Review: Batman RIP deluxe hardcover/trade paperback (DC Comics)

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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Must Batman be crazy? Superman uses his natural alien powers to protect Metropolis and finds time to marry Lois Lane in the process. Spider-Man swings across New York cracking wise as he goes. But Bruce Wayne dresses like a bat every single night without time off and makes it his utmost goal to strike fear in the hearts of his opponents -- and, as writer Grant Morrison posits, trains relentlessly to prepare himself for any eventuality he might ever face. For that kind of life to be believable in the comic book medium, must we also believe that Batman is inevitably insane?

In his much-acclaimed storyline Batman RIP, Grant Morrison sets as Batman's mind the battlefield for a war between Batman and his enemy the Black Glove. From the beginning of Morrison's run, the Glove has worked to drive Batman insane; in RIP, the Glove succeeds, but with the unforeseen consequence of pushing Batman to a hidden second persona. In this alternate guise, Batman recalls some of his strangest cases -- including Bat-Mite and the Batman of an alien world -- leading both Batman and the reader to wonder how Batman could have kept his sanity all this time.

It is at the point when Batman's newest paramour Jezebel Jet says she understands Bruce Wayne's pain that Batman suspects she's part of the Black Glove's trap; the implication is that Batman knows no one can ever truly understand him. Toward the middle of the book, Jezebel questions whether Bruce Wayne might be the Black Glove, challenging himself to a battle of wits, and indeed in this scene Batman does seem paranoid and self-destructive. Morrison succeeds in causing the reader to doubt Batman and making Batman seem insane, and now must either confirm this insinuation or refute it.

That Morrison reveals Batman has a long-time "scar on his consciousness" -- a post-hypnotic suggestion that may explain away his "grim and gritty" era -- only furthers the argument for insanity.

The arguments Morrison offers for Batman's sanity are varied and -- likely on purpose -- inconclusive. First, Morrison puts a great deal of pressure on Robin both in RIP and the "Last Rites" storyline included in the Batman RIP collection, as the force that's kept Batman sane all these years. Here, Robin is the yin to Batman's yang, the bright spot that keeps Batman's darkness from growing too great. There's also the sense that Robin speaks truths that Batman, captive to his own superheroic delusions, might not want to face, as when the young Robin Dick Grayson asks whether an apparent romance between Batman and Batwoman Kathy Kane might end the Dynamic Duo's partnership.

This is the same theory Jeph Loeb puts forth in Batman: Dark Victory, and it's sensible even as under heavy scrutiny it reflects poorly on Bruce Wayne himself.

Second, Morrison suggests -- as he did perhaps overmuch in his run on JLA -- that Batman always, invariably, one step ahead of his enemies, and therefore even his proposed insanity has a way of being sane. Morrison's characterization of Batman has always been as the uber-human, ever prepared; we learn in RIP that even Batman's craziest delusions, the impish Bat-Mite, have in their aspect a basis of reason. In one sequence, the Joker notes that whenever he escapes his prison box, Batman always manages to build another box around the first; in the fact that in RIP Batman even has a fail-safe personality for his enemies driving him insane, Morrison posits that what might seem like Batman's insanity to the reader is instead a super-sanity that neither we, Batman's allies, nor the Joker might ever truly comprehend.

This has the effect of making every Batman story that Morrison writes like an episode of Columbo, where the detective knows who committed the crime from the outset and it's incumbent upon the reader to catch up. As in Morrison's JLA: New World Order, Batman is never in as much real danger as the audience just thinks he is. The suspense of RIP comes in the reader's concern over Batman's state of mind, the hurt he might feel at the death of his loved ones or over a shocking betrayal, only for Morrison to reveal that Batman's been hip to the Glove's plan all along and that these things were never truly at stake.

It's these twists in the story's mystery that distinguishes it. At the outset the reader believes they're teamed with Batman (that is, we share the knowledge Batman has) against an unknown foe; when Morrison reveals that foe, it's a revelation that alters the reader's perception of the entirety of Morrison's Batman run, which is no small feat.

In the end, however, the reader learns that Batman's actually known the Glove's identity almost from the beginning. Whereas the reader thought we shared Batman's perspective solving the Glove's mystery, we actually only knew as much as the Glove solving Batman's mystery, and it's this turn that makes RIP a keeper. These aspects, which play with the reader's head as much as Batman or the Glove's, raise RIP above a story that, with Batman targeted by a mystery villain and condemned to Arkham Asylum, might otherwise feel "done before" to longtime Batman readers.

What also distinguishes Batman RIP is Grant Morrison's use of a number of Silver Age Batman stories (to be collected in a Batman: The Black Casebook trade paperback). "Robin Dies at Dawn" from Batman #156, "Batman -- The Superman of Planet X" from Batman #113, "The First Batman" from Detective Comics #235 and others are all out of continuity (or at least un-referenced) as of Crisis on Infinite Earths; Morrison's story brings them back, if even only as hallucinations in Batman's mind. I've greatly appreciated this post-Infinite Crisis trend in DC Comics to rejuvenate rather than sweep under the rug old stories of their characters (Brad Meltzer did this well in Justice League of America: The Tornado's Path as well), and these details are ultimately what make RIP a classic.

I don't believe Grant Morrison means for us to believe Batman is crazy, though ultimately I believe his arguments for insanity are stronger than his arguments against. The subconscious trigger with which Batman struggles in Batman RIP is "Zur En Arrh" or possibly, Morrison alludes in the end, "Zorro in Arkham." To be a hero in Gotham, Morrison suggests, perhaps you can't help but be a little nuts.

[Contains full covers, pages from DC Universe #0, sketchbook section.]

Next week kicks of Collected Editions' guest review month, featuring reviews of trade paperbacks and graphic novels from a variety of major and independent comics publishers, written by a great group of guest bloggers. Don't miss it!

Odds and Ends for 5-27-09

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Hello and welcome, Collected Editions readers! Thank you all for your continued feedback, comments, and support of the blog. We hit the four-year mark a couple months back, and we're still having a great time; none of it would be possible without our valued readers. I've especially enjoyed getting to talk with a number of readers and fellow comics bloggers lately via Twitter.

Couple things coming up on Collected Editions. First, tomorrow brings our review of Batman RIP. This is a book we've been eager to read for a while, and it's a review we're very proud of. Hope you enjoy and leave your own thoughts.

We're ending May big because starting next week is a new Collected Editions Guest Review month! All through the month of June we'll be featuring guest reviews from a bunch of great contributors, covering trade paperbacks and publishers you might not see as much on Collected Editions. All these reviewers worked very hard, so please reward them with your comments and links, and visit their own websites and blogs.

(If you'd like to write a guest review but missed the call for submissions, send an email to the address on the sidebar. We're always looking for posts!)

The main Collected Editions reviews will be back in July as we continue headlong toward our review of the Final Crisis hardcover. As always, thanks for reading!

Review: Checkmate: Chimera trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, May 25, 2009

Admittedly, I was predisposed to judge harshly Bruce Jones's Checkmate: Chimera, given the difficulties with his brief-but-disastrous stint on Nightwing. Indeed, in the end I think Checkmate fans might be better off thinking Checkmate ended with the previous volume, Fall of the Wall; there's nothing here quite so outlandish as Jones's tentacled mutant Jason Todd in Nightwing, but neither does the story rise to the bar set by writers Greg Rucka and Eric Trautman before.

Whereas much of Rucka and Trautman's Checkmate run focused on the Sasha Bordeaux, Mr. Terrific, and Amanda Waller (the Black Queen and the White King and Queen of Checkmate respectively), Jones centers his story on the Black King, and more specifically the Checkmate Pawns that function in the field. An explosive nearly kills military soldier Adam Sharp, and Checkmate recruits his body for their ultimate weapon program. Sharp, now called Chimera, is predictably unreliable and violent, and he fights armageddon brought inexplicably by the devil himself while Sharp's finance works to free him.

Given the previous focus on Checkmate royalty, I don't at all mind Jones turning instead to the Checkmate ground forces; my chief complaint is that there's little specificity here. The devil possesses one of the few named Pawns in the story early on, and the rest function like unnamed "red shirts" on Star Trek, there for collateral damage. This is a story told from the perspective of the Pawns, but it doesn't do much do show what the Pawns' lives are like.

Second, Chimera simply lacks the detailed politics of Rucka and Trautman's run. Jones introduces armageddon legends from a number of different cultures, but these seem incidental to the story; which monster attacks when doesn't turn the story as much as dealings between China and North Korea turned other Checkmate tales. Jones attempts some backroom dealings in the interaction between the Black King Taleb Beni Khalid and his Bishop the August General in Iron; while I enjoyed the spotlight on the August General, this basic interaction (they disagree; the General disobeys) missed the subtleties of what we saw before.

One bright spot in this story, I'd note, was the inclusion of the new Global Guardians. I've enjoyed how characters like the Guardians and the Great Ten have travelled from <52> to Green Lantern to Checkmate, and I'm glad Jones included them here. Of course, I could quibble that the Guardians are hardly fleshed out and sometimes their individual powers are confusing; also, while one strong part of Chimera are the devil's monsters as rendered by Manuel Garcia, often it was tough to tell one Global Guardian from another.

Checkmate had been one of my favorite new titles coming out of Infinite Crisis, and I'm sad that I can't recommend this last volume. It seems to be the case with Checkmate, Shadowpact, All-New Atom, Blue Beetle and more that a book will start strong, then DC Comics will replace the original creative team, then the book will shortly be cancelled. Don't get me wrong, sometimes the replacement teams do a good job, but I wish sometimes DC would pull the plug when the original team leaves (as with Gotham Central and Starman, for instance), rather than draw things out with mixed results.

[Contains full covers]

Coming soon ... a special announcement, and the Collected Editions review of Batman RIP!

Review: Birds of Prey: Club Kids trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, May 21, 2009

As Birds of Prey comes to an end, writer Tony Bedard offers a string of done-in-one stories in Club Kids. None of these are earth-shattering, but neither do they discrace the work of Gail Simone that came before (versus, say, after Simone left All-New Atom). Many of these stories are in service of Final Crisis, but in a way the tie between the action/adventure Birds of Prey and the cosmic Final Crisis is so interesting that the unlikeliness can almost be excused.

The book's title story, "Club Kids," doesn't come until the last chapter, and it occupies strange ground between Countdown to Final Crisis and Final Crisis itself. Fans of Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers of Victory will enjoy cameos by the faux-urbanized New Gods found in that story; how the explosive death of Granny Goodness in Club Kids meshes with her differing fate in Death of the New Gods is something I haven't quite worked out yet.

However, what we do have here is a story of Birds of Prey Misfit and Black Alice, which starts in medias res like some of the best Chuck Dixon Birds of Prey stories. Misfit and Alice, the Dysfunctional Duo, have quickly outshined the more stodgey Oracle and Huntress as the most interesting Birds of Prey characters, and their bickering, bloody team up is an angsty joy to read. I have a hard time believing Bedard's final revelation about the connection between the two characters, but I trust Bedard at this point to do something good with it.

Much of this book, as a matter of fact, deals with the fallout of Death of the New Gods, and it's a strange mix for a book that began as a Batman-family espionauge title. What makes it work is that Simone included late in Birds of Prey fan-favorites like Knockout and Big Barda, and Bedard's stories deal with the fallout of what happens to these characters in that other series. Bedard's Lady Blackhawk/Big Barda story is perhaps a bit too much like Sean McKeever's Lady Blackhawk story in Birds of Prey: Metropolis or Dust, and his Knockout story is as much about the New Gods as Black Canary and Green Arrow's upcoming nuptuals, but I appreciated the general continuity between different areas of the DC Universe.

The remaining two stories spotlight Huntres and Oracle respectively; essentially, every main Birds of Prey character gets their own issue in this book. The Huntress story is a fun "what if" tale that considers how other heroes might handle Huntress's case; nothing really happens, but there's great cameos throughout. The Oracle story pits Barbara Gordon against her arch-enemy the Calculator; the idea of Oracle's online worm chomping on Calculator's virus is vaguely ridiculous, but the story has a nice surprise ending. This is indicative of most of the stories in this volume; Bedard doesn't write the most exciting or moving Birds of Prey you've ever read, but these are fine stories if you consider this volume more of a "Tales of the Birds of Prey."

Tony Bedard's been making the rounds at DC Comics lately (now regular writer on R.E.B.E.L.S., and I've been impressed with his work on Supergirl and the Legion of Super-Heroes and the Black Canary miniseries. Birds of Prey is coming to an end, that's a fact, and maybe you might've preferred to stop reading with Gail Simone's last volume; but if you're following continuity from Final Crisis or Death of the New Gods, Birds of Prey: Club Kids is an entertaining side-trip along the way.

[Contains full covers, character biographies]

More reviews coming soon -- stay tuned!

Review: Supergirl: Way of the World trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, May 18, 2009

A couple years ago, someone at DC Comics had the good idea to bring back the one, true Supergirl, but since that time the company's struggled to decide what to do with her. Supergirl: Way of the World, by writer Kelley Puckett, has some entertaining moments, but continues to wallow in a meta-textual search for a real basis from which to write the character. Most readers might very well skip this trade and begin with writer Sterling Gates' run as part of Superman: New Krypton.

Puckett pairs Supergirl here with Mitchell Shelley, DC's latest incarnation of Resurrection Man, and it's a team-up that works exceptionally well. Shelley's hard-traveling sarcasm offers funny moments paralleled with Supergirl's headstrong determination to do the impossible and cure a boy's cancer; I believe fans of the Resurrection Man series will enjoy the continuity notes here, too. I was only surprised the story didn't acknowledge that Resurrection Man had a similar crossover with Peter David's previous incarnation of Supergirl, though DC may be trying at this point to sweep appearances of any Supergirl prior to this one under the rug.

I've also appreciated Puckett's flair for the sudden and absurd in his two Supergirl volumes. In Way of the World, as in the prior volume Beyond Good and Evil, Puckett interrupts the story (sometimes in mid-conversation) to take the reader to a sci-fi future where events influence the current action. These cut-aways are purposefully jarring and serve to break up the mundanity of what's at times an all mope, no action story. Ultimately these parts add up to no more than Elseworlds Supergirl stories, but they're some of the best part of the storyline and demonstrate a depth to Puckett's writing that he's not able to show through most of the book.

Readers that might've been freaked out by writer Joe Kelly's "good-girl-gone-bad" take on Supergirl will be comfortable here with Puckett's more traditional take; but unfortunately, this Supergirl is at times impossibly dull. Her quest to cure the boy's cancer seems naive both to her fellow heroes and the reader, and as such it's hard to be sympathetic with just how melodramatically sad Supergirl is afterward, letting alone that much of the aftermath is handled by fill-in writers and not by Puckett himself.

Given the end of Puckett's tenure on Supergirl, as well as Supergirl's failure to save the boy she befriends, it's unlikely we'll see the involved characters again; it makes these two volumes of Supergirl tragically unimportant. Much of these first thirty issues of Supergirl have been spent on the character's angst and guilt -- first, over apparently being sent to Earth to kill Superman (later explained away) and here over the general death and destruction of Krypton, ad nauseam. This is a merry-go-round that the Supergirl title has been on for some time; with the end of Puckett's run and the beginning of Gates', hopefully the book will find a direction it can stick with.

[Contains full covers.]

On Thursday, learn the unlikely connections between Birds of Prey and Death of the New Gods with our review of Birds of Prey: Club Kids. And coming soon, Batman: RIP and guest review month!

Review: Batman and the Outsiders: The Snare trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The latest incarnation of Batman and the Outsiders isn't a bad superhero team-up book, per se. Certainly there's enjoyment in seeing this mix of characters together. But in comparison to a bevy of other espionage team books that DC Comics published post-Infinite Crisis, this second volume The Snare just doesn't hold up, and indeed the plot meanders so much that the reader can't help but wonder at the intended point, if there is one at all.

Following the events of The Chrysalis, the Outsiders believe Metamorpho to be dead, but instead he's stowed away on a renegade Chinese shuttle headed to space. When Metamorpho contacts the team, Batman sends the Outsiders to hijack yet another Chinese shuttle; the Outsiders are captured and must be rescued by Nightwing and a re-purposed OMAC called "Remac." Metamorpho frees himself and the team begins to investigate a mysterious space weapon, but are distracted by rumors of an alien parasite in Gotham.

We're now ten issues in to Outsiders, the team has been on the same mission for nearly all of them, and we have no clear idea who the main villain is nor what their goals are. We know generally that it involves space, and OMACs, but otherwise the danger is so unclear that I have trouble feeling interested and involved in the story. It definitely doesn't help that the story takes a right turn in the final chapters and the Outsiders embark on a new mission completely unrelated to the first, without any sort of conclusion to the leading story.

In addition, the Outsiders are for the most part passive participants in the story. For most of the team, the main thrust of The Snare is that they try to rescue Metamorpho but instead are captured by the Chinese government (seemingly unrelated to story's villain) and have to be rescued. Metamorpho gets a fair amount of screen time, but even his accomplishments in the story are largely accidental. I felt toward the end of writer Chuck Dixon's run on Birds of Prey that his focus became more the superhero fights than the plot, and the same is true here; I'm not sure why we want to read about the Outsiders being captured and escaping from antagonists unrelated to the story if it doesn't have any bearing on the story's arc overall.

What I like about Batman and the Outsiders is the characters themselves. It's an eclectic group, including Francine "wife of Man-Bat" Langstrom, Batgirl and Green Arrow, former "new" Outsiders Grace and Thunder, and former "old" Outsiders Katana, Geo-Force, and Metamorpho. I like this "legacy" combination of old and new Outsiders, and Dixon does well highlighting the differences in the two team's experiences; it's interesting how the older characters defer to Batman while the new characters cling to Nightwing when he arrives. Dixon also returns former Outsider Looker, and there's some nice nostalgia to the final chapters.

I'm less enamored of Remac. The character's name is silly to start with, and the idea that he's remote controlled/possessed by a goofy scientist seems an altogether worn-out concept. Perhaps if we knew more about where Remac came from or what it's purpose is, the reader might care more; most of the "captured Outsiders" storyline seems made to spotlight Remac, but we learn more about the character's powers than the character itself. As is, Judd Winick already had a funny robot character in Outsiders with Indigo, and Remac sadly is no Indigo.

Batman and the Outsiders: The Snare is a competently-written, action-packed story, with nice art by Julian Lopez, Carlos Rodriquez and Bit; unfortunately, it just doesn't go anywhere. We can speculate that a good amount of this comes from editorial interference; Chuck Dixon had a public enough fall out with DC Comics, and the weird alien parasite story and Batman's quick exit suggest an editorial mandate to clear the decks for Batman: RIP.

Still, it remains that Batman and the Outsiders failed to move me, and I'd be dropping the title altogether if it weren't for the ties the next volume should have with that selfsame Batman: RIP. With a new team on board, hopefully that'll mean new life for the stories as well.

[Contains full covers]

More reviews coming next week ... and soon, the Collected Editions review of Batman: RIP, and our exciting guest review month!

Flash: Rebirth hardcover collection solicited

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

DC Comics's big news of yesterday is that Flash: Rebirth will now be six issues instead of five, causing much debate on the blog and Twitosphere.

At the same time, DC has now quietly solicited the Flash: Rebirth hardcover collection for January 2010. Of course we all knew a Flash: Rebirth collection was inevitable, but I'm mildly surprised to see it when we're only in the second issue of the series. Those not pleased with purchasing a sixth issue might very well decide at this point to wait for the trade.

Review: Wonder Woman: The Ends of the Earth hardcover/trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, May 11, 2009

Writer Gail Simone positions Wonder Woman as a joint warrior/diplomat perhaps better than any previous writer on the book. Diana has often been dismissed as confusing or contradictory, but here Simone makes the character's philosophies astoundingly clear, perhaps even moreso against a bevy of warrior guest-stars who appear in Wonder Woman: Ends of the Earth. But even as Simone writes a Wonder Woman to be proud of, Ends of the Earth struck me as a little dull; the major subplots move slowly here while the main action seemed like entertaining filler.

Ends of the Earth pairs Wonder Woman with two standbys from DC Comics's sword-and-sorcery stable, Beowulf, the Stalker, and Claw the Unconquered, continuing Simone's exploration of Wonder Woman the warrior. The story is an example of the exception that proves the rule; the Stalker's Black Horizon drains away Wonder Woman's mercy and compassion, such that we're reminded of Diana's warrior's code by what she's lost, while in large part Beowulfplays the role of Diana's conscience, pulling her back from killing defeated enemies and brokering peace with their reluctant allies.

In both the main story and "A Star in the Heavens," Simone appears to be playing with, or perhaps deciding between, the various versions of Wonder Woman over the years. Ends of the Earth has Wonder Woman mostly in warrior's garb instead of her super-hero costume; in "Star in the Heavens," Wonder Woman fights what are essentially prior eras' incarnations of herself. Of her twelve Wonder Woman issues (by the end of this collection), both Ends of the Earth and The Circle are supernatural fantasy-type stories rather than traditional superheroics, and I'm curious to see if Simone continues in this direction with the book. Greg Rucka's run on Wonder Woman approached shades of The West Wing, and while I'm not sure that was the most natural direction for Wonder Woman either, it was certainly fun to read.

My wish for Ends of the Earth, however, was that it had more overt relevance as a story. What I liked about The Circle, in addition to being an exciting tale of Wonder Woman challenging both rogue Nazis and errant Amazons who invaded Themiscyria, was that it suggested a change to Wonder Woman's origin; not every story has to be an origin story, of course, but one undoubtedly had the sense that Circle mattered. While there's evidence that threads of Ends of the Earth will be addressed again, Wonder Woman essentially goes, sees, and conquers, and the same for "Star in the Heavens." The next Wonder Woman collection, Rise of the Olympian, begins a major storyline that DC's advertised on par with Superman: New Krypton and Batman: RIP; to that end, Ends of the Earth felt a bit like the filler in between.

Of course, I continue to be fascinated by the burgeoning relationship Simone writes between Wonder Woman and Tom "Nemesis" Tresser. While the story of Tom misunderstanding the gorillas in Diana's apartment felt silly (more filler, really), Nemesis's conversations with Donna Troy and Hippolyta leave no doubt that Simone's planning to "go there" -- that is, have Wonder Woman and Nemesis become intimate. Not that there's anything wrong with that -- it's a ridiculous double-standard that Batman can sleep with anyone he meets and Superman can marry Lois Lane, but Wonder Woman must remain celibate -- but I'm amazed that in the world of up-to-the-minute comics journalism, I've not seen one article or editorial addressing what's coming. It ought not be such a big deal, but I bet it will be -- what do you think of the Wonder Woman/Nemesis storyline?

Rise of the Olympian, it seems, doesn't come out until November, and I'm disappointed we have to wait that long for the next chapter. I like Simone's Wonder Woman, even if the stories themselves haven't yet crystalized for me, and I'm hoping Olympian is the book where it all comes together.

[Contains full covers]

Up next ... Batman and the Outsiders: The Snare. Don't miss it!

Review: Countdown to Final Crisis Vol. 4 trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, May 07, 2009

[Contains spoilers for Countdown to Final Crisis]

In the end, I liked Countdown to Final Crisis well enough. The final story comes down to a rather motley group of second-string heroes, which is hardly enough to hang a series on but sometimes makes for an entertaining read. And the Countdown to Final Crisis plot wasn't all that bad, in and of itself, even gripping at times -- but there's any number of instances where the book could have been better than it was.

Countdown to Final Crisis ends with former Catwoman Holly Robinson in an apartment with Harley Quinn, telling her, "Never change." It's a strange ending for these two characters -- Holly, whom with the end of the Catwoman series we may never see again; and Harley Quinn, whose future appearances likely won't reference the events of this series. Neither one is changed by this series. Their roles were essentially reductive; Harley and Holly were present to expose Granny Goodness, who herself was killed before the end of the story -- a lot of fury signifying nothing.

Indeed, we get the sense a bunch of character's didn't change over the course of this series. Jason Todd as irreverent, unsentimental, and one-sided as when the series started; Jimmy Olsen's changes, interviews have told, will mostly be swept under the rug; and despite the Atom, Kyle Rayner, and Donna Troy banding together, we'll next see them separate in three different series. I haven't minded spending time with these characters, but one likes to imagine it's a shared experience, where the characters change, too; here, not so much.

I can't help but compare this to the end of DC Comics's previous weekly series, 52, which ended with the Question effectively asking the reader "Are you ready?" It's a message of hope, intrigue, excitement; "never change" seems a message of the status quo, likely the exact opposite direction DC Comics wants to suggest it's heading. But Countdown to Final Crisis was in a way a story of the status quo -- sure, a bunch of New Gods died, and sure we got to explore the Multiverse for a while, but ultimately you can't point to Countdown as the defining moment for a character like you can with Renee Montoya, Booster Gold, or others with 52.

Or maybe "never change" is meant ironically; maybe it's meant to indicate that big change is just around the corner. I can't decide, if I were less knowledgeable about comics and simply picked up Countdown to Final Crisis off the stands, would I be more or less satisfied with the ending? This is a countdown to Final Crisis, let's not forget, so the uninitiated should have a reasonable expectation that this story continues into Final Crisis. To that end, some of the dangling plotlines -- the Buddy Blank of Earth-51 becoming OMAC, Pied Piper inspired to become a hero, Mary Marvel's turn for the worse, whether Holly and Harley will spend the rest of their lives in Holly's apartment -- might very well be picked up in Final Crisis. Knowing bits and pieces of what's to come, I doubt that, but to give Countdown to Final Crisis a fair shake, I have to acknowledge that maybe Countdown isn't meant to clean up all the pieces, Final Crisis is.

Volume four does have its moments. Certainly the two issues of the Great Disaster narrated by Buddy Blank, which feature an all-too-real viral outbreak spreading across the world, kept my attention (though volume three, with the war on Earth-51, is still my favorite). I enjoyed seeing Darkseid's plot revealed, and the ultimate roles Desaad and Granny Goodness played. And again, I liked these characters -- some days watching Kyle Rayner, Donna Troy, the Atom, and Jimmy Olsen and a bunch of Hairies run across the Multiverse is all you need in this world.

But I can't get around what I can only chalk up to poor writing in this series. Kyle Rayner, written with so much depth by Geoff Johns and Dave Gibbons, becomes a boorish loudmouth here, bickering constantly with Jason Todd while Donna Troy plays referee. The characters hardly seem like heroes, let alone people you'd want to spend time with. The amount of "gottas" and "wannas" in this volume astounded me -- if we want comics to be treated as literature, that means it has to be written as literature, and Kyle Rayner and Donna Troy don't speak the same as a character in high school might. Plot wasn't the problem in Countdown; the Multiverse war and the Great Disaster were each solid ideas. For my money, it was depth that Countdown lacked.

[Contains full covers, summary of previous volumes]

That said, however, I remain excited about the DC crossovers to come, Batman RIP and Final Crisis, where I imagine the real action is. More reviews coming soon!

Review: Death of the New Gods hardcover/trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, May 04, 2009

[Contains spoilers for The Death of the New Gods]

I've enjoyed lately DC Comics's post-Infinite Crisis series of space-faring "cosmic odysseys" as penned by Jim Starlin (including Mystery in Space). I'm also currently enamored with the New Gods, having just finished the fourth volume of Jack Kirby's Fourth World Omnibus. Starlin's Death of the New Gods, therefore, would seem like something of a lock for me. But while I can't bring myself to complete pan this book, this is not exactly good comics. Starlin obviously loves the Fourth World characters and his care shows in a number of instances in the book, but ultimately I couldn't help but notice a number of missed opportunities that kept this from being more than just a standard cosmic superhero adventure.

Jack Kirby's Fourth World characters are big on personality and inner conflict; the brilliance of Kirby's stories was how they worked to bring this inner conflict out (see how "The Glory Boat" intersects with Orion's struggle between war and peace). Writers after Kirby have to work to find new ways to address the characters' archetypal conflicts, else the characters become flat or hackneyed on the page. This is not to say that every appearance of Mister Miracle, for instance, must address his childhood trauma, but a Fourth World-focused story like Death of the New Gods must at least hit the high notes. Starlin does little of that.

This is The Death of the New Gods; that is, the eight-issue conclusion to thirty years worth of stories that captured enough hearts and imaginations as to warrant a giant hardcover series reprint. And yet, the main action only involves about three or four major gods of New Genesis cut from a cloth of hundreds, and from Apokolips mainly Darkseid. When Starlin gets down to the end, you'd think there might be some acknowledgement that Orion and Mister Miracle are near spiritual brothers, or that Orion might want to acknowledge the death of his good friend Lightray, or that Starlin might want to angle it so Orion and Darkseid can actually speak to one another in the penultimate battle, but none of these things happen.

What takes place instead is a kind of faux-action that I think we often see in comics crossovers (thinking about this for a minute, Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters, much as I liked it, is another example). That is, the characters don't so much as act as they move from place to place and opine for a while -- Superman and Mister Miracle are in space, then they're on New Genesis, then they're on Apokolips, then they're back on New Genesis, etc. Starlin populates the story with a number of unnecessary fight scenes, too, including a Superman/Orion throw-down in the beginning (a fight each character should be better than) and a Superman/Mantis/Kalibak fight in the end that also fails to move the plot along. There's some glee, don't get me wrong, in watching Superman and Kalibak throw down, but not perhaps in the waning moments of Death of the New Gods.

Some of this glee, mind you, is what helps to redeem Death of the New Gods. Starlin certainly gets the look of the New Gods right, from his big-headed Kalibak to Darkseid in the shadows, to his always angry-looking Orion. While Starlin's characterization was at many times off (the whininess of Mister Miracle being the most egregious example), he managed to give Orion a fitting warrior's death, and Starlin's Mantis was so attuned to Kirby's version that I had to smile. And I appreciated any of a number of references Starlin makes to Fourth World tales past, from Crisis on Infinite Earths to Genesis to Cosmic Odyssey, plus quite a few Kirby tales.

There's no question that Death of the New Gods is akin to Kirby's Fourth World tales, and the completists among us might find it an interesting diversion. The difficulty is that this is meant to be the last New Gods story ("Whatever Happened to the New Gods?", if you will), and it didn't reach quite that level for me. Batman: Gotham Underground is another recent all-encompassing mini-series meant in part to bid farewell to the current Batman status quo, and here I thought writer Frank Tieri succeeded, using nearly every member of the Bat-family in some capacity; it's this I might have liked to see in Death of the New Gods, and did not.

[Contains full covers, introduction by Jim Starlin]

Let's not miss my first statement, though; I have been enjoying Starlin's recent space stories, and I fully intend to follow them; likely I've judged Death of the New Gods far more harshly because of it's place in history than I would if it were just another story. For now, we continue the road to Final Crisis with Countdown to Final Crisis volume 4, coming up next.