Saturday, July 10, 2010

If 2007's Uncle Sam and The Freedom Fighters isn't the worst comic I've ever read, it's only because it was so bad I couldn't read it.

As discussed at (far too great) length in yesterday’s interminable post on the subject, DC’s 2006 eight-issue miniseries Uncle Sam and The Freedom Fighters was followed in 2007 by another eight-issues miniseries with the exact same title and logo. (I feel sorry for anyone trying to collect those series from back issue bins in the future!).

The collection of the 2007 series at least got a sub-title to help differentiate it from the previous series: Uncle Sam and The Freedom Fighters: Brave New World (DC Comics).

Despite not really liking the trade collection of the first series, I had somewhat higher hopes for this second one, because a) it had a different artist, with Renato Arlem taking over for Daniel Acuna and b) the characters were all introduced and/or reintroduced and their status quo and mission statement re-established, which would theoretically eliminate the existential crisis I felt emanating from the pages of the first series.

Oh, and c) the cover is awesome. It’s by Dave Johnson, who drew Uncle Sam cradling a tattered U.S. flag in the same pose and making the same expression as Superman holding the dead body of his cousin Supergirl.I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be hilarious or not, but I was incredibly amused by the implication that Uncle Sam loves every single random American flag as if it was a close relative of his, and makes an anguished Crying Superman face whenever he sees one damaged.

As it turned out, I should have lowered my expectations rather than raised them. Because you see not only is this second series actually worse than the first, it is the worst comic book series ever published.

Okay, maybe that’s not fair. Admittedly, I can be a bit hyperbolic about superhero comics here (although, in my defense, the superhero genre was founded, sustained and sold on the basis of hyperbole) and, yes, I know I’ve said other comics were the worst comics ever before, perhaps most notably Ultimates 3, which I devoted a week of blogging to covering.

But here’s the thing—as terrible a comic book series as Ultimates 3 was, I was able to at least read it. I could make it through every single panel of the thing, look at all the images and make sense of them, read every single word.

I just could not do that with this book. It wasn’t simply a lack of desire. I tried about a half-dozen times, and made it maybe 40 pages in. I would pick it up and read a panel or three at a time later. As I said before, I liked the characters, I had no specific objections to writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray, and the plot did seem sort of awesome—a mind-controlled and newly empowered Red Bee II is the main antagonist, there’s an empire of giant super space-bugs invading earth, Neon The Unknown’s in it…but, man, I could not make myself do it.

I know I had the ability to read the book, but it required a lot of willpower, a lot of effort and it was just incredibly unpleasant. See, artist Renato Arlem—who apparently did all of the art, as no one else gets an artist credit, not even a colorist—didn’t draw the comic so much as assemble it.

The background and props—every single one of them—looks like a photo ran through a filter to make it look slightly less photo-y. True, the characters look drawn, and are cut-and-pasted over the backgrounds, but Arlem doesn’t draw them very often, and uses the exact same drawings of the exact same characters over and over again.

I’ll get to some examples, but this series looks more like a work of photo collage than drawing. True, Arlem likely created the raw material for a great deal of that collage work, but I found it just this side of unreadable.

Let me show you what I mean.

Here’s the first panel of page 10 of the first issue:Happy Terrill, the Golden Age Ray, and Uncle Sam are talking in Arlington Cemetery. Since this panel contains the characters in the background, it seemed like a good example of how Arlem handles the settings in the book.

They all look like that.

Aside from the fact that this is the diametrically opposed to what I like to see in a comic book, it’s worth noting that it’s also not very good storytelling.

Note The Ray II in the right hand corner—he’s kind of hard to see as he’s wearing black and he’s posed over a black background—long-jumping in from off-panel. See also all the little white, abstracted bird shapes frozen in mid-flight. The image represents one single moment in time—the time between the flaps of a bird’s wings—and yet three different people speak a sentence of dialogue in it.

In short, the script and the image just don’t match up. This is a little like one of those long-winded speeches that Captain America would give while jumping up in the air and kicking two Hydra agents in the face simultaneously—only we’re 45 years on, comics aren’t just for kids any more (Biff! Bam! Pow!) and everybody presumably knows better.

It’s on page 12 where Arlem’s habit of recycling art on the same page and even in consecutive panels became apparent, and, once I noticed it, I couldn’t stop noticing it. Check out The Human Bomb in panels two and four. Dr. Mid-Nite in three and four. Blond guy in three, four and six.

Arlem does this throughout, and it’s crazy annoying.

In issue two, a guy who looks like Tony Stark meets with Stormy “Phantom Lady III” Knight, who is in this series portrayed as a Lindsay Lohan-like celebrity in downard spiral.Tony Stark appears on the page four times, but is only drawn twice. Stormy appears four times as well, and is likewise drawn twice—and one of those drawings slightly altered to give her a third pose. The first four panels aren’t drawn so much as cropped.

Two pages later, Tony Stark meets with the president on a five-panel page which opens with a Gary Trudeau-like shot of the White House with a dialogue bubble pointing to it (although here it’s a photo of the White House, not a drawing of it), and three of the four panels consist of differently cropped versions of the same image.

And one page after that, we get this, in which Stormy appears in five consecutive panels, but is only drawn twice.Notice the PR lady—who may actually be Miss America; Arlem doesn’t do so hot at distinguishing characters either—in the first few panels.

Her image was simply flip-flopped but, in addition to that, she apparently ran across the roof and re-folded her arms between the panels. That’s…kind of unnatural behavior for a conversation, right?

I could go on and on, as Arlem does this throughout the book, but I’ll stop with examples from the second issue of the series, as that’s as far as I could stand to read.

Near the climax of the issue, a quartet of super-people calling themselves The Futurist Militia is found posing in front of a photo of “CIA headquarters, Washington, D.C.” (Weird; Hollywood told me they were headquartered in Langley, Virginia).Again, the story telling is wonky. Between the first and second panel, the three characters not named Thunderer apparently run away real fast, Thunderer takes several steps back to be closer to the C.I.A. seal, all thos soldiers run in, and then he does the action we see in that second panel, before returning to the same pose he was in in the first panel (although now the building is a different building).

Also, TV news cameras are shooting bullets out of their lenses at him. Pwee! Pwee!

The reason I chose this page of the many other awful pages in the book is that it contains that lady in the weird bikini and veil combo, striking a rather odd, rather particular pose.

As we’ll soon learn, her name is Seducer and her superpower is a “seductive glare” which “none can escape.”

She only appears in this one seven page scene in which The Futurist Militia appears demanding to fight the Freedom Fighters, a fight that lasts until a drunk Phantom Lady shows up and cuts one of them in half.

Aside from her one-panel appearance on the page above, here is every single image of Seducer:

That's it. She was apparently drawn exactly once, and then ever so slightly modified from panel to panel—flip-flopped, one of her limbs moved a tiny bit.

It was at this point that I realized Arlem was basically ding something akin to what the old Space Ghost Coast to Coast show on Cartoon Network did, recycling the same three or four poses of a few different characters and occasionally slightly altering them.

That was done for comedic effect though, and the producers drew attention to it and played it up, packing in lots of awkward silences.

The comics equivalent is probably Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics or David Rees’ Get Your War On and other clip art-derived comic strips.

Although, again, both of those use the obviously repeating, completely static images for comic effect; Arlem and DC seem to by trying to tell a serious (well, superhero serious) action adventure story using a similar application of the technique.

I found myself half-expecting Utahraptor to appear in a panel, or the Freedom Fighters to start swearing about the Iraq War and Bush Administration in red font.

If Palmiotti and Gray were filling Phantom Lady and Guy Who Looks Like Tony Stark’s mouths with North or Rees level jokers, then I suppose this way of building a comic book might actually work. Because those strips, and others that take similar approaches to their art work, have lasted because the writing is so good that it makes up for the fact that there’s very little to the art and the fact that it is quite clearly being lazily re-used on purpose.

But I don’t think Palmiotti and Gray told any jokes in this series…certainly not in the two issues I read all the way through. The plot seemed to involve the aforementioned alien bug army invasion, with spaced devoted to the FF wrestling with issues of superhero registration similar to those in Marvel’s Civil War and some exploration of the superhero-as-celebrity ideas explored in Marvel’s X-Force/X-Statix.

It looks like some potentially awesome stuff happens later in the book, but none of it actually looks awesome. It looks like Arlem moving his clip-art around photos, while the writing does all the story-telling.

And any comic book—but especially a superhero comic book full of primary colored, Golden Aged superheroes with fantastic powers—that leaves it to the dialogue to tell the story is pretty much a failure as a comic book.

Looking for a positive angle on the fact that DC apparently solicited, paid for, published and was proud enough to re-publish this as a trade paperback collection, the best I can do is think it was meant as an experiment, and DC, Arlem and all involved are proud of the fact that they tried a new and different way to tell a comic book story.

If that’s the case, well, the experiment was a complete and total failure. So there’s no need to ever try it again.


Oh wait, I do have something positive to say about the book: Johnson’s covers are all fairly top-notch. Here’s his cover for the first issue—
—and you can see the rest here.


Intruder_W said...

On the subject of alien invasions and Uncle Sam's love of the flag, the one good part of DC Challenge was the invaders set a flag on fire, which Uncle Sam stepped out of, and began punching out aliens.

(Since we're talking bad comics, I don't feel bad bringing up the DC Challenge.)

Anonymous said...

"But here’s the thing—as terrible a comic book series as Ultimates 3 was, I was able to at least read it."

That's because Jeph Loeb writes for five-year-olds, relying heavily on splash pages, pulling one-liners from various Hollywood films and contributing very little thought of his own. They're easy to read because there's nothing to "get" whatsoever.

As for who Palmiotti and Gray are writing for, I have no idea.

Johnny B said...

I liked the first series more than you, but like you I couldn't finish the second. I think I made it 3 issues, and it was the art that broke the deal for me.

John Foley said...

Renato Arlem's artwork is essentially ColorForms.

Travis said...

I can read a story I enjoy and get over bad art, than read a bad story with great art. I made it through this series, and while it didn't leave me with any lasting impression, I thought it was okay at the time.

jrp001 said...

I really really want to disagree with ya... but I can't really make a convincing argument, other than 'I liked it.'

and I did.

I was raised on superfriends and started with comics post COIE. I missed all the crazy JLA/JSA, young all stars, etc.

I never understood hero groups like the freedom fights, seven soldiers, etc.. they weren't "logical" like the Justice League.

So I was quite surprised to find that I enjoyed stories about Sam and dollman and ray!

Now... Battle for Bludhaven... that's comic that is all sorts of awesome for all sorts of really really really wrong reasons...