DC's been losing my interest more and more with their weekly comics over the past few years. 52 combined most of my favorite writers with some really interesting characters (thanks to those writers) into a comic that rocked my world week in and week out. Then Countdown came along and I was with it for about half of the series before giving up. And I've only read one issue of Trinity. I'm super excited about Wednesday Comics though.
I think my biggest problem with Countdown was how much they tried to tie the rest of the DCU into the book. Plus there were just too many stories being spread thinner than maybe they should have. Did the Green Arrow/Black Canary Wedding REALLY need to tie-in? How do Superboy Prime and Kyle Rayner fit in here as compared to Sinestro Corps? What the heck was the point of Salvation Run?
Well, to try and answer some of those questions for myself and to give the book a fair shot, I decided to read the stack of Countdown trades I've acquired. I've got the four trades making up the regular series (52 total issues) and then a number of the tie-in books (pretty much everything with Countdown in the title). I wanted to start off with just the main book and see how well it reads on its own.
I'll be honest, it read a lot better than I thought it would. I definitely liked Adam Beechen's issues the best and there was some pretty good art by guys like Scott Kollins, Jim Calafiore, Jamal Igle and Freddie Williams III. Overall, aside from the continuity head-scratchers that people still reference (how did all this tie into Final Crisis exactly?), the story suffers from being too long and seemingly directionless for the first half of its issues. You've got characters like Holly the former Catwoman, a tainted Mary Marvel, Jimmy Olsen, Pied Piper and Trickster and of course Donna Troy, Jason Todd, the Ryan Choi Atom, Kyle Rayner and Bob the Monitor taking a tour of the microverse and then the multiverse. For the most part in the first half of the story, head writer Paul Dini and his crew of Sean McKeever, Tony Bedard, Adam Beechen and Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray do a good job of advancing these various stories (some more successfully than others), but they don't really tie-in for a while (there's also a lot of carry-over problems that lead to pacing issues and small things like the fact that at the end of one issue, Piper and Trickster are falling out of a plane with no bag and in the next, they have Trickster's bag of tricks).
I know a lot of people didn't like Mary Marvel's transformation from goody goody superheroine into badass, evil chick, but reading the whole storyarc in a few days, I actually liked the progression. However, I did not like the turn they gave her towards the end of the book, but what are you gonna do? I also liked the Earth they showed us that Ray Palmer has been hiding out, though the twist right after that felt a little rushed.
Speaking of the main characters, I never really got a sense of Jason Todd's character. I think it's because he kept bouncing between hero and killer and he had been handled so differently by different writers over time, plus I know how (pun intended) Bat-shit crazy he's gotten lately. And, on a final quick character note, as a big fan of Kyle Rayner (he was the GL that got me into that world), I found it annoying that they kept referring to him as someone who shouldn't exist. I get Jason "Wall Punch" Todd and Donna "Been Dead and Back a Bunch" Troy, but what'd Kyle do? It's never explained, he just shows up and is lumped in the the so-called Challengers (a name never actually established in this book, just stamped on at some point). I wonder if they'll ever reference these Challengers as watchers of the Monitors again, but I kind of doubt it.
I've got a few more complaints that I've got to get off my chest. Where the heck did Superboy Prime and Monarch explode to? This may have been addressed since, but I can't remember the events chronologically. I was bummed to see Monarch's awesome army of multiverse evildoers getting taken out so quickly. I was hoping they'd be a bigger part of the story. Also, what the heck is the purpose of the Monitors? We're never told anything more than they watch over their multiverse. Anything else? They seem to be pretty powerful at times, but not at others, what's the deal? Another thing that bugged me was how they just took old Elseworlds stories and made many of those the 52 worlds. Sure, 52 is a pretty big number of worlds, but do you really want to give a whole UNIVERSE to "Batman is a vampire?" Seems like a waste. Related to that, why were we given two full issues showing how one of the Earth's becomes the Jack Kirby-created Kamandi/OMAC world? I actually really, really liked those issues, but what was the point? Especially when they haven't been referenced since (like the rest of the multiverse, sadly).
And finally, I was disappointed in the presentation of the trades. I get that people were over Countdown as soon as the last issue hit, but there could have been an intro or two or even a kind of director's commentary. Worst of all, though, is that there weren't any kind of recaps about what happened outside of the Countdown series. We're not told anything real about Superboy Prime's previous dealings or what happened at Green Arrow and Black Canary's wedding. I'm totally fine with small paragraphs catching people up, they would have been a nice addition, especially when the book was so tied to continuity at the time.
Overall, it kind of feels like the creators either chose the most random characters they could find or were handed them and then asked to create a story. It's not until Keith Giffen gets brought on as story coordinator about halfway through that the stories start coming together and making sense. So, while it feels like a clean-up job, the book definitely takes on new life in the last two trades. There were even genuine moments where I was worried for the characters and pumped my fist when cool stuff happened (especially Red Robin and a Batman jumping into the fray).
If I thought it would make any sense I would suggest just getting the last two trades, but the second volume actually has Giffen's recap issue that kind of sets everything into motion. In the end, you don't really need to know what happened in Countdown to understand the DCU right now (and not reading it will probably keep you away from some questions, especially continuity ones) but I enjoyed it more than I thought I would and got through the four volumes reading them on and off over the past five days which says something. If I really disliked it, I wouldn't have been able to finish the books.
So, I won't suggest that you've missed out on something big or that you should even spend the cover price of $19.99 per volume on these bad boys, but if you find them in a cheap trade bin at a con or on Amazon, it might be worth your time to check them out. For me, it definitely helped that I was a few months back from all the craziness of the DCU at the time and agonizing over where the various stories fit in (I AM a continuity nerd after all). Now on to some of the supplemental stuff like the Search for Ray Palmer one-shots, Countdown to Mystery and Adventure, Death of the News Gods and beyond.