Monday, October 29, 2007

Comics!



Jimmy Steranko stopped by our palatial offices here at Stevereads the other day, and we shot the comic shat over overbrewed coffee. As is his style, he quickly got down to brass tacks:

“Dammit, Stevey, why ain’t ya reviewin’ comics no more? Ya know dad blamed well yers was the only voice a’ truth on th’ whole dad-blamed subject, an’ ya dad-blamed know it!”

To which we replied, ‘Jimmy, why in the Hell are you talking like a ten-penny San Antonio cowpoke?’

But we got his point: since we here at Stevereads have stopped reviewing comics, there’s been a gaping void in the whole comics-reviewing worldframe, a voice, an impartial and highly entertaining voice, something that’s been conspicuously missing since we here at Stevereads stopped cataloging every single screwup Marvel Comics makes from week to week.

It made us nostalgic for the whole scene, so we flew out to Boston’s wonderful, jam-packed comics destination, Comicopia, and picked up a couple of things.

A couple, because the entirety of the Marvel Universe can still be safely ignored (even the two-issue-old and already-stalled Thor relaunch, despite its magnificent artwork, is complicit in the evil plot-foundation of the whole continuity – nothing but the wholesale revocation of that premise can save the franchise, and since that’s not likely anytime soon, we can comfortably ignore Marvel in favor of DC, which is a far bigger and more interesting universe anyway, so no harm done).

So we can concentrate on two issues, one bad (hey, even DC isn’t perfect) and one good.

The bad issue is the latest Justice League of America, a bad issue of a bad run of a badly-conceived revamp. The problem with the revamp in general is that it shouldn’t have happened in the first place – the previous incarnation of the title wasn’t broken, it didn’t need fixing. You take the Big Seven – Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, and the Martian Manhunter (personally, we here at Stevereads would change that fan-honored roster, bumping off the impossibly derivative Martian Manhunter in favor of Black Canary, who’s always been a great character and who’s been handled better in the last ten years than ever in her sixty year history), and you put them through their paces in both intimate and epic stories. You explore endlessly the interplay of their personalities, but you don’t add members (except for honorary memberships handed out to third-stringers and sick children), and you don’t subtract members, and you don’t have anybody act out of character, not egregiously so, in any case.

That formula was good, well, forever – there was no reason to change it. But if you felt you had to change it, there would still never be any reason imaginable to involve such embarrassingly fourth-rate character ideas as Vixen (she can mimic animal powers! Rwaaarwr!) or to involve the Red Tornado, whose only superpower is being disassembled by every single bad guy who’s ever even looked at him funny.

The new incarnation of the title makes these and innumerable other mistakes, most signally including boneheaded shadow-versions of the iconic central characters. The storyline here is the rebuilding of the Injustice League by Lex Luthor, and in the initial issue Wonder Woman is defeated and taken captive by Doctor Light, the Cheetah, and Killer Frost (Hawkgirl only barely escapes the same fate, but it doesn’t matter – she’s captured about five minutes later, probably by the Dominos pizza delivery guy) – which is the equivalent of Superman being beaten by Iceman, Tigra, and Dazzler, and which should have been the first indication that writer Dwayne McDuffie was going to use the oldest gimmick in the book to make his villains look extra-badass: pit them against shadow-versions of the heroes. In this way the entire team is taken hostage except Superman and Black Lightning, and that’s where things stand when issue #14 opens.

At that opening, our heroes are being taunted by Lex Luthor, who shows them videos of their helpless teammates being tortured, and who admits that the reason he’s doing this is to tick off Superman, to induce him to stop thinking clearly and just act out of rage. After making these taunts, Luthor teleports back to the secret lair of the Injustice League and intones that if he knows Superman, they won’t have to wait long for him to come crashing through the ceiling. But when Superman a bit later does exactly that (having allowed himself, despite clear warning to the contrary, to become ticked off and stop thinking clearly), Luthor is totally surprised and unprepared, and McDuffie doesn’t seem to notice or care about the contradiction. Instead, he’s busy having Superman commit murder.

Which is what happens if, as in this issue, Superman grabs up the power-absorbing Parasite at super-speed and hurls him into the sky before he’s had a chance to absorb anybody’s powers – and which raises the question of why Superman didn’t just vaporize his head via heat vision from a safe distance. Not that this precautionary manslaughter matters – Superman and Black Lightning are quickly and easily dispatched by Cheetah, Poison Ivy, and an elderly UPS guy, setting up the conclusion of this farce next issue, when, we here at Stevereads confidently predict, the League, completely helpless and totally at the mercy of their worst enemies, will manage by a fluke to get the upper hand and save the day, which in this case translates merely into saving their own incompetent asses.

Fortunately, the fact that a major flagship title like Justice League is managing to suck so bad issue after issue is a bizarre rarity at DC, where most of the best titles are being done with skill and very visible enthusiasm every month. Take the newly-revived relaunch of the venerable title The Brave and the Bold. It’s seven issues strong and has been consistently fantastic.

Of course, a large part of this is due to the otherworldly-great artwork of George Perez, here back from his 31st official retirement from drawing comics. His work is so inhumanly detailed, so kinetically gripping, that it can effortlessly carry even a lame story.

And this story is a little on the lame side, hinging on magic possession and centering on the fourth-rate villain Doctor Alchemy, who has managed to place a post-hypnotic suggestion in Power Girl’s mind that, when triggered, will compel her to kill Superman. The issue opens with Wonder Woman and Power Girl in battle together against a horde of killer mummies, and in the aftermath of this fight, while Power Girl is handing Wonder Woman her lasso of truth, she blurts out the buried compulsion, until then unaware that she’d even been carrying it around in her unconscious mind. Of course Power Girl is furious at this violation and wants to charge off and pulverize whoever’s responsible, and when Wonder Woman advises caution and planning, the two almost come to blows (and they do fight later, twice, because that’s what characters in team-up titles do, and the fights are inconclusive, which is probably just as well – after all, despite her retro codename, Power Girl is a full-grown adult, as close to being Superwoman as the DC universe comes; it only makes sense that she’d be able to hold her own against Wonder Woman).

Eventually, they find Doctor Alchemy and foil his plan and save Superman in is Fortress of Solitude. The issue’s ending is quick and easy, its spirit is resolutely upbeat, the characters stay in character, and no violence is done to anybody’s continuity. Once upon a time, ALL comics were like this (only very seldom drawn this well), and there was a reason for that: it works. #7 of Brave and Bold left us hungry for #8.

But alas, despite Jimmy Steranko’s pleading, it’s unlikely we here at Stevereads will be reviewing that or any other issue … there are simply too many demands on our time. Luckily, there are new voices to be heard, new shoulders to take up the burden. We here at Stevereads are happy to recommend one such new voice, that of our colleague Gianni, who is now holding court on all things comics over at The Latest Issue. Give it a look (or, as Jimmy would say, a look-see) and be sure to leave plenty of comments!

7 comments:

Kevin Caron said...

Neat! It sounds like the 'Bwah-ha-ha' JLA is back!

Oh wait - that issue was supposed to be serious?

The only problem with your 'replace Martian Manhunter with Black Canary' theory is that you'd be sticking her relatively powerless ass among titans - I've always thought that she suffers in such a contrast. Better to keep her alongside Batmen and Green Arrows and Birds of Prey.

Also, stop hating on lovable Martian Manhunter! Go re-read your DC: The New Frontier to increase your Martian ManLove.

I don't care how well Perez draws it, that cleavage hole in PG's costume looks ridiculous.

I'm off to Gianni's blog! Peace!

steve said...

'relatively powerless'???

It's not a question of power, as you bloody well know. If power-level is your quibble, let's officially amp up her sonic powers a bit. Even without that, she still has more 'power' than Batman, and nobody questions HIS place in the key roster.

The reason is that he's such a great character, and so is Black Canary, especially as she's now portrayed: tough, daughter of a super-hero, living link to the storied past. She makes a great counter-point to the august and godlike Wonder Woman.

The only reason you're swooning over Martian Manhunter is because he's been around so long he's like part of the furniture. But he's only ever been a lame Superman ripoff, and the sheer amplitude and variety of his powers makes using him accurately virtually impossible.

But I knew all along that I was tilting at a windmill, so I'm OK with the big green guy.

Gianni said...

Actually, I thought he made a perfect foil for Superman, because he shares so many of Superman's traits (including being an alien, the last of his species, heroes living on earth) but he's lonely since many humans don't feel comfortable around him, whereas Supes has it relatively easy, since he "looks" human. By your own telling, Wonder Woman would also be "a lame Superman ripoff"

Kevin Caron said...

Uh oh - a dig on Steve's sacred Wonder Woman... This oughta get good...

Another thing I like about Martian Manhunter is that his powers have a more subtle side, such as telepathy, invisibility, shape shifting...

And you can't really talk powerless when it comes to DC's interpretation of Batman over the last 15 years - sure, he should be on the weak side, but he's consistently portrayed as second only to Superman, due to pure guile and Batmanniness. Something which has always annoyed me, honestly.

Gianni said...

BTW, thanks for the plug, Steve. I'm finally rested from my trip south, and I have plenty of material to cover from the past week that should let me fire some posts out in rapid-fire succession. Look for my next post tomorrow evening!

steve said...

But he DOESN'T make a perfect foil! He doesn't specifically BECAUSE of his wacky-ass Chinese menu list of powers - one of which is the power to look ... wait for it ... COMPLETELY NORMAL! His 'loneliness' is completely self-induced!

And I'll graciously overlook the scurrilous comment about Wonder Woman ...

Kevin Caron said...

"And I'll graciously overlook the scurrilous comment about Wonder Woman ..."

boooor-ring...

I guess the difference is that Superman was born on earth, looking human, thinking he was human, versus MM, born on mars, looking Martian, raising a Martian family - sure, he can look human, but he know's he isn't.

Also, he's green and cool-looking and loves Oreos.