Martian Manhunter: Identity Review

For a character that has been often described as the heart and should of the Justice League and one of the great creations of the late Golden Age*, but in the half century of so, has had scant time in a series of his own. There have been more recent attempts at giving the character the centre stage, but the fact likely remains that most likely only remember the short-lived 1990s series by John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake. Martian Manhunter without a doubt, is long overdue for a more personalized story.

Enter Steve Orlando and Riley Rossmo with a new twelve issue maxi series that is not only a defining moment for the Martian Manhunter of Mars, but also a handy retelling, and deeper exploration of the character’s origin story. For a character that has been around for as long as he has, his backstory, specifically his time on Mars is often overlooked in favour of telling the age-old pastiche of “stranger in a strange land”. Right off the bat, Orlando and Rossmo demonstrate that this will not be just another generic origin story, however. No, this is not the Chocco cookie loving J’Onn J’Onnz; this version we see may be younger, but he is more cynical, or perhaps a brutal realist. We learn that as a Manhunter on Mars, his morality and intentions are considerably less heroic. He is driven by his own ambitions, his own desires, and it serves as an interesting allegory to the real world.

J’Onn’s actions are not without consequence, and it takes a sacrifice of the worst imaginable to finally send our protagonist down the familiar path of the hero. Split between two framing sequences of time and location, the Martian Manhunter’s earliest days on Earth are chronicled, even as his martian past looms over him. While the super heroics are of decent fare, the multilayered story benefits more from the character interactions, the smaller moments and perhaps more in J’Onn’s loss and failures, than his successes or triumphs. For an alien, the Martian Manhunter has always been written as a very humanized character, and we forget that this was not always the case, and certainly not at first. It is not that that character is suddenly a villain or even an anti-hero, instead we are treated with a character that usually sees the world in moral absolutes, living and benefitting from decisions made very much in the grey. It takes an exceptional creative team, the likes of Steve Orlando and Riley Rossmo to tell such a nuanced tale.

And one should gives considerable praise to Riley Rossmo, and not as an intentional afterthought as a stunning storyteller in his own right. DC has an incredible stable of artists working on its properties at the moment, and Rossmo is certainly on that list. His art is beautifully rendered in Martian Manhunter that reminded me, without being a comparison, to the stylistic flamboyance of Mitch Gerads. If one were to compare it to the recently reviewed Mister Miracle, one would have to admit that these two-self contained stories featuring second and third tiered characters are some of the best DC has put out in recent memory. It also goes to show just how unique and exciting the DC Universe could be, can be, wants to be but still cannot seem to find outside of these few examples.

This is one of the best interpretations of a comic book icon, equal in gravitas to Ostrander and Mandrake’s run; with time, it will hopefully be just as recognized and revered by the fandom.

*Some consider the Martian Manhunter the first Silver Age creation, but a stronger argument for The Flash and Showcase #4 as more widely recognized as the “first”.

Collects: Martian Manhunter (Volume 5) 1-12

Batman: Court Of Owls Review

Looking back a decade on, it is quite clear that DC intended to take some creative risks when launching the New 52. The comic book industry has gone through universal reboots, but there was a sense that this time it was in fact, different. Suddenly Grant Morrison was headlining Action Comics, Justice League was given a big blockbuster start, and over in the Batman corner of the DC Universe, the reins were handed over to Scott Snyder and Tony S. Daniel. A bold move, considering Snyder had only done one other Batman story at this point (with Dick Grayson in the cowl, not Bruce), and Tony S. Daniel when not collaborating with another writer, has decidedly mixed results. Still, the fanbase was primed for the creative teams on most of the books, especially once it was announced that Greg Capullo would be joining Scott Snyder on Batman.

Batman: The Court of Owls was the first arc of the second volume of the Batman. Snyder and Capullo set out to tell a dark, mysterious and treacherous story of intrigue that would have the Dark Knight Detective questioning not only the motives of his new foe(s), but also just how much he thinks he knows Gotham City’s history… which of course also describes eighty percent or more of Batman stories published in the past eighty years. A digression…

That is not to say this is a terrible storyline. It does have its moments, and it is certainly served well by Greg Capullo’s more than capable hand in the art department, but the story ultimate buckles under its own weight. Eleven issues if you read just the main story, considerably more if you get bogged down by the sub-story “Night of the Owls” partway through this epic. While for the most part paced well within individual issues, this entire “epic” could have easily been told with fewer issues; half as few, if you include the ancillary titles. The reveal at the end of the story comes across as cliched, and a plot point if memory serves, is never even really explored again, by his creator, or any others. And considering the character the cliched plot point refers to is now dead, it may never get addressed again.

If the reader takes it as a separate parts of a whole, the storyline did give us a new foe in both the Court of Owls itself as well as their Talon foot soldiers. Those concepts have considerable legs, having been used in both animated media, and allegedly for the upcoming Gotham Knights game. Even if Scott Snyder’s story telling suffers, his concepts and ideas do not. During the most ridiculous moments, Batman still seems badass or incredibly cool, but reading it a second time years on, you begin to realize you fell for the hype a bit…

Unfortunately, Snyder still suffers under his own success and hubris with subsequent stories. If you wish to read him at his best, you should pick up a copy of Batman: Black Mirror. That is not to suggest this is a terrible storyline; there are worse, and at least one better.

Collects: Batman: (Vol. 2) 1-11

Mr Miracle Review

The critically acclaimed limited series is collected, giving readers a complete look at, including alternate covers, of this modern day classic. If that sounded like hyperbole, it would befitting imitation of a series that truly blew things up, out and sometimes even out of proportion during its original twelve issue run. A long standing character within the DC Universe, this Jack Kirby New Gods creation has had several attempts at a series under various creative teams, with limited success. It is perhaps a twist of fate that the character hits a new high with a purposeful limited series such as this one by Tom King and Mitch Gerads.

No square inch of space is wasted in any of the issues. Brilliantly illustrated by Mitch Gerads, he is classic in his depictions of Mister Miracle, Big Barda and even Darkseid, but also pushes the series and its stories into compelling and sometimes confounding visuals. It is not just Gerads pencils that need to be highlighted, but the fact it was also inked and coloured by him hits home his brilliance as an artist, and that of his artistic vision.

Thematically and narratively the series is just as rich, layered and nuanced as the artwork that visually tells this tale. Many reviewers have already expounded on the various theories on the opening moments of the book, whether or not this was Scott Free’s status throughout the series, or even what it all means in the end. Those have all been brilliant analyses, and one that this reviewer does not wish to expound on. There are a wide variety of views on how to interpret the series, and even if you take writer Tom King at face value, there is still a lot of material to diverge from and speculate with.

This is most definitely a story about life, death and rebirth, but it is also when you dig a little deeper, a man having a mid life crisis. However, when you are a literal god, what does an existential crisis look like exactly? Is it the perpetual nature of existence where Scott and Barda will possibly never die, but be locked in perpetual war against Darkseid and the forces of Apokolips, or is the crushing banality of mundane earthly existences and impending parenthood? Between wars, Scott and Barda kick back in their condo, discussing the state of their lives, and argue over whether or not they even need a kitchen as large as theirs, when all they do is order take-out. It is this sort of scripting that leads to such an entertaining tale. Jack Kirby laid the original groundwork with the New Gods saga fifty years ago. We know that the struggle between New Genesis and Apokolips is eternal; King and Gerads make it almost window dressing, a necessary inclusion to the plot, but not necessarily the plot thread we should be focussing all of our attention on.

This is perhaps the best highlighted when Darkseid comes to “visit’ Scott and Barda on Earth. While most would laugh at the comedy of Darkseid eating a carrot stick, there is more going on in that scene. The war is waged on many fronts, and often diplomacy is a better weapon than brutal force. We could have been given yet another fight scene, instead we are given something a little different, with a bit of good absurdist fun thrown in for good measure.

It perhaps comes as no surprise that this limited series nabbed three Eisner Awards; one for each of its creative team members, and one for Best Limited Series. And even if you don’t believe the hype or hyperbole, take it back to its core; an extremely well written, incredibly illustrated, self-contained story featuring a classic hero in a timeless struggle between good and evil. It truly does not get much better than this, and deserves every single accolade it receives.

Collects: Mister Miracle (Vol. 4) 1-12

Curated: 90s Superboy

Growing up as a young comic book collector in the mid 1990s, there were few people to talk to about comics. This was just as the internet was becoming public, but still quite a ways off before I would gain access to it in 1998. Out of a group of peers, there were three or four other known people who read comic books, but the majority opted for the likes of Spider-Man, the X-Men and Spawn; arguably far more popular to a then pre-teen than this editorialists favourite, Superman. Superman, despite the sales spike caused by the “Death of Superman” storyline, was decidedly uncool, which in a way made the character all the more special. A close friend took to liking Superboy as an alternative to Superman, and started collecting that title. This was in late 1994 or early 1995, so the Post-Crisis Superboy was still only a couple years old at this point, one driven home by the fact he still had no other name than Superboy!

Co-creators Karl Kesel and Tom Grummett were the stewards of this new Superboy for the first three or so years, giving us a number of characters, concepts and storylines that continue to be favourites to this day. This curated list, honours that, and mostly focuses on the first Kesel/Grummett run from 1993-1996. Some decent concepts came after that, and some questionable characterizations, but for anyone wanting to see this character in his original interpretation, these stories do it:

Adventures of Superman (Volume 1) 501

The first appearance of the Post-Crisis Superboy. Clone of the recently deceased Superman, he is one of four mysterious pretenders that have appeared in Metropolis. This single issue within the “Reign of the Supermen” storyline from 1993 nearly acts as a backdoor pilot to what the Kid’s first series would be. The majority of the elements, from Tana Moon, Roxy and Rex Leech and even the introduction of a new Krypto, would be established in this funny, fast paced, yet still thoughtful single issue.

Superboy: Trouble in Paradise TPB

This collection from a couple years ago collects roughly the first year of Superboy’s solo series under Karl Kesel and Tom Grummett. The majority of characters Superboy would interact with throughout their run are introduced, including King Shark, for fans of that particular character. The majority of the collection is done by Tom Grummett, but the odd fill-in still manages to fit-in with the overall youthful tone of the book. This is Superboy just his first steps out as an independent being, and that’s eventually going to have ramifications on him and those around him.

Superboy/Robin: World’s Finest Three

This two issue prestigious format mini-series is one that slips under the radar of most comic book fans, yet should not be overlooked. Co-written between Karl Kesel and Chuck Dixon, this story features the first meeting and team-up between Superboy and the third Robin, Tim Drake. Comic book fans have for years, taken for granted the friendship that developed between the Boy of Steel and the Boy Wonder, but it was one that did not occur in either of their solo series.

Facing off against Metallo and Poison Ivy, it is your typical superhero crossover fair, but still enjoyable, and even if the story does not grab you, the Tom Grummett artwork will surely make up for it!

Superboy (Volume 4) Annual 2 (November 1995)

Superboy (Volume 4) 0 gave early glimpses into Superboy’s origin back in 1994 (and is collected in Superboy: Trouble in Paradise TPB), but it is this 1995 “Year One” branded annual that gives readers more detail into the first days of Superboy’s existence. Readers finally learn of the human donor to Superboy’s creation (only to later be retconned in an unforgivable way by another writer), Cadmus is revealed to be operating after being presumed destroyed, and this half origin/half birthday tale gives the reader some rather poignant moments of a teenager already unsure of his place in the world, facing new revelations about his identity.

While Karl Kesel and Tom Grummett would return to the title a second time a few years later, their wackier take during their follow-up was not embraced by the entire fandom, and they left shortly after; closing out a lot characters and arcs that they had first developed in the process. Subsequent writers would not do the character particular justice, and by the end of the 2000s the Superboy most of us had been introduced was mostly gone; a complicated set of retcons and mischaracterization ultimately resulted in the character really losing its shine. There is hope that this list might remind the reader of a time when the Metropolis Kid took on the legacy of Superboy, and made it something truly unique.

Checkmate: A King’s Game Review

The landscape of the DC Universe after Infinite Crisis had a lot going for it a return of the multiverse, a back to basics approach to the trinity of Batman, Superman and Wonder, while also giving readers a slate of new series and ideas to try out. One of these new series was a fresh volume of Checkmate, written by Greg Rucka with art assists by Jesus Saiz.

At the time, it seemed obvious for a creative team such as Rucka & Saiz to take on a title like Checkmate. They had both worked on The O.M.A.C. Project miniseries that led into Infinite Crisis, as well were the brains behind the reimagined Jack Kirby creations of O.M.A.C. (One Man Army Corps) and Brother Eye into more modern interpretations. Rucka’s interest in geo-political writing (Queen & Country) would serve well a series that was going to look at the political and also, darker sides, of super-heroics. Checkmate’s reactivation as a team becomes a global necessity in the fall-out of Infinite Crisis as public scrutiny over superheroes hits a peak while superheroes try to find a way to police their own, before world governments do.

This is not a true extension of the previous Checkmate volume, which seemed a little more political edged than its counterpart, Suicide Squad. Instead, this almost tries to be an amalgam, but really comes across more as a Checkmate 1.5 in execution. The organizational structure based on chess pieces is maintained, but now each pairing of kings, queens and other high ranking members must have a metahuman and human each level. This freshens up the concept considerably, and creates tensions as the obvious mandates of the organization often are at odds of the personal goals of each member.

The scheme also provides a wide tapestry of characters for the creative team to draw from. Rucka chooses the Golden Age Green Lantern, Mr. Terrific, and Sasha Bordeaux, former bodyguard of Bruce Wayne and protégé of Batman, along with of course, Amanda Waller. This sweeping approach serves the series well as the each superhero perspective gives us a different insights, whether it be the elder statesman role that Alan Scott Green Lantern plays, or Sasha Bordeaux, whom as a cyborg, can play both sides, but can also be manipulated by personal gains on each side. Mr. Terrific, whom we know as the third smartest man on Earth in the DC Universe gives us a strong character of colour who is often forced to share a title with a large ensemble cast, ala Justice Society of America. While Checkmate does not completely erase this, at least his prominence as a character in this title enables him to grow a little bit more.

Unfortunately, the title gets bogged down by its own premise. For a title that Rucka claimed at the time would be the DCU’s version of a super heroic James Bond, this series has seriously too much time spent talking about what should be going on, instead of telling a tale where it actually happens. While talking heads and verbal minutiae works when you have a visual format such as television or film, it takes a very unique writer (think Aaron Sorkin) to truly pull it off and make a static or minimal movement while still successfully telling your story. Comic books are simply not quite the format for big talking heads page after page…

Collects: Checkmate (Vol. 2) 1-7