21 August 2011

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Sandman Spin-Offs, Part XIII: JSA: Justice Be Done

Comic trade paperback, 138 pages
Published 2000 (contents: 1999)

Borrowed from the library
Read August 2011
JSA: Justice Be Done

Writers: James Robinson, David S. Goyer
Pencillers: Scott Benefield, Stephen Sadowski, Derec Aucoin
Inkers: Mark Propst, Michael Bair
Colorist: John Kalisz
Letterer: Ken Lopez

There's a tiny cameo by the Daniel Hall Dream (man he's been popping up a lot of late), and Hector Hall, who was the third Sandman (after Garrett Sandford) finally returns from the Dreaming in this story, but the main Sandman element in Justice Be Done, the first volume of the 1990s JSA series, is the legacy of Wesley Dodds, the original 1930s Sandman. Justice Be Done merges two previously distinct versions of the character: the Wesley Dodds here is characterized the way Matt Wagner wrote him in Sandman Mystery Theatre, especially as regards his romance with Dian Belmont, but he still participated in the more fanciful adventures of the Golden Age version of the character. His sidekick Sanderson Hawkins even has a big role in this story, even though Sandman Mystery Theatre took some pains to established that "Sandy" didn't exist.

Wesley's brief appearance here culminates in his death, but he goes out like a hero, and it works. Having him battling cosmic forces in the mountains of Tibet jars with the SMT Wesley's encounters with powerless psychopaths in New York sewers, but the SMT was written as so smart and well-intentioned that you've no doubt he could have handled such situations had he been pushed into him. The building of the JSA memorial is a little harder to buy, and the oft-referenced fact that Wesley once built a "silicoid gun" that turned Sandy into a sand monster doesn't really fit at all, but then again, Justice Be Done isn't a Sandman Mystery Theatre story, but a no-holds-barred nostalgic Justice Society one, uniting a hodgepodge of characters with ties to the organization, from founding members, to the children of other founding members, from an android reincarnation of Hourman (who actually appeared in Sandman Mystery Theatre), to Wonder Woman's mom.

Even if you take Justice Be Done on its own terms, Sandy, who declares himself "Sand" here with some ferociously bad dialogue, is one of the less convincing elements of the story. The writers seem desperate to give him relevant powers: he starts out with Wesley Dodds's legendary gas gun, and he picks up Wesley's bad dreams as well, but he soon also acquires the power to turn into sand at will, not to mention "hyper-sensitized to seismic activity." For some reason. It's a disjointed powerset that reeks of an attempt to make something of this character, as does the hackneyed combination of man-out-of-time and trying-to-live-up-to-a-legacy characterizations, which try really hard to make him more than the most generic of sidekicks that he began as.

On a side note, I was amused by an introductory illustration of the new Justice Society, which labels illustrations of the characters to help the newbies. In this we see WILDCAT, STAR-SPANGLED KID, STARMAN, OBSIDIAN, BLACK CANARY, HOURMAN, and... AL ROTHSTEIN. Nice codename, dude.

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Sandman Spin-Offs, Part XII: The Furies

Comic hardcover, n.pag.
Published 2002 (contents: 2002)

Borrowed from the library
Read August 2011
The Sandman Presents: The Furies

Writer: Mike Carey
Artist: John Bolton
Letterer: Todd Klein

Lyta Hall is probably my third-favorite character in Neil Gaiman's The Sandman. Which is weird, because she isn't exactly up to much. (Though what she is up turns out to be quite important.) She used to be superhero Fury of Infinity, Inc., but within The Sandman, she's the poor woman whose husband turns out to be long dead, manipulated by nightmares escaped from the Dreaming, whose child is taken from her by Dream to become the next Dream, and who is manipulated by agents outside mortal comprehension to bring about Dream's death. Poor woman-- no wonder she's a bit overwhelmed, and I like the idea of the character, gone from being a powerful young superheroine to a plaything of the gods through a ridiculous series of bad circumstances.

Anyway, I was excited to read a book focusing on her, and Mike Carey and John Bolton's graphic novel did not disappoint. The Furies sees the Greek god Cronus returning with a complicated plan to destroy the Furies so that he can become the new Furies, in which Lyta Hall, thanks to the link forged between herself and the Furies in The Sandman, is the lynchpin. It's half a tale of gods and monsters like Neil Gaiman would have told, half a woman trying to figure out her crazy life, but you get the feeling that Carey treats the mythology more seriously than Gaiman ever did and that Lyta might actually acquire some agency for once. Endowed with superstrength, and she finally manages to do something super, even if it's just getting her life back a bit.

John Bolton's painted art was very nice, sort of Alex Rossian, but with a little less majesty. It's maybe too realistic: his depiction of Dream (there's Daniel Hall again!, though he seems to have forgotten his mother) and some of the other supernatural characters looked a little goofy because they looked so normal, making their supernatural characteristics a little awkward. On the other hand, Lyta's journey in the underworld and the appearance of the Furies themselves were fantastic.

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Sandman Spin-Offs, Part XI: JLA: Strength in Numbers

Since Neil Gaiman took over The Sandman, the character has been pretty well confined to the Vertigo portion of the DC universe. But from time to time, he manages to break out and interact with the rest of the DCU. The JLA and JSA stories here have aspects other than the Sandman ones, but I'm going to ignore all of them, since someday I'll reread these tales in their proper contexts:

Comic trade paperback, 223 pages
Published 1998 (contents: 1998)

Borrowed from the library
Read August 2011
JLA: Strength in Numbers

Writers: Grant Morrison, Mark Waid, Christopher Priest
Pencillers: Howard Porter, Arnie Jorgensen, Yanick Paquette
Inkers: John Dell, David Meikis, Mark Pennington, Walden Wong, Doug Hazlewood, Mark Lipka
Colorists: Pat Garrahy, James Sinclair
Letterers: Ken Lopez, Janice Chiang, Kurt Hathaway

Grant Morrison's "Return of the Conqueror" marks one of the first-- if not the first-- appearances of the new Dream, the former Daniel Hall, outside Gaiman's own Sandman series. Dream makes contact with the Justice League when the Star Conqueror hijacks the Dreaming, putting almost the Earth's entire population to sleep in preparation for an attack. Dream actually isn't very fussed by the whole thing; at the end of the story, we learn that he's primarily acting to return a favor, since early in The Sandman, the Justice League helped his predessor locate one of his artifacts of power.

Superman, Wonder Woman, and the Green Lantern travel into the Dreaming to stop the Star Conqueror, where only one dreamer remembers the superheroes that exist in the "real" world. The Dreaming lets Morrison explore themes he would later return to in All-Star Superman, volume 2: the notion that in a world where Superman didn't exist, it would be necessary to invent him. And just like in All-Star, the world without Superman is the false one, the world with him is real, but I think this notion worked better in All-Star. The Dreaming is a seemingly more appropriate venue for this premise than a simulation in Superman's Fortress of Solitude, for what are superheroes but dreams given human form? But the nature of "Return of the Conqueror" means that the superhero-less world is destroyed when Superman and company save the day (a little too easily given the scale of the threat), whereas our own world continues to persist. We can imagine that we reside in the Superman-less world of All-Star, that one level up in reality, Superman is real, whereas "Return of the Conqueror" precludes us from imagining that we could wake up some day and be in the world where Superman exists.

There are some nice moments, though: I loved the conversation between the Green Lantern and Dream, and the true nature of Michael Haney was good, too. On the other hand, Morrison's Dreaming is much more muted and prosaic than Gaiman's, but I suppose that's the nature of the corner of the Dreaming we're in. "Return of the Conqueror" feels conceptually flawed in the end: while superheroes seemed to fit into Gaiman's world just fine, Gaiman's character is too big to fit into the world of the superheroes without losing what makes it special.

16 August 2011

Archival Review: Dark Reign: Young Avengers by Paul Cornell, Mark Brooks, et al.

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2009 (contents: 2009)

Acquired December 2010
Read June 2011
Dark Reign: Young Avengers

Writer: Paul Cornell
Penciler: Mark Brooks
Inkers: Mark Brooks, Mark Morales, Walden Wong & Dexter Vines
Colorists: Christina Strain, Emily Warren and L. Molinar & A. Street
Letterers: Cory Petit, Chris Eliopoulos & Joe Sabino

Only Paul Cornell could get me to purchase the Dark Reign tie-in to Young Avengers, a crossover I know nothing about's intersection with a series I've never had a desire to read. Despite that, it's a decent book. As always, Cornell comes up with great concepts for superheroes: a girl who might be an Asgardian enchantress or might be affecting her thees and thous, a girl who views being a superhero as a form of performance art, and a refugees from a universe of microscopic fascists, who's reprogrammed a robot to be her racist boyfriend. Of course, there's also the violent guy with a skull helmet who calls himself "Executioner," but I suppose you can't win them all.

The central conflict of the book is that a group of teenagers dubs themselves the Young Avengers, being confronted by a preexisting group with the same name. The characters-- two groups of six, all with real names and code names-- were too much to keep track of, and the plot's examination of how violent can a group be and still be "heroes" is too tired to fit with the young, fresh voice Cornell seems to be going for. The team's angsty, overwrought leader, Melter, is what drags the book down the most. But there were enough moments that worked-- most of them involving Coat of Arms (the artist), Big Zero (the fascist), or the Enchantress (the enchantress).

I was a bit baffled by characters' reactions to Big Zero's tattoos-- she has Iron Crosses on her shoulders. Everyone acts like these are terribly shocking, but I was not aware of any kind of stigma attached to the Iron Cross. Google tells me that some people think it is racist, but the immediate vehemence of the reactions makes me wonder if Cornell scripted the tattoos as swastikas, but it was changed by the time of illustration.

06 August 2011

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Sandman Spin-Offs, Part X: The Dream Hunters

Hardcover, 126 pages
Published 1999

Borrowed from the library
Read July 2011
The Sandman: The Dream Hunters
by Neil Gaiman
illustrated by Yoshitaka Amano

If I remember right, this is Neil Gaiman's first return to The Sandman after the series concluded its venerable run. It's not a comic book, but a prose novella with illustrations on almost every page. And it's brilliant-- possibly the second-best Sandman story after Brief Lives. It's a fairy tale in a vaguely Japenese style about a monk and the fox who loves him. Like many Gaiman stories, it doesn't know what its focus is, but that works so well here, as the story gently drifts from tangent to tangent, showing love at its best and its worse. The illustrations by Yoshitaka Amano are gorgeous, and invite the eye to linger over them slowly. It's hard to explain why I liked this so much; it just hits that primal nerve good stories should hit-- you feel like you've learned something new that you've always known.

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Sandman Spin-Offs, Part IX: The Dreaming: Through the Gates of Horn and Ivory

Comic trade paperback, 224 pages
Published 1999 (contents: 1997-98)

Borrowed from the library
Read July 2011
The Dreaming: Through the Gates of Horn and Ivory

Writers: Caitlin R. Kiernan, Peter Hogan, Jeff Nicholson
Artists: Peter Doherty, Paul Lee, Jeff Nicholson, Gary Amaro, Chris Weston, d'Israeli
Colorist: Daniel Vozzo
Letterer: Todd Klein

The second volume of The Dreaming has more of a throughline than the first, which is probably meant to stop it from feeling like a series of weak imitations of the standalone issues of its parent series. That said, it's actually one of the standalones that's the best story in this book, Jeff Nicholson's "Day's Work, Night's Rest," which tells of an office drone who dreams that he's working with Merv Pumpkinhead's construction team in the Dreaming. Merv was my second-favorite character in The Sandman, so of course I loved this, despite a bleak ending at odds with the tone of the rest of the story, not to mention the art. How could Merv telling everyone that he runs the Dreaming not be fun?

I also really enjoyed Peter Hogan and Gary Amaro's "Ice," which is a mood piece about a number of different Sandman characters some New Year's Eve/Day: Lucien, Merv, Farrell the God of Transport, Nuala, Cluracan. The Cluracan subplot is baffling, but it's small, and the interplay between Lucien and Nuala, now over Dream and working in a bar on the Earth, is sweet.

Caitlin R. Kiernan, Peter Doherty, and d'Israeli's "Souvenirs" promises to be interesting because it focuses on my favorite Sandman character, Matthew the Raven, teaming him up with the Corinthian, which worked really well in The Kindly Ones. Unfortunately, this story is nonsensical, and then is just stops. Matthew gets some good material, though, such as when someone on the Earth realizes he's a talking raven: "Yeah, Sherlock. I can talk. I'm a talking bird. Now, call him an ambulance or I'm gonna peck your stupid face off." The story gets a direct followup in Caitlin Kiernan and Paul Lee's "An Unkindness of One," which should be even better but is even worse. It puts Matthew back in his human body and Lucien back into a raven one, but then does nothing interesting with either concept, aside from the occasional cool image, and there's a lot about Echo, the villain in "Souvenirs" and I just don't care. How could you mess up what should be the definitive Matthew story this bad?

The book is rounded out by another Peter Hogan story, this time with Chris Weston, "My Year as a Man," which is an okay tale about one of Dream's earlier ravens. Nothing too bad, nothing too great; the best part is the brief appearance of Abel, Lucien, and Matthew in the frame.

Apparently Caitlin Kiernan essentially took over the direction of The Dreaming after this; maybe I should be grateful that the rest of the issues are uncollected even if they are about some great characters, as based on her lackluster six issues here, she just doesn't get what makes the Dreaming interesting.

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Sandman Spin-Offs, Part VIII: The Dreaming: Beyond the Shores of Night

Comic trade paperback, 208 pages
Published 1998 (contents: 1996-97)

Borrowed from the library
Read July 2011
The Dreaming: Beyond the Shores of Night

Writers: Terry LaBan, Peter Hogan, Alisa Kwitney
Artists: Peter Snejbjerg, Steve Parkhouse, Michael Zulli, Dick Giordano
Colorist & Separator: Daniel Vozzo
Letterers: Todd Klein, Steve Parkhouse, Annie Parkhouse

The Dreaming was the second of the three ongoings to spin out of The Sandman (the others being Sandman Mystery Theatre and Lucifer). Unlike the other two, it's largely uncollected; there are only two trades, which collect a scattered seventeen issues of the sixty-issue series. Maybe this is because it had a sort of anthology format, moving between different characters and concepts from the Dreaming, the realm ruled over by Gaiman's character-- there's not really an ongoing character narrative.

This first volume collects three different stories, the first of which is Terry LaBan and Peter Snejbjerg's "The Goldie Factor." This concerns a couple of my favorite characters from the Dreaming, Cain and Abel, the brothers were one is an eternal murderer and the other is an eternal victim. They set off after Abel's pet gargoyle, Goldie, who is being misled by "the Great Tempto," the snake from the Garden of Eden. Gaiman's Eve, Matthew the Raven, and Lucien also appear. It's a decent quest story, mostly worth it for the way that LaBan nails the personalities of all the different Sandman characters; I like the interplay between the feuding brothers especially. On the other hand, LaBan and Snejbjerg's Dreaming feels too much like a pedestrian fantasy world, not a place you might inadvertently wander into on the fringes of consciousness.

The second story is Peter Hogan and Steve Parkhouse's "The Lost Boy," is about an architect from 1956 who wanders into 1996 and finds a world he doesn't understand. Unfortunately, the man-out-of-time story has been done better than here, and though I think the architect is supposed to be a likeable average guy, he's more just boring. This undercuts an ending which I think would have been sweet had it been written better. The best part of this over-long story (it is by no means a four-issue concept) is the return of Mad Hettie, the vagrant who popped up from time to time in both The Sandman and Death. I honestly never paid a lot of attention to her before, but amidst these dull characters, she delights with her matter-of-fact weirdness, as she speaks plainly about mystical happenings to humans and fairies alike. I really liked Steve Parkhouse's artwork, though.

Last is Alisa Kwitney and Michael Zulli's short "His Brother's Keeper," which follows up on a mention of Cain and Abel's brother Seth from "The Goldie Factor," but then tells a story that has nothing to do with that concept at all. Baffling and dull.