The local library consortium got a whole bunch of New 52 Vol. 1’s, so I’m going through and catching up on a few things I opted not pick up as monthlies. This batch consists of the first volumes of Animal Man, Captain Atom, DCU Presents and Swamp Thing.
I liked Animal Man. I took a good hard look at that title in my sampling phase, but ultimately decided not to pick up because I didn’t care for Swamp Thing and it was obvious those books were on a collision course (which turned out to be called “Rot World.” More on Swampy at the end.) Going back and reading Animal Man in tpb format, having already read some of the story, I found I didn’t like it _quite_ as much in this format. I think part of that is the sheer shock value of the title going off in directions you weren’t expecting, coupled with the eye-popping art of Travel Foreman (who ended up transferring off the title). That shock will heighten the first reading.
Animal Man is a horror comic that successfully creates a horrifying atmosphere. That atmosphere component is something necessary for superior horror and noir, and it’s where a lot of comics whiff. Not so here. That’s the artist’s job and the colorist’s job and it works out just fine here.
While the whole dynamic of the Red, the Green and the Rot is a bit TOO reminiscent of Blackest Night with it’s rainbow of power rings and the dead rising, Animal Man escapes that with atmosphere, the twist of his daughter’s role in the greater scheme of things and parallel structure of his family being stalked as Animal Man journeys into the Red. The family element both holds the plot together and heightens the sense of danger.
Also good, the first 2/3 of DC Universe Presents. I remember taking the first issue home from the store, curious to see what Paul Jenkins would do with Deadman and being bored with it. Turns out, that’s because nothing happens until the second issue.
This Deadman is not the Deadman from the pre- or post-Crisis continuity. He’s not tracking down his killer, he’s popping in and out of bodies, sent to specific people by the minor goddess, Rama. He thinks perhaps he’s there to solve their problems. Which is to say, the set-up is basically Quantum Leap. At that point, Deadman turns into Hellblazer lite.
Deadman decides he’s being played and starts cavorting with fallen angels and a nightclub filled with all manner of things that go bump in the night as he tries to get some leverage to get out from under Rama’s thumb.
Where Animal Man had plenty of atmosphere, Deadman really didn’t. There’s nothing wrong with the art from Bernard Chang, in fact in seems very much in line with the house style of clean line art DC has been cultivating of late. The story telling is clear and effective. But there’s very little menace or horror in most of it. The Ryan Sook covers are what this story should have looked like to take it to the Animal Man level of wow.” Chang could probably do it if directed.
Still, I liked this version of Hellblazer lite more than I liked the preview of Constantine. We’ll see how Constantine turns out, but I suspect Deadman was a test-run for the sensibilities they were looking for. I’d show up for more Jenkins/Chang Deadman.
The second feature in this book, Challengers of the Unknown, wasn’t so good. The Challengers are reinvented as a horror feature with the team as the cast of a reality show. The concept could work, but the plot just skips around a bit too much and the dialogue is awkward. Dan DiDio is listed as co-plotter and scripter, Jerry Ordway as co-plotter and artist. I suspect it would have worked out better if it was just Jerry Ordway with the editor feeding him the premise. Interestingly, since Deadman was the first feature in DCU Presents, Nanda Parbat has moved from a Deadman setting to place of origin for the Challengers. (Which also brings memories of the British TV Champions, with a team taking haven in a mysterious city in the mountains.)
Like Chang, Ordway is a little miscast in a horror-oriented strip. While the monster design is right (and more effective than Deadman), this has more of a science fiction feel to it. While there are certainly some atmospheric and menacing sequences (a dream sequence being particularly well done), the foreboding isn’t a constant. Some more atmospheric coloring would have helped with that. Some of it was also the scenes called for. Office politics scenes are going to kill your creeping unknown 9 times out of 10.
It looked OK, but it didn’t hold together.
Captain Atom… what to say about a graphic novel where nothing really happens. Captain Atom fights a monster and General Eiling is not a nice man. This feels like what would happen if you took Doctor Manhattan and put him in the original Hulk scenario of the military hunting him down. Just not that much happened in six issues worth of comics.
The art was definitely the most interesting thing about this comic. Freddie Williams II looked to be channeling Michael T. Gilbert. It’s a very distinct look. It has atmosphere. The way Captain Atom’s pastel blue appearance is rendered well and the monster is appropriately grotesque.
If only a little more happened. It’s not bad, per se, it’s just dull.
The Make It Go Away
Finally, we have Swamp Thing. I have not disliked a comic as much as I’ve disliked Scott Snyder’s Swamp Thing in quite a while. Where I liked the same general material in Animal Man, I found it incredibly trite and derivative here. It just felt like someone trying to recreate the Green Lantern mythos and Geoff Johns excess in a horror comic and it did not feel right at all.
For some reason, Alex Holland starts out as a man. He wasn’t Swamp Thing. Swamp Thing was a sort of simulation of him, but he didn’t actually transform. But he has all Swamp Thing’s memories. Um, excuse me? That’s silly and it’s all there to set up a reluctant hero/retired gunfighter picking the gun back up arc. It also allows for 7 pages out of the first 12 to emphasize that Swamp Thing is firmly set in the world of superheroes, complete with a “just wanted to make sure you’re not still a monster” visit from Superman.
Now since Swampy is the Green and we’re doing a Green Lantern thing, naturally Abby Arcane has to be Star Sapphire. In this instance she’s the avatar-in-denial of The Rot. And all of a sudden, she’s gone all Linda Hamilton. With a motorcycle. And a shotgun. OH! Things are different! But can opposite Avatars still feel forbidden love? Puh-leeze!
Towards the end we even get a classic Geoff Johns stabbed through the back panel, too. This time, it’s having a chainsaw protruding from your chest.
On the other hand, this one does look like a horror comic. Plenty of atmosphere and twisted imagery. Yanick Paquette is a good one. There’s also a nice sequence with the previous Swamp Thing (let’s call him Abin Sur) being an allusion to The Heap, the original swamp monster in the 1940s Airboy series.
Very little of the writing worked for me in this book. Too many tired elements without new twists. Too much cornball for much suspension of disbelief and you can just tell where the reluctant hero and Romeo/Juliet feuding families material is going after about a page. It also ran me straight off Animal Man. Amazing that two books can be writing the same story and come out so differently.
Todd Allen wears a lot of hats. At various times he’s been (alphabetically), a bouncer, college professor, humor columnist, Internet producer and an NBA/WNBA Beat Writer, among other things. He’s the author of Economics of Digital Comics. You should probably read it.