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While it was an interesting idea – a character who was known mostly for his personality becoming more and more withdrawn and unemotional as he becomes consumed by power – the story had little lasting impact, save that it did allow Kyle (or rather, DC Comics), to fix a number of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.

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