Tuesday, January 3, 2006

Comics Review: January 3

Top Ten: Beyond The Farthest Precinct

Let's get the obvious bit out of the way: this is not "Top 10" as Alan Moore would have written it. Of course, these days I doubt even Alan Moore could write "Top 10" the way he would have written it; it's one of his last great works, and while the first series had an open ending (Moore had originally planned a seasonal approach before abandoning it altogether), it stands on its own in such a way that really should have signaled "HANDS OFF". After several years, DC finally lost its patience and brought in science fiction novelist Paul Di Filippo to write a five-issue sequel.

Di Filippo is yet another shining example of how credibility is automatically awarded to non-comics writers, whether they deserve it or not. Yes, he's a novelist. Yes, he's a "real" writer. But honestly, even a casual glance at his output should have disqualified Di Filippo, at least with regards to this specific miniseries: his characterization is flat and one-dimensional, his technobabble is inscrutable, and his plots are simplistic to the point of banality. Whatever his merits elsewhere, this is not a person who should be writing "Top 10", certainly not after Alan Moore.

And this incompatibility inevitably manifests itself in the work, as Di Filippo manages to miss every single point of appeal the original series had. The characters are reduced to ciphers, curios and stick figures. There's no narrative flow to speak of (it reads more like a disjointed collection of half-written vignettes). The dialogue is painfully trite. The high concepts are botched and/or unfathomable. And any sense of wonder relating to Neopolis and the world within its walls is nonexistent.

Evaluated on its own, it's a poor collection of stories that were never developed past the conceptual stage. As an attempt to cash in on Alan Moore's "Top 10", it's downright insulting. I suggest reading "The 49ers" instead and treating that as the bookend to the series.


X-Factor #2

My God, that Layla Miller is annoying.

Aside from the repetitive "I Know Stuff" gag, this is another good issue from PAD; the antagonists of the series, Singularity Investigations, are introduced, while X-Factor takes on its first case.

PAD wears his influences on his sleeve here; a self-professed Buffyverse fan, it's clear what he based Singularity Investigations on, to say nothing of Layla's job in "filing". It's not necessarily negative - I can think of worse role models than Joss Whedon - but one major criticism of the "Angel" television series is that it had a penchant for overdoing the Evil Lawyers riff, cloaking-and-daggering to X-Files proportions at times. Intrigue is all well and good, but this is exactly where PAD failed with "Fallen Angel", where you had way too much obfuscated nonsense while readers stared blankly in confusion. "X-Factor" is treading on thin ice as it is, in the sense that it's employing devices that have proven the undoing of various ongoing stories in the past (ie: using overhyped and underdeveloped characters, sourcing itself in flawed Event storylines, etc.). Again, we've only just started the series, so it's possible my concerns are unfounded... but it's important to note that so far PAD hasn't dispelled them.

Anyway, back to the issue at hand. The cast is completely assembled here, with Monet's arrival and Rictor's decision to join X-Factor. It's an amusing contrast to "New Avengers" taking an entire year to reach that same basic point - a reminder, I suppose, that while decompression has its uses, there's something to be said for getting to the bloody point before we all stop caring.

As far as I've seen, this issue contains the first reference to mutant re-empowering in the near future. So the permanence of "Decimation" lasted all of one month. Hurrah.

It's still very hard for me to see where this book is going, and whether PAD has learned from past mistakes. But so far, so good.


Young Avengers Special

With the ongoing series hitting a series of delays, Allan Heinberg brings together a group of artists to tell five separate short stories, each focusing on a different Young Avenger before Iron Lad recruited them (a reminder: the team was already partially assembled in the first issue, and to date we haven't seen their actual first meeting).

True to form, Heinberg keeps things very close to the chest; we only see bits and pieces of the kids' lives, or rather what they're choosing to tell Jessica Jones. We see a possible origin for Billy's powers, what Teddy was using his shapeshifting for, how Eli got involved with MGH, and what Cassie was doing the night she discovered the team (Runaways reference! I await the crossover with much drooling and rubbing of hands).

But the most brilliant scene is when Kate discloses the deep trauma that motivates her. It's a scene that's all the stronger for the presence of Jessica Jones, and one of the things I'm especially loving about Heinberg is how he's as good with other people's characters as his own. Jessica isn't here to fulfill some pointless cameo quota: Heinberg uses her own past as established in "Alias" to mirror Kate's. At that moment, she's more the Jessica Jones of "Alias" than anything you'll find in "Pulse"... and at the same time, we see two women who've undergone a similar experience and who chose radically different ways of coping with it. It's an interaction that works both ways: Kate finds a kindred spirit, and Jessica feels a twinge of regret, the thought that maybe she could have chosen the path Kate walks.

Wanda Maximoff also puts in a brief appearance; I have to admit, it was surprisingly pleasant to see the Scarlet Witch depicted as something other than a raving madwoman. I was never the biggest fan of her character, but in two or three pages Heinberg gives her more depth than anything I've seen in recent years.

Strictly in terms of plot, there's zero movement here, as this special takes place between issues 8 and 9 (ie: Patriot has left the team, but the Skrull hasn't attacked yet). But the character pieces give us more insight into the big question of the series - who these kids are - while hinting at further connections to various Avengers. And the last panel reveals the inevitable return of a major antagonist.

"Young Avengers" was the best new ongoing Marvel series of 2005. Most definitely worth reading.


Exiles: World Tour - New Universe (72-74)

The World Tour Saga is going to be a very interesting experience for me both as a reader and as a critic, in that I'm only familiar with 2099 and Future Imperfect; the New Universe, Heroes Reborn and Squadron Supreme are known to me only by their general reputations. This means I'm in a position to evaluate Tony Bedard's work on both levels: can he contextualize these popular universes for people who aren't familiar with them? And can he recapture the "feel" of those universes for people who are?

The former question, at least for this arc, receives a positive response. I came away feeling that I'd learned enough about the New Universe to gauge whether it even sounded interesting to me or not; odds are I'll be looking those older stories up someday. Bedard really manages to achieve a relevant connection between the ongoing Proteus storyline and the New Universe setting. Characters from that reality make appearances sure to please the older fans, while still retaining an actual purpose in the plot.

Bedard uses a rather inventive technique to capture the essence of the New Universe: the Exiles arrive in 1987. Now, they don't time-travel - it was established way back in the beginning of the series that some timelines move faster/slower than others. But the point is that this enables Bedard to recapture the actual sense of the era these books were written in. The first NU page of issue 72 has a cinema playing Robocop, Dirty Dancing and Lethal Weapon. People are arguing whether hip-hop or hair bands will be survive in the mainstream. It probably goes a long way towards recreating the atmosphere of the original stories.

I'm not in a position to judge whether Starbrand, Justice, Nightmask and DP7 were in character or not, but they were certainly accessible to me as "tabula rasa" characters. And really, this isn't the platform for in-depth explorations of the characters: it is, after all, still an "Exiles" story that happens to have familiar guest-stars.

Now, there's some interesting movement on the level of the characters, but before I get to that, I want to point out that "Exiles" isn't as old as it might appear to be. Its high numbering belies the fact that it's only about five years old, give or take - the result of publishing eighteen issues a year. All in all, that's not a lot of continuity. And while I'm very much anti-continuity in terms of inter-writer runs, I certainly appreciate that Bedard is taking advantage of the Winick stories to enhance what's happening now.

I'll elaborate. At this point, we're down to three Exiles from a group of six: Beak has been sent home, Namora is dead, and Mimic has been possessed by Proteus. In the course of the New Universe story, an Exile dies horribly. The execution is a bit wobbly because we've spent the last six issues with this character critically injured, then gaining a super-powerful healing factor, then being possessed... which should have been it, really, except we see a part of him is still fighting. And then he dies. It's an enormous moment, the death of an original cast member, but it's a bit squandered because it's hard to be sure he's actually dead.

In any event, this story also marks the inclusion of a new Exile, as Heather gives Mojo video access to the Multiverse in exchange for Longshot. This works so well, in so many ways: appealing to Mojo through television, referencing Winick's "So Lame" story, and using Longshot's own history of being brainwashed as a way to start from scratch. But it also highlights a particular strength of this series, in that it can often take things established in the past and reconfigure the pieces without changing them. In this case, we already know Longshot has the ability to affect probabilities, a "good luck force field", and Bedard posits that it makes him and the people around him immune to Proteus' abilities. It's plausible - use a reality-warper to block a reality-warper - and it's necessary because up until this point the balance of power was decidedly shifted in Proteus' favor.

Even if you're not familiar with Longshot, it doesn't matter because Bedard once again successfully achieves a double exposition: Heather explains exactly who he is - but since he's just been mindwiped, it's information he needs to hear as well.

Caught off-guard by this new opponent, Proteus escapes to another reality with the Exiles in pursuit. Interestingly, Bedard doesn't restore everything to status quo for the New Universe - Justice is gone, Nightmask is either dead or seriously injured, and Starbrand knows something he apparently wasn't supposed to find out for a while. I'm fine with that - the NU is a dead imprint anyway, and you can't very well have Proteus and the Exiles stampede through without leaving a mark. Better to leave those kinds of continuity questions to the zealots.

I never thought I'd be so excited to read "Exiles" again. Bedard's been steadily and consistently improving with each new issue, and if things keep getting better at this rate, it might just surpass Winick.