Saturday, September 29, 2007

52: Volume 3

After thoroughly enjoying 52: Volume 1, I had a few issues with the direction of the series in Volume II. The tightly focused character threads started to slip, and more and more obscure DC characters were layered on. However, this Volume, which moves the story into its final act, is a lot tighter and more emotional, taking the characters through a variety of really wrenching moments and providing some moments of crazy Morrisonian genius. The series still has its issues, but it’s so entertaining and addictive, they don’t really bother me. There’s a whole bunch of plot strands running through these issues, let me tackle them one at a time.

The stuff with the mad scientist island didn’t grab me for the first couple of issues. The concept was good, but the execution was a bit off. However, over the course of these issues we get more development and an increasing level of insanity. The craziest thing here is Egg Fu. The very concept of this character, a giant evil egg, is so ridiculous, and here he’s turned into a legitimately menacing villain. The highlight is the Thanksgiving dinner issue, but pretty much any moment with Egg Fu was gold.

Along with this, we get some great stuff with Will Magnus and Veronica Cale, journeying on opposite trajectories. Will starts out as the only one on the island with a conscience, but is forced off his meds, off towards insanity. This is a classic conundrum, the character whose medicine strips him of his genius. The insanity and the genius are wrapped up in each other. Veronica Cale is more interesting, at first a gloriously immoral femme fatale, she is humbled by an encounter with the gods they summon. In the moment she summons them, you can see her enthusiasm turn to fear, recognizing the reality of what she’s done. I’m guessing things won’t go well for her in the next volume, as her creation gets out of her control.

Arguably the major plot thread of these issues was Charlie’s gradual journey to death. This was really well executed, making good use of the real time format. We could witness him succumbing to the illness, the cold reality of cancer intruding on the fantasy world of these characters. This was some sad stuff, full of really nice moments between Renee and Charlie. I like the way they brought Kate Kane in, and the closing journey to Nanda Parbat was suitably epic.

As Renee trudged through the snow, the story moved beyond traditional narrative and became an allegorical representation of her state of mind at the time. She’s pressing on through this endless white expanse, getting help from no one, unwilling to admit that Charlie is going to die, there’s nothing she can do about it. In the end, she collapses and gives up, he passes on, and she accepts it. The journey doesn’t make that much sense from a reality based point of view, but as a metaphor for her mental state, it’s perfect.

I also loved the intercutting of the New Year’s Eve countdown in the hospital room with Luthor cutting the powers on the Everymen. While the Everymen storyline, particularly the Steel and Nat stuff, was by far the weakest storyline, that was a really powerful moment. They broke out of the grids used throughout the series for a wide expansive intercut double page spread, gradually pressing towards the tragedy of all these superpeople falling to Earth. It was great to have Phil Jiminez cameo for the aftermath, a tragic descent for these would be heroes.

Thematically, the Everyman Project is tough to fit in with Grant’s recent work. In his last JLA storyline, World War III, he empowered every citizen and they all flew up to fight with the heroes. It was a wonderful moment, illustrating humanity’s potential. In Seven Soldiers, we witness a lot of ordinary people struggling to be extraordinary, to be heroes. There, a group of wannabes gets murdered by the Sheeda in the first issue. Those characters were more obsessed with the idea of being superheroes then with doing the work that goes into actually being a superhero.

For Morrison, and the genre in general, the goal is to maximize your potential. Batman is doing as much as any human can, training his body and mind, and using technology to be the ultimate crime fighter. In All Star, Superman does more, he is beyond simple interpersonal conflict and seeks to move the world forward. In Seven Soldiers, the characters all struggle through a series of obstacles that forces them to grow and in the end, their unique talents help them to defeat the Sheeda. The characters in #0 all rush into battle without training, their goal is to be a superhero first, to do good second. In Morrison’s worldview, heroism is all about responsibility. It can be fun, but it’s also a burden to carry. The real heroes are the ones who can carry that burden, and risk their lives for others. It is not about doing violence, frequently peace is the better route.

Considering his focus on evolution, you’d think Grant would embrace Luthor’s Everyman Program as an easy way to move humanity forward. But, in the end, the Everyman Program is proven false. I’m not sure how much input Grant had on this decision, and there’s also the fact that the DCU can’t just have anyone who wants to being a superhero, however, I do think what happens here fits in with the portrait of heroism Morrison’s been creating. Like Gimmix or Sally Sonic, these characters just want power and fame, they’re not committed to living with the responsibility of their powers. That’s what we see in the dichotomy between Nat and the other members of Infinity Inc.

Did the story have to go this way? I do think it would have been cool to explore more of the way that ordinary people reacted to the program. However, it does fit. There was an inevitability to the end of Everyman, and at least this conclusion fits it within GM’s worldview. There is danger in accepting power from an unreliable source, the greatest strength comes from within. That’s not to say people couldn’t have done great things with these powers, as Bulleteer did after having power forced on her, but in this case, they made a deal with the devil, and the devil doesn’t play fair.

It’s interesting looking at this Lex Luthor in light of the Luthor from All Star Superman. Both are obsessed with Superman, desperate to compete with this ideal even though they never can. One of the best scenes here is the moment where Lex has Clark completely at his mercy, but asks only about Supernova, mixing the chance to bust Clark once and for all. He is motivated by jealousy and lust for power, not the need to do good. That seems to be the problem with all the Everyman heroes, they’re doing it for selfish reasons.

Elsewhere, we get major development for the space heroes. Lady Styx didn’t work that well for me, partially because we get the random cosmic civilization that doesn’t really mean anything to me. Much like the Shiar in X-Men, there’s just a whole bunch of people with no definition or grounding. The bigger problem is that Lady Styx feels like a retread of Gloriana from Seven Soldiers, she’s got the same color palette and world conquering tendencies. Her death is a bit quick, I’d rather have seen her stick around to menace the DCU, or perhaps build her up as more of a threat so the payoff when she’s defeated is better.

While I have issues with the handling of some of that stuff, I did really like the fight against her. Lobo gets provoked and finally snaps out of his pacifism in a fun, over the top scene. What really makes it work is the connection between Kori, Adam Strange and Buddy. I like the way that Kori wears his Animal Man outfit, and the moment where Buddy yells out that he believes in his family moments before Adam flies in shooting is one of those perfect blends of action and emotion that Morrison does so well. These three are a great team, and it’s sad that they’re separated when Animal Man dies.

I hadn’t heard about Animal Man dying in the series, so I was figuring this wasn’t going to stick. It bothered me to do another resurrection, so soon after bringing back Booster as Supernova, particularly after the great emotional stuff involving his wife’s sadness and Kori’s tears. However, that trepidation was all wiped away with the return of the yellow aliens from Morrison’s Animal Man run. They were like the Seven Unknown Men of that series, agents of the authorial hand in the DC Universe. I’m curious to see where Buddy goes from here, is it another metatextual journey? Side note, I really have to reread Morrison’s Animal Man.

The other big storyline focused on the Black Marvel family, and their struggle to be accepted by the mainstream superhero community. This storyline is primarily interesting for the way it illustrates the impact that point of view makes on audience response to a story. The Black Marvel family is almost saintly in what they’re doing, and I’m totally behind them, but the world just won’t listen. They can’t accept the idea that Black Adam has reformed, and consequently, set out to sabotage them. The ambush sequence is really effective, building a lot of momentum to the moment where Osiris flies right through one of the assassins. This is what would happen if people with unlimited power, but little training or discipline were let out into the world. The whole storyline brings back memories of Miracleman, and I’m guessing we’re heading into the dark stages soon. They are exiled from the world, and Black Adam can only stay saintly for so long. It’s hard to watch the cruel march of impending tragedy.

Perhaps the most Morrison of all the issues was Ralph Dibny’s trip to Nanda Parbat. Ralph’s been through a lot, and his stuff is generally entertaining, though rarely a highlight of the series. However, under the guidance of the perfectly named Accomplished Perfect Physician, Ralph goes through the same kind of transformative experience that Barbelith offers. It is revealed to Ralph that “There is no death. Death is an illusion of being in time.” Rama Kushna goes on to say that “No Love is wasted. No love is lost in time.” This all ties in with the Invisibles idea that all time exists simultaneously, so even if someone is dead, the moments they lived still exist. So, even though Sue is dead, the love they shared still exists and can never be destroyed. It’s nice to see this sort of conceptual stuff appear in a series that’s mainly concerned with exploring variations on the superhero narrative. My guess is, Ralph will be taken outside of time and get a chance to relive some moments with Sue, and come to terms with her death through that experience. We also get some meta discussion of writers and an end being written. Will this tie in with Buddy’s storyline? We shall see.

Finally, a brief discussion of the Batman issue. Personality as something we can put on and take off is key to Morrison’s work. Bruce Wayne has been wearing the Batman fiction suit so long it has become him, but the suit has been corrupted. In this issue, he kills that Batman and plans to rediscover the core of what was underneath. It’s a cool concept, and it’s nice to see Bruce getting a moment in the series.

That said, it’s a joy to read a DC book without the big three, or most of the really powerful heroes in general. Much like Seven Soldiers, this book digs into less prominent corners of the DCU and creates real characters out of minor figures in other books. There’s some really interesting people and concepts here, and I like how the ensemble structure takes us between them. I could see how it would get frustrating waiting weeks for a plot you like to return, but read in trade, I’ve got no real complaints about the way things are progressing. While I would have loved the weekly reading experience, there’s definitely advantages to the trade. I’d love to see “the band” come back for another weekly series like this, but it sounds like Morrison wouldn’t be up for that. Still, this is a wonderfully fun book full of crazy concepts and exciting characters, everything that a superhero book should be. I can’t wait for the fourth and final volume.

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