Friday, August 05, 2016

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

Suicide Squad: Rebirth #1 by Rob Williams, Philip Tan, Jonathan Glapion, Scott Hanna, Sandu Florea and Alex Sinclair

It's not surprise at all that DC launched the Suicide Squad Rebirth special, essentially the first of two #1 issues of the next volume of the series designed as a jumping on point, the Wednesday of the week that the much-anticipated Suicide Squad movie opened (do not the the series that re-launched this week, Harley Quinn, the solo book of the Squad member who appears to be the most likely to be the breakout star of the film–although I could just be basing that on the fact that she seems to be the only burst of color in the film's line-up).

What is more surprising is that it took DC this long to so closely align their Suicide Squad monthly comic with the movie's look and line-up. I mean, I'm pretty sure the trailers have been unspooling for about 43 years or so now, Internet time, and yet DC decided to hold off until the actual release of the film to start trying to capitalize on the interest (Unless you want to count the Suicide Squad's Most Wanted series of anthology miniseries, and, I suppose, the Harley Quinn & The Suicide Squad April Fools' Special).

So let's quickly review the recent history here. The Suicide Squad concept was reinvented in 1987 by writer John Ostrander, who imagined a secret government task force lead by Amanda Waller that plucks pliable super-villains from prison, outfits them with explosive arm bracelets and more-or-less pressgangs them on accepting extremely dangerous, off-the-books black-ops missions. It was pretty damn popular, and remains particularly well regarded today–despite DC's sluggish pace at releasing the trade collections (which, it should be said, still read quite well, but do feel like mainstream comics published in the late 1980s).

DC hasn't really pulled off a successful revival of the book between the conclusion of that original series in 1992, despite a few attempts, ranging from guest-appearances in other books to a 12-issue 2001 attempt to an Ostrander-helmed miniseries.

When faced with the prospect of launching 52 new titles (and keeping 52 or so titles in publication at all times) in September of 2011, DC naturally revived the Suicide Squad, making the in retrospect brilliant decision to put the Batman: Arkham video-game sexy Joker version of Harley Quinn front and center (although, it should be noted, she did have something of an antecedent in the original book's run in the form of violent clown lady in love with violent clown guy, Jewlee). The first issue of that series was almost as poorly constructed as it was extremely unpleasant to read, and, like most New 52 books, it featured random redesigns that were usually bad (does anyone like the new Deadshot costume better than the previous two or, hell, three?), but also just mind-bogglingly off: Changing the type of shark King Shark resembled, shaving off Deadshot's signature mustache and, most notoriously, turning short, wide, middle-aged woman Waller into a tall, young, buxom Barbie-doll who half wears her shirts (Particularly galling when one considers that Waller is the DC Universe's most prominent full-figured woman, and has been since, I don't know, Etta Candy* in the 1940s, maybe...?).

The book did well enough that it wasn't canceled like so many New 52 books, but it sold poorly enough that it was relaunched as New Suicide Squad in 2014 (like Deathstroke and Teen Titans then, it was a book that DC kinda-sorta canceled only to immediately relaunch).

That brings us to this week, and the launch of Suicide Squad (volume...four, I guess), the book's third iteration since fall of 2011 (much like Red Hood, which we covered last week).

There are a few remarkable things about this launch, the most immediately apparent being how closely it's following the lead of the film version. Harley Quinn was recently redesigned to more closely resemble the version played by Margot Robie in the film, and while only one of the characters she's holding Polaroid photos of on the cover appears within, all three of them are on the roster in the film.

Inside, Waller has resumed her pre-New 52 appearance, and this issue is written by Williams in the "bridge" fashion that so many of the Rebirth one-shots, transitioning from the previous series (here, the last issues of New Suicide Squad) and the upcoming new series.

President Barack Obama yells at Waller in his office for a while about how goddam horrible and un-American the Suicide Squad is–and, I think it's worth noting, the book flourished in the Reagan and beginnings of the first Bush administration, but never found its footing again until 2011, when it survived, but wasn't actually any good. Politically, it's a very late Cold War, Reagan-esque concept that seems at odds with the Obama zeitgeist, even if he is the president who got Osama bin Laden and killed more terrorists, suspected terrorists and people standing too close to terrorists or suspected terrorists with drone strikes than even his predecessor, whose administration was generally perceived as a war-mongering one.

When Obama insists that "someone has to know" about what the Squad does, if, as Waller suggests, the public, the Justice League and even the president can't, that "someone has to represent the American people...someone must be held accountable," Waller agrees. She introduces readers to Colonel Rick Flag, a highly decorated and heroic Navy Seal who has recently disappeared from the public eye (This also serves in bringing the comic book Suicide Squad closer to that of the movie...and of the 1987-1992 run, where Flag performed a similar function, as the soldier leading the criminals rigged to explode). Obama agrees and dismisses her.

She then approaches Flag, who is himself in a position not too far removed from those of the various Squaddies: He's rotting away in Guantanamo Bay, but, in his case, for a crime he refused to commit. Waller makes an aggressive sales pitch to him that includes letting him out of his cell if he agrees to lead the Squad, along the way introducing him to three of the more popular members: Harley, Deadshot and Captain Boomerang.

Naturally, he agrees, and the end of the issue finds Flag–here dressed in standard issue military gear rather than the tight-fitting yellow t shirt that used to be his self-appointed uniform–helping rescue the trio from a seemingly impossible situation and leading them into a particularly poorly drawn splash page that concludes the book.

On the very next page is a full-page ad, featuring Jim Lee's cover for the first issue of the new series, which features just about everyone in the movie team, excepting only El Diablo, Flag and Slipknot, who I assume dies at some point in the movie, because, come on, it's Slipknot.

It's kind of difficult to assess where exactly the book is going based on these 20 pages, but Williams' story was a lot less unpleasant than other first issues featuring the New 52 Squad. The extended business with Obama and Flag at least recalls (or maybe just leans in the direction) of the occasional focus on geo-politics of the original, and, like I said, the line-up is at least reflective of the new multi-media version of the team. Williams' script highlights the cold-blooded, hardcore nature of these "heroes," and earns the book it's "T+" rating.

As I've said before, the New 52-era Squad is at a disadvantage to the original, in that it doesn't have the deep, deep bench of obscure villains and even more obscure superheroes, given that it is working with a history that is just about five years old. The character pool therefore lacks flexibility and expendability, and few if any of these characters have much in the way of "history," since almost no character in the DC Universe has a history anymore (Batman villains Harley Quinn and Killer Croc are best positioned in that regard). That said, the film is similarly working with characters that lack any history other than what it is inventing for them, so it's not like it can't work, it will just be a pretty different book. If Shade The Changing Man shows up here, for example, it's not quite the same as Ostrander plucking a character from limbo as it was in the late 1980s.

The artwork is fairly terrible, but then, there hasn't been a good-looking run of Suicide Squad in the previous two volumes, either. Lee's presence on the monthly should presumably boost sales and bring some quality to the proceedings. One major problem with the New 52, particular when it was first launched, is that the publisher seemed intent on producing a line that looked like it was drawn by people who were trying to draw like Jim Lee, which is exactly what they got, as only one of the guys drawing any of those 52 comics was Jim Lee.

Tan's style is very much of that school. The four inkers naturally give the book a rough, uneven look, although when frequent Lee collaborator Scott Williams inks Tan's work, it reaches its most Lee-like. There are a lot big panels and splash pages, and little in the way of good old-fashioned comic book storytelling.

The first page is a splash featuring a pile of photos. There are three more splashes, the last of which looks like a page Tan simply sketched (the characters are all kind of floating in free space, unaffected by gravity) and that Sinclair finished for him in the coloring stage, filling in all the white space with the coloring effects symbolizing explosions. I think six is the most number of panels on any one page, while many pages have no more than two to four panels a piece.

As I said, Waller is back to her original look. Deadshot is still wearing his terrible New 52 costume. Harley is wearing her latest costume from Harley Quinn and sporting a film-inspired look, making her look like a compromise between the Amanda Conner design and the film design, although Tan gives her a weird, wide, round baby-face. Captain Boomerang always looks "wrong" to me when he's not wearing his crazy Silver Age outfit with the boomerang-patterned shirt and silk scarf, but he too looks like something of a compromise design: The big, bushy sideburns seen in the film, and a dark-hued, more "bad-ass" version of the costume he's been wearing various iterations of since, I don't know, Identity Crisis or so.

I don't exactly have high hopes for the book, but DC has at least done a pretty good job in aligning it to the film version while simultaneously aligning it to the most successful iteration of the book. It therefore has the potential to please a lot more would-be readers or potential fans than it has to annoy, confound or confuse them.

Harley Quinn #1 by Amanda Conner, Jimmy Palmiotti, Chad Hardin and Alex Sinclair

As apparently the only DC Comics fan who doesn't find Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti's Harley Quinn comics the least bit funny, I was chagrinned to make it to page three of the first issue of the rebooted series only to find that the writing team chose to entitle their story "Afterbirth!", which, you'll note, is what I have been calling my weekly assessment of DC's "Rebirth" initiative. Given how far in advance comics tend to be written–as well as the fact that I'm fairly certain neither Palmiotti or Conner read my blog–I'm confident that it is sheer coincidence. But man, it does reflect rather poorly on me that the writers I don't find funny decided to make the exact joke about "Rebirth" that I did.


So this is a rather strange first issue and "jumping-on point" for Conner and Palmiotti's Harley Quinn comics, the main title of which, Harley Quinn, will still be written by that particular team, still drawn primarily by artist Chad Hardin and not exactly changing direction in any evident way.

There are two rather long info-dump sequences that account for the first six-to-eight pages of the 20-page comic, before the actual story begins. There are two pages of Harley and Poison Ivy enjoying a spa day together, while the two talk about the fact that Harley has become a community leader in Coney Island, running multiple businesses. And then there are four pages in which Harley stands on a stage with a microphone, recounting a version of her New 52 origin story and parading out her entire supporting cast, from Big Tony and the taxidermied beaver present in the book in order to make beaver jokes, to the sideshow freaks employed in the sideshow she kinda sorta runs now, to her gang (which recently earned their own miniseries, Harley Quinn and Her Gang of Harleys to the members of her roller derby team.

Then two pages are spent revealing her audience, Red Tool, a masked character who speaks in yellow, tool-shaped dialogue bubbles (who, I am ashamed to admit, I just realized a few weeks ago is meant to be a Deadpool stand-in, a rather ballsy move from one-time Deadpool writer Palmiotti, considering that when he and Conner launched their Harley Quinn series, it was essentially as a cheesecake version of Deadpool, with beaver jokes) and a now power-less genie characternamed Jimm Salabim.

And while she gives the pair a tour of the wax museum she's temporarily running, an zombie outbreak occurs. The cause? Well, we flashback 98 hours to a four-page sequence in which an alien shape-changer disguised as a cow is accidentally slaughtered for meat, and those who consume the tainted meat turn into zombies, apparently.

If that sounds familiar, then you've either read or heard of the 1995 Grant Morrison and Mark Millar-written Marvel series Skrull Kill Krew, in which shape-changing green aliens in the form of cows are slaughtered, and imbue some of those who eat the tainted meat are transformed; given that this book also has a Deadpool pastiche that's less parody than appropriation, it's difficult to tell what to make of this sequence, exactly.

Also familiar? When Deadpool/Red Tool gets bitten on the hand he worries aloud if that means he might be infected, Harley immediately chops most of his arm off. Did you guys read Hitman, specifically "Zombie Night at The Gotham Aquarium"...? Hopefully so, as that book is the best, and that story in particular is where the series started to come into its own. Anyway, when one of the characters gets bitten on the hand by a zombie, he immediately uses a chainsaw to cut off his own hand, based on the fact that in zombie movies he's seen that's the only way to prevent zombification after being bit (He is almost immediately informed by the mad scientist behind the zombie gas that he cut his hand off for no reason, however, as that's not how it works in real life).

And that's pretty much it. A long review of Harley Quinn continuity to date (skipping over the stuff that doesn't quite fit with Conner and Palmiotti's take on the character, which is basically all the stuff from the various New 52 Suicide Squad comics), followed by a zombie outbreak story that features two references of dubious nature to Big Two comics of the mid-to-late 1990s, which is at least one too many to fall within just 12-pages.

I don't think I'm going to like the post-"Rebirth" Harley Quinn any better than the pre-"Rebirth" Harley Quinn.

Chad Hardin's interior artwork, and Conner's covers, remain the book's strongest selling points.

*Who also saw a redesign that made her taller, slimmer, younger and all-around more traditionally sexy as part of the New 52's redesigns of the entire DC Universe.

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