Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Superman: Red Son Review

Superman: Red Son

No "in Soviet Russia" jokes... I promise.
Writer: Mark Millar

Artists: Dave Johnson, Killian Plunkett, Andrew Robinson

Collects: Superman: Red Son #1-3

Background Information:

This is usually where I write what you need to know before coming into the book. This time, I want to talk about the perspective I took to reading Red Son, and how my experiences prepared me to read this collection.

I lived about two years in the Baltic nations; the countries of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania- all formerly under control of the Soviet Union. I met people who had very mixed views of the communist era. Coming from a largely capitalist culture, I went to the Baltics thinking that all of the locals would view soviet occupation the same way I do; a terrible regime that destroyed lives for the sake of the state. And to be fair, plenty did. I heard the stories of brainwashing in ways that some erroneously only associate with religion and saw the graves of those killed by the KGB. I also met plenty- some not much older than I- who looked back on the communist era with a sort of fondness- a time when things were simpler. It was surprising to me that people who experienced the exact same government could emerge with such dramatically different views on it.


And it’s that experience that really coloured my perception of Red Son; more than just a great superhero story, Red Son is a great look at the shades of grey that surrounded both the USSR and the USA during the cold war. It’s also, surprisingly, one of the books that seems to get Superman better than anything else I’ve read.

He's Russian to help people out... hyuk, hyuk, hyuk!
This story takes one thing central to Superman and turns it on its head; namely, Superman’s American heritage. Here, Superman was raised on a farm collective in the Ukraine. Growing up as a communist, Superman spends years working for Stalin before taking over as the new president of the USSR. The role sees him make some pretty disturbing decisions, such as reprogramming rebels into “robots” and ruling with a more or less iron fist.

Writer Mark Millar is also known for writing Marvel’s Civil War, which also dealt with themes of moral ambiguity. Throughout Civil War, it was kinda hard to tell who the good guys and who the bad guys were. Millar amps that up in Red Son. Sure, Superman has his enemy in Lex Luthor, but it’s near impossible to say who you would support. They both come across as people with heroic intentions, but the means by which they achieve these intentions are often so disturbing. It’s a pretty amazing understanding of how the USA and USSR conducted itself- sure, America was right to reject a system that treated its own people more poorly than ever, but did that justify McCarthyism? At the same time, yes, Luthor is right to fight a Superman who effectively brainwashes his enemies, but the extents to which he goes to do so are hard to accept.

Superman fans who constantly get annoyed by Batman fans when they refer to The Dark Knight Rises as proof why Batman would always beat Superman need look no further than Red Son. This is not the best part of the book, by far (that award goes to the way that Luthor eventually stops Superman- but I shan’t spoil that), but it’s worth mention that even with prep time, Batman is not guaranteed a victory. Red sun lamps, ultimately, aren’t enough to keep Superman down when there are plenty of people around who would leap to help the Man of Steel- as shown in the middle chapter of this collection.

The best thing about this collection, though, is that Millar shows that he understands what Superman is meant to be. It’s ironic that in the last decade, the book to be the most representative of what it means to be Superman is one where Superman is the opposite of what he normally is. Even without the mark of ‘murica, Millar seems to fully understand Superman’s greatest struggles; his otherness to people that he considers his own, his constraining ties to his adopted nation, his compulsion to save everyone even though he can’t- and possibly shouldn’t. These are all things that I feel make an excellent Superman story- it’s the overcoming of these obstacles that inspires hope; not fights against Zod or flying so fast that you turn back time.

He's a powerful man, and that's Putin
it lightly. Missing those "In Soviet
Russia..." jokes yet?
There’s a separate artist for each issue of Red Son. Normally, that would be a bad thing, but here, it looks great- a clear indicator that each issue is a different stage of Superman’s life. What’s more, each issue makes Russia look like Russia- the architecture (not just the Kremlin) and character costumes (which thankfully don’t limit themselves to furry hats and headscalves) look very soviet. Even Batman’s equipment looks very soviet-era; less about form, more about function. Then there are the small things (the eagle design on Wonder Womans chest, for example, that resembles the two-headed bird of the Russian coat of arms) that help to solidify that you aren’t just seeing these characters visit a different location; these are Russian heroes in every sense of the word.

There’s really nothing bad I can say about Red Son which is why it gets a perfect five out of five marks of ‘murica.


+ Amazing job of moral ambiguity.

+ Understands Superman better than any other book from the last ten years.

+ Superman beats Batman

+ Art gives that real “soviet” feel

Alternate Option: All-Star Superman

It’s still the second-best Superman that I’ve read, but nowhere near the worst.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Fantastic Four Vol. 1: New Departure, New Arrivals (Marvel NOW!) Review

Fantastic Four Vol. 1: New Departure, New Arrivals (Marvel NOW!)

There's a lot of confidence in that caption
up the top.
Writer: Matt Fraction

Artists: Mark Bagley and Micheal Allred

Collects: Fantastic Four #1-3 and FF #1-3

Background Information:

I don’t think there was a single comic more significant to Marvel’s history than Fantastic Four. They’ve been called Marvel’s First Family for a reason after all, and they were, to my knowledge, Stan Lee’s big debut to comics.

In terms of their history, Reed Richards, his buddy Ben Grimm, his love interest Susan Storm and his love interest’s brother Johnny were on a space adventure when hit by a strange power source- it did crazy things to the molecules in their bodies giving them each a very distinctive power. Now Reed is Mr Fantastic, able to stretch his… everything, Susan, now married to Reed, can turn invisible and create forcefields as the Invisible Woman, Ben, the Thing is a walking, talking, clobberin’ rock and Johnny calls himself The Human Torch when he lights himself on fire.

Oh, and side note- their book’s officially cancelled.


Hey, look; it's She Hulk, Medusa, and people who have an
uncertain future in film!
Let’s face it; comics are generally a very fighty medium. The high point of each issue is usually when characters are hitting each other. It speaks a lot about our modern culture, I think, that we often fail to envision adventure without violence or tension without fighting.

Yet that is exactly what New Departure, New Arrival does, and even though this is by no means a great book, it’s more than a little bit fun to read.

Even though this collection contains issues from two different series, FF and Fantastic Four, both written by Matt Fraction (who wrote the awesome Hawkeye: My Life as a Weapon and the comparatively underwhelming sequel Little Hits), there’s still a single, coherent story that runs throughout. Reed Richards is dying, the power source that gave him his abilities is finally back to get him and now Reed has no idea how much longer he has to live. Instead of telling anyone about it, he takes the entire Fantastic Four and his two children for what’s billed as a “holiday” in the unknown universes. While they gone, they get other heroes (Ant-Man, She Hulk, Medusa and Johnny’s girlfriend, Darla) to watch over earth for them. Sure, Reed only thinks he’ll be gone for four minutes, but just in case, right?

The only real, this-bothers-me problem is the assumption that earth in the Marvel universe needs to be “watched over” because the Fantastic Four aren’t there. I mean, their home of New York has the Avengers, multiple teams of Avengers; what do they need the Fantastic Four for, exactly? It’s an error that, for me, makes the whole story less credible.

Be that as it may, though, New Departure, New Arrivals does plenty right. For starters, it’s a surprisingly fun book. I can’t remember reading a title that was this light-hearted. Not just in the sense that there’s the occasional joke, but everything is just plain light. There is literally no darkness here. It’s refreshing to see this kind of storytelling, and it’s helped by the fact that there’s very little violence in the whole collection. The Fantastic Four’s journey features no central villain, and really focuses on the escape from a monster rather than killing one. It makes this collection one of those ones that you have no problem showing to the kids.

This is as much stabbing as you're going to see in this book.
That said, the Fantastic Four portions of this collection really get outshined by the FF issues. Fraction is at his best as a writer when writing these issues that actually mirror the feel of his work on Hawkeye, and the art by Allred is so much more distinctive than Bagley’s, which feels too much like it’s playing by Stuart Immomnen’s rules.

New Departures, New Arrivals isn’t going to make you fall head-over-heels in love with the Fantastic Four, but it’s a fair title and recommended for readers who want to get a feel for the first family. It gets a three out of five Avengers who apparently aren’t watching over earth.

+ Actually fun.

+ Accomplishes Excitement without villains.

- One major plot hole.

- FF chapters outshine Fantastic Four ones.

Alternate Option: Hawkeye: My Life as a Weapon

Fraction’s best writing to date. Read this.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Green Lantern Corps Vol. 1: Fearsome

Green Lantern Corps Vol. 1: Fearsome
Featuring Guy Gardner pooping!

Writer: Peter J Tomasi

Artists: Fernando Pasarin and Scott Hanna

Collects: Green Lantern Corps #1-7

Background Information:

New readers need to be aware of two things, really.

Firstly, there is more than just one Green Lantern out there, even when you just restrict yourself to human ones. Alongside showrunner Hal Jordan are youngster Kyle Rayner, and the second and third GLs Guy Gardner and John Stewart. The latter two are the focuses of this book.

Secondly, even though DC claimed to reboot everything with the New 52, the Green Lantern franchise was really overlooked in the process. It picked up right where the old DCU left off, so don’t expect this series to be new reader friendly in the sense that it offers origins for these characters.


I’ve gotta admit, I hate Guy Gardner. The dude’s a little full of himself and I don’t see it being deserved. I also don’t really like John Stewart. I know, he was in the Justice League cartoon and IGN keep pushing for him to be the DC cinematic universe’s new GL because Hal Jordan is “tarnished” by a bad movie, but I haven’t ever been particularly interested in the guy.

So it’s significant that a book staring my two least favourite lanterns ended up so entertaining. I still prefer Hal and Kyle, and this collection is far from perfect, but it’s a pleasant surprise.

I hope you like green, you'll see a lot of it.
So Guy and John, after failing to fit into normal society, are called to investigate an alien threat obsessed with stealing natural resources, killing GLs and ultimately getting revenge on the Guardians. There’s more to it than that, but I like my reviews to be as spoiler-free as possible.

First thing I have to say about this book is that it’s green. I mean, it’s really, really, REALLY green. That shouldn’t come as a surprised, I mean, it’s a Green Lantern book, but the core Green Lantern title was at least able to tone it down a little bit. Aside from that, the art is serviceable, but not great. I’m not a fan of the way the artist in this volume draws human faces, it comes across as grotesque, and characters that are meant to look angry look violently constipated instead.

Art aside, though, there’s plenty to enjoy in the story. Writer Peter J. Tomasi delves pretty deep into GL mythology to give us a side to the Guardians’ history that I, for one, never really considered. I won’t ruin it, as it’s probably the best part of the book, but it’s one you’ll definitely want to know more about.

By far, the best part about Fearsome, though, is that it makes me respect Guy Gardner. He’s still not my favourite Lantern, but at least I don’t find him as annoying any more. We get to see some real resourcefulness in Gardner’s character, and his habit of breaking rules and his cocky attitude is more charming here than it was in Green Lantern: Rebirth. I’m glad that Tomasi was able to do this for Guy, even though John is left somewhat on the wayside for this volume (thankfully, it looks like he’ll get some more spotlight in Volume 2).

The gangs all here.
My real problem with Fearsome, though, is that I’m not really sure that it knows what it is. The book starts as a buddy-cop story and would have worked great as such. Not far in, however, it becomes a war story- centred around Guy and John taking platoons on special operations behind enemy lines (at one point, even with machine guns). The book then changes again into a character drama. None of these styles are bad on their own, but you just end up wanting Tomasi to pick one style and stick with it.

Overall, though, there’s no reason new readers can’t enjoy in Fearsome. It gets a three and a half out of five constipated faces.

*** ½

+ Adds to mythology.

+ Makes you like Guy Gardner.

- Art is average.

- Book doesn’t quite know what it is.

Alternate Option: Green Lantern: Sinestro
If you read one Green Lantern book, you suddenly find yourself having to read them all. Proceed with caution, but they're all a blast to read.