Author Archives: Jon Carroll

Anthony Desiato Takes Us on a Tour and Talks My Comic Shop Country

In 2010 Anthony Desiato began his chronicle of Alternate Realities, a comic shop in southern Westchester, where he had once worked, manning the counter along with a cast of characters that is not easily forgotten. He would follow My Comic Shop Documentary with a series of short features and My Comic Shop History, a podcast that explores one store’s place within the broader framework of the comics industry at large. In his latest feature, My Comic Shop Country, he sets off on an odyssey to discover what makes some of the best local comic shops in America so great.

Anthony was kind enough to answer a few questions about his new project over email.

Graphic Policy: You’ve spoken a lot on your podcast about how you became interested in comics but my impression is that you’re almost as much of a film guy as a comic guy. What was it that got you interested in making films instead of say creating comics?

Anthony Desiato: It’s hard to say why I never really felt that pull to try my hand at writing a comic (at least not yet). As far as film, though, Clerks was a big early influence in my thinking that maybe I could make my own movie one day. Couple that with my journalism background in undergrad, and I think the path to documentary filmmaker gets a little clearer. And since most of my creative output as a documentarian has involved comics, I’ve been able to combine my two greatest interests.

My Comic Shop Country

GP: One thing that struck me about the proprietors of a lot of the stores you visited was that very few seemed to have much, if any, retail experience prior to opening up or being hired at their shops. How much do you think that has helped them to succeed or held them back?

AD: I loved putting that little sequence together where some of our retailers reveal their backgrounds. We have a former teacher, house-builder, and insurance salesman, to name a few. I don’t think the lack of formal business training is necessarily a roadblock, especially since the comics retail model is sort of its own beast. I think the harder task is taking your hobby and turning it into a career and finding the balance between fan and businessperson.

GP: You and I both grew up in Westchester County between the early nineties and the early 2000s, you in Scarsdale and me in New Rochelle. We both remember the vibrant community of shops that existed throughout the county in those days and which has since contracted quite a bit despite its proximity to the heartland of comics publishing in NYC. Did you notice a similar pattern in other areas you visited where a large number of shops had been whittled down to a few?

AD: Not particularly, though I can’t say I was investigating that angle in a significant way for this project. To your point, though, the Westchester comics scene was certainly something to behold, and it’s striking to see how much it’s changed. It’s weird to think that you once had Dragon’s Den and 1 If By Cards 2 If By Comics across the street from each other and Alternate Realities half a mile up the road, and now only one of them (1 If, now American Legends) is still operating and only does a little bit of comics. Westchester is quite the microcosm for the industry as a whole in terms of its contraction.

GP: One thing a lot of comic shop programming like Comic Book Men or You Tube’s Comic Book Palace tend to focus on is talk about actual comic stories but your features have tended to focus on things like personalities or business rather than whether Plastic Man is better than Punisher. What’s the thinking behind this more sociological approach?

AD: It’s definitely a conscious effort on my part to chart a different path, and there are a few factors driving this approach. At my old comic shop, Alternate Realities, we certainly all came together initially over a shared love of comics, but in terms of what fascinated me about that place, the comics were really secondary. It was the personalities, particularly of the owner and some of our more colorful community members. So that was my starting point: the people. For me, comic shops have been a wonderful backdrop and vehicle to tell human interest stories, and I suppose that’s where my ultimate interest lies. Regarding that Plastic Man v. Punisher debate in Country, I’m far more interested in the fact that those guys are having that conversation, and why they feel comfortable to do so, than I am about the specifics of their argument. Also, as much as comics fans are the natural target audience for my projects, I genuinely believe they can speak to a wider audience, and the more sociological approach, as you put it, is sort of aimed at that.

GP: Were there any stores you would have liked to include but couldn’t due to timing, travel issues or lack of a personal connection to the store owner?

AD: I’m genuinely pleased with the mix of shops in the film, and I 100 percent believe I was able to tell the story I needed and wanted to with them. Would someplace like Mile High Comics been cool to visit and include, especially given the sheer size of their operation? Sure. But no regrets on the casting front.

GP: This is a time unlike any other in the history of the comics industry. How are the stores you profiled coping with the pandemic and the hopefully temporary implosion of the comics distribution system? What’s the most interesting response you’ve seen to Covid-19 as you’ve followed up with your subjects?

AD: Almost every shop I follow is adapting in some way, whether it’s curbside pickup, mail-order, live video sales, or some mixture. They’re spotlighting older content, making mystery boxes, and engaging more via social media (and video in particular). It’s legitimately inspiring to see what they’re doing to keep product moving. I don’t know that there’s any one thing I can point to as most interesting per se, but I have been very impressed by the speed with which they’ve adapted. Necessity is the mother of invention, of course, but still. I tip my hat to them. And it’s amazing to see customers rally around these efforts.

GP: Now more than ever change is inevitable. What do you think is the biggest change that is needed for the American comic book store as we know it to survive? What does the future of comic book retail look like in 2025?

AD: There’s a lot to unpack there. People always seem very quick to declare the comics retail industry dead. I certainly do worry about shops weathering this, especially smaller, younger stores with maybe a small customer base or lack of reserve funds. But overall, I think shops will endure as they have in the past and as they are right now. We’ve seen shops pivot in so many creative ways during this time when they’ve had to keep their doors closed and didn’t even have new product flowing. I definitely think that many of these innovations–Facebook and Instagram Live sales, online ordering, and so on–will become a regular part of the workflow. I am curious about whether DC will continue to distribute through other channels besides Diamond once this crisis has passed. Big-picture, though, as far as what change I feel is most needed? I’m sure a lot of retailers would point to returnability or something along those lines. But I genuinely think there needs to be a large-scale awareness campaign about comics undertaken not even by publishers, but by their parent companies. Improving efficiencies in the day-to-day of the comics retail industry is certainly needed, but really taking a wide view, there needs to be true growth.

GP: Do you think that there is anything more for you to say about comics after three documentaries and 6 seasons of the podcast? What other topics would you like to explore within comics and without?

AD: Ha, are you saying I should give it a rest? Candidly, I’m currently weighing my options about where to take the podcast in the future as well as where to turn my attention film-wise. On the film side, I don’t necessarily see myself doing something shop-centric again. I feel I said what I needed and wanted to say about shops in Country. Looking ahead, I was developing an idea for another film elsewhere in the comic book world, but the pandemic and its fallout have made me rethink it a bit. As far as the podcast, you know I like to shake up the theme each season. I definitely feel like I told a full-circle story on the podcast from 2015 to 2020. What the next story is hasn’t quite revealed itself to me just yet, but I’m sure it will. The aftermath of the pandemic sure seems like the obvious choice, but I think there may actually be a different path forward.

GP: If Alternate Realities were to somehow return from the dead in true comic book fashion as a permanent store, what would be the perfect location for it to return assuming its old spot were unavailable?

AD: While the spirit of AR could theoretically be reborn anywhere, in my ideal scenario it’d be somewhere on Central Avenue in lower Westchester. While rents tend to be quite high there, it’s such a major artery in the area that you can pull folks in from all parts. And given AR’s long history on Central, its return there would make quite a splash.

Review: Conan the Barbarian #1

CONAN THE BARBARIAN #1

I was skeptical when Marvel announced they had reacquired the rights to publish comics based on Robert E Howard’s Cimmerian adventure. Conan is one of my favorite characters but Howard’s vision was a singular one and few creators have matched his best work let alone bettered it. Where else do you go after comics have adapted every good Conan story at least twice? How could new Conan comics be anything other than superfluous additions to a canon that didn’t need expansion?

Jason Aaron proves me wrong by approaching Conan in a way that is both original and familiar. Conan confronts the Crimson Witch, a supernatural foe bent on his destruction. It’s a thin plot but Aaron’s choice to set the story at two different points in Conan’s career elevates the material. The bulk of the action takes place when Conan is a teenage pit fighter, but fast forwards to his days as a middle-aged King. The change in perspective allows the reader to compare and contrast Conan’s attitudes towards life as a young man and an adult while giving us the fulfillment of a single issue story embedded within a longer, more complex story arc. There is also a promise implicit in the premier title: The Life and Death of Conan. I don’t imagine for a second that Marvel will kill off such a major property forever but I’m excited to watch the comic book death and resurrection narrative play out with Conan at its center.

Mahmud Asrar was the right artist to pair with Aaron’s bracing script. His line work is adept at capturing the brutality and sensuality of the Hyborian age, aided by Matthew Wilson’s palette of muted earth tones and brilliant reds. Letterer Travis Lanham’s copy is as easy to read as it is inconspicuous. This is an excellent comic, crafted by creators working at the peak of their skills. Any fan of Conan or Howard will find something here to love. The character’s long history should not intimidate new readers; they summarize everything you need to know out on the first two  pages. Conan the Barbarian is one of the best fantasy comic debuts in years.

It’s not a perfect book, however. The problem lies in context. The new Conan is a throwback to the days when Roy Thomas, Barry Smith and John Buscema first translated Howard’s work from pulp fiction to sequential art. There’s nothing wrong with that but I can’t help think Comics Gate will be happy to see such a work of apolitical adventure fiction dominating sales charts. Conan himself is too close to their ideal: a blue-eyed juggernaut who takes what he wants be it wine, women or the right to rule a nation by main strength. While there is nothing as offensive as racist caricatures or sexual violence here, there is also nothing to refute their presence elsewhere in the saga. It’s an uncritical appreciation of Howard’s work with no acknowledgement of its more problematic elements. I hope Aaron and company delve deeper in future installment because it would be a shame to see a comic with this much promise turn out to be just another pale pastiche.

Story: Jason Aaron Art: Mahmud Asrar 
Colors: Matthew Wilson Letters: Travis Lanham
Story: 8.5 Art: 9.0 Overall: 8.75 Recommendation: Buy

Marvel Comics provided Graphic Policy with a free copy for the purposes of this review but I went ahead and bought one anyway. 

Movie Review: Aquaman

Aquaman

One of the great joys of reading superhero comics is the eclectic nature of their inspiration. The genre has drawn on everything from pulp fiction to mythology, creating a body of work that is idiosyncratic and often gloriously absurd. Superhero movies, however, have tended to eschew this everything but the kitchen sink approach to present more grounded, realistic visions of the world they are trying to represent.

James Wan’s Aquaman is the first movie I have seen that really felt like reading a comic rather than just watching an adaptation of one. It’s the story of Arthur Curry, the son of an Atlantean queen and a human lighthouse keeper who must claim his birthright to stop his evil half-brother, Orm from becoming Ocean Master and waging a war of vengeance upon the surface world. The plot follows the same sort of meandering structure one would expect of a story being spread across five issues rather than three acts and its influences are pulled from across the cultural landscape including comics, film and mythology.  Wan’s visuals are spectacular presenting us with a lot of old concepts that feel fresh in the new light of his directorial vision. I was never really surprised but I wasn’t bored either. The characters are  archetypal and they fill their roles in the story with a good humor that is missing from more serious movies of this genre while never descending into parody.

Aquaman’s  greatest flaw is that the script itself is weak, relying far too heavily on tired tropes and cliched dialog for its own good. The first forty five minutes are a slog through a morass of set-up and exposition accompanied by some very dodgy CGI that makes several actors look more like cartoons or the victims of an over-enthusiastic plastic surgeon. The performances are mediocre overall though it’s hard to say whether they might have been improved with better material. Jason Momoa and Amber Heard  manage to plow through on shear charisma and almost impossible levels of raw sex appeal but I am forced to admit that Momoa’s range as an actor is limited to playing versions of himself. The comparison has been made to Flash Gordon but Aquamanlacks an actor of Max von Sydow’s talents to lend it weight and one of Brian Blessed’s exuberance to lift it up.  

Aquaman isn’t a great movie. It’s not going to win any Oscars and it may well be largely forgotten a year after its home viewing release. In spite of all its defects however  I enjoyed it more than any other superhero movie I’ve seen this year even if both Black Panther and Infinity War were better made.  Aquaman wears its soul on it’s sleeve and while there are moments where it struggles to stay afloat, it still manages to keep its head above water.

Overall Rating: 8 Recommendation: See

Around The DC Universe: Titans, Jason Todd, The Longbow Hunters, and More!

Welcome to “Around the DC Universe,” Graphic Policy’s weekly guide to the best comics and shows on DC Entertainment’s premium subscription service.

Original Series

After a week away from this column I had a bit of catching up to do with Titans. The show continues to be one of the best that DC has ever produced, finally bringing the team together in one episode and introducing the second Robin, Jason Todd in another. With the series entering its second half the characters are really starting to gel as a group. It’s a lot of fun to see the chemistry between them at work and watching Dick take on the villainous Nuclear Family as Robin was tremendously satisfying. Jason too is very well done. There aren’t many portrayals of the character to hold up against Curran Walters’ for comparison but he does a good job defining him nonetheless. Walters’ Jason evokes the blend of sympathy and disdain that the character demands with a screen presence that is magnetic. He’s a great addition to the regular ensemble and I hope to see more of him as the series develops.

Comics

One of the earliest series I recommended through this column was Kevin Smith’s run on Green Arrow. This time around I call your attention to another classic story featuring the emerald archer: The Longbow Hunters by writer/artist Mike Grell. From the same era as Miller and Mazzuchelli’s Batman Year One and Tim Truman’s Hawkworld, this three issue mini series reintroduced Oliver Queen to the post-Crisis DC Universe. Grell’s Ollie is a grounded, urban vigilante on the hunt for a serial killer who stalks the streets of Seattle amidst a much larger affair involving rogue intelligence operatives and mysterious assassins. Fans of the TV show Arrow will recognize many familiar elements in the mini series itself and the follow up ongoing series with artist Ed Hannigan, several issues of which are also available on DC Universe in Green Arrow (1987). While the art is gorgeous and the stories compelling in their own right I do think this run is missing something. A notably conservative creator Grell never fully embraces the liberal politics that have been one of  Oliver’s trademarks ever since Denny O’Neill and Neal Adams got their hands on him in the late seventies.  One might expect a critique of the lefist point of view, coming as the series does at the height of the Reagan era, but ideology is mostly ignored to the detriment of the characterization of comics’ proudest liberal. While it does strike slightly right of the bullseye, The Longbow Hunters is still a high water mark in Green Arrow’s career and is worth the attention of anyone who is interested in his adventures.

Technical Issues

The addition and subtraction of new comics remains the biggest problem with the DC Universe service. As I reported several weeks ago, the powers that be seem to be discussing how to improve the comics portion of the site by changing how the library is curated. What this means is still being left vague by the moderators of the community forums but the sense of disaffection among users is palpable. Nothing has been added to the comics library to replace Dark Victory after that title expired on November 12th and there have been no announcements about any forthcoming special features.

While I appreciate DC’s commitment to using subscriber feedback to improve the user experience, by not continuing  to rotate new special feature titles while they discuss a fix they’re giving the impression to anyone who doesn’t follow the community forums that they’ve abandoned comics streaming as a feature. Coming on the heels of the demise of Filmstruck it doesn’t breed confidence in Warner Brothers’ long term commitment to this product or its users. I for one think that there is a lot of untapped potential in DC Universe and would hate to see it fail to live up to it. 

Around the DC Universe: Titans, Doom Patrol, Dark Victory, and Green Lantern

Welcome to “Around the DC Universe,” Graphic Policy’s continuing feature that helps you get the most out of your subscription to DC’s premier comic book and video streaming service.

Originals

This week Titans introduced their version of The Doom Patrol. I’m not particularly knowledgeable about any of the comic book versions of the team but I did enjoy watching this episode. Brendan Fraser especially stood out as Robot Man, striking a perfect balance between goofiness and pathos that made me want to watch more.

I hate to say it but the one part of this show I’m not loving is Starfire/Kory Anders. Anna Diopp does a fine job of portraying the character but I don’t think the writers really know what to do with her.  Her costume is also completely ridiculous. I was willing to accept it in the beginning since it made sense in the context in which she’s introduced but four episodes (and a transatlantic flight) later the fact that she’s still wearing it stretches the bounds of credibility by making her stick out like a sore thumb. Hopefully the whole crew will be due for a change of clothes soon.

Special Features

Last Tuesday Batman: Dark Victory was added to the service for a limited time (they’ll be taking it down November 11th). This sequel to The Long Halloween, which features the fallout of the Holiday murders on the Gotham underworld and a version of Robin’s origin, is an improvement on the original but it does rely on it rather heavily for the purposes of continuity. It’s probably not the best choice if you steered clear of The Long Halloween and its not good enough in my opinion to make reading The Long Halloween worth it. If you ignored my advice or if you’re only discovering this column after learning that the original was not your taste, then check it out. It’s by far Jeph Loeb’s most readable epic.

Comics

If you were hoping for some Green Lantern comics to go along with the release of the first issue of Grant Morrison and Liam Sharp’s run, then prepare to be disappointed. DC Universe’s current selection is rather spotty and missing some well regarded material including most of the classic runs by Denny O’Neil/Neal Adams and Geoff Johns. The best stuff currently available to binge are the first twenty issues of Hal Jordan’s original series from the 1960s with stories by John Broome and art by Gil Kane. While these comics are plenty goofy (as well as being full of the casual racism and sexism of the silver age) they are still worth reading as historical documents. It was editor Julius Schwartz’s reinvention of Green Lantern (along with The Flash) that set the tone for a new generation of comics. Gil Kane is perhaps the best representative of DC’s silver age style with his dynamic sense of motion and more modern page layouts (though he would not really hit his stride until later in the run when he began to ink himself) and Broome managed to weave entertaining science-fiction yarns that saw Hal adventuring across both time and space, introducing key concepts and characters along the way.

Around the DC Universe: Titans, Swamp Thing, and More!

Originals

Stuff is finally starting to come together on Titans. This week saw Starfire and Beast Boy pulled into the main thread alongside Dick and Rachel. I like how they’re using Starfire to add an element of real mystery to Raven’s story line. Just about everyone knows what Rachel’s big reveal is but it will be interesting to see exactly how Kory fits into it. That said, after the Hawk and Dove episode I’m worried they won’t keep her core background as an alien intact. The juxtaposition of sci-fi and fantasy elements is a feature of superhero comics that has been largely neglected on TV and it would be nice for Titans to break the mold.

Comics

Between Halloween and recent casting news regarding the upcoming Swamp Thing series, this is the perfect time to read some of the best horror comics ever published by DC or anyone else. Alan Moore‘s run on The Saga of Swamp Thing is one of the high water marks of the medium as groundbreaking as The Dark Knight Returns or Watchmen and maybe even more influential by virtue of the fact that it was an ongoing monthly series. The earliest issues with art by Stephen Bissette and and John Tottlebein are currently on DC Universe and it actually stands apart from the bulk of the run quite well though you do miss out on the early appearances of John Constantine. What’s here is more than worth it, a look into some of the murkier corners of the DC Universe including a guided tour of Hell itself. Be warned that there are many uncomfortable themes including rape, incest and necrophilia. These are not comics for the squeamish either. No evokes the corrupting atmosphere of body horror quite like the team of Bissette and Totlebein. If you’re a big fan of movies like John Carpenter’s The Thing or David Cronenberg’s The Fly, then The Saga of Swamp Thing is a must read. Available on DC Universe in The Saga of The Swamp Thing (1982) #21-34 and Swamp Thing Annual (1985) #2. Read the Swamp Thing Annual between issues 31 & 32.

Technical Issues

After almost 2 months since release it’s time for an update on technical issues. Overall I’d say DC Universe has gotten a lot better. The community portion of the site has added moderator tags and restricted one of the boards to moderator posts so it’s much easier to get official announcements.The inability to directly interact with other users remains a stumbling block but there has been improved functionality in terms of what you can post and the ability to bookmark threads. Communication  is greatly improved but there are still blind spots. Death of Superman was up for the better part of October missing key issues in the story. This was never addressed despite the fact that this was pointed out by myself and other users in several spots on the community and through direct communication with customer service using the form available through the app itself.

The rotation of special feature comic titles continues to prove frustrating. While DC has mostly been adding worthwhile titles on a regular schedule, the rate at which they rotate out is inconsistent and you have to dig to find out how long a given issue will be available. It would be nice to know in advance how much time there is to read a given special feature without have to trawl through a message board. Similarly three out of four issues of Batman: Year One, which I had thought would be part of the regular library until at least the end of this month, mysteriously vanished while issues of Batman ’66 seemed to appear without warning.

To add a further wrinkle to the matter DC originally stated that their full digital library would be available for purchase in October, presumably at a per issue price similar to ComiXology (though DC has stated that the two services’ libraries will not sync meaning you would need to purchase a book twice to read it on both apps). This note has now been replaced with one that states more comics are coming soon. Whether this means that DC is planning to retool DC Universe to have an unlimited library similar to Marvel’s remains to be seen. It does seem unlikely that DC, a company that relies far much on “evergreen” trades like The Dark Knight Returns or Watchmen, would want to hazard risking those sales by making such titles available digitally for such a low price point (especially given the cost of producing their original shows) but there is also a lot of discontent in the community with the current vault approach. If anyone from DC is reading this I would suggest a hybrid approach: regular monthly titles released in a style similar to Marvel Unlimited with a six month or even a year lead time to preserve comic shop sales and a rotating, themed  selection of the best selling boutique material in trade. This should allow for a better value for money for readers who are primarily interested in new material while DC is able to maintain the value of their older titles.

Around the DC Universe: Hawk and Dove Debut, Long Halloween, and Gotham Knight

Welcome to Around the DC Universe, Graphic Policy’s continuing feature that helps you get the most out of your subscription to DC’s premier comic book and video streaming service.

Originals

Last Friday saw the premier of the second episode of DC Universe’s first original series Titans introducing the characters of Hawk and Dove. I was a little thrown off by the fact that they seem to be portrayed as ordinary vigilantes rather than the avatars of peace and war respectively.  Still the writers and actors managed to make their troubled love story compelling, especially at the climax of the episode, a not quite cliffhanger which left me hungry for more. The series is really going from strength to strength by focusing on Dick and Rachel’s relationship and their troubled pasts. It’s must see TV for me at this point and if I had the opportunity I would be binge watching it right now.

Special Features

On Tuesday DC Universe added Batman: The Long Halloween just in time for the holiday next week. Conceived as a sequel of sorts to Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s Batman Year One, The Long Halloween features a collection of Batman’s greatest villains serving as foils for the Dark Knight while he investigates a series of murders by the mysterious Holiday Killer. While this story by Jeph Loeb with art by Tim Sale sounds tempting it’s one of the most overrated Batman stories of all time in my opinion. Despite drawing inspiration from everything from Miller’s seminal work to films like The Godfather and Silence of the Lambs, Loeb and Sale can’t manage more than a murky mystery with an uncertain conclusion (I’ve read it at least four times and I still can’t quite figure out who Holiday is supposed to be). While some of the hero versus villain vignettes are amusing (particularly the Joker standing in as the Grinch) The Long Halloween never rises to become more than the sum of its parts.

Comics

Fortunately there are much better Batman stories available on DC Universe for you to read as you get ready for trick or treat.

Start with Batman: Madness- A Legends of the Dark Knight Halloween Special also by Loeb and Sale. It was one  of a series of Halloween themed one shots that was the inspiration for The Long Halloween and is infinitely better. This issue features The Mad Hatter and displays the deft character work that Loeb was known for before he transitioned into writing continuity dense epics focusing as much on Jim Gordon and his relationships with his wife and his young daughter Barbara as it does on Batman and the Hatter.

In Batman: The Last Arkham the Dark Knight finds himself an inmate of the infamous Arkham Asylum. Viewers of Batman: The Animated Series will find elements reminiscent of the season one episode “Dreams in Darkness” but the comic also features the debut of the villainous Zsasz and some truly exceptional art by the late, great Norm Breyfogle. This is truly one of the highlight of Breyfogle’s career defining run on the character with writer Alan Grant, producing a creepy, atmospheric romp through Gotham’s house of madness. Available on DC Universe in Batman: Shadow of the Bat(1992) #1-4.

Last but not least is a short but legendary series of stories from Detective Comics by writer Steve Engelhart and artist Marshall Rogers. While this run is mostly remembered for its ending (“The Joker’s Laughing Fish”) that story doesn’t really hold up quite as well without the context of those that preceded it. These are tremendously influential comics inspiring not one but two episodes of the Animated Series and reinventing the character of Deadshot from a goofy silver age nemesis to a modern super villain. It’s also way ahead of its time in creating a true multi-issue arc.  Rogers’ work is still the definitive Batman for many fans who were lucky enough to read it growing up and it remains a high water mark of the era. Available on DC Universe in Detective Comics (1937) #471-476.

TV and Movies

While there is no shortage of Batman related features on the service’s video streaming section at the moment a good one you might have missed is Batman: Gotham Knight.Set in continuity with Christopher Nolan’s Batman films between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight  this is an animated anthology uniting western writers, including Greg Rucka and Brian Azzarello with Japanese directors to create one of the most successful fusions of super heroes and anime ever. Azzarello’s segment (“Working Through the Pain”) is a highlight and one of the best Batman stories ever written: the tale of how a young Bruce Wayne learned to deal with the pain of physical injury in India.

Around the DC Universe: Titans Debuts

Welcome once again to Graphic Policy’s regular roundup of the best, the worst and the goofiest content on DC Universe, the premier subscription service for all things from DC Entertainment.

Originals

A new heading gets added to the feature this week with the much anticipated debut of Titans, the first DC Universe exclusive original series. Early reactions to the series’ teaser material was decidedly mixed with many fans decrying what appeared to be it’s dark and gritty tone and the open use of profanity, especially when associated with a franchise with many younger fans thanks to the animated series Teen Titans (also available on DC Universe) and Teen Titans Go!

I was honestly surprised by how much I enjoyed the premier episode. The show is indeed dark and gritty but the tone works really well to provide a fresh take on thirty year old material that has been adapted several times before.

In this iteration Titans is very much an examination of young people coping with trauma, a theme that is all too relevant in the wake of #metoo and a generation of young veterans suffering from PTSD. Raven (played by Tegan Croft) is the real standout of the show and much of what occurs is seen from her viewpoint, something that makes the tone very apropos. I was a little worried that they were going to draw Dick Grayson too far towards the rendition from All Star Batman and Robin but Brenton Thwaites retains an essential likeability and vulnerability even while brutally wading into criminals with no quarter asked or given. “Fuck Batman” was a shocking and needlessly edgy line in the trailer but in the context in which it used it did work for me. I’d go so far as to say that this portrayal of the “boy” wonder might be the definitive live action one for a generation.

If there’s a flaw in the first episode it’s that Anna Diop’s Starfire is too far divorced from Robin and Raven’s plotline for much of the runtime. I get the feeling they were trying to make her mysterious but she came across as more of a distraction than anything else. Hopefully their paths will dovetail together next week. While I’m mostly over the idea of R (or in this case TV MA) rated superheroes I think it does work here.

One episode is not enough to justify $75 for a year’s subscription but if the rest of the season is as good or better a month or two to binge the entire thing will certainly be worth it.

Comics

I’ve been busy catching up on analog comics for the last two weeks so I haven’t spent as much time reading on DC Universe as usual. One title I did get to finish though was Hawk and Dove (2011) by artist Rob Liefeld, scripted for the first five issues by Sterling Gates and done solo by Liefeld for the last three. Hawk and Dove‘s cardinal sin isn’t that it’s bad; it’s that its boring. At no point in this run do we get a sense of the characters as anything other than generic super heroes. There’s nothing compelling here, no reason why we should care what happens to anyone. The story also seems to be a continuation of threads laid down in a previous series, an odd choice given that the New 52 was supposed to be a fresh start for all but the most successful DC titles. It’s not even worth it for Liefeld fans as his work here feels rushed and bland. It’s almost like he lost interest or ran out of time halfway through, producing  a forgettable story and a poor introduction to the characters.

A much better use of your time is the first six issues of All Star Western (2011) written by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray with artwork by Moritat. Bringing Jonah Hex to Gotham City in the late nineteenth century was a stroke of brilliance and making his sidekick Amadeus Arkham makes for some great odd couple dynamics as the two try to solve a series of murders similar to the Jack the Ripper killings. The art (reminiscent of the french master Moebius) is in turns sexy, and disturbing and never less than brilliant. The only bad thing I can say about these comics is that there are not enough of them. All Star Western ran longer than any of the other New 52 launch titles without traditional superhero leads and only the first trade’s worth of material is available to read online with a DC Universe subscription. Hopefully more will be uploaded soon as these are some of the best comics produced by a major company in recent years and the series only gets better from here.

Around the DC Universe: What to Check Out this Week in Movies, TV, and Comics!

Welcome back to Around the DC Universe Graphic Policy’s regular examination of the best and worst content on DC Entertainment’s premier streaming service.

Special Features

For the next few weeks DC Universe will be expanding their selection of issues from the original run of The New Teen Titans (1980) by Marv Wolfman and George Perez in the lead up to the premier of the Titans TV series (the first episode drops October 12th). DC is being cagey about how long issues will remain on the service so my recommendation is to read them as soon as possible because they are really good. Wolfman’s writing, while somewhat dated, holds up better than any of his contemporaries (with the possible exception of Chris Claremont) and Perez’s art improves with every issue reaching towards the pinnacle of his artistic achievement. It’s one of the best books of its era and a masterclass in the form that today’s creators can still draw upon for inspiration. Of particular note is issue #8 (“A Day in the Life”) a nice character piece that fleshes out the series three original creations (Starfire, Cyborg and Raven) and brings them closer to the characters we’ve come to know and love.

Movies and TV

Last week I warned you away from Superman: Doomsday and now I am happy to report that this year’s The Death of Superman is a much more successful adaptation of the original source material (which is still available to read). I love how the creators tied the escalation of the Lois and Clark romance into the fight between Superman and Doomsday. When Lois tells Clark that she loves him for the first time right before he sacrifices himself to save her and Metropolis I was moved to tears. The buildup to the climactic battle is great and the fight itself is even more epic than the one captured in the comics due to better staging and the fact that they used a much more iconic Justice League to really drive home how much of a threat Doomsday really was. The funeral sequence feels a little protracted but it is a nice coda and serves to really whet the appetite for Reign of the Supermen set to be released next year.

I know I’m a bit late to the party here but with the long awaited third season promised to drop soon I decided that it was past time to catch up on Young Justice. I really enjoy how they handle the broader DC Universe, pulling in odd little deep cuts here and there. They are fun easter eggs if you’re familiar with what’s being referenced but not completely confusing if you don’t.  If I have one criticism it’s that in the early episodes they tend to focus on obscure D-list villains in favor of more potent antagonists but this problem seems to be resolving about half way through the series with appearances by Lex Luthor, Ras Al Ghul and the Joker.  

Comics

Green Arrow is a really difficult character to get right. Thus far the best presentation I’ve seen is The CW’s Arrow  but Kevin Smith’s 2000 comic book run is a close second. In Quiver, Oliver Queen returns from the dead with amnesia. He believes that he’s just back from some hard travel with his friend Green Lantern Hal Jordan but years have passed and the world has changed. Regardless of what you may think of his movies Smith knows how to write comics well: his sense of action is flawless and his dialog pithy and on point. Phil Hester’s art is hit or miss for me but his simple sense of style works well here and is a nice complement to Smith’s wordplay. I can’t unequivocally recommend this book since there is some non-explicit sexual situations involving a young girl that some might find triggering (especially given recent events) and a supporting character who is pretending to be a fairly cringeworthy trope but if these are not deal breakers for you the storytelling is of a quality that it is worth reading. Available on DC Universe in Green Arrow (2000-) #1-10.

If you are looking for something a bit more modern there are several arcs available from Geoff Johns’ 2007 Action Comics run with Superman director Richard Donner. In Escape From Bizarro World (with artist Eric Powell) Superman must save Pa Kent from his imperfect clone and a planet full of his offspring (including a Bizarro Justice League). Braniac (with artist Gary Frank) tells the story of the first true confrontation between Superman and one of his arch foes, the evil alien mastermind from the planet Colu. While Johns’ brand of decompressed storytelling isn’t for everyone, this is a case where it works fairly well. It’s an interesting run as the writers seem to be intent on adding elements of both the pre-Crisis comics continuity and the Christopher Reeve Superman films into the stripped-down framework previously established by John Byrne in his 1987 reboot. These stories actually read better taken outside the context of the character’s broader continuity adrift  as they are adrift between major periods of the Superman canon. The tone of Braniac may also feel familiar to those who are following Mark Andreyko and Kevin Maguire’s current run on Supergirl making for interesting comparisons between the two. Available on DC Universe in Action Comics (1938-) #855-857 and #866-870.

Around the DC Universe: So How is It?

It’s an understatement to say that I was excited for the release of DC Universe. Since the service was first announced over a year ago I’ve been regularly scouring the internet for news, checking my email for updates and pestering the company’s customer service department for information through a variety of social media outlets. After a short beta test DC Universe finally launched and I’ve spent almost every single free minute since trying to experience everything it has to offer. 

I’ve gotten more into the specifics of what I’ve been reading and watching but I want to focus on the nuts and bolts of the service itself and discuss who I think will get the most out of it.

A quick note on devices before we begin: I have been accessing DC Universe using the app on my Android phone, streaming to my TV via Chromecast. I’ve tried several time to use the browser on my Chromebook but I’ve had little success.  

Movies and TV

For a lot of fans the movie and TV portion of DC Universe is what will make or break it. Fortunately I think it’s also the strongest category at the moment. I watched a variety of programming this weekend and found that the interface worked well and was user friendly. There were quite a few problems with videos pausing in the middle of the day Saturday but less than I expected given the heavy volume that they were almost certainly experiencing.  There is a good selection of movies and shows for fans of all ages. Choices tend to skew towards older material though so you won’t find any of the current CW shows, Gotham or the DC Extended Universe films.  You can watch the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, the 90s Flash show and most of the DC Animated Universe (with the exception of The New Batman Adventures and The Zeta Project). DC’s original animated features are also very well represented including some of the most recent (Gotham by Gaslight, Death of Superman and Ninja Batman). It’s nice that most of the shows are presented with all of their seasons intact for convenient binging but there are some odd omissions (notably The Dark Knight Rises, the only Nolan Batfilm that wasn’t added for Batman Day). There are also some surprising choices like The Spirit TV pilot and The Human Target series both of which I had forgot even existed until I opened up the app.

Comics

While Marvel has had their Unlimited service available for over a decade, DC has been conspicuously absent from the field of comics streaming, the only major hold out. What most excited me about DC Universe was the ability to read their titles electronically without having to pay a la carte through ComiXology or another eStore. Early on it was announced that the selection available would be curated. What this meant was left vague causing concern for many and prompting some not to pre-order.

Now that the service is available I can honestly say it’s a bit of a mixed bag. The selection of comics is extensive but it doesn’t seem anywhere close to the thousands of titles that were mentioned in early promotional materials. Many series (including stand alone mini series like New Frontier and All Star Superman as well as the recent Rebirth series) have only have a single issue available. Others (like many from the New 52 launch) present incomplete story arcs but a few of the less successful books are available in their entirety. Older titles have more representation but there are few if any complete creative runs (though there are plenty of story arcs including Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s Braniac and Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s Batman Year One) which work well outside of the larger continuity. All in all it feels a bit like walking into a public library and browsing their selection of trades but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially for more casual readers who may not have much experience with the characters in their native medium.

The biggest issue with the comics part of DC Universe is that its very hard to keep track of what’s available at any given moment. Unlike Marvel Unlimited you can expect comics to come and go (in the four days since launch I’ve seen several issues and even an entire series vanish) but there is no schedule to it or to the addition of new issues/series (again unlike Marvel Unlimited which has had a regular new release schedule since its inception). There is no indication of what you have or haven’t read unless you create your own list of read titles. The app notes that the entire DC Digital Collection will be available to purchase beginning in October. This makes it seem like DC Universe is following the path of ComiXology Unlimited by offering a few teaser issues to subscribers to entice them into buying more. If that is the case I hope that the app makes it clear what books are available for an additional fee and which are included as part of the subscription. I also hope that they will also do us the favor of offering at least one complete trade worth of material on which to base our choices, at least in the case of ongoing series.

Content aside I think that they have done a very good job with its presentation. The reader works smoothly especially in the panel by panel mode. Guided view has always been Marvel Unlimited’s Achilles heel but DC Universe’s panel by panel mode works very well on my phone. I only had a few problems with some panels displaying out of order on a couple of modern comics. There is an option to set up automatic panel transitions but I abandoned it pretty quickly as it really doesn’t account well for the fact that not every panel will take you the same amount of time to read. The biggest problem with the interface is that it requires you to download comics to read them on the mobile app. This isn’t a huge inconvenience if you’re reading a limited series or a short story arc but it can be aggravating if you’re trying to binge a longer series. It also takes way more effort than it should to get from a finished comic to the list of available series or to the home screen. You also have to go out of your way to read a story that occurs in more than one title, switching back and forth between the books in question. This would be a huge hassle for family wide epics like The Death and Return of Superman or No Man’s Land should such be made available in their entirety. 

The Community

One of the things that DC promoted most vigorously about DC Universe was the way in which it would allow users to communicate with one another, selling the DC Universe Community as a cross between Facebook and a Message Board. While this is an admirable goal it falls short in several respects.

The nice thing about the DC Universe Community is that it seems to be very well moderated especially given the fact that DC fans have developed something of a reputation for toxicity. I’ve seen none of that in the Community posts and that is all to the good because the last thing DC fandom and the world in general needs right now is another outlet for hatred, ignorance and bile. It’s also easy to mark threads as spoilers for those who care about such things. What’s unfortunate is that a lot of features that made social media platforms like Facebook so successful are missing here. There is no way, as far as I can tell, to reply to a specific user and no means of being notified when someone responds to your posts. This ultimately leads to a bunch of detached comments loosely related by a broader topic floating around  next to each other rather than being a real discussion. It also makes it very easy to ignore as you have to spend time trying to find your old posts to see if anyone has commented on them. It’s a nice idea but not particularly engaging as currently configured.

The Encyclopedia

Pitched by DC as a more reliable version of a wiki, this is probably the biggest disappointment of the service.  Part of the problem is that it is woefully incomplete. This wouldn’t be so bad if the choices they made seemed to have a reason behind them but as of Sunday morning major names like Braniac, the Justice League and Lex Luthor are nowhere to be found. Instead there are articles for Sam Lane and “The Watchmen” (a name that is never once used in the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons comic to refer to any group of characters).  If that weren’t bad enough there are only a few links between the entries that do exist and the content on the service. It would be great if you could use the encyclopedia to catch up on a character’s backstory, diving directly into comics, movies or TV shows as they become available but that’s not an option at the moment. It’s clear that this is a work in progress but it’s also obvious that not enough work or thought was done on this part of the experience prior to launch.

The Shop

Last but not least comes The Shop, which offers a variety of member exclusive products. I wanted to buy something before writing this review but I couldn’t find anything I wanted badly enough to pay the price that DC is asking. The stuff is nicely designed but I don’t really feel like paying twenty five dollars for a t-shirt and I have more than enough mugs. It would be nice to see DC expand this section a bit with more stuff and a wider variety of price points. It’s particularly telling that after writing the first draft of this review I went to a convention and spent almost eighty dollars on DC trades and single issues. 

Overall

I like DC Universe a lot warts and all. There are plenty of problems but I think that between the comics, the movies and the shows I will still get my money’s worth over the next fifteen months of my subscription. That said I’m still up in the air about whether or not I’ll renew. I’m hooked for now but I need to see significant improvement as well as additional content to keep me where I am.  

Recommending the service to someone else is a thorny prospect at present.  For people who are new to DC, TV or movie fans who want to give the comics a try or Marvel fans who might be DC curious, it’s a decent way to sample what they have to offer without breaking the bank especially if you are living in an area without a newbie friendly comic shop.   If you are one of the DC faithful your response to DC Universe will likely depend on what you already own and what you want to read. If you happen to harbor the impossible dream of reading every DC book ever published from the first issue of New Fun Comics to the latest issue of Aquaman  than DC Universe is probably a good match for you but if you are drawn to a particular period of DC history or to a character other than Batman its likely a hard pass. In all cases I would only recommend subscribing on a month by month basis at this point as much of the long term value of DC Universe will only become apparent as it grows and changes. 

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