Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Weekly Haul: June 6th

Avengers: The Initiative #3 (Marvel Comics) I wonder why Dan Slott isn’t on a regular Spider-Man title yet? If there’s a better Spider-Man writer currently working at Marvel, I’ve yet to read his work. Slott gets a chance to write the wall-crawler during a fight with the “lame half of the Sinister Syndicate” in this issue, a fight that the Initiative swoops in to break up. Slott is a writer who knows the lay of the land of the Marvel Universe with an unparalleled depth, and he seems so at home there that when he busts out a dozen guest-stars, it seems completely natural, rather than some sort of forced name-dropping. In addition to the Camp Hammond staffers and recruits, plus Spidey and his villains, this issue also sees brief appearances by Dani Moonstar, Beast, Thing, Stingray, Hellcat, Black Widow and Curt Connors, all while moving the several subplots forward. If I were forced to give up all but one Marvel title, I think this would be the one I’d hang on to, as it seems to be the one in which you get more of the Marvel Universe than any other title (and Slott even adds new characters to the mix).

As for the art end of things, I’ve been a fan of Steffano Caselli’s work since before his first Marvel gig, and I think he only gets better with each issue of this title. In addition to making everyone look cool—and Justice’s costume, for example, is not an easy one to make cool—he gets every little thing right, like the highly expressive faces on various characters, or the quilted look of the Shocker’s oven mitt looking costume, and, heck, even the panel of Spidey using his webbing to slam that vehicle into War Machine's on page 19 is drawn exactly right (Now put him on the covers!) With none of the awkward real world parallels to the War on Terror that marred the first two issues, Avengers: The Initiative #3 is pretty much a perfect Marvel comic book.

Birds of Prey #107 (DC Comics) (Note: This is going to be a long one, so if you don’t feel up to hearing me blabber about the cheapness of death in the DC Universe, you might just want to skip down to the next review).

I don’t think killing off superheroes and villains in either of the Big Two universes is ever a very good idea, mainly because in both cases the settings are much bigger and longer lived than a single creator (or set of creators), and there’s always more story potential for a living character than a dead character. So just because the X-writers of the late ‘90s didn’t think they had any Colossus stories left in them, for example, it didn’t mean that Joss Whedon wouldn’t badly want to write him a few years later, and make the character a part of one of the company’s best-selling titles. Now, there are times when killing off a character is actually a smart and dramatic move—Barry Allen in Crisis on Infinite Earths, Marvel’s original Captain Marvel in The Death of Captain Marvel, Jason Todd in “A Death in the Family,” for a few popular examples—but the impulse to bring characters back from the dead has slowly eroded the drama inherent in killing characters off. When the death and resurrection is intended and telegraphed as temporary, it’s understandable (Superman’s, Wonder Woman’s, Spider-Man’s and Donna Troy’s come to mind as deaths everyone knew would be reversed while they were occurring), but when relatively minor characters are clearly meant to killed off permanent-like (Think Hal Jordan, Oliver Queen, Colossus, Starman Will Payton and even Marvel’s original Captain Marvel) only to be resurrected later, it cheapens both the idea of death-of-a-hero stories, as well as resurrection-of-a-dead-hero stories.

At DC, death is probably more meaningless than it’s ever been, and stories involving the death of a live character or the resurrection of a dead character have not only gotten boring, but annoyingly, aggressively boring. I remember being pretty upset (or as upset as one can get about the death of a fictional character) by the deaths of Ted Kord and Sue Dibny, but the sheer number of people dying (the Wizard Shazam, Black Condor II, Phantom Lady II, Pantha, Wildebeest, Neptune Perkins, a bunch of New Bloods, Superboy, Aquaman, Rocket Red, Nyssa al Ghul, Ralph Dibny, The Question, The Ventriloquist, Orca, Terra II, Duela Dent) and coming back (Jericho, Hippolyta) between the point that Max Lord put a bullet in Kord’s head and the death of Lightray last week has rendered it all pretty meaningless (to say nothing of the multiple continuity reboots that have occurred in that short time, with yet another promised to occur within the year).

I think the resurrection of Jason Todd was the stake through the heart of death in the DCU, but even smaller resurrections like that of Jericho, or completely random ones (Lynx showing up alive in Robin months after her death for some reason—simply to be killed again, for example), have further eroded the concept of death as one with even the least bit of drama.

And that takes some doing—to render completely meaningless and uninteresting that which we fear the most, that event that defines all human life.

This is all just an extremely long lead-in to the review of this issue of Birds Of Prey which centered around the resurrection of a long, unequivocally dead superhero.

Gail Simone’s scripting is, in matters not related to resurrection, rather tight. She writes fantastic dialogue, and the charming bastards that compose her Secret Six are as much fun as ever, if not more so (As much as I liked the Mad Hatter on the team, this may be their strongest line-up yet. Quite selfishly, I kind of hope Gen 13, Welcome to Tranquilityand The All-New Atom, all of which are selling pretty terribly, will hurry up and get cancelled already, so Simone will have room in her schedule to focus on a Secret Six monthly).

I mean, come on, Simone’s Secret Six is awesome. Check this out:

Penciller Nicola Scott is pretty great too, although I have to point out that this sequence is pretty lame:

If this were old school Marvel and I was a letterhack looking for a No-Prize, I'd say that Eether Zinda is the world’s fastest walker, or that perhaps the cold generated by Ice was so extremely cold must have frozen those Rocket Reds in the foreground, which is why they don't change positions at all i the few minutes the three panels are meant to represent. But that can't be it; it looks instead like Scott recycled the same drawing twice, and forgot to alter it's other moving parts, and no one caugh her on it. (Some fault goes to Simone too, though; since there's dialogue before and after the sequence, as if that huge group of people all just silently stood around and watched Zinda walk off into the wilderness before resuming their conversations).

But on to the larger issue, the resurrection of Tora “Ice” Olaffsdotter.

Now, her death happened at a fairly low point in Justice League history— the 1994 “Judgment Day” crossover, which occurred during the valley of League quality between the peaks of the Giffen/DeMatteis era and Morrison era—but it still happened. It was a good superhero death, sacrificing her life to save the whole world, she had a funeral, was buried, went to the afterlife, effected character development among other characters (specifically Martian Manhunter and Guy Gardner in their own titles, and the pair of them as well as Fire, Booster Gold and Blue Beetle in the League titles). She was also replaced by Ice Maiden, so if someone wanted to write about a woman in the Justice League with ice powers, they were all set. If they wanted to write about Tora, well, they could do a story set in the past. I mean, there’s a whole monthly comic book devoted to telling stories set in the Justice League’s past.

Now if a writer wants to write about Tora in the current DCU, then I guess they have to go and bring her back from the dead, which is apparently what Simone wanted, and what she did. The story wasn’t an appropriately complicated or unique resurrection story, along the lines of Green Lantern: Rebirth or Green Arrow: Quiver; the agency of the resurrection was simply “magic” and the story itself was simply a big fight between the Birds and the Six. In a very real sense, Tora was literally just the maguffin in her own resurrection story.

I have a hard time understanding why this story took place here of all places as well. Tora has only the most tenuous connection to any of these characters—Huntress was mind-controlled into joining Tora’s iteration of the League briefly, although I don’t recall the two of them forming any kind of relationship, and Barda was married to a longtime ally of Tora’s in that version of the League. Wouldn’t a Tora resurrection story make more sense in Guy Gardner’s title, Green Lantern Corps, or Fire’s, Checkmate? Or, better still, in a Justice League special or miniseries or, best of all, a JLA: Classified arc, in which Tora’s old teammates—Guy, Fire, J’onn, Superman—could be involved and react? It’s not like DC’s doing anything with JLA: Classified at the moment anyway, other than filling it up with years-old inventory stories, stories that aren’t exactly selling well. As is, bringing Ice back to the land of the living in the pages of Birds of Prey is a little like having Hal Jordan’s “rebirth” take place in the pages of Outsiders. Unless Ice is joining the line-up of the Birds, which, while an odd place for her, at least justifies this story’s existence (Of course Simone will be leaving BoP shortly, whcih means she won't have control on whether Ice is on the team or not in a few more issues).

And, by way of a parting nitpick before moving on to the rest of this week’s haul. While I prefer the look Ice is sporting here, that’s not what her hair looked or what she was wearing when she died, ot in the weeks leading up to her death.

This is:

Black Summer #0 (Avatar Press) Don’t be fooled by the zero. While a lot of Avatar’s zero issues have tended to lean toward the preview-y, this specially-priced 99-cent issue reads exactly like the first chapter of a story, in which a popular superhero kills an unnamed president and vice-president (but given the fact that they’re killed because of having stolen the last two elections and invading Iraq under false pretenses, it’s safe to say it was Bush and Cheney) and then gives a press conference, saying new elections will be held in a few days time. It’s an intriguing opening chapter, and one that could go still either way (writer Warren Ellis seems to be playing it a tad safe here, as the superhero responsible for killing Bush and Cheney seems to be the Bad Guy, speaking not for Ellis but for the forces of Evil).

That said, however, does it seem like maybe there are seventy or eighty Justice League and Avengers analogues in these sorts of stories already? I mean, it was cool when Marvel introduced the Squadron Supreme, or when Giffen/DeMatteis told their stories involving the Silver Sorceress, Scarlet Skier and General Glory, and even Kurt Busiek and company’s Astro City analogues and Alan Moore’s use of Supreme as Superman were cool, but after having read Powers, The Pro, Worldwatch, Invincible, The American Way, Hero Squared, The Boys, and Ellis’ own (repeated use) of Justice League-like teams in his runs on WildStorm titles, I think I’ve seen more than enough comics about JLA-like teams of superheroes. The fact that this comic involves a team called The Seven Guns, and seems to be a “What If…the Avengers Murdered President Bush?” story seems like a strike against it right off the bat. It’s only Ellis’ fault in that he seems to be crafting Interesting Twist On a Story Involving a Justice League-Like Team #278, instead of inventing something a little more original. Relying on the Justice League/Avengers archetype to tell a superhero genre mash-up story is a crutch, a cliché that gets more tired with each usage.

But I’ll definitely be back for #1.

Countdown #47 (DC) You know, when I first saw this cover, I found it incredibly depressing. Of course, that was before Marvel unveiled their “Heroes for Hentai” cover, which lowered the bar for inappropriately sexual images so far that Benes’ creepy image of Mary Marvel having an orgasm while lightning strikes her tits seem positively tasteful.

I still think it’s less-than-appropriate, however. Now, Countdown is unquestionably DC’s book devoted purely to pushing the buttons of their most hardcore fanboys (As one of those fanboys, I think it’s something of a failure, but surely it’s intended to cater to people who can keep up with Jason Todd and Donna Troy’s backstories). If there’s a place for tarted up superheroines in DCU comics, it’s definitely within the pages of Countdown.

However, the cover of Countdown is something else entirely (the outrage over that HFH cover would be lessened at least a degree, I think, if the image weren’t on the cover for all random passersby to see...and were it not on the cover, it wouldn't have been in solicitations, and chances are no one would have noticed it beyond the 45 people who read the troubled title).

And Mary Marvel is one of the last characters that should ever be dressed in a skirt that doesn’t cover her ass. It’s a little hard to keep the Marvel Family mythology straight now that Judd Winick has been allowed to have his crazy, crazy way with it, but Mary Batson/Bromfield is a little girl—at the oldest (DC has gradually aged the Marvels until they were older and older teenagers) she can’t be older than 17, cand she? And, well, like the constant ogling of the current teenaged Supergirl, that’s kind of, um, wrong, isn’t it? Unlike Billy Batson, who was a child who became an adult when he said “Shazam!,” Freddy Freeman and Mary Batson/Bromfield didn’t turn into adult superheroes, they just gained superpowers in their normal forms. But again, maybe that’s changed. Maybe Mary was 17 during Infinite Crisis, and is thus now of age. Still, whether she's technically 18 in the DCU or not, it's still pretty creepy, considering that generations of readers have been thought to regard her as a teenager and/or little girl and, well, this is how she’s currently being portrayed in another DC comic book currently in publication:

So that cover? Ewwwwww!. Say what you want about the Mary Jane Laundry Statue, but at least MJ's an adult.

As for the interior of the issue, it's much, much, much better than the last few. Sean McKeever, who writes this issue “with” Paul Dini is able to avoid any head-banging, hair-tearing continuity mistakes of the sort that punctuated the first four issues of the series, and he even provides a scene that is quite clever, in which the Trickster and Pied Piper have trouble talking to one another without accidentally coming up with metaphors that sound really, really gay (Like, for example, “It’s my turn to have you over a barrel for once. So to speak.”) There are also check-ins with Jimmy Olsen, Black Adam and Mary, the Monitors and “Holly Robinson,” whom I guess used to be Catwoman II and killed a cop or something…? (I don't know; I quit reading Catwoman around the time the Paul Pope covers stopped).

The art comes courtesy of Tom Derenick and a trio of inkers, and is by far the best looking of the series thus far. He even draws Mary as a teenager (she gains a few inches and cup-sizes when the Black Adam’s magic lightning finally hits her), but as good as his portrayal of the characters are in this issue, it just kind of underlines the fact that the previous pencillers drew a smaller, less-imposing Black Adam, and a bigger, bustier Mary.

In the Dan Jurgens penned and penciled back-up feature, the Monitors continue to summarize the Crisis on Multiple Earths trades. They’re now only up to The Anti-Matter Man, which means we're in for a long, long haul yet.

Detective Comics#833 (DC) You know, I bet if it wasn’t for that two-part fill-in about the terrorist Vox threatening to blow up Wayne Tower, this story would have hit with a lot more force, given the fact that this is writer Paul Dini’s very first multi-part story on the title, so that when it ends with a cliffhanger, not only are you (artificially) worried about the welfare of Batman (I’m pretty sure he’ll live), but the very fact that there is a cliffhanger is pretty exciting…when was the last time Dini made us wait to see how things would turn out on a Batman case? I hesitate to talk much about this issue at all, given that a good deal of the pleasure comes form the surprises in it. Suffice it to say that stage magician Ivar Loxias returns, and Batman calls on Zatanna for some good old-fashioned Brave and the Bold action. And the case takes an unexpected turn. This is Dini writing some of his favorite characters, and it shows. The writer does a good job of extrapolating a prior relationship between the Waynes and the Zataras, as well as acknowledging the post-Identity Crisis tension between the two heroes (which, quite honestly, I hope never goes away—Batman just isn’t a forgive and forget type, and it kind of galls me that he doesn’t punch Hal Jordan in the face every single time he sees him, or that he hasn’t found some reason to put Hawkman in jail yet). Don Kramer is a fine artist, and while I’ll probably never stop wishing that Bruce Timm, Ronnie del Carmen, Ty Templeton, Rick Burchett or someone with a similar aesthetic were teamed with Dini on the title, Kramer does a fine job as always, particularly in the silent magic trick sequence set in a flash back.

The Irredeemable Ant-Man #9 (Marvel) So it would appear that less than 16,000 reader’s checked out April’s Irredeemable Ant-Man #7, which is a pity. I realize that few people want to read about a complete bastard of a “hero,” that fewer still want to read about a hero named “Ant-Man,” and that Phil Hester’s chunky, flat arc style may not be to most Marvel fans’ liking (me, I love it). Still, if you haven’t yet at least tried an issue of this hilarious series yet, do me a favor and do so this month or next (that’s be the big World War Hulk tie-in). It should be easy to spot among the other Marvels.

It’s the one in which the title character plays Nintendo Wii with The Silver Fox.

This month’s issue also had a four-page Mini Marvel back-up by Chris Giarrusso entitled “Hulk Date.” Hulk is taking Betty Ross out on a date, and the other Marvels all give him advice. The panel in which Hulk tries to use Thor’s advice is perhaps my favorite single panel of the week, and I laughed aloud at the line, “Hulk not have surname.” Ha!

The Lone Ranger #6 (Dynamite Entertainment) Given the drag-ass pace of writer Brett Matthews’ last five issues, an awful lot occurs in this particular one, which brings the secret origin of the Lone Ranger, and all of the various elements of his myth (Tonto, the silver bullets, Silver, the mask) to a close. An all-around great Western comic; if you missed the singles, don’t sleep on the upcoming trade.

Midnighter #8 (WildStorm/DC) After writer Garth Ennis’ original story arc about Midnighter going back in time to kill Hitler wrapped, the title apparently became an anthology series. Ennis’ #6 wasn’t very good (and didn’t really make any sense), but Brian K. Vaughan’s #7 was great, and so to is this done-in-one by writer Christos Gage and artist John Paul Leon. After brutally killing a bad guy, Jack Hawksmoor challenged Midnighter to go on a mission that doesn’t involve brutally killing a bad guy, like helping a little girl find her cat. Begrudgingly, Midnighter agrees, and, as fate would have it, the case of the missing cat quickly morphs into something more his speed. The coloring seemed a little too garish for Leon’s work, but the pencils and inks are just plain beautiful (on a second read through, I kept finding myself pausing to stare at certain panels), and Gage manages several laugh out loud moments.

And could “Thank you, Scary Leather Man. I love you.” be the line of the week? Deinitely—were it not the same week as "Hulk not have surname."

Superman #663 (DC) The New Genesian Young Gods come to Metropolis and wreak havoc, and their chaperones, the pre-Countdown Lightray and Fastbak, get them in line while Superman reaches his decision regarding Arion’s warning that he quit the superhero game for the betterment of mankind. It’s great stuff. A wonderful script full of clever action and dialogue, strong characterization and the sort of continuity adherence that is far too rare at DC these days (Busiek explains why it seemed Arion cameo-ed in the Day of Vengenace Special when those who’ve read JSA knew he had died). Carlos Pacheco and Jose Merino’s art is absolutely perfect, from that great cover, to the images of the Daily Planet building to the designs and rendering of the young New Gods and the middle-aged New Gods to the magical heroes hanging out in the background at the Oblivion Bar.


Jacob T. Levy said...

As one of those fanboys, I think it’s something of a failure, but surely it’s intended to cater to people who can keep up with Jason Todd and Donna Troy’s backstories

That about sums it up. Compared to 52, this is incredibly inaccessible to outsiders. For insiders, it's just constantly annoying.

One of the lesser but constant annoyances: not only are the Monitors irritating characters in their own right, but they subtract from my memory of the original Monitor, who was a much cooler character and who had all the special cachet of being the unique embodiment of the *whole* positive-matter multiverse.

More generally, it takes stories and characters that only fanboys care about, and makes us care about them *less* by making death temporary, multiversal stuff ordinary and banal, etc etc

Matthew said...

RE: the Lone Ranger - I did buy the singles, but I'll get the trade in order to have less awful decompression!

As for Ant-Man, I'm amused that our hero is drawn so similarly to the annoying tyke who popped up in Wii adverts repeatedly over the last few months.

Anonymous said...

I don't find the critcism of Black Summer fair, as after meeting only 2 (3rd briefly) characters from the 'Seven Guns' I cannot identify them as Justice League simulacrums as you claim.

If you're just sick of reading about super heroes that's cool, but I find your current critique to on Black Summer to be somewhat misguided.