SECRET ORIGINS #3 is a fairly solid execution of an ultimately doomed concept.
Featuring the origins of Green Lantern Hal Jordan (Robert Venditti, Martin Coccolo), Batwoman (Jeremy Haun, Trevor McCarthy) and Red Robin (Scott Lobdell, Tyler Kirkham), this issue is a fairly run-of-the-mill-offering, with neither anything spectacular nor overwhelmingly disappointing – all in all, fairly good for a series of glorified Wikipedia articles. But we’ll get to that later – first, the breakdowns.
FREEDOM FROM FEAR
GREEN LANTERN: FREEDOM FROM FEAR (Robert Venditti, Martin Coccolo) is another in a long line of failed attempts to interest me in Hal Jordan.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand Hal’s status and importance in the Green Lantern continuity. And, hey, I’ve even managed to enjoy him a few times – admittedly in animated adaptations rather than print, but I’m certain I could muster up some love for the character at some point. But FREEDOM FROM FEAR, while adequate, just doesn’t enthrall.
When it comes to introducing the new Hal Jordan, this issue has it all. The death of his father, his ability to overcome fear, his issues with authority, Sinestro’s descent into villainy, the qualifications for a Green Lantern ring, and, of course, the fateful crash that inducted him into the Green Lantern Corps in the first place. All the major themes and events are here, laid out clearly and cohesively for the complete Green Lantern newcomer. The only important figure really missing is Carol Ferris, and with her prominence over in GREEN LANTERN: NEW GUARDIANS and rumored relationship with Green Lantern Kyle Rayner, that’s likely not an oversight. If you’re looking to get into Hal Jordan, this is a great start – you really don’t need any more than this to jump right into the start of a Hal Jordan arc and understand everything.
The art, too, is very good. Though we see little of the sweeping spacescapes that make the Green Lantern universe such a spectacular sight, Martin Coccolo brings his A-game nonetheless. The expressions are good, and the few shots of Hal flying we see are a real pleasure to read.
I am frequently told that Hal Jordan has a personality. One day, perhaps, I shall see evidence of this. But however well Hal may or may not be written elsewhere – and I’ll admit that, never finding much interest in him, I haven’t read a great deal of his stories – there’s not a lot going for him here. Cocky quasi-military protagonists with authority issues getting chosen for special programs are a dime a dozen, and the “pushing past his fear of the thing that killed his father” aspect does little to breathe life into the archetype. In a short piece designed to serve as much as an advertisement for a character as an introduction, that’s quite the shortcoming.
The incredibly stilted internal monologue doesn’t help much, either. With more narration boxes than dialogue, over-narration is a real problem. Even the best of voiceovers can fall prey to this, and with lines like “Standing over his grave, I had a choice: spend my life running away from fear, or charge toward it” and “All we had to do was not let fear get in the way. Good thing I’d been doing that my whole life,” this is not the best of voiceovers.
FREEDOM FROM FEAR falls easily into a trap that, sadly, has caught many other stories in this series – no matter the writing quality, it’s got nothing to offer. If you’re already a Hal Jordan fan, you’ll learn nothing new here. If you’re new to the character, it doesn’t have enough to sell you on him – if you’ve even bothered to buy the issue in the first place. Still, it checks all the marks necessary for a good Hal introduction, and if I needed to pick an issue to catch a Hal newcomer up, I have to say – this would be first on my list.
BATWOMAN: BLOOD MONEY (Jeremy Haun, Trevor McCarthy) is basically the “previously on” feature from television – and it works very well.
Rather than the usual “let me tell you my backstory” style narration, BLOOD MONEY eschews the internal monologue entirely, allowing the scenes to speak for themselves – and with the art team of penciller/inker Trevor McCarthy and colorist Matt Wilson, they speak quite well. More than that, though, it’s a fairly smart move as PR goes – after the previous creative team of J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman not only left the book amidst cries of overreaching editorial mandates, but were actively prevented from finishing the final arc they had been promised, a love letter to the highlights of the series so far is honestly the best choice here.
I really cannot emphasize how well this new team manages to capture the tone of the series to date in these few short pages. It’s not just that it runs through Kate’s defining moments – that’s easy enough to do for any writer, especially when almost all the dialogue is ripped straight from the archives. It’s everything – the stunning art, the little nods and quiet moments, the pacing, and, most importantly, the experimentation with the page layouts that so characterized Williams’ work. All efforts are made to capture the essence of Batwoman here, even at the cost of letting Haun put his own stamp on Kate’s origin, and honestly, it’s the right move.
On the subject of smoothing over the transition, I am frankly glad with their handling of the Maggie Sawyer issue. While the loss of the marriage proposal is disheartening, there is really no way they could have brought that up without dealing with the fallout, and it’s for the best not to rub salt in that particular wound.
Finally, I’d like to take a moment to really appreciate the narrative style of this introduction. After so many origins bogged down by over-narration and tedious internal monologues, a feature that places the focus back on the action of the pages is a real breath of fresh air.
The use of Kate’s birthday as a framing device here is particularly inspired. I can hardly think of a better way to showcase the loss of not only her mother, but her identical twin, marking the devastation to the family and the bittersweet nature of a single twin’s birthday. Which is why the complete and utter lack of said twin is mindboggling. Elizabeth Kane, the twin believed to have been dead for many years before resurfacing as the supervillain Alice, was an incredibly important character throughout both the pre-New 52 and New 52 iterations of the character alike. Yet, not only does she not get so much as a namedrop, there is literally nothing to indicate to new readers that she even existed. I understand that she was rather hastily shuffled offscreen when the Mark Andreyko and Trevor McCarthy team tied up loose ends, but for a creative team trying to live down the scandalous departure of their predecessors, ignoring the series’ most prominent villain entirely is not the way to go.
BLOOD MONEY is one of those rare origin specials that offers to both new and existing readers alike. While there’s nothing in the way of new content here, the combination of the art and the continuity nods does a lot to woo lapsed readers, while the “best of” nature of the story not only covers the ground needed for new readers, but actively entices them. It’s not perfect, and the omission of Alice is rather glaring, but all in all, BLOOD MONEY is a great example of what this series can be.
RED ROBIN: SECRET IDENTITY (Scott Lobdell, Tyler Kirkham) is bafflingly competent.
I went into this section with the bar about as low as I could set it. I have, in complete honesty, never read a Scott Lobdell story I didn’t hate. And with the old controversy of Tim’s rebooted origin, I could not have expected less of this feature. But somehow, this particular vaulter has managed to clear that low bar. It’s got a lot wrong with it, but it doesn’t actively suck, and that’s enough to leave me with a surprisingly positive view of this feature.
If you hadn’t been following the New 52 Titans series – and I don’t blame you if you hadn’t – you might have been confused by the Red Robin origin rumors you heard. Olympic gymnast? Witness protection? Never a Robin? It was a real mess. I am pleased to say, however, that this narrative manages to condense all those baffling changes into 12 short, easy to follow pages. Never again will you be confused by the “what” of Tim’s new origin – only the “why.”
Okay, okay, I’m being too hard on this. While I question the changes made to Tim’s backstory – and we’ll get to those – SECRET IDENTITY pulled it off rather well. Tim’s internal monologue is crisp and fluid. His discovery of Batman’s identity is sold without overselling it, sidestepping the “genius hacker child is so smart” trap that other writers have often fallen into with him. And some of the most roundly criticized changes are retconned to fit better – Tim now figured out Batman’s real secret identity without fessing up to it, “Tim Drake” is at least now part of his real name, and the eyeroll-worthy “was never Robin” backstory is given a believable motivation.
Finally, I’d like to give a nod to the art team. It’s rather easy to foist origin stories off on incompetent art teams, or for even talented artists to mail in a smaller gig, yet not a single artist on this series has been less than excellent. The scenes are well laid out, Tim actually looks his age, and gratuitous cheesecake shots are soundly avoided. I’d love to see more Red Robin from the Tyler Kirkham/Arif Prianto team in the future.
Lobdell makes the new Tim Drake origin feel believable, but he still doesn’t make it feel like Tim Drake. While I’ve honestly never been a huge Tim Drake fan, I know enough to know how badly this characterization missed the mark. Rather than focusing on Dick Grayson, the orphaned circus boy who had shown a neglected child kindness, Tim is now obsessed with Batman. Rather than looking up to Robin, Tim wants to solve the puzzle of Batman, one in a series of obsessions. Rather than first approaching Nightwing in an effort to save Batman from himself, Tim auditions for Robin from the getgo, focusing entirely on his own ambition with only a passing mention of saving Bruce. I’ve decried Tim’s old origin for being “stalkerish” in the past, but frankly, I prefer the themes of hero worship to the dog with the bone.
SECRET IDENTITY is a solid enough story about an original character who happens to be called Tim Drake. If you’re looking to catch up on his rebooted origin, by all means – it’s not a chore to read. But there’s nothing here for Tim Drake fans.
SECRET ORIGINS #3 could certainly be better, but realistically, it’s the best that most of these issues are going to get. At $4.99, it’s not worth it. And at $4.99, it’s never going to be worth it. SECRET ORIGINS is, ultimately, a doomed concept – three illustrated Wikipedia blurbs with an outrageous price tag. Origins, being focused on catching readers up, will almost never have a compelling story. For established readers, there’s little to nothing. And new readers, aside from a naive few, are not going to shell out $4.99 plus tax for twelve pages about the character they’re interested in and 24 pages about some other guys. You’re effectively paying DC to advertise characters to you, and most of the time, they’re not even doing it that well. If you’re deathly curious about one of the characters and pathologically allergic to Google, feel free to shell out for a feature that should rightfully be the free 101 issue on Comixology. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking this is a viable business model.