or even the cooler aspects, like that Barbara Gordon costume being a cooler-looking, more striking and easier-to-draw one than the maybe more practical and "realistic" and cosplayable "Batgirl of Burnside" get-up.

When the book official launches with Batgirl and The Birds of Prey #1 in two weeks, this will be the exact creative team, so this, at least, has given us a pretty good idea of what the book will be like. Perhaps (and, by "perhaps" I mean "hopefully") much of this special involved the Bensons checking off editorially mandated boxes–you know, make sure they get some Killing Joke in there, make it clear than Helena Bertinelli, Age of Spyral is now Huntress, assassin of mob types–and that from here on out things will improve.

If not, well, that Roe sure does draw well.

The Hellblazer: Rebirth #1 by Simon Oliver, Moritat and Andre Szymanowicz

Since DC is rebooting their John Constantine ongoing series yet again, it's probably worth remembering how we got here. Do pay attention to the dates.

Okay, so British, working class wizard John Constantine first appeared in the pages of Swamp Thing, where he was created by Alan Moore (yes, his decades-old work does loom heavy in week eight's "Rebirth" specials), Stephen R. Bissette and John Totleben. He graduated to his own monthly series called Hellblazer in 1988, which was one of the handful of DC Comics to migrate to the new, mature readers imprint Vertigo in 1993. The title lasted an astonishing 300 issues, not seeing cancelation until 2013. At the time, it was the longest-running monthly comic book series to have not been relaunched, renumbered or rebooted.

Sales were modest, but that's a damn impressive feat for any comic book, particularly in the turbulent times in the market Hellblazer ran through.

At the conclusion of the 2010-2011 bi-weekly series Brightest Day, writer Geoff Johns reintroduced Constantine (and Swamp Thing) back into the DC Universe proper, a place they had only ever briefly visited after the formation of Vertigo. The roll-out was a bit messy, but Constantine (and Swamp Thing) received their own books after the company's 2011 "The New 52" initiative.

Constantine's new, New 52, DC Universe book replaced the Vertigo-imprint Hellblazer. In spring of 2013, his new book launched, this one just called Constantine. It lasted just 21 issues.

In spring of 2015, they tried again, launched Constantine: The Hellblazer. This attempt lasted just 13 issues.

And that brings us to The Hellblazer: Rebirth #1, a special one-shot meant to introduces the fourth volume of a John Constantine-starring monthly series, the third in four years. If the trend continues, don't expect this it to last very long.

Ironically, the title has come full-circle now back to that of the original Constantine monthly, Hellblazer (well, now there's a "The" in there, but still). The writer is Simon Oliver, and I hate to say it, but there doesn't seem to be anything terribly new or innovative here; it is rather a full retreat back to Hellblazer territory, save with a slicker, more colorful DCU look to it.

Moritat gives Constantine his original hair and look back after the character's dalliance with a new hairstyle and tighter pants in the last volume of the series. And Oliver sends him back to London, after last volume's time spent in New York City.

In fact, the plot of this entire involves Constantine's efforts to return to London, a task much more difficult to achieve than simply buying an airplane ticket and enduring the various inconveniences of flying on a major airline, since Constantine was apparently banished from London by a demon's curse.

So he has to take on that demon here, and he does so via trickery and ballsiness, essentially playing chicken with the souls of everyone in London.

It's the sort of Constantine move that is, at this point, expected, and it therefore lacks the punch it might have when you first saw him pull something clever on demonic forces (For me, I think it was when Garth Ennis had him sell his soul to three different, opposing demons so that none of them could claim it without having to go to war with the others, essentially granting him a degree of immortality). Or when you saw it for the second, third, eighth or tenth time.

I've read enough comics featuring the character that I'm pretty sure I've read all the comics I need to, at least until someone comes up with something brand new to do with him. There's none of that here, and while much of this feels like a return to the old Vertigo Hellblazer–although without any of the language or nudity in a real mature readers Vertigo comic–seeing as how John is back to looking unshaven and rumpled, he's back in London and long-time supporting cast member Chas is reintroduced, there are a few pages featuring Swamp Thing, Captain Marvel Shazam and a baby-faced Wonder Woman to remind us that this is still a DCU comic book.

Oliver does nod in the direction of Hellblazer as a horror comic, however, at least in two passing references to American politics. In the first, Constantine says that as much as he loved New York, he was eager to get out of the U.S. when "a racist, short-fingered, failed meat salesman began circling the white house...things started tot ake a turn for the strange, even for me."

On the last page, we see Constantine clutching a Midnight Standard tabloid newspaper, the headline reading: "Beauty Pageant Owner Becomes Leader Of The Free World."

It honestly doesn't get much scarier than that.

I apologize if it seems I've given short shrift to artist Moritat in this post. The fact of the matter is, he's one of the best artist DC has who regularly draws interior work for them, and while Constantine Comic 4.0 might not seem like the ideal showcase for his talents–if I were the boss of DC Comics, I might have had him drawing Detective Comics post-"Rebirth"–his ability to balance humor and seriousness serves the book quite well. Constantine may look standard issue, and the demon generic, but Moritat's crowd scenes are a real delight.

As talented an artist as he is, I don't think he's a great enough artist that I would want to read a Constantine comic just because Moritat is draw it, but I'll be damned if his presence isn't a hell of an incentive.


Patrick C said...

Thinking about wonky Rebirth continuity, and Birds of Prey specifically, the New 52 Black Canary is Dinah "D.D." Drake, who was married to Larry Lance. Pre-Flashpoint the Canary that was part of the BoP was Dinah Laurel Lance, the daughter of Dinah Drake and Larry Lance. I guess they were combined in to one character? I just can't reconcile this, other than Laurel being erased from continuity and a younger version of her mother taking her place. I guess that's exactly what it is, now that I think about it. But I would love to hear your thoughts on it.

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

The bigger problem I had with N52 Black Canary which was that she was supposed to be on TEAM 7, which I thought dealt with stories before or around JL#1.

It wasn't hard to see Batgirl go to Burnside. But if Canary was a big operative at the start of the N52, she what, quits and joins a rock band?

Patrick C said...

They do address the Team 7 stuff during her rock band phase, along with fellow Team 7 members Larry Lance and Amanda Waller showing up. I didn't read Team 7 though, so I don't know how seamless it was.

Caleb said...


I'm afraid the only thing you'd be able to hear on that is the sound of my head exploding trying to think about it too hard.

I was just operating under the belief that, in the New 52, the post-Crisis Black Canary II was the ONLY Black Canary, and her mom wasn't any sort of player in the DCU. But in the course of her own title, the last arc did posit her mother as a master martial artists...and in DC Universe: Rebirth #1, Wally West met Old Man Johnny Storm, implying the Golden Age generation did exist after all, I guess, but they were all forgotten, cosmically?

I don't know.