DC Comics Presents
(2004 - eight issues, DC Comics)
The title "DC Comics Presents" was originally used in the '70s/'80s for a comic featuring Superman team ups. But in 2004 it was dusted off to be used as the title for an 8 issue mini-series that was intended as a tribute to long serving, long retired DC editor, Julius Schwartz, who had recently passed away. Schwartz was one of the major driving forces and over seers of DC's super hero revival in the 1950s, and continued to guide series like Superman into the mid-1980s. Supposedly one of Schwartz's gimmicks was to commission cover pictures that he would, then, get a writer to conceive a plot for, as a way of kick starting their creative juices. So as part of this tribute series, some old covers were dusted off, re-drawn by modern, hot artists (Bolland, Ross, Garcia-Lopez, and Nowlan) and given to modern creative teams to fashion a story for.
Each of the eight issues features two 11 page stories by different teams, mixing some old and newer talents, and each issue focuses on a different character: Superman, Batman, Flash, Green Lantern, Adam Strange, Hawkman, The Atom, and the Justice League of America (generally all in their classic Silver Age incarnations). Interestingly, when older writers are employed, it's often not where you'd expect. Cary Bates, best known for long tenures on Superman and Flash, here writes a Hawkman story.
And the result is mixed and uneven, but entertaining. Since this was intended as a tribute to Schwartz, some of the writers took that literally and wrote stories involving Schwartz (during Schwartz's tenure as editor, there was introduced a parallel universe where the DC heroes were comic book characters, and Schwartz and writers like Cary Bates occasionally were written into the stories). But though that might seem like a nice idea for a tribute, it gets a bit old when it crops up three or four times, particularly as it seems a tad, well, lazy, betraying the very notion of the cover-inspired story. The other irony is that the covers selected...often aren't all that intriguing or provocative, the main hook simply a villain or death trap rather than a provocative image that makes you say: hmmm, I wonder what's behind that. Which maybe says all that needs to be said about the creative shifts since Schwartz's era, that modern editors would sift through old covers and select these as the "catchy" ones.
The Batman issue cover is probably the best and, perhaps significantly, has the best interior material -- or at least, both stories (one by Geoff Johns and Carmine Infantino, the other by Len Wein and Andy Kuhn) are eminently entertaining; not classics, but good old page turners. With some of the other issues, usually one story is better than the other. An Atom story by Mark Waid and Dan Jurgens is one of the best in the entire series. Waid uses the trick of inserting Schwartz into his story but, unlike the others, avoids the gimmickiness of "character meets his creator" by having it be a Schwartz-like character, rather than literally Schwartz himself. Though, ironically, it's the least related to the cover image!
The Green Lantern issue starts out particularly disappointing, as "hot" modern writer Brian Azzarello falls into the hubris trap of doing his seeming as a tongue-in-cheek parody of the Silver Age (something I expected others to do, but most avoided) and it's pretty missable. But then Martin Pasko's tale comes along and all I can say is, um, wow. Broody and introspective, it's the least evocative of the "Silver Age" adventure tone, but maybe Pasko remembered that Schwartz didn't just oversee the gee whiz Silver Age, but also the relevant Green Lantern/Green Arrow stories of the early 1970s (appropriately, Pasko throws in Green Arrow, too). It's a bit slow moving, and Scott McDaniel's blocky art didn't quite suit it, but it's a tale that manages to make you re-examine the character and the concept. I don't know if Pasko's take on Hal Jordan quite gels with the current, official version, but it was a memorable tale.
Perhaps the weakest issue is the Adam Strange one. Elliot S! Maggins' light-hearted tale seems a bit confused and choppy, as if he was trying to shoe horn too much in, while Grant Morrison's tale is ambitious, and abstract, juxtaposing an Adam Strange adventure with a commentary on that kind of guileless era of sci-fi. But it, too, seems just a little too muddled and confused, though both tales are nicely drawn.
But, overall, each issues offers at least some entertainment (Stan Lee's Superman story is light-hearted, but genuinely funny in spots). And, as mentioned, other than Azzarello's, most of the creators avoid being too obviously mocking or condescending to their source era; the stories generally sincere. Even Lee's is funny, but not mocking, per se. Perhaps the most obvious "missed opportunity" would've been to reprint the original stories as well, to see what the original creative teams did with the same cover image (or at least offer a synopsis).
Funnily enough, sometime before I knew that Schwartz allegedly commissioned cover-driven stories, I had thought that such a concept would be a good idea, forcing writers to push their creativity -- that in this day and age, too many covers are rather bland and generic and fail to intrigue you about the story inside; and often because the story inside isn't very intriguing itself. After reading this mini-series, I think it would've been a nice idea for DC to do it as a regular series -- each issue offering two self-contained stories about a hero (different each issue) inspired by some intriguing cover image. It might be a fun monthly buy, based on the results here.