Thursday, July 30, 2009

Evil Star on the Horizon

The more I dig through Geoff Johns' run on Green Lantern readying a summary of the generalities (a post I'd thought I'd get around to five days ago), the more I end up latching onto specifics.

Swollengoat on the DC Message Boards called my attention to the unnamed figure sitting behind the gremlins in GL #43. As others have noted already, the word "starlings" (not likely to be the bird) plus the shape of his mask is a giveaway that it's Evil Star, a villain who hasn't otherwise been seen in recent continuity. Edit: Evil Star is mentioned in Green Lantern: Rebirth #1. Guy Gardner makes a disparaging remark about his worthiness as a villain. John Stewart does not disagree with that comment. To stay true to Johns' methodology, Evil Star will probably be the subject of some retcons.

So, two topics: Is he going to figure huge into Blackest Night? What's up with him, generally? Given that the Kroloteans (gremlins) are looking inside Black Hand and according to William Hand, they don't find what they're looking for, it seems very unlikely that he is the Big Bad. Scar tells us that the Big Bad will rise as events move on. Evil Star is obviously already "up" and doesn't need to rise. It seems like contact with the Big Bad is what they were looking for. Evil Star is also mentioned in #42 by Blue Lantern Sister Sercy as an oppressor of her people.

When the Kroloteans first surface (GL #4) Hector Hammond tells us that they took apart "planes in the war". This, combined with the label "gremlin" and their damage to Cowgirl's plane is very interesting. Because "gremlin" was a term that pilots actually used to label unknown causes of damage to planes. As though little mischievous beings were responsible.

Why do I think this is interesting? Was there an important event in Hal Jordan's life that pertained to mysterious damage to an airplane?

Green Lantern #29:

Martin Jordan: "I'm having some problems up here, Ferris. Oil's gettin' eaten up quick. I think the last of my torque pins just failed. I thought this was sent to I-level for repair."

Carl Ferris: "It was."

Looking down the road, I think we're going to be surprised in a future story to learn that Evil Star is basically the murderer of Martin Jordan. That's bound to set Hal off. Atrocitus has prophesied (in GL #37) that Hal will go renegade again... maybe when he finds out about this?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Blackest Night: Quotes

Yesterday, I posted my guess as to who is the leader of the Black Lanterns. Because the San Diego Comic Con is ongoing, new information comes out by the day. In this post, I wanted to compile a humble collection of brief, but telling, quotations about where the series is going, particularly regarding the identity of the "big bad" -- or, if it's a more appropriate label, the big "dead". In addition, some facts from the comics that seem to point to that entity's identity:

Quotations from Comic Book Resources:
"Fans will learn a lot about the nature of the universe in Blackest Night as well as the big villain behind everything and much more."

Religion/deity based characters play a role? "The characters discuss it in #2. There's a very specific thing about the Black Rings that I don't want to reveal," Johns said. "You'll see something very interesting in issue 3."

Is there going to be an ultimate entity behind the rings? "You'll have to read and see, I know there's a lot of speculation but I think it's not what people are expecting."

Johns described the black energy as "not necessarily having a good component, but it's not necessarily evil."

Is a villain called Nekron involved in Blackest Night? Berganza: "Who's that?" Johns: "I can't talk about that."

Geoff Johns

"... I wanted to explore – why death is the way it is in the DC Universe. Or why it has been."

Facts from the comics:

The Anti-Monitor is spoken to by the villain and told to rise. Therefore, it seems very unlikely that the Anti-Monitor would be the villain.

Scar says upon Black Hand's death, apparently of the villain, "This pleases him", indicating that the villain is a male, and not her.

The modus operandi of the villain matches very well that of Nekron. But is this too obvious?

All sources of information regarding Blackest Night began with the entities on Ysmault. Qull and Atrocitus spread this information to others.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Who leads the Black Lanterns?

The Black Lantern Corps has made life very difficult for anything living. We got the first inkling of their arrival way back in Green Lantern #6, when Black Hand dropped mention of the Blackest Night. It sounded like he was spouting off. But it was promised on the final page of the Sinestro Corps War event that a Blackest Night was indeed coming. We saw the scene in which a mysterious voice ordered the dead Anti-Monitor to rise and become the battery for the Black Lantern Corps. But who is behind all of this? It's not the Anti-Monitor himself -- the voice ordering him to rise was speaking when he was dead. And the splash page in Blackest Night #0 says that the Black Lantern's "ultimate purpose and its creator are unknown."

I love a good mystery. In this case, there are perhaps no clues in the usual sense. We're not going to see a muddy footprint and match it with the villain. I think, however, that Geoff Johns has made some decisions in his narration that make more sense if a particular (and fairly obscure) character is filling that particular role. I think the leader of the Black Lanterns is the brilliant creation seen in one Alan Moore story which has undoubtedly inspired the story that Johns has woven. My guess is that the leader of the Black Lanterns is the demon known as Qull.

We know through Atrocitus that the Five Inversions were the ones to realize that Blackest Night was going to happen. Atrocitus found William Hand on the basis of that prophecy. And the Guardians know of it via Abin Sur, who was told of it by Qull. Qull was obviously the smart one of the bunch. Because of what Qull says, Atrocitus (who is obviously not the smart one of the bunch) kills him. Would Qull not have seen that coming? Qull had eerie prophetic accuracy in at least a couple of ways in dooming Abin Sur and foreseeing the Green Lantern careers of Hal Jordan and Sodam Yat. If there's any logic to it, Qull wouldn't have set that path in motion if he didn't stand something to gain.

Qull dies in a flashback that opens Green Lantern #28. This event is dated to the time that Hal Jordan was a rookie. A series of questions:

Why, if you're Johns, kill the one interesting character from the Five Inversions, and make up a new one to represent them?

Why put Qull's death on-panel? Why, when the plot coming up is about dead characters coming back to life... Why open #28 with a panel staring right into Qull's eyes?

Why include the detail that Qull's "recklessness" left the Five Inversions on Ysmault instead of being imprisoned in science cells on Oa? How can a prophet be so reckless?

Why include Qull telling Atrocitus that he (Atrocitus) is a greater fool than Abin Sur?  The splash page defining the Red Lanterns says that Atrocitus's prophetic rituals were "primitive". Whose prophetic rituals were advanced?

It's not just that Qull's actions are illogical for such a sage, but that Johns seems to include details that would have no other role unless this was a crucial part of the story. More so than just giving us the leader of the Red Lanterns in Atrocitus. And notice that in Green Lantern #43, William Hand hears the black-ballooned voice giving him orders immediately after first coming upon the weapon that came from Ysmault.

I'll throw down my guess now that Qull, he of the 19-week laughs, set this up as his bid to get out of captivity. By killing him, Atrocitus made himself the leader of the Red Lanterns. If my guess is right, it also made Qull the leader of the Black. Knowing that the Black will "win" the color wars, he sees his eventual victory and domination of the universe, and now his bid for that role has started the Blackest Night underway.

Edit: The suspense is over, and I missed the obvious. Geoff Johns has given us the answer in an interview way before the story gets there: Nekron is the Big Bad. Did Qull have some ace up his sleeve when he died? It seems not.

By giving us the answer now, Johns tells us first and foremost that the story is not a whodunit. Nekron was more ugly than scary in his earlier appearances. Johns is going to have to ramp the character up to make Nekron deserve this kind of role. And that's exactly what we should expect.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Green Lantern: Heart and Soul

When the Golden Age dawned with a flourish of superheroes, the Justice Society had the Green Lantern (Alan Scott) as one of its charter members. He was one of the most prominently featured members through most of JSA history -- no less so when the JSA continued into its later revivals.

When the Silver Age began, Barry Allen was the hero who started the process, but it was when a second hero notion had been revived that it was clear that there was a process. Hal Jordan debuted in Showcase and soon thereafter was one of the charter members of the Justice League -- in a reader's poll at the height of the Satellite Era, he was the runaway favorite JLA member, bar none.

Most subsequent iterations of the JLA featured one Green Lantern or another -- one of Earth's four. Even the Legion of Superheroes had a Green Lantern operating in their time, and as we've just seen in Legion of Three Worlds, a new era of the Green Lantern Corps as well. Green Lantern is and always has been the core of the DC Universe. To paraphrase Brad Meltzer's Identity Crisis, Superman and Batman are the bricks, but Green Lantern (any of the six or more alluded to above) is the mortar.

And yet for all their ubiquitous presence in team titles, the Green Lanterns have had a shaky history as a solo venture. Alan Scott, the fourth DC character to have a solo title, faded away like all but five Golden Age heroes. Hal Jordan's solo title was soon on shaky legs and after a much-celebrated run teamed with Green Arrow, ended, relegating Hal to a backup spot in Flash. John Stewart's run in the endlessly creative Mosaic series vanished, too, and Kyle Rayner lives on almost as a remnant of an era of new characters that is increasingly hard to find in print. Every Green Lantern shone brightly, then grew cool and faded. The comics always said that a power ring lasted 24 hours before needing a recharge. The Green Lantern franchise seemed also to have a limited duration before needing new life.

Silver Age Hal Jordan was a sterling example of manhood for his times -- a fearless, romancing, flying spaceman even before he became a superhero. He got the amazing gift of infinite power and daily proved that he'd always deserved it. Alan Scott, like the other men who became heroes in his time, took his strange power and fought gangsters and racketeers. But Hal was immediately fighting aliens, flying to Venus, containing nuclear explosions. He stepped into this role like he'd been born for it, like a baseball hero called up to the majors to instant acclaim. And then at night, we was wining and dining the most glamorous women. He was the first superhero to operate on the West Coast. Six feet tall of California cool, dancing on air, aiming one hand forward and out-willing every problem in his way -- every problem in the universe.
Hal was so perfect as to be almost featureless, once you took superheroics for granted. He remained one of the most popular members of the Justice League up till the time that the Satellite Era JLA gave way to the Detroit League. His solo title, however, limped to a finale with #75, sharing the title with Green Arrow in a critically elebrated run. It was not entirely favorable to Hal, who as often as not played the stiff, slow-to-learn model of an old school superhero while Ollie was a bit quicker on the uptake, learning the social lessons of their day (this was the year after Woodstock and the spring of the Kent State shootings) and then lecturing the same sense into Hal.

After a decade in the limelight, Hal Jordan became the vehicle for DC to reconsider the whole superhero genre, phasing out glamorous Hal to look for something more interesting to a more mature readership. He was given flaws in a seemingly blind search for something nuanced. Green Lantern was deconstructed and Hal was more or less demolished. He lost his solo title (and even the shared title). He lost his spot on the Justice League, with Guy Gardner and John Stewart taking over. Finally, he became the villain of two prominent stories and was killed off.

But then there was the second coming. Green Lantern Rebirth, via a creatively challenged retcon, absolved Hal Jordan of his sins, brought him (oh, that small thing) back to life, and before long, his gray hair had gone the way of his former guilt. He won the confidence of a tougher judge than any of us will have to face. He was back.

This new Green Lantern run has outshone everything that's come before. Hal Jordan is not just a leading light of the JLA while his solo magazine sits on the second rack. Green Lantern, Volume 4 (the current series) has had gangbuster sales, easily beating the monthly sales of each Superman title -- though the Superman character is featured in far more titles. This is the first time in DC history that a character besides Superman or Batman has competed with the top two for attention, and has easily blown away the best of the rest, doubling Wonder Woman's sales.

Geoff Johns, who has written the latest incarnation of Green Lantern from Rebirth #1 to the present, has created a masterpiece of the genre, making every story line an Event. My next post will take a look at the timeline of Johns's incredible run on Green Lantern, tracing the careful work he put in, laying the groundwork as far back as 2005 that leads us to 2009's event, Blackest Night.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Batman and Robin: Arc #4

In the previous post, I talked about the likely guest stars who will provide the focus for Batman and Robin's second and third arcs. But Grant Morrison said that his initial run will consist of four arcs, and all indications are that the fourth will be explosive. What we know about this arc, still over half a year from its start date, raises more questions than answers, but the questions are huge:

Will Batman once again face The Devil? The Black Glove organization of gamblers? The Club of Villains?

What is to be said about Thomas and Martha Wayne's past? Were they involved in evil -- or targeted for death because they crossed it? Will their reputations survive the "dossier" that was leaked to the media?

Will we see the backstory of Batman #666 take place in the present? Will Damian make a deal with the Devil and have supernatural powers from here on?

Will Dick Grayson die?

Will Bruce Wayne return? If so, how?

Who will be Batman when this story concludes?

All of these questions arise from the hints we've been given. For the sake of brevity, I'll call the fourth arc of this series, which should start with issue #10 and run for three or four issues, "B&R IV" -- not to be confused with issue #4 (which will be in the middle of the second arc).

The Devil Went Down to Gotham

You don't have to look very hard to see that Doctor Hurt, who was the Devil, will resurface in B&R IV -- the last page of issue #1 contains four preview panels, and it seems very clear that each panel represents one arc of the series's first year, in chronological order. And there, in the fourth panel, is Doctor Hurt dangling the keys to Wayne Manor.

That is not very specific, however, as to what form his participation will take. The most lively possibility would be if he shows up in person, commanding a host of other villains, and launches an overwhelming attack on our heroes inside Wayne Manor. And that's quite possible. On the other hand, a panel merely showing Doctor Hurt doesn't guarantee any such thing. He doesn't need to have a physical presence to be a menace. He is not a fist-fight kind of villain. Doctor Hurt does run a mean plan, however.

Doctor Hurt had something at stake when the helicopter crashed, and probably not just the loss of a shiny helicopter. He really didn't want the crash to happen. So if he had something to lose, how is he back now?

Exactly what is Doctor Hurt? He's the Devil, but is he the body of an ordinary man, hosting the Devil, but possible to kill? Some real "Doctor Hurt" who had an ordinary life until the Devil possessed him? The newspaper headline in Batman #678 suggests that. But we don't know. He could have been walking around in that form for thousands of years. Maybe we'll find out more. Maybe the Devil hopped into Doctor Hurt after a failed attempt to possess Thomas Wayne -- he wanted the batsuit from Detective #235 back for a reason.

Morrison has indicated that the run, and therefore almost certainly this arc, will exhibit "the Black Glove characters" and some of the villains of RIP. Let's look at the rosters:

Black Glove, Roll Call

Dead: The general, whose neck was snapped by the Joker.

AWOL: Jezebel Jet (not a member, but threw in with them), whose plane was attacked by Talia's manbats. Could be dead, or could resurface.

Doomed: Cardinal Maggi, who dies shortly before the "six months later" scene in RIP wherein Dick and Damian catch up with Le Bossu.

Others: The electronics billionaire, the "Texas" oil billionaire, and the Arab al-Khidr. It's unclear what would have happened to then after RIP. If Cardinal Maggi was running free to be killed, then you'd think they might have, too. But they are all targets for both Talia and the Joker, both of whom vowed to get them. Those are two very bad enemies to have.

Because the Black Glove is an organization that replaces its outgoing members, we could also see the Black Glove with a new cast of characters replacing any who die. But probably only if Doctor Hurt is around to organize it.

Club of Villains, Roll Call

Dead: Sombrero. In Batman #663, the Joker listed sombreros among things that are inherently funny. So he must have had a gas killing someone who went by that name.

Captured: RIP showed Le Bossu and Scorpiana being taken down by Nightwing, although Le Bossu somehow gets out to be taken down again. Charlie Caligula was going to starve to death if nobody were to rescue him from the "Zorro" theatre where Zur En Arrh Batman had him. Maybe Bruce freed him before Final Crisis. The Murder Mime and Swagman were captured by the Club of Heroes. Of course, jails in the DCU have revolving doors.

AWOL: King Kraken was theoretically never captured in RIP.

The various henchmen seem to present a huge problem for the heroes' secret identities. Many of them stormed Wayne Manor, and probably most of them survived RIP. Will they come back and be dangerous for what they know?

The Ghost of Batman Past

Grant Morrison has said "Bruce Wayne's parents have still been accused of being drug addicts and all kinds of things, so we haven't dealt with the fallout of RIP, and the new Batman and Robin are kind of caught in the middle of a lot of that stuff as well." We know from Batman #683 that the news hit the papers. Bruce and Alfred did not seem overly concerned. But there is a huge backstory that's up for grabs, which I've discussed before.

The Ghost of Batman Future

Grant Morrison really raised the stakes by stating that "certain events in #666 ... form the basis for" B&R IV. Separately, he said that "Damian selling his soul to the devil" from that issue might give you "an idea of how some upcoming events might play out."

Well, then. This is a loaded hint because if Damian does make the deal with the devil now, he'll forever after have at least one supernatural ability -- the regenerative ability (and/or immortality) seen in #666. That's actually the smaller of two implications, with the other being that "Batman" will die now, sooner rather than later. Since Dick is now Batman, could that mean that Dick will die in B&R IV?

It's not impossible. But it's not what a straightforward reading of #666 suggests. But let me qualify this in advance: Batman #666 makes a number of portentous statements, but they are also non-specific and very brief. Very little is signed on the dotted line. Several statements are made, in art as well as in words, that someone dies while Damian is involved, and that there is a bargain, etc. But the language does not nail down who exactly dies (Bruce and Dick are of course the main suspects), and does not strictly rule out that it may be talking about two or more events even when it sounds like they may all be one.

So the simplest interpretation of #666, which may or may not be correct, is that on some future night, a Batman dies while Damian, Robin, at the time, is somehow to blame (presumably through negligence, not murderous intent). And on that night, Damian makes a bargain with the Devil: His soul in return for Gotham's safety, which seems to be delivered by means of Damian's immortality. If there is only once such event being referred to (not two or more deaths, or two or more bargains), then by far the most likely interpretation is that the Batman who will die in this event is Bruce.

For one thing, Damian says that he makes the deal when he's 14 years old, but B&R #2 said that Damian is only 10. So the simplest timeline is that Bruce will take over as Batman again (more on that later), and the death/deal will take place about four years from now in comic time, which would happen much later -- more likely never -- in publication sequence. This is further validated by the artwork that shows a Batman dying (or hurt very badly) while an anguished Damian looks on. This Batman wears a giant chest logo that matches the central (and larger) Batman in Damian's Batcave memorial. That should all match Bruce, then, rather than Dick.

If we read #666 with legal strictness, Dick has a virtual life insurance policy thanks to one little phrase that Barbara Gordon says: That Damian is responsible for the death of "a friend". Not two. So if Damian makes a deal with the Devil four years from now on the night that Bruce dies, then Barbara is blaming him for Bruce's death, and that accounts for "a friend", and Damian's not going to be blamed for Dick's death now.

And yet: Morrison does say that events in #666 will form the basis for B&R IV, and he's probably not talking about the feud between Lane on the one hand and Professor Pyg and Phosphorus Rex (both of whom die in #666) on the other. And it would hardly be a revolutionary event if one or two tiny facts were altered from that "future" story to the present one. So if the deal has to be the basis of B&R IV, but the deal is to take place years from now, what's the resolution?

Well, there are unguessably many permutations. Suppose the many small clues do describe two different events, but only one death. Suppose Bruce fakes "Batman"'s death upon his return. Suppose part of B&R IV (it can't be all of it; Morrison says that the "new Batman" is involved) is actually a flash-forward to four years from now and has no bearing at all on the present. As easily as the last chapter of RIP showed us Bruce outwitting the evil monk in the past and Dick confronting Le Bossu in the future, B&R IV could span two, three, or more points in time.

I think all of these possibilities, plus countless others, are cumulatively more likely than Dick's death ten months from now leading to Damian's deal with the Devil. And Morrison might remain utterly true to the events of #666.

So This Man Walks into a Cave...

Bruce is coming back before the end of B&R #13, and he will be Batman again after that.

Grant Morrison has told us so:

1) "Bruce is still out there. “Final Crisis” revealed Bruce is still out there and he’s got to make his way back in some way." "We’re not really entertaining the notion that Bruce won’t be back at some time."

So he is coming back. When?

2) Morrison plotted 12 or 13 issues for B&R and "Everything about [Bruce's absence] will be tied up by the end. Everything that's happening with Bruce and Bruce's world will be revealed in detail and resolved by the end of Batman and Robin's first year."

And he's really going to be Batman again? Right away? Not a mentor to the ongoing adventures of Batman Dick?

3) "We always knew that after “Batman R.I.P.,” we were going to do this run of stories where we didn’t have Bruce under the cowl."

That leaves a loophole that Morrison may mean something different when he says "this run" on different occasions, but that's a very small loophole when you combine it with the quotation in (2).

In fact, with the ghostly Batman seen in the preview panel for B&R's third arc, his return might even begin before the fourth arc opens. But knowing that the "new Batman" has to deal with the smear campaign against the Waynes, we know that Dick won't be stepping aside before issue #10.

The topic of Bruce Wayne's absence and how he might get back is a topic for yet more discussion, a bit less immediate than B&R IV, which itself is several months off.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Batman and Robin: Arcs #2 and #3

Do you like puzzles? If you follow the adventures of the world's greatest detective, then you probably do.

A story I read a long time ago (in Reader's Digest, of all places) said that a woman was walking down the hallway of her all-female dorm after taking a shower and suddenly realized that a man heading the other way was going to see her naked, and her towel was too small to cover her body. So she covered -- her face. Clever strategy to avoid being exposed. At least in one sense.

I think creators often do much the same thing in interviews, covering part of the mystery of their upcoming stories while giving away clues that don't say too much. But they "move the towel", so to speak, from one interview to another, and if you compare interviews from months apart you sometimes get to match the face with the body. So to speak.

I have been reading all of the public information on Grant Morrison's plans for Batman and Robin and found a lot of pieces of information that fit together -- or nearly so. He is quite forthright that the first year will consist of four arcs of about three issues each (in one place, he says that there were 13 issues plotted, so maybe one arc is longer, or maybe the 12 issues are followed by 1).

A lot of the details of what is to come are out there to be pieced together. In general terms, we can say what the set up is likely to be for the remaining issue of the first arc, plus the second and third arcs.

The fourth arc sounds like it will be extremely important, and full of connections to things we've seen in the past. To keep this post manageable, I will discuss the next eight issues of Batman and Robin and defer the analysis of the fourth arc for another post. It's well off in the future, anyway.

We have most of the first arc in our hands already: Dick and Damian are contending with the Circus of the Strange of Professor Pyg, and also with one another. We know that this will conclude in the next issue. It may work the Joker into the art, if not the story. (The circus carefully matches the one from Alan Moore's memorable The Killing Joke. Morrison also said that he would like to see Frank Quitely's rendition of the Joker, and Quitely is going on hiatus for the next six issues, although he'll be back later.) We know that Batman and Robin #3 will have a lot of interesting loose ends to tie up: Batman has to get his Robin back while confronting the dangerous psychotic Professor Pyg.

But there's more. A number of telling phrases tie the first arc to the second. Morrison says that the story has "a"bigger mystery, involving a character called the Domino Killer." Given that we've see dominoes already (one found on a dead man, or toad), this Domino Killer is behind the scenes. The solicit for #3 refers to a "mysterious red-hooded vigilante". Now watch the puzzle pieces fit together:

The second preview panel seen on the last page of #1 shows a man in a red hood. So does the art accompanying the solicit for #4, which states that "the Red Hood and his sidekick Scarlet" are "Gotham City's vicious new 'protectors'".

In an interview, Morrison says that the main villain of the second arc is "a character I've wanted to work with for a long time and I think we've come up with a cool new take on his M.O."

In an entirely different interview, Morrison says of his upcoming run "we’ll being seeing Jason Todd in a different role than we’ve seen him before. But it’s a continuation of the Battle for the Cowl story..." Note that Jason Todd did not appear in Morrison's earlier work on Batman, except in extremely brief mentions. So he is a character that Morrison has not worked with before, matching the earlier quotation.

Any questions? Clearly all of these pieces fit together if the second arc is about Jason Todd taking up the role of the Red Hood (which he already did during Under The Hood) and is a vigilante killing criminals, and who already did so by killing Toad in #2, off-camera. Given the modest amount that we already know about the third and fourth arcs of Batman and Robin, it's highly likely -- but I can't say certain -- that these pieces will fit together.

Another tidbit: dominoes as a clue? Toad's suitcase that he collected after a drug deal was full of them. But he asked, in circus slang for money ("dinari", a word which reminds me personally of the Book of Revelation 6:6, which uses the word "denarius" for money; and Revelation was referenced in Batman #666. Hmmm.). Translation: He thought the briefcase was full of money and the dominoes were a double-cross. By the same vigilante who left the domino in his hand before killing him in #2. Is the significance possibly that the vigilante used to wear a domino mask? Former Robin, hint hint? Or that he's calling out the current Batman for belonging in a domino mask? Robins everywhere here.

All of these clues do point to one thing, but that said, the same thing could be revealed in one panel and it still leaves us with 2.95 issues worth of unspoiled mystery as the second arc pits Dick Grayson against Jason Todd.

The third arc also has clues pointing to the involvement of a spotlight "guest" character from the Batman Family, so upfront they maybe aren't clues. The third preview panel on the last page of #1 shows the new version of Batwoman, and Morrison has said "I want to do a Batman/Batwoman team-up. That’s something I’ve been wanting for a long time." Looks like he's going to get what he wants. But the action in that preview panel is hard to interpret. It seems like Dick and Kathy are fighting, but then heroes often fight for a page before teaming up. It's just the way they are. A ghostly Batman (Bruce leaps to mind as a suspect) is watching. It's also interesting that Morrison has said "Greg [Rucka]'s doing Batwoman over in Detective Comics, and her story doesn't really touch on what we're doing here." I'll believe my eyes, though -- maybe the Detective story doesn't touch on this third arc, but she sure the heck is going to be in it.

Dick and Batwoman have some history: They fought side by side in 52, with Dick in his Nightwing identity. But there's also the ambiguous history of the original Batwoman with the same secret identity of Kathy Kane (but a different Kathy Kane!). The original (first seen in Detective #233) was a circus performer (like Dick) who later became wealthy (as, though a different means, did Dick). Note also that in Batman #682, Morrison uses a flashback to show us young Dick reflecting on his heartbroken mentor's situation, "I was a circus kid. I knew about Katy Kane, but what was I supposed to say to Bruce?" Given the old history, this line may mean that he knew Katy Kane personally (and know something less than good about her character), not just that he knows circus people in general. Anyway, this is all so pregnant with possibility as the new Batwoman and Dick meet, and maybe the old Batwoman is somehow reconciled with the new one. At the very least, if two superheroes had the same hero name and real name and one other person knows both of them, you'd expect him to at least mention it.

So it appears that Jason Todd and Kathy Kane (at least one of her) will provide the guest-star focus for the next two story arcs in Morrison's bat-saga. There will be much more to say (or speculate) about the fourth arc, because it is likely going to bring back two characters who each have a tremendous past to live up to: Doctor Hurt, the villain of Batman RIP (and depending upon how you look at it, the main villain of all time), and one other character who has been known to impact Batman stories over the years -- Bruce Wayne.

Original interviews:

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Golden Age Review

Even though the first run of the Justice Society finished before my Dad entered high school, some of the earliest comics I bought featured the JSA. DC enthusiastically reprinted Golden Age stories in the Seventies, and though I often found the art to be smudgier and less fun than Silver Age artwork, I was familiar with the Justice Society, and yet I felt like an outsider to their world. With new Justice League comics coming out every month, I knew the names, home cities, and powers of the JLA members by heart, while the limited volume of JSA stories coming my way left many of the Golden Agers a bit foreign to me.

Newer stories of the JSA (Seventies Revival and onward, including many Elseworlds of high quality) gave me more and more to read about them, but the original was still strange to me -- until lately. In the last few months, I have read the great proportion of all DC superhero stories from the very beginning up through early 1941. Armed with this new familiarity, I'd like to review the original JSAers, from their debuts up through the first two JSA stories.

Sandman: With a debut barely after Batman's, millionaire Wesley Dodds was one of the original masked crimefighters in comic books. The Sandman character obviously did not have the endurance that Batman has enjoyed (no billion-dollar movies lately). With the benefit of hindsight, it is probable that the awkward suits worn by the Sandman and the even-earlier Crimson Avenger were a creative mistake in the eyes of readers. Indeed, both the Crimson and Sandman switched to colorful tights a few years later, but by that time, there was no catching up to the popularity of the Caped Crusader. And yet, the early Sandman stories were marked by a cinematic flair, with the last panel often showing panache and humor not easy to find in comics of the era. Another part of the winning formula of Batman that was not utilized by Sandman was the character-flawed secret identity. While Bruce Wayne was famously vapid and without focus in life, Wesley Dodds was gallant in his own skin, and often began or finished cases out of costume. His galpal Dian Belmont was a fixture in his stories, creating a Girl Friday formula that never caught on for the most successful superheroes, but added style to the Sandman. His adventures started off as standard detective fare, but soon after he became the oldest charter member of the JSA (debuting 6 months before any of the rest), he was involved in science fiction plots, in one story saving the planet from destruction, a feat that neither Superman nor Batman had on their resumes at that point in time.

The Flash: DC's second superhero with science-based powers was the first to be revived when Barry Allen visited him in 1961. Jay Garrick was also the third-most popular DC character in the early going, winning a solo title that ran over 100 issues. The Flash's stories were more light-hearted than that of most superheroes -- if one sets aside the pure slapstick of the Red Tornado and Johnny Thunder. And yet, many early Flash villains die at story's end, and Jay Garrick is not always without blame. Ironically, the Flash is the first superhero to be regarded as law-abiding, buddying up with the police when his four antecedents were all vigilantes who often (but easily) evaded arrest. Barry Allen's costume fixed the conceptual flaw of giving a character that runs really fast a loose helmet.

Hawkman: The combination of reincarnation, anti-gravity, shirtlessness, and ancient weapons are four facets I might never have thought to combine. But Hawkman, arguably the first flying superhero, got the job done with brutal efficiency. Executing his opponents left and right, Carter Hall differed from Batman in always setting out on a case with just one weapon instead of a beltful, and yet he always chose correctly. (If you're going to get a good whack at an opponent's head, a scimitar does just as good a job as a mace, I think.) The suggestion of a sex life with Shiera was pretty close to the surface, so overall, Hawkman was a pretty raucous series featuring a lot of action and drama with very little humor.

Johnny Thunder: Although he was possibly the most powerful "hero" to date, Johnny Thunder was pure comic relief, because he didn't know that he had power at first, and didn't know how to control it when he figured it out. While he fights crime at times, he more often is trying to win over his erstwhile girlfriend Daisy Darling, and wins a boxing championship along the way. The slapstick tone would arguably disqualify him (as well as Ma Hunkel's Red Tornado) from consideration as a superhero, but by landing a spot on the JSA (which thereby acquired his slapstick nature, at first), he is remembered that way.

Spectre: It's worth noting that Jerry Siegel followed up Superman by creating, less than two years later, a character who was even more powerful! When a policeman was killed and returned to life (yes, this was before Will Eisner's Spirit) comics got a hero so powerful that they hardly knew what to do with him. His stories usually lack drama as to whether or not he will succeed and more about taking you into the psychological terror of the criminals who earn his unstoppable wrath. I was as pleasantly shocked as any contemporary reader when one of his cases facing mortal mobsters suddenly threw him face to face with Zor, a wizard who was nearly his equal (and much more comfortable with his powers). I knew Zor from the opposite end of DC history, Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers, which banishes Zor to an unenviable fate after he'd earlier tangled with Zatanna. When the Spectre encounters yet more supernatural foes who give him a challenge, he acquires (from God?) the Ring of Life, and easily one-ups them. As an indication of the weak sense of continuity of the time, he actually acquires the Ring of Life in two different stories, both times as though it were for the first time. Oddly enough, Jim Corrigan tailored his "uniform" with physical materials in its first appearance although it was later shown that he was easily capable of doing just about anything at will.

Hourman: I always thought Hourman was a great concept, especially the look of the character. Indeed, he was one of the spotlight characters in the JSA revival decades later. But he was unheralded in his first run and essentially kicked off the team (given a "leave of absence") for one simple, regretable reason: The early Hourman stories weren't very good. The continuity was jaw-droppingly inconsistent (Rex Tyler's own boss was revealed as a master criminal in one issue, but was back as though nothing had happened in the next). The sense of aesthetics, aside from the art, was terribly flawed: Hourman called himself publicly the incredibly un-heroic name 'Tick Tock Tyler' even though it was supposed to be a secret that he was Rex Tyler. I cannot explain the logic of revealing one's last name while trying to maintain a secret identity. Of course, it's even less logical that you would choose a name that reveals your one weakness. And as what was likely the death blow for the character, he became the head of an army of boy assistants, the Minute Men of America. Sounded like a good idea at the time? Hourman debuted the same month as Robin, the Boy Wonder, so sidekicks were in vogue. But he lost popularity quickly, and I think it's for the reasons I have listed.

Doctor Fate: Although a cool concept, Doctor Fate started off as a poor man's Spectre, appearing in the same magazine (More Fun Comics) with fewer pages per issue. Although he was a magician, he often used magic to produce science (eg, nuclear radiation). Unlike the Spectre, he always matched up against enemies whose power rivaled his own, who usually attacked him first and put him on the defensive. Every story involved his platonic female associate Inza, who was defined as the embodiment of real-world existence countering Doctor Fate's purely aethereal operations out of a tower in Salem, Massachusetts. While the Kent Nelson identity came later, he was said early on to be "not human... never a child", having been a creation of the elder gods. I'm glad the elder gods liked primary color uniforms.

Green Lantern: Alan Scott, soon to be the fourth hero to win a solo title, launched a concept that has stood the test of time. The atrocious costume (justified in his first story as something no one could forget) was an inevitable casualty of the Silver Age reboot. But the Green Lantern, whose power came mysteriously from outer space by way of China and an insane asylum definitely looked powerful. Charging into fights with his broad chest and throwing punches that were apparently powered by the ring, the first Green Lantern didn't create artistic constructs to fight with -- he just blasted injustice away. He also vied with Hourman as the first hero to have his signature weakness overused as a plot device. I don't know how many gangsters in the real world would try to use a wooden club on the head of a guy who was bullet-proof, but in GL's world, the idea seemed to come naturally. He was the first superhero to appear unambiguously by name ("a superman" may be a common noun) in the pages of another's story (providing the inspiration for the Red Tornado, who appeared in the same title, All American Comics).

Atom: There's never been a faster track to the top. Al Pratt only appeared in costume the month before he was included in the first meeting of the Justice Society. The first Atom story is not in any sense a superhero story: It is simply the story of a small college student who trains his physique and is rewarded by humiliating those who teased him. In summary, the Charles Atlas ad drawn out to six pages. But he begins to fight crime with a mask one issue later and goes about his task with determination -- after all, he's trying to impress a girl.

I always hated to come into a story late. Getting to know the JSA from their original stories gives me the feeling of at last being an insider to a great lineup of heroes who appeared in some of the first comics I ever owned.

A fan's not a fan if he's not giving opinions, so to list my favorite JSAers, on the basis of these original stories alone, I would name the Spectre, Green Lantern, Hawkman, and Sandman -- probably in that order. While Green Lantern is perhaps the most like modern superheroes in his manner of operating, the other three capture some of the cinematic elements of their time -- noir, adventure, romance. These stories can come alive today and take the reader on a trip back in time to the era that first needed, and therefore created, superheroes -- and lots of them.

Sunday, July 5, 2009


This weekend, I saw the musical Wicked, which creates a backstory for the good and wicked witches in The Wizard of Oz, which eventually turns into a sidestory that runs parallel to the events in the movie, with many scenes that take place at the same time as events in the original film (and story) without duplicating any of the original in a strict sense. I have no reason to give away the plot here, but I will note that while the original Wizard ends up revealing that the "Oz" portion of the story was just a dream, Wicked is set in a world where the Oz story is real, but it provides more detail (and some surprises) regarding events in Oz. It never touches upon the "just a dream" aspect.

This musical theatre offering may seem utterly off-topic for a blog about superhero comic books, and it's possible that quite few of the people who like one would like the other, but there is a fundamental connection in subject matter (beings with amazing powers interacting with normal people). The stronger reason for me mentioning it is that like some of the best products of the superhero genre, it is a relatively well-developed, popular, and highly profitable work of art based upon an original work that is much thinner than the derivative. Look at the witches plot of The Wizard of Oz (stripping aside the other more elaborate plots and parables that are not utilized; Dorothy is not seen except in brief silhouette in Wicked) and you see nothing but the barest of precepts for Wicked -- much as if you read the six-page Batman story in Detective #27 and tried to discern the basis for the billion-dollar grossing Dark Knight film that came seventy years later.

The two cases are far from identical: Batman's debut launched a decades-long serial that had thousands of installments in various media before The Dark Knight came along. Clearly, the Nolan Batman films were not drawn simply from Detective #27 -- there is more influence from The Long Halloween, Batman Year One, The Dark Knight Returns and other landmark works in the original genre. The Wizard of Oz is not a serial, so Wicked had only the original to draw upon (in fact, there is reference, much of it for laughs, to such outlying topics as The War on Terror that date the musical according to its 2003 premiere).

But the better Batman works such as The Dark Knight Returns and The Dark Knight also draw upon real-world, grown-up, real life to fill the pages and the frames, and are interesting, certainly to a broad audience, precisely because they speak to those concerns. If they are comic-booky, they are comic-booky not greatly more so than The Godfather or a Martin Scorsese film, providing a fictional and only-so-realistic narrative to make us think about, or at least thrill to, real issues. Wicked does this, too, bringing in philosophic food -- or snack food -- that isn't to be found anywhere in the original, and the relative nature of goodness merges our childhood experience of rooting for Dorothy and against the witch with a credible tale of how the Wicked Witch is actually the best person around, with flaws and crimes that are easy to understand; certainly no worse a person than the good witch, and certainly less flawed except in being green. Wicked also adds a layer of logic to the original, doing something with the visually obvious fact from the original, that the witch is the same color as the city of dreams, and not by coincidence.

When I have contemplated The Dark Knight Returns, and in general all graphic novels that made the superhero genre seem worth serious thought, I have wondered if the exercise, besides being fun, is really warranted. Yes, it is possible to add depth to those stories, but what is it about the original that seems to call for such a treatment? A great story could be written around Dennis the Menace or Humpty Dumpty, but it would only be great by taking a great story and stapling it onto the very thin premise of the original. Giving the Frank Miller touch to something as light as Peanuts is possible, but is (perhaps inevitably) laughable: See this brilliant parody for a demonstration. A social critic might ask why see any benefit in having a great story be grounded in childhood stories. Arguably, The Dark Knight Returns would be just as relevant -- or more so -- if it followed a retired cop who got fed up with the world and returned to his duty though he had never worn a pointy-eared mask in his youth.

That's a philosophical question. In terms of hard cold cash, we have to observe that The Dark Knight was a great material success, far beyond just about any movie that was ever made about any non-comic-book characters. Wicked has been similarly successful in its world, winning Tony Awards and rolling up impressive totals, including some all-time records, in ticket sales. This doesn't make them the best film and musical of all time. There are those who will jeer and say that they aren't even particularly good. Opinions will differ. But there does appear to be a demand to see a story from our childhood come alive in adult terms when we are adults. Little wonder -- that's in general the story of life.