Comic book reviews: Sensation Comics #1

The past week was insane.  I’ve been dealing with personal stuff and not getting enough sleep.  So naturally enough I didn’t have a chance to blog about various items that I wanted to.  Well, here’s a three day weekend, so let’s see what I get around to covering.  First up is Sensation Comics #1, featuring Wonder Woman.

While I would not say that I am a huge fan of Wonder Woman, she is a character who I like, and whose monthly title I have followed on and off throughout the years.  That and I have all three DVD box sets of the television show starring Lynda Carter (I eventually got Michele incredibly annoyed at having to listen to that opening theme song over and over again).  When it was announced that DC Comics would be publishing a Wonder Woman anthology series with work by a number talented creators I was naturally intrigued.

A bit of reference: after making her debut in All Star Comics #8, cover-dated December 1941, Wonder Woman received an ongoing starring role in Sensation Comics #1, which came out the very next month.  Wonder Woman was featured in Sensation Comics for nearly its entire run.  Her final appearance was in issue #106, dated Nov-Dec 1951, with the series ending three issues later (credit goes to the Grand Comics Database for that info).  Wonder Woman also received her own solo series in mid-1942, which meant that for nearly a decade the character had two regular titles.

I could be wrong (and if I am then I am certain someone will let me know) but I believe that with this new Sensation Comics book it is the first time since 1951 that Wonder Woman will be starring in two ongoing titles.  That is pretty darn cool!

Sensation Comics 1 cover

Sensation Comics is one of DC’s “digital first” books, which means that the material is offered for sale online before it appears in print.  I guess I’m a bit of a Luddite since I prefer having a comic book in hand, rather than reading it from a computer screen, so I’ve decided to wait for the material to hit the comic shops.  But that’s just me, and Tim Hanley, author of the excellent Wonder Woman blog Straightened Circumstances, is going the online route.

This first print issue of Sensation Comics was pretty good.  The main story is “Gothamazon,” penned by former Wonder Woman writer Gail Simone and illustrated by the talented Ethan Van Sciver, with Marcelo Di Chiara pitching in to help out on a page.

After the various costumed criminals of Gotham City team up and ambush Batman, temporarily putting him out of action.  Barbara Gordon aka Oracle calls Wonder Woman in to pinch hit as Gotham’s protector to restore peace & order.

It was nice to have Simone back writing Wonder Woman, as well as Oracle, the latter of whom she always did a superb job scripting in Birds of Prey.  By thrusting Wonder Woman into the urban warfare of Gotham, the writer examines the various, sometimes conflicting, aspects of Princess Diana.  On the one hand, she is a warrior, a soldier who has fought on myriad battlefields, who will countenance tactics and solutions that other crime-fighters such as Batman would never approve.  On the other, Diana is also a force for love and peace, who hopes to find the best in all individuals.  Simone demonstrates that while such qualities may appear contradictory, in fact they complement one another.  Faced with the absolute ruthless insanity of such adversaries as the Joker and Two-Face, she comes to realize that facing them head on would require fighting them with their own methods, the utilization of lethal force.  But because of her nature, Diana is able to perceive an alternate path.  She recognizes that when brute strength fails, understanding and compassion may succeed.

Simone’s story highlights how Wonder Woman and Batman are such different individuals.  The Dark Knight’s rigid methodology of fighting fear with fear may work in the short term, but Diana, who is more interested in finding permanent, constructive solutions, perceives that openness towards alternative approaches can be more helpful in enacting lasting changes.  We even have Diana recruiting Catwoman and Harley Quinn as honorary Amazons to assist her in this mission.  It was fun to see the three of them side by side.

That said, sometimes punching the bad guy in the face does work wonders.  As Simone writes, “the closed fist has its charms, as well.”

Van Sciver’s art was quite good.  It was definitely stronger on the first several pages of “Gothamazon.”  In the middle of the story it did get somewhat looser and sketchier, losing some of the artist’s trademark hyper-detail.  Perhaps there were some deadline problems?  Still, putting that aside, on the whole Van Sciver does solid work, rendering some really dynamic layouts.  His characters are very expressive, both in their facial features and body language.

Sensation Comics 1 pg 14

I was not nearly as impressed with the back-up tale, “Defender of Truth,” written by Amanda Deibert, with artwork by Cat Staggs.  At ten pages, this one seemed too rushed.  Diana has a fight with Circe, who is doing something in Washington DC.  It is never explained what the mythical sorceress is up to, just that for some reason or another she’s animating statues at the National Cathedral and turning men into animals.

The strongest part of the story was its final two pages, where Diana shows up to tell a group of young boys that there is nothing wrong with liking “girl stuff.”  As she explains, “Being true to yourself is never wrong.”  One of the character’s central themes has always been empowerment, be it female empowerment, individual empowerment, or any other struggle to break free of marginalization by the greater part of society.

Cat Staggs is an artist I know from her cover artwork, as well as from Comic Art Fans where a variety of beautiful commissions and convention sketches that she’s created have been posted.  This must be the first time I’ve seen any interior art done by her.  Her work on “Defender of Truth” is pretty good, but I do think that her storytelling might need some improvement.  And some of her figures appear too photo-referenced.

Staggs’ best work was, interestingly enough, on those final two pages.  You can really tell that an artist is good at sequential illustration when they are able to make a “talking heads” scene, with characters conversing, compelling and dramatic.

I was also wondering why her rendition of Circe looked nothing like the character has in the past.  The sorceress has typically been depicted as having purple hair and wearing green outfits, at least ever since Perez revamped her post-Crisis.  Here, however, Circe is a blonde clad in a lavender costume.  That might be down to the colorist rather than Staggs, though.  And I don’t recall the character previously using a magic wand.

Sensation Comics 1 pg 30

While I would certainly not consider it an unqualified success, I still enjoyed Sensation Comics #1.  I definitely like the idea of a Wonder Woman anthology series with a laissez faire approach to continuity.  There is a lot of potential to the character of Princess Diana.  She is a great character with a rich history, and she lends herself to different interpretations & incarnations.  Among the creators who will be working on upcoming issues are Chris Sprouse, Gilbert Hernandez, and Dean Haspiel.  It sounds like there’s plenty to look forward to.

Fury of Firestorm #9 and the problem of making comic books accessible to new readers

There are two things that I really do not like about current mainstream superhero comic books, both of which I’ve mentioned in the past.  The first is decompressed plotting.  The second, which I am going to go into more detail today, is that the scripting on many series is simply not “new reader friendly.”

On more than one occasion, former Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter has commented that every issue of a comic book series is someone’s first.  Therefore each issue should contain enough information so that a new reader can quickly get up to speed.  Whatever you may think of Shooter, his is a valid point, one I firmly agree with.  I do not necessarily think you need two or three pages recapping previous issues, as typically was done in the past.  But a few narrative captions or lines of dialogue certainly would not hurt matters.  Regrettably, very few writers currently utilize this technique, and most editors do little to encourage them.

In other words, if someone were to randomly pick up an issue of any title currently published by DC or Marvel that they had never read before, there is a good chance that it would be difficult for that person to figure out what exactly is going on.  This problem really presented itself in The Fury of Firestorm: The Nuclear Men #9, which came out last week.

I picked up Fury of Firestorm #9 due to it crossing over with Justice League International #9, a title I have been reading regularly.  Firestorm, in contrast, is a character I’ve never been especially interested in.  The only time I ever followed the series was when Jamal Igle was penciling it several years ago.  So I was coming to this new Fury of Firestorm series without any knowledge about the characters’ current status quo post-Flashpoint.  In other words, FOF #9 really needed to be one of those “new reader friendly” books that I’m talking about.  Unfortunately, it was not.

Fury of Firestorm #9: at least it has a nice cover

FOF #9 is co-plotted by Ethan Van Sciver & Joe Harris, with the script by Harris.  Considering that the story was continued from the pages of JLI #9, I feel that Van Sciver & Harris, in writing this issue, should have kept in mind that some brand-new readers, such as myself, would be picking up FOF for the first time.  The script by Harris could have  informed readers who these characters are, given some background information, perhaps briefly recapped their origins.  This would not have been unduly awkward exposition, because the members of the Justice League have never met the Firestorms before.  So it would make perfect sense for Booster Gold and Batman to be asking these guys to explain who they were.

Harris, however, passed up this chance to introduce the book’s cast via the device of explaining it to the League.  So we have a group of atomic-powered superhumans fighting it out in Paris, and I am not really sure who any of them are.  In addition, there were a couple of brief scenes that took place somewhere in the Middle East involving two characters.  One was apparently Ronnie Raymond, who I remember as the original Firestorm from way back when.  The other…. well, he is not named.  I was totally in the dark about what was going on with them.

I feel Van Sciver & Harris missed a perfect opportunity to make Fury of Firestorm #9 a jumping-on point for the series.  Instead, I found much of the story to be confusing.  That’s too bad, because I was open to trying the series.  After all, I recall that when I picked up Blackhawks mid-run, I was in the dark about what was going on, but the writing by Mike Costa was both interesting and comprehensible enough to hook me, which led to me picking up the entire eight issue run.  Paul Levitz always does an excellent job at introducing the large cast and multiple subplots of Legion of Super-Heroes each issue.  In contrast, at least as far as the writing goes, there wasn’t anything in FOF #9 that made me especially intrigued to continue following the book.

Trust me, I don’t enjoy writing negative reviews like this.  Ethan Van Sciver is an incredible artist (also, I’ve also met him at conventions on a few occasions, and he seems like a nice guy).  Indeed, his cover artwork for FOF #9 is stunning.  Likewise, the interior artwork from Yildiray Cinar, Marlo Alquiza, and Norm Rapmund is equally good.  So it’s a real shame that the writing by Van Sciver & Harris did not match that high standard.

Not to single out Fury of Firestorm #9.  This particular comic book just seems to epitomize for me a problem emblematic of much of the industry.  I really feel it is one of the major reasons why comic book sales have continued to decline year after year.