Sunday, January 10, 2016

Superman: Earth One vol. 3 (comics)

Writer: J. Michael Straczynski
Artist: Ardian Syaf
Original Graphic Novel

I get the feeling JMS realized he screwed up.

When I reviewed Volume 2 of Superman: Earth One, I mentioned a bunch of story points that, to be blunt, destroyed the work and anything it was trying to do. New supporting character Lisa Lassalle working escort on the side - because of course - was one. Lois Lane going full stalker was another. Even if you could excuse that, Superman incited a full on revolution in a Middle Eastern country, one that was heavily implied to be violent. I know I've taken a sarcastic shot or two at people who have a rigid, immovable idea of Superman in the past, but there are some things you just don't do with him.

Volume 3 feels almost like an apology tour at times. The book goes out of its way to deal with the Lois Lane situation up top, addressing how screwed up her actions were - with Clark himself calling her out - while also attempting to give her some legitimate reasons for her paranoia without throwing her under the bus. I'm not sure it entirely works, but it does a fair job of letting us move on, especially considering Lois feels more like herself for the entire volume. Lisa's time as a hooker on the side is mentioned offhand at only one point and implied to be over, with any future reference relegated to vague mentions of things she regrets doing. Supermans actions in the foreign country are also central to the conflict of the book. I'm not sure that salvages what he did - that ending felt kind of sinister and acknowledged or not it's something that should not be done with the character - but addressing it goes a long way to making it easier to move forward from it, especially when Superman himself admits a couple times that while trying to do what he felt was right, he just wasn't thinking. At the very, very least, it can come off more like an impulsive action by a young adult prone to making mistakes on the way to figuring this out.

I don't think everything landed there, but at least we can try to move on.

Moving on seems like a decent idea anyway, because this book is far easier to enjoy than the last. Make no mistake, this story hits some pretty familiar beats. Zod is the main villain and the Luthors - yes, more than one - come into play. Obviously, we've seen this kind of thing before. I think the same basic Zod story has been told a solid six times now. But it works out fairly well, especially as Zods plan plays heavily into the worlds growing fear of Superman, which rightfully results in a "what the hell" from Superman himself. The odds are pretty believably stacked against Superman - and, as is acknowledged, it's kind of his own fault - but it does so without throwing humanity under the bus or undermining Supermans faith in it.

The big speech to the UN might not work for everyone - I'm sure some won't like that Superman appeals to the worlds sense of self interest rather than its more positive traits to convince them never to pull this kind of crap again - but it works in the context of the series and allows Superman to make some pretty salient points about what happens if he ever loses.

Regarding the Luthors, it's not the most amazingly different spin I've ever seen, but sometimes even the simple tweaks make for the best ones. Here, the usual, male Lex Luthor has a different set of values than we're used to seeing; while cautious regarding Superman, see's himself as purely a scientist and not a man interested in killing another being, even an alien. His wife is the one who is a bit more down with the idea, even if she has nothing against him for ninety percent of the volume. If nothing else, it plays into the climax well, with what I think might be the first time one of Supermans primary villains actually does something for selfless reasons. It didn't rock my world, but I liked it.

Ardian Syaf takes over for Shane Davis as the penciller. I'm not sure why the switch was made - maybe Shane Davis just got busy - but the book is in capable hands. I might even like Syafs work a little bit better than Davis. He's very, very good with character expressions and his sense of comic storytelling is pretty spot on. I also feel like he has a bit more varied a take on some characters and their fashion choices; Lisa Lassalle isn't always wearing form fitting clothing this time, for one. For an extra bonus, I didn't spy any panels or poses with Clark/Superman that felt... off, or sinister, as occasionally happened previously. I liked the art on previous volumes, but if Syaf's going to be the regular going forward, I'm cool with it.

All told, volume three is a marked improvement over the second, even if it doesn't necessarily redeem it, and is worth giving the series a second chance.

My Opinion: Read It

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Uncanny X-Men: Revolution (comics)

Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artists: Chris Bachalo, Frazier Irving
Collects: Uncanny X-Men (vol. 3) #1-5

I swear, I can't escape. Whenever I think I'm out, Marvel will throw Chris Bachalo and Frazier Irving at me and suddenly I'm reading about Cyclops again. It never ends.

Revolution picks up after Avengers vs X-Men* and deals pretty heavily with the fallout from said event. Cyclops has since escaped and - after a stop to his tailor for an upgrade to the coolest costume he's ever had - he's attempting to get the crew back together**. Problem is, their time as the Phoenix Five has effectively broken their powers in a way they don't understand. Regardless, Cyclops proves that's not enough to keep a good douchebag down, so he opens a new school, recruits some new mutants and doubles down on his previous rhetoric. He's not just threatening people anymore; Cyclops is straight up calling for revolution. Meanwhile, Magneto's gone triple agent; he's playing both sides of the field so well even we can't really tell whose side he's actually on.

I'm going to just say upfront that this series is not one you can really read on its own. This new volume of Uncanny X-Men shares a somewhat symbiotic relationship with All New X-Men, weaving in and out of that book while trying to do its own thing on the side. On the one hand, it makes for a richer overall experience; Bendis writes both books, so there's a tight connection between the two. On the other, it hobbles Uncannys ability to stand alone; this comic genuinely feels more like a full on spin-off of All New X-Men than its own entity at times.

There's no getting around it. To get the full experience of the Bendis run, you're going to have to read both books.

Is it worthwhile reading? Sure. Look, I can't stand Cyclops. I've made it clear by now. But I have to admit that while, given the choice, I'd rather not read about him, he's still an interesting character. Here, he's not even remotely humbled by what happened in AvX. Oh no, he's doubling down. As a result, he's not only alienating the rest of the mutant community, he's actively putting a target on everyones back by becoming exactly what everyone feared mutants could and would become.

He's so detached from the reality of what he's doing and what he's already done that he actually names his new school the New Xavier Institute. He has more or less rejected the teachings of his mentor - who he killed, Phoenix Force influence or not - while turning around and using the mans name for teaching schools of thought that man would actively oppose. He's ended up perverting Xaviers Dream in a way. This is interesting stuff to read about, even if the end result is that you don't particularly like the character.

If nothing else, we've at least abandoned the pretense that Cyclops is in the right, seemingly for real this time, which is a large part of what made the direction of the line unpalatable for years. Before, no one opposed him and he was treated like some unassailable leader. After Schism, people backed away from his increasingly extreme methods, but he still held enough clout to get the vast majority of mutants to rally behind him against the Avengers. Now, pretty much everyone recognizes the man not only lost his way somewhere up the line but is actively leading mutants into darker days.

I do wonder, however, if Bendis will end up acknowledging some of the problems with this direction and why Cyclops and his tactics have always come off so poorly. Mutants have special, super destructive powers that could easily wipe humans out and have a history of counting people who think that's a bitchin' idea among their number. See half of Magnetos schemes over the years, which at least had the X-Men around to stop them and act as a counterpoint. Hell, if you want to see an example of something like that actually coming to pass, Marvel already did that story; it was called Age of Apocalypse. Granted, the humans of the Marvel universe have taken it to extremes just as scary. The other side of the coin is Days of Future Past. But heroes are supposed to be better.

Point is, Cyclops and company are now punching down and I kind of hope that might be brought up, but I also realize that may be something the X-Men franchise never addresses for various reasons***.

Anyway, regarding the new school, we meet a couple new mutants due to the premise. So far, they all seem appealing enough, but it's early. We don't have a ton of time to really get to know them, especially since a good chunk of the book is about what trouble Cyclops and his team are getting into. So far, Uncanny doesn't quite reach the balance Wolverine and the X-Men has. That said, there's time.

Joining Bendis for this book is Chris Bachalo and Frazier Irving. I don't think I need to reiterate my love for both of these guys; I admit I'd rather they were on a book with a concept I could embrace, but given the fact that I'm going to be reading this comic anyway, it's nice to have such top shelf talent. I will express some reservations, however. Bachalo and Irving have wildly different art styles and they clash hard. So far, I'm not having too much trouble with it - and I completely understand that Bachalo needs an artist to switch off with, as the same thing happened with WatXM - but it's a jarring shift.

All told, it's a pretty good read. If you're already reading All New X-Men, you might as well get this as well. Just don't expect it to read well on its own.

My Opinion: Read It

 Cyclops Douchebaggery Alert: Hoo boy. Dude's gone full Che Guevera. He's calling for a revolution now. I'm sure that will work out great. On top of that, he decides the "New Xavier School" is a great name for his new headquarters. Look, I get some crazy circumstances were involved and the Phoenix didn't help, but he still killed Xavier. Maybe name it something else? At the bare minimum, it's tasteless. Oh well. At least he isn't creeping on Jean Grey in this volume.

* Yes, I did read that. The fact that I didn't bother reviewing it should tell you all you need to know. I might get around to it some day, but for now I'll just say that it's about as good as most of Marvels other events. Which is to say, not very.

** Minus Colossus. He kind of hates his sister now and she's on this team. He'll wander off to do his own thing in X-Force for a while. 

*** Chief among them being that acknowledging this might break the "mutant as a stand in for race" metaphor for good. Say what you want about how completely played out it is, but it's meant a great deal to a lot of readers over the years and Marvel has plenty of reasons not to want to toss it out the window.