Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week it’s Bizarro #1, written by Heath Corson (Justice League: Throne Of Atlantis, Batman: Assault On Arkham) with art by Gustavo Duarte (Guardians Team-Up, Monsters! & Other Stories) and colorist Pete Pantazis (Earth 2, Trinity). This issue is a stand-out of the DCYou initiative thanks to its all-ages appeal and willingness to move away from continuity, telling a story that is highly accessible and tonally different from most of DC’s line. (This review reveals major plot points.)
After three-and-a-half years of the disappointing New 52 and two months of the lackluster event Convergence, DC Comics knows that it needs to make big changes to win back readers. With the publisher moving offices from Manhattan to Burbank, it’s the perfect time to reevaluate its comics lineup and make some course corrections, and that’s exactly what is happening this June with the DCYou initiative. In addition to launching 21 new titles, DC is giving many of its series new creative teams and/or status quos, with the primary aim of more diversity in styles and characters. (Creator diversity continues to be a problem, though, and with a few exceptions, most of these books are still being written and drawn by straight white men.)
This week’s new DC releases include five new titles, and while it’s a mixed bag in terms of quality, the strongest debuts build a lot of confidence in the future of DC Comics. Steve Orlando and ACO’s Midnighter is the first DC ongoing series spotlighting a gay male character, and the creative team delivers a quickly paced, visually inventive first issue that highlights the character’s hyper-violent, badass personality while delving into his experience as a gay man entering the dating scene. Tom King and Barnaby Bagenda’s The Omega Men is a tense introduction to a team of cosmic criminals, pulling from King’s experience as a C.I.A. counter-terrorism officer to tell a sci-fi story with strong ties to the current political climate in the Middle East.
But as captivating as these books are, they don’t take advantage of the new creative freedom quite as much as Heath Corson and Gustavo Duarte’s Bizarro, a delightful six-issue miniseries by two creators making their DC Comics debuts. With a cartoonish art style and silly plot with no ties to larger continuity, this is one of DC’s most kid-friendly books in recent memory, but it has plenty of imagination, wit, and heart to keep adults engaged. It’s not the only new all-ages book released by DC this week, but Bizarro has a lot more going for it than Dan Jurgens and Corin Howell’s Bat-Mite, which lacks a strong central relationship and skips character development to jump into a generic tale about a mad scientist living in a creepy mansion.
Compare Bat-Mite’s plot to Bizarro’s, which partners the titular hero with Superman’s best pal Jimmy Olsen for a road trip across America that features a feisty chupacabra named Colin and an evil plot involving an ancient Egypt-themed car dealership. (It also features an art cameo by comics legend Bill Sienkiewicz, who renders one of Bizarro’s dreams in a frenetic, sketchy style.) It’s goofy and random and everything a book starring Superman’s dysfunctional doppelganger should be. Gustavo Duarte’s rich, expressive artwork is full of vibrant energy that makes the book especially refreshing at DC, which has spent a lot of the last three-and-a-half years telling dreary stories with an uninspiring artistic house style heavily influenced by ’90s superhero comics. Paired with Pete Pantazis’ bright color palette, Duarte’s art is the biggest indicator of how dramatic a shift Bizarro is from what DC has been doing lately, but it’s a very welcome one, particularly in regards to continuity.
DC and Marvel have both struggled with making books accessible to new and casual superhero comic readers because their lines are so steeped in continuity between titles. The easiest way around this problem is by having standalone series that are completely separated from larger happenings in the DC and Marvel Universes. Keep a line of shared universe books for readers who want everything to be tightly connected, but have an equal amount of titles where creators can take whatever version of an established character they want and tell a story without worrying about how it fits with previous interpretations and events in other titles. The less restrictions placed on a creator, the higher the likelihood of getting something truly unique, which is what superhero comics should be striving for right now.
DC is making big changes to Superman’s character (check out this week’s exceptional Action Comics #41 for more), but Bizarro pays those developments no mind. The book has zero ties to the larger DC Universe, which gives Corson and Duarte the opportunity to tell their story without making any compromises for a larger editorial vision. A wacky buddy comedy with Bizarro and Jimmy Olsen isn’t the kind of thing DC would have put out in the New 52, and the fact that this book even exists means that DC is taking steps in the right direction.
The relationship between Jimmy and Bizarro is the thing that gives this book more depth beyond the fun jokes and visual gags, and Bizarro’s desire to be Jimmy’s “worstest friend” introduces an emotional element that makes the hulking brute very endearing. Bizarro dialogue can be grating in the wrong hands, but Corson has a very strong handle on the character’s opposite-speech. Bizarro is essentially a giant child in very early stages of mental development, and his naïve observations are sure to entertain young readers. Even better, Bizarro speech invites an added level of interaction for beginning readers, who need to decipher what Bizarro’s true intent by tapping into their knowledge of opposite words. With the exception of one needlessly gory image of a chupacabra eating a goat’s brain, Bizarro is a great book for parents to read with their children; the storytelling is easy to follow, each character has a distinct voice, and the cartoonish artwork gives the book an aesthetic aligned with the other media children are absorbing at that age.
Kyle Baker draws the variant cover for Bizarro #1, which is fitting considering Baker’s Plastic Man is very much a spiritual successor to this title. Heavily inspired by the work of animators like Tex Avery and Chuck Jones, Baker’s Plastic Man is a madcap superhero comic that is also a sharp critique of grim and gritty comics and the post-9/11 U.S. government, making it an all-ages comic with immense substance to go with all the style and wit. (Baker’s run has sadly never been fully collected in print, but DC recently uploaded the entire series to Comixology, making it easy for readers to catch up on this modern superhero classic.) Bizarro doesn’t have the bite of Plastic Man, but it has the energy and the distance from continuity, telling a story that is perfect for new readers who want beautifully illustrated superhero stories that prioritize fun above all else.