Saturday, April 03, 2021

A Month of Wednesdays: March 2021


The Final Night (DC Comics) This trade paperback collection of the 1996, four-issue, weekly crossover event series by Karl Kesel and Stuart Immonen serves as a pretty excellent reminder of how much curation can affect the reading of such stories. 

I read almost all of the contents of this collection originally in '96—only the six pages from The Final Night Preview featuring the Sun-Eater's destruction of New Tamaran were new to me here—but at the time I read the main chapters as they were published, interspersed with the handful of tie-ins that were of most interest to me (mostly the Bat-books, plus Superboy, Hitman and Aquaman). At the time, Parallax Hal Jordan's involvement came as a big surprise, as he wasn't even mentioned in the series until the fourth week's Parallax: Emerald Night #1 (and, in that respect, it wasn't exactly great comics-writing, as you really want to put the gun on the table before someone pulls the trigger, you know?).

This collection makes much more of Jordan's involvement, however, as in addition to the collection of the four-issue title series (and the preview), it also includes the Ron Marz-written, Mike McKone-pencilled Parallax one-shot and the Marz-written, Darryl Banks-penciled Green Lantern #81, featuring the funeral for Jordan, who gives his life absorbing the Sun-Eater and reigniting the sun. (Um, spoiler alert...?). 

Read like this, Final Night becomes more a story of Jordan's partial redemption than of Earth's struggle against a more-or-less "natural" apocalypse (That is, the Sun-Eater seems to be something between an animal and a natural phenomenon, rather than the typical villain machinations; in this respect, this is one of the more unique of DC's event stories). 

An alien woman with the too-convenient name of Dusk crash-lands her spaceship in Metropolis, warning that the Sun-Eater is coming to Earth's solar system and the planet must begin evacuating, as there is absolutely no way to stop it from doing its work. She knows this because it destroyed her sun, and she's traveled from planet to planet in its path, warning others of its coming. These others often try to repel it, and no matter what they try, they always fail.

Earth's heroes take up the challenge, though, and after the first issue's defeats, the Sun-Eater envelopes the sun and starts draining all heat and light; Earth immediately begins to freeze, leaving plenty of problems for the many heroes to deal with beyond the cosmic, existential threat itself. Therefore, there's plenty of conflict to fill the event's many tie-in issues, as heroes deal with darkness, cold and the most inevitable of the apocalypses they generally deal with (The most memorable tie-ins I read dealt with that sense of the inevitable, as some heroes spent their tie-in issues bidding their loved ones goodbye, while in the pages of Hitman, Tommy and friends barricade themselves within Noonan's Sleazy Bar and start drinking and swapping stories until the heroes can sort everything out for them). 

At the time, part of the Legion of Super-Heroes was stuck in their past/the present, so a handful of them play fairly prominent roles alongside Superman, Batman, Green Lantern and the sorts of B-, C- and D-list heroes who generally appear in such crossovers. So too do other Superman supporting characters of the time, like Alpha Centurion and Lex Luthor, the latter of whom teams with the time-lost Brainiac Five to bicker and try to find a scientific solution to the problem after the heroes' initial efforts fail (Kesel provides a nice, nuanced portrait of Luthor, accentuating his arrogance and selfishness rather than some more blanket sort of "evil"; this comes through most plainly near the climax, when someone suggests he fly a ship on a suicide mission to reignite the sun, a ship Superman gladly volunteers to fly). 

Kesel also works in some brief but telling portraits of The Phantom Stranger, Etrigan The Demon, Zatanna and Big Barda, with the Stranger sequence rather directly addressing the reader about the power, symbolism and appeal of DC's superhero characters as the book nears the climax.

Because it didn't at all start out as a Parallax story, the Hal Jordan stuff still comes out of left field, and because the Parallax special functions as a sort of unofficial fifth issues of the series, but changes focus (and voice, and setting) so much, it's a very oddly-shaped narrative. During that issue, Kyle Rayner tracks down the then still nigh-omnipotent Parallax and asks him to use his powers to save Earth. Parallax is reluctant to aid his fellow heroes after Zero Hour and his various conflicts with Kyle and the others, but he looks into it and, realizing it would likely cost him his own life, he visits various people important to him (Tom Kalamaku, Carol Ferris, Guy Gardner, John Stewart, etc) to check in with them and/or say goodbye. 

After the concluding chapter of Final Night, the focus again shifts to Kyle Rayner, who was of course the star of Green Lantern at the time, and thus the protagonist of Green Lantern #81, dedicated entirely to Hal Jordan's funeral. That was a noteworthy issue for several reasons, and reads a bit queerly today, when many of the dead heroes mentioned in the proceedings are all alive, and their replacements have all been sidelined in one way or another (There's an interesting panel in which both John Constanine and Swamp Thing appear, which was an extreme rarity at the time, when the borders between Vertigo and the DCU were pretty solid). 

All told then, it's a rather odd collection of a rather odd narrative, but one with plenty of virtues, from seeing Immonen drawing much of the DCU as it existed in 1996, to a very distinct end-of-the-world scenario, to some very nice character work regarding DC heroes big and less big. 

As with the recently published Underworld Unleashed, I found myself wanting to revisit tie-ins to this. I can't imagine DC would actually publish a companion collection of the tie-ins, which were, remember, pretty diffuse and dealt with the characters' reactions to the events more than the events themselves, but I suppose it's possible they could do what they did with Zero Hour, and publish character-specific tie-in collections, like Superman: The Final Night (Superman #117, Adventures of Superman #540, Action Comics #727, Superman: The Man of Steel #62, Supergirl #3, Superboy #33, Legion of Super-Heroes #86)  and  Batman: The Final Night (Batman #536, Detective Comics #703, Robin #35, Hitman #8 and maybe Green Arrow #114?). I don't know if there's enough solid tie-ins of other characters to collect enough of them into a Justice League: Final Night collection; there's definitely a Flash, Green Lantern and Power of Shazam tie-in, but beyond those, pickings grow slim.

Also as with the Underworld Unleashed collection, this includes the relevant portion from JLA in Crisis Secret Files #1, a montage-like image by Immonen, inker Jose Marzan Jr and colorist Tom McCraw recapping the events of the series, plus a text summary and a bit of timeline, as those were the days when it was still possible to produce timelines of DC's history. 

Mike Mignola: The Quarantine Sketchbook
(Dark Horse Books)
Earlier in the coronavirus-caused shutdown, artist Mike Mignola started sharing daily sketches on his Twitter feed, drawing seemingly random, often iconic characters in his own signature style, which rendered them all somewhat spooky and spectral: The Flintstones, Kermit the Frog, Mr. Peanut and so on. At one point, around the time he started drawing mascots from the cereal aisle of the grocery story, I think I tweeted something about how I wish they would collect all of these weird sketches of his into a coffee table book, as I would love to buy such a thing.

And they did!

Mike Mignola: The Quarantine Sketchbook is a 230-page hardcover collection of those very sketches, each given a page of its own. It's not completely complete, as some of the mascot characters seem to be missing, but I was genuinely surprised how many corporate-owned characters made it into the book, given what must have been a somewhat challenging process of securing the rights to publish Mignola's sketches of them. So there are a bunch of Kirby-created Marvel monsters, Silver Age Spider-Man villains, Masters of The Universe and Thundercats characters (Mignola's Skeletor is the best Skeletor), old Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters and the monster cereal mascots, in addition to more expected Mignola subject matter, like Hellboy, chimerical fish people, vegetable people and skeletons in suits posing like they are in 19th century photo shoots, and so on.

At $40, it probably wasn't the wisest investment on my part—I don't even  have a coffee table to put it on!—but according to the copy on the back of the book, all profits are going to raise money for World Central Kitchen, so I guess it's a good cause. That's the same charity that Mignola auctioned off the original sketches to raise money for (Their site is, if  you want to learn more about them or donate). 

The book includes a short introduction by Mignola's wife Christine and a short afterword by Mignola himself. 

Infinite Frontier #0 (DC) This $6.99, 64-page special is essentially a collection of preview stories for the entire DC line, although there's a framing device that makes it relevant to the ongoing reboots of the DC Universe setting—as far as I can tell, it's now pre-Flashpoint continuity, with the popular bits of the post-New 52 reboot in tact—and at least one section that is a standalone one, and doesn't seem like it will be picked up in any of the comics that have so far been solicited (the Alan Scott section). (UPDATE: Actually, this looks like it will be picked up on in June's Infinite Frontier series.)

The framing device is written by Joshua Williamson "with" James Tynion IV and Scott Snyder, and drawn by John Timms. This involves Wonder Woman in space somewhere, confronted by a huge "Infinite Frontier" logo seemingly rendered in a computer-ized version of Kirby dot lettering. 

"It's all so beautiful," Diana, now outfitted in an all-white costume with trailing streamers and a Sif-like headdress, remarks. She is then addressed by the "The Quintessence," a group of five cosmic beings that Mark Waid and Alex Ross introduced in the page of Kingdom Come, and which Snyder and Tynion have made some use of during their Justice League mega-arc (Timms has redesigned them all a bit, but the most noteworthy elements of their make-up are that Hera is still in for Zeus and The Wizard Shazam has his original look, rather than his New 52 one). They want Diana to join their number—which would necessitate a name change for the group, I would think—but she's reluctant, sensing some danger on Earth among her former comrades. Before she can decide if she wants to ascend or not, she wants to check on them. So The Spectre leads her through the solicitations for DC's post-Future State slate of comics, the pair of them traveling Christmas Carol-style from character to character, allowing readers to sample upcoming plotlines.

These samples can be as short as three-pages and as long as six, and are all generally by the creative teams of the books in which these adventures will unfold. They therefore vary quite a bit in style, tone and quality. I admit I had to put the book down after the first one, three pages of Brian Michael Bendis and David Marquez seemingly setting-up their upcoming Justice League run, as it contained Black Adam seemingly being renamed "Shazadam" and Gah! I can't believe Bendis, as talented as he might be, is still allowed to come up with names for characters. He is literally the worst at it (See, most recently, "Drake", although we can come up with plenty of other examples given a few moments' time, I'm sure, from Geldoff to Naomi). 

Some of these previews are quite intriguing, some of them so-so, but no matter, I think the book will be of value for anyone curious about the upcoming offerings from DC Comics. Among the big changes noted are the resurrection of Roy Harper (aka Red Arrow, aka Arsenal, aka Speedy), the temporary replacement of Barry Allen by Wally West as the "official" Flash (at least in the pages of The Flash; it's Barry that appears in the Justice League preview) while Barry does some Multiverse stuff with the team from The House of Heroes and the restoration of the JSA and related continuity, as evidenced in a short Stargirl story and the aforementioned Alan Scott passage. 

There are three things I want to talk about in particular, though. The first is that Alan Scott passage, which is narrated by Obsidian, who is probably DC's longest-lived, most prominent and most unique gay character, and whom I therefore wish had a higher profile, and was given at least the same amount of attention as the what-if-Batman-killed-people-and-also-didn't-have-bat-ears character, The Midnighter. He and his sister Jade meet their dad Green Lantern Alan Scott at the JSA headquarters at Battery Park (established during Geoff Johns' JSA run), and among the things mentioned are the JSA's disbanding in the 1950s and the existence of Infinity, Inc, giving us a sense of how much of DC's pre-New 52 continuity is actually back. 

Alan—whose ring artist Stephen Byrne draws to resemble a GL Corps ring, although this is likely just an art mistake*—says he's been approached by "some of the greatest minds of this world...and they've asked me to be a sentinel overlooking the totality of this world," whatever that means, but, before he did so, he says wanted to come out to his kids. So he did.

The journey to making Alan Scott gay has been...weird, given that it was an alternate dimension version of him from The New 52's Earth-2 that was gay, and then at some point James Tynion apparently decided to make the "real" Alan Scott gay as well. I understand the impulse of adding a diversity of the sexual orientations of DC's superheroes by retconning the sexuality of a prominent character, but I'm still surprised by the choice of Alan Scott, as he's not that prominent a character, and it seems easier to promote Obsidian who's literally right there, and it seems like Alan is just going to fade back into the background again anyway (if there's a new JSA book on the horizon, it hasn't yet been announced). I'd find this a bit more exciting if there was going to be a new Green Lantern book starring Alan Scott, or at least a new JSA book with Alan playing a prominent role (or if he joined the Justice League or something; Bendis seems to be in the process of an extended homage to a JSA arc anyway).

Still, they now have a more prominent gay character to stick in the pages of the recently announced DC Pride book than their usual gay suspects of Midnigher and Apollo, Batwoman and a handful of bi characters. 

Also of note is the Wonder Woman sequence, written by Becky Cloonan and Michale W. Conrad and drawn by Alitha Mortinez and Mark Morales.  In it, Hippolyta comes upon a group of Amazons fighting one another and demands to know the meaning of this; they say they are battling to see who is the strongest and most worthy to take up the mantle of Wonder Woman. So Hippolyta proposes a test: Whichever of the three contenders will gaze at the head of the gorgon Medusa she keeps in a box will be named the bravest and thus most worthy. Only Nubia accepts...but it turns out the box contains now Medusa's head, but, instead, a crown—Hippolyta plans to replace Diana herself, "and risk being poisoned" by "the world of men", and Nubia will replace her as queen of the Amazons while she does so.

This is pretty frustrating, as I think a black Wonder Woman would be infinitely more interesting and meaningful than Hippolyta-as-Wonder Woman, something we've already seen once in the 1990s, in the pages of Wonder Woman, JLA and JSA. That Cloonan and Conrad teased such a turn of events in their story only accentuates that frustration.

Finally, and most fannishly, there is a lot of panel space devoted to the goings on in Gotham, which makes sense, given how many goddam Batman books there are. I was particularly interested in a pair of panels in which we see Cassandra Cain in her Batgirl costume (hooray!) and Spoiler in her current Spoiler costume fighting a crowd of  opponents while Stephanie chats with Oracle into an earpiece; Oracle is shown out of her own Batgirl costume, wearing glasses and sitting in a chair in front of a computer, the inside workings of a giant clock in the background. Huntress is standing next to her, talking about the status quo, and there's the workings of a giant clock visible behind them. 

I'm not sure if there's a new Batgirls book in the works, featuring Barbara Gordon leading a street team consisting of Cass and Steph, or a new Birds of Prey book featuring the trio and maybe Huntress and Black Canary, but, if so, like a potential JSA book, it hasn't been announced yet. I sure wouldn't mind either a Batgirls or Birds of Prey title, though, and, in fact, find the prospect exciting enough that I might, just might add such a book to my pathetically anemic pull-list. 


H.P. Lovecraft's The Call of Cthulhu and Dagon: A Graphic Novel (Canterbury Classics) That H.P. Lovecraft's horror is as effective as it is owes a great deal to the writer's restraint. He would suggest, allude to or, occasionally, tease the object of the horror in his stories—or, as he referred to it when writing about his own writing, "the wonder"—but never fully reveal it. And even when approaching revelation, he did it using language to communicate that language couldn't properly communicate how strange, how bizarre, how awful the horror/wonder actually was. 

The result, of course, was to leave his alien monsters to the imagination of his readers, who could never be sure their own imaginings were even up for the task, for surely the scariest things they could imagine weren't scary enough to properly convey horrors that drive people mad at the sight or contemplation, you know? 

This trick of Lovecraft's makes his work irresistably attractive for visual artist to adapt, while simultaneously making it unadaptable, as all but the most creative artists will surely fail to convey the unconveyable; even the very best renderings of Lovecraftian goblin gods like Cthulhu and the various creatures of the mythos will end up being disappointing on some level.

I think that's why I've never experienced a straight visual adaptation of his work, either in comics or in film, that really seemed to work; Lovecraft wrote about that which he couldn't show you, in fact, that which can not be shown, so is it any wonder attempts to show it always seem wanting? **

That is unfortunately the case with artist Dave Shephard's Call of Cthulhu and Dagon: A Graphic Novel, a comics adaptation of a pair of Lovecraft's more famous stories. You need look no further than the cover to see how dramatically Shephard's strategy varies from Lovecraft's, as you can see the horror/wonder of Cthulhu right there in the upper left-hand corner, looking like an angry green cartoon octopus plopped atop a rotting body.

Shephard does a pretty fine job of massaging the two works so that "Dagon" serves as a sort of preface to "Cthulhu" and that both work much better as part of a complete, comics-told story than they might otherwise have been if he kept the the precise timelines and events of the source material exactly as Lovecraft wrote them. 

The result reads a bit like a long-form version of an old Classics Illustrated comic, but the art is rougher and less-detailed, and there are relatively few panels per page. There are a lot of words though, particularly in the "Dagon" portion, which must have been a difficult equation to struggle with when attempting to adapt a prose work that derives its power more from its wording than its plot-points or imagery.

The book stumbles most when showing the reader imagery that the story suggests is unspeakable; for example, when the police break up a voodoo cult in the swamps of Louisiana, one of the officers shouts, "What they're doing—just sick!" and another vomits at the sight but, well, we see exactly what they are doing, and it appears to be just dancing around a fire naked. Nothing to throw up over, you know? In comics, one doesn't have the luxury of suggesting visuals that one has in prose. Certainly, there were ways for Shephard to do so visually, but he chose not to, and the result was a weird disconnect between the words the reader is seeing and the images accompanying them.

It should go without saying that his Dagon and Cthulhu, while neat designs, aren't rendered in such a way to drive a reader completely mad, or even inspiring much awe; the latter, for example, has the more-or-less generic, expected look of Lovecraft's most famous creation. So too do the strange cities that men find themselves exploring look too ordinary; I kept imagining a James Stokoe-drawn R'lyeh, for example, when looking at the green castle Shephard draws.

I hate to be too hard on the book, as it does have some virtues, but it is nevertheless a perfect example of how goddam hard it is to adapt Lovecraft in a way that is at all satisfying. What it mainly made me want to do is revisit the Lovecraft stories that served as its source material. 

My Senpai Is Annoying Vol. 1 (Seven Seas Entertainment) This workplace romantic comedy by Shiromanta features Igarashi Futuba, a young, diminutive woman who resents being treated like a little kid by others, even though she occasionally acts like a little kid just enough to justify the treatment. She particularly resents Takea Harumi, her giant, somewhat oaf-ish senpai at the company, who acts like an extremely devoted older brother to her. He is the annoying senpai of the title...but does Futuba see him as something more than just an annoying senpai? The answer is a pretty obvious yes, although she tries to deny it to herself quite a bit, and even more so to their co-workers. As for Takeda, he seems perfectly clueless about the prospect of ever being in a relationship with her.

There's therefore not a ton of suspense to the will they, won't they aspect of the melodrama, as Shirtomanta makes it so clear that Futuba has feelings for her senpai. The main suspense, then, is if he ever really notices, if she ever communicates it and then what will happen. 

The art is nice, and greatly enlivened by the use of occasional, limited coloring throughout. 

Star Wars Adventures: The Clone Wars—Battle Tales (IDW Publishing) Similar to the various Vader's Castle comics, Battle Tales is an themed anthology comic with a framing story, the characters in that framing story finding occasion to tell one another different stories at the pace of one per issue. Originally published as a five-issue miniseries, the book is written by Michael Moreci and primarily illustrated by Derek Charm, while the stories-within-the-story each have  a different artist.

Rather than the "horror" stories of the Vader's Castle books, however, the theme here is, of course, war stories, featuring the Republic's clone troopers under the command of Jedi Generals Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin Skywalker and others.

As the story begins, Kenobi, Skywalker and Plo Kloon command the troopers to hold a position against the droid army of the Confederacy while they pursue Sith bad guys Count Dooku and Asajj Ventress and yes, that does sound more interesting to me than hanging out with the proto-Stormtroopers, but Moreci and company left us no choice in the matter (there are some cool panels of Charm-drawn Sith vs. Jedi battle, though). 

The individual stories-within-the-story are drawn by Arianna Florean and Mario Del Pennio, Megan Levens, Valentina Pinto, Davide Tinto and Philip Murphy, and they feature Clone Wars-era characters like Anakin, Obi-Wan, Padme, General Grevious and lots of various named troopers and commanders, almost none of whom I recognize (Just Commander Cody), as I never watched the Clone Wars TV series (just the 2D "micro-series" version that preceded it). That ignorance of many of the named characters and their storylines didn't seem to hamper my enjoyment of the comic; I got the sense that many of these were characters that would be recognizable to fans, but didn't feel alienated by my not knowing more about them. 

The Way of The Househusband Vols. 3-4 (Viz Media) I still find this joke, that the yakuza member known as "The Immortal Dragon" has transformed himself into a sort of domestic goddess to rival Martha Stewart, funny


Flash Facts (DC Comics) This was a lot of fun, even if it was technically educational. Ten different creative teams—including a who's who of artists whom I'd like to see more work from—tackle different scientific subjects to explain to readers, sometimes by having a DC character like The Flash talking directing to the reader, but more often than not by one character explaining something to another, which lead to some interesting "team-ups", I thought, like Batman and Plastic Man, Poison Ivy and Swamp Thing (featuring the latter noping out when asked to explain where babies come from) and The Atom Ryan Choi and Mary Marvel (who seemed to be dating in their story, at least to me). 

It seems like there was a lot of infrastructure built for the making of this book, including getting celebrity scientist/actress Mayim Bialik to serve as editor and the hiring of educational consultants, so hopefully there will be sequels to the book. There's definitely a near-infinite amount of science to cover in future volumes, and DC sure has enough characters to fill up such stories, many of whom lend themselves to particular topics (like Dr. Light talking about light, Animal Man talking about animal evolution, etc). 

My only complaint? Derek Charm, one of my favorite artists, contributed the cover, but just the cover. I'd really like to see Charm draw more DC superheroes. Maybe he can do an interior story in a future volume, or maybe DC can hire him for something else down the line—I mean, aside from the Constantine kids book he's working on with the great Ryan North, of course—preferably something with a lot of different superheroes in it, like a Justice League or Young Justice story. 

Nubia: Real One (DC Comics) This collaboration between YA prose author L.L. McKinney and artist Robyn Smith, two creators who I had not previous exposure to, ended up being my second-favorite of all of DC's YA-focused original graphic novels, all of which have tended to be quite good (or, at least, all of the one's I've read; I did miss a few). The only one I'd rate higher is Shadow of The Batgirl, of course I went into that one already enamored with Cassandra Cain and Barbara Gordon, whereas I've never really read a Nubia story. 

Nubia: Real One invents a brand-new version of the Nubia character, making her an ordinary-ish young woman in the real world, ignorant of her true origins (which are the same as in the comics). It was a bit frustrating to read Infinite Frontier #0 after this (as stated above) and seeing that DC flirted with giving us Nubia as a Wonder Woman replacement, only to give us Hippolyta as Wonder Woman again. I know the "real" Nubia is different from the Real One one,  and it's kind of too bad that this one is relegated to a one-off ogn, while there are ongoing opportunities in the DCU for Wonder Woman's mom and like three Wonder Girls. Ah well, perhaps this will do well enough that DC will commission a sequel, and McKinney will find she has more to say about the character now that she's come of age and realized who she is and why she has the powers she has...

*Although I do like the idea of Alan with two rings, his original one and a GL Corps ring, something that artist Dean Trippe has proposed in his redesigns of the character. Alan as ring-bearing, honorary member of the Corps seems like a pretty cool, and completely logical, concept. 

**I'm quite willing to be proven wrong. If you have a suggestion of a film or comic adaptation of Lovecraft's work, rather than some form of extrapolation of it, that works quite well, I'd be happy to hear about it in order to seek it out. 


William Burns said...

I really hope they don't go with "Sexessence."

Jones, one of the Jones boys said...

Gou Tanabe's At the Mountains of Madness is a good one

And even though they're not straight adaptations, much of Philippe Druillet's work taps into the Cyclopean scale stuff

Lee Lemon said...

Lovecraft - Alan Moore and Jacen Burrow's Providence is amazing

David said...

Loved the Quarantine Sketchbook, but yeah, frustrating that it's not complete. I noticed he couldn't get rights to any of the Japanese stuff, so no Godzilla monsters, Ultraman creatures, Pokemon, etc.