Review: Rann-Thangar: Holy War Vol. 2 trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, February 15, 2010

A collection of DC Comics' best space-faring heroes; a cosmic, time- and dimension-bending story that spans from the beginning of time to the very end, and even a tie to the goings-on in DC's supernatural realm -- why isn't the second volume of Jim Starlin's Rann-Thanagar: Holy War a lock for me? Starlin is a comics legend, unquestionably, but one wonders if with this story he didn't try to do too much; some parts of Holy War soar, whereas other parts, perhaps unnecessary, come through rather flat.

[Contains spoilers for Rann-Thanagar: Holy War]

First, the good. If Starlin wrote (or was tasked to write) just an Adam Strange story, there might be far less wrong with Holy War. Indeed the main character of Mystery in Space, Starlin's first most recent foray into DC's cosmic characters, had been meant to star Adam Strange, which is why perhaps Strange takes such a leadership role in this story while Starlin's replacement Mystery protagonist, Comet, becomes something of a clown.

Starlin's Strange makes a couple of what I consider to be uncharacteristic foolhardy decisions, but Starlin also presents him as swashbuckling and heroic in the manner we've come to expect from Adam Strange. In this second volume especially, Strange must consider (amidst battles with marauding aliens and resurrected gods) his growing role as a politician more than a fighter on the planet Rann, something that picks up from themes in Adam Beechen's Countdown to Adventure (coincidentally, I think). Inasmuch as I might prefer Adam Strange "classic," this new role for the hero, and the new status of Rann at the end of this story, breathe new life and offer potential for great Adam Strange stories to come.

And certainly, Starlin does well in making this a cosmic story, not just one that involves alien heroes. Starlin devotes the entire sixth issue of Holy War to the epic origin of the Demiurge, the story's mystery villain, and there's a bunch of great mixes here: a mix of hand- and computer-drawn artwork, and a mix of both science-fiction and mythical, supernatural elements. Starlin hints at a great magic war that involves, among others, Zauriel, Etrigan, the Phanton Stranger, and the Demon, and I frankly wouldn't have minded more information on this rather than other aspects of the book. The Demiurge himself is rather mundane, not much different than I understand Starlin's Thanos or other entropy-seeking cosmic bad guys to be, though I did enjoy, through some time-travelling quirks, that the Demiurge appears in the story both as the villain and, in the future, apologetic for his villainy.

The large cast of Holy War, however, ultimately comes off as so much window dressing. To illustrate, Starlin's own Chief Max of Hardcore Station stands mute with the other heroes for three to four issues before Adam Strange finally asks him a question, such that I was completely surprised to realize Max had been there all along.

Starlin also inexplicably continues to flog Animal Man, both by having the other characters call him weak, giving him nearly no role, and ultimately mis-representing his powers -- one imagines DC wanted to include Animal Man because of his recent history with Adam Strange and Starfire, but it doesn't seem that Starlin wants Animal Man there and might've done everyone a favor by leaving the character aside. Starfire gets a moment's face-off against Lady Styx (the best villain of the bunch), but she's saved by The Weird and comes off as largely unnecessary herself.

The first volume ends with the question of whether Adam Strange has caused the death of all the citizens of Starman Prince Gavyn's Throneworld; the answer is yes. Starman is believably upset (though largely off-panel); Strange feels some guilt, but it doesn't have nearly the depth of, say, the aftermath of Green Lantern John Stewart letting the planet Xanshi be destroyed in Starlin's Cosmic Odyssey. When Strange, rather un-ironically, must also risk killing the entire population of Rann, but ends up repopulating them on the now-deserted Throneworld, the princely Starman is very, very quick to accept his new subjects; Starlin resolves the situation far too neatly and entirely without the kind of consequences due to this situation, though a part of me is glad he's refrained from needlessly angst-ing the Adam Strange character.

Once again Starlin turns to his constant theme of sacrifice for the greater good; whereas Comet and the Weird each had to consider sacrificing innocents for the greater good in Mystery in Space, here again Adam Strange sacrifices Rann and the Weird seemingly commits suicide in Holy War in order to defeat the Demiurge. Starlin admirably tackles weighty issues where other writers might shy away, but I must say it begins to feel a tad repetitive; maybe "life and death" is the only dilemma worth mulling over, but when Strange muddles over the same issues that Comet did before, it lessens the difference between the two, and makes Holy War feel like a generic cosmic opera.

Indeed, this commonality is Holy War's biggest problem -- there's a great cast here and the makings of an interesting story, but ultimately Rann-Thanagar: Holy War didn't grip me as much beyond elements of stories I'd already read before.

[Contains full covers, "What Came Before" text]

I'm going to keep with the cosmic theme now; Holy War has tired me, actually, of space stories, but I've heard how good the new REBELS series is, and so I'm curious to see if it'll defeat even my current intertia. We'll see!
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