Review: Secret Origins Vol. 1 trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Two things are promised in the title of Secret Origins Vol. 1: that within will be origins, and that they'll in some way be secret -- either untold, revealing new information, or sowing the seeds for a storyline to come. On the first promise, "origins," this book delivers, but on the second, "secret," it does not.

At some point the New 52 very much needed a title like Secret Origins to fill in the gaps between what we'd known about the characters pre-Flashpoint and their new status quos, or to re-tell tangled pieces of history like what relationship Nightwing had with Starfire or how Batman "died" if Final Crisis never occurred (something Peter Tomasi's Robin Damian Wayne story approaches but never addresses). The Zero Month event seemed in part a concession to audience requests for more background information; though it largely did not fill in many continuity blanks, it did offer some "secret" origins and teased upcoming events in the respective titles. If Secret Origins could have been the next step forward, a kind of proto-History of the DC Universe, that would have been notable indeed.

Unfortunately, the twelve stories in the first volume of Secret Origins often repeat their Zero Month issues or what's been established in the first years of each character's title. If one has read most of the Zero Month issues, Secret Origins doesn't have a lot to offer. Given the constraints of space, the Secret Origins stories are also told with less aplomb than in the comics themselves (Batwoman penciller Jeremy Haun's Batwoman story, for instance, runs at breakneck speed through Greg Rucka's slower, more dramatic telling of Kate Kane's "don't ask, don't tell" discharge from the army). In this regard, Secret Origins really does function as a primer for brand new comics fans, shocking in its simplicity; I thought for sure DC would use Secret Origins to excite existing fans about new storylines, not to truly recap what came before.

Tony Bedard's Supergirl story is one that falls into this category, essentially recounting the Michael Green/Mike Johnson origin. Ray Fawkes's Batman story repeats Scott Snyder's Zero Year origin, but with too few details (one might wonder why, reading this story, the Batcave suddenly appears in Bruce Wayne's study, given no mention of Thomas Wayne's 3-D camera). Jeff Lemire's Green Arrow story does not add to, but rather revamps, the New 52 Green Arrow origin (whereas I'd rather see a writer work with what came before), and somewhat oddly shoehorns Diggle earlier into the New 52 series than he actually appeared.

Still, these stories are "better," in a sense, than ones like Greg Pak and Lee Week's Superman story that starts off the volume. This is by no account a bad story, paralleling mothers Lara and Martha Kent's wishes for their son, but there is nothing secret nor revelatory about the tale. Were this a story in the digital Adventures of Superman comic or a backup to some Superman anniversary issue, it would be nicely emotional indeed; in this context, however, it reads like filler. The same is true for Robert Venditti's Green Lantern story, which presents the Abin Sur crash-landing just the same as you've always known it, without any added context stemming from revelations in Green Lantern: Lights Out or such.

That's not to say it's all bad in Secret Origins (and "bad" is the wrong word, because there's plenty to enjoy in Dustin Nguyen drawing Batman and Denys Cowan drawing Green Arrow). Scott Lobdell's Red Robin origin again hews pretty close to the Zero Month Teen Titans issue, but this wild tale Lobdell spins of Tim Drake's family having to go into witness protection continues to fascinate me. Lobdell also wins with a Starfire story that shows her first meeting with some of the characters from Red Hood and the Outlaws Vol. 2: The Starfire. (Though, another problem with Secret Origins is that some of these origins will be not so secret as defunct with the upcoming June 2015 relaunch, Starfire likely included.) Jeff Parker also does well with an Aquaman story that both offers more detail about Arthur's falling out with Dr. Shin and spotlights Arthur's little-seen mother.

The very best of them, and the one that suggests the direction Secret Origins really ought to go, is Peter Tomasi's Robin Damian Wayne story. Artist Ian Bertram has a wrinkled, truncated style that suggests well Frank Quitely, which is perfect for this story that serves as prologue to Grant Morrison and Quitely's Batman and Robin books. Tomasi tells a "lost" story between the pages of Batman RIP and Battle for the Cowl that shows Damian actually putting on the Robin costume for the first time. There's nothing particularly revelatory about this, but at least it's a story we haven't read before, and Tomasi gets his "secret" quota in with Dick Grayson's surreptitious role in the proceedings. Compared to Venditti's Green Lantern story, Tomasi's is one that rewards the reader, at least, for the reading.

A number of the stories found in Secret Origins Vol. 1 will also be collected in trades of their characters' series, and probably that's the better place for them. This is not, as I'd hoped, because the Supergirl story will continue into the Supergirl title, for instance, but rather because these stories mostly don't amount to more than backup stories, a little bonus material at the end of the main event. The Secret Origins series has two more collections, in my estimation, to turn things around before the title ends; I hope some of the lessons of this volume help improve what comes next.

[Includes original and variant covers]
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