So our Steve Ditko memorial post last week put us a little behind on the regular funnybook reviews, but it seems to have been rather widely enjoyed, so I suppose that’s okay. Still, though, there’s a lot to talk about. There were new issues of several continuing favorites, but also some new beginnings for old favorites, including a surprising amount of surprisingly interesting corporate spandex. So let’s focus on those new beginnings, starting with (perversely) an ending…
League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Tempest 1
by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill
So here we are. The last League of Extraordinary Gentlemen book, and what may very well be the last funnybook Alan Moore ever writes. I hope he changes his mind somewhere down the line, but if not… I guess I’ll just try to enjoy this send-off while I can.
That said, this first issue was a little hit and miss for me. Granted, all the proper elements are there. Moore’s packing in the literary references as densely as ever, riffing on everything from Yellow Submarine to The Devil Rides Out. There’s also a heavy brace of British comics being referenced here, complete with black and white pages (some of them done sideways, in the style of newspaper strips) and even an oblique reference to Moore’s own work on Marvelman, in the person of Mick Anglo’s stand-in character Captain Universe.
He’s moving the story forward, too, replacing the deceased Allan Quatermain in our trio of heroes with Emma Night (Moore’s stand-in for the still-under-copyright Emma Peel), and following naturally with the new raft of old enemies she brings with her, including a malevolent stand-in for James Bond last seen (if I remember correctly) in Black Dossier. There’s a real sense of past story threads being drawn together here in general, though; some of the British comics stuff features characters from Mina’s Silver Age super hero team (which we’ve only seen referenced in passing before now), who’ve returned with a warning from the future about an impending disaster that will shape the future.
So it’s all here, just like always. But something about this first issue just feels off, to me. LOEG has always walked a fine line between serious adventure fiction, cultural critique, and satire. But something in the tone of this issue makes the whole thing feel a bit too light. It nearly teeters over the edge into farce, and… well… There aren’t many types of writing Alan Moore isn’t good at, but farce tops the list.
I mean, maybe it was just my mood when I read it. Maybe it’ll click for me on the re-read (something I always do, with any Alan Moore project). Or maybe this issue was just a bit too light, and future issues will restore the usual balance of satire and pathos. We’ll see. For now, though, this first issue ranks a rather low score for an Alan Moore book…
Captain America 1
by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Leinil Francis Yu, Gerry Alanguilan, and Sunny Cho
With all due respect to Mark Waid, who did a workmanlike (and probably necessary) job getting people’s minds off Nazi Cap and the events of Secret Empire… Ta-Nehisi Coates is probably the best possible writer to take over Captain America right now. I’m sure cries of “social justice warrior” are already going up from the usual camps that cry about things like that, and Coates probably fits that bill as well as anybody. He’s made a career out of socially-conscious journalism, and for many is the very definition of what it means to be “woke.”
But personally, I’m okay with that. Pettiness and greed get plenty of free press, just as an unfortunate downside of living in a capitalist culture. So we also need people out there reminding us not to be assholes, just to balance things out. And somewhere, we meet in the middle to maintain a functioning society. It’s all about that give and take. And if anywhere is an appropriate place to appeal to our better natures, to the ideals of freedom and equality that America was founded to aspire toward, Captain America is it. It’s in times like these, in fact, when America is having spirited conversations about what it means to BE American, that this book thrives.
Well, okay. It also thrives in times when Cap can just go out and punch clearly evil despots in the face.
But we live in more complicated times. So having a socially-conscious writer at the helm allows us to examine those complications, and hopefully find our way through them. And if he can tell a compelling super hero story while he’s at it… All the better! So far, I think Coates is pulling it off pretty well. What’s he serving up for us? Let’s see…
We’ve got Hydra in Russia, pitted against a group featuring the immortal mutant vampire goddess Selene, who’s also (in her secret identity) at the head of a “faith-based initiatives task force” for the US government.
And speaking of the US government… In the wake of the Hydra take-over, they’re making nice with some pretty questionable figures. Disgraced General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross is back in the saddle, for instance, and they’ve wiped Bucky’s record clean, too. Both of them were ostensibly brought into the fold because they helped in the fight against Hydra, but there’s also an implication that they’re really valued because in the past they’ve shown a penchant for moral ambiguity. Sharon Carter’s also been recruited, to run whatever it is they’re going to replace SHIELD with, so it’s not all bad. But then again, there’s also this…
…and if praise for Baron Strucker’s not a red flag, I don’t know what is.
Meanwhile, America’s dealing with all kinds of splinter threats. A trio of white terrorists who’ve been given the “Nuke” treatment…
…go on a shooting spree on the National Mall in Washington, high-strung patriots driven to violence out of a sense of betrayal in the wake of the Hydra takeover. But Hydra also had its share of loyalists among the general population…
…a fact that doesn’t sit well with Cap.
And what of Cap himself? How is Our Hero bucking up under all this chaos? Well, it’s making him more a man out of time than ever before. The government is shutting him out in favor of people who are capable of greater moral compromise, and the average citizen doesn’t know whether they can trust him or not. The official story is that Hydra stole his face and his name, and that he orchestrated their downfall when he came back. But nobody knows if they can believe that story, so Cap’s got a long way to go before he can win them over again. And until he does, with his primary support system working on the inside and unable to keep him in the loop… He feels very much alone, in an America that he increasingly doesn’t recognize.
So! We’ve got international intrigue, homegrown super-terrorists, equally homegrown fascists, potentially shady government deals, and an isolated symbol of America who’s going to have to work hard to regain the public trust. It’s exciting stuff, if not exactly what I’d call “escapist.” The parallels to our current political situation, after all, aren’t hard to see. In real life, we’ve got a president cozying up to Russian dictators, a vocal neo-nazi community making waves, a rash of mass shootings, rising paranoia on all sides of the political divide… It’s chaos out there. Lots of people feel like things are spinning out of control, and that America’s in danger of turning into something they neither recognize nor want. Reading about Captain America dealing with a super hero version of the same malaise may not allow us to get away from it all, but it may be cathartic in a way that we need more than we know.
Time will tell, I suppose. Whether it’s catharsis or irritation may ultimately depend on your politics. And on how Ta-Nehisi Coates chooses to deal with it. This issue didn’t blow me away, but I like the ideas it’s grappling with, and so I’m curious enough to ride along for a while, just to see where it goes.
Man of Steel 6
by Brian Michael Bendis and Jason Fabok
by Brian Michael Bendis, Ivan Reis, and Joe Prado
In the last two weeks, Brian Bendis has finished the introduction to his Superman run, and started the run itself. And my review of the work, for better or worse, remains the same: When he’s writing about Superman and his life and his powers and the various goings-on around him in Metropolis, I like it quite a bit. But when he’s writing about his new villain, Rogol Zaar, I just want the comic to be over with, and to never see that character again. Everything about him increasingly feels like a bad idea to me, and every page that features him steers the book in a direction I actively don’t want to read.
Which sucks for me, because Rogol Zaar is the inescapable focal point of this thing. He gets zapped away into the Phantom Zone in Man of Steel 6, leaving Superman 1 blissfully free of him. But then Earth gets zapped into the Phantom Zone right behind him, so I know he’ll be rolling back in to stink the joint up again next month. Bendis is not going to get rid of the bastard anytime soon.
So I’m left with a question: Do I like the rest of the book enough to put up with the Rogol Zaar crap? Or does my complete and total rejection of everything about that character overwhelm my enjoyment of the rest?
I just don’t know. But there are other problems. Much as I enjoyed the new Superman #1 on the whole, it does feature my least favorite Bendis habit: lazy writing. Early in the issue, Supes takes out an entire Dominator armada in the space of two pages, almost as an afterthought, thus turning a cool alien menace into nonthreatening throw-away villains. Also? I don’t see how he did it without killing anyone.
Multiple massive explosions, with no sign of him rescuing anyone or even making mention of how careful he’s being to disable the ships without causing undue injury to their inhabitants. Sure, we see a few Dominators in space suits out there, but… I’m having a hard time believing that he didn’t just kill a whole bunch of people out of unthinking carelessness. I know that’s not the intent of the scene, but that’s how it plays. And that bugs me, on the level of basic craftsmanship.
On a positive note there, though, I do really like Ivan Reis’ art on that spread. The whole issue looks nice, in fact, which is a pleasant surprise for me, as I’ve never much cared for Reis’ art before. He’s always struck me as a decent funnybook artist in the George Perez mode, but not very interesting beyond that. There’s a richness to his work here that I like quite a bit, though. Whether that’s due to him stepping up to the plate for an historic book like a new Superman first issue, or due to the inks of Joe Prado, I don’t know. But I liked the art here, and after I crapped on Reis so hard for his Terrifics issues, I thought it was only right that I mention it.
Wish I could say the same for Bendis. There’s enough good stuff here that I guess I’ll stick around a while longer. I mean, I would love the idea of the entire Earth being moved into the Phantom Zone, if it didn’t mean that I’d have to suffer through more Rogol Zaar. And, hey. Who knows? Maybe Action Comics will feature him less. Or not at all. Not at all would be great…
The Immortal Hulk 1 &2
by Al Ewing, Joe Bennett, and Ruy Jose
I picked up both issues of this new Al Ewing Hulk run on the same day, after reading some interesting things about it on-line, and now that I’ve read them, I… can’t quite make up my mind.
On the one hand, I like the idea of doing the Hulk as a horror comic, focusing on the terror inherent in a man turning into a monster. I also really like the idea that something’s gone wrong with Bruce Banner’s recent resurrection, so that now the Hulk has a portion of Banner’s intellect that Banner himself is missing. But this isn’t a “Hulk with Banner’s brain” scenario. No, the IQ points he’s absorbed are dedicated to raw cunning, and powers of perception so strong that, on first reading, I thought he’d developed psychic powers.
Alongside that is the distinct possibility that the Hulk is now the dominant personality, influencing Banner’s decisions and guiding him toward things the Hulk wants rather than anything that would make Banner happy. I mean, Banner says that he wants to make up for past wrongs, and the Hulk does seem hell-bent on seeking vengeance against people whose actions have turned them into monsters. But Banner also says that he needs to get in touch with his wife to let her know he’s alive… but maybe not right now.
So I think that’s a pretty interesting way to approach the character. Exploring that dichotomy between good and evil… man and monster… is right in the book’s thematic wheelhouse. There’s even an element that suggests it’s really about Banner trying to figure out his own tortured soul. Both people the Hulk’s gone after in these first two issues mirror some aspect of Banner himself. The second issue, for instance, is about a scientist who uses Banner’s own research to inadvertently create a radioactive killing zone in a small town.
But I might like the link in the first issue even better. That one’s about a desperate young man who robs a convenience store and winds up killing everyone inside… including Banner. That’s how they get involved in the case, and though Hulk tells the shooter it’s about the 12-year-old girl he also killed…
…you’ve gotta think it’s really about getting back at the guy who shot Banner in the head. But there’s another link, too. Before Hulk beats the guy to within an inch of his life (interestingly, he hasn’t killed either of his victims yet), he gives a little speech about power.
That speaks pretty much directly to Banner’s own sins. So, yeah. This thing is about personal soul-searching as much as anything else, and that’s also very much in the Hulk wheelhouse. I dig it.
But on the other hand… Well… I was going to say that the whole vengeance-seeking thing makes the book a little too much like the Spectre, but… Ewing’s written this with enough subtlety that I think he overcomes those similarities.
But I still have a complaint, and it’s that these two issues… well-written as they are, and as much as I like the ideas they’re exploring… didn’t really thrill me all that much. The story of the young shooter is nothing new, and Ewing didn’t particularly make me feel his desperation. The second issue was more novel, but still not all that exciting. I like the horror approach, too, but so far I haven’t really been scared by it. Not even the Hulk is truly scary here, except on a conceptual level, and that’s kind of a problem.
So I connect with the book intellectually, but would like to have a more visceral reaction to it, as well. I’ll read a couple more, just to see if Ewing can give me both, but in the meantime, this one scores a hopeful…