Saturday, July 23, 2005

Make a drama out of a crisis

Countdown to Infinite Crisis
The OMAC project
Villains United
Day of Vengeance
Rann-Thanagar War

I approach the DC Universe as a wavering believer might come to the temple of a rival cult - with curiosity, hope, and the sinking feeling that I may be committing grotesque blasphemy. And I notice idiosyncracies which I presume you just get used to:

Why have all the heroes got abstract symbols on their chests?
Why does Flash (or is it "The Flash"?) have funny things on his ears?
Why are there (step forward Captain Boomerang and Brainiac, but you're by no means alone) so many truly awful names?
And why are there so many irritating teenage versions of the major heroes and heroines?

Reviewing any DC book is going to be a problem for me, since I have barely a clue what's going on. I've only been reading DC for about a year, and most of this was spent following one stupendously long Superman arc.

For the new reader, crossovers are a royal pain in the arse. I don't want major DCU-changing events, as I'm finding it difficult enough to understand it as it is. And since I have limited finances, if I buy mini-series, then I have to stop buying regular monthly comics. So, to make way for the four mini-series which followed Prelude to Infinite Crisis, I had to drop Teen Titans, Legion of Superheroes, Flash and Adventures of Superman. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, DC Marketing department.

I loved Countdown to Infinite Crisis. It had clearly been written with the less-than-dedicated reader in mind, since it told a story with deep roots in the past without getting entangled in them. We were presented with a hero down-on-his-luck (Blue Beetle) being ignored by his former friends and up against a wonderfully sinister enemy, Max Lord, who has a hatred of superpowers generally, and who ends up murdering Blue Beetle after Blue Beetle refuses to join him. Lovingly sinister, Max is exactly the type of enemy every hero needs to have: clever, brutal and seemingly unstoppable. This story continues in the OMAC project.

Having accused Marvel of unoriginality in choosing to make House of M an alternate-reality series, it's only fair to note here that Countdown to Infinite Crisis is remarkably unoriginal. Consider Max Lord:

Castle in Switzerland
Hundreds of minions
Unstoppable robots
Computer system which can see everything
Murderer of minor characters
Likes chaining beautiful women up in dungeons
Has mental control of the main hero (Superman)
Confused baddy motives (has mental powers but hates superpowers - does that make any sense?)

I submit that this is the kind of behaviour you would expect from a villain in a 1966 episode of the Man from U.N.C.L.E.. To all intents and purposes, Lord is actually Doctor Evil, and will probably shortly be presenting the US Government with a demand for "one million dollars". He's a cliche, but I love him. Incidentally, modern incarceration techniques mean it is no longer considered desirable to chain people to walls with their arms above their heads, not least cause of the health risks when they start soiling themselves. You can't help but feel that just maybe the writers were indulging in a bit of fantasising here. Just my guess, you understand.

There were a few questions to ask. Would the JLA be quite so off-hand with Blue Beetle? They appear to be acting like idiots, not heroes. And why didn't Kord sue his bank when all these funds were withdrawn from his account without his approval? And, for future reference, if someone points a gun at your head and says, "Join me", the correct answer is, "What do you want me to do first, boss?". It's OK to lie under duress. Saying "sod off" and getting shot is just foolish. Much later, you can always sneak off and hide behind Wonder Woman's bustier till the fighting's over.

The OMAC project is the only one of the four I'm still buying, although I'm hesitating over Villains United. This is written by Gail Simone, a big plus in my book. One drawback is that it involves two lots of villains fighting each other, and I can't bring myself to support the ones we're supposed to. The second is the name, which sounds like a soubriquet for Don Revie's thuggish Leeds teams in the early 1970s. I didn't much enjoy the prolonged torture scene either, and I have a strict limit on the number of times I want to see a needle pushed into someone's eyeball.

I can see people loving Day of Vengeance, in which the Spectre displays that winning combination of righteousness and butchery which makes for a truly chilling villains. But I'm just not big on this whole magic business - I keep hoping Hermione Granger is going to turn up and take him out with a well-aimed wand.

As for Rann-Thanagar War, I haven't got a clue what this is all about. It's like being parachuted into the middle of a three hour lecture on the causes of the 1912-1914 Balkan Wars. The whole thing is buried so deep in past events that us newbies haven't got a chance.

In conclusion, what we have is an Austen Powers plot, a gang war, a ghost story and a space opera. All well-written, I think, but it's not yet clear whether they add up to more than the sum of their parts. They could all easily be standalone stories, which makes you wonder whether they can be satisfactorily tied up together - 2004's Avengers Disassembled certainly didn't manage it. Maybe when it's all over, I'll be able to go back to Legion of Superheroes - that'd be fun.