Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Looking To The Stars - All About Ion!

Kyle Rayner got me into comics. I had always liked superheroes as a kid but never read many comics until I was starting college. Then one day, as I was unpacking magazines while working my job as a grunt at a books/music/movies superstore in B.F.E. Texas, I saw a Green Lantern comic. Issue #90 to be precise – the issue that would, years later, mark the half-way point of that volume’s run. And as I looked at the cover of that book, thinking back to the good ol’ days when Green Lantern was my favorite Superfriend, I realized something…

“That’s not Hal Jordan!”

The name came to me unbidden. I bought the issue and read an adventure about this new guy, Kyle Rayner. How he’d been giving the last Green Lantern ring by the last Guardian of the Universe while standing in the alley behind a dance club and how he was trying to help the friend who he was with that night fight his alcoholism.

A few days later, made my first trip into a comic book store. It didn’t take me long to find out that my favorite hero as a kid had gone crazy, nearly destroyed the universe and had just not even a year ago sacrificed himself to save the world and bring about his own redemption. But more than that, I found myself enjoying the stories about his replacement.

Kyle Rayner’s greatest strength as a character has always been his status as an everyman. He is us – the reader; the ordinary person who is suddenly in a world of men with the might of gods and wonders beyond imagining. When written properly, he is a voice of the common man and a shining example of how even the most ordinary person can become something better.

Sadly, Kyle has been written properly rarely if at all in recent years. Toward the end of the Judd Winick run of Green Lantern, Kyle became more and more a generic hero than the character created by Ron Marz. This culminated in a story called “The Power of Ion” where Kyle absorbed a massive amount of Emerald Energy and changed his name to Ion, having essentially became a god with no emotion.

While it was an interesting idea – a character who was known mostly for his personality becoming more and more withdrawn and unemotional as he becomes consumed by power – the story had little lasting impact, save that it did allow Kyle (or rather, DC Comics), to fix a number of “problems”. Kyle used his newfound power to inspire a crippled John Stewart to work through the guilt that was causing psychosomatic paralysis. He also restored the natural powers of Jade, Kyle Rayner’s then girlfriend who had natural green light-control powers of her own that she’d lost in a previous story.

Kyle eventually gave up “the Power of Ion” in order to “give birth” to a new group of Guardians of the Universe and restore the Cental Power Battery on the newly rebuilt planet of Oa. Sadly, the loss of power didn’t result in the restoration of Kyle’s personality and he remained a bland generic hero type for another two years.

The blame for this lies perhaps not with the writers, but with DC Editorial who were already laying the groundwork for the return of Hal Jordan. Character was sacrificed in the interest of plot in order to bring about the conditions for Hal’s return. Ben Raab suffered the most in this, his run on Green Lantern being cut short in order to bring about a six-issue series-conclusion written by Ron Marz himself. Raab’s final issues were clearly rushed to a hurried conclusion, as Kyle was suddenly abandoned by the Guardians he gave everything to restore, while fighting an intergalactic criminal gang called The Black Circle.

Mysteriously, Kyle is now held up as one of the finest of the Green Lanterns and was signaled out by the Guardians of the Universe with a special title: Torch Bearer. Sadly, I fear we will get no explanation as to why the change of heart apart from “Superboy punched reality and shook things up.”

Regardless, Kyle Rayner survived the close of the Green Lantern comic and the events of the mini-series Green Lantern: Rebirth, which brought about the return of Hal Jordan and Guy Gardner as Green Lanterns. What is more, the comic showed a Kyle Rayner unseen for a long time – a Kyle who was more confident and assured of his place in the world and his worthiness as a hero but was still the same creative, good-humored man who got me into comics and kept me there so many years ago. Only four writers, to my mind, have ever managed to capture the matured Kyle perfectly; Grant Morrison and Mark Waid in their respective JLA runs, Geoff Johns in Rebirth and some other random issues and Ron Marz in his later Green Lantern writings.

Sadly, this portrayal was to be an anomaly and Kyle would be reduced to becoming a generic space hero again, Rann/Thanagar War, or an enthusiastic Kid Lantern to Guy Gardner, GL Corps Recharged mini-series. And then when Infinite Crisis came around – or more precisely, the Rann/Thanagar War One-Shot Special tying into the Crisis, the next big change came with it.

Jade was killed in the fighting and somehow, “the energy Kyle loaned her as Ion” (actually, he just rewrote her DNA to restart the powers she always had, but why quibble over semantics at this point?) went back to him, making him more powerful than ever as the Guardians decided to make Kyle the first of a new breed of Uber-Lantern. An Uber-Lantern who led the charge into battle as… Ion?

Most long time Kyle Rayner fans groaned at this. Well did we remember the dullness of the original Ion issues and how the character we loved became a walking Deus Ex Machina plot device. The rest of Infinite Crisis didn’t do much to improve our worries that our Kyle was gone for good. And things were truly worrying when we found out that not only was this a permanent change but that Kyle would be Ion One Year Later when he got his own title.

Long had we hoped for a solo mini-series or something that would get Kyle back in the sun. For all the good he had done bringing back the Green Lantern Corps, he wasn’t getting much press. The main Green Lantern book was exclusively reserved for Hal Jordan and, occasionally, John Stewart. The new GL Corps book was to be the domain, so we were told, of Guy Gardner, Kilowog and all the new alien Green Lanterns. But if Kyle was going back to being an all-powerful glowing man with none of his old spark, what was the point?

And then admid the darkness, the one beacon of hope; Ron Marz would be writing this new Ion book. And he had promised to keep Kyle true to his roots – to do a story about an ordinary man coping with tremendous power rather than becoming lost to it.

Still, there were worries. Could Marz do it again? Would it all seem like a retread of his previous work with the character? In trying to return Kyle to his everyman status, would Marz go too far and, like many writers, turn Kyle back into a star-eyed rookie?

Well, the wait is finally over and my verdict is… give it another issue.

There’s a lot to admire in Ion: Guardian of the Universe #1. For one thing, Kyle is once again on Earth camping out at an artist’s retreat. Marz has grounded the character right off the bat and gives new readers an insight into Kyle’s personality that has been neglected for a long time – his need to create.

We also get a basic crash-course through Kyle’s past and about how his last three girlfriends have all died because of metahuman mishaps and only one of them (Donna Troy) has come back, giving new readers a perfect jumping on point in learning about Kyle Rayner.

We also have the beginnings of a new supporting cast with Schuyler, the man who runs the artist retreat and a possibly mute female artist who totally gives Kyle the brush-off as he tries to make friends. Creating good supporting characters is another of Marz’s strengths as a writer and I’m already nostalgic for the days of Radu the coffee-shop manager and the rest of the tenants in Kyle’s apartment building.

On the downside, there’s not much action in this issue, but that’s to be expected given that most of the book’s pages are given to establishing the status quo of the new book. There’s a lot of unanswered questions right off the bat – namely, why Kyle seems to be sleep flying across the Universe and fighting fellow Lanterns and why there seems to be a bounty on his head (wonder if that’s just him and Hal or ALL Green Lanterns at this point?) but unlike some of the One Year Later books, there is just enough mystery here to hold my interest for another issue or two.

I’ve said nothing about the art until this point and there’s a good reason for that; I’d hoped to avoid talking about it. Seriously, this is some of the worst “professional” art I’ve seen since the low point of Tom Fowler’s work on Green Arrow. The sense of proportion is totally askew on some pages. Click the picture to the left for an up-close look at how messed up the art is. Pay particular attention to the neckline of the lady in the scene as well as Kyle’s left arm in the lower left panel.

Hopefully DC will get a better artist on this book and soon, or the sales may sink Kyle’s new career, and Ion may be over before it has a chance to begin. I can forgive bad art for a good story, but there’s a lot of fans out there who aren’t quite so lenient.

Still, time will tell what fate (and the public opinion) holds for the Torch Bearer. May it be kinder to him than The Powers That Be have.

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. Same Matt website.

Sign the “Remove Judd Winick From Green Arrow Right Now!” petition.

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Thursday, April 20, 2006

Looking To The Stars - Looking To The Reviews.

Sign the “Remove Judd Winick From Green Arrow Right Now!” petition.

Action Philosophers #5
Company Name: Evil Twin Comics
Writer: Fred Van Lente
Artist: Ryan Dunalavey

The best Indie title I’ve seen in all the time that I’ve been reading comics. Not only is this more educational than the one philosophy class I ever took but it is also funnier – and I was taught by a Baptist preacher who only touched upon Nietzsche for five minutes to say that “everything this man said is a damn lie!” But it’s not a lie when I say that if you’ve got half a brain, you’ll love this book if you give it a chance. And given that there’s plentiful free previews on the AP website, there’s no reason why you can’t give it a shot.

Grade: A

Birds of Prey #93
Company Name: DC Comics
Writer: Gail Simone
Artists: Paulo Siqueira & Robin Riggs

Some explanation as to why two prominent female characters seem to have switched places, a little Catholic girl trying to bum cigarettes and the return of a villain who hasn’t been used properly since his first appearance. All in all another solid issue from Simone & company.

Grade: A

Conan #27
Company Name: Dark Horse Comics
Writer: Kurt Busiek
Artist: Timothy Truman

I feel as bored as Conan sitting on the throne of Aquilonia writing reviews for this book at times. How many times can one pull out the A stamp, say that Busiek is a masterful writer and that whoever is doing the art is a wonder before the gilt loses its golden shine? Perhaps the book will lose its luster once Truman takes over as writer in a few issues, but I doubt it.

Grade: A

Conan: Book of Thoth #2
Company Name: Dark Horse Comics
Writers: Kurt Busiek and Len Wein
Artist: Kelly Jones

As far as I know, none of the pastiche writers building off Howard’s work ever wrote up a full background for the wicked wizard Thoth-Amon. But this story is as serviceable as any, though the Howard purist in me wonders if Thoth could really be singularly responsible for Set becoming the prominent god of the Stygian race when they are discussed as having always been a nation of evil snake worshippers in all I’ve read previously. Nevertheless, on its own merits it is an engaging read, though I think now that Kelly Jones the wrong artist for this book. The work is not bad, mind you – it just seems off somehow.

Grade: B

Daredevil #2
Company Name: Marvel Comics
Writer: Ed Brubaker
Artist: Michael Lark

It would take the transplant of a writer and artist from DC Comics to make me say nice things about a Marvel book right now, but damn me if the new Daredevil isn’t a hell of a good read. There’s a lot of “oh wow!” moments in this book, but the best comes in the last two pages. Give it a looksee and I think you’ll be surprised.

Grade: A

Ex Machina Special #1
Company Name: Wildstorm Comics
Writer: Brian Vaughn
Artists: Chris Sprouse & Carl Story

Fans have wanted a story focusing upon the superheroic days of Mitchell Hundred for quite some time now. This mini-series looks ready to deliver as The Great Machine fights an actual, honest to goodness super-villain. Vaughn’s writing is hot as ever and I didn’t even notice that Sprouse and Story were aping Tony Harris’s art style until I sat down to write this review and looked at the credits page.

Grade: A

Hellblazer #219
Company Name: Vertigo Comics
Writer: Denise Mina
Artist: Leonardo Manco

The problem with decompressed writing is that it leads to a lot of stories that, while well-written, read better in TP editions than in monthly titles. Such is the way with Hellblazer at this time. Don’t mistake me – the story is good and the art is as well. But it is a wee bit slow at the moment, with half the book being flashbacks and half of it standing around while looking at a painting or sitting around while talking in a car. Still, I trust there will be some appropriate pay-off soon.

Grade: C

Red Sonja #9
Company Name: Dynamite Entertainment
Writer: Michael Avon Oeming
Artists: Mel Rubi & Pablo Marcos

Funny how I start noticing the dialogue more now that Mike Oeming is the sole writer, given that Mike Carey is more famous for his dialogue. Still, Oeming is proving himself more than capable of flying solo as he tells the engaging double story of Sonja’s origin as well as her taking on a sidekick of sorts. And we get another explanation of the infamous chainmail bikini armor where Sonja admits to baiting those who would take advantage of a seemingly helpless woman.

Grade: A

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. Same Matt website.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Looking To The Stars - A Time For Action!

A short column this week, as I have a four-day weekend this weekend that is being entirely devoted to going to Scarborough Faire and recovering from going to Scarborough Faire. (Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme)

I honestly did plan to write something longer, but I got dragged into several conversations across a number of message boards, most of them dealing with one simple fact: Judd Winick is destroying Green Arrow and now we have mathematical proof!

I'll spare you the gory details; if you wish, they're spelled out on our forums. The long and the short of it is that sales have dropped with quality and the book has lost nearly 40% of the audience it had when Judd took over the book three years ago.

But some people have asked me, why do I rage against the machine? Why do I keep reading a book I don't like? Why do I keep trying to talk sense into people who don't want to hear what I have to say?

Maybe it's because Ollie is a very special character to me and it pains me not only to see him badly written, but to see people holding up as strengths what I see as weakness in what was once one of my favorite books.

Maybe it's because I feel it's my duty as a critic to keep digging through the rubble and describing the horror, though I'd rather not.

Maybe it's because I'm a liberal in Texas and it is second nature at this point.

Regardless, my discussions have made one thing clear to me. Ranting will do nothing. Raving will do nothing. And even boycotting the book won't work at this point. The people have already spoken with their dollars and apparently DC is content to let the book float along the sea of mediocrity when it might fly into the heavens once sailed by writers such as Smith and Meltzer.

The time has come for drastic action.

I was going to do a hunger strike, but the editorial staff of Comics Nexus wouldn't hear of it. Besides, it was politely pointed out to me that nobody cares about a 225 pound white guy trying to starve himself to death and that it would be months before there would be any noticeable change.

And then it hit me; since I cannot starve myself, I will merely change my diet.

Henceforth, I take an oath before you my readers as well as whatever gods are so bored as to be reading my column. So long as Judd Winick is writing Green Arrow, I will no longer patronize any local family-owned Mexican restaurant.

Why? Why not? We know that dropping sales doesn't seem to have any effect on DC Comics. And it is my hope that Judd Winick will hear of this noble crusade and, being a man of honor, will step down rather than deprive the people of La Taquerita Le Sierraita near my place of work of the $20 they make weekly off of my lunch breaks.

Besides, it makes as much sense as trying to finance a disaster ridden city with gay marriage.

Should you wish to join me in this quest, I have started a petition.

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. Same Matt website.

Looking To The Stars is a critique/satire published by The Comics Nexus, and is not intended maliciously. The Comics Nexus has invented all names and situations in its stories, except in cases when public figures are being satirized. Any other use of real names is accidental and coincidental, or used as a fictional depiction or personality parody (permitted under Hustler Magazine v. Fallwell, 485 US 46, 108 S.Ct 876, 99 L.Ed.2d 41 (1988)). The Comics Nexus makes no representation as to the truth or accuracy of the preceding information.

Thursday, April 6, 2006

Looking to the Stars - Illumination

Do you remember when Marvel Comics actually LET you read a storyline before they told you what amazing things would be happening, much less what the NEXT big storyline would involve?

Me either.

Seriously, it's getting to the point where a simple creator interview needs to be labeled "SPOILERS AHEAD" lest we inadvertently have the story that will rip the internet in half spelled out to us in graphic detail before the book comes out. And forget about reading through Diamond Previews if you want to be surprised.

Then again, this does save me the trouble of actually having to read the damn things. Illuminati #1 managed to tell me the whole story of Civil War in one page with foreshadowing so unsubtle that it would be spotted as foreshadowing if it were painted black, moved in the dead of night and provided with forged documents and photographs confirming that it was not in fact foreshadowing, but a traveling toy salesman from Fresno going on vacation in the Swiss Alps.

I've honestly lost all urge to even glance at Amazing Spider-Man just to see what happens there, I'm so disenchanted with the story so far. And for me to not care about Spider-Man takes a lot.

See, this is what DC is, for the most part, doing right with One Year Later. Most of the writers have given us mysteries that don't seem like arbitrary plot gimmicks. And even the mysteries that do seem like contrived plots to keep us reading (and yes, I KNOW that is the goal of most serial writers but there's an art in making it seem like they aren't doing that) are at least mysteries. We may grouse about how bad it is, but at least we're going into the book unknowing and coming out surprised.

That is where Marvel, as a whole, fails. With Joey Q's constant ranting there is no sense of mystery at the House of Ideas anymore.

In fairness, there are some writers who DO manage to surprise in their writing when they aren't forced to toe the line and provide cross-over fodder. Brubaker? He killed Foggy Nelson and brought back Bucky! JMS? Say what you will, but NOBODY saw Sins Past coming. Slott? About the only thing you can predict is that you CAN'T predict the lunacy inherit to his writing.

But for the most part, Marvel is a sea of mapped-out mediocrity. I was content to ignore them apart from the occasional glance in the store. It wasn't until this week that I got full blown annoyed.

I don't know for sure if the rumor is true – I can't find any official statement from Marvel one way or the other – but apparently word was leaked that in the aftermath of Civil War a group of heroes will flee to Canada to form a new Alpha Flight, in order to dodge the United States new laws regarding super-power registration...

... and Captain America will lead them.

Why? Well, apparently it's meant to mirror the many people who said they would leave their country if Bush were elected or reelected. And they wanted to be all hot and topical.

Thing is... you know anybody who actually DID that? I heard that statement attributed to Sean Penn, Alec Baldwin and Johnny Depp and last I checked the first two were still in America fighting for their beliefs and Johnny Depp was still living in the South of France with his supermodel wife.

I work with a bunch of women who LOVE Johnny Depp and lamented his marriage – THAT'S how I know, okay?

I'm all for more realism and relevance in comics but there are some basic truths that always hold true. And one of these is that Captain America, like all true patriots, does not abandon his country even when it abandons him.

Or am I the only one who remembers all the stories where he became Nomad or The Captain? Still a hero. Still fighting for the American Dream. And not running off when things get tough.

I don't think I am. But apparently nobody working at Marvel on Civil War remembers. Or maybe they just don't care. Either way, if this rumor is true it's a crying shame. And one more reason why I say Make Mine Marvel No More!

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. Same Matt website.

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