This Week’s Haul

  • Action Comics #865, by Geoff Johns & Jesus Moreno (DC)
  • All-Star Superman #11, by Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely (DC)
  • Final Crisis #1 of 7, by Grant Morrison & J.G. Jones (DC)
  • Fables #73, by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham & Steve Leialoha (DC/Vertigo)
  • Legion of Super-Heroes #42, by Jim Shooter, Francis Manapul & Livesay (DC)
  • Starman Omnibus vol 1 HC, by James Robinson, Tony Harris & Wade Con Grawbadger and others (DC)
  • Thor #9, by J. Michael Straczynski, Oliver Coipel & Mark Morales (Marvel)
Final Crisis #1 I have a post languishing in my FP drafts which partly has the theme that “Grant Morrison’s writing isn’t all that” (I later published it here). Still, Morrison is one of the hottest writers in comics today, so it’s not surprising that DC tapped him to write their big event mini-series of 2008, Final Crisis. In theory, it’s the culmination of several years worth of storylines, from Identity Crisis and Infinite Crisis through Countdown to Final Crisis and its attendant spin-offs.

The days when event mini-series could be more than a cynical corporate-driven production seem to be far behind us, and Final Crisis #1 seems to demonstrate this. The issue is a series of vignettes setting up the larger story – a tried-and-true but overused device. But the story seems completely disconnected from what was purportedly the set-up for this very series: A group of villains have a sinister gathering, but with no apparent reference to Salvation Run (whose final issue hasn’t shipped yet). A New God is found dead on Earth, but there’s no reference to Death of the New Gods, even though Superman was a key player in that story and he’s present here. And it can’t be that this sequence is a flashback, because the dead New God is a key player in Death. There’s a scene with the Monitors which feels at odds with Countdown, and another with Terrible Turpin which also seems in conflict with Death of the New Gods. (Graeme McMillan has noticed all this, too.)

So either Morrison is playing a deep game – and I wouldn’t put it past him, because he can be a crafty writer, albeit sometimes too crafty for his own good – or he’s pretty much ignoring all the set-up, either for his own purposes, or because DC editorial decided to cut their losses on the Countdown and make Final Crisis stand on its own. Which isn’t a bad idea given how ineptly plotted Countdown was, but it makes for a bizarre read.

Anyway, it’s far too early to tell whether all of this is going anywhere at all, because this is just the tip of the beginning of a story. “In medias res” seems like a lost concept in mainstream comics these days.

J.G. Jones’ artwork is good, although I wasn’t bowled over it like Valerie D’Orazio was. I found his layouts to be very stiff, and his finishes a little too slick. Tony Harris is the master of this quasi-photo-realistic style of comics art, and it’s extremely hard to pull off. I think Jones’ art here would have been better if he’d let a little Kirby dynamism (or even Sekowski quirkiness) creep into his layouts.

In sum, is it a good start? Well, it would be if I wasn’t so cynical about the whole thing, which seems like little more than an endeavor to separate customers from their money more than anything else. It wouldn’t surprise me if, two years from now, Final Crisis proved to be as forgettable as both Identity Crisis and Infinite Crisis are today.

Starman omnibus volume 1 James Robinson’s Starman was one of the best comics series of the 1990s. In fact, I’ve found that people who liked Neil Gaiman’s Sandman often also enjoyed Starman. Oddly, although most of Starman has been collected in trade paperbacks, there were a few stray issues which were never collected. But the answer to that problem has arrived in the form of the Starman omnibus series, which apparently will collect the entire 80-issue series, plus annuals, crossovers and other major appearances of the character, in six high-quality hardcover volumes. This first volume collects the first 18 issues, which fully establishes the main character and his world.

Starman was originally a golden age superhero, Ted Knight, who invented a “gravity rod” which gave him powers somewhat similar to Green Lantern’s, later refined to a “cosmic rod”. In Robinson’s “alternate world” graphic novel, The Golden Age (also well worth reading), he portrayed Knight as having become mentally unstable after he saw that his contributions to physics helped create the atom bomb. Robinson retained that element for the in-continuity series, and also revealed that he’d gotten married and had two children, Jack and David. Jack was a rebel and wanted to tread his own path, completely separate from his father’s career, while David was all-too-happy to take on the mantle of Starman when Ted retired.

Unfortunately David’s career lasted only a couple of adventures, and this volume opens with David being killed as the opening gambit of a crime wave masterminded by Ted’s old nemesis, the Mist. Reluctantly, Jack employs his father’s cosmic rod to stop the bad guys, eventually ending up with a distinctive staff, and eschewing the usual superhero costume in favor of a leather jacket and stylish goggles, with no secret identity. Along the way he gathers his own arch-enemy in the form of the Mist’s daughter, Nash.

Starman is the very best sort of continuity-laden story: Rather than expecting you to know about the character’s background or have read about all the other figures who populate the book, Robinson simply draws together the interesting figures with their own unique histories and employs them as he would supporting characters in any other story. He explains their stories where appropriate, and completely ignores them where they’re not relevant. It’s truly a novel (or series of novels) which just happens to feature characters who have also appeared elsewhere.

The reason all this works so well is that fundamentally Starman is about family and friendships. Jack comes to appreciate and love his father, and his father comes to understand Jack’s need for a distinctive identity. Robinson brings back three other characters who have had the name Starman, turning one of them – a blue-skinned alien named Mikaal – into one of Jack’s closest friends. He creates a fictional setting, Opal City, in which Starman is a valued protector and hero, and whose police force befriends and supports Jack not just for his father’s sake, but in his own right. And Robinson especially has fun with the villains who aren’t really villains, taking pains to examine the motivations of what makes these people do bad things. Some of them are simply insane or avaricious, of course, but his most complex character, the Shade, is sometimes a villain and sometimes a hero and has his own deep motivations and feelings about what he does. The Shade stories are among the best episodes of the series. And there are many other characters who appear later in the series, too.

This theme of family and friendship is one thing that makes Starman similar to Sandman. Also like Gaiman, Robinson has an ear for realistic dialogue, especially for people thrown into the fantastic situations both series naturally feature. (People often praise Brian Michael Bendis’ ear for dialogue in the same way; I find Bendis’ dialogue to sound extremely stilted and unnatural, about as far removed in its way from Gaiman and Robinson as that written by Stan Lee.) Also like Sandman Starman took about a year to really find its footing and feel confident and consistent, and it also has stretches in the middle where it drags on. Nonetheless, it’s every bit the equal of Gaiman’s masterpiece, while remaining a unique voice in its own right.

The first half of the series was illustrated by Tony Harris, whom I mentioned in the Final Crisis piece above. This is some of Harris’ early work, and the first story arc feels rather unpolished, further held back by some very flat and unsympathetic coloring. But the “Talking With David” episode in the middle of the volume shows Harris making a quantum leap in his style and rendering, and by the end of the book the art looks basically the way I remembered it; his growth as an artist is that significant. Harris is such a distinct artist that I don’t really know how great an effect his inker, Wad Von Grawbadger, has on his style. I think Harris is such a strong artist that few inkers could really affect his style in a significant way.

In sum, this is an excellent series which I highly recommend if you haven’t read it before. At 50 bucks a pop this omnibus set will not be a cheap way to read it, but you will get the whole story in a high-quality package. I’m personally going to enjoy the whole thing.

3 thoughts on “This Week’s Haul”

  1. I’ve never read Starman, but after reading your description, I think I might.

    I hate Grant Morrison’s style. Some of his stories and ideas are interesting, but his insistence on using cinematic techniques in comic books is idiotic and misses a key point: comics aren’t movies.

  2. I find Morrison’s writing to be extremely uneven, but he’s so prolific that’s almost to be expected. I think his best work was on JLA, which matched his penchant for “big ideas” with characters who were themselves big enough to work with the ideas. It also had more dramatic follow-through than anything else I’ve read by him.

    I don’t necessarily dislike comic that use cinematic techniques. For instance, I think Cerebus: Jaka’s Story is one of the best graphic novels ever, and it at times self-consciously tried to provide the feel of watching a movie rather than reading a comic book (and to great effect, too). I think the two media have a lot in common, so it’s not unreasonable for them to cross-pollinate.

  3. [Turns around to pull Jaka’s story from shelf…]

    Jaka’s Story is Dave Sim at his best.

    The difference between Sim’s cinematic storytelling and Morrison’s cinematic storytelling is that Sim is actually trying to tell a story. It’s artistic. Morrison is opaque. He’s trying to be cool. Maybe I’m splitting hairs. All I know is that I could follow what happened in Jaka’s story, but sometimes am completely lost in Morrison’s New X-Men. Comic BOOKS should use narrative captions when they help with the story. Newsflash: even movies do this. But Morrison can’t be bothered, and so often there’s no way to know what the hell is going on.

    I find All-Star Superman easier to follow, but that’s probably because we’re only dealing with one or two stories per issue instead of eight or twelve.

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