Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Comic book musings for 18 April

Only two reviews this week, but then I'm going to follow them up with a diatribe. Fun fun.

Spoilers ho!

Shadowpact 12 -- Much like the enjoyable Ragman issue a few months ago, this issue spotlights another member of the supernatural team. This time around, it's Nightmaster.

For the past few issues, Nightmaster has beenlying at death's door, impaled on his own sword as Enchantress maintains his life with a spell that does not permit her to sleep. The book opens with the warning that it has been 10 days since Enchatress last rested, and she is losing control of her spell. It is only a matter of time until Nightmaster dies. What follows is a nice first-person history of Nightmaster, recapping his first appearances in the original Showcase and later in Primal Force while filling in the missing parts of the story. We find out about his relationship to the Oblivion bar and how he eventually assumes ownership of it as well.

But more importantly, after his life passes before his eyes (and ours), he dies and begins a conversation with the spirit of the Sword of Night, his magical weapon. It turns out that the Sword, if used properly is unable to kill its wielder, so Nightmaster's death is due to his own ignorance. After the spirit relays a little of its own history, Jim Rook is told he doesn't have to be dead. So of course he revives himself, and there is great rejoicing.

There's not a lot of action here--the last issue's battle in Hell makes up for it. But what we are graced with is another strong character piece by Willingham (again with strong art by Tom Derenick). It ties up an open storyline while advancing the larger picture, telling the history of one of DC's lesser known magical characters to set up more of the relationships within the team. In fact, this issue makes a fine jumping-on point for those unfamiliar with the title. That Bill Willingham, he's a writer.

Nightwing Annual 2 -- So, in the last issue of Nightwing before One Year Later, Dick Grayson proposes to Barbara Gordon and they share a kiss, with the book ending before we see an answer. Clearly, after the year passes, Dick and Babs are not together, let alone married. Since the changes in the titles One Year Later were supposed to be addressed by 52...and weren't...this annual pretty much recaps the events up to the point where Nightwing shows up in 52.

As Dick recuperates from the injuries he sustained in the final battle in Infinite Crisis, Babs helps out by nursing him and bullying him into training. As they work together to return Dick to his old form, they have a series of flashbacks as they recall the highlights of their relationship. Marc Andreyko once again shows his encyclopedic knowledge of DC history as we go through their "first date," Babs's first encounter with Starfire, Dick and Babs's "first time", and then finally the resolution of his question.

Some of the moments are played for laughs, as the first date began as anything but, and ends up with Dick being mortified by what Robert Heinlein called "the gallant reflex" when he and Batgirl are trapped in a safe together. The fanboy moments are nice, and the open dialogue between the two makes the retold episodes feel honest. However, I have some serious issues with the memory of Dick and Babs's first time; according to the issue, Dick returns from Tamaran with the Titans to find that Barbara Gordon has been paralyzed by the Joker. Filled with remorse, he goes to her and in a mutual weak moment, they end up making love. If it had stopped there, it might've worked, but Andreyko goes too far. The following morning Dick gives Barbara the announcement of his engagement to Starfire. Rightfully furious, she kicks him out of her apartment. This action is so very atypical of Dick that it almost hurts to read. And I'm not at all certain what is gained in the story of their lives by making this event occur; we know that there had to be some sort of tension in the triangle of Dick, Barbara and Kory, but this is too much, and so terribly out of character.

The story ends with Batman coming to Dick and inviting him on his world tour. Barbara still hasn't answered Dick's proposal and Dick ponders leaving her again at such an important time. He wakes up to find a note from her explaining that she feels he has spent his life defining who he is by his relationship with other people. She goes on to say that she doesn't think they can work until he learns to be just Dick Grayson. So her answer is "no for now." Unfortunately, that answer means that Dick is going to travel around the world with Bruce and Tim...not exactly a good way to find out who he is without relying on relationships with others. And, even in real life, I find this kind of psychobabble annoying; in this case, though, she's not giving him the "find herself" excuse, she's foisting it on him for "his own good." Unfortunately, the letter she leaves for Dick doesn't really explain how she's come to this conclusion, just making it that much more annoying.

What the issue leaves us with is a clear feeling of the strength of Dick and Barbara's relationship, and that is a good thing. The current dialogue between the two of them feels real, failing only at the end as they make a decision communicated through letters. The really clunky "first time" is also a disappointment, but ultimately it doesn't detract from the feeling of the mutual love and respect they share. Ultimately, I really liked this issue, which is a no-brainer given Nightwing is my favorite DC character. But it's not great, and that bad scene is a real letdown, especially coming from someone who has proven hi chops as neatly as Andreyko has with Manhunter.

The screed

This past week saw the release of the four-issue World War III, in which (as advertised) Black Adam faces off against the world. However, in his "DC Nation" column, publisher Dan Dido talks about the real reason be hind World War III. As originally planned, 52 was going to tell the story of how the changes that were revealed in One Year Later actually happened. But, as he tells it, 52 took on a life of its own, and the characters they used had more interesting stories to tell. And so, somewhere, somehow, those stories has to be told. How did Aquaman become the Dweller in the Deep? Why is Martian Manhunter angry? How did Manhunter go from being a DA to a defense attorney? And so on.... And so was born World War III, an appalling mishmash of a year's worth of storytelling in four issues.

Let me be clear--the events of the "World War" are completely told, beginning to end, in this weeks issue of 52, issue 50. So, what World War III ends up being is a contrived way to tell a large number of stories that were promised to the reader over a year ago. Perhaps the stories themselves wouldd be more compelling, if the contrivance that provides their narration were not so....well, dumb. In the course of his first battle with Black Adam, Martian Manhunter is lashed by Adam's psychic assault and forced to relive all the murders that Adam has just performed. While we know that such an attack would in fact hurt Martian Manhunter, we also know that up to this point Black Adam has never had any pyschic powers (not has an yof the Marvel family for that matter). And so Martian Manhunter retreats into space, licking his wounds and, for some reason that reamins unclear, studying humanity again. I mean, it's not like he hasn't already spent all of his time on Earth doing that already. It makes one wonder what he thinks he is going to learn now.

And what he learns is the stories that we've been waiting a year to be told. While at one time, these may have been compelling stories, they are told in the space of five or six pages, thus removing any sense of value to the continuity or importance overall. And sadly, in some cases, after the stories themselves, I still have more questions than answers. Furthermore, as the review of the Nightwing Annual above indicates, not all of the stories could even fit into World War III.

As a result, I completely regret even buying the title. I really got very little for it but some slipshod stories loosely bound together through an unappealing narration, itself without much point or focus. I cannot, in all honesty, recommend this title and I'm fairly unhappy with the thought processes at DC that made it happen.

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