Monthly Archives: July 2013

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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Nextwave

nextwave

When is a parody not a parody?

The short answer is “when it’s Nextwave”.

The brainchild of comic writer and social media sensation Warren Ellis and artistic superstar (and if he’s not, he should be) Stuart Immonen, Nextwave was intended to be, by Ellis’ own words, a remix comic.  In this, personally think it succeeds quite handily.  And that success is why I’m always hesitant to just slap the “parody” label on it…

But between all the manic action, the callbacks not only to some of the sillier aspects of superhero comics (both generally and specifically) but some previous actively parodic takes on the genre, it’s hard not to admit that parody—or at least a piss-taking—is at the core of the story.

And no matter what high-concept stuff is tossed forward to obscure the fact, Nextwave does, indeed, have a story.

Also a peppy theme song.

Is the story deep?  No.  It’s not meant to be and that’s pretty obvious from the moment our motley band of superheroes from diffuse corners of the Marvel Universe (oh and also rock-stupid Superman-esque generic superhero The Captain) encounters and, in short order eviscerates, a much-beloved symbol of early Marvel continuity.  And if that didn’t tip you off, the fact that a lot of the humour comes from characters acting either in exaggerated versions of themselves or varied archetypes or in total opposition to previous characterization should probably help tip you off.

But what the story does have is a refreshing honesty about the bog-stupid id of the genre that’s rarely seen.

And let’s be clear:  that is a good thing.

Nextwave isn’t the id, necessarily, of its audience—which thankfully keeps it from becoming a T&A murderfest—and by focusing on the id of the genre (explosions! short bursts of drama! one-liners!  more explosions!  facekicks!  vague moralizing!), it frees itself up to laugh at itself and at the genre and to invite the audience to do the same.

Because Nextwave knows one thing that the big superhero comics seem to have forgotten in their race to emulate Watchmen’s tone and gritty contents (guh, I’m gonna have to talk about that’n, aren’t I?  It really is too big to ignore except that everyone’s already said everything about it so…) without also emulating its quality; superheroes are stupid.

Don’t get me wrong, I love superheroes.  They’re great as symbols, as adolescent wish fulfillment, as ways to understand ourselves and our worlds.  But the idea of a demigod putting on tights and giving speeches to bank robbers is as bananas as the idea of a demigod putting on tights to evaporate bank robbers with his laser eyes is frightful.

In Nextwave, superheroes are stupid.  They exist in a parallel reality where you can get attacked by a horde of broccoli robots who work for a dinosaur who wants to destroy the world but isn’t forward-thinking enough to imagine that in a world where giant space dragons wear purple underpants, there might be someone capable of doing him harm.  The superheroes bicker like children and no innocent people die on-screen.  Worlds are saved, people are beaten up and quips are exchanged and in the end there’s an impression that Everything Could Change for our heroes.

Except that it doesn’t.

Which is the real trick of the genre.  Nine times out of ten, everything changes but nothing does.  Costumes and names change, relations shift and in six months it’ll all reset unless it doesn’t and which point it might do so anyway.

And Nextwave, with its snark, crooked smiles and MODOK Elvises, gleefully gives not one single fuck.

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Final Crisis

Final Crisis

NOTE:  So to be clear, I only read the Final Crisis hardcover.  There are supplementary collections which have a lot of stuff by people I like but… well, those aren’t the main story and even if they are, what the hell are they doing in some other book?  Crossover bloat is bad enough when it happens on the stands.

Final Crisis is the culmination of plot threads which start in Morrison’s Seven Soldiers (about which more later) and keep building through 52 (again; more later) right on up to here, the Summer Blockbuster Event Comic To End All Summer Blockbuster Event Comics.  The DC Universe faces its weirdest, most devastating conflict that rocks its core with the whole of Creations at stake with everything filtered through metanarratives and playing with the nature of the comic book and all those other things Morrison’s so fond of talking about.

So right up front, the ambition level’s high.  A sure way to win you points in my book.

But does it work?

As a hardcover, it works a lot better than it did in floppies, not only because I feel like the story benefits from a bit of immediacy but also because in its original run, three of the chapters—two of which are necessary for understanding the end of the story and one which drove home what the rest of the book had made explicit only to set up a narrative arc that never went anywhere—were offered as optional tie-ins, something which irked me to no end.

But does it work?

Well… mostly.

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