Monday, November 27, 2017

These are some recent DC books I've read recently:

Batman: The Dark Knight--Master Race

The inherent weirdness of a Frank Miller comic without Frank Miller that saturated the individual, serially-published issues of Dark Knight III: The Master Race was only accentuated when reading the entire series start-to-finish in a single, slightly re-titled volume.

I know that Miller was technically pretty involved in the series, sharing a story credit with Brian Azzarello and providing extremely loose artwork for the mini-comics that appeared in the middle of each of the nine issues--which are here blown-up to full-size and appear between chapters of Dark Knight III--but it's pretty apparent that it was Azzarello who did the majority of the heavy-lifting. At the beginning, it's clear that some work is being done to make it feel like a Dark Knight comic, but that work only accentuates that it's not, that it's an homage, rather than Miller doing Miller and, increasingly as the series goes on, there are more of Azzarello's ticks evident in the scripting.

As for the overarching story, it seems to be set in the Dark Knight-iverse, but there's really not much to it. It's not a story about anything in particular, it doesn't really comment on anything and, in fact, its plot is so similar to one that could be occurring in the regular DC Universe that it already has occurred in the regular DC Universe to a certain extent. It is just a little too palpably an exercise in brand extension, and an apparent variant cover-generating machine (How many variants were there attached to this book? I don't know, but they were so numerous they appear in their own hardcover collection that Amazon is calling Batman: The Art of The Dark Knight: The Master Race--the words on the cover of the book say something different, however--and the solicitation copy says it includes over 150 covers).

What's been going on in the relatively short time that has passed since 2002's final issue of Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again...? Well, Batman is recovering from some particularly grievous wounds, so Robin-turned-Catgirl-turned-Batgirl Carrie Kelly is masquerading as him by wearing some kind of weird man suit. Wonder Woman is raising her and Superman's son, who she wears in a little papoose as she runs around the Amazon jungle, home of the Amazons, fighting monsters and shit. Superman has withdrawn even farther than he usually does in these alternate stories, having basically decided to just sit still in his Arctic Fortress of Solitude until he froze solid within a thick block of ice.

Given Miller's politics, the title of this third Dark Knight book might have have been responsible for a feeling of dread in many comics readers, but it turns out that the "master race" here isn't a race so much as a species: Kryptonian.

And the plot involving them is more or less pure pot-boiling superhero stuff. Lara, Superman and Wonder Woman's headstrong daughter, recruits The Atom Ray Palmer to help her free and un-shrink the microscopic Kryptonians living in The Bottle City of Kandor. These are lead by Quar, a psychotic, murderous cult leader who seeks to subjugate all of humanity and take over the world. So, not entirely unlike the year-long "New Krypton" storyline which found 100,000 Kryptonians freed from Kandor and flooding Earth with a whole people who had Superman's powers, but not necessarily his morals.

Lara sides with the Kandorians over her own parents, even going so far as to beat her dad bloody, and it is, as always, down to Batman to save the world. With the help of a rag tag group of allies, including Batirl, The Flash and eventually Superman and Wonder Woman, he does so. He dies at one point, but gets tossed into a Lazarus Pit and comes out young and vibrant again (There is of course a gross scene where the now grown-up Carrie sees the now youthful's Bruce's rejuvenated genitals).

And...that's it, really. Evil Kryptonians vs. Batman and some other heroes. Andy Kubert is the pencil artist with the tough, thankless assignment of trying to draw a Dark Knight comic, and it actually is sort of fun to see his attempts to approximate Miller art. It no doubt helps tremendously that he's working with DKR inker Klaus Janson.

I don't want to say anything too terribly mean about Miller's art--he pencils most of the interlude comics, although Eduardo Risso randomly draws one--as I understand he was in very poor health at the time but, well, the art is extremely rough, to the point where some of the extremely spare images lean towards the unintelligible, and there are strange inconsistencies that the inker, colorist and editor should have noticed and fixed (the placement of Batgirl's bat-symbols, for example).

In the end, what stuck with me about the book is some strong images throughout.

There's Wonder Woman's nipple, something you don't see too often, as she prepares to breastfeed her child. There's Green Lantern Hal Jordan losing his ring hand, and then searching for and ultimately recovering it (He is able to use the ring, but his hand just float around him, rather than attaching itself back to his arm at the wrist). There's the strange, goofy battle armor that Superman dons to protect him from the Kryptonite-seeded rain that Batman causes to fall over Gotham. There's Carrie Kelly's hot pink and yellow Batgirl costume (her final Batwoman costume is pretty nice, actually; it basically just reverses the black and gray portions of Batman's). There's the redesigned Hawks. And I still dig Miller's redesigns for The Flash and Wonder Woman, previously seen in Dark Knight Strikes Again.

Visually, there's a lot in here to interest the eye, particularly of a longtime DC Comics fan. Otherwise, though, there's little to it other than a superhero beat-'em-up with a handful of allusions to Dark Knight Strikes Again.

DC Super Hero Girls: Past Times at Super Hero High

I arched an eyebrow when this DC Comics/Mattel collaboration was first announced. Though I grew up with similar toy/cartoon/comics marketing vehicles like Masters of The Universe, G.I. Joe and Transformers, they seem incredibly cynical to me now, and it struck me as somewhat sad that DC felt the need to essentially create a girl-friendly version of their universe, as it was an indication of just how girl un-friendly the regular version was.

While the toys and cartoons generated by the premise--where DC's heroes and villains attend a high school where Principal Amanda Waller and weird faculty of bad guys and older heroes teach them a superhero-focused curriculum--I was naturally interested in how it translated to comics. As it turned out, quite well. The first original graphic novel, Finals Crisis, was actually a lot of fun, as were those that followed, Hits and Myths and Summer Olympus. All three were the work of writer Shea Fontana, who helped create the concept and recently penned a fill-in arc on DC's Wonder Woman arc, and artist Yancey Labat.

This fourth graphic novel, Past Times at Super Hero High, varies only in that Labat has two other collaborators on the art, Agnes Garbowska and Marcelo DiChiara. They are all working from some pretty strict style guides in terms of character design, so it's not exactly clear who draws which sections, but there are points where the art does feel a little off.

The plot for this particular adventure is essentially just The Magic School Bus in the DC Universe, which is pretty damn charming in its simplicity. Driving the school bus-shaped time machine for a field trip into the Jurassic Period is teacher Miss Liberty Belle, whose mouth Fontana fills with all kinds of old time-y slang. This Liberty Belle is presumably the original one, Libby Lawrence, and something of a time traveler herself. While Golden Age hero Wildcat is SHH's gym coach, Miss Liberty Belle at one points mentions not having had so much fun since "the Coolidge administration" (1923-1929).

Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Batgirl, Katana, Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy and token boy Beast Boy travel back to dinosaur times, where their bus breaks in half and Liberty Belle is abducted by a pterodactyl. Everyone eventually gets back to the present, but due to some meddling withe the timestream--Harley swiped a pterodactyl egg--their present has been altered so that now immortal caveman Vandal Savage is their principal, the kids based on villains are now all super-villainous and the field trippers have to figure out how to reset time.

That mostly falls to frenemies Batgirl and Harley, who travel throughout the past and to the future before bringing the pterodactyl egg, now a baby pterodactyl, back to its own time, where Harley offers a not-very-scientific theory regarding how her baby Bitey McPuddin'-Face prevented Savage from ever encountering his immortality-granting meteorite.

What remains most fun about this series, to me at least, is seeing the occasional deep cut show up, like Batgirl and Harley meeting the giant dalmatian-riding Atomic Knights in the future, or seeing Principal Waller when she was just a teen in the 1980s, sitting on a stoop listening to her boom box.

There are some fun dinosaur moments in here, like Beast Boy's attempts to blend in and preach harmony between predator and prey species, but it's worth noting that this isn't exactly an educational look at dinosaurs, as their depiction seems a few decades out of date. For the latest on dinosaurs in all-ages comics format, I can't recommend Abby Howard's Dinosaur Empire strongly enough.

Justice League of America Vol. 1: The Extremists

The Steve Orlando-written Justice League book, which features Batman leading a rag-tag team of Steve Orlando's favorite characters and thus feels almost as much of a Batman and The Outsiders book than a League book, suffers in the same way that too much of his writing (and far too much of DC's post-Flashpoint output) suffers. It tries very hard to trade on nostalgia, on readers knowing, liking and caring who the individual members of the team are and therefore already being invested in their setting, their history and their villains, but it does so on the other side of a reboot that purposely erased all of that.

This is that worst-of-both-worlds problem I talk about all the time, and Orlando's solution seems to be to just ignore it. Maybe that is the best choice--after all, I think this is something like the third version of Lobo that has been introduced in the last six years, for example--but the end result is a comic book essentially just introducing a team and assuming you'll care about them, without putting any real effort into trying to convince you to care (and certainly the publisher has given us mixed signals, if they were, say, willing to wipe out The Ray and then replace him with a brand new character that no one likes or remembers and then just reintroduce the original shows that they aren't too terribly pro-The Ray, you know?).

While Batman has obviously been front and center in a whole slew of books since the reboot, and some of the other characters like Black Canary and Vixen have been knocking around, and even Lobo 3.0 and Killer Frost had a role in the Justice League Vs. Suicide Squad book that served as an intro this ongoing, other characters, like The Ray and The Atom, we're meeting for basically the first time (This new version of Ryan Choi appeared previously in DC Universe: Rebirth #1, while I don't think we saw The Ray until Justice League of America: The Ray--Rebirth #1...which is collected with three other character introduction one-shots and Justice League of America: Rebirth #1 in the collection Justice League of America: The Road to Rebirth).

From the pages of Justice League Vs. Suicide Squad Batman brings Killer Frost to the Justice League's original Happy Harbor, Rhode Island headquarters, which, um, shouldn't exist any longer, but still does for some reason (that was the last continuity). He then goes about recruiting a League that includes (a) Lobo, Black Canary, Vixen, The Atom Ryan Choi (he's initially looking for Ray Palmer, whose history post-Flashpoint I couldn't begin to make sense of) and The Ray, a new superhero protecting the city of Vanity (the setting of Grant Morrison, Mark Millar and company's short-lived Aztek: The Ultimate Man series).

Batman's rationale for needing/wanting a new League is waved at in passing a few times, but it's not terribly convincing. He basically says he wants a team that consists of real people, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the people they are protecting, rather than gods. The make-up of his particular team, which include a couple of folks with god-like powers and one literal super-alien, seems to argue against that, however.

After the recruiting issue of Justice League of America: Rebirth #1--which, yes, is double-collected in both this and Justice League of America: Road To Rebirth--they fend off an extra-dimensional invasion of The Extremists, Giffen/DeMatteis era villains who are analogues to Marvel villains. Dr. Diehard has conquered a small, European country, and the League joins the resistance to help liberate it. By having the League do the sort of thing they explicitly avoid all the time, it raises the question of why they don't do this all the time. The question goes unanswered, though.

That's followed by a shorter story in which the team holds a press conference--sans Batman--and then go to liberate an American city that has been taken over by relatively obscure Wonder Woman villain Aegeus, an arms dealer who sells folklore-based super-weapons.

The art is kind of all over the place, with Ivan Reis pencilling the Rebirth special and the first and final issues of the four-part Extremists arc, while a pair of different artists, Felipe Watanabe and Diogenes Neves, pencil the middle chapters. The two-part Aegeus arc features fine art by Andy MacDonald, but it's in pretty sharp contrast to what it's following...and fails to sell a fairly silly scene that really needed to be sold hard to get over.

Like its sister book Justice League and all of DC's post-Flashpoint Justice League books, then, the latest iteration of JLoA isn't very good, but given it's weird line-up and Orlando's ticks, it is at least interesting.

Wonder Woman and Justice League America Vol. 2

When I discussed the first Wonder Woman and Justice League America collection, I speculated what might be in this one. It turns out they skipped the annuals, and stuck to just six issues of Justice League America--plus two issues apiece of Justice League International and Justice League Task Force, which means this trade collects the entire six-issue "Judgement Day" crossover between all three Justice League books, as well as a coda issue, that repurposes the "Funeral For a Friend" slug from the aftermath of Superman's fight to the death against Doomsday. It also concludes writer Dan Vado's time on the Justice League America title.

The first three issues are concerned with the JLA facing off against Dreamslayer of The Extremists yet again, while natural disasters rage the world over and spooky hints about the end of the world are related to heroes and readers: Darkseid writes off the planet Earth, Vandal Savage appears to the League to warn them and T.O. Morrow tries to tell Max Lord the end is near. Then "Judgement Day" begins in earnest, and it's all hands one deck, with the three Justice Leagues fighting one another, and other unexpected foes, as to the best way to proceed against "The Overmaster," a giant alien humanoid and world-ender who has landed his ship atop Mount Everest and announced the end of the world, saying that any move against him will only result in a lessening of the time left.

Because "Judgement Day" ran two issues apiece in all of the books, that means Vado and primary JLA artists Marc Campos, Ken Branch and Kevin Conrad pass the creative team baton on to writers Gerard Jones and Mark Waid and pencil artists Chuck Wojtkiewicz and Sal Velluto.

Visually, the book is very much of its time--1994. Campos is probably the weakest of the artists, and his anatomy features the worst of excesses, so that the women are all boobs and hips--in one early panel featuring the Leaguers in flight, Wonder Woman and Maxima are literally just busts, a limb or three extending from somewhere behind their boobs and heads--and the men universally ripped and wearing fabrics whose tightness fall somewhere between spandex and body paint, even the decidedly non-superheroic Max Lord and Oberon. Campos is at least consistent, but his work is so detailed and overly-inked that each panel just looks like a wall of unnecessary detail.

Sal Velutto, a very accomplished artist, has his own ideas of character design, one that marries the huge, heroic figures of the Silver Age League with the detailed musculature of '90s superhero art, but even that is inconsistently applied. Only Chuck Wojtkiewicz's art really ages gracefully. Thankfully he's the one who draws the climax, wherein an ad hoc group of some of the more powerful Leaguers--Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter, Captain Atom, The Flash, Fire, Booster Gold and Amazing Man try to take the Overmaster on hand-to-hand in his ship, while Blue Beetle races to figure out a way to shut it all down.

The story is probably best remembered for being the one that killed off  Ice--she spends this collection in possession of greater than usual powers and weird mood swings, before joining the Overmaster and, finally, betraying him--and it's true, there's not a whole lot to it other than that. There are some neat touches though, like T.O. Morrow looking at his checklist of things that will happen as the League seeks to reach Overmaster, and crossing off each event as it comes to pass (That was in a Waid-written issue).

This storyline and its epilogue were  followed by a Zero Hour crossover introducing Triumph as a founding Justice Leaguer who got knocked out of the time-stream almost immediately, and then the creative team of Gerard Jones and Chuck Wojtkiewicz take over Justice League America for the remaining 23 issues. If the Jones and Wojtkieicz issues all get collected, I think we could be looking at two more volumes of Wonder Woman and Justice League America. If the Zero Hour tie-in does, I don't know, maybe three more? It doesn't quite fit in with the rest of this stuff, though, and might makes more sense in a Justice League: Zero Hour collection, or with the Triumph solo series or Justice League Task Force.

1 comment:

collectededitions said...

The Batman: Zero Hour collection was an unexpected boon -- it doesn't really make sales sense, especially in DC's current continuity muddle, but it's a fun artifact nonetheless -- and now it looks like a Superman: Zero Hour collection will follow. After that, the only other Zero Hour tie-in story I can think of with enough issues to make a trade would indeed be Justice League: Zero Hour, as you mentioned, at least the three Zero Hour-month issues. Justice League International ended after that and the Justice League America #0 issue doesn't tie in to the Justice League Task Force #0, so I'm not sure how DC makes it more than a three-issue trade, but maybe apropos of nothing they could include those annuals they skipped?