Thursday, May 29, 2008

One Book To Fool Them All

Here, in the first issue of Final Crisis, begins the supposed last installment of the Crisis Trilogy. This assertion is a tad ballsy coming from the people who inflicted the Countdown series on us like a weekly subway mugging.

Two-thirds of the way through Countdown, it was plain to readers that the characters' actions (all four of them) were stalling tactics. The real action was over in another series called Death of the New Gods. Err... wait. Try Countdown Arena. Even hackwork from Scott McDaniel has to go somewheres! Or not. DC editorial eventually told us what they were counting down to...

That means an entire YEAR of mediocre comics was the cost (in brain cells) of this conspicuously gorgeous J.G. Jones series. A year of comics that killed my interest in their resolutions by being incoherent and dull. A year in which, had DC's landscape not become a crud-topia, my questions regarding dying New Gods and multiple Monitors would have simmered organically.

But alas, here we is. DC's dependables are finished chopping up Grant Morrison's Big Ideas like just-auctioned blue fish (Gail Simone being a notable exception), and the thing we're supposed to care about is before us. The first interaction we see, disconcertingly, shows Metron giving paleolithic Man (Anthro) the knowledge to make fire. So immediately Morrison's tweaking the game so that the New Gods are literally creators of civilization rather than alien superheroes.

Now, I love the guy. His shtick of moonwalking back and forth over fine lines of continuity and cutting edge works ninety-eight percent of the time. If this is part of the story, great. I'm sure many intriguing revelations are forthcoming. I fear, though, that there's an equal chance these images from the dawn of genocide (New X-Men wants its opening back) have been thrust in place to give the tale grandeur.

But what else is in here? We see New God Orion, half-alive on a ship bound for garbage island. We see Darkseid making unsubtle plans to reshape Earth after the demonic fashion of Apokalips. We get another version of the Injustice League, in front of whom the mysterious turk Libra trots a Martian Manhunter weak enough to kill. Also, Monitors showing emotions other than homicidal psychosis.

It's hard to distrust these pages because of their sheer beauty. Yet, thanks to the glut of preparatory mini-series, none of these ideas are fresh any more. I want Morrison and Jones to floor me with this series, but I resent that it has to stink of "A-List Creators' Projects Are Better".

Speaking of which, across the hall we've got the last Joss Whedon issue of Astonishing X-Men. It's four months late, it's a little longer, with scanned-in skyscrapers as unobtrusive as pink cats, but holy fuck is the writing delicious. We discover, for example, that Agent Brand of S.W.O.R.D. is in love with Beast: "I'm so frikkin' hot for you right now I could pass out." This is not a throwaway line. At the end, Brand offers Beast a position with her group and at her side, based solely on their intellectual compatibility. The fact that cat man is handled with this much heart is absolutely wonderful.

Quite a bit of the Marvel U shows up in support of the X-Men- Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, the Sentry and even the FF with that weird female Thing from Walt Simonson's run. The scene where we find they're being mind-controlled is beautiful- creepy, CHECK PLEASE smiles all around.

Both Kitty and Peter live up to their potential in heart-rending ways, the former phasing a giant bullet through the Earth (and being unable to let go of it), the latter threatening to rule the BreakWorld by force if necessary. And as literal events, these stand one way. But also running throughout the book is Whedon's tying up of emotional loose ends, hitting every right note concerning Emma and Kitty's animosity like only a man of his range can.

Well, now we get to wait, shitting in fear of what Warren Ellis will do. Is he going to take this seriously, as if it were his precious Ms. Sparks and company? Or will we get the multi-tasking hitman who'd really rather be crooning with Nick Cave in the Middle East basement?

Tedious considerations like sleep and work must cut short this missive, my nerdlings. But more to come in the near future.

And never forget- I want to have all of your babies.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

I'm Gonna Make You Love Me

Many readers find themselves challenged by the lack of gray areas and soaring cheerfulness of a Geoff Johns comic. And by this I mean that, in a given script, characters will bond in a family setting, we'll find them genuinely interesting and life-like, and then one or more of them will be viciously murdered.
Good is (some would say) lollipop good and bad is, like, WICKED bad. I not only have no problem with this, I prefer it. I still have a kid in me. I read comics, among other reasons, to transport myself back to when my only concerns were to secure pizza and that copy of Blaster Master from the video store.
Comics are indeed art at the high end of the spectrum. But I don't' care how "weird" high school was, how traumatic courting that goth chick was, comics are not, I repeat NOT, literature. And yes, I love Watchmen, but its particular grandeur cannot be replicated no matter what kind of misogynist Mr. Fantastic becomes. In great novels or series of them, characters are built up by a single writer who's invested everything in them. The writer is invisible because his is the only voice with which these characters have ever spoken. You never pause to think, "Huh- Elric sure is COKED OUT OF HIS GOURD today!" Comics being a stranger, more rarefied animal, they're preyed upon by parasites of the worst kind: stunt writers.
These are youngsters brimming with great dialogue, cutting-edge ideas and the eagerness to ride iconic characters to the top. By the end of the ride, however (or sometimes seconds into it), said icons are unrecognizable.
I belabour this point only to outline what Geoff Johns isn't. When he signs on to write a book (Flash, Hawkman, Green Lantern) he's there for the characters' benefit, not his own. If, after fifty+ issues he hasn't made all the hero's major rogues menacing again, given the hero a supporting cast whose lives intertwine organically with his, and kept the whole thing exciting- then he's failed. Meanwhile, at the end of a Brian Bendis run, if he hasn't cornholed all of the characters into talking like Al Pacino, he's failed. If Mark Millar hasn't shown us Sue Richards sodomized by a zombie Human Torch and (ULP!) liking it, then he's failed.
But all of this isn't to blacken the word stunt- because the current JSA story, a sequel the monstrously enjoyable Kingdom Come (1997) is just that. The upside is, after having nurtured these characters himself for eight years, Geoff Johns cares if it works.
Does it?
The fact that this supposed sequel has risen from and now flows alongside the growth of the newly gathered Justice Society tells me yes- loudly. Development on several fronts, such as bringing in old members and attracting new, all the while helping an aged, stranded Superman cope, are entertaining enough. Mysteries abounding in the background, however, show just how stratospherically more dexterous is Johns' pen compared with the rest of the industry.
Someone is murdering those who claim to be gods (metahumans, rekanize). The new Mr. America (his predecessor fell dead through the JSA's skylight- this one uses the front door) contacts the team, explaining that his investigation has turned up the word "GOG" at one of the crime scenes. What we've sussed out, thanks to bath-robe wearing, crumb-cake eating Superman, is that Gog was the inspiration for Magog, the man who ruined Earth 22 (where Kingdom Come was set). It would therefore behoove the JSA to make this douche their problem now, mitigating later catastrophe. As they engage in a multi generational squabble as to who is suited to fight this slayer of gods, the villain simply teleports into their headquarters. Then begins a mouth-watering Sistine Chapel of street fights, choreographed with all twenty-four heroes by the inimitable Dale Eaglesham.
By the end, they've teleported after the intruder into the jungles of the Congo (where we've been teased repeatedly by a giant stone face). I'll only say that I'm reminded, gleefully, of Angel season 4, in which an Oprah-esque deity brings unsolicited peace to the world. Also, at issue's very end, we get a "things-to-come" page, promising the return of Black Adam and Power Girl's creepy Earth 2 playmates- WAAhoo!

Monday, May 19, 2008

Sing It, Honey!

Recent forays into the history books have shown me that people usually can't escape their time period: Romans saw into the future, Medieval Europeans let dung pile up and we of whatever century this is... well- we can't shut our traps.

Without further preamble, I'm a comics reader of twenty years, obsessed with continuity and here to knitpick the holy hell out of every week's batch.
So here I go.

Something is going on in Amazing Spider-Man these days, something HUGE. The question is, how old do you have to be to appreciate it? Peter Parker was always meant to be the patron saint of nerds, or maybe even a golem that nerds cooked up in the basement that could brave the great unknowns: soda with the "gang", a hectic newsroom job involving "human contact". But aside from the radiation and the spandex (givens), Parker had the nerve to grow up and marry a model/actress. Who threw THAT in the pie?

Being fictional and all, poor Pete was (is) at the end of the marketplace choke-chain. He hadn't the luxury of gliding through the late 80s and 90s without picking up a gun, accepting cybernetic enhancements and being PISSED. His trials included, but were never limited to, his wife smoking, his aunt stroking, grudge-bearing clones, his wife cheating, his aunt dying, fake cybernetic parents, and many more dignity-proof tales (it could have been worse- Mark Bagley and John Romita Jr. at least drew most of it). Recently though, we zeroed in on and erased the hate (her name was Mary Jane), allowing us to bask in a "Brand New Day" for Mr. Parker.

And that means what, exactly?

It means, dude(crushing beer can to head), that it's 1974 again! Spider-Man has his own meta-fiefdom, where world-shattering Marvel events actually have negative sway. He's horny, he's broke, and when Iron Man's Inititive goons finally show up with a gun that can obliterate his powers, he'll say, "Can I get fries with that?"

It is of course readers who experienced 70s Spidey the first time calling bullshit. And I will grant them that this ship hasn't been sailing evenly. The Marc Guggenheim issues, especially, suffer from "wacky uncle" syndrome, where a bunch of birthday cards may well have gone into the shredder before being dumped across the art. He is one of four writers in the braintrust, along with Zeb Wells, Bob Gale and Dan Slott. The stable of artists is twice the number.

To the naysayers, I chant: structure. Spidey's stories haven't been this nimble in years. Multiple plots duck and weave. The supporting cast, like a spoiled brat's (that's us) action figure collection, continues to expand. The toggling between Peter and Spidey is balanced and briskly done. The cynic in me says that Marvel only wants to cash in on the weekly format pioneered by DC's 52 series, which also had a multiple writers and artists share the work to critical and financial success.

The cynic in me will also be waiting at this computer in 2016, bones aglow by moonlight, waiting for Frank Quitetly to upload All-Star Superman #12 into his mind from beyond the fucking Oort Cloud. In other words, the weekly format rocks. It's changing comics for the better, acknowledging that people have hundreds of things to do, and if they're going to set aside time to read, Spider-Man better be just as busy.

Also returning to vogue is the very thing that made Stan Lee great: something new every issue. The one above features the debuts of Screwball (cover) and Paper Doll, two not-quite femme fatales both meant, by godsend Dan Slott (the Justin Timberlake of the writing team), to play off of Peter's new task as paparazzi. The sugar-rush stylings of Marcos Martin (Batgirl) and colorist Javier Rodriguez are a wonder to behold.

I've given ASM this much space because I plan to dissect it giddily each week. It'll also be fun to contrast it with DC's next weekly comic Trinity, which begins soon.

Now for the scrubs.

There must have been an overlap between Warren Ellis finishing his Thunderbolts run, and being assigned Astonishing X-Men. Norman Osborn, director of the villains turned Initiative WMDs, has a five page rant that, while entertaining, assures me that Marvel's check for this story was spent on love beads long ago. Admittedly, the Green Goblin is meant to be crazy/evil, and having him fondly reference contration camps and Hitler is one HELLUVA shortcut. But later in the issue a hired gun does the same thing, proving that this script was read over maybe once by anyone (not Ellis) before seeing print. In the previous issue this irritating lapse is even more glaring:

IMPRISONED TELEPATH- "Not sure what to do with Penance. Physically, he's actually pretty weak-"

SONGBIRD- "Wow. That's... that's actually a pretty disgusting way to-"

MOONSTONE- "It's actually pretty funny."

SONGBIRD- "Okay, now I'm actually really scared."

These are all from different pages and, normally, between tokes, I wouldn't remember where I saw what. I might even have seen Ellis himself depicted as the entire cast (fuck knows he couldn't have intended otherwise). But I happened to have read this thing on the train, where the dialogue's rhythm was about as engaging as bouncing, shrieking metal. Months late as these issues were, thanking Mike Deodato's insistence that characters look like Tommy Lee Jones, Edward Norton and Ali Larter, someone (me, for free) COULD have deloused this script. Oh, and the Green Goblin's mask has teeth. I'm sure it made sense in the oxygen tent. Next!

Mercifully, Gail Simone's Wonder Woman has gotten the very dependable Aaron Lopresti for art. In his first issue he does some George Perez-style flair bordering the first page, but doesn't kid himself that it's essential to the whole issue. Simone, lacking the Birds of Prey so well suited to her, has saddled Diana with a compromise between Oracle and, uh... Gail Simone. The feisty redhead, Etta Candy, isn't hogtied by the fact that Diana's a goddess when chatting her up about men and food. The sort of cutesy banter gone for here went well in Birds of Prey because the characters were already grounded in Gotham. But, as in this issue where getting to the action means Diana having an out-of-toned-body experience, thereby ditching Etta, the dialogue seems wasted. Etta was even more intrusive and less believable in the prior story, where the pair battles a green lantern off-planet. Having a well-rounded cast is great and all, but I can see this getting worse. And it's all in service to Diana's supposed need for understanding our culture, which was done amazingly with the book tour Greg Rucka sent her on during the last volume. Still, I trust Simone to be here awhile and make it her own, giving us fifty average issues instead of ten hideous.

Well, thanks for the laughs, my zit-addled peers. Try not to roll over onto that pizza propped next to you in bed.