Thursday, August 25, 2011

Review: The Ultimates #1

The Ultimates #1
Jonathan Hickman (w), Esad Ribic (a)

The Ultimate universe is starting over, sort of?  Well, not really starting over, but maybe it's a new direction?  I'm not too sure, I haven't kept up with The Ultimate universe in a good long while.  From what we've got in here, it doesn't really look like a new direction.  We've got more of the same world crises that only a worldwide force of Superheroes led by the biggest, best team of American Superheroes (read: The Ultimates) can face, we've got Nick Fury multi-tasking with the fate of the world at his no-nonsense fingertips, we've got Tony Stark being a cavalier party-boy throwing rich kid quips as freely as he throws back champagne bottles and dollar bills, and we've got Thor in the center of a superhuman bar fight.  Oh, and where is Captain America?  (Seriously, though, I don't know what's up with Ultimate Cap, and as far as I can tell, Nick Fury doesn't either.  I'm not sure if this was a plot point from previous Ultimate Universe stories or if this is going to be one of the mysteries that Nick Fury's going to tangle with in this first arc, but I do want to know what's up with the dude who takes up the biggest chunk of cover space.)

Nothing too new or exciting, but it's that entertaining flavor we feel safe with coming from a book like The Ultimates.

Now, I'd have no problem writing off the book right here and moving on, but the problem with that is that Jonathan Hickman is leading this run of The Ultimates, and this man has earned the benefit of the doubt in my book.  Really, the thing that I enjoyed most from this book was the most Hickman-esque scifi first page.  We have a bunch of unidentified superhuman-types standing around in the desert talking about building, and a giant dome appears out of nowhere while someone goes on about the disappointment of creation.  Great.  Amazing.  Sign me up.  I want to know more.  The problem comes with everything after that first page.  It's not much different from the all-out action and dancing around arm-chair politics that Mark Millar so deftly constructed in the first two volumes of The Ultimates, and that stuff was really cool and exciting and probably the best action movie I've ever read, but we live in a post-Ultimates, post-Authority world where that blend of politics and action has become standard practice.  It's not that it's a bad way to go about writing a comic, it's just that it's all been done before.

I mean, yes, most things in superhero comics have been done before, but this is a new first issue that Marvel has been building up as a new direction or a new beginning for the Ultimate Marvel Universe.  Why not actually take a new direction and find a different approach for The Ultimates?  I mean if anyone can do it, Jonathan Hickman can, and that first page did give me some hope that we'd be seeing some new, different Ultimates stories, and yes, I understand that this is a first issue and Hickman probably needs some space to let his story grow and develop and all that, but we've been getting years of this stuff, haven't we?  Isn't it time we get something new?  As a lapsed Ultimates reader I was disappointed that this Universe that had prided itself on change and progressive storytelling was pretty much exactly in the same state that I'd left it in, but I'm a fan enough of the creative teams behind this Ultimate Universe revival that I'll indulge my hopeful curiosity.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Co-Review: Detective Comics #871-881

Geoff: Let's talk about Detective Comics!

Tessa: Crackerjack! It's been a hell of a run. I'm sorry to see it finished but very excited DC is giving Scott Snyder more to do, because boy did he prove his mettle with this one.
Geoff: Yeah, I can't think of a single issue I didn't like.  Plus, Jock and Fracesco Francavilla were consistently great too.

Tessa: Yes, absolutely

Geoff: I'll go out and say that it's the freshest that Batman and Commissioner Gordon have been in years.  right up there with Morrison's stuff, but a different flavor of it.

Tessa: Absolutely, I think one of Scott Snyder's greatest gifts is how he manipulates tone.  He works in a genre that people don’t talk about much these days.  You hear about thrillers and horror and action, but no one really uses "suspense" as a stand-alone term, and I think that's the best description of what he does.  Snyder was incredibly skilled at maintaining that sense of eerie disquietude over this entire run.

Geoff: And I think keeping Dick Grayson in the middle of this eerie tone is part of what made it so great.  He's a good, light-hearted counter balance to all the unsettling darkness that's happening all around him.  I mean, he's always been, and I think that's what Snyder was exploring with this run on Detective Comics.  We've always seen Dick act as the lighter side to Bruce's Batman, but now that he's Batman, the focus is wider.  Dick's now acting as the light in the darkness of all of Gotham, and this run is all about whether he's up for it.

Tessa: Yes, and Snyder gives him a lot to contend with.  The gritty awfulness of Gotham City has gotten a lot of play in the past few decades, but never has it seemed so threatening.  Snyder really plays with Gotham as the haunted city, whose grim history is practically oozing out of the mortar.

Geoff: This is one of the few instances in superhero comics where I've actually been concerned about the safety of the main character.  I mean, judging by genre conventions, it's pretty stupid to worry about what's going to happen to the title character of the book, but there were a few times where I was totally worried about whether Dick would make it out alive.  Like when all of the people in the Black Mirror auction were ready mangle him, or that one hallucination where Dick wakes up with no legs.

Tessa: Yes, having Dick and the Gordons at the center of the book definitely adds this quality of vulnerability.  These are people who can and have been hurt, and it seems like the entire city is rising up against them almost of its own will.  And James Jr., of course, is the perfect foil to this group of relatable and (for the most part) morally rock-solid characters.

Geoff: He has that great monologue in the last issue of the run about how Barbara, Commissioner Gordon, and Dick all try to shape Gotham because of their compassion and empathy -- things that James Jr. has written off as weaknesses -- which makes sense as to why he gets along so well with the dealer from the Black Mirror auction house.  There's that great bit in the second issue where the dealer is shouting about how purposeful evil is the true evolutionary mark that sets men apart from beasts, and how things like compassion and empathy are traits that belong to weaker, less evolved people.

Tessa: That, to me, was one of the strongest issues.  It also played on one of my favorite ideas about Gotham City, which is that the upper crust is always throwing gala events that are being crashed by supervillains.  So seeing a supervillainous gala event in Gotham was incredibly satisfying.

Geoff: But this Time-- the upper crust ARE the villains!

Tessa: Right, and also the notion that they've been in on it all along to some degree --that they get off on being close to danger and evil, and always have, which really ties into Dick reminiscing about his circus days, and what visiting Gotham meant:  "It meant putting on the biggest, riskiest show of the season. No catch wires. No safety nets. Everyone pushing themselves to the limit."  And that narration is revisited in the final issue.

Geoff: But when it opens the first issue there's another part that isn't repeated in the final issue.  After the bit about pushing yourself to the limit, Dick's father goes on to talk about how "some places just have a hunger about them [...] and you either feed them what they want, or you stay far, far away."  Gotham's hungry and it wants something from Dick Grayson.  Because of that Gotham seems to be challenging him by confronting him with a dark reflection of himself.  Same thing with Commissioner Gordon.  Gotham has been challenging Gordon for years, and now Dick and the Commissioner are both faced with a Gotham that has become a dark reflection of the two of them, challenging them more than ever to be the beacons of light that they’ve been by coming at them with a relentless darkness that invades every aspect of their lives.

Tessa: And it's acknowledged, even at the end of the run, that it's always going to be an uphill, and possibly losing battle.  That in some ways, Dick and Jim shoulder a bigger burden than Bruce did/does, because they ARE defined more by their compassion.  Their lives are a little fuller, but their vocations no less demanding.  Not that Bruce lacks compassion exactly, but more that he is defined solely by being Batman.

Geoff: Well, James Jr. even says that he sees that the old Batman works differently in that he's trying to shape Gotham out of an obsession or a pathological need.

Tessa: Yes, that seemed a very important point to me, that Jim and Barbara and Dick are more driven by wanting to do the right thing than anything else, and James is right in saying that this is a liability for them.  And I think that's why, as you brought up, it's scarier to see them imperiled than it is with Bruce -- they are vulnerable in a way he isn't.

Geoff: I love that James Jr. is the big test for Dick and Commissioner Gordon, but my one problem was that the conflict between Dick and James Jr. didn't feel as personal or meaningful as it did between James Jr. and Commissioner Gordon.  And it makes sense that it doesn't, but I just wanted Dick to have stronger feelings about James Jr.  Dick's conflict with James Jr. is working on a separate level, though, which I appreciated -- the idea of James Jr. as the flesh and blood embodiment of Gotham's darkness, the thematic black mirror to Dick Grayson

Tessa: Right, subtle in his imagery, Snyder is not, but deft with it nonetheless.

Geoff: It's not that apparent at the beginning of the run that this is what James Jr. is becoming.  I think maybe some subtlety was undercut by James Jr.'s big villain parlor speech, sure, but for the first half of the run there's a big question about whether James is actually still a killer or if Commissioner Gordon is just getting suspicious because Gotham's warped him so much that he can't even believe his own son.

Tessa: Right.  One of the things I also found interesting about James is his obsession with totems.  Which is actually more a mirror to Bruce than Dick.

Geoff: The key thing?

Tessa: Not just the key, but also his involvement with the Black Mirror organization.  I mean that's their whole deal.  The scene at the auction wasn't scary to me because of the mob, it was scary because of the crowbar.  Bruce's connection to totems was really heavily explored by Morrison, particularly in ROBW, but Dick isn't as attached to symbolism.  And as such it's compelling to see the way that symbols can be used against him.  The crowbar, the key, the orca.  Lots of big, dramatic, unsettling imagery.  He IS emotional, so those things resonate more.

Geoff: I don't know if I'd consider the orca a totem so much as it is just a big scary recurring image, but it does carry emotional resonance still, of course.  the thing with the crowbar was a bit strange to me, though.  I get that it's totem for the idea of a "Robin" character: a symbol for all the bad things that could happen, but that was Jason's crowbar, and since then it was a warning to all the Robins after Jason, and Dick had quit being Robin by then.  I see the crowbar for Dick, again, not so much a totem, but more a thing that does still carry some sort of resonance.  I don’t think it’s personal enough to be listed as a totem.  Dick is aware of its significance, but I don't think it carries any totemic power to be used against him.  In fact, Dick actually uses the crowbar to his advantage as he's trying to escape from the mob.  The best thing about that crowbar is that at the end of the story, Dick doesn't keep the crowbar around, he just tells Alfred to toss it into the river, taking away its power as a symbol.  It says something, though, that Tim is the one who initially keeps it around waiting for Dick to make the decision about what should be done with it.  The crowbar is a symbol to the later Robins, and they turn to the original Robin, the one who can remain unaffected by its power, for guidance

Tessa: You make a lot of good points here, but I don't really think we're on such different pages as you seem to think.  Where I disagree with you is that I think the crowbar transcends Jason and has a lot of significance for the whole Bat Family.  I do think it's interesting that Tim doesn't feel like he has the choice of what to do with it, which does suggest that it still carries more symbolic weight for him than it does for Dick.  But I think that escaping from the mob scene, him turning the crowbar to his advantage is a way of tying him to that mythology as well, the same way Damian bringing the crowbar into a locked room meeting with the Joker in Batman & Robin is his connection to it.  I hadn't really thought about it, but Tim's not being sure what to do with it kind of speaks volumes.

Geoff: Of course, but I still think Dick's connection to it isn't as meaningful as it is with the other Robins.  Tim sees it as a symbol of warning because he was the Robin after Jason.  Damian's use of the crowbar is more of a subversion of expectations because he uses this power against the Joker, the man to whom the power belonged in the first place.  Dick uses it to escape a mob.  Then he throws it away without thinking twice.

Tessa: I guess I read a lot into the fact that the appearance of the crowbar is the exact moment when Dick begins to feel the effects of the mind-altering drugs he has been dosed with.  And also that it's reflected in his goggles on the cover of the second issue.

Geoff: I actually see the inclusion of the crowbar in Dick's story as more of a fan service than anything. Especially the bit on the cover.  the whole idea behind Dick in the last 20ish years has been his power to move on.  he moves on from his parents' murder.  he moves on from being Robin.  he moves on from being Nightwing.

Tessa: Thank god.

Geoff: (Yeah yeah yeah. . . I know how you feel about Nightwing. . .) He's a character who is always moving forward.  (At least until next month's reboot.  But that's another topic)
Tessa:  I don't really think we're at odds here.  I think part of Dick's ability to move forward lies in his ability to confront the past rather than be defined by it.  Which is a motif that saturates this whole arc.

Geoff: Right.

Tessa: Zucco's daughter, James Jr., I don't see how that's any different, I guess. These are things floating to the surface that he confronts and moves past.  And he doesn't do that by being indifferent.  But he doesn't allow himself to become obsessed either.  There is a middle ground in there.
Geoff: Sure, I'm just saying the crowbar thing was never really a direct part of his past. He was nowhere near any of that when Jason was murdered.

Tessa: I get that, but being Batman comes with a lot of baggage that isn't necessarily your own, but matters nonetheless.

Geoff: Of course it does.  I'm just saying that particular crowbar matters less to Dick than it does to the other Robins.  But maybe less is the wrong word.  He is affected by the crowbar imagery in a different way.  A way that comes more out of that compassion that Gotham's been trying to break.

Tessa: That's what I was trying to get at.

Geoff: Well it's a good thing we're so good at arguing about something we agree about, then.

Tessa: No it most certainly is!

Geoff: What I was getting to was the idea of Dick moving on.  The whole transient, circus folk thing.  Snyder's run is kind of bookended by this idea of Dick being reluctant to really settle down in Gotham.

Tessa: Right.

Geoff: There's this idea that he's lived there for years, but he's never really settled down.

Tessa: Which makes sense, given that Gotham is, you know, terrifying.  But yes, transience and a willingness to transform have always been a part of Dick's character.

Geoff: Exactly.

Tessa: Which is why he was a natural choice to take over for Bruce.

Geoff: And the realization he comes to on the last page of the last issue of the run, the big lesson learned, that if you survive Gotham's vicious trials, you come out stronger -- I think it was a pretty obvious answer, but it was nice to see that Dick had a conclusion to this little character arc he was going through.

Tessa: Yes, and it's sort of a nice way to give closure to his pre-reboot story.  It's the "Dick Becomes His Own Man" resolution that he's earned.

Geoff: He's earned it, he's a good kid.

Tessa: Yeah, nicely done, Grayson. Knew you had it in you.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Some thoughts on the new Ultimate Spider-Man

Marvel recently revealed that the new kid under the Ultimate Spider-Man mask will be a half-black, half-hispanic teenager named Miles Morales.  It’s a great move, and definitely something that I will support with both my praise and my money, but it’s also got me wondering if this is even really that big of a move on the part of diversity in comics.

I mean, yes, of course, it’s a huge deal having a multi-racial character as the star of one of Marvel’s biggest selling comics, but is it a huge deal on its own merit, or is it a huge deal because comics have been starved for diversity since forever?  There have been historically very few non-white characters in lead roles in their own titles, and it’s my understanding that they don’t last very long.  The two most prominent in recent memory were Jaime Reyes in The Blue Beetle and Ryan Choi in The All-New Atom.  Jaime Reyes’s title got cancelled, forcing him into supporting roles in The Teen Titans.  Ryan Choi’s book also got cancelled, except instead of showing up as a member of someone’s supporting cast, he got relegated to the role of cannon-fodder, another notch in the belt for Deathstroke the Terminator, a character who hasn’t really done anything that noteworthy since menacing the Wolfman/Perez-era Teen Titans.  It seems, however, that fandom is pretty much incapable of letting this character go, so every now and then DC lets him kill or maim a batch of heroes to boost his aging ego, sort of like an aging lion being fed in the zoo.  But once again, my distaste for Deathstroke the Terminator has made me digress.  As good as The Blue Beetle and The All-New Atom were, sales just weren’t strong enough for them to maintain a spot on the comicbook shelves.

The market for comics has always been pretty harsh on new series.  Make it a new series featuring a new character and it’s even harsher.  Make this a new series featuring a new character who is not a white male and one begins to wonder if you’re stupid or just crazy.  It’s sad that the comicbook marketplace is so dead set against most new things, but that’s the world we’re living in, which is why whenever a title like The Blue Beetle or The All-New Atom is being received so well it’s so refreshing and welcome.  My problem with holding up Jaime Reyes and Ryan Choi (and now, Miles Morales) as the great, non-white hopes of superhero comics is that the mantles they’ve taken over belonged to white men.  I think there are inherently upsetting implications in the fact that these recent non-white, non-male characters starring in their own superhero comics titles took over the titles from white men.  It says that these heroes wouldn’t be heroes without those white men taking those first, brave steps.  It says that these heroes can’t be their own original heroes -- if they want to be taken seriously, or even just plain acknowledged by fandom they have to be a derivative of a white male superhero or they have to be the next in line after the original white male hero; and even then you’ll have a legion of fans up in arms, whining about how this version isn’t their superhero, that this version is somehow something less because it’s not the same character they’ve been reading about for the last thirty years.

It’s definitely admirable that Marvel and DC have been trying to give the spotlight to new, non-white, non-male characters, but one has to wonder if they are really risking all that much when the character that they are featuring is a derivative of a white male hero.  In the case of Ryan Choi, DC still had the previous Atom, Ray Palmer, floating around in character limbo.  They could return to him whenever they pleased, and they did, but did they really need to kill off Ryan Choi?  If they can have 3600 Green Lantern Corpsmen couldn’t they have had two Atoms?  (And for that matter, can’t we just give it a rest with Deathstroke the Terminator?)  With this new Miles Morales character, Marvel gets to have it both ways.  They get to utilize a multi-racial character as the lead in one of their most popular books, and since it’s set in an alternate universe they can still have their every(white)-man Peter Parker in the universe that “counts.”  There’s not a lot of risk involved for Marvel when they don’t have to tell their audiences which version is the “definitive” version.  The definitive version is entirely up to you, the reader, and your own personal preferences and how they relate to your personal experiences.  Perhaps this is why a company like DC that is so focused on fandom’s idea of continuity and what “really” happened couldn’t work with two Atoms.  It’s a silly reason, and I mean no offense to DC, of course, but that’s just an observation I’ve made about how they choose to present their stories in their shared universe.  It just seems that Marvel tends to allow more leeway in terms of their continuity if it helps them tell a better story.

All of that being said, I really am very excited for the introduction of Miles Morales as the new Spider-Man.  One of the great things about the original Spider-Man is that he was an everyman with relatable problems.  He was a regular person like you or me, and under that mask and that costume that hid his entire face and body, he could be anyone.  Having Miles Morales under that mask is a wonderful way to put a new face on that Peter Parker everyman sensibility and present it to a twenty-first century audience of new comicbook readers.