Comic book reviews: Justice League “Gods and Monsters” prequels

As a lead-up to the direct-to-DVD animated feature Justice League: Gods and Monsters, DC Comics released a trio of prequels that delved into the origins of the alternate-reality versions of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman who make up the team.  Released as digital-first comics, print editions have subsequently come out over the past three weeks.  These were co-plotted by Gods and Monsters producer Bruce Timm, co-plotted & scripted by longtime comic book writer J.M. DeMatteis, and illustrated by several talented artists.

Gods and Monsters Wonder Woman cover

I haven’t yet had an opportunity to pick up the DVD but I enjoyed these three prequels so I expect that I’ll be getting it in the near future.  Here’s a quick look at them.

The Batman prequel reveals that in this reality the dark knight of Gotham is scientist Kurt Langstrom (who in the mainstream DCU is the shape-shifting Man-Bat).  Langstrom was suffering from cancer and attempted to devise a cure.  In a way he succeeded, although it resulted in him becoming a vampiric creature that needs to feed on blood to survive.  In an attempt to alleviate his conscience Langstrom becomes a vigilante, draining the blood of criminals.

For a couple of reasons I was a bit underwhelmed with the Batman book.  There were a lot of similarities between Langstrom and the Marvel character Morbius the Living Vampire.  In addition, the concept of a vampire Batman was already done very successfully in the Elseworlds trilogy Red Rain.  This feels a bit like a needless retread.

Nevertheless, despite the somewhat less-than-groundbreaking nature of this alternate Batman, DeMatteis does a good job examining Langstrom’s tortured psyche.  The artwork by Matthew Dow Smith is effectively moody, although some of his storytelling is a little unclear, his characters a bit stiff.  The cover by the super-talented Francesco Francavilla is very good.

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I was definitely much more impressed with the Superman prequel.  One of the qualities of Superman in his various incarnations is that although he was born on Krypton he was raised on Earth by the Kents, who instilled in him morality, responsibility and empathy.  Whatever the circumstances of his birth, he became a hero because his human parents raised him to be a good person.  Various alternate-reality versions of Superman have examined how, if the infant Superman had instead arrived somewhere else (such as the Soviet Union or Apokolips) he would end up a very different person.

The Superman in Gods and Monsters is not Kal-El, but rather the son of General Zod.  Nevertheless, he is still a product of his upbringing.  Found as a baby by a family of Mexican migrant workers, he is named Hernan Guerra.  Young Hernan is raised by a loving family that tries to teach him to be responsible with his powers.  Unfortunately he grows up seeing his family being exploited by farm owners who force their employees to work long, grueling hours for slave wages.  He is also regularly subjected to racism and xenophobia, harassed by people who accuse him of taking jobs from “real” Americans. DeMatteis has the story narrated by Hernan’s sister Valentina, who explains the conflict that the young outsider must endure…

“All he knew was that he had the powers of Heaven – and yet his entire existence was of the Earth: The son of migrant workers whose lives were defined by unending work. Constant fear and suspicion.”

Despite his parents’ best efforts, Hernan grows up full of resentment.  He wants to use his powers to make the world a better place, but his anger pushes him to extreme actions.  He is a Superman who is balanced precipitously on a moral tightrope, a well-intentioned hero who is in danger of becoming a tyrant.

The art & coloring by Moritat effectively depict both the innocence of young Hernan and the bitter disenchantment he continually experiences as he grows older.  Moritat superbly brings to live the complex characterization that DeMatteis & Timm have invested in their protagonist.  The cover by Gabriel Hardman demonstrates the majestic yet stern & brooding nature of this Superman.

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The last of the prequels, Wonder Woman, features Becca, a New God who flees to Earth in a Boom Tube in 1962.  Living in exile among humanity, Becca is struck by the extreme dichotomy of humanity…

“And yet the very duality of this world calls to me… and I have no choice but to answer. So I travel from overcrowded cities to isolated mountains. From places of breathtaking natural beauty to war-ravaged wastelands. I observe the flow of life – with both wonder and horror —  never interfering in the events unfolding around me.”

Becca eventually finds herself in New York in 1967.  She is drawn to the hippie counter-cultural movement.  Joining a group of teenagers known as the “Hairies” at an upstate commune, Becca admires their willingness to attempt to expand their consciousness, to discover the larger universe, but despairs at them relying on harmful drugs to do so.  She attempts to help these young people achieve their enlightenment through more benign means, sharing with them the telepathic technology of her Mother Box.

It can be a difficult task to follow in the footsteps of Jack Kirby when revisiting his New Gods.  The characters and stories were such a personal expression on his part, and very much rooted in the social & political climate of early 1970s America.  Many a subsequent writer who has attempted to utilize the New Gods has either fallen into slavish imitation of Kirby, or has instead written material that feels very disconnected from the original stories.

DeMatteis has on occasion explored the New Gods.  He wrote a Forever People miniseries and several issues of Mister Miracle in the late 1980s.  Looking at those, as well as his work on this Wonder Woman special, I really feel that he is one of the more successful writers in revisiting Kirby’s concepts.  Yes, DeMatteis takes a very different approach to the execution of the characters, but thematically his utilization of them is akin to Kirby himself.

Much of Kirby’s work on the Fourth World books was rooted in his dissatisfaction at the American landscape of the late 1960s and the early 70s.  He was very troubled by the Vietnam War, by the Nixon presidency, and by the rise of the religious right.  Kirby saw in the hippies and flower children of the time a possible hope for tomorrow: a group of young people who rejected violence and discrimination and who wanted to create a better, inclusive society.

DeMatteis very much taps into this in “The Dream.”  Becca simultaneously regards the Hairies as both naïve and admirable.  She very much agrees with their goals, but recognizes that it takes not just ideals but hard work to make dreams a reality.  Nevertheless, she cannot help but think…

“Perhaps, I mused, naïveté is our best weapon against cynicism. Perhaps innocence is the only antidote to the soul-crushing disease of experience.”

Becca stays among the Hairies, hoping to assist them in working towards their goals.  For all their flaws and moral blind spots, she recognizes that their ideals are noble and worth striving to achieve.

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The special is very effectively illustrated by longtime artists Rick Leonardi & Dan Green.  I have always found Leonardi’s style to be a bit sketchy & surreal, with a quality that can be either dreamlike or nightmarish.  That very much suits the tone of DeMatteis & Timm’s plot.  Green’s inking complements Leonardi’s pencils perfectly.  They have previously worked together on several occasions, always to excellent results.

The cover for the Wonder Woman prequel is by Jae Lee, with coloring from June Chung.  It is certainly a beautiful piece.  Much like Leonardi, Lee possesses a quality to his work that is simultaneously hyper-detailed and illusory.  His depiction of Becca is beautiful and striking.

Overall I was satisfied with the Gods and Monsters prequels.  Timm & DeMatteis did a good job developing the back-stories of the characters.  The scripting by DeMatteis is top-notch.  He has always been really good at getting into the heads of his characters.  The end result is that I am certainly interested in seeing them again in the animated movie.

Comic book reviews: Sensation Comics #5

When I found out that Sensation Comics #5 would feature Wonder Woman facing the dark New Gods of Apokolips, I was both anticipating it and feeling a bit apprehensive.  Jack Kirby created a set of amazing characters in his “Fourth World” stories, but they were also very personal works.  Subsequent stories featuring the New Gods have been very hit or miss.  There have been certain creators who had a good grasp of the characters, such as Walter Simonson, John Ostrander, Paul Levitz and John Byrne.  I definitely have to add Corinna Bechko & Gabriel Hardman to that list based on their work in “Dig for Fire.”

Sensation Comics 5 pg 1

In past issues of Sensation Comics it has been apparent that sometimes 10 pages just is not enough room for some creators to adequately tell a complete story.  I’ve mostly been more satisfied with the tales that were 20 pages long.  So I was hoping that eventually there would be a 30 page story entry that would comprise an entire issue.  I finally got my wish with “Dig for Fire.”

Like most other stories to appear in this book, Bechko & Hardman’s tale is vague as to its place in continuity.  It appears to be set roughly in the post-Crisis, pre-New 52 era.  Hardman draws Darkseid with his original Kirby design.  I prefer that to the New 52 look, which is much too busy & complicated for my tastes.  As I’ve mentioned before, I enjoy the continuity-lite approach of the series, which enables creators to tell stories without having to worry about what is going on in other titles, and to utilize a variety of approaches to the character.

When two Amazons who have been sent to observe Apokolips go missing, and Parademons begin to pop up on Paradise Island, Hippolyta dispatches Wonder Woman to investigate.  Knocking out a pair of arriving Parademons, Diana uses their Boom Tube to journey to Apokolips, where she disguises herself in their armor.  She makes contact with Luftan, a merchant who had previously served as a contact for the Amazons.  Luftan, however, informs the authorities of Diana’s arrival, and she is attached by the Female Furies.  Diana finds herself outmatched by the Furies, who are incredibly formidable opponents.

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Bechko & Hardman have a very good understanding of the world of Apokolips, and of its iron-fisted ruler Darkseid.  Often writers will make the mistake of depicting Darkseid as a god of evil, which he is not.  Darkseid as envisioned by Kirby is the god of fascism and totalitarianism.

Apokolips is a police state.  Its inhabitants hate Darkseid, but they also believe that he is omnipotent, an all-knowing, all-seeing being who will instantly be aware of the slightest act of disobedience and punish it in the harshest manner possible.  His rule is cemented as much by fear as it is by his actual power.  When the Female Furies inform Darkseid that they have apparently killed Wonder Woman, he is actually enraged at them.  He would much rather that they had captured Diana to be executed publicly; a spectacle to further enforce among his subjects the futility of resistance.

Wonder Woman is an excellent ideological opponent to Darkseid.  Diana believes in liberty and justice and in the self-worth & dignity of the individual, in enabling each person to strive to achieve greatness.  All of this is anathema to Darkseid.

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Barely surviving her run-in with the Female Furies, Wonder Woman rescues her fellow Amazons from their own executions.  Eluding pursuing Parademons and Dog Calvary, the three inhabitants of Paradise Island find a temporary refuge.  There Diana is shocked to learn what her sisters have been up to: they have obtained an incredibly powerful bomb, a “planet killer,” from Lexcorp which they intend to use to obliterate Apokolips, thereby preventing Darkseid and his minions from ever threatening Paradise Island.  Naturally enough, Diana is aghast at the thought of committing mass murder.

(I suppose that the closest real-world scenario would be if someone dropped a nuclear bomb on North Korea in order to take out Kim Jong-un and his inner circle.  Yes, that would eliminate them, but it would also result in the deaths of millions of civilians who were unfortunate enough to be living in that horrible country.)

Wonder Woman and the Amazons are captured, but not before the planet killer is deployed.  Diana manages to convince a skeptical Darkseid of the threat, and that she is the one to stop it.  Plunging deep into the fiery heart of Apokolips atop a “scavenger-bot” with only a heat suit for protection, Diana manages to retrieve the bomb before it detonates.  She returns with it back to the surface, where Darkseid uses his Omega Beams to destroy it, before turning them on the two rogue Amazons wiping them from existence.  Acknowledging that they had an agreement, Darkseid reluctantly allows Wonder Woman to depart.

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Bechko & Hardman do recognize that Darkseid, despite his tyrannical nature, also possesses pragmatism as well as a sort of code of honor, albeit a very individual one that he will readily bend to his convenience.  Although he probably could have killed Wonder Woman if he really wanted to, Darkseid chooses to honor their deal because she did aid him.  And perhaps he also would rather have Diana’s chaotic influence removed from his world as expediently as possible, without any more disruptions to his orderly rule.

By the disgusted, sulking look on Wonder Woman’s face on the last page, it certainly appears that Darkseid has come out completely unscathed, his rule totally unchallenged.  But then Bechko & Hardman show us two of his lowly subjects who had previously been paralyzed by fear of their ruler.  “An Amazon – an outsider – saved us. Even Darkseid knew it,” observes one of them, with the other responding “He did at that. And you know what? He’s not as tall as I thought he’d be.”  Without even realizing it, Wonder Woman did achieve a minor victory, eroding ever so slightly the perception among the people of Apokolips that Darkseid is all-powerful.

The artwork by Hardman in “Dig for Fire” is perfect.  He works very well in laying out pages that work in both the digital and print formats.  It’s a very tricky thing, I imagine, designing pages so that will appear as two separate images on the computer screen and as one single page in the print edition.  Hardman constructs several pages that work in such a way that the action is self-contained if seen in the digital format, but which also has the action flowing from top to bottom in the printed book.

His depiction of Wonder Woman is strong and beautiful, determined and defiant in the face of adversity.  Hardman renders Apokolips as a sprawling industrial horror, replete with ragged, scavenging occupants, dank, dirty tunnels, and colossal machinery.  It truly is a grotesque, nightmare world.  Jordan Boyd’s subdued coloring works perfectly with the art in creating a grim, oppressive atmosphere.

Sensation Comics 5 cover

My only major criticism of Sensation Comics #5 is the cover.  On its own, yes, it is a nicely illustrated piece by artist Lawrence Reynolds.  However the style of the piece is very polished and clean, which is the complete opposite of the interior work.  Given that Bechko & Hardman story comprises the entire issue, it would have been better to have a cover that complemented the material.

Indeed, there’s really nothing on Reynolds’ cover that relates to the story within, except the image of Parademons that is reflected in one of Diana’s bracelets.  And what is Superman doing on the cover?  He is nowhere in this issue.  It would have been a better choice to have Darkseid in his place, and place Apokolips instead of Earth in the background.

Well, it is said that you can’t judge a book by its cover.  That’s certainly the case here.  I was very satisfied with Bechko & Hardman’s story, and I would be happy to see them work on the character of Wonder Woman again.