Saturday, June 18, 2016

Retro Review: DC: The New Frontier

It is easy to begin Darwyn Cooke's DC: The New Frontier, classify it as an "Elseworlds" story, and continue on, reading it with pleasure to its conclusion without revising that classification, that is an Elseworlds, one of many. But New Frontier is, significantly, something different than – something more than – an Elseworlds, and part of what makes it so outstanding lies in that subtle distinction.

Yes, New Frontier meets the definition. Just as "imaginary stories," from the era before the term "Elseworlds" was coined, fits as well. New Frontier presents variants of familiar DC characters in a variant of the familiar DC Universe. But to see how the story is more than that, note the ways in which it deviates from both the Silver Age and post-Crisis renditions of the DCU:

New Frontier has an absolute timeline with precise dates, and with characters aging one year for every year that passes.
• As a rule followed in all cases but three, Cooke defines characters' debuts and careers to match their actual publication dates. For example, Barry Allen debuts, in the world of New Frontier, at the same time that Showcase #4 was published in our world. The exceptions are so rare that they are worth identifying: Dick Grayson, John Henry Irons, and (in a cameo only) Roy Harper all debut around 1960 instead of in 1940, 1993, and 1941, respectively.
  New Frontier interweaves the timelines of actual historical and cultural events with DC publications so that, for example, the launch of Sputnik is inserted in proper sequence after the arrival on Earth of J'onn J'onzz and the accident in which Barry Allen gains super speed.
• Artistic style and period-appropriate slang makes this work about 1960 look and sound like it was created in 1960.
• Though the style is from the Sixties, the perspective is from the 2000s, turning an eye to much that was ignored by comics and the mass media in its own time, such as racial discrimination, racial violence, and the excesses of McCarthy-era anti-Communist rhetoric.
• Cooke includes not only DC's stars, but also a huge lineup of DC characters, offering memorable renditions of characters ranging from Batman to Slam Bradley and the Challengers of the Unknown.
• Cooke adapts, from post-Crisis continuity as well as Watchmen the notion that superheroes became feared by the public, and thus the JSA era was ended. He adapts, from The Dark Knight Returns, the notion that Superman (and Wonder Woman) continue to operate by pledging their loyalty to the U.S. government, while Batman continues on as an outlaw.
• The comprehensive history of an era, showing the dawn of DC's Silver Age, suggests parallels between the optimism of John F. Kennedy's "Camelot" and the debut of the Justice League.

To summarize the nature of New Frontier's world: While a typical Elseworlds offers a variant of the standard DCU, or makes the DC characters interact with some fictional variant of our world, DC: The New Frontier places DC characters in a world that is much more like the real world than any previous rendition of the DCU. During long, extended scenes and in tiny details, New Frontier is a period piece that is about our world – primarily the United States, but other places as well. It educates while it delights and entertains.

Because of all this, the superheroes are much as we've always known them, but their world seems different, and, though set in the past, and worked from established material, it is incredibly new in the way it combines older plots and styles with a new perspective. The superhero action, front and center, is as universally white and non-inclusive as the comics of the Fifties, but Cooke makes the readers and his characters aware of the glaring social inequalities of the times, with xenophobia, rape, lynchings, and Joe McCarthy's Red Scare punctuating the usually-sunny narrative.

And while it does such a great job of being about the real world – circa 1960 but seen from the perspective of the 2000s – New Frontiers does two other things, too. It crescendos around a particular story with a particular threat, called The Centre. But before, during, and after that central plot, it constructs an architecture of an entire age of heroes, showing the Golden Age and the Justice Society in the rearview mirror while it drives us through the beginning of the Silver Age and the formation of the Justice League.

The first time that NF shows us a superhero in costume is when Hourman dies fleeing from the police as a vigilante in 1952 – this is the first year after DC ceased publication of the Justice Society, and also the time that McCarthyism was near its zenith. As in DC's post-Crisis continuity, NF posits that the JSA was driven underground, leaving the world without superheroes for a time. As in The Dark Knight Returns, NF shows Superman working behind the scenes as a government agent while Batman fights crime illegally. Like the continuity applied retroactively to the Silver Age superheroes, we see heroes like the Flash (Barry Allen) and Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) debuting some time after Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. Unlike any of those once-main continuities, NF asserts that the Trinity belonged to the JSA era, and after a few years, went on to be part of the JLA era. This is a luxury that NF's timeline allows because only eight year separate the two teams' tenures, unlike the decades that passed before DC reintroduced JSA stories in the late Seventies under the post-Golden Age concept of Earth Two.

At its finest, New Frontier is an origin story, not of one hero or another, but of a team – a universe. Most central are the three Silver Agers who joined the Justice League as charter members. Barry Allen is trim, almost petite, but supremely confident and courageous. J'onn J'onzz is lonely and isolated in his exile on Earth, but utterly driven to act only on the behalf of others as policeman John Jones. Hal Jordan, whose life is shown in more detail than anyone else's, begins as a kid in an outtake from "The Right Stuff," then goes on to become a war hero, a test pilot, an astronaut, and a superhero. New Frontier is a coming-of-age story for the Justice League's universe, tying together many loose threads, and ending by showing how the nascent League goes on to fight together, opposing Starro, the JLA's first opponent in print, back in Brave and Bold #28. The finale, quoting Kennedy's inaugural speech is overflowing with optimism. If it makes you want to see the new world that has been born, it's there in print, in the first fifty or so issues of Justice League. But those stories by Gardner Fox are written for kids, perhaps older kids. New Frontier is a look at that world that was newly minted for kids, but dressed up and sophisticated for adults, full of meaning and style. Sometime a few months ago, I realized that it is, in all likelihood, the best comprehensive account of the entire DC Universe in one work. If I had one DC story to take to a desert island, I can't think of a better choice.
Earlier this year, I read New Frontier for the nth time, taking notes, putting together drafts of a review to post on my blog. And then, when the review was nearing completion, Darwyn Cooke died, far too young. All of the kind things I say about the work, and by extension about Cooke, might seem like a puff piece, something overly kind said of the dead. No. After many times admiring New Frontier, I was putting into words why I thought it was so wonderful, and this was nearly complete when I heard that the author was gone. All of the admiration was firmly in place and for the most part already typed out when I got the sad news. Darwyn Cooke, this review – too late – is for you.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

DC Rebirth #1

Wally West is doing things a Flash has done before.

Like Barry Allen in Crisis on Infinite Earths, he appears to Batman to deliver a warning that is also a cry for help that Batman is unable to satisfy.

Like Barry Allen in Flashpoint, he comes to Batman to deliver a message about reality having changed. The status as a messenger is, in turn, a reference to the Roman god Mercury, who also inspired the first Flash, Jay Garrick.

Like Barry Allen in 2008's Final Crisis one-shot lead-in DC Universe #0, he is the narrator, initially unidentified, with yellow-and-red narration boxes as a clue to his identity before it is revealed.

Like Barry Allen in Flash Rebirth, he is lost in the Speed Force, seeking an anchor to pull him back to reality.

Like Barry Allen in Final Crisis, he gets back to reality, and then participates in an emotional reunion with his former partner.

Like himself – Wally West – in a JLA-JSA crossover called "The Lightning Saga" he returns to continuity after a prolonged duration in which his absence was a creative decision by DC that was eventually reversed.

But he is also playing the roles of two non-Flashes: Like Doctor Manhattan (on two occasions) in Watchmen, he is nearly blown apart by cosmic forces, but survives to return to reality. As with several of the correspondences mentioned above, the artwork is intentionally composed to remind us of the connection, but in the case of Watchmen, it is a clue (of several) pointing to a further reveal that Watchmen's universe is connected to the DC Universe.

Like Johnny Thunder, he is a bearer of lightning. Johnny's appearance as an old man is used early in Rebirth to let us know that the Justice Society was always part of the post-Flashpoint history, but it was hidden and forgotten.

And, like Geoff Johns, the writer of Rebirth, Wally West is telling us how he feels about the DC Universe: "I look down at it and know without question: I love this world."  Johns certainly does love the DC Universe, and Rebirth is a love letter to many things that it has been, and, as Rebirth tells us, manifesto-style, will soon be again. This applies to all of the scenes I've so far mentioned and many more, including the conversation between Superman and Destiny and the mysterious appearance of a Legionnaire, probably Saturn Girl (Legionnaires fulfilling a mysterious mission in the present was also part of the aforementioned "Lightning Saga").

Geoff Johns, presenting DC, is bringing things back, and he's excited about them. There's a lot to love. I'm excited about some of it, and other readers will be excited by a lot of it, too.

Where my enthusiasm grows dim, and where many of the aforementioned references to previous changes in continuity fail, is that what DC's creators brought back now are things that they themselves discarded in the very recent past. This is not a twenty-year rebirth, reversing the decisions of departed former bosses. Jenette Kahn, the longtime DC publisher whose tenure killed off Barry Allen, Hal Jordan, and the Multiverse, left DC in 2002; Johns and his new bosses began reversing those creative changes almost at once. But this time around isn't a revolution (or counter-revolution) under new bosses. This time, the Powers-That-Be are the same Powers-That-Were when all of the changes that are being reversed were made in the first place. Johns, et al made the creative decision to pare down DC Continuity in 2011 believing that those changes were good. Now, they undo those decisions, believing that it is good to undo them.

I was greatly enthusiastic about many of the changes made in 2011, and greatly disappointed in the lack of inspiration shown by many of the writers who wrote 2011's new titles. Some of 2016's changes, I regret. Others, I look forward to. But the key, as now, is not those changes, but whether or not DC has a stable of writers ready to write great stories. Revisiting the past can be a wonderful thing, and it can be done wonderfully. But if DC will be revisiting not only the facts and style points of the past, but also the same general plots and same general kinds of stories that we've already seen, my enthusiasm – and that of other readers – will dim in 2017 just as it did in 2012. I believe that any writer who can't make the New 52 exciting can't make the Rebirth era exciting, either. The creative direction changes nothing in that regard, and so the burden is on DC to show that change is good change, and not simply recycling.

"Nothing ever ends," quoted from Watchmen, is the last line of Rebirth. How DC approaches the new beginning will determine if we should interpret that line as a promise or a threat.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Retro Review: Fifty-Two

Ten years ago this week, DC launched 52, something longer than a miniseries but with a definite end built right into its short title. The title and concept of 52 play back on itself in a variety of ways. The series ran 52 issues in 52 weeks, from May 2006 until the same month in 2007. The number itself occurred many times within the story, often as an Easter egg for its own sake, but ultimately as a clue to a mystery. After DC had shown a propensity for delays on other, more modest, projects, the idea of a weekly series with several collaborating writers seemed like an unrealistic goal, but 52 came out on time each and every week, a creative success in each of its separate subplots.

52 was built on an unusual base of concepts: It was set in the year immediately after Infinite Crisis and was given sole power to tell the tale of that year, with all other DC comics skipping ahead "One Year Later." Consequently, it seemed that any monthly comic might contain spoilers for 52, but that seems to have been prevented either by good preparation or the simple fact that 52 and its four writers – Grant Morrison, Geoff Johns, Greg Rucka, and Mark Waid – focused on minor characters who didn't headline in the monthlies.

The stars of the main subplots of 52 were as follows:

• Animal Man, Starfire, and Adam Strange
• The Question, Renee Montoya, and Batwoman
• Black Adam and Isis
• Will Magnus and other prominent scientists
• Booster Gold, Skeets, and his rival, Supernova
• Ralph Dibny
• Steel and Lex Luthor

Effectively, DC got a tremendous proportion of readers to buy about seven full issues' worth of material concerning each of those subplots, something that could not possible have been achieved by scripting and publishing the stories separately: Imagine how few readers would buy a seven-issue Elongated Man series.

So, initially, it seemed to cynics like a sales job based on promises: A series so central to DC's plots that readers would feel compelled to read it, but based on unimportant characters and the seemingly imminent risk of failed deadlines. The result, however, was a delight: The quartet of writers and their army of artists managed to hit every deadline, and the stories were without exception worth reading. 52 made a collection of minor characters worth reading about with the most important element in fiction – engaging, original storytelling, full of surprises. Each subplot in 52 was something more than it seemed to be; someone – usually more than one someone – was involved in deception, and the stakes were always bigger than they seemed to be. What seemed at the outset to be sullied and selfish motives ultimately proved selfless. Time and time again, 52 took the high road, giving each of its constituent stories another level than first impressions seemed to indicate.

In retrospect, 52 employed somewhat of a formula across most of its plots. There were characters who seemed good but had a hidden evil identity in at least five of the plots: Black Adam's stepbrother was befriended by an anthropomorphic alligator, Sobek, who stuttered and claimed to be fearful, but was really a murderous double agent for Intergang. The team of superheroes made by and working for Lex Luthor had one very bad egg in the form of Everyman, real name Hannibal, and like Dr. Lecter, a sociopathic cannibal. Dr. Cale, the beautiful blonde scientist who warms up to Will Magnus, was another double agent, loyal to Apokolips. Two plots have a golden toaster-sized traitor: Doctor Fate's helmet is actually Felix Faust, intent on stealing Ralph Dibny's soul; and, Booster Gold's sidekick Skeets has been taken over by Mister Mind. Other deceptions abound: Lobo pretends to be living according to a vow of nonviolence, but he breaks this vow three times, twice by design. Supernova, a hero who fills the void left by Superman, is actually the very man he seems to antagonize, Booster Gold. And, the ongoing mystery of what the Question plans for Renee Montoya is resolved when she – and we – find out that the Question intends for her to become the new Question after her death.

The pattern of deceptions across every plot in 52 plays into the larger pattern of sneak attacks, common to many Morrison stories in the decade after 9/11. Enemies who could not overpower their foe directly set up plans that come crashing into them when they're least expected, perhaps most shockingly when Sobek tricks his "friend" Osiris into saying the magic words that remove his superpowers, then crunches into his flesh with powerful jaws, killing him in his moment of vulnerability. In this subplot, evil plans come to fruition, but in the two subplots, the savvy heroes have prepared counter-sneak attacks of their own, just as the Seven Soldiers and Batman do in Morrison's other works. Ralph Dibny deduces early on that "Doctor Fate" is not what he seems to be, and plans a very clever sacrifice that cheats not only the magician, but also the Devil himself (in this case, Neron). At the end, we learn that the gun that Ralph pointed at himself in issue #1 fired wishes, not bullets, and that the flask he kept sipping from held power-giving gingold, not liquor. Rip Hunter intervenes to give Booster Gold the tip-off he needs to outwit Mister Mind, so the two of them can save the Multiverse. In the other plots, the heroes have to work hard to make up for their unpreparedness, and they manage to salvage the situation after initial setbacks.

The big plot, covering most but not all of the subplots, is that Intergang is preparing an era of crime on Earth, serving their dark lord, Darkseid. They win a few skirmishes in 52, leading to millions of deaths, but, obviously, fail to achieve the victory they seek, but we know by story's end that they lurk in the shadows, and have something else planned. Separate from that main plot is the impending threat of Lady Styx, an interstellar bringer of death who is killed by Lobo, but only temporarily. Distinct from all of that is the return of the Multiverse, and the immediate threat to it posed by Mister Mind. Along the way, 52 makes some big changes to the DCU, killing Vic Sage and Ralph Dibny, depriving Black Adam from his powers, and giving us a new Batwoman.

Another Morrisonian device is the way that Mister Mind is ultimately defeated: Rip Hunter and Booster Gold send him back in time, where, in his larval stage, he meets up, seemingly haphazardly, with Sivana, who imprisons and torments him. This is stunningly parallel to what happens at the end of Return of Bruce Wayne, in which Batman and his allies – including Booster and Rip – put the Hyper-Adapter into a time machine and send it into the past, where it is vanquished by a familiar DC villain, Vandal Savage. Other time loops bring Ralph Dibny back to his wife's death and Booster Gold back to the day he meets his best friend, Ted Kord. There is also a considerable parallel between All-Star Superman and the Steel-Luthor subplot, with a superpowered Lex Luthor being defeated at the end by someone in Metropolis who out-thinks him, turns off his powers, and then punches him out. The abundance of Morrisonian patterns in 52 suggests that he had more influence on the plotting than his 25% share of the staff might seem to imply.

The stories make use of other literary reference: the three lost space travelers are on a journey home like the Odyssey, with lotus-eating, a Cyclops (the Emerald Head of Ekron), and a suitor (the unspectacular Roger) wooing Animal Man's wife, Ellen. The Four Horsemen constructed by Intergang obviously come from the Book of Revelation, as echoed in the Crime Bible. And DC lore is mined quite effectively in the small details everywhere, with Isis being adapted from the 1970s Saturday morning live action show, the new Batwoman being related ("Kate the younger") to the 1950s Batman love interest, Supernova being adapted from an alternate identity of Superman back in World's Finest #178, and a depowered Clark Kent jumping from a window in order to get a scoop a la Lois Lane.

Though 52 is devoted to the minor characters, DC's stars cross the stage in cameos, with Clark Kent, Diana Prince, and Bruce Wayne all making appearances, the last of those very key as a prequel to Morrison's Batman run. The JSA, the Green Lanterns, and a wide sweep of other major heroes all play a role here and there. Though it's an excellent thing to read now, unusual as a work of that length with a pre-planned beginning and end, it was scripted to suit the needs of its times, launching the post-Infinite Crisis DCU with panache and intrigue. And, just as 52 begins quite literally in the wreckage left by Infinite Crisis, it drops ominous clues to something coming down the road, something that would prove to be Final Crisis.

52 was an impressive accomplishment, one that was extended, but poorly, into another yearlong series, Countdown, which mirrored its structure (weekly issues for a year; leading into, rather than out from, a crisis), and counting down just as 52 counted up. But the success of 52 was not repeated then, nor has that format been repeated since. 52 was a singular thing, a start and a finish, with the final panels of both its first and last issues asking the reader, "Are you ready?"