This Week’s Haul

Comic books I bought the week of 28 December 2007.

This week’s entry revolves around a trio of writers, all of whom have been in the industry for more than 30 years.

  • Action Comics #860, by Geoff Johns, Gary Frank & Jon Sibal (DC)
  • The Brave and the Bold #9, by Mark Waid, George Pérez, Bob Wiacek & Scott Koblish (DC)
  • Countdown to Final Crisis #18 of 52 (backwards), by Paul Dini, Sean McKeever, Keith Giffen & Scott Kolins (DC)
  • Countdown to Adventure #5 of 8, by Adam Beechen, Allan Goldman & Julio Ferreira and Justin Gray, Fabrizio Fiorentino & Adam DeKraker (DC)
  • The Death of the New Gods #4 of 8, by Jim Starlin & Art Thibert (DC)
  • Legion of Super-Heroes #37, by Jim Shooter, Francis Manapul & Livesay (DC)
  • Thor #5, by J. Michael Straczynski, Oliver Coipel & Mark Morales (Marvel)
  • Atom Eve #1 of 2, by Benito Cereno & Nate Bellegarde (Image)
Countdown to Final Crisis #18 Countdown to Final Crisis has maybe its best issue yet, as the whereabouts of Ray Palmer (the original Atom) are revealed, including the backstory of what he’s been up to, an explanation of why the Atom – of all people – is important to the well-being of the multiverse (hint: he’s a scientist) and even ending on a surprising cliffhanger. I guess you can read this issue in one of two ways: Either that it’s sad that it took 35 issues for something to actually get resolved, such that the reader wonders why all the fuss was necessary, or else it’s an indication of Keith Giffen‘s influence as “story consultant” telling head writer Paul Dini and the editors to get on with it already. I’m not always Giffen’s biggest fan (I don’t have much good to say about his run on Legion of Super-Heroes with Paul Levitz in the 80s, for instance), but if nothing else he has a traditional approach to storytelling: Start off with a big event and keep the story moving from there. And that’s what’s really been missing from Countdown, which started slowly and then nothing happened for half the series.

It may be too little, too late to save this series, but at least there are signs of life.

The Death of the New Gods #4 Jim Starlin is another guy who even when he’s not at the top of his game can usually be counted on to get the fundamentals of storytelling, and he’s coming through in The Death of the New Gods. I expressed my reservations about the whole New Gods thing when the series started, but it’s actually turning out to be entertaining, and I think it’s because it’s not a New Gods story, it’s a Jim Starlin story.

Starlin often likes to have a big mystery in his stories, and here it’s the big question: Who’s killing the New Gods? Metron comes face-to-face with what is presumably either a giant clue, or the answer itself, but my lack-of-caring about the New Gods means that it means nothing to me. That could be the series’ fatal flaw as far as I’m concerned, but with 4 issues left, no doubt Starlin has a lot more up his sleeve.

The other interesting development is that while the story so far has focused on Mister Miracle, Starlin is setting it up to end up as a Superman story, which makes sense if the series lives up to its title: Superman might be the only one left to witness the death of these powerful beings. Starlin doesn’t often play around with structure in his stories, so I’m curious to see where he takes this angle.

Legion of Super-Heroes vol 5 #37 After 30 years, Jim Shooter returns to write Legion of Super-Heroes. His last issue was Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #224 back in 1977, since when he done little things like be Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Comics during the 1980s. The word on the street is that there was tremendous opposition to Shooter getting this writing gig – he’s reportedly made a lot of enemies in the comics biz – but as a fan I say “Good for him!”

Greg Burgas has a pretty good review of the issue as a reader who (unlike me) isn’t much of a Legion fan: Shooter introduces the characters along with some of their personalities, and starts setting up a large storyline about aliens invading the solar system, only no one knows who they are, and the Legion is both in disarray thanks to having an unexperienced leader (Lightning Lad, who’s filling the shoes of Cosmic Boy and Supergirl, both of whom have left the team) and a strained relationship with the United Planets. Joe McCulloch makes some good points too regarding the awkward dialogue in the story, with the supposedly-teenaged characters coming across as if they ought to seem “hip” or “futuristic”, but instead just seem silly.

I say “supposedly-teenaged” because there’s always been a bit of nudge-nudge-wink-wink-wink about teenaged superheroes, especially the Legion and the X-Men, who always seem smarter, wiser and more responsible than the vast majority of people their age. Very few writers ever make even a passing attempt to either explain this peculiarity or run with it as a story point. Anyway, I bring all this up because new artist Francis Manapul gives the characters some beefed-up physiques (see cover at left), making it even harder to take them seriously as anything younger than young adults.

Despite these kvetches, this is a pretty good start: There’s nothing here that can’t be seen as a writer trying to get a feel for the characters in his first issue, while setting up an ambitious story. Seeing Lightning Lad get overwhelmed so quickly, without someone right there to help him keep things under control is really my biggest beef with the story. Manapul’s pencils are pretty good, although Livesay’s inks might work better if they pulled the pencils in a more classic, rather than Image-esque, direction – someone with a heavier line to provide more depth and delineation.

As Burgas says, the issue feels like Shooter is basically throwing a whole bunch of stuff in the air and we’ll have to see where it lands. However, signalling that this is going to be an ambitious story arc is a great way to make the reader reserve judgment on the inaugural issue. I’m definitely interested in seeing what Shooter’s got planned, and I certainly hope that he’s given every opportunity to get his bearing and produce a decent run on Legion. And if the Legion is the sort of comic that interests you, then you might want to check it out.

Joan D. Vinge: Dreamfall

Review of the novel Dreamfall by Joan D. Vinge.

Dreamfall is the third in Vinge’s series about the telepath, Cat. It’s the last one written so far, though it’s not intended to be a trilogy (as far as I know); rather, Vinge has been unable to write until recently due to a car accident several years ago, as explained in her Wikipedia entry.

Dreamfall feels like a counterpoint to the second novel, Catspaw, in many ways: Catspaw explores the tension between Cat’s place among the lower class and the upper class, while Dreamfall explores the tension between his human heritage and his Hydran (alien) heritage. Also, Catspaw shows Cat trying to make use of his damaged telepathic abilities, while Dreamfall shows him struggling with trying to be a professional scholar/scientist in a difficult scenario. And, Catspaw takes place on Earth while Dreamfall takes place on an alien world.

Cat is part of a team which has been summoned to the planet Refuge, where his friend Kissindre Perrymeade’s family – Tau – heads a congomerate which is exploiting the resources of the planet. The team is there to study the cloud-whales, large gaseous beings which drift across the planet and whose thoughts crystallize and form large reefs in the oceans which exhibit strange properties. However, Refuge is also one of the worlds formerly controlled by the Hydrans, and the Hydran population has been marginalized and mostly restricted to a ghetto near the main human city. As this is Cat’s first opportunity to voluntarily contact Hydrans, one evening he heads into the Hydran town, where he immediately gets wrapped up in an ongoing Hydran resistance to the human occupation of the planet, placing him at odds with the Tau security chief of the planet, Borosage, as well as outing him as a human/Hydran hybrid.

The Hydran resistance has kidnapped a young human child and may be using him as leverage against the humans, escalating tensions and forcing Cat into becoming a negotiator between the two sides. Of course, there are more than two sides: Some humans are more hard-line than others, while the official Hydran government are not affiliated with the resistance. Many humans are of course frightened by the Hydrans, who have powers of telepathy, telekinesis, and teleportation, among others, but the humans also have far superior technology. Moreover, Cat is torn both between his feelings for Kissindre, and similar feelings for a Hydran woman whom he meets.

With all of these conflicting and contrasting elements, you’d think Dreamfall would be a cracking book full of adventure and emotion, but I found it to be quite slow and not very exciting. In another contrast with the previous book, Catspaw shows Cat reasoning and acting and having a profound effect on the people around him, while in Dreamfall he seems so at odds with himself that he’s far more reactive than active, struggling with his own emotions and unable to make decisions unless he’s forced into them.

For example, he gets linked to the resistance accidentally when he runs into the woman kidnapping the human child. As a result of this, Borosage’s superior forces Cat to be a negotiator with the Hydrans. Although the Hydrans are initially repulsed by this telepath whose abilities are turned off, he wins the trust of one of them, Miya, and finds himself conflicted between his feelings for her and for Kissindre. But he doesn’t really choose (or even fail to choose) between them; rather it seems like he gets railroaded by circumstance into picking one instead of the other, along with some pseudo-mystical argument about how Hydrans can tell when they’ve met the person they’re meant to be with. Through it all Cat seems bewildered and passive, which makes him a boring main character.

The first half of the book is all about building the tensions between the humans and the Hydrans, and it all comes to a head in the second half, which is more lively but only a little more satisfying. Dreamfall seems more focused on trying to craft a setting and evoke a mood (of lost causes and dying cultures). As in Catspaw the book climaxes with Cat ending up in an extremely dangerous situation, but rather than taking a big risk for a good reason, it seems like he made a few choices without really examining what he was doing which led him to a bad place. Vinge tries her utmost to convey the weight of the choices that Cat does make (he does eventually have to make the ultimate choice between being part of human society or Hydran society), but I was never convinced that he was making these decisions for good reasons, or that he was even particular aware of what he was choosing or why. The story is one of some fairly subtle shifts in Cat’s outlook and behavior, and I don’t think it managed to thread the needle of believability. The book does have a reasonable conclusion to its main conflicts (complete with a satisfying fate for one of the main heavies), but it doesn’t feel as meaningful as the ending of Catspaw.

Overall I don’t think Dreamfall either works well on its own, or deepens or broadens our understanding of Cat beyond what we saw in Catspaw. It seems to be trying to evoke more of a sense of wonder than Catspaw did, but the most wondrous elements – the cloud-whales – are mostly relegated to the background. Even the psionic elements are less interesting here than in the previous books, since Cat’s own telepathy is rarely active.

I found the book to be hard going, and not very rewarding for the effort. It’s a big step down from Catspaw, which is easily the best of the series to date.