Monday, October 31, 2011

Horror comics provide highlights of DC's 'New 52'

Posted By on Mon, Oct 31, 2011 at 2:56 PM

POWER IN THE BLOOD: DC Comics Animal Man
DC Comics inaugurates its new title Grifter, written by Macon's Nathan Edmondson and drawn by CAFU, as part of its "The Edge" line of gritty titles that blur the line between superheroes and other genres. Edmondson describes Grifter as “’The X-Files’ meets Die Hard, with a little They Live thrown in.” The Edge titles also touch on aviation and espionage with Blackhawks and gunslingers with All-Star Western, while Suicide Squad revamps a Dirty Dozen-style group of supervillians drafted to perform dangerous missions.

In my admittedly limited sampling, some of my favorite titles in DC's "New 52" come from "The Dark" line of comics with supernatural themes. The standouts — among the most critically acclaimed titles of the relaunch — are Swamp Thing (written by Scott Snyder and drawn by Yanick Paquette) and Animal Man (written by Jeff Lemire and drawn by Travel Foreman and Dan Green). Both revive characters that had their heyday at least two decades ago, and if "The Dark" lives up to their standard, it even ushers in a revival of horror comics. (Note: For an exhaustive summation of all the first issues, check out Keith Phipps and Oliver Sava's five-part Crosstalk at The A.V. Club, which makes a helpful shopping guide.)

Jeff Lemire first drew attention with his Essex County trilogy of moody, black-and-white graphic novels about his native Ontario. With Animal Man, he takes on an obscure, potentially goofy character given a surprisingly compelling makeover in 1988 by Grant Morisson, currently one of the most popular writers in comics. Animal Man, a.k.a. Buddy Baker, can take on the powers of various beasts, including "the napping powers of a cat," in an amusing line in issue #1. Lemire reintroduces us to Baker with a faux interview in The Believer, which presents the character as a semi-retired superhero, animal rights activist and independent movie actor. He's also a husband and father of two who deals with typical family problems through the lens of his superpowers: when his daughter wants to adopt a pet dog, Buddy explains that he'd form an unnaturally powerful bond to the animal. This simple domestic scene provides the impetus for a subplot that culminates with a genuinely disturbing image at the end of the book. A full-page panel of the book's initial villain, The Hunters Three, has a nightmarishly surreal quality.

A good way to appreciate Animal Man #1 is to compare it with Aquaman #1, an attempt by DC's star writer/artist team of Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis to revive the King of the Seas the way they did in their excellent run on Green Lantern. Where Lemire inventively used the Believer interview to establish Buddy's place in the DC Universe as an obscure celebrity hero, Johns has Aquaman badgered by an obnoxious blogger who asks him "What's it feel to be a laughingstock?" Aquaman renews his hero bona fides by foiling a cliched armored car robbery, while Animal Man defuses a hostage situation involving a grieving father and a hospital cancer ward, reinforcing a theme of vulnerable family members.

Lemire reveals his lighter side on Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E. (drawn by Alberto Ponticelli), in which Mary Shelley's reanimated monster leads a team of monstrous agents on paranormal adventures. It's a fun riff on classic monsters and comic book fight scenes, but too derivative of Hellboy. (Critics also seem to like Demon Knights, which takes place in medieval times, but I haven't read it yet.)

Watchmen and V for Vendetta creator Alan Moore (whom I doubt is getting a piece of those V masks popularized by Occupy Wall Street) first made a splash in the United States with his 1980s Swamp Thing revival, a title so visually and thematically rich, it seems almost like heresy for another team to take it on. Writer Scott Snyder, whose bow with Batman #1 is equally intriguing, makes an impressive debut with Swamp Thing. We find the swamp monster's alter ego, botanist Alec Holland, inexplicably restored to human form amid apocalyptic portents that span the DC universe, with a chilling scene involving an archeological dig.

Snyder reveals a keen sense of Holland as a character distinct from his plant elemental doppleganger, and provides a vision of the plant world as equally savage and opportunistic as the animal kingdom. (It does for flora what Animal Man does for fauna.) Swamp Thing pays frequent homage to Moore's run: a monstrous force's tendency to twist its victim's neck's 180-degrees evokes one of Moore's most disturbing creations.

Swamp Thing and Animal Man want me to go back and sample the rest of The Dark titles. Just when I thought I was out of the comics store, they keep pulling me in. Note: if there's any others I shouldn't miss, "Dark" or otherwise, be sure to let me know.

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