Saturday, August 30, 2008

Justice Society of America #18 Review

Writer: Geoff Johns
Penciller: Dale Eaglesham

This issue continues the "One World, Under Gog" story line, but unfortunately lacks the charm or wonder of the previous issue. One major reason is that the story is told through the eyes of Hawkman, who I think was trying to come across as a tough soldier, but really came across as a dangerous psychopath. As in previous issues, the JSA are in Africa, and Gog, who last issue wiped out most of the disease in Africa, in this issue he intends to wipe out war. He focuses on fighting the Union of Congolese Patriots, an actual group well known for their use of child soldiers and killing of peacekeepers. The JSA and Gog fight them, one JSA member is killed and then Gog turns the UCP members into trees.

This is actually a very strange issue. I think the Johns is trying to say something about war, but I'm not sure what he's trying to get at, and don't like what I think I understood. First, we have a very long debate between Hawkman and Jay Garrick, in which Garrick has to stop Hawkman from killing an unconscious UCP soldier. Sorry? I find it a bit unbelievable that the JSA would include even a single member that would be capable of killing an unconscious prisoner of war. What is even more puzzling is that Garrick doesn't persuade him using the argument that prisoners of war shouldn't be executed. Instead, Garrick argues that the JSA is in Africa representing the United States, and can't be seen to be killing people. One would think that any member of an orgainisation such as the JSA would be immediately expelled if they were ever to seriously consider killing an unconscious prisoner.

The story goes on in this strange way. Eventually Gog turns the UCP soldiers into trees, which, as Superman points out, is tantamount to killing them. Rather than ask Gog to turn them back, however, Hawkman actually implicitly threatens Garrick and Scott who want to turn them back. This is bizarre. Not only is Hawkman a potential war criminal, but he is an insubordinate one. What is going on here? Then, suddenly, David Reid, the newest JSA member, yells out that the UCP soldiers are like monsters and can't be treated like everyone else, but is killed before he can kill more than a few UCP members. At that point, Gog, who seems to have the ability to resurrect people, if only as his stewards, turns him into Magog from the Kingdom Come story, only with no pants.

The debate among the JSA is so bizarre because it would seem these issues were settled years ago with the Geneva Convention. The JSA, which is supposed to be a superhero society, is seen to want to behave in ways that would have any American soldier courtmartialed. Finally, when Gog starts ending violence by turning people into trees, barely gets any sort of negative reaction from the JSA. The issue is narrated by Hawkman, who wants to kill the prisoners and cut down even the trees, who sounds only slightly less insane than Moore's Rorschach. Moreover, very little context is given as to what is a real world conflict, giving the reader no sense of why the JSA might suddenly have turned into costumed vigilantes out to kill African soldiers except that they are "the bad guys".

One serious problem here is that the sense that somehow their battle might be so desperate it warrants killing is completely undermined by the fact that they are a group of superheroes fighting a group of normal human beings. No matter how bad they might be, the JSA has already won the battle, just by showing up. They have Superman, for goodness sake, and he could just inhale and blow them all away if they wanted to. There is a complete implausibility in even calling it a war when it is superheroes against normal people. Moreover, they have a god with them who is nearly omnipotent. This isn't a war in any meaningful sense, and the JSA just comes across as killers.

Some of the ramifications of Gog's previous gifts are starting to come to light. There is a nice scene in which Damage uses a Japanese-English dictionary to ask Judomaster on a date, which he now feels he can do because his face is no longer mutilated. Doctor Midnite is realising that he has lost many of his powers when he regained his sight, and Citizen Steel is so desperate for a miracle, he has become almost oblivious to what is going on around him. These are some good character moments that recall the power of the previous issue, but ultimately, they cannot redeem it from the bizarre mess concerning the UCP.

I'm honestly not sure what happened here. When a giant million-year-old god starts rampaging about, turning people into trees, one would think the response of Earth would be to seriously worry about what he was planning to do with his power. Instead, the JSA decides to join in the killing. This is just a weird issue, and I hope it can be forgotten very quickly now that Magog has appeared on the scene.

C+

Final Crisis: Superman Beyond 3D #1 Review

Writer: Grant Morrison
Penciller Doug Mahnke

With Superman Beyond, we see the flipside of Grant Morrison's writing. Two weeks ago, he produced one of the best comic books in recent years, Final Crisis #3. Superman Beyond, however, is a book of loopy and impenetrable madness. Sometimes Morrison gets so engrossed in his own love of language that he simply stops making any sense, and that tendency is epitomised in this book that has a lot of interesting ideas, but gets lost in its own opacity. This book doesn't make sense in the way that Heidigger doesn't make any sense. The words mean nothing, while the author clearly thinks they do, and the reader is left having simply no idea what the author is talking about. I love Morisson's writing, partly because he is so ambitious, but one of the problems with ambition is that, when it fails, it fails spectacularly.

This book introduces what should be termed Morrison's metaphysics of the Monitors. The Monitors, it seems, are in fact extremely large. When we saw the Monitors looking at the orerary in Final Crisis #1, it appeared that they were looking at some sort of image of the Multiverse. Not so. Apparently, in fact, the Monitors somehow exist outside of the multiverse, to whom the entire multiverse is about the size of a building. The Monitors started as completely indistinct, but the introduction of narrative in the Multiverse, which formed itself, has changed them substantially. Instead of being an abstract "Monitor", they instead formed an entire civilization of distinct Monitors including a very evil one named Mandrakk who was trapped inside of a sepulchre. Now, Mandrakk has escaped, and is hunting the Monitor Zillo Valla, using nano-technology, which for Monitors, are immensely powerful ships. They chase Valla and the four Supermen she has recruited (including Superman, Ultra-Man, the Overman and Dr. Manhattan) through several alternate Eaths before they reach Limbo, a land ruled by a jester with glasses named Merryman.

In Limbo, nothing happens, except there is a library with a single book that is infinitely heavy because it was written by a monkey and contains every possible book (presumably it was written by one of the infinite monkeys on infinite typewriters). Superman reads the book and finds out the history of the Monitors, but before they can escape from Limbo. They learn that the universe was formed in the following way:

"Monitor makes a concept to contain the plan! Monitor examination reveals within terrifiying, unforeseen complexities and contradictions! Magnification reveals a structure of infinitesimal rippling manifolds upon whose surface intricate germlike processes thrive and multiply!"

Does that make sense to anyone? I don't think so. It's just nonsense. What I think Morrison may be trying to get at here is the postmodern idea of order imposed on chaos through narrative, however, when placed inside of a narrative, it just becomes gibberish. The stuff about stories an infinitely heavy book containing an infinite number of stories (which is just one story) is just all over the place in terms of what he is trying to say (all happening, of course, in Limbo, in which nothing ever happens. i.e. there is no narrative). In Superman Beyond, Morrison has lost complete control of his medium.

There is a real danger here in what Morrison is doing, as well, for the entire DC universe. When the New Gods were introduced, they were intended to be immensely powerful gods, who were to the DC universe what gods are in a polytheistic culture. Monitors appear to be taking on something of this role as well, being so large that the entire multiverse fits in a large jar. Such immensely powerful characters have never really fit well in DC, and there has been a lot of difficulty figuring out what to do with them. Now there appear to be a whole new class of gods, who are somehow connected to the universe (and to Superman), and now they will have the problem of trying to fit these incredibly powerful beings in. The problem with characters of this level of power is that they have a tendency to overwhelm the story, or, if they don't, render the stories implausible because they should overwhelm the story.

Something needs to be said about the 3D images as well. In general, I find 3D a lot of fun. However, in this book it doesn't work at all. One problem is that, given how difficult or rather impossible to follow this book is, it needs several readthroughs to make any sense. However, the 3D here would given anyone trying to do that a headache. Also, 3D using red and blue glasses works well if one's images include little actual red or blue. However, Superman's costume is red and blue, and just flashes back and forth when looking at it through the glasses. Also, for some reason the 3D work on this book is incomplete. It is sometimes 3D and sometimes not, which makes me think that somehow the book was never really finished. On some message boards, people were asking where they can get a 2D version, and I understand why.

Morrison has another issue to sort all of this out, and I hope he will, but right now, Superman Beyond is a huge mess. Morrison always has good ideas, and he clearly has put a lot of them into Superman beyond, but there is no sense of control here.

C+

Superman #679 Review

Writer: James Robinson
Penciller: Renato Guedes

James Robinson has the unfortunate task of entering the Superman franchise right as Geoff Johns is writing some of the best Superman stories the book has ever seen over in Action Comics. He also has been tasked with writing about a lame villain, Atlas, when Johns is fleshing out the arch-nemesis Braniac over in the other book. However, not all comic books need to be monumental events. Sometimes, it is worthwhile just to write fun stories about Superman, and here Robinson is succeeding. In the last issue, Atlas was introduced, and he wasn't very interesting. However, in that issue, Superman wasn't very interesting either, and had almost no dialogue.

A lot of the problems with the last issue have been cleared up here, and Robinson is clearly having a lot of fun with the characters in the Superman family. The strange reference to Zatanna has been cleared up, and while the payoff is simply that Lois is jealous of the all-powerful super-magician in fishnets, the scene with her and Clark at breakfast is a nice moment. Superman is living is such a world of walking metaphors that it is actually a little refreshing to see Lois get a little jealous of one of them (of course, the one she should really be jealous of is Wonder Woman, seeing that Clark ends up married to her in about half of DC's possible futures). Robinson made a bit of a mistake in not giving us any of Superman's characterization until this issue, but here, he nails it.

The other characters are very interesting as well. Jimmy comes across, as usual, as somewhere between an insecure kid and a sharp investigative journalist. He spends his time between worrying about Superman losing the fight to Atlas and trying to figure out who the strange shadow (in a baseball cap?) is on the roof of a building. The relationship between Supergirl and Superman is developed, and we can really see their devotion to each other, both because they are family and because they are the last survivors of their planet. She rushes off to save him, and the two of them are so busy protecting each other, they almost get in each other's way. There is a really awesome moment in which we see Supergirl hanging out with her pet pride of...lions? Yes, lions. I guess when you are invulnerable you can have pet lions, and this is a really great idea. We know she loves cats, so having a pride of pet lions makes perfect sense. The funny thing is that from the looks on the lions face, it's not entirely clear what they think of her, but that's okay. Having a pet with contempt for you half of the time is part of the fun of having a cat.

There is also an interesting scene between Lana Lang and one of her minions at Lex Corp. DC has been trying to figure out to do with the third wheel of the Superman-Lois-Lana tricycle ever since Superman and Lois got married back in 1996, especially given the popularity of the character in the Smallville television show. Having her be the tough, corporate lady is an interesting choice, which makes some sense as she is the former first lady. Here we see that toughness as she stands up to her contemptuous minion and tries to protect Superman using her resources. Unfortunately, she is fired from Lex Corp in this issue in a not-especially-plausible contract dispute, so I hope they don't abandon what is an interesting direction for the character. However, the characterization here is very believable given her recent direction in the franchise.

Finally, of course, we have the introduction of Krypto to save the day at the end of the book. With this moment, Robinson abandons any pretense that this will be an epic Superman story, but that is all right. It is nice to see a master protected by his dog, and Krypto is a character who has always been potentially silly, but clearly represents something important to fans. When he was wiped out in order to make Superman the last Kryptonian in Crisis on Infinite Earths, so many fans rejected his annihilation that they simply refused to accept his removal as canon. This refusal to accept the canonicity of stories actually has come to be known as "Krypto-revisionism", named after the fan rebellion at the removal of this dog, and has been widely used in other instances of fan-rebellion, such as the rejection of Highlander 2. Krypto is, for whatever reason, an important part of the Superman mythos, and I am glad for it. One of the best things about this story is the way we see that Superman isn't alone, but is constantly surrounded by a family and even pets who care for him. I look forward to a Krypto story next issue. It's been a while.

The fight with Atlas is becoming interesting, despite having gone on for two issues now. Somehow, Atlas is super-strong and able to defeat Superman. This reminds me somewhat of the fight with Doomsday, in which a character that comes out of nowhere is the one who finally (apparently) kills Superman. I admit, despite really not liking the character last issue, this one left me intrigued as to who this character is, and I hope there is some explanation beyond the silly one from last issue.

Overall, then, this is a good book. It is not as strong or epic as Action Comics, but this book has finally found its stride. It is a nice, even occasionaly cute, adventure story about Superman. There's nothing wrong with that.

B

Thunderbolts #123 Review

Writers: Christos N. Gage
Penciller: Fernando Blanco

Marvel's most disfunctional superhero team finally gets involved in the Secret Invasion by attacking the Skrulls in Washington. In doing so, they provide us with one of the most fun superhero comics to be written in recent years, and Gage shows us that he has complete understanding of the Thunderbolts franchise after only two issues. At the end of Secret Invasion #1, Captain Marvel attacked Thunderbolts Mountain, but instead of killing the Thunderbolts, Norman Osborn uses a little pop psychology to undermine his confidence. From the Captain Marvel comic, we know that te Skrull Captain Marvel's encoding didn't quite work, and he really believed he is Captain Marvel. Delivering a great line, "I know something about not being sure if you're really pink...or green", Osborn persuades him to instead attack his own Skrull allies.

One of the nice thing about Gage's run, as opposed to Ellis's run, is that Gage seems to be having a lot of fun with the idea of supervillains in charge, whereas Ellis's run sometimes came across as cynical and even a little mean spirited. Here, the characters are gleefully sociopathic, working together partly because they have to and partly because it's fun. Almost every character is completely off their rocker, but Gage has the remarkable ability to make is seem as though the team and even the effectiveness of the team make perfect sense. Osborn comes across as an incredibly effective leader, even (or especially) of madmen, whose broken psychology makes them easier to manipulate than ordinary people with complex desires. Pulling out an automatic rife, he declares "We're at war", and they head into battle.

The battle is, quite simply, hilarious. Penance of course inflicts pain on himself in order to destroy a Skrull ship. Osborne decides to ram one of the Skrull ships, which may not be the tactically most sound decision, but is certainly the most fun. Venom is dropped into a sea of Skrulls, and of course enjoys eating as many of them as he possibly can, but may end up eating some civilians as well. Bullseye acts like he's a little kid in an arcade game, and is happy for the chance to have an "unsupervised field trip" in which he can murder as many Skrulls (and even some of Osborn's troops) as possible. Everyone is utterly convinced that Swordsman's sister is a Skrull, but they let it pass because they are useful in the fight. Radioactive Man nearly explodes. Moonstone decides to betray humanity in exchange for power. Finally, Osborne sees a bunch of Spider Clones, and the maniacal Green Goblin laugh returns as he prepares to lose his mind again, which seems to happen on a regular basis.

While Grant Morisson is exploring the depths of evil and its meaning in Final Crisis, Gage here is examining the other side. He is making evil fun. Somehow, though, he manages to avoid the mean-spirited satire of books like Preacher or even Ellis's run, and instead manages to turn the chaotic nature of sociopaths into the premise for a truly manic glee. The madness of the Thunderbolts has been fully unleashed, and seeing each character rampaging about, doing more damage to the Skrulls than anyone else gives the same sense of fun that one has when destroying sandcastles or knocking over blocks. Somehow, this book isn't mean-spirited. Gage loves writing this book, and it comes across on every page.

I also want to compliment Blanco's art. He has a lot of fun drawing alien technology and high-tech backgrounds, and there is plenty of opportunity to do that here. He provides a real sense of the layout inside Osborne's ship, for example, and it comes across as a real place. The characters are well drawn, and the cackly look on Bullseye's face is classic. I have two little quibbles, though. Is Moonstone supposed to look completely naked from behind? I know her suit is white, but there is more than one scene where I had to do a bit of a double-take because the lighting makes it look like she's wearing no clothing. Also, Blanco seems a little uncomfortable with architecture, and even though they are fighting in a city, there are few buildings. In the large spreadpage, you'll notice that he carefully puts any buildings behind alien ships, while the most visible part of the ground is a field.

This is one of the best Thunderbolts comics in years. I can't remember enjoying one as much since the origin story of Radioactive Man a few years ago. Gage is having an absolute blast writing the characters and I am having just as much fun reading about them.

A-

Final Crisis: Rogues' Revenge #2 Review

Writer: Geoff Johns
Penciller: Scott Kolins

While I wasn't very impressed with the first issue of Rogues' Revenge, this issue is much more interesting. Part of why it is so strong is that the apparent original premise, of the rogues seeking revenge for Inertia having "forced" them to kill Bart Allen plays no real role in this issue. That is fortunate, as that premise is really absurd and makes the characters seem like buffoons. Instead, this issue focuses on Libra's attempts to compel the Rogues to join his new Society of Supervillains, in this case by kidnapping the father of the apparent leader of the Rogues, Captain Cold.

However, Captain Cold doesn't want to kill his father. You see, his father was an abusive monster, and Captain Cold has been looking for him for years to kill him. This is not one of Libra's shining moments. Libra had him kidnapped by a group of "replacement" Rogues, given the Rogues' powers but none of their experience. However, rather than simply thumb their noses at the new Rogues, the original Rogues decide to kill their replacements. They show up where they are holding Captain Cold's father, and murder all of them. The murders of the replacements are brutal, though nowhere near as brutal as the murder of Martian Manhunter in Final Crisis: Requiem. It is good to see that Johns takes murder seriously enough to make it a grisly business.

One of the best elements of this book is the Johns does not shy away from the way in which evil characters think, while at the same time making them seem human rather than as pure caricature. The Rogues are very angry about being "replaced", something which Libra had probably banked on when he recreated them. Their violent response is consistent with that offense, and they don't have a moment of pity for their victims. Moreoever, Libra, who at the end has kidnapped Weather Wizard's son, sees the threatening of family members of those he wants to recruit as par for the course. There is no sense that he feels anything like remorse for these kidnappings, and that such kidnappings are for him just standard fare. His ultimate plan is not to destroy the Rogues, but to recruit them. However, because everyone in this book is evil, recruitment does not need to be voluntary. Duress will do.

A secondary story in this book is that Zoom is training Inertia to be his own, new "Kid Flash". His mentorship is nothing what like what one would normally consider mentorship. He clearly despises Inertia, as he presumably despises anyone, and is only training him because Libra wants him to be so trained. Why has yet to be revealed, but somehow speedsters are important to Libra's plan because they have the power to undo the victory of evil that is somehow at the heart of Final Crisis. Despite this, he doesn't consider himself a disciple of Libra as, for example, the Human Flame does. He is constantly scheming, and somehow working for Libra is just another step in his own aggrandisement. This story shows the way in which evil warps even otherwise healty relationships, like mentor and pupil.

This story, then, fits very well into the overall Final Crisis theme in which evil has somehow been victorious in the war among the gods, and Johns, like Morrison, is doing a good job of developing stories in which evil is the main theme. It isn't as brutal as the evil presented in Final Crisis #3, but everything these characters do says more about villainy and how it affects people. A particularly interesting moment is when Captain Cold decides not to kill his father but have Heat Wave do it instead. Does he not do it because he still has some sort of residual concern for his father, or because he has so much contempt for him he will have someone else kill him? The answer is somewhere in the middle, and that confusion of goals is very much a part of what happens to people when they have lost their moral compass.

I am really enjoying the art in this book. The characters are not very well defined, and that realy works as often the sceenes seem almost surreal. However, what is going on with the raindrops? Kolins has to be the worst drawer of raindrops of any artist in comic history. When his characters are dripping, it makes them look like melting wax statues. On the other hand, he draws fire exceptionally well, and the scene in which Heat Wave murders Pyro is so well done, one can almost feel the heat. He is definitely the right choice for this book.

So, this is a very strong book, and I feel sorry that we will only have one more issue. The characterization of the Rogues is very good, and the way in which villains can clash with each other is an interesting theme. Next month, it will all be over, and I am genuinely interested in seeing whether or not Libra will be successful in his "recruiting" of the Rogues.

B+

Skaar: Son of Hulk #3 Review

Writer: Greg Pak
Pencillers: Ron Garney, Butch Guice (backup)

I've been doing my best to give Skaar: Son of Hulk the benefit of the doubt. I really have. Pak's run on the Hulk was my favourite run ever, and I especially loved his world of Sakaar, where Son of Hulk takes place. However, Pak is missing one of the most important rules of writing a new story: you need to tell your readers what it is about. With an established name like Captain America, you can start a story with intrigue so as to confuse the reader. With Skaar: Son of Hulk, you need a hook and a premise, and you need to establish it fast. After three issues of Skaar: Son of Hulk, I still have no idea what this story will about, or even who its main characters will be. This is the same mistake that Joss Whedon's show Firefly made, taking so long to reveal its central premise that the show was cancelled before it could be revealed.

Make no mistake: I believe that Pak will eventually create a good story here, but he needs to get on with it. There is promise that this will happen next issue, when they reach Prophet Rock and find out who Skaar "really is", whatever that might mean. However, because Pak is writing half of his issues as back story, his main story is only half an issue long each month, and this week, we basically have a fight with Princess Omaka, the woman with no arms from last issue. In it, she tries to kill Skaar, who tears off one of her artificial "arms" (she's replaced them with swords). She plans to kill him, so history doesn't repeat itself and this version of the Hulk doesn't do any more damage to the world. However, they are attacked by Wildebots, and Skaar kills most of them single-handedly. Impressed, she heads off to Prophet Rock with him.

Despite being just as confused as to what is going on this issue as I was in the first issue, there are some very nice elements to Pak's story. I'm reminded that Incredible Hercules is currently also being written by Pak. In both of these books, he is able to write according to a different kind of logic: in Incredible Hercules, it is the logic of mythology, and in Son of Hulk, it is the logic of barbarism. The characters in this book all think very differently than how we normally think, but their logic makes sense given the violent world in which they live. The secondary story about Axeman Bone includes three seperate attempts to assassinate him, which he simply repels with violence. In the world in which he lives, cruelty is utterly ubiquitous, and he considers himself virtuous largely because he has been successful. It is the morality of Agamemnon, and Pak again shows his interest in classical civilization here. Omaka has something of an opposite reaction. She wants to kill Skaar because she wants to stop the endless cycle of bloodshed that destroyed Sakaar City. However, she is also a product of it, and when Skaar destroys the Wildebots, she cannot help but think that his strength might be a sign that he actually is some sort of promised saviour. This logic of barbarism, in which strength and virtue are synonymous, permeates the whole story, and Pak is extremely good at creating stories with their own sense of logic.

I realise there has been a lot of criticism of the art in Son of Hulk, largely due to the lack of an inker. I believe, however, that it really fits the story that Pak is trying to tell. The backgrounds and characters look like they are out of an old adventure storybook, like one of those nineteenth-century novels for boys, with a pencilled drawing above each chapter. Although this may be just my own sense of nostalgia, the sketched out images carry with them a real sense of adventure and tension, like the artist is drawing the image, but leaving the reader to fill in the details. Given how horrible the inking was on Mighty Avengers #17 this week, I have to say that I don't really miss it.

This is the least successful issue of Skaar so far, largely because Pak really needs to get on with his story. However, Pak continutes to do what he do best, which is lay out a world with its own barbaric logic, one in which a character like the Hulk could not help but play a pivotal role.

C+

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The New Avengers #44 Review

Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Penciller: Billy Tan

This is an interesting comic book, because it promises to be about one thing but then ends up being about something else. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; Hitchcock did the same thing in Psycho. While this book is overall not successful, the transition here is also effective. The story begins putatively to be another story of the Illuminati, a collection of especially clever or powerful superheroes who caused the Skrull invasion in the first place by detonating a bomb in the Skrull capital. However, half way through, we realise that it is all a ruse, and after they are all slaughtered, we learn that they were only clones. At that point, the story becomes about how the Skrulls tricked a Reed Richards clone into providing them with the means of becoming human while remaining completely undetectable.

The transition is actually quite a shocking and interesting moment. The Illuminati are sitting around, talking about the possible ramifications of their attack on the Skrull homeworld. Bendis uses this conversation for exposition for anyone who may not have read the Illuminati series. However, as they discuss ways of detecting Skrulls, they realise they have no powers. Realising that they have no memory of ever escaping from the Skrulls, they come to the conclusion that they never escaped, and they stare at each other in silence until a sweating Doctor Strange says, "I -- I think we're still -- I think we're still here". Having the characters and the readers come to the realisation that all is not as it seems at exactly the same moment is very powerful, and this section of the book is very well written. At that point, Xavier reveals himself to be a Skrull and the rest of the Illuminati are massacred, when we realise that they were all clones.

At this point, the book turns to its less successful second half. The Skrulls realise that their clones of Reed Richards will understand how they can appear undetectable, so they stage ruses to fool his clones into revealing how. In one first ruse, the Skrulls murder a clone of Reed's wife, Susan, and then threaten to murder either a clone of or a Skrull disguised as his son, Franklin. Why, exactly, does Bendis think we want to see this story? It is a pointlessly nasty and violent ruse, and not remotely entertaining. In order to tell stories of people watching their families get murdered, one needs to have some sort of dramatic justification or message. So far, Secret Invasion has been all hype and back story with virtually no payoff, and this reads like Bendis trying to hammer home what meanies the Skrulls are when we already know that their invasion is a flop. If you're going to pull out the big guns of having a character (or even the clone of a character) watch his family die, you'd better have a good reason.

There is some oddness to how the Skrulls are portrayed here. For one thing, are their two races of Skrulls, one really short race and one really tall race? I don't remember ever reading about that. However, there are a number of Skrulls here that are literally half of the height of the other Skrulls, making them look like deformed midgets or maybe green Harry Potter elves. One has the sense that Tan is trying here to capture the feeling of Frankenstein and Igor, in which creepy experiments are performed by their creepy henchmen, whom we know to be creepy because they are so misshapen. It would be an interesting idea if Skrull culture required Skrulls to take on the height of their station, which they could do as shapeshifters, but as it stands, having characters of such completely different heights leaves me scratching my head.

Another unfortunate aspect of this story is that it is trying to flesh out what we meant by "using Reed's brain" in Secret Invasion #5. I had hoped that somehow they were literally using his body in some creepy way in order to make their plans work or maybe one of his inventions. It seemed to imply that Reed was somehow responsible for the Skrull technology. Instead, all it meant was that they got the idea from one of Reed's clones. That's unfortunate, because it takes away from some of the dramatic promise that Reed was somehow responsible for the invasion above and beyond his role in the Illuminati. Reed Richards has a tendency to incredible arrogance, as we've seen before in the Authoritative Action or Civil War story lines, and the possibility that one of his grand schemes or inventions was used in the Skrull invasion was very interesting. Instead, all that was meant was that they got the idea from a clone - hardly something that might follow from one of the character's weaknesses.

As such, this is an interesting comic, with a great moment of transition. However, the comic is ultimately bleak and includes a pointless scene in which a man watches his family die. Moreover, the plot point of the Secret Invasion story the book is supposed to develop is suprisingly uninteresting. This book doesn't work, though it does deserve some credit for what it was trying to do.

C+

The Mighty Avengers #17 Review

Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Penciller: Khoi Pham

Brian Michael Bendis continues to use the Avengers comics in order to establish the back story of how the Skrull Invasion came to be. In the last issue, he focused on Elektra, and how she was replaced as a Skrull. That was unfortunate, in that Elektra was not even an Avenger. At least this issue of the Might Avengers focuses on Hank Pym, and what happened to the first Skrull who tried to replace him. Unfortunately, what this story demonstrates is that Bendis really has run out of back story to tell. All of those who were replaced (except Jarvis) have already had their stories fleshed out, and this issue doesn't really reveal anything new. Instead, it is more comparable to New Avengers #43, in which we discover the fate of the Skrull posing as Captain America, who didn't even realise he was a sleeper agent when he was murdered.

Unfortunately, this issue is not as good as New Avengers #43, as it lacks any real sense of tragedy. The Skrull involved is aware that she is a Skrull, and therefore, one does not have the sense of confusion and dark irony that that issue brought. Moreover, the Skrull impersonating Henry Pym is not motivated by heroism as the Captain America Skrull was, but rather by Henry Pym's weaknesses. Henry Pym's insecurities are influencing the Skrull, making her unable to believe in the success in the invasion. As a result, she starts to have a breakdown, insisting on seeing the queen, and as a result, the other Skrulls kill her. However, there is nothing heroic about this, and therefore there is no tragedy. It is really just a pathetic story, which shows a real contempt for the character of Hank Pym, who basically is hard to imitate because he is such a loser.

It is really unfortunate that no one has ever properly rehabilitated Hank Pym, who has potential to be one of the most interesting characters in the Avengers. The problem is that the character struck his wife back in Avengers #213, and is therefore can never be properly rehabilitated without it appearing as though spousal abuse is being condoned. What Pym needs is a retcon, that explains away his hitting his wife as some sort of mind-control or clone. This would be an extreme solution, but it is the only one that would enable the character to be redeemed without at the same time excusing his violence. Such a retcon was attempted in Avengers Forever, in which his paranoid and violent behaviour was induced by Immortus (who later did the same to Tony Stark turning him into a murderer), but it didn't stick. However, without such a solution, no story that makes Pym look heroic will ever be successful, and that lack of heroism is what makes this story pathetic rather than tragic.

Instead, Pym is portrayed as an insane loser, allowing the authors to heap abuse on the character, making the reader wonder why they are writing about him at all if they despise him so much. Millar picked up this theme in the Ultimates series, in which his version of Pym (who is a different character) was constantly unemployed and nearly beat Janet to death. This book has Dugan, apparently speaking for Bendis, telling the Pym Skrull what a loser Pym is. Watching a writer abuse his characters induces in me the same reaction one has when seeing someone publicly humiliated; it makes me squirm and feel uncomfortable, and not be interested in reading the story.

The art in this art is very weak. It suffers from some of the same problems as Hulk #5. There are virtually no bakgrounds in any of the scenes, providing little sense of setting. At best we get some tile or some trees. The faces of the characters seem almost goofy, with facial expressions that are flat and often do not even match what the character is saying. The faces also seem droopy, like the characters have just returned from the dentist. This may be the result of bad collaboration between Pham and his inkers, who are highlighting the wrong aspects of people's facial expressions, but everyone in this book looks a little sedated.

The one positive aspect of the book is that Bendis is starting to develop the ways in which the Skrulls, because they need to copy their targets on a cellular level, risk being unable to shed the personalities of the people they imitate. It is like one of those stories where an agent goes deep undercover and ends up sympathizing with those he plans to betray. With Captain Marvel, this story has been developed, but it is unfortunate to see that this good idea is being used mainly with throw away characters who are killed by the end of the issue.

Overall, then, I do not recommend this comic. It comes across as very mean, showing the kind of contempt for a character that ruins a story.

C

Friday, August 22, 2008

Robin #177 Review

Writer: Fabian Nicieza
Penciller: Freddie Williams II

Robin #177 is the third Robin book in less than a month, which is quite a break-neck pace for a monthy comic. Fortunately, it doesn't seem to be really hurting the books' quality. Curiously, despite clearly tying into R.I.P., it is not advertised as being a part of the R.I.P. story. I can only assume that this story is taking place after the events of R.I.P., given that it is part one of a story called "Search for a Hero", presumably a reference to the retirement of Bruce Wayne at the end of the still unfinished R.I.P. storyline.

One of the nice things about this issue is that we get to see the kind of stories that the Batman franchise is planning to tell in the absense of Batman. Since he is retired, Gotham is beginning to descend into chaos and gang warfare. Now, the heroes that are left are trying to rebuild some sort of order in Gotham, and they are trying to find their place in the post-Batman world. As a premise, this is really quite interesting, and reminds me of World Without a Superman, No Man's Land and House of M. They were extended premises that allowed the writers to explore ideas that they might not otherwise be able to use. I'd be quite happy to see what the authors do with their opporunity to tell stories about what the various members of the bat family do without their leader, and the sorts of shenanigans that the villains get up to.

Here we see a confrontation between two Robins, Jason Todd and Tim Drake. Jason has a plan to consolidate all of the gangs of Gotham, but, as usual, his plan involves many innocent people getting killed. Tim tries to shut him down, but is injured protecting someone from one of Jason's many stray bullets. He is saved by yet a third Robin, Red Robin, a character we have seen only a couple of times before. In the Kingdom Come story, Red Robin was the Dick Grayson of the future, having abandoned his Nightwing persona and returned to serve as a latter-day Robin. In Countdown, Jason Todd himself became Red Robin when he served under a far more violent Batman of another Earth. As I am not hopeful for Nightwing's fate after R.I.P. and Red Robin is clearly not Jason, this is an interesting mystery. Clearly there are other people hoping to take up Robin's mantle, and I look forward to finding out who this new Robin is.

There is also more development of the relationship between Robin and Spoiler. Tim has reached a point where he simply feels so betrayed by Spoiler that he can't even bring himself to talk to her. This is clearly heartbreaking for Spoiler, since she is still in love him, but clearly feels guilty for betraying him twice in the last year. Spoiler is a great character, and I hope they repair the relationship enough that she can still feature as a regular. However, I appreciate the way that Nicieza is reminding the audience that dishonesty, even with noble intentions, has consequences. If they are to repair their relationship, even to return to friendship, there is a lot of work to be done and a lot of meaningful stories to be told.

The ending of the issue is quite interesting. Spoiler apparently hires Scarab, the same assassin hired to kill Tim back in the War Drums story, to kill Tim. Unless Nicieza has completely lost his mind, this is obviously either not really Stephanie or it is some sort of double-cross. However, it is an interesting plot point, and I look forward to it playing out. It shows us that Stephanie will be an important part of the upcoming story arc, and brings in a new level of danger for Robin by bringing in the person who nearly killed him four years ago. It is also good to see there are going to be negative consequences for the money that Robin paid to Penguin last issue.

Overall, then, this is a very good book. It is not as powerful as either of the R.I.P. crossover stories, but lets us know that Nicieza knows what he wants to do with the character after the departure of Batman. It promises not only to be a worthwhile story in itself, but promises that the Batman franchise has some interesting stories to tell about Gotham after Batman.

B

Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds #1 Review

Writer: Geoff Johns
Penciler: George Pérez

There is a lot of exposition in Legion of Three Worlds #1, and I didn't mind any of it. Like a lot of DC Comics readers, I've never really followed the Legion of Super Heroes. It takes place a thousand years in the future and is largely self-contained, so following what happens to them is not really necessary to following the rest of DC comics. Moreover, a series of ill-advised reboots has made them even harder to follow. There have been three legions, recreated after both the Crisis on Infinite Earths and Zero Hour stories, meaning that most of what we might have cottoned on to by accident by following other comics over the decades may be largely irrelevant.

Despite my almost complete lack of familiarity with the franchise, I feel like I understand what is happening in Legion of Three Worlds. A thousand years in the future, Earth has become a mostly xenophobic planet, afraid of aliens whom they fear may be taking over the planet. In order to combat that xenophobia, a wealthy alien disguised as a human, R. J. Brande, brought together a group of young aliens inspired by Superboy, the world's greatest alien. They have been saving the world, but have largely not been successfully fighting xenophobia. The government tries to disband the Legion as being useless and outdated, but they are saved by the last minute intervention of Brande, who is promptly assassinated and revealed to be an alien. The Legion made more sense to me after this issue than it ever had.

While all of this has been occurring, a villain, who I think is called the Time Trapper, sends Superboy-Prime, a version of Superman from another universe, back in time to destroy the Legion. He is at first very upset to find out that he was not even considered one of the great Superman villains, but discovers that he has inspired the Legion of Super Villains, playing the antithesis of Superboy's role. I know a lot of people hate Superboy-Prime, but I think he is a great concept. He is a completely out of control teenager with the power of the Silver Age Superman, able to destroy entire planets easily (which he has done). He's like the most sociopathic emo kid on your favourite message board, but with superpowers. He makes a fantastic villain because he is so powerful and so uncontrollable, except by the occasional evil mastermind (like Alex Luthor or Sinestro) able to manipulate his puerile rage. In this story, he frees what seem to be most of the supervillains of the future, and is about to lead them against the Legion.

Or, perhaps I should say, against the Legions. Brainiac 5 decides to bring in the two Legions from other Earths, whom I believe are probably those before the two reboots (I may be wrong on this). This makes me incredibly excited to see that George Pérez is drawing the book. He draws crowd scenes of superheroes better than anyone, and drew the original Crisis on Infinite Earths story back in the mid-1980s. If anyone can make three separate versions of the same heroes look distinct, and create exciting battle scenes with literally hundreds of characters, it is Pérez. This story promises to have a fantastic look to it, and I look forward to reading the next issue.

However, Superman has something of another plan. Superboy-Prime has largely been dealt with by throwing large groups of heroes at him. The results have been disastrous. If the Teen Titans hadn't attacked him back in Infinite Crisis, he may never have turned so evil. Superman realises that the best way to deal with Superboy-Prime is probably to try to redeem him. This is an interesting idea on Superman's part. He knows Superboy-Prime very well; after all, it is him from another universe. Moreover, I think he probably actually feels badly for the kid. There but for the grace of God go he. Had things gone a little differently, Superman might not have ended up the hero that he was, and Superboy-Prime's madness is largely the result of the exile he suffered after helping to save the universe in Crisis on Infinite Earths. Superman hopes to redeem Superboy-Prime, and that creates the possibility of a more psychologically rich story than the standard adventure romp.

Of course, in order to do that, he has to try to redeem him while six dozen Legionnaires are trying to pummel him. We all know Pérez draws great battle scenes, not so much redemption scenes. However, Johns is capable of crafting extremely complex stories, and I trust he will find a way to blend the two elements.

I have great faith that this will turn into a great series. If it drew me in, a long-time non-Legion fan, I can only imagine what it does for those who understand the franchise. It is a well crafted book, with all the right elements for an exciting futuristic adventure.

B+

Captain America #41 Review

Writer: Ed Brubaker
Penciler: Steve Epting

Captain America #41 gives us part seventeen of the epic story, "Sharon Carter in the Refrigerator". I kid, of course, but Brubaker's current arc is starting to arouse mine and others' ire at the way that Sharon Carter is being treated in Captain America. She has been a prisoner for over a year now, was stabbed in the womb last issue, and now has apparently lost her baby. Several years ago, Gail Simone famously compiled a list of various violent events that had occurred to female characters in comics called "Women in Refrigerators", titled after Alex DeWitt, Green Lantern's girlfriend who was killed and stuffed in a refrigerator. Many different comic creators responded, ranging from the dismissive ("such things happen to male characters, too"), to a wide variety of possible explanations from sexism to creating drama by harming the lovers of usually-male protagonists. Simone herself decided to remain neutral, leaving the list to speak for itself.

I'd like to give Brubaker the benefit of the doubt. He is responsible for developing one of the most interesting female characters of the last decade, Renée Montoya and generally shows respect for his female characters. Brubaker is one of the few writers who can generally get away with decompression. His attention to detail and ability to write engaging battle scenes and dialogue don't make the reader feel like he should be "get on with it" as one usually does with authors with decompression. I genuinely believe that he is using Carter's captivity for dramatic purposes, and not intending any misogyny. He has put many characters through terrible ordeals, and even killed his protagonist.

However, when dealing with the extended captivity of a female character, a combination of decompression and attention to detail is a terrible combination. Instead, the incarceration of Sharon Carter has become gruelling, endless and far too specific. Moreover, the violence has recently become far too intimate. The addition of specifically female violence, the stabbing of Sharon in the womb and the causing of a miscarriage (something that can only happen to women), has accidently turned this story into the worst refrigerator incident since Karen Page.

Authors often underestimate the danger of violence against women in a visual medium. For whatever reason, many men have a misogynistic streak. There is a part of them that enjoys seeing women hurt. Depictions of violence against women, especially when they become almost constant as in recent Captain America issues and when they are specifically female violence that can only happen to women, are in danger of attracting the wrong sorts of readers and bringing out the worst in the readers they already have. I am in no way arguing for censorship, à la Wertham. I am merely suggesting that Brubaker needs to be more careful.

Unfortunately, the continued torment of Sharon Carter mars what is otherwise a very good book. Early in the book, Falcon and Bucky need to make a very difficult moral decision as to whether or not to allow the Red Skull to capture the Grand Director and to use him as bait. Their solution, "We'll rescue him later", comes across as somewhere between funny and pragmatic. There are other great character moments. Doctor Faustus's explanation for trying to free Sharon Carter makes a sort of sense, as he is so proud of his "work" that he cannot stand to see Sharon harmed. The Red Skull's disgust at being trapped in Lukin's body is starting to drive him a little insane. Finally, Sin's decision to kill the senator so as to prove herself to her father follows perfectly from her character.

Other moments are quite funny. I love the discussion of why on Earth the Red Skull would have a base in Albany. I mean... Albany? Why not just hide out in Hackensack, New Jersey. They decide not to bring S.H.I.E.L.D. into the rescue of Sharon because they don't want to cause Natalia any more trouble (and presumably because Bucky is in love with her), only to find her flying overhead. When the Skull's agents capture the Grand Director and say, "We have captured the flag", I actually laughted out loud.

Brubaker is a great writer, by far one of the best in comics. However, his usual strengths of detailed story-telling are working against him in his continuing torment of Sharon Carter. I usually very much enjoy his detailed, intricate stories. However, this has been going on for far too long. He needs to get on with it.

C+

The Incredible Hercules #120 Review

Writers: Greg Pak and Fred van Lente
Penciller: Rafa Sandoval

Incredible Hercules breaks one of the fundamental rules of crossovers, and is all the better for it: tie-in titles cannot be directly relevant to the main story. In fact, Secret Invasion held to this rule so strictly, that it was hamstringing its tie-ins completely. The main story had so little development that absolutely nothing could develop in any of the other titles. For example, Secret Invasion: Fantastic Four did not even include the rescue of Reed Richards, as that had to occur in the main title. This issue of Incredible Hercules smashes that rule by killing Kly'bn, the Skrull god of stability. Kly'bn is the "He" of "He loves you", the catch-phrase of the Skrull invasion. Their purpose in invading Earth was to absorb Earth into Kly'bn's empire, thereby "saving" it. Now Kly'bn is dead, and the Skrull invasion has thereby lost its purpose. The effect this will (or at least should) have on the Skrull invasion is massive, as it will have completely lost its motivation. Instead, the Skrulls are now fighting for nothing, and their invasion cannot help but fail.

This is a very interesting editorial decision, and I believe a very good one. The Incredible Hercules has set a tone along with Thor as being a story that is really about the gods, treated as mythological characters rather than as simply prehistoric superheroes. As Kly'bn was a god, Incredible Hercules was the perfect place for his demise. Pak handles the Skrull pantheon extremely well, and seems to be very interested in establishing a meaningful if fictitious pantheon. It seems that the Skrull pantheon includes two gods, Kly'bn and Sl'gur't, who represent stability and change, respectively. Kly'bn is the last of a race of Skrulls who were unable to change shape and thereby lost the evolutionary battle with the shape-changing Skrulls who currently run the empire. However, he manages to persuade Sl'gur't, the head of the shape-shifters, that he is necessary in order for the Skrull to maintain their sense of identity. His spouse, Sl'gur't, never maintains the same shape for more than a few minutes. This has the effect of making them gods of what it means to be a nation or even a person, as our ability to change threatens our identity, while our desire to stay the same threatens our growth. As the god of stability, Kly'bn is by nature intolerant, seeking to conform the entire galaxy to his own way of life, nicely tying together mythological reasoning with a comic book narrative.

While there are some very nice mythological elements to this book, other parts could be very confusing. This book seems to forget that, when you tell a shapeshifting story in a visual medium, you have to hold the readers' hand so they can figure out who is who. After a couple reads, I'd say I'm about seventy per cent sure of what happened, but I still feel like I could be wrong. It appears that Mikaboshi pretended to be Sl'gur't and killed her while she was pretending to be Mikaboshi. As such, both of the Skrull gods are now dead, and Mikaboshi will return in a later story to fight Hercules. That could be the case. Perhaps, though, Mikaboshi was always a Skrull? Hrm...maybe. I'm not entirely sure. A couple other scenes that could have used some clarification include Cho looking like he was impaled by a bone, when he was really just hit by it, and an odd scene where Atum eats Sl'gur't who is simultaneously transformed into a creature that looks a lot like Atum. At the end of the day, I think I figured everything out, but a little extra narrative would have gone a long way in clarifying what was going on in a few of these scenes.

However, the mythological story here is a great deal of fun. Atum doesn't seem aware that, when you have a being that embodies change, eating it whole is probably a very bad idea. For some reason, Kly'bn needs to be stabbed with the bone of an elder god, which reminds us that gods usually need to be stabbed by something strange and random (remember Baldur and the mistletoe?). No explanation is given, which would normally be annoying, but it makes sense in a typical myth. Another nice element to the mythological reasoning is the way that the gods see just how much the current battle threatens their own myths and powers. Atum was supposed to consume the gods, but is now dead. Something is "off" about the myths, and the gods are aware of it, bringing an extra sense of dread to the current "God Squad" story arc. Somehow, the conflict between pantheons constitutes a unique kind of threat, one in which the very narratives themselves are in danger.

Overall, then, this is a very good book. Pak does a very good job of telling stories with a mythological framework, rather than a standard superhero one. There are some problems with clarity, but other than that, this is a very well-crafted issue.

B

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Batman #679 Review

Writer: Grant Morrison
Penciller: Tony Daniel

In the latest installment of Batman R.I.P., the entire story is beginning to come together. Moreover, Morrison's entire run is beginning to tie together in a way that shows he knew exactly what he was planning right from his very first issue. We see the return of the Club of Heroes, one of Morrison's more interesting creations, and much of the mystery of the story has been revealed. Batman's insanity is explained and we learn more about the roles of Alfred and, possibly, Thomas Wayne.

Batman has, at this point, completely lost his mind. However, the explanation of this is very interesting. It isn't just that he was injected with drugs in the last issue. Rather, the trigger word Doctor Hurt implanted in his head has somehow "shut off" Bruce Wayne, and Bruce has had to escape into another personality, the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh. This is actually a reasonably plausible explanation, at least in comic book terms. Perhaps it is better to say that it is an intelligible explanation of what has happened to Batman. Before, we just had Batman hallucinating and acting erratically, but none of it made sense. Now it makes some sense. He has created this persona for himself in which he is all-powerful, but lacking the conscience of Bruce Wayne. Now, the Black Glove must face what is in some ways a more powerful and certainly a more dangerous version of Batman, and they almost certainly will not like it.

Some of the red herrings of previous issues have been removed. Alfred is not evil, which is something of a relief. While having Alfred revealed evil would be better than having Thomas Wayne revealed to be evil, that is not exactly a recommendation. Jezebel Jet also seems to not have been involved in the Black Glove, which avoids the cliché of having the hero fall for a duplicitous vixen. Moreover, the possibility that Doctor Hurt may be Thomas Wayne is finally made explicit for all of the readers who didn't read Detective Comics #235 in 1956. Curiously, Doctor Hurt seems to genuinely believe that he is Thomas Wayne, but Alfred does not believe it. That opens up a whole new set of possibilities: is Doctor Hurt insane? Has he had plastic surgery? Is he from Earth-3? It is certainly odd that Alfred would not recognize him if it was really him.

The story is also leading up to its final confrontation, which appears to take place at Arkham Asylum. Nightwing has been brought in for a lobotomy and presumably to serve as bait. The Joker is being brought into the picture, and since Morrison hasn't done very much with the Joker at all, this promises to be very interesting. In the brave but somewhat unsuccessful Batman #663, he gave a prose story centered on the Joker, but one didn't really get a sense form that how he would portray the character. However, the final act at Arkham needs to include the Joker if it is going to truly spell the end of Batman, and I wonder if Doctor Hurt hasn't unleashed more than he can deal with in siding with the Joker, who is not known for keeping his bargains.

There are some very clever moments in this book. The scene with the gargoyles in which they talk about the "grid" around which people grow like vines is a very interesting image, and quickly followed by another replay of Batman's origin, in which Batman is produced by the city in which he lives. The way in which we arrange our lives into patterns and the way in which those patterns shape our lives is an important part of what it is to be human, and the way in which architecture instantiates those patterns is an important insight. Morrison constantly uses architecture as metaphor, and the Batman is so tied with Gotham he is inseparable from it. A nice thing about this scene is that Morrison finds the time to be reflective in the middle of the madness of R.I.P. Every once and a while he takes a chance to step back and remind us of his themes before stepping back into the story.

Moreover, another important theme in this story is theatricality. The characters in Batman are constantly making themselves up as characters. They take the ideal of playing their role extremely literally. As a result, the characters in this story are constantly driven by the role they have chosen to play. Batman is trying to play Zorro. Charlie thinks he is Caligula. The entire story of R.I.P. is based on a Danse Macabre. Everything that the Black Glove does is done primarily for dramatic effect. Do they have any other motivation than to play their parts? How much of our own motivation is often provided by the roles we want to play? Morrison uses theatrical metaphors almost as much as Shakespeare, though with a slightly different purpose. Shakespeare is interested in how we play our roles in a divine drama. Morrison is more interested in how we create our sense of ourselves out of the roles we decide to play. Gotham City provides the ultimate backdrop for him to explore these themes.

This issue is one of the strongest of Morrison's Batman run. It shows he has truly mastered this material. Morrison is starting to bring all of his themes together toward a conclusion that, given the themes, is seeming more and more inevitable. Everyone in this story is playing some sort of character in a play. Plays have conclusions, and with this story, the final act approaches its climax.

A-

Action Comics #868 Review

Writer: Geoff Johns
Penciller: Gary Frank

Geoff Johns continues to produce the finest run on Superman that I have ever read. He is completely reinventing (or rereinventing) the character and his world in a way that is so perfect, it doesn't feel like a revinention. Rather, it feels like this is the way the character should always have been in the first place.

In this story, Johns in reinventing Braniac into one of the greatest single threat Superman has ever faced. Braniac is a more destructive version of the Borg, capturing single cities and individuals, and then wiping out the entire civilization. He seeks "perfection", which was one of the key principles of the Borg, presumably wishing to assimilate all knowledge to himself so that he can encompass the entire universe. That's pretty dangerous. He has captured the bottled city of Kandor, and now is attacking Earth, as it has the two remaining Kryptonians (he must not know about the third or care about Power Girl). It is not enough that he absorb the civilizations; the civilizations must also be exterminated so that he can contain all of the information exclusively.

This book is hinting very strongly that Braniac may, in fact, be responsible for the destruction of Krypton. I'm not sure of how good an idea this is. Tinkering with the origins of DC's greatest characters is always dangerous business, and until now, its destruction has always been a natural disaster. However, it would not fundamentally alter Superman's origin, as Jor-El may have been aware of what was occurring as a result of Braniac's machinations. It would lend much greater emotional weight to one of Superman's arch-nemeses if he was responsible for Krypton's destruction, so if that's the way the story chooses to go, I will not be disappointed.

The sheer power of Braniac takes this story to an epic level. He finally, for the first time ever in comics, emerges from his cocoon to fight Superman. Superman gets to fight the real Brainiac, not a machine or a clone. Moreover, Brainiac is so strong, he makes very short work of Superman. Braniac isn't just highly intelligent and technologically advanced, he is strong as well, meaning that Superman cannot simply beat him by working around his latest plan. When Superman defeats him (as I assume he will), Superman will have accomplished on of his greatest victories ever.

Gary Frank's art in Action Comics is very strong. His facial expressions are some of the best drawn in comics. Sometimes they seem so accurate, I wonder if he isn't working from photographs. The early scenes with Supergirl and Cat Grant are largely funny because of the facial expressions that Frank draws for the various characters. Supergirl's cluelessness at the hostility of Cat would likely not have come across so clearly without Grant's art. Moreover, the almost bored disdain of Brainiac at Superman makes him seem more powerful. Truly powerful people don't often don't express much emotion; they don't have to. Frank manages to bring real life to the character of Brainiac, who has often seemed very, well, artificial.

There is some interesting development of Superman's relationship to his parents and his cousin. Originally, they protected him. Now, he protects them. There is a strange sense of helplessness that parents feel when they realise they can no longer protect their children, and even the sense of pride they have in their children can never really offset that. Supergirl is truly terrified of Brainiac, as she has encountered him before on Krypton, and wants to protect Superman from something that she understands better than he does. This was her opporuntity to fulfil the role she was sent to Earth for in the first place. However, there is nothing she can do, and she realises quite clearly the Superman doesn't need her, at least, not as a protector.

The final scene of the book is fantastic. Brainiac has come to Earth. He may have destroyed Krypton, and now he plans to capture Manhattan and destroy the rest of the planet. Even though the skull design of Brainiac's ship is old, Frank makes it look creepier by giving it a darker colour and adding a few touches that almost make it look like it is rotting. My only complaint is this: shouldn't the ship be bigger? I mean, this is the greatest threat the Earth has ever seen and it's not even the size of a skyscraper. Aircraft carriers are larger than the ship. I'd hoped that the most dangerous alien threat the world has ever faced would be at least the size of a city.

In any event, Johns, who seems to be writing half of the books at DC right now, has truly captured the epic scale of the Superman tale. He is a man from another planet. Now he faces what Supergirl calls "the worst of aliens". This story successfully revitalises one of Superman's greatest adversaries, and tells a story worth of DC's greatest hero.

A-

Final Crisis: Revelations #1 Review

Writer: Greg Rucka
Penciller: Philip Tan

"Homicide...we work for God". Greg Rucka took those words from Vernon Geberth, a former homicide detective with the N.Y.P.D. (they were later used in the television show "Homicide"). This book picks up that theme: what is it that a homicide detective does? How does it differ from what the Specter does? What does it mean to work for God? This book follows Crispus Allen, a former homicide detective, who now serves as the God's spirit of vengeance. He used to serve justice and is now an agent of revenge. This book has a lot of reflection on the nature of justice, the nature of vengeance and what it means to work for God.

I would like to quickly commend this book for something that was long coming: they finally kill off Doctor Light. I didn't get any sense of vicarious revenge from his death. I just wanted to see him gone from DC comics. One of the unfortunate consequences of the success of Identity Crisis is that the characters became affixed in their roles in that story. The Elongated Man became the perpetually grieving husband. The Calculator became the perpetual schemer. Doctor Light became a perpetual rapist. That story turned him into the official sexual predator of the DC universe, and that was not a good thing. Comic creators often underestimate the dangers of representing sexual violence against women, especially in a visual medium, as it can attract exactly the wrong sort of reader. A serial rapist with a superhero fetish has the potential for the wrong sort of stories, and I'm glad to see him gone.

This book does a good job of setting up the Specter's dilemma. When he was a police officer, he served justice. Justice is a matter of balance and reason. However, while what he does as Specter appears to be similar to what he did as Crispus Allen, vengeance is about emotion. This, of course, isn't a new sentiment. It was recently expressed in almost exactly the same terms in Batman Begins. Rucka's approach lacks the subtlety and ambiguity of Morrison's interlocking thematic uses of freedom in Final Crisis #3. However, it is an important part of the setup for this new Specter comic that we realise that what the Specter is doing is not giving the world otherwise unavailable justice. He is doing something else entirely, and Allen's imminent rebellion is a result of that difference, so it needs to be made clear.

At one point, the Specter attempts to attack Libra, for the crime of genocide for killing the last member of the Martian race. Interestingly, the Specter has no power over Libra. Given that justice is defined as being about balance, while vengeance is about emotion, it sets up an interesting contrast between Libra and the Specter. Libra, as one can tell by his name if nothing else, is somehow trying to bring balance, even if it benefits evil. To date, the good guys keep winning. Now it's time to even the scales. The Specter, on the other hand, isn't able to balance anything. He just kills and destroys in revenge. In response to being unable to kill Libra, Specter throws a fit and kills the Hangmen (hanging them, of course). Here, Rucka is starting to take advantage of the medium: when your characters are walking metaphors, having them interact causes the readers to reflect on their meaning.

In terms of what it means to work for God, Geberth, the original source of that phrase, is a practicing Catholic and meant it literally. By helping to enforce the law, he believes the police officer reflects divine justice. Theologians have debated for millenia how to reconcile God's justice, vengeance and mercy in a way that consistent with the basic position that they must, in some sense, ultimately be the same thing. Geberth sees himself as a part of that plan. In the DC universe, however, God's attributes are split into various angels with no real attempt at reconciliation. Moreover, God has a serious personnel problem. The angels are apt to act with complete abandon in their appointed roles unless somehow tethered. As the Specter's role is vengeance, he has a tendency to do things like, for example, threaten to kill all of New York state.

This aspect of the Specter appears to be about to come to a head. Allen is rejecting the Specter persona after being ordered to kill his own son. Now, he has been sent to kill his former partner, Renée Montoya, now the Question, who has found a weapon capable of killing "false gods". As the character has been sketched in DC's quasi-polytheistic universe, Allen has reached a point where his role as the Specter is completely unbearable. He simply can't reconcile his old obsession with justice with his new obsession with vengeance. Now he is almost forced to rebel, as his own character cannot tolerate the Specter.

This promises to be an interesting book. I hope that Libra remains as an important character, as the contrast between he and Specter is the most intriguing part of the story. Fundamentally, it is about a police officer forced into a mockery of his former life, who is trying to break out. This is a solid start to what could be a very powerful story.

B-

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Secret Invasion #5 Review

Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Penciller: Leinil Francis Yu

Secret Invasion creaks into its fifth month. Or perhaps, I should say, Secret Invasion creaks into its fifth hour, since less than an hour takes place in any given issue. This issue has the advantage of being somewhat better than last month's issue, in which we were given a recap of a story that has so far largely consisted of recaps of other issues. This week, we do see some marginal story development, as Reed Richards is freed from the Skrull spaceship, and Captain Marvel attacks the fleet, both of which are kind of fun, but really we get a lot more of the same. At least this time, though, the endless scenes that have been taking place since issue #2 seem to be ending. Jarvis is still demanding surrender, but he gets blowed up. The Avengers are still in the Savage Land, but they discover the last of the Skrulls. Agent Brand is still floating around in space, but she comes home. That's all progress. Maybe next issue they can do something new.

However, seeing the end of these scenes just reminds the reader how pointless they were in the first place. The ship of Silver Age heroes turns out to not have a single real hero on it. Not one. Zilch. Zip. What on Earth was the point of that plot line, then? If the idea is to have the readers debating who is a Skrull and who is not, why make absolutely every one of them into a Skrull? Isn't that like playing three-card Monte without the queen? It completely ruins the game and the mystery. Here, Marvel had the chance to retcon just about anybody they wanted to any point in their history, and they used it as a silly plot device with absolutely no payoff. The goal of the Skrull ship was to distract the Avengers and waste their time, but it ended up doing both to the readers.


There are some very weird character moments as well. Suddenly, half of the Avengers turn into killers. Bendis seems very insistent that "this is war" and therefore, all the rules are different. In New Avengers #43, Sheena flat out executed a prisoner of war, and dismissed the laws of warfare as being fit for Manhattan coffee shops. In this issue, Hawkeye and apparently even Reed Richards kill Skrulls. I understand this is a war. However, this is the Avengers. When isn't it war? They're constantly at war with someone or other, and yet they don't kill. Is this Bendis trying to hammer what a "big deal" his story is, or is he genuinely trying to undermine the idea that heroes shouldn't kill? Either way, his characterization is completely inappropriate. Reed Richards shouting "I'll kill every last one of you!" is just ridiculous.

There are a couple of good moments in this book. One is the revelation that somehow the Skrulls are using Reed Richard's "brain" for their invasion. I'm not sure what that means, whether they are using his ideas or his brain tissue, but it's an interesting hook. I'd like to find out, and I hope it turns out to be something interesting. Unless they cloned his brain, they can't actually have been using it for very long, since they only captured him in issue #1. Nonetheless, somehow Reed is more involved in this invasion than simply being its catalyst from the Illuminati series, and I'm interested to find out in what way.

Another fun moment is when every celebrity in the world, including Barak Obama, John McCain and Cartman from South Park appear on the television and tell the world that the Skrulls have come to save humanity, even if it means ruling it. It's the kind of big shocking moment that made the first issue of this comic so powerful. I'm not sure if the implication is that all of them have long been Skrulls or that Skrulls are just impersonating them today, but the book here finds its original power, if only for two pages: Skrulls can be anywhere; they can be anybody; they have already won.

Unfortunately, we then get back to the rest of the book, and another ten minutes of activity before the next issue. At this rate, the Skrull invasion will have ended in less than eight hours, and people in Australia will have slept through it only to find out about it on the morning news.

C

Angel: After the Fall #11 Review

Writer: Bryan Lynch
Penciller: Nick Runge

Spoiler Alert

After ten issues of trying to find its tone, Angel: After the Fall #11 is the best issue yet. Angel and Gunn finally meet face-to-face, and Lynch has the opportunity to explore the psychology of vampirism that was always such an important part of both the shows Angel and Buffy. Neither show ever really glorified vampires. They were neither Murnau's Nosferatu nor Rice's Lestat. Vampire were not characterised in the purely aesthetic categories of ugly and beautiful.

Vampires instead are pathetic mockeries of their former selves. They have human emotions and they have their human memories, but they have lost their humanity, sometimes called their ability to love. Instead, those emotions have nothing to ground them, as they are no longer human, and can never be fulfilled. However, lacking that humanity, they cannot even realise that they are unfulfilled. As Darla said of her unborn baby when she realised she was about to turn back into a soulless vampire, "I won't be able to love it. I won't even be able to remember that I loved it."

In this issue, we see that this is what has become of Gunn, one of main characters on Angel for all but its first season. He still wants to be a hero. He still hates vampires. He believes he has visions from the Powers That Be, and plans to save Los Angeles. However, his emotions are confused. He lurches back and forth between rage and pride. Meanwhile, he can't even quite see what is wrong with leaving a demon, rotting, nailed to a wall for week. He cannot be a hero, and he cannot even be aware that he cannot be a hero. He still wants Angel's approval, while he also wants to kill him. Simply stated, Gunn is a mess. Moreover, he can never be anything more than a mess, because all his emotions and desires are distortions of a humanity that he has forever lost.

The issue takes the right approach in having the reader realise what has happened to Gunn at the same time as Angel realises it. We see that Angel still holds deep affection for his former friend, and come to the realise along with him, that he will almost certainly need to kill him. That captures perfectly the simultaneous sense of familiarity and loss that accompany characters in the Buffy universe when they encounter their sired former loved ones. And Gunn is one of our loved ones, too. Many people identified with him on the show more, perhaps, than any of the other characters. He was a normal guy trying to make things right, deeply angry at the death of his sister at the hands of vampires. Now he is one, and cannot see that he can no more save himself than he could save his sister. He is lost to us, and this book makes us feel it strongly.

The issue has other strong elements as well. The banter between Spike, Connor and Gwen is well written, and it looks like Gwen is going to be playing a much larger role in this story than one might have thought. When Gun stabs Angel, thinking he's still a vampire, it's a reminder of the kind of torture that vampires are able to inflict on each other. Gunn's complete indecision at finding out that Angel is dying shows just how confused he's become. Then, Gunn's strange and ambiguous whisper to Angel, "I found her first", reminds us that this story will stay personal for a long time.

Overall, this is definitely the best issue of Angel: After the Fall by far. It is better than most of the Buffy: Season Eight comics, as well. The book has really returned to its roots, not being afraid to tell the sort of dark, meaningful stories that made the television shows so memorable.

A-

Fantastic Four #559 Review

Writer: Mark Millar
Penciller: Bryan Hitch

One of the best things about the Millar/Hitch run on the Fantastic Four is that they are not afraid to tell stories that are truly cosmic in scale. At the end of the day, Spider-Man fights bank robbers. True, many of them are bank robbers dressed as a variety of animals, but they are bank robbers all the same. One has the impression at the end of most Spider-Man stories that, had he not fought crime, not much would have changed about the world. None of this is intended as a criticism of Spider-Man. However, Spider-Man is telling a different kind of story, where Spider-Man is trying to make a difference on a small scale, day-to-day.

The Fantastic Four, on the other hand, are rightly called "imaginauts". That is, they sail the imagination in a way that no other comic book ever really accomplishes. In a way, their stories are pure imaginative fiction, in which their adventures are extraordinary. They challenge the writer to imagine what sorts of things humanity might face, either as threats or opportunities. Millar and Hitch have tapped into this potential in a remarkable way. Their first arc, about Nu-World, was a wonderful opporunity to imagine the possibilities of building an entirely new Earth and what that might mean for humanity. Some criticised C.A.P., their omnipotent robot, as being too powerful, but against the Fantastic Four, the goal is to see what one might imagine, not be as realistic as possible.

As such, last issue looked like the "Death of the Invisible Woman" arc might be very diappointing. First, it's selling point is the putative death of a major character, which will almost certainly not stick even if it were to happen. Second, it involved a group of boring looking "New Defenders" and an attack on the Fantastic Four in order to capture Doctor Doom. Ho hum. Bad guys attack. Fighty fighty. No real stretch of the imagination is involved there.

Issue #559 brings us right back into the realms of speculative fiction. First, we have the reintroduction of Nu-World, as Reed wrestles with the possibility that the Earth may actually be dying, and Alyssa Castle reveals that Nu-World may actually be designed only for an elite to continue the species as sort of an extra-dimensional Dubai. It's wonderful to see them return to such a promising premise, not content with the somewhat cliché conclusion that too much well-meaning power leads to naive tyranny (represented, of course, by giant killer robots). Now we'll get a chance to explore Nu-World again, as Reed tries to save the planet and humanity must decide to do with its clone.

Second, the New Defenders story suddenly exploded in scope. After capturing Johnny and Reed, Johnny looks below and we have a truly marvelous two page spread as we and Johnny realise at the same time: it's Galactus! This spread shows one of the wonderful parts of Hitch's art in his book. He is not at all afraid to show scale. His concepts are so big, they constantly make the main characters look like ants. Most artists are afraid to dwarf out the main characters. Even when large structures are shown, the main characters are always in the foreground. In both this book and in the Ultimates, Hitch quite happily turns the main characters into dots in the face of something truly impressive. As such, he is the perfect artist to capture the wonder of the Fantastic Four.

I do have some concerns with the book. I wish Millar wasn't quite so eager to constantly remind us of how cynical he is. We all know that Johnny is vain, but pretending to be with leukemia patients when he's really with twin Playboy centerfolds? That's a bit much. Millar seems intent to constantly hammer the banality of celebrity, and both here and in the Ultimates, it just comes across as cynical and occasionally preachy. I often wonder why Millar wants to tell stories about characters that he doesn't seem to like very much. If he would just lay off the heavy-handed cynicism, his books would be a lot more readable and no less fun.

However, this book has a lot of promise. The "Is that Galactus?" moment is vintage Fantastic Four, and the story is picking up again. Bryan Hitch's art is absolutely beautiful, and I'm amazed it never occurred to anyone to have him draw the Fantastic Four before. He is the perfect artist, and though I don't like Millar's dialogue, Millar is a writer with exactly the right sense of the scope that the Fantastic Four should be taking. There's a lot of prelude to this issue, but it's clearly a prelude to something fantastic.

B-

Monday, August 11, 2008

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Eight #17 Review

Writer: Joss Whedon
Penciller: Karl Moline

*Spoilers* (Buffy fans have somewhat stricter rules about spoiler warnings)

This review is late for this week, as reading this comic required a lot of homework on my part. Joss Whedon has made an interesting decision: he integrated his comic character Fray (from a story five years ago) into the Season Eight story line. Since I had never read "Fray" but my wife had a copy of the book, I wanted to read the storyline before I read this issue. After having read "Fray" I realised that, in fact, this book would be almost completely unreadable without having read the previous series.

I'm not sure how good an idea this is. It will sell "Fray" comics, which is a good thing, though I don't think that a purely marketing decision would have gotten past Joss Whedon. Season Eight is an interesting comic book, since it is one of the few comic books that does not have comic book readers as its target audience. A lot of the people reading this book are former fans of the Buffy television show who mourn its passing and want to read about the further adventures of their favourite characters. And so far, the story has been almost entirely self-contained, just like most television shows are. Even the five-year-long spin-off Angel was never "required reading" for watching Buffy (although not vice versa). As with most television shows, someone could watch the show and never need to "catch up".

Is this a good decision, then? It has some negative and positive elements. On the negative side, it risks alienating the audience that is unique to this comic. I don't know how many Buffy fans will be interested in reading Fray and this comic is truly unreadable without it. When Fray talks about the past, if one hasn't read Fray, it would be unclear what happened in her own series and what was supposed to have happened two-hundred years ago, since she rarely makes such distinctions. For example, from the two pages I read before giving up, I had assumed the "Battle of Starbucks" was something that happened in the Fray comic, but apparently it happened centuries ago. On the positive side, it might introduce people who would not otherwise be interested in comics and would not have read any comics if not for the Season Eight series to a new medium. Some people might read Fray, enjoy it, and become comic book fans for life. We shall see. I'm interested to follow the sales number of Season Eight after this issue, as I think no single issue will have more effect than this one.

As for the plot, the big reveal in this comic is a little unfulfilling. The issue spends a great deal of effort hinting that the crazy woman in Victorian clothes at the end is Drusilla, but it turns out to be another incarnation of Dark Willow. Am I the only one who was disappointed by this? Drusilla vanished half way through Buffy Season Five never to be seen again except in flashbacks and as a ruse for the First Evil. I kind of miss her. Dark Willow, on the other hand, dominated much of Season Six which was a season of mixed success as it was. I don't miss her. It's fun when Willow's eyes turn black from time to time, but I thought this plot point was resolved with the whole "Willow turns white and is therefore a goddess" scene in the series finale. Now, we're returning to it. I'm not saying that Whedon doesn't have any good ideas about where to take this; he usually does. However, as a big, shocking finale, it doesn't really work because it's an old plot point and not one the fans have really been clamoring for. Moreover, the red herring covering it is something the fans have been clamoring for, so it falls flat.

Despite these general arc concerns, Issue #17 works very well. Joss Whedon is a great banter writer, as good in his own way as Tarantino. The dialogue comes off as both funny and realistic, capturing the way that people are often trying to amuse each other in discussions. Most other authors write dialogue that is either expository, dramatic or "funny". What Whedon has hit onto and few other have is that we are constantly telling jokes, but those jokes are so contextual they can never be taken out of their original place in conversation. Little bits of dialogue like "Buffy Summers." - "Present." - "Buffy Summers is dead." - "Occasionally.", capture very well the way that we are often making little jokes out of what the other person has said, and I can't think of any other writer that mimics this or even tries. The closest analogue is Bendis, but what he provides isn't so much banter as little jokey asides people (especially Spider-Man) say to themselves. Whedon is able to implant that contextual humor into dialogue in a way that is truly unique. This book is full of contextual humour, and it is wonderful to see Whedon writing characters whose voices he understand perfectly as he was the one to create them.

The Fray universe is utilized very well, and one gets the sense that Fray has been fighting her brother for quite some time now. She is still tracking down her brother Harth, who is now working with Dark Willow to bring about a future without any magic (except, presumably, Willow). One annoying thing about Fray was that it seemed to contradict the finale of the television series, as there was only one slayer again, rather than an army, and that the Watchers had "died out" rather than getting blown to bits as in the series. This book does a good job of reconciling them, so well in fact that it is impossible to tell whether this is a retcon or whether this was Whedon's plan all along. Instead, the death of magic referred to happens after Season Seven and is apparently the climax of Season Eight. Here we get a return to the Fray universe that is as strong and confident (even more so, in some ways) as Season Eight's return to the Buffyverse in the first place. Gunther, Erin and Harth all return, and it is as though Whedon never left.

So, overall, it is a very strong book, even if it is at times harder to follow than a Grant Morrison comic. It is well written and Whedon's comfort with his characters is obvious.

B