Thursday, May 29, 2008

Weekly Haul: May 29th

Action Comics #865 (DC Comics) One downside of Geoff Johns’ incredibly prolific output is that readers are subjected to so much of his work, that the patterns behind his work are a little more obvious than they are with so many other writers (A problem he shares with Bendis; you can’t read four books a month from the same guy without starting to notice similarities, you know?).

Given that transparency, the ease with which readers can spot the gears of his scripts, and the relative popularity of his work, I’m genuinely surprised more writers aren’t applying the tried-and-true, tested-and-vetted Johns process to their scripts. Perhaps in a few more years, when more of the fans reading his stuff get their chance to write for the majors, we’ll see this.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind you. I’ve seen little to indicate Johns is, like, a genius at superhero comics or anything—he hasn’t deconstructed the genre or reinvented it the way many of his peers have, nor has he created something original out of whole cloth the way many of his peers have—but he is as dependable and reliable a craftsman as, say, Chuck Dixon, and is a bit more versatile, as long as we’re talking DC superheroes (Johns may be capable of a lot more; I don’t think he’s had either the inclination or opportunity to try delivering something else yet).

As for those patterns, there’s pacing to his narratives that is almost mathematic, and if one spent the time with enough back issues and a calculator, they could probably come up with a formula, wherein x equals old villain re-imagined, y equals surprise character familiar to audience appearing on last page after beginning the first half of a dramatic entrance line off-panel, and so on.

And then there’s the Batmanification of non-Batman characters. He’s done it on Hawkman and The Flash and Green Lantern (at least in the first year in the case of the latter), and he seems to finally be getting around to it on Superman with this issue.

“The Terrible Toyman,” a collaboration with former Superman inker Jesus Merino (who would actually make a pretty great Carlos Pacheco replacement on any title Pacheco can’t do monthly), is essentially one of those “rogue spotlight” issues from Johns’ Flash run, focusing on one of Superman’s bad guys.

As a matter of personal taste, I don’t much care for Johns’ villain “rehabilitations,” as they seem to be a repetitive Joker-izing of Silver Age and older villains. I don’t think every supervillain needs to be a psychotic killer to be taken seriously. Mirror Master being a hired gun with a funny accent and incredibly cool technology works fine for me, he need not be a drug addict on top of that. But that’s just a matter of taste; as far as the craft goes, Johns is good and this sort of thing, and while I found his Toyman pretty skeevy, the story itself is well constructed.

Winslow Schott has busted out of Arkham Asylum and kidnapped Jimmy Olsen, to tell him his story and, of course, us readers. There’s a lot of what some refer to as continuity patchwork here, the bridging gaps, smoothing out wrinkles and all around fixing of tangled or broken character histories that Johns is so good at.

This is a new way to look at the Toyman, one that subsumes and explains a way a lot of the other versions, including Jeph Loeb’s Toyman II Hiro (don’t Johns and Loeb share office space? Will that be awkward?) and the pedophilic Toyman from the Batman/Toyman series (If I’m remembering my old Toyman stories correctly).

Schott takes great offense to people thinking he was a pedophile or child killer (Johns never uses the word “pedophile” or “child molester;” it remains implied throughout, another iteration of the having-it-both-ways-ism apparent in a lot of DC’s attempts to darken their properties). Johns explains that Schott isn’t like that at all.

He does, however, fuck robots. And one of is robots might have malfunctioned and been a pedophile/child killer.

Another fantastic cover by Kevin Maguire.

All-Star Superman #11 (DC) DC released three new superhero comics by Grant Morrison today, and this one is by far the best one. This is the penultimate chapter of what is so far the very best Superman story I’ve ever read, and the cliffhanger ending filled with a feeling that’s all-too-rare in comics reading: Eagerness to read the next issue to find out what happens next, and dread that knowing that the next issue will also be the last, so I kinda hope it never does come.

Note to all DC artists who have to draw Lex Luthor at some point: Frank Quitely’s design for super-combat Lex is much better than Ed McGuinness’; why don’t you start using Quitely’s instead?

Batman #677 (DC) I got all the way to page three of this issue before artist Tony Daniel’s inability to construct a scene or tell a story through sequential art lost me.

In the second panel, Commissioner Gordon is talking to an off-panel Batman, visible only by a corner of dark blue cape. In the next panel, Gordon says “Hff. I only asked,” and there’s a different shaped mass of dark blue in the same corner. Reading the dialogue, it would seem that Batman was offended by Gordon’s question, and disappeared, and that shape is actually the top of a police hat from one of the random officers in the background of the previous panel.

Anyway, you know the drill by now: Intriguing story and awful art resulting in a story with potential being nothing more than an unpleasant sort of mediocre.

Bad editing decisions didn’t just stop at hiring a guy who can’t draw comics to draw a Grant Morrison Batman comic, though. Check out the Spoiler-as-Robin costume in the Batcave in this issue, and compare with last week’s Robin issue about why Batman didn’t put up a memorial case. If you’re going to coordinate any two books in your fictional universe, you’re probably going to want them to be Batman and Robin.

Batman: Gotham After Midnight #1 (DC) Ah, now here’s a guy who knows how to draw Batman comics! Kelley Jones is one of my personal favorite comic book artists, and was the VIP in my second-favorite run on a Batman comic, when he worked with writer Doug Moench and inker John Beatty (First favorite? Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle).

So obviously I was pretty excited to hear that not only would he be drawing Batman again, but that he’d be doing so for an entire 12-issue maxiseries. I was a little less enthused that he’d be working with writer Steve Niles, whose resume strikes me as a bit spotty, but among the weakest items on it that I’ve personally red was his Cal MacDonald collaborations with Jones.

Well, Niles’ writing is a tad over-affected, particularly in Batman’s narration, but it’s not quite as melodramatic nor as affected as Moench’s old Batman narration was, but it hardly matters—affectation and melodrama work quite well with Jones’ Batman, which is exaggerated to the point of being a cartoon gargoyle.

And I mean that as a compliment because, honestly, if you’re going to exaggerate—be it a line, an image, a muscle, an angle—why not just go completely overboard with it?

There’s a scene on the second page, where Batman’s creeping through a dark store, sneaking up on his prey, and he looks like a tip-toe-ing Looney Tunes character. There’s a scene where the end where Batman is apparently killed in a warehouse, and his gigantic cape literally covers the entire room, draping over huge crates at least 25-feet away from Batman’s prone form.

That same page opens with a location shot of the exterior of the building, and Jones takes a storybook approach to filling up the space. The sky has a spider’s web arrangement of telephone wires, knife-wielding silhouettes are visible in two windows, spooky faces peer out from a third window, there’s a red-eyed green face peering out of a sewer grate, a strip of police tape wrapped around a street lamp, a chalk drawing on the cobblestone street, wanted signs on the walls—whew!

Jones makes even the most standard elements of the script look visually thrilling. For example, in one the Scarecrow breathes his own fear gas and imagines Batman as a monster for the 567th time in his criminal career, and after a typical hallucination of a red-eyed, sharp-toothed Batman in one pane, Jones follows it up with a panel in which 22 identical Batman point accusingly at him, including a crowd of full-sized Batman, a few half-sized Batman, and a few tiny little Batman.

The only thing scarier than a pissed off Batman is probably 20 pissed off Batmen, including a two-foot-tall Batman, and a tiny little six-inch Batman. Brrr!

Blue Beetle #27 (DC) The last time an issue of Blue Beetle came out I mentioned that I was planning on dropping it now that writer John Rogers had left and that I was only reading it because I liked Rogers’ writing so much, but that I couldn’t resist the special all-Spanish issue, especially since it featured Traci 13, and I find the Jaime/Traci relationship adorable. Well, #27 also features Traci 13, so here I am again. This is incoming writer Will Pfeifer’s first issue, and it was pretty decent, but nothing remarkable. It lacked a moment of pure joy, like Jaime taking his grandmother for a flight, that made #26 such a fun read, and ended on a down, mysterious note that seemed unusual for what I’ve read of this series.

Final Crisis #1 (DC) In many ways, this is your typical Grant Morrison superhero epic. There’s the concern with the nature of reality, a theme he’s explored again and again, most famously in Animal Man, but also in Seven Soldiers, his other Vertigo works, and, most comparably in this case, his JLA run. The Monitors, here speaking more Morrisonly than throughout Countdown to Final Crisis speak of integrity of reality, and new old big bad Libra’s plot recalls an element of JLA: Earth 2, that of the fundamental qualities of a universe affecting and predicting the actions and actors in it. The conceit of Morrison’s original graphic novel with Frank Quitely was that in the superheroes’ home universe, they would always win, because that was the way their universe was set up, whether you read that to mean the DC Universe or DC Comics or superhero comics in general, whereas in the reverse dimension, evil always triumphed. The mysterious villain Libra’s plan seems to be to fundamentally alter the nature of the DC Universe (or DC comics or superhero comics in general). Why does good always win? Is it because of the “higher moral order?” Because God is benevolent and good? What if Libra could shift the balance to a new order, from a good God to a dark god?

Also present in Morrison’s razor-sharp definition of characters, as in a scene where he takes Geoff Johns’ vision of the Green Lantern Corps as space cops and gives it a deliriously super-serious Silver Age sheen with a few sentences of jargon from the Guardians—“Seal the crime scene…no one must enter or leave the gravity well,” “Dust for radiation prints”—and there are the cast-off great ideas that come at a quick clip, like Sparx and Empress mentioning their “League of Titans” while on the run from some villains.

Morrison almost always plays fair with other writers’ work (even when he was drastically overhauling the X-Men, he did so within the confines of previous stories), and perhaps that’s why the state of the fiction universe so dictates how he writes, and I was therefore a little disappointed that he stuck to things I so hate about the current DCU—there’s Lex Luthor wearing not a business suit or a lab coat or some kind of action suit ala Justice League Unlimited, but the Ed McGuinness redesign of his old Super Friends outfit; there’s super-rapist Dr. Light commenting that two teenage girls are “asking for it in these outfits” before changing the subject to erectile dysfunction drugs for a date he has that night.

And yet, Morrison manages to ignore the events of Countdown almost completely. The Monitors are present, but the scene is perfectly clear without having followed the weekly. And when John Stewart and Hal Jordan find Orion’s dead body, they freak the hell out about a New God dying—as if this wasn’t the fortieth or so such death they would have heard about (Superman found Lightray’s body and was there when Darkseid and Orion seemingly killed each other; John and the rest of the League investigated Barda’s murder, etc.). Final Crisis has had what has gotta be the biggest ramp-up of any comics story ever, judged strictly by page count. Sure, Bendis has been building up to Secret Invasion over the course of several years with two monthlies and a handful of miniseries, but Final Crisis’s prelude consisted of a 51-issue series supported by at least as many tie-ins…and it ignores them all.

The scale is established early as powerfully cosmic, conscious mythmaking with the DC characters, as god Metron gifts cave boy Antrho with the knowledge of fire (and more?) in the first few pages, and we flash forward to the present.

This is a scale that Morrison is quite comfortable working at, and no one does hyperbolic super-comics like him. One of my favorite of his superhero comics—hell, maybe my favorite super-comic period— was that first issue of the JLA vs. the renegade angels story, because it is just so super-operatic. The one with the cliffhanger where Zauriel is ranting and raving about how the scale of heaven is too much for mortals to comprehend—“The light of heaven would slash open your corneas, the music of heaven would puncture your eardrums and drive you insane”—and then Asmodel’s chariot arrives and Green Lantern’s like, “Superman…I’m really gonna have to sign off…I…I think the apocalypse just arrived.” Staving off the apocalypse was what Morrison’s League was devoted to, and it was a nice millennial theme for a book being published in the late-‘90s time between the so-called, post-Cold War “end of history” and the looming Y2K. That was only the sixth issue of Morrison’s JLA, and he kept ratcheting the threat level up from there, until the climax was a villain so powerful it took the conversion of every single person on earth into a superhero to combat—six billion supermen were needed to overcome Mageddon.

What do you do for an encore to that?

The threat of Final Crisis hasn’t reached that scale yet, but Morrison sure evokes that old apocalyptic feeling, in one coy scene set around the Justice League meeting table. After Superman hypes up what they’re facing after the death of Orion—“These are celestials capable of cracking the planet in half and enslaving billions”—he un-ironically ceclares, “Justice League condition amber.” This doesn’t even rate a red for the Justice League yet.

There’s another great scene in which we see post-Fall Darkseid (apparently the falling figure in DC Universe 0 after all), and while I’m sure readers are already sick of this new Darkseid thanks to the “Club Dark Side” tie-ins showing up in Teen Titans, Birds of Prey and The Flash, Morrison does a keen job or redefining him not so much as the alpha-villain of the DC Universe, but as its literal Satan.

Thus far Final Crisis seems to be positioning itself as the thinking fan’s Crisis; like Criseses Infinite, Identity and On Infnite Earths, it seems to be about DC Comics themselves, a subject with perhaps limited limited appeal, but hat theme is widened just enough to seemingly also be about superhero comics in general, the people who make them and read them and are in them.

As I said a few hundred words ago then, this is typical Morrison. And that’s a good thing. DC’s given him a ton of rope though, and he’s still got eight months to hang himself (or be hung by the company).

The writing is, of course, only half of the equation, and if I have (a lot less) to say about the art, it’s because it is good, if a somewhat pedestrian good. Although given that the art has been so generally poor on DC’s “important” titles (52, Countdown, JLoA), either due to the hiring of poor artists or the stress of a weekly deadline, it seems well worth noting that this book represents, in a lot of cases, the very first time some things have looked good at all. The new Hall of Justice, for example, has never been anything other than a hastily sketched, badly referenced façade and blank interior. Here it looks like a place, with backgrounds, statuary, shadows, settings and lamps.

Will Final Crisis be able to stay this nice looking for seven more issues? Who knows. The last capital-C Crisis at DC was badly hobbled by the art, and I’m somewhat worried about this project, as Jones isn’t that fast, and either delaying the story too much so that it seems like the bulk will occur elsewhere (that is, in the copious tie-ins) or pulling in a bunch of artists who aren’t J. G. Jones to finish this Infinite Crisis style will hurt it, just as badly as all those non-Phil Jimenez guys hurt IC (and they killed it, dead). Morrison’s good enough to transcend mediocre art, but his Batman proves he can’t do anything with horrible art, and even a squadron of good artists can turn out horrible art, if there are too many of them on too few pages with too little time (See Infinite Crisis #7).

Confidential to Chipp Kidd: I love you.

Green Lantern #31 (DC) Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis are at the halfway point of their Green Lantern: Year One type story, the point at which they introduce their Hal to the Green Lantern Corps. It’s kinda like a story of Hal Jordan, when he was as green as Kyle Rayner ten years ago. It’s a typically decent read from these creators on this particular title; I’m not much of a Green Lantern or Hal Jordan fan in general, but I really appreciate this book’s good qualities, so I assume fans are especially pleased.

Three things occurred to me while taking in the double-page splash on pages six and seven. First, if the Lantern’s rings don’t work on anything yellow, aren’t the Guardians just asking for it by painting every single building in their Oan city yellow? Second, that whale with arms and legs in the upper right-hand corner looks awesome; my favorite thing about Green Lantern Corps stories is the sometimes crazy aliens the artists invent to fill out crowd scenes. And third, I really, really, really want to see a Green Lantern story by Matt Howarth some day.

Judenhass (Aardvark-Vanaheim) Controversial but brilliant cartoonist Dave Sim’s project dealing with anti-Semitism and the holocaust is out today; it’s a slim, black and white graphic novel about the size and shape of an old DC “prestige format” book, and it’s a steal at $4. I’m going to spend a little more time digesting it before mouthing off about it—in large part because it demands a lot more attention than some of the books on this list, and in part because reviewing it between an issue of Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern and Brian Michael Bendis’ New Avengers seems wrong. Look for a full review in next Monday’s edition of Best Shots @

The New Avengers #41 (Marvel Comics) I love dinosaur fighting. I’m a big advocate of dinosaur fighting. I think we need a lot of it, and not just in comics, but all media, and if Brian Michael Bendis wants to have three sets of Avengers fighting a T Rex in the Savage Land, I’m never going to say no about it.

The thing is, this is the third time I’ve read about this exact same instance of that T Rex breaking up a fight between the three sets of Avengers now, and while it’s a nice depiction of a T Rex—this issue’s artist Billy Tan draws it well, and Bendis’ sound effects for it are great—the more I see it, the stupider the scene becomes. Excluding all the Avengers who are most likely Skrulls, we’ve still got Ms. Marvel, Ares, The Sentry and Wonder Man standing around, and any one of them ought to be able to push over a T Rex in the space of a panel or two, so I’m sure why this ends the fight.

This replay of the scene from Secret Invasion #2 is only the first three pages of the book, and this time told from Spider-Man’s perspective. The rest of the book deals with Spider-Man meeting up with Ka-Zar, Zabu and Shana the She-Devil, and the Savage Landers telling Spidey via flashback what they’ve been up to since the firs story arc of New Avengers.

It’s all very typical Bendis; if you like that sort of thing, you’ll like this, and if you don’t, you won’t. My relationship with much of his work is equal parts grudging respect and curiosity (structurally, he’s always trying new things out). He does some things quite well—I love his neurotic Spider-Man for example, and this issue has a nice Spider-Man freak-out—yet hate the way everyone talks the same (even when they dress like Tarzan and live in Dinosaur Land) and the way he takes forever to tell a story, whether its from the cinematic decompression he’s infamous for, or from this sort of covering the same ground over and over and over.

Ultimate Spider-Man #122 (Marvel) The Ultimate Shocker, who has been nothing but a punching bag/punchline over the course of this title, finally gets his revenge on Spider-Man in this stellar one-issue story that nicely balances genuine menace with light-hearted superheroics and character interplay. You may have noticed that a lot of my Avengers reviews tend to be full of backhanded compliments and outright complaints. You may have wondered why I even bother to keep reading Bendis’ Avengers books (I have wondered that myself). Well, this is the reason. Bendis can be a great super-comic writer, and he quite often is. Of course, it’s only here that he is, and the rest of his Marvel work tends to be hit or miss.

Wolverine First Class #3 (Marvel) Hey, it’s a multi-part story! Can they do that in a Marvel Adventures/First Class book? I didn’t think they could. This is a typically richly told story from Fred Van Lente, who uses several different interesting devices here, including a crazy medieval tapestry-format retelling of the history of The High Evolutionary and Wundagore (Is this all real Marvel continuity? I’m assuming it is, since Thor comes up, but this is all way before my time). Wolverine and Kitty Pryde are in the Wundagore area seeking leads on Magneto, and find themselves embroiled in the conflicts involving Marvel’s own race of Furries (Man, Jack Kirby really did see the future, he just misinterpreted a lot of it; the things he saw that foretold grand adventure were really just the sexual kinks of future generations). Perhaps because this is a two-parter, the pace is a little more leisurely than in previous issues (#2, for example, boasted something funny on every page), but this is still the most fun Wolverine book on the stands.


JohnF said...

Does this mean that Cosmic Odyssey never happened? Or is there some other explanation for why GL John Stewart doesn't recognize Orion? Should I not bother asking?

SallyP said...

Excellent reviews, as always.

All-Star Superman was great, and it is going to break my heart when it ends.

Blue Beetle was fun without being ridiculously fun as before. I like the idea of the teenager's version of revenge, and Jaime's realization that he can't solve every problem.

I liked Final Crises. It pretty much ignored all of Countdown, but I count that in its favor. At least it didn't have Skrulls in it.

Green Lantern was lovely, it was so nice to see Hal being a doofus and a rookie. Hal is always something of a doofus, but he usually carries it off with a lot more panache. At this point in his career he just doesn't have a CLUE, and I'm enjoying it thoroughly.

I gave up on New Avengers, Avengers, Mighty Avengers, whatever a while back, when it finally dawned on me, that the story had some witty dialogue, but that was it. It has been months now, and nothing is HAPPENING! How many times can they show that same dinosaur?

Ultimate Spider-Man however was very good. I find that I like Bendis much better when he concentrates on a smaller story or fewer characters.

Unknown said...

Libra’s plot recalls an element of JLA: Earth 2, that of the fundamental qualities of a universe affecting and predicting the actions and actors in it.
Good interpretation of the plot Caleb - I hadn't considered that angle.

I'm enjoying Final Crisis so far, but was it just me or was the murder of the hero in question sort of underwhelming? I don't know if it will be expanded on in Requiem, but it seemed that should have been a more dramatic scene, maybe a scuffle ending with a full-page finale - I think the death of the Freedom Fighters in Infinite Crisis had more punch than this one, which is a shame given the history of the character.

Anonymous said...

Is Judenhass a one-shot or a serial? I'm just wondering if I should pick it up or wait for the phonebook.

Caleb said...

Does this mean that Cosmic Odyssey never happened?

it does make me wonder how many--if any--New Gods story have taken place before on New Earth.

Hal is always something of a doofus, but he usually carries it off with a lot more panache. At this point in his career he just doesn't have a CLUE, and I'm enjoying it thoroughly.

Pre-panache Hal Jordan is probably a good way to sum up his rookie-hood in this issue, huh?

I'm enjoying Final Crisis so far, but was it just me or was the murder of the hero in question sort of underwhelming? I don't know if it will be expanded on in Requiem, but it seemed that should have been a more dramatic scene, maybe a scuffle ending with a full-page finale - I think the death of the Freedom Fighters in Infinite Crisis had more punch than this one, which is a shame given the history of the character.

Oh yeah; Black Condor II and Phantom Lady II had a more dramatic death scene, huh? It was so perfunctory that I'm not sure it was supposed to be a death-death scene at this point. I'm hoping he becomes a New God or resumes his familiar look and is back by the last issue at this point.

Is Judenhass a one-shot or a serial?

Oh, it's just a one-shot. I think you'll dig it, despite the difficult subject matter. Sim's doing an art thing similar to glamourpuss, only with photos of the Holocaust. I don't know how he can look at them so long, as it was pretty heartbreaking just skimming the panels; I couldn't imagine spending days constructing them.

Patrick C said...

Morrison had Barda and Orion on his JLA, so we should assume at least those teammates were aware of Orion. That really only includes Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and the Flash. I think Black Lightning was involved in that storyline too, but I don't know if he actually would have met Orion. I don't know, it's weird but I'm reserving judgment until I see more issues.

It seems like all of Death of the New Gods didn't happen, so I'm so glad I spent money on that. I wonder if New Genesis/Apokalips are even really recombined.

I do hope Scott Free gets some love though. I don't mind Shilo Norman, but I don't want him to be the only Mister Miracle in this series.