Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Random Reviews: The Red Circle parts 1 & 2

[Editor’s Note: We don’t do a lot of new comics reviews here on the CKT mostly due to the awesome jobs my co-bloggers have at DC and Marvel. But since I have no such conflicts of interest, every once in a while I’m going to throw one of my legendarily long-winded reviews up if I feel I’ve got something to say. I should note the following disclaimer, though: What follows should not be considered anything close to the actual opinion of anyone who holds a real job. - KP]

The Red Circle: The Hangman #1
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Penciled by Tom Derenick
Inked by Bill Sienkiewicz

If my slowly ongoing series of posts on my love of notoriously lackluster comics hadn’t clued anyone in, I was fairly excited last year when DC announced they’d be incorporating the Archie Comics superheroes (collectively called The Mighty Crusaders by some folks but bewilderingly branded under the barely historically accurate Red Circle label for this iteration) into the DC Universe proper. If nothing else, the crew of characters have a few great designs and concepts amongst them, and DC’s general “any concept and the kitchen sink (and Ambush Bug)” feel make it pretty pliable when it comes to this kind of thing. And after a year of waiting and watching while the planned relaunch hopped from The Brave & The Bold to its own semi-linked pseudo-mini series, I picked up the first two parts of the introductory Red Circle comic under the guidance of writer J. Michael Straczynski.

Now, here’s where I stand with JMS. After years working in television and film, he certainly doesn’t need any tips from me on how to be a successful writer, and most of his comics work bears out his screenwriting training in terms of being well-plotted and generally providing honest, justified character motivations. At the same time, JMS suffers worse than any comics scribe I can recall of the sin of being too “writerly.” Too many of his comics get dragged down by over the top story turns and verbose, pompous prose that screams “I am a Serious Writer and this tale of men in spandex is Serious Literature” from the oblique parallel narratives and clichéd twists that sunk the later half of his Amazing Spider-Man run to the intolerably hackneyed “What dreams I have dreamed” opening that almost turned me off what became a really good run on Thor. For whatever reason, Straczynski constantly forgets fiction rule #1 – “less is more” – in favor of comic scripts that try much harder to impress than they do to entertain.

With The Hangman story that kicks of The Red Circle series, these ticks aren’t quite as apparent as some of his least successful comics work, but ultimately the comic reads like a staid and standard C-list superhero origin story rather than the introduction of a major new piece of DC mythology. The titular hero this time out is Dr. Robert Dickering – a Civil War sawbones for the North who gets trapped behind enemy lines. After delaying his own escape to save a blind Confederate soldier from bleeding to death (remember...he’s our hero!), Dickering gets caught by some brutish Southerners who string him up to hang. Enter the standard “Devil and Daniel Webster” twist when a dark figure enters the good doctor’s mind offering him life everlasting if he agrees to hunt down supposed criminals, saving the wrongly accused and killing the true villains. Well, maybe it’s not 100% Daniel Webster territory as Dickering gets to hold on to his soul in the process but examining the details of this crucial two-page scene do the book very little in the favor department.

We flash forward through time to learn that the Doc is still kicking in our own time, working the day shift at an unnamed hospital in an unnamed city where he’s the delight of the terminally ill kids ward and a bevy of hot single nurses. At night, Dickering undergoes a painful transformation to become The Hangman – a hero who can’t be killed but still feels the pain of every gun shot he takes in the gut. Basically what we’re left with is a mix of that show “New Amsterdam” that only lasted one season last year and Jimmy Palmiotti’s Painkiller Jane. That’s the high concept in a nutshell, dig?

I could almost ride along with a concept that isn’t 100% original if the execution had some pizazz to it, but unfortunately the whole package reads luke warm at best. In his scenes as Dr. Dickering, the lead character carries an almost antagonistic attitude towards having an actual personality (beyond that general “I’m a good dude” feel that comes with any superhero), and as The Hangman, he’s another dime-a-dozen “I’m tortured by the pain of my powers” creeper of the night. Worst of all, the core conceit that’s supposed to make this character work makes little to no sense. That crucial scene where Dickering agrees to live forever as a pained knight of vengeance clocks in at two whole pages, and after the whole “he’s so good he’ll risk his own life to save an enemy combatant” set up, I can’t think of reason 1 why the good doctor would take the fucking deal with the devilish stranger. I mean, there’s a bit of business at the beginning about Doc having a honey back home in the North, but even that cliché is only hinted at and never developed. Reading the deal scene, the only motivation an audience could guess for the doc to take the deal would be “for shits and giggles” as a death at the end of a noose would most certainly deliver our hero straight into the arms of the heavenly host. Ultimately, what we’re left with is a character who willingly takes on a horrible curse for no good reason.

And to be a nerd for a minute, the worst thing about this failed attempt at giving the character a good story hook is that the original Hangman actually already had an unique hook that’s been thrown out the window. Aside from being known by the 17 fans of his Golden Age adventures for killer splash pages and axe violence, The Hangman’s 1940’s origin involved Dr. Dickering taking up the mantle of vigilante because his brother was the superhero The Comet, who was tragically killed in action after a few Jack Cole-drawn appearances. Now, it’s not like that “brother’s revenge” aspect was ever developed into anything worth reading (this was the war era after all), but I’ll be damned if “one super brother avenging his dead super brother” isn’t a better origin than this warmed over deal with the devil take. I mean, maybe James Robinson’s Starman has an element of that in its sublimely layered motivation of Jack Knight, but overall I can’t think of any modern hero who has a similarly compelling origin that can be recapped in three panels like Superman or Batman’s can.

In terms of the always crucial visual side of the package, Tom Derenick does what Tom Derenick does just about as well as he’s done it anywhere else. The penciler is a decent storyteller with a cartooning style somewhere between Bart Sears and Neal Adams, which is totally fine for this type of thing, though I’ve always gotten the impression that a lot of Derenick’s workload over the past few years has come thanks to the fact that he’s so fast (for those who don’t know, he was a regular Countdown and Trinity contributor). And while I love Bill Sienkiewicz for the talented and ground-breaking artist that he’s always been, his ink work generally comes along to add a little scratchy and dark tone to perfunctory superhero pencil work – the ultimate effect of which is usually to say “Hey, kids! This was inked by Bill Sienkiewicz!” Honestly, that dark tone probably helped a bit more here due to the subject matter, but it did little to elevate the presentation out of mediocrity. Oh, and just because I thought it so strange, I should note that the final page of the issue was drawn by Inferno artist Greg Scott, I guess to create some kind of continuity between issues? Speaking of which...

The Red Circle: The Inferno #1
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Penciled and Inked by Greg Scott

In what I assume is an attempt to get a slight sales bump across the introduction of these characters to the DCU, each new Red Circle comic shipping in August carries its own character-specific #1 status, but don’t let that throw you. This is essentially a mini series even though each issue brings a new player onto the board. And halfway through this story, I’m already starting to see some weird dissonance between the twin story goals of overarching story and solo character introduction, so let’s take each of them in their own time.

This go around, our new hero is Inferno – a character carted onto the scene as a comatose victim of some mysterious explosion in the aforementioned last page of The Hangman. There was some general head-scratching across message boards when Inferno was announced as part of the launch both from casual Archie heroes fans who wondered why such a Z-lister would get top billing and from hardcore Mighty Crusader fans who didn’t like that the guy ended up looking so different from his original incarnation. As far as I’m concerned, polishing up these guys to fit in the DCU should be part of the fun of a project like this, and Inferno fits that bill perfectly. I mean, I know a lot about these characters, and the most I know about Infero is that he’s a guy some fire powers and shit? Prime candidate for reimagining.

Straczynski’s execution of said reimagining is pretty odd and a little lackluster, but ultimately I think it works better than The Hangman’s for a few reason. While the gallows-themed hero who kick-started this whole shebang got saddled with a straight done-in-one original tale, Inferno’s first story is all mystery and misdirection. Carted on page like that Hungarian dude at the start of “The Usual Suspects” after a harbor explosion left him the only survivor, our guy has no memory of who he is (though he conspicuously drops the name Frank Verrano in a brief jibbering fit). Add that to a scattered one-page flashback where he agrees to get involved in...something with a blonde lady, and so far we’ve got very little to hang our hat on. But once this mystery gentleman (who, by the by, looks like your average “white guy with brown hair in a superhero comic”) wakes up, he’s got a gunman popping bullets from an uzi at his face, igniting flame powers that also physically turn him into a beefy WWE type complete with bald head and Macho Man ‘stache. That inexplicable transmographying element to Inferno is just so silly I kind of love it as it gives the hero something beyond another set of bland elemental-based powers. And even though the mystery elements surrounding who the character is aren’t really compelling on their own, they also don’t sink the concept outright like the Hangman’s clichés did. There’s potential here to be built upon, so bully for JMS on that.

In terms of our ongoing story, things are less promising. The sketchy details that help Inferno get established in and of himself without a full origin story really hamper the bigger plot as there are absolutely no details that would make a reader who’s not invested in the concept of Archie heroes at DC want to keep buying. Like I said, a gunman comes to kill Inferno in the hospital and the inclusion of an earpiece hooked up to shadowy boss types reveals that he’s part of a bigger organization of some kind, maybe. But there’s no specifics given on any of that. Not a name for the organization, not a hint as to why Inferno’s important, not one bit of storytelling style or compelling line of dialogue that raises the attack beyond “guy with gun shoots at guy in coma.” Zip. Later, after the obligatory “Hangman and Inferno fight in the street then team up to stop a bomb Inferno inexplicably remembers,” the fiery hero notes that whoever caused the first explosion had a reason for being on the boat, but that this second explosion was only a decoy to throw the cops off the true motives of the first. I’ve read this comic three times and what I just wrote about it confuses the fuck out of me.

Worst of all, we’ve got several pages of a nondescript cop team trying to crack the case of the exploding boat mystery, and the oh-so maudlin bits of info on what’s going on never reach them. The only people who’ve put anything together at all are the morphing amnesiac escapee who catches fire and the immortal, cursed doctor who fled the scene. So thanks for wasting four pages of a comic on two expository cops without a clue who I’m assuming we won’t see again for the rest of the series. And at this point we’re half way through a four-issue story!!!

I know it seems like I’m endlessly harping on a lot of minor details, but the point I’m ultimately trying to get at here is that if I am totally the target audience for this material, and JMS and company can’t string together the bare bones of a story that makes sense even to me, we may be approaching unmitigated disaster here for a new character initiative DC has been talking about for over a year. At this point, the most compelling thing I can point to about the entire operation is the teaser copy from the end of The Hangman that reads “To Be Continued As The Circle Embraces the Inferno!” Sounds like it has potential, right? What is the Red Circle? A prophecy? An organization? Is there even a reason all these characters are crossing paths, or is it all (as it seems) just stupid fucking coincidence and the name Red Circle was just drawn out of a hat to brand these guys rather than Mighty Crusaders?

In any event, I’m going to keep reading the next two issues and let you know how it goes. Certainly The Web and The Shield have slightly more draw and potential for superhero fans of any stripe (an idea I’ll return to when talking about them), and what I’ve heard about the non-JMS ongoing series sounds more fun than what we’re getting here, so fingers crossed. You can check out a preview of the issue that ships today at Newsarama if you like in the meantime.


Mike Wilson said...

Is Inferno supposed to look like DiDio? Cueball haircut, 'stache, comics—seems too many similarities to be a coincidence.

Ben Morse said...

I've got the first issue of The Web in the stack of comics Rickey brought me for my convalesence and I'm honestly looking more forward to reading your review than the actual comic.

And you just described the physical appearance of like two thirds of the comics community, Mike.

Ben Morse said...

Read The Web yesterday; it was fine, if a little cliched and predictable in some of its gimmicks. JMS definitely did no seem as at home as he did on Thor, his early days on Spidey or even with Supreme Power or Rising Stars. It was kind of an awkward fit. The art was fine, but lacked any real distinction.

Still eagerly awaiting your take, K-Pheg.

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