31 October 2009

Faster than a DC Bullet, Issue #13: Identity Crisis

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2005 (contents: 2004)

Borrowed from a friend
Read October 2009
Identity Crisis

Writer: Brad Meltzer
Penciller: Rags Morales
Inker: Michael Bair
Colorist: Ken Lopez
Letterer: Alex Sinclair

DC Universe Timeline: Two Years Ago
Real World Timeline: 2005

(Like most comic stories, to be honest, this seems to take place contemporary to its release date. At this point, the Infinite Crisis is rapidly approaching; it's about five months away.)

Brad Meltzer is apparently a famous (or at least best-selling) thriller novelist. He made his comics debut with Green Arrow: The Archer's Quest, which I found fairly good, but there was one real reason I was looking forward to this book: Elongated Man. (Well, sort of.)

Anyone who has the misfortune of discussing comic books with me for a sustained period of time will rapidly learn that one of two ongoings I own a complete run of is Justice League Europe and then proceed to roll their eyes and stop talking to me. But the truth is that JLE introduced me to many of DC's second-string characters... and I love second-string characters, which is probably why Nite Owl is my favorite Watchman. Ralph Dibny, the Elongated Man, has a fairly good run in JLE: he's treated decently by Keith Giffen and his various collaborators, he really comes into his own when Gerard Jones takes over the title; his role in the Red Winter storyline is excellent. (Someday, I'll pick up the miniseries Elongated Man: Europe '92, his only-ever title, which was penned by Jones.) But how can you not love him? He's goofy, he's got a fabulous wife, his nose twitched when he smells a mystery, and he doesn't even bother with that secret identity malarkey.

Which is where the trouble begins. Because, as is probably well known by this point, but I shall warn you that there are some SPOILERS AHEAD, this is the book where Sue Dibny dies. How can this happen? All too easily, unfortunately, as the Dibnys are well known to the public. This is why I was sort of looking forward to the book: I love Ralph and Sue, and I knew that their marriage ending like this would be terrible. But I also knew that if it did, a good writer could make something really good out of it.

Meltzer turns out to be a very good writer indeed. The first chapter is nothing short of amazing, even when you know what's coming. It jumps back and forth between "Now" as various heroes hear the news about Sue and a countdown to the moment of death as Ralph goes on patrol with a Justice League newbie, telling her about himself... and Sue. The moment where Ralph finds out what happened is devastating, thanks in a large part to Rags Morales's brilliant artwork, which uses Ralph's stretching ability to great emotional effect: when he finds Sue's body, his face contorts in unreal agony. And when the funeral comes, he literally cannot hold himself together. It's tragic to watch: this normally witty, talkative man doesn't know what to say and can't even compose himself. And why would he be able to? He's lost the love of his life. In a medium and genre where death can often be portrayed all too casually, it really drives home what's happened.

The emotional effect is definitely Meltzer's strong point, and the story is replete with gripping, real moments, from small ones like Clark visiting his parents to big ones like Tim Drake dealing with his father learning of his identity as Robin. This latter one initially seems small, but the importance of this relationship to the book grows gradually as it progresses, eventually culminating in a rather intense sequence involving Batman, Robin, and Captain Boomerang, which I found more than gripping. A lot of the book is about family, as you might have guessed from reading this review so far: husbands and wives, fathers and sons, mentors and mentees. It works well.

Of course, it isn't all high emotional drama; we also get attempts to unravel the mystery of who killed Sue Dibny. But, not quite: while most of the Justice League, the Justice Society, and the rest of Earth's heroes round up suspects, a group within the Justice League thinks they know who did it: Doctor Light. This is where a lot of the drama of the book is centered, and it's also home to what's possibly an even more controversial event than the murder of Sue: the rape of Sue. The book reveals that during the JLA's "satellite era" (the 1970s), Dr. Light broke onto the satellite and raped Sue. Whoa. This is followed by still more revelations: a secret cabal within the Justice League (Green Arrow, Hawkman, Zatanna, the Atom, Black Canary, the Flash, and Green Lantern) regularly mind-wiped villains who learned too much about the JLA, and they not only erased Dr. Light's memories, but rewrote his personality to stop it from ever happening again. And then another revelation, possibly not as big, but one with long-term repercussions. I'll keep this one quiet at least. It's a lot to take in, as Meltzer reworks a lot of old continuity and casts it into a considerably distant light. But, I (admittedly someone who's never read any 1970's JLA comics) think it works. There's darkness for darkness's sake, but this is darkness that explores the nuances of what it means to be a hero, and what it means to be the loved one of a hero. There are lines to tread, and the heroes here crossed them: and they knew it. I think at times it doesn't quite work within their established characters (as someone who's been reading a lot of Green Arrow of late, I don't entirely buy his complicity, or the way it would affect his relationship with Hawkman), but it works well enough-- and it certainly works for this story.

Interestingly enough (and as pointed out by Eric Burns in his articles on Identity Crisis, here and here), the rape of Sue turns out to be a red herring, because Dr. Light isn't behind it at all. But we still get an interesting tale of the supervillain community as well, as they band together (for money, of course) to protect Dr. Light, who is naturally enraged once he figures out what happened to him so long ago. I like the stuff with the villain, especially the new Calculator, and now I finally get what was up with Merlyn after my complaining about Green Arrow: Heading into the Light. He's still kinda lame, though. The sequences where all the villains chill out together are good fun. However, Deathstroke the Terminator, the world's dumbest-named and dumbest-costumed supervillain shows up here, somehow managing to incapacitate half of the Justice League in a highly contrived action sequence where they all take turns attacking him for some reason. This dude couldn't take out Gangbuster, much less Green Arrow or the Flash.

Is it all sunshine? No. Maybe my biggest problem is that though I like the eventual revelation of the actual killer (it's twisted, but it makes sense and works well with the themes of the story), it's one of those stories where as soon as the mystery is solved, the killer is revealed by their own self anyway, rendering all the deduction redundant. So what's the point then? And I can take the point about the portrayal of women here: Sue Dibny is pretty much the ultimate victim, but that's ameliorated by this being once chapter in her very long history. And though the portrayal of Jean Loring might also have its problems, there's enough other female characters here to show that it's not as two-dimensional as it's sometimes made out to be. There's also some side stories I don't get: why was Firestorm even in this?

I've already mentioned the art, but it's worth mentioning again: this is one of those rare comics where it wouldn't work half so well with another artist at the controls. This stuff is intense when it needs to be intense, emotional when it needs to be emotional, action-packed when it needs to be action-packed. Quality artwork all around, pencils, inks, and colors alike. (On the other hand, the original series covers are included between chapters here... and they're by can-only-draw-one-body-type-for-each-sex Michael Turner. Thank God they didn't end up on the cover of the collected edition.)
The title of the story is Identity Crisis, but despite that, it's not about protecting secret identities, it's not some story that could only apply to superheroes. It's about personal identities: who we are and what we stand for and what we're willing to do. And most of all, how our identities derive from those around us, lovers, parents, friends, enemies, and spouses alike. Which is why that final panel of Ralph Dibny, like so many others in this book, just hits you in the gut.

Note that this originally appeared on my old LiveJournal and included pictures back then. Sadly, the pictures are lost in the mists of the Internet.

24 October 2009

Faster than a DC Bullet, Issue #12: Superman Batman: Absolute Power

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2005 (contents: 2005)

Borrowed from a friend
Read September 2009
Superman Batman: Absolute Power

Writer: Jeph Loeb
Penciller: Carlos Pacheco
Inker: Jesús Merino
Additional pencils: Ivan Reis
Colorist: Laura Martin
Letterer: Richard Starkings

DC Universe Timeline: Two Years Ago
Real World Timeline: 2004?

Jeph Loeb can write good comics, right? I know this. I've read Superman For All Seasons and The Long Halloween; he can do absolutely brilliant work. He can, and I know it. So what the hell happened here?

What happened here, as far as I can tell, is that Jeph Loeb ingested the entire DC Universe and then vomited all over some pages and called it a script.

Absolute Power opens with someone traveling back in time and altering the origins of Batman and Superman-- Bruce Wayne's parents' killer is gunned down, and the Kents are fried electrically, and both children are taken away to be raised as the new rulers of the Earth. Of course, you might object that there are a lot of other superheroes out there who would stop that, so our mysterious time travelers also go back in time and kill off Green Lantern, the Flash, and the rest of Earth's great heroes, plus Aquaman. Quite why someone would pick Batman to rule the Earth baffles me-- he has no powers, so they'd have to train him from scratch. What makes him different from anyone else in that case? Might as well pick the Blue Beetle or even Doiby Dickles.

The perpetrators of these time-travel shenanigans are three people called Lightning Lord, Cosmic King, and Saturn Queen. I think they have something to do with the Legion of Super-Heroes, but it's not like anyone ever explains what they're doing or where they came from or why they're taking over the Earth of the 21st century. Or perhaps most importantly, why they can't just take over the Earth themselves, instead of getting Batman and Superman to do it for them. Or why they creepily insist on being called Batman and Superman's parents, while the provide their "children" with hot babes for sexxxing.

Wonder Woman and Uncle Sam round up a group of should-be superheroes to take down the Axis of Evil. A storyline about the Earth's heroes striving to take down an evil Superman and Batman-- you might think that this is where things would start to get interesting. Well, you'd be wrong. This is where things start getting stupid. They assemble a team in about two pages, then there's lots of incoherent fighting, including some of that good-old Superman-on-Wonder-Woman violence Jeph Loeb needs to work into every issue. Then Batman dies. Then everyone travels through time! Why? WHO KNOWS.

This is where the Jeph Loeb Upchucked Continuity Tour really begins, as we randomly hop through the DC Universe, visiting Kamandi, some Wild West characters (in Gotham for some reason), and Apokolips. Also, the Kingdom Come Superman shows up. Again. Plus, the demon Etrigan. Oh, and Metron. Seriously, Loeb, is there anyone else's better idea you need to work into your story? Then Superman and Batman go back in time and stop the villains from changing history. Then Batman shoots his parents' killer before he shoots his parents. This disrupts history even further! OH NO! MORE RANDOM TIME TRAVEL.

Now they have to fight R'as al Ghul, who's apparently taken over the Earth and killed everyone ever with Batman gone. Also, World War II is still going on for some reason. Bruce Wayne learns to be Batman again in twelve minutes (apparently it's not that hard after all), the Justice League is brought back to life only to be killed minutes later, overly portentous narration bubbles mention "The Age of Heroes" a lot, Superman gets stabbed, and then everything's okay. Except-- can Superman ever live with the guilt of killing Wonder Woman in a world that never happened? And can Batman mention the life he should have had one more time? And will Steve ever recover from having to read a bunch of nonsense held together with no rhyme or reason?

WHAT THE HECK. It's like Jeph Loeb has ADD and no plotline interests him for more than five pages. I'm not sure what this was supposed to be about, why most of it happened, or why I should even bother to figure it out. These aren't Batman and Superman, they're two random people with the costumes. It's amazing, but Loeb seems to have created something with even less redeeming value than Supergirl. Thank God this is all James owns of the Superman Batman series, because I'd hate to see what comes next. Actually, it's probably just Batman and Superman making out while Wonder Woman gets beat on by sixteen hundred copies of Doctor Polaris and the Anti-Monitor.
I'm actually kind of disappointed with this review, as I don't think it adequately represents the sheer depth of loathing I have for this story, though the only way to do that might be to just say "please make it stop" a dozen times, and then I'd be too much like Tat Wood for comfort. But dang, this was awful. At least the artwork was pretty.

Note that this originally appeared on my old LiveJournal and included pictures back then. Sadly, the pictures are lost in the mists of the Internet.

21 October 2009

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Star City, Part VII: Green Arrow: Heading into the Light

Comic trade paperback, 157 pages
Published 2006 (contents: 2005-06)

Borrowed from the library
Read September 2009
Green Arrow: Heading into the Light

Writers: Judd Winick, J. Calafiore
Pencillers: Tom Fowler, Ron Garney, Ron Lim, Paul Lee
Inkers: Dan Davis, Rodney Ramos, Bill Reinhold
Colorist: Guy Major
Letterers: Rob Leigh, Pat Brosseau, Phil Balsman, Jared K. Fletcher

I've occasionally wondered if there's such as thing as overdone continuity in comic books-- they are, after all, a continuous medium, so surely continuity is always par for the course? How fortunate for me, then, that Heading into the Light has seen fit to give me the answer. This story has two big continuity elements. The first is that it spins out of the events of Identity Crisis, a story I haven't read. But I soon will, I know what it's about, and it had just came out when this story ran. So that's fine. What's not fine is that the Big Bad behind this story turns out to be some guy called Merlyn. Who the heck's that? Who knows, because this story never bothers to reveal who this guy is or why he might be so ticked off at Green Arrow. I guess they have a vendetta of some sort, but nothing here sells it enough to make me care.

Also: people often complain that the problem with writing Superman is that he's too powerful, and he's out of his antagonists' league. But the problem with Green Arrow is that he's not powerful, and his antagonists are always out of his league. This is at least the third volume is a row where I've seen Green Arrow and company just receive beating after beating from some antagonist with a huge advantage over him. I'm getting tired of it. And Connor is fricking hospitalized yet again. Get a new deal, Winick.

This book is penciled by four different people, but specific credits aren't given to specific bits, so I have no way of telling who did the bit of the book where the art ceases to be dire. Also, I've no idea which part J. Calafiore wrote, but it seems odd that he could write any issue here, as this is a pretty tight story arc all the way through.