I was reading The Savage Critics this morning, and one of the commenters there didn't like my first Countdown review at all. I started to post a reply, saying "Yes, you're right, my blog isn't as good as Douglas Wolk's one, and that first review was very poor - not enough content to really justify posting it - but I had more to say about the second issue, and I think you might enjoy some of the other posts..." and then I realised. Oh my God, I'm turning into Paul Dini !
As a few other comic bloggers have noted, Dini's interview linked above essentially blames the readers for not liking the comic so far, saying "People are not falling in with the rhythm. You'll always have people who'll hate it just because they do or they hate everything [...] in that first issue, yeah, we started out kind of slow, but that's just the prologue and the actual story starts with issue #50 and from here on in things are just going to build and get faster and faster. I prefer starting out that way rather than having a huge explosion that will leave everyone kind of scratching their head and wondering what's going on."
Now, I don't want to sound too critical of Mr Dini here for a few words in an interview that mostly made me more excited about the project, but in saying this he is confirming the criticisms about Countdown that have been made so far.
I have not read one single positive review of the first two issues of Countdown - I've read a few neutral ones, maybe some that mildly recommend it, and a bunch of negative ones. Those negative reviews were all based on the fact that nothing happened in the first issue, and little in the second.
Now, Mr Dini can say all he likes that 'people are not falling in with the rhythm' but we know what the rhythm is. We just don't like it. And as for the story not starting until the second issue, that just suggests that the second issue should have been the first issue.
The fact is, 'decompressed' storytelling and page after page of atmosphere and set-up only really work in trade paperbacks and graphic novels. You can just about get away with them in an ongoing story where the readers know to trust the creators. But the first issue of a new series should be, if not a complete story, at least something that approximates to a satisfying reading experience - it should lay out its stall and say "this is what we have. If you like this come back, it only gets better from here!" I would have expected Paul Dini, whose done-in-one stories in Detective over the last year have been so enjoyable, to understand this. People are paying ridiculously large amounts for these comics (relative to the entertainment value gained from them - an issue of Countdown costs the same as an issue of Private Eye, or as much as a week's worth of The Guardian or The Independent when bought from a newsagent in a student area) and they deserve to actually get something for their money other than a promise that next week's comic will be good.
On top of this, this strategy actually makes the comic seem less good than it is. Some of the apparent mistakes (for example Jimmy Olsen knowing Jason Todd's secret ID) are going to be part of the story and aren't mistakes at all, but when there are actual mistakes there as well, and when there's so little happening, it's very tempting to dismiss all of them.
I think, on balance, the 52 model of weekly comic-writing is probably better than the Countdown model. If each writer gets, say, four pages this week, and is only writing the part of the story he's interested in, he's (for unfortunately all the writers on both these series have been male) not going to waste two of them on a big splash page of Superman floating above the earth - he's going to make them count in a way that he won't if he's writing 22 pages and he has to put in that bit about the Rogues when he really just wants to get to the Mary Marvel bit (or whatever). You end up with a comic containing a lot more story for your money.
I'm continuing to read the comic, but it's for reasons which have nothing to do with those first couple of issues - I trust Paul Dini and Keith Giffen to do good work (assuming Giffen's work ever appears - another reason people are slightly less willing to give the comic any slack is because we've essentially been mis-sold these first few issues. I bought them with the understanding that Keith Giffen was working on them, and no-one admitted otherwise til after they were released), the few hints about what it's counting down to that I've read have been promising, and I like the characters. If I'd just had those two issues, and no ancilliary material on which to base my judgement, there's no way I would commit to spending £1.50 a week to find out if it's going to get good.
Having said that, Countdown 49 is a great improvement. I wouldn't say it's good, as such, but it's very competently done. There's nothing in there that requires you to have read another comic, the back story (such as it is) is explained without too much exposition-dumping, and the story is told well.
Partly, this is to do with the pacing - while Keith Giffen is still absent from this issue, the pacing and layouts are done in an obvious attempt to imitate his layouts for 52 - tons of six- and four-panel grids. This is important - it means that when Giffen's breakdowns do start appearing, there will be some continuity in the storytelling between this issue and the later ones. The pacing and layout of a comic are far more important to its effect than most people give them credit for - Watchmen and Fell both get a lot of their effect from the 9-panel grid, while almost all of the effect of Dark Knight Returns comes from Miller's use of that 16-panel grid with its tiny images. A regular (or semi-regular - any rule should be broken if it affects storytelling adversely) panel layout sets a rhythm for the story, a regular beat, and subliminally makes you want to carry on reading - the rhythm pulls you along. A page with more panels also feels more information-dense than one with fewer, even if it contains the same amount of action and dialogue. I don't know if this was a choice made by scripter Tony Bedard or penciller Carlos Magno, but whoever it was did the right thing - this is the first issue of the comic that really feels like something's happening.
Also, I'm glad to see there was no Jason Todd in this issue.
Looking at the story itself:
pp 1-5 - I love the resolution to last week's cliffhanger. The return of Elastic Lad! It's interesting to see Jimmy's surprise at this as well - obviously his early-90s elasticisation has been retconned away. Unless this is an alternate earth Jimmy... Incidentally, Jimmy's characterisation has been one of the things this series gets absolutely right.
pp 6-8 The Monitors plotline is probably going to be the most important in the story, but I can't say I can work up any enthusiasm for them at all. The original Monitor was a walking MacGuffin, and these are given no characteristics that make them interesting yet. But at least here we have a definite motivation ( protect the purity of the Multiverse), source of conflict within the group (do we kill to further the greater good?) and source of conflict with the heroes later on (threat to the lives of several characters we're supposed to care about). Also it's good to see that the Monitors use the Star Trek facial hair universe-distinction system.
pp 9 & 10 - Still no explanation given for who these people are or why we should care. Looks like they think everyone reading this is also reading JLA and JSA...
pp 11-15 - The first time the Flash Rogue's storyline has worked for me. The differing motivations of the three characters here actually work, all the necessary information to understand what's going on is given in the dialogue, and it's a funny little sequence. "Bear-market" Boesky is obviously the DCU version of Robert Maxwell , but hopefully for him he's a better swimmer. And page 14, panel 1, Mirror Master's "Och, ye perfect wee bastard!" and his look of horror (with Pied Piper almost looking like Harpo Marx in the background) is just lovely.
pp 16-19 - Well, it couldn't be perfect, could it? I really, really, hoped to have seen the last of Black Adam for a while. Black Adam is The Punisher with powers, a character with absolutely nothing interesting about him as written in any comic I've read. No doubt it's possible to do something interesting with him (there's no such thing as a character with no potential), but if the 52 writers couldn't manage, given the characters they managed to revive, I doubt he'll fare any better in Countdown. Even here, though, there's one good exchange - "Who are they?" "Drug addicts, squatters, real estate agents..."
Even the History of The Multiverse by Dan Jurgens, which I'd been dreading given that the History of the DCU backups he did last year were widely acknowledged as the worst thing about 52 by a long way, was competently done. It's still a bunch of characters standing around telling each other things they already know, but you could read it without having read Flash Of Two Worlds (the story it recaps in four pages) and come out knowing what had happened, which is about all you can hope for with this kind of infodump.
I'm hoping to post something in the next day or two with guesses as to what Countdown is counting down to, but for now I'm going to leave with a plug for something completely unrelated. My songwriting partner Tilt is promoting a gig on Wednesday 30th May in Bradford, at the Love Apple Cafe, featuring our friends Wilful Missing and Blake Jones (the latter having travelled all the way from Fresno). If you're in the North of England, and you like good music, please come along, so we can do more of these shows.