Saturday, September 15, 2007

I probably won't read this comic. But here are 4,000 words about it anyway.

The premise of DC’s December series Countdown: Arena is a simple yet somewhat high concept one. Here’s the pitch: We’ve got this all-new Multiverse, in which many popular parallel continuitiverses of DC’s now have their own “Earth” and can crossover with the DCU proper, right? So let’s have a big old Battle Royale with, like, all of the Batmen fighting each other, and all of the Supermen, and on and on until we’re down to, like, the Blue Beetles.

It’s not a bad idea, and one that, in theory, I’d be all about. (Some of my favorite DC stories of all time will be fielding candidates for this battle royale).

Like pretty much everything these days on their slate, however, DC’s taken a pretty decent idea and tried to render it as terrible as possible. (Um, based on what I know so far since I haven’t actually, like, read the series yet).

First, the series will be tied into Countdown (hence the title).

Now, I don’t know if you still read Countdown or not, but I read the first six issues or so, and that book is just awful. Unreadable, even. I know some people do read it, so maybe unreadability is jus a subjective thing, but when I see the word “Countdown” on a comic book, I think, “Well, that can’t be very good.”

As for the way in which it intersects with Countdown, it involves, according to the brand new Countdown: Arena website that just went up, “the villainous Monarch” building an army of superheroes to do battle with the Monitors.

Now, here we have a problem, because apparently Monarch is not Hank Hall, as was revealed in Armageddon 2001, a two-part miniseries that bookended a summer of Annuals tie-ins across DC’s whole line in the summer of 1991 (Fun fact: This is when I started reading DCU comics semi-regularly. Another fun fact: This was sixteen years ago, which means that I am old, but also that DC is premising part of the greater Countdown story on a sixteen-year-old story which they have not collected in trade, meaning you either read it sixteen years ago and remember/care about it, or you don’t and thus might be a little lost. Or might not, since it’s a different Monarch. But you probably won’t care at all if you didn’t read it).

No, this Monarch is actually Captain Atom. Apparently. I guess. When this was first revealed in Countdown, they miscolored his skin, so he appeared to be a generic white guy, instead of the metallic-skinned Captain Atom. There is a long, boring anecdote about why Captain Atom being Monarch is clever, the cleverness of making Captain Atom into Monarch first forwarded by Robert Washington III in short-lived mid-nineties series Extreme Justice (Fun fact: That is the single worst title for a DC Comic book ever. But the series isn’t as terrible as it’s title, at least, not towards the end, when Amazing Man II, Firestorm I and the freaking Wonder Twins get involved).

Now, I’ve read Armageddon 2001, its sequel, its other sequel, Zero Hour, Extreme Justice and the JSA issues dealing with Extant, the villain that evolved out of Monarch.

But I can’t tell you what’s up with Monarch/Captain Atom at the moment in the DCU, because I didn’t read the miniseries where Captain Atom visited the about-to-be-rebooted-anyway WildStorm Universe (I want to say Captain Atom: Armageddon, but that seems too lazy a title to be real), nor did I read Battle For Bludhaven, the last half of Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters or most of Countdown. I think that’s where all this current Captain Atom business has played out, but I’m not sure.

Anyway, for a reader to get the premise of a series, that seems like an awful lot of required reading ahead of time, doesn’t it?

So, for some reason, heroic Captain Atom is now “villainous,” and he’s beginning “the last chapter of his campaign against the Monitors.” Since the Monitors seem to be evil themselves (except for Bob, I guess), I’m not sure why fighting them makes Captain Atom villainous, but then, I guess he is forcing heroes to fight to the death, so I guess that’s pretty villainous. (Why he’s doing this instead of just recruiting them all, and why so many of them are willing to kill different versions of themselves, will hopefully be explained in the comic itself, should you choose to buy and read it.)

The characters will be culled from the WildStorm Universe, the new versions of the old versions of the alternate Earths of the DC Multiverse, and such popular and/or classic Elseworlds tales as Superman: Red Son, DC: The New Frontier and Batman: Gotham By Gaslight.

Okay, that part sounds kind of fun, right? I mean, Gay Batman versus Vampire Batman? Commie Superman versus Superman-in-Batman’s costume? There’s some potential here, right? I’d eat that up with a spoon. Some of the most fun DC Comics I’ve ever read have involved alternate versions of the DC characters from different continuitiverses interacting with, fighting with or murdering one another. I mean, that’s pretty much all Evan Dorkin’s Superman and Batman: World’s Funnest was, and that’s a desert island DC comic if ever there was one.

Of course, for such an idea to work, the creators need to be up to the task, and I’m not so sure they are. The writer is Keith Champagne, and I don’t want to slam the guy, but I really haven’t seen enough of his work to even form an opinion of it. He finished up Geoff Johns’ remarkable JSA run pretty well (if we just pretend the Paul Levitz arc that followed it never happened, which I’d highly recommend doing) and I understand he did some Green Lantern Corps stories I never read, and then of course he helped turn a memo from his editors into the continuity patch dump World War III. In all instances, it’s hard to tell how much input Champagne himself had. So seeing his name attached here as writer doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, but, at the same time, it doesn’t inspire revulsion, either. (If Judd Winick or Adam Beechen, for example, were writing this, I don’t even think I’d be able to devote this much thought to the subject).

The interior art or the series will be provided by the art team Scott McDaniel and Andy Owens, who have a stellar run on Nightwing under their belts, in addition to some Batman stories, Richard Dragon and, most recently, Green Arrow Now, I quite like their art, and it’s easy to see how they ended up with this gig.

If you’re sitting around a table with some DC editors and throwing out names of pencilers that draw good fight scenes, I’d suspect McDaniel comes up pretty early in the game. He was incredibly adept and bringing Gotham rooftops to life, constructing complicated fight scenes and chase scenes all over them using the old multiple images of the same character in the same panel to denote motion trick to wonderful effect. I don’t think Dick Grayson has ever seemed more like an acrobat than when McDaniel was drawing him.

I don’t think he’s right for this series, however, in part because of how idiosyncratic his artwork is. Put bluntly, McDaniel’s art always looks like McDaniel’s art, which is almost always a good thing. The one place where it becomes a bad thing? When you’re illustrating a book full of characters that should look like different people drew them.

While a lot of the alternate versions of these characters have pretty wild costume designs—you wouldn’t confuse Gotham By Gaslight Batman for the DCU Batman of the time, for example—others dress almost the exact same as their DCU counterparts, and are distinguished by the artist.

Vampire Batman wears DCU Batman’s costume, for example. You know it’s Vampire Batman because he’s got the three-foot-long bat-ears, the three-hundred-yard-long cape and swollen gargoyle build of a Kelley Jones Batman…with fangs. Now, I actually really like McDaniel’s version of Jones’ design of Vampire Batman—it’s super-cute—but it doesn’t look a damn thing like Jones’. The appeal of that series wasn’t just that Batman was a vampire, but that he was a Kelley Jones vampire.

Looking just at the Batmen picture, it’s hard to tell Gotham By Gaslight Batman from Liberty Files Batman (so hard, that when the site went up Friday night, the images matched up to the wrong write-ups; it’s since been corrected); they’re basically differentiated by their coloring.

What really differentiates them isn’t their costume details, it’s that one is drawn by Mike Mignola and the other by Tony Harris.

In almost every case, Elseworlds books were defined by their artists. The stories themselves tended to be empty gestures, since nothing that happened mattered once you shut the book—they weren’t based on anything that came before, and they wouldn’t continue elsewhere—and were usually more about mixing and matching characters (Batman as Frankenstien’s monster, Superman as Tarzan, Superman as Batman, Batman as Green Lantern, et cetera) and settings (What if Superman’s rocket landed in Gotham, or on Apokalipss, or in the Soviet Union, etc) and, in a few cases, media (Batman: Nosferatu, Superman: Metropolis, Justice Riders, etc).

The best of the best did tend to have points beyond having fun with simple riffs on pop culture icons—Both Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come and Darwyn Cooke’s New Frontier offered sort of meta-commentaries on the comics industry, for example—but by and large I would say that Elseworlds were defined by the people who created the art for them.

Batman: Thrillkiller wasn’t about anything so much as how awesome it would be for Daniel Brereton to go crazy with the Bat-characters. If Justice Riders is worth a damn at all, it’s because J. H. Williams III is such an awesome artist and designer. JLA: The Nail and JLA: Another Nail? Hundreds of pages of Alan Davis drawing every single DC character he could cram in.

Given the way the artists define these characters then, the ultimate way to create this book wouldn’t be to have McDaniel and Owens illustrate it. God no. You’d want to get a penciler with adequate storytelling chops and fairly generic figure work—say, Dan Jurgens—to lay the thing out, and then bring in the characters’ creators to finish their own characters. So if Amazonia Wonder Woman is going to fight Justice Riders Wonder Woman and New Frontier Wonder Woman, then you have a fight scene that’s a jam session between Phil Winslade, Williams and Cooke.

Is it unrealistic to get those three, plus Davis, Jones, Mignola, Ross, Frank Miller, Killian Plunkett, Scott Shaw and whoever else created the characters doing battle in this series to all contribute art? Yeah, maybe. Should one of the Big Two comics companies be able to pull it off? I would hope so.

Barring that, the next best strategy would be to simply have a penciler capable of mimicking such distinct styles involved. It can be done. Think of Williams’ recent work on Batman, in which he aped the work of a half dozen distinct pencilers, and managed to integrate the various styles into a single story without making the differing inspirations seem jarring to the eye.

Or John Cassaday’s work on Planetary/Batman: Night on Earth, the plot of which called on him to imitate various other artists’ interpretations of Batman.

Or Mike Allred’s recent issue of Madman’s Atomic Comics, in which he drew every single panel in the style of a different cartoonist/comics artist.

Are those guys all too busy/expensive for a project of this magnitude?

Well, what’s Jon Bogdanove up to at the moment? Because he sure pulled off every Batman ever pretty well for an old Zero Hour tie-in.

The most eyebrow-raising aspect of Countdown: Arena is—well, it’s Dan DiDio’s assurances that it’s “fan-fiction at its finest" as if that were a good thing. But the second most eyebrow-raising is the fact that readers can vote on the winners of the fights. This will no doubt give some readers flashbacks to the DC vs. Marvel crossover (Fun fact: I just reread it a few months ago, and while I liked it okay at the time it was originally released—aside from the Lobo vs. Wolverine fight, anyway—re-reading it as a grown-up, I have to admit that it sucked super-hard, from cover to cover. And yes, “sucked super-hard” is a grown-up expression).

And, in fact, just like the DC vs. Marvel series, readers will have the opportunity to vote on a few of the most popular matches, with the writer selecting the other winners of the other fights.

It’s a kind of half-assed way to do it. I’m sure having the writer choose the winners makes for a far better story (although, admittedly, logic should dictate a lot of the outcomes—No way in hell would Vampire Batman get taken out by one of those guys who isn/t a passionless killer with super-vampire powers, for example). But if you’re going to open the thing up for voting, why not ride that gimmick all the way? Make it a comic by committee. At least it will stick out from other similar ventures (Um, just Marvel Vs. DC, I guess), and if it totally sucks, everyone can shrug and say, “Well, it was an experiment in storytelling, and we knew it would be more fun in seeing how it went than if we cam in and sure it ended up the way we wanted. And besides, you guys voted for it, so if you didn’t like how it turned out, well, you’re to blame too! Ha ha ha.”

We’re welcome to vote for the winners of the three-way battles between the Batmen, Green Lanterns, Wonder Women and Supermen, and the website offers up pictures of each group, plus a little write-up about what number Earth they’re from, and where you can read more about them.

The Batmen are from Earth-JSA: The Liberty Files, Earth-Gotham by Gaslight and Earth-Moench/Jones. There are more Batmen to choose from than any other character, and I imagine it was hard to come up with these candidates. Like I said, Vampire Batman would take these two in a matter of seconds logically, but popularity-wise, I don’t know. It must have been hard picking three Batmen that were all about equally popular. Like, if they put Dark Knight Batman in there, for example, I’m sure it would have been hard to find another two Batmen who could rival him in popularity.

I wonder if these are the only Batmen involved, or if there will be others too. Because I’d love to see Adam West trading punches with Frankenstein Batman, or AzBats versus Goddam Batman.

Of these three, two of them are from books that are still in print. The vampire trilogy is all out of print, but is about to be re-released in a single volume with a super-retarded title I’ve made fun of at great length already.

The Green Lantern category is, as the kids might say, wack. We have the Bruce Wayne of “Green Lantern: In Darkest Night” [sic]. This was a pretty goofy story, in which Bruce Wayne gets Abin Sur’s Green Lantern ring instead of Hal Jordan. I kind of enjoyed just seeing how thoroughly Mike W. Barr and Jerry Bingham mixed the two mythologies together, and it was very much of the mixing and matching for fun type of Elseworlds (This followed Speeding Bullets, and I remembered wondering if they’d try an Aquaman or Flash version of Batman next).

Then things get stupid.

The next Green Lantern is the one from Earth-5, which is the new Earth-S (Because a “5” kind of looks like an “S,” I guess), which is where the Fawcett characters were relegated when DC acquired them all.

So there is no Green Lantern of Earth-5. Or, at least, there wasn’t until now. Since his first appearance won’t be until December, I can’t imagine he’ll garner many votes, since he can’t possibly have any fans. Judging from the design, he’s Hal Jordan with a white Captain Marvel-style sash/belt, and buttons on his uniform. The big difference between Earth-5 and New Earth apparently being that the former’s costumes all more closely resemble those of Earth-Prime. It’s a pretty odd design, since Earth-S has always been set back in time, in the ‘40s, so you’d think that if they had a GL, he’d be more Alan Scott style than Hal Jordan style.

The third Green Lantern is from Earth-12, “a future world inhabited by a Batman beyond anything ever seen.” He’s also making his first appearance. Based on the write-up, you could maybe infer that this is the world of Batman Beyond, either the straight version that had it’s own comic book based on the show for a bit, or a DCU version of it (In one of Jeph Loeb’s Superman/Batman arcs, he featured a Batman in a Batman Beyond costume, but that Batman’s first name was “Tim,” not “Terry”).

But it can’t really be the GL from the Batman Beyond-iverse, since it already has a GL, and he’s aweome:

If it’s not, that’s two new Elseworld GLs, neither of which could possibly have any fans, up against one pre-existent GL.

That makes me wonder if this is really fan-fiction at it’s finest, because, damn, there are so many alternate GLs they could have used!

There’s at least three different Power Rings now, there’s Barbara Gordon with a GL ring from JLA: Created Equal, there’s Wally West as “Teen Lantern” from Brave and the Bold (set in the DCU past, but surely there’s an Earth where he stayed a GL), there are all of those GLs from Circle of Fire (ditto), to say nothing of these guys:

I’m pretty sure JLA: Riddle of the Beast and JLA: Island of Dr. Moreau had Green Lanterns that were pretty awesome too, but now I can’t remember them, and they aren’t prominently featured on the covers.

The Wonder Women, as mentioned above, are those from Wonder Woman: Amazonia, Justice Riders and “Earth-21,” which sure sounds like she’s supposed to be the one from The New Frontier, but it’s impossible to tell from the drawing (New Frontier Wonder Woman being mainly distinguished by the fact that she looks like Darwyn Cooke drew her), but the write-up states she’s from a world where “the Cold War has just ended and a new era of heroism is dawning.” Er, actually, the Cold War was just starting in New Fronteir wasn’t it?

At any rate, Amazonia and Justice Riders are mentioned, but New Frontier is not (it’s not indicated what book Earth-21 Wondy is form at all, actually; but it doesn’t mention that this is her first appearance either, if indeed it is.) At any rate, if it is the Wondy from New Frontier, then she’s the only one from a story still in print.

(Aside: I love Justice Riders Wonder Woman’s costume. It might be the best Wonder Woman costume of them all. Wonder Woman wearing pants! Nothing says feminism like a broad wearing pants!).

Finally, we have the Supermen. There’s the Superman from Red Son. There’s “Earth-31 Superman” who “hails from a darker version of the future as seen in the Superman/Batman series.” I read most of that title—having dropped it after the first Metal Men issue—and I have no memory of this guy. He looks just like our Superman, only with one of those stupid cell phones that clip onto his ear. Maybe this is the one from the story arc where Batman and Superman take over the world? “Absolute Power,” I believe it was called? The Jeph Loeb story where a bunch of crazy shit happens for no reason for six meaningless issues, and a pretty good artist draws it all? You know the one…

And finally there’s “Earth-15 Superman,” who hails from a world where people have evolved into near-perfect beings. This one wears a costume that looks like a mixture of the late, legally debated Superboy’s with Kryptonian gear. And he’s bald.

(Hey, look at me! I’m evolved into a near-perfect being, too!)

Bald Near-Perfect Superboy is making his first appearance here. Which is crazy, since there are scores of alternate Supermen, maybe as many as there are alternate Batmen.

Of all the contests, this one seems to be the most stacked, as there’s only one that’s even mildly popular. I guess if we can figure out whether or not Earth-31 Superman is “Absolute Power” Superman, then we’d know he’s basically the same as Red Son Superman, only without the cool costume and the fact that he’s a Communist.

There’s a link to the Red Son trade provided, but no link to whichever volume of Superman/Batman Earth-31 Superman is from. Odd, since every Superman/Batman story is available in trade.

Again, I hope there are other Supermen involved. Because I might be sorely tempted to buy any book in which Sunshine Superman fights the Electric Red Superman of Earth-8, or where the half-fifth dimensional imp Superman from the Superman line introduced in Grant Morrison’s DC One Million fights the Titano from the gorilla galaxy of the DC One Million Secret Files and Origins Special #1. Or Samurai Superman versus Crazy-Bearded Superman. Or…

God, I could do this all day. Maybe I’ll just close my eyes and imagine my own Countdown: Arena…It’s sixteen dollars cheaper, and it never crosses over with Countdown.

Uh-oh, looks like Mummy-Fighter Wonder Woman just accidentally ripped the shoulder off of New Wonder Woman’s blouse…


Anonymous said...

And in all that, you never once discussed what that thing on Batman's belt could be if not a golden dildo. Maybe he uses it to make Wonder Woman tell the truth and call him Daddy?

Chance said...

Fine points and well articulated, but I'm afraid I don't care. I want to see alternate versions of heroes beating each other up.

Anonymous said...

This series is, to me, possibly the worst idea ever. It's the #1 reason that I can barely bring myself to read DC solicits, because I FEAR evidence that anybody actually approved such a series.

I doubt it'll even be "fan-fiction at its finest," given the nature of some of DC's other books, a few of which actually do manage to rise to a passable level despite their pre-occupation with crawling up the ass of DC continuity.

Anonymous said...

P.S. "They Saved Luthor's Brain", unless there is another version I'm unaware of, isn't Elseworlds. It's a TPB of early post-Man of Steel comics featuring Lex Luthor, written by John Byrne and Roger Stern.
It actually compresses a ten-year saga of Lex getting Kryptonite ring, developing cancer, faking his own death, and coming back in a cloned body and posing as his own son, Lex Luthor II. There's some odd transitions in it, as you might expect of a trade that collects issues that are separated by years in some cases, but it's not bad stuff.

Anonymous said...

P.P.S. Given the state of DC continuity, "Saved Luthor's Brain" might be Elseworlds now, but it wasn't intended to be. :)

Caleb said...


You're totally right. I'm gonna go fix that—I was taken by the awesome name and cover! (I think I was mixing it up with one of those Superman/movie mash-ups).

And you're also right that it's probably out of continuity now, too. If they changed all that Supergirl business (The existence of Matrix Supergirl is just collectively ignored now, right), and Byrne's origin stuff, and his version of Krypton, and the executing the P.Z. crminals, is that whole decade or so of Superman stuff just out of continuity now, or what?

Anonymous said...

A couple months ago, I started re-reading my Superman run - from Man of Steel to the end of the Jurgens era; up to Superman 35 now, with the Eradicator on Earth, Maxima debuting - and those are great comics.

They'll always count in my selective continuity. :)

Greg said...

Wait, you mean they're not all Gay Batmen?!

This exercise in DCU Idol does seem a little ridiculous, for all the reasons you suggest...and yet, chance has a point, too. It might be fun to see them beat the heck out of each other.

But by the same token, I'm not sure that I want this to be our only look at the diversity of the DC Multiverse, post IC. Esp. if there's some danger of it all going away in FC.

keith champagne said...

enjoyed your write up.

Try the first issue, I think you'll have a good time w/ it.