This Week’s Haul

  • Action Comics #870, by Geoff Johns, Gary Frank & Jon Sibal (DC)
  • Avengers/Invaders #5 of 12, by Alex Ross, Jim Krueger, Steve Sadowski & Patrick Berkenkotter (Marvel)
  • The Twelve #8 of 12, by J. Michael Straczynski & Chris Weston (Marvel)
  • B.P.R.D.: The Warning #4 of 5, by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi & Guy Davis (Dark Horse)
  • The End League #5, by Rick Remender & Eric Canete (Dark Horse)
Action Comics #870 This month’s Action Comics wraps up the “Brainiac” story. And boy howdy did it limp to the finish.

I haven’t really paid much attention to Superman’s continuity since the days when Mike Carlin was editing the series (once Roger Stern, Dan Jurgens, George Pérez and Jerry Ordway left the series, there wasn’t much left to keep me around), but this story returns Brainiac to something close to his Silver Age self: He’s not truly a robot anymore, but he’s still an alien who goes around shrinking and collecting cities from different worlds to own their knowledge – and then destroying that world afterwards. (How this jibes with other recent incarnations of Brainiac – which are mentioned in the story – I don’t know.) Here he comes to Earth and shrinks Metropolis before Superman stops him and rescues the city. He also rescues the Kryptonian city of Kandor, which grows to full size in the Arctic.

Where to begin with what a misfire this whole story was? It consisted of about eight scenes stretched over five issues – an example of “decompressed storytelling” taken to an absurd extreme. In days past, this story could have easily been told in a single issue, or maybe two issues, with some extra character development thrown in. Today you pay 15 bucks for all five issues, which might be worth it if you really love Gary Frank’s artwork. (I think Frank can be great, but his work on Superman has been a mixed bag.) But it’s basically Frank’s art with a sentence or two of story every 3 or 4 pages.

There’s not much original or inventive here, either: It’s really just Superman fighting Brainiac and finally taking him out. It feels like – and basically is – just a lead-in to the next Superman story, “New Krypton”, about what happens when thousands of Kryptonians arrive on Earth, courtesy of Kandor. That’s the sort of story which could be very interesting if kept to a small enough scope, but it looks like it’s going to be a big “event” story across multiple titles, which interests me not at all, so this might be it for me reading Action Comics. What little characterization there is comes in Supergirl’s few scenes, where she’s scared spitless by the arrival of the creature which stole Kandor, yet still has to pitch in to stop him.

Finally, as has been widely rumored, the issue ends with the apparent death of Jonathan Kent (what, again?). I find the depictions of the Kents in this story to be very weird: Neither Jonathan nor Martha looks anything like they have back when I read the books; they both seem younger and fitter. And Jonathan’s death here seems gratuitous at best, and also nonsensical (why would Brainiac care?). Is it trying to dovetail with the Smallville TV series? And if so, why bother, since that series ran off the rails several years ago and seems to be limping towards its own cancellation.

Overall, this was an exceedingly weak story, and everything it accomplished I don’t care about anyway, as it seems gratuitous, or pointless, or a set-up for another story that I really don’t care about. Any dramatic potential in this story was completely squandered. Honestly it makes me regret continuing following the series after “Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes”. What a waste.

The Twelve #8 Somewhere along the way, Garry Leach stopped inking Chris Weston’s pencils on The Twelve, but I only noticed it this month while typing in the credits above. Having Weston ink himself doesn’t really affect the art, which you could argue meant Leach didn’t really contribute anything, or you could argue that Leach did the job an inker should do and let Weston’s talents show through. I guess it depends what you think the job of an inker is. Anyway, I think each Weston and Leach are fine artists, and I’m happy for new material from either one. So really, no complaints from me either way.

All that aside, The Twelve is one of the best comics Marvel’s publishing, and one of J. Michael Straczynski’s best comic book stories to date, as well. We’re now two-thirds of the way through the story and some of the mysteries behind the characters are starting to come together. It looks like Master Mind Excello is starting to manipulate things, but to what end we don’t know. And the Black Widow’s back story, presented here, is quite good. Straczynski’s stories have a tendency to sputter out amongst a lot of cutesy dialogue, but none of his frequently weaknesses are apparent here, and I’m enthusiastic to see where this is going.

The End League #5 Speaking of comics which have gone off the rails, I just don’t get Rick Remender’s series The End League Okay, I get the premise: A large fraction of the world gets super-powers (this was back in the 60s), only most people aren’t really interested in using them for good, and in the ensuing series of world wars among evil or corrupt super-humans, the few heroes ultimately lose. It’s a solid premise and the first two issues – concerning Astonishman’s remaining group of superheroes and their futile war against Dead Lexington’s empire – were pretty good. But since then it’s meandered all over the place without a storyline I can follow, and jumping from one character to another.

As a series of vignettes, each slice is not bad, but where’s it going? What’s the point? This issue starts with a flashback to World War II, and then flashes forward to another hero entering a city in yet another attempt to reclaim the Hammer of Thor, this time with a Batman-vs.-Joker spin on things. I’m not sure if this means that the last of the End League got killed off after the events of issue #4, or what. But there are no characters here who provide a consistent point of view for me to plug in to; it’s more like an ongoing travelogue of the broken world through the eyes of many different characters, none of whom stick around long enough to be more than stereotypes. The whole is less than the sum of its parts.

This issue also marks the change of the artists from Mat Broome to Eric Canete. Broome had a fairly realistic and detailed style, while Canete’s is more stylized and sketchy. My preference is for Broome, so I don’t see this as an improvement.

So, not being sure where this is going, and not being convinced that it’s even going anywhere, I don’t know how much longer I’ll stick with it.

This Week’s Haul

Comic books I bought the week of 4 January 2008.

  • Countdown to Final Crisis #17 of 52 (backwards), by Paul Dini, Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti, Keith Giffen & Ron Lim (DC)
  • Countdown to Mystery #4 of 8, by Matthew Sturges & Stephen Jorge Segovia, and Steve Gerber, Justiniano & Walden Wong (DC)
  • Metal Men #5 of 8, by Duncan Rouleau (DC)
  • Annihilation Conquest #3 of 6, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Tom Raney & Scott Hanna (Marvel)
  • Powers: Secret Identity TPB vol 11, by Brian Michael Bendis & Michael Avon Oeming (Marvel/Icon)
  • The End League #1, by Rick Remender, Mat Broome & Sean Parsons (Dark Horse)
  • Lobster Johnson: The Iron Prometheus #5 of 5, by Mike Mignola & Jason Armstrong (Dark Horse)
The End League #1 The premise of The End League is that in 1962 a catastrophe devastated the Earth, but also bestowed super-powers upon 1 in 1000 people. But unlike in ordinary comic books, very few people felt driven to use their abilities altruistically, rather they used them for personal wealth and power, effectively becoming super-villains. 45 years later, the wars among these villains have turned the world into armed camps where shelter and food are the most prized possessions. The miraculous Astonishman was the superhero who was tricked into causing the catastrophe, and he’s devoted his life since then to assembling heroes to restore order and justice to the world. And the heroes are losing, badly. This series may well be the final story of these heroes, The End League.

Writer Rick Remender – whose name I’ve heard, but I don’t think I’ve ever read anything he’s written – masterminds this series, which I guess is an ongoing one, although how long such a grim premise can be milked I don’t know. His script is appropriately downbeat, narrated by Astonishman, who is depressed and fatalistic, and who blames himself for everything that’s happened. I’m a little less impressed with the cast of heroes, who are archetypes based on heroes from various eras of superhero comics history, and honestly I get a little tired of the same old archetypes being used for these independent stories. Still, other than Astonishman there’s not enough characterization here to draw any conclusions, so there’s plenty of space for it to end up with fleshed-out characters rather than archetypes. (Ultimately this was a big part of what made Alan Moore’s Watchmen successful: Although loosely based on the Charlton Comics heroes, the characters were all individual and not archetypal.)

The art by Mat Broome and Sean Parsons is similarly dark, evocative of Jae Lee’s art on the Sentry series of a decade or so ago at Marvel, with intricate colors by Wendy Broome adding to the gloomy atmosphere, It’s perfectly appropriate for the story at hand, and in particular Broome seems to have the artistic fundamentals to make the book look right – he’s not some warmed-over Image Comics artist, the likes of which would make this book look really silly.

The 90s and 2000s have seen a few different books trying to tell “the last superhero story”. Remender says The End League is inspired by The Lord of the Rings and The Dark Knight Returns. The exact flip side of The End League is Bill Willingham’s Pantheon, about what happens after the good guys win. It was pretty good, and also supported by fine artwork (and can now be downloaded for free). I don’t think anyone’s yet told the definitive story of this sort, probably because once the superhero cat is out of the bag it’s pretty hard to put it back in. As Dr. Manhattan said in Watchmen, “Nothing ever ends.”

By that light, The End League might be a story with only one possible conclusion. Remender’s task is to either make the conclusion satisfying, or to find some other way to thread this particular needle. It’s a daunting challenge, to be sure. This first issue is all set-up, with a single mission which goes (of course) horribly wrong, ending on a cliffhanger. To really work, I think the book’s going to have the break out of the routine of a group of heroes underground against overwhelming oppressive forces (since we’ve all read that story many times before) and do something unexpected.

I’ll be back next month to see what direction the book’s headed in.