Friday, May 24, 2013

Review: Superman: Earth One Volume Two

The Stupid Age of Superman: Heat vision incinerates hapless human victims. Note the skulls in the foreground.

A bit over a year and a half ago, I did a quick review of the first Superman: Earth One hardcover. It was bad. Really bad.

Many moons later, here I am, having read volume two by the same "creative" team of J. Michael Straczynski and Shane Davis. Whereas, as far as I can remember, the first volume was just really bad, book two is not only worse, but it's offensive. It's offensive to any discerning comics reader with halfway sensible taste. It's offensive to the very concept of Superman as an abstract idea. This is a Superman comic in name only. It certainly doesn't live up to anything Superman truly represents.

Let's start with the art. The art's just bad; compared to the writing and actual story, the art is the lesser of two evils. It's just your standard, somewhat innocuous homeless man's Jim Lee-style penciling with modern coloring. Things are colored a little dull and muted, except for things like explosions, heat vision, electricity, energy blasts - those just look fake and out of place, akin to flashy special effects in Hollywood blockbusters designed to "wow" the audience but are actually smokescreens to hide how mediocre the storytelling is.

But, man! Shane Davis' art has not improved at all. His work looks exactly the same as the first terrible Earth One book. Everything still looks the way they're supposed to look, but it's all so bland and uninspired, almost a little like Mark Bagley's work but with more detail, more muscles, more '90s Image-inspired "grittiness." His characters have very little, if any, sense of "acting" and their body language only meagerly conveys whatever the script calls for. Even a slightly better artist would have at least made the book worth looking at from a draftsmanship point of view. Panel to panel and page to page storytelling is indistinguishable from the vast majority of any middle of the road superhero comic you can find on the racks. It's rather disappointing to see that this art was given the original hardcover graphic novel treatment. For such a "special" comic, you'd expect a little nicer artwork. Taken as a whole, this is simply kids' stuff. Which is acceptable, I suppose, if that's what they're going for - if DC thinks this style of art can attract the Halo/Call of Duty generation, all right, fine, whatever. Good luck.

As a designer, Davis' work is still poor. Is there any good reason for Superman to have those extraneous seams stitched on his costume? Does he really need an eight pack molded right into his suit? I feel like little details like that are Davis' way of conveying how badass his version of Superman is, as though the more badass and unfriendly Superman looks, the more the audience of this book will relate with him. (Now that is a cynical thought... and an idea that simply isn't worthy of Superman, yet somehow - sadly - is probably in tune with our current culture.) About the nicest thing I can think to say of Davis' work is that at least he kept Superman's underwear on the outside of his pants. (Unlike whoever designed the New 52 Superman.)

His design for Parasite, the villain remixed for this story, is unimaginative, too. He looks like a generic purple humanoid monster with weird bulges all over his limbs who, when he finally sucks Superman's power, basically looks like a lavender Hulk (complete with torn up pants) with gross yellow spots. Sometimes, simple is more memorable, but in accentuating the supervillain's musculature and angry facial expressions, Davis makes the character appear one dimensional and run of the mill. (Of course, the writer's characterization doesn't help at all.)

It all adds up to a comic that, at its best, looks it's trying a little too hard to look flashy and exciting. At its worst, it genuinely looks utterly insipid and banal.

Now, terrible art is one thing - it could be argued that a powerful story and script can redeem bad art, or at least elevate it back to the level of passable mediocrity. Just look at Alan Moore's underrated run on Supreme (an homage to the Silver Age in general and Superman in specific), which was saddled with art by the likes of Ian Churchill and Rob Liefeld yet still reads leaps, bounds, and light years better than this turd called Superman: Earth One.

It kinda goes without saying, but JMS is no Alan Moore.

There are numerous problems with volume 2's story. The plot is basic and predictable. The supervillain, Parasite, goes on a rampage and it's up to Superman to stop him. Of course, in their first meeting, Parasite whips Superman's butt, so Superman has to regroup before he can win. Somewhere in the story, there's a subplot about Clark and his apartment neighbor Lisa Lasalle (because, you know, there aren't enough L.L.s in Superman's life) and how she keeps trying to seduce him. There's also a subplot about Clark trying to deal with how the world hates and fears him.

There are just things in here I don't think are necessary in a Superman comic, or at least don't do anything meaningful in this one. For example, during a scene when Lisa Lasalle and Clark go to the movies, she makes an allusion to giving him a handjob. I don't know if JMS thought that he was being cool or in tune with his audience, but I found this inappropriate, tasteless, and offensive. There could have many better ways to show Lisa trying to seduce Clark, or to show that she has a warped view of romantic relationships. The difference is that many of those other possibilities would have likely required a bit more subtlety, a quality that JMS does not tap into in his comics writing often enough.

In another scene, Superman intervenes in a foreign country to save some people from certain disaster. The country's military dictator confronts Superman, brazenly telling him off as you would expect. Superman actually then fantasizes about incinerating the dictator with his heat vision until the puny human is nothing but a pile of charred bones. He also fantasizes about laying waste to the dictator's military forces with extreme prejudice. (Just look at the book's cover image.) Superman doesn't really do this, of course, but he fantasizes about it and Davis draws a couple of pages showing us his fantasy in graphic detail.

Anyone who knows anything about Superman should know that this is wildly uncharacteristic of the essence of who Superman is and what he represents. It would have been fine if JMS and Davis simply showed us Superman's frustration and helplessness at the situation, but to hamfistedly force this scene upon us is simply gratuitous. I can think of two reasons for this: 1) They don't respect their readers' ability to perceive that the scenario could leave Superman, the most powerful being on the planet, powerless in the face of politics and rhetoric, or 2) JMS and Davis think that explicitly showing us Superman's revenge fantasy somehow makes him more relatable to the audience. (Because, hey, who hasn't dreamed of using heat vision to wreak havoc upon their enemies?) The first reason is insulting to the audience's intelligence and the second reason doesn't reflect well on the creators' understanding of the character.

Later, there's a scene when Superman saves Lisa from an abusive crazy ex who is about to assault her in her apartment. Using his superspeed, he grabs the guy and flies him to Alaska, or the North Pole or somewhere arctic. Superman tells the guy he'll have to hike his way back to civilization (miles and miles away) if he wants to survive, and then he flies off. Again, this cruelty is wholly unrepresentative of Superman. It's not that the guy doesn't deserve to suffer, but the problem is that Superman is unnecessarily sadistic. That's just not who Superman is.

It just makes me wonder if JMS really thinks that the reason people generally complain about how they don't like Superman is because he's a good person, too good. It's as though JMS feels that by making Superman more prone to wrathful outbursts of emotion, he's somehow more like us, more "realistic," and therefore more relatable, and therefore more people will enjoy the character. 

I get that this isn't the "real" Superman and that this is an imaginary story (aren't they all?), but even Elseworlds Superman tales have something to say about the character, even if it's in the form of something the "real" Superman would never do. The difference is, DC (and, by extension, the creators of this comic) are trying to sell us on the idea that this Superman is the embodiment of the iconic aspects of Superman. But it doesn't ring true at all.

Superman isn't cruel and he isn't petty. He's above all that. He's the ideal embodiment of the best humanity can hope to strive for. Maybe he's not the superhero Jesus, but he's got to be the superhero Moses. (Sent from Krypton on a rocketship is like Moses floating in a basket in the Nile, right?) I hate how people think you have to somehow make Superman dark or grim in order to make him relevant. Did we learn nothing from Joe Kelly's "Whatever Happened to Truth, Justice, and the American Way?" (Action Comics #775.) Superman hasn't lost touch with America. America has lost touch with him. (What's next? A comic where Superman walks across America to "find himself" again? Hmm...)

My little diatribe about the essence of Superman aside, the actual plot in Earth One volume 2 has other significant problems that are difficult to overlook.

In flashbacks, we see that the Parasite was always a sadistic individual, even as a child, and gaining his powers has only served to give him greater destructive power. It's your basic, run of the mill supervillain origin, and we also see that when he was a kid the one person he actually loved was his kid sister. Well, they're both adults now in the story and somehow, his sister sees the Parasite going on a rampage in Metropolis.

Incredibly, even though she is in another part of the country and watching the news as the Parasite ravages the city for hours, she is able to realize he's her brother, hop on a plane, land in Metropolis, and meet him in the middle of the streets of downtown Metropolis while he's still in the middle of his rampage.

The logistics of that are a real stretch.

First of all, it's a little hard to swallow that the sister could even learn the Parasite is her brother. And even if she did know, how feasible is it that she could watch him, live on the news, then hop on a plane, fly out there, and meet him while he's still on the same rampage he was on when she was watching TV in the first place? That would mean his rampage has gone on unabated for at least several hours and yet the authorities still haven't intervened to the point where they are still allowing commercial flights into what's essentially a warzone. Plus, she straight up wanders right up to him on the street while he's wrecking stuff.

It's overly convenient and cheesy.

To add to the corniness of the situation, the Parasite sees his sister, calms down a bit, and they hug because she knows he's actually a good person at heart, yadda yadda yadda. Predictably, his powers cause him to siphon her life force during their embrace, and she dies in his arms. This drives him into an even more furious rage, and that's when Superman finally is able to kick his butt. Lame.

The book ends with a scene of the government recruiting Lex Luthor (who, in this story, has a wife named Alexandra - get it? Lex Squared! I'm rolling my eyes.) in order to find ways to deal with these metahuman threats in the future. It's supposed to be a little ominous but by this point I was just happy to say I finished the book.

This comic really lit a fire under me. It set afire a blazing inferno of hate full of rage and spite so deep within my soul that no love could ever quench it. This scorching hellfire continues to consume me the more I think about this comic. Superman: Earth One volume 2 is a book whose sole purpose in the vale of tears known as human existence is to anger and offend me. The comic has absolutely no redeeming value and I would rather read a Safeway advertisement in the newspaper than this offensive drivel.

On top of all that, I borrowed my copy of the comic from the library and, because the book itself is cursed, I was late in returning it. The overdue fees are added insult to the ignominy of the experience of reading it, and just more kindling and fuel for my hatred.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Review: Batman: The Dark Knight Volume 1: Golden Dawn

David Finch writes and draws a Batman comic.

Unkindly, my first thought when I heard about this a couple years ago was, There's no way that can be good.

Perhaps even more unkindly, when I saw the hardcover at a library the other day, my first thought was, Wow! I can't wait to read this so I can feel justified in hating it!

This was a bad comic, even by DC standards. I get that Finch is popular artist, but I honestly don't think he's a good one. Or at least he doesn't have a style that appeals to my sensibilities. I can stomach his art if the story is interesting enough (see Moon Knight with Charlie Huston, or Ultimate X-Men with Bendis), but nothing about his drawing and storytelling has ever, ever indicated to me that he could possibly be a gifted writer. Golden Dawn is evidence enough; it's your standard, run of the mill Batman story, only with a lot more gritted teeth, furrowed brows, and veins pulsating through clothes.

Dawn Golden (Yes. Her name is Dawn Golden and the story is titled Golden Dawn. David Finch clearly learned from Jeph Loeb - that's their idea of subtlety and wit.) is a girl from Bruce Wayne's past. She's been kidnapped. It's up to Batman to save her. He encounters Killer Croc and the Penguin. There's also a side plot with Etrigan the Demon and Ragdoll that eventually crosses over into the main plot. Now, I've given you some of the general beats of the story. Use your imagination and create a story using those points.

Unless you're mentally retarded, you've just imagined a comic better than the hardcover open in front of me.

Finch crafts the most basic, generic superhero story full of all the tropes you've come to expect from a Jeph Loeb or Judd Winick comic. It kind of reminds me of Todd McFarlane's Spider-Man: Torment from the early nineties; that was one of the first really art-driven big name superhero titles, and it was a piss poor comic (unless you were simply satisfied with T-Mac's art). Finch relies on splash pages to punctuate his story beats, but without any genuine emotion and drama behind the story, it all ends up being a series of meaningless moments captured in panels. His art is detailed but the details rarely seem to serve any stylistic purpose. Unless they're fighting, his characters are poor actors and don't convey any real emotion.

Oh yeah, there's also a subplot involving a teenage girl (at least I think she's a teenage girl - with Finch's art, she could just be a really short adult) stealing some tech that ends the ordeal with a cliffhanger. I have to admit I'm not really interested in seeing how it all turns out. And there's a good chance that I'm going to forget everything in this comic by next week. 

The sad thing is, I really wanted to hate this comic a lot, but it was so bland and insipid that I don't have the strength to unleash my unbridled disdain. I thought it would move me to new heights of rage, but it was such an uninspired piece of work that I've got nothing...

I always wonder, whenever I read a bad comic, where do they get the pull quotes that they slap on the covers to try and sell people on the book? I mean, the front cover has a pull quote from IGN that says, "David Finch is a master of superhero comics; The Dark Knight is further proof of that." Did that reviewer actually think this was a masterfully executed superhero comic - that out of all the superhero comics ever made since the dawn of time, this is as sterling an example of the genre in all existence? Or was he just being sarcastic and his quote taken out of context? I have to believe it's the latter; the alternative is just too depressing a thought.

The best thing I can say about the Golden Dawn hardcover is that at least it collects a story from Batman #700 written by Grant Morrison (which has nothing to do with Finch's story). It's probably Finch's finest moment since his Moon Knight run.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Review: Batman: Earth One

Okay, so what is the point of this comic? Why does something like this even exist? What purpose does it serve beyond making some money? (I suppose those questions could apply to a lot superhero comics these days, but I'm really just pointing at this one.)

Over a year ago, I reviewed Superman: Earth One and asked myself similar questions. I want to say that the purpose of this line of Earth One graphic novels baffles me, but the truth is I know it's just a cash grab. Batman: Earth One is a little better than Superman: Earth One, but that's mainly because Gary Frank is a much, much better artist than Shane Davis.

Batman: Earth One takes the familiar origin of Batman and tries to... do something... with it. What exactly, I couldn't really tell you. It's got all the basics: We see the story of Bruce Wayne being orphaned and vowing to rid Gotham City of the evil that took his parents' lives; his first outing as the Batman ends up in failure; with renewed resolve, he's finally able to make right on his vow and triumph. Yadda yadda yadda.


I assume Geoff Johns wants to make Batman fresh and modern, so he makes Alfred a former military soldier with a prosthetic leg and a goatee, because, y'know, goatees are badass. It's just details like that which really grated on me as I read the comic. There was just something about it where I felt like Johns is just trying too hard to make us feel like we're seeing something fresh, when it's really all just the same old stuff just dressed up a bit. The violence, the spectacle, the Ultimate-ization of various familiar characters - it all just felt like a cry for attention.

For example, James Gordon has a character arc: He starts off as a morally compromised cop who, after having his daughter's life threatened, eventually turns it around to become the principled hero cop we all know he should be at the end of the story. Harvey Bullock actually plays a big role in Gordon's turnaround, although by the end of the ordeal, it's implied Bullock himself is about to begin a fall from grace, descending from good-looking TV cop show host to alcoholic detective. Oswald Cobblepot (the Penguin) is the corrupt mayor of Gotham City. Nothing about how these characters were handled impressed me, and I just couldn't buy into Bullock as a debonair former TV show host. Johns tries to lay the foundation for future stories by introducing the subplot of Martha Wayne (Bruce's mother) and her family's creepy past. Her maiden name? Arkham. DUN DUN DUN! I don't know, was that supposed to excite me for the next installment when we get to see how the entire Arkham family became insane? 

There's a scene in this book that I think is supposed to be the emotional climax of Batman's arc, when Alfred tests Bruce's emotional fortitude by picking a fight with him in Wayne Manor. Bruce gets his butt whooped, but ends up fighting a little dirty by sweeping the leg (displacing Alfred's prosthetic leg in the process). Of course, as Bruce walks away with new resolve in his heart, Alfred brushes away a tear and basically says, "He finally gets it." The whole sequence is painfully trite. Just flat out corny.

Really, if you're going to remix or reimagine a classic, you have to bring something new or clever to it. This comic treads the same hallowed ground as Batman: Year One and doesn't offer anything new in a creative or satisfying way. At this point in history, it's fair to say that Year One is one of the top two best Batman stories ever. Is there any reason for someone, for anyone, for a new reader perhaps, to read Earth One over Year One? No. Absolutely no reason at all.

It just makes me cynical - like DC Entertainment knows that the legions of existing Batman fans who already know the ins and outs of his story will eat this up, regardless of its quality, just because it's Batman. And I do believe fans did eat this up, according to the sales figures. I hate comics fans sometimes - even when they're given crap, they gorge themselves on it. That just makes these corporations feel like they can continue feeding us crap because the people will eat it.

Everything that Earth One aspires to be, Year One already accomplished... in 1987. Gary Frank is a fine artist, but I'm sure even he'd admit he's no David Mazzucchelli. Let's face it: If anyone were really hankering to read a Batman origin story, you'd point them to Year One. It's a timeless comic and one that's so definitive, so perfect, that it utterly negates the entire purpose of Earth One.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Review: Justice League Volume 1 Origin by Geoff Johns and Jim Lee (The New 52)

I don't know what there is to say about the New 52. Personally, I haven't been more disinterested an unmoved by current mainstream superhero comics since I was a kid and the combination of the Age of Apocalypse and the Spider-Man Clone Saga made me quit reading superhero comics entirely. Generally speaking, these past couple of years haven't been pretty for Marvel and DC, but DC in particular has really been hitting rock bottom.

Whereas I felt that the era from about 1999-2009 or 2010 was a modern Golden Age for comics, I now believe, with full conviction, that we are now in what I have termed the Stupid Age of Comics. We're at the stage where these corporations are basically just throwing crap at the walls to see if anything will stick. They don't seem to realize that even if something sticks to the wall, it's still crap. There are lots of ideas but so many of them are embarrassingly bad concepts that I honestly don't know how anyone could have thought these were good.

Here are a couple of quick examples of distressingly bad (or downright stupid) ideas just off the top of my head: Spider-Island, Minimum Carnage, Earth One original graphic novels, the Superior Spider-Man, JMS on Superman and Wonder Woman, the New 52, any Jeph Loeb comic, and Before Watchmen. To further hurt matters, DC killed WildStorm and is slowly but surely chopping the balls off Vertigo - both of which are decisions which I assume make tons of financial sense for their parent conglomerate Warner Bros., but absolutely do nothing to help improve the overall quality of the artistic merit of their products. And somehow, DC's still giving work to writers like Scott Lobdell, Fabian Niceza, Dan Jurgens, and Judd Winick. What a stunning lineup of commercially-oriented superhero writers. I don't doubt that there are a lot of people who are enjoying their comics, because somebody out there has to be buying them, or else why would they keep getting work?

But today, I do not come to praise DC, but to bury them, to bury them in an avalanche of hatred, a hate so deep and powerful that no love can ever vanquish it. Just because lots of people apparently like their comics doesn't mean I feel any obligation to feel the same. After reading a number of New 52 comics, I found a couple that were promising (mostly Jeff Lemire's comics, although longtime readers of this blog do know that I have an irrational appreciation and compulsion for everything Peter Milligan touches), a few that were super bland and absolutely the embodiment of middle of the road, and a bunch that were so bad that I put them down and wondered what was the point in living if comics had reached such a low point.

Justice League by Geoff Johns, Jim Lee, et al. is emblematic of the bottom of the barrel. Massively hyped upon release and produced by two of the biggest names in superhero comics, Justice League was supposed to be the flagship DC book. I guess it still is, because it represents everything that's terrible about their approach to comics over the past several years.

Having just read the first hardcover collection of the first 6 issues, I can say, again, with full conviction, that we are living in the Stupid Age of Comics.

Look, if this comic came out in 1993 and I had never read or watched a single Justice League story, ten-year old Dru would probably think this was pure awesome. But I'm not a kid any more and there have been so many amazing Justice League stories over the past 20 years, from Grant Morrison's definitive JLA run, which was worthily followed up by many more fine comics by Mark Waid and Joe Kelly, to a couple of J.M. DeMatteis/Keith Giffen/Kevin Maguire Justice League International throwback miniseries, to the Bruce Timm/Paul Dini Justice League and Justice League Unlimited cartoons. Somewhere in there, Warren Ellis even wrote an Authority-esque Justice League story, a six-issue blast of accessible, cinematic superheroism that still stands leagues above this travesty from Johns and Lee.

I haven't truly enjoyed a Johns comic since the Identity Crisis era. It could be a coincidence or it could be a conspiracy, but ever since he basically became DC's guiding creative force, I haven't liked his work. But I have a lot of fondness for his Avengers run at Marvel, as well as his Flash, JSA, and the early half of his Teen Titans. Those are really fun superhero comics.

However, this Justice League comic is an exercise in cliches. It's got everything from misunderstandings between the heroes (leading to the obligatory hero versus hero fight scenes) to the mysterious cosmic mastermind scheming and plotting behind the scenes (even though it's obvious from the get go that it's Darkseid). It's a story about the team first forming in this softly rebooted universe (is there any other medium where we so readily bandy about terms like "softly rebooted universe?) so Johns takes a "year one" approach to the Justice League's formation. Everything's predictable and you've seen it all before.

Problem is, these are all icons. I believe Morrison himself once stated that the JLA are the pantheon of gods. Everyone knows who these characters are. Go and reread Morrison's first JLA arc, New World Order, where the team gets together to fight the Hyperclan. That's how you do a team origin story. By boiling down each character to his or her essence, everyone gets a chance to shine in Morrison's classic.

Johns chooses to give each character a few "shining moments" by either making them jerks (see Superman and Green Lantern), overly earnest to the point of caricature [see Wonder Woman, Cyborg (yeah, I don't know what he's doing in the Justice League, either - unless this is just one of those equal opportunity race things), and the Flash], or having them basically punch some parademons hella hard (see Aquaman). It all feels very forced and trite.

The dialogue is peppered with predictability and awkward sentimentality (Cyborg's conversations with his father stand out as an egregious example of this) and even the humorous bits are weakened by Jim Lee's art style.

And Jim Lee's art just isn't good. I know he's one of the most popular artists of this generation, but I just don't think his work does any favors for the story. His character designs are terrible, with most characters sporting some sort of bizarre and unattractive collar and lots of weird plating (I assume it's plating - they could just be extraneous lines) on their costumes. I especially hate what he did to Superman - not only is the armor completely pointless for the character, but he took away one of the things that makes Superman look like Superman; Superman should always wear his underwear on the outside of his pants. Without his underwear on the outside, Superman just looks gay. Darkseid, with his bulky armor and constant gritted teeth, looks terrible, too, looking more like a generic He-Man villain than the cosmic despot and embodiment of evil that Jack Kirby surely envisioned.

Also, there's a scene where Lee illustrates a pre-Cyborg Victor Stone playing football. I get that football games must be difficult to draw, but his football scene wasn't convincing at all. It's enough to make you question the physics of his drawings even when he's drawing superhumans flying around punching the hell out of winged alien creatures.

I didn't see the point of this comic at all. Six issues to tell us how the Justice League got together? It's just a story that has no other purpose than the plot it purports to share with readers. How many times have we seen a superteam origin story? How many times have we seen a Justice League origin story? If you're not going to do anything fresh and new, then why even bother making these kinds of comics at all? There's no thematic depth, there's nothing particularly witty or clever in terms of dialogue or overall execution, the character development is shallow and superficial, and it all  focuses extensively on physical action and bombastic explosions. This must be the kind of comic book that Michael Bay reads at night before he decides that he could make a Justice League movie.

There's also an epilogue at the end that's supposed to set up some sort of ongoing plot thread or mystery, but it's so cryptic and relies on the reader having knowledge of other New 52 comics that I can't be bothered to care. I can only hate.

I hate the bland writing. I hate the tasteless character designs. I hate the style-over-substance of the art. I hate the very concept of rebooting the universe and telling yet another tired origin story. I hate that this comic exists and I hate how there are so many people out there who will continue to read, buy, and support comics just like this, thereby ensuring a never-ending production of similar dreck.