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Confessions of a Comics Shop Junkie, No. 72

Logo by Dw. Dunphy

Welcome back to Confessions etcetera, in which I write a line or three about recent comics and graphic novel releases, and encourage you to/discourage you from laying your hard-earned money down on same.

I know, it’s been another delay for what was originally set up as a (self-imposed) weekly review column. Lots of reasons slash excuses for this, and I won’t bore you with them, but I will say that one reason is that I haven’t really run across very much that I’ve cared to read lately, other than my usual titles which I’ve already discussed at odd times over the last couple of years- especially from the Big Two, from which everything seems to be a spinoff from Flashpoint and Fear Itself, neither of which I’ve been following all that closely. I’ll probably be taking a look at a few of those new 52 #1’s as they come out, so stay tuned for that. Until things shake out a little, though, from here on out I’ll try an every 2 weeks schedule for a little while. Hope we can all stand the wait.

Speaking of the  DC relaunch, here’s a tale of two Justice Leagues…

DC RETROACTIVE 1990’s: JUSTICE LEAGUE AMERICA
Script: Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis; Art: Kevin Maguire
DC Comics, $4.99

JUSTICE LEAGUE #1
Script: Geoff Johns; Art: Jim Lee, Scott Williams
DC Comics, $3.99

Two different series, two very different approaches to the same property.

To appreciate just how novel the whole Giffen/DeMatteis Justice League series were back in the day, it’s worth noting how drearily one-note and awful other relaunches of this venerable title have been, with the exceptions being Grant Morrison’s, and later Joe Kelly, Doug Mahnke, and Tom Nguyen’s late 90’s versions. The Giffen/DeMatteis/Maguire series was itself an attempt to break away cleanly from the JLA comics of the late 70’s and early 80’s, which had featured increasingly bland and yet somehow stupidly complicated plots and workmanlike art by Dick Dillin, clearly near the end of his career, which led to the oddball (yet fondly remembered by some, including me) mid-80’s Justice League Detroit and its bevy of new characters like Vibe and Gypsy. Those creators, Gerry Conway and Luke McDonnell if memory serves, were earnest but weren’t exactly looking to break new ground, either, and so their league was a snooze too. A definite palate cleanser was due, and that’s what Giffin and DeMatteis were able to bring, mixing established JLA’ers like Batman (a proven bet-hedger), Black Canary, and J’onn J’onzz with left-field choices like Blue Beetle, the newly-minted Asian female Dr. Light, then-obscure Green Lantern Guy Gardner, and Captain Marvel. Maguire’s art caused a bit of a stir, too- he excelled at depicting facial features and had a clean, open, inviting style which added a lot to the mix, especially when they eventually went all-out “Bwah-ha-ha” (a phrase Giffen and JMD made popular, and which came to be a shorthand description of this version of the league). The humor was always present, but was subtle at first, and eventually the writers realized that was what could set this apart from previous takes on the League, which led them to go all-out after the first half-dozen issues. The lighthearted, and refreshingly adult in a Hope/Crosby Road movie fashion banter enlivened the whole mix, and though at times it began to seem like a revival of Not Brand Echh, it did make the times when they’d stop smiling and get serious stand out a lot more than they would have otherwise, and made for some equally memorable moments.

Since it really hasn’t been that long since the GDM team returned to their League via a couple of mid-00’s miniseries, most recently I Cant Believe It’s Not the Justice League, they slip back into this particular saddle easily, like they never left. Giffen never lost his sense of humor in his scripting, as his already-missed Doom Patrol run bore out, and he’s never had a better writing partner than DeMatteis, who has only been intermittently interesting to me on his own (80’s fable Moonshadow, 90’s weird, new age-tinged Vertigo series Seekers Into the Mystery), but brings the funny with ease when it comes to the League. The plot calls back to a one-shot from back in the early 90’s, in which the Injustice League (here a group of hopeless losers), soon became a branch of the JLA based in Antartica, ha ha… anyway, member Multi-Man (an old Challengers of the Unknown badguy from the 60’s) acquires a piece of Apokolips technology from a drunken Parademon in a poker game, which transforms the super-big, super-strong, and super-stupid Flash villian Big Sur into a Godzilla-style monster, and hilarity ensues.  While other Retroactive one-shots have been poor, this one was very entertaining…and as has been the case with many of the others, also features a backup reprint story (chosen apparently at random) which shows us the not-bad but mostly downbeat last issue by the GDM team. Giffen, DeMatteis and Maguire (as well as Adam Hughes, Ty Templeton, Bart Sears and others down the line) always put out a fun and (at the risk of being repetitious) entertaining run of comics, and I always enjoyed reading them, because, well, I like a little wit in my reading material. Leavens out the melodrama sometimes. Others, however, don’t like this approach, including, it seems, past and present decision makers at DC Comics.

Case in point:  the first fruits of the much-hyped DC New 52 Relaunch, Justice League #1, all brand-spanking new and brought to life by respected-in-most-circles creators Geoff Johns and Jim Lee. Taking a cue from Frank Miller and Lee’s sour pisstake on the Bat-Family, All-Star Batman and Robin, this gives us a world in which superheroes are perpetually grouchy and do nothing but smart off to each other, because I guess it scans kewler to the perceived superhero customer. This is professionally done and very slick looking; Lee can certainly fill up space with a lot of superfluous detail, just like that old fan favorite George Perez… he’s a nice guy and technically proficient, but I dislike the blocky, stocky, perpetually posing figures he draws and that scratchy, feathery ink style he helped pioneer with Image lo so many years ago. Johns has been writing this sort of thing for so many years now that I’m sure it just comes automatically to him; I used to think he was strong in characterization and weak on long-term plotting, relying on stock superhero schtick back in his JSA days, but he’s just mailing it in these days in everything with his byline I’ve read, (an admittedly small sample set) so so much for that impression. It’s a routine Brave and the Bold scenario- Green Lantern gets sent to Gotham City to investigate the report of an unauthorized alien (I suppose the Guardians have to authorize them so that the Lanterns stay off their backs, shades of Men in Black), crosses paths with grouchy Batman, they bicker and posture until they find the alien, who blows himself up in an attempt to take his pursuers with him. Then, they decide to question another known alien, in an astounding leap of “logic”, who lives in Metropolis (guess who) who literally rainbow punches the Lantern, because,well, because Frank Miller hath decreed that Hal Jordan will now and forevermore be a smug and cocky jerk. End of issue 1! This is all hyperactive, self-serious lowest common denominator superhero comics, and (to my eyes, anyway) not terribly different from what was being done with the characters before all this overhyped relaunch nonsense began. Well, most of the costumes have collars now, and Superman lost his red trunks. Yeah, THAT’S worth an entire line reboot. It seems at first glance to be a terrible way to proceed with a do-over, but ultimately, what Warren Ellis said about the whole thing comes to mind:

“The New DC comics stuff looks so much like stuff I would never read that it oddly fills me with hope that they are targeting the core audience they want. If a 43-year-old man looks at most of this promo stuff and goes meh, then that’s very probably a good sign for them. Best of luck to Dan D, Jim L et all for the imminent relaunch.” 

So, maybe it’s just me, and DC has done a smashing job of pandering to, I mean reaching, the audience they want, god help us. I intend to check out a few more of these titles before all is said and done, so we’ll see what we shall see.

THE RED WING #’s 1,2
Script: Jonathan Hickman; Art: Nick Pitarra
Image Comics; $3.50

I don’t think this has anything to do with these, although that’s what the Kentucky boy in me thinks of when he sees the title. I’ll say this for Image Comics- they continue to do the Lord’s Work in these benighted times, when (semi) original stories with unfamiliar characters and creators are eschewed in favor of brain-numbing linewide crossover events and endless spinoffs featuring Wolverine, Spider-Man, and Batman. Of course, you can’t really blame the big two; when something of real quality, but no names familiar to the Our Valued Customer-style fanmen and women like, say, Xombi comes and goes with sales of less than 10k, then you don’t have to be a financial expert to see that they want more of  the same old comfort food, no matter how skillfully it is or isn’t prepared. Sign o’the times, my friends. Trees die and expensive ink gets consumed every time DC commits to something like Trouble Magnet (remember that? I thought not.), and I guess these corporate entities’ pockets only go so deep. Even some alternative publishers (alternative to the Big Two, anyway) like Dark Horse tend to maximize the franchises the have- Robert Howard properties, Hellboy spinoffs. Anyway, Image, whose profit margins are (I’m mostly sure) somewhat smaller, still seem to be committed to these stand-alone series such as the intriguing Carbon Grey, Blue Estate, and this, which I knew nothing about going in except I had read Hickman’s FF and wasn’t overly impressed, and the covers looked snazzy. Problem is, you can’t always judge a book by looking at the cover (otherwise, the 60’s Spectre #8 would be one of the greatest comics of all time), and I found this to be an incoherent mess. Part of the problem, I guess, is the whole time-travel thing- I’ve more often as not found time travel stories to be problematic, full of contrivance and cheerful ignorance of cause and effect. Of course, there are exceptions, but as a general rule if time travel is involved my eyes glaze over. Throw in the conceit of a war conducted through different periods of time, and also folding in father-son conflict, and all I can say is gosh, how ambitious and yet so all over the place. Hickman may very well bring it home in splendid fashion, but this consistently managed to elude my admittedly tenuous attention span several times over the course of the two issues I did read, and that’s not a good thing, at least if you want me to keep reading. It would seem to be incumbent on Pittara to help make sense of it all, but he seems to be more interested in drawing nifty Giger-does-Aztec spread pages than he does goosing the story along. He has a decent enough Euro-influenced, somewhat Moebius, Geoff Darrow, or Frank Quitely-esque  style but not the same facility; hopefully he’ll refine his craft and if he does he’ll be someone to keep an eye on. I wish I could recommend this; I think it’s good to have a market in which this sort of thing still has a place. That said,  it strikes me as a difficult read that doesn’t reward closer attention. Your mileage may vary, as the saying goes.

Short Takes:

FLASHPOINT #5 (DC Comics): I tried really hard to think of a way to fold this into the Justice League review above, but just couldn’t do it. Oh well. I think it’s telling that although I didn’t read issues 2 through 4, I had no problem picking up what was happening in this, the final chapter and much-ballyhooed “end of the DC Universe as we knew it”. If you recall, the Flash woke up, literally, to a totally different universe where his mother was still alive and everything else was similar yet different. Four issues later, he’s made aware that this state of affairs is all his fault and he has to travel back in time and make an ultimate sacrifice or something like that to set things right…or in other words, pave the way for the relaunch. It’s a classic “I done screwed up the future by my actions in the past and now I have to make things right” scenario, we’ve seen it in various places for many years now, and I suppose Johns, Andy Kubert, and Co. do it as well as can be expected. There’s a somewhat  touching finale at the end with Batman and the Flash that shows that Johns hasn’t totally forgotten how to write character interaction, and Kubert can actually draw something besides people in exaggerated superhero battle poses. But we sure have to endure a lot of hopped-up thud and blunder to get there, and not even the sight of a whackjob Enchantress, flinging destructive magic bolts with gleeful abandon, can compensate for the headache. C+

LOCKE AND KEY: CLOCKWORKS #2 (IDW): While last issue’s past-times diversion had me concerned that this was the direction for the remainder of this particular miniseries, thankfully we’re back in the present in this issue and back to the status quo, which is plenty gripping. Starts off with a surprising death (all the more meaningful because we know, unlike mainstream superhero comics, this one will stick), and progressing from there, Joe Hill is firing on all cylinders, giving us imaginative situations and fascinating characters. Having gone out and got caught up with this series after my initial review a few months ago, I’m now of the opinion that this underrated little title is one of the best being published these days. You should go get caught up, too. A

SPIDER ISLAND: DEADLY HANDS OF KUNG FU #1 (Marvel): I always liked Shang-Chi, the Master of Kung Fu aka Marvel’s version of Bruce Lee Adventures guest-starring Fu Manchu, so even though I had no clue what this whole Spider Island thing was about (well, I was reminded of this, but I don’t think it’s the direction this is headed in), I thought I’d at least check this out. Much to my surprise, it not only features Shang-Chi, but blends in characters from the Fraction/Brubaker/Swierczynski Iron Fist and the Immortal Weapons series as well. Apparently some Spider-Man villain figured out a way to transmit spider-powers to the population of New York via bedbugs (ooh, how topical) and this shows how these characters were affected by the goings-on. It does seem like one big fight scene, and writer Antony Johnston (who does a fine job overall) kinda lays the “Golden Salmon Leaps Upstream” fight move names on a little thick, but the characters themselves read true and I’m quite interested in how this all turns out. If Marvel ever does decide to give Shang-Chi his own title again, I hope they consider letting Johnston write it. Someone named Sebastian Fiumara pencils, and John Lucas inks; together, they achieve a light, airy brushstroke style that seems almost repro’d from pencils, and Fiumara does a nice job of staging the action setpieces, which is the bread and butter of this book. Good start, you might want to check it out, even if you haven’t been following “Spider Island”. B+

The All Purpose Review Writing Music List! Band of Heathens- Top Hat Crown & The Clapmaster’s Son; Paul McCartney & Wings- Band on the Run; John Hiatt- Walk On; Meshell Ndegeocello- Bitter; The Beatles- Let It Be: Naked; Lindsey Buckingham- Out of the Cradle; Wilco- The Whole Love.

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  • http://www.popdose.com jefito

    “Hopped-up thud and blunder.” I love it. I loved that ’90s JLA run, too.

  • scott (the other one)

    “Giffen never lost his sense of humor in his scripting, as his already-missed Doom Patrol run bore out, and he’s never had a better writing partner than DeMatteis, who has only been intermittently interesting to me on his own (80′s fable Moonshadow, 90′s weird, new age-tinged Vertigo series Seekers Into the Mystery), but brings the funny with ease here, missing far more often as he hits.”
    Did you mean hits far more often than he misses? 

  • Anonymous

    Yes I do! What would I do without all my proofreaders? Thanks.

  • Anonymous

    It’s hard to believe that DC published the Giffen/DeMatteis/Maguire Justice League series less than a year after “The Dark Knight Returns” and “Watchmen.” I loved it then, and I love it now. These guys also reunited for the recent Metal Men series that ran in the back of Doom Partrol for a while (and has recently been collected in trade), and it’s great too!