Sunday, October 28, 2012

Crisis on Infinite Earths

Title: Crisis on Infinite Earths

ISBN: 1563897504
Price: $29.99
Publisher/Year: DC, 2000
Artist: George Perez
Writer: Marv Wolfman
Collects: Crisis on Infinite Earths #1-12

Rating: 3/5

Most fans have at least heard of DC Comics' Crisis on Infinite Earths, the maxi-series that reinvented the "reality" of the oldest consistently publishing comic book company. At long last (well, at the tail end of 2000) DC released the epic in a trade paperback for those who missed it either in its original serialized format, or in its pricey hardcover version.

I had never read the series. In 1985 comics were getting pricey (I had no idea just how pricey they'd become, of course) and the great reads seemed few and farther between. When DC announced it was overhauling its line with Crisis, I decided it was time for me to go, too. Eventually I fell back into reading comics and inevitably my curiosity led me to reading Crisis on Infinite Earths. I mention all this just to put my opinion in perspective -- I read it 16 years after the fact.

The story has a mysterious villain destroying whole universes, whittling away at DC's multiverse -- wherein earths existed in parallel dimensions, each with its own superheroes. An enigmatic, omnipotent being, Monitor, is determined to preserve as many of the universes as possible and gathers together heroes from various universes to help. Eventually the heroes triumph, but the end result is that reality has been remade as a single universe where all the characters either co-exist...or no longer exist.

Crisis was, obviously, an awesome undertaking, a story that attempted to throw in almost every character in the DC catalogue. There probably isn't another artist who could have handled the task as well as George Perez -- certainly not who was working at the time. He crams each page with tiny panels and crams the panels with little details and finely drawn, impeccable figure work, all laid out with edgy panel composition. For pure quantity, you get your money's worth. Writer Marv Wolfman holds up his end by providing lots of dialogue. Sometimes the panels are so small and the dialogue so much that letterer John Constanza has to spill word balloons into neighboring panels. It's a 12 issue series that, in other hands, probably would've been 24 issues.

Is Crisis a good read? Well, yes.

It's a big spectacle that can be fun just for the sheer number of characters, featuring (literally) an earth-shattering menace, and buoyed by Perez's art, aided by inkers Dick Giordano, Mike DeCarlo, and, mainly, Jerry Ordway (an overwhelming inker, admittedly -- sometimes you can find yourself forgetting it's Perez's pencils underneath Ordway's inks). For older readers, the story evokes all those old Justice League/Justice Society team ups that were an annual event in the Justice League of America comics throughout the '60s, '70s and early '80s.

Is Crisis a great read? Well, no.

There are too many characters. Admittedly that's the point: to squeeze everyone in. Almost everyone gets a line, true, but very few get a lot of lines, or very good lines (even A-list heroes like Batman and Wonder Woman have just bit parts). The plot unfolds a little too linearly -- despite the fact that it leaps around from the far future to the distant past, jumping from reality to reality. Wolfman basically comes up with his premise...then sticks with it for 350 pages. There are some questions that keep us turning pages (who is Pariah? what is the Monitor's plan? etc.) but considering the saga's size, unexpected plot turns are few. There's repetition, particularly in the first half, with too few moments that gel into memorable scenes in and of themselves. The "action" tends to be a lot of scenes of mass fisticuffs.

The use of the god-like Monitor, and some subsequent characters, helps push the story along, but it reduces the familiar heroes too often to being kind of unthinking props who just go where they're told. Considering this was the swan song for some of the characters, it's disappointing. Wolfman also introduces brand new characters, spotlighting them sometimes at the expense of the established heroes. The irony is that most of the original characters introduced have long since faded into obscurity!

The saga is better in the last half than the first, and a couple of double-sized issues (#7 and the concluding #12) stand out, the greater pages allowing Wolfman and Perez to shape more well-rounded chapters.

There are technical lapses, as is probably unavoidable when dealing with the warping of time and space and reality -- spots where you find yourself going, "hey, that don't make sense", or where Wolfman glosses over plot points. And at one point Captain Marvel Jr. refers to Mary Marvel as his "sister" and the Golden Age Superman is more powerful than I remembered. And since this was a "crossover" epic -- one of the first -- there are a few annoying spots where characters wander off and we're advised that their adventure continues, not in the next issue of Crisis, but some other comic entirely.

In the annals of mass slaughter depicted in comics, the hundreds of billions cavalierly wiped out in Crisis is unmatched. To make matters worse, it was not done out of any artistic desire, or to tell a great story, but simply because DC Comics wanted to clean house. I don't want to get too metaphysical, but when the heroes rage against the villain it's hard to get swept up in their indignation. After all, he didn't kill billions...Marv Wolfman did. Likewise, in the series’ most notorious twists -- the deaths of the original Supergirl and the Silver Age Flash (not to mention Dove, Lori Lemaris, Aquagirl, the earth 2 Huntress, and so on) -- there's some of the same ambivalence. It's hard to be entirely moved because it was an editorial more than an artistic decision. Supergirl and the Flash evince an atypical ruthlessness in their last moments, too, which is curious.

Admittedly, all that's from the perspective of reading it years later, when all of this is ancient history. At the time, it might have been more powerful.

There's a little too much of the "Iconanism" that seems to have become prevalent in comics. Where the Marvel Age was all about emphasizing a superhero's humanity, the modern Iconic Age (as I think of it) is more about Wagnerian chest beating, defining superheroes by their being superheroes. Even when Wolfman tries to squeeze in character bits, it's mainly characters reflecting on superheroism. If I read one more character musing what a "true hero" another character was, I was liable to throw the comic across the room. When Supergirl dies, we're treated to a half page eulogy delivered by Batgirl at her funeral -- it's heavy handed, it's expository, it's...Iconic! Far more affecting is a later, understated scene where Brainiac 5 is embittered because of Supergirl's death.

With that being said, #7 (with Supergirl's death) and #8 (Flash's death) are among the better stand-alone issues -- not because of the deaths, but the stories are more focused. Wolfman also shows an unusual sensitivity for continuity by having the Golden Age Superman -- the hero that largely begat the DC Comics empire in 1938 -- take a pivotal role in the climax.

The series was intended to redefine and clarify the DC Universe -- it did neither. Even how the series ends (with the heroes remembering the pre-Crisis) was instantly contradicted by the regular comics (where even Supergirl went unremembered -- this despite Superman vowing to "miss her forever"). Once DC opened the door to "redefining" its universe, new editorial regimes have done so at least twice, so that even hardcore fans aren't really sure what is, or is not, continuity. There's also an uncomfortable tendency to brow beat. Knowing what they were doing was bound to be controversial, Wolfman has the only character who bemoans the changes be a raving lunatic in an asylum. A not-very-subtle way for Wolfman to get in a pre-emptive swipe at his critics.

Crisis is arguably more craftsmanship than it is art, though it may well be as good a version of the story as was possible given the parameters. Is it the classic it is heralded as? Not really. It's a bit draggy in spots and I can think of similar stories, both after and before, that were as good or better. But it's still an enjoyable epic that reminds you when DC Comics' reality was an interesting, diverse place to be.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Walking Dead Volume 12: Life Among Them

Title: The Walking Dead Volume 12: Life Among Them

ISBN: 9781607062547
Price: $14.99
Publisher/Year: Image, 2010
Artist: Tony Moore, Charlie Adlard
Writer: Robert Kirkman
Collects: The Walking Dead #67-72

Rating: 4/5

Any day where there’s a new ‘Walking Dead’ collection to be read is a good day indeed! Would that be the case with this volume though...? ‘Life Among Them’ won’t go down as one of the stand out installments in the series but it still has a lot going for it...

After what seems like a lifetime of wandering, our band of survivors might just have found what they’ve been looking for all this time. A walled community offers the chance to enjoy life as it was before the zombies came. Is it too good to be true though? And are the secrets behind this new community any more sinister than the issues brought inside by a group of traumatized survivors? What will give first...?

We’re twelve volumes in now and when you get this far along with a series you find that there’s really only so much that you can say about an artist who’s been there almost right from the start. That’s the position I find myself in with Charlie Adlard, an artist who has produced consistently good work (so far) on his run. I did wonder, a while ago, if the series might benefit from a new artist to freshen things up. Looking at it now though, Charlie’s art is ‘The Walking Dead’ and it wouldn’t be the same without him. What I will say though is that Adlard seems to work a lot better in the smaller panels than he does on the larger ones or the two page spreads. The more space he has the less detail seems to go into it. I guess deadlines and stuff can really work against you in situations like that.

As far as the story goes...

‘Life Among Us’ is very much a book that is all about setting things up for some pretty explosive events in future books. You don’t know what you can see coming but you just know that something big is looming on the horizon. The exciting thing is that it really could go either way. Is there something sinister behind this new community or will Rick’s group do something really stupid because they can’t trust anyone anymore? I’m into this series for the long haul anyway and it’s questions like this that have kept me reading for a few years now.

What I found though is that Kirkman perhaps draws the tension out a little bit too much. You’re waiting and waiting and waiting... but there’s no real payoff. This isn’t like when they were living in the prison where lots of little things were happening on a regular basis. This new community has a stagnant feel to it that weighs at the plot and makes things drag... I’ve still got faith that something huge will happen in the next book though and there is something to be said for the contrasts raised between the two groups in the meantime.

This approach is even more annoying in that a long running question (an intriguing one too) is brushed to one side without much fuss. Cryptic remarks from Eugene promised much but the revelation was flat to say the least. It almost felt like Eugene’s sub-plot was brushed to one side so Kirkman could concentrate on what was going on in the new community. The problem here though is that Kirkman doesn’t really give us a lot in its place, just the promise of something to come...

Kirkman hasn’t let me down yet so a curiously flat installment here feels like more of a ‘blip’ than a real problem. There was enough here to keep me interested and certainly enough to have me wondering just what will happen in the next book. I’m pretty sure the payoff will be worth it.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Walking Dead Volume 11: Fear the Hunters

Title: The Walking Dead Volume 11: Fear the Hunters

ISBN: 9781607061816
Price: $14.99
Publisher/Year: Image, 2009
Artist: Tony Moore, Charlie Adlard
Writer: Robert Kirkman
Collects: The Walking Dead #61-66

Rating: 4/5

‘What We Become’ went a long way towards this with Kirkman’s willingness to shock (without overplaying it) working well with Adlard’s artwork capturing the raw emotion and savagery in black and white. While it wasn’t the best collection so far (which has to be ‘Made to Suffer’), ‘What We Become’ certainly set a tough act to follow for the next collection in the series. The good news for fans is that ‘Fear the Hunters’ exceeds those expectations and then some! If you haven’t checked these books out, you really should…

The journey to Washington continues (give em’ a break, they’re going as fast as they can!) with Rick and his band doing whatever they must to stay alive. The land is suspiciously zombie free but is more dangerous than ever before. Rick and his friends must cope with a horrifying revelation within the group as well as the fact that another group is following them with murderous intentions on their minds. Everyone has to eat…

Every time I think that Kirkman can’t possibly top the last book he comes right out and smacks me dead in the eyes with some seriously messed up behaviour in this post-apocalyptic world. The zombies are almost superfluous to what’s going on here, Rick and his friends (along with others) are more than capable of plumbing the depths of human savagery all by themselves.

Living in the middle of a zombie holocaust as a child (who probably can’t remember what it was like before it all kicked off) is the theme of the day here and Kirkman looks at this through the eyes of two of the children in the group. One is mad (or at the very least not thinking straight at all), the other…? Well, you never really know but one thing you can be sure of is that the pressure is beginning to show. There’s a bittersweet ‘innocence lost’ vibe that runs along the slightly insane ‘innocence that adjusts to its surroundings’ and the result will have you really feeling for those of us who have to grow up too fast. ‘Intense’ is not the word for what goes on around this subplot as we see people having to confront hard choices that they wouldn’t have even dreamed of in the past. After the first death, I was surprised that none of the characters thought to stop the corpse reanimating though. Did this happen ‘off-screen’ or have we found something that Kirkman won’t show…? I don’t know…

If that wasn’t enough, the ‘hunter’ sub-plot sees us say goodbye to one of the longer term characters in a way that tugs at the heartstrings as well as making you laugh as you see him have the last laugh on the people who put him in that spot. Again you get to see just how low people will go in order to survive and it leaves you wondering just how far you would go to do the same thing. Cold logic papers over the cracks of insanity while giving in to your rage only hastens that particular journey. At the same time, you also get to spend time with characters that fight to keep their humanity no matter what and this shows the reader that there is hope yet. The downward spiral may seem inevitable but it’s not a path that you have to take.

The final showdown is brutal, just as brutal as you would have come to expect from both Kirkman and Rick Grimes himself. These are desperate times and you know what they call for… Adlard’s art though, as excellent as it is, failed to keep up with what Kirkman was trying to get over to the reader. It’s good but the ‘aftermath shots’ didn’t quite capture just how apocalyptic things just got…

That’s such a small niggle though, so small that I’m almost ashamed to have it there (although it’s staying!) ‘Fear the Hunters’ is a marked step on in quality from ‘What We Become’ (you know how good I thought that was!) and it promises great things for the next collection. The very last pages, in particular, just encapsulate what’s great about this series.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

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Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Walking Dead Volume 10: What We Become

Title: The Walking Dead Volume 10: What We Become

ISBN: 9781607060758
Price: $14.99
Publisher/Year: Image, 2010
Artist: Tony Moore, Charlie Adlard
Writer: Robert Kirkman
Collects: The Walking Dead #55-60

Rating: 4/5

Catching up with Rick Grimes’ continuing struggle to survive in a world newly populated by the living dead was a New Year’s resolution that didn’t really need making a big deal of on the blog. ‘The Walking Dead’ is one of my favorite series. I appreciate my LCS (Tony’s Kingdom of Comics) for keeping me up-to-date on these trades.

Rick and his band of survivors are making their way towards Washington and a possible solution (or at the very least a reason) for the sudden uprising of the living dead. It’s a long way to Washington though and there’s plenty that can go wrong along the way. As always, the zombie threat only comes second to humanity can do to itself when it has been beaten to the ground and has nowhere else to turn. Again, as always, the threat can be found not only in the obstacles that Rick and his friends will face but within the very group itself...

‘What We Become’ is very much a ‘transition piece’ along the same lines of the earlier episodes in the prison. New characters have been introduced and are in the process of bedding into the group and slowly beginning to show what they’re all about. Hard case Abraham is very much the man to watch here with his flying rages hiding a terrible secret that will gain your sympathy. The title says it all here, we get to see what the survivors are becoming and there’s a mixture here of people aspiring to rise above their circumstances while others will embrace their rage and do whatever it takes to survive... As is typical with Kirkman by now, not only do these scenes pull no punches but their sheer intensity leaves you wondering what you would do in similar circumstances. Sometimes, the only way to fight an animal is to become an animal yourself and Kirkman leaves you in no doubt as to what this really means.

Seeds are also being sown for events further down the line. What can constant exposure to the living dead do to a young mind? Especially when it’s clear that death isn’t the final obstacle that it has been in the past... Kirkman leads his readers gradually into this one and is setting up something quite nasty for the near future.

There’s not a lot more that I can say about Charlie Adlard’s artwork that I haven’t said already; the bottom line is that I think it complements Kirkman’s sombre tale almost perfectly. I was wondering though if it might freshen things up to have another artist to have a crack at it, just for an issue or two. On the one hand, why would you mess with a winning combination? On the other hand though... It might make for an interesting change to see someone else’s interpretation.

That’s just me daydreaming on my first day back at work though. Kirkman and Adlard might not be doing anything new but when it’s all being done so well it almost doesn’t matter. Roll on volume eleven...