Steve Lightle: 1959 to 2021

I was very sorry to hear that comic book artist Steve Lightle had passed away on January 8th. I have been a fan of his work for many years.

Legion of Super-Heroes vol 3 #37 (Aug 1987) cover drawn by Steve Lightle and colored by Anthony Tollin

Steve Lightle was born on November 19, 1959 in the state of Kansas. Growing up he was a huge fan of DC Comics, especially Legion of Super-Heroes. As he recounted in a 2003 interview published in the excellent book The Legion Companion by Glen Cadigan from TwoMorrows Publishing:

“One of the oldest drawings that I’ve got was done in second grade, and it was a massive Legion fight scene that I probably did sitting at my desk when I should’ve been doing my work.”

In the early 1980s Lightle was in DC’s new talent program. His first published work was actually for Bill Black’s Americomics / AC Comics line in 1984, where he drew a handful of covers. Right from the start on these early pieces Lightle was already doing impressive work.

Lightle’s work soon after appeared in DC’s New Talent Showcase anthology, and in fill-in issues of Batman and the Outsiders and World’s Finest.

Less than a year into his professional career Lightle was asked by editor Karen Berger to take over as penciler on Legion of Super-Heroes from the outgoing co-plotter & penciler Keith Giffen, who after a stellar run felt burned out drawing the title, with its cast of thousands and myriad futuristic alien worlds. A surprised Lightle was happy to accept the assignment. His first issue was Legion of Super-Heroes volume 3 #3, cover-dated October 1984, which was co-plotted by Paul Levitz & Keith Giffen and scripted by Levitz. Lightle was inked by Larry Mahlstedt, who he would be paired with on most of his mid-1980s run.

Legion of Super-Heroes vol 3 #8 (March 1985) cover pencils by Steve Lightle, inks by Larry Mahlstedt and colors by Anthony Tollin

In only his second issue Lightle has to draw the death of Karate Kid, one of his favorite members of the team. He did a superb job rendering this tragic event, as well as in the next issue where Princess Projecta executed Nemesis Kid for the murder of her husband. The storytelling on these sequences was stunning, really bringing to life the tragedy of Levitz & Giffen’s plots.

Lightle only penciled Legion for about a year, from #3 to #16, with a couple of other artists providing fill-ins during that time. Lightle, with his highly-detailed art style, was not an especially fast penciler, and that played a role in his departure.

As he explained in The Legion Companion:

“[T]he fact is, I took myself off the Legion…  I had convinced myself that my inability to do everything I wanted in every issue was somehow meaning that I was delivering less than a hundred percent, and therefore I shouldn’t be on the book…. So the funny thing is, looking back, I can’t even understand my thinking on this.”

Legion of Super-Heroes vol 3 #14 (Sept 1985) written by Paul Levitz, penciled by Steve Lightle, inked by Larry Mahlstedt, lettered by John Costanza and colored by Carl Gafford

Although his run on Legion was relatively short, Lightle nevertheless had a huge influence on the series. He created the Legion’s first two totally non-humanoid members, Tellus and Quislet, and designed new costumes for several established characters.

Lightle also remained on as the cover-artist for Legion, drawing nearly every cover for volume 3 until it ended in 1989 with issue #63, as well as several covers of the reprint series Tales of the Legion and for the four issue Legion spin-off Cosmic Boy. Lightle also co-plotted and penciled “Back Home in Hell” in issue #23, a story which saw a traumatized Mon-El forced to return to the Phantom Zone when the serum that protects his Daxamite physiology from lead poisoning wears off.

Lightle is regarded by many Legion fans, myself included as one of the series’ definitive artists.

Legion of Super-Heroes vol 3 #23 (June 1986) written by Paul Levitz, co-plotted & penciled by Steve Lightle, inked by Mike DeCarlo, lettered by John Costanza and colored by Carl Gafford

Following his departure from Legion of Super-Heroes, Lightle penciled the first five issues of the Doom Patrol reboot in 1987 and covers for various DC titles, plus several entries in their Who’s Who series.

In 1988 Lightle also began working for Marvel Comics, drawing a fill-in issue of X-Factor and becoming the cover artist for the reprint series Classic X-Men, an assignment that lasted from #30 (Feb 1989) to #56 (Feb 1991).

Yesterday I was attempting to recall when I first saw Steve’s work. I *think* it was when I bought Classic X-Men #39 in the Fall of 1989. Classic X-Men was in the middle of reprinting the epic “The Dark Phoenix Saga” by Claremont, Byrne & Austin from a decade earlier. I was 13 years old, and the dynamic Wolverine cover by Lightle immediately grabbed me. I missed the next issue, but a couple months later my parents got me #41, which had another amazing Lightle cover. I immediately became a fan of his work.

Classic X-Men (Nov 1989) cover by Steve Lightle

Soon after I saw Lightle’s cover artwork on Avengers Spotlight and Excalibur.  He also drew a number of Marvel Universe trading cards.

In the early 1990s I was beginning to get into DC Comics, and one of the invaluable sources of information on the oft-confusing post-Crisis universe was the 16 issue loose leaf edition of Who’s Who in the DC Universe edited by Michael Eury.

Lightle illustrated several profile pics for Who’s Who, including a dramatic rendition of Ayla Ranzz, the former Lightning Lass, in the “Five Years Later” era of the Legion. I don’t know if Lightle ever drew any other Legion-related artwork set during this period, but now I wish he had. It’s a very striking image. He rendered Ayla as a beautiful, athletic figure in dynamic motion.

Who’s Who in the DC Universe #6 (Jan 1991) Ayla Ranzz profile drawn by Steve Lightle and colored by Tom McCraw

In 1992 Lightle’s work began appearing regularly in the bi-weekly anthology series Marvel Comics Presents. He drew an eight part Wolverine and Typhoid Mary serial written by Ann Nocenti, which was followed by a Ghost Rider and Typhoid Mary serial by the same team. The storyline culminated in the intriguing and thought-provoking “Bloody Mary: A Battle of the Sexes” by Nocenti, Lightle and co-artist Fred Harper in MCP #150-151 (March 1994).

Lightle’s artwork, with his innovative and unconventional layouts, and its sense of atmosphere, was incredibly well suited to depicting the ongoing story of Typhoid Mary and her fractured psyche. On several chapters coloring was provided by Steve’s wife Marianne Lightle.

Marvel Comics Presents #123 (Feb 1993) written by Ann Nocenti, drawn & colored Steve Lightle and lettered by Janice Chiang

Lightle was also the regular cover artist on Flash for DC between 1997 and 2000. He produced a series of very dramatic images during that three year run.

In the late 1990s I *finally* discovered, via back issues, Lightle’s work on Legion of Super-Heroes from the mid 1980s. I immediately recognized he was one of the all-time great artists on that series. Around this time I was fortunate enough to get to know both Steve and Marianne on social media.

I enjoyed the behind-the-scenes looks the Lightles gave of their incredible work for the all too short-lived Cross Plains Comics, which adapted and was inspired by the works of writer Robert E. Howard.

Red Sonja: A Death in Scarlet (Dec 1999) written by Roy Thomas, co-written & drawn by Steve Lightle, lettered by Dave Sharpe and colored by Marianne Lightle

Among the projects Steve and Marianne worked on for Cross Plains was Red Sonja: A Death in Scarlet. Steve co-wrote the story with veteran Conan the Barbarian and Red Sonja writer Roy Thomas, and penciled & inked the issue. Marianne Lightle colored it under the pen name Tayreza.

Red Sonja: A Death In Scarlet was intended to be a three issue miniseries, but unfortunately only the first issue ever came out. Nevertheless, it worked well as a stand-alone story.  The artwork by Lightle was magnificent. I definitely wish he had been given more opportunities to draw Red Sonja.

It’s been observed by Legion of Super-Heroes fans that a number of the creators associated with the series have found themselves repeatedly drawn back to working on it throughout the years. At one point someone might have even jokingly referred to it as “Legionnaire’s Disease.”

Legion of Super-Heroes #8 (June 2012) written by Paul Levitz, drawn by Steve Lightle, lettered by Pat Brosseau and colored by Javier Mena

Whatever the case, Lightle was one of those creators who found himself often returning to the teen heroes from 1000 years in the future. He drew the covers for the four issue miniseries Legends of the Legion in 1998, an Umbra solo story in The Legion #24 (Nov 2003), a cover for the Star Trek / Legion crossover (Nov 2011) and several covers for the New 52 reboot of Legion of Super-Heroes, along with an Invisible Kid solo story in issue #8 (June 2012), plus a few other Legion-related items.

Over the last two decades Lightle was working on several creator-owned web comic book series, issued under the umbrella of Lunatik Press. Among the series Lightle created was the space opera Justin Zane, the martial arts adventure Peking Tom, and the sexy funny animal series Catrina Fellina.

Steve Lightle’s Lunatik Press

Steve and Marianne Lightle lived in the Kansas City region most of their lives, where they raised their children, and where their grandchildren now live. Throughout my interactions with Steve and Marianna on various social media platforms over the past two decades they always impressed me as genuinely good people.  Steve’s death at the age of 61 from cardiac arrest brought on by Covid-19 is a tragedy. My thoughts go out to Marianne and her family in this difficult time.

There is currently a fundraiser on Go Fund Me to help the Lightle family with Steve’s medical bills and other expenses. If you are able, please contribute. Thank you.

Darwyn Cooke: 1962 to 2016

Comic book creator Darwyn Cooke passed away this morning from cancer. He was only 53 years old.  Cooke was an amazing artist, and his death at such a young age is a tragedy.

The first time I ever noticed Cooke’s name was in 1999 for the credits of the animated series Batman Beyond. He designed the stunning title sequence for the show.

Cooke’s work with writer Ed Brubaker on the first four issues of the revamped Catwoman series for DC Comics in 2001 was amazing. Cooke both wrote and illustrated the epic, beautiful DC: The New Frontier miniseries published in 2004.

Wonder Woman and friends Darwyn Cooke

There was a quality to Cooke’s work that stood out for me. He successfully took the colorful, upbeat qualities of DC Comics in the Silver Age and blended them with a hardboiled, noir sensibility, resulting in a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts.  Cooke’s art was both atmospheric and fun.

Cooke also rendered incredibly beautiful women. I love how he depicted both Catwoman and Wonder Woman.  His drawings of Selina and Diana were sexy, confident, strong and graceful.

For all of their titles cover-dated February 2015, DC Comics published variant covers illustrated by Cooke. He created some incredible images for these.

To me, the timing of these covers was so weird. DC’s New 52 reboot was entering its third year.  Most of their titles were grim and downbeat, bereft of joy, featuring busy, hyper-detailed artwork.  The variant covers by Cooke for these issues were a complete 180 degrees apart.  They were colorful and exciting and fun… yes, I used the “fun” word again.  I remember looking at these covers by Cooke, then looking at the interiors, which paled by comparison.  I found myself wishing that DC would ask Cooke to work on an ongoing series for them.

Supergirl 37 Darwyn Cooke cover signed

One of my favorite of these Cooke variants was Supergirl #37. It was such a cute depiction of the Maid of Steel and the Super-Pets.  I especially loved Cooke’s adorable Streaky the Supercat.

Another one of these variants that stood out for me was Batman / Superman #17. For the past three decades, ever since Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, the relationship between Batman and Superman has been characterized as adversarial and tense.  Numerous stories have seen the two of them butting heads over ideologies and methodologies.  It would be fair to say that they fought each other more often than they actually worked together to save the world.

In contrast, on his cover for this issue Cooke shows the Dark Knight and the Man of Steel as close friends, allies in the war on crime who, in spite of their differences, like and respect one another. In that one image Cooke perfectly encapsulates how the relationship between Batman and Superman should be.  I’m not saying they should agree with each other all the time, but neither should they be at each other’s throats the instant they both enter the same room.

Batman Superman 17 Darwyn Cooke cover signed

Last year Cooke illustrated The Twilight Children, a four issue miniseries from DC / Vertigo. It was written by Gilbert Hernandez, with coloring by Dave Stewart.  As he had done in the past on Love and Rockets, Hernandez blended elements of sci-fi and magical realism for this story.  Cooke’s artwork was excellent, very much suiting Hernandez’s sensibilities.

Recently talking to Comic Book Resources about their collaboration, Hernandez had this to say…

Working on “The Twilight Children” with Darwyn Cooke was perfect timing because they asked me to do it and I took a look at Darwyn’s work — I know his work, but I looked at it closer and I go, “This guy knows how to make a comic.” He doesn’t need me, but let’s do this. Let me write this story, but I was gonna write it as simple as possible, As directly as possible, mostly dialogue, not a lot of description of what’s going on, just letting him know it’s a little fishing village, it’ll move along at a certain pace and this and that. And he just ran with it, beautifully, he just knew what to do. So the synergy was there, and he hooked up with his friend and colorist, Dave Stewart, who just made the beautiful colors. It was just an ideal situation because we let it happen. A lot of times when people collaborate who have their own careers separately collaborate there’s a lot of head butting. We were head-less. [Laughs] We basically just let it happen. Let it happen the script, let the art happen, he just let himself do it. That worked really well. We’d like to do another project together later on where he writes and I draw, so we’ll see about that.

The Twlight Children 1 pg 13

Cooke’s artwork on The Twilight Children featured very powerful layouts and storytelling.  He invested the characters with real, palpable emotions.

I was fortunate enough to meet Cooke last October. He was in town for New York Comic Con to promote the upcoming release of The Twilight Children.  Cooke and Hernandez did a signing at St. Mark’s Comics.  Cooke was definitely very friendly, laid-back, and possessed a really good sense of humor.  He made us fans feel welcome.

I had brought along my convention sketchbook with me, just in case Cooke was willing to do sketches. I asked him and he said okay.  I handed my sketchbook to him and asked him to draw whoever he wanted.  He did a nice head sketch of Catwoman in my book.  I really appreciated his generosity.

Catwoman by Darwyn Cooke

From what I have heard, this was typical of Cooke. Everyone regarded him as a genuinely nice guy.  Reading the online reactions to his untimely death, it is apparent that his passing at such a young age is all the more tragic because not only was he an immensely talented artist but also a good friend to many people.  He will definitely be missed.

Comic book reviews: Klarion by Ann Nocenti

Regular readers of this blog will recall that I am a fan of Ann Nocenti.  Between the early 1980s and the mid-1990s she wrote many offbeat, thought-provoking stories at Marvel Comics.  After leaving the comic book biz, Nocenti was involved in various other fields, working as a journalist, filmmaker and teacher.

I definitely missed the unique perspective that Nocenti brought to her work.  So I was happy that after DC Comics began their New 52 soft reboot, they hired Nocenti to write several of their titles.  Nocenti had runs on Green Arrow, Catwoman and Katana.  Her most recent work at DC was on Klarion.

Klarion 1 cover

The character of Klarion the Witch Boy was created by none other than Jack Kirby, and he made his debut in 1973 in The Demon #7.  Klarion appears to be something of a favorite among comic book creators, since he’s popped up semi-regularly in the decades since then.  I’m most familiar with him from his appearances in the revival of The Demon in the early 1990s by Alan Grant & Val Semeiks.

Klarion is admittedly an odd character to give an ongoing title, and when this was announced my first reaction was “That’s probably not going to last too long!”  Indeed, Klarion made it six issues before getting canceled.  It appears Nocenti herself recognized that she had a limited window of opportunity and made the most of the circumstances, going in and writing the hell out of the book for half a dozen issues.  The result is some very interesting stories.

As the first issue opens, Klarion is hitchhiking the crossroads of the multiverse, having run away from school after zapping his professor in the dark arts.  He gets a ride from Beelzebub, a demonic barber who specializes in close shaves.  Arriving on Earth, Klarion rescues a teenager named Rasp from getting beaten up.  Klarion is looking for a place to stay, and Rasp directs him to the Moody Museum.

The museum’s proprietors, Piper and Noah, offer Klarion a room and a job.  Klarion is immediately drawn to the lovely teenage mystic Zell.  Rasp, meanwhile, heads over to the Necropolitan Club to get some of the cutting-edge cyber-technology the proprietor Coal is disseminating.  Like all good drug dealers, Coal tells his customers “The first hit’s free.”  But after that, once he has his clientele hooked, he knows they will pay literally anything to maintain their upgrades.

That evening Klarion and Zell go to a party at the Necropolitan Club where they run into Rasp.  The teenager, who has an unrequited crush on Zell, is furious to see her with Klarion.  Using his new tech, Rasp lashes out at Klarion.  The Witch Boy is ready to hand Rasp a beating, until Piper and Noah step in and defuse the situation, at least temporarily.  Meanwhile, back at the Club, Coal proceeds with his plans to roll out his “Buddybot” technology, hoping to snag a large, well-paying group of customers.

Klarion 2 pg 2 & 3

As someone who is not a fan of decompressed storytelling, I very much enjoyed Nocenti’s writing on Klarion.  She packed a heck of a lot of plot and concepts into these six issues.

One of the main themes is that Klarion is an amoral individual who uses his powers recklessly.  He is walking along a moral tightrope, one he could slip off any minute.  Various factions recognize this.  Piper and Noah are hopeful that they can guide Klarion, teach him to use his powers in an ethical manner.  Coal and Beelzebub both recognize that the Witch Boy needs only the slightest nudge to send him into darkness.

Nocenti also addresses the extremely rapid advancement of science, the concern that technology evolves faster than the ability of human beings to utilize it responsibly.  Various characters debate whether the tech developed by Coal is value-neutral, or if it is good or bad, an asset or a curse.  Will humanity be able to utilize this new science, or will they become addicted and overwhelmed by it?  An argument between Klarion and Zell in issue #4 encapsulates this…

Klarion: Trust me, we’ve got to smash these things. Starting with your Petbot. Her tech is predatory.

Zell: She’s just a machine like any other. Is a phone evil? Only if you use it to hurt someone.

Klarion: They aren’t phones! They don’t just sit quietly in your pocket till you turn them on. They’re parasites. They feed off you and learn and grow.

Zell: Grow in good ways. I program my Buddybot. She’s symbiotic with me.

The idea that the Buddybots can be “grown” into the “perfect” lover or friend or pet is unsettling.  What exactly does that mean?  If the Bot you have always agrees with you, never argues with you, is it an actual entity?  Or is it merely just a projection of your own self?

Nocenti is exploring the same territory that she touched upon in the late 1980s in Daredevil with the character of Number Nine, who had been genetically re-engineered to be the “perfect” woman and wife.  Is that really someone who can be a genuine life companion, or is it merely a parrot in human form, feeding back to you what you want to hear?

Would you want a Buddybot?  Anyone who has been in a relationship and had a huge blow-out with their significant other, or who has been alone for a long time, is going to find that choice incredibly tempting.  Imagine always having a companion & lover and never fighting!  But would that be an authentic relationship?

I have sometimes heard love described as wanting to be with another person in spite of their flaws and mistakes.  Real relationships challenge you, force you to grow, require you to make compromises, to understand the other person.  Being involved with a “perfect” companion could be just the opposite of that, a narcissistic rut.  In the end, would you actually be happy?

Klarion 6 pg 5

Nocenti draws a parallel between Klarion’s struggle and that of humanity’s.  Just as the Witch Boy is at risk of misusing his mystic abilities, of being seduced by the power that he can tap into, the humans acquiring the nanotech from the Necropolitan Club are in danger of becoming addicted to it, of letting it overwhelm them.

Nocenti even argues that perhaps there really isn’t any difference between magic and technology, with one character stating a variation of Clarke’s Law:

“You know how everyone thought thunder was God’s bowling league? Everything mysterious turns out to be no big deal in the future.”

There is a whole lot to digest in Nocenti’s writing.  I’m looking forward to re-reading this series in the near future, seeing if I gain a different perspective.

While the final issue of Klarion did seem a bit rushed, on the whole Nocenti wrapped up her six issues in a very satisfactory manner.  She tells a more or less complete story while leaving open the possibility of certain character arcs and subplots being picked up in the future if the opportunity arises.

Klarion 1 pg 4 & 5

The majority of the art on Klarion is by Trevor McCarthy.  Wow, does he do some absolutely stunning work!  McCarthy lays out these incredibly striking multi-panel double page spreads.  He is incredibly inventive with his storytelling, yet he also knows exactly how to place everything so that the action moves from one panel to the next.

I have seen certain artists who attempted to be clever with their sequential illustration, and unfortunately as a reader I was not able to figure out what the hell was actually going on.  McCarthy, on the other hand, designs these sophisticated pages through which the narrative effortlessly flows.

On the pages where McCarthy also does inks / finishes, he packs in a tremendous amount of detail.  His work is very beautiful.  McCarthy’s character designs for Zell, Piper and Noah are striking and unique.

Guy Major does the coloring on the entire series.  He does impressive work, and it suits the art very well.

Klarion was an intriguingly written series with excellent artwork and coloring.  It’s well worth a look.  There is a trade paperback scheduled to come out in August, and I recommend getting a copy.

Comic book reviews: Wonder Woman #30-35

This past week Wonder Woman #35 came out, bringing to a close the three year long story arc by Brain Azzarello, Cliff Chiang & friends. For those keeping track, that’s actually 38 installments: 35 regular issues, the flashback #0, the origin of the First Born in #23.2 during Forever Evil month, and a story in Secret Origins #6. It’s been quite a ride, and on the whole a successful one, at least in my estimation as a reader.

Wonder Woman 30 cover
Speaking of Secret Origins #6, the twelve page tale contained within makes a nice prequel to this whole run. Written by Azzarello & Chiang, with artwork by Goran Sudzuka, it fills in a few blanks in the New 52 back story of Princess Diana. As in past continuities, Queen Hippolyta attempted to fashion a baby daughter out of clay; this time, however, the gods did not gift the clay with life. Instead the philandering Zeus made his presence known, and he seduced the Amazon matriarch, giving her the gift of a daughter. Hippolyta chose to perpetrate the lie about Diana being born of clay to protect her from Hera’s jealousy.

More significantly, we find out that Diana and Aleka, bitter rivals in the present, were once the closest of friends. There may even have been an unrequited love on Aleka’s part for the Princess. But Diana was restless, and wanted to explore the world beyond Paradise Island. Aleka felt betrayed & abandoned by Diana, which led to their current animosity.

Truthfully, the Wonder Woman tale in Secret Origins #6 could have used a few more pages. I think it’s a mistake to try to cram three different character origins into each issue. The histories of not just Wonder Woman, but also Deadman and Sinestro all needed more room to breathe. I think it would be better if Secret Origins became a double feature.

Secret Origins 6 pg 6
Moving along to Wonder Woman #30-35, the final six issues penned by Azzarello, the epic he has been weaving comes to an interesting, thoughtful, exciting conclusion. Truthfully, when I first read these issues, they did feel decompressed. However, sitting down and going through them again today in one sitting, I see that Azzarello took the time to bring closure to many of the subplots and themes that he had been developing over the previous two and a half years.

As Wonder Woman #30 opens, the First Born has seized control of Olympus, transforming it into a bloody charnel house that mirrors his twisted psyche. Consumed by millennia of rage at having been left to die by Zeus in ages past, he is ready to wipe out every single member of his family so that he will be the last god in existence. The surviving members of the Greek pantheon and their offspring, including Diana, have gathered on Paradise Island to mobilize the Amazon army to oppose the First Born’s nihilistic designs.

Before any move can be made against the mad god, though, certain affairs of state must be addressed. Hippolyta is still a lifeless statue, Hera inexplicably unable to restore her humanity. Instead Hera announces that Diana is the new Queen of the Amazons, a proclamation met with some disapproval, especially by Aleka. Thus Diana finds herself in the difficult position of having to assume yet another new identity. Already struggling to fill the role of the deity of War, now she must become a monarch. That involves not just leading her people into battle, but also into the future.

And a significant part of that future is the question of the role of men. A number of readers, perhaps understandably so, took issue with Azzarello writing the Amazons as man-haters who seduced males in order to breed before slaying them, and who exiled all of their male children to the realm of Hephaestus. Diana herself was unhappy when she learned of this. Now that she is Queen, she sets out to try and change the Amazons. She assigns to them the collective symbolic role of motherhood to Zeke, the infant boy who her friend Zola gave birth to after a one night stand with a disguised Zeus. Diana also has Hephaestus transport all of the sons of the Amazons back to Paradise Island, to fight alongside their mothers & sisters against the First Born.

Wonder Woman 30 pg 17
As Diana explains…

“We need to evolve. We’ve isolated ourselves to the detriment of our society… and some of our children. The old ways… do they actually work anymore? Do we just cling to them because that’s the way our forebears intended? We need to look at ourselves and open the doors we’ve closed. And now is a good place to start.”

Azzarello also continues to examine how immortality is perhaps more of a curse than a blessing. If one is unable to die, at least from old age, then does one eventually begin taking life for granted? Without the ever-present certainty of death in the future, does one become aloof and disconnected from the rest of the world?

Previously the once-imperious Hera was turned mortal, requiring her to learn to deal with fear and loneliness and vulnerability. Azzarello showed the former queen of the gods gaining humility and an entirely different perspective on existence. She became friends with Zola, the woman who she once wished dead. But now restored to divinity, Hera once more begins to feel disconnected from humanity. When Zola tries to ask her what is going on, Hera coldly replies “I’m no longer mortal. I’m a god. Life, death… for me, it’s once again like one of those shows we would watch and laugh at together. It’s beneath my concern.” Listening to all of this, Zola angrily responds “You once said you were afraid of dying alone. Well, hope you like living alone… goddess.”

Wonder Woman 34 pg 6
Strife also seems to epitomize the dangers of everlasting life. The goddess of discord seems utterly bored by existence, and the only way in which she can tolerate it is to create trouble. Strife is the ultimate shit-stirrer. She is like someone who hands a long, pointy stick to a group of children, encourages them to use it to poke at a hornet’s nest, and then sits back sipping a glass of wine, smiling in amusement as chaos & suffering unfolds before her. The carnage & devastation being wrought by the First Born is but one more diversion to entertain her.

Indeed, when the First Born and his army some come calling, Paradise Island is transformed into a war zone. The casualties on both sides are horrific, something that does not bother the First Born in the slightest. “There is no sentimentality in life” he harshly states to Diana. Having never felt love, having been rejected from the moment of his birth, the First Born wants nothing more than to share his pain with the whole of existence.

Diana, on the other hand, refuses to set aside her empathy and mercy. It is an integral part of who she is. As seen back in issue #0, years before when Diana was a teenager, the old god War, then her mentor, severely scolded her for her unwillingness to slay a fallen foe, and rejected her as his pupil. Now in the present, Diana is saved by that act of kindness. The Minotaur serving the First Born is revealed to be the very same one who Diana showed mercy to all those years ago, and it refuses to kill her. This act is enough to restore Diana’s faith in her abilities & beliefs, and to once again stand against the First Born.

Wonder Woman 35 pg 11
Orion from the New Gods also pops up once more, playing a small but crucial role in the conflict. When last seen he is charging off into battle alongside the goddess Moon. That’s an appropriate pairing, since Moon is also known as Artemis, goddess of the hunt, and Orion is named after the mythical hunter. I think they would make a lovely couple, assuming they don’t kill each other first!

In my previous Wonder Woman review I wondered where, exactly, Zeus had gotten off to. The former ruler of Olympus was conspicuous in his absence throughout the entirety of Azzarello’s storyline. Well, as I predicted, we do indeed find out exactly where Zeus has been… although it was actually the last place I expected. Of course, the revelation makes perfect sense once you think about it. And, looking at some other blogs online, such as Martin Gray’s Too Dangerous For A Girl, it appears that a few people did actually see this coming. Well, I was surprised, okay?

In terms of artwork, these issues are all very strong. Sudzuka illustrates Wonder Woman #30 & #31 in full, and does the finishes for #32 over Chiang’s layouts.  Issue #s 33 to #35 are illustrated by Chiang going solo for the big wrap-up. The coloring is, as always, courtesy of Matthew Wilson, who does superb work. Chiang’s covers for all six issues are fantastic, with very striking layouts & designs.

Both Chiang and Sudzuka do a fine job at demonstrating their versatility on the interior art. There are many great, dramatic pages, as well as some nice, effective character-driven sequences. It’s difficult to pick out a favorite. But one of the stand-out images is by Chiang in issue #34, as Hephaestus leads his troops into battle, headed up by a trio of giant mechanical war elephants. Now there’s something you don’t see every day.

Wonder Woman 34 pg 13
As I mentioned before, the reactions to Azzarello & Chiang’s run on Wonder Woman have been mixed. I will admit that there were a few rough patches, especially early on. But I’m glad that I stuck with the book, because this was a really great run with a satisfying conclusion that tied everything together. At some point in the near future I look forward to sitting down and re-reading this storyline in its entirety, and finding out what I get out of it the second time around.

The Forever People meet Bat-Cow

Nah-nah nah-nah nah-nah nah-nah… Bat-Cow!  Bif!  Bam!  Pow!  Moo?!?

Infinity Man and the Forever People 4 cover

Infinity Man and the Forever People #4 sees the team of Keith Giffen & Scott Koblish once again on art duties. No offense to all of the fill-in artists, but a little stability is certainly appreciated.  Giffen, with co-writer Dan DiDio, picks up right where the previous issue ended (not counting last month’s Futures End detour) with the Forever People’s Boom Tube going, um, boom.  The quintet from New Genesis fall just a bit short of their home base of Venice Beach, crashing into a Wayne Enterprises dairy & agriculture center in Ventura CA.  It is there that they encounter this issue’s extra special guest star, from the pages of Batman Incorporated, the one and only Bat-Cow.

I like how Giffen & DiDio script the Forever People. On the one hand, they are New Gods, deities from an ultra-advanced alien civilization.  On the other, they are newcomers to Earth with little knowledge of the planet’s cultures.  Thus they are depicted as possessing a distinctive blend of sophistication and naiveté.  That certainly lends itself to comedy, such as Big Bear & Serafina asking Bat-Cow for advice.

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There is a quality to Keith Giffen’s writing that I have often observed. His stories either are bizarrely farcical and ultra-comedic, or they are extremely dark and intensely somber.  Well, there is also the third option, where Giffen chooses to work with both extremes simultaneously.  That is clearly the case with Infinity Man and the Forever People.

So throughout issue #4 there are several allusions to the war Highfather and New Genesis have launched against the Lantern Corps in the current “Godhead” crossover, the quarrel between Infinity Man and Himon, and a dark winged woman stalking Mark Moonrider. Yet you also have Bat-Cow, and the Forever People being forced to take public transportation home, and Serafina’s encounter with the off-kilter Doctor Skuba, who proudly declares “While I am a pool cleaner by profession, I earned my doctorate in the hydrological sciences.”

It appears Giffen & DiDio have a definite destination in mind for this series, as hinted at in the Futures End special, with artwork by Philip Tan & Jason Paz. Half a decade in the future Beautiful Dreamer references such occurrences as “Lord Aagog’s assault on Earth, and Himon’s planetary quarantine.”  We also get a glimpse of Infinity Man in battle with OMAC.  I was wondering if these were events that Giffen & DiDio would actually be building up to once the series returned to the present.  Considering the “Femme Fatale” who was spying on Mark Moonrider is apparently an agent of the aforementioned Lord Aagog, yes, it appears so.

Infinity Man and the Forever People Futures End pg 11

I appreciate the fact that Giffen & DiDio have long-term plans, but that they are also leaving room for some humorous asides and oddball tangents. I wonder if they could manage to fit in an appearance by Giffen’s irreverent creation Ambush Bug.

The covers for both issue #4 and Futures End are illustrated by Howard Porter. His style has changed since his days on JLA.  Porter unfortunately suffered a severe hand injury several years ago and had to re-train himself to draw.  While I do find his current work a bit sketchy compared to his older art, he is still very good.  And I am certainly happy that he was eventually able to resume his career as a professional artist.  His two contributions to this series are well done.  The Futures End piece is moody and ominous, while the cover for #4 is quite humorous.  It appears that Porter is going to be the regular cover artist for this book going forward. I’ve seen images of a couple of his upcoming covers posted online, and they look good.

Anyway, it’s nice to find a New 52 series from DC Comics that doesn’t take itself so damn seriously. After all, it’s certainly possible to tell dramatic, emotionally riveting stories that are also fun.  Hopefully Infinity Man and the Forever People is finding an audience, because I’d like to see this series continue on.  It has quite a bit of potential.

The return of the Forever People

I was a bit surprised when DC Comics announced that one of their latest New 52 titles would be Infinity Man and the Forever People, a revival / revamp of the characters created by Jack Kirby.  Although I think the Forever People are cool, I will be the first to admit that they are probably among the lesser-known “Fourth World” characters devised by Kirby.  After their initial eleven issue run in the early 1970s, they were not seen again until a six issue miniseries published in 1988.  Subsequently they have not been featured in any other starring roles, only making guest appearances here and there.

However it is not entirely unexpected for the Forever People to receive a revival.  It is true that DC has actually attempted to launch a number of offbeat and experimental titles in the last three years.  The problem faced by many of those fringe books has been that DC put them out there with little in the way of promotion.  Most of them ended up falling below the radar, drowning in a sea of Batman related titles.  Based on that pattern, I honestly did not know how long Infinity Man and the Forever People would last.  But I figured I had might as well give the book a try while it was here.  After all, I am a fan of the characters, as witnessed by the Beautiful Dreamer tattoo on my left leg.

Infinity Man and the Forever People 1 cover

Co-writing Infinity Man and the Forever People are Dan DiDio & Keith Giffen.  They’ve made revisions to the original set-up by Kirby, altering some of the characters.  I generally am not too keen on that, and was underwhelmed by the New 52 re-conception of both Darkseid and Highfather’s origins in Justice League #23.1 last year.  That said, I have to acknowledge that the Forever People were never developed in too much detail by Kirby during their all-too-short original series, and their sporadic appearances since then has left them somewhat blank slates.  So it is not as if DiDio & Giffen are upending decades of storylines & characterizations.

Mark Moonrider and Beautiful Dreamer so far appear to be pretty close to their original incarnations.  Vykin the Black has been renamed Vykin Baldaur and made into a more cynical figure (as much as I love Kirby, I really thought it was unfortunate that the only two non-Caucasian members of the Fourth World mythos were named Vykin the Black and the Black Racer).  Serifan has been given a change in gender & ethnicity, becoming Serafina, the younger sister of Vykin.  Big Bear is now the oldest member of the Forever People, as well as secretly from Apokolips, apparently having been given elements of Orion’s backstory.

Mark, Dreamer and Serafina are shown to be students on New Genesis who are about to embark on a study abroad type of assignment on the planet Earth, but they are unable to activate their Mother Box.  Vykin, who dislikes Mark and doesn’t want his sister going off-world with him, arrives to object, only to find that he is the only one Mother Box will respond to.  Reluctantly he accompanies the other three to Earth.  They are greeted by Big Bear, who has been on Earth for some time, working with human scientists in an attempt to advance the planet’s technology and bring about greater prosperity.

DiDio & Giffen appear to be focusing on the “rebellious youth” aspect of the Forever People.  Back in 1970, when he devised the characters, Kirby was inspired by the hippy / flower children counterculture.  Truthfully I do not know how much of that came through in his stories, though.  After their devastating cosmic war with Apokolips, the people of New Genesis mostly turned their backs on conflict, and the planet became close to a spiritual paradise.  Because of this, I never really understood precisely what the Forever People were rebelling against.  They merely seemed to be more impulsive and hotheaded, rushing off to Earth to fight the forces of Darkseid.

In contrast, in the New 52 (both in this title and in the pages of Wonder Woman by Azzarello & Chiang) it is shown that New Genesis is a highly organized, regimented society.  Highfather is now a more militant figure, closer to his Izaya the Inheritor days from the Kirby continuity.  The Forever People generally, and Mark Moonrider in particular, are rebelling against their world’s “control.”

Infinity Man and the Forever People 3 pg 4

When the Infinity Man finally makes himself known to the Forever People, he positions himself as an agent of chaos.  “The universe relies on chaos. It needs to expand, to grow, to learn. There is a corruption, a corruption brought on by a need for order that prevents the natural course of non-prescribed evolution. Both New Genesis and Apokolips are guilty of imposing their forms of order on the universe. This must stop. That is why I chose you.”

One can discern a state of affairs set up by DiDio & Giffen inspired by Cold War geopolitics.  Apokolips, with Darkseid at its helm, is a force of totalitarian order akin to the Soviet Union.  It brutally oppresses its citizens, forcing blind obedience & uniformity from them, and it seeks to expand its empire via conquest.  New Genesis is cast in the role of the United States, ostensibly working to preserve freedom & democracy.  But in the name of preserving its security and opposing Darkseid’s machinations, New Genesis interferes in the affairs of lesser worlds, resulting in unfortunate side effects for those planets and their inhabitants.  And while not an identity-crushing police state like Apokolips, the government of New Genesis encourages conformity and obedience lest individuality and the questioning of authority weaken the planet’s strength & resolve.

While I am a bit hesitant to embrace a version of New Genesis that appears to have such common ground with Apokolips, I have to acknowledge that this actually provides the Forever People a very clear-cut political system to rebel against, an ideology to oppose.  They are rejecting both Highfather and Darkseid’s paths.  They are seeking the freedom to guide their own destinies, and to enable other beings to do the same thing.

Infinity Man and the Forever People 1 pg 15

In addition to co-writing Infinity Man and the Forever People, Giffen is also penciling the series, paired with the talented Scott Koblish on inking.  I very much enjoyed their work on the first issue.  Giffen has often had a rather Kirby-esque element to his art, and that very much suits this series.  This especially comes into play in a scene where Big Bear reveals his technology and explains “Kirby is my communal reconstruction bio engine. He’s responsible for building and maintaining this environment. Without him, none of this would be possible.”  That was a nice tip of the hat to the King of Comics.

Regrettably Giffen involvement in DC’s big Futures End crossover prevented him from penciling the next two issues of Infinity Man and the Forever People.  So, yep, we already have fill-in art teams on this book.  I hope that does not kill any sales momentum or reader interest.  At least the guest artists were mostly good.

On issue #2, the art is courtesy of penciler Tom Grummett and inker Scott Hanna.  I’m certainly a fan of both gentlemen.  Grummett has always been good at rendering Kirby’s characters, including the New Gods.  For instance, Grummett penciled an appearance by the Forever People in the pages of Adventures of Superman about twenty or so years ago.  I enjoyed seeing him now having an opportunity to depict the New 52 versions of the characters.  Offhand I don’t recall if Hanna has ever inked Grummett before.  They definitely go together very well here, creating some lovely art.  I was especially taken by their rendition of Beautiful Dreamer.

Infinity Man and the Forever People 2 pg 5

Everyone’s favorite cosmic comic book creator Jim Starlin is the guest penciler on Infinity Man and the Forever People #3.  He is paired with inker Rob Hunter.  Truthfully, I was not especially fond of their collaboration.  Hunter’s inking is in the vein of the house style of Top Cow, with flourishes reminiscent of Silvestri and Turner.  I did not feel this fit Starlin’s penciling.   I would rather have seen him inking himself, or by longtime inking partner Al Milgrom, who always does a good job finishing Starlin’s pencils.

That said, the sequence towards the end of the issue, when Dreamer is inside her subconscious, conversing with Anti-Life, is very well done.  Perhaps for this surreal tableau Hunter’s inks were somewhat better suited, as they give Starlin’s nightmarish imagery an extra punch.  (It appears that DiDio & Giffen are drawing inspiration from the long-ago declaration by Kirby in the pages of Forever People #1 that Dreamer “is one of the few whose mind can fathom the Anti-Life Equation.”)

Nice coloring work on these issues by the gang at Hi-Fi.  I’ve always found it to be a good sign when that name pops up in the credits.  They are definitely one of the better groups of computer colorists in the biz.

Infinity Man and the Forever People 3 pg 12

On the whole I did enjoy the first three issues of Infinity Man and the Forever People.  DiDio & Giffen did a good job introducing the characters and establishing the premise.  I just wish that the comics were a little bit longer.  Twenty pages just did not seem like sufficient space.  The book really needs an extra two or three pages to enable the story to breath a bit.

I am very interested in seeing what happens with the Forever People next.  I know that this month’s installment is a special crossover with the aforementioned Futures End storyline.  And then there are going to be a couple of issues tying in with the “Godhead” storyline running through the various Green Lantern titles.  Perhaps that will inspire some GL fans to check out this series.  Oh, yes, from the pages of Batman Incorporated, there’s going to be an appearance by Bat-Cow!  That sounds like just the sort of delightfully offbeat, bizarre humor the Giffen specializes in, and I’m looking forward to it.

Comic book reviews: Wonder Woman #24-29

I’ve been meaning to do a post about Brian Azzarello & Cliff Chiang’s run on Wonder Woman for a while now.  I really enjoy it; currently it is the only DC Comics New 52 title I follow regularly.  I recently learned that Azzarello & Chiang will be departing from the series sometime in the near future.  So, no time like the present!

Azzarello has a really good handle on Wonder Woman.  He understands the contradictions in the character: she is a highly trained, skilled, dangerous warrior, yet she is also an envoy of peace.  Azzarello scripts Princess Diana as someone who recognizes that force must sometimes be utilized in the cause of protecting the innocent, but she tries to avoid doing so out of anger or malice.  She hopes to provide everyone with an opportunity to prove themselves before having to resorting to violence.

It’s interesting that Azzarello utilizes an aspect of the character from the original Golden Age stories by William Moulton Marston & H.G. Peter, that Diana wears her bracelets not just for defense, but to restrain her boundless strength & anger, lest she loses control.  In this way, Azzarello has Diana acknowledge her own incongruities: she must accept her own capacity for violence, and control it, before she can ask others to do the same.

This has become even more of a challenge for Diana in recent issues.  The long-exiled first son of Zeus, known only as the First Born, has escaped from his thousands of years exile at the Earth’s center, ready to kill everything in his path and seize control of Mount Olympus.  The First Born was prepared to slay Diana’s mentor the god War, which would have given him all of War’s powers.  This forced Diana to kill her former teacher first, a very painful choice.  It was one made even worse by the fact that it meant that now she is War, a role that she does not want to play, as it goes against all her beliefs.

Wonder Woman 29 cover

Another aspect of the Azzarello & Chiang run that I’ve enjoyed is their re-interpretation of the Greek deities.  Instead of a group of dignified-looking humanoids clad in white togas, these gods of Olympus are an assortment of bizarre, dysfunctional freaks.  Which, when you take even a moment to think about it, makes perfect sense.  If you ever read the original Greek myths, the gods are typically depicted as selfish, petty, vain, capricious, vengeful entities that squabble amongst themselves, abuse their powers, and typically create more harm than good.  Azzarello’s writing captures those qualities spot-on, scripting a group of scheming, preening politicos who switch allegiances at a mercurial speed.  The physical conception of these entities by Chiang perfectly encapsulates their twisted priorities & agendas.

The events of Azzarello & Chiang’s overall story arc are, naturally enough, caused by the machinations of the gods.  Zeus, the millennia-long monarch of Olympus, has vanished, leaving a power vacuum that his fellow deities wish to fill.  His long-ago actions to the First Born have also come to rear their ugly head.  When it was prophesized that his first child would kill him, Zeus attempted to kill the then-infant First Born, setting the later on a millennia-long path of resentment-filled carnage & violence.

At the same time, Zeus’ infamous serial philandering has had consequences. The disguised deity seduced & impregnated an ordinary mortal woman named Zola.  Zeus’ jealous wife Hera, once again unable to take out her anger on her all-powerful husband, set out to kill Zola.  This is where Diana came in, protecting & befriending the pregnant woman.  Along the way, Diana herself learned that she was the result of a tryst between her mother & Zeus.  Hera also found out, and transformed all of the Amazons on Paradise Island into snakes.

Eventually Zeus’ son Apollo rose to the throne of Olympus and stripped his mother Hera of her divinity, making her a mortal.  This presented Diana with a serious dilemma.  As much as she disliked Hera, she now had to protect the former Queen of Olympus, since she was probably the only being who might one day restore the Amazons to normal.

This led to a really interesting situation: Zola and Hera, who hated each other’s guts, found themselves looking after each other, often having to aid one another in their mutual quest to survive the many dangers they faced.  Out of that was eventually formed a grudging friendship.  Even more interesting, the now-mortal Hera painfully began to gain a measure of humility and humanity.  Along the way Hera made some hysterically inappropriate social faux pas as she learned about acting in a tactful, polite manner, as opposed to an imperious deity.  So her development has been an interesting mix of drama and comedy.

Wonder Woman 27 pg 7

In the last several issues, we have seen Apollo attempting to bend the First Born to his will.  Instead, Apollo learns that hatred nurtured over millennia does indeed burn hotter than the Sun.  The First Born violently seizes Olympus, and is prepared to brutally obliterate all who oppose his will.  Diana, with a re-powered Hera and the once-more human army of Amazons at her side, must embrace the mantle of War in order to defeat the First Born.

By the way, Zeus has been conspicuous by his total absence from Wonder Woman so far.  Having caused this whole entire mess to begin with, no doubt he’s laying low for now, waiting for everyone else to do his dirty work.  I would not be at all surprised if Azzarello has Zeus finally show up just as the dust is clearing, ready to once again assume rule of the gods and carry on with business as usual.  I guess we shall see.

Cliff Chiang superbly illustrates Azzarello’s stories.  The art on these issues is simply amazing.  Chiang’s Diana is beautiful & strong.  The action sequences are dynamic & gritty.  The quiet character moments are full of personality & emotion.  This really is top-notch stuff.  I recently heard someone compare Chiang’s work to Jaime Hernandez.  I had not thought about that before, but yes, now I can see there are certain qualities to their art that are similar.  Certainly each of them are amazing at drawing interesting, expressive characters, utilizing strong storytelling, and imbuing their work with drama.

In addition to totally redesigning the Olympians, Chiang also did a make-over for Orion of the New Gods, who has been popping in and out the pages of Wonder Woman for the last year and a half.  Although I prefer the original Kirby design, I have to admit that Chiang’s interpretation of Orion is undoubtedly one of the better revamps that I’ve seen throughout the New 52 line.

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I guess that Chiang is not nearly fast enough to pencil & ink an ongoing monthly series, and so he has occasionally had other artists spot him.  Most recently Goran Sudzuka pitched in to help, drawing Wonder Woman #s 24-26, and contributing some layouts for Chiang on #28.  Jose Marzan Jr. came onboard with some nice inking over Sudzuka on #s 25-26.  They did very nice work, and it complements Chaing’s art quite well, not clashing at all.  The rich, lovely coloring by Matthew Wilson no doubt helps to maintain an overall tone to the series.

I haven’t yet seen a definitive final issue for Azzarello & Chiang’s Wonder Woman run announced yet.  It’ll probably be within the next six months.  I’ll certainly be sorry to see them leave.  But if they manage to maintain the quality that they’ve shown over the past two and a half years, then they will certainly be going out on a high point, in style.

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.

Comic book reviews: Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E. # 1-8

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m a fan of Italian artist Alberto Ponticelli, who drew the Godzilla: Gangsters & Goliaths miniseries last year.  As it turns out, Ponticelli is also the artist on one of DC Comics’ New 52 titles.  But I did not find this out until recently.  With that many new series coming out, it fell through the cracks that he was drawing Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E.  I happened to come across a few of the recent issues on the shelves at the comic shop and saw his name on them.  Fortunately, a trade paperback, War of the Monsters, had been published, collecting the first seven issues.  I purchased that, as well as a copy of issue #8.

Agent Frankenstein is, of course, the immortal creature created by Mary Shelley in the classic gothic horror novel Frankenstein.  For the past century, Agent Frankenstein has been working with S.H.A.D.E., the Super Human Advanced Defense Executive, a government agency that combines science and the supernatural to develop operatives & technologies to combat unearthly menaces.  As the first issue opens, Frankenstein has been on vacation, and returning to work finds that a number of dramatic changes have taken place at S.H.A.D.E.  This is a very clever way for writer Jeff Lemire to introduce the series’ cast, concepts, and settings through the protagonist’s eyes, by having him discover these new developments along with the reader.

The idea for S.H.A.D.E.’s new headquarters is an amazing conceit by Lemire.  The Ant Farm is an entire high-tech city miniaturized to fit within a three inch flying metal globe utilizing the technology of scientist Ray Palmer (who in the old DC continuity was the size-changing Atom), accessible only by teleportation.

Frankenstein makes for a compelling protagonist.  He is an interesting combination of introspective philosopher and violent brawler, a study in contrasts.  One minute he’ll be quoting John Milton’s poetry, the next he’ll be hacking through a horde of demons with a honking big sword.

I liked the new Creature Commandos team designed by Lemire & Ponticelli as Frankenstein’s field team.  They are a truly bizarre lot: a gung-ho werewolf soldier, a vampiric smart-ass, an enigmatic Egyptian mummy, and a fish-woman, the last of whom was the scientist who created the Commandos for S.H.A.D.E.  And there’s also Lady Frankenstein, the gun-toting, four-armed green femme fatale who is the estranged wife of Agent Frankenstein.

Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E. trade paperback

If I had to describe Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E. in one sentence, it might be “H.P. Lovecraft meets Arnold Schwarzenegger.”  A succession of disturbing, unnatural menaces is fought off by Agent Frankenstein & the Commandos with a combination of brains and brawn, with plenty of action & violence resulting.

At the same time, Lemire remembers one of the central conceits of Mary Shelley’s original novel.  Frankenstein and his fellow S.H.A.D.E. operatives may appear hideous, but beneath their grotesque exteriors they often are tormented beings with tragic pasts.  In the end, it is often the “normal” human beings who are the real monsters.  This is seen throughout the first eight issues.  Lemire drives home this point quite effectively on a number of occasions.

Ponticelli’s artwork is amazing, gloriously spectacular with its over-the-top monster action sequences.  I really loved the mass-carnage battle sequences on the “monster planet” in issue #4, featuring literally a cast of thousands.  Yet at the same Ponticelli’s work also contains very quiet moments when needed.  Issues #s 6 and 8, in particular, feature some magnificent storytelling that really communicates the emotional, tragic moments.

One of the things about comic book artwork that is often neglected is the contribution of the inker.  I believe this is because for the casual reader, it can be difficult to discern where the penciler’s work ends and the inker’s begins.  Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E. provides an excellent opportunity to witness the importance of the inker to the creative process.  On the first six issues, Ponticelli inks his own pencils.  For the next two issues, Walden Wong provides the inks, and you can really see the difference.  In both instances, the penciling is clearly Ponticelli’s, but Wong’s inking gives the art a more polished, less rough finish.  I would not say I prefer one over the other, because both look really good.  I only point it out because it’s a perfect example if you wish to demonstrate just how much of an impact the inker has on the finished artwork.

Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E. #8 page 15

The cover artwork for the first seven issues is provided by the magnificently talented J.G. Jones.  He does such amazing work.  I believe he works in ink wash.  It’s always a pleasure to see his art gracing the covers of a series, and his seven cover illustrations for Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E. are all winners.

(On a side note, Jones is also a writer.  In addition to drawing covers, he penned an exciting story for DC’s Doc Savage series entitled “Raise the Khan.”  Well, that is to say, the first five chapters were great, but I cannot make any judgment about part six, because DC abruptly canceled the book, leaving the final installment unpublished.  I really hope that one of these days it finally makes it into print.  Does DC still have the publishing rights to Doc Savage?  If so, they should release a “Raise the Khan” trade paperback containing the missing chapter.)

With issue #8, Ponticelli & Wong take over as cover artists.  It’s a really striking piece and, as much as I missed Jones, they are such a great art team, so I cannot complain.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the contributions of colorist Jose Villarrubia.  He has to be one of the best colorists currently working in the comic book industry.  His coloring on Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E. is a perfect match for Ponticelli’s illustrations.  It was especially effective on the emotionally charged issue #8, really contributing to the somber, tragic atmosphere of the story.

It was definitely a pleasant surprise to discover Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E.  It is without a doubt one of the strongest titles to come out of the New 52 reboot.  I’m really looking forward to picking up the remaining issues that are already out, and then seeing what comes next.  Lemire, Ponticelli, and their collaborators have created such an amazing blending of superheroes and horror with strong characterization.  I highly recommend picking this up.

Looking at the recent Blackhawks series from DC Comics

As I mentioned in a previous entry, I intended to go back and pick up the first four issues of the Blackhawks series published by DC Comics as part of their New 52 re-launch.  I found copies of those comics, and the final issue of the series, #8, came out last week.  So I’ve been able to take a look at the short-lived series as a whole, and put together a few thoughts.

Writer Mike Costa obviously put a great deal of thought and planning into this series.  It appears that he had developed personalities and back stories for the cast which he intended to elaborate upon over time.  Unfortunately, the sudden cancelation of Blackhawks put an end to those plans.  That’s really regrettable.  I would have enjoyed learning more about the team, especially Andrew Lincoln and the new Lady Blackhawk, who Costa never really had the chance to examine, leaving both of them enigmas.

Costa also utilized some cutting-edge scientific theory in the series.  He seems to have done some serious research into technology and hardware, giving the book a very authentic-sounding feel.  Nanocites, microscopic machines that could enter the body and manipulate it, jump-starting evolution at an ordered, lightning progression, are a key element to his eight issue arc.

The area where Blackhawks falls short is in the artwork department.  The first four issues feature pencil layouts by Graham Nolan, and he does a very good job with these.  However, each of these issues has a different inker / finisher.  The result is a very inconsistent look to the artwork on the first four issues.  Really, it would have been better to let Nolan do full pencils and then pair him with a talented inker such as Scott Hanna.  The two of them worked very well together on Detective Comics back during the “Knightfall” storylines.  Reuniting them on Blackhawks could have given the series some high-quality art.

It’s a bit of a pity that Ken Lashley, who drew some nice covers for issue #s 1-7, wasn’t able to do more interior work.  He provided the finishes for the first issue, and the results were quite good.

This situation with the artwork greatly improved with issue #5, when CAFU and Bit came onboard as the new regular art team.  In addition to finally giving Blackhawks some much-needed consistency in the art department, their work was extremely well done.  CAFU had very good storytelling to his work, and he gave the characters real emotional qualities.  The inking by Bit was especially polished.  I wonder if, had they been the art team starting with the very first issue, sales would have been better and the series might not have been canceled.

Then again, as I mentioned in my previous post, I feel that Blackhawks got lost in the shuffle of the gigantic New 52 release.  DC debuted eight different Batman-related series last autumn.  I really don’t know if it was necessary to have that many.  This fixation with the number 52 on DC’s part really led to a glut of new titles, and most readers probably paid much more attention to the numerous titles tying in with Batman, Superman, and Justice League.  If there hadn’t been so many of those, other titles such as Blackhawks might have stood out more.  I mean, the only reason I ended up reading Blackhawks is because CAFU and Bit did that signing at Midtown Comics.  If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t have given the series a try, and I would have had no idea that I had missed out on a really great read.

This touches upon a huge criticism I have of DC as well as Marvel.  Both companies will promote to death titles like Justice League by Geoff Johns & Jim Lee, or all those Batman books, which are guaranteed to be big hits in any case.  But they will give little exposure to a series like Blackhawks, leaving it to sink or swim on its own.

Thinking about this, I have no idea if there are any other New 52 titles that I have not given a chance which might actually be enjoyable.  But I simply do not have the time or, more importantly, the money, to try all of them.  So, yeah, I have to rely on word of mouth from reviewers or, in this case, a signing at a comic book store, to catch my attention.

Okay, end of that rant… for now.  I know I will be returning to in a future post, when I write about what comic book series I am currently reading.  In the meantime, getting back to Blackhawks, it was an exciting title with intelligent writing by Mike Costa, plus some superb art from CAFU & Bit on the second half.  If you have not read it, I recommend tracking down those eight issues.  They’re a fun read.