Friday, December 30, 2005

Fast Away The Old Year Passes

This is not my big year-in-review post. I am still doing the research for that one. However, I did want to get in one last post before the end of the year, just in case I get stuck doing something fun (and yet mysteriously not blog-related) tomorrow.

Even though my comics reading habits work out to about 80 percent DC, 20 percent Marvel, and a tiny percentage for a few other publishers (see? research), I do like to think I have a healthy awareness of this particular shortcoming. Another big shortcoming, of course, is my Grumpy Old Coot tendency to wish that everything was as good as it had been in any random year before this one.

I got on this kick thinking about the old Batman/Superman team-up books that were pretty much gone twenty years ago: World’s Finest Comics, The Brave and the Bold, and DC Comics Presents. Of the three, World’s Finest was my favorite, because it guaranteed Batman and Superman, the superheroic ideals. Next was The Brave and the Bold, which guaranteed Batman every issue, and that usually meant more suspenseful stories than the Superman team-ups of DCCP. The exception, and the one time I really paid attention to DC Comics Presents, was a three- or four-part saga in #s 26-29 (Oct. 1980-Jan. 1981), drawn by Jim Starlin, which introduced Mongul. The guest stars were Green Lantern, J’Onn J’Onzz, Supergirl, and the Spectre, and the highlight was Superman and Supergirl’s takedown of Warworld in #28. The kicker was, Supergirl was lost at the end of #28, and next up was the Spectre, so things didn’t look too good for her. Really fantastic cosmic stuff, which actually tested the heroes’ abilities, or so I seem to remember.

Anyway, the point is, Superman team-ups tended not to work because Superman was almost too powerful for his solo adventures. Today, since he’s less powerful, maybe a Superman team-up book would be fun, but most of the other heroes tend to revere Superman, and although I have not experienced it myself, constant adulation might get a little old, even if you are the one being adored.

Conversely, though, a new Batman team-up book might be fun precisely because all the other heroes would either be scared of him, or secretly thinking he’s a tool, or both. If visiting Superman is like going to see Santa at the mall, visiting Batman is like going to the dentist – and not the happy-happy dentist with the toy chest, but the one who works out of a trailer, thinks anaesthetic is for sissies, and would just as soon be left alone. A Batman team-up book would have to be done from the guest’s perspective, because issue after issue of Batman going from disapproval to grudging acceptance in 22 pages would definitely get old.

As for World’s Finest, it has come back, kind of, in the form of Superman/Batman, a title short on imagination but apparently beloved by focus groups. I’m not going to dwell on my least favorite part of S/B’s format (dueling first-person narration), so instead I will note that it has tended towards highlighting the differences between blasé, trusting Superman and practical, paranoid Batman. Every issue talks about how dissimilar they are and how they manage still to overcome it all to remain secretly close chums. Imagine the nightmare if "The Odd Couple" or the average buddy-cop movie had its protagonists talking constantly about their conflicted feelings toward the other. ("I admire Oscar, and would trust him with my life, but I do wish he would make his bed so I didn't have to do it every day. Still, having lost his parents to crime, it is so hard for him to trust in a person's basic goodness....")

What does this have to do with the end of the year? Just that fond memories don't mean that some old comics need revival, because their times may actually have passed. With regard to the Superman/Batman relationship, I also feel compelled to add the recurring caveat that It Could All Change After Infinite Crisis, which is another reason to be glad 2005 will soon be in the rear-view mirror.

If I don't get a chance to say it before 11:59 EST tomorrow, have a safe and happy New Year's!
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Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Golden Moments

What a Christmas we had! It was 9 1/2 hours driving to Chattanooga from Williamsburg on Thursday the 22nd, and 9 hours back yesterday. (The difference was not getting caught in Knoxville's rush-hour traffic.) In between my mother-in-law and the Best Wife Ever's sister-in-law both got sick with stomach flu. I had a cold on Thursday, but a big dose of Nyquil and about 13 hours of sleep took care of that.

We still had an enjoyable holiday with our families, and while others recuperated, I had the foresight to bring along A Christmas Story, "A Charlie Brown Christmas," Elf, and the MST3K editions of Santa Claus Conquers The Martians and the Mexican Santa Claus. (Thanks to Netflix, the first disc of "Aeon Flux" was in there too, but that's not so Christmas-y.)

This year also marked the end of an era. A little over twenty years ago, I began my junior year of high school with a new backpack. It was sturdy and well-designed, with pockets upon pockets -- just the thing for schoolwork on weekdays and D & D on weekends. I used it through college and law school, and it went with me on excursions far and near. It has been from the Jersey Shore to the Pacific Coast Highway and from Florida to Niagara Falls. Lately I started calling it "Golden Boy," probably out of recognition that it was due to retire. When the Best Wife Ever asked what I wanted for Christmas this year, naturally I wanted Golden Boy to get a good sendoff.

So it was with a certain twinge of guilt that I opened the gold-wrapped present from the Best Wife Ever to find Golden Boy's successor. I don't know if it will put in the mileage that Golden Boy logged, and of course I'm tempted to say they don't make 'em like they used to. There may well be a display case and plaque in Golden Boy's future, but for now it will get a well-earned rest.


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Sunday, December 18, 2005

Infinite Christmas

Fans of a certain age -- let's not be coy, my age -- remember the event twenty years ago that was supposed to set everything straight. In Christmas on Infinite Earths, the Anti-Santa sought to stop Christmas from coming, but was thwarted by a vast assemblage of heroes from across time and space. Who could forget the opening scenes of issue #1, as onetime toy deliverer Jack Skellington was obliterated by the Anti-Santa's wave of all-consuming ennui?

We thrilled to revisit classic team-ups like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman (the "Season's Finest"), and witness new alliances like Clarence the Angel and Charlie Brown, Emmett Otter and the Little Drummer Boy, and Clement C. Moore (or was it Henry Livingston?) and David Sedaris. The sight of Santa wielding both Ralphie Parker's Red Ryder BB Gun and Linus van Pelt's security blanket came off surprisingly well; and even though they were villains, it was still disturbing to see Scrooge, the Grinch, the Bumble, and a group of Martians lose their time-traveling battle to stop the 31st Century Santa-Bot from freeing the Anti-Santa. Finally, lest we forget, it was the Herdmans' and Misfit Toys' emotional plea to the Angel Gabriel that convinced him to intervene, thereby giving Santa the fighting edge he needed over his evil opposite.

Seems like Christmas preparations start earlier every year, but this year March had Countdown to Infinite Christmas, a one-shot which killed Yukon Cornelius and introduced four summer-spanning miniseries. Aside from fueling speculation that Buddy the Elf would become the new Cornelius, it was all a big buildup to the current holiday apocalypse. Along the way, Santa's army of helpers got turned into killer cyborgs and put everyone on the "naughty" list; a weird spatial anomaly opened up over the North Pole; a duplicate Scrooge was revealed; and Clarence was seduced by Eclipso, who in turn was defeated by the Nutcracker. Yeah, I didn't understand that last one either.

So now Infinite Christmas is here, revealing the original Saint Nicholas' plan to restore the holiday to its religious roots and have folks "keep Christmas all year 'round." I have to say, Geoff Johns and Phil Jiminez certainly treat Nick reverently, even if objectively he is the villain of the piece. Although the chaos he kicked off was entertaining, the Anti-Santa wasn't much more than a scary plot device.

It's also tempting, in the face of rampant Christmas commercialism, to applaud such a back-to-basics approach. Nostalgia is essentially a rebellion against the perpetual march of time, and the fact that Christmas comes at the end of every year just makes nostalgia for its traditions more powerful. Who wouldn't want to have a few more child's-eye holidays, when two weeks of vacation could start with a leisurely walk home from school under slate-grey clouds fat with snow -- when the wind wasn't cold but bracing, and your only responsibilities were to keep your nose clean and your questions to yourself until the morning of December 25?

And yet the most powerful aspects of Christmas, anticipation and hope, are always with us. Early Christian public-relations gurus knew what they were doing when they scheduled Christ's birth celebrations around the winter solstice, because the darkest time of the year is perfect for ushering in the light.

A slightly twisted version of that approach is on display in Infinite Christmas. We know that Rudolph, Santa, and Frosty will become friends again. We know the reindeer will reunite (and in their absence, Earth-2 sleigh-pullers Dunder and Blixem can help pick up the slack). We know that as with every new year, change is inevitable, but perhaps only incremental; and nothing we can't handle.

When I was a kid I got excited over a few weeks of vacation from school. As I grew up I learned to keep hope alive all year. Even if I don't have a long vacation anymore, Christmas still gives me a bit of a break. Like the song says (watch out for the auto-play music past the link):

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!

Happy Holidays, blogosphere!

(P.S. The GLX-Mas special was brilliant.)
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Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Smells Like Team Spirit

[Looks like I published a draft of this accidentally. Enjoy the finished product!]

The Justice Society of America was made up of the highest-profile superheroes under what became the DC umbrella. Later, so was the Justice League of America. The third of DC's three long-lived teams, the Teen Titans, tended to be more of a niche group, being composed largely of junior partners. Other teams have come and gone, and some (like the Doom Patrol and the Outsiders) have had multiple incarnations, but the JLA, JSA, and Titans have permanent spots in DC's lineup. Still, why does DC need them?

In dramatic terms, each was organized as a social club, with only the Justice League being structured enough to have regularly scheduled "monitor duty" and signal devices. As it happens, though, each team corresponds to an heroic generation. Nowadays, from oldest to youngest, we have the Justice Society, Justice League, Outsiders, and Teen Titans. (The generational divides were easier to see when the two youngest teams were the no-modifier Titans and Young Justice.) This reinforces the social-club idea, but by the same token, it's a little unsettling to think that groups of ultra-powerful costumed vigilantes would just "hang out." I'm sure there are psychological and sociological underpinnings, as with Watchmen's Minutemen, but outside of hijinks in Justice League International and the "Teen Titans" cartoon, I can't say DC has really made a point to explore them.

With the Infinite Crisis-related dissolution of the Justice League, the opportunity exists for the Justice Society to get back on top of the superhero world. The JSA could even take in former Leaguers, as it did with Black Canary II. Unfortunately, in the wake of InfC, the Leaguers aren't really in a position to get the band back together. Superman, Batman, and Green Arrow may not be speaking to each other; Wonder Woman, Flash, and Atom may be in limbo; and Aquaman and Green Lantern have enough to handle undersea and in space.

Granted, it would be clever of DC to let the JSA "take over" for the League on what might look like a permanent basis. One could argue that the JSA was the most powerful team fielded during Crisis on Infinite Earths, which was during the "JL Detroit" period. I've said it before, but at no point during COIE was the original Justice League -- the team whose multiple-Earth adventures inspired Crisis, remember -- reunited, even superficially, in the face of almost certain extinction. The opening pages of Crisis drive this point home by showing both the League's evil counterparts (no "Crime Syndicate Detroit?" Now there's a missed opportunity!) and the gutted JLA Satellite.

The "One Year Later" books therefore have the chance to emphasize and clarify the role of the Justice League in the larger scheme of things. The current situation, with a Justice League having to reinvent itself from the ground up, may be unique in that the world already has an established Justice Society. When the League first formed, the JSA had disbanded. The JSA was in Limbo (literally) from 1986-92, and when it returned, the League had long been established. When the JSA was revived in 1998 after disbanding again in 1994, the League was still there. Now, the current JSA is in a position to fill the League-sized void, and DC may well let it for a while.

Not forever, to be sure. I imagine various JSAers and Teen Titans working with Batman, Superman, and other expatriate Leaguers separately, but "matchmaking" with each of them in attempts to get the League back. At the risk of recycling another old thought, it would also be nice if the reorganized JLA had its roots in Mark Waid's new The Brave and the Bold.

It would be a little silly for me to spend a lot of time on a dream-team JLA, not least because we don't know who will be around to join. However, for the bulk of its history, the JLA has been DC's all-star team. '70s Tom might not have been a regular reader of the heroes' solo books, but he always liked seeing everyone in Justice League of America. '80s Tom appreciated the unique post-Crisis membership of the Giffen/DeMatteis League; and early '90s Tom respected Dan Jurgens and Gerard Jones' attempt to fuse together the JLI and classic League. Of course, late '90s Tom was positively giddy over the Morrison League, but I doubt we'll see anything like that again.

In restating the JLA's purpose, DC can also address the need for a Justice Society and Teen Titans. I haven't read JSA or TT in about a year, mostly because I was getting the sense that regardless of their stated purposes, they existed pretty much as legacies. The "reunions of names" took its cue from the Morrison JLA, and for a while both teams got by on the novelty of seeing Jack Knight or Tim Drake carrying on their respective traditions. The Titans also benefited from saying openly that they were a social group set up to handle the angst of being a teenaged superhero.

Still, a world with a Justice League may find it difficult to justify a Justice Society. I'm not saying that the JSA should be subsumed, ABA- or AFL-like, into the JLA; and I don't necessarily want the group disbanded. However, it may be time for the JSA to also embrace its "social" underpinnings. It is arguably just as exclusive a club as the JLA; and perhaps more so, due to the legacy element. James Robinson's Starman, which did a lot to birth the current JSA, really explored these aspects of generational superheroics. To me that is the JSA's strength, even if it doesn't lend itself to a steady diet of combat.

However the JLA is reorganized, DC should make sure its members will be sticking together for the duration. The Giffen/DeMatteis Leagues lasted five years, and the current title has made it through about nine. Unfortunately, the team's history also includes a few short-lived rosters, not all based out of Detroit. The potential for a 21st-century Justice League is limitless, and I'm eager to see what DC does with it.
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Saturday, December 10, 2005

New comics 12/7/05

Detective Comics #814 (written by David Lapham, pencilled by Ramon Bachs, inked by Nathan Massengill) is a somewhat confusing conclusion to "City of Crime," the twelve-part epic that was interrupted by a crossover and so took over twelve months to tell. It ends on the note of cheerful nihilism that marked the rest of the arc, but it asks the reader to remember characters and subplots from about a year ago, and so may be more appreciated in collected form. Overall I enjoyed "City of Crime," and if I get time may do an omnibus recap.

More to the point is Batman and the Monster Men #2 (by Matt Wagner), which also intends to use a large cast -- including Hugo Strange, Boss Maroni, Julie Madison, and her father -- but so far keeps better track of them. Wagner has always drawn a great-looking Batman, and here the minimalist "Year One" style isn't far from his own. My one quibble is a familiar one, namely first-person narration from various perspectives. It's not hard to tell who's speaking, but there's not a lot to differentiate the speakers when they switch.

Gotham Central #38 (written by Greg Rucka, pencilled by Kano, inked by Stefano Gaudiano) starts what will probably be the book's last arc. Despite the cover, and the rumors swirling around bad cop Jim Corrigan, there are no hints that he was the original Spectre or will be again. (Still, if a murdered do-gooder were to become the Spectre's new host, like good cop Jim Corrigan did back in the day, one could make an argument for a candidate in this issue.) Better characterization of Montoya and Allen this issue, and I continue to be amazed with how consistent the look of the book has been.

Superman #224 (written by Mark Verheiden, pencilled by Tom Derenick, inked by Wayne Faucher) presents a compare-and-contrast story of Superman vs. Blackrock and Luthor vs. an OMAC which actually comes off fairly well. While I don't want to say that there were no good "corporate Luthor" stories, in the old days he couldn't just steal a plane and kill a pilot; and not having to get through those plot mechanics makes things go faster. The issue includes another switch-to-Superman moment, which I am noticing more and more in recent months, and which I applaud for purely sentimental reasons.

Superman Secret Files 2005 includes two stories, a kids'-eye view, a Lois-meets-Superman tale, and an odd Bizarro two-pager. The first story, written by Devin Grayson with art by Ariel Olivetti, is sweet, if a little mawkish. The Lois story, written by Jami Bernard with art by Renato Guedes, is fine, but I can't decide if its slightly revisionist take on Lois' early relationship to Supes puts her in a good light. It has an uncanny Christopher Reeve evocation on the last page. The Bizarro "origin," written by Christine Boylan with art by Carlos Ferreira and Drew Geraci, starts out as a parody and ends up in pathos. None is absolutely essential, but then again, none are really the kinds of Superman stories the monthly books have been telling, so on balance it may be worth a look.

Seven Soldiers: Mister Miracle #2 (written by Grant Morrison, pencilled by Billy Patton and Freddie Williams II, inked by Michael Bair) reveals more of the "disguised" New Gods, and I start getting confused. Not because I'm trying to fit this into a convoluted DC-mainstream timeline, or trying to decide whether this is "real" or an alternate universe, but because I'm looking for familiar faces and everybody is drawn as hulking bald men. Still, by the end Darkseid and DeSaad are revealed, and that helps things get creepier. Maybe the larger plot will turn out to be "Shilo Norman escapes from the alternate universe," which would be OK but not very imaginative (considering I thought of it), so I hope Morrison ramps things up a little more and eases up on all the bald guys.

She-Hulk 2 #2 (written by Dan Slott, pencilled by Juan Bobillo, inked by Marcelo Sosa) features the big Return Of Hawkeye, sort of, and it may or may not be permanent. There are some funny bits, and a couple of heartfelt ones. However, the whole plot also revolves around a weird time paradox which exists for its own sake. Now, that's fine, and I can accept it, but I'm still trying to work out the mechanics.

Finally -- and I do mean "finally" -- Spider-Man/Black Cat #4 (written by Kevin Smith, drawn by Terry & Rachel Dodson) is an extended set of conversations between BC and Matt Murdock and Matt and Peter Parker; and it ends with a Spidey/Daredevil/mystery villain fight. "Oh, a dialogue-driven Kevin Smith book," you say,"how innovative." Yeah, it's like that, but it doesn't seem as witty as Smith's earlier Marvel work. (And when I say "earlier" ... oh, it's just too easy, isn't it?) Moreover, Smith makes a big deal of not revealing Matt Murdock, when it's patently obvious virtually from the cover. The other thing is, I'm not sure about the Daredevil timeline. I am not a real DD scholar, but I think it refers to events from the intervening years, and that seems like cheating to me.
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Another Saturday, another mea culpa

Most of the week I was in Lexington getting CLE (continuing legal education) credits and catching up with various folks. This had me avoiding supposedly scary winter weather on Tuesday and Thursday and trying not to get caught on the West Virginia Turnpike after dark. I kid the WVTP, but really, much of it is like a downhill slalom, and it's better negotiated without ice. Still, a friend of mine mentioned that until about 20 years ago, I-64 ended at Charleston, WV, and if that were still the case, my trips would be a lot longer and less pleasant.

So last night, after work, I picked up new comics and caught up on all the TV I missed. I hope to have a new-comics post up tomorrow afternoon. I am also working on a Christmasy essay which could potentially turn into something strange.

Back soon.
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Saturday, December 03, 2005

New comics 11/30/05

Adventures of Superman #646 (written by Greg Rucka, pencilled by Karl Kerschl, inked by Wayne Faucher) was a really good issue, and possibly Rucka's best single issue on the book. Although many writers, including Rucka, have played Mxyzptlk as a buffoon, here he really jerks at the ol' heartstrings, showing Mxy stripped of his powers and much of his faculties. The confrontation with Ruin also hearkens back nicely to the beginning of Marv Wolfman's run on Adventures, almost twenty years ago. What works about this issue is its uncomplicated nature. Superman, Mxy, and Ruin are all laid out in simple terms, and after months of everything tying into something else, it's a nice change. (There is a bit of crossover business with Lois and her shooter, which is good and doesn't distract.) Now clap your hands, kids, if you want the imp to get his powers back....

Rucka's other book this week, Wonder Woman #223 (pencilled by Rags Morales and Cliff Richards, inked mostly by Ray Snyder), was also in last-stand mode. It may be just a coincidence, but the pre-Crisis WW title ended with a siege of Paradise Island by shadow-demons. Substitute OMACs for the demons and here we are again. Rucka does a good job building suspense about who lives and who dies, and naturally Wonder Woman gets a chance to be hardcore. The art is a little too busy, though, such that it's hard to tell who's fragging who. As carnage-filled as the issue is supposed to be, I don't think that was the desired effect.

Since reading last week's Captain America, Batman #647 (written by Judd Winick, pencilled by Doug Mahnke, inked by Dustin Nguyen) can only suffer in comparison. The comparison itself may be a little unfair, since Batman and the Red Hood are ostensibly working together and Cap and the Winter Soldier aren't, but as you might expect, Batman betrays very little of the emotion here that Cap did last week. The story itself is a straight-up superhero fight involving C-list villains sent by the Secret Society to take out the Hood, and on those terms it's pretty entertaining. I will say, though, that Winick's use of first-person narration is another strike against it. He starts off with Alfred and switches to Batman, and back to Alfred again. While it's not like I expect to be spoon-fed, I think he could have accomplished the same thing by using a third-person narrator. He is still no Jeph Loeb, thank goodness.

JLA Classified #14 (written by Warren Ellis, art by Butch Guice) also trod familiar ground, this time the old "your fears will destroy you" dodge. The art is good, and the story holds some surprises, but not many.

Finally, the first year of Waid and Kitson's Legion of Superheroes (#12) ends with an all-action issue finding the Legion fighting on three fronts. It's pretty good, espeically if you don't mind a couple of the surprises to be reveals of familiar Legionnaires. Still, every time Waid mentions "Terror Firma," I think of "Terror Incognita," the better pun which he used in JLA. The issue also features a Lightning Lad/Saturn Girl backup, by Stuart Moore and Ken Lashley, which was clever but probably makes more sense in the context of the larger story.
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