Friday, October 31, 2014

Happy Halloween! or My Humble Submission for a Captain America Redesign

Me, as a child (I don't know what age but it's gotta be a single-digit number) wearing my homemade Captain America costume. Not sure if it was a thing where my parents couldn't find an "official" one, or if those just didn't exist at the time, or if maybe I was so impatient to have a Captain America costume that they just made one to shut me up, but whatever the reason for its existence, I loved that outfit. There was also a shield that's not in the picture, made out of felt glued to a blue plastic trashcan lid. It was easily the best part, and I used that shield well after I'd outgrown the rest, most often for wooden swordfights. I don't think this was a Halloween costume, but it's me dressed up as a superhero, so it goes with the holiday and the blog. Final thought: dig that old ass TV in the background. How far we've come...

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Monthly Dose: October 2014

Monthly Dose is a semi-regular column where I read one issue each month of long-completed series.

100 Bullets #24: This "Red Prince Blues" storyline is moving awful slowly, but at least it's always moving. It creeps along but never stands still, and never lets go out the reader's attention, either. Most of it I liked, some of it I didn't care about, and there was one scene I feel sort of conflicted over, which I will now proceed to discuss at length in a probably pointless effort to make up my mind. It's four pages of Augustus Medici and an unnamed prostitute talking in his hotel room. They're both nude, so it's clearly post-coital, and...I'm not sure where I land on the treatment of the woman. Not by Augustus, because he treats her exactly as expected, like a prop he has no attachment to but still enjoys engaging with. And that's the point of the scene, that Augustus uses people, that he sees everyone as inferior to him and as his property, but still maintains a certain joy and zest for life. It's in everything he says, most of all his final line, "I am the power company." What troubles me is how Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso handle her, because I can't make up my mind on whether her presence is pornographic/disrespectful/sexist or tasteful/respectful/realistic. It might be all of those things. She's naked, and you see a lot of her ass and breasts, but you see Augustus' ass, too, probably more than hers, while both of their genitals stay hidden. And her nudity isn't the focus, nor is his, it's just a fact of the moment. Then again, she does have a borderline unbelievable hourglass figure, and her nipples stick way out, and there's a panel of her licking her lips with her tongue way out, so...maybe her nudity kind of is the focus, or at least her sexuality. But she's a prostitute, so having her be aggressive and attention-grabbing with her sexuality also makes sense. But also, couldn't Azzarello and Risso have shown us what kind of man Augustus is in some other way than having him pay for sex? Isn't that kind of an easy, almost gross narrative move? I could go on and on like this, ping-ponging around in my head, finding details to support every shade of both sides of the argument. I guess if it's this hard to decide how badly a character was treated, then it's safe to assume she wasn't treated as well as she could/should have been. Maybe it's not an overtly misogynistic scene, but its gender politics are questionable or worse. On a fully positive note, the issue's last panel is a knock-out punch from Risso. The size of the gun in Hank's hand, the terrified but determined look on his face, the moody shadows, the scary grin of the pawn shop owner...everything about it is just top notch work. Does it make up for the problems of the Augustus scene? Probably not, but it is a seriously superb closing beat for what was otherwise a solid issue.


Green Lantern: Emerald Dawn #6: This was a fantastic conclusion, followed by less-than-fantastic conclusion. Let me explain. The first 2/3 of this issue were all about Hal Jordan and the Green Lantern Corps fighting against the giant, amorphous, expanding blob of silvery goo that used to be Legion. They struggle against it futilely, try a few different strategies unsuccessfully, and find themselves seconds away from being totally overrun. The Guardians then order the Corps to retreat, deciding that sacrificing Oa is ok so long as they and their army of Lanterns can live on. Hal refuses to accept that, though, and instead of falling back with the rest of the group, he challenges the Guardians' decision. They try to convince him that he cannot defeat Legion alone, saying that while, yes, the Green Lanterns have access to immense power, it all comes from the central power battery, so each Lantern wields only a fraction of it. Hal hears this information and figures fine, if he needs more power, he can just go to the source. So he flies straight into the central battery, and emerges (in what is probably the best page of the whole series) bathed in green light he can barely contain, before unleashing it all on the Legion blob and winning the day singlehandedly. The Guardians are impressed but also nervous, disapproving of Hal's loose cannon attitude and afraid he'll influence the rest of the Corps, and that's pretty much where that part of the story ends. It's an awesome finish, filled with detailed action from M.D. Bright, who captures the fear and confusion of all the combatants as well as all the spectacle of the fight itself. Had Emerald Dawn stopped there, I think it might've made for a stronger finale, even though, admittedly, Hal's life on Earth still had some unfinished business. So Keith Giffen and Gerard Jones dutifully include a wrap-up for Hal's problems at home, and while it's not a bad ending in terms of what actually happens, it's considerably less exciting or interesting than the rest of this issue. Hal turns himself in, pleads guilty, and serves his time, only to be offered his old job back at Ferris Air when he gets out and, ultimately, getting to be a pilot again. It's nice to see, and facing up to his mistakes makes Hal into the fully heroic character he's never quite been up to now, which is important. Yet it still feels like the comic is petering out, the last few pages especially, which circle back and reference the beginning of the series where Hal's dad died while flying a plane. Hal goes through something similar but, this time, there's a better result. There's nothing wrong with the end of the issue per se, but compared to what precedes it, I'd call it dull at best. Even so, it's a satisfying last chapter, and it definitely accomplishes its primary goal of making me want more Green Lantern, since this mini led directly into what was at the time the new Green Lantern ongoing series. It took Emerald Dawn some time to find its footing, including a few shake-ups in the creative time and a generally slow-moving start, but in the back half of the series, and most of all in the final battle between Legion and the Corps that spanned last issue and this one, it grew into itself and became an excellent comicbook.


X-Force (vo1. 1) #24: Two weeks ago, if you'd asked me who Rusty and Skids were in the context of the Marvel Universe, I would've had absolutely nothing for you. Have I maybe ever seen them before? Sure, it's possible—I've met a lot of mutants in my time. But I definitely have zero recollection of any previous exposure to either character, and didn't know they existed until I read twelve issues of X-Factor for my CSBG column earlier this month. Both Skids and Rusty originated in that title (though not in the issues I read) and were major players in it, so I got to see a lot of them, and I liked them quite a bit. Skids especially has a weird and interesting mutant power. It made me wonder several times why I'd never hear of them, and why they weren't more popular characters. Fast forward to yesterday when I was doing my reading for this column, and the opening scene of this issue of X-Force involves a group of humans capturing two mutants I didn't recognize, named Russell Collins and Sally Blevins. I wondered if I was supposed to know those names, and then just two pages later, Cannonball identified them as Rusty and Skids. And I was like, "That's crazy," to myself. There they were, the same month I happened to have learned about them because I randomly decided now was the time to go ahead and review the X-Factor issues I've had on hand for like a year but kept not using because I did another Louise-Simonson-written series, Power Pack, for an earlier "1987 And All That" piece at the Chemical Box. It was a pretty convenient coincidence, because if I hadn't read those X-Factor issues, I would've had to Wikipedia Skids and Rusty just to know who they were when they showed up in X-Force. Why am I carrying on for SO LONG about this minor connection between two things I read around the same time? Because I loved it when it happened, and it's kind of the most notable thing I can say about X-Force #24. Fabian Nicieza and Greg Capullo are in such a groove now, and this felt like just one more in a string of very similar issues. The whole thing is a rescue mission, X-Force freeing Skids and Rusty from their captors with little difficulty or tension. It's an intensely simple story stretched almost awkwardly over the length of the issue, punctuated by minimal progress being made in the Domino subplot (per usual) plus a few gorgeous, cryptic pages of someone (Cable? Magento?) doing something in space with the wreckage of Graymalkin. None of it sucks, none of it rules, and none of it leaves a very powerful impression. I had forgotten all about the Graymalkin thing until I flipped back through the issue just now, for example. So yeah, Rusty and Skids were the focus of the issue's main storyline, and their inclusion was easily the detail that stuck out most for me, so that's why I mostly just wrote about them.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Weekly Action Comics Weekly Review: Issue #603

In 1988-89, DC changed Action Comics from a monthly Superman-focused series to a weekly anthology, also changing its name to Action Comics Weekly. It lasted 42 issues before reverting to a monthly format. I am going to review all 42 of those issues, one per week for 42 weeks. This is the third of those reviews.
Dull cover, especially if you don't know who Blackhawk is. Not bad, just uninteresting.
It's an intense time for Green Lantern Hal Jordan, and James Owsley writes that intensity well, with Gil Kane illustrating it even better. Star Sapphire finally makes a head-on attack against Hal, and because he cares about protecting civilians and she doesn't, she has a distinct advantage in their fight. Eventually, Hal resorts to slapping her repeatedly, unable to spare any Green Lantern juice because it's all being used to keep a bunch of debris from falling on people. Those slaps are no joke, and neither is the exhausted madness in Hal's eyes in the panel right before, where he decides to fight her "the old-fashioned way." Kane makes the reader feel the emotional and physical pain of both characters, and then Owsley come aboard to drive it home with Hal's internal monologue about whether or not to execute Star Sapphire for the greater good. He decides to go for it, but his ring won't obey, because deep down killing her runs counter to his will. The main focus of this whole Green Lantern arc seems to be pouring as much shit on Hal as possible, and this chapter did the best job of that yet. It also leaves him lying on the ground with Star Sapphire towering over him, seconds away from delivering a fatal strike. Like I said, intense. As a parting bit of praise, Kane uses a bunch of sharply slanted panels this time, which amp up the overall feelings of aggression and insanity quite nicely. The panel borders seem to cut through the images, violence from the comic piled on top of the violence in the comic.
The Secret Six finally get to do something, to be in the field on a mission. First they all have to agree to work for Mockingbird, but that decision doesn't take any of them long. He offers them a chance to use professionally skills they thought they'd lost access to forever, so how could they turn him down? It's awesome to see them in action already, but what stands out most about this story is the weirdly extreme corporation the Secret Six is trying to bring down, Technodyne. This is a company that literally wiped out an entire town with acid rain just to drive up sales of it's new protective substance, Impenetrite. That's a seriously cutthroat marketing plan, almost unbelievably so, and it's made all the stranger by the fact that Technodyne's CEO is a child genius who inherited the company. Not exactly your classic spy story villain, but definitely hard to forget or look away from. Meanwhile, the Secret Six comes together quickly as a unit, falling into their respective roles easily. That may not last long, because things tend to go badly for all heroes at some point, particularly first-timers, but it's still nice to see. They don't get too deep into the mission, because the first half of the story is just the group officially coming together, and then the final three panels return to the original Secret Six's plane crash from last issue. I'm not sure where that's leading, exactly, though the smart money is on revealing Mockingbird's identity somehow. Whatever, all I really want to see if what kinds of trouble Secret Six get themselves into now that they're getting their hands dirty, and I have no idea what to expect because Technodyne is about as unfamiliar and unpredictable as it gets. I'm feeling it.
I can't get a solid foothold in this narrative. The first beat was Deadman vs. the CIA, the second was Deadman vs. Talaoc, and here it shifts to Deadman & Talaoc vs. the CIA & aliens. It's all the same story, but the threat changes every eight pages. Also, Deadman and Talaoc's dialogue is stiff this time, with the wry sensibility Deadman's had up to now suddenly becoming clunky, and Talaoc's voice just coming across as stupid. I think he's supposed to speak more plainly because he's from the distant past, but it doesn't quite connect. Neither of them capture my attention, and most of their conversation is Talaoc telling Deadman about the aliens whose ship and equipment is inside Talaoc's pyramid. The information provided about the alien technology is bound to matter later, but for the time being all we get is backstory, delivered through a boring, awkward-sounding character. CIA section chief Kasaba gets a few panels of being a dark-hearted, overly-ambitious, stubborn government agent, and I look forward to her stepping into the lead antagonist role, which she almost does by end of this issue's installment. She's not there yet, because she and Deadman haven't come in direct conflict, but that's going to happen before long for sure. Unlike Talaoc, I expect Kasaba to remain the bad guy, and be a formidable one, for a decent stretch. The little bit of attention she's paid here makes me look forward to the future, but doesn't, sadly, elevate any of the rest of this issue's Deadman material.
I love that this is the second time Roger Stern has made the title of the Superman story a classic line about Superman's powers, and then demonstrated it in the story. In Action Comics Weekly #601 it was called, "Faster than a Speeding Bullet!" and Superman literally outflew bullets as they were fired, and here we get, "More Powerful than a Locomotive!" where he stops a moving train with his body. I assume he'll leap over a tall building at some point, too. It's fun, and Stern makes it count, having Superman save a life with each of these examples of his power, thus displaying another core part of the character. The best part of this issue's story, though, didn't involve Superman at all. The suddenness and callousness with which one of the bad guys turns on and murders another really shook me, and I give both Curt Swan and Perta Scotese credit for that. They set a grim, tense mood for that moment without spoiling the surprise of it, which is a tough tightrope act to pull off, and they do it in three panels. So far, this Superman narrative hasn't moved very far forward, but that unexpected betrayal within the ranks of the villains added a nice layer of mystery that felt like the beginnings of a hook. That's progress, and considering these are only the fifth and six Superman pages in Action Comics Weekly, the chances seem pretty good that this'll be an excellent story in the long run.
The pacing of Wild Dog has been super odd from the beginning. I feel like Max Collins can't quite figure out how to get the endings right in these eight-pagers. They're always a little too sudden and boring, tacked on where no space was reserved for them. This time, the ending is especially unimpressive, because earlier in the issue Lt. Flint asks Jack Wheeler/Wild Dog to infiltrate the Legion of Morality, and the cliffhanger ending is that he does it. Considering we were told explicitly that it was going to happen, the fact that it happens isn't all that thrilling. I did enjoy the scene of B. Lyle Layman flirting with Helen Scournt, the head of the local chapter of the Legion of Morality. Collins has Layman dance around his obvious intentions, pretending what he really wants is to set up a base of operations for the LoM in the Quad Cities. But Terry Beatty draws Layman as such an obvious lecher that his true desires are obvious. Not that Helen isn't into it; both she and Layman seem to enjoy the game they're playing, going along with the pretense for now but mutually understanding where their professional relationship will ultimately lead. That's my reading, anyway, and if it was the intention then the creators did a stellar job. That the villain's budding romance is the only truly enjoyable aspect of this story may not be the best sign, but at least there's that, and it was very good.
Here's something: last issue the Blackhawk story was titled "Part 2" but this issue it's "Chapter 3" which is silly and even a little annoying. I'd love it if next issue was "Book 4" or something, though. An intentional three-beat joke would be great, but if it's just random inconsistency then I'm not wild about it. In neither case does it matter to the story, which is basically all exposition and set-up here. Necessary stuff and well-delivered, but less entertaining than the first two parts/chapters. Cynthia tells Blackhawk the history of the gold she intends to steal, and though it's an interesting tale with more than one good twist, by the time it's been told there's barely space for Blackhawk to take the job before the story concludes. Although there is a nice bit at the end where Cynthia's wealth and/or influence is highlighted without giving away any details about who she is, with her even playing up the mystery just to mess with Blackhawk. I continue to enjoy them as a duo; there's a lot of natural humor and intelligence in the way they interact. That's this story's biggest strength, so having it present here still makes for a good read, but with several of the pages spent on exposition and the rest on preparation for an adventure to come, this was the least energetic or action-packed Blackhawk installment yet.

In conclusion, here are all the stories from this issue, listed from worst to best:
6. Deadman/"Talaoc's Tale!"
5. Wild Dog/"Moral Stand Chapter Three: Censored"
4. Blackhawk/"Another Fine War Chapter 3"
3. Superman/"More Powerful than a Locomotive!"
2. Secret Six/"Spread Your Broken Wings and Learn to Fly"
1. Green Lantern/"Retribution!"

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Kill All Parents: Awesome Idea, Awful Comic

Kill All Parents is a one-shot comicbook story, basically a graphic novella but done in the format  of a typical monthly issue, just with more pages. The decision to make it look like your average ongoing comic is deliberate, since the whole thing is essentially a commentary on a specific superhero trope, so having the book resemble any average superhero series on the shelves plays right into that. Sadly, the limited space the creators give themselves in which to relate this narrative ends up being one of its biggest shortcomings, because none of the interesting or complicated aspects of the story ever get properly developed. Neither does anyone on the cast, for that matter, nor the world in which they live. Kill All Parents moves too fast and is too small to provide any more than the most superficial look at its themes and characters, which is a drag, because there's clearly a ton of potential in those themes and characters to be extra impressive, and instead they all fall flat.
     Throughout its first act (meaning the first 9 pages—the three acts are not at all even in terms of page length, going 9,7, 19 by my count), Kill All Parents pretty much rocks, more or less living up to the aforementioned potential. Writer Mark Andrew Smith takes a well-recognized fact of the superhero genre and adds the tiniest wrinkle to it to create something new but familiar. Lots of superheroes are born from loss: Batman's parents, Spider-Man's uncle, Superman's entire home planet. These are the three most prominent examples, and also the three Smith chooses to parody explicitly in Kill All Parents (though in the opening scene the Spider-Man stand-in character, Ignition Jones*, actually talks about the death of his girlfriend Stacy, an obvious allusion to the death of Gwen Stacy, rather than that of Uncle Ben, which comes up later). The twist in the reality of Kill All Parents is that these formative losses are not tragic accidents but carefully planned, orchestrated events carried out by an evil scientist and his shadowy organization, intentionally making kids into superheroes by putting them through such horrible things. We eventually learn that the Scientist (the only name he's ever given) created a device that allowed him to look into the future and, not liking the widespread destruction and doom he saw there, he decided to do something about it by giving the world a bunch of superpowered defenders to keep humanity safe. So all of the major heroes are effectively the Scientist's creations, people he manipulated into heroism by murdering their families and otherwise secretly steering their lives.
     Even knowing how poorly Smith communicates it, and what little he does with it once it's been established, I remain in love with this foundational concept. It immediately opens the door to a difficult, complex moral debate. Is it ok to give a handful of people horrible childhoods and lifelong emotional issues in exchange for saving all of mankind from itself in the long run? How is what the Scientist did—deciding what was best for the rest of us and then using his incredible knowledge and resources to push the planet in that direction—fundamentally any different than what all superheroes do every day, hiding behind costumes and codenames while setting themselves outside the law in order to inflict violence upon anyone whose morality conflicts with their own? In both cases, it's a matter of those with power choosing how those without should be allowed to conduct their lives, and though the intense secrecy and the murder of innocents do set the Scientist apart from the "good guys," there's definitely room to argue that they're all equally self-important and full of shit, none of them having any real right or qualifications to make these kinds of decisions for everyone (or anyone) else.
     What most disappoints about Kill All Parents is that none of the theoretical debate I'm outlining is given any serious consideration or attention whatsoever. The Scientist (or, more accurately, a robotic decoy version of the Scientist) does try to state his case when the heroes discover what he's done, but nobody listens. Because they are his victims, the heroes rather understandably don't care about why the Scientist did what he did, or how horrible a future he believes he prevented through his actions. They just want revenge, because what they really want is to have their parents back, and since that can't happen, they'll settle for murdering the guy who took them away in the first place. Which is what ultimately happens; the Superman analogue character Tomorrow Man throws the Scientist into the Sun (classic), Ignition Jones blows up his lab, and then the whole gang of heroes walks away feeling vindicated, satisfied, and righteous. It's an understandable reaction to finding out the Scientist killed all their parents, but it's also too simple and dull a resolution for the reader, and one that ignores so much of what makes the story interesting in the first place.
     Part of the problem is wasted space. After a scene where Tomorrow Man complains to his therapist about how, for superheroes, Mother's Day and Father's Day are the worst because none of them have parents, we get a double-page spread of a bunch of heroes at a graveyard on Father's Day. Yes, this leads to one of those heroes, the Locust (a.k.a. not-Batman) being delivered the confidential file outlining what the Scientist has done, but that could've happened anywhere, and even if it was going to be at the graveyard, there's no need for the establishing shot to take up two pages. It's not a bad image, because Marcelo di Chiara's art is generally strong pop comics stuff and his character designs are a lot of fun (though not without their own issues, see below), so seeing a whole bunch of new-but-recognizable superheroes at once is delightful. And if Kill All Parents had more room to tell its story, I'd probably be lauding this visual. As it stands, though, the spread bothers me because it feels like more could've been done with those pages than merely establishing a day and setting, particularly when the concept of Father's Day being rough on heroes was spelled out for us immediately beforehand. It's always best to show and not tell, but if you've already told then also showing is pointless.
     While we're talking art problems, there are two other two-page spreads in this comic, and both feel needless. One of them is a badass action shot of all the heroes bursting into the Scientist's base and messing up his robot minions but good, an important moment no doubt, but the fight scene gets another page-and-a-half after the spread, too, which are just as good if not better. Again, it's not that di Chiara draws anything poorly, it's that three-and-a-half pages are way more than enough room for him to accomplish what he needs in that scene, and at least some of them could've been saved so the story could do more. Similarly, it takes three whole pages, including the third two-page spread, just for the Scientist to float into the Sun after Tomorrow Man throws him. That could and should have been a one-page moment or less, but it gets stretched out for no reason.
     These could be Smith's pacing choices rather di Chiara's, but whoever is responsible, it's a bummer to see. What I definitely blame on di Chiara, along with colorist Russ Lowery, is the complete lack of non-white characters. The closest we get is a knock-off Aquaman who's skin is, like, aquamarine, but I'm reluctant to count that because I don't even know if he's human. Granted, most popular Marvel and DC superheroes are white, and all of the people in Kill All Parents are based on/inspired by those characters, but when given the opportunity to build a completely new universe from the ground up, including zero POC is just irresponsible. And I'm not just talking the major players. Every background hero with no lines, non-super extra, and bad guy henchman in every panel in this book is a white person. No, thank you.
     Along the same lines, the only woman who is even close to mattering in this story is Wonder Woman stand-in Fabu-Lass. When I say she matters, what I mean is that she has a handful of lines, is given some attention in the big fight scene, and then when the Scientist tries to defend himself, she's one of the people he singles out while explaining how bad the heroes' lives would've been without his meddling. But here's the thing: while the Scientist claims that Tomorrow Man would've been a fat guy in his parents' basement, and the Locust would've been a spoiled and shallow party animal, Fabu-Lass is told that she was destined to be a slut, "giving out handjobs and head to anyone who bothered to give [her] the time of day." There's even a cutaway scene of her going down on a guy in a car, complete with a super uncomfortable "Glug glug glug" sound effect. That seems like such an easy thing to put on the one female character, it shows a lack of imagination and underlying sexism on Smith's part. There are so many possible terrible things that can happen to people, but when the time came to think of one for a woman, the best Smith could do was "she has a lot of sex." Weak sauce.
     Eventually I've got to stop mining Kill All Parents for more and more specific examples of its suckiness and just consider my point made, so I guess the time for that may as well be now. I just want it to be so much better than it is, and the nugget of a great idea is right there, just waiting to be well-executed. Unfortunately, the creators responsible for that idea did a lot of phoning it in, skimming over the details, and relying on a handful of half-assed referential jokes to carry the story (the planet Torpkyon, for example). The end result is not just underwhelming, it's a little infuriating and, in places, offensive.

*Ignition Jones is actually a mash-up between Spider-Man and the Flash, having the former's backstory and the latter's superpowers.

Elsewhere

Last week, I had a new Iconographies at PopMatters looking back at The Last of the Greats and simultaneously lamenting and celebrating its incompleteness. This week, my latest "1987 And All That" went up on CSBG discussing X-Factor #12-23.

Something I Failed to Mention
The focus of my X-Factor review was how terrible life was and seemingly had to be for the stars of that book. So many of their decisions were reckless, self-defeating, and/or destructive, but the series doesn't really give them any better options, either. Having said that (and I said it a lot in the CSBG column), Louise Simonson was careful to sprinkle in positivity occasionally, so that X-Factor wasn't 100% doom and gloom. Often this just meant having the team defeat a villain or villains in combat, but the more effective uplifting material was non-violent and centered on the children who X-Factor takes care of. I'm thinking in particular of the issue—#20, which I already praised as having the best art—where the kids go to Central Park to undo damage done there by Iceman in a fight with the Horsemen of Apocalypse. Though at first they sort of screw it up, mostly because Rusty goes alone and has no plan and almost gets himself killed, ultimately they're able to come together and use their powers intelligently and in concert to melt all the leftover ice and return the park to normal. They also leave some ice behind on purpose, sculpted into large letters with a pro-mutant message (I forget the exact wording and the issue is in the other room, but it's something like, "You shall know them by their deeds. Mutants were here.") It's a major moment of growth for the young characters, and an especially heartwarming beat of happiness in a title that spends most of its time in darker territory.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Weekly Action Comics Weekly Review: Issue #602

In 1988-89, DC changed Action Comics from a monthly Superman-focused series to a weekly anthology, also changing its name to Action Comics Weekly. It lasted 42 issues before reverting to a monthly format. I am going to review all 42 of those issues, one per week for 42 weeks. This is the second of those reviews.
It's weird to me that the first and final stories are about the same heroes as they were last week (Green Lantern and Blackhawk, respectively), but all the other heroes' stories are ordered differently. Well, I guess Superman is still fourth, since it's just the two-pager that comes in the middle, but still, I'm not sure what the point is of shuffling around only Deadman, Secret Six, and Wild Dog. Why change the order at all? And if you do, what's the significance of having the same characters at the beginning and end?
The Green Lantern story suffers from some overwriting, with James Owsley pulling the classic move of having characters recap past events in dialogue, even though it makes no sense for them to do so in the context of the scene. Right up top, John Stewart angrily tells Hal Jordan about how they used to be in the Green Lantern Corps together but now only Hal and two others are left, all as part of John's reaction to his wife Katma's murder. If there was ever a worse time to pointlessly tell Hal something he already knows about his own personal history, I'm hard pressed to think of what it could be. It's especially weird and distracting because Gil Kane has both John and Hal react totally appropriately to Katma's death, with Hal doubling over in shock and disgust while John lashes out in blind anger through tears. It's melodramatic, but perfectly so, and if the dialogue was more natural and more willing to go deeper into the emotions rather than the exposition, it could have been a powerful opening scene. Katma's funeral is a little better; with the backstory out of the way, Owsley does take time to add some heart and style to the writing when describing Hal's exhaustion, frustration, and depression over not yet finding Carol Ferris/Star Sapphire, Katma's killer. But then Carol shows up out of the blue, which is confusing and jarring and a little too easy. Her interactions with Hal work, though, as she torments him by talking about murdering Katma, and then knocks a jet out of the sky to distract him while she runs away. It's not the most interesting action, but it seems like Owsley is taking his time with this story, letting Carol's menace grows little by little for now, one atrocious act at a time. So this was not a thrilling showdown, but Hal was put thorough the ringer pretty good, and Carol was successfully built up as a villain. Reasonable but underwhelming accomplishments for a second beat.
It's a little difficult to get over the odd moment of sexism in this Deadman story. After discovering that CIA section chief Grace Kasaba has been inhabited by Talaoc, who is I think the ghost of a former Mayan ruler—it probably said exactly who he was last issue but I forget—Deadman inhabits the body of one of the local soldiers and punches Grace in the face. This one punch is evidently so devastating that Talaoc realizes choosing a woman to inhabit was a bad idea. He says of Grace, "Though she had the fighting spirit, she is a woman, and too weak to fight you." Now, obviously this is just one character speaking, and he lived hundreds of years ago, so I don't mean to suggest that writer Mike Baron actually believes all women are weaker than all men. That's not even necessarily what Talaoc is saying, though it certainly feels like the implication. Either way, since Talaoc's next move is to jump out of Grace and fight Deadman directly, it seems like his reasoning could just as easily have been more along the lines of deciding that, for this particular conflict, possessing any human was the wrong move. That way it would tie directly into his behavior after the punch, and there wouldn't be a weird potshot at women everywhere thrown in for no real reason. Having said that, Baron's writing is otherwise quite sharp, moving through the story briskly and upping the stakes several times in only eight pages. Also, and far more importantly, Dan Jurgens draws the hell out of this story. You can really see the trapeze artist come out in all of Deadman's movements, and Talaoc's forceful anger in all of Grace's expression. Plus the panel where Talaoc finally exits Grace is outstanding. Liz Berube's colors deserve much of the credit for that panel, too, a sudden burst of light in midst of the otherwise duller pages. Things end on a visually and narratively exciting moment, so all told I enjoyed the read and am looking forward to more of this tale, but that single line of dialogue continues to be irksome nonetheless.
Wild Dog has never been more boring than this. The whole script this issue is a series of slow conversations designed to introduce various characters, old and new, and minimally set up their positions in the story that is presumably going to follow. Susan King tries to convince her boss that Wild Dog is still news, and he disagrees. She is then sent to cover a protest at a newsstand, which leads pretty quickly to us meeting the villain of this narrative, the national head of the Legion of Morality, B. Lyle Layman. The local chapter of the LoM are the protestors, pissed because the newsstand in questions sells, among other things, pornographic magazines. That's the LoM's whole deal: they're ravenously anti-smut. Dangerously so, it turns out, because at the end of the story the newsstand is bombed. Meanwhile, Lt. Flint argues halfheartedly with Jack Wheeler, Wild Dog's secret identity. Flint's mad because he knows Jack's secret but hasn't arrested him due to their friendship, while Jack is mad because he agreed to stop being Wild Dog for Flint but doesn't believe it'll stick, insisting Flint will want Wild Dog back someday. I bet Jack's going to be right, but also I don't care. I don't care about any of this. Fanatical porn censorship is not compelling, Layman is such a stereotypical slimeball cult leader character I lose interest in him as soon as he speaks, and Wild Dog isn't even present except for the opening page, which merely summarizes the events of last issue's chapter. Meanwhile, Susan's thread is dropped too quickly for her to seem important enough to pay attention to, and pretty much nothing else happens until the explosion in the final, tiny panel. A definite snooze.
I have to give Roger Stern and Curt Swan a lot of credit for making their two pages count. There's a great deal of energy, action, and humor in the eleven panels worth of Superman adventure provided here. Admittedly, the story doesn't advance much and we learn almost nothing new about what's going on, but Supes gets to deafeat the bad guys, save someone's life, and look good doing it. The crooks appear to be pretty small potatoes so far, largely incompetent and cowardly and not exactly a challenge for the Man of Steel, but again, we don't know the background yet or where this is going to lead. For the time being, seeing Superman enjoy himself while deftly handling such a simple bunch of thugs is more than entertaining and fun enough to make these two pages feel worthwhile. There are laughs and thrills both, and Swan's Superman continues to perfectly match what I think of as the ideal version of the character, so I'm digging hard on this shortest of the short stories collected in this particular issue.
After last issue's tee-up, we're now presented with the actual concept of the Secret Six. Or...half the concept, I guess, since Mockingbird still needs to fulfill his promise of asking for something in return for the gifts he gives to the cast. Each member of this newly-recruited Secret Six has either a major injury or serious medical condition that they'd rather live without: blindness, deafness, muteness, arthritis, epilepsy, paraplegia. They also all have backgrounds that will make them particularly useful for the kind of espionage work Mockingbird seems to have planned. There's an actor, a marine, a star athlete, a special effects artist, a journalist, and a mathematician/computer specialist. Mockingbird gives them each a high-tech article of clothing built specifically to solve their respective problems and enable them to once again take full advantage of their special skills. So the arthritic special effects guy gets gloves that give him a full range of motion in his hands, the voiceless actress gets a weird sort of head wrap that acts as an artificial voice box, and so on. I quite like the idea that, in a comic full of superhero stories, Secret Six is composed entirely of regular human beings who happen to have advanced but fully realistic know-how/capabilities. They're better than the average person at what they do, but not superhuman in the least and, in fact, are all struggling against physical ailments that act as obstacles, preventing them from using their knowledge and skills. It's a sort of reversal of the normal superhero set-up. Martin Pasko does overstuff his script a bit, which makes many of the panels look crowded or cramped because of all the text, but the positive side effect of that is that a lot of stuff can happen in this eight-page space. We meet all the characters, see them get their gifts and experience incredible joy at regaining their lost talents, and then follow one of them as he learns the consequences of trying to go against Mockingbird's will. We also watch the previous Secret Six get tricked into boarding a plane together, which is then flown straight into a mountain, a shocking ending for the reader and characters alike. It's a beefy chapter, and it builds a very solid foundation for this iteration of the Secret Six.
Blackhawk begins to warm on me here, even though he's such a schmuck, because Cynthia Hastings is the perfect foil for him, so since I like her, it makes me like him more. They're both comically exaggerated, Blackhawk as a strutting, over-confident, oversexed warrior, and Cynthia as a no-nonsense hardass who's too smart to spend time suffering fools. They represent opposing sides of a particular behavioral spectrum, and that gives them a powerful chemistry and amusing interplay. They're one-dimensional for now but it works because, for one thing, there have only been 16 total pages so far in which to meet them and, for another, Mike Grell, Rick Burchett, Pablo Marcos, and Tom Ziuko all work together to create the overall vibe of a Saturday morning cartoon for adults. All the punches are wide hooks, people fall over constantly, furniture shatters, facial expressions are regularly hammed up for comedy, and Blackhawk and Cynthia (who have all the lines of dialogue except the very first one) are both full of quips and sass and general attitude. It's the definition of fun-loving, and that comes through more clearly here than it did in the debut, I think because Cynthia and Blackhawk actually get to interact this time. Oh, and the naked fight scene at the beginning didn't hurt, either. Now that the tone has been solidified, I feel like I know better what to expect from future installments, and I'm eager for it. Also, despite what I said at the top of this post, I think having Blackhawk come last makes perfect sense. It allows the other stories to be however serious or silly they want, because no matter what, the issue as a whole gets to land in more lighthearted territory, giving the reader a quick breath of fresh air before sending us back into the real world.

In conclusion, here are all the stories from this issue, listed from worst to best:
6. Wild Dog/"Moral Stand Chapter Two: Dog Gone"
5. Green Lantern/"Requiem"
4. Deadman/"Showdown"
3. Secret Six/"Look What Fell Out of the Sky Today"
2. Superman/"They Can Run, But They Can't Hide!"
1. Blackhawk/"Another Fine War Part 2"

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Weekly Action Comics Weekly Review: Issue #601

In 1988-89, DC changed Action Comics from a monthly Superman-focused series to a weekly anthology, also changing its name to Action Comics Weekly. It lasted 42 issues before reverting to a monthly format. I am going to review all 42 of those issues, one per week for 42 weeks. This is the first of those reviews.
I suppose the simplest way to review any given issue of Action Comics Weekly is to just go story by story, since they all have different creators working on them and therefore varying levels of quality. Let's run through 'em in order:
Though other important stuff does happen over the course of the story, like Hal Jordan deciding to raid an abandoned diamond mine in order to make ends meet, the detail that really sticks from the opening Green Lantern tale, "...And the Pain Shall Leave my Heart" is Katma's death at the hands of Star Sapphire. Which is the point of having it be such a jarring event. It happens unexpectedly and takes only half a page, making it powerful but also sort of cheapening it. Katma was a significant character, and it's already weird that she'd be killed off in Action Comic Weekly, let alone in such a brutal fashion, and so hurriedly. Star Sapphire doesn't even really pick Katma specifically; looking for Hal Jordan, Sapphire happens to find Katma instead, and figures what the hell, might as well murder somebody. We'll see what the aftermath ends up looking like in future issues, since this opening installment only gets as far as John Stewart blaming Hal Jordan for Katma's death. Not an entirely unfair accusation, I guess, but hardly the whole truth. James Owsley makes a bold first move here, kicking off the Action Comics Weekly experiment with a bang, and Gil Kane's art is tasteful about the murder scene. We mostly just see Sapphire attacking, but not the actual damage she does, which is only hinted at via a single panel with a bloody, cut up hand. So it's as well-played as fridging John Stewart's wife in an eight-page anthology story could be, but I don't totally approve of it on a conceptual level. Perhaps they'll earn it later on.
I reviewed the original Wild Dog mini-series on the blog a while back, and it was not as good as I wanted it to be. Turns out, in a smaller dose, the character is even less impressive. This whole story is some bad guys using hostages to demand that Wild Dog surrender himself, and Wild Dog just showing up and gunning down the villains instead. He's this unstoppable, untouchable executioner, and that doesn't make for a particularly compelling protagonist. Terry Beatty does a good job of making the violence intense but not exaggerated. It's underplayed, if anything, but Wild Dog's ruthless efficiency and his targets' fearful shock come together to make it effective. It's not enough to make me care, though, because Wild Dog's victims are nameless cyphers, and the man himself has no voice or personality whatsoever, at least not on display here. The only real person is Lt. Flint, and he's a frustrated observer who never acts, there only so other cops can deliver expositional dialogue at him. There's also too much closure to make me interested in next week's story. Wild Dog gets away from the police, and that's meant to be a cliffhanger, but, like...the real threat is neutralized and the "hero" is safe, so, who gives a shit what happens next?
Like the characters themselves, the reader is mostly left in the dark about what the hell is going on in this story until the very end. Even there, a lot is left unanswered. I am aware that this version of the Secret Six spins out of the original, so it's possible that if you were familiar with that, this would be clearer from the start. It's not bad, but it is a bit confusing at first. We know that a bunch of people have been invited somewhere, and meet a few of them as they prepare to leave. They're interesting characters, all a bit older, but having led what seem to be fulfilling lives. Then instead of seeing where those folks end up, we find a group of younger characters gathered together, all of whom appear to be strangers. They don't get along very well, but their fighting is cut short when a mysterious, masked figure reveals himself on a giant monitor. He tells them his name is Mockingbird and that he's recruited them to be his new Secret Six, but what any of that means is only vaguely explained. It is heavily implied that they'll be doing something about an evil corporation that caused acid rain to kill a bunch of people, but the connection doesn't get made directly yet. All told, this is eight pages of pure set-up material, introducing lots of people quickly and getting to the Mockingbird hook just in time. Mostly I just feel like it's too soon to judge this Secret Six story, that I need more of it to form an informed opinion, but for now I'm curious, and that's a fine way to begin. I will say that Dan Spiegle's realistic art seems to be a perfect fit for this considerably more grounded story (compared to everything else in the issue).
I tried several times to get these two pages to be next to each other instead of one on top of the other, but could not make it happen. It might be me, it might be Blogger, but either way this is the best I could do. Just imagine them as a spread.
Superman, formerly the star of Action Comics, gets only two pages per issue of Action Comics Weekly. As such, there's very little to discuss here, especially since, starting with the story's title, "Faster than a Speeding Bullet!" this first little Super-snippet is just recapping a handful of Supe's powers. We watch him scan the city for danger with his super-hearing, and then use his super-speed and indestructibility to save someone from being shot by a gang of criminals. It's not a bad way to kick of a new Superman story, relying on these classic moves, but it's not crazy thrilling, either. Curt Swan, at least, draws an ideal Superman: muscular, confident, a single curl of hair dangling in front of his brow at all times. For that, if nothing else, I liked this, and there wasn't enough for me to strongly dislike anything, though I was less than crazy about the limited story space.
Deadman is a character I've always been into. In spite of that, I haven't actually read too many Deadman comics. Which is silly, because he's hardly the most active or present character in the DC canon, and it probably wouldn't take too much time to catch up on the important parts of his history. Anyway, that's a long-winded way of saying that, at the beginning of this story, Deadman talks about stuff that's already happened to him, and I have no idea what he means by any of it. As you can see on the page above, he makes references to Rama, the Entity, and Sensei, and I'm not totally clear on who those people are. They all sound familiar-ish, meaning I've probably encountered them or at least their names in one or more of the handful of Deadman things I have read in the past, but they don't ring any specific bells. Not that it matters for the story here. Deadman's current situation, he explains, is that he's supposed to preserve "the balance between good and evil," which seems to just mean fighting evil, at least in the context of this narrative. He stumbles upon a CIA guns for drugs operation, and sets to work screwing it up right away. The best and funniest part of the story is when Deadman inhabits the body of one of the pilots of the plane full of drugs and redirects the plane to Dade International Airport, while also calling ahead to let them know that a bunch of cocaine is coming in for a landing. It's so much more effective a strategy than the violence of your typical superhero, and that's a big part of what makes Deadman such a cool character. He doesn't have the brute force many of his colleagues do, and has to be more intelligent and strategic with his abilities. The CIA, with its constant lying and manipulation, should make an especially formidable and appropriate opponent.
Blackhawk is a character about whom I've never been all that excited. I just don't dig on war comics, or war stories in general, all that much. I do appreciate how Mike Grell takes the first five pages of this story (more than half) to discuss the endless cycle of wars all over the world, before zeroing in on the title character specifically. Grell neither glorifies nor condemns any of it, merely points out that the fighting never really stops, that soldiers might take vacations from the fighting, but normal life doesn't really suit them, and there's always another war somewhere. After that point's been made, we find Blackhawk in a whorehouse, being bathed by two seemingly identical women, before a man named Zalecki bursts in wielding a knife and demanding money he's apparently owed. Downstairs, another woman is looking for Blackhawk, and though we don't yet know why, based on her tone when inquiring after him it's clearly business rather than something personal that she needs him for. The story ends with Blackhawk shooting Zalecki, and the sound of the gunshot tipping the unnamed woman off as to where Blackhawk can be found. It's a less-than-stellar hook, because Blackhawk comes off as kind of a schmuck, which tends to be the case with that character, at least in my limited experience. So that's probably intentional, and in that case successful, but still not my cup of tea. The woman, meanwhile, is barely a person yet, and the same goes for Zalecki, so this is a flimsy narrative overall so far.

In conclusion, here are all the stories from this issue, listed from worst to best:
6. Wild Dog/"Moral Stand Chapter One: Point of Order"
5. Blackhawk/"Another Fine War"
3-4. Tie between Green Lantern/"...And the Pain Shall Leave my Heart" & Superman/"Faster than a Speeding Bullet!"
2. Secret Six/"Listening to the Mockingbird" 
1. Deadman/"The Section Chief"

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Elsewhere

Remember two weeks ago when I wrote one of these "Elsewhere" posts explaining how my CSBG and PopMatters columns have been coming out on the same day every other Thursday? Of course you remember, because you hang on my every word. Well, that ended up being a short-lived pattern, because this time around they were published on alternating weeks. This has mostly to do with the fact that the dates of my PopMatters pieces are determined by my awesome editor over there, Shathley Q, and they're partially based on whatever other things the site already has planned/prepared at any given time. Meanwhile, I actually post my CSBG columns myself, so when they line up with a PopMatters post it's a total accident and when they don't, they don't. At any rate, two Fridays ago, I wrote on PopMatters about Mighty Avengers and how it is likely the most Avengers Avengers book around. Then this past Thursday, I put out my newest "1987 And All That" for CSBG reviewing Blood: A Tale. It was a good but supremely weird comic, intentionally hard to follow, if not downright impossible.

Something I Failed to Mention
In my PopMatters column, I name-checked Captain America and the Mighty Avengers, the title that will be replacing/continuing Mighty Avengers come November, and briefly mentioned I was looking forward to it without elaborating on my expectations. I also made sure to say that the worst part of Mighty Avengers was Greg Land's art, which is true, though he is, as I said, way better on that book than I expected him to be considering everything else I've ever seen him draw. I was under the impression he would be following Al Ewing over to the new Captain America and... series, but I recently learned that the artist will in fact be Luke Ross, at least to start. I'm not extra familiar with Ross' work, and that's partly because I have tended not to like it much in the past when I've encountered it. Then again, the preview on CBR of the debut issue looks pretty great, so...I suppose I'm glad to have Ross coming on. Either way, it's at least one step up from Land, talent-wise, and probably several. I'm also curious to see how, exactly, giving the new Captain America (Sam Wilson) top billing is going to change things. Mighty Avengers was centered mostly on Luke Cage, but Monica Rambeu, Adam Brashear, and Blade all played lead roles as well, with the rest of the cast made up of more supporting parts, including Sam Wilson (still Falcon at the time). If he's going to step into the spotlight, that's not necessarily bad, because Ewing has proven he can handle a large ensemble without anyone getting left out or ignored. It will be a change, though, a possible new voice and/or direction and/or thesis for the book. And because what I loved most about Mighty Avengers and wrote my column about was how it had a very specific, consistent, hyper-Avengers message behind all of its stories, if there is a significant tonal shift, I might find myself disappointed. For now I stay excited for the new title to start, but that excitement flirts with anxiety, like so much new-comic-related excitement does, and I can only hope some of what made me a fan of this team remains.