Saturday, May 03, 2008

The Fourth World: Omnibus Volume Four

I just finished reading the final Fourth World Omnibus. I love that DC put these books out, the issues hold up well, and are thematically extremely relevant to the world we live in today. This last volume is a downturn in quality from the earlier issues, but it concludes with a couple of great stories, the unjustly maligned “Hunger Dogs” graphic novel and its prelude are a satisfying, epic conclusion to the saga.

If there’s a central theme to The Fourth World, it’s the idea that darkness will always fail to control the world, and in the end, the forces of good will find a way to win. The reason for that is that the order Darkseid seeks to impose is inherently fragile. It’s a lot easier to shine a light than to blot out the sun. We see this played out in the final issue of The Forever People, where Infinity Man finds his way out of a cosmic prison to go back and battle Darkseid. The issue ends with Darkseid banishing the Forever People to another dimension, something they’re cool with. What he calls a punishment, they see as an opportunity to build a new home for themselves.

Mister Miracle is about escape, he is the incarnation of chaos, a man who cannot be held by any prison. Apokolips is a prison planet, so he is the ultimate affront to that world. He can escape from any prison they cook up for him, and even when the series drifts away from its Fourth World roots, the core theme remains present.

Most of this book is Mister Miracle issues, and he was always my least favorite of the Fourth World books. These issues aren’t bad, but they are a bit formulaic. The joy is in watching the developing relationships between the various characters. We get to watch the formation of the Mister Miracle Escape Troupe, the creation of a surrogate family for various characters. Scott and Barda are the central relationship here, and it’s great watching them get closer and finally get married at the end of the series.

Also introduced is Shilo Norman, a kid who will grow up to play a central role in Grant Morrison’s Mister Miracle series. He’s not too notable here, though I do like the way Kirby creates an inter-racial family with Scott’s adoption of Shilo. Kirby is extremely politically progressive, and his youthful energy serves as a rebuke to the traditional image of generational conflict in the 60s. Reading this series, it’s clear he’s philosophically right with the 60s counterculture, and Jimmy Olsen and The Forever People read as extended tributes to those ideas.

Kirby sounds like an incredible guy, it’s crazy to think of all the stuff he must have done in his life, making all these stories, fighting in World War II, and more. He came face to face with the Earth incarnation of Darkseid and Apokolips, and I’m sure much of the series is informed by what he saw there. It bothers me when people equate patriotism with this conservative ideal of the whitebread nuclear family. Kirby came out of that generation, but he’s making these trippy, progressive comics that are as groundbreaking as anything else that came out of the counterculture. You know if he were around today, he’d hate what Bush did to this country, and would be writing comics about people who fought back.

Morrison’s Mister Miracle will likely make a lot more sense if I read it now, after reading all the original stuff. I like the idea that Shilo wanders away from the wedding in issue #18 unsure of whether anything he just saw was real, and it’s those memories that come back to him when he plunges into the black hole in the series. Seven Soldiers owes a major debt to what the Fourth World books did.

After a bunch of random standalone issues, the Fourth World concepts and characters return in issue #18, the wedding of Scott and Barda. It’s great to see them back, many classic Mister Miracle foes return and we get a final confrontation between the forces of freedom and the forces of control. Highfather shows them all up, and everyone escapes to New Genesis. Darkseid is left behind to reflect on the fact that “Life at best is bittersweet.” Situated a panel away from a caption saying “The Mister Miracle series will not be continued…” that feels all too appropriate.

However, the saga is not over. The other titles fade to the back, and the Orion/Darkseid conflict surges to the fore for Hunger Dogs. These stories have a pretty bad reputation, but I really liked them. I suppose it could be a bit underwhelming if you’d waited fifteen years for the conclusion, but read in succession with the issues, it works well.

“Even Gods Must Die” is primarily a visual spectacle, Kirby’s art feels rawer and crazier than the old stuff, and his layouts are more experimental. Every page seems to be half covered in crazy Kirby gizmos, and filled to the brim with faces and bodies in motion.

The big conflict here is between Darkseid’s attempt to impose total order on Apokolips, and the spark of chaos that Orion brings. Darkseid has turned to machines, “The Micro-Mark” in particular, which is apparently an artifical version of the anti-life equation. He is using this to subdue the masses and turn them into mindless drones who believe only in Darkseid.

Again, there’s huge relevance to what we’re seeing happening in politics today. There’s a lot of talk about why movies about Iraq fail, and primarily I think it’s because it’s hard to express the anger that a lot of people feel without coming off as preachy and over the top. I think people have a hard time accepting their own culpability in what happened, so we wind up with movies that explicitly claim to have no political agenda. But, this is a time when we need people to speak out, and sometimes it’s easier to that through genre. What the Fourth World books do is tap into a conflict so eternal and fundamental to humanity, they remain forever relevant. The original concept came out of Vietnam, but Darkseid’s agenda feels like exactly the kind of thing we’ve seen Bush and his crew do.

Much emphasis is placed on the mechanation of Apokolips. They no longer need foot soldiers to kill and keep control. When we’ve got politicians speaking about unmanned drones to protect our borders, and an army where you can bomb people from remote, it’s clear how relevant this is. And, I think it’s only by viewing the conflict in this kind of archetypal genre narrative that we can recognize how dire our own situation is. Real life villains don’t have faces of stone, they wear suits and speak like they care about you. Is anyone supporting Darkseid when they read this story? No, and if that’s the case, why are people still supporting his counterpart on our world?

That’s why I like the fact that Kirby recognizes one man can’t save the world, he can only hope to ignite a change in the masses. Before reading it, I wondered why the book was called “The Hunger Dogs,” and it turns out that the dogs are the people of Apokolips. We’ve been following the conflict of gods, and never understood what it did to the people on the ground level. They want to throw off the control of Darkseid, but they don’t know how to. That’s where Orion comes in.

Orion is the spark of chaos, born in the darkness of Apokolips, he has seen the light and now returns to spread that light and tear through Darkseid’s control. In the prelude, we see him eventually reach Darkseid, and in an awesome turn of events, get abruptly gunned down. But, Darkseid doesn’t seem to even care. He’s going through the motions at this point, seemingly in an extistential crisis. His imminent victory feels meaningless. I particularly like the scenes where he revives people who’ve died during the series, only to find that they are little more than flesh puppets, their existence only reminding him more of what he lost.

“The Hunger Dogs” is ostensibly about the final confrontation between Darkseid and Orion, but the real action takes place away from that, on New Genesis. Throughout the entire series, we’ve seen New Genesis and Apokolips pitted against each other in this eternal struggle of freedom and control. Darkseid beings an assault on New Genesis, but High Father winds up totally subverting the paradigm. Darkseid thinks that destroying their world will destroy the people, but in the end, the destruction of New Genesis liberates them to go searching the galaxy for a new way of life.

Much like with the Forever People, Darkseid believes that upending the order of things will cripple his foe, only to find out that he’s given them an opportunity to find something better. Darkseid is ultimately about the status quo, keeping people locked in specific patterns of behavior. High Father is much more malleable, they have a satellite ready, and are perfectly willing to go searching the stars for a new world. Nobody knows what they’ll find out there, but they’ve got hope.

So, Darkseid first loses his cosmic foe, and next uses his personal foe, Orion. Rather than embarking on another duel to the death with Darkseid, Orion decides to take the people he cares about and run away. I’m guessing one of the big issues people have with the book is that they see this ending as a cop out. We’re deprived of the epic final confrontation between father and son. But, I feel like we get that in “Gods Must Die,” we’ve seen that you can’t defeat Darkseid through force. “Hunger Dogs” is all about destroying the idea of Darkseid, the Manichean ideal that he so stringently represents.

By running away, Orion deprives Darkseid of an enemy, and without an enemy, his life is meaningless. He doesn’t care about controlling the people anymore, they’re running over his machines and causing chaos in the society. At this point, he only cared about Orion and Tigra, and now they’re running away, never to be seen again. Orion chooses a life of adventure, of new discoveries, instead of continuing this tired old paradigm of good vs. evil.

That’s ultimately the greatest escape of all. The book begins with a war, and it ends with the close of that war. Evil is not defeated, it’s the idea of war itself that’s abandoned. The chaos Orion inspires in Apokolips will eventually bring down the civilization, in a way that acts of destruction never can. People can only be ruled by fascist governments if they believe that’s the only way things can be. Bush can install the Patriot Act because he says we’re in imminent danger and this is the only way to protect ourselves. But, once you realize that’s a lie, that the whole world is built on a lie, the people will revolt against the current order. Orion has shown the Hunger Dogs that Darkseid need not be feared, and they are ultimately the ones who will win the war. It is their human passion that will destroy the machines Darkseid barely even cares about.

I love the final couple of pages in the book, particularly High Father’s speech about the new nature of their existence. The people he’s speaking with fear that they might find a foe greater than Darkseid. But, where they fear the unknown, he relishes it, hoping that they will find a better world. It is a gamble to choose the unknown, but perhaps they can find hope out there. “The world we seek must find us. We are the ones who are lost!”

And the whole world closes out with one final appearance of Metron, towing a young planet behind him, the planet that will presumably one day become the new hope of High Father and the residents of New Genesis. Metron is essentially another fiction suit for John a Dreams, a person who’s outside the game, above the conflict, and moving to ensure that certain things happen as they need to. There are a lot of similarities between the Fourth World and The Invisibles, most notably the destruction of a Manichaean paradigm at the end. Evil is not defeated, it’s exposed as pathetic and lacking next to the overwhelming light of forward progress.

In the end, it’s disappointing that Kirby couldn’t finish the story as he’d hoped to. I’d have loved to see everyone come back for the finale, get the Forever People, Scott and Barda, Dave Lincoln and Claudia Shane, and even Jimmy and the newsboy gang back to help defeat Darkseid. But, I think it’s a total misjudgment to say that this ending is somehow a failure or disappointing. I think it’s as pop and exciting as any of the comics that preceded it. After reading these books, it’s easy to see why Kirby is revered as a god of the medium.

Friday, May 02, 2008

DC Universe #0

DC Universe #0, the prelude/teaser for Final Crisis and a variety of other DC books dropped yesterday. It was pitched as a primer for new readers, giving them the info they needed to follow DC’s upcoming stories. I don’t consider myself a new reader, I’ve read 52, Infinite Crisis, Crisis on Infinite Earths, all of The Fourth World, Grant’s JLA and more, but I found myself very confused, and not really knowing what was going on for the vast majority of the book. So, I think the book would be absolutely impenetrable to totally new readers. That said, I am pretty intrigued by the stories, so perhaps the book did its job.

I think one of the great myths of recent comics discussion is the idea that readers need done in one stories and clear jump on points if they’re going to enjoy a book. Ultimate Spider-Man was specifically designed to have standalone arcs, so you can pick up any TPB or arc starting issue and enjoy it. Warren Ellis has talked a lot about this, and done series like Global Frequency that are modular and designed to be easy for new readers to pick up. I don’t think this is a bad idea, but if you read people talking about why they got into comics, very few of them say they picked up the first issue of a book, or a new storyline and got hooked from there.

More frequently, you’ll hear people talk about how they picked up a random issue of Claremont X-Men, or something like that, and didn’t know what was going on, but wanted to know more. For me, I picked up some X-Men comics, and was baffled, but I was interested in knowing more, so I picked up Essential X-Men 1, and went from there. So, technically it was reading a jump on point that got me into comics, but I would never have been interested if I hadn’t gotten a glimpse of the crazy universe and its many stories from the current issues. Hearing about stories like Mutant Massacre and Inferno, I wanted to find out what they were, and discover the characters’ backstory. If there was a downside to actually finishing the Claremont run, it’s that all these stories were nailed down into something concrete, rather than existing as this hazy apocryphal narrative.

So, in that sense, this book works. It presents cryptic glimpses of various storylines, and has me intrigued for a number of them. I wouldn’t normally read a Wonder Woman comic, but this teaser wasn’t bad, and reminded me of the Gail Simone issue I had gotten free at New York Comicon. I won’t be buying this new storyline in singles, but I might grab a TPB of Simone’s first arc when it comes out.

The stuff with Green Lantern was totally incomprehensible, as was whatever was going on with Superman at the start of the book. The book in general felt a bit too divided in focus. By jumping around to all these stories, we don’t get a real feel for them. It would have probably been better to make a choice and go for either something that’s straight up ad, or go for more of a coherent story.

That said, I do really like the scene with Libra at the end of the issue. The tagline for Final Crisis is ‘The Day Evil Won,’ and the series seems to be dealing explicitly with the dark power of Darkseid. Having just finished the last Fourth World omnibus, I’m curious to see how Morrison deals with Darkseid. I like the religious angle, which feels very contemporary. I could imagine Dick Cheney leading a similar meeting of his business associates, asking them to join him and invade Iraq.

The end of The Invisibles posited a world on the threshold of a new age, ready to burst into glorious chaotic life. In Volume III, the old order was already destroyed, and their defeat was a formality. However, our world hasn’t gone that way, and it’s appropriate that this crossover deal with a resurgent force of evil in the world. Darkseid is the pure incarnation of control, and by believing in him, this ragtag crew of villains could become united for a single cause.

So, that was me intrigued, and bodes well for what’s going on in FC. However, the ‘big revelation’ out of this issue was the return of Bart Allan, the original Flash. Now, the only reason I have to believe that happened is the various media articles about it. Reading the issue itself, I had no idea that that happened. Yes, there’s the giant Flash sign on the last page, but that means he’s returned from the dead? My interpretation would more be that he’s merged with the DCU itself, and perhaps that is the take, but it doesn’t seem to gibe with what the media’s reporting. Is that the Flash falling through time, and glowing with power, or Darkseid? I don’t even know.

And, I think that’s a big problem with the issue. I think it errs a bit too much towards the cryptic, if I can’t tell what’s going on, someone who’s read many, many current and older DC comics, then you’ve got a very narrow audience for the book. I don’t necessarily mind not being able to follow everything, but if this Flash story is something internal to this book, it should be at least somewhat comprehensible.

Still, I don’t think Morrison’s responsible for most of the content in the book. It’s got a lot of stories to tease, and not much space to do it in. It succeeds in intriguing me, but it’s not the kind of thing that’s going to hook, or even make any sense at all, to a casual fan. Now, for some people that might not be a problem, getting a glimpse into this crazy universe could get them on the path to buying some more books. But, a low priced book going out the week of Free Comic Book Day should at least have some internal logic.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Torchwood: 1x01 - 1x04

As I was saying before, watching Torchwood made much clearer what it is that makes Doctor Who works. His joy and energy makes even a run of the mill episode enjoyable, and watching his life spirit come in conflict with vast darkness is what ignites the major conflicts in the series. Torchwood doesn’t have this same life spirit, the characters are all a bit darker, and the external world is treated more as a menace than something exciting to be discovered. The show has its moments, but after four episodes, I don’t think it’s quite found its voice.

The basic structure of the first episode is pretty similar to Doctor Who’s ‘Rose,’ however ‘Rose’ worked better for me because I was totally new to the universe, like the character was. Here, I know who Jack is, I’m aware that there’s weird stuff going on, so it feels like we’re one step ahead of the character. Gwen is a solid protagonist, I like the pull between her regular life and the more lonely, workaholic lives of the Torchwood gang, I’m guessing she’ll eventually dump the boyfriend and commit full time to Torchwood.

My central issue with the series so far is the portrayal of Captain Jack. This was a character who was so charismatic he got this spinoff made after only a few episodes on Doctor Who. The central appeal of the character was his reckless sense of adventure, his enthusiasm to go anywhere and do anything. He’s the character we know, and in theory, he should be our point of view character, not Gwen. So, I’m not sure why they chose to change him from a friendly, energetic guy into a brooding mysterious guy. It kills the appeal of the character, and makes the show into much more of a typical broody, dark sci-fi show.

The show has a lot in common with Angel, and like the first season of Angel, it struggles to find its voice. I think all the episodes are watchable, and have their moments, but none of them really click. The strongest is probably ‘Day One,’ which puts Gwen in some tough situations, and contrasts her naivete with the world weariness of the rest of the gang. But, like early Angel, they frequently try to make the series too dark and humorless, as a contrast to its goofier parent show.

Now, I love dark stories, the darker episodes of Who are my favorites, but those dark episodes still feature fun and awe. Look at the Master episodes, it’s his ecstatic dance as the six billion orbs descend that makes it work, there’s no need for brooding. The Doctor goes through dark times, but he keeps high spirits. The fact that he can be happy makes his sadness even worse. Other than Gwen, I don’t have a sense of who these characters are outside of work yet, and that makes it tough to care for them.

That’s where the series’ biggest misfire so far comes from. ‘Cyberwoman’ has a bunch of things going against it, that really goofy outfit on the woman notably, but the real flaw of the episode is that it wants us to care deeply about Ianto, a character we’ve barely seen, and the actor just doesn’t pull it off. It feels melodramatic and over the top when it should be emotional. It’s the kind of episode that sounds good on paper, but just doesn’t work in practice.

But, it’s still early in the series. I’ll stick with it and see how things go. The premise has a lot of potential, and Gwen and Jack have some good chemistry when they let him actually play something other than brooding mysteriousness. It makes no sense to me that his work crew should be unclear whether he’s straight or gay, the guy we saw on Doctor Who would have tried to have them all already, so they should know he’ll go for whatever, as long as it’s beautiful. It’s odd that they’d so completely miss what makes the character work when building a show around him. Jumping from the Jack we saw in the last episodes of season three to the Jack of Torchwood is an odd experience. It really feels like the same actor playing two totally different rules. I don’t blame Barrowman, it’s more the writing that fails him.

Doctor Who: 'Partners in Crime' (4x01)

This weekend I watched the first episode of Doctor Who’s fourth season, as well as the first four episodes of Torchwood. Watching Torchwood makes clear what the strengths of Doctor Who are, it’s that infectious joy the Doctor has at discovering the unknown. While I love the huge, dark two parters that lose out each season, the essence of the series is going to new places, seeing new things and experiencing something that takes you away from dreary everyday existence. Torchwood focuses more on that dreary existence, and consequently is a less engaging series. It’s not bad, but hasn’t done anything to really hook me so far.

I’ll start with the Doctor Who episode. As they usually do early in the season, things start off on a lighter note, with ten minutes of goofy comedy missed connections. It’s not the kind of thing I usually go for, but I really enjoyed it here, the heads bobbing out of cubicles, just barely missing each other every time. This all culminated in the really funny window to window discussion that finally brought our two main characters together.

But before that, we get a good idea of what Donna’s home life is like. Donna isn’t like Rose or Martha, she doesn’t have a whole life ahead of her, she’s lived and has realized that nothing she’s going to do is going to match what she had with the Doctor. Thematically, it’s similar to what they did with Sarah Jane in ‘School Reunion.’ It’s interesting because it makes the Doctor simultaneously the best thing in these peoples’ lives and the worst because he makes it impossible for them to go back to regular life. One of my favorite scenes in the whole series is Rose, Mickey and her mother at a restaurant in ‘Parting of the Ways,’ where she says that she cannot live like she used to anymore, she’s seen too much.

But, like Sarah Jane, Donna has gone into action in the Doctor’s absence, carrying on his mission. One of my favorite scenes in the episode is Donna’s conversation with her grandfather. The show is at its core about the joy we get from discovering the universe, and it’s really touching to see someone who’s looking to the stars instead of just staying trapped on the ground. The ending moment, when Donna waves to him from the Tardis, is the kind of thing that could play as cheesy on another series, but this show has such irony free love of human possibility, it works wonderfully. It’s the kind of moment you only see on this show.

Along with this we get some more fun comedy adventure stuff. Donna’s brassier attitude is a nice contrast to the awed demeanor of the previous two companions. She’s not going to be shocked to travel to the past or future, and I’m thinking she’ll help the Doctor to examine himself a bit. Here, we already can see how he’s thought about what happened to Martha, the pain she suffers weighs heavy on his consequences. He has to wonder, would everyone he takes on the Tardis have been better off if they’d never met him? Ultimately, the show leans toward the idea that the bad stuff is worth it if it means getting a chance to see the wonderful things that are out there.

But, I don’t think most people were thinking about all that at the end of the episode, instead it was one brief cameo that lingered, and that’s the surprise reappearance of Billie Piper as Rose. My reading of the scene is that she’s somehow able to project out of the parallel universe, into ours, that she’s working to come back to the Doctor, but isn’t quite able to pull it off yet. I’m eager to see her return, and it’s nice that we get some hints early in the year, it just doesn’t come out of the blue later in the series.

So, that’s it for the Who season premiere. Coming up next, my thoughts on Torchwood.