Review: Green Arrow: Moving Targets trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, July 31, 2006

On one hand, Green Arrow: Moving Targets is the origin of the new Speedy: where she came from, how she convinced Green Arrow to give her the job, and what personal challenges she'll have to face. On the other hand, Green Arrow: Moving Targets is a tale of two artists, and how two startlingly different art styles can almost completely change the tone and perception of a series. Finding them in the same trade makes the dichotomy all the more apparent.

Oliver Queen should be relaxing after freeing his city from demons at the end of Green Arrow: City Walls, except that the mayor has quickly instituted martial law, Black Canary breaks up with him, Mia Dearden continues to endanger herself to make up for killing a man, and a second-rate gangster named Brick begins taking over the city's crime families. All of this is set aside, however, when Mia learns she has HIV. Mia convinces Ollie to let her become the new Speedy; in return, he brings her to San Francisco to join the Teen Titans. In Star City, Brick hires the Duke of Oil to try to kill "Team Arrow"; Arsenal is kidnapped by Green Arrow: Straight Shooter's Drakon, who turns out to be working for the Riddler -- no, the Secret Society -- no, Brick -- and the Outsiders arrive to help rescue him.

I enjoy the social activism apparent in Judd Winick's Green Arrow; though I grant that both Green Lantern and Green Arrow titles have a history of dealing with social issues, with Green Lantern it's always seemed incidental to me, while Green Arrow's politics are an inherit part of his personality. The issue of Mia's HIV is handled with grace and sensitivity, if not perhaps a bit of permissable melodrama -- I have as much of a hard time believing the principals of a school would put all classes on hold so that one student could reveal their HIV status, as I do that Mia could discuss it with the entire school so calmly and professionally the first time out -- but at the same time, we know how important Pedro Zamora was to Judd Winick, and as such we'll allow a few liberties.

And I do appreciate the idea of a Speedy with HIV; as Arsenal notes, that could have been him, and indeed, had HIV been a more open issue back then, it likely would have been him. Roy Harper grappled with a drug addiction, but for all intents and purposes he's more or less gotten off easy, story-wise; Mia Dearden takes the struggles of the Speedy character to a new level. I applaud Winick for writing this, and I'm eager to see both how he uses it, and how he allows Mia to be a character with HIV who's not solely defined by her disease.

I was thinking, during an early scene where Green Arrow is talking with the mayor, how inherently ridiculous Green Arrow's costume is; if we imagine this in "reality," how could the mayor keep a straight face while talking to a vigilante with a feather in his cap? The art of Phil Hester and Andre Parks, however, makes it work; everything is small and understated, with lots of angles giving the illusion of curves; the action scenes reflect the same kind of preciseness that Scott McDaniel used on Nightwing, giving Green Arrow's fight with Brick a ninja-like grace. Tom Fowler's art, however, halfway through the trade, seems to take the other tact, presenting Green Arrow as more of a larger-than-life characature, with a gigantic head capped by a sharp, pointing beard, and often distorted, grimacing lips.

The tone of the story changes, too; Winick moves from the urban gangster Brick to wildly fantastic supervillains like the Riddler and the silly Duke of Oil, and for me, some of the charm of the story lessened. Winick and Fowler's Riddler acts and looks like the Joker, while the art on the fight with Drakon (could have been another fill-in artist, at this point) was often drawn too confusing to be exciting. The trade ends with a bang, but ultimately Green Arrow very barely saves the day. It is distinctly the first half of this trade that makes it worth reading, not the second half.

The collections department at DC makes a critical error here in revealing the Riddler's role on the trade's back cover. Drakon's appearance is somewhat of a surprise, but the Riddler is the story's big reveal, and the back of the trade blows it. Personally, I've stopped reading the trade backs for the most part. Still, for Infinite Crisis fans, there is a last page surprise still waiting when you finish.

[Contains character bios, a thumbnail cover gallery.]

So Green Arrow remains imminently readable among other titles out there, even with some slippage at the end, and I salute Judd Winick for the social issues that he confronts here. I hope to see more of this as Green Arrow goes on. For Collected Editions, I might read a little Teen Titans next, and then finally Day of Vengeance. See you later.

Looking for a new comics shop ...

Sunday, July 16, 2006

So I'm looking for a new comics shop from which to pre-order my trade paperbacks. Discount Comic Books Service (or DCBS) has great discounts, though their shipping rates are a little high; Mail Order Comics is also good for a bargain every once in a while. Can anyone suggest more? It seems quite a few are going under these days.


Review: Batman: Under the Hood trade paperback (DC Comics)

It's hard to say if my reaction to Batman: Under the Hood (volume one, that is) would be different if I didn't already know just about everything that was going to happen. The story within is nearly earth-shattering, really, in its effect on the Batman mythos overall, but it's hard to raise an eyebrow when the big revelation was splayed across every comics news site the moment it came out (I feel the same way about the big moment in The OMAC Project, too, and so I'm making it my goal to try to learn as little about 52 as I can, so as to keep the surprising moments actually surprising). Still, the team of Judd Winnick, Doug Mahnke, and Tom Nguyen do a great job writing and illustrating a certain, distinct Batman at a certain time in his life, enough to make all the set-up here passable before the second volume.

Winnick portrays a Batman who is, frankly, old--far more the George Clooney Batman than Christian Bale. At one point, fighting alongside Nightwing, Batman thinks back on Dick Grayson's youth as Robin and notes that the happy memories make it "hard to be with" Nightwing now. When Bruce begins to suspect the identity of the Red Hood, he visits both Green Arrow and Superman to talk about the times that they were "dead"; though the two heroes dismiss their resurrections rather blithely, Batman insists that as a man of science, their rebirths have affected him more than he let on. This is a Batman nostalgic, a Batman feeling his age, a Batman tied up in thoughts of mortality. Since comics creators let Dick Grayson grow up, Bruce Wayne's age becomes more nebulous than those of Superman or Wonder Woman--sometimes he's a young billionaire playboy, sometimes he's an older father figure. The latter, we know, is more temporary, while the former more definitive, but Winnick uses it to his advantage here, especially given Batman's dynamic with the Red Hood.

I've been a fan of Mahnke and Nguyen since their Superman: Man of Steel days (not, sadly, since their Major Bummer days, which would allow me to call myself a true fan), through to JLA and Justice League Elite, and now Batman. And I admit, I wasn't always a fan, finding the far-off shots sometimes too cartoon-y, but I came to find that the two created beautiful close-up shots with great detail, and then I was hooked. Batman's positioning within this trade is awkward at times, but their artwork is highly appropriate for this storyline overall.

I'll save more detailed opinions on the Red Hood's resurrection for after I've read volume two. For now, I'm off to read ... I don't know what. Day of Vengeance and JSA: Black Vengeance, eventually, but maybe Green Arrow and Teen Titans/Outsiders: The Insiders first. We'll see. Thanks for reading.

Collected Updates 7-9-06

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Made some changes to the Collected Editions page ... note the fully updated reviews list on the left ... also, we're FeedBurning now for your syndicated pleasure ...

Review: The OMAC Project trade paperback (DC Comics)

I've read the trade of the first of the four Countdown to Infinite Crisis miniseries, The OMAC Project, and I was wholly impressed. I didn't go in to it, of course, expecting a complete, resolved story, and I also really knew most of the major plot points going in; despite that, Greg Rucka has written a tale with his usual aplomb that is more than just a prelude miniseries, and instead a story about the intersection of the mind, body and heart; of men and machines; and of teamwork -- good teams, bad teams, and just plain evil teams. Rucka shows such wisdom and care in his handling of a wide variety of DC Universe characters -- from the Big Three to also-rans -- that one can't help but be engaged.

In The OMAC Project, trouble at Blue Beetle's technology company leads him to discover a brewing conspiracy, but he can't get any of the major heroes to assist him. When Beetle infiltrates a mysterious castle by himself, he finds Maxwell Lord at the center of a new Checkmate; Max proceeds to kill Beetle. Batman's former bodyguard Sasha Bordeaux -- and Max's Black Knight -- turns against Max and alerts Batman of the murder; he reveals to the JLA both Beetle's death, his recollection of being mindwiped by the early Justice League, and his subsequent creation of Brother I, a metahuman-tracking satellite. Batman locates Sasha in one of Beetle's warehouses, and they are attacked by OMACs -- cybernetic monsters built around innocent human hosts. Meanwhile, Booster Gold enlists Guy Gardner and Fire to help avenge Beetle's death. Max uses his mind-control powers to brainwash Superman and attack Batman; Wonder Woman is forced to kill Max to free him. Batman discovers a weapon that Beetle built that would stop the OMACs, and gathers a team of heroes to trap them; Sasha, revealed as cybernetic herself, is able to shut down others, but not before Rocket Red and others are killed.

Batman states early on that the mind is the one true thing he can control; the body -- the heart -- can betray you, as with his feelings for Sasha. But we learn that the mind is just as tricky -- not only did the Justice League take Batman's memories from him, but Max Lord's specialty is corrupting the mind. In the end, we're given the sense that perhaps there is a value to the body; when Sasha Bordeaux decries her newfound mechanical status, Batman tells her she's not a machine solely because she can feel. This is complicated, however, by the newly autonomous Brother Eye, who Batman claims can't feel at all -- except it ends the story by taking revenge on Wonder Woman for her killing Lord. I've noticed that in the wake of Brad Meltzer's detailed Identity Crisis, much of the discussion surrounding Infinite Crisis has been in what the "theme" or "point" of the story is -- questions no one asked back in the day of Joker: Last Laugh or Day of Judgment. Greg Rucka uses The OMAC Project to raise some good points and ask some interesting questions, and this alone could have raised OMAC Project above the level of just a typical crossover miniseries.

Having just read the "Super-Buddies" trades before reading OMAC Project, I was also thoroughly pleased with how Rucka handled the former Justice Leaguers. Keith Giffen demonstrated in I Can't Believe It's Not the Justice League how these characters, despite all the jokes, truly care about one another; this was perverted, somewhat, when Maxwell Lord shot Blue Beetle in the head. But in a truly inspired moment, Guy Gardner teams up with Booster Gold -- without hesitation, and with all jokes laid aside -- to hunt for Beetle's killer, and when they get in touch with Fire, she's already been searching herself; Rucka also includes Super-Buddy Mary Marvel. I've always thought Booster, Beetle, Fire, Ice, and Guy were the core of the old Justice League, and these are characters who, we can imagine, have been through a lot -- the death of two of their members leaves a somber three behind -- and Rucka does a great job of showing their battle-weary camaraderie. That Rocket Red is killed here just adds to the tragedy, and one can understand completely why he retreats to the future. Booster, Fire, and especially Guy are hard characters to write, with most writers acting as if the silly jokes are all there is; Greg Rucka has instead done these characters justice.

I'll save any commentary on Wonder Woman killing Maxwell Lord until after I read Superman: Sacrifice, as OMAC Project doesn't offer much in the way of Wonder Woman's reasoning. Having read Infinite Crisis before OMAC Project, and knowing where most of these threads are leading, I was impressed with the detailed amount of set-up include in OMAC. The Doom Patrol shows up, foreshadowing Infinite Crisis #4; we also see the Freedom Fighters, next seen in Infinite Crisis, and Red Star, Pantha, and Baby Wildebeest of Infinite Crisis #4. Fire's detective work leads in to her new role in Checkmate, while Booster leaves for the future only to return in Infinite Crisis #1. If nothing else, the sheer planning of Infinite Crisis is impressive.

The OMAC Project raises the bar for crossover miniseries; if DC ever has a crossover again (which they will, but can you imagine how they're going to top this?), they'll have a lot to live up to. The trade is brought down only minorly by the artistic "computer-speak" peppered along the pages, which takes a while to get used to and is often lost in the spine cut-off between the pages; fortunately I got used to it in time, at least, to see what characters the OMACS killed at the end of the book. The text pages explaining "Sacrifice" are good, though "Previously in Sacrifice" is kind of strange wording (though I like the TV-esque quality of it). And the 3.5 chapter begins with its alternate cover -- that of a dead Max Lord at Wonder Woman's feet -- spoiling the end of the chapter for all two people who read OMAC without knowing it's coming. These are small production gripes, however, in a satisfactory story over all.

Going to perhaps delve into the Bat-world for a bit, and from there to Day of Vengeance. See you!

Review: Formerly Known As (and I Can't Believe It's Not) the Justice League trade paperbacks (DC Comics)

Monday, July 03, 2006

If you're searching for something to tide you over until the 52 trade paperbacks in 2007, don't look to the latest Johns or Rucka blockbuster -- you want Keith Giffen's latest throwbacks to yesteryear, Formerly Known as the Justice League and I Can't Believe It's Not the Justice League.

I couldn't have been more excited than when I heard that Keith Giffen would be handling layouts for 52, such that all the disparate artists would all come together with one distinct style. I mean, I'm sure that J.M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire play a role in the overall look of Justice League, too, but I tell you what, there's a two-page spread in I Can't Believe with twenty -- count 'em, twenty -- panels, and stuff happens! When the minds behind 52 claim that the story is as compressed as they come, and then I see the sheer amount of dialogue and plotting that went in to these two Justice League trades, let me tell you: I have faith.

Formerly Known As is a picaresque tale of Max Lord recruiting members of the old Justice League (Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, Fire, Captain Atom, L-Ron, Elongated Man and Sue Dibny, and ultimately, Mary Marvel) as a team of essentially heroes for hire, based in a strip mall. After defeating a small band of Harvard-educated hoodlums that try to run the "Super-Buddies" out of the neighborhood, the team is captured by JSA-enemy Roulette and forced to compete in gladiator games; Mary Marvel nearly kills Captain Atom before Fire stops her. No sooner does the team return home than their old foe Manga Khan arrives on Earth to bargain for L-Ron; the team repels him with help from the "Big 7" JLA, and G'nort returns in the process. Shortly after, in I Can't Believe, the villain Blackguard opens a bar nextdoor to the Super-Buddies, with Guy Gardner. Max sends Blue Beetle to recruit Power Girl to replace Captain Atom, and while at the JSA headquarters, Booster Gold accidentally consigns the team to Hell. Guy and Power Girl mount a rescue mission; Fire tries to resurrect her teammate Ice, but ultimately fails. The team believes they've returned home, but an attack by a Mary Marvel-doppelganger suggests that everything is not what it seems.

Both of these trades are joyfully long reads. Frankly, you'd probably have to read JLA: Pain of the Gods about six times to equal the length, content-wise, of each of these trades. But I imagine it's not for everybody. Most of the dialogue here is essentially knock-knock jokes and word play, but there's something incredibly charming about it -- I've only read a little of the Giffen team's original run on Justice League, but I imagine it was much the same. The dialogue isn't just humerous, it's clever and snappy -- perhaps moreso than the '80s League. These trades are not, thankfully, fluffy reads -- as opposed to Lex Luthor: Man of Steel, which also had a lot of material in it, except that Lex Luthor was almost entirely a-continuity, and Justice League actually ties in more than I expected.

Though at times the current policy at DC seems to be "keep what you like, ignore what you don't," the Justice League trades seem to try hard to continue what's been established. In the current volume, Beetle's heart condition from Birds of Prey is front and center, and here, at least, Maxwell Lord is still a cyborg (that L-Ron has shed his Despero body for his robotic body remains unexplained but really, what difference does it make?). The jokes in the first volume, however, are mostly in the characters making fun of one another; it's not until the second volume that things begin to get a bit, well, political, let's say. Giffen's gone on record saying he bears no animosity toward DC for essentially decimating the members of the '80s Justice League, and I wholeheartedly believe him ... but that doesn't mean the creative team won't take a few pot shots.

A running gag of I Can't Believe is the notion that Sue Dibny is secretly pregnant -- back in the '80s, this would have been a perfectly average Justice League joke, but current readers can certainly recognize this as a considerably dark-tinged nudge. So too, the closing shot of the story is of Blue Beetle and Max Lord laughing together; there's a brilliance here on the part of the writers, in that the reader isn't quite sure if they're supposed to interpret this as the last gasp of better times, or the first hints of something worse.

What impressed me most, however, was the plot involving Guy Gardner, Fire, and Ice in the second trade. Though the late Guy Gardner: Warrior relationship between Guy and Fire is not mentioned here, we do see Giffen and company picking up some of the characterization of Guy as more mature, as written by Beau Smith. I've always thought that Smith did an excellent job, writing a Guy who was tough and opinionated, but not a one-note idiot. Giffen and company continue that here, exploring both Guy and Fire's unwaivering love for Ice. When the two try to lead Ice out of hell, doomed to failure, it's one of the most gripping scenes -- in a so-called "funny" comic -- that I've read in a while. And the full-page spread that ends the issue (chapter 4, I believe), is remarkably, remarkably emotional.

Just as the characters emerge at the end of I Can't Believe It's Not the Justice League with an inkling that they all might be a lot more mature than they originally thought, we're left to understand at the end of the trade that amidst all the knock-knock jokes, we perhaps came to know these characters far better through their jokes than we have some other characters through more traditional super-hero fare.

[Contains full covers (though, unfortunately, without their original word balloons), and, in Formerly Known, character bios.]

Without further ado, my plan is to head right to The OMAC Project now, for more Blue Beetle/Max Lord fare, though with an albeit different tone. Join me, won't you?