What Should I Read, Nick? (DC Comics, Part One)
You’re interested in comics, yes? Maybe you’ve read a few of the classics and/or the “required reading” of most readers: Maus, Watchmen, The Long Halloween, stuff like this. Chances are you don’t want someone shoving another antiquated yellowed tome down your throat, you wanna read something current, gorammit!
The transition to “recent” material can be scary; stuff that isn’t published in a neat, self-contained tome and/or universe has the potential to send readers running for the proverbial hills. Trades of published (story) arcs frequently require that the reader have some knowledge of previous arcs, or at the very least, a decent grounding in the universe. While it’s true that some trades aren’t afraid to dump you in unfamiliar territory, I’m here to tell you that I, Nicholas Uppenheimer Goggledorfsmeier White, believe that you (yes, you) are probably intelligent enough to handle it.
Allow me to borrow an example from my own life. After reading From Hell, a totally self-contained graphic novel by Alan Moore, I asked my friend Zander to lend me a couple of his trades. There were a couple mostly self-contained titles (Kingdom Come) and “beginning-of-arc” trades (House of M) that I had little trouble with…alongside a few X-Men books that tossed me into all sorts of conflicts I was hardly privy to. Lesson learned: a trade is not an ironclad guarantee that comprehension is ensured. But in the end, even when you’re confused and more-than-likely lost, you can still identify “good” writing and artwork. You might not appreciate the big picture and/or the plotting, but…
This is why Barnes & Noble, for all of the flack about “brick and mortar” stores out there, is an invaluable asset. I’m not going to encourage that you go there to read entire volumes; unless you’re a speed reader (and even if you are a speed reader) you’re probably doing an injustice to the staffers of said book by skimming at a breakneck pace.
Do browse though, see what catches your eye (though do keep in mind that the cover artist and “actual” (see: interior) artist may not be the same individual). If it looks good, read a few pages. Some readers might balk at the idea that I’m suggesting in a de-facto manner that good writers won’t be saddled with “bad” artists…but for the most part, this rule holds water. Sure, superstar writers like Grant Morrison have been partnered up with “acquired tastes” like Frank Quietly, but editors/executives are usually not interested in self-sabotaging their own writing staff.
Generally speaking, if you’re dealing with “The Big Two” (Marvel/DC) they have the money/effort to pair up writers with artists that best complete their artistic vision (Jeff Lemire and Travel Foreman on Animal Man is a great example of this). In the end, it is the art that’s bound to get your attention first, that’s just the nature of the beast. That’s how I ended up buying my first “arc trade,” The Black Mirror by Scott Snyder…a Detective Comics (see: Batman) arc surrounding Commissioner Gordon’s “prodigal son” of sorts. After all, Jock and Francesco Francavilla’s haunting imagery was the sort of fare you knew you’d best avoid if you wanted to get to bed at a regular hour…but you just couldn’t look away.
Was there a learning curve? Yeah, a little. I had to sort out the basic equation that “Bruce Wayne does NOT always = Batman.” On top of this, I had to sort out the fact that a previous Robin had now assumed the cape and cowl of Batman, and that Bruce Wayne had not only had a son, but that this son was now Robin. Of course, this only spurred more questions: What happened to Bruce Wayne anyway? Where’s that Nightwing guy I’d heard about in the past? Just who was the mother of Bruce Wayne’s child anyway?
That, my friends, is the beauty of curiosity in the Information Age; there’s enough cursory information on Internet databases to (probably) slake your thirst for knowledge, and, if not, they can usually tell you what Barnes & Noble has the trade that’ll give one a more comprehensive background.
Sometimes, however, the comic book industry is interested in attracting new readership…and this means giving readers a reasonable entry point. In the closing months of 2011 DC Comics did exactly that with an event called “The New 52.” Simply put, DC “restarted” their comic book universe, putting out 52 comics that were not beholden to storylines or past events from previous comics (with a few exceptions: the Green Lantern universe had already gotten a HUGE overhaul only a year or two before the New 52…so that element [along with a few bits from the Brightest Day arc] were left untouched).
That’s probably the one rule about comics one has to learn: EVERYTHING has an exception to the rule.
Simply put, (and, at least in theory) you can pick up Batman #1 (since the New 52 reset all comics numbering with its inception) and not be required to have read anything Batman-related in the past. In theory. Will you be better off if you know who Damien Wayne or Dick Grayson is? Well, certainly. But you’ll still be alright if you don’t, that’s all.
Without further ado, here are some of my thoughts on The New 52:
- It’s pretty much the only mainstream “Western” genre comic book out there and, thank goodness, it’s a good one.
- The book is frequently colloquially referred to as “Jonah Hex,” as that is the character the comic has most frequently followed as of late. For those not familiar with Mr. Hex, he’s a decidedly rugged mercenary that used to be a Confederate soldier (but, you know, don’t worry…he didn’t “join up” in defense of slavery or anything).
- All-Star Western earns major points for being able to take a “period piece” franchise, and find creative and imaginative ways of having it contribute to DC’s new universe: as of late Jonah Hex has tangled with Talons, assassins for the Court of Owls, a shadowy Gotham-based organization going several centuries back.
- Moritat’s pencils are just as gritty and untamed as the American West.
- Fans of Batman will enjoy encountering Bruce Wayne’s ancestors, Amadeus Arkham, and other elements of the Gotham they know and love.
- Probably the only downside is that All-Star Western costs an extra buck, on account of its side features at the back of every issue; many of which are bearable…but they’re frequently swapped out within an issue or two, making it hard to get attached to any of the characters.
- Is this the flagship title of DC Comics right now? Yeah, it probably is, unless you’re digging Geoff John’s “tried-and-true” story arcs on Justice League.
- Are you a fan of American Vampire, Swamp Thing, or much of the Detective Comics story arc leading up to the New 52? Then it turns out that you’re already a fan of present Batman scribe, Scott Snyder. Snyder’s already proven more than adept at planning masterfully executed arcs like “Night of the Owls” and “Death in the Family,” and his “Batbook” cross-over tactics rarely come across as “cashgrabb-y” or trivial.
- Whether or not Batman’s truly a “newbie-friendly” place to hop on to the franchise is debatable, but if you don’t know the requisite origin story, as well as the staples of the Batman franchise (Batmobile, Alfred, Batcave, alter ego Bruce Wayne) I’m not quite certain what you’re doing anywhere near comics.
- The genuine surprise here is Greg Capullo’s artwork; the guy’s got a boatload of experience (including a long run on Spawn in the Nineties) but the fact that DC would trust the Caped Crusader to someone not previously attached to Batman in the past couple years (Daniels, Kubert, Williams III, Jock, and Paquette all come to mind) seemed risky. But Capullo masters Batman’s descent into madness (*semi-spoilers*) with aplomb.
- Before anybody who knows anything points out that this series has not only been canceled, but ended too…I know that. But I also know that letting this book die was a monumental mistake on the part of DC readership. Then again, it was de facto replaced with Dial H (which is, more or less, operates on a similar premise). However, readers thinking they’ll just hop onto Dial H instead, I find Dial H to be the inferior product of the two.
- Resurrection Man operates on the premise that a man named Mitch Kelly, more or less, cannot die. Well, it’s not that he can’t die, but rather (as the title implies) that he always comes back to life, albeit, with a different superpower than last time. Understandably, there are forces that would like to do a bit of “science” of the “tinkering and hardcore experimenting” variety on Mr. Shelly’s person, and Mr. Shelly isn’t really “down” with that.
- Those interested might need to hunt down the first “trade” on Amazon or the like…Barnes and Noble didn’t exactly ship out a ton of copies.
Anyway, there’s some basic recommendations to start you off. Feel free to let me know what you think of my “picks.”
That’s all for now, this post has gone on for far too long already.