Friday, June 29, 2012

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen 2009: A Gentlemen's Review

Their expressions pretty much sum it up, yeah.

Pull in close.  Warm your feet by the fire. Fancy a cuppa? We're going to take some time to explore the latest installment of comic book legend Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Century: 2009.  It's penciled by the fantastic Kevin O'Neill (of Marshall Law fame) and co-published by wunderkind publishers Top Shelf Productions and Knockabout Comics.  

The first thing to note before we delve into it is that this is in many ways a more sparse presentation than previous installments, owing in part (no doubt) to the fact that present day copyrights impinge on Moore's possibilities with literary cultural collage, one of his major strengths and a backbone of the series as a whole, since the initial premise is, after all, drawing from stables of established figures in various canons and re-imagining them in a world where they all live side by side.  Moore, of course, is fully aware of this limitation, and plays with it like a pro, but more of that in a moment.  

We arrive in this fictional parallel to our not-too-distant past with none of the orgiastic fanfare of previous explorations.  Orlando, the gender-switching immortal with three millennia under his/her belt, is a traumatized soldier in parallel reality Iraq (Q'Mar), set to receive a medal and a ride home after snapping and slaughtering not just insurgents, but also his fellow soldiers, all nearby civilians, and a dog.  Upon returning to the abandoned hideout of the League, the wizard Prospero orders her (gender-switch in the shower) to find Mina Harker and stop the Antichrist and his forthcoming "traditional Apocalypse", formulated by Crowley manque Oliver Haddo. 

Pause a moment and examine the litany of curse words that the Prime Minister's "Fixer" streams in the background on the telly while Prospero chews Orlando out.  Where is that convolution of Moore wit we've grown accustomed to?  That overwrought double and sometimes triple entendre hidden behind layers of homage and nostalgia?   Hiding under a thin layer of disgust with current trends of banality within the mediasphere, old son.  He makes very little effort to disguise it. 

A throwback to previous installments ties up certain plotlines dedicated readers might have lost track of.  The MI5 propaganda institution gives wry references to the James Bonds of times gone past (can you spot them?) and the Coote Institute (descendant of Volume 1's girl's school, directly referencing randy what-the-butler-saw-and-what-have-you's of Britain's erotic serial The Pearl) dovetailing with the Gallywag-oriented backup story and poor Mina's dementia. 
Grant Morrison's King in Yellow Mobius Strip Tease seems tame by comparison.

Clamor on through the small references to popular culture that manifest as vague asides throughout the streets of London as Orlando and Mina attempt to piece together their team (adventurer Alan Quartermain has degenerated into a heroin-addicted bum and coward) and the location/nature of the Antichrist.

Is that the current incarnation of The Doctor strolling through King's Cross with the first one? Surely not.  Orlando and Mina consult with Norton, the Prisoner of London, who directs them to a hidden train platform, gore-streaked and corpse-filled, hearkening, of course indirectly, to Harry Potter's magical train station leading to Hogwarts.  When Mina and Orlando take the train to the (decimated) "Invisible College"  an interesting point is made.  In the midst of theories about the relation/reflection of this blasted dreamscape to the real world, Orlando relates the magical school massacre they're traipsing through the aftermath of to the school shootings in America.  And suddenly, in a series where only the Prisoner of London got to make cryptic crossword comments relating to the "real world" while everything else related to a literary looking glass, we have a direct reference to our reality.  The parallels to fiction's inter-relatedness to fact has often been a point Moore engaged (notably in the wonderful series Promethea) but here we can feel his point bearing down with a certain bitter gravitas.  Flashbacks from the point of view of the Antichrist have Oliver Haddo look us (him) in the face and call him (us) a banal disappointment.
The AntiChrist has no sense of Feng Shui.

On first assessment, one could call this latest (last?) installment of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen the least fulfilling of the lot, yet Moore's covered even that base with the framework of the storyline as a whole.  Modern society, the banal Antichristing fly-harangued redundancy that it is, has become a dreary mess with little to no sense of purpose. The bustling over-populated chaos bustle of previously explored centuries and their dirty alleyways has been replaced with austere camera-lined bland streets (the spirit of this age embodied early on in the story with a passing glance over an album cover titled "Oh, Who Cares?").  Not even the eternally present black cat of previous League episodes can be found.  The fornicating faeries are all dead. The Blazing World has receded, and our only fully male hero of the series is an opiate addicted sot until the final act.  Even our villain, the petulant Antichrist (scarred, exploited, nameless) is little more than a grubby wanker with an eyeball problem. Yes, he's pretty much Harry Potter, if you want to be puerile about it. And yes, Harry Potter is pretty much Tim Hunter. And Tim Hunter is the oldest son of artist John Bolton, as much as Orlando is Roland. And so on.

There is texture, even in the sparseness allowed in this work.  At the climax we're given a curious confrontation between the Poppinsesque "final goddess" and the Antichrist. We're given a dozen tiny "in-jokes" (as opposed to the hundreds of Volume Two) and we are given a few hints of potential foreshadowing (including a potentially disastrous "Moriarty-sperm-repopulated moonman war" hint hidden at the end).  Is this the final step for the series, or just this volume?  Whatever the case, it's been a hall of floor-to-ceiling looking glasses, and it has reflected the arc of our own world's disintegration with the aplomb we have come to expect from Alan Moore.

If a forthcoming fourth volume is yet to be had, I'd welcome it.  The territory is still ripe, even if the content has to shift considerably.  The trip has been an interesting one, to say the least, and if it were to crack open a wider portal and bridge that rift between what is real and "not-real" then we would all be well-served.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Good Reviews for recent Comic Book Publications

EARTH 2 #2   - 9/10

You've no doubt heard by now that Green Lantern is gay.  Interestingly, the DC Universe has run just a tad bit behind in the new trend of catering (pandering...?) to the LGBT community, while Marvel has had minor mutant Northstar outed for quite some time, and soon to be married (to a black human!).  The reaction from the Evangelical community to these announcements was almost as predictable as the cascade of reactions from internet trolls.  In all seriousness though, the sudden surge of "newsworthiness" of a comic book character's sexual orientation seems to have come about in the tumult of a cultural zeitgeist where many serious civil rights issues, mostly centered around marriage between homosexuals, are playing themselves out in political arenas.  This trend has come to a dramatic head with the latest issue of Earth 2, where a character (Alan Scott, no longer a World War II relic) proposes to his lover Sam.  James Robinson heads up the script, taking the Alan Scott character he's loved for so long ("old universe" issues of JLA written by Robinson gave ample stage-time to "the original Green Lantern's" convoluted family, including his gay son Obsidian, now clearly null and void), while Nicola and Trevor Scott move the story along at a brisk pace with clean crisp artwork.  Overall, the plot in this parallel universe seems to be portioning  itself out, the previous issue seeing the death of DC's "Big Three", and this issue featuring the dying god Mercury transferring his superspeed to shiftless loser Jay Garrick. The proposal of marriage comes only at the end of this issue, immediately followed by cliffhanger catastrophe.  This revamps the whole idea of "Golden Age" DC heroes as relevant to the standards and practices of a tolerant tomorrow, which is of course today.

RED LANTERNS #10  - 9/10

For whatever reason, the DC New 52 saw fit to give The Red Lanterns and Stormwatch their own series in the universal reboot. This has not been a bad thing, in most aspects.  With Peter Milligan and Miguel Sepulveda (both extremely talented individuals with proven track records) teaming up on scripts and art, respectively, this issue of Red Lanterns crosses over with the previous week's installment of Stormwatch #9 quite nicely.  One part slugfest (Midnighter punches a cat) and one part progressive character development (Atrocitus is not the one note character he once seemed), this expands the scope of these relatively "unknown" titles and gives more depth and dimension to the potential "cosmic" impacts as yet unexplored (outside of Green Lantern titles, gearing up to a major forthcoming showdown with the Guardians of the Universe) within the New 52.  Pacing is solid, and the two part story wraps up neatly, leaving the future wide open for further engagements. As with all titles floating in cosmic flotsam and jetsam, these two are best served when they ground their storylines in concrete character development.  And of course... epic fight scenes.

SWAMP THING #10  - 9/10

The fantastic world developed over the past year within Swamp Thing has expanded rather well from the mythos developed during the legendary Alan Moore years.  To a great extent, we have series writer Scott Snyder to thank for that.  Yanick Paquette's art, a fluid organic complication, lent itself to the progress of the series popularity, but we can see Francesco Francavilla's art has played a crucial part in this issue... adding a texture to a beautifully colored flatness, akin to Darwyn Cooke, with old greenjeans returning from a desert war with the Rot (and Lord of the Rot, Sethe).  This issue features the official return of Anton Arcane, the arch-villain of Alec Holland and friends in times gone past.  The build up for all of this is a matter of course, and the story's pacing matches the ambitions of the creative team.  We almost catch our breaths after the epic arc that brought us to this point, and we can see that the Parliment of Trees, torched and hacked and rotted through at roughly the same time as Alec Holland's brutal chainsaw murder, have been revived as saplings.  Needless to say, Abigail Arcane will be facing off in a Rot-infused family reunion next issue, and further down the line we can expect connections to the Animal Man series finally (after much build up) resolve.


This issue, written by J.M. Dematteis, with art from Richard Elson, deals with troublesome and very abstract cosmic forces set to undo all of creation, plunging Infinity into Oblivion.  Pulling plots from beyond the scope of most fanboy's memories, Thor teams up with The Silver Surfer to curtail an invasion from Outwhere by The Other, playing the long con game-within-a-game devised, potentially, by The Other's counterpart and polar opposition, The Scrier.  Old times with Jim Starlin and the cosmic Marvel pantheon are faintly conjured, and an especially nice spot is where the Scrier calls forth thousands of parallel reality Thors and Surfers to rally against The Other... but the high power levels involved deflate most possibilities for reader relation, and in certain areas the vast scope makes dialogue fall somewhat flat.  Self-contained, as Annuals often are, the story still feels constrained, but for anyone more interested in flash over substance it's a rollicking good time.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

New Impressions of Avengers vs. X-Men (Spoilers)

In previous installments of this series concerning the current globe-spanning mega-crossover epic of the Marvel Universe AVENGERS VS. X-MEN, currently in its fifth installment (not including the multiple main title tie-ins), we assessed the context, explored the basic structure of the plot and predicted (accurately) the progression of the storyline.  With the fourth issue, we have a twist on top of a twist.  Wolverine promised to take the "mutant messiah" Hope to the moon, and that he did (after a brief confrontation with a Shiar death squad in "Wolverine and the X-Men"), but not before contacting Captain America and the Avengers.  The issue ends with Thor being thrown into the midst of these heroes, forming a crater (running against the current continuity of New Avengers, which will no doubt catch up shortly)... and the Phoenix, after much build-up, has arrived.

Hope's mutant powers react, of course, and as has been the way with her since her introduction, we are treated to the old "I'm not ready for this!" effect.  In the course of events she actually manages to take out all the X-Men and the Avengers.  Terrified, she calls on Wolverine to kill her, again. Considering Wolvie has been slashing Captain America and Cyclops alike in the guts over the past few issues, he's more than happy to oblige.  At this point the stubbornness of Cyclops is bludgeoned over our head for the umpteenth time.    

The main issue that one might call forth as a critical issue with this series is the overabundance of talent.  With nearly a half-dozen contributors to the story and script (Jason AaronBrian Michael BendisEd BrubakerMatt Fraction, and Jonathan Hickman seem to be trading dialogue duty with each issue), each and every panel and event feels polished to the point of being over-refined.  John Romita Jr. does a solid job, as expected from such a diehard professional, managing to balance out the art duties of an epic storyline with the repetitiveness of an overextended premise.  He's moved beyond the blocky standards of his early work and the inks/color/computer assists do a fine job of complimenting him in this series.   

At the end of the day, Hope is what the story hinges on, and despite valiant attempts at texture, she's entirely too shallow a character to pull it off.  A powerhouse of potential (a point driven home again and again, in each and every appearance she has ever made), she's hardly had time to be addressed as having human frailties (a few moments in Generation Hope notwithstanding).  A heap of ideals and expectations have been passed off onto her, and there's a degree to which she is an inherently unlikable character.  There's the overblown manner in which she addresses events in this series, in the past tense, as if telling the story after the fact (making references to the dropping of the atomic bomb on page one, referring to herself as a victim, like so many others, of the Phoenix, on the last page).  She takes few actions, and events happen to her.  This is her weakness as a character, being presented for some reason as a strength.

But despite that, you might ask yourself, at what point does this much-anticipated series jump the proverbial shark?

When Tony Stark equips himself in a giant Iron Man costume and shoots the Phoenix with a heretofore unheard-of deterrent weapon, a "Phoenix Buster Suit" if you will... he damages it, fractures it, and its power, rather than being transferred into Hope, is split among the X-Men present on the moon (notably removing the trademark Juggernaut helmet present on Colossus up until this point in the series, perhaps purging the demon Cyttorak?).

Really, who saw that one coming?

At best, Avengers vs. X-Men is breaking ground on the "next major plot point" to be bandied about in editor-notes on mutant-related titles for the next two to five years, potentially dovetailing with something catastrophic and "ultra-relevant" in the next two to four months (if the incessant and ever darkening foreshadowing narration by Hope is any indication).  At its greatest aspiration, this marks a storyline contending with The Dark Phoenix Saga or Civil War in terms of impact (until ret-conned by editors in an obscure limited series if or when fanboy outcry reaches its most strident peak and someone decides they never liked Emma Frost in the first place).  

Or, at worst, this series will play itself out like nearly all "hero vs. hero" slugfests up to and potentially including this point... an exercise in pulling punches.  You have to wonder if there is any writer in the Marvel stables considering the What-If issues that each step of the series could spawn, or the parallels of these "hyper-mutants" that a select group of X-Men become in issue five.  At its lowest point, it could be viewed as just another money-maker, with no real lasting impact on the characters involved.  The final verdict on that, of course, remains to be seen, but despite all the "major events" occurring, it's a possibility.

With the most recent issue of Avengers vs. X-Men, we have a crux, a tipping point, in which the final heft of the series will shortly be determined.  With the PhoeniX-Men "preparing" Hope the petulant brat messiah for her upcoming important/irrelevant role in mutantkind's final fate, it's in the hands of Marvel's finest writers to steer the ship of the series out of troubled waters and into more familiar channels, or venture into new unexplored islands of potential. A world-wide mutant "utopia"? A replay of the Civil War trope "heroes putting heroes in jail"?  It stands to reason that whatever comes next will prove profitable for the House of Ideas, regardless of its actual effect on the Status Quo.  Rock the boat even a little and you'll draw attention.

So, in short, the talent combining for this event is staggering.  Is it too big to fail?  Are the creator's ideas bigger than the reader's stomachs?  Fan reaction has been buzzing throughout message boards, but we'll have our final answer soon enough.

Charles Xavier's stepping out of the shadows, and clearing his throat.