Sunday, July 28, 2013

Some notes and thoughts on Earth 2 Vol. 1: The Gathering

•This is a hardcover collecting the first six issues of Earth 2, a "second wave" (i.e. replacement) title in DC's New 52 line. The series is written by James Robinson, and the artwork comes primarily from the team of pencil artist Nicola Scott and inker Trevor Scott, although a second penciller and a second inker are also credited, as are three different colorists. As with other recent DC collections, it's not clear who did what page, but based on the fact that the Eduardo Pansica and Sean Parsons art team produces work similar enough in style to that of Scott and Scott, there aren't any terribly drastic shifts in visuals, and both teams do a fairly great job, particularly by New 52 standards.

•I trade-waited this series, but not because of misgivings about the creative team (I really like Nicola Scott's artwork quite a bit, and while Robinson's written some really quite incredibly terrible comics for DC of late, he has a large body of work full of more good comic book writing than bad comic book writing). Rather, I wasn't really sure what to make of the premise of the series, as suggested in its title.

•Most DC readers know that "Earth-Two" was the name of the parallel Earth where the Golden Age superheroes used to reside, a conceit the publisher used for a whole host of cosmic crossover adventures between Earth-Two's Justice Society of America and Earth-One's Justice League of America, between the time Gardner Fox introduced the concept in 1961 to the 1986-1987Crisis On Infinite Earths, which smooshed the two worlds and their sets of heroes (along with those of several other Earths) into one, single world with one, single history. Post-Crisis, there was no Earth-One and Earth-Two, just the "Earth" of the DC Universe, in which the Golden Age versions of most of the heroes had their adventures between the late 1930s and mid-1950s or so (excluding Superman, Batman, Robin and Wonder Woman, whose Golden Age versions more-or-less ceased to exist), while the other heroes of the DC Universe, including the Silver Age reboots of The Flash and Green Lantern and company, "The Trinity" and original Silver Age characters like Martian Manhunter began their careers on a sliding timeline of about ten years ago.

I liked that solution quite a bit, as it gave the world of the DC Universe a longer, more complicated, more interesting history, and sort of promoted some of the Golden Age characters to, if not co-equal, than at least more equal status to their Silver Age replacements. So while Flash Jay Garrick and Green Lantern Alan Scott might not have been in cartoons or appeared in the toy lines, while they might have looked like they threw their costumes together based only on the contents of a high school drama club's costume trunk, they were now portrayed as trailblazers and pioneers, the founders of a heroic legacy. They were fighting Nazis while Barry Allen and Hal Jordan were just twinkles in Julius Schwartz's eyes. Looked at from the real world, I like the way these characters' place in the fictional DC Universe acknowledged the work of their creators and the guys writing and drawing them in the 1940s; they were kind of like symbols of that era of creators, and their being a part of the DC Universe's story felt like an in-story acknowledgment and hat-tip to those creators as well as that era.

I understand that it never felt quite right to certain folks though, because it implied that Superman, for example, wasn't the father of all DC's superheroes, and it made Batman seem somewhat derivative of, say, Dr. Mid-Nite and The Sandman, rather than vice versa (And, unfortunately, it did de-couple Wonder Woman from the best era of Wonder Woman comics, the war-time efforts of her creator and artist H.G. Peter).

When DC rebooted their universe once again with The New 52, they deliberately did away with the Golden Age of superheroes altogether, and even cut their timeline of ten or so years in half to five or so, so that the heroes of the DC Universe can trace their careers only as far back as the final year of the Bush administration—The George W. Bush administration.

This title re-instated the multiple, parallel Earths concept then, and Earth 2 once more became the home of the Golden Age heroes like Flash Jay Garrick and Green Lantern Alan Scott, only with a twist—it would be presenting new versions of these Golden Age heroes in the present day, so rather than World War II veterans, the heroes of Earth 2 would be millennials and members of Generation Y, same as their counterparts in the regular DC Universe.

I wasn't really sure what to make of this, and given that the series was starting with an alternate take on the conflict from the first story arc of Geoff Johns, Jim Lee and company's New 52 Justice League, which I loathed, I figured this would be a comic I'd want to hold off on.

•To complicate matters more, a few years prior to the New 52 relaunch, DC started using the term "Earth One" to refer to a line of original graphic novels set in their own, distinct and (apparently) unrelated continuities (In easier to understand terms, "Earth One" now translates into DC's version of Marvel's "Ultimate," differing only in their format and the fact that the titles don't seem to interlock). So far there have been two volumes of J. Michael Straczynski and Shane Davis' Superman: Earth One and one volume of Geoff Johns and Gary Frank's Batman: Earth ONe, with a long in-the-works Grant Morrison-written Wonder Woman: Earth One expected in the near future.

So the DCU of The New 52, The New 52iverse, isn't ever explicitly referred to as Earth 1, even though there is now an Earth 2.

•Earth 2 differs rather significantly from Earth-New 52. For one thing, it only has 3-5 superheroes: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and, depending on whether you want to classify them as superheroes or sidekicks, Supergirl and Robin (These two young ladies come to Earth-New 52, find themselves terrible costumes, adopt the personalities Power Girl and The Huntress and star in Worlds' Finest, another "second wave" New 52 series).

•Also, they don't call superheroes "superheroes" on Earth 2. They call them "wonders," as in 2003's JLA: Age of Wonder Elseworlds series (republished rather recently as DC Comics Presents—JLA: Age of Wonder)

Earth 2 opens in more or less the same place that Justice League did: It's five years in the past of the narrator (television producer Alan Scott, providing narration for a documentary he's produced), and an army of alien invaders is threatening to overwhelm the Earth. This Earth having fewer heroes, the aliens—which are, of course, Apokaliptian Parademons, here led by a redesigned Steppenwolf rather than a redesigned Darkseid—are doing a much better job of it, and Earth looks like it's in real trouble. Batman has a plan to stop the Parademon invasion, by infiltrating one of the towers they've erected and downloading a maguffin virus that will knock them all off-line, cutting them off from their home dimension.

•Also as in Justice League, the heroes are all, like, crazy violent.

Superman heat-visions them in their faces, grabs them by their throats and smashes their heads into pieces. Robin (Helena Wayne) guns a parademon down from the Batplane, and Batman even shoots one through the head. Wonder Woman chops off the heads of, let's see...five of 'em, on-panel, and uses the word "kill" repeatedly.

This being an alternate world with alternate versions of the characters, and ones that don't need to survive even one entire issue, Robinson certainly has more leeway in how he depicts their morality, and these alternate versions of the Trinity are depicted as being backed into a corner and fighting for survival. Wonder Woman, for example, is the last surviving Amazon: Steppenwolf and the Parademons have already killed every single one of her sisters.

The violence is also somewhat muted by the fact that these versions of Superman and Wonder Woman know that the Parademons are robots of some kind, or, at the very least, cyborgs, as Batman's plan is to knock out the towers remote controlling them (without which they will "fall from the sky," he says), and Scott goes to some pains to show wires, tubes and oil spurting from their wounds every time Wonder Woman chops a head or limb off, or Superman smashes one to bits.

In Justice League, remember, the heroes (and, presumably, the readers, if the New 52 was doing its job) were seeing Parademons for the first time, and Superman and company were just murdering them left and right, with no line of dialogue dedicated to explaining that they were mechanical monsters made of machinery and corpses or whatever and that, since they were already dead, it was okay to, say, sever their heads. Weirder still, the Parademons were just kidnapping people in that story, which, while certainly a crime and a scary experience for the victims, doesn't exactly merit execution on the spot from the likes of Superman and Aquaman, you know?

•Batman's plan works, downloading the virus is a suicide mission for him, and he doesn't survive the resulting explosion. Superman and Wonder Woman's part of the plan is to buy him some time. Both of them get killed as well. Superman by some kind of bomb the parademons attach to him, while Wonder Woman gets Geoff Johnsed:

•I know hindsight's 20/20 and all, but I think I found one way to improve upon Batman's plan. Rather than Batman himself climbing a tower and downloading the virus, which resulted in an explosion that killed the mortal Dark Knight, maybe he could have had Superman fly to the tower at top super-speed and install the virus for him; not only would the job get done a lot quicker, but chances are Superman might have survived the resulting explosion (Or maybe not; he did get blown up to death by an Apokoliptian bomb).

But in any case, Superman would have had a better chance of surviving. When it comes to suicide missions, enlisting the invincible, indestructible guy on your team is usually your best bet.

•I think opening a new title featuring new-ish characters with an adventure starring three other characters is kind of a weird strategy. It's not until the last five pages or so of the first issue that the stars of Earth 2 really appear. Alan Scott is revealed as the narrator, on private plane to Beijing. And Jay Garrick gets the last four pages; having just been dumped by his girlfriend, he's brooding alone on a hill at night with a six-pack, when the Greek God Hermes—seen earlier in the issue telling Wonder Woman that he and the other Olympians were trying to fight off Apokolips as well, and were getting their divine asses handed to them—appears to him (It works okay here in the trade, but was likely rather frustrating to those reading the monthly, serially-published installments).

•Most of the second issue is devoted to Jay Garrick's origin, which is here sort of like a mash-up of myth and Hal Jordan's origin; the dying Hermes gifts Garrick with his super-speed powers (which would certainly explain Garrick's old hat, but, this being the New 52, he has to have a new costume, which resembles his old one in some ways, but is heavily modified: His Hermes hat, for example, is now just a Hermes-inspired helmet, and looks more 1950s/1960s sci-fi than something truly mythological, like his old hat.

•Mr. Terrific II Michael Holt, who had a quickly-canceled title in the first slate of New 52 books (set on Earth-New 52), appears teleporting onto the Earth 2. He's immediately confronted by Terry Sloan, who introduces himself as the "smartest man on earth." That's the secret identity of the original Mr. Terrific. Sloan appears throughout this volume, and seems to be somewhere between an anti-hero and a villain.

•The same scene features an ad for Tyler-Chem (Hourman Rex Tyler was a chemist) and an add for a boxing match between Grant and Montez (Wildcat's secret ID being heavy-weight boxing champ Ted Grant; his first successor was Yolanda Montez, although the Montez in the ad isn't her, but a big, bearded, bald burly guy).

Later, a character mentions a man named Fate, and there's a "Commander Dodds and His 'Sandmen'" working for the World Army.

•Alan Scott's origin starts in this issue. He's riding a bullet-train with his boyfriend Sam, and pulls out a ring to propose to him, just as the train explodes (This is more-or-less in-keeping with his Golden Age origin, minus the boyfriend part).

•While Garrick received his super-powers from a dying god, Scott gets his from a glowing green fireball, that reminded me of the burning bush of Moses' story. A big deal was made out of Alan Scott being rebooted as gay at the time of this comic's original, serial release, but it is, of course, anything but controversial. It's very much a situation of a hero who happens to be gay, rather than a gay superhero. The gender of either Scott or his boyfriend could have been changed, and nothing about the story itself would have changed.

•Sam is "fridged" within an issue of being introduced...sorta. The main thing accomplished by having Scott in the midst of a proposal when his train explodes and the flame finds him is that it allows a rationale for him to be a hero who fights with a ring: "You must have a token or weapon with which to focus your power," the green fire says, "Something close to your heart." (Later, Scott is briefly tempted to stay in the land of the dead with Sam rather than returning to the land of the living to fight on, I suppose that's a second reason to include the Sam character's death in Scott's origin).

•The only other heroes introduced in this volume are Hawkgirl (Kendra), who has an unusually not-so-bad redesign, complete with a new color scheme and a hawk-helmet with a hint of Egyptian design about it, and The Atom, diminutive World Army Sergeant Al Pratt, who gains both size-changing and nuclear powers after exposure to Apokaliptian energies and a nuclear weapon the World Army was planning to use against the enemy.

Both are part of the government's plans to manufacture their own Wonders, but Kendra escaped and went rogue, while The Atom remains a loyal soldier (and thus is in conflict with the other three heroes of Earth-2).

•The four heroes—Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkgirl and The Atom—are united by the common foe of Grundy, who is here a hulking, zombie-like creature wearing a sort of butcher's apron and commanding tendrils of dead plant-life. He's the champion of The Grey, a death-force in opposition to The Green, of which Green Lantern is the new champion, and his plan is to draw out GL and kill him. Obviously, that doesn't happen, as the four heroes defeat him (after spending some time with The Atom trying to capture Hawkgirl and The Flash).

•All in all, this turned out to be an all-around pretty good New 52 superhero comic, although, ironically, even if I had tried out the first issue when it was initially released serially, I probably would have ended up dropping the book. Scott's art on that issue is nice and all, but the plot of the first issue amounts to little more than "Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman all die horribly," and that's not the sort of first issue that makes me wanna read a second issue.

By the end of this trade though, I was eager to see what would happen next, and I find myself looking forward to the next trade.

Naturally, this creative team doesn't last long; Robinson is already departing the book. And DC Comics in general. Not that we should read anything into Robinson being the 27th or so professional with long-standing DC ties to run away from the publisher screaming!

I think I was most surprised by how good this turned out to be because Robinson, like Johns, is a writer whose best work for DC has been fairly grounded in arcane continuity and recycling and reusing the publisher's many pre-fab characters—generally, the more unloved and obscure the better—and doesn't exactly have a reputation for radical reinvention. But he does a pretty good job of recreating some of DC's best-known characters into something completely new here, fusing their Golden Age secret identities with more Silver Age power-levels and concerns and distinguishing his origins of them greatly from pre-existing versions.

•I remember making fun of the cover for the second issue of the series—which shows Jay Garrick running through a sewer, covered in rats—when it was released. The cover of issue #3 shows Alan Scott on fire, the flesh of his left hand literally burning off of the bone. The following issue? A crowd of zombies pulling Hawkgirl out of the sky.

I don't know what the idea of these particular covers were, but Earth 2 really seemed to go out of its way to advertise superheroics as something truly nightmarish (and, in all of the above cases, the cover makes the events inside seem much worse than they are; The Flash handily traps a bunch of vicious mutant rats in a garbage can, rescuing a couple being swarmed by them in an alley, in a two-page sequence of standard superheroics, for instance).

After the first issue, which shows the Trinity killing Parademons, it's not until issues #5 and #6 where the covers depict the heroes doing something heroic (Although, even in these images, being a superhero seems to be more about fighting for your life, rather than, I don't know, being able to run super-fast or to fly.

•Despite my initial revulsion to these designs when I saw some of them released on cover solicitations and so forth, I actually kind of like most of them. The Flash costume certainly lacks the charm of the original, and putting the character in such man-made looking clothing given his divine origins here (The Kingdom Come Flash is probably the best blessed-by-Hermes Flash design), the more time I spent with it the more I liked it.

The Green Lantern costume also lacks the flair, charm and individuality of the original, but rather works here, striking a compromise between the Silver Age costumes and the Kingdom Come green knight loook. This Lantern costume wouldn't work if Scott were still sharing an Earth with a half-dozen or so other Green Lanterns similarly attired, as he'd get lost in the crowd, but here he's his Earth's only GL, so that's not a concern.

I actually like Hawkgirl's look, and how much it differs from the original (specifically in the color scheme). It certainly sets her apart from all the the other Hawks that have preceded her, and offers a strong contrast to the colors of her teammates (although the trio haven't really formed a team of any kind by book's end), whereas if she were in her old green and orange orgold, she'd be sharing a color with each of them.

I even kinda liked The Atom's costume, which looks like a cross between the costume of post-Infinite Crisis Damage and that of G.I. Joe bad guy Firefly.

Grundy looks pretty dumb, but his original look would have seemed out of place here as well, given his function in the story.

As for the Trinity, Superman's costume is a vast improvement over his New 52 duds: He's lost his shorts (but has red "paneling" around his hips, not unlike the weird metal space girdle he wears in the Man of Steel movie), a different cut to his boots, and a much bigger S-shield, but otherwise he still looks like Superman. Much better than Jim Lee's high-collared, darker-colored, heavily-armored Superman on Earth-New 52.

Wondy's costume has quite a bit of tinkering, her tiara becoming a heavy-dut, heavy-metal headband that threatens to eat her face, and instead of a bracelet on her left-hand, most of the arm is covered in armor. She also wears a sort of battle skirt instead of shorts or pants.

I prefer even the New 52 version (which is basically just an over-accessorized, darker version of her standard costume) to this, but not by much, really; a toned-down version of this costume (which exists in the sketch gallery in the back of the trade) could have worked justt fine in The New 52.

Batman's costume is pretty drastically different, looking closer to Damian Wayne's future Batman costume than one Bruce Wayne could conceivably wear in a normal continuity, but it's kinda hard to judge Batman costume's too closely, since we've seen somewhere around 700,000 different Elseworlds Batman costumes.

The book ends with a six-page sequence of Scott's pencils (which are so great it seems a shame they had to be inked and colored at all), and nine pages of character sketches.

According to these, Jim Lee came up with the Solomon Grundy, Teh Atom, The Batman and a Steppenwolf (Although the one used int he story looks nothing like his version). Scott apparently designed The Superman, The Wonder Woman (the final version of which differs greatly from the one shown here, which basically just looks like the sort of Wondy costume that could have been put together in ancient Greece), The Flash (with several different lightning patterns and color schemes apparently run through) and The Sandmen. Joe Prado gets a credit for The Green Lantern.

•Hey, check it out! I finally figured out how to make bullet points!

1 comment:

Dave said...

I found the Wonders thing pretty cool. Robinson has said it is because Wonder Woman was the first hero on Earth 2 rather than Sueprman.

I wonder if Jim Lee being the designer of Grundy was a typo. Because Brett Booth designed Grundy and Hawkgirl.