Superman: Wrath of Gog

Superman: Wrath of Gog

By Chuck Austen, Ivan Reis & Marc Campos
ISBN 1-84576-066-2

Over the course of too many years I’ve followed the Man of Steel’s adventures, and realised that as well as being the absolute progenitor of the superhero industry, he’s probably the most re-worked character in it. I’ve seen a champion of the poor become a social redeemer, a boy scout, an interstellar policeman and even a grim ‘n’ gritty caped Rambo. Surely to keep following him through all those changes I must be some kind of fan, right?

Then why does the current incarnation leave me so cold?

Even when produced by – as was ever the case – some of the best contemporary creators around, the recent stories just seem to be lacking a certain something. This particular excursion, Wrath of Gog (reprinting Action Comics issues #812-819), rattles along and it’s competently illustrated, but it’s a superficial, slick kind of modern pick and mix of fight scenes.

After a brief, violent interlude with Darkseid and Co, Gog, yet another time-travelling villain (springing this time from the pages of Kingdom Come), attacks Smallville and not even the Teen Titans can stop him. When Superman appears, he is seriously wounded, leading to a mass attack by glory-hungry super-villains, and only Wonder Woman can protect him, until he recovers and wipes the floor with everybody.

To his credit, Austen does try to inject some depth with the return of extended sub-plots and these stories weren’t originally designed as a cohesive epic, but simply periodical publishing. The last tale, a Memento-esque parable, contrasts the relationship of husband and wife criminals trying to kill the Man of Tomorrow with the looming romantic triangle of Clark Kent, his wife Lois and the newly divorced Lana Lang. Although forced, it does have something more than a big, arrogant charmless ruffian hitting everything all the time, and the competing flashback technique does keep the attention.

Wait, perhaps that’s it? Maybe today’s superheroes don’t get to have charm anymore. The glorious sense of wonder, once present even in the darkest Superman tales, just isn’t there anymore. Is it all about tights, boots and hitting now?

© 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman: Unconventional Warfare

Superman: Unconventional Warfare 

By Greg Rucka & Various (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-026-3

I have some difficulty with the superficiality of many modern takes on classic comic characters. It’s probably because I’m old but it often feels that rather than write something new, creators simply get told to put a modern spin on the old stuff and keep it circling in a holding pattern until the current audience have grown up and moved away. I’d love to see some sales figures on retention of new readers as compared to people my age who keep buying out of love and inertia. I don’t care how much red paint you slap on a Fiesta, it won’t never be no Porsche.

But I digress. The latest Superman collection tells of yet another conspiracy to destroy the Man of Steel produced against the real world backdrop of America preparing to invade a Middle Eastern nation – in this case the oddly reminiscent “terrorist state of Umec”. Clark Kent is in the doghouse with his bosses and is trying to rebuild his career, so Lois Lane – or is it Kent, or Lane-Kent – is covering the story on her own. So what with job worries and a new super villain showing up every twenty pages, Superman is not there when his wife is shot by a sniper.

Normally I try to avoid spoiling the story, but no-one in their right mind believes a major character is going to stay dead at a company that has enough resurrected people in its stable to form their own football league. The point here is that writer Rucka has been able to rise above these woeful predictabilities and engage the reader by sheer quality of writing. Here is an instance of how it happens actually superseding what’s happening. Here is a classic character being treated with a little thought and a lot of respect.

It’s very well drawn too. You should read it yourself.

© 2005 DC Comics

Superman: For Tomorrow Vols 1 & 2

 Superman: For Tomorrow Vol 1

By Brian Azzarello, Jim Lee & Scott Williams (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-4012-0351-5 hardcover 1-84576-145-6 softcover Volume 1
ISBN 1-4012-0715-4 hardcover 1-4012-0448-1 softcover Volume 2

A major part of modern comic publishing is publicity-seeking and — hopefully — sales enhancing “events”. These are either braided mega-crossovers that involve a large number of individual titles in one big story (Gotta get ‘em all!) or extended storylines by celebrity creators. Occasionally you get both at once. Occasionally you strike gold.

Hot from his success with Batman in Hush, Jim Lee teamed with writer Brian Azzarello for just such an event with For Tomorrow which ran in Superman issues #204-215 in 2004 and 2005. For one year these star creators got to play with DC’s biggest gun.

Set notionally apart from the rest of the company’s continuity, although still packed with enough guest stars to sink a battleship, this story sees a Superman at odds with himself and looking for all kinds of answers as he consults a priest following the world wide catastrophe dubbed ‘The Vanishing’. Whilst the Man of Steel is away on a space mission a wave of energy washes over the Earth causing the evaporation of one million souls. As if that’s not tragedy enough, one of them was his beloved wife Lois.

Increasingly isolated, guilty and fixated, he becomes involved in a civil war, and by disarming the combatants causes an escalation to genocide. His quest becoming ever more desperate, he alienates his Justice League colleagues and discovers that governmental super-spooks are behind some if not all of his problems. Everywhere he turns there’s someone – or thing – itching for a fight. By the end of volume 1 he is aloof, stressed, almost monomaniacal in his determination to solve the riddle. But he does now possess the mysterious device that caused the Vanishing…

Superman: For Tomorrow Vol 2

Ramping up the action, the second book sees Superman find the missing humans by ‘vanishing’ himself. This only deepens the mystery, and his struggle to regain perspective and return the victims to Earth leads to a catastrophic battle with a dreaded foe and the destruction of a virtual paradise. Meanwhile in Metropolis, the unlucky priest has fallen to technological temptation courtesy of those super-spooks and he must pay a heavy price before he can find his own peace.

This is not a terrible Superman story and it is always good to see creators try something ambitious, but as is often the case with these event spectaculars, the result just can’t live up to the intent or the hype. And there are so many unanswered questions.

Why didn’t the entire planet go bonkers when a million citizens vanished in an eye-blink? Surely Superman isn’t the only one to notice or care? Wouldn’t even American media still be talking about it one year later? Wouldn’t some Governments mobilise, or at least form a committee?

Our hero is by turns smug and hapless, and his aggression towards his friends can’t be rationalised by his loss. Why would he turn to a priest when he has access to so many different sorts of spiritual and indeed supernatural guides? Where are his parents in all this? And why even bother with the clichéd war of liberation/government interventionists if you’re not going to deal with them coherently? Plot foibles aside, there’s also too much dependence on the well drawn and ubiquitous fight scenes to carry the narrative, but if you can swallow all that and simply want a gratuitous –if perhaps flawed – rollercoaster ride, these two books are a solid bronze read.

© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Star Wars: Visionaries

Star Wars: Visionaries

By Various (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN 1-84576-110-3

In most creative endeavours, there’s a bittersweet edge that comes from what’s been made but which is left out of the finished piece, whether it’s a comics script or a motion picture. The fascinating premise here is that a group of talents involved with the pre-production of the Star Wars films have been asked to turn those inevitable runners-up concepts into comic strips.

Ranging from the magnificent to the just plain weird, Visionaries is a pictorial treat for fans of the franchise and simple science fiction followers also. Twelve creators from the Lucasfilm art department and from Industrial Light and Magic make a seamless transition to the sphere of graphic narrative in nine stories and two visual essays, based on the events of the Star Wars universe, concentrating particularly on the time between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.

By far the most memorable are Aaron McBride’s “Old Wounds”, “Entrenched” by Alex Jaeger and M. Zachary Sherman and the balletic, wordless, splendidly dark exercise in the nature of evil “Sithisis” by Derek Thompson.

As much a coffee-table art book as graphic novel, there’s plenty for all readers to digest here.

 © 2004 Lucasfilm Ltd & ™. All Rights Reserved.

Star Wars Infinities: Return of the Jedi

Star Wars Infinities: Return of the Jedi 

By Adam Gallardo, Ryan Benjamin and Various (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN 1-84023-990-5

Here’s a third outing for the concept of alternative stories from “A Galaxy Far, Far Away…” This Infinities sub-brand uses the more familiar film canon as the basis for “What If?” tales extrapolating different events and outcomes from a pivotal change in the original storyline.

So what might happen if the scene in Return Of The Jedi where our heroes rescue Han Solo from imprisonment in a block of Carbonite goes hideously wrong? If you care you’ll want to buy the book, no?

At least you won’t feel cheated for quality, as the publishers always ensure a high standard of product. It’s all quite competently done by writer Gallardo and Ryan Benjamin’s art team, but I do wonder at the somewhat defeatist nature of the whole enterprise.

Surely there’s still a story to be told that adds to what is obviously a cherished franchise, before you have to depend on hackneyed gimmicks like “let’s pretend…” Once or twice is fine but eventually it does begin to pall and the reader has even less emotion to invest in the story if it’s not ‘true’. Or ‘real’ or … well you know what I mean.

© 2004 Lucasfilm Ltd. & ™. All Rights Reserved.

Star Wars Infinities: The Empire Strikes Back

Star Wars Infinities: The Empire Strikes Back 

By Various (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN 1-84023-990-5

There are a lot of stories from “A Galaxy Far, Far Away…” still to be told and some of them never happened. The Infinities sub-brand uses the more familiar film canon as the basis for “What If?” tales extrapolating different events and outcomes from a pivotal change in the original storyline.

Here the basis for this good-looking but unsatisfying concoction is the death of Luke Skywalker from an attack in the snows of the ice planet Hoth. With the death of the young hero Han Solo and Leia must undertake his fore-destined journey to Dagobah but there’s still that bounty on the ex-smuggler’s head and the Empire is marshalling its forces…

Although an earnest effort this story doesn’t offer the same thrills and rewards as either the film on which it’s based or, more importantly its own predecessor in this series. Perhaps a less obvious plot concept might have yielded better results. Still and all, the art is very effective and not everybody wants “War and Peace” every time you crack a book.

© 2003 Lucasfilm Ltd. & ™. All Rights Reserved.

Star Wars Infinities: A New Hope

Star Wars Infinities: A New Hope 

By various (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN 1-84023-432-6

It would appear that there is an inexhaustible demand for stories from “A Galaxy Far, Far Away…” but this time as another tale of noble rebels and dastardly Empires unfolds there’s a big difference. Taken from the first four issues of the Dark Horse comics series, this tale explores what would have happened if one simple, but key, event had been changed in that first movie all those years ago.

When Luke Skywalker blew up the Death Star he did it by firing a Photon torpedo into an exposed vent tube. But what if that torpedo failed to detonate? Asking that question, and providing a rip-roaring answer are writer Chris Warner, artists Drew Johnson and Al Rio, ably assisted by colourists Dave McCaig and Helen Bach, and Steve Dutro provided the lettering.

With the super-weapon still in Imperial hands the Rebellion is crushed and Leia becomes an acolyte of the Emperor. Luke and Han Solo must find a lost Jedi Master before the last hope for the galaxy is lost forever…

It’s easy and fun to play the “What If” game. It has been a staple of comic strips since the earliest days, and frankly, those tales often range from the inane to the insane, but here the creative team has pulled out all the stops, encapsulating and even topping the first three movies (I’m speaking chronologically here) in one go. Especially satisfying is the role by Yoda in a quite spectacular climax. I know that fans of all types are essentially purists but this is a book that all aficionados should read.

© 2001, 2002 Lucasfilm Ltd. & ™. All Rights Reserved.

Marvel Masterworks: The Uncanny X-Men 1977-78

Marvel Masterworks: The Uncanny X-Men 1977-78 

By Various (Marvel/Panini UK)
ISBN 978-1-84653-009-8

This second volume of these cheap‘n’cheerful UK editions featuring early landmarks of Marvel’s most popular characters starts with the conclusion of a tale wherein the team visit Banshee’s ancestral castle in Ireland but run afoul of the ultra-powerful Juggernaut and Banshee’s cousin Black Tom Cassidy. There’s lots of action and much background on the newly minted mutant heroes. And Leprechauns. No, really. That one was originally printed in Uncanny X-Men #103.

Following on in swift and wonderful succession are the contents of issues #104-116, which once again leaves the reader with a bit of a cliff-hanger situation — although, in fairness, it would be hard to find an episode that didn’t end with some kind of unresolved plot thread.

Throughout those early stories a mysterious enemy calling himself Eric the Red was sending villains to attack the team. His next ploy was to restore Magneto to full power (he’d been turned into a baby – a very common fate for villains in those faraway days) and the arch villain’s subsequent attack nearly destroyed the team. After that he orchestrated an attack by the Firelord, an alien flamethrower, then a slight digression as overstretched artist Dave Cockrum was given a breather by a fill-in tale featuring psychic clones of the original X-men from Bill Mantlo and Bob Brown.

The regular story resumes with Eric revealed as an alien spy and the heroes catapulted to another galaxy to save the universe. This marks the beginning of the cosmic nature of the X-Teams. They meet The Shi’ar Imperial Guard (an in-joke version of DC’s Legion of Super Heroes), the heroic space pirates the Star Jammers, and uncover a plot to unmake the fabric of space-time. This tale (from issue 107) was also the last drawn by Cockrum for many years. He would return to replace the man who replaced him.

The final part of the cosmic saga was drawn by John Byrne, whose work was to become an industry bench-mark as the X-Men grew in popularity and complexity. The bravura high-octane thrills of “Armageddon Now” seemed a high-point, but Claremont and Byrne just got better each issue. Weapon Alpha attacked in an attempt to force Wolverine to rejoin the Canadian Secret Service. He would later return, renamed Vindicator, with Alpha Flight — a Canadian team that would eventually star in their own comic.

Another fill-in, by artist Tony Dezuniga, featuring the assassin Warhawk and best forgotten, is followed by a thrilling mystery when the heroes vanish. X-Men graduate the Beast tracks them to a carnival where mutant hypnotist Mesmero has enslaved them. No sooner have they escaped that trap when Magneto returns, and after a titanic struggle is defeated. The battle, in Antarctica, seemingly claims the lives of all but Beast and Phoenix, who return to civilisation and try to pick up their lives. This ‘tragedy’ directly leads into the justly famed “Dark Phoenix Saga” but that’s a tale for another volume.

In actual fact, the X-Men survived by tunnelling into the subterranean paradise known as the Savage Land, a Pellucidarian tropical jungle beneath the ice where dinosaurs and cavemen still live. Here the team recuperate until they encounter an old foe, Sauron, and become embroiled in a war instigated by a Zaladane and Garokk, a mad queen and reincarnated God, respectively. After defeating them the team try to return home but get caught in a major typhoon…

And that’s where this volume closes, but don’t let that dissuade you from this book. It’s a bright and breezy introduction (or even reintroduction) to these characters, and irrespective of your views on the current series it serves as a reminder of just how good comic book adventure can be.

© 1977, 1978, 2007 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

JLA: Trial By Fire

JLA: Trial By Fire 

By Joe Kelly, Doug Mahnke and Tom Nguyen
ISBN 1-84023-928-X

More super histrionics featuring the Justice League as an alien telepathic presence apparently subverts the will of the mighty Martian Manhunter, leading to lots of fighting and destruction. The JLA has a long history in all its incarnations of starting strong and losing focus, and for extended periods coasting by on past glories – which usually ends with a desperate rush of ancillary series, a crash, cancellation and a relaunch with major creators. Reading this compilation of issues 84-89 I sense fresh first issues in our immediate future.

© 2004 DC Comics

Green Arrow: The Archer’s Quest

Green Arrow: The Archer’s Quest 

By Brad Meltzer, Phil Hester and Ande Parks (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84023-781-3

This one’s a cool treat for inveterate superhero fans as author Brad Meltzer joins artists Hester and Parks for a touching and exciting run through the history of a character who’s been fighting crime, pretty much uninterrupted, since the beginning of the 1940’s.

If you’re a newcomer to the minutiae of the super-guy’s world there’s something you need to accept. Dead is dead, but not always and not forever. It is a fact acknowledged by the empowered community – if not the world at large – that you can occasionally come back from Heaven without starting your own religion.

Such a returnee is Oliver Queen, Green Arrow. He got blown to shreds saving Superman’s hometown from an airborne bomb and went to his reward. If you want more on that part of the tale I suggest you track down the collections Quiver and Sounds of Violence, both written by movie maker Kevin Smith, as they’re pretty entertaining too.

The hook here is that as the Arrow is back, what happened after his funeral? Using the concept of a “Porn Buddy” – a friend who gets to your home first when you die and clears up the stuff you’d rather not have discovered about you – Meltzer crafts a compelling tale of family ties and the steps a hero would take to protect his loved ones from beyond the grave. A welcome bonus is that he manages to do so in a way that balances narrative redundancy for old-time fans with introductory exposition for the newcomer to create a sharp one-off read. Great stuff done well!

© 2002, 2003 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.