18 April 2014

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Crisis!, Part XVIII: The OMAC Project

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2005
Borrowed from the library
Read March 2014
The OMAC Project

Writers: Geoff Johns, Greg Rucka, Judd Winick
Artists: Rags Morales & Michael Bair, Ed Benes, Jesus Saiz & Jimmy Palmiotti, Ivan Reis & Marc Campos, Phil Jimenez & Andy Lanning, Cliff Richards & Bob Wiacek, David Lopez, Tom Derenick, Georges Jeanty, Karl Kerschl, Mark Propst, Bit, Dexter Vines, Rob Petrecca, Nelson DeCastro
Colorists: Moose Baumann, Paul Mounts, Guy Major, Steve Firchlow, Richard & Tanya Horie
Letterers: Nick J. Napolitano, Phil Balsman, Todd Klein

First off, let's look at those credits: twenty artists worked on the eight issues collected here. Twenty. I guess superhero comics are not an auteur medium.

Secondly, let's reminisce. Though I didn't read a whole lot of superhero comics back in 2005, I was becoming aware of them, and I remember the first time I saw the title "Countdown to Infinite Crisis." I thought it was a parody comic. Then I realized-- the title was real. Which was horrifying.

That said, the story of that title collected here turns out to be rather good. Nine years later I think it's okay to say that this is the story where Blue Beetle dies. Now, as a big fan of the Justice League International days, I really like Blue Beetle. I like to think he's what I'd be if I became a superhero: chubby, well-meaning, a little bit insecure, trying his best every day. "Countdown to Infinite Crisis" shows him off at his best, tracing a mystery no one else can be bothered with (except for the ever-loyal Booster Gold) across the Earth. All things said, it's a good mystery story, and despite being a fan of the JLI days, I even think the twist about the villain works. When Blue Beetle is shot in the head, you feel it in the gut.

"Countdown to Infinite Crisis" is followed by three chapters of "The OMAC Project," which runs two parallel stories: while Batman, Wonder Woman, and Booster Gold try to figure out who killed Blue Beetle (and what was worth killing him over), Sasha Bordeaux starts to fret about her role in the mysterious "Checkmate" organization. I guess Sasha was in some Batman stories I haven't read, but you actually don't need to know that for this story to work; Greg Ruck is skilled enough a writer to make her plight instantly sympathetic. Her attempt to get to Batman and let the truth out is a great thriller story, the kind of stuff Rucka is really adept at. I also like how this story spins out of Identity Crisis, showing a more-- and justly-- paranoid Batman. There are real repercussions for that story, which stops it from being the shilling shocker it's sometimes characterized as.

Something I particularly liked about "The OMAC Project" is the way that Rucka and letterer Phil Balsman use the computer lettering of the Brother Mk. I satellite, sometimes on the edge of the narrative, sometimes on top of it, sometimes interrupting speech bubbles. It's used to clever and sometimes chilling effect, and the way it can run in parallel to the main story on the page is the kind of thing I'd assert you can only do in comics. The repeated motif of the satellite's eye logo is also well used: an all-seeing eye, a Panopticon for the postmodern age.

"The OMAC Project" is interrupted halfway through by "Sacrifice, Part 4 of 4." Bizarrely, parts 1-3 are synopsized and you can go read them in another book-- after you've read the end here, I guess. The book actually gets away with it, though; the synopsis proves enough to get you through this story: famously, the one where Wonder Woman kills Maxwell Lord. I have to say, it's built up to pretty compellingly; this is no callous murder, but a genuine life-or-death situation that there is truthfully no other way out of. Of course, both Rucka and Lord contorted to make that the case, but it promises some interesting repercussions, which I guess will be in some other book. I only wish it had better art: ten of the book's twenty artists are used on this one 22-page story, and it is not to the tale's benefit.

The last three parts of "The OMAC Project" shift the focus from the now-dead Maxwell Lord to the supercomputer he stole from Batman, Brother Mk. I, which has now rebranded itself "Brother Eye" and elected to purge the Earth of superhumans. Since Batman lost control of it, it's gained the ability to turn any human who's taken a certain nanite-infused vaccine into a One-Many Army Corps (of old Jack Kirby fame). An army of OMACs comes at the Earth, which makes for a couple great splash pages from Jesus Saiz. (Indeed, I liked his art throughout the book; he does great facial expressions and body language, though it's baffling that he draws a second Checkmate agent who looks almost exactly like Sasha.)

Though I think the OMAC army's defeat comes a little too cursorily, there are a lot of great moments along the way, especially when Booster Gold leads his old JLI teammates (Guy Gardner, Fire, Mary Marvel, Metamorpho, Martian Manhunter, and Rocket Red) into battle to avenge Blue Beetle. This era may have been pilfered for shock value and retconned to death by this whole story, but the old team is still being treated with respect, thankfully.

Like Day of Vengeance, I'm left with little idea of where this is all going as it counts down to the Infinite Crisis, but I'm interested and ready to find out, and even if this goes nowhere, Greg Rucka and Jesus Saiz constructed a really enjoyable and thrilling ride.

16 April 2014

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Crisis!, Part XVII: Day of Vengenace

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2005
Borrowed from the library
Read March 2014
Day of Vengeance

Writers: Judd Winick, Bill Willingham
Pencillers: Ian Churchill, Justiniano, Ron Wagner
Inkers: Norm Rapmund, Walden Wong, Livesay, Dexter Vines
Colorists: Beth Sotelo, Chris Chuckry
Letterers: Richard Starkings, Pat Brosseau

This is the first of the "Countdown to Infinite Crisis" collections, chronologically speaking, collecting two storylines, "Lightning Strikes Twice" and the eponymous "Day of Vengeance." It opens with a two-page overview of "The Nature of Magic," which tries to organize what is known about DC's magical universe, from sources as disparate as Green Lantern, the Fourth World, Neil Gaiman's Sandman, Captain Marvel, Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld, and even Lucifer. I'm not sure it needs to be done, nor that this all actually adds up to anything, but I guess I applaud them for trying.

"Lightning Strikes Twice" is a Superman story, involving the attempt of Eclipso (who I recall from 1992's crossover event Eclipso: The Darkness Within, of which I read the Justice League Europe and Green Arrow chapters) to possess a new host, ideally Superman-- meanwhile Captain Marvel tries to help out despite the increasing difficulties of his mentor, the wizard Shazam. There's probably a good story to be written about Superman's struggle with anger, but this isn't it. It's a perfunctory, typical superhero possession story, and I didn't find that writer Judd Winick nor artists Ian Churchill and Norm Rapmund did anything interesting with it.

Part of this story picks up ramifications from Green Lantern: Rebirth, which I haven't read, but I know that Hal Jordan ceases to be the host of the Spectre; the Spectre turns up at the end of "Lightning Strikes Twice" without a host, aimless and guideless. This causes Eclipso to get an idea, and in "Day of Vengeance," it has persuaded the Spectre that all magic is contrary to God's Law and must be destroyed. With the Spectre on a rampage, it's up to an impromptu team of magic users to stop it, most of which I had never heard of: Blue Devil (I remember him from Crisis on Infinite Earths), Enchantress (nope), Nightmaster (nope again), Nightshade (still nope), Detective Chimp (I know the name, but nothing else), and Ragman (certainly not).

It makes for a decent superhero story: group of disparate heroes have to work together, discovering they have purpose in the process. It's not very interesting (an ongoing about this team picked up from Day of Vengeance, but I won't be reading it), but it's interesting enough. Each character narrates a different issue in turn, and some of these were more successful than others; obviously Detective Chimp is the best narrator, whereas many of the other characters could have been anyone. Captain Marvel plays a big role again, but I was very surprised to see Birds of Prey's Black Alice pop up here; I hadn't known she'd had any impact outside of her own book.

When this story does succeed (aside from all scenes featuring Detective Chimp), it's when it gives you the feeling of scale of what it would mean for the Spectre to be on a rampage against magic through every dimension. When Ragman and Enchantress are in a mystical forest early on, there's this great, unexpected page turn when you see the Spectre fighting Blackbrian Thorn, and the combatants just tower over our heroes. It's moments like this that make a magic-based story distinct from every other superhero story (seriously, most magic blasts could be heat rays for all it matters), and there's not quite enough of them in "Day of Vengeance," but where do they turn up (there's another good one where the Enchantress taps the universe's magic users for power to help Captain Marvel) they really sell this as something different, something bigger.

Now, what does all this have to do with the brewing Infinite Crisis? To be honest, I have little idea and I'm not hooked enough to care yet, either. But ever onwards we plunge.

14 April 2014

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Crisis!, Part XVI: Prelude to Infinite Crisis

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2005 (contents: 2004-05)
Borrowed from the library
Read February 2014
Prelude to Infinite Crisis

Writers: Judd Winick, Jeph Loeb, Geoff Johns, Jeremy Johns, Greg Rucka, Bill Willingham, Marc Andreyko, John Arcudi, Bob Harras, Gail Simone, Andy Diggle
Artists: Ian Churchill, Norm Rapmund, Alé Garza, Trevor Scott, Marlo Alquiza, Lary Stucker, Ed McGuinness, Dexter Vines, Matthew Clark, Nelson DeCastro, Andy Lanning, Mike McKone, Don Kramer, Keith Champagne, Damion Scott, Sandra Hope, Rags Morales, John Dell, Carlos D'Anda, Shawn Moll, Kevin Conrad, Jesus Saiz, Jimmy Palmiotti, Justiniano, Livesay, Walden Wong, Ray Snyder, Drew Johnson, Patrick Gleason, Christian Alamy, Marcos Martin, Alvaro Lopez, Ed Benes, Mark Propst, Ethan Van Sciver, Prentis Rollins, Pascal Ferry
Colorists: Beth Sotelo, Jeromy Cox, Dave Stewart, Richard & Tanya Horie, John Kalisz, Guy Major, Steve Buccello, James Sinclair, Nathan Eyring, Javier Rodriguez, Moose Baumann, Dave McCaig
Letterers: Richard Starkings, K. L. Fletcher, Nick J. Napolitano, Pat Brosseau, Phil Balsman, Rob Leigh, Todd Klein, Jared K. Fletcher, Clem Robins

What's amazing isn't that DC Comics eventually did yet another "Crisis," but that it took them so long to do it. There's a ten-year gap between Zero Hour and Identity Crisis. I won't be covering Identity Crisis on this blog, though, as I've already reviewed it, and so we're on to Infinite Crisis. What's markedly different about crossover events now that we're in the 2000s is the ridiculous scale of them: there are at least ten, if not more, trade paperbacks cover-branded with "Infinite Crisis," and I'm here to review all of them.

The first is a weird one. Designed to catch readers up, I guess, before they plunge into all the various "Countdown to Infinite Crisis" collections, Prelude to Infinite Crisis contains significant panels from a multitude of DC comics, ranging from Teen Titans to Birds of Prey. These context-less snippets are rarely illuminating, even with the cursory captions: why do I care that Donna Troy died (and came back to life?), or that "Optitron is actually a subsidiary of Wayne Industries. Wayne Industries is owned by Bruce Wayne. Bruce Wayne is Batman." Whoa, whoa, whoa-- really?

There are two complete stories included here. The first, "Suicide Watch," shows us how tough it is for Pete Ross to be President of the United States with all these secret government organizations in his way. It's not very interesting except as it seems to join some continuity dots. The second, "Truth or Dare," sees Wonder Woman and the Flash teaming up when Cheetah and Zoom do. What are these villains up to? Why are they teaming up? It's all just spooky foreshadowing! I also don't know why Wonder Woman is blind.

The best of all the whole book is a snippet where Mr. Mxyzptlk makes fun of the whole deal. In response to Superman asking what terrible thing is coming, he answers, "Hush! The Zero Hour approaches! There will be a crisis on Earth! Time will need ritalin, it's gonna be so hyper! And a war, ohhh there will be a war, so secret that years will pass before it concludes! A dark age is coming my friend, that shall cast you into a no man's land of despair! I mean, really dark, talking like, an obsidian age here. Honest." Which I think just about sums this whole mess up.

11 April 2014

Review: The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction

Mass market paperback, 408 pages
Published 2007

Acquired March 2012
Read March 2014
The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction
edited by George Mann

Several years ago, I read and enjoyed volume three of this series, so looping back to the beginning seemed warranted, although "new science fiction" hardly applies at this point. It's a decent anthology, though not as good as remember that later one being. Unfortunately, it doesn't start strong, as I found Jeffrey Thomas's "In His Sights" pretty difficult to get into, with lengthy exposition dumps starting right on the first page, but it eventually picked up for me with a fun time travel story in Peter F. Hamilton's "If At First..." and Stephen Baxter's apocalyptic "Last Contact."

"Cages" by Ian Watson, about aliens who introduce disabilities to the human race, was fascinating even if I didn't understand it and Mary A. Turzillo's "Zora and the Land Ethic Nomads" was a great, personal-level story set on Mars. Those four are seemingly it for strong stories, alas, though there are number of decent ones. Many of the middling ones run afoul of that old nemesis of science fiction: the writer who has an idea, but not a story. I wanted to love "The Bowlder Strain" by James Lovegrove (about a virus that removes your ability to swear) and "Personal Jesus" by Paul Di Filippo (about aliens who give everyone on Earth an iPod that lets them talk to God), but both had these amazing concepts wedded to insubstantial stories.

Special excoriation must be reserved for Mike Resnick & David Gerrold's "Jellyfish," about a Philip K. Dick/Kurt Vonnegut pastiche cleverly named "Dillon K. Filk" who... listen, I don't even know. It's the worst sort of metafiction: lazy, in-jokey, and knowing. I rarely hate stories as much as I hated this, but this was really a complete waste of every one of the 38 pages it was printed on. After ten pages have been wasted on basically nothing, then you get more and more expys of famous authors: "E. A. van der Vogel" (ugh), "Belevedere Atheling" (double ugh), "Robert Goldenboy" (really? are you even trying?), and then a whole page that just lists these I-am-sure-they-are-so-hilarious-to-Resnick-and-Gerrold-and-their-friends parody names of writer after writer after writer, culminating with "whatsisname, that sissy little creep who sold that stupid script to Star Truck while still in college, stealing the opportunity from a real science fiction writer." As if David Gerrold ever crossed the radar of Dick or Vonnegut; dream on, fanboy. It was at this point that I swore violently and went on to the next story, because life is too short. This story and Brian Aldiss's contribution ("The Four Ladies of the Apocalypse") make me think Mann was willing to take any old shit from famous writers to bolster his book.

Wow, I wasted a lot of words on it, but I seriously hated that story, and it remains my strongest emotional reaction to the book. Thankfully, I know the series will do better work later on.

09 April 2014

Review: The New Adventures: The Mary-Sue Extrusion by Dave Stone

Mass market paperback, 243 pages
Published 1999

Acquired and read March 2014
The New Adventures: The Mary-Sue Extrusion
by Dave Stone

This is a decently enjoyable book on its own merits-- probably one of the better and more interesting of the Bernice Summerfield New Adventures-- but it didn't entirely work for me because it feels like a dry run for themes and ideas that Dave Stone would return to in his later work, more successfully. The twist about the "Mary-Sue" and Bernice's friend Rebecca was good, but 1) it's not built up to enough and 2) it's just a twist, it doesn't really have any meaning in the story. Whereas the similar twist in The Two Jasons is fundamental to that entire novel. There are a lot of things still to like in this book, though-- I'm a sucker for Dave Stone's metafiction-- and it takes itself seriously enough to make the jokes work really well. Fun, but smart fun.

07 April 2014

Review: English Men of Science by Francis Galton

PDF eBook, 270 pages
Published 1874
Read November 2012
English Men of Science: Their Nature and Nurture
by Francis Galton

Francis Galton mailed surveys to a bunch of scientists to find out if interest in science was due to nature or nurture. He decides nature, but fails to account for class in any meaningful sense, which seems like a major foul-up. He may have invented both statistics and surveys, but judging by this book, he was not very good at it, probably because he also invented eugenics. You're better off reading The Victorian Scientist: The Growth of a Profession by Jack Meadows, which summarizes all the bits that are useful to a modern-day scholar.

04 April 2014

Review: Four Shōjo Stories by Keiko Nishi, Moto Hagio, and Shio Sato

Comic hardcover, 263 pages
Published 1996 (contents: 1975-90)
Borrowed from the library
Read March 2014
Four Shōjo Stories

Story & Art: Keiko Nishi, Moto Hagio, Shio Sato
Translation: Matt Thorn
Touch-Up Art & Lettering: Mary Kelleher

My erratic journey through Moto Hagio's oeuvre continues with this volume, which collects her "They Were Eleven" alongside three stories by two other writer/artists. "They Were Eleven" was my favorite story in the book (also the longest), a science fiction story about ten potential recruits for Space University being put on an abandoned spaceship together-- they have to make it for fifty days without hitting the panic button (or any deaths). Most are human, but not all, and even some of the humans aren't what you'd expect. It's a great story: good conflict, good twists, good characters, great artwork (there's a seemingly simple page of the cadets floating over to their spaceship in spacesuits that's just gorgeous). I like tales of groups of disparate personalities having to overcome great odds, and this is a good one.

Keiko Nishi contributes two stories: "Promise" and "Since You've Been Gone." The former is kinda saccharine, but almost gets away with it in its deft portrayal of human isolation. The second is also a little saccharine, but less so, but also less engaging; there's a couple too many clichés, I think.

The other story, I also quite enjoyed: Shio Sato's "The Changeling" reminds me of Ursula Le Guin's Ekumen in some ways, with a lone explorer checking out a planet seeded by humans in the distant past. There are some great ideas here, about violence, about emotion, about racism. Saying it's not as good as "They Were Eleven" is damning with faint praise, as it's really good. I was struck by the protagonist being female-- because it was almost incidental. I don't think it would have been in the hands of another writer/artist.

The only thing to not like about this volume is the cover: "JAPANESE COMICS FROM A UNIQUELY FEMALE PERSPECTIVE" and "It's Not Just Girls' Stuff Anymore" would have each been horrible tag lines on their own, but together they don't even make sense.

02 April 2014

Review: Legion of Super-Heroes Archives, Volume 12

Comic hardcover, 239 pages
Published 2003 (contents: 1975-77)
Acquired November 2012
Read March 2014
Legion of Super-Heroes Archives, Volume 12

Writer: Jim Shooter, Cary Bates, Paul Levitz
Pencils: Mike Grell, Ric Estrada, Mike Nasser
Inks: Mike Grell, Bill Draut, Joe Staton, Bob Wiacek, Bob Layton

I enjoyed this more than volume 11 of Legion of Super-Heroes; the plots felt less insubstantial, the characters more rounded. I mean, some of these are just really not good (one of the stories is resolved via a machine that lets our heroes win by wishing they win, which they then just hide away; another is one of those aggravating stories where the Legion deceives a (potential) member for no good reason; and then there's the infamous one that "explains" the lack of black characters in this 1950s future by revealing the world's blacks all live on one isolationist island), but when it hits, it hits!

I particularly enjoyed "The Hero Who Wouldn't Fight!" (Cosmic Boy is the only member of the Legion available on a day where the people of his planet are forbidden from using their magnetic powers), "The Private Lives of Bouncing Boy and Duo Damsel" (that Mike Grell art is probably illegal), "The Super Soldiers of the Slave-Maker" (the Legion tries to save a planet of slaves who don't want to be saved, requiring quick-thinking and heroism from Superboy and especially Phantom Girl), and "We Can't Escape the Trap in Time!" (which has some cool panel transitions). More of the stories in this volume seem to have involved real thought to write, which makes a nice change over volume 11. Nothing amazing perhaps (those days are yet to come), but good outer-space adventure.

01 April 2014

Reading Roundup Wrapup: March 2014

Pick of the month: Foundation by Steven T. Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen. This was a tough one for me, deciding between this and Matt Thorn's anthology Four Shōjo Stories. In the end, I decided that though I really liked "They Were Eleven" in Four Shōjo Stories, the book as a whole was not quite on that level, and I sided with the engrossing, involving opener to the House of Secrets reboot. Between the Acts and The OMAC Project should probably also get some plaudits.

All books read:
1. Batman: Knightfall by Dennis O’Neil
2. Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf
3. Legion of Super-Heroes Archives, Volume 12 by Jim Shooter, Cary Bates, and Paul Levitz
4. House of Secrets: Foundation by Steven T. Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen
5. Four Shōjo Stories by Keiko Nishi, Moto Hagio, and Shio Sato
6. The New Adventures: The Mary-Sue Extrusion by Dave Stone
7. Day of Vengeance by Judd Winick and Bill Willingham
8. The OMAC Project by Greg Rucka with Geoff Johns and Judd Winick
9. The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction edited by George Mann
10. The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells
11. Star Wars: The New Jedi Order: Dark Tide: Onslaught by Michael A. Stackpole
12. Star Wars: Invasion 3: Revelations by Tom Taylor

All books acquired:
1. Star Wars: The Crimson Empire Saga by Mike Richardson and Randy Stradley
2. Star Wars Omnibus: Droids and Ewoks by Dave Manak with George Carragone
3. Star Wars: Lost Tribe of the Sith: Spiral by John Jackson Miller
4. Star Wars: Jedi, Volume I: The Dark Side by Scott Allie
5. Star Wars Omnibus: The Complete Saga: Episodes I through VI by Henry Gilroy, Miles Lane, Bruce Jones, and Archie Goodwin
6. The New Adventures: The Mary-Sue Extrusion by Dave Stone
7. Star Wars Omnibus: Droids by Dan Thorsland, Ryder Windham, and Jan Strnad with Brian Daley and Anthony Daniels
8. Star Trek: The Next Generation: Cold Equations, Book III: The Body Electric by David Mack

You might be able to deduce that, with the announcement of Dark Horse losing the Star Wars comics license, I am spending the year plugging the gaps in my Star Wars comics collection before they all go out of print.

Books remaining on "To be read" list: 530

31 March 2014

Faster than a DC Bullet: Prose Fiction #7: Batman: Knightfall

Hardcover, 349 pages
Published 1994

Borrowed from the library
Read March 2014
Batman: Knightfall
by Dennis O'Neil

Knightfall is a book of two distinct halves, and the first is definitely better than the second. In the first, a gangster known as Bane decides he is going to prove himself by taking out Batman, and he enacts a massive scheme to deplete Batman's strength in order to do so. Bane himself is the best part of this; far from being the brute thug I'd imagined from the film versions of him, he's a fascinating, semi-heroic character, or at least a character who could easily become a hero with the right push.

The second half of the book tells the tale of Jean-Paul Valley's time as Batman, while Bruce Wayne recovers from his breaking at the hands of Bane. This is less successful, partly because there's so little overlap with the first. Bane is dispatched quickly and easily by the new Batman, who capitalizes a bizarrely small amount on his major accomplishment, and he stays in prison for the rest of the novel. And given how important a character Jean-Paul is in the second half of the book-- he's Bruce's first choice for a replacement!-- he's introduced really late, very shortly before the breaking of Batman. The effect is two halves that don't quite mesh; Jean-Paul should have been more important in the beginning, and Bane should have returned at the end. Without some source of cohesion, the ending is unsatisfying.

Part of the reason I started this project of reading superhero prose fiction was to see how writers rendered the interiority of superheroes in prose. O'Neil actually uses this as a plot point; Bruce thinks of himself as "Batman" up until his back is broken, and then he cannot anymore. But when he adopts other disguises, he also inhabits them completely-- as does Jean-Paul the identity of "Batman." When the narration dubs Bruce Wayne "Batman" again, you know the hero has made a comeback.