Friday, July 09, 2010

Waaaaaaay too many words about 2006 comic book series Uncle Sam and The Freedom Fighters

I really like the Freedom Fighters characters from afar—code names, costumes, powers, potential, they all seem like very sturdy, very promising superheroes of the sort many Golden Age also-rans were.

Sure, Uncle Sam and The Ray were never going to be Superman and Batman, but if circumstances were different, maybe they would have been Green Lantern or The Flash, you know?

A great deal of my affection for the characters, of course, no doubt has to do with the fact that, with few exceptions, I’ve only seen them from afar. I can count the number of Doll Man stories I’ve actually read on one hand, but the covers and illustrations I’ve seen suggest countless cool, beautifully-illustrated stories. (Like the Golden Age Daredevil and, I don’t know, Green Giant, the Freedom Fighter characters always fascinated me because they dwell, for the most part, in my imagination, and I just didn’t have enough access to their original adventures for reality to spoil them for me).

Of course, the characters have been part of the architecture for the DC Universe for a while, and so I have encountered them over and over over the years—a back issue of their seventies title here, flashbacks there—so they don’t belong wholly to my imagination like some Golden Age superheroes do, but they nevertheless have an aspect to them.

I started reading superhero comics in the early nineties, and thus met the former Quality comics heroes through covers in Overstreet price guides and comic book histories borrowed from libraries and through legacy versions.

In 1992, DC introduced a new, teenage Ray in a six-issue miniseries by Jack Harris and up-and-coming artist Joe Quesada (I wonder whatever happened to that kid?), followed by an underrated ongoing series written by Christopher Priest and originally drawn by Howard Porter.

That same year Brian Augustyn and Rags Morales launched a short-lived monthly with a new, more rugged version of The Black Condor.

In 1996 John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake reintroduced Uncle Sam in an arc of their also underrated series The Spectre, giving the character a make-over that wouldn’t quite take, but paving the way for later appearances anyway. And in 1997, writer Steve Darnell and Alex Ross created a two-part Vertigo series entitled U.S. starring the character; it was and remains Ross’ most serious and literate work (i.e. it’s about something other than straight superhero nostalgia).

These were all pretty good comics, and I’d recommend all of them to anyone looking for decent superhero comics from that decade (The Ray’s art wasn’t always top-notch, but Priest’s scripting always carried the book; and if Black Condor wasn’t the greatest comic in the world, hey, Rags Morales).

Writer Geoff Johns had the bright idea of gathering up the Freedom Fighters—surviving members and legacy version—and using them as a unit. In 2001 special JSA: Our Worlds at War, Johns had the JSA lead a strike force consisting of every surviving or legacy member of the DCU’s Golden Age on a daring space mission, and the FF characters were one of the teams that split up from the main one.

Later in his JSA, Johns made them an official team, with Uncle Sam looking like and answering to the name Uncle Sam again (He was going by “Patriot” for a bit), working for the U.S. government.

And when they next appeared, it was in 2006’s Infinite Crisis #1, wherein Johns had the villain collective The Society kill (Phantom Lady, Black Condor, Human Bomb), disfigure (Damage) or simply severely beat (Uncle Sam, The Ray) them.

The Freedom Fighters would next appear in a six-issue miniseries entitled Infinite Crisis Aftermath: The Battle For Bludhaven, which apparently dealt with a plot point from IC, although just looking at the covers, the first time a Freedom Fighter who is recognizable shows up on a cover is on the sixth one, where a Phantom Lady is one of the 11 superheroes pictured on the cover.

That series was written by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti and, as would eventually become apparent, would bridge certain plot points from Johns’ Infinite Crisis to Grant Morrison’s Final Crisis, while including aspects of Morrison’s Seven Soldiers and a wide variety of characters including new versions of The Freedom Fighter characters and The Atomic Knights.

Based on the title, it seemed to be about an event and setting more than a character, group of characters or story. Based on the covers, it was a Teen Titans/Hal Jordan/Nightwing team-up against bad guys from Ostrander’s old eighties Suicide Squad series.

It was apparently the launch of the new Freedom Fighters though, so perhaps it would have benefited from being called Freedom Fighters: The Battle for Bludhaven or Infinite Crisis Aftermath: The Freedom Fighters or something…? (I still haven’t read this; I didn’t know I would need to until I was about half way through a trade collection of Uncle Sam and The Freedom Fighters and realized I was missing a lot of information).

An eight-issue miniseries featuring the characters entitled Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters got it’s unofficial start 2006’s DCU: Brave New World special, a $1, 80-page special that served as a preview of a bunch of post-Infinite Crisis projects that would all come to naught (“New look” Martian Manhunter, the Steve Niles-written Creeper reboot, Judd Winick’s troubled recreation of the Marvel Family, an OMAC series and the Gail Simone-written All-New Atom featuring the recently killed-off Ryan Choi).

Having a great deal of affection for the characters and having no strong objections to the creators (writers Palmiotti and Gray, a reliable team that’s never really reached must-read status in my esteem, but likewise had never been so consistently bad that I would ever avoid them, and Daniel Acuna, whose art I didn’t care for but didn’t completely hate yet), I tried reading the miniseries in monthly installments.

I remember the precise scene at which I gave up on the comic, although not the exact issue (#2 or #3, I think); it was a scene where the disgraced Freedom Fighters are on the run from Father Time’s Super Human Advanced Defense Executive (SHADE), and they meet a bunch of bad guys whose names were apparently just words with negative connotations randomly picked out of the opinion page of a daily newspaper—super-speedster Spin Doctor, fore field-generator Embargo, psychic Propaganda, and so on.

That was the “ugh” moment for me where I realized that not only was I not really enjoying the book, but it seemed to be getting awfully stupid, and why was I reading 22 pages of something I didn’t care for for $3 a month when I could just read the whole thing for free in a few months from a library?

Of course, the Columbus Metropolitan Library never acquired it for their collection, so I went a few years without reading it after all. I never felt like I missed anything.

And that, my patient, patient readers, is my history with Uncle Sam and Freedom Fighters up until earlier this summer, when I managed to track down collections of both of the Palmiotti and Gray written miniseries in trade paperback from Ohio libraries.

After a few attempts, I finally made it all the way through the first trade intending to review it for Every Day Is Like Wednesday, but it was an extremely weird experience. I didn’t much care for the book, but I didn’t much care for it in an unusual way. I didn’t like it, but I also felt like maybe I didn’t get it either, or like it was a book I was so clearly not part of the intended audience of that it wasn’t even possible for me to read and evaluate it (I’ve felt that way about some ‘90s X-Men trades borrowed from libraries in the past).

I stewed over what to do about it for a while, re-reading sections and going over the art repeatedly for a few weeks. Should I review it? Should I just write about how I didn’t even want to review it, and let that stated lack of desire stand in as a review? Should I just ignore it, since it’s not like I’m not obligated to talk about every single comic book I read on my blog? Should I have “The Red Bee" review it for me?

As you can see, I apparently decided to just start typing some long-ass introduction about my personal relationship with the characters who make up the Freedom Fighters.

No, actually, I was planning on simply acknowledging the weirdness of my reaction to the book, the fact that I found it very off-putting and hard to read, but was also having difficulty articulating why in a cogent fashion (or at least as cogent as I normally get here when complaining about comics I don’t like, I guess), and then maybe just list some of the things about the book I didn’t like in terms of broad categories.

So let’s do that…


1.) I don’t like Daniel Acuna’s artwork. I actually had this out from the library so long wondering what to do about it that it was terribly overdue and I had to return it before I started typing this long, rambling post so, sorry, I don’t have the ability to offer man (any?) images to illustrate anything I saw about Acuna’s art.

But I don’t really like it.

I’m more familiar with Acuna’s work from covers than from interiors—other than the Uncle Sam stuff, I think the Star Sapphire lead stories from Green Lantern #18-#20 are the only interiors of his I’ve seen—but random covers can give you a pretty good idea of his style.

It looks…un-comicbook-y, as if it were painted, but not with a computer or an airbrush wand rather than with a paintbrush. I may just be old and cranky, but I have a really hard time reading comics that don’t at least look like paper, ink and a pen or brush were involved at some point.

I’m well aware that it’s a personal aesthetic bias of mine, and that something drawn with pen and paper the way Jack Kirby used to do it isn’t automatically, inherently better—or of greater value, I suppose—than something created on a computer the way Freddie Williams does it. But I like it the one way, and not the other.

I think doing it with computers or however Acuna does what he does exactly more often than not leads to unappealing work though, and allows artists to be lazy enough that the laziness shows through, and can distract the reader. “Acting” is also much more difficult when work is too closely referenced.

Not that Acuna was necessarily lazy or overly reliant on photo reference in the creation of this book; I’m just speaking in general terms here. My main objection to Acuna’s work here is simply that I don’t like the style; the photorealistic, painted-looking coloring effects on fairly two-dimensional-looking figures gives the world he creates a sickly, waxy look. It seems wrong and unnatural to me, and my impulse is to look away, not look at the next panel.

Acuna’s not a great character actor, which lead to too many emotional exchanges seeming overly broad, the difference between soap opera actors and accomplished theater actors.

There are some other problems with the visuals as well. I don’t think the coloring was very good, and a lot of scenes in which good guys in dark costumes confronted bad guys in dark costumes in dark places looked murky and hard to read.

And then there were the designs, but I don’t know that we can heap all of that on Acuna—this incarnation of the Freedom Fighters was based on Grant Morrison’s notes for an FF revival, and chances are he also provided some sketches. Additionally, the simple fact that the characters were changing—in some cases radically—necessitated particular sorts of character designs.

For example, if the new Doll Man was going to be more of a G.I. Joe-like action figure, then naturally he’d have to wear a more G.I. Joe-like action figure costume than this——and that meant clothing him in a generic version of some military gear. But let’s give character design its own number bolded header thingee.

2.) Many of the character designs are not very good. And, given the fact that about 90% of a superheroes personality are defined by the clothes they are wearing, that is pretty bad news.

There seemed to be a conscious effort to make the costumes both more up to date and more “realistic.” Which, in superhero comics, usually means to make them look more like something Bryan Hitch might have designed for the characters had they appeared in The Ultimates.

Whoever designed the costumes did mostly forgo ribbing, so hooray for that, but, um, I don’t like a lot of these. There’s just way too much black and, since the generic SHADE red shirts are dressed all in black—as are the antagonists Father Time and The Robot Pretending To Be President Knight—it helps everybody just sort of blend together.

We already mentioned Doll Man, but let’s take ‘em one at a time. Some of these aren’t so bad, some are even good, but, on the whole, I think the sense of design of the team and the book was one of the strikes against it. (I don’t have scans of Spin Doctor and all of those other, more terrible heroes that just look like one another, so we’ll skip those guys…and Bigfoot, who just looks like Blockbuster for some reason).

First, there’s Uncle Sam. He gets a new coat, and occasionally puts his hair in a pony tail, and while it seems a bit silly to try and make Uncle Sam look cooler or more realistic, the changes are subtle enough that it’s nothing to get too bent out of shape over.

Here’s Phantom Lady, whose costume is basically a mildly Ultimized version of that of her predecessors.

If anyone was going to give up primary colors for black, I would have guessed it would have been the person who wears canary yellow but calls herself a Phantom, but I was wrong.

There are two Rays in the series; newcomer Stan “Ray III” Silver and Ray “Ray II” Terrill.

Here’s the Golden Age Ray—
And here’s Ray II prior to the start of this series—
Ray III looks like this— And Ray II, in this series, gets a redesign, and now looks like this—
Their costumes are so close to their originals that they’re more or less neutral changes, but, for whatever reason, Acuna abandoned the visual signature of Ray’s flight mode, where he becomes something akin to a photo negative version of himself, and flies around in a rectangular light ray.

Acuna darkens Silver’s face when he lights up, but I think The Ray is a character that suffers from an overly realistic rendering, losing something unique to himself. The Ray’s flying appearance as drawn by Quesada and Porter and others was sort of like Firestorm’s head fire or Starfire’s hair becoming a sort of comet tail when she flies—it looks neat, it looks unique to that character, but it doesn’t look quite right when depicted more realistically.

Okay, here are two that benefit from updates.

First, The Human Bomb went from this—to this—
I think the main problem with the new Bomb’s look is only that he’s too often in the dark fighting guys dressed too much like him in this storyline. Otherwise, it’s a pretty decent look, and works in making him look like a sort of human stealth bomber (The radiation suit of the original Human Bomb is rather dated).

And while there was nothing wrong with the previous Black Condor costumes...
...I do like the new Black Condor’s look—He’s got a condor-like ruff around his neck—only it’s black instead of white—and the mohawk’s a nice compromise between being condor-bald and having hair. The red eyes on black eye-mask is pretty cool-looking too.

And then there’s Firebrand, who starts off as our point-of-view character before successive issues assign successive narrators.

It’s not hard to see why someone might think Firebrand could use a new costume. Here’s the Golden Age version:But what about this exactly says “fire”?

It’s not even red. Firebrand looks like a vaguely Captain American-y type (as do several of the bad guys who appear throughout the story), a star icon on him. Isn’t that a little like Superman having the letter “T” on his chest-shield…?

I was going to say that it could have been a worse redesign——but I’m not so sure. The ‘90s Firebrand, while an eyesore, does at least have some fire going on there. Sure, it’s green fire, but when you hear his name you at least realize why he’s called Firebrand.

Plenty of other characters show up throughout the series, but those are the main members of the team. Although before moving on, I guess I should mention the Red Bee design, if only because it will help me in my ongoing quest to make Every Day Is Like Wednesday the number one Google result for the search term “Red Bee" (I'll catch you one day, craft and hobby supply store The Red Bee!)

Once again, here’s Richard Raleigh, the original Red Bee—Fucking awesome. Why change a thing? You can’t perfect perfection on account of it already being perfect.

And here’s the new Red Bee—It’s essentially just a slightly less imaginative version of Blue Beetle III’s gear, only red, but since they changed the Bee’s gender, the costume being radically different doesn’t matter so much.

The new Bee, the entomologist/robotocist grand-niece of the original Red Bee whom DC seems to be suggesting is dead despite the fact that he did not show up as a zombie in Blackest Night and therefore must still be alive, being awesome off-panel somewhere, goes through a bunch of changes in the next miniseries, getting a whole new look and power-set, but let’s not worry about her at the moment, since she might be dead (the second series, which I’ll discuss tomorrow, is completely unreadable).

3.) I didn’t care for the overly-safe politics of the book. DC Comics is a big company catering to an often quite surprisingly Republican, Libertarian and right-leaning conservative audience (at least judging from the comments I see at Blog@Newsarama!)…despite the fact that every single one of their characters would almost certainly be liberal Democrats save Hawkman and Hal Jordan. They are owned by an even bigger company, and that means they need to strive not to offend anyone’s religious or political beliefs (oddly, they can be quite daring with depictions of violence and suggestions of sexual violence and all manner of sexual kinks, though).

So I understand why their DCU publishing line must generally steer pretty clear of making broad statements like the Republicans put a killer android in the White House who wants to control America’s populace through RFID chips. What I don’t understand is the company’s half-assedness when writing about politics.

It seems like their stories would be better served by either a) ignoring politics or b) taking them seriously and writing about them realistically, but on more than one occasion they take a strange middle road in which they invent fictional political characters, never mention parties or affiliations and assign bland positions to everyone.

When your title character is a political cartoon, this seems an untenable approach.

The plot of the book is that Gonzo The Mechanical Bastard, an android semi-created by SHADE leader Father Time, has murdered President Knight (formerly Senator Knight, father of Phantom Lady Stormy Knight) and taken his place, and has branded Uncle Sam a terrorist (!!!) and is seeking to exploit the populace’s fear to make an insane power grab. Between the introductions and dismissals of super-characters and their fights, it’s the security vs. liberty debate of the Bush years played out in a super-comic.

Essentially it’s a The Bush Administration Is Full of Evil Douchebags Who Exploited 9/11 story, which, okay, I’m fine with that, but names are never named—they don’t even say “Republican” or “conservative” or something like “ultra-rightist,” which perhaps someone on the far right could read as being even farther to the right from them.

I know they couldn’t exactly kill President Bush and replace him with a robot (in part because there never was a Bush administration in the DCU; Lex Luthor won in 2000, and thus their presidential history has varied form ours since the Clinton administration), but I feel talked down to when the writers play it this safe while simultaneously articulating a clear point of view.

I’m probably not communicating this very well, but the political views expressed in this book remind me of the way Brian Michael Bendis writes swear words in his Avengers comics.

Luke Cage will say something like “I $#!% you not” or “I’m going to kick your @$$,” so that everyone who’s ever heard a swear word before will recognize what the swear word is and simultaneously recognized that the writer and publisher want to swear but are afraid to swear, and thus came up with a half-assed compromise, wherein Luke Cage could have just said “I kid you not” or “I’m going to kick your butt” and everything would have been fine.

Does that make sense? No?

Well, that’s why I didn’t want to review this graphic novel. I can’t quite get my head around some of the things that repel me from it, or express them right.

4.) There’s a meaninglessness to the book that makes it seem like a pitch for a series rather than an actual comic book series. Well, I suppose the argument could be made that any comic book is meaningless, or that they are only meant to entertain and, if a reader doesn’t like and/or isn’t entertained by the comic, then they might call it meaningless.

But where were the Freedom Fighters before this book? Uncle Sam, The Human Bomb and legacy versions of The Ray, Phantom Lady and Black Condor (plus Damage) were a team of superheroes operating under the auspices of the U.S. government.

Where are they at the end of this book? (Spoiler!) Uncle Sam and legacy versions of The Ray, The Human Bomb, Phantom Lady and Black Condor (Plus Firebrand and a few others) are a team of superheroes operating under the auspices of the U.S. government.

The entire series is thus little more than an effort to get the team back to the same place they were at before Infinite Crisis #1, which makes killing them off there at all seem like a strange decision.

The book introduces a bunch of new characters, including replacements for the legacy characters so recently killed off, dispatches some almost immediately (don’t get too attached to The Invisible Hood!) and ends where it began.

The book felt wholly unnecessary to me, a pitch for an Freedom Fighters series rather than a Freedom Fighters miniseries. Details that could have been revealed on the fly in another story are lingered over at length.

If Grant Morrison were writing a new Freedom Fighters miniseries, I’m sure it would have began at some point set after the eighth and final issue of this series; the character new and old would start doing things and we’d learn about them as we went along, left to imagine bits of their origins and earlier adventures for ourselves.

While Morrison suggests stories he doesn’t put on paper quite often in his superhero work, it’s worth noting that even Geoff Johns did the same thing when he assembled a modern Freedom Fighters team. The first we saw of them in the JSA, the characters were already a functioning team with a full roster, headquarters and mission statement.

This series seemed to be suffering from an existential crisis, and, as a reader, I found myself suffering alongside it.

I think I would have rather just read Morrison’s pitch for these characters, and/or Palmiotti and Gray’s fleshed-out versions of them. Who’s Who-style entries summarizing the stuff in this book would have been more interesting to me than the book itself.

I suppose that says something about me as a reader—as noted, some of the above complaints are simply personal biases and matters of taste—but sure it says something about the quality of the work as well.

All that said, the second eight-issue Uncle Sam and The Freedom Fighters miniseries, published in 2007 and collected as Uncle Sam and The Freedom Fighters: Brave New World, makes this trade read like Watchmen.

I think it may have actually been the very worst comic book I’ve ever read. Well, “read” is a strong word, as it was so bizarrely constructed that I didn’t “read” very much of it. Maybe “experienced” is a better word.

We’ll talk about that series tomorrow night though.


Anonymous said...

Interesting. This series always intrigued me, but I'd never bothered to check it out, due to how boring books written by Palmiotti and Gray usually tend to be.

Lazarus Lupin said...

I think you got this one covered 3 ways to wednesday padner!

Lazarus Lupin
art and review

LurkerWithout said...

I'm sorry man but original Red Bee is dead. I mean he's one of a whole group of dead Golden Agers that Jack Knight meets at a dinner party thrown by his dead brother...

suckiemcsuck said...

I have to say that I'm intrigued to read about the series that'll get reviewed tomorrow.