Fiction that tries to answer the "what if superheroes were real" question tends to follow one of two broad approaches.* In the first, ordinary people put on costumes and try to act like superheroes despite the absence of superpowers or impossible mix of skills. This happens to have some currency due to the activities of Real-life Superheroes. But with all due respect to Phoenix Jones and his ilk, only the second approach piques my inner scientist. Those are the stories that speculate on the real-world possibility of metahumans. Sure it might be interesting to explore what motivates mere mortals to fight crime. But without the powers or ludicrous training, they're still basically vigilantes who cosplay. Another advantage of the latter approach is that the protagonist doesn't have to conform to the narrow requirements of the superhero genre. After all, just because someone can fly, it doesn't make her morally obligated to fight crime.
Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley's creator-owned series Brilliant uses the latter. It follows a bunch of ordinary, if very smart, college students researching the possibility of developing real-world superpowers. Since Bendis and Bagley were the original creative team behind the Ultimate Spider-Man, familiar readers might expect them to bring their particular brand of teen drama into this project. They do, but unfortunately, this inaugural issue ends up showcasing the weaknesses to their Marvel-honed style.
The comic begins with a young man named Amadeus robbing a bank in broad daylight. During the heist, he exhibits a number of paranormal abilities. But just as things are about to get interesting, the scene suddenly shifts. Now another man named Albert is entering what appears to be a college dorm. He's welcomed back by the other residents, as he took the previous semester off. What follows is twenty pages of Bendis' staccato dialogue. We're treated to gems like this:
I'm OK. It's all okay.
Did they talk to you yet?
And so on and on. I get the impression that Bendis is trying hard to capture the nervous energy of the college milieu. Such cryptic shorthand might convey the casual intimacy between freinds, but it doesn't leave much room for adequate characterization. There are about half a dozen characters being introduced, including Amadeus and Albert, but they share one personality between them. Only Bagley's and Joe Rubinstein's art allows the reader to separate their individual voices. To their credit, the multi-ethnic cast is easily distinguishable. But without colorful costumes, fight scenes, and requisite poses to work from, the art only rates slightly above average. It's only towards the end when the conversation gets around to discussing the viability of creating genuine superpowers. And the scene cuts off again. There's no cliffhanger or natural chapter break.
So that's it. Two disjointed scenes with not much to latch onto. I realize it's now common practice to use the first issue as a setup for a larger story arc. But even by those standards, this is a pretty slow intro. Actually, it feels more like the prelude to the intro proper. It's a frustrating read, and not the most compelling way to hook skeptical readers.
* The seminal Watchmen naturally uses both.
Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster
Grant Morrison's approximation of the Superman created by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel is stylistically incongruous with the character's other appearances in the New 52 lineup. No surprise there, since his source of inspiration was a left-wing, rabble-rousing figure who tossed suspects from great heights before Batman trademarked the move, took on war profiteers and crooked politicians alike, and resisted arrest whenever the cops showed up. Fight the Power! Morrison at least gets his rebellious appeal, imbuing his own Superman with the appropriate swagger when facing close-minded authority figures. This issue starts with him being detained by the military and tortured for information, due to the events in the previous issue. But it isn't long before he regains his bearings and starts punching through the walls of his prison, reducing his would-be captors to hapless bystanders.
This issue features the first confrontation between Superman and his arch-nemesis Lex Luthor within the New 52 universe. Unlike the rogue scientist or evil CEO of the past, this Luthor works for The Man. He's an insufferable middle manager, which means he assumes the role of head inquisitor to Superman. The reader learns a few things about the character. While he's still a brilliant scientist, he isn't quite the master manipulator, at least not yet. He also retains the speciest beliefs he's being spouting for the last twenty-plus years. In an obvious reference to the War on Terror, Luthor has no problems torturing Supes because (a) he's not human and therefore not subject to human rights, (b) he might be an agent sent to Earth for nefarious purposes, (c) how can it be torture when the alien doesn't seem to get hurt anyway? The comic's most important plot twist implies that Lex may be more intimately aware of Superman's origins than he was in past incarnations, which fuels his paranoia. But the bottom line is that Lex gets egg on his face for calling his foe "semi-intelligent".
Superman's physicality is a major selling point here. While he may not be as impervious as Luthor makes him out to be, the comic is constantly throwing him against large and heavy objects. And it looks like it hurts, a lot. His enemies are at first amazed at how much punishment he can take. And then they run for cover when he starts trashing the place. At one point Lex even assumes the same pose as the fleeing figure in the original Action Comics #1 cover. Actually, it's kind of funny to look at. But for Lex, that was one really bad day at the office.
This is an entertaining, if slight, story with some revealing character interaction from not only Superman and Luthor, but in the relationship between supporting characters Sam Lane, his daughter Lois Lane, and John Corben (the future villain Metallo). Like those early stories by Siegel and Shuster, Superman seems to be the only superhuman around, a fantasy element sticking out in a mundane world. But his fate is already sealed. It's only a matter of time before the Morrison version of the character, looking like a cosplayer that put in the least amount of work possible, will morph into the full-powered being dressed in that terrible Jim Lee ensemble that premiered in Justice League. He's only fought earthbound antagonists so far. But there are already indications in this issue that future threats will come from more fantastic milieus.
Go to: Babble by Justin Colussy-Estes
I became a full-time Macintosh user after realizing that I could make art and manipulate photos on a personal computer. I had used Macs before, but no more frequently than I had used machines running on DOS or Windows. And even after I had switched to Macs, I had a "live and let live" attitude about the whole Mac vs PC debate. I had my preferences, but I wasn't out to convert anybody. The same could be said with how I thought about Nikon vs Canon. I really didn't give a damn what SLR camera you used (The lens on the other hand was a different matter).
But I became a student of the graphic arts during the dark days of Apple, when everyone was predicting the company's demise. So I did feel a tad isolated. In the PBS documentary Triumph of the Nerds (which one instructor made his students watch), a bitter Steve Jobs in exile bemoaned the lack of taste in Microsoft's products. Just a few years later, In the Beginning was the Command Line was touting Linux and other Unix-like operating systems as the future of the desktop. The mood within campus computer labs could be summed-up by a defiant editorial cartoon tacked-up in a graphic design classroom. In it, a guy walks into a studio full of people working on Macs and demands "We need a cartoon illustrating how Macs are becoming irrelevant", or something to that effect. It was easy for some to feel misunderstood as artists and as computer users. Such was the self-indulgence of youth. When Steve returned to Apple and unveiled a Unix-like OS to run on Macs, I was only a tiny bit, cautiously, hopeful. Steve may have been brilliant, but he still retained his legendary reputation for being an overbearing egotist and a difficult boss to work with. It wouldn't have surprised me if he prematurely left the company he co-founded for a second time.
Oddly enough, that's actually what happened. Instead of a boardroom coup d'état though, it was Steve's own mortality that betrayed him, at the all-too-young age of 56. That he died from cancer is deeply saddening to me in very personal ways that I won't get into. But when I think of Steve Jobs, I find him such an improbable character. He wasn't an engineer, programmer, MBA, or artist of any note. Yet he had an impact on technology, consumerism, and popular culture like no one else. And he left a dynamic company imprinted with the best, and worst, aspects of his mercurial persona and utopian idealism. In the words of Scott McCloud , a creator who's expressed strong opinions about the marriage of technology and art: "Great design can and does change the world. Poor design can and does ruin lives." That's a line a certain aspiring student from a long time ago would have subscribed to.
|Wonder Woman #5 cover drawn by Cliff Chiang|
Daddy issues, apparently. And a jealous wife to contend with.
So DC announced changes to Wonder Woman's origin story that initially comes across as more radical than previous reboots. Here's my initial take on the news:
- I've said before that it's DC's prerogative to make changes to their intellectual properties, especially if it helps sell more comics. And Wonder Woman has been a character that the publisher has struggled with to make appealing to readers. If this new version sells, then it will justify the move in DC's eyes. And if it doesn't, expect to see some previously laid out plot points being exploited to retcon it away. If DC has taught its readers anything, it's that permanent change is an illusion.
- Having said that, I can't help but feel that this new origin spells out a larger compromise about the character. It's frankly a rather conventional and less interesting take. On paper, it sounds like an imitation of Marvel's approach to their mythically-based properties. Which is why I find writer Brian Azzarello's statements about returning to the family squabbling of ancient Greek mythology fairly uninspired. It's been done already. And it seems calculated to appeal to DC's core readership more than anyone else. The classic WW origin contained pretty strong proto-feminist elements mixed in with quixotic inventiveness, and a dollop of male fantasy, fermented in the heady atmosphere of World War II. It's a unique blend that has proven to be an ill fit to an increasingly grim DC Universe. While I won't go so far as to say they're a complete repudiation of a fundamental aspect of the character, the changes come across as a bit of a retrenchment, or a top-down marketing initiative.
- The "daddy's girl" description of WW, not to mention the title of the New York Post article that broke the story, was pretty groan-inducing. Still, there's something to be said about how DC has successfully gotten the press to act as their mouthpiece during the entire September relaunch. It stands in contrast to the usual grumbling voiced online.
- On an unrelated note, I'm still rockin' to Cliff Chiang's art.
Based on the story written by Samuel A. Peeples
The fortunes of the Star Trek franchise have changed drastically through the years - from enjoying mainstream success in the mid-80s, to becoming almost universally dismissed (or actively reviled) during the airing of Enterprise. By the time that series ended in 2005, Star Trek's own internal continuity had become incomprehensible to most viewers, and even longtime fans. If the franchise was going to regain a modicum of its former success, most of it would have to be jettisoned. The 2009 film, simply titled Star Trek, went even further and relaunched the original series itself. The plot utilized that hoary trope of time-travel altering history. Only this time and without explanation, no one even bothered to restore things to the status quo.* But the film was less interested with getting mired in the pesky plot mechanics of time-travel, and focused instead on the breezy interplay of its re-imagined cast. This gambit worked, in part due to the overall likability of its lead actors, who managed to update the original characters without parodying them. It probably helped that Leonard Nimoy, reprising his role as arguably the series most iconic character, was there to give them, and himself, a fond send-off. Both casuals and diehards turned out in droves at the cinema.**
The film was largely praised by mainstream critics. But if you happen to share the opinions of disgruntled fans like Roger Ebert, who perceived within it a lack of philosophical introspection and scientific curiosity, then the new Star Trek comic book series from IDW is meant for you. The franchise's previous comic book adaptations were never the center of attention. But given the newly refurbished state of the Star Trek universe, the Powers That Be have decided to revisit several classic episodes from the TV series and give them the reboot treatment. For issue #1, it comes as no surprise that the story is from the network pilot episode "Where No Man Has Gone Before". It's been awhile since I've watched it, but the comic feels like a careful outlining of the differences between old and new. Most notable are the references to what characters did or didn't make it to the film. While not overly intrusive, it might seem odd to newer readers that so much word space is devoted at the beginning to who got promoted to what rank within the chain of command. A pair of characters who are pertinent to the plot come in as old friends of Captain James Kirk from his Starfleet Academy days, having never had so much as a cameo in the film. Their insertion into the crew is a reminder of the episodic structure of the source material, and this naturally makes them feel more like guest stars than members of the regular cast.
None of this poses a significant barrier to the uninitiated. But those who enjoyed the fast-paced, action adventure of the film might find the comic's pacing rather sedate. Not one phaser or photon torpedo is fired. Not once does Kirk get his ass kicked. This issue tells the first half of the story, which is a steady build-up to an inevitable showdown. This issue's panels are filled with talking heads discussing the mounting crisis at hand. Like most Star Trek comics, there's a premium placed on getting the actors' likenesses correct.This thankless job is carried out with a better than average performance by Stephen Molnar. His comparatively realistic figures contrast with the more schematic rendering of the starship interiors. It's nice to look at, if not particularly exciting.
The 2009 film carefully balanced reinvention with nostalgia. It acknowledged the franchise's history without being overly-literal with its references, only borrowing loosely from multiple sources. The comic book gifts to longtime fans by confirming that some of that history will be repeated, more or less, by bringing back specific events from the classic TV series. It's my understanding that the comic will somehow tie all this into the plot of the upcoming film sequel. Given the interchangeable nature of the original material, I wonder how much it will try to avoid, or will simply end up, chasing its own past down the rabbit hole?
* Usually, Captain Picard, or someone else, would have noticed something was amiss, then raced back in time to stop the film's bad guy Nero from changing the past. Sometimes it seemed that the only thing Starfleet did from the 90s onward was fly around fixing time paradoxes.
** The film could be considered a Crisis On Infinite Earths styled in-story reset that appealed to geeks. But it was also a way for everyone else to reconnect with one of popular culture's most recognizable television shows, while conveniently sidelining the rest of the franchise. After all, no one cares about Captain Archer. But who doesn't know Spock?
There are a couple of things that come to mind upon hearing this news:
1. This only compounds the impression that the DC New 52 relaunch was poorly conceived and poorly planned. Why bother resetting your universe with a "crisis" event in the first place, then make this announcement much later?
2. Continuity is a straightjacket that the publisher still can't untangle.
3. The whole "shared universe" experience is something DC and Marvel continue to hold on to, and hardcore fans care about. To everyone else, it's of no real interest.
4. Preceding a relaunch with a universe-wide crisis event has run its course, creatively speaking. Each attempt results in dwindling returns. Call it tradition, or inertia. It certainly isn't imagination.
5. Following from #2 and #3, do we still need all of the intellectual properties to always cohabit the same fictional space? Why insist that Batman and Wonder Woman work and live in the same universe when you can write some stories where they interact regularly, and others where they function as completely independent entites? The relaunch could have been used as a pretense to move in a truly different direction, instead of a a way to reset the timeline of some of their titles.
6. Partially answering my own question, a lot of the Big 2's storytelling tropes are reflected in their real-world dependence on the monthly serial pamphlet. It's the engine that still drives the direct market. and from what I understand, the New 52 relaunch has been a financial success for many comic book stores. How much of that may just be a temporary sales spike that can't be sustained long-term is quite another thing. But for now, the status quo is being maintained.
7. How long before DC decides to stage another crisis event, now that they've apparently whitewashed them out of existence?
(originally posted on Google+)