14 December 2010

Faster than a DC Bullet: Gotham Central, Part V: Dead Robin

Comic trade paperback, 184 pages
Published 2007 (contents: 2006-07)

Borrowed from the library
Read December 2010
Gotham Central: Dead Robin

Writers: Greg Rucka with Ed Brubaker
Penciller: Kano
Inker: Stefano Gaudiano
Letterer: Clem Robins
Colorist: Lee Loughridge
Fill-In Artist: Steve Lieber

After some of the lackluster stories of the previous volumes, Gotham Central goes out on the top of its game. Unfortunately, writer Ed Brubaker leaves early in the volume, and longtime artist Michael Lark isn't here at all, but that doesn't dampen these excellent stories. The first is one of those Batman's-relationship-with-the-police tales I love so much, "Dead Robin." The G.C.P.D. finds a corpse wearing a Robin outfit-- but he couldn't be the Robin, could he? They're forced to confront just how little they know about the Batman and his "family," and their already sour relationship is further tested when Romy Chandler shoots the Batman, still on edge after the death of her partner in the previous volume. There's even an appearance by the Teen Titans, which is fun if a bit dissonant, and Robin himself puts in his only appearances in the series, with some nice scenes between him and Stacy, the Major Crime Unit's temp. And the climax of the mystery was just great; Kano and Gaudiano draw an amazingly frightening Batman.

The story I wasn't expecting to like here was "Sunday Bloody Sunday," which tells what effect the Infinite Crisis had on Gotham. Though I know that things like that have to affect the city, it just seemed like the multiverse being remade would be so tonally inconsistent with this series. To my surprise, it wasn't-- the whole story is told first-person from the perspective of Crispus Allen, and he doesn't understand what's going on one tiny bit, but he still knows he has to do his duty getting Montoya to safety and finding his family, even if he did just run into Captain Marvel and the Spectre. It's the story of Allen's faith, as he begins by ruminating on how he doesn't believe in God anymore... and ends by praying with his family. I don't think the story of the Infinite Crisis could have been told in Gotham better than this.

The last story is "Corrigan 2," and it follows up on the events of the Corrigan story of the previous volume. The focus of the story is again on Renee Montoya and Crispus Allen, as Allen tries to stem Montoya's descent into anger and violence, with disastrous consequences for them both. This is completely a traditional cop story, with no Batman elements at all, but it really works here, with many of the character elements seeded throughout the series coming into play. The story is riveting and moving, a fantastic end to what had been a strong concept.

My only complaint is that there are some character threads from earlier volumes we'll never get to see now, not unless Sarge gets a larger part in your average Batman comic than I suspect he actually does. It's a real shame this series came to an end. But this was a great way to go out-- though I preferred "Soft Targets" in Jokers and Madmen, this is the most consistently strong of all the installments.

Faster than a DC Bullet: Gotham Central, Part IV: On the Freak Beat

Comic hardcover, 222 pages
Published 2010 (contents: 2004-05)

Borrowed from the library
Read December 2010
Gotham Central, Book Three: On the Freak Beat

Written by Greg Rucka & Ed Brubaker
Pencils by Michael Lark, Stefano Gaudiano, Jason Alexander
Inks by Stefano Gaudiano, Jason Alexander, Kano, Gary Amaro
Colors by Lee Loughridge
Letters by Clem Robins

The best story in this book is Greg Rucka's "Lights Out," a single-issue tale that follows on from some of the events in the main Batman titles that I haven't read. Part of the peril of reading stories in collections like this-- apparently the Batman's relationship with the police really soured in that story-- is that major events happen in them that you don't know about. It makes sense that the Batman books would drive this one, but it's really unfortunate that we don't get to see exactly what happened, given the relationship between the Batman and the police is what Gotham Central is all about. Anyway, the G.C.P.D. takes down the Bat-Signal to repudiate any connection with him whatsoever, and we get to see reflections by a number of the characters on what the Batman and the Bat-Signal meant to them. I really liked Montoya's moment: "I was maybe seventeen, I was in my bedroom at my parents' apartment, it was late.... There'd been this story in the news, how the water supply had been poisoned. Everyone in the city was scared. I looked out my window." Crispus Allen, coming from Metropolis where you can trust your superheroes, is all for taking it down, on the other hand. And then you have the mayor, who says tourists expect to see the Bat-Signal. It's a nice summation of the G.C.P.D.'s often complicated relationship with the Batman, the relationship that drives this book.

The rest of the stories here are okay, but not great. There's a Catwoman tale by Ed Brubaker that didn't do much for me, where she interacts with Josie Mac some. Jason Alexander's ugly art doesn't help. The revelations about Josie Mac could be good, but the series never really follows them up. The book is book-ended by two Renee Montoya stories by Greg Rucka. It opens with "Corrigan," about a corrupt crime scene investigator, and ends with "Keystone Kops," where one of the Flash's rogues gallery comes to Gotham to cause problems. The first is fairly insubstantial, and the second focuses on an uninteresting villain too much to work, though I did like the stuff about Montoya and her father.

Unfortunately, this is probably the weakest set of Gotham Central stories thus far, especially given that at this point, the series' end was imminent. It's probably the lack of strong Batman stuff again; the books don't quite work when they're just generic cop stories with the occasional supervillain.

Faster than a DC Bullet: Gotham Central, Part III: Jokers and Madmen

Comic hardcover, 285 pages
Published 2009 (contents: 2003-04)

Borrowed from the library
Read November 2010
Gotham Central, Book Two: Jokers and Madmen

Written by Ed Brubaker & Greg Rucka
Art by Michael Lark, Greg Scott, Brian Hurtt, Stefano Gaudiano
Colors by Lee Loughridge
Letters by Clem Robins, Willie Schubert

One of the neat things about the setup of Gotham Central is that the cast is divided up into a day shift and a night shift. Greg Rucka writes the stories about the day shift, and Ed Brubkaer writes the ones about the night folks. They cowrite the stories that are so big both shifts get involved. In the first two GC collections I read, nine of the twelve stories were Rucka day-shift ones, whereas just five were Brubaker night-shift ones, so it was nice to get Jokers and Madmen, where Brubaker's characters seems to dominate. Mind you, the writing the two do is so well-integrated that if it wasn't for the character thing, I wouldn't've known who was writing at any given point.

The first story, Brubaker's "Daydreams and Believers," is a one-off about Stacy, the temp who operates the Bat-Signal. She's a bit of an outside in the G.C.P.D for obvious reasons, and the story nicely capitalizes on that to show her perspective on the various other people who work in the Major Crimes Unit-- not to mention the Batman himself. There's a hilarious two-page sequence featuring Batman here that I didn't see coming. Brian Hurtt's detailed art doesn't really fit the Gotham Central style, but it works for this one tale.

The next story, "Soft Targets," is co-written by Brubaker and Rucka, and it seems to have been the basis for the recent Batman film The Dark Knight, as it sees the Joker terrorizing Gotham City solely as a way to get at Batman. (Okay, this probably happens a lot, but the political assassinations and the scene with the Joker in the interrogation room really made it seem Dark Knight-esque to me.) This is the single most successful story in all of Gotham Central, I think, seeing the cops scrambling to stop the Joker when really the Joker just sees them as ways to aggravate the Batman. All of the characters here are just caught in the intense struggle between these two figures, and the story is all the more intense for it. From the second page, I was gripped, and like "In the Line of Duty" in the first volume, it really manages to merge the considerations of a police story with a Batman one, as the characters have to negotiate city politics and the media as they try to do their jobs and take down the Joker before he blows the city to kingdom come. The story's set at Christmas, which helps too, as the art (which sees Stefano Gadiano taking over for Michael Lark and doing just as good a job) can be all snowy and moody. This story actually has the cops figuring it out before Batman, which is nice. But in the end, as far as they can tell, they're just paws in his insane game with the Joker.

After this is "Life is Full of Disappointments," a story which has an interesting form, as it take the form of a case that keeps on getting bumped from detective to detective, meaning each of its three different parts focuses on a different pair. This lets the series focus on some people who haven't had much page time thus far, like Sarge Davies, who is one of my favorites. Some of the tales are kinda tritte, though, like the one about the mother whose son plays in the Orchestra. Greg Scott's frankly weird art, which struggles to ape Lark's style unsuccessfully, doesn't help, either. I did like the one about the cop who knew the Huntress, though. The mystery here is so-so, but it's of minimal importance in a decent character exercise.

The last story in the book is Brubaker's "Unresolved," which has Driver and Josie Mac investigating a long-closed case that Harvey Bullock-- longtime member of the G.C.P.D. forced into retirement after killing a suspect-- was never able to figure out. The best part of this story is again the character work, especially Bullock's. A cop's cop, he can't deal with being off the force, and it's killing him. The scene between him and his old partner Montoya is particularly good. It's not really a Batman story, nor even a peripheral-to-Batman story, but it works all the same on the strength of the characters. Lark and Gaudiano work together on the art for this one, and it looks great, too.

Overall, the stories I find most fascinating in the series are the ones that really feel like peripheral Batman stories; the ones like that could be told in any cop story live and die on the characters, and though most of these characters are fine, there's too many of them to be effective, and not all of them are Renee Montoyas, Crispus Allens, or Marcus Drivers. Or even Josie Macs. Of those, some work, and some are kinda dull. It doesn't help that I can't always tell the characters apart, even with the handy (if inaccurate) guide in the front of the book. The book also has an overreliance on cop-killing to make things dramatic. It might be accurate to the way these things are shown in a Batman book, but here it sometimes feels like a gimmick to prove the situation is serious-- this department has a ridiculous rate of attrition. But this volume is definitely the series' finest hour, really showing what it's like to be an ordinary person caught in the middle of a Batman story.

Faster than a DC Bullet: Gotham Central, Part II: Half a Life

Comic trade paperback, 160 pages
Published 2005 (contents: 1999-2003)

Borrowed from the library
Read November 2010
Gotham Central: Half a Life

Writer: Greg Rucka
Artists: Michael Lark, Jason Pearson & Cam Smith, William Rosado & Steve Mitchell
Colorist: Matt Hollingsworth
Letterers: Willie Schubert, Rich Parker, Todd Klein

The focus of this book is Renee Montoya, a member of the G.C.P.D.'s Major Crimes Unit, and her relationship with Two-Face. To add to the depiction of this relationship, there are a couple pre-Gotham Central stories from Batman comics showing Montoya. The first of these, "Two Down," is neat enough, with a premise of what would happen if Two-Face's coin just kept on coming up heads, and he kept on doing good. Two-Face helps Montoya in rebuilding the city after it's been ravaged by an earthquake, and she even intervenes against Batman to stop him from taking Two-Face down, pleading that she knows Two-Face can do good if she wants. A good story, but it's brought down by Jason Pearson & Cam Smith's overly cartoony art, which doesn't really fit the tone of the story. The other one is "Happy Birthday Two You...", set about a year later, on Montoya's birthday. It's a day in Montoya's life, a day where she's gone unappreciated by any one other than... Two-Face and Bruce Wayne? It's a solid little story on its own (there are only two colors, and that works fantastically), but it also sets up what's to come...

The bulk of Half a Life is taken up by a story called, appropriately enough, "Half a Life." This story is pretty famous-- it got all kinds of awards-- because it is the story that revealed Renee Montoya was a lesbian. Now, mind you her superior officer Maggie Sawyer had been revealed as one some time prior, but Montoya's was kind of a shocker reveal, and the whole story is about her forced coming-out. Two-Face reveals her in an elaborate plot to destroy her entire life so that he's all she has left. I like Montoya as a character: she feels real, a woman struggling not only to be a cop in Gotham City (which is tough enough), but to hide a second life from her colleagues-- not exactly the most tolerant bunch-- and her very conservative, Catholic family. The story draws some parallels between Montoya and Two-Face that work well. I also like the subplot about Montoya's partner, Crispus Allen, coming to terms with the fact that Montoya's been hiding all this from him. The art is great as per usual-- if anything, Michael Lark is better here than in In the Line of Duty, with his inks not quite as thick as in the first.

However, I have some reservations. Or rather, I think the story's pretty good. Above average, even. But great? Not quite. It's on the whole a competently executed cop story, with some nice Batman bits thrown in. (He once again saves the day. You could accuse it of being a deus ex machina, but that's the whole point of the series.) If you subtracted the lesbian component, I'm not convinced there's be anything memorable about. But that means my problem's not so much with the story as the way it's been represented. I liked it; I just don't know that I'd give it any awards. But in the often-homophobic world of superhero comics, this thing was ground-breaking in 2003, and that's kinda sad when you think about it.

Faster than a DC Bullet: Gotham Central, Part I: In the Line of Duty

Comic trade paperback, 116 pages
Published 2004 (contents: 2003)

Borrowed from the library
Read October 2010
Gotham Central: In the Line of Duty

Writers: Greg Rucka & Ed Brubaker
Artist: Michael Lark
Colorist: Noelle Giddings
Letterer: Willie Schubert

Gotham Central is about the cops who make up the Gotham City Police Department, specifically the ones in the Major Crimes Unit, the group personally selected by (ex-)Commissioner Gordon to handle the most difficult of crimes. They're also the cops Gordon trusted the most, the ones he knew wasn't corrupt. The stories are entirely told through their point of view-- Batman is in these stories, but only as much as the police see him.

The first story in In the Line of Duty has two cops, Driver and Fields, following up leads on the disappearance of a teenage girl when they accidentally bump into Mr. Freeze. Freeze kills Fields and runs off, leaving the police scrambling to figure out where Freeze is and what he's planning next. They know that summoning Batman is their best shot of finding the killer-- but they also know that once they do, it'll be the Batman who avenges the death of one of their own, not themselves. So they set themselves a deadline: figure out what Freeze's plan is before nightfall, when they can turn on the Bat-signal and hand the case over. What unfolds after that is a pretty typical "police procedural" like you might see on any number of television shows, as the police follow up leads by talking to known accomplices, hunting down people who might have sold Freeze the diamonds that power his technology, and so on. There's this nice device of a clock in the corner of the panels, telling you that they're running out of time. Lucky for them, they get a break just in time...

There's a touch that I like here-- since the official stance of the G.C.P.D. is that the Batman doesn't exist and the light is for deterring criminals, they can't activate the Bat-Signal themselves, legally. As a result, it's the office temp who activates the signal, as she's not a city employee. As they wait, Commissioner Akins asks Driver, "So you're okay with this then?" and he answers, "No... but I'm a cop in Gotham. I can't afford to live in denial." And even though the Batman wins the day against Freeze for them, you can't help but feeling that they've lost something in having to call the Batman in. The only thing I don't like about the story is that the cops' conclusion requires Freeze to have given them a cryptic clue at the beginning of the story, but I don't get why he'd do that-- he's not the Riddler or even the Joker.

The second story in the book, "Motive," also features Marcus Driver, this time working with Romy Chandler to follow up the kidnap case from the previous story. Though there's an appearance by the super-villain "Firebug" in this story, and some fun stuff about people who collect super-villain paraphernalia, it's essentially a normal cop story. Again, the resolution is weak because it depends on a leap of logic that seemed unfounded, but essentially it's a character story for Driver as he tries to come to terms with what it means to be a cop in Gotham. I used to make fun of the idea of the Gotham police-- why do they even bother?-- but these stories show them as people trying their best in a really messed up world, and I like that. The best bit of this story is the end, where Driver flicks on the Bat-Signal just to tell Batman they solved the case without them. Because sometimes they can do it.

The art by Michael Lark is great-- sort of sketchy, like you imagine the world that the G.C.P.D inhabits would look. Unfortunately, this backfires sometimes, as some of the white guy cops blend in to one another. But between his linework and Noelle Giddings's moody, suppressed colors, the art is absolute perfect for the bleak, despairing tone of this series.

24 October 2010

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Sandman Spin-Offs, Part I: The Absolute Death

Comic hardcover, 360 pages
Published 2009 (contents: 1989-2003)

Borrowed from the library
Read October 2010
The Absolute Death

Writer: Neil Gaiman
Artists: Chris Bachalo, Mark Buckingham, Mike Dringenberg, Colleen Doran, P. Craig Russell, Malcolm Jones III, Mark Pennington, Dave McKean, Jeffrey Jones
Colorists: Steve Oliff, Matt Hollingsworth, Daniel Vozzo, Lovern Kindzierski, John J Muth, Alex Bleyaert, Rob Ro
Letterers: Todd Klein, Jeffrey Jones

This last Sandman Absolute Edition collects the adventures of Dream's sister, Death. It leads off with two Death-centric issues from The Sandman, which was probably done to pad out the book, but I still appreciated the chance to reread "The Sound of Her Wings," which features Death's first appearance. In retrospect, it stands out: Dream narrates part of it, which rarely (never?) happened again in the series, and it also seems to set up some of Dream's decisions in The Kindly Ones, a full fifty issues later. But the primary point of this collection are the two Death-focused miniseries it collects.

The first of these is The High Cost of Living, which tells the story of a 24-hour period spent by Death as an ordinary, living person in modern New York. Primarily told from the perspective of a layabout teenager, it's a nice story with a lot of fun moments and couple reappearances by Sandman stalwarts such as Mad Hettie and Hazel and Foxglove. Death's adventures are alternately entertaining and horrifying, as you might imagine, and I enjoyed this one a lot.

The second is The Time of Your Life, which isn't really about Death at all, though she appears; it's more about Hazel and Foxglove, and how they deal with having a child and the pressures of fame. I liked getting to focus on these two because, for me, Death doesn't really work as a principal character-- even more so than Dream, she's all-powerful and all-knowing, and what's worse, she likes what she does, so what's at stake for her? She works better as a side character in the stories of others. Hazel and Foxglove go on a stranger journey in this tale, and learn a bit about themselves-- though unfortunately the story occasionally descends into the kind of cheesy aphorisms you might see inside of chocolate wrappers. Also the ending is a convenient cop-out.

The art of both tales is ably provided by Chris Bachalo. I especially liked his art in the second story, where Mark Buckingham's inks are clear and gorgeous. The use of color in The Time of Your Life is really great, too.

After this, there's a few mini-stories about Death, all of which look pretty good, but maybe didn't do a whole lot for me. The one about 9/11 also descends in cheesy aphorisms, I think. The AIDS awareness story featuring Death was worth it for John Constantine holding a banana while Death put a condom on it.

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Sandman, Part IV: The Absolute Sandman, Volume Four

Comic hardcover, 608 pages
Published 2008 (contents: 1993-96)

Borrowed from the library
Read October 2010
The Absolute Sandman, Volume Four

Writer: Neil Gaiman
Artists: Marc Hempel, Michael Zulli, D'Israeli, Richard Case, Charles Vess, Teddy Kristiansen, John J Muth, Kevin Nowlan, Dean Ormston, Glyn Dillon
Colorists: Daniel Vozzo, John J Muth
Letterers: Todd Klein, Kevin Nowlan

With this volume, The Sandman storyline hurtles to its inevitable conclusion. I had this spoiled for me ages ago, but it still totally works, and besides, Volume Three has a sequence that gives the game away anyway. The story is slow to start, but it really comes together as it goes, and as we see people throughout the universe of the series react to what is about to happen to Dream-- or what Dream is about to do? The final storyline makes a lot of sense of Dream's inactivity throughout the series (though I don't know that it excuses it as good storytelling), and I was happy to see Lyta Hall, wife of the 1980s Sandman, make a return. As the series' longest storyline yet, The Kindly Ones really works: I was riveted as I read, wanting to know what was going to happen next even thought I knew. There were lots of great little moments, especially the last stand of Merv Pumpkinhead during the assault on the Dreaming, and Cain's grief at what has happened to Abel. Marc Hempel has a different pencilling style from most of the other artists on the series, which would have been fine-- except that it often made it difficult to recognize brief appearances by preestablished characters. Though not quite as good as Brief Lives in Volume Three, The Kindly Ones provides an excellent finale to the series.

I need to say a few words about Matthew the Raven. Though Merv makes me laugh the most, Matthew is my favorite of the characters to inhabit the Dreaming, a mortal man who died and was offered a chance to live on in dreams as Dream's raven. He's your "average guy" amongst the far-fetched characters of the Dreaming, a little baffled but often able to cut through the crap. He got some good material in Volume Three, and he shines here in Volume Four, providing a human anchor for the massive events unfolding. The climax of the The Kindly Ones wouldn't be nearly as powerful without him, and he's what makes the last storyline in the book, The Wake, work as well as it does, as he struggles to come to terms with what happened. A great supporting character.

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Sandman, Part III: The Absolute Sandman, Volume Three

Comic hardcover, 616 pages
Published 2008 (contents: 1991-2000)

Borrowed from the library
Read September 2010
The Absolute Sandman, Volume Three

Writer: Neil Gaiman
Artists: Jill Thompson, Vince Locke, Bryan Talbot, Mark Buckingham, P. Craig Russell, Michael Zulli, John Watkiss, Dick Giordano, Michael Allred, Shea Anton Pensa, Alec Stevens, Gary Amaro, Kent Williams, Tony Harris, Steve Leialoha
Colorists: Dave Vozzo, Lovern Kindzierski, Sherilyn Van Valkenburgh
Letterer: Todd Klein

As I'd mentioned earlier, I was somewhat lukewarm towards the earlier volumes of The Absolute Sandman. There was certainly an amazing mythology at work, but I found it hard to be interested in Dream as a character; often, I was more invested in the random people who got caught up in his adventures. (Curiously, all of these substitute protagonists seem to usually be women. I wonder if there's anything in that.) But the substory Brief Lives, collected here, changed all that. This story features Dream and his sister Delirium searching for their lost brother Destruction-- and in the process of that, Dream finally has to come to terms with his relationship with his son. It's half a road-trip comedy, half a meditation on knowing when to move on, and half a very dark fairy tale. It's definitely the funniest of the Sandman storylines... but it's also the most touching. I enjoyed every aspect of this one a lot, from Delirium's inane attempts to try to drive a mortal car, to Dream and Destruction's conversation on reuniting, from the first appearance of Merv, the pumpkinheaded janitor of the Dreaming, to the moment where Dream finally goes and sees Orpheus. Most of all, it's great to finally get a sense of Dream as a person. (Inasmuch as an anthropomorphic personification of an abstract universal concept can be one, I suppose.)

What struck me as I was reading it is that The Sandman really is a literary comic book. I mean, there have been plenty of literary graphic novels produced-- non-superhero fare that is done in one sitting. But The Sandman unlike most "highbrow" sequential art pieces, is completely and utterly a comic book: an ongoing, indefinite story. In total, the series comprises some 75 issues, and stories and characters and ideas weave in and out of these issues the same way they might in a Superman or Spider-Man ongoing. Gaiman really utilizes the potential of the comic ongoing to its maximum here, and that is the reason I like The Sandman as much as I do. It might have taken until Brief Lives for me to like The Sandman, but Brief Lives would never have worked without all the preceding issues to lead up to it. Gaiman has utterly mastered one of my favorite aspects of the medium here, and I find that delightful.

A brief word about the other storyline collected in this volume, Worlds' End. This is a collection of one-issue stories set in the world of The Sandman, but unlike many of the other ones, they're connected with a frame narrative. They're also the weakest; most of these did nothing at all for me. Strangely dull for Gaiman.

09 October 2010

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Star City, Part XXIV: Green Arrow and Black Canary: Big Game

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2010 (contents: 2009-10)

Borrowed from the library
Read August 2010
Green Arrow and Black Canary: Big Game

Writer: Andrew Kreisberg
Pencillers: Mike Norton, Renato Guedes
Inkers: Joe Rubinstein, Bill Sienkiewicz, José Wilson Magalhães
Colorists: David Baron, David Curiel, Allen Passalaqua
Letterers: Sal Cipriano, Pat Brosseau

Enumerating everything that is wrong with Green Arrow and Black Canary at this point would take more time than I want to put into it. I'm not sure if this is better or worse than Judd Winick's run on the title.

03 July 2010

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Sandman, Part II: The Absolute Sandman, Volume Two

Comic hardcover, 616 pages
Published 2007 (contents: 1990-98)

Borrowed from the library
Read June 2010
The Absolute Sandman, Volume Two

Writer: Neil Gaiman
Artists: Sean McManus, Kelley Jones, Mike Dringenberg, Bryan Talbot, John Watkiss, Matt Wagner, Stan Woch, Coleen Doran, Duncan Eagleson, John Bolton, Malcolm Jones III, George Pratt, Dick Giordano, P. Craig Russell, Vince Locke
Colorists: Dave Vozzo, Steve Oliff
Letterer: Todd Klein

There's two big storylines collected in this volume of The Absolute Sandman. The first is Seasons of Mists, which opens with a meeting between Dream and the rest of the Endless. They suggest that Dream was a bit of a jerk for exiling his lover to Hell ten thousand years ago (described in a side story in Volume One), and that he should get her back. Apparently that's all it takes to change someone's mind, because Dream launches himself into Hell to reclaim her soul. Why? No one knows. Upon getting there, he finds out that Lucifer has opened the Gates of Hell and let everyone go because he's tired of the whole thing, and Lucifer hands the place over to Dream and promptly absconds, leaving Dream with the question of what to do with Hell. Various claimants come to petition Dream, and I was initially excited-- who Dream chose would give me some insight into his character surely, or even just watching him deliberate would-- but the whole storyline just stops with a literal divine intervention. Seeing Gaiman's depictions of the various claimants is fun, though; I think my favorites were Thor and the Lord of Order. His Loki is pretty underwhelming for the ultimate trickster, though. The best part of the storyline, however, is the side story about the boy left behind at a boarding school when all the souls are released from Hell.

The second story, A Game of You, is much better for the reason that it doesn't focus on Dream at all, but rather Barbie, a human who previously appeared in Volume One. Her dreams are starting to spill over into the real world and into the lives of those who share her apartment building. We see almost everything from the perspective of Barbie, her transvestite friend Wanda, the lesbian couple Hazel and Foxglove (one of whom is pregnant!), and a witch named Thessaly. Barbie soon becomes lost in her dreams, which are a little girl's depiction of a fantasy land, with herself as the princess, surrounded by a cast of goofy animal characters. Watching these characters try to make sense of the weird world they've been projected into, as well as their own personal lives, is great, and I was totally on board with every moment of it. The ending is a bit underwhelming, however, as Dream just shows up all of a sudden and takes care of everything. But other than that (and the epilogue), this was my favorite Sandman storyline yet.

There's also a quality side story about Emperor Norton I of the United States, which I just loved. A fun look at a fun historical personage.

My reviews of the first two volumes of The Absolute Sandman might make it seem like I'm down on the series, and I'm not-- I think the writing is usually sharp, most of the characters are fully-fledged people, the tone and atmosphere are great, the Dreaming is a fantastic mythology, and Matthew the Raven is pretty much awesome. But it's hard to get too enthused about a series whose protagonist leaves you so little to connect to, even at supposedly defining moments.

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Sandman, Part I: The Absolute Sandman, Volume One

Now that I've finally finished up with Green Arrow, I've moved on to a new comics project: Neil Gaiman's The Sandman. Long considered some of the most literate comics, I've never read them, and I've long felt that to be something of a deficiency. As a result, I'm forcing the ILL staff to get hold of the swanky Absolute Editions of the series, which takes some time, but lets me move through the series a bit quicker.

Comic hardcover, 612 pages
Published 2006 (contents: 1988-90)

Borrowed from the library
Read June 2010
The Absolute Sandman, Volume One

Writer: Neil Gaiman
Artists: Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, Charles Vess, Michael Zulli, Kelley Jones, Chris Bachalo, Malcolm Jones III, Danny Vozzo, Colleen Doran, Steve Parkhouse
Colorists: Daniel Vozzo, Steve Oliff
Letterers: Todd Klein, John Costanza

The protagonist of these stories is Dream of the Endless, a personification of the abstract concept of "dream"-- the other Endless, who are all siblings, also personify abstract concepts that begin with "D" in English (odd, that). He can enter into people's dreams, and acquire whatever he needs from them. Despite his enormous power, he's imprisoned by a human sorcerer, but the series begins with him finally making his escape after almost a century. Now, he must return to the world and re-establish his kingdom. All of my problems with this series can be traced to Dream himself, I think. How does he feel about being locked up and powerless for such a long period of time? No one knows, since Gaiman never gives us much insight into his interiority. Dream embarks on a series of quests upon his escape in an attempt to track down and recover artifacts stolen from him during his imprisonment, but it's hard to root for a protagonist whose powers are so all-encompassing and ill-defined. There's not really any circumstance where he won't triumph; even his journey into Hell is anti-climactic; he turns out to have a power that Lucifer's demons don't.

Where this volume succeeds much more is with its depiction of the small characters, human or otherwise, caught in the wake of Dream's machinations. The snippets of those affected by Dream's imprisonment in the opening issues are the first sign of this, but it gets better with those who are subject to the evil machinations of Doctor Destiny (who just happens to escape imprisonment and steal Dream's magic ruby at the exact moment Dream comes looking for it), and even Doctor Destiny himself. Even better, however, is the substory called The Doll's House where a "dream vortex" begins to form. No one, not even Dream or Neil Gaiman, seem to know what a dream vortex actually is, but the exploration of its effects on the tenants in a Florida house is well done, as we see the snippets of all these people's dreams, and thus the snippets of themselves. Rose Walker is a good character, well drawn as a teenager struggling to come to terms with all the enormous things suddenly happening in her life. I even liked the appearance of poor Hector Hall, one of the substitute Sandmen who filled in for Dream during his imprisonment. He's a buffoon, but a well-meaning, manipulated one. The ending of the story, with Rose Walker and the heroic Gilbert at a serial killer's convention, is great. Even if Gaiman continuously tops himself in the gross-out stakes with the serial killer stuff.

Perhaps the best part of the entire volume are the side stories that show other aspects of the Dreaming. "The Sound of Her Wings," Dream's first meeting with his sister Death after his imprisonment, and "Dream of a Thousand Cats," the story of the secret dream of cats, were both good, but my favorite was "Men of Good Fortune," which is about an ordinary English granted immortality that Dream meets with every century-- the closest thing Dream has to a friend, and a rare insight into Dream's character. Curiously, the award-winning "A Midsummer Night's Dream," where Dream hires Shakespeare to write the titular play for him, left me cold. Clever, but uninvolving.

06 June 2010

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Star City, Part XXIII: Green Lantern: Emerald Allies

This is it! With Green Lantern: Emerald Allies, I have officially and finally read every single trade paperback to feature Green Arrow, a voyage I began exactly a year ago in May 2009, taking me through twenty Green Arrow comics, plus a few related stories.

Comic trade paperback, 206 pages
Published 2000 (contents: 1996-97)

Borrowed from the library
Read May 2010
Green Lantern: Emerald Allies

Writers: Chuck Dixon, Ron Marz
Pencillers: Rodolfo Damaggio, Dougie Braithwaite, Paul Pelletier, Darryl Banks, Will Rosado
Inkers: Robert Campanella, Robin Riggs, Romeo Tanghal, Terry Austin
Colorists: Lee Loughridge, Pam Rambo, Rob Schwager
Letterers: John Costanza, Albert De Guzman, Chris Elioupoulos

The only part of Connor Hawke's time in the title role of volume 2 of Green Arrow is collected in this volume, labeled as part of the Green Lantern series despite the fact that five of its eight issues were originally Green Arrow releases. They all feature team-ups between Connor and Kyle Rayner, the then-Green Lantern of Earth, both young men unexpectedly thrust into a long-running superhero mantle. The material that works with this is probably the best stuff here.

The first story is "Bad Blood," a one-issue first meeting for the two heroes that is decent, but not spectacular. The largest section of the book is "Hard-Traveling Heroes: The Next Generation," which apes the GL/GA team-ups of old by having the two of them travel the United States looking for Kyle's father. Denny O'Neill's early team-ups were known for their over-earnest social commentary, and there's some of that here, but it fits oddly. The story is okay, but let down by a villain plan that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. The best story in the book is the last one, "Hate Crimes," which sees New York City pulled apart by racial rhetoric from both white and black commentators, and gets some nice material in as a result, as well as showing us both heroes in their element.

I liked this brief chance to get to know both Connor and Kyle; it some ways it's a shame that both had to be replaced in their roles by the returns of their predecessors. It's not long after this story that Oliver Queen is resurrected, bringing us to Quiver, back where I began all that time ago.

04 May 2010

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Star City, Part XXII: Batman/Green Arrow: The Poison Tomorrow

Perfect-bound comic, n.pag.
Published 1992

Borrowed from the library
Read April 2010
Batman/Green Arrow: The Poison Tomorrow

Writer: Dennis O'Neil
Penciller: Michael Netzer
Inker: Josef Rubinstein
Colorist: Lovern Kindzierski
Letterer: Todd Klein

This short graphic novel unites Batman and Green Arrow to combat a new threat from Poison Ivy, who has indirectly poisoned Black Canary (lame) and will soon poison the entire planet. The story is pretty average, a lot of running around punching things while Green Arrow snipes at Batman, even though I don't think their methodologies are terribly dissimilar at this point in time. (If anything, Green Arrow is more "street-level" and brutal, given that Batman doesn't believe in killing and is in fact running around with Justice League Europe pretty publicly.) I've never found Poison Ivy a terribly interesting villain, and her co-conspirator here is even more boring. The story would get by, but it's let down slightly by Michael Netzer's art, which is exaggerated in weird ways, such as Batman's huge ears and Oliver's ridiculous handlebar mustache. Gotta love that last page, though-- pure Batman.

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Star City, Part XXI: Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters

Comic trade paperback, n. pag.
Published 1989 (contents: 1987)

Borrowed from the library
Read April 2010
Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters

Writer / Artist: Mike Grell
Assistant: Lurene Haines
Color Artist: Julia Lacquement
Letterer: Ken Bruzenak

After years of feeling disaffected, Oliver Queen and Dinah Lance move to Seattle to start a new life... only to immediately be drawn into some mysterious killings. Of course. The plot here is convoluted, but that's not really the point of The Longbow Hunters, which is Green Arrow's emotional journey, as he transforms into a dark, urban hunter to fight this dark, modern world (it was the 1980s, after all). The worst of it is that Black Canary is kidnapped by a gang of thugs in the middle of an investigation and seemingly molested. It could easily be a case of women-in-refrigerators (and it very well might be), but as Meltzer does in Identity Crisis, Grell handles it so that it works-- it feels real and not gratuitous. I think it's a matter of Grell's fantastic artwork for the story, which completely matches his writing in tone, aided by some great coloring. This is a much less fun Green Arrow than the one of the early years, or of Kevin Smith's run, but it works fantastically nonetheless. Grell wrote another eighty issues of Green Arrow after this, and it's a dang-old shame that none of them have been collected.

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Star City, Part XX: The Black Canary Archives, Volume 1

Comic hardcover, 227 pages
Published 2001 (contents: 1947-72)

Borrowed from the library
Read April 2010
The Black Canary Archives, Volume 1

Story: Robert Kanigher, Gardner Fox, Dennis O'Neil
Art: Carmine Infantino, Joe Giella, Bernard Sachs, Murphy Anderson, Alex Toth

Collecting all of Black Canary's solo adventures, this volume mostly concerns the character we now know as Dinah Lance née Drake, mother of Dinah Laurel Lance, the Black Canary who ultimately became involved with Oliver Queen. The character is actually somewhat impressive for a 1947 comic book character: after her early adventures with the "humorous" Johnny Thunder, she acquired her own setup, a mild-mannered florist secretly fighting crime with her judo skills at night, much to the consternation of Larry Lance, private detective-- who could never one-up the Black Canary, nor get a date with her. It's an inversion of the good old Clark/Lois dynamic, and it works wonderfully for it. Except not quite: Carmine Infantino's introduction to this volume claims that Dinah Drake "spent much of her time yearning for a good lucking detective whose only interest was in her alter ego", but that's not actually the case; Dinah taunts Larry and never shows a sign that she's interested in him romantically. She's no milquetoast like Clark Kent can be! This unusual setup (and some sharp art) raises Robert Kanigher's twenty-two 6-10-page stories out of the repetitive rut they could easily fall into (see Showcase Presents The Green Arrow). The plots are typically contrived, but I enjoyed the tales nonetheless, especially once Johnny Thunder was nixed in favor of Larry Lance.

Two longer stories come from later in the Black Canary's lifespan, after Dinah Drake has married Larry Lance. "Mastermind of Menaces!" and "The Big Super-Hero Hunt" by Gardner Fox unite Black Canary and Larry Lance with fellow Justice Society member Starman in a pair of stories that are fairly enjoyable, especially the former one. These stories manage to balance all three protagonists well-- Canary isn't sidelined in favor of the male hero in Starman, and even Larry Lance gets to be a semi-competent detective for once.

The last story, "The Canary and the Cat!" by Denny O'Neil is the only one in the book about the second Black Canary... and it shows that O'Neil doesn't really get her character beyond the fact that she knows judo and is in love with Green Arrow. Would Dinah ever sit around thinking about how great Oliver is for fighting crime? Seems unlikely. "I'm an expert at judo... that's all!" she thinks. Geeze, what happened to your floral business, Dinah? Or your own crime-fighting abilities? She does get to kick some butt, though, and Alex Toth's stylized artwork is very nice to look at.

20 April 2010

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Star City, Part XIX: Showcase Presents The Green Arrow, Volume One

Comic trade paperback, 527 pages
Published 2006 (contents: 1958-69)

Borrowed from the library
Read March 2010
Showcase Presents The Green Arrow, Volume One

Writers: Dave Wood, France "Ed" Herron, Robert Bernstein, Jerry Coleman, Bob Haney, Gardner Fox, John Broome, Dick Wood, George Kashdan, Bill Finger, Jack Kirby
Artists: Jack Kirby, Roz Kirby, George Papp, Lee Elias, Mike Sekowsky, Bernard Sachs, George Roussos, Neal Adams

This volume collects every Green Arrow comic printed between 1958 and 1969 (including those in The Green Arrow) in black and white. Though a nice idea, such an undertaking quickly reveals that these old Silver Age comics were never designed to be reprinted, as they quickly grow stale and repetitive: there are some fifty-nine comics of 6-7 pages here, all of them ending with Green Arrow and Speedy being resoundingly smug. The writing is by a variety of folks, but Lee Elias provides the majority of the art, which is good, aside from the fact that I want to punch his "cherubic" Speedy in the face.

There's a weird number of stories about Native American tribes who still practice "the old ways"; I'm assuming this is because obviously all Indians practice archery, so our hero fits right in. What makes this even weirder is that in "The World's Worst Archer!" we learn that Speedy used to live with an old-ways Indian tribe... a fact never mentioned before or since, though it would have been relevant on any number of occasions. Later stories are a little bit more sensitive towards this, though "The Wrath of the Thunderbird" has a character unquestioningly assert that the reservation system has done nothing but good for Native Americans. Also weird is this volume's depiction of women in the person of the lovely Miss Arrowette, whose arrows are of course all feminine (the hairpin arrow, the powder-puff arrow, the lotion arrow, and so on), but can't cut it because crime-fighting's too dangerous for a woman. Right, Oliver-- I see that it's not too dangerous for your thirteen-year-old ward. She returns a couple times, though, and eventually gets a story where she's able to hold her own and help GA in solving a case, rather than hinder him.

The best stories are the ones that actually have some room to breathe, and thus include a plot-twist or two. Toward the end of his run, Green Arrow began receiving ten-page stories, the strongest of which was the nicely surreal "The Land of No Return". Even better, however, were his appearances in The Brave and the Bold alongside the Martian Manhunter and Batman. My favorite story was "The Senator's Been Shot!", which sees both Oliver Queen and Bruce Wayne contemplating giving up their secret identities-- Oliver so he can use his financial wealth to do good, and Bruce so he can go into politics. They don't, of course, but it's nice to see the characters wrestling with any kind of moral quandary, and Neal Adams's fantastic art and layouts make what could have been a still-somewhat-conventional story fairly edgy in tone. Coming at the end of the book and the end of the Silver Age, the changes this story brought were a long time in coming.

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Star City, Part XVIII: The Green Arrow

Perfect-bound comic, 71 pages
Published 2001 (contents: 1958-59)

Borrowed from the library
Read March 2010
The Green Arrow

Writers: Jack Kirby, Bill Finger, Dave Wood, Ed Herron, Robert Bernstein
Artists: Jack Kirby, Roz Kirby

This volume collects all the Green Arrow stories drawn by Jack Kirby before he went to Marvel and co-invented the Fantastic Four. It's just eleven six-page stories, not exactly a lot of a reading-- or very complicated reading. At that length, there's scarcely even room for plot complications. The writing of only one of the stories is officially credited to Kirby, but Kirby disciple Mark Evanier's introduction reveals that he usually rewrote the stories as he drew them. The most Kirby-esque one is the two-part "The Mystery of the Giant Arrows"/"Prisoners of Dimension Zero!", where Green Arrow (and sidekick Speedy) are plunged into another reality where everyone is a giant... including a very familiar crime-fighter called Xeen Arrow. Nothing here stands out very much, aside from GA's ridiculous original origin story, "The Green Arrow's First Case". Who keeps a diary on a cave wall?

Green Arrow has gotten flack ever since Quiver for the boxing glove arrow, but what reading this story revealed is that it is one of the least bizarre arrows in GA's arsenal. In these mere eleven stories, he deploys the heli-spotter arrow, the ricochet arrow, the mummy arrow, the boomerang arrow, the rain arrow, the cable arrow, the cocoon arrow, the jet arrow, the firecracker arrow, the balloon arrow, the parachute arrow, the rope arrow, the short-circuit arrow, the acetylene arrow, the aqua-lung arrow, the two-way radio arrow, the fountain-pen arrow, the dry-ice arrow, the flare arrow, the two-stage rocket arrow, the siren arrow, the tear-gas arrow, the smokescreen arrow, the machine-gun arrow, the fan arrow, the net arrow, the ink arrow, and the greatest of all, the fake-uranium arrow. And that's not even counting arrows from other sources, such as the charmingly stereotypical Green Arrows of other countries, or the people of 3000 A.D., who send GA hi-tech arrows. But you do have to admire the single-minded worldview of these stories: there's not any problem that can't be solved through the deployment of the appropriate arrow.

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Star City, Part XVII: Green Arrow: Year One

Comic hardcover, 152 pages
Published 2008 (contents: 2007)

Borrowed from the library
Read March 2010
Green Arrow: Year One

Writer: Andy Diggle
Artist: Jock
Colorist: David Baron
Letterer: Jared K. Fletcher

The latest version of Green Arrow's origin sees billionaire playboy Oliver Queen, always looking for something to fill his empty life, dumped off the side of his yacht by his conniving chief of security. Andy Diggle has a good grasp of Oliver, showing his evolution for layabout to man-with-a-mission very well, yet also showing that (in the best heroic tradition) Oliver was Green Arrow all along. The plot is decent, though uncomplicated-- but when were origin stories ever about plot? China White is a great villain in name and visual appearance, but uninteresting in actual execution.

What really takes this story from above average to excellent is the artwork by the oddly-named Jock, who succeeds in communicating the intensity of Oliver's experiences time and again, and in realizing Diggle's script with ease. David Baron's colors are also fantastic. By the end of this story, you believe that Oliver Queen is ready to return to civilization and kick some butt in Star City.

I do want to know how Green Arrow makes the transition from jungle fighter to street patroller, which is just as potentially interesting as this, but that story seems to have never been told, at least not in the modern continuity.

18 March 2010

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Star City, Part XVI: Green Arrow and Black Canary: Enemies List

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

Borrowed from the library
Read February 2010
Green Arrow and Black Canary: Enemies List

Writer: Andrew Kreisberg
Penciller: Mike Norton
Inker: Josef Rubinstein
Colorist: David Baron
Letterers: Steve Wands, Sal Cipriano, Pat Brosseau

I was looking forward to the replacement of Judd Winick on Green Arrow and Black Canary. Unfortunately, this is like the switch between Bill Mantlo and James Hudnall on Alpha Flight: it's still bad, it's just bad differently. There's a few big problems with the book. The first is Green Arrow's absolute obsession with bringing in Merlyn in this issue: why now? Why does this crime cause him to cross "the line"? He wasn't tempted to with Connor in the last storyline, he wasn't even tempted to when Merlyn blew up half of Star City. Merlyn taking out three technogeeks is what it takes to get him riled up? Really? The other, and much bigger, is Cupid: a woman with no training who is suddenly capable of taking out big-name villains with ease. Now, I think Merlyn and Brick are both completely lame villains... but I also know that this lone woman could not just waltz in and take them out when Green Arrow has spent years trying without success. This could be forgiven if Cupid was at all a good villain, but Kreisberg has just replaced Winick's lame antagonists with his own. Finally, there's Black Canary, who continues to be sidelined in (supposedly) her own title, needing Ollie to rescue her from a stupid thug in the very first issue here, and then accidentally deafening a man in contrived circumstances.

Add to this a perfunctory write-out of Connor and Mia (Winick was always good for giving Mia things to do) and Mike Norton's art embracing a "grittier" style that is more his own (apparently) but also more generic, and you have the third disappointing volume of this series in a row.

08 March 2010

Faster than a DC Bullet, Issue #19: Superman Returns: The Prequels

Comic trade paperback, 128 pages
Published 2006 (contents: 2006)

Borrowed from a friend
Read February 2010
Superman Returns: The Prequels

Story: Bryan Singer, Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris
Writers: Jimmy Palmiotti & Justin Gray, Marc Andreyko
Art: Ariel Olivetti, Karl Kerschl, Rick Leonardi & Nelson, Wellington Dias & Doug Hazlewood
Letters: Rob Leigh, Pat Brosseau, Jared K. Fletcher, Nick J. Napolitano
Colors: Nestor Pereya, Jason Wright, Richard & Tanya Horie, Moose Baumann

DC Universe Timeline: N/A
Real World Timeline: 2001-6

I really enjoyed Bryan Singer's Superman Returns. As a Superman fan, it struck all of the right notes for me: a Superman conflicted about his place in the world, justifiably so, but still perfectly willing to do what needed to be done when things got bad, having indulged his one moment of selfishness. I looked forward to the expansion of the Superman mythos with a son for Clark and Lois. And as for Lex Luthor-- despite everything, I utterly love Gene Hackman's interpretation of the character, and Kevin Spacey picked it up perfectly. So, it was with some interest that I opened this book, a set of "OFFICIAL move prequals" (sic) that came out shortly before the film did.

Superman Returns takes place about five years after Richard Lester's Superman II, five years while Superman has gone to visit the remains of Krypton and Lex Luthor has been rotting in prison. This book contains four small stories helping to bridge that gap-- supposedly.

"Krypton to Earth"
If you've watched Superman: The Movie, you've already experienced this story. In fact, if you know any variant of Superman's origin, you already know this story: it's the last days of Krypton, with Jor-El presenting his findings that Krypton will explode, the authorities ignoring him, and Kal-El being launched into space for Earth. Just going by my memories of Superman: The Movie, it's a fairly faithful recreation of that film's opening sequence, though it has some extra bits, such as a scientist who presents findings that disagrees with his findings. Jor-El presents his promise to the council in a nicely ambigous fashion: "Neither my wife nor myself will ever leave Krypton." Getting Jor-El's thoughts as he assembles little Kal-El's ship and the knowledge crystals he will take with him is a strong addition, especially his thought that Kal-El "will give the people of Earth an opportunity for greatness far sooner than would normally be possible."

But it's very much a case of been-there-done-that. There's no new wrinkles here, nothing unexpected. This is a story that has been told and told again. Indeed, the makers of Superman Returns very consciously did not retell it because they knew it had been told enough. Yet here it is again. I found it hard to care. Yet, as Jor-El's recordings played those fabulous lines, I got chills down my spine: "Remember, Kal-El, they can be a great people if they wish to be. They only lack the light to show them the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good... I have sent them you... my only son." But I did get chills because of anything actually in this comic, or just because it made me remember Marlon Brando's narrating the film's excellent trailer? Probably the latter... which doesn't really speak well for this story.

"Ma Kent"
What's Martha Kent been up to the last five years? With her husband dead and her son gone, not terribly much. This is a quiet story, working to establish the way Ma feels about her son-- how much she loves him and how much she misses him. Even with him gone, she still does everything he needs, faking postcards from Peru to send to the Daily Planet so no one wonders about what's happened to Clark. The story cuts back and forth between Ma in the present and various snippets of her past, mostly Clark's childhood. She misses him, but all she can do is move on and live her life.

Yet she can't, not quite. She's caught in some sort of strange limbo. Clark's gone, but at any given moment he might be back. There are constantly moments where she starts, thinking that it's him-- but it's not. It never is. She needs to let him go, but she never will. It's a nice little character piece, and the flashbacks effectively fill us in on the backstory of Superman: The Movie and how the Kents raised Clark, as well as adding some snippets about his decision to leave the Earth. Despite its quietness, this is probably the most effective story in the collection-- certainly it has the nicest art.

"Lex Luthor"
I've mentioned many time my appreciation for Lex Luthor, and that extends to even (especially) the Hackman/Spacey incarnation. So of course I was looking forward to this story. But I don't think Palmiotti and Gray really get Lex: there's a bit where he ruminates on the dangers of Superman: "How do they know he's not the vanguard for an invasion of super-powered beings?... Who knows what kind of spaceborne diseases he carried?" As Lex himself would say: "WRONG!" Those are obviously not true to any reasonable person, and Lex Luthor is always reasonable. It's what Superman represents that threatens Luthor, not some kind of physical danger. His determined, conniving nature comes across well, though, as he plots for his eventual release and woos Kitty Kowalski, his henchwoman in the film.

Unfortunately, most of this story simply recaps Superman: The Movie and Luthor's plot and capture there. (No Superman II, strangely. In fact, all of these prequels seem to gloss over it.) It's the highest degree of recap in this collection and it's boring. I mean, I understand that someone might want the people seeing Superman Returns to be familiar with what happened in the earlier films-- there was a gap of twenty years in the real world, after all-- but surely the sort of people who pick up prequel comics to superhero films are the sort of people who already know what happened? The other big sin of this story is that Lex totally lacks the sense of humor his film incarnations possessed. He was played by Gene Hackman, for crying out loud, of course he was a little campy, but you can't quite believe that the Lex in this comic was ever involved in nuclear-powered real estate schemes, which is a shame. And there's not even one reference to "the greatest criminal mind of our time"!

"Lois Lane"
The last story in the book was also the least effective for me. It depicts Lois writing her story "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman", which we know from Superman Returns won her a Pulitzer. My problem with this story is that it doesn't know what it's about. It's supposed to be about Lois moving on, finding herself, and closing the chapter of her life that's about Superman. The story, like the others in the book, recaps Superman: The Movie's key moments, interwoven with Lois's burgeoning relationship with Richard White. But the relationship with White gets about two pages-- not enough time to convince. And we know Lois hasn't moved on, because Superman Returns ends with her writing a newspaper article disagreeing with this one.

"All we need is the belief in ourselves," writes Lois, but it's not convincing coming from this mopey Lois. It doesn't help that the artwork here is stiff, not really displaying emotion on any adequate level to the story being told. Ultimately, I was unengaged in Lois's problems, thanks to both the writing and the artwork, and that's the worst part of all.

Overall, this slim volume is fairly mediocre. None of the stories are outright terrible, but all of them spend too much time retreading Superman: The Movie, and none of them compellingly represent the characters they're supposed to be filling us in on. A wasted opportunity to really flesh out an excellent film.

Do you know what? This is the last one. That's it. No more Faster than a DC Bullet. Back in June 2008, I started reading the 21 comics my friend had loaned me, claiming that "you get the pleasure of journeying through them with me over the next couple months!" Well, here we are twenty-one months later, and I've finally finished. They were arrayed with quick regularity on my reading list, but slowdowns thanks to graduate school meant I averaged only one a month-- and then it took me three months to do one. That's when I promised myself I'd do at least one every month, or I'd never finish, and I managed to keep that promise and then some, wrapping up slightly ahead of my predicted April 2010 date. It's been a long, fun journey, and I hope you all have enjoyed reading about these stories as much as I've enjoyed reading them. Except for Absolute Power. Great Rao, I wish I'd never read that.

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.

27 February 2010

Faster than a DC Bullet, Issue #18: Superman: Red Son

Comic trade paperback, 151 pages
Published 2004 (contents: 2003)

Borrowed from a friend
Read February 2010
Superman: Red Son

Writer: Mark Millar
Pencillers: Dave Johnson & Kilian Plunkett
Inkers: Andrew Robinson & Walden Wong 
Colorist: Paul Mounts 
Letterer: Ken Lopez

DC Universe Timeline: N/A
Real World Timeline: 1960-2001 and Beyond

Imagine that when the rocket carrying a little baby Kal-El crash-landed on Earth, it hadn't landed in Kansas, but in Ukraine... at the height of the Cold War. That's the premise behind Red Son, which gives us a Superman raised not with good old American values, but Soviet communist ones. A Superman who is the right-hand man to Josef Stalin and champions the rights of the worker, battling the insidious forces of capitalism.

My friend James posits that what makes Superman Superman is Clark Kent, and cites Superman For All Seasons as proof, with this story as the inverse. What would Superman be like if he wasn't Clark Kent? The answer is somewhat chilling: upon Stalin's death, Superman takes over as leader of the U.S.S.R., doing his absolute best to eliminate crime, disease, war, famine, even bad weather. Superman rules the world. But it doesn't quite answer the question, because we never see Superman when he's not being Superman. That's probably the point-- he has no alter ego, but he should have had an ante ego. We're told he grew up on a collective farm, but we never see his adoptive parents or even learn his pre-Superman name. Who was he? Where did he come from? We see Ma Kent in a brief scene in Smallville at the beginning, but never his "real" mother. Does he even have a real mother? Or was he raised by the collective? Without that information, it's hard to fully buy him as a character. All we know is that there was a girl named Lana Lazarenko who he was sweet on, and who stays by his side into his adult life, but we rarely see her actually interacting with Superman.

Lana brings up my one big problem with the book: some of the alternate versions are just weird or contrived. Why should there be a Lana Lang equivalent, complete with red hair, in Ukraine? Why does a Russian boy who sees his parents gunned down adopt the moniker of "Batman"-- and why doesn't Bruce Wayne, who should still exist in this world? Oliver Queen is no Green Arrow in this world, but a reporter for the Daily Planet, which is pretty pointless as the characters have nothing in common except a name and facial hair. And I cannot envision any possible world where Jimmy Olsen can ascend to the top spot in the CIA.

But the biggest alternate figure here, aside from Superman of course, is Lex Luthor. Long-time readers of my reviews will know of my great affection for Lex Luthor. I don't think Millar gets Luthor quite right: though he's a bit of a jerkface, he doesn't become an outright villain until Superman shows up on the scene, and I think that misconceives the character somewhat. Though Superman seems to bring out Luthor's worst tendencies, we should still be better off for having Superman around; Luthor should be up to no good with no one to stop him without Superman. But that's quibble, because once Superman shows up, Luthor is spot-on. This is the scientist version of Luthor, but he's every bit as egotistical and intelligent as Lex Luthor should be. I enjoyed his constant games of chess-- and the fact that it was being beat by a clone of Superman at one of those games that really set him off.

Superman remarks of him: "What was the point of Lex Luthor? A human being who dared to challenge a god, he was surely the greatest of his kind. I often look back upon those days and wonder what he might have accomplished without me. The triumphs he might have achieved in the name of his species." But the great thing about Lex Luthor is that every triumph he achieves, he achieves for only one reason: to beat Superman. When the entire world has fallen under Soviet control, America is the only hold-out-- and in total chaos. Until Lex Luthor steps in, and in a year reengineers the entire economy and saves the country from perpetual civil war. Why? Just to prove he's better than Superman. And it's bigger than that-- Luthor triumphs in the end, and you realize that everything that's been going on is a very, very long chess game... and in the end, Superman was actually just another one of his pawns. A pawn in a scheme to dominate the world with "Luthorism". But without Superman, would Luthor have ever been spurred to the ultimate good? Probably not.

But even in a world where Luthor is "good"... he's still not. There are two twists to the ending. One, someone who's been paying attention to the narration will pick up on, and it shows that Luthor isn't as smart as he thinks. The other, is quite a shocker. I was initially undecided on it, but once I realized what kind of light it threw on Luthor's supposed utopia, I decided I really liked it.

Man, I've been talking about Luthor a lot. Part of that is probably because, as I've alluded to, he's somewhat better developed as a character here than Superman. But Superman is still worth talking about-- more than worth it! Because this Superman isn't all that far off from the Superman we know and love. Both Superman want to help the world, to change it for the better, to enable it to rise above its petty and terrible ways. But the difference between the Superman man we know and this one is that the "normal" Superman believes in people... this Superman does not. The people of this Earth even stop wearing their seatbelts, knowing Superman will save them if something goes wrong. Somewhere I once read that the greatest desire of Superman would be a world that doesn't need him anymore, but this Superman would be completely unable to even envision such a scenario. It's that simple little humanistic faith that makes Superman the hero who he is. It's the lack of it that turns everyone-- everyone-- in this story into a villain.

Though I dug Millar's story and characters over all, there were some points where things didn't quite work. He's got some awkward dialogue, for example:
LANA: It's okay, Superman. It's not your fault. It's just the way the system works, you know. You can't take care of everyone's problems.
SUPERMAN: Actually, I can. Lana, I could take care of everyone's problems if I ran this place and, to tell you the truth, there's no good reason why I shouldn't.
But that's immediately followed by a glorious panel of Superman ascending over the starving crowds declaring that he's there to rescue them, so I can forgive it.

I thought the side-plot with the Green Lantern Corps was mostly irrelevant, and I was pretty so-so on the depiction of Wonder Woman in this reality. But, on the other hand, Stalingrad as a city put in a bottle by Brainiac is sheer genius. I also really liked the moment where Superman encounters his bizarro counterpart, grown by Lex Luthor as an American superweapon.

The art is solid throughout, and often fantastic. I don't know which of the credited artists did what, but sometimes I could notice multiple styles. Overall, it fits together, though-- and the coloring is great.

The story's not quite as emotionally engaging as it always should be, but in the third chapter I was gripped and carried all the way through. This story isn't so much What if Superman landed in the Soviet Union? as What if there was no Clark Kent? and the answer is very dark indeed. Great stuff.

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.