Wednesday, September 12, 2012

My Pull List - Comic Reviews for 9/5/2012

Sorry for the delay on this one. Been distracted by Linkara videos, "Kingdom Hearts 3D", and "TableTop". Also I took a long time processing my feelings regarding "Green Lantern #0". I'll hopefully be getting back into the swing of things soon and will hopefully be able to get this week's pull list up tomorrow. Anyway, last week's comics! Here we go!

- Animal Man #0
- Batwing #0
- Deadpool #60
- Earth 2 #0
- Green Lantern #0
- Swamp Thing #0

SPOILERS as always beyond this point.

Animal Man #0

Zero-issues are always used as a part of a marketing push, but their purpose is often unclear. Sometimes they exist to act as a prologue, sometimes they act as an origin story, sometimes they exist to tell an alternate but related story, and sometimes they just act as a recap issue to get new readers up to speed.

In the context of the The New 52, they almost all exist to tell the origin story since the #1 issues for most of The New 52 comics started in media res. Changes to established continuity were rarely dwelled on so that new readers wouldn't be confused. Long-time fans were left trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together to see what was scrapped and what was kept. With the zero-issues, DC has a chance to answer these questions a year after the fact.

For "Animal Man", issue #0 acts as a sort of retelling of his origin. Jeff Lemire's changes to Buddy Baker's purpose and origin were difficult to reconcile. In the old continuity, Buddy's powers came from aliens. In the new continuity, he was chosen by the forces of the Red to protect his daughter who would become their new avatar. They intended to turn him into the animal equivalent of Swamp Thing and aliens didn't really fit into that.

Issue #0 actually manages to make sense of the whole alien thing, which I think long-time fans will appreciate. The only problem is that it pretty much means that everything Buddy did in "52" never happened since in "52" he dies in space and the aliens who gave him his powers bring him back. Pretty sure the Red can't reach into space, but what do I know.

Anyway, this retelling of his origin was a lot of fun and it works well as a zero-issue. As I will discuss in my review of "Batwing #0", zero-issues about a character's origin can sometimes make me wonder why they didn't just make this the first issue. In the case of "Animal Man", it makes sense. All of the things we see in issue #0 really only make sense after you read the first twelve issues.

Also, this issue, in conjunction with "Swamp Thing #0", does a great job of making Anton Arcane a much scarier villain. By murdering both the Red and Green avatars, he forced them into the unique situations they both are in. Since the avatar of the Red was killed before his time, the next Avatar had yet to be conceived, forcing the Red to turn Buddy Baker into a sort of steward for the title, protecting his daughter until she's ready. And since Anton killed Alec Holland, the Green was forced to create a Swamp Thing that was essentially a shell of the man he once was, only catching a break from the "Brightest Day" storyline which brought Alec back to life, allowing him to officially claim the title. Not only that, but Anton has supposedly held the title of avatar of the Rot for centuries. He really seems rather indestructible completely ruthless, but we'll get more into that with "Swamp Thing #0".

Anyway, "Animal Man #0" is great, particularly if you've been following both this series and "Swamp Thing". Still, I wouldn't say this zero-issue is a good entry point. If you haven't read the other twelve issues, don't start with this one.

Batwing #0

As I hinted in my review of "Animal Man #0" above, "Batwing #0" is an origin story that frankly should have been the #1 issue.

I'm not going to lie, the main reason I kept up with "Batwing" when it first started was because I liked the art, I liked the setting, and I really wanted to support the decision to give a non-American person of color his own title series. But to be honest, I'm not surprised that a lot of people fell out of the book. It wasn't BAD, but it took way too long to get revved up.

The first time the series really hooked me in was when it first mentioned the concept of "The Kingdom", which was basically an African Justice League, and I thought it was a really cool concept. DC and Marvel rarely think about their world-building outside of the U.S., and when they do it's usually in some fictional nation. But as cool as that concept was, I wanted the book to give me a reason to care about the title character.

Eventually, it did. When the book delved into David's history as a child soldier and his relationship to his brother who was left for dead, I finally understood him. I understood where his pain and his passion for justice came from. I understood why he took up the mantle of the Bat. Even better, the child soldier phenomenon is still a serious issue today, one that rarely gets any attention in the U.S..

In any case, "Batwing #0" gives us the full origin of David. It's a really great origin, too. It shows us that he was fighting crime and standing side-by-side with other African heroes long before Batman, Inc. came into the picture. Batman didn't turn David into a superhero. He just gave him resources.

I really loved this zero-issue, but it's hard to deny that this issue really should have been the first issue. If we had known from the beginning what drove David and just how cool he was, I would have gotten hooked way sooner.

So my advice is that if you still haven't started reading "Batwing", pick up "Batwing #0". It doesn't spoil anything from the main series and it's a great introduction to the character. Don't start with "Batwing #1".

Deadpool #60

Daniel Way has three issues left before his run ends. Now, if you follow my blog, you'd know that I'm one of the few people that actually LIKES Daniel Way's take on Deadpool. Even so, I can't deny that everything since the end of his "Dead" storyline has been... well, bad. Particularly this issue.

This issue had exactly ONE cool moment in it. Here, let me share it with you.

It's moments like this that I think Daniel Way does really well. He really does get the character in a way that few writers do.

The problem is that this moment is not earned in the slightest. That line from Black Swan? That comes out of nowhere. Every single moment in this issue feels completely forced. While nothing that happens feels particularly out-of-character, it doesn't feel like it comes about NATURALLY. I feel like these things should have been built up through this entire "Blacklisted" storyline, but rather than that, we just had a bunch of pointless fight scenes without any emotional investment other than knowing that now Deadpool could die.

Daniel Way gave himself a huge opportunity by making Deadpool mortal. But about six issues later, he still hasn't done anything particularly interesting with it. And he's only got three issues left.

Deadpool got a new lease on life. I was expecting him to wonder whether or not he should even still be in the mercenary game. Re-examine his situation. Give us some insight into why he is a mercenary and whether his reasons for choosing this lifestyle still matter after losing his healing factor and regaining his former appearance. He tried so hard to die, but ended up deciding not to because he realized that, even with all of the bridges he had burned, there were still people that he cared about. People he couldn't just abandon. Suddenly, he was enjoying life again. Why then would he jump right back into his old life? I'm not saying that he WOULDN'T, but after the disaster with the Trickster that cost him his finger, I thought he would reconsider.


I'm really hoping that Daniel Way rushed through this issue because he has big things planned for his final arc, but even if he messes it up, at least we have Posehn to look forward to.

Earth 2 #0

Unlike the other series with zero-issues for this week, "Earth 2" has only been around for four issues and there aren't really any origins to explore. So "Earth 2 #0" gives us some insight into their alternate version of the original Mr. Terrific, though in this version he's called Mr. 8. It's pretty interesting to see how he seems aware of the multiverse and turned himself into a villain in order to defeat the forces of Apokolips. I'm curious to see what will become of him down the road.

Beyond that, it was interesting to see the Earth 2 versions of Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman. Though I will say, I don't like Earth 2 Batman, mostly because he uses guns. I guess I'm just a purist like that. I don't like any version of Batman that uses guns. For some reason I'm OK with versions of Batman that use lethal force, if it makes sense in that universe, but Batman with guns just always irks me. Maybe I'm just weird.

In any case, this zero-issue was a bit odd and maybe a little difficult to follow, but I like that they're giving Earth 2 a very rich and interesting backstory to build off of and Mr. 8 should be a very cool villain.

Green Lantern #0

This issue is probably why it took me so long to write this review. It's really hard for me to pinpoint my feelings on the new Green Lantern, Simon Baz.

Let me just get this out of the way right now: I really like Simon Baz. He's compelling, he's flawed, he has a good heart, and he's fearless. Regardless of the circumstances of his character, I think he's worthy of the Green Lantern title and that Geoff Johns can do interesting things with this character.

Unfortunately, that's not what most people are talking about regarding his character.

There are two big story points regarding Simon that have attracted a lot of attention. First of all, he's an Arab-American. He has an Arabic tattoo on his arm (it even glows green, which I think is pretty cool), he's a Muslim... this is an essential part of his character. The second big thing is that he's suspected of being a terrorist and is about to be tortured when he gets the ring.

In this issue, we get Simon's full backstory. We see the shock that hits his family when they see the attacks of September 11 on television. This is a shock that most of us can relate to, but it goes even deeper for them. You can tell that not only are they terrified by the acts of terror, but they are terrified for what might happen to them in the wake of the attacks. We are carried through panel after panel of Simon growing up in a post-9/11 world, and it all leads up to a fateful night when he steals a van in order to make ends meet, but discovers that the van has a time bomb inside it. He is arrested and detained and questioned. Obviously he is no terrorist, but because of who he is and the unfortunate circumstances, no one believes him.

While I personally loved this issue, there are quite a few who thought that this characters is problematic. I don't want to call these people racist, because even if they are, that's likely not their intention. I simply wish to analyze their general criticism and explain why I think it doesn't matter.

There are generally two schools of thought regarding negative criticism of this character.

The first is that making the next Green Lantern an Arab-American is an attempt to come off as more "politically correct" or to involve their own personal politics. A similar argument was brought up regarding making Alan Scott gay in "Earth 2". The general argument is that there are already ready four Green Lanterns from Earth. All of them are also men from America. Is it too much to have yet ANOTHER American male Green Lantern from Earth simply so that they can introduce an Arab-American into the mainstream DC universe? Is going out of their way to bring in this character exploitative?

First of all, I do admit that it's perhaps a bit much that the next Green Lantern is another American. Law of averages says that at least ONE of them should be Asian (speaking of which, I still want that one Green Lantern from the "Batman Beyond" universe to become canon). What's even sillier is that Simon isn't even IN America at the time when he got the ring, so you can't even make the proximity argument saying that the ring picked an American because Sinestro "died" in America. As I mentioned in my "Batwing #0" review, I do wish Marvel and DC stopped focusing so much on the U.S.. Even so, the ring was given specific criteria by both Sinestro and Hal. It wasn't just looking for someone with powerful will or imagination or lack of fear. It was looking for someone who had the ability to overcome fear. In the current political climate, there are few that face fear as regularly as Muslim Americans. They are openly feared everywhere they go and they too fear how they are perceived and treated by their fellow Americans. In the scene where Simon is being patted down in airport security, he is told that it is "routine" and is asked, "What are you afraid of?"

This one line is so loaded that it deserves at least a paragraph to analyze. First of all, this is a common question asked in regards to racial profiling and unwarranted search and seizure. When people say that its unconstitutional to search someone simply due to their ethnicity or religion, others will say that they have nothing to worry about if they have nothing to hide. "What are you afraid of?" indeed. Second, this question can be taken literally. What IS Simon afraid of? This is a core question of his character that I'm not sure I can confidently answer, but I feel like I know what he's afraid of even if I can't put it in words. I understand how he feels in the world he lives in. I know he is filled with fear. But the cold look in his eyes shows us that whatever he fears, he has the ability to overcome it. He has to in order to survive.

Considering all this, I think it makes perfect sense to have an Arab-American as the next Green Lantern. Fear and overcoming it is tragically a part of his life. Additionally, it's worth noting that Geoff Johns is half-Lebanese, so it's not surprising that he would want to represent the under-represented Americans of middle-eastern descent.

The second school of thought regarding criticizing this character is that making Simon Baz an Arab-American is one thing, but making it a core defining characteristic of his character is exploitative and some even claim it to be racist. The idea is that in a post-racial society, we should be able to make characters of any race or ethnicity and it shouldn't be a big deal. It shouldn't matter. A similar argument was made against the character Bunker in the new "Teen Titans" book. Unlike other gay and lesbian characters in comics, Bunker was less subtle and more flamboyant. Why does it have to be a defining characteristic? Why does it have to be a big deal?

Well, the fact is, we DON'T live in a post-racial society. We DON'T live in a world where any person can be any ethnicity or any sexuality or any religion and not worry about facing some kind of stigma related to it. We don't get to live in that kind of world by downplaying the importance of these factors. We need to get USED to those factors. Going back to the Bunker example, yes there have been other gay characters in comics, but almost all of them downplay their sexuality. While I absolutely agree that this is how it would be in an ideal world, the message it sends to a lot of people is, "It's OK to be gay so long as you don't make a big deal about it." This became evident during the backlash against Bunker. People hated the idea of him because being gay was important to him. "Why does he have to LOOK and ACT gay?" people would ask. "Why can't he be more like the other gay superheroes who don't bring it up?"

What I'm saying is that there's nothing wrong with making race or sexuality or whatever an insignificant part of a character. It does send the message that these people are just like us and there's no reason to be afraid of them or hate them. But at the same time, that can't be the ONLY way that it's represented, otherwise it gives the impression that this sort of thing SHOULD be downplayed or even hidden.

To use an example outside of comics, there's an interesting debate around the old sitcom "The Cosby Show". On one hand, many people applaud "The Cosby Show" for bringing a black family into mainstream popular culture and showing them in a positive, modern light, rather than playing into racial stereotypes. They were people first and racial issues were rarely ever touched upon. On the other hand, many criticized the show because they claimed that it was saying, "It's OK, white Americans, some black people are just like you and don't act in a way you don't understand!" I, for one, can understand both sides of the argument. Yes, it's important to have examples of characters that DON'T play into common stereotypes, but it's also important to recognize WHY you're not playing into a stereotype. Do you want to show that you don't have to be defined by the color of your skin or are you just afraid of turning off an audience by avoiding a stereotype? This is why I think "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air" does a much better job of striking this balance. Will Smith's character behaves much more like the stereotype whereas the relatives he lives with are more like "The Cosby Show" and the ways that they clash speak volumes about racial identity in America often without being overly-melodramatic about it.

So going back to Simon Baz, yes, the fact that he's an Arab-American is an important part of his character. However, that's because we as Americans are still not used to the concept of Arab-Americans. If they downplayed it, people would point to Simon as an example of how Arab-American characters (or worse, Arab-Americans in general) "should" be. It's important that Arab-Americans are represented and understood and that they don't pull any punches.

More importantly, in the context of the story, it really wouldn't work if Simon didn't wear his ethnicity with pride. If you are a part of a minority, one of the most common ways you overcome your fear and isolation is through pride. It shows that you don't care what ignorant people think of you. It gives you a feeling of unity with others in similar situations. It's how you face adversity.

Simon Baz is built as a character who has the ability to overcome fear. In this sense, making him a proud Arab-American facing the full force of everything that this would imply in a post-9/11 American society makes him just about the ideal candidate.

So I can understand that the approach to Simon's character makes some people nervous or uncomfortable. They don't think comic books are the place to talk about this sort of thing. But art is the best place to explore weighty subjects, particularly artistic media where we might not expect them. There have been tons of movies that explore racism, but it's no longer considered all that brave to do so. Now it just means you're Oscar-bait. But comic books? Comic books rarely get praise for bringing in politics. Comic books don't really have a great track record for openly diverse characters. So when a comic book makes a statement this bold, it's a pretty big deal. It makes people talk. It makes people think. It's important. It's necessary.

What's more, making someone's ethnicity a central part of their character is really only a negative thing when you use it instead of giving them actual depth. If they're just a token character, then yes, it's a negative thing. But when their ethnicity GIVES them depth, then it's excellent. This is what we have with Simon Baz.

And on top of that, it was a really great read, so all in all, I'm happy with the result.

Swamp Thing #0

I already talked a bit about this in my review of "Animal Man #0", but it's worth repeating. This issue, in conjunction with "Animal Man #0" makes Anton Arcane TERRIFYING. He's ruthless, he's effective, he's powerful, he's clever, and he takes pleasure in what he does. He even kills a newborn baby. Yeah.

I admit, while this issue also delves into what Alec Holland was like BEFORE he became Swamp Thing, that's not really all that interesting. This issue is told through the perspective of Anton and it really builds him up. I'm really interested in how this will play out when they return to the post-apocalyptic storyline from last month, particularly now that I have a better idea of just how scary Anton is.

I'm pumped.

Panel of the Week

I'm cheating a bit this week, but the first two pages of "Green Lantern #0" are really powerful and really show what I mean when I say that making Simon Baz's ethnicity a central part of his character is not only necessary, but it works and gives him depth. It also functions as a sort of belated memorial for September 11, which was yesterday.