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Fantastic Firsts:
Fantastic Firsts: The Debut
By Julio Diaz

08.28.03


After the San Diego Comicon, it's become obvious that DC Comics is making a major play for industry dominance. They signed up some of the industry's top creators to long-term, exclusive deals, and have been announcing major projects left and right.

But change was already in the wind at DC before the big announcements in San Diego, and the fruits of that change have started appearing over the last several weeks. DC (and its various imprints) has launched several new series in the last few weeks that are quickly getting the momentum shifting their way. Here's a look at five of the most exciting first issues the company has released in the last few weeks.


You Can Go Home Again

Reunions are such a dicey prospect. Sure, on the surface, it's exciting to see a group of creative folks -- whether they be a band, a comedy team, or (in this case) comics creators -- get together after a hiatus and try to recreate the old magic. But for every one that's successful, there are ten that fall flat, and at the worst, a lackluster reunion can taint the memory of the creative unit's former greatness. And if you don't believe me, you didn't catch the Sex Pistols' reunion tour (or worse, road trip across four states to see the Sex Pistols reunion tour).

But when a reunion clicks, it's truly magic. Which brings us to the first issue of Formerly Known as the Justice League.

FKATJL is a reunion on two levels. The book reunites the most of the key creative team from the 1980s international incarnation of the Justice League -- plotter Keith Giffen, scripter J.M. DeMatteis, penciller Kevin Maguire, inker Joe Rubinstein, and letterer Bob Lappan. The story, meanwhile, sets about reuniting the some of the key characters of that Justice League.

Financier and master manipulator Maxwell Lord, the man behind the formation of the United Nations-sponsored Justice League International, has hit upon a new plan: superheroes for the common man. He wants to start a non-profit, storefront superhero team with a public face and a strip-mall storefront to help everyday folks when they have extra-human needs. With all the indomitable single-mindedness of Jake and Elwood Blues declaring "we're getting the band back together," he gathers a group of former members of "his" Justice League. Some are enthusiastic, some trepidatious, but as ever, Max finds a way to get what he wants.

If you're a fan of the '80s Justice League, you'll find FKATJL a welcome and nostalgic return to cherished ground. Aside from the card-stock cover, this feels exactly like an issue of the classic run, right down to the paper stock used for the interior pages. Giffen and DeMatteis find exactly the right vibe for the characters, and while recognizing the changes the characters have gone through in the years since (especially Blue Beetle), every character's voice feels exactly right. Likewise, Maguire and Ruinstein's expressive art and especially Lappan's distinctive lettering gives this book a timeless feel -- it's like no time has passed at all.

If you weren't a fan of this incarnation of the League, you may not care for this, either. On the other hand, the major exception I recall to that incarnation of the League, in its day, was that Justice League wasn't supposed to be a comedy book. Given that they aren't the League anymore, perhaps the folks that had a problem with this will be more accepting of the team's new status.

As for those folks that are completely new to what aficionados sometimes term the "bwah-ha-ha" era, no prior knowledge is necessary to enjoy this book. My earlier reference to The Blues Brothers was quite deliberate, as the feeling is very similar -- it's easy to feel the history between the characters even if you don't see it here, much the same way as little glimpses of Jake and Elwood's pasts were hinted at in the dialogue of The Blues Brothers. You'll easily pick it up as you go along. If you enjoy a brand of superheroics that isn't afraid to laugh at itself, this is the book for you.


Breaking Up is Hard to Do

The ex-Justice Leaguers aren't the only DC Universe super-team reuniting. Courtesy of writer Geoff Johns, penciller Mike McKone, and inker Marlo Alquiza, the Teen Titans are back for another go-round.

The new Teen Titans feels familiar for a few reasons. The roster superficially resembles that of the classic Marv Wolfman/George Perez New Teen Titans from the early '80s, featuring that group's Cyborg, Beast Boy (who was called Changeling in those days, though Beast Boy is his original moniker, dating to his days with the Doom Patrol), and Starfire, and the modern-day versions of Robin and Wonder Girl. The group is rounded out by today's version of Kid Flash, Impulse (who appears on the cover in a Kid Flash-style uniform, though if there's a change, it's not revealed in the first issue) and Superboy. Those last four were the core members of Young Justice, another DC super-team that just ended a respectable 50+-issue run, so there's a familiarity on that level, too. (Also, the Wolfman/Perez-era character Raven appears on the cover, but she's nowhere to be found in the first issue).


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The first issue of Teen Titans spins out of a lot of recent continuity issues that may be confusing to new readers. Luckily, Johns masterfully weaves the salient points into the story, so nobody should feel lost coming into this book cold. The long and the short of it is that the previous version of the Titans and Young Justice both split up after the events of the recent, rather poorly-conceived miniseries Graduation Day, which left the original Wonder Girl, Donna Troy, and another long-time Titan, Lilith, dead. The trauma has strained the friendships between Superboy, Robin, Wonder Girl and Impulse, and they're bought back together in a kind of weekend junior-superhero outreach program by the elder, former Teen Titans.

While the first issue is largely set-up, it's gorgeously executed and lavishly illustrated. Johns has given these characters a slightly older feel than they had in Young Justice, and they feel more like their given ages (14-17) here than they did in that book (not knocking YJ, it's just that the characters felt a little younger there). Mike McKone's dazzling pencils bear this out, and the teens look like real teenagers (albeit impossibly attractive, TV-ready teens). And the more adult characters? Well, Starfire hasn't looked this good since Perez was drawing her regularly, and while Beast Boy's human form looks a little more alien than I'd prefer, his transformations to and from animal forms are executed brilliantly. Meanwhile, Johns does an excellent job setting things up, and then drops a bombshell of a cliffhanger into the mix on the last page that is sure to have readers coming back for more.

Simply put, this one's a winner. If Johns and McKone can keep up this quality level, their run will rival Wolfman and Perez's groundbreaking work. And if that's the case, I hope they stay on the book just as long as Wolfman and Perez did, too.


From Across the Great Divide

Johns puts a substantially different team together in his first creator-owned comics project, The Possessed. Co-written with Kris Grimminger, The Possessed follows a down-and-dirty team of exorcists as they deal with demonic possessions using an arsenal of both faith-based and good old-fashioned conventional heavy weaponry. The group is bound together by the fact that they themselves were all past victims of demonic possession in one form or another. In short, the Ghostbusters, they ain't. The feel is more akin to a cross between Aliens and The Exorcist.

Liam Sharpe's gritty art is the perfect match for this dark tale. The world of The Possessed feels dirty and downright frightening, and it's as much a testament to his rough-yet-detailed style as it is to the tale that Johns and Grimminger weave.

The Possessed is definitely not kiddie fare. In addition to horrific imagery, the language and concepts are ideas you wouldn't want your children repeating. But older teens and adults --especially those that are into the horror genre -- will find a lot to like here. The players are all intriguing characters, and I'm looking forward to learning more about them. And there's something that's just intrinsically appealing about the concept of exorcising demons spiritually and then blowing them to smithereens with semi-automatic weapons.


Fantasies of War

Another interesting mixture of genres comes in the form of another new creator-owned title, Kurt Busiek and Carlos Pacheco's Arrowsmith. Where The Possessed takes a new spin on the demonic possession sub-genre, Arrowsmith spins World War I on its ear by giving it a healthy dose of Lord of the Rings.

The first issue opens in the trenches of France in 1915, with a squadron of men hunkered down and awaiting the next battle. But it soon becomes apparent that this isn't your standard war comic. Field messages are relayed by winged pixies, and when the attack comes, it's in the form of a huge, horned, club-wielding fire troll.

Like something out of one of Harry Turtledove's masterful alternate history novels, Arrowsmith seamlessly blends sword and (mostly) sorcery with World War I-period adventure, creating an enchanting new world. While the war plays a sprawling backdrop, the focus is squarely on young Fletcher Arrowsmith, an American boy who runs away from home and defies his father's wishes to join the Overseas Aero Corps, a kind of foreign legion that flies with dragons rather than airplanes. The meat of the book is on Fletcher's decision to do what he feels is the right thing and become his own man.

Fletcher is instantly appealing, and it's easy to get drawn into his world. Pachco and inker Jesus Merino masterfully blend the fantasy and more earthly elements of the book into breathtaking page after page. But the art wouldn't work alone were the story not so engrossing, and it's Busiek's gift for crafting characters that makes this book so engrossing. Fans of Busiek and Pacheco will eat this up, as should fantasy fans and anyone that likes an interesting mix of genres. This could be the next Fables.


Bizarre Love Triangle

One of comics' most consistently great writers, Peter David has another hit on his hands with his newest effort, Fallen Angel. A mysterious noir of a comic, Fallen Angel follows the enigmatic Lee in her private war against the equally enigmatic crime lord, The Magistrate, over the town of Bete Noire. Lee is… well, it's not clear yet what she is. She seems to have some extranormal powers, and appears to serve justice -- but also serves her own self-interest. And the last pages of the first issue confirm that there's definitely more to her than meets the eye.

Like any good noir, nothing is black and white about Fallen Angel, there are only shades of gray. It's the depths and multitudes of grays at work here that make this book so fascinating. There are no "good guys" here; and even while you root for Lee, there's the sense that while she may have good intentions, there's something much deeper going on under that scarlet hood she wears. And I can't wait to find out what it is.

The art by penciller David Lopez and inker Fernando Blanco adds depth to this fascinating world. The characters look like the modern-day counterparts of film noir characters, all interesting faces and unusual tics, giving the book the cinematic feel it deserves.

Fallen Angel is something of a departure for David, but it's as good as anything he's done. The mysteries here are far too intriguing to pass up.

With these new titles and others like Mark Waid and Lenil Yu's Superman: Birthright and the relaunch of Birds of Prey with new creative team Gail Simone and Ed Benes, it's clear that DC is heading in the right direction, both creatively and commercially. And they haven't even pulled out the big guns yet!

 

 
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