Monday, April 30, 2012

Pre-New 52 review: Superman: Return of Doomsday and Superman: Reign of Doomsday

When DC relaunched their entire line of superhero comics last September with 52 all-new #1 issues, they also rebooted their continuity, excising decades worth of storylines and details from their heroes' fictional histories and biographies.

It likely annoyed a lot of fans, as the huge tapestry of cumulative stories is one of the main selling points of the DC Universe brand of comics, while simultaneously making their line look more attractive to new and lapsed readers of their comics.

The move probably won't do anything to sour a lot of their back catalog of trade paperbacks. Evergreen classics like Batman: Year One or The Killing Joke, for example, or anything in a Chronicles or Archives of Showcase Presents volume, stand alone works from long ago that are usually meant to be enjoyed as distinct experiences instead of part of a month-in, month-out soap opera.

The books that suffer the very most, I think, will be the ones that DC was publishing just prior to The New 52, the ones readers were reading (and creators were apparently creating) without any indication that it would be the last Justice League story before Crisis On Infinite Earths style reboot, the last Superman story in which the hero was married to Lois Lane, the last JSA story set on the same planet as the rest of the DC heroes and so on.

Many of those comics are still coming out in collected form, or have just recently come out in collected form, and I've got to say, even as someone who was eagerly awaiting some of those trades, the reboot all but extinguished my desire to read them. I wonder how anyone who waited for, say, Brightest Day, the bi-weekly series that set-up new futures for a dozen characters who were brought back to life, would feel reading it for the first time, knowing that most of "didn't really happen," and little if any of it will be followed up on in the future. That book, in retrospect, looks a lot like a very, very long pilot episode for a television series that never got made.

When visiting a new library a few weeks ago, I found a handful of trades collecting some stories from just prior to the relaunch, and wanted to devote a week or so to reviewing them here, both in terms of how they are as comic book stories as per usual, and in terms of how they read in light of the fact that the publisher has declared they don't really matter anymore, that, in effect, they would have rather not done them.

Many of the events and plotlines that occurred in these books, and the new directions suggested for possible continuation have simply evaporated. Some of the creators have too, while others were radically repurposed to work on The New 52.

I'm going to start with two related books tonight, and then do one a piece the rest of the week...hopefully in addition to regular features like Wednesday night's "Comic Shop Comics" and Thursday afternoon's "Meanwhile..." link post.

Ready?

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Superman: Return of Doomsday is a trade paperback collection of five different comic books, none of which were originally sold as part of a cohesive whole.

These five are a one-shot special, an annual of a monthly ongoing series, and single issues issues of three different monthly ongoing series.

As such, the stories it collects are from four different writers and five different artists, and are therefore as dischordant and uneven as one might imagine, with each artist working in a radically different style, and sub-plots from Justice League of America, The Outsiders and Superboy appearing and disappearing at what feels like random upon reading in this collection.

Some of these, like a few scenes of Outsiders and Superboy that don’t involve the Doomsday vs. Superman Family characters conflict that binds the books together, don’t even seem to belong in the collection; they read like weeds that should have been pruned, but then, that’s because the Doomsday story was intruding into those already in-progress stories when they were published serially. The act of collecting these five comics between a single set of covers then reverses the feeling of intrusion. Now it feels like those comics’ ongoing plots are intruding in the crossover, distracting from the story and dragging the book as a whole down.

Super-comics are a weird business, really.

There’s not a whole lot to the individual stories. They are merely the prologue for a future storyline, "Reign of Doomsday", which ran in five issues of Action Comics (written and drawn by entirely different people than those responsible for this) and it is collected as the much more coherent Superman: Reign of Doomsday.

In each chapter of Return, Doomsday, the silent, mind-less, Hulk-like monster that killed Superman in the 1992 “Death of Superman” storyline, attacks a different character with an S-Sheild on his or her chest, subdues and captures them.

In each istance, Doomsday displays new powers that reflect those of his adversary, as well as increased intelligence.

In the first chapter, Steve Lyons and Ed Benes’ Steel #1, Doomsday beats up Steel, who tries to hold him off until the JLA shows up, but, for unexplained reasons, no one ever shows up to help out. This is told in first-person, through Steel’s point-of-view, and drawn in Benes’ version of 21st century DC house style.

Then we move to Dan DiDio and Philip Tan’s Outsiders #37, where Geo-Force and four colleagues are arguing over whether or not they should let The Eradicator join the team, when Doomsday appears to beat the bejesus out of everyone. This is told in an omniscent point-of-view, with just a few narration boxes. The layouts and art-style seem to have been imported from 1992, but Tan’s rendering is a grotesque application of effects-heavy coloring atop pencils.
Next is Justice League of America #55, written by James Robinson and drawn by Brett Booth and Norm Rapmund (the latter inking the former, in the only instance in this collection of a penciler/inker team). Robinson checks in with two or three different ongoing plots, only one of which has anything to do with the Doomsday conflict this collection is organized around, and the issue is presented in the everyone-narrates-their-own-scenes style Brad Meltzer established when he launched this volume of the Justice League comic. Booth and Rapmund’s style more closely resembles that of Benes’, so the art style is see-sawing back to where the book began at this, the halfway point.

Supergirl, now called Dark Supergirl because she’s wearing a black version of her costume, was on the Justice League at this point, and Doomsday attacks her and various other characters in this issue, but his real target is revealed to be The Cyborg Superman.

This issue is followed immediately by Superman/Batman Annual #5, which is also written by Robinson, and continues the Justice League vs. Doomsday conflict, although to better adhere to the title of the book it appears in, Justice Leaguers Dark Supergirl and Batman Dick Grayson take center stage, trying to stop Doomsday and Cyborg Superman from destroying them and the JLA satellite they’re fighting on during their battle.

Because the writer remains the same, the writing doesn’t shift again, but the art style does rather radically, and amusingly/depressingly, the small-c continuity wasn’t policed very closely: Batman is wearing a red and black cape-less space-suit throughout the Justice League issue, but that transforms into his traditional costume during this issue.

This particular Doomsday vs. Supergirl and Cyborg Superman conflict gets the most attention, too, as it encompasses sixty-seven of the book’s pages, while the other Doomsday battles get the standard 22 pages apiece.

Finally, the book ends with Superboy #6, by Jeff Lemire and Marco Rudy. Formally, it’s the most accomplished of the chapters. It opens with two pages of 12-panel grids, and, on the third page, the page is laid-out with the same grid, but the bottom hal fof the page features Doomsday smashing through the panels, stretching them like a net, and colliding with Superboy. From there, the layout transforms into one of horizontal panels, and fewer per page, the panels getting bigger and bigger as the battle rages, until Doomsday KOs Superboy with a two-page spread splash-blow, and the book resumes the layout it opened with as Doomsday gathers up his unconscious prey and escapes with him.
This one is narrated by Superboy, and Rudy’s art is much more realistic and textured than any that came before; it resembles Sepulvda’s more than anyone’s, but the storytelling is stronger, and the human hand of the artist much more evident.

The entire book tells a story that could have been summed up in a half-dozen pages once "Reign of Doomsday" began, but then, that’s superhero comics in the second decade of the 21st century: Even when the individual issues aren’t decompressed, their meaning is decompressed by their ultimate meaninglessness (Maybe Robinson recognized the existential crisis of these comics while writing the scripts for his portions of the book, and that’s why he entitled one of them “No Exit”…?). The wasted space is filled with a ton of action and fisticuffs, but none of it is terribly smart, interesting or exciting, or even well-drawn. It’s just ugly brutality, for the most part conveyed through terribly ugly art.

It’ll run you $15.

That collection then leads into Superman: Reign of Doomsday, a book which continues the story from Return of Doomsday AND the story from writer Paul Cornell’s "The Black Ring" story arc from Action Comics. That is, the first of the five comics collected in this issue is both the climax of Cornell’s "Black Ring" (collected in Superman: The Black Ring Vol. 1 and Superman: The Black Ring Vol. 2) and it’s the start of the title story featuring the Superman Family vs. Doomsday.

It’s also a pretty strange read, although it’s at least all from the same writer, and thus much more focused.

After a few pages in which we check in with Steel and the gang on a mysterious labyrinthine spaceship which is seemingly impossible to escape from, the prison Doomsday was hauling them all of to between chapters of the previous collection, we join “The Black Ring,” already in progress.

I haven’t read that story yet, although I heard bits about it—that was the storyline starring Lex Luthor that took place during JMS’s abandoned Superman Walks Around story arc, the one that guest-starred Death of The Endless from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics—and I didn’t have much trouble following it.

By exploiting a powerful alien creature, Lex Luthor has attained godlike powers, and come as close to omnipotency as one can get in the DC Universe. His powers finally dwarf Superman’s, but there’s a catch: In order to hang on to his powers, he can only do good with them, and thus while he’s technically more powerful than Superman, one of the few things he can’t do is destroy Superman.

It’s a great set-up that leads to a great scene, and it has the makings of one of the all-time great Superman vs. Luthor moments, akin to the “I hate you” moment in the Geoff Johns and Kurt Busiek written “Up, Up and Away!” story and the climax of Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman, wherein Luthor gains Superman's powers and can't help but become more Superman-like than he would want to be because of it.

The Doomsday plot is little more than a distraction to this story, and Cornell isn’t able to disguise it as much more than that. It’s essentially a back-up plan of Luthor’s, and why he needs a back-up plan if the end result was him achieving godhood seems kind of…off. I mean sure, he’s super-smart, but what kind of megalomaniac plans for his own defeat so thoroughly?

Throughout the Superman/Luthor scenes, we check in on the other Supers who are trapped in the spaceship with Doomsday, and the book ends with Superman joining them and a twist/reveal that will probably be pretty obvious if you made it through the Return trade.

The art’s on the messy side, as Pete Woods and Jesus Merino trade off, with the former handling the Luthor plotline and the latter the Doomsday one, but because this happened to fall in an anniversary issue (Action Comics #900, to be exact), other Superman artists also appear to draw bits of the story, and so Dan Jurgens, Rags Morales, Ardian Syaf and Gary Frank also pencil portions, giving the issue a jam book feel instead of a "Holy shit this book is late! Quick, start calling inkers!" feel.

Fifty-one pages later, the title story begins in earnest. Artist Kenneth Rocafort joins Cornell as the primary artist for the story, and it’s a pretty good one. Superman, his allies Steel, Supergirl and Superboy and his frenemies The Eradicator and Cyborg Superman are trapped on a spaceship with four souped-up clones of Doomsday and a mysterious adversary more powerful than any of them. The ship is hurtling at Earth at such a speed that it will destroy the planet on contact. The good guys have to figure out how to stop the bad guys, escape the ship and stop it in order to save the day. Impossible task after impossible task after impossible task, with a tight time limit.

They succeed, obviously, but it’s still fun to watch them do it. Cornell has a great handle on all of the characters and, more importantly, their relationships, and gives each something unique and specific to do within the story. There may be an element of “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if all the Super-guys teamed up to fight a bunch of Doomsdays,” but that’s Cornell’s starting point, not the extent of his plotting.

It reminded me a lot of the Jurgens Era Superman story “Panic in the Sky,” in the way it was a very Superman-specific story that threatened the whole world in such a way that the rest of the DC Universe shows up in some capacity to help out, generally by following Superman’s lead.

It seems weird to feel honest-to-goodness nostalgia for an era of DC Comics that isn’t even a whole year old yet, but that’s kind of what I felt while reading this.

As with that Kyle Higgins and Scott Snyder Batman: Gates of Gotham story, it was refreshing to find a writer who seemed to have such a strong handle on such a big and, in other hands, unwieldly cast, a writer who is able to find a place for them all, to write them all well and make them all work together.

If anything, Cornell’s writing on Action Comics seems to indicate that the Superman franchise was hardly broken, which makes DC’s decision to “fix” it along with most of their universe last fall with The New 52 seem not just wrong-headed, but baffling.

Almost as baffling as the fact that Cornell wasn’t writing either of the Superman books when they relaunched. DC gave Action Comics to Grant Morrison, a decision few would dare second-guess given Morrison's direct market popularity coupled with the quality of his All-Star Superman run, but they gave Superman to George Perez as writer/artist, and it quickly changed hands in almost comical fashion (Perez wrote and broke-down the first two issues while Merino finished the art. Perez wrote #3, while Nicola Scott penciled and Trevor Scott inked. Merino was back for #4, Scott and Scott for #5 and #6. Dan Jurgens and Keith Giffen took over writing with #7, while Perez is off to...draw parts of Worlds Finest, I think...? )

I liked seeing so much of the old DC Universe, like two Batmen in a panel, for example,
or Alan Scott’s crazy-looking old new costume
which looks a lot cooler than his new new costume, from what I can tell from the only image DC has released of it so far.
I also liked the bit where Superman refers to Muhammad Ali without naming him, just calling him "an old friend,” and the ending, in which Clark Kent goes out to dinner with his wife Lois Lane, a scene that is a hell of a compelling argument for a married Clark and Lois
Which ends with a nice little “Fuck you, J. Michael Straczynski”:
(The “Fuck you, J. Michael Straczynski,” it should be noted, is implied).

Action Comics #900 included a bunch of little back-up stories from big-name “celebrity” talent, like a stories from writers Damon Lindelof (who created that show people used to like before they got sick of it, for sucking), Paul Dini, David S. Goyer and Richard Donner, plus a bunch of other folks best known for their comics work.

They’re all pretty terrible, although I kind of liked Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s four-page “Friday Night in the 21st Century” story, in which Clark and Lois host a get together with his Legion of Super-Heroes friends. There’s nothing to it, really, but I like the goofy expressions Frank draws on the various Legionnaires as they eat pizza or look into a refrigerator, and I find Franks’ semi-creepy Christopher Reeve-as-Clark and scantily-clad Lois Lane as Naughty Secretary Halloween costume designs appealing.

Finally, Brian Stelfreeze contributed a two-page “The Evolution of The Man of Tomorrow” image, which shows Superman’s evolving costumes through the ages, climaxing in the one he wears today…only today is, of course, yesterday, so Superman is wearing a Superman costume instead of…whatever he’s wearing now.

The structure of the overall package is pretty clumsy, but I’d recommend Regin as a nice, fun, action-oriented Superman story, while it’s lead-in Return of is best avoided.

I’m eager to read Cornell’s “Black Ring” story in its entirety now, based on its climax, and I do plan to check out his “New 52” books Stormwatch and Demon Knights when they’re available in trade.

I did like this Kenneth Rocafort character’s art too, I wouldn’t mind checking out some of his future work. What was his next assignment from DC...?

Oh, right.

Sigh…

1 comment:

Akilles said...

Great reviews. I was already gonna pick up "The Reign", but now I will definetly do so.

I`ve read, that even if the beginning of the Red hood-series is really weird, it has gotten better afterwards. So, maybe you should still check it out in a trade from from, I dunno, a library. It wouldn`t hurt you financially that way, after all...