Thursday, July 31, 2008

DC Capsule Reviews Week 28 2008

Batman can be such a sweetheart when he lets himself - and twice this week! Meanwhile, Brainiac is on a bottling spree, the Penguin finds his lovebird, Rip Hunter's identity is revealed, Hush returns, Martian Manhunter is celebrated, Arm-Fall-Off Boy tries out for the Legion, the Justice Society meets God, Wonder Woman goes Savage, and a Young Liar loses his jewels...


(Geoff Johns / Gary Frank / Jon Sibal)

'Brainiac' part 2. I'll admit it... the forced likenesses to the cast of the Donner Superman movie are getting more than a bit creepy. Still, Gary Frank is an amazing asset on the title, showing in the way he portrays the body language of the teenage Supergirl (now finally a proper member of the title's cast). Between her intensely real and personal outburst in this issue, and the touching characterisation in her title just last week, I'm happy to see the character finally growing out of the original annoying Jeph Loeb placebo.

Johns takes an issue to prepare the ground for the eventual brawl between Superman and Brainiac, establish the threat he poses and the villain's history, through Supergirl's narration (I love love love how he's believably established as Krypton's answer to the boogeyman) and the flashback scenes, and let Clark spend some quality time with his dad in a heavy-handed, yes, cheesy, yes, but also touching rummage through the memory chest) (yeah, we all figure where this is headed... poor Pa).



(Fabian Nicieza / Kevin Maguire)

'The Cat & The Bat' part 3. The "cat-fight / misunderstanding / naked fight in an S&M club" part of this Catwoman / Batgirl team-up is over, and I find it difficult to keep my interest in the storyline now that it's all about fighting snipers on the roof and going after the Russian mafia. -Yawn-

Nicieza tries to keep things fresh with another surprise last page, and giving each issue its own feel; ultimately, maybe this 5-parter should have stopped while it was still ahead... at part 2.


BOOSTER GOLD #1,000,000

(Geoff Johns & Jeff Katz / Dan Jurgens / Norm Rapmund)

'Blue & Gold' Conclusion. Oh wow.

Johns finishes his run on Booster Gold on an amazing high note. After a quick stop in year 1,000,000, and a cameo from Peter Platinum (the kind of opportunistic brainless joke of a character that would model himself after Booster's earlier career), Booster decides to quit his unrewarding and altruistic secret partnership with Rip Hunter.

It really takes the Batman (and a very Batman moment and jaw-dropping retcon putting their relationship in a surprising light) to set him back on the right path. After that the surprises keep coming like a cascade of dominoes: the (heavily foreshadowed) return of a supporting character, the utter head-spinner reveal of Rip's real identity and an ironic quirky last note in DC's most fun solo super-hero run of the year. Damn you Johns!



(Paul Dini / Dustin Nguyen / Derek Fridolfs)

'Heart of Hush' part 1. I never held Hush in any regard; My experience from the original Loeb/Jim Lee run left me the impression he was nothing more than a convenient plot device - a way to get all of the Bat-villains organised against the Bat (so Jim Lee could draw them of course), and a convenient scapegoat to hint at bringing back Jason Todd, without actually being foolish enough to really do it (that came later).

Dini attempts to give the character more of an individual villain identity. It's a known recipe: every respectable and enduring Bat-villain needs to be a) thoroughly messed up in the head, and b) have a 'shtick' - a calling card. Penguins, clowns, riddles, cats, mummies, plants, cold... For Hush, Dini decides to play up the surgical angle; we see him setting up a zombie hospital, slicing himself up with a scalpel, stitching up and re-bandaging his face, while recounting the story of how he plotted and planned the death of his parents as a little boy.

Dini most likely pokes fun of this strategy, by concurrently introducing a blatantly 'themed' new bat-villain: Doctor Aesop; with his 'killing by using twisted Aesop's Fables brought to life', the prop-like giant Aesop's bible, and his 'Muses' hench-women, he's corny enough to make it into the original Adam West Bat-serial!



(Peter J. Tomasi / Doug Mahnke / Christian Alamy)

After universal fan discontent at Martian Manhunter's quick and unceremonious offing at the hands of the villain Libra in Final Crisis #1, Peter Tomasi is racing to make amends by sneakily working a whole lot of retcon backstory into the very brief execution we saw on panel.

Sooooo, it turns out, Manhunter was actually drugged out of his mind right before going on-panel in Final Crisis, since "if he regained full consciousness, [the villains] would have no hope of stopping him" and "[Libra]'d hate to take this one on in a fair fight". Of course they make sure to remove all signs of the tranq darts before stepping onto the stage/panel, while as soon as Morrison's scene ends, Tomasi throws in a deathcry/final wowser of a fight between MM and the villains, just to really give MM a hero's death. I could almost see Tomasi reaching out through the fourth wall and consoling the MM fans "don't cry, your hero really isn't a pushover like that bad man Morrison showed, he's a real hard-ass!".

The funeral service is handled with proper pomp and circumstance, and Tomasi replaces a traditional eulogy with a clever plot device to recount J'onn's lifestory - with his death, MM transfers his memories to the minds of his 5 closest friends, according to his planet's traditions, so that he can live on in them. I'm not familiar with any of his backstory, but I'm guessing it ought to be a rare treat for his fans. The one bit I did recognise and pleasantly surprised me was the incorporation of even the quirkiest bits of J'onn's characterisation over the years: his Oreos addiction during his stint in Giffen's JLI - one of his most humanising traits - now used as the final closing twist of his end story.

From start to finish, this was an impeccable send-off to Martian Manhunter, beautifully complimented by Mahnke's hauntingly gothic, and deeply emotive artwork.



(Judd Winnick / Mike Norton / Wayne Faucher)

'A League of their own' part 2.

Green Arrow, Black Canary, Speedy, her annoying new cardboard-cut boyfriend, Plastic Man and Batman (whew) face off against the 'League of Assassins'. It's an ok issue, with really nothing to moan about (wow). It's good to see the art team stop trying to ape a Cliff Chiang effect and just do their own thing, but I'm confused about what happened to Cliff - I was udner the impression he was merely taking a few issues off but he's been gone from the title for months.



(Ivory Madison / Cliff Richards / Norm Rapmund & Rebecca Buchman)

Batman, Batgirl and Catwoman... Boy, you're really in the capes' world now, Helena!

The Huntress comes head to head with Wayne and his girls during her headhunt for the mobster she loves (bleh). Ivory pushes for a special mirror dynamic between Barbara Gordon and the Huntress, but she never ventures beyond the surface - a shame, considering the amazing dynamic and friendship these two develop later in Birds of Prey. Instead, their fistfight ends early, with the focus moving to Helena meeting with Catwoman (sidenote: the original Earth-2 pre-Crisis Huntress was the daughter of Batman and Catwoman, later replaced post-Crisis with original character Helena Bertinelli, whose lengthy origins we've been plowing through for weeks) and poking inside jokes at their would-be relationship.



(Jason Aaron / Jason Pearson)

Beautiful, touching, melancholic...

Not necessarily the first things you'd expect to see when reading about a Penguin story, let's be honest.

Also: dark, twisted, violent. But that's inevitable to keep the balances.

Jason Aaron takes his first baby step into the DC universe pool, and makes an impressive splash, giving us the best single-issue story so far this year!

His approach to the Penguin (a mostly 2-dimensional gimmick villain that noone has had much intelligent use for, ever) takes a page from the Tim Burton 'Batman Returns' version; he is a sad, unloved, and ridiculed disfigured boy who grows into a resentful, vengeful, hidden behind a short, frail, melancholic facade. Jason Pearson perfectly captures every element of this through his design: a cuddly wide-eyed bird who can instantly transform into a haunting sharp-toothed cackling predator at the first perceived sign of provocation.

The plot itself is simple and elegant, with a very mockingly didactic tone. The Penguin falls in love with a beautiful caged slave girl, whom he takes under his wing; she loves him back, despite his ugly appearance; when she discovers the ugliness inside of him, she attempts to leave him, triggering the reveal of his darker nature.

The two Jasons achieve here in part what Moore and Gibbons managed to accomplish for the Joker with 'Killing Joke': make the Penguin at once into a more relateable and an infinitely more frightening character.



(Geoff Johns & Alex Ross / Fernando Pasarin / Prentis Rrollins & John Stanisci)

'One World, Under Gog' part 2.

Gog (the ginormous God of the Third World, freshly arrived into the DCU) continues to serenely stomp the line between 'Joy of music' benevolence and downright creepy. His peaceful smile and keen intent to fix everyone's problems, solve hunger, stop war, end famine etc (blah blah dude, we like suffering) feels like nails on a chalkboard as I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop and the carnage to begin! Johns brilliantly plays off that feeling and gives us the most terrifyingly kind and helpful adversary in DC's history.



(Matthew K. Manning / Shawn McManus)

'The Untold Legend of Arm-Fall-Off Boy'. It does exactly what it says on the label. Arm-Fall-Off Boy is a young Legion hopeful with the power to detach his arm and still control all its motor/muscle functions.

Matter-Eater Lad, Infectious Lass and Bouncing Boy have surely just breathed a collective sigh of relief - they're no longer the lamest legionnaires.

The story is -of course- meant for laughs, following the drama of A-F-Off Boy's everyday life, his dreams and his crime-fighting career! Shawn McManus (Sandman, Thessally) provides the art, starting off amazingly but deteriorating into almost-doodles by the end of the issue... Time constraints? Sudden realisation he is too good for this d-list title? (well, he actually is)



(Kurt Busiek & Fabian Nicieza / Mark Bagley & Scott McDaniel / Art Thibert & Andy Owens)

Out of all the writers at DC, Busiek really gets these three icons, their dynamics and their relationships, better than anyone.

That's the good news.

The bad news, now, is that he is aware of this, and plans to hammer it home to the reader, every chance he gets, in every blunt and obvious way; he's simply telling the reader all this, when he should be using the story to show it through the action and interactions. The result is so sternly structured and formulaic, I might as well have been reading a (very well-researched and thoughtful) thesis on DC's Trinity. The three gather around for Wonder-Woman to unfurl her riveting exposition about how their dynamic forms a trinity, how they each correspond to the Moon/Sun/Earth (an impressive notion), how they're different, and how they fit together; at the same time the young Tarot is having visions of how each of the three uniquely represents 'Truth, Justice & the American Way".

In the second story, Nicieza tries to jolt the reader awake with a typical action piece featuring Hawkman and our new D-list supporting hero Gangbuster. Yawn.



(Gail Simone / Aaron Lopresti / Matt Ryan)

'Ends of the Earth' part 3.

Aaron Lopresti, there might be hope for you, yet!

I've never been an avid fan of mr. Lopresti,as he's stumbled from fill-in project to fill-in project, always with the same 'almost A-list', 'barely Dodson/Cho' pretty girl art style that was too shackled to common super-hero trappings to go anywhere. In this issue, I saw something more. He dabbles in a light, loose pencil and textured style for a few panels (I really would have loved seeing the entire story in this style, it would suit the sword & sorcery theme impeccably); he experiments with the panel borders a bit more, making them more ornate to fit the theme and the situation; he creates absolutely stunning 'Tolkien' redesigns for the DC heroes and imposing architecture for Wonder Woman's palace, all for a simple 5-page dream sequence... I firmly believe, Lopresti's meant for greatness if only he could let go of the tight-finished pencils and experiment with his loose style and maybe even a digital inking / colour straight over pencils technique.

Bah, enough about him! Gail Simone is obviously working Lord of the Rings, Beowulf, Conan (and every other Swords&Dragons property imaginable) out of her system with this storyline. I couldn't care less for this genre, but thankfully, she is wise enough to cater even to all the books' fans even while doing her little epic saga - she sprinkles the story in unexpected moments with trademark Simone humour, and she interjects the more whimsical and super-hero-ey fight between Diana's 'boyfriend' and her new magic gorilla flatmates. Cos, you know, whatever you do, you gotta have Apes!



(David Lapham)

There's one thing above all I appreciate about David Lapham.

Here he is trying an ongoing series with an actual main narrative instead of anthology self-contained stories, for (I think) the first time. The difference here is that you're bound by the rule of 'living with consequences'; unlike short stories where you can freely do anything perverse you want and then just declare 'The End', in this scenario you have to stick with your characters as they go through the choices you make for them and continue to live their lives even after (say, for example) you decide to castrate them or get them raped by a dwarf assassin dressed in a gondolier/toreador outfit.

How can you not want to see what happens next?


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