By setting DC Comics second recent weekly series, Countdown to Final Crisis, in the present DC Universe, rather than in a "lost year" as with their previous weekly 52, Countdown loses some of the character richness of 52 but at the same time gains far more relevance. In fact, Countdown to Final Crisis Volume One reminded me far less of 52 than of it's initial namesake, Countdown to Infinite Crisis, in that the latter Countdown seems to be more of a whirlwind tour through the DC Universe than a character-based story. It wouldn't be my cup of tea every day, but it's not a bad ride altogether.
Indeed, my two favorite storylines in this volume, that of Mary Marvel and of Trickster and the Pied Piper, were ones that seemed less focused on storyline than on a picaresque journey through the DC Universe. Case in point is the scene where Mary Marvel encounters the reformed Riddler and the two of them fight Clayface; the scene has nearly no relevance to Countdown overall, but instead simply reacquaints the reader with the current status of the Riddler and puts him on the page for a few minutes--as a continuity wonk, I don't mind that, especially as the story begins to move to lesser-spotlighted characters like Zatanna. And while Mary Marvel appears to be covering the supernatural side of the DC Universe, I liked the Fugitive-aspect of the Trickster/Piper storyline, and how they seem to be on a tour through the villains of the DCU.
I also enjoyed seeing Sleez again in the Jimmy Olsen story, which seems to take as it's part reintroducing the New Gods mythology in Countdown. The coolness of the New Gods balances out some of the roughness of Olsen's portrayal; the character screams out for a foil in his scenes, especially the one where he narrates to himself in hackneyed fashion his decision to become a super-hero. Olsen can work as a leading man--see, for instance, Chuck Austen's brilliant Superman: Metropolis--but only when he's cooled-up a bit; I fear the bowtie-Olsen may get annoying over fifty-two issues, porcupine powers aside.
In terms of continuity, Countdown flits in and out of the DC Universe well. It's easy to tell where Countdown connects, from Amazons Attack to the Lightning Saga and Flash: Full Throttle; the end of this volume also alludes to some goings on in Birds of Prey, as well. I'm shocked, frankly, at DC Comics' restraint in not alluding to other specific Countdown crossover volumes in this trade as they began to do in Amazons Attack; if one did want to learn a little more about Karate Kid's time with the Justice League or the Flash's battle with the Rogues, the Countdown trade offers no suggestions as to how to go about it.
To be sure, Countdown shows its seams at time, perhaps because of it's nature as a weekly series. Some scenes, including one between Mary Marvel and Black Adam, repeat over a number of chapters without establishing anything new, but this improves with both the Trickster/Piper and Holly Robinson/Harley Quinn stories later on. And to be sure, Countdown doesn't hold up under terribly close scrutiny--the Justice League/Karate Kid cut-scenes barely fit into The Lightning Saga, and the Donna Troy/Jason Todd friendship is nigh near ridiculous. But Countdown is the backbone of the DC Universe, as it were, not the actual meat itself, and for an overview, I'm willing to squint a little when I look at the details.
[Contains full covers.]
Now that we've read the first volume of Countdown, on to Teen Titans: Titans East, which picks up some of the plotlines from there. See you!