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Super, Thanks: 10/10 vs. Douglas

Brian Hibbs

The first issue of Steve Niles and Scott Hampton’s SIMON DARK seems weirdly off: it’s an attempt to do a horror/superhero hybrid, but it doesn’t really work as either, because it doesn’t play on any real fears or have any real cultural resonance. The front cover and first page claim it happens in Gotham City, although it doesn’t build on anything we’ve ever seen of Gotham before: the city it’s set in has no particular flavor at all. It’s supposedly a DCU book, although its general style is much more Vertigo-ish–four pages in, the protagonist beheads a bad guy with what I’m guessing is a particularly sharp garrotte. (Actually, it seems even more like a Wildstorm non-Universe book.) And it appears to be an ongoing series, which seems pretty much impossible for a DCU title whose characters have never been seen before. Seriously: what’s the last DC Universe (or, to be fair, Marvel Universe) title starring a previously unseen, non-franchise-based character that’s lasted two years? If ALIAS only made it to #20, does SIMON DARK have a ghost of a chance?

More to the point, this qualifies as Awful, because there is nothing in the story that makes me want to read #2. The plot: Latin-speaking cultists kill a dude; Simon Dark, who’s got the hair of Sandman, the face of Jigsaw and the shirt of Where’s Waldo, beheads one of them and begs some money from their other prospective victim; a medical examiner named Beth Granger, who is pretty obviously going to be a running supporting character, checks out the scene and talks to a guy in a deli about it; a father and daughter move to town; the cultists, whose group appears to be called Geo-Populus, discuss the “interloper”; Simon takes an Edgar Allan Poe book from the father and daughter and leaves them some money, acquires some cat food the same way, has a little emo monologue (“The straps hold me together. They keep me warm… and they hurt”), and comes home to feed his cat and read. The end.

Now. Think about the first issue of TRANSMETROPOLITAN, with Spider Jerusalem coming down from the mountain. Think about the first issue of ALIAS, with Jessica Jones showing us exactly how her self-loathing works and what it’s driven her to (but, crucially, not where it came from). Think about the first issue of BONE, with its swan-dive into a world of whimsical invention. SIMON DARK has just as much space as any of them, but Niles’ script doesn’t have any kind of hook that’s going to lead the story forward thematically–the closest it’s got is the mystery of what’s up with Simon’s “straps” and who Geo-Populus are, and it doesn’t give us any reason to care about either.

The opening “here’s our hero slicing up the bad guys” scene, actually, has some parallels with the first episode of V FOR VENDETTA–which also sets up the character of Evey, has the brilliant touch of V quoting Shakespeare at length during the fight, and ends with Parliament being blown up, all in the space of six or eight pages. The pacing here, though, is unbelievably slack–both in terms of overall plot movement and in its awkwardly staged set-pieces. The sequence in which Simon takes the Poe book, for instance, takes two pages for a piece of business that really didn’t need more than two panels and could easily have been accomplished in the background of some other piece of storytelling.

That’s a shame, because the look of Hampton and colorist Chris Chuckry’s artwork has a really strong: it looks like heavily processed, hand-tinted photos, something like Alex Maleev’s Daredevil run but even more stylized. (I’m guessing a lot of Hampton’s faces and backgrounds, in particular, are drawn from photos; it’s somewhat different from the style I remember him using before.) They’re obviously still working some of the kinks out–the processing strips out fine details, and Hampton sometimes replaces them with bold scribbles, which break the semi-photorealist illusion.

Hampton’s got what could be an interesting technique for the right series, but this one isn’t it. (It might have worked for, say, JACK CROSS, the last entirely-new-character “ongoing” series with a DC bullet I can recall. Lasted four issues, right?) Horror stories are about fantastic events in a quotidian world; most superhero stories imagine fantastic events in a world in which the fantastic is still sort of quotidian. The realist style Hampton’s using here, though, and the bleak tones Chuckry limits himself to, deny the existence of anything fantastic. It’s so muted, physically and emotionally, that even the scenes of Simon leaping through the air seem understated and earthbound. When I turned to the center-spread house ad–the villains gathered around the stone head of Darkseid–I thought, until I registered what I was looking at, “hey, this story suddenly got exciting!”

Unrelatedly, a small note on BOOSTER GOLD #3: I’m amused that Geoff Johns is working the cast of DOCTOR 13: ARCHITECTURE AND MORTALITY into this series as background gags. But I hadn’t actually read most of the DOCTOR 13 serial until a couple of days ago, and I don’t know if I’d quite realized that the 52 writers are very literally the villains of Brian Azzarello’s story–if you don’t believe me, look at chapter 7, pages 9-12, and think about who’s wearing those masks and why they’re wearing those particular masks. There’s something a little uncomfortable about that.

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