Saturday, July 11, 2020

On certain scenes from Young Justice Vol. 2

I was pretty pleased with the first volume of Young Justice, in which writer Brian Michael Bendis and Patrick Gleason resurrected the team with the core of the original line-up—Superboy, Impulse, Wonder Girl and Robin Tim Drake—and a few new characters. Granted, a lot of the hows and whys of the return were left up in the air, with only some tantalizing clues offered up, like references to seven crises that can alter worlds, Impulse Bart Allen seemingly being unchanged since the previous volume of Young Justice was cancelled in 2003 and Tim learning that his memories of pre-Flashpoint/New 52 continuity had been hidden from him, but were still present in his brain.

I've liked many of these characters for as long as I've been reading comics (most of them were created around the time I started reading comics) and I liked the previous 1998-2003 Young Justice comic, so I was eager both to continue reading their adventures in their new title and to see how Bendis would go about explaining how this reunion was even possible given the severe mangling so many of these characters have received over the last 18 years or so.

Well, the second volume, collecting issues #6-#12 of the series, is a disappointment in that regard. Yes, the characters are still together, but one of them goes through a very radical, very unwelcome change, none of the mysteries of the first volume are furthered (let alone resolved), Bendis proves he's no Grant Morrison when it comes to extrapolating stories from Gardner Fox concepts and, in the final issues, there's a weird jumble in which characters from the other three Wonder Comics comics are smooshed into the pages of Young Justice to ill effect (Naomi from Naomi, a title I read and did not like; Miguel and Summer from Dial H For Hero, a title I read and did like; and The Wonder Twins from The Wonder Twins, a title which I still haven't read but intend to eventually).

I know I reviewed the volume briefly elsewhere, but there were certain elements that I wanted to dwell on at greater, perhaps obnoxious length, hence this blog post.

1.) I was promised dinosaurs. The cover for this collection is taken from Young Justice #6, and, I was sorry to learn, it was a thematic cover rather than one that literally depicted a scene from that particular issue (or story arc).

Because the team is, as the sub-title says, lost in the multiverse, artist John Timms draws our heroes floating in a pale white void of nothingness, apparently emerging from the large portal ringed by Kirby dots in the center of the image. Various portals from various alternate dimensions/Earths disgorge various threats: a robot, sharp-toothed aliens, yellow bugs, tentacles, dinosaurs. Would the Young Justice team be meeting, fighting or otherwise interacting with dinosaurs in this story arc...? Because that is something I would very much like to see!

Unfortunately, the dinosaur count in these six issues is very, very low. The team visits exactly four different Earths in the Multiverse on their way back to their home dimension: What appears to be a new Earth populated by Dan Hipp-drawn chibis, Earth-C, the Kingdom Come-iverse and Earth-3. None of them has dinosaurs.

Late in the book, Superboy is transported to Skartaris, the barbarian world setting of Warlord, and there are a few panels worth of dinosaurs there. A couple appear in the background, and Superboy punches out gigantic, kaiju-sized fantasy theropod of some sort.
I imagine the dinosaur content will be far higher in Vol. 3, assuming the team journeys to Skartaris to rescue Superboy.

2.) "Cy"...? The team's first stop is to a world in which the current Justice League exists as cute little chibi versions of themselves (please note the little eyes on Batman's bat-symbol).

It's a very short stop, lasting just two pages, but a welcome one, as it provides an excuse for Dan Hipp to contribute some art to the book. I always enjoy seeing Hipp's art, but this was especially welcome, as it features several panels of him drawing the Young Justice team "straight"; that is, not in the design style most associated with the artist, but how he might draw them if he were drawing a serious issue of Young Justice. I really like what they look like.

The part of this sequence that felt really weird to me though was hearing (well, seeing) Batman call Cyborg "Cy" repeatedly. Batman using a nickname to refer to anyone sounds kind of off, and I think it sounds even more off hearing him use one when talking to Cyborg, a character who is quite a bit younger than him and who he hasn't actually worked with all that long (Unless we're operating on New 52 continuity, in which case I guess he's known Cyborg as long as he's known any superhero).

That said, I realize Batman has appeared in like a million stories written by thousands of different people (though mostly men!), so chances are he has used nicknames before (I'm pretty sure he's called Jason Todd "Jay" on occasion, for example), and sure, this is an alternate dimension where Batman is small and cute and has little eyes on his bat-symbol chest emblem, so maybe he is super-familiar with his colleagues, and he also calls Wonder Woman "Wondy" and Hawkgirl "Hawks."

It just struck me as really weird sounding.

3.) Goddamit, don't make me Google "Pig-Iron" and "powers". The next stop is a three-page visit to the David La Fuente-drawn Earth-C, home of Captain Carrot and The Zoo Crew, or whatever said Earth is currently called in the extant version of The Multiverse (Captain Carrot's design here is that seen in Grant Morrison and company's Multiversity comics).

I'm not familiar enough with the Zoo Crew's home world pre-Crisis, post-Crisis, post-Infinite Crisis or post-Multiversity to grade how off elements of their briefly-viewed world here might be, but I was surprised when Pig-Iron flies off to retrieve "The MULTIVERSE MALLET!", a large cartoon mallet with which he casts Young Justice out of this universe.

Like I said, I'm not terribly familiar with any real iteration of the Zoo Crew, but, um, I didn't think Pig-Iron could fly. He can't, can he? Why didn't Captain Carrot go get the mallet? I know he can fly and has super-strength.

Well, curiosity eventually got the best of me, and I did Google it. And no, Pig-Iron's power-set does not include flight. But hell, maybe this is an alternate universe where he can; maybe this isn't Earth-C after all, but, um, Earth-C.5 or something...

Anyway, that's the sort of thing that I hate to see in shared-universe super-comics: Very simple, unimportant things that are just off enough to knock you out of the story long enough to question it. There's a lot of that in this volume, and it's very frustrating, because a few seconds of Googling on the part of the writer or editors could have prevented such narrative friction.

4.) Would you believe the Multiverse Mallet knocked Young Justice to Kingdom Come?  And speaking of narrative friction...

The world of Mark Waid and Alex Ross' 1996 Elseworlds epic Kingdom Come is a pretty obvious one to include in any tour of DC's alternate dimensions, and, indeed, Young Justice spends 17 pages there, or the bulk of the book's sixth issue (while guest artists drew the first two stops on their tour, new regular artist John Timms draws the Kingdom Come sequence, and he does so in his regular style...there's no attempt to gesture in the direction of Alex Ross...or even Ariel Olivetti or Mike Zeck, who drew the two chapters of Kingdom Come's official but ignore-able 1999 sequel, The Kingdom).

It's a rather strange couple of scenes, and that particular setting seems to be have chosen by Bendis at random: Not only does the new comic not comment on the old in any way (and I mean in any way, up to and including just using it for fodder for a couple of jokes or something), but Bendis and Timms don't even exploit the setting as a source of cool eye candy or fond nostalgia or, seriously, anything at all.

And as with the brief stop on Earth-C, there's some narrative friction...only a lot more of it, and it felt much more turbulent to me as a reader, as I'm much, much more familiar with Kingdom Come than I am Captain Carrot comics.

So here's what happens. The team arrives outside a Hall of Justice in a Metropolis, and spend a few pages trying to figure out if they're home, or where they might be, exactly (Isn't their Hall, the one Robin visited in the previous volume, located in Washington D.C....?). The first hint that something is wrong is when three teenagers run up to them and say, "Yooooou all got shaballs" and then run away.

The team then alights atop a rooftop and start scanning news reports for clues as to their whereabouts, and just as Impulse is saying this Earth's Superman looks "distinguished," the above splash page of five heroes descending from the sky not unlike the Justice League of Kingdom Come did in a memorable panel (and in some of Kingdom Come's marketing).

They are, of course, Superman, Wonder Woman, Power Girl, Green Lantern Alan Scott and Red Robin Dick Grayson.

Oddly, Dick never gets a single line of dialogue, and Tim doesn't attempt to initiate a conversation with him, despite how well he knows a Dick Grayson, and the fact that his current superhero code name was taken from this very character (And, in a previous, pre-New 52 continuity that Tim just learned he had forgotten, he even wore that very same Red Robin costume...although I suppose he might have forgotten that particular part of his own forgotten continuity).

Power Girl gets one line ("What is what?").

The only other character from Kingdom Come to appear is Dr. Fate, who Bendis writes as rather flighty, and who Timms weirdly frames in such a way that the interesting visual nature of this particular version of Dr. Fate isn't clear (Kingdom Come's Dr. Fate, remember, was just a helmet, a cape and a pair of gloves, with no visible body wearing them).

Superman says, "That protest shirt is in poor taste," apparently referring to Superboy's costume, which has Superman's old S-shield on it, the one he wore before going into retirement and then coming out of retirement, now wearing a red and black one.

Alan, who talks more like Kyle Rayner than any other Green Lantern, imprisons the whole team in green energy bubbles, save for Wonder Girl, who Wonder Woman lassos, at her suggestion, and thus, bound to tell the truth, she explains to the Kingdom Comers what's what.

After they hear Young Justice out, Alan thinks they should find a way to send them home, while Superman says they need to figure out what to do with them. The older heroes confer, during which time Teen Lantern says she found "what made this Earth different from our Earth" and she shows the others an image of a cape-less, red-eyed, smoking Kingdom Come Superman standing over a prone Captain Marvel. Which...happened at the climax of Kingdom Come, although everything else we've seen up until now suggests that this is at some point before the apocalyptic superhero battle.

Then, very weirdly, a bunch of people come tumbling out of the sky from what looks like a SHIELD helicarrier in the sky, and one of them announces himself and the others as "The Sons and Daughters of The Bat!" "We will not rest until you surrender your authority!" another shouts. I...didn't get this at all. These characters aren't from Kingdom Come and, if anything, resemble Batman's followers from the end of Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns and its sequels.

They're all dispatched between panels, as a "Three Minutes Later" slug lets us know that's how long it took the combined forces of Young Justice and the Kingdom Comers to deal with them. (If Batman and Superman are still in conflict, this also suggests that Young Justice is on this Earth before the events of the climactic battle, in which case Teen Lantern's picture of Superman defeating Captain Marvel doesn't make sense).

Finally, Superman and company take Young Justice to see Dr. Fate, presumably somewhere within his tower, although its never stated where they are, and he sends them home...or thinks he does, until he realizes that they're actually very close to their Earth, just a few Earths away...on Earth-3.

5.) And now it's time to talk about "Drake." DC's Earth-3 setting was originally created by Gardner Fox and Mike Sekowsky in a 1964 issue of Justice League of America; the basic idea was an evil opposite world where evil analogs of the Justice League of America known as the Crime Syndicate of America lived (other, evil opposite aspects of the world included weird reversals of American history, like actor Abraham Lincoln assassinating President John Wilkes Booth; it's a really rather fascinating concept, though no one ever really drills down past the superhero part of it).

Despite various reboots that have happened since then, DC still seems to be mostly operating on Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's reinvention of the concept and the Syndicate in their 2000 JLA: Earth 2 original graphic novel. At least, all of the Earth-3/Syndicate stories that have followed have stuck to Quitely's designs of the characters, and Morrison's characterizations of them. This includes Geoff Johns' "Trinity War" and Forever Evil stories, in which the characters played major roles. Young Justice follows those Johns-written stories, with the heroes arriving on a world that has been abandoned by its one-time rulers, the Crime Syndicate.

Young Justice doesn't get to explore the world, though, as they are immediately attacked by Earth-3's answer to Young Justice.

Now I don't think it's too controversial a statement to say that, despite his many positive qualities as a writer of comic books, Brian Michael Bendis is terrible at coming up with superhero names. I mean, this is the guy whose contributions to Marvel's massive character catalog includes both Geldoff and Gold Balls. (And Jessica Jones, sure, but "Jessica Jones"...? Not a great superhero name!).

So it shouldn't be too surprising that the names of his Evil Young Justice are all terrible, although given that so many of Young Justice's own code names are derived from heroes who have their own Earth-3 counterparts, it shouldn't be too hard, should it?

For example, the Superman of Earth-3 is Ultraman, so the Superboy of Earth-3 would be Utraboy, right? And if the Wonder Woman of Earth-3 is Superwoman, than the Wonder Girl of Earth-3 would be, um, Supergirl...?

But no!

The evil Wonder Girl is named "Amaxon Thunder." The evil Superboy? He's "the abandoned bastard son of Ultraman and Dana Luthor," and he goes by "Luthor-El" (Even though Luthors should be good on Earth-3, and I'm not sure where the "-El" would even come from in a world without Superman; Ultraman was an earthling). The evil Impulse? "Speed Zone." The evil Teen Lantern? Given the fact that this world's Green Lantern is named "Power Ring," you're probably thinking "Power Teen" or "Teen Ring", right? Maybe "Volteen"...? No, it's "Hack." The evil Jinny Hex is just, um, "Hex," and there is a bad guy version of Amethyst, but we never see her or learn her name; Impulse says he dealt with her off-panel.

Oh, and who is Red Robin Tim Drake's evil counterpart? Talon, or maybe "Red Talon", given that Talon is the name of Earth-3's Dick Grayson, the one-time partner of Owlman? Or even "Red Owl"...?

No it, is (siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiggggggggh) "Drake." Yes, just Drake. Tim's last name.

Drake sneaks up on Tim and the two have a pretty cool 12-panel, silent hand-to-hand battle, after which Drake, who is costumed just like Tim only with a chin-strap, ear-protectors and a half-moon symbol where Tim's "R" is, introduces himself. That occurs in the panels above.
No Tim, no it's not! It is bad. It is very, very bad.

I'm not sure why Drake tells Tim that the drake is "one of the most dangerous birds" because, and I just spent whole minutes of my life Googling this to make sure I knew what I was talking about, a drake is a sexually mature male duck. And I don't know that I've ever heard of anyone getting killed by a duck, sexually mature male or otherwise.

Also, I thought everyone knew that the cassowary was the world's most deadly bird? I mean, when The Penguin had a bird attack Batman in The Animated Series' "Almost Got 'Im" episode, he used a cassowary, not a duck.

Now, if Drake were just the dumb-sounding name of an evil, opposite version of one of our heroes like Amaxon Thunder or Luthor-El, that would be fine, but, and this is the really weird part, Tim Drake becomes quite enamored of the name, as does Impulse and, before the story ends, Tim Drake decides to exchange his costume for a new one that he apparently finds in Earth-3 Batwoman Stephanie Brown's Batcave (a heroic Stephanie Brown on Earth-3 seems to break the "rules" of the setting's concept; if she's a hero on Earth-0, then she should be a villain on Earth-3) and start calling himself "Drake."
I...honestly don't get this at all. It's not a cool name, it is his last name and why he chooses to adopt it isn't quite clear. Impulse repeatedly suggests he does so, and there seems to have been a relationship of some kind between Earth-3's Stephanie and Drake, but the name and costume change take place off-panel, and without any explanation beyond that Tim (and Impulse) like the sound of it.

What seems particularly perplexing about it in this context is that Drake is a bad guy, and it seems strange that Tim would abandon the Robin identity for that of a villain he just met.

Given how terrible a superhero code name "Drake" is—especially for a character whose secret identity is Tim Drake—I really needed this comic to sell me on the idea of Tim taking it on, and Bendis barely even tries to do so in this story line. (Oh hey, did you know "drake" is also a Latin word meaning dragon? I guess a dragon-themed, rather than bird-themed, hero using the name "Drake" would work, but not so much if that is literally the character's real name).

So I still maintain that Tim should just keep going by "Robin." Sure, that would mean there are two Robins, but how often are Tim and Damian even in the same place at the same time...? Almost never?

Or, if Tim must have a new code name, then I would suggest Redbird or Redwing. But his renaming should have an in-story justification, and one that makes at least a little bit of sense.

Before moving on, as long as we're on the subject of Earth-3, I suppose it's worth noting another way in which this story seems to break the "rules" of Earth-3, at least as established by Morrison in Earth 2. One of the more clever conceits in that book was that the rules that governed Earth-3 were the opposite of those that governed the DCU, so that the good guys couldn't win on Earth-3, because it was a place where evil always triumphed, whereas the Crime Syndicate couldn't win in the DCU, because that was a world in which justice always triumphed. Here, though, Young Justice and Batwoman team-up to defeat the evil Young Justice, and so good triumphs on Earth-3.

6.) A little more about the new Drake. Here is one of Timms' sketches of  the new Drake costume, which is pretty much final. All that's missing is the red-on-black moon symbol on the chest—which is perhaps meant to be a stylized "D"?—and the bat-symbol on the chest.

 I...don't really get it. Aside from the mask, staff and collar, it's a far cry from Tim's earlier costumes, and it's not a particularly cool-looking one. The color scheme of brown, gold and black don't seem to fit with previous themes of his Robin and Red Robin costumes (red, green, yellow and black in various combinations) or anything particularly Bat-related (black and grey, blue and gray, black and blue). It's not even practical, like an all or mostly black costume might be, although some thought has seemingly gone into making it look like practical body armor a "real" superhero might wear.

The trade collection includes two pages of preliminary sketches for a new Drake costume by Timms, and while I don't necessarily love any of these, I think I like them all better than the one they went with.

These (almost) all feature a cape and a color scheme that is consistent with what Tim has always worn. A simplified, stripped-down version of some of the above, like, say, H for example, could have worked just fine.

I suppose it's only a matter of time before someone changes Tim's code name and costume again, but I hope it's sooner rather than later. He was one of the characters that first enamored me with the DC Universe setting and DC Comics in general, and I still feel a degree of fan-ish ownership regarding him.

I'm glad he's back in the spotlight with this book, but hate, hate, hate the new code name and costume...especially since this book has returned Superboy and Impulse to their original costumes and code names. For now, it looks like Tim is in the same category as poor Cassandra Cain: A beloved character awaiting creators to do them justice.

7.) I just plain loved this page. Among this volume's smartly-deployed guest-artists is Nick Derington, who draws a portion of Jinny Hex's origin. Derington, of course, introduced the character in the story line he drew for Batman Giant, which would eventually be republished and collected as Batman Universe. Here, for the first time, we get a look at the inside of Jinny's trunk, her inheritance from her ancestor, Jonah Hex.

"Jonah Hex was like one of those superheroes...but of his time," Jinny's mother explains to her when giving her the chest:
One of the protectors.
So he always found himself surrounded by or dabblin' in things I think we still don't understand. 
This is stuff that was collected by your great-great-great grandfather over the years.
Some of it he confiscated... ...and some of it he was given to protect.
Among the most immediately recognizable items are Flashlight's flashlight (Recently seen in The Green Lantern), one of The Atom's size-changing belts, the/a H-Dial, the Demons Three's wheel, jar and bell, the "Fabergé egg" from Batman Universe and what I sincerely hope is one of Jimmy Olsen's bow ties, left with Jonah during a time-travelling Jimmy Olsen adventure we have yet to be told.

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