Colossus: God’s Country

God's Country

“I see the homeless in the streets, the unemployed.  Aren’t those human rights violations as bad as religious persecution?”
-Piotr Rasputin/Colossus

It’s the late 80s, the last days of the Cold War.  Reagan’s still in power and the US has been discussing for the past, oh, 45 years or so what Communism and Capitalism are and what they’re for in between wagging their respective dicks at one another and generally making existential threats to most of the human race.

Into that mix, we drop one of the best writer/editors Marvel Comics ever had, Ann Nocenti.  Ann Nocenti is a writer whose work I’ve read in bits and pieces over the years and who edited one of my favourite X-Men stories ever, Fantastic Four vs. X-Men (which I need to write something up on) and had a really strange, bubbly, weird run on Daredevil which was very much about how scary, pitiful and pitiable people are when they’ve been driven to violence and because I, sadly, don’t have hard copies of that run or I’d love to do a retrospective of it here.

Quick aside?  The only big reason I don’t have it is because if Marvel has that run collected anywhere, I’ve not seen those collections in print.  Seriously, I’d really love to see a “Daredevil Visionaries: Ann Nocenti” to sit next to that crap Kevin Smith run which had that “Visionaries” title slapped onto it.  Anyway…

So I first picked bits and pieces of the comic we are talking about piecemeal in loose issues of Marvel Comics Presents, an anthology series Marvel ran for a goodly while when I was picking up all my comics from the back issue bins (because you got a lot more comics for your money that way) and helped support and cement my love for the character Colossus.  Because my ability to finish the thing was hampered by the fact that my comic shop didn’t have all the issues I’d needed to complete the story, I’d not read it before I moved out here to Sweden where I found the collected edition in the local equivalent of a quarter bin and snatched that thing right up.

And I was so pleased when it was still good.

Now because I’m a more writer-centric guy and I’m often guilty of the sin of not giving enough credit to the artists who make the writer(s) sing, I wanna say up front that this story made me fall in love with Rick Leonardi’s work.  He’s got (or at least had, his most recent work, Watson and Holmes doesn’t seem very much like the work of his that I knew and loved though is still quite good) a really nice, deceptively simple cartoonish style which lends itself well to the “acting” the characters do throughout and which never descends into the crosshatchy, overdetailed mess a lot of more cartoony styles tend toward.  His Piotr Rasputin/Colossus looks appropriately massive and bulky and the action is both easy-to-follow and holds a certain sense of weight to it; I seriously cannot imagine this story being done by anyone else, which is, I should think, the sort of effect any artist should be all about.

Speaking of course of the story itself, we get to Ann Nocenti whose greatest strength is similarly that no comic she writes feels as if it could have been written by anyone else, largely because she has a perspective about the world and interrogates it with her subjects and vice-versa, giving each run of hers a feeling of a conversation between Mz. Nocenti and the reader.  In that vein, God’s Country is about Nocenti interrogating American paranoia in what would turn out to be the last days of the Cold War.  It’s a really simple story which is by this point old hat: while journeying across America (as you do when you’re a superhero), X-Men stalwart Colossus crosses paths with a family who have accidentally run afoul of the Cold Warriors (cyborgs tasked with “keeping America pure”) and the story goes back and forth between Colossus and the father of the family, a patriotic and ill-used Vietnam veteran, having explicit discussions of the exploitable freedoms offered by Communist Russia (free access to health care and higher education with restricted freedom of speech or religion and no access to guns) and those offered by the US (freedom of speech, freedom of religion and the right to bear arms with limited access to health care or higher education) and the ways in which both societies have failed to live up to those proffered freedoms in between bouts of fighting off the Cold Warriors and putting a stop to their puppetmaster who may or may not be a super-rich, super-paranoid old fascist or the head of a super-secret arm of the US government.

It’s a nakedly political story interested in deconstructing the myths which prop up the worst excesses of American culture, the right-wing paranoia of The Other and the weird obsession a freedom-obsessed country can have with restricting the freedoms of its citizens and the reasons why that may or may not be a good thing; indeed, it’s actually kind of a subversive story in its way because it questions just how right America’s got things and how well its people could thrive if they took a page or two out of someone else’s book.

And for all comics are, to my thinking, at their best when they’re talking about normal situations in a symbolic or superheroic manner (which is to say cranking shit up to 11.5 and tossing in a lot of explosions while representations of ideas duke it out), you rarely get a discussion of anything that’s even close to that level of nuance; at best, political stories tend to come down either as “America good; not-America scary or bad” or “freedom good, mind-control bad”.  Honestly, looking back on the story, it seems like the sort of thing they could only put out in the anthology and then as a “graphic novel” later on because putting that sort of thing in the main book feels like it might ruffle a few too many feathers.

Now, for all the praise I put onto it, I have to admit that it also suffers from some of the weaknesses in Nocenti’s work, which are largely that the dialogue between a lot of her characters feels a bit like the same voice and that one can often tell which side she comes down on even if she gives the “other” side (she’s often less interested in playing between a dualistic two sides but instead investigating the ground between them, which makes the idea of “sides” feel a bit strange in this context) what feels like a fair-ish representation and, if nothing else, only occasionally makes the people who disagree with her point seem unsympathetic—though I suppose that’s just one of the things that happens when you’re trying to Say Something with your work.  Even if that sometimes puts me a bit on edge, though, it’s something I can’t really fault her for because it’s so rare that superhero comics really have anything to say that’s not “yay our team; boo their team, let’s all enjoy the bad guy getting beat up”.  No matter how in-the-moment schadenfreude-tastic it might be to see the bad guy get his due, in the long run it’s just more people getting hurt because they don’t know better; and knowing that Ann Nocenti finds that as sad and worrying a solution as I do really restores my faith in the genre to this day.

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Marshal Law

marshallawcoverdc-with-logo

I’m a hero hunter.  I hunt heroes.  I haven’t found one yet.” –Marshal Law

[Content Advisory: Marshal Law deals with a lot of ugly subject matter including but not limited to rape and other gendered violence against women; this is discussed in a blunt and nongraphic way within.]

There’s not a lot to say about Marshal Law that the work doesn’t say itself.

Marshal Law, specifically the recent collected edition put out by DC (which sadly omits the Marshal Law/Hellraiser crossover as well as others), is subtle like a brick to the mouth, being less a reaction to the superhero genre and more Pat Mills getting some of his friends together to take on the genre (and its fans) with bottles, chains and heavy boots (these last being provided by veteran artist Kev O’Neill whose expressive, borderline unwholesome pencils perfectly channel the rage/disgust of Mills’ script).  Where other stories might try to deconstruct the genre or point out the silliness of its tropes or possibly toss a pedophilia joke at the whole idea of teenaged sidekicks, Marshal Law simply recasts the superhero as an extension of the military-industrial complex and the patriarchal systems which spawned it—with all the attendant disposability, self-righteous cruelty and automythologizing justification that implies.  The superhero is cast here explicitly a tool of American imperialism and arrogance, a bunch of nasty, self-obsessed monsters playing out absurd dramas in the wake of cataclysms they create with only the imperfect but ostensibly right-minded fascist Marshal Law on-hand to deliver the justice they so fervently seek to avoid.

Our protagonist, Joe Gilmore (aka Marshal Law), is a former superhero soldier so thoroughly disgusted by the American lionization of the atrocities he and other superpeople committed in a thinly-veiled Vietnam analog that he’s signed up with the police department to murder the everliving fuck out of any of the many superheroes in his city who act out of turn—which they inevitably do; usually in a way displaying the hypocrisy of both the hero in question and the ingrained social system which props them up; a system which the Marshal takes part and sometimes even supports, usually to the detriment of the handful of people he thinks are worth a damn.  Given this setup, it’s probably unsurprising for me to report that the series has a cynical bent, though seeming to ease up a little near the end when the Marshal admits that heroes do exist; though they’re rarely the sort of people who get the endorsement deals but, instead, people who do the right thing at the right time for the right reason.

So given all that, I’m left to ask myself if I like the work.

And the answer is a qualified “yes”.

The qualification comes from a lot of places both big and small throughout the work, the things which threw me out of my engagement that were really matters of personal taste and character aesthetics that I don’t quite hold in common with the creators; most specifically the treatment of women throughout.  After all, there are precious few named women characters throughout who don’t get raped or murdered in some (usually spectacular) way to show the badness of the bad guys, particularly in contrast to Joe, whose greatest crime against any woman, as far as the narrative is concerned, is primarily of being a liar to his girlfriend, Lynn, by keeping his alter ego  a secret; something she rakes him over the coals for when she finds out.

Of course, by that time she’d been raped, murdered and brought back to life by a nihilistic zombie superhero so it’s hard to say if that was her as an active agent saying it or merely her being used as a weapon of psychological warfare by the aforementioned zombie-hero, which took some of the bite out of it for me.

I’d call that a spoiler but it’s pretty plain that Lynn’s going to get refrigerator’d almost the moment she shows up, if only because her outspoken antifascist and pro-feminist activism mean she must die because if her peaceful, humanist ideology and methodology had any chance at succeeding in the violent and exceedingly patriarchal world she inhabits, we wouldn’t need Marshal Law to bring the guilty to his particular brand of stylized, one-liner-infused justice. Marshal Law’s world is a doomed one; damned by its own hubris to have Marshal Law inflicted on it.  And, the work seems to argue, we are likewise damned for supporting the system the work intends to parody; for supporting the idea of the superhero, the superpower, the flag or any other “unassailable” symbol you might want to name.  Indeed, writer Mills seems eager that we, the readers, should divest ourselves of any hero worship for Joe not only because he’s often spectacularly wrong but also by having Lynn act as the author’s voice in providing a scathing description of Marshal Law and his over-the-top macho-fascist bullshit.  All the “heroes” are shit, including ours; just that he’s gonna take out the bigger shits first.

And for all that I can certainly understand the argument that the work came from a different time and is intended to parody the artificial “grit” which had begun to afflict the superhero genre by taking it to an extreme while also straining against limits of what is tasteful or, to use the parlance of the time, “politically correct” (feel free to roll your eyes with me), it’s not as effective at pushing that envelope for me because what was shocking at the time has been repeated ad nauseam until Marshal Law’s comical violence and hypersexualized plasticine superheroines can only be understood as satire by the words spoken by Marshal Law and the transparent malice the narrative holds for the “heroes” and the society which enables them.  In recent years, the sex and violence Marshal Law satirizes have become the fodder of even the oldest, stuffiest and most saccharine stalwarts of the superhero genre (e.g. modern issues of Justice League).  And as with all satire, Poe’s Law applies: “Without a blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of extremism or fundamentalism that someone won’t mistake for the real thing,” and I could easily see a fair few people taking Marshal Law as a story of a good superhero who fights bad superheroes By Any Means Necessary as opposed to the frothing condemnation of the entire genre that is my reading.

That said, the bits that don’t leave me feeling a bit sketchy are incredibly satisfying on a visceral level and show the core of what makes the Mills/O’Neill team work so well; that is to say cartoonishly exaggerated violence against strawman targets of ridicule.  To the credit of the pair, they seem largely concerned in this work with making a strawman out of people in power who direct, distort and otherwise defend an untenable status quo, one which allows superpowers to descend upon weaker populations or countries and commit heinous acts for the purpose of ego-stroking or just to prove that they can while covering everything in one of a dozen justifications ranging from patriotism to hard-to-credit claims of self-defense; Mills has used similar storytelling techniques with a variety of artists including O’Neill in Nemesis the Warlock, setting an anarchist wizard against a fascistic, xenophobic theocracy (similarly based on a very certain country of my birth) headed by the reincarnation of Torquemada, Hitler and other evil personages throughout history.

In this light, a more generous reader than I might take the aforementioned gendered violence—which, again, is not against a single person in a single one of the stories the collection contains but present in nearly every issue with a variety of victims—as a condemnation of a society which would create or defend (in one way or another) that kind of violence and for all I absolutely believe that was the intent, I’m not convinced it came off that way in the narrative; the death of a woman is too often used as an early springboard to propel a man to action and while some of Marshal Law’s male comrades fall in battle, they tend to receive a bit more agency, history or characterization than do any of the murdered women.

As you may have guessed, the whole thing is a rather large sticking point for me because it keeps the work from being what it really could be (in my head, anyway); if the male and female superpeople were shown to be the same sorts of threats, if the rueful shake of the head at the horrible things done to women didn’t clash with the spectacle of said horrible things’ presentation, if only I didn’t feel like the gender politics clash hard with the angry anti-authoritarian, anti-fascist, anti-status quo message the work was trying to get across, it would be an amazing counterargument against the worst excesses not only of the superhero genre but of the culture which created the genre and the one which has perpetuated the genre since the ‘30s.  If only, if only, if only then I could give the thing an unambivalent thumbs-up.

Because the criticism Mills and O’Neill bring up is a worthy one: a child expressing a power fantasy is normal and, to a certain extent, healthy; but when adults—particularly adults in possession of tanks, bombs and nuclear ordinance—do so, we should be wary.  Similarly, when adults demand that possession of those armaments allows them the same unaccountable vigilante behaviour we forgive in the subjects of children’s power fantasies and build up massive, complex rationales as to why this should be so, we should not only be wary but derisive, unkind and, as Mills and O’Neill seem to do, frothing at the mouth with rage.

And for all my problems with the work and mixed feelings about the superhero genre, that’s a moral I can’t fault.

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Admin: Still Alive

So hi!  It’s been a bit since Your Humble Cape (Re)Connector posted anything.  This is not because I’ve abandoned this project, only that I’ve been busy with other things like university starting up, coming down from some wandering around Sweden and otherwise being distracted (did you know Saints Row 4 is out?  It is and it is panderingly great).

More stuff to come including Marshal Law, Watchmen, X-Men vs. Fantastic Four and that’s just the stuff immediately on the docket.

Later I think I’ll make a “feel free to suggest” post or something but until then, please continue to be awesome in my absence or check out my biweekly contributions to CrC’s sister-blog Organised Freedom for non-superhero comics-related babbling about pop-cultural things like TV, video games, movies, etc. with me and at least one person who is not me.  So far it’s been largely just TV and video games but… Well, anyway.

All-Star Superman

All-Star Superman

This is not the best song in the world, no/This is just a tribute”  -Tenacious D

It’s weird trying to be critical in a real proper sense where you try to at least make an effort at divorcing yourself from your relationship to the material.  But that’s what you have to do when it comes to picking apart things you’ve loved.  I bought All-Star Superman in its twelve individual issues over the course of nearly three years (artist Frank Quitely is rather notorious for his deliberate pace) and adored it.  I later purchased it in the two volumes of trade paperback that came out and later still, I finally managed to pick up one of DC’s “Absolute” editions—oversized, printed on lovely paper with some bonus material (sketches and the like) in lovingly-designed hardcovers with sturdy slipcases.  I love this book from its first page (a four-panel, eight word origin of Superman) to the last.  It was what it set out to be: a celebration of the most well-known elements of the Superman character all tied together with the creators’ ultimate expression of Superman as working-class sun god.  I love how it brings in all these weird fragmented concepts together to do a kind of weird, rambling greatest hits collection, incorporating the best parts of a handful of iterations of the character across various continuities and wrapping it all up with Morrisonian high concepts and Frank Quitely’s amazing quasi-European superhero art.

But now, trying to figure out how it works, my opinion’s changed some and I realize that a lot of that change—as is a recurring theme when I go back and examine works by Grant Morrison—is due in large part to examining what’s literally there as opposed to what I was projecting onto the work.

Now, before we begin I want to say that where my opinion has changed, it’s nothing to do with Frank Quitely.  Quitely’s art takes some getting used to, sure.  The first few times I saw his bulky, bricky forms and his bizarrely squished faces back when he was working with Mark Millar on The Authority, I was repulsed.  But then, over years of seeing his work crossing my eye in the books I was reading, I started to become more and more of a fan, particularly since despite the borderline ugliness of his figures is complimented by a gorgeous sense of dynamism, flow and life in each image and the flow of the storytelling is nearly unmatched in American cape comics.  Again, the guy is deliberate in the pace of his output but there is, to my thinking, no arguing with the results.

Special credit, also, must be given to Jamie Grant’s colours.  This is a fun, poppy book that overcomes my usual preference for flat colours in my cape comics; there’s something in the almost-embossed quality the colours often give to Quitely’s lines that just make everything seem to jump off the page, as if you could hang out in the world if only you were in the middle of some glorious fever dream or on the borderlands of some technicolour nirvana.  The boldness, the glorious use of high-saturation primary colours come together to make what is easily one of the most glorious and joyful-to-behold books to hit the stands in ages.

Beyond the beauty of the book (and it is, again, beautiful), I have to come at All-Star Superman from three different levels, if only to keep the part of my brain which held… and, in spite of everything, still holds All-Star Superman in high regard somewhat satisfied.  It’s strange to love a thing and be aware that, for the most part, it’s actually a very mediocre work.  There’s some weird mental gymnastics that go on and I evaluate the whole thing first as a fan—not only of Superman but of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely—then as a critic, then as someone who wants to tell stories himself, trying to figure out how it could have worked better.

And since those are the people I was when I re-read this, those are the three people who are going to discuss the book.

Continue reading

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Supergirl: Cosmic Adventures in the 8th Grade

Supergirl: Cosmic Adventures in the 8th Grade

Linda Lee is a pretty ordinary girl.  She’d rather not do her homework, she fights with her parents and when she comes to stay with her cousin in a new town, she has trouble fitting in; no one understands her habits from her hometown and she doesn’t understand what she’s supposed to do to get in good with everyone; her only friend is a clever, antisocial outcast named Lena (who would hate Linda if she ever found out Linda’s secret) and her twin sister, Belinda, has left her in the lurch by running off to go and get popular and all this as she tries to deal with the weird changes that are hitting her body.  But something strange is going on at this new school, something only Linda, Lena and Belinda can uncover—provided Belinda doesn’t sell them out to the principal first.

You might not know the particular story, but you can probably make a few educated guesses as to how it goes.  But since this is a blog about superhero comics, you’ve probably figured that there’s something I’m not telling you and you’d be right.

Sorta.

On the one hand, this is exactly what the story is: an all-ages story about three young women trying to navigate the fiendishly related weirdnesses that are puberty and middle school while trying to solve a mystery.  Linda’s awkward, Lena’s angry and Belinda’s trying to find herself and differentiate herself from her twin sister.

On the other hand, this is a superhero story, so every plot element that can be exaggerated is.  Linda Lee isn’t just a new girl in town; she’s a new girl on the planet.  Heck, Linda Lee isn’t even Linda Lee, she’s Kara Zor-El of Krypton and the cousin she’s staying with is Clark Kent, aka Superman.  She’s not just going through puberty, she’s also trying to control the amazing super powers she gets under Earth’s yellow sun.  Her twin sister is, naturally, an inverted clone of Linda herself (Linda, version B: Belinda Zee!) and her best friend, Lena Thorul is actually the younger sister of supervillain and professional hater-of-Superman-and-all-his-friends Lex Luthor under an anagramed alias; and if Lena ever found out Linda’s true nature, Linda will lose her only friend.  The “something strange” going on at the school is far stranger than it might have been otherwise; instead of a crime or a cult or anything else, the school’s administration is under the thrall of Superman villain Mr. Mxyzptlk, an imp from the 5th dimension who plans to drain the 3rd (or is it 2nd if it’s on a page?) dimension dry so that he might be the master of the 5th.

Naturally, Linda/Kara/Supergirl steps up to save not only her friends but her school and, naturally, the whole of the 3rd dimension as well.

So, all that out of the way, the big question: does it work?

It’s nice, for once, to give an unambiguous “yes”.

Supergirl: Cosmic Adventures in the 8th Grade, in contrast to a lot of the other books reviewed so far, is not a book of Big Ideas, it’s not hilarious in its irreverence, it’s not trying to do new things with the conventions of the superhero genre.  Eric Jones’ easy, cartoony art is beautiful and fits the story perfectly but (sadly) you won’t see a lot of artists rushing to copy it and while Landry Q. Walker’s plotting might not be the kind of stuff to keep people talking and dissecting like, say, Watchmen or Final Crisis (for, let’s be clear, very different reasons – the former is dense, the latter obtuse) but the simple, beautiful story his script tells is polished to a mirror shine*.

Please don’t misunderstand, I don’t think it’s bad or even mediocre in the slightest.  There’s a lot—a lot—to be said for putting out a beautiful and relentlessly good book even if it doesn’t change the world.  Indeed, it’s actually rather heartening to see that it’s still possible to make a superhero comic which is exciting, engaging and fun while also poking fun at the worst parts of the genre (see: the special class in Issue 3) and lightly sidestepping them in its own narrative; part of this is certainly the book’s all-ages narrative (no blood, no tits and certainly no bloody tits) but the largest part is just that the humanity in the writing makes everyone—from sweet, lonely Linda to amoral mad-scientist-in-training Lena to duplicitous “mean girl” Belinda—more than just a parade of easy stereotypes, but people worthy of empathy and understanding.

The story embraces one of the great strengths of the superhero genre; making small conflicts into larger, symbolic ones expressed with the tremendous import everything has when you’re younger.  Linda’s not hiding, say, relation to a feuded-against person or a non-heteronormative sexual orientation, from her best friend (who hates all people who are like her cousin or like Linda herself), but being a literal alien.  Belinda’s need to differentiate herself from Linda takes the form of mystical manipulation and inverted super-powers instead of just a certain kind of viciousness.  Lena has a blind hatred of aliens from Krypton that inspires her to use an impressive battle-suit instead of a blind hatred of Lees, Kents or lesbians (or anything else that could stand in for it) that inspires her to just try to beat up her friend—and when she gets over it, it’s after she’s helped save the universe and her brother’s super-science forces a choice in her subconscious instead of just regular old-fashioned growing up.

And between Jones’ art and Walker’s script, it’s all so much more effective than it should be.  I knew, reading it, that this was all stuff I’d seen before; not only in teenaged superhero comics but in every third high school movie that’s come out as long as I’ve been alive.  But it’s never been necessary to reinvent the wheel, interesting as it always is to see it attempted.

Sometimes it’s enough to be a little strange and a little funny and a little kind in a genre that rarely tries for more than “explosions, laser eyes and laser eyes causing explosions”.

*I have heard Walker, in a podcast interview, lay out some of the future plans for the series, has it continued; had they the opportunity to follow those plans through, I would probably have reason to retract or amend this statement.

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Secret Identity

Secret Identity

Secret Identity is one of those books I’ve always meant to read but never quite got to.

It was sold to me in a variety of ways: a Superman book that’s not a Superman book, a metatextual examination of the legacy of the Big Blue Boy Scout and otherwise a fun comic.  It had a lovely pedigree and all but…

Well, I fixed that, anyway.

First off?  It’s guh-guh-guh-gorgeous.  But, then, it’s a Stuart Immonen joint and that’s par for the course; here he’s leaning a bit more realistic compared to the clean, angular stylization he used in Ultimate Spider-Man and refined in Nextwave.  It’s kind of odd to see the sharpness I’ve always admired in his style dialed back and for his figures to be rounder and less cartooned, but it works well, particularly with the relatively muted colour palate Immonen uses; the whole affair seeming to signal that, no, this is not a “real” Superman story but, instead, something a bit more related to our own normal world.

A bit, anyway.

Immonen’s art, always a high point in any book, really well compliments the writing duties by veteran superhero scribe Kurt Busiek, who’s worked on the big titles like Avengers but become best known for his work as the writer of Astro City, which has been the gold standard for humanizing the superhero genre.

And here he goes to humanize Superman.

So, taken as a whole, does Secret Identity work?

Almost.

Not really, but al­-bloody-most.

So, the story is about a poor, introverted schmuck in a world largely like our own who’s saddled with the name Clark Kent.  His family makes a bunch of bad Superman jokes at him and the other kids at his rural Kansas school make Superman references the cornerstone of their bullying campaign.

And then he wakes up with Superman’s powers.

What follows is a series of vignettes over the course of the four 48-page issues wherein our Clark comes to terms with his powers, debates becoming a public figure like his comic book namesake and while he doesn’t exactly do battle with the government, he absolutely has to come to terms with it and…

Well, the problem with Secret Identity is that for all it’s a good-hearted and on the short-list for “the only Superman story you really need” award, for all the super-feats and kindly perspectives about people even when they’re not on the side of Our Hero and for all the gorgeous moments of humanity throughout, it’s not a story about anything more than its high concept: “what if Superman was just a dude in a world like ours?”

And that’s all it is, start to finish.

And maybe that’s enough, you know?  Maybe it’s enough to be sweet with the superhero genre instead of violent, to have smiles over teeth-gritting grimaces and healthy relationships over dramatic ones.  Maybe it’s enough to follow Clark Kent through his journey from frightened kid to secret superhero to super-patriarch.

But by the end, for all I felt good that I’d read it and for all that I wish I could read another dozen things with that same heart, it wasn’t much of a superhero story.  No giant robots, no evil geniuses, no master plans, no space aliens; there’s only one guy in spandex and no one dies unnaturally.  No one makes speeches or clearly espouses their defining characteristics with tons of exclamation points.  There are no tears or big, loud betrayals.

That said, it’s one of the best super-man (as opposed to Superman) stories I’ve read and one of the few stories with superpowers (and, by the end, superhumans) in it that doesn’t at some point devolve into a lot of punches, kicks and explosions.  There are a couple, sure.  And a few super-feats to boot.  There are a few moments where our Clark is allowed to be frightening, sure, but true to the spirit of the work, he’s never the bully he could be.

It’s just this rambling story of a young man named Clark who meets a young woman named Lois who does all the good he can before retiring to a good life with his kids as the world passes him by.

As I’ve come to think of a superhero story, it’s a total failure.

Which speaks either to the limitations of the genre or the flaws in my understanding of it because there isn’t much I’ve ever read, aside from a couple issues of the new Astro City (also by Busiek, sadly without Immonen), that spoke so well to the human drama part of superhuman drama.

And, honestly, with the lack of massive character arc, it might not even be that great a drama.  But it’s one of the better ones to come out of the superhero genre.  That might be damning with faint praise, but it’s also a sign of hope that the genre can be more than the latest attempt of a crew of well-meaning and talented individuals to turn Disney or Warner Brothers’ marketing plans into worthwhile stories.

In the meanwhile, I’m gonna have to see about picking up some Astro City.

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Seven Soldiers (of Victory)

Seven Soldiers (of Victory)

Zatanna Zatarra!  Klarion the Witchboy!  Jake Jordan – the Manhattan Guardian!  Ystin the Shining Knight!  Shilo Norman, aka Mister Miracle! Alix Harrower – the Bulleteer!  Frankenstein!  The Seven Soldiers of Victory!

Believe it or not, this is one of the series I was looking forward to least in this little project of mine.

Not because I don’t like it, mind, but because I’ve really, really loved it.  It’s got everything I love about Grant Morrison’s superhero stuff that’s not All-Star Superman: big ideas, weird adventures and a feeling of slight dissonance with reality as he starts playing with how you can play with time in the context of a superhero comic and the way the pictures and speech bubbles interact with the people reading it.

Heck, now that I think about it, it’s not even that much of a superhero comic.  More a weird urban fantasy yarn with superheroes in…

Anyway, after going back through it, I realize that it’s another of Morrison’s noble failures.  A failure not of scope or, I maintain, ability, but a failure in that it doesn’t really work.  But nonetheless noble because for all it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work with more style, swagger and ambition than a large number of pieces that do work even come close to.

Again, it’s the Project Runway-inspired rule I have over here: ugly beats boring.  That is to say, if it fails because it tries to do too much, it’s finer than a thing that fails because it didn’t try to do anything at all.

But why does it fail?  Why does it not work?

The answer is frustratingly similar to the discussion of Final Crisis I had earlier: it doesn’t work because it’s trying to do too much.

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The Captain Britain Omnibus

Captain Britain Omnibus

Woo!  First entry from the “New Blood” section of the reading list!

Now, I preface this by saying that I can’t think about Captain Britain without thinking about the title’s sequel title, Excalibur.

Growing up, one of my favourite series was Excalibur, a title which had a large-ish cast of weird characters including Nightcrawler (my fave X-Man who wasn’t Colossus), Meggan, Phoenix, Kitty Pryde and Captain Britain.

Excalibur is, in my mind, one of the best parts of the superhero genre being in turns funny and heavy and generally being X-Men writer Chris Claremont at his best.  That he often (not always, sadly, but very often) had the ever-amazing Alan Davis doing the art was just icing on the cake.

But I’d never read the stuff that came before it.

This was the heady days before the internet and because very few of the Captain Britain stories made it stateside at the time, I just didn’t know where a lot of the stuff getting mentioned was coming from or where I’d find it.  Who was Saturnyne?  What’s up with the multiple universes?  Who is this Captain Britain guy, anyway?

But they’re also questions I got used to not knowing the answer to.  My local stores didn’t have an extensive collection of Excalibur and I didn’t want to pay the markup and shipping for places like Mile High so I largely just got used to having big chunks of things never quite filled in.  But then my fiancee picked up the Captain Britain Omnibus and I set about to going through it.

So; does it work?

Yes and no.

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A brief aside on superhero universes

A brief aside:  the thought of people being fans of superheroes from inside a superhero universe is always a weird thought for me.  Certainly, there are cults of personality and celebrity but for all David Bowie may have blown your mind, I have not seen direct evidence that he has literally saved the world from predacious space-gods.

I have no trouble believing that he has done so upon multiple occasions, mind; just that I’ve seen no evidence of it.

But for a large number of people (or any number, really) being so quick to declare their allegiance to their favoured bespandexed heroes in public like that… I don’t know.  Something about it feels a bit strange.  The Superman S on a t-shirt makes sense here in the Real World but for some reason something seems off about wearing a superhero symbol on your chest when declaring your fandom for the hero would be an awesome way to get yourself murdered by one of the dozen or so people who have made it their life’s work to cause humiliation and/or pain to that person.

Superman is awesome and all but if the guy saved the world eight times, it feels like it’d be weird pulling his shirt out with your Pink Floyd shirt and deciding which one you wanted to wear: the artist or the demigod (even if he would reject the title).

One of those suffers from the comparison is what I’m sayin’.

DC’s 52

52

52 has, for a long time, been one of my favourite stories in superhero comics.  This is probably because it focuses on a lot of the B- and C-list characters who I’d always felt got shortchanged and also covers the gamut of the kinds of stories superheroes tell well: ruminations on the nature of power and responsibility, wild space epics, weird twisty soap operas and the like.  Add to that that it’s all ostensibly one story told through various narratives in a structure not entirely unlike a lot of major Epic Hourlong Television Series and if I were (as I originally planned) giving out ratings for ambition and execution, I know that at least the ambition side of things would get a solid 5 out of 5.

As for execution…

The short form, before the deep-cut babbling starts, is that this thing doesn’t read as being very welcoming to beginners.  You get enough information about each of the main principals that you could probably figure out what their deal is and if you picked up the trade, I think you could probably get invested by the end of it.  You’ll figure out who everyone is and that Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman aren’t around for… reasons and that there are a lot of disasters that people are recovering from in the background.

It’s sadly very FAR in the background.

But that’s from a guy who already knew about or read most of the Big Events referenced in the book because I like a big, dumb superhero event comic quite a bit more than those big, dumb superhero event comics deserve.

The places where the story shines is when it’s not trying to tie into the larger superhero universe, when it’s not talking about what’s going on with Batman or press conferences for the JLA.  Those are the moments where I, in my suddenly-skeptical state of mind regarding the superhero, started getting uncomfortable.

Because for all this superheroic universe is built on the foundation of Superman/Batman/Wonder Woman, the levels to which the people in the universe act as if this is the case is sometimes distressing.  You won’t see a lot about police except as occasional roadblocks for one character, nor will you see much about members of government or the voting public in general except as a necessary footnote to a Green Arrow sideplot that takes up about five of the 1000-ish pages or as entities in league with various criminal or supervillainous organizations.

There’s also an entire arc about whether heroes are born or made or something else that waffles back and forth and for all it comes to a fairly satisfactory ending… it doesn’t quite work.  It’s “resolution” feels more like fiat than actually deciding anything more than that the superheroes we know and love are, indeed, heroic.

I think overall it succeeds more than it fails and as someone who’d always been aware of the complicated comings and goings of the DCU, it was a great way to get me engaged in those characters the first few times I read it…

Now…

Now I’m not so sure.

It’s still good but it’s not really at “very good”, though at times it does brush up against it.

Now, I’m about to go more in-depth so for simplicity’s sake, I’m just going to try and break things down to the major arcs and just sorta go on about them a little.

Oh and while this thing’s a few years old now, I feel it only proper to warn that SPOILERS follow.

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