Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Direct Message 01: A&C: DC Part One

[This is the first edition of Direct Message, the new series of conversations that I will be having with Alec Berry. Our first conversation is on the DC relaunch and will run four parts, alternating between our two blogs, over the next few days. Enjoy.]

Chad Nevett: Because the DC relaunch #1s haven’t been discussed to death, welcome to the first ever Direct Message. I’m Chad Nevett and you probably already know me from GraphiContent, my near-800 reviews for the two-time Eisner winning website Comic Book Resources, my Random Thoughts, the Splash Page, my writing on 411mania, and whatever other dumb thing I do somewhere online. Joining me is Alec Berry who co-hosts the Chemical Box podcast, posts on his blog alec reads comics, writes for his student paper, DJs for U92-FM, and... well, this. How do you like the pompous jerk persona I’ve put on for our discussions, Alec? Isn’t it lovely? Of course it is. We’re here to discuss the new DC first issues we’ve read. We overlap for the most part and differ in a few places, so it should be a mostly cohesive discussion with a few moments of “Uh, if you say so... I haven’t read that, so I don’t really know.” What’s our first book, Alec?

Alec Berry: You say pompous jerk. I say, “damn, Chad just owned that introduction.” Why have credits if you can’t talk about them?

While I know what book we’ll first chat about, I wanted to ask you about your reaction to the news. Granted, reactions to this publishing move are a dime a dozen, but I feel this piece would lack a little something without our initial thoughts and hopes and “dreams” for the relaunch. Plus, for readers aware of their Splash Page Podcast history, the word of complete relaunch came just shortly after the show’s end, and we never heard your thoughts (Tim’s we later did via his When Worlds Collide column as well as his Tor.com stuff).

So as a Splash Page listener, Chad, I would like to know your initial expectations and thoughts because I didn’t get them way back when. If you did blog them up before, I apologize for missing them. Just act like it’s July or whatever, and you’ve just received word of DC’s plan but you also know all of the associated creative teams. What hopes do you hold for this relaunch, and do you feel it’s good move?

We can come back to the overall, current viewpoint later. For the sake of response time and organization, I’ll just type my original thoughts now.

Months ago ...

This news, contrary to the few creators involved whom I actually enjoy, excites me about DC Comics. I’ve been losing interest in them as a publisher. I buy Morrison and Snyder’s Batman stuff along with Nick Spencer and CAFU’s T.H.U.N.D.E.R.Agents, but roughly three comics out of the numerous DC publishes is not enough to solidify the publisher’s place in my list of favorites. Which sucks, because I kind of always cheer for DC even though I don’t know why. I guess I see them as the underdog in the “Big 2 Equation.” Plus, I like the potential in the DC Universe and what its inhabitants stand for in terms of being icons or modern gods. But the way the line has been handled in the past year … it hasn’t capitalized on the potential I see. And the Vertigo line … pretty weak when compared to previous years.

But, even though it’s another relaunch headed up by a handful of the same creators who’ve been working at DC, I’m excited about DC Comics right now. I think it’s because it’s not just another relaunch. Not really. Look at the scale of this move. It’s unprecedented and feels bold. New titles across the line. Jim Lee’s art, even though very 1993, painting the Justice League in a light. Day-and-date digital. Talk of major advertising efforts. I don’t care who you are. This is at least mildly compelling.

As of now, I’m counting 15 books on my “to try out” list. Possibly 20. That’s more than the three I was buying, right? Could this mean success?

Time will tell. The move could be huge in terms of sales or completely end in disaster. Quality wise … I’m a little uncertain. J.T. Krul still appears to write for DC, and only a small handful of these comics seem to have any sense of solid creative direction. Quality will ensure any long term good will. Still, even though I’m doubtful of the quality, I’m buying at least 15 DC comics come September. They have my money for that month.


My original thoughts. I’m sure they were wonderful to read, Chad. Just wonderful. So, what book do I want to kick off with? Oh, how about Animal Man? I felt it really stole the show.

Animal Man #1

I don’t know about you, but Jeff Lemire has been a wild card in my book. I’ve enjoyed some of his previous work like Essex County and the first 12 issues of Sweet Tooth, but other things, like his Superboy or the other issues of Sweet Tooth, have really left me bored and begging the question, “why?”. Why are so many people hooked on this dude? I get it. He can make you feel something. Whether it’s the pain of some situation in Sweet Tooth or the colorful bounce on a page of Superboy, Lemire makes you feel something, but past that, when the emotional trick wears off, what does this guy offer? His artwork is quite enjoyable. I like the torment and gray he carries in his line, and he can produce an eye-keeping page design. But even then, with the tormented line, it feels like more of that emotional trick.

I just sometimes want to chalk this guy’s favor up to his ability to make people cry. I mean, people dig emotional, “deep” stuff right? Works with such qualities win awards. After a while, I just find it, I don’t know, cheap. You know, make people cry, and they will remember you. The idea of leaning your entire work on emotions just made me want to write Lemire off.

Reading Animal Man - as well as Frankenstein which we’ll get to - has shown me a little more of what Lemire is capable of. While I feel a majority of the comic’s success falls on the efforts of Travel Foreman, Lemire fills some other shoes on this first issue and does a fine job. The tone and situation resemble a typical Lemire project, but there’s an interesting psychologicial horror element to this comic. I find it intriguing and exciting because it takes Buddy Baker a little bit away from what I understand him to be. Now, I have yet to read the Morrison stuff (I know, shame - how can I write about comics?), but Buddy Baker, from my point of view, is the family man. The dude changes diapers, eats at the dinner table every night, and talks to elephants. He lives a safe lifestyle for the most part. Those elements are certainly still in Lemire’s take, but he’s made Animal Man edgier. He’s placing the character in freaky, vein-filled head trips and setting his daughter in questionable territory. The lifestyle no longer seems so safe. As a first issue, it’s very well done. Lemire sells the character’s core, his world and builds conflict for future installments. This would bring back first time readers. I know I’m coming back for #2.

But, yeah, Travel Foreman. Without his art, even with Lemire’s strong writing, I do not believe I would have enjoyed this comic as much as I did. Foreman, along with Lovern Kindzierski’s colors, sell the eerie, unsteady vibe of this comic book. Just something about it - and I suck when it comes to writing about art - elevates the entire work.

I’ll just shut up, and let you go, Chad. Maybe you can explain Foreman in a more attractive manner.

CN: Christ... and I thought Callahan was a long-winded bastard...

My first reactions to the DC news was a surprising non-reaction. I’d heard mumblings about a big relaunch or reboot for a while, so there wasn’t really any surprise. I was intrigued about what books would be launched and scoffed at doing 52 ‘new’ books right away. I still scoff at that, honestly. (Short reason why: they made it work for the first month, quite possibly the second and third months... but how long before the train goes off the tracks? Will it still be working in a year?) Like you, I wasn’t buying a lot of DC books and, now, I’m buying more. So, victory, yes? Again, my negative personality and instinct to trash things immediately pointed out that, out of 52 titles, I’d added only ten or so to my pull list. More than before? Sure -- but not an overwhelming victory. (And, if you want to get into that bullshit Marvel vs. DC thing, still less comics than I buy from Marvel monthly.) But, I also didn’t care about continuity problems or the idea that everything up until now ‘didn’t count’ like a lot of fans. This was just another move by a comics publishers, albeit on a larger scale. A scale that’s impressive no doubt... just not enough to really sway my cold cynical heart. Give me 52 comics I want to buy every month and maybe my heart will pound a little faster.

I’m surprised you wanted to start with Animal Man. I expected to start with Justice League #1 and the two of us having a nice big argument as our introduction as a criticism duo. Instead, we both get to say nice things about a good comic. Animal Man was actually a ‘gut pick’ book (a book that I decided to buy purely on the gut feeling that it would be good), which is strange, because I’m not a Jeff Lemire fan. I’ve tried out Sweet Tooth a few times and it left me cold. I haven’t read Essex County despite actually living in Essex County right now, though. I didn’t read any of his previous DC superhero work. Yet, I was looking forward to Animal Man #1. Go figure.

The horror element is what really sold me. And I’m not a horror fan. Go figure again. I was enjoying the comic up until the dream sequence (and I don’t like dream sequences!) and, then, I just fell in love with it. It was creepy without being overbearing or descending into unintentional comedy -- and immediately followed up by a big ol’ punctuation mark with Buddy’s daughter. The book started with the family and comes back to the family. I like that. I like that the comic is rooted in Buddy being a husband and father in an era where most comics are running away from the family life with such passion that I can’t help but wonder about the marriages of comics professionals.

The opening page of Animal Man #1 was a surprise. Both in DC letting it happen and in how no one who read it seemed to mind. People love that little text interview! Just don’t call it a recap page, of course...

The reaction to Foreman’s art has been very mixed, which suits his art, I think. I won’t lie and say there aren’t some rough spots. I do think those rough spots work with the tone of the book. Buddy lives in a shifting world of sensory experience and the art reflects that to a degree. Nothing is entirely stable or consistent. It’s a subtle way of reminding us that Buddy’s senses must be confusing as hell at times as he shifts from eyesight as dominant to hearing to smell depending on the animal he’s tapped into.

I’m not sure about Buddy himself. That stems mostly from my anti-hippie, meat-loving life. I’m not an animal lover, which makes a protagonist who’s an animal lover and environmental activist not as near and dear for me as others.

One thing that struck me from Animal Man #1 was how effective it was at horror and ending in a very creepy, disturbing place where Swamp Thing #1, ostensibly more of a horror book by its nature, didn’t land in the same way. Discuss.

AB: Don’t worry. I will bring up Justice League #1 at some point and defend its existence. Just wait.

You bring up a good point on comic book marriages. Not many of them seem to fly, and neither do any regular old, girlfriend/boyfriend relationships. Not that I necessarily care as, like any asshole would say, none of these “people” are real. I’ve never been one to get caught up in that very soap opera aspect of cape comics. I think most of it relates to my earlier years reading comics. As a 13 year old kid, I cared less about the relationship between Green Arrow and Black Canary. I read for the fights, bright colors, and iconic moments - not the make-out sessions or break-up tears.

I think part of the “single hero” trend relates to that idea. Super hero comics are constantly labled boyhood fantasies, and if we’re to take that label as the actual approach, it makes sense most super heroes would run around unchained. Girls are “yucky,” right? Men get shit done and kick ass? That’s always been the belief, correct?

You could also look at singleness as another form of escapism, which is another label hero comics are usually slapped with. I mean, I’m far from being married, but I could imagine it being nice to attach yourself to a super hero character, live vicariously throw him or her, and use the 20 page comic book as a means to break free of the nagging wife or husband. Both reader and author could receive something from that.

Of course, if these comics were true escapism, you’d think more heroes would date. Authors and readers would receive the chance to hook-up with hot, fictional women or men they’ll never meet. Oh, wait ... Red Hood and the Outlaws #1 …

Or, hey, maybe the lack of marriages and relationships is all a part of some giant conspiracy to keep women out of comics. Seems relevant, right? Internet, you decide!

But, yeah, I agree. I enjoy Buddy Baker as a family man. The quality gives his character a little something unique and removes his book from the equation of some conventions. As Morrison has said, that’s the only mainstream mark he’s made that he would like to see not changed, and it appears Lemire may bend it but keep it fixed.

I had forgotten about the text page! Lemire handled it well. Buddy Baker’s past in this DC Universe is explained, and any new reader can obtain an idea of who this guy is. I also enjoy it for its ability to give the character a personality before we even see him. Buddy comes off as a real guy. And, hey, The Believer Magazine conducts the interview …

Swamp Thing #1

And now I get to be a little negative. This comic was just one big “eh.” Though, Paquette gets my respect. He made this armor Superman suit look kind of nifty, and he brought his game on layouts toward the back of the comic.

I’ll simply say Swamp Thing #1 didn’t pack the punch I expected of it. Alec Holland spends multiple pages talking to me about planks of wood and the violence of nature. Snyder relies way too heavily on captions to communicate. The tone seemed to fluctuate without any real anchor point. And, that entire conversation between Holland and Superman is basically a cheap way to tell me who Alec Holland is. The scene fell flat.

You are also completely right. Animal Man and Swamp Thing switched roles. The supposed horror comic went all super hero, and the super hero comic went all horror. Snyder does attempt a horrific tone towards the end of this first issue, but when the first 3/4ths of your comic reads like standard super hero fair, such a sudden change in tonal direction just feels off and sloppy. The flies whom snap necks were somewhat disturbing, and I enjoyed the use of red by Nathan Fairburn in said sequence but none of it was enough to save this issue for me.

Nothing terrible. I just felt it came off as a mess of a first issue, and Snyder’s writing did little to interest me in this story or character.

CN: I thought it was good, but on the low side of good... if that makes sense. I tend to run a little colder on Snyder’s writing than everyone else online who, apparently, isn’t you. When David Brothers pointed out his narration trick, I sort of smacked my head for not noticing it myself.

Something I said that I didn’t see anyone else ever echo was that Paquette, while skilled, dropped the ball big time in that final sequence. It was a horror sequence and Paquette’s art doesn’t communicate horror well. His art is a little too clean and posed even when it’s trying to be messy and dark. I was like “This is pretty... not scary or disturbing in the least.” And that wasn’t the fucking point. The point was scary and disturbing and fucked up, not pretty. If Paquette can’t pull scenes like that off, then he’s on the wrong book. It happens. Sometimes, great artists just aren’t a fit for certain subject matter...

Superman’s appearance was kind of funny (his actual appearance was funny visually to a degree, too, in that stupid costume and giant chin) in the reaction it produced online. He mentions having died once before and I loved seeing people freak out, because Clark and Lois have never even dated let alone got married, so how could “The Death of Superman” have happened? Sometimes (often), comics readers are idiots, Alec. (The answer is: the same way it happened previously, but without the Lois stuff. Duh.)

I don’t know... I find myself not having much to say about Swamp Thing #1. It was a comic that I read and mildly enjoyed...?

Where Swamp Thing holds my interest mostly is in its approach to the character. It’s one of the titles that seems to pick up right from where the DCU was. You can easily imagine that, without the relaunch, Swamp Thing #1 would have come out this month as a new ongoing series. The way that each first issue approaches its characters and their pasts has interested me. This one is a ‘continued from where we last left off’ one, while ones like Justice League are practically full-blown reboots. I’m curious how DC can have these various approaches coexist if they want a coherent, whole universe (and they do). All that “It’s a relaunch, not a reboot” talk was a lie, because it’s kind of a reboot... except when it’s not.

Now, Animal Man kind of straddles the line. It doesn’t feel like a direct continuation of where we last saw the character, but it’s also not a full-fledged reboot. Maybe that’s why it’s so successful (beyond all of the other reasons). It genuinely satisfies both desires of this relaunch by serving two masters.

[Part two is on Alec's blog, so go read it!]