Review: Trinity Vol. 3 trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, January 28, 2010

After a soundly bad experience with Countdown to Final Crisis, Kurt Busiek and Mark Bagley's Trinity is a breath of fresh air. The story is far from perfect, especially toward the end of this third volume -- though I begin to wonder if any writer can really get a fifty-two part story 100% right, and the wisdom therein of continuing to try. Overall, however, Trinity has been a nice surprise, and a book I wouldn't hesitate to recommend.

[Contains spoilers for the Trinity books]

Fittingly, there are three acts to the third volume of Trinity, and of them all, I liked the best the finale of the alternate reality plotline that begins this book. I hadn't expected to enjoy what's essentially an impromptu "Elseworlds" tale, but Busiek both gives the trinity of this new world -- a retired Jay Garrick, Alan Scott, and Carter Hall -- so much tough-as-nails moxy, and also peppers the new reality with so many in-jokes, that there's plenty to love. To wit, this time around, we find J'onn J'onzz disguised in our midst as the spirit of humanity (much akin to Darwyn Cooke's New Frontier). That Lois jumps off the Daily Planet to get the god-powered Superman's attention, or that Nightwing similarly gets Batman's attention by shouting about Oliver Queen's chili, might seem rather obvious, but in their obviousness is nostalgia that reminds us what we love about these characters, which I think is the crux of Trinity.

In the previous volumes, Busiek explored the ways in which DC's Big Three characters contrast and make up a trinity, and also how those three heroes shaped our conception of a "superhero" like none other. In the last volume, Busiek properly lessens the hero worship a bit, and instead posits DC's main heroes not as the epitome of the heroic trinity in the DC Universe, but rather as an exceptionally visible representation of a trinity which constantly repeats itself in their world. Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are a trinity, but so are Sun-Chained-in-Ink, the Void Hound, and Tarot.

"The trinity," Tarot intones, "are not the universe," but rather "three of the many faces of those forces, those concepts, those ideas." In this way, Busiek successfully reasons out why Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are the Big Three both in their own universe and ours. Yes, they defined superheroics, and yes, they represent together certain dualities -- but moreover, in representing those dualities, they mirror ways in which our world works separate from comic books, like the sun, moon, and earth, or justice and punishment. To say that people around the world understand instinctively the Superman concept because he's this guy from Krypton, etc., is to overcomplicate the notion; to say that people "get" Superman because Superman is like the sun (especially when standing next to Batman) gets to the core of why the character resonates.

I enjoyed far more, however, both the heroes' personality-switching in the first book and the "world without the Big Three" in the second book, than I did "the Big Three-as-gods" in the third book. Obviously we all know the Big Three would be their old selves by the time this was done, and while the personality-switching carried with it some room for character reflection, having the Big Three as absolute versions of themselves (aloof Batman-god delivers only punishment, etc.) felt well-tread and unsurprising.

As well, perhaps showing the seams of trying to keep a story going for fifty-two chapters, Trinity began to repeat itself in the last volume. There's a good amount of running to one locale, having a skirmish, and then running to the next locale and having another skirmish. The heroes' loved ones try unsuccessfully to talk to the heroes-as-gods; they fail, fret a bit, try again, and repeat. I nearly lost track by the end as to which villain was meant to have betrayed which; there's numerous pages of Morgaine le Fay threatening Enigma, Despero threatening le Fay, Krona threatening all of them, and so on.

And Busiek and co-writer Fabian Nicieza get almost loopy in the back-up stories toward the end, as Krona has a conversation with his past self and with the Earth's Worldsoul, who tells Krona that essentially the point of life is just to exist. Interesting philosophical avenues, both, but at the end of the book the stories serve to slow the action when otherwise it ought be moving briskly along.

Trinity ends where we'd expect, right where it began on a pier in Keystone City, but this time in one of those large-scale superhero get-togethers that's always a lot of fun. Frankly the closing scene of the Big Three disappointed me -- so caught up is the plot in the god-power plotline that the heroes never return to how it felt to share each other's personalities and how their relationship might change; instead they reaffirm, yet again, their commitment to their loved ones. Hawkman, however, gets a great final scene that touches on his role as a leader on the alternate Earth, and ties (mostly coincidentally, I think) to events for him in both Rann/Thanagar: Holy War and Blackest Night. If nothing else coming out of Trinity, I'd be most interested to see Kurt Busiek write a Hawkman miniseries in the future.

But overall, for me, Trinity came down to one question, would Busiek find a way to keep alive the resurrected Tomorrow Woman at the end of this story, and the answer thankfully is yes. Tomorrow Woman first appeared in one issue of Grant Morrison's JLA, but the character had so much potential as to evoke a cult following and brief later appearances in a handful of DC titles, though never to return for good.

Nothing demonstrates that a writer "gets" the DC Universe (and DC fandom) like the way Busiek spotlighted Tomorrow Woman and equally-brief Leaguer Triumph, and that Busiek resurrects Tomorrow Woman for good is to cement Busiek's name as a writer we have to thank, for this one small glowing moment. Trinity is debatably good sometimes and not so good other times, but again, what's definite is that this series most certainly loves the DC Universe.

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

Reviews of Green Lantern, Rann/Thanagar, Titans, and more coming up. Don't miss it!

DC Comics announces Summer 2010 Collected Editions

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

DC Comics announced their official list of trade paperbacks, collected editions, and graphic novels for May, June, July, and August 2010 this week, as reported by our friends at ComicList.

We've already talked over a bunch of these solicitations on the Collected Editions blog, so I won't look at them all in detail, but here's some highlights with my comments in bold.

Writer: Peter J. Tomasi
Artists: Fernando Pasarin and Jay Leisten
Collects: OUTSIDERS #23-27
$12.99 US, 144 pg

Not sure the issues listed above can be believed, since the previous trade, Outsiders: The Deep, ended with issue #20. Collecting to issue #27 would take this trade into the new Dan DiDio/Superman title territory; my guess is that it's five issues starting with #21, which includes the Blackest Night crossover.

Writers: Greg Rucka and Sterling Gates
Artists: Jamal Igle, Julian Lopez, Fernando Dagnino and others
Collects: SUPERGIRL #43, 45-47, ACTION COMICS #881-882 and SUPERMAN SECRET FILES 2009 #1

Takes place before and after the Superman: Codename: Patriot crossover, which is mildly confusing; then collects the "Hunt for Reactron" storyline. We still don't know how the closing "New Krypton" issues of Action Comics and Superman will be collected; maybe in Nightwing and Flamebird and Mon-El volumes two respectively.

Writers: Various
Artists: Various
Collects: TITANS #14 and 16-22
$17.99 US, 192 pg

Brings Titans right up to the new team and to events in Justice League. Skips issue #15, a Blackest Night tie-in that I hope we'll see elsewhere.

Writer: Gail Simone
Artists: Aaron Lopresti and Bernard Chang
Collects: WONDER WOMAN #34-39
$14.99 US, 144 pg

Apparently the verdict in the great Wonder Woman hardcover/paperback experiment was paperback. Gail Simone's run now goes to trade-only.

Writer: Greg Rucka
Artist: J.H. Williams III
Collects: DETECTIVE COMICS #854-860

I thought we already knew that the Batwoman stories in Detective would be collected in the oversized deluxe format that I love, but a commentor pointed it out to me recently, so I mention again.

Writer: Keith Giffen
Artists: Matthew Clark and Justiniano
Collects: DOOM PATROL #1-6
$14.99 US, 144 pg

Includes the Doom Patrol/Blackest Night crossover

Writers: Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker
Artists: Michael Lark, Stefano Gaudiano and others
Collects: GOTHAM CENTRAL #23-31
$29.99 US, 224 pg

I love that they're collecting Gotham Central in order, instead of splitting the collections between Rucka and Brubaker volumes. This brings together stories elsewhere found in volumes three and four of the Gotham Central paperbacks. The next volume will mostly adhere to the fifth Gotham Central paperback, but here's hoping for some extras.

Writer: Andrew Kreisberg
Artist: Mike Norton
$19.99 US, 192 pg

Not quite up to the Blackest Night crossover yet. Should be next trade.

Writer: Dwayne McDuffie
Artists: Mark D. Bright, Mike Gustovich and others
Collects: ICON #13, 17, 19-22, 24-26 and 30
$19.99 US, 256 pg

At least some of the jumping around in this trade is to avoid the Worlds Collide crossover with the Superman titles, which I think DC should go ahead and collect for its historical value.

Writer: James Robinson
Artist: Mauro Cascioli
$24.99 US, 232 pg

Does not, disappointingly, collect the Faces of Evil: Prometheus lead-in. To the back issue bins!

Writer: Grant Morrison
Artists: J.H. Williams III, Cameron Stewart, Frazer Irving, Simone Bianchi, Ryan Sook and Mick Gray
$39.99 US, 400 pg

Collects exactly the first two Seven Soldiers paperback volumes

Writer: John Ostrander
Artists: Luke McDonnell and others
$17.99 US, 552 pg

They said we'd never see it, but here it is! What may end up being my very first Showcase Presents purchase. Makes one wish it was in color, though ...

Writers: Sterling Gates, Geoff Johns and Gerry Conway
Artists: Julian Lopez, Fernando Dagnino, Jamal Igle, Phil Noto, Jesus Merino, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez and others
$14.99 US, 144 pg

In keeping with the Super- and Bat-family themes of the Sterling Gates miniseries, this also collects DC Comics Presents #31, a Superman/Robin team-up, and Action Comics #865, Geoff Johns' recent revamp of the Toyman who appears here.

Writer: Geoff Johns
Artists: Ivan Reis, Oclair Albert and others
Collects: BLACKEST NIGHT #0-8
$29.99 US, 304 pg

Writer: Geoff Johns
Artists: Doug Mahnke, Ed Benes and others
Collects: GREEN LANTERN #43-51
$24.99 US, 256 pg

Writer: Peter J. Tomasi
Artists: Patrick Gleason, Rebecca Buchman and others
Collects: GREEN LANTERN CORPS #39-46
$24.99 US, 224 pg

Writers: James Robinson, Peter J. Tomasi and J.T. Krull
Artists: Eddy Barrow, Ardian Syaf, Ed Benes and others
$24.99 US, 240 pg

Writers: Geoff Johns, James Robinson and Greg Rucka
Artists: Scott Kolins, Nicola Scott, Eddy Barrows and others
$24.99 US, 240 pg

Writers: Geoff Johns, James Robinson, Peter J. Tomasi, Eric Wallace, James Robinson, Gail Simone, John Ostrander, Dan DiDio and Fabian Nicieza
Artists: Ryan Sook, Julian Lopez, Ardian Syaf, Don Kramer, Denys Cowan, Bill Sienkiewicz, Fernando Dagnino, Renato Arlem, J. Calafiore and others
$24.99 US, 208 pg

Writers: Geoff Johns, Peter J. Tomasi and Sterling Gates
Artists: Jerry Ordway, Chris Samnee, Rags Moraels, Mike Mayhew, Ivan Reis, Dave Gibbons, Rodney Ramos, Eddy Barrows, Gene Ha, Tom Mandrake, Doug Mahnke, Christian Alamy, Joe Prado and Rafael Albuquerque
$24.99 US, 176 pg

I ventured to hope that Green Lantern #18-21 was the missing "Alpha Lanterns" story, but that's Green Lantern Corps that's uncollected, not the main series. Hopefully the overlap between this trade and Tales of the Sinestro Corps collection is minimal

I, for one, am feeling very impatient for this summer when the Blackest Night trades hit. What are you most excited for?

Review: Trinity Vol. 2 trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, January 25, 2010

There's a friendly crisis on infinite earths going on right now at DC Comics, so subtle you might have missed it. That crisis is the quiet collision of the Kurt Busiek-verse with the Geoff Johns-verse (and the Grant Morrison-verse), each encompassing their own overlapping corner of the DC Universe. I, for one, didn't used to be such a fan of the Busiek-verse, but after the second volume of Trinity, I'm beginning to change my mind.

[Contains spoilers for Trinity Volume Two]

Busiek himself has disagreed with me on this point before, but it seems firmly to me that he got short shrift during his Superman run, with Geoff Johns writing Brainiac and General Zod and Busiek writing, well, a couple of crazy Daxamite priests and a space pirate. (I suggest no animosity here between Busiek and Johns, this is just my take on their stories.) By design or by accident, Busiek's are the "other" Superman stories, the ones in service to the main story. Ditto that elements Busiek established in JLA, like John Stewart having a Qwardian robot in his ring, has been soundly in Johns' Green Lantern (compare with Johns' Blackest Night appearing just about everywhere).

This changes with Trinity, at least in part, which would seem to be Busiek's Magnum opus; by the second volume, Busiek has referenced all his recent DC Comics work to date. JLA/Avengers is here, as is the unofficial sequel, JLA: Syndicate Rules. With Trinity's second part, Busiek also introduces elements from Superman: Camelot Falls -- not enough necessarily to distract from the main story (whereas the JLA tales are required reading for this book), but enough to demonstrate a through-way between Busiek's stories. Trinity, it would seem, finally makes the Busiek-verse legitimate and makes his otherwise irrelevant (if entertaining) stories relevant. That Trinity has been soundly ignored in favor of Final Crisis and the Morrison-verse ... well, we won't go there.

Still, let me tell you, this book is a fun ride. The second volume of Trinity accomplishes what Superman/Batman still struggles with -- telling a story about DC's biggest heroes without devolving into obsequious hero worshipping. Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman barely make an appearance in this volume, and yet Busiek not only makes their presence felt, but makes those who search for the heroes remarkably interesting, from alternate versions of Lois Lane and Dick Grayson to Gangbuster, Hawkman, Firestorm, and a number of other "not ready for prime-time" heroes.

Indeed, I dreaded that this second volume of Trinity takes place in an alternate reality where DC's Big Three never existed, and the Justice Society became a totalitarian force -- a concept we've seen too many times before -- Busiek has a lot of fun with it. In Busiek's alternate reality, we find a Lex Luthor still in his battle suit, forgotten heroes like Space Ranger and Black Orchid, and even a priceless scene between Justice Leaguers Triumph and Tomorrow Woman, both aware they'll be dead when the world goes back to normal but fighting to make things right anyway. In this way, Trinity is more than a study of DC's Big Three -- it's Busiek's love song to the DC Universe.

Just as the first volume of Trinity looked at the similarities and differences between DC's flagship heroes, the second volume examines the effect those heroes have on their world. Busiek notes through Firestorm (whom I'd be in favor of Busiek writing in a series!) that the Justice Society of World War II were "mystery men," but it wasn't until Superman that the world had "superheroes" -- and without the concept of superheroes, he notes, Aquaman's just "the creature from the Black Lagoon."

Moreover, Busiek posits, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman resonate with their world (and ours) because they are themselves representative of our basic concepts of justice, truth, punishment, and the like. They're pure archetypes of elemental forces (represented also by the characters of the tarot card in Trinity) from which all other heroes spring; as with Busiek's musings in the first volume, this is a remarkable cogent distillation of these heroes, and gives the Trinity books a lasting value far beyond their first reading.

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

Trinity remains a rollicking adventure -- from deep space to Camelot to the Anti-Matter Universe to big superhero-supervillain battles to primitive mythology -- and as long as it's taken me to get through these books, I more than feel I've received my money's worth. On now to the third volume -- I'm ready to read something else, but I wish any number of creators would take a page from Trinity and present books even half as detailed as this.

Review: Trinity Vol. 1 trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

I wanted to like Trinity -- swimming perhaps again what I understood to be the popular curve -- and indeed I found much to enjoy in the first volume. If we take as writer Kurt Busiek's purpose to explore the similarities and differences in DC Comics' Big Three trinity -- Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman -- he accomplishes this handily, even revealing some unexplored aspects of the three. At the same time, Trinity doesn't feel like a Big Three-centric book to an overwhelming extent, but rather seems to make good use of much of the DC Universe.

I think Busiek's Trinity project is unique in that, from the beginning, it explores the partnership of of DC's Big Three self-referentially. That is, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are presented with the idea that the three of them make up a cosmic trinity and are attacked because of this role, and therefore within the story consider the way the "trinity" idea applies to them. This makes for a fascinating conversation about a third of the way through the book, where the heroes consider themselves as representatives of the sun, the moon, and the earth; as a savior, punisher, and warrior, and as an alien, a "native," and one in-between, among others.

I found this last concept most interesting, that Superman is the ultimate alien outsider while Batman is the ultimate human insider. We know this to be the obvious case, but Busiek takes it further in pointing out Batman not just as human, but the quintessential "self-made man." While Busiek means this not just financially, indeed the Waynes are the embodiment of the American dream -- family wealth and estate -- but yet we know that Superman is closer associates with the "American Way" than Batman, and that Superman is highly more the "insider" than Batman. Busiek offers the concepts from all sides, and I appreciated it.

I also thought Busiek offered fair insights into Wonder Woman's place in the trinity. Most of what Busiek posits for Wonder Woman tends to be "in between" -- the earth in between the sun and the moon, the warrior between the savior and the punisher -- but even if this only makes Wonder Woman "half" of Superman and Batman respectively, they're also valid assesments of her character. Additionally, Busiek addresses, rather than ignores, Wonder Woman's identity as a woman alongside two potentially overshadowing men, and even looks at why she's been at times attracted to each of them and vice versa.

The first volume of Trinity offers a gigantic rolicking superhero story, a kind of popcorn movie without the weight of something like Final Crisis, but still fun to get lost in. Busiek loads on esoteric DC Universe concepts with abandon -- Krona, Morgaine le Fey, Despero, Kanjar Ro, and the Anti-Matter universe all find a unlikely place. At the end, if it doesn't all make sense, or you find yourself wondering as I did just how the heroes managed to get from point A all the way over to point B, it hardly matters; there's a joy to the deep history of this story that's well worth it.

Indeed one of my very favorite parts of Trinity so far is the inclusion of the late 1980s Superman character Gangbuster. The backup features here, which dovetail almost seamlessly with the main story, mostly focus on Gangbuster and Hawkman, and the two human, brutal characters together is a fun match. Busiek utilitzes the Justice League, the Justice Society, the Titans, and others here, giving the story a crossover-like feel, and the characters are more than just window-dressing. Busiek has Vixen, for instance, provide a remarkably cogent picture of how other heroes see the Big Three.

All of this isn't to pretend Trinity doesn't have its problems. Busiek's new characters like Tarot and Konvict fail to compete with the grandeur of DC's established heroes; to me, the story felt stronger when Busiek wasn't imagining off on his own. Also, some of the supposedly-hip slang Busiek puts in Tarot and Gangbuster's mouths, his stereotypically urban characters, falls very flat. While it's a thrill to see artist Mark Bagley's great rendition of the DC Universe through most of the book, the costumes of his new heroes and villains look hopelessly trapped in the 1980s, including his ridiculous update of Gangbuster's costume. (Brass knuckles with "Gangbuster" on them? Please.)

Overall, however, I enjoyed the first volume of Trinity much, much more than I expected. Unlike 52 and Countdown, Trinity doesn't try to bend itself to the weekly format; rather it's a just a winding multi-part tale, not much different that what you might find in JLA, but painted on a canvas that encompasses the entire DC Universe. What I've read so far makes me eager to pick up the next book.

Review: Justice Society of America: Black Adam and Isis hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, January 18, 2010

Unfortunately I was disappointed in Justice Society of America: Black Adam and Isis. While the concluding chapter of writer Geoff Johns' run on Justice Society (collected in the middle of this volume) represents well what made this series unique, the actual titular story spends too much time setting up future comics to satisfy. I adore that Johns teams with comics legend Jerry Ordway for this Captain Marvel-centered tale, but frankly Black Adam and Isis reads more like issues of Power of Shazam than Justice Society.

[Contains spoilers for Justice Society of America: Black Adam and Isis]

I'm not the first to criticize Geoff Johns for writing stories that amount, ultimately, just to lead-ins to other stories. Certainly this criticism has been leveled at Justice League: The Lightning Saga and Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes, each of which lead to Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds -- but I felt these at least were solid stories on their own. The three-part "Black Adam and Isis" story collected here leaves open so many questions, surely to be answered in another comics, as to be almost completely unreadable on its own. From the mysterious stranger on the subway platform, to the Rock of Finality and hints of a greater villain, to the Wizard Shazam's strange anger at the end, Black Adam asks more and more, but provides no answers. This close to the end of Geoff Johns' run on Justice Society, I understand and appreciate his wanting to revisit Black Adam, but not at the cost of making the Justice Society secondary characters in their own series.

Still, Johns continues to make Black Adam a compelling character. In Black Adam: The Dark Age, the reader saw Adam try and fail to resurrect his lost love Isis; now, finally sucessful, Adam must balance his love for Isis with his increasing discomfort in Isis's new, violent ways. Adam once again snatches defeat from the jaws of victory, and Johns convincingly demonstrates Adam's uncertainty. In his final issues, Johns parallels Adam and Isis's failed relationship with the equally star-crossed Stargirl and Captain Marvel; theirs was an interesting sub-plot early in Justice Society's predecessor, JSA, and I enjoyed that Marvel finally revealed to the Justice Society his secret identity, even if it didn't lead to rejoining the team.

Would that the entire book were more like "Black Adam Ruined My Birthday," Johns' closing Justice Society story. Justice Society, even more than JSA, has been as much about superheroics as about the quiet moments that happen in between world-conquering villains. I mentioned before the Norman Rockwell-esque Justice Society charity event, and we've also seen them sit down to Thanksgiving dinner, and here, celebrate Stargirl's birthday and take a trip to the dentist. There's few superheroes, and especially superhero teams, that can pull off such unironic Americana, and Johns (with artist Dale Eaglesham) deserves considerable credit for it. I don't imagine that we'll see a title with as much hopefulness any time soon.

We all know Johns holds a special place for Stargirl Courtney Whitmore, but indeed Courtney is Johns' legacy in the Justice Society. Over numerous storylines since JSA began in 1999, the character has shown natural growth from a flip teenager to a model for the new young Society members to follow. Fans of this modern incarnation of the Justice Society couldn't imagine the team without Stargirl -- it's simultaneously hard to believe and no suprise that the character is at this point more than ten years old -- and "Black Adam Ruined My Birthday" works because the characters acknowledging Stargirl as a "core" member of the Justice Society feels fitting both within the story and from the readers' perspective as well.

Jerry Ordway both contributes to Johns' revisiting the pages of Ordway's Power of Shazam, and takes over writing and drawing chores in two transitional issues before the new Justice Society team arrives. No doubt it's as much a thrill to see Ordway drawing the Captain Marvel characters again as it is to see him drawing Infinity Inc. in this two-parter, but the story decidedly suffers from repetitious dialogue and silly misunderstandings between the characters. I enjoyed seeing the Justice Society interact with the new Crispus Allen Spectre, but the confusing motivations and overblown speech of the story's villain made the end feel like every bit the (well-illustrated) fill-in it was.

Black Adam and Isis begins and ends with hints of fractures with the Justice Society team. As the Justice Society often appears in idealized situations, it's easy to think of them as a team without problems; on one hand, I appreciate a team that doesn't have bickering infighting like the Teen Titans, but on the other hand, likely that's not "realistic" from a story perspective. In the middle of this book, the Justice Society has twenty members, and certainly it feels like a lot, but I'm not convinced that the solution is to have a both a "gentle" and "extreme" Justice Society as Hawkman suggests in the beginning, a la the Justice League's former Extreme Justice.

I judge, I know, without having read the stories to follow, but as Geoff Johns departs, I may find myself setting this title aside as well. It's hard to believe that more than ten years ago, JSA began in the spirit of Grant Morrison's JLA, written by James Robinson part-way through his acclaimed run on Starman, and Geoff Johns was a relative unknown. Morrison's still around, as is Robinson, though much is different about the landscape of the DC Universe. I'm thankful for the last ten years that cemented the Justice Society's place in the DC Universe, but as when Greg Rucka left Gotham Central, possibly DC should have let Justice Society end rather than fade off poorly like so many other series have when their leading writers leave (Birds of Prey and Teen Titans immediately come to mind); here's hoping the next writers can follow the example that Johns set.

[Contains full and variant covers]

Review: Black Adam: The Dark Age trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, January 14, 2010

It will be hard to convince me that anyone can write Black Adam quite like Geoff Johns writes Black Adam, but Peter Tomasi comes close in Black Adam: The Dark Age. On display here is both Adam's moral ambiguity and the startling violence that follows, even unwittingly, in his wake. Tomasi asks at least some of the hard questions, and while I'm not sure he provides suitable answers, The Dark Age is an enjoyable read all around.

Black Adam is either the Charlie Brown of the DC Universe set -- nothing he does ever works out quite the way he intended it -- or the Rodney Dangerfield, cursed to get no respect. Try as he might have to live a peaceful life as the demi-dictatorial ruler of Kahndaq, the villains of the DCU teamed together and murdered Adam's wife Isis; Adam's "reasonable" genocidal response brought down on him the heroes of the DCU as if he were the villain. Now all Adam wants to do is resurrect Isis, except he's being attacked by a government agency, hunted by the JSA and the JLA, and sent all around the world on a mysterious mission by the wizard Faust -- what's a Black Adam to do?

In this way, Tomasi presents Black Adam's troubles as never his fault, and instead the consequences of a man who's always right doing what has to be done. Adam is a study in contradictions; he is just as quick to save the life of an innocent doctor who herself saved Adam, as he is to doom an entire village when he steals the amulet that makes them fertile. Adam has a distinct moral code that rewards loyalty but values himself over all, and his regrets are only for what he's lost, not what he's done. It's fun to read about Black Adam because of the struggle within him to do good -- and "good" he sometimes does, though the reader can't ever be sure when Adam will decide to do bad instead.

A defining aspect of the Black Adam story so far has been his friendship with Albert Rothstein, the hero known as Atom Smasher. Once, as Nuklon, Rothstein's teammates considered him a "pollyana," so optimistic was the hero -- but a villain murdering his mother, and then his friendship with Black Adam, changed that.

Tomasi bookends The Dark Age with Adam's conversations with Hawkman and Atom Smasher -- two heroes not afraid to shed blood, but Hawkman wants Adam to turn himself in, while Atom Smasher councils Black Adam to hide. Adam heeds neither's advice, but the fact that he fights with Hawkman but leaves Atom Smasher in peace speaks volumes of Adam's character. The difficulty with calling Adam a villain is that ultimately, he's a reasonable man -- his villany isn't so easily classified in bank robbery or world domination schemes. His reluctance to throw the first punch, when "heroes" like Hawkman have no such reservations, threaten to redefine our concepts of heroes and villains.

Along with artist Doug Mahnke, Tomasi offers six issues that leave no question why we find Black Adam so fascinating. Mahnke demonstrated his talent for drawing the absurd in Major Bummer, but here as in Batman his close-up characters, all with serious, piercing eyes, set the right tone for the book's moral questions. Blood and gore flow freely here, but all in the service of Adam's struggle.

Ultimately Tomasi leaves most of the reflection to those around Adam and not Adam himself. I might've liked an answer, for instance, to Atom Smasher demanding to know why Adam destroyed the rival country Bialya, for which there is a good reason, but Tomasi lets the moment pass. Still, there's no question that Tomasi understands the parameter's of Adam's difficulties, and presents, if not answers, them well in this book.

As a side note -- I picked up Black Adam: The Dark Age some time ago and waited to read it until I had Justice Society of America: Black Adam and Isis in hand. Looking around when I wrote this review, however, I come to find that The Dark Age is out of print, and sells for upwards of fifty dollars on some sites! This isn't a story terribly tied to continuity, and so my guess is that it's the rarity of the book, more than the book itself, that makes it so valuable. Still, if you want this book, I recommend you check online or the shelves of your local comic book store -- it's possible you may still find it for regular price, but probably not for long!

[Contains full covers]

On now, as I mentioned, to Justice Society of America: Black Adam and Isis. Stick around!

Review: Batman: Battle for the Cowl Companion trade paperback (DC Comics)

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Monday, January 11, 2010

I enjoyed the stories in the Batman: Battle for the Cowl Companion, but indeed that's just what they are -- stories. The five specials collected here range from closely or tertiarily connected to Batman: Battle for the Cowl, all the way to advertisements for other comics entirely; there's not a bad one in the bunch, but you hardly need this companion to understand Battle for the Cowl.

Both the "Commissioner Gordon" and "Underground" chapters intersect directly with Battle for the Cowl. In Battle, Gordon mentions his "run-in" with Mr. Freeze, and indeed this is that run-in. Chris Yost's "Underground" -- apparently what we call Batman's villains these days -- answers my earlier question as to what became of Catwoman during Battle for the Cowl; I'm not sure the timeline of the two stories quite fits, but Catwoman running in to Black Mask (whom she believes she murdered) and the post-Countdown to Final Crisis reunion of Harley Quinn and sometime-Catwoman Holly Robison are both great moments.

Unexpectedly, my favorite of the stories was "Arkham Asylum." The story is an unabashed lead-in to writer David Hine's forthcoming Arkham Reborn miniseries, but it also takes on the concept of insanity, inprisonment, and the meaning of asylum with striking seriousness. Through the narration of Jermiah Arkham, Hine introduces three fasinating inmates -- one obsessed with his own looks, one so ugly her face drives men insane, and with no face other than what he himself draws -- and the detailed description of Arkham's treatment of the inmates is equally interesting. The cliffhanger ending comes seemingly out of nowhere, but it does its job -- whereas I might otherwise have skipped that miniseries, now I'm curious to see what happens next.

"Man-Bat" and "The Network" round out the book. Joe Harris's "Man-Bat" makes good use of Dr. Phosphorus, last seen in the recent Batman: Detective stories, and also references Man-Bat's wife Francine's ties to the Outsiders, but the story also ends on a cliffhanger which I'm not sure where, if ever, will be followed up. Fabian Nicieza's "The Network" -- as strange a name as "The Underground" -- works as a Birds of Prey story in that Oracle gets the spotlight, though his ultra-violent characterization of the Huntress is largely outdated. There's also a suggestion in the story that former Bird of Prey Misfit is ill, though again it's hard to know if that's something that will be continued elsewhere.

The Battle for the Cowl Companion spotlights a good cross-section of the Batman universe, and each of the stories has a fair or twist at the end; I also appreciated reading a selection of writers I wasn't familiar with. Most of these stories are pretty well disconnected from the main Batman events, however; either they don't branch well from Battle for the Cowl or it's unclear where they're meant to fit elsewhere in the DC Universe. Inasmuch as one might have thought DC would have learned their lesson by now, these seem to be fairly needless crossover issues, banking on rather than adding to Battle for the Cowl. The saving grace indeed is only that they're all surprisingly well written; otherwise this volume might not get the recommendation that it does.

Review: New Teen Titans Archives Vol. 4 hardcover (DC Comics)

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Of the four volumes of the modern New Teen Titans Archives, this fourth volume is by far my favorite. I have been impressed with Marv Wolfman and George Perez's use of "years" in these volumes -- every twelve issues have had something of a common tone and a beginning and ending climax. In this fourth volume, Wolfman and Perez close out the second year with the advent of Brother Blood and an attack by Starfire's sister Blackfire; the third year brings with it the start of Robin and Starfire's relationship, and appearances by a mysterious girl later known as ... Terra. There's such fantastic pacing in this book, and such a sense of coming possibility, I was riveted the whole way through.

Throughout the volumes, the writers have visited and re-visited the question of whether heroes should kill, and I'm remiss not to have mentioned it before now. Here, Brother Blood kills Cyborg's childhood girlfriend, and he and Starfire seek vengeance over Changeling's protests when they think the other Titans have been murdered; in space, the Titans fight a war against the Citadel alongside the Omega Men, and it's suggested the Titans do kill, if unwittingly, in a number of hectic battles.

I appreciated here how Wolfman and Perez challenge cultural relativism. Sure, killing your enemies is forbidden in Gotham City, but that's not necessarily the case on Starfire's warrior planet of Tamaran. Similarly, what stands in the course of catching super-villains isn't necessarily the case for soldiers drafted into a full-fledged war. The writers contract the Titans' attempt to hold on to their morality with the increasing violence of the district attorney Adrian Chase, just one of many intricate plotlines being weaved together in these pages.

Another storyline that comes to fruition is Robin admitting his affection for Starfire. Perhaps Nightwing and Starfire have been such a constant in the DC Universe since I've been reading comics that the start of their relationship never occurred to me. Over the first two years of New Teen Titans, without too much melodrama, Wolfman and Perez portrayed a Starfire who might love Robin if not for her own naivete, and a Robin who might love Starfire if not for his inherit distrustfulness, and very slowly brought the two characters together.

We see now the importance even of Starfire's relationship with Franklin Crandell way back in volume two, turning the Robin/Starfire romance "off" for an issue without making a big deal of it having been "on." The page of Cyborg and Kid Flash discussing Robin and Starfire's relationship as the team returns from space reinforces how important this change is to the team. Once again, this fourth volume suggests so much to come in the future; it must have been terribly, terribly exciting to read these issues as published.

I noted in this volume a shift in the public's perception of the Titans, caused mainly by Brother Blood's machinations. I remarked in an earlier review how amazing it was that no one distrusted these Teen Titans solely because of their age, as would be standard with any current teen group; here, that very mistrust begins to come to light. It suggests the end of a more innocent era for the "new" Teen Titans, carrying over from when they were just the Teen Titans proper; surely, once Terra comes on the scene, the innocence of teen groups will be ruined but good.

This fourth volume of the New Teen Titans Archives is the last volume, perhaps, because the story continues in paperback in New Teen Titans: Terra Incognita. Unfortunately, there's three uncollected issues between Terra Incognita and The Judas Contract (#35-37; #38 appears in New Teen Titans: Who is Donna Troy), so an uninterrupted reading of New Teen Titans ends right after. Still, what we have here are stories which are not only captivating, but still hold up as paragons of storytelling thirty years later.

[Contains full covers, introduction by Marv Wolfman]

Review: New Teen Titans Archives Vol. 3 hardcover (DC Comics)

Monday, January 04, 2010

This is the third part in our series on the New Teen Titans Archives:

Volume three of the New Teen Titans Archives is essentially a collection of short stories. I understand from Marv Wolfman's introduction in volume two why he felt a string of done-in-one issues was necessary, breaking up the flow of a number of epic Titans adventures; it also helps return to the root of the series -- that is, the characterization of these heroes before their wild heroics. Reading the archive collection, I admit to feeling impatient with these four issues and the four-part, character-focused Tales of the New Teen Titans miniseries -- in following the early history of the Titans, I'd rather read about the rise of Brother Blood than in a one-off team-up with Hawkman -- though certainly there's much to like in this volume.

I'm a Red Star fan from way back -- but by way back I mean "Titans Hunt," and not the earlier story collected here, when Red Star was still called Starfire. Despite that "A Pretty Girl Is Like a -- Maladi" telegraphs the end all the way from the beginning, what's gripping and endearing here is Red Star's stoic self-sacrifice in the face of tragedy; it's impossible not to like this character. Wolfman and George Perez use Kid Flash to offer a healthy dose of 1980s Cold War paranoia in opposition to Red Star, and it's fascinating to watch this buttoned-up, conservative Wally West as compared to the hero we know today (as is true for the later Wally story, "Dear Mom and Dad").

The Tales of the New Teen Titans miniseries collected here serves two purposes -- to offer backstory on the "new" Titans introduced at that time, and to tease some future Titans stories (also introduces the Titans campout, referenced time and again especially in later Titans series). Most notable is the introduction of Starfire Koriand'r's sister Komand'r, who I believe appears in the next volume and has been a reoccurring DC Universe baddie ever since. I also found interesting Raven's revelation that the denizens of Azarath actually created Trigon, something I don't think I knew; one of these days I'll have to go back and re-read "Titans Hunt" up through Nightwing and Starfire's wedding, and try to pin down who exactly possessed whom and why in that whole thing.

The Cyborg spotlight stood as the favorite of the miniseries issues. I felt so touched by Cyborg Victor Stone and his father Silas's reconciliation in the first volume that this second look at the origins of their estrangement was all the more moving. We find here that it was not just that Silas couldn't accept Victor's lack of interest in science, but also that Victor fell into a bad crowd that caused him to rebel against his parents. The writers spin a tale of peer pressure that spans both Victor Stone's early life and the unexplored time after he became Cyborg but before he joined the Titans; this story too, though mildly cliched, offers an interesting look at the person behind the hero.

I've enjoyed George Perez's art, with inking by Romeo Tanghal, throughout the books so far, though I admit it leaves me hungry for Perez's later, wider-screen art in Crisis on Infinite Earths or Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds. In the Tales of the Teen Titans miniseries, Perez pairs with one of my all-time favorite inkers, Brett Breeding, and also Pablo Marcos, and the art on the Cyborg and Raven issues reflected some of the bold life I've been waiting to see in Perez's pages.

There's nothing wrong with smaller stories, but these have left me hungry for an epic -- I'm eager to see if the fourth volume delivers.

[Contains full covers, introduction by Len Wein, pin-up pages (also reprinted in volume one)]