Speaking of this week’s comics, the big release this week was probably Dark Knights: Death Metal #1, DC’s big crossover series. Although the pandemic slowed down its release, it’s appropriate that it came out right here at the beginning of summer, kicking off the season with something big and brash and, as Carla puts it, “Stupid.” Summertime is the right time for crossovers and comics.
Oh, hey, welcome to What Are You Reading?, our weekly look at what we’ve been reading. You can play along in the comments or on social media if you’d like.
Let’s get to it …
This week I read Dark Nights: Death Metal issue #1, written by Scott Snyder, pencilled by Greg Capullo, inked by Jonathan Glapion and colored by FCO Plascencia. For those who came in late, it aims to be the third act of a mega-storyline which began with 2017’s Dark Nights: Metal and continued into the Snyder-led Justice League ongoing series. The final boss of this storyline is Perpetua, a malevolent elder god who created the DC Multiverse as a sort of cosmic parasite, sucking up other universes and disposing of them when their usefulness has ended. It’s hard not to see that as a harsh – but not unreasonable – commentary on DC’s corporate practices over 80-odd years. Accordingly, Snyder and Capullo’s guiding sentiment is “it all matters” – all the craziness superhero comics can bring to bear, apparently. This includes a Batman fused with his Batcave’s giant robot dinosaur, Sgt. Rock expounding on the unadorned pleasures of fast-food burgers or the “Chainsaw of Truth,” which symbolizes Wonder Woman at her most brutally pragmatic.
Because issue #1 is mostly setup, it plunges the reader deeply into a nightmarishly altered DC landscape. The bad guys have won, the Justice League is scattered across the universe, and Snyder and Capullo are busy tossing out worst-case scenarios. Here’s Mister Miracle ruling New Apokolips! There’s a buzz-cut Harley Quinn riding a giant hyena! What’s Aquaman doing with that Lovecraftian Bat-creature? Snyder and Capullo excel at vivid tableaux of slow-burn horror, which in this case translates to giving the good guys hope and then showing how it can all be dashed. That’s basically the plot of this first issue. It builds to a two-page evisceration of DC’s current unsustainable cosmology and ends with a genuinely shocking plot twist (which, by the way, CBR may well have spoiled for much of this book’s audience).
By and large, it worked for me; but I think this story (like Metal before it) is not meant to be taken all that seriously. Yes, it’s a Big Event which promises to Change Everything and it trades heavily in Very Serious Grimdark. Yes, people who say “don’t take this seriously” often are just trying to avoid meaningful engagement. Regardless, this is a comic which wears its metatext on its two-page spreads. It offers spectacle for its own sake, and is grim almost to the point of parody. In arguing for pegging the needle on superhero comics’ raw potential, Death Metal seems to promise a swing from one extreme – or, more accurately, “XXX-TREEM!” – to the other. That means there’s nowhere to go but up – and since 2019 was the “Year of the Villain” (and 2020 has been the Year of the Virus), any move toward optimism is welcome.
Dark Knights: Death Metal #1 is stupid.
It’s so stupid. I know I don’t have the context for its place in the grand design of the new new New DC Universe, but that doesn’t matter. There’s probably eight other series I should be reading in order to understand why this book is happening, but that doesn’t matter either. It’s literally called Dark Knights: Death Metal; the title alone proves the absurdity that lays within.
Sometimes that’s what the cover is there for: to judge the book.
Keep in mind, stupidity is not a bad thing. If you’re a comic reader of a certain age, you lived through the ‘90s. We all lived in a polybagged, chromium-covered wonderland of big shoulder pads and toaster guns and gritted teeth. When you open up the comic, you immediately catch the vibe of Greg Capullo’s (a rising star of that grungy ‘90s comics scene) artwork. If anything, Dark Knights: Death Metal is a throwback toward a simpler time when just throwing a bunch of knives on things was the evilest, coolest thing we could think of. So please, don’t me wrong when I say Dark Knights: Death Metal #1 is stupid; it’s a stupid I understand, maybe even long for at times.
Sadly, I don’t think anyone told Scott Snyder this. I was grooving along to the absurdity of a League of Evil Batmen led by a Batman that also is the Joker and Wonder Woman kind of infiltrating the whole operation, and then Wally West showed up and my heart sank. Not just because Wally West has been this left-field punching bag for modern DC, but because there’s a two-page spread of text from him trying to rationalize the whole affair. I don’t think Snyder wants to this to be stupid, I think he’s trying to make something in the vein of Grant Morrison. Some grand design for the DC Universe that contemplates the nature of good and evil and where our heroes lie between but he’s just not as smart or insane as Morrison is. There’s source walls and magic and balance and chaos and light and darkness and I just wanted to get back to the Batman who is also a robot and a dinosaur. It’s only two pages of this but it took me out of my beautiful stupidity to face the cold hard light of day. Don’t break the fourth wall on me, Dark Knights: Death Metal #1. Just keep jamming.
I also read Dark Knights: Death Metal #1 this week, but I’m not sure what I could add that my colleagues haven’t already covered. So let’s focus on something else — an Eleanor Davis book from 2009!
The Secret Science Alliance and the Case of the Copycat Crook is something I first read around the time it cam out, before I was a dad, and it was something I remember being pretty brilliant. I’m happy to say that, as I pulled it off the shelf and read it to my son this week, it really holds up, and my son found it to be pretty brilliant as well. I believe it came out the same year that Davis won the Russ Manning Most Promising Newcomer Award (a quick check of Wikipedia verifies that yes, that’s true) and Davis has, of course, gone on to create a lot of noteworthy and stellar books since then — not the least of which is The Hard Tomorrow, which is already winning awards and will likely be receiving more as the year goes on.
There’s a level of skill and detail that is displayed on every page of Secret Science Alliance that is simply amazing. I mean, look at this:
I’ve always loved books and comics that go to this level of detail; I was a big fan of the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe and all the cutaway diagrams it showed of various devices and buildings our heroes use. This book is packed with those sorts of things:
It’s a fun way to give some background that you might not otherwise get, even if it pauses the story for a moment. And it’s something you can do in comics and children’s picture books and, well, not a lot of other media, at least not like this. They are also pieces of interactive art that can be enjoyed and explored over and over again; after we’d finish a chapter, my son would want to go back and look at them to see what we might have missed. And I imagine at some point this week (we just finished it up last night), he might start creating his own.