This Week’s Haul

A pretty big haul this week (well, last week now): Two series come to an end, I start catching up on a third series I missed out on, and one of my favorite web comics gets collected. Let’s jump in:

  • Final Crisis #7 of 7, by Grant Morrison, Doug Mahnke, & various inkers (DC)
  • Justice Society of America #23, by Geoff Johns, Jerry Ordway & Bob Wiacek (DC)
  • Legion of Super-Heroes #50, by “Justin Thyme”, Ramon Bachs & Livesay (DC)
  • The Incredible Hercules #112-117, by Grek Pak, Fred Van Lente, Khoi Pham, Rafa Sandoval, Paul Neary & Roger Bonet (Marvel)
  • Marvels: Eye of the Camera #3 of 6, by Kurt Busiek & Jay Anacleto (Marvel)
  • Nova #21, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Wellington Alves & Scott Hanna (Marvel)
  • Echo #9, by Terry Moore (Abstract)
  • Gunnerkrigg Court: Orientation vol 1 HC, by Tom Siddell (Archaia)
  • Mister X: Condemned #2 of 4, by Dean Motter (Dark Horse)
  • The Umbrella Academy: Dallas #3 of 6, by Gerard Way & Gabriel Bá (Dark Horse)
Final Crisis #7 It’s no secret that I think DC’s latest big event series, Final Crisis, has been a complete disaster. It started off with some promising elements, but then not only went off the rails in terms of plot and characterization (or lack of characterization), but worst of all, it’s been unrelentingly boring, devoid of either action or of the intriguing new ideas which are usually Grant Morrison’s stock-in-trade. So it’s something of a relief that the final issue came out this week, and I can now turn around and try to sell the pile of cow flop on eBay.

That said, this issue opens with what is easily the best scene in the series: The President of the United States – a black man – is ending a meeting with his advisors, and then heads off for a mission in his other job – as the Superman of his (alternate) world. It’s the natural extension of photos like this one, and it’s quite well done here.

Anyway, to recap the series: After a war in heaven which the New Gods lost, Darkseid has taken over the Earth, and himself been reborn in the body of police officer Dan Turpin. Half the world’s population is enslaved to him, including many superheroes. The rest of humanity is fighting to overthrow him, including Nix Uotan, a fallen Monitor of the many worlds. Superman returns from an extradimensional adventure to find Batman dead, but not before the darknight detective fatally wounded Darkseid. In this issue, the two Flashes (Wally West and a resurrected Barry Allen) lead death (in his guise as the Black Racer) to finish off Darkseid, at which point the dark Monitor Mandrakk appears to finish off the forces of good.

The series started off slow, with quick scenes full of portentiousness. It wasn’t a strong start, but it suggested that the various pieces would come together into a coherent narrative, and that just never happened. The last issue has a few extended scenes, but is still very choppy, with short scenes which never manage to convey the gravity the story strives for.

As many have observed, the general direction of the story is reminiscent of Morrison’s own story from JLA, “Rock of Ages”, in which a few members of the team end up in a future in which Darkseid has conquered the world. That story was more dramatic, faster-paced, and much more tense than Final Crisis ever reaches. Final Crisis stretches itself too thin, divorcing the reader from any emotional impact of the story, taking us too far from the characters that we never really get to know any of them or what they’re thinking.

And really, there’s no reason for the unusual approach to the storytelling: The ideas in Final Crisis are pretty pedestrian; there’s not much here we haven’t seen before, which is unusual since for most of his career Morrison’s strongest asset has been that he’s an “ideas guy”, throwing out interesting stuff which feels out-of-place in superhero comics, but integrating it well enough to make it engaging. This series has been the opposite: Ordinary superhero comic-book ideas told in an unorthodox manner which doesn’t service the ideas or the story at all well, making every aspect of the story feel clumsy and ultimately pointless. (You’d think that gathering the Supermen from every parallel world would qualify as neat stuff, but Alan Moore did it earlier and better in Supreme, so no.)

Speaking of pointless, so many details of the story feel pointless: Why was Barry Allen (the Silver Age Flash) brought back from the dead? He serves no meaningful role in the story; I assume it’s because DC editorial wanted to re-launch him in a new Flash series. Why bother with Mandrakk at all? He’s a bigger villain behind the big villain, but his presence seems a tacit admission that Darkseid just isn’t a big enough villain (which, frankly, I’ve known for years, but I’ve always thought Kirby’s DC characters fell somewhere between silly and stupid). Heck, why bring the Monitors into it at all, when their role in the story was marginal at best? Why bother with the teasing narrative at the start of this issue as if a few survivors of telling the story of the fall of Earth?

Brian Hibbs argues that the problem with the series is that it was positioned as the culmination of DC big boss Dan DiDio‘s tenure at the head of the universe, and that the expectations built up around the series aren’t really Morrison’s fault. But I think the story fails on its own merits, and while editorial usually deserves some blame for that, Morrison deserves a healthy portion himself. It started off weak and stayed weak, and I think it fell down in every aspect of storytelling: Ambition, plot, direction, purpose, characterization, dialogue. It did have a few moments that stood out – Barry being reunited with his wife, the President Superman opener in this issue – but they were few indeed.

Is Final Crisis the worst event series DC has ever done? Of course not: Millennium, at least, was much worse, and there are others you could make a case as being the worst. But Final Crisis was bad. Surprisingly bad, given the talent who worked on it. Morrison’s writing has always been hit-or-miss, but you could usually count on him to at least wow you with his out-there ideas and presentation thereof, but there was little of that here.

I wish we could stop with all the Big Event silliness and just get back to telling good stories. Or at least fun stories. This was neither.

Legion of Super-Heroes #50 Just over a year ago I was pretty excited about Jim Shooter‘s return to Legion of Super-Heroes. Shooter’s run – and the current series – come to an end this week, four issues sooner than Shooter had planned his story to run. This final issue is written by the obviously-pseudonymous “Justin Thyme”, which might be Shooter (using the name in the same way Harlan Ellison used Cordwainer Bird), or maybe Shooter just left and DC got someone else to write the final issue. The pencils are by Ramon Bachs rather than regular penciller Francis Manapul (though Manapul did the cover), suggesting that the whole series just fell apart at an editorial level at the end. (Blaming this on editor Mike Marts might not be fair; it seems like he had to pilot the series through a series of land mines just to get it this far, what with Shooter’s tensions within the industry, and the seeming irrelevance of the series once Legion of 3 Worlds kicked off.)

The issue certainly feels awkward and rushed: Shooter set up the idea of creatures living in a virtual reality running on the hardware of the universe itself invading the “real” universe for their own inscrutable reasons, which frankly is a pretty cool idea. This issue reveals their reasons (which are pretty pedestrian) and provides a straightforward solution to the problem, as indicated in the issue’s title, “Hack the Infinity Net!” Naturally there’s a lot of punching and shooting along the way, which seems out-of-place for a fight with a virtual enemy, and the notion that even Brainiac 5 can take down a whole virtual reality which has existed for millennia when no one else has before strains credulity. If this is the ending Shooter envisions all along – albeit compressed from 5 issues down to 1 – then it’s even more disappointing.

(The official promo for the issue states that it features the return of Cosmic Boy and the death of a longtime Legionnaire, neither of which happens, which makes me think that Shooter didn’t actually write the issue. More speculation about this at Comics Bulletin and Lying in the Gutters, plus comments from Francis Manapul on absence from the issue at Legion World.)

Shooter’s run lasted for 14 issues, and overall I was disappointed by it. He attempted to make the characters sound hip through newly-coined words and clever dialogue. The characterizations felt strained and unnatural, sometimes even embarrassing, and Lightning Lad’s term as leader seemed marked with one bad decision after another, a path the character’s gone down in earlier incarnations. Managing a huge cast like the Legion has is difficult, and in past decades writers have done so by cutting it down to a few members per issue (an approach which resulted in many memorable stories written by Shooter himself). That approach seems to be out of favor these days, but I don’t think dealing with the whole ensemble cast at once played to Shooter’s strengths. The invasion plot line itself had some interesting points, but it felt like it dragged on and periodically faded to the background in favor of the awkward character bits.

I kept wanting to like the series, but it never clicked for me, and there were many times when I cringed at the writing. And while Francis Manapul is a distinctive artist, his style isn’t really to my taste. I can see some of what Shooter was trying to do here, and I appreciate that he had the rug pulled out from under him at the end, but ultimately it wasn’t a successful run, as the story muddled around too much and often just wasn’t very fun.

The Incredible Hercules #112 When Greg Pak ended his run on The Incredible Hulk a year ago, at the conclusion of World War Hulk, Marvel did a couple of interesting things: First, it launched a new Hulk series with the “red Hulk”, written by Jeph Loeb. Second, it continued the old series with Pak as writer (partnered with Fred Van Lente), but retitled it The Incredible Hercules. The premise was that Amadeus Cho, the teenager who’s the “seventh-smartest person in the world” gets together with Hercules (the Greek god who’s also a member of the Avengers) and they have adventures in the post-Civil War Marvel Universe. I was intrigued by the red Hulk story and couldn’t care less about Amadeus Cho and Hercules, so I decided to pick up the former series and drop the latter series.

A year later, as Hulk meanders around aimlessly while Hercules has been getting good word-of-mouth on-line, I feel like I picked the wrong party. And really I should have known better: I’ve always been lukewarm towards Jeph Loeb’s writing, while Greg Pak’s run on Hulk was a lot of fun, engaging, and full of interesting character bits.

Note to self: When deciding which series to buy, always follow the creative talent, not the characters. (And, dammit, I knew that already.)

Fortunately, it’s rarely too late to make up for such a mistake in the comics biz, so this week I picked up the first six issues of The Incredible Hercules, and as I should have guessed they’re fun, engaging, and full of interesting character bits. Hercules is portrayed as being more canny and reasonable than he has been in the past, only smashing things up when his older brother Ares infects him with hydra venom. Cho is just as clever and calculating as he’s been in the past, but intent on bringing down SHIELD almost as much to just have a challenge as to punish the organization responsible for (or at least for enforcing) many of the reprehensible things going on in the Marvel Universe these days.

There are many flashbacks to Hercules’ adventures in Greek myth, showing the stories to be of varying degrees of accuracy, but also showing that Hercules has learned from some of his past mistakes, although others are lessons difficult for him to internalize due to his nature. He’s portrayed as more humble and aware of his limitations than he’s been in the past, but also as someone who prefers to be the “muscle” rather than the leader. Although he’s gained some wisdom, he’s not the smartest of heroes, and he’s aware of this, and maybe a little embarrassed by it. He also has a deep hatred of Ares, who revels in his tendencies towards violence. In sum, Pak and Van Lente give Hercules a nuanced character capable of carrying a series on his own, and also an interesting foil for Cho, whose seeming maturity of in some ways deceptive, as he hasn’t truly grown up and seems to see the world as his own private playground.

With plenty of action mixed in among the reminiscences and musings, I can see why The Incredible Hercules has gotten good reviews. Next week I’ll catch up on the series and add it to my regular pull list. It’s much, much better than the current Hulk series, which I decided to drop last month.

Gunnerkrigg Court: Orientation v1 HC Tom Siddell’s excellent web comic Gunnerkrigg Court (which I’ve written about before) finally has its first collection out. The delay is no fault of Siddell’s; it got tied up (I think) due to Archaia’s financial restructuring and subsequent buyout.

But the book’s out, and it looks great! Although it’s in smaller-than-comic-book form, Siddell’s broad style, which relies on composition and expression more than on detail, survives the compression intact. If you’d rather catch up on the series on your couch rather than at your computer, Orientation covers the whole first year of Antimony Carver’s education at the unusual school, nearly 300 pages worth. It’s one of the very best web comics out there, and I highly recommend it.

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