30 December 2009

Faster than a DC Bullet, Issue #16: Lex Luthor: Man of Steel

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

Borrowed from a friend
Read December 2009
Lex Luthor: Man of Steel

Writer: Brian Azzarello
Artist: Lee Bermejo
Additional Inks: Mick Gray, Karl Story, Jason Martin
Colorist: Dave Stewart
Letterers: Phil Balsman, Pat Brosseau, Rob Leigh, Nick J. Napolitano

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

(When I assembled this timeline, I placed this story after For Tomorrow, Volume Two on the basis of an on-line timeline I saw somewhere that gave this placement. But after reading the story, it's plainly not true: Luthor is still CEO of Lexcorp and doing quite well, so it must come before his term as president. In addition, Superman and Batman don't have a friendly relationship-- Lex gives Batman a piece of kryptonite, and Superman fights him to get it back-- so it must occur early in their careers... but not too early, as Mona, who's probably in her 20s, says Superman's been in Metropolis since she "was a little girl". One timeline cited the apperance of Mr. Orr in both this and For Tomorrow as evidence they go close together, but that actually works in favor of an early placement for Lex Luthor: in For Tomorrow, he's working for shadow governments and fighting Wonder Woman, whereas in this one he's intimidating union bosses. Obviously he's got some mercenary credentials to acquire yet. Considering all that, I've placed the story a year before Crisis on Infinite Earths. Which disappointingly means it's not really the last stop on my chronological journey, but oh well.)

It's a well-established fact that Lex Luthor is my favorite comic book villain of all time. Superman's my favorite hero, and Luthor is the perfect opposite for him:a self-made man, through and through. Both see themselves as wanting the best for everyone around them, but the difference is that for Luthor, what's best for everyone else is always also best for him. I also love his casual arrogance, his manipulation of those around him... which is deserved, because he actually is the smartest man in the room. My preferred Luthor is the accomplished, brilliant businessman-- that's the one I grew up on in the Superman cartoon-- but I also admit a fondness for the Gene Hackman/Kevin Spacey version, who I think still has the same fundamental core. The highest compliment I can give to a villain is to compare them to Lex Luthor; I like to try to do this in graduate seminars, and have thus far succeeded with the man in the yellow suit in Tuck Everlasting and Madame Beck in Villette. But the threat to Luthor is simple and strong: Superman.

The threat that Superman poses to Luthor is something that Lex Luthor: Man of Steel aims to explore. It's a Lex Luthor comic book, told almost entirely from his perspective. What are his adventures? What does he think? Why is he such an utter bastard?

As Azzarello paints it-- and this I agree with, it's how I see Luthor as well-- Lex Luthor thinks that Superman is a threat to humanity. Not because Superman is openly antagonistic or anything like that, but because the idea of Superman threatens humanity. As an outsider, Superman cuts off humanity's potential. Why should humanity aspire to do greater, if Superman is out there, doing it for them? Lex rejects the concepts of fate and destiny: "All of us-- everyone-- deserves a chance at greatness. All that takes is the belief that it exists. But his existence threatens not just that belief... but our existence. I believe there's something inherently dangerous when something real becomes something mythic. I believe when that happens, we lose the part of ourselves that yearns to be great. Because when faced with a myth? We can't win." Superman threatens that achievement time and again... and the possibility of humanity to achieve is something Luthor spends all his time in Man of Steel trying to prove.

The event that's going on in the background of this book is Lexcorp's construction of the Science Spire, a gigantic research facility in the heart of Metropolis. The book doesn't have one strong overarching storyline, but a couple smaller ones, interspersed with moments of Lex Luthor being Lex Luthor. It's one of these moments that's my favorite: Luthor learns that his office janitor's son is interested in science, but that he cuts class frequently, so he's not making the grades he should be. Luthor gives the janitor an invitation for the opening of the Science Spire, one he can only pass on if the son gets an A. But after the janitor leaves, Luthor instructs his personal assistant, Mona, to ensure that the son gets one of twelve spots in the incoming class at Von Rauch Academy, a very exclusive private school. Mona objects that the school's picked its incoming class already; Luthor tells her to make it work. That's Lex Luthor. He's a man who believes every human being has great potential within... and will do totally unethical things to realize that potential.

My other favorite small moment is when Luthor brutally dismisses Mona and her advances:
MONA: Lex, can I talk freely?
LUTHOR: I sign your checks, Mona.
MONA: Do you want to know what I think about this?
LUTHOR: No. Here's what you think: "My boss is getting dangerously close to making a mistake that could ruin him. He's been touched by an ideal, when all I want is for him to touch me. Despite the way I dress, he won't notice me. He only has eyes for his ideal. How can I change that? How can I make myself... ideal?"
MONA: You're a bastard.
LUTHOR: No, Mona... I'm an idealist.
It's one of these small moments that's also my least favorite. The Science Spire is going overbudget, but Lexcorp can't renegotiate its contracts with its construction workers because they have a strong union, so Luthor has Mr. Orr intimidate the union boss and threaten to throw him over the side of the building. Though this is the sort of problem-solving the ever-crude Mr. Orr might partake in, it seems a little bit beneath Luthor, using a bludgeon when a scalpel will suffice. Threatening murder just to get a building finished on time and on budget seems to be overdoing it-- especially when he's thinking about incorporating the Science Spire as a nonprofit and doesn't care about the money he makes! So why all this then?

The best extended plotline is Luthor's trip to Gotham, to meet with one of his business partners... a certain Bruce Wayne. It's a well-done chapter, cutting between Luthor's conversation with Wayne and a Batman/Superman fight precipitated by the visit: Luthor gives Wayne a piece of kryptonite, and Superman's not too happy about that. Does Luthor know that Wayne is Batman? It's never directly said... but it seems strongly implied. He knows that Wayne has something going on, though, and is willing to take a chance to get what he wants. It's a fantastic conversation. To an utterly innocent outside observer, Luthor would appear to be a forward-thinking idealist, Wayne a lackadaisical playboy. Yet, underneath, neither is the man they pretend to be.

The dedication of the Science Spire corresponds with Luthor's revelation of his own, homegrown hero: Hope. Hope is a woman created in one of Lexcorp's labs to be the ultimate superhero. You see, she's human, and the pinnacle of human achievement. Humans created her with human technology. There's a brief time where she supplants Superman in the hearts and minds of Metropolis. And as for Luthor, how does he react? Hope is the ultimate expression of his every desire. How could he react but to fall in love with her? Dang, Lex Luthor, but you're creepy. But it's believable, because Luthor's really in love with one person beneath it all: himself. He is the best humankind has to offer, and he created Hope. The sheer arrogance of that name-- who other than Lex Luthor could believe that he'd personally created hope itself?

But Hope is part of a more elaborate plot, and this is where the book loses me again. She's just not an artificial superhero: she does artificial good. The initial disaster she helps fight is manufactured by Luthor via Mr. Orr (who gets the Toyman to do it for him, in a rare good use of the character). And the book climaxes with Hope apprehending the Toyman for his crime... and dropping him, her body operating at Luthor's will. Superman saves the Toyman, of course, and a battle between the two "heroes" ensues. And during that fight, Luthor causes her to detonate, collapsing the Science Spire himself. I love the idea of a man willing to destroy is own greatest achievements for the greater good. But the justification is weak: "What the world watched you do tonight... if it only changes one mind about what you are..." That's it? Turning one mind against Superman is worth that? I don't buy it; Luthor is too calculating for that. And the fight just doesn't work either; why would saving the Toyman escalate into something like that? It's a disappointing ending, even if it does yield another fantastic Lex Luthor line: "I know I can't beat you... alone. But then, I'm not alone. There are six and a half billion of me... and only one of you."

The art's usually great. Lee Bermejo's work is rough and harsh, perfect for the world of Lex Luthor. Even if he does look a little too craggy from time to time. His Luthor is perfectly expressive, able to go from warm and friendly to cold and calculating and still be the same person. He does a good job at all the other characters, too. There is one very weird sequence with a redhead being reflected in a glass wall that I found confusing, but I eventually puzzled my way through what was happening there. The occasionally switching style is nice, too: the issue that intercuts Lex talking to Bruce with Batman fighting Superman uses a different style for each strand-- the Batman/Superman one looks more painted-- which is very effective. The colors by Dave Stewart really help, too: a lot of dark grays and greens, muddy colors for Lex's world. Superman is brighter than everything else... but only relatively. It's still a dim world.

Superman is an ominous presence in Lex Luthor: Man of Steel, and that works immensely well. He hovers outside Luthor's office, fights Batman, reports on the Science Spire, and battles Hope for the Toyman. His glowing red eyes are a recurring motif. But he only has one line of dialogue: "You're wrong... I can see your soul." It's a line that chills Luthor to the bone, because he knows it's true. Lex Luthor might be the better human being... but Superman is the better person and always will be. And they both know it, even if Luthor will never admit. Luthor will go on fighting that good fight, trying to serve humanity the best he can: the most unethical way possible. And that is why I love him.

Amazingly enough, I've finished my chronological journey through my friend's comics. But Faster than a DC Bullet's not over yet: these have just been the in-continuity ones. We've got three more out-of-continuity stories to go before this thing wraps itself up.

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.

23 December 2009

Faster than a DC Bullet, Issue #15: Superman: For Tomorrow, Volume Two

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2005 (contents: 2004-05)

Borrowed from a friend
Read December 2009
Superman: For Tomorrow, Volume Two

Writer: Brian Azzarello
Penciller: Jim Lee
Inker: Scott Williams
Additional Inkers: Richard Friend, Sandra Hope, Matt Banning, Eric Basaldua, Jim Lee, Danny Miki, Trevor Scott, Tim Townsend, Joe Weems
Colorist: Alex Sinclair
Letterers: Rob Leigh, Nick J. Napolitano

DC Universe Timeline: Two Years Ago
Real World Timeline: 2006

What the heck happened here? Volume One of For Tomorrow was exceptional-- one of the best main series Superman stories I had ever read. But with this... Brian Azzarello goes completely off the rails.

Let's start with what I liked. Thankfully, Azzarello still gets Superman. I mean, gets him. In this volume, we get an explanation for the mysterious Vanishing and the orb that caused it: it turns out that Superman himself built the orb. Why? It turns out that his entire life, Superman has been haunted by his father's failure: his world about to be destroyed, and all Jor-El could manage to do was save one person, his own child. What kind of protector is that? Superman created the orb to shunt Earth's population into the Phantom Zone, the ultimate fail-safe. So far, so good. I really like this idea that Superman feels this need to outdo his father, to surpass his failures. It fits well. I can even kind of buy the notion that Superman has the technical know-how to design and build the orb to do it.

Where things get kooky, though, is that Superman staffs this world in the Phantom Zone with robot duplicates of Jor-El, his mother Lara, and Clark Kent. Creepy much? He sends the orb with them so that they can reactivate it if the need be. And apparently, having done all this, he wipes his own memory of it.

But the Phantom Zone was not empty, unknown to Superman. For within the Phantom Zone lurked Krypton's greatest threat... General Zod. And this is where things go from kooky to bad, because Azzarello's Zod is terrible. This is not the casually arrogant god played by Terence Stamp, this is a demonic brute, one of many in this comic. There's not really much to distinguish him from Equus, even though one supposedly is the master and the other the servant. The depiction of Zod does absolutely nothing more me; I can see why the fact that Superman had met Zod before was totally ignored for Last Son just a few years later, which was a much superior take on the character. Why bring back Zod if he could just be any old brute? (There is, however, one great bit where Zod asks Superman to save him... then lets go of Superman and falls into a vortex just to get on Superman's nerves.)

Anyway, Zod realized what the orb was and sent it back into our world to ensure that Superman would somehow be drawn back in the Phantom Zone: presumably, that's when it made its way into the hands of the Middle Eastern despot who used it cause the Vanishing. It's all a bit convoluted, but it can be puzzled through eventually. But it just doesn't work for me; it's too complicated to resonate effectively. This world Superman constructs-- Metropia-- represents his ability to atone for his father's "sins", so what does it mean that Zod, another of his father's "sins", populates it for him indirectly and smashes it up? Um...

The other problem with this book is Father Daniel Leone. The center of Volume One were the conversations between him and Superman, as both attempt to navigate their places in the world, as both are the people everyone looks to for help, leaving them with no one to look to. A beautiful relationship was being built there, with each of them as each other's confessor. Yet here, that is all cast aside. They barely talk, and Daniel falls into the hands of arch-mercenary Mr. Orr, who augments him into a replacement for the super-solider Equus, called "Pilate". Um, why? We're told that the fact that Daniel has cancer assists the mutation, but surely there are many more people with cancer, almost all of them more skilled at combat than a Catholic priest? The character is almost cruelly discarded by Azzarello here, becoming a pointless nobody in short order. I mean, there's a neat moment where Pilate saves Superman by figuring out how to send the orb back to him again, but this could have been so much better. What a waste. All that build-up in Volume One was for nothing.

Equus is still dumb, too. Other weird things include Mr. Orr's dealing with the mystic lady, who was never explained in any capacity, and his ability to manipulate Wonder Woman, who ought to know better. I did like that Wonder Woman came to stop Superman from reactivating the orb and sending himself into the Phantom Zone, though, and the Superman/Wonder Woman battle here worked pretty well, especially in its ending.

This does lead me to another point: Wonder Woman has nice legs. In fact, every woman drawn by Jim Lee has nice legs. And Lee wastes no opportunity to show them to you. Wonder Woman wears an improbably short skirt, and this skirt flies upwards at ever opportunity during combat. We even get the occasional glimpse of panties. Classy. Lois Lane is similarly sexualized. Apart from Clark in Metropia, where everyone else wears baggy clothes, she spends her time in a tiny shift that shows off both her legs and ample cleavage. While going tree-climbing. Why? Goodness knows. At least Superman gets his fair share of shirtless time in, too. Other than that complaint, though, Lee's art is typically gorgeous.

I wanted to like this story, I really did. And Volume One is still fantastic. But this volume neglects what made the first one work so well, and muddies the waters with the completely unneeded additions of General Zod and Pilate. A disappointing conclusion to what ought to have been a fantastic story, For Tomorrow does at least end with a great line from Superman: "I will always be there to save you. Because I am Superman. Believe that, until the end. The End. I wonder, when it comes... who will save me?" (Man, Azzarello's characters tend to talk in clipped, dramatic pronouncements. Oh well.)

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.

11 December 2009

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Star City, Part XII: Green Arrow and Black Canary: Road to the Altar

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2008 (contents: 2007)

Borrowed from the library
Read November 2009
Green Arrow and Black Canary: Road to the Altar

Writers: Tony Bedard, J. Torres
Pencillers: Paulo Siqueria, Lee Ferguson, Tom Derenick, Nicola Scott, Christina Norrie, Joe Prado
Inkers: Amilton Santos, Karl Story, Rodney Ramos, Doug Hazlewood, Christina Norrie, Joe Prado
Additional Layouts: Mike Norton 
Colorists: Tanya & Richard Horie
Letterers: Pat Brosseau, Travis Lanham, Jared K. Fletcher

And the first volume of the new Green Arrow series begins! Most of this is taken up with a story setting up Dinah's decision to accept Oliver's proposal, which she does when he demonstrates his new ability to not think of himself for once. It's a good story-- Tony Bedard really gets both Black Canary and Green Arrow-- and I especially like getting to see Dinah work as a mother. Her foster daughter, Sin, is a lot of fun, too, so it's a shame this story basically serves to write her out because we couldn't possibly have a mother as the star of a superhero comic! I also am not convinced Black Canary should so easily accept the way Green Arrow manipulates the situation, but maybe it works. Mia gets some good material, too (no Connor, though). The art is pretty good, though I question the occasional choice of clothing for Dinah, especially given she's supposedly in her late thirties by now; the stuff she wears here looks more like what a sixteen-year-old would wear! And skirts of these lengths would be physically impossible anyway. (I have to admit that no artist since Phil Hester has actually drawn her at her proper age.) Overall, it's a very good story and a great start to Green Arrow and Black Canary.

There's a short epilogue that's Dinah's "wedding planner", showing her struggle to plan a quick, easy wedding. Of course, there's no such thing, and that's even less the case when you have to invite the superhero community! Decent fun, especially the interstitials between the main story. The section where she, Wonder Woman, and Vixen try on lingerie is about as gratuitous as they get, though, made all the worse that Lee Ferguson and Karl Story draw a profoundly unattractive Wonder Woman!

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Star City, Part XI: Green Arrow / Black Canary: For Better or For Worse

Comic trade paperback, 199 pages
Published 2007 (contents: 1969-2003)

Borrowed from the library
Read November 2009
Green Arrow / Black Canary: For Better or For Worse

Writers: Denny O'Neil, Elliot S! Maggin, Alan Moore, Mike Grell, Chuck Dixon, Kevin Smith, Brad Meltzer
Pencillers: Dick Dillin, Dick Giordano, José Luis García-López, Klaus Janson, Mike Grell, Lurine Haines, Rick Hoberg, Rodolfo Damaggio, Phil Hester
Inkers: Dick Giordano, Klaus Janson, Rick Hoberg, Joe Giella, Frank McLaughlin, Vince Colletta, Terry Austin, Robert Campanella, Ande Parks
Colorists: Julia Lacquemont, Lee Loughridge, Guy Major, James Sinclair
Letterers: Todd Klein, Ken Bruzenak, Steve Haynie, John Costanza, Sean Konot

At the time that Green Arrow and Black Canary were getting married, DC released this anthology, collecting the highlights of Oliver and Dinah's relationship over nearly forty years of comics. It has a rather nice introduction by Denny O'Neill, where he explains the genesis of their relationship and its appeal to him.

The book falls into two distinct halves, though more through accident than design. The first half is stories from the 1960s and 1970s. These stories are typically short and fun, and feature both Green Arrow and Black Canary... but not exactly their relationship, as they're more just stories both characters happen to be in. For example, "In Each Man There is a Demon!" (written by Denny O'Neil, art by Dick Dillin & Joe Giella) is simply narrated by the two of them (though it is important to their characters for other reasons). "The Plot to Kill Black Canary!" (written by Elliot Maggin, art by Dick Giordano) has Black Canary confess her love, but it's a one-page coda to an unrelated adventure. Most of the stories in this section do short shrift to Black Canary, too: despite her own status as a superhero, Green Arrow is always rescuing her. I don't understand why in "A Gold Star for the Joker" (written by Elliot S! Maggin, art by J. L. Garcia Lopez and V. Colletta) she simply stands around and does nothing while the Joker wreaks havoc: she's a judo expert and possesses a canary cry, for goodness sake! The two-part "Lure for an Assassin!"/"Terminal for a Tragedy" (written by Denny O'Neil, art by Mike Grell & Vince Colletta) has Black Canary trying to rescue Green Arrow for a change... but two minutes later she's captured by the villains and held hostage to make Green Arrow co-operate, so she sits out the rest of the story. Surely the Black Canary ought to be written differently than Lois Lane, yet she's just a damsel is distress. If you ignore that component, they're decent stories in the goofy way comics were in the period, and the art is usually strong. The Joker one was probably my favorite.

The second half of the book is stories from the 1980s through the 2000s. The tend to take a different tack, focusing more directly on the relationship between the two characters and treating them both like competent superheroes. The first of these is "The Hunters" (written by Mike Grell, art by Mike Grell and Lurine Haines), which shows us the moment that Dinah reveal to Oliver she doesn't want to have a child with him. But it's only part of "The Hunters", showing us the flaw of the second half of the book: there's not a single whole story or even issue in it. In some cases this makes sense, even when it's irritating to have some text filling the gaps for you: most of "Membership Has Its Privileges" (written by Kevin Smith, art by Phil Hester and Ande Parks) actually has nothing to do with the relationship. But in other cases it's annoying: "Auld Acquaintance" (written by Mike Grell, art by Rick Hoberg) does seem to be about their relationship, and it looks like Black Canary even saves Green Arrow from danger for once, but who knows, as half the story has been replaced with a two-paragraph synopsis. But even when you know it's justifiable, it's still annoying to read. I think my favorite in this half of the book was either "The Hunters" (wish we'd had more of it, though) or what we get of "Run of the Arrow" (written by Chuck Dixon, art by Rodolfo Damaggio and Robert Campanella), which has a great scene where Connor Hawke goes to tell Dinah about Oliver's death.

The relationship between the two characters is one I didn't know a lot about (Black Canary appeared very seldomly in the 2000s Green Arrow series), and I was glad this book existed to fill me in. But it didn't do so in an entirely satisfying fashion.