New DC 52 Review Week 1 | Professor Brand-X

Professor Brand-X in an eXpertComics Month-Long Event featuring The New 52 from DC Comics

Action Comics | Stormwatch | Static Shock | Men of War

G’day, class. This week your friendly neighborhood comic book Professor, Brandon “Brand-X” Rucker, is going to take you to school on DC’s New 52. Honestly, I’m a virtual novice when it comes to the greater DC Universe, so this will be educational to me as well. We will learn about this exciting new comics universe together during this historic re-launch event.

As noted elsewhere on this website, my esteemed eXpertComics columnist colleagues – the irrepressible Steve of 777 DAMM, the cuddly Dave of Full Page Bleed (FPB), and the self-described “spazzy” Lisa of ComixBook Gurl – are also covering The New 52 with their specific assignments, so be sure to check those out as well. Me, I’m covering Action Comics #1, Stormwatch #1, Static Shock #1 and Men of War #1 this week. But first, an introductory summary follows.

The story so far…

As stated previously in my origin issue PBX #0 a few weeks back, I am not a DC Universe enthusiast (at least not yet). My past forays into the DCU have been peripheral at best with fringe DCU series such as Starman (the Jack Knight version created by James Robinson and Tony Harris in 1994) and Hitman (the character spun out of the Bloodlines event storyline in 1996, created by Garth Ennis and John McCrea). And even though Starman mined as well as established some history of the DCU, and Hitman was set in Gotham City, they were fringe enough that I could never claim to be versed in any DC Universe lore. Even the other various DCU books I read or scanned as a youngster in the 80s, I was such a Marvel zombie at the time that none of that DCU stuff had a snowball’s chance in Hades of having a strong, lasting impression on me – at least not a positive one. To me, their heroes and the universe they inhabited was too bright and cheesy for my tastes as a mildly angst-y youngster. Marvel was grounded more in the “real world” and based in New York City, rather than some made-up, unknown city. Historically it’s been established that DC’s superhero books focused more on the idealized superhero as, well, a superhero, and that Marvel’s superhero books dealt largely with “real” and less idealized people who have become less idealized heroes. In other words, Marvel’s stories dealt more with the humanity of the hero than the super of the hero. Marvel was (and still is) more about pathos, whereas DC historically was more about mythos. Thankfully, from what I’ve observed and read a little here and there, DC has become about pathos just as much as mythos in the last two decades. Also from what I’ve read of the new iteration of the DC Universe, this balance continues.

Yet why did DC really need to re-imagine, re-invent, reconfigure, reboot, and ultimately re-launch their entire comics line, timeline and universe? Well, that’s a very complicated (not to mention controversial) answer. I will try to be brief and simple with my explanation (but no promises). Firstly, DC, owned by the Time Warner corporation, is one of the “Big Two” publishers in comics along with Marvel as both companies historically go back to the 1930s (DC was first founded as National Allied Publications and five years later Marvel was first founded as Timely Comics). But DC has been #2 to Marvel’s #1 in market share for so long that they’re a perpetual underdog. Well, quite frankly DC and its parent Warner are tired of that. But that’s only one part of this equation. Another part is readership (i.e. actual paying customers) in the comic book industry has been declining precipitously for any number of quantifiable reasons. In a down market, the #2 publisher feels that recession more painfully than #1. DC has also acknowledge that perhaps things have gotten a little dated and stale with their characters and stories overall (obviously an argument can be made for the more successful and critically lauded Batman & Green Lantern franchises). They believe a refresh initiative as well as a creators’ shakeup is in order to help create new dynamics and excitement for the entire line. As an industry observer and DCU outsider, I can’t really argue against that. There’s also the fact that after creating a muddled, convoluted continuity with multi-verse integrations and previous timeline-fixing reboots, etc., it’s simply time to say CUT! and reshoot this picture from a logical start point.

Hence, this new beginning of which we now find ourselves at the start. Everyone can now start at ground zero; a virtual clean slate. This is candy for new comics readers (perhaps and hopefully some of you), or even lapsed comics readers who are anxious to make a return. Maybe even the disgruntled long-time reader who is ready for major change. Also the Marvel zombie, like me, who previously had no interest in becoming a big DC enthusiast. Not everyone agrees with it or even sees the larger picture here, but it’s a given that perspectives vary. Some who even understand it ask: why roll out 52 titles all at once, why not roll them out a few at a time over the course of months or a year? That answer is simple: as a commercial publishing company DC can’t afford to just cut their commercial output by 90%, then 80%, then 70% and so on and so forth for any length of time. That’s financial suicide, and it also leaves comic creators devoid of monthly income. The other easy answer is: to get the needed media and public response needed to drum-up interest in not only their comics but comics in general, DC had to do something radical. Obviously, re-imagining, re-inventing, reconfiguring, rebooting and re-launching their entire line of DC Universe titles accomplishes exactly that.

Now let’s proceed to the New 52. Forewarning: some spoilers may ensue.

Action Comics #1 (featuring Superman)
Title: “Superman Versus the City of Tomorrow”
Writer: Grant Morrison
Artist: Rags Morales w/ Rick Bryant
Cover by: Rags Morales w/ Brad Anderson
Variant Cover by: Jim Lee w/ Scott Williams & Alex Sinclair
Originated as: Action Comics (1938)

First, let me say that I am thrilled to be able to witness the release of an all-new #1 issue of such an historic title. The original Action Comics #1 was an anthology title (as virtually all comic books were at the time) released on April 18th of 1938 (with a June cover date) and featured, among other stories, the first ever Superman story by two co-creators of Jewish descent, writer Jerome “Jerry” Siegel and artist Joseph “Joe” Shuster. The story, simply called “Superman” was a 13-page lead feature originally intended to be a newspaper strip a few years prior. There’s so much more to the origin of this landmark, milestone, watershed publication that simply won’t fit here. Suffice it to say: Action Comics Vol. 1, No. 1 as well as Superman the character were the first-of-a-kind and ushered in the Golden Age of a new cultural art form devoted to 4-color icons, a medium we all know and love some 73 years later.

Obviously one of the primary targets of the reboot and re-launch initiative was Superman. The custodians most in charge of DCs library of characters, co-publishers Dan Didio & Jim Lee, believe that Superman had gotten a bit weathered and old as a character and concept, to state it simply. As a result of their “get younger, get more relatable” initiative for the blue Boy Scout, we now have a younger and less experienced Superman in this new iteration of Action Comics. Also, award-winning best-selling writer Grant Morrison (he who previously re-imagined Superman in the best-selling, critically acclaimed All-Star Superman series a few years back) has stated that he would like to get Superman back to his core essence as an alien from another world, and re-imagine him for the 21st century.

As the story begins it’s apparent that collective mission is definitely accomplished. We find our caped intrepid in a modern-day setting, straddling the line between public enemy number one and crusader of the oppressed. The general public – especially law enforcement – does not understand his nature, are wary of his presence and intentions, yet those he plays hero to are grateful of his intervention. Many of them refer to him as “it”. Yeah, definitely the alien-not-of-this-world-and-not-like-us treatment. As expected, Superman will not stand for any thuggish, roguish behavior from perpetrators, especially when it affects the innocent citizens of Metropolis. Of course that’s the job of the local police who are trying to arrest our hero. He retorts a great line: “How about you and your boys deal with the real criminal scum in this city, and then you won’t need me to do it for you.” I like the realistic cockiness of this Superman. I mean, if you were as super as he you’d have a certain confidence and badass attitude about you. However, before anyone cries foul, I think, like Thor, Superman will eventually learn humility as he becomes more of an Earthling than just a displaced alien from Krypton with otherworldly powers that clearly set him apart from humanity.

We soon learn that classic primary Superman foe, Lex Luthor, is working as a consultant to the U.S. military, specifically to General Lane, father of fledgling Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane. General Lane is so hell-bent on apprehending Superman that he literally sends in the tanks and helicopters. There’s plenty more action and heroics in this issue than what I’ve described. We also meet the Clark Kent alter ego, Jimmy Olsen, the aforementined Ms. Lane and Kent’s landlord Mrs. Nyxly.

Rags Morales’ pencils and Rick Bryant’s inks give the book a smooth look that is, like the story, one-part throwback to the Silver Age and one part contemporary. The overall layouts and action sequences are really dynamic and truly display some fine storytelling with pictures. Accompanied by Morrison’s rollicking yet razor sharp and super-focused script, the overall package of this oversized issue is truly impressive. Bravo, DC! Mission accomplished. This is the best Superman-starring comic I’ve read since All-Star Superman #1 & 2. – Professor’s Grades: Script = A- | Art = B+ | Accessibility = A-

Stormwatch #1
Title: “The Dark Side”
Writer: Paul Cornell
Artist: Miguel Sepulveda
Cover by: Miguel Sepulveda w/ Nathan Eyring
Originated as: StormWatch (1993)

Unlike most of the New 52 titles, I have history with Stormwatch. Deep, rich and nostalgic history that runs back to early 1993 when it debuted as the second team book created by Jim Lee and his childhood friend Brandon Choi for their WildStorm imprint at Image Comics. This is prior to the sale of WildStorm to DC/Time Warner back in 1999 and the eventual dissolution of the imprint and its titles in December of 2010. Back when characters such as Battalion, Weatherman, Synergy, Winter, Fuji, Hellstrike, Fahrenheit, Strafe, Diva and Backlash debuted. Back when shortly an up-and-coming American scribe named Ron Marz took the reins. Or a little later, when an on-the-rise British writer by the name of Warren Ellis came along to really put his unique stamp on superhero comics, progressively insisting that StormWatch “Change or Die” before ending that original volume at a hearty 50 issues (strong for a B-list independent title), re-launching it for another 11 issues and then morphing it into The Authority, which became A-list and truly helped put Ellis on the map, as they say.

After a couple of other incarnations of the title, we now arrive to this all-new reincarnation, sans its WildStorm universe ties altogether. This Stormwatch is fully ensconced in the DC Universe – at least behind the scenes – and plays a major role in the shadowy depths of this new-ish universe. My intent is to not focus on the past with any of these New 52 books, and that’s easy to do for me given that I’ve read so little of the originals, but in the case of the now-integrated WildStorm characters, the temptation to do so is great. The original Stormwatch concept centered on a United Nations emergency response team of Seedlings – those with latent superpowers granted as a result of a comet that passed by Earth in the 1970s. The comet’s special radiation bestowed certain individuals with dormant powers. Most of these superhumans-in-waiting were activated by Christine Trelane (aka Synergy), one of the few activators on Earth. Stormwatch covertly dealt with global superhuman threats that government militaries could not. Later as Stormwatch became The Authority, that identity was traded for a more proactive approach, whereas Stormwatch was more reactive. I am not surprised that this incarnation of Stormwatch has no need for Ms. Trelane’s abilities, nor any of the original members I mentioned above (at least so far).

The new Stormwatch organization is more similar to The Authority as they are proactive and have been, according to Jack Hawksmoor (a later addition to the original SW team), “protecting the world from alien threats for centuries.” Martian Manhunter, an alien on the side of humans, is a member of the cast and he steps in to do what his namesake says, help hunt down a particular man. Stormwatch is trying to recruit Apollo (another later addition) who is one of the most powerful super-humans on Earth, perhaps only rivaled in power by Superman. The recruiting doesn’t go so well. After a monstrous display, Martian Manhunter says that Apollo needs to stop solving just small crises and instead join Stormwatch to help save the world. And just before negotiations can continue, a certain black-garbed badass named the Midnighter shows up to, um, offer his two pence and that’s that. Next issue: “The Last Survivor of the Big Bang”. That title and this issues setup leaves me truly intrigued. Perhaps it will dig at the origin of either Stormwatch as an entity or one of the cast members. Judging by this issue, it’s quite obvious that a date with a certain alien called Superman is in the near future of this title as well, and that could be in the form of either a simple title-to-title crossover, or perhaps a major DC event down the line.

I trust in writer Paul Cornell to weave a very entertaining tale. And although Miguel Sepulveda’s art is not great from an aesthetics point of view, it’s competent enough and inoffensive enough to tolerate for the story. He inks himself here, so perhaps another seasoned inker to go over his pencils would be more to my liking? Merely a matter of taste, many others probably are not as nitpicky as I (and even I tend to not be that bad). Like Action Comics, I’m along for the ride here, at least for the first story arc. – Professor’s Grades: Script: B+ | Art: B- | Accessibility: A-

Static Shock #1
Title: “Recharged”
Writers: Scott McDaniel & John Rozum
Artist: Scott McDaniel w/ Jonathan Glapion & LeBeau Underwood
Cover: Scott McDaniel w/ Guy Major
Originated as: Static (1993)

Created by the late great Dwayne McDuffie with Denys Cowan, Michael Davis, and Derek T. Dingle, the original Static character and title debuted in 1993 as part of a multi-cultural publishing imprint of DC Comics called Milestone Comics. The character has been integrated into the DCU proper even prior to this post-Flashpoint New DCU, even recently serving time as one of the Teen Titans.

So, my take on this new 52 issue? This, dear readers, is a very fun and robust comic book, despite its standard size. It covers everything a first issue should cover and delivers the goods in such a balanced way that it truly is a well-rounded read, which is a great way to kick off a new series. Here’s a rundown of the contents: smart, witty dialogue with a nice touch of humor – check! A relatable teenage character who’s easy to like and care for – check! High-flying, electricity-crackling action amid skyscrapers – check! Quiet character moments that touch on the mundane and human aspects of the superhero’s alter-ego – check! A secret headquarters – check! A band of villains out to thwart and ultimately “kill” our hero – check! A balance of vibrant colors to match our hero’s optimism, and darker colors to match the prevailing danger – check! A great cliffhanger ending – yes, check! This one’s got it all, folks, and I came in to it cold without much reference and was pleasantly surprised ; this book overachieved on mutliple levels.

A brief history lesson informs us that Static aka Virgil Hawkins is a 16-year old kid from Dakota City where at age 15 he was bullied and tormented pretty bad, and decided – to quote a song by the late great James Brown – to get some payback. Well, this landed the young fella into some trouble. Recently, Virgil and his mother, father and sister have relocated to the great city of New York for certain reasons. The character’s recent and distant past is referenced in an in-story way that does not come off as forced or as an info-dump. No one’s intelligence is insulted here at all, be it new or old fan. I am going to assume that writer/artist Scott McDaniel has approached this character with great care and respect for its history and that his original creators, particularly the late comics and animation visionary Dwayne McDuffie.

Yes, McDaniel’s art is a little raw, perhaps lacks consistency here and there (though that may be due to the two different inkers), and is in a style that may not have mainstream appeal, but it rarely ever distracts from the story due to its great effectiveness in the storytelling, or urban mood-setting for that matter. The page and panel layouts are truly spectacular with very dynamic and eye-grabbing visuals.

I highly recommend this title for any fan of books like Spider Man and Daredevil from Marvel, Invincible from Image, and even DC’s former teen series Impulse. – Professor’s Grades: Script = A | Art = B | Accessibility = A

Men of War #1
Cover: Viktor Kalvachev
Lead Feature Title: “Joseph Rock”
Writer: Ivan Brandon
Artist: Tom Derenick
Backup Feature Title: “Navy SEALs: Human Shields”
Writer: Jonathan Vankin
Artist: Phil Winslade
Originated as: All-American Men of War (1952)

One of the most unique offerings of DC’s New 52 is this double-feature title aptly named as it features, well, men at war. The first story uses a flashback to officially introduce us to a hard-nosed and revered-by-his-peers infantryman by the name of Corporal Joseph Rock who will eventually become a Sergeant Rock in his own right (like his grandfather, the original legendary Sgt. Frank Rock of World War II lore), that is if Sergeant Torsi has his say in the matter. During this flashback Corporal Rock is being grilled as to why he chooses to remain merely an enlisted foot soldier when he’s clearly smarter than the men who command him and destined for higher stature in the military. A promotion was certainly in his future, but during this scene Rock resists buying into that line of thinking because he’s just a humble soldier who is not done fighting. Although his grandfather’s legacy certainly rest on his shoulders, he is not eager to fill those shoes. A cushy post as an off-the-field commissioned officer is nothing close to the lifestyle he has in mind. He says: “A wolf don’t wanna be a fox.” Flash forward to modern day and we find a promoted Sgt. Rock in the field with his fellow men of war on a mission concerning an abducted senator, a mission that unit commander Sgt. Torsi is not optimistic about at all. He’s right as the sky turns bad for the parachuting infantrymen due to – could it be? – metahuman activity? On the ground the situation is much worse and this story ends with yet another grim DC New 52 cliffhanger.

The second story featured is a bit less interesting, focusing on a team of Navy SEALs on a traditional hostage rescue mission. In contrast this story struggled to hold my interest as it naturally pales in comparison to the lead feature.

In many ways Men of War is an important book as an alternative to straight-up super-heroics. If you care about diversity in the industry as a whole, you hope a book like this finds a minimum amount of success to justify its existence and perhaps shepherd the existence of similar fringe books in the future. Plus, just for good measure, it appears there will be an actual connection to the DCU and its superheroes and villains, just shown through an atypical perspective. Though I’m not its target audience, I have great hope for this series and support its inclusion within the New 52. – Professor’s Grades: Story = B+/C+ | Art: B+/C+ | Accessibility: B+/B

Next Week: More DC The New 52 titles will hit the Professor’s desk, so be here for reviews of Grifter #1, Deathstroke #1, Resurrection Man #1 and Suicide Squad #1. Until then, X out!

 ©2011 | Professor Brand-X


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