Monday, February 19, 2007

The problem with super-cheap jump-on issues - they leave everyone unhappy

Godland #16 is one of those extra-cheap issues (60 cents, to be exact) that the Big Three seem to offer every once in a while in order to drum-up interest and sales. I can't imagine that these promotions are ever much fun for the people who are already reading month-in and month-out. Typically, they're just full of exposition that's aimed at people who have probably never even heard of the book before. Robert Kirkman's Invincible had one of these issues a year or two ago and it was, to its credit, quite readable. But not terribly exciting.

Godland is Jack Kirbyesque in nearly every way possible. Tom Scioli's layouts, designs, and action sequences are even more evocative of Kirby than Ladronn's art, and the content of the story - cosmically-powered hero Adam Archer seeks cosmically-missing sister, as well as the cosmically-mysterious source of his powers - is no less an obvious and loving homage. (The art seems a little muddled in the same way that Chris Bachalo's overly detailed panels sometimes leave your eye confused as to where it should be looking, but the wonderful coloring does much to minimize the distraction.) The issue does an serviceable job in explaining everything we absolutely need to know, as well as introducing us to Archer's supporting cast, his ambivalent military superiors, and his rogues gallery. Quite readable.

Quite readable isn't quite enough, though. What the book fails to do entirely is give us a reason to care about Adam Archer and his cohort. So much time and space is spent in relaying details that those details never coalesce into an interesting narrative - or at least a narrative worth our interest. Who is Archer, exactly? Is he paranoid and delusional like his sisters seem to believe? Is he really the menace that the military thinks he is? Is he a nice guy? Does he prefer dry wit or slapstick comedy? We really don't know. Archer takes off into space on the third page and never returns. Who are all these villains, government personnel, and quirky aliens that are marched past us afterward? I have only the vaguest idea in many cases, and absolutely no idea in many others.

I suppose that these 'special price' issues should be measured, in the end, by the enthusiasm that they generate in new readers and the success with which they convert that enthusiasm and those new readers into repeat readers. Casey and Scioli have done plenty of work to catch me up on the story to this point, but I can't say that they've given me much reason to want to see how it ends.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Astonishing X-Men 20 as a Love Letter

It's becoming increasingly clear that Joss Whedon's run on Astonishing X-Men is just a big 'ole love letter to Chris Claremont and Grant Morrison. This is, of course, both a good and a bad thing.

Note, for instance, how this 12 issue mega-arc continues to unfold like the Dark Phoenix Saga, though with a twist: where Emma Frost occupied Jean Grey's role during "Torn", Colossus has now become the Phoenix-figure who will wreak massive destruction. Like Jean and Scott, it's Peter and Kitty who are all alone in a hostile environment against an alien force bent on killing them. And again like Jean, Colossus is starting to believe that he's capable of the mass genocide that has been predicted. It's also becoming increasingly clear that Whedon was never sincere in advocating a return to the costumes and superheroics that Cyclops suggested in his first issue. If issue seven wasn't enough to confirm that the X-Men would never really be accepted as heroes, then Whedon's gradual destruction and removal of Cassaday's superhero-outfits seem to speak more subtly and undeniably to this goal: Cyclops eschewed his Cassaday-look for Quitely's leather jacket during "Torn" and now Wolverine's costume has been incinerated, leaving both mask-less as they were during Morrison and Quitely's New X-Men. Even Kitty's costume is starting to look more like Quitely's designs to my eye.

There's little new that I can add about Whedon's dialogue or Cassaday's art, as they're consistently fantastic. The only remarkable blunder - and it's a big one - is the final page reveal, which has been an unfailing strength of this creative team throughout their 20 issues. The punch-line to Kitty's unintentional joke that Colossus' future is not "written in stone" is a 100 foot-tall artwork in stone of Colossus destroying the Breakworld. It's a cute ironic gag, but it makes absolutely no sense. Located underground by Agent Brand and looking quite old, it defies all logic that this prophetic picture would be anywhere on the Breakworld - after all, the Breakworld aliens only learned that Colossus would destroy their world from Brand herself, didn't they?

One last note on Whedon/Cassaday's run as a whole and this issue's place in it: It's telling, I think, that every storyline has moved further and further from the conceit of mutant-politics that featured so prominently in the initial story arc. While "Danger" looked at mutancy of a different sort, "Torn" had little to say about mutants and less to say about their oppression. Thus far, "Unstoppable" is another in a long tradition of X-Men space adventures that have absolutely nothing to do with being mutant - though through its intimate connection to an anxiety of influence with regard to previous X-tales and their creators, it has absolutely everything to do with being X-Men.

Exactly what it means to be X-Men outside of being mutant activists and/or not being real superheroes, well, I'm not entirely sure what Whedon is suggesting. The problem with love letters is that what or who they're about is always itself absent. It might be described beautifully or provocatively, but you can only see glimpses of the loved object from a distance.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Now THIS is Superman...

To this point in Morrison and Quitely’s fantastic take on Superman mythology, Superman has been mostly viewed from afar, or at least indirectly – issues have focused variously on Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, or Lex Luthor, but we have yet to see events unfold from Superman’s particular perspective. This issue, the last in what will be the first collected trade of All-Star Superman, finally allows us the opportunity to see Superman’s world as he does himself, albeit from the distance of a story set in the past. “Look at you!” exclaims Pa Kent to his young Superson. “You’re destined for great things Clark…” But like every great epic hero, this Superman must overcome tragedy before he can realize that destiny. And that tragedy is as beautiful crafted as it is devastating – for Clark and the reader alike.

Though it is easily the most sentimental and heartfelt issue of Morrison and Quitely’s run to this point, “Funeral in Smallville” stays true to the larger format of the series through its surprisingly appropriate and seamless incorporation of both touching and absurd tributes to the confused and contradictory mass of the Superman mythos. Both Krypto the Superdog and Superman-Prime – the latter from Morrison’s own DC One Million alternate future universe – make appearances, as well as Ma and Pa Kent and a host of time-traveling Superman’s descendents known as The Superman Squad. But the seemingly mundane and sentimental plots elements – Ma and Pa Kent’s only plot point is their preparation for the harvest – and the utterly fantastic – the Superman Squad are chasing the time-warping Chronovore – meet under the auspices of a theme that is all too underdeveloped in Superman lore: that of family.

Perhaps surprisingly, Morrison is at the height of his abilities in this unabashedly sincere context, and his dialogue has never been so subtle and affecting. Given that we know from the cover of the comic that Pa Kent must die, the exchange between Pa and the Mystery Superman hits a pitch-perfect bittersweet note in Jonathan’s final moments. Equally powerful are Quitely’s contributions. There’s a treasure trove of beautiful wrought scenes from which to choose, but I’ll focus on the moment in which young Superman takes flight after realizing that he can no longer hear Pa’s heartbeat. It must have been tempting for Quitely to devote half a page or even an entire splash to young Superman’s desperate attempt to save Pa’s life, but he and Ma – who is also rushing to Pa’s aid – are given equal-sized panels in the bottom third of a single page. The artistry is sublimely expressive in even this one small instance: where Ma is a tiny figure running across an endlessly gigantic field, the teenaged Clark fills the panels and flies so quickly – his hair actually catches fire – that he seems poised to burst out of the panel. He is forever poised, though, and ultimately unable to accomplish the feat and save his dad. That Clark cannot extend beyond the panel is a visual reminder that even Superman is not without limits. For all his ostensible power, he is still only one person, just as human and flawed as any other. A stunning contribution and new high-point for a series that manages the impossible and outdoes itself with every issue.