DC Festival of Heroes #1: The Asian Superhero Celebration

We’ve got DC Comics Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration! I was pretty excited heading into this because I knew it would spotlight some of my favorite characters – I’m looking at you Cass, Tatsu, Emiko, and New Super-Man – and it would tap Asian creators to bring these stories to life. It seemed like a win/win, and a great way to advertise some of DC’s lesser-known or supporting characters, promote some trades that are circulating, and tease upcoming stories… So, were they successful in doing this? Mmm… Not really.

“Sounds”

The leading story for the collection is “Sounds,” featuring one of my favorite members of the Bat-family, Batgirl, Cassandra Cain. For people who aren’t too familiar with Cass, this is a nice little introduction to the core of who she is. The story itself is rather short and simple – Oracle calls on Batgirl to perform a rescue mission, and that’s pretty much the general concept.

Mariko Tamaki makes good use of her few pages though. She efficiently references Cass’ upbringing under David Cain, and really plays into communication. We get to see how Cass communicates via body language, and what that allows her to do as a martial artist. But we also get to see how she’s handicapped in standard verbal communication.

While there isn’t anything new here – at least not for long-time fans of Cass since her introduction during No Man’s Land – I do appreciate how Tamaki presents her here. Cass has definitely experienced some ups and downs in representation over the past few years, and Tamaki seems to not only care for the character, but also writes her well. And the scenes of her in action… What a badass.

I can’t say I was crazy about some of the light-hearted aspects of this issue (specifically the victim and the relationship that is hinted at and teased), but everything else lands quite well. Marcus To also does a solid job on the art. His work here isn’t as detailed as I remember his other work being, but it works. With a character like Cassandra, it could be easy to make her story too grim and dark, so the light-hearted nature – both in plot and art – helps alleviate the story from falling into that abyss.

Also, I can’t talk about the art without bringing up the costume… We’re back to the original Cassandra Cain costume (which, for you historians out there, will know this is actually Helena Bertinelli/ Huntress take on the Batgirl costume), and this costume slaps. Not only is it my favorite Cassandra Cain costume, but it’s easily my favorite Batgirl costume of all time (with the New 52 Batgirl costume in a close second). Anyway, merely seeing Cass in this costume makes me happy, so I’m glad it’s becoming the status quo again.

Overall, it’s a solid read and a good introduction to the book.

“Sounds” score: 7.5/10

 

“Dress Code”

“Dress Code” is an extremely short, three-page story featuring Tai Pham (the Green Lantern from DC’s YA book Green Lantern: Legacy). Now, I will admit that I have never read Green Lantern: Legacy, so I have no familiarity with Tai. I’m aware of him, but I have no context of him. So, coming into this story, I was hoping to impacted enough to help fuel the fire to read his graphic novel… And I’m sad to say that I’m not. This story just doesn’t accomplish much.

The main point is to push being true to who you are and embracing your heritage – which I’m all for. But the story itself is so brief that there’s not much more to it than that. In fact, I’d say this has the same level of impact as some of the inspirational posters you’d see in the hallways of your childhood schools. And that’s not to say that these three pages are bad – they’re not – but there’s nothing really to speak to either. I honestly wouldn’t have minded if Minh Le had another two pages to add a little more characterization here. Because as it stands, the only characterization we really get is from how Tai dresses.

As for the art, I actually enjoy Trung Le Nguyen’s pencils quite a bit! It’s a little different than what I’m used to, but it works. There’s not much in the way of backgrounds though, so that’s the only major setback concerning the pencils. The colors, however, are not good. Everything is just a flat color. In some ways, this works, but really it just looks like something any student could color. In the future, I’d recommend that the publisher hire a colorist. This might give Nguyen more time to work on backgrounds, and we’d end with better colors that showcase shadows and lighting better.

“Dress Code” score: 5/10

 

“Hawke & Kong”

The award for the “Team-Up I Didn’t Know I Wanted” goes to Connor Hawke and Kenan Kong! Just throwing it out there, “Hawke & Kong” was a hell of a lot of fun to read, and it’s making me wish we were getting some sort of Justice League United oversized anthology book that featured different Justice Leagues in different countries… Because we need these two on a team together on the regular.

The story is another short one that features Connor running into some trouble while trying to bring some groceries home. The threat is big enough that Kenan gets involved, and the two have quite the team-up. Again, there’s not much substance here, but this is a fun engaging romp featuring two characters who are sorely underutilized. If you haven’t read New Super-Man from the beginning of Rebirth, then you’re missing out! Also, Connor has practically been non-existent since Rebirth, so seeing him is a welcomed sight. Other than a fight with a giant robotic dragon, there isn’t much to this story though. Well, there’s dinner. I think we can all agree that’s important. Mostly this is just a dose of fun brought to you by Greg Pak.

Sumit Kumar delivers the art for this issue and does a decent job. There’s a certain energy to his art that I appreciate, but his depiction of the characters is inconsistent from panel to panel. If you look at Kenan specifically, there are certain panels where he’s lean and muscular, and then others where he’s bulky. It’s a minor gripe, but it did bother me a little.

“Hawke & Kong” score: 6.5/10

 

“Special Delivery”

The next story in the slate is a Damian Wayne story written by Aniz Adam Ansari, with art by Sami Basri and colors by Sunny Gho. Ok… You all know that I love Damian Wayne, but this story is rough. The writing is so bad that it’s hard to swallow. I’m not sure if Ansari was shooting for a tongue-in-cheek, cutesy vibe, but that’s kind of how it came across and it failed. I mean, those vibes don’t necessarily work with Damian or Batman, so this felt like a failure from the word go. And that’s not to say that you can’t do cute stories with these characters – you can, it’s clearly been done – but this is not it.

The story itself isn’t awful. In a nutshell, Damian investigates some murders and the League of Assassins end up being behind it. There is the bit about them trying to kill people by poisoning pizza, but I could actually see that. Anyway, what’s bad is the dialogue. Ansari has Batman saying crap like, “I’ll take care of it after I finish going through my Justice League emails… I hate reviewing budgets,” and “You deserve a night off. Go call up one of your friends. Batman’s got this.” (He references himself in the third person.) Then, later on, there’s an assassin saying, “That was exactly the plan, but our shipment of poison got delayed in the mail!”

Look, I’m fine with fun or cutesy when it’s done well and that’s the tone we’re going for. But “Special Delivery” is all over the place tonally, and the attempts at jokes just don’t land. The only thing I did enjoy about this story is the art Basri and Gho. I’d happily seek out more of their work. Especially Sami Basri. On the right book, Basri could be gold!

“Special Delivery” score: 4/10

 

“Masks”

Ladies and gentlemen, the best story of the lot is written by Ram V. Are we surprised? Well, if you are, then you haven’t been paying attention to Ram for the past year or two. This is a Catwoman-themed story, but it focuses on one of Selina’s new supporting characters, “Shoes” or Cheshire Cat.

This story does exactly what all of these stories should have done. It features an Asian character, gives a glimpse into who they are and their back story, introduces a plot thread that will carry into future issues, and then teases the book that story will be featured in. The plot is strong. The dialogue is good. The themes are solid. It’s a narrative that has humor but doesn’t rely on humor (by that, I mean that the humor either plays into the narrative or progresses the narrative, but doesn’t stop the narrative or serve as the crux of the narrative). Head and shoulders, this sits above everything else in this collection. I don’t even want to go into the details of the story, just go read it. And if you’re not reading Catwoman, then you should be.

And then there’s the art. Audrey Mok delivers the pencils here and she delivers some outstanding work. There’s something authentically real and lived in about her art that just resonates with me. The characters and their body language reads as real. Their environment and surroundings feel like somewhere Mok has actually been. It’s outstanding. And then there is Jordie Bellaire on colors. Easily one of the best colorists in the industry, Bellaire’s work is simply dynamic. Masterclass work from everyone involved.

“Masks” score: 9/10

 

“What’s in the Box”

Another three-page story is upon us, but this one is much more effective than the first one. What else would we expect from Dustin Nguyen though? This is another Cassandra Cain story, but it also features Colin. Who’s Colin? Well, he’s only been featured in a few issues total – all pre-Flashpoint, but he’s a kid that Scarecrow pumped full of venom, and now he can transform al Jekyl/ Hyde. He was also featured in Streets of Gotham fighting Zsasz with Damian.

Anyway, Cass has apparently been referred to as a monster, and Colin – familiar with being called that – decides to check in on her. That’s it. That’s the story. But, it is sweet, and there’s food involved, which appears to be a running theme in this issue. And, quite frankly, after a writing assignment that we did here at the site, I’m starting to wonder if food is a trope at this point. Anyway, this is a short, sweet, chef’s kiss that does exactly what it needs to do and can do within three pages.

“What’s in the Box” score: 8/10

 

“Family Dinner”

Alyssa Wong and Sean Chen bring us “Family Dinner.” This story focuses on Grace Choi (from The Outsiders… Specifically, the run when Nightwing was leading the team.), and Anissa Pierce, A.K.A. Thunder, A.K.A. Black Lightning’s daughter. Yes, the “A.K.A.’s” are here for a reason. You’ll understand when you read the story.

Anyway, Anissa is bringing Grace to a family dinner so she can meet the Pierce family. Since this is a comic book, there are clearly some villainously delicious antics that occur. Overall, the story is a mixed back. On one hand, I was happy to see Grace return. She’s not a terrible character, and I genuinely feel there is a place for her in the DC Universe. Some of the characterizations are pretty rough though. Jefferson comes off like a complete ass, and Grace’s temper is a little much. Granted, that was a running theme of her character, but it did seem a little forced here.

Pulling from the cliché of cliches, villains attack the restaurant right as arguments break out between our heroes, forcing them to put their issues aside to face the threat at hand. And, as expected, the end of the story turns into an after-school special. It’s clear that Wong is trying to make a number of statements throughout this story, but they either feel dated or unwarranted. We also walk away not really knowing much about Grace other than the fact that she’s Asian and is dating Anissa. That’s it.

Thankfully, Chen’s art is solid! You can tell he had a lot of fun just playing with this and really did his best to make the most out of what he was given. The characters look great, the action is strong, and there’s a dynamic energy to the artwork. And, I’m not sure whether these things were scripted or not, but Chen threw in some humor into the background as well. I mean, we’ve got the Brain and Monsieur Mallah having dinner in the background! Bloody brilliant!

I wanted to like this more than I did, but the story itself is just mediocre at best. Thankfully, Chen’s art elevates things a little.

“Family Dinner” score: 6.5/10

 

“Kawaii Kalamity”

Emiko is up to bat, but if you’re looking for something more serious in tone, you’re going to be disappointed. Sarah Kuhn (Shadow of the Batgirl) helms this story, so that should give you a sign of what you’re in for. Tonally, this is very reminiscent of her young reader, Cassandra Cain graphic novel, but considering most of this story is a dream, it is a bit different – especially visually.

Now, I said you might be disappointed because Emiko doesn’t have a history of being “soft around the edges” so the fact that this story is full of stuffed animals, songs, and hugs… Well, I’m sure that will make some of you cry. I, personally, found myself rather indifferent to “Kawaii Kalamity.” It didn’t feel like it was for me, because it isn’t for me. Regardless, it’s a charming little turn that will be pleasant and sweet for young readers. Missed opportunity to feature Emiko? Absolutely. But charming and sweet with art from Victoria Ying that is also… you guessed it… charming and sweet.

“Kawaii Kalamity” score: 6/10

 

“Festival of Heroes”

Oh, God… This pains me… You all know I’m a Katana stan, but dear God this story is awful! And it’s written by Amy Chu! I’ve read some of Amy Chu’s work, and I would’ve never guessed she penned this story because it is so bad.

Katana, Cyborg, and Blue Beetle (Jaime) have been asked to attend a culture/ food festival to serve as protection from a racist group. Look, I could stop here and you could see where this is going. Which, fine… I’m all for commentary that reflects our current culture and political environment. But, let’s be honest, current comic book writers don’t seem to know what the words “subtlety” or “nuanced” mean, so you can imagine the bludgeoning that this story delivers. And no, it isn’t just fears or imagination, Chu is beating a dead horse over here with cliches and heavy-handed themes.

From start to finish, this story is a preachy caricature that ruins a great opportunity to actually acknowledge and create a worthwhile social commentary on the state of things. Beyond that, the characterization is atrocious. The dialogue is even worse… It’s just bad. I was so excited for the Katana story, and it ended up being this nightmare. Why can’t we get a quality writer to write Katana stories? This shouldn’t be that hard…

This is some bottom-of-the-barrel comic book storytelling here. If you haven’t read this book yet and you come to this story, just skip it. You can thank me later.

“Festival of Heroes” score: 1/10

 

“Perceptible”

Ryan Choi is the next character to be featured, and the story is written by Pornsak Pichetshote with art by Alexandra Tefenkgi. This story is a bit of a mixed bag. At four pages, there’s not much room to really deliver a story, and unfortunately, three of those pages are spent delivering action before rushing to shove the theme and point of the story on the final page. This is a shame, because the final page is quite good.

The first three pages feature the Atom some type of microscopic threat, his bio belt gets, damaged… There’s nothing fresh or original here. As expected, the Atom is victorious, and he shoots out of a guy’s nostril.  So, what’s the point? Well, Ryan uses this as an opportunity to reveal to Bruce Wayne the reality of Asian people when they first immigrate to America. Their struggle to find decent jobs, and the reality that they often work multiple jobs is brought up, as well as the reality that they often go unseen or overlooked… Unless they’re in need, and then their own community – despite their own disadvantages – rally together to lift each other up in support.

Honestly, it’s a beautiful message. I’m a sucker for a loving, respectful community. What can I say? I just wish that all four pages would’ve played into this. There’s nothing preachy here, it’s just Ryan showing Bruce a reality. They could’ve had Ryan trying to convince Bruce to invest in this area, and when denied, he decides he needs to show Bruce the reality. You still could have had an entire “micro-adventure” and written in a way for them to both shrink so that they could essentially serve as a fly on the wall and observe without being noticed. It would’ve given the theme a little more room to breathe and would have potentially made this my favorite story.

As for the art, Tefenkgi does a solid job. Similar to the script, I wasn’t crazy about the visual storytelling involved with the entire micro-adventure. Once again, it just seemed generic and uninspired compared to what we have seen. However, the moment we reached that final page, it’s as if Tefenkgi was able to run with what she does best. There’s a “slice-of-life” nature to her artwork, and it really excels once the story moves to the restaurant.

“Perceptible” score” 6/10

 

“The Monkey Prince Hates Superheroes”

Oh boy… This is what DC has been pushing from this book. Monkey Prince is a new character, and they’ve kind of been hyping him – undoubtedly because of the response James Tynion’s new characters have been getting over in Batman – but… I’m not sure if they have the hit that they’re hoping for.

I’m typically a fan of Gene Luen Yang, but this was not great in my opinion. The story features Dr. Sivana attempting to torture Shazam, but it turns out that it isn’t really Shazam – it’s Monkey Prince, who can shapeshift – and Dr. Sivana is actually possessed by a demon. The demon is who Monkey Prince (I keep wanting to say “Monkey Fist”) is actually after. A fight breaks out. Monkey Prince separates Sivana from the demon thanks to the guidance of his Shifu, who is a giant pig with long rabbit ears. It’s at this point that the real Shazam arrives to help fight Sivana, his henchmen, and the demon, and, of course, the heroes end up winning.

So, why isn’t this great? Well, first off, Monkey Prince is not very likable. He hates superheroes and he’s incredibly impulsive (He says he wants to punch Shazam in his “perfect little YouTube face” multiple times). He even unleashes on Shazam for practically no reason. Not the best way to launch a character.

Beyond that, the mythology they’re building isn’t that intriguing. These animal creatures and how they depict demons is kind of weird. Anyone remember the devas from Digimon? It kind of reminded me of that, but everyone is essentially half-human, half-animal. And even Monkey Prince’s design reminds me of Infernape from Pokemon (just without the fire aspects). Overall, he just seems like an odd fit.

The one thing that was interesting, is that Monkey Prince can transform between his human form and his “monkey form.” In his human form, he is also just a kid, and just so happens to be friends with Billy Batson. That, I’m kind of there for. However, there’s a subplot revealed that Monkey Prince’s (adoptive) parents are the henchmen that were working for Sivana, and it’s done so in such a blatant way that the fact that Monkey Prince doesn’t make that connection (he sees his parents in the same uniform that Sivana’s henchmen were wearing) is just stupid.

Bernard Chang delivers the art for this issue, and, as always, does a solid job. I’ll probably check in with the follow-up stories this fall to see if it changes my mind, but as it stands, this did not grab my attention.

“Monkey Prince Hates Superheroes” score: 6/10

 

Recommended if:

  • You want to support a number of Asian creators
  • Some of your favorite characters are Asian characters (Cass and Tatsu for me)

 

Overall: DC Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration is a bit of a mixed bag, and most of that bag is on the less-than-stellar side of things. While I appreciate the initiative to feature Asian talent and characters, it also just seems to be for show. Other than one or two instances, are there actually any plans for the featured talent/ characters to move forward for regular, or semi-regular, issues? No. And beyond that, aside from Ram V’s story with Cheshire Cat and Mariko Tamaki’s story with Cass, most of these stories don’t really serve as a great introduction to who these characters are and why they’re worth your time.

To me, that seems like this biggest letdown. Here’s your chance to really showcase characters and give readers a good idea of who they are, which books you can find them in, and where they’ll be popping up in the future… And DC didn’t take advantage of any of that. Are we sure there are business-savvy people running DC Comics? Because it doesn’t seem that way.

SCORE: 6/10