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Monday, March 25, 2013

Comics thoughts for the week of 3/20/13

Another good week for comics this week, which marked my attempt to sample two new titles to unfortunately no success, as well as marking the end of the first significant run of the New 52, of which I will be elaborating on a bit today, as always spoilers are a go!

Featured comic of the week

Action Comics #18
w - Grant Morrison, a - Rags Morales, Brad Walker

It was July of 2011, when basically on a whim, Hannah and I decided to venture to San Diego Comic Con for the first time. Our con going experiences were limited to Dragon*Con each year (of which this year will be my 17th, by the way), and we decided that we really wanted to see the nation's biggest cultural event for the geek set. My comic buying had basically devolved to just three titles at that point, Grant Morrison's Batman Inc., Geoff Johns' Green Lantern, and Paul Levitz's Legion of Super-heroes. But, my interest in the art form still survived and I knew that there would still be many things, along with the obvious tv and movie panels, that we just had to see.

One of the areas that immediately grabbed my attention was DC's New 52 initiative. For those unaware, this is where DC to restart every title from scratch, give or take (ironically, the three titles I was reading were the least affected by the restart). The number one panel, and the only actual comic book panel that Hannah joined me to see that year was Grant Morrison's Q&A. In short, I'm a huge fan of the writer, as evidenced by the fact I was reading his prose book "Supergods" on the flight over and during the majority of that extended trip. What was most exciting was that Morrison would be taking over the relaunch of Action Comics, the book that without exception, created the concept of the super-hero in the late 1930s. I knew this would be a title I would immediately be picking up.

It's funny, in the long history of my comics buying habit, I've only ever really followed Superman on a regular basis once and that was during the title's death and return hey-day in the mid 90's. It's not that I never connected with the character, actually quite the opposite, but it was the quality of the writers that DC brought on board that made me consistently want to avoid the book and it's on-going happenings. Even really great writers, like Greg Rucka, have faltered with the character, producing sadly sub-par runs. In the past ten years, I'd argue that only Brian Azzarello, Geoff Johns, and Morrison himself with the brilliant All Star Superman have produced storylines with the character that were worth noticing (though I do submit that many disagree with me on the Azzarello/Jim Lee arc). Even in film, generally good filmmakers like Tim Burton, JJ Abrams, and Brian Singer have struggled to produce well accepted adaptations, though again I tend to break with the pack and state my affection for Superman Returns which was the culmination of alot of stumbles throughout the 90's and early 2000's.

Morrison had a pretty unenviable task, to reinterpret DC's now arguably second biggest icon (having fallen behind Batman in popularity over the years) for a brand new audience. It's funny to think about how many origins for the character the company has produced and never quite stuck with. John Byrne put out the good but certainly dated into its 80's origins "The Man of Steel", which was then somewhat complimented, somewhat replaced by Mark Waid's "Birthright", which were both wiped out by Geoff Johns' "Secret Origin". While the former two were modern (for their time) retellings of where Superman began, so to speak, "Secret Origin" reintroduced much of the silver-age concepts that were banished by DC in the mid 80's. While, these tales focused on beginnings, Morrison was more in line previously with Superman's ending. His "All-Star Superman" (or as I prefer to call it, The Twelve Labors of Superman) was his version of Kal-El's final days. A great story that many call the perfect love letter to the character, it also joined "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" and "Kingdom Come" as the three key works that examined this particular plot through-line. Interestingly enough, Batman had only had two alterations to his Golden Age beginnings, most importantly "Batman Year One", which never really was replaced until recently presumably, nor did it need to be.

What's funny about Morrison's Action Comics #1 is that instead of utilizing the Silver Age tropes of Geoff Johns, he focuses on a Golden Age paradigm. His Clark Kent starts out as a t-shirt and jeans wearing crusader for the common man, which is very much in line with the character as originally envisioned by Siegel and Shuster in its embryonic stage. The first few issues delved into the wonder of this character and the impact he immediately had on 21st Century Metropolis, with scientists hoping to experiment upon him and find out just what his threat level to the planet was. Taken on it's own, the initial arc which introduces us to Lois, Jimmy, Lex Luthor, Metallo, John Henry Irons and eventually Brainiac (in a very inspired bit of writing) works quite well as a "first contact" style story.

In between the arc, and later reprinted after this first storyline in the eventual "Superman and the Men of Steel" trade paperback that collected the first 8 issues, readers were given a peek into the villain: a Fifth Dimensional Imp called Vyndktvx. To go too far into the details would ruin the overall arc, but in his extended 18 issue run on the title, Morrison tackles social justice, xenophobia, liberalistic overconfidence, domestic abuse, various levels of consciousness, the power of ideas and a dystopian future looking to restore its utopian hopes. I'm sad to say it's a run that not many people warmed too, which is a shame, as it seems like most readers wanted "Superman punches the bad guy", which is the same story we've gotten basically since the Byrne days save the aforementioned examples. Not everything works out well, the "First Superman" storyline is probably the biggest sore spot as it just kind of comes up for two issues, goes away and then comes back again in the finale; but it's hard for me to imagine a better thinking man's version of this character's mythos. Rather than myth-making, Morrison is aiming to create a folk-tale and I'd argue that he succeeded in the majority of these 18 issues.

The finale itself closes off all of the hanging plot threads, Clark's battle with SuperDoom, Vyndktvx and his Anti-Superman Army, Captain Comet and his Wanderers, the ailing Mr. Mxyzptlk, and the Legion of Superheroes founders looking to restore their rightful future. The book is full of well-rendered Morales images, and I found that the Brad Walker fill-in pages worked very well in collaboration with Morales' work here. Much like Morrison's writing in Final Crisis and Batman, this is the kind of tale that works better if you read it at least a second time, and fairly slowly to savor the ideas that he's pumping out a mile a minute. There's alot of story here, and I'd argue its the exact opposite of what you might get out of a Brian Michael Bendis, via what can only be called "compressed storytelling". You definitely get your money's worth provided you enjoy what Morrison is weaving here.

The story closes satisfactorily enough, there are no real major revelations; Superman wins and Morrison, much like he always does after one his runs, he puts the toys back on the shelf for the next writer to take on the character (more on that shortly). In a way, he finishes this "epic" not unlike how he finished off Animal Man, breaking the fourth wall and even allowing himself to re-don the fictional "Grant Morrison" persona that appears and plays some final role in the climactic moment. To some this would be seen as a stroke of ego, and perhaps it is, but for those of us that are longtime fans of the writer, this was the icing on the cake, as both he and "Ralph Morales" are amongst the denizens of Metropolis that help push Vyndktvx back to the 5th Dimension from whence he came.

I'm concerned though about where it all goes from here. A few months ago, DC had announced that Andy Diggle would be taking over the title from Morrison post his exit. Last week, on New Comic Day to be exact, Diggle announced via Twitter that he was leaving the book and DC stated that Tony Daniel, the artist for the run, would finish the scripting duties for the initial arc that he and Diggle were to write. DC has an opportunity here to do something interesting despite the bad news for them. I make no secret about it that I'm not much of a Diggle fan generally, so his exit wasn't one that I found as distressing as some of my fellow writers in the blogosphere. When Morrison was on the title, DC, for the first time in as many years as I can remember, had three excellent writers helming their "Big Three" of Wonder Woman (Azzarello), Batman (Scott Snyder), and Superman (via Action with Morrison). Now there's a giant question mark as to who will take over that title. Certainly, there's buzz abound with Snyder's upcoming collaboration with Jim Lee, "Superman Unchained" which may very well become the flagship title of the line, but it remains to be seen how Snyder's generally darker aesthetic works with a character as bright as Superman. In an ideal world, I'd love to see DC really take a gamble and throw a wonderfully promising writer like Matt Kindt the biggest opportunity of his career like they did with Scott Snyder at one point, but DC doing something like that is about as likely as DC giving away their comics for free. Remember, this is the company that put Scott Lobdell on a Superman book, one that I outright gave up on within one issue. They'll need to announce something fairly soon, as July solicits hit next month. My prediction: Greg Pak gets the nod since he'll be handling the upcoming Batman/Superman title that also takes place in the past. Though I must admit, the idea of Sholly Fisch taking over would not be an unattractive option either, as I feel like his backups in Action were stellar, as was his solo scripting on the Annual.

More to come on this item very, very soon, as I imagine DC won't wait too long to make an announcement to try and build some anticipation for a character that needs some before Man of Steel hits theaters. At least I hope not, the last thing we need is another Lobdell-like creator coming on board. Learn your lesson DC, learn your lesson, please? Anyway, pick up Action Comics #18, it might be the last time this title is readable for awhile.

I give it an B+

One sentence reviews:

Mind MGMT #9 - Great, with just a point deducted for an anti-climatic ending, somebody give Matt Kindt a major title sometime soon. A-

Constantine #1 - It's fine, fairly dull overall, I won't be buying another one. C

Five Ghosts: The Hauntine of Fabian Gray #1 - I'm sad to say I found this book actively terrible and maybe the worst comic I've read all year, instant purchasing regret. F

Daredevil #24 - It looks like we're finally starting to learn who may be pulling the strings, though the active plot didn't move much here, still a nice read. B

Legion of Super-Heroes #18 - This may be the final breaking point with the Legion and I, as I can feel the influence of Giffen waning already, what a shame. C+

Batwoman #18 - McCarthy's art definitely impresses here, and I'm glad there was a nice little confrontation between Batman and Batwoman for once. B+

Wonder Woman #18 - And the baby arc finally comes to a close, still despite some of the slow moving-ness of this title, there's alot to appreciate here. B+

Justice League #18 - A not bad "let's expand the roster" issue, though Avengers arguably did it better a few months ago. B-

Justice League of America #2 - The Kindt backup was nicely done, though the main story kind of halfway grabs me, I do appreciate the attempt at synergy between the three JL titles. B

Avengers #8 - Good Starbrand tale with a nice couple of nods to its sister title of New Avengers, lots of fun. B+

New Avengers #4 - Undeniably the best comic of the week, that ending was suitably epic and heroic, I'm a Hickman fan for sure. A

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