Sunday, May 28, 2017

Superman: Before Truth (comics)

Writer: Gene Luen Yang
Artist: John Romita Jr.
Collects: Superman (2011) #40-44, Superman story from Divergence: FCBD Special Edition #1

I said a while back that if the Superman book didn't improve, I was out until Gene Luen Yang took over. Well, if you want to check the Superman tag, you'll see how that worked out. But the honest truth is that, having read this volume, I'm about ready to call the New 52 era of Superman a wash, because Grant Morrison aside I haven't read anything that's going to be remembered even a couple years removed from it.

It's not that this volume is bad so much as it feels like Yang never got the chance to do anything. All of the other books jumped forward to after Supermans secret identity was blown, with Yang left lining things up to get us there. As such, it feels like he's trying to do that at the same time he tries to get his own ideas through. That leads into some of the cast doing stupid things that feel out of character, simply because we need to get from point A to point B.

The "how" of Supermans identity being exposed is one of these things. I won't spoil it in case you missed the coverage of it when it happened or are coming in after the fact, but I didn't exactly buy it because I couldn't imagine that character doing what they do, even if she convinced herself at the time that it was the right course of action. It's too pat, too clean, and ignores any of the more interesting reasons the character might have ever thought to do it.

I'm not a hundred percent sold on the bad guy, either, partly due to lack of development and partly because it's not going to amount to anything. The basic story is that the evil head of Not-Facebook has figured out Supermans secret identity and is using that knowledge like a dangled carrot to get Superman to do what he wants. Interesting idea. The idea of social media being used for evil feels almost prescient now, in the aftermath of an ugly election cycle - and, frankly, the Presidency that followed - that saw the rise of "fake news" both as a thing to worry about and as a catch-all boogeyman for various ills. It's easy to forget that a company owns the crap all your personal data, thoughts and moments are thrown on and that, if they wanted, they could probably use it against you.

It sucks, then, that Hordr-Root - yeah, I know, it sounds kinda dumb - just kind of vanishes at the end of part three of a four part arc. Supermans identity is exposed and, without that leverage, Hordr-Root just kind of kicks a rock and shuffles off, with the entire final issue dedicated to the aftermath of the reveal. With three issues left to tell this story - because let's be honest, this isn't coming up again after Rebirth and Yang has a different, unrelated Super book now anyway - there's no way it goes anywhere interesting or reaches a satisfactory conclusion. It feels like wasted potential. That and the design isn't super amazing.

As for the whole "blown secret identity" thing, well, Rebirth is not even a full years worth of monthly issues away by this point. What are the odds anything interesting is done with it in that time? Yeah. Exactly. I have to believe they weren't a hundred percent locked into doing Rebirth yet when they greenlit Truth, because there would have been no point in bothering if they did.

All of that is compounded by the art. I respect John Romita Jr's long tenure in comics, but somewhere along the way he transitioned into a style I'm not wild about. It's very simple, with a lot of straight lines and even blockiness. There isn't a ton of detail on certain things, either, unless it's extra lines everywhere. There's a prototype gun bandied about early on that looks almost Liefeldian, like something Cable might have been packing in the 90's. I don't compare it to Liefeld to be super insulting, because it's still competent work, but I'm just not into JR Jr's art these days.

With all the negatives dragging Before Truth, I really can't recommend it. I'm still interested in a book where Gene Luen Yang is able to actually do something, so I'll probably read Rebirths New Super-Man - and I may even read the following volume of this just to see if the story does go anywhere - but as it stands it's worth giving this a pass.

My Opinion: Skip It


  1. I would love to see a proper story about superheroes interacting with social media. There's so much potential: the "fake news" media angle you mentioned, anonymous hackers looking to expose secret identities, etc. Not every story about social media needs to have some "evil" mogul out to overtly do harm with technology. So much of how social media operates these days is infinitely more insidious than the idea of some billionaire pulling the strings. Like, Trump isn't scary; it's the fact that so many people support him.

    I don't know quite what to think of Romita Jr.'s art anymore. I used to consider him my favorite artist in comics, but now I'm not even sure if I *like* his work. It seems to me like it started getting increasingly blocky and speedliney after he left Straczynski's Amazing Spider-Man, which is about when Klaus Janson became his permanent inker. I like both artists on their own, but together they seem to have become honed their collaboration into an awkward, exaggerated parody of itself.

  2. Eh, it's worth noting that social media kind of makes things seem bigger or supported more than they really are. You have smaller groups of people, but they're super vocal, so it seems like an overwhelming amount, but it doesn't necessarily translate. To some extent, Trumps support is like that too. He has defenders that are like rabid attack dogs, but part of why they're so rabid is because he's not well liked. His approval ratings are abysmal for a President this early in his term and his constant blunders aren't helping.

    To bring it full circle, this translates to comics on a much, much smaller scale. All those small books it seems like everyone and their grandmother raved about that barely broke twenty thousand sales and were constantly on the verge of being canceled.

    There are a lot of different effects regarding social media and we haven't really parsed all of them. It would be interesting to see how social media would interact with superheroes without a big "mogul" figure. But I think writers are also concerned about the idea of not having a face to the threat.

    Romita Jr's art is much the same for me. He was never my favorite or anything, but I like a fair bit of his earlier work just fine. But there's something really off-putting about what he does now. It could just be a bad artist and inker combo. But I sometimes feel like he's under-inked, almost, which doesn't work for his art like it might for, say, Rafael Albuquerque, who frequently seems to have thinner inking. I don't know. It's hard to tell. I just know I don't like it. Having his art on a project isn't a turn-off on the level of Humberto Ramos, for me, but it's only a couple ticks below.

    It's hard for me to pick a favorite artist in comics. I like Rafael Albuquerque a lot. But I've also been partial to Chris Bachalo ever since he broke from house style and started really coming into his own. His art can catch my interest in a book alone, but sometimes he's just never put on projects I have a big interest in. Jason Aaron and Chris Bachalo on Dr. Strange is the greatest creative team to be put on a character I do not care about even an iota.

  3. I think you're right about the inking on Romita's contemporary work being really heavy. Whenever I see his pencils these days they look like more what would have been called "layouts" or "breakdowns" in the '90s than they do finished pencil art. I think Janson does a lot more of the heavy lifting these days than his credits would seem to indicate.

    I'm not sure I could name a favorite artist anymore, although that may simply be because I read a lot more genres of comics than I used to. It was a lot easier to point to the one or two artists I thought were "best" when all I read was superhero comics.

    It's interesting that Humberto Ramos and Chris Bachalo occupy such extremes for you because there was a point when I saw them as being very similar, stylistically (although I've always preferred Bachalo, dating back to Generation X. I actually referred to his artwork on that series in a review I posted earlier today). But while Bachalo has really come to be one of the current masters of the medium, Ramos kind of stalled out about ten years ago and settled on a pretty sloppy aesthetic. It's too bad because I think he could do a lot better.

  4. I want to put more non superhero work in my reading diet, but the library doesn't always have them. So sometimes I have to buy them in hopes they're good. Comixology has been better for me in this regard lately. They have a lot of sales, so if I want to try something, I can drop a dollar on a first issue during a sale and not feel too bad about it, then look into a trade later if I like what I see.

    I haven't seen Romita Jr's pencils. If you're liking them to layouts or breakdowns then they must not be very detailed at all. It seems almost strange for an inker to have that heavy a role. They're obviously super important, but when you see raw pencil pages, usually ninety percent of the detail is already there. Perhaps age slowed him down enough that he needs to do that to hit a monthly deadline? I'm not sure what the mans circumstances are.

    I try my best not to rag on Ramos too much, because I don't like being super negative about work like that, but his current work is just capital letters Not My Bag. I've seen issues of his older work and I feel like he used to be far tighter, without nearly as much exaggeration of limbs and the like. There was a panel during Spider-Island with a character swinging where their body was bent so far back you'd think their spine had to have snapped. I feel kind of bad for giving him shit, but I just don't like it. I don't begrudge the man work, though. Dude's got bills to pay.

    Bachalo, meanwhile, does similar in that he'll exaggerate things, but he also has an amazing sense of design and page layout that simply pops. There was an X-Men one shot he did around the Utopia era - it might have been related to that Curse of the Mutants story with vampires that had tie-ins and the like - where Gambit and Storm are on a secret mission. One page is them navigating a sewer and the whole page is one snaking tunnel showing the characters moving through it. Not to mention I feel like his exaggerations work better, like they come off as almost endearing and dynamic rather than deformed. I think that's the big difference in how Bachalo has evolved versus where Ramos has gone. Dynamism versus deformity.

    But I'm not an artist or some art critic, so grain of salt. These are just my opinions, of course. I'm sure there are plenty of people who love his work and would think I'm nuts if they read this.