Saturday, December 22, 2018

Doomsday Clock 8

A Crossroads

I've paused considerably before posting thoughts on DC #8. While the narration in the issue is considerably action-packed and the physical events that occur are presented in a clear fashion, there is a disorienting degree of uncertainty surrounding the hows and whys of these actions. The majority of the issue is devoted to a two-phase catastrophe in Moscow, but some events that get less coverage are still striking and mysterious. It's clear that some very important events took place off-panel and/or inside someone's mind between the meeting between Veidt and Dr. Manhattan in DC #7 and Firestorm's arrival in Moscow in DC #8.

To be succinct, the framing scenes with Veidt that start and end DC #8 strongly imply that he is directing all of the major events in Moscow, making moves behind the scenes and from a distance to give Superman, many Russian citizens, and apparently Firestorm one very bad day. His stated goal is to save everyone and everybody, and apparently, and in keeping with his master plan in Watchmen, he is quick to sacrifice many individual lives along the way. But what is happening, and why?

Moscow: Superman, Firestorm, and (?) Dr. Manhattan

What happens in Moscow? Firestorm arrives, which is to say that Ronnie Raymond has decided to confront those he perceives as his tormentors who have aimed the Supermen Theory against him and other superheroes. His temper and his powers get out of control and this leads to many Muscovites being turned into glass. Firestorm flees the scene. Later, Superman gives Firestorm a pep talk after which Firestorm succeeds in changing one of the glass people back to normal. When Firestorm and Superman arrive in Moscow seeking to restore the many other glass people, Russian superheroes and Russian military forces under the command of Vladimir Putin respond with force rather than give Firestorm a chance. This escalates rapidly into Superman losing his status as the world's one, truly universally respected superhero. Immediately thereafter, an explosive blue flash leads to Superman (and Firestorm) disappearing and damage done to many of those in and near Moscow, including a rapidly-approaching Batman.

As others have already noted, this structurally resembles Veidt's surreptitious plans in Watchmen: Firestorm's angry outburst, followed by the use of his powers, resembles Dr. Manhattan's angry outburst when a talk show guest accuses him of having caused many people's cancer. Second, a large explosion in the middle of a city resembles Veidt's master plan creating mass casualties in New York.  We may further note that Firestorm is one of the DCU equivalents of Dr. Manhattan (Captain Atom may fit the bill better, but Firestorm is the one who's on-panel here). However, the similarity with Watchmen only goes so far: Superman seems to be the main target of all of this, and Firestorm seems to be more of a weapon used to place Superman in this situation.

This leaves us in search of an understanding of why and how Veidt is making all of this happen. We should moreover be wary of false assumptions, because there are some inferences made at many points in the discussion, and some anomalies that are surely setting up some major reveals.

Perhaps the biggest clue to all of this is the alternate cover that shows Veidt's hands manipulating marionette versions of Superman and Dr. Manhattan on Mars. It seems like a good bet that the blue flash at the end of the Moscow crisis consists of Dr. Manhattan's powers teleporting Superman and himself to the surface of Mars, a getaway that Dr. Manhattan also chose in Watchmen. Veidt tried, unsuccessfully, to get Dr. Manhattan to return to the Watchmen universe, and that is still his goal. His plan may be as "simple" as believing that a face to face meeting between Superman and Dr. Manhattan will produce a conversation in which Superman, as the paragon of hope, talks Dr. Manhattan into doing the right thing, which will be what Veidt wants, to save everyone and everybody. We may also predict that this won't work: Saturn Girl already disapproved of Veidt's plan, Dr. Manhattan's vision of the future shows him and Superman in battle, and both the art and the dialogue cast Veidt as the same sort of would-be-hero-but-villain role that Alexander Luthor played in Johns' Infinite Crisis.

Even if this successfully describes the aim of Veidt's plan, it is unclear how he goes about it. He seems to have engineered the following events that seem to be the product of others' choices, or by chance:

• Ronnie Raymond decides to go to Moscow as Firestorm
• Many citizens are turned to glass – apparently by Firestorm
• One glass citizen is turned back
• Dr. Manhattan's powers send Superman away, probably to Mars

Some of this seems to require superpowers, and some does not. Veidt is hyper-intelligent and skilled at manipulating others into doing his bidding while they think they are utilizing their own free will. Veidt could probably trick Ronnie into going to Moscow with something as simple as a forged text message or handwritten note. Turning people to glass, however, is not part of Veidt's skill set, so he apparently accomplishes this through one of the following:

• Bubastis has some version of Dr. Manhattan's powers and is capable of using them as Veidt desires.
• Veidt uses some DCU power such as Alan Scott's lantern or a kidnapped superbeing such as Zatanna, the Martian Manhunter, or Psycho Pirate to make the glass transformations occur or Firestorm to cause the transformation.

Finally, the teleportation to Mars may be performed by Veidt or by Dr. Manhattan himself, as a response to events in Moscow.

I will note a (literally and figuratively) glaring detail on page one: The lighting in the Oval Office scene switches from bright (white) to dark (blue), which may symbolically indicate that Veidt is creating a darker reality, or may mean that Bubastis is glowing blue as we've seen before. This is also echoed symbolically in the next scene when Perry White refers to Clark Kent's "blue suit" and Kent says that it's navy (a darker blue). Of course, Kent's more famous blue suit is that of Superman.

Given that list of options, it is perhaps not so important as to how Veidt manipulates events: There are plausible means at his disposal for doing so, and his choice seems like a mere detail. That gives us a broad explanation for much of the Moscow scenes. But, we have a puzzle piece unmatched and a hole where a puzzle piece should go: Where is Dr. Manhattan, and why is Martin Stein referenced so much in this issue (but unseen and unheard)? In the broader story, we have a major puzzle piece yet to fit and a hole regarding the Supermen Theory and the unobserved plan of Dr. Manhattan. It is likely time for all of these to fit together. I can't cite everyone who has previously posited that Martin Stein is the DCU identity of Dr. Manhattan, but the evidence stacks up pretty deeply now.

Martin Stein and Jon Osterman have similar enough careers. Both were nuclear physicists and both were given nuclear transmutation powers because of a nuclear accident. Luthor said that the head of the Supermen Theory conspiracy was a metahuman and a former JLA member, and Stein qualifies as both. Dr. Manhattan was likely present for the events in Moscow, and Stein – as the subordinate personality inside of Firestorm – was known to be present. The Supermen Theory produced many new metahumans and we know that Dr. Manhattan at some point manipulated the number of superheroes in continuity by allowing Alan Scott to die. And, there has to be a good reason why the Supermen Theory subplot is part of Doomsday Clock, which has not yet been completely explicit.

And, there's one more subtle detail way, way down in the weeds. In the end materials for DC #6, the file for the supervillain Typhoon says that his metagene was deliberately triggered by exposure to radiation, and that he was named "Typhoon" by the Director of the U.S. Government's secret Department of Metahuman Affairs. Typhoon first appeared in a Firestorm story as a backup feature in Flash #294 (1981), a story I happened to buy off the newsstand. Johns uses the introductory issue as a code name for three metahumans, including Typhoon, Moonbow, and Puppet Master, with Typhoon as FL294-1981. With just a few pages per issue, the Firestorm story played out over multiple issues, and the name Typhoon was first thought and then said in Flash #296 by Firestorm, who is both Ronnie Raymond and Martin Stein. Though technically this indicated the will of Ronnie, that seems to be a knowing clue that Martin Stein is the head of the Supermen Theory conspiracy. Furthermore, the director's name is blacked out in the end materials of DC #6, and it appears to start with a vertical stroke (as 'M' does) and be of about the right length (this depends upon the font, which may or may not be Arial Narrow) to be Martin Stein.

Let's examine Martin Stein's wishes as relayed by Ronnie in the issue:

• Didn't want to come to Moscow
• Get back in the sky
• Give up trying to restore the glass boy
• Don't trust Superman
• Can't restore the glass people
• Wants Superman to leave
• Says thanks to Superman
• Tells Ronnie to leave Moscow

Stein is constantly striving to prevent or end the situation in Moscow by having Firestorm and/or Superman quit and/or leave. Seven of his eight comments are to that effect, while the remaining one thanks Superman. The likely explanation for this is that, as Stein, Dr. Manhattan is forced to go where Ronnie wishes. Knowing what will occur, Manhattan/Stein would naturally be upset about the deaths of bystanders and, perhaps more important to him, the tarnishing of Superman's reputation. It is essential to this that Veidt's plan arose in response to a small number of comments in which Dr. Manhattan identified the hope in Superman and Colman Carver as something to which he responded and apparently seeks.

The question is, is that all Veidt's plan? Veidt knows, as of DC #7, that Dr. Manhattan seeks hope, and that Superman is the ultimate representative of hope. By ruining Superman's reputation, Veidt ruins Dr. Manhattan's quest for hope, and thereby eliminates Dr. Manhattan's stated objective for refusing to return to the Watchmen Universe. Now Dr. Manhattan is motivated both to fix the DCU and also the Watchmen Universe. But does Veidt actually know that Dr. Manhattan was present inside Firestorm, or is that by happenstance? It depends what he means when he looks through the files in the White House and says "Yes. Yes, this one will do nicely." If he's selecting Firestorm as an arbitrary weapon to frame Superman, then maybe his plan didn't depend upon Dr. Manhattan to be present for the tragic events. If he knew that Firestorm included Dr. Manhattan, then "should do nicely" may mean that he was selecting some other DCU individual to assist him in the control over events.

Dr. Manhattan's course of action, then, seems to be one in which he has continually tinkered with the timeline in search of some outcome he finds desirable, and then using his powers to reboot the timeline, with changes, when the last version did not work out. This is, also, like the role that Alexander Luthor played in Infinite Crisis. The sequence of timelines he has experienced or witnessed may include:

• The Justice Society as originally seen in All Star #3
• The Justice Society with Dr. Manhattan as a member (seen on a cover for DC #9)
• The DCU without a Justice Society (described on the first page of DC #7)

And causes of his disenchantment, making him give up hope may include:

• The JSA surrendering before HUAC
• Colman Carver's murder after he stands up to HUAC
• Superman losing his status as a universally beloved hero (at the end of DC #8)

The Justice Society

A  brief, but weighty, event early in DC #8 shows Lois Lane receiving a package that Reggie/Rorschach sent last issue. This contains a keychain drive with newsreel footage of the Justice Society in action, dated 1941 like the corresponding story in All Star Comics #4, the first in which the JSA went into action together as a team. The underlying fact is not new to us – there is a timeline, since banished into oblivion by Dr. Manhattan and/or Johnny Thunder's Lightning Bolt, in which the JSA existed in the Forties. But we have no explanation how Reggie obtained that imagery. We know that Johnny Thunder told him about the JSA, but where did the pictures come from? Something cosmic is working on Reggie's side. Maybe Alan Scott's lantern. Maybe Dr. Manhattan. Maybe the Thunderbolt or some other JSA-era force with cosmic powers has returned. A clue may be in the fact that someone rummaged through Lois' desk before the mail arrived. It seems like someone who knows a lot about what's going on is working at cross purposes with Reggie. Veidt? Someone else?

Superman v Batman (and Black Adam): Where's the Hope?

One of the episode's surprises is the flight of Batman (almost certainly towards Moscow) as he monitors the situation and calls out to Superman. He has learned some things during his painful brush with the Watchmen Universe characters, and he seems to have made some important inferences, getting ahead of the readers. As he shouts out desperate orders contradicting Superman's intentions, orders that Superman does not heed, the final tragedy and explosion seems to indicate that Batman is informed and wise while Superman is uninformed and foolish. The dynamic also looks bad for Superman when Black Adam tells him that the Supermen Theory is correct (which documents in DC #7 already showed us).

This is news because the first seven issues of Doomsday Clock were unrelenting in showing a Batman who was unprepared for the challenges that faced him, from being outplayed by Rorschach and Veidt, subdued by a crowd, and shocked by the Joker. The series had begun to look like a polemic against Batman while Superman was elevated to the embodiment of hope. Here in the final pages of DC #8, the dynamic reverses, with Batman's perspective seeming to prove correct as Superman, by taking sides, leads to catastrophe.

But was Batman correct? He certainly seems to have tactical knowledge of the situation, including the fact that Superman's words would anger Putin and the fact that the pending explosion was not due to Firestorm (but rather, it seems, due to Dr. Manhattan, although it could be more complex than it seems). But perhaps Superman was on the right moral track, saying, correctly, that Firestorm was not to blame. Batman says that Ronnie is a reckless kid who has too much power, but perhaps both Ronnie's rashness and the tragic events in Moscow were due to Veidt's manipulations, not Ronnie's decisions or actions.

As action escalates, this is still a confrontation primarily of beliefs and ideals. There is likely to be little pause in the final issues of the series now that Superman and Dr. Manhattan have, apparently, met. It'll be fun to watch the action, but Johns' big message is probably going to come across in the speech balloons, not the art.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Heroes in Crisis #1-3: Signs and Contradictions

All I have to add are some observations from lining up, side-by-side, events where the three issues have given us at least two accounts. There are numerous inconsistencies. (That's not to say that they are all contradictory: There are various ways to explain these.) The location of Roy and Wally has been mentioned, but there are also these:

1) The trio of greeter androids inside the house is an older couple (who resemble the Kents) and a younger woman. In HIC #1, the younger woman is black. In HIC #3, she is white with red hair in a ponytail.

2) The cluster of dead heroes outside the house is considerably different in HIC #1 and HIC #3. Lagoon Boy and Hotspot are feet-together in #1 but heads-together in #3. Those around them include Commander Steel in #1 and Red Devil in #3. Basically none of the details match.

3) Wally's costume leg is ripped in #1. In #3, he's killed with a single blow to the head. There'd be no reason for his costume leg to become ripped.

4) Obviously, Booster and Harley contradict one another, each saying that the other did it.

5) Booster's memory and recordings are inconsistent. At the time he apparently sees Harley kill Wally, he says that it's his first day there. The session recordings are not the same, and in one, he says that it's his first day. If all of these scenes are real and on the level, then he must have made two recordings introducing himself on the same day. (There are many other explanations.) Harley says that she didn't know he was there and his explanation is that it's his first day.

6) Booster and Harley have scratches/cuts, and costume tears in #1, but none when they meet in #3. Perhaps we missed a fight between them, but it would seem odd for any of Booster's weapons or tactics to give Harley scratches.

7) The shadows fall in almost opposite directions when Booster arrives at the house in #3 and when Superman arrives in #1. This is probably just an error, but it could indicate sunrise vs. sunset.

8) Ivy's testimony in #3 involves a direct and immediate contradiction/correction/refinement of how long she's been there when she says "A week. Nine days." We don't know if that recording and the one seen in #2 are from the same session or not. It seems that the one in #2, coinciding with Harley's arrival, must likely be shortly before the murders. This makes it odd that she is still explaining her justification for being there, nine or more days after her arrival. There's no direct contradiction here, but it calls into question the soundness of Ivy's thoughts.

9) Booster's costume is intact after Skeets wakes him up, despite the tears and injuries earlier. Perhaps Skeets' technology includes costume repair.

10) Booster's memory of the session where he's talking to a virtual copy of himself indicates that the attack began when he was not present, another contradiction of Harley's assertion that Booster committed the murders.

Obviously, this is a lot of contradiction, and it's got to be resolved. A lot could be resolved in one tidy package if we simply find out that Booster is delusional. More could be resolved if we find out that someone rearranged the crime scene.

I think we're a long way away from answers here. Neither Booster nor Harley is the killer in the simplest sense: The solicits for #5 and #6 indicate that someone or something corrupted the Sanctuary AI and the Sanctuary AI, by giving the heroes counterproductive "therapy" made their problems worse rather than better, until one or more of them snapped. The villain stands a good chance of being someone we haven't even seen on-panel yet. A bug in the software owing to Batman's paranoia (see the kryptonite in the belt) would be a plausible explanation except that's just what the Brother Eye plot was.

I'm glad we've got six issues to go. There's a long way to go for the mystery, and we haven't gotten very deep into the psychology yet.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Green Lantern 1

"Nobody panic. Chill. I've got this." Hal Jordan makes everything (besides holding down a steady job and a healthy relationship) look easy. And in many ways, so does Grant Morrison. What seems, on most pages, like a light-hearted comic to breeze through in a few minutes carries a lot of history behind it, with some foreshadowing and a bit of brutality.

The first panels of the run begin with a bit of numerology. Maxim Tox (seen for the first, and, apparently, last time) is a Green Lantern of Sector 2018, which is not so coincidentally our current year AD. So watch his story carefully, for therein lies a parable. As soon as he begins his fight to the finish against an arachno-pirate, Rokk and Sorban, gamblers from the planet Ventura, make a wager on the fight. Though Maxim Tox (= maximum toxicity, or toxic platitudes?) takes an initial setback (losing his ring finger) in stride, with three Green Lanterns backing him up, he does not survive the issue. Floozle Flem, a sentient GL virus infects the spider villain, making him beg for mercy, and setting up Tox with an "in Soviet Russia" joke ("You catch Floozle Flem!"). With characteristic and unbeatably succinct wit, Morrison has the crystal GL Chriselon respond to Tox's high-spirited rhetorical question with a curt "Yes." while a chicken-looking GL, Trilla-Tru, celebrates victory with a chicken-sounding "buck buck-AW!" In the very short time that we get to know Tox, we find out that he's a member of his home planet's nobility and all that Morrison, a non-noble Brit, brings along with it, and then Tox dies.

So, in just a few pages, and before the title character makes his first appearance, we find out so much about the direction of the series. First, Rokk and Sorban troubled Superman and Batman back in the Silver Age, making two real appearances before seeming to appear for the second Superman-Flash race back in Flash #175 (1967), though it was really a pair of other villains in disguise. So, we know that Silver Age lore (from the time that Morrison was 7 years old) is in play. The crystal Green Lantern, Chriselon, is apparently the successor to Silver Age Chaselon, from the same sector of 1416; Chaselon debuted in GL #9 (1961) and was later written into Final Crisis (with the single line, "Cease and desist!"), but later killed by Black Lanterns. We also see hubris and comedy suddenly give way to tragedy, which suggests that what starts off as easy victories for our hero(es) are apt to take a much darker turn. Finally, we see that another Silver Age creation, the Luck Lords who debuted to bedevil the LSH in Adventure Comics #343 (1966) are providing the substance of a larger threat that will carry well past this issue, as a Luck Dial allows the villains to beat and the other three fun GLs. Right there, we have the makings of a pretty good idea of how the multi-issue story arc will go: Hal Jordan's extraordinary skill and confidence will be put to the test – more than he knows – by characters who can manipulate the very rules of time and chance. Along the way, we're going to see some fun and some skillful use of Morrison's gift of creating wonderfully new, and sometimes disposable, side characters. And it will get dark, but who are we kidding: This is Hal Jordan – Hal Jordan! – of course he's going to win.

As Hal appears for the first time, staring at the skies before a quick date with "Eve" we are promptly shown where in Hal Jordan lore Morrison wants to take us. This is not 1960s test pilot Hal or early 1970s social justice Hal (and Ollie). This is late 1970s/early 1980s hitchhiking Hal, who is only magnificent when he's in costume, and fails at one job after another as he travels America like a beatnik from On the Road without the fun. Except that Hal, full of self doubt, is nowhere to be seen here. This Hal accepts his career setbacks as collateral damage. When reminded of his job failures, he shrugs it off with a smile. If this Hal is going to prove complex, it will not be due to anguish. But note carefully the recent items on his resume – a gas station named "52 Pick Up" (a reference to playing cards, games of chance), selling toys (befitting a superhero icon), and selling insurance (what makes everything right when bad luck turns against you). So when there's bad luck, a superhero comes and makes everything right. There are no accidents in these details.

Along the way, Morrison shows us the defining traits of Hal, and they're the same ones I highlighted in my review of Final Crisis: It's not Hal Jordan if he's not in hot water with the Guardians. When the issue begins, he's already had his lantern revoked for upgrades… a detail that is likely to be explained more later. Then, after saving Chriselon's life, the Guardians summon him to New Oa and it is revealed that the Guardians know that there is a traitor-to-be within the ranks of the GLs and they know who it will be… a mystery pending future issues, but who is it? Hal himself? Hal is also supremely self-confident, and when another GL, Chriselon thinks that he will die, Hal tells him that he won't, and Hal is right. Chriselon also tells us that three extremely dangerous space criminals are on the loose, and Hal, never concerned, goes to confront them alone. (The crashed ship with a dying GL inside, as Hal notes, is a deja vu to Hal's origin, but this time, the dying GL lives!) And part of his supreme confidence comes from his supreme skill: Nabbing the criminals is almost effortless. In fact, he has a laugh at their expense: When the criminal makes himself larger, and tries to threaten Hal, Hal's response is to say that he will "Laugh my ass off, probably." He's cool enough to say that and cool enough not even to chuckle when his estimate is right, and the criminal's leg bones shatter painfully under his own weight. And this shows us a trait of Hal that not all writers have asserted: This Hal is smart. He understands physics, and engineering, and mathematics, and he knows when a Luck Dial is fake, when a bunch of attackers is a colony creature with one brain, and when a "bum"'s reaction to guacamole pegs him as a Horminth Collective from Cluster World 3. (And I'm reminded that Morrison's response to Frank Miller's All Star Batman included the comment that Green Lantern is smarter than Miller wrote him.) Morrison's Hal Jordan is Hal Jordan at his best. He is easily worth more than three other Green Lanterns, and he knows it. He doesn't do scared, he doesn't rattle, he laughs off the "trouble" of his vagabond life and the cycle of disapproval and begrudging respect that the Guardians show him. He is the epitome of Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff: An American male at the top of his game, with skill and confidence amplified to the extreme and intertwined to an extent as pure and intense as the unadulterated green of a green laser. This Hal is as good at what he does as Miller's Batman is good at what he does. Don't expect to see a complicated man in anguish, struggling with life's challenges. Hal is ready to beat and smirk his way through any such challenges, give or take a gigantic space armada or two.

A challenge worthy of him, however, is looming. We know that the villains of this story arc are trying to assemble five powerful artifacts and they already have two. We know that they are seeking to acquire control over reality itself, changing the predestined facts in the Book of Oa, and inevitably changing the rules of luck in their favor. And in a grotesque surprise, we see that they have a Yellow Lantern version of Hal, somehow related to the weaponers from Qward, and are harvesting the heart from its dead corpse. This subtly evokes the world of Sinestro, and it's as inevitable that Sinestro eventually show up in this run as Luthor and the Joker did in Morrison's runs on Superman and Batman. The only one missing for now is Carol Ferris.

But Morrison's plans are big. A final teaser page shows us Hal's verdant buddy Green Arrow and the Green Lantern of Earth-20 (a befanged version of Abin Sur). It looks already like the plan here is for a series that will run a couple of years, and the challenge for Morrison is how to make his Hal as purely skilled and confident as he's communicating here and for Hal's challenge still to be challenging.