Monday, February 15, 2010

Random Reviews: Starman #81 & Superman: Mon-El

[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 resembling actual comics criticism. We cool? - KP]

Starman #81
Written by James Robinson
Penciled by Fernando Dagnino
Inked by Bill Sienkiewicz
Colored by Matt Hollingsworth

I'll admit, like almost anyone else familiar with James Robinson's original run on DC's '90s incarnation of Starman, I was more than a little trepidant when I heard the writer would be reviving the series as part of DC's "resurrected book" promotion for the Blackest Night crossover. The original 80+ issue run of the series remains my favorite comics story of all time and has one of the few perfect, "please don't revisit this" endings of any series ever set within a shared superhero universe. And while the latter consideration was drawn mostly moot by the fact that Robinson opted out of focusing on the series lead Jack Knight (as he did the last time he came back to the Starman fold for a brief Golden Age story drawn by Jack's co-creator and the artist of the above cover Tony Harris), there were still a lot of things to be "worried" about for someone who holds Starman in as high a regard as I do.

First, let's not beat around the bush: James Robinson is not the writer he once was. And I don't even mean that as the slight I think a lot of you will immediately take it to be. I don't expect every writer whose work I loved at 16 to be writing the exact same kinds of stories they did then, and in fact, I think I'd be pretty bored if they did. Starman was in many ways a story Robinson seemed to build up to via other comics that played with similar building blocks in slightly different milieus (see: his black ops meets Golden Age run with WildC.A.T.S with its Jack Knight-esque Benito Santini and the criminally-underrated Hollywood noir-meets-superheroes series Firearm), and once he'd finished with his opus, the writer seemed to gratefully turn away from beating that same horse (remember how quickly he seemed to succeed the Starman-like elements of Hawkman over to Geoff Johns' more action-oriented take?).

Still, while I've enjoyed a good number of comics written by Robinson since he rejoined comics creative fold on a regular basis in 2006, I admit that his work hasn't excited me or entertained me to the level I'd hoped, which is part of the reason I'm writing these reviews.

The second worry for this book came from the fact that as part of a "late in the game" announced pseudo-fifth week event for a major crossover, the one-off issue that is #81 was almost certainly going to be saddled with art created more to meet deadline than to evoke a specific style. Even before I knew what the final creative team would be, I figured penciling chores on the issue would be handled by any one of the interchangeable Latin American art houses that churn out pages for DC to use in last-minute event tie-ins and movie-related specials. So, um, go me for being right, I guess. So much of what made the original series fantastic comics came from a killer string of artists who placed style and design right up there with cartooning and storytelling. Starman was always a book with a true visual identity – one which didn't seem to jibe at all with what's been going on in Blackest Night.

Taking all that into consideration, I think this issue fared really well. In fact, it not only met my very stringent expectations for a return to Opal City, it largely exceeded them thanks to a creative team that seemed to step up to the plate knowing the pressure was on.

Robinson's script brings out the expressive but controlled voice that made the early issues of Starman such a breath of fresh air in both its prose captions and dialogue work. The Shade – the wholly reinvented villain turned...I guess I'll go with anti-hero – who narrated so many of the older issues has his fingerprints all over this tale in a good way, and even in the scenes not involving the immortal Victorian smart ass, that wry, knowing tone permeates every page. From Black Lantern David Knight's overestimation of his own legacy to the downright Robinsonian conversation between two movie buff museum guards, the writer came back into the world with his grasp of the characters at the ready. And even though the Blackest Night high-concept in general isn't the best fit for the Starman world, Robinson let's the horrific needs of the crossover crash in and out of the characters lives with a sense of purpose rather than obtrusion, much like he dealt with bullshit like Genesis back in the day.

On the art side, I will raise my hand as one proven wrong in that these rush jobs always have to look like garbage. Although, I'm not 100% sure where to place the credit for what I like here. Big props have to go to Sienkiewicz, who despite sometimes bringing a forgettable blandness to his recent string of finishing work makes these pages feel more in line with Starman's past vibe even if it's a bit heavier on the gross out stuff. And holy shit, Matt Hollingsworth crushes the coloring here – greying palettes when the goriest stuff goes down and vibrant touches that bring a sense of place and background when there's very little drawn in to flesh out the world (particularly with the scene in Hope O'Dare's apartment). And since it seems like he just ends up redrawing a lot of the cartooning on these gigs anyway, I'm going to give Bill points for making Shade look like Shade, even though it's a kind of Sienkiewiczy version of Shade (but with that character, swagger goes a long way even when the nose is the wrong shape). And Dagnino pulls off a few solid layouts, though I think the poignancy that was meant for Clarence O'Dare's death fell really flat in a busy 16-panel grid.

Though as all these elements coalesced into an actual story, I found myself divided on where Robinson was taking his very idiosyncratic corner of the DCU. For anyone who hasn't actually read the issue at hand, the character arc at the core of this go round on the Blackest Night express involves Shade's admission that he's gone in with dedicated officer Hope O'Dare for more than being a mere fuck buddy. In fact, he's in love with her, and she's not sure if she feels the same. They fight off zombie David Knight, and by the end, Hope is kind of coming around which is "good enough for now" for our stand-in hero. About as much plot as you can squeeze out of one issue for sure, and done perfectly well for an idea that's boilerplate romantic subplot stuff.

But where Robinson starts to lose me is how incongruent the relationship feels with the rest of the romantic angles he built up over the rest of the series. As much as it was a comic about family legacies and odd bits of continuity and all the other shit fanboys rave about it for, Starman was a comic about how personal relationships would cross with the demands of living the superhero life only to be smashed into devastatingly tiny pieces. Ill-fated romances and romantic abuse abound in that series, and in the end, what forces Jack to give up a life of service to the city he loves is the promise of a quieter life with the woman he loves. Shade and Hope embarking on the first steps of a fruitful life full of both love and crime fighting...well, it doesn't feel dishonest to the characters so much as it feels like an incomplete piece of the narrative. And like I said, Robinson is definitely a different writer today than he was then, and his view on how these elements can work together may have gone through some radical shifts, but I'm hoping that he does pick up on some of these threads as he's said he thinks of doing and puts this relationship through some real stress before giving it the go-ahead to happily ever after.

But yeah. All together, it really felt like a new issue of Starman, and I was really happy to have gotten it, whatever way it came.

Superman: Mon-El
Written by James Robinson ('cept for one story)
Penciled by Renato Guedes (mostly)
Inked by José Wilson Magalhães (mostly)

To continue with my "New James Robinson" kick of the past few weeks, we've got this: arguably the writer's first real stab at an ongoing serial since leaving Starman. Sure, he's technically been on the Superman ongoing since the Atlas arc from before the "New Krypton" crossover and then through that mini event. But still, those stories felt very much like a writer who was happily following the plays called by Team Captain Geoff Johns rather than striking out with his own concept and cast (the one exception being that Adventure Comics special issue featuring the new clone Guardian and the subsequent plot threads featuring said character). And really, Robinson playing second fiddle to his former protégé did him few favors – I'm particularly thinking of scenes like that one moment in "New Krypton" where while flying over Antarctica, Superman flashes an awkward sad bastard face and says, "Pa" just to remind readers of what was happening in the much more powerful work being done by Johns and Gary Frank over in Action Comics.

Though beyond those kind of publishing platform considerations, I think there's a lot that this volume holds in common with Starman in terms of what Robinson seems to think the real conceptual benefits of writing a real ongoing book are. Like his best-known work, Mon-El starts with a few vaguely recognizable pieces of the DC Universe and issue-by-issue adds in some more even lesser known characters as well as creating a few new ones who at first seem to stand on their own but eventually thread back into the main protagonists journey in some way. Fuck, let's even get more specific than that. Each series is anchored by what we now call a "legacy hero" reluctantly taking up the mantle of his predecessor: Jack Knight back then, Mon-El now. The hero has a kind of part time mentor figure who's got his own demons to grapple with: Shade and the clone Guardian. Some of the first forgotten players to be introduced to the main narrative come from DC's forgotten by all but the hardest of hardcore fanboys '70s series DC First Issue Special: The blue-skinned Starman and for the new book a two-for-one presentation of Atlas and Codename: Assassin. The first original players introduced to the cast are a gang of police tied to what's unique about the setting: the O'Dare family for Opal City and the Science Police for Metropolis. And finally, the later addition of super left field DC players come from the corners of DC's publishing history that fall somewhat outside the superhero norm: Western hero Scalphunter back then and a mystery/mystic detective player called both Mark Merlin and Prince Ra-Man who's so obscure even a nerd like me has barely ever fucking heard of him (and I can see why based on his Wikipedia page).

And, you know...after writing that all out I'm starting to think that Robinson isn't that much different of a writer from who he used to be, but conception and execution are two very different sides of the same coin, aren't they?

So execution. Despite the fact that all of the pieces at play in Mon-El are fun, shiny bits of superherodom that should easily sing in the hands of someone with Robinson's craft chops, they didn't quite gel for me by volume's end. Some of the reasons why are easy to spot while others are hard to put a finger on, but I'll start with the most obvious problem and the one that I can hardly fault the writer for: the lead.

With Jack Knight, Robinson had a character who he very deeply personally identified with to the point of feeling like parts of the science fiction superhero story were autobiographical. Add that to the fact that the writer test ran the building blocks of that character a few times before starting Starman and probably thought about who and what Jack meant for years before getting the greenlight from DC, it's no surprise that the hero comes off as a real, three-dimensional human being from damn near his first panel. Jack has style and taste that make him cool but is also kind of a petty dick of a younger brother right off the bat. He's instantly relatable and even more likable. Mon-El on the other hand is a straight up cipher when he's introduced in this volume's first story (a retread of his Silver Age origin by Johns and Richard Donner from an earlier annual). His sole purpose is to make the reader identify more with Superman as a character than to stand on his own, and over the next six or eight issues, he never gets too much of a chance to step out from behind that shadow and give the readers a reason to care about him. Part of this is not Robinson's fault. Mon-El comes right on the heels of a big ass crossover AND has to be explained in by use of some mystery cure for his lead poisoning condition. In that sense, the opening chapters of this book are a handoff between Johns' shepherding of the whole Superman property and Robinson and Greg Rucka's (who's got his own thing going on in Action, I'm sure).

All things considered, it's not as awkward of a handoff as it can be considering what the writers need to do between three series is wrap a crossover, move the main player of the entire line off planet and into a new book and lastly establish several basically brand new heroes in the existing ongoing series. No, they do a fine job of giving each piece their own logical reason for existing, but that doesn't help get some real solid character work up front. Though as the issues roll on, Mon-El's vague quest for an identity of his own sharpens a bit to be a quest to survive a slow-burning illness because he's just beginning to taste what the world and its beauty can offer him. That's actually kind of a brilliant character arc to attach to a cipher. Unfortunately, with so many other cast members already demanding their own page time along with Robinson throwing in his own pet ideas and nods (let's see splash pages for C-list heroes of every continent!), that story and how it lives in the character comes off as half baked.

The other way in which I think Starman really works where Mon-El seems to fall flat is the exact opposite end of the story spectrum from introducing a real human lead: plot. With his former epic, Robinson took a set of characters he had a very strong handle on and threw them all into one catastrophic situation: the Mist's massive attack on Opal City/vendetta against the Starman bloodline. All those internal conflicts and personality quirks had to step out into the light and prove themselves as good ideas in one concise push. Here – again in part because we're coming off a mini event that starred a character who's no longer the star of this serial but needs to be explained away because his name's on the front fucking cover – all the action we get are minor skirmishes throughout Metropolis and the world that serve to give the heroes something to talk about once the punching is done. There are bigger subplot ideas at work for everyone from the Science Police squad to the Parasite to series "big bad" General Sam Lane, but nothing brings all those little plots to the foreground and makes for a story that will really galvanize everything at hand.

Again, some of this is just the perils of shared universe comics at work, but the characters on the whole would have been served much better if at one point a line was drawn in the sand whereby Robinson could have just said, "OK, from this issue on, there's one big fight that we're all getting thrown into, and new readers are welcome to come see what our new cast is all about." As it is, almost every character comes off weaker for not having something specific to fight for with the possible exception of the Guardian who gets a bit of development as both a single dad and a kind of anachronistic "old man commander" in the one issue where the Science Police team up and break out a captured alien (but even those moments come off a bit too cliché). General Lane is probably served the worse by all this cloak and dagger plotting as all we learn is that he really doesn't like anyone that's vaguely like Superman. And look, I know his always supposed to have been kind of a dick, but never in my life would I have expected that Lois Lane's father is the kind of guy who would let the Prankster straight up murder 12 innocent people just to distract Black Lightning for a few days.

What we're left with are a cast of characters with some real cool conceptual power but no great emotional or plot hooks. It kind of reminds me of that one video that was going around last month where the dude is reviewing the new "Star Wars" flicks and after asking people to describe Han Solo (which they easily do), he asks them to describe Qui Gon Jin only to get blank stares and stammers.

None of this is helped too much by the art – mostly presented by Renato Guedes, though he's easily swapped out for some other different artists from that "works quickly and looks modern" Latin American camp I was talking about earlier. When Guedes first appeared on some awful OMAC book DC put out years back, I was really impressed with the surface elements of his style from his attention to architectural and setting detail to the clean quality of his line and how it interacted so well with modern coloring techniques. But the more I read of the guy and his ilk as storytellers, the more I just see stiff posing and a kind of rigid, unexpressive tone to the whole enterprise that gets more and more boring to look at with each issue. There's no zip to these pages. Nothing moves or excites the eye. It's all undynamic elbow bends and billowy capes (exception granted for a pretty fun fight between Steel and Atlas by Pere Pérez and the too fucking gorgeous covers by former Starman cover painter Andrew Robinson).

In the end, a lot about what Robinson is building and teasing here grew on me as I made my way through the volume, but after waiting I don't even know how many months for one damn hardcover to hit collecting this material while the monthly Superman titles went on and on, I'm not really sure I want to try and keep up with this whole story at this point. Outside any story concerns I have going in to further adventures, it is kind of a bummer thinking that all that's being built here will all end in three months anyway when DC brings Superman back to earth. Once the "War of the Superman" crossover is done, I'm betting so will be Mon-El and company's chances of striving on as their own ongoing mostly because sales have been so low on Superman since the "New Krypton" event. And why wouldn't they be? Not one of the characters on display here has ever so much as carried a popular mini series, let alone their own ongoing (Valor doesn't count), so expecting fan support on the Superman name alone never seemed too realistic to me, and with the slow boil nature of the way the comic has rolled out its big character and plot hooks, I'm assuming most people who would have had a go with these heroes have already moved on.

Maybe next time.

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