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.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Terminal Hero #3 Review

This was a perfect example of why I like to read at least the first three issues of any series before deciding whether or not to drop it. I had some reservations about and disappointments over the first two installments of Terminal Hero, and while it's by no means perfect, issue #3 made some course corrections and additions that I liked a lot. I'm finally actively looking forward to more of this comic, which hasn't quite been true up to now.
     Piotr Kowalski and Kelly Fitzpatrick's art continues to be the main attraction, and there's some new stuff in the visuals that's right up my alley. Primarily villains, or villain-esque characters, anyway. One is the Tumor Kid, who's either literally Rory's (supposedly cured) tumor with newfound sentience and its own body (that looks just like Rory), or is a projection of Rory's mind. Either way, Tumor Kid is himself covered in tumors, off-and-on and in varying amounts. Sometimes they form an overpowering mound that takes up most of his flesh, sometimes they're more subtle, and when we first meet him they're not visible at all. It seems to be the case that the more aggressively and angrily Tumor Kid acts, the larger and more widespread his growths become. So at his most evil, he also looks the most sickening, a simple and direct means of establishing his horridness.
     The other new villains are Mia and Minesh, the couple Raza hooked up with some of the same Treatment Q drugs that gave Rory his powers, right before Rory killed Raza. We learn Minesh has, between then and now, prevented himself and Mia from actually using Treatment Q on themselves, but here she finally convinces him to try it, and the results are terrifying. Neither Mia nor Minesh have canxer, so there's nothing for the treatment to actually cure. All it does is unlock crazy powers in the pair, who immediately take violent advantage of that. For one quick but stunning page, we see Minesh and Mia indulging themselves unashamedly in their new abilities, with her gleefully committing murder by hand while he watches, levitating nearby, in the grips of some kind of ecstatic trip or trance state. Their last line in the issue is Minesh saying, "Pray this is just the beginning..." and I do. It's a little terrifying to consider what these characters will look like as they develop, but I'm excited for it nonetheless. Kowalski does a superb job setting them up as legitimate threats in a very small space, as does Peter Milligan, who only gives them two one-page scenes, but make them some of the most memorable parts of the issue. It is Fitzpatrick's red-orange-brown palette on the page I described above that really drives that moment home, though. Whenever Rory's superpowers have kicked in before, the colors have stolen the show, and it happens tenfold with Mia and Minesh.
     Milligan continues to generally have things race forward, as evidenced by how quickly he ramps up Minesh and Mia's roles. On the other hand, the A-plot seems to be slowly down, if only slightly and/or temporarily. Rory begins his life as Chris Walker, a guy he killed by accident last issue and switched places with through his mind powers. Rory finds he quite enjoys Chris' life—his kids, wife, career, and spirituality all suit Rory, and even seem to help him fight off his nightmares. Tumor Kid is still around, threatening to ruin everything, but it's still not clear how real he is, so Rory continues to fight for this new, calm, unexpected happiness he's stumbled into. That's exactly the kind of hook this comic has needed; Rory's experimental-cancer-medicine-based powers weren't ever enough to convince me this was a story with legs, but now I'm eager to watch it go the distance. I don't know if Rory will necessarily get to remain Chris for much longer, because it seems like his government handlers are already on his trail, but this is the first time Terminal Hero has introduced a new status quo in the beginning of an issue and still had it in place at the end. And Rory joining the Walker family as an impostor is the most interesting version of his life yet, so I'm pleased Milligan is giving it some more time and room to grow, even if it only ends up being part of the next issue. If these are the kind of ideas this series will be generating as it advances, and Milligan can get better at pacing them with ever so much more patience like he does here, Terminal Hero might yet become a truly great comicbook.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Monthly Dose: September 2014

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

100 Bullets #23: A slower issue, but not boring. Brian Azzarello intentionally has the narrative creep along, partly to create an air of suspense and also, I'd imagine, so the reader can fully absorb all the cryptic dialogue. There's a lot of very vague stuff said between Benito, Megan, and Daniel about the Trust and each of their roles in it, and since we don't know exactly who/what the Trust is, it's helpful to have time to completely digest what little info we're offered here. Megan, it seems, had to replace her father in the Trust at a young age when he died, whereas Benito's dad is still around and still in charge. This creates tension between Benito and Megan, since she sees him as immature, inexperienced, and lazy while he sees her as stuck up and too serious. The significance of their less-than-stellar relationship isn't clear yet, but it's a nuanced dynamic that Azzarello introduces and explores well in this issue. The far more active and interesting part of the story is, of course, Hank being beaten at poker by Benito and deciding to get some form of revenge. Hank's semi-impotent rage in the face of an ultra-rich opponent is relatable, and helps make him sympathetic even with his rough edges. His dying wife also soften his image, but it's the futile anger that really sells him as a likable if misguided character. When Cole Burns makes his surprise return at the end of the issue to give Hank a hand, it's an exciting and somewhat scary moment. We know what a cold-blooded killer Cole can be, and for him to influence Hank in even the smallest way creates the potential for some serious shit to go down. So Azzarello has his dominoes all lined up, and though he took his time to get them there (and may not even be done yet) the pattern that's emerging is exciting enough that it's worth the wait. This was not Eduardo Risso's best effort, unfortunately. There was anything awful in it but nothing great, either. And it's a little hard to tell how much of Megan's brazen sexuality is necessary for her character and how much of it is just cheesecake. I think Risso mostly does a good job with her in that regard, but there are a few moments that feel oversexualized for no specific reason, and that's always a drag to see. Still, the opening poker game scene was deliciously shadowing and intimate and uncomfortable, and Cole's ultra-coolness shined through in the end, so while it was a mid-level issue visually, it did get bookended by nice, sharp art.


Green Lantern: Emerald Dawn #5: Far and away the most exciting and best-looking issue of this series yet. The whole thing is one long, intense, knock down drag out fight between Legion and the Green Lantern Corps, and M.D. Bright makes it a legit thrill ride. All the constructs Hal Jordan creates to try and keep Legion down are awesome, there's an amazing full-page splash of Salaak and Tomar-Re being punched through a wall, and when Legion spills out of his armor and becomes a giant shiny amorphous blob of death it is spectacular. Bright has been a strong penciler on this book all along, but the art hasn't ever demanded my attention like it does here with the non-stop, highly imaginative action. Legion comes across as a truly serious villain for the first time, and the awesomeness of the Green Lantern Corps is brightly highlighted, most of all Kilowog. The story side of things doesn't suffer any, either. We get Legion's backstory, meet the Guardians for the first time, and watch Hal come into his own as a Green Lantern, exploring his powers creatively and pushing back against the rigid rules of the Corps. Even in the context of the sprawling battle, Keith Giffen and Gerard Jones (plot and script, respectively) manage to get a lot of story progress done and fill in some missing details about what's been going on. Emerald Dawn has seemed a little unfocused up to now, not sure how quickly to move or what its main character was all about, but everything snaps into place here at last. A shame it had to happen in the penultimate chapter, I suppose, but better late than never, and the results are fantastic. This is some top-notch superhero comics, and it ends on one hell of a cliffhanger, so I'm stoked to see what the conclusion has in store.


X-Force (vol. 1) #23: The Externals get dealt with once and for all (I hope) as Fabian Nicieza and Greg Capullo continue to burn through all the crap Rob Liefeld left behind when he departed this series. I appreciate the patience with which they've been doing this, but it also makes me a little anxious for them to finish so I can find out what comes next, what this creative team can do in their own space. Luckily, this issue made a ton of progress, because on top of the Externals finally being bested—not beaten, exactly, but told to fuck off in a convincing way—the two B-plots that have been running for a while suddenly become one and the same. I didn't even know that's where they were headed, mostly because I didn't recognize that the person Deadpool's been hunting, Vanessa, is also the woman who impersonated Domino in the earliest issues of the series. I probably should have figured that out, and it's even possible I was explicitly told it at some point and just forgot, because that thread has never for one second held my interest. It feels so distant from the stuff X-Force is doing, in terms of geography, story, and tone. Similarly, the story about Domino, Grizzly, and Hammer trying to dig up info on Cable has been hard for me to pay serious attention to in the past. I don't want Cable back in this title, so I can't get very enthusiastic about people trying to find and/or research him. But in this issue, Domnio's group goes after Vanessa, so what has up to this point been two storylines I generally ignore will only be one moving forward, and that's progress. Also, Vanessa promises to tell Domino where to find X-Force, indicating that this may all become part of the main plot soon. The sooner that happens, the sooner the series can move past all these characters and concepts I don't care about, so I'm all for seeing Domino and crew catch up with X-Force as soon as next month. I guess we'll see if I get my wish then.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Elsewhere

A new routine has emerged in the past month or so for the posts I write for sites outside of Comics Matter. Every other Thursday now sees the publication of both a new "1987 And All That" column on Comics Should Be Good and a new Iconographies post at PopMatters. Which is kind of cool, having a regularly scheduled day where all of a sudden my writing shows up on sites with sizable audiences. It's my big bimonthly moment. Huzzah for me. This past Thursday, I wrote about Infinity Inc. #34-44 and She-Hulk #8. I felt pretty so-so overall on Infinity Inc., and with She-Hulk I was specifically impressed with its use of the shared Marvel universe, pulling ideas from it without actually crossing over with or requiring the reader to bring any outside knowledge from other series.

Something I Failed to Mention
I didn't so much forget to talk about the below page from the end of Infinity Inc. #34 as I did decide not to spend time in the actual column on it, since I had a lot of other ground to cover there and I knew I could give this its own space on my blog. Take a peek and then meet me below:
This weird anti-smoking DC house ad has a lot about it that amuses and also somewhat irks me at the same time. It's ridiculous on the face of it to use Mr. Bones as the spokesperson for not smoking. One of the foundational elements of his character is that he loves smoking, and pretty much does it constantly, except in places where he's forbidden to do so. Even then, he complains and tries to find ways around the rules as often as possible, because he just loves smoking so damn much. And though he's kind of a villain, he's also very sympathetic, funny, and sweet-looking, so just because he does something doesn't necessarily make that thing seem bad. It does make it seem badass, because Mr. Bones has invisible cyanide skin, causing his skeletal appearance and making his powers super-fatal. What I'm saying is, Mr. Bones runs the risk of making smoking seem cool all the time, so drawing specific attention to smoking through him feels like a misguided choice. Also, the actual image of the anti-smoking ad—I believe it's drawn by Todd McFarlane and Tony DeZuniga because they also drew the rest of the issue, the signature says "M/D," and McFarlane co-created Bones, but I'm not 100% sure—makes it looks like Bones is leaning in and offering the cigarette to the reader. His line of dialogue—almost certainly scripted by Roy and/or Dann Thomas, Bones' other creators and the writers of the issue—could also be interpreted that way. I think the intended sentiment is No matter how young and invincible you feel, cigarettes can still harm/kill you but another legitimate reading of it would be It's never too soon to start smoking! If it weren't for the huge "DON'T SMOKE" at the bottom of the page, I'd be way more inclined to see this as pro-smoking propaganda than anti-. Everything about it makes smoking look powerful, seductive, and awesome, except the red block letters forcefully and somewhat awkwardly included at the end. It's a hilariously self-defeating but also annoyingly poorly-planned effort.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Superb Heroes: Batman: Going Sane

Superb Heroes is a semi-regular column celebrating comics that are exemplary and/or exceptional in their treatment of superoheroism.
 
The notion that superheroes and supervillains need one another is exceedingly familiar in the comicbook world, even trite. In fact, the idea that good and evil are mutually inclusive is much older than comics as a medium. How can you have light without its corresponding darkness? Would we even know what goodness looked like if there was no evil to which we could compare it? You know what I mean. You've been stoned in college.
     In the Batman mythology, the theme of the Joker and Batman needing each other has been perhaps over-explored. More specifically, there is the well-worn concept that the existence of a Batman creates the necessity of a Joker, that the hero causes the villain. Both live-action Batman films to include the Joker used this causal relationship as key pieces of their stories, though in admittedly very different ways, and numerous Batman comics of varying popularity and influence have done the same. What makes Going Sane stand out for me is that it offers the characters an actual escape from their unending battle. Rather than simply discussing or displaying how Batman and the Joker feed into one another, Going Sane gives us a look at a world where one of them believes they've reached a definitive end to their conflict, and shows us what life could be like for the Joker if Batman was permanently out of the picture. Of course, it ends up being only a temporary condition, and there's some question as to whether or not the identity that the Joker creates for his new bat-free lifestyle is even ever "real," but the fragility and short-lived nature of the situation is all part of the appeal. We as readers know the new state of affairs can never last, even though both Batman and the Joker would be happier if it did, and therein lies the tragedy for everyone in-story and out.
     Going Sane is split into four chapters (having originally been published as issues #65-68 of Legends of the Dark Knight; I own the collected TPB) and the first part reads pretty much like any other Joker story. It is, in fact, nearly boring in its simplicity and lack of originality, which ends up being the point. It needs to be a run-of-the-mill experience right up until the end, so that the end can catch the Joker and the reader off-guard. After pulling some fairly lame tricks—a public explosion and then a violent kidnapping, neither of which are exactly minor offenses but they're no great feats for Batman's greatest villain—the Joker sets up a predictably booby-trapped cabin for his inevitable confrontation with the Dark Knight. Only, unlike ever before, this time the Joker's plan works. Batman finds himself distracted by his own furious distaste for the Joker's antics. He is so fed up with this bad guy, and so angry about Joker's persistence, that he ends up slightly off his game, just enough that when the cabin explodes, he's still inside, instead of making it out in the nick of time like he usually does. The Joker doesn't expect or especially want this outcome, and even with the thoroughly defeated and seemingly deceased Batman at his feet, Joker assumes his old foe is playing possum at first. When he realizes he's finally won the battle he thought would go on forever, he's delighted but also a little scared, panicked, and even madder than before. His already screwed-up psyche breaks in a whole new way, unable to cope with the idea of Batman dying, and he develops a new personality: Joseph Kerr, a quiet, unassuming, shy accountant.
     That's where we find Joker in chapter two, living his life as Joseph, having nightmares about a clown and a bat that he can't understand but we realize are the distorted memories of his real past, as opposed to the imagined past that came with this new identity. Joseph hates his dreams, but seems fairly content otherwise, and is a quite likable sad sack. His story is one of new love; he meets and falls for Rebecca, and she for him, pretty much instantaneously. We see their relationship develop from both points of view, with Joseph and Rebecca each narrating different parts of the story. Their affection is so genuine and pure, it's almost overly saccharine, but J.M. DeMatteis does a good job selling it by making both Rebecca and Joseph such delicate, decent, relatable people. They're looking for someone to connect with and trust in, and they find that in each other, so their love is believable and satisfying if perhaps too sweet at times.
     DeMatteis also wastes no time in breaking Joseph down and revealing the villain hiding underneath. Because the reader meets Joseph largely through Rebecca's eyes, we come to know and root for him rather quickly, so when his dark side starts to push through and he struggles to reign it in, we're already on his side, already sad for what we know the end of his story will have to be. He loses his temper with Rebecca to the point of nearly striking her, figures out that his name is an weak pun, and gradually deteriorates as time goes on, his true self too big and forceful an entity to contain. Then in chapter three, Batman returns, and when Joseph discover this in chapter four, he loses all control and effectively dies as the Joker reemerges.
     Batman's recovery is the focus of chapter three, and it's the weakest part of the narrative. Though there is a pseudo-romantic dynamic between him and Lynn Eagles, the doctor who rescues him, it's way more restrained, uneventful, and uninteresting than Joseph and Rebecca's, so it doesn't do well in comparison. It is important, though, because it represents a "normal" life that is tempting to Bruce Wayne the man if not Batman the hero. Though Bruce never seriously thinks he could give up being Batman, his time spent healing is also time spent relaxing, maybe the first relaxation he's had since his parents' death, so he toys with the idea of staying there for good. In the end, though, he heads back to Gotham almost as soon as he's able, eager for vengeance against the man who nearly took his life. That's all seen via flashback, while in the present Batman starts to search for wherever the Joker has been hiding, and does eventually find Joseph Kerr and peg him as a suspect. Invading Kerr's apartment, Batman sees a picture showing the obvious love between Joseph and Rebecca, and learns from the building's super that they are on their honeymoon. Knowing the Joker would never be capable of anything even resembling love, Batman decides to rule Kerr out. It's another mistake, but this one caused by Batman staying level-headed and Joker acting as uncharacteristically as possible, whereas the first time Batman was unfocused and Joker was super-extra like himself.
     That turnaround also marks the start of a turning point, since chapter four is pretty much entirely devoted to reestablishing the regular status quo. Joseph learns that Batman is back, snaps, and disappears into a stormy night, believed drowned by the authorities but never by Rebecca, not completely. She holds out the depressing hope that Joseph will come back to her somehow if she just continues to love him, and as far as she's concerned, she has no choice. He was a once-in-a-lifetime find in her mind, and her faith in his eventual return may well be all she has to keep her going. As for Batman and Joker, the conclusion of their shared story is as typical as the beginning was: Joker re-kidnaps his previous victim, Batman determinedly hunts Joker down and bests him, Joker ends up in custody. There is a moment where Batman has to show that he's better than the baddies by saving the Joker's life rather than letting him drown, but...the reader understands that Batman essentially killed Joseph, so he ends up as much a villain as the Joker. He might be the worse of the two. After all, Joker is just doing his Joker thing from top to bottom. Batman's stubbornness, his unwillingness to do exactly what the Joker did and transition into a new, peaceful life based on love rather than hate, it kills and innocent man and breaks the heart of an innocent woman. And yes, ok, the innocent man was just a false persona the Joker's brain manufactured to protect him from the shock of killing Batman, and the Joker identity would probably have bubbled back to the surface at some point even if Batman stayed away, indeed was starting to do before Batman returned, but still. Batman ends up being the cause of the Joker's victory over Joseph's will to keep existing, and that makes me kind of hate Batman. Joseph deserved a better ending, and Rebecca damn sure did.
     Of course, the tragic endings for all the characters are also part of what make Going Sane so good, because we see them all coming from the start, yet they still hurt when they finally arrive. DeMatteis builds the story intelligently, giving himself a lot of space to make the Rebecca-Joseph romance click as fast and fully as it needs to for the rest of the story to succeed. Artists Joe Staton and Steve Mitchell (pencils and inks, respectively) also do really strong work with Joseph's design and whole physicality. He is a little hunched and withdrawn, with sunken yet soft facial features. It's all built on what is recognizably the Joker's frame, but in such a way as to set the two characters apart as well. That's important, because we need to believe that Joseph is the Joker, but also feel for him the opposite of what we feel for the Joker, seeing them as separate people while knowing they share a body. The art is more responsible for that than the script by far.
     It all comes together to make for a brief but beautiful look at the whole Joker-Batman thing, the mutual dependance and two-way corruption that are the core of their relationship. Going Sane doesn't just suggest that Batman might be responsible for the Joker, it places that responsibility square on his shoulders by making his reappearance the final straw for Joseph. Yet Batman knows nothing about it, and thus has no reason to even consider that he might give the Joker a reason to be. And the good that Batman does is underlined, too; Lynn tells a story about Batman saving her once from what would most likely have been her murder, not just by pummeling her attacker but through providing her comfort after the fact. She calls him a healer, and it's a valid point, but I'm not sure it makes up for the demolition of Rebecca's whole world or the destruction of Joseph Kerr as a person. That's the main attraction of this story, and the reason I picked it for a Superb Heroes column: the hero and villain each get to play hero and villain at different times along the way, and they're both equally compelling and effective in both roles. This comic erases the average superhero genre good-evil dichotomy and presents a reality in which the scales can slide dramatically with any shift in circumstances. That's a nicely nuanced, entertaining, frustrating-in-a-good-way approach to superhero storytelling, and it goes especially well with the classic Batman-Joker rivalry.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Terminal Hero #2 Review

Last month, I somewhat randomly reviewed the debut issue of Terminal Hero, and even though it's a little late in coming, I thought I'd review the second issue as well. This decision was motivated by a few things: 1. I wanted to write something tonight but didn't have a ton of ideas or fresh material, 2. I continue to be a little unsure of how I feel about this book so I want to keep hashing it out here, and 3. I'm kind of into the notion of doing full reviews of every issue, now that I've been inspired to do the first two. And we're off.
     As with Terminal Hero #1, this issue felt like it covered enough ground to have been a full arc. Milligan is compressing the hell out of this story, and on principal I like that. It does make me wonder where it's going in the long term, because how many times can a protagonist have his life completely overturned before it gets old? This time out, Rory gets drafted by British Intelligence to be an assassin in exchange for them covering up the fact that he murdered his best friend. He then commits several assassinations while developing a sexually charged and combative dynamic with his government handler, Agent Davenport. Meanwhile, he continues his arguably healthy relationship with fellow doctor Emma, but continues to worry how safe it is for her to be with him, then decides to call it off with her and at the same time reveal his powers to her. He also meets Dr. Quigley, the man who developed the experimental Treatment Q that gave Rory those powers, and at Quigley's request Rory kills him, rather than using him for information like Davenport wants. Finally, Rory loses control of himself on a mission and blows up an entire building full of innocent victims, and decides that in order to be free he needs to convince the governemtn he's dead. So he switches places with one of the victims, using his powers to give a corpse his fingerprints, face, etc. and changing his own appearance as well.
     Like I said, there's a lot going on, more than enough to have been stretched over several installments. The debut issue included several huge shake-ups: Rory's tumor, the discovery of Treatment Q, the subsequent powers, and the ultimate murder of Raz. Issue #2 does it again, with the government hiring Rory, his first sanctioned murder, his break-up with Emma, the encounter with Quigley, and the identity swap at the end all constituting sharp turns in his path. This is a narrative that moves with vigor from idea to idea, relentlessly assaulting the main character with enormous decisions and earth-shattering events. On the one hand, it makes Terminal Hero feel dense and active, but it also lessens the impact of each of these large moments. Quigley's death in particular happens so suddenly, and after we get only the most cursory glance at who he is as a person. If the pattern holds, every issue will include a one-page opener about Qigley's past, so we may learn more as time goes on, but having him on stage here for the sole purpose of eliminating him seems like a wasted opportunity. And with his demise sandwiched between several other significant beats, it doesn't carry much if any emotional weight. Rory barely acknowledges that it happens, and though Davenport reacts strongly at first, she lets it go almost immediately.
     Even Rory's reason for agreeing to the government wetwork is weak and rushed; he's so worried about what Raz's sweet old mother will think of him if the world believes he's Raz's killer, and so afraid of maybe someday running into her and having to face her pain and anger, he decides it's worth giving up any agency in his life and becoming a living weapon. That's a hard motive to buy into when we know so little about Raz and Rory's friendship, and what we have seen included a pretty major abuse of trust from Raz that led to his death. Rory's captions insist they were best friends, and Emma has a line about how Raz "really loved" Rory, but being told something isn't the same as being convinced of its truth or narrative legitimacy. The thing about Raz's mom comes across as Milligan's hand-waving attempt to get on with the British Intelligence plotline quickly enough to wrap it up in a single chapter.
     On top of all this, Rory's not someone I particularly care about. I'm interested in his story, because the concept of someone with so much power being such a misguided and self-interested schmuck is exciting and scary, but his dickishness also makes me not give a shit whether he wins or loses, lives or dies. Truth be told, what I'd like is to see him eventually get taken out somehow and then a new person be exposed to Treatment Q in some way, to watch how this insane amount of mental ability would affect different kinds of people. Rory is a fine enough subject for now, but I don't know how long I'm going to want to follow the fucked up adventures of such a terrible guy.
     Piotr Kowalski and Kelly Fitzpatrick both continue to do great stuff on the art side of things. The scenes between Rory and Emma worked especially well for me. There was a nice naturalness to their interactions, whether sex, postcoital cuddling, or the borderline violent break-up conversation, and that went a long way toward making up for how little page space their relationship is given. I'm hopeful that there will be more of Emma down the line, in any capacity, because she seems like one of the few people who might be able to help Rory rather than try to take advantage of him.
     Dr. Quigley as a pathetic, comically obese sad sack and the weird, underground, sci-fi containment unit holding him was another excellent image, just horrifically disgusting enough to be fascinating but never off-putting. I'd like to wish for more of him, too, and indeed when he first showed up I assumed it meant he'd be at least a recurring part of the cast, but he's dead now so I'm guessing this issue was all we're going to get of the sweaty, scared, overstuffed man-child. He could always come back to life or show up in flashback scenes—in the flashbacks we've seen so far, he's not yet imprisoned and therefore not so monstrous in his appearance—but as of now it seems like dead means dead in Terminal Hero, so I won't be holding my breath. It's another downside of the book's pacing: some of the best characters and visuals don't get the stage time they probably deserve.
     I hate to harp on the speed so much, because over-decompression is such a lame trend in comics, and Terminal Hero is nothing if not entertaining, in no small part because of the rate at which it powers forward all the time. The art is still the best aspect of the series, but the thickness of the story, the non-stop rhythm of the mounting madness in Rory's life, is a big part of the appeal, too. Aggravatingly, it is also still the biggest thing preventing Terminal Hero from fully digging into any of its concepts, which in turn makes it hard to know what's worth investing in as a reader. When a new status quo can come and go in half an issue or less, it's a little difficult to get too enthusiastic about anything that seems cool when introduced, because I don't want to get my hopes up if it's just another quick pit stop in the race that is this story.