Review: Outsiders: Road to Hell trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, January 20, 2011

In a recent Comic Book Resources interview, DC Comics co-publishers Dan DiDio and Jim Lee talked about how they've looked at DC's entire comics line and considered what purpose each book has in the DC Universe. This is interesting considering the one book whose purpose I can't figure out is the one DiDio himself writes. Compared to other team books, Outsiders has neither the preeminence of Justice League, the tradition of Justice Society, the youth of Teen Titans, the weirdness of Doom Patrol -- it doesn't even have the political machinations of Checkmate.

I picked up Outsiders: The Road to Hell for the Superman: New Krypton tie-in (which is miniscule) and I'll be back for the next trade's role in "Reign of Doomsday," but I'm scratching my head as to what DiDio wants to accomplish here. At times fairly interesting and at times laughably bad, Outsiders has going for it a group of intriguing characters who don't quite fit in another title, but neither am I quite sure they can support their own.

Road to Hell picks up a hazy distance from Outsiders: The Hunt to find Owlman, Katana, Metamorpho, Black Lightning, and the Creeper all "guests" (read: glorified prisoners) of Geo-Force, the increasingly mad king of Markovia. This, DiDio accomplishes very well -- there's a palpable sense of paranoia in the book, both on the part of the Outsiders who realize their leader is slowly going insane, and on the part of Geo-Force, whose grip on Markovia tightens in response to his grip on his sanity loosening.

All the characters actions are believable at the outset, and DiDio makes good use of Blackest Night to explain why Geo-Force and Katana have become as militant as they are. DiDio's Owlman is especially strong, becoming something of an awkward-but-compelling leading man a la Watchmen's Nite Owl. I also found moving the Outsiders' growing realization that Geo-Force did not defeat Deathstroke in DC Universe: Last Will and Testamant as everyone believed, but rather won only by accident in the process of killing himself (and may still be suicidal). This was unclear at the end of Last Will and previous Outsiders writer Peter Tomasi made no mention of it, so I'm not sure if that's what was intended all along or if DiDio is spinning the facts for his story; it's true to the characters, however, and adds another welcome layer to Geo-Force's troubles.

But on top of what's a good story of danger and madness, DiDio piles on a layer of silliness. The Outsiders fight classic villains the Masters of Disaster, but the Masters' costumes and names (New Wave, Coldsnap) seem hopelessly stuck in the 1990s, as does DiDio's dialogue. "Oh yeah! Now that's what I'm talking about! Am I good or what?" spouts one villain; another replies, "Less talk, more action. Stick with the plan."

DiDio also introduces what could be the worst character find of the twenty-first century, Freight Train, a muscle-bound bruiser spouting the most cliched slang I've ever encountered. "Better listen to your pet bird, Sparkles," Freight Train emotes to Metamorpho at one point, "'Cause I'm just looking for an excuse to bust you up."

Both instances use cookie-cutter stereotypical characters and easy, hackneyed dialogue, and it comes off as a rush job. DiDio does fine for the most part in his portrayal of the Outsiders, established characters with strong personalities and histories to call upon; when he gets to creating his own characters, however, Road to Hell almost seems like it has two entirely different writers.

Given both the good and the bad, when I wonder what Outsiders is meant to be about, I keep returning to an extended sequence in Road to Hell, almost three-fourths of an issue, that leaves Markovia entirely and instead focuses on the vampire Looker, a former Outsider. If one wasn't versed in Outsiders history, they'd have no idea why the book almost completely changes its focus. I would guess, if Outsiders actually continues for a while, that DiDio's intention is to bring the old band back together -- Looker, Halo, and the rest -- and this sequence is the beginning of that story.

That's a worthy goal, I guess; the original incarnation of the Outsiders lasted fifty-some issues and still has a good regard in the consciousness of DC Universe readers, so why not return to the book's classic lineup. At the same time, I don't know that I've really heard a clamoring for Outsiders to be resurrected -- it worked for Doom Patrol and R.E.B.E.L.S., but I'm not sure Outsiders has that kind of popularity. Big fans of the classic Outsiders will no doubt be excited by this homecoming party -- but I wonder if DiDio's not setting the table for a party where no one will show up.

I mentioned before that "New Krypton"'s role in Road to Hell is miniscule; rather, it makes no sense. Unless there's going to be a quick change in Last Stand at New Krypton, no part of what I've read so far suggests that the Kandorians have an Earth-bound representative in the Eradicator; DiDio is fudging facts, essentially, to make it work. On one hand, I don't mind this -- I like the Eradicator how ever he appears -- but on the other, I hope "Reign of Doomsday" helps explain both Doomsday and the Eradicator's origins in post-Infinite Crisis continuity; that will help erase some of the sting of this "New Krypton" tie-in that's actually, let's face it, just marketing fluff and not much more.

[Contains full covers.]

I picked up Outsiders: The Road to Hell because it crossed-over with another comic; that cross-over turned out to be peripheral at best, and at worst not even a crossover at all so much as a blatant attempt at cross-marketing with no real regard for story or continuity. The next trade of this same book will also be a crossover, and chances are despite being completely -- perhaps willfully -- burned here, I'm likely to pick up that volume, too.

I have an awareness, of course, that this situation likely represents what's worst about comics right now -- unapologetic profiteering on the part of DC with no regard to the actual content of their product -- and that I'm only reinforcing these bad habits by going along with it. Yet, I'd argue that if comics is two parts reading, it's one part collecting -- collecting all the team's baseball cards in your album even if you like some of the players better than the others, just so you have the whole team.

I have to say, I breathed a little sigh of relief when I saw that DC is canceling their latest Azrael series -- I never read it, I admit, but I'm hard-pressed to believe we ever needed another Azrael series, nor did I think it would succeed, and as such it seemed a waste of space in DC's comics line. Even as someone who adored Judd Winick's Outsiders, if I hear in a couple months that this incarnation of Outsiders is at its end, I think I'll feel a little relief then, too.
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7 comments:

  1. "I never read it, I admit, but I'm hard-pressed to believe we ever needed another Azrael series, nor did I think it would succeed"

    I can't say I agree with this sentiment. How many books do we really "need"? And if the possibility of success meant everything, why take a chance ever? I admit I've been highly skeptical of Azrael, but I can't say I like such casual damnation of ever taking a chance on such books. We probably didn't need a new Blue Beetle or Blue Beetle series, but look how that turned out.

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  2. I concur with CEB about this profiteering issue, but I can't believe that Outsiders pulls in that much business; my LCS doesn't even stock it, because there's a sense that the Outsiders are just that - outside (that, and I haven't read great things about Didio's skill as a writer). I too have yet to see the "purpose" of the title.

    As for Azrael, I've heard good things, but much of what I've heard has had nothing to do with the character being named Azrael. This doesn't seem to be a legacy character issue (like with the new Blue Beetle, who I fear is not long for this world), but rather a case of slapping on a familiar name to sell new books. From what I have read of the new Azrael, there seems to be marginal tie to the original character, such that we could easily have been given a whole new character (which might have helped sales, since some people still have a bad taste in their mouths from Jean-Paul Valley).

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  3. Regarding my criticism of the new Azrael series, dl is absolutely right; that a book might be out of the mainstream is indeed not a reason for publishers nor readers not to take a chance on it. My admission that I was criticizing the book without having read it was in part a nod toward dl's very point, and my understanding that the sentiment I was expressing was controversial.

    In regards to Azrael specifically, I think my sense of the book was that it took a minor character from Batman RIP and built a series around him using a familiar name, but was otherwise unrelated to Knightfall or the Dennis O'Neil series -- that it was profiteering on a name and a crossover without the actual content to back it up, much in the way this volume of Outsiders does with New Krypton and the Eradicator.

    I don't feel the same way about Doom Patrol, for instance. I don't get the sense that's burning the bestseller lists either, but I sooner believe that Keith Giffen has a deep abiding love for the Doom Patrol than I do that Fabian Nicieza and David Hine always wanted to write Azrael -- rather I believe DC wanted to take a flier on a Batman RIP tie-in book and got these two writers to do it.

    None of that speaks to the actual content of Azrael, which again I haven't read, and I fully appreciate anyone who might tell me to go take a hike in my criticism of Azrael since indeed I'm speaking from partial information (see my unsolicited take on the Chuck Dixon/DC Comics split -- I try not to talk out of my rear, and when I do, I try to admit that I'm doing so ahead of time). Nicieza and Hine might be writing a great book, but the idea of it, in my opinion, stems from profiteering -- I've heard Countdown Presents: Lord Havok was good, too, but again, can we really posit that as anything more than a tie-in for a tie-in's sake on DC's part?

    So that's where I was going with that. And to recognize that I've bought some of these books, so I'm part of the problem even as I also bring it up for discussion.

    Thanks to dl and to Zach for chiming in on this; good points all. Other thoughts?

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  4. Speaking of Azrael, it seems the third TPB, which was supposed to collect Nicieza's last 3 issues and Hine's first arc, got cancelled:

    http://www.amazon.com/Azrael-The-Killer-of-Saints/dp/1401229867/ref=sr_1_7?ie=UTF8&qid=1295798045&sr=8-7

    I actually liked this book. While I wouldn't say DC really needed a new Azrael, it was a well-written series, which is more than I can say about DiDio's Outsiders and Eric Wallace's Titans, which are vying for the title of most offensively bad ongoing series DC is publishing right now.

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  5. IMHO the 'purpose' of a comic book is to entertain, the contents therein can be anything from crass humour to nail biting action....no book is without it's supporters or detractors. The clumsiest of books have their fan bases...though I admit I've not yet read Outsiders Didio run....

    For me, as long as the book is entertaining, and I like it I'll continue to read it. For that matter I can't really see the purpose for ANY ELSEWORLDS book, though considering that there are only a few still in print (SUPERMAN: RED SON, JLA: THE NAIL/ANOTHER NAIL, BATMAN VAMPIRE & KINGDOM COME)

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  6. Can't see a purpose to Elseworlds? You're going to looove Flashpoint.

    Just kidding ... indeed I've always maintained that every book is someone's favorite, and I'm often eager to know what people like about a book I don't like, help me gain a new perspective on it.

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  7. I take everything back-the only thing that'll keep me reading this one is the direction.

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