Monday, August 15, 2016

Afterbirth: DC's "Rebirth" initiative, week 11

Deathstroke: Rebirth #1 by Christopher Priest, Jason Paz and Jeromy Cox

Deathstroke is, like Red Hood, another book that the market seems to have rejected, but DC seems determined to find a way to make work, even if there's no real mass-media incentive for doing so (as with, say, Suicide Squad and Teen Titans). The ongoing series that will launch following this Rebirth one-shot will be the third Deathstroke series since fall of 2011. The first, which ran through three writers, lasted 20 issues. The second, which launched in 2014, also lasted 20 issues, and only burned through two writers in that time. Prior to 2011's new 52 relaunch, Deathstroke hadn't supported his own book since his 60-issue, 1991-1995 title, written by co-creator Marv Wolfman.

This new book would therefore seem to have something of an uphill climb, but it does have something of a secret weapon this time out: It's being written by Christopher Priest. An extremely talented, awfully under-appreciated and too-rarely-seen comic book writer, Priest is due for a greater and wider appreciation in the coming months, as Marvel has reprinted his Black Panther run in anticipation of the upcoming feature film that will almost certainly draw upon it for inspiration, and it was just recently announced that a animated series based on The Ray is in the works. While that character has been around in various incarnations since 1940, the only ongoing series he supported was a 29-issue, 1994-1996 series written by Priest (which I hope DC will be collecting shortly, as I've never read it in its entirety in order, having tried to assemble the run in back-issues; and hey, DC, while you're at it, can you also collect Priest's excellent Justice League Task Force run? Thanks!).

I found that development a little disappointing, on account of the fact that I really like Priest, and really have no interest in Deathstroke, one of the many, many characters who suffered from the erasure of history that accompanied the New 52 reboot and who, simultaneously, seemed to suffer from overexposure. (I read a handful of Tony Daniel's run on the second New 52 volume of the series, and I still feel like I've seen Deathstroke in about 85 or so different appearances throughout the line).

So what are the first twenty pages of the Priest/Deathstroke pairing like? "The Professional" is broken up into tiny sub-chapters, with titles appearing in all-black panels. The action jumps back and forth from what appears to the rather distant past, in which a blonde, two-eyed Slade takes his to small children camping, and the present, in which Deathstroke takes a job in Africa for a warlord that is complicated by the surprise appearance of a supervillain.

Wintergreen is also involved, and thanks to the reboot and all of the appearances of Slade and the Wilson children that I haven't read, I have no idea what current continuity is regarding all of these characters, which is probably for the best. This feels and reads like a completely fresh start, which is as it should be.

The surprise villain, who Deathstroke is at first paid to kill, but is having some trouble doing, and then redirects his attention elsewhere, is an apparently elderly and terminally ill Clock King. Refreshingly, he's in his classic costume, which looks more like a pair of pajama's covered in clocks than anything else (He's not wearing the mask, though; that would just be silly). It's perhaps a little weird that in this short-lived universe any super-people have been around long enough to get old, but it's nice to see that the creators haven't tried to make Clock King look more realistic or bad-ass, neither of which has suited the character very well in the past.

There is a lot of mystery involved in the plot, particularly in how these various things connect, and what it is that makes Deathstroke change his direction, but these are of the intriguing, rather than confusing, variety of mystery.

Carlos Pagulayan's pencils, inked by Jason Paz and colored by Jeromy Cox, are the best applied to this character and his adventures in...well, I can't remember the last time I read a comic called Deathstroke that looked this good. The style is perhaps nothing special, and is, in fact, even boring, but its professionally executed, and there's obviously a high degree of talent involved. It is, by no means, bad, which, in the unfortunately low standards of superhero comic book art, the same as being really rather good.

The design of the lead character is a functional one, and his colors have been rendered rather drab. The orange is a sickly shade, the blue is no black, and the fish-scale style armor is now silver chain mail. It is neither as colorfully super-villainous as the original George Perez design, nor as outlandish as the the New 52 redesign, which only really looked all that good when occasional cover artist Simon Bisley was drawing it with the sense of exaggeration it deserved.

I personally can't say I'm excited or terribly enthusiastic about what follows, but this is certainly the firs time I've been interested in what happens next in a Deathstroke comic since, I don't know, he fought Batman in 1992 or whenever...?

All-Star Batman #1 by Scott Snyder, John Romita Jr., Danny Miki and Dean White

When DC first started announcing their new "Rebirth"-branded line of books, the most notable absence was writer Scott Snyder, whose run on Batman with pencil artist Greg Capullo was the New 52's one completely unqualified hit. Sndyder's apparent leave from the Bat-books was cause for some concern for a bit–right up until his All-Star Batman, a new series apparently focusing on Batman's rogue's gallery, was announced.

The title is a rather uncomfortable fit, as "All-Star" was used by the publisher to denote out-of-continuity books featuring their biggest characters by the biggest creators, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's limited-series All-Star Superman and Frank Miller and Jim Lee's unfinished All-Star Batman and Robin, The Boy Wonder (there was talk of an All-Star Wonder Woman and an All-Star Batgirl, but neither ever materialized). The only other All-Star-branded book was the recent "DCYou" launch, the miniseries All-Star Section Eight, a quasi-canonical miniseries featuring a continuity I doubt will ever be referred to outside of writer Garth Ennis' future Section Eight comics (The fact that Batman scoffs at his many unpaid parking tickets or that Martian Manhunter smells godawful is unlikely to come up elsewhere, you know?).

The "All-Star" of this book seems to be in reference to the talent. While Snyder is the new ongoing's writer, the artists will rotate arc-by-arc. In this initial story arc, "My Own Worst Enemy," pencil artist John Romiat Jr. is joining the old Batman team of Snyder, inker Danny Miki and colorist Dean White. JRJR was a high-profile "get" for DC, and I'm sorry to say that a rather unremarkable run on Superman is all they've gotten out of him thus far. This looks like it will be a correction of that, as well as providing a better showcase for JRJR's skills at action and design.

This $4.99, 32-page comic also features a back-up story drawn by Declan Shalvey, and Paul Pope, Sean Murphy, Francesco Francavilla and Jock are among the artists announced for future contributions to the book.

The villain in this first arc was a genuinely surprising one: Two-Face. For reasons I'm not entirely sure of, the villain has been all but absent in the New 52. Snyder used him briefly in his "Death of the Family" story arc, appearing alongside The Penguin and The Riddler in a Joker-prompted gathering of Batman's worst enemies, and his only other appearance has been Peter Tomasi, Patrick Gleason and company's Batman and Robin story arc, collected in Batman and Robin Vol. 5: The Big Burn, in which they give the character a brand-new origin story...and kill him off (and in a much more final way than the typical comic book villain death; he shoots himself in the head during a daily game of Russian roulette).

Snyder begins in medias res, with Batman escorting Two-Face somewhere 500 miles north of Gotham City, with seemingly everyone wanting to stop the pair from getting to their destination. As gradually comes out, after Two-Face engages in some sort of city-destroying attack (all of Batman's enemies are now terrorists) involving acid rain, Two-Face offers a carrot-and-stick deal to everyone. The carrot is the sum of the top three gangsters in Gotham City's net worth, while the stick is the release of all of the information Two-Face has accumulated on everyone in Gotham City during his years as a prosecutor and villain. Stop Batman and you get the money...and stop the secrets, including yours, from getting out.

There's still some important bits of information to be revealed, and it's being held back from drama's sake–Batman is betrayed by someone very close to him, which results in the Batplane being knocked out of the sky one mile into the journey–but Snyder does the job of delivering a simple, action-movie premise. Batman must get an unwilling Two-Face somewhere, while a bunch of super-villains attempt to stop him.

The villains here are all bug-themed. Batman makes his entrance being flying-tackled through plate glass by Firefly and Killer Moth, both in elaborate new, matching insect-costumes that allow them to fly (I don't think we've seen Firefly in the New 52 yet, and Killer Moth's costume looks 1,000 times better here than the very weak, un-moth-like one he's been wearing previously; I think his costume should be lame, lamer than this, actually, but at least this one is moth-themed). This is, by the way, the sort of scene JRJR excels at.

The other villain is Black Spider, whose costume looks a little like post-Crisis Black Spider II's costume, only cooler, and with Doctor Octopus-like arms I'm not a fan of, but it does allow Batman to fight him with a chainsaw, so that's fine.

Two-Face's dramatic first appearance–he spends much of the book wearing a hood–also reveals a great new design, and the impact of the moment is bolstered by the fact that we've barely seen the once omnipresent villain over the course of the last five years (DC's various Batman writers really should endeavor to create more new villains, allowing them to keep big one's out of the spotlight for longer and longer; the decision to use The Joker and Two-Face sparingly have made the appearances of both seem like really big deals).

A fourth villain appears on the last pages, and he is restored to his pre-New 52 look, thank God. Without spoiling his identity, this villain had one of the most striking designs of any DC villain and thus suffered more than most of the bad guys when given a New 52 redesign. He's not really a Batman villain–only in one particular Batman cartoon–so seeing him here at all was kind of a fun surprise.

The Shalvey drawn back-up, colored by Jordie Bellaire, is "The Cursed Wheel," and it's the first part of a story focusing on Duke Thomas' new training regime as...whoever he is now, in his black and yellow colored Bat-costume. ("So can I call you Robin?" Commissioner Gordon asks Thomas in the main story, and Batman answers for him, "I'm trying something New, Jim. Something...better, I hope." Well, when you do figure out what to call him, can you let the rest of us know? It's really bugging me. And if we decide that we don't have to have names for superheroes any more, can we stop calling Cassandra Cain "Orphan" and not call her anything either...?).

Having read the first few issues of Batman and Detective Comics and just the first issue of All-Star Batman, I feel pretty confident in saying that if you only read one Batman comic book, this should be that one. It has the best art by far, it's most focused on the title character as the star, and between the business with Duke and the super-villain gauntlet Batman's running outside of Gotham City, it it's the book that feels like it's doing something newer and more unexpected with the 75+-year-old character than any of the others.

Red Hood and The Outlaws #1 by Scott Lobdell, Dexter Soy and Veronica Gandini

This is the first official issue of the third Red Hood ongoing of the past five years, but the title actually began two weeks ago with Red Hood and The Outlaws: Rebirth #1. "The Outlaws" of the title–a new version of Artemis and some iteration of Bizarro–show up on the cover of this issue, but 40 pages into Scott Lobdell's new storyline, it is still very much a Red Hood solo story (Artemis gets three lines of dialogue, and makes her first appearance on the last page of this issue).

Based on the fact that these first 40 pages or so have been the best and most readable that Lobdell has written featuring The Red Hood, and that the premise so far established–the Hood infiltrates the criminal underworld, trading on his not undeserved reputation as a Gotham villain–doesn't really require a team, I can't help but wonder if maybe DC and Lobdell should have tried a Red Hood solo series this time out (the first Red Hood and The Outlaws teamed him with Arsenal and Starfire, and that was followed by a Starfire-free Red Hood/Arsenal book).

As in the Rebirth special, this issue opens with a Batman-starring flashback, cleverly colored by Veronica Gandini to look sort of black-and-white-ish with bright spot red color on teenage Jason and faded bits of color here and there. He is gradually working his way into the good graces of Gotham crime boss The Black Mask, and seems to have gotten to the second-in-command position pretty much overnight (Still no reference to, or explanation why, he wear Batman's bat-symbol on his chest is he's supposed to be a bad guy who recently fought Batman. Surely the skull symbol of the supervillain costume he wore in Batman and Robin, or nothing at all, would be a better look for a bad guy supposedly completely unaffiliated with Batman? Nightwing and the various Robins looks less visually allied with Batman than Red Hood does). Black Mask has a job for Red Hood, a train heist, and it is aboard the train he meets Artemis, who artist Dexter Soy draws wearing what looks like an Elseworlds version of a Wonder Woman costume, standing with her hip jutted out as if she just reached the end of the catwalk and carrying a comically large, manga-style battle axe.

No real mystery what will happen in the next issue ("Next Issue: Red Hood V. Artemis!" reads the bottom corner of the final page), but it remains to be seen how Lobdell will manage to form a workable team out of such three divergent characters, and how exactly that will fit in with the plot of these first issues.

Superwoman #1 by Phil Jiemenz, Matt Santorelli and Jeromy Cox

It would be wrong to call this the most unexpected of the new, "Rebirth" era Superman family of books–New Super-Man features a Chinese teenager with Superman powers, for example, and Super-Sons will features Superman and Lois' extra-dimensional son teaming up with Robin Damian Wayne–but Lois Lane-gets-superpowers is surely a rather unexpected premise for a new ongoing series (although this is the sort of thing that would have powered, say, 12 pages or so of a Silver Age Superman book).

"Unexpected" is probably an important word to keep in mind here, as there's a rather good chance that a great deal of marketing misdirection went into this book. I don't want to risk ruining it for anyone who hasn't read it yet, so after the next paragraph, if you haven't yet read the book but don't want to be spoiled, you can quit reading the post now. Deal?

Writer/penciller Phil Jimenez does a pretty phenomenal job of presenting a particular dense, satisfying read. Almost every page has a lot of panels on them, many of them full of highly-detailed artwork and a fair amount of dialogue. Few name American artists could get away with this amount of visual information per page in a mainstream super-book–Jimenez inspiration George Perez comes to mind–but he pulls it off rather beautifully. It also means that when we get a two-page splash page showing the new Superwoman in flight over Metropolis, the image hits with the impact a splash is supposed to have. They have become so commonplace in superhero comics that they rarely even work anymore. The plot focuses on New 52 Lois Lane (not to be confused with the other Lois Lane, the one from the pre-Flashpoint timeline who was living in secret with her husband and son) teaming up with Lana Lang as Superwoman to carry on the legacy of their dead friend, Superman (The New 52 one, not the pre-Flashpoint Superman, who is currently starring in Action Comics and Superman).

You may remember from the death of Superman, one of several recent Superman comics referred to via asterisk and editorial box here, when he died, red bolts of lightning shot out of his body and hit Lana and Lois, imbuing them both with super-powers. Lois seems to have gotten the traditional suite of Superman powers, while Lana got the Electric Superman powers somehow, and when she goes into action as the other Superwoman, she looks like the Superman Red version of Strange Visitor.

So there are two Superwomen. Why is the book called Superwoman instead of Superwomen then? Good question. Do note that the placement of the S-shield in the logo does make the book look like it may be called Superwomans, though.

In this issue, other Superman Lex Luthor has built a giant helicarrier-like boat to help protect Metropolis, and wouldn't you know it, something goes wrong, necessitating both Lois and Lana to go into action. Later, while investigating the boat, Super-Lois gets attacked by what looks like some kind of female Bizarro, and is killed.

Now, I assumed she was "killed" rather than killed, and she would turn out to be A-OK next issue, as is often the case in superhero comics. It is her book, right?

My comics dealer, in asking me what I thought of the book (he liked it too, for what it's worth), noted that it seems to have solved the Rebirth DCU's "Two Lois" problem. Killing off New 52 Lois means pre-Flashpoint Lois would be the only Lois in the current DCU, and as for keeping this title going, well, if Lana Lang is also Superwoman, then she would simply become the Superwoman that stars in Superwoman.

Like I said, the thought didn't even occur to me while reading, but that does clean up the Superman books kind of easily (even if it's all extremely fucking confusing), and will (hopefully) allow the various creative teams to just get on with it already (If they even want to, of course. Dan Jurgens has had Superman fighting Doomsday in the pages of Action Comics for, what, like 80 pages now?).

I guess we'll have to wait and see. If that is what happened, then that is both an admirable subversion and a rather annoying bit of subterfuge on the part of DC. If not, well, they have to do something with the extra Lois somewhere down the line, right? (I'm not sure how the older Lois from a different universe will take the place of the younger Lois of this universe, particularly since they don't look too terribly alike, but then, I don't know how they plan on resolving Superman's outted secret identity yet either).

At any rate, I can't say I'm too terribly thrilled about where Jiminez is working at the moment–I'd prefer him on Justice League or trying to fix the Titans, I think–but it's nice to see DC hiring Jimenez to both write and draw a book. He's good at both, but he's best when he's doing both simultaneously. And there's no better value in comics outside of Legends of Tomorrow, at the moment, as 20 Jimenez pages contain about as much story information as 40-60 Everyone Else pages.


Evan said...

In regards to your comment about Deathstroke's erased history, I've read the first volume of New 52 Deathstroke and it reads like a frantic attempt to cram as much of Deathstrokes backstory into the New 52 as possible. It's nearly all riffs on classic 80s Deathstroke stories. The first few issues by Kyle Higgins do a decent job of reestablishing the "Deathstroke has a son called Ravager who got killed" backstory. Then they begin introducing other elements, like Deathstroke's ex-wife and his son Jericho. This culminates in the final issues, which feature a bad riff on the "Judas Contract."

There was also an odd take on the Omega Men in the middle (telling bad riffs on classic Marv Wolfman stories seemed to be Rob Liefeld's trademark when he was writing the New 52). I don't know how it could possibly share continuity with the recent Omega Men series.

David Charles Bitterbaum said...

Deathstroke is the only DC Rebirth comic I'm reading, based on the skill and talent of Christopher Priest alone getting me interested. As someone who has zero knowledge about the character I liked it.

David said...

The thing that most interests me about this Red Hood run is that Bizarro apparently takes on the superhero identity Kent Clarkerman.

DCB: I would strongly suggest Green Arrow, as between Schmidt and Ferraya it is one of the best drawn comics on the stands. Now if only someone would hand Percy a map of western Washington so he doesn't have Oliver walk 45 miles barefoot.