Sunday, March 11, 2007
Comics! The King is dead, and all that!
The thing you have to understand about today's comics, the thing that trumps everything else, is how goddam GOOD they are, almost universally across the board. And by 'good' we here at Stevereads mean 'written for adults' - in the very best way that can be meant. Not 'adult fanboys,' but actual card-carrying adults. Dramatic storytelling. Expert pacing. On-spot characterization. And artwork that's better than it ever has been.
The latest batch of comics Elmo stole from my archnemesis Pepito illustrates this fact handily enough. Every title in the pile, each individual one, is pound for pound better than most of the issues in each title's history.
Even devil's advocate - Brad Meltzer's current incarnation of the Justice League is undoubtedly a failure; the pacing is all wrong, the narrative flow is an unmitigated disaster; you'd need an abacus to count all the missed chances, dramatically speaking.
This should be everything, keep in mind: a newly-intelligent Solomon Grundy manipulating Amazo to destroy a fledgling Justice League - that's grade-A stuff, mythic stuff. And even in devil's advocate, even on a title that's a failure, there's a degree of intelligence and energy in the storytelling that if nothing else give hope of better days ahead.
(Even so, we had to laugh at the scene where an enraged Vixen dive-bombs Amazo from high overhead, accelerating to 217 miles per hour; right before impact, she whispers 'triceratops,' so I guess we're supposed to think she's manifesting the weight and power of a triceratops in order to hit Amazo that much harder ... and she does, oh-so-coolly ripping him in two. Somebody should get a memo to Meltzer right away on what would REALLY happen if she hit a solid target at 217 mph with 9000 pounds of mass behind her. We won't spoil the surprise here at Stevereads, but you should all be thinking not of lame-ass third-tier superheroes but of Seaworld ... where the first three rows WILL GET WET!)
But devil's advocate isn't necessary for most of this batch. Jeff Smith, for instance, is always a delight, and the second issue of his Shazam! mini-series is full of good stuff - from a Doctor Sivana unabashedly modelled on Dick Cheney to a version of talking-tiger Mr. Tawny that actually manages to be cool (of course, if anybody can make a talking cat cool, it's Jeff Smith). The only qualm-causing aspect of the issue is Smith's revamp of Mary Marvel - getting her powers as per usual, but staying a little five-year-old girl. To say the least, the effect is creepy - so we're earnestly hoping the powers that be at DC don't take it into their heads to make Smith's mini-series in any way part of normal continuity.
Still, Smith's artwork and writing are so clean, so much fun - we earnestly wish he'd consider doing a comic book version of Lil' Abner. He'd be perfect for it.
Then there's the latest issue of Detective Comics, featuring quick, intelligent writing by Stuart Moore and highly detailed artwork by Andy Clarke, artwork that takes a little while to catch up to you. There's nothing remotely earth-shaking in the issue - standard Batman-and-Robin-vs-bad guy stuff, but considering how many titles at Marvel and DC are in the midst of reality-redefining catastrophies, that's something of a blessing.
Did somebody mention reality-redefining catastrophies? Well of course that's the heart and soul of DC's '52,' and after a sucky issue last week, this week rebounds incredibly, packing all the pathos, drama, and ass-kicking of an old-fashioned Lee/Kirby multi-issue epic into a mere 25 pages. We here at Stevereads have in previous entries praised the creation of heavy-hitting new characters like Isis and Osiris - well, we should have spared ourselves the trouble, since they both get offed in this issue (she's napalmed and he's EATEN ... hee). But we're not complaining, because in the process the powers that be at DC are transforming Black Adam into something remarkable. We thank whatever gods may be that he (and Renee Montoya) are turning out to be the real stars of '52,' not the much-hyped and thoroughly ridiculous lesbian Batwoman (and where's the press attention for the latest issue of Outsiders, which featured lesbian action so graphically depicted I wanted to shield Elmo's eyes?).
Discerning eyes will have noticed that all the successes so far are from DC, and there's a good reason for that: Marvel is currently experiencing a downward-spiral of suckitude unseen since the launch of the New Universe, many moons ago, and nothing seems to be able to stop the tailspin.
Not even something as well-done and sweet at the 45th anniversary issue of the Fantastic Four, which did have its moments (like the charming tone of Ben Grimm's dealings with little Franklin and Val, or Sue matter-of-factly referring to Ben as the heart and soul of the team, or Doctor Doom - of all people - pointing out the evils Reed Richards committed during the Civil War). But nothing write Dwayne McDuffie can do gets around the fact that the FF split up and fought AGAINST each other in Civil War (a point worth repeating, no? During the climactic battle of Civil War #7, Reed Richards is there to beat and LOCK UP his wife and her brother). The issue's main story ends with Reed and Sue leaving the team to 'work on their marriage,' but it can only turn a blind eye toward all the open cans of worms left over from Civil War.
The main one of these is the fact that Civil War tore Marvel's community of superheroes in half, and it LEFT things that way - sign up or get locked up in the Phantom Zone, period. Not a dream. Not a hoax. Not an imaginary story. The basic state of affairs now in Marvel Comcics is a fascist dictatorship - that kinda makes it hard to go back to telling ordinary superhero stories about Mole Man attacking Manhattan.
Which makes the first issue of Brian Michael Bendis' 'the Initiative' launch of the Avengers all the more ironic, since in it, Mole Man DOES attack Manhattan, and a newly-minted team of Avengers spring into action to fight the menace.
You can't help but trip over problems, right from the first page, when the Wasp asks 'Am I to assume a training exercise to see how we work together is completely out of the question?'
She gets a smug response, and a very large amount of property damage ensues - exactly the kind of thing the Registration Act was designed to prevent.
The battle itself isn't all that interesting, except for the fantastic artwork of Frank Cho. No, the issue's only real point of interest is the sequence of scenes in which Tony Stark and Carol Danvers, standing before a cool wall-display of every 'right-thinking' superhero currently in play. Like a couple of mouth-breathing virginal fanboys (pause here while Hippolyta deadpans 'is there any other kind?'), they set out to assemble 'the greatest roster ever.'
Cue the irony here, since the roster arrived at is the single worst one since the dark days of the Forgotten One and Doctor Druid.
Iron Man, of course, and the Wasp, and the always-pleasing presence of the Black Widow (the Steve Epting-pencilled stretch where she led the team stands as one of the best runs on the title). But after that, things start to fall apart - Ms. Marvel is OK, but the perennially-boring Wonder Man is here straight out of the 80s, right down to the inability to fly and the Reagan-era tracksuit. Add to that the only superhero in the Marvel lineup MORE boring than Wonder Man - the Sentry, as dumb and derivative a character as anybody's dreamt up in quite some time. Super-strength, vague energy-powers ... whatever! Yech. And that pales beside the final member, the Greek god Ares, who for the last 30 years has been one of Thor's super-villains. He cares nothing for mortal life, and he carries an enormous axe - but hey, at least he registered.
Still, the discussions are interesting. Carol Danvers asks the question Avengers (indeed, super-team) fans have always asked: why not just assemble a team of powerhouses? At one point Carol declares that the Wasp was the best Avenger, and at another point Stark says the same of Thor. Neither nominates Captain America, and the reader can't help but notice the reason why: because Carol and Stark are both victorious Nazis, and Cap is off in a gulag somewhere. It couldn't matter less whether or not our team stops Mole Man: it's bad guy v.s. bad guy.
The whole thing is made all the more depressing by Bendis' comments in the letters page (you almost expect disagreeable parts of each letter in the future to be blacked out). He promises a big surge of super-villains in upcoming weeks, and he writes "Now that we know who the heroes are, we will set up for the villains."
Some of us - especially those of us who maintain that there's no second, subversive meaning behind all this Civil War nonsense - aren't quite so certain we now 'know' who the heroes are, but it's instructive to know that Bendis doesn't have that problem.
But then, none of this touches on the week's comic that everybody's most likely to have heard about, right? Talk about press attention: in the latest issue of Captain America, a handcuffed Steve Rogers is heart-shot by a hypnotized Sharon Carter. See the news on your local evening broadcast.
There are at least eight different ways this could be reversed, but we here at Stevereads think not. Given the current fascistic atmosphere at Marvel, we think the Steve Rogers Captain America might very well be dead, the identity to be replaced by ... well, what the Hell difference does it make WHAT replaces him? The whole foundation of the Marvel universe is now rotten beyond recall, except by some kind of total rewrite. Which would be - will be - boring and time-consuming and utterly manipulative.
It's a sad state of affairs, but at least we still have DC, surfing an almost unprecedented high.