Monday, March 24, 2008

“Comic books suck these days, and this book is a shining example why…”

Well, I haven’t talked about what a bad comic book writer Brad Meltzer is for four whole days now, so I suppose I’m due for another post on the subject, huh?

Actually, I had an image-heavy post planned for today, but I couldn’t get at a scanner for long enough to get the whole thing in. (Hopefully tomorrow.) I did, however, get my hands on Justice League of America: The Lightning Saga.

The cover for this volume is an oddly cropped version of the Alex Ross image that was used as the cover for the second printing of JLoA #12 (For the first printing, one half of the image was run on the cover; if you wanted the full image, you had to buy two issues). To make room for a bar of text on the back cover, 1/4th of it runs on the back cover, half of it is on the cover of the book, and the final 1/4th of the image on the front cover flap. This leaves Batman off the cover. In Ross’ original layout, the Trinity function as the pillars of the pose, with Black Lightning and Hal Jordan behind each of Wonder Woman’s shoulders. With this cropping, Jordan and Lightning seeming quite prominent. It’s not often you see someone trying to sell a Justice League comic book by putting Black Lighting or Black Canary on the cover instead of Batman.

(Behold my photographic skills! Do not adjust your monitor and/or eyes, the writing has been reversed! I could learn how to fix it, as a few have you have pointed out in the past but, well, I'm lazy.)

(And speaking of Ross’ painting, it’s a good thing he doesn’t read Batman and the Outsiders. I’m sure painting some of the characters on this cover, particularly Vixen and Geo-Force, who didn’t debut in any form until after the cut-off point in DCU costume history that he likes—the appearance of Firestorm signaling where things-he-likes-to-paint stops—must have killed him. And now Geo-Force isn’t even on the Justice League? DC made him paint Geo-Force on the cover of JLoA and he was only even on the team for, like, two stories?*)

Image aside, the cover of this volume varies remarkably from the one containing the first half of writer Brad Meltzer’s run. That one was mostly just cover credits and white space, with the Michael Turner image shrunk down about as small as possible. This one is pretty much all image.

On the first volume, Meltzer’s name was huge, and Ed Benes’ was smaller. On this one, Benes’ isn’t even included. Writers Meltzer and Geoff Johns (who only writes of two of the eight issues within) have their names on the cover in nice big yellow font (much, much bigger than the words “Justice League of America”), and no artists are credited, probably because so many were involved (Benes pencils three of the eight issues; Shane Davis, Fernando Pasarin, Gene Ha and Dale Eaglesham pencil one a piece; the final is a jam issue). In fact, looking at the cover or the spine, you’d be forgiven for thinking an artist named Johns drew the whole thing.

Oddly, while no artists are named on the cover, there is a little credit under Johns’ saying, “Introduction by Patton Oswalt.” Is that a strong selling point? Stronger than any of the artists involved? I mean, “Patton Oswalt” isn’t exactly the first, fifteenth or four-hundredth name that comes to mind when I think of “people who know a lot about comics, and who I’d look to for a recommendation on one.”

The only other text on the cover is a blurb from IGN (The videogame site?), which says, simply, “Spectacular.”

Oswalt’s introduction was pretty funny, and I agreed with large parts of it. For example, he writes, “Comic books suck these days, and this book is a shining example why…”

And, “Brad Meltzer threw a flaming monkey wrench into the machinery when he wrote the IDENTITY CRISIS for DC Comics…this, ‘THE LIGHTNING SAGA,’ is a perfect example of why comics suck.”

Why, he even says at one point that Meltzer’s vision of his stories can “make for frustrating, confusing single issues.”

I couldn’t agree more with any of those out-of-context sentiments; in fact, if I had to choose two words to describe these stories, they would probably be “frustrating” and “confusing.”

Now, Oswalt means all of this in a good way. Basically he’s saying that the overall story that Meltzer—and Geoff Johns, and other of the more popular comics writers of the day that get name-dropped—don’t write single issues anymore, but all write for the trade instead. He means it in a good way.

He even compares the books to those of the old days, when you could buy a single issue of “THE FLASH or X-Men or even Richie Rich and be told a zippy story with a beginning, middle and end.” And that, that’s a bad thing.

I think the exact opposite; the best comics can both tell a single-issue story with a beginning, middle and end and still be a chapter in a bigger story. It’s not an either or proposition. And I don’t see any way in which a single issue being frustrating and confusing can be seen as a virtue, particularly if you read comics as single-issues. Basically, Oswalt is articulating an argument against buying comics like JLoA and JSoA, and instead wait for the trades.

(He also compares single issues of “The Lighting Saga” to single episodes of The Wire, Deadwood and Friday Night Lights, as if being like a TV show, and the trade of it like watching those shows on DVD; I don’t know, there’s something kind of depressing about complimenting a comic book story by saying it’s like a TV show. That’s pretty much my definition of “not a great comic book”).

As for the specifics of what Oswalt has to say, well, after having read his intro, I now suspect that Secret Invasion is gonna suck.

“Oh man,” he writes of JLoA #11, “There’s a moment of revelation that will, literally, make you flip…something.” If you’ve read it already, you know that revelation is that Vixen has lost her animal powers and been leeching her fellow Leaguers’ super-powers. I think. You probably won’t flip anything, but think, “Oh, so it wasn’t just one more dumb-ass mistake when she was using cheetah speed to keep pace with The Flash.”

Or wait, he said “literally.” I guess you will flip the book literally, because a few panels are printed upside down. God, I hope that’s not what he’s talking about…

He also singles out the playing capture the flag scene and the non sequitir involving a trio of supervillains that have absolutely nothing to do with anything at all in this story (rather, it was a tease for a plot currently unfolding in Geoff Johns’ Booster Gold) as examples of “wasn’t it cool” scenes.

I don’t really have anything else to say about “The Lightning Saga” that I haven’t said as it was unfolding. It’s just terrible, terrible, terrible stuff. Since it originally ran, we’ve seen that trio of villains reappear in Booster Gold, we’ve seen Johns play around with The Legion some more in Action Comics, and we’ve seen what’s become of Karate Kid and the shadowy figure from the future in Coundown, and even knowing that, these things still seem off as they occur in the trade, just unconnected, random happenings seemingly beyond the writers’ control.

I was also curious to see if DC changed anything that seemed like a mistake—the coloring of Jai’s hair, the fact that Karate Kid said he “ducked” a lightning bolt that clearly strikes him a few pages earlier—but no dice.

I dropped the monthly after “Lightning Saga,” figuring eventually a nearby library would carry the eventual trade (I’m not above reading bad super-comics, but man, I hate to have to pay for the privilege). So this was the first time I read #11 and #12, Meltzer’s second-to-last and last issue of his short 13-issue run.

The second-to-last issue is easily distinguishable from the rest of the series—it’s the nice-looking one. It’s illustrated by Gene Ha, and it’s impossible to read without thinking how much better Meltzer’s run would have been had Ha drawn it instead of Benes, as he does what Benes can’t by drawing figures that look remotely human, distinct from each other, and capable of expressing emotions.

The story itself is a somewhat pretentiously clever one. It reads a lot like a Brian Michael Bendis story, in which BMB experiments with something seemingly just not to get too bored while cranking out forty super-comics a month.

After they’re caught in a collapsing building and terribly wounded, Red Arrow and Vixen are badly injured, buried alive, facing death, and unable to be rescued by “doors” or Superman. (No mention of why Geo-Force, whose whole deal is lifting rocks and shit, can’t come through). They have to fight through their pain and shock and pep talk each other into getting out (think Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, but with Red Arrow and Vixen instead of fireman). And Vixen doesn’t have any superpowers! And she’s been lying about it this whole time! And now she and her teammate could totally die because she lied! I’d say this makes her seem less than heroic, but considering the actions of the “Power Pact” in Identity Crisis, I suppose this is nothing.

Anyway, it’s a dialogue-heavy issue with too-cute presentation of how they came to be in their predicament, and a kinda neat gimmick near the climax.

And that brings us to the twelfth and final issue of Meltzer’s run on the title, which forms a sort of bookend to JLoA #0, which kicked the series off, but is reprinted as if it were #13, following #12 in this trade (So, if this were a book shelf, both bookends are on the same side of the books, which doesn’t really make much sense).

It starts with nice Eric Wight pencil art, and Wight, like Ha, would have been a far better choice to collaborate with Meltzer for the entire series. He’s seemingly been chosen because his style here looks old and simple, but it’s much more complex than Benes’ (or most of the other pencillers here, excepting only Eaglesham). It only looks simple in that it has less lines, but the lines that are there all do something, whereas too many of Benes’ lines are just there to make the drawing look slightly more complex than a generic figure posing infront of a generic background or, more often than not, empty space.

This story is entitled “Monitor Duty,” and the idea is a day in the life type story exploring the characters and relationships of the various Leaguers. It’something of an empty gesture, given that this is the end of Meltzer’s run; he’s taken 13 issues to get this team together, but leaves before he can say anything about any of them beyond, “Here’s a new status quo; have fun making sense of it, successors!”

In the Wight drawn flashback, we see “Year One” era Aquaman and Martian Manhunter chatting about starting the Justice League, while Hal Jordan and Barry Allen do the same, and then we jump to the present. Two shadowy figures talk about the current League line-up from their hidden base in Rhode Island, spying on them using hologram spy-ware of some sort. Near the end we learn that these spies are actually Aquaman and Martian Manhunter.

This presents some problems. Firstly, Aquaman is dead. The Aquaman who was on the Justice League, the one shown in the flashbacks, the one who knows all the players and experienced all the memories he’s talking about, is dead. During the missing year chronicled in 52, he lost his memory and mutated into “The Dweller of the Deep.” He hung out with Aquaman II for a while, but then he died in the pages of his own book.

So the only Aquaman in the DCU at the moment is Aquaman II, also named Arthur Curry, who absorbed some of Aquaman I’s magic and essence during the missing year, but he’s a totally different person.

The dialogue and story construction indicates Aquaman I is the person talking to J’onn J’onnz throughout the story. The art indicates that it’s Aquaman II, who, in addition to not knowing J’onn, obviously doesn’t know the whole history of the Justice League as experienced by Aquaman I.

That’s a pretty big mistake right there, much bigger than having Felix Faust be the off-panel antagonist of this issue (He’s still stuck in Fate’s Tower with Neron at the time this story is occurring). Flipping through this issue in the shop, I thought it was kind of amusing that not only was Meltzer not reading Aquaman, but neither were his editors on JLoA, and I wondered if they’d be able to correct it in the trade. Maybe if they just had Benes redraw Aquaman, the story would work (so long as you don’t read Aquaman, and, at the time, about 70,000 JLoA readers weren’t reading Aquaman, so it’s probably safe to assume most of those who pick up this trade won’t be tracking down back issues of the now-cancelled Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis). Or if they changed some dialogue to make it look like J’onn was talking to Aquaman II for, um, some reason, it would maybe kind of work. A little.

But this, this just doesn’t work.

It doesn’t deserve a “Continuity is for nerds, it’s the story itself that matters!” pass either, since Meltzer is so goddam concerned with continuity that his readers are supposed to have read and internalized early ‘80s New Teen Titans to the point that when Roy says Vixen’s shaking “like Gar after we lost Terra,” they’ll know what the hell he’s talking about.

To say nothing of referring to the Legionnaires by their first names throughout “Lightning Saga.” When characters call Superman and Batman “Clark” and “Bruce,” it’s annoying and unnatural, but at least any reader who picks this book up is going to be reasonably aware of who Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne are. But Jeckie? Luornu? Val? The hell?

This book is nothing but continuity (and continuity errors) so, like Identity Crisis it doesn’t get that pass; you can’t base a story in DC trivia, expecting your readers to know it at least as well as you, and then beg their indulgence when you screw it up.

The trade ends with JLoA #0, which is the first chapter of the first story arc, trade-collected at the end of the run for some reason. Reading it here seems…off, particularly after the exclamation point ending of Meltzer’s final issue, with Martian Manhunter saying things never change over a two-page spread of the whole line-up running straight at the reader.

All of a sudden, we’re back in the Batcave, watching the Trinity sit down and get ready to look at photos for a few months. I kind of liked the way Meltzer redefined the Trinity as a clique within the League in this story, but the story itself is extremely random.

There are a few pages in the present, but most of them flashback to a new version of DCU history (the post-Intinite Crisis/52 version of pre- and post-Crisis (on Infinite Earths version, in which Wonder Woman was being reinserted into League history after having been removed from it for over 20 years). Or flash-forward to events of the future labeled “tomorrow.” Looking at these now, well over a year since the #0 issue first came out, none of the six “tomorrows” have come to pass yet, and most probably never will (the death of Batman and the marriage of Wonder Woman, for example; the marriage of Hal Jordan and the death of Pa Kent are more possible, I suppose, and the Trinity vs. Luthor over Superboy the most likely to occur).

The main virtue of this issue is the art, with Wight again handling the “Year One” stuff, Benes the present day stuff, and a slew of guest-artists each getting a page or so. We get to see Kevin Maguire and Howard Porter drawing pages set in the eras they defined, plus Dick Giordano, Tony Harris, George Perez, J.H. Williams III, Gene Ha, Rags Morales, Ethan Van Sciver, Jim Lee and others.

And I imagine that’s the last post I’ll have complaining about Meltzer for a good long time, as I’ve now read every comic he’s written. All 26 of ‘em. Stop back tomorrow for “Judd Winick: Threat or Menace?” Kidding! Something light and image-heavy for sure tomorrow.

*I’m guessing, here. Was he officially on the team for “Lightning Saga,” or still just kinda hanging around? In #7, he says he’s not on the team. Well, if he is on the League, that means he’s around for “Lighting Saga,” “Monitor Duty” and McDuffie’s fist arc, “Unlimited.” So, two to three stories altogether, right?


Anonymous said...

I was confused by all the ambivalence and ambiguity - does Caleb like or dislike Meltzer?

SallyP said...

Who the hell IS this Patton Oswalt fellow anyway? His name keeps popping up here and there, and I blush to confess that I don't have a CLUE who he is supposed to be.

Like Grandpa Simpson, I guess I'm just not "with" it.

I do agree with you on the Lightning Saga. I rather enjoyed the Geoff Johns portion of the story, and the Eaglesham art, but for the love of God, could we please please dump Benes? If I have to look at Wonder Woman's ass one more time, I may start clawing my eyes out.

Something I don't understand, is what the heck happened to Dwayne McDuffie? He wrote a few issues, then half of some issues, and hasnt' even been on it for the last couple of issues. Whuhuh?

Caleb said...

Who the hell IS this Patton Oswalt fellow anyway? His name keeps popping up here and there, and I blush to confess that I don't have a CLUE who he is supposed to be.

Heh. I had the same reaction when I see his name being toted on the cover here, or as SI invasion.

He's an actor/comedian best known for the lead in critical dlarling/Oscar winner Ratatouille (proably spelled wrong...I'm on my way out the time to check!). He's also appeared in movies I've seen but have no memory of him in (Magnolia, many comedies), voice-acted in a lot of cartoons I've seen, and starred in/voice-acted in many TV shows I haven't.

It occurred to me as I was reading your response that he ALSO wrote on of the last really good JLA shots, Welcome to the Working Week.

I think I'm going to do a post later in the week about that book, because it was, oh, ten thousand times better than Meltzer's JLA work. Based on it, I think I'd rather have just finished a trade of Oswalt's run on JLoA with an intro by Brad Meltzer...

Michael Strauss said...

I was re-reading Justice League the other day and really enjoyed it. Of course it was the issue where Sid Vicious (or his DC counterpart) swiped Barda's Mega Rod and ran amok with it. Fun, entertaining and coherent.

This new JLA series is just difficult and vexing, and it hasn't gotten any better since Meltzer's departure. I suppose changing the credits box to indicate that the script was written by Editorial Caveat or Marketing Department would be too on the nose.

I don't really have anything to add that hasn't already been said here and elsewhere about the book's weak points (first names, the art, plotting). But I guess I would like to know who that's supposed to be on the cover of the latest issue though, because it's not Bronze Tiger.

Oh, and I'd also love to read a JLA book that isn't a 22 page advertisement for a weaker selling book or a crossover.

malpractice said...

I am a big Patton Oswalt fan so i was saddened when i saw that he was writing an introduction to this piece of shit story.

Jacob T. Levy said...

The Speedy & Vixen issue actually gave me a very, very slight twinge of, "Oh, Meltzer does have some writing talent when it comes to emotional character moments; that means there was unrealized potential in the idea of letting him write JLA." This made my memory of the rest of Meltzer's run even worse.