Friday, September 23, 2011

Wednesday Is Finally Retroactive For All I Care #120

Justice League of America - The '80s #1
Justice League of America - The '90s #1
Wonder Woman - The '90s #1

DC Retroactive: Justice League of America - The 1980s #1 (DC, 2011, $4.99)
The Detroit era League was much derided during the couple of years that they ran their title aground. Yet, the beloved Justice League International never would have existed without DC attempting a third X-Men knock-off team, and the "Satellite League" wouldn't have been done away with if they were getting the job done. Finally, aside from the full-on "what were they thinking" inclusions of Gypsy and Vibe, the "New Justice League" wasn't objectively a bad team. Their stories were typical goofy Bronze Age fare at first, but as criticisms mounted and a small sales spike leveled off and dipped, they embraced "grim and gritty" relatively early and with a passion. Whether you enjoy the team for the kitsch factor of its instantly dated fad jumping or recognize that the team starred in several of the best story arcs ever featured in JLofA volume I, there seems to be enduring affection that keeps readers and creators coming back to revisit this team.

A shame then that creator Gerry Conway doesn't seem to share it anymore. Part of the joy of his early issues with the team was its unrelenting, meta-defensive optimism in the face of scrutiny in both the stories and the letter columns. Later writers even used that unmerited self-esteem as a means of generating poetic irony, these poor doomed fools believing they would someday earn a place among titans when most would instead die violently or fade into obscurity. Conway, in an about face, starts this story with the team unanimously agreeing that they suck and their incompetence was going to cost a bunch of innocent lives. Not only is that a downer, but in giving in after all these years, Conway seems as clueless about his team's retroactive appeal today as he was their complete unsuitability while he was writing them the first time.

Even setting that aside, the twenty-six page story only has ideas enough for eight. Beginning mise-en-scène, the reader is quickly brought up to speed on the team's predicament, only to enter a twelve page flashback that not only literally depicts what was already explained through exposition, but even repeats elements of dialogue. Another few pages are wasted reorienting the reader after the flashback, reiterating points made in the first two acts, and then racing to a foregone fart of a conclusion with additional wretched fourth wall fellatio. The characters aren't in character and their powers are downplayed to suit an unimpressive threat. I guess Zatanna is consistent at least, since Conway never wrote her worth a damn. I'll acknowledge Gypsy as well, since she had a few occasions of playing David-out-of-a-box to the Goliath of the month in the original series.

The bland art by Ron Randall doesn't do any favors, especially when the only thing keeping his Dale Gunn from being 100% Caucasian is someone failing to tell the colorist that this book would be printed on cheap stock. It was obviously meant for glossy, because the colors are uniformly murky.

The reprint, colored for newsprint, is so vibrant that it almost seems to hover over the page rather than be embedded in it. It also makes my point for me, as the opening pages have Superman, Wonder Woman and the Flash addressing their cocky replacements. Even Aquaman gets to grandstand, a rare treat. Mike Machlan inked the issue, which quashes a lot of penciler Chuck Patton's pizzazz, but it still looks nice and licensing friendly. The story closes out an ongoing subplot for the Vixen, with a violent finish that was the first clue of how dark the book would get at a time when that was still relatively new and exciting.

DC Retroactive: Justice League of America - The 1990s #1 (DC, 2011, $4.99)
The Giffen/DeMatteis/Maguire team responsible for that rare treat of a legitimately funny super-hero comic have tried to recapture the magic on a number of occasions to varying results. Their last major attempt at DC was the "Super Buddies" JLI reunion mini-series, which I enjoyed quite a bit for mixing in poignancy with the comedy, as well as the new dynamics necessitated by evolving and replacement characters. Following that, the troupe hit the road for similar attempts at other publishers. According to J.M. DeMatteis, this special will be their final reunion with the JLI characters. That seems for the best, since it reminded me more of the book's stale final year than anything else.

Set at some point after the formation of Justice League Europe and presumably before the departure of Adam Hughes, the JLI characters are locked into a specific place and time that wore out its welcome decades ago. The jokes are predictable, and worse, set up prequels to superior material already told. It's like explaining a joke you've already heard and laughed at. What's the point, beyond strangling your enjoyment retroactively? Worse still, the tale breaks the Injustice League's streak of comedy gold in their appearance, this being a total dud to add insult to the injury of most of these guys having been killed off over the years. These characters at this place are simply too familiar to surprise in any way, and the creators are forcing funny with all their might in a way that just makes me tired. Even the art is ruined by inappropriate coloring for the paper stock that is so dark the atmosphere is less Marx Brothers than Se7en. No more trips to this well, especially in light of the editorial ineptitude that reigns at DC these days.

As has become typical, the reprint far outshines the new story. The art reproduction isn't 100%, there's a typo, some lettering didn't reproduce well and a few bits of coloring don't work on the upgraded stock. Regardless, this was the final story of the classic JLI run by its initial creative team. Though mired in the aftermath of the unfortunate "Breakdowns" crossover art, there's still enough humor, character moments, and lovely art to please without context. It even reminds you of why they bothered to keep Rocket Red around, and it wasn't just recycled Yakov Smirnoff material...

DC Retroactive: Wonder Woman - The 1990s #1 (DC, 2011, $4.99)
William Messner-Loebs was the writer that made me stop liking Wonder Woman and start loving her. This isn't his first return to the character, and I feared this one might be as lackluster as his Legends of the DC Universe arc. The first few story pages, involving a woefully anachronistic He-Man Woman Haters Club, did not alleviate my trepidation. However, a quick flashback and an elevation in estrogen seemed to do the trick. While its place in continuity is established with a bit of dialogue, Loebs isn't here to touch on that one missed story or try to relive glory days with familiar characters. Instead, he tells a self-contained, positive, all-ages tale that sums up much of what was great about his work on the heroine and is sorely lacking in modern comics. It's goodhearted funny edutainment, and the coloring is blessedly plenty bright enough for the stock.

I was surprised to see Lee Moder on art, as he's been working on an Image project. Wonder Woman not only introduced Moder to comics, but actually promoted him as the second coming of Kevin Maguire. Moder simplified his style and never broke in a big way, but his art compliments Messner-Loebs' humanism better than any of his other partners on the series.

I went back to check the original solicitation, and sure enough, it was actually Paris Cullins announced as artist on the lead story. I can't remember the last time I saw him work on anything, and his art style on his brief run on Wonder Woman was quite a departure from his 1980s efforts. I was curious to see if he'd had another change-up, but I guess it wasn't meant to be. I have to admit that his effort on the 1990s reprint wasn't as palatable for myself as on, say, Blue Devil, but that was more about reflecting the times than any deficits on Cullins' part. Compared to how horrible Chris Marrinan was before him, or even the simple inappropriateness of Jill Thompson on a mainstream super-hero book, Cullins might as well have been Brian Bolland supplying interiors. While unnecessarily rough thanks to fashionable chickenscratch crosshatching, Cullins could still tell a story and provide attractive, dynamic figures.

The story, once again by Bill Loebs, was for me the true start of his run. Loebs may have been Perez's selection as his replacement, but the circumstances of his taking over the title were not the best, and he seemed to stumble in the early going. This issue was the beginning of both one of my favorite arcs of the entire series, "Noble Pyrates," as well as the overarching story of his three-year-plus run. It was here Loebs began moving away from the naive visitor Perez had nursed along over five years to a more worldly, amused yet suspicious foreigner from a society far removed from our own. This break, and the controversial twists that infuriated the Perez devotees, allowed Loebs to both make the book his own and the creative high point of the volume. It's a shame collections of the run only begin with the Deodato illustrated material, which while pretty was marred by an excess of cheesecake and a deficit of panels per page.

As for this first chapter on its own, there's a sense that the writer was in such a hurry to dispense with the set-up, that the plotting hangs off of the early pages like a bit of loose yarn on a sweater. It's naggingly obvious, but once Wonder Woman is actually in space, the pace slows and the characters warm up. There's a really sweet pay-off to an element from the set-up, which on its own makes you want to turn the page to chapter two, as frustratingly out of print as most of these Retroactive reprints.

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