Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Weekly Haul: January 7th

Black Lightning: Year One #1 (DC Comics) If any of DC’s super-comics were to be held sacrosanct, Black Lightning wasn’t likely to be one of them.

There is no story from any creator that is seen as so influential and so special that DC will leave it alone forever. They’ll leave Barry Allen or Jason Todd dead, but only for a few decades; Mary Marvel can be a slutty, murderous Suicide Girl wannabe; a Justice League villain can rape a Justice Leaguer’s wife on the meeting table while Superman cries about it on the cover; Neil Gaiman’s Sandman can end when the writer wants it too, but spin-offs will continue indefinitely.

So it would obviously be pretty naïve to expect the short-lived, eleven-issue, 1977 Black Lightning series by Tony Isabella and Trevor Von Eeden to receive any kind of special protection from being messed with by other writers.

Still, it’s always somewhat frustrating when other editors, writers and artists start overwriting past stories, in large part because it compromises the contract between DCU comics readers and makers—that we treat the characters as if they are more or less real people with real lives that progress logically and chronologically. Examples? Well, when Judd Winick introduced Anissa “Thunder” Pierce, 22-year-old daughter of Jefferson “Black Lightning” Pierce, who had never previously had a daughter. Or when Geoff Johns later introduced Black Lightning’s never-before-mentioned wife and second daughter.

Like I said, Black Lightning the book and Black Lightning the character (who outlived his first series, appearing in Batman and The Outsiders and a second, slightly longer-lived 1990’s solo book), don’t really have any special retcon immunity, and yet sometimes it feels like they should, if only because of the character’s status as the first black superhero from the comics publisher that originated the concept of the superhero. Black Lightning is basically the Jackie Robinson of the DCU, and as poor as the stories featuring him may be relative to the rest of DC’s output in the years since, there’s still something kind of special about them (even if not special enough to exempt them from being made irrelevant).

None of this is to say that there’s necessarily anything wrong with DC re-telling Black Lightning’s origin story; if anything, the out-of-left field changes Winick and Johns introduced all but necessitate one. There are other problems with the character, which I kind of sort of addressed in this 2007 post that I don’t really want to get into again here, beyond noting that the character is very much a product of his times (note the name), and yet because the DCU operates on a sort of sliding timeline, where the heroes never age more than a few years, and Black Lightning has thus never been Black Lightning more than ten years or so into the past, a product of the ‘70s in our world is now a product of the ‘90s in his world.

So rebooting Black Lightning and rewriting his story? A necessary evil at this point, thanks both to moves made by a couple of writers and the nature of DCU comics. I don’t begrudge DC doing this series, nor writer Jen Van Meter for writing it, although I do wish she would have taken the opportunity to “fix” his codename (by making the color of the lightning he shoots either black-black, or black light black—that is, purplish) and that she adhered a bit closer to the character’s first year as it was originally presented.

This is only the first sixth of the story, of course, so maybe what seem like drastic changes now will seem less so as the rest of it unfolds, but one significant change—beyond giving Pierce a wife and a little girl named Anissa—is that his powers now seem to be natural, something he was born with. In his original series, he wore a special belt that gave him his lightning powers (making him more of a Batman, Steel or Mister Terrific type character who was a self-made, inherently bad-ass hero augmenting his crime-fighting with a super tool, rather than a Superman, Flash or Wonder Woman-like superhuman character). It wasn’t until later that his “latent meta-gene” activated and he internalized his powers. (It could be that Van Meter just hasn’t gotten to fully explaining all this yet; she’s already introduced the man who helped him invent the belt, so maybe it will turn out that he still uses it to regulate and focus an inherent power).

Is this way too nerdy for you? Sorry; I just find Black Lightning pretty fascinating, as he embodies so many of the problems of a shared setting “universe” like the DCU (or Marvel Universe) that I (obviously) find so interesting.

Enough background I guess, how’s the actual comic book?

Pretty darn good, actually. It’s a surprisingly full comic book, it took me about three times as long to read as any other super-comic in my stack this week, in large part due to the simple fact that the pages were relatively panel-packed (eight-panel pages are not uncommon here). It’s not super-dense or anything though. Van Meter has Jeff’s wife narrate, and her familiar with his history without actually having been present for all of it point-of-view makes her a perfect character to tell readers about him; she’s essentially introducing us to her husband.

Van Meter has taken a lot of what was in the original version of the story—Suicide Slum, The 100, Tobias Whale, tailor Peter Gambi—and added in the characters that Winick and Johns would later retcon into Black Lightning’s life.

There’s a somewhat unnecessary three-page action scene at the beginning, and then we flash back a bit to Jefferson Pierce moving his family back to Suicide Slum to work at a school and, hopefully, reclaim his neighborhood from the unusual level of gang violence. Van Meter introduces a lot of characters here, and gets quite a lot done in the issue. It reminded me a little bit of a superhero Lean on Me, if Morgan Freeman vaulted fences and delivered flying kicks to thugs’ faces in that movie.

I mean that in a good way, by the way.

The art is by Cully Hamner, and while he’s not an artist I would have thought of as perfect for the book—Von Eeden or Eddy Newell springing most immediately to mind; I bet Damion Scott would have been an interesting choice, given how Van Meter introduces the character and Scott’s use of graffiti-influenced graphics in the past—he does a hell of a job here. The art is, simply put, perfect; there’s not a damn thing wrong with it.

Sadly, there was no answer to the question I’m most curious about—will Black Lightning still wear a special afro wig attached to his mask to disguise his true identity? I guess I’ll have to keep reading to find out. I won’t mind; this was a surprisingly good read.

Blue Monday: Thieves Like Us #1 (Oni Press)It seems like forever since I’ve seen my fake friends from Jefferson High School, so its great to have Chynna Clugston back for another go round of teenage dramedy (In fact, it’s been so long that I think the last time I read a Blue Monday mini, I was able to download all of Clugston’s suggested soundtrack tracks from Napster or a Napster-like file-sharing thingee).

This apparently picks up where Clugston left off long ago, and yet the few minor romantic developments in Bleu’s circle of friends were all so minor that nothing seems to have changed at all (One could probably start with this issue having never read any previous Blue Monday comics before).

At Bleu’s instigation, they spend the day at the zoo, where our heroine is dismayed to find that every animal she looks at seems to start having sex (Victor blames it on her “super-pheromones or something”). Sex is actually on her mind a lot, and, by book’s end, she decides she needs to lose her virginity before she can finally land the object of her crush, teacher Mr. Bishop.

Hilarity, and some touching shojo-like moments of romantic drama, will likely ensue.

El Diablo #5 (DC) I haven’t read another issue of this six-part miniseries by Jai Nitz, Phil Hester and Ande Parks since the first one, which I didn’t hate, but didn’t like enough to follow it above the gazillion other superhero comics choice available (Looking back at what I said after the first issue last September, I thought the Hester/Parks team was as sharp as always, and that “writer Jai Nitz… does a perfectly adequate crime story in this first issue, and if the direction isn’t terribly original…Nitz doesn’t do anything wrong here either.”)

I decided to check back in with the series this week simply because it was a very, very light of new releases that I was at all interested in, and this issue featured The Freedom Fighters, characters I kind of like, even if I couldn’t make it through this new incarnation’s first miniseries.

Anyway, there are worse uses of $2.99 than 22-pages of Hester and Parks drawing Uncle Sam and his friends fighting some funny-looking dudes.

This being mostly just a big fight issue, it wasn’t really that hard to follow. El Diablo III or IV (I lost count) is sick of his job of avenging the dead that The Spectre, Ragman and Crimson Avenger II don’t avenge, and asks some guy in a terrible costume with the terrible codename of Vorpal who has a sword for an arm to cut off his head. Then The Freedom Fighters show up and kick the shit out of them for a while, until El Diablo starts kicking the shit out of them, and then we cut away to a two-panel flashback to El Diablo’s trial, and then we cut away to two panels of a sexy devil lady pouring a goblet of blood in the eye of a devil guy and announcing her pregnancy. The end.

I’m going to go ahead and call this a disappointment, but only because Uncle Sam fails to say “consarn” at any point, and I like when he says that.

I should also note that the lettering is really great. Lettering is one of those things that I never really notice unless it’s really great or really bad, so I just wanted to point out that Sal Cipriano’s lettering is really great…it looks hand-written, which gives the book a nice, comic book-y feel that is too often lost today in this era of kids with their computers and their loud music and their rollerblades and their baggy pants.

Essential Man-Thing Vol. 2 (Marvel Comics) I haven’t read a single word of this yet, aside from the table of contents to check its Gerbericity and Ploogosity, but I did buy it at the shop today, so on the list it goes. I guess I can at least judge it by its cover, and note that they’ve apparently changed the design of the Essentials, which makes me sad. Now the spine of Vol. 2 won’t match the spine of Vol. 1, and this will cause me some level of psychic distress for the rest of my life.

Secret Six #5 (DC) So, I guess this “Faces of Evil” thing is more a design cover scheme than anything else, then? This issue bears a “Faces of Evil” logo along the bottom, and has the name “Deadshot” stamped in white in the same font over the dimmed logo, with the cover bearing a portrait-esque image of Deadshot over a black field.

The contents are simply part five of writer Gail Simone and artists Nicola Scot and Doug Hazlewood’s ongoing story arc. In the past when DC did these sorts of cover schemes— the post-Zero Hour #0 issues, “Big Head” Month, Eisner-esque logo month—the stories tended to be either done-in-ones or the beginnings of new arcs, perfect jumping on point type stories for readers attracted by the marketing scheme.

Not that that’s a bad thing of course; Secret Six is one of DC’s most consistent books at the moment, and probably the best team book they’ve got going. It just seems like a bit of a lost opportunity is all.

This chapter seems to the penultimate one of the current story arc, in which the extremely creepy villain Junior has hired a bunch of random super-villains to steal one of the more imaginative maguffins in modern super-comics from our titular team. It ends with the (quite surprising) surprise identity of Junior, as he disrobes to confront The Six. What precedes it is Junior and his man torturing a narrating Bane—by tying him up and throwing bricks at him—and Deadshot narrating as he and his teammates recover from being poisoned last issue.

I know I spend/waste a lot of verbiage decrying how dark, dreary and inappropriately violent and ghoulish super-comics are today, especially DC’s super-comics, but what seems horribly out of place in Green Lantern or Teen Titans works quite well in a book like this which is, after all, a book about nasty villains who fight nastier villains. It also helps that Simone is a really good writer who can sell such nastiness in a way that makes it seem integral to the story rather than exploitive SHOCK!! tactics, and that Nicola Scott can draw human beings.

Quick question to anyone with a better memory than me: Can King Shark talk when he’s out of water? I thought he explained in Sword of Aquaman that he couldn’t, which is why he was just a berserk monster in all his Superboy appearances. According to Wikipedia, he has spoken in other stories, but Jeph Loeb wrote those, so I think that means they occurred on Earth-WTF? Just curious. He talks an awful lot in this issue.

Spider-Man: Fear Itself #1 (Marvel) Hey Marvel, what’s up? I have a question for you, if you don’t mind. What exactly is up with your pricing these days? Because, looking at some of your releases lately, it seems like you’re still trying to figure out what you should put in a $3.99 comic book. Your Max, Marvel Knights and most of your miniseries are $3.99 for 22 story pages, and a cardstock cover. That seems pretty outrageous, and is too rich for my blood.

But then in a book like this week’s Punisher #1, the one in which Punny fights The Sentry, you charge $3.99 for just 22 story pages, but you throw in a bunch of bonus material, which, if my memory of my two-second flip-through is correct, was some kind of history of The Punisher. Nothing anybody needs to read or anything—he’s a guy who fights crime by shooting criminals to death, the end—but I guess something for that extra $1 is better than nothing.

But this $3.99 book is a 34 story pages long. And Wolverine: Switchback, which also came out this week, is 32 story pages long.

So what gives exactly? Are you guys still experimenting, or what? If so, I’m not sure if this is the best way to do it, as other factors will determine which format sells the most (that is, Secret Invasion is going to outsell a Namor miniseries, a Wolverine one-shot and a Spider-Man/Man-Thing one-shot by the virtue of being a big crossover story, regardless of price point). If you’re taking a vote, I’ll pay $3.99 for a 32-to-34 page comic.

Anyway, this is an odd little one-off branded as an Amazing Spider-Man story* and set in the main book’s continuity, but relegated out of the almost-weekly series because…well, I don’t know why, exactly. Perhaps because there’s a four-month jump between two scenes of this book that wouldn’t quite gel with the almost-weekly soap opera format.

It’s written by Stuart Moore and features gorgeous art by Joe Suitor which you really oughta check out (it’s much better than the cover art, by Mico Suayan and Frank D’Armata.

Suitor’s Man-Thing is massive…just gigantic, and rather than the made-of-muck version I’ve been reading about in Essential Man-Thing, he’s more Swamp Thing-y in that he’s made out of plants. He’s got mushrooms growing out his head, bits of large, barky trees growing out of him, and even some thorns for skin-piercing..

His Spider-Man is very yong and youthful looking, with a bulbous head atop a skinny but somewhat athletic body. The only other super-character he draws is a glimpse or two of The Lizard, and this wonderful image of Spidey turning into a Lizard that appears in Spidey’s eye at one point .

As for the story, it opens with a cute young Peter Parker wearing super-thick glasses and water wings clutching a huge bug jar while asking Aunt May about fear, then flashforwards to a fight between Spidey and Manny in the Everglades, and then jumps four months ahead again, when Peter is in New York City, and being stalked by Man-Thing.

Moore’s script somewhat ambitiously (or, put negatively, pretentiously) addresses the nature of fear, and the various ways Peter Parker processes it and he does so successfully, although its hard to imagine anyone who reads a Spider-Man/Man-Thing crossover much caring about the psychological life of Peter Parker. There’s a bit at the climax that I really loved, in part because of just how melodramatic it was: The Man-Thing experiences fear and since whatever knows fear burns at the Man-Thing’s touch, he explodes into flame.

Trinity #32 (DC) The front, Busiek and Bagley story is set on Egg World, and it is just hilarious this week. It starts with the Egg Worldian Bat-god holding his bird creature dressed like Robin and named “Rabat” all A Death In The Family trade cover style and screaming “RABAAAAAAT!” at the heavens, then the Claymation-looking aliens call each other by their hilarious full names (“They are visitors from a far place, Shevri Bird-Herder**,” “Out of respect for you, Korsan Net-Wielder,” and like that), and it climaxes with them accusing She-Lane Lo-Is and her friends of being "Machinists! MACHINISTS AMONG US!"

The back-up, this time drawn by Mike Norton and Ande Parks, is mostly a quieter scene involving Tomorrow Woman and Triumph heroically fighting to restore the “real” DCU, even though they secretly know it will cost them both their own lives. Pretty old-school superhero pathos, but well done.

Wolverine: Switchback (Marvel) I’m glad I decided to flip through this Wolverine one-shot this week (again, it was a light week), as I otherwise would have missed it completely, thinking I’ve already read all the Wolverine stories I need to read.

Marvel didn’t exactly do anything to help sell the damn thing. The original solicitation, which is still up on their website, only mentions the title story by writer Joseph Clark and artist Das Pastoras. There’s actually an eight-page back-up written by Gregg Hurwitz and artist (and EDILW favorite) Juan Doe.

I ended up buying it for the Doe art, but the lead story was the one I enjoyed the most.

That’s essentially just another riff on the Wolverine goes on a trip somewhere and ends up killing someone who needs killing story (You know, for a guy on, like, seven superhero teams, he sure seems to take a lot of vacations), although Clark does a pretty good job executing it, always erring on the side of underplaying and understating things, building up the anticipation for the expected claw-popping and dude-killing. There’s really no suspense in this sort of story, so the writer’s real challenge is to make the trip to the foregone conclusion an interesting one.

Driving by a mountain road, Wolvie smells a suspicious area where a lot of folks have apparently died horribly in car crashes, and he stops in nearby Pottsville to investigate. The clues point toward the sheriff, and Wolverine drives into the trap to get the proof he needs and get close enough to kill the bad guy.

Pastoras’ art is pretty sensational, much more than the rather ugly cover image of Wolverine in his silly gimp-suit would indicate. The art looks painted, and may very well be painted, the sets and backgrounds looking somewhat photorealistic without being photo dependent. The character designs are fantastic, and Pastoras’ Wolverine is actually a really beautiful characters. Despite the sever widow’s peak, the Ogami Ito eyebrows and sideburns than give way into some kinda Wolfman hair helmet, he has striking blue eyes, smooth skin and sharp features. There’s something puckish, even Peter Pan-ish about Pastoras’ Wolverine; he looks “right” (small, hairy, etc.), but, drawn like this, it’s not as hard as usual to wonder why so many beautiful women are always trying to sleep with him.

His villain is similarly well designed. A big, doughy, swollen man stuffed into a brown uniform, a man so pale he seems to emit light from his moon-sized face.

I’m always shocked when I read a really, really good Wolverine story, which happens just enough that I shouldn’t really be shocked any more, yet it’s always nice to find one, and be reminded of why exactly this character is so popular in the first place.

(I do always find it amusing when the characters in these Logan’s-just-passing-through type stories never seem to know who Wolverine is. Are there that many four-foot-tall bad asses with Wolfman hair in the Marvel Universe? Does Wolvie not show up on film somehow, and that’s why civilians don’t seem to recognize the Avenger and X-Man who must be on the news on a nightly basis?)

The back-up, the reason I bought the book, was incredibly stupid, although Doe’s art, colored all in red and brown with splashes of a creamy, almost yellow off-white, is pleasant to look at, more highly abstracted than usual.

The story, scripted by Gregg Hurwitz, is entitle “Punching Bag” and it starts out just fine. Wolverine’s had a long day, and wants a drink, but he keeps finding trouble. When a carload of rapists/murderers abduct a woman and take her to a cave, he pops his claws and runs at them. One of them punches him so hard that he flies up to the ceiling of the cave, his claws above his head, and they bury themselves in the roof of the cave and stick so tightly he can’t retract them, leaving them hanging there like a punching bag.

Even forgiving the likelihood of a 300-pound guy like Wolverine (that metal skeleton’s heavy, remember) getting punched Popeye style to the top of a cave so hard that his long-ass claws are driven into the stone like nails into wood, there’s really no reason he couldn’t just cut his way our by pushing ‘em forward through the stone (admantium, cuts through anything, etc.), or pull himself up and use his feet to push his claws out of the stone (have you seen the abs on that guy? Surely he can do a pull-up)

Instead, he decides to taunt the rapists into punching him over and over until they eventually hit him so hard they break him free. This means Wolverine telling a “Your Momma’s so ugly” and a “Your Momma’s so fat” joke.

It made me sad to read, and a little embarrassed for Hurwitz.

Probably the most interesting part of the story is the t shirt one of the thugs is wearing. There’s a white circle in the middle of his shirt with what looks like a red swastika in it, but one of the “arms” has been removed, so it’s actually three-fourths of a swastika. But it’s centered in the circle as if it was originally a full swastika, and the fourth arm was digitally removed somehow (I’ll try and post some scans of it at some point [UPDATE: I did. Here). I guess Marvel decided to have Doe alter it so as not to have a swastika in the art? I’m exactly sure why; the book doesn’t have a Marvel rating on it, but does say “Parental Advisory,” and, hell, aren’t there like 50 swastikas per issue of Captain America…?

*Well, the cover says “the Amazing Spider-Man” in ASM’s logo font, but the fine print refers to it as Spider-Man: Fear Itself.

**Wait, large groups of birds aren’t called “herds,” they’re called “flocks.” Why doesn’t that guy go by Shevri Bird-Flocker, as if I didn’t know?


Tony said...

DC's "Year One" trip kind of saddens me. I want to see new stories with Black Lightning, not rehashes of his origin.

Oh, and in the original Outsiders, he does sometimes throw bolts of black lightning.

Hi said...

I always liked Black Lightning. Does he still have the force field,or did they retcon that out?

Unknown said...

Every time I see that picture, I think it's Static Shock.

Tracer Bullet said...

Actually, no, Wolverine doesn't appear on film. After he and the rest of the X-Men sacrificed themselves at the end of "Inferno," she decreed that as they were technically dead, they couldn't be recorded by any technology except that of their headquarters. Of course, as no one has ever referenced this fact since the X-Men left Australia, nobody cares about this but me. Man, I am a NERD.

Jacob T. Levy said...

It was Fall of the Mutants, not Inferno. (I out-nerd you!)

I'm pretty sure that the electronic invisibility went away after the X-Men gave up on Australia and went back through the Siege Perilous. Of course, Wolverine and Storm never went back through, but I think we were supposed to pretend they did, or something.

SallyP said...

Whew! Took me an extra day to pick up my books, since we had another ice storm.

I don't know all that much about Black Lightning, so I liked this story very much.

Secret Six continues to be one of my favorite books. Man, that was a HECK of a reveal on the last page!