Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Week 3: The Not-So-Amazing Story of Luthor-Green and Luthor-Blue!

This week it's time to talk about bad guys--three of them, to be precise: one who's in this story, one who's involved only by implication, and one who doesn't seem to be showing up yet at all. The three in question are the ones who correspond to our big three missing heroes: Lex Luthor, the Joker, and Dr. Psycho.

Returning to that "perfectibility" argument I was making a couple of weeks ago, Luthor believes he's earned the right to occupy Superman's cultural role--his idea of perfection is defined in terms of power and prestige, and you don't get much more of that than being the U.S. President--and he also thinks that Superman cheated in attaining that role, by not being human. We can reasonably suspect that the Joker is going to show up eventually from the "Joker card" business on the first two pages of #1, and from his alliance with Luthor at the end of Infinite Crisis (he was, after all, the person who actually killed Luthor-Blue). If Batman's madness is a fantasy of perfection in the Law, the Joker's is a fantasy of perfection in violation of every kind of law: André Breton's ideal Surrealist act of "dashing down the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd." So who, then, would be Wonder Woman's opposite number? Greg Rucka's run on her series suggests that it's Dr. Psycho, and I'd agree with that; I don't know whether Dr. P considers himself perfect (in practice) because his desires define everyone else's actions, or whether it's the other way around, but either way it's a neat opposition to Diana's raison d'être.

To put it a different way: Wonder Woman is the one who believes that there is a better way for everyone to live, and wants to persuade you of it. Black Adam is the one who believes that there is a better way for the world to be, and intends to force you to agree with him. Dr. Psycho is the one who believes that the world is rightfully his plaything, and takes away your free will. (See also the way the Purple Man was used in the last few issues of Alias.) But doesn't Wonder Woman's lasso take away free will, too? No: it just takes away the capacity for lying. Still, the parallel is there, and I'm wondering if Dr. P is going to play a significant role later in the series.

This issue is a Superman story from which Superman is absent--every scene except the Akteon-Holt takedown (and is Mr. Akteon's name supposed to recall Actaeon or Mr. Action?) includes at least one character directly associated with him, even Maggie Sawyer and Shockwave. The plot is built around the dead bodies of three or four of Superman's enemies: Luthor's the most important one, of course, and Rough House, Noose and Terra-Man are about as minor as they come. (When we last saw Terra-Man, he was an ecology-minded terrorist--not quite the stagecoach-robber type he is here--but whatever. And we don't know that Rough House is dead, although I can't imagine him surviving his encounter with Black Adam.) It could have made a lot from that, and it doesn't. It also feels rushed and awkward in a way that the first two issues didn't, beginning with the first page and its severe disconnect with the condition we saw the blue-eyed Lex Luthor's body in three weeks ago.

One reading is that there's some kind of lazy continuity error--that a little editorial coordination would have insured that the condition Luthor-Blue was in at the end of Infinite Crisis would have matched the condition he was in here. (Or, even better, at the beginning of 52 #1; this scene would have been a nice mystery to set up there.) The other is that Luthor-Green not only stuck contact lenses on Luthor-Blue's eyes, he reconstructed his acid-melted face, shaved his head, changed his clothes, and apparently stuck him in some kind of cold storage to prevent his body from appreciably decomposing in the two weeks-plus between IC #7 and this issue--all cunningly enough that S.T.A.R. and John Henry don't notice any of it other than the contacts.

I am, sadly, leaning toward the "lazy" side of things, given some of the awkward storytelling going on here--the worst example being the Geoff Johns Dismemberment Special on the last page. (One of the things I saw before I wrote that Salon piece was an early draft of the script of this issue, which noted that Black Adam tears Terra-Man in half. I don't think that was supposed to mean "neatly, at the waist." And wouldn't it have been scarier and more evocative just to give us the sound effect and a little bit of blood/viscera descending on the crowd, instead of actually showing the bipartite T-M?) There are some other annoying glitches, like Señor Gyro's cart being full of hot dogs, and dull banalities, like the story's title. The other frustrating thing about this issue is that it's looking like this series is too small to hold all its threads in any one episode--there's no Montoya or Ralph this week, no follow-up to last week's business about Wonder Girl's Krypton-worship, two panels on the mad-scientists plot.

And despite all of that, I found myself enjoying the story, mostly on the strength of the character interactions: the half-sexual charge of Power Girl and Black Adam's argument, John Henry and Natasha talking at cross-purposes, Booster realizing that getting mad at Skeets won't do him any good but tracking down Rip Hunter (!) might, John Henry and Luthor looking daggers at each other. It's just hard to explain to someone who isn't reading it why I'm enjoying it--at least last week I could quote that "mad scientists" line.

More notes:

Pg. 1: Have we seen Detective Jiang before? Nice to see a Sundoller Coffee cup in Maggie Sawyer's hand--a tie-in with the web site. And even better to see Josie Mac, one of my favorite Gotham Central supporting characters, again.

Pg. 4: What, not Flight 52? Is it really feasible to rob an airplane in flight, and what would you get from it? And is Ferris Air an actual airline? I thought it was just an aerospace manufacturing company, like Boeing.

Pg. 7, panel 6 includes something I dearly love and have missed: an actual expository footnote-type caption! Maybe it's just a joking allusion to the way S.T.A.R. used to be spelled out in a caption every time it appeared, but 52 could use a lot more of this.

A conjecture: in this scene, John Henry tells Natasha that she's going to have to spend Weeks 4 through 9 in a summer-school program; he has earlier told science-prodigy Natasha that she needs to build her own armor. She likes wearing the Superman insignia; she wants to be part of the action. Curiously, it's in week 10 that Supernova appears to show up.

I'm also suspecting that Supernova, Batwoman and Isis are going to be the three characters who fill those bottom three slots in the nine-space diagram at 52thecomic. Speaking of which...

Pg. 8: ...I'm betting that the nameless, blindfolded young woman is going to turn out to be Isis, since she's two visits to a hairdresser (one for a dye job, one for a weave) away from matching the Isis we see on two later covers.

Pg. 12, panel 2: This would be funnier if Civil War hadn't used the exact same gag three weeks ago...

Pg. 15, panel 2: Note that, if this is indeed Alexander Luthor's body, not just the lens but the entire eye has been faked.

Pg. 16: "I trust you found and removed the contacts?" Why would Lex tell John this, since all John has to do is repeat that for the cameras to wreck Luthor-Green's credibility? Probably just to mess with him--as a way of keeping him off balance. But still.

Pg. 20: "Heroes who don't just patrol the world, they change it": I really hope this is headed somewhere other than Bog-Standard Authority/Squadron Supreme Plot #7.

Mister Mind is now in a cocoon, which smacks of Morrison--virtually all of his major comics projects in the last ten years have been about the idea of evolution and change (I believe there's some specific larva/cocoon imagery in The Invisibles), and the mystery here is what his adult form is going to be, if the larval form is the worm we know.

I'm still not feeling Dan Jurgens' "History of the DCU" at all, but I'd like to note that if you're going to restage this famous image, you might as well copy the entire composition, instead of having the guy in the middle looking down with a wrist-to-forehead pose like he's just realized he forgot his anniversary. And having a character saying "What you just said--it's impossible to comprehend" just underscores the problem if you've written something impossible to comprehend.

It's not clear to me if next week's comics will be delayed by Memorial Day. In any case, don't expect next week's post until after the issue comes out.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Week 2: Lorem Ipsum Goddam

Thanks, everyone, for all the kind words and helpful tips on the first installment of this blog. This one is going to be a little bit shorter, as I'm about to duck out of town for a few days. (I might post a bit of commentary on the newly unveiled batch of covers, if whoever's messing with time manages to slip a few extra days into this weekend.)

So somebody is kidnapping mad scientists. That's awesome, and I'm not being sarcastic: there's a whole world of pleasure tied up in that phrase, "mad scientist," and I'm happy to see that as crammed with plot as it is, this issue's reaching toward a very comic-booky kind of fun. But, like Montoya says, I still have questions, and lots of them.

The Red Tornado had a brother called the Red Inferno, huh? A great idea (with Grant Morrison's fingerprints all over it), but now I'm wondering who the other brothers are. The Red Volcano, maybe? The Red El Niño? And if we're going to go with the air/fire/earth/water/spirit setup Morrison used in The Invisibles... well, what's a three-syllable word ending in "o" for something having to do with spirit? I'll open that one up to the comments.

The last time something was called "Looking Back at Tomorrow," it was the first section of the Horizons ride at Epcot--a retrospective of antique images of the future. I love the idea of retrofuturism, and Mark Waid has played with it a little bit in Legion, but that's not quite what's happening here. Instead, we've got a group of characters with an uncertain grip on what the future's going to be--or, rather, what they thought the future was going to be turned out to be wrong. Even Montoya counts here: she thinks she's quit being a detective to be a drunk, but the Question knows otherwise, or at least asks otherwise. ("Are you ready?... Who are you?") The only one who's actually certain of things to come is T.O. Morrow: the near future is that something bad will happen to him, the far future is Ashton Kutcher as an old man. (And by the way, would it have killed someone to get Morrow's full name into the story, given that it's in the title and you have to be a serious continuity wonk to remember him?)

Skeets, though, has the excuse of glitches for his inconsistencies; the not-quite-there details of this episode don't, because 52 relies so heavily on details. Like on page 14: would that be flight 2824, or flight 2428? (Yes, if you split it into two two-digit numbers it adds up to DUNT DA DAAA 52, either way.) Is there a big ol' fold in the space-time continuum, or is somebody in DC's production department just asleep at the wheel? What bugs me most, trivial as it is, is the content of the newspaper clips we see on page 8. If text is big enough to read, it needs to say something--the repeating, half-formed text in a few of them just made me think "Passersby were amazed by the unusually large amounts of blood. Passersby were amazed by the unusually large amounts of blood..."

And the "History of the DCU" backup is just a Godawful mess--it's an "explanation" of history that makes no sense at all for anyone who doesn't already know that history. (And others. I've been a pretty heavy DC reader for well over 25 years, and I still couldn't quite parse some of it. Can there really be a "New Cronus" and a "Krona" on facing pages with no connection between them? Do Jonah Hex and Enemy Ace really count as "forerunners of great heroes"? Did the fisheye effect on the humorless floating Skeets-like robot that changes its color halfway through a four-page story really have to be arranged to make Donna Troy's boobs the focal element of the panel?

Some more notes:

The cover: There's something oddly amiss with Booster's cheekbones, and I really hope there was at least a brief debate in the DC offices before the apostrophe appeared between the heart and the S. I like Clark's grouchy expression, though.

Pg. 2: What exactly is "OPrK"? We see it on the T-shirt the Booster-fan with the 1994 goatee is wearing, and the right leg of Booster's costume is endorsing it again two pages later.

Pg. 3: A little present for the old-timers: that would be Ralph's nose twitching in the last panel, as it did in the old days when he smelled a mystery. But it's nice to see him getting out of his funk and back to the business of detection. I also see he's once again making horrible sartorial choices, which is sort of sweet too.

Pg. 6: A small but lovely touch: Morrow saying "an historical journal," instead of "a historical journal."

Pg. 9: Not only are Montoya and her date both wearing bras and panties as they drift off to sleep, Montoya's left ANOTHER bra--a more utilitarian-looking one, more her style than the one she's wearing in this scene--and a pair of pink panties on the floor. What, is she a never-nude or something? And is she eating pizza because she missed it when Daria was cooking her gourmet meals every night? And why does the magazine's "No More Heroes" article have centered but unjustified text?

Pg. 11: "520 Kane St."--a reference, of course, to Bob Kane, who managed to get his name printed lots of places where Bill Finger didn't. Not to repeat myself, but please tell me that the answer to "Who are you?" is not "I'm the goddamned Batwoman."

Pg. 12: "You said north, right?" Very nice.

Pg. 17: The Question seems to be leaning hard on the issue of who Montoya is, along with the idea of judgement. Curious.

Pg. 18: She hooks up with him once and now she's adopting his religion? Actually, not even his religion? And where did she dig up all that Kryptonian crystal-stalagmite decor, anyway?

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Week 1

Let's start with the title, shall we? It's a strange phrase: "Golden Lads & Lasses Must..." Both its content and its form may be familiar. The content is actually a misquotation from Shakespeare's Cymbeline: the line (from the incessantly quoted funeral song in Act IV beginning "Fear no more the heat o' the sun") actually runs

Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

The form, though, should immediately resonate with experienced superhero comics readers: it's patterned on the title of the first issue of Watchmen, "At Midnight, All the Agents..."--the beginning of a line from Bob Dylan's "Desolation Row" (the rest of it goes "...and the superhuman crew/Go out to round up everyone who knows more than they do"). That's not the end of this issue's echoes of Watchmen, but we'll get to that.

But why is the first issue of 52 called this? The weird pun of Shakespeare's line has no relevance here, aside from the fact that the heroes are dealing with debris; this is also not a story about death, really, or about the end of youth, and as for the "golden lads and lasses"--is that supposed to refer to the Superman/Superboy statues? To Booster Gold? What?

The point of this episode is that Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman have gone away--maybe the climactic scene at the dedication predates the final couple of scenes in Infinite Crisis #7, maybe it doesn't. So: what does it mean thematicallythat the Big Three are missing? To expand a little on a slightly too gristly idea that I tossed off in my Salon piece this weekend: What they have in common, which other (DC) characters don't, is that they all represent in some way the idea of human perfectibility--and, to some extent, the weak spots of that concept. Superman is the perfect person, as the result of a combination of an accident of birth and his upbringing; he's also not actually human, and as Geoff Johns pointed out in IC, his existence is proof that the world he's in is imperfect. Batman has made himself as perfect as a person can; as a result, he has systematically sacrificed his humanity. Wonder Woman is a sort of prophet of human perfectibility, in the sense of self-help: her mission in the world beyond Themiscyra has been to present the world with her vision of what society and individual behavior ought to be. (She is, of course, the least human of the three, both in her personal history and in the sense that she wants to remold the world rather than simply protect it.)

That schema, in turn, opens up the question of where 52's six lead characters fit into it. (Well, six to begin with; from some of what we're seeing on the Web site, it looks like there will eventually be three more.) In the order that we see them:

*Ralph Dibny believes himself to be hopelessly imperfect; he couldn't save his wife, he couldn't do much in the crisis, he's a relic of the Silver Age, etc. Hence his near-suicide attempt. But he is a detective, after all, like Batman--and, actually, like Montoya. And what detectives thrive on is mysteries, like the mystery of what's going on with Sue's tombstone. (The 52 site suggests that he no longer has his powers as a result of the various Crises. This makes no sense to me; if somebody can tell me where it was explained, I'd be grateful.)

*Montoya is the only one of these characters who has no pretense to anything other than baseline humanness. It's worth noting, though, that she's already rejected Black Adam's idea of declaring her own idea of justice to be superior to the law (by not killing Corrigan). I really enjoy her as a character--I loved Gotham Central, and I hope this series drives some readers back to discover it--and I suspect she'll act as a sort of grounding force for the series by being altogether outside the Superman/Batman/Wonder Woman vacuum/definition-struggle. If she turns out to be Batwoman, I'm gonna be disappointed.

*Steel tried to fill the Superman role back when he first appeared, of course, but in a way that presented itself as filling in for the perfect person to the extent he could. He is terribly wary of arrogance, to the point where he shuts down his niece when she presumes she deserves the recognition she doesn't yet. (Their conversation is the only dialogue this issue that rings really false for me; maybe I just miss Nat's zingers from Christopher Priest's issues of Steel.)

*Booster Gold doesn't appear to be interested in filling any of the big-name roles--he wants to be counted among their ranks (note that he doesn't try to give Superman's speech himself, he just wants to be part of the photo-op), and it could hardly be underscored any further that he's in the superhero business for the wrong reasons. He wants to appear, rather than to be, perfect. Also, his story is where the cracks in DC's new, "unified" timeline begin to appear: we now know that recorded history doesn't match up with a lot of our characters' memories of that history. You'd think that if history could be altered by the Giant Hands of Alex Luthor Smashing Stuff Together, a little memory-alteration would go along with that, wouldn't you? Plus wait: if Superman gave his famous speech after the invasion of Metropolis in Booster's history, that implies that the Crisis still happened in Booster's timeline, but in that one he wasn't de-powered?

*Black Adam is explicitly trying to fill the Wonder Woman role--look closely, and you'll see that he's set up shop at the old Themiscyran embassy. He's a superman in the Nietzschean sense that he makes his own morality; he also intends to convince everyone else of his rightness, to "lead the world by example." (Wonder Woman basically thought the same way, a bit more benignly.) The clumsiest scene this issue is the one where he rips the would-be suicide bomber's arm off--why does Geoff Johns seem to be so fascinated with dismemberment? It makes for a dismal comparison with the Watchmen scene where Rorschach starts breaking someone's fingers to get information that nobody in the room has. We got the message that he was a violent loose cannon, but that scene was shocking because it was so understated compared to the usual throwing-somebody-through-the-bar-window scene; this one's just more spurting-artery grossness.

*And the Question? Good, uh, question. We've had some sense of his motivation in the past; we don't here. The sharpest scene in 52 #1 is his solo turn on top of Gotham Central, peeling the sticker (who knew it wasn't just a painted panel?) off the Bat-signal and replacing it with a spray-painted question mark. Does that mean that he's planning to replace Batman (as a self-made hero), or that he's planning to get Montoya to fill that role (and, if the latter, why has he picked her out, anyway?)?

That scene, by the way, seems like another sort of Watchmen homage--not just the nine-panel grid and Ditkoesque storytelling (for the scene with the Rorschach-analogue!), but the particular way its pace seems to recall the scene in Watchmen #1 where Rorschach climbs up Eddie Blake's building.

But that reminds me: this Crisis hasn't been especially kind to the alumni of the Lillian Charlton Home for Wayward and Uncommercial Characters, has it? Blue Beetle/Ted Kord whacked, Judomaster with his back broken, Peacemaker shot through the chest (and yes I know it's a different Peacemaker but still), Captain Atom swapped back from the Wildstorm universe (maybe switching places with Breach?) and getting three words of dialogue in the final IC before the plot moves on (and hmm, maybe the new DCU earth isn't quite as unified as all that, given that Captain Atom got there from somewhere)... did something awful happen to Nightshade or Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt, and I just missed it?

Some other notes: The "two story pages" added to this issue after it was otherwise finished (as someone noted in an interview) have to be the first two, with the "new Earth" coalescing from bits of the rubble of recent continuity. It's a more striking beginning than Ralph's hand holding a gun, and I'm pleased to see Animal Man in there (and that repeated image of a hand about to play the Joker card, rather than just an image of Mr. J himself); it just doesn't seem to match the rest in tone.

Pg. 3: So the "Monster Society"--which I'm guessing has to be the Monster Society of Evil, from the mid-century Captain Marvel stories (have they used that name more recently?)--is active without Mr. Mind (the worm we see in Sivana's hideout on pg. 16)? Or is the Monster Society a sub-group of the bad-guy Society?

Pg. 4: Is Montoya's bar really called "52"? That somehow seems a little cheap if that's its referent within the story--although the Dominator in Supergirl and the Legion talking about the "fifffdeeettttooo" is more promising.

Pg. 5: God bless exposition.

Pg. 16: Glad to see Dr. Sivana back where he belongs: plotting behind the scenes in a fully-equipped Mad Scientist lab (those transistors!)

Pg. 17: Even more glad to see Dinah Lance being the person who welcomes Ray back. Her friendship with Ray--and the way that accidentally turned, once, into her falling into bed with him--was one of my favorite aspects of Priest's run on Ray; it's been ignored ever since, but this looks like someone's subtly acknowledging it. It also looks like Zauriel's okay, although he sure didn't look too healthy in IC last week. But neither did Dick Grayson.

Pg. 18: And it looks like Alix Harrower from Seven Soldiers: Bulleteer is facing up to superherodom.

Pg. 19: Wait: did the ending of Seven Soldiers, which it looked like the final spread of IC was spoiling, just get un-spoilered? And how weird is it to see multiple Soldiers in the same location? I know Morrison's co-writing & therefore signing off on this, but I still can't bring myself to think of them as a team. (Yes, I know a couple of them already appeared together in IC, but this seems more concrete.)

Pg. 24: Nothing much to say about the "next week in 52" montage--I'm not going to start speculating about its contents until a few weeks from now, it gets to stories whose scripts I haven't read in rough form--but I really like the concept.

A bit of administration, to wrap things up. A weekly 52-issue American comic is a dodgy idea, in some ways; a miniblog to review every issue of that series is an even dodgier one, especially given that I've got a book deadline in a few months and at least nominally have to write other stuff to put zwieback crackers in my baby's mouth. I'm going to try to update here as soon as I can every week for a while, and see how it goes. If it gets boring or impossible, I may have to abandon or modify my plans. (I am cheating a little this week to get in at the beginning: reviewing it not from the comic itself but from an advance photocopy. Future weeks' reviews won't appear until at least Wednesday night.) Comments, incidentally, are encouraging.