25 May 2011

Archival Review: All-Star Superman, volume 2 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely

Comic trade paperback, 154 pages
Published 2009 (contents: 2007-08)

Acquired October 2010
Read March 2011
All-Star Superman, volume 2

Written by Grant Morrison
Pencilled by Frank Quitely
Inked & colored by Jamie Grant
Lettered by Phil Balsman

I didn't like the second volume of All-Star Superman as much as the first. It's got some great stuff, but unfortunately, it starts a bit slow, with a two-issue story about Superman venturing into the Underverse to meet Zibarro, who is the Bizarro version of Clark Kent. I've never found the Bizarro concept interesting, and this spin on it didn't do a lot for me either. The replacement Superman story is competent, but a little weak too-- Superman is conveniently saved from his dilemma. Which is par for the course for the crappy Silver Age stories this tale is emulating, but not necessarily something I want to see here.

"Neverending," though, is where things get great again, as Superman writes his last will a testament. This is just chock full of great moments, but my favorite is Superman flying a bus full of terminally ill kids to Egypt to see the Pyramids. I smiled so big at that one. That's why Superman's great. (Unlike Mark Waid in the introduction, though, the scene where Superman stops a girl from committing suicide did nothing for me, probably because she was goth. It was a little stereotypical.)

And as for the two-part finale, where Superman battle Lex Luthor under the red glow of the tyrant sun after Earth's own sun has been extinguished... well, of course it's good.

This volume isn't quite the near-perfect Superman story of the first volume, but overall, All-Star Superman is a twelve-part explanation of everything that makes Superman my favorite superhero.

(I'm sure Frank Quitely's excellent art has received lots of praise-- he does a great Clark, especially-- but I just want to mention that his Lois has amazing legs.)

Archival Review: All-Star Superman, volume 1 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely

I read volume one of All-Star Superman back in September 2008. Coming to the second volume nearly three years later(!), I decided my best move was to reread the first, which I scarcely remembered at all:

Comic trade paperback, 154 pages
Published 2008 (contents: 2006-07)

Acquired and previously read September 2008
Reread March 2011
All-Star Superman, volume 1

Written by Grant Morrison
Pencilled by Frank Quitely
Inked & colored by Jamie Grant
Lettered by Phil Balsman

Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely get a lot of kudos for All-Star Superman. For telling a great, fantastic, groundbreaking, amazing story. But I don't think that's true.

Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely tell a perfect Superman story. They don't really do anything extraordinary here. They don't reboot Superman, or question his core morals, or kill him off, or show him in an alternate timeline. They just tell a Superman story. Oh sure, there's a plot about how Superman is dying from... the sun or something, and I guess he's got to perform Twelve Labors, though he seems to forget that. But the adventures he goes on here are all just run-of-the-mill Superman adventures. Nothing impressive.

Except that they're perfect.

Superman turns evil, and only Jimmy Olsen, Metropolis's best hipster, can save him. A perfectly done Jimmy Olsen weirdness story.

Clark Kent goes to interview Lex Luthor in prison, and there's a prison riot where Lex thinks he's orchestrating everything, but really Superman saves the day every time. A perfectly done Lex Luthor story.

Superman remembers the last day he saw his father. A perfectly done Pa Kent story.

Morrison and Quitely do the bumbling, they do the weirdness, they do the heroism. They do nearly everything right.

Nearly everything? The two issues about Lois learning who Superman really is are good... but they sidestep the most interesting parts of the story. But aside from that, they're perfect too.

All-Star Superman, volume 1 didn't blow my mind. But it did do exactly everything I wanted a Superman story to do.

11 May 2011

Faster than a DC Bullet: Y: The Last Man, Part III: Y: The Last Man: The Deluxe Edition, Book Three

Comic hardcover, 304 pages
Published 2010 (contents: 2004-05)

Borrowed from the library
Read April 2011
Y: The Last Man: The Deluxe Edition, Book Three

Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Pencillers: Pia Guerra, Goran Sudžuka
Inker: José Marzán, Jr.

Colorist: Zylonol
Letterer: Clem Robins

Most of the time when people ask about good comic books for people who don't like comic books, they don't get recommended comic books at all, but graphic novels: things like V for Vendetta, Maus, Persepolis, and other things either by Alan Moore or about ethnic people. Despite my occasional insistence that "graphic novel" is just what snobby people call comics, they really do mean different things. Which someone should tell Stephen King, since his quote "The best graphic novel I've ever read" graces the cover of every volume of this series.

The thing I like about comic books is their serialized nature. The way they come out monthly, it's one of those things that really only comics can do: have stories that range over a month or a few months, but also have threads that run through, characters that drop in and out of the narrative. I just eat that stuff up. It's the whole reason I decided to do this review thing where I'm not just reading comics, but reading comics series. (Does Scott McCloud even talk about this aspect of comics in Understanding Comics? Hmmm...) Praise the pretentious literary allusions in The Sandman all you want, but the reason that series works to well is the masterful way Neil Gaiman draws everything together at the end, building on everything that came before. Those last few stories wouldn't work half so well in isolation.

Anyway, I'm going on this rant (again, I think, because I'm pretty sure I went on it when I reviewed The Absolute Sandman, Volume Three as well) is because Book Three is the volume of Y: The Last Man where things really begin coming together like this. We see Yorick dealing with the repercussions of his actions at the end of Book Two, we get a whole issue about the secret past of Hero, the "Ring of Truth" pays off a number of outstanding story elements but starts new ones, and we even get a little glimpse of what Beth's been up to in Australia.

I think my least favorite part of Y: The Last Man is all the Culper Ring malarkey. Okay, so secret super agents are totally appropriate in a story like this, but why all the secret society mumbo-jumbo? It just feels like it's come out of a completely different genre to the one I'm reading. The stuff about the magic token or whatever doesn't help either. Which is possibly why Vaughan ties it up (does he?) fairly flatly and suddenly here. "That's the single most asinine thing any human being has ever said," Agent 355 says, and I'm inclined to agree. The one thing I don't think Y ever fully succeeds in showing is how extremism can be a refuge for damaged people; both the depiction of the evil Culper people and the Amazons come across a bit too flat.

Most everything else is good. The central story to this volume, "Ring of Truth," hinges too much on those elements to work for me, but all of the other stories are strong. "Tongues of Flame" shows us what happens when a vulnerable Yorick meets another Beth-- as much as I bemoaned his actions here, they really worked. "Girl on Girl," a tale of sea adventure with some surprising character stuff, was the highlight of the volume, putting a new spin on many of the character relationships, and showing yet another of those post-male ideas the series does so well with: the Australian Navy is one of only three nations to let women serve on submarines, so of course it now reigns supreme over the Earth's oceans. There's some good twists here, and it (narrowly) avoids the series's cliché plot, thankfully. This volume sets up some neat new stuff: I'm looking forward to seeing how Vaughan draws together the threads in the second half.

Faster than a DC Bullet: Y: The Last Man, Part II: Y: The Last Man: The Deluxe Edition, Book Two

Comic hardcover, 305 pages
Published 2009 (contents: 2003-04)

Borrowed from the library
Read April 2011
Y: The Last Man: The Deluxe Edition, Book Two

Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Pencillers: Pia Guerra, Goran Parlov, Paul Chadwick
Inker: José Marzán, Jr.

Colorists: Pamela Rambo, Zylonol
Letterer: Clem Robins

Book Two of Y: The Last Man has more stories of shorter length than Book One: there are four instead of two. I'll try not to talk about them in turn, but rather talk about what worked for me as a whole-- and what didn't.

Let's start with what didn't, to be nice. By the fourth story, "Widow's Pass," things are starting to get a little repetitive. Yorick and company get to a place, Yorick flirts with local women, conflict emerges, everything ends in a big battle sequence. Now, there are constantly new things happening with the characters, but the main structure of each plot gets boring. I suppose only two of the four stories in this volume use that structure, but it also happened a couple times in Book One, too, so it begins to get dull.

Also, there's a tendency for dramatic reveals at odd times. Yorick, for example, has been chased by Israeli soldiers since the middle of Book One, but their marching orders have been coming from someone mysterious. But this mysterious superior is revealed to us before any of the characters-- why? When she's revealed to them, the revelation lacks heft, as we don't share in their shock. Plus, I don't even buy her motivations for what she does. (I like that this is a book where I can say "she" without narrowing down the cast of suspects one tiny bit.)

There's also a story, "Safeword," where a member of the Culper Ring, the world's weirdest spy organization, uses dominatrix techniques to force Yorick to reveal secrets about himself. Though I like where the story goes in terms of his character-- adding some needed complexity-- it feels forced as a method. And I kept going "What!?" Does she really need to do all these things to get what she wants to know. It does satisfactorily answer the question of why Yorick isn't sexing his way across America, though.

I've ended up talking about things I liked, so I'll stick with that the rest of the way through. The story about astronauts has a good premise-- what about those men in space? And the Russian sharpshooter character who wants an answer to that question, too, is just plain fun. And there's continuing development of all the characters here: Yorick, Agent 355, and Dr. Mann make a great trio. Also: lots of jokes.

Pia Guerra's art is good, too. It's pretty straightforward stuff, with no weird stylistic motifs, not too cartoonish, no manga influences, so bizarre shading. But she's just good. Everything looks exactly right. She's a good story teller, too; rarely do you get lost. And her work in the weird sequences in "Safeword" can't be impugned. (I also like the use of the time/place captions in this story to communicate other information. After umpteen issues of this convention, breaking it is incredibly surreal.)

As in the first volume, my favorite parts are those that give us that neat glimpse into the post-male culture. There's a whole story, "Comedy & Tragedy," about an acting troupe that springs up fill the gap left behind. They want to perform the high culture classics-- but the mayor of the town they visit wants to know if they could perform some resolutions to soap opera plots instead. Of course, like any dramatic presentation within a larger story, it gets all meta, but it's fun, and it also acknowledges the series' roots, with a nice reference to Mary Shelley's The Last Man.

My favorite of these bits, though, is a tiny little one. Yorick, despite being the last man alive, can travel in the open with a beard. Why? Because there's a whole group of prostitutes who apply fake facial hair so that heterosexual women can feel like they're experiencing what they've lost. What a neat little detail.

Faster than a DC Bullet: Y: The Last Man, Part I: Y: The Last Man: The Deluxe Edition, Book One

Y: The Last Man is one of those series that I actually had in mind when I decided to embark on Faster than a DC Bullet. It's not superhero, it's not even DC universe, but it's one of those comics that people who don't read comics feel okay reading, and I'd heard good things, so I decided to give it a try:

Comic hardcover, 246 pages
Published 2008 (contents: 2002-03)

Borrowed from the library
Read April 2011
Y: The Last Man: The Deluxe Edition, Book One

Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Penciller: Pia Guerra
Inker: José Marzán, Jr.

Colorist: Pamela Rambo
Letterer: Clem Robins

The first issue of Y: The Last Man is a nice piece of comics writing, and one of those things I think you could only do in comics-- or at the very least, it works really well in comics. We open with a women freaking out that something's wrong with her sons when she runs into a cop. But the cop isn't listening to her. "It's the men..." she says as she raises a gun to her head. "All of the men are dead." Such is the premise of Y: The Last Man. Some unknown factor has killed every mammal with a Y chromosome on the Earth, all at once.

As comics like to do (this was done really well in the first issue of Identity Crisis), the comics moves to "Twenty-Nine Minutes Ago." A guy named Yorick is hanging from his ceiling in a straitjacket in New York, talking to his girlfriend Beth in Australia. Beth is skinny, blond, and wears short-shorts and a bikini as she frolics in the Outback. She's maybe the one weak spot here-- she just doesn't have any depth as a character, and though this issue tries to explain to you how important she is to Yorick, it doesn't quit hit home. But anyway, this conversation is interrupted by a call from Yorick's mother, who wants to know if he got a job he interviewed for. (The caption tells us that it's still Brooklyn and it's still twenty-nine minutes ago. This is wrong.) They have a brief conversation, but when the conversation's over, we stay with Yorick's mom, who is a congresswoman. (From Ohio!) She's arguing with her party leader.

We go back to Yorick, who's explaining to his girlfriend that he's raising a monkey named Ampersand. Said monkey turns on the TV, which is showing a report about military action in the West Back. Suddenly we're in the West Bank, too ("Eighteen Minutes Ago"), following an Israeli woman soldier talking to the TV reporter.

Then, back to Yorick and Beth for a page. Then we're in Jordan (no nice transition this time, but it is "Thirteen Minutes Ago"), watching a black woman called "Agent 355" take an amulet from another woman just as she is shot.

Then back to Yorick and Beth again. Beth says, "Before you say anything, there's... there's something I should tell you." "I'm having a baby," picks up an Asian-American doctor in a hospital in Boston ("Seven Minutes Ago"). She's cloned herself... and is having her own baby.

"We can't do this here," says the physician helping her, and then we're in an ambulance, also in Boston, where Yorick's sister Hero is having sex with a man when she's interrupted by a phone call from their mother.

Back to Yorick and Beth again. "Five Seconds Ago." He proposes.

"Four Seconds Ago." His mother talks to her aide.

"Three Seconds Ago." The TV reporter begins to ask the female solider out.

"Two Seconds Ago." Agent 355 makes her escape in a helicopter.

"One Second Ago." The birth is going wrong.

"NOW." All of the men on the previous page drop dead, blood coming out of their eyes and mouth. We cut across the world: Tokyo, the Vatican, Idaho, Amsterdam, Sao Paulo, Johnson Space Center, Leningrad, Kenya. Every man is dead. Lots of quick transitions. Then, back to that cop.

"All of the men are dead." BANG.

Yorick hears the shot from her gun. "Hello?" he asks. End of issue.

Okay, that was a lot, but I really liked it. The structure, moving from the conversation of Yorick and Beth into each side story, usually semi-linked, worked. A large cast is introduced quickly, and we get to see a wide range of effects from the "gendercide" in a short time.

No other issue in this volume does anything like that again, but I suppose it's best to sparing with your clever structures in writing. (Steven Moffat never really learned this in Coupling.) The rest of the first story, "Unmanned" picks up two months later, as Yorick has learned that he and Ampersand are the only mammals (or near as much) left alive. They make their way to Washington, D.C. amidst a strange new world, and thence back to Boston in the company of Agent 355, where they hope to find Dr. Mann, the doctor working on cloning. There's not really an overarching plot, just a number of individual incidents: 355 gets the Secretary of Agriculture to be president, Yorick meets his mother and helps fight off crazy wives of Republican congresswomen, Yorick fights Amazons (no, really) next to the Washington Monument, and Yorick and 355 meet up with Dr. Mann just as the Israeli soldier woman burns down Mann's lab. Thus setting up the main plot for the series: Yorick, Agent 355, Dr. Mann, and Ampersand making their way across the country to Mann's other lab in San Francisco, to hopefully find out what protected Yorick-- and maybe even make them immune.

The second story, "Cycles," sees the group falling off a train in Ohio (yay!) and encountering an almost utopian community of women... but all, of course, is not as it seems. Also, the Amazons catch up to them.

Like I said, there's no super-clever structure stuff again, but it is pretty consistently enjoyable. Yorick is a wise-cracking protagonist who makes a lot of pop culture references-- he's right out of a Joss Whedon show-- but he works well enough. Agent 355 is a bit inscrutable, but good for a joke, and Dr. Mann is one of the most beautiful women in comics for reasons I can't quite explain. There's some good laughs, though a few too many moments where people are able to give long important speeches in tense situations. (Which is really only a thing you can pull off in comics, where everyone literally does stay still while someone talks.)

There are a couple problematic bits. For a super-spy, Agent 355 sure does let schmucky old Yorick get the drop on her one too many times. How did she fight America's enemies abroad with reactions like this? And though I understand that things are tight, would you really send only one agent with the last man alive? You'd guard that guy ridiculously! Also I can't decide if I like the angry feminist characters or not.

On the other hand, there are some nice little moments that make the whole thing work. My favorite one here is when Yorick runs into an ex-supermodel. What does she do now? For canned goods, she rounds up men's corpses in a dump truck.

Speaking of which, there's a great text page after the first issue: "Welcome to the UNMANNED World." It lays out just exactly how devastating such a gendercide would be: not just 48% of the world population, but 495 of Fortune 500 CEOs, 99% of landowners, 95% of pilots, truck drivers, and ship captains. Almost no military officers are left. This is the real success of Y: The Last Man, I think. Getting us to reflect on how male-dominated our world still is, despite whatever pretensions we might have to the contrary.