Thursday, December 31, 2009

Review: Blackest Night #6

Blackest Night #6 (of 8)

Writer: Geoff Johns
Penciller: Ivan Reis
Inkers: Oclair Albert & Joe Prado
Released: December 30, 2009

I have a strong feeling that when all of this is dead and buried, finding a cheap apartment or home in Coast City is going to be quite the easy task. After suffering the brunt of the ravages of the Sinestro Corps War, and now being the absolute epicenter for the ultimate zombie takeover of Earth, I can't imagine that anyone would ever feel safe in Coast City again. Oh, and did everyone remember that the entire city at one time had been completely annihilated by a monstrous and indestructible cyborg? Gotham City is a paradise by comparison.

Perhaps I'm missing the point to focus on something such as housing futures in the midst of total Earth decimation, but I don't think so. The sky crackles with the war of multi-colored light, shafts and beams of red, green, purple, and blue shear through the darkness, cutting through the slimy muck of the flying undead, sending the ghastly entrails spilling out onto the streets of what was once a coastal paradise. How can all of this possibly end well, even if it ends in heroic success? Even if the assorted Lantern Corps band together towards ultimate victory over the villainy of complete darkness, how can anything ever be sunshine again? How can a city survive such as this?

From it's first issue on, Blackest Night has been absolute comic book excess; the opening panels showing The Black Hand lasciviously licking the exhumed skull of Bruce Wayne; the undead Aquaman using his telepathic powers to summon a bloody shark attack; an endless succession of sharply-clawed hands held aloft with a still-beating human heart, freshly ripped from out a poor innocent by-stander, clenched in their grasps; this is a book drenched in the wet stuff of eviscerated life. It's excessive in the way comics can be excessive, in bold vivid colors, in a safe, neat, saddle-stapled package. Nestled in its bag-and-board, laying across the desk, an issue of Blackest Night looks so harmless, so innocent, like a thin perfect rectangle of inky joy. Then, inside, each page reeks with gore, violence, tears, the cries of pain, the throes of death, and the mayhem of unbridled chaos, all above the streets of the "city without fear". It's epic in it's excess, a throwback to horror comics of the 1950's and 60's. The only thing missing, really, are the covers featuring headless women and bloody ax-blades.

There is hope left for our heroes, and this issue provides one of the best moments of the whole series, as the duplicated rings of the various lantern corps seek out and find new recruits to "deputize" for the cause. We are treated to a vision of Blue Lantern Flash and Star Sapphire Wonder Woman, along with a Red Lantern Mera and Orange Lantern Lex Luthor. These are surprisingly powerful and joyful re-imaginings of these characters; iconic figures played with like toys, but with the built-in fail-safe of having these changes last only 24-hours, like Superhero-Cinderellas at a macabre fancy-dress ball. It's excess in the opposite extreme of all the gore; this is fantasy played out to it's most awe-shucks conclusion. I found myself unable to take my eyes off of the final double-page reveal of the new recruits. It's an utterly ridiculous moment, completely ludicrous, and yet so gleefully perfect and made even more so because of its ridiculousness.

For now, the task in front of these costumed heroes seems to be in stopping death itself; all-powerful, all-consuming death; the one thing that will take us all, the one thing that comes for everyone. Except, it doesn't. Superman has cheated death, as has Green Lantern Hal Jordan, and Barry Allen, and Wonder Woman, and Oliver Queen, and a seemingly endless list of A and B-list characters scattered throughout DCU continuity. For them, death was merely a temporary plot point on the road to re-boot. Even Bruce Wayne lives on, lost somewhere in time, scratching bat-symbols into cave walls. Just like Coast City, these men and women are completely destroyed, run through by the sword of editorial experimentation, or simply thrown away onto the fiery heap of couldn't-care-less. Then, their 24-hour purgatory ends, the clock strikes midnight, the carriages and horses return to pumpkins and mice, and providence shines from high above, from an office in Manhattan; lo and behold, they rise again. Superman lives! Green Lantern and Flash are "rebirthed"! Coast City is open for business! Call our agent for details on this amazing property!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Moments of the Year: Phonogram-The Singles Club #6 (of 7)

There is a year like this for all art-types, and for many of us, several years scattered throughout late teenhood and early adulthood. For me it was 1994. That was the bedsit year, the year of partial existence, the year the bedroom turned into a library and a music studio. It was the year of reading books because you wanted to not because they were on the AP curriculum reading list. It was the summer of making odd mix-tapes filled with art school British bands and indie American bands from cities next to bigger cities, like Stockton or Aberdeen. It was the summer of drawing pretentious cartoons on off-white card-stock and folding them into the plastic cassette-case of the blank TDK holding your latest masterpiece. I'd spend an entire hour carefully writing out the track list in black fine-point ink, allowing each line of impossibly small print to dry fully before moving on to the next. For a good month, every tape started out with a Suede track, most likely "My Insatiable One". That opening guitar riff sounds as if being played on strings coated with silver, and it's brittleness is daring you to get closer to your speakers, daring you to brave getting hit by the sharp flying notes. And when they didn't open the symphony, Suede would always have one or two songs present somewhere. As would Blur, something off Parklife but definitely not "Girls & Boys", because that's too easy, too expected, and "Magic America" is right better, anyways.

This is all before the internet ruined just about everything. This is when driving to a town three towns away from where you lived just to visit a record store that sold imports from Europe was just another day in your young life. You'd pile into the car with your goth friend and find yourselves on a freeway and then in some town with cafés and tree-lined streets, and then in some record store staffed by people who looked cooler than anyone you'd ever gone to school with. Then a chicano kid in an argyle sweater-vest and penny-loafers sells you some Morrissey singles out from inside a glass counter, and as you talk with him you just know that tricked out Vespa in the parking lot, with the chrome bars and endless mirrors, must be his. Your goth friend buys albums with covers that look like photocopied stills form 1930's horror movies. You both buy Pizzicato Five imports with their jewel-cases wrapped in Japanese characters. You both buy magazines, back issues of Select and handmade fanzines with pictures of skinny pale kids dressed in black leather biting each other on the necks. It's all OK and everything's alright and we feel better than you because of what's coming out of our stereos.

This is 1994 and this is before the internet ruined everything, because for all you kids out there reading this, I want you to know exactly what happened. The internet has ruined everything. That record store is gone now, and so are those glass counters with CD's and 45's with their sleeves staring back out at our young eyes, tempting us with images of a lifestyle that could be ours with the drop of a needle. Those racks of magazines are gone now, too, just about. The oversized imported rags with their Union Jacks and slangy headlines and skinny boys and girls posing in second-hand glamour and white customs stickers that read "Printed in the UK" are gone. The odd-sized, folded up, saddle-stapled, hand-numbered, hand-drawn, photocopied on goldenrod, on hot pink, on sky blue office paper fanzines are gone. The racks were filled with them, stuffed with so much weirdness and oddity and strangeness, with poems and manifestos and cartoons, with colors and ink stains and newsprint, with dog-eared dreams and wishes and hopes.

The tangible nature of music is gone. There was a time when we could hold onto music, hold an album in our hands, press play and record buttons at the same time and make a tape filled with our feelings and give that tape to a girl we liked or a boy we liked, and then fantasize about them taking it home and pressing play and understanding exactly what we are saying to them because they can hear it in the songs we chose for them. That's gone. Mixtapes are gone, replaced by downloads and pods. Fanzines are gone, replaced by blogs. And is there any point in ever having children? No, I don't know.

This is a blog, and the irony is not lost on me. This particular post on this blog is about a comic book printed and published on paper, a comic book entitled Phonogram, about youths in the modern era who still buy albums on vinyl. This particular issue of this particular comic is about one of those youths, listening to a Dexy's Midnight Runners' album whilst sat alone in his bedroom, writing out on a manual typewriter a plan for his life in the form of a pasted up homemade 'zine. As he types out his manifesto, we see it forming before our very eyes, as he pulls panels from off the pages we have just read, or tears away pages we have yet to read. It's magnificent, and though the story takes place in the not very distant past of 2006, it's really about a time long gone, and it's for those of us who miss that time dearly, and for those of us who do what we can to hold onto that which has passed away.

The image of a man in his early-twenties in the year 2006 pulling out a vinyl record to play on a turntable in a small room of his flat didn't strike me as odd until I'd read the issue a few times through. I'm of a generation that still remembers when that was the normal way of listening to music. When you bought one album at a time and listened to the hell out of it, until the grooves wore down or the plastic warped in the heat. This young man, on the surface, appears too young for that, but then age always has been just a number. He represents all modern-day archeologists holding onto the relics and artifacts of by-gone eras that were only a few decades ago, either because they lived through those times or because they wish they had. I understand this because I am this.

You see, next up, now that the tangibility of music is gone, will be film. DVD's and the like will go away shortly as technology comes around to figuring out how to get rid of them. Books on paper are already facing down the end, soon to join magazines and newspapers on the junk-pile of naïve antiquities. And soon to join these pulps and rags of gossip, news, and sport? Why, comics, of course. Already the buzz-saw of supposed progress is comic to take your long-boxes away and replace them with digital comic books you will be able to read in the palm of your hand on some sleek touch-screen device that you can also text your friends on. (We don't even talk to our friends anymore. We text them, or change our FaceBook status and hope they get the message.) And after the books fall away, then too, will the comic book stores, and with them, civilization. I've seen this happen in other peoples' lives, but now it's happening in mine.

Phonogram: The Singles Club #6 (of 7) written by Kieron Gillen, with art by Jamie McKelvie and Julia Scheele, was released on December 9, 2009 by Image Comics.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Moments of the Year: Green Lantern #43

There are times when the imagination will suffice. When the renderings in one's mind of that which is only alluded to will be stronger than anything that could be shown. This happens when the romantic leads passionately embrace and fall into each others arms, and the camera pans slowly away from them towards the curtains billowing in the breeze of an open window. This happens when the gunman raises his pistol at his victim's head, and the editor cuts us back to the establishing shot, leaving us only with the sound of the gunshot to paint us the picture of the gruesomeness inside. Or, this happens when a writer and artist decide to tell the terrifying account of a family held hostage, and do it from the blindfolded point-of-view of a child (see yesterdays MOTY: Detective Comics #858) Then there are times when the picture must be put before us, when we must be confronted with the unvarnished reality. This is Green Lantern #43.

In actuality, this is William Hand #1, or Blackest Night #-1, since the titular hero makes only a brief cameo appearance in a few flashbacks. This issue belongs to the boy who shall become the embodiment of walking death, the Black Hand. Filled with an "absolute darkness" that is believed to be possessing him, the young Hand begins to hear voices that speak to him about his greater destiny, to be the one who shall extinguish the light of all life. He starts simply enough, like many serial killers, with small animals that he then stuffs and mounts around his room and the family home. Considering the family business is a mortuary, and the animals seem to be confined to small woodland birds and game, it is viewed as a harmless and transitory fascination, one to be observed but not overly worried about. Then the family dog falls victim, and a therapist is brought in. Soon, the cosmic war between good and evil, light and dark, is brought crashing into his lap, and his odd quirks and obsessions focus sharply into a lifestyle.

Then William comes face to face with the worst of all nightmares: he falls prey to 70 years of DCU continuity. All at once, they flood him, overwhelm him, the deaths and resurrections, invasions and possessions, the editorial experiments and reboot revisionism. It is too much for anyone to bear, and under the strain, William finally understands what must be done. He must wipe the slate clean so that there may be true peace. He must become the ultimate editor-in-chief.

He starts at home, with the killing of his family, and then the taking of his own life. The moment of his suicide is displayed over two gratuitous pages, the first showing the actual instant of his brains exiting his skull. He faces us, with eyes bulging, lips parted and teeth gnashed in reflexive shock and pain. The left side of his head has blown open like a breached airplane fuselage, and out spews the viscous matter of brain and blood, cast over in the green light of the cosmic weapon he has used for the task. This is the very instant of death, the split-second fine-line separating life and the unknown. The following page shows his fall to the floor and his lifeless body lay there in a widening pool of blood, glistening like the high-polish sheen of a candied apple. For all the gore and bluster of the moment, for all the meticulous artistic detail, it is presented with no real exploitative devices; no sound effects, no exaggerative gesticulations. It is composed matter-of-factly. He shoots himself. He falls to the floor. He bleeds. It's a suicide. It needs no artificial dressing.

The banner atop this issue proclaims it as the "Prologue" to Blackest Night, and there really can be no better foreshadowing of the horror, brutality, and terrorizing mayhem that is to befall the DCU than this moment here. In an odd way, too, it is a throwback to an earlier time in comics, an ironically more innocent age before comics codes, when the medium was rife with scenes of shocking exploitation, gore, and sex. In the 1940's and '50's, it was all done out of unchecked freedom, often with a wink and tongue planted firmly in cheek. It was all a dark joke, sold in a disposable package for a dime. Today, the horror is back and the dead have risen, and they are dripping blood and eating hearts, and doing so in spectacular fashion, in bold full-spread pages, and in colors never before dreamed by the originators of the craft. It's not a joke anymore. It's modern comics storytelling, and sometimes, you just have to show the goods.

Green Lantern #43 written by Geoff Johns, with art by Doug Mahnke and Christian Alamy was released on July 8, 2009 by DC Comics. 
Originally reviewed on July 13, 2009. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Moments of the Year: Detective Comics #858

J.H. Williams III, in possession of an endless arsenal of artistic styles and imagination, is one of the most visually inventive artists working in comics today. Yet his most striking single page this entire year is one composed entirely in black.

Page 18 of Detective Comics #858 is pure blackness, segmented into a 12 panel grid. There are no images on the page, only the sound of hostages straining at their bonds, blindly calling out for each other from underneath their burlap hoods. There are the sounds of random movement, slow, from various directions. Panel 2 opens up to the top page bleed, it's complete emptiness stretching out into an infinite abyss. Then comes the final cries of a mother, calling the names of her two daughters, and then the sound of one single gunshot, then the dull thump of a slumping lifeless body. Panel 9 opens out to the left page bleed, it's silent emptiness slowly being intruded by the faint mirage of distant light. Suddenly, the last three panels shake and rattle with the thunder of stomping boots and the crack of gunfire, the urgent military jargon of operational rescue.

For being completely without drawn images, this is a page that so beautifully demonstrates the visual power of the comics medium, as well as its power to control and segment the readers sense of place and time. What exactly is happening in each panel? What does each sound effect correspond to, a jostled chair, a punch, the firing pin of a gun being cocked? How long does this entire scene last? How much time is represented by the blank and open panels? By segmenting the page into equal panels does that mean each represents an equal amount of time, and therefore, do the open panels represent longer, more amorphous beats?

This is a writer's page, as well, and it is to Greg Rucka's immense credit that he gives us a scene such as this, without exploitation or unnecessary dramatic affectations. He knows the confusion in our minds as we attempt to fit these pieces of noise and lettering, of wobbly and jagged word balloons, together into a coherent structure is what adds to the horror of the scene. He gives the story over to us to fill in the images in our minds, and what we come up with is all the more heartbreaking and terrifying for being kept in imagination.

I have read this page repeatedly, at differing speeds, allowing for longer or shorter pauses, allowing the lettering choices to color the inflections of my readings, and it is always a powerful and telling experience, and one that still remains sadly just out of reach. The answers to all of the questions this page poses, about time and structure, about the specifics of what is happening to the characters in the scene, are still elusive. It is a perfect interpretation of how terrifying moments in life can never be fully pieced together or understood. It is the shock, and the emotional rush that is remembered. Rucka and Williams have given us perhaps the most perfect single page example of what the comics medium can accomplish that no other medium can. They have given us a seemingly blank page and shown it to be the most difficult thing to read.

Detective Comics #858 written by Greg Rucka, with art by J.H. Williams III and color by Dave Stewart, was released on October 28, 2009 by DC comics.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Moments of the Year: Madame Xanadu #7

She is of the order of the ancient folk, and bears a name she uses not anymore, a name known by no one outside of but a few other immortals and Death, herself. To whatever world she finds herself in, she is but a "spiritualist", a tarot card reader, a parlor amusement. She is a seer, and a true mage, and virtually immortal. Above all, she is a woman with a deep compassion for life, a surprising characteristic for someone who seemingly fears not the end of her own. The woman is Madame Xanadu, and she is the hero of this story.

Madame Xanadu #7 sees our heroine in the middle of a hysterical London, besieged by the terror of a serial killer, one who will come to be known as Jack the Ripper. As she searches the streets at night for clues to stop these killings, Madame comes upon a small beggar child, a young girl in tattered apron and top hat, one with whom she is apparently acquainted with. The exchange between them is one that demonstrates the depths of compassion at the center of this magical woman, as she uses her millennia of learned experience for the simple trick of conjuring up a simple piece of fruit for the child. The beauty of this scene comes in the powerful expressions that grace this woman and child as they hunch over the torn upturned top hat; the unbridled joy and anxious anticipation on the face of the little girl is heartbreaking when one understands the poverty with which she is besotted; the serious scrunch of concentration with which Madame contorts her face an indication of the playful spirit that bubbles inside her.

This is a touchingly rending scene, and also one that is important for more than just the purpose of characterization. For, truth be told, there are other moments throughout the first six issues of Madame Xanadu that serve to show our protagonist as the sensitive and empathetic hero, notably her attempts to save a sickened and imprisoned Marie Antionette, and her rescue of a court consort from rapists during her time with the Kublai Khan. However, those moments are propelled by other factors, other variables, perhaps even slight self-consciousness and ego. This moment, in this dirty soot-covered alley in Whitechapel, with this innocent street urchin asking for help with smeared cheeks and eyes as big as dinner plates, we see a woman who has lived thousands of years without a family of her own, show us what might have been for her in some other form, in some other life. It is pure maternal tenderness.

It is one page out of hundreds, one scene out of hundreds. It is one page ensconced in an issue covered in blood and horror. It is one moment of absolute childish splendour, a showcase for the positive power adults may hold over little children; a power to dazzle, to thrill, to bring peace and happiness, and to do so with little more than a flourish of a hand, a sincere word of kindness, and a true heart filled with playfulness and love.

Madame Xanadu #7 written by Matt Wagner, with art by Amy Reeder Hadley and Richard Friend was released on January 2, 2009 by DC Comics' Vertigo imprint. Madame Xanadu: Disenchanted, collecting the first ten issues of the monthly series, was released on July 15, 2009, also by DC/Vertigo. 

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Moments of the Year: Final Crisis #7

I'm in LaGuardia Airport, early afternoon, awaiting my flight to California. It is January 28, 2009, and it has snowed the night before and into the morning. I've trudged through the dirty slush of Queens with a suitcase and two carry-on bags. It has been one very trying first month to the year. It is a Wednesday and even with the weather laying an inconvenient path and the luggage weighing the journey down, I made certain to find my way into a comic shoppe this morning. Now, through with the rigors of baggage check and security, nestled into a seat in the waiting area next to my boarding gate, I have time to myself amongst the density of a crowded international airport. I reach into my bag for the brown paper bag which contains this weeks haul of multi-colored pulp. The first one out, without hesitation, is Final Crisis #7. After all these months, I can't believe my good fortune to be here at this place, at this time, to read such a book. I can't think of any better place to be in that moment.

Final Crisis by writer Grant Morrison (and a plethora of artists) is not an event comic, not anymore, at least. Perhaps upon initial release, amongst the summer hype and subsequent internet maelstrom, it was an event comic, such as had been seen before, and such as we see every year now. Upon completion, standing apart from the machines of publishing and buzz, the book reveals itself for what it truly is, what Morrison intended it to be all along: an epic poem.

"The music of the spheres. The sound of the tides of the infinite, breaking on our mortal strand. And bearing a vessel. Surging on a foam of gravitons, like some new argo. Its cargo not Gods. Not monsters. But Heroes."
"And then it seemed as if the sun had risen in the West. As if the dawn was made of lightning. And the approaching thunder became the roar of a gunshot yet to be."
"In a halo of blazing light that seems to complete everything, old man passes like a dream. Like smoke. But the fire burns forever."

More so than just the language, the details of the piece are nuanced like finely balanced stanzas adhering to some form of meter that is only discernible upon multiple readings. The last issue of the Daily Planet is written by Lois Lane with photos taken by Jimmy Olsen. Artifacts of their story, of the story you are reading, are loaded into a capsule, shot off into a rocket, representing the hope of a civilization crumbling before it makes its last stand. Men dressed as Gods destroy Gods, and Gods dressed as Man destroy Man. In a decimated world where technology has been corrupted, stories once again are passed on through the oral tradition. Superman, an alien from another planet, who possesses superhuman strength, ultimately saves humanity with music. The simple etchings on a cave wall; the notes of a song, " sad, so hopeful, so brave...", beckoning out, summoning help; the words of a story told of heroes and villains, of good versus evil, are passed on to be told again and again. The final message of this final crisis is that when all else has failed, it will be our Art that will save us.

Sitting in an airport, on a plane, in a subway, in a taxi, on a train; patience straining against missed connections, long delays, lost luggage; sitting amongst travelers from all the world over, of all races and faiths, the messages of this book rang loudly that interminable snowy January day. We create and destroy, make into existence and snuff out of existence, everything around us, everyday, through the simple power of thought. We command the power to make better, to make right. We possess the power to save ourselves. "Earth Endures". Indeed.

Final Crisis #7 written by Grant Morrison, with art by Doug Mahnke, Christian Alamy, and Tom Nguyen, released January 28, 2009 by DC Comics. 

Friday, December 18, 2009

Review: Power Girl #7

Power Girl #7

Writers: Justin Gray & Jimmy Palmiotti
Artist: Amanda Connor
Colors: Paul Mounts
Released: December 16, 2009

Vartox the Hyper-Man was introduced into Superman comics mythology in 1974, in Superman #281, created by writer Cary Bates and artist Curt Swan. The cover of that issue by artist Nick Cardy, in which Vartox lords over a bereaved Superman as he cradles a deceased Lois Lane in his arms, has now become oddly iconic. Vartox would make minor appearances throughout the next ten years fulfilling the role of Superman "frenemy" long before the tabloid coining of that term. Since no one really dies in the DCU and the potential for a good yarn lay in the crumbled up balls of bristol board found at the bottom of any waste basket, Power Girl #7 sees the return of the Hyper-Man in all his mid-1970's glory.

Oh, and what glory it be. Vartox's leather vest and brief combo paired with thigh-high boots screams disco-funk chic, and the plethora of unfettered body hair speaks of a time before metro-sexuality and man-scaping took the man out of manhood. He is walking ego and sex, but let it be known, he, too, has a heart. He cares deeply for the people of his planet, Valeron, of whom he is charged with protecting. He  is their Superman. Vartox gives us a vision of who and what Superman could be if Kal-El of Krypton let his inner-God shine forth more and he dropped the Clark Kent shackles. Throw away those fake NHS specs, ditch the facade of clumsy farm boy oaf, slide your package into some painted-on bell-bottom slacks, grow a juicy moustache, and get down with your buddy from Valeron, Supes. Brother, now they would be "two wild and crazy guys!"

And there, right there, is what makes Power Girl such an impressive and joyous book to behold. In just seven issues, it has managed to be the comic book that reminds readers what the medium and the genre can accomplish when allowed to be absurdly whimsical, and it has completely shown up all four books in the Superman-universe. This issue, #7, leaves those books in its wake. How? What? Why? Because of freedom, my friends. Power Girl demonstrates the real beauty of having a book in which things of this nature can happen; in which a super-powered Lothario from another planet can invade Earth riding an interstellar headship on a mission of love because his home planet has suffered mass sterility at the hands of Yeti pirates who set off a contraceptive bomb in a major city. Oh no!? Oh Yes! And in order to save his people from extinction, Vartox, by a stroke of luck being the last man standing with active sperm, needs to get it on and knock boots with our mighty heroine Power Girl. (Whew!)

Can you even imagine this story taking place in Supergirl or Action Comics? Not a chance. Not while those books are mired in Manchurian Candidate-style cloak-and-dagger politics and espionage. Not while the Super-verse is consumed by convoluted continuity and a cast of characters larger than the Manhattan yellow pages. The Man of Steel, the Man of Tomorrow, why, he isn't even wearing the tights anymore. The whimsy is missing over there, so obsessed the editors and creators seem to be in grounding the world of Superman in a reality of politics and military strategy. Commander El? General Lane? General Zod? Snooze. Give me Chancellor Groovicus Mellow!

The issue has a propulsive quality that escalates the mayhem and hilarity with each page. The back-and-forth banter between PG and Vartox beats with a true comedic heart, and pounds out like the staccato rhythm of the best moments of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. Even as they do battle with a deadly and indestructible creature, their distinct personalities are not lost nor buried under a quagmire of fight scene panels. It's refreshingly spry and agile, the issue feeling as though the pages are turning themselves. Writers Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti channel the best of the Bronze Age, plying a fine layer of retro wistfulness without plodding it down with nostalgic schmaltz. They are having fun WITH these characters and these old ideas, not ridiculing them. In short, they are reveling in their own satire but without a shred of arrogance or elitism.

And how much more praise may be heaped on the shoulders of artist Amanda Connor? A paragraph summarizing her artistic powers would not be enough, and would yet, prove to verge on the ridiculously exaggerated. Rest assured, it would not be over-heated hyperbole. Her ability to express the inner workings of her characters, their thoughts and emotions, their frustration and passion, in a few wrinkled brow lines or the slight curl of a lip is astonishing. She is a director culling fine performances from her actors, who are not "Acting" on the page, but instead, behaving. They are who they are, and they listen to each other, react to what the other is saying. Connor breathes full-bloodied life into the conversations of her characters because the dialogue is happening in their faces, not just in the word balloons above their heads.

Power Girl has quietly carved out a singular and spectacular corner for itself, one seemingly undisturbed by the misguided intrusions of editors-at-large. So far, Karan Starr has been allowed to do her own thing, be her own woman, and have her own life. Will this continue? I have little faith it will. Undoubtably, soon the book will be party-crashed by Magog or Blackest Night or some such other unnecessary ancillary interlopers, and the whole thing will come tumbling down in shards of disappointment. For now, however, this is a book to cherish. The Amazing World of Power Girl, still only 20¢.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Review: Secret Six #16

Secret Six #16

Writer: Gail Simone
Penciller: Peter Nguyen
Inkers: Doug Hazelwood & Mark McKenna
Released: December 9, 2009

This issue opens with the calm and jovial ranting of a child molester as he narrates the rain-soaked panels that show his police caravan taking him out to the shallow graves where he buried his young victims. He's a disturbed and disgusting man in an orange jumpsuit and prison manacles, talking about having sex with children with the ease of a man talking about ex-girlfriends. Enter two members of the mercenary outfit the Secret Six, here dressed as local sheriffs, busting in to rescue the sex offender and killer, efficiently overpowering the small detail of officers assigned to escort him on this grizzly outing. So quick are our mercenary protagonists that the entire break goes down before any shots could be fired. At scenes end, the three men are stood in the rain, two of them calmly smoking, the prisoner now freed from his shackles, basking in relief as he tastes freedom once again. There are no colorful costumes. There are no hi-tech gadgets deployed. The fisticuffs are bare minimum. The rain, the mud, the scattered-shot lightning all combine to cast everything in deep shades of murky purple. This is the criminal world at its most foul, stripped of any super-villain glamour, bereft of any comic book trappings. It's just filth and a few sad, pathetic men.

Not all is as it seems, however, as we quickly learn that this jail-break has not been a rescue at all, but a kidnapping, on behalf of the bereaved father of one of the children victimized. The molester finds himself in short order, strapped to a table in a secluded warehouse somewhere, the angry and vengeful father stood over him with jagged hunting knife. There work done, the two men of the Secret Six depart, but before doing so, one imparts onto the blade-wielding father nearly step-by-step instructions on how to properly flay a human being to death. Three sad, pathetic killers become four.

If there is one message that resonates out of these first 16 issues of Secret Six, it would be one that is encapsulated cleanly in this first sequence: things only get worse. A father loses his child to a man who kidnaps, tortures and kills, and the outcome of the whole process is that it turns him into a kidnapper, torturer and killer. Nothing ever gets better. Things only get worse.

The hired-gun crew of Secret Six is rife with substance abuse, sexual dysfunction, and death. Each of the members is afflicted with some form of the above list, and they all suffer severe depression. Their conversations with each other rarely veer out from under layers of sarcasm, and moments of real emotional revelation tend to be exploited later on as weakness. They all carry with them the demons of tortured pasts. The world that surrounds them in their present offers no solace nor hope. They have been hunted by villain and hero alike, and each other when circumstances have pitted them on opposite sides. They have witnessed torture and enslavement, at times aiding in their practice. They have been the hired tools of unrepentant and unhesitant killers. They have seen the worst of humanity, and they have taken it to bed.

The second half of this issue features a scene that demonstrates the odd duality of the series, the part of the book that keeps it from sinking into depressing muck. For, make no mistake, there is a humor to the series, a dark joyousness even. As our two Six-ers, Catman and Deadshot leave the warehouse they are confronted by a teenaged witch who is determined to latch onto them. In an oddball, frat-boy attempt to shake her, they make there way into a local strip club, a club that features exotic dancers dressed up in sexed-up versions of the outfits worn by various villains of the DCU. They are the kind of cheap costumes one would find folded up in a plastic bag and sold at a Halloween pop-up store, on the rack next to "Sexy Pirate" and "Sexy Nurse". Live on stage, ogle to the gyrations of "Sexy Bane", "Sexy Mister Freeze", and most hilarious of all, "Sexy Mr. Mxyzptylyk". It's a moment that speaks of writer Gail Simone's love of the DCU, and her fearlessness at playing with the pieces of it; to acknowledge it's existence as a world these people somehow both live in and live outside of. They are alive in a world that treats their costumes and likenesses, their symbols and crests, as objects of idolatry and commerce. She has used this trick before, both in Secret Six and in Wonder Woman, and it's effective at injecting humor as well as satirical commentary.

It's telling that she employs it in this issue, as well, in a scene far removed from the grime of the opening sequence. Here, the colorful and impractical costumes of villainy are pushed to their extreme, pushed out onto a red-velvet stage, flooded by disco-lights and mirrors, displayed as objects of sexuality and farce. The murder and torture committed by the men and women who wear the costumes being parodied here is somehow reduced to spandex and fishnet. All the supposed glamour of evil becomes a ribald joke. Contrast this to the gray and purple mire of brutality, kidnap, torture and murder being committed in the name of moral relativity, by men wearing the plain and simple uniforms of legitimate law-enforcement officers, in the books opening, and the satire becomes even more biting, even more heartbreaking.

Gail Simone has managed something very special with Secret Six. She has created a book that uses the surface world of superhero comics, all of its trappings and genre clichés, to tell stories of hopelessness and fear. The characters at the center of this world, the stars of the book, are all sad and lost in their own despair and seeming inability to unfetter themselves from the worlds they have created around them. They have all given up, really. They fight, they drink, they kill, and they sit and watch the (DC)Universe go by all around them. They've become walking costumes, parodies of themselves. Live, on stage.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Review: Blackest Night Wonder Woman #1 (of 3)

Blackest Night: Wonder Woman #1 (of 3)

Writer: Greg Rucka
Penciller: Nicola Scott
Inker(s): Prentis Rollins, Jonathan Glapion, Walden Wong, Drew Geraci
Released: December 3, 2009

I didn't hate this issue, nor did I particularly like it, and for my money, that's a pretty fitting set of criteria with which to use to conclude that something is inconsequential. As with most of the Blackest Night tie-ins, the idea is better than the execution, which is no fault to the creative teams involved, necessarily, but more to the fact that it's difficult to play a symphony with just one note. The song being attempted here? The Ballad of Max and Diana.

Now, Wonder Woman is an amazon warrior, first and foremost before being a superhero of the DCU, and as such, she has killed on the battlefield. However, her dispatch of the villainous Maxwell Lord stands out for its essentially being a public execution, witnessed by the world and used against her as a tool of propaganda, sending her into self-imposed exile, for 52 weeks, if I remember correctly. There was a trip to Nanda Parbat and some re-invention of herself as a government agent somewhere in there, as well. It's all a bit dodgy, really, and points to the ever-present problem of Princess Diana. Who is she? What is she? Stoic warrior? Ambassador of peace and love? Servant of God, or perhaps puppet of God, even? Killer or soldier willing to do what is necessary in war? Her killing of Maxwell Lord seemed to answer this last question. She was a soldier faced with only one solution, and she took it, because the greater good would be served by her doing so. Superman and Batman could mire themselves in ethical debate and attempt to shame her for what they perceived as a lapse in judgement, but the fact remained that Wonder Woman looked stronger for her act, not weaker. Let Batman throw Joker into Arkham for the ba-zillionth time, Wonder Woman was going to put a nail in a coffin, so to speak.

DC seemed ambivalent about how to deal with fallout. Should Wonder Woman feel guilty, be ashamed, or stand defiant? There immediate reaction was to have her wallow in guilt and pout with Renee Montoya in a secluded monastery, and then to renounce her ways so that she may relaunch her book, err, I mean, her life. This not a popular choice by all, as can be seen by writer Greg Rucka's comments about it in the trade collection of the weekly series 52. He is on record as believing this course of action to be a mistake. He was out-voted.

So, now, the one note samba of Blackest Night comes around to play it's tune for the Amazon princess and her Dancing with the Stars partner, Max Lord, and who should be bandleader on this, but the one and only, the inimitable Mr. Rucka. Yes, the talented Mr. Rucka, who is in charge at the moment of the best book coming out of DC, that being Detective Comics, has the unenviable task of trying to breathe life into an undead idea. By now, we know the shtick. The dead have risen and are coming after your emotion-infested heart, so try not to feel anything. (Lest it seem as though I am not a fan of Blackest Night, I should state, unequivocally, that I have thoroughly enjoyed the main book, by Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis, and have been continually surprised with each issue at how they have managed to up the ante. As events go, it's no Final Crisis, but that's good, and bad...more on that some other time.) So, great concept and great writer, working with a great artist in Nicola Scott, what is my problem, huh? Why am I so down on this? Well, as I stated earlier, it's not the creative teams fault, entirely, but the one-noteness of the concept at play with ALL the tie-in books. Whereas the main book gets to lead the charge and has the entire DCU at its disposal, the tie-ins are forced into a corner: Take one hero, add undead villain who has a history with said hero, add bitter/crass/sarcastic banter, through in a few splash pages of zombie dismemberment, and call it an issue. This is Blackest Night: Batman, Blackest Night: Superman, Blackest Night: Titans, and now, unfortunately Blackest Night: Wonder Woman, to a T.

The hero? Wonder Woman. The undead villain with history? Max Lord. The crass and/or sarcastic dialogue? "All aboard the Ted Kord express, destination: brains." "Your skin's so soft! Do you loofa?"; all these lines uttered by the walking corpse of one Mr. Lord. Splash pages of dismemberment? How about a decapitation for the kids at home? So, all the bases are covered, which makes this issue a formulaic bore. What, then, rescues it from being complete drivel? Well, the fact that Mr. Rucka takes this opportunity to give us the defiant Wonder Woman, the Wonder Woman who feels no regret over the killing of Max, only over death being a necessity of war. She is a soldier who draws a ready distinction between murder exacted in cold-blood, and slaughter committed in the name of peace. How right-wing of her, because any good leftist knows that war in and of itself is a crime, right? It's all a very lovely and beautiful contradiction that is dealt with so sparingly in superhero comics. Honor, duty, the need for a strong military force in order to maintain peaceful order; these are the political struggles of humanity and should be the greater struggles of Gods, of whom, our immaculate Diana is one. So, here she is, here is that Wonder Woman...partially.

If the issue had dealt with this more directly, delved into the greater philosophical questions brought to fore by the original killing of Maxwell Lord, then perhaps this issue could have really transcended the formula. As it stands, it's really just one elongated fight scene, scattered with bits of dialogue that allude to greater ideas left unfortunately unexplored. What does it truly mean to be a warrior for peace? If Wonder Woman can so readily rationalize the killing of a tyrannical leader who is bent on world destruction, as she does with her killing of Lord, then what keeps her from busting into North Korea or Darfur? Clearly, the same rationale could be used in those situations, too, could it not? I don't know, but it sure sounds like the kind of fodder a writer could really sink their teeth into. Too bad there was a different band playing at this party, a band who only knows one song.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Review: Detective Comics #859

Detective Comics #859

Writer: Greg Rucka
Artist: J.H. Williams III
Released: November 25, 2009

It may not carry the over-used label, but make no mistake, this current story line in Detective Comics is a "Year One". The curious question, the question that intrigues the most, is exactly which character this is the origin of: Kate Kane or Batwoman? They may be one in the same, one may play the other in costume, assume the role of military brat or caped crusader, but, as with the original patriarch of the Batman family, one role dominates, and one role subjugates. This issue gives us the origin of a little girl lost and shows us the moment of that transition.

The main character in this issue, as well as in issue #858, is Kate Kane. This arc is hers and hers alone, despite the minor intrusions of her alter-ego, Batwoman, in a few pages scattered throughout. The comic is told through alternating flashbacks, the past and present being represented by two very different art styles, both breathtaking in their display of Mr. Williams's brilliant artistic range. The flashbacks are rendered in a pulpy, slightly loose style, with flatter colors and brushed inks. The pages are laid-out in a more traditional grid format, cleanly moving left to right. The present day pages, the intruding Batwoman pages, are drawn with far greater detail in a much more painterly illustrated style, and the layouts follow no conventional grid, flowing from one misshapen and jagged panel to the next. It is this structure that lends to the ironic tension of the issue, again, that this is Kate's story, and Batwoman is busting in with loud colors and complete disorder. Kate's flashbacks, the memories of years long gone, become the clearly defined spaces of story, the easily fixed path that the reader may follow. It is Kate's present, as Batwoman, that is a seeming jumbled confusion.

The story of Kate Kane in this issue concerns her discharge from West Point due to allegations of personal misconduct, namely of practicing homosexual behavior. Given the opportunity to deny these allegations and proffer them up as the misguided actions of youthful experimentation so that she may save her military career, Kate instead honors the true meaning of ethics and announces that, indeed, she is gay. Her honor and integrity may stand without reproach, but her separation from military service sends her into a confusion as to what she is to do with her life now that the only thing she ever wanted to do is so unfairly torn away from her. Without the discipline of the academy, or perhaps to spite all the years spent under the yoke of military discipline, Kate delves into a listless life as a party-girl socialite, partying hard, getting inked, vacantly attending classes in obvious states of impairment, and driving under the influence, all of this beautifully rendered in one large panel, showcasing the ability of great art to efficiently tell a story. And while the art grabs the reader, and J.H. Williams III has the power to dwarf a writer and mask the shortcomings of any script, it can not be forgotten that there is indeed a story being told here, and it is a exceedingly good story, too.

Greg Rucka has crafted a comic that feels substantive, full of blood and humanity. Kate's story is grounded and recognizable, regardless of the specifics, because her emotions are complete, her character is warm on the page; the dialogue is natural, never contrite nor forced to fit the situation. Rucka's script is full of subtle moments, of characters who say more with their facial expressions, a slump of the shoulder, a turn of the cheek; and so, ultimately, his is a script tailor-made for an artist of the caliber of Mr. Williams. This book speaks to the unified whole that may be achieved between writer and artist, and that should be a benchmark for all comics. Together, these two creators have crafted a book that feels mature, a book truly for mature readers; not because of salacious, oversexed, or blood-spattered content, the puerile likes of which are often graced with the "mature readers" disclaimer. This is a mature comic because it is a comic that feels grown-up. This is a book that shows the power of comics to portray the beauty of humanity, whether it be dressed in military whites or superhero blacks.