Thursday, 15 September 2011

Project 52, Week Three (Mr Terrific/Demon Knights/Deathstroke/Suicide Squad/Legion Lost/Superboy/Grifter)

Grifter #1
Written by Nathan Edmonson
Art by Cafu
Reviewed by Alex

A few years back, there was this TV programme called Lost. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it; apparently DC haven’t, given that the logo for Legion Lost (reviewed below by Tim) looks like this:

And it’s fine that DC have never seen, nor heard of, this moderately successful TV programme. Some would argue, after that ending, that it’s actually for the best for them. But you’d think they’d at least have a researcher with his eye on these popular TV things, in case something like Grifter ever happened.

Okay, so Grifter stars a ever-so-slightly-Southern conman with long blonde hair and swarthy good looks. I’m not great at visual description, so in case you need help, he looks roughly like this:

…oops, sorry, I meant like this
I’m being unfair, aren’t I? I pulled the oldest trick in the book there, switching the pictures round for a cheap laugh. It was beneath me and I apologise. And I’m led to believe that Grifter is a pre-existing character (and frankly, looking at that costume, he could only be a product of the ’90s).

However, what I’m saying is: if you have a character who is really rather similar to another character so embedded in the collective pop-culture consciousness, it might not be all that wise to open your first issue on an aeroplane.

And as the weird stuff on that aeroplane starts to mount, and you make dark references to mysteries not yet of the reader’s ken, it might not be the best idea to start revealing that by flashing back to the character’s life before things got all weird. And then proceeds onto several shocking reveals, including a ‘messing with your sense of time’ twist.

(Admittedly, there are aliens or some such. Which Lost didn’t have. However, which existing Lost-ripoff The Event did have. On an aeroplane. With someone pulling something out from under their skin, in a slightly gross way, as also happens here.)

I mean no disrespect to Nathan Edmonson here. I’ve heard Who is Jake Ellis? is a fine comic book, but this issue seriously reads like he got the call from DC, found out he’d pulled the short straw labelled ‘Grifter’, and decided to spend his advance getting bombed in his flat in the company of a couple of boxsets.

Which, being fair, is exactly what I’d do too. LAD.

Rating: E

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Mister Terrific #1
Written by Eric Wallace
Art by Gianluca Gugliotta
Reviewed by Tim

A character called 'Mister Terrific' is always going to have his work cut out for him. For someone who is presented as the third smartest man in the world, as well as a billionaire businessman, you’d have thought he would have invested in some market research first.

It’s been interesting reading the second- and third-tier titles of this new DC Universe for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that each has been establishing their particular corner of the world. Men of War’s primary strip showed us war in a super-powered world, Stormwatch took us into the renegade black-ops weirdness just under the surface of traditional superhero antics, and Resurrection Man began exploring the cosmology and metaphysical roots of the New 52. As well as establishing a tone for the title, they also stake out a boundary in this new, different world. War is like this, angels work like this; while the big names tell their stories in the centre of the universe, the smaller titles are out at the fringes, marking territory. Mister Terrific seems set to do this for the realm of super-science in the new DCU.

Having finished the comic, I took some time to think about science-based heroes in the DCU, and realised there are remarkably few. In the Marvel world, you can’t move without tripping over a scientist-hero (Iron Man, half of the Fantastic Four, Bruce Banner, whatever Hank Pym’s calling himself nowadays…) whereas in DC comics, there’s Steel, the Atom and Mister Terrific, and that’s about it. Sure, Batman is supposed to be a scientific genius, but that’s not how he’s framed by stories, and that’s not the world he inhabits. Maybe it’s that so many of the characters were devised in the '30s, when there was less of sense of scientific exploration, and a lingering resentment towards the big business figures who’d let the Great Depression happen. Who knows? But it’s clear that there’s a vacancy for a scientific figurehead in the DC universe, and Mister Terrific aims to fill it.

You’ll notice that I haven’t actually said anything about the comic itself yet, and that’s mainly because it left very little impression. It was fine as an opening slice of superhero action. Eric Wallace establishes the character, his supporting cast and his little corner of the world well enough, and Gianluca Gugliotta’s art tells the story with the minimum of fuss and enough spark to keep it moderately interesting; but both as a character and as a first issue, Mister Terrific has very little to make him pop. His origins feel so entirely generic that they give the character no real definition, and the story we’re presented with, while competent, has none of the sense of wonder or exploration that science heroes should inspire, and never truly breaks out any of the weird and impossible technology or concepts that the book could support. There’s nothing especially wrong with the issue, but it feels like superheroes-by-numbers, and the opportunity that these first issues present to reinvigorate characters shouldn’t be squandered on such generic fare.
Rating: C-

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Demon Knights #1
Written by Paul Cornell
Art by Diógenes Neves
Reviewed by Alex

I want to like this comic, I do. There’s a lot to like about it (okay, here be spoilers). An exploding possessed baby which, continuing the trend of the DC New 52 embracing the horror genre, is genuinely creepy. The love triangle between Xanadu, the demon fella you see to the right there, Etrigan, and his human host. Most of it is set in a pub. It apparently features him from Assassin’s Creed! Her from Seven Soldiers! A historical Wonder Woman type! Dragons… DINOSAURS! It just doesn’t hang together particularly well.

There’s a criticism of Morrison-esque comics that all the ideas get in the way of actual coherent storytelling. Needless to say it’s one I’ve never quite agreed with.

This comic falls in the middle of that: trying to balance a fairly standard-issue story with its clever ideas. Except, there aren’t actually that many ideas. The stuff I’ve mentioned above is pretty much it. It’s hardly anything to babble to non-comics-reading friends about.

Strangely, when it does shine in those moments, everything does seem to get better. The dialogue’s a little better, or a plot or character is suggested. Even weirder: the art seems to get better. Overall, Neves’ art is good but unremarkable. The panel of the possessed baby is brillliant; the Etrigan/Xanadu flirting beautifully expressive; he draws a mean dinosaur.

Everything else is a bit of a bland beigey mess. It leaves me wanting Cornell to choose one way or the other: push the characters and the story or turn up the volume on the Big Crazy Ideas. Compress all the stuff in that first paragraph down into the kind of space it took me to explain them, and keep firing more, more, more at us. Bigger! Crazier! Now!
Rating: C

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Deathstroke #1
Written by Kyle Higgins
Art by Joe Bennett
Reviewed by Bret

I have always been a fan of the Punisher. One of the main reasons I like the Punisher is that he’s a bit rubbish. For as many people as he kills, he suffers that many injuries to himself. When he does crossovers with the likes of Spiderman, Daredevil or the Avengers he’s always looked on as a second stringer, and… you know, a crazy guy but still a not very powerful crazy guy. Deathstroke seems to be right up my alley then. He’s an ageing mercenary who will kill whoever for money, who, as it says in the book “takes impossible jobs… because he can do the impossible.” Unlike the Punisher, Deathstroke seems to actually be pretty good at his job. This is a good thing, as the type of story Deathstroke wants to tell seems to be a cross between your standard dark assassin/spy espionage romp with parts of super-science and the supernatural world. An entertaining mix.

Deathstroke hit the nail on the head with each of the categories that I seem to have been judging these comics with. The art was nice in a sort of urban, gritty, night time at the docks way, and complimented the story nicely. It managed to tell a complete story within the space of a single comic which is EXACTLY what you need in a first issue to explain what style of stories you can expect from Deathstroke in the future. It aced character introduction, avoided large blocks of text, explained who people are and what abilities they have AND made characters feel like real life, genuine people within the space of a couple of panels. And finally, my last criteria, did it lay the seeds to have a fully fleshed-out plot blossom in the future? Yes. Deathstroke seems to be headed down a “out to prove that he’s still got what it takes to be a badass even though he’s old” path, which is the story I enjoy from the Punisher and the reason I go back and buy more.

Has it done enough to make me want to read more? Yes. Will I actually do that? I don’t know, I suppose time will tell on that one but at least I know I’m going to keep an eye out for it. All of this leads me to give Deathstroke a solid B. Not the best book I’ve read, but certainly one I’m going to make ol’ Timosaurus Rex read just so I have someone to talk to about it.
Rating: B

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Suicide Squad #1
Written by Adam Glass
Art by
Federico Dallocchio, Ransom Getty & Scott Hanna
Reviewed by Alex

Exposition. It’s the necessary evil of storytelling. In a comic introducing a whole squad of characters, launching on the back of a line-wide relaunch, it’s completely unavoidable.

And Suicide Squad comes up with an acceptable structure for delivering all the relevant information. The Suicide Squad (Deadshot, El Diablo, a horribly redesigned Harley Quinn, Black Spider, Voltaic, King ‘actually a genuine shark’ Shark, Savant; supervillains saved from death row to do the government’s dirty work) are in a room being tortured, and they each flash back to how they got there. It’s a bit clumsy, and there’s a lot of “thanks, Johnny Llama”, but it’s a fair cop, guv. Until, that is, it drops my least favourite convention in all of sequential graphic storytelling: the asterisk.

(For those of you not familiar with the workings of yer everyday superhero comic, it goes like this. A completely unassuming bit of dialogue will make passing reference to an event and be asterisked. Follow the asterisk to a caption that cheerily tells you to ‘see issue whatever!’)

They’re just incredibly tacky. It’s like watching a film with that one friend that thinks interrupting with ‘bonus’ information is a brilliant idea (yes, Geoff, I’m talking about you). It breaks the suspension of disbelief, and is a barefaced bit of marketing. If your story is handled right, it’s just completely unnecessary. After all, it’s not like Ulysses came with boxouts that pointed you back to Homer’s Odyssey! #35. In a story like this, an exposition-delivery machine already struggling to tread the line marked ‘too much’, the consequences can be ruinous.*

(*See rating below to find out how ruinous! - Aggravated Al)

Rating: D

Project52

Legion Lost #1
Written by Fabian Nicieza
Art by Pete Woods
Reviewed by Tim

Legion Lost’s name is entirely appropriate: it is about the Legion of Superheroes (DC’s future-based teen heroes) and after finishing it, I felt entirely lost. [Zing! -Ed] Perhaps it’s the fact that the Legion seems to be largely annexed off from most of DC’s continuity (much like Marvel’s cosmic heroes) or the fact that, as a time-travelling title, they seem somewhat aware of the rebooted universe (a reference is made to Flashpoint, the event that precipitated DC’s relaunch) but this doesn’t feel like a first issue. Hell, it doesn’t even feel like the beginning of a new story arc – the issue begins in media res, with the Legion already chasing down a villain who seems intent on releasing some kind of infection upon the 21st century, and mostly deals with their attempts to adjust to crash-landing in our time.

For heroes and protagonists within the story, the Legion (or the subset we deal with here) is massively ineffective in this story. Crippled by failing technology, time-travel sickness and internal turmoil, they barely make it through the issue. The villain they are pursuing is only caught because he has already passed out by the time they catch up with him, and by then he’s already released his pathogen. Upon awakening, he quickly overpowers them and causes them to crash once again, with two of their number dying as it happens, through their own fault. I have no problem with opening a story with the hero already on the back foot, or in putting a protagonist through the wringer, but the Legion feel inept, rather than challenged, making their progress through dumb luck rather than hard-fought victories.

Pete Woods’ art is the one truly solid part of the book, with clear story telling, good costume designs and a pleasantly cartoonish style that suits the tone of the book, but unfortunately Fabian Nicieza, the writer, doesn’t seem confident in Woods’ ability to convey the story, and overloads the issue with characters needlessly announcing what they are clearly already doing. The worst offender is when a police cruiser narrowly avoids being hit by a hurled milk tanker in a panel that takes up a good two-thirds of the page, and is pointlessly accompanied by a speech bubble of one of the cops yelling, “That was a flying truck!” We can see!

I’ve already criticised titles for not taking advantage of the power of the relaunch to tell compelling stories that hook people in, but Legion Lost makes an even more cardinal mistake, and offers up an issue that is downright offputting when it comes to accessibility. I felt so out of the loop reading it that I struggled to judge it as a comic in its own right, a sign of just how badly it has failed.
Rating: D-

Project52
Superboy #1
Written by Scott Lobdell
Art by RB Silva
Reviewed by Bret

First off, I liked it. A little on the slow side and maybe even a little boring, but very interesting if your mind works that way. Superboy #1 is a simple story of super-science. It doesn’t rush its character introduction and actually seems to have realised that it’s a first issue. This really works for me personally as I don’t know much about Superboy and it’s nice to not be bogged down with backstory before I’ve even turned a page, like I have been with some other New 52 titles.

(If you don’t want spoilers, I’d skip this paragraph.) So we begin with Superboy being created in a lab where he’s non-responsive to the scientists who are working on him. They get the order to “initiate the termination protocols” but Superboy doesn’t like the sound of that and busts out killing everyone in the room with him. A month on and we see Superboy has been placed in a “Smallville Farm” style foster home. Now I liked what they did here. We’re shown that Superboy is smarter than even he himself knows. But that, more worryingly, when he sees a woman trapped in a burning building he just walks right past her without even so much as a 911 call. Then, shock horror, we find that Superboy isn’t really living a Clark Kent style life but is really trapped in a virtual reality suit designed to test him further by the same scientists as before. (Well, I assume not the exact same ones as they’re dead, but more of the same). He’s also aware that he’s trapped. Is that why he didn’t help the woman before? Does he know it’s not real or does he just not care?

So yes. They do some interesting things and I haven’t even mentioned the sub-plots that have been hinted at, so I should imagine Superboy is going to turn into a very interesting comic. But there’s that word again. “Interesting”, not “entertaining”. I enjoyed it, but that’s because I like a slow plot that takes its time, but at the same time I know I’m not going to buy it again unless maybe they publish the whole story arc in one book. Was this the beginning of a good story? Yes. Was this book on its own enough to wow every new reader? No, it didn’t even wow me and I liked it, so God knows what people who didn’t like it will think. Overall this makes Superboy a solid C. I should imagine Superboy is going to suffer the same fate as Firefly. Yes it’ll be a good story told very well, but will it get enough followers to sustain itself? I doubt it. Maybe Superboy could have taken a leaf from Firefly’s book with an extra long first issue. Maybe then it would pack enough punch to break the universe
Rating: C

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London, United Kingdom
Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.