Saturday, October 30, 2021

Review: JLA: Act of God #1-3

This Doug Moench-written three-issue Elseworlds series* has a fairly strong premise, one strong enough that it's not hard to imagine it occurring in the mainline DCU continuity, and, in the year's previous to its 2001 release, maybe even being a summer annual crossover event.** In a sudden, unexplained phenomenon, everyone on Earth with superpowers loses them.

The mechanics of this are a little fuzzy, as it involves characters who gained their powers through accidents and circumstances, like The Flash, The Atom and Plastic Man, as well as those whose powers are natural abilities to their alien species, like Starfire, Martian Manhunter and Superman. With the world's greatest heroes sidelined, it's up to second- and third-stringers with technologically-based "powers" like Steel, Blue Beetle and Booster Gold to help fill the void, although some technologically-based powers did fail, like Kyle Rayner's Green Lantern ring.

Best not to dwell too much on the specifics of event, as Moench doesn't, and certain questions are addressed only in passing ("What about the supernatural geeks? Spectre, Dr. Fate, Zauriel..." Guy Gardner asks in a splash page, and The Atom answers "All among the missing-- Or at least no one's heard from them." And that is that for the magical heroes, although I guess it's worth noting Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman are also left powerless). At any rate, it's never explained—beyond the title—and its "rules" are only evident in what occurs on the pages.

The tagline for Elseworlds is that "In Elseworlds, heroes are taken from their usual settings and put into strange times and places—some that have existed, or might have existed, and others that can't, couldn't or shouldn't exist."  This is very much a shouldn't exist kind of story, as it shows some of DC's greatest heroes in spectacularly bad lights.

Before we get to that, though, I should note that this story is very much my particular jam, and few things in comics excite me as much as the sort that occurs on the story's 19th page, in which we see the JLA Watchtower crowded with some 30 heroes in a single splash page. Many of these heroes are just making one of several cameos in the story, some of them won't appear again at all, but man, I just like seeing, say, Red Tornado and the android Hourman standing shoulder to shoulder and imagining what they're talking about, or just getting a little reminder that Damage exists, you know? 

Pencil artist Dave Ross, here inked by George Freeman, has a great style that is quite well-suited to this kind of extremely sincere, often melodramatic (or, perhaps, soap operatic) superhero story, the characters all looking like themselves and seemingly perfectly captured when in action, but also showing a great deal of emotion and "acting" when they struggling with negative feelings or baring their souls to one another, which they do a lot of in this (There were certain panels where the Ross/Freeman team evoked the work of Rags Morales, a favorite artist  of mine, if that helps you place the style).

The other fun thing about the story is that it foregrounds several then lesser-seen characters, like those mentioned previously, as well as Guy Gardner and Supergirl (Moench splits the attention between the core JLA members reacting to their lost posers and the tech-based heroes who must replace them, rather than focusing too much on the heroes who never had any powers or super-tools to help them like, say, Green Arrow or Arsenal or Black Canary; they mostly just appear in a handful of cameos). 

As for the "shouldn't" I mentioned before, well, it doesn't exactly flatter some of the Justice Leaguers. Superman, for example, is so traumatized by his failure to save a town form a breaking dam, which he was attempting to do when he lost his powers, that he gives up even trying to be a hero...and gives up on his life as Clark Kent too, drifting into a relationship with Wonder Woman (Lois Lane dumps him because she can't stand his mopey, I-used-to-be-Superman routine) and, ultimately, hitting rock bottom,  drinking in an alley until a priest mistakes him for a hobo and invites him into a homeless shelter.

Wonder Woman is similarly distressed and gives up trying to be a hero, instead getting a job on Wall Street. She turns to (Christian!) religion and, sometime after her break-up with Superman, even considers suicide.

Kyle Rayner, who gets beat up by Sonar II, spends the entirety of the story ranting and raving and throwing his ring around, never consulting with the other Leaguers, and he eventually works a heavy-bag until he feels he's ready to beat up Sonar II with his bare, ring-less hands. 

This being an Elseworlds, I guess it's acceptable that Moench chose to highlight the darkest, bleakest futures for some of these heroes, but, well, they don't come off as all that heroic. 

It's not hard to imagine any of the three either finding fulfillment in their normal lives—I mean, as a journalist, husband and son, Clark Kent has a lot going on whether or not he's secretly Superman or not—or continuing to fight crime without their powers. They might not all be martial artists and gymnasts on Batman's level, but all of them, especially Wonder Woman and Superman, have been fighting people on a daily basis for years. It's not hard to imagine Superman taking up a jetpack and a ray gun and continuing to protect Metropolis, or Wonder Woman grabbing a spear and shield and fighting crime the same way Black Canary does, you know?

These heroes are contrasted with "The Phoenix Group," made up of Flash Wally West, Supergirl Linda Danvers, J'onn J'onnz and Aquaman, who all decide to train under Batman and Robin before adopting new heroic identities under which they can fight crime using fighting abilities and gadgets. They become, respectively, Red Devil, Justice, The Green Man and (sigh) The Hand.

Ultimately they save the day from Lex Luthor, who seeks to take advantage of the new, power-less world by mass-producing super-suits like Steels and trying to jumpstart super-powers through genetic research.

It's a fun enough story, despite the bleak portrayals of some of the characters as they spiral downward—don't worry Superman and Wonder Woman get their lives back together, and Kyle does eventually beat up Sonar II, but at the cost of his own life—and some extremely, funnily purple prose from Moench, which reaches its most overblown when Superman describes to Lois how he felt during his initial power loss. 

I certainly had fun discovering a "lost" story from a point I was perhaps most engaged with the DC Universe as a setting full of characters I genuinely liked. 

As with Created Equal (collected in Elseworlds: Justice League Vol. 3, which I recently wrote about) wherein the DC Universe lost all it's male heroes, but still had dozens of female heroes, it's perhaps worth noting that if DC did lose all its super-powered heroes, well, there would still be more than enough heroes to  publish an entire line of DC Comics (many of the most popular ones can be seen on the cover above). When one considers DC's current output, which is completely dominated by comics featuring Batman and his superpower-less supporting cast, they're almost there now; if they simply replaced the handful of Superman and Wonder Woman books with books starring, I don't know, Steel, Green Arrow, The Birds of Prey characters and Booster Gold and Blue Beetle, they'd be publishing about as many books.

Despite the struggles the fictional DC Universe had in the wake of the event here, the real world DC Comics would probably be pretty much a-okay without any super-powered heroes...although I bet they'd give Superman a jetpack and some super-weapons to continue his never-ending battle, powers or no powers.

*Which was collected along with the infamous 1999  Elseworlds 80-Page Giant and Randy and Jean-Marc Lofficier and Ted McKeever trilogy of German expressionist film-making inspired books Superman's Metropolis, Batman: Nosferatu and Wonder Woman: The Blue Amazon in 2017'a  Elseworlds: Justice League Vol. 2, which is where I read it. 

**In fact, the premise is somewhat similar to that of John Byrne and Ron Wagner's 1997 Genesis, in which a receding "Godwave" removes the meta-human abilities from many heroes and leads to a weird "crisis of faith" among ordinary heroes who have no superpowers. It was pretty terrible, though, and my very least favorite of any DC crossover event ever. 

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Extreme Justice and more: On a short stack of '90s DC comics

Extreme Justice #0-4 (1995) "It's not really that bad if you can look past the art" is a heck of a thing to say about a comic book, given the visual nature of the medium and the fact that the art is supposed to be doing the bulk of the storytelling, but it's perhaps more true of the early issues of Extreme Justice than any other comics I can recall reading at the moment. 

The title seems born of the tensions at the publisher to just keep on doing what they've been doing and a need to try to appeal to the readers of Marvel's various X-books and the blockbuster (but generally terrible) comics that upstart Image Comics produced in its earliest years.

And so the team line-up includes several stalwarts from the late 1980s/early 1990s Giffen/DeMatteis Justice League comics (Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, Captain Atom) paired with newcomers Maxima (from Dan Jurgens' run on Justice League America, rather recently repackaged and republished in trade as Superman and Justice League America) and Amazing-Man, a new legacy version of All-Star Squadron character introduced in 1983. 

It spins pretty directly out of the pages of the "Judgement Day" crossover (collected in Wonder Woman and Justice League America), with the Justice League splintered into three different teams, each appearing in a different title (Wonder Woman's team would occupy Justice League America, Martian Manhunter's Justice League Task Force and Captain Atom's the poorly-named Extreme Justice). 

And yet there was that silly title, one that didn't really reflect the raison d'etre of the superhero team that writer Dan Vado had Captain Atom articulating; rather than being an in-your-face, proactive super-team as is so often attempted by the super-comics publishers, Atom wanted to return to the days of the pre-Satellite Era Justice League, when the team didn't require so much bureaucracy (although even the original Justice League and their precursors the JSA were never short of meetings and organization). It's perhaps worth noting that the name "Extreme Justice" never appears anywhere in the first five issues of the title, other than on the covers; if the heroes ever refer to their team, they use the name "Justice League."

And there's the artwork of pencil artist Marc Campos and inker Ken Branch, in which a reader can find any of the stereotypical sins attributed to 1990s super-comics artwork, from there only being two body types ("superhero" and "superheroine"); questionable anatomy; questionable point-of-view; backgrounds consisting of either empty space, rubble or explosions; screaming mouths filled with saliva; and, every once in a while, a panel like this, where even the questionable anatomy seems to have completely broken down in such a way it seems peculiar that DC Comics would have even published the image.

I mean, for as much as they might have been striving to imitate the work of a Rob Liefeld at Image Comics, they were still DC Comics and not Image, you know?

As much temptation as there is to make fun of Campos' art, and as much as it might seem to deserve it, I have to keep reminding myself that DC was very clearly asking for this sort of style with the book, so if anyone deserves the blame for the way the book looks, it's as mucyeditors Brian Augustyn and Ruben Diaz, who were "proudly present"-ing it, and it was Campos for drawing it.

Anyway, as bad as the book looks, Dan Vado's script isn't actually that bad. I've definitely read worse Justice League stories with less excuses for being as bad as they were.

The series, which launches in a zero issue because of course it does, has Captain Atom leading his mini-League against a rogue U.S. general who wants to start World War III by preemptively attacking the Soviet Union...or was it Russia at the time...? I wasn't very up-to-speed with geopolitics that years, as I was only 17.

Deciding they need a new base to hang out in, the time-lost Captain Atom suggests they squat in Mount Thunder, a giant underground base built for parts of the U.S. military to ride out a nuclear war in the '60s but then abandoned. Unfortunately, someone else is already squatting there, another rogue U.S. general, one who leads up a conspiracy called "Freedom Rings" that wants to destroy what he feels is another, more sinister conspiracy within the U.S. government, one apparently involving "President French Fry" (Clinton, I guess, if it's 1995). 

Rather than, like, vacating when the armed forces come to kick them out, or telling anyone else that there's a team of killer cyborgs living in the secret base, Captain Atom and the gang remain there until they've blown up all the cyborgs and the bad guy kills himself in an explosion. I guess then they get to live there...? I don't know how U.S. military bases work, I guess. 

Meanwhile, the superpower-less Ron Raymond has developed leukemia and has a pretty dire diagnosis. Skeets and Oberon find him at what used to be the Justice League base in New York City and follow him back to Pittsburgh, where his powers suddenly return and he loses control of them. That's the cliffhanger ending of the fourth issue, in which Professor Stein telepathically tells Ronnie he's going to return to Earth, as he's out in space being a fire elemental or whatever he was doing at that point, exactly. 

The fourth issue has fill-in art by pencil artist Mozart Cuoto, and it's much better looking than Campos'. The book is infinitely more readable this issue.
All in all, it's a pretty odd book. I like the Amazing-Man character quite a bit though, and found myself eager to see how he would develop in the book's remaining 15 or so issues (Amazing-Man II Will Everett would be on my theoretical Justice League line-up, if I were the boss of who should be on the Justice League, by the way). And I've built up an affection for Booster Gold and Blue Beetle over the years, even if neither of them is particularly well-written or given any real characterization in these pages (Blue Beetle doesn't want to be relegated to the tech guy, and Booster is worried that Captain Atom will kick him off the team if he realizes how weak his heart is and....that's about it for these guys in these issues).

So yeah, it feels weird and wrong to say, but it's honestly not really that bad if you can look past the art.

Now I've gotta find somewhere to buy the rest of the series, as this was all the shop I got these from  had...

Showcase '95 #1 (1995) This is the first issue of DC's mid-nineties resurrection of their old Showcase series to star a Superman supporting character in the lead slot. For the first two years, Showcase '93 and Showcase '94, Batman supporting characters anchored the series; for the last two years, Showcase '95 and Showcase '96, Superman characters would. 

The reason I picked this up now—in addition to being mildly curious about the entire series, which I just read extremely sporadically back when it was being released, of course—was that this particular issue featured an Alan Scott back-up, and one of some significance. While Alan  had previously been de-aged and given a new costume, and he had previously given up his ring and Green Lantern name, this story features the return of his powers and the first time he decided on his new superhero name: Sentinel.

In a theoretical Green Lantern: Sentinel trade collection that doesn't exist but I kinda wish did, this would appear somewhere between the Green Lantern Corps stories and 1998's Green Lantern/Sentinel: Heart of Darkness

The story, written by R.A. Jones and drawn by Gene Gonzales and Wade Von Grawbadger, finds Alan, in full costume, and his wife Molly at a cemetery, presumably lingering long after the funeral for some of the original Justice Society members killed during Zero Hour: Dr. Mid-Nite, Hourman and The Atom. Alan tells Molly he's going to stay behind to brood a while longer, and once she leaves the dead heroes come to life and attempt to kill Alan, punishing him for being a coward and giving up superhero-ing while they went down fighting.

His power returns, he reburies them and questions whether it was a combination of his power and his own feelings of guilt that resurrected them, and then declares, "I'm starting a new life--reborn by the fires of The Starheart-- --and I will become its-- SENTINEL!", and that last word is all big and green and on fire, like a logo. 

It ends with a three-panel sequence in which a sorcerer apparently named Torquemada talks to himself about how he conjured the JSA zombies and how he will need Alan's help against the evil one, and instead of "The End" it ends with "So it begins!" 

I...have no idea where. Next issue doesn't feature an Alan Scott story, nor do I think he returns the rest of the year. If you know where it picks up, if it ever does, do be sure to let me know. 

The lead Supergirl story is perhaps most notable for its artwork, by one Stuart Immonen, inked by Wade Von Grawbadger. Written by Charles Moore, it features a fairly generic sentient robot alien conqueror type coming to earth to get some rare minerals and stumbling upon Supergirl, whose body he would like to take over as his own. That is because this is one of the confusing Supergirls, the post-Byrne one who is like actually made of protoplasm and has a variety of powers that differ from Superman's (another confusing Supergirl, which is actually maybe the same one with some extra layers of confusing continuity added, appears in Superman 80-Page Giant #2, below). 

Rounding out the issue is a short story starring Argus, one of the "New Bloods" heroes introduced during 1993' Bloodlines event (and created by Mark Waid and pencil artist Phil Hester). Here he is written by Mark Wheatley and Allan Gross, penciled by Hester and inked by Wayne Faucher. 

It's an odd little story in which the hero encounters a boy who has a ray gun that dissolves clothing; he attacked a charity fashion show in order to see the models naked and, when Argus intervenes, he evaporates his costume, leaving the hero running away naked on the TV news. From there, he needs to find a new costume, which proves difficult to heroes who aren't secretly billionaires with costume-designing butlers, I guess.

I'm not really familiar with Argus, having never read the Flash Annual that introduced him—but I'd like to! I'd like to read al the Bloodlines annuals! Collect 'em for me, DC!—but I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Hester's art work here, a much earlier point than I had seen it for the first time previously (his run on Green Arrow). I'm a fan. 

Steel Annual #1 (1994) The first of the two Steel annuals was released during the year in which the theme was simply "Elseworlds", so each of the year's 23 annuals featured and alternate reality tale featuring the comic's regular star or stars (I've read hardly any of these, I think just the Detective Comics annual, which introduced "Captain Leatherwing," the pirate Batman, and Shadow of The Bat; if DC wants to go ahead and collect all of these into a couple of trades, I'd happily buy them. Much easier than finding them one at a time in back-issue bins).

Co-written by Steel co-creator Jon Bogdanove and a Judith Kurzer Bogdanove, who I am assuming is his wife, and entitled "Crucible of Freedom," the premise is a perhaps interesting but awfully tricky one to tackle: What if John Henry Irons became steel not in modern day Metropolis, but in the American South in the 1860s? What if he was born a slave on cotton plantation?

It certainly makes for a satisfyingly melodramatic arc, as we see the protagonist and generations of his family subjected to the most terrible evil for pages and pages before Irons eventually dons his armor and liberates the plantation through force, now protected not only from whips but even bullets and cannon balls.

But it also makes for a rather rough read. This is certainly the first time—and perhaps the only time?—I've seen the N-word appear in a DC Comic. And then, of course, there's an awful lot of beatings, whippings and talk of the same, although in comics form they aren't quite as tough to watch as they might be in, say, a film, where you can hear the snap of a whip over and over. 

Some of the harshest elements occur off-panel and in the reader's imagination—the villain blinds a black man with a sword for daring to meet his eyes, the evil overseer is murdered with a pitchfork, a wagon full of infants is drowned in a sudden downpour—but it's still awfully rough-going for a mainstream comic book.

In the Bogdanoves' story, John Henry is nursed alongside Arthur Forrest, the scion of the plantation. The two grow up playing as best friends, with Arthur sneaking books to John Henry and teaching him to read, but, as they grow older, they grow apart. Eventually Arthur blames John Henry for his being sent away to a school, and vows revenge; being spurned by a lady who then goes on to have sex with a slave doesn't help dispel his race hatred in the least.

Meanwhile, John Henry grows up to be not only smart, but huge and noble, willing to take the beatings meant for other, weaker slaves regularly. He's also the plantation's blacksmith, and, when the Civil War breaks out, Arthur, who has a life-long interest in tales of medieval chivalry, demands John Henry build him a suit of armor with which he can do battle.

John Henry reluctantly sets to work, coming up with a 19th century version of the familiar Steel armor, complete with a wrist-mounted Gatling gun, but it's sized to fit him, not Arthur. When the slaves rise up, he dons the armor, picks up his hammer and helps fend off the Confederate troops training on the plantation and ultimately confronts Arthur who, in true melodramatic villain fashion, ultimately kills himself while trying to destroy the hero who, of course, is too noble to take his life.

It's all rather compelling, although I was somewhat surprised to see the pencil artist who was given the assignment: Humberto Ramos, a manga-influenced artist who would soon become best-known for his work on Impulse. While the art, inked by seven different artists, is highly readable and flows perfectly fine, Ramos doesn't really imbue it with the gritty, realistic feel the story seems to call for, and his style is often at odds with the subject matter. 

The climax, however, the part where the comic becomes a superhero comic again, is handled quite well.

In a neat bit of symmetry, the Bogdanoves link this version of John Henry Irons to the folk hero who inspired the "real" version of the character's name. The story ends with a splash page full of prose text, which includes the lines, "Still others believe...that it was he who, at the age of 65, challenged and beat the infamous 'inky-doo' spike-driving machine that threatened to replace human labor with machinery...striking a fabled last blow for human rights before he died!" 

It is one of several possible futures that the text lays out, and, indeed, several of them are interesting enough to at least be suggestive of sequels that never came; would Steel join the forces of the Union in his remarkable armor, or supply them with weapons, and help topple the Confederacy? 

I'm personally not crazy about the design of his armor, which, for some reason seems to be more golden than iron or steel. Perhaps it's meant to be made of copper, but the subtlety of metal variations was apparently too much for the coloring of 1994, and thus it looks yellow, which translates too easily to gold in a reader's mind. On the other hand, I suppose the color does contrast sharply with the armor of the normal, non-Elseworlds version of Steel's armor, making it immediately apparent with a glance at the cover that this is meant to be a different version of Steel. 

Superman 80-Page Giant #2 (1999) The second  of the late 1990s Superman 80-Page Giants came in the wake of the "Superman: King of the World" storyline. While it's not terribly important to have read or to remember that story arc from the Superman books of the time in order to follow the stories in this anthology—I only read a few key parts of it and some crossovers—it entailed Superman gradually becoming more and more zealous in his protection of the world, to the point that he begins taking it over with an army of his robot duplicates. The Superman bent on making himself king of the world ends up not being Superman at all, but villain Dominus disguised as Superman. So each of the seven short stories here has Superman meeting with or interacting with one supporting character or another, generally apologizing or trying to get them to forgive and trust him again.

The best story of them all may actually be the first one, starring Superman himself, by Mike Friedman and Peter Doherty. In it, Superman swoops in and rescues a man who was trying to commit suicide, and then decides to have a cup of coffee with him and talk things over. Emergencies keep arising though, and since Superman can't leave the man alone, he takes him with him, the man ultimately helping to deliver a baby while Superman deals with another emergency.

It's a pretty great, evergreen Superman story, and while it's prompted by the "King of the World" story, in which it shows how the "real" Superman deals with the fear of things spiraling out of his control, it also shows how he accepts it (that is, without actually having to control the entire world and having  a Superman robot on every corner).

The other half-dozen stories star Steel, Wonder Woman, Jimmy Olsen, Supergirl (here in her angel phase), Lex Luthor and Lois Lane. My favorite of these were probably the Steel and Wonder Woman stories, by Chuck Dixon, Scott Beatty, Eric Canete and Shawn Martinbrough and Eric Luke, Brian Denham and Andy Lanning, respectively, because they're both fairly strong just-two-heroes-hanging-out stories. The Steel one is set during the time when both heroes were on the Justice League, and Martian Manhunter makes a brief cameo (along with his cookies); the Wonder Woman one reads a little weirdly today, if only because it involves her feelings for Superman and the fact that she's sort of bummed that they're just friends and that he's in love with his wife.

Among the perhaps unexpected creators involved are Mike Oeming (no Avon, just Oeming) and Mark Millar.

Oeming draws the Jimmy Olsen story, in which Superman's pal must endure his friends' ribbing and his own distrust of Superman, while he's ultimately involved in a rather Jimmy Oslen-ish sceneario (this one's written by Joe Casey).

Millar writes—well, overwrites, really—the Lois Lane story, in which she talks about how and why she loves him, and while he might not care how others think of him, she does. This ones drawn by Sean Phillips, and, I don't know, it's downright weird encountering pre-Authority Mark Millar these days. I don't know if it was the tight leash of corporate super-comics editors or what, but the early Millar seemed like a much stronger, sharper, more incisive writer than the later, high-concepts for media adaptation Millar. 

It's far from Millar's best Superman writing—that actually would be his issues of Superman Adventures—but it's head and shoulders above much of his  post-Big Two superhero writing. 

The gritty realism of Golden Age Black Canary stories

I've been reading the trade paperback collection Black Canary: Bird of Prey, which collects the original Black Canary comics, from 1947-1949, and then jumping ahead to the late '60s and early '70s for some more modern Black Canary tales.

She began her fictional life as a supporting character in the Johnny Thunder strip in Flash Comics, and so in three of her first five appearances she and Johnny find themselves falling from great heights—dropped out of a helicopter, blown sky high in an explosion, tied to giant firecracker rockets—only to be saved at the last minute by Johnny's Thunderbolt.

The sixth story in the collection is Canary's first solo feature, sans Johnny Thunder, and I imagined it would be a much more realistic crime feature. After all, there wouldn't be a magical wish-granting sentient thunderbolt to save her from her falls, right?

Black Canary still seems to find herself in the same sorts of predicaments though. In her second solo feature she and her companion are thrown off the top of a building by a rotating dance floor and seem to be plummeting to their deaths. How can the Canary get out of this one without the Thunderbolt?!

Oh, Black Canary has an oath, huh? I never knew that. You hear about Green Lantern's oath all the time, but no one ever mentions Black Canary's. 


Oh come on now. 


Well. I guess Black Canary can command a flock of black canaries when she recites her oath. 

Who knew?

Marvel's January previews reviewed

Not only is Dr. Otto Octavius working for Wilson Fisk, he's also dressing like him? That seems to be the case, at least based on Leinil Francis Yu's variant cover for Amazing Spider-Man #85

Peach Momoko's homage variant cover for the same issue is pretty great, isn't it...?  

Ew. I don't really know much about this Ben Reilly version of Spider-Man—I think he's a clone of Peter Parker, right?—but does he secrete a sticky slime from his fingertips? Or shoot webs directly from his fingertips instead of webshooters? Or is that just Alex Maleev taking some sort of artistic license? Whatever it is, the cover of Ben Reilly: Spider-Man #1 strikes me as pretty gross. 


She-Hulk has just been going under the name "Hulk" in the pages of Avengers, one of the last two Marvel series I've managed to keep up least in trade. The other? Runaways by Rainbow Rowell. So who will be doing the honors of returning She-Hulk to her own title, her previous name and, from the appearances of the various covers, her original Savage/Sensational figure...? None other than Rainbow Rowell! 

Rowell's Runaways has been great enough that I'm more than willing to give this a book a chance, although it did remind me that there's no new issue of Runaways solicited for January, nor do I think a new one has been solicited in a while. I take it the book has been cancelled? That's a bummer. It's been consistently well-written, consistently well-drawn, and the last volume I read ended with a few pretty grabby cliffhangers.

Anyway, I'm interested in what Rowell can do with Shulkie, and if or how her new status quo will affect her role on the Avengers or not...

Takeshi Miyazawa returns to Marvel to handle art chores on a new Silk series, which is being written by Emily Kim and features a cover by Inhyuk Lee. That's a lot of Asian names attached to a book starring a hero of Asian descent, and while that's a good thing, let's not forget the name "Akira Yoshida" and how goddam weird it is that C.B. Cebulski is now the Editor-in-Chief of Marvel. 

We should never forget that. 

"Everlovin'" instead of "Everlast." That's a good one, cover for The Thing #3

I like this X Deaths of Wolverine #1 cover by Sam Kieth. It's a "hidden gem" variant, so I think that means it's recycled art from the past rather than a new, original cover, but I still like it. 

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Review: Elseworlds: Justice League Vol. 3

Technically only one of the five 1999-2001 comics stories collected in Elseworlds: Justice League Vol. 3 is branded as a Justice League story—that would be 2000's JLA: Created Equal—so DC seems to be rather generous with what it's considering a Justice League story. 

Two of the stories here are Elseworlds comics featuring long-time Justice League members (1999's Flashpoint, 2001's Green Lantern: 1001 Emerald Nights), another features an alternate DC Universe in general (1999's Conjurors) and the final one examines DC Comics itself as a milieu (2000's Batman and Superman: World's Funnest). One assumes, then, that there just weren't enough, say, Flash and Green Lantern Elseworlds to make up their own trade collections, or perhaps the words "Justice League" in the title were deemed of greater sales potential than anything else they might have called this.

The crown jewel in this collection is the Evan Dorkin-written World's Funnest, which was re-released in 2016. Originally a prestige format one-shot, the book opened with an 18-page section drawn by Dave Gibbons set in the Silver Age, as Mr. Mxyzptlk and Bat-Mite intervene at the conclusion of a World's Finest team-up. The imps cause their usual trouble, but things take a dark turn when Mxy threatens to kill Bat-Mite and Batman ends up walking into the line of fire.

The Dark Knight is dead, and things spiral out of control quickly, with Bat-Mite killing Superman in retaliation and then pretty much the whole Silver Age gets slaughtered in short order. When the two have succeeded in wiping out the entire universe, and are left floating in a white void, Bat-Mite decides to run for it, with Mxy in hot pursuit. 

From there it becomes a jam issue, with a different great and/or popular (usually both) artists drawing each new locale, a page or two at a time. What follows is a race through the old Multiverse (Earth-2, Earth-3, Earth-X, Earth-S, Earth-C) and into various other stories (The Dark Knight Returns, Kingdom Come, Crisis On Infinite Earths), mass media adaptations (the Super Friends cartoon, storyboards for The Animated Series versions of the characters) and even the real world, where Stephen DeStefano draws imps over photos.

Adding to the fun is that the ideal candidates are generally chosen for each locale, so that, for example, Alex Ross paints the three pages set during Kingdom Come, Frank Miller the three set during Dark Knight Returns, Scott Shaw draws the visit to Earth-C and so on. It's a real who's who. It blew my mind when I read it originally, and it seems even more impressive now that I know who each and every one of the contributors are, and am familiar with all of the various DC Multiversal locales. 

As much fun as it is seeing Dorkin and company go at all of DC's most sacred, money-making cows, perhaps the sharpest bit is a four-page sequence set in the "real" DC Universe of 2000, as drawn by Doug Mahnke and Norm Rapmund. Bat-Mite s quickly reduced to tears b what he sees: "Nobody knows me in this icky universe! M-maybe they're all super-villains like on Earth-3....why else would they look and act that way?"

Particularly interesting to revisit in 2021 is writer Fabian Nicieza's JLA: Created Equal, a two-part series with a premise very similar to one put to greater use a few years later in Brian K. Vaughan's 2002 Y: The Last Man ongoing series for DC: A cosmic storm passes Earth, and its radiation somehow kills every single male human being (and alien) on Earth. The only exceptions are Superman, whose Kryptonian DNA seemed to make him invulnerable in a way that J'onn J'onnz's Martian DNA did not, and Lex Luthor, who took the precaution of sealing himself in a super-suit before the storm hit.

The story is only 96-pages long, so it is perhaps unfair to compare it with Vaughan and artist Pia Guerra much more expansive Y, but the fact that the same fantastical premise is used by the same publisher twice in such close proximity begs a certain degree of comparing and contrasting. Perhaps the most immediate similarity between the two is that male-written comics are all about men; Y follows the last-ish surviving man Yorick, while the focus of Created Equal remains squarely on Superman and, in the second half, Luthor. 

After some trials and tribulations for society, things work out pretty well, all things considered. DC has more than enough female superheroes and supervillains that a whole DC line of comics set in this weird milieu would have no problem carrying on, but while society is remade off-panel in the comic, the focus is on Superman and Luthor fathering a new generation of male children (the former mostly through artificial insemination, the latter through cloning) and warring philosophies of Superman and the Amazons, who have remade the world with a New World Order  (they actually call it that, too) and Luthor, who wants to continue capitalism for some poorly expressed reasons (his sexism is particularly cartoonish near the climax, where he's one of the few people with a Y chromosome left on planet Earth). 

Someone could, and perhaps should, write a long essay comparing the worlds of Y: The Last Man and JLA: Created Equal, but I'm not that person; I read the former too long ago. On the other hand, while Y was getting some reexamination thanks to the television adaptation, I understand it's already been canceled, so perhaps there is no point in that anyway. 

Part of me wishes that Nicieza  had more space to tell a story, as the DC universe is so big and weird that such a change has dozens of avenues to explore, some of which are barely touched on (Swamp Thing, a male, makes a rare pre-Brightest Day appearance in a DCU comic, for example), but then little interesting happens with the space he was allotted, some of it rather embarrassing, like Wonder Woman all but begging Superman to impregnate her the second he's done using his heat-vision to etch Batman's grave stone ("The Fall", as the death of mankind is called, all happens between panels).

The remaining three stories in the collection are mostly of interest for their art, I think.

The Chuck Dixon-written Conjurors is drawn by Eduardo Barreto, who redesigns the many minor DC characters it stars, some of them quite dramatically (Like the much scarier version of Stanley's monster, from Stanley and His Monster, for example). It imagines a DC Universe in which not only is magic real, but it is much more prevalent than it usually is, to the point where science is frowned upon.

The premise is somewhat confused, and Dixon doesn't follow through with it in a particularly even way. In one scene Ted Kord, who keeps filing patents for various scientific advancements, is shown laboring over the designs for a helicopter, which he then rips up when he sees a man with a magic wand flying by his window. Meanwhile, there are airplanes, and they figure rather prominently in the plotting of the story.

That story involves "The Father of Magic," The Phantom Stranger, who stole magic from an alternate universe of Lovecraftian gods in prehistoric times, eventually founding a tribe of magic-users that today accounts for ten percent of the population. This DCU is devoid of the heroes of the normal DCU, but various magical and magic-adjacent heroes fill its pages: Warlord's Jennifer Morgan, Brother Power, Deadman, Klarion the Witch Boy, Madame Xandadu and, somewhat oddly, The Challengers of the Unknown.

I'm curious if Zatana was off-limis to Dixon for some reason, as the version of Jennifer Morgan that appears in here seems to be written as Zatanna in an earlier draft, her name, hair color and way of doing magic re-written at some point.

It's an interesting-enough alternate history, but it mainly seems to exist as a way to keep some pretty obscure DC characters in usage, and, again, as a showcase for Baretto's artwork.

Flashpoint is also a bit of alternate history, although it is of perhaps greatest interest because Geoff Johns recycled the title for his big 2011 crossover story, the one that ultimately ushered in the New 52 and a decade of extremely confusing continuity at DC.

In this Flashpoint, written by Pat McGreal and drawn by Norm Breyfogle, Flash Barry Allen was the only superhero, but he lost the use of his body when he was struck by the "magic bullet" that was fired at President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Barry Allen foiled the assassination attempt—and JFK is still president as the millennium turns—but the super-fast superhero is now bound to a wheelchair. His mind still works at super-speed though, and so he lives on a space station and devotes himself to super-science with the input of his friend, Vandal Savage.

The story involves private investigator Ralph Dibny, a manhunter from Mars after an artifact that can summon the speed force, and glimpses to an alternate timeline where Allen is friends with the Martian and there are other colorfully-costumed heroes. 

I was, as I said, mainly interested in it for Breyfogle's' art work. He's so associated with Batman that it is always interesting to see him tackle different heroes and settings other than Gotham City, and while there's less super-heroics in this than in many superhero comics, his highly-expressive and dynamic art style is a great fit for The Flash.

The final story in the collection is Green Lantern: 1001 Emerald Nights, by writer Terry LoBan and artist Rebeca Guay, two creators I am unfamiliar with. It is, exactly as it sounds, something of a mash-up between the Green Lantern franchise and 1001 Nights

Here Prince Ibn Rayner is the sultan who spends each night with a different girl, only to have her killed the next morning—but, being a good guy, it is actually his wicked vizier responsible for the scheme. Kyle, er, Ibn is ignorant of it. Scheherazade, who wields the power of the Green Lanterns, comes to assassinate him one night, until she realizes he's ignorant of what's being done in his name.

So she tells him stories with cliffhanger endings that prolong their nights together, stories starring a poor fisherman who finds a magic green lamp with a genie in it, a fisherman named Al Jhor Dan. After several adventures with his genie, who Guay paints to resemble Kilowog, Jhor Dan and Scheherazade have inspired Rayner to be a good ruler, and to stand up to and ultimately defeat his vizier.

It's a pretty weird smooshing together of two things that don't quite belong together, despite the similarities of a wish-granting genie and a wish-granting ring, and I'm actually kind of curious if the outdated orientalism of the proceedings proved offensive to anyone at the time of original release...although, I suppose, orientalism was pretty key to the Western 1001 Nights anyway, and there's a long, long tradition of a white washed Middle East present in previous adaptations of those stories.

Guay's fully-painted art is pretty extraordinary though, and, like every other story in this collection, is remarkable enough to justify the existence of the story. 

Saturday, October 16, 2021

DC's January previews reviewed

I'm always all for new Batman villains, like this one appearing on the cover of Batman #119 called Abyss, but doesn't Batman already have enough grim reaper-esque bad guys armed with scythes, between The Reaper and The Phantasm...? 

Chip Zdarsky and Carmine Di Giandomenico's Batman: The Knight #1 kicks off a 10-part series about Batman's origin, specifically, how he went from the murder of his parents to Batman: Year One, or, as the solicit puts it, " his training to become Batman in this definitive series."

I've long thought that one of DC's best untold stories has just been sitting there, waiting for someone to write, an ongoing series devoted to Bruce Wayne's travels around the world, collecting various masters to train him in various fields he would need to eventually become the Batman. There are so many intriguing shorter stories from that period littered throughout the canon that it could be exciting for someone to try to unify them all and fill in the blanks. 

This doesn't look like it's quite that—for one it's only ten issues long, and Bruce trained under well more than ten masters that have been revealed in comics past at this point—but I think there is some room for concern that maybe it's better not to completely detail that portion of the Batman story, as not doing so leaves room for new revelations and new stories (The last canonical Batman comic I read, for example, introduced Ghost-Maker, a character specifically from that undefined period of Batman's life). 

Plus, like Wolverine's true origins over at Marvel, I suppose there's always an argument to be made that the exact specifics of Bruce Wayne's training is something better left to the imagination rather than established on paper.

Anyway, Batman: The Knight is a terribly unimaginative-sounding title, and I hope the story itself justifies the use of the title. Still, there are worse potential titles for such a story. Like, say for example, Batman Begins

I hate the way Lee Bermejo always draws Batman in dungarees so damn much. This is his cover for Detective Comics #1049.

Nice Riley Rossmo cover for Justice League Infinity #7.

Uh-oh. Justice League Vs. Legion of Super-Heroes #1 launches a six-issue miniseries by Brian Michale Bendis and artist Scott Godlweski that presumably ties-in to Bendis' Justice League run. But I never read Bendis' Legion of Super-Heroes comics. Or the second 2/3rds or so of his Superman comics. (I found Event Leviathan to be so dumb that it pretty instantaneously caused me to lose interest in Bendis' work in the DC Universe.)

I wonder if I'm going to be able to follow this, and/or follow Bendis' Justice League series, without having read the writer's earlier Superman and LOSH comics.

The Peacemaker: Disturbing The Peace #1 one-shot puts the insane superhero willing to commit almost any violent act in the name of peace into the hands of writer Garth Ennis, who seems fairly ideally suited to the character. Ennis will be collaborating with artist Garry Brown. This should be fun. I'm already disappointed it's only a one-shot.

I think this Superman: Son of Kal-El #7 cover would be funnier if the tentacles in the background were also holding up a sign. After all, anything living in the ocean is in just as great—if not greater—peril from climate change as those of us on the land. 

Speaking of comics I'm not sure I can follow, I think I'm at least one Super Sons miniseries behind (Challenge of the Super Sons, which isn't going to be available in trade until after this Superman and Robin Special #1  comes out), not have I read the Superman comics that explain how exactly Jon Kent got hyper-aged from Superboy to Superman...