Saturday, February 10, 2007

Comic musings for 2/7

It was a big week at the comic store this week, but I am still trying to work through my self-imposed restrictions of not commenting on a single title more than once every other month and only write about things for which I care one way or another. So...

Spoilers ho!

Shazam: The Monster Society of Evil 1 -- It just has to be said up front that his book starts from a deficit because it was announced from DC at San Diego Comic-con in 2004. I remember the expectation of the audience at the panel...Jeff Smith taking on Captain Marvel! The audience was excited; hell, Bob Wayne was excited. And then nothing for more than two years. So, for me, the expectations have risen, since something awesome must be under work for it to take that long to produce a four issue mini-series.

And I'm not entirely sure it was worth the wait. Jeff Smith is a fine cartoonist, and I have enjoyed the bits of Bone that I have read. But Bone is an all-ages fantasy comic. Captain Marvel is superhero stuff, which has an entirely different feel to it, even if Captain Marvel is the one hero best-suited to an all-ages treatment. But Monster Society of Evil doesn't just pull me in the way I would've expected for something so heralded.

First of all, Billy Batson is drawn like he is no older than five. He says and does things that are more like the actions of an eight year-old, and eventually I just accept that he is older than he appears. But Billy really is drawn as a very small child, perhaps to emphasize his innocence and vulnerability. It is jarring and unfortunate. Second, this story is clearly not going to be within the continuity of Captain Marvel, as we get another spin on the classic origin story as well as an interesting take on his powers. In Jeff Smith's retelling, when Billy Batson speaks the magic word, he doesn't become Captain Marvel, he is replaced by him and Billy goes somewhere else. In a conversation with Merlin, Captain Marvel reveals that he has been around for a while and that Billy is just his latest vessel. There is some comedic potential with this set-up--and Smith touches on one of them when Billy visits a hot dog vendor--and this arrangement allows for some panels where both Billy and Captain Marvel appear, but these seem rather small benefits when compared to the cost of such a huge shift in the history of the character. The very thing that makes Captain Marvel so all-age appropriate is the innocence attached to the hero because he is truly a child wearing a disguise. Having an experienced Captain Marvel is strange terrain to find one's self in. Perhaps Smith has a big pay-off in mind, so I am waiting..but I am dubious.

Another strange thing Smith does is that each chapter title is in code, a simple replacement of letter for letter. It took only a few moments to break it, but I'm not sure what the point of the code is. Again, maybe it will pay off, but I don't expect it to be a big pay-off.

The art is classic Smith, very cartoony and thus very approachable. If you didn't like his work in Bone, there is nothing really new here. I'm holding out hope for the series, but if things continue like this, I think the series will be more appropriate for kids or for people pretty unfamiliar with Captain Marvel; fans of Captain Marvel should see this as a sort of Elseworlds version.

Action Comics Annual 10 -- Kudos to the creative team for the cover of this book, which harkens back to the classic covers of the Annuals from 70s. The cover is made up of scenes from the seven stories within the comic with the classic checkerboard border on the top. It is so exact a duplicate, my fingers rebelled when it wasn't newsprint they were touching. The structure of the comic maintains its dependence on those earlier issues, with five stories and two "articles": a layout of the Fortress of Solitude and a top 10 list of Superman's foes.

Each part is illustrated by a different artist. Of particular note is the very short Joe Kubert story, filled with many Thanagarians in hawk-costume. My thrill at turning the page and finding Kubert's space scenes and aliens nearly made the comic worth its cost. Art Adams, Gary Frank, Tony Daniel and Phil Jimenez do some very good work also.

My problem is with the stories, which are not as good as the art used to illustrate them. All of them are written by Geoff Johns and Richard Donner, and all of them appear to be setting up future storylines in Action. In them, we get the backstory of the three Kryptonians from the Superman II movie, which is just wasted if the three of them don't make an appearance in the regular title. But the movie Zod is not the comic Zod, especially not the one we have been seeing for the past few years. I'm not convinced of the value of going back to that continuity, except that it may be the only one that Donner knows. This issue also has the reintroduction of the various flavors of Kryptonite, which DC has studiously avoided since Superman was rebooted in the 80s. Stories using all those flavors can end up being extremely hokey and I'm more worried about what other writers will do with them than what Johns and Donner will. And I'm just not sure the ultimate benefit of having them outweighs the cost.

By far the best story in the book has a young Clark Kent learning about his powers and growing up separate from his peers in fear of accidentally injuring them. Into this lonely life is introduced another alien with super powers, whose spaceship happens to also crash in the Kents' cornfield. (I'll only grimace here and mention the hugely unlikely coincidence of his ship crashing into exactly the same farm...). They adventure together, with the alien hinting he may be another survivor from Krypton, until they decide to test his heritage. When the lead in the case around the shard of kryptonite proves more deadly to the visitor than the kryptonite itself, the visitor is revealed to be an amnesiac Mon-el, who has traveled from his own planet to find the last survivor of Krypton. But after all is revealed, Mon-el is still dying from lead poisoning, so that Clark puts him into the Phantom Zone where time stands still. This is clearly a tie-in to the continuity of the new Supergirl and the Legion of Superheroes. And yet, with such an interesting story about Clark's loneliness and newfound "brother", the art is the weakest here. I'm not sure how closely the artist and colorist worked together on this, but all the panels have a very washed out feel to them, with a palette in the browns, almost sepia. Perhaps this was done to give an impression of nostalgia, but it gets boring to look at, especially all the flat colors. Compared to the vibrant coloring and art throughout the rest of the book, this story is a dramatic departure.

Jonah Hex 16 -- My primary reason for pointing this book out is the art by Phil Noto. As a friend said to me, "His art is too pretty for Jonah Hex" and normally I would agree. But it works, as we follow the story of a woman who comes to Hex to be trained in revenge so that she can avenge the men that have made a wasteland of her life. Even scarred as she is, Noto 's art evokes the beauty she would have been had bad men not entered her life. And this evocation is important--she is just as scarred as Hex and so feels they should share a kind of kindred feeling. But her wasted beauty points out what the reader already knows, wanting to kill and doing it are two completely different things, and performing the actual act changes a person forever. Hex agrees to train her, and the next issue will continue the story in an unusual muli-part story for this title. But Gray and Palmiotti continue to hit all the right notes in their work here, and Noto turns out to have been an inspired choice for this story.

Detective 828 -- Given last week's review of Legends of the Dark Knight, I thought it important to call out this title for two reasons. First of all, I found out this week that issue of Legends was the last, and I assume that Batman Confidential is taking over the duties of stories from Batman's past. I'm going to miss Legends; I was working in a comic store when it was first released. I remember the hype about the title, I remember the interest in it, and I remember how good the first stories were. I still believe that it lost its path for a while, and I regret that there weren't more stories like the early ones or last week's. Secondly, Detective is plainly the best Batman title going at the moment. I said it before, I'll say it again here--Paul Dini is opening the door on a new golden age of Batman stories and Kramer and Faucher's art is magnificent. But the comic excels especially for Dini's writing as he brings us back to the the root of who Batman is in this most appropriately titled book. Batman is a detective, and a good one. We've lost sightof that over the years, but Dini is bringing it back in crystal clarity. I sincerely hope that the upcoming Countdown mini-series does not distract him from the work on this title, and that he stays here for a good long time.

And a couple of extras--
Having spoken the name, I just want to add a comment on the idea of this Countdown series. The success of 52 has proven the viability of a weekly series in the comics market, so long as it is handled well. DC's "sequel" to 52, Countdown, will apparently build on this success. But did we learn nothing from the special event series Zero Hour? Having a five-issue miniseries be numbered backwards, from 4 to 0, was cute. Doing the same for a weekly comic for a year, from 51 to 0, is a major pain in my butt. It's starts out being cute, and then when you think about it, it's just stupid. I use Excel to catalog all my comics, and I'm sure the other comic databases in the market work much the same way. I have a choice in how Excel sorts my comics, ascending or descending in a field. There is no way to make it ascend for most titles and descend for two titles. It's a nuisance and, I'm going to say that word again, cute. Ultimately, it's just wrong.

DC announced the winners of the "Best DC Cover of All Time" contest. The results are not terribly shocking, for all the reasons I had described when I first talked about it. People remember the covers of seminal events, and equate the most important events with the best covers. I'm pretty certain that there have been better covers through the years, but the stories were so unmemorable that we can't remember the covers either. I truly wish that they had taken the five or ten most nominated and given the readers a chance to vote, but the email campaign was the only voting there was.

And the winners are:
Crisis on Infinite Earths 7 (Death of Supergirl)
Flash 123 ("Flash of Multiple Earths")
The Dark Knight Returns 1
Action Comics 1
The Killing Joke

You can see them at Although I personally voted for Crisis and am not surprised to see it win, it's clear when you look at the covers side-by-side, the best of the lot is Dark Knight Returns. Honestly, I'm a bit surprised none of the Watchman covers made it, both because of the seminal nature of the story and because of Gibbons's brilliant work.

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