Lobdell and Rocafort’s New 52 effort is visually spectacular but leaves the reader hanging.
A team featuring Red Hood, Arsenal and Starfire would not be high on my list of things to read, but, having heard good things about the current iteration of Red Hood and the Outlaws, I thought I’d check out the first issue of the title’s New 52 run. And, yes, as the Rebirth team features Red Hood, Bizarro and Artemis, that probably is as silly as it sounds; it’s just the way I roll.
The first thing to point out is that Kenneth Rocafort’s artwork is generally jaw-dropping. This is the first time I’ve encountered him and to say that I was impressed would be an understatement. His character work is detailed but clear, his facial expressions appropriate and evocative, and his action scenes easy enough to follow. Plus, he does cheesecake pretty well, too. (More on this in a moment.)
Scott Lobdell’s story is fun enough, too. We start with the Arsenal formerly known as Speedy stuck in a jail in fictional Middle Eastern country Qurac after helping its people overthrow their government and then falling foul of the inevitable turmoil that followed. Lobdell has Red Hood narrating at this point, which is a pretty big clue that the character is about to become part of the action. What follows is a pretty exciting rescue with Red Hood disguised as an overweight pastor in a moment that is influenced by Total Recall. The escape takes place over two double-page spreads, the art laid out in a crazy-quilt of shards and slivers that does a reasonable job of conveying the frenetic action. And violence. (Many of Arsenal’s erstwhile captors will not be doing the prison rounds ever again.)
The pair break out of the prison compound and drive away in Red Hood’s jeep. There is a chase, there is banter, there are tanks. There is a bad joke. (“Tanks!” “Don’t mention it.”) And there is a pointlessly sexist and unfunny joke that leads to the introduction of probably the most problematic element of this issue. Starfire.
Now admittedly, I am almost entirely ignorant of everything that’s happened to the character since 1991, but her portrayal here seems off. Visually, she’s as impressive as ever. Rocafort’s artwork presents her as beautiful, powerful and emotionally detached from the carnage she’s wreaking on the Quraci tanks. The splash page that introduces her is poster-worthy; the joke much much less so. And this, I think, is the point. Starfire has always been an attractive character – and explicitly sensual too. She has always been seen as uninhibited and free with her sexuality in ways that proved to be awkward or embarrassing for her more uptight friends in the Teen Titans. At the same time, though, that sense of self-confidence and freedom led to a rather touching naivety that is wholly absent here. Partly this is because society itself has arguably become more relaxed about sexual morality and, as a result, there is less mileage to be gained in that frisson between sensuality and decorum. This poses challenges for any creative team taking the character on, but Lobdell and Rocafort’s approach is to sexualise her more obviously while at the same time presenting her as having divorced emotion from sexuality completely. That combination is… unsatisfying. There are hints of more going on with the character (not least with the introduction of a shady character who appears to be on the look out for Tamaraneans), but they’re almost drowned out in a blizzard of crass one-liners and eye candy.
That’s not to say that there isn’t interesting stuff going on here. Once the story moves on to the island of St Martinique (and the obligatory swimsuit shots – thank you, Mr Rocafort), it diverges into two branches: the Roy-Kori plotline that is there primarily to establish the ground rules about Starfire (alien, ephemeral connections with humans, promiscuous), and the Jason-Essence plotline that provides the impetus moving forward. Essence is a character about whom I know nothing. Clearly she has a strong connection with Jason and there’s some intriguing stuff about the ‘All Caste’, which appears to be an organization with which Jason has close ties. The references to bodies with organs removed long before death is interesting enough to make me want to read on, too. Jason’s journey to the Himalayas to find out what’s been going on with the All Caste leads to a closing confrontation with nameless robed and blade-wielding bad guys and a “To Be Explained” note at the end.
“To Be Explained” is a less than ideal way of ending a first issue, though, and does, I think, highlight a problem with the pacing of this story. While the opening few pages are fun and easy enough to follow, the later pages are much more opaque, requiring prior knowledge to understand and a willingness to wait for more explanations. On the whole, then, this first issue of Red Hood and the Outlaws is, despite its beautiful artwork, less satisfying than it should be. Partly, this is due to the portrayal of Starfire, but it’s also to do with pacing and structure. Hopefully, issue 2 will see things improve.