Review: Invincible Iron Man: World's Most Wanted Book 1 and 2 hardcover/paperback (Marvel Comics)

Thursday, April 29, 2010

[This guest review comes from Doug Glassman]

My recent comic book store subscription haul can attest to the Iron Man 2 mania that has been building over the last few months. Three separate Iron Man titles were within it, and that isn't even counting The Invincible Iron Man, which is in the running for Marvel's flagship title. How amazing is it that Iron Man and Green Lantern are now the marquee characters for Marvel and DC?

A few years ago, they were both in the slumps, until Matt Fraction and Geoff Johns reinvigorated them with powerful new titles and concepts. Invincible Iron Man even won an Eisner for "Best New Series." I reviewed the first hardcover, The Five Nightmares, a while ago, and I've decided to lump the next two, World's Most Wanted Book 1 and Book 2, into one review, in part to help me through my Iron Man trade backlog.

Book 1 picks up not quite where The Five Nightmares left off. The Secret Invasion event takes place in the middle and affects the character in a major way, driving the entire "World's Most Wanted" arc. Thankfully, the collection includes a recap page to explain broadly what occurred, and most of the details are brought out throughout the story. Essentially, the Skrulls, an evil shape-shifting race, crippled Iron Man and ruined all of his technology during their invasion. Norman Osborn was able to kill the Skrull leader and gain the trust of the public, rising to lead HAMMER, the replacement for SHIELD.

Putting aside my own personal feelings about Dark Reign (it's an interesting concept, but how stupid are the people in the Marvel universe to go along with all of this?), it all sets the stage for a year-long story. Osborn wants the Superhero Registration Act database, the cause of the Civil War event. Unfortunately, only one copy exists . . . and it's in Tony's head.

What follows is an extensive chase scene, as Tony starts to lose his memories, skills and intelligence after he mindwipes himself to erase the database. This is padded out a lot in Book One, especially with a confrontation between ally Maria Hill and the Controller that doesn't seem to go anywhere. Other elements make up for some of the slow pace, including meet-ups with War Machine and Namor, and Iron Man's longtime assistant Pepper Potts becoming a superhero. This is actually a good turn for a character that sometimes gets pushed to the side by other, more action-oriented characters like Maria Hill. Potts' entire cause is encompassed by her name: Rescue. She's aided by an element that migrated from the Iron Man films: the JARVIS AI system.

All of this ends with a fantastic set-up for the second half of the series, and Book 2 does not disappoint. Even more of Tony's allies and enemies arrive, including as Madame Masque, the Crimson Dynamo and the Black Widow. After going through a variety of armors in decreasing levels of complexity, Tony finally makes it back to where it all began: the cave in which his first armor was built. If there was any question that Invincible Iron Man is dedicated to incorporating the movie's style into the comics, then there is one line in this segment that will destroy all doubts. Like many things, it's too good to spoil, but all I can say is that it ties into a popular Internet meme.

At the end, there's the long-awaited face-off between Tony, wielding the first armor, and Osborn, clad in the ultra-modern Iron Patriot suite. You might expect that this isn't a fair fight, and you'd be right . . . but that's the point. Surprising, Tony is left in the end comatose . . . and ready for the next part of the story.

Fraction and Salvador Larroca keep up the quality of The Five Nightmares and skillfully combine action with intrigue. At times, there tends to be a little too much navel-gazing on Tony's part . . . but then, that's a flaw that nearly every Iron Man story since the 1980s possesses, so I really can't hold that against them. War Machine's appearance is especially well-done, although if you didn't know that Rhodey was a cyborg for some time, you might be shocked at his appearance. Salvador Larroca continues to produce fantastic art, even if he veers into cheesecake every now and then with the Black Widow. I also have to give him a special kudos for giving the Iron Patriot movie-style air brakes in one panel.

If you enjoyed The Five Nightmares -- which is probably most readers -- then World's Most Wanted is a perfectly-suited follow-up. If you haven't bought The Five Nightmares yet, then you can get the contents of all three hardcovers in one Omnibus edition for a surprisingly low price. Right now, Invincible Iron Man is the best Marvel has to offer, and combined with the second Iron Man film, it's a very good time to be a fan of Ol' Shellhead.

($19.99 each, or $39.99 for the Omnibus edition including The Five Nightmares. Both contain all main covers and some variant covers. Book 1 contains Dark Reign house ads. Book 2 contains pencil drawings.)

Trade Perspectives: The Trade Paperback You Want is Out of Print

Monday, April 26, 2010

To be clear, I understand that "new from the publisher" tends to lose its meaning in regards to comics -- even if you can't find a new copy online, there's likely dozens of local comic book stores out there with a never-read copy of whatever trade paperback, old or new, you might like.

I also understand that just because we might argue within the confines of the Collected Editions blog that The Final Night, for instance, ought still be in print because it reflects a chapter in Hal Jordan's life as Parallax, does not mean there's a real widespread interest in Final Night, nor that it would be profitable long-term for DC Comics to invest in a second printing (edit: nor, as Johanna and Caleb point out, would it be profitable necessarily for booksellers to stock it).

That said ... It's astounding to me that some of the titles below are out of print, and these are in fact just culled from a general survey; the fact is probably that many, many more titles are out of print.

- Batman: Legacy, out of print, along with Batman: Cataclysm (the volume that preceded these, Batman: Contagion, is still in print)

- Batman: No Man's Land Vol. 3 and Vol. 4, out of print (but volumes one, two, and five are available)

- Flash: Rogues, out of print, from Geoff Johns' Wally West run, along with Crossfire, Blitz, and Ignition, (being the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth volumes) but Wonderland, Blood Will Run, The Secret of Barry Allen, and Rogue War are all available (volumes one, two, seven, and eight respectively)

- Nightwing: A Knight in Bludhaven, out of print (the first volume, as is Rough Justice, Love and Bullets, A Darker Shade of Justice, The Hunt for Oracle, and Big Guns, which are most of Chuck Dixon's run on the book)

- The Death and Return of Superman hardcover omnibus, out of print

- Underworld Unleashed crossover, out of print, along with Final Night

- Black Adam: The Dark Age, out of print

- Countdown to Final Crisis Vol. 4, out of print, the lead-in to DC's second most recent crossover event, while volumes one, two, and three are still in print

- Flash, the Fastest Man Alive: Full Throttle, out of print, being the better of the two books, whereas Lightning in a Bottle is still available

(Amazon reviewer Kauffinbauchser has put together an additional list of out-of-print DC Comics trades. Some of these are right, some have been subsequently republished.)

Now, a book like Batman: Legacy (in the vein of classic Ra's al Ghul stories, but maybe not a classic itself), I can understand being out of print. Even the Death and Return of Superman Omnibus, published for the Superman animated movie while the individual collections within are still in paperback, I can understand. But a book like Countdown to Final Crisis Vol. 4, published in 2008 and a factor (if ultimately minor) in Grant Morrison's Final Crisis? Very surprising.

Obviously, DC Comics history is not history itself, and DC's under no obligation to make its universe's whole history readily available to every reader. In addition, I recall it took me a number of years of searching before I found a New Teen Titans: Judas Contract collection to read it for the first time, and some might argue that the search is part of the fun, or part of comics fandom (that selfsame story was subsequently reissued, is no longer out of print, and is indeed now readily available).

But for those interested in the "full story," and given the rise of interest in trade paperbacks and the number of readers I hear from who've "gone back to the beginning" to follow the DC Universe in trade form, it's disappointing that seminal crossovers like Underworld Unleashed and Final Night shouldn't be easy to find. That one can't read the ground-breaking Batman story No Man's Land, which includes the beginnings of the conflict between Two-Face and now-Question Montoya, is equally sad (if ever a series deserved omnibus collecting, it's No Man's Land). And that as a new Flash series begins, the collections of the well-regarded previous Flash series by the exact same writer aren't available? Surely there's some profit to be made in those books being around.

I'm not much inclined to start reading my trade paperbacks on a digital device, but I can see this as one area where digital comics hold a lot of value. If DC doesn't see the value in a new printing of Underworld Unleashed, I understood, but if at least there was a venue for one to legally purchase that story online and read it, if even just for the historical benefit, I think that would really be something. Imagine, every comic book DC has ever published, cataloged and available for immediate download. Just imagine.

From my perspective, I had thought at one point about skipping the Black Adam: The Dark Age paperback when it came out and picking it up later on, and I'm glad I didn't -- it quickly went out of print, and now sells for double or triple the price online. My growing awareness of the unpredictability of DC's trades going out of print has made me much more circumspect at my local comics shop -- this is something I'll continue to keep an eye on.

Review: Final Night trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Coming one year after Underworld Unleashed, the Final Night crossover takes a different tack in that for the most part there's no real villain here, only a natural disaster that threatens the imminent destruction of Earth. Final Night becomes two books: one, a pensive line-wide crossover where the DC characters fight battles more emotional than superheroic; and the other, a somewhat incongruous attempt at redeeming the much maligned Green Lantern Hal Jordan character. The latter, in our heyday of Green Lantern mania, ought be justification for the Final Night collection to still be print, but it's not.

Much like the way in which Final Night's Sun-Eater sucks the life from the sun only to cause it to explode, so too do these two threads of Final Night rather devour one another; there's an interesting impetus in Final Night, but I'm not sure it plays out to its potential.

Final Night -- by the then-Adventures of Superman team of Karl Kesel, Stuart Immonen, and Jose Marzan Jr. -- effectively carries the disaster movie milieu. A startling amount of the action takes place inside a STAR Labs conference room, but the effects of the sun having been eaten by (what else?) a Sun-Eater are described as so devastatingly bad (crops dying, all water freezing, and then, counter-intuitively, the sun blowing up), that the reader can't help but be gripped. Final Night is heavy on the tech-speak, and scientists Lex Luthor, Brainiac 5, Starman Theodore Knight, and others make an entertaining, thought-provoking team.

What really makes Final Night stand out for me, however, is the way in which it's actually a Legion of Super-Heroes story set in current continuity, unheard of at the time (but becoming more common now). There's a general suggestion in the book that the Sun-Eater's attack was in fact the "Great Disaster," which I found fascinating even if it's never resolved one way or the other. (Whereas "The Great Disaster" mainly relates to Jack Kirby's apocalyptic Kamandi series and its offshoots, it was sometimes trotted out back then to explain away why the Legion's recall of [often retconned] DC Comics continuity didn't always jibe.) While the Legion also crossed over with Underworld Unleashed (a post-Zero Hour attempt to make the Legion more relevant to the rest of the DC Universe), Final Night was a rare occasion to see the Legion on the very same page as the current crop of DC superheroes. Kesel takes a stab (given the involvement of a Sun-Eater) at retelling the classic "The Death of Ferro Lad," though given that of that action happens in the tie-in titles than in Final Night itself, I'd guess most Legion fans will find it pales in comparison to the original.

Unfortunately, even despite the Legion's involvement, and as pleased as I am to read a comic that's not just about white hats versus black hats, the lack of a villain in Final Night often causes the story to drag immensely. To wit, the entire second chapter basically shows the DC heroes battling minor weather effects and fighting street toughs, small page-filling battles that don't have much consequence. Kesel offers a subplot where the Ray and some other heroes bring heat to a village, but it's never clear what would happen to the village otherwise (as opposed to the rapidly freezing rest of the world); the story is a nice parallel to the Ray selling his soul to Neron in Underworld, but it's nowhere near as moving as, say, Power Girl discovering her Multiversal heritage in Infinite Crisis.

It's toward the very end that Final Night does an about-face and becomes a Green Lantern story, and it's for this reason that it's surprising that Final Night, maybe even more than Underworld Unleashed, isn't any longer in print (or maybe the idea is to sweep as much of Hal Jordan's time as Parallax under the rug as possible). Inasmuch as Jordan, as Green Lantern, failed to hold the 1990s DC Comics readers' attention, obviously he was enough of a draw as Parallax to warrant inclusion in both Zero Hour and Final Night; but it's quickly obvious in the story why that Hal Jordan gained a reputation as a "whiner" -- in comportment, he's nearly unrecognizable as the Hal Jordan that stars in Green Lantern today. The Final Night: Parallax special included (written by then-Green Lantern scribe Ron Marz) is a mixed bag of somewhat thoughtful conversations between Hal and former Lanterns Guy Gardner and John Stewart, and a rather generic good-bye scene with Carol Ferris; Hal's been offscreen so long here, and his role comes so much at the very end, that there isn't the emotion one finds later in Green Lantern: Rebirth. Hal's rather unspectacular defeat of the Sun-Eater (basically just sucking the thing into his fingers) only adds to the anti-climax.

Aside from Hal's death in this volume (he'd be back two years later in a time-travelling Green Lantern story, and then again in the Day of Judgement crossover) the overall impact of Final Night is considerably less than what we expect from modern crossovers. Notably, the crossover that followed Final Night, Genesis, also lacked a main villain (at least in the tie-in titles), with the heroes battling depressive moods and power loss; Genesis, however, lacked (to the extreme) the generally favorable critical reception that Final Night received -- that is, it's much harder to understand why Final Night isn't in print than why Genesis was never collected. DC crossovers would get better with DC One Million, but worse with Day of Judgment and Joker's Last Laugh before DC crossovers would cease altogether until Identity Crisis and Infinite Crisis resurrected the genre. Final Night, in this view, represents some of the best of the DC crossovers of this era (but very far from the best crossover by current standards), and also in a way the beginning of the end of that era of crossovers as a whole.

[Contains covers, previously uncolored preview book]

If we think of the history of the DC Universe as indeed a history, and a reader might want to experience that history from beginning to end, it's frustrating that key parts -- crossovers, I think, more so than individual titles -- shouldn't be readily available. Especially since DC recently released collections of Millennium and Invasion, both of which pre-date Final Night, it seems even more counter-intuitive that Final Night and Underworld Unleashed shouldn't be available. In the end, there's something about Final Night that feels almost experimental, and it's an interesting experiment; ultimately I think most would hunt down the trade paperback more for the story's place in history than for the story itself, and it's puzzling that that's not possible. We'll talk about this more coming up.

Review: Underworld Unleashed trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, April 19, 2010

In researching the DC Comics crossover Final Night for the DC Universe Trade Paperback Timeline the other day, it struck me that a number of fans, especially those who came to DC Comics through Identity Crisis, Infinite Crisis, or the current Green Lantern series, may not have read this nor the crossover one previous, Underworld Unleashed. For trade paperback fans, neither crossover is even still in print!

As a graphic novel fan, the fact that a new copy of Underworld Unleashed or Final Night isn't officially available (though often find-able online or at your local comic book store) is disappointing to me for a couple reasons which I'll innumerate in a later post. I'm fortunate to have access a copy of each trade, however, and what I want to do this week is review both books in the Collected Editions manner, but also contextualize the stories a bit for those who may not have followed the DC Universe at that time.

The three-issue Underworld Unleashed, by writer Mark Waid and JLA's Howard Porter, presents the villain Neron offering to empower DC's villains in exchange for their spreading chaos, and the heroes journey to Hell to stop him. The story is ambitious and at times affecting, but doesn't read well in comparison to modern standards (just, granted, about fifteen years later). The crossover itself is notable because it's the first line-wide DC Comics event after the Zero Hour crossover and soft-reboot, and in that way would have seemed to somewhat set the tone for that era's "new" DC Universe -- and also, it was the first line-wide DC crossover in four years, aside from Zero Hour, that would actually take place within the comics titles themselves and not in the annuals like Armageddon 2001, Eclipso: The Darkness Within, and Bloodlines.

[Just curious about the Collected Editions demographic. How many out there read Armageddon 2001 or the others when they first came out? How many have read it in back issues since?]

On paper, Underworld Unleashed offers a cogent vehicle for an in-title crossover; Neron makes rather vague mayhem in Underworld itself, and then each branded title offers a different transformed villain fighting the title's hero. In a way, it's much like (in fact, remarkably similar to) Libra's story in Final Crisis; Underworld, I'd argue, impressively empowers the villains but isn't much on characterization; Final Crisis was detailed, but lacked Underworld's follow-through. The "Faces of Evil" cover branding that followed Final Crisis sounded a bit like Underworld, too, in that it was supposed to spotlight DC's villains, but ultimately there wasn't much connectedness in the "Faces of Evil" titles.

The great difference between a crossover like Infinite Crisis and Underworld Unleashed, reading Underworld now, is that Underworld is largely a framing story for events happening in other titles, whereas Infinite Crisis is the main story. As such, don't look for lots of answers here. Items like what deals heroes like Hawkman make with Neron get brief mentions but no details; there's also an entire conflict between the demons Blaze and Satanus and Neron that ends in Underworld, but begins elsewhere and isn't ever explained.

Where Underworld Unleashed works is in its mood, not in its story. The best part is probably the first ten or twelve pages, where Waid's Neron organizes a Rube Goldberg-esque prison break where everything goes tragically wrong at once; the scene where then-Justice Leaguer Blue Devil realizes the hellish influence at work is chilling. Toward the end, Waid sets the people of the DC Universe on the brink of war, and the continued threats of fire, brimstone, and nuclear meltdown is equally creepy. While the interlude issue Underworld Unleashed: Abyss - Hell's Sentinel ends up being rather boring, and doesn't contribute much to the overall story, it manages to name-check some of the usually off-limits supernaturla characters like Swamp Thing, and the art by both Phil Jimenez and JG Jones is bar none.

It's worth noting that since Underworld Unleashed came out, Neron has appeared somewhere in the DC Universe almost every year since; for a new villain in a mid-level crossover, that's a notable accomplishment (and better, so far, than Libra). In part I think Neron has pervaded because he's the ultimate McGuffin, limitless in his power and always able to appear with malicious intent; I was thrilled, however, to see some storylines left unfinished in Underworld Unleashed completed just recently in Reign in Hell and Teen Titans. Again, I think Underworld will feel light when read by most modern readers, but obviously the story caught enough imaginations to shape the DC Universe through the present day.

In his afterword to Underworld Unleashed, Waid waxes somewhat apologetic about the story, noting that the story bowed somewhat to the pressures of the 1990s Image Comics era in trying to make the DC villains superficially cooler than they were, something Waid suggests he regrets. That era of comics gave way itself to a more reverent time (think the revamped alien Teen Titans then versus the classic Titans-based Teen Titans now); villain revision still goes on, but we find someone like Sinestro getting an enhanced characterization rather than magic new powers. In that way, we see the impetus behind Underworld Unleashed reflected still today, only refined over so many years.

[Contains partial covers, afterword by Mark Waid]

Next, we'll look at the crossover that followed, Final Night, and then some closing thoughts.

DC solicits deluxe Legion of Super-Heroes: Great Darkness Saga hardcover

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Ever since DC Comics announced online the balance of their 2010 trade paperback solicitations, the collections have rolled out online mostly according to plan. Collected Editions reader Chris Hilker caught one previously unannounced, however, and it's a doozy: a deluxe oversized edition of Legion of Super-heroes: The Great Darkness Saga.

A hardcover Great Darkness isn't a great suprise, given that the original book is out of print, that Levitz is about to begin a new run on Legion, and that DC already announced a new Legion of Super-Heroes: Prologue to Darkness paperback that leads in to Great Darkness. What is a surprise is the deluxe format, which makes the hardcover a bit bigger and, in my opinion, adds some extra value for the reader even if they already own an old, dog-eared copy of Darkness.

Great Darkness always makes me think of Teen Titans: Judas Contract, maybe because both are classic 1980s lynchpins of a true understanding of the DC Universe. Which makes me wonder: with a deluxe Great Darkness coming out, and also New Titans: Games, can a deluxe hardcover Judas Contract be too far behind?

UPDATE: Julia of Confessions of a Retconned Fangirl (@mizelle) notes that Prologue to Darkess seems to have disappeared from online. Maybe DC thought a Great Darkness hardcover would sell better, or maybe the deluxe edition contains the Prologue issues, too (at an announced 416 pages, the deluxe edition is about twice the size of the original Great Darkness trade paperback)?

Review: Superman: Nightwing and Flamebird Vol. 1 hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, April 15, 2010

I enjoyed Superman: Nightwing and Flamebird, and at least one notable aspect is that this book demonstrates the sheer depth and forethought that Geoff Johns (despite that Nightwing and Flamebird is written by Greg Rucka) put in to the New Krypton storyline. However, I must say Nightwing and Flamebird seemed much more like filler in Superman's absence from Action Comics than did New Krypton's other super-spin-off, James Robinson's Superman: Mon-El; Rucka offers some nice moments in the book, but I'm not ready yet to call it essential reading.

[Contains spoilers for Superman: Nightwing and Flamebird]

One of my first experiences reading Greg Rucka's work was in his Adventures of Superman run, which featured a rather nebbishy Clark Kent and a Lois Lane who seemed somewhat eager to ditch her husband; in as much as I like Rucka's writing (more Checkmate, please!), his Superman ranks among my least favorite. Fortunately, Superman is out of the picture in Nightwing and Flamebird, giving Rucka, like Robinson in Mon-El, something of a blank Metropolis slate to work with. This time around, Rucka's Lois Lane is spot-on: caring, as when she's reunited with Nightwing, her foster son Chris Kent; and also tough-as-nails, as in the running joke throughout the story that Lois has everyone's phone number and isn't afraid to use them.

Rucka's Nightwing and Flamebird, themselves, are equally compelling. On one hand, Nightwing is believably a child in a man's body, dutifully following Flamebird's commands, at times fiercely emotional, and also awkward in his love for Flamebird that he can't quite express. Flamebird is equally conflicted, having gone from a traumatized childhood to military service to religious zealotry -- the best part about Nightwing and Flamebird is the way neither one knows which direction is up or down, short of their trust in one another. Flamebird's conversation with Lois, in which this grown woman must admit to a divinely-inspired love for a still-young Nightwing, is wonderfully awkward.

But Rucka embroils Nightwing and Flamebird in what's essentially a story-long slugfest, and while their fight with Nightwing's mother Ursa in the beginning is nicely brutal, their later fight with some nondescript Kryptonians just doesn't distinguish itself from your average superhero battle. Also the New Krypton timeline has begun to break down a bit between volumes, such that I'm unsure why the US military is using what looks like zombies to fight the Kryptonians, nor did I know who General Lane's latest mysterious meta-helper was (or if I was supposed to know). There's only so much snarling that General Lane can do before he comes something of a one-trick pony, and this is just about the moment that I got a little bored. I don't fault Rucka, necessarily; this is most certainly a danger of DC trying to tell a story with the same villain in three different titles (and then collecting them in halfsies).

What Nightwing and Flamebird unfortunately lacks, which Mon-El has, is a sense of place. Mon-El has the titular Daxamite, and the Guardian, and Steel, and Bibbo, and Dr. Light, and Atlas, and really the culture of Metropolis -- Rucka's book just has Nightwing and Flamebird, and unfortunately they don't quite hold the stage the way the Man of Steel does (it also doesn't help that this book has shifting artists chapter by chapter, which make it feel less "put together" than Mon-El). I appreciated very much, however, how the storyline Geoff Johns began way back in Superman: Last Son comes to fruition here (you know Johns was thinking of Nightwing since his Superman run began) which makes the last few years of Superman feel cohesive and is one of the reasons I wouldn't dismiss Nightwing and Flamebird entirely.

New Krypton continues on, and while I love the depth and scope of this storyline, this is the first time I felt like it was treading water a little bit. Nightwing and Flamebird next appear in Codename Patriot, however, and maybe teaming them with the rest of the Super-cast will make this aspect feel more a part of the fold.

[Contains full covers, text and Secret Files pages]

Review: Final Crisis Aftermath: Dance trade paperback

Monday, April 12, 2010

In terms of epilogues to Final Crisis, Final Crisis Aftermath: Dance is more what I was expecting than the similarly-bannered Run! Writer Joe Casey (of whom I've been a fan ever since his post-Ending Battle run on Adventures of Superman, in which Superman avoided using violence for some half-dozen issues) builds well upon the thin foundation Grant Morrison laid down for the Super Young Team in Final Crisis, and offers strong statements about youth, culture, and superheroics in the twenty-first century.

[Contains spoilers for Final Crisis Aftermath: Dance]

In one of my favorite moments of Final Crisis, Grant Morrison caught me completely by surprise in introducing the Super Young Team as the Fifth World equivalent to Jack Kirby's Fourth World Forever People. Whereas Kirby styled the Forever People after that era's hippies, Morrison created the Super Young Team as an answer to a culture (theirs and ours) raised on superheroes -- the Super Young Team aren't the young members of the Justice Society, wearing the costumes of their elders as a tribute, but rather the Super Young Team has absorbed superheroes as cosplay, as toys, as fashion (the striking Killing Joke-cover jacket and Young Team leader Most Excellent Superbat's Superman-symbol costume are just two examples).

The key, however, that makes Dance and the Super Young Team so enjoyable is even as the team is definitely irreverent, and even as in their inception they've deconstructed superheroics almost as far as the concept will allow, they still want -- almost desperately -- to fight for what's right. Dance finds the Super Young Team with newfound fame after their role in Final Crisis, but it's this very role that drives the team to want to shake off fame in favor of good deeds (though still look good doing it). Joe Casey could have written a story about spoiled superpowered kids who learn the value of work over six chapters; instead, it's a story about superpowered kids who struggle to defy society's assumptions about them and do better than what's expected, and this struggle is infinitely fascinating.

Dance reminded me in part of Blood Pack, an enjoyable miniseries in which a handful of the heroes from DC's Bloodlines crossover joined, essentially, a reality show. DC published Blood Pack over ten years ago, and our culture's media involvement has only become more saturated. Casey takes the Super Young Team from a rave at their new headquarters to a comic book convention to, later, an Oprah-like talk show where they discuss the team conflicts; in every situation, it's more about the public's ability to be around the Super Young Team than the team themselves -- in becoming heroes (or perhaps celebrities), they themselves are as irrelevant as the Justice League are to them.

Even Superbat's narration throughout the book comes in the form of "tweets" to himself; even his private thoughts, effectively, are public consumption. While Casey's story doesn't delve much into international politics, I thought it interesting that the reason for the book's overriding conspiracy (apart from a clever but poorly explained master villain) was to disguise the relatively minor damage that occurred to Japan in Final Crisis; that is, Japan uses the twenty-four hour publicity of the Super Young Team as a ruse meant to keep publicity away from its own secret shame, only to have it revealed the shame isn't all that shameful. As with the Super Young Team's own conflicted values, this interplay between the public and private made Dance a gripping read.

Here's the big statement: superhero teen team comics are not dead. Lately when I've read Teen Titans I've begun to think they're dead, but Final Crisis Aftermath: Dance has changed my mind. Dance is edgy and smart, and a commentary on what it might be like to be a young superhero outside the pale of sidekicks and clones -- and Dance reflects comic book conventions and manga and all sorts of things not DC Comics-specific, and I like seeing those elements interact with this universe. If Final Crisis was meant to be ground-breaking, Dance breaks ground, and I'd sooner pick up a series with these characters than the same old thing.

[Contains full covers]

Unfortunately, my copy of Final Crisis Aftermath: Ink was missing pages (which made for a confusing read, I assure you) so I had to return it to my LCS and have them order another. Instead, coming up we'll delve back into some Superman, and maybe a few surprises. Don't miss it!

Trade Perspectives: Straczynski's Samaritan X and the state of DC's Earth One initiative

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Four months after DC Comics' Source blog announced the Earth One initiative that promised a new take on the DC characters, published in graphic novel format and with its own continuity, my excitement for the project has both heightened and tempered.

High hopes for Samaritan X
On one hand, we learned in March that J. Michael Straczynski, who'll be writing Superman: Earth One, will also be writing an original graphic novel set within the DC Universe, Samaritan X. Since the next best thing to the Earth One graphic novels with their own shared continuity would be graphic novels that share the main DC Universe continuity (I've longer clamored for a Manhunter OGN that ends at the feet of the crossover du jour), Samaritan X is a gigantic step in the right direction -- especially since it's written by Straczynski, who's also taking over Superman and Wonder Woman and, one hopes, might cameo the Samaritan X super-hospital in those titles. An original graphic novel, in mainstream continuity.

I'm tempted to think of this as an unprecedented step, that never before has DC Comics produced an original graphic novel that (presumably) fits right in with modern continuity, but it's clearly not the first. Just in brief, Green Lantern: Legacy -- The Last Will of Hal Jordan re-established aspects of the Lantern Corps referenced soon after in the Green Lantern title of the time; Catwoman: Selina's Big Score lead in to that series; Life Story of the Flash set that series' continuity for a while. And that's not to mention all the Prestige Format one-shots that came out over the years that also factored into continuity.

Samaritan X, however, is DC's first in-continuity, original graphic novel to arrive in today's comics landscape, where 99% of everything you read will end up as a long-form collection. Consider that one of the last big in-continuity graphic novels, JLA/JSA: Virtue and Vice, came out in 2003 when the current collected edition craze was only just beginning; if Samaritan X were to be super-successful now, when a far greater percentage of the comics fanbase wait for the trade and read their comics in collections, this could indeed spark an era where readers don't have to wait for the trades, but rather some of the day's relevant comics emerge first-run in long form just like Samaritan X will.

Straczynski's dueling Supermen
On the other hand, aside from Samaritan X, other issues give me pause. First, I wonder about Straczynski as the writer of both Superman and Superman: Earth One. I state this without really an experience with Straczynski's writing, so this has no bearing on Straczynski himself, but I wonder about the mental gymnastics necessary to write both of these books together. In Earth One, Straczynski has stated, Jimmy Olsen is more of a daredevil, so where does that leave the Jimmy Olsen of the current DCU? If the Earth One Daily Planet will function more like an actual newsroom, what will the current Daily Planet be like? Essentially, if Straczynski gets to create his Earth One Superman mythos from the ground up, by his rules, can his DCU Superman help but pale in comparison? Maybe Straczynski can do it, but when I'm already concerned that it seems like DC's sweeping much of the past two year's New Krypton under the rug with two new writers on the Superman titles, Straczynski's dual roles give me pause.

Crisis of Infinite Delays on Earth One?
There's also the issue that, at least from fan perception, the Earth One initiative may not be rolling out as smoothly as planned. About the time we learned the relatively reasonable price and page count for the Earth One books, we also learned we wouldn't see Superman: Earth One, until the third quarter of this year -- hardly enough time, it seemed, to release a second volume before the end of 2010. I discussed at the time that DC announcing the book so early risked fans forgetting about the whole thing by the time it came around. And in addition, a September release for Superman: Earth One left very little time for Geoff Johns' Batman: Earth One to follow -- and indeed, Batman: Earth One isn't at all on DC's official list of 2010 collections. I'm so very eager for Earth One to succeed, but if it's not a series, then it's just two new one-shot takes on Superman and Batman; delays, as are suggested here, could kill it.

What's next?
So checking back in with Earth One and DC's original graphic novels, we find a little bit of hope, a little bit of despair. It is worth noting that right behind Superman: Earth One at the end of the year is Marv Wolfman and George Perez's long-awaited Teen Titans: Games -- not in-continuity per se, but another graphic novel, and if Games and Samaritan X and Superman: Earth One all do well, who knows what might be right behind.

Can't wait for the original graphic novel wave? Not sure your paycheck can take it? Be sure to add your comment below!

Review: Final Crisis Aftermath: Run! trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, April 05, 2010

Matthew Sturges' Final Crisis Aftermath: Run! is probably not a book for me. It's a bloody dark comedy and crime story, but without the hint of nobility I think you find in Gail Simone's Secret Six, in contrast, or even in Sturges' own villain-focused Salvation Run. I struggled to decide whether Sturges tries to make a larger point here about the ongoing struggle between DC Comics' heroes and villains, or if the focus is simply madcap action. Disappointingly, as well, there's no sense in the book that DC intends to do more with the featured villain, the Human Flame, making me wonder whether Run! wasn't really intended as nothing more than a venue to capitalize on the Final Crisis name.

Run! has an aesthetic that I like. In as much as is possible in comic books, Sturges tries to present the book in real-time (or, at least, tells us how much time elapses between each scene), and keeps the Human Flame on the go the entire time -- running from the mob, heroes, and fellow villains. Flame gets continually beat to a pulp, managing each time to escape and find himself new and increasingly more dangerous powers that pull him out of one predicament and into the next, with increasingly explosive results. Part picaresque, part satire, Run! is a glimpse of the DC Universe through the eyes of an Inferior Five-level villain; as Green Lantern John Stewart describes him, Flame is an amateur wildcard who gains infinite power for one shining moment, before crashing and burning in defeat.

The premise does sound promising, and as such it's difficult for me to discern where it goes wrong. Perhaps it's Flame's lack of remorse; Flame continues an ongoing diatribe throughout the book where he wonders, even, if his part in killing the Martian Manhunter counts as murder since the victim wasn't human. I don't need my villains to be reluctant, necessarily, but Flame is a brute -- not a funny brute like Lobo (even if he's meant to be) and not even skillful like Lex Luthor, the Joker, or Vandal Savage in Sturges' Salvation Run, and as such I'm not driven to follow or root for him in a "it's good to be bad" kind of way.

Second, while I think artist Freddie Williams likely achieved the intended tone in this book -- giving every punch that the Human Flame gives or receives a cartoony quality -- the presentation didn't work for me either. As with Flame's personality, there's just no place for me to hang my hat; Williams' Flame is suitably ugly, as are his villainous allies and the filthy holes in which they have to hide away -- but with all the and ugliness, I'm not sure what I'm supposed to like. Granted, it's a dark, dirty story, but if the characters don't try to be in some way likable and the art doesn't try to be in some way attractive, I'm not sure what's in it for me as the reader to stick around.

At the core of Run! is that infamous moment in Final Crisis where, at the Human Flame's request, the villain Libra kills the Martian Manhunter. It's a startling scene meant by writer Grant Morrison to be different from your typical superhero death, like when Max Lord killed Blue Beetle; Beetle dies triumphant, whereas Libra dispatches the Manhunter with brutal swiftness and zero theatrics. Libra dies in Final Crisis, such that it's Flame who emerges as representative of this new, tougher villainy; around the middle of Run!, when Flame kills some of the sillier villains of the DC Universe (including the Condiment King), shouting about the villains' "stupid code names," it seems indeed that Flame will be the harbinger of this new era of DC Comics villains.

Unfortunately, Final Crisis itself failed to shake the DC Universe. Whereas the line-wide "One Year Later" event after Infinite Crisis made something of a difference in the DCU, DC's half-hearted attempt to keep Final Crisis from bleeding over into the monthly books have left a kind of confused space -- Batman's dead and characters mention having been possessed by Darkseid, but there's no residual affect of all the people of Earth having had to live in refrigeration, for instance.

To wit, it's almost a "running" joke in Run! that Libra has disappeared, given that it was never quite clear to the reader from Morrison's end who Libra was or what Morrison's really intended with him. The Human Flame, therefore, is a hanging chad, the remnants of an incomplete plotline, the representation of a good thought by Morrison that unfortunately, in a shared universe, never got picked up the way the sensibilities of Infinite Crisis did.

Sturges does his best with an intentionally farcical comic about a D-list villain and his near ridiculous lust for power (and also the frustrations the Justice League face trying to catch low-level villains), and I've no doubt that was enough for some (I don't mean to be humorless -- Sturges notes on his blog that "If you can’t see the fun in seeing kindly nurses getting punched in the face . . . well, let’s just say that’s the classy part of the story," and I understand he's shooting for a certain kind of valid humor here; I'm just not sure it makes the book). But Run!'s opposite number, when you think about it, is James Robinson's Cry for Justice, which shows the trauma of the Manhunter's murder from the Justice League's perspective, and whether you like Cry for Justice or not, it has the cache and impact that Run! does not, relegating Run! to footnote status on the buy pile.

If Final Crisis Aftermath: Run! really resonated with you, I'd like hear about what made it work for you. For me, I couldn't escape the idea there wasn't much here that it was really crucial for me to have experienced, and maybe a different book deserved my dollar instead. That's no fault of the writer's, necessarily, just how I felt in the end.

[Contains full covers]

Review: Reign in Hell trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, April 01, 2010

"Ambitious" is at least one word I'd use to describe writer Keith Giffen's Reign in Hell. Over eight issues, Giffen builds a complex and fully realized architecture for the DC Comics concept of Hell, and in doing so helps to describe the often vague rules for magic in the DC Universe. On top of that, Giffen populates Reign in Hell with a who's who of DCU characters: some mystical, some forgotten, and at least one -- this writer posits -- there just because Giffen wrote the story. Reign in Hell is not an instant classic, but without question it demonstrates Giffen's versatility.

[Contains spoilers for Reign in Hell]

I associate Keith Giffen, perhaps unfairly, with Justice League International and Lobo; as such, when he writes something more serious like Reign in Hell, it takes me by surprise (even thought Giffen's Legion was plenty serious at times). But even as Reign still contains some of Giffen's trademark banter between the heroes, the book's main combatants -- Neron on one side, and Satanus and Blaze on the other -- speak to each other in terms of "open petition," the "unspoken principum," and detailed strategy of war. It gives the book a tone of fantasy that not only have I never seen before from Giffen, but that's rare in the DC Universe as a whole, and I wonder if Reign in Hell will find some fans in this way.

Notable also here is the art team of Tom Derenick and Bill Sienkiewicz. Derenick's work isn't always my favorite, but he became synonymous with Shadowpact over the course of that series, so I'm glad to see he tackles those characters again here. Sienkiewicz is an artist that, because of his unusal, sketchy style we don't see as often on DC Comics, but when he appears, his inks transform the pencillers' style into a great amalgam of the penciller and Sienkiewicz's own. In this case, Sienkiewicz's dark, moody inks work perfectly with Derenick to create something that looks familiar and at the same time omnious enough for this story.

DC's done a lot of work on their mystical characters since just before Infinite Crisis; the same is true of their cosmic characters. Since that time, we've had a couple of Day of Vengence specials, the Shadowpact series, and mystical tie-ins to Final Crisis. It seems this era is just about over; whereas Jim Starlin's cosmic miniseries continue in spirit in REBELS and Green Lantern, Shadowpact's been cancelled and Reign feels like a last hurrah for these characters. As such, we see Blue Devil, Enchantress, Nightshade, and Detective Chimp here; also Zatanna, the angel Zauriel, Captain Marvel, Etrigan, the new Sargon and Ibis from the Helet of Fate miniseries, Black Alice, and more. Essentially, and impressively, everyone who's appear in DC's mystic revival over the past few years appears here, and Giffen does well in giving them all roles to play.

I also enjoyed that Giffen includes a number of varied aspects of DC Comics continuity in this story. Giffen has Etrigan reference War of the Gods, of all things, a nearly forgotten Wonder Woman crossover from over ten years ago; similarly Giffen makes good use of a drug introduced in one of the least notable Satanus storylines from Superman some years back as well. He brings in Linda Danvers, the all but forgotten Supergirl from the Peter David series, and even gives a nod to that series connection to David's Fallen Angel. At the same time, I felt a pivotal scene between Blue Devil and Etrigan could have been greater if it had acknowledged the two had met in Shadowpact not more than a year or so ago; there's also a terribly confusing sequence where Zatanna learns her father Zatara is alive in Hell, but no one except the reader seems very surprised by this.

For all my awe over Reign in Hell, I'll acknowledge it's not exactly my cup of tea. I like Shadowpact and DC's mystic revival, but Shadowpact's tone was one of supernatural, not fantasy. The Shadowpact were superheroes who fought bad guys with magic, whereas Reign is more swords and sorcery; I like complicated comics, and Reign has eight issues worth of lots of detailed dialogue, but it's not exactly the kind of thing that holds my interest. The somewhat incongruous appearance of Lobo here (perhaps in DC's belief that Giffen plus Lobo equals sales) doesn't temper the tone, nor does the noir Dr. Occult back up series that never quite seems necessary. I appreciated Reign in Hell's scope as a miniseries and as a finale, but I don't think I'd necessarily follow it as an ongoing series.

Reign in Hell ended for me on a promising note, with my favorite of the three contenders for ruler of Hell victorious. Aside from one appearance in Teen Titans, though, I don't know how soon we'll see this story continued, and maybe it ought lay fallow for now; this is a good conclusion for a run of DC's mystical heroes that lasted maybe longer than I would have expected, and maybe it'll do the property good to let it rest for a while now.

[Contains full and variant covers]