Week 40: Man of Steel, Consistency of KleenexThe 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!