Review: Mr. Terrific Vol. 1: Mind Games trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, July 16, 2012

Writer Eric Wallace's Mr. Terrific: Mind Games represents a first for DC Comics's New 52 line -- it is one of the first New 52 titles to be cancelled. As such, Mr. Terrific Volume One is actually "volume one and only," and the trade collects all eight issues of the series.

Despite its cancellation, Wallace does a nice job here -- Mr. Terrific is a science-based superhero, and Mind Games has science in spades. The book suffers however from a rough start, uneven artwork, and occasional clumsy writing on Wallace's part; a second collection of Mr. Terrific would have been welcome, but it's not hard to see why the book was cancelled. It's a shame, both for the loss of the title and character, and for the way Wallace addresses race (and fans address race back) that would have been interesting to watch had the book continued.

[Review contains spoilers]

The "old" DC Universe's Mr. Terrific Michael Holt was a member of the Justice Society, was a major figure in Checkmate, dated Sasha Bordeaux, was friends with Dr. Mid-Nite, and so on. Wallace's Terrific is none of these things, and counter-intuitively it makes the reader want to follow him. Holt is the world's third smartest man, as we're both told and Wallace demonstrates, but his personal life is a mess -- his employees don't trust his judgment, he neglects his company, and he won't let any of the women in his life close to him.

Holt comes by it honestly, having cut himself off from most people after the death of his wife, and his combination of prowess and well-meaning ignorance makes him a likeable protagonist. There's marked similarity between Holt and the New 52 Green Arrow Oliver Queen, only Queen is something of a playboy and showboat and Holt is not; when Holt brushes off the advances of his colleague Aleeka, the reader's heart goes out to them because Holt's standoffishness comes from his own pain.

Wallace leaves no doubt that the root of the Mr. Terrific book is science, both because of Holt's avowed preference for all things scientific and for how much science pseudo-fact Wallace packs into each page. In the penultimate chapter, Terrific fights a militia group made invisible via gamma frequencies and creates an "inverse compton scattering wave pulse" to make them visible; at another point he relies on molecular chemistry to defeat the matter-shifting Tomorrow Thief. Wallace includes material like this on almost every single page, and it makes for interesting reading if also a considerable amount of verbiage.

The initial three issues of Mind Games see Holt investigating a mysterious sound that makes the citizens of Los Angeles quite suddenly psychotic. The first two parts of the story proceed well -- Holt himself is affected and must stop an earthquake of his own deranged making. In the third part, however, Holt faces new villain Brainstorm, who ingests the minds of the crazed victims; though the New 52 must necessarily introduce new villains, Brainstorm is silly in attitude and appearance, and he doesn't present a "cool" threat for Terrific. Wallace gets points for the unexpected revelation that Brainstorm might have caused Holt's wife's death, but this too is lessened by how ridiculous Brainstorm seems.

The artwork in these chapters is problematic. Gianluca Gugliotta, for the first two issues, has a unique style -- bodies somewhat large, faces somewhat gnarled -- that is appealing but far from traditional superheroic imagery. Scott Clark's art in the third chapter, however, is plain and blocky, and lacks the storytelling aspects that comics require (at one point Terrific and Brainstorm have a conversation at the same time Terrific is punching Brainstorm in the stomach). The third chapter is meant to be the culmination of Mr. Terrific's first arc, the real selling point for the title, and the difficulty of both story and art in this issue, even despite some surprises, must necessarily have sealed this book's fate.

Despite many aspects worthy of praise in Wallace's further stories -- the additional romantic plotline that precedes Terrific's battle with the Tomorrow Thief, and the depiction of Holt Industries' corporate dealings around Digitus's attack -- the same problems recur. Neither the Thief nor Digitus are engaging villains, visually nor story-wise, and the art remains rough throughout. Wallace also has a tendency to overnarrate, both with Terrific's inner scientific monologue and in "telling" Terrific's origins and about his past conflict with the Blackhawks, for instance, rather than letting the background play out naturally through the story.

A specific bright spot -- and there are quite a few -- is Terrific's trip to space in the fourth and fifth issues. Kidnapped from his trans-dimensional headquarters, Terrific leads a band of aliens in revolt against cosmic slavers. The space setting is unusual for Mr. Terrific as readers knew him in the "old" DC Universe, but in the end Wallace uses the multi-gendered alien Py'lothia to parallel the plight of LGBT teenagers and Terrific's own emotional confusion. It's a rare bit of relevance, the kind that the New 52 likely needs to be relevant (and that, again, Green Arrow: The Midas Touch tries for and fails), that distinguishes this book and would have portended good thing for Mr. Terrific had it continued.

Though there are a predominant amount of African American characters here (most of the Holt Industries staff, compared again to Oliver Queen's Q-Core staff, who are all white), the book is not much about race; Wallace, who is African American, even told IGN before the series's release that he did not necessarily intend to make Holt's race a large factor. The most overt undertaking of race is in the first issue when Holt's girlfriend Karen Starr (nee Power Girl) asks if Aleeka objects to her dating Holt because Karen is white; also in the first issue, Terrific chides some bystanders for complaining about his rescue, suggesting they should have said instead, "Thanks black man for saving us" (with the emphasis meant to be on the save, not necessarily on Terrific's race).

The latter item, certainly the milder of the two, has garnered its share of controversy. Comments about Terrific's statement on IGN's review of Mr. Terrific #1 border on the offensive; however, read/RANT!, Too Dangerous for a Girl, and Weekly Comic Book Review all more reasonably object to the sentence as well, suggesting it represents a forced emphasis on race in the story.

This is surprising because it doesn't appear Wallace intends to create controversy here. There is not significant difference between what Terrific says and the giant Atom Smasher saying, for instance, "Thanks big guy for saving us," except that Wallace's line addresses a taboo. It would not, as a matter of fact, be polite for someone to say to Terrific "thanks black guy," but yet neither ought the reader expect Terrific to be agnostic of his own race. Terrific (via Wallace, the reader extrapolates) lives his race every day, and as such he might use it to describe himself just the same as Atom Smasher might do the same with his height.

Whether the comics market will support a title with a minority protagonist -- whether Terrific's race, in essence, contributed to the cancellation of the title -- is endlessly debatable, but to suggest a title like Mr. Terrific has a greater responsibility to ignore the main character's race than to address it seems even more unreasonable.

How all of this might have played out had the series continued can't be known, unfortunately. But Mr. Terrific: Mind Games represents an interesting one-shot; Eric Wallace may not have been the writer to carry this series long-term, but he does satisfactory work for one book. Mr. Terrific ends on a cliffhanger that leads into James Robinson's Earth 2 series -- this appears to be how many cancelled DC New 52 series end, with the characters carrying on into other titles, something that makes the cancellation seem not so severe. Mr. Terrific came and went, but it's nice to think this single collection still matters in the greater DC Universe overall.

[Includes original covers, sketchbook section and penciled pages.]

Later this week, the Collected Editions review of another cancelled DC New 52 title, Static Shock.  See you then!
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5 comments:

  1. I read Mr. Terrific month-to-month, and found it to be a disappointing departure from a good premise. A lot of the first issue indicated a "Black Doctor Who" direction for Terrific, complete with Karen as his companion. But then...

    I couldn't peg why I didn't want to keep reading, but my friend Larry pointed it out--Terrific comes off as annoying pretentious. He keeps feeling the need to be the smartest man in the room.

    Batman gets to be the smartest in the room by his reputation; he doesn't feel the need to talk in long, run-on, technobabble sentences to justify the plot. In Morrison's JLA, there are times when he barely says anything, and you can still feel that he's the guy in charge. Mr. Terrific never gets that far.

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  2. Terrific does come off as annoyingly pretentious. Personally I think that was purposeful on Wallace's part (Terrific is continually taken down peg after peg, especially in regards to his emotional immaturity, throughout the course of the book) -- but "purposefully" does not necessarily mean "artfully handled." Wallace's Titans was a hard book to like, too -- I admire Wallace's willingness to take on hard subjects, even as I sense his comics writing is still maturing.

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  3. Nothing against the character, but I'd really have preferred if they gave a book to Black Lightning instead..

    Terrific kinda gets me confused on some parts though..he's going to join the Earth 2's JSA? Stay in this "universe" and there's going to be an alternate Terrific over there? The same one, the golden age one?..

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  4. I question your use of "instead" -- I don't think you mean it this way, but I think there's a tendency some times to treat books starring minority characters as an either/or -- you hear "I like Mr. Terrific but I wish they'd given that title to Black Lightning" but not necessarily "I like Captain Atom but I wish they'd given that title to Black Lightning."

    Either way, there's some Black Lightning material on the way, with Blue Devil, which is a strange choice and I half believe it's just so they can call them Black and Blue (which is terrible) except that Manhunter's Marc Andreyko has the reigns, and we know Andreyko is a good and thoughtful writer, so I'm optimistic.

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  5. I didn't like that Brainstorm was responsible for the death of T's wife. Was it to create archnemesis out of him? And than Wallace chose to do an Identity Crisis on him? That was really unnecessary I think.

    Gianluca's art was really bad. Almost in every panel everyone looked like a hobbit on steriods with baggy trousers :)

    If the title wasn't cancelled, I don't think I would continue with this one....

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