Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Week 47: The Celestial Longbox

One of the keys to this week's issue is, as Filby noticed last week, that Dr. Magnus has built a new version of his Plutonium Man. The Plutonium Man? You might have seen him here, or when that story was reprinted 19 years ago here. But otherwise, unless you have an impressive back-issue collection, a really good local comics shop or a serious eBay habit, there's very little chance you might have stumbled across him before. His appearances in the '70s run of Metal Men aren't quite on the "rocketed as a child..." level of canon that everybody who's read a couple of stories about the Metal Men knows; in order to catch what's going on, you need to have access to something that can refer you to the right story--something like this site, or one of the DCU discussion boards elsewhere--and then you need to have access to a long-out-of-print issue.

Which, of course, you do, if you're reading this on your computer. Oh, you can't get a physical copy of Metal Men #45 without some legwork and some cash, but it's not terribly hard to track the story itself down without paying, thanks to the magic of .cbr files. That would be fine for reading purposes (and actually I bought a physical copy a few months ago), but it makes me scratch my head a little about what the future of comics-as-a-business looks like. There's a solid argument that comics downloading is competing directly with the physical retail sales business; see, for instance, the kajillions of discussions going on this past week about the Dan Slott vs. torrented She-Hulk business. But there's also a good case to be made that, especially for out-of-print material, comics downloads are taking care of a niche that the comics industry simply isn't addressing--and one reliable guideline of the Internet is that whatever or whoever gets to a niche first is very hard to dislodge from it.

If you're expecting a slightly rickety analogy between the comics business and the music business, you're right, and here it comes. Digital music theorists have been using the phrase "celestial jukebox" since at least the early '90s to describe the ideal of making anything ever recorded instantly available with no more effort than it takes to punch in a song on a jukebox; iTunes and eMusic aren't quite that, but they're trying to move toward it, and by the time you get to Soulseek and BitTorrent and such, you have to have pretty damn arcane tastes to look for something you can't find. Still, one enormous mistake that the music business made (among many) was failing to jump on the digital-music-for-sale idea instantly, and not realizing that the long tail was where the money was, before users had already grown accustomed to digital music being something that was always available in exchange for a little bit of effort and no money.

The analogous situation in this medium is where the big comics copyright holders are in something of a bind. I get the sense that they're looking into potential initiatives, but the clock is ticking for people to get in the habit of buying old comics stories via something along the lines of iTunes. I also suspect that what the online market's profit-drivers might be aren't the Dark Knight-type perennials, but the long-tail oddities that can't support print republication and distribution, old stories that get referred to in new ones (like the hail of references that 52 has provided), the "historical documents" of the fictional universe. And customers are going to want to be able to get everything they want in one place, as with iTunes. Call it the celestial longbox.

That's going to require a conceptual shift, or rather a conceptual broadening. The comics economy as we know it is built on physical artifacts. All comic books are collectible--not in the sense that they necessarily appreciate in market value, but in the sense that people like to accumulate and own them. Trade paperbacks and hardcovers look nice and are convenient to have on one's bookshelf. What you're paying for when you're buying digital music, though, isn't an artifact: you can't hold it in your hand, you can't furnish your dwelling with it, you can't sell it if you decide you don't want it any more. You're paying for part of what you get when you pay for a CD--total access to its contents, any time you want--and you're also paying for something else, the convenience of not having to put in time and effort looking for it in the first place.

The same thing applies for digital comics. You can't hold them in your hand; you can't ask the clerk how much they're going to be worth; you can't get whatever "aura" there is to a mass-produced physical artifact that is easily available for a few weeks or months and then increasingly inconvenient to find after that. Those are important things to a lot of people who read comics; they're important to me (well, not the asking-the-clerk one, especially since I used to be that clerk). Without them, part of what I love about the comics-reading experience is missing. But part of it is still there.

At the same time, the standard ethical (rather than legal) argument against unauthorized downloads of copyrighted material--that it deprives copyright owners of reaping the financial rewards of their work--is somewhat less durable when you're talking about material that's not commercially available in any form that benefits its creators or rights-holders, and not likely to be any time soon. (The counter-argument is that unauthorized downloads of out-of-print material affect back-issue sales at retail stores, and that that trickles down to affect what they order of new comics, and therefore to affect the state of the comics publishing business--but I've stacked the deck, since the example at hand is 30 years old.)

To put it a different way: Right now--this specific week--there's an enhanced market to sell some inexpensive, easy-to-find copies of Metal Men #45, and maybe by extension some of the rest of the '70s Simonson run, and possibly also some other Steve Gerber or Walt Simonson or Metal Men comics. That market will be drastically diminished after this week, and nobody's selling that particular issue right now except for a handful of stores that have yellowing print copies in yellowing plastic bags. But I bet a bunch of people are going to be reading it anyway. Which is to say: if Jane Q. Fiftytwofortyseven can have a 30-second, 99-cent transaction to get a digital copy of Metal Men #45, she might well do that. If she wants to but can't, she's much more likely to spend an hour and a half digging around for a torrent of .cbr files of the complete run of Metal Men. And once she's got that already, the likelihood that she's going to want to pay 99 cents for a digital copy of #45 in a year and a half is vanishingly slim.

Where were we? Oh, right, talking about this week's 52. Space B is a sort of celestial longbox of its own: "this, your universe" is of course the DCU, and lucky Buddy has access to Week 51 already. There's some good theorizing on the DC boards that Space B = the Bleed, which has been seen in Ion = the space between panels in comic books, the "outside the collection" negative space that works about the same way as good old Hypertime.

Beautiful cover this week (the dagger popping out of the image and over the logo is a very nice touch), but oh, that episode title--not only does it have the standard mis-citation of "Revelation" that we've talked about before, but it's a curious choice for an issue in which, really, nothing is revealed. Also, we appear to have gotten shorted two pages this week--the lead story's only 18 pages. What, did Montoya get laid again?

More notes:

Pg. 1: I can find no previous documentation of a "Thörgal ordeal," or indeed of a "Thörgal" (this doesn't count). Although if we're talking about top-selling comics involving ritual sacrifices, it's worth mentioning that this volume apparently sold 280,000 copies in France. Isn't it amazing what comics can sell, he asked rhetorically? Yes, I've been obsessing over Comichron this week. Remember: in 1969, even 52's current figures would have paled before eighth-tier hits like Texas Rangers in Action (more comics should have cover copy ending with "Oh yeah!").

Also: The koan the monk offers Tim on this page is a familiar one--familiar enough, in fact, that both that link and whoever wrote this sequence make the error of trying to explain it. (The solution suggests The Invisibles' recurring theme that language makes reality.) I also like the familiar symbolism of the monks rolling the stone to block off the cave...

Pg. 2: Vashnu is a follower of Rama Kushna who first appeared here, created by the sorely missed Arnold Drake.

Pg. 3: As commenter premiani pointed out, Crippen is Dr. Hawley Crippen. Kürten is German serial killer Peter Kürten, "The Vampire of Düsseldorf" (whose one on-panel DC-published appearance was here). Gacey is probably a misspelling of John Wayne Gacy, who... oh, never mind. "See my kingdom rise anew upon the Earth," besides its obvious overtones, may be another tease of the Kingdom Come stuff that DC seems to be hinting at lately.

Pg. 5: You would think that with their ties to the underworld/assassin culture, these cultists would've heard of David Cain and maybe even his twice-named daughter. (Not this David Cain.) Not to mention that her mom has ties to several other members of 52's cast.

Pg. 6: Where'd he get all that plutonium this time, considering he had to smuggle in supplies for e.g. tin? Also, you don't want to be cavalierly throwing around plutonium, given that a thousandth of a gram is lethal.

Pg. 7: I like mini-Tin and mini-Mercury being the angel and devil in Magnus's pockets, especially since they're both offering the same advice.

Pg. 9: Another Invisibles-like sequence--this is a lot like the "initiation" sequences, especially Yellow Alien Dude's assertion that "out here, there are no sides." Doesn't Buddy look a little like Speedball in that top panel? I hope Ellen moving on doesn't make him put on an inside-out porcupine outfit.

Pg. 11: Just, you know, to underscore that Natasha has Learned A Whole Lot since Week 1.

Pg. 12: "A band": good choice of words, especially since that's the self-description that the 52 writers used, at least at the beginning. (And I wonder if there's going to be any kind of reunions once this tour is over: it'd be neat to see a 52 special or two written by the four of them, at least, without the GOTTADOITNOW pressure of a weekly.)

Pg. 13: A deck-clearing scene. Aren't "hard work" and "elbow grease" the same thing?

Pg. 14: If she's ringing the doorbell, wouldn't that mean somebody buzzed her in?... although maybe that was Dick or Jason or whoever's wearing the Nightwing outfit. A building ritzy enough to have a zillionaire living in its penthouse, though, is a lot more likely to have a doorman than buzzers. "Z. Wie Funfzig," plus an umlaut and a bit of rearranging, is German for "52." And "T.O. Twiffy" is T.O. Morrow's anagrammatic cousin.

Pg. 15: Well, at least Kate finally got an actual Hanukkah menorah--just in time for Passover! You'd think the Watchmen-style window damage would've been noticed by more people outside the building, though.

Pg. 16: You know, the last time Diana went all normal-and-mortal, Wonder Woman read even more than ever like a bondage fetishist's dream series. Of course, all that changed with the advent of women's lib and the return of her powers and costume. Oh wait: no it didn't... at least not immediately.

Pg. 18: The solicitation for next month's issue of Batman suggests that that's where we're going to find out what happened here. Curious that it's the cliffhanger in 52, then--! So he comes out of the cave and sees his Bat-shadow and it means we wait four more weeks to find out what happens next?

The Origin of the Teen Titans: Mostly notable for the look of Kerschl's art--somewhere between the standard superhero style of the regular Titans series and the cartoonier, distorted approach of Teen Titans Go!--the blue lines of Raven's costume, in particular, have that animation-cel vibe to them.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Week 46: Bodies With No Surprises

You know, usually when the cackling villain's got the hero suspended over the acid bath, you wonder how the hero's going to survive. But I can't even imagine how Sivana's going to get out of this one.

That said, this was the most fun issue we've seen in a while, mostly because of all that Oolong Island action. For once, we get to get inside the skulls of the bad guys, and it turns out that they're the pasty, geeky types who cleave to pulp-fiction devices because they want to prove themselves superior to the "Super-Jocks"; they've waited decades for their revenge on somebody who's physically strong. They cling to their grudges; they want to show everyone who's boss.

All except for Veronica Cale, who just wanted "to change the world." (One way that the multiverse stuff might pan out is that she could change which world she belongs to--!) After divine judgment in the form of Black Adam passes over her, she renounces violence and walks away. That might be her exit from the narrative, like Astoria; it might be an actual moment of repentance (having abandoned her past in the symbolic form of her pearls, engaged in one last act of eros and one last act of thanatos, and given herself up to fate). But as long as we're going to be alluding to the Cain story's rock and red rage, I can imagine Dr. Cale in some kind of mark-of-Cain scenario.

The end of Morrison's "Rock of Ages" storyline in JLA suggested how much good Luthor might have done if he'd actually acted in the world's interest (contrast Ra's al Ghul, who has a reasonable claim to make that he is acting in the world's interest). It's worth wondering if any of the Oolong Island crew might be worth rehabilitating; the answer seems to be that as brilliant as they are, they don't care a bit about anything other than their personal gratification. Hence the nonstop party atmosphere on the island--they're not making sacrifices for what anybody can convince them is the greater good, but they're getting quick thrills and revenge, and there's nothing else they can be tempted with. (For another take on the same sort of situation, see this week's debut of Rick Veitch's very funny, very biting Army@Love.) Would they actually fit in on Apokolips? Sivana sure would; the rest of them wouldn't last an hour.

Anybody keeping a canonical list of Signs of Things to Come in the DCU? As various people have noted, the 52 team put in a little appearance in last week's Tales of the Unexpected, the Monitors turned up in Stormwatch: PHD, Everyman's in Manhunter, the Emerald Eye is on the cover of next month's Brave and Bold, and the Bleed made an appearance in Ion last month...

More notes:

Pg. 2: "They already walk among us": Apokolips is already here? Yes, yes, 52 ends conclusively--but it does seem to be teasing a lot of the Fourth World/Darkseid stuff that Countdown is promising.

Pg. 3: From "I'm an atheist" to "he'll save us" in one sentence--beautiful!

Pg. 4: I love that Black Adam's approach to any challenge is to dismember it.

Pg. 6: "The final crisis is coming": prophecy is a funny thing, as they say. (And speaking of funny things, "doesn't that turn you on?" may be the funniest line of this series so far.) I think this may be the first time the term "anti-life" has been used in 52; what Dr. Cale is referring to is the Anti-Life Equation, the slippery formula Darkseid was seeking in Jack Kirby's original Fourth World stuff. (What it means in practice is shown vividly in the Seven Soldiers: Mister Miracle mini.) Felix Faust was mixed up with a spell that's also referred to as the "anti-life equation" here, but who knows if that's even canon at this point.

Pg. 7: You'd think Morrow would just use eSnipe if he's so worried about it.

Pg. 8: Dr. Cale appears to have lost her pearls in the heat of passion; you'd think if she were planning to go to her doom she'd want to be wearing them! Unless Dr. Magnus has swiped them to make some kind of pearl Metal Man or something.

Pg. 9: Two great character moments here: Veronica having a "post coitum omne animal triste est" moment, and so intent on her method of suicide that she blithely kills the guy who gets in her way; and Black Adam's reaction to her confession...

Pg. 10: When this page ran on Newsarama last week, I thought it directly followed Pg. 1, and was afraid that Dr. Cale was getting crushed by the door.

Pg. 12: Bad lorem ipsum! Drink! (All over this issue, actually!) Curiously enough, the concept of the tesseract was invented by a gentleman who appeared in a very good comic book a while back. Morrison has also used tesseracts before in his stories--in DC One Million, it's where Earth stores its cities.

Pg. 14: And of course he's got an acid bath waiting upstairs. Next he's going to have to wake Adam up to explain his evil plan before he kills him... there's a beautiful little Alan Moore/Bryan Talbot quickie in this issue about basic mad supervillain training--more than 20 years later, I still remember the punch line: "And remember, the wages of sin are death... but the hours are great and the perks are terrific!" Also, how does Morrow know about "the secrets of the cosmos" being in Reddy's head?

Pp. 15-17: This scene, on the other hand, feels oddly tacked-on--the point is to demonstrate that a) Everyman's still alive, b) Natasha's earned and is now wearing her armor, and c) John Henry's bounced back from being skewered six weeks ago. But there's a lot that doesn't seem right about it: "noted scientist and businessman"? How about "former President of the United States"? Clark's "intuition" doesn't quite add up either. And Everyman being taken out with one punch diminishes his scariness considerably. Although "murdering waste of carbon" does bring to mind Waid's best line of the week, from the excellent Brave and the Bold #2: "Carbons and silicates..."

Pg. 19: Remember how I was complaining about how the JSA's absence of a raison d'être was a problem? I spoke too soon, because here it is, all spelled out: to set a good example for the super-kids. Fair enough. Can anybody point me toward what happened with Damage and Icicle?

The Origin of Batman: Great to see this feature back. (Now I just hope Giffen's layouts return to the 52 site too...) With an origin that's been retold this many times, the exercise is less boiling it down to two pages than coming up with some fresh angle on it, and I think this does it very nicely. I'm curious who the guy with the glasses and moustache in the top panel of page 2 is (if anybody); I'd love to know whose idea the dirigible was. And, having read this story the other day, for once I'm happy not to see a character's (purported) creator credited in one of these backups.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Week 45: The Poys and the Luggage

Gonna have to be a short one this week, since I'm currently laid up with some kind of bizarre flu.

It occurs to me that readers outside of New York City may not know what a bialy is, or why the name of Bialya was obviously a joke when Giffen et al. were establishing the country in Justice League International 20 years ago--part of the longstanding tradition of fictional postage-stamp countries with unusual laws.

In other words, Bialya is comedy relief, and one of the bedrock rules of entertainment is that you don't have the comedy relief tortured and killed. (Chubby da Choona is the only violation of this I can recall working.) Abruptly introducing bleakness and brutality to something created to be jaunty fun isn't just a sign of "naturalism"--it's a rejection of the idea that it's possible to rely on light entertainment to not suddenly turn on you. This is why, for instance, Jeff Smith's Monster Society of Evil is such a wonderful project, and The Trials of Shazam is so dismal: the engine that the Marvel Family runs on, as I've noted before, is understanding the adult world from a child's playful perspective. I do like the "Seduction of the Innocent" routine with Mary Marvel teased on the inside front cover this time, since what it suggests is the point at which that innocent understanding begins to become a little darker; on the "So Begins the End" image, Phil Jimenez drew her with the expression and body language of a kid who's screwed up and is wondering what's going to come of it.

The cover this week does have a regal grandness to it--a sense of gravity that's all but absent from the story inside. Applying a little bit of logic to this issue, in fact, makes its plot completely fall apart. First off, we're told that Death "fled to Bialya and was given aid and comfort by the government." How would Adam know that? And how does one go about giving aid and comfort to Death, anyway?

Then there's the discussion between the president of Bialya and Mannheim: "Our whole nation embraced your way of crime, your new world order!" We've been over the phrase "new world order" before, but it generally applies to an international balance of power, rather than a philosophy of government. But a nation embracing a "way of crime"? Even the most casual reading of anything having to do with the social contract reveals that just doesn't work. What's a crime? Something that contravenes the rules of the state. A national "way of crime" means a state whose law is to break its law. That's not anarchy (or even Anarky, although I hope we'll be seeing him before too long), it's just incoherent--formally incoherent, even. (Now, Bialya has been established as a "holiday spot for crooks" before, but that's not quite the same thing.)

Then Black Adam bursts in--through the video screen, which should've been a cool visual but doesn't really come through. Inside the room are a) Death, one of the entities that killed Adam's wife and brother-in-law, and b) an unnamed president who seems to know what's up with where the Horsemen came from. So Adam kills the latter while the former is cutting a couple of unidentified dudes in half; then Adam heads out to throw some tanks around, apparently without bothering to deal with Death, who seems to wander out at his leisure while Adam's busy slaughtering everybody in the country.

Now, why would Adam perpetrate the Bialyan genocide? His actions don't obey what just-war theorists refer to as "proportionality and discrimination." Actually, they don't make any sense; even given that he accepted Isis's last-minute change of heart ("save the orphans!" --> "actually I was just kidding, go slaughter everyone, kthxbye!"), once he's crushed, spindled and mutilated the Bialyan faction responsible for harboring Death, what does killing the rest of Bialya's population, most of whom can't even have known about the Horsemen, have to do with getting revenge? And what advantage could it possibly gain him?

By day 5, Adam's rampage has been going on for a full day. Why on earth would other major DCU power players not have caught up with him by this point? Like, at the very least, the rest of the Marvel Family, with whom he was hanging out a couple of days earlier? Some Green Lantern or other? J'onn J'onzz?

Finally, he tracks down Death (and wasn't he scarier when he was still silent, back in the days of... uh... last week?), and presents him with a sort of "death, thou shalt die" scenario. Again, Adam's being terribly inefficient; any interrogation expert can tell you that "you're going to give me the information I'm seeking, and then I will slowly torture you to death" is not a particularly reliable way of getting accurate information. Obviously, the story point that had to be hit this time was Adam Goes Berserk, but one of the big points of 52 so far has been that everything in it is predicated on the peculiar internal rules of the DC universe, and the Adam storyline is throwing those rules (and basic internal logic) out the window for the sake of BIG SMASHING.

In the behind-the-scenes department, two things 52 appears to have given up on (or at least spaced on) that I miss and hope return soon: the backup origins and Keith Giffen's layouts at the 52 site. Also, y'all have read this interview with Greg Rucka, right? Very interesting stuff. (And from a purely selfish perspective as a reader, it's a pity that the final issue will not in fact be 52 pages...)

More notes:

Pg. 2: The title of this week's issue comes from something the Romans used to inscribe on sundials: "vulnerant omnes, ultima necat."

Pg. 5: Peculiar that the lettering in the bottom two panels is smaller than in the rest--was this page reconfigured somehow? And how is Adam holding Montoya up? He doesn't look like he's actually holding her face.

Pg. 7: Why would Mannheim need a double agent at the Oolong complex--that is, what's going on there that's opposed to Intergang's interests, since it appears that Mannheim commissioned the construction of the Horsemen? And who might that agent be? The malapropistic "El Presidento" is a nice touch, though.

Pg. 11: Ayios Nikolaus is better known as Agios Nikolaos. I briefly wondered if ECHELON was some kind of previously established DCU thing, but no, we've got it here on Earth-Prime too. Steve Trevor was the Deputy Secretary of Defense in Rucka's Wonder Woman run; apparently now he's the Secretary proper.

Pg. 12: A curious scene. How can Atom Smasher contact Alan Scott and Checkmate if he's an inmate? And is Amanda Waller putting together the anti-Black Adam Suicide Squad for humanitarian reasons, or what? From the 19 people visible on the board, she seems to be assembling lots of villainous types who are a pretty terrible idea to have on the loose--I mean, Dr. Psycho? Not only do you not want to have that guy on the other side, you don't want him on your side.

Pg. 16: Man, I love these Great Ten sequences--I don't know if I'd want to read a Great Ten series or anything, but they're fabulous supporting characters. I particulary like Thundermind's "inner senses"; the NPC he refers to is the National People's Congress. So the Four Horsemen were built by Beijing, and the idea was to kill Adam, rather than to drive him mad? Does Beijing have ties to Apokolips now? [ETA: Egg Fu, of course! See comments.]

Pg. 20: Using the magic lightning as an offensive weapon, which I assume is what's going on here (the art's unclear), is a peculiar trick--has Adam (or have any of the Marvel Family) used it this way before? [ETA: Many, many, many times. See comments. I don't know what I was thinking.]

Pg. 22: As usual, the Oolong Island scene is pretty badass itself. But you'd think the mad scientists would have imagined when they were building the Horsemen that, you know, somebody might try to get back at them over it, yes? And yet again the word "terrorism" gets lightly deployed for something that's nothing of the kind--for, in fact, the ruler of a sovereign state directly (and personally!) attacking another sovereign state, with no particular political or ideological end that it's intended to coerce anybody into.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Week 44: One Hundred Questions, One Hat

A very big week for comic books--this wasn't even the best single issue featuring a cover with a red, white and black palette that involves a mythological figure and bloodshed. (Actually, as soon as I typed that sentence, I remembered this cover... but he's real--!) Still, there's also been a lot of talk this week about the future of Superhero Pamphlets As We Know Them--the general feeling of burnout, the event fatigue, the lack of FUN!!!, the sense of franchises being "wheeled along the hallway until they expire" (that's a paraphrase of some blogger this week, and I wish I could remember who) [EDITED TO ADD: it was actually not a blogger but Blue Beetle's John Rogers over at Comicbloc! He put it better, too], the kneecapped momentum of virtually every major non-52 superhero project of the past year, the atmosphere of slowly cooling nostalgia that hovers over the landscape. (Of the ongoing DCU series about solo characters that DC's publishing in March, the most recently introduced character name is Firestorm--who first appeared in 1978. Team book title? Birds of Prey, 1996.)

Someone asked me a few weeks ago what monthly comics I really adore and actively look forward to every month at this point, in an "oh boy this is the week [x] comes out" way--not stuff I'm just sort of following, or that occasionally gives me the buzz I'm hoping for, or like just fine but am happy to wait for the trade for--and my answer was a painfully short list. I do get that feeling about 52 (and that anticipatory feeling about Countdown), but as far as monthlies go: Daredevil and Criminal for sure. The Spirit is getting there. If The Brave and the Bold stays on schedule and as energetic as its first issue, then that. All-Star Superman is like a little blessing from the sky every time it appears, although nobody could call it monthly. Detective when Paul Dini's writing it. And already I'm answering a question other than the one that was asked. (I'm curious to hear what you folks' answers to that question are, too.)

This week's issue of 52, I'm afraid, falls into the part-of-the-problem category. Aside from Azraeuz's silence--so much more effectively scary than the other Horsemen's disquisitions!--the Black Adam sequence is just one long, gory device to hit story beats (Tawky Crawky gets his jaw dislocated; Isis dies of chestnut blight, after telling Adam he was right to dismember bad guys after all). It has plot consequences, but no real emotional or thematic consequences. Having never been given much of a sense of Isis, other than that she handed out flowers and freed orphans and stuff, it's hard for me to feel any particular loss as a reader.

Actually, I'm wondering if there's some kind of subtext to all this on-page krakoomery that I'm missing. This week's Civil War addenda, for instance, make it clear that what that project was about, above the basic plot level, is the idea that the military-industrial complex (Iron Man, the "pro-reg" side) has used tragedy and fear (the New Warriors, the new Thunderbolts) to destroy the spirit of America (Captain America, the "anti-reg" side). Does 52 have significant themes that aren't, as Wikipedia puts it, "in-universe"?

There's an interesting bit here about what part of Osiris was mythologically eaten by a crocodile. Otherwise, there's very little else in this issue to talk about this week (although Montoya finally gets her hat!)--so, especially since one of DC's eight house ads this week (!) makes a point of featuring Rip Hunter's chalkboard, I think it's time for THE CANONICAL LIST OF 52 DANGLING PLOT THREADS. I've left out things that are obviously just inconsistencies (like the "is Sierra the same person as Jade or not" question, or the mess around how Luthor's Everyman Project tech works), and tried to mention only things that are deliberate-looking glitches, if you see what I mean. And yes, it's a nice round number: it just worked out that way.

So here are the plot points whose resolution has been teased but not yet delivered (as far as I can tell; please correct me where I'm wrong):

1. What's the significance of the number 52 itself, and why does it turn up everywhere?
2. What's the significance of the swirling mass of fragments on the first two pages of the first issue?
3. Whoever's talking to Ralph at the beginning of Week 1 talks about the Monster Society (rather than the Secret Society); why? (I could write this one off as a mistake, but I suspect the series' fifth line of dialogue is unlikely to be a mistake, especially in light of the self-identified Monster Society showing up this week.)
4. Does the Booster we see in 52 postdate the Booster who went back home to the future in Infinite Crisis?
5. What happened to the timeline in 52 that makes it different from the one Booster remembers?
6. What went wrong with Skeets, and when?
7. Who sent the would-be suicide bomber to Kahndaq in Week 1? Intergang didn't yet have their grudge against Adam then.
8. Where are Wally and Linda? (This is sort of more an OYL question, but since it's brought up in Week 1...)
9. Why did Charlie pick Montoya for... whatever it is he picked her for? ("That's the question, isn't it?" is not an answer.)
10. What's the significance of "artificial souls"?
11. What exactly happened with the "missing 52 seconds," and what are they protecting?
12. Flight 2824/Flight 2428: what's up with that?
13. How did the Superboy cult get their hands on all that genuine-looking Kryptonian gear? (I'm guessing Felix Faust didn't have access to it, although he appears to have been the one who pointed Ralph toward it.)
14. Who's Devem? Does he have ties to Dev-Em?
15. What was going on with Mr. Mind in his cocoon in Sivana's lab/as a result of being bombarded with suspendium radiation?
16. What got Charlie interested in the 520 Kane case in the first place?
17. What is Intergang up to? Why would they want to "invade" Gotham City, anyhow? Where are they getting their Kirbytech and beast-man tech? What's their connection to Kahndaq?
18. How did Hawkgirl get huge? How did she get back to normal size?
19. How did Cyborg and Firestorm get fused, and how did they get un-fused?
20. What happaned to Adam Strange's eyes?
21. What happened to Alan Scott's eyes (including "the one that isn't his," which as I mentioned when I did this back in week 20 may have been answered here)?
22. What happened to the Red Tornado? How did he end up with one voicebox in Mal Duncan's chest and another one attached to his body in Australia?
23. What's the story with Steel's hand, since he doesn't appear to actually have lost his original left hand to the General?
24. What was the giant "reality-warping wave"?
24. How did Adam, Buddy and Kory end up wherever they were in space?
25. How did Devilance get the word that Lady Styx had put out a contract on them, locate them on Adon, and then get all the way (back!) there in time to start hunting them?
26. What exactly was the "Freedom of Power Treaty" supposed to do?
27. What smashed Rip Hunter's time sphere? (yes, I am going to address each of the Rip's-HQ danglers that are still dangling individually)
28. Why does Rip's HQ have pictures of Rosa Parks, dinosaurs, the Boston Tea Party, etc.?
29. What's the significance of the time all the clocks are set to?
30. What's up with the magnet dangling from a tripod?
31. "World War III - Why? How?" And why is China missing?
32. What's the significance of the picture of the "Snakes on a Plane"/caduceus dagger that turns up again at the beginning of Week 30?
33. What's with the not-quite-52 numbers scattered on the floor?
34. Why all the little circled 52s?
35. "Dead by lead?"
36. "Further time is different"
37. "He won't smell it."
38. "Sonic disruptors-->Time Masters-->Time Servants"
39. "'I'm not kryptonite'"
40. "It hurts to breathe."
41. "2000 years from now" (i.e. 4006, from the cover of Week 19)
42. "Earth"
43. "The Scarab is Eternal?" (The Blue Beetle scarab, or the Black Adam one?)
44. "Where is the Curry Heir?"
45. "The Tornado is in pieces."
46. "Find the last 'El'"
47. "What happened to the son of Superman?"
48. "Don't ask the Question. It lies."
49. "Mortal Savage" (this may be a reference to JSA Classified, but why would that be on the chalkboard?)
50. "The old Gods are DEAD, the new Gods want what's left."
51. "Te versus (Au+Pb)" (element 52, Gold, Lead)
52. "Secret FIVE!"
53. "Someone is monitoring. They see us. They see me." (obv. this has to do with the Monitors, but what's its significance in the story?)
54. "Khimaera Lives Again" (Hawkgirl, yes, but why?)
55. "I'm supposed to be DEAD?"
56. "The Lazarus Pit Rises"
57. "When Am I?"
58. "OTHERS?"
59. "Casey the Cop"
60. "Silverblade"
61. "Find the Sun Devils"
62. "What is spanner's galaxy?"
63. Why did Rip Hunter scrawl "it's all his fault" all over a corner of his HQ?
64. Why did John Henry's blood samples explode?
65. What's "beyond the veil, beyond the two score and twelve walls of heaven"?
66. What's up with the Sivanium robot?
67. How did Kate get to be Batwoman?
68. What was up with the restored face of the damaged Deadly Sin?
69. Why did Doc Magnus's responsometer tech stop working?
70. Why were Intergang or Ridge-Ferrick or whoever planning the bombing at the wedding (cf. the rat poison) before Black Adam had proposed to Isis?
71. Where did Booster's future corpse come from?
72. The suicide bomber at the wedding: what were her (personal or political) ends? (Not just her evident affiliation with the crime cult, but what the point of blowing herself up was.)
73. The "gigantic hands at the center of the universe": what were they?
74. Does Cain of the House of Mystery have a connection to the cult of crime?
75. Who was it who gave Ralph "some help pulling [himself] together"?
76. What are the "new laws, new axioms" of the tenth age of magic?
77. What's the significance of the year 5252?
78. How did Lobo get religion?
79. Why did Wonder Girl think Supernova was Kon-El?
80. What exactly happened to Daniel Carter?
81. What did Ralph find beyond the Mictlan Gate?
82. Super-Chief: WTF?
83. What's the story behind the Crime Bible and attendant cult?
84. Waverider appearing in Sivana's lab and saying "I know why": 'splain please?
85. How did Yurrd/Sobek end up in the Sivana lab three months before being released from the Oolong Island "Project X" lab?
86. The whole scene "between seconds" in Week 27 with the Time Stealers, Waverider, "hypertime," "this year. Like wonderful wet cement," Clock Queen, the question of who Rip Hunter is, "the golden metal that makes [Skeets'] body impervious to the ravages of time portals," etc. needs so much unpacking I can't even tease it out into individual questions.
87. Who's "the twice-named daughter of Cain," if not Batwoman?
88. "The questions have not yet been answered"/the failure of the prophecy?
89. The "Stygian passover" implies that somebody gets spared. Who?
90. Why is Marseille(s) so dad-blamed significant?
91. How did Ralph manage to contact Supernova?
92. Who turned the guy with the amulet into a yeti, and why?
93. What exactly did Ralph learn from Rama Kushna?
94. The various Nightwings we've been seeing in 52: Dick or Jason?
95. How did Skeets eat the Phantom Zone, and why is almost everyone visible inside his visor wearing Mr. Mind glasses?
96. Where or when did Booster and Rip escape to?
97. What did the yellow aliens mean by "and so it begins"?
98. What's up with Captain Marvel's insanity or non-insanity inside the Rock of Eternity?
99. What did the Green Lanterns want with Adam and Kory, and what have they been up to on Mogo for the last few weeks?
100. How did Ralph's ring end up on Sue's gravestone?

Assuming that issue #50 is going to have another 22-page story, and that issue #52 (as rumored) has a 52-page story, that still means there are only 194 pages left to wrap up this series... which means that there's going to have to be more than one revelation every two pages.

Just a few more notes this week:

Pg. 1: Four horsemen, ending her rain. As others have noted, the timeline is wonky here: Osiris died on day 5 of the previous week, but Adam only gets the krakkoooom to let him know it now?

Pg. 5: Note Sivana, or a statue of him, giving the thumbs-up in the first panel. But how did Sobek/Yurrd get sent back in time? Also, Sobek tells Adam that his enemy is Intergang, specifically; that's a pretty narrow target to evolve into World War III, but I guess that's what the next six weeks are for.

Pg. 12: The statues, I think, are of Teth-Adam's first wife Shiruta and his children Gon and Hurut.

Pg. 21: I'm glad to see this scene underscore the idea that Renee's not going to be Vic II; what I'm curious about is how that difference is going to manifest itself. Is selflessness really something that's new to her, or a potential goal for her to achieve, as opposed to something that's already deeply rooted in her character?

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Week 43: Captain Maximum Meets Retopistics Uptown

As a few people have commented, the dramatic tension of the Black Adam storyline that J.G. Jones indicates will be dominating the next three issues is a little undercut by the fact that we know Adam comes out of this story alive and well. Ditto Steel and Adam Strange, since they're all visible in the promo piece for Countdown. (Unless it's one of those fakeouts, like the first draft of the Justice League of America cover!)

Even though I've written a bit about Countdown, I don't know much more about it than anyone out there does at this point; what I do know is that we've been promised that it'll be more action-oriented than 52, since apparently 52 is right up there with "Bruno" on the novelistic talkity-talk side, as comics go.

Now, I love action scenes in comics. Wolverine MacAlistaire running from a bear? One of the most exciting things I've ever read. Clark Kent jumping out a window? As Greg Rucka noted at the DCU panel at New York Comic-Con, that's an incredible moment. Zot zooming through 99 floors of a building like he's in a video game? Great story. The Great Cow Race? Unimpeachable. But the Marvel Family scene in this week's is the kind of action sequence that makes me lose interest in a comic very quickly. They stand around and talk. Then they hit each other for a little while. Then they talk some more. Then they hit each other some more. Then they make up and hug.

Superheroes hitting each other to underscore their philosophical differences--in what would just be a heated discussion in any context that didn't involve spandex--is not, in itself, exciting. It just isn't. A few artists can make superhero fight scenes look genuinely exciting; every time one of Jack Kirby's heroes hit another one, for instance, heaven and earth quaked. Here, though, it just looks static and clichéd, and the gigantic panels devoted to the fight effectively tell us, rather than showing us, that there's something big and loud going on. Between those, the full-page shot of Buddy being reconstructed, and the full-page shot of Sobek's snack, this issue ended up feeling kind of scanty. Besides, as Bully pointed out, isn't Montoya's butt getting cold by now?

J.G. Jones' cover this week is another example of what I love about his work and wish the interior of 52 reflected more often: a sense that cartooning can get across more than the rudiments of what's actually happening in a story's plot--that it can take care with composition, with color as a design element, with the psychological overtones associated with drawing style as well as images. There are a few other cartoonists working in superhero comics right now who clearly think about that stuff a lot; some of them have even met monthly deadlines for full-length comics in the relatively recent past. (What is J.H. Williams III working on these days, anyway? I'd ask the same about Alex Maleev, but this weekend we found out he's drawing Halo.)

Clarity's necessary for this kind of visual storytelling, of course--that's what Giffen's working on 52 for, and he's great at it. (Speaking of which, the layouts on the official site are still at Week 39, as of this writing...) But this issue is all clarity and no flair. When a crocodile has to bite someone in half to generate a little visual excitement, there's a problem. In fact, even beyond the flashback effect of Dan Jurgens' artwork (is this the first comic book crediting separate people with "art breakdowns" and "layouts"?), there's something that feels very twenty-years-ago about this issue.

It took me a while to figure it out, but here's my best guess: it's effectively a pre-Miracleman comic. The bit where the Marvel-family type changes back to his frail human self and promptly gets slaughtered is straight out of Miracleman #15. The dying gasp of the magic word/mentor's name, left incomplete, is Alan Moore's Young Miracleman riff. And then there's the gruesome but weirdly clinical violence, which looks like the kind mid-'80s comics were just starting to experiment with. Even the way the story is paced reminds me of some comics of that era.

What a surprising number of mid-'80s comics had, though, was a look more distinctive than most superhero comics have right now. At the New York Comic-Con, I picked up a few things I hadn't seen in a while from one dealer's four-for-a-buck bin, including DC's best previous attempt at a weekly miniseries: Millennium, a huge crossover that ran for eight weeks in the fall of 1987. Every issue of the core title was drawn by Joe Staton and Ian Gibson--both of them excellent, eccentric stylists--which gave it the kind of unique, consistent visual vibe I wish 52 had (and I hope Countdown at least tries for).

On the subject of style, the "Comic Abstraction" show that's opening later this week at the Museum of Modern Art in New York is worth a look to get a sense of how much you can take away from cartooning--including representation, which often seems like the unshakeable core of cartooning--and still have some of cartooning's visual grammar left. Sometimes, you can even have some of cartooning's local dialect left. There's a series of pieces by Rivane Neuenschwander in which she's taken a few episodes of "Zé Carioca" (a Brazilian strip from Disney's studios), whited out all the text, and replaced the visual content of every panel with a solid color. What's left of the original is panel outlines and word balloons; fascinatingly, it still immediately scans as a light-entertainment humor comic. Not that I have time to do this, but it'd be interesting to try the same exercise with 52, sampling the dominant color in each panel and using it to replace the entirety of the panel's image. Would it still look 52-ish? Like a circa-2007 superhero comic? Will its visual pulse be easier to "place" twenty years from now?

(My favorite piece in the MoMA show, though, is Julie Mehretu's fantastic, wall-filling "Retopistics: A Renegade Excavation"--an enormous drawing/painting that's non-representational but still obviously an action scene, and includes things that Mehretu apparently thinks of as characters. I actually visited her studio a couple of years ago, and saw some old Jimmy Olsen comics lying around as conceptual source material. Runner-up: Arturo Herrera's "Untitled," another huge painting, consisting of lines and curves sampled from Disney's Snow White--even though there's scarcely a recognizable piece of a character in the whole thing, its source material is so strongly mannered that it looks like Snow White anyway. It's a bit like Richard McGuire's brilliant Random Popeye Generator, actually.)

Both last week's issue and this week's have crucial roles played by keepsake snapshots of loved ones. Happenstance? Coincidence? As you know, if next week Isis is staring longingly at a Polaroid of her brother, that constitutes enemy action.

Apropos of nothing but this week's title: some guy's homemade video for his surprisingly excellent one-man-band cover of Jacob Miller's "Baby I Love You So." I especially like the three-stringed bass.

More notes:

Pg. 1: Sobek's wearing a skintight T-shirt and tight pants (with the inevitable tail-opening in the back). Where does he put his loaf of bread and jar of olives when they're not in his clawlike hands? For that matter, where does he put them after panel 2?

Pg. 2: We've been over this before, but in short: "terrorism" is not an organization, and terrorism requires some kind of agenda it's trying to intimidate somebody into going along with. Why on earth would the DMA think that the Titans would have terrorist ties?

Pg. 3: I guess Billy's sane within the Rock again. Can anybody tell me if this has been explained in The Trials of Shazam? I tried to read that thing, but in a world where Jeff Smith is also writing and drawing a Shazam book, no contest.

Pg. 7: I don't think we've heard of the Rock of Finality before, although I'm hoping it's "finality" in the Kantian sense of noncontingence. (I don't expect my hopes will be fulfilled.)

Pg. 9: Adrianna's fall here, even its pose, recalls the greatest comic book fight scene ever--I refer of course to Scott McCloud's immortal Destroy!!--and the scene in which the commissioner's daughter is struck senseless by a pathetically small piece of flying debris, leading Captain Maximum to declare "Good Lord! She's been struck senseless by that pathetically small piece of flying debris!"

Pg. 10: The "Black Adam has a family now" beat, struck with a large mallet.

Pg. 11: This is practically an end-of-episode gag. I can almost see the freeze-frame.

Pg. 12: Ah, metafiction.

Pg. 13: If Buddy's supersenses "don't reach to the next planet"--which seems rather visible in the background--then how's he going to sample a Sun-Eater? Aren't Sun-Eaters kind of big, if they can eat suns? And their migratory patterns meant they passed by... seven weeks ago. They way they've been treated lately, Sun-Eaters seem almost like harmless grazing ruminants. I always figured they'd be something everyone was terrified of--like a Galactus that can't be communicated with.

Pg. 14: Not that this isn't a "rock"-sign-in-the-air scene anyway.

Pg. 15: It looks like there's a causal link between Buddy manifesting Sun-Eater abilities and zombie-Luribel's difficult labor/the revivification of the Stygian zombies. Is there, or is this a "meanwhile" scenario? I assume that everybody on the space station Buddy's been buried near is dead/zombiefied, but does Lady Styx count as a living creature who'd show up on Buddy's "red radar"?

Pg. 16: Q. Why didn't Lady Styx just go ahead and burst out of Luribel's chest cavity? A. Because then everybody would think this was a ripoff of Alien, as opposed to... uh... okay, it is. Also, she's quoting Hostileman's dialogue, just like Jean in Week 27...

The Origin of Plastic Man: I would not have figured Ethan Van Sciver to be a natural for this one, and in fact his post-Neal Adams/Jim Lee approach for a character usually associated with a broadly cartoony style reminds me a little of the "Shazam!" stories that Don Newton used to draw: It's a formally inappropriate style, but you can also tell how much the artist loves the source material. (The cheek-pulling bit is directly lifted from Jack Cole's first Plastic Man story--speaking of which, wouldn't it have been nice to acknowledge Plas as Cole's creation?) And it turns out this is an actual two-page story: a nice touch! Also good to see Kyle Baker's criminally ignored Plastic Man stories acknowledged among the essential Plas material.