Monday, June 26, 2017

Review: Batman: Arkham Asylum 15th Anniversary Edition

Review Batman Arkham Asylum 15th Anniversary Edition Grant Morrison Dave McKean DC Comics cover trade paperback tpb comic book
Writer: Grant Morrison
Artist: Dave McKean
Collects: Batman: Arkham Asylum OGN (1989)
Published: DC, 2004; $17.99

The subtitle of Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth is quoted from the English poet Philip Larkin: “A serious house on serious earth it is, / In whose blent air all our compulsions meet, / Are recognized, and robed as destinies.” Larkin was writing about churches – serious places where serious questions might be asked about man’s place in the universe – and the reference seems fitting for a tale so rife with religious imagery and which outwardly appears to interrogate the nature of its hero’s existence.

The subtitle also suggests Arkham Asylum’s conscious opposition to what DC had in years past called “Imaginary Stories.” Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, such stories were typically one-off tales about possible realities (such as one comic in which Superman revealed his secret identity to and subsequently married Lois Lane), stories that would have no bearing on the ongoing continuity of the DC universe. By contrast, the supposedly “serious” Arkham Asylum fashions itself, as it does its version of the Joker, as “super-sane” – that is, as a serious, sober reflection of what the Joker’s psychotherapist calls “the world as a theatre of the absurd.”

In selecting Batman as the book’s hero, however, Morrison attempts a narrative sleight of hand. The introduction via flashbacks of Amadeus Arkham – founder of the asylum where Batman’s most disturbed (and most disturbing) nemeses are interred – is yet another red herring, distracting readers from the realization that Morrison’s tale is far from some universal parable about the nature of madness; nor is it an attempt to plumb the depths of the everyman’s soul. Indeed, Arkham Asylum evinces not so much the monomythic Hero’s Journey as it does a highly specific character assassination of what Morrison would later call “the ’80s interpretation of Batman as violent, driven and borderline psychopathic.”

Review Batman Arkham Asylum 15th Anniversary Edition Grant Morrison Dave McKean DC Comics Batman stabs himself trade paperback tpb comic book

Morrison’s outright contempt for the 1980s version of Batman is just one of many fascinating insights yielded by the annotated script included with the book’s 15th Anniversary Edition. The script goes a long way toward explaining some of Arkham Asylum’s more bewildering moments, among them Batman’s bizarre reaction to the Joker pinching his butt (“Filthy degenerate!,” Batman screams rather than simply punching him in the face) and an odd reference to the Joker wearing heels despite appearing in totally conventional attire. As it turns out, Morrison originally intended for the Joker to appear dressed as the singer Madonna, “in a black basque, seamed tights and lace-up stilettos.” In this early version of the story the Joker “projects an absolute confidence that confers upon him a bizarre kind of attractiveness and sexuality,” which throws into sharp relief Batman’s lack of sexual maturity. Of Batman, Morrison writes:

His body is a fortress of flesh, bulwarked against the ravages of a merciless world. Consequently, he stands perfectly straight to the point of stiffness. We can imagine him walking with his buttocks clenched. His is the posture of an obsessive, anal personality. . . . He is completely incapable of any kind of sexual relationship.

But if Morrison’s goal is to recuperate Batman from a sexually impotent failure and into a Christ figure capable of “physically demonstrating his new-found dominance” (as Morrison writes at the script’s conclusion), then he does so to often uncomfortable effect.

The Joker’s previously mentioned feminization – in combination with Arkham Asylum’s most disturbed male characters all donning dresses by the end, and with the text’s frequent allusions to the murderer Norman Bates’s transvestism in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho – constantly threatens to push the story into the realm of transphobia. Morrison adds notes of homophobia to the list of concerns as well, as in the script’s description of the villain Clayface: “an avatar of filth and corruption, the personification of pestilence and infection, whose impure touch carries instant contagion. Alert readers will perceive him as AIDS on two legs.” Batman proceeds to brutally break those legs in response to Clayface’s expressed desire to “share my disease.”

Review Batman Arkham Asylum 15th Anniversary Edition Grant Morrison Dave McKean DC Comics Clayface trade paperback tpb comic book

Dave McKean’s artwork, all the while, is an abstract phantasmagoria of squalor and darkness. He eschews the realism of Morrison’s script in favor of more impressionistic renderings that suggest the characters’ feelings by way of their shadowy environments rather than through conventional framing, composition, or coloring. His artwork functions as yet another narrative sleight of hand, in that it papers over some of the more embarrassingly self-important moments of Morrison’s script. For example:

The recurring Fish motif – which relates to Pisces, the astrological attribution of the Moon card – also relates to Christ, who in turn can be linked to the Egyptian God Osiris, whose life and descent into the underworld parallels with the story of Amadeus Arkham. We also see later that the Asylum is built upon a Vescica Piscis – this symbol . . . forms the ground plan of much religious architecture and is used in the construction of most of the major buildings of antiquity, like Stonehenge and Avebury in England. It is a development of the Greek symbol for Christ.

Morrison supplements such totalizing descriptions with, among other things, Freudian childhood anecdotes and lengthy quotations from Aleister Crowley. Captured here is a young Morrison at perhaps the most hubristic point of his career; in short, he writes, “everything in this story reflects and comments upon everything else.”

Conceived in the immediate aftermath of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, Arkham Asylum represents an extreme response to the grimdark aesthetic pioneered by those comics: one that ironically adopts that aesthetic in order to repudiate it. But whereas later responses to Watchmen (like DC’s recent DC Universe: Rebirth) would attempt to rise above the pervasive darkness of that comic with more uncomplicated tales of good’s triumph over evil, Morrison and McKean’s tale is arguably the victim of its own attempted seriousness. Weighed down by its more problematic themes and the pretension of its young writer, Arkham Asylum is simply, ultimately trapped in a quagmire of its own making: one of inescapable darkness, madness, violence, and death.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Review: Aquaman: A Celebration of 75 Years

Review Aquaman A Celebration of 75 Years Jim Lee Aquaman Green Lantern DC Comics cover hardcover hc comic book
Writers: Mort Weisinger, Joe Samachson, George Kashdan, Jack Miller, Robert Bernstein, Steve Skeates, Paul Levitz, Gerry Conway, David Michelinie, J.M. DeMatteis, Neal Pozner, Peter David, Rick Veitch, Will Pfeifer, Geoff Johns, and Cullen Bunn
Artists: Paul Norris, Louis Cazeneuve, Ramona Fradon, Nick Cardy, Jim Aparo, Dick Giordano, Chuck Patton, Craig Hamilton, Martin Egeland, Jim Calafiore, Yvel Guichet, Joshua Hood, Patrick Gleason, Ivan Reis, and Trevor McCarthy
Collects: More Fun Comics #73 & 89; Adventure Comics #120, 174, 220, 260, 266, 269, 444, 452, & 475; Aquaman (vol. 1) #1, 18, & 40; Justice League of America Annual #2; Aquaman (vol. 2) #3; Aquaman (vol. 4) #2 & 34; Aquaman (vol. 5) #4 & 17; Aquaman (vol. 6) #1 & 43
Published: DC, 2016; $39.99

Aquaman: A Celebration of 75 Years is the thirteenth hardcover DC has released under its “Celebration of 75 Years” banner, and while the series has been generally well put together as far as these types of entry-point anthologies go, this is the first one to mark a truly historic publishing event. That’s because Aquaman has been so sparsely collected over the years that a history-based anthology featuring the character was essentially bound to include material never collected before (if only to live up to the “75 Years” part of its moniker). Sure enough, in fact, this book does an exceptional job of curating a range of previously uncollected material from across the character’s entire publication history.

Prior to this collection’s release, reprints of Golden Age Aquaman stories were especially few and far between. The character first appeared in 1941, in More Fun Comics #73 (which also, interestingly, featured the first appearances of Green Arrow and his sidekick Speedy, in a different story). More Fun being an anthology series, Aquaman appeared as a 7- to 10-page feature until #107 in 1945, at which point Aquaman and the other superhero features were moved to Adventure Comics starting with 1946’s Adventure #103. The first and only entry in DC’s Aquaman Archives hardcover series begins with 1959's Adventure Comics #260, meaning that until now, nearly eighteen years’ worth of Golden Age Aquaman stories have gone completely uncollected. (Aquaman was one of the few superheroes – along with Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman – to be published continuously throughout the 1940s and ’50s.)

Naturally, Aquaman’s first appearance from More Fun #73 is also the first story of this collection; it's been collected a handful of times before, though not in quite a few years and never previously with the same quality of restoration. My own exposure to Aquaman has been mostly with the brooding incarnations of recent years, so I was surprised by how cheerful and quippy this early version of the character was by comparison: “See the sea, my friend!” he quips in his very first line, kicking a Nazi soldier over the railing of a submarine deck.

Even more interesting are the newly reprinted stories from More Fun #89 and Adventure Comics #120, #174, and #220. They're all of the 7- to 10-page variety, and they’re each a lot of fun. Perhaps the best of these is “Aquaman Goes to College” (1947), which sees Aquaman headed to school for formal training on the creatures he lords over as self-appointed “sovereign of the sea.”

Review Aquaman A Celebration of 75 Years Adventure Comics #120 Joe Samachson Louis Cazeneuve DC Comics hardcover hc comic book

However, he quickly dismisses his studies when he hears that the school will lose its funding if the swimming team doesn’t win its next competition. When the coach marvels at Aquaman’s ability to hold his breath for fifteen minutes underwater, the hero is amusingly frank: “The explanation is simple, coach…you see, I’m Aquaman! But, I’m a bonafide student, so I’m eligible for the team!”

Throughout the Golden Age stories, Aquaman is so cavalier about his superhero identity that I can’t help but wonder if the writers were intentionally parodying characters like Batman and Superman – both of whom, in the Golden and Silver Ages, went to absurdly complicated lengths to maintain their secret identities. One way or the other, the particular stories selected for this volume draw attention to the general ambivalence of Aquaman’s early writers toward the character’s origins. In his first appearance, the character explains in a three-panel flashback that both of his parents were human: his father, a “famous undersea explorer,” taught him to “live under the ocean” by scientific means. But the comically abrupt end to his tale (“That’s all of the story,” he says, running off) suggests countless unanswered questions that Aquaman’s writers would spend the next 75 years trying to address.

Review Aquaman A Celebration of 75 Years More Fun Comics #73 Mort Weisinger Paul Norris DC Comics hardcover hc comic book

The first major revision comes in 1959’s “How Aquaman Got His Powers,” in which the backstory has changed: Aquaman is now the son of a human “lighthouse-keeper” and an Atlantean woman who abandoned her underwater homeland to see the “upper world.” In the next few stories we learn more about Atlantis, a still-thriving city of beings descended from humans who have biologically adapted to living under the sea. Genetic anomalies are sent to the ocean’s surface in Baby Moses-style floating baskets, in order to be found and raised by land-dwellers; this is how Aquaman gains his child sidekick Aqualad (whose deathly fear of fish results in his expulsion from the great underwater city) in 1960’s “The Kid from Atlantis.”

Review Aquaman A Celebration of 75 Years Adventure Comics #269 Robert Bernstein Ramona Fradon DC Comics hardcover hc comic book

Most of the early Silver Age comics collected here are illustrated by Ramona Fradon, a rare female comics artist whose work I was unfamiliar with before reading this book. It more than measures up to that of any other artist who was drawing for DC at the time, and it’s a shame that Aquaman lost her talents upon finally receiving his own series in 1962. The stories themselves take a dip in quality at this point as well. Of the previous Golden and Silver Age tales collected here, only one (1943’s “The Streamlined Buccaneers”) features a villain in the traditional sense; in the others, Aquaman contends with more conventional threats to marine life and delves into the mysteries of Atlantis. But starting with the inaugural issue of his self-titled series, Aquaman faces off against more traditional science-fiction and fantasy foes: a triumvirate of giant insects, water fairies, and fire trolls in Aquaman #1 alone.

Things do improve over the 1960s and 1970s, though, which are a bit of a whirlwind: Aquaman marries the sorceress Mera, has a baby (named, um… Aquababy), and becomes the democratically elected ruler of Atlantis, all of which infuse the comics with a unique combination of domestic strife and palace intrigue. The solo stories became fewer after Aquaman’s cancellation in 1971 (the series was briefly resuscitated, for eight issues, from 1977-78), and Celebration of 75 Years fills the gap with a quite engaging 1984 story from the Justice League’s so-called “Detroit Era.” (I’ll have to read more of Gerry Conway’s run on that title when the hardcover Justice League: The Detroit Era Omnibus is released next year.)

This collection’s last half-dozen or so stories are a little more difficult to write about, since they’re mostly pulled from the middle of longer ongoing storylines. While it’s definitely nice to see DC taking steps to reprint parts of Neal Pozner’s four-issue revival from 1986 and Peter David’s nearly 50-issue run from the 1990s, the particular stories selected left me feeling a little out of sorts. (David’s Aquaman #2, in which Aquaman’s left hand is devoured by piranhas, is also somewhat off-putting for its Liefeldian artwork and frankly unnecessary bloodiness.) It doesn’t help that some of this collection’s later issues feature prominent rogues whose early appearances aren’t included, making it hard for an Aquaman-newcomer like me to fully grasp what’s at stake for our hero when they appear.

Review Aquaman A Celebration of 75 Years Aquaman #2 Peter David Martin Egeland DC Comics hardcover hc comic book

Perhaps unintentionally, the book’s contents underline just how little of Aquaman’s history has been previously collected in comparison to that of characters like Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, and Green Arrow. In fact, we get a sense of those other characters’ preferred status at DC in the choice of cover image for this collection. The image itself, illustrated by DC co-publisher Jim Lee, features Green Lantern almost as prominently as Aquaman. That’s easy to miss when viewing the cover in thumbnail or from a distance, since the book’s cover dress is plastered over the prostrate Hal Jordan; you can still see his limbs awkwardly framing the title, though. Was DC just so married to the idea of using an image by Lee (who has never drawn Aquaman in the character’s own series, and whose work doesn’t appear inside this book) that it couldn’t be bothered to choose something more fitting for a collection focused on Aquaman’s history?

It’s a strange choice, for sure, but it doesn’t take away from the commendable effort put into compiling this volume. I came to it a relative novice in regards to Aquaman but feel I’m walking away with a solid grasp on the character’s history, having now sampled a number of prominent creative runs spanning the better part of a century. Although the early stories provide the book’s most interesting and significant contents, the amount of newly-collected material from all eras makes Aquaman: A Celebration of 75 Years a very welcome primer indeed.

*Special thanks to Jesse Schedeen for his help with the images that appear in this review.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Review: Black Widow: Web of Intrigue

Review Black Widow Web of Intrigue Ralph Macchio George Perez George Pérez Gerry Conway Bob Layton Luke McDonnell Paul Gulacy George Freeman Natasha Romanoff Natasha Romanova Marvel Comics cover trade paperback tpb comic book
Writers: Ralph Macchio, George Pérez, Gerry Conway
Artists: George Pérez, Bob Layton, Luke McDonnell, Paul Gulacy, George Freeman
Collects: Marvel Fanfare #10-13 (1983-84), Bizarre Adventures #25 (1981), Black Widow: The Coldest War OGN (1990)
Published: Marvel, 2016; $24.99

In the last few years, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige has repeatedly insisted that making movies about female superheroes is an important priority for him. The claim is rather shocking given that Feige has produced more than thirty superhero movies over the last two decades, only one of which (2005’s Elektra) has featured a female character in the lead. While Russian super-spy Black Widow has long been considered the most obvious female candidate for a solo superhero movie at Marvel (given Scarlett Johansson’s portrayal of the character across five movies since 2010, with at least two more Avengers movies in the works), plans for any such film have yet to materialize. In fact, the first female-led Marvel Studios film will apparently be 2019’s Captain Marvel – not the most obvious choice, since the character has yet to appear in a Marvel film. It’s also disappointing in that both Captain Marvel’s world and her superhuman abilities are generally in keeping with the kind of superhero movies we’ve seen time and again, whereas Black Widow’s milieu is more in line with the likes of James Bond or The Avengers (the 1960s British television series, not Marvel’s superhero franchise).

I mention all of this because I’d hoped that Black Widow: Web of Intrigue might establish a worthy blueprint for the argument that stories about female superheroes – and the character Black Widow in particular – have just as much potential for mainstream appeal as Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and other white male superheroes. Of course, any number of more recently published female superhero comics (not to mention last week’s Wonder Woman feature film) could be marshaled to that argument – including, yes, a number starring Captain Marvel. But what might have made Web of Intrigue a more worthy proving ground is the ubiquity of its main attraction, a four-issue run on the 1980s series Marvel Fanfare by writer Ralph Macchio and artist George Pérez. It’s been reprinted several times, including in magazine form in 1999 and in a 2010 hardcover as part of Marvel’s Premiere Classics line. In the comics world, that sort of longevity – as in the cases of The Dark Phoenix Saga, The Death of Gwen Stacy, and God Loves, Man Kills, stories from the 1970s and 1980s that have been (or soon will be) adapted as feature films – tends to be its own kind of pedigree, at least in Hollywood’s eyes.

Unfortunately, Web of Intrigue is a profound disappointment in terms of how it represents its female protagonist, and I can only hope that stories like this one won’t ever be used as a model for superhero films starring women. The story sheds consistent doubt on Black Widow’s professional competence and emotional fitness for the job, linking those qualities explicitly to her gender: “If it came down to a showdown,” she wonders, “would Natasha Romanoff, the woman, allow Black Widow, the spy, to perform her duty? I had no answer.” The story also defines the character almost exclusively in relation to men. Her mission – to track down the father figure who raised her, who has possibly defected to the Soviet Union – is further complicated by the feelings she develops for a Soviet-employed American scientist she seduces while working undercover. Her top-secret S.H.I.E.L.D. dossier, as recounted by Nick Fury for a panel of the international spy organization’s all-male leadership, lists not her achievements in the field but rather which male superheroes she’s dated.

Review Black Widow Web of Intrigue Marvel Fanfare 10 Marvel Fanfare #10 Ralph Macchio George Perez George Pérez Natasha Romanoff Natasha Romanova Daredevil Matt Murdock Champions Ghost Rider Johnny Blaze motorcycle Angel Warren Worthington III Iceman Bobby Drake Hercules Marvel Comics trade paperback tpb comic book

It doesn’t help that Web of Intrigue is painfully overwritten by Macchio, who is rightly better known for his various editorial roles at Marvel than as a writer. In action scenes, especially, he refuses to let Pérez’s artwork speak for itself. When Pérez draws Black Widow performing a (perfectly visually comprehensible) midair twist to take out two goons who are shooting at her, for instance, Macchio can’t resist scripting this clunker of a thought bubble: “I heard others scrambling about on the roof while I was inside…must twist as I fall to fire at them.” But worse is Macchio’s dialogue for Fury, who reads like a stereotypical Southern hick straight out of The Dukes of Hazzard: “Awright, Sam, I got all this info you wuz askin’ fer. But, in the future, howzabout lettin’ me give the orders around here. I wuzn’t hired to be no blasted errand boy, y’know.”

It’s actually pretty astonishing just how many offensive stereotypes Web of Intrigue manages to include in just four issues. A multiethnic team of assassins dispatched to capture Black Widow comprises a mostly naked sumo wrestler and an (even more naked) spear-chucking warrior who Black Widow refers to as “the African.” The book’s protagonist unreflexively calls Chinese-American S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Jimmy Woo an “Oriental,” despite the term having fallen out of fashion nearly ten years before these comics were published. And it all ends with a masterclass in the objectification of the female body, with the contrivance of this excuse for Black Widow to run around in her underwear for the story’s last ten or fifteen pages:

Review Black Widow Web of Intrigue Marvel Fanfare 13 Marvel Fanfare #13 Ralph Macchio George Perez George Pérez Natasha Romanoff Natasha Romanova bow and arrow underwear Marvel Comics trade paperback tpb comic book

The trade paperback edition of Web of Intrigue includes another two stories beyond the four-issue Marvel Fanfare storyline. The first is a fairly incoherent black-and-white tale that seems mostly an excuse for artist Paul Gulacy to draw the story’s characters as various Hollywood celebrities of years gone by. It ends, inexplicably, with two pages of Macchio’s purple prose recited by a Humphrey Bogart stand-in.

Review Black Widow Web of Intrigue Bizarre Adventures 25 Bizarre Adventures #25 Ralph Macchio Paul Gulacy Natasha Romanoff Natasha Romanova Humphrey Bogart Rick Blaine Casablanca 1942 black and white b&w Marvel Comics trade paperback tpb comic book

This book’s second “bonus” is the 60-page graphic novel Black Widow: The Coldest War, by writer Gerry Conway and artist George Freeman. Published in 1990, it follows up on the story of Black Widow’s first husband: Red Guardian, the Soviets’ answer to Captain America. It’s the best part of this collection, but that isn’t saying much; like the previous stories, it’s still uncomfortably concerned with positioning Black Widow’s professional capabilities in relation to her gender and sexuality. Characters’ names are spelled inconsistently throughout the story and text is sometimes hard to read against the background colors, signs of how cursory the editing and production design for Marvel’s early-1990s graphic novels often were.

As much as I wanted to be able to advocate for this book, I’m afraid I can’t see much that’s positive in Black Widow: Web of Intrigue. It’s precisely the sort of female-led superhero comic that today’s films and comics should strive not to emulate. That doesn’t mean that film studios and comic book publishers shouldn’t strive for parity in their representations of women, though; it simply suggests that, in telling future stories about women superheroes, we might all be better served by looking to the cultural attitudes of our own time rather than seeking creative inspiration from the past.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Review: Wonder Woman, Vol. 1: The Lies

Review Wonder Woman Volume One The Lies Greg Rucka Liam Sharp Matthew Clark Princess Diana of Themyscira Steve Trevor Cheetah Barbara Ann Minerva DC Comics cover trade paperback tpb comic book
Writer: Greg Rucka
Artists: Liam Sharp, Matthew Clark
Collects: Wonder Woman: Rebirth #1; Wonder Woman #1, 3, 5, 7, 9, and 11 (2016)
Published: DC, 2017; $16.99

As part of its 2016 Rebirth initiative, DC simultaneously pared down the overall size of its publishing line and doubled down on its most popular characters by shipping two issues of titles like Action Comics, Detective Comics, and Wonder Woman per month. For the likes of Action and Detective, this strategy resulted in well-received initial storylines that wrapped in three months or less and were collected into trade paperbacks almost as quickly. But with Wonder Woman, DC took a more long-form approach: although the series would ship twice per month like the others, issues would alternate between a retelling of the character’s origin and another story set in the present. Each would have a different artist but both would be penned by Greg Rucka, whose return to the character after a ten-year absence was highly anticipated by readers.

Wonder Woman, Vol. 1: The Lies collects the series’ first six odd-numbered issues (and the prefatory Wonder Woman: Rebirth one-shot), which tell the present-day story. I’m not sure why DC chose to publish The Lies as Vol. 1 and the origin storyline, Year One, as Vol. 2, but it’s a testament to Rucka’s talent and sense of nuance that Wonder Woman’s present-day adventures never invoke the feeling of having missed something by not having read the even-numbered issues. This is especially impressive given how emotionally freighted Diana’s relationships are with the two other major characters of The Lies: estranged ex-lover and special-ops soldier Steve Trevor, and best-friend-turned-nemesis Barbara Ann Minerva, alias the Cheetah. That Rucka is able to clearly convey the varying shades of betrayal each of these characters feels toward one another, all despite the deferred recounting of their shared history until Vol. 2, is pretty remarkable.

Indeed, betrayal is the dominant theme of The Lies. The main thrust is that the many different versions of Wonder Woman’s origin that have been told over the years are all hovering at the edges of the character’s memory. She remembers myriad conflicting things she knows can’t be true; she has been “deceived,” she learns by wrapping herself in her own Lasso of Truth, but by whom and for what reason are a mystery. Her relationship with Steve is similarly characterized by years of avoiding the truth, of hurt feelings and self-denial. While Rucka avoids directly criticizing the various creative runs that emerged from DC’s last universe-wide reboot in 2011, Wonder Woman’s rueful explanation of the time she’s spent as Superman’s girlfriend – it was “easy” and “uncomplicated,” she admits – is a telling indictment of just how wrong the last six years of Wonder Woman comics have gotten the character.

The Cheetah’s history is compellingly reimagined as well, although no previous knowledge of the character is necessary to appreciate the contemporary social relevance of her plight. In The Lies, she is the victim of what Steve explicitly refers to as “toxic” masculinity: that is, as the victim of a pagan god’s jealous curse against her for having had relationships with other men before marrying him. (This is a much more meaningful take than the one presented in the 2011-launched New 52 Justice League series, in which Barbara Ann is a one-note career criminal who willingly becomes the Cheetah to better advance her illicit ends.) Her relationship with Diana transcends any tedious “but we were friends!!”-type handwringing in this volume, as the two work together to restore Barbara Ann’s humanity in their communal search for answers about the past.

Artist Liam Sharp deserves a great deal of credit for the emotional resonance of The Lies. Sharp has come a long way since the early issues of Spider-Man’s Clone Saga (where I first encountered his work), having turned in recent years more toward illustration, painting, and the fantasy genre. He brings those eclectic influences with him in his return to mainstream superhero comics: his Wonder Woman is powerful and beautiful without the uncomfortable hint of exoticism; his bearded Steve Trevor, although intensely handsome, clearly carries himself under the weight of years of physical and emotional tribulation; his Cheetah, lithe and feral, would have made Frank Frazetta proud. The nearly wordless rapprochement between Diana and Steve, their silhouettes black against the setting sun, is one of the most movingly honest and beautifully rendered scenes I’ve read in some time.

DC and its fans were right to herald Rucka’s return to Wonder Woman as perhaps Rebirth’s greatest creative coup: he and Sharp are currently turning out what may well be the publisher’s best series at the moment. I can’t wait to take the trip back to Year One in the series’ next volume, and to see how Wonder Woman’s even-numbered issues complement the story told in The Lies. And I look forward to Sharp’s return in the upcoming third volume as well, in which his vivid artwork and Rucka’s clear-eyed writing are sure to illuminate the path on Wonder Woman’s epic search for truth.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Review: Spidey, Vol. 1: First Day

Review Spidey Volume One First Day Robbie Thompson Nick Bradshaw Spider-Man Peter Parker Marvel Comics cover trade paperback tpb comic book
Writer: Robbie Thompson
Artists: Nick Bradshaw, André Lima Araújo
Collects: Spidey #1-6 (2016)
Published: Marvel, 2016; $17.99

When Spidey was first announced in 2015, it was pitched as “an all-new ongoing series of done-in-one, in-continuity tales set during Peter’s teenage years.” I was excited when the news broke. It had been a long time since a series like Untold Tales of Spider-Man had focused on the early years of the main-Marvel-universe Peter Parker; in fact, it had been a long time since Marvel published a really good creator-driven Spider-Man series not immediately tied to present-day continuity in general. What I expected of Spidey, based on the initial press, was a continuity-lite version of Untold Tales or maybe even something in line with the better issues of Marvel Adventures Spider-Man: a series with recognizably classic versions of the characters we’re familiar with, but without too much historical baggage. Instead, now having read Spidey, I find myself disappointed with a series that deviates significantly from what was promised and, on top of that, seems unable to decide exactly what kind of comic it wants to be.

First of all, Spidey is definitely not set in any kind of established continuity. In this book Peter Parker is being tutored by his high school crush Gwen Stacy (who doesn’t appear in Marvel’s main universe until Peter is in college). He fights a variety of Lee/Ditko-era villains that include the Sandman, the Lizard, and the Vulture, all of whom he’s seemingly met before in this universe; and yet, he hasn’t met J. Jonah Jameson (who first appeared in Amazing Spider-Man #1) or sold a single photograph of Spider-Man by the time the series begins. Instead, apparently, he’s some kind of Internet sensation: “My last Spidey selfie got six zillion likes on Insta,” he proclaims in the second issue. And while being divorced from main-universe continuity isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker, there are already plenty of high-school Spider-Men across a range of media: Brian Michael Bendis’s Ultimate Spider-Man in the comics, Sam Raimi’s and Marc Webb’s versions in the movies, and television shows like The Spectacular Spider-Man and Ultimate Spider-Man (the latter being completely unrelated to Bendis’s comic book, sadly). But what’s most important about that statement is that all of those comics, movies, and television shows are a lot better than Spidey.

Even the two Amazing Spider-Man movies – the latter of which is probably the worst superhero movie I have ever seen – do a superior job of establishing believable characters than Spidey. Each issue (except for #5) begins with the same full-page illustration depicting the character’s origin, but with slightly different text overlaid in each instance. Often, this text establishes the general theme or conflict for the issue. These themes tend to be expressed in the form of some maxim conveyed by Peter’s Aunt May or Uncle Ben. But rather than ever exploring Uncle Ben’s most important shred of wisdom, the one that arguably defines the Spider-Man franchise – “with great power there must also come great responsibility” – the series harps on such banalities as “be yourself,” “never give up,” and “don’t fall down.” Almost every issue ends with Peter cryptically repeating the day’s lesson to Aunt May, who always seems to be either doing the dishes or making dinner. It’s a shockingly regressive portrayal of the character, especially in light of her far less domestic role as a humanitarian aid worker in recent issues of Dan Slott’s Amazing Spider-Man.

Much of the painful simplicity of Spidey’s stories can be forgiven if we read it as simply being geared toward very young children. I’m hesitant to do so, however, mainly because of how thoughtlessly it approaches the subject of Peter’s bullying at school. Throughout the first six issues, Peter is tormented relentlessly by his peers: he is physically attacked, shoved, and spit on. His head is held underwater in a public toilet, and he takes the beatings administered by school jock Flash Thompson in dutiful silence. “I could crush Flash and all his buddies,” he thinks. “But if I do that? I lose the balance Uncle Ben always talked about. I’ll lose it and fall. No more secret identity. Which would break Aunt May’s heart.”

This line of thinking is a downright pathological extrapolation from Stan Lee’s portrayal of the character, in which Peter’s “bullying” mostly took the form of verbal barbs from girls he awkwardly asked on dates. By not using his powers in those cases, Peter was not merely protecting his secret identity; he was also choosing not to use his powers for personal gain or in the service of spite and pettiness. In Spidey, his tacit acceptance of extreme physical bullying represents an uncomfortable refusal to stand up for his own basic dignity as a human being. It doesn’t take superpowers to ask an adult for help or to speak up against the people who make your life a living hell, and Spidey’s failure to recognize that is deeply troubling.

All of that said, Nick Bradshaw’s artwork for the series’ first three issues is genuinely lovely. It’s filled with the kinds of fun details and Easter eggs you might expect of an artist like Mark Buckingham or a Generation X-era Chris Bachalo. The Sandman’s amorphous limbs transcend panel borders, emphasizing the character’s physical uncontainability, and when the Lizard’s minions invade New York City, dozens of tiny reptiles skitter around the panel borders. Bradshaw’s artwork does suffer from an overabundance of two-page spreads, though, which I suspect were designed for (and therefore probably read better in) digital formats; there’s just too much gutter loss in the trade paperback for me to believe that these pages were laid out with a traditional print book in mind.

André Lima Araújo’s artwork in issues 4 through 6 conveys the story well enough, but you can really feel Bradshaw’s absence in these issues, especially since writer Robbie Thompson still seems to be writing for an artist who’s going to supplement a sparse script with tons of visual detail. Araújo just isn’t that kind of artist, unfortunately, and his tendency to draw tiny figures inside huge panels results in a comic that often looks and feels cavernously empty.

In the end, I’m just not sure what this book wants or even is trying to be. If it’s intended to appeal to longtime Spider-Man fans, then why does it tell such juvenile stories in a totally unremarkable new continuity? If it’s trying to convey wholesome lessons for children, then why doesn’t it try harder to establish Peter as a good role model with at least some modicum of self-worth? If it was designed purely as a vehicle for Bradshaw to unleash his artistic talent, then why is Bradshaw gone after the first three issues? And why, ultimately, was this series promoted as something that it so completely is not? Perhaps what’s most frustrating about Spidey is that it seems so blissfully ignorant of these questions in the first place.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Review: Doctor Strange: The Flight of Bones

Review Doctor Strange Dr. Strange The Flight of Bones Dan Jolley Tony Harris Ray Snyder Stephen Strange Marvel Comics cover trade paperback tpb comic book
Writers: Dan Jolley, Tony Harris, Ray Snyder, Michael Golden, Jim Starlin, Michael T. Gilbert, Kieron Gillen, Peter Milligan, Ted McKeever, Mike Carey
Artists: Tony Harris, Ray Snyder, Paul Chadwick, Frazer Irving, Michael Golden, Jim Starlin, Michael T. Gilbert, Frank Brunner, Ted McKeever, Marcos Martin
Collects: Doctor Strange (vol. 2) #1-4 (1999); Marvel: Shadows & Light #1-2 (1997-98); Marvel Double Shot #4 (2003); and The Mystic Hands of Doctor Strange #1 (2010)
Published: Marvel, 2016; $24.99

My main interest in reading Doctor Strange: The Flight of Bones, which collects Doctor Strange’s short-lived Marvel Knights series from just before the turn of the millennium, was in seeing a mid-Starman Tony Harris drawing one of my favorite low-profile Marvel characters of the time. (It would be another ten years before a Doctor Strange movie was even rumored, and almost ten more before that movie was actually released.) I had always assumed that Harris also wrote these comics, since I’d never seen any other name mentioned in relation to them. I wasn’t completely wrong – Harris does receive “story” credit, along with actual scripter Dan Jolley and inker Ray Snyder – but he’s actually gone by the series’ halfway point, replaced by Paul Chadwick of Concrete fame. One can only speculate on what could have happened behind the scenes to cause Harris to abandon a four-issue miniseries after drawing just two issues, but the result, at any rate, is that Jolley is left holding the bag with a story that never really comes together.

Jolley’s writing isn’t bad, but he mostly seems to be doing damage control for a series that’s clearly gone off the rails. There are so many out-of-left-field narrative choices, even before Harris’s departure, that it’s difficult to imagine the final version of Flight of Bones as being at all similar to the series originally proposed. One is the jarring introduction of a third-person narrator halfway through the first issue, which is all the more baffling given that we see Strange dictating his thoughts to a magical, self-recording diary just a few scenes later. Would interspersing the story with first-person diary excerpts not have been a more engaging way of granting the reader access to Strange’s thoughts – and a cleverer one, too, given the diary’s presence as a physical artifact in the story? I also wonder at the choice to fill out Strange’s supporting cast with an obscure character named Topaz, a young woman who apparently featured in the 1970s horror title Werewolf by Night and a handful of issues in Strange’s first two ongoing series.

But the biggest head-scratcher is the total abandonment of the religious motifs that arguably define the first half of the series. Harris frequently intercuts the action of his two issues with Christian imagery – crosses, stained-glass windows, gargoyles, and gothic spires – that juxtapose (in a quite novel way for a Doctor Strange comic) the character’s simultaneous devotion to the occult and his non-belief in a Christian God. At one point Topaz even asks Strange about his religious beliefs, and Strange equivocates in a way that’s clearly meant to be revisited later in the story. That never happens, though, and the second half reveals that the apparently religiously motivated crimes of the series’ first half were all the work of a mind-control plot by Strange’s perpetual nemesis Dormammu. Following the reveal is an extended fight sequence in which Strange and Dormammu spout uncharacteristic quips and one-liners, making it clear that Jolley and company are just vamping for page length at this point.

Could the series’ intended interrogation of Christian belief have seemed simply too controversial to the series’ editors, inspiring last-minute changes that drove Harris from the title? (It seems unlikely that Jolley, Harris, and Snyder would have had a change of heart about the subject matter, given their future work together on the even more explicitly religious-themed Obergeist.) If so, the situation would be in keeping with that of Kevin Smith’s Daredevil: Guardian Devil – the very first story arc published under the Marvel Knights imprint, and one I’ve always suspected of editorial interference given its bizarre eleventh-hour plot turn, in which the apparent Second Coming of Christ is explained away as an illusion created by the Spider-Man villain Mysterio (who proceeds to commit suicide before any questions can be answered).

This collection is rounded out by a hodgepodge of Doctor Strange stories from various anthology titles, all by different creators, including such luminaries as Christopher Golden and Jim Starlin. The best one is probably the 2010 story by Kieron Gillen and Frazer Irving. Irving’s Doctor Strange was a welcome sight for me: his renderings of the character were by far the best part of his fill-in issues on Brian Michael Bendis’s Uncanny X-Men. Irving’s contribution aside, though, the art in these stories rarely compares to that of Flight of Bones’ first two issues; with its extreme detail, serpentine linework, and resolute portrayal of Strange as a dead ringer for Vincent Price(!), Harris’s work is certainly something to behold. It’s just a shame there’s so little of it to go around.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Review: X-O Manowar: Retribution

Review X-O Manowar Jim Shooter Steve Englehart Bob Layton Barry Windsor-Smith Sal Velluto Mike Manley Aric Ken Clarkson Valiant Comics cover trade paperback tpb comic book
Writers: Jim Shooter, Steve Englehart, Bob Layton
Artists: Barry Windsor-Smith, Bob Layton, Sal Velluto, Mike Manley
Collects: X-O Manowar #1-4 (1992)
Published: Valiant, 1993; $9.95

I probably never would have read X-O Manowar: Retribution if not for the Omnibus Collector’s Comic Swap and Community, a group I follow on Facebook. At nearly 3,000 members the group supplies my newsfeed with a constant barrage of content, typically in one of three forms: (1) posts recommending or inquiring about upcoming collected editions; (2) posts chronicling the pursuit of hard-to-find books, known as “whales,” that can fetch hundreds of dollars on the secondary market; and (3) posts effusing over whatever series or high-ticket item has, for the moment, wended its way into the group’s zeitgeist. Posts of the latter variety make for remarkable spectacles in social-media groupthink, with the most frenzied members spending thousands of dollars on books they know little to nothing about and will likely never read. Luckily, I’m relatively immune to the group’s more costly vicissitudes: I have access to two excellent libraries and very rarely purchase expensive hardcovers these days.

My interest was piqued, though, by the group’s recent fixation on Valiant, a comics publisher that was resurrected in 2012 following over a decade of financial insolvency. The Facebook group’s primary interest was in the spate of new series that had been launched over the last five years – or, more specifically, in the limited-run hardcover editions collecting those series. Historicist that I am, I found myself more interested in learning about the rise, fall, and rebirth of this decades-old publisher, one that I had barely heard of just a few months earlier. I read a few primers on Valiant’s characters and on its shared superhero universe and, on learning that X-O Manowar was currently the publisher’s flagship title, tried requesting the hundred-dollar X-O Manowar Classic Omnibus, Vol. 1 – collecting the first thirty issues of the original 1992 series – via interlibrary loan. Had any lending libraries owned the book, I would probably be writing a review of it right now. But none did, unfortunately (nor did any own the 2008-issued X-O Manowar: Rebirth, reprinting the series’ first six issues), leaving me with one final option: X-O Manowar: Retribution, a 1993 trade paperback reprint of the series’ first four issues.

Some may wonder why my impulse was to seek out a print edition of the original series rather than a reprint of the (now widely acclaimed) 2012 series that the Omnibus Collector’s group had gravitated toward. I suppose the answer is that, as far as comics are concerned, I’ve always been less interested in the present moment than I am in how we arrived to that present. The current roster of Valiant comics, renowned as it is, wouldn’t hold as much interest for me if not for the unlikely story of its publisher’s tumultuous history. Nor for that matter would a current series featuring any character or franchise – whether from Valiant or any other publisher – signify, to me at least, without some understanding of that character’s creative origins. And perhaps what often draws me to comics of the early 1990s in particular is that, despite the adolescent quality of that decade’s purest exercises in creative ownership – Spawn, Youngblood, WildC.A.T.s, Cyberforce – it was, nevertheless, the final era in which the dominance of corporate comics seemed truly vulnerable.

Ironically, the conflict between creator-owned and corporate comics was perhaps never more dramatically staged – at least, not in the 1990s – than in the case of Valiant, which former Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter had founded in 1989 only to be ousted from the company just as it became profitable (and after having created or co-created virtually all of the publisher’s major characters). The next several years would see Shooter defending himself in court from venture capitalists determined to dilute his Valiant shares to zero – just in time, conveniently enough, for Valiant’s investors to beat the mid-’90s collapse of the comics market and sell the company to video-game developer Acclaim for $65 million.

All of which is more than enough setup, probably, for a discussion of X-O Manowar itself. X-O was the second original title in Valiant’s superhero line, following Harbinger. (Both were preceded by rebooted versions of the former Gold Key properties Solar and Magnus, which had launched the previous year and were to occupy the same shared universe as Valiant’s new, original characters). Cover-dated February 1992, X-O Manowar #1 would have hit stands about six months before Shooter’s exit from the company in June. And unlike some of the early-’90s comics series mentioned above, X-O was actually, well…kind of good, at least in its opening issues. That’s because Valiant initially employed writers and artists known for their all-around storytelling abilities: in addition to Shooter, the company’s Marvel expatriates included former Captain America and Avengers writer Steve Englehart and popular artists Bob Layton and Barry Windsor-Smith. All would have a hand in the first issues of X-O: Shooter, Englehart, and Layton as writers; Layton as intermittent inker; and Windsor-Smith as artist for the inaugural issue.

X-O’s main character, Aric, is basically Conan the Barbarian in an Iron Man suit – a conceit that adds up (creatively, at least) when you consider which characters Windsor-Smith and Layton in particular are most famous for having illustrated previously. But Aric lacks Conan’s occasional bouts of compassion and, unlike Iron Man, he kills without compunction. The character’s primary appeal is his fish-out-water quality: having spent thousands of years in alien captivity, the Visigoth warrior frequently misunderstands the most basic conventions of modern society. As a result, for all its rampant violence, X-O is a darkly funny book. After Ken Clarkson (an ordinary man who initially conspires with the aliens but later defects to Aric’s side) is non-fatally injured by an alien laser gun, Aric wonders: “He is my friend! Should I grant him the gift of a clean death?” After some thought, Aric concludes: “He is a wizard. Perhaps he can grow a new arm.”

For Aric, houses are “castles,” speeding bullets are “fire light,” and the X-O Manowar battle armor he liberates from the aliens is “a good skin.” There’s something oddly endearing about his naivete, which softens the brutal edge of nearly every interpersonal encounter he finds himself in. There’s something unconsciously prescient, too, about his and Ken’s eventual takeover of Orb Industries, the corporation established by the aliens as a front for their planned conquest of Earth. It’s fascinating to note that, just months before his own firing by Valiant’s corporate bosses, Shooter imagined a superhero universe in which corporations are evil – but only until the good guys are able to seize control and turn them into forces for good. Perhaps it was that sense of optimism that led Shooter to seek capital investments for the founding of two more comics publishers in the five years following his departure from Valiant. (Neither, sadly, would last more than a year.)

The revolving door of creative talent at Valiant meant that the art in X-O Manowar’s first four issues wasn’t very consistent, although it’s not bad either. Sal Velluto, who takes over from Windsor-Smith for issues two and three, has a style remarkably similar to the early Steve Dillon, while Mike Manley’s pencils in issue four lend a more whimsical tone to Aric’s New Orleans-set first encounters with villain Toyo Harada and the cast of Harbinger. Characters from the publisher’s various other series make quite a few appearances in X-O following the first two issues, reflecting Shooter’s directive (as he recounted to Michael David Thomas in a 2000 interview) to “put something in [the comics] that [meant] you’d have to buy all [of them] to make one complete thing.” These appearances don’t severely hamper the experience of reading X-O’s first four issues, although I can imagine this approach becoming fairly unmanageable for someone reading only this series before too long.

That being the case, maybe it’s for the best that I wasn’t able to get my hands on that Classic Omnibus collection of the first thirty issues; given the ramp-up in X-O’s interconnectedness with the larger Valiant universe in issues three and four alone, I’m sure I would have been out of my depth before even the collection’s halfway point. I would be happy to read other comics set in this universe if I can get my hands on them, though, and perhaps to return to X-O’s later issues (or even to the various series from Valiant’s 2012 relaunch) once I feel more firmly grounded in the histories of the universe, its characters, and the publisher itself.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Review: Superman, Vol. 1: Son of Superman

Review Superman Volume One Son of Superman Peter J. Tomasi Patrick Gleason Doug Mahnke Jorge Jimenez Superman Clark Kent Superboy Jonathan Kent Lois Lane DC Comics cover trade paperback tpb comic book
Writers: Peter J. Tomasi and Patrick Gleason
Artists: Patrick Gleason, Doug Mahnke, and Jorge Jimenez
Collects: Superman: Rebirth #1, Superman #1-6 (2016)
Published: DC, 2017; $16.99

In the months immediately preceding DC’s Rebirth initiative, the publisher decided to kill Superman – this time for good. The catch was that the Superman to be killed off was the version introduced as part of 2011’s New 52 relaunch, which had effectively pushed the reset button on the DC Universe and “permanently” replaced the characters readers had been following since 1986 (when Crisis on Infinite Earths had similarly restarted the DC Universe) with new, younger versions unburdened by decades’ worth of continuity. The New 52 Superman had never been as well-received as the post-Crisis version, though, and with Rebirth – which is basically an attempt to reinvigorate the New 52 Universe by infusing it with pre-New 52 concepts – the publisher has (again, “permanently”) replaced the New 52 Superman with the post-Crisis Superman.

Luckily, Superman, Vol. 1: Son of Superman doesn’t make this convoluted backstory too hard to understand, and writers Peter J. Tomasi and Patrick Gleason do a succinct job of explaining the post-Crisis Superman’s return. Having escaped from his own universe just before it was destroyed, he’s simply been hiding out in this one for the last ten years; now, with the New 52 Superman having died in battle, he’s decided to take up the mantle again because, as he puts it, “the world needs to see again that there’s a Superman looking out for them.”

Unlike the first appearances of the New 52 Superman back in 2011, Tomasi and Gleason’s Superman takes time to pay tribute to the status quo it’s upheaving. This first volume’s opening pages, collected from the Superman: Rebirth one-shot, feature the post-Crisis Clark Kent’s attempts to resurrect the New 52 Superman by the same means he was brought back to life following his own death in 1992’s The Death of Superman (an event beautifully recapped, in flashback, by artist Doug Mahnke). He fails, since the “regeneration matrix” device that revived him apparently doesn’t exist in this universe, although it’s hard to buy that this is actually the last we’ll see of the New 52 Superman (this being superhero comics, after all).

Superman #1 continues to look back at the pre-Rebirth status quo, with Clark paying his respects at the New 52 Superman’s grave, but the past quickly fades into the background in Tomasi and Gleason’s series. Instead they focus on what’s arguably the most novel aspect of the return of the post-Crisis Superman: the fact that this Superman is a family man, his longstanding relationship with Lois Lane (who has also made the trip to the New 52 Universe) having produced a roughly ten-year-old son. These concepts were actually introduced not in Tomasi and Gleason’s series, as I had assumed going into this book, but shortly before DC Rebirth, in Convergence and Superman: Lois and Clark. It’s a testament to how well-written Son of Superman is that, even without having read either of those series, I felt at home with these characters – especially the young Jonathan Kent, who officially becomes the new Superboy by the end of this volume – something I haven’t been able to say about contemporary DC comics in a very long time.

Clark Kent’s interactions with his wife and child – who both, refreshingly, are in on the secret of his superpowers and share in his mission to protect and serve the greater good – are as natural as they are original to this franchise. In fact, they humanize Superman in a way rarely seen since the introduction of the New 52 Superman. In that sense, it’s hard not to read the book’s main conflict – in which a new version of the Eradicator (a Kryptonian Robocop, basically) is trying to “purify” Jonathan by, um, “eradicating” the human half of his DNA – as a critique of the various series starring the New 52 Superman, which arguably emphasized the character’s less relatable Kryptonian side to the detriment of his more down-to-earth human alter ego. It’s a compelling metaphor, although it becomes increasingly strained after it’s revealed that the Eradicator’s body somehow contains the soul of every dead Kryptonian (and also, for some reason, the soul of Pa Kent…?). But for as much as the last few issues collected in Son of Superman may lose sight of that central metaphor, the book remains both readable and endearing throughout.

The book owes a lot of its consistency to artists Gleason, Mahnke, and Jorge Jimenez, who trade off between issues with some frequency due to the series’ twice-monthly shipping schedule. All three make effective use of shadows and panel layouts, and every issue ends with a splash page (or, in the case of one issue, a splash page with a single inset panel). Their renderings of Jonathan are also totally of a piece, which is to say the character doesn’t appear to fluctuate in age from issue to issue the way child characters in superhero comics often seem to do (Damian Wayne, anyone?). It goes a long way toward establishing Jonathan as a fully-fledged character in the DC Universe, which I found to be Son of Superman’s greatest achievement.

The DC Rebirth Superman series is off to a great start with this volume, and I hope DC doesn’t intend to back down from the character’s new, family-oriented status quo anytime soon; combined with the post-Crisis Superman’s status as an outsider in the New 52 Universe, it opens up a lot of familiar ground for productive reexamination. There’s Superman’s relationship with the Justice League, for example, which makes for a pretty big question mark at the end of this volume as Superman introduces Jonathan to Batman and Wonder Woman – not his Batman and Wonder Woman, remember, but the New 52 versions of those characters (who have just experienced the death of their Superman and the sudden appearance of a new, older Superman from another universe!).

But most significantly – and most uniquely, for a contemporary superhero comic – Son of Superman sets out to explore how qualities like honesty, responsibility, and empathy are passed from one generation to the next. In a time when those qualities are so sorely lacking in people with power, books like this one remind us that there is, indeed, a Superman looking out for us. He resides in the better part of our natures, and his humanity, ironically, is a vital reminder of the strength we all possess.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Review: DC Universe: Rebirth – The Deluxe Edition

Review DC Universe Rebirth The Deluxe Edition Geoff Johns Gary Frank Ethan Van Sciver Ivan Reis Phil Jimenez Superman Batman Wonder Woman Flash Barry Allen Green Lantern Dr. Manhattan Watchmen DC Comics hardcover comic book
Writer: Geoff Johns
Artists: Gary Frank, Ethan Van Sciver, Ivan Reis, and Phil Jimenez
Collects: DC Universe: Rebirth Special #1 (2016)
Published: DC, 2016; $17.99

The recent publication of DC Universe: Rebirth – The Deluxe Edition, an eighteen-dollar hardcover version of the three-dollar softcover special issue released in summer 2016 to spearhead the latest relaunch of DC’s superhero line, makes now seem as good a time as any for me to resume posting on this blog. And while I only wish that I could in good conscience make some ham-fisted analogy between the “rebirth” of DC’s publishing line and that of With Great Power, the fact is that I find the Rebirth special off-putting in quite a few respects.

I probably haven’t read as many DC comics as the average DC fan, but I’ve certainly read a lot more than the average person in general. I only mention that because this book left me scratching my head at least once every few pages, and I can’t see it faring much better with the average non-comics reader or even with more seasoned comics readers who may lack an intimate knowledge of DC history. Of course, it would seem that the book was never meant for those audiences. DC president Diane Nelson suggests as much in her introduction to the hardcover edition: “I find it hard to believe that anyone reading this deluxe edition of DC Universe: Rebirth has not yet read it in another form, be it print or digital,” she writes. And while it’s a little sobering to see a major publisher of corporate comics openly admit to repackaging the same material for the same small group of fans over and over again (be it conceptually, as in the intensely nostalgic bent of the entire Rebirth line, or literally, in terms of trade paperback and hardcover collections of single issues), it’s also a little surreal to see that fact so baldly acknowledged by the company’s president in the opening pages of the Rebirth initiative’s flagship book.

The main story of the Rebirth special, which concerns itself primarily with the characters, histories, and interpersonal relationships that were erased from DC continuity as a result of the publisher’s “New 52” relaunch in 2011, is easy enough to follow; it’s the interstitial scenes and cutaways that make the overall book something of a muddle. In between scenes depicting the pre-New 52 character Wally West as he encourages the major characters of the post-New 52 DC Universe to remember his existence, writer Geoff Johns and his team of artists (Gary Frank, Ethan Van Sciver, Ivan Reis, and Phil Jimenez) jump around in time and space to tell brief vignettes about various other characters. The trouble is that many of these vignettes come and go without contributing anything to the book’s main story, instead leaving the reader with a handful of apparent revelations that make little sense if you’re not familiar with what, say, Blue Beetle or the Atom have been up to since 2011 (and how that differs from what they were up to before that).

Even a lot of the reveals concerning DC’s more popular characters fall somewhat flat. Among them is Batman’s discovery that there have been three Jokers (rather than just one) running around Gotham City since 2011. This idea might have been interesting as the payoff to some larger ongoing mystery in Batman’s corner of the DC Universe, but instead it just sort of drops into the story with a dull, embarrassing thud: it feels less like a deliberate plot development than it does an officially-sanctioned No-Prize designed to make sense of five years’ worth of conflicting editorial decisions regarding Batman’s nemesis.

The reveal that the pre-New 52 version of Superman has been living in hiding for the last five years is a little more interesting, but like many other sequences in this book it’s undermined by the book’s poor page layout. Superman’s vignette is similar to most of the other vignettes in the Rebirth special in that it runs for two pages; rather than being organized as two-page spreads, though, many of these sequences are instead split in half by a page turn. Not only does this make for some really choppy reading at times, but it robs several of the more potentially impactful moments of their significance. Take the page on which Aquaman proposes to Mera, for example, which arguably would have resonated more strongly had it not been paired with a page depicting the mournful, cordoned-off scene of the New 52 Superman’s death. The page break in the middle of the pre-New 52 Superman’s story fosters something more than just thematic incongruity, though, and I had to flip back and forth between the story’s two pages just to figure out how a particular character could have suddenly appeared in the scene without Superman’s noticing.

In general, these short sequences inflict a sense of bewilderment similar to what one might experience in the final pages of a Marvel crossover event. But whereas a book like Marvel’s Civil War, which bombards the reader with a flurry of short sequences that essentially preview the series and story arcs that follow that series, arguably earns the right to show us where characters like Spider-Man, Luke Cage, and the Punisher stand at the end of the story – that is, by virtue of having just portrayed these characters over the course of its seven issues – the Rebirth special offers no preceding context for the multiple previews it forces readers to endure.

But worst of all is the way the Rebirth special extends DC’s deeply immoral exploitation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, by contending that the most fan-beloved aspects of DC history were erased by Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan. For one thing, this is yet another ad hominem attack by DC on Moore, who Johns effectively blames here for how poorly received the DC’s New 52 initiative was – for having “weakened” the DC Universe by instigating a “war between hope and despair,” “love and apathy,” “faith and disbelief.” What Johns seems to forget is that Moore and Gibbons’ series was in fact a deconstruction of how insipid mainstream superhero comics had become by the late 1980s, not a call for superhero comics to become more dark and cynical. The publisher learned all the wrong lessons from Watchmen, and to call the thirty-year-old series to the carpet for that is both mean-spirited and dumb.

That’s not even what’s most upsetting about this book, though; more importantly, the Rebirth special promises to introduce the characters of Watchmen into the DC Universe for the first time. While this is not strictly illegal – the nature of Moore’s 1985 contract ensured that the rights to Watchmen would revert to him only once the series had gone out of print, and DC has assiduously reprinted it ever since – I have yet to see or hear a convincing argument that the decision is anything less than unethical. Both Moore and DC fully expected that the rights to Watchmen would revert to the authors – that’s how such arrangements had always worked out, and there was nothing unusual about this particular deal at the time – and it was only Watchmen’s tremendous success, ironically, that kept it permanently in print and forever out of Moore’s legal control. So while DC’s inclusion of Moore and Gibbons’ characters in the Rebirth special may be lawful in that regard, it violates the spirit of the initial agreement, which held that Moore and Gibbons were, at the end of the day, the rightful owners of Watchmen.

The widespread apathy of comic book readers toward this outrage has taken a range of disturbing forms, from criticisms of Moore’s physical appearance and religious beliefs to the absurd argument that a corporation such as DC cannot be expected to act against its own interests and should therefore be supported in the exploitative position it has taken against Moore (and other creators) over the years. These same readers valorize characters, like Superman and Batman, that frequently act against their own personal interests for the betterment of society: who fight, among other things, corporate greed (e.g., Lex Luthor) and strive to improve the world by directing the profits of big business toward global welfare (e.g., Batman’s charitable Wayne Foundation).

That fact raises a significant question: while it’s true that most corporations don’t act for the common good, does that really mean that we shouldn’t expect them to? In the cases of DC and Marvel, in particular – companies that generate billions of dollars on the backs of characters that espouse altruism, charity, and moral responsibility – should we not demand even the slightest emulation of the positive qualities they so relentlessly promote? Should we reward and celebrate these companies when, as in DC Universe: Rebirth, their actions represent not only a bullheaded unwillingness to redress past wrongdoing but also a concerted determination to persist in that wrongdoing? These are the moral questions, unwittingly, with which the publishers of contemporary superhero comics force us to contend.