Thursday, August 14, 2008

So, were there any good superhero comics in the 90s?

So I went to the local comics shop last week hoping to buy two comics, with the faint glimmer of hope that I might buy three (I suspected, based on experience that the store doesn't buy copies of Criminal for the shelf). I left the store having only bought a copy of Final Crisis #3. Based on this and previous expeditions to this store, I considered myself lucky to come away with even that. And it's not like the other comic (Invincible Iron Man) was obscure or anything--it's just that this is a store which basically requires you to set up a sub list in order to receive the comics you want to buy. I haven't done that for a few reasons that I'll explain at some point in the near future. (Short version: I'm trying out a mail order service.)

But I was happy to have the new issue of Final Crisis, and I read it pretty soon after getting home. As I've said before, I enjoyed the first couple of issues quite a bit. This one, however, was a bit of a disappointment, partly because of the reasons Jog mentioned. More worrisome, for me at least, was how the (SPOILER) end hinted back to Morrison's previous work on the Rock of Ages story in JLA.

Now, for all I know, message boards across the internet are ablaze with similar complaints, accusations that Morrison is out of tricks, reduced to rehashing his older work (and, I'm guessing quite a few people are saying, his better work). If you were to use the spectrum of visible light as a metaphor for comics bloggers' devotion to Grant Morrison, with red being Douglas Wolk or Brian Cronin and violet being the sort dude who will never forgive Morrison for contradicting some old issue of New Mutants, I'm probably somewhere around school bus yellow. I'm deeply skeptical of the adulation All-Star Superman has received, and I'm sympathetic to the argument that Morrison is kind of weak as a visual storyteller (more on that in a minute). On the other hand, I think Morrison's New X-Men is the only truly meritorious run featuring those characters, and that Seven Soldiers was about as good as modern superhero comics get.

I don't think Morrison is rehashing his past work in those final pages of Final Crisis #3; if anything, he's probably deliberately referencing it. I can't help but think of Morrison's interest in superheroes as contemporary gods and comics as their modern myths. One could thus see Final Crisis as an alternate telling of the myth of how superheroes traveled through time to a future where Darkseid conquered Earth. (I assume that Final Crisis, like Rock of Ages, will also tell how superheroes were able to prevent this potential future.) This fits in with Morrison's explanation of continuity errors between Final Crisis and Countdown/Death of the New Gods as temporal disruptions (or whatever) caused by humans' inability to process the events taking place. Likewise, Final Crisis and Rock of Ages could be different tellings of the same story.

Hurting this theory is that Rock of Ages is not actually very good, leading one to wonder why would anyone want to retell that particular story. Rock of Ages didn't really go anywhere, didn't really have any lasting consequences, and didn't really have any larger message to impart. At least that's how I remembered it; but since it had been a while since I last read it, I decided to reacquaint myself with the story which (if memory serves) helped establish Morrison's reputation among superhero-only readers. Sadly, it turns out my memory was correct; Rock of Ages really isn't all that good.

The first thing that stands out about Rock of Ages is the terrible, terrible art. Howard Porter, though never a favorite of mine, has certainly improved dramatically over the last ten years. Unfortunately, this is the Howard Porter of the late 90s we're dealing with here. The art in Rock of Ages is inept in every way. I remembered Porter as being at least capable of drawing a cool splash page, but it seems that I was thinking of his later work on JLA. There is absolutely nothing commendable here. Porter's storytelling is just about as abysmal as one would guess, but his rendering is almost as weak. Look, I don't have a problem with distorted anatomy if it works to emphasize the themes of a comic, but Porter is working directly against the aims of the comic. There's nothing heroic about a bunch of Hobbits dressed like Aquaman.

Especially if we're talking about the ridiculous angsty Aquaman of the 90s. Is there any ill-advised revamp that combines ridiculousness and visibility on such an epic scale? This is the version of Aquaman that an entire generation of children came to know, via the Justice League cartoon--a shaggy blond dude with a harpoon for a hand.* But the dated visuals don't stop there! We also have that stupid mask that Green Lantern wore back when he was another guy in the 90s, plus electric blue Superman. Almost every superhero comic looks dated once you're far enough away from its original publication, but harpoon Aquaman, electric Superman, and crab mask Green Lantern are quite the trifecta.

But I'd wager that the vast, vast majority of people reading Rock of Ages today are doing so less out of love for the characters and more out of love for Grant Morrison's writing. Unfortunately, that's rather problematic as well. Rock of Ages is as convoluted a superhero story as I've ever read (bearing in mind here that I'm not all that well-versed in mid-90s X-Men comics). Part of that is due to the time traveling angle, in which several JLAers are hurtled into a future where Darkseid rules the earth. But before then, they are coerced by Metron (who, as it turns out, is an evil future version of Metron) into trying to destroy the Philosopher's Stone/Worlogog, a borderline MacGuffin which is in the hands of Lex Luthor, who is busy with the destruction (or "corporate takeover"**) of the Justice League back in the present. Fake Metron convinces Aquaman, Green Lantern, and the Flash that they must destroy this titular rock in order to prevent a future ruled by Darkseid. He sends them through time and space to do so. Why this is necessary is unclear, since Superman, back in the present day, destroys the Philosopher's Stone to keep Lex Luthor from using it. But, AHA!!, this was apparently what Darkseid wanted all along, since somehow or another the destruction of the Philosopher's Stone paves the way for his takeover of earth.

How? I have no idea--it certainly is never explained here. It's also never explained why Evil Future Metron needs to send anyone on this wild goose chase for the stone, given that Superman destroys it without any aid or abetting. But that's not all: the Philosopher's Stone is largely peripheral to Luthor's "corporate takeover," which mostly relies on the powers of a reformed Injustice Gang. But wait--despite his access to the infinite powers of the Philosopher's Stone, Luthor's takeover is somehow foiled by Batman, who Morrison (as in every issue of JLA he wrote) imbues with godlike mental prowess. Batman's plan is implemented mostly off-panel, BTW.

Somehow or another, Batman, Superman, and Aquaman (in a rare portrayal as the equal to Batman and Superman) decide that this all means that the JLA is broke, and thus needs to break up and reform into a more efficient unit. (As is explained in the subsequent issue (not included in the Rock of Ages collected edition), Batman thinks the group needs more "thinkers.") Thus, it appears that this entire story mostly serves to set up the next phase in Morrison's run on JLA (plus Aztek, and maybe the DC One Million event). Not exactly the stuff myths are made of.

I can live without MINDBOGGLING CHANGES TO THE STATUS QUO from my superhero comics, but I do expect a certain standard of execution that Rock of Ages lacks. The Injustice Gang plot ultimately feels like an excuse to set up Darkseid's dystopian future, but it takes about half the book to get to that point. Worse yet, this dystopia seems rather off-the-rack. Aside from a few references to the Anti-Life Equation, this could really be any other "heroes face future in which evil wins" scenario. The Fourth World stuff is basically window dressing; with a few minor changes, this dark future where Darkseid won reminds me of the dark future where the villain won in about a million other comics and cartoons. There are a few interesting touches, such as the helmets which enslaved humans are forced to wear (three pairs of hands covering eyes, ears, and mouth), but mostly this is generic supervillain dystopia.

Once again, most of that is down to inadequate visuals. Much of the blame rests at the feet of Porter, whose Darkseid mostly resembles a gorilla made out of rocks, and whose urban hellscape tends to just look like darkened city streets--the sort of thing you would expect in an early issue of Spawn. But Morrison also deserves much of the blame for writing a script with so much shit in it that only the most accomplished artists could create an evocative sense of doom. If decompression is responsible for eliminating stories like this, then I would like to absolve it of all its other sins. Rather than give us a chance to learn what exactly this terrible future entails for Earth, Morrison keeps throwing future versions of superheroes at us--which is exactly what most of JLA's readers were probably eagerly expecting. But it makes for a confusing, overstuffed story. I'm still not sure what's up with Batman and Desaad (the former having replaced the latter at...some point? And then continued to imitate him for a number of years?).

I'm also kind of shocked at how poorly written many of the characters are. Morrison doesn't seem to have a clue how to write the Joker, who's in full-on manic gab-bag mode here. Plastic Man is pretty much intolerable. And Darkseid is reduced to uttering lines like "No. My zombie factory" (as he watches his zombie factory on the moon explode, naturally).

Which isn't to say there aren't a few rewarding moments here. I like that Morrison subtly suggests that Green Lantern didn't fall prey to Circe's mind control because his willpower was too strong--this is the sort of plot point which other writers would hammer into the ground. And Wonderworld is the sort of thing which I read Morrison's comics for--crazy, mythic, and kind of funny as well. And it's an appropriate tribute to Jack Kirby, given the presence of his characters in this issue. Still, I have to complain that the art keeps Wonderworld from being quite as wondrous as the name implies. The scene with Adam One certainly imparted an appropriate sense of scale, but otherwise, Wonderworld looked like the JLA headquarters. Or Darkseid's headquarters. Or every other setting.

Of course, the failings of Rock of Ages won't necessarily befall Final Crisis. One immediately obvious improvement is in the pacing; there's actually some breathing room here. While the first issue didn't seem to resonate with the masses, I appreciated the way it set the tone for the rest of the series (to date). Morrison also seems to be juggling multiple plotlines with a bit more ease, giving us time to savor the creepiness of Libra, the mixture of hope and fear surrounding the return of Barry Allen, and the emergence of new heroes (and, presumably, New Gods) in Sonny Sumo and Shilo Norman. It's not all so compelling--I'd echo Jog's complaints about Green Lantern and Superman. But there are none of the flat-out storytelling failures we see in Rock of Ages.

A lot of the credit for this has to go to JG Jones, who is a much more accomplished artist than the Howard Porter of 10 years ago. It's certainly easier to establish atmosphere when working with an artist so easily able to capture a variety of settings. Jones' designs (which presumably featured substantial input from Morrison) are excellent as well; the new Female Furies (with the possible exception of Catwoman) are phenomenal. Improvements in coloring technology probably don't hurt either, and Alex Sinclair certainly uses them well in establishing a much more convincing dystopia than that which appeared in Rock of Ages.

Most important of all is Morrison' improved handling of the Fourth World characters and concepts. Darkseid was essentially the only representation of Kirby's vision in Rock of Ages, and he was brutally generic there. Here, we have a variety of unsettling New Gods, both in original form (like Mokkari) and the new manifestations. The reincarnation of the New Gods is turning out to be a remarkably successful strategy by Morrison. This is much closer to Kirby's vision than almost any subsequent version I've ever read; more importantly, it really works for this story.

Though I'm quite impressed with Final Crisis as a whole, I'm still curious to see how Morrison handles its similarity to Rock of Ages. I wouldn't really be disappointed to see no mention of the similarities, but I don't think it's Morrison's nature to ignore it. Maybe Morrison will provide his earlier attempt at an apocalyptic Fourth World story with some ex post facto fortification. Until then, Rock of Ages is totally inessential to all but the most devoted Morrisonologists.

*Which is not to say that the smiling, orange-and-green Aquaman from Superfriends is any less ridiculous. It's funny that this character's presence on said show made him so recognizable as to ensure endless revamp attempts, yet it's the stupidity of Aquaman's portrayal on Superfriends ("I'll be in the ocean if you need me!") which ensures that practically no one between the ages of 25 and 50 will ever take him seriously. And now those younger folks unfortunate enough to read any recent comic featuring Aquaman will be wondering why he's wearing that stupid orange shirt instead of that stupid metal harness.

**Apparently Morrison has Luthor use this term because he plans on replacing the soon-to-be-deceased Justice League with his own "corporate" League, led by largely-forgotten Morrison creation Aztek. This is only briefly mentioned, and mostly seems to be here in order to set up a new storyline in Aztek's own ongoing comic.


ADD said...

Three '90s runs I remain fond of:

Casey and Ladronn on Cable
Ellis, Grant and Olivetti on X-Man
Casey and Phillips on Wildcats Vol. 2

Unknown said...

A quick, possibly nitpicky note: I believe Aztek's solo title had been canceled by the time of Rock of Ages. The final issue saw him join the JLA, so the six (?) issues of Rock of Ages would have taken place after that. Maybe Morrison had planned to continue the story in that book before it was canceled, but he never got the chance to do so.

Dick Hyacinth's Ghost said...

Hmmm. That's interesting, because it's totally phrased in a "I need some time off to figure this my own title" kind of way. Maybe this was just Morrison's excuse for writing him out of JLA, given that the big roster expansion came in the next issue.

Anonymous said...

I agree with almost all your criticisms, and I still like "Rock of Ages." Maybe it was all flash and no substance (not unusual for a super-hero comic), but Morrison put in a lot of cool character/ action moments (e.g. Green Arrow & Atom vs. Darkseid, J'Onn turning the Joker sane), sensible storytelling be damned. It hasn't aged well, but I thought it was fun.

Good '90s super-hero comics? I liked Peter David's Hulk (particularly the Keown-, Gary Frank-, & Adam Kubert-drawn issues) and X-Factor, Astro City, Alan Davis' Excalibur and Clan Destine, Robinson's Starman, Ellis' Stormwatch and Excalibur, Untold Tales of Spider-Man, Waid's Flash & Impulse, Kesel's Daredevil, Aztek, Superman vs. Aliens, and Ostrander's Spectre & Suicide Squad.

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