Wednesday, May 16, 2007
Weekly Haul: May 16th
Action Comics #849 (DC Comics) There are two topics you’re supposed to avoid talking about with acquaintances—religion and politics. Coincidentally, those are the two topics that mainstream super-comics are pretty much verboten to talk about. Oh it’s fine if religion is somehow integral to the character, as with your Thors or Zauriels, or if they’re minor characters like Daredevil or Ragman, but in general we’re better off not knowing what church Superman or Spider-Man go to or who Captain America and Batman vote for.
I don’t know if I necessarily agree with this in practice, but I do in theory. I can see how an atheist Batman or a left-wing Democrat Superman could be alienating to a lot of readers and why DC would avoid laying such details out in a cut-and-dry kind of way. I do know that stories dealing with religion and the bigger characters in DC’s pantheon over the years have tended to suck pretty badly (Although I do think there’s an interesting story to be told regarding how mainstream religions differ between our world and the fictional universe of the DCU, where The Spectre runs around stomping on sinners).
This is a long way of saying that writer Fabian Nicieza has acquitted himself quite nicely in this two-parter pitting Superman vs. a Superman-like hero who is seemingly powered by the prayers of his crypto-Christian congregation. Nicieza gives us some clues about Superman’s own religious background and personal faith (he went to church as a boy but quit as a teenager; Ma still attends) while keeping it so vague you could read almost anything into it, thus attributing your own personal beliefs to Superman quite easily. It’s a tough trick to pull off, but Nicieza does it.
The art side of things is a little less impressive. Allan Goldman does a pretty good job, but Redemption’s Ultimates-esque ribbed costume seems too derivative (nice, stylized “R” though), and Goldman has a tendency to draw Clark Kent as a little too buff-looking at all times (I was really hoping Frank Quitely’s way of differentiating Clark and Supes visually through their posture in All-Star Superman would get picked up on and emulated by more Superman artists). Also, I really wish someone would decide just how the hell old the Kents are now and what they look like. Since around the pre-IC period they seemed to get younger and younger, resembling their Smallville versions more and more. Here Pa looks Smallville-ian, while Ma looks closer to her Superman Returns look. I like the chubby, white-haired, bespectacled look, but whatever it’s going to be, let’s have a little consistency, huh?
All-Star Batman and Robin, The Boy Wonder #5 (DC)
This is the first of the so-long-delayed-you-won’t-believe-it’s-actually-come-out-until-you’ve-read-it book to hit comic shops this Wednesday. Regarding the book’s scheduling difficulties, Tom Spurgeon says it better than I could: “Late because it's funnier that it's late.”
That seems to hit upon what I think is this particular work’s core reason for being–it’s completely hilarious, and it’s supposed to be. There seems to be quite a wide spectrum of reactions to Frank Miller’s scripting here. Unlike some, I don’t think he’s completely lost his mind (at least, not when it comes to writing Batman comics), nor do I think he’s suddenly forgotten how to write Batman comics. I think he’s having a bit of a laugh at modern comics. You kids like decompression? Suck on this four-issue car ride! You like the “Dark Knight” version of Batman? Take this Dick Grayson-slapping, cop-killing lunatic then!
In that context, the longer delayed this thing is, as Spurgeon points out, the funnier it actually is. Part of me hopes Miller and Jim Lee just kinda quit and wait until Kevin Smith gets around to Daredevil: The Target #2 before releasing another issue, but then, I wouldn’t get to read any more issues of it for a while, and that would bum me out because, like I said, I think this book is absolutely hilarious, and I love every panel of it.
In this issue, Miller does another of those things about modern comics I absolutely loathe, with each scene being first-person narrated by a different character in their own, personal font (See JLoA).
First it’s Wonder Woman, as hardcore ultra-feminist to the point of anti-man (here’s the caricature of feminism Rush Limbaugh and the late, great Jerry Falwell liked to talk about, wherein feminism is incorrectly defined as the belief that females are superiorto men, rather than equal). She calls a man on the street a “sperm-bank,” and Miller fills her narration boxes with a sort of overdone, hard-boiled Dark Knight voice, substituting the word “criminal” for "man."
She’s part of a Justice League consisting of Superman, Hal Jordan and Plastic Man, and all of them are characterized as they were in The Dark Knight Strikes Again (Lee gives her the tiara Miller dressed her in during that series, but otherwise her costume here resembles a skimpier version of her first Golden Age costume).
We also spend a few pages with Alfred as you’ve never seen him, and Dick Grayson exploring the Batcave. (Miller and Lee get Dick so right that as different as the other characters all seem, this Dick seems exactly like the one in Dark Victory, Batman: Year Three and Robin: Year One).
And then there’s the middle interlude, devoted to the crazy, sadistic Batman, the one who says “I love being the goddam BATMAN” and “Another STORM. Cool.”
But the piece de resistance?
Page 15, panel two. “What? THIS.”
In one panel (and just four words) Miller once again distills his Batman down to his absolute essence—a violent, showboating maniac whose sole redeeming quality is his choice in victim.
And I think it is this take on the iconic character, a character Miller has been so instrumental in defining over the years. (Certainly accomplishing more to define the character in fewer stories than anyone else—seriously, how many Batman stories has Miller even written? This is only his fifth, right? And only one of these five was even in continuity).
For decades writers have played with the idea that Batman isn’t quite right in the head, whether he’s merely portrayed as antisocial and a bit of a control freak, or he’s on the razor’s edge between sanity and madness, battling his own personal demons before they push off that thin ledge and into the abyss of madness (Something tells me I just subconsciously cribbed the second half of that last sentence from at least seven different Batman stories). In All-Star Batman and Robin, The Boy Wonder, Miller’s simply taking it a little farther, while coming up with a portrayal that’s perfectly obvious. The guy’s not on the edge of sanity, he’s already around the corner—I mean, he’s already dressing up as a bat and beating the hell out of people.
All-Star Batman and Robin, The Boy Wonder #5 (DC)
No, you’re not seeing double, and yes, I did just review this book above. But that was the review for the issue with the Jim Lee cover. This is a variant review of the issue with the Frank Miller cover.
I just wanted to say a few words about that Miller cover because, well, it’s just so awesome. Okay, so it basically consists of a close-up of Wonder Woman’s ass over a background-less, blood-splattered black field, with pretty much everything that isn’t Wonder Woman’s ass (there’s a little side, a little back, a breast and some thighs in there) completely cropped out.
Now, I know we talk about sexism, feminism, women-in-refrigerator-ism and sundry other –isms here at EDILW, and I don’t doubt there are some lady and gentleman bloggers out there that think this cover is sexist and demeaning. I don’t think it is personally, for several reasons.
First, it’s fairly well drawn. I’m not entirely sure about the jutting left corner of ribcage there, but, depending on what Wondy’s doing with her arms, it’s not an impossible features. And as for the focus of the thing, her ass, well, the legs connect to the hip bones, the hip bones connect to the pelvis. In other words, it’s anatomically correct…or at least anatomically correct-ish, and in an era where Michael Turner is the cover artist for both DC’s top-selling book and an handful of Marvel books, despite the fact that he doesn’t seem to have every seen a woman in real life, is good enough for me.
Secondly, like it or not, Wonder Woman’s ass has always been her most iconic feature, the equivalent of Superman’s big red “S” or Batman’s pointy ears. Other heroes rock wristbands and tiaras, other heroines carry golden lariats (a couple of whom are in Wonder Woman’s “family”), but no other hero has a star spangled ass. If you’re going to zoom in on a single element of Wonder Woman’s costume that unequivocally, unquestionably says WONDER WOMAN!, where else are you going to go?
Finally, it’s not like Miller doesn’t know it’s a cover that looks sexist and exploitive. That’s the whole point, isn’t it? If he weren’t trying to push buttons, he would have had her face in there, looking over her shoulder. Is there another cover of a super-comic in the history of super-comics that is composed around a close-up of an ass? None that I’ve seen. (I guess I could plug “ass” into comics.org and see what comes up…)
Just like every other aspect of All-Star Batman and Robin, this variant cover seems designed exclusively to be over-the-top, to zero in on a trend of modern superhero comics and blow it up to the most ludicrous level imaginable.
It’s worth noting that the costume Wonder Woman seems to be wearing on the cover differs from the one she wears inside. Her top on Miller’s cover more closely resembles the gladiatrix get-up from Dark Knight Strikes Again, rather than the skimpy Golden Age costume Lee draws her rocking within.
Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis #52 (DC) All of the good will Tad Williams and Sean McManus earned from me with #50 has just about dried up. It still looks like an interesting story is about to start up any second now, but man, that’s been the story with this title for 52 issues now, from that water hand vs. the Thirst business through the “OYL” change of focus. Williams seems to be drawing all of the various new directions of this volume of the series together into one semi-sensible world, but I’m just about out of patience.
Army @ Love (Vertigo/DC) Just like the last two issues. And I mean that in a good way.
Batman #665 (DC) It’s really too bad that Grant Morrison and Andy Kubert couldn’t keep a monthly schedule on this book, because they are both great talents that work together quite well, and they’re obviously telling a series of shorter stories that all feed into one larger, overarching story (just as Morrison did with JLA and New X-Men). I think they’ve got the chops for a truly classic run on a Bat-title, but with fill-in arc and fill-in artists, it doesn’t even really qualify as a run, just some Morrison/Kubert stories doled out in a Batman-themed anthology. The middle chapter of a three-parter dealing with “The Black Casebook,” which is defined herein (Great idea, by the way), this issue features Batman recovering from his battle with “Baneman” and then going back for a rematch, with the highlight probably being his pain, painkiller and bad-dreamed induced freaking out (his face in page 7, panel 2 is absolutely priceless).
Countdown #50 (DC) In the space of just two issues, I’ve gone from not expecting much to disappointed to now really quite worried. We’re only two issues into this 52-part storyline, and already the writing team and editorial have made a few glaringly obvious mistakes that are more than enough to throw readers right out of the story. This series is being sold as “the backbone of the DCU” for this coming year, and, well, the fact that it’s broken doesn’t bode well for the rest of the DCU line of super-books for the rest of the year, does it?
I was cool with this issue for all of three pages, or seven panels. Then we get up to the reveal that Superman was using his amazing vision powers to guide his pal Jimmy Olsen to the middle of a big fight between Jason Todd, The Red Hood, and then leaves Olsen alone to interview the wanted killer.
I mean, Jason Todd is a wanted killer, right? I’ve tried to avoid reading most Red Hood stories because I’ve never been able to wrap my head around how bringing him back to life wasn’t The Worst Idea In the Entire History of Comics, but I do specifically recall that in “Under The Hood” he did have a duffle bag full of heads he’d personally severed. And the dude knows the secret identity of Batman, so he could bring Bats down any time he wants. Sure, here he’s fighting some really, really stupid high-tech ninjas (Laser sai? Seriously?), but didn’t he just kill a buncha dudes in World War III a few weeks ago? And in Nightwing? And didn’t he just kidnap Speedy in Green Arrow? How is Batman not down his throat yet? Why is Superman able to find him at the drop of a hat, but then doesn’t do anything to, you know, catch him? (This is the problem with big, huge stories that span the whole DCU like this…they underscore each and every lapse of logic that occurs between books. Hell, this series seems to use those logic lapses as its very foundation).
Anyway, that’s just from looking at the panel. Then I actually read it, and the rest of the page and, believe it or not, things get worse. While Jimmy doesn’t specifically mention Bruce Wayne is Batman, he does mention that Jason Todd was Robin II and was killed by the Joker, and that he replaced “the first Robin, Dick Grayson.” So, obviously, Olsen knows who Batman is—I mean, what are the chances that Bruce Wayne’s first two wards were Batman’s first two Robins, and Wayne wasn’t Batman? And here I should point out that Jimmy Olsen doesn’t know Superman’s secret identity yet, why the hell does he know Batman’s?
That’s probably the worst of scripters Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray’s first turn writing “with” “head writer” Paul Dini, but it’s not even all the bad stuff. There’s also the bit where Jimmy mentions that something seems a little weird, and Jason Todd’s response is simply, “If you want answers for questions beyond reason… …There’s a guy in Arkham Asylum who wrote the book on crazy.” Yes, go interview the Joker Jimmy. Not because a woman claiming to be his daughter was killed, but because you want an answer to a crazy question, and therefore the craziest man in the world is the one you want to talk to.
Finally, there’s the bit where the fact that the Joker’s Daughter isn’t actually the Joker’s daughter comes as a surprise to Olsen. No shit Jimmy; you’ve somehow figured out Batman’s secret identity, but you didn’t google “Duela Dent” before staring your story?
The middle bits—in which Mary Marvel visits Madame Xanadu, the Flash rogues hang out, and we see the off-panel Karate Kid vs. Batman fight from JLoA #8 play out on-panel, are all fine, though not enough to redeem the fact that the scenes that bookend them don’t make any goddam sense.
Art comes courtesy of J. Calafiore and inker Mark McKenna; I haven’t seen Calafiore’s art in quite a while (not since he was the regular penciller on the last volume of Aquaman), but his style seems a little subdued here, either because he toned it down to better fit in with the other artists on the series, or because it’s gotten a little less idiosyncratic over the years.
The cover, by Andy Kubert, is a perfect portrait of the Joker, toting trophies from a potentially fallen Olsen. It’s a really striking image, so much so that it makes me kinda wish DC would have enlisted Kubert to provide 51 other portrait-like covers like this to give the book’s covers a visual identity on the stands to match that of 52.
It’s too bad that the cover is the last good part of Countdown #50.
Fallen Son: The Death of Captain America #3 (Marvel Comics) I had no intention of buying this, but the damnable staff of my local comic shop put it in my pull list, and I flipped through it before I put it back on the shelf—and a flip-through was all it took to remind me that this one had John Romita Jr. art (always a hard thing to pass up) and that the identity of the dude in the Captain America costume on the cover was actually a pretty interesting choice, even if it’s extremely temporary.
Writer Jeph Loeb only elicited one wince from me here, at the point in which the title is awkwardly announced as part of the dialogue, and otherwise managed to avoid doing anything horribly wrong for 22 pages. There’s an encounter in here that people have been expecting for a while now, and this issue actually fills in some much-needed back story regarding how a certain character got to be in the pages of New Avengers.
Romita’s art is, as always, top-notch. I particularly liked his Iron Man, which seems to mix the bulky, tank-like appearance of his old school, chunky garbage can-looking armor with the sleeker, more stylized look of the more recent red and gold.
Justice League of America #9 (DC)
Sometimes I think Brad Meltzer writes this title just for me. Not because it’s everything I could possibly ask for in a super-comic—Good Lord, no—but because each and every issue just seems jam-packed with stuff to nitpick. If I’m not engaged as a reader, at the very least, I’m always totally engaged as a nitpicker.
Let’s skip over the usual complaints—the color-coded narration boxes that add nothing to the story that isn’t apparent from the dialogue and art, the random introduction of characters new readers won’t recognize (including a completely random trio of villains form different time periods), that I had to look at yet another Michael Turner cover (what’s Hawkman’s nipple doing over there?), or the fact that Batman has no secret identity (Wait, when did Mr. Terrific learn it, exactly?)—in favor of new, fresh ones.
Like, for example, Gorilla City, which Vixen “Waited her whole life to come” to, despite the fact that the very existence of Gorilla City was a secret up until maybe two years ago DCU time (See the "JLApe" annuals…no seriously, that’s where the city “came out” to the world, as it were). Or that Solovar seems alive and well (also killed during the aforementioned “JLApe” story)...or is that his supposed to be his son? Or that Power Girl was on Thanagar for the last six months (Weird…wasn’t she in World War III? And when did all that crazy stuff with Supergirl and Kandor happen?) flirting with Hawkman and, in her very classy words, “trying to get a little tail” from the Winged Wonder.
The most remarkable part, however, is Karate Kid’s offhanded reference to “arriving so soon after the middle crisis.” You heard it here first kids; Infinite Crisis was just the middle one, so I guess that’s what Countdown is counting down to…Crisis 3.0. Sigh.
Meltzer gets plenty of points for including a scene of gorillas riding on top of velociraptors though. So it’s not like the issue was a complete waste.
Marvel Adventures #13 (Marvel) Guest-starring Hank Pym! When the Avengers run afoul of people-eating bug-men from somewhere underground, Giant Girl suddenly switches sides, and the Avengers must learn her origin story if they hope to save the day. Not quite as funny as Parker’s last few issues of the title, “Attack of the 50 Foot Girl!” still has it’s moments, chief of which is probably Spider-Man stopping to give a long-winded interview while being stomped to death.
The Mighty Avengers #3 (Marvel) Now that I stop and think about it, I’m not sure I’ve ever read a Tigra story before, save for her team-up with the title character in Werewolf By Night, which was collected in the WBN essential volume. So I’m not sure if she’s always this skeevy, or if Frank Cho just likes to make characters and/or sex-less robots as skeevy as possible. Aside from her cover appearance, in which she resembles every other woman Cho draws (only with stripes!) and is in a very stupid, “Take me from behind please, Mighty Avengers Reader!” pose, she appears with her legs splayed open in one panel during a “date” with Hank Pym. Just in case the Ultron-as-naked-lady plot doesn’t provide enough titillation for male readers.
It’s actually a pretty funny two-page scene in which Tigra appears, which makes it something of a shame that Cho can’t dial back just enough to keep the focus on the situation rather than Tigra’s crotch. There are a lot of funny scenes in this issue. In fact, this might be Brian Michael Bendis’ most unapologetically funny Marvel work; it’s certainly the funniest he’s done that’s actually set in the mainstream Marvel Universe. Not a whole hell of a lot happens—the various characters all just sort of run around in varying degrees of panic, trying to figure out how and why Tony Stark turned into a naked lady that looks like a Cho girl with the Wasp’s hair claiming to be Ultron, and keeping Ultron from destroying a helicarrier. Nice, fun, chaotic stuff.
The Ultimates 2 #13 (Marvel) And here’s the other so-long-delayed-you-won’t-believe-it’s-actually-come-out-until-you’ve-read-it book of the week. The fact that both Ultimates #13 and All-Star Batman #5 actually saw release on the same day kind of scares me a little. It’s the comic book industry equivalent of your cow giving birth to a two-headed calf during an eclipse, you know?
While I’m no fan of late comics, I think there are degrees to the badness of late comics, and I’m quicker to forgive the All-Stars than The Ultimates simply because they’re standalone vanity projects in which the creative team is the draw. As with Doc Frankenstein and Shaolin Cowboy, I’m happy to see the All-Stars when they come out, but they don’t really irritate me when they fail to show up.
Ultimates 2 is worse for two reasons. First, it’s tied to a fictional universe and a whole line. The Ultimate universe and line aren’t as big as the DCU or the MU, and thus an obscenely delayed Ultimates isn’t as bad as, say, a modestly delayedCivil War, Allan Heinberg’s Wonder Woman or Loeb’s Superman/Batman. But the rest of the Ultimate Universe still has to move forward, and has had to sort of dance around the ending of its flagship title. It also has pretensions of relevance, peppered with real people, from Hollywood celebrities to political figures, and its attempted timeliness is completely sunk by the scheduling. Remember in the first volume when Tony Stark was dating Shannon Elizabeth, or Betty Ross Freddie Prinze Jr.? That was a year ago Ultimates time, yet a lifetime in those particular celebrities shelf lives. There was a point in which president George W. Bush spoke of his re-election (in 2004), and yet here Nancy Pelosi is House Speaker and Robert Gates is Secretary of Defense (that’s late 2006).
This story arc kicked off with the U.S. invasion of a middle eastern country (2003), but the Iraq War is over four year’s old at this point. The entire 25 issue run is steeped in post-9/11 tension, but 9/11 was almost six years ago. The zeitgeist moves on, and Mark Millar, Paul Neary and (especially) Bryan Hitch are too slow to build epic stories on it. (I think Civil War suffered quite a bit to this same inability to produce glossy, photorealistic art to match a story with pretensions of responding to the here and now; by the time Civil War kicked off, our world’s political climate had already changed from the mood Civil War sought to anchor its events in).
So finally reading this ultimate Ultimates book was something of a weird experience, more akin to finding an old book in the back of a longbox you’d somehow stored without reading than to reading a brand-new issue.
Yeah, I’d pretty much forgotten many of the details of the previous 24 issues, and certainly whatever dramatic tension there was to the story dissipated months and months ago. Loki summons the forces of Ragnarok, Thor rallies the Ultimates and Asgardian reinforcements, there’s a big fight, and Millar moves the team closer to the Marvel Universe’s Avengers, with the vagaries of Thor’s status dispelled and the team officially detaching itself from the U.S. government in favor of Tony Stark’s billions.
The writing is quite decent. Millar excels at Stark-as-eccentric and in four pages gives Ultimate Tony more life and personality than he managed to give 616 Tony in seven issues of Civil War. The Asgardians’ entrance was beautifully handled, with a perfectly flat, perfectly comic book-y rainbow streaking through Hitch and company’s photorealistic page to deposit a mysterious army.
Millar mostly avoids the big dumb moments and cheesy lines of Civil War, only getting one real groaner in (Loki to Thor: “How does it feel, brother? How does it feel to die alone in the dirt?” Thor to Loki: “Idiot. Did you honestly think… …I would come here alone?”)
But this is Hitch’s show, and, as usual, he draws the living hell out of everything, proving to be able to serve up visuals worthy of Millar’s ambitious script (I hate to keep bringing up Civil War, but remember how that climactic battle seemed oddly rushed an underpopulated? This battle plays like that one should have).
Whether you’re counting the scales on giant snake or the bystanders fleeing the jaws of giant wolves, you can generally see the time Hitch and company spent on this thing. Not all of that time was spent wisely, however. The eight-page gatefold scene is a nice piece of standalone artwork, but it’s ill served by the format (it takes much longer to unfold and re-fold than it takes to “read” it).
In fact, in retrospect, Ultimates seems like a waste of Hitch’s abilities.
As a “monthly” ongoing series, one that took a hell of a lot longer than 25 months to reach 25 issues, with long, long, momentum-killing stretches between issues. Despite the fact that the first 12 and the last 13 were supposed to unfold in relatively short amounts of time, the time spent waiting for the books exceeded the amount of time that passes in the books to a degree unique in mainstream comics. That made for a frustrating read in which one forgets the details and loses interest in the plots.
Most decompressed stories are decompressed by the relatively small amount of action that takes place per issue, but Ultimates has been it’s own peculiar brand of decompression, with the months between issues having the same effect as eight issues of cinematic, silent panels. The savior of the decompressed story is the collected graphic novel; I’m sure that overly drawn out stories like New Avengers or drawn out and delayed stories like House of M and Civil War read far better in one big chunk than in single-issue installments, but, when read as two graphic novels, Ultimates likely won’t hold together, as the name-dropping dates it so horribly. Already the first volume seems dated; I can’t imagine what it will read like in five or ten years.
So I hate to say it considering how much I enjoyed the series and how incredible so much of Hitch’s work here was, but, ultimately, Ultimates seems a bit like a waste of everybody’s time. The mainstream comics companies have long past gotten over the whole “widescreen” thing that was Ultimates reason for being (Civil War being the death of widescreen comics), just as they’ve gotten past their love affair with Hitch’s Ultimates aesthetic, with the period in which every new superhero costume seemed ripped-off of the ribbed leather look seemingly in the past now (Roy Harper even traded in his Ultimate Hawkeye look for a classic Green Arrow look), and Marvel art in general moving toward a photorealistic aesthetic, so that Hitch's mastery of it doesn't stand out quite as strongly as it did four years ago.
Unable to keep a monthly schedule to match its ambitions at timeliness and relevance, and too dated to achieve any kind of timelessness as a graphic novel, the 25 issues of this comic book series amount to little more than Millar and Hitch’s heavily illustrated pitch for an Avengers movie and sequel.
Ultimate Spider-Man #109 (Marvel) Just like the last 108 issues. And I mean that in a good way.
X-Factor #19 (Marvel) This particular issues is devoted to a parade of lame-ass X-villains from throughout the X-books, many of whom seem to have been magically de-powered due to the events of M-Day, but I haven’t been following any of the X-books save this one and a the first few arcs of Astonishing since House of M so, um, I really don’t have any idea what’s going on, which made this a particularly weird and empty read.
I would like to point out that the whole “No more mutants” thing doesn’t really make any sense. Since mutant powers are a genetic thing, you shouldn’t be able to turn them off any more than you could, like, turn off a bird’s ability to fly or a spider’s ability to shoot webs out of it’s butt.* (Yeah, yeah I know—“It’s magic.” Whatever). Additionally, from an editorial standpoint, it seems to have been a rather pointless move. I haven’t seen any reduction in the number of X-Men books being published since then, and if the point was to spare readers from having to read stories about lame-ass mutants like Marrow, Reaper and Abyss, well then, X-Factor #19.
*Not actually the scientific term for the place on a spider’s body the webs come out of.