Tuesday, March 25, 2014


Last September, DC Comics published a bunch of comics focusing on villains and with special 3-D covers that they didn’t print enough of to fulfill advance orders. I didn’t and still don’t care about the gimmick covers, but, like many readers, I’m not immune to the intriguing nature of well-crafted villains.  Sadly, that craft  has become exceedingly rare among today’s comics creators.

The good friend who lends me his DC comic books after he has read them is not fond of villain-based comic books.  He doesn’t buy most of them, so I knew I wouldn’t be reading them or writing about them here.  However, my friend Rick Rubenstein did write about them in his CAPA-Alpha apazine and has graciously allowed me to reprint his remarks for this special guest column.

“September is the Cruelest Month”
Guest column by Rick Rubenstein

I must sound cranky when I write about current comics. Being an optimist by nature, I keep buying the DC line, hoping it will magically transform back into the stories of my youth. I’m mindful that the world has changed. Violent video games, movies, cable and broadcast TV have all adopted a harder edge. The Comics Code, for good or for bad, is a thing of the distant past. I know this. But as I often tell my clients, when the shoe is on the other foot: The problem is not in understanding, but acceptance.

DC’s September 3D cover blitz offers a real window into where things stand in mainstream comic-book marketing. Not wanting to waste the opportunity, here are reviews so those of you wise enough not to invest would know what you are missing.

The first cover is the reboot of Mr. Freeze, labeled Batman #23.2. The Jason Masters artwork is really quite good and the colors are terrific. The Jimmy Palmiotti story is just plain disgusting. It couples a sub-plot about incest to matricide, filial murder and child abuse. Freeze uses his “powers” on a henchman. One panel shows the exploding, partially frozen brain and skull. It must be from the new style book.

I think the last two versions of Mr. Freeze’s origin were sufficient. Fail.

The experienced team of Jim Starlin and Howard Porter joined to reboot Mongul, nemesis of the Hal Jordan Green Lantern franchise [Green Lantern #23.2]. Thankfully, Starlin does not follow the incest thread Palmiotti employed in Mr. Freeze. He dispenses with that, focusing on just the fratricide, matricide and patricide angles, but throws in decapitation to give the reader relief from the exploding frozen head and brain image in the previous comic. Otherwise, nothing new in the reboot. Genocidal villain with family issues. Despite the cover, GL is not featured in the comic.

Perhaps its greatest crime is fraud on the purchaser. Move on, folks, nothing new to see here...

I always figured Black Manta [Aquaman #23.1] to be a villain created for lazy artists. You don’t have to draw a facial expression, after all. He’s also for lazy writers. Geoff Johns and Tony Bedard don’t have time to tell a story about incest and fratricide with the Crime Syndicate elements woven into what passes for this story, so they stick with Aquaman’s killing of Manta’s father, who, after all, sent Manta to kill Aquaman. Killer Shark delivers gruesome and gory deaths to prison guards. Manta kills another guard with a sharpened Two-Face coin and then we get to see the skeleton of Manta’s dead father. The upshot? He hates the apparently dead Aquaman and he hates the Crime Syndicate and because he didn’t kill his whole family, he is an excellent candidate to be elevated to the status of “hero” in the new DCU.

Solomon Grundy #15.2, the “Earth Two” reboot comic, doesn’t get through three panels before a young family with a child is incinerated by a fireball. That’s the high point of the issue. Thereafter, the impoverished sharecropper protagonist hears his wife being raped in the next room, sees her commit suicide in the worst possible way, ignored the fact that his infant child will be left to die, commits a mass murder, and then merges into Grundy and commits several more gruesome murders. I don’t think E.C. ever went further in the bad old days of horror and science fiction comics.

[Thus far, in three out of four of the DC reboot comics I have read, innocent children are murdered or left for dead by parents or siblings. There seems to be a subtle thread I am detecting.]

It wouldn’t be far to expect a comic book based upon the Joker [Batman #23.1] to be restrained, subtle or complex. On the other hand, the Andy Kubert/Andy Clarke artwork on this book actually told a coherent story that, while ghastly, was not patently offensive. Joker is portrayed as a victim of child abuse at the hands of an evil aunt and bullying by peers. Maybe I’m just a pushover for a Kubert family member, but at least it was readable. There is some macabre humor as they tell the story of a baby gorilla he raises to be an henchman. At least I wasn’t offended.

The Bizarro reboot comic [Superman #23.1] goes back to the formula of pointless cruelty. Departing from the classic Bizarro storyline that has run for generations, the writers make the Bizarro characters a by-product of Lex Luthor’s experiments.  The first Bizarro Superman is a young boy of low intelligence who trusts Luthor and feels that Lex cares about him. For his faith and his trouble, he ends up a failed experiment, turning into a mass of protoplasm when his body explodes.

I found the entire premise disturbing, quite frankly. It trivialized the death of an intellectually challenged young boy. There was no hint of retribution, of justice of any kind.

Ultimately, any series that centers on - or celebrates - the villain in a comic-book universe is bound to be harsh and dark and violent. I get that. The world has changed. Comics are darker and villains are sometimes going to win. I suppose what bothers me most is that one storyline in any of the books I’ve reviewed this far depicts a universe where there is any justice at all, any responsibility at all. Although one might charitably describe these stories as vignettes, not a single one even alludes to the existence of courage or sacrifice or heroism in any fashion. Each story is so relentlessly dark and vile and filled with gone, one must wonder what there is to look forward to in the next issue. There’s simply no hope at all, just universal corruption and decay. In case you’re wondering, I haven’t commented on all of the villain reboots for the week. Quite frankly, the Lobo and Harley Quinn comics were too incoherent to review. The former did feature a beheading and two disembowelments in a four-page span, all done in close-up with an upward angle, so anatomical interiors could be shown in blazing color.

The low watermark was the Count Vertigo comic [Green Arrow #23.1] featuring the perennial Green Arrow nemesis.  The imperious Count is rewritten as orphaned by his mother, handed over by her for medical experiments which transform him into a meta-human.  After reaching adulthood, he seeks her out, finding her in a wretched state.  He calls his mother a junkie and a whore and gruesomely murders her, directing his henchmen to burn her body. You’ve got the trifecta here: He calls his mother a whore, murders her and immolates her remains. Very nice. Who’s the publisher’s demographic here? Where do I apply to leave that particular demographic?

Perhaps I’m just an old scold at this point. I don’t play video games and I don’t watch Dexter. (I did, quite frankly, but there was no one left to like on the series by the beginning of 2013.) There was probably a time back in my late teens when Jim Warren’s Eerie and Creepy published stories had the same kind of blood and gore on the DC series if September 2013. Perhaps it was easier to take in black and white. Perhaps I just got old and more conservative. Upon reflection, perhaps the juxtaposition of superhero comics and extremely gory horror in the same pages just doesn’t work for me. I read superhero comics because the good guys win most of the time, not to fall into despair over a world full of violence, senseless death and chaos. If I want to do that, I can just pick up a newspaper.

© 2014 Rick Rubenstein


My thanks to Rick Rubenstein for allowing me to run his perceptive reviews in today’s bloggy thing. Come back tomorrow for our weekly “Rawhide Kid Wednesday” and “the shocking six-gun saga you never expected to read!” See you then.

1 comment:

  1. Rick does a nice job and he does know his comics. I dropped the entire DC line about six months into the New 52 (back when it was "new") and really haven't regretted my decision.

    Also, I thought we had gone through the 'alternate cover' craze back in the '90s. I can't believe folks are still buying into it, especially those folks who seem to need all of them.

    Personally, I don't think we'll ever see, at least under the current editorial junta, the characters we old timers grew up with and enjoyed. Heck, Batman hasn't been Batman for over a decade in his main DCU titles.