Mar 19, 2015

Bullet Points: 52

In 2006, DC Comics had just finished a series called Infinite Crisis, a big multiversal epic that got me back into comics after about a half decade of not reading anything new. As a result of Infinite Crisis, DC moved all their regular titles up by a year, leaving an untold story of a full year, one without Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. To fill in this gap, DC released its first modern weekly series, just called 52 way before they every fell in love with that number, written by Geoff Johns, Greg Rucka, Grant Morrison, and Mark Waid, laid out by Keith Giffen, and drawn by a bunch of artists. It was supposed to focus on those big guys, but quickly developed into its own thing.

I decided to give it a reread recently. I thought I'd write something about it, but realized I was lazy, so I decided to give you these one- to two-sentence reactions/observations of each issue of 52. Spoilers follow for an almost-decade-old comic. I give you...

52 Things About 52

1. I only remember the broad strokes of where these storylines are going, but I'm pretty sure my favorite character of this reread is going to be Renee Montoya, whereas for the first go-around it was Ralph Dibny, the World-Famous Elongated Man. I'm pretty sure the Black Adam story's just going to annoy me now, even though I loved the push he was getting back then.

2. After the Phantom Stranger and the Question, does any single superhero get their names worked as casual words into sentences anywhere near as much?

3. When Lex Luthor speaks, I hear Clancy Brown.

4. We finally get Montoya and the Question actually interacting, and it's just this delightful tiny bit of characterization.

5. For all the talk that the New 52 turned Starfire into a sex symbol, well...

6. Rip Hunter's blackboard makes its first appearance. I remember being engrossed by this when it came out, trying to figure out what it all meant, but now I read it and I see "Oh, there's a lot of stuff," and then flip to the next page. It's not that I don't appreciate it; I've just got more stuff to do now. C'est la.

7. I just now realized Renee Montoya is the only one with first-person captions up till now, which sets her story even farther apart from everyone else's. Also, this is the first time two different stories interact, with Booster and Ralph meeting up. I wonder how much Geoff Johns and Mark Waid split these scenes up. Waid also has an interesting note in the extra features: if there's a question that befuddles the audience, have the characters themselves ask it. It will add drama.

8. This is my favorite cover from the first batch of stories, and probably the entire series.

9. Animal Man gets the first-person captions this time around, so I guess there was no cardinal rule saying it was Montoya's shtick. And hey, remember when references to the number 52 weren't overplayed and annoying?

10. I love every scene Clark Kent was in in this one. Going from completely inept at everything (his job, shaving) to just throwing all his eggs in one basket by forcing Supernova to catch him by jumping out a window is one of those great dramatic shifts that I love so much, like Brodie at the end of Mallrats or Uncle Scrooge when he loses his money and moans for a half page and then gets back to work. Also, it's nice to see that the Martian Manhunter is seen, in-universe, as a big hero. If I had to guess, that's a holdover from Grant Morrison's idea of having him be the Southern Hemisphere hero. Also, I totally broke my two-sentence rule for this issue, so while I'm at it, I'll just say giving Black Adam a Captain Marvel–style cape was a nice touch.

11. Montoya figures out Batwoman is her ex when she looks at the back of her head. Of course.

12. In late 2005, I discovered The Mighty Isis on TV Land, realized DC had the rights to the character's concept, if not the character, Andrea Thomas, straight-up, and wondered why they never used it. In 2006, 52 introduced Adrianna Tomaz, who becomes the modern version of the character. Sometimes life is weird, like when you discover the existence of a certain word and then hear it eight times in the next two days. Also, I like how when they walk into the Rock of Eternity, Greed's face (on the Seven Deadly Sins statues) is broken, revealed to have been smashed by Captain Marvel, and it's fixed itself later in the issue.

13. Holy crap, wicker Sue, what the holy hell.

14. I enjoy it when the superheroes start fashion trends. In an earlier week, a woman wore Wonder Woman's costume as her bathing suit. This week, we've got Kahndaqian girls showing they care about superfashion too.

15. The original breakdowns of Booster dying have him getting cut in half, and it is hilarious..

16. This has my favorite cover of the second paperback, and may beat Week 8 for my favorite cover of the series. Or maybe something else will beat it later on. JG Jones' covers got stronger as the series went on.

Also, I've been pretty good at spotting writers' "tells" and realizing who wrote what (I'm not even really trying, and I'm not anywhere near 100% accurate, but some things are obvious who they're written by, like all the dismemberment), but when someone does what I like to call a Yellow Ring Idea, which is to say an idea that's so obvious I can't believe it took this long to figure it out, like The Red Inferno (because there is a Red Tornado) or The Seven Virtues of Man (because there are The Seven Deadly Enemies of Man), I can't figure it out. Is it Johns? Is it Waid? Is it Morrison? I've seen them  all do that kind of thing at multiple points in their careers — creating something obvious out of a pre-existing idea.

And look, happy Black Adam. You know this won't end well. I call this the Joss Whedon Rule.

17. "The cosmic distances, the immensity of scale... it can overwhelm your mind, Buddy Baker. Just remember: no matter how big it seems, it's never too big to fit inside your head," is a great line.

18. Montoya kills a child terrorist and feels guilty about it for two weeks. Black Adam shows absolutely no signs of ever being regretful he ever killed anyone, even innocents. I hate trying-to-be-sympathetic Black Adam, and I used to love him around the time this comic was coming out. That's me being an old fan-man. Homicidal murderers aren't cool; I don't care if you feel like you're justified.

19. Skeets' turn to the dark side was inspired, and still has value for me even if I knew it was coming. What makes it more impressive is that this wasn't the original plan; Morrison came up with it as an explanation for why Skeets would lie to Booster, only because the original plan of having time be broken and Booster having to fix it no longer interested the writing crew. Quick changes like these may happen in any and all fiction, but they're never more evident than in serial fiction, when you planned to be going one way and then decided to go another, except you already have parts of the story out that were supposed to be headed to the original destination.

20. I don't know if the Emerald Eye of Ekron, long used in the Legion of Super-Heroes, was actually revealed to have been ripped out of the Emerald Head of Ekron before this issue, but if it was, it's one of those Yellow Ring Ideas and I don't know who to credit for it.

21. The Steel story is my least favorite, and Johns even says in the notes for this issue that it didn't end up the way they planned it. But this issue is classic Lex Luthor: he forgives a teenage girl for telling him off, and then orchestrates her death to be shown on TV. The short list of positives from John Byrne's Superman revamp starts with Businessman Lex Luthor. (It goes on to Ma and Pa Kent being alive, Lana knowing the secret, and then... I don't know what else.) Also, I like that the Teen Titans is the "cool" team in-universe.

22. Is that a Sentinel?

23. We don't get enough scenes where a hero really goes "We cannot handle this. We will die if we handle this and we won't be any good to anyone. It really sucks, but we have to accept it."

24. Phil Jimenez draws this issue, and he's my favorite artist in all of 52. "ESPete" is a fun name. Also, I love how Firestorm has, in his room, a poster of Starfire in her modeling days, and that the poster actually is something that existed in continuity prior to this comic.

It was a photo taken by Donna Troy back in the New Teen Titans days, specifically at the beginning of "The Judas Contract."

That's the kind of small continuity nod that gives a good feeling of history and doesn't detract from a story.

25. Okay, "Happy Halloween, Judeo-Christians!" made me laugh.

26. Yeah, this kinda thing happens a lot in a roomful of guys not accustomed to talking to pretty girls.

27. Oh, come on, killing Waverider's just mean.

28. Making the Emerald Head of Ekron a Green Lantern instead of a villain was a great twist.

29. Man, but they made a mistake getting rid of Egg Fu's mustache.

30. Dick Grayson, AKA Nightwing, AKA the first Robin, one of the twenty greatest superheroes of all time, meets Batwoman, and he, not knowing she's not into guys, starts off by hitting on her. Because of course he would.

31. Ralph Dibny, the second-best detective in the entire DC Universe, figures out who Supernova is and gives us enough clues. As a fan who's read comics since he could read, I figured out the who pretty easily (I mean, really...). I couldn't from this point until the eventual reveal figure out the how, even though it should have been really really obvious to a lifelong Superman fan like me.

32. Pat Oliffe writes "Hey, look, a Neal Adams effect" in this panel of Rama Kushna.

Which is in itself a tribute to Neal's "Hey, look, a Jim Steranko effect" in an old Deadman story, from Strange Adventures #215.

33. I remember a certain section of the comics internet community going nuts because Ralph is drinking all this stuff from his flask, and Waid and the rest of the writers were saying it was liquor; there was no way it was gingold, the liquid that gives Ralph his Elongated Man powers. Then, when it was revealed to actually be gingold, that section of fandom went nuts, because the writers were lying, which just made me wonder, what in the world were they supposed to do, give away the twist?

Additionally, I always liked that Hal Jordan and Barry Allen were close friends, Hal Jordan and Oliver Queen were close friends, Barry Allen and Ralph Dibny were close friends, but it didn't mean Hal and Ralph were close, or Barry and Ollie. Not that any of that's enough for me to prefer Barry and Hal and Ollie over Wally West and Kyle Rayner and Conner Hawke, though.

34. This is what Travis would call a field of insets, and it works beautifully here.

35. Man, the first page of this one is just incredible. Five horizontal panels of superpeople falling, each at a different stage in the sky, just slowed down so you can really take it all in. I love Phil Jimenez.

36. In this issue, Animal Man and the Question both come closer to dying. I've always liked them both more as concepts than as actual characters (more on the Question later), but I've always enjoyed the fact that Buddy was one of the few very happily married heroes in comics. It doesn't work for everyone, and it actually doesn't work for most, but it works for Buddy Baker and it works for Adam Strange, which, really, makes the decision to strand them in space with Starfire kinda brilliant.

37. So apparently, the identity of Supernova, who I thought was obviously Booster Gold because I couldn't imagine them just killing Booster early on with no real payoff, was speculated by many fans to be the Atom. I guess I could see that, but that particular reveal, that specific payoff, would have been too intertextual (more so than these stories already are), and I thought one of 52's strengths was that it stood on its own. As it was, I loved the Booster Gold reveal, even if I saw it coming, or maybe because I saw it coming, because it meant I couldn't wait for it. I still didn't see the how of it though, which is why I am not an actual writer.

Also, why would you spoil the reveal on the cover?
Sometimes I don't understand things.

38. I was never the biggest fan of Keith Giffen as a guy who writes his own stuff, but he is a marvelous storyteller. The number of splash or almost-splash pages, spreads, and bleeds he uses has been increasing as the weeks have gone by, but it's never not appropriate for the situation. They're not just money shots (although most are); they give each moment the proper scope and space.

39. Was this old not-Aquaman guy ever explained?

40. I will forever think The Death and Return of Superman is one of the greatest events in the history of comics, and one of the reasons is because it gave us at least three reusable new characters, one of which is Steel. I really do love Steel. It's just a shame that it took him 40 weeks and the end of this story to do something cool.

41. I think the reason I may love the Montoya storyline the most is because it is a spiritual, existential journey, and I'm always a mark for that kind of thing, because I consider myself a spiritual (but not religious) person. But man, blame linguistic shifts and everything, but these sound effects undercut it.

42. "Because Faust... I'm a detective," is my single favorite moment of all of 52, and it can only be Waid. No disrespect intended to the other three guys, but I don't think there's ever been anyone in the history of superhero comics who's made me fistpump and given me an adrenaline rush more than Mark Waid. Ralph Dibny always knew what was going on. Of course he did — how could we ever have doubted him?

43. "The Rock of Finality" is another one of those Yellow Ring Ideas, and I see Mary Marvel shifts from red costume to white costume. More superheroes should switch costumes the way we switch clothes, because why not? The joke, if it was intended, in this one is that Mary is Billy's twin sister, so "telling her when she's older" is really patronizing.

44. Black Adam losing everything and reverting to form, with Isis, as Rucka puts it, going from advocating hope to hopelessness, really annoyed many fans back then who wanted Adam to have a happy ending. But in serial fiction, there are no true endings, and Adam is infinitely more interesting as the man who has lost everything and continues to go about things the wrong way. He's an interesting character, if not a particularly aspirational one.

45. Ugh, leave Montoya alone, you bastard, she's just trying to help. It's weird; when this series was coming out, Black Adam's story was near the top of my list of favorites, definitely above Montoya's and maybe even above Dibny's. On this reread, I think I find it even less compelling to go through than Steel's, though it does, still, beat out the space guys.

46. The supernerds come together to beat up the superjock. They are, of course, all jerks, nerds and jock alike, and will all get what's coming to them.

47. Greg Rucka, who is the only one of the writing crew to have written Wonder Woman's regular series, calls the particular rationale behind this scene "garbage" in the commentary, decrying the idea that Wonder Woman is "not human enough." Wonder Woman to me is the single most compelling character in the DC Trinity (Superman is my favorite character, but Wonder Woman is the one that fascinates me the most, as evidenced by the fact that I wrote an eleventy-word thing talking about her once that took me months to write instead of my usual one or two days), and I would have to agree with Rucka. Wonder Woman is an aspirational character, but she has always had human elements. What makes her (and Superman, and Batman) godlike is the way she handles her problems, never losing hope, and always finding the way that is right for the people she protects. I can see the rationale behind this scene, and this is the same premise they used to reboot her series, but I'm with Rucka here. I don't agree with it. On another note, it's fun to see that writers sometimes disagree as much as fans.

48. I've said before that the Question, Vic Sage, is one of the characters I like more in concept than in actual execution. When I was a kid, I opened up a Who's Who and saw a faceless guy in a fedora hat and a suit. I always liked the design, even if I didn't understand the heavy Objectivist politics behind the character. Vic was fun in Justice League Unlimited, where he served as both a superserious character and comic relief. But when it came down to the comics, I could never really ride with it, even when Rucka wrote Vic in Batman/Huntress: Cry For Blood. There was just something missing, and I think it's that, whether he was an Objectivist or a Zen practitioner, there was always a detachment. Renee Montoya, in her very brief stint as the Question, had some of that going on, but never went overboard, and I was with Renee Montoya on her journey to becoming the Question, just like I was there with Wally West when he stepped out of Barry Allen's shadow and took his place as the Flash. And while I may have been introduced to the concept of the Flash when he was Barry Allen, my Flash is Wally West. While I may have been introduced to the idea of the Question as Victor Sage, my Question is Renee Montoya. However short that stint lasted, however it ended up, this remains my third favorite moment in all of 52.

49. This whole China/Great Ten angle seems more politically charged now.

50. Geoff really did, for a long time there, stake his claim as the best writer of knockdown dragout group battles. His JSA is what got me back into comics. Also, this issue was expanded in the World War 3 miniseries, which I also have. I did not reread it for this column, and I missed nothing.

51. Mr. Mind as a big space moth is another Yellow Ring Idea, and Mark Waid says there was debate on whether or not to let him keep his glasses. I would have voted yes.

52. There is no concept, in all of fiction, that fills me more with a sense of wonder than a multiverse. Everything about a multiverse, done right, makes me feel the vastness of possibility and the true freedom of fiction and its reflection of the world. There is no multiverse, not one,  in all of fiction, that is better than DC Comics'. I will stand by that forever, or until the arbitrary day I decide that Spider-Verse was the best multiverse. Whatever. Unfortunately, DC hasn't done the best job capitalizing on their multiverse, but the sequence of events leading to this spread makes this my second-favorite moment in all of 52. (It'd have been first if they ever actually did anything with it that didn't involve waiting eight years.)

Rip Hunter says, "Welcome to a multiverse of possibility, Booster. Welcome home." This is Waid's favorite line in the series,and he continues:

"Home," both to us as writers and to our characters, is not a constriction of rules and regulations in which only one "definitive" interpretation of the DC heroes can exist and everything not currently in vogue is "Wrong."; it's a multiverse of possibility where absolutely anything can happen and where imagination has no limits. From the time a caveman told the first bedtime story to today, no good fiction ever has come out of worrying first and foremost whether its events are "in continuity."

1 comment:

Tony Laplume said...

One of my favorite comics ever. You did a good job of illuminating the journey.

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