Sunday, July 02, 2006

The Comics Page #1: DC's Brave New World

I keep meaning to make this more of a comics blog, but I discuss comics on so many other fora that I honestly feel talked out by the time I get through the week's purchases. I still have some words to spare on this one, though. And though I'm a few days late on this one, it's a big enough event that there might still be room for one more opinion. BRAVE NEW WORLD is DC's latest crossover tie-in special, giving us a preview of several upcoming titles and thusly a look at the DC Universe after the messy upheaval of the INFINITE CRISIS miniseries. It's 80 pages for a dollar, like last year's COUNTDOWN, and consists of six preview stories plus one big frame story. With that kind of value, it's worth picking up for most readers, but I was somewhat disappointed in the final product. As one might expect, it's a mixed bag.

Spoilers below the cut.

The first title previewed is MARTIAN MANHUNTER, written by A.J. Lieberman and pencilled by Al Barrionuevo, planned as an eight-issue miniseries. In the story, J'onn J'onnz, the titular alien detective with a downright esoteric array of powers, has caught a seemingly random criminal, and flashes back to a discovery he made earlier hinting that he might not be the last of his race. There's another flashback to his last hours on Mars, and the implication is that this series will yet again deal with his heritage, his past, and his identity as a stranger on a strange world. It's decently written, but the end is somewhat confusing, and frankly, we've been down this road before. Every story I can recall which focuses on this character has him dealing with his background or some dark, as-yet-unrevealed secret of the Martians or himself in particular. I don't think more navel-gazing is what's needed for the character, especially if they're trying to set up an ongoing series. It's time for him to move forward.

This is followed by OMAC, written by Bruce Jones and pencilled and colored by Renato Guedes. OMAC- originally standing for "One Man Army Corps"- was a Jack Kirby creation from late in his 1970s stint with DC, but was reinterpreted for COUNTDOWN, THE OMAC PROJECT and INFINITE CRISIS as a name for a project which gave birth to hundreds of weird robot soldiers appearing in human bodies and hunting superhumans at the bidding of the orbiting "Brother Eye" satellite. They spent most of IC floating around in giant swarms and not actually doing that much (the "Reverse Ninja" effect), and generally being not that interesting. For this miniseries they're theoretically going back to the roots and having just one of the 'bots around, this time presumably fighting for good, but the prelude here shows more of the same (I THINK it's a flashback), with Michael Costner, completely non-powered nobody, being chased around by the OMAC robots which still basically spend most of their time hovering in the air menacingly. He and his girlfriend are rescued by Superman, then she turns into an OMAC and tries to absorb him, then he wakes up next to a pile of drugs and somebody asks him if he wants another hit. Seriously. I have no clue what actually happened in this set-up, when it took place, or why I should be that interested. I can extrapolate that maybe Costner will become the new, good-guy Omac and I guess fight evil or something during the course of the mini, but it's not a very effective or compelling prelude.

UNCLE SAM & THE FREEDOM FIGHTERS is the darkest of the stories previewed, unfortunately in more ways than one. I saw the sample pages that DC put up on the Internet months before this came out, and the art, while not great, looked okay. However, this comic, unlike most of DC's, was printed on non-glossy paper to save costs, and artist Daniel Acuña apparently didn't compensate for this. The images are incredibly murky, to the point where it actually obscures the action, like watching a film at a cheap theater where they turn down the intensity of the projector's lightbulb. The story by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray fares a bit better. Despite having been brutally massacred in INFINITE CRISIS #1, the oft-forgotten Freedom Fighters team has reassembled (the dead characters having been replaced by people with the same names and powers), but now they're tough, ruthless black ops types fighting to protect American freedom by killing lots of people. As their leader, "Father Time", defends the team's ugly tactics, Andre, a normal fellow who's just figured out he can make fire, hitches a bit cross country, gets in a political argument with the ultraconservative truck driver, is thrown out and follows a voice in his head to the Mississippi River, where he discovers the long-missing, feared-dead Uncle Sam, who informs the kid that there's work to be done. A nice story, not really my style, but the politics are a bit clumsy and the art is muddled. Still, this could be okay.

Steve Niles writes "TV Eye on Me", a preview story for THE CREEPER, another miniseries. Jack Ryder, TV pundit and host of "You Are Wrong", has the ability (somehow) to become the Creeper, a wild, animalistic crime fighter who looks and acts like a heroic version of the Joker. The Creeper uncovers a plot to assassinate Senator Thurman, Ryder wants to warn the senator on the air, but the network overrules him. Instead the Creeper stops the assassination himself and is mistaken for the attacker, forcing Ryder to offer an on-air bounty for his own capture to throw the cops off the scent. It's an okay story, and the art by Justiniano has a nicely lurid quality, but nothing about it really stands out. I imagine Steve Ditko, who created the Creeper as another one of his Randian Objectivist superheroes who divided equal time between fighting crime and explaining the many ways in which they were superior to those who think differently, would roll his eyes at the fact that Ryder has now been cast as a "lefty blowhard." I consider myself a lefty, and none of said Randian heroes really retained that after they were acquired by DC (Blue Beetle becoming a loveable jokester, the Question a more broadly philosophical conspiracy theorist, etc.), but the detail doesn't add much to the character and just seems to have been put in because the comic reading audience wouldn't take to a hero whose alter ego is Bill O' Reilly. I'm not sure how well the pundit angle will come off in the long run- it seems more trouble than it's worth at this point, simply because, left or right wing, pundits don't strike me as the most admirable folk.

Finally we get to Gail Simone and John Byrne's ALL NEW ATOM, the best story in the collection by a long shot, and also the only ongoing series planned. Ryan Choi is a young Chinese-American scientist who has inherited the role of the Atom from missing scientist Ray Palmer (who disappeared after his ex-wife went crazy and killed some people in an attempt to win him back, in the pages of IDENTITY CRISIS.) Armed with the ability to shrink but still retain the mass and force of a full-sized person, Choi ventures into a carpet and fights a group of microscopic invaders who plan to inject mind-control devices into various world leaders. As with the Freedom Fighters, some of the concepts for the series were developed by the eccentric and highly imaginative Grant Morrison, and Simone seems to have caught some inspiration, throwing in nicely surreal touches like illustrative quotes from real and fictional scientists (including Lex Luthor) and aliens who speak in the past tense. Byrne's art is a tad sloppy, but the fresh writing and strong pacing more than make up for it. This is the one full-on fun superhero story in the whole collection, a strange occurence.

Finally we have a preview of Judd Winnick and Howard Porter's TRIALS OF SHAZAM!, a Captain Marvel miniseries. For those of you who don't know, the good Captain- who is really young Billy Batson- was given his powers by the wizard Shazam, and in the INFINITE CRISIS tie-in miniseries DAY OF VENGEANCE, Shazam was destroyed in combat with the Spectre. Chaos ensues, or ensued (I'm not sure of the series' timeframe.) Captain Marvel Jr. and Mary Marvel, who both get their powers from the same source, find themselves powerless (the latter falling helplessly to the ground from hundreds of feet up when we cut away.) Meanwhile, Captain Marvel, fighting an ice giant in Antarctica, suddenly finds himself gifted with even more power than before, apparently killing the beast without meaning to, and not quite sure what's happening. Porter's art is excellent, but again the story is unsatisfyingly short (I'm not even sure what the timeframe is, whether this happens right after DAY OF VENGEANCE or in the DCU's "present", which is a whole year later). I may be prejudiced, though, given Winnick's already stated intentions of making the Big Red Cheese a darker and more serious figure. Plus, I think the "heroine falling from the sky" bit is more of a cliffhanger than "hero gets more power."

Then there's the framing story, "Look to the Skies...", written by Tony Bedard and drawn by Ariel Olivetti. All the other stories were observed from a satellite which fades into orbit around Earth. The inhabitants are the Monitors- five alien beings apparently related to the "Monitor" character from 1985's CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS. One of them talks vaguely about how the universe has changed, and some vague danger is on the horizon, and everything depends on the Earth's survival. The return of the Monitor (and his previously unseen pals) was touted as a major secret revelation, but it's not like the character ever did much to start with, or had any kind of personality. So far it doesn't seem like it changes anything, and given that DC probably hasn't planned the next megacrossover event yet, the unseen danger will probably be a while in coming.

So, in total, I'm not that impressed. I'll probably follow THE ATOM, give MARTIAN MANHUNTER a few issues, and skip the rest barring acclaim. So it's not the best marketing preview, nor does it provide a particularly good picture of the "new" DCU or what makes it terribly different from the old. It's worth a buy if you're a comics fan, but I hoped for more.


The whole thing: B-

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