Friday, September 18, 2009

Random Reviews: The Red Circle parts 3 & 4

[Editor's Note: As always, the nowhere near semi-regular feature known as "Random Reviews" should not be considered any of the following things: The opinion of anyone who works at DC or Marvel. Brief. Smart. Entertaining. Insightful. Spoiler-free. Or vaguely resembling something worth your time unless you're madly in love with Archie superheroes like I inexplicably am. - KP]

The Red Circle: The Web #1
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Penciled by Roger Robinson
Inked by Hilary Barta

For anyone who didn't play along with my reviews of the first two entries in DC's Red Circle launch – a series of four semi-connected one-shots meant to introduce Archie's Mighty Crusaders heroes into the DCU under the pen of writer J. Michael Straczynski – the basic gist of that post was this: I thought the Hangman story was pretty bland, and I thought the Inferno story was a total mess. Contributing to my lack of enjoyment was JMS' bare bones "super story" that was supposed to connect the books in some sense but ultimately explained very little within the story about how the characters are connected, what the so-called Red Circle is or even why the latter character exists or does anything. So: bad start.

Still, I remained undaunted from my goal of keeping up with new comics featuring these characters I for some reason really dig and soldiered on into the final two issues of the introductory series, which coincidentally starred two characters that at face value seem to have a WAY better chance of drawing some attention in the superhero-crazy direct market by dint of having a more traditional heroic design and outlook (in the case of the Web) and having a little bit of actual recognizability with the more casual readers who can still be called fanboys (in the case of the Shield). Well, after reading JMS' take on those two guys, I'm happy to report (well...maybe "happy" isn't the best word. Let's say I'm relieved to report) that things got a little better.

Brief history lesson: the original 1940's Web published by Archie's corporate predecessor MLJ Comics was John Raymond, a criminology professor/writer spurred to fight crime because his brother was kind of a shit heel. Later in the '60s, he became known as the first superhero to hide his activities because his mother-in-law was a raging bitch (more on that in another post next week). Overall, these details don't mean much to the story at hand. In actuality, more than any other Archie hero, the Web is probably best known for having a pretty fun design and little more in the way of an interesting hook, so unlike some others he's really perfect to be rebuilt in any way a writer like Straczynski sees fit.

Although, one thing I think any writer revamping this character would need to take into consideration that wasn't around in the characters past would be the thing you're looking at right now. The so-called "interwebs." The last time this hero had a relaunch, it was in the aborted 1991 Impact line, and although the World Wide Web was around then, it's use wasn't so popular that the name "the Web" would instantly make you think of going online, so instead the '90s reboot involved a team of super spies connected by a kind of teleportation/information network. Today, JMS chose to tie the yellow-clad character to the life-altering piece of technology that's usurped him in that...well, if you live in the DCU you can hire this guy on the internet to save your ass, free of charge. It isn't the most novel concept connecting hero and web ever (hell, it's also the premise of Greg Rucka's new The Question back-up feature), but it serves its purpose well enough. Actually, that's kind of what the entire issue feels like.

Top to bottom, this go-round in the Red Circle story cycle reads like Perfunctory Superhero Comics 101. Our lead this time is a billionaire playboy still called John Raymond. He spent his life living like the pampered rich kid you'd expect him to be while his younger brother devoted himself to helping those in need. Twist #1 comes when John's father dies, leaving all his money to the bad son and telling him on his death bed that the vipers in his family will be after his fortune forever while his younger brother gets bupkis. In an effort to rid himself of guilt, Raymond uses the money for his own vainful kind of philanthropy, becoming the titular hero and using his billions to help the less fortunate who log on to his website Things are going OK, though critics say the new hero is too small potatoes. Then one night, a nameless villain in a wheelchair kidnaps Raymond's good brother. The Web springs into action only to find Twist #2: that his brother had gambling debts he was too ashamed to ask for help on. Then his brother dies in a booby trap/explosion thing. After the funeral, Raymond declares (as the Web) that he's really serious about helping people who really need it really bad, which was kind of already his mission, but I guess now he's super fucking serious about it. Or something.

I write all these plot points out to help illustrate for people who will never be buying this comic just how by-the-numbers it really was. Nothing stood out as nonsensical (unless you count the entire premise of becoming a web-based vigilante, but come's a fucking superhero comic. Just go with it). None of JMS' more verbose and grating habits snuck in. Nothing in the book made me groan, for lack of a more defined standard of success. But still...nothing was exciting or original or fun about the book. Even down to Robinson's pencils, which had a few fun, loose action panels but ultimately felt like "generic superhero comics circa 2009," the entire operation felt kind of phoned in.

In the end, I don't think the Web is any better off after this issue's creation than he was before the issue's creation. That is to say, it's still a nice costume design with not a lot else going on behind it aside from a name that should hook up with the internet. I guess that means the ongoing series will be an equally clean slate, but after this middle of the road "build up" I'm betting the audience on that book will be smaller than it would have been if DC would have ignored these Red Circle one-shots all together.

Oh, and speaking of the broader "Red Circle" story that was totally underdeveloped in the first two issues, it doesn't get any mention here. Not a single one. Instead, we get another last page drawn by the art team of the next one shot, featuring the army soldier set to become the Shield e-mailing the Web asking for help with his (presumably) really serious problem. So I guess let's get on to that book now...

The Red Circle: The Shield #1
Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Penciled by Scott McDaniel
Inked by Andy Owens

The Shield in many ways is the best of all these origin issue one-shots. It's got the best character design, the best story hook, the best art (thanks to the always kinetic action of McDaniel/Owens) and the most intriguing development pertaining to the broader Red Circle story. So why in the fuck was it the last book released?!?!?!?!?

Like I said above, the Shield is undoubtably the only Archie hero that has any chance of being recognized or seeming important to DC's core readership while simultaneously being the biggest deal in a pure "in universe" story sense. The story of army Lieutenant Joe Higgins – a combat soldier wounded in Afghanistan who's given a second chance in the form of an experimental super suit built by today's go-to comic book fake science nanotechnology – and how his exploits will give the military a leg up on the fight against terrorism would be a big deal for other characters in the DCU. Plus, the twist at the end of the issue revealed how Joe got his powers from his long-lost father who is somehow connected to the shadowy organization called the Red Circle. Add that to the fact that in our real world, the Shield has a great PR hook as "the flag-draped hero who actually came out before Captain America and also adds that patriotic ass-kicker archetype the DC line has never had, and well...Jesus, can you think of a better one-shot to start off the whole introduction of a new group of heroes into DC Comics?

I mean, really, there is absolutely no reason this hero should have been the last one introduced. Ignore the nuts and bolts story implications that his origin would have best led to the introduction of the other characters. Or how his twist ending could have given the still underdeveloped mystery at the core of this whole shebang a great launching point. Forget that. In terms of putting your coolest, best foot forward, burying the Shield at the back of a mini series (yeah, I know they're technically one-shots, but even before the actual sales evidence was released I could have told you the fourth one would have sold less than the first three) really hurts the chances of this story taking hold in the minds of fans. If I hadn't loved these characters and had been a reader who wanted to check out what JMS was doing at DC, I would never have made it to the end of this series to see the debut of the biggest piece of the puzzle. And all of this only gets more confusing when you consider the fact that of the four characters introduced, the Web and the Shield are the ones who are getting their own monthly books out of this whole thing. They're supposed to be the stars, and they got the crap lane positions out of the starting gate!

I just don't get it, man. I just. Do not. Get. It.

And, you know, there are a few things I could nitpick about this specific issue in an execution sense from why American troops are fighting enemy combatants in Afghanistan who are wearing uniforms (did the Taliban buy a tailor's at some point?) to the totally bewildering final page featuring Inferno standing in the middle of a hedge maze (is he actually going to go there at some point in his backup feature, or was that some kind of a metaphor?), but ultimately, the best I can say about this book and all these one-shots is that I'm very glad the follow up monthlies will be written by people who aren't J. Michael Straczynski. I know that there won't be as much heat on the comics without his name (as if that helped), but from what I've seen online and in person, the largely lesser-known talent taking these characters forward seem a lot more enthusiastic about making the concepts new and fresh than Mr. "My movie got nominated for an Oscar this year so who gives a fuck?" seemed to be. Once I get a good read on the first issue of The Web ongoing, I'll come back and do another of these reviews. Let's reassess then, huh?

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