Review: Raven trade paperback (DC Comics)

I have a lack of new DC titles to read right now, to the point where I just recently re-read Dark Nights: Metal in sequential order rather than by collections (and enjoyed it quite a bit more than I did before). The Raven character plays a small but unexpectedly meaningful role around the edges of Metal, and noting that two recent Raven miniseries by Marv Wolfman were published just before and around Metal, I was curious to see if there was any acknowledgment of or tie-in to Metal’s events. (There is not, at least as far as the miniseries, just called Raven, is concerned.)

I will say that I’ve found Raven’s portrayals since the New 52 — and earlier, even — somewhat lackluster; to me, the same cynical lack of imagination that sees the powerful, often self-assured mystic Raven of the 1980s recreated as an angsty teenager is the same that turns deaf pacifist Jericho into a bloodthirsty (and hearing) villain. Wolfman and George Perez' creations in the 1980s were interesting and bucked superhero traditions; since that time, some attempts to make the characters “edgy” have only resulted in making them stereotypical and safe.

But much as I purposefully avoided these miniseries starring “kid Raven,” something else that brought me around has been the portrayal of Raven in the Titans TV show. Firmly this is the “teenage rebel Rachel Roth” Raven, but I have been impressed with how the show has managed to preserve the element of Raven as the one who brings the team together and springboard that into something where Raven is verily the heart of the team, if not also the show’s de facto protagonist.

[Review contains spoilers]

In this, I see how “kid Raven” can work, and of course, given that these comics miniseries are by the classic Raven’s original writer Wolfman, I thought maybe there would be some happy medium between the two to be found. But there was not, unfortunately, and I might conclude that I’m just not the target audience for Wolfman’s Raven, which busies itself with high school drama and characters unironically named “Dude.” Except, I found much to like in Mariko Tamaki’s similarly centered Supergirl: Being Super, whose characters were more believable and whose conflict more nuanced.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

It perhaps comes down to whether you can tolerate a Raven who narrates to herself things like, “Raven factoid number one. By Raven.” There is an audience, perfectly deserving, for whom Raven has always been a child who likes to read and with a penchant for dark colors (and contemporaneous in age to Beast Boy Gar Logan) and to that audience “factoid” might seem perfectly natural. To me, it seems un-Raven-like at best, and Wolfman trying and failing to sound “hip” at worst (as when one character recognizes another’s recovery from sudden blindness with “You looking fine. You were so not that yesterday”).

I grant that Wolfman got an a second 12-issue miniseries following right after this one, so clearly the market disagrees with me when I say that Raven is just not good. For me, an unconvincing character voice combined with weak dialogue overall and a plot that often spins its wheels equals what’s often the worst things about comics — a title meant to spur purchases based on its use of a media property alone, with little care given to what’s inside.

A good amount of the book involves Raven repeatedly trying and failing to pierce an alien white dome — that’s the duplicate conflict of at least two successive issues. Characters seem to realize and forget Raven’s identity with abandon, and no thought is given to the on-the-page logistics — if Raven has a secret identity, why do her dialogue balloons look different from everyone else’s even as a civilian (why isn’t Rachel trying to disguise whatever the shaky balloons are supposed to symbolize)? What do others understand to be the jewel embedded in her forehead? And while granted Wolfman has another 12 issues to go, the high school kids that Wolfman painstakingly (if awkwardly) introduces here have little impact on the plot, such to question if they were really needed at all.

One area I thought Wolfman succeeded was in his portrayal of Rachel’s aunt and her family. It’s dicey through much of the book, but I was ultimately convinced that Wolfman is knowingly, even expertly vacillating in how the audience is meant to perceive the family toward the book’s eventual end. Aunt Alice and her family are devoutly Christian and at times it seems Wolfman treats them as laughably naive, with pat solutions of prayer for Raven’s big problems. They are portrayed as so genuine that the audience must suspect them of being villains, something Wolfman leans into with a quartet of villains that seem to be, but aren’t, the family.

But in the end, Alice does guide Raven toward a solution to the alien invasion, and we’re shown that Rachel takes some of Alice’s biblical wisdom to heart. The book does not embrace religiosity but neither does it reject it outright; hardly is Raven about to become a “religious” character, but neither are we left to feel that the message of the book is to ridicule religiosity entirely. That seems a right middle ground, hard to navigate, that Wolfman takes, and demonstrated his writing skills far better than his attempt at lunchroom banter.

Art through much of the book is by Alisson Borges, offering a wide-eyed pseudo-manga style. Inasmuch as Raven is not a horror title (but could have been or perhaps should have been), I thought Borges did well contorting Raven’s body at times, blood streaming from her eyes, such to be unsettling at least. At the same time characters often looked alike or it was hard to tell who was where, or characters seemed to change positions in space between panels. I thought artist Diogenes Neves arrived right on time for the last chapters, giving the conclusion more the look of Teen Titans than Teen Titans Go!



If you’re on the fence, there’s not much to recommend Marv Wolfman’s Raven. Ostensibly this bridges the end of the New 52 Teen Titans to Raven’s Rebirth appearances in a way that’s interesting for continuity wonks because it doesn’t quite make sense — Raven here is mourning the “death” of her Titans teammate Tim Drake over in the Rebirth Detective Comics, though in many regards the Titans in which Raven and Tim both served ceases to exist once Rebirth is underway. Tim’s death gets only a single mention and doesn’t really affect the plot, such that one can tell this story was conceived before that and not the other way around.

Story-wise, art-wise, I didn’t think this was Marv Wolfman and company’s best showing. I’ll continue into the next two volumes out of curiosity and to continue plumbing those Dark Nights: Metal ties, but I’m not expecting improvement.

[Includes original covers, story pitch, character designs]


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