Grayson Annual #3 opens with a pretty fantastic editorial note that sums up the ethos of the issue rather nicely.
“These events take place before Dick’s…no, wait after the…huh. You know what? Doesn’t matter! Last issue! Just have fun!”
Free from the responsibility of picking up King and Seeley’s plot, that’s exactly what Colin Kelly and Jackson Lanzing do.
The result is a series of untold adventures, an anthology issue of sorts that makes smart use o the annual format. Lanzing and Kelly assemble some of their favorite DC heroes, however loose that term might seem in some cases, and fun wild, introducing them to Agent 37 with aplomb.
It’s odd to see these characters together. Honestly, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen Harley Quinn interact with a Green Lantern, but now I kind of want to again. There’s also some clever use of Jim Corrigan and some great moments from Simon Baz. Truth be told, any writer who effectively conveys the power or responsibility of a Power Ring gets some instant respect from me, so hearing Baz complain about how many other places he should be gets a chuckle out of me.
John Constantine’s story is probably the most fun and Natasha Alterici’s art gives it that essential Vertigo feel that a good Hellblazer story needs. It’s terrific fun to see Lanzing and Kelly write vampires with all the respect they deserve. There’s something delightfully collegiate about the whole mess and the resolution is undeniably clever. Constantine isn’t much of a major actor, but his particular sensibilities do a great deal for the story. Likewise, Agent 37 is in fine form. Dick is capable, sexy, and overwhelmingly kind. Seriously, he spends nearly the entire issue writing under a bunch of sexy vampire chicks and you still know that if your grandmother met him she’s say that he’s a nice boy.
My only real complaint about the story is that some readers will likely be confused by the writers’ use of older vampire lore, which, most significantly, allows for a somewhat easy out.
Alterici’s art has some moments of weakness where Constantine has a bit of a Nosteratu-vibe himself, but, overall, it’s just tops. She nails the humor of the piece as well as the ominous still of the setting. You can just feel how far from help Constantine and Grayson are. Plus the coloring is gorgeous. Pale, smokey colors set the mood and give the story a strong visual identity.
I make no secret of my love of Azrael and seeing another Grayson/Valley team up was a big part of my decision to purchase this issue. Given that Jean-Paul has had a rough go of it in Gotham, it’s pretty cool to see him waging literal war against the Order of St. Dumas. This Azrael is pretty interesting because, as of yet, there really is no Jean-Paul. He may have been betrayed by his Order, but unlike the original character, who was wronged by being forcibly transformed into Azrael, the new Azrael still has his faith. He remains God’s chosen angel, it’s everyone else who’s wrong.
Putting Agent 37 into an actual war zone is another nice touch and all the better because he’s really supposed to be a little more Metal Gear Solid than Call of Duty. The resolution comes a bit easily, but that’s really down to space constraints and it provides a bit of bombastic action that we don’t see through the rest of the issue.
The art comes from Christian Duce and Mat Lopes who provide an appropriately blockbuster feel. The opening page and a gorgeous reveal of Agent 37’s face are clear highlights. And while characters get a little angular or over-macho at times, the art feels well paired with the story and the detail is attractive without becoming excessive.
Harley Quinn is up next, courtesy of Flaviano and Jeromy Cox. Kelly and Lanzing clearly have an affection for this story, however, in a rare misstep, Harley doesn’t quite sound like herself. That’s not to say that it’s not a good Harley story, it just subtly feels like a different Harley than we’re used to.
That’s a shame, but it doesn’t overshadow how well conceived the plot is. Harley and Dick as Agent 37 have an innate similarity that’s rather joyful to see played out once before this era ends and Lanzing and Kelly take it one step further by examining Harley and Dick’s similar pasts.
The art is suitable but not the strongest of the bunch. Harley and Dick look rather stiff in civillian garb and the emphasis on movement makes it utterly apparent when a panel is lacking momentum. The layouts and color are where this one specialize. There’s such an energy to the pages as to convey the madcap party atmosphere in the building and in Harley’s mind.
The final story features Simon Baz, as realized by Javier Fernandez and Chris Sotomayor. This one bugs me because I honestly can’t tell which of the characters should be teaching the moral of the story. It makes a certain degree of sense for Dick to impart some wisdom to Earth’s new Green Lantern, but, at least as he’s been in the past, this seems like one element of Superheroing that Dick never fully mastered. In fact, it seems to contradict his instincts in the Azrael chapter a little bit.
Despite this, Baz and Grayson are an instantly likable pair. Simon’s intensity and Dick’s experience work very nicely together. Simon has a decidedly Batman-like air about him, but Dick is the one who knows what to do. It’s a nice twist on the traditional Batman and Robin partnership that also differs from the Dick and Damian dynamic. It’s also nice to have some familiar, if slightly generic, DC villains to deal with and one old woman is sure to be a fan favorite.
The use of lighting and color is particularly strong here, giving the late night adventure a more distinct visual vocabulary. It’s interesting how many of these stories take place in the light. While all but one of them occur after nightfall, almost all are drawn or written in such a way that they never run the risk of taking place in darkness. Come to think of it, it’s a rather poetic distinction between Agent 37 and Nightwing.
Fernandez utilizes a slim, energetic style for this story. The designs and movement are rather nice and contribute to a certain slickness that fits the confidant spy that Dick Grayson has become. The biggest problem here is that Fernandez’ fight scene isn’t the clearest. It’s not that hard to follow the action, but it’s not intuitive. It probably comes down to page space and a need to depict two heroes, but it’s a notable weakness in Fernandez’ otherwise strong work here.
The last member of the creative team is Roge Antonio, who provides the art for the frame story. Antonio has moments where his art is undeniably weaker, notably his introductory image of Azrael and an awkward reaction shot of Harley, however, especially towards the end of the book, his art can be really fantastic. His use of shadows and knack for intense panel compositions serve him very well. I’d love to see him on a horror book.
The ending wraps things up rather nicely. We get an explanation for why these stories needed to be shared and, even better, Lanzing and Kelly take the opportunity to tie things back into the core themes of Grayson and deliver something of a happy ending that the main series didn’t quite have time for.
However, there is one notable flaw with this issue. As charming as that editorial note I mentioned at the beginning of the review was, it causes some trouble by issue’s end. By untethering this issue from a clear point in time, the necessity of its events becomes unclear. If it takes place before Grayson #20, it seems redundant. If after, it seems to suggest that Dick’s identity was never so important in the first place.
…Oh well, it’s still ridiculously fun.
Annuals are difficult. They’re expensive and often either intrusively mandatory or utterly unnecessary. Grayson Annual #3 aims to reclaim the later, offering something that readers of the series are under no obligation to purchase but hopefully provides enough fun to justify the $5 price tag and, to its credit, fun is exactly what it provides. Though it it remains supplementary, it’s an excellent case of supplementary reading. The reader with a tight comics budget or limited interest in anthology style stories shouldn’t feel bad about passing this one up, but fans looking for a solid Hellblazer adventure, more of Azrael's story, a thoughtful look at Harley Quinn, or one last hit of Grayson will find something to love here.