Greg Theakston: 1953 to 2019

I was saddened to learn that comic book artist, publisher & historian Greg Theakston had passed away on April 22nd.  He was 65 years old.

As a teenager Theakston was involved in the Detroit area comic book fandom in the late 1960s and early 70s.  During this time period he was one of the organizers of the Detroit Triple Fan Fair comic book & sci-fi conventions.

Super Powers vol 2 1 cover smallTheakston, along with such fellow Detroit area fans as Jim Starlin, Rich Buckler, Terry Austin, and Keith Pollard, made the jump from fan to professional during the 1970s.  From 1972 to 1979 Theakston worked at Neal Adams’ Continuity Studios, where he gained invaluable experience, learning the tools of the trade alongside his contemporaries.  Theakston was one of the so-called “Crusty Bunkers,” a loose-knit group of Continuity-based artists organized by Adams.  Throughout the 1970s the Crusty Bunkers would pitch in to help one another meet tight comic book deadlines.  Theakston was interviewed about his time at Continuity by Bryan Stroud, revealing it to be a crazy, colorful experience.

Theakston worked for a number of publishers over the years, creating illustrations for National Lampoon, Playboy, Rolling Stone and TV Guide.  His art appeared in a number of issues of MAD Magazine in the late 1980s and throughout the 90s.

Most of Theakston’s comic book work was for DC Comics.  In the 1980s Theakston was often assigned the high-profile job of inking the legendary Jack Kirby’s pencils.

Theakston’s inking of Kirby proved to be divisive.  Personally speaking, as a huge fan of Kirby, I like what Theakston brought to the table.  I do recognize that Theakston was not the ideal fit for Kirby’s pencils in the way that Joe Sinnott and Mike Royer were, but I nevertheless felt he did a good job inking him.

The Hunger Dogs cover

One of the things to recognize about that collaboration is that during this time Kirby’s health unfortunately began to decline.  As a result his penciling started becoming loser.  Theakston was often called upon to do a fair amount of work to tighten up the finished art.  This led to some creative choices on his part that were not appreciated by some.  I think Theakston was in a less-than-ideal situation, having to make those choices over the work of a creator who was already regarded by fans as a legend and a genius.  The result was a scrutiny of his inking / finishing more much more intense than if he had been working with almost any other penciler.

Comic book creator Erik Larsen observed on the website What If Kirby that Theakston possessed a definite fondness for the earlier work Kirby did with Joe Simon in the Golden Age.  This translated into Theakston inking Kirby with a heavier, darker line that evoked the Simon & Kirby stories of the 1940s and 50s, rather than the much more slick, polished embellishment that Sinnott and Royer brought to it in the 1960s and 70s.Whos Who Orion

Theakston inked Kirby on the first two Super Powers miniseries, the Hunger Dogs graphic novel that concluded the saga of Orion and the New Gods, various entries for Who’s Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe, and the team-up of Superman and the Challengers of the Unknown in DC Comics Presents #84 written by Bob Rozakis.

I enjoyed Theakston’s work on these various titles.  In my mind, the stunning cover painting for The Hunger Dogs featuring Darkseid that he did over Kirby’s pencils is one of the best pieces Theakston ever produced.

(Theakston’s inking on the Alex Toth pages in DC Comics Presents #84 was unfortunately much less impressive.  In his defense I will say that when someone other than Toth himself inked his pencils, the majority of the time the results were underwhelming.)

Theakston also inked fellow Detroit native Arvell Jones’ pencils on Secret Origins #19 (Oct 1987).  Roy Thomas’ story recounted, and expended upon, the origins of the Guardian and the Newsboy Legion, characters who had been created by Simon & Kirby in 1942. Given his fondness for the work of Simon & Kirby in the 1940s, it was entirely appropriate for Theakston to work on this story. His inking for it certainly evoked the feel of Golden Age comic book artwork.Secret Origins 19 pg 19Theakston only worked for Marvel Comics on a couple of occasions.  Early in his career he painted the cover for Planet of the Apes #9 (June 1975) in Marvel’s black & white magazine line.  Almost a quarter century later Theakston painted a Kirby-inspired piece for the cover of the second Golden Age of Marvel Comics trade paperback (1999).

DC Comics Presents 84 cover smallIn 1975 Theakston founded the publishing company Pure Imagination.  Under that imprint he issued collected editions featuring a variety of Golden Age stories & artwork by such creators as Kirby, Alex Toth, Lou Fine, Wallace Wood, and Basil Wolverton.

Theakston developed a process for reprinting comic books that DC editor Dick Giordano later referred to as “Theakstonizing.”  As per What If Kirby, Theakstonizing “bleaches color from old comics pages, used in the restoration for reprinting.” Theakstonizing was used to publish a number of collections of Golden Age comic books in the 1980s and 90s, among these the early volumes of the DC Archives hardcovers.  Unfortunately the Theakstonizing process resulted in the destruction of the original comic book itself.  It’s a shame that so many old comics had to be destroyed to create the early DC Archives and other Golden Age reprints, but in those days before computer scanning that was the best way available to reproduce such old material. Additionally, as explained by Theakston’s ex-wife Nancy Danahy:

“Greg did everything to avoid destroying a valuable comic book for his Theakstonizing process. He would search for the ones with tattered, missing covers, or bent pages that devalued the book. It was only in a few instances that he used one in good condition, and only then if he knew the return on investment was worth it. He felt it would be better for the greater good to be able to share the work with more people than to let one book settle in a plastic bag on someone’s shelf.”

Beginning in 1987, Theakston also published the fan magazine The Betty Pages, dedicated to sexy pin-up model Bettie Page, of whom he was a huge fan.  Theakston is considered to be one of the people who helped bring Page back into the public consciousness, resulting in her once again becoming an iconic figure of American pop culture.  In the early 1990s Theakston conducted an extensive phone interview with Page that was published in The Betty Pages Annual Vol 2 in 1993.The Betty Pages Annual Vol 2 coverTheakston created several stunning, sexy paintings featuring Bettie Page.  One of my favorites is a striking piece featuring Page in short leopard-skin dress, silhouetted against a giant blue moon in the sky behind her, with two leopards crouching at her feet.  It saw print as the cover for The Betty Pages Annual Vol 2.Planet of the Apes 9 cover small

I can’t say I knew Greg Theakston very well. We met once in 2012, at the Comic Book Marketplace show in Manhattan, and we also corresponded by e-mail.  When I met him he certainly appeared flattered that I had gotten a tattoo of the Who’s Who pin-up of Beautiful Dreamer from the Forever People, which he had inked over Kirby’s pencils. He also appeared to appreciate my compliments concerning his work inking Kirby. Greg did a cute drawing of Bettie Page for me at that show in one of my convention sketchbooks.  He subsequently surprised me with a gift of his original inks for the Beautiful Dreamer piece, which I felt was a generous gesture.

I thought Greg was a talented artist who created some very beautiful paintings and illustrations.  All of my interactions with him were pleasant. I understand that over the years several others had much less amicable relations with him. Reportedly he was one of those people who could run very hot & cold, and that he was dealing with some personal issues.

Whatever the case, I do feel it’s unfortunate that Greg passed away. I know 65 is not young, but it’s not super-old either.  Judging by the reactions I have seen over the past week, he will certainly be missed by quite a few people, myself included.

 

My upcoming article in Back Issue #104

I am excited to announce that I have written an article that is being published in issue #104 of Back Issue magazine, which ships on May 9, 2018.

Edited by Michael Eury and published by TwoMorrows Publishing, Back Issue has been running since 2003. As per the TwoMorrows website, “Back Issue celebrates comic books of the 1970s, 1980s, and today through a variety of recurring (and rotating) departments.”

I have been reading Back Issue since it first debuted.  Over the past 15 years Eury has assembled a talented line-up of writers to examine numerous interesting and diverse topics concerning the comic book medium.  It is a genuine honor to now be counted among their number.

Supplementing its informative articles, Back Issue also features a wonderful selection of rare and previously-unpublished artwork by numerous talented creators.

Back Issue 104 cover

Here are the specifics regarding this upcoming issue…

BACK ISSUE #104 (84 FULL-COLOR pages, $8.95) is the FOURTH WORLD AFTER KIRBY issue, exploring the enduring legacy of JACK KIRBY’s DC characters! The Return(s) of the New Gods, Why Can’t Mister Miracle Escape Cancellation?, the Forever People, MIKE MIGNOLA’s unrealized New Gods animated movie, the Fourth World in Hollywood, and more. With an all-star lineup, including the work of JOHN BYRNE, PARIS CULLINS, J. M. DeMATTEIS, MARK EVANIER, MICHAEL GOLDEN, RICK HOBERG, WALTER SIMONSON, and more! Cover by STEVE RUDE, re-presenting his variant cover for 2015’s Convergence #6. Edited by MICHAEL EURY.

The article I have written for Back Issue #104 is “Return To Forever: The Forever People Miniseries” which examines the six issue Forever People revival that DC Comics published in 1987. For this piece I have interviewed writer J.M. DeMatteis, penciler Paris Cullins, inker Karl Kesel, and editor Karen Berger.

I am a long-time fan of Jack Kirby groundbreaking work on the “Fourth World” titles in the early 1970s, as well as the various revivals that have been attempted over the subsequent decades. The return of the Forever People to print in the late 1980s is one that has not, as far as I am aware, been previously examined to any significant degree.  I found it an enjoyable assignment to delve into the origins of this miniseries, and to offer an examination of the ways in which the changes in American society since the early 1970s were explored by DeMatteis through his writing in this series.

Back Issue 104 pg 53

In addition to my article, within the pages of Back Issue #104 you will find “Forever Your Girl: A Beautiful Dreamer Art Gallery.” This will feature several of the wonderful pieces that I have obtained in my Beautiful Dreamer theme sketchbook from some of the top artists in the comic book biz.

Back Issue #104 can be previewed and ordered on the TwoMorrows website.  The magazine is available in both print and digital editions.

http://twomorrows.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=133&products_id=1354&zenid=ca3f3bca4d34017b5c057b4d36a5195e

The Diamond Comic Distributors Order Code for Back Issue #104 is FEB181869.

I hope everyone will show their support.  Thank you.

This King… This Kirby!

One hundred years ago today, on August 28, 1917, Jacob Kurtzberg was born in the Lower East Side slums of New York City.  Kurtzberg would grow up to become Jack Kirby, one of the most innovative, creative, prolific individuals to ever work within the comic book industry.

Jack King Kirby

There is absolutely no way that I can do justice to the memory of Jack “King” Kirby, to the literal legion of amazing characters he created over the decades, in a single blog post.  Entire books can, and have, been written about the man and his works.  The Jack Kirby Collector, published by TwoMorrows, is a magazine devoted entirely to the life, work & legacy of Kirby, and it has been in continuous publication since 1994.  If you do a Google search, you will find numerous other tributes to Kirby that have been prepared to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth.

If I had to pick one piece to which I would want to direct your attention, it would be “Kirby at 100” by Mark Evanier.  A comic book writer & historian, Evanier worked as Kirby’s assistant in the early 1970s, and is one of the definitive authorities on the man.

I would also like to direct your attention to “The Top 10 Reasons Jack Kirby is the King of Comics” at Between the Pages.  In addition to spotlighting some really great examples of Kirby’s work, Between the Pages also offers up an amazing Kirby-themed cake!

Kirby’s work often had very political overtones.  Captain America’s Creator Spent a Lifetime Punching Nazis examines Kirby’s service in the armed forces on the battlefields of World War II, and his continuing struggle against fascism & injustice in his stories throughout the decades.

New Gods 7 double page splash

It is very difficult to imagine what comic books would be like without Kirby, or even IF there would have been a comic book industry today without him.  That is how incredibly important and influential he was.

Or, to put it another way, recently commenting on Facebook about Jack Kirby’s importance to the comic book biz, writer / artist Howard Chaykin bluntly stated “He’s why all of us have jobs, for fuck’s sake.”

To celebrate Kirby’s 100th birthday, I’ve begun re-reading (for the upteenth time) his astonishing “Fourth World” saga, beginning with New Gods.  These stories were originally published by DC Comics in the early 1970s, and they are among my all-time favorite works by Kirby.  Issue #7 of New Gods, “The Pact,” was once cited by Kirby himself as his favorite single issue that he ever created.  It is indeed a magnum opus, at once both epic in scope and intimate in it’s tragedy, an examination of the terrible losses war inflicts, the corrupting influence of conflict upon even the best among us.  The artwork by Kirby and inker Mike Royer is both breathtaking and heartbreaking.

Tonight I expect that I’ll dig out my copy of Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 3 and re-read the classic tale “This Man… This Monster!” Kirby, working with co-writer / editor Stan Lee and inker Joe Sinnott, produced Fantastic Four #51, one of the finest single issues of that series.  One can endlessly debate “who did what” in the Lee/Kirby collaborations at Marvel Comics, but whatever the division of labor, there is no doubt that together the two men crafted some wonderful stories, including this one.  That first page splash from FF #51 by Kirby & Sinnott of Ben Grimm, the Thing, standing forlornly in the pouring rain, is one of the most iconic images in the history of comic books.

Fantastic Four 51 pg 1

Jack Kirby was a genius.  As longtime comic book writer Roy Tomas observed today, “We’ll never see his like again. But then again why should we think we would? After all, we never saw his like BEFORE, either!”

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.

Gods and Monsters Batman pg 9

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.

Gods and Monsters Superman pg 5

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.

Gods and Monsters Wonder Woman pg 15

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.

Sensation Comics 5 pg 6

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.

Sensation Comics 5 pg 14

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.

Sensation Comics 5 pg 27

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.

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.

Infinity Man and the Forever People 4 pg 5

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.

Wonder Woman 26 pg 2

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.