A Crisis of Infinite Crossovers

Avengers #23 finds Infinity limping to the finish line

Have to say, Infinity has lived up to its name. It feels like it’s dragged out forever.

There are those who make art, and those who make money, and it’s not really a secret which side of the line Marvel straddles. The fans might bitch and moan, but the simple truth is crossovers sell comics. Comics make money. Marvel likes crossovers and money.

The problem is, crossovers rarely make for gripping, coherent reading, and Infinity is no exception. You can’t fault Jonathan Hickman for his ambition. Infinity’s scope is huge, probably the biggest event Marvel’s ever seen. But it doesn’t seem to be going much of anywhere.

Avengers #23, the third-to-last installment, just strolls along with that more-of-the-same approach. There’s a big starship battle in Earth’s orbit. Some good guys sneak onto the bad guys’ space station. And stirring speeches all around!

How can an epic space war seem so pedestrian? When you’ve seen it all a million times before. When there’s virtually no humor to speak of, and characters are more or less interchangeable. Even the art can’t save this issue. Leinil Francis Yu’s pencils look rushed and scratchy, with precious little detail in the larger battle sequences. It’s almost like deadlines forced him to skip the inking entirely.

The main problem with Infinity it its basic premise. It’s the end of the world! Well yeah, you think, what can be bigger than the end of everything?

The problem is, we’ve seen this before. We’ve seen it approximately six times a year since Stan Lee and Jack Kirby drew down Galactus from the heavens in Fantastic Four #48. We know the world will survive, and so will most of the background planets, like the Kree homeworld. They always do. The stakes just aren’t believable.

Hickman could have carried the day by making the story more personal, focusing on a few characters and giving them something closely-held to fight for. Instead, he goes for a cast of thousands, most indistinguishable from the next. Black Panther’s gets a nice character arc, saving his beloved Wakanda from an alien invasion, but you see so little of him that the whole subplot loses any dramatic steam.

So, villains! Surely good villains can save this story! Well, no. By focusing on the Builders, some shadowy aliens from another dimension with cloudy motivations and zero individuality, Hickman drops the ball again. Who are the Builders? What do they want? Who cares? A bunch of faceless reflections spouting gibberish about destiny just doesn’t make for compelling reading.

Clearly, the greatest consequence of Infinity will be the fate of the Inhumans. Terrigen mists have been released in the Earth’s atmosphere, transforming anyone with the inhuman gene into a bizarre metahuman abomination feared and hated by humans.

But we just saw this. The whole Mutant thing, remember? Mutants got their powers back. Lots of them popping up everywhere. How is that any different from what’s happening to the Inhumans? Yeah, Black Bolt’s awesome, and it will be neat to see how he handles the population explosion. But again, it’s just a new twist on the same old song.

DC is putting together a solid effort with Forever Evil, so I can’t knock the art of the crossover completely. But even for its mechanical commercialism, any story needs a heart at its center. I’m not seeing it in Infinity.

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Superman’s Siegel & Shuster Spawn Shafted

And other Friday randomnessAction_Comics_1

Aw Geez, Not This S*** Again- Looks like the long, strange saga of Superman’s ownership is finally over. Or is it? This bit has been resurrected more times than… well, more times than Superman himself.

On Thursday, the heirs of Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (long since passed) lost their final appeal to regain copyright ownership of Superman, and with it a truck full of cash. Apparently a deal they struck in 1992 wasn’t enough (not to mention a deal Siegel and Shuster made in 1975), and they tried to take one more trip to the well before the Ninth Circuit shot them down.

There’s no denying Siegel and Shuster were ripped off by DC. They sold the rights to Superman for $130, now he’s worth billions. They and Jack Kirby are the poster children for the wholesale greed in the comic book industry, and all involved deserved a lot more money and recognition than they ever got in life.

That said, Siegel and Shuster are both gone, and DC did end up apologizing and giving them some small remuneration at the end of their lives. What do their heirs deserve? Zip. It’s been a shameful spectacle watching the Superman kids pick over their grandparents’ bones for money they don’t deserve generated by something they didn’t create. I’m not crazy about copyright laws in this country, but good for the Ninth Circuit. They got one right.

When Ultimate Was Ultimate– For my birthday, I got the first two volumes of Ultimate X-Men. Yeah, I know, cool story bro. But reading them reminded me how exciting the Ultimate Universe used to be. I know Mark Millar isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but he did bring a vitality to the X-Men they’d been lacking for years.

Started in 1999, the Ultimate Universe had a simple premise – restart the Marvel Universe from day one, with a modern sensibility unencumbered with the decades of continuity the main line of comics had built up. Titles like Ultimate Spider-Man and The Ultimates made you feel like you were meeting those characters for the first time, even though they were 40 years old.

Eventually the line crumbled under its own weight. It got too complicated for its own good, and some titles suffered under some terrible artwork and writing. When Magneto destroyed New York and half its heroes with a tidal wave, you kind of knew the end was coming.

Now it’s here. Word is, at the end of Cataclysm, the line is coming to a close as Galactus devours the Earth. That’s harsh. But it’s not unexpected.

Perhaps in due time Marvel will take the Ultimate idea off the shelf again. As a playground for new ideas and characters, the Ultimate Universe stood apart. Marvel could use a little more of that experimental spirit nowadays.                                                  

Wrap It Up– It’s long past time for Superior Spider-Man to take a bow. The Freaky Friday concept – Doctor Octopus switches brains with Peter Parker, while the Parker brain/Doc Ock body combo dies (try explaining that in 10 words or less)—was novel at first, but it’s growing old fast.

Everyone knew writer Dan Slott wasn’t going to keep this up forever, but it’s been way too long already. Yeah, we get it, Octavius is Spider-Man, but Superior. They drill it into every issue. We got the point a long time ago.

To be fair, some plot twists, like Spider-Man brutalizing and even killing his enemies, were genuinely shocking. But it’s getting tired, and it’s time to bring Parker back to pick up the pieces of his life. Luckily it looks like Slott is firing up the third act, with Carlie Cooper ready to blow the lid off Ock’s scheme.

Have to say, it was a welcome curveball bringing in Miguel O’Hara, aka the Spider-Man of 2099. Maybe time to bring back his own title? With Peter David? I don’t think anyone would disagree with that.

Hunger Games: Catching Fire– Anyone seen it yet? I probably won’t be able to see it for a while. Reviews please! Even if you know how the book ends, it looks like a hell of a ride. Can’t wait to finally catch it.

So Long Wildstorm, Again

A 90s mainstay meets yet another untimely end

News came yesterday that as of issue #30, DC will be cancelling StormWatch, as the creations born of the Wildstorm universe go to meet their maker yet again.

This is the third time the superhero line, inaugurated in 1992 as an Image property, has gone the way of grunge and flannel shirts. The brainchild of celebrated X-Men artist Jim Lee, Wildstorm’s early titles, like WildC.A.T.S., StormWatch and Gen13, drew much-deserved derision from critics. Though it managed to somewhat shed its brain-dead Image, and was purchased by DC in 1999, the imprint has frequently stood on shaky ground.

Wildstorm has suffered an identity crisis almost from the day WildC.A.T.S. #1 hit the shelves. It began as a typical Image property, with lots of pretty pictures, wooden X-Men copycat characters, and horrid dialogue and plots (we’re looking at you, Brandon Choi), but gradually morphed into something truly fresh and exciting. With writers like James Robinson, Alan Moore and Warren Ellis on board, titles like WildC.A.T.S. and StormWatch found new life, taking on heady topics like government secrecy, corporate power and global politics. The Authority stormed the comics world in 1999 with a Justice League pastiche not afraid to get its hands dirty and interfere in world affairs.

The line faltered as the 90’s boom gave way to the 2000s bust, and was revitalized in 2004 with less-than-stellar results. A WildC.A.T.S. revival, intended to drive the Wildstorm resurrection, stalled after one issue when Lee and writer Grant Morrison apparently just got bored with it. With nowhere else to go, Wildstorm did the only logical thing and destroyed the world, leaving its protagonists to pick up the pieces in the World’s End storyline. Fans unsurprisingly never warmed to the new direction, and the imprint died an unlamented death in 2010.

When DC unveiled the New 52, there was hope that heroes like Grifter and Apollo could find a home in the wider DC cosmos. But it never really worked out. Titles like Grifter and Voodoo were dumped quickly, and StormWatch limped along aimlessly, with even cosmic world-builder Jim Starlin unable to resuscitate it.

Try as it may, Wildstorm has never been able to unshackle itself from its early 90s, grim-n-gritty beginnings. Once fans got tired of the ultraviolence and over-the-top visuals, there just wasn’t much else there to keep people interested. Perhaps in the right hands these 90s anachronisms could take on new meaning, but for now, they’re just an idea whose time has passed.

Flash Takes Off This Fall

Another superhero show? Bring it on.flash

It seems CW’s plans for a Flash backdoor pilot have been upgraded somewhat. The news came yesterday that instead of introducing Barry Allen on Arrow, the Scarlet Speedster and his Central City home base will be featured in its own standalone pilot sometime this fall.

The move was reportedly inspired by some positive reception to Grant Gustin’s performance in two upcoming episodes of Arrow. Gustin, lately of the 90210 retread… oops, reboot, tested well enough with the network brass to send the show straight to greenlight. How he becomes The Flash isn’t yet clear, although repeated, conspicuous references to a particle accelerator firing up in Starling City might offer a clue, just maybe.

This is good news for Flash fans. While having Barry Allen appear on Arrow will be a neat way to grow the show’s ever-expanding mythology, Green Arrow and The Flash should be kept as far away from each other as possible. The two worlds just don’t mix. Arrow has established a Christopher Nolan-realistic, grim-n-gritty universe, and even though it’s starting to incorporate superhuman themes like genetic mutation, it reminds us constantly that Starling City is a dark, dangerous place. The Flash, on the other hand, works best in an optimistic, almost futuristic setting. Think the old Buck Rogers show, only with better hair.

Can CW pull it off? The network is no stranger to paranormal tales, with Smallville under its belt and The Vampire Diaries, Supernatural and The Tomorrow People headlining the current lineup. They’re mining their relationship with DC Comics for all its worth, tapping Flash as their third comic book property. The will and talent are there. But is the money?

We saw where budgetary struggles left Smallville. The network could get away with scrimping in the show’s first few seasons, when it was a half-and-half of superhero hijinks and teen drama. But when the show reached higher in the last three seasons, trying to transform itself to a real superhero epic, the budget limitations stuck out like red kryptonite. Metropolis, The City of Tomorrow, shrank to two city blocks. Oliver Queen moved from a spacious penthouse to his corporate jet. Super-fights lasted one punch, if that. You just can’t do Superman on a budget.

This isn’t the first go-round for the Flash on the small screen. If you’re old enough to remember the 1990 CBS venture, take a bow. You’re old. The show, starring John Wesley Shipp as the titular hero, put in a game effort for 22 episodes. Unfortunately, even a brilliant performance by Mark Hamill as The Trickster couldn’t save it. Guess why? Money. Superheroes are expensive.

The Flash is more than a red guy who runs real fast. Fitting his Space Age origin, there’s always been an air of science fiction to the character (Time travel! Tachyons! Vibrational thingamajigs!) that doesn’t fit the current “dark and brooding” trend in comic adaptations. You also can’t separate Flash from his rogues gallery. Gaudy villains like Captain Cold, Weather Wizard, and Mirror Master work perfectly well in the funny books, but can they make the transition to TV without losing something? Guess we’re about to find out.

I’m skeptical, but I’m willing to give it a shot. Any superhero fare is welcome on TV (except maybe Witchblade. Ugh.) and CW seems to be the new home of the cape and spandex set. Just don’t butcher it. Is that too much to ask?

Singing the Praises of Snyder’s Batman

The Jets, not so much

So, yesterday’s post might have been a little strong?

This is what happens when I write on the fly, especially when my favorite team is losing badly to a cellar-dwelling dog. That the Jets got crushed, and their playoff hopes along with them, isn’t Scott Lobdell’s fault. I still don’t think he can write his way out of a paper bag, but he can’t be blamed for Geno Smith’s meltdown.

I usually don’t go for those kinds of fanboy rants. I try to stay off the message boards on Comic Book Resources because, come on. You have nothing better to do than waste precious bandwidth on another Birds of Prey screed? But then it occurred to me that passionate fans of anything can fall into that trap. Just because you scream yourself hoarse at Eli Manning’s latest pick-six doesn’t mean you have no greater purpose in life. Just that you’re squandering your finite time on Earth. Guilty. Moving on.

Hopefully nobody gets the impression that I trash everything I come across. I recently wrote a love letter to Astro City and didn’t completely hate on Thor: The Dark World. If I really hated comics, I wouldn’t be writing this. I’d be on the Comic Book Resources message boards.

Batman, then. Writer Scott Snyder can do no wrong. Between Batman, the ongoing Superman Unchained, and the indie classic-in-the-making The Wake, he’s been crushing them 500 feet every time up. He has shown a penchant for plot and character rivaling anyone in the business, and his ability to deliver complex, multipart epics is unsurpassed. Artist Greg Capullo cut his teeth on Spawn and knows from moody and foreboding. His Gotham City is a character unto itself, and his Batman feels both superheroic and fully human at the same time.

Taking over from Grant Morrison’s beautiful mess, Snyder’s delivering a Batman just a little more grounded and accessible. His Dark Knight is inextricably linked to the architecture and history of Gotham City, even if his home seems designed to deliver him unending torment.

The latest story, Zero Year, finds Batman at the start of his career. Having introduced the Red Hood and a terrifying, brilliant Riddler, the focus of Batman #25 shifts to Doctor Death, a mad scientist and former Wayne employee killing people in grotesque, painful ways. One might say they look rather botanical, and a certain Pamela Isley makes her New 52 debut.

Bruce Wayne gets a nice character moment, explaining his complete contempt for the Gotham Police Department when a certain James Gordon shows up at his doorstep. You know the two will eventually come to an understanding, grudging as it may be, but you don’t know how they’re going to get there.

Doctor Death seems kind of weak after the foes we’ve been introduced to, and time will tell whether he’s a new addition to the rogues gallery or just a detour. One of Snyder’s strengths is keeping you on your toes, so nobody can guess where this is all heading.

Comparisons to Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One were inevitable, and to Snyder’s credit, he’s not just delivering a rehash. This isn’t a grim, noir-tinged detective story, it’s a sprawling superhero saga with all the trappings. In just the first few pages of Batman #25, we’re treated to a Batmobilized Dodge Prowler that can climb tunnel walls, police dirigibles funded by none other than Bruce Wayne, and a chemical that can deliver an instant, grisly death. Batman has always been equal parts detective and science fiction, and Snyder nails them both.

There’s a lot to criticize about DC’s editorial direction since the reboot two years ago, but Batman remains a solid title week in and week out. Zero Year is building to something exciting, and while I can’t even fathom what that is, it’s bound to be worth the journey.

I Read Superboy #25 and Wish I Hadn’t

Can I go back to football now?

Oh dear God. These are the days that test my will to live, much less write.

I wanted a challenge when I started this blog. Truth is, I wanted to write something every day. I already missed two days this week. So, without any real idea for my next article, I decided I’d write about the next issue I got my hands on.

It was Superboy #25. Heaven help me.

Even worse, I’m surrendering valuable Sunday football time to write this, while my Jets trail the Bills 20-0. Think I’m in a mood to be charitable, maybe even positive? Why no. No, I am not. I only hope I can find the words to adequately convey the horror of this misbegotten piece of garbage.

DC Comics is in serious trouble. I think that much is now obvious. They took a man who can barely write 24 pages of coherent dialogue and tapped him as the mastermind of the entire Super corner of the DC Universe. Scott Lobdell is to comics what Scott Stapp is to music. An overhyped, overplayed relic of the 90s who somehow keeps making comebacks.

You bring in someone like Lobdell for a one-issue fill in while you search for a full-time creator. You don’t give him the keys to the damn Fortress of Solitude and let him run wild on your signature property.

But can you really be surprised, the way that DC has mishandled Superman for at least the past five years? If you’ve been reading since the One Year Later promotional stunt, you’ve been treated to:

  • Kurt Busiek’s horribly misguided, often-delayed Camelot Falls fiasco
  • The plodding, anti-climactic, year-long World of New Krypton
  • J. Michael Straczynski’s much-ridiculed (and rightfully so) storyline in which Superman walks cross-country for no discernible reason
  • George Perez quitting three issues into his tone-deaf run, ending in a hail of metaphorical gunfire with DC’s editorial staff
  • Andy Diggle’s epic one-issue tenure
  • Grant Morrison’s stint on Action Comics, which started as a tribute to Superman’s Golden Age origins until it devolved into an incomprehensible (entertaining yes, but still incomprehensible) mess.

Which is how we got to where we are today. Lobdell was one of the principal writers on X-Men in the 90s, and got more than enough opportunity to write convoluted, nonsensical Cable stories, from which he’s learned a valuable lesson. When you’re backed into a corner, or don’t know what you’re doing, needlessly complicate things to the point where nobody notices anyway.

Krypton’s back, returned to existence as a slave planet by H’El, a clone who went back in time to kill Jor-El. Apparently Jor-El recovered in time to put Kal-El in the rocket and shoot him to Earth.

Standing between H’El and his dreams of a Krypton ground beneath his boot are Superman, Supergirl, and the titular Kon-El, aka Superboy. Superboy is a clone of Jon Lane Kent, the future son of Lois and Clark, who was kidnapped by an anti-superhuman zealot named Harvest and turned to murdering superheroes. Seriously.

It’s all incredibly and needlessly convoluted, and ruins what might have made a decent, middle-of-the-road crossover story. The idea of Krypton coming back as a conquered world has potential, especially if DC had long-term designs for it. But this Krypton will last as long as the typical superhero death, and will impact the DC Universe about as much.

This is all giving me a migraine, and Geno Smith just got picked off again. I’m done. Peace out.

You Should Be Reading Astro City

Too old for heroes? Never.

Nostalgia has a way of making childhood entertainment seem so much more intricate, sophisticated, and meaningful than it actually is. The day comes when the carelessness of youth gives way to the cynicism of adulthood. Maybe you have a kid of your own, or you just want to reconnect with a little bit of that youth. So you notice The Hub is showing that toy-commercial cartoon you loved so much in fifth grade. You tune in and realize, this used to be so much cooler.

Comics are no exception. The epics of Lee and Kirby may have been revolutionary for their time, and for twelve-year old you, they were a Wagnerian masterpiece. But 35-year old you stopped hearing that music long ago.

If only the two of you could have discovered Astro City together. Launched in 1995 by comics veteran Kurt Busiek, Astro City might be the greatest comic series you never heard of. And that’s a shame, because even with its sporadic publishing history Astro City has consistently set the standard by which all other comics should be judged.

It’s a rarity in the comics business, a mature-themed comic that’s, well, mature. Busiek has created a rarity—a comic book that can genuinely be enjoyed by grownups, without the trappings of typical adults-only comics (think Marvel MAX) that mistake wanton violence and F-bombs for adult content.

Busiek accomplishes this by setting the story at ground level—the people who occupy Astro City, a stand-in for Marvel’s New York. It’s a place where nearly every day gaudily-clad criminals pull off bank heists, mind-control schemes, or outright murder, only to be foiled by equally ridiculous-looking heroes, be they the all-powerful Samaritan, glory-seeking acrobat Crackerjack, or Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, Honor Guard.

What would it be like to live in a city like that? Busiek shows us through average folks like a worker at a superhero call center, a lawyer who specializes in superhuman cases, and a cop investigating a vigilante who may or may not be an avenging spirit. Even when the heroes take the spotlight, it’s never just about chasing down the bad guy. One memorable issue features Superman analogue Samaritan on a date with Winged Victory, a stand-in for Wonder Woman.

The most recent issue focuses on Thatcher Jerome, a small-time hood attempting to shake down a mysterious cosmic being that’s taken up residence in the city harbor. He lives by a motto that when a door opens, you walk through it. So when a door magically appears on his turf, he can’t resist, and in doing so forms a bond with the curious alien that he can’t help but take advantage of, with disastrous results. The issue focuses on something every 30-something can relate to—opportunity. Those you grab hold of, those you let go, and the regrets you hold over each.

Though it’s been running on and off for more than 15 years, the series began stalling in 2005, when Busiek underwent a series of health problems, and bottomed out with The Dark Age, a monument to unrealized potential. But ever since the title restarted this year Busiek’s been back in form, and Astro City has never been stronger.

If you’ve ever formed (and lost) a love of superheroes, Astro City is worth a read. With the mind of a grownup and the heart of a kid, Astro City is the best of both worlds.