Review: Superman Unchained by Scott Snyder & Jim Lee (DC Comics)

UnchainedOn paper the pairing of acclaimed writer Scott Snyder and legendary illustrator Jim Lee on a nine issue Superman series sounds incredible. Both are inarguably supremely talented men – over the past four years, Snyder has written some of the best comics being published, and Lee has long-established his pedigree; I wasn’t reading comics during his X-Men years, but I loved his work on Loeb’s epic Hush storyline in Batman, and Miller’s All Star Batman & Robin. But the tastiest ingredients don’t always mix; and that was my overwhelming response to Superman Unchained. It flirts with greatness, but doesn’t quite reach it. While it’s undoubtedly the best interpretation of the ‘New 52’ Superman we’ve seen (so far) it’s not the standout must-read Superman story fans of the Last Son of Krypton have been pining for. I would happily hand over a copy of Superman: For All Seasons in the hands on a newbie Superman reader; so too any storyline in Geoff John’s pre-New 52 run. Superman Unchained just doesn’t resonate like those.

The story opens with satellites falling from the sky, and Superman doing his thing, rescuing those endangered by the falling gargantuan chunks of metal. He misses one – even Superman’s prone to errors, y’know – but thanks to the intervention of a mysterious and powerful individual, nobody is harmed. But Clark Kent wants to know: who was the interloper? And so, he investigates, and is introduced to Wraith, who falls under the command of a certain General Sam Lane; and queries the veracity of Superman’s mission for “truth, justice and the American way.” Unchained utilizes the core members of Superman’s supporting cast – Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen all play vital roles, so too Lex Luthor and fellow Justice Leaguers Batman and Wonder Woman. The series is imbedded in continuity, but one needn’t be invested heavily in the DC Universe; Snyder is the master of streamlining his narratives to ensure maximum readability, veteran or newbie.

I’ve never considered Snyder an action-oriented writer – which isn’t to say his comics aren’t peppered with brilliant moments and set-pieces (Capullo’s renditions of his Batman scripts are a joy to behold), but he’s always been more focused on character. In Unchained he takes a different route; the pages are packed with action, presumably catering to Jim Lee’s strengths; there’s little nuance to Lee’s work, which, depending on the story, can be a blessing or a curse. In the case of Unchained, it’s a little of both. Superman’s battle scenes are dynamically drafted and a pack a lot of punch – but there’s something missing in the quieter moments. Having seen Snyder’s scripts executed to perfection thanks to artists such as Capullo and Jock, there’s an evident lack of true cohesion between these two. They make it work as best they can, but I can’t help but envision Unchained with a different artist. Indeed, Dustin Nguyen illustrates occasional flashbacks during the book, which are the artistic highlights: imagine the entirety of Unchained in his hands! If only…

Snyder gradually escalates the menaces facing Superman throughout Unchained, but its climax is satisfactory rather than astounding. It has a certain symmetry, which works, but I’d anticipated it, which lessened its impact. There’s a ton of fun to be had with Superman Unchained. It’s not the defining New 52 Superman tale I’d hoped for, but it shows Snyder has a firm grip on the character, and I’d love to see him given another opportunity to work with him. As for Jim Lee, who I feel I’ve been tremendously disdainful towards here, I’m excited to see where he lands next – his name connected to a project still excites me. But as we shift farther away from his ‘peak’ years during the nineties, I feel he has to pick and choose his projects carefully. His “big budget” style certainly has a place in comics.

Review: Aquaman Vol 1 – The Trench (The New 52) by Geoff Johns & Ivan Reis

The TrenchWhen I think of Aquaman, I think of Grant Morrison and Howard Porter’s JLA run from the 90s; the bearded Aquaman, gruff and abrasive, with a hook for a hand. Like the Batman of the sea, he didn’t take stick from anyone. But to the wider public, Aquaman is a punchline: the gold-vested fish-talking king of the sea, who rides seahorses and beds mermaids, right? Easy fodder for any two-bit comedian. Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis tackle this head-on in the first volume of the “New 52” series; but it’s a little too on the nose, very heavy-handed, and detracts from an otherwise superb new introduction to the character.

In AQUAMAN, VOL. 1: THE TRENCH, the King of Atlantis is widely disrespected; mocked and pitied, and laughed at by criminals, the police, and everyday citizens. When the story opens, Aquaman halts a bank heist – brutally, effectively, and wonderfully illustrated as he careens his trident into their vehicle and flips it over spectacularly – but moments before, the robbers are referring to him as “tuna-man,” and the chasing cops are wondering what he’s going to do: “we’re not in the ocean and I don’t see any fish around…” Later, a blogger refers to Aquaman as “nobody’s favorite superhero,” and ridicules Arthur. It’s all a bit much, and unnecessary. Want to demonstrate how cool Aquaman is? Show us Aquaman doing cool things. Which, thankfully, Johns and Reis eventually do, when a new threat arises from a trench at the bottom of the sea; flesh-eating monsters have surfaced, and have attacked the people of Beachrock, forcing Aquaman and Mera into action.

The Johns / Reis creative partnership came to life in the pages of Green Lantern, and they continue their fine work here. There aren’t enough superlatives for Ivan Reis, suffice to say he’s secured a position in the “Top 5” artists working in comics. He nails the underwater scenes, perfectly capturing the terrifying creatures from the trench, and his depiction of Aquaman and Mera is fantastic. There are some striking double-page spreads in AQUAMAN VOL. 1: THE TRENCH – the image of Aquaman standing tall in Boston when he stops the bank heist is appropriately iconic, and deserves to be a poster.

Johns is heavy-handed with the Aquaman-loathing, but otherwise his script is fine-tuned and perfectly paced. The creatures from the trench aren’t particularly memorable, but such opposition was the right choice, as it keeps the spotlight on Aquaman and Mera. Johns’s decision to flashback to moments between Arthur and his father are particularly nuanced, and add real emotion to a tale that’s otherwise void of it. I don’t say this as a slight; THE TRENCH is designed as a blockbuster comic to entice readers to its pages; heavy on the action, sparse on the exposition. Perfect for new readers, and the doubters.

Aquaman has always been cool. But in case you weren’t sure, Johns and Reis clarify the status quo with AQUAMAN VOL 1: THE TRENCH.

Review: Teen Titans – Earth One, Vol 1 by Jeff Lemire and Terry Dodson

Teen TitansThere’s a lot to like about TEEN TITANS: EARTH ONE, Vol. 1 by Jeff Lemire and Terry Dodson. This re-invention of the classic teenage super-team balances the requisite super-heroics with a good dose of teenage angst and soap opera. But it’s hindered by the need to rehash the origins of these characters – variations of their previous incarnations, but still tinged with an overwhelming resemblance to them – and a derivative plot, that bears an uncanny similarity to the core narrative of Marvel Comics’ THE RUNAWAYS.

The strength of the EARTH ONE line of graphic novels, at least in theory, is their continuity-free approach to DC Comics’ characters. There has clearly been a line drawn in the sand, however, in terms of how far creators can push these characters beyond their established origins. These ‘reinventions’ and ‘fresh takes’ aren’t overhauls; they’re merely contemporized reintroductions with slight twists; the equivalent of a fresh paint job. Which is disappointing, because given the esteemed talent on TEEN TITANS: EARTH ONE, had they been allowed total freedom, Lemire and Dodson might’ve produced something seminal rather than a fun, but ultimately unmemorable romp.

The strength of TEEN TITANS: EARTH ONE is the characters, and Lemire’s pitch-perfect depiction of the teenage cast. Victor, Gar and Tara aren’t typecast in the standard teenage roles: they’re genuine, obnoxious youngsters, who are undergoing a life-changing experience as their powers begin to surface. Their attitudes are infuriating at times, and their initial inability to work together encapsulates the adolescent mentality. But the great character work is undercut by the underwhelming plot; turns out, the people who claimed to love them – their parents – aren’t the protectors the teens assumed they were; they’re bad guys, liars, with nefarious agendas.

THE RUNAWAYS, the hit Marvel Comics series from almost a decade ago, presented a similar set-up, and while TEEN TITANS: EARTH ONE isn’t an exact replication, its resemblance is striking. The parents-are-secretly-scrum-bags card has been played umpteen times before, and it’s a unfortunately this story heads down that well-worn and trodden path. Separating the Teen Titans from their parents is fundamental to their character journeys, of course; but surely another route could’ve been taken.

Dodson’s illustrations are as slick as ever; the perfect super-hero artist. Lemire’s script allows room for various splash pages, and even a two-page spread, which are all dynamically rendered. Some of the new designs are questionable, but that’s potentially veteran-reader bias, and takes nothing away from the overall package.

TEEN TITANS: EARTH ONE is a fine addition to DC Comics’ line of graphic novels, and with a few alternate storytelling choices, it might’ve been something truly special. While it’s not quite A-Grade, there’s plenty to like: great characters, pitch-perfect dialog, and stunning visuals. Readers should look forward to the second volume.

(Thanks to DC Entertainment and NetGalley for providing a digital review copy)

Review: Batman Vol 5, Zero Year – Dark City

Year ZeroThe second volume of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s “Zero Year” underscores the drastic tonal shift away from the seminal Batman origin story by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli, “Year One.” It is the perfect example of how malleable the Dark Knight is: soak him in noir or drop him in a dystopian sprawling epic, it doesn’t matter – under the helm of a great creative team, the character will thrive.

BATMAN: ZERO YEAR – DARK CITY presents The Riddler as we’ve never seen him before; a truly formidable foe, who has decimated Gotham City and rendered it his playground. Although Gotham City was similarly destroyed almost two decades ago in “No Man’s Land,” that tale starred a veteran Batman, whereas Snyder and Capullo present us with a Caped Crusader at the very beginning of his career; without all the gadgets, without the know-how, without the allies; whose resilience is being tested for the first time in ways he could never have envisioned.

Long-time readers will enjoying bearing witness to the solidification of relationships between Batman, Jim Gordon and Lucius Fox – indeed, all three play a key role in fighting back against The Riddler’s nefarious schemes – but Alfred Pennyworth gets the best moment in DARK CITY’s final pages, in a moment that we’ve seen before, but has never been executed more potently; his vision for what Bruce Wayne’s life could – and possibly should – have been is incredibly heartfelt, underlining the importance of the character.

There are plenty of ‘cool’ moments in DARK CITY; our first glimpse at the inaugural Batmobile; Batman facing off against a pack of lions (seriously); Batman arriving in the nick of time on a motorcycle; a face-off with The Riddler, surrounded by lasers. By now we’ve run out of superlatives for Greg Capullo’s work – suffice to say, he’s now one of the defining contemporary Batman artists, not just of this generation, but of all time – and his work is a wonderful compliment to Snyder’s script, which flicks from heavy exposition to silent panels with aplomb. DARK CITY is further proof of two comics legends working in perfect harmony to create a storyline that will go down as one of the greatest Batman tales. Long may it continue.

My thanks to DC Entertainment & Net Galley for providing a review copy.

Review: Earth 2, Vol 4 – The Dark Ages by Tom Taylor & Nicola Scott

Earth 2The earth is on fire. Its heroes – the resistance – have been shattered. Dead, or dying; its remnants an unorganized mess. Where is our greatest hero, the Last Son of Krypton, when we need him most; Where is the Man of Steel?

He’s the man responsible for it all. He is at the epicentre of this chaos. Superman is the herald for the greatest of evils, Darkseid.

What hope do we have now?

Volume 4 of the DC Comics series EARTH 2 starts explosively and only ramps up the action and destruction. THE DARK AGE is a perfect jumping on point for new readers unfamiliar with the its continuity; it’s the first arc from the new creative team of Tom Taylor and Nicola Scott (with help from Robson Rocha and Barry Kitson, and a plethora of talented inkers) who take advantage of the carte blanche allowed in the ‘Earth-2’ universe by putting these facsimiles of the heroes who have existed for decades into new scenarios.

It always feels redundant labelling a story ‘entertaining,’ when that should be the ultimate objective of any creative endeavour, but no better word describes EARTH 2. It’s an exciting, adrenaline-fueled ride, punctuated with great character moments – the backstory of the new Batman is wonderfully recounted, and is my favourite portion of this collection. Deftly written, Taylor’s script doesn’t allow for exposition or long-winded, redundant character exchanges – he’s focused on propelling the story forward, ditching the clutter that hampers momentum. And with Nicola Scott as the primary artistic contributor, the book looks fantastic; hers is a realistic style, but executed with dynamic flair. If all our comic books liked Earth 2, we’d never have a reason to complain – besides the irritability of being unable to look away from the beauty on the page.

EARTH 2, Vol 4: THE DARK AGES is the start of a rip-roaring tale. Great set up, fantastic takes on established characters – I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you’re only able to read one DC Comics series, you’d be hard-pressed to find something better than this.

Review: Green Arrow, Vol. 5 – The Outsiders War by Lemire & Sorrentino

Green ArrowWhen the DC Universe was revamped and relaunched in 2011, Green Arrow suffered. Never a consistent reader of the series, I’ve read many of the seminal works, and saw ‘The New 52’ as a way to jump on for the long haul. Alas, the series didn’t hold my attention, so I quickly removed it from my monthly reading stack. Since then, creative teams have come and gone, but the arrival of Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino has returned the character to the spotlight. I’d heard whispers that GREEN ARROW was required reading; one of DC’s best monthly books, in fact. So I took the plunge with Volume 5: THE OUTSIDERS WAR, without any prior knowledge of what’s been going on in the series up to that point.

An inexorable side-effect of long-form storytelling is that it’s very difficult for a new reader to catch up on what they’ve missed. While THE OUTSIDERS WAR is a standalone arc, it’s heavily affected by events from the previous volume. While Jeff Lemire does a laudable job of trying to catch us up, it’s impossible to do so without dialogue and captions feeling stilted, so he limits his backtracking and for the most part leaves readers to discern overarching plot points. It’s never a major problem, but there were times when I struggled to understand the motivations of certain characters; and when the appearance of a new character clearly lacked the intended impact.

Lemire borrows elements from the successful television show Arrow, but mines new territory, too. THE OUTSIDERS WAR reveals the secrets of Oliver Queen’s past – his stranding on a desert island wasn’t the accident he’d been lead to believe; there were sinister forces at work (aren’t they always). We learn that the Queen family has been embroiled in a war that has perpetuated for generations, involving ancient clans, known collectively as the Outsiders. There are character revelations, fantastically rendered fight sequences, and a conclusion that sets up the next story arc; it’s really just good, fun super-hero comics, benefitted by dynamic artwork from Sorrentino, whose use of color in highlighting specific moments on a panel or page is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

Review: Batman – The Long Halloween by Jeph Loeb & Tim Sale

The Long HalloweenBATMAN: THE LONG HALLOWEEN spans the Dark Knight’s year-long investigation into a serial killer striking at the heart of Gotham City’s organized crime families. Wielding a silenced .22 calibre pistol, the killer strikes only on holidays – Valentines Day, Mother’s Day, Christmas, and so forth – and is quickly dubbed ‘Holiday’ by the press. Of course, Gotham being a city infested with psychopaths, this new killer stirring the pot arouses the attention of several of Batman’s nemeses, including Joker, the Riddler,  Catwoman, Solomon Grundy, and more – all of whom play varyingly integral roles to the overall narrative. But at its core, THE LONG HALLOWEEN is a mobster saga about the lengths good men will go to in order to defend the values they hold dear; and easy it is to overstep the boundary between good and evil.

Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, now recognized as a true dynamic duo of comics, might’ve reached their apex with THE LONG HALLOWEEN. The two combine perfectly to deliver a dark, action-packed snapshot into a year in the life of Batman, centred on the Holiday killer. We see relationships develop and change over the course of the story; the seemingly unbreakable partnership between Jim Gordon, Harvey Dent and Batman begins to show signs of decay as the tale progresses, and the death toll rises; and Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle / Batman and Cat Woman flit between potential lovers and fighters. Tim Sale is one of the definitive Batman artists; his style is distinct and unparalleled, and he perfectly captures the break and moody atmosphere of Batman’s world. Loeb’s script is tight, and he encapsulates the various personalities with aplomb. The mystery – who is Holiday? – is unsolvable with the clues provided in Loeb’s script, which might be considered a fault, but doesn’t take anything away from the joy of watching it unravel.

THE LONG HALLOWEEN is hailed as one of the finest Batman stories of all times – high praise indeed, but deserved. Loeb and Sale strip the character down to his fundamental elements – a superhero detective – and weave a fascinating mystery with a satisfying ending.

Review: Batman Vol. 4 – Zero Year: Secret City by Scott Snyder & Greg Capullo

Zero YearFrank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s BATMAN: YEAR ONE was a seminal work in the Caped Crusader’s history, which still resonates today, and remains one of my favourite Batman stories. But YEAR ONE is almost 30 years old now, and comics continuity is fluid, punctuated with spasmodic rehashes of identical concepts for each supposed ‘new generation’ of fans. ZERO YEAR marks Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s shot at ‘redefining’ the Batman origin story – and this collection, subtitled SECRET CITY, is the first part of their magnum opus, which immediately stands apart from the multitude of origin stories that have littered the Dark Knight’s existence. Miller and Mazzucchelli’s YEAR ONE was dark, grimy and gritty –Snyder and Capullo’s is not as overwhelmingly bleak, and strives to be more epic in scope.

BATMAN: ZERO YEAR – SECRET CITY introduces us to a decimated Gotham City; overgrown, its subway system under water. Even Batman is feeling the effects; our first introduction to him is iconic, posed on his motorcycle in a battered costume; sleeves torn, cape replaced by a backpack stocked with survival gear. The story then immediately shifts backwards again, to five months earlier, where a vigilante Bruce Wayne – yet to adopt the cape and cowl, instead utilizing fundamental disguises – has confronted the Red Hood, the madman who has been terrorizing the city through random acts of violence. We learn that Bruce has only recently returned to Gotham, but hasn’t yet revealed himself: he’s still legally dead, and wants to keep it that way: he doesn’t believe Bruce Wayne has a role to play in Gotham’s resurgence; the city can’t be saved through the ideologies of a billionaire.

SECRET CITY spotlights Bruce’s skirmishes with the RED HOOD, and his gradual implementation of the Batman identity.  Writer Scott Snyder excels at capturing Bruce’s young, petulant voice – he’s not the confident veteran we read week in and out; he’s inexperienced and unprepared, but cocky. He’s a man on a mission, without the means or the mentality to accomplish his objective, and here we see him fail multiple times; one of those failures is particularly brutal, as the Red Hood and his crew tear into Bruce and vandalize his home. Snyder’s pitch perfect script is wonderfully rendered by Scott Capullo, who must now rank as one of Batman’s finest artists. He doesn’t just perfectly capture those iconic action set pieces – the quieter moments are rendered with equal expertise. Artist Rafael Albuquerque is also on hand for the shorter anecdotes at the end of this volume, which demonstrate a teenage and twenty-something Bruce Wayne learning essential lessons that’ll stick with him through his crime-fighting career.

BATMAN: ZERO YEAR – SECRET CITY is a fine start to start to Batman’s new origin, and ends, as you’d expect with a cliff-hanger, which potentially revitalizes one of the villain’s from Batman’s rogues gallery. It’s the perfect jumping-on point for newcomers, while long-time readers will find this origin tale explores a very different side of the Batman mythos. At this stage in my comics-reading life, I’ve read several origin tales, some of which live long in comics’ continuity, while others quickly fade. There is no chance of the latter in this case.

Review: Forever Evil by Geoff Johns & David Finch

Forever EvikFOREVER EVIL is the equivalent of a Michael Bay blockbuster, and I say that without a trace of contempt. There’s nothing subtle about it. There’s no real emotional hook. It’s crude storytelling – but it’s rollicking. If you’re after non-stop action, double-crosses and lots of explosions, look no further; FOREVER EVIL is a heck of a ride.

The Justice League is dead.

Of course, they’re not, and veteran readers don’t expect that to last, but that’s the status quo introduced by Geoff Johns and David Finch, and things immediately get worse from there. The Crime Syndicate from Earth-3 have arrived on Earth – evil analogues of Superman, Batman, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman – and are intent on ruling it through violence. With the Justice League out of the picture, there is no one to stand in the way of them – except for Lex Luthor, who bands together a motley crew of villains and becomes Earth’s only resisting force. The Injustice League is the planet’s only hope.

FOREVER EVIL is very much a Lex Luthor story. In his mind, the arrival of The Crime Syndicate validates his incessant claims that humans can’t reply solely on aliens and super-powered beings to save them. Luthor doesn’t see himself as a villain; he’s a proponent for humanity, whose advocacy boarders on the insane. Teamed with his imperfect clone of Superman, Bizarro, as well as Captain Cold, Black Adam, Black Manta, Sinestro and more, Luthor combats his superior foes with gusto, which leads to some iconic moments, many of which fall into spoiler territory; suffice to say, the battle between Sinestro and Power Ring will live long in the memory; so too Ultraman’s fight with Black Adam.

While I’ve never been a great admirer of David Finch’s artwork – entirely artistic bias rather than a slight on his ability – he is a fine artist for this project, and John plays to his strengths, allowing Finch to dynamically display the countless skirmishes. Character expressions rarely vary beyond furrowed brows, but hey, it’s the end of the world, they’re entitled to be stressed. Inker Richard Friend, colorist Sonia Oback and letterer Rob Leigh all collaborate nicely to make FOREVER EVIL altogether very pleasing on the eye.

Johns leaves several threads hanging, plots that’ll undoubtedly be picked up on moving forward – but FOREVER EVIL wraps up with closure rarely evidenced in an ‘event’ series. Again, no spoilers, but the looming status quo will be very interesting indeed following Luthor’s decisions here. That’s the thing about comics – they are fluid. There is never time to enjoy what was; we’ve already moved on. FOREVER EVIL is a fun romp, which won’t resonate eternally, but is a thrilling ride while it lasts.

My thanks to the publisher and Net Galley for providing a review copy.

Review: Batgirl / Robin – Year One

ImageBATGIRL/ROBIN: YEAR ONE is a comic book tour de force, and a wonderful example of how poignant and fun super-hero stories can be.

Unburdened by decades of continuity, which has become increasingly convoluted with each passing year and occasional reboot, writers Scott Beatty and Chuck Dixon take Batgirl and Robin back to their roots, retelling their first adventures as Batman’s sidekicks, and dealing with all the emotional and physical consequences of their occupation. Beatty and Dixon explore the mentality needed to overcome impossible odds and face dastardly villains; not always with relentless solemnity, sometimes with a smile and the occasional glimpse of overconfidence. The writers treat Dick Grayson and Barbara Gordon as the adolescents they are; inexorably determined to succeed, but flawed because of their youth and lack of experience. They aren’t perfect heroes; they’re kids, wearing coloured costumes, just trying to do the best they can for the mission, and to impress Gotham City’s caped crusader.

Marcos Martin and Javier Pulido handle the art, aided by the colour work of Lee Loughridge and Javier Rodriguez, and combined their style is reminiscent of the Batman animated series from the nineties. If anything, their artwork belies some of the darker themes that resonate throughout the narrative, but it is never anything less than highly effective, and always stylish.

Super-hero comics aren’t for everyone, but if you’re looking for a taster, you won’t find a collection worthy of higher praise than BATGIRL/ROBIN: YEAR ONE.

ISBN: 9781401240332
Format: Paperback (258mm x 171mm x 15mm)
Pages: 494
Imprint: DC Comics
Publisher: DC Comics
Publish Date: 2-Jul-2013
Country of Publication: United States