Posts from January 2014
January 12th, 2014
Or is it three Supermen? DC Comics currently publishes three different versions of their flagship character – not three different Superman titles (I think that number is up to eight, yes? If we use the yardstick of ‘title which wouldn’t exist without Superman’ and thus exclude Justice League but include both the idiotically-titled Batman/Superman and the idiotically titled Superman/Wonder Woman), but three different conceptions of Superman himself. I can’t recall another time in the company’s long history when that was the case.
The first version, by default of ubiquity and popularity, is the Superman of “The New 52,” the re-envisioning of the character in the wake of the company’s soup-to-nuts reboot a couple of years ago. That Superman is decked out in a kind of super-armor, a corseted suit complete with military-style upright collars and seams of piping in random locations – and more importantly, he’s a self-absorbed and aloof douchebag, perfect and judgemental, very much an alien among us (it’s no coincidence that this version was the one handed to Zack Snyder for use in what turned out to be the most successful Superman movie of all time, the one where he lets Pa Kent die, flattens Metropolis, and murders his enemy). When “The New 52″ launched, this new Superman starred in newly-renumbered runs of Superman and Action Comics, and they were in their own separate ways almost physically painful experiences for any long-time Superman fan such as myself.
Those long-time fans recently got something of a gift from DC: a new series called The Adventures of Superman which features (bizarrely, and almost certainly for murky legal reasons of copyrighting) the traditional Superman, the one I grew up eagerly reading. The quick field-guide style identifying signs of this traditional Superman are his hair (there’s a spit-curl) and his costume: the reds are brighter, the blues are brighter, and the bright red underpants are on the outside as Rao intended. But the deeper, more important tags are here as well: this Superman, despite his vast powers, is a caring, human figure, someone well-loved and well-trusted by humanity at large. He’s a hero, not just some weird alien guy who’s dating Wonder Woman and might decide to turn against mankind at any moment. And one more little tip of the hat to that “traditional” Superman: the stories in The Adventures of Superman (which had their origins online, the kids tell me) are not only heartfelt but short and self-contained, no inflated multi-part arcs designed to be overpriced trade paperbacks.
And then there’s the third ongoing version of the character, DC’s Smallville: Season Eleven, which, again almost certainly for murky legal reasons, continues the story-lines of the popular TV series Smallville, which ended with Clark Kent (played by pucker-mouthed tobacco addict Tom Welling) taking on the identity of Superman for the first time. The Superman in this very odd series is largely undefined as a character, and since the artistic directive mandates that he and his supporting cast be drawn to resemble the actors from the show, everybody looks like they’ve had botched reconstructive surgery. But even so, this is a Superman – fighting severely re-imagined versions of the comics’ super-villains, teaming up with severely re-imagined versions of other DC superheroes (including, just recently, Batman), but in love with Lois Lane and famously – almost by definition – imbued with the very human values of his Smallville upbringing.
Reading the most recent issues of Superman, Action Comics, and The Adventures of Superman (hard-core fan that I am, I still can’t really bring myself to stomach the mostly necrophilic shenanigans of Smallville, although I’ve glimpsed fleeting signs that it could, if allowed, morph into something interesting), I was struck by something that gave me a twinge of optimism: convergence. Leaving aside the bewilderingly antagonistic world of the movie franchise and just concentrating on the comics, I couldn’t help but notice this week that that “New 52″ version of Superman seems to be moving slowly, almost imperceptibly, closer to the traditional Superman. In the latest Action Comics, for instance, written by Greg Pak and drawn mostly by Aaron Kuder (he gets a couple of assists for a few pages, because it’s a well-known fact that no human being can pencil all 22 issues of a comic book by himself), although still a god-being who floats rather than walks and who lives in a gigantic arctic fortress instead of an apartment on Clinton Street, at least shows a more openly emotional connection to his Smallville upbringing – and thanks to Kuder’s pleasingly offbeat artwork, it’s certainly thrilling to watch him fight monsters alongside his childhood sweetheart Lana Lang. There’s idealism creeping in here too, and I think this is only natural: the “New 52″ A-hole is a very new creation – today’s up-and-coming comics writers didn’t spend their youths dreaming of some day writing that unappealing character. They spent their youths dreaming of writing the real, ‘traditional’ Superman who gradually re-emerged after John Byrne’s catastrophic revisions of the character back in 1986. That re-emergence happened for the same reasons: writers want to add to the lore of Superman, not the lore of Hot Writer X.
Of course, the lore of Superman is on full display in the latest Adventures of Superman, written by Marc Guggenheim and wonderfully drawn by Joe Bennett in a heartwarming story called “Tears for Krypton” in which the Man of Steel is shocked to learn that his home planet of Krypton never in fact exploded – and that his father Jor-el is still alive. To put it mildly, it’s an old, old story idea – but that hardly matters when you’re dealing with a legendary character, and Guggenheim and Bennett knock it out of the park.
I’ve given up hoping DC Comics will ever fully restore this Superman, the brightly-colored much-admired hero who’s in love with a human woman because he considers himself human. I’ve largely made my peace with this new version of Superman who plays video games, calls people “dude,” and mostly thinks people less powerful than himself are kinda lame. But as long as The Adventures of Superman limps along at the comics shop, I can still get a little taste of that grand tradition – and if something of that grand tradition slowly terraforms the soulless new version of the character, so much the better.
November 16th, 2013
DC Comics’ “New 52” company-wide reboot hit some of their flagship characters harder than others. The venerable WWII-era Justice Society was retconned right out of existence; warm-hearted primary-color Superman became a brooding, disaffected Dr. Manhattan-in-a-cape; Captain Marvel lost his mind – when teenager Billy Batson says his magic word nowadays, all he gets is a bigger, superpowered body (since he very conspicuously doesn’t get the wisdom of Solomon, I keep thinking he should now be called Hazam); poor Wonder Woman – always the loser in any continuity-tinkering – became a mindless sword-wielding warrior-drone (basically Conan, only female and able to life 50 tons over her head). Aquaman, Green Lantern, and the Flash escaped relatively unscathed, thanks to their basically one-note premises (water, ring, speed), but the Legion was first split up then cancelled, Catwoman was a foul-mouthed nymphomaniac, and Superboy was a clone so easily manipulated he might as well have come with a big plastic handle sticking out of his back.
In its long history of continuity revamps, however, DC has usually had the good sense to leave Batman more or less alone. Part of this is crassly commercial – the character has been the focus of several successful Hollywood movies that have made a great deal of money, and lucrative movies drive comic book content to an absolutely shameful degree (in Marvel comics, Nick Fury is now black, and if any of the characters who’ve known him for fifty years were to take him aside and ask about that little fact, I suppose he’d have to say, “Dude, didn’t you see the movie?”). But part of it is also aesthetic – much as I hate to admit it (my sympathies, as should be well known to any long-time Stevereads reader, lie elsewhere), Batman is and always has been the coolest of all comic book superheroes, and it’s coolness on such an elemental level that even movie executives understand it, where they understand literally nothing else.
So the “New 52” Batman is still very much recognizably the dark and gritty take on the character that Denny O’Neill brought back from disuse and Frank Miller immortalized in Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns. There’s Alfred; there’s the cave; there’s the rogue’s gallery; there’s the sidekicks; there’s the drill-bit focus; there’s the cape; there’s Gotham City. And on the Batman comic title itself, there’s the utterly glorious artwork of Greg Capullo (inked by Danny Miki with some very well-done nods to Klaus Janson’s style). Capullo is doing the best work of his entire career on this title – it’s a tremendous thrill to watch it unfold every month.
Scott Snyder, the writer of this series, pleases me much much less, mainly because although he’s fine with setup and exposition, he wouldn’t recognize a dramatic payoff if it dated him for a solid year. His “Court of Owls” story arc ended in a veritable avalanche of tedious dialogue, and his “Death of the Family” arc ended with a rampaging Joker doing … absolutely no damage either to Batman or to any of his half-dozen former sidekicks, despite having all of them helplessly bound and gagged about six times during the series.
So when it was announced that Snyder was going to do a multi-issue arc called Batman: Zero Year, I braced myself for mixed blessings. Yes, it would be hugely entertaining to see Capullo’s visual take on Batman’s origin (although the title sets the almost impossible standard of comparing this with Batman: Year One), but there’d also be Snyder, lousing up the story itself.
And sure enough, that’s just what happened. Capullo’s artwork was utterly gorgeous throughout, and Snyder’s plot felt improvised almost to the point of incomprehensibility. Then that first arc ended, and I thought Batman would go back to normal – but no: with issue #25, Snyder has started up another story taking place in Bruce Wayne’s very first days as Batman. It’s a very interesting decision on DC’s part, and it makes me wonder two things, one sordid – is this approach corporately dictated to presage some new Batman movie-reboot (as I’m convinced the “New 52” Superman was designed with the later movie in mind – and one speculative – are we going to see “Zero Year” arcs for other “New 52” characters.
I’ll eagerly read this new story mainly for Greg Capullo’s artwork, although it’s always possible that Snyder will write himself into feeling comfortable enough to tell an actual story. Certainly there are promising signs in this latest issue, including a crackling good scene in which young Bruce Wayne is talking to Alfred over his shoulder as they both climb out of the Batcave up onto the lawn of Wayne Manor. Bruce Wayne has nothing but contempt for the Gotham P.D., and he doesn’t mind sharing it with trusty Alfred:
“It seems you have everything covered, sir. Perhaps you should consider informing the police department.”
“You seem determined to make them your enemy, Master Bruce.”
“I gave them a fleet of dirigibles.”
“To spy on them.”
“I don’t trust them, Alfred. The force was full of corruption before the red hood gang infiltrated it. Even with the Red Hood gone now, who knows. To my mind, there isn’t anyone on the force worth a damn.”
That last line is said just as Bruce is reaching the surface – where Jim Gordon, the lieutenant who’ll one day be Batman’s ally Commissioner Gordon, is crouching and smiling: “You were saying, Mr. Wayne?”
It’s a neat moment, and although there aren’t enough like it in this issue (the main action sequence involves a car chase that couldn’t be less exciting if it were done with real cars), there’s a feeling of extra control here that hasn’t been so noticeable in earlier outings. Or maybe I’m mentally supplying that so as not to obsess on all the dramatic opportunities Snyder lets sail right past him.
Either way, I’ll be looking forward to these issues more than I will any other DC comic, now that they’ve done the unthinkable and cancelled the Legion …
November 8th, 2013
Our book today is a little pamphlet-sized thing newly published by DC Comics and triple-titled Superman Man of Steel Believe, collecting ten quick backup stories taken from various Superman comics titles over the last fifteen years. The cover features a little logo reminding readers that the character of Superman is celebrating the 75th anniversary of its creation by two teenagers, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, back in 1933, but the more cynical among those readers might wonder if the pamphlet’s appearance doesn’t also have something to do with the fact that the movie Man of Steel has earned DC’s movie division about a billion dollars since it appeared in theaters last summer.
It’s a bittersweet commonplace, that the market can drive the marketplace so completely: since it eschews vision, it’s craven at its heart, but it’s also a bounty, since it flushes some great stuff back into print that would otherwise have languished in moldering longboxes until the arrival of Galactus.
And it’s made all the more bittersweet for long-time Superman fans because this little collection incorporates the most fundamental change the character has ever undergone – not a change, really, but a ground-up rewrite. When you open SupermanManofSteelBelieve and start reading in sequential order, all seems familiar: we get the one-page origin recap (sole survivor of the doomed planet Krypton, faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, fighting for truth, justice, and the American way), and then a series of quite wonderful stories that will bring a smile to the faces of any of those long-term fans. Superman uses a spare five minutes to untangle the traffic-jam woes of downtown Metropolis; Superman subs for Santa Claus (whose reindeer are sick) in order to deliver toys to the children of the world; Superman confronts the brainless might of Bizarro and the diabolical schemes of Lex Luthor; and, in the book’s best story, Superman takes Lois Lane along on the tour of the world he does every New Year’s. During a quiet moment, Ma Kent, Superman’s sweet-natured adoptive mother, tries to explain the ritual’s origin to Lois:
When you have a child … and God willing, someday you will … you develop habits, very few of which will make sense. Every night, Jonathan [Kent, Superman’s human father] would walk the house, just about midnight. Even if he fell asleep at eight, at the stroke of twelve he’d sneak out of bed, check the windows, pet Shelby on the head, and wind up in Clark’s room. “Walking Midnight,” he called it. When he’d come back to bed and I’d ask if the world was still spinning, he’d chuckle. “Just making sure Clark’s having good dreams.”
Clark’s walking midnight … he’s just got a much bigger house.
As I’ve written about a time or two here at Stevereads, DC Comics recently metamorphosed their entire line of world-famous superheroes in a company-wide revamp called “the New 52.” In addition to being made younger (and given new costumes with lots of seams and zippers and pipings, as if in anticipation of the fact that one day soon all of these characters will be played on the big screen in huge franchise movies by human actors who need to get in and out of costume), most of the old familiar characters were given a new, semi-dangerous ‘edge’ – and surely at DC headquarters, it was deemed that no character was in more need of an edge than Superman, who’d been a pillar of right and decency – often called mockingly by friend and foe alike the Big Blue Boy Scout – for seventy years. How boring! So the “New 52″ version of the character, although still raised by the Kents in Smallville, is an entirely different Superman: he’s a stand-offish, self-absorbed alien being (in one tell-tale symptom among many, instead of loving Lois Lane, he’s having sex with Wonder Woman) who floats a few inches off the floor when he’s talking to people. He doesn’t stand for anything except what he feels at the moment. Nobody could mistake him for a Boy Scout. The final story in this collection features this version of Superman, and even if you didn’t know that, you could tell it by the washed-out colors, the boxy, forbidding artwork, the antagonistic edge of all the characters, and the fact that even though this Superman saves a little boy at climax, he’s got his hand out at the exact same moment to demand his cape back. Instead of a Boy Scout, we have a Super Douchebag.
Ironically (or maybe not – maybe the folks at DC who put this collection together are long-time Superman fans too and decided to slip in a little commentary), the whole Boy Scout issue is directly addressed in an earlier story. Superman is fighting an absurd quasi-governmental agent named Major Force, whose superpowers derive from an alien metal grafted onto his skin. At one point in their fight (which interrupted a Little League baseball game in Ohio), Major Force explicitly taunts Superman with the ‘Boy Scout’ tag. Superman’s reply is priceless:
That’s a common misconception, the Boy Scout thing. And being polite. Of course I’m polite to people. Good people. But people like you? People like you frustrate me. People like you I’m not polite to.
And while he’s saying that, he’s using his heat vision to melt the guy’s skin off. And when Major Force is defeated, Superman then cleans up the mess their fight made – and sticks around long enough to hit a home run. It’s a perfect little story to illustrate the fact that DC’s mightiest character is also its nicest character, but nice doesn’t support franchises. It was the New 52 Superman who made the company that billion dollars on the big screen, so the brightly-colored and smiling Superman featured throughout most of this little pamphlet won’t be making a return appearance any time soon. I’ll probably treasure this volume all the more for that.
September 5th, 2013
DC Comics’ just-concluded big crossover event, “Trinity War,” ended with a plot twist designed to launch its new big crossover event, “Forever Evil.” The plot twist was the opening of a portal to an alternate dimension, through which came the Crime Syndicate, an evil version of the Justice League (Ultraman instead of Superman, Owlman instead of Batman, and – as a certain comics fan pointed out in the late, lamented Amazing Heroes about thirty years ago, Superwoman, in many ways a more dynamic character than her counterpart, Wonder Woman). And the premise of “Forever Evil” is that the Crime Syndicate proves the key-weight that tips the scales of the DC universe in favor of the villains and allows them to take over.
When “Trinity War” ended, the Crime Syndicate was just stepping through their interdimensional portal. Facing them were the combined ranks of the Justice League and the Justice League of America. And when “Forever Evil” – written by Geoff Johns and drawn by David Finch – starts off, the leagues are nowhere to be seen, and the Crime Syndicate is declaring all Earth’s big-gun superheroes dead and gone.
They obviously haven’t been declaring it long, since they’re only just getting around to shutting down the major city power grids, and here in issue #1 Nightwing and Batgirl at first aren’t even aware the Justice League has had any kind of trouble. Nightwing – Batman’s former Robin Dick Grayson, that is – finds out the hard way when he’s beaten up by Owlman and strung up by Superwoman, and then the scene shifts to the assembled super-villains of the DC universe being given their marching orders by the Crime Syndicate.
Not quite all the super-villains, however. The issue’s cover, for instance, shows Green Lantern’s arch-enemy Sinestro, supernatural baddie The Black Hand, and flawed Superman-duplicate Bizarro, but they aren’t on hand in the first issue and seem – each for their separate reasons – just as unlikely to take orders from somebody named Ultraman as they were to take orders from somebody named Superman.
And that goes five times over for the most glaring absentee villain in Finch’s superb crowd-scene: Lex Luthor. Luthor has an up-close seat when Metropolis’ power shuts down, and he’s watching from hiding when Ultraman seeks out the world’s stores of kryptonite in order to powderize them and sniff them like cocaine. “This is a job for Superman,” he sarcastically mutters to himself, “so where the hell IS he?”
I have lots of very good memories of Marvel Comics’ “Dark Reign” story-arc from four years ago, when the bad guys of the Marvel Universe, led by insane-but-compelling Norman Osborn, found themselves temporarily in control of things. And I was a fan of Alex Ross’ 2005 limited series “Justice,” in which the DC super-villains, led by Lex Luthor, mount an almost-successful assault on Superman & Co. and are only foiled at the last minute.
I fully expect that ‘at the last minute’ stuff to happen in “Forever Evil” too. How can it not? Lex Luthor is smarter than any of DC’s heroes. The Parasite can sap their power. Sinestro has all the power of a rogue Green Lantern. The Joker is the company’s most dangerous person. Solomon Grundy, Black Adam, Bizarro, General Zod, Doomsday, Mongul, Darkseid – all can go toe-to-toe with Superman. And that’s without even considering the Crime Syndicate itself. In any DC comic book series in which the super-villains gain the upper hand, the heroes wouldn’t stand a chance; they’d lose, permanently. Johns is a clever writer, so he’ll probably take the concept as far as it can be taken; the fun of “Forever Evil” will be in seeing the precise way he pulls back from the precipice.
My money’s on Lex Luthor. And I’m certainly along for the ride.
January 12th, 2013
The “New 52″ company-wide conceptual reboot that DC Comics pulled off recently has been such a success (both financially and, I grudgingly admit, increasingly creatively as well)(some of the new titles launched back in 2011 are really starting to find their footing, much though I’ll always miss the old standbys they replaced) that transformed the superhero-comics industry – so it’s naturally got me thinking about the last time DC tried something on this kind of scale. Back in the halcyon days of the 1980s, the company ran the mini-series “Crisis on Infinite Earths” in a drastic attempt to clean up and simplify 50 years of tangled backstory continuity, so that – just as with the “New 52″ – new fans would feel invited rather than intimidated. The purpose of “Crisis” was the clear the slate and bring the company’s comics back to their basic world-famous elements, most of which had become hopelessly muddled – and considerably weakened – during the ’70s.
Like the “New 52,” “Crisis” was a huge success – and demanded a follow-up. After all, what’s the use of clearing the shrubbery if not to make room for new landscaping? What the DC powers-that-be wanted was simple: a return to iconic greatness. That meant revamped and simplified versions of such marquee characters as Superman, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, the Flash, etc. (as usual, the near-perfect working simplicity of Batman was left largely untouched), and that called for some sort of launching event-series. Call it “New 52″ 1.5.
This was “Legends,” written by comics vet Lein Wein, drawn by fan favorite John Byrne, and featuring a dastardly plot by the granite-faced DC bad guy Darkseid to destroy mankind’s faith in its superheroes (a neat gesture on plotter John Ostrander’s part, meant to indicate fan frustration with the previous state of affairs at DC). He sends a crowd-manipulator to masquerade as an anti-superhero demagogue, and he sends a gigantic monster named Brimstone to wreak havoc while our heroes are fumbling in the wake of a cease-and-desist order (issued by none other than President Reagan!).
Brimstone is fought for about ten seconds by Cosmic Boy, one of the founders of the 31st-century super-team the Legion of Super-Heroes (he and his girlfriend are vacationing in the 20th Century), who then gets rescued by the current incarnation of the Justice League, a epic line-up of losers whose quick demise and wholesale replacement was one of the foremost series marching-orders to come down from DC corporate. Long-time fans were calling this Justice League the worst-ever iteration of the team right from the start, and not even Byrne’s signature dramatic splash-pages can salvage them (their general lameness even extends to how Wein has them introduce themselves to poor Cosmic Boy – “Name’s Vibe” “They call me Elongated Man” “I’m Vixen” “I answer to Gypsy” “My code-name is Steel” – and it’s lucky there aren’t more of these losers, or even Wein would have run out of stupid variations on “I’m”). They save Cosmic Boy from getting trashed by Brimstone and then – in absolute record time – they get trashed by Brimstone themselves. Thus clearing the ground for a new Justice League.
When Darkseid gets impatient with the whole turn-people-against-their-heroes business, he reverts to type and just unleashes his standard-variety Earth invasion – loads of flying para-demons, plenty of enormous mechanized Warhounds – and that’s when the mystic sorceror Doctor Fate decides it’s time to assemble a new Justice League. Why he doesn’t decide this earlier is never explained – but then, one of the main challenges of any mini-series like this one is how to believably sideline all the characters who are so powerful that their presence would otherwise make the plot impossible: Captain Marvel spends the whole story as his powerless alter ego Billy Batson, traumatized by doubt, and Superman spends the whole series doing just what Frank Miller would have you believe he always did: obeying the wishes of the Gipper. And as for Wonder Woman – “Legends,” just like the “New 52″ “Justice League” title twenty years later, takes the formation of the team as an opportunity to introduce the revamped version of the character to the rest of her future teammates (and it’s not just the moments that are identical – it’s the threat: it’s Darkseid and his marauding minions yet again).
Once it’s accomplished this essential grouping, the story wraps up fairly quickly, with a new Justice League being sworn in by Doctor Fate. Changes were made to that team’s line-up before it launched as an irritating comic-relief title in the late ’80s – so, maddeningly, the team Ostrander and Wein went to all the bother of assembling here, a team largely composed of, as it were, legends – the core membership of which will always be some variation of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, and Aquaman – doesn’t get its day in the sun for a few more years.
That basic team – with all its unlimited dramatic potential – is now the cornerstone of DC’s latest exercise in re-invention: the “New 52″ “Justice League” is consistently one of the company’s best titles every month despite being only 10 pages long each issue. “Legends” was collected for the first (and last? Can that be?) time in 1993 – who knows what new world order we’ll be seeing in 2033?
September 19th, 2012
As I’ve made pretty clear by now, I’m not the world’s biggest fan of DC Comics’ company-wide reboot “The New 52.” When it launched a year ago, I thought many of the titles – including some of the most iconic characters in the world (Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, the Justice League, etc.) – were too often muddled, jumbled, and poorly thought-out.
I still think this is mostly true, although a year of work by some of the industry’s top talents has mollified me somewhat. The “New 52″ Batman, for instance, is fantastic, and I was grateful that my beloved Legion of Super-Heroes was largely spared any invidious changes (in fact, it was largely returned to a state of grace, a rare enough thing for that title in the last decade).
This month DC is releasing “Zero” issues of all its titles, designed to give readers a little background to all these new versions of old characters – something it very pointedly didn’t do a year ago, since at the time they really wanted readers to leap right into each title, rather than get bogged down in origin stories. Instead, we’re getting many of those origin stories this month (although told with plenty of leeway for future writers to elaborate), and many of them are, I must confess, nifty. But what struck me most in this week’s batch of comics (apart, that is, from the highlights pointed out on the new blog of Open Letters Contributing Editor Justin Hickey – it’s hands-down the best comics-writing happening on the Web, so if you haven’t checked it out yet, by all means do so)(I’ll be adding it to the blogroll here at Stevereads just as soon as I can recall the proper incantation to make that happen) is how it highlights one of the incontestable great things about “The New 52″: DC gave ongoing titles to virtually all of its best and most iconic female characters.
Wonder Woman, Catwoman, Supergirl, Batgirl, Batwoman … it’s a lineup strong enough to remind people that many of these characters have comics histories going back over 50 years. Seeing them all in stand-alone issues of lovingly-produced comics, after long decades of most of them being given at best guest-starring roles … well, it was a nice sight, long overdue. Granted, the sight is almost immediately undercut by the hit-or-miss quality of the contents (and the rampant sexism evident elsewhere in the reboot, of course), but still … a mighty nice ground-clearing for the future.
I might not agree with some of the editorial choices in “The New 52″ (“I, Vampire” instead of Adam Strange? “Red Hood and the Outlaws” instead of the Atom?) – and even this one is missing at least one 60-year-old pretty face (I refer, of course, to Mary Marvel) – but for all its problems, it’s a step in the right direction.
July 21st, 2012
Among this week’s new four-color superhero comics are two flagship team-books, one that I’ve liked intermittently over the decades, and one that I rather inordinately love. The first, Justice League, is set in the present-day and features – in this latest incarnation – a core roster of some of the most famous super-heroes ever created, including Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. The second, Legion of Super-Heroes, is set a thousand years in the future and features an almost hilariously enormous roster of super-heroes nobody but a comics nerd could recognize or name. Both teams were re-launched almost a year ago as part of DC Comics’ “New 52″ company-wide revamp, and that thought ought to give you chills right there. The “New 52″ has been a big commercial success for DC, and it appears to be connecting the company’s line of super-hero comics with a new generation of readers who might have been put off by the sixty years of continuity being carried around by the earlier incarnations of all these titles. But the revamping shows every sign of having been conceived and written in something of a hurry, and the intervening months haven’t done much to change that impression.
Justice League is one of the worst offenders. This is the ultimate super-team book, and to be fair, with this roster – Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Green Lantern, Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg – even a writer as talented as current scripter Geoff Johns might be a bit stymied. There’s virtually no physical opposition possible, so any writer has to shift the dramatic emphasis to the psychological – and that’s pretty tough to do, when most of the “New 52″ versions of our old heroes are petty, bickering jerks. That’s certainly the case here, with Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman all being portrayed as graceless, rampaging morons, Superman and Batman being portrayed as aloof, clueless stooges, and Flash and Cyborg being portrayed as naive, toothless nice guys. All the complexity that was built up in the various Justice League runs in the ten years prior to this rewriting is gone, and even after eleven issues, there’s virtually nothing in sight to take its place. These teammates don’t like each other; they don’t trust each other; hell, they barely even know each other’s fighting capabilities – amply demonstrated in this latest issue in a way, admittedly, much to my liking: when the League tries to stop this new, revamped Wonder Woman from going after the bad guy (an effective re-imagining of Dr. Destiny), she retaliates by flooring first Green Lantern and then Superman himself. I’d been worried that Wonder Woman fared as badly as she always does after any re-imagining … in other words, that in “the New 52″ she was a loud-mouthed weakling. So these particular brainless fight-sequences were a welcome sight – although they were annoying in their own right, since they underscore one of the biggest shortcomings of this new Justice League: there’s just not enough of it. Fully one-half of the issue is given over to a backup story introducing the new version of Captain Marvel. That leaves 20 pages for the main Justice League story, and of those 20 pages, one is a splash page and six are two-page spreads. Jim Lee’s artwork continues to please me very much, but even so: this kind of per-issue commitment sure as hell doesn’t break his back.
Which makes the sigh of relief I heave when I turn to Paul Levitz’ ongoing run on the “New 52″ Legion of Super-Heroes feel all the more cowardly. As I’ve mentioned before, one of the only silver linings for me among the serial desecrations I’ve found in this company-wide revamp has been the fact that the Legion has been unaltered by the ruckus hitting every other title. In fact, things might have been ever so slightly improved: right before the launch of the “New 52,” the Legion was being cast as an older, more bitter group than the idealistic future-teens long-time fans had grown up loving. But one of the strongest tenets of the relaunch is youth: all our characters are visibly younger than their pre-reboot counterparts. Since the very idea of an embittered, adult Legion is anathema, the subtle youthening of its many members is a nice little bonus. And of course Levitz – a Legion legend – can do no wrong when it comes to writing this title. In this latest great storyline, a handful of team members are lost in Dominator space, at the mercy of long-time Legion enemies – with the bulk of the team unable to aid them, for political reasons. This is just the kind of storyline Levitz handles superbly (even though he’s most famous for entirely more epic, less nuanced proceedings), right down to the great Legion moments, like the one in this latest issue where a nicely-revitalized Triplicate Girl grimly adheres to the Legion’s bedrock tendency to look after its own:
But this all works so well precisely because it was largely ignored by the sweeping changes of the “New 52″ – it being the one title DC executives could be sure would sell well regardless. I’ll just have to hope it stays that way, since it’s currently the only DC title I actually enjoy every month.
June 12th, 2012
It’s taken me a while to get used to the sight of “Minutemen” on my bedside table. I read it last Wednesday when it came out, the first issue in DC Comics’ new “Before Watchmen” series, in which we get vignettes and adventures of characters made famous in Alan Moore’s now-iconic 1986-87 mini-series “Watchmen.” Of course I initially thought the very idea was sacrilege – so much so that I didn’t even mind finding myself in agreement with Moore himself, who’s decried the whole project as a money-grubbing desecration of his masterwork. On a purely panel-by-panel basis, I wanted to read this first issue, since it’s written and drawn by the great Darwyn Cooke. But the whole time I was enjoying Cooke’s fantastic artwork and storytelling, I was cringing at the larger concept; Moore created “Watchmen” as an artistic unit, not a monthly adventure comic. For the DC conglomerate to do a sprawling multi-series ‘prequel’ to Moore’s work felt as inherently wrong as it was for Marvel Comics to create an ongoing “Elektra” comic featuring Frank Miller’s perfectly-done original character. It feels like the kind of decision only a boardroom egomaniac could make.
This first issue of “Minutemen” is narrated by Hollis Mason (we aren’t told his last name in this first issue – you’re just supposed to know it, from “Watchmen”), who takes on the idealistic mystery-man identity of Nite-Owl in order to fight crime on the big city streets of the 1930s. And the issue is fantastic: Cooke’s exuberant page-layouts are on full display, and Phil Noto’s coloring job (especially in a scene-stealing sequence involving the mysterious vigilante Hooded Justice) is superb throughout. If this were an issue of Daredevil or a revival of the Crimson Avenger, it would all have been a joy with no drawbacks. Instead, it’s a stomach-churning guilty pleasure, since Alan Moore invented all these characters twenty-five years ago in order to tell a very specific story – a story in which the pasts of all these characters were never meant to intrude on the horrific future Moore inflicts on them. By green-lighting a project like “Before Watchmen,” DC is signalling – intentionally or not – that no matter how well you tell your comic book story (and they don’t get much better-done than “Watchmen”), it’s always vulnerable to subsequent elaboration, to potential cash-grabs … in short, to adulteration.
“Before Watchmen” will be a huge hit for DC (just as the company’s earlier sacrilege, the “New 52″ was), and you just know that will prompt some boardroom-type to toy with the idea of “Before Dark Knight Returns” or some such travesty. These various “Before Watchmen” series are being written and drawn by some of the biggest, most talented names in the industry; on an issue-by-issue basis, some of them are bound to be just as good as “Minutemen.” But even granting the allowance of pastiche, I can’t help wishing all that energy and talent were being harnessed to create some new masterwork, instead of repainting the Mona Lisa.
December 24th, 2011
Tough for anything in the remainder of the year here at Stevereads not to feel anti-climactic after that epic throat-clearing Year End round-up, but I’ve been reminded that we still have plenty of things to cover before 2011 comes to an end in just one week – and I agree!
Like comics, for instance. 2011 was a particularly morbid year in four-color superhero comics. Not only did Marvel Comics kill off both Johnny Storm, the Human Torch of the Fantastic Four, but they also killed off their standard-bearer for superhero death, Bucky, who was speared through the heart at the climax of the company’s “Fear Itself” mini-series. And not to be outdone, DC Comics effectively killed off every single one of their characters and then instantly resurrected them, only in warped, Lazarus Pit-style. So for every Batman or Green Lantern we have who’s largely the same, we have a Wonder Woman who’s just another Zeus-bastard and a Superman who’s an emotionless cipher. RIP the previous versions, all of them.
Both these gambits can of course yield interesting stuff and even some good moments. In the latest re-jiggered issue of “The Justice League,” for instance, we get some energetically drawn panels showcasing DC’s apparent commitment to move Aquaman back into the major leagues and keep him there. In the hands of writer Geoff Johns and artist Jim Lee, the character is scrubbed of post-modern gimmicks – no scraggly beard, no hook for a hand, no water-element powers; instead, he’s the version most readers’ parents will remember from Superfriends – gold chain-mail shirt, green fins, tough as a submarine, able to summon sea-creatures to do his bidding. It’s refreshing, even if it’s so far the only refreshing thing about this re-animated “Justice League.” This particular issue, for instance, is a complete mess from start to finish – the writing, the characterization, the choreography, the pacing, the internal consistency … all of it stinks. But at least it gives Aquaman the introduction to the League that he’s always deserved. I naturally wish it were the real League and not this collection of clueless a-holes sniping at each other like bargain-cart Marvel heroes, but I’ll take what I can get.
A matter of much greater success is Marvel’s long-awaited and totally unsurprising decision to bring back the Human Torch. As I mentioned months ago when the whole storyline first happened, no comics reader anywhere in the world believed the Torch was permanently out of the picture, but the plot device, however transparently manipulative, at least allowed some talented writers (most certainly including the writer of “The Fantastic Four,” Jonathan Hickman) to explore how such a death might effect the rest of the Marvel Universe. In the case of the FF, some of those explorations were quite touching, leading to some very nice issues and one very nice cover. In a time-table that seems a bit rushed even in this more cynical comics-reading era, Marvel has decided to bring the Torch back to life now, less than a year after killing him. As some readers may remember, he was lost in the alternate universe Negative Zone fighting hordes of aliens. In recent issues of “The Fantastic Four,” we the readers learned that he hadn’t died at all but had been surgically altered by those savage aliens. Meanwhile, in the magazine proper, Earth was being attacked by a hostile alien fleet and Ben Grimm, the ever-lovin’ blue-eyed Thing, is fighting a losing battle against three enormous killer Sentry robots.
This look bleak for our heroes, when suddenly Johnny Storm re-emerges from the Negative Zone. And for the first time since his apparent death, the burning ‘4’ signal blazes across the sky of Manhattan. Scattered across the battlefield below, his teammates see it and immediately know what it means – and in one of those great sequences for which Hickman seems to have a knack, the sight of that signal breathes new life into the defeated Thing, whose robot assailants quickly sense it, saying they need to “report amended temporal schedule” for his destruction. “Is that some kinda robot way of askin’ what time it is?” Ben Grimm asks, in a classic FF set-up. “Well … let me help you out with that”:
But as great as the moment is for an unabashed Fantastic Four fan such as myself, it isn’t the equal of one quick frame that comes right before it, which ranks as one of my long-lost Great Moments in Comics. The Thing, down and pretty much out at the hands of his attackers, looks up and sees that burning ‘4’ in the sky and instantly knows what it signifies, and his reaction goes into the Fantastic Four ‘best of’ books:
Marvel also hit one out of the park this last week when it comes to covers. The one Javier Rodriguez did for the latest issue of “Daredevil” not only beats that earlier, sad FF cover mentioned above but is certainly the best cover of any super-hero comics this year, a wonderful grace-note on which to end our year’s discussion of comics:
December 2nd, 2011
When I think about the current state of four-color superhero comics as 2011 winds to a close, it’s easy to become a bit depressed. DC Comics’ massive re-launch of its entire superhero line is pretty much a take-it-or-leave-it proposition: either you’re able to enjoy their radical revision of characters like Superman and Wonder Woman (not so much Batman or Green Lantern, both of whom they left pretty much alone), in which case you can keep reading their comics, or you really, really don’t like those revisions, in which case there’s no point in your picking up each subsequent issue. Certainly I’m in the latter category: for the first time in many, many decades, there’s virtually no monthly DC comic I like well enough to buy.
Which leaves Marvel Comics, except that Marvel’s perennial head-up-its-own-ass disposition gets a little wearying for those of us who very much prefer the ‘grander’ note DC used to strike. True, the various Spider-Man titles are at a pretty strong point in terms of both writing and artwork, and the new relaunch of Daredevil is fairly happy stuff. But the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, and the X-Men (whose books and various spin-off titles account for about ten ongoing series) are all in states of hopeless muddle, and Thor is temporarily weird (again), so that’s no help.
But what the comics-gods take away, they also sometimes give back, and so it is these days with two titles regularly appearing in comics shops. One is blissfully free of both muddle and remake: IDW’s new ongoing “Star Trek” series. I briefly discussed the first issue here; the series is now up to issue #3, which begins a two-part adaptation of the great original TV series episode “The Galileo Seven.” In that episode, written by Oliver Crawford and Shimon Wincelberg, Mr. Spock, Doctor McCoy, Mr. Scott, and four crewmen find themselves marooned on a nameless planet when their shuttlecraft crashes. They’re beset by the savage, enormous inhabitants of the planet, who have a nasty tendency to throw phone-pole-sized spears, and Mr. Spock’s logical leadership is put under an enormous amount of stress before they’re finally rescued. It’s a classic episode, full of great moments, and writer Mike Johnson has chosen to adapt it to the cast and continuity of the new “Star Trek” movie, as he did with his first two issues (half this present issue is drawn serviceably by Stephen Molnar, and the other half is drawn less-than-serviceably by Joe Phillips). This is a tricky choice, as I’ve mentioned before, in part because those early TV episodes, lacking any kind of special effects budget, relied heavily on interpersonal drama – which doesn’t always translate well into the comics medium. You can see it in this issue: yes, there’s the requisite crewman-skewering moment, but most of the pages are taken up with fairly static scenes of people talking to each other. That can be wonderful if both the artwork and the dialogue is very peppy (the ongoing “Buffy the Vampire-Slayer” comic is a consistently excellent example, but even the hyper-talky new incarnations of the Avengers will suffice), but that’s not the case here – the artwork is stiff, and most of the dialogue is awkwardly lifted from that original episode (with quick alternations to reflect the fact that Kirk hasn’t been in Star Fleet very long and that Spock still doesn’t know him very well and maybe wants his job). The basic material of “The Galileo Seven” can’t help but work (although I remain curious why Johnson and IDW would think it’s a good idea to give this new crew the same adventures the old crew had 50 years ago), so of course I’ll read the concluding issue – here’s hoping Phillips was just helping out, however, and not taking over.
The second bit of comics relief I got last week came, oddly enough, from DC. As I’ve mentioned, my beloved Legion of Super-Heroes was largely spared the ravages of the idiotic revamp that’s swept through the rest of the company’s flagship titles: the valiant super-team of the future is mostly the same such team I’ve always loved. And if this is true for the two new Legion monthly titles, how much more true of the current “Legion: Secret Origin” mini-series written by the great Paul Levitz and drawn by Chris Batista? This mini-series, the first issue of which I mentioned here, is Levitz’ leisurely re-telling of the Legion’s origin and early years, and although it so far features every bit as many tweaks and changes as any of the “New 52″ revamps, it matters less – the origin of the Legion has been revamped countless times over the last fifty years. Indeed, it’s kind of a rite of passage for every Legion writer to tell a slight variation of the basic superpowered-teens-save-industrial-trillionaire-from-assassination template.
Levitz’ current re-telling started out really, really good and is quickly becoming flat-out excellent. This is already one of those mini-series I can’t wait to own as a hardcover collected volume. I’m a big fan of Batista’s artwork – it’s every bit as stiff as the stuff I was deploring in “Star Trek,” but there’s a clean-lined beauty to it that rescues it from being static. Our cast is slowly filling out – this issue delves more deeply into new potential Legionaires Brainiac 5, Phantom Girl, and Triplicate Girl, and we get a glimpse of Gim Allon flashing his poster-boy pearly whites and clearly getting ready to come on board as Colossal Boy. Levitz continues to give us far more context for the Legion than we’ve ever had before – unlike previous incarnations of the title, here we have an actual fully-detailed future world that exists before the Legion is assembled by the aforementioned trillionaire R. J. Brande (in this mini-series, he inexplicably talks like Boris of Boris & Natasha), a future world with politicians and armed services and complicated problems of its own, into which this weird new phenomenon, this unaccountable super-group the likes of which hasn’t been seen in a thousand years, introduces as many problems as solutions. Levitz’ narrative chorus – three shadowy Earth government figures monitoring everything – works to keep the big picture in focus, and if some of his future plot-twists might be a bit obvious (Brande is, after all, the very dictionary definition of “the 1 percent”), the main currents of his storytelling are wonderfully strong – this is the best Legion-origin retelling I’ve ever read, and I’ve read them all.
So there’s consolation even from such major depressions as a Superman who’s an emotionless prick ala Doctor Manhattan or a Wonder Woman who turns out to be just another bastard of Zeus! Two of my favorite pop-sci-fi creations of the 20th century – The Legion of Super-Heroes and Star Trek – have series in the comics shops now (specifically Comicopia in Boston, the only place any civilized sentient would buy their funny books).
(and for those of you who’ve written asking me if I’m aware that IDW is also currently running a mini-series in which The Legion meets the crew of the Enterprise … why yes, I am)