Part Two of what looks like becoming a three or possibly four part catch-up on all that’s new and groovy in the wonderful world of comicbooks (it says here) continues last post’s look at DC’s New 52, of which I could be bothered with twelve (‘twelve’ is a wonderful number, don’t you think? Always looks better written as a word than as figures, has a lovely sound to it, looks quite ravishing as well).
I may be alone in thinking that JH Williams 111 is a slightly over-rated artist. I think the same of Alex Ross, who brought a few painting techniques from commercial art to comics and was hailed a god, but whose photo-realistic work I feel detracts from the necessarily faux-kinetic nature of the form. Wrinkly costumes do not a dynamic figure make. And don’t start me on his creepy man-child Captain Marvel.
Williams 111 has finally given us his much-delayed Batwoman series; it’s been one of the most anticipated and most demanded of the 52, selling out in a matter of hours at the shop and going into several (all right, three) printings. Some of this can be put down to the general 52 hype, some of it to the book’s astonishing delay - this is a series that was meant to continue from the character’s Detective run but has taken the best part of a year to appear – which has lent it a reputation as something so good it’s been worth the wait.
I’m not going to traduce the book; it has a decent plot in it, the characterisations don’t just pick up from the Detective run but have evolved and changed since, and as a result of, that story.
What I’m suddenly impressed with is the subtle change in Williams’ art. His storytelling was, before now, all over the place; his signature off-kilter layouts and needlessly Bat-shaped panels not only detracted from the narrative flow but also demoted the narrative to a firm second behind the eye-catching visuals. It didn’t seem to matter that the reader couldn’t understand the story so long as it looked good.
That urge to dazzle is still there, but it’s been toned down considerably. Yes, there’s a two-page spread that’s contained within a bat-shape, but that’s about it, and that’s counterbalanced by a repeated use of another Williams trope: that of the continual background containing sequential images. Here in #1 the most obvious example illustrates Batwoman’s use of a grappling hook gun: there’s a particularly good use in #2 that shows a police detective taking a sweep of a crime scene.
Also, the differentation in art styles to show either different times or even different characters works better here, toned down from its use in the Detective run. Williams uses a more traditional comicbook illustrative style for scenes that don’t involve the actual, in-costume Batwoman character, changing to the Ross/painterly technique for in-costume scenes, and sometimes using both – there’s a sequence of the Kanes changing into costume where everything is in standard style and colouration except the Batwoman costume, which blazes out in fully-painted glory. Symbolism ahoy.
One last observation: all of the Bat-family of characters now have a unifying costume trait: they each have their individual emblem moulded into the soles of their boots. While I can see this being something brought down from on high by the man himself, Batwoman has no official ties to the whole Batman Inc concept. So either Bruce is really generous with the old steel toe-capped jobs, or somewhere in Gotham there’s a really discreet cobbler who’s grown used to these crazy footwear specifications.
Pull-listed? Didn’t think it would be, but why the hell not?
One of the big hoo-hahs surrounding this re-establishment of all things DC is that certain characters have been swept back up into the main universe (and what a terrible fanboyish phrase, ripe for something more grown-up, that is) after being considered for many years to be for Karen Berger’s use only. So there’s a DCU John Constantine again (as well as the swearing-shagging-ageing Constantine still under Berger’s wing in the Vertigo Hellblazer title), and there’s a Madame Xanadu, and there’s a Swamp Thing. It’s a bit too tied into recent continuity for my likes because I couldn’t be bothered with the whole Brightest Day thing, so maybe this one had better sit on the shelf until it gets the will-he-won’t-he ‘Alec Holland refuses to be Swamp Thing’ set-up is resolved and we see where Scott Snyder’s taking this thing. Pull-listed? For now.
Having said that: this comic made me realise why I don’t like the new Superman costume. It’s too militaristic for a humanist character – he looks like he’s here to take over the planet rather than help anybody. And while we all thought “Grounded’ was tosh, Supes should knock that ‘floating a yard or so off the ground’ lark on the head. It’s just showing off.
But while we’re talking about what were Vertigo characters, let’s have a look at Justice League Dark. If you’ve not been keeping up with/don’t give a monkey’s about this relaunch, you’ll just have reacted to the words ‘Justice League Dark’ in the same way that I did when I first read them: a snort of contempt and then a mild pang of ‘Really? Really?’ Especially when you find out it’s written by Peter Milligan, who’s got form on the weird and unnerving front. Essentially, the Justice League Proper gets fucked over by MAGIC, so Zatanna who’s apparently in the Justice League Proper even if this is the first anybody’s heard of that, grabs a handful of MAGIC characters and away they go. Dawn Dove’s in it because Deadman, who’s one of these MAGIC coves, is her boyfriend. How the hell does that work, then?
There are some wonderful Milligan ‘yick’ moments, like the big opening spread of many many June Moones wandering about on a busy motorway (it doesn’t end well), or Superman getting cut up real bad by a storm of witches’ teeth, but they’re not served well by some rather bland art. But still: Pete Milligan writing John Constantine and Shade The Changing Man. Can’t say no, can you? No need to ask about the pull-listing, surely?
Blue Beetle is another of the books that I’m picking up due to a fondness for the character, or in this case for the character’s last series. The Rogers/Giffen/Hamner Beetle series was a lovely little thing, doomed from the start of course, one of those books that you dread reading the solicitations for because you just know that one month it’ll contain the words ‘Final Issue’. Also, everybody hated that it’s not Ted Kord anymore but a teenaged boy (and a Spanish one at that!) and he didn’t go bwah-ha-ha with Booster Gold and all that. But it was a good little book that put a new spin on the BB concept while still keeping it firmly tied to the last two incarnations of the character.
So the perfect thing to do with the relaunched BB would be to take the characters and the concept from that series, pretend none of it happened, and start the whole thing from scratch. With different creators. Who, sadly, aren’t Rogers or Giffen or Hamner. But despite that, the new team – Tony Bedard and Ig Guara which you can’t help but type as Ig Guana – do a decent job, jiggling around the chronology so what was the climax of the original telling is the opening of this one, straight away bringing in characters that originally took months to appear, changing the characterisation of a couple of the cast. The concept’s a good one - the Blue Beetles as a kind of harbinger to an imperialist anti-Green Lantern Corps taking over any planet they can, but the one that falls to Earth is damaged and bonds with its wearer rather than subsuming him.
However, this would have been the ideal time to simplify the costume, which is beautifully conceived but terribly over-designed, but that didn’t happen because this is the age of the over-designed costume.
Pull-listed for nostalgia’s sake and to see how much more of the last run gets used here.
And finally: OMAC. Or O.M.A.C. but who the hell can be bothered to type all those full stops? OMAC. God, I love this comic. It’s Keith Giffen channelling Jack Kirby. No idea what Dan Didio does but he’s in the credits so he gets a mention.
It’s all-out crazy comics, with no explanations or subtlety, just overstated action all the way. Criticise Giffen all you like for wearing his influences on his sleeve, but nobody’s done Kirby like Giffen does Kirby since Kirby stopped being Kirby and started being dead.
I’ve been writing and re-writing paragraph after paragraph as to why and how Giffen isn’t merely another slavish copyist of Kirby but rather is an artist who takes Kirby’s tropes and uses them as foundation for his own modernist style. But each attempt at those paragraphs has got bogged down in over-intellectual blather and, to be frank, hasn’t proved my thesis. So instead, let me say that OMAC is a love letter to the original Kirby series, with the core character now a Hulk-like monosyllabic creature, hilariously repeating the last word of his controller’s sentences while ripping buildings to pieces with his bare hands, his blue electric Mohawk waving in the wake of the destruction.
It also has a serious subtext about the nature of individuality and identity in the modern, technologically-driven corporate world: OMAC himself occasionally re-stating his own identity while taking a huge splayed-legged stance like some giant beast staking out his territory, his alter-ego Kevin Kho being transformed from one office worker amongst many into this unique engine of destruction, and the continual presence of Brother Eye, OMAC’s creator/controller, through electronic devices. There’s a great scene in the second issue where the now-normal Kho tries to escape Brother Eye’s constant surveillance but can’t, as Eye makes contact through everything from somebody else’s mobile phone to a railway station ticket machine, leaving the exhausted and defeated Kho to accept his fate by simply putting on a pair of earphones.
Given that Giffen isn’t the superstar draw he should be, and given that Dan Didio is near-universally loathed as a writer (he isn’t exactly setting the world on fire with the dialogue in this book, but it’s a step up from what he was doing on Outsiders), and given that it’s a bloody tough marketplace right now, OMAC the comicbook is probably doomed to last no more than twelve issues. I’d say you should enjoy them while you can.
Next: Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. There's Apples, And Pears. Maybe A Nice Banana.