Thursday, April 30, 2009

Review: Madame Xanadu #10

Madame Xanadu #10

Writer: Matt Wagner
Penciller: Amy Reeder Hadley
Inker: Richard Friend
Released: April 29, 2009

When the past is known in such sparse detail, remembered in shards, and comprehensible only as haze, the possibilities for re-interpretation, for re-invention, bulge with the ripeness of heavy fruit. After the bridges are burned and the yearbooks of evidence have yellowed to dust, one can fashion a limitless existence, especially if they have been given a window into the future. This works for both character and creator.

Madame Xanadu is blessed and cursed with both a mysterious past and eternal life. Unlike a fading pop star who tries on different guises out of caprice and desperation, Madame Xanadu must change out of necessity, to fit the times she finds herself in. She must dress the part both in costume and manners, and cobble together an apt persona, one she can abandon when the shifting world forces her to move on. In her life and on the page, she is a perfect comic book character, for she will never age, and she can be whatever is required at any given time. She is a property of time, and this peculiarity of character and circumstance is taken advantage of by the creators pulling her strings in this initial arc that serves as reboot origin for the mysterious sorceress. 

For nine issues Madame Xanadu has played numerous roles and donned various wardrobes, but the one constant has been her inability to resist entangling herself in the ribbon of history. Finding herself trapped in moments in time of grand significance, knowing the outcome for she has divined the future, she cannot help but to throw herself in with blind zeal towards the goal of saving lives. She chooses to fight inevitability because the thought of sitting as an observer sickens her far more than the pain of fated failure. This compulsion is an ill-fitting cloak of heroism that wraps around her, obscuring her weaknesses in its folds. 

In this final chapter, Madame succumbs to her feelings of spite for The Phantom Stranger, who to her represents the evils of aloofness, for he has seemingly facilitated death and misery out of an inability to involve himself for the greater good and a need to keep the universe in its predetermined balance. Faced with the opportunity to disrupt this cosmic balance, she takes hold of the moment by employing the tactic she has most despised in her antagonist, that of inaction. She does nothing to stop the death of a man whose afterlife rebirth holds devastating consequences for the universe and for the Age of Heroes soon to follow. 

The regret is immediate and heartbreaking, both for our heroine and reader. This woman who has shone so strongly of bright and pure light, flickers and dims in a moment of maleficence. Her weaknesses exposed, the strings of manipulation dangle everywhere, and the fingerprints on them belong to those in the pages as much as to those responsible for the pages. We see the worst side of a lover and our feelings are changed, not to something that removes love, but something that replaces it with a more twisted and less reconcilable version of love. How could she? How could they? And yet, she has. They have. 

All is fair in love and continuity. 

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Review: Justice League of America #32

Justice League of America #32

Writer: Dwayne McDuffie
Penciller: Rags Morales
Inker: John Dell
Released: April 22, 2009

Chapter 4? Really?  Issue #31 -- an infuriating grab-bag of highs and lows --  seemed to kick off a post-Final Crisis mini-relaunch of the JLA, not serve as a continuation of issues #29 and #30. Those issues were a mess, but seemed to be a fairly contained pre-FC mess. Issue #32 really only feels like a second chapter following last months semi-mess stage-setting. Then again, all this mess is indicative of this current run of Justice League, wherein the B-listers take over and bring a little Detroit soul back to the flagship team book. Too bad Martian Manhunter and Aquaman are dead, they would feel right at home.

For reasons of sanity, forget what chapter this issue is supposed to be and just enjoy it for what it is. What is it exactly? A mess. Haven't you been paying attention. This issue at least does something entertaining and worthwhile with all the mess, bringing together a group of heroes who seem to sincerely want to hold the JLA together under the old-school banners of truth, justice, and service in protection of those who cannot protect themselves; whereas the splinter cell JLA that Hal Jordan seems intent on creating is shaping up to be a cowboy posse strike force. 

Black Canary also comes across much better here than last month, where I found her portrayal to be out of character. Here, while still choosing to acquiesce and give up her mantle, she is far more level-headed, eloquent and intelligent; we see actual signs of what would make her a great leader if DC editorial would get out of the way and allow that to ever happen. As has been mentioned before, too many cross-overs and event tie-ins have killed what could have been a great run of a Black Canary-led Justice League. Perhaps that is what will come out of this after all this mess is through. Green Lantern John Stewart and I certainly hope so. 

Review: R.E.B.E.L.S. #3

R.E.B.E.L.S. #3

Writer: Tony Bedard
Artist: Andy Clarke
Released: April 15, 2009

Brainiac 2 is like a CEO billionaire who, if he lived in our world, would be circumnavigating the globe in a hot-air balloon, dating über-models, and conducting life-coaching seminars at airport Hiltons detailing his rise to entrepreneurial power. He is an alpha-male corporate titan who manipulates people into doing what he needs them to do, all while making it seem like it was completely their choice and in their best interest to do so. He sees the bigger picture and understands that the ultimate goal is bigger than the feelings of individual people, and he has absolutely no time to suffer fools who don't see this themselves. He is Vril Dox and he is here to save billions of lives if everyone would just get out of his way.

As often happens with powerful people, Vril Dox doesn't make friends so much as he acquires allies and R.E.B.E.L.S. is the story of him bringing together a team in order to take back control of a peace-keeping organization he once led that has now been ripped from his hands. The story is almost incidental as the real pleasure of this book are the moments of characterization that drive home this fundamental point. Dox is going to do what he wants and what needs to be done, because ultimately, this is one in the same.

Tony Bedard's strength here is that he writes Vril Dox with a deep understanding of what makes him an individual while keeping him true to his Coluan Brainiac heritage. There is a subtle and dry humor to the character, and this seeps into every panel and every interaction. The allies he picks up along the way don't entirely trust what Dox is doing nor believe everything he tells them, and they use sarcasm as a guard against him. Ultimately, though, they can't deny him; he has proven himself too many times to be doubted. 

R.E.B.E.L.S. may be shaping up to be a team book in the long-run, but there is no question that it will always be Brainiac 2's book to anchor, and the success or failure of this title will hinge on how well that anchor is written. For now, it is solid.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Brutal Canvas: Action Comics #876 and Green Lantern Corps #35

Action Comics #876

Writer: Greg Rucka
Pencillers: Eddy Barrows & Sidney Teles
Inkers: Ruy Jose & Julio Ferreira
Released: April 15, 2009

Green Lantern Corps #35

Writer: Peter J. Tomasi
Penciller: Patrick Gleason
Inker: Rebecca Buchman
Released: April 15, 2009

The super hero comic book is a violent world. Characters possess superhuman strength, speed, and invulnerability or weapons that replicate these powers; punches thrown are brutal and damaging. Fights are writ large on a canvas as infinite as the universe itself. This world is populated by beings seeking power and control through violence and suppression; stopping them involves combatting this aggression with aggression. Battles and wars never end in cease-fires or peace treaties, but in one party standing triumphant as another lays vanquished. Comic books are a visual medium and one with inexhaustible possibilities. What can be imagined can be drawn and no artist nor writer, nor reader, will find the signing of a piece of paper to be a satisfying conclusion to a monumental struggle. It is an epic world of good versus evil and its violence reflects this at every turn of the page.

Action Comics #876 devotes the first 19 of its 22 pages to one fight, as Commander Ursa has ambushed heroes Flamebird (Thara Ak-Var) and Nightwing (K'riss) in the Fortress of Solitude. These are characters with phenomenal powers and all three share deeply personal connections to each other. It is vicious and bloody hand-to-hand combat set against an elegant backdrop of crystal and snow. In the hands of Greg Rucka and Eddy Barrows it is also deeply affecting and shockingly discomfiting. Where so often long fight scenes fail is that they present the violence strictly for show with the bombast of the punches serving only to show off the strength and power of the characters involved, and rightly they become tedious as a result. Entire issues built around fights generally feel empty. Not so here.

In #876, the violence is intimately detailed. One page in particular features Ursa repeatedly stabbing Thara with a kryptonite blade, complete with inset panels showing close-ups of Thara's bloodied face, eyes and mouth wildly agape in shock and horror. Her pain and fear are presented unvarnished. It is graphic, but the reaction it elicits is one of revulsion and sadness. 

It is Thara's emotional pain and fear that lead her to lose control initially and to fight without focus. Her emotions are what Ursa exploit to cause this vulnerability. Ursa uses emotional cruelty to prepare her victim for the physical cruelty to follow. It is Ursa's strategy of the hunt and she works it here to near perfection, thwarted only by her son K'riss coming to Thara's rescue. The needles are plunged deeper still as mother gleefully turns her tactics on her own child, spitting out cruel insults as fierce as her punches. 

These first 19 pages are relentlessly brutal and some may find them unnerving, but they serve to display the relationships between the main characters as vividly as an open wound and the story is greater for it. The violence has traumatic consequences and in the end, scars will remain.

Within the first three pages of Green Lantern Corps #35 one character has his eyes burned out of his skull, while another character has his head pierced open and his heart punched out and smeared onto the glass of a prison cell. We are dropped into the middle of a prison riot and the Grand Guignol level of gore present here has become somewhat typical of the house of horrors that the Green Lantern Universe has become since the epic Sinestro Corps War two years ago. It is torrid and most unabashedly graphic, and also most assuredly powerful. 

The message here is simple: the universe is an exceedingly dangerous place to be a cop. 

The hallmark of the Green Lantern Corps, an intergalactic police force, has always been that the officers who serve in uniform are those who can overcome great fear. The men and women who serve in green are faced with a universe ever-expanding and spinning ever more erratically out of control. Basically, it's not a pretty sight, and both Green Lantern and Green Lantern Corps have stepped up the violence to ever more fiendish heights to demonstrate that being a space cop is truly only for the select few. 

The gore in issue #35 straddles an interesting fence where on one side lay the sick and on the other lay the thrills. For it cannot be forgotten that at its heart Grand Guignol horror is always meant to entertain by tapping our base pleasures. We understand the epic space opera of GLC and its accompanying limitless canvas and we demand it be pushed to the untold edges. We get what we wish for. We get a unfathomably gigantic snake encircling a planet, mass suicides, a tongue worn as a necklace, ever more dismemberment, and even a few genuine comedic moments, all thanks to the creative team of Peter J. Tomasi and Patrick Gleason. It's breathtaking, but never without merit or grounding in story. This is macabre comic book theatre at it's finest. 

Special accolades should be given to penciller Gleason and inker Rebecca Buchman, whose work in this issue has a peculiarly stunning modernist quality. Gleason's figures and panel compositions verge on the abstract. Buchman's feathering, in particular, is strong and classic. Scoff though some may, I was reminded of abstract drawings by Picasso, particularly his sketch studies for Guernica. This is like no other superhero art on the shelves and it fits Tomasi's scripts masterfully. 

These issues portray violence in the large outer spaces of the universe and in the intimate personal spaces of family, neither glorifying it nor glossing over its consequences. They show both the torment and suffering brought about by its use as well as the excitement and euphoria it has the power to elicit. They are 44 pages in the lives of characters who are trapped in a world where violence is inescapable. They are super hero comics and proudly so.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Review: Secret Six #8

Secret Six #8

Writer: Gail Simone
Penciller: Carlos Rodriguez
Inker: Bit
Released: April 8, 2009

This issue clearly and powerfully demonstrates what makes this title a standout every month, and it does so in what could have easily been a done-in-one filler of no consequence. Instead, it's possibly the strongest and funniest issue so far and an example of how this series works at its best. 

Complete plaudits must most deservedly go to writer Gail Simone who has really taken hold of this series and imbued it with a sense of life so often missing from traditional superhero fare. The premise is a team book cliche -- the ragtag group of C-list misfits brought together to take on impossible missions and generally clash against each others eccentric personalities. In Simone's capable hands this cliche becomes a mere springboard from which to fling all manner of brilliance into the air, and then watch with glee as it often crashes wonderfully to the ground. 

The characters that make up the Secret Six are all beautifully realized and, over the course of these first eight issues, have become complete people, not just a collection of costumes and powers. The individual idiosyncrasies, predilections, humors, and moralities of each member have been developed honestly without force or cliche, and through this natural process have shown the members to be of great depth and complication. Villains -- such as Deadshot, Bane, and Scandal Savage -- presented elsewhere as one-note assassins, brutes or freaks, here shine in three-dimensional flesh and blood. They are men and women who have made only slightly different choices and use only slightly different rationalizations than the heroes of the greater DCU. In fact, my most immediate reaction upon finishing issue #8 was the realization of how limiting and useless the term "villain" seemed in light of what I had just read. None of these characters are really villains, though they do not fit the classical definition of hero, either. They are just people who have found themselves in their own skins, for better and for worse. 

The remarkable accomplishment of this book is how, for a title so on the fringe of the DCU littered as it is with C-listers, it operates so firmly within and revels gloriously and hilariously in the utter chaotic beauty of the DC Universe. In issue #8 alone we get an all-girl rock band with each member dressed as Power Girl, a club bouncer attired as Classic Black Lightning, and a product shout-out to a Booster Gold cologne. More than just being Easter egg eye-winks for DCU nerds, these moments serve to solidify a comic book universe into a real living and breathing entity.

I have not even begun to scratch the surface of this issue and that is all due to Simone's deft ability to fit so much story into so few pages without it feeling labored or strained. It's bursting at the saddle-staples with everything that seems to be missing from so many superhero comics these days: Romance, humor, in-depth characterizations, and a genuine love for its form and the universe it operates in. Secret Six is a comic book written as a comic book, not an illustrated screenplay on spec. Its pages pulsate with a palpable love for 70-plus years of ridiculous, confusing, and erratic DCU continuity. It's absolutely beautiful.

Thank you, Gail.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Missing In Action: The Super Books! Part II - World Without Editors!

As is so often the sad truth in life, the child birthed has not been worth the pain of labor. The four Super Books have emerged out of the New Krypton saga with new creative teams, new characters, and at wildly varying levels of quality.

Action Comics and Superman now feature 100% less Superman, both titles now focusing on C-level characters who are taking up the mantle left by the big guys absence. Only Action seems on track to pull this feat off.

Starting with issue #875, writer Greg Rucka and penciler Eddy Barrows take over the helm to tell the story of Kryptonian escapees from the Phantom Zone secretly planted on Earth as a sleeper cell. New heroes Nightwing and Flamebird embark on the mission to haul these Zoners in. #875 is the first issue in months to have a sense of forward momentum and a sense that what is happening on each page has consequences to the characters in the present. It feels like story, not endless prologue. Things actually happen. 

What makes this approach work for Action is that it captures the spirit of the title and what it represents, that being the greater characters and myths that make up the extremely large Superman Universe. Rucka's Action Comics without Superman doesn't feel empty or like a pointless editorial experiment. He isn't concerning himself with the trivial question of what the world would be like without Superman. He is telling the stories of those heroes and people who live, love, and fight in a world forever changed by the existence of Superman. This book feels relevant much in the same way Green Lantern Corps feels relevant to the greater Green Lantern Universe without needing to have an appearance by Hal Jordan to validate it. 

Where the absence of Superman serves to free up Action to broaden its scope, it serves to bring an emptiness to the book that bears his name. How can it be a Superman comic without Superman? The answer is simply, it cannot be. It's not that the characters of Mon-El, The Guardian, and Steel are not interesting, colorful, and capable of supporting a monthly book. The problem is that this is the wrong book for this approach. Superman is the legacy book of the original superhero and DC have subtracted the "legacy" from the equation. DC have turned the flagship into a tugboat. 

It does not help that writer James Robinson's scripts have felt tedious with underwhelming cliffhangers. Issue #686 ends with a splash page of hero Mon-El sporting his brand new military style buzz cut. That's the image that is supposed to leave the reader excited and primed for the next issue. It's a before and after moment of a hair style and it's completely ridiculous. Penciler Renato Guedes provides lifeless art with his thin lines giving no solidity or weight to the characters who appear to rest flat on top of the page. 

The simple math is this: the point of a solo book is to tell the adventures of the title character. Readers buy Superman to follow the continuing adventures of Superman. Telling stories without the title character makes the book something it is not meant to be.

Enter Superman: The World Of New Krypton.

So the Man of Steel has jumped ship into a mini-series, co-written by Rucka and Robinson with art by Pete Woods, now slated to run 15 issues. This is the comic that serves to follow the continuing adventures of Superman and if it seems unnecessary to create an entirely new comic to do what the solo title is supposed to do, it's because it is. 

I won't get into the specifics of the story nor any critical analysis of New Krypton here. Whether or not this book is any good or showing potential of being any good two issues into its run is as irrelevant as the books very existence. These stories should be in the main solo Superman title. No amount of editorial rationalization changes this. 


Saturday, April 11, 2009

Missing In Action: The Super Books! Part I - The Long Prologue!

Superman is the most iconic superhero. He is the blueprint for all superheroes in the genre. Creators and writers either follow this blueprint or rebel against it, but either way, it is the starting point. This is how it is and there is no escaping it or denying it. Superman is and always will be.

When a character of this magnitude has been continuously published for just over 70 years it can become a daunting task for any writer or editor to come up with fresh, innovative, and compelling new stories. The height of this challenge, however, seems to be what attracts writers and artists to Superman, and generally, those writers and artists are of a high enough caliber that they can be entrusted with such a overwhelming legacy. The confluence of these forces combine to bring the character to new heights whilst reaffirming what is so wonderfully indelible about him in the first place. Sometimes, not.

For a case study in the former, one need only read the work of writer Grant Morrison of the last few years. In that time, Mr. Morrison has been responsible for two landmark works involving the Man of Steel, namely, All-Star Superman with artist Frank Quitely, and Superman Beyond with artist Doug Manhke, a story that was essentially a chapter in the DCU mega-event book Final Crisis, also written by Morrison.

While both of these books are written in very different styles, they both present a Superman who is the absolute ideal of the word "hero". He believes in truth, justice and fairness and operates from a perspective that assumes the best in humanity. He perseveres with a selflessness that is beyond human, it's super-human. This we see, when all the dust settles and all the punches have been thrown, is truly his greatest superpower.

Is it presumptuous and unnecessarily aggrandizing of Mr. Morrison's work to call these stories, published only within the last two years, landmark? No. Should I back up my statement with endless paragraphs containing comprehensive breakdowns and analysis of exactly what makes them "landmark"? No. This is not that thesis, and many other writers and reviewers have done this to some degree already. I bring up these works only as extremely recent examples of what can be accomplished with a 70 year old property. These serve to show that not everything good has already been invented.

As for an example of what happens when the pursuit of innovation and inventiveness can go off the rails one need only look at the current disheveled mess of DC's Super Books in the wake of last years' crossover story New Krypton. I prefer to think of New Krypton in classic comic parlance as...

...The Idea That Sounded Really Good At The Time But Now Not So Much!

Taking place in the three monthly books that make up the Superman corner of the DCU - Action Comics, Superman, and Supergirl - the story is this: Kandor, the infamous tiny city in a bottle is brought back to full size, along with its bazillion or so Kryptonian inhabitants, here on Earth. These lovable aliens get the famous yellow sun treatment and start flying around, killing humpback whales and frying police officers. Humanity recoils at the horror that they are not all like Superman and imminent war between races looms large. In theory and in pitch this all sounds absolutely thrilling and dramatic with the potential to pose serious questions about what a truly insane idea it was for us humans to trust this all-powerful alien in blue tights and red cape in the first place. In practice, not so much.

The initial ten-issue arc of New Krypton instead feels like one long drawn out prologue. Very little drama ever really takes place and every character involved feels one-note. Superman pouts a lot about being torn between his feelings for the people and race he thought he had lost forever and his adopted home of Earth. Supergirl pouts a lot about being torn between her feelings for her parents and Earth. Supergirls' mother, Alura, furrows her brow disdainfully (a lot!) at Superman and his soft spot for humans. The collected members of the JLA and the JSA furrow their collective brows at Superman for his inability to control the rampaging Kryptonians, since that was, apparently, his job to do. (Hey, just because he's Kryptonian doesn't mean he knows every Kryptonian, ok? What's next? Alan Scott going to ask Superman where the best Kryptonian restaurant in Metropolis is?)

Along the way we get about three pages each (or less) of Lex Luthor, Braniac, 
General Lane, Agent Liberty, The Guardian, Metallo, Reactron, Superwoman, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Lana Lang, Cat Grant, Ma and Posthumous Pa Kent, as well as too many pages devoted to the re-
introduction of The Creature Commandos. If you look closely in a few panels on the Kent farm, you'll even see the kitchen sink. There really is a scene in which a Kryptonian does make a show of the dead carcass of a humpback whale he has just killed. Apparently this is to show the disconnect between cultures. Indeed. There are some major plot points sprinkled throughout but these could have been handled more deftly in less issues. The overall story structure feels padded and hollow, every page whispering "just wait 'til next year, this will all be worth it."

The series culminates, predictably, with the formation of - wait for it! - New Krypton! Superman takes about five issues to decide to leave Earth to spend time in another comic, The World of New Krypton, in hopes to bring about peace between the two planets. The stage, at long last, was set.

Next In Part II: Where In The World Is The Man Of Tomorrow?