Not All Comic Books, Part 1: DC Comics

This week has not been a good week to be a comic book fan. Hot on the tail of DC’s desperate attempt to abort its much-maligned ‘New 52’ continuity into its fourth reboot in ten years time – a misguided debacle that includes, amongst others, the revelation that the Joker is actually three people and that Dr. Manhattan of all people created the New 52 – Marvel turned Captain America into a literal nazi and then announced yet another rebranding, which for some inexplicable reason bears the same name as their rebranding from three years ago. Indeed, the comics industry showed off its absolute worst this week, and understandably, all that corporate bullshit led a lot of people to as the same, simple question:

Why do people even bother?

It’s a good question. Why do people bother keeping up with superhero comics? No matter how often they like to shake up the status quo for cheap shock value, nothing really matters: no hero stays dead, or evil, or de-powered and replaced. Yet somehow, Marvel and DC keep doing it. Just buying a comic book featuring your favourite hero is not even an option anymore. If you’re lucky enough to even be up to date with who’s who and where’s where, chances are still likely you’ll end up smack dab in the middle of yet another crossover, demanding you buy a dozen other books to even understand what’s going on. It’s all a bunch of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Pictured: The worst idea ever.

Pictured: The worst idea ever.

So why bother? Well, because superhero comics are pretty damn fun when they’re great. Amidst all the usual comics nonsense, parts of Marvel and later, DC as well, have been trying their hardest to make comic books colourful and fun, hilarious and inclusive, poignant and provocative, or even artistically ground-breaking again. While the Big Two’s suits drown their Batmen and Captains America in a mailstorm of continuity and corporate sensationalism, heroes on the fringe of Marvel and DC’s universes are mostly left to do whatever they please. As a result, spin-offs and comics featuring lesser-known or novelty characters often end up better than the big blockbuster books everyone is talking about. If you want to get into comics, but don’t like all the lousy executive meddling and sensationalism, give these currently ongoing or recently finished comics a shot. First up are the highlights of DC Comics‘ current lineup.

Ever since the company launched its New 52 reboot in 2011, DC has been trying desperately to get its mojo and its fans back, usually to no avail: Fans disliked the new, grimmer interpretations of Superman and Wonder Woman, beloved characters like the Teen Titans and the Green Lantern were left in the hands of incompetent writers, interesting characters got ditched like dirt (Batwoman!) while characters no one cares about got their own books (LarfleezeRed Hood and the Outlaws?) and attempts to bring back elements that made the old DC Universe so beloved only ended up making the whole thing even more convoluted. At times, it seemed like the entire company survived solely on Scott Snyder’s run on Batman, and even that book was a bit too self-indulgent and far too obsessed with shaking up the status quo, only to restore it mere months later. Luckily, some comics with the word ‘Bat’ in the title did in fact manage to ride its wave all the way to greatness:

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Batgirl, by Brenden Fletcher, Cameron Stewart & Babs Tarr

Issues #31-52, Batgirl Annual #3, Batgirl: Endgame #1, Secret Origins #10

Gail Simone’s run on Batgirl, which started off the character’s adventures post-reboot, was the perfect example of a great story constantly, forcibly derailed by obligations to fulfill vis-à-vis the ‘main’ Batman storyline. In the end, Simone got so fed up with the mandatory suffering she had to subject Barbara Gordon to that she quit after her 30th issue, leaving DC to sit down and think what they had wrought. And miraculously, this led them to make one of the very few good decisions they’ve made these last few years: They allowed Batgirl to have fun again. Simone’s replacements Brenden Fletcher and Cameron Stewart moved Babs to Burnside, the ‘hip’ neighborhood of Gotham, gave her a snazzy new suit and a newfound cheery disposition and made a lot of whiny manbabies very angry.

Despite starting at issue #31, Fletcher and Stewart’s run on Batgirl is a standalone story, with its own villains, themes, supporting cast and character arc for Barbara. Aside from one-issue appearances by Commissioner-Gordon-as-Batman and Dick Grayson the secret agent – both of which are totally a thing now – and an entirely optional tie-in issue to the big Endgame arc, Batgirl is entirely its own beast, which fits perfectly with its aim to appeal to young girls who have been turned off from comic books for various obvious reasons. While the comic sometimes seems like it’s trying just a bit too hard to be ‘hip’ and ‘cool’, the stories are often breezy and optimistic without sacrificing complexity or maturity, and Babs Tarr’s adorable artwork makes them worth reading for the pretty colours alone. Anyone who loves cool gals kicking butt will be right at home in Batgirl‘s Burnside.

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Gotham Academy, by Becky Cloonan, Brenden Fletcher, Karl Kerschl et al.

Gotham Academy #1-ongoing, Gotham Academy: Endgame #1

Sad but true: The lion’s part of interesting developments in the DC Universe took place in Gotham City, and the fact that even the adventures of a bunch of high school kids in Batman’s city were more interesting than, say, the extraterrestrial exploits of the Green Lantern Corps is quite telling. Gotham Academy is all about the Scooby-Doo-esque exploits of Olive Silverlock, an outcast who gets roped into solving paranormal mysteries happening at and around her prestigious high school, all the while running from her mysterious past. While Olive’s adventures take place far from the usual goings-on in the DC Universe, various members of Batman’s rogues gallery pop up in all kinds of cameos, with the Caped Crusader himself occasionally swooping in to be the grumpy adult on the Detective Club’s parties.

Due to these very loose ties to the main Batman continuity, Gotham Academy is a great fit for people familiar with the Bat-canon from movies or cartoons, but not up to date with its latest developments. What Gotham Academy does regularly cross over with, however, are Brenden Fletcher’s other two DC titles: Black Canary and the afore mentioned Batgirl. Barbara Gordon regularly drops by the Gotham Academy library, while Olive and co. will regularly namedrop companies or bands that play important roles in Fletcher’s version of Gotham City. It’s continuity done right – tiny references that will make dedicated readers feel part of a larger world, while flying right past newcomers, who remain entirely unaffected. This, combined with its intriguing arc plot, lovable characters and endearing retro vibe – anyone having any fond memories of stories featuring mysterious boarding schools will get an instant injection of nostalgia – make Gotham Academy worth checking out for anyone with any fondness for Batman’s world.

Or else…

Midnighter by Steve Orlando and Aco (Issues #1-ongoing), aka a gay, bloodthirstier Batman hunts down the mysterious stranger who robbed his boss and is selling her dangerous tech off to people with questionable motives. Despite the character being a leftover from an obscure, ill-fated team that got its own series at the start of the New 52, Orlando does a good job at reintroducing new readers to Midnighter’s world without treating them like preschoolers. Unfortunately, frequent crossovers make it hard to enjoy his adventures without being at least marginally aware of what’s going on elsewhere in the DC Universe.

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Black Canary by Brenden Fletcher & Annie Wu (Issues #1-#12), aka a super-soldier finds out she’s a pretty great singer and joins an up-and-coming indie band as they tour the States, with trouble in their wake. Another one by Fletcher, and similar in style to his other works, Black Canary has the added benefit of being a limited series, with a distinct beginning, middle and end. Though Black Canary is an established DC character, this series is her very first solo adventure in the ‘New 52’ universe, allowing new readers to hop on in without any prior knowledge – though reading it alongside Batgirl and Gotham Academy is certainly is a plus. Hey, at least having to read three great books to get the definitive experience beats having to read seven lame ones to be able to puzzle together a story that still won’t make a lick of sense. It doesn’t get much better than this, folks.

DC Universe Bombshells by Marguerite Bennett and Marguerite Sauvage (Issues #1-ongoing), aka what if the DC Universe took place during World War II and all the men were off fighting? Bombshells is a fun-tastic anthology series featuring alternate-universe versions of DC’s most famous female characters in the 1940s. And nazis! The stories vary wildly in nature and scope, yet the tone is always light-hearted and endearingly pulpy, while the series’ what-if setting allows it to ignore mainstream comic book bullshit, and even make some fan-favourite fantasies, such as the Harley Quinn/Poison Ivy pairing, a reality. Also Batwoman is a professional baseball player. Get it? Because she’s bat-woman? This is the kind of greatness you can expect, folks.

Next time, we’ll take a look at those evil es jay double you’s who generally kick DC’s ass when it comes to innovation, diversity and just straight-up knowing how to have fun, but might actually be worse at them in terms of overblown crossovers and pointless rebranding: It’s Marvel, baby!

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