Comic book reviews: Sensation Comics #3-4

I have definitely been enjoying Sensation Comics starring Wonder Woman.  Like many great fictional creations, Wonder Woman is a character who is open to different interpretations.  Throughout her 73 year history she has played the roles of warrior, hero, feminist, diplomat, peacemaker, and goddess.  Sensation Comics, with its diverse selection of creators presenting stories of Wonder Woman set throughout the different DC Comics continuities, or outside of continuity altogether, are able to examine Diana’s various aspects, and take numerous interesting & different approaches to the character.

The covers for Sensation Comics #3 and #4 really epitomize this.  Ivan Reis & Joe Prado’s intense image for issue #3 depicts a fierce Wonder Woman engaged in close combat with armored mythological beasts.  It very much captures Diana’s role as a warrior.  In contrast, issue #4 features a vibrant, beautifully serene image of Diana gracefully gliding through the clouds.  This one is by Adam Hughes, who was the regular cover artist on the Wonder Woman comic book from 1998 to 2003.  This piece certainly demonstrates that Hughes is much more than merely an artist who draws sexy women, that he is an accomplished illustrator who can create powerful, evocative images.

Sensation Comics 3 and 4 covers

The first story in Sensation Comics #3, “Bullets and Bracelets” written by Sean E. Williams and illustrated by Marguerite Sauvage, postulates a world where Wonder Woman is not just a superhero but also a rock star headlining a band.  There’s an interesting scene after her concert ends where Diana is approached by a man who shouts “Slut! You’re corrupting our children! Go back to where you came from!”  A second man then yells back “Shut up, man! Some of us like the way she dresses! She’s hot!”  Diana, clearly annoyed at both of them, responds “I hate to break it to you both, but I dress this way because I want to, not to provoke or impress you.”  Wonder Woman has a lot on her mind and, instead of accompanying everyone on the tour bus, decides to go for a walk.  She encounters two young girls who are huge fans of the band, and joins them for a bite to eat, learning about who they are.

Williams and Sauvage’s story is a nice one, well written and beautifully illustrated.  Sauvage’s Diana is very beautiful, dignified and human.  Williams’ script examines how Diana is a role model for many young women, a figure of female empowerment.  As I saw it, this story is examining the idea that women should not feel that they need to exist as an adjunct to men, fulfilling the roles expected by them.  And, really, that is true of all people, women and men.  We should primarily be happy with ourselves first, with who we are, before we set out to try to impress or please other people, be they our significant other, relatives, employers & co-workers, or society at large.

Sensation Comics 3 pg 5

The second tale in #3 is “Morning Coffee” by writer Ollie Masters and artist Amy Mebberson.  Early one morning in London, the larcenous Catwoman raids the vaults of the British Museum.  The police call in Wonder Woman, who is currently living in the city.  Diana, who hasn’t yet had a chance to grab her daily cup of joe, is mildly perturbed at having to deal with this.  Easily catching the cat-burglar, Diana is left to watch over Catwoman until the properly equipped authorities arrive to transport her back to the States.  Diana takes custody of Selena and brings her along to a local café, hoping to finally get her caffeine fix.  It is there that the second part of Catwoman’s scheme goes into effect, much to Diana’s consternation.

The story by Masters is charming and fun.  His tale fits perfectly into the 10 page long space allotted to it.  Mebberson’s artwork is very cute.  She gives the characters some really fun, comedic expressions and body language.    One thing I have noticed about the stories from Sensation Comics, as well as the other digital-first titles that DC publishes, is that the art is designed primarily to fit on a computer screen.  10 published pages equals 20 pages on the computer.  This limits the storytelling choices available to the artists.  Sometimes I think there are artists whose strengths are not nearly as well suited to strong layouts, and given the confines of the digital format they do not do work that is as strong.  Mebberson’s work, however, fits perfectly in with this format.  She clearly knows how to lay out a story, and the flow of action & narrative is unhindered by the requirements within which she is working.

Sensation Comics 3 pg 14

Split between Sensation Comics #3 and #4 is a humorously bizarre story written & illustrated by Gilbert Hernandez.  “No Chains Can Hold Her” has Wonder Woman battling the robot armies of the alien Sayyar, who has joined forces with the Justice League’s old foe Kanjar Ro.  The two extraterrestrial tyrants manage to take mental control of Diana and pit her against Supergirl.  Also drawn into the mix is Mary Marvel, who is accidentally yanked through an other-dimensional portal.

I am a huge fan of Gilbert Hernandez’s work with his brother Jaime on Love and Rockets.  It is fantastic that they have been able to sustain a successful three decade long career on a creator-owned title.  Having said that, I do enjoy when Gilbert or Jaime make the occasional foray over to Marvel and DC, because it is so much fun to see those mainstream superheroes filtered through their independent sensibilities.  I fondly recall Gilbert’s offbeat six issue stint writing Birds of Prey in 2003.  So I’m happy to see him on a Wonder Woman story.

Hernandez’s writing on “No Chains Can Hold Her” is rather minimal.  That is very much in line with his work over the last several years, where his main concern has been less with crafting complex plotlines than it has been in creating a particular mood or atmosphere.  Hernandez’s art on this story evokes both the work of Wonder Woman’s original Golden Age artist H.G. Peter and well as the Silver Age house style of DC, with Supergirl and Kanjar Ro drawn in their early 1960s incarnations.  Mary Marvel has a Bronze Age look that evokes a bit of Kurt Schaffenberger.   Much as they did in the 1970s, Mary and rest of the Marvel Family, along with their adversaries, even reside off in their own separate reality, Earth-S presumably.

Hernandez endows Diana with an exaggerated muscular physique reminiscent of his Love and Rockets character Petra.  Certainly it is miles away from some of the contemporary DC artists who unfortunately draw Wonder Woman with the body of a supermodel.  Hernandez’s approach is an interesting interpretation of the character that suits the tone of his story.

Sensation Comics 4 pg 5

Following on in issue #4 is “Attack of the 500-Foot Wonder Woman” by writer Rob Williams and artist Tom Lyle.  Diana is teamed up with the Atom, Hawkman and Hawkwoman against the shape-changing Thanagarian criminal Byth, who is wrecking Gateway City.  So that she can combat Byth, who has transformed into towering lizard creature, Diana temporarily grows giant-sized with the Atom’s assistance.

This story was a bit underwhelming.  It felt very rushed, and Williams would no doubt have benefitted from an additional 10 pages to give it room to unfold more naturally.  I have not seen new work from Lyle in quite some time, so his return to the comic book biz is welcome.  His art on this story did feel a bit cramped, though.  I think that he may have been constrained by the aforementioned digital-first format.  When you have a giant Wonder Woman fighting a Godzilla-like monster, BIG is the way to go.  But between the short length of the story and the half-page format, Lyle isn’t allowed to go too large with his layouts or do any splash pages.  Given the constraints I think he did the best work he could.  This story wasn’t bad.  It certainly had potential.  But it could have been stronger, both in terms of writing and art, if it had been longer.

Sensation Comics 4 pg 21

Rounding out Sensation Comics #4 is “Ghosts and Gods,” written by Neil Kleid and illustrated by Dean Haspiel.  As with the Hernandez story, “Ghosts and Gods” is an insanely entertaining mash-up of a number of different eras and styles.  The Golden Age incarnations of Wonder Woman and Etta Candy team up with Silver Age character Deadman to retrieve the Purple Healing Ray that has been stolen from Paradise Island by Bronze Age villain Ra’s al Ghul.  Yes, really!  All that was missing was Etta enthusiastically shouting “Woo Woo!”

Kleid’s story is a fun, exciting romp.  The art by Haspiel is fantastic.  As I’ve observed in the past, Dino has always been great at evoking different artistic eras in his work, and he successfully renders these various characters interacting with each other.  Haspiel is also a superb storyteller who very much knows how to lay out a page.  He clearly had no problems working within the digital-first format, and the action flows very smoothly.  I guess my only complaint (if you can call it that) is that this story wasn’t longer.  It was so enjoyable I would have been thrilled if had gone on for another 10 pages.

Sensation Comics 4 pg 26Despite a few minor hiccups, Sensation Comics #3 and #4 were very good.  If you are one of those readers who is dissatisfied with the current approach DC has towards the character of Wonder Woman then Sensation Comics is certainly a recommended alternative.  There really is something for everyone is this series.

Comic book reviews: Darkseid #1 (Justice League #23.1)

As I may have mentioned before, I really have not been much of a fan of DC Comics’ much hyped New 52.  There were a few series that I liked, but all of them ended up getting canceled.  The only exception is Wonder Woman by Brian Azzarello & Cliff Chiang, which continues to be an excellent read (I really should do a full length post on that soon).  Other than that, though, nothing else has really caught my attention.  But I may pick up Ann Nocenti’s work on Catwoman and Katana when it receives the trade paperback treatment.

So when DC’s whole month-long line-wide Forever Evil crossover rolled around, I had no interest in it.  I did end up picking up four or five of the tie-in issues due to the specific characters or creators involved, and even then nothing especially stood out.  And among those few there was one major disappointment: Justice League #23.1, aka Darkseid #1.

Those who follow this blog will remember that I am a huge fan of Jack Kirby, especially his amazing work on the “Fourth World” titles.  While I do not think any subsequent creators have been nearly as successful in their handling of the New Gods as the man who created them, there have nevertheless been some very good stories featuring them written by such individuals as Walter Simonson, John Ostrander, John Byrne, Paul Levitz and Jim Starlin.  And in the New 52, Azzarello & Chiang have come up with interesting takes on Orion and Highfather in the pages of Wonder Woman.  So I was curious to read Darkseid #1, which presents the New 52 origin of the lord of Apokolips.

Justice League 23 point 1 cover

There was actually some potential to “Apotheosis,” which is written by Grek Pak.  It starts off quite well.  We see that ages ago in another dimension, Darkseid was once a humble farmer named Uxas.  He lived on a world where a pantheon of titanic deities regularly wrecked havoc, brawling across the landscape with seemingly no regard for the tiny mortals at their feet.  Unlike his sister Avia and brother-in-law Izaya, Uxas recognized that these gods were oblivious to the plight of their subjects, and they cared not who was killed during their battles.  Uxas is clearly a man who feels wronged, who resents these gods, and who wishes to gain the power to control his destiny.  It’s an intriguing stepping-on point to understanding what drives Darkseid.

Unfortunately things then get confusing.  We see Uxas climbing the mountain of the gods and, while they are asleep, whispering in their ears that they should go to war.  Then he sits back and watches them nearly destroy one another and, once they are helpless, Uxas comes up to them and slays them all, stealing their power, in the process transforming into Darkseid.

At this point it really felt like this issue had skipped by a whole bunch of stuff.  Everything flies by so quickly.  Uxas’ manipulation and slaying of the gods seems to take place much too easily.  I know I often criticize modern comic books for their decompressed nature.  But this issue is the opposite problem: it felt like a three or four issue story crammed into 20 pages.

In any case, Izaya and Avia approach the last of the gods, praying for his help.  And even though these cosmic beings previously seemed to be completely unaware of their worshipers, suddenly the fallen “lord of the sky” rewards the dying Avia for still having faith by transforming her husband into Highfather.  The empowered Izaya futilely tries to reason with Darkseid.  They fight, and their world is destroyed.

Justice League 23 point 1 pg 11

The story abruptly fast forwards to Darkseid in place as the iron-fisted ruler of Apokolips, planning his conquest of other dimensions.  And some other stuff happens that I think ties in with past issues of Justice League and Earth 2, but I’m not completely certain.  Again, this sudden lurch in time really feels jarring.

I’ve read other comic books written by Pak, and he is usually much better than this.  I cannot help wondering if the bare bones of Darkseid’s story were handed to him by someone like Dan DiDio or Geoff Johns and he was given this single issue to try and flesh them out.  Whatever the case, the results are frustrating and disappointing, as we get snapshots, glimpses of what could have been a memorable story.

I’m sorry, but I just cannot help comparing this to Jack Kirby’s own work.  Maybe I am being unfair.  But just take a look at New Gods #7, “The Pact,” which he wrote & penciled back in 1971.  In the space of a mere 24 pages, Kirby recounted the origins of the longstanding war between Apokolips and New Genesis, in a tale that contained both epic cosmic conflicts and deeply personal moments.

New Gods 7 cover

In contrast, we have the just published Justice League #23.1, which, despite being given nearly the same page count as New Gods #7, just barely manages to begin exploring the origins and motivations of Darkseid and Highfather.  I really do not want to sound like a grumpy old man (I’m only 37 years old) but they really do not make comic books like they used to.

Oh, well, at least the artwork on Justice League #23.1 is quite good.  I am completely unfamiliar with Paulo Siqueira and Netho Diaz.  But they do a very nice job capturing the awesome, cosmic nature of events.  The coloring by Hi-Fi is vibrant.  As for the cover, the super-talented Ivan Reis draws an extremely striking portrait of Darkseid.

As I said before, I actually feel like “Apotheosis” could have been much better.  But it feels like someone dropped the ball along the way.  I don’t know, maybe most of the criticisms I’ve leveled at this issue are indicative of the larger problems plaguing DC as a whole over the last few years.  This is probably why I read so little that is published by them nowadays (or by Marvel, either, for that matter).

Yes, there are many very good comic books being published nowadays.  You just have to look beyond DC and Marvel to find the majority of them.  Yeah, it’s definitely disappointing to see Kirby’s characters & concepts handled in such a sloppy manner by DC.  But, whatever, rather than dwell on that, I’m just going to look for the interesting, original work being done by other creators elsewhere.