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: Scott Snyder
Penciller: Greg Capullo
Inker: Jonathan Glapion
Colorist: FCO Plascencia
Letterer: Steve Wands
Over the past several months, a DC Comics creative team headed by former Batman writer Scott Snyder has been building towards Metal #1. Through two prelude comics, Dark Days: the Forge and Dark Days: the Casting, readers learned that the DC Universe has always been more connected than we thought. Immortals like Ra’s al Ghul, the Court of Owls, the Joker, Hawkman, and Hawkgirl are all connected to one another through a mysterious substance known as Nth Metal. It’s an element that is not of this world but has played a core role in shaping the Earth that Batman finds himself in. In his mind, the origin of Nth Metal is the mystery to end all mysteries and he’s willing to do anything to solve it– even if it means inadvertently awakening an ancient evil from an entire other multiverse in the process.
Metal #1 has a dark concept that, in terms of plotting, owes a lot to the “Crisis” series of DC events. However, whereas many of those books would often become mired in melodrama and their own sense of self-importance, Metal #1 succeeds because it is self-aware, creatively sharp, and beautifully rendered. It’s dramatic and full of apocalyptic prophecies, but the creative team behind Metal knows that all of this is, on some level, absurd. And because they know this, Metal #1 reminds us that a comic can be great because it’s simply fun.
To wit, there are very few comics where the Justice League assembling into a Voltron-type mech would be the teaser instead of the main event, but that’s exactly how Metal #1 is paced. Metal #1 is the kind of comic that would literally superimpose the promotional map DC Comics produced in conjunction with Grant Morrison’s Multiversity onto the page and then flip it over to illustrate the concept of an inverse “Dark Multiverse.” Its the kind of story that would reveal its big villain to be Darkseid’s Hyper-Adapter, Barbatos, and then use a caption to cheekily nod to the creature’s first appearance in the events following Final Crisis. For all the self-aggrandizing that Metal #1 does do in order to set itself up as a story that ties the 50,000+ fictional years of the DC Universe’s history together, the creative team behind the story is more than willing to acknowledge that many of the events of DC’s history are simply absurd. Yes, the various members of the Justice League are terrified by the invasion heading towards their world, but it’s okay to laugh just as much as it is to grit your teeth with tension– Snyder, Capullo, Glapion, Plascencia, and Wands are all in on the joke. Their laughter isn’t an expression of mockery. It’s an expression of love.
Indeed, Metal #1 is a love letter to all things DC. As I mentioned before, both The Forge and The Casting attempt to tie a variety of disparate but similar elements of the DC Universe together in neat bows. The idea that all the immortals in the universe are the result of a single element is an attractive one from a storytelling perspective. The reason why people gravitate towards stories is because they gravitate towards order– we want to make sense of things. An idea like this one allows us to lock so many puzzle pieces together simultaneously.
We see a similar idea deployed in Metal #1 as we return to Blackhawk Island for the first time in a very long time. In this incarnation, it’s revealed that the island is home to Kendra Saunders, Hawkgirl, who now leads the secret paramilitary organization known as the Blackhawks whom have been keeping tabs on Batman since he started to unravel the secret of Nth Metal. We learn that Blackhawk Island, like Themyscira, Nanda Parbat, and more are able to remain hidden from most people because they exist in hidden pockets of the world where “cosmic energy conducted through the Earth’s metal core cancels itself out.” In all likelihood, the ideas that all immortals are connected or all mysterious locations on Earth are connected have not been editorial mandates throughout DC’s company history. It’s much more likely that they’ve been invented for this story– a new frame to fit old puzzle pieces. That said, the fact that these ideas work so well despite being retrofit on top of nearly a century of stories makes them stronger, not weaker. And sure, if you were to dig for stories that contradict these ideas I’m sure you’d find some. But I think Metal #1 and its prequels are examples of how superhero comics continuity should ideally be used– as thematic ideas that enhance our understanding of these heroes and the world around them; not simply as precision pinpoints on some grand universal timeline.
Of course, being such a continuity-heavy story has its downsides. While I wouldn’t say that a new reader couldn’t pick up Metal #1 as their first DC book, I would heavily advise against it. I think that anyone would be able to enjoy the first scene featuring mecha-Justice League because its very action-heavy and simple to understand. After that though, all bets are off. A number of the major plot points and story beats hold weight only if you’ve been keeping up with DC Comics over the years and have at least a tenuous understanding of why the returns of characters like Hawkgirl and Red Tornado mean so much to the universe at large. There’s no explanation given if you’re unfamiliar with Dr. Fate’s helmet or the fact that Plastic Man appears as some sort of sentient egg. If you’re a more adventurous reader than I am, maybe you’ll revel in the sheer variety of ideas being thrown at you on every page. I, on the other hand, am the kind of guy that will enter a pool one step at a time in order to feel out its temperature before diving in. Luckily I’m already all the way in this pool and thus, in love.
Above all else, Dark Nights: Metal #1 is a story about stories. That’s made explicitly clear by the issue’s cliffhanger, which left me breathless*. It’s a loving look at the DC Universe and the characters whom reside in it. It’s an attempt to pull at the countless disparate narrative and thematic threads of DC Comics’ 75 year history and weave them together to form something more coherent– to create order from chaos. And it’s a story about how trying to wrest control from the arms of the universe can have dire consequences for the world. It’s one of the most viscerally exciting comics series to kick off this year and I’m dying to see more.
* Stray thought, but I think it’s worth noting that the current Dream of the Endless is Daniel Hall, the son of Lyta Hall and Hector Hall, the latter of whom was Sandman, a Jack Kirby creation who guarded dreams but bears little relation to Neil Gaiman’s version of the Sandman. It’ll be interesting to see whether Daniel’s pre-Endless lineage is explored during Metal and whether or not Hector will be incorporated into the story. There’s an argument to be made for it since this is Jack Kirby’s centennial and Metal is clearly a continuity-centric event. We even get a re-introduction of sorts to Kirby’s Sandman in our other spotlight book this week…
“The King of Dreams”
Writer: Dan Jurgens
Artist: Jon Bogdanove
Letterer: Willie Schubert
“Caravan of Crisis”
Writer: Steve Orlando
Penciller: Rick Leonardi
Inker: Dan Green
Colorist: Steve Buccellato
Letterer: Wes Abbott
I talk about this a lot, but when it comes to comics, I often feel like I’m an outlier, if not an outsider. At conventions, it feels like most people I meet have been reading comics their entire lives– sometimes that means that they’ve been reading comics longer than I’ve been alive. On the other hand, I didn’t read any American comics as a kid. I was obsessed with video games and then with manga and anime. I didn’t really “discover” American comics until I read Watchmen around the time that the film adaptation came out (thanks for that, I guess, Zack Snyder). I feel like this background information is important because it really colors the way I see big two comics in particular, which often trade in a history and nostalgia that I rarely feel married to.
My first encounter with Jack Kirby’s version of the Sandman character wasn’t in a Kirby comic at all, but rather in Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. In that comic, Kirby’s Sandman design is used to create a contrast with Morpheus, the King of Dreams. The tone of The Sandman and indeed, that of Dream himself, is relatively serious and often melancholic. By comparison, Garrett Sanford’s costume, worn by Hector Hall at this point in DC’s history, with its bright reds and yellows, looks positively absurd. Indeed, the Kirby Sandman is treated as an anachronism in The Sandman; he was a relic of a bygone era whereas Dream was a serious symbol for the serious future of comics. Obviously though, the future of comics didn’t turn out to be as black-and-white as Morpheus is. Jack Kirby and his creations are as revered as they ever were and indeed, have once again taken center stage in 2017.
The Sandman Oversize Special is the latest in a line-up of Kirby tribute comics DC has released in celebration of Jack’s 100th birthday. It features two new stories as well as a selection of original Kirby reprints. In all of these stories new and old, the creative teams and Kirby himself work to capture this sense of absurdity and escapism that characterized the comics of the Silver Age. There’s no heavy musings on the nature of duty or life itself here. Only the visual insanity and pure joy that creative teams told to create stories about dreams themselves could concoct.
On a certain level, The Sandman Oversize Special is a bit of an inaccessible book. This version of The Sandman is not the one that pops into most peoples’ minds when you drop the hero’s name and very little explanation is given to readers who aren’t at least passingly familiar with the character already. In the first story, “The King of Dreams,” The Sandman and his nightmarish minions Brute and Glob go on a quest to save a creative young boy whose worst nightmares are manifesting into real-world monsters. As The Sandman and his henchmen battle their way through visually lush landscapes comparable to those we saw in the recent Doctor Strange movie, they’re joined by a mysterious new hero who takes influence from Kirby creations** such as Thor and Orion. Indeed, at the end of the story, it’s revealed that the young boy they’ve fought so hard to rescue will grow up to be Kirby himself. It’s a wonderfully fun and quirky tale that features plenty of nods to other Kirby creations including Darkseid, but may just as easily confuse newer readers as it would captivate more enfranchised ones.
To some extent, the same can be said of the second story in this Oversize Special, “Caravan of Crisis.” The story features The Sandman and company on a quest to save a young man named Jed Walker from having all of his good dreams and memories stolen by a villain named the Psycho-Pomp. Those more familiar with Kirby’s legacy will remember Jed as one of the figures The Sandman often saved from nightmares during the original Kirby Sandman series and others might remember Jed for the role he played in Gaiman’s The Sandman. That said, unlike “The King of Dreams,” “Caravan of Crisis” works a little more independently of nostalgia, grounding the more psychedelic dreamscape elements of the adventure around themes of family, grief, and regret. It’s a less visually stunning, but more emotionally impactful tale and a more effective way of easing a reader into the world of this Sandman, which makes me wonder why it was placed second in the lineup of stories in this special.
Overall, I think your mileage will vary with The Sandman Oversize Special. Both stories, the first in particular, are visually stunning bits of absurdist art that fully capture the fun and exciting tone of Silver Age comics. That said, this comic does very little hand-holding and offers no explanation for itself to new readers, which I imagine will baffle many– even I found myself having to Google things in order to educate myself on who certain characters were and what certain plot points referred to. I’d say that you should peruse the first bit of this story and see how it grabs you before adding it to your shelf.
Verdict: Browse, leaning towards a buy
** h/t to Kyle for helping clarify this element to me
- There is some interesting structural stuff going on in Batman #29 this week. The issue is framed around the idea of a nine course French meal that Bruce invites team Riddler and team Joker to in the hopes of finding an end to the “War of Jokes and Riddles.” In all frankness, this is a ridiculous conceit that has no right to work as well as it does, but there are enough interesting moments sprinkled throughout each “course” of the dinner that it ends up being an entertaining read. That said, I still think this is shaping up to be the least exciting arc of King’s/Janin’s/Finch’s Batman run so far for reasons I’ve eluded to in the past– in particular the fact that we still haven’t been shown the actual scope of this war and the fact that this arc essentially pulls the momentum out of the big marriage proposal the previous arc of Batman ended with. Things are going to come to an end soon on this arc though, so hopefully we’ll be back on track after the end of the War.
- A new digital first series, Gotham City Garage, begins this week. It sees the DC Universe thrown into a Mad Max-inspired dystopian future where the world has been through an apocalypse and now the only flourishing city is The Garden, which is run by Lex Luthor and patrolled by an army headed by the Batman himself. Our lead is Kara, the Supergirl, recast as a member of the Gordon family who rejects the constant emotional tuning that leaves most citizens of the Garden docile and happy a la Brave New World. She ends up being labeled as a malfunctioning citizen and is set to be exterminated, but ends up being rescued by a group of biker bandits including Big Barda and Harley Quinn. There’s not a lot to go on as to the actual quality of the series, as this first 10 page chapter mostly takes pains to establish the setting and central conceit, but artist Brian Ching and colorist Kelly Fitzpatrick do a fine job of establishing the gritty visual tone of the series while co-writers Collin Kelly & Jackson Lanzing do what they need to do to get the concept conveyed to the audience. It’s not as stunning a debut as Bombshells was, but there’s plenty of potential for the series to grow into itself from here.
- Batwoman #6 is…weird. It’s essentially a one-shot, throwing us into a far-flung future where Batwoman is branded as an enemy of an authoritarian Gotham run by an evil Batman. It’s not totally clear (to me) whether or not this is meant to be an Elseworlds story, but I think the implication is that it’s not. This is a canon future that at least has the potential to come into being and it’s teased that the plot will ultimately be addressed in an upcoming issue of Detective Comics. With that in mind, Batwoman #6 is a fun thought experiment, but it feels a little too much like an ad for Detective than a meaningful part of the major character arc the creative team of Batwoman is crafting for Kate Kane. Hopefully this is a one-off thing.
- Aquaman #27 continues to make a strong argument for itself becoming the surprise hit of the DC Rebirth lineup. From the start, Dan Abnett did a great job of building up the world around the titular hero, exploring Atlantean-Surface relations and the culture of Atlantis itself with a depth and deftness that other Aquaman runs rarely have. With the addition of Stjepan Sejic on art, the series has established a fantastic visual language for itself that befits the complex tale of political intrigue Abnett has been weaving for the past several months. With the emergence of yet another major player for the Throne of Atlantis, one might say that Aquaman is DC Comics’ Game of Thrones.
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