Thursday, June 28, 2007

52: 1-13

As 52 was coming out, I was uncertain whether I’d ever bother reading it. I’ll give pretty much anything that Grant Morrison writes a look, but I wasn’t sure if it would be worth my time to slog through a book that was only a quarter Morrison. I thought that I didn’t have that much attachment to the DC Universe, and this seemed to be a project mired in obsessive continuity and obscure characters. But, with the first trade coming out at $20 for 13 issues, I figured it was worth a look and I am extremely happy that I did.

Growing up, I was always a bigger fan of the Marvel Universe than DC. The DC heroes were icons, inapproachable godlike characters, not the more relatable street level characters of Marvel’s books. Plus, DC had such a lengthy, convoluted history, it was impossible to keep track of who was who and what sort of relationships they had with each other. I think the DCU lacked any sort of direction, but recent years have seen increased focus and cohesion that’s led to some interesting books. While it was obviously a highly controversial and not entirely successful work, I admire Identity Crisis for crafting a story that has consequences and is a bedrock event other writers can work from. Having read that book, I can understand Zatanna’s motivation in her series, as well as Ralph’s in this book.

I didn’t read Infinite Crisis, so I’m not sure about the details of everything that led up to 52, but I’ve come to realize that’s not necessarily a problem. The book that turned me around on the DCU, and is the clear predecessor to this book, is Seven Soldiers. I loved that series like I have very few other works of fiction. Each of the seven miniseries was a seminal work for me, creating a character who I really wanted to see more of. While the series is self contained to some extent, it’s awesome to know that these characters have lives outside of the four issue series. So, seeing five of the soldiers turn up in issue 1 was incredible, as was the Ali Ka Zoom cameo in issue five.

But, beyond the specific joy of the series, what I loved about the series was its take on street level superheroes. The soldiers were ordinary people, living in the shadow of the legendary JLAers. Morrison has talked a lot about making the DCU sentient, and part of that is developing it beyond just those central characters, showing what life is like for both ordinary people and for lower level superheroes. Seeing the treatment of Superman and other high level superheroes in that book made it easier for me to understand Morrison’s JLA. Those characters weren’t meant to be approachable or traditionally human because they’re not. They are icons, gods, and they’re going to be fighting the biggest foes, while Bulleteer battles Sally Sonic down on Earth.

The mission of Seven Soldiers was to develop obscure DC characters into viable vehicles for future stories. It worked for me, I’d love to see someone tackle ongoing books with any of those characters. 52 is doing a similar thing, by taking Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman out of action we get to focus on a variety of characters, ranging from low level JLAers to quasi villains and detectives. I was expecting the series to be entertaining enough, but right from the first issue I was completely hooked and I quickly sped through the rest of the issues.

What makes this series different from most comics today is that it’s not based on a film structure, i.e. one big story that will resolve itself at the end of six issues or so. Instead, we’ve got something that’s structured like Claremont’s X-Men meets a Robert Altman film, as we move through a massive number of subplots which gradually progress over the weeks. It’s closer to a TV series, and for an ongoing series, that’s what I like. I love long form narrative and, as a single 52 issue story, you don’t get much more longform than this. I also really like the way we move in and out of the characters’ lives. The weekly format meant hat they could not have a character appear for four issues, without four months of real time elapsing. The weekly format is ideal for stories like this, and I think they did a great job of utilizing it to their advantage.

But what about the stories themselves? As an ensemble series, some of the plots are inevitably going to be better than others, but there’s few clunkers here, nearly everything is compelling. I’ll start with the storylines that aren’t working so well. Steel’s family drama is soap opera in a bad way, with a lot of pointless angst. The character is meant to be an everyman, and that kind of character works best when placed in weird surroundings, as Morrison did with Buddy in Animal Man and Cliff in Doom Patrol. There, their normality served as an anchor for the audience to cling to while all the craziness was going on. Steel’s story is just bad melodrama.

The other plotline that isn’t entirely working for me is the Renee Montoya stuff. It’s not bad, it’s just not as fun as the crazy pop of the other storylines. It feels like they just wanted to give Greg Rucka something to do, and as a result had him put his pet character through this lengthy mystery. The noir voiceover is a bit cliché, and the relationship between Renee and Kate isn’t totally working. But, there’s some good moments here too. I like the moment when we first see Batwoman. As Rucka talks about in the bonus material, this was a moment that needed to be a splash page. Because the book is generally so compact and narratively dense, the splash page has real impact. I hate books that overuse splash pages because it drains it of any effect. In the closing run of Transmetropolitan, Warren Ellis would inevitably pepper each issue with full page shots of the city in the rain, and by using them so much, without any denser pages in between, they lost any meaning. It’s all about contrast.

My favorite storyline so far is the heroes stranded on the planet. We get to see Morrison writing Animal Man again, which is great. It was largely the character’s rather generic background that allowed Morrison to turn him into a blank canvas for the epic metafictional journey that was his run on the book. But, before he could tear Buddy’s world apart, he had to build it up and we see that reflected here. Not only does Buddy appear, we also get to see his wife and kids again. Ellen has thankfully ditched the awful 80s white afro she was sporting back then, though it’s odd to see her change, twenty years pass, and Buddy’s daughter remain the same age. But, on the sliding continuity scale, I suppose the adventures of Morrison’s run only happened a few years ago. I really need to reread that run, it’s been nearly four years.

The fun of the stranded planet stuff, and the series as a whole, is the way the series embraces the sometimes ridiculous nature of superhero comics and uses those narrative rules as the underlying principles of its universe. This is a world where someone gets stranded in space and we just accept that, it’s a world where people routinely come back from the dead, a world where strange occurrences happen and people just accept them as part of what life is.

Issue five is the best of the series so far, full of crazy Morrison stuff, like the giant Hawkgirl and the great page where Alan Scott describes the aftereffect of the rift closing. That’s a really dynamic page layout, which sets the stage for the stranded planet stuff. This is pure pulp fun, working in the same vein as Seven Soldiers, embracing the absurdity and fun of classic superhero comics but bringing more emotional reality to things. I love how Adam Strange has no eyes, and Buddy’s total disinterest in Starfire’s shower. Starfire wants to have fun, Buddy wants to get back to his family and Adam Strange is just trying to do his hero thing. It’s a fun dynamic with a lot of story potential. I generally don’t like when superhero comics bring in space because it usually leads to bad stories. But this is so fun, I’m giving them the pass.

My other favorite storyline is the troubled adventures of Booster Gold in the distant past. The idea of a time traveling superhero using his knowledge of past events to be at the right place and right time to save people is pure Morrison, raising all kinds of questions about the nature of the future. Is this an Invisibles style situation, where Booster actually was in the past and he’s just completing the time loop? I don’t think so, primarily because he’s already seen disparities between his account of the past and what actually happens. However, it’s also possible that they write history this way so that he will do the same things he did, thus ensuring that the current timeline works itself out. At this point, it’s unclear, but something is definitely up with Skeets.

Regardless of the future issues, Booster’s got a lot of interesting stuff happening to him. He is completely lacking in traditional morality, hoping only to make a name, and money, for himself. The corporate sponsorship jokes wear a bit thin, the omnipresent advertising on his jumpsuit telling us all we need to know. It’s been interesting to watch him go from ultra confident smooth talking hero at the beginning to rejected loner by the end of the volume. The incident with Manthrax is great stuff, it’s so tough watching Booster get betrayed, his scheme exposed and everything come crashing down. Even though he’s a scoundrel, we like him. I’m assuming he’ll eventually discover the true meaning of heroism, but for now we’re left with a series of brutal rebukes, most notably the great scene with him and Ralph Dibny.

Ralph has the DCU’s punching bag for a few years now, and he spirals out of control over the course of these issues. As I mentioned before, having Identity Crisis as a touchstone is critical to the success of his story here, we understand the pain he’s feeling and his desperation as he tries to find some way to get Sue back. There’s some over the top stuff in this story, but it all builds well to the climax of issue thirteen, where Ralph tries to go through with the resurrection ritual and winds up with a creepy moving wicker Sue. In this world, it is possible that they could bring her back, and Ralph’s incredulity at what his friends did is legitimate pain. That was good stuff, but I still feel like Ralph goes a bit too far over the top sometimes.

Another interesting thread is Lex Luthor’s metagene program. This is another very Grant-y concept, particularly interesting in light of how Grant presents Lex in All Star Superman. There, Lex was jealous of what Superman could do, and felt like Superman inevitably made regular humans less in comparison. Here, we see Luthor trying to level the playing field and make everyone a superhero. Why exactly is this such a bad thing? Is it simply that Luthor’s behind it and something sinister must be going on, or is it more that our heroes are worried that if everyone has powers, they’re no longer special. I’m reminded of the great moment at the end of Grant’s JLA run where everyone is given superpowers for a day and they form into an army that battles some massive alien force. Oracle says “All this amazing stuff you're seeing and feeling is what Superman feels like all the time. It's why he wants to save us.” Can Lex give that to the people, or is he simply exploiting the absence of Superman and Batman? I’d lean towards the latter.

The most interesting thread cropping up near the end of the Volume is Black Adam’s attempt to remake his world using his superpowers. Black Adam seems to be another spin on the Captain Marvel archetype, and there’s clear echoes of Alan Moore’s Miracleman work here. There, we saw Miracleman remake all of society in his image, can Black Adam do the same, and create a viable new world in his kingdom? I really like the dynamic between him and Isis. As Adrianna, she was completely subject to Black Adam, but when she transforms into Isis, she gains control and is able to lean Adam down a new path. I’d imagine things will end in some form of tragedy, since heroes can’t really change the world. If Black Adam does that, it’d make Superman look ineffectual in comparison. But, I love what’s going on there, the relationship between them, and the way she opens him up to new ways of being. I’m really curious to see where that goes.

And, the cover of issue twelve is one of the best depictions of superheroes in love since the sequence where Miracleman and Miraclewoman fuck in the sky in Miracleman #16, or Superman and Lois on the moon in All Star Superman #3. They just seem to be so much more than we are, they are something we can aspire to be. I really hope things do go well for them, we shall see.

Ultimately, what makes the series work so well for me is primarily the characters. Much like with Seven Soldiers, they’ve taken a bunch of B and C list superheroes and turned them into real people in crazy, fantastic world. Booster Gold may have ridiculous stuff happen to him, but he feels emotionally real. They make poke fun at the conventions of the superhero universe, but it’s all love behind this work. The creators clearly love these characters and hope to make you love them as well.

I also love the way it spans so many genres and styles within the basic superhero mold. We’ve got space opera, noir, classical epic and family drama. Superhero comics get a bad rap, as juvenile power fantasies, while works set in the real world, or historical periods are hailed as adult and worthy of awards and serious criticism. I think basing a work off a historical event, setting a story in the past is the easiest way to kill any sort of energy or emotion in the work. You have to work hard to overcome the feeling that this is something that happened and as a result is not of particular concern to me. There can be good historical works, but those films aren’t usually treated with imagination or wonder. They stick to preconceived notions of what is socially acceptable in fiction.

But jump over to a book like this, it’s brimming with crazy ideas and concepts. There’s so much story going into this book, so many interesting jumping off points for you to create your own things. I think people who read comics are more likely to conceive of fiction without traditional boundaries. Superhero comics can jump from the most absurd action scene to deep real emotion, the two are not mutually exclusive. What comics have done for me is make me accept that weird stuff can happen right in reality. If you can accept these spandex wearing heroes as real people in a real world, it’s not that hard to accept increasingly crazy things. Most people are way too quick to write off anything out of the norm as “weird,” but reading comics make you accept pretty much anything. That’s not to say that this necessarily leads to good stories, but with a film like The Fountain, you can see a filmmaker who was influenced by comics and had no problem juxtaposing wildly disparate elements into one work.

So, this work’s wild shifts in tone, style and genre all serve to show what only comics can do. Structuring the book for the weekly format increases its addictiveness, such that I was always looking forward to the next issue and am now counting the days until the end of July, when the second Volume comes out. It’s not as distinct or precise as something like All Star Superman, but it’s just so much fun, it’s almost easier to read. Reading a Morrison/Quitely work, I’m savoring and analyzing every page, here I’m hurring to get to the next and see what happens.

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