Wednesday, December 28, 2016

On DC Rebirth Holiday Special #1

One of the results of the $2.99-$3.99 cost of regular 20-22-page comics is that it makes over-sized comics like annuals and specials increasingly difficult to pull off, pushing their prices up into a range closer to that of a trade paperback. For example, the DC Rebirth Holiday Special is $9.99; that's what I recently paid for She-Wolf Vol. 1, a little more than what I would pay for a Smurfs collection and a little less than I would pay for a volume of manga.

To DC's credit, they've embraced the unusually high price point with this anthology, giving it a spine and making it something of a hybrid of an over-sized special and a trade paperback; it looks like a regular, if thin, trade paperback, the only thing it has in common with comic book format comics is the presence of ads (all of them are house ads, save those on the inside front and back covers, curiously enough).

This being an anthology, the quality of the stories varies, and the likability of each will likely vary from reader to reader, depending on one's own tastes. I figured I would break it out of a "Comic Shop Comics" post in order to highlight those stories better.

So, what do you get for your $9.99? An 84-page special featuring 11 stories ranging from one to 13-pages in length, all introduced by Harley Quinn in writer Paul Dini and artist Elsa Charettier's "A Very Harley Holiday," in which the Dini co-creation dons red and green and hangs out with many "Rebirth"-era DC characters at a behind-the-scenes Christmas party (Two other Dini favorites,  Zatanna and Black Canary, spend the length of the book performing "The Twelve Days of Christmas").

As I apparently never tire of telling anyone, I'm not a big fan of the Harley Quinn character, but this was probably the all-around best story of the book (I'm sure DC would be resistant to messing with success, as co-writers Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti's Harley Quinn books have undoubtedly been a financial success for them, but I wonder if a Paul Dini-written Harley Quinn might not make for a better comic book?). Of course, Dini has a pretty low bar for success here, as all he has to do is craft a series of gag strips, which Charettier beautifully draws in a charming style that at least leans in the direction of the Bruce Timm-designed origins of the character, even if she's dressed more like her current incarnation. The art is all on-model, and it manages to be sexy and fun, too. I say "all" like coming up with a bunch of gags is easy (and, in truth, not all of these are winners), but it seems a bit easier than trying to craft a more "serious" story, as the other writers involved are tasked with doing.

Perhaps my favorite gag? Wonder Woman explaining the Amazon winter holiday of Diana Day in almost exact detail, as that's so weird one really doesn't need to add jokes (Dini does add one, unfortunately over-gilding that particular lily). Diana Day is the festival in which certain Amazons dress up like deer and are hunted by others; it was as suggestive as it was ridiculous in the Golden Age, while Grant Morrison and Yannick Paquette just made the subtext text in their Earth One graphic novel, and made it a straight up bacchanal complete with nudity and making out.
Let's start with the cover.

 Regarding the the title, why is this a "Holiday" instead of a "Christmas" special? Is it because DC and the liberal media hates Christians and wants to eradicate their second-most important holiday, which has evolved into a secular holiday with mostly secular traditions and celebrations anyway? No, it's because it covers a lot of holidays: Christmas (and only secular aspects of it like gift-giving; unlike some DC holiday specials past, there's no real religious content at all here), Christmas Eve (Nochebuena), Hanukkah, winter solstice, New Year's Eve, Three King's Day and the Chinese holiday of Dongzhi.

The cover image, by Jorge Jimenez and Alejandro Sanchez, feels a little messy to me, in terms of the story it's telling. It looks like Superman and Wonder Woman and Batgirl are carrying a giant sack of gifts, and Harley is attempting to steal them, and other characters are foiling her attempt and also maybe stealing them, and Batman is...I don't know, exactly. Maybe he was chasing her, and jumped at her and missed...?

The renderings are all nice, though, and they manage to get in all of their most recognizable characters of the moment--Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Harley Quinn, Robin--plus some of the "new" characters specific to the current "Rebirth" era, like Superboy Jonathan White, Kid Flash Wally West and Green Lantern Jessica Cruz (and her Green Lanterns co-star Simon Baz).

I really like the way the familiar black and blue "Rebirth" logo that's been atop all of DC's books for months now is here black and green, with red lettering. It's a nice familiar but different look.

We start with three pages of the Harley story, in which she explains the premise--"It's one o' those big, overblown entertainment extravaganzas... ...where celebrities sharing only th' most tangential relationships... ...try to act all chummy during th' segues"--and then plunge into the stories. A page of Harley and friends will regularly appear between them, usually having something to do with the story that follows. For example, a Krypto story is lead in to by a page in which Harley watches a Rankin-Bass-looking Christmas special in which she and Krypto save Santa from Mister Freeze, Killer Frost and Captain Cold.

So first up is Superman and Batman, who will prove the most popular characters used here, in "The Last Minute" by writer Tim Seeley and artist Ian Churchill. The action begins in Ecuador on Nochebuena, where the World's Finest are just polishing off The Rainbow Creature (Seeley sure does love his obscure Bat-villains, God bless him), which Churchill draws a little too scary for my tastes. The Super-Dads are discussing this year's hot new toy, which their sons both want, and Superman has yet to procure for Jonathan. Luckily he can fly and has super-speed, right? So yeah, this Jingle All The Way with Superman.

He's distracted by his Superman duties--The Penny Plunderer vs. a Salvation Army Santa, apparently new monster The Winter Wasp--and just when he tracks down a Disney Infinity/Skylanders-like  Monk-E-Monsters toy/video game system for his son, that little jerk Damian Wayne swoops in and grabs it right out from under his nose.
Cut to the Wayne/Kent Christmas Eve dinner at the Kents' Hamilton County farmhouse. The Kents are all wearing terrible matching Christmas sweaters, which kind of made me hate them all. I like seeing the characters just kinda hanging out like this, though. And while Superman and Batman are the characters who are named as the stars of this story, it's really a story of their sons and their budding friendship.

Kite-Man gets name-dropped, too; that guy is having a hell of a late 2016, I'll tell you what!

Oh, and for some reason Seeley refers to the Kents as The Smiths throughout; I thought they took the name "White," not Smith...? What gives...?

The next story, "For The Dog Who Has Everything" by writer Eric Esquivel and artists Dan Jurgens and Norm Rapmund, also refers to the White farm as "The 'Smith' Family Farm, Upstate" in the opening tagline. Did I miss the name change somewhere? I've been reading Superman since the relaunch, but dropped Action after "Back At The Planet."

This brief two-pager sees Jonathan projecting his own feelings on to Krypto, and then Superman taking his Superboy to the Fortress of Solitude to pick out a present for their Superdog. The title is, of course, a reference to a classic Alan Moore story from a million years ago, perhaps the Alan Moore story that DC just can't help referencing constantly, to the point where I think DC needs, like, an intervention regarding their obsession with Alan Moore (In just the past few months, the Supergirl TV series and the first story arc of the new Trinity comic were based on "The Man Who Has Everything").

I was a little confused about at least one of the super-suits on display in the Fortress, given that this Superman shouldn't have any souvenirs from his universe (that is, the pre-Flashpoint universe), but this is just a two-page story about Krypto's new collar, so probably best not to dwell on it over much.

Next? Perhaps the collection's strongest story: Batman and Detective Chimp in "The Night We Saved Christmas," by the creative team of Heath Corson and Gustavo Duarte (who were responsible for the recent and criminally underrated Bizarro miniseries that launched during the "DCYou" initiative).
Detective Chimp, a PI working on the West Coast, is hired by a big guy with a white beard to help recover his missing dog, and travels to Gotham City to do so, where he teams up with his old pal Batman. Granted, a great deal of the fun of this story is Duarte's idiosyncratic art, and the contrast between his big, burly, almost Frank Miller-looking Batman with the tiny, whisper thin ape with the super-expressive face makes them an almost ideal comics comedy duo (Duarte does an excellent Alfred, too, as you can see above).

Corson's writing is pretty great, too, and it's fun to hear the two claimants to the title "World's Greatest Detective" detecting aloud to one another constantly.

I do hope DC can keep finding things for Corson and Duarte to do, as they do great work, and bring a much-needed sense of fun and humor to the DCU.

An even more random team-up follows in the next story, by writer Mariko Tamaki and artist Matias Bergara (the former a pretty good "get" for the publisher, whose first major work for them is scheduled for this week--the prestige format miniseries Supergirl: Being Super). Though entitled "Dreaming of a White Christmas," it's set on December 21 at a Winter Solstice gathering of witches in England, where both John Constantine and Wonder Woman are looking for individuals, and end up working together to catch them.

There's not a whole lot to it, but the art is nice, and it's really just a story-length excuse to get to the splash page gag ending, which is worth the wait.

From here on in,things start to get a little rough. Writer James Tynion IV and artist Robbi Rodriguez contribute "A Flash Christmas Carol," in which The Flash fights the Rogues on Christmas Eve, and Captain Cold offers The Flash a holiday truce so that the Scarlet Speedster can save Christmas for some foster kids. I'm not a fan of the New 52 Flash at all, but I love Rodriguez's artwork, and he does a fine job on the all-around rather lame New 52 redesigns. That last page is pretty sweet, too.

Artist Andrea Mutti joins New Super-Man writer Gene Luen Yang for a one-page/five-panel story featuring Kenan Kong and his teammates Wonder-Woman and Bat-Man, which basically just introduces American readers to the China's winter solstice celebration of Dongzhi, and another Chinese version of an American super-character: The Red Orchid, a villain who is basically just Chinese Poison Ivy. Given how short this is--again, just five panels--I kind of wish Yang himself would have drawn it, as he's contributed a lot of writing but no art to DC so far (Unless I missed a variant somewhere or something?).

DC's most high-profile Jewish character, Batwoman, once again gets the Hanukkah story (Sorry, Ragman!). This one's from writer K. Perkins and artist Paolo Pantalena, and the latter's drawing of cherry pie which looks nothing at all like cherry pie, through me out of the story in panel...let's see, panel two. Batwoman bets some people up while a girl I've never heard of wearing cat ears oracles for her, and she ruminates on the way she and her father used to spend Hanukkah.

Next? Writer James Asmus and artists Reilly Brown and Scott Hanna collaborate on the Titans story "What A Year For A New Year." And by "Titans" I mean Nightwing, Arsenal, Omen, Donna Troy and Garth (I'm not even sure if he goes by Tempest or not, actually), not the Teen Titans. I like, or at least liked, a few of those characters quite a bit, but haven't really been able to make sense of them in the post-Flashpoint, post-Rebirth DCU, where they seem to have some half-formed memories of their previous, pre-reboot continuity or something? It's been very confusing. Until the publisher resolves the current continuity shenanigans, these heroes aren't characters so much as codenames, and this short story is just one more empty fight comic that could just as easily have been the first and only issue of some superhero team comic Rob Liefeld released in the early 1990s and then abandoned. Only with Nightwing.

It does lead directly into another one-page story though, by writer Bill Freiberger and artist Thomas Pitilli. An eight-panel strip, it shows Nightwing and Batgirl trying to get to their New Year's Eve date on time and, being crimefighters, they are both late. It's cute enough.

And, finally, there's "Epiphany," writers Steve Orlando and Vita Ayala and artists V. Ken Marion and Mick Gray's story of Jessica Cruz and Simon Baz, the Green Lanterns co-starring in the ongoing Green Lanterns title. This is a Three Kings Day story, which celebrates the feast of epiphany. Simon is celebrating the holiday with Jessica and her sister, but before he can try the Cruz girls' Rosca de Reyes, the Lanterns get called off into space to do standard issue Lanterns stuff. I liked the last page, the preceding business read a lot like your basic Green Lantern busy work.

And that's that, with just one more page from Dini and Charretier's Harley story, in which she and her fellow party-goers all sign off (the first panel in this post is from that page).

All in all, it is a predictably uneven anthology, but I think Dini and company's Harley story held it together quite nicely, and helped ease readers through any of the weaker stories (and/or the stories featuring the characters they might dislike, or just find themselves baffled by, or featuring artwork they don't care for).

As far as Christmas presents go, this wasn't a bad one at all, and, had I been given it, I'd have no desire to return it the next day.

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