Friday, December 31, 2004

Comics Roundup 2004

Everybody's reading Heidi MacDonald's year-in-review essay, and you should too.

As for me, it was another year of mostly Big DC names, which meant frustration at the top. None of the three regular Superman titles stood out this year. Each had positive qualities which were dragged down by some negative aspect. The Batman books were defined by their "events," most of which centered around Robin and bore little fruit despite big promises. Stephanie Brown's potential as Robin was wasted in favor of cheap melodrama. A.J. Lieberman emasculated the Joker in favor of elevating Hush, nobody's favorite villain. '05 looks better for both sets of titles, with Gail Simone writing Action Comics, David Lapham writing Detective Comics, and Judd Winick writing Batman.

Superman/Batman could be a good title once Jeph Loeb leaves (after #25, which you'd think would come out next year, but no guarantees). Two words -- you've heard 'em before -- dueling narrations. The book appears to be written for longtime fans who also need to be told what they are seeing and reminded of what they already know. Finally, for something which purported to redefine Superman's origins yet again -- and which told a pretty enjoyable story to boot -- nobody in the main Superman books seemed to know what to do with Superman: Birthright. I've already mentioned my anticipation of the Superman and Batman All-Star books.

The often-overlooked third member of DC's Big Three, Wonder Woman, steadily built momentum throughout the year. We'll see how far Greg Rucka takes the fallout from the Medousa battle, but overall this book hit its stride in 2004. It was consistently entertaining, and Rucka and Drew Johnson have really carved out their own particular niche for the character. They are the first team to show her fully realized as both adventurer and ambassador, a logical progression from a foundation laid almost 20 years ago.

Did you know that there were actually 18 issues of JLA published in 2004? Holy biweeklies, Batman! That's right -- between the 6-part biweekly "Tenth Circle" and the 6-part biweekly "Pain of the Gods," we got 6 more issues of this title than a monthly schedule would otherwise require. The bad news is, both of those stories were pretty craptacular; the good news is that they were over twice as fast. I'm glad Kurt Busiek is the new regular JLA writer -- he had a long and fruitful tenure on Avengers, so hopefully he can do the same here. Justice League Elite I dropped after two issues because I really didn't know what was going on and didn't care. If the whole thing is collected, I might give it another chance, but I didn't think it deserved my monthly investment. Conversely, I am very happy with JLA Classified. Not only has it opened with another gem from JLA resuscitator Grant Morrison, in 2005 it will be the home of the can't-miss "I Can't Believe It's The Justice League!"

Green Lantern and Legion were both cancelled in favor of high-profile makeovers. GL's featured a space-pirate adventure that was mildly diverting. I sometimes imagine Kyle Rayner as played by Joey Tribbiani, so it was a little hard to take him undercover in a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Kyle's sendoff aimed to disconnect him completely from the Earth, and one unfortunate refrigerator scene later, it shore did. Legion's era ended, not in a big Ragnarok-type bang, but whimpering out with a terrorist storyline only featuring about half the team. The door was shut on this particular 31st Century with the Teen Titans/Legion special, a big fight that the Legion didn't even get to itself.

Now we have Green Lantern Rebirth, which aims to restore the Green Lantern Corps status quo completely; and Legion of Super-Heroes, which wants to establish its own rules while remaining true to its inspiration. Both have many good points, although I wish there was a little of LSH's make-something-new spirit in Rebirth. (Something like the new Firestorm, a very pleasant surprise made even more so by writer Dan Jolley's more recent visits with old-school friends and foes.) Still, Geoff Johns is doing a yeoman's job trying to rehabilitate Hal Jordan, and for the most part he is succeeding.

But what to do about Johns otherwise? At the risk of sounding overly grumpy, the Barry Allen Flash and the first 10 years or so of the Wally West Flash were characterized by light-heartedness. This was exemplified by the conduct of the old Rogues' Gallery -- a bunch of goofballs who just wanted to be rich and fight the Flash, not necessarily in that order. Over the past year, Geoff Johns has steadily turned the Rogues, and by extension Flash at large, into a grim 'n' gritty parade of vice and corruption. Similar forces are at work in JSA, which in 2004 featured a crossover with Hawkman that only served to make half the JSA more "dark." After a full issue devoted to an autopsy, the year ended with a gratuitous breakfast-table slaughter. I'm ready to drop JSA, but might as well wait until the current storyline is finished. And just as Johns starts another time-travel jaunt in JSA, he finishes one up in Teen Titans. I did think this was more accessible than JSA in 2004, and I may change my mind, but TT is probably going on the chopping block in '05.

Both DC: The New Frontier and Identity Crisis aimed to honor DC's Silver Age, but there the similarities stopped. NF sought to recreate the sort of breezy, wide-open, Jet-Age optimism with which many fans remember DC's books of the '50s and '60s, and was generally well-received. At the other extreme, Identity Crisis looked at those heroes' 1970s and '80s adventures with a bit more cynicism, and was not so universally praised. I've already talked about IC; and at the risk of being too glib, I would say that NF was liked better because its goal was to make the reader feel good about the characters. Identity Crisis advertised shocking revelations that would change the way the reader viewed the old stories, but at the end tried to have it both ways by lifting up the heroes unconditionally. In short, NF told its simple message well, while IC had a more complex one that was harder for its creators to articulate or defend.

Speaking of extremes, Fantastic Four will go from one of my favorite writers (Mark Waid) to someone about whom I am leery (J. Michael Straczynski). Because I like the FF so much, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt, but I really wish Waid and Wieringo were staying. Perhaps JMS' run on FF will make me reconsider my opinion of ...

Supreme Power, which was clearly too cool for me. I could no longer stand basking in the light of its unabashed coolness, and so I dropped it. I realize this diminishes my own coolness, but that is a price I am compelled to pay. Perhaps in the future I will realize the value of exposition for its own sake, a formless plot, gratuitous nudity, and endless variations on the same themes.

In sum, not the best year; and 2005 looks pretty good, if only in comparison. Let's start that ball dropping!


iamza said...

Heh. Supreme Power was obviously too cool for me as well. Pity, as I rather enjoyed the first TPB. At least reading it in a chunk of six issues meant I ended up feeling like something significant had actually taken place during the course of those six issues, as opposed to watching the seemingly glacial pace of plot advancement unfold in individual issues.

You know, I think part of the reason I so loved Superman/Batman when I first started reading it was that it was fun to read. Sure, it's chock-o-block full of absurdities, but it made me smile. And I loved the gimmick of seeing how Batman and Superman viewed a common situation. Funnily enough, I enjoyed reading this book more as a new fan (although I read comics as a kid, I was never a Superman or Batman fan, preferring to read New Teen Titans, or Justice League of America, or Spider-Man) than I am enjoying it now that I know more about everything that's happened in the DCU in the intervening years. So, based on my experience (and talk about drawing biased conclusions! Heh), I'd suggest that maybe Loeb is writing to draw in fans new to the DCU, rather than trying to please longterm fans.

Given all the praise I've been reading for Rucka's run on Wonder Woman, I think I need to give it another go. I got about half way through the storyline featuring Medousa, but everything seemed to be happening so very, very slowly, that I gave up. Not the wisest of decisions I've ever made, I'm beginning to suspect. :-)

I was quite surprised by how much I've been enjoying Green Lantern: Rebirth. I mean, I don't particularly care for the Green Lantern Corps at the best of times, and Hal Jordan has never been one of my favourite characters. But the first two issues certainly held my attention. Personally, I'm hoping the return to status quo, with Hal back in the GL seat is a big evil joke on the part of DC's editors, and that Morrison's Gorilla Grodd eats Hal just as he's about to don his ring. I suspect I'm doomed to disappointment on that score, but, well, there you go. :-)

And on that note, I think I should quit. Happy New Year!

Tom Bondurant said...

Happy New Year to you too, Iamza!

I'm sure you've seen that DC Countdown cover, with Batman holding the mystery casualty and a bunch of DC folk, including Hal Jordan, sweeping in to investigate. Because he hasn't been GL for 10 years, seeing Hal in his old duds in that picture gives me flashbacks to the '90s....

I'm curious, given all the drama surrounding Rebirth -- what do you like about it?

iamza said...

*grin* You give me more credit than I deserve--I hadn't actually seen the DC Countdown preview cover until just a few minutes ago. And, having seen it, all I can say is (1) that better not be Nightwing dropping so dramatically in Batman's arms, and (2) hopefully it isn't Kyle, either!

Oh, wait, DC Countdown is the big event of 2005 that DC unveiled recently in Wizard, isn't it? I vaguely recall some talk of that last time I was in my local comic store. Supposed to build on the events of Identity Crisis, and change the DCU forever, and all that jazz. I have to admit that Hal looks pretty good in that picture for a guy who just got eaten by Gorilla Grodd... :-)

Actually, that's a bit mean. I quite liked the Hal Jordan who showed up in Dennis O'Neil's Batman: The Ring, the Arrow, and the Bat.

Why am I enjoying Rebirth? Hm. I'm not entirely sure. In the first two issues I really enjoyed the way in which Johns took bits and pieces of old GL history, and put them together to make a new picture. And I like that Kyle is featured--that he didn't simply end up exiled off the face of the planet, and forgotten.

I like that Hal Jordan--the man, not the GL--shows up, and that his bad deeds as Parallax aren't simply being swept aside and ignored as though they'd never happened. That said, I dislike the idea raised in issue 3 that the impurity in Hal's ring was responsible for all his bad deeds--it plays too much into the modern syndrome of blaming everything we do wrong on someone or something else. "Oh, it's not my fault...he made me do it!"

Mostly, I guess, I'm liking the book because Johns has produced a Hal Jordan who doesn't make me wish someone would hit him, really hard, on the head. Aside from O'Neil, Johns is the only person to have brought such a Hal Jordan to my attention. :-)