Review: Red Hood/Arsenal Vol. 1: Open for Business trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, January 23, 2017

As might be becoming apparent, I'm a tad fascinated by the DC Comics publishing period known as "DC You." In its line-wide launch and multimedia advertising, we can see the precursors of the successful DC Rebirth; yet, despite the noble goals of broadening and diversifying the DC line, DC You was by many accounts a significant failure, ending after just one year of publication.

Its timespan is significant, however, because whereas titles like Omega Men and Superman: Lois & Clark were specifically billed as miniseries, as it turned out a good swath of the DC You ended up being "miniseries" of sorts, either new series running just twelve issues or ongoing series with discrete twelve-issue storylines. Launching at it did from a beginning "jumping-on" point and ending conclusively before another jumping-on point, DC You presents an uncommon self-contained microcosm that offered some unusual takes our heroes.

Scott Lobdell's Red Hood/Arsenal is a good example. Just prior, Lobdell ended the Red Hood and the Outlaws series, with DC appropriating Starfire for an attempt at another Harley Quinn-type humor book. To follow, Lobdell would launch Red Hood and the Outlaws again in Rebirth, just with a new set of Outlaws. Bridging the two, then, is Red Hood/Arsenal, what seemed at the launch of the DC You to be the new Outlaws series but what we now come to know is essentially an interstitial Red Hood/Arsenal miniseries, in some part Outlaws epilogue and in some part study of this interesting, intimate male friendship that Lobdell invented from the ether for the New 52.

Red Hood/Arsenal Vol. 1: Open for Business has a slow build. I rather wish DC had collected all twelve issues in this one volume as they did for Omega Men (and I could say the same for Martian Manhunter, Black Canary, Cyborg, and other DC You-launched series), though possibly no one knew at the time that these were volumes one of only two volumes. Lobdell lays the groundwork for the book's "rent a hero" premise in the first issue, with art by series artist Denis Medri, then steps away from it for a loony ill-timed second issue with a guest artist, before Medri returns and Lobdell it picks it up again in the third issue. That's half of this volume down, but only a third of the series as a whole, and as it is Red Hood/Arsenal doesn't really get moving until its fourth issue.

That fourth issue, and the fifth, see Red Hood Jason Todd and Arsenal Roy Harper intersect with Scott Snyder's Batman: Superheavy storyline, as they run afoul of "Robo-Batman" Jim Gordon. That's another appealing thing about DC You, is that even as the reins of continuity loosened slightly in this era, major events in both the Super- and Bat-titles saw many series coinciding with or at least making mention of the larger DC world, a continuity wonk's dream.

Admittedly the storyline that occupies most of Open for Business is far-fetched even for comic book standards, with Red Hood and Arsenal battling basically the sentient embodiment of all evil everywhere, letting alone that Red Hood just so happens to have been present at this "Underbelly"'s creation. What redeems it, if you're into this kind of thing, is seeing Red Hood and Arsenal teamed up with and then fighting against Batman Jim Gordon, and then also how Jason stumbles upon the amnesic Bruce Wayne in the end. Fans of these Red Hood series know, however, that it's often not the action here that actually matters; the book's been silly before, and as a matter of fact Lobdell brings back his crazed Suzi Su here and things get even more ridiculous before the end. Rather, what's always driven the book is the characters, their own struggles, and the relationship between them, and that's more the case in Jason encountering "Superheavy" than what villain they're fighting.

I've described Red Hood and the Outlaws before as a series that gets no respect, and that's sometimes due to its own mistakes and sometimes to reputation or external factors it can't control. What I enjoyed about this Red Hood/Arsenal volume, flowing from Red Hood and the Outlaws, is that it hones in on Jason Todd, Roy Harper, and their friendship. Roy acts like a fool -- one of the things that, without critical interpretation, hurt Outlaws's reputation -- but Jason is always there to remind the reader of the brilliance behind Roy's shenanigans. Lobdell presents here what I believe is a realistic take on Roy's recovery from alcoholism, paired with what I believe is a lead-in to the Titans Hunt miniseries. And Lobdell has for a long time written a nuanced former Robin-turned-assassin Jason Todd, reconciling here some of Jason's stranger previous appearances to boot.

Denis Medri brings an appealing simplicity to Red Hood/Arsenal. Roy Harper's Arsenal armor is overly busy on purpose, but for what's often been an outlandish action book (and at times gratuitously sexualized), Medri's work is refreshingly anti-1990s, straightforward and without excess. Indeed, Medri seems better suited for an Archie Andrews-looking Roy sitting across from fade-cut Jason in a diner discussing how Jason feels about Bruce Wayne's apparent death, which goes to what I liked about this volume: it feels geared more toward Jason and Roy's friendship than the bad guys they hunt.

As mentioned, the end of Red Hood/Arsenal Vol. 1: Open for Business gets even sillier than Underbelly, and it's not even the appearance of Joker's Daughter; rather, and confusingly, a group called Hero Manifesto seemingly wholly made up of supervillains wants to kill Red Hood and Arsenal because they're rent-a-hero competition. Scott Lobdell gets pun-y here in the style of Keith Giffen to the point that Red Hood/Arsenal comes off almost too-silly, but the volume ends auspiciously on a tease for the next volume's Robin War crossover. Given how Lobdell succeeded in his "Superheavy" work (and a fine "Death of the Family" crossover, as I recall), I'm optimistic about that tie-in upcoming.

[Includes original and variant covers, Denis Medri sketches]
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2 comments:

  1. The disappearance of Starfire hurt this book a lot in the early issues, she balanced the 2 other characters. I was no fan of the gimmicks they tried to make the book interesting. The gaming stuff in issue #2 didn't work for me. Or that some of Starfire her characteristics were placed into the others. For example Roy not getting that they need to have a low profile early in the series.

    Luckily, this doesn't last and the book becomes better. Certainly the moments the book focuses more on how Roy and Jason interact with each other.

    On a separate note, the Starfire book was more sexist than Lobdell his version ever was (although that isn't hard, except for those people afraid of a woman who's comfortable with herself and strong enough to overcome hardship). Dumbing down the Character and making her a bit childish just didn't fit one of the strongest women in the DC Universe.

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    1. I'm glad to hear you say that the book gets better. That gaming stuff in issue #2 was a real sour note, and so strange to deviate like that and with a different artist right in the second issue. I was very glad Denis came right back, though it's unfortunate he's not the artist on the next volume.

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