Friday, September 18, 2009

Op/Ed: Titans in the Justice League

In case you haven't heard, the League is undergoing a shift into a new era and a new roster.

This time, it's some of the next generation stepping up to the premier team in the DCU in the absence of the Trinity. In particular, several former Titans have joined the roster for this new era. Now, I'm an easy mark for the Titans - yeah, yeah, I know the franchise has hit hard times in recent years and I agree; I still like the team and several of the characters - so I'll admit right up that my interest in the League book has shot up.

It seems everyone has an opinion on this roster. Many seem to be positive about it, but there are some detractors; most of the latter take issue with some of the characters on the roster they deem "unsuitable" for the team. The former Titans in particular seem to be a focus of this type of discussion; most seem to be in complete agreement that Dick Grayson (currently Batman) and Cyborg should have been on the League a long time ago, but Starfire and especially Donna Troy seem to be targets. I think those folks are missing the point.

It was time; this sort of roster was truly a long time coming.

I'll run down the roster in particular and give my general thoughts on it. Before I do that, however, I'd just like to mention that I like the general conceit of the key three members here. The Trinity are off the board, so it seems like the center of this roster is a new "Trinity" comprised of characters heavily tied to the original Trinity; Mon-El for Superman, Dick Grayson for Batman and Donna Troy for Wonder Woman. It's an interesting twist on that League dynamic and helps keep the marketable star power of DC's three most recognizable characters suitably visible.

Anyways, my thoughts on the roster are as follows.


Congorilla: I have to admit right up that if there's a choice on this roster that baffles me, it's Congorilla. Aside from the admitted awesome of gorillas, what purpose does he serve? I didn't even know who the character was before James Robinson dredged him up. I'm willing to give James Robinson the benefit of the doubt here - he did wonders with Starman, so he certainly deserves it - but of all his choices this is the one I'm least certain about.

Mon-El: Some of my friends were wondering just who the hell this guy was. It's not an unfair question; unless you're familiar with the Legion of Superheroes or have been reading Superman recently this guy is going to baffle you. The long and short of it is that Daxamites are very similar to Kryptonians, only lead is lethal to them. As you probably guessed, Mon-El is a Daxamite. He's also currently associated rather heavily with Superman. Add on to this the fact that James Robinson has been writing him a while now and seems comfortable with the character, and you can see why he might end up being a perfect addition to this new League.

Donna Troy: Obviously the representative for Wonder Woman. She's the only one of the Titan additions I'm not sure about; in the past she's been one of those characters who was just there. I understand why she's on the roster, but I hope James Robinson knows what to do with her. I also hope he does not even remotely bother with the mess that is her origins. She needs a new direction and story not tied to that ungodly mess. The character has been so tied to the story of clearing up her origins that she has never gone anywhere else as a character.

Dick Grayson (Batman): This one probably should have happened a long time ago. Sure, Dick has been a Justice League reservist for a long time and he served in the replacement Justice League while the real deal was in the past once, but he hasn't ever been an official, active member. Many say that he should have been the first to move up; while I'm not quite so sure about that, he definitely should have before now. He belongs on the League and I hope Robinson has a good idea of what to do with him. There's no way he's going to be Batman forever - or even that long, arguably - but hopefully when Bruce Wayne returns he decides to focus on Gotham and leaves the Bat position on the League to Dick. Actually, the same goes for all the replacement Trinity; it would make appearances by the real Trinity special by reserving them for only the biggest threats.

Green Arrow: I've got to be honest here. Ollie's not a bad character. I have no problem with him. But I've very disappointed that he's basically replacing Roy Harper as the teams archer. Ollie is always going to have his own title. DC is always going to try with him. Roy, on the other hand, really needed the exposure and time in the limelight. Of course, who knows how Blackest Night may shake out if Roy is actually involved; my complaint may end up being entirely moot depending on how things shake out there and depending on his own role in things. But still, I'm not fond of this change, at all. Especially with much of this team lineup being a "next generation takes the reins" sort of thing, replacing Roy with Ollie just seems odd and kind of dumb.

Doctor Light: I'm not entirely familiar with the Japanese, heroic female Doctor Light. What I've seen hasn't exactly endeared me to her either; she comes off so hopelessly arrogant and grating that you just want somebody to backhand her. I'm willing to give the character the benefit of the doubt and give James Robinson the opportunity to sell me on the character. I'm not going to dismiss the character outright just because she seems to be a total douche in what little I've seen.

Starfire: Of the "New Teen Titans", she's certainly among the best picks to move on up. Over time, she's grown out of her role as a Titan. Slowly but surely, she became a central part of the Space Team and had adventures outside of the Titans. This is the next step away from perpetuity as a Titan. Dick is already there, which allows them to finally use the two together in a meaningful way again. She's een set up with issues stemming from Final Crisis. She's a great character in general. I'm glad she's there; this is a natural step in her progression away from the Titans.

The Atom (Ray Palmer): You know, I've never really paid much attention to the Atom. The most I've really connected with the character has been in Identity Crisis, where he's a part of the climax of the story and is forced to make what must have been a horribly difficult decision. Maybe I'll see what others do in him. As of right now though, I don't have much of an opinion on him as a Leaguer; I've read some of the old JLA where he was more or less just a reservist and he seemed good in that role. We'll see.

Cyborg: What the hell took so long? Seriously, Cyborg has deserved to be in the Justice League for years now. No, I don't mean just because he has an association that stems from the final seasons of Superfriends; though let's face it, that certainly does help. I mean the fact that he's always been the most grown up and mature of all the Titans and he has the capability to be a major player in things. He's deserved the honor of becoming a Justice Leaguer for a long time now. Of any of the characters on the League, I think he's definitely one of the most deserving of any of them. It's time; it was time for him to step up years ago.

The Guardian: Yeah, this one definitely seems to be a pick more because James Robinson is comfortable writing the character. I mean, he's been handling him along with Mon-El in Superman. For that reason, I suppose he's a good choice; I'm certainly not against Robinson using characters he's grown comfortable in the voices of. Not sure he's League material, but I'm willing to keep an open mind.

Hal Jordan: To be honest, it would be strange to have a Justice League without a Green Lantern. I've never been entirely sure which I'd rather have. I've got a fondness for Kyle Rayner, to be certain, but John Stewart doesn't exactly get the time to shine he deserves half the time so his status as the Leagues Green Lantern was always a good use of the role. Still, Hal has an association with the League that goes straight back to it's inception. It's kind of like coming home in regards to the characters association with the team. While I'd prefer Kyle Rayner, I like Hal Jordan as a character too; all in all, I can live with this as long as Robinson writes him better in the actual League title than he has in Cry for Justice.


The only true oddity of this roster is the lack of a speedster. It's honestly weird to have a League without one. James Robinson says that one is coming, though, so I guess the complaint is moot. I wonder which it might be though. It could honestly go either way; this team is kind of a mix of the old and the new, so Barry Allen would fit in some ways, but Wally West has been the speedster of the League for what seems like forever. Personally, I'm pulling for Wally; Barry looks like he'll be the key speedster under the Flash mantle in the future, so it'd be nice to not completely marginalize Wally by taking his place on the League.

Robinson has also said that this League is going to be a large one, like the old days with Len Wein. Characters will come and go, the focus might shift from time to time. I'm cool with that, honestly. As long as James Robinson stays on for a good long time and has a long run, this has great potential. It would suck royally if he didn't stay long enough to do loads of stories with these new Leaguers.

The start of the new lineup isn't going to crop up until #41 though, so there's still a bit of a gap until the new era truly kicks off. James Robinson starts with #38, but for that and the two succeeding issues he's working with the remnants of the League as it stands. All four of them. I'm not against that. It seems best to springboard the new era proper after the Blackest Night tie-in. Plus January is the first month of a new year, so a new start for the team seems appropriate. Still, it means a bit more waiting for this new era.

But thankfully, while excited, I'm also patient. This new era has a lot of potential. Hopefully James Robinson won't disappoint.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Hitman: A Rage in Arkham (comics)

Writer: Garth Ennis
Artist: John McCrea
Collects: The Demon Annual #2, Batman Chronicles #4 and Hitman 1-3

His name is Tommy Monaghan; and he kills super people. For money.

This series had the unfortunate luck to pin out of a godawful crossover named Bloodlines, but what's remarkable is that Hitman was the one concept that actually survived it. Bloodlines had been conceived largely to create an abundance of new superheroes; in a lot of ways, it failed miserably, as almost all of the heroes that came from it were so lame that they were either promptly forgotten or killed off with little fanfare. But Hitman survived and spun from it; and what a series it was.

This book is easily one of the highlights of the 90's, typically known as the dark ages of comics.

The books premise is simple; an irish hitman named Tommy Monaghan gains superpowers - telepathy and X-ray vision, in particular - and instead of throwing on spandex he uses them in his job. But instead of taking on the regular hits, he decides to change tactics and focus his powers on taking down the supervillain set. Tommy has a strict code of honor; he will not kill anyone he deems to be a "good guy", but he has no problems killing those of ill morals. In fact, he finds the cape and cowl set to be idiots for not killing their villains.

This trade collects the earliest stories that introduced the characters and while some may be a bit rough, things begin to click by the time you get to the first issues of the actual Hitman series. The Demon Annual has Tommy's first appearance and the sequence where he receives his power. The annual is a tie-in to Bloodlines, but thankfully Etrigan and Tommy end up saving it from suckitude. The Batman Chronicles issue is where things start to get into gear; taking place during the events of Contagion, a walking disease bomb wanders into Gotham and Tommy is hired to take him out, which of course leads into conflict with Batman. Then there are the Hitman issues, which comprise the first story of the ongoing series. Tommy Monaghan is hired - unknowingly by demons from hell - to break into Arkham and kill The Joker. The hit turns out to be a ruse - the demons want Tommy as their personal hitman - and things get crazy. Batman is involved, of course, and his appearance leads to one of the funniest moments I've seen in a while; Batman nails Tommy right in the gut and Tommy promptly vomits on Batman.

It's kind of funny to think that Garth Ennis once wrote a series like this, which is firmly set in the DC Universe. He's one of those bitter guys who doesn't like superheroes unless he can make a complete mockery of them in his books; the only characters he seems to have any respect for are Batman and Superman. He's not at Warren Ellis levels - you know, the guy who considers his superhero work to be working bottom of the barrel - but still; the concept of him doing a book set in a superhero universe is so freaking odd. The great part is that he manages to use it to his advantage; Tommy works in a distinctly recognizable Gotham City, complete with the sorts of whacked out occurances that happen almost daily in the DC Universe. Whether he's taking the piss out of event storylines or concocting weird ass storylines, it feels like it's a DC book.

This books strength is easily it's lead character and his supporting cast that is introduced in the Hitman issues. The thing about this book is that simply scenes like Tommy and the boys playing poker at Noonans bar are often as memorable as the scenes when Tommy is out on the job doing what he does best. There's a real sense of comraderie and male bravado here that is simply enticing; many of the people Tommy associates with are either past or present hitmen and each has their own views on things. These men kill for money, but they're not bad people; if anything, they're the sort of men you could imagine having a friendly drink with. Tommy's world is different from the views of the heroes of DC; they see things in black and white, but Tommy's life is colored in many shades of gray. It made this corner of the DC Universe easily among the most compelling.

It's hard not to crack a smile during the scene in Arkham and his reaction upon stumbling upon the real Joker in the midst of his escape; one gets the feeling that if more people were like Tommy in the DC Universe, it would be a safer place to be.

The art is pretty good, but it's not the best you'll see around. John McCrea is rather solid, but one could argue that his storytelling through his art could be better. Also, sometimes the DC heroes will look downright odd; Etrigan, for instance, will shift sometimes from lean-but-solid looking to damn near anorexic. Batman sometimes suffers from this problem as well; some scenes with him seem stiff and Batman comes off too bulky at times. Still, the art works well; if anything, it works the best when the recognizable heroes and villains aren't present.

The Score: Dramatic Thumbs Up

Top to bottom, this trade is solid work that sets up the things to come. The Hitman issues are where things really begin to come together, but that's not to discount the Demon Annual and the Batman Chronicles issues where the character is set up; it may be his debut, but he's still debuting in someone elses show, so there are different subject matter in those to the Hitman issues. Irregardless, the character is set for the future, where things only get better. It's not as good as the things to come, but the first volume is still good stuff. I recommend it wholeheartedly; too few people read this book when it was releasing monthly and you have only yourself to blame if you do not check out the DCU's most underrated series of the 90's this time around in trade.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Justice League of America: The Nail (comics)

Writer/Artist: Alan Davis
Collects: JLA: The Nail 1-3

Elseworlds seem to divide people, I've noticed. Some like them, just as many don't. Why is something of a mystery; it's interesting to see alterations on a familiar universe. Sure, not all of them are winners, but that excuse has never washed for me; no form of entertainment is filled with nothing but perfection.

So, here we are with an Elseworld. The concept behind the story? The Kents truck recieved a flat tire and were kept from finding the Kryptonian shuttle that contained the child who would become Superman. Such a simple change, but Alan Davis makes a world without Superman feel suitably different; without such an icon or a shining example of the metahuman community, humans grow to distrust the heroes, or so it seems. All signs point to an alien conspiracy as the heroes fall one by one.

I thought the writing was quite decent, if a little overwrought. Once you start reading, it isn't long before the style smacks of the Silver Age writing conventions; characters more or less narrate their actions, exposition at times reigns supreme and some conversations are overly wordy. But when you can simply accept those quirks, it works. The story also works nicely with a few red herrings and surprises in store; I spent two third of the story convinced Starro the Conqueror was behind everything. In some ways, the story ends as you might expect, but it's still an interesting ride along the way. In a nice twist, it's a story that focuses on all members of the league rather equally as well; no character will steal the show here, which I liked.

The art also feels like a bit of a throwback. Alan does a hell of a job with the artwork, giving us visuals that feel like the solid, colorful work of the seventies. It's great stuff, to be certain, proving that Alan is the rarest kind of comic creator; someone who can competently write and illustrate a story. It's hard to find much fault with work this solid.

As an Elseworlds, I suppose I can say that it does it's job rather effectively. It's not as much of a radical departure as some others; take the story where Batman became a Green Lantern instead of a dark avenger of the night, for instance. Still, it does show that things would be different without Superman. Lex Luthor becomes the mayor of Metropolis without the hindrence of his narrow obsession with the Man of Steel, for example. Without the shining beacon of Superman, the superhero community is feared almost irrationally. The world without Superman is a convincingly different place; so mission accomplished, even if a bit more subtly than other Elseworlds.

The Score: Dramatic Thumbs Up

I quite enjoyed this story. It's quite a solid Elseworlds tale and I'm not sorry I made the purchase. I'm interested enough in where the story could go from the end to pick up this Elseworlds direct sequel, Another Nail. I only hope it's as solid as this one. Recommended.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Batman: The Man Who Laughs (comics)

Writer: Ed Brubaker
Artists: Doug Mahnke, Patrick Zircher
Collects: The Man Who Laughs one shot, Detective Comics #784-786

If there's one thing fans aren't lacking, it's Joker stories. The character is nigh omnipresent at times and never too far from any writers mind when they get their hands on one of the books. If there's a story they don't go back to much, though, it's the first encounter. Sure, there's the original issue - Batman #1 - that introduced Batman's enduring arch-enemy, but that's also, like, seventy years old now.

Enter Ed Brubaker and Doug Mahnke with the "Man Who Laughs" one shot. Structured like a sequel to Batman Year One, it fits right in, taking place before and after those last few panels of the aforementioned story, where Jim Gordon mentioned the villain by name and his plot to poison the Gotham Reservoir. We don't exactly waste time with any origins, either; much like The Killing Joke, it's kept vague, focusing instead on the terrorist nature of Joker and the chaos he delivers. Why he's there doesn't matter as much as what he does now that he's there. Batman muses that he'd prepared for murderers, rapists and petty thieves, but not the mentally unstable. Nothing will ever be the same again, something Gordon and Batman are keenly aware of.

If you're familiar with the name Doug Mahnke, you will probably expect some very good art. You won't be disappointed. As you might expect, Mahnke draws the hell out of the story, making the story as solid visually as any other aspect. The linework is a bit sketchier here, but it's a style that works. Unlike other attempts by other artists, Doug Mahnke manages to keep the style from becoming an eyesore.

Also included in the trade is a three issue story from far further into Batman's career. Near as I can tell, it takes place a while after No Mans Land has come and gone; Jim Gordon has since (temporarily) retired as a cop and assists the Dark Knight in an unofficial capacity. The story itself is a team-up between the current hero of Gotham - the Batman - with the original hero of Gotham - Alan Scott, the original Green Lantern - to solve a case that went cold during Alan's original time in Gotham in the 1940's. It is a copycat? Or the original returned?

It's fine, even if it's not going to have a large impact on the Batman mythos or anything. But really, it's impact doesn't matter; it's a nice extra, included to give you another Brubaker penned Batman tale and pad the length a bit. It reminded of what you might get if you took an issue from "The Brave and the Bold" comic and gave the team-up three issues to play out. It's fun, which is all that really matters. Also, if the last couple pages don't make you smile, I'm not sure what will.

The art is fantastic. Patrick Zircher's style there is a bit more solid than Doug Mahnke's approach in the title story and it looks very modern. It's some slick work and makes the team-up as good looking as it is fun. So the entire book looks good from cover to cover. You can't ask for much more.

My Opinion: Buy It