Review: Checkmate trade paperback (DC Comics)

May 3, 2023

 ·  7 comments

To be sure, Brian Michael Bendis' Checkmate is more of Event Leviathan. If pages upon pages of a motley collection of DC heroes standing around in darkened rooms talking in circles is your idea of fun (and indeed, that often is my idea of fun!), then Checkmate is a whole other helping of that. But this also means Checkmate is subject to the same criticisms as leveled against Event Leviathan — that it spends too long meandering, that it’s more concerned with only-occasionally witty banter than actual plot, that the story does not culminate so much as it just ends.

Added to that is that a giant chunk of one of Checkmate’s B-plots, which ends up factoring heavily in its conclusion, takes place not in the Checkmate collection at all, but in Bendis' Justice League Vol. 2: United Order. This is not a significant sin — most of the time I’d be all too pleased by these kinds of of-the-moment continuity ties, and I’m sure it all read great in monthly issues — but there’s no effort made within this collection specifically to direct the reader over there for more information.

Thus, reading Checkmate first and on its own, I felt as if pages were missing, or perhaps there was a plot that had to be truncated or was left vague for yet another sequel. That’s out of the Checkmate collection’s control, and yet it’s another hurdle for a book with already a lot stacked against it. I’d read more of Bendis' Checkmate — a spy story set against the backdrop of the DCU? Are you kidding? Of course! — but even for a fan, the particular patois wears thin in places here, and some of the stumbles in the characterization grate. More’s the pity for what was clearly supposed to be a big thing in the DCU, until it wasn’t any more.

[Review contains spoilers]

It probably doesn’t do the future of comics any good for a scene in a modern comic to have the most resonance only if you’ve been reading about the character on and off for the past 30-odd years. Then again, this is the book series that dropped Mark Shaw back on us apropos of nothing, so the long view is kind of the “Leviathan” books' bread and butter. As such, for me the most crackling scene in Checkmate is when Bendis brings in Allie, once famously living homeless in the Daily Planet building in 1990 (!), and reveals her as a Leviathan agent in confrontation with Lois Lane. Maybe that’s got the same effect even if you haven’t seen Allie in the background of Superman stories since 1987 (!!), but I doubt it.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

At a time when it’s common for charistmatic villains to be political metaphors, Bendis has been circumspect in that bent with Leviathan. But the leap is easy to make when it comes to Allie, a character whom we know has often been taken for granted by the Daily Planet elites, whom we know has struggled to make ends meet in the most prosperous city in the (fictional comics) world. Allie isn’t evil (or doesn’t see herself as such), I believe she genuinely feels bad about Lois Lane’s father’s death, but also she firmly believes a demagogue who tells her things haven’t gone her way because the world is broken and he’s the only one who can fix it (Shaw’s potential mind control substances aside).

Bendis could have used an extra from central casting, but his choice of Allie is very clever — someone who has legitimately been a friend to the Kents, someone entirely nonthreatening, and who might legitimately have a different worldview that also happens to be tied up in a world-conquering megalomaniac — and also a great reading of DCU history. This is a place where Checkmate is doing what we might hope it would, offering that kind of All the President’s Men abject paranoia in an office building kind of vibe, and with the weight of the history of the DCU behind it.

It’s this same kind of thing Bendis tries but doesn’t accomplish in the fourth issue, when Green Arrow and Manhunter Kate Spencer foil Leviathan’s Merlyn and Guardian on the Justice League satellite, but then recognize themselves as exposed to Leviathan’s weapons. What worked in Bendis' use of Allie does not work here; from the Justice League satellite of uncertain provenance to Bendis' unusually angry, violent Guardian, the same kind of attempts to use continuity as a touchstone fail when they don’t ring true. The villains are too ineffectual to be concerning, and when Bendis gets down to the suspense moment, when it seems Green Arrow and Manhunter might be most endangered, that danger has passed on the very next page.

This is how Checkmate mostly goes. In the climactic sequence, the main cast fights comics' umpteenth battle with Talia al Ghul while Leviathan Mark Shaw is dispensed with by a character we know nothing about (see the aforementioned Justice League: United Order). Ultimately Shaw is killed in part due to his perceived failure to lead Leviathan; the calmness of the sequence is fascinating, if not nearly comical, like the world’s worst 360-degree review. This is in line with how all along the Leviathan group has been part agreeable social movement, part diabolical villain organization, but equanimity is not perhaps what’s needed here when Checkmate is supposed to be coming to crescendo.

I’m not particularly sure if Bendis kills Shaw because Shaw’s story is over (rather quickly), or if Bendis perceives his own time to tell Shaw’s story is over (I see nothing new from Bendis in DC’s latest solicitations), or if the point of Event Leviathan storyline has always been the establishment of a new Checkmate, villains notwithstanding. Whichever, it mars Mark Shaw’s reputation as a villain in a way that I think is unfortunate; as grand as Leviathan Shaw was in Event Leviathan, he became less so amidst the goofy chaos of Action Comics Vol. 4: Metropolis Burning, and Checkmate completes his too-swift fall from grace.

2.25

Rating

Checkmate is everywhere now, or at least I’ve seen mention of it in Deathstroke Inc., Suicide Squad, and Wonder Woman, basically as a monolithic organization with infrastructure, as if someone did copy and paste on all mentions of the DEO and ARGUS. Checkmate, the book, doesn’t establish that, unless it’s in Justice League, but I’m guessing this is an example of the adage, “If you don’t nail down your comic book spy agency when you first introduce it, someone else is going to do it for you.” So it goes. I’ll be curious to see how Checkmate evolves in the DCU, and I would indeed read more from Brian Michael Bendis and artist Alex Maleev, but the chances seem small.

[Includes original and variant covers, character and logo designs]

Comments ( 7 )

  1. I did not know the story was also playing out in JL. That might have been good information for me to have had when I read the book. Oh, well

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  2. It's been a while since I read this, but I remember it feeling like it was the second part of a trilogy that had to wrap up quickly - doubtless because of how fast Bendis's fortunes fell at the post-DiDio DC. (I don't know that it was ever even announced that Bendis isn't at DC any longer, but moving his Jinxworld projects to Dark Horse seems writing enough on the wall.)

    I think by now we're more or less back to the Infinite Crisis-era Checkmate (though I believe Bones is with Stormwatch now?), but the thing that still nags me about this run -- and indeed of all the many peculiar fixations of BMB's tenure -- is the lingering mystery about Mr. King (no relation!). I won't spoil since you didn't, but it's such a bizarre twist, weirdly linking to some of what Bendis was doing with Legion, which ended up being its own misfire.

    I don't know... for being compared to Kirby in terms of seismic moves ("Kirby is coming," "Bendis is coming," etc), Bendis's DC work ended up being too brief to accomplish much of anything. It was a series of very interesting teases, but he didn't get decades to reap like he did at Marvel. Just about the only lasting effect, to my eyes, is the aging up of Jon Kent.

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    Replies
    1. AnonymousMay 05, 2023

      "Just about the only lasting effect, to my eyes, is the aging up of Jon Kent."

      I still have not forgiven Bendis for that, as it killed Super Sons and robbed us of the Tomasi-era paradigm between the Kents and Jon and Damian.

      But, I do think Tom Taylor (and to a lesser extent Phillip Kennedy Johnson) have more or less made lemonade out of those lemons.

      But yeah, ultimately, it's telling how quickly Bendis' job security evaporated as soon as Didio got axed. It's the inverse of how quickly Mark Waid got back in the door after Didio's ouster (and Bob Harass too, given his longstanding bad blood with Waid).

      I don't think the Bendis era amounted to much either. I think Didio was too expectant he could recapture the Bedis sales draw of the 2000s -- all while ignoring that Bendis star had fallen a lot in his final years at the House of Ideas.

      And to be fair, I didn't care for the final years of Bendis' Marvel tenure, but I DID think, if not hope, that being at DC might reinvigorate his creative energies. Ultimately, it didn't and I can't say Im gonna miss him in the DCU.

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    2. I will say, as much as I loved the Super Sons, I never really begrudged Bendis for ending that run. Comics change, nothing stays the same, and everything comes back around before too long.

      Until, that is, his last issue of Action Comics, when he has a bystander shouting at Jon, “Hey, you should team up with Robin! That’s all you should ever do!” It seems particularly mean-spirited, with Bendis inserting a snarky caricature of Super Sons fans and taking that criticism way too personally. I'm usually a fan of Bendis's fourth-wall gags, but this one rubbed me the wrong way, reducing a valid response to a snarky straw man. Bendis came off exceptionally thin-skinned there, possibly because he knew his time at DC was over.

      But you're right, Tom Taylor has found a great niche for SuperJon!

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    3. With respect but I do not like Bendis. I think he is highly overrated and he ruined Jon Kent by turning him into a teen and robbing him of his childhood. The dig at the Super sons fans was not only mean spirited but childish. He should know better. If you like Bendis that's cool. I respect your opinion
      But personally I am not a fan.

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    4. I'm sort of Bendis agnostic. He's written some good stuff, and he's written some real stinkers. But I really soured on him after that Super Sons dig; you got it exactly right by describing it as "childish." Maybe instead of sniping back at his critics for liking an earlier run, he should have poured that energy into giving Jon an interesting plotline.

      Instead, we got him as a super-surrogate in a Legion reboot that didn't go anywhere and leaned on all of Bendis's worst tropes (a team book with far too many players where everyone talks alike, the plot doesn't move, and the book is carried by the art).

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    5. AnonymousJune 10, 2023

      Agreed. Bendis' strengths have always been smaller casts and street-level.

      Daredevil and Alias? Still some of my favorite Marvel runs of the 2000s.

      New Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy? The latter sucked (though, to be fair, being the first post-Abnett/Lanning custodian wasn't gonna be fun for anyone)

      And the former...the early years at least worked because of Bendis both being new to the industry and the build towards Secret Invasion. After that, his flaws crippled the book (I still think to this day he should've exited with Siege instead of hanging on for another 3 years).

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