In June 2016, DC Comics kicked off the start of its Rebirth initiative. After a wave of criticism surrounding the way they have treated their characters’ rich histories since 2011’s New 52 relaunch, DC has decided to rebrand. They hope that by restoring their characters’ pasts, they will restore readers’ faith in them as well. Do they succeed? That’s what the Comics Beat managing editor Alex Lu and entertainment editor Kyle Pinion are here to discuss. Book by book. Panel by panel.
Note: the reviews below contain **spoilers**. If you want a quick, spoiler-free buy/pass recommendation on the comics in question, check out the bottom of the article for our final verdict.
Writer: Steve Orlando
Artist: Andy MacDonald
Colorist: John Rauch
Letterer: Clayton Cowles
Alex Lu: One of the more fascinating results of DC Comics’ editorial revamp over the course of the last year has been the creation of boutique imprints. Beginning with Gerard Way’s Young Animal to Warren Ellis’ upcoming Wildstorm reboot, these curated lines have allowed certain trusted creators to take an unprecedentedly large role in shaping the future of the DC Universe. While it is not a precise comparison, when I look at The Atom: Rebirth, I can’t help but feel Steve Orlando has been given similar keys to a small portion of DC’s kingdom.
The Atom: Rebirth is the first of four one-shots to be written or co-written by Orlando. It serves as part of a launch pad for Orlando’s and Ivan Reis’ upcoming Justice League of America bi-weekly series. In this book, we are introduced to Ryan Choi, a Hong Kong immigrant starting college at New England’s Ivy University. Those more familiar with the canon than I will recognize Choi as a major character from the pre-New 52 era of DC Comics. Gratefully though, that canon ends up mattering little because The Atom: Rebirth, like most of the Rebirth one-shots before it, is a prologue meant to introduce us to Ryan and the world around him. In that respect, The Atom: Rebirth is, by and large, a stellar title.
When we meet Ryan, he’s a bright but meek individual about to start his freshman year at school. As he moves into his Ivy University dorm, he’s depicted by artist Andy Macdonald with so much luggage on his back that Atlas would have grimaced. His small frame stands in stark contrast to the perfectly ripped (and shirtless) body of his roommate Adam Cray. At first glance, it looks like we’re in for a stereotypical clash between brains and brawn, but instead of mining conflict out of these characters’ differences, Orlando instead makes them both compassionate and respectful towards one another’s different backgrounds and interests. It’s a great subversion of character tropes we’ve come to expect out of our stories. It serves to lay a strong and grounded foundation for Ryan as he dives into his more fantastic adventures with Professor Ray Palmer, better known as The Atom.
While the relationship between Ryan and Ray is the focal point for this book, we only get to see it in fits and starts. After a clever meet-cute between the two scientists, the book immediately cuts to a year later where Ryan and Ray have developed a close professional and personal relationship. They’ve published several papers together– which is almost dumbfounding considering Ryan would only be about 19 at this point– but Ray tells Ryan he still doesn’t feel like he knows his young protege. At this point, we get see the pair’s only extended conversation. It serves a positive function in that it illuminates Ryan’s deepest character motivations: “I want to show people that small things matter.” However, we don’t learn very much about Ray here or anywhere else in the issue. This is clearly a concession to the issue’s plot, which spans three years in all and thus forces the creators to condense as much information into as little space as possible. It’s not a huge knock against the book overall, but I would have liked to see an interaction between Ray and Ryan that echoed Ryan’s first conversation with Adam– a page that allowed the characters to converse without the burdens of climactic character moments or major plot development.
That said though, once Ray reveals his superheroic alter-ego to Ryan, The Atom: Rebirth becomes a visual feast. Throughout most of the issue, colorist John Rauch employs a relatively muted color palette. It stands in stark contrast with Ray Palmer’s suit, which is colored in vibrant blues and reds that cause him to pop off the page.
Not to be outdone, MacDonald makes some clever compositional choices that highlight and enhance the emotional impact of the script. In particular, during the conversation where Ray tries to suss out Ryan’s motivations for pursuing a degree in science, MacDonald tightly focuses on the small movements that Ryan’s body makes when he feels nervous. MacDonald pulls in on the way Ryan fidgets with his hoodie’s aglets and the way he taps his shoes together. These nervous tics serve to highlight how far Ryan his from the goal he lays out before Ray—“to be in control.” MacDonald then pulls out to a panel that solely depicts Ryan’s form in a chair, his back turned towards the viewer. The background details in this panel have been stripped away and replaced with a solid turquoise that makes Ryan feel small and battered, emphasizing the dearth of confidence he has at this point in the story. It’s small framing choices like these that make the artwork in this story stand out.
Overall, The Atom: Rebirth is a great one-shot. It effectively introduces us to Ryan Choi’s character, showing us how far he’s come over the course of three years and how far he still has to go as Justice League of America begins. Steve Orlando, Andy MacDonald, and John Rauch work together in harmony to enhance one another’s work, ultimately creating a book that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Would you agree, Kyle?
Kyle Pinion: Oh sure, it’s a lot of fun. It’s funny, when reading the issue, I found myself thinking of Blue Beetle Rebirth, and the dance that title had to do within a pre-established scene that Geoff Johns wrote for that event-level one shot back in May of last year, while also giving all of the background that led up to it and out of it. I thought Giffen and Kolins did a pretty solid job of making that work, and establishing the ongoing partnership of the old generation and the new. Here, Orlando and MacDonald have a very similar task in providing that same lead-up for a mentor relationship that hits a stopping point, though I think this issue was even stronger thanks to Orlando’s masterful touch with dialogue.
To my great shame, I never delved very far into the Ryan Choi Atom comics back in my post-college days. I may have read an issue or two, but most of my familiarity with Ryan comes off the back of Batman: The Brave and the Bold and his ongoing consternation/friendship with that version of Aquaman. But even as someone who doesn’t have a great grasp of Ryan ahead of time, this issue gives you everything you need to know as a starting point from his educational background, his deeper wants and desires, and the friendship he develops with Ray. It’s really as ground-level as it comes, and it sticks you with a great initial pitch: “Ryan will delve into the microverse to search for Ray”.
Now granted, I don’t know how exactly this will get followed up as Ryan’s next appearance is, presumably, set for Orlando’s big Justice League of America team-up book but I think it’s easy to see how this will be the ongoing mystery that drives his character, at least in the short-term. As for the issue at hand, it’s full of little bits and pieces that I enjoyed thoroughly, but of particular note I loved the little nods to Atom’s adventures of the past, including an homage to the famous first appearance of this Silver Age Atom Showcase #34, as we get a sense of all the epics that Ray has been involved with while Ryan is navigating a trial all his own: college life. It’s a neat dichotomy, especially if you’re not all that removed from that experience yourself. Additionally, I like how Orlando pitched the professor and student relationship, and how it casually grew from a slightly stiffer arrangement into a full blown-fully equal partnership.
The idea that Ryan is fully one half of the Atom is, I believe, a very poignant touch that not only delivers on the micro-character arc that’s set out from the beginning of the issue but also fully enshrines his legacy. Many of these legacy characters that appeared in the 90’s or early 2000’s have had an unfortunate way of being sort of shunted back thanks to the big relaunch or the need to return the more well-known names, or at least as well known as characters like Barry Allen and Hal Jordan really are. Ryan was probably the most likely to be totally forgotten pre-Rebirth, as he was one of the newest of that set, so this move towards not only making him a part of the current continuity but also the lead figure, is so very exciting. Especially in a time when The Atom is getting his biggest bump ever thanks to appearing on television weekly (I guess Ryan will a don a suit that’s somewhat similar to that incarnation, if the cover is any indication).
It’s a delightful comic, beautifully structured, with art that strikes the perfect tone for the light-hearted material and restores one of DC’s most needed characters, for many reasons, not the least of which is the possibility of some “Sword of the Atom”-like action!
Final Verdict: Buy
Writer: Steve Orlando
Artist: Fernando Blanco
Colorist: Romulo Fajardo Jr.
Letterer: Josh Reed
Alex: In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past two years, in 2015, Steve Orlando and ACO launched a new Midnighter series as part of DC’s DC You initiative. While the title financial success was dubious, the book was critically lauded. ACO’s art was dynamic and stretched the visual limit of what superhero comics were capable of while Orlando made an indelible mark on the gay murder machine’s character. In Midnighter and Apollo, Orlando returns with artist Fernando Blanco to finish establishing a legendary run for Midnighter and the love of his life.
As of this week’s release of issue four, we’re just past the halfway point for this six issue mini-series. The plot focuses on Midnighter’s quest to save Apollo after the solar-powered hero’s soul is taken to hell. A riff on the ancient Greek myth about Orpheus’ descent into the underworld to rescue his love Eurydice, this issue sees Midnighter come face to face with his lover’s demonic murderer as Apollo himself battles the demon Neron for the sanctity of his soul.
In terms of actual plotting, Midnighter’s face-off with Mawzir is relatively simple, but it is also beautifully illustrated. Blanco and colorist Romulo Fajardo Jr. provide the fight with a palpable rhythm that allows tension to ebb and flow. On one page, we see Mawzir taunting Midnighter. As the taunts grow more and more personal, across a series of four panels we see Blanco pull tighter and tighter on Midnighter’s face which unexpectedly goes from a grimace, to a frown, to a smile, and finally to a grin. He pulls out further to reveal Midnighter from the waist up, holding a literal magic bullet that will allow him to kill Mawzir. Finally, as the page turns, the action explodes as the reader is presented with a full page spread of Midnighter launching himself at the demon. While the page layouts throughout this fight are not quite as flamboyant as the ones ACO employed throughout Midnighter, they are more than successful at producing a battle to remember.
On the other hand, while Midnighter’s fight in this issue is defined by its bombastic visuals, Neron’s confrontation with Apollo is much more focused on the small nuances of their words and expressions. The focal point of their conversation in this issue is focused on a gamble Apollo proposes to Neron: one question for Apollo’s soul. Apollo asks Neron why he has named himself after the Greek god of the sun, to which Neron replies “Apollo is a god. You, with your small story of human struggle, think you’ve somehow earned his name. Like Lucifer before you, you think you deserve more. You think you’ve earned power.” This answer is interesting because it twists the moral righteousness of a belief commonly held by people in the west– the idea of manifest destiny. The idea that those who struggle for what they want deserve to succeed. As Apollo illuminates in this issue, he objectively has struggled a great deal to become the hero he now is, but Neron reveals a selfish side to that heroism– “pride, lust, anger, murder.” Through their discussion, Orlando asks us to question the moral righteousness of our heroes and perhaps poses an even greater question: is there such a thing as a selfless act?
In my opinion, Midnighter and Apollo #4 is a stellar entry in what is shaping up to be one of the best comics of the year. What’s your opinion on it, Kyle?
Kyle: I guess it’s Steve Orlando week at the Beat, eh? Works for me, man. Like I said when I chose this book as one of the best titles of 2016, I also think Orlando is the best writer at the publisher right now. Sure, there’s definitely some competition on that end from some incredible talents, but I don’t think I have a better time reading a superhero comic then when I’m reading something Orlando has written (be it Supergirl, Midnighter & Apollo, or the above Atom comic we just reviewed). And I’m happy to say that issue 4 of this mini-series has really just re-solidified my opinion about it and the creative nucleus behind it.
Yesterday, I saw a tweet from Orlando that said there’s a moment in this issue that was something he had building towards since his initial pitch for the character back in 2014. And though the issue is bookended by two battles, I have to assume he’s referencing Midnighter blood-soaked and weary from fighting his way through only to have to take what is basically DC’s version of Satan (or one of them anyway, I can’t try and parse the differences between Lucifer, Neron, and Blaze – or Satanus, for that matter). This is a book that is defined by the way it combines romance and violence, along with some pretty great references to DC lore, and this issue really underlines that ongoing predilection. This is Midnighter fighting through a gauntlet to save the one person he really loves. This is Midnighter headbutting a bullet through a demon’s head. This is Midnighter, completely at his weakest moment – with no tech assistance for the fight – face to face with the epitome of evil, because the only person he cares about is at risk. That’s some pretty great stuff right there, and I’m really glad that this story was allowed to continue to see it all come to fruition.
But like you said Alex, it’s not all bone-crunching and sadistic sneers, there’s some good pathos being used here in the discussion between Neron and Apollo, and it actually defied my expectations a bit on how things would turn out. You typically see in fiction someone being able to one-up the devil in some shape or form, or trick them in some way that they’re able to escape damnation. Not so here, as Neron gets right to the heart of why Apollo took that name and he can’t even deny that Neron is correct. I sat there thinking, why didn’t he just say no? But that’s not the kind of character Apollo is, nor the person that Midnighter fell in love with. That love and violence, it’s the beating heart of this series, and what makes Midnighter – at least in Orlando, ACO, and now Blanco’s hands – one of the richest characters in DC’s roster.
Final Verdict: Buy
- Batman? Batman. Issue 14 is out this week, kicking off a two issue interlude storyline entitled “Rooftops.” It features guest artist Mitch Gerads working alongside Tom King to tell a romantic story about Batman and Catwoman. While many writers (and maybe fans?) consider Batman to be asexual (Grant Morrison, most notably), I personally like seeing Batman’s erotic side indulged. It makes his character feel a little more real in a way that Bruce Wayne rarely ever does. It’s an interesting side effect of the “action hero” Batman Tom King has crafted over the course of his run on the character. The issue itself is beautifully rendered, featuring a number of stellar compositions drawn by Gerads. His style is a little more impressionistic than Mikel Janin’s, but they are similar in the best of ways. This is an easy pick up for me.
- On the other hand, Justice League vs Suicide Squad, whose third issue releases today, is floundering more and more each week. I still don’t have much of a problem with the plot because I never expected a particularly outstanding or moving story. The writing is serviceable and characters, particularly Killer Frost, get the requisite emotional development one would expect. Unfortunately, the art has headed into a downwards spiral since the second issue. Andy Owens and Jesus Merino are on tap this week, replacing Jason Fabok who drew the first two issues. However, despite the sea change, compositions in this book still feel stilted and uninspired. The coloring feels rushed and underdone as values are not being pushed enough to create adequate contrast between characters and backgrounds. This isn’t the worst book on the shelves this week and is fun for what it is, but I expect event books to feel big, bold, and beautiful if nothing else. Justice League vs. Suicide Squad is missing on the latter point thus far.
- Shade the Changing Girl is one of my favorite new series. Its fourth issue releases today and continues to follow alien Loma Shade’s attempts to adapt to her new life on Earth. When she came to the planet, she took over the body of a comatose teenage girl and since then, has been experiencing visions of that past life. The visions have caused Loma to understand why so many of the people around her fear her host body, leading to an interesting story about guilt and change. The material in this book definitely leans heavily into YA, focusing on the “stranger in a strange land” premise that rings true to many teens, but does so in a deft and visually stunning manner. It’s hard to ignore a book that constantly blasts you with visuals as gorgeously psychedelic as these.
- Superman #14, as we previewed a few days ago, saw the return of some of the characters and concepts of The Multiversity come back in a pretty big way, not only through this version of Clark teaming up with the Justice League Incarnate (though I think they were just called “Justice Incarnate” in that previous miniseries, oh well, I’ll take another JLI, why not?) but with Ivan Reis jumping in for pencilling duties for the kick-off to the “Multiplicity” storyline. I thought it was quite fun, with some really nice figure work from Reis, as always. There’s a great thrill getting to see Superman team-up with his “Red Son” counterpart, only to have them both come face to face with Calvin Ellis aka President Superman and the new JLI. It’s a thin read, relatively low on answers, but it provides exciting enough set-up that I think this return trip to wherever this is going (the collection of Supermen across the multiverse for some purpose) should prove worthwhile. Though I wonder if it can all effectively be wrapped up in two more issues without it feeling rushed. Tomasi and Gleason haven’t failed me yet though, and it’s hard to find much to complain about with Ivan Reis drawing New Super Man, who looks smashing in his hands.
- I remain somewhat fascinated by Cyborg, a book that I find has wonderful art between Paul Pelletier and Will Conrad, but has some of the stiffest Bronze Age era dialogue I’ve seen in a comic in a while. There’s some weird charm there, but at the same time it makes the book feel anachronistic, and that’s unfortunate because unlike the previous Cyborg series – I somewhat like the story that John Semper is trying to tell here. He’s throwing tons of ideas at the wall, and for a character as underexplored as Victor Stone is, that’s a very welcome thing. It’s just kinda hard to read without kinda grimacing a bit. I’m reminded of old Roy Thomas comics – which incidentally, I’m reading some in my off-time right now – in how he approached very explicit exposition within his dialogue, but he had to do so because in those days, you needed as much catching-up in the issue as you could get. In the modern age of comics writing, you don’t really need to do that so much. But I think Semper is just an old school guy I guess, and probably grew up on that kind of comics storytelling. You take your good with your bad I guess.
- Per my review from a few weeks back, it looks like Green Arrow #14 is leaning even harder into the tv connection, introducing a character though using a different name than he typically uses, in order to line up more for the television audience that may be showing up for the issues. It makes sense to just take advantage of that, and I’m generally a huge booster of those attempts. I wasn’t a big fan of the issue that preceded that reveal unfortunately, there was something about the football setting and the over the top nature of it all that didn’t quite land with me.
- While I know Alex didn’t care for the Justice League vs. Suicide Squad entry, I thought the Justice League tie-in ruled, with a great bit of cat and mouse between Max Lord and Amanda Waller, giving us tons of background on this version of Lord especially and the sort of background role he’s played in this continuity.
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