Comics Ate My Brain

December 31, 2004

Comics Roundup 2004

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tom Bondurant @ 9:49 pm
Everybody’s reading Heidi MacDonald’s year-in-review essay, and you should too.

As for me, it was another year of mostly Big DC names, which meant frustration at the top. None of the three regular Superman titles stood out this year. Each had positive qualities which were dragged down by some negative aspect. The Batman books were defined by their “events,” most of which centered around Robin and bore little fruit despite big promises. Stephanie Brown’s potential as Robin was wasted in favor of cheap melodrama. A.J. Lieberman emasculated the Joker in favor of elevating Hush, nobody’s favorite villain. ’05 looks better for both sets of titles, with Gail Simone writing Action Comics, David Lapham writing Detective Comics, and Judd Winick writing Batman.

Superman/Batman could be a good title once Jeph Loeb leaves (after #25, which you’d think would come out next year, but no guarantees). Two words — you’ve heard ’em before — dueling narrations. The book appears to be written for longtime fans who also need to be told what they are seeing and reminded of what they already know. Finally, for something which purported to redefine Superman’s origins yet again — and which told a pretty enjoyable story to boot — nobody in the main Superman books seemed to know what to do with Superman: Birthright. I’ve already mentioned my anticipation of the Superman and Batman All-Star books.

The often-overlooked third member of DC’s Big Three, Wonder Woman, steadily built momentum throughout the year. We’ll see how far Greg Rucka takes the fallout from the Medousa battle, but overall this book hit its stride in 2004. It was consistently entertaining, and Rucka and Drew Johnson have really carved out their own particular niche for the character. They are the first team to show her fully realized as both adventurer and ambassador, a logical progression from a foundation laid almost 20 years ago.

Did you know that there were actually 18 issues of JLA published in 2004? Holy biweeklies, Batman! That’s right — between the 6-part biweekly “Tenth Circle” and the 6-part biweekly “Pain of the Gods,” we got 6 more issues of this title than a monthly schedule would otherwise require. The bad news is, both of those stories were pretty craptacular; the good news is that they were over twice as fast. I’m glad Kurt Busiek is the new regular JLA writer — he had a long and fruitful tenure on Avengers, so hopefully he can do the same here. Justice League Elite I dropped after two issues because I really didn’t know what was going on and didn’t care. If the whole thing is collected, I might give it another chance, but I didn’t think it deserved my monthly investment. Conversely, I am very happy with JLA Classified. Not only has it opened with another gem from JLA resuscitator Grant Morrison, in 2005 it will be the home of the can’t-miss “I Can’t Believe It’s The Justice League!”

Green Lantern and Legion were both cancelled in favor of high-profile makeovers. GL‘s featured a space-pirate adventure that was mildly diverting. I sometimes imagine Kyle Rayner as played by Joey Tribbiani, so it was a little hard to take him undercover in a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Kyle’s sendoff aimed to disconnect him completely from the Earth, and one unfortunate refrigerator scene later, it shore did. Legion‘s era ended, not in a big Ragnarok-type bang, but whimpering out with a terrorist storyline only featuring about half the team. The door was shut on this particular 31st Century with the Teen Titans/Legion special, a big fight that the Legion didn’t even get to itself.

Now we have Green Lantern Rebirth, which aims to restore the Green Lantern Corps status quo completely; and Legion of Super-Heroes, which wants to establish its own rules while remaining true to its inspiration. Both have many good points, although I wish there was a little of LSH‘s make-something-new spirit in Rebirth. (Something like the new Firestorm, a very pleasant surprise made even more so by writer Dan Jolley’s more recent visits with old-school friends and foes.) Still, Geoff Johns is doing a yeoman’s job trying to rehabilitate Hal Jordan, and for the most part he is succeeding.

But what to do about Johns otherwise? At the risk of sounding overly grumpy, the Barry Allen Flash and the first 10 years or so of the Wally West Flash were characterized by light-heartedness. This was exemplified by the conduct of the old Rogues’ Gallery — a bunch of goofballs who just wanted to be rich and fight the Flash, not necessarily in that order. Over the past year, Geoff Johns has steadily turned the Rogues, and by extension Flash at large, into a grim ‘n’ gritty parade of vice and corruption. Similar forces are at work in JSA, which in 2004 featured a crossover with Hawkman that only served to make half the JSA more “dark.” After a full issue devoted to an autopsy, the year ended with a gratuitous breakfast-table slaughter. I’m ready to drop JSA, but might as well wait until the current storyline is finished. And just as Johns starts another time-travel jaunt in JSA, he finishes one up in Teen Titans. I did think this was more accessible than JSA in 2004, and I may change my mind, but TT is probably going on the chopping block in ’05.

Both DC: The New Frontier and Identity Crisis aimed to honor DC’s Silver Age, but there the similarities stopped. NF sought to recreate the sort of breezy, wide-open, Jet-Age optimism with which many fans remember DC’s books of the ’50s and ’60s, and was generally well-received. At the other extreme, Identity Crisis looked at those heroes’ 1970s and ’80s adventures with a bit more cynicism, and was not so universally praised. I’ve already talked about IC; and at the risk of being too glib, I would say that NF was liked better because its goal was to make the reader feel good about the characters. Identity Crisis advertised shocking revelations that would change the way the reader viewed the old stories, but at the end tried to have it both ways by lifting up the heroes unconditionally. In short, NF told its simple message well, while IC had a more complex one that was harder for its creators to articulate or defend.

Speaking of extremes, Fantastic Four will go from one of my favorite writers (Mark Waid) to someone about whom I am leery (J. Michael Straczynski). Because I like the FF so much, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, but I really wish Waid and Wieringo were staying. Perhaps JMS’ run on FF will make me reconsider my opinion of …

Supreme Power, which was clearly too cool for me. I could no longer stand basking in the light of its unabashed coolness, and so I dropped it. I realize this diminishes my own coolness, but that is a price I am compelled to pay. Perhaps in the future I will realize the value of exposition for its own sake, a formless plot, gratuitous nudity, and endless variations on the same themes.

In sum, not the best year; and 2005 looks pretty good, if only in comparison. Let’s start that ball dropping!

December 30, 2004

New Comics 12/29/04

Filed under: adam strange, batman, Christmas, crisis, legion, star wars, superman, teen titans, weekly roundups — Tom Bondurant @ 8:16 pm
Had a good Christmas; thanks for asking. In terms of comics-related items, I got the first Kitchen Sink collection of Superman Dailies (1939-40), the Spider-Man 2 DVD, the DC Encyclopedia, and Looney Tunes Vol. 2 on DVD. The Best Wife Ever and I spent Christmas Eve here in town with my parents. We escaped a lot of the nasty weather which plagued the Midwest last week, and had a beautiful drive to Chattanooga to see the in-laws on Christmas morning. My sister now lives in the Chattanooga area, and she gave birth to her second child on Monday morning. Also, my cousin got engaged on Christmas Eve, so there was good news from every corner.

Got back into town Tuesday night and got up Wednesday morning to take care of some household errands. All the traveling produced that kind of weird disconnect from the normal timeline, so I had to remind myself that it was Wednesday and the comics shop was open. Without further ado….

Teen Titans #19 (written by Geoff Johns, art by Mike McKone and Marlo Alquiza) offers a rather predictable end to the “Titans Tomorrow” arc, because it involves the main problem with alternate-timeline stories — the reset button. In these types of stories, there is always some procedure the heroes must accomplish which will Set Things Right and prevent the Bad Timeline from coming into existence. Now imagine that this was a parallel-universe story, in which the Titans somehow landed on another Earth, ten years in the future. The challenge wouldn’t be to perform the proper procedure, and thus press the reset button — instead, the challenge would simply be to survive. What’s more, the Bad Earth would still exist, and thereby contain the seeds of a story where the Bad Titans would come to our Earth. At the end of this story, Bad Superboy actually says he doesn’t know how long it will be before the timeline ceases to exist. There is so much wrong with that sentence….

Circular logic is also involved in the very premise of the story. The Bad Titans’ future seems to depend on their being thrown 10 years into the future, and splitting up when they returned to the present. I feel like I need a dry-erase board to make some sense of the story, and it’s why this should have been a parallel universe … GAAH!

Anyway, for those paying attention to DC’s 2005 projects, I’m sure this will have ramifications further down the road. The issue itself is about par for the series, logic notwithstanding — the art is typically good, and the dialogue is expositional without being a drag.

The reset button gets a workout in Superman/Batman #16 (written by Jeph Loeb, with art by Carlos Pacheco and Jesus Marino). Seems that whenever one of the Big Two dies, the two get shifted to another alternate timeline where they are both alive, but still in dire peril. Arguably, this exploits death a lot more cheaply than in, say, Identity Crisis. Ultimately, the two figure out what they need to do to Set Things Right, but because the story isn’t over yet, Things Aren’t Quite Right. I will say that the cliffhanger is an intriguing twist, but I’m not sure how much it’s in character.

The art is beautiful, and the coloring (by Laura Martin) really complements it. Especially following the stretched-out, stylized Michael Turner art of the Supergirl storyline (which itself followed the lumpy, stylized Ed McGuinness opener), this is a fantastic-looking comic. Too bad it’s in service of such a lightweight, inconsequential plot.

Superman #212 (written by Brian Azzarello, with art by Jim Lee and Scott Williams) finds our hero in “The Vanishing,” the pocket dimension into which Lois has vanished (along with presumably millions of other people). There the couple is reunited, although Clark Kent is left out in the cold. (Let’s just say he clearly doesn’t enjoy himself as much as Supes and Lois do.) I will say that this issue’s use of Clark has left me curious about the nature of the Vanishing. I always enjoy the exploration of Clark and Superman as separate people. Although the issue has a real dream-sequence feel, the plot is still advanced, and there is even some indication of the villain pulling the strings. This was one of the few Azzarello/Lee issues that didn’t feel off somehow, so yet again I hold out hope for the arc’s resolution.

Batman #635 begins the tenure of writer Judd Winick and artists Doug Mahnke and Dustin Nguyen with a story picking up from “War Games'” underworld shakeup. So far it’s a good start. The central mystery looks to be the identity of the Red Hood, and the inevitable possibility that it is someone close to Batman. Although the Shocking Mystery Mastermind is a tired device, some nonlinear storytelling helps keep the suspense from getting overinflated. Winick also includes both hot business-on-business action and an “Eight Heads In A Duffel Bag” joke. The issue’s opening slice-of-life moment did make me compare Winick unfavorably to David Lapham’s Detective Comics #801, but Winick doesn’t dwell on that sort of thing. Mahnke and Nguyen, who previously drew Batman in JLA, also acquit themselves well here, with moody, expressive art that is also expansive and easy to follow.

I continue to enjoy Adam Strange (#4), written by Andy Diggle with art by Pascal Ferry. This issue reintroduces the Omega Men, who had their own title in the ’80s which I never read. I was aware of them through their guest-spots in New Teen Titans and Green Lantern, so I can say that Diggle writes them pretty much as I remember, and more entertaining to boot. Ferry’s art is good as always, although it was hard to figure out at times the position of that Thanagarian woman’s body. (I take it she was supposed to be sexy, but I’m not quite sure what she was doing.)

Star Wars: Empire #28, written by Ron Marz with art by Adriana Melo, focuses on Boba Fett as he searches a derelict Star Destroyer for a particular keepsake. If you like Boba Fett outwitting traps and blowing things up, this is the issue for you. I am not so much a Boba fan, so this was a little dull. The art was fine for the most part, done in a sort of rough-pencil style which suited the hazy ghost-ship proceedings. My one problem was at the end, when we meet Boba’s employer. He has the widow’s peak and distinctive profile of Grand Moff Tarkin, but he’s clearly not meant to be Tarkin. Nobody does such a good likeness without a reason, but this likeness seemed unnecessary.

Finally, I bought Mark Waid and Barry Kitson’s Legion of Super-Heroes #1. For many fans of the Legion, this was the elephant in the corner of the comics shop. How one receives it probably depends on one’s own history with the Legion. Again, I was never much of a fan growing up, and certainly didn’t follow the soap-operatics of the ’70s and ’80s. I first started reading the book regularly in 1989, with the “Five Years Later” restart. Although I enjoyed this issue, and think it portends good things for the series, I do wonder about its general premise. Waid has set up this version of the Legion as somewhere between a group of freedom fighters and Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. They are a youth movement with super-powers, who have taken up adventuring as a reaction to the extreme boredom that centuries of peace, progress and tranquility inevitably bring. It might therefore follow that the society against which they rebel would be oppressive, but so far Waid hasn’t shown us too much of that — at least not on Earth.

To his credit, both Waid and Kitson have taken great pains to make the Legion look and sound like teenagers. Kitson in particular made me think I was looking at the cast of “Hair” with superpowers and costumes. This Legion is very much in a hippie frame of mind, although Waid has said they are more like the historical re-enacters of their time. Anyway, starting to ramble now, so I will just say it was a good first issue, and I will be back for #2.

December 24, 2004

The Twelve Shows Of Christmas

Filed under: Christmas — Tom Bondurant @ 4:30 pm
Back in the good old days of kid-hood, every Christmas brought another round of TV events. You had your stop-motion Rudolphs and your cel-animated Frostys and your “Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls!”; and every now and then there would be something new, maybe with Opus or Garfield. Of course, age brings more responsibilities, and by the time I got into law school we students were pooling our resources to tape the shows we had to miss while studying. It made for some fun parties at the end of the semester.

Good times.

Because ’tis the season for lists of a dozen related items, here are my Twelve Shows Of Christmas. Every year I make a concerted effort to watch the top five.

12. Batman: The Animated Series, “Christmas With The Joker” (first broadcast November 13, 1992): On Christmas Eve, the titular villain takes over a TV studio and forces the Dynamic Duo to run a gauntlet of holiday cheer in order to rescue his hostages. A battle with giant toy-shaped robots is the centerpiece, but it does work in a message more appropriate for the season — ultimately, Dick convinces Bruce to watch It’s A Wonderful Life, because it’s about one man’s importance to his hometown.

11. Seinfeld was never much for appropriate holiday sentiment, so it gets one entry for three episodes. In “The Pick” (first broadcast December 16, 1992), thanks to Kramer’s photography skills, Elaine’s Christmas card exposes a little too much, earning her the nickname “Nip.” When my mail arrives every December, it’s hard to shake the image of Elaine shoving George’s head into her chest and yelling “Here’s your Christmas card!!!”

Another indelible image is Kramer as a department-store Santa in “The Race” (December 15, 1994). When he starts spouting Marxist doctrine to the kids on his lap, they scream, “Santa’s a Commie!”

Finally, “The Strike” (December 18, 1997) gave us Festivus. The holiday “for the rest of us” throws out all the frills in favor of releasing all the stress, tension and (yes) grievances of the previous year. What other holiday has feats of strength?

10. A Christmas Carol: IMDb lists 38 different productions containing the words “Christmas Carol,” all of which are variations on the original Dickens. Watch any one of them, because they’re all pretty much the same, whether they star Alastair Sim, George C. Scott, Patrick Stewart, Bill Murray, Bugs Bunny, or Mickey Mouse. Oh sure, the acting might be a little better with George C. Scott or Patrick Stewart, but you’ll still have some old dope being taught a lesson by four ghosts so he’ll be a decent person towards a sympathetic family. I’m partial to the George C. Scott one, myself; but I’m surprised there hasn’t been a Lex Luthor Christmas Carol. He could be visited by Deadman, the Phantom Stranger, and the Spectre….

9. It’s A Wonderful Life (released theatrically December 20, 1946): We’ve all heard the phrase that “God has a plan for everybody,” but sometimes don’t we think that God’s plan for us is to be a cautionary tale for others? George Bailey suffers a few bad breaks and is ready to jump off a bridge when the Spec– er, Clarence the guardian angel shows up to show him that things could be a lot worse. Nothing like having God call your bluff, is there, George? Didn’t you read the Book of Job? In the end George has a merry Christmas and Clarence gets his big promotion. This is another often-copied plot, but here you really should stick with the original.

8. “The Year Without A Santa Claus” (first broadcast December 10, 1974): For many years this was the lost Christmas classic that no one seemed to want to re-run — and then, for Christmas 1993, my law school buddies and I spotted it on the schedule and warmed up our VCRs. It was the highlight of our holiday TV party — and then, just four years later, it was tarnished with the taint of Batman & Robin. Still, it’s a pretty decent attempt to give Santa a couple of arch-villains.

7. “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town” (first broadcast December 14, 1970): Another Rankin-Bass stop-motion extravaganza, this one detailing Santa’s origin. I haven’t seen this one in a while, but doesn’t he fight a frost giant? I think Ewan McGregor plays the young Santa. Rankin-Bass did another ’70s-era special, “Jack Frost,” which was on the ABC Family channel a couple of weeks ago, and I have to say, Jack Frost looked to have a much rougher time of it than Ewan-Santa. There were robot dogs in “Jack Frost.”

6. “Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer” (first broadcast December 6, 1964): Watching the 40th-anniversary edition of this show last week, a few things struck me. First, obviously Rudolph is a mutant in the classic X-Men mold, sworn to help a world that hates and fears him (at least they do at first). Second, for a mutant Rudolph doesn’t have the most impressive power. It would have been nice if that nose could have shot a beam of destructive energy, too — although I doubt they would have called it his “nasal blast.” Third, Hermie the elf is clearly of a different genetic stock than the other elves. My money’s on his father being Charlie-In-The-Box.

Now for the top five.

5. Everybody Loves Raymond, “The Toaster” (first broadcast December 14, 1998): For Christmas, Ray gives everybody chrome toasters, personalized with “Merry X-Mas, We Love You,” and the names of his family — but the only people who don’t appreciate it are his parents. If you like the show, it’s a classic. His parents ask why he’d engrave a toaster, and he yells, “I thought it would be nice! I thought you’d like it — you … psychopaths!” They respond, “Well, we’re the ones who have to get these gifts.” It’s a clever look at the familiar “it’s better to give than to receive” lesson, and it shows the anxiety any well-meaning giver faces when he’s not sure his gift will be appreciated.

4. Mystery Science Theater 3000, “Santa Claus” (first broadcast Christmas Eve, 1993): Mike and the ‘bots riff on the truly trippy Mexican Santa Claus movie. In it, the Devil sends Pitch, a rather flamboyant henchman, to Earth to corrupt children and … make Santa’s job harder, I suppose. There are many scenes at Santa’s space-based castle, floating high above the North Pole, where Santa commands all manner of weird, body-part-shaped surveillance equipment — a listening device made out of an oscillating fan and a plastic ear; a super-snooper with a big eyeball, and giant red lips for the main speaker. Santa talks about meeting the Baby Jesus on Earth and delivering toys together, but their team-up never materializes. However, Santa gets a last-minute assist from Merlin the Magician, who it turns out stocks Santa’s utility belt.

3. MST3K, “Santa Claus Conquers The Martians” (first broadcast December 21, 1991): When one of the first riffs is “Big John Call is Santa Claus in ‘O Little Town Of Death-Lehem!”, you know you’re in for a treat. When Martian parents fear that their kids will grow up soulless, an expedition to Earth is mounted to kidnap Santa and bring his magic to Mars. Even infused with an inexplicable, incongruous love of the Patrick Swayze vehicle Road House, “SCCTM” still holds up. There’s the invention exchange (a wish-squisher vs. misfit toys like the EZ-Bake Foundry), “Let’s Have A Patrick Swayze Christmas,” Crow’s red nose, and Tom Servo’s snow-globe head. Joel observes that the sets look like “cheap versions of the Lost In Space sets.” What’s not to love?

2. A Christmas Story (released theatrically November 18, 1983): If the good people at Turner could put this on its own 24-hour cable network, I’m sure they would. Although the high points — the triple-dog dare, the major award, “Oh … fudge,” “I can’t put my arms down,” and “You’ll shoot your eye out!” — are perhaps too familiar, they all work together to create an endearing pastiche of classic, almost archetypal, holiday moments. Ralphie’s belief in Santa is just part of his specialized, even jaded, outlook on the world of kid-dom. This allows the movie to present its Norman Rockwell-esque scenes with both an ironic undercurrent and a child’s-eye view. It doesn’t so much end as run out the clock, much like each Christmas season; but fittingly, it ends on a note of quiet triumph.

1. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (first broadcast December 9, 1965): This is the only essential holiday special for me, and to me it is as big a part of Christmas as Handel’s Messiah. It is the patriarch of modern Christmas-themed mass media entertainment, and the standard to which other holiday programs should aspire. As the fateful day approaches, Charlie Brown is depressed — not because his parents don’t like his gifts, or he might not get the Red Ryder BB gun, but because he feels alone, friendless, and lost in the maddening competition the season seems to have become. Almost all of the people he encounters are consumed by parties, decorations, presents, and other superficial aspects of the holiday. “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” he cries.

Linus answers. “Sure, Charlie Brown. ‘There were in the same country shepherds….'”

Charlie Brown learns, and by his silent example shows his friends, what is at the center of the Christmas holiday. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” preaches without being demagogic or condescending, and the comparatively understated “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!” which closes the show still packs as emotional a punch as the end of It’s A Wonderful Life. The difference is that Charlie Brown is living the existential angst George Bailey had to be transported to an alternate universe to see. When the kids start singing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” it’s like they’ve given our hero a big hug — which is the least we can hope for, or give, not just at Christmas, but any time. Accept no substitutes.

Happy holidays, blogosphere! See you in about a week!

December 23, 2004

All-Star Games

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tom Bondurant @ 12:47 am
The Beat reports on DC’s upcoming “All-Star” line, which will kick off with Jim Lee drawing a Batman & Robin series, followed by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely on Superman. However, the characters will be in “classic” situations, ostensibly more familiar to the general public — Robin will be Dick Grayson, and Superman will have access to the kaleidoscope of ca-razy ideas swept under the rug by the 1986 revamp.

As it happens, the Howling Curmudgeons have recently broached the subject of “continuity,” indirectly illustrating that modern superhero comics create their own particular brand of realism by making each monthly issue a part of a greater mosaic. The implication of this mosaic can be either a crushing burden or a solid foundation upon which future creators can build. Most often it’s seen as an impediment to new readers, and thus a way by which DC and Marvel shrink their audiences by making them more insular.

Continuity can often lead to a no-win situation: if you don’t follow the lead of previous stories, you run the risk of alienating longtime readers; but if every issue depends on the one before it, you might drive away potential readers — and you might still bore the lifers!

Ian Brill wants continuity to run with separate creative teams, which isn’t a bad idea, but I think might require a sea-change in the way people look at comics. You can have different Supermen for print, TV, and film, just as you can have different James Bonds for print and film (and of course from film to film) — but it helps if they don’t have to sit side-by-side on the metaphorical newsstand.

Anyway, I am very excited about the All-Star line, more so than I was about Marvel’s Ultimate line. For one thing, Marvel has from its beginnings depended on the shared-universe conceit to a much greater extent than DC did, so even the Ultimate line pretty much traded one set of continuity for another. For another, the All-Star line sounds more inclusive of diffeent “eras” and approaches, and therefore defuses talk that it is just retelling the original stories.

However, both the anything-goes approach and the shared-universe approach carry with them the pitfalls of fan expectations. With the anything-goes approach comes the danger that the dream team still won’t deliver that certain orgasmic fan moment. Conversely, a shared universe encourages the fan to extrapolate Outcome D from Events A, B, and C, and to take issue with the creator when those Events produce the unsatisfactory Outcome E.

On balance, I’d say the risks might well be smaller with the All-Stars. I know a lot of fans didn’t like JLA/Avengers because it a) relied on the old team-up cliches and b) devolved into a big melee; but I don’t think it really aspired to much more. It was basically a geekgasm from the beginning, and it built into the narrative the freedom to include anyone from the history of either team. Thus, if you wanted that D-Man/G’Nort match-up and didn’t see it, you could at least imagine that it happened behind the scenes — you wouldn’t have had to research the circumstances under which it could have happened.

The anything-goes approach also means that You The Fan might not necessarily get the particular reference that Morrison, or whoever, makes in a particular All-Star Superman issue (much like his “Club of Heroes” stuff in JLA Classified) — but again, it’s the creator’s responsibility to integrate those references into the story so that you don’t need to know them to understand what’s going on. That to me sounds easier than (for example) the gymnastics Geoff Johns has to perform just to reset the Green Lantern status quo.

December 22, 2004

New comics 12/22/04

Filed under: green lantern, justice league, weekly roundups, wonder woman, x-men — Tom Bondurant @ 6:15 pm
I’d bought the first six issues, so I got Astonishing X-Men #7 today, but I wasn’t quite that excited about it. Conventional wisdom apparently holds that if you grew up on Claremont, Cockrum, Byrne & Austin, thrilled to “fastball specials” and purple prose, and cried when Phoenix died, you’re Joss Whedon’s target audience. I was never an X-Men guy, or much of a Marvel guy, so while I’m sure Whedon is hitting a lot of the right beats for the faithful, it goes right over my head. In fact, my favorite all-time Marvel title is Fantastic Four, so the biggest thrill I got from this book was having the FF show up in the middle of the X-Men’s battle with a giant monster. To put this story in TV-episode terms, said battle is the issue’s A-story. The B-story is a young mutant’s struggle with the loss of his powers, and the C-story is the Shadowy Government Operation designed to destroy all mutants.

Reading this book is like going to visit someone you don’t hate, and unexpectedly running into one of your good friends. While you don’t mind the main visit, you’d rather spend time with your friend. Finally, John Cassaday’s art is right purty, and darn near flawless, but you’d expect nothing less.

Now, at the other end of the spectrum in terms of personal fanboy button-pushing is Green Lantern Rebirth #3. In it, Geoff Johns lays out the metaphysical underpinnings of the green energy, the yellow impurity, and what happens when old-school Green Lanterns feel fear. I have to say, I figured out a lot of this stuff last month, but Johns does make it sound reasonable (at least in the context of GL mythology). In terms of making the preposterous plausible, Johns’ theory approaches Grant Morrison-like levels. This may be the best work of Johns’ career so far, which is all the more amazing considering the emotions on both sides of Hal Jordan’s return.

There are a couple of fights before the exposition starts, and Ethan van Sciver is able to handle both action and conversation pretty well. I will say that the Kilowog/Ganthet fight is a lot of “I’ll stand here and direct a tremendous energy beam at you, and you do the same,” so not so much choreography, but still.

Sean Phillips fills in for Drew Johnson on Wonder Woman #211, which picks up right where we left it last month. This month, regular writer Greg Rucka gives us the fallout from Diana’s battle with Medousa. Most of this deals with Diana’s blindness, which doesn’t seem to bother her much. Her one big question is about a young boy killed by Medousa, and she ultimately gets an answer from the goddess Athena. It’s a decent issue which serves more as an epilogue and transition into the next story (apparently involving the Flash) than anything self-contained. Phillips’ art is not too far removed from Johnson’s, but it uses both thinner lines and fewer details. Diana herself seems to have lost a little stature, which may be appropriate since she’s not meant to be as imposing as she was on the battlefield. Otherwise, no complaints.

Finally, JLA Classified #2, written by Grant Morrison with art by Ed McGuinness and Dexter Vines, continues the 3-part Gorilla Grodd/Neh-Buh-Loh story in fine fashion. Morrison and McGuinness amp up the plot this issue, showing us where the rest of the JLA was while Grodd trashed the Ultramarines; Grodd’s enslavement of the conquered heroes; and Batman’s assault on Grodd, using android duplicates of the JLA. It’s all very high-concept — Morrison has a lot of fun with an “unhealthy” Earth which has no superheroes — but sometimes it comes at you so quickly that you don’t get it all on the first reading. McGuinness experiments a lot with layouts, using a very conservative sixteen-panel grid for the unhealthy Earth and a much freer style for the “regular” one. Next issue should be a doozy.

December 18, 2004

Nothing new under the sun

Filed under: crisis — Tom Bondurant @ 6:47 pm

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 1:9

Be warned, ye unwary — past this point I’ll be talking about the whole of Identity Crisis, so watch out for SPOILERS.

5

4

3

2

1

Well, once again my pet theory goes out the window. You’ll remember I had voted for the killer being a renegade with connections to the Suicide Squad. Certainly we readers were pushed in that direction from the beginning. And yet, Meltzer (through Jean) tells us that the point wasn’t so much the killer’s identity, but the consequences of the murders themselves.

If it had been a Shadowy Governmental Conspiracy, the series basically would have ended in a black-and-white, good vs. evil manner. Either the Justice League would have rendered the conspiracy ineffective, or the conspiracy would still have the goods on the heroes’ secret identities. Having a villain at the heart of the plot — or even having one of the heroes go bad, as some theorists suggested — means that the villain can be punished, and in a way that reduces even the most ambitious stories to just another standard superhero fight.

I appreciate Identity Crisis‘ ambition. It aspired to draw back a curtain (or look under a rock, I suppose) and show the inner dynamics of superhero society. A funeral will bring people together and, in many cases, force them to re-examine their relationships. Making the killer someone who was a “victim” of those relationships arguably adds an extra level of poignancy to the deaths. However, beyond these emotional manipulations, I can’t say that IC did much of consequence.

(Just an aside: I don’t believe we readers were supposed to take the “tortured in Arkham” headline seriously, since it appeared in a tabloid. I postulate further that the Arkham Asylum administrators aren’t so callous as to put a JLAer’s wife in the same wing as those super-criminals her husband fought.)

Superhero comics tend to take for granted that their heroes and villains occupy a unique caste in what would otherwise be a normal society. Identity Crisis might have done more to focus on how the non-super people viewed that caste. While it did shed some light on how this insular community works together, it still looked out from the inside, and in so doing encouraged the kind of detective work which can either excite or frustrate longtime fans. For the most part I think Meltzer played fair with the readers — when it would have been very easy to use an available deus ex machina — but he ran the risk of misusing whatever bits of trivia formed the basis of the story. Yes, Jean Loring has had a couple of mental breakdowns, but she apparently overcame them, and we’re not sure if this latest episode is a relapse or something new. And Jean’s mental issues themselves offer something of a cop-out — “Oh, it couldn’t happen to my spouse — s/he’s not crazy!”

IC puts its heroes through an emotional wringer, but never really leaves them questioning the consequences of their crusades. As much hand-wringing as Wally West does throughout the series, his is the proverbial voice shouting in the wilderness, not particularly heard or heeded by his colleagues.

(I wonder how this would have been received if the Carol Ferris/Hal Jordan relationship were still viable. Carol was an actual supervillain with multiple personalities, but she got married (and apparently rehabilitated) after Hal’s death. The JLA feels sorry for Ray Palmer because his ex-wife is in the nuthouse; would it feel as sorry for Hal Jordan if it thought he was cutting her more slack?)

Still, in the end the “illusion of change” trumps everything. “The League endures,” as it must — because otherwise, why keep reading each month? If you start from the proposition that there wasn’t anything wrong with the Justice League, you won’t end with anything being fixed. As much as Meltzer wanted us to see old stories in a new light, he obviously had enough love for these characters that he didn’t want them to be too tarnished. Unfortunately, he can’t have it both ways, and so the end result suffers.

For the most part I enjoyed each issue of Identity Crisis. Some melodramatic narration aside, I thought Brad Meltzer did a good job of building suspense. Clearly, it benefited from the four weeks between issues, but I don’t think it will lose much momentum in the collection. Rags Morales’ and Michael Bair’s artwork was expressive and dynamic, walking the middle ground between cartoonish and realistic. Unfortunately, the test of a good mystery is the solution, and while Meltzer, Morales, and Bair laid out intriguing pieces, they apparently amounted to comparatively little.

December 16, 2004

Elfworlds, Part 2

Filed under: Christmas — Tom Bondurant @ 6:40 pm

“Nyquil comes in two colors — red and green. It’s the only thing on the planet that tastes like — red and green. And red and green are what? Christmas colors! That’s right, Nyquil makes a dandy egg nog!”

— Lewis Black, “The White Album”

Sorry, Shane, for contributing to your cold. As it happens, I’ve been sick too, and I’ve just spent a good part of the past two days on that incubator for communicable diseases, a commercial airliner.

Anyway, I had some time to think, so I came up with more fantastic Santa situations. I’m sure the Nyquil helped with these.

2a. Addendum to the Superman Origin: Naturally, in the Silver Age, the reindeer would all be fellow refugees from Kring-El’s home planet, shot into space either as an experiment or on the last chunk of habitation to survive.

Back to the list….

8. The Silver Age Marvel Comics Origin: Kriss Kringle was a wealthy toy inventor who nevertheless hated children and liked nothing better than pricing his creations just out of the average child’s reach. All that changed when he suffered a horrible accident and lost the use of his hands. Seeking a cure in the farthest reaches of the North, he was gored by a reindeer and left for dead. However, he was nursed back to health and given an artificial heart by an ancient tribe of elves. Kringle then saved the tribe’s kindly leader from an assassination attempt, and so discovered that the reindeer’s wound had given him fantastic powers. Regardless, the powers disfigured Kringle, and he grew a beard and gained 75 pounds in order to hide his deformity. Ultimately, though, Kringle realized that his selfish days were over, and swore to bring joy to the hearts of billions.

9. The NFL Films Crossover (I’ve been renting Super Bowl highlights from Netflix for the past few weeks): “Nine reindeer, each on nine different missions, but with one singular purpose. Find Santa Claus — and punish him.”

10. Marketing Santa The DC/Marvel 2004 Big-Event Way: “This issue — An Elf Dies!”

11. The J. Michael Straczynski Origin: Beats me. I’m up to issue #12 and the main character still hasn’t met all his reindeer yet.

12. The Jolly Old Elf Returns: In a gloomy future, somehow George W. Bush is still President, Rudolph is missing, and Santa hasn’t been heard from in 15 years. However, when the Heat-Miser’s grip on Christmastown pushes the man known as Kriss Kringle past the point of sanity, Santa comes out of retirement in a big way. Hunted by the police on millions of breaking-and-entering charges, Santa and his “Sons of the Claus” decide to show the world the true meaning of Christmas … with extreme prejudice. Sample quote: “There’s nothing wrong with this toy that I can’t fix — with my hands….

December 13, 2004

Elfworlds

Filed under: Christmas — Tom Bondurant @ 10:28 pm
While not everybody knows that Clark Kent is Superman, I’m pretty sure that even the uninterested know the details of Santa Claus’s yearly ritual. Santa is practically a superhero himself. He has a specialized headquarters, minions, advanced equipment, a dedicated mission, and even a love interest. Depending on how you look at it, he even has a “Kriss Kringle” alter-ego. However, like the Phantom Stranger, nobody can quite agree on his origins. Therefore, I offer some possibilities.

1. The Star Trek Origin: Santa is the Earth representative of a galactic organization dedicated to improving the quality of life on hundreds of planets by rewarding its good children and giving the metaphorical lump of coal to the bad ones. The North Pole toy factory is only a facade — the real work is done in a cloaked starship in geosynchronous orbit. His deliveries are accomplished through advanced alien technology, although he makes “personal appearances” where appropriate. The organization for which Santa works has nothing to do with Christianity; it merely uses the holiday as local color. With a few tweaks, this could also be the Green Lantern Origin.

2. The Superman Origin: The infant Kring-El was sent to Earth from a doomed planet and raised by a kindly couple. He enjoyed a happy childhood, but his parents died when he was a young man. While Earth’s yellow sun made him fast, strong, almost omniscient, practically immortal, and virtually indestructible, it also made him overweight and unable to survive outside cold weather for more than 24 hours at a time. Thus, Kring-El set up shop at the North Pole, enlisted the aid of a legendary race of crafts-minded little people, and devised a plan to do something good annually for the world’s deserving children. The flying reindeer come from a formula devised by Kring-El’s super-intellect.

3. The Wonder Woman Origin: Kriss Kringle’s mother was a lonely 17th-century woman whose husband abandoned her following a miscarriage. Distraught, she fled into the vast northern woods, where she was taken in by a race of elves. Upon hearing her story, one elf made her a baby doll, hoping to ease her pain at least a little. Seeing the doll, the elves’ shaman had an idea, and took the mother and her doll to the wood-spirit the elves worshiped. The spirit was also greatly moved, and endowed the doll with life. The young mother raised Kriss with the help of the elves, and taught him about the rewards a life of giving could bring. However, soon the encroachment of humans forced the elves out of their traditional home. The wood-spirit helped them by showing them magically how to make reindeer fly. This facilitated their move to the North Pole, where they remain to this day.

4. The Dr. Doom Origin: Driven to avenge the unjust death of his mother, young Kriss Kringle devoted his life to the twin pursuits of science and sorcery. Along the way he conquered the indigenous elf population at the North Pole. For a while he ruled with an iron fist, but had a Grinch-like change of heart and turned his energies to more generous ends.

5. The Completely Unoriginal Origin: The entity we know today as Santa Claus is, in fact, an angel who rebelled against Heaven, but could not serve in Hell. (This is, of course, pretty much the same origin with which Alan Moore endowed the Phantom Stranger in Secret Origins #10.) He feels humanity’s frustration with a God whose ways are too mysterious, and so has chosen to use the biggest Christian holiday as a vehicle for a more immediate punishment and reward system.

6. The Grant Morrison Origin: I have no idea what this would be, but he’s about the only living creative type I’d trust to make some sense out of the Mexican Santa Claus movie, (memorialized by “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” of course) where S.C. and Merlin fight the Devil.

7. The Batman Origin: Following the deaths of his parents, young Nicholas dedicated his life and his vast inheritance to helping the poor. Working through the local church, he became a Bishop; and after his death was made a Saint. His story inspired a legend of gift-giving which endures across the centuries. Seriously.

December 10, 2004

New comics 12/8/04

Filed under: batman, gotham central, justice league, justice society, lotdk, superman, weekly roundups — Tom Bondurant @ 3:25 am
Action Comics #822 is up first, just to get it out of the way. I expected it to be bad, but in the big-dumb-fun manner which writer Chuck Austen has deemed appropriate for the title. Instead, it was bad in the this-story-makes-no-sense way. Mostly this was due to the action being interrupted by a lot of plot about Lois being jealous of Lana Lang after finding a pair of Lana’s delicates in the Kent apartment. (They’re left over from when Lana nursed Clark back to health while Lois was in “Iraq.”) Hilarity ensues, of course, when the Kents pack up and drive — drive? Okay, maybe Lois is too sick to fly — to Smallville for Christmas.

The whole “Lois is jealous of Lana” plot is laughable, and makes Lois come off as the worst kind of possessive female stereotype. Who would believe that Clark Kent would ever do anything to jeopardize his relationship with his one true love? Has Clark somehow transformed into Mr. Love The One You’re With? Lois knows Lana well enough to realize Lana is no threat to her. Heck, Lois is pretty sure Wonder Woman is no threat to her relationship with Clark; what does she have to fear from Lana?

Anyway, once in Smallville, Superman and Superboy throw down with a hulked-out poindexter who hates “all the jocks.” Perhaps this will tie into the white-supremacist plot started last issue. Artists Ivan Reis and Marc Campos turn in their usual dynamic job, portraying both the domestic “drama” and superheroics with skill. Hopefully they’ll be around after Austen has gone.

Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #186, written by Shane McCarthy, with art by Tommy Castillo and Rodney Ramos, continues the 5-part Riddler story. The issue builds effectively to a double-edged cliffhanger and features a well-executed set piece involving Batman racing a train in the Batmobile. Other than that, it’s kind of a jumbled mess. The Riddler taunts Batman through a holographic projection that struck me as a goth-influenced Freddie Mercury; but simultaneously he’s a bearded derelict being nursed back to health. People give the old-school Riddler a bad rap, but this isn’t the best argument for making him “new and improved.”

Speaking of new and improved, JLA #109 finds the Kryyme Syndikaat trying to figure out why their Power Ring has been replaced. To that end, they come to our Earth and start causing trouble. Meanwhile, it looks like the hordes of Qward are ready to attack the Syndicate. I smell a mistaken-identity attack….

Busiek is finding his stride with this issue. He juggles the Syndicate, the Qwardians, and even a brief interlude with the Justice League well, advancing the plot in predictable ways but throwing in a couple of surprises to keep the reader guessing. The art, by Ron Garney and Dan Green, is a good complement to the story. I like it fine, but it does seem a little “earthy” — thick lines, dull edges — for what is turning into a big sci-fi epic. Of course Garney does well with the League, but he also makes the Syndicate his own. That’s good, considering that the Syndicate’s look was updated by Frank Quitely; and the last time we saw them, they were drawn by George Perez.

JSA #68, by Geoff Johns, Don Kramer, and Keith Champagne, begins a time-travel story involving the just-disbanded Justice Society of 1951 and their future selves of 2004. An old JSA villain plans to change history so that no one else is inspired by the Justice Society to become a super-hero. “Masks will be outlawed,” one hero intones darkly — but there’s no indication yet that this will stop Kal-El’s rocket from crashing, or Bruce Wayne from dedicating his life to avenging his parents’ deaths, or lightning from striking Barry Allen’s chemical cabinet, or … you get the idea. As much as Johns likes continuity and the shared-universe concept, it requires a lot more bases to be covered.

(I suppose this title can join the other three Evil Alternate Universe storylines DC is publishing — the Johns-written “Titans Tomorrow” over in Teen Titans, the aforementioned Crime Syndicate, and the time-mucking in Superman/Batman.)

The art is fine, although I couldn’t tell the difference between the good time-traveler and the bad one. That caused some confusion when the good one rescued a JSAer.

David Welsh has already written about a pivotal scene in this issue. I have to agree with him that the scene is both gratuitous and (with regard to Geoff Johns) self-serving, but I am interested enough in the story to see where it leads. I’m a sucker for Evil Alternate Universes.

Gotham Central #26 is part 1 of a 2-parter by Ed Brubaker and the unfortunately-named Jason Alexander. Detectives MacDonald and Driver have Catwoman as their prime suspect in a murder — which wouldn’t be so bad if masked vigilantes weren’t a political hot potato in the wake of “War Games.” Unfortunately for one detective, Catwoman discovers some blackmail fodder. It’s a well-constructed story, but the art took some getting used to. Alexander does a good job of continuing this book’s impressionist tradition; but his lines aren’t as thick I’m used to seeing, and they tended to jump out at me. His faces also look a little hinky, which occasionally made it hard to tell characters apart. Still, with Michael Lark gone to Marvel, he’s a good fit.

The last book I got this week was Justice League of America Archives Volume 9, reprinting issues #71-80 (1969-70), all by the relatively new team of Denny O’Neil (writer) and Dick Dillin (penciller). Dillin stayed with JLA for some 115 issues until his death in 1980, never missing a deadline, and it’s educational to see how his style evolved over the years. While he eventually settled into a more conservative layout, here he’s all big panels and freewheeling action.

O’Neil seems to have already found his voice, trying to shake some of the rust off of the stodgy JLAers and make them more contemporary, like the upstart Marvel heroes. Of the nine stories reprinted in this volume, two revisit old members, one revamps a current Leaguer, and most deal with the induction of Black Canary into the League after the death of her husband. Red Tornado, a future Leaguer, returns to lend a self-pitying hand, and the League moves from its Secret Sanctuary cave into the much cooler orbiting satellite. There’s also a two-parter about the evils of pollution, which should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with O’Neil’s Green Lantern work. One can see how this new approach to the League would encourage the producers of “Super Friends” to make that series message-friendly at the expense of the traditional League villains. Overall, though, these are trippy stories, with titles like “Star Light, Star Bright — Death Star I See Tonight!”, villains who refer to themselves as “Doomsters,” and once-square Leaguers who say things like “I’ll haul this grundy group to jail!”

There’s also the Black Canary subplot, which when read together became very creepy to me. BC was an Earth-2 heroine, active in the ’40s, whose husband died saving her from an alien energy-ball. However, she then started hanging around with Green Arrow, whose actions basically made it necessary for Larry to save her. (In a typical hero-on-hero mind-control fight, GA trapped BC with a trick arrow. Larry then knocked GA out, leaving only himself available to jump in front of the energy ball.) BC migrated to Earth-1 to get away from the bad memories — so why would she take up with a guy who was part of her husband’s death?

Anyway, JLA Archives Vol. 9 does show the League in transition from traditional formulas into a more character-based format. The struggle between maintaining the old traditions and keeping pace with the rest of late ’60s superhero trends is evident. These stories were familiar to me long before I read them, thanks to the foundation they laid for the League of the ’70s and ’80s. It says a lot to me that the writers who followed Denny O’Neil incorporated these events while not necessarily being bound to his rather flamboyant storytelling style.

December 6, 2004

Happy Happys

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tom Bondurant @ 12:49 pm

Happy 1-year anniversary to Mike Sterling’s Progressive Ruin, and congratulations to the happy couple over at Peiratikos!

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