Friday, August 28, 2009

Missing In Action: The Super Books! Part IV - WoNK!

A few months back, I'm sitting on an airplane on route from Los Angeles to San Francisco. I am in the middle seat in my row, which is absolutely the worst seat to have unless your flight happens to only be one hour, as this one is. In that case, it's tolerable. It is very early on a Friday morning, the sun just beginning to tinge the sky a cool powder gray. We are situated on the tarmac, fully seated, all belted in, awaiting imminent take-off. I pull out a few issues that were released just the past Wednesday and decide what will constitute the required plane-reading so I will not have to suffer any small-talk from chatty row-neighbors. My choices are a Green Lantern, a Battle For The Cowl, or a WoNK. That last one would be Superman: World of New Krypton, for those unfamiliar with the now-popular acronym for the mini-series. I decide to start with Superman.

After I finish the issue, about 15 minutes into the flight, I notice the woman sitting besides me is laughing lightly to herself whilst perusing the in-flight duty-free catalogue. She is on a page featuring pet accessories, such as scratching posts and various chew toys. One of the items is some sort of cat-gym apparatus replete with carpeted tubes and platforms for which ones cat may exercise and play. I assume to show the reader how the item would be used, too avoid confusion on who the item is for, and to show what a good time ones cat would have on this thing, they have placed a live cat on it, a cat-model, if you will. In this photo, the cat sits upright, stoic, with an expression of indifference. This cat does not appear to be enjoying the experience at all. As I catch glimpse of this cat I find myself let out a laugh, as well. The woman besides me takes notice and turns slightly. I remark at how much the cat seems to really not enjoy the situation he has found himself in. She agrees. We introduce ourselves, shake hands. She is a school teacher, taking a weekend in the Bay Area to attend a wedding or some such event related to a wedding. When the subject of occupation is reciprocated, I am left with a quandary. Telling people that, technically, I'm unemployed, and have been since my position as a stylist was eliminated by a luxury store in San Francisco, has tended to be a conversation killer. As commonplace as that situation is in these economic times, the aura of joblessness hangs like a foul specter and seems to scare people who still have jobs away, apparently for fear it will rub off on them. I've become convinced throughout my life that unemployment is the new leprosy, quarantine the only solution for dealing with our kind.

Nevertheless, I confess to my sin of unemployment and, to this woman's credit, she shuns me not, instead showing a great deal of empathy and willingness to discuss the subject at length. I tell her it is not all bad, that I have now found time to devote to writing more, something I have never been that disciplined with, but need to be. As is the natural order of this type of conversation, she asks what I write. I tell her, amongst other things, I write a blog in which I critique comic books. She does not bristle, no doubt somewhat prepared for this turn of conversation by the Superman comic that has been nestled in my lap during this time. I lift the issue up with a slight gesture to show the research involved in such an endeavor. She inquires as to my opinion on this particular comic. I tell her that, while I love the character of Superman, it pains me to say, I'm not sure I'm really enjoying this particular series, which probably means, of course, that I'm not. There is a pause as her gaze falls over the cover showing Superman dressed in Kryptonian military uniform and not the classic blue tights and red cape. She says, "Well, of course. He doesn't even look like Superman."

She is right, of course. He doesn't look like Superman. In one succinct observation, she really explained my issues with this mini-series, and with the direction the Superman books had taken at this point. It was a World Without Superman in both Action Comics and the eponymous title, and the problem with this is that, we, as readers and fans, don't want a world without the Man of Steel. In fact, the idea seems particularly ridiculous. What is the point of a Superman comic if, upon opening it up, one discovers there is no Superman to be found? The truth is that Superman wasn't really gone, he was "off-world", on this planet and in this series named World of New Krypton. But, he wasn't Superman at all, really. As this woman so simply and innocently pointed out, he didn't even look like Superman. In fact, he was Kal-El, newly appointed Commander in the New Krypton military guild, stripped of his classic costume, now adorned in the conformist uniform of his planets army. On this planet, in this replication of his original birth home, he is no one special. He is not Superman at all. Just Kal-El, son of Jor-El, the scientist who could not save their original home.

This was a source of real consternation with me at the time, from both artistic and marketing perspectives. I even wrote about it over the course of this particular weekend in San Francisco. Here, an excerpt from my posting Missing In Action: The Super Books! Part II:

"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. ... [World of New Krypton] is the comic that serves [this purpose now] 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."

My main problem at the time was that the books felt splintered, fragmented into too many parts. The creation of a book that felt redundant, especially in light of how flimsy the main Superman book was reading at the time, seemed a cynical grab for both attention and money. New titles garner coverage, a modicum of reader excitement and curiosity, and can compel some readers to feel they need to buy all the titles in order to keep up with the whole story. I saw this as an editorial move designed for sales and notoriety more so than for the telling of a good story. In fact, by fragmenting the books, it stands a greater chance of diluting the quality; the art becomes inconsistent, sloppy, rushed to meet deadlines, with multiple pencillers and inkers filling in, lending an unfortunate jarring effect to the books. Also, by crossing over too many titles, those readers who don't feel compelled to or who can not afford to purchase all the issues, may feel slighted, and may be slighted, as they are more than likely missing crucial pieces of the arc. This may seem a cynical reaction on my part, but quick reading through any message board threads on the subject will show that this sentiment is commonly shared by many readers and has been for some time. The theory of "crossover fatigue", like "event fatigue", can be and has been debated, ad nauseam, which stands as some indirect proof that it does exist. If readers feel something, then their reaction is honest, whether based on any sound evidence or not.

In my previous post, I also wrote that whether or not the series was actually any good was "as irrelevant as the books very existence." Harsh, yes, but only two issues into the run, and coming on the heels of the disappointing crossover event that set up all of this (New Krypton), and standing side-by-side with a Superman title I viewed as poor, my goodwill as a reader and Superman fan had been tried to breaking. Now, as of this writing, the series Superman: World of New Krypton stands nearly half-way completed with the recent release of issue #6, and the Superman books have just completed an odd crossover-within-a-crossover mini-arc known as "Codename: Patriot", with the release this past Wednesday of Superman #691 and Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen Special #2. This seemed a most logical place to assess the status of the story and it's successes and failures so far.

As convoluted as it may seem to stage a mini-crossover inside of a group of books already entrenched in what is essentially a crossover, the story arc "Codename: Patriot" proves mightily successful and has been the most satisfying portion of the whole story to this point. It works so well because it finally ties together all the lose threads of a story that seemed to be in danger of running off the rails, unbalanced by too many characters - many seemingly underused or mishandled - and too many opposing story elements - many seemingly dropped out of sight for months. The five issues, one each of Superman, Supergirl, Action Comics, and WoNK, as well as the Jimmy Olsen Special, blend together seamlessly, and show remarkably sharp pacing for being penned by three different writers. The action moves deftly and with precision, no moment or character getting any more or less time than what is needed to convey the mood, tone, and information of that particular story beat. It is efficient, clean, and thorough storytelling. There is a crispness to the transitions and a methodical build of scenes that pays off with the obligatory cliffhangers at each issues end, but also in leading to a heightening of tension and drama for all the titles involved. Whereas the theory of "crossover fatigue" would state that ancillary issues are attached to a core event to push sales of issues that are not essential to the overall arc, this story shows how a crossover can be successfully staged to achieve a rarity: making every single issue so relevant and essential that they become true parts of one single whole; not just single comic books, but chapters of a much larger novel.

An example of where this works well and shows where an ancillary book can work to flesh out story beats and characters that would otherwise be cut for time, is the surprisingly enthralling Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen Special #2. There is no longer any monthly Jimmy Olsen book and there hasn't been for many years, so this would be an example of the type of supplemental book that could be seen by cynics as a non-essential add-on. However, the issue works so well as an avenue for exposition not afforded by the main books - occupied as they are by the actions and reactions of the major plot points, much of which is expanded on here - that it becomes clear immediately how much depth this issue adds to the "Codename: Patriot" arc. The Olsen Special serves as more than just an expository exercise meting out the bullet points of story. It is a thrilling comic in and of its own. Credit must be given to James Robinson, a writer I have much maligned for some of his previous work on the solo Superman title. Here he has transformed an issue of one-on-one conversations into an engaging read, and juxtaposed moments of quiet and tense dialogue with two major action set-pieces remarkable for their intimacy and assured pacing. The final sequence, in which Jimmy runs through rain-soaked streets avoiding a meta-human assassin, spans 11 pages and contains nearly no words of dialogue, no narration, and no sound effects. The reader is allowed to hear the heavy rain pouring down onto the empty, dimly lit urban streets; the sloshing and splashing of Jimmy's panicked footsteps as he hurries through puddled parking lots and alleys. There is a real sense of fear and hopelessness to this scene, brought to life by artist Bernard Chang, who brings a cinematic perspective to his panels. This all lends authenticity to what proves to be a truly shocking end.

Something else happened during the "Codename: Patriot" arc that validated my earliest misgivings about the Superman-less direction the books had taken, but that also validated the powerful pay-off that could come out of such a risky move. Quite simply, Superman returned. In needing to return to Earth from New Krypton, Kal-El dons the classic tights and cape we all know and love, and becomes the hero we had missed all these months. Seeing Superman in action, once again flying to the rescue, streaking across the sky as a blur of red and blue, was powerful, undoubtedly made more so by the long absence of such a sight. The suit itself is such a powerful icon that the character need not even wear it for it to elicit a reaction from the reader. World of New Krypton #6 ends with Kal-El making the decision that he can not return to Earth dressed in his military uniform, that it would be too jarring for the populace of Metropolis to see him as an alien soldier, especially in light of the tensions between Earth and New Krypton. He proceeds to his chambers, and stood before the shapeless costume hanging in closet, utters the line, "This is a job for Superman." If absence makes the heart grow fonder, then this moment proved that we readers just got served. Manipulative? Sure, but when the pay-off is this joyful, one finds it hard to stay angry.

From a marketing perspective, this story arc worked because it took advantage of the vary nature of the crossover, that of being told over several titles. "Codename: Patriot" was told over the course of the five titles all released weekly during one month. This added to the arc by heightening its already intensified pace. There were no lulls to dull the force of momentum. Everything remained fresh in the mind and one could jump into each issue effortlessly. In a striking example of how the symbiosis between marketing and art can work to positive effect, by staging this arc when the WoNK mini-series had reached its half-way mark, it serves to rejuvenate all the books of the Super-verse; they all now stand at a single point of convergence, a plateau from which they may all spring forth with renewed vigor. It has the feeling of the closing of one grand movement setting up the next even more grand piece to follow.

Not everything has worked and the bad marks I gave to much of Robinson's early run on Superman still stand. My new softer light still does not shine favorably on much of his run, unfortunately, but his most recent issues and the Jimmy Olsen Special have stood out and I will praise with even hand here. Another unfortunate failure has been the inconsistent art on Action Comics. After Eddy Barrows barely pencilled but two issues worth of Greg Rucka's current run, Action has been plagued by the rickety unevenness of fill-in artists. This can be somewhat (maybe, possibly, a little) overlooked in single issue form, but when this is all collected together, it is going to feel massively discordant, and stand as a small but forceful reminder of the downside of assembly-line produced mainstream crossover comics.

My initial distaste for the creation of the mini-series World of New Krypton was based more on principle than on a judgement of creative merit, a point I did concede in my original critical piece. Judged with a critical artistic eye, the title has proven to be quite strong, compelling, and worthy of its creation. Placing these stories outside of the main Superman books, the source of my original complaint, now has proven to be a strong move, for it's allowed for the multi-layered method of storytelling so wonderfully epitomized by the "Codename: Patriot" crossover. Plaudits must also go to writers Sterling Gates, who has breathed amazing new life into the Supergirl character and franchise; and Greg Rucka, who has brought a beautiful sense of romance - both gothic and modern - to the characters of Nightwing and Flamebird. Artists Jamal Igle, Pete Woods, and Renato Guedes, have all showcased themselves admirably over the past year, putting pencil to paper with redoubtable consistency in a show of great artistic fortitude. I may not be a fan of certain of these artist's personal styles, art preference tending to be based more on visceral response, but I can recognize the strong storytelling efforts and dedicated work ethic necessary to produce a monthly comic, and these three artists have demonstrated these traits.

I think back now on that cat in the in-flight catalogue, sitting in his man-made playground of convoluted tunnels and posts, sitting there uncomfortably with nary any joy. Perhaps he was not unhappy, nor upset, but simply just nonplussed, apprehensive about what stood before him? After all, what stood before him did surely seem unnatural and most problematic, more show and bluster on behalf of the makers with a seeming absence of real consideration for the true needs of the end user. Perhaps, though, all he needed was to get over his trepidation and unfetter himself from the shackles of presumption? Perhaps, he needed to just step inside and play? I'd like to think he did just that, and found that inside awaited him a world of joy where none had seemed to be.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Review: Power Girl #4

Power Girl #4

Writers: Justin Gray & Jimmy Palmiotti
Artist: Amanda Connor
Released: August 19, 2009

The common perception of the character of Power Girl is generally simple; she is walking cleavage. Sporting a toned physique that wavers, depending on the artist drawing her, between athletically sturdy to amateur bodybuilder, and the full superpowers of an Earth-dwelling Kryptonian, the most striking characteristic has always been her ample bosom cleverly and satirically shown off by the peek-a-boo opening on the chest of her costume. For even in the world of tights-and-flights, where there are no mosquito-bites, Power Girl definitely dwarfs them all.

Traditionally, the chest is where all good superheroes bear the emblem or crest (or logo, for the cynical) of their family or that indicates their power. Batman and Batwoman where the bat-symbol. Superman and Supergirl, the crest of the House of El. Saturn Girl of the Legion bears the planet Saturn. Where is PG's crest? Why is she not afforded the same right and honor of being bestowed with a symbol? Power Girl has no absence of symbol, for essentially, her symbol is her ampleness, her Botticelli-esquness. She is Power Girl, after all, and for many cultures for many millennia, the voluptuous chest of a woman has been a powerful symbol of strength, fertility, comfort, and, yes, sexuality. Power Girl's symbol here is not missing, it is, in fact, completely exposed, and possibly even, the most honest.

That is all well and good, of course, and a nice way of making it seem OK to ogle the pen and ink cheesecake of cape-wearing flying breasts. These are modern times we live in, however, and any comics publisher looking to sell what they do as a medium for good storytelling, can't be seen parading around barely dressed heroines for the simple and raw titillation of adolescent boys. At least, they can't be seen to be only doing that. The characters now, especially the female characters, need to be more three-dimensional, more fully-formed of personality, not just physique. This change of attitude can be seen in subtle and overt ways across the DCU. The character of Supergirl has seen a change in her personality; she is stronger of will and determination, both better reflecting her lineage as a member of the Superman family. To go with this, her costume has changed as well, the skirt has elongated in hem and comes up higher at the waist, no longer revealing the pelvic bone; and she now sports a pair of shorts underneath that skirt, affording her the modesty befitting her age. She is, after all, 16-years old. These changes were brought to life by new regular artist on the Supergirl book, Jamal Igle, but they were born of editorial mandate by Matt Idelson. ("The Supergirl Shorts Story: Talking to Jamal Igle",, June 26, 2009)

In the above referenced interview Mr. Igle discusses those changes and compares his Supergirl with PG:

"The thing is, Kara's not Power Girl. Power Girl is an adult. Part of her character is the smaller costume with the boob window. That's not part of Supergirl's character. So I'm going to draw her visually different. If I have a character who's supposed to be visually sexy, then I'm going to draw her sexy. It's two completely different things."

We see in this comment a de facto defense of the overt sexualization of Power Girl as being a defining character trait, and not just being the hyper-lusty inclination of whatever artist is drawing her. The artist has no choice, it is her design, and like the squared jaw is to Bruce Wayne, the "boob window" is to Power Girl. It's not her fault, it's how she was designed. To paraphrase another illustrated bombshell, she's not bad, she's just drawn that way. Again, all well and fine, as long as she proves to be more than just a costume.

The new monthly title bearing her name is a testament to the fact that Power Girl has emerged as a strong and three-dimensional character, a fan-favorite, and an important property for DC, all hallmarks necessary for a character to support their own stand-alone book. Power Girl has seen a strong resurgence in the DCU since Infinite Crisis, and she has played a major role in what has made the most recent relaunch of Justice Society of America work so well. As Chairperson of the JSA, PG gets to flex serious leadership muscle and show off a strategic and logical mind. As part of the team, however, she suffers the inevitability that befalls all players in a team book, that of wavering "air time". Writers can not delve too deeply into only one character for too long without it negatively affecting the team aspect of the book. Enter, then, the new solo title, and it is a strong, imaginative, and joyful book, showing strong legs in quick order.

The writing team of Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti bring an honesty to the character, dealing with PG's sexuality and body issues fairly quickly in issue #1. As her alto-ego Karen Starr, she catches a gentleman she is interviewing for a position in her company, Starrware, taking the inevitable glance at her chest. With one simple, strong, non-verbal gesture, she takes him to task for it, but does so with grace, a healthy dose of flirtatious charm, and without malice or righteousness. She knows what she looks like, understands the impulse human beings have to fall prey to base instincts even in moments where such behavior would be inappropriate. She sees beyond this man's momentary peek, puts it into proper perspective, deals with it, and moves on. This scene shows us the confidence, humility, and intelligence we will be dealing with with this character from this moment forward.

This scene is also our first real introduction to the alto-ego of Karen Starr and we see her as the forward-thinking CEO of a scientific-research facility. It is an important moment, and not just because of the business-speak she throws out with ease and aplomb, but because it signals that this title will be about more than just "Pee-Gee" punching robots from outer-space. It will be about a woman, balancing two different roles, and forging a life for herself in the big-city of New York. We see Power Girl show the beginnings of being the anti-"Sex In The City".

Power Girl #4 continues along this line, as we see Karen deal with finding an apartment in the crazed, over-priced New York real-estate market. Gray and Palmiotti have a firm understanding with how to make a superhuman character a genuine person, by placing them in real-world situations that serve to showcase larger themes. They fill this scene with small moments that are relatable to anyone who has ever rented an apartment in a major city. We see Karen test the plumping by flushing the toilet, and peek inside the closet to check out the amount of space, or lack thereof, you get in New York. Just as she settles on a great find in Park Slope, Brooklyn, something sinister, no doubt, crashes to Earth. It is a metaphor for the plight of the superhero and of the working woman. One minute she is finding happiness and comfort in her personal life, the next the duties of her work life come crashing in to rain on the parade.

The opening scene also serves to encapsulate almost everything that is proving to be special about this book. We see Karen in a movie theatre, accompanied by fellow superhero Terra, a young girl new to the scene who Karen has taken under her wing. Together they form a very powerful and quite charming crime-fighting duo, a far more comedic take, and surely intentional critique, on the more twisted, brooding, and dark Batman & Robin dynamic. Here, our heroes sit under dimmed theatre lighting, watching the trailer of a film itself an absolute spot-on satire of comic book summer events. (The words "crisis", "invasion", "countdown", and "dark reign" all used here like little knives stabbing at the readers consciousness of the fictional universe these characters inhabit. It's meta-fiction but done with genuine humor.) The best page of this scene features very little dialogue and showcases the stunning talent of the books artist, Amanda Connor. Through a series of six simple evenly spaced panels, we watch the reactions of our heroes as they watch the movie reel away. Their body language and facial expressions are ebullient, barely contained by the page; they are true, emotionally complete, pumped full of blood. This page is so good, it made me want to buy a second copy of this issue so I could cut this page out and frame it.

Connor has a natural gift for bringing her characters to full-realization while revealing to us the small moments of their real lives. In her hands, these people are not flat on a page, but living, breathing people in a fully-formed New York City. Connor gets everything right. She captures the superhuman strength of Power Girl as well as the big-city sophistication and natural stylishness of Karen Starr, all without missing any chance to inject humor through the little details, such as showing Karen drinking her morning coffee out of a mug emblazoned with the Wonder Woman symbol. She may be hemmed in by the Power Girl Character Design Template, but Connor manages to imbue the cheesecake elements with genuine humanity, so we as readers, get our cheesecake without any guilt. This is a superhero comic book, after all, and Connor knows that part of that great tradition is showing the human form, both male and female, in moments of peak physical and sexual grace. Tight, skimpy costumes and rippling muscles are part of that heritage, as well as part of the unabashed joy of these books, and Connor isn't looking to take any of that away. She is simply showing us a better, more mature way. She is providing the outstretched pinkie on the hand that holds the candy-bar. Connor puts to shame all other artists who are hunched over their light boxes, tracing out swipes from magazines (I'm looking at you, Greg Land) and says this is how it's supposed to be done. She's schooling them and it's so good to witness.

Amidst all of this, robots get smashed, ogres and witches run rampant, New York City is imperiled for the ba-zillionth time, and a hero swoops in to the rescue. She is a real hero, renting an apartment, settling into a new life, coming to terms with being a career-woman in the Big Apple. She is Power Girl, and she truly embodies that name.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Review: Supergirl #44

Supergirl #44

Writer: Sterling Gates
Penciller: Jamal Igle
Inker: Jon Sibal
Released: August 19, 2009

Halfway through Supergirl #44, when Superman, Supergirl, and Mon-El are preparing to take off to capture escaped fugitives and quell disaster as only superheroes can, something happens that speaks of how ideas of femininity and masculinity have evolved in the Superman mythology. Lois Lane, intrepid reporter for the Daily Planet and long-time girlfriend of Superman, steps up and puts her two-cents in, and sways the big blue boyscout into changing his battle plans. Instead of flying off to handle a troubled situation in Metropolis alone, Supergirl will be, essentially, chaperoned by Mon-El. All because Lois said so, and Superman acquiesced.

The relationship between Lois and Kara has become strained, to put it mildly, all since Kara confessed to having killed Lois's sister, Lucy, who was busy killing and plotting against humanity under the guise of Superwoman. And while the killing was unintentional and surely could be seen as being a casualty of superhuman warfare, brought on as much by Lucy and the risky life she was leading, it is only natural and perfectly understandable that Lois would see fit to lay sole blame on Supergirl. No matter the crimes one has committed, if they are family, they are always family. Add to this, the guilt Lois no doubt feels at being estranged from her sister, and seeing Supergirl as taking away any chance at reconciliation she might have had with her sister, and the anger with which she now treats Kara is even more understandable. After all, Kara did not just kill Lois's sister, but brought to light Lois's own failings as a sibling. In light of all this, anger is the only rational response Lois is capable of, and we understand it, even if we also truly sympathize with Kara, as we should.

Lois Lane has seen much transformation in her long history, going from girl reporter continuously humiliated by Superman, all while obsessively trying to either reveal his secrets or rope him into marriage; to scrappy and gifted Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, strong and confident enough to be the wife of a god who walks amongst men. In Grant Morrison's All-Star Superman #3, Lois says to Superman that it is easily understandable for people to grasp what she would see in him, but what, she wonders, and by inference what the greater populace must wonder then, would a superhuman see in plain ol' Lois Lane. Superman's response: "Well, I guess there has to be one thing I just can't help, Lois." Ms. Lane is more than just a journalist, more than just a romantic foil, more than just a wife; she is the only woman with the power to seduce a god and turn him into a man who can feel genuine love. The love between Superman and Lois Lane is of a far greater significance than the dalliances of Zeus and his mortal bed-post notches. It is one that has morphed over time to become a great romance of our culture, their stories gracing our comics, our movie screens, and our televisions.

Now, in those comics, this love is tested. Supergirl is Superman's cousin, his family, and up until recently, was the only surviving member of his family. Lois is his absolute love, the one thing he just can't help. Regardless of the circumstances, one has hurt the other, and Kal-El of Krypton is caught in the middle.

Which brings us back to the interesting turn the book takes in this one crucial scene where battle plans are drawn and attack strategy formed. With just one stern look and a few insinuating words of murderous implication, Lois puts the brakes on those plans and calls out Supergirl as being inadequate and untrustworthy. In a sense, a gauntlet is thrown down, and Superman, caught in the crossfire, sides with his wife. On the surface it would seem that while he may wear the blue tights of truth, justice, and the American way, in his marriage, Lois wears the pants. It would seem this way, but that is wrong. It would be a cynic that would say Superman shows he is hen-pecked by allowing Lois to bluster in with her barely contained emotions and dictate how he should go about being Superman. What this scene demonstrates more keenly is Superman's sensitivity to the emotions of those he loves. Superman is the most sensitive of masculine superhuman hero characters. He was raised by loving parents who taught him about the true strength of compassion and integrity. He has chosen a secret identity for himself that is unassuming and good-natured, the mild-mannered and diligent investigative reporter. Possessing all-powerful strength, he must show restraint every waking moment, so as not to maim or even kill anyone, from something as simple as just bumping into them walking down the street. When contrasted with the cold, insular, and unloving world that surrounds Batman and his outwardly misogynistic alter-ego of billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, one could argue that Superman represents the soft feminine flesh of the outstretched palm, and Batman is the masculine outer scabbed-over knuckles of the fist.

Batman would have chafed in this situation, would have bristled at having anyone question his well-planned strategy (and he would have a point, really). Superman is smarter than given credit for, however, and shows that here. He knows what this is really all about. He trusts Supergirl implicitly, understands what she is going through, that she did what she did in the moment of battle against a raging and dangerous foe. He knows Kara, shares with her the experience of being superhuman, of facing heart-wrenching seemingly impossible decisions. He knows she is strong enough to put emotion aside and do what needs to be done to save a planet (or two). He also understands that none of that matters to Lois. What matters is that her sister is dead, and dead at the hands of his cousin. He understands the difference between the emotional and the rational. Lois's anger at Kara may be a rational response, but her distrust is misplaced. The real fire here is with Lois, so he acquiesces, and sets aside his ego to do what is right for the situation.

The Superman Universe has become a rich tapestry marked by the strong presence of fully-formed women, and Supergirl, under writer Sterling Gates and artist Jamal Igle, has been at the forefront of this movement. This one scene is evidence of the complexity inherent in this new, more modern, dynamic. Lois Lane is no longer the chirpy and annoying single-gal looking to bag the superhuman husband, needing to be rescued after falling into trouble of her own making. Supergirl is no longer the dim-witted blond with weak-will, needing to be rescued by her more seasoned cousin. Superman is no longer just the idealized strongman leaping tall buildings and punching out crooks. They've matured, and become a more interesting and precarious balance of masculine and feminine sensibilities. They've become more human.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Review: Justice League: Cry For Justice #2

Justice League: Cry For Justice #2 (of 7)

Writer: James Robinson
Artist: Mauro Cascioli
Released: August 5, 2009

Sophomore slump generally refers to the let-down felt by the audience in regards to the second release from an artist. Whether that be a plodding follow-up to a thunderous debut, or a complete reversal of viewpoint that stuns viewers or readers into confusion, it usually happens because the artist in question has either run out of ideas very quickly, or the expectations on the part of the audience were set too high. Regardless, it usually doesn't happen this quickly. A month. That's the time it took for a mini-series I wasn't really enjoying but found at least to be provocative to crash from that low pedestal to the gutter.

Cry For Justice #2 confused me, not by any complexity of story or characterization, but by it's seeming lack of fundamentals. All of the story seems to happen off the page, either just before or just after what is in the panels. Characters arrive at locations and tell of the clues they followed to get there. Fights and interrogations are alluded to but never shown. Brazen thefts of labs and museums are talked about but, again, not shown. What we are left with then, are scenes of our heroes on rooftops or empty galleries or airplane hangars, talking; talking about all the things that have happened or will happen that we are not going to actually see. Green Arrow and Green Lantern are teamed up again (just like old times!) but instead of getting some double-Green action, we are forced to read leaden dialogue that feels completely unnatural. They learn of a super-villain hideout by being told by a private detective that once worked for Bruce Wayne, not through any detective work of their own. They go in to bust up the joint, and the scene cuts away. When we join them later, it's after it's all finished with and the fight has, inexplicably fallen into the streets of Gotham. Hal and Ollie stand victorious over the vanquished bodies of low-level villains, and we saw none of it.

The entire issue is like this. The heroes talk about the clues they've come across, the trails they are following, the things they've done and the things they're going to do next, but none of it is actually shown. It is meant to be a more character-driven issue, not weighed down by action set pieces, (apparently according to Robinson's notes in the back of the issue) but it comes across as just missing any story whatsoever. The major problem with this approach is that if an issue is going to be held together strictly through characterization and dialogue, then those two things need to be strong, and they are most definitely not strong in this issue.

As mentioned before, the dialogue between Hal and Ollie feels stiff and unnatural, and the same can be said for all of the dialogue between all characters in the entire issue. One of my biggest complaints with writers who work in a visual medium, where the dialogue is "spoken", either in actuality or in the readers head, is that they seem to not read the dialogue OUT LOUD to get a sense for how it flows or sounds. This is a fundamental taught to playwriters and screenwriters, and some writers even go so far as to have actual actors read out their scripts in front of them and provide feedback on how they feel saying the dialogue. Cry For Justice #2 could have been greatly serviced by such an exercise. We might have been spared the heavy-handed schmaltz between Jay Garrick and Ray Palmer, and the misplaced 1940's B-level gumshoe patter of Jason Bard, and most certainly, the inappropriate overgrown frat-boy needling between Ollie and Hal regarding an allusion to a drunken threesome between Hal and two female members of the now-defunct Birds of Prey. This last bit has stirred some serious blather on the internet regarding whether the content is sexist, just simply inappropriate, completely out of character, or all three and then some. (Robot 6, Your Mileage May Vary: Cry For Justice #2,, August 8, 2009) Frankly, it's just plain not very well written, which is a bigger offense than any of the above. The sexual proclivities of men and women who adorn themselves in fetish wear and beat up other people who are similarly dressed, all in the name of truth and justice, is a fascinating topic for exploration, certainly, but the way it's handled here, shoe-horned into a scene to add cheap titillation, is just poor. The greater offense, again, is just bad writing.

And for the love of all that is good and decent, can writers PLEASE STOP writing Supergirl as a dumb blonde?! Yes, she is young and an alien from another planet, but giving her only one line and having that one line be her asking "...who's Charles Bukowski?", and having this be the very last page of the issue, left this reader with a horrible taste in mouth. I knew girls in high school who read Bukowski. They listened to The Smiths and wrote poetry and painted their fingernails black, and they were generally the more interesting girls to talk with, too. Considering the amazing work Sterling Gates is doing in the monthly Supergirl title to add so much depth to Kara, I find Robinson's take here to be lazy. This is far more offensive than the alluded to threesome mentioned above, because sex is not inherently sexist, but showing a character to be ignorant simply because she is female, blonde, or because that's just how it's been done, is. How refreshing would it be to show that Kara has read Bukowski? After all, how appropriate for the last daughter of Krypton to have been attracted to a book of poems entitled You Get So Alone At Times That It Just Makes Sense.

Supergirl deserves better, so does the Justice League, and so do readers.