Banner: Explore the World of Darkness @

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Justice Vol 3

 Title: Justice Vol 3

ISBN: 9781401215705

Price: $14.99

Publisher/Year: DC, 2009

Artist:  Alex Ross, Doug Braithwaite

Writer: Jim Krueger, Alex Ross

Collects: Justice #9-12

Rating: 3.5/5

Over the previous two volumes the Justice League have been subverted by their enemies strangely working to make the world a better place, and discredited in the process. Once undermined, the JLA members were targeted, but in the way of the Justice League, they overcame traps designed to keep them out of action, and are now on the offensive, aware which of their enemies is behind the entire plot. We also learn what that plot is, and why it’s been set in motion.

Alex Ross the co-plotter has turned over the penciling to Doug Braithwaite, who’s responded with some phenomenal layouts that Ross painted to produce the finished art. The tenth chapter overall, the second here, is when everything breaks loose as the Justice League, protected against intrusive microscopic infiltration, are set against the villains and their already corrupted friends. Braithwaite and Ross present the superhero slugfest to end all superhero slugfests, and throughout this graphic novel there are spreads you’ll want to look at again and again. Bask in their elegance, and spot new details every time.

It’s been a long slog getting to the final chapters. There’s an argument to be made that any story is worth prolonging well beyond its natural life if it means extra pages of this superb art, and for any Ross fan that’s a very strong argument. Countering that is Ross and Jim Krueger’s inability to hone in on the essence of the story they’re telling. Their method is long and languid, like the early Victorian novel, padded with unnecessary scenes as if designed to be read to the family around the fireplace during winter nights when other entertainment was lacking. The result is that their clever moments are forever buried in yet another scene with little overall purpose. Luthor’s justification for being involved in the overall scheme is interesting, and the philosophical arguments around it are given an airing for a page, but that’s an exception.

Without ruining the surprise, the explanation for everything is a damp squib. Even if the reasoning is accepted, there are so many simpler ways to achieve the same end. Likewise, Zatanna’s involvement at the conclusion is pivotal, and that’s a door opened that can’t be closed again. If someone can affect matters on such a scale so rapidly when needed at the end, then why wasn’t she reciting a few backwards spells earlier in the proceedings? And even given Hal Jordan was kept out of the way until this book, he’s another that just turns the tide with a click of the fingers, but could have done it sooner.

Over the previous two volumes there’s always been the thought that random moments apparently serving no purpose might be explained in the end. That is the custom. However, the Joker seems to have been used for a page or two at a time simply to meet expectation. There was no role for him. The decision regarding purchase eventually comes down to that art. Is it good enough to warrant buying when accompanying a plot with so many holes?

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Justice Vol 2

 Title: Justice Vol 2

ISBN: 9781401212070

Price: $14.99

Publisher/Year: DC, 2007

Artist:  Alex Ross, Doug Braithwaite

Writer: Jim Krueger, Alex Ross

Collects: Justice #5-8

Rating: 3.5/5

A suspension of disbelief is a prerequisite for appreciating superheroes, but how far would that need to be increased for ordinary humans to accept career villains are acting in their best interests? That’s where Justice Vol. 1 ended. At a stroke, Earth’s super villains have solved many problems facing humanity, thereby simultaneously discrediting the Justice League, who for all their powers haven’t improved life for the disenfranchised. Would these actions erase previous atrocities in people’s minds?

In that first volume Alex Ross and Jim Krueger also had the villains trapping the Justice League, and it didn’t look good for their chances of survival. Those odds begin to improve here, although not for everyone as Ross and Krueger also begin explaining some of the elements we had to take on trust in the first volume. As before, there’s very little that doesn’t look interesting given the combination of Doug Braithwaite’s layouts and pencils providing the basis for Ross to complete the painted art.

Otherwise the story seems to be running away from the creators as fast as Flash is circling the globe. Despite lacking the room to focus properly on the two dozen or so people already introduced, more and more characters turn up, diluting things still further. A really interesting trap has been set for Green Lantern, and there should be some tension before it’s resolved, but too many pages interrupting this and other plots are ultimately meaningless, and it seems to be because Ross the co-plotter is throwing in everything Ross the artist wants to paint. This version of the Justice League is based on the membership of the original JLA series that ran to the mid-1980s, so there are numerous great looking pages featuring Hawkman and Hawkgirl that ultimately have no relevance at all. Elongated Man’s scenes are contrived, and Zatanna has to be here for her extended spotlight in volume three, but she again serves no purpose. There’s much to admire about Justice, the gorgeous art carrying it a long way, but the original concepts are sunk so deep in scenes that aren’t needed they almost pass us by.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Justice Vol 1

 Title: Justice Vol 1

ISBN: 9781401211035

Price: $14.99

Publisher/Year: DC, 2006

Artist:  Alex Ross, Doug Braithwaite

Writer: Jim Krueger, Alex Ross

Collects: Justice #1-4

Rating: 3.5/5

It has always been one of those great contradictions that, despite the potentially omnipotent powers of the various Justice Leagues combined, the DC Universe is still very much like ours. Poverty, famine and political corruption still persist, and the superhero populace appears content to accommodate the world’s atrocities rather than prevent them from repeating. Mark Gruenwald tackled the dilemma in the seminal Squadron Supreme, with a transparent JLA analogue deciding to use their combined power and intellects to force a utopia upon the world. Needles to say, the results were far from ideal.

Justice presents us a flipside to Squadron Supreme. The world’s greatest criminal minds, amongst other Lex Luthor, Brainiac, Black Manta and Gorilla Grodd, all experience a simultaneous vision of a fiery Armageddon even their moralistic nemeses are unable to prevent. Combining forces, they’ve decided to make the world a better place; woe betide anyone who tries to stop them.

Alex Ross’s art give the book a similar look to Kingdom Come, but here he paints over Doug Braithwaite’s pencils, which to be fair bear a style comparable to Ross’s. The result is a book is almost too pretty for comics, compromising none of it’s dynamism for photorealism. Departing from regular DC continuity, the book’s many villains are re-envisioned on a level that is both energizing and comfortingly familiar, amalgamated from various Golden and Silver age incarnations.

Just as Ross’s passion for the Silver Age ethos shines through in his work, Jim Krueger’s heroes are the humble, wholesome paragons of a time before a thousand Punisher inspired antiheroes waved their uzis about. But his villains are Justice‘s main attraction, intriguingly ambiguous – at least in this volume – that we almost want them to do good. But in that grand Shakespearian tradition, we know that pettiness and greed will ensure that Luthor’s ensemble will do more harm than good, regardless of the purity of their intentions.

It feels petty to criticize a book of such quality, but it does puzzle me why DC has seen fit to publish the entire 12-issue run across 3 volumes. As it stands volume 1 is but the introduction to a larger story that could easily be, and should be, read in its entirety.

Publishing strategies aside, Justice is an amazing series. More importantly, like Kingdom Come or Batman: Year One it stands as a work of superhero fiction that will be immediately accessible to all readers, due to both the immense talent involved, and one of the greatest line-ups in comic history.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Lex Luthor: The Unauthorized Biography

 Title: Lex Luthor: The Unauthorized Biography

Price: $3.95

Publisher/Year: DC, 1989

Artist:  Eduardo Barreto

Writer: James D. Hudnall

Rating: 3/5

The post-Crisis reinvention of Lex Luthor was one of the more drastic alterations in the new Earth order. Under the John Byrne-helmed relaunch of Superman, the evil genius of old exchanged his jumpsuits and war suits (oh, how I loved that old war suit) for boardroom power suits — the finely tailored attire of upper corporate echelons. The labs and beakers were out the window, as were the team-ups with the Joker to carry out ludicrous schemes, and this new Luthor — still bald, still driven to dominate — left the science to employees. He morphed into a fabulously wealthy string-puller, a type all-too familiar in the Gordon Geckko 1980s which spawned him.

The new Luthor arrived on the scene fully formed, introduced in the Man of Steel mini-series that offered up the fresh origin of his arch-foe. We understood immediately why he hated Superman — he was the one man who could outshine him and who couldn’t be bought — but where this new Lex got his start was still a mystery. If he didn’t lose his hair in a tragic Smallville accident, was it just plain old male-pattern baldness that savaged his ginger locks? What other dark secrets did he hold under those new fat layers?

Lex Luthor: The Unauthorized Biography sought to answer some of those questions, and delve into how Luthor built the business empire that made him the most dangerous member of Superman’s rogues gallery. Despite the title, it wasn’t actually structured like a biography (though the cover stole a typeface and design from Donald Trump’s autobiography, The Art of the Deal). Set several years after the character’s renovation (as indicated by the Luke Skywalker glove over Lex’s prosthetic hand — NEVER WEAR A CANCER-CAUSING KRYPTONITE RING, KIDS), the story is told mostly in flashback, with a framing story that has Clark Kent accused of murder:

The Peter Sands that apparently wrote out Clark’s name as his dying act was a down on his luck writer (which puts him in the company of roughly 98% of that profession), and was living in a rathole apartment with bills pounding him left and right. He got his deliverance (which turned out to be his death warrant) when a publisher called, asked if he was working on anything, and he randomly plucked a Lex Luthor bio out of the ether because that tycoon was in the newspaper headlines that day. Now he just had to write the damn thing. This being 1989, he couldn’t use a laptop to do all his research, so he slapped on a Mr. Rogers sweater, rolled down to the public library and *gasp* went through stacks of books and microfiche — remember microfiche?:

Self-serving autobiographies and old newspaper articles only go so far, so he had to go out and track down people from Lex’s past, most of whom weren’t all that willing to talk. There was the insurance salesman that sold Lex’s father a lucrative life insurance policy, despite the Luthors living in the downtrodden Suicide Slum. There was the mechanic that certified that it was just an accident days later when Luthor’s parents were killed in a car accident. And there’s one of Luthor’s teachers, who had  her own sepia-toned memories of young Lex.

But there was someone out there who could keep him safe. Sands turned to the one man who seemed to have Superman’s ear: Clark Kent. Though Sands’ ravings sounded like paranoid delusions, Mr. Kent had his own hidden reasons to listen closely. He promised that Superman would help, but events have a way of intervening:

Alas, it wasn’t Superman who knocked on Sands’ door next. But he did get an interview with his subject. So there’s that.

James D. Hudnall’s script is solid, and Sands’ trek through Luthor’s seedy past is enjoyable. The major flaw — or so it appears to me — is that he actually uses two layers of framing stories to tell the tale. The plot opens and closes on Luthor, who has a videotape of Kent’s interrogation delivered to his Aspen chalet. Then there’s Clark’s interrogation. Then there’s Sands’ story, narrated by Sands himself. There’s nothing wrong with any of these things on their own, but the way their arranged jumbles the narrative a bit. The transitions aren’t seamless, and they make the story clunkier than it needs to be. It’s like a multi-layer cake of flashback, and it creaks and groans under its own weight. Again — this might just be me. 

Luthor’s post-Crisis life story was fleshed out in a number of other places, but this book gave some indication of just how far he was willing to go to secure his future — and hide his past. It’s not on the short-list of must reads in the Superman mythos (and the big guy never even makes a costumed appearance in its pages), but it has its place in Luthorcana.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Batman: Son of the Demon

 Title: Batman: Son of the Demon

ISBN: 0930289250

Price: $8.95

Publisher/Year: DC, 1987

Artist:  Jerry Bingham

Writer: Mike W. Barr

Rating: 3/5

Son of the Demon was one of DC’s earliest original graphic novels featuring one of their superheroes. It was released to considerable fanfare in 1987, and was successful enough to prompt two sequels, albeit with changing creative teams. Here it’s Mike W. Barr and Jerry Bingham exploring the relationship between Ra’s Al Ghul, his daughter Talia, and Batman, her intended husband.

Since his introduction the near immortal Ra’s Al Ghul has always pursued a global ecological agenda. It’s been his methods rather than his cause putting him at odds with Batman, as he’s come to view humanity as a scourge, and the death of a few thousand here and there acceptable in pursuit of his ultimate aim of saving the planet. Talia frequently features in his stories, very combat capable, and often pitting herself against her father, which is the case with her chosen husband to be, Batman. First, however, there’s some background disclosures, as her mother has never been mentioned. We learn why, and about someone with the longevity and hatred to be a realistic threat to Ra’s Al Ghul’s plans.

Anyone re-reading this having left it on the shelf since 1987 may remember the plot, but the finer elements of the characterization will surprise. Batman is depicted as a human being beneath the costume, something that’s gradually been discarded since Son of the Demon’s publication. He wears the role well, grim and relentless when needed, but human enough to fall for Talia’s charms and to take his old foe at his word when all the evidence proves that to be the case. The present day Batman would obsessively review the information to locate the flaw in it he’s missed. Although presented in simplistic shorthand in places, in some ways this personality has a greater realism than the current iteration. Not everything, however, is rosy. Characters talking as if explaining to an audience is fundamental to Mike W. Barr’s script,

Bingham was a talent lost to comics somewhere along the way, and the shame of that is displayed by page after page of excellent naturalistic art. He uses a very delicate thin line, and his Batman is modelled on that of Neal Adams, whose graphic style he carries off far better than artists who’d draw the sequels this prompted. At times the page layouts leave something to be desired, and could be more striking, and the coloring is very much of its era, with the choice to intersperse black and white panels extremely eccentric, although they’re nicely drawn.

A further aspect also dates Son of the Demon considerably. A central plot device is a weather control satellite being controlled via computer hijacking, which was novel and new when published, but now… To counter that Barr offers two very good and surprising epilogue sections, the second very nicely recalibrating what was read earlier.

Cerebus Vol 3: Church & State Volume I

 Title: Cerebus Vol 3: Church & State Volume I ISBN: 0919359094 Price: $ Publisher/Year: Aardvark-Vanheim, 1987 Artist: Gerhard Writer: ...