Comics Ate My Brain

November 19, 2004

Supremely Plodding

Filed under: supreme power — Tom Bondurant @ 3:20 pm
From the bootlegged Marvel solicits for February:

SUPREME POWER #15

Written by J. MICHAEL STRACZYNSKI

Pencils & Cover by GARY FRANK

What does the most powerful being on the planet do when he finds out he’s been manipulated and that his whole life is practically a lie? How will Hyperion react — and what does that mean for the rest of humanity —and the government that’s organized these deceitful machinations? Another pulse-pounding issue from the architects of the Supremeverse!

I’m sorry; did I miss the issue where Hyperion forgives his government masters for lying to him? It must have been after he invaded that Army base in #9 and confronted the General responsible for his upbringing. Otherwise, why would this glacially-paced series be asking the same questions six issues later? Ye gods.

It’s hard to imagine a better argument against decompressed linear storytelling than Supreme Power. Which would you rather read — a story about a twisted Justice League which has ended up ruling the Earth, and you learn its history in flashbacks; or a series which spends so much time establishing its setting and characters that you’re not quite sure what its premise even is?

But why should I spend more of my precious words on this when I can just let the second SP paperback’s Amazon listing (which sounds like it came from Marvel) do the talking?

The heroes have arrived. You’ve watched them grow. You’ve learned their secrets. And now, you’re about to see them change the world… for better or for worse! When a god-like Hyperion discovers that his whole life has actually been an elaborate government-made lie, his reaction could mean the end of the Earth! Do the world’s other super-powered beings have any chance at stopping Hyperion if the truth sends him over the edge? Collects SUPREME POWER #6-12.

This isn’t just “writing for the trade,” it’s writing the same plot as the trade. Good grief. And Marvel wants $2.99 for the monthly issues, because Heaven forbid you might miss something important.

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August 29, 2004

Supreme Power, Part 2

Filed under: supreme power — Tom Bondurant @ 9:16 pm
The cover of issue #3 shows Hyperion in his super-suit. It’s red, white, and blue, but the tunic is a sky (or “Carolina,” if you prefer) blue — not so much the deeper blue of the American flag. (More United Nations, actually.) No cape, naturally. The “H” symbol forms his neckline. (Also, the Hyperion costume has a fly, which is an innovation I kind of wish more traditional costumes would adopt. Just for the sake of practicality. Even the Superman and Batman costumes could hide it under the briefs-on-the-outside, you know?) He’s holding a tattered American flag. The background is a sort of dingy bronze/parchment color, and the lighting reminds me of the portrait of George Washington. Very “archival” looking.

Page 1: Synopsis.

Pages 2-3: Mark meets Bush 41 at the White House. Bush wants him to soften up the Iraqi military before Desert Storm begins. This puts the issue at the end of 1990/beginning of 1991, about 14 years after the rocket landed. Lots of exposition on page 2, with only two unique panels (the White House, and Mark sitting). Mark hears everything they say. More talk about how powerful Mark is — strong, fast, and invulnerable, and he was probably holding back so as not to blow out the instruments. Slightly less exposition on page 3 describes Mark’s job for the military.

Another potential error which could just be a slip of Bush’s tongue: the operation in the Middle East which responded to the invasion of Kuwait was called “Desert Shield” until the air assault began, and then it became Desert Storm. By using “Desert Storm” in front of Mark, Bush is getting ahead of himself. (Just an observation.) On these pages, Mark’s expression hardly changes, but we get the feeling that going up against the Republican Guard would be about as hard for him as getting a box of crackers from the top shelf. Like, “Okay, if you say so; I’m just looking for something to do.” Needless to say, this is not an unusual expression.

Pages 4-5: In mid-January, 1991, Mark destroys the Iraqi military, although we never see it directly. Given what we have learned about the real Iraqi military, both in 1991 and 2003, it would have been interesting to see if the U.S.’s intelligence was accurate. It would have fit this series for Mark to encounter an undersized, underequipped Republican Guard, destroy their tanks, and send them fleeing into the desert. I doubt Mark would have killed any of them (especially not after Spot).

A footnote: At this point Mark is at least 14 years old. When Superman’s teenage self, Superboy, announced himself to the world at around the same age, one of his first public appearances was as a target for Army gunners.

Page 6: Jason Scott, a suspicious reporter for a great Washington D.C. newspaper, thinks something’s fishy about the easy success of Desert Storm. It’s another Superman parallel, since regardless of the iteration reporter Lois Lane always has one of the first public encounters with Superman. However, Jason’s involvement with Mark won’t go as far as Lois.’ (Now that would be a MAX book!)

Pages 7-9: It’s now at least 1995, and Jason defends his Muldering to his editor. He’s investigating weird occurrences in various military actions. This is similar to John Byrne’s Superman origin, where Clark Kent left Smallville at age 18 and traveled the world for 7 years, saving lives in secret. Here, Hyperion acts invisibly for the government — including in Haiti and Somalia, two places where the real U.S. military faced pretty stiff resistance. In single-panel, rapid-fire montage style, Jason interviews assorted weirdos, including Ma Kent and two people who have heard of “Project Hyperion.”

Page 10: Jason does a FOIA request on “Hyperion” and gets a heavily-blacked-out file.

Page 11: Jason confers with a Deep Throat who looks a lot like Joe Ledger. It can’t be Joe, because we already know he’s in a coma. Actually, it looks a lot like Buzz, an unsavory character Gary Frank drew in the late Supergirl book.

Page 12: Jason is freaked-out by what he learns. The panels show him isolated from others, which is probably how he feels — “isolated” in the “singled out” sense, like something was watching him.

Page 13: Jason visits Ma Kent, who we learn is named Cavenaugh. Elsewhere, in some red-lit situation room, Bill Clinton says it’s time to tell Jason the truth. That way, the government can control how the story gets out.

Pages 14-15: Naked Jason is visited by Hyperion. MAX moment: full frontal male nudity for Jason. Page 15 is a splash panel of Hyperion in a black leather X-Men-movie-type jumpsuit.

Page 16: Montage of world news people reacting to Hyperion. The inevitable televangelist gives thanks that God has blessed America thusly. One of the high-school girls reveals she really liked Mark all along. (Tramp!)

Page 17: In the red sit’ room, government people plan how to market Hyperion and use him for political advantage.

Page 18: Clinton’s news conference, intercut with Mark (in the Hyperion suit) floating above the clouds.

Pages 19-20: Intercut Clinton with Hype’s memories (Clinton says he was “raised in an environment of love”) as he swoops down to the press conference. Here we do see one panel of Hyperion destroying a tank, but also one of him frying Spot. I bet page 20, panel 2 is an homage to the famous “pointing down” pose from the cover of Superman #1 (1939).

Page 21: Hype appears at the press conference in a tasteful V-neck sweater, shirt, tie, and slacks. “May we ask you a question?” He replies, “Of course. Freedom of the press is one of the foundations of the American system.” (This last is juxtaposed with Jason Scott.)

Page 22: Hype wraps things up with Jason. Despite his strange answer on the previous page, and his perpetual stoicism, Jason compliments him on his social skills. Hype is bummed because he doesn’t know his origins.

Pages 23-4: Jason and his editor talk about Hype. Jason thinks he’s been played by the White House to distract him from other superhumans. In fact, Jason hears reports of a speedster in Atlanta.

When I first saw issue #4‘s cover, I focused on the “arrowhead” and figured this must be the SP counterpart of Green Arrow. Wrong, obviously. Nighthawk looks suitably creepy here, what with the glowing yellow eyes and the sharp-looking “beak.”

Page 1: Synopsis of issues #1 and 3.

Pages 2-5: Intercut a meeting at a military base with Mark saving a plane. General Casey is releasing the Fa-Kents from their duties and sending them to retirement in Amsterdam. Everyone at the meeting comments on Mark’s public image and the need to keep him connected to the country. The Fa-Kents each receive Presidential Medals of Freedom.

My hat is off to Gary Frank, Jon Sibal, and Chris Sotomayor (color) for the splash panel on page 3. Hyperion rescues the plane with the sun behind him. It’s really beautiful — a “look! Up in the sky!” moment if ever there was one.

Of course Mark enjoys using his powers to help people, but we know (thanks to the general) that this emergency was staged by the military. It does offer a rare look at Mark happy, or at least satisfied. That’s not ego smiling faintly out of page 4, panel 3. However, something creepy is behind the eyes of that woman in the last panel. Yikes.

But again with the ’80s-Alan-Moore aping! Casey says “You’ve given America a new star” right under a big closeup of a star on the flag! We get it, guys. Every time I want to like this series, it chaps my hinder. These anvils are starting to hurt!

Pages 5-7: An insensitive white accountant tells Kyle Richmond how rich he (Kyle) now is. Kyle indicates that the guy’s mere presence reminds him why he’s getting his parents’ inheritance. (In case we’ve forgotten, there’s a newspaper clipping of the hate crime on the wall behind Kyle.) Meanwhile, the TV blares an “Entertainment Today” report on Hyperion. On TV, Hype says “you can’t break [his feelings] down into black-and-white terms.” Wham! (Oww!) Once Kyle is alone, he dresses in the Nighthawk suit. The closeup of Nighthawk’s goggles reminds me of Nite Owl’s goggles in Watchmen.

Page 7 does have a weird panel that I honestly didn’t notice until now. In panel 4, Hyperion makes what sounds like a joke about kids not jumping out of windows to be like him. It’s punctuated like a joke, but Hype has this downcast look which makes me wonder if he’s referring to an actual event. Otherwise, the words and the picture just don’t go together. Anyway, it’s all in the service of telling us again that Hyperion feels alone, and contrasting that again with the existence of another masked mystery-man. Thanks, folks, I missed the ends of issues #1, 2, and 3.

Pages 8-11: Nighthawk saves an African-American woman from white attackers. It’s all very bloody, including an arrowhead to the eye and the ripping off of ears. (Two ears! Up yours, Reservoir Dogs!) Nighthawk isn’t interested in scaring these thugs in order to give him an advantage; he knows he can take each one of them without it. Frank does a good job with the fight, using some traditional “Batman moves” (only showing parts of the hero, keeping him in the background, emphasizing the glowing eyes) without trying to make Nighthawk look like Batman. The victim’s expression at the end of the fight also captures her mood — a cautious “take that,” I’d call it.

Pages 12-14: At the Fa-Kents’ house, Casey tells Mark to look into the Atlanta Blur rumors. But Mark and Pa were supposed to go fishing! Too bad, but maybe Ma can go instead. By the way, the “Miltons” are named Mason and Elizabeth. Mark wants to reschedule the fishing, but Pa really wants to go. Mark hears Pa’s heart beating abnormally fast; and on his way out, notices the big red “X” over “Fishing” on the calendar.

Page 15: Fans have camped outside the Fa-Kent house (just past the barbed wire). One OMIGOD!s when she sees Hype lift off. This little scene makes sense — Mark’s parents were under constant scrutiny by the government, so naturally after he went public they’d be under constant scrutiny by fans and the media and the government scrutiny might not seem so bad.

Page 16: The Fa-Kents leave as Hype flies away.

Pages 17-18: Hype hovers over Atlanta, listening — but does he hear the Fa-Kents’ deception? (Nice little joke about Atlanta’s obsession with “Peachtree” street names.) He hears the Blur and chases after.

Page 19: Hype catches the Blur, but Blur gets away.

Page 20: At long last, Hyperion realizes he’s not alone. No time to dwell on that, though, as soldiers arrive to tell Hype there’s been an accident with his parents.

Pages 21-22: Hype searches the ocean and finds the wrecked fishing boat.

Page 23: Hype mourns as the Fa-Kents split up in Amsterdam. From his footsteps on the beach we can tell he just flew away, but for some reason we also see quite a few fish washed up on the shore. What does this mean? Is it some side effect of his being in the ocean? Is it yet more irony, that the fish were literally coming out of the ocean but the Fa-Kents weren’t there to catch them? Does Hyperion realize this? Did he put his dad’s racing heartbeat together with the X-ed out calendar and deduce they were leaving? Is he sad because he thinks they’re gone or because he thinks they went fishing just to get away from him? Either way, he’s sad because he knows they’re not coming back. He really is alo– oh, wait….

Comments

These issues introduce Hyperion to the world and show him doing traditional superhero stuff. Not only is Hyperion a celebrity, he’s also apparently pretty glib. Considering how much exposition went into convincing us how powerful he was, and how screwed-up his childhood was, I’m surprised we’re asked to accept his newfound social skills so readily.

In fact, that’s one of the big potential problems with this series. It’s drummed into our heads that Hyperion was raised under a microscope, in virtual isolation, by people who were supposed to love him without having any genuine feelings for each other. From this environment he learned the concepts of “love” and “trust.” He’s able to articulate both of those to his “dad” in order to have a normal day at school.

Now, I am willing to accept that the Fa-Kents gave him enough semblance of an ordinary upbringing so that he knew to call one feeling “love” and the other “trust.” (And how, exactly, did they do that by themselves? Were there no grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, etc.? Did Mark spend the first dozen years of his life with his parents, assorted teachers, and the TV?) I can accept that his upbringing allows him to function in normal society. It is much, much harder for me to accept that he can charm the White House Press Corps.

These issues set up Mark’s desire basically to be a superhero. He is fulfilled by using his powers to help other people, perhaps because he knows it’s right, but also because he sees that he can make people happy, instead of nervous, for a change. This is half of the Clark/Superman equation, with the other half being the need for a normal life. (That’s coming, don’t worry.) For now, Mark enjoys serving people, without much thought for how that could be abused. I suppose we can infer that his foster parents provide him with enough privacy and “down time,” but at the end of this issue they’re gone. This leaves the government/military (SP seems to treat them interchangeably) free to step in as a parental figure, and as we will see, that will end up backfiring on it completely.

I’m not really commenting on Nighthawk because he raises some sensitive issues about which I have no experience. He’s basically Batman with a racially-charged origin, but he goes entirely for the violence with none of the theatrics. To me this makes him less interesting visually than Batman, and more of a “street fighter” like Daredevil. There’s more with him coming up soon as well.

That’s pretty much it for these two issues. None of the Spectrum, Zarda, or Amphibian plots were advanced. Remember, it’s 1/3 of the way through the first year, and 2/3 through the first paperback, and the only plot which has formed so far concerns Hyperion’s journey of self-discovery.

And maybe the dead fish.

August 27, 2004

Supreme Power, Part 1

Filed under: supreme power — Tom Bondurant @ 8:07 pm
After spending a year with Supreme Power, I still don’t much like it. I didn’t really like it after the first issue, but wanted to give it a fair shot. 12 issues should be enough to attract and hold a reader, and I like to think I have an open mind.

Still, every time I’d get around to writing exactly how I feel about this series, I’d always get blocked. Therefore, I’m going through the existing 12 issues, 2 at a time, and giving them one last shot. I will honestly try to be fair.

Let’s get on with it, shall we…?

Cover of issue #1 features the child Mark Milton wrapped in an American flag, standing on a marble slab, glowering at the reader. It says to me now, as it did last summer, “this kid is controlled by the United States government, and he hates you.” Oh, the kid probably has superpowers; otherwise he’d just be a kid and you wouldn’t be scared — but this cover makes you feel like you should be scared of him. Ironically, as we’ll see, Mark neither wraps himself in the flag (other people do it for him) nor actively hates people without good reason.

Page 1: Mark’s rocket crashes as the “Kents” listen to “Cruel To Be Kind” on their pickup’s radio. (By the way, according to NickLowe.net, the album from which that song comes was released in 1979. We’ll later learn that Mark landed in 1977. I want to be a little picky about real-world facts, because the series is supposed to be set in the real world as much as possible.) Reference is made to Mark’s ship “singing” of its journey, and singing to Mark that he will never be alone. There are a few layers here — both the ship and the radio are singing; the “Kents” are going through some marital problems, and the song’s about handling a lover’s quarrel; and Mark’s “never being alone” will turn out to be a double-edged sword. He will never be alone, although he will want to be left alone.

“Cruel To Be Kind” also refers to the theme of the 1985 12-issue Squadron Supreme maxiseries, which showcased the characters from which these characters were based. The Squadron Supreme was the Marvel equivalent of DC’s Justice League, with analogues for Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, etc. In the SS maxiseries, following a tremendous battle with supervillains, the Squadron started rebuilding the global infrastructure and ended up becoming its de facto government. Because they were a little on the totalitarian side, but had good intentions, there were conflicts within the group and none of it really turned out well. Thus, “Cruel To Be Kind” is appropriate here.

Page 2: Splash page of Mark’s rocket crashing in front of the “Kent” pickup truck. The only dialogue is the radio singing “Got to be cruel to be kind.” I might have been willing to give the Stephen-King-esque use of song lyrics a pass on the first page, but having them emphasized on this page is too much. Unfortunately, that’s going to be the pattern from here on out. (Also, the indicia box covers the truck’s screeching tires as it swerves towards the ship; otherwise, the truck might have gotten a little more attention.)

Page 3: The “Kents” find Mark in the wreckage of his ship. He’s covered in chrome life-support equipment and looks like the bejeebus has been scared out of him. Contrast this with the happy, giggling Kal-El who emerges from the crater in Superman (1978).

Page 4: “Ma Kent” sees this as a miracle and a sign that their marriage will be healed. “Pa” isn’t so sure, looking at the chrome and green goo of the life support. Mark is happy to be out of the machinery. Don’t get used to the happiness, kiddo.

Page 5: A silent series showing the pickup driving away and black helicopters tracking it.

Page 6: Jackbooted government thugs show up at the “Kent” household. At this point the series could have really used an Elian Gonzales shout-out panel.

Page 7: Jimmy Carter gets briefed on Mark and orders that he be raised as a child of the United States. Oh, the irony that Jimmy, with the kindest public image of all our recent leaders, sentences Mark to a Truman Show adolescence! By the way, Mark sits on a marble table that looks like the same material from the cover. He is not wrapped in a flag here, though. Exposition briefs the President about Mark’s alien origins, his “skin density,” and his strength.

Page 8: More exposition, as Mark’s second set of foster parents (who I like to call the “Fa-Kents”) receive their mission. They are specifically warned not to get emotionally involved with each other or with anybody on the “outside.” In other words, 15-20 years without a romantic relationship with another person. (Isn’t that DC and Marvel’s target audience anyway? Thank you, I’m here all week.) I’m guessing that conjugal visits will involve lots of hookers and porn? Nice. Ma Fa-Kent still affectionately puts her hand on Pa’s. Careful, kids, no nookie!

Page 9: Yet more exposition on the government origins of how “Project Hyperion” and “Mark Milton” were named. One of this series’ obsessions is explaining how everything works. In a playroom, Mark gets fed a bottle on a stick by a woman dressed like Jane Goodall. Cut to Mark celebrating a birthday with the Fa-Kents behind barbed wire.

Pages 10-12: For his birthday, Mark gets Spot the puppy. The Fa-Kents both leave the room to get the rest of his presents, Spot starts yapping, Mark gets startled, and Spot gets fried with heat vision. Now, I don’t have kids myself, but isn’t the first rule of toddlers that you never leave them unattended? Especially kids you found in spacecraft who are super-strong and invulnerable? Of course, this traumatizes Mark. Is this why the series got the MAX treatment?

Page 13: Ma Fa-Kent is traumatized too, so Pa suggests they slip away from the cameras for a little backdoor action. Oh, that’s why SP got the MAX treatment.

Page 14: Next day, it’s a lot colder in the Fa-Kent household, as Ma tells Pa he’s not getting into her cabinets anymore. In the news, Pol Pot’s regime ends, and the Shah comes to the U.S. That means it’s January 1979.

Page 15: Mark grows up in front of the TV. From events I’m guessing this compresses about 9 years — the end of 1980 (Reagan elected; John Lennon dies) until June 1989 (Tiananmen Square). We see that Mark is home-schooled. Couple of potential errors in the 1989 scene — Mark refers to Chinese leadership as “Mousey Tung,” but Mao died in 1976; and there is a widescreen broadcast when commercial HDTV wouldn’t start for at least another 7 years. Probably a government channel anyway.

Pages 16-18: It’s 13 years after the rocket was found, so at least 1990. George H.W. Bush examines the rocket and the prism which powered it, and his naughty thoughts about a garter-belted scientist are manifested in the prism. Records from the rocket show it was escaping from a space battle. Bush wants to know who made the records, and what do they mean about Mark’s arrival?

Pages 19-20: Mark and Pa have a heart-to-heart. Mark wants assurance that Ma and Pa love each other. Mark describes his super-senses, says he knows about the guards, and reveals he can fly. Nothing can keep him in that house, but he will stay if he knows his parents love each other. He assures Pa “I love you just as much as you love me.” See, more irony!

Pages 21-2: Bush 41 tells us about the Doctrine of Unintended Consequences as a segue into the introduction of the Atlanta Blur. Blur’s sonic boom makes his neighbor think “there’s a storm coming.” Spooky.

Issue #2‘s cover features Joe Ledger, who we will later know as Dr. Spectrum, the Green Lantern analogue. His upraised fist shows off the power prism embedded in the top of his right hand. He wears a green-and-black quasi-military outfit which reminds me of the Silver Age Green Lantern costume. Ledger is staring intently at the glowing prism with a mixture of caution and awe.

Page 1: Synopsis of issue #1.

Pages 2-4: Mark fries a history book with heat vision. Mark and Pa have a talk about how Mark needs to meet other kids. Mark wants an opportunity to be trusted, because imagine what he’d be like if he didn’t work on his social skills. There is so much irony in this statement I could pick it up with a magnet.

Pages 5-6: Logistics of getting Mark to school involve using a tank for his “bus.” Mark shows that the tank won’t hold him. I have a feeling the tank bits are supposed to be funny, but even after one issue the mood has been so unrelentingly grim and solemn that it just comes across as more of the same.

Pages 7-11: Amphibian’s dad reveals the horrible secret of her birth, 14 years ago. Back then, Mom watched a shooting star streak overhead and dislodge a few smaller “streamers.” Later, she gave birth to a non-human child. (Mom wanted a boy, ironically enough.) Seeing the child, Mom drowns herself (singing “When You Wish Upon A Star”), but the baby’s fine. Dad goes into a mental institution.

Pages 12-13: The Richmonds are killed by racists, but their young son Kyle survives.

Pages 14-17: Joe Ledger receives the power prism and learns how to use it. It bonds to him, but he goes into a coma. He is a military assassin who considers himself like a “surgeon” or “doctor.”

Pages 18-19: A mother and son take food to a (presumably) aged, wrinkled crone who hasn’t been seen in a long time. They call her “the Princess.” After they leave, a wrinkled hand appears and announces “something is stirring.” MAX moment: full frontal female nudity in the wall art outside the Princess’ chamber.

Pages 20-22: Mark’s day at school; nobody likes him and the girls think he’s creepy. He sees and hears it all.

Page 23: Schoolday wrap-up with the Milton family. When they say they don’t know if there’s anyone else like Mark, we see shots of the other future Squadroners.

Comments

By the end of issue #2, we’ve seen the basic origins of those we will know as Hyperion, Nighthawk, Amphibian, Doctor Spectrum, the Blur, and Zarda/Power Princess. Most of these 45 pages are devoted to Mark/Hyperion. It is made abundantly clear to us that the government is doing a horrible job raising him. I used to think that Supreme Power was Marvel’s way of saying “Superman would be cool if we did him, because he would work for the government and he wouldn’t have that dopey secret identity with the glasses.” Now I’m not so sure.

I think SP tries to have it both ways – first, by saying “look how we’ve made Superman relevant by taking away Clark and the Kents”; and second, by saying “look how screwed up Superman would have been if he hadn’t been raised by the Kents.” Clark Kent has always been Superman’s way of hiding from the world, precisely so people like Mark’s one-time classmate won’t treat him like plutonium and screw up his worldview. In its twisted, bass-ackwards way, Supreme Power reinforces that.

SP also ties its other paranormal individuals to the arrival of Mark’s ship. This hearkens back to Watchmen, which used its lone superpowered character as a springboard for all the changes in its world. However, where Watchmen (and many other “real-world superhero” stories) started with the changes and used flashbacks to show how they were made, Supreme Power shows the progression in a more linear way. It also devotes paragraphs of expository dialogue to its characters’ details.

In the mid-to-late 1980s, Watchmen, The Dark Knight, and Squadron Supreme all showed superheroes as tools of the government. (Of course, in SS, they were the government.) This ushered in a whole slew of “realistic” takes on superheroes, many of which involved secret government and/or corporate projects from which the heroes escaped. (John Byrne’s Next Men, DNAgents, Gen13, The Liberty Project, and even Watchmen‘s Dr. Manhattan himself are all examples of this.) Supreme Power hardly breaks new ground to suggest that Supes/Hyperion could have been part of such a project. The extent to which it explains his early years comes across as overcompensating.

In other words, I’m not convinced that Supreme Power believes in its story or its characters enough to let them stand on their own. It invests so much time, energy, and dialogue in making sure everything is plausible that it sucks all the joy out of what made these characters popular in the first place. Heck, none of the characters seems to be having much fun except the Blur, and we barely get to know him in these two issues.

So where do we stand at the end of issue #2? Mark’s an alienated teen with an uncertain past, but he has four potential colleagues waiting to be introduced to him. Ominous portents surround all of them. There is no joy in Mudville. Did I mention there was a storm a-comin’?

Credits:

Written by J. Michael Straczynski, pencilled by Gary Frank, inked by John Sibal, and edited by Mike Raicht and Nick Lowe (probably not the same one).

August 19, 2004

Recent Releases Reviews Roundup, 8/18/04 Edition

Filed under: astro city, batman, birds of prey, fantastic four, robin, superman, supreme power, weekly roundups — Tom Bondurant @ 8:00 pm
More good stuff than not. This week the good stuff gets mentioned first.

I really liked DC Comics Presents The Atom. Its two standout stories share a title, “Ride A Deadly Grenade!” The first recycles the familiar-if-not-cliched “put Julie Schwartz in the story” gimmick, but it’s still madcap fun, especially in the way Julie’s friends accept and even trust his crazy ideas. The second seems to channel the spirit of Schwartz’s heyday, using his off-the-wall ideas as springboards for actual crimes. It has much the same wacky spirit as the first story, making for a great read.

Fantastic Four #517 ties into the big Avengers “Disassembled” event mostly by showing us that with the Avengers gone, the FF will have to be trustworthy enough to satisfy the people of New York. While the thrust of the issue is to rehabilitate the FF’s public image (destroyed after Reed invaded Latveria), as a practical matter it doesn’t make sense. Someone’s stealing Manhattan Island, so naturally they’ll try to stop it without waiting for the Mayor to light the “4″ flare. (I didn’t even know he had a flare. When did he go to Commissioner Gordon school?) It doesn’t make much difference anyway. There’s still plenty of fun and adventure, and even some Halloween shenanigans. I hesitate to call this Waid and ‘Ringo’s triumphant return, since Waid didn’t go anywhere and the past few issues weren’t that bad, but together they really work some magic here.

Speaking of crossovers, “War Games” rolls on this week in the Batman books. In Gotham Knights, a Russian mob boss allies herself with an African-American mob boss against the gang led by Bat-villain Scarface. However, before I have time to worry about what this means, there’s a double-cross and Scarface ends up joining one side. Hush meets with the Mystery Villain, which is ironic, because he used to be an M.V. himself. Prometheus is back as Hush’s bodyguard. Penguin has also amassed a handful of C- and D-list supervillains to offer as bodyguards to the other imperiled mob bosses, but they’re not buying. On one semi-ridiculous page, the mobsters take turns saying one sentence. What, no Mad Libs? Meanwhile, Batgirl conveys Batman’s message to Tarantula that her hoods should join up with Orpheus’.

The sheer number of characters – not counting the unnamed cannon-fodder crooks – is already becoming unwieldy. Even Crisis on Infinite Earths had its limits. So far there’s Batman, Oracle, Batgirl, Spoiler, Catwoman, Nightwing, Tarantula, Orpheus, Onyx, and Tim Drake for the good guys. Bad guys include Penguin, Hush, Deadshot, Scarface, and Prometheus. Penguin’s stable of super-goons – none of whom get lines in this issue, and I’m omitting some because I don’t know who they are – include Electrocutioner, Firefly, Trickster, and that eyepatched girl from the Ghost Dragons. Add in the mobsters, who you’ve seen I can only distinguish by ethnicity, and with all the fights and team-ups I am really starting to miss the omniscient narrator.

You know, Teen Titans opens every issue with little head shots of the main characters and a couple of sentences about who they are, and for the most part we already know. These crossovers are designed to get us to read books we wouldn’t otherwise read? How about filling us in on what’s been going on so we feel more comfortable reading the frickin’ thing?

Ahem.

Story continues in Robin #129, which is actually a pretty tight tale about the non-costumed Tim protecting a mobster’s daughter. Secret identity concerns take a back seat, probably because Tim doesn’t think he has a Robin identity anymore. The cynical part of me says that this will be a big part of Tim resuming the role once “War Games” is over. He can tell his worrywart dad that there is violence everywhere, and he can be more effective as yadda yadda yadda. Tim is hyper-capable here, but his actions weren’t really far-fetched when I considered this was the same kid who’s had adventures all over the place with Young Justice and the Titans. This issue’s art team also told a better story than Damion Scott has. (It helps that the action all takes place in daylight.) They gave Tim dark circles around his eyes which in some shots looked like the Robin mask. Other than that there’s not a costume in the entire issue.

Batgirl #55 shows her journey across town to meet up with Batman at the school. Along the way she runs into Spoiler and urges her to go home, but probably nothing doing. I have a feeling that this issue is meant to be contemporaneous with the Robin one, so other than everyone being in place, the plot isn’t really advanced.

This week in “War Games” has inspired a couple of ghoulish thoughts. First, I get the feeling that the whole thing is an editorial plan to pare down the number of Gotham mobs and make the books that much simpler. I’m all for that. Second, it was advertised that serious harm (if not death) would come to one of the Bat-heroes. The cynic in me observes that

— Orpheus, Onyx, and Tarantula don’t have their own comics,
— DC won’t kill another Robin, even a former Robin, and
— Tarantula has sinned by corrupting Nightwing.

Doesn’t look good for the femme fatale from Bludhaven.

Over in Birds of Prey, Huntress and Vixen try to escape the cult compound, Oracle learns that her computer’s been invaded by an unexpected cyber-adversary who looks to have seen Demon Seed one too many times, and Black Canary tries to stop suicidal teens in super-costumes. This title is no stranger to wild adventure, and its heroines have faced Apokoliptian hordes and prehistoric beasts, but this issue seems to have taken that left turn into “Whaaa…?” territory. When I say the cyber-foe is “unexpected,” I mean in the sense of “Where the hell did we get this?” There are two installments left in the current story, and it still makes a certain kind of sense, but it doesn’t look as good anymore.

Adventures of Superman follows two tracks – Lois in “Iraq” (called Umec so DC’s lawyers can breathe more easily) and Superman finishing up his fight against Ruin and Ruin’s lackey. Different pencillers handle the two threads, although I’m not quite sure why. Lois’ story is objectively harrowing, but familiar to anyone who’s seen enough war movies. Given her particular situation, it was almost a Freudian slip for the Superman panel at San Diego to point out “we all know Lois isn’t going to die.” This is the second straight issue in which Rucka has underwhelmed me, and it’s starting to get disappointing. There is a hint that Ruin’s plan ties into events over in Superman, so that’s something positive; and Clark’s art is good as ever.

This week‘s Astro City special features “Supersonic.” I’ve followed most of Astro City but can’t remember if I’ve seen this guy before. Certainly he hasn’t been spotlighted like he was in this issue. He seems like a cross between the Silver Age Flash and Green Lantern. The special offers a a bittersweet contrast between his glory days, now decades ago, and the present, when he has to stop a giant robot from killing an entire suburb. Just about anything Astro City-related is worthwhile, and this is no exception.

In a perfect world, Supreme Power #12 would actually wrap up a year’s worth of storylines and subplots – but why should this issue be any different from the others? Hyperion is still pissed off at the government for manipulating him, just like he was 5 months ago. Nighthawk and Blur are on an actual case which is nowhere close to being solved, since it was just introduced last issue. Zarda goes on a lethal shopping spree which will probably catch Nighthawk’s attention about 3 issues from now. Dr. Spectrum makes a connection with the scientist supervising him, and Amphibian makes a fairly meaningless cameo. The Dr. Spectrum miniseries also premiered this week, but I’m not getting snookered by it on a monthly basis. If this book is going to be produced for the paperback, then on the slim chance I decide to read any more of it, that’s how I’ll do it. (And even that is suspect. It’s one thing to end arcs on quasi-cliffhangers filled with ominous portent; but it’s another to do it every six months without actually resolving anything.) These characters aren’t nearly compelling enough for me to follow their sordid exploits at such a paint-drying pace.

Credits:

DC Comics Presents The Atom. Story #1 written by Dave Gibbons, pencilled by Pat Oliffe, and inked by Livesay. Story #2 written by Mark Waid, pencilled by Dan Jurgens, and inked by Jon Bogdanove. Edited by Eddie Berganza.

Fantastic Four #517. Written by Mark Waid, pencilled by Mike Wieringo, inked by Karl Kesel, edited by Tom Brevoort.

Batman: Gotham Knights #56. Written by A.J. Lieberman, pencilled by Al Barrionuevo, inked by Francis Portella, edited by Matt Idelson.

Robin #129. Written by Bill Willingham, pencilled by Giuseppe Camuncoli, inked by Lorenzo Ruggiero, edited by Michael Wright.
Batgirl # 55. Written by Dylan Horrocks, drawn by Sean Phillips, edited by Michael Wright.

Birds of Prey #72. Written by Gail Simone, pencilled by Ron Adrian, inked by Rob Lea, edited by Joan Hilty.

Adventures of Superman #631. Written by Greg Rucka, pencilled by Matthew Clark and Renado Guedes, inked by Andy Lanning, edited by Eddie Berganza.

Astro City Special: Supersonic #1. Written by Kurt Busiek, drawn by Brent Anderson, edited by Ben Abernathy.

Supreme Power #12. Written by J. Michael Straczynski, pencilled by Gary Frank, inked by Jon Sibal, edited by Nick Lowe.

July 14, 2004

Last week’s comics

Kind of a light week last week. I’m writing these from memory too, so you might see some editing after a while.

Birds of Prey #69: Written by Gail Simone and drawn by Ed Benes. Murders, a cult, and the costumes of dead superheroes combine for the first part of a storyline spotlighting Huntress. Since she has to go undercover at said cult, there is a certain “Charlie’s Angels” feel to some of the scenes, especially when she gets hassled by the local sheriff’s department. The book has just come off a multi-part odyssey through Black Canary’s martial-arts past, which was entertaining but hard to remember from month to month. This looks like a good change of pace. The cliffhanger ending is effective, if not unexpected.

DC Comics Presents Batman: The first of DC’s Julius Schwartz tribute books takes its cue from Batman slacking off to watch TV. The book has two stories with TV themes. The first, written by Geoff Johns with art by Carmine Infantino (the artist who redesigned Batman for Schwartz in the ’60s), involves a murder on the set of a “Batman” TV show, with the real Dynamic Duo getting involved. The twist ending is clever enough, but I know I have seen something similar on the recent Batman animated series. The second, written by Len Wein, is a little more satirical, and more fun. Someone’s been taping Batman and Robin and editing the bits together into a reality TV show. This story ends on a fairly trite note, but it gets points with me for satirizing both the “reality” genre and the editorial notion that Batman is a Bigfoot-like “urban legend.” Both stories are unusual for today in that they feature Batman and Robin working together, so that was a nice plus too.

Detective Comics #796: Speaking of Batman and Robin, here’s the newest Robin, Stephanie Brown, making a special appearance outside her own comic. Anderson Gabrych wrote and Pete Woods drew this story about the Dynamic Duo tracking an incredibly dangerous serial killer, Mr. Zsasz, who carves a notch in his own body for each life he takes. The story is rendered in two styles, with a “watercolor” effect used for Zsasz’s point of view. There is nothing groundbreaking about the story — Batman doesn’t want Robin around when he tracks down Zsasz, because she’s never encountered him before and might get killed. You can probably guess what happens. Predictability aside, I liked the interaction between Batman and Robin better here than in the Robin book. However, Pete Woods’ take on Stephanie makes her look quite different than Damion Scott’s art in Robin, and despite Scott’s heavily stylized take, I’m not sure which I prefer. (Woods did draw Robin for a while, so it’s not like he’s new to Stephanie.)

Firestorm #3: Written by Dan Jolley, pencilled by ChrisCross. For those who might not remember, as originally conceived Firestorm was the union of a teenager and a nuclear physicist. The teenager’s body controlled Firestorm, and the physicist provided unseen “backseat driver” commentary. The new Firestorm series has so far shown readers the new Firestorm’s sudden discovery of his powers, and the “fusion” he achieves with a second person. In this issue the “backseat driver” is our hero’s antagonist, who’s not so much a part of Firestorm as he is trapped inside Firestorm’s head. The drama comes from needing to find a way to separate the two people before the “backseat driver” is killed. I didn’t expect the outcome, but I did want more closure, since this is the end of the first arc. The most I got was the notion that Stormy’s new secret identity will use his powers to escape his unquestionably bad life. (Peter Parker has it 10 times better than this kid!) Next issue, Firestorm gets visited by the Justice League, who remember the old guy and don’t know who the new one is.

Captain America and the Falcon — Madbomb: Jack Kirby co-created much of the early Marvel comics (the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, the X-Men, the Avengers, etc.) in the early ’60s, but ended up leaving Marvel very publicly in 1970 to go to rival DC. There he created the groundbreaking “Fourth World” series and gave DC one of its most enduring villains, Darkseid the Destroyer. Kirby returned to Marvel in the mid-’70s, where he worked on various esoteric projects like Devil Dinosaur and a comics adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey. He also wrote and drew Captain America, a character he co-created with Joe Simon in 1941. Cap had fought in World War II but then was frozen in an iceberg at the end of the war, and thawed out by the Avengers some 20 years later.

I was excited to read Madbomb for a couple of reasons: because its first cover was all over Marvel’s Trapper Keepers when I was in elementary school; and because I was expecting mind-blowing Kirby action taking up where the Fourth World had left off. Well, compared to his epics, Madbomb is a pretty ordinary story. Basically, a group that wants to roll back democracy has developed a mind-control device which causes riots, and they’ll set off their “Big Daddy” bomb on July 4, 1976. It’s mostly action without a lot of the social commentary Kirby had put into his earlier work. Considering that DC had just gotten a lot of attention in Green Lantern with a couple of superheroes traveling across America and righting social injustices, this is doubly surprising. The African-American Falcon makes a few ironic remarks about being descended from slaves, and the villains dress like George III, but other than that, and Cap’s romantic interlude with a terminally ill woman, not a lot of thinking getting in the way of the action. Still, it is Kirby, which means the action is very well done. I know Kirby did more Cap in the ’70s, and from what I remember it was a little freakier than this.

Fantastic Four #515: This is the second part of what looks like a three-part storyline featuring the new Frightful Four. As with Madbomb, there’s a lot less going on here than in other storylines, but it’s still reasonably well-done. Basically, a villain called the Wizard occasionally assembles a group of three other super-villains to take out the Fantastic Four. Here he’s enlisted his daughter to infiltrate the Fantastic Four by seducing Johnny Storm, the Human Torch. I continue to be confused by the daughter’s role, and the Wizard’s insistence on having exactly four members in his group, but it does provide a plot point about midway through the issue. FF alum Karl Kesel helps out regular writer Mark Waid here, and regular penciller Mike Wieringo is on vacation, so these feel like fill-in issues — but, as I say, reasonably good fill-ins.

Supreme Power #11: This installment of Marvel’s “mature” take on familiar characters centers on Zarda, a beautiful naked woman, explaining to Superman-analogue Hyperion their shared history. The short answer: they’re supposed to take over the world. Doctor Spectrum (think Green Lantern), still working for the U.S. military, continues to look for Hyperion, aided by the power prism which has a mysterious connection to Hype. Meanwhile, Nighthawk (i.e., Batman) enlists the Blur (the Flash) to help him track down a serial killer.

Since we’re at issue #11, and the book goes on hiatus after #12, it’s more than a little frustrating to feel like writer J. Michael Strazcynski is still setting things up. A lot could happen in #12, but given the pace of the book so far, I doubt it. Zarda, originally conceived as the Wonder Woman-analogue, is defined here by three qualities: naked, beautiful, and evil. Not the best combination for someone whose model is a feminist icon.

Back in a few hours with this week’s books, fresh from the shop!

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