It’s the 2016 DC Comics New Talent Showcase! To cover it, Retcon Punch has assembled out finest old talent to say something about each of these stories. There are a lot of promising starts in here, along with a handful that don’t start so well, but very few full-fledged stories. Still, every series has a beginning, so let’s get in to how these new creators would kick off their own story arcs. (There’s no DC Round Up this week, but we did write about the Batman Annual 1 on Thursday, and we will be discussing the Superman Annual 1 on Tuesday, so come back for that!)
Hellblazer: the Road to Hell and All That
Drew: Short stories are hard. They’re also a bit of a lost art in American comics. For every anthology of eight-page stories like New Talent Showcase, there are dozens of series that tell stories over the course of several 20-page issues. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with either approach, but the emphasis on the latter in American comics puts writers squarely out of their element when it comes to dealing with the former. This is part of the reason British writers were so popular in American comics in the ’80s and ’90s; the British industry’s emphasis on anthology series gave their writers a set of skills decidedly different from their American counterparts. I’m inclined to extend that conventional wisdom to include British characters — or, at least, characters created by Brits — as they seem designed for telling great one-off stories. That’s not to say characters like Sandman or John Constantine didn’t lend themselves to longer arcs (obviously, they did), just that they’re ideal for satisfying self-contained short stories. Case in point: Adam Smith and Siya Oum’s fantastic “The Road to Hell and All That”.
The story is told non-chronologically, but unlike some of the other stories in this collection, this one manages to give that structure some actual meaning. We open with Constantine puking his guts out in a dive bar in hell, only to roll back the clock (twice) to see what led him to that point. For me, the key to making that work is the one “narrator” caption meant to orient us in time and space:
I use those scare quotes intentionally — while the lettering makes it clear that that caption isn’t the same as Constantine’s inner monologue, the confusion over when exactly this happened makes it clear that it’s still part of Constantine’s consciousness. That is, it’s the voice of his memory, unsure of just how long he’s been down in that bar.
The other beautiful piece of structure Smith uses is the repetition of the sentiment “this is hell.” The first time, it’s literal, but each time after gives it a new figurative meaning as Constantine allows his relationship with Zatanna to fall apart. We first see a fight in flashback, as Constantine regrets his decisions, but by the issue’s end, he knows he’s in hell in the moment. It’s a clever ride Smith takes us on, and works perfectly as a standalone piece of Hellblazer ennui, even if I can’t help but wonder at the mystery of what exactly doomed Zatanna. Like the other stories in this anthology, this is definitely designed as a teaser, but it’s also remarkably satisfying on its own.
Wonder Woman: Blood & Glory
Spencer: This isn’t a criticism about this story in particular as much as it’s a criticism about the New Talent Showcase as a whole (meaning the fault probably lies with editorial more than any of the creators), but I hate that these aren’t complete stories. Most of the tales in the New Talent Showcase act more as prologues or teasers for stories we’ll probably never see play out than stories in their own right, and that’s frustrating.
That said, Vita Ayala and Khary Randolph’s Wonder Woman story, Blood and Glory, is one of this issue’s more satisfying installments; even if it’s teasing a confrontation with Circe, it also tells a fairly self-contained story about Diana’s battle against some monsters and a meeting between her and the Flash. The latter is where this story really shines — Wonder Woman and Flash are an underused pairing, and Ayala finds an interesting contrast between Diana’s stoicism and Wally’s humor, between her godhood and his sheer humanity (it’s nice to see Wally as Flash again; Ayala’s channeling his animated Justice League Unlimited characterization here, and that’s a joy).
I’m less enamored with Diana’s characterization as a battle obsessed deity who views herself above “mere mortals,” but I think that may be the point — becoming the God of War has changed her, and it’s worrying her friends. It’s a shame we can’t see this thread explored further, but it’s a strong hook regardless.
Randolph draws a suitably fierce Diana (outside of one T&A shot), a dynamic Wally, and some darn cool looking monsters, but there were a few points where his storytelling confused me.
What’s going on here? This is the last we see of the monsters, so this, combined with Diana’s stance in the last panel, implies that she slays them all, but we never actually see her do it. The opening panels show what looks like the monsters turning on each other (why?), and the third and fourth panel are just Flash and the monsters watching something happening. This lack of clarity in one of the story’s most vital moments is unfortunate.
White Lantern: Dead Beacons
Patrick: I’ll echo that “it’s too bad these aren’t full stories” sentiment. That criticism becomes doubly-relevant in something like “White Lantern: Dead Beacons” precisely because there’s so much set up in these ten pages that we likely won’t ever see pay off. What’s even more confounding is that there is a perfectly self-contained story in the first couple pages of this installment, and if it stopped after the scavengers had their life drained by N’thall, this would be a tidy little experience (albeit short an appearance by the marquee hero.)
Once Kyle Rayner and Carol Ferris show up on the page, it’s presumably lightyears away from the drama that started the issue, and while they’re both in the middle of saving a planet from race of parasitic insects, personal matters are on the forefront of their minds. I don’t know that writer Michael Moreci has done the emotional homework to represent either Kyle or Carol in the spat they’re having. Carol seems to be motivated to say whatever she can to rattle Kyle in battle, including not-so-playfully jabbing at him for making them leave their anniversary dinner to save the tiny green peoples of the Dwarf Planet Losum. We never get to what’s actually bothering Carol — again, probably a consequence of not getting the full story — but this is a super weak facade for her to toss up. She’s both a superhero and a career girlfriend-of-a-superhero; if anyone understands romance taking a back-seat to duty, it’s Carol. I’m also just not sure what I’m supposed to take away from Kyle giving Carol space (y’know, during the fight) to tell him she’s pregnant. Or why Carol confronts Kyle about an email from his father before they shrug everything off and head back to their anniversary dinner.
On the flip side of that, I love the risks that artist Barnaby Bagenda and colorist Romulo Fajardo Jr. take with regard to Kyle’s powers. The halo of his white lite obliterates the inking around the outside of the character, and it’s amazing how much of the page gets swallowed up by this whiteness.
Hawkgirl: Weapons of War
Drew: A dead body, a smoking gun, a detective who knows more than she’s saying. Writer Erica Schultz has all the makings of a great mystery on her hands with “Weapons of War”, but somehow doesn’t have faith in that mystery to draw us in. Instead, we get a completely disorienting flash forward, as if to insist that the story goes somewhere big without trusting our own patience for such a revelation. Indeed, the flash forwards (there’s a second one at the end) don’t have any diegetic meaning — it’s purely a structural device meant to draw us in, sacrificing Schultz’s alluring mystery for what amounts to little more than a violent non sequitur.
As with the Constantine story, the success of the time-skipping seems to hinge on the captions orienting us in time. The earlier example emphasized the subjectivity of the information; here, the information is presented as objective, even as it’s kept frustratingly vague. The scenes are labeled “soon”, “now”, “later”, and “soon”, offering nothing but the most noncommittal hints at when these are happening relative to one another. I may never understand the emphasis on stories taking place “now,” but I think this story would have benefitted from jettisoning that idea altogether. Throw out the opening “soon,” and we don’t lack for an orientation in time. When we switch to an earlier scene, a simple “X days/weeks/months ago” is really all we need. The “later” feels particularly superfluous to me — seeing the same character in a different location is all I need to understand that we’re entering a new scene (at a presumably later time), so a caption is no more necessary here than it would be on a sitcom.
It’s a shame, because I really do think Schultz has a solid detective story to tell here. Moreover, artist Sonny Lieu brought a charming casualness to Shayera’s civilian life — not a tone I would have immediately thought of for this character, but it works surprisingly well.
Get rid of those three pages of flash forward, and you have the first five pages of what could be a great Hawkgirl series. Unfortunately, three pages is a lot to waste in such a short story — I can’t help but wonder what kind of hook Schultz could have come up with if she had put that space to better use.
Deadman: Killing Time
Michael: One of my biggest gripes against superhero movies is that they spend an exhausting amount of time on origins and world-building. What I’ve always loved about superhero comics is entering their vast, fully-formed universes and ideas — which is probably why I enjoyed the Deadman story “Killing Time.”
Exposition tends to be a dirty word when you’re talking about storytelling but it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. In fact, I’d say that in introducing potential new readers to Deadman — a spirit who can’t really interact with the world of the living directly — exposition is vital. Deadman gives us the basic rundown of how became Rama Kushna’s spirt of balance and what he does with his free time. Writer Christopher Sebela uses Deadman’s internal monologue to communicate with us in the same way that Deadman can possess a body to get the job done. I personally enjoyed the minutiae at the beginning: how Boston Brand spends his free time, “lowering his standards” with whatever entertainment is lying around.
Before he bit the bullet Deadman was an acrobat, which artist David Messina emphasizes as Deadman launches his ghostly self in any given direction. Messina has Deadman possess some bodies to dodge bullets and throw themselves out of harm’s way. This action gets a little confused however as Deadman jumps from the woman’s body to the man’s. Instead of kinetic action beats it looks like there are two Deadmen staring at one another. All in all “Killing Time” proved that a C-lister like Deadman can provide an entertaining comic book, Iook forward to more.
Wonder Girl: Digging Up Demons
Patrick: Cell phones have sort of ruined modern stories, right? There’s a very real tension between keeping the action where it is, and nagging question “why wouldn’t that person just call?” In an 8 page story, Cassie takes two different phone calls, one from her mother while investigating the lost Pentacle of Solomon, and one from the cops (?) while hanging out with her mother. There is a realism here that I appreciate: we don’t always get news from people when we’re physically in their presence. But it robs both scenes of any emotional immediacy. If at any point, ol’ Wonder Girl doesn’t like the way a conversation is going, she can just hang up. That’s especially true of that last phone call, the one where the authorities are just letting Wonder Girl know that Cassie and her mother are suspects. Sure, that forecasts that there is drama in the future, but it would be so much more rewarding to see that conflict play out in front of us.
Actually, I think that same criticism can be applied to the structure of this story, which finds Cassie confronted by Diesel for abandoning him at some crucial moment in the past. I thought for sure that this was a well-known Wonder Girl story that I just wasn’t familiar with, but it turns out that writer Hena Kahn wants to tell both stories: the event itself and the fallout, just in the opposite order. That makes the confrontation between Diesel and Cassie so much less impactful than if we had already known why there’s beef between them. Same thing goes for the fight sequence at the beginning of the issue — Cassie battles smoke monsters, and we’re told immediately afterward that they’re Jin from the Pentacle of Solomon. It’s just impossibly hard to get invested in Wonder Girl fighting something when I have no context for what she’s fighting, why they’re a threat, or why any of it matters.
The title of the story does clue us in to a little thematic unity the narrative itself never gets close to achieving. “Digging Up Demons” refers to both literal demons and the shitty little things we do to each other. But Kahn doesn’t seem to know which relationship to focus on here — between mother and daughter or scavenging partners. My vote would be for the scavenging partners, as their relationship is based on action, while the mother-daughter relationship is based on trite statements like “I thought I raised you better than that.”
Catwoman/Wonder Woman: The Amazonian Job
Ryan M: Upon reading The Amazonian Job, I have to echo Spencer’s critique. Emma Beeby and Minkyu Jung have created the first 8 pages of a story I’m dying to read, but those pages alone do not tell a full story. Catwoman and Wonder Woman are not natural cohorts so just the premise is exciting. The scenes with Selina and Diana play with the inherent tension between their worldviews and pass the Bechdel test to boot. The narrative respects both women and their outlooks on the world. Diana came to Selina’s home to ask for help without even considering payment, while that is Selina’s first question.
Beeby has a handle on these characters and has made a compelling case for a team up, but the brevity of the story makes the interstitial scene to feel diversionary. Zeus’s submarine exposition with a side of murder may be good seeding for establishing an antagonist for a longer story, but Diana’s fear and Selina’s knowledge of what that means is far more powerful in this piece. That said, this sequence is one in which Jung’s art is able to shine. By utilizing levels of overlapping imagery, Jung creates the effect of Zeus implanting visions into the doomed captain. There is a significant amount of copy here, but Jung’s art tells the story of the downfall of the Gods very effectively.
Beeby and Jung present well-observed versions of these characters. Jung showcases the differences in expression, stature and movements of Selina and Diana from their first interaction.
Diana stands strong, feet planted and demonstrating patience. While Selina fights impulsively, trying to use any advantage she can find, though there are few against Wonder Woman. Beeby chose this pairing because she couldn’t choose, but I think she found something great. Like dipping pretzel sticks in Nutella.
Superman: The Man in Black
Mark: Superman: The Man in Black is a very ambitious story, with writer Michael McMillian packing each successive page with more and more new information. On the night baby Kal-El arrives at the Kent farm an imposing alien with a Joker-esque smile promises to “save the world” AND in present day Superman is fighting a giant Joker robot in Metropolis AND Lois is in the Joker robot AND she has been infected by Joker Toxin AND Superman has a new power AND he can use it to cure the effects of Joker Toxin AND the Joker’s different now somehow AND Batman has invented a new sort of radio wave that only Superman can hear AND the Joker is in Smallville robbing a bank AND AND AND AND…
It’s unfortunate that each story in this Showcase is only a handful of pages. McMillian has a lot of ideas, but none of them are given the proper room to breathe. Introducing them all in the space allowed requires a level of bluntness in the dialogue that tends to neuter the tension since there’s no time to consider the ramifications of any particular event before we have to rush along to the next revelation.
On the art side, I’m really taken with the color work of artist Juan Ferreyra. From the moody blues and greens of the opening pages to the bright and classically heroic Superman Red during Superman’s confrontation with the Jokerbot to the shadows of a brooding Joker, Ferreyra handles the shifting moods of the issue with aplomb.
The ultimate success of Superman: The Man in Black is that I’m left wanting to read more. What is the connection between the similing alien and the Joker? What did the alien mean by “I’m here to save the world?” Any story in on the joke enough to end with a classic “THE END?” is okay by me.
Harley Quinn: Good Morning, Gotham
Spencer: There’s some sort of rogue virus destroying Gotham City in the background of Joelle Jones and Sam Lofti’s Harley Quinn tale, Good Morning Gotham, but it’s just the catalyst that finally forces Harley into action. Harley inciting chaos because of a mixture of boredom and opportunity is very in character, as is the combination of lunacy and competence that goes on to define her riot-leadership.
Harley knows just what she wants and where to get it, and Jones and Lofti’s attention to detail pays off in this sequence, as many of the items Harley eventually incorporates into her costume are established well ahead of time (the boots and the defibrillators in the background of this scene, for example). Still, I like that not every item she takes is practical or even useful — did Harley need those pill bottles, or was she just using them to build an ammo belt because she thinks it looks cool? The only place where that attention to detail fails the creative team is when it comes to the barrels Riddler uses to blow through the wall — what are they, and how did he get his hands on them?
I also like how Lofti and Jones depict the Arkham inmates gradually transforming their medical robes into makeshift versions of their costumes across the course of the story — it’s a cute detail that actually says a lot about each character. My favorite touch is the word “Tuesday” written across the back of Harley’s underwear — I don’t know if that means they’re the panties she wears on Tuesday or if it’s just meant to be random, but either way, it’s in character and it made me laugh. Good Morning Gotham succeeds by being simple and to the point, yet also filled with fun, thoughtful detail.
The conversation doesn’t stop there, because you certainly read something that we didn’t. What do you wanna talk about from this week?