Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Review: DC Comics Presents #29

Anj: Hello to everyone. It’s Anj from Supergirl Comic Box Commentary. And welcome to DC Bloodlines, a blog that looks at some of the dustier corners of the DCU and a place I occasionally post my non-Super-related comic thoughts. Bloodlines is the brainchild of Diabolu Frank who runs this site as well as the fantastic Idol Head of Diabolu, the pre-eminent Martian Manhunter blog. And today Frank and I are going to tag team review DC Comics Presents #29, the last part of a three part story which had Superman guest starring first with J’Onn J’Onzz, then Supergirl, and finally the Spectre. The first two parts are reviewed here and here.

Frank: You’re too modest, Anj. You contribute great material around here on a fairly regular basis, and I always appreciate your slumming with me. It’s nice to just chime in on a post with my random opinions, instead of all that laborious synopsizing and scanning you put in. Anyway, elements of this story arc stick in my craw, but I’d say it was overall pretty darned good, even with the weird turn in chapter three.

Anj: As for me, this is a great ending to a pretty important story, one which brought the Martian Manhunter back, introduced Mongul and Warworld to the DCU, and explored what it means to be Superman with his level of power and confidence.

But while the first two issues are more straight forward action comics, this last chapter is a bit more cerebral and trippy. Writer Len Wein and artist Jim Starlin have Superman learn some hard lessons from the Spectre and a very special Guest star. As always, Starlin shines here in this cosmic psychedelic landscape.

Frank: This story definitely contributed to the Martian Manhunter’s comeback. Readers often wrote letters to editors asking “whatever happened to” characters, and guest appearances often followed. J’onn J’onzz had a banner year in 1977, with a short run solo strip in Adventure Comics crossing into World’s Finest Comics intended to turn ongoing, until the DC Implosion wiped out all such plans. J’onn had a minor guest appearance earlier in 1980, but I think his major brawl with Superman is what really raised his profile. Team-up titles like The Brave and the Bold and DCCP were great about reminding people of awesome if forgotten heroes.

Anj: I completely agree. I loved the team-up books growing up because it allowed me to meet some characters I otherwise wouldn’t encounter. DCCP and B&B introduced me to Dr. Fate, The Unknown Soldier, Firestorm, Mister Miracle … the list goes on and on. I especially loved when characters I did know and loved teamed up with Supes or Batman like the Legion and Supergirl issues. On to the issue!

Anj: The issues is aptly titled ‘Where no Superman has gone before’ and picks up right where last issue left off. Superman and Supergirl have destroyed Warworld. But Supergirl, who basically shot herself through the planet like a bullet, was left unconscious for her efforts and careened undeterred and at high speed through space.

I liked this opening panel as a determined Superman vows to find his cousin. I liked the visible representation of Supergirl in his thoughts here, transparent and looming over him.

Frank: Where the first part of the story was thrown together by a whole studio of guest inkers, the two chapters involving Supergirl were quite pretty, thanks to the heavy embellishment of Romeo Tanghal. Starlin is one of my all-time favorite artists, but I think his cosmic cavemen were best tempered here, allowing for a classically handsome Superman, fair Maid of Might, and a general softness that better conveyed the familiar concern at the heart of the journey. I did miss the big alien thuggery of Martian Manhunter and Mongul though, who each in turn dropped completely out of the story with little explanation.

Anj: I never quite understood why J’onn wasn’t part of the ongoing mission. He had defeated Mongul in the past, Warworld was his responsibility, and certainly he could help Superman and Supergirl. But he was out. I think the next time I saw him was in Justice League of America #200.

Anj: After a nice panel of Superman doing some complicated super-geometry and calculus in his head, he determines Supergirl’s trajectory and begins to follow her. But given her head start, Superman has to pour on the speed, breaking every barrier there is to break until he shatterd the ‘bonds of Eternity’. That top panel is wonderfully composed, with the cosmos trapped in infinity, a sparse white environment around him. It nicely and simply conveys that this is more than deep space, this is an otherworldly landscape.

Luckily, Superman’s math was right because Supergirl is flying a short distance ahead of him.

Frank: It’s such a simple thing, but that panel combining a bit of geometry and pathos reminded me of how super Superman was at the time. It’s so much cooler than tossing off a word balloon as he flies through space. What follows is another example in this story arc of using panel progression for maximum effectiveness in a way that only comic books can. The artist controls the readers’ perception of time and space as Superman shatters both dimensions in pursuit of Supergirl.

Anj: I should have scanned that math panel. It worked for me too. I’d rather be shown than told. When words and art work together to tell the story, comics are special. Such a small panel in this issue, but it clicked.

Anj: Before he can reach her however, Superman slams into a giant Spectre, landing roughly on a nearby planetoid.

It was great to read this story now, reminding me that at one point the Spectre was the top dog of the DCU, unbeatable and unstoppable. This was 6 years before he fell to the ‘giant black thumb’ in Alan Moore’s SwampThing #50. Back then if the Spectre lost a battle it meant something. Now anyone seems to be able to defeat him.

I also got the sense that this Spectre carried some of the characterization he had in the famous Fleisher/Aparo issues of Adventure Comics.

Frank: The Spectre’s power levels were “Marvelized” Post-Crisis, wimping him out to make him more “relatable,” which of course utterly misses the point. At his best, the Spectre should be as scary as any villainous threat, because the guy is an agent of an unfathomable and often merciless deity most readers themselves worship. Fleisher and Aparo introduced that “Wrath of God” fearsomeness, and I think Ostrander &; Mandrake did a fine job restoring it in the ‘90s.

Anj: It’s almost comical how the Spectre has deteriorated. When he got crushed in Swamp Thing, as a reader, I knew this ‘anti-light’ was something unworldly. Now the Red Lantern avatar can beat him. I never read Ostrander’s take. I might have to hunt some issues down.

Anj: The Spectre tells Superman that he was approaching a place that no mortal eye can see. That the Man of Steel simply shall not pass. Supergirl is safe, and is she is unconscious is not witnessing what she must not.
One of the themes of this three-parter has been Superman’s overconfidence. Despite the Spectre’s warnings, Superman is going to continue onward. But this is the Spectre. Superman’s efforts of strength and of speed to get around the Spectre are ineffective against the Spirit of Vengeance.

I did like that Superman’s love of his cousin is so paramount that he doesn’t want to pause to discuss things with the Spectre.

Frank: I didn’t take it that way, at least in part. Since the first chapter, Superman’s supposed motivation was his concern for imperiled loved ones, but that mostly came across as ego excusing id. While the Martian Manhunter may have thrown the first punch, Superman closed off all other options with his callous disregard for the entire universe outside his close personal friends, not to mention his supreme overconfidence.

Superman then treats Supergirl as a tag-a-long and tells her a highly subjective version of the previous issue’s events, when she ended up being instrumental in halting the threat of Warworld. Here, Superman’s arrogant willfulness sees him spit in the eye of God Almighty. The irrationality inherent in Supergirl’s plight aside, how could he think a battle with the Spectre could be wrapped up in time to be of help? I can’t think of a single story arc that better exemplifies the concept of “Superdickery.”

Anj: Interesting take and one I probably missed because of my Supergirl slant. I always want to see the best in Superman when he interacts with Supergirl since so many of his stories with her involve him either exiling, disparaging, or fighting her.

His extreme chest-thumping in this story is a consistent theme here and this scene really is no different.

Anj: When Superman simply won’t listen to the Spectre, the Agent of the Voice decides that it is time for some old-fashioned education. Effortlessly he grabs Superman and sends him into a warped world where those hard lessons will be taught.

And I thought the lessons were classic Spectre, a hint of ‘let the punishment fit the crime’ irony here much like in those Fleisher issues. In those issues villains pay the ultimate price for their crimes … a murderous barber is cut in half by giant scissors, a woman obsessed with beauty is aged until she becomes dust, etc.

Frank: For its time, that material was as twisted as anything out there. Harlan Ellison said as much, calling Michael Fleisher a madman in an interview, and inviting an equally insane lawsuit from the writer. Comics are a crazy place.

Anj: And so Superman has to be taught about the limits of power.

First, he is set before a small Krypton, about to explode. Despite all his power, Superman cannot even stop this Krypton from exploding.

Frank: Symbolism aside, you can’t “hug it out” with an exploding world. His moobs alone would take out the Northern Hemisphere of Krypton.

Anj: (laughing)

Anj: And next, he can’t stop Death from mowing down Pa Kent again. I have to say when I read this issue as a kid, this scene creeped me out to no end. It was a simpler time.

But I thought these were great scabs for the Spectre to pick at, probably the two biggest failures of the Silver Age Superman (although admittedly, I never liked the ‘Superman tries to save Krypton’ stories). This is psychological warfare, the cruelest lessons that can be taught.

Frank: I didn’t read this story until the late ‘90s, so I was much too polluted to appreciate the effect. I do wonder why no one ever played the mommy card on him. It was always “My Two Dads” with Superman. No wonder he has so many issues with women.

Anj: But there is one more lesson. Superman is forced to face his dark self, a being of immense power with a capacity for violence, a machine of anger. Of course, it would take but a nudge to push the real Superman into becoming this thing. After all, just a few pages before he lashed out at the Spectre without thinking.

Superman ends up losing this fight before realizing that this is the final exam. There is something important to be learned here. Power is important yes, but power with intelligence and compassion. Once he realizes that is what the Spectre is trying to teach him, the dark Superman dissipates.

Frank: Folks must have really liked this story arc. That scene totally anticipates his material identity struggle in Superman III, and John Byrne’s 1986 revamp is largely predicated on veering as far from this outsized conception of Superman as possible toward the more serene, accessible benevolence of the Donner interpretation.

Anj: You’re right that the ‘evil Superman’ here looks like the Kryptonite-fueled jerk from Superman III. Even now, stories like Grounded look at what it would mean if Superman was out of control or if people feared him going out of control.

Anj: And with the lesson learned, Superman calms down. The Spectre reveals that Superman was travelling so fast he was about to enter heaven!

And then the top secret Guest star shows up. God talks to Superman, calling him a good and faithful son. God talks to Superman!


Well I suppose if I reviewed Beowulf cutting off Satan’s ear here, Superman can talk to God personally.

Frank: I loved the simplicity of representing the divine as a light blue calligraphic font bathed in white light without the borders of a dialogue balloon. What was it about the ‘70s and holy rolling in comics?

Anj: Superman takes it all in stride, amazingly.

He finally simply asks the Spectre for help in finding Supergirl. It turns out all Superman needed to was ask. Supergirl materializes in Superman’s arms.

Frank: Well, if anyone was going to be comfortable talking directly to God after trying to punch His Divine Agent in the solar plexus, it’s the guy who has spent the last three issues telling everyone how fabulous and infallible he is.

Anj: Superman admits to the Spectre that he has been taught a great lesson … "With Great Power Comes Great Respon" …. oops. Umm .. that is ... power for power’s sake is worthless, it must be tempered with a conscience. Thank goodness he finally learned it. After all, in this story alone Superman has battered an old friend, endangered the universe by giving a villain access to an all-powerful weapon, and tried to break into heaven and beat up an angel.

Supergirl awakens and the two cousins fly home.

Frank: Again with the anticipation. Superman cradling a Supergirl literally at death’s door. All they need now is copious amounts of blood and a sweatband.

Congratulations to Len Wein for crafting a variation on Job that makes practical sense and involves a Death Star. It’s a vast improvement, by my impious reckoning, even with the thinly veiled Yellow Peril revival a generation removed from Sax Romer and the war in the Pacific.

Anj: I have to say I liked this issue and this story a lot. This was my first experience with J'Onn and the Spectre. I thought Wein did a good job capturing just who the Spectre was at this stage of the DCU. The hallucination scenes were appropriately scary and thought provoking. And like the best comics, there is some moral at the end of the fable. The story as a whole had some longstanding impact on the DCU both then and now. And it really was a nice story of the super-cousins acting together to save the universe.

I am giving both the issue and the arc an ‘A’ grade.

Frank: This is the scale and emotional impact all team-up books and crossovers should have, but so rarely do. Nobody died, no one switched to an all-black costume, continuity wasn’t massively reworked, and yet this story is more memorable than most any Crisis to come down the pike in the thirty years since. Speaking of sense, I don’t think this story has ever been collected in the States, but the British turned it into a hardcover annual a couple of years later with a Brian Bolland cover. Imagination and heart go a long way, but it best not conflict with the latest printing of Prelude to Infinite Crisis...

Anj: This was a blast Frank. Glad we got to do this together as this story really meshed both our comic foci.


Rafa Rivas said...

I was aware that the debut of Mongul involved J'Onn and Superman, but I always thought that also involved Draaga. I had no idea that it involved Supergirl and the Spectre; I figured it was similar to the Justice League episode.

It's funny, I also thought that Warworld was a Death Star rip off. Mongul is the "Dr. Evil" of "DC supervillains".

Diabolu Frank said...

Rafa, all that stuff was Post-Crisis. Mongul was revised and Draaga debuted in an extended story arc where Superman exiled himself into space as "punishment" for executing some parallel universe Phantom Zone criminals. All animated interpretations of the character except "For The Man Who Has Everything" draw from wimpy Mongul.

One trait I noticed in the character from the early years is that he was basically a really elaborate bullying thief. He extorted the service of Superman to beat up Martian Manhunter so that he could steal the key to Warworld. Next, he killed off the queen of Throneworld and stole it and Starman's girlfriend. Then he took a Sun Eater for a joyride, and finally, he dug up the Black Mercy and stuck it on Superman. The guy never seemed to invent anything, just swipe and employ!

Anj said...

I always thought that this story and
The Man who has Everything really showed Mongul to be some mega-power, high on the ladder.

But some subsequent stories have him being defeated by the Flash and the like which just weakens him as a character.

I wonder when we'll see him in the DCnU.

Diabolu Frank said...

Mongul was one of the official DC Comics Presents villains for a while there. My favorite fight with Superman was in a Starman team-up also drawn by Jim Starlin, and then he battered the Justice League in another issue involving the Legion of Super-Heroes. The mighty fell HARD Post-Crisis.

Rafa Rivas said...

So the JLU story comes from that Post-Crisis story and just adds the Martian, possibly a nod to the fist Mongul story.

I like the tyrant-bully-thief angle. He's like Darkseid's spoiled kid. I think Moore realized this.

I never read the first Draaga story, but I never liked Mongul until For the Man who has Everything. I guess what I like is the pre-Crisis version.

Diabolu Frank said...

"For the Man who has Everything" was quite a swan song for the Bronze Age Mongul. Pete Tomasi's interpretation of the character seems solely derived from that story, which gets tiresome, because all of the Bronze Age tales are worth reading.

If you ever watched Deadwood, Darkseid is like George Hearst and Mongul is like Al Swearengen.

Anj said...

I didn't like Mongul II or Mongal in the Superman comics either.

I guess we need to wait and see what the 'new' Mongul will be.

Diabolu Frank said...

I'm fuzzy on my Mongul timeline. I think I was aware of him before "Reign of the Superman," but that was possibly my first story read. I liked some of the Post-Crisis stuff, particularly Tomasi's two-parter in one of the Showcase series. I kept waiting for him to return to being a contender of that shaky start Post-Crisis, but Neron's killing him ended that. Mongal was ridiculous, and she was dealt with rather harshly. Mongul II was okay in the Imperiex lead-ins, but again, he petered out. His run with the Sinestro Corps was a solid step forward, so hopefully someone will treat him seriously in the DCnU.

Rafa Rivas said...

You mean that Mongul is a fraction of what Darkseid is? Does that make Orion the Citizen Kane of the DCU?

Diabolu Frank said...

Darkseid is a figure evil for his lack of humanity and demands of absolute obedience from all that he encounters. His desires are so large, the details of consequences on other lives are insignificant. He's dispassionate, intellectual, and allows his countless minions to toil over his grandiose machine.

Mongul is a guy run off his planet by a religious nut. His main concern is getting it back, but he'll take the whole dang universe with it if the opportunity presents itself. He's cunning, but he's not really brilliant, and he takes things very personally. He is compelled to revenge slights, and he relishes the pain he inflicts. Mongul is a guy who gets ahold of a Sun-Eater and essentially joyrides with it instead of coming up with a more complex scheme. I suppose that makes him both Al Swearengen and Cy Tolliver.

Rafa Rivas said...

Awesome descriptions. You should use that in a post.

I think that Mongul would be more like Cy then. Al has his way of caring about certain people. Outside space-tyrants, the Ventriloquist seems to be a lot like Al, in that he hs a highly choleric temperament and seems to have a dysfunctional family thing going on with his goons (and himself). He's also all about Deadwood, haha.

Diabolu Frank said...

Ohhhh! Only an Elongated Man fan would lay down such as groaner!

One other way Mongul is more like Al is that he loves extortion and otherwise boxing people in. Cy never could seem to manage anything but the direct approach.

Rafa Rivas said...

I'm not an expert. I've only seen a handful of episodes. You're also more knowledgeable on Mongul. So you'd know better.

I said so in the sense that Mongul doesn't seem to care about anyone (as far as I know), Al does and evolved to be less of a villain while Cy remained one. Am I wrong in that sense?

Diabolu Frank said...

I was only groaning over the dead wood gag. You're spot on about Mongul seemingly lacking any positive feelings for another life form. He's all contempt and posturing superiority.

Rafa Rivas said...

Oh, yeah, I forgot about the gag. It stinks, but nobody is paying me to be funny, anyway.

It's funny, maybe they were kinda bidimensional, but anyone paying attention could still do full pschological profiles from the silver age stories. I can describe the Penguin (histrionic), the Scarecrow (paranoid sociopath), Flash (a square mamma's boy), or Ralph (a bit of an opportunist with a sanguinean-phlegmatic temperament) just like you nailed Mongul. Writers like Moore just made it obvious. I love the way he and Morrison made Zatanna's daddy issues more obvious.

Diabolu Frank said...

I've never been a big fan of Alan Moore, because I find his work too clinical, but all this thinking about Mongul lately has raised him in my esteem. Rereading "For The Man Who Has Everything," I realized that he integrated every previous personality trait of Mongul's into a whole, including his fixation on showing off new toys. Moore even made sure to disable the Cube-Trap projector so that he didn't have to bother with its repeat usage, but avoided spelling it out, so that only people familiar with the character would notice. Since Mongul steals rather than builds, I also suspect Moore's selection of characters paying tribute in the closing fantasy sequence reflects the people from whom he acquired his toys (Manhunter = Warworld, Brainiac = shrinking technology, Adam Strange = teleportation.) No wonder he gets so serious about his works! As you said, writers only have to read into what's already there, but most are too busy either slavishly recreating the stories of youth or imposing outside influences upon the characters ("let's do Battlestar: Galactica, but with Skrulls!")

Rafa Rivas said...

What do you mean by clinical?

The way he makes a scene feel way too realistic to then slip fantasic elements gets me practically aroused, haha. I also love the versatility. I was impressed with the fact that he can do comedy.

Diabolu Frank said...

A lot of time while reading Moore, I feel like he offers intellectual insights and technical skill, but no emotions. Everything feels calculated; pieces moving in a prescribed fashion. I don't connect with Moore emotionally, so my reading experience is as a detached observer. If I had to choose between Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, it'd be easy, and I'd take Born Again or Year One besides.