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JUSTIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIICE! Capsules for 7/2/2009 (We operate on Canadian time up in here)

David Uzumeri

This was certainly a week of high-profile titles, although uncharacteristically dominated by DC in that regard (if not in OVERALL output). DC had two A-list releases this week: the second issue of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s nearly-universally-praised Batman and Robin, and the first issue of James Robinson and Mauro Cascioli’s seven-issue Justice League: Cry for Justice miniseries, a book DC’s seriously promoting (unquestionably to the detriment of the regular Justice League of America title) as one of their major event books of the year. A review of Cascioli’s art is pretty short: if you’re the kind of person who enjoys the stiff realism of Alex Ross, this is your thing. If the stylish, partially cartoonish fluidity of a Frank Quitely comic rings more of a note with you, I’d recommend Batman and Robin, which has been praised enough everywhere and will soon be annotated by me on Funnybook Babylon.


I think Justice League calls for some special attention. There’ve been a number of reviews that fairly accurately point out its flaws with considerable accuracy – Wolk was able to masterfully criticize it from this single issue alone, even though it took me a while to get the reference due to the fact that it’s been a while since I read Promethea.


Anyways! Justice League: Cry for Justice #1: From the start: this isn’t a very good comic, although I very much enjoy Robinson’s work both on Starman and the Superman franchise. The thing is, you have to realize this comic was written over a year ago: first it was an ongoing series, then it disappeared for a while, and now it’s back as a mini that’s going to feed into the ongoing series. It’s pretty clear not only why this sort of mercurial narrative ground would drive the incredibly talented (and more than familiar with these characters’ natures and dynamics, he proved he was able to write some pretty great Justice League stories on TV) Dwayne McDuffie to frustration, but also why the fans have developed such a cynical attitude towards the book – an attitude Robinson directly addresses in the text piece following the main story.

The problem is: the book reads like what me and my university buddies would come up with as a parody of Brad Meltzer’s comic-writing style. It’s hilariously maudlin, with such REPETITION of THEMES that it’s about as subtle as a Michael Jackson impersonator kicking you in the taint. It’s almost impossible to judge the book on a plotting rather than scripting level because Robinson’s script obscures the plot to such a great degree that we don’t know anything about it – supposedly Prometheus is involved, and he’s attacking some Z-list heroes that were chosen by James Robinson and Dan Didio throwing darts at a George Perez spread in a con hotel room. These z-list heroes then cry, sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally, for justice, or vengeance, or revenge, or justification, or vindication, or pie, or whatever the fuck they seem to think is fair. The fact that they charge an extra dollar for six pages of text and a two-page origin already posted on the DC Comics website is just the icing on the taint-kick cake.

Robinson mentions in this text afterword that the book’s conclusion was changed considerably by editorial fiat (seemingly, in his mind, to the story’s benefit), but the issue’s most noticeable and technical problems are all script: questionable characterization (Ray Palmer doing his impression of his wife’s tapdance on Sue Dibny’s parietal lobe in an attempt to look edgy and willing to torture), overly continuity-conscious dialogue (“remember that time I became a liberal?”), and a plethora of Identity Crisis-esque shock deaths that exist purely to provoke insincere emotional reactions from the main cast. Not to mention the completely disjointed pacing that leads to a first issue with very little of a driving hook at all.
The thing is, all of this reminds me a lot of Robinson’s first arc of Superman upon his return to comics – “The Coming of Atlas” – and the considerable narrative flaws therein that were very much corrected over coming issues. The dialogue went from stilted to James Robinson stilted, the plotting became tighter and less manipulative (Robinson’s entire first issue of Superman being dedicated to doomed Science Police members was a pretty big misstep)… the time period backs this up too: I really think James Robinson was just rusty as hell when he wrote this comic, and I don’t really expect the book to maintain this amateur-hour quality level in the long term. But as an atomic unit? This was a pretty fucking AWFUL comic.
Captain America Reborn #1: I feel bad for Brubaker here, because when he plotted all this shit out like two and a half years ago there was no way he could have known how repetitive his planned resurrection method for Steve Rogers would seem – not only did the “unstuck in time” time travel methodology become a major focal point of the next few seasons of notoriously comic-related sci-fi interpersonal drama Lost, but 2008’s Final Crisis also featured a time bullet and an iconic nonpowered hero being rocketed to the past (albeit with a totally different method). So he’s getting a lot of flack for this, as well as what seems to me to be his deliberate choice to exposit the time travel physics to the reader by using terminology lifted from not only Lost (which was “stolen” from, uh, math in the first place) but Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, a book which featured a war veteran undergoing a metaphysical and temporal journey very similar to that of Steve Rogers.
The thing is, I don’t think he’s ripping off the ideas as much as using them as shorthand to explain the basic concepts to the reader. “Dude’s consciousness pingpongs around in the life of his body” really isn’t that unique, and having Arnim Zola say Steve Rogers is unstuck in time might evoke S-5 a little bit too directly, but it also prevents Brubaker from having to write, and us having to read, like five or six dialogue balloons from Arnim Zola carefully explaining what they did to Steve Rogers. “Well, you see, Norman, his body is in one place, but now his consciousness is inhabiting different time periods of his body in…” etc. Man, nobody wants to read that – “yo, Norman, it’s like Vonnegut” gets the point across just as damn well. Unless you’re a reader who hasn’t seen Lost or read Vonnegut, in which case fuck you, and I applaud Brubaker for assuming superhero readership has a basic level of functional cultural literacy.
Other than that: it’s the best Hitch has looked in years thanks to Guice’s inks, even though a number of panels are WAY too evocative of his work on Ultimates and there’s a pretty good photoshop “ruin the moment” opportunity replacing the last page with the infamous “letter on my head stands for France” image. And it’s certainly a relief to read an issue of Brubaker’s Cap that doesn’t have Frank D’Armata’s distinctive but incredibly muddy coloring.
But enough about that, how is the story? Well, it’s a whole lot of exposition. It’s well-written exposition, excitingly drawn and skillfully laid out, and I can’t imagine new readers being in the dark after reading this issue – it pretty much recaps the important plot points from the last 25 issues of Cap without drawing the book’s narrative to a complete and total halt, although longtime readers will, like me, probably feel at least a little bit unsatisfied due to how much of this comic is going over familiar ground. Still, though, it features Hitch drawing Bucky punching people and the first non-shiver-inducing Hank Pym appearance since Secret Invasion, and “it didn’t have enough new shocks for me wahh wahh” really isn’t a good reason to dislike a comic. It was pretty goddamn GOOD, and I expect the series will hit great to excellent before it’s through.
Batman and Robin #2: Is there even anything new to say about this? Godawful background colors aside (welcome to Gotham City, where the skies come from a fucking Amiga game!) this is pretty close to the perfect superhero comic, other than a single confusing point (the final panel) on the second to last page where the fact that the location changes for that panel isn’t made incredibly obvious. There’s a whole lot to love here, and I’ll be annotating it this weekend (I wasn’t able to block off Wednesday for it like I usually do thanks to Canadian holidays) in more detail, but in short this comic was EXCELLENT.
Uncanny X-Men #513: I’m hearing a lot of grousing over this “Utopia” storyline, some of it deserved – for instance, the Humanity Now! coalition is a lot more difficult to consider as an effective metaphor for a real-world group since Fred Phelps isn’t a robot who convinces totally normal people to follow his lead via nanobots. The whole idea of Humanity Now! being a bunch of humans trying to fight obsolescence is totally blown out of the water when their leader switches from using standard coercion tactics to silly sci-fi bullshit, but other than that I thought there was a lot to enjoy about this issue. Terry Dodson’s art is certainly far more aesthetically pleasing than the effort put forward last week by Marc Silvestri and his Legion of Super-Embellishers (seriously, I’d love to see Silvestri’s “pencils” for Utopia – I bet they’re just faceless figure drawings on panel grids with arrows pointing to characters saying CYCLOPS and WOLVERINE), and the reactions of the mutants, as well as the continually escalating violence, all make sense. We’ve all stayed late at the bar and then gone out and done something stupid with people we probably shouldn’t have followed at some point; this shit happens, and I don’t think it’s at all unrealistic for characters who should usually know better to get drawn into doing retarded things out of peer pressure, it’s just how social groups work.
Other than that, it’s pretty boilerplate Fraction, which is still better than most other superhero comics out there today – clever, self-aware dialogue; jump-cut scene changes; scientific geniuses being written as sarcastic douchebags. It’s a fun, entertaining superhero comic, and I’m loving the ambiguity as to whether Scott and Emma are aware of each others’ plans or not, but part of me wishes Fraction hadn’t thrown away the one thing that really made this story seem real-world relevant. Still, this book was pretty OK as a whole.
Invincible Iron Man #15: This issue, on the other hand, is Fraction at the top of his game, with the driving “World’s Most Wanted” premise of Tony slowly losing his intelligence (and therefore, practically, his individuality) finally kicking into high gear, leading to some insanely sad and well-written moments between Tony and Pepper where he just can’t remember some of the most important events and people in his life. This story’s interesting because while “Hey, let’s take everything away from Tony Stark” is hardly a unique premise, I don’t think anybody’s taken it so far as to actually effectively lobotomize him as well as remove his worldly possessions and assets. He’s got no money, no credibility, very few friends and now he’s losing his mind too. Even after half of the Marvel writing staff seemed hell-bent on portraying him as a heel for the past few years, watching a man who’s essentially altruistic (if sometimes incredibly arrogant) pay such an immense price is affecting, and new.
Also, like Larroca’s art or not: this book has been coming out for fifteen monthly issues now without a single change in the creative team, other than the pages of the first issue Stephane Peru colored before his extremely untimely passing. That means the writer, artist, colorist, letterer and editor have stayed static for fifteen issues, and they’ve been almost all perfectly on time. That’s worth praising in today’s market. VERY GOOD.
And finally… Fantastic Four #568 must win some kind of award for the flattest climax in comics history. After fourteen high-octane issues of Mark Millar setup, we get a scripting assist by Joe Ahearne here and – I’m not sure if anyone else is reading Fantastic Force, but his panel transitions are incredibly disjointed there with tons of missing information, and as a result it’s led to a comic that really feels more like a progression of random images rather than a story. This problem rears its ugly head pretty early here, with one page ending on the Thing about to make out with his lady and the next starting with his back on fire and Deb freaking out. Something like, I dunno, a panel where a flaming bottle is thrown through the window, or a look at whoever did it across the street, or something could have made this far less confusing, and this basic amateur-hour comics storytelling mistake is one of many in this issue.
The problem is, this isn’t just two issues of Millar’s FF, they’re the climax of not only that run but also the events of Marvel 1985 and Wolverine: Old Man Logan. The guy’s entire superhero output for something like two years now has rested on the character of Clyde Wyncham and his story as the Marquis of Death, and while I know Millar and Hitch’s reasons for not working on this issue are both valid and personal (hospital visits for one, dead mother for the other), it’s still incredibly disappointing to finally hit the big villain reveal and have it delivered so… matter-of-factly. We’ve been seeing this guy from the shadows for months, and now that he’s appeared Ahearne just can’t pull off that kind of over-the-top ridiculous villiany that Millar can. The guy just isn’t scary, or even intimidating; he just looks ugly and talks a lot, and presents Reed with some pretty obvious moral conundrums. It’s not a terrible comic, but it’s really hard to read it without wondering what it could have been if Millar and Hitch had been able to give it their full attention, and it’s certainly a disappointing climax to this entire story. EH.

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