Batman Christmas Tree ornament strikes fear into the hearts of other ornaments.
Saturday, December 24, 2011
Thursday, December 22, 2011
I haven’t read that many Wonder Woman comics. The Amazon is one of the few blindspots in my comic book education. Granted, I’ve caught her many appearances in Justice League comics, and I’m familiar with her world through the issue of Secret Origins that detailed her background, but I’ve never followed an iteration of the Wonder Woman series. Writer Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang have changed that with their relaunch of Wonder Woman. I gave their first issue a chance, and now I find myself four issues into their run and completely hooked on their vision of Wonder Woman.
What appeals to me about their take on Wonder Woman is that they have worked hard to stay true to the Greek mythology that inspires the character. Their Greek gods are not toga clad and grandiose deities. They don’t lounge about in a marble palace at the top of Mt. Olympus. Instead of unapproachable, personality-less cyphers, these Greek gods are petty and amoral beings. They have bitter fights with one another. They’re motivated by jealousy and other base emotions. They use regular human beings like mortal pawns in their struggles for power.
In essence, Azzarello writes the characters of the Greek Gods in continuity with their depictions in ancient Greek mythology. The gods weren’t nice to each other or to humanity. They were like immortal characters in a theological soap opera. I’ve noticed that the Greek gods are often portrayed as stuffy, magisterial, and basically dull in comic books. In the stories of classic Greek mythology, the Greek gods were actually portrayed as just as flawed and emotionally immature as regular human beings.
Azzarello has gone back to the source material by making his Greek gods just as bad as they were in Greek mythology. The relationships these Olympians have with each other is not of mutual respect, but rather of competition if not blatant hatred. If you’ve ever read Neil Gaiman’s classic seriesThe Sandman, you might recognize a bit of the Endless in Azzarello’s Olympians. In this issue, we see Apollo and Ares talking to each other in a Darfur war zone, and their conversation reminded me a lot of the sort of interactions that Desire might have with Dream. These are two siblings who have known each other for eons, and like Gaiman with The Endless, Azzarello does a great job of conveying the sense that these two characters have had countless conversations across the ages.
The comparison between Azzarello’s Olympians and Gaiman’s The Endless doesn’t stop with just characterization and dialogue. Chiang’s design of the Greek Gods is also strikingly similar to the style of The Endless. Rather than just wearing generic God attire (togas, sandals, breastplates, armor, crowns, etc), Chiang illustrates Apollo in stylish clothing straight out of the Banana Republic. He has him in khakis and a red short sleeved shirt. Chiang’s Ares wears a tan suit with no tie. His Strife wears a torn black dress and reminds me of Gaiman’s Delirium. This idea of clothing the gods in stylish and contemporary duds serves to personalize these immortal characters and gives them a certain cool factor. It’s an idea that worked great with Death, Desire, and Delirium, and it’s an effect I really love on The Olympians as well.
I’ve deliberately avoided the specifics of this issue’s plot and focused more on a critical analysis of what Azzarello and Chiang have done to addict me to their Wonder Woman relaunch because I’d like to encourage you to follow this series yourself. This is a comic that taps into the potential of a superhero who lives in the world of Greek mythology. After all, Greek mythology was really the original superhero story (with pantheons, superpowers, fantastic feats, heroes and demigods), and it makes a certain amount of sense to combine the two genres. If you like superheroes and Greek mythology, then Wonder Woman is a comic that you’ll probably love, and you should pick it up immediately or face the terrible wrath of Zeus.
Friday, December 9, 2011
We’re in the fourth issue of the relaunched Action Comics, and Superman (who has just started his crimefighting career) is facing his first supervillain of the series. Brainiac has come to miniaturizeMetropolis, and the amateur Man of Steel has to fight off his invading horde of robotic goons. This is a comic that fires on all cylinders, and it’s apparent that Grant Morrison is writing this series with an eye for emphasizing the titular “Action” as much as possible. It’s a big budget blockbuster of a comic, and Rags Morales is doing a great job of illustrating the city shattering battle between a more brutish and earthbound Superman and an army of Brainiac’s robotic Terminauts. While you might not like the T-shirt and jeans version of Superman, or his decidedly anti-establishment attitude, I can almost guarantee that this is an issue that won’t bore you with its dynamic and action-packed pacing.
This issue opens on the debut of Metallo in the DCnU. Instead of a criminal whose brain was implanted in a robotic body, this revamped Metallo is a soldier who’s wearing an exoskeleton suit of armor specifically designed to destroy Superman. Metallo’s mind has been usurped by Brainiac, who has also infected the assembly line car factories to produce legions of robotic “Terminauts” instead of automobiles. These Terminauts invade Metropolis and begin to “preserve significant artifacts”. I like the design of these Terminauts; they look like they are makeshift robots that were haphazardly improvized from car parts. There’ also an argument to be made that Superman was originally conceived during the Great Depression as a reaction to the newly emerging assembly line production of cars and other machines that rendered the average worker all but obsolete, so it’s appropriate that the Man of Steel would fight these factory produced death-bots. However, I have mixed feelings about this new Metallo.
Traditionally, Metallo’s mechanical body is powered by a Kryptonite heart. He’s the cold, unfeeling Tin Man without a heart whose humanity has been replaced by a lump of green death. Metallo’s threat level is considerably high because he’s not only superstrong and durable like the Man of Steel, but his very essence radiates energy that’s deadly for Superman. Given the right circumstances, I think Metallo could kill Superman. The reason I mention all of this is that the Metallo that debuts in this issue appears to be lacking the Kryptonite heart that, at least for me, defines the character. He does have some sort of green energy power, but no Green K heart, and I’m not convinced that this green energy is kryptonite related at all. This Metallo also is not the mind of a human implanted in a robot body. Rather, it’s a human being inside of a robotic suit. His humanity is preserved although hijacked by Brainiac.
While I have some issues with this new Metallo, I still like his redesigned look, and I think he serves his purpose as a physical antagonist for Superman. He’s also the figurehead for the much more faceless army of Terminauts, and I think it’s a smart move to give those devoid of personality automatons a leader with a human face. Superman versus the Terminauts was a great fight as well. Rags Morales really captures the brute physicality of this amateur Man of Steel who seems more prone to recklessly smashing obstacles than his elder statesman self of the future. Superman punches these Terminauts, and Morales draws them as exploding into clouds of car parts and metal debris, which I thought was a particularly cool image. The fight between the Man of Steel and the army of Steel Men was a well written and illustrated spectacle.
This issue also has the debut of Steel in the DCnU. Steel (Great Rao, forgive me my puns) steals the show, and I’m interested in seeing more of this revamped version of the character. Instead of basing his entire superhero persona off of Superman, Steel has a little more individuality in this incarnation. His armor doesn’t sport an S-shield or red cape, and he built the Metallo armor as a means of beating Superman, not replacing him. Steel basically saves this relatively underpowered Superman from Metallo, and cements himself as an effective superhero in this continuity who takes the initiative on his own instead of merely being inspired by the death of Superman. You can also catch a back up feature at the end of this comic starring Steel in a more detailed version of his brawl with Metallo.
The third character to debut revamped and redesigned in this issue is Brainiac. We only get a shadowy and obscured shot of him as he observes his collection of bottled cities, but I’m intrigued by the reimagining of this character’s appearance. He’s a caterpillar-like being with an elongated body that has many insect/robot arms. This less humanoid and more insectoid version of Brainiac is interesting; I like the idea that Brainiac, the obsessive compulsive collector of worlds, is more like an emotionless bug than a humanoid being.
Overall, I think this is a great comic. Grant Morrison is heavily emphasizing the Action in Action Comics, and it seems like almost every issue is packed with dynamic and fast paced scenes from the first page to the last. If you’ve read Morrison’s comprehensive analysis of superheroes in Supergods, you might recognize some of his commentary on the original Action Comics from 1938. It’s obvious that he’s attempting to apply the dynamic, perpetually in motion Superman of that formative run to his relaunch, and I think this back to basics approach is one that’s working well. I give this comic five out of five Raos.
From the first page, this comic establishes that the enemy of the series is the weird and unexplainable phenomena that shouldn’t be possible. Nul, the breaker of worlds, has broken the rationality of our world by making a series of disturbing and seemingly impossible things happen. I have to admit that I didn’t really like Nul in the context of Fear Itself as The Hulk possessed by an Uru hammer, but the idea of Nul as a disembodied spirit of pure rage is one that I can get behind.
From Nul’s rampage, the story cuts to Dr. Strange in his Sanctum Sanctorum with a “nubile grad student”. Although Dr. Strange apparently regrets his one night stand with this attractive occult enthusiast, I liked the idea of Dr. Strange as a guy who seduces beautiful women. It humanizes a character that is often mired in the intensely abstract and otherworldly (“I bind you with the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak!”), and it adds a bit of a coolness factor by changing Dr. Strange from a guy who lives with his weird man-servant to a bachelor whose mystique attracts beautiful women to his Sanctum Sanctorum.
Dr. Strange senses the disturbance that is Nul, and he even wonders if it’s connected to the vision of an impossible universe destroying machine that he had in Marvel Point One. Cue The Hulk who comes to Dr. Strange his help to defeat Nul, the creature of rage that The Hulk was possessed by until the end of Fear Itself. The two of them recruit Namor. I found it interesting that Namor is intervening in what looks like a mass-slaughter of dolphins that could be pulled straight out of the fascinating but seriously depressing documentary “The Cove“. It makes sense that Namor would be pissed about the butchering of dolphins by the hundred, and I appreciated that the Sub-Mariner is dealing with real life maritime issues.
After recruiting Namor, the three of them get the Silver Surfer on the team. The Dodsons’ illustration of Silver Surfer is really magnificent, and unlike any other portrayal of the character that I’ve seen before, he appears surrounded by flowing streams of mercurial fluid, which I assume is a creative and original depiction of his power cosmic. Instead of just generic energy, here the Silver Surfer’s power cosmic is shown as a silver and liquid-like extension of his body.
I’ve never been a fan of Red Hulk or Red She-Hulk, but even I laughed out loud when Red She-Hulk enters in this issue by chasing the bulls instead of running with them. It’s a clever twist on the running with the bulls concept, and it immediately establishes the kind of thrill seeking and bad ass attitude that we can expect from Red She-Hulk.
The final member of The Defenders to be recruited is Danny Rand, AKA Iron Fist, who is a character that Matt Fraction has some experience writing. I don’t want to get too deep into the specifics of the plot, but I thoroughly enjoyed Iron Fist’s entrance into this comic. I’m not that familiar with the character, but there are three words that will get me to like any superhero: zero gravity kung-fu.
The last thing I want to discuss about this comic is an interesting technique that Fraction is using at the bottom of his pages. He is inserting these sentences at the bottom of pages and in the panel gutters that serve as advertisements for other comics, and also as sort of prophetic statements that comment on the story of the comic itself. While some of these page liners (as they shall forever be called) just point you to other comics or upcoming stories in The Defenders, others are these fortune cookie-esque statements that hint at larger themes in the series. It’s a cool effect, and it feels like something out of an old school Marvel comic. It captures that audience participation effect that Stan Lee used to make Marvel so successful, and I’m interested to know if it’s a completely original technique or if it’s been done before.
Overall, I thought this was a great first issue of a series that I wasn’t sure I would like. The Defenders have never seemed to have a place in the Marvel Universe, but Fraction is changing that by giving the team a strong purpose: to defend against the abstract and seemingly impossible. Go pick this comic up if you like fantastic art and great writing, True Believers.
Thursday, December 1, 2011
This issue opens on Thor entering “The City” of this series’s antagonists “The Children of Tomorrow”. Thor is looking for revenge because the Children of Tomorrow destroyed Asgard and all of his godly brethren. I was immediately struck by the quality of Esad Ribic’s art. He has a highly detailed style and he illustrates the futuristic architecture of The City as this expansive, hyper-advanced skyline of streamlined buildings. Part of what made the first volume of The Ultimates so successful was Bryan Hitch’s art that emphasized intense attention to detail and an almost photo realistic style. It seems like Ribic is a good choice to work on this series that was so defined by Hitch’s style. Ribic’s style is not to ape the original artist on The Ultimates, but rather he has his own artistic approach that captures the detail and realistic portrayal of superheroes that arguably made the series so appealing.
If there’s one thing that Jonathan Hickman writes very well, it’s super-science. His vision of The City as a metropolitan pinnacle of ultra-technology is a pretty cool concept. He has Thor, a man of mysticism, magic, and fantasy, exploring The City to find a room in which new Children of Tomorrow are grown in glass wombs. The caretaker woman of this fetus factory tells Thor not to disturb the developing Children because “In vitro mathematics requires complete concentration”. The idea that The Children are so advanced that they learn high level mathematics while they’re in the womb was a fun, hyperbolic bit of pseudoscience. Although I’m unclear if this was Hickman or Ribic’s idea, I was also impressed with the detail of the caretaker woman having a stylized image of a sperm cell reaching an egg on her dress.
Thor discovers the captured Captain Britain about to be vivisected and incinerated like the rest of the European super soldiers. Thor rescues Captain Britain only to be confronted by The Maker, the leader and creator of The Children of Tomorrow, and a team of his superscience goons. This action sequence is a showcase for Ribic’s art as we see the God of Thunder versus a team of hyper-advanced science soldiers. It’s the power of magic and fantasy up against the power of unimaginably sophisticated science, and since any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, there is promise for this to be a compelling match up. However, The Maker’s blade equipped servant “First Knife” takes out Thor with what looked like barely any effort, which made the fight slightly disappointing to me. Even though the battle was a little on the short side, Ribic’s portrayal of Ultimate Thor unleashing his lightning-tinged rage on The Children of Tomorrow was fun and well illustrated. The Maker ends up sending a humiliated and beaten Thor back to Nick Fury with a message basically amounting to “back off and nobody gets hurt”, a proposed truce as long as Fury allows the Children of Tomorrow to do whatever they want, and the reveal of who he really is under that mask.
Overall, this is an enjoyable widescreen comic with good art and an interesting superscience antagonist. The Children of Tomorrow are an opportunity for Hickman to write the superscience he’s so good at and it also gives Ribic room to run with his extremely detailed images of futuristic cityscapes. While this series doesn’t quite recapture the lightning in a bottle that made the original run on The Ultimates so influential, it’s a fun read with good writing and art.