Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Week 40: Man of Steel, Consistency of Kleenex

The title of this week's issue is a line from the song "John Henry," specifically the line that Alan Lomax called "the Bill of Rights [in] one phrase." If, perhaps, you are not familiar with the original "John Henry," you might acquaint yourself with the amazing Josh White's rendition, Mississippi Fred McDowell's fragment of a version, or Mississippi John Hurt's less conventional one. Or have a look around this comprehensive "John Henry" site.

There. Now, back to the other John Henry. Sadly, aside from its excellent cover, this was probably my least favorite issue so far: a messy, awkwardly drawn, mostly incoherent resolution to the weakest plot thread of the series, with very little of the whirlwind-tour-of-the-DCU stuff that's 52's strong point. And it really does look like a resolution--there's nowhere much left for the Steel/Nat/Luthor plot to go after this. My hope had been that it would eventually dovetail with the overarching plot of 52 (in more than a "Supernova drops by to snarl at Luthor" way), and I could still be surprised, but it doesn't look like that's going to happen.

Overaching plot? Yeah, it's finally starting to come together: the big things 52 seems to be setting up are a) the return of the parallel Earths (most obviously in the Booster/Supernova arc, but there are hints of it in Ralph's story and its theme of life after death, which turns up elsewhere too) and b) some kind of interconnected Darkseid/Fourth World/Intergang/Lady Styx/Crime Bible scenario (the space-castaways thing, Montoya/Question/Batwoman, Black Adam/Isis, Oolong Island).

So how does Steel's story connect to all of this? It doesn't--at least unless something big comes out of it in the next 12 weeks, which doesn't look likely. And the plot has backtracked on every advance it's made. Nat's built a super-powered suit of armor! No, wait, she isn't using it. John Henry's got powers! Wait--not any more. Luthor's scored a PR coup and changed the fabric of American society by making thousands of super-types! But actually, as of One Year Later, we already knew that didn't take, and everybody was back to hating him.

Then there's the matter of Luthor's power-granting technology. It's cancelled by the press of a button, remotely (as with Eliza)! No, actually, it has a built-in expiration date! No, it actually kills people in six months! Except when it doesn't. (As in Nat's case--she got her powers in Week 8, as I recall, and that was more than six months ago.) Oh, actually, it needs a "close-range electrical pulse" to be deactivated (what?). But it can be turned off selectively (otherwise Mercy, last issue, wouldn't have been able to turn off Nat's powers and not Hannibal's, not to mention Lex switching off everyone's powers but InfInc's). Luthor's not eligible for it! No, he became eligible as a result of killing and spinal-tapping Luis Dominero! No, he was eligible in the first place! It takes hours! It takes seconds! It makes not a freaking whit of sense! I don't need everything in comics to be plausible as such--if I did, I'd have given up somewhere around "Rocketed as a child..." But I do need it to be at least sort of internally consistent, or I get yanked straight out of the story the way the Steel arc has been yanking me out almost from the get-go.

No origin this time, either (I have no idea if Waid Writes Everybody's Origin is going to continue in Countdown, but I really hope it does.) Yes, we got 23 pages of story, but the 21-page Steel scene felt dragged out to give it more of the sense of drama that comes with length, and we didn't even get Kala Avasti riding up on a Segway to give John Henry some crucial piece of information. Also, I know it's not cricket to theorize about who writes which parts of 52, but a lot of this issue's dialogue does seem awfully Morrisonian, especially Luthor's "Tt" and "No pain...," and the bit where he's being overwhelmed by his new super-senses' input.

If you haven't looked at last week's discussion, a couple of posters came up with a very good series of observations about Horseman #4: the "boom"/"krakoom" combo of a Boom Tube was previously heard during the thunderstorm in Week 26, when there was also talk of suspendium, and immediately thereafter Sobek made his first appearance in Sivana's lab, right about where Mr. Mind had earlier wrapped himself up in his cocoon.

Incidentally, I hope everyone got to read the other comic this week involving the Marvel Family and a talking crocodile--it's really excellent, even if Jeff Smith repeats his Bone gag of a character whose facial expression never changes.

More notes (not many of 'em this time):

Pg. 1: It took Luthor two days to get in touch with John Henry?

Pg. 5: How nice: Luthor even let Natasha change her clothes since last issue.

Pg. 6: When even the characters in the story mention twice in the course of one page that the people they're fighting are generic "redshirts," there's a problem.

Pg. 7: For a moment, as I turned the page, I thought Wonder Woman/mod-Diana-Rigg-type Diana Prince was going to be involved in this story, and I was excited... but no.

Pg. 10: When did Everyman manage to eat a lobster as big as the Ritz?

Pg. 11: Especially one that can shatter (not crush) all of Steel's armor as if it's a fortune cookie?

Pg. 12: Gar's crack about shapeshifters might make a little more sense if, for instance, he weren't standing right next to Offspring. Too bad about Everyman, if indeed he is dead: the over-the-top evil-cannibal thing was annoying, but "the completely creepy bad guy who can assume anyone's form" is always a useful archetype. (See also Mystique--looking at that series' covers, I get some sense of what the plot involved from exactly two out of 24.)

Pg. 15: Combine a sprinkler system going off and the sprays of lines Batista draws around any nexus of action or surprise, and you get... a whole lot of straight lines. "My laws, my philosophies... make the world a better place": See, this is where the Luthor I was talking about last week comes through: the one who believes he's the best-qualified to be a benevolent philosopher-king. (This is what differentiates him from the Crime Bible's acolytes: they don't care about making the world a better place, they apparently just want to prepare it for their Lovecraftian alien overlords to devour.) "Planet Lexor" is a nod to the pre-Crisis world that named itself after Lex out of gratitude (thanks to a job Superman did and Luthor took credit for in this issue).

Pg. 16: Was it Frank Miller who created the tradition of describing the hero's specific injuries in way too much detail? Again, this got lampooned expertly in the "Sacred Wars" sequence of Cerebus: "Cardiac arrest. Acute uremic failure. Leakage in the left ventricle. Mustn't. Black. Out." Maybe this is one of Lex's auxiliary offices; as J.G. Jones noted back in Week 35, his main desk is a lot more interesting-looking than this one (it's a big hunk of a giant redwood).

Pg. 18: "Luthor proved a close range electrical pulse can disorganize the artificial exo-gene." Wait: when did he do that? And a mystery perhaps one of you readers can clear up: we saw Steel's robotic hand back in week 5, but when exactly did he get it? I'm away from my comics right now, but this review of Week 5 suggests that Steel actually lost his gauntlet, not the whole hand, to the General. Is he being conflated somehow with Sarge Steel, who's had a mechanical left hand for ages, and who worked with Richard Dragon in the CBI?

Pg. 19: "The Everyman treatment is toxic." It is? I'd also be a little more inclined to believe John Henry's "saving lives is what I do" boast if he hadn't, for instance, let Everyman fall to his death a few pages ago.

Pg. 21: With a puncture wound the size of a hammer-handle going all the way through him, he's standing up for a photo-op. He is tough.

Pg. 22: Hunger, war, fevers and death: in order, no less.

Pretty excited about the preview of next week's cover: Tears! Booze! Birdies! Mogo! Lotus position!


At 11:43 PM, Blogger Aero! said...

The sloppiness of this issue was really annoying, both in art and writing. This was one time when you really got the feeling that they were on the ropes to get this out.

But, you know what? Steel really was cool and inspiring, even if the scenes proving it were about 35% filler/silly. His story has dragged throughout 52, and this was a better payoff than I expected.

At 12:47 AM, Blogger Daniel said...

I suspect we'll see an epilogue of sorts where we Reflect On Everything We've Learned, but I'm glad this storyline is over. Now get back to Animal Man!

At 6:08 AM, Anonymous andy g said...

Big disappointment.

I totally agree this plot has nowhere to go, and in a way I'm grateful for it ending so early on.

The issue could have done with some cutting, interspersing the combat with a couple of one or two page updates on the other characters. Watching two guys pound on each other is boring as sin, I would have been much happier if more happened off panel, and it would have effected John Henry's gravitas not one jot.

And the artist in this issue has been the consistent weak link in a series where the art has rarely been the strong point.


Steel and daughter will die (heroically) in WWIII.

At 6:22 AM, Blogger Filby said...

I really enjoyed seeing Luthor get his comeuppance, but I agree that the lack of internal consistency on this storyline has been beyond infuriating.

I also agree that Chris Battista's probably the worst contributing artist on the series, possibly tying with Pat Oliffe. I'd rather we had less of these guys and more Joe Bennett and Eddy Barrows.

At 6:34 AM, Blogger Keith said...

How did Steel brush off a full-body heat visioning and then pull out a hammer pushed completely through his body? I was also put off by how easily Infinity Inc. was taken out. 1 hit each!

At 6:44 AM, Blogger Paul I said...

Terrible issue, but the giant crab was kind of cool. Giant crab! Someone's been watching Multiple Maniacs. (Although I think that was a lobster.)

At 7:05 AM, Blogger Squashua said...

Don't forget the forgettable Teen Titans/Osiris connection that links this plot thread. OK, not tight enough.

Regarding the anatomy thing, I suspect it was Lex toying with his x-ray vision.

By the way, thank you for that Spinal Tap interview.

At 2:00 PM, Blogger Holz said...

I'm off two minds of this issue. I'm with you as it's one of my least favorite 52 issues, mostly because it didn't utilize the week-structure, and instead told a 12 minute story. However, as a straight superhero fight, I thought it was excellent, a nice harkening back to the days of all-out action in comic books. I'm not saying I need that fight every month, but it was nice to get away from walking-through-snow for 4 pages.

In regards to the Hunger issue, I'm finally beginning to lean towards Sobek instead of Skeets, but one thing has been bugging me. In a previous issue, didn't Skeets meet up with Waverider, and it was implied that the substance that Skeets is encased in was made out of the skin of Waverider? Has that been addressed and I just don't remember it?

At 2:45 PM, Blogger Eric said...

I haven't had time to really delve into the details of this week's 52, but I wanted to clear some stuff up -- Steel's armor being cracked isn't a big deal because at some point during 52, he lost his "super" power and uses some sort of armor now, right? I'm not that familiar with the basics of John "Steel" Henry, and 52, sadly, hasn't helped much. I'm glad this plotline is over, because as you pointed out, it's been very confusing.

Here's a half-finished Sarge Steel fansite. for those curious about the character.

At 4:17 PM, Blogger ZC said...

I dunno about you, but Chris Batista's work this issue was really creepy. The guy does just the creepiest facial expressions.

On the subject of Who Was Writing, here's your answer:

"Johns - 2pgs; Morrison - 9 pgs; Rucka - 6pgs; Waid - 6 pgs"

I could probably figure out which pages specifically... but that's way too much work. I'm lazy! XD

At 4:50 PM, Blogger raphaeladidas said...

Well it's obvious which pages Johns wrote, but I am also too lazy to figure the rest out. Who's up for it?

At 4:50 PM, Blogger raphaeladidas said...

And now that this odd-man-out story is over can we please get back to Buddy please?

At 6:02 AM, Anonymous PittMonster said...

It isn't absolutely necessary that the Steel/Luthor plotline is over. We still don't know where Luthor got his "I can make super heroes" machine from (Apokolips?) ... and much earlier in the series we were overtly connecting his storyline to Egg Fu's. Darkseid's role here may still come into play, and that could very well be the reason that the big fight scene had to happen so early (allowing the writers to explore the Luthor/Darkseid connections for the rest of the series).

Keep the faith! This is a team that put the Boom! Krakoom! back in Week 26 and we're just noticing it now ... this may all still tie together.

At 7:24 AM, Blogger Jamie Ott said...

Pittmonster is correct, both Luthor and Egg Fu (i.e., the Great Ten) had the means to create super-powered heroes at the beginning of the story. The fact that they BOTH have this tech is a little more than coincendental.

And think about the island of mad sceintists for a minute. Why WOULDN'T you nab the genius that goes toe to toe with Superman? Wouldn't he be a ringer for this? Who's to say that he isn't involved at uppermost levels, especially with Intergang involvement? Don't discount this story because it isn't as satisfying as the others.

However, I don't think John Henry is going to make it. He beat the 'machine' and has nothing left to do but die. Leaking internal fecal matter is pretty damn deadly...

As for the Skeets issue, the latest issue of Justice League Unlimited was quite interesting in that Booster, Skeets, and Speedy fight Dr. Polaris in the Watchtower. Polaris makes the comment that Skeets seems to be made out of a non-ferrous metal. I thought it odd that this was mentioned at all, then I thought about 52.


At 8:13 AM, Blogger Squashua said...

"Polaris makes the comment that Skeets seems to be made out of a non-ferrous metal. I thought it odd that this was mentioned at all, then I thought about 52."

Umm, seeing as how Polaris is a villain with magnetic powers, I view it as topical in the sense that Polaris would want to manipulate the metallic Skeets with his powers.

At 9:08 AM, Blogger Douglas Wolk said...

Here's Polite Dissent on Steel's injuries. Excerpt: "The circulatory system has evolved in such a way that foreign matter doesn't 'leak' into it, even in a trauma situation."

At 10:55 AM, Anonymous randy said...

Yeah, I was gonna say, after reading Polite Dissent, that you have to take what Luthor was saying with a grain of salt. But Douglas Wolk already provided the link. I suggest everybody read it.

At 11:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ookla the Mok here- Seems to me pretty lucky for John Henry that he isn't still using the hammer with the 90 degree elbow joint on the end of the handle, as seen in the early Morrison JLA! That would have done a lot more damage going through, and maybe pulled out a bunch of stringy icky bits when it was yanked out! Ouch, he one tuff dude. Still, it was surprising that Luthor with Supe's powers (definitely the A-list combination from the superpowers menu) could get taken down so fast after such a long build-up. The explanation doesn't fly, nor does Nat figuring it out just like that and using an atomic (?) hammer to do it just then. And what's with the flimsy little hatch on the business end of that mighty thwack-hammer? If the armor cracked that easily I think we would have seen that hatch open the first time John tossed it through a concrete wall.

At 8:35 PM, Blogger Billscomics said...

I'm excited to get back to our friends in space next issue - but I am curious to see how the Osiris arc will pan out.

I've added your blog to my blogroll, as I think it's required reading right now. I hope you don't mind.

At 6:51 AM, Blogger Squashua said...

..required reading "right now"???

Man, I don't know if that's an insult or not. It's been required reading for the past 40 weeks.


At 7:22 AM, Blogger Ragtime said...

I'm having some holistic '52' thoughts, that aren't really tied to any specific issue.

At 12:44 PM, Blogger Emmet Matheson said...

According to Comic Book Resources' sales estimates (on their front page today), "52 accounted for 11.5% of DC's known comic book sales for 2006", whatever that means. It sounds impressive, though.

At 8:02 PM, Blogger Evan Narcisse said...

Johnny Cash also does a killer rendition of the John Henry song. I'm surprised nobody mentioned it here.

I don't know, Douglas, I really liked this issue. Aside from the more obvious "steel-driving man" parallels, it had a strong bluesiness in its meta-rhythms: John Henry trying to save the soul, essentially, of his surrogate daughter who had succumbed to Luthor's crypto-demonic temptation. I liked the image of John being stripped of his armor, but not being stripped of what makes him a hero–his heart, his brain.

I'll confess to being a fan of the character under the aegis of Priest and Morrison, but I think that part of the reason this issue moves me is that it's February. As a black comics reader, I'm perpetually starved for any kind of black superhero screentime. So, this issue, where Nat and John Henry soundly defeat Luthor (never an easy thing to do, mind you), really resonates for me. Not because Luthor represents Evil Whitey, but because Luthor is one of the craftiest, most malicious antagonists in the DCU. And John Henry's win in this issue means that he can stand toe-to-toe with Luthor. If I can take that reading away from this episode of 52, I can abide a few inconsistencies.

[And, I owe you a big apology: when we met in NYC in October of last year, I said I'd start commenting regularly. I can only offer up the Dreaded Deadline Doom as an excuse...]

At 8:59 PM, Blogger raphaeladidas said...

C'mon, nobody is gonna try to suss out who wrote which pages?

At 11:10 AM, Blogger Squashua said...

Anyone else a tad annoyed that Mogo was given such a high standing for Week 41? We would have been much better served if they hadn't hinted at him at all.

At 6:54 PM, Blogger austinspace said...

I want to throw some love Batista's way. This guy is an excellent artist. I chalk up any inconsistencies and goofs to deadline doom--not any weakness in this guy's work. Have you seen his JLA? His Legion? The guy is good.


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