DC’s New 52 Reviews: Batgirl, Stormwatch and Action Comics

Posted: September 8, 2011 in comic books, Jeff Holland, reviews, Threat Quality
Tags: , , , , , , ,

This week, we’re checking out two of the most generally anticipated (and quickly sold out) comics of DC’s relaunch – Grant Morrison’s young-Superman-adventures Action Comics, Gail Simone’s opening argument for why Barbara Gordon is sans wheelchair in Batgirl, and finally Stormwatch, the first book integrating Wildstorm concepts into DC Proper.

And what a mixed bag we get. What surprised me most about these three titles is how each one managed to not quite match my expectations.

The low point: Batgirl

This was pretty disappointing. I was actually hoping for the best here, because while I didn’t agree with DC’s decision to get Barbara Gordon out of the wheelchair and back into her Batgirl identity, I at least understood it. The Barbara version is the most recognizable to the public, the premise (the mousy daughter of Batman’s cop best friend is inspired to become an acrobatic crimefighter) is rock-solid, so sure, I get it. 

I also understood the need to attach Gail Simone to the relaunch, since apart from John Ostrander (who came up with the Oracle concept) or Chuck Dixon (who started Birds of Prey but appears to be on the outs with DC these days), Simone is the writer most associated with Barbara. She’s also highly skilled at balancing superhero action with engaging, witty characterization.

So what we should have gotten was a brief mention of Barbara’s paralysis, that she’s regained the use of her legs (and ideally it making some amount of sense), and then we’re off to the races with a fast-paced Batgirl adventure!

What we get, though, is a book that is CONSTANTLY referencing Barbara’s paralysis, which has only recently been reversed (through “a miracle,” no further explanation is provided this issue), and how haunted she is by her previous condition. And her first villain, The Mirror, is going around killing people who should’ve died in accidents but somehow survived, and of course Barbara’s on his list.

So even the villain of the piece would like to know what Barbara’s doing walking around again.

This is the exact opposite of the fresh start DC’s been trumpeting. By not really committing to its “Everything is new again” philosophy (Barbara’s Batgirl again, don’t worry about how, we’re moving forward), it instead becomes mired in years of backstory that haven’t been erased, they’ve just been made more vague (so, Barbara’s been disabled for three years – was she Oracle? If yes, why’s she living in her dad’s house? Why doesn’t she have any money? If she wasn’t – what was she doing for the last three years?).

Then there’s the fact that Barbara as Batgirl is redundant, since there’ s the similarly costumed Batwoman, whose book will be out later in the month and whom the bystanders Batgirl rescues mistake her for.

So with this in mind, wasn’t it easier to have Batwoman be Batwoman, Batgirl be the (still pretty simple) premise of a teenage daughter of a bad guy training under the guidance of the first Batgirl, and have Barbara stay on as Oracle in Birds of Prey?

I should also mention the art. It is…serviceable? Occasionally muddy, occasionally over-busy, Batgirl’s new armor-plated costume might actually make more sense narratively (Babs might want to avoid another gunshot wound) but not physically (Babs is an acrobat first, so is adding 20 pounds of armor a great idea when jumping off rooftops?).

So, swing and a miss.


The mid-point: Stormwatch

Paul Cornell’s been working on Ellis-esque items over at Marvel for a while (his MI:13 series starred Ellis creation Pete Wisdom, while Dark X-Men brought back Ellis’s version of Nate Grey), and for DC (whose Lex Luthor-centered Action run was hilarious and mean), so I was really looking forward to seeing how he’d handle Stormwatch, the Ellis-penned series that ultimately became the Authority.

It’s…almost there. Not quite. The basic vibes are there – the moon’s growing claws and is about to attack; the preference for behind-the-scenes fighting, not superhero battle royales, and most of the characters. But we’re only shown that there are claws on the moon and something might happen; we’re introduced to the characters that even the ones we knew already (Hawksmoor, the Engineer) are only vaguely defined; and the bulk of the book’s action is an alleyway fight scene between Apollo over his joining the team. And…well, he’s on the cover. So we KNOW he’s joining the team.

Then finally there’s the last page, the introduction to Midnighter. And while I kind of like the idea of seeing their relationship form from scratch (they were already a long-time couple when Ellis introduced them), it feels slightly forced. And that might have nothing to do with the actual scene and everything to do with the fact that Midnighter’s new costume is almost comically horrendous (chin-spike? REALLY?) and the way he refers to “Bastards” makes me think Cornell just remembered on the last page how much they said that word in The Authority.

But there’s enough here to get me interested: I want to know more about Jenny Quantum’s relationship with her caretaker, and what happens when the moon starts a fight, and just what Martian Manhunter has to do with this group. It’s enough to get me back for issue 2, and that’s what a first issue needs to do most.


The high point: Action Comics

I actually had the lowest expectations for this one, despite having a lot of faith in Morrison+Superman. There was so much talk about how this look at Superman’s first days in Metropolis would feature a more “brash, radical” hero who was more intimidating to people and blah blah edgy proactive blah blah.

They probably should’ve said things like “exciting,” and “fun” and “funny” and “intriguing,” because those were the adjectives I came away with at the end of the issue.

It also fulfills three of my narrative requirements for a good Superman story: Superman looks like he’s enjoying his job; Lois Lane makes a fantastic first impression (as does Jimmy Olsen, here drawn as the missing Weasley brother); and Lex Luthor’s making a surprising amount of sense for someone who’s crashing a train into a superhero.

And while sure, our young Superman here is “brash and radical,” he’s not cynical. He smiles genuinely a lot, and knows his reporting as Clark Kent can make a difference just as much as scaring crooked businessmen and putting himself between a tenement family and a wrecking ball as Superman.

But by taking his power levels down in a way that’s far more organic than, say, if you started the relaunch by saying “Adult Superman has been depowered to his animated series levels,” we get to discover the hero’s limitations and weaknesses as he does. And it’s a fun journey to tag along on.


Notes on the Digital Experience

Once again I bought these books on Comixology, in this case more for the sake of convenience, since I was already hearing reports of Batgirl and Action selling out. I’m growing a little more comfortable with the digital shopping experience (though Comixology’s interface can still be a bit clumsy, slow, and redundant).

But I found myself really missing the tactile sensation of coming home with a new comic book, sitting down in a comfy chair and reading it by good light. Missing details isn’t a problem for a digital comic – you can expand the page so it’s actually larger than a print edition – but it’s hard to convince my brain I’m reading a comic book, when it still feels like I’m just staring at my computer.

On the other hand, it’s now easier than ever to pass along comics I like to friends of mine (provided I’m close enough to them that I figure they won’t do anything untoward with my login information). It’s as simple as an email saying, “Hey, go to Comixology, use my password, and check out how crappy Justice League was.”


What didn’t Make It Home

I was lamenting the loss of browsing through the new comics shelf by going digital, but the heavy amount of preview pages scattered among the comics sites meant I actually got a pretty good look at a lot of this week’s releases.

Which is why Green Arrow didn’t make the cut. In addition to Dan Jurgens’ art being exactly the kind of stodgy mid-80’s DC house style I’d thought the company was looking to avoid, and the frustrating absence of Ollie Queen’s trademark goatee, there’s this line of narration on page 3 from our hero:

“Villains should live in the shadows, in constant fear of imprisonment. But instead of ostracizing them like vermin, our society glorifies them. Allowing them to soak up fame and fortune like some kind of demented celebrities. Goodfellas are cool. Pirates are sexy. Hit men are kickass.

“That’s not how I see them.”

And not only is that pretty awful writing – that is a flat-out parody of Frank Miller narration, played totally straight – it’s Green Arrow, the great bleeding heart of the DC universe, who now sounds like this. So…no way.

On the other hand, Jeff Lemire’s take on Animal Man looks really promising – but I only intend on spending $10 on comics per week this month, and thanks to the previews I’d already managed to read about half the issue.

NEXT WEEK: Maybe Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E., and Grifter.

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