Thursday, May 22, 2014

Forever Evil #7

Geoff Johns is, as we already knew, orchestrating serial events, now in the New 52 as he did for much of the past several years beginning with Infinite Crisis. Trinity War led right into Forever Evil, and it's long been apparent that another event would take the baton, in due time, from this one.

While it followed many familiar patterns from pre-Flashpoint continuity, Forever Evil ended on an original note, or at the very least blended a large number of stories we'd seen before. Johns did some of his most inventive work in creating or adapting new characters in his reimagined Crime Syndicate, although most of that squad, save its own Trinity, is now dead.

Probably the single greatest surprise of the series is that the heavy hitters of the Justice League did absolutely nothing to defeat the big bads. Batman and Cyborg played supporting roles in the victory, but most of the Leaguers needed to be saved themselves, thereby disproving the old adage that every major DC event ends with Superman punching something.

The event's possible death was teased but Dick Grayson literally came back from the dead. We've seen the death of the Nightwing character, but DC's ninth-oldest superhero lives to fight another day.

The great original stroke of the series is that a group of classic super villains saved the day, not in a supporting role, but doing almost all of the heavy lifting. Luthor prevailed as the central figure, leading the more powerful members of his team, slaying two members of the Crime Syndicate, and single-handedly saving Dick Grayson, Batman, and Superman. This leads to Luthor asking for JLA membership in Justice League #30, seizing to capitalize on his role as a human savior with no superhuman powers.

But, despite Luthor's plausible story while lassoed by Wonder Woman, is this all just an act? Luthor surely has the ability, whether with self hypnosis or some other means, to fake his way around that test. The older story guiding the narrative here might be 1961's "Death of Superman" story in which Luthor pretends, over an extended period of time, to turn good in order to lure Superman into a death trap. Despite outward appearances, perhaps Luthor is doing so here. Evidence of this is his unilateral invitation of Shazam to join the Justice League despite his ongoing disdain of superpowered beings. Maybe Shazam's strength will be utilized by Luthor in a future devastating strike against the Justice League. This would hearken to another existing story in which Luthor used a mind-controlled Shazam as a weapon against Superman, Kingdom Come. The richest possibilties might be for the story to explore Luthor as a hero for several months, then have him find out, to his own surprise, that he'd been acting that way as a ruse involving self hypnosis, with the heroes struggling to fend off his betrayal.

Johns was also used misdirection in his clues regarding the bigger threat to come. While it seemed all along (and still does, to Superman at least) that Darkseid was the threat behind Earth Three's destruction, we find out at the end that the Anti-Monitor is the muscle behind the event, but someone still unknown is the mastermind. This is in keeping with Johns' love of throwing the biggest villains into a surprise reveal, and he's used the Anti-Monitor for this purpose before, with one page at the end of Sinestro Corps War Special #1 containing Sinestro, Parallax, Superboy Prime, Cyborg Superman, the Manhunters, and the Anti-Monitor. Johns also used the Anti-Monitor in Blackest Night. Here, we see a war of unsurpassable proportions building: The Anti-Monitor and his unseen master are planning an attack against Darkseid. In order to gain power for these attacks, he consumes the energy of a positive-matter universe, and he began with Earth Three. As I observed in an earlier post, destroying Earth Three is precisely how Crisis on Infinite Earths began, so Johns is setting up a sequel to that event. For those who are keeping score in the New 52, Darkseid has been turned away from an attack on Earth Prime, and has devastated Earth Two, nearly conquering it. Now we see that his nemesis has taken Earth Three for its sheer energy, and we have the makings of a battle that could carry over to any of the 49 other Earths as well.

Again, we see Johns riffing on older stories on an unprecedented level, as even Infinite Crisis was a sequel to COIE. Forever Evil #7 managed to remix old themes just enough to avoid the series being a forgettable retelling of ideas we'd seen before. Johns continues to keep interest going, but he's teetering on the edge of a Crisis of Infinite Story Recycling.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Superman: Doomed, Chapters 1-3

In the New 52, some events in previous continuity happened, and some events didn’t. Bane broke Batman’s back, and Hal Jordan became Parallax, but Doomsday never killed Superman. The end of Grant Morrison’s Action run showed a Lois and a Jimmy who remembered Doomsday having killed Superman, but that wasn’t the New 52’s Lois and Jimmy, so this story is breaking new ground.

Superman: Doomed is a crossover event with its first three chapters all going on sale the same day, so readers need to be careful to follow the reading order to avoid spoilers, which this review contains in abundance.

In 1992, Doomsday was introduced for the very purpose of killing Superman. His abilities were revealed as the story progressed, but his origin was left as a mystery, with such details as his state of confinement left unexplained. They were probably better left a mystery. Subsequent stories resorted to hackneyed reveals and a painfully illogical “power” (that no one can defeat him twice) borrowed from the 1970s origin of the Calculator. Everything that made Doomsday intriguing and mysterious was stripped away in story after story, until nothing remained of the character but a way for writers to introduce, cheaply, a moment where the reader thinks, “This is bad.”

Superman: Doomed removes, at least initially, most of the characteristics of the 1992 story except for the creature’s appearance. We begin, in 2014, by knowing that Doomsday had a past on Krypton, although this past comes to us through an intriguingly doubtful story-within-a-story told to Kara by Zor-El in Batman/Superman #3.1. In a major alteration of the character, this Doomsday feeds off the lifeforce of nearby beings, more akin to the Parasite, and left the entire population of Smallville in a coma and killed many other people elsewhere. Also unlike the original, this Doomsday is able to teleport, and specifically avoids fighting Superman. Again unlike the original, this Doomsday is beaten physically without too much trouble, being ripped in half by Superman at the end of a battle which goes from place to place before concluding in Smallville. As the most significant alteration from the original character, this Doomsday is a sort of infection which is now inside Superman, and he must summon the willpower to fight the infection or he will have, in effect, lost the battle by becoming the next incarnation of the very villain he physically beat.

In what we’ve seen so far, the story has a few flaws. The art surrounding the battle in Superman: Doomed #1 was unusually chaotic and confusing. It was difficult to tell whether punches were being landed, dodged, or thrown the other way. When the battle moved to a new place via teleportation or conventional movement, the motion and the motives were largely left uncommunicated except by narration boxes. Superman decides to take the battle away from humanity, but this only seems to apply to one brief portion of the battle, a few punches taking place on a nicely-rendered landscape of Venus. Before and after this, the battle takes place on Earth, with no explanation for why Superman abandoned his strategy to fight far away from potential victims.

An important characteristic in Superman’s moral make-up is his reluctance to kill, and when the story brings this up, it does so briefly. Superman implicitly decides that killing Doomsday is worth it, but then relishes it when Wonder Woman asks him to bring her Doomsday’s head. If the story is to redeem its potential, it needs to revisit this decision in more detail, as the decision itself was dispensed with rapidly as it occurred.

At this point, the story is one of internal struggle against what is in effect demonic possession, Superman’s inner nature battling a contagion, a dynamic which has been used many since 1960s stories that used red kryptonite to advance that plot. More recently, 52 Aftermath: The Four Horsemen showed Superman resisting the slowly-growing influence of a similar evil demigod while his allies tried to help him. Superman: Doomed will be a thorough disappointment if it aspires only to repeat that plot but with more PR this time. It may likewise repeat the “Bad Superman” of Superman III, the “Doomsday always comes back stronger” from the creature’s first go-around, and we’re left to see going into chapter four if the story has something new to add.

A different plot which is getting more attention is the tension between Lois Lane and Wonder Woman as rivals for Superman’s love interest. Decades of tradition placing Lois Lane (almost always) in that role have been on hold in the New 52, with Wonder Woman owning Superman’s heart for over two years now (versus about two issues in post-COIE continuity). If the Superman-Wonder Woman relationship is meant to tear away easily, leading to a triumphant renewal of the Superman-Lois relationship, then this event might be the place where it happens. On the other hand, the things Superman and Wonder Woman have in common as warriors should apply more in this story than most others, and we’ve already seen how Wonder Woman is more at place than Lois in most aspects of the story, although Lois has the byline for the articles that start each issue.

The story has asserted that Superman, as Doomsday’s target of choice, is the strongest being on Earth, with nary a word of contradiction regarding Shazam, Supergirl, or Martian Manhunter. We know from solicits that Superman will lose the battle against the Doomsday infection before he ultimately wins it. We will see as the story unfolds if it can win the battle against duplicating older stories with no real purpose or originality.