Thursday, October 15, 2009

Review - Formerly Known as the Justice League

Formerly Known as the Justice League
Written by Keith Giffen and J. M. DeMatteis; Art by Kevin Maguire and Joe Rubinstein

2004 Eisner Winner for Best Humor Publication

This is an easy one to put a recommendation on: did you enjoy the Justice League stories from the late eighties where things were funny and cheerful? If yes, then you need to read Formerly Known as the Justice League (and it's even better sequel I Can't Believe It's Not the Justice League). If your response was "Who was that?" then this isn't the book for you. This is essentially a reunion special, a gathering of old friends that will make those who fondly remember the original smile and those who just don't know it wonder what the big deal is.

Maxwell Lord has decided to revive his Justice League as a low-rent non-profit called Superbuddies. He recruits old members like Ralph and Sue Dibney, Captain Atom, L-Ron, Fire, Blue Beetle, and Booster Gold along with newcomer Mary Marvel. Before they're established they have to deal with the world's most erudite street gang, being kidnapped for gladiatorial matches, and the return of one of their old foes.

That's a plot that's uninspiring. It's blandly generic when it comes to superheroes. The key to Formerly Known as the Justice League is that it is a joke (in case you couldn't tell from the title). These characters can't stand in the same room without breaking into a comedy routine. It's the dialog and characters that are a lot of fun in this book. It is a farce and comedy bits will swing back and forth through the whole thing.

The biggest downside here is that it is very dependent on the reader being familiar with the original stories. There are details that color things which only work with knowing the context. Why do Blue Beetle and Booster Gold argue like an old married couple? Or why this Maxwell Lord guy is so important. Or what's the big deal with the superheroes who show up at the end.

The reunion special aspect also hurts the story a bit. It's just not quite as good as the original. The sequel, I Can't Believe It's Not the Justice League, does a much better job of living up to the original stories but there's occasional moments in Formerly where the manic energy just fades away and it feels like the story is just going through the motions. You can hang a lampshade on how cliche of story making superheroes fight in gladiatorial combat is but that doesn't change that it isn't really an interesting story to tell.

I suppose I should add to this review that as a cruelly ironic twist these stories were released simultaneously with stories that derailed these characters. This one came out at the same time as Identy Crisis which leads off with one of the main characters being murdered and adds some rape into the mix. The sequel was released at the same time as a story where another of the main characters murders yet another of them. So don't try to fit these stories into continuity; the creators did and got their work stepped on.

The worst nightmare for a comic book artist is the talking heads scene: a lot of dialog and not much to illustrate beyond the character's face. Most comic book artists play with the staging but there are a rare breed of them who can take those dialog scenes and play with expressions to make those talking heads artistically interesting and their king is Kevin Maguire. I've never seen anyone handle those sequences better than him and since Formerly Known as the Justice League is almost all talking heads. The facial acting that Maguire gives to every single character both prevents that from being boring and aids in the comedy.

I think it's obvious that I loved Giffen, DeMatteis, and Maguire's original Justice League stories. I mean really loved them. I mean to the point that I was disappointed that I didn't go ahead and blow my paycheck on some of Maguire's original art from one of the issues when I had the opportunity to twenty years ago. So Formerly Known as the Justice League was a comforting visit to some old friends for me. If you don't have that fondness then I think you may find it to just be a quirky superhero book.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Review - Gon Swimmin'

Gon Swimmin'
by Masahi Tanaka
1998 Eisner Winner for Best Humor Publication
1998 Eisner Winner for Best U.S. Edition of Foreign Material

Comic books with animal stars are more common than you might expect. Usually these are heavily anthropomorphic with the animals acting essentially like tiny humans. Gon Swimmin' offers an animal comic with a slightly different view. Most of the animals in it act like animals with the exception of the title character.

Gon is a tiny dinosaur that lives in something resembling modern times though no humans or signs of civilization appeared in Gon Swimmin'. Instead Gon encounters different animals in his travels and the animals have to deal with Gon's tough-guy attitude. In this fourth book in the series Gon tries on a turtle shell and joins the migration of baby sea turtles who fall one by one predators, tries to cross a desert with some unfortunate animals, and struts around the savanna with a group of feline cubs.

The stories are completely "silent"; there is no dialog or onomatopoeia. While the later two stories were simple enough that the technique worked fine there was an unusual transition in the first story that left me completely bewildered and without any context. With the art carrying the weight of the story there are some flaws that turn up. On occasion it is difficult to follow the flow of the action and I sometimes had to flip back to make sure I didn't miss something.

On the other side of the art Tanaka draws some spectacular animals. While Gon is clearly cartoony the rest of the cast is drawn almost realistically. The exception is the occasional distortion of their faces to help make them more expressive. It's such slight anthropomorphism that it could easily go completely unnoticed and it brings home the fact that these are stories about animals instead of people.

Even with the weaker storytelling on the part of the art the first story with the turtle migration is by far the best of three in this book. It captures the struggles of the natural world as the number of baby sea turtles dwindle over the course of the story. The second story was the weakest in my view since none of the animals crossing the desert connected with me. On the other hand the final story which might have been the slightest of them in plot was more fun because it just let Gon push his way across Africa.

One thing that I did not like in Gon Swimmin' was that the U.S. publisher added a text introduction to each story that unnecessarily explained the plot. These could have been dropped and it would have improved the book.

After reading Gon Swimmin' I've decided that Gon is not for me. I just didn't find Tanaka's silent storytelling compelling enough to return and Gon himself didn't interest me. Still I can understand why someone might enjoy the series: it's well drawn and has some adorable character designs. If you like cute animal stories then you'll probably have fun with Gon Swimmin'.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Review - All Star Superman

All Star Superman
Written by Grant Morrison; Art by Frank Quitely
2006 Eisner Winner for Best New Series
2007 Eisner Winner for Best Continuing Series
2009 Eisner Winner for Best Continuing Series

I'm a bit fuzzy on the categorization of All Star Superman. It was planned as a twelve issue limited series and ran for twelve issues to tell one story but was awarded "Best Continuing Series" rather than "Best Limited Series". Irregardless of what category it should have won for this series deserves accolades. It is the distilled essence of Superman; arguably the most iconic character of the twentieth century filtered down to one story that puts it all into perspective.

Superman is dying. A trap by his arch enemy Lex Luthor has left him poisoned and with only weeks to live. As he tries to come to grips with his own mortality he seeks to make peace with the woman he loves, tries to find a cure for his affliction, and seeks to leave a worthy legacy behind.

One of the problems with the monthly format for comic books is that there has to be a next issue. When it comes to corporate owned characters they have to keep making comics and as time goes on they become cyclical as creator after creator churn up the past to put forward their preferred version of things. All Star Superman doesn't have that problem because right from the outset it is clear that this is a story intended to stand apart from the ongoing comics. Morrison effectively throws out everything except a handful of concepts that he wanted to play with. That makes this a story where anything can happen.

For much the same reason when it comes to superhero comics I generally apply a caveat that if you don't like superheroes then a story probably won't be for you. The reason for that is while I enjoy superhero comics I also recognize the inherent absurdity of them and the fact that readers have to accept many genre conventions that exist for no good reason in order to enjoy them. I'm not going to say that about All Star Superman. Superman is an iconic figure and for all the talk about superheroes being "modern mythology" All Star Superman is one of the few times that I can feel that at work.

Morrison captures the messianic influences in Superman as a character beautifully. This is a Superman who fits the übermench form. He's a being that has transcended humanity to provide benevolence to the world. And instead of showing that in having him punch a lot of villains until they fall over or putting out forest fires with his breath All Star Superman presents him as a seeker of knowledge capable of unending compassion. This is an aspect to the character that would be impossible to star in the roughly two thousand monthly comics that have featured him but for a story with such a tight, laser like focus it works. For the sake of this story it doesn't matter that Superman is perfect since it's about the world interacting with him instead of the other way around.

The story is very episodic in nature as each issue of the comic comprises almost one complete tale. So you get the story of Lois Lane having dinner with Superman and once it's over they move on to deal with a story about how disturbed Lex Luthor is or one about a pair of replacement heroes or the worst day of Superman's life. The key is that even though there are twelve separate stories they're all tied into the original theme and just look at it from a different angle.

I'm giving Quitely the short shrift here since as terrific as Morrison's story is Quitely's art isn't quite perfect. That is not to say that I didn't like it but I'm aware that it is an acquired taste. Quitely draws his figures in a way that's best described as "lumpy" as opposed to the ultra-sleek styling of most superhero artists. I find that I appreciate it for being so distinctive and I think that it helps All Star Superman because it showcases the imperfections in people. This gets a real showcase in the second volume where one of the stories deals with a planet that is all about imperfection.

Before All Star Superman came along there was exactly one story that I could point to for what makes Superman great. Alan Moore's Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? had a similar theme but with less space available to it Moore couldn't manage the tableau that Morrison creates in All Star Superman. I am prepared to say that this is it for the foreseeable future; there is no need for another Superman story after All Star Superman. It's good enough to stand in for all of Superman's history.