Friday, March 14, 2008

The World's Greatest Super-Heroes (2005)

My first major exposure to Alex Ross was a DC retail poster I bought around the time of "Zero Hour" showing the then-state of the DCU (Supermullet/Aquaman with obscured right hand/gestalt Hawkman in silhouette/Kyle Rayner/Steel/etc.) I dug it, and went on to collect lots of "Kingdom Come" merchandise, Wizard Magazine appearances, reissues of "Marvels," and so on like a good little fanboy. However, the issue arose that, like Neal Adams before him, omnipresence of even the most formidable artists can lead to the contempt of familiarity. As early as 1998, I was feeling the burnout of all those haughty icons peering at me with their judgemental eyes... the whole quasi-Christian propaganda thing got me down. I also honestly hated aspects of "Kingdom Come" that began to creep into the DCU proper, fulfilling a prophesy the book seemed intent on averting through example. You might imagine, when I heard Ross would be starting a series of tabloid "message books" featuring DC's big guns moralizing, I was less than ecstatic. That they would begin with Superman and Batman embittered me further. Add in the things would be $9.95 in the grossly oversized tabloid format, and I plain said "no, thank you, I'll wait for Captain Marvel." Shazam came and went, and by the time now fourth place Wonder Woman showed at the party, I was all about waiting for the trade.

It took about ten years, two after the suckers were finally bound in hardcover, but I finally read the lot.

SUPERMAN: PEACE ON EARTH- I believe a friend of mine loaned me his copy to read on release, even though I owned a comic shop and could have just taken a copy home if I'd wanted to. I'd forgotten all about reading it. This means something. It takes a lot to make me care about Superman these days, and Ross dealing stock poses and high-minded principles don't cut it. I must admit there were a number of highlights: pouring from a giant feed bag into bowls to serve hungry villagers; the spread where he wrestles various animals during a stampede; Pa Kent seeding the field. That said, if you ever imagined a story about Superman trying to cure world hunger for one day, you would have come up with this. It is rote.

BATMAN: WAR ON CRIME- This entry worked better for me, as it's further afield from standard Batman action, looking at the social causes behind crime. Paul Dini has repeatedly shown he has as much interest in Bruce Wayne as Batman, and enough experience I suspect he helped steer Ross outside both creator & character's comfort zone. I loved Wayne's thoughts concerning the junkie waitress, and I am surprised how surprised I am after reading all those Denny O'Neil lectures how liberal the character is in thinking. He comes off as such a secretive, maverick jerk that it's easy to miss how "Great Society/Big Government" he truly is. The most brisk read of the bunch, which at a tenner would have cost points, but when collected in hundreds of pages is a blessing.

SHAZAM!: POWER OF HOPE- The fan fiction. Dude, I don't care what you took from terrible live action Saturday morning fare from the 1970's, neither Captain Marvel nor Plastic Man are DC icons of standing alongside the Justice League. This does not diminish them as super-heroes that have entered the public conscience. Having the Fonz join C.H.iP.S is off, no matter how much validation of your childhood you feel you must foist onto the buying public. This book is a perfect case for my argument, as "sick kids" seems more than a stretch for inclusion amongst fare that reads more like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. WAR! FAMINE! Jerry's Kids! PESTILENCE! Wha-wuh? The Make-A-Wish-Foundation is the most meandering & episodic of the lot, relying on the charm of the lead character to coast.

WONDER WOMAN: SPIRIT OF TRUTH- Okay, each of these solo stories features a two page origin spread, and the first three cases fairly scream "obligatory." I'd be willing to give Captain Marvel a pass, since you know a book like this will garner new readers, but there was nothing new to see. For the Amazing Amazon though, you have two pages worth the cover price. Diana's story has been revised and overcomplicated so often, even I as a serious fan of the character cannot think of a clearer, more concise and appealing telling of her basic story than this. It looks fantastic, mythical, and has the indispensable lines, "Weary of constant warfare, we beseeched our patron Goddess for sanctuary. The will of gentle Aphrodite guided us away from the battlefields to the shores of Paradise Island." Something said so simply, but I felt my understanding of the Amazons magnified with that statement. It erased every bias and misconception of Themyscira from my mind. "Amazons Attack," in my world, never happened. A blessing for certain!

Diana's story also worked better than the rest, as her goals and means have always been more ambiguous than the rest, and solutions therefore more elusive. Gone is the harsh and frankly repulsive Wonder Woman of previous Ross efforts, hewing more closer to a Lynda Carter grace without sacrificing formidably. Despite misgivings about Paul Dini's work at times, I mourn his lack of input into Wonder Woman's characterization in the Justice League cartoon. I loved the invisible jet effects, and the fear/distrust Wonder Woman's appearance inspires. Folks, I sold comics for eight years, and rare is the female reader who likes, much less relates to Wonder Woman. Metatext aplenty here. Aside from the problems faced by the nature of the project and sameness of it all, I must also noted my hatred for the inclusion of Clark Kent. For some reason, Wonder Woman is the only book compromised by the inclusion of another super-hero, and this man serves as a mentor to our heroine. Fuck that, as is it was entirely unnecessary, and robbed our lead of vision and self-determination.

JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA: SECRET ORIGINS- The monochromatic 2-page spread shtick got old when lumped together, as did the Silver Age fetishism. Then again, the all-Ray Palmer Atom entry was all right with me. Someone needs to retcon John Stewart a better origin, and I only forgive Prince Nam--er, Aquaman's "lighthouse" backstory because the "Aquababy Sr." panel was so swell. Martian Manhunter's was great about capturing the Post-Crisis vibe of the character without bringing on excess baggage, though I felt cognitive dissonance at seeing Professor Mark Erdel but reading "Dr. Saul." Hawkgirl was lumped in with her headlined man, I'm sorry to relate, with no hint of the Egyptian lineage. Black Canary sadly rated a single panel in Green Arrow's origin, while Zatanna received same in a Satellite Era group entry. So too Red Tornado, but I hate that guy, so fuck him. I'd be more inclined to give Plastic Man's two pages a free pass, were this not a JLA book that shafts Elongated Man out of the same treatment.

LIBERTY AND JUSTICE: After all that first person narrative text, it was a nice change of pace to read J'Onn J'Onzz first person narrative text. What-- he's never getting a tabloid of his own, a'ight? Okay, also nice, if a bit jarring, to also find dialogue balloons at play in this tale of a super-plague. Aquaman is treated very well for a change, and the story has actual tension and a sense of stake the introspective nature and pre-determined mission failure of the previous volumes would not allow. The hardcover ends on a high note by avoiding those pitfalls, and the lengthy review of other JLA-related Ross works in the auxiliary section doesn't hurt any (though there was much redundancy if you have a copy of "Mythology.")

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