Review: Rann-Thanagar: Holy War Vol. 1 trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Having enjoyed Jim Starlin's Mystery in Space, with the widescreen cosmic action and creative science-fiction going a long way toward balancing the early-1980s, overly-narrative tendency still inherit in Starlin's style, I looked forward to the first volume of Mystery's effective sequel, Rann/Thanagar: Holy War. But Holy War brings with it a shift both in Starlin's writing of key characters, and also in the book's art team, and it causes Holy War to show far more of its seams than Mystery did. I did not enjoy this first volume as much as I had hoped.

[Contains spoilers for Rann/Thanagar: Holy War Volume 1]

I wasn't very familiar with writer Jim Starlin prior to his most recent DC Comics work, and for me his real breakout was his writing of the new Comet (formerly Captain Comet) in Mystery in Space. While Starlin's Comet is not always the toughest or most debonaire cosmic fighter, he makes up for it with brains and a heartly helping of gumption, always ready with a quip or "try it again" attitude; I mentioned before that Starlin's Comet reminds me of a space-faring Sam Spade. The first most jarring element of Holy War, then, is that we find Comet now a coward, a rather sniveling psychic-for-hire who refuses jobs, as a matter of fact, because they might be too dangerous. It would be easier to rectify this if Comet transfered from Starlin to a new writer, but indeed it's Starlin's own Comet who goes from Indiana Jones in one comic to early Booster Gold in the next. For a fan, right away it's clear that Holy War is no Mystery in Space.

The change is made worse, in my opinion, by the shift from artist Shane Davis in Mystery to Ron Lim in Holy War. Now, I know Lim has a history working both with Starlin and on cosmic characters (although minor in his biography, I much enjoyed Lim's art on a couple Kyle Rayner-era issues of Green Lantern), but both his Comet and other characters look thin and cartoony especially in comparison to Shane Davis's large, widescreen, in-your-face art; Comet physically seems no longer a powerhouse, but rather a hundred-pound weakling, nor are the villains terribly imposing. Overall, Holy War feels much less immediate -- Mystery looked like a Star Trek movie and Holy War looks like a doodle.

The difficulties, mind you, aren't just limited to my personal peeves about Comet. Starlin deals with a gigantic cast of characters in the story, which is entertaining, but in the beginning he seems to jump between them too much solely for the purpose of checking in (with way too large transition boxes by Lim), which makes at least the first two chapters seem rather scattered. There's an element of self-deprecation throughout the story that hinders it, both when the gathered heroes soundly reject the idea to formalize the team as suggested by Starlin's own The Weird (perhaps the best character in the whole thing) or when the other heroes criticize Animal Man's weakness (Starlin gives Buddy nearly nothing to do). Starfire gets few lines also, and seems to appear here mainly as window dressing; Starlin also reduces Adam Strange's wife Alanna to a damsel-in-distress in near tears at the kidnapping of Hawkman, a far cry from the fighter we saw in Countdown to Adventure.

For me, the main bright spot (since much of the plot involves the heroes running around to fight a loosely-defined religious threat) came with this volume's cliffhanger. Starlin threatens to duplicate perhaps his most lasting contribution to the DC Comics universe -- the moment in Starlin's Cosmic Odyssey where Green Lantern John Stewart's mistake causes the utter destruction of the planet Xanshi and all its inhabitants. In Holy War, Adam Strange's pigheadedness -- uncharacteristic, again, for the character -- causes the seeming death of all the citizens of Throneworld short of the Starman Prince Gayvn.

I say "seeming" because there's a chance we may find all the Throneworldians as slaves of the alien conqueror Lady Styx in the second collection of this series, but the "did Starlin or didn't he?" caught my attention -- as I noted in my Mystery in Space review, one thing I like about Starlin's writing is his willingness to take chances (and cause collateral damage), and I'm unsure at this point whether it would be better that the Throneworldians are OK and it's just a fake-out, or whether I want to see Starlin writing the characters actually going throught with it (probably the former -- I'd hate for this to follow Adam Strange around).

In the midst of the story is a Hawkman special, which essentially establishes that everything you once knew about Hawkman is wrong (again), but doesn't offer much in the way of explanation otherwise. The value or folly of this will likely be determined by what DC Comics does with Hawkman next; I know Hawkman plays a role in Blackest Night, and then if subsequently Starlin writes a blockbuster Hawkman series that makes the un-revelations here make sense, then all will be well; otherwise it's just another nail in the coffin of a historically mis-managed character.

Personally, I liked Geoff Johns' revamp of Hawkman and the short-lived series that stemmed from it, and I thought Johns' new Hawkman origin made sense; I'm hard-pressed to see why DC wants to muddy the waters again. Ultimately these numerous Hawkman retcons come off to me as kind of silly; DC bends themselves in knots trying to explain in-story the different versions of a character when the truth is just "hey, a writer at one point wanted to start from scratch," and it seems with every retcon things just get worse, not better.

So now I'm off to the second volume of Rann/Thanagar: Holy War, mildly optimistic but with a sense it's probably downhill from here. I gave Starlin a chance, but probably I'm going to skip the next series, Strange Adventures, until I can find it on the very cheap.

[Contains full covers]

Might continue the cosmic trip with R.E.B.E.L.S after this, but there's Green Arrow/Black Canary and Titans waiting in the wings, too. Thanks for reading!
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