Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Geoff Johns' Flash, Part 2: "Blood Will Run"

As Jim Roeg pointed out in the last installment's comments, Geoff Johns was tapped to write "Wonderland" before becoming regular Flash writer. Therefore, "Blood Will Run" (Flash #s 170-73, March-June 2001) may be more representative of his tenure.

"BWR" also marked the start of new regular penciller Scott Kolins (inked by Doug Hazlewood). Kolins' work is crisp and detailed, with just a hint of stylization. This really complemented Johns' straightforward scripting. Kolins' backgrounds also brought life to the kind of "shabby urban decay" Johns envisioned for Keystone City. My only quibble with Kolins' work was that he tended to have lightning engulf Wally's winged earpieces. For me this futzed with the proportions of Wally's head, at least subliminally.

"BWR" has three basic components: Cicada, a new villain who runs a strange cult devoted equally to serial killing and worshiping the Flash; Magenta, Wally's grown-up Blue Valley College flame Frances Kane; and Chyre & Morillo, mismatched buddy cops. The story's McGuffin is Officer Julie Jackam, Chyre's partner and an old (and apparently heretofore unseen) flame of Wally's from the wild days of his early 20s. After Wally saves Julie and Chyre from a rampaging killer, Julie is murdered by the Cicada cult. The killer uses a lightning-bolt-shaped knife which crackles with energy when it stabs her. Soon it's discovered that the cultists are killing everyone who has been saved by the Flash, so that Cicada himself can somehow steal the Flash's energy and use it to re-animate his dead wife. Turns out Cicada has recruited Magenta, and from there the carnage escalates.

Before that, though, a brief digression for Flash #170's nascent subplots. First, Wally's trying to groom Jesse Quick to take over his role in the then-current Titans group, but she's too busy running her own company. Second, Wally sees Captain Cold in the crowd at a hockey game. Third, Pied Piper gets a cryptic message about a favor he owes his dad. Fourth, the new union commissioner is Keith Kenyon, a/k/a Goldface, who fought Green Lantern back in the day. Fifth, Julie's new baby may or may not be Wally's. Of these, only the first has a bearing on "BWR," but they will all pay off eventually.

Kolins also packs a lot of visual information into this issue. The first page is a good sepia-toned sequence introducing both the speeding Wally and the city itself. Like I said, Kolins does good backgrounds; and James Sinclair and Digital Chameleon on colors use an almost pastel-shaded palette to separate them from the deeper-shaded figures. (Chyre also looks a lot like Marv from Sin City, but I don't know enough about the latter to say whether Kolins and Hazelwood were influenced by it.) Again, the art is consistently effective throughout the issues.

Back to the plot. Part 2 (Flash #171 (April 2001)) opens with a rash of murders similar to Julie's. Det. Morillo explains to Flash the victims' common denominator. Meanwhile, Magenta's been arrested for previous crimes against Keystone City property, and Linda's being stalked by a cultist. When Julie's body is discovered, it sends Chyre into a rage, because her grandfather was also his first partner, and how dare anyone try to stop him from finding her killer? Later, Wally visits Frances in jail and tries to apologize for the way their relationship ended, but she blasts him and reveals she's one of the Children of Cicada.

Flash #172 (May 2001) begins with Chyre punching Morillo, the object of the aforementioned rage. Their bonding-through-violence is interrupted by Magenta's rampage through the police station. She uses her magnetic powers to grab a metal key which had been buried under the building, and carries an unconscious Flash to Cicada's temple. There he's held motionless in a magnetic bottle while being worshiped by the Cicadites. Cicada himself then reveals his secret origin. Years ago, his wife's murder drove him to the brink of suicide, but before he could kill himself he was struck by lightning. That apparently gave him a reason for living -- namely, a vision of immortality for himself and those who join his cause.

Cicada doesn't explain further just yet, except to say that it requires murder and sacrifice. He unlocks his wife's energy-laden tomb, and stabs Flash with one of the lightning-bolt knives. The wife's corpse starts to crackle as well.

In Flash #173 (June 2001), Linda's finally gotten ahold of Jesse Quick, just in time for Jesse to save her from a Cicada cultist blowing up Casa West. The bomber hasn't gotten far, but he kills himself before Jesse and Linda can learn anything from him.

Back with Cicada and Wally: although there's still stabbing going on, Wally has enough energy for an internal monologue, wondering what those funky knives steal -- Speed Force? Souls? Once the stabbing ends, Mrs. Cicada (named Elizabeth) starts walking unsteadily and groaning in zombie fashion -- and then she turns on Cicada and his followers. She incinerates some Cicadites with lightning from her eyes, and chokes Cicada, grunting "No love. Just misery."

At that point Chyre & Morillo show up, and their odd-couple pairing literally inspires Wally to mix his Speed Force aura with Magenta's magnetic powers. The combination of electrical discharge and magnetism makes Magenta "the most powerful magnet in the Midwest," and Wally quickly disarms the remaining cultists. Elizabeth has become more lucid in the meantime, revealing that Cicada killed her the first time. Cicada kills her again. Chyre pumps him full of lead, but to no avail. Wally attacks Cicada, ultimately pumping him full of Speed Force in order to overload him. Cicada goes to jail still proclaiming Flash as his personal savior.

In a denouement at the destroyed West home, Wally explains to Linda that he'd rather live more simply, now that he's matured. The lightning-bolt scar from Cicada's knife reminds him both of his connection to the Speed Force and that he's only human. Morillo and Chyre each get their own official Epilogues -- Morillo discovers that his own cultist-inflicted stab wound has given him weird auto-healing powers, and Chyre has a good idea of who Julie's baby's daddy is. (Hint: he's holding a Flash doll and his eyes are crackling with lightning.)

Obviously Johns and Kolins put more world-building into this arc than "Wonderland." The story is paced more efficiently, with the book's ongoing subplots confined largely to the first part (except for a couple of Goldface and Piper references in the second). More time is spent on Wally's relationships to Linda, to the police, and to Keystone City itself. Johns also uses Frances/Magenta to ground the long-term reader in familiar continuity -- not just with her last appearance, but also her first (in the above-linked New Teen Titans #17).

I have to admit, I didn't like Chyre or Morillo until I started re-reading this arc. I am still not a big Chyre fan, because as the gruff cop sworn to protect a daughterly-but-capable partner, he seems too cliched. His early adventures with Morillo were also familiar. On the other hand, I did like Morillo the second time around, and look forward to rediscovering how his new powers will play out.

Unfortunately, "Blood Will Run" starts falling apart once Cicada starts explaining his plan. It's just too vague. Somehow, getting struck by lightning after his wife's death made him realize he could be immortal if he collected I-don't-know-what from the Flash. Add to that several unanswered questions -- how and why his wife died; why the Flash was involved; what the lightning-bolt knives collected; why his wife was buried in a metal energy-collecting tomb; and why the key to said tomb was itself buried under the police station. The story is told in such a way that it makes perfect sense to the characters, but not to the readers. Of course, on some level all superhero stories are nonsensical, but this one shies away from testing its own logic.

Even so, I get the feeling that any more exposition might well have upset that efficient pace I praised earlier. "Blood Will Run" bounced around some intriguing ideas, along with enough plot holes to prod the next Geoff Johns into filling them.

I would leave this essay at that, except to note that Cicada is the second Johns villain in as many arcs to not only come after the Wally West Flash specifically, but also to have some misguided affection for him. Remember, Brother Grimm felt betrayed by Wally; and now Cicada ostensibly worships him. When Johns introduces his version of Professor Zoom, he'll have a similarly twisted desire to "help" Wally.

Next: Rogues old and new, plus parental issues!
Full Post

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Not that I would encourage this, mind you

Today's Tuesday Morning Quarterback contained the following item, which I thought eerily appropriate to this here site:

TMQ Praised for Length, Dullness

Readers have complained that the printable Tuesday Morning Quarterback -- many print TMQ to read during critical business meetings -- does not contain cheerleader pictures and other graphics. Paraic Reddington of Perth, Western Australia, wrote to praise this very lack. Because the printed version appears to be some dense, overly long report on a weighty topic, "this version is very passable as legitimate office work when viewed from 'over the shoulder,' " Reddington wrote. Susan Weir of Overland Park, Kan., wrote to note, "Last season, I started blocking out time in my Outlook calendar so people wouldn't schedule me into meetings when I only wanted to be reading TMQ." Susan, just print it and read during the meetings!

"Dense, overly long, and weighty!" No wonder my ears were burning! (Hey, two out of three ain't bad.) Again, the global economy is fragile enough that I don't want to contribute to its destabilization, but I thought you readers should be aware of this practice, if only to stamp it out, of course.

In an unscientific analysis, I cut and pasted the two previous entries into a 12-point Times New Roman WordPerfect document. The new-comics rant was about 3 1/3 pages, single-spaced, and the Teen Titans essay was just over 4 pages. As it happens, this week's TMQ (printable version)tops out at just over 12 pages of single-spaced 12-point Times New Roman type.

I do not consider this a license to be even more long-winded, especially since TMQ is only published weekly. Only you can decide whether my essays are long and dull enough to be mistaken for work.
Full Post

Sunday, August 28, 2005

New comics 8/24/05

Let's start positively, and enjoy that while it lasts. I do try to be a happy person, after all.

Probably the book I enjoyed the most this week was The OMAC Project #5 (written by Greg Rucka, drawn by Jesus Saiz, and Cliff Richards and Bob Wiacek). It may be the flagship title for "superheroes aren't meaningful unless bad things happen to them," but every month Rucka has amped up the "uh-oh" level. In the immortal words of William Dozier, "the worst is yet to come!" Of course, this is also a nice way of saying that new stuff happens every month in OMAC, as opposed to the other I-Crisis miniseries, which as they come down the stretch seem to be about less than they originally seemed.

Take Day of Vengeance. It started as a big fight between Captain Marvel and the Spectre, mixed with some postmodern interaction among some of DC's lesser-known magic-users. Four issues later, it's still about defeating the Spectre, who's happened to hook up with the wrong woman. (We've all been there at some point -- am I right, fellas?) Likewise, Rann-Thanagar War will apparently be six issues' worth of explosions, big troop movements, and DC sci-fi characters; and Villains United looks to be six issues of Secret Sixers evading Secret Socialites. I'll probably do 5-out-of-6-issue recaps of each of these before too long, so those might change my opinions, but right now, only OMAC looks to have moved its characters past where they started.

For example, there's the evolution of Sasha Bordeaux, even though that may be slightly silly. There's also the reunion of Justice League International, despite the tragic death of another JLIer. The cliffhanger is good too, and I hope there's some kind of resolution even though the OMACs look to be involved in Infinite Crisis.

As for the week's other I-Crisis miniseries, Day of Vengeance #5 (written by Bill Willingham, drawn by Justiniano and Walden Wong) gets off on the wrong foot, putting superfluous word balloons on a perfectly good Walt Simonson cover. Inside, the first half of the issue is celebration and exposition, and the second half is the plan to (once again) kill the Spectre. Maybe I'm biased, but shouldn't the whole agent-of-God thing make the Spectre pretty hard to kill? (Unless that's part of God's plan, of course -- or have I just anticipated the plot of #6?) Anyway, my other complaint about this series is the dialogue. Everyone except Shazam and Captain Marvel has the same kind of detached-ironic tone, and while a constant stream of faux-Elizabethan syntax would get old too, throwing some of that into the mix wouldn't have hurt. Art's good, though.

Adventures of Superman #643 (written by Greg Rucka, drawn by various people) spends 8 pages recapping "Sacrifice," perhaps for the benefit of those who didn't pick up any of the July Superman books, Wonder Woman, or OMAC. Thankfully, the rest is new, showing the OMACs overextending Superman, and Supes' visits with Batman and Lois. The art is fine (Carlos D'Anda does the "Sacrifice" dream-sequences, Rags Morales and Michael Bair handle a few pages of Supes/Wonder Woman/Max Lord stuff, and Karl Kerschl gets the rest). Rucka also does right by the Superman/Batman conversation, and the last page with Lois. However, it would have gone down a little better if there hadn't been two other Superman books showing him losing his mind over current events; or if I thought this was the last issue to show him dealing with these things.

Conflict abounds also in Legion of Super-Heroes #9 (written by Mark Waid and Barry Kitson, drawn by Georges Jeanty and Art Thibert, and Kitson), as Terror Firma -- was that really the best name for an alternative political movement? -- seeks to establish a beachhead on a U.P. planet. I could just be a sap, but I was pleasantly surprised that the Cosmic Boy subplot did not take up at least another issue. Waid & Kitson also did a good job thumbnailing the intra-team squabbles. Of course, while I don't expect this macro-plot to continue much longer, Waid & Kitson are laying a good foundation for future drama. Artwork was good as well -- with Thibert as inker you tend to get Thibert-looking people, but that's not bad; and Jeanty's a decent penciller. Kitson draws the welcome return of the letter column.

I must be reading City of Tomorrow (#5, by Howard Chaykin) too quickly, because I'm just not getting anything out of it. Once it concludes I'll probably do an omnibus essay.

Fantastic Four (#530, written by J. Michael Straczynski, drawn by Mike McKone and Andy Lanning) takes a turn for the cliched. It seems to have ripped off Grant Morrison's Neh-Buh-Loh for this issue's alien visitor, and then it puts him through the old Day The Earth Stood Still "trigger-happy soldier gets nervous and shoots" routine. However, it all ends promisingly (not that it ends, but the cliffhanger looks promising), so there's hope next issue will be better. JMS does seem to be building up to a Spider-Totem situation, though.

I also picked up What Were They Thinking? #1, a Keith Giffen/Mike Lieb remix of a few old Wally Wood war comics. Essentially, Giffen and Lieb put funny words in the old balloons of four stories, with mixed results. I thought the third one was the most consistently funny, and the rest more dependent on frat-boy humor; but I'm not opposed to the concept. Giffen has certainly been funnier, so maybe this was an off issue.

And finally, there's Batman #644, the conclusion of "War Crimes" (written by Bill Willingham, drawn by Giuseppe Camuncoli and Sandra Hope). SPOILER SPACE for anyone who hasn't already read angry Internet rants, or anyone who doesn't want to read another:






Most of this book is consumed with mas macho posturing, dialogue that's not as smart as it thinks, and a plot that is often just ridiculous. There are a couple of good moments, which collectively take up about 3 pages -- Batman gives a reasonable reason for not being a "government agent" relative to the evidence laws' exclusionary rules; and he then makes a local TV reporter's day by arranging an interview with Superman. However, that's followed by a conclusion which almost completely assassinates the character of Leslie Thompkins, who started off as a unique figure in Batman's life and is now a pariah. When he revamped Leslie for the post-Crisis era, Mike W. Barr even made her Bruce's foster mother!

That may have been swallowed by the avalanche of Bat-events since 1987 -- "wouldn't Bruce having a foster mother blunt the effect of his parents' deaths?" I can hear various DC creative types asking -- but what remains is a character who served as "loyal opposition" to Bruce's crusade and became a betrayer of the cause. You're either with Batman or against him, apparently. I'm sorry I don't remember which fellow blogger suggested that Stephanie Brown was still alive, and this was all a ruse by Leslie, who at her heart could never betray her Hippocratic oath, but I'm with you. This was going to be a short, smart-aleck review that simply referred to "Parallax," but seriously, if Leslie can be rehabilitated, she should be. Batman #644 served only as a bitter epilogue to the reservoir of wasted potential that was Stephanie's Robin career.
Full Post

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Do The Twist: New Teen Titans #s 16-20

In 1987, George Perez told Comics Interview that because Kid Flash was "so super fast, technically if handled correctly, he'd make the rest of the characters superfluous. [...] So he never was my favorite character, only because he was just difficult to handle in a group situation." Still, although this essay's five issues are all self-contained, three feature Wally.

Not at first, though; New Teen Titans #16 (February 1982) was a Starfire spotlight. After Robin tells Starfire he just wants to be friends (workplace relationships are never good), she soon meets someone new. Franklin Crandall is a fresh-faced not-at-all-stalker who happens to wander into Donna's photo studio during one of Kory's shoots, and hangs around staring at Kory for an hour. Donna approves cautiously, wanting Kory to remember her ecretsay identityway. (Kory wears sunglasses to cover her green, pupil-less eyes, because those are apparently her only distinguishing characteristics.) Besides, we know from the cover that Franklin probably won't make it through the issue.

A lot of ink establishes Kory's "innocence" in social situations, setting up her heart to be broken. When we learn Franklin is a H.I.V.E. operative, right after he and Kory have been talking about a big announcement, it looks like the jig is up. However, in the meantime, someone's kidnapped one of Donna's other models, the girlfriend of a local thug who's testifying against a local gangster. Robin, Cyborg, Starfire, and Wonder Girl rescue the model, with Starfire using a little more juice than necessary to take out the gangster; then, it's off to meet Franklin.

Too late. In a second twist that's neither telegraphed nor unprecedented, Franklin's told his H.I.V.E. handler (Dr. Willis Darrow, a name unfamiliar to both me and Google) where to stick it, and gotten shot for his trouble. The Titans arrive at Franklin's apartment in time for him to croak out his killer's address, and also that he loves Kory. (Not to be callous here, but it's a good thing he does die, since Kory calls her teammates "Dick" and "Donna.") As Kory weeps over Franklin, Dick tries to calm her down, but she backhands him (SWAK!) and rockets off. Cyborg stays behind to tend to Robin, and Wonder Girl throws herself in front of Darrow before Starfire can administer the coup de grace. As Starfire wails "It's not fair!" and Wonder Girl sympathizes, Darrow gets away, but is later found with six new bullet holes. Dick and Donna agree that Kory need never know the truth about Franklin (how they know isn't quite explained -- possibly from evidence in his apartment?) -- it's important only that he died loving her. Perez closes the issue with a wordless last page showing Kory crying herself to sleep and Donna tucking her in, capped with a closeup of Franklin's photo on Kory's nightstand.

Although this story doesn't seem to have much resonance beyond using the H.I.V.E. as villains du jour, in hindsight it foreshadows "The Judas Contract" -- but I'm getting ahead of myself by about two dozen issues. I'm still not convinced it shows how Kory is innocent in social situations and bloodthirsty otherwise. She says Tamaranians are governed by their emotions, but does that mean she's all id? It's a question that deserves more space than we have here.

Moving on. New Teen Titans #17 (March 1982) introduced Frances Kane, Wally's Blue Valley College classmate, and eventually an important recurring character. She may even be Wally's Yoko, but again, two years too early for that. When we meet her, Wally's putting the moves on, but the study date he sets up gets sidetracked by her mom's weird Von Doom-esque attempts to contact the spirit world. Seems that ever since Fran survived the car accident that killed her dad and brother, her mom's been into seances. Fran meekly dons her own red hooded robe (!) and sits down in Mom's pentagram, and then almost everything not nailed down starts flying towards them. In the confusion, Wally changes to Kid Flash and tries to minimize the damage, but after the big appliances start crashing through the walls, Fran comes out of her trance and the maelstrom stops. Wally changes back to street clothes, Mom condemns Fran for not dying too, and Wally calls in Raven.

When Raven visits a week later, the same thing happens, but this time Raven's soul-self contains the damage and calms Fran down. Two weeks after that, the rest of the Titans (minus Starfire, still grieving) have strapped Fran into the Exorcist II-model diagnostic chair at what I took to be the Blue Valley STAR Labs. Again, all hell breaks loose and a weird energy-form starts rising from Fran's body. Mom is clearly sympathetic: "Take her, Satan! Take her and kill her." Suddenly, everything's back to normal, but Mom has had enough, and disowns Fran.

Finally, while most of the group is with Fran at Titans' Tower, Cyborg is at STAR Labs (NYC) figuring out that Fran's eruptions have something to do with magnetism. (Duh, we say in hindsight, but Wolfman and Perez have done a fair job of building suspense.) This time the attack is the biggest yet, as the energy-creature blows the Titans out a fifth-floor window. It grows to about twice the size of Titans' Tower and then goes after Manhattan. The more powerful Titans head off to save the city while Robin and Raven try to make it back inside to Frances. After a few pages of frantic activity -- including Tyrannosaurus Changeling getting smacked with a flying cruise ship -- Cyborg appears in the nick of time with an "anti-magnetic reverser" which clamps onto Frances' head and shuts down the magnetic storm. In Epilogue I, Wally and Fran share a tender moment; and in Epilogue II, we peek into another dimension to see it was all Doctor Polaris' doing (trying to escape after the Wolfman-written Green Lantern #135 (Dec. 1980)). So, to sum up: Frances was susceptible to Polaris' manipulations because she had excess magnetic waves in her brain, but it looks like Cyborg's device has rendered Fran powerless and closed that particular dimensional door.

New Teen Titans #18 (April 1982) brought back Leonid "Starfire" Kovar, a Soviet super-hero created by Wolfman and NTT editor Len Wein for Teen Titans #18 (November-December 1968). This time the focus on Kid Flash was a little more negative. After his son is killed in El Salvador by American troops, a bitter Soviet functionary infects a young Russian woman named Maladi (rhymes with "toddy," no doubt) Malanova with a radioactive disease and sends her to New York. The Kremlin orders Kovar to find her and kill her. King Faraday tells the Titans to keep an eye on Kovar, because they don't know why he's coming or how he fits into rumors about a "plague-carrier."

Maladi, unaware herself of her condition, starts infecting people, but their symptoms only start manifesting around the time Kovar comes to town. Although this is good enough to convince Kid Flash that Kovar's the plague-carrier, the other Titans aren't so sure, especially after spotting the plague-ravaged Maladi. Still, when they see Kovar after Maladi, Starfire and Kid Flash attack. Kovar tries to reason with the Titans, but Kid Flash's constant needling pushes him over the edge and he gets away. Maladi thinks she has a meeting with another agent, so Kovar intends to kill her then. The Titans show up too, and while most of the team keeps Kovar busy, Raven tries unsuccessfully to heal Maladi. Robin convinces Kovar to let Maladi die in a hospital.

Everyone's pretty down about Maladi dying, although all of her victims have been cured. Nevertheless, while Kovar considered his mission a mercy-killing, for Kid Flash it's emblematic of the Evil Empire. When Kovar tells Wally he volunteered for the mission, Wally sneers, "To get some blasted medals when you got home?" Kovar says no, he volunteered because he loved Maladi. They were engaged, and the day she died was supposed to be their wedding day. Not that Perez's art wasn't its usual high quality throughout the issue, but his best panel is the penultimate one, showing a completely flabbergasted and humiliated Kid Flash.

Plot holes aside (mostly dealing with the mechanics of Maladi's disease), this was a real stunner of a story. It showed that Wolfman and Perez were willing to make one of their characters the bad guy, even if it was the one they found the least interesting. Today, of course, we're pretty far removed from the Cold War politics portrayed here, so at the time Wally's attitude might not have seemed as extreme. Still, it's hard to say whether Wally is "out of character" here, because overt political statements were still fairly new in superhero comics. The Perez-drawn Justice League of America #186 (January 1981) featured a Flash distrustful of working with Soviet scientists, so maybe Wally picked up his self-described "midwestern conservative" politics from his uncle. Anyway, for purposes of this issue, Wally was basically a dissenting voice that made the final plot twist most effective. He'd be rehabilitated in a couple of issues anyway.

The next issue, New Teen Titans #19 (May 1982), may have acquired a kind of retroactive infamy thanks to Identity Crisis. If I understood Brad Meltzer correctly at Comic-Con '04, it's the start of Light's post-lobotomy phase. Moreover, NTT #18 guest-starred Hawkman, who's now the poster child for mind-wiping super-villains.

Obviously, there's none of that subtext in the issue itself. In fact, it aims to be pretty insubstantial. While Carter (Hawkman) Hall oversees an exhibit of Indian avatar statues, Dr. Light decides to break out of jail. Light's heard that the Riddler has escaped and doesn't want his own reputation to suffer by comparison. Teleporting back to the Fearsome Five's hideout for a spare costume, he resolves not to attack super-heroes anymore, because it brings too much trouble. Besides, there's more money in thievery. Naturally, he tries to steal from the Indian exhibit, but ends up bringing some giant Indian statues to life and also running into Hawkman. At first expecting that the statues will obey him as slaves (a good, funny moment), he flees when they don't, eventually luring them to Titans' Tower. He figures one or the other group will be destroyed, so it's a win-win for him. The Titans and Hawkman stop the avatars, and Light is sent back to jail -- but not before a last, sinister look from Hawkman. (It promises some unique punishment which we don't see. Was this Meltzer's opening? We may never know.)

Aside from the jokes at Light's expense, this issue also touched on Starfire's continued grief over Franklin's death, Cyborg's inability (since issue #13) to communicate with Sarah Simms, and Raven's frustration with Azarath for teaching her not to feel the strange Earth emotion of love. It also had a funny exchange between Changeling and Cyborg:

Gar: She was this mousy-looking librarian -- then she let down her hair, took off her glasses...
Vic: And she was still a mousy-looking librarian, right?
Gar: Yeah. So I dated her sister. Wotta dish.

Trust me, in the larger scope of Titans jokes, that was comedy gold.

As it turned out, New Teen Titans #20 (June 1982) would also become an historical curiosity, considering how later writers treated Wally West's parents. Here they're the harmless beneficiaries of Wally's letter-writing narration (tm Hawkeye Pierce) as he details the Titans' fight against a teenaged criminal. The Disruptor wants to kill each Titan using a super-suit which "disrupts the natural flow of things," including super-powers. Disruptor's dad, former Bat-villain "Brains" Beldon, figures this will be his entree into The H.I.V.E., which (we learn) is made up of criminal scientists.

Captured by the Disruptor, Kid Flash sees that the kid just wants to please his demanding father. When the Titans come to the rescue, the super-suit is pretty effective against most of them, but Raven envelops Disruptor in her soul-self and shows him the hellish life he's sure to lead if he doesn't repent. Raven then compares "Brains'" parenting skills to Trigon's. Even after the Disruptor refuses to rat out Dad, "Brains" still blames his son's defeat for his being turned down for H.I.V.E. membership, and disowns him. (Later, of course, "Brains" will find love with Frances Kane's mother.) All this makes Wally realize that it's not bad to be "normal" -- a few years before "Hip To Be Square," mind you -- and instead of mailing the letter, speeds off to Blue Valley to deliver it in person.

Ongoing subplot watch: although Sarah Simms visited Terry Long at the end of last issue, Cyborg still hasn't spoken to her, despite the Titans throwing him a 19th-birthday party. Robin berates himself for not being as good a detective as Batman. Wonder Girl ponders her real origins, and Starfire pines for her homeworld and family. NTT #20 also features a very short, ostensibly wacky backup wherein Wolfman and Perez get zapped to Earth-1 to meet the Titans. It's superficially reminiscent of Roy Thomas' Impossible Man story from Perez's Fantastic Four run, and it even has a Stan Lee cameo.

With this group of issues, Wolfman and Perez started reaching outside the Titans for stories which used the team as a backdrop. Even the spotlights on Starfire and Kid Flash were arguably more about Franklin, Frances, and the Disruptor. Except (ironically) for the Dr. Light issue, each story dealt its guest a tragic twist of fate, either involving a familial betrayal or a lost love. Still, the issues are different enough from each other that I can't accuse Wolfman and Perez of ripping themselves off, and especially in #16 and #18 they are able to misdirect the reader. However, the Titans' own subplots were starting to loiter, especially with regard to Cyborg and Starfire, and at times it felt like they got only lip service so the reader wouldn't think they'd been forgotten.

Next up: Origins galore, as Wolfman and Perez present the four-issue Tales of the New Teen Titans!

Full Post

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Geoff Johns' Flash, Part 1: "Wonderland"

Geoff Johns' five-year tenure as writer of The Flash comes to an end with the next issue (#225), the conclusion of "Rogue War." This series of posts has no chance of finishing by then, since I aim to cover every Johns-penned storyline.

Although I have been following the Wally West series from the beginning, I have only vague memories of these stories, so I hope to have a fresh perspective. However, I admit to being burned out on Johns' style, and am not sure how well it works for the title. Still, I'm trying to keep an open mind.

Besides, this iteration of Flash apparently encourages writers to put their own stamps on Wally. Johns followed seven years' worth of issues by Mark Waid, who in turn followed almost four years by Bill Messner-Loebs. Messner-Loebs showed Wally maturing, and Waid showed Wally becoming his own man.

How will Johns be remembered? Right now I'd say for his treatment of the Rogues' Gallery; but that could change.

Anyway, on to Johns' first storyline, "Wonderland," pencilled by Angel Unzueta and inked by Doug Hazlewood, from Flash #s 164-69 (September 2000-February 2001). Appropriately enough, each issue begins with a different Lewis Carroll quote. It's an alternate-reality story featuring a nightmarish, fascistic Keystone City and a fairy-tale kingdom. Wally finds himself in the former in Flash #164, bereft of his super-speed and tossed roughly into the Keystone City jail. At the end of the issue, "our" Captain Cold's broken him out and before too long, "our" Mirror Master (police flyers reveal the alter-Rogues are dead) has joined them in trying to find a way home. To do this, they have to get by not only new villain Plunder (and his boss, the Thinker), but also the Keystone P.D. and a certain still-alive police scientist.

"Wonderland" spends four issues in this Keystone, but it goes by too quickly. Its conceit is that neither Jay Garrick, Barry Allen, nor Wally West ever received super-speed, so there never was a Flash to save the Justice Society, Justice League, or Teen Titans. Therefore, each group suffered a member's death which pretty much ended its existence and drove society to an extreme stance on super-crime. Since Barry was never the Flash, Hal Jordan ended up dying in the "Crisis." Thus, there's a big fight at Keystone's "Green Lantern Museum" (which apparently took the place of Central City's Flash Museum), where the powerless Wally uses GL-villain weaponry to get past Plunder and the cops. Since the GL Museum also has a Mirror Master gadget, I take it that GL also fought the Rogues in Flash's place. (How Green Lantern managed to make regular trips to the Midwest is never really explained.)

Wally, Cold, and Mirror Master get out of alt-Keystone after they discover it's a dimension created by a Mirror Master weapon. Seems that Cold and MM were hired to trap Wally in this dimension, where he'd be powerless -- but their employer double-crossed them and trapped them too. Using the MM weapon stolen from the GL Museum, the Rogues and Wally zap themselves back to the real Keystone, only to discover a crater in its place. Moreover, the "mirror dimension" was inside the facets of Wally's wife Linda's wedding ring, so she's gone too.

Again using Mirror Master's technology, the three zap themselves into the kidnapped Keystone to find it in ruins and its citizens mind-controlled. Zombie Pied Piper tells them the woodcut-rendered backstory. In a nutshell, when Wally was Kid Flash, he, Barry, and Jay traveled to this dimension (called Eastwind) to overthrow its cruel tyrant (the Tin Reverend, who had designs on Earth) and restore the rightful monarch. That would have been the late king's oldest son, Grimm, but he didn't want to be king. No, he wanted to be a denti-- I mean, an artist (almost as bad -- reminded me of that singing groom in Monty Python and the Holy Grail), so Wally advised him to follow his heart and let his younger brother, Angar, be King.

Well, that was a mistake. Angar turned out to be just as much of a despot, and Grimm was forced to kill him. By this time, though, Wally had become the Flash, and when Grimm found out, cursed Wally for lying to him about all the choose-your-own-path advice. Wally remembers it differently, of course, but there you go. Grimm set up the Rogues to trap Wally in the mirror-Keystone, and now rules the real Keystone with a mind-controlled Jay Garrick as his enforcer. Grimm can also sense disturbances in the Speed Force, so Wally can't sneak up on him. Grimm and Jay take out Wally, Cold and Mirror Master zap themselves home, and Wally finds himself trapped in a guillotine out of which he can't vibrate. What's worse, there's Linda yelling "Off with his head!"

Wally escapes when Linda throws a tomato at him. Vibrating so it passes through his head, the tomato gets so agitated it explodes (this was Waid's modification of the classic Flash power), destroying the guillotine. Cold and Mirror Master reappear -- there's some weird vibrational technobabble keeping everyone in place -- and Wally lends them super-speed so they can gather the citizens of Keystone while he takes out Grimm. Wally beats Grimm at normal speed, smashes Grimm's dimension-hopping machine (source of the technobabble), and explains that he never betrayed his dream like Grimm did. He's his own person, but he's also the Flash. Grimm vanishes, wraith-like, into the remnants of his flux-machine. Wally restores Keystone's vibrational frequency and sends it home. He then goes home himself, to enjoy some sweet lovin' from his sexy wife.

Future storylines may prove me wrong, but "Wonderland" doesn't seem like the best way to introduce a new writer. For one thing, why set up a new status quo with an alternate reality? (Was Johns channeling Quesada and Bendis?) In a way, I suppose it's an amalgamation of Mark Waid and Bill Messner-Loebs plot elements -- Waid was fond of casting Wally into unfamiliar surroundings, with Linda as his "anchor," and Loebs liked to strip Wally of his super-speed -- but it never quite feels fully formed until the last third.

Consider: Grimm is mad at Wally for betraying his principles and not following his own path, so he traps Wally in a nightmare where there is no Flash legacy to assume, and no Speed Force to facilitate it. Effectively, Wally is punished for being the Flash, because there the Flash is a threat. The idea has a lot of potential, but Johns seems more interested in having Wally team up with Captain Cold and Mirror Master for a series of chases and fights. Yes, Johns could have done a by-the-numbers story about Wally choosing to be the Flash and enlisting Barry and/or the surviving Rogues to help him escape, but I think that might have been more satisfying.

My main frustration with "Wonderland" can be pretty well summarized by its use of Barry Allen, which is never really justified. He has no meaningful interaction with Wally or the Rogues, and Johns seems content to use him only to establish Wally's independence and the Rogues' longstanding rivalries with him. Neither of these character bits really required Barry to return, and in any event Johns doesn't take them any further than a few lines of dialogue. Wally may have worked through his Barry issues, but Barry is still an important figure in Wally's life. (The story also mentions alternate versions of Jay Garrick and Wally himself, but we don't see either of them.)

The art doesn't help matters much. It reminded me of Mike Wieringo's blocky, square-jawed early Flash work, but it's scratchier and muddier. Some of that may be the inker, Doug Hazlewood, but Unzueta makes Wally look more like a wrestler than a runner. Still, Unzueta and Hazlewood do have some pretty effective "nightmare" moments in Keystone; and they do a good job with the fairy-tale flashbacks.

To be fair, much of Wally West's development had been chronicled before Johns came aboard. Loebs and Waid had explored Wally's relationship to Barry and the Flash legacy, and with Wally marrying Linda there weren't too many more big life events on the horizon. Instead, I saw in "Wonderland" what I'm seeing now with Hal Jordan in Johns' Green Lantern -- a hero with very little self-doubt put into situations he has to think his way around. Objectively speaking, that's the same setup as virtually every Silver Age DC comic up to the Denny O'Neil era, but here it feels like Wally is answering questions he's been asked several times before. Maybe that was Johns' point all along.

In any event, Johns' tenure begins in earnest with "Blood Will Run," featuring new regular artist Scott Kolins, so we'll pick up there next time.

Full Post

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

New comics 8/10/05 and 8/17/05

A little shameless self-promotion first: in today's Permanent Damage, comics writer/columnist Steven Grant has some blog recommendations. No, this humble effort isn't one of them, but Mr. Grant did choose to quote yours truly's latest essay in recommending The Great Curve.

Onward and upward.

Action Comics #830 (Gail Simone, writer; John Byrne and Nelson, artists), featuring Dr. Psycho vs. Superman, was clever and suspenseful. Using Superman's universal appeal against him also played nicely with the current subplot of those same citizens starting to really distrust him. I liked this one a lot.

I also continue to like "Crisis of Conscience," which continued in JLA #117 (Geoff Johns and Allan Heinberg, writers; Chris Batista, artist). It is clearly a big part of Crossover Madness, but it also feels like a standalone JLA adventure. Good to see Despero back, and his motivation for being involved makes sense. Nice art, too.

Rann-Thanagar War #4 (Dave Gibbons, writer; Ivan Reis & Marc Campos, artists) offers more wall-to-wall mayhem on several fronts. However, I am starting to notice that Gibbons is making Kyle Rayner talk like a more uptight version of Hal Jordan -- giving him the "Great Guardians!" epithet, for example. As for the mayhem, it's all rendered well, and I'm sure it's building to some pulse-pounding conclusion.

Our "heroes" attack a Secret Society base in Villains United #4 (Gail Simone, writer; Dale Eaglesham & Rodney Ramos, artists), dressed in stealthy charcoal-colored costumes that make Cat-Man look even more like Batman. There's fightin,' killin,' lovin,' and an obvious crossover with another regular series. It's pretty fun, but I'm still trying to work out the Parademon/Rag Doll relationship.

Speaking of crossovers, Seven Soldiers: Zatanna #3 (Grant Morrison, writer; Ryan Sook, artist) suddenly finds itself in the middle of another 7S series' subplots -- at which point I resolved reluctantly to take a comprehensive look at each of these miniseries (and probably the JLA Classified arc), to see if they made more sense collectively. Not that this was bad, but as irregularly as these books come out, it's hard to remember the relative importance of various cross-title allusions. Zatanna is still very enjoyable by itself, and despite the crossover it may be the most accessible to a superhero-reading mouth-breather like me.

Conversely, Seven Soldiers: Klarion #3 (Grant Morrison, writer; Frazer Irving, artist) was almost a self-contained story with another good Morrison idea -- a teen gang with superhero-esque codenames and a Menudo rule mandating graduation to an older version of the teen gang at age 16. The superhero-reading mouth-breader in me also appreciated this issue's many allusions to venerable DC heroes, although the artifact the teen gang steals is probably one too and I just don't recognize it. About the only thing wrong with this issue was on the first page: Roanoke's not in West Virginia.

Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #194 (D. Curtis Johnson & J.H. Williams III, writers; Seth Fisher, artist) starts our intrepid Bat-band on its road to tragedy, and as far as that goes it's a good read. Wait -- that came out wrong. I do like Batman's operatives, but because this is a flashback, we know they won't be his agents for long. Likewise, the old "I can't trust you anymore! (sniff)" from Gordon is also somewhat hollow, because we know where their relationship is going too. Still, this is one of LOTDK's better arcs in a while, especially with its less intense Batman.

Batman #643 (Bill Willingham, writer; Giuseppe Camuncoli & Sandra Hope, artists) presents Part 2 of "War Crimes," in which we discover there's another Batman causing trouble -- and wearing a costume with the unfashionable yellow oval, no less! The Joker's around too, despite having been bludgeoned (apparently) to death in this very title a few months back. Art's not bad, but it's hard to distinguish from other Bat-books in last summer's "War Games" storyline. Maybe that's the point. Also, this issue has one of the weaker cliffhangers I can remember: Batman on the phone to Alfred, waiting for a minor computer analysis.

Good thing "War Crimes" continues in Detective Comics #810 (Andersen Gabrych, writer; Pete Woods & Bit, artists), which advances the plot nicely. Too bad the cover contains a pretty sizable spoiler. Batman gets to be more of a human in this issue, laying a bouquet at a Stephanie Brown memorial and having a heart-to-heart with Stephanie's mom. The Joker, Black Mask, and the media types are all used well too. Yellow journalism is a fairly easy target, but still. I do hope this storyline is actually wrapped up next issue, because I'm getting pretty weary of all these crossovers and mega-plots.

There are no such intrusions on the plot of Green Lantern #3 (Geoff Johns, writer; Carlos Pacheco, artist), in which Hal battles two Manhunters, with the newer model being able to siphon off his ring power. The big set piece is a nearly-drained GL having to use an Air Force jet to kill a Manhunter before it destroys the jet and him. The solution seems a little forced, but it's still a nice hokey moment.

Captain America #8 (Ed Brubaker, writer; Steve Epting, artist) featured Cap's denial of Bucky's return, along with pretty convincing evidence about what happened to Mr. Barnes after his last adventure with Cap. The whole issue is that kind of setup, which I suppose now means Cap has to track down the Winter Soldier along with the rogue Soviet general and stolen Cosmic Cube. It's good setup regardless, and I guess I'm on board for the rest of "The Winter Soldier."

I don't quite know what to say about Shanna The She-Devil #7 (Frank Cho, writer/artist), except that I expected a lot more from this miniseries than seven issues' worth of bikinis and killing dinosaurs. Frank Cho is a skilled artist, to be sure, and I'd probably buy his work in the future, provided he was drawing someone else's script. I've been reading Liberty Meadows via an e-mail service for the past couple of months too, and it hasn't convinced me that he's just slumming with Shanna. I don't even think you could call this an "art book," unless you like looking at hot blondes and lots of gore. Maybe there is a market for that; I don't know. Still, I can't believe I didn't stop buying this book when I had the chance.

Finally, Defenders #2 (Keith Giffen & J.M. DeMatteis, writers; Kevin Maguire, artist) is proving not to be in quite the same vein as the creators' Justice League work. It's played for laughs, but its events are more objectively serious. Most of this issue focuses on Dormammu and Umar, siblings so close I'm surprised there hasn't been a Donny & Marie joke. The villains capture our heroes and then spend much of the issue trying to decide what to do with them. That doesn't sound too funny, and it's not laugh-out-loud funny like the JLI stuff was, but it's definitely not all grim and angsty.
Full Post

Monday, August 15, 2005

1981 Fall Fashions: The Breakaway Outfit

"The Lazarus Affair" (Batman #s 332-35, February-May 1981), written by Marv Wolfman and drawn by Irv Novick, aspired to be a globetrotting epic filled with intrigue and double-crosses. It even guest-starred King Faraday, one of Wolfman's favorite spy-type characters, before DC: The New Frontier made him cool again. Basically, the setup was that Batman and Talia were on the trail of a mysterious figure trying to destroy Bruce Wayne's business holdings. Meanwhile, Robin didn't trust Talia, so he hooked up with Catwoman and Faraday on his own investigation. However, one Bat-convention seemed a little much....

In Batman #333, Batman disguises himself as Karlyle Krugerrand, the story's Number Two-type, in order to get into Krugerrand's safe-deposit box. Unfortunately, he doesn't know that the bad guys are on to him, and ends up hanging over the inevitable chasm.

You'll notice that in panel 2, he's hanging onto the drawers with both hands -- but in panel 3, he's somehow managed to whip off all of his regular clothes with one hand. I suppose he figures his costume will strike more fear into the villains' hearts than that orange outfit would have. Speaking practically, it's probably also easier to get to the utility belt after shedding a few layers.

(By the way, there's no "What are you talking about! I'm not Batman!" moment here. The costume makes sure of that. Still, just to drive the mea culpa home, Batman asks "You knew? How?" I'm surprised he didn't have an evaluation form handy. "Was I a) completely obvious, b) somewhat obvious....")

Anyway, the Breakaway Outfit is something you don't see very often these days. I think the last time I saw one was right before the Leslie Nielsen/Priscilla Presley love scene in The Naked Gun (1988), where it preceded the full-body condom. However, it was apparently indispensable to the Dynamic Duo.

Next issue, Robin shows off his own breakaway disguise, again using proper one-handed technique on the clothes. This leaves his right hand free to take off his fake face (I'm not calling it a "mask," to avoid confusing it with his regular mask) and wig.

Now, I do understand that these breakaway outfits represent a certain amount of visual shorthand and storytelling economy. You don't want to be Batman or Robin and have to fight bad guys encumbered by clumsy disguises. These clothes may be stripper-friendly, but they can save your life.

In fact, Catwoman has apparently gone a step further, since her outfit (which you can't really see well in this page, but trust me) is cut fairly close to her traditional purple-and-green caped costume. It appears to simply change color once she frees herself. However, that's not the weirdest thing about this page.

Seems Catwoman went a little overboard on the rest of her disguise. Not only does she wear a fake face and wig over her regular Catwoman cowl -- something which Batman didn't even do -- she went into the evildoers' den posing as Selina Kyle. Unless people really didn't know her secret identity at this point -- and why would you use your own name to gain entry into a den of thieves unless you were trading on your costumed reputation? -- that means she made a mask of her own face to wear over the Catwoman mask.

Batman may be obsessive, but that's thorough.
Full Post

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Heroes On Patrol: New Teen Titans #s 13-15

These days we fans talk a lot about how “dead means dead.” It’s not just your Hawkeyes, Hal Jordans, and Donna Troys -- seems like some of the most meaningful deaths in all of comics history are being reversed.

Not without precedent, mind you. For about ten years, Doom Patrol #121 (Sept.-Oct. 1968) represented one of those meaningful sacrifices. The Doom Patrol -- Elasti-Girl (no relation to The Incredibles), Robotman, Negative Man, and the Chief -- agreed to be blown up by their arch-enemies in the Brotherhood of Evil in order to save the tiny village of Codsville, Maine (population 14). Brotherhood members Monsieur Mallah and the Brain (no relation to Pinky) were also presumed dead. I realize that many of you are now thinking fondly of the Grant Morrison/Richard Case classic “The Soul Of A New Machine” (Doom Patrol v.2 #34, July 1990). In a way, this Titans arc made that story possible.

DP #121 also featured the book’s creative team, Arnold Drake and Bruno Premani, appearing at the beginning and end of the issue to encourage fans to show their support for the title, because it was being cancelled and only a dramatic sales spurt could save it. (Not quite Jason Todd, but maybe that’s another essay.) Eventually, in Showcase # 94, Aug.-Sept. 1977, it was revealed that a decent amount of Robotman had survived the blast, and in a rebuilt body, he became part of a new Doom Patrol.

However, he didn’t look so good on the striking cover of New Teen Titans #13 (Nov. 1981). As we already know, the Titans had split up, with the women taking a mostly-dead Gar Logan to Paradise Island for the benefits of Amazon medicine. The guys headed to Africa on the trails of Robotman and Steve Dayton, each of whom disappeared while tracking the remaining Brotherhood members.

We pick things up as Wonder Girl beats up a gang for stealing computer parts. (Being the early ‘80s, they were evidently big computer parts.) By the top of page two, she’s thrown a forklift at the crooks, and by the bottom of the page, they’re buried under a pile of crates. This is apparently Dark & Gritty Wonder Girl, still mad about being mind-controlled over the past few issues. However, she gets another couple of pages with her sweetheart, the ten-years-older Terry Long, to talk out her problems and exposit about Gar’s condition. The dialogue discusses Donna’s discomfort with how easily she was controlled, but the subtext is that she loves Terry because he’s just a regular guy.

On Paradise Island, Starfire is competing in the Kanga jousting tournament. As the name suggests, Kangas were giant mutant kangaroo-creatures which the Amazons rode for sport. (George Perez got rid of them when he revamped Wonder Woman, but Phil Jiminez may have brought them back.) Starfire’s warrior training helps her beat all the other kanga-riders, so then it’s on to the battle-staves (which Jiminez just referenced in the Return of Donna Troy miniseries). Flashing back more pictorially to her warrior training, Starfire defeats more Amazon opponents, reveling in her victory and swearing never to be “weak” again. This was turning into a recurring vow, unfortunately, and therefore starting to lose some of its impact. Imagine if Scarlett O’Hara had closed every meal with “As God is my witness...!”

As the volatile Starfire and the placid Raven each argue to Hippolyta that Paradise Island is most like their respective upbringings, trouble explodes (literally) on the hospital island. The Amazons’ restorative Purple Ray has driven Gar Logan insane, and he’s transformed into a brachiosaurus. Not to worry, though, because Raven calms him down with her powers. This effectively puts Gar on Ironic Punishment Island, surrounded by beautiful women but (because no man can touch the ground of Paradise Island) unable to run after them.

Even with all of that, the real meat of the issue starts with the guys’ discovery of Robotman, strung up as a warning in the jungles of Uganda. There’s some really lush Perez artwork here -- very dense and atmospheric. That’s appropriate, because despite their bright red-and-yellow costumes, Robin and Kid Flash are well-suited for spy work. Their colors blend well with the green surroundings, and some shadows even fall on Robin’s yellow cape as he skulks in a treetop (all day long...). Still, Cyborg has plenty to do, fixing up Robotman like Chewie repairing 3PO.

Aside from being worried about Gar, Cyborg’s also worried about his own ostensible sweetheart, the just-rescued Sarah Simms, to whom he didn’t have the chance to say goodbye before they jetted off. In retrospect, if Cyborg is the Titans’ “Thing,” Sarah was Alicia Masters, and he was always fretting she’d dump him for a normal guy.

Probably the character who comes off worst in this issue is Kid Flash, who waffles about whether to keep being a super-hero or just retire. His internal monologue tries to convince himself he’s not a coward, which pretty much signals to the reader that he just might be. (What would Geoff Johns think of that?) Wolfman and Perez admitted they didn’t know quite what to do with Wally, figuring him to be too powerful to be interesting, but ironically this issue gives him a nice couple of scenes. He zips into the Brotherhood’s vast underground lair, whips up a dust storm, knocks out a couple of armored goons, and zips back, all very professional. Later, after the heroes have found Steve Dayton, Kid Flash takes out half a goon squad, plus another half-dozen goons off-screen who were guarding Dayton’s old Mento equipment. Everyone escapes, but on the last page bad guys Madame Rouge and General Zahl gloat about Mento being their “inside man.”

NTT #14 (December 1981) is one of my favorite single issues, focusing equally on character and action. The Titans reunite, with special attention given to Robin and Wonder Girl, Raven and Kid Flash, and Changeling, Cyborg, Robotman, and Steve Dayton. Before too long, though, Dayton has started raving about his old Mento gear. Putting it on turns him into the Manchurian Candidate, lashing out using some kind of amplified mental energy.

As she did last issue, Raven’s empathic powers break the spell (giving Wolfman another chance to write “she takes your pains and makes them her own”). She hypmo-tizes Dayton into thinking he’s melting his wife (instead of Robotman), and the shock snaps him out of it. I describe this cavalierly, but the page itself is quite nice. Perez fills the panels with enough magic smoke and crackling psychic energy that you can almost smell the ozone, and tops it off (literally) with ghostly images of Raven, deep in concentration. This issue made me a Raven fan for life, or at least for as long as Perez drew her.

After a couple of brief interludes looking in on Rouge, Zahl, and their plan to take over Zandia, Dayton tells the Titans his story, including the origin of the Doom Patrol and his marriage to Rita Farr. In an odd coincidence, Madame Rouge disguised herself as Elasti-Girl to capture him -- which makes me think he’s really susceptible to images of his dead wife; but who am I to judge? Anyway, remembering his friends' deaths makes Changeling’s blood boil, and he flies off to get revenge on Rouge and Zahl.

Thinking about this particular story, I didn’t remember it fitting into the common Titans theme of “bad parents.” Steve Dayton wasn’t a bad parent, just an out-of-touch one. However, Gar’s angry soliloquy convinced me otherwise:
For years I’ve been suffering because I’ve virtually seen two sets of parents killed. [...] Now you want to guide me along and solve my problems for me like some surrogate parents ... but blast it -- I have to do this by myself or I’ll never feel like I’ve amounted to much of anything!
The Titans follow, but an earthquake interrupts them. Kid Flash and Raven find a crater where Rouge’s underground city was, and Gar sees the city flying past him under its own power. Changing back to human form, he hitches a ride on an outcropping as the city heads for the tiny Baltic island of Zandia.

”Baltic” is the key word here. It means that Rouge’s flying city has to travel from the southern half of Africa to Eastern Europe, over Sudan, Egypt, the Mediterranean Sea, Greece, Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland. Thus, when Gar remarks “If I saw what I was doing, I’d probably be sick over half of Africa!” he’s not far off. Good thing the next caption reads “Gar Logan holds firm ... nothing on Earth will make him release his iron-tight grip.” They’re making good time, too: Kid Flash remarks in the T-Jet “they’ll be out of Africa in minutes.”

Anyway, physics and logic aside, what follows is still a cool bit of carnage. Zahl’s armored goons attack Zandia, assassinating its president, destroying its records, and otherwise killing indiscriminately. The Titans arrive soon after, and at last Starfire gets to cut loose, but she’s overwhelmed by sheer numbers. A building falls on Wonder Girl. Changeling's iron-tight grip loosens. Raven and Kid Flash are hit by laser fire. Rouge, disguised as Gar, blasts the T-Jet out of the sky, and Changeling wakes up to find himself face-to-face with the Brain, Mallah, and the reconstituted Brotherhood of Evil.

As NTT #15 (January 1982) opens, the Titans (minus Gar) and Robotman are trapped in a “devolving pit” which is designed to reduce them to “primordial protoplasm” by “sinking through the evolutionary chain.” Yes, it’s just like that Star Trek episode, except about twelve years early. Meanwhile, as the goon squads clean up, narrative captions reveal Rouge’s plot. Seems Zandia is a government of criminals, by criminals, and for criminals, so no one will complain that she’s just overthrown it for her own evil purposes.

Back with the new Brotherhood, Gar gets the unfamiliar members to show off their powers as he attacks each of them. There’s Plasmus, the German (”Ja, I do so mit pleasure, herr Brain!”), who’s all oozy and burny; Warp, the French teleporter (”With zee proper coordinates I can create zee warp”), Phobia (who I think is British, but this story may not say that), who controls fear; and Houngan, who has combined the voodoo of the past with the technology of today -- or at least 1981. Houngan sticks an electronic needle in a cybernetic imitation of Gar’s cellular structure, and Gar’s leg erupts in pain.

The Brain tells Gar that because he made Rouge evil, she always wanted to destroy him, so once she killed the DP, he knew he was next and faked his and Mallah’s deaths. In a nutshell, the BoE is eager to take out Rouge and Zahl, so they call a truce with Gar, and warp away to Rouge’s headquarters.

The brutish Titans are pounding on Robotman when the Brotherhood shows up and starts killing everything in sight. Rouge skedaddles, but is met by an angry Changeling. Robotman uses Cyborg’s white-sound blaster (would a lower setting help you sleep? I wonder) to blast his way out of the devolution pit, and presto, all the Titans are back to normal, not a blue-black hair out of place. It's nice when the villain's trap contains its own reset button.

The ensuing fights contain many neat little bits. Raven heals a wounded Mallah, but Mallah then ventilates a goon about to skrag her. Raven screams “Don’t kill him! Don’t make a mockery of my life!” As if he’s on the same page philosophically as well as literally, Cyborg muses on his love of smashing, “Does the savage they brought out in me still control my thoughts?” Likewise, Starfire snits to Wonder Girl, “I’m not killing them, if that is what you want to know! But they deserve death, Wonder Girl....”

Cyborg also gets a very cool sequence where he’s blasted off the city’s ledge into mid-air, catches himself with an extendable hand, swings in between two flying goons, and retracts himself out of the way as they smash into each other.

Perez ultimately switches to long shots of the action, showing isolated panels of Robin and Robotman, Starfire and Wonder Girl, and Phobia and Kid Flash mopping up. Zahl knows he’s in trouble, and finally flees, with Robotman on his heels. Zahl shoots Robotman, but is himself killed by a ricocheting bullet. Changeling chases Rouge into the self-destruct room, knocking her away from the proverbial red button into another panel, which she hits with a SKRAKKK! and some Kirby Krackles. As Rouge dies, she spits that she’s finally free of the Brain’s evil, and urges Gar to get everyone off the island before it explodes. They do, it does, and the Titans and Brotherhood part warily. When Gar and Robotman are reunited with Steve Dayton, Wolfman and Perez provide a heartfelt epilogue which honors both the Doom Patrol and their creators.

Dead for about 13 years at this point, a couple of Doom Patrollers would stay dead for a few years more. In his 1987 Doom Patrol revival, Paul Kupperberg brought both the Chief and Negative Man back; and in his celebrated run on the title, Grant Morrison put both characters center stage. Still, for almost twenty years, the Doom Patrol was defined by the martyrdom of its founders, and this arc mined that history quite well. I have never read Doom Patrol #121, but if it's half as affecting as this arc makes out, it must be pretty special.

As far as the Titans went, this arc kicked off its second year impressively. If the Trigon story helped establish the Titans as more than just a junior JLA, this one grounded them in the larger sweep of DC history. Although the Doom Patrol never had the glitz of the Justice League or even the staying power of the Challengers of the Unknown, they were honored in death for their heroic sacrifice. Accordingly, this arc reminded readers that Gar Logan’s heritage was comparable to that of his Justice League-derived colleagues.

Still, having delivered an epic both in terms of physical scope and temporal reach, Wolfman and Perez had filled the first year with extended storylines, and were ready for more personal stories.

Next: Young lovers, old friends, and a new Dr. Light...?
Full Post

Monday, August 08, 2005

Untold Tales of the Best Wife Ever

Today is the Best Wife Ever's birthday -- hooray!

Although we now live about 45 minutes from Virginia Beach, we have not had much luck with the weather on our random visits. Back in the spring it was rainy and cold. Last Sunday, we had only been on the road about 15 minutes when the skies opened up and didn't stop until long after we'd eaten, shopped for furniture at a few different places in Newport News, and gotten back home. Therefore, when we went yesterday morning, I looked up a couple of shopping destinations in Virginia Beach in case it rained.

Well, it didn't rain, although it was hot and muggy; and we cut short our boardwalk stroll after about an hour. We then decided to go shopping anyway at the local antique mall, and picked out a nice little table which should serve us well. All in all, it was a very fun day, and tonight we are going out for her birthday dinner.

Eventually I may tell you-all the strange story of how we met, but for now here's another "untold tale." It was Labor Day 2001, and we were channel-surfing when I spotted Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The surfing stopped, because it was the touching drydock scene where Kirk (as the fans' surrogate) gazes lovingly upon the refitted Enterprise. The scene also marks the first time we-the-fans get an idea of just how big the ship is.

Now, at this point we had been dating for about 10 months, and she knew I dug Star Trek, but she was not exactly a yooge fan. Nevertheless, I was trying to decide whether to watch my widescreen-VHS version later on when she mused, "You know, this scene is the first time in the series that you really see how big the Enterprise is." Completely surprised, I thought I would be a class-one idiot if I ever did anything to break us up. If I hadn't started calling her the Best Girlfriend Ever (later amended to Best Fiancee and now Best Wife Ever), I sure did after that!

Not that she's since become a big nerd like me -- far from it. After I explained to her the classic Silver Age origin of Krypto the Super-Dog, she couldn't stop laughing for about five minutes, except to say, "I don't know which is worse -- that origin, or that you know it!"

Anyway, still the Best Wife Ever. Happy birthday, sweetheart!
Full Post

New comics 8/3/05, plus a little ranting

Rant first, to get it out of the way: it irritates me to no end that Alex Ross insists on putting Plastic Man and Captain Marvel into the Silver Age Justice League. I understand that it's wish-fulfillment for him, and who am I to be a big creative buzzkill -- but it's as bad as saying cavemen fought dinosaurs, Abraham Lincoln signed the Declaration of Independence, or John Glenn walked on the Moon. It just didn't happen that way. Captain Marvel joined the post-Legends Justice League in 1986, and didn't even stick around long enough to be a part of Justice League International six issues later. Plas joined in 1997 ("Rock of Ages") and has been with the League pretty much ever since. However, during the early-to-mid-1970s that Ross wishes to enshrine, both Cap and Plas belonged to different Earths. Furthermore, although "Justice League Unlimited" did some great stories with the "everyone's in the League" concept, for most of its history the Justice League was a select group -- and people didn't join "just because."

While I am sure that many outstanding stories can and have been told about dino-hunting Neanderthals, Lincoln in 1776 Philadelphia, and Glenn's lunar footprints, that still doesn't mean they can be told without breaking some significant rules of history. Yes, the history of the Justice League is both fictional and malleable, but it's history nonetheless, and it lays the ground rules.


Anyway, more on Justice #1 is over at The Great Curve. To sum up: I think it has potential, especially for casual readers, but somehow it manages to take itself very seriously while not feeling very consequential.

Serenity #2 (written by Joss Whedon and Brett Matthews, drawn by Will Conrad) is mostly setup for #3. The good guys and the bad guys each stay in their own locker rooms and talk about their game plans. It's all very true to the TV show ("Firefly," available on DVD, if you came in late), and that in itself is enjoyable -- but all it does is get you anxious for the good part to start.

Firestorm #16 (written by Stuart Moore, pencilled by Jamal Igle, inked by Rob Stull and Keith Champagne) continues to be a fun, entertaining, straightforward superhero book. For the most part, it has also stayed out of the whole Identity/Infinite Crisis imbroglio, which has been nice. (Wonder if that means sales are good?) Looks like that changes as of next issue, but I have faith in this creative team.

In the omnibus review round-up of a week or so ago, I wondered if DC Special: The Return Of Donna Troy #3 (written by Phil Jiminez, pencilled by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, inked by George Perez) wouldn't end in a big teary group hug. Wrong again. There are tears, and a bit of hugging, but it's mostly business as usual -- fighting and mind control and exposition, setting up a big battle for #4. There's also a weird panel where Cha-- er, Beast Boy, apparently to lighten the mood, flashes the reader a totally inappropriate hoo-hah! grin and a thumbs-up. Oh well, it's not like Beast Boy hasn't made a career out of being inappropriate.

Superman #220 (written by Mark Verheiden, pencilled by Tony S. Daniel, inked by Marlo Alquiza) is an unremarkable issue featuring Superman and Superboy fighting the Eradicator. It felt like a Chuck Austen issue of Action Comics, mostly because Austen was fond of using Superman and Superboy together against some implacable foe. The point of the issue is to get Superman to admit that things are getting bad, but the punchline is Superboy telling him he'd better get his act together. Wow, really, you think? This could have been an 8- or even 16-page story in a Secret Files or 80-Page Giant for all it contributes to the ongoing I-Crisis plot, but instead it takes up 22 pages in what is objectively DC's flagship title. Crikey.

(Speaking of those Secret Files and 80-pagers, I think it might actually have been better for DC to have put out a few more of those for these kind of gap-filler stories, instead of expanding them into a 22-page monthly.)

"City of Crime" takes a break for a month so that Detective Comics #809 (written by Andersen Gabrych, pencilled by Pete Woods, inked by Bit) can bring you "War Crimes Part 1," the fallout from Stephanie Brown's death. This is not quite the same as the "Dead Robin" arc going on in Gotham Central, although once again the great DC Coincidence Generator (or the Who'da-Thought? Machine) has made sure there are two dead Robin stories out the same week. No, this is the more sensational, yellow-journalistic approach to the story, which is that someone is using Stephanie's death to tell Batman his secret identity has been blown. (Too bad the Who'da-Thought? Machine wasn't working well enough to also give us this week the last issue of Gotham Knights, in which someone also tells Batman his secret ... oh, you know.) Anyway, a big Bat-villain makes a surprise appearance and Batman does some detective work. It's not that I don't care, and it's not poorly executed, but do the Batman writers even talk to each other anymore?

Speaking of Gotham Central (#34, written by Greg Rucka, pencilled by Kano, inked by Stefano Gaudiano), part 2 of "Dead Robin" finds the cops talking to the Teen Titans and trying to keep a lid on the media. The Titans stuff isn't bad, but it's the weakest part of an issue which has good scenes with the dead boy's parents and with Stacy, the Bat-Signal operator. It really plays with the idea that no one really knows anything about Batman or Robin, and it does that well enough to make the reader question whether (for example) the guy at the beginning of the book really is Batman. Considering that the readers know the "real" Batman and Robin better than the cops do, this is quite an achievement.
Full Post

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

FF Visionaries: George Perez Is A Tricky Trade

I like George Perez; I like the Fantastic Four; and (as my Essential Howard the Duck and Essential Tomb of Dracula volumes can verify) I have a bit of nostalgia for '70s Marvel. Therefore, you'd think I wouldn't complain about Fantastic Four Visionaries: George Perez (Volume 1). I liked it fine, but I have a few problems with how it was put together.

FFVGPv1 reprints Fantastic Four #s 164-67, 170, 176-78, and 184-86 (covering November '75-September '77). These stories include fights with the former Marvel Boy, the Hulk, the Frightful Four, and Salem's Seven. However, as you might discern from the omitted issues, there's just enough left out -- without any explanation except footnotes -- that it requires some extra brainpower on the part of the reader.

The cuts also have a weird kind of synchronicity. First, FF #167 ends with the Thing once again restored to his human form, with next issue promising "The Replacement!" This turns out to be Luke Cage, who evidently fought the FF for two issues before it was revealed that he was mind-controlled by the Puppet Master. However, when #170 opens, Reed is presenting Ben with his ultra-realistic Thing suit, which will allow Ben to be big and rocky on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside. Thus, because the Visionaries trade skips from #167 to #170, it goes from "Who will replace the Thing?" to "Ben Grimm in a Thing suit is the replacement!"

Even more hinky is the jump from the last page of #170 to the first of #176. Ben ends #170 with a half-page full-face closeup, thinking about how the Thing-suit might just allow him to live a normal life and marry Alicia. The caption reads "Next ish: 'But First -- A Word From Our Golden Gorilla!'" So then, #176 begins with an almost-identical full-page closeup of the Thing, ranting about how he's an "orange-scaled monster again -- for real!" Apparently the intervening issues (#s 171-75) told a hum-dinger of a story set on Counter-Earth, featuring a titanic battle between Galactus and the High Evolutionary during which Ben got Thingified. Sure would have liked to have seen that, even if some mook like John Buscema had drawn it.

Anyway, when the FF gets back to Earth, the Frightful Four are there waiting, and that battle ends up with the evil Reed from Counter-Earth secretly taking Good Reed's place and making it look like Good Reed sent Evil Reed into the Negative Zone with only his Speedos (Reedos?) to protect him. (Good Reed was also powerless for some reason.) Now that's a cliffhanger, but #184 begins with everybody in Reed's lab and Thundra and Sue helping "Reedo" away from the Negative Zone portal. Do what now? This caption is supposed to help:

What's Going On Here Department: Well, as near as we can figure it, the battle of the Baxter Building is over; Counter-Earth's Reed Richards -- alias the Brute -- is lost somewhere in the Negative Zone; and the Mad Thinker has departed for points unknown...

Now, I remember at least one of those missing issues from my misspent youth, probably because I didn't know how a powerless Reed could use only those shorts to get away from Annihilus. Reading the lead-up to that arc was probably the only time I've ever gotten excited over seeing Reed in his underwear, because I thought I'd get to see that story in all its Perezian splendor. Nope, not yet.

Of course, I realize Marvel made these cuts because (a) they're trying to save space and keep costs down and (b) the point of the book is to show off Perez's art, and he didn't draw those other issues, so (c) if you want to read 'em, wait for the Essential volume or look in the back-issue bins. That's fine. However, some text pages would have helped make the transitions a lot less jarring.

Furthermore, to those who say Marvel is just putting out a quick-and-dirty paperback to capitalize on both the FF's and Perez's popularity, I'll point out the reprinted text page from FF #176 where Roy Thomas explains the origin of the Impossible Man story -- a bit of behind-the-scenes information that has almost nothing to do with George Perez beyond his happening to be the issue's artist. (Was the name of the book FF Visionaries: Roy Thomas?) If Marvel's paperback people can take the time to make sure Roy the Boy's essay is included, they can type up quick synopses of the narrative gaps.

Finally, looking at the cover-gallery page, I noticed even from thumbnails that it looked like Jack Kirby was doing FF covers around this time -- and sure enough, a quick trip to GCD confirmed it. Accordingly, bigger cover reproductions would have been nice. Just another reason to seek out those back issues, I guess.

Not that I didn't like the book. I think it shows Perez really coming into his own in terms of design, layout, and details. His Reed is angrier and more muscular than others, but that's actually kind of close to the original Kirby model. Perez's Johnny Storm has some unfortunate Bo Duke hair, and some clothes that could probably survive flaming-on even without unstable molecules, but it was the '70s, after all....

So bring on Vol. 2, Marvel -- just keep us readers in mind, okay?
Full Post