I can’t really figure out writer Geoff Johns. He’s clearly got a deep and abiding love for Silver Age and Bronze Age DC comics, and he’s basically been given carte blanche to do whatever he wants at DC these days, driving events like Infinite Crisis, writing anchor series like Action Comics, and bringing back Hal Jordan as Green Lantern. But as a writer he’s extremely erratic. Throw out the event books – which are always going to have a lot of editorial edict in them – and my exposure to his work is as follows:
- A pretty good run on Flash, in the unenviable position of following Mark Waid, who defined the title for a decade.
- A pretty weak run on Justice Society of America, marked by a lack of focus and nearly-nonexistence characterization.
- An erratic run on Hawkman which thrashed around but never went anywhere in either plot or character development.
- A fun run on Booster Gold.
- A very strange run on Action Comics, with uncompressed story arcs (i.e., not much story per issue) which lacked cohesion or much continuity sense.
- Reviving the Green Lantern series.
His overall approach feels a lot like that of Kurt Busiek and Mark Waid, both of whom also have a great love for comics of their youth, as well as a deep and broad knowledge of those comics and an ability to apply that knowledge to their writing. The difference, I think, is that Busiek and Waid both have a much more sophisticated ability to plot stories and tie them into ongoing character development, and especially to provide a payoff in the form of a dramatic action sequence or moving character scene. Johns’ plots seem haphazard, and they mostly lack character and payoff. They just amble along, relying on a density of references to the source and background material to give them texture. There’s often a lot to think about when reading his books, but they tend to end up feeling empty, because crucial elements of the stories are just absent.
This brings me to Green Lantern. I bought the series back when it started, and a friend of mine called it “the least necessary character revival in recent memory” (or words to that effect). About eight issues in, I decided I agreed with him: Characterization was minimal, and the book didn’t seem to be going anywhere, so I dropped it.
But as I read about where the book has gone since, with the Sinestro Corps War and an expansion of the backdrop of the Guardians of the Universe and their Green Lantern Corps, I decided I was interested in picking up the book again. So this week I picked up issues 29-35, comprising the “Secret Origin” story, and 36, which is chapter two of “Rage of the Red Lanterns” (chapter one appeared in a Final Crisis tie-in book last month). I also picked up the paperback collections of the first 15 or so issues.
Well, I have to say that Green Lantern overall might be Johns’ best work. While one could argue that a 50-year-old character hardly needs his origin story retold, Johns throws out some of the more depressing elements of the last telling, Emerald Dawn, such as Hal’s conviction for drunk driving, and tells the story starting with Hal’s childhood: Seeing his father’s plane explode before his eyes, his rebellion against his mother and desire to fly, and his early training with the Green Lantern Corps, including winning the (somewhat grudging) approval of Sinestro, who was the greatest Green Lantern in the Corps at the time. Johns puts his all into crafting Jordan’s character, as a rebel who didn’t fit into his family and who shirked his responsibilities, but who learned to accept responsibility as the stakes got higher. He’s both a thinker who challenges the status quo, and a man of action who sometimes doesn’t think enough. It might be the best GL origin ever done.
“Secret Origin” also lays the groundwork for “Rage of the Red Lanterns”, by introducing Atrocitus (still a ridiculous name, but arguably no more ridiculous than Sinestro), the leader of the Red Lanterns, who is searching for the individual who will bring about the Blackest Night (which will be the next big GL event, it seems). That individual is apparently Black Hand, an old GL villain who appeared early in the series, making it apparent that Johns has been working through some long-term plans for the series. In the latest issue, the Red Lanterns start to execute their plan, while Green Lantern himself is contacted by a new force, the Blue Lanterns.
The notion of different colored lantern forces is an interesting one, although it’s hard to see how it will all fit into existence continuity, since we’ve never heard of them before. The Blue Lanterns are new, so they get a pass, but I don’t quite understand how the Sinestro Corps came about (since I haven’t yet read the Sinestro Corps War), nor why we haven’t heard of the Red Lanterns before now. The colors also seem to embody different emotions: red is rage, yellow is fear, blue is hope. I’m not sure what green is… bravery? There are also the Star Sapphires and their magenta-colored powers.
So I still have some worries that a lot of these details will go unexplained, which will make the texture of the setting much less satisfying. Nonetheless, Green Lantern is looking like Geoff Johns’ magnum opus. His other work has been so erratic that this feels like damning it with faint praise, but I am enjoying it quite a bit.
On the other hand, there’s Geoff John’s run on Justice Society. The story “Thy Kingdom Come” concludes this month, as Gog is summarily dispatched (way too easily, really), and the Kingdom Come Superman’s story comes to a close, circling back to the events of that earlier series.
Although the issue feels decidedly rushed – I think Johns and Ross threw too many balls up in the air and never gave any of them the time they really needed – there’s still some good stuff here. Gog was always just a foil for Superman, as he represented the hero’s greatest fears, so closely resembling the man from his own world whom Superman saw as having supplanted him. In dealing with Gog, Superman owns up to his responsibilities to his own world, and with Starman’s help returns there. This leads to a touching epilogue in which the years following Kingdom Come are hinted at, with a very satisfying final page.
Gog had some lasting impact on a few members of the JSA, but it’s hard to tell whether they’ll be fully explored in future issues, especially since the next storyline is going to deal with Black Adam and Mary Marvel (what, again?). I suspect any real payoff will be left to the writers who will follow Johns later this year, Bill Willingham and Matthew Sturges.
After over a year of “Thy Kingdom Come”, JSA feels like it just doesn’t have any focus on its core characters – indeed, that its cast is so large it doesn’t really know who its core characters are. Flash? Green Lantern? Power Girl? Cyclone? The KC Superman has been the heart of this series for more than half its run, and he wasn’t even a member of the team, really. Both this and the previous JSA series have been all about fairly superficial plots and very little characterization. It seems a poor legacy for what in the 70s and 80s was a team featured in some truly excellent stories. As much as Johns gets right in Green Lantern, he gets wrong here.
Once upon a time there was a mini-series called The Winter Men. The premise of this series was that there had been a Soviet project to create superhumans. It succeeded, more or less: A few genuine superhumans were produced, and some soldiers in super-powered armor were also created. The the Soviet Union collapsed. The soldiers dispersed, and the superhumans – went away. Not that they ever had that high a profile. Nearly 20 years later, one of the soldiers is reactivated to investigate a possible descendant of the superhuman program, which threatens his marriage and his life.
Unfortunately, said mini-series was published literally years ago: Issue #1 came out in 2005, and issue #5 in 2006. Now we get The Winter Men Winter Special, which concludes the story.
I always had problems with the series. I’m not a fan of John Paul Leon’s art, which seems muddy and laid-out so it’s difficult to follow. But the difficulty of following the art is nothing like trying to follow Brett Lewis’ story: The characters are bland and hard to distinguish, the motivations and repercussions are fuzzy, and things seem to happen for no reason. The series was lauded in some quarters as a solid thriller which explored life in contemporary Russia. But I felt that the good story was struggling to get out from under the obfuscation and muddy storytelling, but never quite made it: A story about the fantastic things from the previous regime coming back to haunt the survivors in the present day, but in a society in which survival means keeping your head down and trying to avoid being part of the fantastic.
Maybe that’s the story that Lewis wanted to tell, but I don’t think it’s the one that made it onto the page. Which is too bad, but ultimately I think The Winter Men ended up being stylish but not very satisfying.
Update 1/11/09: Two other reviews of this issue, with summaries of the series as a whole: Greg Burgas at Comics Should Be Good, and Jog at Savage Critics. Both of them liked the series more than I did. I think Jog’s point about the story being “supercompressed” is a good one, but it sure does make it awfully hard to read and follow, and I don’t think the rewards are worth the effort.
I haven’t read much of Ed Brubaker’s comics work other than his X-Men work, but I know he’s pretty well regardd for Captain America and Criminal, the latter of which is illustrated by Sean Phillips, who also draws Brubaker’s new series, Incognito.
The premise is clever: Zack Overkill is a super-villain who testified some time ago against another criminal, and was put into the witness protection program, and given drugs to suppress his powers. Much like Mr. Incredible in The Incredibles, Zack doesn’t take to living a normal life as an office worker very well, but being an amoral sort he find the occasional way to get his kicks. He also finds – quite by accident – a way to counteract the drugs blocking his powers. Which puts him in a practical dilemma: He’s in witness protection for a reason which benefits him, but he also wants to use his powers. Zack’s background is interesting, with a deceased brother and a scientist who gave him his powers, which surely will play into future issues. This first issue is all set-up, but Brubaker does a great job in crafting it and promising plenty of mayhem down the road.
Phillips’ art has that shadowy noir-ish look to it, but his drawings have more detail and nuance than, say, John Paul Leon or Michael Gaydos, two artists with their own noir-ish styles which don’t really work for me. So overall Incognito #1 is a winner, and I’m looking forward to more of it.
(Brian Cronin liked it, too. And, you can read the first nine pages of the first issue here, although the second half is better than the first! Also, you can see the covers of the first three issues.)