Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

What’s DeMatteis With You?

Posted by Don MacPherson on January 10th, 2016

I watched Bruce Timm’s Justice League: Gods and Monsters direct-to-video animated movie not long after its release last year, and I enjoyed the alt-reality take on radically different incarnations of the iconic trinity of DC’s super-heroes. I also watched the three related film shorts released in advance of the movie’s retail release. It occurred to me that Timm’s harsher vision of super-heroes would add to the criticism that DC and Warner Bros. have adopted too dark an approach to their library of super-hero properties. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the shorts as well. However, I didn’t pay any attention to the comics released in conjunction with the movie. That was a mistake on my part.

The trio of one-shots issued by DC Comics featuring solo stories (and backstories) of Hernan Guerra, Bekka and Kirk Langstrom turned out to be some compelling and laudable mainstream comics storytelling. I recently picked them up for a song during a holiday sale at my local comic shop, after having read them, I can admit if I had to replace them, I’d pay full cover price for them. All three were plotted by Timm and comics mainstay J.M. DeMatteis, with scripts by the latter. And without a doubt, it’s DeMatteis who made all three comics well worth experiencing. His trademark focus on self-exploration makes for engaging, character-driven stories. It’s also clear that the fact DeMatteis and Timm were involved in these projects that some top, talented creators lined up to participate. With cover artwork provided by such artists as Darwyn Cooke, Jae Lee, Gabriel Hardman and Franco Francavilla, it’s clear others recognized either the strength of the storytelling offered or the reputation of the writers (or both). Or perhaps DC was recruiting luminaries to attract attention to these comics. I can’t say the publisher was entirely successful, as I don’t recall seeing much chatter about these comics last summer, which is a shame.

Justice League: Gods and Monsters – Batman #1 (DC Comics)
by Bruce Timm, J.M. DeMatteis & Matthew Dow Smith

The writers focus here on the vampiric Kirk Langstrom, the Batman in the Gods and Monsters continuity, struggling to come to grips with his thirst for blood and how it conflicts with his moral center. It’s a thoroughly accessible script; one needn’t even be familiar with the “regular” Langstrom’s history as Man-Bat to appreciate the story. The central premise of this story is about one’s nature — be it familial or genetic — doing battle with one’s will. Langstrom’s parentage tried to limit him, but he strove to better himself. Now his body is trying to betray him, transforming him into a monster driven to kill to survive, but he’s horrified by it. Then he encounters the son of another kind of monster, an upstanding intellectual untouched by his notorious father’s criminal empire. Thematically, it’s a well-constructed plot and it successfully humanizes an inhuman protagonist.

Matthew Dow Smith is a versatile artist, and I can’t think of an occasion in which his work disappointed. I’m lucky enough to own a page of his original art, a board from Day of Judgment in which his chosen style is one mirroring that of Mike (Hellboy) Mignola’s. The linework here, though, is deeper and more textured, taking on a look that’s both more photorealistic and noir at the same time. I was immediately put in mind of the styles of such artists as Michael Lark, Tommy Lee Edwards and John Paul Leon. The approach suits the crime-drama riff at play in DeMatteis’s plot. 8/10

Justice League: Gods and Monsters – Superman #1 (DC Comics)
by Bruce Timm, J.M. DeMatteis & Moritat

Transforming Superman into the son of an enemy was, surprisingly, far from the most radical change in the character for Timm’s film. No, it was making him the adopted son of Mexican migrant workers in the United States that was the most ambitious, unusual and relevant alteration to the Man of Steel in this world. This one-shot gets to explore in-depth what the film only touches upon. Superman has always been representative of an immigrant experience, but it was of a European and/or Jewish immigrant experience. This Superman is a Mexican immigrant, and it’s a radically different examination of the American Dream. DeMatteis doesn’t soften the title character at all, but he certainly humanizes him. Much of what we saw in the movie focused on his altered Kryptonian background, but here, the focus is on an angry, powerful young man who’s scared of himself. His violent, vengeful nature is tempered by the fact that ultimately, he’s driven by his sense of what’s right and an impulse to protect the vulnerable.

Of the three one-shots and characters, this one offers a profile of the least likeable. Fortunately, it also offers the strongest art of the trio of self-contained stories. Moritat should be one of the super-stars of the industry at the moment. I loved his work on such projects as Elephantmen and All-Star Western, but honestly, his talent merits higher-profile projects and a wider audience. He handles the linework and colors here, which is likely why the visuals boast a painted look. He’s capable of bringing softness to his characters, but at times, when the story demands it, there’s a harshness and hardness to them. Hernan as a boy is full of hope and brightness. Contrasting that with the embittered, steely vigilante at the end of the issue is all one needs to do to recognize how impressive Moritat’s work is. The color palette is so rich and textured throughout the book, and while it’s predominantly dark, there are softer tones that show up, reinforcing more tender moments that focus on characterization. 8/10

Justice League: Gods and Monsters – Wonder Woman #1 (DC Comics)
by Bruce Timm, J.M. DeMatteis, Rick Leonardi & Dan Green

Easily the best-written of the three one-shots, this tale of a much-different Wonder Woman isn’t just an exploration of her inner self, but of the new world in which she finds herself. This woman warrior, Bekka of New Genesis, has fled a life of violence, seeking peace on Earth. She’s a goddess and therefore immortal — or at least long-lived. As such, this comic takes her through the history of the mid-20th century. Timm and DeMatteis manage to incorporate references to classic Wonder Woman and Fourth World stories, but one needn’t pick on them to appreciate this story. The main plot settles in a hippie commune, delving into counter-culture and feminism, among other mature, relevant and wholly engrossing ideas. Ultimately, I think this story about a New God is about faith — but rather than being about faith in God or gods, it’s more about having faith in other people, finding goodness in others and fighting against the few bad apples out there. Again, it’s quite an accessible read, though the Bekka at the end of this issue is a much less intense figure than the battle-ready, sexually charged heroine featured in the animated movie.

Penciller Rick Leonardi’s and inker Dan Green’s efforts probably make for the most conventional and ordinary comic art of the three one-shots, and their approach is a rather loose one. Still, they serve the story incredibly well. They’re no newcomers to the craft, and Leonardi is up to the challenging script, with a larger cast of characters and a number of varied backdrops. Allen Passalaqua’s colors are much brighter than what we see in the other two one-shots, but that’s a good thing, as this is a much more hopeful, encouraging view of this darker world, perhaps due to it being set decades before the other two. 8/10

***

My research in preparation for this review indicates these one-shots were digital-first releases from DC. On top of that, there was apparently a mini-series exploring the title team’s first mission/adventure together, also penned by Timm and DeMatteis. Apparently, I need to hit the back-issue bins the next time I’m at the comic shop.

Follow Eye on Comics on Twitter.

One Response to “What’s DeMatteis With You?”

  1. Rogerio M. Says:

    Same happened to me, I saw the movie and then tried to get all the comics, worth the reading eventhough I copuld not find Supes & Bats single issue stories.
    Thanks for the review, fan since the 4th rail!.