Capsule reviews! I still remember how to do 'em! Uh, kinda? They're sorta...long? Ish? And there's not...a lot of them?
Nonetheless. After the jump: BARACK THE BARBARIAN #1, BATMAN #687, FANTASTIC FOUR GIANT-SIZE ADVENTURES #1, and GREEN LANTERN #42.
BARACK THE BARBARIAN #1: Although the concept amused me, I doubt I would’ve picked it up if I hadn’t noticed Larry Hama writing it. Looking back on the legacy of G.I. Joe, there’s a case to be made that there’s no concept so silly Hama won’t try to finesse IT into something enjoyable.
And that’s essentially the case here, where Barack the Barbarian comes to a corrupt city and runs afowl of dark wizard Chainee The Grim, his assistant Red Sarah, and others. Although the joke is essentially at the level of a Cracked Magazine from 1974 and things suffer from an utter lack of personality on the part of the lead character, Hama’s crafted a surprisingly strong hook for his tale: it’s a legend being told by a shaman to children of his tribe, a legend that the shaman admits is of a time long-past, a time about which the truth could never be known.
Now I know I’m a sucker for this trope, it being a patented ‘70s Kirby dance move (that Devil Dinosaur story with Stone-Hand, Eev and the computer bank that becomes the Tree of Knowledge is the first, but far from only, example that comes to mind), but it’s used to particularly good end here. First, it adds a certain wit to the shaman’s understanding of this magical age of ours (people are able to communicate across long distances by consuming magic berries, dinosaur skeletons are shown pulling wagons, etc.)
But second, and more trenchantly, it’s a fine sideways commentary on how so much of our current political landscape is rooted in continual attempts to transform our politicians with the language of myth, and the accidental or intentional misunderstandings perpetuated in the media about our government does (or doesn’t) get things done.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got quibbles. As I said, the main character has no personality and is portrayed as something of a naif a characterization I doubt anyone would apply to Barack Obama, and the art, although effective in its storytelling, is crude and sketchy in a way classic barbarian comics are not. Worst of all, the likenesses are recognizable but lack the zeal or zing of caricature (which should really be one of the big draws for a book like this, don’t you think?)
Finally, to be honest, seeing a strong black ass-kicking barbarian my heart gave a distinctly non-ironic tug (apparently I was a bigger fan of Zula than I would’ve thought) and made me more than a little rueful: is this how we’re going to get strong African-American characters into our comics? Whisked in through the back door of parody by the promise of easy money? In a way, I wouldn’t mind if the whole thing didn’t seem so flimsy and likely to crash in around everyone’s ears in three months.
But quibbling aside…I liked it, I admit it. This is an OKAY book with the potential to becoming more (and the likelihood, alas, of becoming much less). I’ll be curious to see where it goes.
BATMAN #687: Worth noting because this is probably how Batman & Robin #1 would’ve read written by just about anyone other than Morrison. And, certainly, compared to Morrison and Quietly, it seems just this side of dull. But I appreciated how it talked me through the character motivations while managing to jam in enough action not to seem dull and to give you an end that moved boom-pow-punch forward while resolving Dick’s internal conflict.
I guess what I’m saying is that it looks like we currently have two different approaches to the new Batman storyline, and I really appreciate that: I’m on the hook for both and I thought this was a solid craftsman-like GOOD.
FANTASTIC FOUR GIANT-SIZE ADVENTURES #1: The Marvel All-Ages books continue to toy with their neither fish-nor-fowl status and I for one could be a bit happier about it. The long lead story in this issue is drawn in a more traditional style by Vicente Cifuentes whose work grapples with competence but looks like ‘traditional’ superhero stories. It’s followed by two stories drawn, with considerable skill and aplomb, by Colleen Coover and Dustin Weaver. Since all the stories are written by Paul Tobin, it makes it easier—although not entirely accurate—to attribute the success of each story to the strengths of the artists. The latter two stories—and I admit the last one is really just a fragment (a very charming shout-out to Hergé’s Tintin)—are such charmers, but also possessed of such talent and craft, I’m kinda wondering why I had to wade through so much mediocre art to get to them.
Now, I know there are lots of things going on behind the scenes that could explain such an arrangement: if Vicente Cifuentes is an artist in another country, he could be working for a much lower page rate that Coover or Weaver, for example. But I wonder if the Marvel All-Ages team is attempting to serve two masters at once—-those who want well-written, well-told stories, and those who want the characters inside the book to look like the bedsheets they just bought—-to the potential detriment of both. Whatever the case, I’m frustrated that so many Very Good bits and pieces still only end up to something that’s a middling OKAY, overall.
GREEN LANTERN #42: I dropped out back at the delightful blood-barf fest of Rage of the Red Lanterns, and am dropping back in to kind of gear up for the upcoming Black Lanterns storyline. So it’s little tough for me to tell how much of my confusion is due to coming in at the tail end of the Orange Lantern storyline, and how much is due to writer Geoff Johns surreptitiously positioning the storyline as a sequel to Space Jam. I mean, how else am I supposed to interpret a cover that positions a possessed Hal Jordan as the space-opera successor to Daffy Duck?
Or maybe I just have bad luck in terms of which colored lanterns I check in on? The Blue Lantern scenes seemed cool, and there was something that seemed sweeping and epic with that last scene where two Green Lanterns meeting an unhappy fate while looking for the corpse of the Anti-Monitor.
The issue left me with the impression the Orange Lantern was being played for both comic relief and some pathos, like a more irreverent take on Peter Jackson’s Gollum. While I don’t have any problems with that approach per se, either the tone is off or I’m really out of synch with it: it’s not that I have problems with humor in the middle of my big space epic, it’s more that the humor struck me as overly broad and flat. It reads to me like Johns is shooting for Pixar but ending up at Dreamworks, you know? Farting raccoons, and that kind of thing.
And there’s also some shortcutting that may be unavoidable but still strike me as terribly clunky—at this point, everything is happening on such a ginormous scale that Johns has captions with power percentages to create any kind of drama. “Oh no, my battery power is down to 823%!” That, along with teasers of which deceased character will end up in the ranks of the Black Lanterns, make this feel like an epic taking its dramatic cues from fantasy football pools.
And while such naked groping at populism might not be a bad thing at all—-by the time the White Lanterns roar to the rescue in their shiny hypertime NASCAResque light racers, Michael Bay might be slavering at coke-dappled jowls to adapt the whole damn epic—-I think it might be a shame if such a fine opportunity for something as grand as a handful of comic books telling a story was reduced to something as puny as a ready-made, billion dollar Hollywood franchise.
OKAY issue, though.