DCU Presents 19

Life is full of surprises. Sometimes they’re little surprises like discovering that a TV show that looked really dumb is actually quite good or finding a something in your house that you’d forgotten about. Sometimes they’re bigger, like winning the lottery or developing a significant beneficial mutation. And sometimes there are amazing surprises like finding out that DC is giving Tony Bedard’s Beowulf an entire issue.

Am I exaggerating? Of course I am. How much? Read on to find out.

Before we get started, I have a confession to make. You see…several months ago I…I dropped Sword of Sorcery. I know what I did was wrong, but the budget was getting tight. It doesn’t matter, excuses won’t change the truth. I dropped a perfectly nice book with a predominantly female cast after hearing news of its cancellation instead of sticking it out to show DC that it was appreciated. It was something I did with regret, and I regret it still, but I admit that, given the choice again, I would probably do the same.

There was another facet of that decision, though. I picked up Sword of Sorcery #5 only to discover that it featured “Stalker, the man without a soul!” While I desperately wanted to support a book about mother-daughter relationships on its own merits, in the end Sword of Sorcery just wasn’t enough for me without Beowulf. That should tell you how I’ve enjoyed Bedard’s take on the oldest English story. And the strangest thing is that I’m not exactly sure why.

Beowulf, not unlike Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld, was in many ways a merely standard comic, however, where other stories fail and succeed on the force of their strengths and weaknesses, Beowulf is sturdy. Every month I knew that it won’t be the most shocking story (in fact, while it was featured in Sword of Sorcery, I felt fairly confident that I knew where it was going as it largely adhered to the story of its namesake poem), but I took great joy in seeing the little ways that the story played with the text of the epic and the world of DC.

That spirit is alive and well here. Bedard crafts an excellent little tale that serves to introduce new readers to the world of Beowulf without wasting the issue’s opportunity to add something to the mythos.

Bedard has displayed a talent for utilizing contrasting characters with this property, whether that be Wiglaf or Grendel or Hrothgar. That trend continues as we meet Gwendolyn Pierce (“Gwendolyn. A good name,” Beowulf barks). Gwendolyn is a nice character to have around: an adventurous archeologist who doesn’t suddenly turn into Lara Croft or Indiana Jones when in danger. Her love for worlds past is simple and easy to relate to. If Bedard never gets a series out of this, I hope she’ll at least show up to brief the Justice League on archeological intel they need now and again.

Gwendolyn serves as a viewpoint for the reader, Bedard nailing the delicate balance of making her baffled enough to be believable, while also sharp and useful enough not to get on your nerves. While she’s obviously getting more out of their partnership for most of the issue, Beowulf needs her help as well.

One of the great strengths of this issue is the role of legends. To Gwendolyn, Beowulf is just a legend, however, New York is a legend to Beowulf. Likewise, much of Gwendolyn’s relevant knowledge is due to her study of ancient peoples and their legends. Beowulf is, himself, a legend among the people of the Dunelaw, not for his name but for his martial prowess, and one can expect that this and any future meetings of our DCU and Beowulf’s will only give rise to more. Perhaps most importantly is the sense that Bedard is aware of all of this. He sees, kind of like Stan Lee did all those years ago, that comics are a type of legend for the modern-day. He keeps this character simple and iconic, weaving depth into that tapestry, rather than create an elaborate character. Beowulf doesn’t need explanation. Say “post-apocalyptic Beowulf” “cyberpunk Beowulf”, or even just “future Beowulf” and whoever you’re talking to will probably have a sense what you’re describing. Coupled with the exposition in this issue you have a handy introduction to Beowulf, and with the strength of Bedard’s writing, you have a comic that can appeal to all sorts of people.

That’s part of the fun here. While it’s not as clear as the original backups, Beowulf functions differently from a superhero. He’s not quite fantasy or sci-fi either, though definitely a blend of the two. I’m a big fan of the superhero story and I love Beowulf, but I feel like he’s probably an interesting character to read for those who don’t particularly care for superheroes or those intimidated or unfamiliar with comics.

I write about this like it’s a work of genius, but it’s not. It’s just a strong comic. There are weak moments. Perhaps the biggest failing of this issue is the lack of a strong relationship between the characters. Though the issue gets along fine on the individual charisma of its characters, it would be much improved if Bedard could show us a real moment of connection to assure us that he’s capable of doing something with these great characters he’s set up.

It’s also worth noting that this is very much not an issue of Beowulf, it’s DC Universe Presents. This issue harkens back to the old anthology titles like Spotlight or Marvel Team-up. While the writing is good and the plot is strong for what it is, this issue would be a pretty weak installment of a monthly title. The stakes simply aren’t high enough. Though it might spark an interest in the character, this is not an entirely satisfying read. It’s more like a free comic book day issue, accessible and interesting, but likely to be rehashed when the book it hints towards comes out. Which brings us to the other problem. There might not be anymore.

While this certainly gives me hope that DC sees the value of this property, there’s no guarantee that we’ll get to see what becomes of Beowulf or Gwendolyn. While buying this book is the first step to seeing more of the story, I can understand if some of you aren’t willing to make the investment in a book that, best case scenario, gets you hooked on a character, only to disappear.

If you’re on the fence, consider the artwork, which I also really like. There are many artists who are very skilled but have trouble drawing their protagonists.  Consider Doug Mahnke. I adored his work on Blackest Night, and it’s hard to argue that he isn’t an extremely talented artist, but he has a real problem when it comes to faces. Much as I respect his storytelling chops, I was waiting for him to move on from Green Lantern. Julius Gopez had similar issues in this week’s Red Hood and the Outlaws. That’s part of what makes Pina’s work so impressive. Compare the first appearance of the Puca with Beowulf’s introduction two pages later. They’re entirely different, but both are beautiful.

Things from ‘our’ DCU don’t fare quite as well, Superman and his fellow Leaguers look off, and Gwendolyn and the citizens of…I don’t know where this takes place actually…anyway, they run the gamut when it comes to naturalism.

One last thing that bares mentioning is the tone of the piece. A big brooding hulk of a hero like Beowulf could easily become another 90s style anti-hero, devoid of humor or life, but he really doesn’t. Something in the way Bedard writes neither glorifies nor demeans the story. What’s more, it’s fairly funny. Not laugh out loud funny, but funny. Look at Beowulf’s reaction to a mounted police officer. There are little bits like this all throughout the book. Things that never distract from the story, but serve to lighten it, keep it from becoming dreadfully grim.

This is what I think a one issue anthology story should be. It whets the appetite for more, while telling a complete story. That said, some might find it frustrating that there isn’t more, or lacking in-depth, given that there isn’t any more. Others who don’t share my priorities might feel that it’s generic, but, for me, Bedard distinguishes the title in the cleverness of his writing and the sense that this is his story. If you’re interested, I suggest picking it up, DC could use a reminder that fantasy still has a place in their line and that the readers respond when they back off and let their artists be artists.

DC Universe Presents #19 is a great introduction to a series that may never exist.