This was the only pamphlet I bought this week; I'll say things about Roy Crane and Tim Hensley at some point in the future.
DC Universe Legacies #1, by Len Wein and many artists of repute. DC.
First, a rating. I give this comic 3 out of 5 -- it's not bad and not great. I didn't really want to put it down at any point while I was reading it, and there were bits I quite enjoyed. Okay.
In many ways DCU Legacies is as good as it could possibly be. Well, that's not exactly true, but close enough. This comic is as good as could be expected. It's ostensibly a history of the DC Universe, which means scads of pre-written material is available for the creators to sift through. In comics like this there's so much fertile ground to cover that it's rare to get conceptual badness at any point; most of the work has already been done, and a writer with sewing skills is more valuable than a visionary. At best, "history of" or "legacy" comics are a well-strung-together series of high points that took years to happen the first time around, decades of time and reams of comics reduced to one harmonious jigsaw puzzle that gets put together in front of your eyes. This is that, but it's also something less.
If I were being more cynical, I'd say that someone in editorial read Marvels and put together a comic that's nothing more than the DC version of that mediocre book. This is a better comic than that is, because it isn't drawn by Alex Ross and (so far) the stories it's retelling aren't ones that have already been homaged to death. But there's definite conceptual similarity, and the common ground Legacies shares with Marvels is by far its biggest problem. Like Marvels, Legacies is narrated by a kindly old codger of the Greatest Generation who takes up the first two Scott Kolins-drawn, hideously computer-colored pages inviting you in for coffee and telling you "the masked men have been sort of a lifetime obsession with me." (Good to know, and hey, maybe it's my own failing that I'm not in the segment of the audience that goes "me too!") Only after that does the story start, moving back in time to the narrator's rough-n-tumble childhood in Depression-era Metropolis. Aside from the excess of corny sentiment undercutting any Eisner-y dynamism that could have been wrung from a good in media res beginning set in the grit and iron of the bad old days, showing the entire history of a superhero universe from such a conventionally human perspective is a major error. (Contrast it with the old, grandiose Marv Wolfman/George Perez History of the DCU, which was narrated by, yes, God.)
Such a normal, uninteresting human narrator (Paulie, by name) instantly destroys most of the abstract, escapist spectacle that should be this kind of comic's main goal: a history of the DC heroes should be all the biggest fights, the most Wagnerian space operas, the moments of tensest personal drama -- the stuff no human eyes have e'er before beheld, for crying out loud! DC has probably published over 400 top-notch comic books in their 75 years, and ideally those ones should be packed as thick as possible into a "history" comic. By choosing to focus on some nobody's impressions of it all, we get exactly two semi-impressive looks at the very earliest Golden Age crimefighters in issue one -- the comic's a tenth done now, and we only get characters who have super powers in the backup strip. Oh, I'm sure we'll hit all the supposed high points of the DC "story"; Paulie will thrill to the arrival of Superman -- he'll rescue him from a burning building, probably -- and he'll feel kind of scared about this new Batman chap -- maybe he'll save him from getting mugged -- and he'll worry about his wife and family during the Crisis on Infinite Earths. Maybe one of the neanderthals brought into the present from that Alan Moore Swamp Thing issue will come freak out at his house's electric lighting.
But all of those things can't happen, though, because a normal person (who isn't a comic book reader) having that many brushes with the heroes in his life would be ridiculous. The main story both begins and ends with full-page panels of the Justice Society on vintage magazine covers, and there's a bit in the middle where the young Paulie collects newspaper clippings on the recent rash of hero appearances. It's a sign of things to come: Paulie's going to have read about all the good stuff in the paper, just like everyone else, and we're supposed to want to read about him telling us about what he read in it. Hoo boy. Why filter the material through the perspective of someone who, at best, we'll feel is a guy just like us -- when we can go out, read the actual stories, and filter it through our own perspectives? These kind of "history" comics always have the secondary function of cleanup jobs, allowing a company to point readers to the editorially-approved "important" past stories, but to put it so on the surface is not a little galling. Having "just some guy" telling us what DC events he thought were worth noting is a lot less interesting -- a lot less entertaining! -- than it would be to have a framing sequence featuring Dan Didio passionately explaining why said events were integral to his vision for the company.
What I'm getting at is this: the trend toward including a supposedly "normal human" perspective in superhero comics is a terrible one. It made for bad comics from the inception (what did we learn from Phil Sheldon in Marvels? that the Galactus invasion was scary and some people are racist, I mean "hate mutants"? -- thanks for that), and now that we've seen it done so much it's also derivative of bad comics whenever it gets hauled out of the closet again. For god's sake, these are stories about resurrected Egyptian kings, about vengeance-driven ghosts, about alien wishing lanterns and explorers from the future and madmen and gorgeous gals in fishnets who can snap your spine, and inserting this kind of mealy-mouthed "realism" into them is only a denial of what they are, only something that makes you question what's going on. Why doesn't Paulie get killed by the mob after saving the Atom from them? Because it's a comic book. But in that case, what is a guy like Paulie doing in a comic book about an action-loving midget fighting organized organized crime to begin with? The juxtaposition of cliche "real folks" with the stuff of legend, the most spectacle-laden flights of fancy available in any medium, may once have been interesting. But it was never good, it was always detrimental, and everyone should have figured that out by now.
Anyway, once you get past the presence of poor concept in a comic that has no right to any, this is a decent read. Good on DC for handing the project to an old stalwart like Len Wein rather than an up-and-coming Sterling Gates, JT Krul kind of guy. There's a four-page preview for some kind of new Green Arrow series Krul is writing in the back of the book, and it's just the thing to make you appreciate the imperfect-but-rock-solid competence of Wein's writing on Legacies. When a comic whose worst flaws in execution are dialogue like "They're tough as nails and absolutely fearless! What do you think makes men like them tick?" is packaged with a bit of one that has a mohawked would-be rapist telling his victim "Hope you didn't use up all your energy, lady... cuz you got work to do," before getting the tip of his nose, bull-ring and all, torn off by an arrow, you realize there's a level of quality you're being gifted with. And Wein's writing is quality, moving the story along nicely, making the fight scenes matter in terms of the plot, never egregiously lacking in logic, and constructing a perfectly sound springboard for incredible art.
Which is what everyone's got to be here for, right? I'm excited to see how the use of different artists on different, stylistically-appropriate "time periods" is going to work out; seeing the JSA on the cover of Life isn't half the cliffhanger that it is to know JH Williams and Dave Gibbons are going to be evoking the high Golden Age and the Wertham years in the next two issues. Of course, this issue doesn't exactly slack off with the art either, as Joe Kubert lends the best brush line in comics to his son Andy's forceful, dynamic compositions in the main story, and JG Jones gives the backup an antiquey majesty. Predictably, the best moments are those when the writing takes a back seat and the visuals shine in. Watching the Crimson Avenger busting up a protection racket or the Atom hurling crates of liquor at hoods is a reminder of why superhero books always have to be about fighting. These are the best figure artists, the best draftsmen alive, and there's more to be had in letting them cut loose on sequences of bodies in ecstatic motion than there is in anything short of a Delillo novel or a Scorsese movie. Not even the worst scripting can do much to stifle stuff like this; there's simply always going to be value for money in the privilege of watching this issue's artists draw.
There's also a really interesting tension between the looks of the two stories. The Kuberts' best moments are the ones where the poverty and grime of the working-class '30s mix into the blacks of Joe's inks to portray something startlingly real...
... while Jones' story is all Rockefeller glory and wealth and high living, mixed with society superheroes that take on an almost art-deco sheen in this context.
It says way more about socioeconomics in America than the script possibly could, or even attempts to. If all the rest of this book's artists are matched this well to the material they draw, it will be quite an accomplishment.
In the end, what we have here is incredible artists drawing a flawed script that manages both telling a story and not embarrassing itself. In superheroes -- hell, in comics -- that's saying something. This book is surely a cut above the claptrap that makes up, say, at least 75% of every comics genre, and that alone is a pretty good recommendation. You need to want to enjoy it for it to be much fun, but hell, that's true of Krazy Kat and Asterios Polyp and the Kirby stuff, too. You can count on one hand the comics we've had that actually seduce their readers, and none of them are coming out monthly these days. To be a regular comics reader is to lower your expectations, and to find the beauty in something like Joe Kubert's brushwork on an inferior penciler, or the formal swazzle of JG Jones' flashback sequences (he turns the panels themselves into big word balloons -- I got really excited about it, anyway).
I'm hopeful that this story will end well, have good bits of hero action in every issue, employ only top-flight artists, and end up like Paul Gulacy's Master of Kung-Fu, or Dave Gibbons' Green Lantern, or whatever John Romita Jr. draws -- a dumb-ish book that comics art aficionados who don't mind superheroes go out of their way to get at, because there's precious little else but that when you're done with The Spirit and All Star Superman. It's not a bad fate, and I've got to say it's not a bad comic. You can read it if you want to.