So after a few weeks of holidays and Doomsday Clock dissection, the review stack’s gotten pretty tall. But the amount of time I have to deal with it is still pretty short. So let’s see how much we can get done before deadline, shall we…?
Heroes in Crisis 4
by Tom King and Clay Mann
After last issue’s really quite affecting flashback to Sanctuary before the bloodshed, this issue returns to the aftermath, and to the frustrations I had with the series’ first two issues (namely, that it’s so well-done that I want to like it, but it irritates me in ways that make me not like it). But after last issue, I think I’ve figured something out: I really like the pre-massacre Sanctuary stuff, and kinda hate the post-massacre mystery and manhunt stuff.
Which is unfortunate, because the post-massacre stuff is the actual plot of the series. But that’s the part I think is weakest. It’s unfocused and, frankly, kinda dull. I have only the vaguest impression of what Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman have been doing to investigate the murders, and even less idea of how much time it’s taken them to do it. Superman says that he’s known about Lois Lane getting the Sanctuary videos for “a few days,” but that doesn’t tell us much. And if that’s the case… What the hell has he been doing over the course of those days? I mean, I realize there has to have been a mourning process here. But considering how much this book is about trauma, you’d think we’d be shown some of that. Instead, all we get is Wonder Woman bottling up her anger until she gets so frustrated that she punches out Batman’s giant penny.
Basically, the three greatest super heroes in funnybook history look completely ineffectual. And King hasn’t earned that. He hasn’t convinced me that they wouldn’t be doing one hell of a lot better job investigating the murders and apprehending the known psychopath who’s one of their primary suspects. That second thing especially bugs me. We’re talking about Harley Quinn here, after all. She’s a cool character, but she’s not freaking Darkseid. Given a list of places Batman thinks Harley might hide, Superman could most likely locate her in an hour or two, without ever getting close enough for her to even know he’s there. And then (since Harley, preposterously, has managed to escape with a chunk of Kryptonite in her hand), Batman and Wonder Woman could just go in and get her. That’s one night’s work, tops.
Of course, I’m not even sure why the case seems so focused on Booster and Harley in the first place. Circumstantial evidence makes them suspects, certainly, but considering what we know about the condition of the bodies, this doesn’t look like something either of them could pull off. There’s also the issue of Booster’s suddenly-not-functioning force field, and the way Sanctuary’s holodeck technology could very easily have been perverted to make both Booster and Harley see whatever the real perpetrator wanted them to see. So why Our Heroes aren’t pushing harder on other suspects is also beyond me. I might be looking into, say, Lex Luthor’s recent activities, because this seems a lot more like something he would do than something Booster or Harley are capable of. The entire story, in other words, hinges on the Big Three (and now, the entire superhuman community) being a lot stupider than I would expect them to be. So, considering all that, I just kind of reject the whole story.
Except, of course, for the Sanctuary stuff. That remains brilliant. I was especially fond, this issue, of what King did with Donna Troy.
Wow. That’s a fine metaphor for the way Donna herself seems to flicker in and out of existence, according to the whims of whichever Wonder Woman ret-con is currently in vogue. I have no idea if King has a larger point to make about that status here, but that is the same problem Wally West was at Sanctuary to deal with. And the above page is preceded by a sequence with a stinking drunk Tempest (aka Aqualad), who’s been similarly orphaned by continuity. Hell, even the Protector seems to have been dragged back into existence from the pages of the Teen Titans anti-drug comic, just to be killed off here. That’s a lotta messed up Titans. So maybe there’s something there. As long as it doesn’t involve anyone blaming Dr. Manhattan for their woes, I’d be good with it.
So what else? Hmm. The Black Canary therapy session (which she blows off after three panels) is pretty funny. And the Batgirl page is quite powerful…
…but not as powerful as it might be, if Clay Mann didn’t hyper-sexualize every female figure he draws. It’s not as extreme on this page as on some others, mind you, and part of the problem is also the current Batgirl costume, which is basically just a body stocking. Honestly, I might not have noticed Mann’s treatment of it at all if we hadn’t just gotten a full-page Lois Lane lingerie splash.
Because, holy cow. Even taken in context, that page injects a sexual element into the story that’s just not there. I mean, that’s a scene change. We go from Booster Gold’s confession to this, and the story’s emphasis on the secret lives of super heroes drives your mind right into the gutter. It’s really just a conversation about the Sanctuary tapes she’s been receiving in the mail, but it’s hard not to think that we’ve just seen Lois Lane asking Superman which of his favorite sex acts he wants her to perform. So when we get Batgirl, literally two pages later, drawn as if she’s wearing body paint instead of clothing, we’ve already got sex on the brain, and it distracts from a scene that should have been really powerful.
And that, perhaps, is what bugs me about Heroes in Crisis in general: what could be a very powerful story about trauma is continually undercut by things that distract from the trauma itself. I can’t help thinking I’d like the story a lot more if it was written on a smaller scale that allowed more focus on the characters and their problems, with less time spent trying to rock the foundations of the super hero world. But instead, we’ve got a mixed bag of very skilled writing in service to a story can’t get out of its own way. I really want to like it. But King and Mann are making that hard to do.
Hmm. Well, that took longer than I’d intended. Maybe we should just go to thumbnail review mode for the rest of this stack…
Andrew Maclean’s Head Lopper Quarterly Adventure Comic released issue 10 recently, featuring part two of the “Knights of Venora” storyline. I like the variety of story Maclean’s giving us in this book. It’s all sword and sorcery fantasy stuff, of course, but the first arc was dark pacts and attempted coups, the second was all gladiatorial dungeon adventures, and now we’re on to court intrigue and religious intolerance. But it’s all fun pulpy stuff drawn in an appealingly cartoony style that you don’t see much of in American comics anymore. Always look forward to it.
The semi-retired Alan Moore’s had two books out in the last month, albeit one of them a reprint. That’s the new color version of From Hell, with hues laid in by original artist Eddie Campbell. It’s an interesting experiment, but one that I’m not sure I actually like. Campbell’s colors are attractive and appropriately subdued, and there are places where they look quite nice.
But overall, the color detracts from the scratchy, grainy original black and white art. There’s a lot of loose cross-hatching that worked well as shading when the book was in black and white, but a lot of it just winds up looking messy when you lay color behind it. You don’t need both, I’m afraid, so I’m thinking I may give the rest of these reprints a miss. It does give me an excuse to re-read the book, but considering that I’ve got it in at least three other formats, I think I could manage that without spending eight bucks a pop just to have it in a fourth.
Moore’s other book was the third issue of The Tempest, the latest (and final) volume in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series. Tempest is turning out to be a lighter and slightly more satirical work than previous League volumes, and that’s not necessarily a good thing from my perspective. Light satire is not Moore’s strong suit, and without the underpinning of more serious drama that this series has had in the past, I’m not enjoying it nearly as much as I might. I mean, the book IS named after Shakespeare’s flashiest and least-substantial play, so I suppose I should have expected as much. But it just seems a lesser work overall, and I’d have liked the League series to conclude with something a bit meatier. This issue does come with 3D glasses, though, and the Blazing World sequence they’re included for is pretty spectacular psychedelia.
So maybe I should just learn to sit back and enjoy the ride.
Meanwhile, David and Maria Lapham continued to rock my funnybook world with the second issue of The Lodger, his story about a serial killer who works as a travel blogger, and the young woman who’s devoted her life to stopping him. This issue, we learn that Our (Ostensible) Hero, Ricky, is maybe a bit more messed up than she appeared at first, and get some of the background between her and the killer. His MO seems to be to give the appearance of a nice guy and slowly worm his way into the confidence of his victims. There’s also some fascinating self-recrimination on his blog that (alongside the near-mercy-killing nature of the one murder we’ve seen him commit) makes me think there’s also more to him than we know at this point. So that’s more top-notch crime fiction from the Laphams, who are turning out maybe my favorite comics right now.
Also still in my good graces (though less so) is Brian Michael Bendis. In issue 1006 of Action Comics, he continues to bring the goods, delivering the kind of back-to-basics-for-the-21st-Century Superman stories I want to read, with a continued emphasis on life in Metropolis and the Daily Planet newsroom. This issue’s fight scene between Superman and the Red Cloud does show his weakness in writing super-powered fight scenes, mind you, as they spend six pages just kind of flying around each other with little clear indication of what they’re doing, before ending the confrontation in a draw. It’s a scene that could have used some of that “Superman talking about his powers” narration that’s been so effective elsewhere in the Bendis run. But, ah well. I’m still very much enjoying the intrigue and ensemble cast feel of the book, so I’m along for the ride.
Off in Bendis’ creator-owned titles, we’ve got his and Mike Oeming’s United States vs Murder Inc #4, in which Our Heroes assassinate the President of the United States. It’s a hell of an issue, filled with cool visuals and featuring one great skeevy moment I’ll not soon forget: the President catches a bullet in the head while receiving sexual favors from one of her secret service bodyguards. It’s great stuff, and I have no idea where the book will go from here.
In issue five of Scarlet, meanwhile, Bendis pulls a trick that I’m not 100% happy with: Scarlet escapes the siege of Portland, only to discover that she’s inspired a nation-wide rebellion. Major cities across America are in open revolt, and those in power are actually quite scared. Which is a neat trick, but it disappoints me that we didn’t get to see that happen. It sounds like a much better story than the one we actually got. I suppose it opens the book up to some interesting “what do you do when your rebellion succeeds?” stuff for the next volume, though, so we’ll see where things go. Whenever Bendis and Maleev get around to doing that…
Pearl also released its fifth issue recently, and I liked that better. I do fear that some inertia might set in, now that they’ve expanded the book to 12 issues rather than six, but if Michael Gaydos continues to deliver artwork this good…
…that’ll at least make the pill go down a bit more smoothly.
(An aside, here: do yourself a favor and read Pearl in print if you can. The above image – pretty as it is – wasn’t my first choice. But whoever’s doing the color treatment for the digital version of this book is doing it a terrible disservice, brightening the colors on the darker pages to the point that it ruins the effect Gaydos achieves on the printed page. Some of the digital pages are downright fugly in comparison, and that really sucks. Because on paper, this book is GORGEOUS.)
Moving on from Bendis, we have Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans’ DIE, which is essentially the old Dungeons & Dragons cartoon mixed with Stephen King’s It. It’s about a group of teenagers who went missing 25 years ago, in the middle of a role-playing game. Whisked off to a land of mystical magical bullshit, they reappeared two years later, bearing wounds both physical and mental. And one of them didn’t make it back. Now, as adults, they’re drawn back to finish the game. I liked this first issue more than I expected to, but I haven’t decided yet if I’ll be going back for more. I’ve seen this same basic idea so many times before that Gillen’s going to have to really deliver something amazing to keep my attention. But it’s well-done so far, and if you didn’t spend your youth gorging yourself on bad fantasy novels, it might be an interesting new experience.
And finally, though I’m running out of time, I would feel bad if I didn’t give a shout-out to first issue of Steve Orlando and Riley Rossmo’s Martian Manhunter. I’m a big fan of this character, and going in I wasn’t at all excited about the prospect of him being re-imagined as a dirty cop on Mars, trying to make up for past misdeeds here on Earth. But, you know… I’ve always loved Martian Manhunter more for being such a weird-ass idea than I have because there’ve been so many great stories about him. Because, honestly… There haven’t. Most Martian Manhunter comics have, quite frankly, sucked. But this one does not. It’s imaginative and visually inventive, and gives the character a lively and interesting backstory for maybe the first time ever. It ain’t high art, but it is a Martian Manhunter comic I actually like, so I ain’t complaining.
Aaaaand… That’s all I’ve got time for this week. So long, and thanks for reading.