Friday, 28 August 2015
Superman: Secret Origins #1–6
Written by Geoff Johns
Art by Gary Frank
It’s strange reading a story that came out in 2009/2010 that is now irrelevant due to the Nu52 rebooting the entire DC universe. It’s extra strange when the writer behind it is the Chief Creative Officer at DC – did he know that the story would be pointless when he was writing it? Did he just want to write his version of the Superman origin story before things changed? Did he want to leave a footnote to the history while he had the chance? When I think about what Johns was thinking about, it wrinkles my brain; I can’t imagine what it did to him … I have enjoyed work by this creative team before (I particularly enjoyed their Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes), so I thought I’d read this curio even if it has no connection to current DC continuity.
If you’re reading this blog, then you know the origin of Superman, so you don’t need the summary. The point here is to add details and see the story through a slightly different prism. For starters, Johns has a nice angle on the young Clark Kent: he’s developing his powers at puberty, as well as his feelings for Lana Lang, and then his adoptive parents reveal the truth to him, making him a young man in torment and confusion beyond normal adolescence. Johns also introduces some nice touches to the history (which, as mentioned previously, no longer matter), such as the lenses from the glasses he wears are from crystals from the rocket ship because they can absorb his heat vision and that the costume is Ma Kent’s idea from the crystal holograms of Krypton’s history. Johns is a big fan of DC, so he’s obviously spent a lot of time thinking about these little twists to established lore, and this story shows that he is enjoying adding these finesses.
A fortunate aspect of the art in this comic book is that Frank, a talented artist whose work I’ve always enjoyed, can actually draw teenage individuals, instead of just drawing slightly smaller adults with excessive musculature. I particularly enjoyed his teenage Clark – Christopher Reeve is the deliberate model for Clark (Johns was an intern and then production assistant with Richard Donner), and Frank captures him perfectly as a teenager. Later, he displays Clark ‘acting’ as the oaf in the crumpled suit, the goofy grin and the glasses, and it’s a nice bit of storytelling.
I mentioned the Legion of Super-Heroes, and the second issue firmly places them in the Superboy story (possibly because John Byrne’s Man of Steel deliberately removed them?), and I’ve got no problem with that, even if it doesn’t mean anything now (I really should stop harping on about that …), because Superman and the Legion should be entwined. The other aspect that is intrinsic to Superman’s origin is Lex Luthor, and Johns puts in extra twists of the science/business man who buys up 78% of Metropolis and controlling the newspapers and running the Luthor Lottery, which effectively controls the city’s working-class populace. These are interesting additions to the canon, and I like how the Daily Planet is handled, but the solid build-up doesn’t survive through to the action because the plotting seems a little mechanical and coincidental: a fat man turns into a monster within seconds of eating a toxic spill in a corridor; the man who puts on the Metallo suit to bring down Superman is a soldier who Lois’ dad has under his command and who of course wants to court Lois [an aside: I did like the placid smile on Clark’s face when the soldier tries to crush-shake Clark’s hand] and who when hurt is operated on by Luthor and sent back out as a condensed Metallo almost immediately, which stretches belief even in a comic book.
The Clark–Lois relationship is well handled, but the other side of the story doesn’t click together – I’ve found that this is a common problem with origin stories that try to add an action plot on top of the origin story (there is a reason why, in old comic books, origins were relegated to flashbacks: origins don’t always work as a complete story in their own right because they are just beginnings) – which means that the six issues don’t hold together as a whole. The book works as a love letter to Superman and Christopher Reeves, with some lovely Frank art and some nice embellishments to the origin story.
Monday, 24 August 2015
An explanation: by day, I’m a freelance medical editor; by night, I’m a geeky blogger with a silly sense of humour. When they combine, you get this. In 1989, Tim Burton’s Batman was released and became a sensation, and Jack Nicholson’s Joker was a sensation as well. Dialogue from the film was included in Prince’s Batdance song, which was everywhere that year as well, and the line spoken by Nicholson’s Joker, ‘This town needs an enema’, entered pop culture.
Fast-forward to now: the other day, I tweeted a line about a company needing an editor, and echoes of the past came back as the word ‘enema’ and ‘editor’ scanned the same in my head, going round and round. I suddenly had an idea for one of those meme things that the kids seem to like nowadays. Throw in a misspelling and I had a silly joke that made me smile. I hope it makes you smile as well.
Friday, 21 August 2015
Written by Geoff Johns
Art by Ivan Reis
Wow, Geoff Johns really loves Hal Jordan, doesn’t he? There is no other hero more super: he’s the greatest because everyone keeps saying he’s the greatest, and no one else can do what he does. At least according to Johns. This is the equivalent of literary fellatio and it can sometimes feel too intimate to read.
This also reads as rather depressing because of the inherent morbidity. To paraphrase, let’s talk about death, baby: Batman (at the time this came out), J’onn J’onnz, Aquaman, Katana, Tim Drake, Kyle Rayner’s girlfriend Alex, Jade (daughter of Alan Scott). DC, and to an extent its Chief Creative Officer, developed an unhealthy obsession with killing off characters or at least mutilating them in a bloody fashion in the years running up to the Nu52 reboot. Now, I’m not going to proselytise that superhero comic books should be devoid of death and grimness, because firstly that would make me a hypocrite (when I started reading comic books, I read 2000 AD and my first adventures in mainstream superhero comic books had the Mutant Massacre storyline, and I’ve turned out all right, relatively speaking), but secondly I’m not going to tell people how to do their jobs which they have earned (which I realise is an unusual attitude for a blogger). If stories are going to reflect a certain level of reality, then death is part of that reality and can’t be ignored. However, the obsession with violent deaths of characters for sake of sensationalism, headline grabbing or just to shake up the status quo is disturbing and doesn’t do anyone, not the readers or the writers or the industry as a whole, any good now or in the long run.
This book makes the unhealthy fascination with dead characters its central premise and almost fetishizes it: it visits the graves of Pa Kent, Ronnie Raymond, Ted Kord; the Teen Titans memorial, the Valhalla cemetery in Metropolis, the morgue of dead supervillains in the JLA headquarters (there is a double-page spread of dead heroes as Hal shows off the dead) – DC kills a lot of characters for the sake of stories, and it’s rather wearisome.
The sad thing is that the idea of this book is actually interesting – a Black Lantern power battery sends out thousands of rings that bring back to life all the dead heroes, creating a Black Lantern Corps decked in funky black uniforms, and sets them out to kill all the live heroes, which brings about drama and conflict as well as an examination of a character after death brought about by living a heroic life. It’s just a shame that the central conceit requires so much death for the story to work; it demonstrates how cheap death is in comic books and how regularly it is used (thus losing the intensity of the dramatic reason of death).
Johns is a good writer, despite his psychopathic tendencies, and he does set up the premise of the book well and escalates the tension before introducing the potential saviours in the form of the spectrum of the power rings (red=rage, orange=greed, yellow=terror, green=will, blue=hope, violet=love, indigo=compassion), which is an admittedly silly idea but then this is comic books and Johns knows how to sell it in the writing.
The art in this book is impressive from Reis – there are some great ‘Fuck Yeah!’ double-page spreads throughout, drawn spectacularly by Reis, such as the full complement of different Lantern corps arriving behind John Stewart and the spread of all the heroes arriving for the big fight at the end, but particularly the when the heroes turn into the White Lantern Corps – there is something especially cool about seeing Hal and Barry and Superman and Wonder Woman in white costumes that tickled the superhero-loving side of my brain something special. I’ve always thought that Reis was an above average exemplar of the current DC house style, but he does a great job here, and I shall have to upgrade my opinion; he has a strong style, good storytelling skills, sharp anatomy, a good line and a perfect choice for this sort of company-wide book.
Enjoying the book despite myself and the constant cheerleading for Hal Jordan, I did find the ending a bit weak after all the build-up and the hand-waving to return some heroes to life at the end was very flimsy. However, Blackest Night is an entertaining read and enjoyable while it lasts; if you love Hal Jordan as much as Johns does, you’ll probably enjoy it even more.
Tuesday, 18 August 2015
I recently read the collected Captain America and Bucky: The Life Story of Bucky Barnes, which was written by Ed Brubaker and Marc Andreyko. Comprising Captain America and Bucky #620–624, it was a perfectly fine story – a well-told tale of how Bucky came to be Cap’s sidekick – but it seemed to lack the spark I got from reading Brubaker’s solo work on Captain America (although, saying that, I didn’t enjoy his Captain America stuff after the Reborn storyline, which I felt was a bit disappointing after his great run on the series – the introduction of the traditional superhero stuff didn’t work for me, whereas the espionage-based stories had been cracking stuff).
But it got me thinking: was it a case of the magic being diluted by the writing partnership?
It’s an inaccurate assessment to say that a single writer provides a purer vision in comic books because a comic book is a collaboration, a combination of words and pictures, between and writer and an artist (and inker and letterer and colourer). However, the vast majority of books tend to be written by a single writer, mainly due to necessary expediency of the factory method of making comic books (script to pencils to inks to letters to colours) and the sheer amount of books produced monthly in the Anglophone mainstream superhero industry. So, is co-writing an extension of the factory method, allowing more comic books to be created on schedule? Is it a necessity to allow smooth transition of a creative team on a book? Marvel had a bit of a trend for having the new writer work with the old writer for a few issues before taking over, such as Cullen Bunn on Captain America, Kieron Gillen with Matt Fraction on the X-Men, Rick Remender with Matt Fraction on Punisher War Journal. Or is it a muddle that interferes with the quality of a book?
My initial hypothesis was that having another writer effectively scripting the story notes of another writer leads to a dilution of the former and an imitation by the latter. The original writer is plotting without adding the touches that enhance the story (dialogue, themes, twists) and the second writer is trying to write in the voice of the first writer so there is no noticeable difference. However, when I started to research this theory, I discovered that there were plenty of examples of two writers combining to create good comic books.
The team of Keith Giffen and JM DeMatteis is an excellent one, even if the duties are more defined, with Giffen as the plotter (and thumbnailer) and DeMatteis as the scripter. Their work on the Justice League, especially at a time when funny superheroes were considered anathema to comic book fans, was a delight and required the different tones of the pair (plus the great art of Kevin Maguire, but you knew that) to produce something that neither could produce on their own. (Although, in full disclosure, I didn’t enjoy Justice League Europe, co-written by Giffen and Gerard Jones.) Giffen worked well with Robert Fleming on the various Ambush Bug series they did together, so Giffen must work fairly well with others; he also worked well with the Bierbaums on the ‘Five Years Later’ incarnation of The Legion of Super-Heroes, as well as The Heckler mini-series. Andreyko co-wrote Torso with Brian Michael Bendis; it’s a good book even if it doesn’t feel strictly like either writer’s voice. The writing partnership of Brubaker and Greg Rucka on Gotham Central was fantastic – the ‘voice’ of the book seemed a synthesis of the two writers and the combined voice was great, even if there was a bit of a split in duties over the night shift and the day shift. Brubaker also co-wrote the excellent The Immortal Iron Fist with Matt Fraction, but he has admitted that he took a back seat on that series.
Then we have the book with four writers – 52, written by Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, Mark Waid and Greg Rucka – which is an incredible achievement if only because it was a weekly comic over the course of a single year with four writers. Morrison had previous form for co-writing: he helped to kick-start Mark Millar’s career when they co-wrote the four issues of Swamp Thing before Millar continued a very good run as the singular writer. They also wrote The Flash together for 12 issues, as well as the 10 issues of the unjustly cancelled Aztek The Ultimate Man and the Skrull Kill Krew five-issue mini-series. There are also the many, many Judge Dredd comics that were co-written by John Wagner and Alan Grant, but I’m not sufficiently knowledgeable on examples to provide specific data. A specific example would be Incredible Hercules: co-written by Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente, this was a delightful synthesis of the two writers and a deservedly praised and loved book, which unfortunately didn’t survive the transition from what was effectively a buddy book (Hercules and boy genius Amadeus Cho) to a solo title for Herc. (An aside: subsequently, I prefer van Lente’s solo writing more than Pak’s, but that doesn’t devalue their achievement on Incredible Hercules.)
Although the previous paragraph would suggest that co-writing is good, there are examples that support my initial hypothesis. I loved James Robinson’s Starman, but I always preferred the first half where he was the only writer, before he was joined by David Goyer for the finish. Bendis was co-writer with Jonathan Hickman on the first arc of Secret Warriors, before Hickman took over, but that felt more like Hickman writing from a general idea from Bendis rather than a strict co-writing arrangement, with the added attempt to launch a series with new characters with the Bendis name attached. Bendis scripted the Millar plot for the first arc of the Ultimate Fantastic Four, which wasn’t the best way to start a new version of the flagship Marvel characters and isn’t particularly remembered as a great story. Mark Waid first came to my attention through his work on the Wally West Flash series in the late 1990s; eventually, he would co-write the book with long-time editor on the book, Brian Augustyn, but I never felt the same energy as I got from the first section of the run. I’m a big fan of the work of Warren Ellis, but I didn’t enjoy his showrunner-style Counter-X (X-Man, X-Force and Generation Next), where he plotted the general direction and co-wrote the titles. I enjoyed Buffy the Vampire Slayer on television but stopped reading the comic books, which have a similar approach to the television show with Joss Whedon as showrunner and other writers handling individual arcs.
So, is there a point to all this? It’s not a complete analysis because I’ve only taken into account comic books that I have read. I haven’t assessed writing teams against solo writers to test my hypothesis. There is also the fact that I may be too in love with the auteur theory (usually applied in the even more collaborative medium of cinema) of the individual comic book writer, as I tend to favour comic books for the consistent vision of an author. I think that there's something more direct in a single author mainlining their story on their own (with an artist) directly into my brain with as little interference as possible.
As with everything, it’s not a black and white area – there are good books by solo writers and good books by writers combining their talents (do I include the Lennon/McCartney-like relationship of Claremont and Byrne on Uncanny X-Men as an example of a good writing team, or was it a more acknowledged collaboration?), but then there are also bad books by solo writers and bad books by writing teams. Just as long as there are good comic books, I shouldn’t worry about it too much.
Friday, 14 August 2015
Written by Ari Marmell
Published by Titan Books
I really enjoyed Hot Lead, Cold Iron, the first Mick Oberon job, so I was delighted to get a chance to review the second book, Hallow Point. Oberon is a private detective in 1930s Chicago, except that he’s not a normal bloke: he’s a former prince of the Fae (the aes sidhe) who left it all behind and came to live in our world; the presence of so much iron is unpleasant, but he puts up with it because he doesn’t want to be back in Elphame, in the Otherworld Chicago that exists there. He has his wand, with which he can steal luck and transfer pain, the Fae ability to enforce his will on humans, and little need for sleep or food (except for warm milk, with the occasional bit of cream as a treat).
We meet him this time round on a missing person case, when his cop buddy Pete comes to him for help (Oberon helps out Pete since Pete was bitten by a werewolf, so has to stay locked up for three nights every month): there’s been a break-in at the Fields Museum of Natural History. However, nothing seems to be have been stolen; instead, something seems to have been left hidden among the other artefacts. When they arrive, at a scene that was a simple break through a window with no alarms triggered), they discover that the new artefact has been stolen, and then Oberon comes into contact with Herne the Hunter, an encounter that leaves him the worse for wear and warned off the search for this new artefact, an Iron Age spear of some sort.
When Oberon returns home, he receives a visit from an officer of the Seelie Court (the court that rules Elphame), asking him the whereabouts of the missing item, indicating how important it is. Then he receives a visit from a woman, Ramona Webb, who is having troubles with her ex-boyfriend and a cousin and money they owed to various bad people. She needs Oberon to find them and to protect her. Also in the mix is a strange southern lawman who is following Oberon, someone who can make Oberon feel like prey, overcoming his own emotions (something very difficult to do to a Fae). Then things get even worse, as Oberon is forcibly invited to a meeting with the Unseelie boss, Lady Eudeagh, who controls the Fae equivalent of the mob – she uses the marker acquired from Oberon in the previous book to get Oberon to bring her the spear (bring, not just find it), leaving him with a bunch of nasty redcaps and a boggart to keep tabs on him back in our world. Things do not look good for Oberon, but he’s a private detective – it goes with the territory.
Oberon has to run down leads (a dvergr fence called Hruotlundt, a low-level leprechaun called Franky Four-Leaf, the gangster family he helped out in the last book) while avoiding the other supernatural creatures in town because of the spear (bagienniks, River Fae from Eastern Europe; a rusulka, a river nymph/siren/mermaid creature; the southern lawman who is part of the Wild Hunt, which destroys areas during its hunt; a bean sidhe, a banshee who is an official emissary of the Seelie Court disguised as a high-ranking federal agent) and with Ramona in tow because it’s the only way she’ll let him protect her. All because he can’t renege on his marker: if he did, he would lose all Fae protection for a year and a day, meaning anyone could do anything to him with no legal repercussions, plus losing all his mystical ability with luck and becoming a beacon to bad guys who want to destroy a vulnerable aes sidhe. When he discovers that item he’s looking for is a powerful spear that was one of the four hallows of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the original lords of the Fae, and whoever gets it will be unbeatable in battle, he finds himself in a real pickle …
Marmell has found a good seam to mine in a Fae private detective set in the recent past: it allows for the full realm of folklore characters to inhabit the book, which contrasts with the not completely mundane world of Chicago in the 1930s. The mix works well, as does the comparison between the legal and criminal enterprises on both sides of the divide. Plus, there are mythical creatures. Marmell leans into the hard-boiled narration, making the prose style sound like someone from the era: ‘She stole into my office like a snake in a fox fur-and-human stole, dress of forest green rustling and sliding as if it couldn’t wait to be shed … I always did wanna start a sentence like that.’; ‘Can I tell you, again, how swell it is not to sweat?’; ‘Well, you remember my place well enough, year?’. And he also makes a point of saying that the missing person case is completely incidental to the main story and that you shouldn’t expect it to tie into events, which is very unlike the traditional pattern of private eye stories. The narration also deliberately hides elements so that the reveal can be more dramatic – which sounds about right for the Fae.
The story has a sufficiently dramatic and exciting resolution, with twists and turns you would hope for, and it also sets up events for future books, providing plenty of scope for the interaction of all manner of creatures in both realms. Marmell has written another enjoyable read – sharp, enjoyable, intriguing, colourful – and I’m looking forward to the next one.
Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.
Tuesday, 11 August 2015
Art by Mike McKone
Tblunka, capital city of Sorenia, nestled between Iran, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. A mercenary, part of a force formed by the unseated regime trying to retake the country from the democratically elected government, shoots down something strange with ‘US Air Force’ on it.
Stark Towers. The Avengers: Captain America (Steve Rogers), Hawkeye, Captain Marvel (Carol Danvers), Iron Man, Black Widow, Wolverine; the characters are introduced by Ellis in a clean, quick, efficient manner but with lovely sharp banter that essays character (Stark: ‘Captain America wants to stomp on me.’ Pepper: ‘Well, in his defense, he has met you.’) The news in the briefing room shows the shot-down drone – Steve recognises the name, ‘Hereward’, a military contractor based on the Norwegian island of Skrekklandet.
Time for a flashback to 1944: Steve was investigating ‘wonder weapons’ being built on the island, a Wunderwaffe station that exploded and fell into the ice. In the present, Steve is focused on investigating the drone, almost to the point of anger (the other Avengers react when Steve is stern with Tony). Upon hearing that Slorenia has outsourced the action, Steve reacts: ‘You’re serious. We hired a corporation to fight a war for us.’
Steve wants to go into Slorenia; the others are against it until Thor turns up. He recognises the drone creature – it is related to a Nidhogg, a vile creature trapped under Yggdrasil, the world tree, and that escaped to Midgard; Thor fought it and killed it, but only after going into a berserker rage. So now, the Avengers are after ‘Norse Nazi maggot robots. Of death.’
Thor takes Captain Marvel ‘and also, sadly, Stark’ to hunt the creatures; Steve takes the rest of the team to the launch base, where they find a scientist who says that the creatures started going crazy but there are other models, more efficient and deadly, in a SHIELD base on American soil. SHIELD knows all about them because they’re a threat against the Avengers, so they drop Bruce Banner on the SHIELD base, but before he turns to emphasise the point. But Bruce delays things until the Avengers go to where they need to stop everything: Skrekklandet. (Hawkeye: ‘It never, ever ends, Steve. Only old people think things end.’)
Ellis does a very efficient job with this book: snappy banter, character-revealing dialogue, a clean plot that links Captain America and Thor but also requires the Avengers, action that requires the full use of the team, as well as portraying different sides to the same philosophical aspect of the fight. This is a lot harder than it seems – a lot of writers over-dialogue pages when there are lots of characters, causing the art to be obscured by word balloons; other writers also have trouble providing a plot that uses all the characters in a team and gives them all something important to do. This is a lean, mean superhero graphic novel, the equivalent of a self-contained four-issue story that gives you a beginning, a middle and an end, and it’s something that Ellis does well (see RED, Ocean, etc.); it’s also good to see it as a graphic novel instead of a mini-series to be collected later in trade paperback (if only Marvel were doing more of that …).
As a relatively straightforward superhero graphic novel, Avengers: Endless Wartime has a solid superhero artist in McKone – his art style is solid, with slick lines, smooth shapes, sharp anatomy, clear storytelling and an approach that favours collaboration with the narrative instead of flashy pages intended for selling off later. I’ve always enjoyed his action scenes – they are dynamic, easy to follow, knowing where to focus, with a bit of flavour and colour to the panels – but he also does a good job with the dialogue-based panels, infusing the characters with reactions and individuality that enhance the story without distracting from the plot.
In summary – Avengers: Endless Wartime is a very good superhero graphic novel; it’s not essential, but it does the job well and provides you with a complete, enjoyable story.