Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A library comics update: Batman #703 and Superman #700-702

This past spring I told you about a little library in the little city I live in that doesn’t carry any graphic novels, but does carry floppies in their kids magazine section, seemingly having subscriptions to Batman, Superman and Scooby-Doo.

That lead to a series of…let’s see here…seven posts, each based around a particular run on a particular one of those titles, large handfuls of which I checked out at once.

Well, it’s been long enough since then that a few copies of each title came in, so I thought I’d try and catch up on the single-issues that were checked in during the time I happened to be there.

Batman #703

This one-issue story, which immediately followed Grant Morrison’s three-issue return to the series and immediately preceded the resumption of Tony Daniel’s run as both writer and artist, is perhaps the perfect example of a pointless fill-in issue.

So interchangeable were the contents and creators that DC solicited it in June as a completely different book than the one they published in September.

Here’s what the initial solicitation said:

Art and cover by TONY DANIEL
1:10 “DC 75th Anniversary” Variant cover by KEVIN NOWLAN
Celebrating the “Return of Bruce Wayne”! Those closest to The Dark Knight look back on the legacy he has created. Featuring appearances by Alfred, Dick Grayson, Tim Drake, Damian Wayne, Selina Kyle and more!
The book is actually written by Fabian Nicieza, a decent writer who, no matter what you may think of his abilities or style, is quite clearly not, in fact, Peter Milligan. And while Tony Daniel’s cover, apparently featuring Dick Grayson, Tim Drake and Damian Wayne facing the returned Bruce Wayne (That’s his shadow cast on the wall behind him; the logo covers up the other bat-ear that appeared in the solicited image), shipped on the book, Daniel did not in fact provide the interior art. Instead it was drawn by Cliff Richards.

The description of the contents is at least close. Selina Kyle doesn’t appear, but the other characters mentioned by name do, and I guess there are technically “more” characters as well, including a second-generation version of a minor villain, Vicki Vale and, um, people in the background of some panels.

The story that actually shipped featured Batman Dick Grayson and Robin Damian Wayne trying to capture The Getaway Genius, a character who last appeared…well, sometime long before I started reading comic books (Wikipedia says he last appeared in 1983’s Detective Comics #526). Despite the obscurity of the character, Dick flashes back to a scene from that story when noticing how Damian’s behavior apparently paralleled his own behavior when he was Robin to Bruce Wayne’s Batman.

The Dynamic Duo attempt to takedown the Genuis and, in the process, Damian learns that his biological father wasn’t the grim, heartless avenger of the night he thought he was, but also had a compassionate side.

Meanwhile, the Vicki Vale-tries-to-out-Batman-and-his-many-sidekicks’-secret-identities plotline makes another appearance from…wherever that story was playing out. I think it started in those post-Battle For the Cowl one-shot anthologies that were collected in the Battle trade (Gotham Gazette: Batman Dead? #1 and Gotham Gazette: Batman Alive?#1), and likely continued wherever Nicieza’s been writing Bat-stories over the last few months (Red Robin, I think).

The book ends with this:And, as you can see on the cover, it was billed as “A Prelude To Bruce Wayne The Road Home,” so this pointless, time-waster fill-in was itself a lead in to an eight-issue pointless, time-wasting, fill-in month-long event.

Nicieza’s story here obviously has some problems, mostly having to do with accessibility—the Vicki Vale sub-plot is context-free, with no indication of where it began, or what it has to do with anything else in the issue—but it’s decent enough work and fits the requirements of this particular issue’s mandate. That is, it has to be a Batman story and it has to fill 22-pages.

The art is just appalling. It looks an awful lot like Greg Land’s work, particularly in the creepy, vacant, waxen, photo-reference-y expressions on the characters’ faces, none of whom seem particularly on-model (to be fair to Richards on that last point, DC doesn’t seem to have anything approaching a model to stay on when it comes to character designs these days; Vale, for example, looks completely different when each and every artist draws her, and the only way to really know that she’s supposed to be Vicky Vale is that that’s what the characters who are identifiable by their costumes call her). You can read a five-page preview of the book here at Newsarama, and take a look at Richards’ art for yourself. That segment is the first five pages of the comic, and an action scene involving Batman and Robin, and is thus actually among the strongest bits of the book.

Richards colors his own work here, and it seems as if it were applied directly to the paper using an airbrush and stencils a computer created from photographs. It makes me a bit nauseous to look at.

Superman #700-#702

This issue is the official start of writer J. Michael Straczynki’s Superman walking storyline.

When it was first announced, I had mixed feelings about it. As someone who follows comics, I thought there was a lot about the storyline and the DC’s promotion of it that was extremely interesting, but as a reader, I was more curious than excited, and due to my aversion to the work JMS’s artist collaborator Eddy Barrows, I figured I’d wait for a trade of the story arc.

Of course, while waiting for that trade, JMS and DC have since announced that the former was leaving Superman mid-story to pursue other commitments, and another writer was being called in to finish the story from JMS’s notes.

What interest I had in the story as a reader dissolved at that point; if the guy writing the story isn’t all that engaged in writing the story, it’s pretty clear it’s not going to be much of a read, and so I quite waiting for the trade. I was holding off on reading these library-owned singles so as not to spoil the experience of reading the trade once I bought it, but I took JMS’ implied “Aw, fuck it, it’s boring” declaration to forget getting the trade.

So here I am, reading it.

But before we talk about “Grounded,” JMS, Barrows and J.P. Mayer’s Superman walking story, let’s take a look at the rest of #700, an over-sized anniversary issue which ends with the first ten pages of the since-aborted JMS run.

The book opens with a 16-page story entitled “The Comeback,” which functions as something of an epilogue to the long-ass New Krypton storyline. It’s written by James Robinson, who was one of the main Super-writers during that period, and drawn by Bernard Chang, one of the artists from that period. The superhero action involves an opening during which the Parasite chases Lois Lane and Superman saves her, but the more interesting business involves the married couple talking about what a crazy, shitty year it’s been for them.

I checked out of the Superman books long before the climax of that particular status quo they had going for a while—Lois Lane’s dad used some kind of doomsday weapon to kill 100,000 Kryptonians? Is that right?—but for the purposes of this story, that’s not even really that important.

I think this story’s existence is a little important, given that Superman spent a long time away from his wife during the last Superman status quo, and his new status quo necessitates him doing the same, so, you know, nice to be reminded that though they don’t appear in the same city and/or planet all that often any more, the pair are married and do love one another.

That’s followed by a 16-page Superman/Robin team-up by writer/artist Dan Jurgens and artist Norm Rapumund. The Robin is, of course, Dick Grayson—the story is billed as “a tale from Superman’s early years”—and while it reads like an inventory story that could have appeared almost anywhere, the fact that Dick was Batman when this issue came out perhaps gave it some timely relevance.

The story is an uncomplicated but fun one. Batman has to go be Bruce Wayne at a social event, so Dick has to stay in and not be Robin for the night—plus, he has a big Geometry assignment to do. But when our young hero discovers a gun shipment headed for Gotham, he sneaks out and gets in hot water, and it’s up to Superman to save him.

I’ve always like Jurgens’ artwork, and it was a treat to see him drawing the classic version of Robin here, in addition to the Batman and Superman we’re more used to seeing him draw.

I really liked the bit at the end, where Superman uses his powers to try and cover for Dick:Then we get to “Grounded.”

It’s a very strange story. You’ve no doubt heard a lot of criticism of it already. I know I have, and, having read the first 54 pages of it, much of the criticism I’ve read seems well justified.

It’s not very good.

It is a pretty interesting idea. The premise is simple: Worried that he’s growing out-of-touch, Superman decides to walk around the United States and get his head on straight, walking among the people he’s dedicated his life to saving. And instead of spending all his time in Metropolis, Gotham, Nightwingville, Hawkman City and Starmanopolis, JMS was having him visit real cities like Detroit and Pennsylvania and Cleveland.

That’s actually a kind of ingenious idea for a Superman comic, as it practically guaranteed a steady, monthly stream of local mainstream media coverage. If done right, anyway. JMS’s inability to meet deadlines and DC Comics’ unfortunate tendency to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory eighty-sixed a lot of that potential.

But forget all that—let’s look at the content of the comics themselves.

I think John Cassaday’s covers are worth noting. He didn’t provide the cover for #700, that’s a fairly strong one by Gary Frank (I didn’t think much of it the first time I saw it, but it’s been growing on me, and I like it more and more the longer I spend time with it, even though it contains a damn lie—Superman #700 was completely Krypto-less!).

Cassaday had a bit of a challenge in providing covers for “Grounded” because it is a story about Superman just cold walking around, so there’s only so many “Superman walking” covers you can do. Cassaday seems to have been shooting for iconic covers involving Superman and America, and the results have been interesting.

I don’t really care for that of #701It's a walking cover, but it’s a simple piece that stood out from the other books on the shelf and worked conceptually.

I do really like his cover for #702:The Superman on a black field is a very classic-looking image. I’m not a big fan of Cassaday’s style, but this was a really powerfully composed image and, again, one that stood out on the shelves. Superman is one of the only superhero characters—hell, maybe the only one—whose colors are so indicative of the character himself that just seeing them in relief against black like that can given a picture a sort of visual eloquence.

I know I’ve mentioned that I don’t care for Barrows’ art a few dozen times before, but his pencil work in these two-and-a-third issues was his best work yet.

His specialty, form what I’ve seen, seems to be twisted, swollen, muscular figures in agonizing poses, and so a story about Superman strolling about dealing with ordinary folks wasn’t exactly a story that seemed like one for Barrows, but he acquits himself quite well.

I haven’t completely come around on his work, nor do I think he was the best possible artist for this storyline, but I think it’s evident he’s doing the work of his career here (And if I were him, I’d be pretty pissed off that JMS checked out on the story).

Coloring isn’t something I pay a whole lot of attention to—good coloring isn’t something you should notice, and is, in fact, one of those elements of comics you only tend to notice when it’s either really good or really bad—but I thought it was a little bright and garish for this story.

It’s a very superhero palette that Rod Reis uses here, except the subject matter is mostly regular people in regular clothes, resulting in something akin to watching an old television set with the tint not quite right.

Now, the story itself. The idea of Superman feeling out-of-touch with humanity and feeling the need to reconnect is an exceedingly strange idea for a Superman story set in 2010, and is actually pretty hard to swallow at all—Superman’s been at this for seven decades our time, and about 12 years his time. He’s also got a job and is married to a human being, so you think he’d be pretty in-touch with humans at this point. It really feels like a storyline that should be occurring in a continuity-free original graphic novel, if not an officially “Elseworlds”-branded storyline.

Having the “real,” modern, DCU, in-continuity Superman having to do this at all just seems…off. JMS is helped somewhat past this hurdle by the fact that Superman has been living off-Earth on New Krypton for the last year or so, and, before that, his dad died. Oh, and I guess his father-in-law committed genocide against his people? I guess that could lead to a mild mid-life crisis.

If the timing works, the catalyst doesn’t—JMS has Superman allude to the stressful year he’s had, but the reason for his walking around is simply this. That is really one of those things that you should pretty much never have happen in a story involving Superman—a fellow Justice League member’s wife being raped by a supervillain in JLA HQ is another one—because it’s the sort of thing you can’t think seriously about while taking a story seriously because it just makes Superman look like an enormous asshole.

Instead of responding with a readymade answer along the lines of not interfering with acts of God or not being a doctor or not wanting to play God or not wanting to rob humanity of his achievements by doing everything for humans or whatever, Superman seems to take the lady’s criticism to heart.

Did Superman really go all this time without anyone saying to him, “Hey asshole, way to let my loved one die of something you could have easily saved them from!”…? I find that hard to believe. Like, harder to believe in than a flying invincible guy from a different planet with laser eyes. (Am I misremembering, or was Brian Azzarello and Jim Lee’s “For Tomorrow” story all about Superman wrestling with whether or not he had the right to cure that priest’s cancer…?)

If Superman agrees with that lady, then forget her husband, what the hell is he doing working as a reporter? Or eating or sleeping, human activities he doesn’t need to do, but does anyway? Because while he’s taking a nap he doesn’t really need or pretending to be a mild-mannered reporter, thousands of people all over the world are dying. What a selfish prick!

And if he didn’t think that until the lady brought it up, why does he decide to walk around? Why isn’t he immediately setting about curing diseases and operating on people constantly? Why isn’t he peacefully stopping wars and suchlike?

His motivations aside, JMS’ Superman is an alien one—not necessarily alien to humanity, but alien from the Superman we’re used to reading about. He’s kind of pretentious. And sanctimonious. And hypocritical. And a…well, a jerk, I guess you’d say.

Recently having his eyes opened by some grief-stricken lady, he immediately responds by giving his colleagues shit about continuing to see the world the way he did until about five minutes ago.

He’s essentially like the alcoholic who suddenly stops drinking, sobers up, and then shakes his head sadly at his non-alcoholic friends who drink socially. (Is that a bad example? How about the sinner who becomes a born-again Christian? The meat-eater who goes vegan?)

So when he and Batman Dick Grayson are on the JLA satellite, and Dick talks to him about how he’s tinkered with the monitoring systems so that they can no see if “anything bad” happens from up there in space, Superman corrects him by saying, “Anything important you mean,” and disappearing.

On the next page, he stops Flash Barry Allen just to ask him what he sees when he’s running across the country at super-speed. Batman and The Flash haven’t had their eyes opened like Superman has.

Issue #701, the first all-“Grounded” issue, was pretty thoroughly picked apart online. There are some neat bits to it—as labored as the set-up to the second-page reveal was, it was an effective splash page, and I still sort of like the idea of the story and the potential it shows, but there are so many little, irritating moments in it, most of them involve Superman vacillating wildly between totally douche bag and speechifying preacher. On one page, he makes short, sarcastic remarks to reporters, on the next he pats a youngster on the head and gives what sounds like a graduation speech.

Let’s see, there’s the one-page scene where Superman diagnoses a dude with heart problems and tells him to get to a doctor quickly, and then strolls off (Er, wasn’t your motivation for the walk that you didn’t save that one guy?).

There’s the seven-page scene where Superman talks a woman off a ledge, which Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely did better in a matter of panels in All-Star Superman.There’s the bit of dialogue where Superman tells the would-be jumper that it’s not fair that some folks are dead and some still alive:Huh. Superman wishing bad guys dead? Okay, I guess we can excuse Superman’s failure to save John Lennon and JFK since, given the DCU’s sliding time line, the Superman making this statement wasn't around during the time those men were murdered. But what’s stopping him from icing Manson or Castro or Kadaffi, if he wants ‘em dead so bad? Or hell, The Joker? It probably wouldn’t even be all that difficult for Superman to bring John Lennon back to life if he really wanted to, so maybe he should just shut up about it, huh?

Superman #702 doesn’t seem to have been picked apart online quite as thoroughly as Superman #701 was, perhaps because so many of those who read the first chapter of “Grounded” swore off the rest.

This issue finds Superman walking around Detroit, and it’s an even stranger issue, with a timeline I can’t quite make sense out of (Note that the industry that replaces automobile production in Detroit is already up and running by the time Superman walks out of town).

In this one, Superman encounters a house full of alien refugees hiding on earth, and is pretty miffed about their immigrating to the Earth and/or the U.S. illegally.

These are “good” aliens, who don’t want to conquer the world, but basically just post as humans using holograms and stay inside, keeping to themselves and watching TV. Superman wants to narc on them though.This would be fine if this weren’t a DCU story, but given the hundreds of aliens that live on DC’s Earth, I’m pretty sure there are laws regarding aliens moving to Earth. In fact, it was in the aftermath of a big Superman storyline, “Our Worlds At War,” that there were so many aliens seeking refuge on Earth that there was, like, an alien refugee camp outside of Metropolis and an X-Men like conflict with xenophobic Americans being all “Earth for Earthlings!” and so on.

Superman doesn’t want these aliens freeloading though. They have to give back to the community. According to Superman. What an asshole.


Michael Hoskin said...

Bob Roberts IS Superman!

Jennifer said...

Hah, I was kind of sorry you weren't picking up "Grounded" because I was curious to see your take on it, and now I've gotten to anyway! Good summary, especially of the incredibly confusing 702, where Superman doesn't sound like any Superman I've seen...well, maybe that dick on the covers of old Silver Age comics. And yeah, it hardly inspires one to pick up a title when the creator himself has basically announced he's finding it tedious, does it?

Charles Webb said...

That All-Star page with the jumper gets me every time. (In fact the whole thing is heartbreakeningly perfect to me).

Martin Gray said...

Fair comments all the way! I'll be interested to see what you make of the other issues. I've been reviewing them all on my blog, desperately looking for the good ...