Monday, March 28, 2005

BIRDS OF PREY #80

Well that was probably the best issue in a while. Mostly because it introduces the plausible deniability aspect to why the last several issues were so terrible. Babs was being Batman.

I have been up and down on Gail Simone's run on BoP -- as with any writer who comes in after an unpopular one, after a while it's not enough to just not be the predecessor. Simone has had some great character work -- especially with Helena, who has gotten short shrift over the last several years from many quarters. But her plots have been painfully thin to the point that their flaccidness overwhelms the strong characterization. Having Ed Benes as her penciler didn't help -- his cheesecake stylings made it hard to take weak material seriously.

Here, after the usual banal tushkicking and no-way-it-can-end-well Brainiac!Babs, we got some more good interaction between Dinah and Helena to set the stage for a pretty good confrontation between Babs and Helena. The two of them have history from Gotham -- not to mention a certain mutual ex-lover -- and Helena's sense of betrayal was well-played, all the more so because I've criticized Simone in the past for Helena's oddly easy reclamation of faith and peace. Helena is not a feral child; she is an intelligent, civilized woman with a bad temper and the willingness to take it out on others. She's been hurt badly many times before and that Babs, through Dinah, got her to let down her guard and reach out... Simone may have been clumsy in the set up, but the delivery worked.

All that said, I still think the other plot threads are crummy and the title feels adrift. The Brainiac!Babs is dreadful, Zinda is best when she has nothing more to do than talk to the air traffic control tower, and whatever happened to the days when Dinah took down entire juntas on her own and made it back to Gotham in time for dinner instead of getting into barfights and giving sage advice like the old crank she is? I'm afraid that all of this has no greater purpose than Babs having an identity crisis.

AUTHORITY REVOLUTION #6

And so Authority is now going to do Season Three of Alias.

It's been three years since the breakup of the Authority and while the team is in tatters, the world is doing just fine. Sadly for the world, this book is about the Authority.

This issue has the feel of one of those documentaries from the where they track down the members of some famous rock band from the '70's that spent their heyday on stage making magic and offstage being awesomely dissolute and destructive. The various members have all gotten their lives back together, except for the one who died of an OD, and are mostly living quietly and contently with a couple of kids and an odd fetish for leather pants. Maybe one or two of them have gone on to successful solo careers. The show ends and you realize that you miss the magic, but wouldn't wish the rest of it on them.

That vibe is not unintentional. The story is told both in the usual fashion and through the narrative trick of a retrospective news program filling us in on who is where in the three years since the Authority went their separate ways. Jack and Angie are still together on the Carrier, Shen is living in a monastary, Apollo is a single father raising Jenny because Midnighter is staying away out of guilt, and the Doctor is dead of an OD. Unfortunately, he probably won't stay that way. (What? I never liked the dude.) The Finer World may not have come about as Jenny Sparks planned, but after the disaster wrought upon it in the first five issues, it's doing quite all right and the Authority members realize that.

But, as I said, this book isn't about a finer world. It's about the Authority. And with Jenny (either oddly mature for her age or oddly short; I'm thinking the latter because we know she ages fast) discovering that things aren't as they should be -- which may or may not include the fact that Henry Bendix was spotted running around last issue -- you don't need to be a genius to hear the reunion tour dates being booked.

I like Ed Brubaker. A lot. And I give him points for making this series probably the most readable it's been since Ellis killed off Jenny Sparks and left. But the problem is that I got the 'finer world' reference -- I remember Fuji, Fahrenheit, Hellstrike and Winter and Jackson and Christine and how good things were back in Stormwatch. And it hasn't been that good in a long, long time. It hasn't been relevant in a long time. And I can't help but wonder if, like certain 1970's bands, the Authority may be better off calling it a day.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

TEEN TITANS #22

I've not been eagerly anticipating this issue, certainly not after a pal warned me that it was the focused energy of all of Geoff Johns' worst impulses.

This, boys and girls, is why the bad guys will always have a chance. And why we occasionally root for them.

Considering that the Teen Titans are operating as a quasi-official boot camp for young heroes, you'd think someone would have told tell them that Dr. Light is no longer a joke and to be careful. But, no, they don't and, to preserve their dignity, instead end up proving Dr. Light's point for him -- the kids are cannon fodder and the DCU's heroes eat their own. Because while the youngest heroes are getting their collective tushies handed to them, Kory is collecting the Titans Alumni Association for the real attack. Who needs any lessons learned from Graduation Day -- the kids are perfectly expendable and ready to be used as a distraction.

On the one hand, Dr. Light could have torn through the Teen Titans like tissue paper, but on the other... he shouldn't have done it like he did. I don't have to have sat through Engineering Physics 101 to suspect that something's wrong if Dr. Light can suck away Superboy's heat vision and null Cassie's lasso and do... whatever it was he did to Raven. Comic book science and all, and light and heat are both forms of energy, but let's not turn him into a world-eater.

Dr. Light needs to be re-established as a villain post-Identity Crisis, but turning him into someone of such immense power and expertise doesn't work. He wasn't that good before he got mindwiped. A simpleminded giant is still a giant; they took away his intelligence and creativity, but not the raw materials of his powers. Also, this submarines certain upcoming events in the DCU. Part of what made the JLA's actions in IC so reprehensible (from the heroic standpoint) is that they were swatting a fruitfly with a battle axe. Amping Dr. Light up to a genuine world-class threat makes their reaction less outrageous and the related activities more unfortunate and less desperate and craven.

While we're on the topic -- unless he's been chatting with the other baddies, why should Dr. Light know about Bart's knee injury?

Memo to Johns: the group shot spread at the end does not make up for some truly awesome violations of basic concepts of both physics and character introduction, your usual blithe ignorance of past canon when using the Wayback Machine, and the wretchedness that is the new Hawk and Dove. And no, you can't always resort to the Opaque Bit of Dialogue That Makes It Sound Like You Have a Plan. Even though we all know that Bats and his mindwipe are significant to the aforementioned upcoming events, you don't do subtle well enough for that. Nor does Winick. Leave the hinting to Rucka, please.

Past performance being an indicator of future earnings, after we get this little bit of foreshadowing done, Johns will use Hawk and Dove to reintroduce us to the Teen Titans. It's what he did in JSA -- within a year of starting the title, he started bringing in new characters every three issues to cover for the fact that he couldn't develop internal team chemistry because he can't write team books well. We already got Speedy's take on everyone the other month, then it will be these beastly faux-Britbrats' turn to expound on the gang, and then it will be someone else's turn to narrate, and so forth and so on. That splash page at the end wasn't a reunion -- it was a to-do list.

Johns has done some great work on this title -- heck, he made me like Bart -- but his Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moments are starting to come more often and are no longer restricted to anything involving the Wilson family.

SLEEPER SEASON TWO #10

Geez, I love this series. Forget the double-crosses, if you're not at least triple-crossing someone, you're just not trying hard enough.

What makes Sleeper so entertaining is that while we never get to see the whole picture -- our knowledge is as incomplete as any of the pawns in the game -- none of the revelations come ex nihilo. Ed Brubaker is sneaky, so his characters can be deceitful to us and to each other without looking like they have an unfair advantage.

On the surface, this issue reinforced what we've known all along -- the only master players in this game are Tao and Lynch and everyone else is a pawn, whether they want to admit it or not. Holden Carver a great undercover agent, but he has never quite had the ruthlessness and imagination to be able to play Tao. Not that that hasn't stopped him from trying.

Holden is a Pandora's box that has been opened -- everything has been taken from him and everything is gone... except hope. And that hope is both the only thing that keeps him going as well as the element that keeps bringing him down. He hopes that this time, his plan will work, that this time Lynch will win the contest with Tao, that Gretchen has genuine feelings for him and will help him (or that he can at least anticipate when and where she will betray him)... and so far, that hope has never been rewarded. But he hasn't given up yet, because if he does, then he must also give up hope that his 'condition' can be reversed.

We have two issues left in this story -- it was never going to have a Season Three, even before Brubaker left for Marvel -- and lots to resolve. Who is going to win -- Tao or Lynch -- and what will be the body count? Who is Miss Misery really betraying? Will Grifter survive his revenge? Will Peter Grimm die a miserable death? Will Holden get his freedom? And if he does, will he know what to do with it?

Your reading list (in order):

Point Blank
Sleeper Season One: Out in the Cold
Sleeper Season One: All False Moves
Sleeper Season Two: A Crooked Line

RUNAWAYS v2 #2

To fully enjoy this issue, you sort of have to swallow and accept that some people really are that naive and well-intentioned. Our support-group leaders Mickey and Phil are either fantastically gullible or working for the bad guys as they quickly decide to change their mission and put on their costumes to track down the Runaways. Their advisees ask all the right questions and raise all the right objections, but are curiously satisfied by inadequate answers. Once you get past that little bit of plot maneuvering, however, this was plenty fun.

Gert's reaction to seeing her future self -- and seeing her future self die -- is denial, a more genuine reaction for a teenager (or anyone else, really) than a re-centering and charge into action. These are brave kids, but still kids. The others are a welcome combination of precocious and unfinished -- Nico confessing to using one of her most powerful spells to aid their traitorous teammate, Chase's protectiveness, the chicken-and-egg epistemological discussion of Victorious, the bleachers chat between Victor and Jorge (including the hysterical bit of meta about Hawkeye fans). It's not hard to root for this gang against Mickey and her crew of dupes.

Jo Chen's cover is gorgeous and a tease -- are one of those villains Victor's absent father? And since colorists often get short shrift, Christina Strain's work on Adrian Alphona's pencils (and Craig Yeung's inks) is fantastic.

HAWKMAN #38

Okay, everyone, it's sing along time. You know the words: "Let's do the Time Warp..... Yeah!"

There aren't many positive aspects to Hawkman's continuity being tied into a gordian knot, but one of the few is that the obligatory hallucinatory chats with aspects of his own personality can be depicted easily and with great fanboy service instead of resorting to evil twin goatees and other desperate tricks of differentiation. And this arc has been all about the fanboy service and tortured continuity.

In the wake of the collection of old Hawk rogues of various levels of obscurity, the latest bit of torture is the return of Golden Eagle, Charley Parker. Golden Eagle, the wannabe sidekick to Hawkman and former third-rate Booster Gold, was killed during Titans Hunt. As I'm not sure anyone actually missed him when he was gone, bringing him back from the dead pretty much requires updating.

Remember that reference I made last issue to Buddy from The Incredibles? Well, Charley -- now calling himself Charles Edmund Parker -- is now a fabulously wealthy entrepreneur who claims to have outgrown his childish and foolish ways, but is still very worshipful of the Hawkman legacy and quick to put the costume back on as a publicly known hero as St. Roch comes under mysterious (and convenient) attack. If it turns out that Parker is subsidizing the rogues currently running amok, Incredibles creator Brad Bird should get free swipes at Palmiotti and Gray.

The nominal plot of the issue is the continued assault on the city by the Hawks' old enemies and Carter going through one of his Alzheimer's moments where he knows he should remember the particulars of a situation, but can't. (Ah, the difficulties of being the repository of thousands of men's memories!) It was Katar Hol who dealt with Charley Parker and it is Katar, part of the parade of old Hawkmen who visit Carter in his tour through his subconscious, who tries to explain things in a rather clunky bit of exposition. If it were anyone but Hawkman under discussion, I'd have said the expository scenes were unnecessary as well as clumsy -- the memory-storing aspects of Nth metal were already handled back at the start of this series. But this is Hawkman and so repetition is generally necessary.

Geoff Johns tried to untangle the Thanagar/Earth Hawkman mess back in the early issues of Hawkman and in the Return of Hawkman arc of JSA (JSA 23-25) and did an acceptable job, mostly because he ran very quickly over a lot of very thin ice and kept the focus on the here-and-now. The simple fact is that you can't untangle the Hawk continuity, which has only gotten worse after events like the Crisis and Zero Hour and is about to take another hit in the upcoming Infinite Crisis, and the only way to keep going forward is to not look back too often.

[How bad is it? (1) Modern day Carter is the physical amalgam of Golden Age and Silver Age Hawkman and the mental/spiritual amalgam of every single reincarnation of Prince Khufu of Egypt -- plus Katar, plus the racial memories of Thanagar via the Nth metal. We'll ignore the hopeless jumble that is Katar's continuity because it's no longer relevant. (2) Hawkgirl, who is entirely Johns's fault, has the body of Kendra Saunders and the soul of (Golden Age Hawkgirl) Shiera Hall -- Kendra's great-aunt, who is in turn the reincarnation of Khufu's consort Chay-Ara, and has Thanagarian memories as well. The first part makes Carter-and-Kendra vaguely incestuous and probably for the best that they haven't hooked up. (3) Shayera Hol, Katar's wife and the Thanagarian known as Hawkwoman, is running around because Johns couldn't leave well enough alone. (4) Nabu, the wizard/cosmic entity/whateverheis who is part and parcel with the Dr. Fate legacy was Khufu's advisor in Egypt. (5) And the current Dr. Fate is Hector Hall, Carter and Shiera's son, an allegedly reformed buffoon who got co-opted by Neil Gaiman for The Sandman and is the biological father (sort of) of Dream of the Endless. (6) Let's not forget Black Adam, aka Teth-Adam, erstwhile JSAer and key member of the upcoming Villains United, whose path to evil was set by the murder of Prince Khufu. His main tie is to the Captain Marvel legacy, however, which is a branch best ignored here.]

I'm starting to think that Palmiotti&Gray are biting off more than they can chew on this title. They are getting bogged down in details and in the quagmire that is DC's inability to untangle the Hawk story and that means that they are getting stuck in the past instead of looking toward the future.

Bringing back old villains and would-be allies only makes sense if it can be done cleanly and without too much retconning and, even if it's logistically possible, there's no point if nobody cares. The Hawkman legacy is simply too screwy for any particular villain to have a lasting relationship with our hero. Carter, whose dominant personality is that of the Golden Age Hawkman, didn't have a lot of great adversaries and he doesn't clearly remember any of Katar and Shayera's Silver Age foes. Fadeaway Man and Lion-Mane are not his Lex Luthor or his Joker; they are instead the latest in a steady stream of villains who are honing in on Hawkman's memory problems, but with the added tonnage of needing their past relationship with Hawkman explained to both character and audience. The most detail-oriented of the Hawkman fans don't need the review and everyone else who is coming to the character will need more than can be conveniently inserted into an issue. All these flashback plots do is remind everyone how daunting the Hawk legacy can be when there is so much more to do with who Hawkman is instead of dwelling on the meta of who he was.

Carter Hall is a fearsomely intelligent man: he speaks countless languages, intimately knows more history than anyone alive, and has experienced thousands of years of art, culture, and invention. In the guise of Hawkman, he is also a ferocious warrior whose battle instincts pre-date the sort of social niceties that grew to be codified in the Geneva Convention -- he is a warrior, not a hero, and has no qualms about killing his enemies. This is a fantastic internal struggle as well as external -- living in the twenty-first century should be an effort to conform both with society as well as the code of groups like the JSA. There's also the whole Curse business -- endlessly reincarnated so that he can live, love, lose everything and die -- and the accompanying soul-deep weariness.

This is a character whose story should have an overarching purpose as great as Batman's -- after five thousand years, Khufu should want off the merry-go-round and be working actively toward that end. Yes, Carter should save the world when he can, but he is no Immortal from Highlander and there is no prize for his continued existence. In fact, it's the opposite -- he's going to find Chay-Ara again and they're going to die heartbreakingly. Rinse and repeat.

Johns dipped his toes into that stream of thought -- Carter, newly re-awakened, didn't remember all the particulars of the curse and didn't understand the way he was being manipulated and Kendra was still confused about her identity and her purpose and was more hurt than help. There were arcs early on that told the Hawk story past and present and the series started by introducing the reincarnated Hath-Set (the one who cursed and murdered Khufu) in the person of Kristopher Roderic. But Johns moved away from that as the series progressed, although he never dropped it completely, and P&G have been at best oblique in their path to get back on track. If they are on that path at all.

Dale Eaglesham is filling in for Joe Bennett on pencils for this issue. His style is easily recognized: high, plump cheekbones; fantastic abs on everyone; beautiful deep-set, almond-shaped eyes; every hero, male and female, has awesome shoulders; and every girl's pelvic structure showing through any sort of clothes. Not really cheesecake, but certainly in the comfort-food zone of comic book art.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

SEVEN SOLDIERS: THE GUARDIAN #1

Put Transmet and Ultimate Spider-Man in a blender with a little bit of acid... and you get something like this.

The Manhattan Guardian is a tabloid of the sort that only really exists in Europe but would probably do all right in New York -- over-the-top reportage that has a salacious relationship with the truth -- but with a twist in that the reporters are intentionally part of the news. On the suggestion of his father-in-law, out-of-work Jake Jordan becomes the "living masthead" for the paper after a job interview involving golems, assault rifles, and a Max Headroom-esque boss and then ends up battling subway pirates (the "ay, matey", pegleg kind) as one of his first assignments.

No, Morrison's not staying within the lines in this coloring book. Pretty much the only thing that's within a parsec of pedestrian here is Jake's backstory, which is the Good Cop Rattled By Bad Choice, But Supported By Loving (If a Little Impatient) Family topoi, and the fact that that family gets in trouble. Everything else here is gleefully outrageous, although thankfully stopping short of giddiness. The 'updating' of the rest of the Guardian iconography fits within the theme of the story -- the costume, the Newsboy Legion reinvented as the Newsboy Army, etc. -- and the departure from the Guardian being a Cadmus Project creation takes away the slightly sinister overtone, which wouldn't have worked here.

The Shining Knight mini started out with a tangible relation to the Seven Soldiers Zero issue in that it also saw our protagonist fighting the Sheeda invaders, but none of that makes any appearance here. So feel free to pick this up if you haven't touched the others yet.

I'm not sure if I'm supposed to be politically correct and not notice that pretty much the only white folks shown are the first subway pirates' dead victims, the Aryan Nation "attackers" at the Manhattan Guardian, and, at the end, the only pirates who get defeated. There are no hispanics or asians anywhere, which is sort of impossible considering the actual NYC demographic, and the whole city feels a bit... AU in a way that has nothing to do with the actual story, which is jarring considering the lengths Morrison went to to name-drop real places. Like this was shot in Vancouver by a Scottish director only pretending to be on location in New York.

Speaking of... since you knew this was coming: NYC nitpicks. Really too many to count and all of the frustrating variety because Morrison so obviously tried to use real places. In general, if you don't know what you're talking about, either solve the ignorance problem (a quick peek at the NYC Subway Map would have worked wonders here) or stop using actual locations to avoid looking lazy as well as careless -- a station is described/shown as being on one line and the train pulling in is from another line, for instance, and if you're going to use actual street corners, know what's there. (I'd have gone with shifting the entire story to Brooklyn; that way nobody looks ridiculous getting a car ride to a supermarket for a single shopping bag's worth of groceries. And I would buy pirates at the Atlantic Avenue station.)

DAREDEVIL #71

And thus begins Brian Bendis and Alex Maleev's swan song on Daredevil.

When the pair took a break after #50 to let David Mack drive for an arc, they left after putting Matt Murdock through one heckuva wringer. In the course of the Hardcore arc, Matt got set aflame by Typhoid Mary and had his home invaded by Bullseye (both situations resolved with knockaround fights) all within a day. He also met and fell for a blind woman named Milla Donovan. The arc ended with #50, which began with a bold move by Wilson Fisk to reclaim his operations all around the mid-Atlantic region and ended with Matt demolishing the Kingpin, dragging him into a bar, tearing off his own mask, and giving a speech to the wastrels therein.

The gist of the speech (repeated in this issue) was that Matt was taking Luke Cage's advice -- he was taking the initiative. Hell's Kitchen would become a clean and safe area; if you could not abide by those rules, leave. The key part of the speech, however, was Matt announcing that he was the new Kingpin. It was a theoretically expedient move -- power abhors a vacuum and someone had to step in to the spot that Wilson Fisk once occupied lest the center give and everything collapse. But that was in theory; power corrupts and people are generally happy to follow instead of lead and in practice...

In practice, nobody really knows what happened. Because when Bendis and Maleev returned with #56, a year had passed since Matt had declared himself Kingpin. And in the fifteen issues since then, they have not given many hints. The King of Hell's Kitchen arc (#56-60) told us that, on the surface, it was initially a wildly successful ploy: after six weeks of unparalleled violence on the part of Daredevil, Hell's Kitchen was transformed and Matt Murdock was hailed as a civic leader. He also married Milla and broke with Cage, Peter Parker, Dr. Strange, the Fantastic Four, and the other local hero types.

A year after the events of #50, however, paradise came crashing to a halt with the invasion of MGH-addled Yakusa scheming to take over Hell's Kitchen, culminating in a bloody alley fight that saw Matt shot and stabbed as he fended off a hundred attackers. By the time King of Hell's Kitchen begins, it has been two days since the attack and nobody has seen Matt since. In the course of that arc he is found, badly wounded in body and in soul, and while he regains his health and the respect of his heroic peers, he loses Milla. Matt has been staggering along ever since, with not even a visit from Natasha Romanova able to truly shake him out of his fog.

The Decalogue is thus the ultimate bit of closure -- Bendis and Maleev depart after filling in the gap they created by finally telling of the events of that lost year.

This first installment carries the cover title "I Am Your God", although it covers more than just the first Commandment; for the convenience of those unfamiliar, Exodus 20:1-17:

1. And God spake all these words, saying,
2. (I) I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
3. (II) Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
4. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth:
5. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;
6. And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
7. (III) Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.
8. (IV) Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
9. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work:
10. But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates:
11. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.
12. (V) Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.
13. (VI) Thou shalt not kill.
14. (VII) Thou shalt not commit adultery.
15. (VIII) Thou shalt not steal.
16. (IX) Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
17. (X) Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's.
The moral of the story in "I Am Your God" is that by deposing Wilson Fisk and declaring Hell's Kitchen free of crime, Daredevil set himself up as Moses bringing the slaves out of Egypt. But instead of staying as Moses, he somehow seems to have ended up as either a false god or the golden calf, depending on whether you think he did it himself or it happened outside of his control. Bendis hasn't yet shown us which one is true.

Our blonde storyteller believes that Daredevil meant only well, that he wanted people to stop needing a bogeyman to scare themselves straight although he'd serve as a temporary one to ease the shock. (Sort of a Nicorette gum for behavior modification.) Her story matters because she is the witness and the apostle, the only one we've seen thus far who heard what Matt actually said and listened. But her unwavering support is as damning to Daredevil as is the others' scorn.

The first half of the Commandments are about man's relationship with God, the second half about man's relationship to his fellow man. When the members of the support group talk about Daredevil, they speak about mystical imagery and power beyond what a normal man -- let alone a blind man -- could wield. The group members do not see Daredevil's humanity, but instead see him as supernatural, as savior or devil, as tyrant or king, for good or for ill and react to him accordingly. There is only Daredevil and no Matt Murdock, a superman (a god?) and not a man. And therein lies the problem, at least as far as the Thou Shalt Nots go.

Actually, therein lies one of the problems. Pulling back into the realm of meta... I obviously liked the symbolism (at least how I ended up interpreting things), but as a straight-ahead story, but there was something disappointing about this for the same reason the start of Mack's second Echo arc (#51-55) was a failure -- it covered no new ground. We already knew most of the reactions to Matt's Kingpin play from #56: the out-of-costume heroes confrontation in Bryant Park; the conversation with Matt being asked to run for mayor; FBI Agent Driver's having turned from friend to foe. So this was really a rather subtle meditation on an undercurrent of those already-discussed opinions and it felt... a little re-runish. It was also slow -- Bendis was a little too realistic with the halted discussion and silences and all throughout there were too many panels of people looking around, waiting for someone else to move.

Depending on how the rest of the arc runs, this may read entirely differently in trade. Not as a matter of compression or decompression, but because this is a different story in tone than what has come before; Golden Age and The Widow were more dynamic and traditional and if this ends up being a more philosophical story, then it will read better once we know to stop waiting for the bangs and crashes. Or else this could just be decompressed and it doesn't matter if Bendis is wasting my benefit of the doubt because he's gone after this story anyway.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

SHREW BITES

VIMANARAMA #2... I'm enjoying this despite the very strong sense that Grant Morrison is standing off to the side, one finger in his nose up to the knuckle, and giggling like a loon. This has as much to do with eternal spiritual combat as Shawn of the Dead had to do with zombies -- sure, the end of the world is nigh, but that's not really the point. It's actually a romantic comedy... romantic absurdity, perhaps. I bounced off We3 when everyone else loved it, but this is surprisingly good fun.



HUMAN RACE #1... After I had to translate some Yiddish for a friend, I picked this up to flip through despite my reluctance to touch anything by Ben Raab after one too many bad experiences. (No, I haven't forgiven him for Green Lantern yet.) I got a few pages in, couldn't decide whether I was more disgusted by the stupidity of the dialogue or the caricaturizations, and put it back. Also? Between last week's JLA and a recent re-reading of both Powers: Supergroup and some issues of Darkness, I'm really full up on guts and organs on the outside. Ewww.



LIONS TIGERS & BEARS #2... On the one hand, it stays on the right side of the line between cute and sticky-sweet. On the other... I keep feeling like this is trying to do what successful animated movies like Shrek and The Incredibles do and appeal to both children and adults on different levels, but not actually succeeding and instead falling into the chasm between the audiences. Joey is a real-live boy in that he's scared in a strange situation and generally rather annoying and the 'adults' are acting accordingly to soothe him in terms he can understand, but there's something unpleasant about the way he's being manipulated into this great adventure. He is being used and put into danger by adults who know what they're doing and while yeah, it will all turn out in the end... *shrugs*



DR. BLINK, SUPERHERO SHRINK #1... I've tended to stay away from the Dork Storm books because I'm not a gamer or part of any demographic those books are geared toward, but this was insisted upon and it was worth it. Very good -- but not great -- parody of superhero teams of various ilks and their members. You'll recognize everyone and laugh out loud at some of the send-ups, but it stops short of sheer brilliance because the vehicle for this mockery is nothing special. It's a sitcom with great jokes, but an average premise and, as such, can only go so far before running out of gas.

Monday, March 21, 2005

ATOMIKA #1

You know, I may be the only one to say this, but I thought that this had a much stronger start than Red Star did. The two are obvious comparison points, Alternate Universe Russias where the Revolution didn't go as we thought it did. But there's something much more... primeval here, working from older reference points and richer mythology. Or maybe I just like it more because there aren't any sorceresses getting strapped into the business end of giant flying ray guns.

The first issue of Atomika honestly didn't make me think much of Red Star beyond the aforementioned obvious, though. I thought more about Animal Farm and American Gods, the former for the cankering of a People's Revolution and the latter for the battles between the gods of old and new, and about Marx the historian as well as Marx the political scientist, and about the semester in high school when I took Ancient Civilizations and had to learn all those origin stories. (Yes, the Shrew is overeducated and underpaid, why do you ask?) This is a heady, dense mixture of politics and religion far deeper than Church and State, told in a lyrical, rhythmic style.

As entranced as I was, I'm not sure how successful it is as a comic book -- it felt more like an illustrated story than a sequential art tale in that the narrative progress was driven almost entirely by words and not by pictures. The images support the story (except where a pair of very oddly placed word bubbles in the Soldat de Fantome scenes give new meaning to the notion of talking out of one's tush), but don't move it along.

Sal Abbinanti and Andrew Dabb have created something very interesting here, but I don't think it will be for everyone. Find out for yourself: five preview pages from Speakeasy Comics' website.

BATTLE HYMN #1

Having greatly enjoyed B. Clay Moore's Hawaiian Dick, I decided to ignore the chronic delays that have plagued the sequel and forget that Battle Hymn was also out of Image Comics -- home of many ADD creators -- and give it a go. Period stories appeal to me in general and Moore pulled off 1953 Hawaii to my (admittedly ignorant) eyes.

Battle Hymn #1 reminded me of the start of Supreme Power with its collecting of the archtypes -- the speedster, the ersatz Captain America, the (Bat)man of shadow, the man from the sea, the atomic man and his creator -- and their interactions with shady government types. Like the Squadron, the future members of the Watchguard are a mixed bunch: one is a showman eager for adulation, one is an arrogant ass, one is an enigma, one is a consummate professional, and one is an innocent. The are all interesting, if not all sympathetic.

The biggest difference is that because of the period in which it is set, Battle Hymn isn't tainted by post-modernism or cynicism; there's no sarcastic voice whispering knowingly from beyond the fourth wall that the duped idealists deserved what they got simply for being who they are. This is a war story in a time when wars were state affairs and Moore does not cue us to roll our eyes at the ones who are foolish enough to trust their government to do the right thing. There is nothing here that skirts the edge of mockery. In that sense, it's Supreme Power via JSA: Liberty Files/Unholy 3, which is also set in this era and carries an aura of duty and optimism in spite of a pretty respectable body count. And that's refreshing.

Jeremy Haun's pencils are lovely, especially his eye for detail and his faces; I don't remember seeing him before. Ande Parks took a break from working with Phil Hester to ink.

I'm recommending this with the full knowledge that it could be years before it will be done. Hey, Warren Ellis will finish Planetary eventually, too, right?

Sunday, March 20, 2005

ULTIMATE X-MEN #57

In hindsight, I should have figured out what was up when Kurt's group teleport didn't work. Longshot's luck only works when his cause is just.

For all of the mixing and matching of classic X story arcs going on here, I remain most impressed -- or perhaps most horrified -- with the way Mojo has taken on a new relevance in our current age. Xavier speaks the truth when he mutters about how reality TV shows us as we are -- vain, petty, ugly in thought and deed. That we don't even blink at programming like Who's My Daddy and go to the movies to see video of drunken teenagers on spring break makes Mojo less surprising as an antagonist than he was back in the days when 'reality tv' meant Ripley's Believe it Or Not, Real People, Candid Camera, or That's Incredible. He's more effectively creepy now because what he's doing is so much closer to the realm of the possible than, say, when The Running Man came out. Mojo's is an ultimatization that barely needs to be touched up to work in the less-fantastic (than the main Marvel universe) Ultimateverse.

The big reveal of Longshot being a murderer and a bigot was well done -- who would you believe, Spiral (the attacker) or Longshot (the one on the run) -- and it never felt staged that it was the 'B-team' of mutants who found him. Jean, as currently written, would have sussed him out in a nanosecond; she's gone from slumming skank to her normal main-universe self over the course of twenty issues and cracked Spiral like a peanut.

As for the rest, Warren's been such a non-entity since his arrival that any plot is good plot for him, even if Alison does sort of come out of nowhere. And the usual shrug about Piotr -- apparently his sexual orientation isn't known beyond the team telepaths -- who gets the Random Spotlit Panel of Meaningful Loneliness. If they'd have been consistent about his age, I'd know whether or not to root for a return of Jean-Paul Beaubier.

Stuart Immonen's art is growing on me, which is good because he's got the gig as the permanent penciler for the series after what feels like an endless stream of try-outs and fill-ins.

THE ULTIMATES 2 #4

Well, this issue felt like filler.

In the first Ultimates series, it was okay to spend entire issues on intrateam interaction because the players were unknown quantities and the team was still learning about each other. The Ultimates were dysfunctional professionally and personally and it was entertaining -- plus, the issues were so delayed, we needed the refreshers. This go-round, even with Hank Pym out and former Covert Ops agents Hawkeye and Black Widow in, there's less of an excuse for the unyielding focus. These folks, as presented by Mark Millar, are simply not that interesting that we can spend an issue with them at the expense of any plot advancement.

This issue covered very little new ground. We met Captain Britain last issue and the whole Captain EU business was extended to no real end unless the others become something other than cannon fodder; the briefing by Gunnar Golmen could have been done anywhere. The rest of the issue was rehashing: Tony loves Tasha. Clint loves his family. Millar thinks Captain America is an old creaky fart in a young man's body. Jarvis thinks he's cleverer than he is. Janet is self-absorbed. Hank has gone rogue. Thor is being played by Loki... or he isn't. And Millar is against the war in Iraq. All of this put together didn't merit two dozen pages.

YOUNG AVENGERS #2

... I think I'm in love.

Allan Heinberg is doing what Brian Bendis and a boatful of Ultimateverse writers have failed to do -- get the Shrew interested in the recent events of the Marvel universe and do it through the vehicle of teenagers.

The Young Avengers have more in common with DC's Young Justice (as written by Peter David) than with, say, Gen X or the Ultimate anyone. They are sardonic, not completely successful, and start out as a group of boys with a definite "Ewww, girls" attitude. Despite the names -- especially Hulkling and Iron Lad -- Heinberg is a little more in the Bendis style of wacky than the PAD style, but the comparison holds. Especially if you throw in The Vision as this group's Red Tornado.

After the adventures and misadventures of last issue, we get a bit of an explanation of the whole Kang confusion -- between Kang here and Galactus over in Fantastic Four, it's really Deconstruct the Archvillain month over at Marvel, ain't it? -- and are introduced to Kate Bishop and Cassie Lang. Cassie, the daughter of the deceased Ant-Man Scott Lang, wants to join the gang and Kate, the young woman who helped the boys last issue, is tagging along. The boys versus girls confrontation ranges from the silly to the sad -- Cassie is legitimately upset at the boys' denial of her inheritance at the expense of their own claim -- and sets up a reaction that pretty much ensures that Cassie will get her way. It remains to be seen what Kate has to offer besides spunkiness, sneakiness, and a very rich father.

Heinberg, in the process of coming up with a setting and a raison d'etre for the Young Avengers, has managed to smoothly incorporate disparate elements of the Marvel universe into one logically woven whole cloth. The first issue, mostly featuring Jessica Jones and Kat Farrell, was infinitely more fun and relevant than any issue of The Pulse has been thus far. The chaos that has been Avengers Disassembled is also accessed and applied, as is the MGH scourge that ran as plotlines in Daredevil and Alias, among other places. Throw in that Cassie is the daughter of Jessica's ex... this could be a lot of fun. Certainly more fun than whatever House of M wreaks.

If you missed the debut issue, fear not. You can run off to your LCS and pick up the Young Avengers #1: Director's Cut as well as this current issue, both out 16 March. The Director's Cut features the usual assortment of artwork and scriptbook, plus an interview with Heinberg and the lengthy Marvel Handbook entries for both Jessica Jones and Kang the Conqueror.

MANHUNTER #8

Another episode in the life of Kate Spencer, amateur vigilante. And this is a good thing.

We ended last month's issue with Kate's car being bombed, presumably as a result of her being the prosecutor in the trial of Carl Sands, the Shadow Thief, whose escape was being simultaneously engineered. Escape being the not the means to freedom, however, but instead as a means by which Cheshire could come in and take care of him once and for all.

I won't speak to the matters of the trial -- the folks at Suspension of Disbelief are taking care of that end -- beyond wondering why Kate didn't have a qualified assistant seconding her and why there wasn't a day off from the trial when the lead prosecutor was nearly assassinated and the defendant nearly kidnapped and killed.

In the wake of the attempted murders, Kate navigates both her public and secret lives through her usual combination of blind luck, bluster, and careful planning. She's fearless in both roles -- subpoenaing the JLA and taking on Cheshire are pretty par for the course -- and her full-throttle approach, as usual, is both high risk and high reward. What's great is that Kate may be fearless, but she's not flawless in either role and sometimes her escapes, like her successes, are very much a near thing. Here, Dylan is the obvious one to turn to -- Kate chose him in the first place because he's resourceful -- and his little ramble about why he has antidote lying around is entertaining. (I'll ignore the medical logistics as well. Dr. Scott can discuss if he so chooses.)

Swirling around in the background is the death last issue of Dan Richards, a Manhunter of the past, and the current presence of Merlyn, Monacle, and Phobia. While the first two of that trio are in town to see to the Shadow Thief, it does look like Phobia's about to subcontract them. LA, once a wasteland for hero types, is suddenly crawling with both good guys and bad.

Also around in the background is the nosy reporter breaking in to Kate's apartment and going through her stuff. To me, this doesn't seem outrageous. Here in New York, where Page Six can spot bold-faced names coming out of lavatories and supermarkets alike, that someone would go so far is completely reasonable drama. Kate Spencer is a name and anything on her sells newspapers; that someone hasn't gotten caught breaking into Wayne Manor or rifling Lois Lane's desk at work surprises me more.

What doesn't surprise me, certainly not after the failure of Fallen Angel is that DC saw fit to include a favorable quote from a newspaper review on the cover, but can't be bothered to collect this series in trade.

JLA #112

...I'm just going to re-use last month's comments:
Part of me wants to abandon reading this arc month-to-month because I can never remember all the details from one issue to the next. But the rest of me knows that if I did do that, I'd never actually get around to reading the whole story because it's really not interesting enough to merit any anticipation. Yes, this is Kurt Busiek and yes, this is better than Chuck Austen, but is it actually good on its own?

The problem, near as I can tell, is that this is an old-fashioned sci-fi story that simply requires too much world-building to run as a short-range arc. Ever since Joe Kelly left the title with JLA #91, there has been a rotating cast of writers and thus no continuity and no constancy. This kind of epic arc -- and this is an epic story Busiek is telling -- requires both those elements. We don't know Busiek's version of the JLA and their world well enough to be able to recognize and understand the subtler differences between them and the Crime Syndicate of Amerika; you can't do the Evil Twin or Parallel Universe plots if the original is not easily distinguishable from the perverted copy. Kelly, Mark Waid, or Grant Morrison could have done this sort of story during their runs because we had a sense of who the individuals were and how the team dynamic worked and we just don't have that here. Certainly not when the real JLA has only cameo appearances through the first several issues and we don't know if we care enough about them to worry about their fate.
This month, we have the Randomly Chosen Squads (the higher profile heavy hitters, plus old standbys like Black Canary and the JLE, whom I'm not sure anyone cares about but is a nice favor to Kelly) taking on the Syndicate and the Qward. There's plenty of narrative over-exposition -- gee, Wally and Vera, could you go into a little more detail? -- and stuff blowing up. And as nice as it is to see Hawkman being the cold voice of reason instead of Batman... I wish I cared more.

EX MACHINA #9

Over in Y - The Last Man, Brian Vaughan has gotten very good at juggling competing storylines and making some very compelling red herrings. That ability is on display here as Mayor Hundred opens a huge can of worms with gay marriage while an unknown savage killer is striking close to home and heart. This is a science fiction story, but Vaughan has done everything in his power to make us forget about that until it becomes an inescapable force that cannot be ignored.

Mitchell Hundred's personal politics are part bleeding heart liberal and part libertarian and, like all good engineers, he works in discrete, practical units that don't factor in anything unquantifiable -- intangibles don't count. His perfectly logical solutions end up sounding wacky and lunatic because he assumes that everyone else can display the same dispassionate reasoning that he does. Reducing the distinction between a civil marriage and a civil union to one of semantics is not as easy as it looks on paper and Hundred, the Great Machine, cannot understand why nobody else can make it compile. It's a sort of charming simplicity -- except to everyone else who has to deal with him, in which case Hundred looks like a sort of high functioning autistic and is unbearably frustrating.

Not surprisingly, Hundred spends pretty much the entire issue getting yelled at by various people over various incidences -- some his fault, some not at all. The continuing saga of Jackson Georges (occasionally reading as Ex Machina's parallel to Y's Hero) goes back and forth; his anguish is heartbreaking even after we already know -- or think we do -- that he has gone dangerously and viciously rogue. Suzanne Padilla's humiliated fury is also strong and true. Bradbury and Hundred's relationship is, as ever, all about the banter. About the only personal moment that really bugged me was Lilith Warren's little confession; it felt gratuitous and unnecessary after the tone was established in the press conference scene and in last month's discussion between the principals.

As ever, Tony Harris's stunning art is worth the price of admission alone.

And, finally, because I get such glee at out-geeking Vaughan (and because I can): Agent Warren should be saying "We now have him cornered in an abandoned stretch of the an old BMT line." The BMT -- Brooklyn Manhattan Transit, formerly BRT (Brooklyn Rapid Transit) -- is one of the three systems that was combined to form the NYC subway system and exists today as about a dozen subway lines (the Sixth Avenue, Broadway, and Nassau Street lines, basically), so Jackson Georges could be tucked anywhere between Columbus Circle and Coney Island or beyond. You can still see signs for the BMT in places like the 14th Street station on the F line. The other two component parts are the IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit) and IND (Independent Subway).

ANGELTOWN #5

I've been very high on this mini and perhaps that's why I'm a little disappointed at the end. Not very disappointed, but the first four issues did raise expectations that were not totally met. On the whole, however, I still recommend the story and still regret that DC has made no plans to collect the series as a trade paperback -- the single-issue sales were rather dreadful.

For those of you who blithely ignored Angeltown and contributed to the lack of sales, a belated pitch: this is a sort of inner-city noir, an LA Confidential in an age of Kobe Bryant and Nicole Brown Simpson, where celebrity is both poison and purpose. Everyone is out to do the dirty on everyone else and Nate Hollis, private detective, considers having survived the trenches as a high point of his job qualifications.

The obvious mystery -- who killed Theophus Burnett's rapacious ex-wife -- gets solved with a little sleight of hand and a whole lot of fuss. Irma Deuce is revealed to be nothing more than a convenient red herring and plot spice -- hey, a black lesbian bounty hunter! (too bad she's a poor copy of The Wire's Det. Greggs) -- and the murder of Hollis's father, introduced at the beginning and brought back at the end, is another. These extraneous plot threads make the ending feel sloppier than it is, especially when Hollis wraps up everything else so neatly. Too neatly, perhaps. As with Fables last week, I'm always disinclined to be content with Hollywood stories where celebrity is considered sufficient as a sole motive for anything.

Overall, Angeltown gets recommended for the ride, if not necessarily for the conclusion. Considering the restraints of miniseries, the characterizations are interesting and well-established -- even if some of them prove irrelevant to the story. Gary Phillips does a pretty good job setting things up over the first four issues, enough to forgive some (not all) of the lack of deftness in sorting things out in the denouement. The story feels like it should have either been much larger or much smaller -- either trimmed of the dangling plot threads or branching out to make something of them. High marks for artistic merit, but lower marks for technical accomplishment -- lack of efficiency cost this puppy a medal.

CAPTAIN AMERICA #4

I feel a little bad parsing through here looking for the next geography error... no, wait. I don't feed bad at all. "City of Manhattan" is unforgiveable and deserves Top Cow-level dissection and scorn for the next few months. Brubaker gets a couple of drops of mercy for choosing La Guardia Airport, but unless Cap is planning to fly over the BQE, ten minutes is laughably optimistic from Brooklyn. Heck, it's laughably optimistic from the other side of the Grand Central.

As for the actual story... More history lessons, Brubaker letting his donkey-print slip show a bit, and a somewhat dysfunctional Cap doing a miserable job of defending himself as he is still preoccupied by memories that don't quite jibe.

We're four issues in and I'm starting to get the sneaking suspicion that this is going to be one of those cases where Ed Brubaker reveals why his best work hasn't been straightforward superhero stuff. Thus far, Steve Rogers has been a bit like Ultra Boy -- so many great attributes, but he can only use one at a time. He can fill in backstory, he can brawl, he can formulate plans, he can be human... but he can't do any of these things in combination with any other.

Captain America has been living off a reputation not earned in the four issues thus far -- he has not reinforced why he is an inspiration to anyone, he's not winning a high percentage of his fights, he's not been smarter than the average bear, and he's not been especially empathetic as either man or superman. He has felt like a relic who is all too aware of the moth-holes in his get-up and that he's being involved in events because of who he was and not who he is. You can almost hear him creak when he walks. And all this could work if we had more vested in Steve Rogers, the person behind the shield.

Rogers is a man who has lived through unimaginable horrors and heartbreaking losses, a man who has lost everything he grew to care about... but managed to find new things to care about -- and lose, too. We just haven't been given a good view as to what Brubaker thinks those things are.

Cap has been a passenger and not a driver. Trapped in a funk by nightmares that he knows aren't true but can't shake, he has been pretty content to leave the thinking and data collection to SHIELD's Nick Fury and Sharon Carter -- it's like those Batman (and especially Nightwing) stories where the world's greatest detective and his protege leave all of the mental work to Oracle. Sure, Cap is more brawler than brainy, but he is displaying a rather depressing disinterest in independent thought and analysis and a frustrating inability to work past the distraction of the false memories. I can't believe that the man who busted heads in the trenches in World War II is so easily taken down by matters irrelevant to the situation at hand. (And yes, the false memories are irrelevant for the moment because they are the focus of the next story arc, not this one.)

To portray Rogers as a man haunted is a legitimate road to travel. The Liefeld/Loeb run began with a sort of woulda-coulda twist on what Rogers gave up by being Captain America (execution aside, the concept has legs) and John Ney Reiber started his turn focusing on Rogers trying to come to grips with a much more recent and galling failure. But Reiber's Cap was active, keeping his grief at bay through constant motion and consciously letting himself be used by Fury as a kind of atonement. This more passive Cap... I'm still waiting.

ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN #638

And another visit from Superman's oracular imp comes and goes. Mxy brings truth, meta discussion, hints about the future, and a whole lot of confusion. And then goes away again because we might get a real clue if he stayed any longer. Or our brains might break.

The pre-Mxyzptlk conversation between Lois and Clark crackles (as well as serving as a subtle reminder of what went on last issue and what's about to get totally interrupted by a certain fifth-dimension fellow), all the more because Lois is talking about a baby like it's a $10,000 flat-screen TV. There's no 'I want to have your children' schmoop -- her sister has one and likes it, so it sounds like a good idea, no matter how impractical. And Clark is all over just how impractical it is.

Mxy's whole song and dance routine is a refocusing -- the baby, and the child that baby grows up to be, will mean more than Lois seems to be considering and less than Clark fears. Clark already knows a child will be a target even more irresistable than Lois, but Mxy seems rather intent on showing him that that's not a justifiable reason to kibosh the notion. Clark has been focusing on a defensive strategy -- especially with Ruin on the loose and promising to kill everyone -- and Mxy wants him to start thinking offense, which is the way Lois works. "We live in hope."

It's impossible to look at this story -- okay, this interruption -- without the heavy shadow of DC's 2005 Events hanging over it. What little we know about Countdown is that the Big Three fall out to some extent and what comes after in a world where Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman are not on the same page. Mxy has been warning all along that Very Bad Things are happening and he means something more than Pete Ross turning out to be Ruin.

As with the previous Mxy visits, it's a cracktastic mix of fourth-wall breaking, sneaky clues about what's coming up, and a chance for Greg Rucka and Matthew Clark to go crazy with stylistic homages and meta commentary. Rucka is very good about making sure that the seriousness of Mxy's message comes through out of the wackiness so that this doesn't degenerate into a quarterly acid trip that derails the ongoing plotline.

Friday, March 18, 2005

THE SUPERNATURALISTS

Long-time Shrew followers (Shrewites? Shrewians?) already know that nothing attracts this rodent's beady little eyes like a story about New York City. Ex Machina had me before Brian Vaughan name-dropped Bernie Goetz in the first issue, Green Lantern: Evil's Might is one of my favorite Elseworlds, and Ed Brubaker nearly signed his own death warrant the other month by referring to the "city of Manhattan" in Captain America #2. In other words, waving a graphic novel set in 1926 New York in front of me is pretty much a guaranteed sale. Despite the vampires. The Shrew has no love for vampires.

I really, really wanted to love this book. Jorge Heufemann's art is elegant, if perhaps a little too subdued, and works well in the black-and-white format. And it has New York and it has mystery.... But, in the end, this was no Sandman Mystery Theatre.

Patrick Neighly obviously did some research, but there's not really a New York City feel to the story beyond Upper East Side Is Old Money and an oblique (to the point of coincidence) reference to the Harlem Renaissance. Esme make a comment about Edgar looking like he belongs in Brooklyn, but there's no real sense of the cultural or geographical distance involved. With only a few adjustments, it could have been any city anywhere in the world -- New York's grandeur and size and diverse nature are not anywhere on display. Nor is there much of a period sense -- white folks go to Harlem without mention, a woman in a burkah draws nary a glance, and the whole convenience of the Sultan of Brunei visiting feels even more fake when a quick check turns up the fact that the reigning Sultan was all of thirteen in 1926. The dialogue feels wrong -- sure, you can talk about going to 'speaks', but it takes more than the right argot and the right collar to 'get' a time and place.

The story itself... you can almost feel the wasted potential. The mystery, once revealed, is rather pedestrian but that shouldn't have stopped it from becoming interesting because Neighly has stacked the deck with irony with the wannabe vampires looking for the real thing. And so the denouement becomes a washed-out retread of an old Hellfire Club plot from Uncanny X-Men; the murderer's quest for power is never rationalized even within the realm of crazy-person logic and Neighly just brushes it all aside by insisting that the villain was crazy all along despite no evidence to support it one way or the other. And the people most affected by the big reveal? Don't register. Neither Edgar nor Esme are especially engaging or interesting to the point where we care what happens to them; Esme is your generic worldly flapper with a secret and Edgar is a collection of implied cliches (the son unable to emerge from his father's shadow, the Good Cop Still Burdened By A Past Failure, the good-hearted rebel, the scammer with no real malice, etc.) that merge into a white colorlessness. Whether Edgar is bad at his job, has exhibited poor moral judgment in the past, or is simply a victim of circumstance is never explained and he ends up in the limbo between hero and anti-hero because it's not clear if he's redeeming himself or just acting to his personal code. We simply don't know enough about him. Certainly not enough to care when he and Esme do their big (and rather random, despite the cliched inevitability) confession at the end.

This isn't to say that there weren't points that were clever or well-turned. Just that there weren't very many of them and Neighly seems especially impressed with himself when they do occur. This wasn't an awful read or even a bad one. It was an aggressively mediocre story that was not given any sort of impetus from the art. Conversely, Heufemann's got a pretty pencil, but he needs to be paired with a more dynamic storyteller.

The last page promises further adventures of our dashing duo and I'm most disappointed to confess that I'm not waiting with baited breath. DC/Vertigo is finally getting around to printing another of the SMT arcs (v3, The Vamp, #13-16 is solicited for June) and is so far superior in tone, language, plot, and style that I can't reasonably promote this story over the long-delayed collection of Matt Wagner's series despite the Ain't It Cool to Support Indy Comics rule.

The Supernaturalists
Sandman Mystery Theatre: v1 (The Tarantula), v2 (The Face and The Brute), v3 (The Vamp)

Sunday, March 13, 2005

THE DARKNESS v2 #19

David Lapham's busy painting Gotham black over in Detective Comics and he's having some fun here, too.

Jackie Estacado has gone through life remarkably weak-willed considering who he is and what he does -- inheritor of the Darkness and a full-time mafia thug raised to mafia boss. His few moments of strength have come at perilous cost: betraying the Franchetti family by turning State's witness got his best friend (and true love) Jenny killed, his revenge for that murder was to trap Don Franchetti and his crew and kill himself along with them, and now Jackie's decided to finally stand up to the Darkness... it can't possibly end up well. And it doesn't.

The story itself is the strongest we've seen on this title in a while -- Jackie has had a very pedestrian set of obstacles -- but it's a little muddled and pat in places. The reach of the Darkness is properly grand and suffocating; it has every right to be annoyed with its avatar and there's no reason anyone with as little imagination as Jackie should be able to outrun it. On the other end, Lori the Hooker with a Heart of Gold (and a sob story to match) is rather annoying in her Woe Is Me mode, then gets all creepy with the fast rebound after her son's death and sounding for all the world like she's made of the Darkness, too. Which would be great for Jackie's aching libido, but with everyone turning into Darkness beings, it does start to feel like Invasion of the Body Snatchers after a while.

As is generally my beef with Top Cow books, the art is unappealing. For once, however, Marc Silvestri isn't to blame. Dale Keown's striking cover is not matched by Brain Denham's interior art, which is alternately over-lined, indistinct, and trying to be more in line with what Top Cow books usually look like.

ULTIMATE FANTASTIC FOUR #16

And the trip through the N-Zone continues, with some predicted (and some unpredicted) events.

This is another one of those Warren Ellis Gratifying His Inner Geek issues, which is totally the point when you've got two certified scientific geniuses as half of your quartet. We had astronomy, multiverse theory, sociology as it applies to outer space colonies, biochemistry, and the quest for the unknown.

Not to mention the snarking. Ben not only has the biggest fists, but he consistently scores the best lines -- has since the Bendis days.

I will admit to reading this and thinking back to the JLA issue where the team gets shrunk by the Atom to visit the colony in the little boy's tumor; there are a lot of common elements. But while that issue was supposed to resonate with Krypton, what we have here is a little more traditional sci-fi serial, with the thrill of First Contact being cooled by the realization that the new society isn't what it appears to be -- it's actually a lot worse. Sue's going to have to bail everyone out again, methinks.

This remains my favorite Ultimate title, by quite a longshot. The sales haven't been great -- have, in fact, been falling -- and I don't understand why. Warren Ellis is perfect for this book with his love of science and science fiction; he has worked up a Reed Richards and a Sue Storm who are scarily brilliant and whose knowledge doesn't seem fake or forced. Ellis took over for Brian Bendis and I think that may have put people off a bit at the thought of Ellis, a man most comfortable writing mature-label stories, taking on a kid-friendly book. But the simple fact is that Ellis is not writing Transmetropolitan at the Baxter Building; his FF are not preternaturally mature -- they're a universe better than Mark Millar's take on the Ultimate X-Men. Reed and Sue are geniuses, but you've still got three college-age kids and a high-schooler -- and Ellis's dialogue out-Bendises Bendis at times with the laugh-out-loud banter.

The trades:
v1 The Fantastic (Bendis)
v2 Doom (Ellis)
v3 N-Zone is out in July

GOTHAM CENTRAL #29

You know, this is perhaps the first time I'm saying this in the entire history of the title, but... this issue had a poor plot advancement to page number ratio. Which isn't to say that I didn't enjoy it. Just that it was... a little slow.

Most of this issue was a recap in some way or another. We had the transformed Officer Kelly and his condition, plus the GCPD reacting (badly) to it. We had Rene Montoya struggling with her continued estrangement from her family in the wake of her outing as a lesbian in Half a Life. We had Batman in his post-War Games role as creepy and cold fugitive. And then we had the Everything You Need to Know about Keystone If You Haven't Been Reading The Flash lesson.

And what did we get out of all this reiteration? That Rene is about to do something Very Stupid.

Now this isn't as inefficient as it looks; true to form, Greg Rucka is wonderfully subtle as he shows Rene almost bidding farewell to all of the good things in her life -- her lover Daria, her partner Cris Allen, her family, her job. Where the lagging comes is in the time wasted familiarizing readers with Keystone and its world -- there wasn't a whole lot going on that wasn't Montoya's path to self-destruction and Keystone. Considering that this isn't a proper cross-over (i.e., there is no corresponding issue of The Flash to continue this arc), I was left wondering if there wasn't a better way to go about it because it felt info-dumpy. Maybe I hold Rucka up to impossible standards, but after the aerodynamic sleekness that is Queen & Country, I want to see him look like Fred Astaire when he dances with the Exposition Fairy. He wasn't doing the prom wobble, but he wasn't dancing up the walls and on to the ceiling, either.

ADAM STRANGE #6

Looking at this while ignoring the giant, pink, tutu'ed elephant over there on the couch (namely that this is the first part of the Rann/Thanagar War event), this was rather fun in the way the entire mini has been thus far -- good, clean, pulpy entertainment.

First the Omega Men and now L.E.G.I.O.N. are in the story as Adam gets more clues that lead him to Rann and he gets the answer to one important question, if not half a dozen others that are still burning. Vril Dox outplays Adam and his buddies, but loses a game of chicken because nobody in that family ever truly understands the nature of a bluff.

Having little experience with either the Omega Men or L.E.G.I.O.N., I'd like to think that this was a rather approachable issue in terms of the history of those two groups not really mattering to the plot. We get the gist and that's enough. I will admit to having a slight problem keeping my interest up during the Thanagar moments -- which bothers me because I adore the Hawks and did the silly fangirl dance when I filled my Hawkworld gap -- but I can't help feeling toward them the way I do toward the Qward over in Busiek's JLA: I know they matter, I just can't bring myself to care overmuch.

Andy Diggle had a few moments of awkward dialogue, but considering the scale of what he's juggling, it's not a killer. Pascal Ferry's art remains a definite selling point of the series.

BLOOD OF THE DEMON #1

I knew better than to look at this. I really, really did. In the week I finally decide that I've had enough of Judd Winick hurting my brain with Green Arrow, I go and look at John Byrne's latest reinvention of the wheel. Because, apparently, I needed the reminder that any Jason Blood is not better than no Jason Blood.

Byrne's interviews leading up to this series should have been sufficient warning -- he may be borrowing some of the names, but as far as he's concerned, there is no history for Jason Blood and Etrigan the Demon that he is to be bound by. And no reason for Etrigan to speak in rhyme. *twitch*

I've long had a soft spot for Jason and am perfectly happy with Garth Ennis's series (heck, even Matt Wagner's) standing as the foundation of current continuity. So is everyone else who has used Jason -- Kevin Smith (Green Arrow) and Joe Kelly (JLA) being probably the two most recent and most notable, along with Joshua Dysart's ultimately disappointing Demon: Driven Out mini from the other year.

According to Ennis, Jason was originally a peasant farmer in Arthur's England who ended up being the human container for Etrigan, Merlin's demon half-brother. In the Zero issue of that series, absolutely recommended, Jason's life since that moment is given in brief -- a history of mental manipulation, torture, debauchery, and struggle. Jason was Etrigan's prison, but Etrigan was running the show, altering Jason's memories and willpower to suit his aims and the two moved through history as one opportunistic and powerful grifter. Jason and Etrigan hated each other and schemed to be rid of the other, Jason becoming a learned mage and Etrigan a master political animal in the depths of Hell, where he eventually earned promotion to the rank of rhyming demon. Jason came to Gotham early on in its existence and, centuries later, developed a friendship of sorts with Batman, each man seeing the other as a kindred spirit even as Jason's inner demons are a bit more literal.

Jason and Etrigan are interesting because of the way each has perverted the other -- Etrigan has been known to do good deeds (not for noble purposes, admittedly) and Jason used to freelance for Lucifer -- and because their struggle to be rid of the other is neither easily resolved nor toward any good end; it was never really clear if either could survive a true separation (not the kind that had them both running around in Hell, Jason usually sans pants). Etrigan is no dumb beast -- he does not love chaos for its own end -- this is what Dysart missed -- but always toward a purpose; he wants what his father, the demon king Belial, has. And Jason, too, has grown used to his immortality and power; his studies may have started out as a means to defeat Etrigan, but they have their own attraction now.

Of course, none of this will matter now that Byrne has taken over. Jason is a thinly veiled copy of Buffy the Vampire Slayer's brooding Angel, complete with facial transformation and cache of pointy things. Will Pfeifer is nominally the scripter here, although as he disappears so quickly from the series, one wonders how much of a role he plays. This is really Byrne's show. Which is a shame because while Pfeifer has never really knocked my socks off, I think we'd have done better than random alien dudes, a farcical Randu, and the rest of what goes on here. As a writer, Byrne has always been a great penciler.

Retcons should have a purpose -- they should fix something that's broken, not just be a vehicle for a writer to say 'I like my own ideas better than yours'. There was nothing in need of repair in the Jason/Etrigan story, nothing outmoded or rendered incompatible with the Post-Crisis DCU. The end result is just John Byrne looking arrogant and lazy for deciding that he will rewrite what others have created and he hasn't bothered to read.

Milehigh is having a sale (additional 20% off if you know the codeword) and you can pick up the Ennis Demon series for well under $1 an issue. It'll make a better investment and far better read.

FALLEN ANGEL #19

This issue was originally billed as a Jumping On issue, a good starting place for people who hadn't been following thus far and didn't want to wade in to an ongoing plot. Sadly, it is the penultimate issue of this series, at least as far as DC is concerned, and is running a month late -- there was already uncertainty as far as whether it would exist back when the February 2005 solicits were compiled.

We return to Bete Noire where things are not quite back to normal after the events of the Hurlyburly arc -- Miss Lee is most definitely less than her usual charming self (*cough*) and Dolph thinks it is the loss of her baby (he's probably right, but not for the reasons he thinks). Meanwhile, Doctor Juris is still hiding the fact that he murdered Boxer from Black Mariah. With Bete Noir's two most powerful residents so unsettled, it's no wonder the city itself is a bit on edge.... perfect for the arrival of Sachs and Violens?

Sachs and Violens, aka JJ and Ernie, are Peter David's creations from a miniseries he did with George Perez for Epic Comics -- sort of a vigilante Fite'n'Maad for the adult entertainment industry. They're in town to come after Bumper Ruggs, Bete Noire's premier whoremaster, and Bumper asks the Fallen Angel to stop them. Miss Lee agrees with her usual lack of enthusiasm. The story and the series conclude next month.

This issue is chock full of all of the hallmarks of PAD's writing, especially the bad puns and dualities. Nothing is as it is expected to be here -- Sachs and Violens are tawdry, but on the side of justice; Bumper Ruggs is male or female; Juris is the town's magistrate and has always worked well for his bosses, but he is hiding his own crime here, one committed for personal reasons; Miss Lee is supposed to be the local avenger, but she's in a brothel looking to buy and ends up agreeing to protect the child pornographer against the ones who would stop the operation...

Fallen Angel has always been about bait-and-switches, flexible moralities, dichotomies, and the gray areas. Sadly, it has always been in the gray area of DC -- a Vertigo-type book without the protection and advantage of Vertigo's imprint; if it were carrying that label, the low sales would have been less of a problem and the mature rating would have been a feature and not a hindrance. And they would have collected the series in trade. The first six issues will be all that DC is compiling and #7-20 must be gathered as floppies.

The trade: Grasshopper Comics | Amazon | Deep Discounts ... or your LCS.

SEVEN SOLDIERS - SHINING KNIGHT #1

... And somehow, I don't think Danette Reilly will be around to save him. (Although I'd be really, really thrilled if she was.)

Sir Justin of Arthur's Round Table comes to life in this first subseries of the Seven Soldiers project, amazingly rendered by Simone Bianchi (who is he? Newsarama already asked). In the Zero issue, we saw the Sheeda undertake their Harrowing on the present day and the ersatz Seven Soldiers. Now we see them at a far earlier point in time, razing Camelot to the ground and salting the earth upon which it stood.

If the overarching layers of the Zero issue were a bit muddled (they were), then this first issue helps clarify things a bit. We get a better feel for what the Sheeda are and what their game is, although certainly not enough to figure them out. And, in truth, for every question Grant Morrison answers, he replaces with a new unknown. The endgame is still not clear.

The Zero issue was cynical and post-modern, but this is more straight-ahead action and archtype. The Knights of the Round Table are vivid and valiant without crossing over into bombast or cornball; it's an incomprehensibly unequal fight and they are doing the best of what they know how to do. But it won't be enough to save either Camelot or the future and their desperation in the face of ridiculous odds does not come out as hokey.

Arthur's brave knights are losing badly and it it Justin, blessed not with superior brawn or unassailable virtue but instead a talking horse, who finds the keys to the Sheeda's strength. Trying to defeat the Sheeda queen, it is through Vanguard's actions (Vanguard being the horse) that Justin finds himself bewildered and bloodied in contemporary LA, separated from Vanguard and treated not like a valiant knight, but instead like a crazy SCA member who jumped into traffic while riding a horse and dressed in armor. It's a different kind of world that will need saving here.

In his more familiar appearances, Sir Justin is never built like a linebacker -- he's tall and thin, built straight like the sword he wields. Bianchi takes that one step further and there is a slightness and a delicacy to Justin's form; although he's strong enough to carry the weakened Olwyn, Justin's greatest strength is not physical. There is a fluidity to all of Bianchi's renderings and a fantastic use of chiaroscuro, all the more important for the role shadow has in the Sheeda's story.

Overall, a good start both to the miniseries itself and to the larger sea of miniseries that make up the Seven Soldiers project.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

NIGHTWING #105

I have absolutely nothing even remotely positive to say here. Nothing. At. All.

For all of you folks who are grooving to the There Was No Such Thing As Life Before Chuck Dixon beat, go have fun and enjoy yourselves and marvel at how Dixon manages to work in unsubtle reminders of every Dick Grayson story he ever wrote.

For those of you who remember that Barbara Gordon wasn't Dick Grayson's First Love or his Only Best Friend and that, once upon a time, Dick aspired to exist outside the Shadow of the Bat, I'll post a link to last issue's griping and join you in the bitter snarking. This is a despicable Batman, a truly wretched Jason Todd (who wasn't likeable enough the first time to save his own skin), a cold and unpleasant Babs, a pathetic Dick, and an Alfred who is saving up material for Amateur Night at the comedy club instead of standing up as the voice of reason.

I'm officially looking forward to the relief offered by Devin 'I raped Nightwing' Grayson's return -- and anyone who remembers my vicious and lengthy diatribes on that storyline can perhaps gauge my disgust with this retcon.

And, since we're on the topic of books too awful to read, the Shrew has finally given up the ghost on Green Arrow. Tom Fowler's art has proven to be the straw that broke this Shrew's back.

LEX LUTHOR: MAN OF STEEL #1

As much as I didn't care for Brian Azzarello's Batman, I have greatly enjoyed his Superman and so I am relatively unsurprised to be as seduced as I was by this look at Lex Luthor.

In a past incarnation, I differentiated Azzarello's Superman from Greg Rucka's Adventures of Superman by saying that Rucka was looking more at Clark-versus-Superman and Azzarello focused on Clark-versus-Kal-El. Azzarello's Clark is looking for signs that he's human by nurture as much as he's Kryptonian by nature, while Rucka's Clark is going a bit more microcosm and looking for what kind of man that human could be.

Lex Luthor: Man of Steel continues on that theme -- Lex is no crazed supervillain cackling madly as he tries to take over the world. Like Veronica Cale over in Rucka's Wonder Woman, he is a human in a one-sided stare-down with a god, resentful of the way humanity has embraced what is beyond them at the expense of dreaming about what they could achieve. It is a marvelously complex role -- nominally the villain in that they are the opposition to the hero character, but, really, are their thoughts so villainous?

Sure, there is a selfishness to it -- Lex, like Veronica, would like to take his place at the pinnacle of human achievement, but what good is being the best and brightest of humanity when there is superhumanity always one step greater? However, there is also a benevolence to it -- Lex wants to inspire human advancement, wants the next generation to dream of ways to make the world greater on their own instead of little boys dreaming of becoming Superman and little girls dreaming of partnering with him.

[I'm prepared to like Lex much more than Veronica because he's getting a far richer treatment and, presumably, will not end up as a pawn in a metahuman/godfigure showdown. Lex is a force and a dreamer and Veronica occasionally gets turned into too much of a petty shrew and it has nothing to do with her being a woman and everything to do with her role as secondary character in Wonder Woman while Lex is the protagonist here.]

Lex is fighting an unwinnable battle, of course. And not just because Superman always wins in the end. Myth and legend have always had a role in history as inspiration -- more people have looked to King Arthur or Jesus as heroic examples to follow than, say, Isaac Newton. We have always created larger-than-life heroes, humans who transcended their humanity to reach greatness, and the physical presence of one living among us is not the sole crippling agent behind (what Lex sees as) humanity's stifled aspirations. Lex might say that men didn't stop doing natural philosophy after Newton produced a Principia that was too advanced for most everyone to follow, but he doesn't see that men haven't stopped reaching for greatness in an age of Superman, either.

Ultimately, Lex's failing isn't in what he wants, but it will be in how far he will go to get it.

Lee Barmejo's art is striking in all the right ways and it is beautiful without being overly pretty. Colorist Dave Stewart has provided a palette that sets off Bermejo's lines wonderfully, creating an effect both ultra-real and surreal all at once.

JSA #71

... Right. So once I stopped retching at the Amazing and Wonderful and Everyone's Favorite Character* Mister Terrific taking on the KKK, what did I think?

I'm having the same conundrum with this storyline as I did with JSA: Strange Adventures, namely Talking Dog Syndrome: am I just thrilled to have Golden Age JSA (the dog talking at all) or is the story actually fun (what the dog says)? Ultimately, JSA: Strange Adventures proved to be the former, but I'm still holding out hope for the latter here.

Per Degaton stories should be like pizza and sex -- even when they're mediocre, they're good. Degaton is a gas as a bad guy in that he's ruthless, intelligent, and completely bonkers without being the sort of giggling psychopath who gets nothing done. He uses history in far more interesting and not-obvious ways than merely bringing in anachronistic technology to overpower the heroes (although he did that, too, Pre-Crisis). The idea of Degaton using knowledge of the future to destroy the people who would be heroes is consistent with his mission and clever enough; his foreknowledge of the JSAers attempts to stop him makes him formidable.

All that is in theory, though. In practice, the story is somewhat bogged down by Johns's need to put his own spin on the Golden Agers he doesn't get to play with in the contemporary JSA. From the mildly obsessive fangirl standpoint, it's distracting as all heck because he's blithely trampling everyone else's canon (Starman in particular is taking a beating) and official DCU dating because he's either too lazy to look anything up or too uninterested. This has been a failing of Johns's entire run -- it was laughably obvious when he finally got around to reading Matt Wagner's Dr. Mid-Nite origin story -- and, considering that this is the DCU's legacy title and history counts here more than in most places, hubris a poor choice of foible. The total effect is that Johns is working harder to cover his own ignorance (willful or not) than he would have had he looked stuff up and the story suffers for it in narrative and especially in characterization.

Nonetheless, as has been the case from the beginning, I liked the Starman-Stargirl meeting the best and the Sand-Sandman the worst, despite both of them being abominably and needlessly deviant from Post-Crisis history. Dr. Mid-Nite gets short shrift as ever, Mister Terrific is overexposed as ever, the Jakeem-Johnny Thunder meeting is a joining of two characters whose job is to be irrelevant and that lives up to its billing, the Hourman focus was fantastic until Rick Tyler showed up, and I want to like the redemption of Al Rothstein via his meeting with Al Pratt, but I can't because it's been such a discontinuous and non-intuitive path from Al's rejection of the JSA in Kahndaq. Especially after the reunion with the current JSA comes out so uglily -- why is Sand, who wasn't even present/sentient for the Black Reign arc, the one to snipe at Al when all of the others were very much involved and Courtney was the one who felt the betrayal most acutely?

I've been losing love for Don Kramer's art with each successive issue and this goes far beyond my still-burning torch for the Stephen Sadowski days. The two-page spread at the end, mirroring the money shot of the Return of Hawkman (JSA 23-25) arc -- among other 'This is the JSA' table portraits, suffers badly by comparison.




* Because this is the first JSA-related entry here at Blogspot, it's time to give the spiel. My reaction to Michael Holt is sort of like Marvel fans' reaction to X-23. The harder Geoff Johns tries to jam him down my throat as a character I am supposed to clamor for and be interested in, the more I rebel. According to Johns, Mister Terrific II is the Batman of the JSA, the all-brilliant, all-knowing genius who can get out of anything and has the best moral standards and more interesting personal demons than anyone else.

I'm not buying it.

The JSA as a group and JSA as a title stopped being fun pretty much at the moment Holt took over as JSA chairman. The legacy aspect of the team (the JSA's claim to uniqueness) disappeared completely, as did any sort of team chemistry.

There's no real need for half of the members if Mister Terrific can solve all of the mysteries and fix all of the problems on his own; Michael Holt tells everyone what to do instead of soliciting their knowledge and relying on their expertise, which is no longer greater than his own. Now it feels like half of the team, especially the older members, are around because they have no place else to go -- hanging on past their prime and their relevance, they are looking for any way to keep in the game. The younger set fare no better -- what purpose does Dr. Mid-Nite serve within the JSA if Michael Holt has already read his book and can do anything Pieter Cross can without the ocular limitations? Why does the team need a brawler if the T-Spheres are superior fighting tools?

The chairmanship of Sand also allowed for an exploration of the legacy nature of the team, which is, after all, their distinguishing feature. Sand, the adult Sandy the Golden Boy, sidekick to the Sandman, is the bridge between the Golden Agers (Hawkman, GL, Flash, Wildcat) he knew as a child in the 1940's and the contemporary inheritors of the mantles of the other Original JSAers who are at various stages of growing in to their costumes. The storylines with Sand as chairman were often legacy-related -- Johnny Sorrow, the Ultra-Humanite, Ian Karkull, etc. -- and reintroduced (sometimes for the first time Post-Crisis) old enemies into new times.

The legacy-related storylines since Holt's ascension to godlike omnipotence and the JSA chairman's seat have been flat and there hasn't been any story that couldn't be co-opted by a few pages of exposition on Michael Holt by the nominal lead character. Never more true than with anything involving Dr. Mid-Nite -- Dr. Cross having trouble in Portsmouth? Michael Holt's crisis of faith is the scene-hogging subplot; one of Charles McNider's old enemies coming after the new Dr. Mid-Nite? Michael Holt is there to assist in the surgery. Going back to ancient Egypt (the Fate and Hawk legacies)? Michael Holt is there, too. The current arc, which should have been all about everyone with a familial tie to the Golden Age JSAers is, instead, all about Michael Holt. Color me surprised... or not.

FABLES #35

... and so Jack's tale ends, for now.

This was an odd story, the same sort of placeholder that the Bigby-in-WWII story was in that it has nothing to do with contemporary Fables history and smells an awful lot like Bill Willingham was killing time until he came up with the plot twist he needed for the 'main' storyline. But while it was sort of kitchy-cute to do it right before Snow's babies were born, it works less well here and is more of a distraction coming so close on the heels of that first tangent.

My initial reaction was to enjoy the story as one of those Con Artist Getting Conned tales and that Jack, once again, has a good idea for a grift that fails in the execution. We've already seen with our Leninite Goldilocks that, for Fables, renown equals strength -- Goldy was simply too famous to die. And for that, Jack's power play was most clever.

But then, as I was out shoveling snow, I started to get questions. Why did it take five years for Beast to track down Jack? The posters for the Jack movies are visible; how anyone in Fabletown could not realize what was up is completely beyond me. I was ready to assume that Beast had been busy with the threat of the Adversary, but if he hasn't shed blood in five years as Sheriff, then obviously there hasn't been that much of a danger to Fabletown. And if what Jack did was a capital offense, then why did it rank so low on the Sheriff's priority list? Considering the lengths Bigby went to to keep Fabletown secret from that reporter in the wake of the March of the Wooden Soldiers streetfight, Beast must be an incredibly inept Sheriff if he doesn't have any intelligence on a leak of this magnitude.

Also, my sympathy for Jill disappeared once I realized what sort of a rat she was. The limitations on Farm residents are harsh, but fair -- if you cannot pay for magicks to make yourself appear human, then you cannot be seen by the Mundy population lest you endanger all of the exiles. The Farm is both gilded cage and benevolent largesse -- comfortable protection from the Adversary at a reasonable cost. Jill's desire to escape is understandable, as is her resentment of Jack's treatment of her. But is it any more than she deserves? Jill helped Jack steal from Fabletown and was rewarded with a chance to break the Farm rules and leave -- a great crime in that she exposes everyone the minute any Mundy sees her. Then, knowing precisely what Jack was doing the entire time, she waited five years to see if Jack's treatment of her would improve before she called home and turned on him/turned him in.

The 'corruption of Hollywood' morality play got tired fast -- it was suitable and entertaining last issue with Jack, who is already on record as being interested solely in his own comfort and wealth, but it was just annoying and boring with Moss Waterhouse. Who cares if Moss is buggering an action star and has an ego inflating faster than the national debt? His self-satisfied power play is revealed to the readers to be not nearly as clever as he thinks it is -- the credit goes to Beast, who perhaps should be a lawyer instead of a Sheriff, considering the previous paragraph -- and we end up wasting an inordinate amount of time listening to the thoughts of a man who doesn't realize he's a dupe.

So what was the moral of the story? Avarice and cluelessness wins (Moss Waterhouse) and the only way for avarice and cleverness to win is to betray your partners at the opportune moment (Jill), which many not mean being the first to turn traitor (Jack).

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

DETECTIVE COMICS #804

David Lapham has spent his tenure on 'Tec exposing flaws, gleefully casting a harsh, unforgiving light on Gotham City and all she contains so as better to see the failure and decay.

Gotham has been established as a character in her own right, more villain than victim, willing playmate of sinners, and enabling the corruption of innocence. Gotham likes to watch. The police are overwhelmed from without and diseased from within and Gotham City seems to like it that way.

We have moved in, from the city to its most powerful citizens -- the cankered elite, demonstrated in the self-congratulating harbor party in the first issue and bearing fruit in the person of Haddie McNeil, the child left to raise herself into a mockery of womanhood.

And now we have come up close to see how the pervading darkness of Gotham has infected Batman himself -- his refusal to listen to Robin can't possibly be seen as anything but willful ignorance of a larger problem for the sake of following his own personal quest. At that moment, as Tim stares disbelievingly at his mentor, you can see how Gotham has managed to remain uncleansed.

... at least I hope that's what Lapham had in mind.

I have been known to complain once in a while about the omnipotence of Batman, so in that sense, this is a welcome relief from the Dark Knight Detective who is often written to know about events that are frankly impossible for him to know about simply because "he's Batman".

On the other hand, this is a very broken Batman, far more effectively hobbled by his own weaknesses and demons than we see in the annual Crossover Event (where something goes wrong, Batman pushes everyone away, things get worse, and he brings everyone back and apologizes). Bruce's near-obsession with Haddie's life and death is frankly self-indulgent, even moreso than his promise to the mother of one of the city's missing pregnant teens. Intentionally or not, Lapham sets up the insult to Bruce Wayne by Haddie's father -- a wonderfully caustic moment -- as more of an impetus to act than the horrors gripping the city.

Batman is selfish -- he has always been selfish -- and now it's explicit. Penguin's aerie has blown up, Mr. Freeze is running amok, city corruption looks to be behind the baby ring, there's a brilliantly cruel madness sweeping through some of the city's citizens... and Batman is off doing his own thing, which thankfully seems to dovetail into the larger chaos.

This is an extremely unlikeable, offputting Batman (contrasted with a surprisingly human Bruce Wayne) and even the narrative bubbles seem prejudiced against him. He means well, but good intentions are the paving stones on the road to Hell, which looks very much like the interstate leading to Gotham.

Niggling annoyance, just because I am like that: there's no way a Gotham City police detective can be transferred to Bludhaven as a punishment; separate cities, separate police. It's not like dumping a Manhattan cop out in Queens when he runs afoul of his commander.

I am enjoying this month to month, but I really suspect that this story will read better as a trade paperback instead of as a serial.

The Barker, the backup written by Mike Carey, concluded with this issue with one of those 'it makes perfect sense, but it's not what we wanted' endings as Kitt brings Tomjohn's killer to justice. I'm of two minds as to how this story did as a backup -- it tied very loosely into Gotham and had nothing to do with Batman and I don't know if that's a good thing or not.

The story could have just as easily been set in, say, Cleveland -- the circus world's reaction to the murder of the Graysons was an interesting detail, but ultimately irrelevant to the story -- although that is perhaps a refreshing break from a setup where new characters can debut in back-ups and then be brought over into the main books without so much as a howdeedoo to introduce them to folks who didn't read the original story when it came out. (I'm looking straight at you, Josie Mac.)

As a story, it worked great for what it was -- a serialized back-up story -- although I'll admit that Carey has to work extra hard for me not to like his stuff (I'm going to pick up his and Oeming's Red Sonja, for pity's sake).