Friday, July 31, 2009

Review: Wonder Woman #34

Wonder Woman #34

Writer: Gail Simone
Penciller: Aaron Lopresti
Inker: Matt Ryan
DC
Released: July 29, 2009





I have often heaped mad amounts of praise upon Gail Simone for her brilliant work on the title Secret Six, all while feeling somewhat perplexed as to why I was not able to duplicate that praise for her work on the far more marquee title Wonder Woman. For the past seven (or eight?) issues the eponymous book of the star-spangled heroine has been enmeshed in the story line entitled "Rise of the Olympian", a story line I would be very hard-pressed to recount here, as I honestly barely understood it. It wasn't particularly complicated, though I feel it was perhaps made more convoluted than needed. It just merely did not excite me as a reader. I could recognize the hallmarks of solid craftsmanship; see the lines and curves of solid storytelling and characterization. There is never doubt with a Simone-penned book that one is reading the work of a writer with chops. However, like a Shaker cabinet, just because the construction is without reproach, this alone is not enough to elicit true awe-inspiring levels of excitement. For this reader, it did not. I never wrote about any of the issues in that series for the simple fact that while I did not dislike any issue, I was left without much of anything special to say about them. I was truly inspired to nothing.

Again, I bring up what a contrast this posed with my feelings towards Simone's other title Secret Six, a book that causes me to wear out the spine on my Thesaurus searching for new affirmative adjectives. I could speak from now until death on how much I simply love this book and would never truly express it adequately. My admiration for it verges on severe hyperbole, the fact of its truth keeping me grounded. What, then, to make of all this? Is it simply the fact that in Secret Six, Simone has a cast of ne'er-do-well, also-ran, multi-hyphenate has-beens with which to play with in a second-tier level of the DCU not seemingly directly affected by the greater shifts of event continuity? (I notice no Blackest Night: Secret Six on the solicitations) Does all of this circumstance provide for Simone the perfect storm of creative freedom so suited for her particular strengths as a writer? The short sweet answer is, of course, yes. Simone has demonstrated she is in possession of a powerful imaginative spirit, a deep understanding of character psychology, a deft and biting humor, and a sharp intelligence that steers her to put all these elements together in exactly the right way. She is a musician and there have been issues of Secret Six that have rung out as great melodies from beginning to end, never missing a beat nor striking an ill chord. Secret Six is Simone's book and should cease to exist when she is no longer writing it.

Wonder Woman, on the other hand, in a true understatement, comes with a massive amount of baggage. When she knocks on the door for the first date, she brings with her decades of stories, confusing continuity, contradictory interpretations, the hopes of generations of readers, and the mantle of feminist identity. She shares the marquee with Superman and Batman for like them she sparks vitriolic debate, and like them, for every fan and reader there is a correct iteration. Unlike Superman and Batman, however, Wonder Woman seems to prove far more difficult to build consensus around. Both Superman and Batman have been retooled in the past, and generally, it has been to shed confusing continuity and to pare the character down to a simpler form. When Wonder Woman has been rebooted, it has been more of a complete relaunch. It would seem that the Amazonian princess is a puzzle that cannot be pieced together to everyones liking, and so it is shaken apart every few years and something new is tried. Case in point, the character of Wonder Woman has been in continuous publication since 1941 and yet her current book stands at issue number 34. Superman is at issue 690. Batman at 688. This track record would seem to be the fault of all that aforementioned baggage she comes saddled with. All that history and all of the social and sexual politics embedded in that history, as well as the expectations and emotional needs of fans, are an awful lot for writers and editors to reconcile in 22 pages a month.

Whether it is fair or not, Wonder Woman is most likely the most difficult of the major three Superheroes to write. Just ask Grant Morrison, who in interviews following the release of his event book Final Crisis, defended his use of the character thusly, "When I dug into the roots of the character I found an uneasy melange of girl power, bondage and disturbed sexuality that has never been adequately dealt with or fully processed out to my mind. I've always felt there was something oddly artificial about Wonder Woman, something not like a woman at all." (Newsarama.com, Grant Morrison: Final Crisis Exit Interview, Part 1; 28 January 2009) Morrison, however, more recently stated in an interview with Clive Barker in Los Angeles that, "Wonder Woman remains a really bizarre, untouchable character. She should represent women in the same way Superman represents men." (comicbookresources.com, Grant Morrison & Clive Barker Meltdown Hollywood; 2 July 2009) What does this mean, for Wonder Woman to rep the ladies as Supes reps the bros? One would have to examine the masculine ideal represented by the concept of Superman as originally conceived by creators Jerry Siegal and Joe Shuster, and in actuality, much has been written on this topic by comics critics and culture essayists. What this ultimately shows is the difficulty of tackling characters that are archetypes, that are stand-ins for our very personal ideas of gender identity. Superman, however, seems to have reached a point where he can comfortably be written as just an adventuring costumed hero battling to preserve truth and justice, whereas Wonder Woman, in addition to being a Superhero, still needs to address the gender politics. She can never just be a comic book hero. She needs to be more than that because she is a woman, and again, whether fair or not, a woman will always have to be twice as good and achieve double the results of any similar male. Consequently, any writer tackling her stories will also need to be twice as good. Morrison was raked over the coals for not giving Wonder Woman enough of a hero moment in Final Crisis, never mind his strong portrayals of Black Canary, Supergirl, and The Question, all heavily featured and important figures in the story. Also, never mind the fact that in a major event book encompassing the entire universe of a comics publisher in business for 70 years, many characters, both male and female, are bound to receive only cameo appearances. These are not factors when it comes to the third point on the DC Trinity triangle. Wonder Woman gets heated attention when it is perceived she is getting short shrift.

Consider then it may not be so surprising that Simone's run so far on Wonder Woman has felt oddly labored, burdened as it is with the unrealistic need of exceeding incomprehensible expectations. The real problem with the "Rise of the Olympian" story line is that it seems to be straining to be too epic. Ancient Gods return on ornately decorated spacecraft, mythical sea-creatures arise from the ocean depths, a genocidal supervillain - named Genocide, natch - wreaks large-scale destruction on the nations capital, and our heroine does some serious damage whilst donning the battle armor of the most tricked-out gladiator. Pages fly by filled with explosions, blood-drenched battle, and even torture. It's Cecil B. DeMille style swords-and-sandals grandeur, and, as I stated earlier, it strikes an underwhelming chord. It all feels forced, self-conscious, as though Simone is aware this story must out-epic Superman and Batman. It must be twice as big, twice the spectacle. One reads it seeing the stress of the crowbar that is lifting it all into place. It is all working too hard.

Upon reading Wonder Woman #34, Morrison's quote I use above, concerning the underlying issues of the character of Wonder Woman not being truly dealt with to his satisfaction, resonated even stronger for this is the first issue of Simone's run on the book that I have truly loved and deem to be truly successful, and it ties into Morrison's complaint. There are no epic battle scenes in this issue, no ancient armies amassed ready to unleash the dogs of war. Instead, we get Diana dealing with the pieces of her personal life in calm reflective moments. We see her personal relationship with Dinah Lance/Black Canary fleshed out in real-world down-to-Earth human terms. It is through this interaction of two friends and superhero colleagues that the character of Wonder Woman is explored and done so with a frank matter-of-factness and easy nonchalance missing from the book to this point. It is remarkably sincere and genuinely hilarious and the points made about being a female superhero in the greater DCU and comics in general are spot on, done with clever tongue not heavy hand. This is the first Wonder Woman comic I have read where I have truly felt I have seen the character as a real being, not the feminist idol or Goddess archetype. Simone, finally, puts flesh on the bones by showing us the bones.

In the scene, wherein Black Canary is giving a makeover to Wonder Woman so they may go undercover to infiltrate an underground meta-human fight club in Japan, we are allowed to see Wonder Woman as just another superhero teaming up with another superhero to attempt to solve a case. We see her confronted with her own naïveté regarding her status as a sex symbol in the DCU, and through this Simone shows us readers that these characters - at least Dinah Lance - in this world have a complete awareness of how they are perceived by the greater populace. Black Canary is fully aware of how their sexuality as perceived through their costumes and iconography is dissected, debated, and drooled over. The implied picture of Dinah hunched over a computer surfing the web, reading fan sites, is both hilarious and telling. She is not breaking the fourth wall in any direct way, and yet, that is exactly what is happening, because with these statements, she and Simone, are looking right at us, the readers. This left me laughing and in awe of, once again, how deft Simone is as a writer of the human condition, how extremely well she uses these larger than life characters to show us the common ground we all share.

There are other moments, as when Wonder Woman returns home and is greeted by her faithful gorilla guards - who have apparently been spending their brief time as ronin watching daytime soaps - and she admits to needing a shower and some sleep, that we are afforded a view into the daily life of a battling warrior, one who sweats, who bleeds, who suffers (invisible) jet-lag. And most satisfying of all, for this reader, was the subtle yet key explanation for a part of the mythos that has long been debated: why, if Wonder Woman can fly, would she also need an invisible jet? Well, how about because it may just be more comfortable, especially if she is working with a partner who does not possess the power of flight. Canary lets us know that being carried by Superman, while convenient, may not be the most comfortable form of travel. It's moments such as these that allow us to peer behind the bracelets, tiaras, and fishnets and see the practical aspects of what being a superhero entails. Simone's true gift is her ability to make the DCU feel like a living, breathing, fully functioning world, and doing so without putting on an artificial reality. She is dealing with what is in front of her, asking questions of her characters and then giving them the space to answer.

This is all what Simone does so well in Secret Six, a book that flows so effortlessly I don't even notice I am turning the pages, they feel as though they are all passing in front of me without noticeable seams. Finally, she has applied that same style to Wonder Woman and it works perfectly. Perhaps the inclusion of Black Canary allowed Simone to loosen her white-knuckled grip and stop reaching for some illusory perfection with each dotted i and crossed t? Black Canary does not arrive with anywhere near the same amount of recognition, status, nor unrealistic expectations as Wonder Woman, so perhaps Dinah allowed Simone to relax? To use a sports metaphor, Simone stepped into the batter's box without thinking she needed to hit a home run, and therefore, she did. Instead of treating the history and social politics as burdens, this issue finds her addressing them as story points to be dealt with through her characters, who in turn, deal with the greater themes in their lives the way we all hope to, by just living each day as best as possible. Stripped of all the Amazonian and Goddess trappings, of the misplaced ambitions of epic dominance, the character of Wonder Woman in issue #34 becomes a costumed hero whose greatest powers are loyalty, compassion, fierce determination, accountability, and, most importantly, individuality. She becomes someone who does not need to be measured against Superman or Batman to validate her status. We see she is already in their league, always has been, and stands head and shoulders with them in her ability to be a tool with which to tell great stories, stories not limited by the kid gloves of fear. It's time to tell those stories.
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Monday, July 13, 2009

Review: Green Lantern #43

Green Lantern #43

Writer: Geoff Johns
Penciller: Doug Mahnke
Inker: Christian Alamy
DC
Released: July 8, 2009





There is nothing confusing about the story being told here. A boy, whose fascination with death is nurtured by his growing up in the family mortuary business, becomes a teenager isolated by his discomfort with human interaction, becomes a man obsessed with extinguishing the bright light of life. He goes from murdering small animals for taxidermy practice, to the cold-bloodied slaughter of his brothers and parents, and then to his own suicide. It's all very macabre and morbid, with a Gothic sense of romanticism about it. It's a disturbing story, as it's meant to be I assume. I don't think it's meant to be the type of story one finishes, puts down, and then immediately high-fives their best friend about, exclaiming emphatic joy. Good thing, too, because it doesn't inspire this at all.

That is what is confounding about this comic. It doesn't inspire outright hatred, or even mild loathing, either. It is a powerful and sad story written by Goeff Johns with solid skill and pacing, if with too much narration, and it is unquestionably beautifully drawn and colored by the team of Doug Mahnke, Christian Alamy, and Randy Mayor. I found myself languishing on panel after panel, in awe of the small rectangular pieces of inked beauty gracing each and every page. Mahnke is a breathtaking artist of immense skill. The detail of his panels is mesmerizing. His rendering of the Hand family portrait, surrounded by mounted taxidermy rabbits, birds, and squirrels, hanging in the formal dining room of the Hand home against a fleur-de-lyes wallpaper is stunning. When William Hand decides to become The Black Hand and make his own costume, we are treated to a view of him in bedroom, carefully cutting the eye-holes of a mask, scattered tissue-paper pattern pieces adorning the floor along with snipped corners and ends of the fabric trimmings. On the bed behind him we see William's sketches of the mask he is now making. I rarely point out the work of colorists, but Randy Mayor provides a stark neutral, yet warm palette that immaculately captures both the sterile environment and tightly-wound formality of the Hand family home.

The perfection of the art is what leads to my one and only criticism of the writing, the inclusion of more narration than is actually needed. I read this comic through several times, first reading it in its entirety and then reading it through but skipping over all narration boxes, and found that while some of the narration was necessary to telling the story at hand, much of this comic was far more powerful when the panels were allowed to exist with only dialogue or in silence. I found many instances where the narration felt repetitive, the story elements already being clear through the dialogue and art.

The final sequence of this comic demonstrates this point perfectly, as Johns allows William Hand's suicide to play out without dialogue, narration, or even any sound effects. There are no booms, crashes, or splats to distract from the grotesquerie on display as we see, over the course of one disturbing splash page and three long panels, this man blow his brains out, fall dead to the floor, and lay there in a widening pool of blood. The meticulous attention to detail brought by the art team which allowed for such beauty in earlier story beats, means that gruesome and brutal sequences such as this are given equal attention and care, as well. This is unvarnished gore, rendered with unflinching skill. It's what leaves the reader questioning their emotions at issues end.

It is established in the story arc "The Alpha-Lanterns", Green Lantern #27, that the average term of service for members of the Green Lantern Corps is just over 4 years. They are space cops, the thin green line of law and order in a universe perpetually in chaos. Members of the GL Corps are destined to die, not retire. Over the course of the last several years, the main characters of the GL Universe have been witness to more abhorrent death and torture, much of it happening to their fellow officers and loved ones, than any other members of the DCU. In the process, they have turned more militaristic, more combative, more brutal and cold. It can be argued that this is indicative of the DCU in general. If so, issue #43 drives that point home like a nail into the pine lid of a coffin. We are given a flash card review of the grisly deaths suffered by many heroes and villains over the last 25 years of DCU history, and in this we see a pattern of horror emerge, and a terrible foreshadowing of the ultimate fate that seems to await all those who don a costume; murder at the hands of the editors, writers, and artists tasked with telling their stories.

DC decided long ago that Superhero comics were no longer the medium of children's tales and simple parables of good triumphing over evil. The waters have been muddied with the bloody stuff of uncertainty and ambiguity, adult drama replacing childhood innocence. It has made for compelling storytelling, some true gems and classics amongst the chaff. It has also brought about a fair amount of cynicism, some may even argue, a hopelessness. Green Lantern #43 and the Blackest Night story line that it leads into represent the DCU's headless chickens coming home to roost. The dead shall rise, and the questions they inspire can not be ignored.
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Monday, July 6, 2009

Review: Justice League: Cry For Justice #1

Justice League: Cry For Justice #1 (of 7)

Writer: James Robinson
Artist: Mauro Cascioli
DC
Released: July 1, 2009






Oxford American Dictionary:
jus-tice n. the quality of being fair or reasonable; the administration of the law or authority in maintaining this.

venge-ance n. punishment inflicted or retribution exacted for an injury or wrong.

I start with these definitions because I believe that they are often used too loosely interchanged with each other, and it's important to reaffirm what each one truly means. From these definitions here we see that justice is concerned with the fair and rational administration of law and order. The United States of America is founded on this principle, the idea of blind justice being swayed not by emotion but by reason. Our legal system is founded on the idea of due process, that all are afforded fair and equal treatment to bear out their guilt or innocence. Stories of torture and despotic cruelty are tales of other countries, backward nations drowning under the morass of totalitarian rule. We don't believe in those things here. We don't do those things here. Waterboarding. Sleep deprivation. Starvation. No, we don't believe in those things. Not here. Not in America.

When news breaks that our leaders greenlight such torturous activity, we are rightfully appalled, even if we are completely unsympathetic to the victims. While we may believe the terrorists and war criminals to be the worst kind of people, we recognize that to torture them is to become them. We believe that justice must be served, but we know that vengeance is not the instrument to serve it with.

In James Robinsons's new mini-series Justice League: Cry For Justice, certain members of the costumed hero community are seeking vengeance for crimes committed against them in most personal ways. The killings of families, of colleagues, of lovers brings forth tremendous emotional pain, and this pain manifests itself in the overwhelming desire for bloody revenge. Make no mistake, that is what this book is setting up with absolutely no varnish to cloud the message. These men want revenge, and their is no justice to muddy the waters.

One scene, in particular, that was most striking comes early in the book when Ray Palmer, The Atom, is interrogating a very low-level criminal who goes by the name Killer Moth. Palmer is well-aware that this man is incapable of being the brains behind a much larger scheme that is alluded to here, so he presses him for the name of the true mastermind. Killer Moth, of course, refuses to cooperate. Palmer proceeds to shrink to microscopic size, crawl into Moth's head, and then to slowly grow back to normal, in essence, performing a brain hemorrhage, replicating an aneurysm. Palmer evens refers to the pain as "torturous". What is disturbing about this scene is that Palmer performs this act of torture with such ease and matter-of-factness, without any hesitation before or remorse after. I was also struck by its complete mirroring of how his ex-wife, Jean Loring, committed the murder of Sue Dibny in Brad Meltzer's Identity Crisis. In that book, Loring steals her ex-husbands shrinking device, shrinks down to atomic level, enters Sue's skull, and proceeds to jump around, ultimately leading to Sue having a fatal seizure. When this is revealed at stories end, Ray is devastated by guilt, knowing it was his device, his former wife, that was responsible for such a horrifying murder. Apparently, he suffers this guilt no more, and now sees this as a most viable interrogation method.

There seems to be a pervasive sense of indictment of how the Justice League of America and the Justice Society have operated and apparently, how they have seemingly failed, for much of their history. This scathing assessment comes from a former member, Hal Jordon, member of the Green Lantern Corps. As a space cop, he holds very conservative views of good and evil, of right and wrong. Violations of laws are not issues of debate, but nails to be hammered down. To Jordan, true justice can only be achieved by eradicating any potential for recidivism; justice must be proactive, not reactive; justice must be achieved through preemptive measures. Jordan scoffs at the idea of the hero community, seeking instead to create what appears to be a much more militaristic strike-force. Blinded by pain, anger, and a sense of helplessness at not being able to save the lives of fallen colleagues - a sense of helplessness and futility he, no doubt, does not recognize outright and so blames on the system at large - Hal is seeking vengeance on an eye-for-an-eye level, and mistakenly calling it justice.

All of this is quite intriguing if not also quite unnerving, for the tone of this first issue seems to side with our distraught and enraged heroes and paint them as being the only ones with a true understanding of genuine justice. Superman, Wonder Woman, and the other heroes of the JLA come across as ineffectual idealistic pawns who've lost sense of the current state of the world. Their brand of heroism is called out as hopeless fantasy and failure. This is incredibly cynical, of course, and also strikes at the heart of what we consider heroism to be. Batman, for example, chooses to not use guns, as they represent to him the problem, not the solution. His parents were taken from him by way of the gun, so for him to resort to their use would be for him to become the villain himself. He chooses not to kill his enemies, but to hand them over, ultimately, to the system for imprisonment or rehabilitation. We recognize these as extremely difficult choices for him to make, to quell the need for vengeance and instead take a moral high-road, and we recognize these choices as what separate him from the evil he seeks to eradicate. Batman's ability to make these difficult choices are what make him a hero to us. He serves as an example of what heroism is supposed to be, what we as humans so often strive for but fall short of in real life. Heroes are supposed to be examples of ultimate sacrifice for the greater good, and that path is not an easy one to take, nor is it supposed to be. Villainy is easy, heroism is hard. When Hal Jordan states that the Justice League's brand of moral heroism is no longer in step with the current state of the world he is essentially giving up on heroism altogether. It should be a sad moment, but as written, comes across as defiant and true.

Perhaps Robinson's ultimate goal is to set up our heroes to see the error of seeking blind retribution; to show them what George Orwell shows us in his classic novel Animal Farm, that when the pigs overthrow the evil humans and take over, they only become evil humans themselves in the process? That is the path these characters are heading down, the slippery slope of becoming what they seek to destroy. Superman sees this. When he tells Hal that they can not have him running off as a rogue cowboy, he is foreshadowing the future conflict between hero and former hero; between a hero with ideals and one marred and sunken by cynicism. This issue is vague on this, however, and feels more like an odd endorsement of pain, rage, and cynicism as being the true lights that shine the road to justice. It's disturbing, unnerving, and flawed - much like the characters themselves, really - but it did leave me with much to ponder. I can't say that I loved this issue, nor even liked it very much, but I was strongly provoked by it, and that, in an age where so much art just lays there to be lazily consumed, is a grand accomplishment, indeed.
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