Each week, Big Issues focuses on newly released comic books of significance. This week, they are Deadman: Dark Mansion Of Forbidden Love #1, written by Sarah Vaughn (Alex & Ada, Ruined) with art by Lan Medina (Aquaman And The Others, District X) and colors by José Villarrubia (Betty & Veronica, Sweet Tooth), and Midnighter & Apollo #1, written by Steve Orlando (Midnighter, Supergirl) with art by Fernando Blanco (Batman & Robin Eternal, The Phantom Stranger) and colorist Romulo Fajardo Jr. (The Omega Men, Wonder Woman). These two comics have dramatically different tones and subject matter, but are both genuinely progressive, finding fresh angles for established characters and concepts to show different sides of the superhero genre.
Four months into DC Comics’ Rebirth publishing initiative, it’s safe to say that the company has effectively revitalized its main line of superhero titles. Last month’s Crosstalk on Rebirth explored the smart decisions made to get the publisher back on track after the lackluster performance of the New 52 and DC You, and now that all of the Rebirth titles have launched, DC is bringing attention to its lesser-known properties. This week is a huge one for DC, with new issues of some of the best Rebirth titles, the conclusions of its strongest Vertigo series, two fantastic Hanna-Barbera books, another compelling Young Animal debut in Shade, The Changing Girl, and two especially notable first issues that spotlight the publisher’s willingness to evolve: Deadman: Dark Mansion Of Forbidden Love #1 and Midnighter & Apollo #1.
Writer Sarah Vaughn has done outstanding work in the romance genre with Image’s Alex & Ada and Rosy Press’ Ruined, and Deadman: Dark Mansion Of Forbidden Love is another major success for her as she places the spectral superhero in the middle of a gothic horror romance. Berenice has been able to see ghosts ever since she was a baby, which is why she’s tried to avoid living in places with too much history. That changes when her boyfriend’s uncle leaves him a Victorian mansion after he dies, and while Berenice’s time at Glencourt Manor has been calm up until now, the arrival of Boston “Deadman” Brand brings an influx of ghostly terror into her life.
Vaughn does great work building suspense in this first issue, but even more remarkable are the nonchalantly queer romance elements. Berenice is bisexual, and while she’s dating a man, she’s also attracted to her friend, Sam, who is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns. (All three also have different racial makeups: Berenice is half-Asian, Nathan is white, Sam is black.) All of this character information is casually presented in the script; there is one moment where Berenice explains Sam’s gender preference to Deadman, but it is used to subtly inform Boston Brand’s character. After Berenice corrects Boston’s use of “she” to describe Sam, he stops using that pronoun and starts using “they” instead, revealing a respect for other people that may not be immediately evident in his habit of possessing their bodies.
Artist Lan Medina and colorist José Villarrubia provide beautifully detailed artwork that heightens the haunting atmosphere, and the strong sense of place in Deadman is one of its most compelling aspects. Medina has put loads of work into the design of Glencourt Manor, and the history of the mansion is felt from the very first panel spotlighting the Victorian architecture and antique furniture of one of the mansion’s room. Villarubia’s painted colors reinforce that aged quality by adding a dusty texture to the linework. The setting is the book’s subtitle so it has major importance to the story, and the art team fully immerses readers in the environment to pull them deeper into Berenice’s personal experience.
Deadman is also the return of the “prestige format” at DC, meaning it’s more than double the size of a regular DC book (48 pages rather than 20) with no ads interrupting the story, a cardstock cover, distinct production design, and glue binding instead of staples. A three-issue, bimonthly prestige format series is the kind of thing superhero publishers just don’t do anymore. Miniseries in general have fallen out of style because they don’t perform very well unless they are events like DKIII: The Master Race or Civil War II. The prestige format is more expensive so there’s an even higher likelihood that readers will wait for the collection rather than buying the single issues, and the bimonthly schedule runs counter to DC’s current push to put out more titles at an accelerated twice-a-month pace. These breaks from the norm make Deadman feel even more special, and it’s a shame that the prestige format disappeared because it really does lend class and sophistication to the story with its upgraded design and production.
The A.V. Club has given lots of love to Steve Orlando’s Midnighter, and for good reason. It’s one of the best action comics around, and the opening sequence of this week’s Midnighter And Apollo #1 upstages anything from the first Midnighter series. M&A artist Fernando Blanco has a very similar style as Midnighter artist ACO, but whereas ACO’s work could occasionally look stiffly posed, Blanco brings a smoother flow to the action and more vitality to the characterizations. Midnighter’s takedown of subway pirates in Los Angeles (the first of two references to Grant Morrison’s brilliant Seven Soldiers miniseries) is a brutal, rollicking start to the issue, building to the spectacular splash page of Apollo fighting a towering monster made of train cars by smacking it with his own weaponized train car.
Like Deadman, the genre elements of M&A are in service of a story that normalizes queer relationships. The best parts of M&A #1 have the lead characters out of their superhero gear and hanging out at Apollo’s apartment, eating dinner with Midnighter’s close friends, and eventually having sex on the kitchen counter when the guests leave. The sex is tastefully depicted—the most explicit it gets is a shot of Apollo’s naked legs leaning up against the counter while Midnighter wraps his naked legs around his boyfriend—but there’s just enough information to indicate that Midnighter is on the receiving end here, which is important in a cultural climate where bottom-shaming continues to be an issue for gay men.
The stigma attached to men bottoming has a long historical precedent that is deeply entrenched in homophobia and the idea that gay men are less than, so it’s refreshing to see Midnighter, a character tied to traditionally masculine qualities of strength, aggression, and steadfast assertiveness, presented as someone who has no problem taking it rather than giving it. (Granted, we don’t know what happened between the kitchen and the bedroom, so maybe it was a night of sexual versatility.) This relationship is more than just sex, though, and Midnighter and Apollo’s post-coital conversation reveals the conflict that the couple will deal with in this miniseries. Apollo is increasingly disturbed by Midnighter’s use of fatal violence, and Apollo calling him out on it adds significant tension considering violence is such a big part of who Midnighter is.
They’ll have to fight about this later, though, because the issue ends with Apollo getting sent to hell, a cliffhanger that feels very much influenced by religious beliefs that LGBT people are damned. The addition of Neron and Hitman’s Mawzir at the end of the issue shows that Orlando is taking full advantage of the huge DC sandbox, and nowhere is that more evident than the scene in Oblivion Bar featuring a string of cameos. And even there, Orlando is making forward strides for queer representation. That page contains the return of Extrano, a magician who was one of superhero comics’ worst gay stereotypes when he first appeared in the late ’80s, and while he only appears in one panel, it’s a moment that moves the character far from his flamboyant former interpretation.
Between M&A, Deadman, an issue of The Flintstones advocating for same-sex marriage, and the announcement of a new Batwoman title by queer writers Marguerite Bennett and James Tynion IV (with art by Steve Epting), it’s a very queer week at DC Comics. (And this is hot on the heels of Greg Rucka confirming that Wonder Woman is bisexual last week.) The queerness of these titles isn’t the only thing that makes them extraordinary, but it’s a big reason why they’re such refreshing reads. Deadman and M&A don’t fall under the Rebirth banner, but they are some of the most promising new debuts at the publisher, revealing the benefits of embracing a wider array of genre influences and pushing for more diverse representation on the page. These books need to find an audience and sell copies if DC is going to keep moving in this direction. But the fact that they’ve been published at all indicates that DC is committed to going forward and taking chances rather than simply sticking to what they know will be successful.