DC Comics is trying something new. In the wake of their Rebirth initiative, the publisher has rapidly expanded its content to include diverse new imprints such as Young Animal (2.0!), Wildstorm, Jinxworld, Wonder Comics, Black Label, Ink, and Zoom. As their lineup expands, it can be hard to figure out what to pick up each week. That’s what our team is here to help with, every Wednesday, with the DC Round-Up!
THIS WEEK: The genius of Mark Russell and Stephen Byrne on Wonder Twins!
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: Mark Russell
Artist: Stephen Byrne
Letterer: Dave Sharpe
Mark Russell might just be my favorite writer working in superhero comics right now. As a member of creative teams ranging from Prez to The Flinstones to Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles, Russell has continuously proven that embracing the inherent absurdity of a conceit doesn’t mean you can’t mine genuine empathy and intelligent ideas from it. Russell’s stories are almost always funny and topical, with more than just a few scathingly satirical indictments of modern society baked within them. And the trend continues with Wonder Twins, which sees Russell paired with the wonderfully vibrant and energetic artist Stephen Byrne (whom we spoke of last week when we covered Mera: Tidebreaker).
When DC Round-Up contributor Louie Hlad wrote about Wonder Twins #1, he emphasized the way in which the creative team behind the book fully embraces the inherently campy nature of the leads. It’s a huge part of the charm of this title to me as well– few other books in the current DC lineup could reasonably use concepts like the League of Annoyance or its now-jailed member, Drunkula, a vampire with an unfortunate addiction to drinking the blood of drunk people, as foils for its main characters. Beyond the simple fun of these absurd ideas, however, what I really appreciate about Wonder Twins as it has gone on is the way in which each chapter of the book unfolds like an after-school cartoon special, complete with a genuinely heartfelt PSA lesson at the end.
For example, in this issue of the comic, Russell and Byrne open on Superman congratulating the Wonder Twins, Jayna and Zan, for completing their first assignment and locking Drunkula away. However, in the wake of learning about how the prison system essentially creates cheap labor for private corporations and how overcrowding leads to dangerous situations– such as everyone in the drunk tank being murdered because they didn’t have a cell to put a sober Drunkula in– Jayne is pretty down on herself. How can she and her brother even hope to make a difference in a world where they are just two “outsiders” and there are so many problems? This question, along with the way in which categorizing people as “good” or “evil” creates a reductive dichotomy, form the philosophical spine of a story that is more concretely about a bunch of D-List goofball villains trying to lock the Wonder Twins in power-nullifying plastic bags.
These aren’t easy questions to explore– especially in the context of only 22 pages where the tropes of the genre almost beg the creative team to establish clear lines between right and wrong. In a book that took itself more seriously, I don’t think that any of this philosophizing would work. We’d write it off as melodramatic. Or perhaps even as preachy. However, there aren’t any long speeches or caption-filled anecdotes about the nature of heroes and villains in Wonder Twins #3. Instead, we’re shown a story of a father who joins the League of Annoyance in an attempt to pay off a debt to Lex Luthor rather than out of any real desire to commit villainy. And intersecting with that story, we see the way in which two teenagers’ lives are saved by a blue monkey who confronts his past trauma and utilizes the skills gained through said trauma to better the world. So by the time we finally do get a PSA-like caption at the end of the issue summing up the lesson of the story as “you save the world through one act of kindness at a time,” it feels lampshaded by the crazy events that came before, yet undeniably true nonetheless.
Moreover, beyond all this, Wonder Twins is simply a gorgeous book. Byrne is working overtime on all fronts here– from the linework to the colors. Every page of this book pops with bright colors and dynamic layouts that keep the book moving at a rapid clip. In this issue, Byrne seems to take particular joy in showcasing Gleek. The blue monkey is rendered with facial dynamism and wacky costumes that rival anything we’ve seen on the human characters in this book. There’s not a ton of action in this story, but the brief moments that we do get are also packed with visual gags (peep the shark riding Zan’s watery wave)– and honestly, I don’t think you’re reading this book to watch big guys punch each other, anyways!
Wonder Twins is a bit of a strange book, but it comes from some strange creators. It embraces a storytelling philosophy we don’t see much in superhero comics anymore– obsessed as they are with interrogating the tortured psyches of their leads in a generally serious manner. Wonder Twins remembers that, at the end of the day, these stories are about strange kids who come from another world and turn into animals and water– and ultimately face off against things like beings from the “fifth dimension” and a guy who dresses like an insect merged with a cleric, named “Praying Mantis.” It’s wacky! It’s absurd! It makes no sense! Yet as light as it feels on the surface, Wonder Twins is a book that is still fully capable of packing a strong emotional punch.
- Detective Comics #1001 is out today. It’s the start of a new arc featuring veteran creators like Peter Tomasi and Brad Walker. In this story, things kick off with the sudden death of hundreds and hundreds of bats around Gotham. Then, a bomb of pure light goes off, illuminating Gotham with an artificial sun. And immediately afterwards, Batman finds himself under attack from a bunch of knights led by the Arkham Knight, formerly of video game fame and now folded into the DC Universe properly. It’s a fully adept start to a story that very much aims to feel epic and game-changing for the Batman– but unlike Wonder Twins, Detective Comics doesn’t really ever acknowledge how wacky it is that a bunch of people wearing armor in 2019 have decided be the “light knight” foils to the “Dark Knight.” And when compared on the other hand with the heavily melodramatic main Batman series, Detective Comics simply falls into that awkward middle ground of large-scale superhero stories. It’s a fun time and a relatively breezy read, but I’m not entirely sure what the hook is for this arc unless you’re already familiar with the Arkham Knight game (I am not) and want to know who’s under the mask in the comics (it’s probably not Jason Todd, but I can’t say that I’m overly curious about this particular mystery, regardless).
- A part of me rather enjoys the ways in which Batman #68 flips the “double date” scenario that came up earlier in King’s run on its head. In this issue, we instead get to flip between Bruce’s and Clark’s weirdly awkward civilian night in Wayne Manor and Lois’ and Selina’s raucous and debaucherous night out. These character dynamics aren’t ones that we often get to see explored like this, so I’ll take any chance I can get to do so. That said, man this “Knightmares” arc is getting long. It’s already at six issues with no end in sight. And because all these character interactions are taking place in Bruce’s head rather than in real life, necessarily, the time we spend with Lois and Selina and Clark here all feels a little bit more weightless. It’s starting to remind me a bit of the “Endless Eight” story from Haruhi Suzumiya, where the leads live through the same story, more or less, over and over again until finally they start to figure out they’re stuck in a loop after far too long. There’s a huge plot brewing out in the “real world” of this Batman story– I want to see where that’s going rather than be forced to live within Bruce’s nightmares for too much longer.
- I won’t lie– I think the current Supergirl arc is bonkers. This intergalactic tour of the DC Universe has been a surprising amount of fun. And I think it’s hilarious that there’s a bunch of conceptual ribbing of both Thor and Infinity Gauntlet baked into this story– we even get to see Rogol Zaar unironically refer to his axe, which Supergirl currently wields, as his “right hand.” It’s all very brazen, and I respect that.
Alex is the New Media Editor of the Comics Beat. He is also a freelance comics editor with previous credits at First Second, Top Cow, and Papercutz. He primarily covers DC Comics and Magic: the Gathering.