Monday, March 31, 2008

When Crises only took two issues...

Crisis on Infinite Earths was a 12-issue series. Zero Hour: Crisis in Time was five issues long. Infinite Crisis? Seven issues. Final Crisis? Also slated for seven issues. And, of course, each of those stories had/continue to have/will have several dozen to several 100 tie-in issues, crossovers, prologues, epilogues and so on.

But when Gardner Fox, Godfather of the Multiverse (thank/blame him) wrote a crisis, he did so amazingly efficiently. Why, he could imperil the existence of two universes and resolve the conflict within the space of a single issue of Justice League of America. Two if he was really cooking. Tonight let's take a look at one of those early crises, given the accurate but not terribly exciting sounding title of "Crisis Between Earth-One and Earth-Two!" which ran through 1966's JLoA #46 and #47. It's been reprinted at least two times that I know of, in full re-colored color in Crisis on Multiple Earths Vol. 1 and in black and white in the recent Showcase Presents: Justice League of America Vol. 3.

Here’s the cover of the first issue.

Now, this is a very dangerous cover to think about, at least any more deeply than “Wow, if you hit Batman hard enough, you can actually knock the dignity right out of him,” or “Wouldn’t it be nice if all DC comics continued to have that checker pattern across the top?”

If you think about the interaction of the sound effects and the characters too long, it will set you on the road to madness (I speak from experience). Because the way these characters are interacting with the sound effects challenges what I thought I knew about the way these things are supposed to relate to one another, and if that’s wrong, perhaps everything I think I know is wrong too.

For example, Wildcat is being punched through the O in the POW (Nice aim, by the way, Blockbuster). But what generated the sound POW, calling those big green letters into existence? The sound of Blockbuster’s fist hitting Wildcat’s face. So, if the punch sends Wildcat flying, shouldn’t it appear on the other side of the flying Wildcat? It would emanate from the point of the punch, not a few feet away, right?

The same hold true for the others. The SOK! of Solomon Grundy’s punch doesn’t appear quite as far away as the POW of Blockbuster’s, but his fist goes right through the O, meaning it was called into creation sometime after he punched Batman. Is this a physics thing, having to do with light traveling faster than sound, perhaps?

Finally, most frustratingly, Batman and Sandman fall to the ground, apparently crushing the sound effect THUD! under them. If the THUD! is the sound of them hitting the ground, then how did it get between them and the ground? And, if its merely the sound of Batman falling on top of Sandman, then why is it down there on the ground, beneath them?

See, best not to think about this stuff.

Do pay attention to the lower left hand corner though, wherein we’re told that Anti-Matter Man is “Too overwhelming to be shown on this cover!”

But apparently he’s wasn’t so overwhelming he couldn’t be shown on the very next issue’s cover:

Me, I found myself a little underwhelmed by A-M Man, particularly after that build-up.

Anyway, it’s summer time, and that means its time for a JLA/JSA team-up, probably involving at least two Earths.

Fox and artists Mike Sekowsky and Sid Greene present this nerve-shattering epic (According to the first page; my nerve’s are actually all right at the moment).

We open on the roads of Moro Mountain, and Hawkman (the space-man version with the awesome helmet, so Earth-One, I guess) chasing fur hijackers through the mist, intent on clobbering them with his mace.

The truck disappears, however, replaced by an armored car. So Hawkman clobbers those men with his mace instead. Hawkman’s not picky.

Meanwhile, on Earth-Two, Sandman Wesley Dodds is following a stolen armored car in his Sand-Car (Fox’s term, not mine), when it’s replaced with a hijacked fur truck.

Most of what I know of the original Sandman comes from Matt Wagner and company’s quite excellent Vertigo series Sandman Mystery Theater, so I guess I never realized how stupid the character was, but apparently he fights crime with sand-related gimmicks in the ‘60s?

For example, he throws a handful of sand up in the air, shoots it with “an oddly shaped energy-rod” and it turns into a cement wall.

(Wait, “The Grainy Gladiator…?”)

Then he turns that sand into glass handcuffs.

Meanwhile, Dr. Mid-Nite finds himself in Barry Allen’s grip, while Batman is transported from the middle of a fistfight with two crooks to the middle of a fistfight with Wildcat. Throughout the two worlds, people seem to be switching places, with hilarious—well, mildly amusing—results.

Something even bigger is going on out in outer space. The Spectre finds himself being drawn away by a mysterious force, while…

Hey, check it out. Fox calls swamp monster Grundy “The Macabre Man-Thing.” This is about five eyars before Marvel’s swamp monster Man-Thing would debut in Savage Tales. Just saying.

After landing on Earth-One, Grundy starts wrecking the joint, so Hawkman, Green Lantern Hal Jordan, Flash Barry Allen and Grundy’s fellow visitors from Earth-Two Dr. Mid-Nite and Black Canary show up for a fight scene.

It’s pretty epic. Grundy is apparently so strong that, when Doc Mid-Nite blasts him with a laser beam, Grundy picks up the laser blast with his bare hands and, like, throws it…?

Speaking of destructive man-monsters being transported to alternate earths and going on rampages, Earth-One’s Blockbuser (who looks like a Caucasian Hulk wearing strappy ladies’ shoes) is coincidentally sent to Earth-Two, where I have a feeling he might end up fighting some superheroes too.

Oh yeah, he beats the hell out of Wildcat, Dr. Fate, Sandman and Batman. Sandman tries another stupid sand trick, encasing Blockbuster in block of glass, but he just busts right out.

Those aren’t the only fights raging though! In the strange space between the Earths, The Spectre encounters the gigantic Anti-Matter Man, whose bizarre energy seems to weaken the Disembodied Detective (Hey, it’s better than the Grainy Gladiator).

Unfortunately for the embodiment of God’s vengeance, every time he comes into contact with the Anti-Matter Man, his physical body is warped, leading to his rather hilarious defeat:

What could be causing all these between-Earth swaps? Perhaps it has something to do with the new space-warping device Ray “The Atom” Palmer’s hot Italian exchange-scientist assistant Enrichetta Negrini is testing.

Perhaps we’ll find out next issue.

Okay, yes. Yes it has something to do with Negrini’s space-warper.

Just as Batman and friends have managed to calm down Blockbuster, the big galoot changes places with Grundy, and the fights on again.

Sandman throws some sand that he changes into cinderblocks (?), but Grundy bats them back at them, so Dr. Fate does the only sensible thing and magics the cinder blocks into custard cream pies (?!), leading to this scene:

I love Grundy’s smacking all three of them at once there.

While he’s making stooges out of this set of heroes, Blockbuster is beating the holy hell out of the other group, and then Dr. Fate and GL bring everyone out to outer space to fight the Anti-Matter Man.

The fight is so nonsensical that there’s really only one word to describe it—

Suffice it to say the good guys win, and the Anti-Matter Man is forced back into his own universe.

But what of Grundy and Blockbuster? Green Lantern had the foresight to bring them to the same place at the same time while the Justice teams were saving their worlds, so Grundy and Blockbuster have been beating on one another until…

Zokko Krow, a double knock-out!

And when they come to they…


All of which has lead us to what may be my (new) favorite panel in all of Justice League history:

There’s just so much awesome stuff going on for a single panel.

You’ve got the obvious Justice League cuddle

but the dialogue is great too.

“They knocked the hate out of each other!”

“If only we could get people and nations to knock hate out of each other without going to war!”

Yes Dr. Mid-Nite, violence really is the answer! If only people and nations could hit each other instead of resorting to fighting each other, they could resolve all their problems through violent fighting, as opposed to…violent fighting? What are you talking about, Dr. Mid-Nite?!

And then you have square college professor of physics Ray Palmer saying, “Like peace, man! Real peace!

This was apparently a very influential story on Justice League history, as it established the organizing principle of their next 42 years of adventures: Working for peace by punching people in the face.


You know, once you look for a picture of a Green Lantern’s butt to post, it’s kinda hard not to see Green Lanterns’ butts everywhere. For example, here’s an image from this story, cropped to make Hawkman look even gayer than usual:

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Welcome to Welcome to the Working Week

I was perhaps a little hard on comedian/comics fan Patton Oswalt last week in discussing his not particularly accurate or well-written introduction to Brad Meltzer and company's Justice League of America: The Lightning Saga hardcover. Not that I agree with him that it was a good group of comics, or that Meltzer is a very good comic book writer, or that writing-for-the-trade is a good a thing, or any of the other questionable statements Oswalt made there.

But when I questioned why DC was making a big deal out of Oswalt’s intro on the cover of the book (he got a credit for the intro, but none of the artists involved got cover credits), wondering aloud why he’s someone who’s opinion on comics is worth paying attention to (aside, of course, from the obvious “He’s famous, and not comics-famous, but famous-famous argument), I spoke a little too soon.

It wasn’t until a reader asked just who this Oswalt character is in the comments section that I realized he actually has written some comics before, including a Justice League comic that I liked a lot.

That would be JLA: Welcome to the Working Week, a prestige format one-shot that dropped in 2003, during the first year of Joe Kelly’s run on the parent title.

It may just have been the last good JLA spin-off. After the Morrison relaunch, one-shot specials like this were coming out like clockwork, but as Kelly’s run neared its end, they all but stopped, perhaps in part because the confusion that set in over the whole franchise.

They’ve since re-named and relaunched the monthly JLA comic, and yet it still hasn’t had a stable creative team since Kelly and company left (Meltzer was technically a “regular” writer, but he only stuck around a dozen issues; Dwayne McDuffie is currently the “regular” writer, but he doesn’t even write half an issue’s worth of pages).

Oswalt’s story is set firmly between the “death” of Aquaman during “Our Worlds at War” and the League rejiggering in “The Obsidian Age.”

The team consists of Morrison’s Big Seven line-up, only with Plas in for Aquaman. The real star of the piece is Marlus Randone, a young man from Portland, Oregon who writes and self-publishes a fanzine dealing with superheroes called Save Us!.

When Marlus’ neighborhood is attacked by aliens, he and every civilian there find themselves mass-teleported onto the League’s lunar Watchtower, while the League swoops in to deal with the aliens.

The Leaguers somehow miss Marlus when returning the civilians, and he’s left behind. He spends a whole week as a stowaway on the Watchtower, watching the League from the shadows as they go about their day-to-day work. (Revisiting this after having just read The Lightning Saga collection, I realize that Meltzer’s twelfth issue story “Monitor Duty” was somewhat similar in that it was a day in the life of the League, but Oswalt’s story is obviously much richer in detail, given its size. And the outsider narrator gives the reader a somewhat reliable narrator to listen to, whereas Meltzer’s story had each of the Leaguers take turns thinking out loud for a few panels).

There is an overarching story, involving that horde of aliens, Marlus’ dreams, his past and an alien being named Feast, but mostly the plot seems to serve as an axis on which Oswalt’s observations can revolve around.

He’s quite ably aided and abetted by the art team of Patrick Gleason and Christian Alamy, artists whose style are similar enough to the monthly’s art team of the time, Doug Mahnke and Tom Nguyen, that one could almost mistake them for one another (Oh, and Gleason and Mahnke are two more names that can be added to the Should Be Drawing JLoA Instead Of Ed Benes list).

Gleason’s style is quite adaptable, being perfect for straightforward superheroics and comedy, and he’s able to pull both off in the same panel. He also provides some pretty complex layouts, many of which are jam-packed with crowds and cameos and background details.

Oswalt’s vision of the League is one I like a lot. It’s seemingly heavily influenced by Morrison’s run, based on not only the characters he uses, but the ways he uses them, and the other stories referenced. His League is a super-professional, well-oiled machine of a team, in which the characters finish each other’s sentences, and they all bark half-orders, status reports and jargon to one another in snatches of dialogue as they go about saving the world.

Because of the nature of the story, we get to see a lot more of their down time than we normally do (Essentially, this is a book about the League’s downtime), and yet its clear that the team is the hub of DC’s superhero universe; they’re who all the other heroes check in with, and they’re expected to be the world’s first line of defense.

And his takes on the individual heroes are all great. I think he nails what’s special about all of them to some degree.

When Marlus first comes across J’onn J’onnz, we see the Martian Manhunter seated in the lotus position, hovering while meditating.

Here’s how Oswalt-through-Marlus describes him: “If Superman is Elvis, than this is Dylan. When you’re a kid, you’re all for the spitcurl. But by the time you hit college, you’re forehead all the way. That thinker’s skull, on top of a linebacker’s bod… Like if Socrates played for the Steelers… For every time the world’s been saved in the sunshine by Superman… …it’s been saved in the shadows by this guy.”


His views on Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman all hew pretty close to the modern day standard, although he notably sums up Batman’s position in the League and superhero community perfectly with this one sentence: “Everyone’s always pissed at Batman.”

The Flash and Green Lantern (still Kyle Rayner at this point) are the playful rivals that Morrison set them up as during his run; the two “normal” guys on the team that readers can relate to. Theirs was one of the few relationships in the millennial Justice League that seemed like a real one, and it was too bad when Kyle was switched out for John Stewart (Not because I dislike Stewart, but no one seems to have done anything interesting with him that they couldn’t have done with Kyle).

Plastic Man is similarly played the way Morrison reintroduced him—as the “wacky” superhero. Oswalt seems to be reaching for something to say about the character, as Marlus says, “What’s Plastic Man’s deal, anyway? Does he fight crime, or just react to it?”

But the scene spotlighting Plas is fantastic.

I mean, look at this:

Keith Giffen’s Ambush Bug and Heckler, throwing a kegger with Plas? Of course they’re all pals! Man, that sure does fire the imagination. That’s the kind of story I wanted to see in the wasted, now-cancelled JLA: Classified.

In fact, this isn't the only time Plas an Ambush Bug shared a panel. A.B. was on Plas' "Justice League of Anarchy," which appeared in just one panel of 2001's Justice Leagues: Justice League of Amazons #1:

Anyway, Plas and pals are throwing a big party. The guest-list for which is somewhat…off. Like, I have a hard time believing Ganthet, Animal Man or Batgirl would be interested in attending, but Gleason’s double-page spread is a fun one to pore over to look for cameos.

Let’s see, you’ve got some JLI era Leaguers…

The Inferior Five and someone who looks an awful lot like Bueno Excelente from Hitman

and Hitman’s Baytor…

(Gleason was apparently a fan of the series. Earlier in the issue, Batman’s shown getting in someone’s face in front of Noonan’s….)

While the party’s going on, Superman, Batman, J’onn, Flash and GL huddle in the locker room, with Superman saying “It’s not my scene,” Batman responding “Not mine, either,” and GL pointing out that the fact neither of them party is the one thing they have in common. (“And the under-wear-on-the-outside-thing,” Flash adds).

Our hero Marlus passes out in Aquaman’s pool room, and flashes back to an Aquaman scene. He recalls the time he saw Aquaman bust some scuba gear-wearing, jet ski-riding kidnappers who had captured a mermaid.

This is the Peter David/Morrison Aquaman, by the way: Hook-handed, bearded and bad-ass. We watch him bust the bad guys siccing a horde of crabs on their leader while passively staring down her harpoon gun.

And Marlus narrates:“Rivers must be to Aquaman what dark alleys are to the Batman… getaway routes for the bad guys from the surface world, secret traveling networks for whatever evil lurks and plots in the deep… A king is a king in every corner of his kingdom… And when he’s not in his kingdom? He’s still a king.”

And when the League ultimately triumphs over Feast, the villain says, “I’m saddened your sea king isn’t here, giving Marlus the opportunity to declare in the last panel of this sequence:

Pretty cool.

Re-reading this for, like, the fifth time, I realized I think I would have preferred to have read a hardcover collection of Oswalt’s run on JLoA with a short prose introduction by Brad Meltzer.

I’m not sure if Oswalt could have turned out a solid 12- or more issue run, or if this one-shot amounted to everything he had to say about the Justice League, but he’s certainly written more good League stories than Meltzer has at this point, with far fewer tries.

And, because it was Sally’s comment that ultimately reminded me that the Patton Oswalt who wrote that intro and hyped up Secret Invasion recently is the same one who wrote Welcome to the Working Week, here’s an image of one of her favorite things, as drawn by Gleason and Alamy in the book:

Saturday, March 29, 2008

This Is Not A Graphic Novel...Oh wait a minute, actually it is

You know the one about judging a book by its cover, right? Well, here’s a good example. From the outside, artist Regis Faller’s The Adventures of Polo (Roaring Brook Press; 2006) doesn’t much look like a graphic novel. It’s a big, colorful, 11-by-10 inch (or thereabouts), hardcover rectangle that looks like your average children’s picture book.

But inside? It’s totally what we think of when we hear or use the term “graphic novel.” The story is completely wordless, with no dialogue or narration of any kind. And while many pages are devoted to a single image,
many more are broken into panels; borderless images stacked side by side and on top of one another in comic book-format grids, with the white spaces between them forming naturally occurring gutters.

Faller’s art is great, and his designs top-notch (although something about dog-star Polo’s nose bugs the hell out of me…I don’t like the cylindrical shape of it, and the way it stands erect), and the colors are brilliant and well-chosen. There are plenty of neat little moments in the book, the plot of which is essentially simply Polo wandering around until Faller runs out of pages.

Polo lives on an island dominated by a tree house (that is, a house that is actually a tree; the page above is the first page of the book). On the second page, he puts on a back pack (which we soon find is filled with all kinds of crazy things) and an umbrella and than walks on a tightrope over the ocean. This rope becomes a line that forms stairs, than a slide and after a very circuitous route to a boat, he’s off on his adventures.

The book reminded me a lot of a side-scrolling videogame, particularly something from the old Nintendo Super Mario Bros variety, I think in part because it seems to be a cute little 2-D figure exploring locales at random, and in part because of the specific settings and objects encountered (clouds, underwater, the backs of whales, the moon, mushrooms, stars, etc).

I kind of found myself despising Polo throughout too, and it goes beyond my not liking the looks of his nose. There’s a certain irresponsibility about the character that irks me. He just goes off and gets in some pretty serious scrapes, but something always happens at the last minute to save him a justified death. Like, when he rides an asteroid into the ocean and is about to drown, for example, a pelican swoops in and picks him up in its bill. The universe seems to love Polo a little too much, and bends probability to the point of breaking to save his ass. I suppose if I were a little kid, I might not mind, but as a grown-up, I found myself getting really stressed out by Polo’s reckless actions, and angry that he never suffered for them.

Once he gets to his boat, which, in the first sign of Polo's incredible vanity, is named after Polo, the little dog sails until night time. Then he puts on his diving suit (complete with bubble helmet), and drops the ocean floor. He finds a treasure chest with a glowing star in it (above), and this he takes to a large fish wearing a crown and holding a stick. He puts the star on the fish's stick, and the fish magics him back up to his boat.

The S.S. Polo is then beached atop a whale, and Polo converts his boat into a plane, which the whale then throws up into the sky. He visits an island with a volcano, and ten an island with a monkey band, which Polo rocks out with in their tree house (which is a series of platforms on a tree). Then, in an incedible act of irresponsibility, Polo and the monkeys tie helium ballons all over the platform, causing it to rise high into the air above the island. How are you going to get down guys? You'll fall to your deaths when the helium runs out!

Heedless to this danger, Polo rides a baloon on ou of their, cheerfully waving to the doomed monkeys, who cheerfully wave back to the doomed Polo, who drifts out over the ocean on a single baloon.

But wait, Polo's got a propeller in his backpack, which he somehow attaches to his pack and propels himself with. But a huge mosquito pops his baloon, and Polo falls to his death...

But, in one of many instances of Polo's incredible luck, he lands on the water but doesn't sink. He just stands on the surface. Is Polo Jesus? No, he's just standing atop a submarine.

Even though the vessel is capained by a cat, the natural enemy of Polo's people, the cat welcomes our hero into the sube with open arms.

This leads to a pretty funny sight gag:

Well, I laughed.

Then things get really weird.

Dog and cat pool their efforts, each manning one of the two sets of pedals that power the sub. Soon they crash into an iceberg, and surface to investigate. At the top of it they find an igloo.

Who could live here, I wonder? Perhaps it's an eskimo or-

Oh shit, it's a bear!

When the bear rushes out of its igloo to defend itself and its home from the two intruders, it slips on the ice and falls into the ocean below.

Polo and his cat friend sensitively laugh at him and then Polo's all like, "Hey, let's look in his house!"

And what an odd house it is. There's nothing in it but a huge...hole in the floor?

There's barely room for the bear to sleep in the corner without falling into the hole. Tiny little Polo can barely kneel next to it and lean to look in without falling in.

And what's in the pit?

Okay now, I don't want to overthink a kids' book here or anything, but indulge me for a paragraph or so. The bear's igloo houses nothing bug a which he keeps a snowman. And that snowman does not look happy to be there. He's just sitting there staring worriedly down at his stack of ice cubes, making the same face I do when I sit down to pay bills or do my taxes. Did the bear capture him and put him down there? Did he build him down there, bring him to life, and leave him there? What's the bear planning on doing with him? Eating him? Is this like that scene from Silence of the Lambs? I really can't make heads or tails out of this situation.

Anyway, the snowman's happy to meet Polo (He puts his tophat on special just to tip it at Polo). Polo whips a chisel and hammer out of his backpack, and then quickly tunnels his way out of the iceberg. From there, he jumps to a smaller nearby iceberg, and chisels the hell out of it until its suddenly transformed into a working boat made out of ice. The cat, snowman and Polo ride on until they encounter a rope ladder. The cat and Polo scramble up it, leaving the Snowman and the ice boat. He doesn't seem to mind, and whips out a newspaper to read. (This is the third sea-going vessel Polo's abandoned in 60 pages).

The ladder leads to the moon, where they find an orb-shaped spaceship in which a little moon creature lives. It leads Polo into a crater, while the cat just, like, stays in the ship.

In the tunnel, Polo encounters a magic mushroom.

Mushrooms are awesome, kids.

The tunnel opens into a cavern full of huge glowing mushrooms and lots of little glowing moon people. They point out another magical mushroom to Polo, and, after a few adjustments, he blasts off in it, headed back towards earth.

See, mushrooms are totally awesome!

The trip was cut short by a collision with an asteroid, which sent Polo plummeting into the sea (this is where the previously mentioned pelican saves his ass).

The bird deposits Polo safely back on his island , and he promptly pulls out a book to read. What's he reading?

Why, that vain bastard...

Many of the creatures Polo encountered on his adventures return in this last panel. It looks like a happy ending. For everyone except for the polar bear, who doesn't show up. Perhaps he hit his head on an ice chunk and drowned.

Mini-comic Mini-review: Boom Fantasy! #1

I picked up Phil Skaggs Jr.’s 24-Hour Comic Day comic The Lone (Red) Ranger at SPACE this year, and he’s since sent me a copy of his anthology Boom Fantasy! #1.

While its title is a lot less grabby and a lot more prosaic than The Lone (Red) Ranger, it’s also a superior work.

But then, I guess that’s the predictable result of a creator taking more than 24-hours on a book, isn’t it?

BF is a pretty lo-fi, coulda-been-printed-at-the-office-copier-when-no-one’s-looking style black and white mini-comic.

I like Skagg’s stubby, big round headed character designs, and his loose cartooning style. Good looking characters rendered well will make even terrible stories go down pretty easy, so Skaggs has already cleared one major hurdle confronting the would-be cartoonist.

There are three, possibly four stories in here, with that possible fourth being an “Activity Corner” feature.

The first stars Captain Cosmos and The Sunshine Squid; the former is a humanoid astronaut with an opaque visor on his helmet, and the latter seems to be a person with a cephalopod’s head. Or maybe a cephalapod with a person’s body growing out of the bottom of it. They apparently travel spaces in what looks like a ship shaped like a giant bear’s head, complete with a fur covering.

And space-travel is apparently quite boring, as they engage in activities to alleviate their boredom—competing in a Dance Dance Revolution-like video game, making music on the computer, making pie, etc. There’s a charming just-hanging-out feel to the tale and the interactions between the characters, including the ship itself.

That’s followed by a three-page gag strip starring another space captain (this one named Cheese Solar). A gag that seems familiar. I’m not sure where I’ve seen it before though; maybe something similar happened to me once?

Then there’s a superhero story of sorts featuring Skele-Ted, a hero with a skull for a head who lives in a mountain shaped like a skull. And when he kills the monster he’s fighting, it’s ghost rises, skull-like, out of the dead foe. Another neat character designs, but there’s not much to the story beyond that.

The “Activity Corner” is two pages long; the first page features host Ray-Ray explaining “graphic notation,” and the second page features an example/challenge for musicians. If you’re into music, and have some kinda music-making instrument around your house, you may get something out of this. It seems interesting, but was mostly over my head.

Finally, rounding out the package is a back cover full of little lists and drawings, which reminded me of the zines I used to see in the late ‘90s.

If all that sounds like something you might be down with, check out Skaggs’ online HQ at

Friday, March 28, 2008

It's the dialogue that clinches it

It's kind of nice to see Batman and Robin aren't the only superhero/sidekick crimefighting duo with this kind of...subtext in their adventures.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Review: Justice League: The New Frontier DVD

The adaptation of Darwyn Cooke’s 400-page epic comics story DC: The New Frontier into a direct-to-DVD animated movie seemed like one of those projects that was either going to be really great or really terrible.

The reason to hope for great? Well, before Cooke came to DC Comics, he was working for Warner Brothers animation on such projects as Batman: The Animated Series, and his animation work heavily inspired his comics style and storytelling. In a way then, the adaptation was something of a return rather than the movement of a story from one media to another.

Additionally, Cooke was supposedly heavily involved in the production of the film (his final credits are “creative consultant” and “additional material by”), and the animators he was working with involved a slew of people he had worked with before, including director David Bullock, writer Stan Berkowitz, executive producer Bruce Timm and even many of those cranking out designs and storyboards.

On the other hand, New Frontier is a huge story, with a good 20 or so important characters, and it was told through a complex series of vignettes spanning years, with the disparate plotlines slowly being weaved together over the hundreds of pages into a single story.

And that story, not unlike Kingdom Come, is on one level a pretty straightforward meta-story about comics. It’s a retelling of the forging of the Silver Age of comics, when the mostly forgotten detritus of the superheroes of the Golden Age and the manly-men war and adventure heroes of the ‘50s gave way to the bright, shiny, optimistic, futuristic heroes of the ‘60s.

And it was just jam-packed with in-jokes and allusions to DC’s publishing history and the real world history of the era, as if Cooke tried to use every single character DC had the rights to and put them in a single tale and apply historical forces upon them to see what he’d get.

But beyond all that, it was a story about aesthetics. About how cool the post-war vision of the future looked in terms of design and fashion.

If these guys had trouble making a movie about Superman and Doomsday beating each other to death not be awful, how were they gonna handle the gargantuan challenge of New Frontier? And do it in a run-time of just 75 minutes, which is ridiculously short, even by the standards of children’s films?

Well, I was pleasantly surprised. It didn’t turn out terrible or great, but for an insanely short adaptation of such a complex story, Bullock and Berkowitz did about as well as could be expected, and they manage dto evoke the most intangible virtue of Cooke’s comics—the aesthetic.

Berkowitz strips away the more nebulous bits of the comics version—a story as meditation on DC comics history from the outside looking in and the inside looking in—and gives it a focus that’s right there in the title. In the comic, the Justice League was the face of the future, appearing like an exclamation point after the ellipsis of the climax, but here they are the subject itself.

So everything else is trimmed back until what we’re left with is the story of Hal Jordan, The Martian Manhunter, Barry Allen/The Flash and, to a lesser extent, Batman, Superman and, to an even lesser extent, Wonder Woman, as they unite with some military he-men and some civilian tough broads to take on an enemy known as The Centre, which is here front and center throughout the entire story.

The running time seems to be by far the film’s biggest drawback. It’s not just what had to be cut, it’s the pacing of what’s left. Even if I had never read the comics, the running time would have seemed problematic. Far too few scenes have the proper room to breathe. A great deal of the dialogue seems rushed through, with conversations taking on a clipped, unnatural let’s-just-get-through-this feeling.

There are some fairly incredible scenes involving superpowers—Superman going mano a isla against The Centre, The Flash’s race through Vegas to collect bombs before punching out Captain Cold, The Martian Manhunter flexing his powers—but they too seem to end as soon as they begin. The same is true of quiet scenes, of silent character action and reaction, in which the greatest amount of the story is told most effectively.

As the film reaches the climax, wherein all of Earth’s heroes unite, there’s little impact to seeing Green Arrow or Adam Strange or The Blackhawks or Ray Palmer of Ivy University show up if you have no idea who they are. They’re cameos for DC comics fans, not elements in a film for people who aren’t already DC comics fans.

And that’s the biggest question I have about this film, and the Warner Brothers/DC direct-to-DVD film program in general. Are these meant for your hardcore direct market audience? If that’s the case, and it sure seems to be from the results of the last two films, why bother casting name stars to do the voices, instead of just reusing cheaper voice talents from the other cartoons? Why keep the running time and rating so kid friendly? The grown-ups who buy Absolute Editions of this stuff are going to spend whatever you charge for the DVD.

Admittedly, as a member of that audience, and as someone who has read the comics, the focus on the name superheroes and the super-short run time actually served my interests in the product well. I’d already experienced this particular story the way it was meant to be told, after all, so I’m mainly just watching the DVD out of curiosity, to see how well they’ll be able to use Cooke’s designs, what they’ll look like moving, to watch Martian Manhunter punch out a pterodactyl and so forth. This does function as something of a highlight reel then, hitting all the things a reader and fan will be curious about, story integrity/film experience be damned.

But then, that’s probably a necessary evil brought on by the timing issue…and/or the budget, which I’ve no clue about. There are several bravura sequences in this that are as good or better than any piece of DC-related animation to ever play on a screen, small or silver, so I can’t help but suspect that, given a freer hand than they had, Bullock and company could have done something really special here.

The opening sequence, with the Centre telling its story, followed immediately by the title sequence? The book end-like sequence at the end showing all the DC superheroes and supervillains that didn’t make it into the film? Ace Morgan and Hal Jordan’s flight into the mindwarping center of the Centre? It’s all beautiful, beautiful stuff, and I would have loved to see a whole movie like that.

What else?

Well, the DC geek in me was delighted to see things animated I wouldn’t reasonably ever expect to see on a TV cartoon series or a film-film (the kind they’d show in theaters, like, um, just Batman: Mask of The Phantasm so far). Things like…

—Barry Allen instead of Wally West, and Hal Jordan instead of John Stewart or Kyle Rayner (particularly with their Silver Age sweethearts).

—A big, busty, almost Rubenesque, J. Bone version of Wonder Woman instead of a slimmer, super-model-y looking one.

—A clean-shaven, red glove-wearing Green Arrow.

—A purple-gloved, curved-ear, first appearance-style Batman.

Any Justice League movie where J’onn J’onnz has a bigger role than the Trinity.

—And I was glad I finally got to hear what the Blackhawks’ battle cry sounded like when shouted aloud instead of just read in my head (It sounds kinda lame, actually, but, well, curiosity satiated!).

Regarding the voice talent…

—The “girlfriends” are all uniformly great, all channeling some of that Old Hollywood leading lady type of brassiness and old school radio program melodrama flavor: Brooke Shields as Carol Ferris, Kyra Sedgwick as Lois Lane and Vicki Lewis as Iris West.

—Former Xena, Warrior Princess Lucy Lawless playing warrior princess Wonder Woman is probably the only instance of “stunt casting” here, but she does a pretty good job, and her voice sounds remarkably right coming out of such an unusual-looking Wonder Woman (unusual compared to her previous animated incarnations, anyway).

—David Boreanaz plays Hal Jordan, Miguel Ferrer plays J’onn and Neil Patrick Harris plays The Flash. They’re all fine, but relatively unremarkable. But then, none of those characters are quite as iconic as “The Trinity” characters, and thus I doubt many in the audience would have terribly strong feelings about how they “should” sound.

—Not like, Batman, anyway. Jeremy Sisto plays Batman. I’m so used to hearing Kevin Conroy’s version of Batman’s voice when watching cartoons, that whenever it doesn’t sound like Conroy, it strikes me as wrong and takes some getting used to…and in just 75 minutes, little of which involves Batman, you don’t get much time to get used to anything.

Sisto’s not-being-Conroy seems most wrong in the earlier scenes, where Batman’s face so closely resembles that of the one from The Animated Series.

In the commentary track recorded by Darwyn Cooke, he says Sisto sounds to him like what he imagines Adam West would sound like today if he was 30 and cool. I don’t know. He’s not particularly suave, dark, or scary sounding, and his line readings are a little flat, as if he’s reading lines instead of acting them. Midway through, Batman changes from his first-appearance gear to the more Dick Sprang-looking design. His long, horn-like ears become perky little stubs, his black cape and cowl become blue, and his sharp, triangle eyes become semi-circles. It’s a lighter, more friendly look, which Superman remakrs on when meeting with Batman and Robin, but Sisto’s voice hasn’t changed a bit from when he was in full-on creature-of-the-night mode.

—Kyle MacLachlan’s Superman sounds nice and dad-like, which is exactly how I like to think of Superman, especially the Silver Age Superman. I never would have thought of MacLachlan as Superman, but he sound absolutely perfect.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Weekly Haul: March 26th

Circumstances beyond my control have kept me from spending Wednesday afternoon as I usually do—sitting in my comics-reading chair reading comics, and then sitting down to pound out some barely-coherent, typo-ridden "reviews" of them. But, while later than usual, I've still got super-comics reviews for you, now with added exhaustion-induced typos!

All-Star Superman #10 (DC Comics) This particular issue of the best serial super-comic currently being published offers up a nice example of Grant Morrison’s brilliance in the genre. This issue is a Superman-gets-his-life-in-order-before-dying story, and yet the Bottle City of Kandor plays a role. Now, how many Kandor stories have been written over the decades? Fifty? One hundred? And yet here Morrison not only uses it as a single element in a single-issue story that is itself just a single element in the ten-issues (and counting) storyline of the book, but he comes up with two radical new directions for Kandor and its citizens that I've never encountered in all those other Kandor stories of the past.

This will probably sound hyperbolic but, I’m gonna say it anyway: Comics are going to be poorer once new issues of his book stop appearing on the shelves.

Batman and The Outsiders (DC) Missed it! You know, when Ralph and Sue Dibny showed up as ghosts at the end of 52, it seemed like a nice little happy ending for their tragic story (And, really, the only thing DC could do with the characters after the events of Identity Crisis). I for one would have been pleased as punch to never see either of them again (at least in a present tense story); just knowing that they're out their somewhere, traveling the world and solving unusual mysteries together, a la all those fun stories collected in Showcase Presents: The Elongated Man would have been bit of closure on their story. But then, never letting characters have any kind of real ending is part of the nature of serial storytelling with corporate owned characters. Hell, if you don't use 'em every so often, someone might get the rights to the name "Elongated Man."

And so in this issue The Dibnys return, not as ghost detectives, but as ghost superheroes, both boasting Deadman's people-possessing powers. If I had to see them in the present DCU again, I would have preferred it to be a Mark Waid story focusing on them, rather than Chuck Dixon picking them up and throwing them into the middle of this silly-ass jumble of a story about Batman and a cast of super-heroes that changes at random running around secure facilities fighting guards, OMACs and rather lame Dixon-created supervillians-for-hire. (Oddly enough, in my youth I was disappointed to see Killer Croc return to Gotham City in a lame Dixon short story after Doug Moench, Kelley Jones and John Beatty gave the Bat-villain a nice happy ending type story in Batman #521-#522, guest-starring Swamp Thing).

(Note: Kelley Jones draws an incredible Swamp Thing)

There's nothing horribly wrong with Dixon's script for this issue of course; it's the baseline of competent super-comics. The characters are merely empty action figures, however, and it’s strange that we’re already on the fifth issue and hardly anything’s been done to clue readers into why this team exists or any of these people are on it.

I was more impressed with the art, by penciller Julian Lopez and inker Bit. It's all well-rendered, and they do about as well as you can with Bad '90s characters like Gunhawk (is that right?) and the KGBeast-like Militia. His main villain, the European rich guy villain, is a more unusual design than one of the stock types usually chosen (he reminded me a bit of a Tezuka bad guy for some reason) and Lopez has enough understanding of anatomy and physics that his cheesecake (Katana's camo tunic getting modified into an off the shoulder number mid-battle) comes off as more fun and tongue-in-than exploitive and stupid (but then, that's the difference between good and bad art; good art can get away with just about anything, can’t it?).

Batman Confidential #15 (DC) Wow, look at Commissioner Gordon’s bangs. That is a straight-up bowlcut. He looks really sad, too; is it because there’s a target over his face and Wrath II has that big-ass military-looking machinegun on a tripod, or because he’s bummed out about his monk-style haircut?

This is the third part of a four-parter, and yeah, it’s still rather good. My mind is thoroughly boggled by the fact that Rags Morales is drawing scenes like Batman and Wrath fighting on top of that fence on pages four and five, or the look Nightwing gives his mentor on page 19 for this book, while the two flagship titles have had such poor art for such a long time now. No lie, this is by far the best looking Bat-book at the moment and there are, like, 460 Bat-books at the moment.

Blue Beetle #25 (DC) This is it! The ultimate chapter of John Rogers and Rafael Albuquerque’s chronicling of the conflict between Jaime Reyes and The Reach, a conflict that’s been going strong for 25 issues now. This was an enormously satisfying read, giving me everything I could possibly want from a Blue Beetle book—appearances of some kind of all three Beetles, Jaime’s huge supporting cast rallying for the fight, creative connections drawn between bits of DC ephemera, and guest-stars from the JLI rallying to help out their old pal’s successor—and an ending that sure sounded like the one that would come in the last issue of the series. While this is Rogers’ last issue, it’s not the last issue of the title—Will Pfeifer is apparently coming on for a while, but I wonder if he’ll retain enough of the book’s already tiny readership to keep it off the chopping block until Rogers can return. I know I just came for the Rogers, and don’t plan to stick around now that he’s gone.

Green Lantern #29 (DC) Test pilot Hal Jordan is sitting in a flight simulator one day, when he’s teleported out to the desert, where a dying pink bald alien hands him a ring and a lantern and he becomes the space cop of 2814. The end. That’s the secret origin of Hal Jordan, and everyone knows it…do we really need a multi-issue story arc to over it again?

Geoff Johns says yes, and Geoff Johns gets what he wants because, frankly, if Johns was killed in a freak accident involving clumsy piano movers, DC’s superhero comics would wither up and die.

Some elements of this story are ones Johns himself has even told before—the meet-cute with munchkin Carol, the loss of his father, the falling out with his mom, the punching out of his superior officer—but Johns has earned plenty of leeway from his bosses, and his readers.

I rolled my eyes a few times here. The fact that he and future flame Carol knew each other as grade-schoolers had a weird Muppet Babies vibe to it, for example, and it seemed pretty retconny that he and John Stewart used to trade punches in Air Force vs. Marines bar brawls. But this was by far one of the more human and real-world stories I’ve ever seen Johns attempt to tell, and it was well worth a read just to see him go 21 pages without a superhero or alien (Page 22? All aliens). After the last few issues of drama on Oa with Alpha Lanterns and the like, it was actually kind of refreshing to get so many scenes back on Earth.

The Mighty Avengers #11 (Marvel Comics) Brian Michael Bendis has written a lot of comics. In fact, he's written so many, that it's nigh impossible to single out any one issue and say, "This is the best one he's ever written!" Or, "The is the worst!" Or, "This is the talkiest!" So I don't feel comfortable declaring Mighty Avengers #11 the most annoying comic he's ever written, but, good God, was this comic annoying.

The scene in which Dr. Doom hurls insults at the captured Avengers while having his big villain speech as an interior monologue in thought bubbles between dialogue bubbles? Jesus, that was annoying. Otherwise, this is pretty much your standard issue of Mighty Avengers—The Avengers run around speaking and thinking Bendisian dialogue, swearing four-letter words created by hitting "Caps Lock" and any four of the numbers on the keyboard, punching the members of a faceless horde, and there's some talk of super-people doing it. Mark Bagley's art is pretty good, though. I can't wait for Secret Invasion, in part to see if this book might actually start being better than mediocre once Bendis can quit trying to coordinate everything and just get on with telling a story of some sort.

New Avengers #39 (Marvel) Just before The Person Who Turns Out To Be A Skrull in this issue reveals his/her/its true, Skrull-ish nature, I was thinking, "Wow, this person doesn't sound quite right; this person seems to be talking like one of Brian Michael Bendis' Ultimate Spider-Man teenage characters rather than himself (Or herself! Or itself! No spoilers in this review, folks!). I've always assumed that all the Bendisian dialogue in Bendis' Avengers comics was simply the result of a writing tic of his. The artificial pitterpat of conversations, with short declarative one-word sentences and occasional questions asked as asides to the speaker? I just thought that was the way Bendis wrote. But here it seems like a tell; The Person didn't sound right and, lo and behold, one page later, it turns out they're an alien shape-shifter!

So perhaps the style readers currently regard as Bendis' is no such thing, but the result of Skrulls speaking English as their second language? That would mean every character Bendis has ever written has been a Skrull all along! Oh my God, this thing is huge!

Anyway, back to the issue at hand, this month’s issue of New Avengers, Maya "Echo" Lopez, the New Avenger who so far seems to have only been added to the line-up to give the team an excuse to go to Japan and meet Skrullektra, gets the spotlight, flirting with Wolverine, fighting a Skrull, and then having wounded, post-Skrull fight sex with Clint Barton. David Mack draws it, but only the cover looks particularly David Mack-y.

(Because I'm running so much later than usual, I've managed to read some other reviews of this book before I've posted my own. Douglas Wolk tags a review of New Avengers onto the end of one on Matt Kindt's Super Spy, one of those '07 books I still need to get around to. Wolk was a lot more generous with his reading of NA than I was, but his is an interesting take; check it out if you don't mind the spoilers. If you play the "Is Character A a Skrull, or does Character A think Character B is a Skrull and is pretending to be a Skrull to get Character B to show his Skrull hand?" game, suddenly all these Avengers books get a lot more fun. I mean, you could read this issues five times a row—at least—and each time doing so imagine one or all or none or some combination of the three characters featured is a Skrull, and it's different each time. Of course, you could also spend that time doing sit-ups. Or cleaning your basement. Or talking to a loved on on the phone. I don't know, your call, really. Meanwhile, Troy Brownfield tries to review the book without spoilers [scroll down], and finds out it ain't easy to do. And, I imagine, that will hold true for much of Secret Invasion, if there's at least one big Skrull reveal per issue. Has Bendis hit on a way to write a big superhero crossover review that is even more impervious to reviews than all others?)

The Spirit #15 (DC) Artist Paul Smith joins Sergio Aragones and Mark Evanier for the second issue of their post-Darwyn Cooke run and the dames are all lantern-jawed, and the jokes all go like this, “Nice try, P’Gell…But you playing innocent is like Paris Hilton crying poverty.” Get it? Because Paris Hilton is rich? And you know who she is, and that she’s rich, because she’s so famous for being in that reality show some years back? And also for having her picture taken a lot or something? It’s not terrible, but neither is it fresh or vital and, considering how many archive volumes of Eisner’s Spirit stories I’ve yet to read, it seems like a waste of time and money to keep reading this series. And I feel kind of bad saying that because I really like all of the creators involved and, well, I am sill reading Batman and The Outsiders after all…

Wolverine First Class #1 (Marvel) At long last, an ongoing comic book about everyone’s favorite Canadian mutant’s going for rides on commercial airlines! (Has someone already used that joke? I can’t possibly have been the first…) Okay, this comic has a really wonky title, and not just because it sounds like its referring to Wolvie’s travel accommodations. I guess it’s called First Class because it’s an all-ages friendly, not-tied-to-Marvel Universe-continuity X-Men book akin to X-Men: First Class, but isn’t X-Men: First Class called X-Men: First Class because it’s about the first class of X-Men? This is about the second class of X-Men. Obviously Wolverine: Second Class is a dumb name (Although Wolverine: No Class? That’s an awesome name), and it wouldn’t make sense to call the book that, even if it is technically correct.

But why not go with, I don’t know, Marvel Adventures Wolverine? Or Wolverine and Kitty Pryde? Or Wolverine and The X-Men? Or X-Wolverine, nobody’s used that one yet, have they?

Well, a comic book about Wolverine and Kitty Pryde by any other name would probably be just as sweet.

It’s written by Fred “What the hell’s he doing writing for Marvel?” Van Lente, one half of the team that brought you Action Philosophers! and Comic Book Comics, and drawn by Andrea Di Vito, and they’re doing a sensational job of taking inspiration from the old Chris Claremont relaunch years and telling a newer, fresher story that keeps that era’s virtues.

This issue is perfectly new reader friendly, and yet fans of the old Claremont X-Men, and John Byrne’s art on such, will find a lot of winks, nods and elbows to the ribs in this issue. Basically, Kitty Pryde is the new girl among the new class at Xavier’s, which consists of the mutants from Giant-Size X-Men. Well, the popular ones. Banshee and the Native American whom I always mix-up with the other Native American X-Men are nowhere to be found. I really liked Kitty’s “To coin a cliché,” comment. That’s…well, it’s brilliant is what it is.

It’s only the first issue, of course, but, so far at least, this book seems to be a perfect companion to Jeff Parker’s X-Men: First Class. Which brings the total number of easy-to-read, well-written, well-illustrated, thoroughly enjoyable X-Men comics up to…two. Exactly two now. Not bad, really.

World War Hulk Aftersmash: Damage Control #3 (Marvel) The Chrysler Building has come to life, and is threatening to get up and walk around to take advantage of its newfound sentience. Since that could destroy much of New York and cost countless human lives, the members of Damage Control take turns manning a megaphone to try and talk it out of it. It’s essentially a hostage drama, with the whole city hostage to Chrysler’s desire to stretch its legs (which it doesn’t have). It’s much funnier than I’m making it sound. If Marvel lets Dwayne McDuffie write a few issues like this after each big crossover story, than I don’t think I’d mind seeing more big crossover stories in the future.

Ultimate Spider-Man #120 (Marvel) I’ve seen a lot of drawings of women with fire-powers flying through the sky. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone draw a woman with fire-powers flying through the sky quite so well as Suart Immonen does. Just check out panel 2 on page four, with Firestar (can we start calling her that yet, or do we have to stick with Liz for now?) streaking through the sky, her hair and her legs creating parallel streaks of flame. That’s a damn fine drawing of a woman with fire-powers flying through the sky.

I don’t know if Immonen’s finally really gotten the hang of all the characters in the book, or if I’ve just gotten used to someone who’s not Mark Bagley drawing it, or some combination of the two, but I didn’t miss Bagley a bit this issue, and Immonen really seems to have nailed the teenage versions of these characters.

I hope we’ll get to see more of this trio of heroes working together in the future. It’s really too bad that Sean McKeever signed an exclusive contract to write bad comics for DC; he would have killed on an Ultimate Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends spin-off series…