Friday, July 30, 2004

Last week's comics: more "What the--?" than not

The batch of reviews for last week got lost in the shuffle of packing for San Diego. Still, I can sum up about half of last week's books under the "What was THAT about?" heading. Thumbs up for Captain Marvel #25, Flash #212, Birds of Prey #70, and the second half of DC Comics Presents Green Lantern #1. Thumbs down on Batman: Gotham Knights #55, Adventures of Superman #630, Justice League Elite #1, Robin #128, and the first half of DCCP Green Lantern. Seaguy #3 could fall into either category, but "Huh?" is probably the reaction I was supposed to have from it.

Here are the details, from (roughly) worst to first.

Batman: Gotham Knights #55: Story by A.J. Lieberman, art by Al Barrionuevo and Francis Portela. It's the conclusion of a story following up on last year's mega-event "Hush" over in Batman. Hush (the new villain) is after the Riddler and hires Prometheus (another fairly new villain) to take out the Riddler and Batman. The Riddler contacts the Joker for protection, offering to tell the Joker which cop is responsible for a tragedy in Joker's past. My first problem is that this storyline portrays the Joker with long stretches of lucidity, and even rationality. This means there is nothing funny or scary about him; he might as well be Ronald McDonald with a different color scheme. Hush gives Joker a beating, but since Joker's effectively been neutered already, we don't much care. (Actually, we care because Hush is a lame villain compared to the Joker, and we are a little sick at the way Hush is elevated over Joker -- but that wasn't the point.) Speaking of neutered villains, Prometheus (originally created specifically to be a better fighter than Batman) shoots and misses targets twice at point-blank range. Everybody gets away from everyone else, and nothing is really resolved. Whoopee.

Adventures of Superman #630: Written by Greg Rucka; art by Matthew Clark. I usually like Rucka, but here he takes a detour into wackyland. In the middle of a hostage crisis, Superman is whisked away by Mr. Mxyzptlk. Mxy wants to warn Supes about bad times ahead, but he's prohibited from so doing. Rucka's in-jokes fell flat for me, and Clark's portrayal of Mxy suggests somehow a thinner Archie Bunker with a limited range of expression. I'm sure this will make more sense in the grander scheme of things, but for this week it was a head-scratcher.

Justice League Elite #1 (of 12): Written by Joe Kelly; art by Doug Mahnke. "Superhero black ops" is probably the best way to describe this series. It takes the conceit that one could have "undercover" work in a subculture of costumed villains and mercenaries, and mixes in a few Justice Leaguers. Issue #1 is the basic "infiltrate the bad guys by showing how bad you are" plot, with a Mission: Impossible-style twist at the end. The plot involves Deathstroke, an assassin who also figures prominently in Identity Crisis, so it was hard here to tell which side he was on. At the end I didn't really care that much.

Robin #128: Written by Bill Willingham; art by DaMion Scott. On the trail of Scarab, the killer of potential Boys Wonder, Robin earns first praise and then condemnation from Batman. The art is still off-putting, as Scott seems eager to play with the relative sizes of Batman and Robin. On page 3, for example, they look about the same height, and Batman seems slender but athletic. (Robin's body is bottom-heavy, like a half-full water balloon, but I'll chalk that up to perspective.) Other scenes, especially in the Batcave, make Batman a massive individual, bulked-up and towering over Robin. There is a cliffhanger of sorts to end the issue, but I am skeptical about its effectiveness. We'll see who's Robin after the big "War Games" event concludes in October.

DC Comics Presents Green Lantern: The first half of this issue, a story by Brian Azzarello with art by Norm Breyfogle, is apparently a "throwback" tale designed to capture the carefree spirit of 1960s DC. However, it's spoiled by a truly bizarre denouement -- casting the rest of the Justice League as insensitive jerks -- which wastes the goodwill the tale had managed to engender with me. The second story, written by Martin Pasko with art by Scott McDaniel, is more rooted in reality (so to speak), working in longtime GL co-star Green Arrow, some social commentary, and a glimpse into GL's rocky childhood. Both stories riff on the unlimited possibilities a power ring offers, and both comment on how an individual personality will hold that power in check, consciously or not. I'll probably have more to say about Green Lantern in the weeks ahead, so I'll reserve judgment on this for now.

Captain Marvel #25: The last issue of writer Peter David's 5-year run on this character (across two series) is a mordantly funny demolition of the fourth wall (or, in a 2-d medium, the third wall?). Since it's also the series' last issue, our hero is henceforth relegated to comic-book limbo. For me, having read the entire run, there were some confusing stories (especially in this series), but the end is still poignant.

Flash #212: Written by Geoff Johns; art by Steven Cummings and Wayne Faucher. Here's the life story of the Mirror Master, and a grim one it is. The story is told proficiently, and since it's about a villain, it's not supposed to be pleasant; but at the end of the day I'm not sure whether to feel sorry for the guy or hate him. I tend to think this story serves a larger purpose in an upcoming arc, so we'll see how it pans out.

Birds of Prey #70: Written by Gail Simone; art by Ed Benes. Huntress investigates further into the superhero-centered cult. Meanwhile, after giving a former adversary a chance to do some good, Oracle is attacked through her computer. There's a good blend of fights, character bits, and plot advancement here, plus a couple of cliffhangers. I still don't like Huntress' current costume, but that's not the current team's fault.

Last is Seaguy #3, written by Grant Morrison with art by Cameron Stewart. This is the conclusion of a 3-issue miniseries, but I hope there's more. Not because I'm completely on Morrison's wavelength or anything; far from it. If I had to guess I'd say this miniseries was about the inherent innocence of superheroes and their manipulation by corporate masters, but that's as far as my analysis goes for now. No, I want more because Morrison and Stewart did create a couple of likeable, innocent characters in Seaguy and his sidekick -- and then put them through some horrific paces. It's almost like Pilgrim's Progress. These guys deserve a happy ending, so I hope they get one soon enough.

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