The DC’s New 52 Reviews: Frankenstein, Demon Knights and Animal Man

Posted: September 16, 2011 in comic books, Jeff Holland, reviews, Threat Quality
Tags: , , , , ,

I’ve been hoping there’d be three new DC books each week to entice me, but then I saw the preview for Grifter.

I think I’m getting the same feeling readers in the 50’s might have gotten when they picked up the new Hawkman and realized it wasn’t a reincarnated prince/archeologist, but an alien space-cop.

In other words, DC clearly liked the NAME “Grifter,” and the basic look (mask and guns), but decided to shuck everything about the character (mercenary with black-ops history and mental powers, in a secret war with alien conquerors) in favor of making Sawyer from Lost into a DC Comic. Which isn’t really something I was interested in reading.

The upside: Sticking to three purchases meant I had an excuse to buy last week’s best-reviewed comic, Animal Man.

Holy crap is Animal Man good.

It is, in fact, what I was hoping for with the reboot in general – a fresh spotlight on a character that hasn’t reached its potential, that uses what was great about the old stuff but is very new-reader-friendly. 

This is a superhero-horror comic whose hero is a very well-adjusted, friendly family-man. In fact, it’s pretty clear that Animal Man is just the title – the actual stars of the book are the entire Baker family. And if traditional superheroics make up one part of the book (and they should, since Animal Man has a really neat power set), then the other part is made of some really creepy supernatural elements that pose an interesting threat to immediately likeable characters.

Also: Buddy Baker uses his “borrow the attributes of any animal” powers to gain the napping abilities of a cat. And that’s just wonderful.

AM’s Jeff Lemire is a writer I’m now going to pay attention to, since his Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E. was also a blast. Full of fun-crazy sci-fi ideas (the location of S.H.A.D.E.’s new headquarters), hilarious turns (the new body of the shape-shifting Father Time) and Frankenstein’s place on the team of Creature Commandoes as the straight man.

The book sets up the status quo quickly before moving into balls-out action, and while the art is not going to be for all tastes (it’s a bit scratchy and muddled in parts), I liked its loose, not-quite-handsome approach as befitting a team of monsters battling a bunch of bigger, weirder monsters.

The only mild disappointment was the thematic brother of StormWatch, Paul Cornell’s Demon Knights. And again, it felt…not quite there. It was easy enough to follow, introduced its cast of medieval heroes (Etrigan the Demon, Madame Xanadu, Vandal Savage and “Sir” Ystin, the Shining Knight) with a little more wit than StormWatch did, but at the end it was just “disparate cast members meet up in a tavern, with the actual “story” to be set up next issue.

In fact, it feels for all the world like the first couple of minutes of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, as I understand them.

Notes on the Buying Experience:

My interest in Frankenstein and Demon Knights is couched in my fondness for Grant Morrison’s Seven

Seriously, would you read this?

Soldiers books where Frank, S.H.A.D.E. and Ystin were big players. And overlapping is my interest for previous creators like Cornell, Morrison and Gail Simone.

Which is all to say, if I were coming into these selections cold, without any prior knowledge of the characters or creators, I’m curious which ones would’ve enticed me most.

Batman & Robin, most likely, and maybe Batwoman, based on the sheer beauty of J.H. Williams’ art, but what would a new reader make of the rage-powered aliens in Red Lanterns? Or Legion Lost, which sounds a lot like a spin-off of a book that hasn’t come out yet?

  1. John Jackson says:

    Meanwhile, DC has lost me as a customer until hey update their iPad app. Yes, I know there are work arounds, but the point of same day and date is to make it simple and easy for technocratic arsehats like me. Apparently “older” models (iPad 1st gen) can’t handle the amount of memory needed to view the store as it tries to load. So rather than figure out a way to load the store more simply, they just say it’ll crash. I know by the time iPad 3 comes out my first gen will be a dinosaur no one will support, but until next May, they shouldn’t be abandoning me. And yes, this is the definition of 1st world problems, but if I can’t have DC Comics open for one full minute before it crashes then it’s fucking useless.
    (This annoyed me two days ago when I read Suicide Squad and Demon Knights, but the amount and frequency of crashes made it impossible for me to read Frankenstein and Animal Man.)

  2. Jeff Holland says:

    Oh, that’s terrible. I’ve been reading it on my laptop, so haven’t had any problems, but you would think they’d be paying extra attention to making sure the tech’s working properly for all platforms.

    John, what was your reaction to Suicide Squad (assuming you were able to finish it)?

  3. John Jackson says:

    I was only familiar with HarleyQuinn and that from the TAS series. Other than her in Azzarello’s Joker, I wouldn’t even know if she had a character other than the much darker psychologically disturbed serial killer. Deadshot seems to be the lead, and three others are introduced well enough, but nothing about the writing gave me any hope that it would achieve anything beyond the cliché. It will go dark places, and never explain the whys, with decent action and gore, so it might be worthwhile if that’s why you like comics. While the first issue was at least a complete tale+set up for the main story, it didn’t elicit any sympathy or any reason to continue reading. (But I’ll add a disclaimer that I don’t usually read single issue comics and didn’t even succeed in paying attention to the single issue Firefly and Farscape series in which I was already emotionally invested.) Suicide Squad could be interesting, as it’s more full of mercenaries and animals than outright psychopaths, but nothing jumped out at me.

  4. Erin says:

    “In fact, it feels for all the world like the first couple of minutes of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, as I understand them.”

    Uh. Yeah. That was kind of the… never mind.

    I think you’d like this book better if you give it another chance. Just spend 5 or 6 years playing D&D first. Totally worth it.

  5. braak says:

    @Holland: I should point out that usually only bad D&D games start that way.

  6. Jeff Holland says:

    @Erin: WAS that what Cornell was going for?

    I really have no idea which parts of your comments were sarcasm, and which were actual advice.

  7. braak says:

    I don’t know if that’s what he was going for. It’s definitely not what I picked up from it, especially because it lacked the other D&D tropes that you’d expect to reinforce that interpretation. Like, there wasn’t a ranger or a dwarf or anything. I don’t think. I actually felt like the whole thing was kind hard to parse.

  8. Jeff Holland says:

    That’s why I’m confused! I mean, I’m jazzed that Ystin’s just chilling in a corner there, but the issue closes before anyone can do anything awesome, such as, say, Ystin chopping off a dude’s head with that big damn sword of hers.

    Or, more preferably, Frankenstein time-traveling into this time period to straight-up dominate everyone around him. And then he and Ystin high-five.

    Let’s hope for a cross-over, everyone!

  9. braak says:

    I think that they should have axed the pages where they introduced the Questing Queen, and replaced them with pages in which Ystin chops some motherfuckers.

    This just seems like basic sense to me.

  10. John Jackson says:

    I agree. It’s not like we needed to know that she’s sad about killing babies, but loves dragons.

  11. Erin says:

    Let’s see. Dwarf? Ranger? Nope. Actually, there kind of are some elves, but that’s just one out of three.

    Let’s see if there are any other D&D parallels we can draw. Oh, wait. Here’s one:


    You guys are just screwing with me, right?

  12. braak says:

    Uh…so, I mean, what? It’s just like any of the millions and millions of pieces of source material that D&D drew from? Is it supposed to be some kind of joke about D&D?

    Like, “Hahah, this is a sword and sorcery epic set in the middle ages, and looks a little like a D&D comic, so it’s pretty funny that the heroes just all run into each other in a tavern”?

    Or is it supposed to be some elegiac reference to my own past as a D&D player — like, “Oh, man, they’re meeting in a tavern! Just like how those guys did in the Dragonlance books, or how MY party met in a tavern that time we played! I’ll continue reading this book because it reminds me of things that happened to me.”

    I mean, if it’s not explicitly a deconstruction of D&D, the way Skullkickers (for instance) is, or even the way the actual D&D comic is, then why would you bother preserving the dumb stuff from D&D campaigns?

    “You are in the tavern. There are some other adventurers there. Suddenly, strange men attack!”

    What is the point of that?

  13. Erin says:

    @Braak: To be clear, are you arguing that the book was a bad book that was playing off D&D tropes, or are you arguing that the book (good or bad) wasn’t playing off D&D tropes at all?

  14. braak says:

    I guess, both, actually.

    1) In the first place, I’m suspicious that this is meant to be an implicit reference to Dungeons and Dragons, because it doesn’t seem clear enough; the art style does not look particularly evocative of 80s D&D comic scripts to me (I think it just looks like the DC house style for “olde-timey and out in the woods”), and I’m not buying that as a conscious choice anyway, because most of Diogenes Neves’ art looks like that. It’s not like they hired J. H. Williams III and he purposefully drew it in the style of Rags Morales from 1991.

    Moreover, I think it’s weird that a person would make an implicit reference to Dungeons and Dragons by using only the dumbest parts of the Dungeons and Dragons millieu — that is, I think Paul Cornell is a smart enough writer that if he wanted to make a comic that deconstructed or referred to D&D in an interesting way, he could do better than, “A bunch of strangers get in a fight in a tavern for no apparent reason.

    2) However, if it IS true that this is supposed to be a reference to D&D, then I don’t get what is funny or interesting about it, nor do I see why I should be more favorably disposed towards it for having played D&D before.

  15. Erin says:

    But it’s clearly a party of D&D adventurers made up of DC superheroes. It’s playing with the parallels between a D&D party and a superhero team.

    Opening in the tavern wasn’t so much a joke as it was underlining the reference, wearing it on its sleeve.

    That doesn’t mean I enjoyed the book BECAUSE it opened in a tavern; I enjoyed it because I found it fun. The parallels between genres it was exploring were part of why I found it fun.

  16. braak says:

    But it’s clearly a party of D&D adventurers made up of DC superheroes.

    What are you talking about? No it isn’t.

  17. Erin says:

    Okay, I’ll play.

    You said there were millions of pre-D&D fantasy sources that this could be based on. There are, of course, many. But most of these are irrelevant, having been lost to time. Even most of the books that D&D drew inspiration from aren’t actually relevant, since no one really reads them anymore.

    Of those that are relevant, how many are sword and sorcery and revolve around a large group of diverse character types (i.e.: classes) as opposed to a single main character? D&D certainly owes a lot to Conan and Elric, but their stories revolved around them: everyone else played a supporting role at best. The D&D group – like the superhero team – was focused on a wider cast, where each character filled a separate roll.

    (And yes, Fellowship of the Ring would almost apply (and certainly influenced the D&D party), but it’s nowhere near the same genre or tone).

    Ignore the tavern for a moment and look who’s meeting in the tavern. You’ve got a sorceress, at least one warrior, and even a paladin. This kind of group in this kind of setting was popularized by D&D: of course it’s a reference.

  18. braak says:

    You’re suggesting that there is no genre of entertainment featuring stories set in a fantasy analogue for medieval Europe about a diverse set of different types of characters? As though the entire genre of epic fantasy just doesn’t exist?

    Fellowship of the Ring would ALMOST apply? Okay, let’s just dismiss Fellowship of the Ring, fine. You’re still not really suggesting that no one reads ANY epic fantasy that isn’t Lord of the Rings?

    I mean, what, are you kidding? Every David Eddings book, every Robert Jordan book, every Terry Goodkind or Terry Brooks or George R. R. Martin — they are all large-cast stories about different “types” (i.e. “classes”) of characters. In fact, correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t there an insanely popular TV show RIGHT NOW that is based on George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy novels?

    And come on, we all know what the standard spread of D&D characters is, and if it had been a fighter, an elf, a dwarf and a mage — or even, say, a warrior, a cleric, a thief, and a mage, or some similar combination — who walked into that bar, sure that could be a reference.

    But a sorcereress, a warrior, and a paladin (? — I assume you mean the Shining Knight, here, though she is definitely not a divine spellcaster) … and someone who might be an amazon? Also a man who is a regular person but then also has a demon inside him who is released when he says a rhyme? That is not a standard character type in Dungeons and Dragons.

    I assume that because we’re now talking about what kind of source material is based around multiple characters rather than single heroes that you’re not interested in defending the “art and designs influenced by D&D books from the 1990s”, because I don’t think this is a very strong refutation — even if I thought Diogenes Neves’ art was influenced by the old Conan books (which, again, I don’t think it is; Neves isn’t a master stylist, it’s not like he’s got a variety of different approaches that he uses) the fact that Conan was a single-hero story is completely irrelevant in terms of art and design.

    If we exclude the “everyone meets in a tavern for no particular reason,” I don’t think Demon Knights looks like a “what if we made a D&D party with superheroes” story so much as it looks like a, “what if we made a Justice League out of only our sword and sorcery characters.”

    All of that aside, Holland’s complaint that this is how he understood D&D games began was clearly implying that it is kind of a dumb way to start — I took your comment to mean that if he’d spent five or six years (!!! that seems like a long time) playing D&D, that opening sequence would NOT seem dumb. Like, recognizing it as an explicit reference would somehow obviate the fact that it’s a less-than-stellar way to start a story, and so even if I accept your “this is set in medieval days, and features several different kinds of characters, it of course is a D&D reference” proposition, what is it about that reference that makes the opening less dumb?

  19. Erin says:

    “You’re suggesting that there is no genre of entertainment featuring stories set in a fantasy analogue for medieval Europe about a diverse set of different types of characters?”

    No. I’m suggesting that genre is post-D&D, as I said in the second sentence of my comment. Since D&D came out in ’74 and these writers entered fantasy in the late 70’s or later, it strongly reinforces my case that D&D defined the adventuring group.

    Thanks for the evidence, by the way.

    “I took your comment to mean that if he’d spent five or six years (!!! that seems like a long time) playing D&D, that opening sequence would NOT seem dumb.”

    Nope. You’re reading too much into it: just a joke about him reading an intentional reference as a unintended cliche.

  20. braak says:

    Post hoc does not ergo propter hoc — it’s a fallacy to say that because David Eddings started writing after the advent of D&D, then his writing must have been directly influenced by D&D; especially considering that early D&D had less to do with defining the “adventuring group” in 1974 than it did in late 80s and 90s, after it had absorbed a wealth of pre-existing and contemporary material. David Eddings, for instance, was 43 when Dungeons and Dragons came out, I think we can safely posit that it was published at a time when it would have been less than influential on his development as a writer.

    And that said, even if I did accept that Dungeons and Dragons is the progenitor of modern epic fantasy, because no epic fantasy from the 70s survived or has any particular influence on modern sensibilities, the notion that anything that resembles epic fantasy must therefore ultimately be a reference to Dungeons and Dragons seems kind of suspect: how many steps removed from a source does a thing have to be before it’s either a) not an explicit reference, or b) just isn’t a very good reference and can rightly be criticised for being too vague? D&D was influenced by Tolkien; does that mean that every time you make a reference to D&D, you’re also automatically making a reference to Tolkien?

    You could very well have been born in 1981 and read hundreds of fantasy novels without ever playing a single game of D&D until you got to college — if we accept that all of those novels were influenced somehow by D&D, does that mean that you can’t refer to them without referring to D&D? Especially considering that the entire extent of the reference consists of, “In Medieval Dayes, also there are different character types.”

    That is a pretty vague reference, which is why I say that without some kind of supporting material to back it up, I think it’s suspect as an interpretation.

    Though, ultimately I guess I do think this is beside the point — even though I don’t agree with your “D&D is more influential on Demon Knights than the entire genre of fantasy literature”, the problem remains. Holland’s problem with everyone meeting in a tavern wasn’t that it was a cliche — it’s that it resembled the beginning of a D&D campaign; that is, it seemed like an awkward attempt to shoehorn six unrelated characters into an adventure together. That’s, of course, exactly what happens in many D&D campaigns, but the problem here isn’t that it’s a worn-out idea (“Everyone meets in the tavern! That old saw!”), it’s that it’s dumb. It’s a dumb way to start a story, and that’s why I don’t understand why the fact that it was an intentional reference to something should obviate that fact.

    “Listen, I couldn’t think of a good way to get everyone together, so I thought of this dumb thing, that is an explicit reference to this other dumb thing that you might know about. PROBLEM SOLVED.”

  21. John Jackson says:

    Also, Hercules in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys met half his helpless victims/backstabbers/allies in taverns (the other half on the same stretch of road in New Zealand). It’s more likely to be average bad writing than an explicit D&D reference. I mean most D&D games that started in a tavern were also average bad writing, no?

  22. Erin says:

    @Braak and Holland:

    I’d be gloating if this had gone differently, so it’s only fair:

    Some guy on internet: “Just want to say I LOVED the issue. Were you thinking of Dungeons and Dragons when you decided to have the team form in a tavern?”

    Paul Cornell: “loads of people have mentioned that, and it’s true! But I completely missed that when I wrote it.”

    Damned empirical evidence….

  23. braak says:

    I stand corrected on one count: it is, in fact, a direct reference to Dungeons and Dragons.

    I am, however, affirmed on the second: it is both dumb and bad.

  24. braak says:

    Though, apparently even HE didn’t notice he was referring to it.

    Also, he’s incorrect; in old-timey dayes, “Xanadu” would, indeed, have been pronounced “Ksanadu.”

  25. braak says:

    Actually, wait. That random person on the internet goes on to say “lots of D&D campaigns begin with ‘you are all drinking in a tavern'” — is Cornell saying, “It’s true, I was thinking of that,” or is he saying, “It’s true, a lot of D&D campaigns begin that way”?

  26. Erin says:

    I’m pretty sure it’s the latter – that it’s true D&D games begin that way, but he wasn’t thinking of it.

    Which is a pity: I far prefer being right.

  27. braak says:

    Oh, yes, I see that’s what you meant in the first place; I think I was just still feeling contentious from my Suicide Squad post.

    Well, it’s okay, we can’t all be right all the time. Statistically speaking, you were bound to trip up sooner or later.

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