DC Retroactive -- The 1970s
(2011 - DC Comics)
DC Retroactive was essentially a three part project heralding yet another re-boot at the company by taking one (ostensibly last) nostalgic look at past creative eras. You can either regard it as a "mini-series", or as simply a collection of one-shots under an umbrella label. The idea was to tell retro tales set back during various periods -- the 1970s, the 1980s, the 1990s. But unlike previous retro series, or "Year One" adventures, which might tell early stories of the familiar heroes but using whatever is the current, accepted canonical continuity, these stories unapologetically accept the mythos as they were. So in the case of the first batch of one-shots -- the 1970s ones -- the stories really are meant to be part of 1970s, Bronze Age continuity, where Lana Lang (in the Superman story) works as an anchorwoman at GBS and so on.
The other gimmick was to not simply tell nostalgic stories...but to actually recruit the old writers, so Len Wein, Cary Bates and others (some of whom have been coming back to comics in recent years anyway) tackle some of their signature series. The other gimmick was to pair each brand new 26 page story...with a vintage reprint from the era.
And the result...is mixed. I picked up all six 1970s issues, as that was the era I was most nostalgic for...and will review that as a "mini-series". The titles featured were Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, and The Justice League of America.
Considering the new stories, the best is the Flash story, by Cary Bates. Bates nicely reminds you what was his strength -- the ability to come up with imaginative ideas, quirky plots that get you turning the pages (not just mindless fight scenes). They can be a little weird and whimsical...but also exciting and, here, a little pathos-tinged. It's a story that involves arch villain, the hyper-intelligent Gorilla Grodd, plotting an unorthodox revenge on the Flash. Bates may very well be at the top of his game these days. Unlike some of his old contemporaries, he seems to have maintained the flavour of his old stories...yet maybe tempered with a slightly more sophisticated touch when it comes to dialogue and characterization than his old stories had. He also contributes the Justice League story, and it is also quite enjoyable...albeit threatening to get a little cutesy as it involves the heroes travelling to Earth Prime -- essentially the "real" earth where they exist only as comic book characters -- and recruiting real life DC editor Julius Schwartz (a plot idea used in a few old comics, too). Still, as I say, that's Bates strength -- his mix of innocent whimsy with straight-forward super hero adventure.
Regretably, the worst of the new tales is Len Wein's Batman tale -- regrettably because I'm a bit of a fan of Wein, and like his work on Batman. But the plot is awfully thin and corny and trite for 26 pages (a trio of colourful villains hit town, pull a few heists, and Batman catches them). Wein tries to throw in a "human drama"aspect involving Lucius Fox's son...but it's clumsily inserted and obvious.
The rest are in the middle. Martin Pasko's Superman story is suitable enough to the era (and draws upon the familiar touchstones of Supergirl, Kandor, GBS news, etc.)...but feels like it could've been tightened -- like it would've been a good 17 page story (as comics often were back then) more than a 26 pager. Denny O'Neil contributes both the Wonder Woman and Green Lantern (teamed with Green Arrow) story. O'Neil's tenure on Wondy in the '70s involved her losing her powers and becoming a mod suit wearing private eye type, but O'Neil maybe misses the "theme" of these retro stories, because this isn't set back in that period, so much as it is set in an unspecific later period, only with Wondy finding herself having a dream-like adventure where she is back in her 1970s civilian clothes. It's not a bad tale -- it gets you turning the pages -- but seems kind of thin. His Green Lantern tale pairs GL with Green Arrow, and is meant to evoke the thoughtful relevancy of the early '70s tales he did with Neal Adams...but here puts the thoughtful ahead of storytelling. There is some action and adventure, but the plot seems just a vague thing to allow for meaningful reflections. Still, it's not bad.
Mike Grell is recruited to draw the GL/GA tale -- Grell who drew some old GL comics and had a long, on again/off again association with Green Arrow. It certainly adds to the nostalgic fun seeing him back on the characters -- though he's the only artist from the period recruited for the project. Eduardo Barreto draws the Superman story, which comes close, though even his career I think more started in the 1980s (or at least, that's when he started to get noticed). Other artists tend to be from later periods, The art is generally okay, but varies. J. Bone's art on the Wonder Woman story seems a bit odd -- Bone having a kind of cartoony style that doesn't suit the character, or the time period being evoked (artists back then usually aiming for a more realist style) and makes you wonder if an editor thought the story was meant to be campier than it actually seems to be.
And then we get to the reprints, which can be a varied bunch here. As often happens, you can find yourself wondering why certain stories were selected -- and even when. The reprint in the Flash issue is from DC Comics Presents #2 -- yet the copyright credits lists Flash #210, implying a last minute switch.
The problem with modern comics publishing is reprints are so ubiquitous, you can find you've already read the stories elsewhere. In this case, three of the six reprints I had in other reprints venues -- which, I admit, affects my reaction to them. Because two of them are certainly worthy tales -- but nonetheless I was disappointed, hoping for something less familiar. In the case of the GL story, it's the classic story by O'Neil and Adams that kicked off the GL/GA teaming and the brief era of "relevancy" in the series. It's certainly a "classic", seminal tale -- but has been reprinted many times before, and it might've been nice to have found something less ubiquitous (perhaps another O'Neil/Grell pairing). The Superman tale is a fun example of what I said about Bates -- his ability to write entertaining stories that aren't about violence. But it's an odd fit for this collection, as even at the time it was a retro tale, set in the 1950s about the Golden Age/Earth 2 Superman -- in other words, a story selected to represent the 1970s is, itself, a retro tale harkening back to an earlier era! Admittedly, they may've felt the use of Earth 2 was, itself, a very 1970s thing. Which then brings us to the JLA story which likewise calls upon the 1970s penchant for parallel worlds, involving Earth 1, Earth 2, and Earth Prime (essentially our earth, and the one referenced in the lead JLA story) -- but it's not that great a tale and, bizarrely, it's the first issue of a two-parter and ends "to be continued!" I mean, of all the stories they could choose for this slot...why pick one that is unfinished???
Of the three reprints I hadn't read before, the Batman is one of my favourites (even as the new Batman story is my least favourite). It's also written by Wein, and is just a nice, old fashioned detective/mystery story, with Batman tracking a serial killer of homeless people. If memory serves, Wein had done other stories like that, making it a bit of a recurring theme -- though with often mixed signals. On one hand, he has Batman state that he treats all victims equally, homeless or not, presumably intended to show Batman's egalitarian altruism...on the other hand, one could ask, um, why would Batman think there should even be a question about it? The Flash reprint is a teaming with Superman, and is a wild and fast paced ride, involving time travel and the like, illustrated by the great Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez...but it's actually the second part of a two-part tale. That's better than ending "to be continued", but again, of all the stories they had to choose from, why not pick one that is nicely self-contained? It's also a bit awkward ethically, as Supes and Flash are caught up in a conflict between two warring alien races -- but one race essentially is trying to change history to prevent their millennia spanning war, and the other wants it to continue. Because changing history will affect human evolution, the heroes don't want to change history...but that essentially means they are siding with the war mongering race, dooming these people to never ending war...yet the heroes act as if they are somehow being "neutral".
The Wonder Woman reprint is from the earlier referenced Wondy period where she was essentially a private eye, teamed up with a blind, sage, Asian mentor. It's actually an okay tale, with nice, attractive art by Dick Giordano...but it to ends "to be continued". I'm a little more forgiving here, simply because the main conflict does, sort of, conclude, and has Wondy battling Catwoman in a largely forgotten early 1970s costume, so maybe it was chosen for its reflection of the "period". Funnily enough, as mentioned, it's nicely illustrated by Giordano -- moreso than I often associate with him, with some stylish and dynamic poses and composition. Yet I actually recognized a few poses as evocative of some Neal Adams panels from the time. I think Adams and Giordano actually shared a studio at one point, so I don't think these can be labelled "swipes", per se -- at least, without permission. Maybe Adams was helping Giordano out with some layouts to meet a deadline, or, hey, maybe it was Giordano who had helped Adams out. Or maybe they were just sharing the same photo-reference material. But it is kind of funny to note.
Part of the gimmick with the new stories was to root them in the old series -- but in a couple of cases, that kind of leads to cryptic references presumably echoing long ago sub-plots. In the Superman story it's mentioned how Lana Lang has been a acting odd lately -- but with no further explanation (funnily enough, I actually wondered if Pasko was referring to plot threads from the early 1980s, not the 1970s) and even more blatantly, in the Batman story Wein has references to some on going threads...including ending his story suggesting Talia al Ghul was behind the villainy, almost as if the story is just a pre-amble to something more -- but with no suggesting how or where that would take us.
These issues are a mixed bag, with some good new stories, some good reprints, but not always in the same issue. Nothing horrendous, but certainly some weaker stories (the new Batman story, the JLA reprint) and with only a few of the newer stories really standing out (notably the Flash one). Perhaps what's too bad is that, if these really were intended as one final look back at a by-gone era, there could've been a greater effort to make them seem special...and maybe give them more than 26 pages.
As a footnote: I also ended up picking up DC Retroactive 1980s: Wonder Woman. It had a decent new story by Roy Thomas, though hurt by different artists on different pages -- some nice art by Rich Buckler (inked by Joe Rubinstein) and a couple of pages by Carlos Rodriguez contrasting with inappropriately rough and cartoony art by Tim Smith. The reprint -- from a brief era when Thomas and stylish artist Gene Colan collaborated is sort of interesting...but again, is a story which ends "to be continued" (not on a cliff hanger, but still...), making it unsatisfying.