Sunday, March 25, 2007

Comics! Immortal Combat in the JSA!

It wasn't peppery young Elmo nor yet our archnemesis Pepito who provided us with the fourth issue of Geoff Johns' relaunch of Justice Society of America - it was instead our smart, laid-back (and, not incidentally, pretty damn funny) young friend Mr. Allison, who seemed impressed by the issue (Elmo had already warned us that the issue was a 'feast').

And feast it certainly is - Johns again demonstrates a beautiful sense of pacing and character. He's completely wrong for a big, sprawling team book, but watching him try so hard to prove otherwise is worth the price of admission every issue.

And he's not afraid of the epic, either - he shares that with Brad Meltzer over in Justice League. There, a newly-intelligent Solomon Grundy uses a sooped up Amazo to attack the Justice League; here, Vandal Savage uses crews of super-powered Nazis to attack the descendents of the original Justice Society. Both are great big ambitious plots, and both writers fail them miserably.

Hard, without an abacus handy, to even count all that's wrong with this Justice Society issue. Dale Eaglesham's artwork is wonderful as always, but it's hampered by a choreography that sucks like a sump-pump.

Take the opening combat between Vandal Savage and Wildcat's kitty-cat young son (can we have a moratorium, please, on cat-based superheroes? Every single last one of them - most certainly including this new one, ripped from four panels of 'Kingdom Come' - are unbearably lame-ass): in one panel, the two of them are squared off face to face. In the next panel, Kitty-cat is leaping over Savage's left shoulder from behind. And so on and so forth (there isn't a panel of the Wildcats/Savage fight that makes a lick of sense).

Or take the Blue Valley scene, in which a detachment of the JSA rescues a bunch of civilians from a bunch of the Nazi super-villains dispatched by Vandal Savage. Has a lamer sooper-battle ever been contrived in a modern comic? There's a super-speed battle between the Flash and 'Baroness' Blitzkrieg that's more boring to look at than two pensioners playing chess in Central Park, but there's not much else.

And that doesn't hold a candle to the other set-piece of the issue, the confrontation in Philadelphia between another squad of the JSA and an even bigger batch of super-powered Nazis (one of whom is a super-powered version of a TOPLESS BISMARCK ... an idea that could ONLY have made sense while the Johns was deeply, philosophically stoned). Yeesh, what a disaster. Here the artwork is at its most static, and with its most crippling lack of credibility. Captain Nazi opens the sequence by hurling the Liberty Bell at a hapless group of civilians. He's duly chastised for this by our very own useless heroine Liberty Belle, right before Hawkman and Green Lantern engage with this Captain Nazi in close-on combat. That fight should by rights last an entire issue (and end only one way), but here it's over after a page, and it happens OFF PANEL. In the meantime, Damage blows up the fat Bismarck-guy and accidentally catches useless little Liberty Belle in the concussion. She very melodramatically falls down, but she's back on her feet, apparently unharmed, in four panels. The new useless Hourman helps her up, and he and she and Damage have a nice cozy little chat right there in the heat of battle, just as we see a trim and healthy Captain Nazi tossing aside an unconscious Hawkman and Green Lantern. This patent piece of silliness is done only to set up a face-to-face confrontation between Damage and Captain Nazi. Just as the evil Nazi is taunting Damage about his disfigured appearance, he's finally struck down - not by Hawkman, the seven-thousand-year-old warrior-hero, and not by Green Lantern, one of the most powerful beings in the DC universe ... nope, by useless little Liberty Belle THROWING THE LIBERTY BELL at him. So remember that, the next time you're facing a super-powered Nazi: when battle-maces and energy-rings fail, just hit him with a cracked, 260-year-old BELL.

But the biggest problem with this issue is also its biggest strength: Vandal Savage.

Mr. Allison isn't the only comic-reader we've known who puts his finger right on it: Vandal Savage is a seriously kick-ass villain. It's odd that DC, with its long and rich history, doesn't have more of these, but in this as in so many things, much depends on the execution. There's Lex Luthor, of course, but the whole gimmick of villain-as-respected-businessman only works for limited time (although the current run of DC continuity - most certainly including the latest twists and turns over in '52' - has milked it a wonderfully long time). And there's Darkseid for the epic dimension, although even thirty years ago, Keith Giffen in 'Ambush Bug' was keen to how easily the character can be tipped into parody. And there's the Joker, easily DC's most complex and compelling villain (the only one the other villains should be afraid of ... in other words, the villain-equivalent of Batman), although the number of DC writers over the years who've been able to convey that can be counted on the fingers of one hand (and that number certainly won't be increased by the next Batman movie, Heath Ledger being a literally incomprehensible casting choice).

But Vandal Savage? He's the serpent in DC's garden of Eden - an immortal who's been around since the birth of mankind, EVIL the whole time (the corresponding good guy, Immortal Man, was always a wuss by comparison and proved it by DYING in the first Crisis, the tool). No superpowers to speak of, although tough as nails, and most of all, embodying every time the intangible quality of COOL. Meltzer over in Justice League chose brute force - Grundy and Amazo - over that element (ironically enough, one of the prime candidates for that category in the DC universe is Doctor Destiny, who makes a surprise appearance at the end of this very JSA issue), but Johns clearly had the peculiar generational nature of the JSA in mind when he picked a villain who's seen the team in all its incarnations (this could also be said for Per Degaton and the Ultra-Humanite, but to say the least, they both lack the aforementioned cool factor).

The problem is, Vandal Savage should be unbeatable. The only way to make him NOT unbeatable is to indadvertently make him ridiculous, which is what happens in this issue. He boasts of starting world wars, of being the power behind Hitler, of discovering fire - but what's he DOING while he's boasting of all this? Breaking crockery in a tiny kitchen fighting Wildcat's gay kitty-cat bastard son. Cue the ridiculous.

Vandal Savage should be unbeatable because ANY immortal would be. If you want to eliminate the next generation of the Justice Society, you don't send stupid-ass Nazi death-squads to ambush them at family reunions; you pay a drug addict $20 to plow a car through an intersection and flatten them when they're five. You pay an orderly $2000 to pinch an IV when the next generation is in its cradle. Against an enemy who implaccably hates you and who has forever to do it, mortals - no matter how brave or powerful they might be in the maturity between their helpless infancy and their defenseless old age - cannot possibly win. If you make Vandal Savage that implaccable, undying enemy, you create a story with only one plausible ending.

Needless to say, pinched IV's are not the stuff of four-color comics, so this issue has dorkus-malorkus Nazi death-squads and Vandal Savage fighting a kitty-cat in a kitchen and eventually getting hit by a truck (guess the one thing he didn't learn in 100,000 years was to LOOK BOTH WAYS). So a carefully-laid and meticulously-crafted plan to eliminate the Justice Society fails because some guy gets hit by a bell and some other guy gets hit by a truck. And for this Johns gets to call himself a writer.

And yet, and yet ... the issue, the whole storyline, has been FUN, something that's certainly missing over in Justice League. And with the promise of Legion activity right around the corner (Dream Girl AND Lightning Lord on the last page!), it looks fair to KEEP being fun. We here at Stevereads will certainly be there to see.


hellmo said...

Next time you're about to read the best comic in existence, pass that stone first, ay sonny?

Sam Sacks said...

The Liberty Bell is cracked!? Whoa--that is so ironic.

Kevin Caron said...

Hellmo - am I hearing you right? JSA is your absolute favorite comic book? Or is it your favorite comic right now?

Either way, I'm a little surprised...

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