Monday, October 31, 2011


DC Universe Presents: Deadman #2

I am very much sensitive to possible accusations of needless cynicism and negativity. That the large majority of the Nu52 books are either deeply mediocre or reprehensible, and that they almost all represent precisely calculated attempts to pander to set demographic niches should, at this late date, go without saying. But that is not to say that there are not a handful of good books in the lot. It's even probable, if we're simply speaking in terms of raw percentage, the proportion of good titles produced under the auspices of the new regime may well surpass that of the decent titles produced under the old remit. This should not pass without some acknowledgement from those of us who respect and admire well-crafted serial escapism, and all the moreso considering its relative rarity.

Case in point: Paul Jenkins and Bernard Chang's Deadman serial currently running in DC Universe Presents. (I have no idea whether or not he is intended to be the full-time feature or, pending the book's survival past half a year, whether other characters might potentially appear in the lead slot.) This isn't a book that I've seen anyone talking about in any sustained fashion. The second issue successfully builds upon the positive impression of the first to such a degree that I am tempted to say it may just be the best book of the bunch that no one has yet noticed. That means that it will probably be canceled before it has the chance to make good on its potential.

But for now it is enough to mention that Deadman has, from almost the moment of his conception, been a character defined by nothing so much as perpetually untapped potential. In theory, Deadman's premise is almost completely open - but in practice, the character hasn't been able to sustain an ongoing series since the 1960s, and has depended on the kindness of sympathetic creators who have kept him from ever fading into obscurity. More than any other superhero character, he has counter-intuitively thrived as a result of appearing almost exclusively in cameo and guest-starring roles throughout the last four decades. People like it when he shows up in Batman, but no one ever bothers to show up when the periodic attempt it made to transfer his recognizability into headline status.

Given his prominence through the Blackest Night / Brightest Day crossover cycle, it's not surprising that DC would see this as a perfect opportunity to give Deadman another attempt at solo success. Surprisingly, this new serial does not seem to be picking up any loose threads from those stories. (Although, it should be noted that Deadman is also appearing as a supporting cast member of the new Hawk & Dove series, picking up the subplot of Deadman and Dove's love affair from Brightest Day.) But this is good: the series picks up almost from the begin, offering another version of Deadman's origin that is premised on the idea of exploring discrepancies between Boston Brand's post-life experiences and Rama Kushna's stated goals in having consigned him to an eternal half-life as an ostensibly benevolent revenant spirit. This is not virgin territory: problematic questions concerning Deadman's origin have been fair-game almost since the character's creation. But as with most things involving superhero comics, what matters most is execution. What sets this apart from most of its peers in the Nu52 is that this is simply a well-built, sturdy and very attractive comic book on every level.

Jenkins' writing has become increasingly spotty over the last few years, with a few terrible, jumbled projects appearing for every interesting idea. This series would seem to be playing to his strengths: a strongly defined central character put through the paces of an increasingly bizarre set of circumstances while remaining grounded in a keen understanding of actual lived emotions. (Cf. his Hellblazer and Hulk.) He understands Boston Brand very well: Deadman is a formerly callow and selfish person who has learned over the course of a long afterlife to be good, and to devote himself completely to selfless acts of benevolent intervention. His mission is to help people. The question presented by Jenkins of whether or not his beneficence has been guided by not-so-pure motivations is well framed, and the gradual unfolding of these ethical conflicts holds the potential to be very interesting.

I've always been a fan of Bernard Chang and am delighted to see (after a career largely defined by a few somewhat questionable choices) that he finally appears to be working on material more appropriate for his talents. He's got an incredibly smooth line and smart sense of page design, and the (sadly rare) ability to excel at drawing more than one face and body type. I could, in a word, read this book from this creative team for many years: meanwhile, we're left hoping (against hope?) that it makes it past six months.

Batman #2

Giving a strong recommendation to a Batman comic book seems almost like raving about a new McDonalds burger: how good can it really be, especially since everyone reading this has most likely read more Batman comic books than they can count? How many issues of Batman does anyone really need to read in order to have lived a sufficiently happy life?

I am still not entirely convinced that Scott Snyder's scripts would be anything special without Greg Capullo's pencils, but the fact is that the result is strong enough to make me not care.

Could there be a more bog-standard sequence in the history of comics than Commissioner Gordon talking to a medical examiner over a cold corpse? And yet just take a second to look at exactly how much loving detail has been paid to every component of the scene. The first panel, a particularly gruesome outward shot from the perspective of the corpse's gaping chest wound, looks out on Gordon and the examiner. The second panel reverses the perspective 180 degrees by showing the reader the opposite image: looking backwards towards the corpse and over Gordon's head. Look at how precisely the gimmick is executed. Gordon, the examiner and the ceiling lamp remain in precisely the same relation with one another from both perspectives. Capullo put a lot of thought into exactly what the dimensions of this crowded room actually were and how the shape of the room (claustrophobic, dark) would dictate the way the scene was told.

Then look at this page from later on in the issue, featuring a strange encounter between Bruce Wayne and Lincoln March, a candidate for Mayor of Gotham (who probably has something dastardly up his sleeve, which is how these things work):

This sequence lasts three entire pages but it doesn't get boring. Capullo knows how to make a conversation between two powerful men look exciting. He frames the conversation almost as a seduction, with March appealing to Wayne on the basis of similarly traumatic childhood experiences that both shaped their commitment to philanthropy. There are a number of subtle threads throughout the sequence: for one, March is clearly one or two inches taller than Wayne, someone who we (the readers) know is already an imposing figure. Look at how March is slumping in that first panel, before very slightly straightening his posture to loom over Wayne in an attitude of - what? A threat? a come-on? Both? Why do we linger on the way March touches Wayne's shoulder like that? The use of medium-distance top-down shots almost renders the reader into a kind of voyeur, peeking in on a scene to which he or she should not be privy.

You could certainly accuse Snyder's plot of a lack of imagination, if you so desired. There's a new ancient conspiracy in Gotham targeting the sons of wealth and privilege - etc etc. I don't particularly care for this iteration of Batman, either: it's very much the movie-indebted (and Frank Miller influenced) paramilitary Batman, a violent, hulking figure in cumbersome body armor. This isn't a graceful creature of the night nor a spry, athletic swashbuckler - but then, both of those interpretations have been on the wane for a long time now. This is very much Batman in his "where does he got those wonderful toys?" mode, flitting around with the most fanciful gadgetry - again, not particularly my favorite mode of Batman comics. So, yeah, not perfect by any stretch, and hardly something destined to become a classic of contemporary graphic fiction, but without a doubt the best Batman comic I've read in years. Take of that what you will.

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