Friday, March 04, 2005

New Books for March 3rd, 2005

Normally I post my weekly reviews on message boards I contribute to, but this week, there was an odd confluence of themes in the books I picked up, and I thought they might generate some comment, about superheroes, and the place they hold in the world, fictional and otherwise....

Mild Spoilers: you have been warned.

Super Human.

By coincidence, four of the five I picked up the week of March 3rd, all represented interesting and quite varied takes on what it means to be super-human, or live in a world blessed (or cursed, depending on your point of view) with super-humans.

SHANNA THE SHE DEVIL #2 (OF 7) turned out to> be much more interesting than I expected. While a lot of questions (articulated by the SpecOps Units medic in narration) about the new Shannas? origin remain unanswered, Cho manages to convincingly convey the dangerously un-empathic new born? powerhouses essentially amoral, potentially lethal point of view. Were setting up for an interesting learning curve here, as little Miss Frankenstein (imagine JMSs Hyperion from Supreme Power without the moral conditioning, or Gen13's Fairchild with the mind of an angry child) assimilates the lessons to come. Once again, Dave Stewart's coloring deserves mention, lending solid, anatomically correct form to Cho's pencils and inks. Working together, Cho's Shanna comes off not so much as a cheesecake character, and takes on the visual look of the women in Carlos Pacheco's recent work on Superman/Batman & the JLA/JSA OGN, for DC.

TWILIGHT EXPERIMENT #2 features an interesting look at two related, reluctant super-humans who share an unwanted heroic legacy. Its revealed that the older of the two, Renee, a survivor of superhuman collateral damage (and became a female emergency medical technician in response) has been more or less hiding the fact she has superhuman abilities for years. I liked that fact that this is revealed as a matter of course, without fanfare, and thus was believable in the context of the story. Renees deep-seated ambivalence about her powers (which seems to border on self-hatred) nicely contrasts with that of a orphaned teenaged super-boy, raised in splendid isolation in a space station above Earth by a holographic artificial intelligence. Although an artificial intelligence attempts to prepare him to follow in his self-sacrificing mothers footsteps (echoing again JMSs take on Hyperions youth as a ward of the government), super-boy wants nothing more than to enjoy the normal rites, rituals and experiences shared by any normal, middle class American teenager once hes released into the larger world below. Neither he nor Renee cares for the heroic legacy they share, but the end of this issue reveals that, ready or not, both will soon be tossed into action. Palmiotti and Gray's story is pretty easy to relate to, esp., if one has experienced conflicts between the expectations of say parents who expected you to follow their footsteps into a family business or profession; or had to deal with absent parents, who though they may have meant well, essentially abandoned you to focus on careers, or pursue idealistic goals. I look forward to the conflicts and adjustments to come.

Both Shanna and Twilight dance around the essential issue of whether superheroes have any real place in this world. The next two titles take on the issue directly. Chaykin and Heath's LEGEND #1 is an adaptation of Philip Wylie's long out of print novel, Gladiator, which was one of the sources for the mythos Jerry Siegal and Joe Schuster developed for the original golden age version of the Man of Steel. While the young Hugo Danning is not an alien, but rather the product of biochemical experimentation, we see in the way his parents raise him Siegal and Shuster's source for Clark Kent's Midwestern American upbringing. His strict, devoutly religious mother teaches him ethics, and his more laid-back scientist father warns him that he must use his powers to do good, for people will always fear, even hate him, for his vast physical advantages. The boy tries to follow their advice, but because he is often taunted, or arbitrarily ordered about by the narrow-minded provincial locals, his actions increasingly isolate him from others. Pretty interesting stuff, and definitely worth a look, though I fear Russ Heath's straightforward storytelling style, might not appeal to others, however perfect his approach fits Chaykin's script. If so, it would be a shame, cause Heath's definitely one of the best old school storytellers that emerged in the fifties and sixties. (I particularly remember the war stories he rendered and inked for DC: t'was great work).

I am told by my current roommate, a writer, that Wylie's original novel concludes with the sobering message that there is, ultimately, no place for the super-human in a world of envious, fearful others. Brain Azzazrello comes up with a fascinating take on just that topic in LEX LUTHOR MAN OF STEEL #1, beautifully illustrated by Lee Berjemo. This is the most interesting take on Luthor I've read to date: a man of exceptional intelligence and ability, who, in a very objectivist (Ayn Rand's personal philosophy, expounded in Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead) way, has an extremely relativistic view of abstract concepts like truth, justice and the American Way, and deeply believes that nothing should stand in the way of the potential advance of human beings as individuals and a race. For him, this aggressive, humanist (in the cold blooded sense ascribed to the powerful families of the Italian Renaissance by scholars and academics like Nicolo Machiavelli) personal ideology is threatened, on all sorts of levels, by the advent of Superman, an inhuman alien, who, by virtue of purely physical abilities (flight, strength, invulnerablity, heat vision) both reinforces the abstract values Luthor disdains, and encourages a kind of laziness among the common man. Luthor hates the Other, not because the aliens actions interfere with Luthor's ruthless, and occasionally lethal business operations, but his simple presence discourages people from being all they can be. This sets up for an interesting showdown between the democratic protector of the common man and the self-made natural aristocratic of greater than average ability. One seeks to protect, serve and reinforce ideals. The other seeks to inspire via personal advancement (which presupposes a herd to advance beyond, and set examples for). As ever, Azzarello sets up well I pray he can bring this story to a resounding, dramatic conclusion. It's a great counterpoint to Chakin's adaptation of Wylie. It's Legend from the Point of View of the (rich) People.

The fifth title, JUSTICE LEAGUE ELITE #9 was a bit confusing, until I realized that inter-cut> with scenes of the disasterous conclusion to the Elite's operation against Aftermath, a power hungry would-be despot who made an alliance with an alien race that wanted to use drugs to subdue humanity, in exchange for access to the Source (from Kirby's Fourth World titles of the Seventies), were scenes of a new God-like power in the DCU, Eve, re-mixing the history of superheroes on Earth, like a hip hop DJ at the bequest of Manchester Black, whose consciousness had been hidden in his sister (and Elite field leader) Vera's form the whole time. Black seems to be out to erase Superman from DCU history. Failing that, they turn their attention to the future.

There were also some touching moments here: a scene where Cassandra Cain (operating undercover, within the Elite, as Kasumi, a dimunitive ninja-like hit-woman) unmasks herself to Coldcast (because she thinks theyre about to die anyway in an onslaught of HR Giger-ish Aliens); and when Green Arrow and Major Disaster break the news of Manitou's death to his wayward wife (yep, Ollie again). It looks like the League will have to step in anyway, to take on Manchester Black and Eve, and clean up whatever cosmic mess he plans to make of the future. It was a decent enough, if tragic, conclusion to the Elite's second (and likely last) big mission as the JLAs dirty tricks unit, but like last issue, a bit too fast paced for easy comprehension. It definitely requires a couple of re-readings to catch everything going on here.

Thoughts folks?

Anyone Else