Friday, January 29, 2010

Review: Superman: Secret Origin #4 (of 6)

Superman: Secret Origin #4 (of 6)

Writer: Geoff Johns
Penciller: Gary Frank
Inker: Jon Sibal
Released: January 27, 2010

So, this is a Superman comic, right? Superman is on the cover. The title is Superman: Secret Origin. Open it up to almost any page and you will find Superman or be near a page graced by Superman. This is a Superman comic, and a very good one, too, let's get that out of the way now. After reading it, however, I find myself not wanting to write about Superman, but about the character this comic seems to really be about, the one and only, world-famous intrepid reporter Lois Lane. I want to write about Lois.

I want to write about Lois Lane, specifically, the Lois we find in this issue, written by Mr. Johns and drawn by Mr. Frank and Mr. Sibal. When first we come upon our diligent journo, she is ensconced in cubicle, hunched over keyboard, tapping (no doubt, pounding) out an article, showing only a modicum of tolerance for the horde of colleagues that have descended around her asking ridiculous questions about this flying man that has arrived in Metropolis. Her desk contains the remnants of old take-out lunches, crumpled up papers, and post-it notes scribbled with reminders for her to pick up fish food and call her cousin. She is consumed, passionate, focused on the task at hand, and she suffers fools only as much as she has to, and barely then. She is at work to work. Lois is not one for hanging by the water-cooler discussing last nights episode of 'Idol'. She doesn't care if so-and-so in the mail room is dating what's-her-name in accounting, and she doesn't care if you care. She doesn't care about your social life. She barely has one of her own. This is Lois Lane at work.

The other aspect of this issues' portrayal of Ms. Lane that intrigued was how she was drawn. This is a comic, after all, and half the story, if not a majority of it, is told through the visual cues we are given by the creators. The artist on this book, Gary Frank, possesses a strong grasp of characterization and human anatomy, and he uses these gifts to bring to fruition a complete person on the page. He draws Lois as a beautiful woman, but it is a beauty that is strong, solid, and forceful, not soft or overwhelmingly twee. There is no glow radiating off of his Lois Lane, no artificial sweeteners to gloss over the realness of this woman. She is bold of expression and powerful in her movements. She is stylish in that way that big-city women in professional careers can be stylish, if they don't over-think matters. She is in a simple long-sleeve shift dress, her only accessories a pair of plain stud earrings and a plain brown leather slouch handbag. No jangly bracelets or strings of complicated necklaces to get in the way. No "It" bag with oversized logo adornments or horse-bits or grosgrain trim. This outfit took her all of two minutes to throw on. Her hair? Well, it's there on her head, falling in slightly askew flat ribbons of raven around her face, puddling into odd curls at her shoulders, her ears poking out at the sides, cutting through the black like shark's fins. If she looks in the mirror at all at any point in the day would be surprising, and somewhat disappointing. This Lois Lane is most attractive because her effortless beauty is not born out of genetic luck, but born out of her own intelligence and complete lack of self-consciousness.

Oh, that's right. Superman. Yeah, he's in this issue, too. He flies. He punches. He looks great in blue and red. It's classic Superman and it feels right, especially since this is the only comic bearing his name on the shelves right now that actually features the man himself. Pity that DC doesn't seem to get that this is the kind of Superman comic we really need more of. This is the classic cast of characters, reunited, and it feels so good. The gang's all here; Perry White, Jimmy Olsen, Clark Kent, some guy in a cape with his underwear on the outside of his clothes, and this one woman, this one amazing, stunning, remarkable woman, named Lois Lane. To paraphrase Marlene Dietrich, I'm falling in love again, never wanted to, but I can't help it.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Review: Adventure Comics #6

Adventure Comics #6

Writer: Geoff Johns
Artist: Francis Manapul
Colorist: Brian Buccellato
Released: January 13, 2009

The dynamic between Superman and Lex Luthor is one of Good vs. Evil. For their relationship to be this black and white, both characters would have to fit these molds perfectly. Superman seems to be the epitome of truth and justice, always operating from a perspective of fairness. From his beginnings Superman was the avenger and protector of the working-class, the poor and down-trodden, pummeling away at the rich fat-cat white collars, corrupt bankers, and bought politicians. As the comics medium grew, and so too, his powers, Superman's enemies became intergalactic and universal threats, foes seemingly worthy of his almighty powers. Superman became a god walking on Earth and needed adversaries that could match or even exceed him. Enter Brainiac, Darkseid, Mongul, and the like. But the top of this list, the very peak of this villainous mountain-top remains one being; the man known as Lex Luthor.

So, if Superman is the Good of our equation, and he fits that half of the act seamlessly, then Lex must fit the Evil half as readily, as well. There must be no gray area with Luthor, no moment where we feel empathy for him, potentially even understand his motives. He must be evil, incarnate. Adventure Comics #6 goes a long way to proving this theory. We are treated to a Luthor who is the epitome of arrogance, who subscribes to his own sense of superiority so wholeheartedly, that it allows him to act with unimpeded cruelty. He can place a loaded gun against the head of his own niece as easily as take a sip of tea, and never will he feel unjustified in any and all of his actions. He is completely Superman's opposite. Superman is the God who walks with man, who seeks to understand humanity, who lives as a man with a nine-to-five job and a wife. He seeks not to subjugate, never to rule, never to lord, never to be seen as a God, only a light of hope. Lex Luthor is a man who sees himself as a God, with the power to heal, to save, to cure, and to also do none of those things if he feels slighted. He is a man playing the role of the malevolent and fickle God who plays with life out of sheer spectacle and force of his own power.

Like any god, Luthor wishes to be the people's only God, and so his hatred of Superman is simple; he hates him because he exists. All dictators and rulers throughout history have destroyed those they saw as threats to their power. Zeus killed all of the sons that were bore to him for fear they would grow to overthrow their father. Luthor claims to want to save humanity, to cure hunger and disease, and to bring peace to the world, but the price must be absolute worship. Humanity must accept him as their one and only true savior. There is no room on the mountaintop for anyone else. Only one cross can hang in everyone's living room.

What allows Lex Luthor to stand out as the absolute high-water mark of villainy in the Superman Universe is his humanity. Lex is a man, not some Fourth World god or intergalactic demon or brain interactive concept floating around space. He is a man and a villain we, unfortunately, recognize, because we see Lex Luthor everyday in our world, in our history books and in our newspapers. From the tyrannical leaders of the ancient worlds, such as the Ceasars of Rome or Khans of the East, to the modern empire builders of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin, and on up to Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, history is scattered with the men who saw themselves as ultimate rulers who held the key to peace and prosperity, if only they could be allowed to rule absolutely. If warfare and genocide were part of the package, so be it, for that was the cost of doing business if humanity was to see its way towards true order. There is nothing Luthor will not do to bring himself to absolute power. Murder is nothing. Pain, cruelty, the destruction of lives, the crushing of hopes. The cost of doing business.

This issue displays Luthor for the horrific man he truly is. When faced with the opportunity to use his intellectual gifts to cure his own sister from a severely debilitating ailment that has escaped proper diagnosis and therefore left medical science with only shots in the dark, he does so. He produces a cure from a long list of rare ingredients that he forces Superboy to procure for him. He cure his sister, allowing her to walk once more, to talk once more, to hold her daughter in her arms. Then, he takes it away. He destroys his own work, and leaves his sister once again crippled and ill. The demonstration of power, of superior intellect was all that mattered. It was never his intention to cure his sister, to end her suffering. She was merely the rabbit he pulled out of his top hat to show the audience that it could be done. Trick over, the rabbit is useless.

This is a surprisingly sad story to be wrapped in such a bright and colorful package, complete with whimsical cover of Superboy and Krypto the Super-Dog being chased by a Tyrannosaurus Rex, Superboy yelling out "Wait for me!" in retro-cover word balloon. This is Adventure Comics, after all, and yet the bulk of the story takes place in a broken-down kitchen in a small family home. Geoff Johns manages to bring the adventure in small moments, single panels of playfulness where we see Superboy in Atlantis or Paradise Island collecting ingredients for this secret cure. He balances this with the stronger moments of the book, the intimate moments back in the family kitchen where we are shown glimpses of Luthors compassion, glimpses that turn out to be false ghosts. Key to all of this is Francis Manapul who provides stunning art and layouts for this issue. There are no trapezoidal panels, no overlapping oblong shapes, only simple squares and rectangles laid out in a careful sequence, bordered by clean white. The action and emotion is allowed room to breathe, and we are allowed to be carried along with it, without the distractions of confusing panel flow. Manapul's choices are all spot-on as he shows us the pregnant stillness of the moment through leaves being crushed into hot water; the unbridled joy of a daughter's love for her newly cured mother in her bright, expressive eyes; and the smugness in the furrowed brow of a megalomanic who wields the power to save like it's a weapon.

It has long been alluded to in the comics that Lex Luthor could do just this very thing, that he could cure disease and truly save humanity, if only he would put aside his petty jealousy, his anger, his incredibly inflated ego, and stop wasting his talents on the goal of destroying Superman. In Adventure Comics #6, we are shown explicitly that this is, in fact, true, and it becomes all the more heartbreaking. All these years, all the suffering that could have been alleviated, all the death that could have been avoided, all the pain that could have been healed, is shown to us in one small intimate story. He has held the power to save and has chosen not to use it. To hold the cure for a disease and to not share that with a suffering world, is to participate in genocide as explicitly as any maniacal ruler in history. This is what makes Luthor the most horrifying villain of all, more so than Brainiac or Mongul. Those characters are aliens, figments of imagination, products of sci-fi hallucinations. Luthor is Pol Pot is Saddam Hussein is Genghis Khan. He is pure Evil, and only pure Good will defeat him.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Review: Blackest Night Wonder Woman #2 (of 3)

Blackest Night Wonder Woman #2 (of 3)

Writer: Greg Rucka
Pencillers: Nicola Scott & Eduardo Pansica
Inkers: Jonathan Glapion & Eber Ferreira
Released: January 6, 2009

Art is an amazing thing. One can dislike something but enjoy it, seemingly simultaneously. One can see that something is manipulative, and yet feel fortunate to be of a mind to be manipulated by something so worthy. One can be played with, used, cajoled by a piece of writing, have buttons pushed, and then feel an overwhelming need to thank the creators for the pleasure. If Greg Rucka were my drill sergeant, I would be a grateful soldier today. Sir, thank you, Sir! May I have another! Huah!

Blackest Night Wonder Woman #2 is an absolute pleasure to read. It is a trashy piece of pulp titillation that is also a shockingly poetic piece of superhero romanticism. It's a Girl-Fight comic full of cleavage, buttocks, thighs, splattered with blood and draped with double-entendre, that also never loses focus on the true emotional plight of the combatants. It's a horror comic with heart-eating zombies ripping open chests with tacky one-liners, and it's a romance comic of two star-crossed heroes, and it's a fetish fantasy fit for a night out in Berlin. It's almost 70 years of 4-color pulpy goodness packed into 30 pages, and it's an event tie-in that actually TIES IN to the main book by adding depth to a plot point that is otherwise given only a few panels. All for only $2.99. That's the modern-day equivalent of 10¢, don't you know.

There will always be those readers who will find physical violence between women portrayed in the vivid-color fantasy world of comics to be inherently exploitative. The title-bout match here between Black Lantern Wonder Woman and Mera is explicit and brutal, and there is no denying that the costumes, especially the skin-tight green scaly unitard worn by Queen of the Sea Mera, are meant to accentuate the toned and heightened physical female form. These things, however, I do not deem to be inherently exploitative, not strictly on their own. Superhero comics have always been a medium that stressed the celebration of peak physical condition. Jerry Siegal and Joe Shuster created SUPERman, after all. They didn't create REALISTICman or BODY-ACCEPTANCEman. They were two skinny kids who created their vision of an absolute perfect physical male specimen, dressed him in a costume that would show off every rippling muscle, and we have been running copies off their blueprint ever since. Art celebrates, it exaggerates, it pushes an agenda, and here, it gives us two incredibly hot babes brawling off a pier, falling into the water like Alexis and Krystal Carrington falling into the family pool. I choose to see nothing wrong with this, and instead, to revel in it's absolute joyous perfection.

This issue also gives us complete insight into the transformation of Wonder Woman from Black Lantern into a Star Sapphire, a transformation shown briefly in Blackest Night #6. In that issue, we learn that the violet ring of the Star Sapphires must be accepted by the person chosen, for it, like love, cannot force itself onto someone. We see our Princess Diana struggling to make that choice and cast off her ring of death. We see here what exactly is happening inside her mind as this struggle takes place. She has taken refuge inside a hallucination created for her by the goddess of love Aphrodite, who has stepped in to insure that Diana is not overtaken by darkness. In this illusory world, Wonder Woman acts out her Black Lantern bloodlust by killing her sisters. Then, as she stands over her own mother, unable to stop herself as she readies to strike the deathblow, she is saved from herself, saved from being completely possessed by this evil that has caused her to kill those she loves. She is saved by a bat.

What could be more fitting, really, than to be saved by the one man who, too, was saved by his greatest fear, who too had his entire life brought into focus one sad bloody evening when a wayward bat flew into his window? Now, Bruce Wayne, in full classic Batman regalia flies in to save a woman he obviously loves. Funny thing, though, Bruce is dead. So what Diana is seeing here is only a figment of her imagination. She and Bruce grasp each other around the neck in some form of violent waltz, literally holding each other at arm's length. As the Star Sapphire ring of violet love flies closer and closer to our heroine, she succumbs to her true feelings and these two scarred and sad superheroes share a passionate kiss. It's a kiss so powerful that it returns the color to Diana's skin, brings the golden luster back to her tiara and chest plate, brings back the stars that emblazon her suit. It is a kiss that makes her Wonder Woman.

What is beautiful about this is that it is not an example of a damsel in distress being rescued by a knight in black armor. Bruce is dead, he's not really here, this kiss is not really physically happening. This is all in Wonder Woman's mind. What is rescuing her is the power of pure true love, and when that power manifests itself into a seemingly tangible form, that form looks an awful lot like Bruce Wayne.

It is undeniable, too, that this moment is hot. It is a fantasy fetishists wet-dream, starring two of the more fetish-y heroes of the DCU. Batman dressed in black cape and cowl gripping Diana's arms tightly with his strong hands encased in black leather gloves, Wonder Woman in her golden armor with lasso hung at her hip, her mass of raven curls flowing around her. It's brazenly sexual and unapologetically so, and rightfully so on both counts. These are two characters who seemingly represent two opposites of the hero spectrum, coming together in a intimately physical way. This is the duality of sex and love manifested in capes and masks. It's also a hot guy and a hot gal dressed in bondage gear gettin' it on. Therapists could have a field day.

It would be a cynic who could argue that this issue is all just exploitative catfights and make-out sessions, written solely for the arousal of a base, and debased, readership. If it were only this, I would still heartily defend it, for there is nothing wrong with the base pleasures in life, and there is nothing wrong with a work of art fashioned to fulfill these said pleasures. Truth be told, a strong case could be made that this issue is just that, with some ham-fisted overwrought dialogue tacked on to give the proceedings an emotional weight it does not deserve. This argument, ultimately, carries no water, though. These characters are feeling this pain and this heartbreak and we are feeling it along with them; it is real and on the page, not just in the reader's mind as some moral rationalization. If the emotional core of this story is told with a hard visceral edge it's because Rucka understands that sometimes you have to break the skin to get all the medicine in. All's fair in love and war, never more true than when love is war.