Sunday, September 19, 2010

Comics! Crisis Revisited!

This certainly isn't the comics entry I thought I'd make this week. In the saturation-bombing leading up to the release of its next mega-movie, Marvel Comics has been dusting off and rolling out every old Thor-related project they've been sitting on, and they've been commissioning every new Thor-related thing they can. The Thor movie – directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring Anthony Hopkins as Odin – will doubtless be a wowsy experience (I'm hoping against hope that it isn't done in 3-D; I don't know how many times I'm going to have to survive that intensely idiotic fad before it's gone for good), and since Thor is my favorite Marvel character, I'll not only be seeing it in the theater but I'm as happy as anybody for the glut of Thor-titles on the comic shop shelves these days. I love what's out, and I'm hoping for more (starting with bringing the black-and-white 'Essential' reprints of the character down to the great Walter Simonson era) – so you'd naturally expect that any week featuring not one, not two, but three new Thor titles would generate a Thor-entry here at Stevereads, where we've had Thor entries before.

But no! The single most remarkable thing on the comics shelves this week (purchased in this case not from my beloved Comicopia but from the unreconstructed nerds at JP Comics & Games, who've managed to assemble a first-rate little shop of comics and games at a time when brick-and-mortar stores are disappearing about as fast as vegans in Iowa; if you're in scenic Jamaica Plain, by all means stop in and give those virgins your business!) isn't Thor-related at all: it's the fifth issue of DC Comics' “Legacies” mini-series.

This series ought to be attracting a lot more attention than it is. DC decided to draw on some of the top creative talents in the superhero comics industry and re-tell the history of its imaginative universe, from its beginnings with the cloaked and cowled mystery men of the 30s, to the Nazi-smashing heyday of the Second World War, and then on through the seminal events of the DC continuity. Each chapter so far has been superb – I'm enjoying the series immensely and will certainly spring for the collected edition when all the chapter are done – but nothing prepared me for the artistic or emotional wallop of this fifth issue.

In terms of 'seminal events,' few things in DC's history compare with 1985's “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” a twelve-issue mini-series in which the company sought to streamline its problematically profuse continuity by means of a storyline in which an unstoppable wall of anti-energy sweeps through the multi-verse of alternate dimensions (see? Confusing, and that's just the summary), eliminating and consolidating all the hundreds of various alternate-Earths and variation-superheroes into one smooth backstory. Of course, comics beings comics, the plot was more complicated than that, involving one of the lamest super-villains in DC's history – which is saying a lot, considering that this is the company that thought a guy with eyeballs on the ends of his fingers would make a terror-inducing enemy for Batman (instead, he ended up with twelve black eyes). But the main import of the story was its epic scope – all the heroes of all the various worlds of the DC universe, desperately fighting to stave off what looks like completely annihilation.

And aside from the epic scale, there was one other stand-out thing in “Crisis”: the amazing artwork of George Perez. He'd been pleasing fans long before this mini-series came along, but it was only in these pages that he first demonstrated just how sprawling and mind-bogglingly detailed his pencils could get. His work on “Crisis” raised the 'epic mini-series' art-bar so high that for years, he himself was the only one who could reach it.

So it made perfect sense for DC to want Perez to be the artist for the issue of “Legacies” that recaps “Crisis” for a new audience. But that's easier said than done these days: Perez does no regular series work anymore and has 'retired' from comics about as often as Stephen King has retired from writing bad novels. Booking Perez was by no means a given – but here he is, in this issue, drawing 18 utterly glorious pages of re-tread DC history. It's a visual feast, made all the more memorable by the fact that it was Perez himself who provided the original milestone artwork for most of the events retold in this issue: not only “Crisis” itself but the mega-successful re-launch of the Teen Titans in their own book.

So the issue was like a homecoming (must have seemed like one for writer Len Wein as well), and maybe any other artist would have used such an occasion to coast on nostalgia. Instead, Perez page after page of his top-form pencils, including both the epic and the particular.

On the epic side, there are the issue's two show-stoppers, which are really just the same enormous scene drawn from two different angles. The first is the cover itself, showing the assembled heroes of the DC universe scrambling to save as many civilians as possible from the wave of brilliant anti-energy that's consuming a city street. The shot is from 'superhero level' (we're dead even with Superman himself), and its level of detail is really amazing. Perez makes the wise decision here to give us symbolic rather than literal action – obviously, if you need 30 superheroes to evacuate one city street, you'd be talking about some pretty shoddy superheroes; Superman and the various Flash's could evacuate an entire city in mere minutes, after all, as could any of the various Green Lanterns. Instead, what we get is a great illustration of heroes helping people in the face of disaster.

Then 18 pages in, we get the same scene (with one or two minor details mysteriously changed) from the ground-level viewpoint of the ordinary cop who narrates the series. The elements are all in their same places, but the composition has an entirely different impact, here stressing the desperation and confusion somebody without super-powers might feel in such a desperate situation. The two scenes side-by-side are a masterful performance.

No less masterful are the little pauses Perez takes, the priceless visual flourishes he puts in that most comic book artists either leave out or botch. He's always done this: “Crisis on Infinite Earths” is loaded with such little moments, including my favorite (I actually wrote about it when “Crisis” first came out, under a pseudonym, for a dear publication that's long gone, so it's oddly gratifying to be able to mention it again in the alleged permanence of the Internet), when Wonder Girl fails to see the wall falling toward her and is only saved at the last minute by a super-speeding Superman – a neat little reminder that even to other super-heroes, the Man of Steel is a life-saver:

In this issue of “Legacies,” there's a wonderful sequence where our ordinary heroes – two cops who've responded to the blazing red skies that presage the catastrophe – suddenly realize they're not the only heroes to respond to the emergency:

Of course, savoring stuff like this makes me wish DC had somehow convinced Perez to draw the whole mini-series. It would have made sense; Perez drew the two-issue “History of the DC Universe” that was the obvious progenitor of this series. But that's just more nostalgia talking: I'm enjoying the rotating roster of artists for this project. It's just tough not to think the remaining issues won't look slightly anti-climactic, after this unexpected little feast.


Book Bloggers: An Appreciation » Novel Readings - Notes on Literature and Criticism said...

[...] which edition of Moby Dick to read? Steve’s your man. Wondering what’s new in comics? Once again… Steve keeps tabs on the ‘Penny Press‘ (those lowly competitors of OLM!), reviews [...]

Comics! The End of the World Approaches! | stevereads said...

[...] did something like this before. Back in 1985, the company followed it’s 12-issue mini-series “Crisis on Infinite Earths” with a largely re-done continuity in which several traditional characters were given fresh starts [...]