Friday, January 19, 2007

Comic musings for 1/17

Last week, nothing really jumped out at me good or bad, so I didn't do any reviews. This week is a different story, though.

Before I get into the reviews, however, I have to take a moment to mourn one of the best titles DC has going, Manhunter. Marc Andreyko was fashioning a fine re-imagining of the long-time DC hero, rooting her in the various ages of DC comics as well as keeping her relevant to the current storylines. The story-telling was crisp and lively, the characters well-rounded, and the art better than average.

And no one was reading it.

DC cancelled it once, and a write-in campaign kept it going for a little longer, but ultimately, the numbers could not support the title and it has been cancelled for real. I often see people complaining on boards and newsgroups about the decline of the comic industry, but I wonder how many of them stirred out of their comfortable compartments to try something new. Manhunter, along with the other title that was introduced simultaneously but cancelled much earlier, Bloodhound, were solid comic books, pushing the edges of the DC Universe. Apparently, however, readers would rather throw their support behind another Batman title than give it a shot. Fortunately, Manhunter is now a member of Birds of Prey, meaning that she will be under the watchful eye of perhaps the best writer DC has going right now, Gail Simone sadly,Bloodhound has not been seen since his title was cancelled). If you don't like what DC has to offer, there really are very few people to blame other than the folks who buy comics and the folks who talk about them. I'm not sure if anyone reads this blog, but I will shoulder a portion of the blame for the failure of Manhunter. I promise to call out such finds, as I failed to do with this title. Rumor has it that Andreyko has another project forthcoming. I'm going to buy it just because his name is on it. I hope to talk about it in this blog.

Now for the week's reviews.

Spoilers ho!

The Helmet of Fate: Detective Chimp -- This title had a long uphill battle from its very inception. Arising as it does from the events of Infinite Crisis, there seemed to be little purpose to the book except to make money as a tie-in rather than do anything interesting. It features a character that is getting a little play in Shadowpact, but about whom readers most likely know very little. It feels like one of those books that just isn't going to matter in the long run.

But then you look at the creators. Bill Willingham, who is doing some really exciting things in Shadowpact, Fables, and Jack of Fables is writing. Shawn McManus, who did a wonderful job drawing the Dr. Fate series from the 80s, is back doing something related to that work. So I decided to give it a shot (and my being a obsessive/compulsive completist had nothing to do with my decision).

Look, when I say this is the best character study of Detective Chimp I could imagine, that is not me damning with faint praise, though I admit to saying it 'cause it sounds just so silly. This is a story about a chimpanzee that talks and has the chops to be the world's greatest detective. The story begins with an example of his sleuthing ability before the Helmet of Dr. Fate literally falls into his lap. Suddenly, a very fine detective--whose cynicism regarding people forms the basis of his prodigious talent--knows everything. All the connections are clear to him and he can answer all the riddles. The power of a god is at his hands, and he turns it down, knowing that his true self, as unlikable as it sometimes is, would be totally lost and in the thrall of something else. And through the story, Willingham's whimsy is perfectly matched with McManus's. While the subject matter is serious, the two creators tell the story with panache and wit. And as the story ends, I know Detective Chimp better and the arc that guides the story has progressed. In their hands, the story takes a difficult and odious task and make something a little magical out of it. This is why I read as much Willingham as I can get--Fables is wonderful and easily one of my favorite comics. Now if we could only somehow get McManus on a regular title again.

Aquaman 48 -- Kurt Busiek took over the King of the Seven Seas when One Year Later began. The story he has been telling has been jarring, especially to longtime fans of Aquaman. He introduced a new Arthur Curry, who wasn't the Aquaman we knew, but is the current Aquaman. He somehow has some of the history of the Golden Age Aquaman, but it wasn't explicitly explained where the modern Aquaman was. But Busiek writing earns a great deal of leeway; Astro City buys a lot of respect. But one of my complaints about the series also was the art of Butch Guice, whose work I enjoyed in Ruse and Resurrection Man. In fact, I had been looking forward to the art, but it seemed to keep missing its mark. Somehow, the inking and coloring seemed off--as I try to recall my concerns, it seems to me that too much of the finished panels were ink and not so much space for expression. In addition, the palate was very dark most of the time, so that it was difficult to discern what was happening on the page, especially in facial expressions. So, we had a disconcerting story with unhappy art, leading to a displeasing title.

With issue 48, however, Busiek brings a character back into the Aquaman pantheon, the Fisherman. In a series of jump-cuts, we flash back to a gruesome series of recent murders, including the last Fisherman, and then jump forward to Aquaman being taught how to be a hero by his companions, the Dweller and King Shark. In what is a clearly a set-up issue, the stories converge in the last few pages (or we are led to think they do; Busiek is a good story-teller, so it could all be a mcguffin). But what makes this story click is the work of the new artist on the series, Ricardo Villagran. His lines are clean and smooth and very detailed. Nothing is lost to overinking. And while his palate tends to the monochromatic in the underwater scenes, it is lighter and easier to interpret. All together, this may be the best issue of Busiek's run on the title; unfortunately it is also his penultimate, and Villagran is only a fill-in artist until...Shawn McManus(!) takes over.

The Spirit 2 -- I guess I'm going to keep riding this train for a while. I really love the Spirit, and I want this series to succeed. I am trying very hard to judge it on its own merits, but it is very difficult given the huge shadow cast by Eisner's work. Once again, I find the same shortcomings in this title, but I can see the potential for so much more.

It is difficult to recognize this Spirit, when he keeps doing nothing but observe the events around him, acting more as a narrative device than an actor. In this issue, Darwyn Cooke introduces us to the new P'Gell, the archetypal femme fatale of Eisner's run. Clearly she is up to no good as she finagles her way into an introduction to the Prince of Karifistan and sweeps him off his feet. The allure of P'Gell has always been the interweaving of the tough woman with the innocent girl trying to peek out; this is pretty much the role of the leading woman in all noir stories--innocence and experience combined. Cooke gets this aspect right, but the Spirit remains in the background bumbling along in most unSpiritlike fashion; getting completely beat up by the Prince's guards and not even holding his own in his interaction with Ellen (who calls him Denny Colt!). At one point, the Spirit puts on a disguise, all in black, saying "I've noticed that when I show up at formal parties in a blue mask and hat, it usually ends up with me out back, getting beaten stupid by a gang of doormen the size of beer trucks." This one line shows everything that is wrong with this Spirit; Eisner's incarnation would wear a disguise, but it would still have his colors...and no one would notice. This was Eisner's wink to his audience, reminding us that it's all a well-intentioned bit of fun, but Darwyn forgoes that by giving us a monologue about why he must wear something different. The fun is missing.

Of course P'Gell kills her husband, but when the Spirit catches her, we learn it is not so much for his money, but for revenge--it seems P'Gell truly loved her first husband, a humanitarian doctor who served the poor in Karifistan and was caught up in a genocide by the Prince. Political relevance in the Spirit? Where's the fun?

The last page is the best of the issue. The Spirit is knocked out (again) by P'Gell and she makes her escape. Then the Spirit and the Prince's domo, actually an Israeli security agent in disguise, trade banter about the inscrutability of woman and share a laugh as they saunter off into the sunset. In this page, we finally see the self-effacing side of the Spirit, and hints of the whimsy that underlies his character. But the world he lives in appears to be too real for the lighthearted action of the Spirit, and he ends up just feeling dreadfully out of place.

I'll keep going with this series for a while, but my hope is wavering.

JLA Classified 32 -- One of the JLA's most dangerous enemies is back, but only as a stepping stone for a new villain, the Red King. Dr. Destiny, in another confrintation with the JLA, has powered up his materioptikon with the dream-power of the six billion inhabitants of Earth. The issue opens with the JLA fighting him in the dream-realm and, of course, defeating him. But as he is defeated, a piece of the materioptikon falls at the feet of hard-luck Darrin Profitt. Eventually, Dr. Destiny reaches out through the missing piece to draw Profitt into the dream-realm, where Profitt learns how to send himself into the different potential worlds represented by the facets of the gem-like materioptikon. When Profitt finds a world whose history meets his goals, he joins them all back together, so that his successful world is now the one true Earth.

This is a classic science fiction convention, using time travel or dimension travel to find the Earth where everything goes right, and the creative team handles the story well. But Profitt learns too late that he can only travel to a total number of dimensions equal to the number of people from whom the dream-power was borrowed. Clearly he has been working hard, because of the six billion he had to start with, there remain only four parallels. And since the imprisoned Dr. Destiny has set him against the JLA, Profitt, in his new alter ego of the Red King, is determined to destroy the JLA...and he has four shots to try. His potential worlds have given him "more meta-abilities than any being to date and possessing thousands of perfect strategems for destroying Earth's mightiest heroes...".

This promises to be a fascinating story, if it is pulled off as well as it is begun. Dan Slott is an able writer, so this has a lot of potential. But it also feels very Marvel-like, as the JLA must face off against someone who combines all the meta-abilities of everyone. You know, like Onslaught, or in the DC Universe, Prometheus or Amazo. And does anyone recognize that the Avengers are Earth's Mightiest Heroes?

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