Review: Wonder Woman: Eyes of the Gorgon trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, February 27, 2006

Whereas in Wonder Woman: Bitter Rivals, Greg Rucka focused mainly on earth-bound politics (well, excluding Circe and a couple of Gorgons), in Eyes of the Gorgon the gods are back in full force. Rucka's done a fantastic job of creating a supporting cast for Wonder Woman that moves and breathes like that of the best television one-hour dramas, and indeed, as I've mentioned before, fans of the late, lamented West Wing or the political comic Ex Machina should find much to love in Rucka's Wonder Woman trades. But most interestingly, perhaps, is the pattern of violence that begins to emerge as Rucka's Wonder Woman stories continue, as we watch for signs of what will ultimately lead to the Superman/Wonder Woman fall-out.

Medousa has been resurrected, and with advice from the witch Circe, plots to take revenge for her own murder at the hands of Athena's previous champion, Perseus, by defeating Athena's new hero -- Wonder Woman. The Gorgon teams with Veronica Cale -- who's been busy causing political trouble for Wonder Woman -- first attacking the Themiscarian embassy, and later challenging Wonder Woman to a gladiator-type duel in the modern-day Colosseum, Yankee Stadium. Wonder Woman is victorious, though not without great personal cost, and as she despairs for all her recent losses, she must at the same time re-prove herself to her JLA comrades. Meanwhile, Athena plots to overthrow Zeus's reign on Mount Olympus, drawing Wonder Woman into the fray, and the United States military converges on an increasingly isolationist Themyscara.

Rucka very subtly suggests the burden that Wonder Woman feels from the amount she's lost over the course of her title's two-hundred plus issues. Even as moments of levity shine through in the story, Rucka's run on Wonder Woman can essentially be seen as the story of Wonder Woman overcoming depression. Rucka does well acknowledging Wonder Woman elements from other writers' runs, including the Lanatharian, the Silver Swan, and Circe's Donna Milton persona, but he also recognizes authentically how the deaths of Hippolyta, Donna Troy, and Trevor Barnes would all affect Diana. After Medousa causes yet another death at the Embassy, Diana's desire for vengeance comes swiftly, suggesting that it's been building for a while. That Rucka's run fits so naturally with what came before only deepens the reader's enjoyment. And I especially liked how Rucka wisely kept silent Diana's wish to Athena in the end; only the most cynical among us would think she asked for her eyesight back, rather than the lives of her loved ones.

One of the great obstacles for readers of previous Wonder Woman series, I think, has been the presence of the Greek gods. Despite a volume of comics stalwarts -- George Perez, John Byrne, and Phil Jimenez, to name a few -- nearly none have been able to portray the gods as highly interesting, nor have they been able to distill the gigantic Greek mythos into easily digestible form. I don't advocate any dumbing down of comics -- quite the opposite -- but to be honest, when the sheer delight of the superhero genre rests on super-powered beings in bright costumes blasting one another across skyscrapers, having the Greek gods come down veritably deus ex machina, spouting "thee's" and "thou's" as they go, has always seemed to me to drag Wonder Woman stories down. How revolutionary, then, for Greg Rucka to stick Athena in khakis, Ares in leather, and Aphrodite in ... not much at all, and let them take on the modern sensibilities that the stories cry out for. The plotting and backstabbing among the gods is as old as the Odyssey, but the fresh take on them that Rucka injects is sheer brilliance, if only coming far too late, at the end of this Wonder Woman run.

At the same time, the machinations of the Greek gods were at times almost too complex for me. Athena's moves from the background to the foreground of the story almost too quickly, and it was difficult for me to always follow her schemes -- she didn't free Medousa, I think, but she did capitalize on Medousa's battle with Wonder Woman in order to gain Medousa's head. For a while, however, it seemed that Athena was working with Ares -- and even, she states, "Hades has a role to play" -- but at the end of the trade, it seems that Hades and Ares have turned against her. I wasn't sure, perhaps, whether Athena's plan remained in motion, and she expected Ares to defect, or whether this was something new; in addition, I'm not quite sure what she whispered to Wonder Woman to make Wonder Woman fight to defeat Zeus. I did, however, like the parallel of Wonder Woman proving herself both to the JLA and the gods; the latter supports her, while the former does not. Given Wonder Woman's already-fragile state of mind, it remains to be seen if her time with the gods will make her feel too "holier than thou" as she takes matters into her own hands in Superman: Sacrifice.

[Contains full covers, "What Came Before" page.]

So this is, not surprisingly, another good trade in Rucka's Wonder Woman run. I'm next to read Chuck Austen's duo of Superman trades (in which I read the other day, surprisingly, that the J.D. Finn issues were not apparently written by Austen), and then on two Greg Rucka's pre-Countdown Adventures of Superman duo. See you then!

Cheers and jeers for Feb. 20, 2006

Monday, February 20, 2006

Cheers to DC for publishing the Seven Soldiers of Victory trades with the issues listed in publication order. I know this was a controversial move, and that lots of people wanted to see the mini-serieses all together, but when you consider all the confusion we have trying to read the strangely piecemeal Superman: The Journey, Superman: Sacrifice, and Superman: Strange Attractors (not that I'm not glad to see those trades out, because I am), it's nice that we can read Seven Soldiers as if it were monthly, but still in a trade form.

Jeers to DC for cutting the last page of Gotham Knights #66 in the Batman: Hush Returns trade paperback. Without spoiling much, that page tied in to both JSA and Infinite Crisis, and it seemed to me one of the best reasons to include issue 66 in the trade at all. I was much disappointed not to see it there (serves me right for flipping to the back of the trade first).

Have a good night.

Fables: Homelands review

It's a heavy thing to say "I wasn't thrilled with this volume of Fables." Blasphemous, certainly, in some circles. And I've heard tell here and there of those who believe volumes of Fables are like the Star Trek movies; the even ones are better than the odds. For me, Fables has only neared the majesty of volume two, Animal Farm, with volume four, March of the Wooden Tin Soldiers; The Mean Seasons showed great promise, had it just been longer, but Homelands (dare I even say it?) unfortunately left me underwhelmed.

(Disclaimer: This is a negative review of Fables: Homelands. A fair review, but a negative one nonetheless. But because I very much like the Fables series as a whole, allow me to direct you to this positive review of Fables: Homelands, because I very much want to support the series overall, even as I offer my unsolicited two cents. Carry on.)

The three stories of Homelands take a break from our principal characters, Snow White and Bigby Wolf, to focus instead on Jack of the Tales, Little Boy Blue (do I have that right?) and Prince Charming's new government. Blue is definitely the stand-out player here; as one character notes, no one realized how much of a hero--an action hero really--that Blue really was. Armed with the Witching Cloak and Vorpal Blade, Blue sneaks back into the Fables homeland, chopping off heads left and right until he makes his way to the Adversary--and then has to make his escape. Jack of Tales heads to another make-believe land--Hollywood--where his gambit to become a movie producer over five years meets with successes and failures. And back in Fabletown, Prince Charming and the Beast discover a traitor in their midst, and Charming enlists unexpected help to locate the missing Bigby Wolf.

So here's the headline: you find out the identity of the Adversary in this trade. And guess what? It's exactly who you thought it was. I'm the person who ran smack dab into the Jean Loring revelation without it ever once crossing my mind and you know what? I had the Adversary's identity from March of the Wooden Soldiers. Except, I kept trying to come up with alternatives because it just seemed too gosh darn easy (the Wizard of Oz, by the way, is my favorite other theory, and I think there's lots of reasons why it makes sense, too). But ultimately, the answer was the obvious one, and maybe in that way it worked for some people, but not for me. A whole lot of build-up ... and underwhelmed.

And build-up there is. For three issues, Blue battles his way through the world of Fables--and by battles, I mean he meets another Fable, there's a bit of witty repartee, and then Blue cuts the Fable's head off; rinse, lather, repeat. Admittedly, Bill Willingham shows great skill in the breadth of Fables he introduces--but I don't recognize quite a few of them, and so, for me, it becomes the equivalent of a made-up, one-off villian that appears for a page and gets killed; there's no emotional resonance. I was bored. I knew what was going to happen. And, surprisingly to me, the world of Fables that Blue traversed just wasn't all that interesting. I like Fabletown better; there's uniqueness, there's meta-interpretation. Fables, for me, isn't about storybook characters in storybook settings; it's about storybook characters hailing taxis. And goblins in a mystical forest using modern curse words is just trippy.

The Jack story, too, left a bit to be desired. As opposed to the Jack tale in Storybook Love, which offered us blood, sex, and a magic bag, "Jack Be Nimble" in Homelands is a story about Jack wheedling his way into a situation, living large for a bit, and then losing it all. You can very nearly draw the dramatic triangle with a pencil. It's ... ordinary. And while I did both enjoy--and find somewhat disconcerting--the five year jump that the story takes (in which, apparently, the Beast is still the sheriff of Fabletown, taking some of the dramatic tension out of whether Bigby Wolf will return to his old post of now), ultimately "Jack Be Nimble" was an ill portent at the beginning of the book.

I will say that the quality of Fables still rises high above nine-tenths of everything else you could read out there. And it features lovely art by series regulars Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha, Lan Medina and others, plus gorgeous covers by James Jean. And I feel that Fables is good for all of us--as the back-cover blurbs suggest, Fables is in many ways the grandchild of Sandman--a literate, adult fantasy comic with consistent quality overall. But at the same time, my trade-buying budget is getting a little full, and as I look at what to buy and what to put on my holiday list ... well, I'll read Fables: Arabian Nights and Days, but maybe I just don't know how soon.

[Contains full covers, "cast of characters" page.]

Back on track now--Wonder Woman: Eyes of the Gorgon, Superman: In the Name of Gog, and Superman: That Healing Touch. Next review will be more upbeat--promise!

Let me just say ... (JLU)

Monday, February 13, 2006

... no way can any of the Flash's Rogues knock Orion for a loop. Otherwise, the episode was great. Peace out.

Review: Outsiders: Wanted trade paperback (DC Comics)

One poster at the DC Comics message boards described Outsiders: Wanted as the trade where "they go from a team that hunts down bad guys to a soap opera." Well, I don't know about all that, but I would say that the adventures in Outsiders: Wanted are more character-based than perhaps the event-driven stories before.* In specific, there's great emphasis in this volume on Grace -- the Outsider with previously the least amount of backstory -- though to Judd Winick's credit, every Outsider gets a chance to shine in this volume. At the same time, Outsiders: Wanted offers what could be the most subtle Identity Crisis tie-ins so far, and its result is highly effective. This is a different volume of Outsiders, but a good one.

Outsiders: Wanted begins as Jade vies with Nightwing for leadership, and Starfire joins the team. Hard feelings from both Nightwing and Arsenal boil over as Grace discovers a child prostitution ring -- one with a personal connection to her own past. The Outsiders take the unusual step of searching for the ring's head by exposing him on America's Most Wanted -- with guest star John Walsh -- a search that has disasterous results for one of the Outsider's families. In the midst of it all, Indigo discovers that the team is secretly being funded by Bruce Wayne, and Arsenal reveals that his secret source has been Batman. One of these revelations, however, proves false, and Batman's Identity Crisis-fueled paranoia proceeds to infect the entire team, with shattering results.

Judd Winick pulls an interesting trick with the character of Grace in Outsiders. In the first two volumes, Grace has been brash, arrogrant -- and highly sexualized. In fact, it's nearly become a running joke in the series: where there's Grace, there's sex, be it with Green Arrow, Arsenal, or what have you. And yet, as Outsiders: Wanted unfolds, we slowly learn that Grace was the victim of childhood sexual abuse, and it places all of her previous actions in a new and frightening light. Winick wisely plays Grac'es hypersexualized behavior for laughs because often in society hypersexualized is the butt of jokes; when the trauma behind it is revealed, we feel both sorry for Grace and ashamed of ourselves for not recognizing the signs of abuse sooner. It's a smoothly-taught lesson by Winick, and I'm interested to see where he goes with Grace's character from here.

Comic books are the most powerful, I've always thought, when the writer makes full use of the medium's unique qualities -- for one, the ability to say one thing (dialogue or narration) while showing another (panel art) to create a sum greater than its parts. In Outsiders: Wanted, Sue Dibney is never mentioned, nor Dr. Light or any other aspect of Identity Crisis. Instead, Batman only offers Nightwing this simple, haunting advice, "Trust no one," while a vague image of Zatanna up to no good hangs in the background. This creates an Identity Crisis crossover that is truely both relevant for Identity Crisis readers, and surmountable for those not in the know. IT makes me doubly eager to read Winick's Batman: Under the Hood, his Batman/Identity Crisis tie-in, to see if Winick handles the character and the event as superbly there as he has here.

The events of Outsiders: Wanted are referenced in Teen Titans: The Future is Now, but while the timelines and events of the two trades don't entirely mesh, Wanted is skilled, transitional Outsiders fare -- and superhero fare where the bad guys, for a nice change, are more akin to Law & Order than Flash Gordon. Wanted ends on a cliffhanger, with an advertisement for Teen Titans/Outsiders: The Insiders and I'm looking forward to it, as Judd Winick continues to show the growth of his writing skill as Outsiders goes on.

[Contains full covers, character bios]

Taking a little detour now to Fables: Homelands, and then on to some Wonder Woman and Superman. Or maybe The Insiders after all ... we'll see. Take care of yourself!

* Are soap operas considered character- or event-driven? I have no idea. Anyway, for a good NPR report on the move from character- to event-driven television (including quotes from The West Wing's Bradley Whitford, go here.)

Infinite Crisis trade updates ...

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Interestingly, while Amazon has updated the Infinite Crisis trade listing to a hardcover (no big surprise there), the book that lists as "Superman 1" is now called "Infinite Crisis (Superman)" over at Amazon US.

Undoubtedly we'll see the current "This is Your Life, Superman" storyline collected; it remains to be seen whether it's in the "Superman 1" volume, "Where No Superman Has Gone Before," or "Superman: Up, Up, and Away," all currently solicited.

Hear Collected Editions on the Comic Geek Speak podcast!

Saturday, February 04, 2006

If you haven't listened to the Infinite Crisis #4 review podcast from the great guys at Comic Geek Speak, then you missed comments from the Collected Editions blog! Give it a listen; you'll be glad you did!

Review: Robin/Batgirl: Fresh Blood trade paperback (DC Comics)

I actually enjoyed Robin/Batgirl: Fresh Blood more than I thought I would. To be sure, this short trade is nearly standard super-hero crossover fare (the heroes team-up, then fight, instead of vice versa), but an emphasis on character and continuity by both the writers serves to make what would otherwise be a quick one-off a little more substantial.

In the aftermath of Batman: War Games and Identity Crisis, Robin chooses to leave Gotham for Nightwing's Bludhaven, rather than face the ghosts, the increased danger, and the lure of becoming more hardened like Batman that Gotham now offers. Immediately, Batman orders Batgirl to go with him, both to protect Robin, to learn from him, and to gain experience in managing a city of her own--experience, Batman notes, that will help her on the inevitable day that Batgirl takes over Gotham from Batman himself. In Bludhaven, Robin begins investigating appearances by the supposed-deceased Blockbuster, running afoul of Nightwing's old villain Shrike. Batgirl comes to the rescue, and after a meeting with the Bludhaven police, the Dynamic Duo (if you will) end up at Blockbuster's mansion, where they're promptly captured by the Penguin. To escape, Robin and Batgirl feign a fight to the death, which results in dredging up hard feelings between the two heroes.

Though Bill Willingham's "gee whiz" Robin--and the blocky, one-page cut scenes--has never quite meshed for me (and as a Fables fan, I can't help but have expected more), Anderson Gabrych shines here. I despaired that anyone could match Kelley Puckett's early Batgirl issues--largely silent, one-shot issues, they stand as a testament to comics done well--and while Gabrych and other authors have gifted Batgirl now with a bit more verbal ability, still the emotion and insight in these issues stood out. I especially liked that Gabrych hasn't lost sight of the giant aspect of Batgirl that differentiates her from all the other Bat-cast--that Batgirl, over all the other members of the Batsquad, is the one most suited to one day take over from Batman. This obviously causes tension with Robin, Batman's partner--even if Robin doesn't himself want to become Batman--and I was pleased with the final sequence where Robin and Batgirl address their differences and divvy their roles in Bludhaven. That this crossover ends on the characters, instead of a tired "send the bad guys off to jail" scene, says a lot for the story.

I also appreciated the use of the Chuck Dixon-created Bludhaven here. It would have been just as easy for the writers to pluck Robin and Batgirl down in a city called Bludhaven, but completely recreated to the writers' whims; instead, the story featured Nightwing villains like Shrike, Brutale, and the Trigger Twins; the new Bludhaven police captain Amy Rohrbach; and Blockbuster's palatial mansion. All of this gives a real sense of the characters moving, instead of just being recreated, that I felt was an especially nice touch.

All-in-all, Robin/Batgirl: Fresh Blood is a simple story, with nothing necessarily earth-shattering, but fans of the Bat-Universe shouldn't be disappointed by what is a fairly satisfactory trade all around.

[Contains brief character bios and "what came before"; full covers.]

Meanwhile, I'm continuing to travel down the Identity Crisis crossover line, from Teen Titans: The Future is Now to Legion: Teenage Revolution to Robin/Batgirl: Fresh Blood, and now on to Outsiders: Wanted. From there, a bit of Superman, a bit of Wonder Woman, and the Countdown to Infinite Crisis miniseries will be nearly upon us. I've got both the Absolute Crisis on Infinite Earths and Absolute Watchmen to read one of these days, plus new Fables and Y: The Last Man. So drop me a line, and we'll see you here next time.