The Comic Book Club: DCU Online Legends and Scenes from an Impending Marriage

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This is what happens when Techland goes to the comic book store: we end up discussing what we picked up. This week, Graeme McMillan, Evan Narcisse and Douglas Wolk talk about DC Universe Online Legends #1 and Scenes from an Impending Marriage.

DOUGLAS: DC Universe Online was officially announced in mid-2008 (and has to have been in development for a good long while before that). Slightly over a year ago, DC announced that the game would be accompanied by a weekly, yearlong miniseries, to be written by Tony Bedard and Dan Jurgens. That eventually became a 26-issue biweekly series, written by Bedard and Marv Wolfman (who’s one of the game’s writers; as Dan DiDio inimitably put it in the interview linked above, “I’m sure Marv will be involved in some way, shape or form”). In other words, DC Universe Online Legends #1 has been in the works for well over a year, maybe considerably more.

And this is what gets published, after all that?

(More on Rise of the Supermen: Initial Review of DC Universe Online)

No. This is the comic book that, if you’re editing it, you throw back: you say “we’ve got time to get this right–the pacing is garbled, the dialogue is grotesque, the art is a cluttered mess. Start over. Give me something that’s going to grab readers–something that’s going to make people playing the game want to read the comics too, and vice versa.” With a year to develop it, they couldn’t even arrange for a single art team to draw the entire first issue? The Howard Porter/Livesay pages are pleasingly reminiscent of ’90s-era JLA, even though I don’t think they’re going to do a lot to convince people coming to this story through the game and its graphics that Comics Can Be Fun; the Adriana Melo/Norman Lee pages are sloppy and wobbly, especially in the final scenes–the characters don’t even look like themselves.

Evan, you’ve played the game (and I haven’t yet)–I know the opening sequence of this issue is nearly verbatim from the intro to the game, but how much of the rest of the dialogue (“My suit… you fried its comm circuits. You disrupted his control… My power is once again mine! I’m free. And Brainiac pays NOW!!”) can we blame on fidelity to a cut-scene script, and how much on Wolfman and Bedard?

EVAN: Despite the fact that I know better than to expect anything good from a tie-in, I had some hopes for this one. Bedard’s one of the most underappreciated talents working today, and Porter’s energetic style hits the mark way, way more than it misses for me. Wolfman’s writing can feel like a thing of a bygone era, but there was hope that things would balance out. Boy, was that hope ever misguided.

I did an initial review of DC Universe Online a few weeks ago, so I know the framing story. The first few panels replicate the game’s opening movie. If you don’t know anything about the game, however, it’s not exactly clear why everything that happens after the first few pages matters.

(More on Q&A: Marv Wolfman on DC Universe Online, Love for Video Games)

Yet all I had were questions reading this book. Like you, Douglas, I wondered about editorial oversight, but from a different angle. DC’s been doing a brisk business in video game comics lately, with the bulk of them having come from the now-shuttered Wildstorm imprint. While none of those books really sang, they were by and large competently done. It really seems like no one was minding the store here. Stupid things like: why give both Lex and Brainiac green caption boxes? It’s a small thing, but I was confused as to who was talking, and I know how to read comics. And when exactly do the villains and heroes start working together? There are beats in that vein early on, but it gets a dramatic moment towards the end of the issue, too. Visually, the art was too dark and lacked the dynamism I so enjoy from Porter’s work. Melo’s was passable, I guess.

But my bigger problem with DCUO Legends is the amount of dissonance between this comic and the game. The MMO is kind of a lovable mutt, in that it doesn’t break any new ground and gets by mostly on charm rather than technical wizardry. Yet the game eases you into the fiction of the DCU in a really inviting way. Hey, there’s Superman. Hey, Oracle gives you missions. Hey, let’s fly around and find the Bat-signal. It reminds you why you love comics in the first place.

So to have this woefully executed comic be tethered to the game does no one any favors. Not the established comic fan, not the curious newcomer, not DC Entertainment, Sony Online Entertainment, or any of the talent involved. This is supposed to be the kind of project that DC’s recent re-org facilitates, but it’s so damn bad. There’s not even the kind of cynical synergy that you’d usually sneer at in a transmedia project.

GRAEME: I will happily add to this disappointment pile: This is a trainwreck of a comic. In theory, it should be so much better – Bedard and Wolfman have their charms as writers, and Melo and Porter generally do work that’s… well, not as ugly as what’s on display here, at least – but there’s just nothing to really recommend here at all. Really basic things are massively bungled (Say a game player comes to comics to read this: Who are all of these characters? Why aren’t there introductions or even names given to so many of them?), and the plot is… well, I’m not entirely sure what’s even going on, to be honest. It’s just terrible, far worse than I’d expected.

DOUGLAS: I always like seeing comics by well-known cartoonists that aren’t intended for widespread publication, and Scenes from an Impending Marriage is more or less that: a little 56-page book whose original form was a party favor that Adrian Tomine drew for the guests at his wedding (back in 2007), about the process of planning the wedding itself. When I read it, I figured it was pretty much the same thing his guests would’ve gotten, maybe without some of the front-matter or the six pages that take place after the wedding. Turns out the minicomic version was 16 pages, so this one is significantly expanded.

In any case, it’s low-key, charming and nicely designed (I admire the Tiffany-blue shade of the covers). I could get grinchy about how it doesn’t have any particular insights into or gags about wedding planning that aren’t rather familiar, and it doesn’t tell us a lot about Tomine or his bride; on the other hand, it’s not fair to expect any of that from something he knocked out in a hurry for the guests at his damn wedding, you know? Considered as a famously meticulous, painstaking cartoonist getting a little loose and doing something for fun, it’s incredibly entertaining to look at. It’s Tomine working in a style that’s “adorable” with quotation marks around it, but it actually is pretty adorable. It’s interesting that Tomine gravitates toward a couple of formats: the three-tier, carefully-composed-miniatures technique that’s been his main comics mode since almost the beginning of Optic Nerve is the part I expected, but the pastiches of single-panel newspaper cartoons are a little out of the ordinary for him, and nicely done. I’d love to see Tomine doing more offhanded projects like this between his just-so illustrations and micro-measured comics.

Also, the bits involving their attempts to find competent wedding DJs who aren’t going to play Bob Seger–“DJ Buttercream”!–really are pretty funny.

(More on The Comic Book Club: Spawn and Casanova)

EVAN: I’ll admit to being a little let down by this at first, if only for the lightness. I felt that Shortcomings was such a watershed moment for Tomine, in terms of how mature and assured his work felt over an extended story. The last thing I was expecting was something that–structurally, at least–harkens back to Optic Nerve, as you say.

But the winning thing here is the amount of affection in the book. The fact that it originated as a wedding favor factors in, but there’s quite a lot of love in Scenes. Usually, Tomine’s characters are so disaffected and estranged from their emotions that they get stymied by them. Granted, the “characters” here are Tomine and his now-wife, and they’re real people. Still, I enjoyed how, even in their most annoyed and cranky moments, they’re focused on trying to creating something warm and inviting for people that they care about. I think that warmth made the looseness of the art, the layout experimentation and the gags feel more enjoyable, too.

(More on The Comic Book Club: Iron Man #500, Supergirl and Wolverine/Jubilee)

GRAEME: I’ll be the grinch for this one, then; while I agree that it’d be unrealistic to expect great insight in a hastily-produced wedding favor, I don’t think it makes me especially greedy to want something more for a book I’m paying ten dollars for, especially when there’s new material that wasn’t included in the original. And, like Douglas said, there’s nothing here that is particularly insightful – it feels like a high class comic version of a wedding speech, all cliched “Hey, planning a wedding is hard, amIriteguys?” humor done in admittedly stylish ways.

I’d be more forgiving, I think, if I felt the affection that Evan does, but the only place that I think Adrian and Sarah actually come over as genuine people as opposed to blank-slate characters acting out sitcom material is in the epilogue, post-ceremony; while everywhere else, they could’ve been anyone, the epilogue felt honest and resonant in a way that I’d really wanted the rest of the book to.

There are a lot of little things to like, here: Tomine’s art is never less than attractive, the size and design of the book makes it feel more weighty and more of an event than it would otherwise, but the content… Ehh. I wanted more; the goodwill that this would get in its original purpose doesn’t carry over, for me, when it gets turned into a commodity and part of a back catalog you expect people to pay for.

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