Saturday, July 06, 2024

A Month of Wednesdays: June 2024

BOUGHT:

Shazam! Vol. 1: Meet the Captain!
(DC Comics)
 When it comes to an attempt to salvage DC's Captain Marvel character after nearly twenty years of often ill-conceived reboots and changes in direction, is there any creative team more deserving of trust than writer Mark Waid and artist Dan Mora, who have been responsible for what is pretty much the ideal Big Two super-comic in the form of Batman/Superman: World's Finest...

A few names may come to mind, but not many, especially if the book is going to be an ongoing affair, and one embedded in the broader DC Universe shared setting.

Waid does seem to be working with current continuity here, which means acknowledging and honoring Geoff Johns' New 52 reboot of the character and concept (at least in some manner), though he makes some changes. 

This means the wizard Shazam is still black (although MIA from the Rock of Eternity, and from this story, save in a brief flashback), Billy still makes his home in Philadelphia (well Fawcet City, anyway, which is now a suburb of Philly) and he has five other foster siblings he can share his powers with (well, he used to be able to share his powers with them; as a result of what an editorial box tells us was "The Lazarus Planet event," wherein "the world went kaflooey", he now can't share his powers...although Mary, now called Mary Marvel, has since gotten her own set of SHAZAM powers from her own set of feminine patrons, presumably in the pages of New Champion of Shazam!, which I confess I did not read).

Waid also, as the sub-title of the collection alludes to, tries to address the name of Captain Marvel/Shazam which, again, is something that's been going on for about 20 years now. The character's name is, of course, Captain Marvel, but ever since DC's revival of the character in 1973, they've been putting him in comics entitled Shazam! because, as I understand it, Marvel Comics copyrighted "Captain Marvel", applying it to a character they created while the original was in publishing limbo. 

The compromise DC had been using, at least between 1973 and the turn of the millennium or so, was to title books starring their Captain Marvel as something with Shazam in it (Shazam!: The Power of Hope, The Power of Shazam!, Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil, etc), while the character was named and called "Captain Marvel" within the pages of those books.

Around the time Geoff Johns was writing the character and his villain Black Adam in the pages of JSA and Judd Winick tried to revamp the characters in The Trials of Shazam!, DC seemed to make it official policy that the character's name was now going to be "Shazam", same as the name of the wizard who granted him his powers...and the magic word that transforms him.

I...don't know why this is. I think it's because Johns thought a lot of people thought the character's name was Shazam anyway, based on the Saturday morning live-action TV show that existed for a few years in the mid-seventies, but that strikes me as—what's the word?—dumb. All DC has done by giving in to the perceived ignorance of the broader audience is to reinforce the fact that said audience no longer knows the real name of one of the longest-lived and all-time most popular superheroes in publishing history. 

With Marvel recently reviving the name to apply to their Carold Danvers character, it seems like DC has finally ceded the argument to Marvel. Which, again, I think is dumb. Keep calling him "Captain Marvel" inside the books (and movies and cartoons).  Readers and viewers are sophisticated enough to understand that Batman isn't named Detective Comics, and they realize DC and Marvel share a few (granted, minor) characters with the same names; they can deal with two Captain Marvels, especially if one can claim to be the original. 

Anyway, Waid does try to address this, as it does need addressed, given that a Captain Marvel named "Shazam" can't even say his own name out loud, and the name-change has spillover effects onto his supporting cast. What were readers/viewers supposed to call Mary and Freddy's superhero identities, if not Mary Marvel and Captain Marvel Jr.? (Mary Shazam and Shazam Jr?) What about the other three "lieutenant" Marvels, Hector, Darla and Eugene? Did they ever get superhero codenames? (Confession: While I did read Johns and artist Gary Frank's Captain Marvel reboot, I didn't follow Johns' delayed 2019, 15-issue "ongoing" series; did the other kids ever get superhero names?)

Well Waid's compromise is that the hero formerly known as Captain Marvel and Shazam is now called simply "The Captain." 

To justify the change in-story, Mora draws a picture of Captain Marvel standing on a beach as a wave crashes near his feet, looking sullen and soaking wet. Behind him, Mary Marvel is saluting him and Freddy, here dressed in his old Captain Marvel Jr. costume rather than the New 52 costume he was wearing last go-round, is laughing.

Cap's narration kinda sorta explains, with just-get-it-over-with brevity:

My superhero name used to be "Shazam," same as the word. Which confused some people.

Freddy and Mary started calling me "Captain" after a little...maritime accident I really, really do not feel like getting into right this second.

I'm still annoyed by the mocking, but the name has caught on, and at least it's one I can say out loud.

Well, it's better than "Shazam", I guess, but I still say they should just call him Captain Marvel. Especially since they're apparently using the M-word in Mary's superhero identity (If you look closely at the text accompanying a panel depicting the Captain fan page that Billy and Freddy run, this apparently being the 21st century answer to Billy being a boy radio reporter, the words "Captain Marvel" appear a few times.)

With all that out of the way, how's the comic itself? Well, as one might expect given the track record of this particular creative team, jointly and separately, it's a pretty great comic starring a character that seems to prove pretty difficult for most creators to tackle...perhaps because so many of them feel a need to distinguish him from Superman as dramatically as possible.

Having revamped elements of the franchise as it was when he found it, Waid then proceeds to tell a story that would only work for this particular hero; that is, one derived from the hero's nature itself, rather than one of an external conflict attaching itself to him.

Waid has also settled on a tone that is somewhat lighter, perhaps even sillier, than most modern DC Comics, even his own World's Finest, which seems to be set in some sort of New Silver Age, an indeterminate amount of time in the two leads' past (Weirdly, Captain Marvel appears in the third volume of that series, suggesting he's been around at least since the days when Dick Grayson was Robin, although this book, if keeping Johns' Shazam! Vol. 1, New 52 origin would seem to suggest Captain Marvel's relatively new on the block).

For example, the very first panel has the Captain riding on the back of a rampaging dinosaur...who, it turns out, is a juvenile from a family of space dinosaurs whose spaceship, resembling a classic flying saucer, has crash-landed on Earth. To thank him for rescuing their young, they serve him tea. Later, a lawyer from the planet of space dinosaurs visits Billy's foster home, wearing a suit, top hat and monocle.

Later, talking gorillas will be heavily involved in the plot (Although, this is the DCU, and talking gorillas aren't all that unusual; the pages of The Flash have long-since established a secret city of them). 

The bit with the dinosaurs is presented as something of a typical adventure for the Captain, after which he retires to The Rock of Eternity, here presented as something akin to his own version of the Fortress of Solitude, where he meets Freddy. (And also narrates to us, giving us a quick rundown of his origin, the particular nature of his patron-based powers, the status quo for the franchise and the story quoted above about how he started being called "The Captain.")

Later, during another fairly typical superhero outting—saving people from collapsed buildings during an earthquake—he makes a very out-of-character outburst on live television. What's causing this? Psycho-Pirate? No, he discovers it's not that particular bad guy's fault when he busts the villain during a museum robbery, an adventure that also involves the Captain acting wildly out-of-character.

It turns out that his patrons—Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury—aren't terribly pleased with the way he has been representing them on Earth, and they are taking turns in the "driver's seat" when Billy is using their powers in Captain mode. When doing so, their own flaws and faults seep into the Captain just as their powers do, with usually disastrous results. 

Billy doesn't figure that out until in the middle of an adventure on the moon involving the aforementioned talking gorillas, old Justice League villain The Queen Bee, old Doom Patrol villain Garguax and Mary Marvel...and her wisdom of Minerva. 

It's then up to Billy and his siblings, who have raided the Captain's trophy room for the tools and weapons of other Fawcett Comics characters absorbed into the DCU, to take on the six mostly divine Shazam patrons for control over the champion. In the end, it's the wisdom of Solomon that helps Billy and the Captain resolve the conflict. Not just the fight, but the patrons' original objections, and their attempt to meddle with the Captain. 

As ever, Waid proves himself a fairly ideal writer for universe super-comics, possessing an encyclopedic knowledge of trivia (which one need not share to enjoy manifestations of, just know that when Waid mentions something like, say, "The New Squadron of Justice," rest assured he's making a reference to a comic from a lifetime ago) and a near unrivaled ability to "write within the lines" of continuity without having to "cheat" by modifying the characters or their histories to get to the  pre-determined Point B he wants. 

He also just seems to "get" and to genuinely like the character of Captain Marvel, and thus doesn't feel compelled to reinvent him or reinterpret him; long-time fans should be pleased with the results and find this a fairly seamless update of the original...no matter how far back you want to go for comparison's sake.

Mora similarly doesn't seem to be attempting to redefine the character visually. There's not much space between his version of the Captain and, for example, variant cover artist Samnee, who is very much working from the original C.C. Beck version of the character. 

While the Captain has his classic accessories to differentiate him from DC's other caped strongman character, the suit itself isn't rendered as anything armor-like or practical, but as a tight bodystocking that might just as well be spandex or body paint. 

The lightning bolt on his chest now resembles the classic icon, and no longer looks like some sort of weird battery compartment in a hollow barrel chest. Nor does it shine luminescent white, emit Kirby dots, or constantly generate fields of lightning (though you'll not a lightning bolt crackling across it on Mora's cover to the trade, taken from the cover for issue #1). Finally, the cape has a collar, not a hood, so DC has relaxed on that weird element of their New 52 design for the character.

Although one could argue that Captain Marvel could perhaps use a cartoonier style applied to him, Mora's fairly realistic style stretches and jolts in just the right ways, placing this firmly within the spectrum of a DC house style, and looking well within the bounds of a DCU comic. The realism is especially effective when it comes to drawing the spectacular, like the tiger head atop Mr. Tawky Tawny (who is apparently now a manservant, er, tigerservant for Billy's household) or the ferocious-looking space dinosaurs, for whom the addition of a top hat or monocle are only all the more striking. 

I don't read nearly enough DC comics to confidentially assert that this is the best or even one of the better ones they publish these days, but I know I had the most fun reading this than I've had reading any super-comic since Waid and Mora's own work on World's Finest

It's certainly nice to see a take on the Captain Marvel character that genuinely works for DC. Let's hope the publisher—and the rather busy team of Waid and Mora—can keep it going for a while now. 


BORROWED:

Batman: Wayne Family Adventures Vol. 4 (DC Comics) The latest collection of writer CRC Payne and artist Starbite's Webtoon comic strip Wayne Family Adventures seems somewhat more focused on the extended Batman family than the previous collections, as indicated by the huge swathe of the DC Universe that appears on the cover (some of whom, it may be disappointing for Martian Manhunter or Booster Gold fans to learn, do not actually appear in any of the comics contained within). 

So we have Red Hood bringing "The Outlaws" Artemis and Bizarro to the Batcave for a quick stop that ends up turning into a long visit. We have Batman teaming up with Green Lantern Hal Jordan (the latter of whom is annoyed by the seemingly endless contents of the former's utility belt) and Aquaman tracking Black Manta to Gotham and meeting a host of Batman's lieutenants ("So all those times you said you worked alone..."). 

We have Nightwing and Flash Wally West (wearing an out-of-date version of his costume, of course; Wayne Family Adventures apparently being frozen somewhere in the late "Rebirth" period of DC continuity) experimenting with new ways for speedsters to carry their friends, beyond the standard "cradle" or "piggyback". We have Black Canary recruiting Catwoman and the Birds of Prey to pull off a heist. We have off-duty "Super Sons" Jon Kent and Damian Wayne visiting Clark Kent and Lois Lane at The Daily Planet

We even have a completely Bat Family-free "Superman: Kent Family Adventures" strip, wherein Clark Kent visits the Kent family farm to teach Superboy Conner Kent how to shave with heat vision (which no, doesn't actually make sense if it's heat and not a laser, but whatever).

As ever, Payne uses the short, comic strip format of the webcomic to tell either funny stories built around the characters' personalities, or sharp, insightful stories that get to the core of a character or explore some dramatic conflict in their background. Sometimes she even manages to do both in a single strip. 

That's a large part of what makes this particular volume so appealing, as we see Payne's skills with characterization extended to new characters beyond the core cast. 

As much as I would enjoy seeing what Payne could do with a full 20 or 22-page comic book script at some point, or seeing the feature updated a bit to match the current status quo of the characters (Cassandra resuming her Batgirl codename and costume, Tim Drake resuming his Robin codename and costume), I would hate it if Wayne Family Adventures ever actually ended.

It remains, in my opinion, the one Batman comic everyone should be reading. 

And the good news? Everyone can do so for absolutely free by clicking to webtoons.com. But me, I can't get into reading the comics in that weird, spacious, scrolling format. I'm more than content to wait for the trade, in which DC assembles the art into a more traditional, easier-for-me, grid-like comics format. 


Dark Crisis: Young Justice (DC) I picked up this collection of the 2022 miniseries, a tie-in to line-wide event series Dark Crisis-turned-Dark Crisis on Infinite Earths, because of the niggling sense of missing something I experienced while reading Kenny Porter and Jahnoy Lindsay's Superboy: The Man of Tomorrow collection (reviewed in the previous column).

That post-DCOIE series was premised on the fact that Superboy Kon-El/Conner Kent had been bumped out of the universe at some point and returned, only to find that the world had moved on without him and he was no longer sure of his place in it. Despite having read comics featuring the character off and on since his 1993 debut, I had no idea what they were talking about, and assumed the place to look would be this six-issue miniseries starring Conner and some of his Young Justice teammates, which did include he, Impulse and Robin Tim Drake all being temporarily extracted from the main DC Universe.

Well, the Meghan Fitzmartin-written, Laura Braga-drawn series did not seem to satisfy that niggling feeling from the Superboy series, as it doesn't really explain that book's premise at all. Superboy was MIA from the DCU between issues of DCOIE, and for less time than Superman and the other Justice Leaguers were presumed dead (the series begins with the Young Justice heroes among a crowd gathered at the Hall of Justice to mourn the JLA, lost during the events of Dark Crisis, I guess, and it concludes with this book's iteration of Young Justice, missing the characters picked-up during the Brian Michael Bendis-written last volume of the series, going into the climactic battle at the end of Dark Crisis).

While there's no real count as to how long they're gone, it's closer to days than weeks, and, if the world had moved on without them during that time, then Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the others would have all been in the same boat as Superboy. 

So while it didn't answer my continuity questions, how was it taken on its own terms as a story?

Well. Let's just so say "not great"...and that's despite offering a degree of nostalgia for a time when I was an attentive, engaged and excited regular reader of DCU comics and most thoroughly invested in the shared setting of the publisher's comics line (The late '90s, when Grant Morrison was still writing JLA and Peter David, Todd Nauck and Larry Stucker first launched Young Justice). 

The boys—Robin, Impulse and Superboy—all suddenly vanish from the Hall of Justice, seemingly mid-conversation with Wonder Girl Cassie Sandsmark and Cissie King-Jones, the now-retired from superheroics Arrowette (Other members of the original Young Justice, and members from the latest iteration are missing for some reason.) The boys then all reawaken in what would seem to be the late-nineties of their own continuities, a fact reinforced on the reader when Impulse uses his super-speed to do a quick lap of America and sees Artemis, Zauriel, Green Lantern Kyle Rayner and Green Arrow Connor Hawke.

No sooner do they meet up and try to figure out what's happening to them then they're called into battle, with The Mighty Endowed, an extremely minor, and not terribly well-conceived, villain from Young Justice #1. Then Wonder Girl, looking like she did around issue Young Justice #20 or so (post-wig), shows up and puts down the bad guy. 

It quickly becomes apparent that there's something wrong with the world the boys find themselves in—Robin can't search back in history farther than the Death of Superman, Impulse glimpses fundamental problems with its nature when moving at super-speed—but there is a temptation to just give in to the world. After all, isn't it the way things could have been, or perhaps should have been?

Fitzmartin cranks up the too-good-to-be-true nature of the world during a visit to the JLA's lunar Watchtower, where Superman, Batman and The Flash all tell the boys in three parallel scenes that they are going to be their chosen successors (Batman also makes a creepy comment to Robin about how marrying Spoiler is Robin's destiny, and his dating Bernard is just a phase). That's followed up almost immediately with an attack by a trio of villains that seem gathered together just so the three young heroes can get their revenge on them: Deathstroke, Lex Luthor and an old and out of shape, Identity Crisis-style Captain Boomerang). 

While all of this is going on in a strange parallel world, the other Wonder Girl, the one we saw with Cissie and the boys in the first issue, has been desperately trying to find them. The other heroes don't seem too incredibly concerned about the fact that they're missing, mostly assuming that they've gone off to be alone to process their feelings about the Justice League dying...that, or the heroes are all too busy trying to defend their cities and world now that the League is no more (These scenes kinda reinforce the eventually-revealed bad guy's point that the real world hasn't done right by the Young Justice heroes, to the point that it sometimes almost literally forgets about them in its churn of new stories...and, of course, Tim Drake going missing isn't as noticeable today as it might have been in 1998; now he's not Batman's only sidekick, but one of, like, a dozen or so...he's not even the only Robin). 

Cassie recruits a reluctant Cissie to help her—a Cissie who is written so reluctant, and so down on the old days in general that I suspected she was actually the villain in disguise, trying to throw Wonder Girl off the trail in the same way the other world's Wonder Girl seems to be trying to distract the boys—and eventually they recruit one-time Young Justice mentor Red Tornado in their quest.

The villain of the piece, which I knew before I ever cracked the cover of this book because the solicitation for issue #5 spoiled his identity on the cover, is, of course (and you should stop reading this sentence if you don't want to be spoiled) Mickey Mxyzptlk, the son of Superman villain and nigh-omnipotent fifth-dimensional imp Mr. Mxyzptlk.

Apparently, Mickey is a big fan of the original Young Justice line-up—as in, like that of the first three issues, as he says they started to go wrong when the girls were introduced, but that was the fourth issue of the series—and he thinks the DCU has treated them unfairly over the years. 

So he created a brand-new world for them much like theirs was at one point, and then tried to make it into a perfect world for them, one where they weren't shoved aside by new Superboys and Robins and Kid Flashes, and where they didn't get lost in a crowd of new sidekicks. 

There also seems to be a bit of a negative reaction to the diversity of the current DCU on his part, as when Mickey gives a speech about the fact that the Young Justice guys have been replaced "with people who don't have any right to be here...I'm sorry, I don't care about these guys", the background is filled with mostly gay or trans characters (Batwoman, Green Lantern Alan Scott, Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy, Dreamer, Bernard) or characters of color (Nubia, Batman Tim Fox), all characters who emphatically did not replace them in the same way that, say, Damian Wayne, Jon Kent and the new (and black) Wally West did replace them.

So Mickey is meant to be a stand-in for readers who complain about the evolving DC Universe and explicitly want stories like those they had when they were younger, featuring the same heroes, but while Fitzmartin is on relatively strong ground using him as a symbol for a certain kind of reader (albeit a clunkily obvious symbol), there's an implied criticism attributed to Mickey and, by extension, nostalgic readers like him: That they're sexist, racist and intolerant of LGBT people....or, at least, characters. One wonders why Fitzmartin didn't make that criticism a little stronger, especially considering the anvil-drop subtlety of Mickey being a nostalgia-obsessed fanboy. 

(To give the character a little more solid, less-meta reason for his actions, Fitzmartin also has Mickey say at one point that his father Mr. Mxyzptlk promised to give him control of the Fifth Dimension when his generation of heroes, meaning Superboy, Robin and Impulse, grew up and assumed the mantles of Superman, Batman and The Flash...something they're no longer even in line for anymore). 

The criticism that Fitzmartin (and publisher DC) level isn't limited to just a certain type of fan or reader, though. Fitzmartin also seems to have a somewhat embarrassed if not negative view of the original Young Justice series itself, as the three male leads gradually but continually notice the ideal, just-for-them world they awoke in is a little crasser, a little more juvenile, and a little more sexist than the "real" world, the current DCU. 

It's not just Batman dismissing Tim's bisexuality as "a phase," which is certainly meant to be the influence of Mickey on "his" version of Batman, but you see it in the character's unearthed (The Mighty Endowed, for example) and the boys themselves (Impulse says something about enjoying the view when he sees the fake Wonder Girl wrestling The Mighty Endowed, and then catches himself with "Woah. Wait. What? What did I just say?", to which Superboy merely replies "The old Bart is back!" Which is...weird, because the "old" Bart was mostly pre-pubescent and not terribly interested in girls, not like the girl-obsessed and at-times even lecherous, though still chaste, Superboy of the '90s).

A lot of Cissie's commentary, which ends up being genuine and not the work of Mickey trying to manipulate the real world in the same way he manipulated the one he created, is genuinely bitter, and her memories of her time in the Young Justice series are almost uniformly negative. It's honestly...weird. Particularly since they don't seem to line up with her views as she expressed them during the time that the series played out. It's almost as if Fitzmartin only read the first handful of issues of the original title.

The meta-criticism of the negative aspects of fan culture and of the original Young Justice run aside (and yeah, that's a lot to put aside) Fitzmartin and Braga's book just isn't too terribly good, whiffing on the basic stuff like superheroes fighting one another that a comic targeting other comics as not-up-to-snuff should make sure it gets at least as right as those comics did.  If your superhero comic book is going to be about how other comic books weren't that good, in other words, you better damn well make sure it's a better-made comic. 

And it's not.

For example, the fake Lex Luthor compliments Superboy's left hook...right after a panel in which the art shows Superboy punching him with his right hand. 

Or the rather interminable scene where Superboy, Robin and Impulse fight the combined might of the Morrison-era JLA and the late-nineties, adjective-less Titans, and, somehow, manage to hold their own for, like, a dozen pages. No one uses any of their powers in any way that is imaginative, or even interesting. They all just trade punches, the Young Justice boys talking to each other while batting down Martian Manhunter, Big Barda and so on. Sure, they have home-book advantage, and maybe Mickey is putting his thumb on the scale to keep them in the fight, but Superboy, Robin and Impulse taking on the entire JLA and Titans should at least be...something to read, not just background noise. 

In the end, after the characters all apologize for the way they treated one another and/or were written over the years, Bart, who has been vocally upset about his characterization, unspools a deus ex machina of a plan that sounds a bit like the sort of science gobbledygook a Silver Age DC hero might come up with to end their story, and the team unites to put it into action, trapping Mickey. (Having repeatedly boasted that he was smarter than his father, they don't really attempt to trick him into saying his name backwards but instead fight him with brute force until Impulse comes up with a plan; this is, to say the least, lame. The whole appeal of a character like Mxyzptlk is seeing new riffs on an established theme).

That finally settled, the six heroes—the boys, Wonder Girl, Red Tornado and a plainclothes Cissie—join a battle already in progress at the Hall of Justice, apparently part of the climax of Dark Crisis on Infinite Earths

Structurally, the book is sound, and it's written in a way that it can be consumed without one having to know much of anything about Dark Crisis beyond the fact that the Justice League is presumed dead, but it's messaging is...I don't know. It's awkward, and stridently critical, without being quite strident enough in places (That is, Mickey's anti-gay stance being implied on that one page). 

As someone who has been with Young Justice for two volumes and thirty-some years now, a Young Justice-branded comic taking umbrage with the first, foundational volume and the last few decades worth of characterization of these characters in that book and others (Teen Titans, their solo series, etc) felt sort of...icky to me.

Was Peter David's series perfect? God no. How about what Geoff Johns and others did with the characters after David's light-hearted, comedically toned book ended? No, no, certainly not. But did DC really need to make a book apologizing for David's, Johns' and others' work on the characters? Not really.

I mean, the best way to make up for the deficiencies in past books is to just make new, good comics featuring those concepts and characters. That's what Bendis and company attempted in their Young Justice revival and, I think, succeeded at doing more than they failed (Again it's worth noting that this book seems to take place in a continuity where Bendis' run never happened, the characters he added to the team being conspicuous in their absence. Did Fitzmartin not know there was a second volume of the series, one that introduced several more female characters and another one of color?). 

Comics about other people's comics, using the shared characters as such obvious mouthpieces for the writer, just feel a little wrong to me. Especially when they are critical of those other comics creators' works, and especially when they don't have anything to add, or even much in the way of unique virtues of their own—cool fight scenes, imaginative plotting, insightful characterization—to justify their own existence. 

Instead, this is a competently made comic with confounding messaging. In part, it seems to be a criticism of fan nostalgia for late-90's comics like Young Justice, but it also reads like a Young Justice comic book whose moral is that Young Justice comics suck.

I certainly wouldn't recommend Dark Crisis: Young Justice to any fan of Young Justice....or of Robin, Superboy, Impulse or Wonder Girl. 

But then, who else would even be interested in such a book...? 


Nancy's Genius Plan (Andrews McMeel Publishing) If you've been checking out my blog over the last few months, then you know I've been reading a lot of works related to cartoonist Ernie Bushmiller and his comic strip creation Nancy, mostly in preparation for or reaction to Ohio State University's Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum's Memorial Day weekend Nancy Fest

Well in scouring my local library for whatever Nancy books they happened to have, I came across this book, which looked to be a Nancy picture book from current, controversial Nancy cartoonist Olivia Jaimes. So what the hell, might as well be a Nancy completist, right? I went ahead and ordered it. 

It turns out that the 2019 book is a board book, meaning that it's geared towards a very young audience; if not babies, per se, then at least young readers who are awfully rough on books, up to and including putting them in their mouths.

The plot is simplicity itself. Auth Fritzi has just made cornbread for Nancy and her friends to share (Here that means not only Sluggo, but also Jaimes' additions to the strip, Esther and twins Agnes and Lucy). Nancy would rather eat it all herself. To do that, she had a "genius" plan, one that involves the complicity of the young reader, who, in typical interactive board book fashion, in asked to play their part by doing things like knocking on a picture of a window, turning the book upside down at one point, and violently shaking it at another.

In the end, though Nancy's plan succeeds, she realizes eating the cornbread alone would be lonely, so she again enlists the reader's help to summon the other characters to the kitchen to join her.

It's not terribly funny, but it does have what Jaimes would say is a "nice shape" to it, and it manages to be both a Nancy story and an appealing interactive book for the youngest of readers. 

Jaimes' Nancy art lacks the perfection and draftsmanship of Nancy's creator Bushmiller, and it has a thin-lined, almost mechanical look to it, which is easier to appreciate and dissect in the bigger format offered by this board book, where each implied "panel" is the size of a page of the book, or in one instance, a two-page spread. 

Recommended for Nancy fans who want to try to inspire the youngest readers to become Nancy fans themselves, and/or Nancy completists. 



Steelworks
(DC)
The upper left-hand corner of this collection's cover proclaims that it is "Written By Sci-Fi Icon And The Voice of Steel: Michael Doran!" "Ooh," I thought, "Sci-fi icon? Is this some famous science-fiction writer I've never heard of, with a podcast about Steel that DC recruited to write a comic about the character?"

I thought that, of course, because of one of my own significant geek-culture blindspots. Shocking as it may be for a guy whose been reading and writing about comics for over 30 years now, I have absolutely no experience with any iteration of Star Trek

Micheal Dorn is, as I imagine many of you already know, the actor who played the popular Klingon character Worf in Star Trek: The Next Generation (as well as its film adaptations and several later Star Trek series).  As for "The Voice of Steel" bit, he literally voiced the character in the 1996-2000 Superman: The Animated Series, where the character appeared in all of two episodes. 

I was not as excited as whoever wrote the cover blurb seemed to be. Creators from outside of comics are a notoriously iffy group of individuals to tackle the super-comics subgenre, as they occasionally do. Skill (and sometimes quite significant skill) in one type of writing doesn't always translate to the comics medium. And here Dorn isn't even a writer, but an actor (Although, according to his IMDb page, he did write a 2002 made-for-TV movie, Through the Fire, so scripting a Steel mini-series wouldn't exactly be his first time in front of a keyboard or anything).

I was therefore quite pleasantly surprised to find that Dorn showed no tell-tale signs of a new-to-comics writer, and that the comic with his name on it wasn't just quite readable, but of quality quite comparable to any of the other recent DC Comics collections I've read of late (Say, for example, any of those reviewed in this column; Hell, Steelworks was head and shoulder above Dark Crisis: Young Justice, written by one of those writers who came to comics from another medium, TV and animation writer Meghan Fitzmartin, who seemed pretty unfamiliar with the characters she was writing and the books hers was commenting on/criticizing). 

Though Dorn gets top billing on the cover, alongside artists Sami Basri and Vicente Cifuentes and colorist Andrew Dalhouse, the collection of the six-issue Steelworks mini-series actually opens with a 30-page prequel story ("Steel: Engineer of Tomorrow") taken from a series of back-ups that ran in Action Comics #1054-#1056

These are written by Dorado Quick and drawn by Yasmín Flores Montañez, and they detail elder Steel John Henry Irons and his niece (and the younger Steel) Natasha Irons attempting to set-up their new Steelworks headquarters and project, which involves fighting a cyborg named Amalgam, pitching an energy-generating forcefield and an army of helpful robots (?!) to a board of businesspeople and a meeting with Mr. Terrific Michael Holt, who it is revealed is both a friend of Steels as well as an investor in his new company. 

This flows quite seamlessly into the first issue of Steelworks, which opens with John Henry Irons unveiling Steelworks, with an appearance by Superman and the whole Super Family in their matching uniform jackets (a six-panel column on the lefthand side of a two-page spread would briefly recount Steel's origins in a few words and iconic images).

One therefore expects a strong editorial guiding hand was involved in the book, given that it fits into the Superman line of comics so easily, and even seems to involve the extremely messy Superman continuity of the oh, say, last eight years or so, not only following on the heels of the Superman-on-Warworld epic, but also the events of 2016-2018 Superwoman series, which established John Henry as a supporting character of star Lana Lang's...and her romantic interest. 

With Steelworks, John Henry is attempting to unveil a new, limitless, free energy source that will power the city of Metropolis (and/or the world), a technology apparently based on something Superman brought back from Warworld. He's also trying to prepare for a time in which superheroes are no longer necessary, which means not only he and Natasha hanging up their hammers, but the whole Super Family eventually hanging up their capes and spiffy new matching jackets. 

Some of that is a direct result of the nature of the energy source, which seems to have adverse effects on the Super-people's powers, and some of it is the result of Steel contemplating his future, a future that involves him marrying Lana, who is now his fiancée. (There's a pretty neat moment wherein Steel contemplates the story of his namesake, folk hero John Henry Irons, and the message of that story. Is it really about never giving up and humanity's power to challenge the machine or is it the story of a man throwing his life away in a battle he was never going to truly win?).

Making energy free will, of course, attract the attention of the powers-that-be who profit off of selling it, and here they are personified by Charles Walker III, who, when he first appears in the back of a limo, I took to be the Toyman, whom he looks like a cleaner, more dressed-up version of. In fact, he is apparently the CEO of Amertek Industries, the company that John Henry Irons worked as for an engineer and would make the "Toastmasters" guns based on his designs and, in the pages of the old Steel ongoing, later make battle-suits based on the Steel suit designs. 

Amertek would apparently eventually go belly-up after Irons very publicly left due to moral concerns, and Walker continues to blame Irons/Steel for his business failures. He recruits another former Amertek employee, down on his luck Shawn Kerry, and gives him phasing super-powers, a costume and the new name The Silver Mist to attacks Steelworks and steal the energy source before it can be unveiled.

This will eventually result in a climax in which Steel must fight a giant robot piloted by Walker, one whose energy source is too dangerous for the other members of the Super Family to tackle, meaning it's up to the two Steels and the newly re-powered Superwoman to tackle it. 

The Super Family seems to all blend together into a colorful but indistinct character blob a bit, although I don't think that's a unique fault of Dorn's, as it was also a bit of a problem in the trade paperback introducing them, Joshua Williamson's Superman: Action Comics Vol. 1—Rise of Metallo. I'm not sure DC has quite figured out how to juggle this new super-team, which, for all I know, is a temporary status quo that's meant to feel a bit unwieldy (what they could really use is their own version of CRC Payne and artist Starbite's Wayne Family Adventures). Of them, only Superman and Superboy Conner Kent/Kon-El seem to get much in the way of panel-time or stand-out moments (Superboy prominently appears alongside Nat in the opening story, the one from the Action Comics back-ups).

Sam Basri starts out as the solo artist in the book on the first issue but will eventually pick up Vicente Cifuentes and Max Raynor as fellow artists, as soon as the second issue. All of the artists seem to have a strong handle on the character designs of the expansive cast (although it can here be a challenge to keep the various teenage Supermen Conner Kent, Jon Kent and former "New Superman" Kenan Kong visually distinct).

The interiors of Steelworks, where much of the book is set, have an expansive, airy feel to them, and Metropolis feels like a nice, clean big city with one foot in the future. 

Overall, this seems like a fine spotlight for a great character, re-positioning him not as a sort of secondary or lieutenant version of Superman (although that's how he seems to appear in the Super-books), but more as a sort of good guy opposite version of Lex Luthor: A brilliant scientist and businessman (and bald guy) devoted to reshaping Metropolis in his image, and occasionally donning a high-tech battle suit to go into action himself. 

The original issues of the comic of course shipped with several variant covers, as all comics seem to do these days, and two of special note include a first issue one by Steel co-creator Jon Bogdanove (above), featuring a fairly straight but iconic version of the character in flight (Bogdanove would also contribute a cover to issue #6), and another by artists V. Ken Marion, Danny Miki and Brad Anderson, depicting Steel leading a whole host of '90s DC characters, including Green Lantern Kyle Rayner, Green Arrow Connor Hawke, Warrior Guy Gardner, Jade and others...even Bloodwynd!
(Seriously, when was the last time you thought about Bloodwynd?)



Titans Vol. 1: Out of the Shadows (DC) The latest entry in a long line of comics premised on the grown-up version of the Teen Titans reuniting as adult heroes differs from the previous series in a couple of important ways.

Perhaps most importantly is that this time the Titans are reforming, they are doing so in a world without a Justice League, which makes them the world's premiere superhero team for the first time in their history, a passing-of-the-torch moment that will seemingly finally realize the characters' never-meant-to-actually-be moment of taking over for their mentors (Whether the League is no more because of a plot point in the Brian Michael Bendis-written run on the last volume of Justice League, which I didn't read, or the Joshual Willamson-written "death" of the team in the final issues of that title that tied into Dark Crisis, which I also didn't read, I have no idea; Nightwing simply refers to the League as "disbanded" at one point.)

The other difference? This iteration of a Titans book is being written by the same guy who's currently writing the Nightwing solo series, giving the book a more tied-in and official feel than other past books, where the writer was destined to be, if not hamstrung, then at least bound by what was going on in the Batman books at any given time (Indeed, the text on the back of the trade paperback refers to Titans as a sort of spin-off of Nightwing.)

That writer is, of course, Tom Taylor, a fan-favorite who has some extremely solid work on his resume at this point, including the much-better-than-it-ever-had-any-reason-to-be video game spin-off series Injustice, which often featured very sharp, insightful characterization among its hammer-dumb plot points. 

Unfortunately, Taylor doesn't seem to have done much with the whole taking-over-for-the-Justice League thing, at least not in this first volume. Assembling a team to replace the JLA, Nightwing just picks his friends, and the characters you would expect to find in such a Titans revival, some of the team's founders (Codename-less Donna Troy, The Flash Wally West) and the characters from the popular The New Teen Titans/New Titans era (Raven, Cyborg, Starfire and Beast Boy). 

As for Tempest, he's in the book if not on the team yet, and as for Arsenal, he's completely MIA and goes unmentioned; last time I saw him, in the pages of the new Green Arrow, he was apparently shot to death. 

The new version of Swamp Thing, Levi Kamei, does make a surprise appearance at one point, and is asked to join the team, at least on a part-time basis ("We're not expecting you to move into the tower and hang out on our couch," Nightwing tells him).

The team is about to move into their latest T-shaped tower headquarters, this time based in Bludhaven, when Oracle calls them away on a mission: Titano is attacking a nuclear power plant. They solve the problem, but then have a tense conversation with Peacemaker (who is now apparently Amanda Waller's number one lieutenant). He tells them that "unknown forces are attempting to cause enormous ecological damage to the world," and not much later, they're summoned to another such attack, this time in Borneo, where there's a huge burning crater in the rain forest.

Meanwhile, between missions they find Wally West's dead body at the tower...just before a very much alive Wally West shows up (Apparently, The Flash was murdered a few days in the future and traveled back in time so his friends could solve, and hopefully prevent, that murder.)

As for the villain of the piece, it is somewhat disappointingly an old Titans villain, Brother Blood and the Church of Blood, now claiming to have gone legit and rebranded as Brother Eternity and the Church of Eternity. To help make his case, he has allied himself with former Titan Tempest, who was first seen in the book rejecting Nightwing and Donna's efforts to recruit him to the new team ("I'm already working with someone," he rebuffed them). 

The one place where the book does seem to address the Titans' new roles as the world's protectors—and to differentiate itself from most such super-team books—is in Beast Boy's encouraging the team to do more in an attempt to save the world, which Tempest says at several different points is in great danger, if not headed toward certain doom, because of environmental degradation and the threat that continued use of fossil fuels poses for the climate ("We're supposed to protect the world," Beast Boy tells his teammates. "Well, we put out a fire. But the forest is still gone. Is this all the Titans are going to do? Fight the symptoms?")

It's admirable that Taylor brings up the fragile state of the world and writes superheroes attempting to address it, although his messaging doesn't seem to be urgent enough. The world really is in great danger and it (and humanity) may in fact actually already be doomed; it would be nice to see a super-book really tackling those problems, but none of the characters really talk about fossil fuels or capitalism or denialism or anything. Instead, they recruit Swamp Thing to help them regrow the parts of the forest that were destroyed in an earlier scene. 

Like I said, it's heartening to see Taylor addressing the environmental problems facing the real world at all, but it would be even more heartening if he went harder on this subject.

Overall, it's quite well-written superhero drama, with a lot of potential, given both the long history of these characters with one another, what one assumes must be the inherent weirdness of re-teaming (imagine moving into a house with all of your childhood best friends and starting a new job together), and the whole idea of being the new iteration of the Justice League and the world's primary heroes which, like I said, is touched on a few times, but not really explored in this first volume.

(One niggling thing I didn't get though? Beast Boy's powers seem to be different than I remembered them, or what I thought them to be. I thought he could just turn into any animal he wanted, so long as that animal is green. Here he is apparently able to become many different animals at the same time, including a swarm of bees, a bunch of ants and, near the climax, a forest full of different insects. Is this new? Also, there are at least two occasions where he simply seems to change his own default, humanoid shape, becoming a much bigger, stronger and toothier-looking version of himself.)

Visually, there is absolutely nothing to complain about. Taylor is paired with Nicola Scott, whose pencil art I enjoyed back during her run on Secret Six with Gail Simone, and who has only got better and better since, to the point where she's now head and shoulders above her own previous high standard. 

Not only is she a consummate super-comic artist, but she's excellent at rendering people's faces, to the point that all of her characters look like real people, and all look as different from one another as real people do. Such a realistic style evokes the work of Phil Jimenez and George Perez, and there is, of course, no better tradition for the artist of a Titans book to be working in.

I look forward to the future of this book, and hope both Taylor and Scott stick it out for a while yet—an occasional guest artist giving the latter a break now and then, of course. I understand Taylor's wrapping up his run on Nightwing, and I hope that doesn't impact his writing of the character in this book. 

Oh, and hopefully DC decides to keep the DCU Justice League-free for a while longer. Not simply because it seems like the franchise can use a rest, but because Taylor (and the publisher) have barely begun to explore what it might be like for another team and another set of heroes to try to fill the void not having a League creates, and that's a very rare, very interesting bit of storytelling geography to explore. 


World's Finest: Teen Titans (DC) Mark Waid apparently so enjoyed writing original Robin Dick Grayson and the original Teen Titans in the pages of his Batman/Superman: World's Finest series—particularly in the second volume, Strange Visitor, when the kids worked with new teen character Boy Thunder—that he spun them off into their own mini-series, keeping the "World's Finest" branding.

Rather than artist Dan Mora, who drew them in the pages of Batman/Superman, Waid is here working with artist Emanuela Lupacchino (Artists Chris Samnee and Evan "Doc" Shaner, both of whom would seemingly be ideal artists for such a series, contribute covers. How perfectly do the two artists seem to fit the book's vibe? Well, it's a Samnee image used for the collection cover, rather than one by Lupacchino). 

Like Mora, Lupacchino has a really realistic style, but with enough dynamic flexibility within it that she excels at both superhero action and occasionally over-the-top character acting. She's a pretty perfect collaborator for Waid on a book like this, if Samnee and Shaner are going to be limited to covers.

The story seems set relatively late in the run of the original 1966-1977 Teen Titans series, after both Mal Duncan and Bumblebee have joined the team.

To better orient one the series in Titans history, in the pages of this series, Bumblebee is already a full-fledged member, while Mal is a friend of Donna's who Bumblebee has an eye on. He does suit up as a superhero in the pages of the book, but not until after Bumblebee kinda sorta recruits him, so obviously Waid is playing with the ever-mushy continuity here. 

(As to the why of the change, I assume it was to get another woman and a person of color on the otherwise all-white line-up, given that this series isn't set in the 1960 or 1970s, but, like, 2014 or so, given DC's sliding timeline. They have cellphones, hashtags, drones and one of them even uses the word "sus" once...!)

Lilith (introduced in 1970) and Gnarrk (1971) both put in brief appearances, Robin referring to them as "Titans advance scouts." And the Titans' social media guy is Charley Parker, the one-time Golden Eagle who now refers to himself as "retired."

Waid presents the team, however many years they have been together at this point, as composed of five relatively self-confident, well-adjusted heroes, most of whom have good working relationships with their mentors...and then Speedy Roy Harper, who obviously has lot of issues, here seemingly stemming from his mentor Green Arrow's relative absences in his life (In a scene showing the other founding Titans all talking to their mentors, Speedy talks to a target dummy, pretending it's Green Arrow; as for the mentor-less Bumblebee, she chats with Parker). 

Though they all seem fairly fully formed as individuals, and as part of a team with their mentors, as the Teen Titans, they still seem riven with conflict (Despite easily taking down a weird cult in a matter of four pages in the opening chapter).

Speedy is openly derisive of Aqualad and seemingly covetous of Garth's new relationship with Wonder Girl. He's also the first to bring up the fact that they've all shared their secret identities with one another...except for Robin, who keeps his secret from them at Batman's insistence (Batman still doesn't seem sold on this whole Teen Titans team idea in the pages of this book). His showboating, like using drones to record the Titans' fights, grates on Robin, and Speedy is quick to point out to all the others that he's rich, so everything with him is fine. 

Despite having so much in common on paper ("They both come from mystical, magical realms steeped in deep-cut mythology," Bumblebee tells Roy, who calls the relationship "inexplicable."), as people, Garth and Donna seems worlds apart at this point, and are drifting even further. 

Meanwhile, Kid Flash Wally West keeps insisting that everyone's friends, a view of the team not all of his teammates seem to share, particularly Robin, who is having trouble holding them altogether.

Admirably, it's these relationships and the melodrama between the players that Waid focuses on, and Lupacchino seems so adept at drawing, rather than the exterior, fairly generic exterior superhero conflicts driving the plot.

These include a teen hero-turned-villain with an axe to grind against the Titans, the electricity-powered Haywire who doesn't mind breaking rules of law or morality in his pursuit of putting down villains (He seems to be a new, original creation of Waid and Lupacchino's, with no relation to the character who starred in a short-lived 1988 series by that name). He's putting together a new, anti-Titans team called "The Terror Titans", a team name borrowed from the Sean McKeever run on the 21st Century Teen Titans, here comprised of a mix of new characters who fight the team in this book (mage Toyboy) and others from the DC catalog (an upgraded early Teen Titans villain Ant, Infinity Inc villain Artemis). 

Along the way, there are some fun scenes like the team (sans Robin) attending a Teen Titans-specific convention and Wally hosting a sleepover with Garth and Roy (despite the fact that his parents don't know he or they are superheroes).

Though some of the conflicts driving the drama in the series are resolved (The team not knowing Robin's secret identity, Garth and Donna's relationship), others are left unresolved, perhaps because they are addressed in other storylines (Roy's sense of emptiness and relationship with Green Arrow presumably leads to his drug use in the pages of 1971's Green Lantern #85-#86 (during the time Hal Jordan was sharing the title with Green Arrow). As for a scene where Bumblebee seems to panic at the thought of being publicly unmasked ("Okay, there is definitely a story here", Wally says to Garth), I'm not sure if that was answered somewhere in pre-Caleb-reading-comics Titans history, or if it's something Waid might get to somewhere in the future, perhaps a second World's Finest: Teen Titans series.

I certainly wouldn't mind a second series exploring this less-seen part of Titans history, between their "Year One" origins and the famous New Teen Titans reboot of 1980. Nor would I object to Waid spinning off any other characters he writes in the pages of Batman/Superman: World's Finest into their own mini-series. World's Finest: Supergirl, World's Finest: Jimmy Olsen, World's Finest: Doom Patrol, Worlds' Finest: Metamorpho, World's Finest: Metal Men, World's Finest: Justice League, whatever. 

This volume includes a couple of character design sketches and a healthy, 18-page variant cover gallery including work from EDILW favorites like Mike Allred, Dan Mora and Jill Thompson.



REVIEWED:

Barda (DC Comics) What a time to be a fan of Jack Kirby's Big Barda, a fairly popular but relatively minor player in his New Gods/Fourth World saga. Not only is she now a member of the seemingly well-received latest iteration of Birds of Prey by Kelly Thompson and company, she also just got her very own solo story, in the form of an original YA graphic novel by acclaimed cartoonist Ngozi Ukazu (Check, Please!). I won't repeat myself gushing about it here—you can and should read my review at Good Comics For Kids—but it's a great story, and a relevant, interesting and (key for me) reverential take on Kirby's corner of the DC Universe. 

After I finished reviewing it, I poked around the Internet a little, as is my wont (I generally like to see if other people saw what I was seeing, on comics both good, like this one, and "Huh, they really published that?", like Dark Crisis: Young Justice...the latter of which I was glad to see I wasn't the only one who had...questions about).. 

What I found was a rather lovely essay by Ukazu at dc.comics.com about being introduced to Barda and Mister Miracle via a DC animated adaptation (and then, when she set out researching the book, becoming a Kirby super-fan), and a nice interview with her at Comic Book Couples Counseling

The story of her work on the characters and on the book (and in Kirby's shadow) seemed pretty interesting. Like, did you know she's the first black woman to both write and draw a comic for DC? And that she's only the third person to both write and draw the New Gods/Fourth World characters, following Walter Simonson (on 2000-2002's Orion) and Kirby himself? (Is this true? That sounds crazy. Are there not even any short stories by cartoonists tucked away in anthologies or back-ups over the last fifty-some years?)

Reading those above linked-to posts kinda made me wish I had pursued an interview with Ukazu instead simply reviewing the book (I'd like to ask about streamlining things like Barda's crazy hat, for example), but in the end I'm glad I wrote a review of it. For all of the interest in comic books on the Internet, there are way too few good places to find reviews of comics, especially super-comics, online these days. Believe me, I look all the time! (Feel free to give me recommendations, in case the Google algorithm isn't showing me the good stuff anymore). 

Anyway, if you have any interest in a re-interpretation of Kirby's singular vision for a new audience, check out Barda


Plain Jane and The Mermaid (First Second) Storyboard artist and children's picture book creator turned cartoonist Vera Brosgol offers an epic undersea adventure based on folklore and fairy tales, a tale that also serves as a meditation on the relative importance of one's physical appearance. More here


The Worst Ronin (HarperAlley) Maggie Tokuda-Hall and Faith Schaffer's original graphic novel offered me a pretty good reminder about judging books by their covers. I wasn't a big fan of Schaffer's art at first; there's a roughness to the character design and the rendering I found a little off-putting, and the fact that one of the main characters appears both in flashback and in the present, but with an entirely different look in the former, took me longer than I would have liked to realize they were just who was who. I'm glad I stuck with the book past the first few scenes though, as it is a rather winning one featuring female samurai and people of color in a remixed version of feudal Japan that is quite effective (and Schaffer's story-telling chops are superb, regardless of what I thought of her style at first.) More here

1 comment:

collectededitions said...

Spot on critique of Dark Crisis: Young Justice. I think the instance you mention of Superboy having been absent and then returning is in regards to his being trapped on Gemworld during the early issues of Brian Michael Bendis' Young Justice.