Monday, April 12, 2010

JSA, Lorne, Black Terror & More


Angel Special: Lorne: Actor Andrew Hallett, who played the other-dimensional demon and karaoke bar owner Lorne from the television series Angel, died 2 years ago from congestive heart failure at the age of 32. John Byrne wrote, drew and inked this special book that serves as a tribute to the actor and his beloved character with proceeds going to charity. In addition to the comic story are photos of Hallett in and out of the make-up as well as a tribute by Hallett's friend and co-star Mark Lutz. Lutz' character, the Groosalugg likewise figures prominently in this tale.

Byrne tells a story that fits in well with the tone and continuity of the television series while also including things that wouldn't translate as well to live action on the small screen (and budget) such as a large flying dragon, huge monsters and ancient nigh omnipotent beings as designed by Byrne. It's a story of fate and sacrifice that while Lorne faces a personal crisis, a threat arises that he alone is specially suited for. In the days of epics that span dozens of issues and hundreds of pages, it's a tight little tale and a fitting tribute.

Byrne has a knack for drawing supernatural and horror stories, and he has found a good synthesis with his Angel projects that allow him to draw the fantastic alongside the every day. The opening scene of Fred walking down the street and getting attacked by vampires is beautiful stuff. If there's a weakness, it's in the likenesses. Angel and Lorne look reasonably close to their screen counterparts, but Fred and Groo look a bit more generic than specifically as Amy Acker and Mark Lutz.

Astro City: The Dark Age Book Four #3: I'd love to John Byrne do a special issue or two of Busiek's Astro City, tackling some of the strange and yet identifiably iconic characters created in the comic. Especially given Byrne's talent at distinctive architecture. Not a slam against Brett Anderson at all, as he does a fantastic job. Most artists excel either at the everyday and mundane stuff but couldn't really pull off a cosmic Kirby sky-god or then switch gears and have vampires and giant bugs and have it all look like it belongs existing side by side.

The story continues as the Williams brothers continue their denigration into what they hate as they pursue the man responsible for the death of their parents. Such as their disdain for heroes in general and the Silver Agent in particular because of the innocent bystanders caught in middle of the battles like them and their parents. Yet, when they are given the choice to help the victims or pursue their foe, they chose the latter. "Another line crossed."

As this tale has possibly drawn out a little too long, the constant influx of new characters and designs of heroes and villains grabs my interest. In this case it's the deadly Pale Horseman who goes after and executes all criminals no matter how petty their crimes, reflecting the time of the grim and gritty comics and the darker and more violent heroes.

Black Terror #9: Probably the best issue of the series so far. One, it's a story that is self-contained, done in one. Two, it is finally moving a bit of telling stories whose plots are dictated by events of Project Superpowers (such as his rescuing Tim in the mini, and the setting free and avenging of the American Crusader that kicked off the ongoing). Lastly, it's a real story with believable motivations and logical extrapolation of character. Such as seeing Mystico looking like a mummy as opposed to a man in a suit. At least here it acknowledges it's not the way he normally looked and gives a logical reason for it in the same book. It's not the way I would have handled the character, but it's a logical take. Just as the character's darkening which is all too prevalent in the Superpowers books is handled completely in this one book as it's about both his fall and redemption.

I disagree with the set-up, that an innocent bystander is killed when the Black Terror tackles a bank robbery and a bullet ricochet's off his chest. It's introducing something that would happen in the real world, but it doesn't really follow through with it. It's such an occurrence that sparked Marvel's Civil War (admittedly on a bigger scale), that superheroes act without oversight and controls. As the story isn't about the role of the vigilante and the problems of vigilantism vs legally appointed cops, that set-up needs to be tweaked so that the Black Terror is not even indirectly responsible for the girl's death other than in his own mind and sense of responsibility. That he apparently easily dismisses the concern and sees himself as the hero makes him seem even more dangerous as an individual NOT more heroic.

Another disagreement stems from the the whole pirate motif. This story at least starts off by seeing that the Terror's other path was one of a healer of sorts, one that helped cure people's ills and showing him what the path not taken could have been. But, it ends reinforcing that his costume & character do not reflect his medical background but the pirate connotations.

This goes hand in hand with something I raised in the Torch mini-series by Marvel. Part of the problem is that nine issues in, and we still have a character who hasn't taken one step at setting up a life outside of being the Black Terror. He takes a taxi but we haven't seen any indication that he does anything that would earn him any money. Where does he live? What does he do on his down time? The scene of him seeing what life could have been is about the closest we've gotten to really seeing the man behind the mask since he became the Black Terror, that he might have other dreams and desires. We need to see Benton have a life outside of the Black Terror because it gives his role and actions context and ramifications. It adds a personal dimension and personal sacrifice to being the hero.
Dragon Age #1: I got this for two reasons. The first being that I would like to see a good fantasy comic. It's interesting that everything comics do so well, yet I've not seen a really good "Lord of the Rings" type fantasy. The second, and main reason, was that Orson Scott Card's name is attached as co-writer.

Card has written a few comics, but he's known mostly for his science fiction (and some horror and fantasy as well). I've taken a writing class under him and enjoy his reviews and commentary printed in The Rhinoceros Times. This makes an interesting counterpoint to the comic as he comes across as being pretty definitive of what he likes and dislikes, especially in fantasy. He's not a fan of much fantasy that seeks to follow the Tolkien model (not to say that he dislikes Tolkien, just that most that follow it are not very original or thought out).

Yet, this is a very, very bad comic. There's a decent story in the core concept: a man and a woman find themselves in a Romeo-Juliet relationship ie they are in love but are of factions that are mortal enemies, in this case Templar Knights and Magi. When word gets out that she's pregnant, the Templars order her death. It's a mission he is willing to carry out as he mistakenly thinks she has been with someone else. And, by the issue's end, he's killed her and presumably their daughter is the main character in the following issues.

The storytelling is what kills it. First the manga influenced artwork does a miserable job at telling the story and getting across the action of key scenes. Such as when the would be Templar sees his girlfriend being comforted by a friend and mistakes it for something more intimate, he is unrecognizable. He could be any other character. A lot of stuff goes unexplained that don't make sense but play important roles in the way the world works. As this is something Card frequently harps upon, it's hard to believe that his name could be attached that makes such fundamental errors. We don't know exactly why the two factions hate each other though it seems to be religious based. We know the Magi and Templars hate each other, but we don't know how their world works. We don't know who is actually in control, that makes the laws, that the people follow. We don't know what gives the Templars their authority to hunt and kill Mages nor do we know exactly what offenses lead to a death sentence. Nor do we know why the two "towers" that train the Templars and Magi would exist so close together, in the very same town it appears, if they hate each other to the point of willfully killing each other. We don't see these characters or the two factions in context of the world they inhabit, so the conflict comes across as being baseless and ludicrous.

Dragon Age is first a video game; some of those details may be found there. But, the story gives only an extremely shallow feel of the basic concepts. Card knows better. He knows that most Fantasy stories are partially a milieu story ie one of world-building and exploration.

Justice Society of America #37: Twenty years in the future, Mr. Terrific relates the battle of the JSA against the Fourth Reich and how just when victory seemed to be in their grasp, they lost it all. What is unrevealed is exactly how that led to the fall of ALL superheroes, especially as the majority of the villains don't come across as that big of threats. We see Lightning and Mr. America enter the battle but it's Lightning is the one who we see take down an impressive foe with ease. The story then transitions to what the older, depowered and captured heroes are up to and hints at their big plan to set the world aright.

The story comes across as a good old-fashioned piece of fun and fluff. I couldn't help but think of the classic "Days of Future-Past" that told a similar story of older heroes facing extermination try to undo the events in their past/our present that set the world on that particularly dark course. So far, this story doesn't threaten to usurp that one in classic status as that story so easily gave so many iconic yet tragic and bittersweet moments and scenes such as the final charge against the Sentinels. But, the story succeeds in entertaining and providing some good superhero throw-downs with twists along the way even while the reader knows the pre-ordained conclusions. Of course part of that is probably due to the fact it's a title that doesn't require reading a host of other books to understand what's going on, there's not rampant death just to increase body counts or make the books seem more serious and edgy ala Robinson's Cry for Justice and Justice League.

Mr. America's place on this team continues to be a bit of an enigma as he doesn't add one iota of presence. Of the young guns, he should be the one that comes across more strongly and with a certain amount of experience and world-view. He has had formal training and presumably faced some very bad guys as part of the FBI, he already was a professional crime-fighter. He dresses the part of Captain America, but he remains a complete cypher and rank rookie. A bit of that is because it has the same shortcomings listed in the Black Terror book ie there's no real sense of who these characters are outside of the team. A little of that is forgiven in a team book as the focus of characters has to rotate through the larger cast. When you have a book like the traditional JLA, the job is made easier as many characters have their own books and there can be more focus on the secondary characters in terms of subplots and characterizations. Heck, it's part of the reasoning behind having B and C listers joining the teams to begin with. It allows for character growth and subplots without worrying about the events in the solo books.

Kid Karneval is taken out with one punch after a lot of build-up. The rest of the Reich is identified as if they had been seen before this storyline but most of them are just place-holders, we aren't told anything about them (especially as half are based on characters from MLJ and thus have no prior context or continuity to the DCU). In fact, the Fourth Reich is the weakest part of the story. As a group, they aren't threatening, their powers and abilities are not defined. Nor do we see an actual face to this new Reich, who is behind it all. On one side, the story is Mr. Terrific's story, we see it through his eyes. He personalizes the superhero side. We don't really have his opposite number though. We don't know who the villain is that set all of this up, that put together this team (or, how other than being a psychopath, the Kid fits in with the group ideologically). It needs a Red Skull/Zemo/Baron Strucker to stand on the opposite end and serve as the focal point, to be the villain whose plans and desires are the motivating forces for the story, to embody the opposite side. Especially since this is NOT really a story about the evils of Nazism. The villains are Nazis, but that's short-hand here for them wanting to conquer the world, it's not about heroes fighting Nazis per-se. It could be any world conquering type with some super-powered joes at his disposal. Thus the importance of providing the story with a character that embodies what the conflict is about, especially this far in to the story.
Project Superpowers Chapter Two #8: To bring down the mad god Zeus, the heroes that have been at odd purposes combine forces, those that serve the President and through him the Supremacy and those that have set themselves up as bringing down that group and restoring America to the people through creating seeming anarchy. The plan doesn't seem to go very well as characters with their false allegiances are found out or on the cusp of being found out.

There's some great scenes artwise. Salazar's art is steadily improving in quality and clarity in storytelling. I don't know if Ross and Krueger are deliberately aiming for meta-textual commentary, but the revelation by the Green Lama that the heroes of the urn have achieved a near mythic status and possibly may not be able to die could easily be taken as a commentary on the status of the heroes of the 1940s. Due to their public domain status several of them have popped up at various companies and in different incarnations, especially in the last couple of years. Of course other meta-textual concerns pop up across the book such as the pairing of the heroes of Big Shot comics together. It's not a bad idea per se, but no story-logic is given. They have a task to accomplish, some vision to construct a mysterious object that will help defeat Zeus. Which makes a little sense with Marvelo who is a magic hero and Skyman who is a technological/inventive genius. But, the inclusion of the Face doesn't really follow. Likewise we have Lady Satan, the Woman in Red and Masquerade nee Miss Masque are grouped solely because they are women and the use of the color red.1 Or the joining of all the Ace heroes into one group. It's a little cutesy nod to the characters' histories but without providing real story context.
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1 Of course, there is a history of the use of the color of red and women in literature and culture. First, it signaled women of a loose sexual nature. By the thirties, there was a pulp called the Scarlet Adventuress signaling by that time the pairing didn't necessarily mean of a sexual nature, but women who didn't conform to the traditionally gender defined standards, mores and roles.