Review: Jack Kirby's Fourth World Omnibus Vol. 4 collected hardcover (DC Comics)

Thursday, April 30, 2009

[Contains spoilers for Jack Kirby's Fourth World Omnibus Volume 4]

I'd like to think that the Fourth World didn't come to a screeching halt, as long-time Jack Kirby assistant Mark Evanier says it did in his afterword to the Jack Kirby's Fourth World Omnibus Volume 4 (even though indeed it did). In fact, if you tilt your head and squint a little bit, I'd argue there are moments in this fourth volume that almost feel like conclusion.

It's obvious that throughout it all, Kirby never lost sight of the overriding themes inherit in each of his Fourth World series. The Forever People, who've tried to uphold their vow of non-violence throughout their time on Earth, face in the end Devilance the Pursuer, whose own raison d'etre is to cause violence as he goes. When Mark Moonrider asks Devilance whether he really wants to fight an endless war, it's a summary of the Forever People thus far, and fitting that they end up on a peaceful planet all their own.

In New Gods, Orion finally accepts aloud that Darkseid is his father, the issue with which Orion has struggled throughout the series. Even more poignant, however, is Darkseid's seeming acceptance of Orion, going so far as to kill his assistant Desaad for plotting against Orion. Kirby's Darkseid has been remarkably complex throughout these books, far moreso than his modern incarnation as a petty dictator; Darkseid has been at times a wandering philosopher, strangely disconnected from his flunkies' attacks on New Genesis. That, in the final issue of New Gods, Darkseid does not kill but rather assists the main hero of the story, speaks volumes for Kirby's Fourth World work.

Evanier writes that Kirby shifted Mister Miracle to become a traveling showman more to add a greater superhero aspect to the series, but it also helps define the Mister Miracle series for the fourth volume. The emotion in these final volumes is rather understated, and Kirby lets us imagine how Scott Free's adoption of the orphan Shilo Norman helps Scott overcome the trauma of his own youth. Kirby suggests that we see the "real" Big Barda in her almost-maternal training of Shilo; the single panel where she admits that she loves Scott is heartbreakingly simple. When this series ends, its clear how far the young refugee Scott and his family have grown since the first volume.

But one can't be faulted for seeing Kirby himself, or at least Kirby's sentiments, in Darkseid in the last pages of Mister Miracle. "I am the storm," Darkseid says, representing himself the forced end of the Fourth World saga. The wedding, Darkseid quips -- in a moment that is truly quintessential Darkseid -- “had deep sentiment, yet little joy. But -- life at best is bitter-sweet" -- as must the end of the Fourth World have been for Kirby.

With the end of the remaining Fourth World series, the fourth Omnibus volume jumps forward ten years, to Kirby's Fourth World graphic novels. Though no time has passed in the story itself, Kirby's change in perspective is riviting -- whereas much of the Fourth World stories have dealt with a communal relationship between man and technology, a la the Mother Box or Habitat, the stories "Even Gods Must Die" and "Hunger Dogs" carry a theme of technology overtaking man's progress.

Here, Darkseid misses the days of scheming and combat now that Apokolips fights New Genesis using remote-control bombs called "Micro-Mark." There's a sense that Darkseid is behind the times by not embracing this hands-off technology, a Darkseid past his prime. The story ends with Darkseid alone, left behind by New Genesis and superseded by Apokolips; I believe he returned to power off-screen, but it would have been something to behold to see Darkseid rip away all the technology to take part again with his own two hands.

Even as things change in Kirby's final Fourth World stories, however, he also returns to old themes. Orion faces Metron's old student Esak, now horribly scarred by an accident after being neglected by Metron; Esak's madness, and Orion's tender use of the Mother Box to heal the dying child, quite certainly reflects Orion's own violent struggles over these stories. And when Highfather of New Genesis chooses to allow his planet to be destroyed by Darkseid's bombs rather than fight back, Kirby once again evokes the non-violence of the absent Forever People.

The Fourth World omnibuses have offered interesting behind-the-scenes peeks all along, but this final volume's comparison of the original Hunger Dogs versus the published version is the most fascinating of all. We see here the rather smaller story Kirby began to tell about Orion, and how he expanded it to include the destruction of all of New Genesis; that Kirby could weave a larger story amidst the original pages of his smaller one is as much a testament to his genius as all the rest. We are fortunate for these omnibuses not just to relive the Fourth World work of Jack Kirby, I think, but to understand it all the better.

In his afterword, Mark Evanier praises the collection of these stories, and how well they now sit on the bookshelf. Let me tell you, the Jack Kirby Fourth World Ominbus series has made me a fan of the omnibuses all together, and I'm eager to add the Starman and JLA volumes to my bookshelf. I understand how some people feel cheated by DC Comics latest press to release more complete hardcovers of their key series, but I'm just so thrilled at the specialness of it, how these comics that I love are being preserved for history. If you've not cracked open one of the Jack Kirby omnibuses, I encourage you to try; I've been thrilled the whole time.

[Contains full covers, introduction by DC Comics President Paul Levitz, afterword by Mark Evanier, Who's Who pages, supplementary materials]

We continue our journey through the Fourth World now, perhaps a tad perversely, with Death of the New Gods, on our way to Final Crisis, coming up next.

Review: Jack Kirby's Fourth World Omnibus Vol. 3 collected hardcover (DC Comics)

Monday, April 27, 2009

I'd like to have been in comics shops in 1972 when Jack Kirby's New Gods #7, "The Pact," hit the shelves just the same as I'd like to have been standing outside movie theaters after the first showing of Empire Strikes Back. Now, we take "The Pact"'s genealogical revelations for granted, but back then it must have been astounding.

In his afterward, Kirby apprentice Mark Evanier talks about the stories collected in Jack Kirby's Fourth World Omnibus Volume 3 as being reflective of the time where the Fourth World began to slip away from Kirby, but in "The Pact" and others we also find the Fourth World at its most powerful.

"Pact," however, is certainly not the only gem in this volume. The Newsboy Legion explode the Evil Factory and ride around for a while with Angry Charlie strapped to the Whiz Wagon -- in a bit of reverse nostalgia, I remember all of this very fondly from Karl Kesel's later Superboy run which took its cues from Kirby's work.

Ditto the issue where "Terrible" Dan Turpin faces off against Darkseid's son Kalibak, which later became most of an episode of Superman: The Animated Series; I couldn't help but hear Michael Dorn's voice as Kalibak. And Forager makes his debut here, the "Bug" I first encountered in Jim Starlin's Cosmic Odyssey.

I also have to say I enjoyed the Deadman appearance in Forever People. Evanier suggests these were some of Kirby's least favorite stories because DC Comics editorial forced Deadman upon the series, but -- and this may just be the continuity wonk in me -- I liked seeing the Forever People interact with the larger DC Universe beyond just Superman.

I am perhaps too used to tripping over New Gods around every turn in the modern DC Universe, but at some point these stories begin to feel hollow, story-wise; when Mantis leads rampaging hordes of bugs across Metropolis and no one shows up but Orion and Lightray, it felt empty when the Justice League didn't show up. (Nor did I mind the changes to Deadman's character here, benefitting from the perspective of knowing they'd be later reversed.)

Kirby's portrayal of Darkseid also continues to impress me. Far from Darkseid's recent portrayal with sidekick Desaad as a take on Pinky and the Brain -- oft-defeated and spouting Ming-the-Merciless cliches -- Kirby limits Darkseid's screen time, and as such makes his every appearance crucial. And indeed Darkseid's motivations are often an enigma, even from the reader -- he lectures the Forever People on the nature of war, and the the previous volume, takes a philosophical walkabout among an earth amusement park.

Darkseid decries Desaad's lust for violence, and at times seems almost bored by the proceedings around him, so intent is he on attaining the Anti-Life Equation. It's this depth, that Darkseid has likes and dislikes which differ from his underlings or what one might otherwise expect, that makes him so riveting to watch. My hope is that Final Crisis can restore some of Darkseid's stature as something more than just a cosmic villain-of-the-week.

I'm interested in stories and arcs, and what makes a certain event right for a certain story at a certain time. We enter the third Fourth World Omnibus with many of the characters in peril, the right thing for a third act -- Darkseid has dispersed the Forever People with his Omega Beams, Jimmy Olsen has been transformed into a caveman, and Mister Miracle revolves to take his fight to Apokolips. Only New Gods doesn't start with a cliffhanger, but rather sets the tone for this volume with the flashback story "The Pact," followed up with the Mister Miracle flashback "Himon."

If there's a theme of introspection here, we see it again in the Jimmy Olsen story "A Superman in Supertown" which begins the end of the Jimmy Olsen series, and also in "The Death Wish of Terrible Turpin," which solidifies Orion's role as protector of humanity while at the same time suggesting his growing comfort with the more violent, Apokolips-bred violence of his personality (I'm increasingly reminded, say what you will, what a terrible job Grant Morrison did with Orion in JLA, portraying him as a one-sided grump rather than Kirby's noble warrior). These items established, the story then shifts with the appearance of Forager -- not quite of humanity, not quite of New Genesis -- who will seemingly draw Orion into his final conflict with Darkseid. The story, we know, isn't going quite how Jack Kirby wanted it, but I remain enraptured as we move to the fourth volume.

[Contains full covers, introduction by author Glen David Gold, afterword by Mark Evanier]

I reviewed Jack Kirby's Fourth World Omnibus some time ago, and now I'm picking up with volumes three and four as we continue on the road toward Final Crisis. Up next, volume four, and then Death of the New Gods. Stay tuned!

Review: Catwoman: The Long Road Home trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Catwoman: The Long Road Home ends on a note that is irreverent, difficult, disturbing ... essentially, many of the things the Catwoman series has been all along. Throughout his run, writer Will Pfeifer's portrayed Catwoman Selina Kyle as just this side of self-destructive, and he finishes the story with the same wonderful ambiguity he's provided all along.

At the end of Long Road Home, we find a Catwoman returned to her thieving roots -- not, even she admits, because she wants or needs to steal, but because it's her nature -- and, we sense, because she's a little mad at the world. And yet, the world may not even be her target; when Selina admits that she gave up her baby Helena not because she had to, but because Helena interfered with Selina's Catwoman identity, we understand in the end Selina's truly angry at herself.

Pfeifer and artist David Lopez do an admirable job ending their Catwoman run. Pfeifer, who's had his stories interrupted by no less than One Year Later, Countdown, Amazons Attack, and Salvation Run ends the Catwoman/Salvation Run crossover with breakneck speed (with no ending, really), and someone who hadn't read Salvation Run would be largely confused.

Instead, Pfeifer turns quickly back to the story of Catwoman's hunt for the Thief, an essentially anonymous character with a grudge against Catwoman. It's readily apparent that Pfeifer intends the Thief as a symbol more than a character; Selina's beating of the Thief suggests a break with her old life just as she, in contradiction, perhaps becomes an even more devious thief herself than before.

There's much to be considered here, and much we won't really understand the implications of for years to come. I always thought giving Catwoman a child was a bad idea, since we all knew the writers would never let her keep it; now we find a Catwoman -- maybe good, maybe bad -- who takes as much of her own motivation her guilt over giving that child up. Will Catwoman remain a petty thief, forgetting her East End hero days? Will Helena ever be seen, heard from, or mentioned again? Has this past storyline been the next step in the natural evolution of the Catwoman character, or a sign of this character returning to the Batman-villain status quo? It'll be a while before we know the answer.

I congratulate Will Pfeifer and David Lopez on a steady, respectable run on the Catwoman title. Ultimately, I feel perhaps the concept ended up being greater than what any writer could plot for the character, but Pfeifer and Lopez's consistent quality on this title is something to be admired.

[Contains full covers]

Next up, we're heading back toward the Countdown to Final Crisis with a stop first to finish the Jack Kirby Fourth World omnibuses. See you next time!

Gotham Central, Death in the Family in July 2009 DC Comics Solicitations

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A couple notes this morning on some DC Comics collection solicitations for July 2009:

- DC Comics Classics Library: Batman — A Death in the Family
When Collected Editions first announced this hardcover collection of Death in the Family, we all wondered how four issues could justify a hardcover. Here's our answer: this book collects not only Death in the Family, which saw the (now temporary) offing of the second Robin Jason Todd, but also the Lonely Place of Dying story that introduced current Robin Tim Drake (and included that era's New Titans).

- Gotham Central Vol. 2: Jokers and Madmen
Shooting to the top of my to-buy list is this new round of Gotham Central hardcovers. The first hardcover, Gotham Central: In the Line of Duty, collected the first two trade paperbacks (the first with the same name, and the second, the Eisner award-winning Half a Life), containing the first ten issues of the series. This new hardcover collects issues #11-22, of which #11 (a day in the life of Stacy, who runs the Bat-signal) and #16-18 (single-issue stories, includes appearance by the Huntress) are previously uncollected. This is the news we've been waiting for, because it means these new Gotham Central hardcovers will indeed be the definitive collection of the series.

Other notables:

- Brave and the Bold will be paperback from here on now that Book of Destiny is out in softcover. Ditto for Booster Gold: Reality Lost.

- Nightwing: The Great Leap and Robin: Search for a Hero finish off those two series. I guess the last issues of Birds of Prey will end up collected with Oracle: The Cure.

- Glad to see Duncan Roleau's Metal Men in trade paperback now; I'll have to pick that up before the co-feature trades.

What's on your to-buy list for this month?

Review: Catwoman: Crime Pays trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, April 20, 2009

I've come to realize in thinking over Will Pfeifer's Catwoman: Crime Pays that what I've been expecting isn't exactly what Pfeifer's delivering. Whereas your average Teen Titans storyline, for instance, is a six-part tale where every chapter builds on the next with a conclusion that ties up threads from the beginning, Pfeifer's story is more of a picaresque, moving Catwoman from escapade to escapade often with no real tie between them.

This manner of storytelling is largely annoying for a trade reader, because instead of anything much really happening in the story, it often just feels like Pfeifer's wasting time. If it were not for the fact that Pfeifer writes a really nuanced, respectful Catwoman character, and artist David Lopez, I might not bother, but it's apparent on every page that these two know what they're doing (even if the reader doesn't always).

For instance, Crime Pays starts out with Catwoman on the trail of a master thief who's stolen all her belongings, including her own bed while she was sleeping on it. (How? We never find out.) Because she doesn't have a costume, Catwoman robs a billionaire with a collection of villain memorabilia (we never see said billionaire again). Catwoman goes to apprehend the thief, but is whisked away to the Salvation Run planet (we never see or hear from said thief again). Catwoman only briefly interacts with other villains on the planet before whisked off to an alternate reality story (which factors on the main story, in the end, not even a little).

It's disjointed, to be sure. And lest I paint with too broad a brush, Pfeifer is using many of these events to explore Catwoman's broken inner psyche after giving up her daughter, something Pfeifer does quite well. It also couldn't be terribly easy for the writer to fit in his own storylines between Amazons Attack and Salvation Run. But both the "costume stealing" storyline and the "alternate reality" storylines especially feel like softballs -- issues to fill space rather than ones with real bearing on the Catwoman story overall.

Catwoman ends with the next trade. In my opinion, this has been one of the all-time greatest character reimaginings; if you consider the purple-costumed Chuck Dixon/Bronwyn Carlton series that preceded this (which had, at some point, Catwoman fighting in the showers of a women's prison), the crime-noir, sensibly-costumed run that began with Ed Brubaker and ends with Will Pfeifer was nothing short of brilliant. Pfeifer's putting Catwoman talking about alternate realities and multiple earths signals to me it's time to bring the story to a close, but hopefully DC Comics will keep the character much as is. Co-feature, anyone?

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

We'll finish up Catwoman next time, and then on to some Jack Kirby Fourth World goodness.

Review: Batman: Gotham Underground trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

I'm beginning to see a trend now in Countdown spin-off mini-series. Like Countdown: Arena and Salvation Run, Batman: Gotham Underground is greatly entertaining while at the same time largely pointless, a fine combination only if you're content to go for a ride and leave your larger questions at the door.

Gotham Underground reads in part like a Bat-title crossover from the late 1990s; Batman is kidnapped and sent to Blackgate Prison, and Nightwing and Robin have to stop a gang war while he's gone. (This is, come to think of it, perhaps the plots of two Bat-crossovers combined.) I always enjoyed team-up parts of these crossovers, while resenting the disparate titles and art teams. Gotham Underground is perhaps a model for what the most recent Bat-crossover, The Resurrection of Ra's al Ghul, should have been -- Ra's lacked consistency, while Gotham Underground ultimately lacks relevance.

Writer Frank Tieri offers some great moments, however, which make the story worthwhile if you have the patience for it. Obviously Tieri did his homework; there's a single page where Bane thinks back to the Knightfall story that's as good as Bane has been in a while. The relationships he shows between classic Batman villains like the Joker, the Penguin, and the Riddler are also spot-on; when Penguin reflects on the Joker, it took me back to the days the two teamed-up in the Adam West Batman or Super Friends. One gets the sense that Tieri worked under the mandate of using every Bat-character he could squeeze in here, and while he misses some (Ra's al Ghul, Azrael), I thought the way he shoe-horned in others like Leslie Thompkins and Spoiler was creatively inspired.

Unfortunately, I struggle to understand the point of Gotham Underground. The story explores the Countdown Suicide Squad plotline from the perspective of Batman's villains, but nothing is revealed about that plotline of which we weren't already aware. It suggests large changes to the status quo of Batman and his villains, but in the end just peters out with a non-specific ending. The climax comes when Batman has a giant fight with Vigilante -- only Vigilante's hardly been a major player in the tale; it's as if Tieri went so far with the story and then couldn't necessarily tie things together in the way he originally imagined.

At its center, Gotham Underground is in part a sequel to Batman: Face the Face, a seemingly important Batman story post-Infinite Crisis which was itself largely ignored. In this partnership, Gotham Underground seems to set itself up for irrelevance as well. Fans of the Crime Bible elements of 52 will find some connection as well. But it's as if Gotham Underground exists in this nether-region of the DC Universe that acknowledges a number of changes post-Infinite Crisis (the Freedom of Power Treaty, for instance) that are largely ignored in the mainstream titles themselves. To this end, Gotham Central is really just Final Crisis crossover fluff, but good crossover fluff -- those looking for real impact need not apply.

[Contains full covers, nice uncolored art by J. Calafiore]

Still following the threads of Salvation Run next time with some Catwoman trades. Read along!

Review: Justice League of America: Sanctuary hardcover/trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, April 13, 2009

To be sure, Justice League of America: Sanctuary is a hodge-podge that would be confusing to any new reader, a mix of three different adventures all of which take their beginnings and endings from stories in other books. Despite this, as someone who knows what's going on, I enjoyed Sanctuary quite a bit, more than Justice League: The Injustice League, finding much to like in the chapters despite their blatant service to external crossovers.

The titular story here, "Sanctuary," is ultimately a tease, but guest writer Alan Burnett provides a readable story nonetheless. Sanctuary is meant to tie in to Salvation Run, and while it does, let me tell you now that if you're looking for a strong, meaningful tie to Salvation Run, you're only going to get a page or two of value here at best. The League believes they're travelling to the Salvation planet, but it turns out to be a trick; I might be moe disappointed except that Burnett not only offers a great sense of paranoia in the confrontation between the League and Amanda Waller's Suicide Squad, and also uses one of my favorite Justice League villains as the story's mystery villain.

The best part of Burnett's story, and also writer Dwayne McDuffie's final tale, is the interaction between Red Arrow and Hawkgirl. The two started a relationship back in Brad Meltzer's Justice League: The Lightning Saga which Meltzer described as akin to a Capulet dating a Montague; in this volume, we finally begin to see both love and conflict between the two (especially regarding Cheshire, the criminal mother of Arrow's daughter), and it adds some much-needed depth to McDuffie's nascent Justice League run. I also continue to enjoy seeing Vixen in this title (and points to Alan Burnett for referencing her time with the Suicide Squad), though the mystery of her missing powers has by this point become a tad tired.

McDuffie's writes the last two stories here, and while neither still please me as much as Brad Meltzer's initial run on this title, the final story at least shows improvement since the last volume. Here, we see Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman in a secret meeting where they discuss the League, and McDuffie (helped ably by artist Carlos Pacheco) channels Meltzer in his snappy dialogue and hush-hush secret-telling between the three. I only wish the story had been longer, though; it cuts off suddenly half-way through to turn to a lead in to Final Crisis. That part is good, too, but one can't help think Meltzer would have interspersed the two stories instead of stopping one to start the other.

The other chapter McDuffie contributes, a Flash/Wonder Woman team-up, seems mostly filler. The story is boring and doesn't cover much new ground -- in fact, much of it nearly echoes a Greg Rucka/Geoff Johns-written Flash/Wonder Woman team-up that arrived shortly before Infinite Crisis. Don't get my wrong, I liked McDuffie's work immensely on Justice League Unlimited, but I'm not sure that translates here. I did, however, @SpeedsterSite, enjoy Ethan Van Sciver's Flash art on the issue.

This is the last Justice League collection before Final Crisis, and I'm struck by the parallels to Infinite Crisis at about this point. JLA: Crisis of Conscience ended much like Sanctuary with the Martian Manhunter in danger, on a cliffhanger leading in to the crossover. Final Crisis finds the Justice League at much less of a cross-roads than Infinite Crisis did, but I'm still jazzed by the penultimate level of event-ness; reading Countdown to Final Crisis Volume 4 and Batman RIP are right around the corner for me, and then Final Crisis right behind.

[Contains full covers]

Dwayne McDuffie's Justice League still isn't quite clicking for me, but I'm hopeful that if this volume was better than the one before, maybe there are better things coming soon. Up next for me, we continue the path of Salvation Run into Batman: Gotham Underground. Come join!

Top Flash Trade Paperbacks

Thursday, April 09, 2009

With all the attention the Flash is getting lately with Flash: Rebirth, seems like a good time for another top essential trade paperbacks list (see our previous Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman lists).

Since there's more modern Flash collections out from a variety of teams, this list will run down what you should read to be in the know.

* JLA: Year One
Both this and Flash and Green Lantern: The Brave and the Bold were written by Mark Waid, who writes a significant number of the Flash Wally West stories below. These two collections show the Flash Barry Allen during the formation of the JLA; while both have been largely retconned out since their publication, they may be useful for giving the reader a sense of Barry Allen's personality.
- JLA: Year One
- Flash and Green Lantern: The Brave and the Bold

* Crisis on Infinite Earths
This mega DC Comics crossover, which saw the temporary end of the Multiverse, also brought with it the death of Barry Allen. This brought full-circle the Silver Age of comics, since stories with Barry also launched the Multiverse. You can find many of those in:
- Crisis on Multiple Earths: The Team-Ups (Barry meets Golden Age Flash Jay Garrick)
- Crisis on Multiple Earths: The Team-Ups Vol. 2
- Crisis on Multiple Earths Vol. 1
- Crisis on Multiple Earths Vol. 2
- Crisis on Multiple Earths Vol. 3
- Crisis on Multiple Earths Vol. 4
- DC Comics Classics Library: The Flash of Two Worlds
- Crisis on Infinite Earths

* The Flash: Born to Run
Mark Waid wrote eight years worth of Flash stories and his name is near synonymous with Barry Allen's successor, the former Kid Flash Wally West. Waid's run wouldn't really hit its stride, nor make drastic changes to the Flash, until later, but this trade collects his first arc on the story along with some extras.

* Flash: The Return of Barry Allen
Heralded as one of the all-time great comic book stories, and an excellent collected volume, this storyline (including Flash #75) put Mark Waid and Flash on the map. Twists, turns, and emotion abounds when Barry Allen returns from the dead, causing Wally West to rethink his role as the Flash. If you read one trade only on this list, this is the one to read. Still gives me chills every time I read it.

* Flash: Terminal Velocity
Oftentimes sequels are not as good as the originals, but Mark Waid's next big storyline on Flash (and its lead-in volume, Impulse: Reckless Youth) prove that adage wrong. Every major speedster of the day appears in this story that pits Wally West against the villain Kobra in a breathtaking finale, and also introduces the Speed Force that's become such a part of the Flash mythos. More from Mark Waid:
- Flash: Terminal Velocity
- Impulse: Reckless Youth (leads in to this volume)
- Flash: Dead Heat (with characters from Terminal Velocity)
- Flash: Race Against Time
- The Life Story of the Flash (a prose/comics biography of Barry Allen written by Mark Waid)

* Flash: Emergency Stop
Shortly before a big time-spanning Flash storyline by Mark Waid called "Chain Lightning" (currently, unfortunately, uncollected), Grant Morrison and Mark Millar guest-wrote on Flash for about a dozen issues, heralded for their Silver Age-like creativity. Wally gets a new costume, races an alien speedster, and most importantly must escape the Black Flash, a speedster grim reaper who's reappeared in the Flash titles. These stories continue in:
- Flash: Emergency Stop
- Flash: The Human Race

* Flash: Blood Will Run
Flash had a couple of fill-in writers after Mark Waid left with issue #159, before a then-relatively-unknown writer named Geoff Johns took over. Johns's run began modestly enough with the six-part Flash: Wonderland, but really took off when artist Scott Kollins joined for the "Blood Will Run" storyline. Not only does Geoff Johns write a detailed, thoughtful examination of Wally West and how he's unique among most every hero out there, but Scott Kollins delivers two-page spreads that will blow your mind. The fight between Flash and Gorilla Grodd in Flash: Rogues is one for the ages. This series includes:
- Flash: Wonderland
- Flash: Blood Will Run
- Flash: Rogues
- Flash: Crossfire
- Superman vs. The Flash (contains a Geoff Johns story)
- Flash: Blitz

* Flash: Ignition
Still part of Geoff Johns's run on Flash, Ignition represented a tonal shift for the series. With changes in both Wally's identity and his supporting cast, Johns truly put his mark on Flash beginning with this collection (see the Collected Editions retrospective on Geoff Johns's Flash run.) While former JLA artist Howard Porter would later join Johns on Flash, this particular story had fantastically dark art by Alberto Dose. One of my favorites. Johns's run concluded in:
- Flash: Ignition
- Flash: The Secret of Barry Allen
- Flash: Rogue War

* Flash, The Fastest Man Alive: Lightning in a Bottle
Shortly after Rogue War, the Flash title ended, concluding in the DC Comics crossover Infinite Crisis. Out of that series came the thirteen-issue Flash, the Fastest Man Alive, starring the fourth Flash Bart Allen. Fans agree that most of the issues in this series, written by Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo and later by Mark Guggenheim, do not match the quality of Mark Waid or Geoff Johns's stories, but I did enjoy the conclusion, at least, which offers a nice tie to Crisis on Infinite Earths. This series is collected in:
- Infinite Crisis
- Flash, The Fastest Man Alive: Lightning in a Bottle
- Flash, The Fastest Man Alive: Full Throttle

* Flash: The Wild Wests
After the end of The Fastest Man Alive, Wally West returned to the mantle of the Flash, this time with his new family in tow. There's only one collection of that Flash series (which picked up its numbering from the previous), before it ended just before the DC Comics crossover Final Crisis. The following stories bring you up to date to Flash: Rebirth:
- Flash: The Wild Wests
- Final Crisis
- Final Crisis: Rogues Revenge

There you have it! If there's any I missed, let me know. You can find all of these collections on sale at the new Collected Editions trade paperback store.

What's your favorite Flash story?

Review: JLA: Salvation Run trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, April 06, 2009

It's been a blood-soaked reading week since Countdown to Final Crisis Volume 3; first the mayhem of Countdown: Arena and now JLA: Salvation Run (and I'm not even over Watchmen yet!). But whereas Arena, fun as it was, offered a dose of gruesomeness without much characterization behind it, I become increasingly impressed the more I think back on Salvation Run at all the subtle touches that Bill Willingham and especially writer Matt Sturges injected into this story (along with the gruesomeness).

Salvation Run, the story of the pantheon of DC Comics bad guys imprisoned on a deathtrap planet, is an easy read for someone without much knowledge of the DC Universe, but even better for long-time followers. Bane doesn't like Catwoman, of course, because of events way back in Knightfall. Catman comforts Scandal because they work together in Secret Six. The relationship between Vandal Savage and Lady Flash referenced here started back in the 1980s. And the vicious, heartbreaking conclusion to the story of Monsieur Mallah and the Brain has been building for years. You don't have to know any of this to enjoy the story, but Sturges clearly did his research, and it shows.

Indeed, it's amazing just how many threads from how many different other comics Salvation Run picks up, if you like that kind of thing (else I imagine it's pretty annoying). I wouldn't say Salvation Run resolves anything very well, but certainly there's pieces of Justice League, Outsiders, Checkmate, Catwoman, Shadowpact, Flash and the aforementioned Secret Six here (not to mention, obviously, Countdown to Final Crisis). I also delighted in the prison planet's completely unexpected tie to Blue Beetle (in itself a tie to 52 and from there back to Jack Kirby himself). I am enjoying Countdown to Final Crisis more and more these days, and undoubtedly it's because we see now a greater sense of a shared universe as the stories begin to come together.

Sturges' real stars in this book, of course, are Lex Luthor and the Joker. Not much new is established -- in the interest of time and an expansive cast, perhaps, Sturges adheres firmly to the established tropes of Lex Luthor the schemer and Joker, force of chaos -- but each character gets a chilling moment that confirms how Sturges "gets" these characters. There's a moment where the Joker has infiltrated Lex Luthor's rival camp to steal supplies, scuffles with and finally has the opportunity to kill Luthor, and then doesn't because all he wanted was supplies -- the look on the Joker's face, ably rendered by Joe Bennett (though Sean Chen does great work here, too) is simultaneously as sane and as crazy as I've ever seen the Joker.

Luthor here, too, returns to a place of grandeur among the gathered villains. In the way in which Luthor takes charge and provides the villains a way home, and both determinedly but reluctantly sacrifices more than a handful of them as a power source, the reader gets a clear picture of how Luthor could be both the president and a super-villain at the same time. Certainly, all the villains of the DC Universe now owe Luthor a favor, and I'm eager to see his interaction with other villains elsewhere after this. Sturges doesn't quite show enough of Luthor's trouble in these pages (the winning device gets built with startling ease), but Luthor's crazed refrain in the end, that he's the hero rather than Checkmate or the Justice League, is perfectly true to character.

As a sequel, in a way, to the pre-Infinite Crisis Villains United, Salvation Run strikes me as what that prior mini-series should have been. Don't get me wrong -- I enjoyed Gail Simone's story at the time, but we can agree it was more an introduction to the Secret Six series, whereas Salvation Run really profiles the villains' interaction with one another. If Salvation Run has a bad reputation (see J. Caleb Mozzocco at Blog@Newsarama), I tend to think it's really the mini-series's proximity to the on-again, off-again Countdown than a fault of the story itself.

Matt Sturges finished off well the final issues of Shadowpact and he similarly provides a detailed, accessible story in Salvation Run -- which, with all its crossover-ness, one expects is quite a challenge. I have been nervous, admittedly, about he and Willingham taking over Justice Society of America after Geoff Johns, but so far I've read nothing by Sturges that disappoints. If you're on the fence about Salvation Run, I'd say pick it up.

[Contains full and variant covers, "What Came Before" text page.]

We'll follow the threads of Salvation Run now with Justice League, Gotham Underground, and Catwoman.

Review: Countdown: Arena trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, April 02, 2009

[Contains spoilers for Countdown: Arena]

Countdown: Arena is so gratuitous, so remarkably incorrect and out of bounds, that even though there's very little that's redeeming to this book, I find myself recommending it if only in admiration for how gleefully twisted and just plain wrong writer Keith Champagne and artist Scott McDaniel are in this book.

Make no mistake -- Countdown: Arena is a horror title. I know, I know, it's about a bevy of Multi-verse heroes fighting under Monarch's auspices, but mark my words, this is a horror title. Like the Saw movie series, Arena finds the heroes having to bump each other off one by one in increasingly bloody ways for a rapidly fading chance at survival. This is not a case of pitting your favorite action heroes against one another, as perhaps it should have been; this is nightmare where your action figures rip off one another's arms to survive.

Given this, however, I have to admire Champagne. He has Monarch slaughter the L.E.G.I.O.N. completely in the first couple pages, and follows it up with an alternate Nightshade murdering our own; that Nightshade subsequently gets her head ripped off. With seeming glee, Champagne "goes there"; Blue Beetle fans can watch as a swarm of insects consume Jaime Reyes alive, and then bloodily bore through the head of an animal Blue Beetle for seconds. Champagne stops at nothing, and though there's no real intrinsic value to the story in Arena, sometimes watching a writer's imagination zoom around no holds barred is value in and of itself.

Arena, one quickly learns, is not about the story. Champagne's portrayal of many of the characters is questionable; I'm not sure if we're meant to believe that our New Earth Nightshade and Blue Beetle die here, or whether no one took the time to consider where to place these analogues. Champagne has the Tangent Flash Lia take a surprising turn here, one that I tend to doubt another writer will pick up on. And I have to admit, while I liked Scott McDaniel's art when Karl Story inked it on Nightwing, I haven't been much of a fan since, and there's plenty of times in Arena where actions feel out of sequence and it's hard to tell who's hit who and with what appendage.

There's some surprise and a little story here, but mostly Arena is just about letting the carnage wash over you, akin to a bloody video game. In each issue, a couple characters fight; in each issue, the heroes threaten Monarch and then get rebuffed. Monarch claims at the beginning that he's closed every avenue of escape, and -- no surprise -- he's right. Heck, someone even made the questionable choice of putting an image of the winners of each of the Arena fights right. on the cover. of the book.

I recommend reading Countdown: Arena in one sitting. If you can, read it with your feet up and a cold drink in your hand. This book is not to be taken seriously; it defies, perhaps, all attempts to do so. It won't be the best comic book you ever read, but there's something to be found in the sheer ridiculousness of it.

[Contains full covers.]

We continue our reading of Countdown tie-ins, with some trepidation, with JLA: Salvation Run, coming up next.