Posts from November 2008

November 2nd, 2008

comics! november 2008!

It’s a tale of three companies in this most recent batch of comics, and three very different states of comic book storytelling.

The first is a one-shot Thor special written and drawn by Alan Davis (as is evidenced by the fact that everybody skinny, even, just a little, Volstagg the Voluminous) that very pointedly looks back, back to the previous incarnation of Thor, the happy-go-lucky Thor whose costume featured a bright red cape, bright yellow boots, and six big polka-dots – the Thor who had heroic friends as his comrades in derring-do. A far cry, in other words, from the version of Thor currently being written and drawn over in the character’s ongoing book, which, since it takes place in the dark, dystopian world that is the current Marvel continuity, features a darker Thor – unhappy, grim, relentlessly purpose-driven, and entirely free of polka-dots.

This one-shot Thor and his merry friends become embroiled in an adventure in ancient Egypt that just naturally features Thor fighting a giant … you guessed it … sphinx. Davis’ artwork is of course great – so much so that his accompanying script, though entertaining, is entirely unnecessary to the understanding of the issue’s plot. And everything is wrapped up neatly at the end, which is kind of a shame – this version of the character (like a heroic Iron Man and an alive Captain America) had tons of potential left. It would be nice if Marvel would consider a separate Thor title, featuring this version of the character and his supporting cast, entirely consisting of adventures, like this one, set in the distant past.

From looking back we turn to two DC titles trying their best to look forward. In the latest issue of the Legion of Super-Heroes, Jim Shooter’s epic storyline continues to move forward with well-crafted confidence – a confidence, we now learn, that is entirely illusionary, since our young friend Elmo showed us an interview Shooter gave in which he’s quite frank (and more than a little bitter) about the way DC pulled the plug on his run on the title and truncated his ideas for his storyline. So the graphic novel we’ll see in the spring probably won’t represent the great, grand story Shooter signed on to tell, and that, too, is a shame.

As far as grand stories go, they don’t get much grander than the one unfolding in the Superman titles right now, a story long-time Superman fans will find tantalizingly familiar: Superman has succeeded in freeing the Kryptonian city of Kandor (which had been taken from Krpyton and shrunk into a bottle by the intergalactic super-villain Brainiac) and restoring its one hundred thousand citizens (including his own uncle, the father of Supergirl) to normal size – on the planet Earth, where of course they all develop super-powers. The Justice League and the Justice Society are worried about the prospect of having thousands of strange visitors romping around the planet, but Superman assures them everything will be OK (this even after one Kryptonian accidentally kills a blue whale, thinking it was threatening him). So of course you know things won’t be OK. This is a gigantic storyline, exactly the kind of thing writers should be doing with Superman, and so far (it’s had three chapters), it seems everybody involved is handling the “New Krypton” plot fairly intelligently, so this could end up being one of the winter’s best stories. I’ll keep you posted, since of course I won’t be missing an issue.

By far the best thing in this batch is yet another stand-alone issue, this time “In the Chapel of Moloch,” a new Hellboy story written and drawn by the guy who does it best, Hellboy’s creator Mike Mignola.

The story takes place in 1992 in Portugal (a signature of Mignola Hellboy stories: they bounce all around in time and setting, like Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories) – a friend of Hellboy’s calls him in to investigate the weird behavior of an artist who locks himself in a room (without locks, naturally) every night and seems to be turning into some kind of zombie. Hellboy finds a statue carved to Moloch, and when he and his friend stake out the place, they see that the zombified artist is indeed mucking around with dark supernatural forces (another signature: Mignola’s visual realization of horror’s presence is non-flashy and genuinely creepy). The Moloch statue comes to life (“Well, you knew that was going to happen,” Hellboy deadpans, another signature), Hellboy fights it, and general merriment ensues.

I understand entirely why Mignola might be a little tired of this, his most popular creation (although he must be proud too, especially with two fairly decent movies bringing the fruits of his imagination to millions of people who’ve never read the comics), but it still feels like a gift whenever he returns to give us a chapter like “In the Chapel of Moloch.” Fifteen or twenty pages, once or twice a year – just that, and I’m content.

So: one company looking back, one looking forward, and one rejoicing in staying exactly the same. And all distinctly enjoyable – a good batch, unlikely to be repeated any time soon!

September 21st, 2008

The Last Days of Krypton

Our book today is The Last Days of Krypton by prolific science fiction hack Kevin Anderson, and of course it’s not referring to the periodic table. No, this is the planet Krypton, the homeworld of little Kal-el, better known to the movie-going public as Superman. In the character’s hum-dinger of an origin story (created by Joel Shuster and Jerry Siegel, but really given flesh and bone by long-time DC Comics editor Julie Schwartz), the planet Krypton is doomed, and only visionary scientist Jor-el sees the end coming. His valiant wife Lara believes him, but virtually nobody else does, certainly not Krypton’s ruling council, who scoff at Jor-el’s repeated pleas that they build a fleet of space-arks to ferry the planet’s populace to safety. It seems Krypton frowns upon the very idea of space travel, so if Jor-el wants to save his family, he must construct a private space ship on his own time.

Everybody is familiar with the rest of the story: the planet explodes, and that one-person spaceship takes the tiny baby Kal-el, like Moses in the bullrushes, through the wilds of space to the planet Earth – Kansas specifically, where the baby comes to be adopted by Ma and Pa Kent and raised in the bosom of the wholesome American Midwest until he’s ready to put on bright pajamas and fight crime as Superman (nowadays, anyway – before DC simplified the story back in the 1980s, Kal-el first fought crime as Super-baby, then as a dreamy Superboy).

Ma and Pa Kent, Superboy and his super-dog Krypto (who was not a basset hound, otherwise he’d have been called Farto) and youthful crime-busting are all outside of Anderson’s scope for this book. Here, he’s dealing just with Krypton in its final days, and thanks to the ever-expanding Superman mythos of the 1950s and ’60s, he’s got a lot of stuff to cover. The alien mastermind Brainiac comes to Krypton and abducts the entire city of Kandor, for instance, shrinking it and all its populace and putting them in a bottle for sadistic display. Jor-el’s brother Zor-el (father of Supergirl), taking precautions just in case his brother is right, takes steps to encase his own Argo City in a protective shield. And what would such a story be without a villain? In this case it’s the military madman General Zod.

Zod (so immortally captured by Terence Stamp in Superman II) seems to get Anderson’s creative juices flowing; he’s one of the only characters whose depiction page to page is actually interesting (Lara also has her moments). Jor-el is pretty much a pious scientific cipher throughout, although Anderson does have him watch some pretty scenery:

Even though he viewed the world in terms of mathematics and science, the raw beauty of Kandor took Jor-el’s breath away. With its temples to Rao, the shining pyramids, and the great Council ziggurat, Krypton’s capital city was the pinnacle of civilization. Some exotic buildings had been grown from active crystals; other edifices were hewn from lustrous white veinrock or speckled granite polished to a sheen that reflected the red sunlight.

The rest of the book is much of a piece with that excerpt: it’s competently if never beautifully written, and it entirely lacks the verve that so wonderfully filled Elliott Maggin’s Superman, the Last Son of Krypton (to say nothing of all the great Superman-writing that’s happened in his various comic books in the last ten years). It’s better than most comic-book novels (we’ll try not to think of the various X-Men novels that have been perpetrated in the last ten years), but of course that’s not saying much.

Comics fans will find all the bases covered here. Anderson has read up on all the various Krypton-stories DC has published ever since the Superman mythos was streamlined. And with the aid of all those previous writers, he manages to tell a fairly interesting story – of General Zod vying to take over the entire planet and various resistance-fighters trying to stop him, all of them (except Jor-el, of course) ignorant of the much greater crisis building all around them. When Zod is defeated, Anderson does a good job of showing the relief the planet’s populace feel, thinking the worst is behind them.

And while that relief is spreading, a drama familiar to comics readers and movie-goers is playing out at the home estate of Jor-el, where he and Lara are saying good-bye to their little baby:

“It’s time,” he said to Lara, who clung protectively to their baby. “We can’t wait any longer.” Tears ran down her face, and Jor-el realized that he was weeping, too.

Lara wrapped their son tenderly in the blankets of their great house, the finest blue and red fabric emblazoned with the prominent symbol of Jor-el’s family. “Kal-el, you have to go, or you’ll die with us.” She trembled, then straightened. This was their only hope.

Lara gave her infant son a final kiss, brushing her lips against the delicate skin of his forehead. Her voice hitched as she said, “I wish you well on your new planet, Kal-el. I hope you find your way among the people of Earth. I hope you manage to be happy.”

The final line of Anderson’s story of Jor-el and Lara (though not the final line of his book – he follows the little rocketing baby tantalizingly close to Earth) is simple and almost elegant: “They closed their eyes, and the world ended around them.”

Anderson’s projected next book is a version of the first meeting between Batman and Superman, and at this point in its genesis, it seems to be set in the 1950s, in what will, as far as DC is concerned, be an “imaginary story” – i.e. not part of their official continuity. If that ends up being true, it’s possible Anderson’s creative impulses (which are on display throughout The Last Days of Krypton) will have more freedom. DC might well have been monitoring him closely during the crafting of this present book, making sure he didn’t deviate more than a fraction from received doctrine. At least, that’s the story we’ll go with.

April 4th, 2008

Comics! Superman and the Legion!

Just a quick note here to tip our hats to the conclusion of Geoff Johns’ epic “Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes” storyline unfolding in Action Comics.

The storyline – the best Action Comics has hosted in many, many years (and one of the best Superman storylines in recent memory, period), left us all on a great cliffhanger last time around, with a powerless Superman (in the future where the storyline takes place, the nefarious xenophobic Earth-Man has used captive Sun Boy’s solar powers to turn Earth’s sun red, thus depriving Superman of his powers)(which is silly for two reasons: 1. Sun Boy is the teenaged result of a freak lab accident – he’s just not powerful enough to pull off solar transformations, even nefariously augmented, and 2. it wouldn’t change everything anyway – Superman is from a world with a much greater specific gravity than Earth – even with a red sun in the sky, he’d still be super-strong and damn near invulnerable … but we digress ….) fearlessly attacking Earth-Man, who’s purloined all the super-powers of every member of the legendary Legion of Super-Heroes.

At the commencement of this issue, that fight is going exactly as you’d expect: Superman’s losing badly. But our heroes are active behind the scenes, trying to revive Sun Boy and get him to reverse the spectrum of the sun (the actual means by which he’s revived is hilarious and fitting, and it’s all the more ironic that the suggestion comes from Brainiac 5).

They succeed, and a restored Superman faces an enraged Earth-Man in full view of the watching crowds, who’ve been brainwashed into thinking Superman is human and hates all the aliens currently living on Earth. “That’s not Superman,” says one helmeted police officer. “Superman wouldn’t help aliens. He’s for human rights. He’s for us!”

Gary Frank is not the artist for Superman. His costumes have too many real-life wrinkles, and we’ve already discussed his penchant for ‘rabies faces.’ But still, his Superman can occasionally be visually stirring, and this is one of those times. The Man of Steel looks at the crowd and calmly says, “I’m for everyone. And you should know that, officer.”

(a moment later, just before he takes the fight to Earth-Man and away from the innocent bystanders, he has an even better, even more quintessentially Superman exchange with that same officer: “Get everyone clear, officer.” ‘Yes, sir.” “And be nice to each other while I’m gone, okay?”)

There follows an epic battle in which Superman enlists the aid of the newly cobbled-together (and all grown up) Legion of Super-Heroes to fight Earth-Man. Needless to say, the bad guy loses, interplanetary war is averted, and the Legion is restored to public esteem. For those of us who devoutedly wish for a monthly Legion of Super-Heroes comic in normal continuity (and we’re damn near getting it, in Jim Shooter’s revamped Legion over in its own book, a title that just keeps getting better and better), this stuff is pure gold: this Legion is just what we remember our Legion being – heroic, quipping, conflicted, but always shining. Johns must have fed on the same back-issues, because his treatment of the Legion is pitch-perfect.

The issue’s ending – indeed, it’s hard not to think of it as the graphic novel‘s ending – is so satisfying as to be almost euphoric. The adult Brainiac-5 assures Superman that he’ll need a couple of minutes to repair the irrevocably shattered time-sphere that brought our hero to the future, and just like that, we’re back the past: not Superman’s present, but his past as well. The issue’s ending opens on a sunlit scene outside the Kent family farm in Smallville. A time-sphere opens and disgorges a very young Legion – Cosmic Boy, Saturn Girl, and Lightning Lad – and one other … a nerdy little teenager called Clark Kent, who’s been brought forward by the trio to share in their 31st century adventures and has come back crowing and laughing with the largeness of his adventures in their world.

It’s a touching moment. He plaintively wonders if he’ll ever see them again, to which they reply “what are you doing tomorrow?” Lightning Lad scorches an “L” in a nearby tree and says “Meet us here after school.”

The issue ends with a grown-up Superman standing by that same tree, safely returned to his own time, looking back at his time with the Legion – young and old – as some of the best times of his life. It’s a perfect grace-note on which to end what has been the best ‘adult Legion’ storyline ever written.

The oddities linger, of course. The new adventures of the Cartoon-Network Legion are being produced by the same parent-company that produces both Bryan Singer’s Superman movies, and so the very young, obviously early-teened Super-figure in those adventures is called ‘SuperMAN‘ by his young teammates – almost as though the DC powers that be want to pointed avoid using the term ‘Superboy‘ … and what about the conclusion to this epic, satisfying as it is? We’re supposed to believe that young Clark Kent’s hard-working parents could pay for every Kansas sweatshirt burned off him in the 31st century in pitched battle with the Emerald Empress?

No, somebody somewhere in some DC boardroom has said, ‘Let’s not call anybody ‘Superboy‘ – and that kind of thing is only ever said if somebody’s thinking of profit down the line. We’ll have to wait and see what that amounts to – a live-action series of movies (or even TV-movies) starring some young teen heart-throb like Zack Efron or Jesse McCartney can’t be entirely ruled out – but in the meantime, this present series has been so immensely satisfying that we, for once, can’t complain. Long live the Legion, indeed.

November 7th, 2007

Comics again! Intolerable provocation!

Well, yes, yes, we know: we just five minutes ago officially signed over comics-related matters to our distant colleague Gianni over at The Latest Issue – and we meant it, we meant it. But this week, the provocation has been so extravagant, so pin-pointed to our particular obsessions here at Stevereads that even our worst enemy (that would be Desmond Tutu, for self-evident reasons) would have to forgive us for leaping into the fray one last time. The provocation comes in pure, undiluted form, in the latest issue of Action Comics, issue #858.

Why, the mere cover is provocation enough: Superman, flying over an obviously futuristic city, his right fist thrust forward showing … you guessed it … a Legion flight ring. A legion flight ring, ladies and gentlemen! We are awe-inspiring here at Stevereads, yes, but we are still but flesh and blood. We rose to the bait.

And hoo boy, what bait! In this particular issue, Chapter 1 of “Alien World,” written by Geoff Johns and drawn in an oddly inimitable style by Gary Frank, Clark Kent is being chewed out by Perry White in the offices of the Daily Planet when he super-hears Metropolis citizens in panic at the onslaught of Superman’s old arch-enemy Brainiac, this time suited up in the form of a giant robot. Of course Kent excuses himself and flies off to belt the malefactor.

But there’s a twist this time around – the robot turns out to be not Brainiac but the tool of Brainiac-5, which is the exact point when some brown-nosing intern at Stevereads stopped reading and raced up the spiral staircase to our office, bursting through the doors and interrupting an impromptu meeting we were taking with Jacques Barzun, all to blurt out “the Legion! They’re talking about the Legion!”

We took the issue and read it right through on the spot, after which (as soon as we fired the hapless intern for reading funny books on our time) we apologetically dismissed Jacques (it went hard with him – he’s no doubt rightfully worried about how many meetings he’s got left in him – but some things come first) and sat down to compose our thoughts.

The key moment comes once Superman has disabled the giant robot and learned it’s being piloted by Brainiac-5: Superman asks, “who are you?” and Brainiac-5 answers “I am one of your friends” and zaps him with some kind of energy discharge, which triggers a flashback to the first moment young boy Clark Kent met Lightning Lad, Saturn Girl, and Cosmic Boy, who’d traveled back in time to greet the legendary Superman before he became a legend. The energy-discharge sequence clearly indicates Superman had somehow repressed or forgotten this encounter, and many more such encounters. Superman says: “Of course, the Legion used to visit me between school days. We had adventures in the future between classes … then I moved to metropolis, there was the crisis, and I never saw the Legion again.”

All of which is interesting in a ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ sort of way, but it begs the essential question.

Gianni himself might phrase that question thus: What the frak?

A little background for the uninitiated: the ‘crisis’ referred to here is that gigantic disorganized mess of a comics event, Crisis on Infinite Earths. It was an effort on DC Comics’ part to prune the bewildering profusion of backstory it had accumulated in nearly fifty years of comics storytelling. There had cropped up, in the course of those years, a very near infinite number of alternate-earths, alternate dimensions, and the ultimate goal of Crisis was to pair that down to one and one only. And in that single new reality, Superman had revealed himself to the world as a full-grown adult. He’d never put on the costume earlier – there had been no Superboy.

That invalidated the Legion. Its founding members – the aforementioned Lightning Lad, Saturn Girl, and Cosmic Boy – had taken as their central inspiration to form their club in the first place the adventures of the most famous super-teen of them all, Superboy. No Superboy, no Legion.

Or maybe not. Legion writers post-Crisis took the natural step: they posited that the Legion had taken its inspiration not from Superboy but from Superman and all the heroes of the second millennium. Fans of the Legion could still have their valiant team of future heroes, they’d just have to do without the whole ‘Superboy and’ prefix. Speaking as one of those fans (and as the proud possessor of about 300 comic books devoted to the adventures of a character DC Comics now said never existed), we took what we could get, and we weren’t disappointed: some of the best Legion runs in the team’s entire history (a very long and very convoluted history about which our old friend Locke is entirely correct: only a very, shall we say, special cadre of comics fans know). No Superboy, true, but we got our Legion and it was still great.

And that’s the way it was, as Uncle Walter used to say, despite various flirtations (the most attractive of which was also the briefest, when the Superboy clone was mysteriously transported to the future and donned the costume to fight alongside the team), until the present moment.

The present moment when, it appears, the powers that be at DC Comics have decided that official DC continuity (and it doesn’t get any more official than Action Comics, the most venerable of all venerable comics titles) now encompasses the fact that young Clark Kent often traveled to the future to have adventures with the Legion of Super-Heroes.

The real Legion of Super-Heroes, as Frank’s glorious two-page spread in the middle of the issue demonstrates in heartbreaking magnificence: there they all are – Triplicate Girl, not one of whom is a saucy tart, Princess Projectra, who’s not a great big snake, Timber Wolf, who’s not an enormous bear-like creature … there’s no Blok, no Dawnstar, no Wildfire, no Tyroc; but there’s Star Boy (not insane), there’s Colossal Boy (growing big, not small), there’s Brainiac-5 (organic, not mechanical) and everybody else … Shadow Lass, Mon-el, Chameleon Boy, Invisible Boy, Element Lad, Dream Girl, Phantom Girl, Ultra Boy, Karate Kid … even Bouncing Boy and Matter-Eater Lad.

That two-page spread broke our heart here at Stevereads.

As some of you may know, we consider the current run of the Legion extremely dismaying. The team is a conglomerate of disaffected punks who hate adults on spec and yearn to rule the cosmos. The team-members all hate each other and conspire against each other, and there hasn’t been a single ‘Long Live the Legion’ moment in almost two years. Even in the past, even when Keith Giffens’ legendary run on the series introduced a more dystopian element, there was still ample room for the particular kind of heroism that the Legion has always embodied; not so now, and we sense that the dissatisfaction this engenders is more widespread than the powers that be at DC might at first be willing to acknowledge.

Or perhaps not. After all, more ‘traditional’ incarnations of the Legion have been cropping up all over the line of DC comics in the last two or three years, not the least of which has been the hit Cartoon Network series which so completely foreshadows this current Action Comics development that we can’t help but think they are two prongs of the same prongy-thing. Despite the continued crabgrass-tenacious life of the current incarnation of the Legion, there’s obviously a group, a voice a bloc, who yearn for a return to the real Legion, the one more or less embodied in Frank’s two-page spread (not ‘exactly,’ as some of you might expect of our reactionary selves here at Stevereads – we’re not frozen in time, after all! Dawnstar is a great idea, Blok not so much; Quislet is a disaster, but Gates is a perfect addition; Tyroc screams, so to speak, for redress, but a bold, courageous, black, female Kid Quantum is perfection realized). We here at Stevereads whole-heartedly second such a group, such a movement, such a dream.

The basic scenario is simplicity itself: young Clark Kent, long before he became Superman and moved to Metropolis, traveled through time to the future in order to share adventures with the 31st century’s enormous group of super-teens, the Legion of Super-Heroes. Since he can’t very well have these adventures while wearing a cardigan sweater-vest, perhaps his new teammates give him a uniform to wear while he’s with them – and perhaps, knowing the great future that awaits him, they pattern that uniform after the famous garb of the Man of Steel.

The key to all of this, it goes without saying, is Saturn Girl. Each time young Clark is returned to his own era, the memories of his time in the future must be blocked by Saturn Girl’s telepathic powers, to reveal no trace of the future and no hint of the great destiny awaiting him. And presto – just like that, an ongoing Legion title is possible.

The only obstacle is the current ongoing Legion title, which has done significant damage to the basic continuity of Legion mythology. In its current incarnation, the Legion is not a valiant band of adventurers but a sour, cynical gang of adult-hating little jerkwads – heroism is entirely absent, for the first time in the Legion’s long history. There are other harms (characters are out of character, powers are stupidly skewed, etc), but this is the worst of them. In an interview in the latest Wizard magazine, legendary Legion writer Jim Shooter – who’s returning to the title in a month – makes it as clear as he diplomatically can that he dislikes all of these changes, but he states his intention to be a good team player and not do anything about them. And it’s doubtful how much he could do even if he wanted to – giant (in all senses of the word) though he is, Shooter is two or three decades past the point where he was a ‘hot’ writer, the kind of writer who can move into a title and make wholesale changes. Comic-geeks of today don’t know him from Adam, and comics industry honchos know that, and more’s the pity: in one issue, Shooter could undo all the damage this awful run has wrought (we here at Stevereads suggest the ‘Dynasty’ escape-clause: it was all a dream! Or, rather, a telepathically induced delusionary episode on somebody’s part – preferably an adult, given the anti-adult tone of the whole run … our nominee would be Phantom Girl’s termagant mother), and then he’d be free to forge a new era of Legion greatness, an era that tells the essential Legion story: that into a weary, orderly future world there erupted the bright smiles and dazzling colors of a new age of super-heroes, a thing unseen in over a thousand years.

We’re not picky, and Shooter (New Universe notwithstanding) is a writer we trust – certainly he’s a Legion writer we trust, as amazing an advent as if Paul Levitz himself had been induced to return to the fold – any scenario he comes up with will be fine by us, we yearn so deeply to read great Legion stories again.

The point of all this is that somebody somewhere – multiple somebodies, by the looks of it – wants the Legion, the real Legion, back in a monthly comics forum. We here at Stevereads are most certainly among that yearning group, and if this latest issue of Action Comics is any indication, we’re not alone by a long shot. We want our Legion back, not some variant but the real thing, the thing so handily illustrated in that two-page spread in this current issue of Action Comics.

Our Legion back. We here at Stevereads entirely support that.

April 5th, 2007

Comics! the kingdom of frustration!

Frustration was the key to the last batch of comics young Elmo swiped from my archnemesis Pepito. Not frustration over the SOURCE of said comics – I make sure to shake the Pepito-germs off them before reading – but rather with the CONTENT. Let’s take a brief survey, shall we?

Take, for instance, the week’s best comic: the first issue of the ‘new’ Fantastic Four, with wonderful, Whedonesque dialogue by Dwayne McDuffie and very good Alan Davis-esque artwork by Paul Pelletier. For those of you not keeping score, the ‘new’ part here is this: Reed and Sue Richards have decided to leave the team temporarily, and their spots have been taken by the Black Panther and Storm. So far, so good: always interesting to see Storm outside of the X-Men, and of course the presence of the Black Panther (especially the character as he’s been portrayed for the last few years at Marvel – intelligent, capable, regal) is always in this title.

And the issue itself is great – full of shot and incident, with a final panel that alone is worth the price of admission (plus, the cool little detail of having the team adopt black uniforms as a tip of hat to the Panther was neat). So where does the frustration come in, you ask?

It comes from the fact that such a roster-change would never really happen. Not only is it unrealistic to think the ruler of another nation would have the spare time to lead a super-team, but it’s impossible to believe the Black Panther would simply put aside the differences between himself and Reed Richards and just move into the spare bedroom. The Panther is opposed to the whole idea of government registration for super-beings; Reed was one of the idea’s main architects. The way the whole issue seems to have been swept under the rug all across the Marvel lineup is very frustrating, even in so good a comic as this one.

But the frustration was by no means limited to Marvel Comics, oh no. DC had a strong lineup last week, and the strongest books were also the most frustrating.

Take ’52’ for instance. Last time around, the title lost its nerve at the last minute when it came to the whole Black Adam plotline. He drove toward Oolong Island, tossing aside every defense the evil scientists gathered there could throw at him. His cause was righteous – avenging his wife – and for once his Superman-level powers weren’t being soft-pedalled. But then when he finally reached the men who created the monsters that killed his wife, the DC writers lost their nerve. The bad guys zap him with what looked like a remote control for the VCR, and down he went – something that never would have happened to Captain Marvel or Superman in the same situation. And this current issue was even worse – in it, Black Adam is being tortured OFF PANEL. All we learn about it is that his screams can be heard all over the island. In other words, bad guys win completely. Very annoying, to turn from that travesty to anything else in the issue, although in all fairness it should be pointed out that there’s a wonderful sequence centering on Bruce Wayne getting his Batman mojo back.

And speaking of Batman! Over in his own title, frustration reigns supreme. And again, it doesn’t have anything to do with how well-executed the issue itself is: Grant Morrison’s scripting is just dandy (he writes a convincing Bruce Wayne, which isn’t, apparently, as easy as it sounds), and Andy Kubert’s pencils are breathtaking (this is the wrong book for him, of course – he does a great job because he ALWAYS does a great job, but a Batman book isn’t a good fit). No, the frustration comes from a couple of egregious missteps in the plot-sequence, the kind of missteps you just can’t overlook.

Like the part where Batman is examining a squalid potential criminal hideout when he’s snuck up on and SURPRISED by a gigantic thug in a Bane getup … a gigantic, steroid-crazed thug who couldn’t realistically sneak up on my 210-year-old mother. And as if that weren’t bad enough, during he ensuing fight, the thug gets the upper hand by … wait for it … yanking on Batman’s cape. Not yanking on it with a special phase-inducer, or yanking on it at super-speed, or anything like that. Nope. Just plain old yanking on it. To say the least, that’s pretty frustrating.

But most frustrating of all is last week’s issue of venerable old Action Comics, written by Dwayne McDuffie (there’s that name again) and drawn by Renato Guedes. It’s a story called ‘Intermezzo,’ in which Pa Kent tells Ma Kent about an adventure he had with their son Clark some years ago. The REASON it’s called ‘intermezzo’ is because it’s a little interlude set against the backdrop of the title’s main story. And that’s the source of the frustration: that main story should be the biggest cross-over event in the DC universe, not the province of any one title, even DC’s oldest. Not one nor two but DOZENS of Kryptonian criminals break free of the Phantom Zone and come to Earth intent on conquest? Surely that is the ultimate nightmare scenario, the ultimate reason why groups like the Justice League exist in the first place? And yet here it’s presented as just another storyline, locally contained in Action Comics.

The problem with such a storyline, great as it is, is that if it’s done realistically it can have only one ending.

Dozens of psychotic Kryptonians intent on conquering Earth. Conjure with that for a moment, those of you who are so inclined (that’s you, Kevin ….). Each one with the powers of Superman, so who’s up as Earth’s first and only line of defense? Wonder Woman and Batman, yes (anybody discounting the latter would be pretty damn dumb), perhaps Captain Marvel and maybe, just maybe the other Marvels. Alan Scott definitely, Hal Jordan possibly. Doctor Fate, if we still had a Doctor Fate. Black Adam, Solomon Grundy, and Lex Luthor (see above) if we include bad guys. And that’s it. Conventional human forces would count as nothing, and apart from that, have I missed anybody? Supergirl, perhaps? Certainly Raven would be effective against Kryptonians gone amok. But no more. Nightwing, Robin, Starfire, Metamorpho, Green Arrow, Red Arrow, Black Canary, the Question, Doctor Midnight, Red Tornado, Wildcat, the Martian Manhunter, the Flash, the Atom, Aquaman, Wonder Girl, Steel, Catwoman … you name it, it’s no contest. And that means it’s about ten against dozens. It SHOULD be the DC storyline to end all storylines, so it’s frustrating to see it being done in such a piecemeal stoner fashion instead.

Better luck next week, I’m certainly hoping.

August 7th, 2006

Comics! Superman and Spider-Man!

15 July 2006


Only two comics this week, amazingly enough: Superman and ‘The Sensational’ Spider-Man. Each company’s long-standing icon, and each icon at a turning point.

Sensational Spider-Man #28 – “My Science Teacher is Spider-Man!!” – follows a little of the fallout in Peter Parker’s life in the wake of his nationally televised coming-out as Spider-Man (it features a GREAT cover by the wonderul new-to-me artist Clayton Crain, whose names sounds like a Stan Lee secret identity name). In this case, what would happen to a really bright kid in one of Peter’s classes, once it was revealed that his science teacher is a super-hero. The issue was really good though predictable, and my favorite moment wasn’t the one very good writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa planned it to be, the rousing final page where we learn that the kid is going to be fine … no, my favorite moment was when the writer remembered that this isn’t the first time Doctor Octopus has seen Peter Parker dressed as Spider-Man (although the previous time he wasn’t dressed in the new stupid gay-ass bright red hotsuit like he should be called Afterburn and be working four nights a week at the Bun Factory… geez) – when I saw that Aguirre-Sacasa had even gone to the trouble of mimicking Stan Lee’s original hyperventilating multiple-exclamation points …. well, I smiled.

Not much to smile about with Superman #654, “On Our Special Day,” and that shouldn’t have been true – the thing is written by Kurt Busiek, one of the best Superman-writers of all time, and it’s drawn by Carlos Pacheco, one of the most gifted comic book artists in comics history. I was extremely gratified to learn that DC was bringing its A-team to its flagship character, but hoo-boy, this first issue left me waiting for that to happen.

Let’s start with the cover – great iconic Superman pose, but what about the REST of it? The bad guys seem not only beaten but … well, BEATEN, like they’re begging us to pull the big guy OFFA them before he KILLS them – hardly the tone you want in a Superman comic (and what’s with that bizarre WWII-era insulting Oriental crouching beneath the Western Imperialist dog? Me so solly, but that sort of stuff just doesn’t fly anymore).

Then there’s everything on the inside.

Page 1: Who the Hell gets up at 7 if they’ve got a staff meeting at 8:10? What were Lois and Clark going to DO with that honey-nut toast and fresh-squeezed juice and eggs florentine? Power-eat them? And where do they live? Actually IN the Daily Planet building?

Page 2 -3: OK, I like the fist-marks all over Neutron’s containment armor … but mommy, why does Superman have a mouth full of ragged fangs? Is he the devil?

Page 4: First reminder of the issue: Superman is not Cyclops. You can tell by the flying, and the big red cape. His heat vision makes things HOTTER – it doesnt shatter them.

Page 5: OK, I LOVE the ‘science police’ bit, but, looking at panel 1, I’m moved to ask: who the Hell is that in the Superman costume? Why doesn’t he look anything like the ten or twelve other faces Pacheco tries in the rest of the issue?

Page 6: Um, people who ‘establish’ themselves as “erratic, prone to irregular absences” get their asses fired.

Page 7: Yeesh. That line “Lana? I’d been wondering what she’d do with her life, but this is a surprise” couldn’t be a bigger writer-copout if it read “Lana? I’d been wondering what the writers would do with her life, but this is sure a totally out-of-character mindfuck.” Lana Lang as CEO of Lexcorp! Or, as it’s known in the DC bullpen: Busiek drunk off his ass!

Page 8: Hard-nosed is one thing, but Perry White is coming off here as a J. Jonah Jameson-style a-hole with no redeeming qualities at all.

Page 9: I miss Clark Kent’s blue suits. And I could do without Lois Lane’s frickin belly button flashing in the newsroom.

Page 10: Um, just wondering here, but why would you NEED your crack camouflage squad with their specially-designed light-refracting invisibility suits if you’re planting frigging glowing spheres in frigging broad daylight?

Page 11: OK, panel one is a great, compacted action-scene, but … reminder number two: Superman is not Cyclops. You can tell by the flying, and the big red cape. His heat vision MELTS things, it doesn’t knock people unconscious (or anything else that isn’t melting). And also: so you’ve got this glowing energy-sphere and you have NO IDEA what it does, but what do you do? You hand it over to a Metropolis cop – but hey, you make sure to give him a helpful warning: “be careful … it’s almost pure, compacted energy”… love that ‘almost’ … (also love the fact that Superman is clearly still holding the energy sphere in his hand as he flies off … what, don’t Busiek and Pacheco even get drunk TOGETHER?)

Page 12: So let me get this straight: the villain on the water-sled is yelling to his unarmed scuba-buddies “Kill him! Kill him!”? And that’s what kind of writing, again? Where is there ANYBODY, and I mean frigging ANYBODY, who yells “Kill him! Kill him!” to his buddies when they’re fighting Superman? It’s so nonsensical it’s annoying.

Page 13: So Jimmy’s spent the whole friggin morning obsessing on what anniversary Lois and Clark are celebrating? But Clark’s the one fighting for his job? And shouldn’t somebody tell Lois she’s got an oilslick on her head?

Page 14: OK, aside from that ‘focus my hearing forward’ bit of nonsense, this page kicks ass, especially the last two panels. But even in the midst of enjoying them, I’m bombarded with the concentrated bullshit of “The building’s shielded with an energy field that gives off the spectrographic signature of lead paint.” Just think about that for a minute. Just wait … it’ll come to you. Trust me, you haven’t read a sentence that dumb all day.

Page 15: Awesome page – a real good twist.

Page 16: Um, I counted 12 scientists monitoring Mannheim on page 15 – wouldn’t Superman be, um, interested in, you know, saving them or something? I mean when the friggin building collapses on top of them? Just a thought.

Page 17: Oh great …. so in addition to not saving the aforementioned scientists trapped under the building’s rubble, Superman is now ENTOMBING them by slagging the rubble to hamper Mannheim’s feet. What’s next? Repeatedly X-raying little orphans’ scrotums until they get testicular cancer? Welcome back, big guy!

Page 18: Curses! Superman could have used his telescopic vision to SEE who was behind Mannheim’s transformation if he’d only … LOOKED UP! Oh well, Mannheim foiled him this time, but next time, he might just MOVE HIS FRIGGIN HEAD.

Page 19: So let me get this straight – when it comes to energy-spheres made of almost pure compacted energy of unknown design or function, Superman can’t stick around, but when it comes to booby-traps (which he could, um, LOOK for) or ‘damaged weaponry’ (whatever the hell THAT means), he’s got to hang around and miss his deadlines and his anniversary?

Page 20: Just a little note on journalistic ethics for all you little turnips out there who might be thinking of becoming news-people: Superman saving millions of lives is not the same thing as Lois using a forged edit-code to lie to her publisher. They’re not even in the same ballpark.

Page 21: So let me get this straight: Lois is a little worried that if Clark holds the apartment door open too long, ‘old Mrs. Schwartz’ will peep in, but she’s not concerned about FLYING over friggin Metropolis in the arms of Clark Kent, the famous newspaper reporter? And Clark’s not worried either? Isn’t there a chance that, oh, I don’t know – somebody might be LOOKING OUT THEIR FRIGGIN WINDOW right at that moment? Or that the weirdly-obsessive Jimmy Olson might have their place staked out?

See, the fact that I only unabashedly LIKED one single page from this issue points out the problem with this bi-annual Superman relaunches: they always stink. And they always stink because they’re so obviously not thought-through for any length of time ahead of time, by any of the people involved. If I had to guess, I’d say the inspiration for this issue – filtered through lots and lost of beer – was the first issue of Busiek’s Astro City, in which a decent but harried Samaritan is seen as the busiest guy in the world, only instead of his peaceful dream of flying, our Superman gets the real, secret-identity-endangering thing.

But that’s half the problem right there: this is Superman, the guy of whom Samaritan is a pale copy, not vice versa. AND this is Superman just coming back from a massive, life-altering event: a PERFECT time to re-invigorate the character. This issue shouldn’t feel like a tired re-tread of Busiek’s earlier work … and if it did when it was presented to the DC powers that be, it should bloody well have been rejected, regardless of whose names are attached. My super-genius young friend Elmo could have come up with four different, totally involving ways to relaunch this title, AND still had time for some bird-watching in the afternoon.

So here’s hoping the next issue will be better. Sap that I am, you know I’ll be there.