Category Archives: Comics

Screen Rant: 15 Things You Need to Know About Apokolips (#SFWApro)

My latest article is now live. I think the biggest takeaway is that Jack Kirby’s Apokolips was shaped by the idea the struggle wasn’t Good vs. Evil but Free Will vs. Mindless Obedience (aka Life vs. Anti-Life). Something that’s missing from the New 52’s version (and admittedly lots of other attempts by other writers to tackle Kirby’s New Gods).

I’ll be posting about the Fourth World mythos soon, as writing the article gave me an excellent excuse to reread the old Bronze Age books. But for now, just go read my list, okay?

Images by Kirby, all rights remain with current holder.

 

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Unconventional super-hero sagas and more! Books read (#SFWApro)

AMERICAN WAY by John Ridley and Georges Jeanty has young ad man Wes invited to join the Kennedy administration in 1961. It turns out the Civil Defense Corps — the Justice League or Avengers equivalent — are actually propaganda; their powers are real but their big epic battles are PR to keep public opinion upbeat. When Old Glory (think Captain America) apparently dies in combat (“He was a four-pack a day smoker.”) Wes hits on a scheme to introduce a Negro superhero to the team, thereby shoring up JFK’s feeble civil rights record. Unfortunately things go horribly wrong … This is the best handling of superhero as propaganda since Captain Confederacy, but it’s not as good. For one thing, the hero names don’t always work — East Coast Intellectual is just silly and no way would the government have a Human Torch-type Southerner named Southern Cross (to me it invokes cross-burning too obviously). And the ending tanked it: the villain unmasking comes out of left field, with no better rationale than I Like to Kill. Plus Ridley cops out on various arcs (the CDC collapsing, the CDC exposed in the media, etc.) to keep the balls in the air (we eventually did get a sequel).

ASTRO CITY: Confessions by Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson (cover by Alex Ross, all rights remain with current holder) gives us Brian, son of a small-town doctor who died penniless; determined to Be Someone, he winds up as the sidekick to the shadowy Batmanesque Confessor in Astro City. But there are secrets the Confessor has not confessed … All of which takes place against the background of a series of mysterious events, heroes going bad, aliens infiltrating, the public turning against the heroes — yep, the classic superhero big crossover event except it’s just the background to the important stuff. This was my first introduction to Astro City and while the parallel plotlines sometimes fit together awkwardly, overall it’s fantastic.

HELLBOY: Into the Silent Sea by Mike Mignola and Gary Gianni fits into that period when Hellboy was drifting at sea while trying to make sense of his destiny (I’ve already added it to the Hellboy Chronology). Suddenly he’s on a 19th century sailing ship a female occultist is using to find and contact one of the Oghdru Jahad. Bad idea? Stuff and nonsense, it’ll work out great! This is minor fluff (about one step above a dream episode) but eerie enough I liked it anyway.

Moving to more conventional yarns, JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA: The Extremists by Steve Orlando and various artists has Batman putting together a new League on the grounds people need ordinary heroes they can identify with rather than gods like Superman and Green Lantern. And sure, Vixen, Killer Frost, the Ray and Lobo look so much more human and down to Earth, it makes perfect sense — not. Orlando’s better here than on Supergirl, but not good enough — the themes of order vs. chaos would have worked better if they’d been subtext instead of talked about aloud at length.

SUPERMAN: Multiplicity by Peter J. Tomasi and Patrick Gleason is the kind of old school parallel-earth crossover I’ve missed since DC downplayed its multiverse: Superman discovers the sinister Prophecy capturing all the Superman across the multiverse as part of a plan to save his own universe. Needless to say, the prime Man of Steel ain’t gonna put up with that for long. Adequate, but no more, and the art didn’t work for me at all. Also the Swamp Thing opening story is as gratuitous as Hero Fights Hero stories invariably are.

Now, print nonfiction: Given how tired I am of people portraying Nikola Tesla as a modern saint (in contrast to the Satanic Edison), EMPIRES OF LIGHT: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse and the Race to Electrify the World by Jill Jonnes pleased me by taking a more low-key, realistic approach. Edison comes off as a tough businessman who can’t stomach being replaced as the Master of Electricity by Tesla’s alternating current; Tesla comes off as brilliant but on occasion too idealistic for his own good. The book does a fine job showing what a game changer electric power and lighting was, and the technical issues that led to Tesla and Westinghouse winning out.

 

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From the stone age to the age of Peanuts: graphic novels (#SFWApro)

As I’ve accumulated a lot of these to review, I’ll just skip Saturday’s movie reviews this week so I can catch up.

FLINTSTONES: Bedrock Bedlam by Mark Russell and Steve Pugh (cover by Pugh, all rights to current holder) is the second and final volume in DC’s reboot of the old Hanna-Barbera series. The underlying premise is that humanity has just gone from hunter-gatherer to “modern” civilization in the space of a generation, so everyone’s still awkward in dealing with it. While it doesn’t really have the spirit of the old series (Fred and Barney are a lot smarter, and happily a lot less sexist), it wasn’t bad, particularly involving the interactions among the Flintstones’ living-creature appliances.

NIGHTWING: Nightwing Must Die by Tim Seeley and multiple artists is a real disappointment after the previous volume. Dick’s interactions with Damian Wayne are great, but this ignores most of what Back to Bludhaven set in motion to focus on the unmemorable Bat-foes Pyg and Hurt. Who, unfortunately spend lots and lots of time pontificating on What Makes a Hero — as I’ve said before, villains sharing Deep Thoughts (which are rarely actually deep) never works for me.

BATGIRL AND THE BIRDS OF PREY: Who Is Oracle? by Julie and Shawna Benson and Claire Roe is noteworthy for establishing yes, Babs Gordon did spend time as super-hacker Oracle in the New 52 continuity (something that was left vague up till now); this has her reunite the Birds of Prey when it turns out a new hacker has adopted Oracle’s ID. Unfortunately the book overall is middling at best, with unsatisfying art (everyone looks rather doughy, and I don’t think it’s because they’re bending body-standard norms or anything like that) and the dialog is way too TV-bantery.

Supergirl’s Rebirth volume 1, SUPERGIRL: Reign of the Cyborg Supermen by Steve Orlando and Brian Ching falls way below middling. I actually thought the previous Supergirl TPB, Crucible, had a good set-up but this ditches that for a remake that borrows as much as possible from the TV show without making it work (as a high-school student Kara is an Outcast Who Doesn’t Fit In! Wow, talk about originality!). On top of which we get one of the hoariest plotlines in the Super-mythos, Krypton attacks Earth (Supergirl’s already done that one recently). Given the New 52 was Kara’s third or fourth version in the 21st century, I wish they’d kept it instead of rebooting yet again.

JUSTICE LEAGUE: Darkseid War Part 2 by Geoff Johns and several artists only confirms that Johns has absolutely no sense of Kirby’s New Gods. In Origins, Darkseid’s a generic alien conqueror; Apokolips itself is equally mundane in Darkseid War Part One. In this TPB, which wrapped up Johns’ JLA run, the Anti-Monitor from Crisis on Infinite Earths is equally unimpressive, possessed by Kirby’s anti-life equation which turns him into a generic genocidal psycho (that the Anti-Life Equation is more about control and order than death and destruction flies over Johns’ head). I’d welcome the Justice League’s Rebirth run if that were any good.

Switching from the Super-stuff, BECOMING UNBECOMING by Una is a mix of the author’s ruminations on sexual violence (I doubt anything in the current crop of exposures would surprise her) with the account of the Yorkshire Ripper who terrified her community when she was growing up, partly because of the epic police fail in dealing with him. Didn’t entirely work for me because a lot of the sexual assault information was old news to me — a personal memoir mixed in with the Ripper stuff would have worked better.

THE COMPLETE PEANUTS: 1965-66 shows Charles Schulz in peak form — even though I’ve read all of these dozens of time, I found myself laughing a lot. And Schulz is still willing to try new stuff, as Snoopy enters his Sopwith Camel for the first time and some girl named “Peppermint” Patty volunteers to coach “Chuck” Brown’s team. Very good, though as I’ve noticed before, even Peanuts isn’t as timeless as some people think (there’s a joke about Hathaway shirts that will baffle lots of people now).

 

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Wonder Woman: Cartels, assassins and Animal Man (#SFWApro)

So having seen Paul Levitz take over from Jack C. Harris (as described in a previous post), I said I was tentatively looking forward to Levitz’ run as he was a better writer. His “run” lasted all of four issues after which Gerry Conway took over with #259 (cover by Jose Delbo, all rights to current holder). Conway would stick around for a while, but he’d erase Paul Levitz’ changes — bringing her back to NYC and the UN — within a dozen issues. And two of those were stories held over from when Diana was an astronaut in training.

After a couple of unremarkable Levitz issues, Conway launched his first plotline, involving a scheme that felt like another hold over, from when he’d been a writer on Thor: Mars usurps Zeus’ control of Olympus, then manipulates Wonder Woman to make her look like a public menace, sets up Hercules as Earth’s new hero and schemes to thereby rule Earth as well as Olympus. It’s not dreadful but it’s not terribly good.

There’s also a subplot followed up from the astronaut period in which Diana’s been redflagged by security: someone’s discovered Diana Prince doesn’t exist, and is therefore a security flag. This doesn’t make much sense — it was established in both Silver and Golden Ages that Diana borrowed another woman’s identity — and it’s promptly dropped.

The big plot is Wonder Woman’s fight against the Cartel, a sinister crime syndicate run by the Master Planner who gives directives to his agents from the submarine he uses as a base. The Bushmaster (see the previous post above) was one assassin, who gets an upgrade (amped up versions of African weapons such as the knobkerry club) but they also have four other top killers each representing a different continent. The Gaucho is reasonably decent, but Red Fang (deadly martial artist), Lumberjack (axe-wielding Canadian killer) and the European disguise master the Chameleon (which is hardly a distinctively European skill) are far more forgettable.

More memorable is that she wound up teaming up with Animal Man in part of the adventures (cover by Ross Andru, all rights remain with current holder). While Grnat Morrison established A-Man as a good B-lister, this was his first appearance in a decade, so it was really notable (I was a fan of his early stories). Conway establishes a lot more about Buddy than we knew originally, like his last name and his profession (stunt man), though he also plays down Buddy’s previous stories to make him even more of a minor character.

The final confrontation with the Cartel is jaw-dropping, but not in a good way. It turns out the Master Planner is really UN troubleshooter Morgan Tracy (introduced first as a possible love interest, then as Diana’s boss) which makes no sense—it’s not just completely out of the blue but we never get any sort of explanation. And then we have Tracy declaring that as UN security chief (which isn’t his job) he’s the one responsible for Steve Trevor’s most recent death, which doesn’t make any sense at all (including motive). It feels like an awkward, rushed wrap-up to justify Diana moving on to a new setting/job. Knowing what’s ahead, I’m guessing it was another attempt to juice sales when the return to NYC didn’t do it, but I don’t know that for sure.

The next phase actually lasted until the mid-1980s George Perez reboot erased all previous WWs. So I’ll probably do my next post after I finish Conway’s run (about a dozen more issues).

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Graphic novels: Deathstroke, Thor, black secession and subterranean tedium (#SFWApro)

DEATHSTROKE: The Professional and DEATHSTROKE: The Gospel of SladeDeathstroke by Christopher Priest and multiple artists is a vast improvement on the New 52’s (this is a Rebirth soft reboot) but that’s a long way from saying I like it. Priest borrows a lot of the storytelling techniques he used in his excellent Black Panther run, the only thing I’ve ever liked by him (this isn’t the Priest who wrote The Prestige, it’s a comic book writer formerly known as Jim Owlsley). Unfortunately the non-linear storytelling is annoying and distracting here (it didn’t work perfectly in Black Panther either) and the political commentary doesn’t work half as well (raising the question of why Superman hasn’t brought Deathstroke in is another example of faux realism— he can’t capture Deathstroke because Deathstroke has his own book, end of story). This came highly recommended, but it doesn’t leave the same way.

I really enjoyed Thor: The Goddess of Thunder by Jason Aaron and Russell Dauterman but the follow-up Thunder in Her Veins was very poor. The problem is a different is Aaron playing the politics of Asgard and related kingdom as analogous to Earth politics, with Odin as a Trumpesque figure clinging to the old ways in opposition to his wife Frigga and most of the other Asgardians. That just doesn’t work for me; if Aaron wants political intrigue in Asgard, fine, but it should feel like something more … Asgardian. The only reason I didn’t hate it was Jane’s Thor — the scenes of her getting to work out her old issues with Odin and Loki by punching their lights out was a lot of fun.

For good political commentary there’s THE BIRTH OF A NATION by Aaron McGruder, Reginald Hudlin and Kyle Baker. This starts off slow — a lot of jokes about life in East St. Louis — but picks up when vote suppression disqualifies hundreds of black votes, thereby giving the state and the White House to the idiot Republican candidate (no, I thought that too but this dates to the Bush years). The solution? East St. Louis secedes! The results are fun and the political commentary is good.

THE FLASH: The Brave and the Bold by Mark Waid, Tom Peyer and Barry Kitson chronicles the friendship of Hal Jordan and Barry Allen from the early JLA days through the crazy turns of Hal’s life to Barry coping with the death of his wife. This is more fun than I remember it, but not hugely more: Hal’s perspective on life changed a lot during the Silver and early Bronze Age (losing Carol, discovering America with Green Arrow) but here he pretty much stays a cocky jerk. Cover by Kitson, all rights remain with current holder.

Rereading that one and then reading AVENGERS: Kang War One (Waid and Mike del Mundo) made me realize why Waid’s Avengers doesn’t click with me — everyone seems to speak with the same cocky-jerk smartass attitude that Hal displays and that gets old fast. I can’t say this version of Kang the 41st century conqueror (here reimagined as some kind of time wraith) really works better than the classic take.

As I’ve been reading Aztec Ace and Airboy from Eclipse (1980s indie publisher), I thought I’d check out Tim Truman’s SCOUT from the same era. The story of Santana, an Apache working to topple a theocratic near-future American dictatorship (secretly run by the evil Beasts of Apache lore) is perfectly competent, but for whatever reason it just didn’t click with me.

Paul Chadwick’s THE WORLD BELOW didn’t click either, but it’s anything but competent (given Chadwick wrote the excellent Concrete series, I was really surprised). The premise is old-school pulp — heroes exploring a subterranean cavern world — but the monsters and events feel like a string of wandering monsters rolled up for a really bad D&D game. I’d have forgiven that if the characterization had been strong (and from Chadwick I’d expect that) but they’re little more than ciphers. So this doesn’t work either as old-style adventure or a more sophisticated deconstruction — or in any other way.

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Dawn of Justice, Dawn of Realism? (#SFWApro)

Watching Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice last month, the thing that annoyed me besides Jesse Eisenberg’s twitchy Luthor was the faux realism.

The movie seems determined to separate itself from the kid-stuff comics of the Silver Age. It’s not just that it’s dark and grim, but that the creators want us to know they’re thinking about the implications of Superman, and how unsettling it would be to have him around. Can we trust him? What happens if he goes rogue? Are superheroes bound by the rule of law and what happens if they’re not?

(A better take on Batman vs. Superman. Cover by Frank Miller, all rights remain with current holder)

The trouble is, the realism is about an inch deep. As I said in my review at the link, for all the sturm and drang about the risk Superman poses, nothing’s actually going to change. Superman’s not going to be outlawed. We’re not going to end up with anything like the 52 State Initiative Marvel instituted after Civil War. The most that will happen is that he and the other superheroes are treated closer to the Marvel style (wary, suspicious, cynical) than DC (trust and respect!). Which is why it’s faux.

I have a similar problem with the old Handbook of the Marvel Universe. The 1980s original handbook, steered by Mark Gruenwald, tried to put everything on a sounder scientific basis. Cyclops, for example, isn’t a solar battery who discharges energy through his eyes; no, his eyes contain tiny wormholes that open onto some other dimension and the energy there just pops our into our world!

Again, faux realism. Nothing can make the DC or Marvel universes physically plausible; the most you can do insert something that sounds like better pseudoscientific bilge (other dimensions! Quantum physics! Psionics!) than previous pseudoscientific bilge.

On top of which, faux realism is unaesthetic. The movie doesn’t gain gravitas from all the discussion, it just bogs down in tedium. Cyclops having dimensional gates in his eyes just doesn’t feel as right as the solar battery theory. And as with magic, I’ll trade grimdark grit and realism for aesthetics any day. Especially when you can’t get real realism. If you’re starting your superhero universe from scratch, that’s another story. One thing I like about Malibu Comics’ 1990s Ultraverse (which I must blog about soon) is that while they do shoot for a more realistic universe than the Big Two they don’t let it bog things down — there are still lots of spectacular fights, superpowers and cool villains.

Likewise there’s the complaint I’ve heard that Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series never really explains how, if dragons have been associating with humans for centuries, the world looks like Napoleonic Europe with dragons rather than a completely different history. It’s a fair criticism, but part of the fun of the books is being the Napoleonic War with dragons — I’m willing to make that trade-off (I’m doing something similar myself in No-One Can Slay Her) as long as I like the results. Of course I also like books that pull off the realism (e.g., Watchmen) but the illusion of realism is not, in itself, something that sells me on a story.

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Vigilantes, a girl genius and alt.Russia: books read (#SFWApro_

KILL OR BE KILLED Vol. 2 by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips follows the spirit of Vol. 1 in taking its vigilante premise literally — not only are the police on Dylan’s trail, but so is the Russian mob. Fun, but Dylan’s life away from the violence is the series’ weak spot — he’s a generic slacker loser, and I honestly can’t care which woman he hooks up with

GREEN ARROW: Emerald Outlaw by Benjamin Percy is the weakest of GA’s uneven Rebirth arc so far. The plot concerns Malcolm Merlyn framing Ollie, who’s already operating as a vigilante, as a murderous vigilante, but stripped of John Barrowman’s charm on Arrow, Merlyn’s strictly a D-lister. This just feels too much like a rather underwhelming episode of the show, and nothing more.

NOT DRUNK ENOUGH by Tessa Stone has a repairman answering a call at a spooky office building only to discover the place is rife with monsters. Nicely Buffyesque in tone, but it didn’t hold my interest, partly because the art makes the fight scenes confusing.

I was disappointed in the last volume of Girl Genius a new arc due to the transition from besieged Mechanicsburg to mid-book, so THE SECOND JOURNEY OF AGATHA HETERODYNE: The Beast of the Rails by Phil and Kaja Foglio worked much better as we’re past the transition point. Agatha escapes the Storm King on a sacred railroad but finds it stocked with spies, power-hungry schemers and assassins. Meanwhile Gil and the Storm King are attempting to tackle other challenges, so it’s a lively, if somewhat sprawling adventure (I’ll be curious to see if the Foglios keep all the different plotlines running in the next book). Cover by Phil Foglio, all rights remain with current holder.

BATMAN BEYOND: Escaping the Grave by Dan Jurgens and Bernard Chang starts the Rebirth cycle for the book (based on the cartoon about a young man becoming Batman in a dystopian near-future Gotham). While I’ve no idea what this book was like before Rebirth, the story, involving a villain’s scheme to resurrect the dead Joker, was enjoyable.

TRUTH AND FEAR is Peter Higgins’ follow-up to Wolfhound Century in which the alt.Russia “the Vlast” begins to collapse under the pressure of war, which doesn’t stop renegade secret police officer Lom and his adversaries in the government struggling to master the Mystic McGuffin. The Russian setting is the book’s strongest point, but the story and the writing style make it a must-read.

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