Sunday, October 15, 2017

On DC's Rebirth line, vis-à-vis my own personal pull-list

A few Wednesdays ago, DC shipped the fourteenth and final issue of All-Star Batman, crossing another of the publisher's "Rebirth"-branded ongoing series off of my pull-list, and reducing the number still on that particular list to just three. It seemed like a good time to revisit the May 2016 publishing initiative, seeing as how precipitously my own purchasing of the Rebirth line had dropped in the past year and a half, and that it wasn't just me gradually dropping books, but also DC canceling some of them.

(Quick caveat: I don't know that this will be of any particular interest to anyone out there, but, well, the same could be said for everything else on this blog. I know I would be interested in reading it if I weren't me though, so I'm going to write this up (um, which could also be said for everything else on this blog). I know I'm just a single, incredibly persnickety comics reader, so this isn't a diagnosis for any particular problem with the publisher or the initiative, just my own personal takes on the various books that I like enough to start buying and reading, and why I eventually stopped buying and reading them. If it's evidence of anything it is, therefore, just anecdotal evidence.)

To review, in May of last year DC published DC Universe: Rebirth #1 by the writer (and the company's president and chief creative officer) Geoff Johns and a handful of popular, talented artists. The stated goal was to reinvigorate the DCU setting and line, not unlike what Johns had previously done as the writer (and just writer) for specific franchises with Flash: Rebirth and, more remarkably, Green Lantern: Rebirth.

It introduced an odd, "Everything You Thought You Knew About The New 52 Is Wrong!" mystery, which was mainly odd in that DC had not yet gotten around to really explaining what the deal was with The New 52 and the character Pandora's role in creating it (er, in-story, of course). It also teased an eventual, perhaps inevitable crossover between the characters from Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and company's Watchmen and the DC Universe in general. These various plot-lines would very, very gradually be explored in a variety of books, including Detective Comics,
The Titans, the Superman books (Action Comics in particular) and a Batman/Flash crossover story, "The Button."

More palpably, it was an in-universe justification for the publisher's "Rebirth" initiative, which was closer in spirit and effect to their June 2015 "DCYou" effort than 2011's "New 52" reboot. They may have re-set the dials on all of their books' numbering with new #1 issues as they did with The New 52 (with the exceptions of Action and Detective, which saw their pre-New 52 numbering re-stored), but continuity remained the same. There was a greater emphasis on new creative teams, new directions and a handful of new books, much of which seemed like a course correction for many of the mistakes of the hurried New 52 launch, but, beyond that, there was also unified cover dress and a two-tiered schedule tied to price-point: The more popular books would still cost $2.99 and would ship twice a month, while the others would cost $3.99 and ship monthly...and we have seen a handful of titles slip from the first category into the second as their sales gradually dwindled.

I actually tried the first issue of every single one of the "Rebirth" titles (as you may or may not remember), in large part because I had the opportunity to do so without buying them all personally (I was still writing for the Robot 6 blog on Comic Book Resources and Comics Alliance at that point).

So, after trying at least one issue of each, the below titles are the ones I added to my pull-list, whether or not I kept buying them and why not...

All-Star Batman (Canceled by the publisher.) I really loved the first arc of this book, in which regular writer Scott Snyder collaborated with John Romita Jr. on the biggest--and only second, really--Two-Face story of the post-Flashpoint era.

Romita, by the way, was really the "All-Star" referenced in the title, as the stars referenced there seemed to be the creators, rather than the character which, after all, was just Batman and his friends and foes, month in and month out. After that initial arc, structured like an over-the-top action movie in which a bunch of massively redesigned minor Bat-villains--mostly for the better, for a change--tried to collect a bounty on Batman, who was on some mad quest to "rescue" his captive enemy Two-Face, something literally the entire world, from Commissioner Gordon and Alfred to the KGBeast, was attempting to prevent.

The two arcs that followed weren't quite as strong, and the second one suffered somewhat from changing artists each chapter, but this has been the all-around best-made of the three Batman books since the "Rebirth" re-launches. I was quite surprised to see how much worse it sold than Batman proper, however. Sure, it was more expensive at $5, but each issue did feature a back-up, and for the first two arcs at least, those back-ups seemed rather important.

Additionally, with Snyder attached as writer, All-Star has been the Bat-book that most directly followed his run on Batman, and rather directly leads into his Dark Nights: Metal epic (and to the Batman and The Signal miniseries, though I can't imagine people are going to be as excited about that as they are about Metal). Put another way, much more so than Batman itself--which has spent the summer absorbed in an extended flashback story arc--All-Star has been the one Batman book that "mattered," but it hasn't been selling as such.

As DC's third best-selling book at the moment, this cancellation is more likely about trying to find a different format at which Snyder-writing Batman can move more issues--at least, that's my understanding, as the plan is apparently for the stories Snyder was originally planning to tell with the artists he was planning on working with in All-Star are going to show up somewhere or other.

Batman (Still reading.)Tom King's scripts are often quite well-written, and even his current "The War of Jokes and Riddles" story arc is technically well-written, although it engages in far too much telling-not-showing for a comic book, and is supremely frustrating for a fan with even passing knowledge or interest in any of the many characters involved, as few seem to be acting much like themselves, the title character most particularly. Unfortunately, how good the comic ends up being often depends on who is drawing it. Because it is a twice-monthly book, it has two primary artists, one good and one bad, and then fill-in artists are occasionally needed as well.

I can't say I won't drop the book ever--I might have already done so if the poorer of the two primary artists were drawing this current storyline, for example--but for now, this seems like the DCU book I am least likely to drop, as well as the DC book that is least likely to ever be canceled, as it's the publisher's best-selling book that isn't Dark Nights: Metal by a long, long way.

Deathstroke (Dropped due to price increase.) This was an unusual case in which I was a fan of the writer, not the character, and became a fan of the book despite the subject matter, so skilfully was Christopher Priest scripting it. The art was even more uneven than many of the other twice-monthly books, but it was never too poor.

Unfortunately, when DC moved it to a more sensible monthly schedule--this was the third time they had launched a Deathstroke book since 2011, so if selling it once a month was challenging, surely trying to sell it twice as often was a little over ambitious--it also moved from the $2.99 price-point to the $3.99 price-point, which is pretty much a red line for me when it comes to consuming Big Two comics serially.

Detective Comics (Still reading.) I was on the fence with this book as soon as it was announced, as I was okay with the writer, liking more of his comics than I've disliked (James Tynion), not a fan of the primary pencil artist at all, even though few DC Comics could have regular artists at the twice-monthly pace (Eddy Barrows) but intrigued by the cast and concept.

That concept was basically that of having Batman organize his many allies into a kind of super-team, a little like Batman, Incorporated, but as a Gotham City-based team of heroes-in-training, as opposed to a worldwide network of Batmen.

I don't think its yet met its potential, and I confess that this is the comic book I continue to read despite not really liking it, month in and month out (I may drop it after the current story arc, which I'm reading out of pretty intense curiosity).

More than any of the other books, 'Tec seems to suffer from the worst-of-both-worlds phenomenon inherent in DC's post-Flashpoint New 52-boot, and it suffers further from the fact that it feels so much like fan-fiction. Even more so than, say, Nightwing, which has similarly relied on particular characters created by and associated with particular creators, 'Tec has a tendency to read like fan-fiction.

I know that's probably a charged term, and might even sound nonsensical when describing the comics for a corporate entity like Warner Bros' DC Comics or Disney's Marvel, given that almost all of the books they publish feature creators who didn't create the toys they are playing with, but I think there are degrees to the ickiness, depending on the age of the characters and the number of other creators who have worked on them before (That is, DC may technically own Batman and Anarky and Doctor Manhattan, but, for now at least, using those last two feels a little wronger to me than it does to use Batman, as Anarky still feels like more of a Alan Grant/Norm Breyfogle character and Doctor Manhattan an Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons one, while Batman is so far removed from his first few years under creators Bob Kane, Jerry Robinson and their collaborators that, well, it feels less fan fiction-y to me to read a Batman comic than it would, say, a Superman vs. Doctor Manhattan one, as DC has in the works, or Tynion's run on 'Tec, which has basically been a Batman comic in which Tynion has paraded his favorite Batman characters from the '90s through a New 52 filter).

I might be more forgiving if Tynion were doing new or interesting things with all of the characters, but aside from his attempt to turn Clayface into a good guy, the series has been a really weird arc by arc cycle of Batman and his team discovering a new secret society and combating them, only to discover a new one in the next arc (The Colony, The Victim Syndicate, The League of Shadows, The Order of St. Dumas).

Gotham Academy: Second Semester (Canceled by the publisher.) On the one hand, it's kind of shocking that this book wasn't an gigantic hit for the publisher. Even if the finicky direct market rejected it, Gotham Academy really seemed like something that should have done gangbusters in the bookstore and library markets, as the elevator pitch was basically "Batman + Harry Potter" (Which I say having never read any Harry Potter books, or watched any movies after that first one; perhaps it's more accurate to describe it as a book about a Gotham City Hogwarts, only with detective work and vigilante crime-fighting instead of magic, maybe?).

On the other hand, once it was clear that the book didn't catch on in its first year, it is not at all surprising that it didn't survive the Rebirth era. In fact, it wasn't quite ready for the Rebirth era relaunch, and thus it took a few months to start being published under its new title (That is, with the colon and the words "Second Semester" attached).

I'm kind of loathe to diagnose exactly what or where the book went wrong.

It's possible that it was at once too Batman-specific (see the school's teaching staff, which consisted mostly of half-forgotten villains from Batman '66) while not being Batman-specific enough (Bruce Wayne and Batman flitted through the book more than once, and Robin Damian Wayne had some memorable guest-appearances, but despite the occasional tie-in to Batman franchise crossovers like "Endgame" and "Robin War," it wasn't exactly mandatory reading for the Batman audience).

I've also heard that there may have been some behind-the-scenes problems, particularly regarding the particular art process that gave the first volume of the book's early issues' every panel the look and feel of an animation cel.

From my standpoint as a comic book reader and a semi-professional comic book critic, DC did everything right to promote the first volume of the series, and by the time they launched Second Semester it really felt like the publisher must have known it was on it way out, and gave what was left of the creative team plenty of space to finish up their ongoing story in a way they saw fit (I do wonder if the length and scope of that ongoing story may have hampered the book too; Brenden Fletcher and company played a very long game in terms of plotting overarching, intertwined mysteries, but the book was at its most fun when it was concentrating on smaller, more immediate events). The "Yearbook" story arc, which basically just hit the pause button on that story (or any story, really) for months and months, temporarily turning the book into an anthology series, was probably ill-considered.

I'm definitely going to miss Maps though, and, in a perfect world, we will get Maps and Damian team-ups...somewhere or other, eventually.

New Super-Man (Dropped due to the price increase.) The Gene Luen Yang-created (or re-created, I guess) Superman starred in the most intriguing book in what was originally a overly ambitious five-book Superman line, as he was a brand-new character, his story was set in China and, well, he was the creation of Gene Luen Yang, one of the most influential and talked about cartoonists of the last decade or so.

I was a little conflicted about the book, almost from the beginning. I really liked Kenan Kong, the title character, who in everything from his age to his arrogance reminded me of the 1990s Superboy, the young clone of Superman who emerged during the "Reign of the Supermen" storyline. The stories were cool, featuring a rather remarkable swathe of the DC Universe filtered through a new, rarely-seen setting and culture (in addition to a Chinese, teenage Super-Man, there was also a Wonder-Woman and a Bat-Man, and their first villains were modern Chinese echoes of The Freedom Fighters, favorite characters of mine), as well as pre-existing characters like I-Ching and The Great Ten and maybe the most unexpected character of all time, who is arguably the publisher's first characters.

The book also featured perhaps what is--no lie, no hyperbole--the greatest cliffhanger in DC Comics history. I saw the last page of that issue in the shop, but I didn't see how it turned out, so maybe it ended up being a head fake?

As much as I liked the characters, the scripting and the overall direction, however, the art was fairly lackluster, and, in a time of seemingly peak comics like this, "just okay" or even just "pretty decent" art isn't really worth paying attention to anymore. Viktor Bogdanovic was the original pencil artist, and I understand Billy Tan has come and went a few times since.

The design work was always solid, but the art just didn't grab me, and it seemed particularly poor compared to that of everything other Yang comic I had read or seen, and I think I would have preferred this if any Yang collaborator from projects past had been attached (the same could be said for Yang's pre-Rebirth work on the Superman franchise too, though). I understand the argument for a visual style that more closely fits in with the median of the DCU line's artwork but, on the other hand, I don't know that this book's ideal audience is the direct market (sales analysis suggests that it is now), but the book store/library market where Yang's past work has flourished, so it seems to me a smarter move to hire more Yang-friendly artists.

So when sales apparently slid to the point that New Super-Man made the jump in price-point from $2.99 to $3.99, I wasn't exactly broken up to move it from my monthly pull-list to the Wait For The Trade list that exists in my head.

Nightwing (Still reading.) Putting Dick Grayson back in his Nightwing costume, and his pre-Flashpoint color scheme was a smart and welcome move, as was eventually putting him back in BLudhaven, after the somewhat flailing narrative arc of the character over the course of the past five years. I wasn't crazy about this book's first story arc by now long-time Dick Grayson writer Tim Seeley, but when he returned to Bludhaven, it started to feel a lot more like a Nightwing book should, while managing to retain new elements from more recent Dick Grayson-starring comics, like his relationship with current Robin Damian Wayne, his time as a super-spy in Grayson and so on.

The art hasn't been anything special, and the art teams have changed with enough frequency that I couldn't even tell you who the primary artists on the series have been. Given the always-increasing focus on how sexy Dick is suppose to be, I'd kinda like to see an artists who specializes in sexy dudes take on the series...and/or the cover, but I don't know that the Big Two have ever been especially adept at drawing beefcake to go with their cheesecake.

A new creative team is coming on shortly, and sales on the book have looked poor enough that I wouldn't be surprised to see it go to the $3.99 price-point before too long.

Suicide Squad (Dropped due to chaotic art/format.) In the heady days when the Suicide Squad movie was still just an awesome-looking trailer, this book seemed to have the makings of an "it" book, and it looks like DC went to some pains to more closely align it to the version of the team that would be/did/had appearing/appear/appeared in the movie. They even got Jim Lee to draw it! Of course, in order to get Lee to draw it, they came up with a rather weird format, in which Lee drew short chapters of a continuing story arc in each issue, and the rest of the issue would be filled-up with an origin story for one of the characters, each of these drawn by a guest-artist.

That worked fine, but, once all the origins were told, the book then had the problem of filling 20-pages a month. Which, really, shouldn't have been a problem once Lee moved on, as it's not like they had to accommodate the extremely popular artist (and company co-publisher) any longer. Suicide Squad could very easily have resumed a "regular" format, with a single art team drawing a 20-page chapter of an ongoing serial narrative each issue.

That's not what they did, though, and the narrative then got pretty damn messy, as art chores as well as stories were seemingly arbitrarily divided into chunks. I stuck with it through the end of the John Romita JR-drawn arc because, well, because it was JRJR drawing it, but that's as much as I could take, and w/out an artist of his caliber there, it wasn't really worthwhile.

I do think writer Rob Williams did a pretty great job on the book...I certainly read it a lot longer than I read the last two attempts at a Suicide Squad ongoing (As with Deathstroke, the Rebirth initiative marked DC's third attempt at a Suicide Squad book since September 2011).

I think one of the essential problems with his take, one that is thrown into sharp relief when one is reading issues of it between DC's releases of trade collections of the original John Ostrander-written series, is that the team is too consistent, with very, very few comings and goings. While Ostrander's Suicide Squad had a core cast, both among the civilian support staff and the super-villains, it also had a lot of guest-stars, and characters who would be there for an issue or an arc or 20 issues and then leave, either because they were needed/being used elsewhere, or they paid off their debt to society/Amanda Waller or because they were killed in action. For a task force with the word "suicide" in their nickname, this squad never seems to take any casualties.

The other problems are ones that can't really be addressed, and, actually, contribute to the one I just mentioned.

I've likely said this before, but because the post-Flashpoint DCU is so young, it's not stocked with minor characters from decades worth of scores and scores of comics Williams could use as cannon fodder, or even just to give the cast character. I mean, as we've seen in the previous two iterations of the book, there are minor characters aplenty that can be used, but on the other side of a reboot, they don't really matter in any way, as they are just recycled codenames attached to costume redesigns.

Finally, because of the short history and relative instability of the post-Flashpoint DCU, there's no real sense of place, history, consistency or import to the setting. Ostrander's Suicide Squad was set in a world that was a fantastical version of the real world, where there were multiple government agencies dealing with meta-humans, and where real-world politics and/or fantasy versions of real-world politics set in and around fictionalized countries played a role. Now Amanda Waller doesn't really have anyone to engage in bureaucratic battle with, because I don't know that there is a Checkmate, a Peacemaker Project, a Project: Captain Atom and so on. I mean, I've heard "Checkmate" mentioned, but don't know what it means anymore. I don't even know who the President of the United States is. Is there a Kobra, and is it like I thought it was? Is it the same from issue to issue, book to book, appearance to appearance?

The team books all suffered the most from the New 52-boot, and Suicide Squad and Justice League more than most: Saving the world isn't terribly compelling when "the world" is vague and ill-defined, you now? The former can work, and often does, but it worked a lot better when it had a cohesive, consistent universe to operate in.

Superman (Dropped due to unscheduled fill-ins.) With Action Comics' attention devoted to various continuity hijinks, making sense of the pre-Flashpoint/post-Convergence Superman replacing the dead New 52 Superman and the Mr. Oz plot, this has been the Superman comic worth reading, as writer Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason steamed ahead telling new stories starring Superman, Lois Lane and the new Superboy, their son Jonathan, mostly in the rather non-Supermanly setting of rural Hamilton County.

When DC did their latest Superman reboot--which, I admit, completely lost me--this book got a bit confused too, but, for the most part, it has managed to not dwell on continuity overmuch. Frequent guest-appearances by Tomasi, Gleason and sometimes pencil artist Doug Mahnke's apparent favorite characters, like Batman and Robin and Frankenstein and The Bride and a very unexpected character from my favorite comic book series ever (which Tomasi used to edit for DC) helped keep it fun.

After the last big arc--which was mostly designed to push the Kent Family out of Hamilton County for good, but had the unfortunate side-effect of revisiting a modern classic Superman story for the fifteenth completely unnecessary time--the direction seemed to have stalled out for about a half-dozen issues, and the "regular" creative team (which, admittedly, on the twice-monthly Rebirth books gets less and less regular as the weeks pile up) went MIA, Superman lost focus. And I lost interest.

One thing Marvel has taught me over the last few years is that it's really not that hard to just wait for the trade.

Wonder Woman (Dropped due to new creative team/direction.) I found the specific strategy on this twice-monthly book, in which the one writer would tell two storylines set in different time periods of the character's life in alternate issues, alternating between two different time teams, to be interesting enough to be intriguing at first. As Greg Rucka's run wore on, however, the same general issues I had with his previous run on an earlier volume of the title--like, three launches and at least one major reboot ago--began to become apparent again, and, in retrospect, I found Rucka's return a little frustrating, as he essentially just told a single, if complexly structured, origin story, and then bounced. (In that respect, it reminded me of Brad Meltzer's poor run on Justice League of America, which was just a very long origin story, the modern equivalent of a writing launching a new series and then leaving as soon as the first script was submitted.)

I was more than willing to give the next writer Shea Fontana, a temporary fill-in writer, a chance, based on how strong her work on the various DC Super Hero Girls original graphic novels was, and my curiosity regarding how she would fare with a script in the tonally opposite and overall much more constrained DC Universe shared setting. She did fine though, and I read all the issues of her run.

I was much less willing to to give the writer who followed her, James Robinson, that same chance, having read plenty of poorly-written Robinson comics in the past, particularly given the announced direction of his arc: Following up on plot points from Geoff Johns' Justice League arc, "The Darkseid War," which now seems forever ago.

That being said, this is Wonder Woman we're talking about, so chances are I will be back before too long.

As long as I'm talking about my pull-list, here are the other serially-published, ongoing comic book-format comic books currently on it: Archie Comics' Archie, Josie and The Pussycats and Jughead; DC's Bombshells United and Scooby-Doo Team-Up; Image Comics' SagaSnotgirl and Sun Bakery and...I think that's it, actually.


Steve said...

[Mark Hamill]I care.[/Mark Hamill]

I have a hard time convincing myself monthly comics are worth it financially, so pre-Rebirth the only monthly DC comic I was buying was Batgirl, which I really did adore. Unfortunately, the Rebirth change of direction for the title was perplexing, bascially dropping everything interesting that was going on in favor of dullness, though Rafael Albuquerque's art was nice. Like, all the recurring characters jettisoned, Barbara's current job/school status changed for the third time in two years. After the first two story arcs, I decided I wasn't enjoying it enough, and I'll pick up the trades from the library someday.

LondonKdS said...

I'm not a core target audience member for "Gotham Academy" as an adult male, but I have liked other works of the genre. I think that some people may not have picked it up, or dissuaded children from doing so, for the same reason as I did, which was precisely that vagueness about whether it was part of the mainstream DCU or not, which made me and probably other people fear that it might end up being tied into wider Bat-universe stuff that was uninteresting or downright unsuitable for the target audience, to a degree that would make it unrewarding to read as a stand-alone work.

I think it would probably have done better if it had been explicitly in a separate continuity like "Bombshells" or "Super Hero Girls" (you could still have had Damian turn up as an alternate version who wasn't very different to the main-universe one), which would have ruled out that worry. DC might possibly be able to make some more money off it now by reissuing it all in the bookstore market, possibly in digest format, with the marketing making it clear that it actually is a stand-alone work that doesn't require you to be reading any other Batman-related comics.

David said...

I thought the first arc of Gotham Academy was really well done, enough to buy a copy for my daughter. Singular art, and strong plotting. After that, though, it seemed to fall apart pretty fast, and the anthology arc really killed any momentum the book had.

Justin Metzger said...

I was hoping to hear your take on Green Arrow. I have heard some good things about Benjamin Percy. I'm slowly amassing the run from dollar bins before sitting down to read it. My previous experience with GA ended with the Metzler run, so I am coming back close to 15 years later.

Anyway did you read GA? If so what is your take on the series? If not what about the character or series has kept you away?