Book Review: An Ancient Peace

An Ancient Peace

An Ancient Peace (A Peacekeeper Novel)
Written by Tanya Huff
Published by Titan Books

I haven’t read the five-book Confederation series that follows the exploits of Marine Gunnery Sergeant Torin Kerr in a universe-spanning alien war (although I have read The Enchantment Emporium by Huff, which I enjoyed). The only problem with reading this enjoyable, well-written, captivating book is that it takes place after the events of that series, so I know what happens in those previous books and so would lose some of the tension in what must have been equally entertaining books.

In An Ancient Peace, we meet Torin and her team when they are on a freelance mission for the Justice Department, taking down a dangerous group of radicals (Human’s First – the erroneous apostrophe is the source of much derision) on a space station. Her team is made up of Werst (a male Krai ex-Marine), Ressk (a male Harask), Binti (a female human ex-Marine), Alamber (a male di’Taykan) and Craig (a male human and Kerr’s lover). I presume that this collection of characters has accreted over the course of the previous series, because they are clearly defined, three-dimensional and an interesting bunch of people.

After the successful completion of the mission, the team is called into a meeting – which turns out to be with military intelligence Chief of Staff, with a secret mission. The H’san are the eldest of the Elder Races, and were originally very violent. After a long and destructive war, they achieved enlightenment, pledged themselves to peace, founded the Confederation and turned their destroyed planet into a memorial/cemetery. Recently, H’san grave goods have been purchased by collectors; however, H’san do not sell grave goods. These items were looted, which indicates that someone is looking for the weapons buried by the H’san on that planet. If they found them, it would be evidence for Parliament that the Younger Races are not ready for civilised society and should be restricted to their own sectors of space. However, the military cannot be involved with this because if it leaks, it would lead to an investigation, and they can’t do it publicly because it would require a battle plan being filed with Parliament and all files made available to the press. The military needs deniability and a team that works freelance contracts for the Justice Department as a cover. The mission: find the H’san planet, the coordinates of which are secret, stop grave robbers from discovering terrifyingly powerful ancient weapons, and prevent a potential civil war …

Huff does a very good job of condensing the back story of the previous books, which involves Elder Races, the Confederation’s war with the Primacy, a sentient, polynumerous molecular polyhydroxide alcoholydes – hive-mind organic plastic – manipulating the Confederation and the Primacy into a centuries-long war, and the fact that Torin had seen a lot during her time in the Marines and had been pivotal in many famous events (as detailed in the previous books) and was responsible for the end of the war. This is tough to do at the best of times, let alone trying to set up a new spin-off series and making it sound natural. The ease with which she pulls it off means that you know you’re in the hands of an accomplished storyteller.

Another aspect of the book are the interesting details that Huff fills the book with regarding the various alien species and worlds she has created for the sake of her story. The di’Taykans have pheromones that work on all mammals and non-mammals more powerfully than on other di’Taykans, so they believe that this means that the universe wants them to have sex with everything (they are a tactile species who need touch as a basic part of their physiology); therefore, Parliament created maskers for the di’Taykans so that the rest of the universe would only do it by consent. Other Races include Trun, Niln, Rakva, Mictok, Ciptran, and Katrien, and Huff distinguishes each so that they stand out from each other. She does this in various ways to demonstrate the alien nature, such as in narrative/dialogue when referring to male and female Trun – Zi/Zir for he/she and his/her. There are insectoid aliens, water planets, arboreal planets, prehensile tails, hair that reflects the emotional state of the alien species, nasal ridges instead of noses, aliens who talk in a present participle tense (odd reading that first time) – these details make for a rich reading experience and a fully realised universe.

Huff is very good with characters and dialogue. In The Enchantment Emporium, she was able to use pop culture references for her humour, something she doesn’t have in this future sci-fi story; there isn’t much futurism to the dialogue, although there are occasional deliberate references to ‘oldEarth’ idioms picked up from a former platoon member, but she can still turn a line that will make me laugh out loud (“You can assume they fart rainbows, I don’t care.”) and this is a boon in a book that is definitely based around the characters. Torin Kerr is not the only interesting character, but she is the lead and deservedly so: she is a female character who can handle herself, but that is only a small aspect; she is driven, focused, detail-orientated, very capable at her job (as a Gunnery Sergeant, her task was to follow orders but also to get her marines back home again, something she maintains as an ex-Marine) but still haunted by the deaths she couldn’t prevent – she has to see a military psychiatrist as part of her continuing work with the Justice Department. She is also concerned with moral choices and the moral choices of others, which makes for conflict when she is used to acting on those decisions with guns and the authority of the military behind her. It’s easy to see why Huff has continued to write Torin’s adventures, and I hope this is the first in many Peacekeeper novels.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.
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From A Library: Mystery Society

Mystery Society

Mystery Society #1–5
Written by Steve Niles
Art by Fiona Staples

How did I not hear about this comic book before? I like to think I keep abreast of the comic-book world, and particularly for comic books that appeal to my tastes, but I completely missed this mini-series when it came out in 2010. I didn’t know anything about it until I saw a copy of the collected edition in the library, attracted by the Fiona Staples art (she is deservedly a big star thanks to her fabulous work on Saga), and now I’ve found something that I adore, even though it’s unlikely to be gracing the world with any more issues.

In an interview at CBR to promote the subsequent one-off, Niles describes the pitch for the Mystery Society: what if Nick and Norah from The Thin Man ran the X-Men? That’s a great idea on its own, but what’s better is that he’s also managed to achieve that goal in the execution of the comic book. In this case, Nick and Norah are Nick and Anastasia Mystery (they changed their name), a loving married couple – always great to see a functioning relationship in entertainment, where dysfunctional relationships or how relationships start are the norm – who won the lottery and created the Mystery Society in order to uncover the world’s paranormal secrets. He is charming, handsome (he’s drawn to look like Errol Flynn) but with heart in the right place; she is smart, beautiful, and more than capable of taking care of herself. Together, they are still madly in love with each other and with the idea of revealing the truths of the secret world. This trade paperback is essentially the ‘getting the band together’ story.

We meet Nick as he is about to start a prison sentence; he decides to tell the assembled press the story of how he came to be going to prison. It starts with his breaking out Project X2X from Area 51: actually, Sally and Nina (aka the Atomic Twin) twin black girls in their teens, kept in a suspended animation by the US military. The reason? Well, they have superpowers: telekinesis, teleportation, telepathy … Meanwhile, back at Mystery Society headquarters, Anastasia is visited by the Secret Skull – actually a young woman called Samantha who was bitten by a ghoul, so now she’s invincible, forever young and very dead (and also a character Niles created about five years previously for another comic book). Samantha wants to join the Mystery Society.

Nick has escaped with the twins and returned to headquarters, only to be framed for attacking and killing soldiers and millions of dollars of property damage. Then the brain of Jules Verne in a robot body crashes through the skylight, telling them that he wants to help. Because COMICS! The military arrive to arrest Nick, so it’s time for the Mystery Society to escape and split into teams, in classic superhero style: the Skull and Jules Verne go to find Edgar Allan Poe’s skull (it has been stolen and the Mystery Society has been asked to retrieve it), while Nick, Anastasia and the girls try to clear Nick, which unfortunately involves breaking back into Area 51 and stealing the unedited footage of what really happened …

I really liked this comic book. I liked the two main characters (although I prefer Nick without the moustache, but that’s just me) and their interplay, I like the concept, I like the scope for unlimited stories, I like the art, I like the humour, I like it all. I haven’t read much by Niles because I’m not a huge horror fan, so this was a pleasant surprise – the snappy banter, the playfulness, the diversity of the group. The only sad thing is that not enough people liked it so there won’t be any more. Part of the appeal is in the Staples art, which is great: her soft yet angular anatomies and faces are a delight, she draws great action but also does a wonderful job of the facial reaction in the comedy (there’s a lovely panel of Anastasia and the twins sharing a telepathy joke that is all in the faces). It’s not as polished as her Saga work, but that’s not a problem. Interestingly, Niles relates in the CBR interview mentioned above that when he found out IDW weren’t going to continue the book, he got a call from Brian K Vaughan looking for an artist and he recommended Staples because she wouldn’t be drawing any more Mystery Society, and a new superstar artist was born.

Mystery Society is fun, sexy, spooky and charming – Niles and Staples have created a great little book that should have been bigger. I’m sorry I didn’t get to see it sooner and try to help it out.

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Comic Book Review – Heroes: Vengeance #1

Heroes: Vengeance #1

Written by Seamus Kevin Fahey and Zach Craley
Art by Rubine
Letterer Jim Campbell
Published by Titan Comics

This is an unusual comic book in that it’s not the start of a mini-series – the cover calls it a ‘prelude’ to the new TV series, Heroes Reborn; the accompanying text for the preview copy talks about it ‘revealing secrets about key characters in the show’; the inside front cover explicitly states the identity of the central character: Oscar Gutierrez, a mechanic who lives in downtown LA troubled by gangsters, is secretly El Vengador. This issue, despite reading as if there is some mystery as to the identity of the character, doesn’t have mystery because everything is explained; instead, it aims to be a combination of back story and current story.

We first see El Vengador coming to the aid of a young man being attacked by four members of a local gang. El Vengador is dressed in a Mexican wrestling mask but with a more military-styled version of the full-body suit of a wrestler. One full-page spread of him jumping from a rooftop transitions to the same pose of a Mexican wrestler (with the same mask) jumping in a wrestling ring in 1994 East LA. A younger Oscar and his little brother Carlos are watching the original El Vengador; Carlos still believes in the truth of the wrestling bouts but Oscar doesn’t. We see several panels of the two fights paralleling each other down the page before returning fully to the present day to see our super-powered El Vengador take down the gang members with efficiency, speed and strength (there’s a nice panel of a face being punched, a look of shocked pain on the face of the gang member as his teeth fly out his mouth). El Vengador tells the intended victim to leave town; the victim wants more help, but El Vengador doesn’t want to give him any more help – he wants to leave before the police arrive. He persuades the man to leave town before going back home to his wife and son.

This doesn’t feel like a complete story, even though it tries to provide a sense of a complete narrative with the modern-day action and the flashbacks. There is an inner monologue that accompanies much of the book, questioning what it is to be a hero and why a hero is needed, but it seems dry and plodding on the page (Fahey is a producer on the television programme and Craley is a writer of Heroes comic books, but it seems as if it might have worked better as an actual voice-over). The flashbacks to Oscar’s youth are supposed to inform his character, but you don’t get a real sense of who Oscar is as a person – he beats up bad guys and he’s a husband/father/brother, but nothing much else. I guess that because each issue will concentrate on a single character, the issue isn’t about creating a narrative tension that will require the reader to return for more – the point is that the issues will provide more details, but it doesn’t make for a satisfying first issue.

The two timeframes are delineated by a difference in art styles – Rubine uses a softer, cleaner line to draw the 1994 scenes, which is looser and warmer, suggesting the rose-tinted view of the past and youth; the modern scenes are drawn in a tighter, harsher photo-realistic style that is grittier and more in keeping with the tone and appropriate for a vigilante fighting in alleyways. Rubine’s art is good, although I prefer the sharper, darker art of the present-day pages (I was reminded of Alex Maleev and Tony Harris in places, which is a compliment), and he manages a consistent facial likeness in what presumably must be in keeping with the actor playing the part of El Vengador, although I haven’t seen any of the new series to be able to tell, a talent that is hard for some artists to pull off in other comic books.

This comic book works fine as a backgrounder on a character the audience already knows, but doesn’t succeed as a complete comic book in its own right. If you are a fan of Heroes Reborn and want to know more, you will probably get more out of it than I did.

Disclosure: this book was provided as a PDF for review purposes.
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Comic Book Review – Assassin’s Creed: Trial By Fire #1

Assassin's Creed: Trial By Fire #1

Written by Anthony Del Col & Conor McCreery
Art by Neil Edwards
Letters by Richard Starkings and Comicraft’s Jimmy Betancourt
Colours by Ivan Nunes
Edited by Lizzie Kaye
Published by Titan Comics

1852. Great Basin Desert. California Gold Rush. A young woman in cowboy gear attacks a stagecoach to reclaim gold for the Maidu people who mined it. But this isn’t the genetic memories of a past life, as would be expected if you know anything about Assassin’s Creed – it’s a computer game, played on a virtual reality set by Charlotte de la Cruz, who prefers playing as the Brotherhood instead of the Templars because has an affinity for the Robin Hood vibe. She’s in San Diego for a job interview with World Share, some sort of global financial company, but she walks out when she can tell that the interviewer prefers a nepotistic solution to the job vacancy. She channels her anger into performing a bit of Robin Hood-style money transaction at the bank where she works, to help out a poor old lady in need, so it comes as something of a surprise to find two people, claiming to be from the Brotherhood, in her apartment. Not as much as surprise as when people crash through her door and try to kill her – the Brotherhood save her from these Templars and take her to their hideout. They inform her that the Helix System, the game she was playing and which was created by Abstergo, the world’s largest conglomerate, who sell it cheap so they can harvest all the data – sound familiar? – was a testing system, using actual memories instead of stories in the game, to find people with ancestral connections. The Brotherhood need Charlotte to access the memories of her ancestor from 1692, in Salem during the witch trials – a white man who doesn’t seem to have the same values as Charlotte, which she discovers rather nastily as she is violently de-synched from the Animus, the machine that allows the access of a person’s genetic past. However, this doesn’t hint at how dangerous it is for someone to try to change the history of an ancestor …

I really enjoyed Kill Shakespeare, the comic by Del Col and McCreery that made their name, and I’ve read a few Assassin’s Creed comics, but it was still a surprise at how much I enjoyed this comic. They have created a very intriguing protagonist in the form of Charlotte, a capable and intelligent woman who can let her passions get the better of her but who has a sense of right and wrong. The premise allows for a conflict for the character in the current political and financial climate, and I hope this aspect continues to thread its way through the rest of the series, and to see the development of Charlotte, who is a truly well-rounded character.

As well as the writing, the art deserves praise – Edwards conveys three separate timeframes with aplomb and draws realistic human beings in the modern world as well as the past. He manages to hold attention in scene-setting panels as well as the more flashy dynamic pages – the fact that the word ‘Assassin’ is in the title should be a suggestion that there will be violence, and there is some visceral action (I’ve still got the image of a throwing knife protruding from the front of an assailant’s skull in my memory, but in a good way). His artwork has come on a lot since I first saw it over five years ago (and didn’t think much of it), and I’m glad it was in the service of a well-written comic. Del Col and McCreery have crafted a very good first issue: it sold the premise, introduced a great new character, and I want to see how this tale continues. Recommended.

Disclosure: this book was provided as a PDF for review purposes.

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Comic Book Review – Doctor Who: Eleventh Doctor #2.1

Eleventh Doctor #2.1

Written by Si Spurrier and Rob Williams
Art by Simon Fraser
Colours by Gary Caldwell
Published by Titan Comics

The Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) is travelling with a new companion, Alice Obiefune, a library assistant from Hackney. We first see them trapped in large tubes that are timeless pocket dimensions, at the hands of the Overcast, who have found the Doctor guilty in absentia of the crime of the systematic annihilation of fifty generations of their people. The Doctor escapes, obviously, but they are chased by The Malignant – they are a curse, supposedly created by the Doctor 1,200 years ago, when he meddled (as the War Doctor) with the benefactor-race of the Overcast, The Cyclors, somehow turning them into The Malignant. The Doctor and Alice are rescued by The Squire, an old woman in armour who knew and travelled with the War Doctor, only to be chased by a dangerous bounty hunter called The Then And The Now. They think that entering the Tardis will save them, but there is a worse mercenary waiting for them inside …

This reads like the modern Doctor Who television show in comic-book form – we are thrown into the middle of the action, danger after danger is piled onto our protagonists, running along corridors (as commentated upon by the Doctor), lots of snappy dialogue and funny lines (‘It’s just a bow tie.’) and connecting threads of the various incarnations of the Doctor (there is a nice visual of several different Doctors caused by an attack by The Then And The Now). Spurrier and Williams seem to work well as a writing team, creating a fast-paced adventure that feels a seamless blend of the two writers and that entertains. The idea of a subsequent Doctor being held to account for the actions of the War Doctor is a solid premise for a comic book, and it keeps the tone of the new Doctor Who of examining different aspects of the same character in different settings.

On the art front, Fraser has a style that is perfect for the tone – he does enough to ensure that you know it’s the Doctor without having to be tied down to likenesses, his artwork is a pleasant mix of cartoony and realistic so that there can be images of the Time War and the serious threats but still not jar when humour is present in the facial expressions, and he has a nice sense of design for the alien worlds plus a handy eye for action, so that panels swoosh and hum past in an enjoyable blur of frenetic motion, again in keeping with the current version of Doctor Who. It’s an enjoyable tale with a nice twist end (a treat for long-time fans of the Doctor Who comic books) that sets things up nicely for the next issue. This issue may come after a multi-Doctor event, but you don’t need to have read it to follow this book – I hadn’t read the previous story, and I enjoyed it just fine.

Disclosure: this book was provided as a PDF for review purposes.

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Comic Book Review: Bloodthirsty #1

Bloodthirsty #1

Written by Mark Landry
Art by Ashley Witter
Published by Titan Comics

Prelude: New Orleans, September 2005, a few days after Hurricane Katrina – 80% of the city under 20 feet of water, five days with no help, two thousand dead. Virgil LaFleur is a rescuer with the Coast Guard, helping to save many people but unable to save his own parents; when he tries to save his mother, he nearly drowns, but not before seeing under the water many corpses with their throats slit.

Ten years later, Virgil has kept his promise to his dying mother to look after his brother Trey, although Virgil was kicked out of the Coast Guard. Trey is now a doctor after Virgil put him through college; the only problem is that Virgil works for Simon Wolfinger’s biomed company – Wolfinger bought up a lot of land in New Orleans after Katrina to bolster his corporate empire, something that angers Virgil, as well as the insurers who refused to pay out after Katrina, citing ‘wind damage’ instead of flood damage. Virgil is ready to leave New Orleans, so meets his brother to say goodbye. The next day, he receives a visit from the cop who didn’t believe his story about the corpses under the water – Trey was killed in a gas explosion at the Wolfinger laboratories. After visiting the morgue to see the body, Virgil discovers a key in the locket he gave his brother that has been returned to him; he also returns home to find a man in a balaclava has killed his dog and is robbing his house. He chases after the man but gets knifed for his trouble. In the hospital, he gets a phone call telling him to deliver the package at midnight – Virgil is in the midst of something more complex, and he’s looking for revenge against the murderer of his brother …

This comic is a promising start to the story: it is rooted in the real world and has a strong protagonist with the necessary demons to drive him. There is perhaps enough distance from the real events to use Katrina as a backdrop to a revenger thriller, although Landry doesn’t demean what happened for the sake of a story, taking it as a very serious aspect of the narrative and using the ugly and greedy actions of men after the event as fuel for the righteous anger. However, the antagonist for the story seems rather out of place in the grounded reality that Landry and Witter create for the comic – it seems to be a cross-dressing, overweight brothel owner, who slits the throats of homeless people and drinks their blood. I know that there is a carnival approach to New Orleans, but it jars against the tone portrayed in the rest of the book, which is clearly set in the real world and dealing with real-world issues. This is something that might work better after a few more issues have allowed the creative team to cement the tone of the comic book and find the balance, which will see the creation of a ‘home-grown hero’ for New Orleans, according to Landry.

Landry is a screenwriter, so he knows about setting and dialogue and characters, which comes across in the book and it never feels too much like a script adapted to a comic book. I’ve never seen Witter’s art before, but she does a good job of keeping the comic book realistic and flowing, and her artistic illustrations are an intriguing match for the tone of the book – she is someone to look out for in the future.

Bloodthirsty #1 is a solid comic book debut – it uses its 48 pages to introduce the characters, the setting and the premise, and create enough intrigue to bring the reader back for more.

Disclosure: a PDF copy of this book was provided for review purposes.
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Book Review – Harry Potter: The Character Vault

Harry Potter: The Character Vault

Written by Jody Revenson
Published by Titan Books
RRP £24.99

If you’re a fan of Harry Potter, there is no such thing as enough information about the world of Harry Potter. This book is made with love and care for fans of JK Rowling’s creation, and it is a treasure trove of beautiful photographs, concept art and lovely details from behind the scenes that infuse appreciation for the amount of hard work that went into the making of the films. You need to have this handsome book on your shelves if you are into Harry Potter (which includes me, as can be evidenced by the Harry Potter tag on this blog).

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Writer Top Five: John Ostrander

Suicide Squad #1

This collection of ‘Writer Top Five’ posts is about the writers who have the most comics in my collection and my favourite books of theirs. John Ostrander has written a lot of comic books, but I don’t have all of them by any stretch: it’s down to a few runs on a small selection of comic books that earn him a place on the list.

Ostrander studied theology and was an actor, but started writing comic books in 1983, co-creating Grimjack for First Comics with Timothy Truman. (I have to confess: I’ve never read any Grimjack, despite being an Ostrander fan.) He would start working at DC in 1986, plotting the Legend mini-series and writing Fury of Firestorm. But it would be the series he started writing in 1987 that would put Ostrander on the map and leave his mark on comic book history – Suicide Squad was a reboot of a short-lived title from The Brave and The Bold from 1959, but this new series was something else, and is the reason why there will be a Suicide Squad film next year.

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From A Library: Harry 20 On The High Rock

Harry 20 on the High Rock

Written by Gerry Finley Day
Art by Alan Davis
(instalments from 2000 AD progs 287–307)

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of the art of Alan Davis on this blog, so this book is an interesting collection of his early art, from back in 1982–1983. There is a particularly fascinating introduction by Davis himself, explaining it all: meeting 2000 AD editor Richard Burton in 1982, while Davis still had a regular day job in a factory and a small amount of experience on Captain Britain and Marvelman, so this was an opportunity for Davis to go full time. However, the job wasn’t one of the big strips, but as the role of back-up artist on new strip, Harry 20 On The High Rock. All 21 episodes had already been written (Finley-Day had written full script but it had been reworked by somebody else), so Davis was assigned to draw episodes 3 and 4 but without seeing the finished art for episodes 1 and 2. Davis then talks about the problem with the design of the space prison and the problems with issues of the vacuum of space and trying to escape. However, it turned out that the original artist hadn’t done the first two episodes – delayed due to another job – so Davis had to do the first two episodes urgently with a launch date for the title that couldn’t be changed. He turned it around in a week and was then offered the job of the whole series because the original artist dropped out; Davis said yes, even though his regular commitment to Captain Britain and Marvelman meant he would have to draw 40 pages a month for 5 months. He didn’t know how insane a prospect that was, with only 18 months of part-time experience, so he readily admits that it was hard work and a steep learning curve.

It’s apparent that the artwork is early Davis and that is has been rushed in places – it’s not as polished and competent as what we think of as Davis’s style – but the basics are still evident at this point. His natural gift for storytelling is apparent, all his characters looks individual and easily recognisable, the action is dynamic and well choreographed, the camera angles and point of view in dialogue scenes keep the panels flowing without loss of clarity, and there is a strong sense of the cramped quality of a packed space prison. It’s the artwork of a talented artist in the early phase of his career.

I suppose I should mention something of the story: it’s 2060; 100 miles above earth, the High Rock is the top-security satellite prison, packed to capacity with 10,000 vicious criminals, to which Harry Thompson is sentenced to 20 years for supplying food to the people of the Equatorial Zone (this isn’t a crime but his punishment is to make a point). The High Rock is ran by Warden Worldwise, an eyepatch-wearing villain of a character, and controlled by his vicious guards; it is a hard and brutal, with Harry vowing to escape, helped by his cell mates (Genghis Eighteen and Ben Ninety – the surname refers to the length of their sentence), while trying to avoid the violent guards and the hardened criminals, with some extra twists thrown in for good measure. It’s a classic 2000 AD concept: take a staple genre (the prison-escape film) and add a sci-fi twist. It’s well done, but for me it’s the art that stands out – seeing Davis on a non-superhero title, adding some grit to his style.

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From A Library: Forever Evil

Forever Evil

Forever Evil #1–7
Written by Geoff Johns
Art by David Finch

My reading of collected editions written by Geoff Johns continues. This one was of interest because it was the first company-wide crossover event of the DC New 52, running during the end of 2013 and the first half of 2014, so there was an almost historical aspect to the book. There is nothing new or different in the approach to the crossover, but a new universe to play with allows for different opportunities.

The story starts with Lex Luthor threatening Thomas Kord in a helicopter, because Luthor is an evil businessman and Johns has to show this. While Luthor is doing this, the electricity goes out over Metropolis and all screens that have power bear the message, ‘This world is ours’. At the same time, while outside Arkham Asylum, Nightwing is taken down and captured by a group of characters. An almost identical-looking Superman breaks into Luthor Towers, steals the kryptonite hidden within, and snorts it like a drug – the Crime Syndicate, the evil version of the Justice League from Earth 3, has taken Earth.

Ultraman, Owlman, Superwoman, Power Ring, Deathstorm, Johnny Quick, Atomica – in a live relay to the whole world, they claim to have killed the Justice League, taken the Watchtower and called together all the supervillains to pledge allegiance to this new world order. They reveal Nightwing as Richard Grayson, telling the assembled villains that they know the names and locations of his associates, and that they will destroy them. Then Ultraman moves the moon in front of the sun to stop the sting of ultraviolet sunlight. Grid (the Crime Syndicate version of Vic Stone) controls computers and their version of Alfred looks after a prisoner from their dimension.

Luthor realises that this is a job for Superman, so brings out his own version: subject B-Zero, a clone from a single cell of Kryptonian blood (who quickly acquires the name of Bizarro). He also dons a protective armour suit he’s had built using 38 companies he bought specifically for that reason. Meanwhile, in STAR Labs, Batman and Catwoman break in – they need the help of Dr Stone to fix this Earth’s Vic Stone; we discover that Superman has a sliver of kryptonite in his brain, incapacitating him, and Deathstorm has opened up Firestorm’s matrix, which pulled all the other heroes inside it; they are gone.

Over at the villain gathering, things don’t go smoothly: Ultraman crushes Black Adam’s mouth so he can’t say his magic word, and the Rogues refuse to join the Crime Syndicate, barely escaping with their lives but ending up stuck in a mirror, with the exception of a depowered Captain Cold. Black Manta retrieves Black Adam from the sea where Ultraman left him – and all these people by sheer bloody luck happen to meet CONVENIENTLY at the same time with Luthor and B-Zero; what are the chances of that happening? (As my dad would say, when we would watch films as a family and complain about the ludicrous narrative conveniences that occurred, the reason it happened is because the plot said so, now shut up and watch the film.) This band of (bad) brothers go to Wayne Enterprises but Batman is there, closely followed by Power Ring; Batman puts on a yellow power ring he happens to have, but it doesn’t work well for him, but then Sinestro appears out of nowhere, takes the yellow ring and kills Power Ring. We now have the team that will fight back against the Crime Syndicate: Luthor, Bizarro, Black Adam, Black Manta, Captain Cold, Sinestro, Deathstroke (who was there to kill them but is offered a better deal by Luthor) plus Batman and Catwoman.

This story is ‘Luthor as hero wins out due to his being smarter’, which is an unusual premise to take (if symbolically connected to the old DC universe, where the Earth 3 Luthor was the only hero on that world), but it treads a fine line with being an unpleasant read because he is still a nasty, evil individual who takes advantage of people and kills them if necessary. I understand the inherent drama in putting a villainous character into a heroic role, but it doesn’t make it enjoyable if you don’t like Luthor. I’ve never liked the Luthor character, so it meant that I was reading a book with a protagonist I don’t want to read about, and it’s not as if he has a redemptive arc (the most we get is him being slightly less corporate towards Thomas Kord’s son, a certain Ted Kord …) – Luthor is still a disagreeable and obnoxious human being at the end, who wins the day, gains secret information and gets to be excessively smug because he saves Superman’s life. The New 52 universe is certainly not the old DC universe, and although I enjoyed some aspects of this book, I’m glad I don’t read many DC books now.

The other aspect to discuss in a comic book is the art, but there’s not much more to say about Finch’s style: it’s suitably dark and moody and muscular, perfect for a story where the bad guys beat the even worse guys, with everything in shadow (literally and metaphorically), but he doesn’t seemed to have developed much in the years since I first saw (and enjoyed) his work, and there is a certain same-i-ness to his characters in anatomy and facial structure that means that other identifiers are needed to distinguish them. It’s not bad – Finch knows how to construct a good panel and a good page, and there is never confusion in the storytelling – but I would have preferred some advancement in his abilities.

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