Thursday, 21 February 2013

Justice League of America #1

After months of waiting, the much anticipated Justice League of America by Geoff Johns and David Finch has finally arrived. Bringing with it a colorful cast of characters, as well as 52 different variant covers, this will technically be the 4th title with the Justice League moniker, after the regular Justice League (also by Johns), Justice League International (now cancelled), and Justice League Dark (ironically the only good Justice League book until now).

Now I, personally, was not particularly hyped for this book. Why? Well, several reasons. First, as much as I like Johns's work, his Justice League has, for the first 14 issues, been mediocre, and other than the entertaining Shazam backup have been a waste of money and talent. Second, the cast of JLA isn't all that interesting to me. Martian Manhunter and Hawkman are cool, I guess, and Simon Baz isn't a terrible character, but why is Katana there? Why Catwoman? Who the hell is Vibe? Why is Johns forcing his 'favorite character', Stargirl, into a politically charged book like this?

Luckily, this book delivers, to put it simply. I'm not sure if it has lived up to the hype for a lot of people, because it takes a rather different approach than what one might have expected after reading Johns's Justice League by Michael Bay, but the approach works. Instead of bombarding readers with a slew of rushed introductions and then forcing some random action sequence, the entire book is actually one long conversation between Amanda Waller (or as I like to call her, Amanda Fencer. Cause she's more of a fence than a wall now) and Steve Trevor, who for some reason has still not gotten over the fact that the daughter of Zeus has turned him down in favor of Superman. In fact, there's quite a few references to his past relationship with Diana, and it often feels forced. Johns realizes that there's more to Steve than just Wonder Woman, right? Because I swear he was more interesting in that one issue of Legion Lost, which is actually saying a lot...

Hawkman's a badass, something I didn't think was possible after Liefeld's run...
Anyway, that's one of the few complaints I had. The other one is the art. While Finch's work is pretty good, for the most part, some of the character contortions leave something to be desired. Overall, however, the art is top notch. Finch does have a tendency to use dark colors and juxtapose with heavy black lines, but the entire spectrum is easily distinguished in every relevant panel, and you'll never have any trouble telling who's who. Shadows are expressed as big, bold black lines, but unlike a lot of artists who fall into this particular pitfall, Finch never seems to have trouble locating his light source, and the result is a consistent, realistic lighting, even if it is a bit dark. Coupled with his impeccable attention to detail, the artwork is, in my opinion, some of the best 'grounded' work I've recently seen from DC. Also, I'm not sure if Amanda's gotten a new hairstyle, since I haven't been following Suicide Squad for a while, but I'm not a fan of the way he draws her. With that said, it could very well be an editorial decision, so I'll let it slide.

The art, in its austerity and seriousness of tone, fits perfectly with the story. As I said earlier, this isn't some big, dumb action book, which Justice League has unfortunately been for a large part. From the get go, Johns builds intrigue, introducing both Ivo and another, mysterious villain. Interspersed with the dialogue and flashbacks are scenes of a black garbed, masked individual running for dear life, which adds a sense of tension and buildup to the otherwise steady-paced story. The story itself is rather simple; Amanda Waller is the control freak who wants to build her own Justice League, in case the regular ones goes bad, and Steve, being the hardened, rebellious soldier, is against it. Waller spends the large part introducing the team and convincing Trevor of their place.

Stargirl discovers Satanism
The roster is, for the most part, explained rather well. All of the heroes are given motivations as well as uses. I wish Stargirl was embellished on a bit more; my main experience with her is, believe it or not, from Smallville, and from the few JLU episodes she was in. They do a decent job of telling you who she is, but you don't really get a sense of her characterization, and Johns also pushes in some strange mystery behind her, which I thought was a bit unnecessary and overwhelming. Her role and motivation are also not too clear; all I got was that she's great with the public, something Waller has been pushing, and that her Cosmic Staff thingamajig is pretty damn powerful. Also, she has braces. Even I admit that that's adorable.

Catwoman is given a lot of attention, which is to be expected. I still don't really get why she joined (maybe I'm missing something because I haven't caught up with the current Catwoman run), but her role makes sense. Martian Manhunter and Baz are the typical powerhouses and kinda skimped over, which is fine, since we've already well acquainted with them. The others are given okay motivations and roles, and I still question parts of the lineup, but overall I came out more impressed with this issue than I had expected. The approach worked, and the characterization was, for the most part, top notch. It's true, nothing really happened, but I expect the series to start taking off in the next issue. I think the build-up was necessary, not only to introduce the characters but also introduce what exactly the book was about. Its clear from the get-go that this isn't your regular superhero team-up book. There's a patriotic/political aspect to it that's far more intriguing than anything the New 52 Justice League International could cook up, and all this talk about the 'Secret Society' being rebuilt has definitely got me hooked. There's also the whole deal with the regular Justice League, and there's some foreshadowing that the JLA might need to take them down. The rudimentary match-ups are certainly interesting.

Good luck Katana
Overall, I was quite impressed with this issue. I'm pleased with the direction Johns took it, and he certainly convinced me why he chose the lineup that he did and how it could all work out. I'm very excited and intrigued by where this book goes, and suddenly the Trinity War is looking a lot less daunting.

Writing and Dialogue: 4/5 - An excellent direction and format of storytelling, and some good characterization, make this a fun, exciting read that'll make you want more.

Art: 4/5 - An excellent, realistic take that ties in perfectly with the politically charged nature of the book, with equal amounts of dark and color.

Fan service: 3/5 - Though it's probably not everyone's favorite cast of characters, there's enough backstory and characterization to keep you interested. Also, Martian Manhunter. Nuff said.

Overall: 4/5 - An excellent start to a promising new series that creates a solid foundation for the team and has just enough of a hook to get you to wanting more.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Katana #1

DC has been known to include a lot of variety in what they provide. While Marvel provides twenty million different X-books and Avengers spinoffs, DC, with the exception of Batman, tends to provide a lot of different options for all sorts of readers, from featuring different heroes in their own solo books, dealing with the less superhero-y side of their universe with the Edge line, as well as drawing in all their horror and magic fans with their Dark titles. But can too much diversity be a bad thing?

Why is this D-list character getting her own monthly solo book? She seemed to be doing just fine as a member of the Birds of Prey, and fans weren't exactly demanding that she get more of the spotlight, as they have with characters like Shazam and Martian Manhunter. The reason is probably two-fold. For starters, she's part of the upcoming Justice League of America, a more patriotic version of the well-known superhero team. She will also be appearing in the upcoming 'Beware the Batman' show. Now, Johns' JLA has gotten some hype, but hardly due to Katana's involvement, and very few people are actually looking forward the the newest Batman cartoon. So why does this series exist?

The answer, it seems, will forever be a mystery, because this first issue does absolutely nothing to pique any reader interest or even justify the fact that some people spent $2.99 on it. Katana #1, before you even read it, feels forced. After you read it, it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Which is a shame, really. While I've never found the character endearing, I'm sure she had her fans. She definitely has an interesting look to her, as well as a semi-decent backstory. All in all, a relatively unique character, but this first issue does nothing to convince you of the sort.

Right off the bat, we are treated to a hard-to-follow fight scene, with Katana seemingly at the mercy of some dude named Coil. You would think that starting off an issue, let alone a whole series, in such a situation would be tense and immediately draw the reader in, but that is not the case. Coil, for some reason, is a misogynist. He starts off the conversation by talking about the role of women in society, even referencing a kitchen. Now, I have no particularly qualms about a such a character, as it could potentially lead to some interesting conflict. However, starting off the introduction to both the book and these two characters in this manner makes absolutely no sense. The book isn't about Katana's attempts to gain equal rights for women in the Japanese-American subculture; at least, I certainly hope not. It feels like the issue is artificially forced in just for the sake of making the character of Coil seem unpleasant, and for engendering further hate between him and Katana. Even more jarring is the shift from Katana's dialogue to his; while her inner monologue will stir up images of a martial artist in some oriental background, face to face with death, Coil's dialogue immediately shatters that particular portrait, in lieu of some distorted, hateful imagery that seems really out of place. In fact, its two pages in, at a point where you know nothing of the book, and it still feels out of place.

Why is he saying something so off-putting? Because Katana is written by Ann Nocenti, who is infamous for being outspoken with issues like this. I had certainly hoped that she would avoid forcing such clich├ęd and bland activism into a character who`s already a walking japanese stereotype, but it appears that that was too much to ask.

Still not sure what those things are...

Speaking of Japan, guess where this issue takes place? Japantown! It's exactly like Chinatown, except more like rural Japan. Speaking of stereotypes, you'll find at least a dozen in this one. An old man, sitting on the road, drinking sake and being a practical joker to any woman he sees. A distinguished woman, possibly a housewife, who's a little too eager to ask for bribes in exchange for secrecy. Weird, japanese myths made manifest onto the skin of a helpless girl as daemonic tattoos. Not to mention ninjas. Some of the content is mildly interesting, but it seems Nocenti is more eager to show all of these off, rather than actually develop them, and so we're left with a dusty, worn out slideshow at some old museum, waiting for it to end so we can move on to see depictions of samurai and black-clad ninjas disemboweling one another.

That, too, is a disappointment. Katana's inner monologue attempts to add flavour to her encounters with the sword clan, but it works against her; her diction fails to match Sanchez's artistic style, and the end result is thoroughly underwhelming. The one aspect of the book that might have been impressive, the Asian swordfights and martial arts, falls flat on its face, with Katana pirouetting around a kooky japanese garden, taking down ninja seemingly by dancing around them. Then, on the very next page, the book trades the subtle, almost painting-like encounter for a modern blood-splattering. Nocenti also, for some reason, insists on telling the readers exactly how many ninjas there are, which unsurprisingly fails to match the number we actually see in the panels.

Katana takes on the orange foot clan while a weird green shrub watches.

So, the action is a downer, and so are the boring characters and environments, but at least the dialogue is good, right? Wrong. It shifts from having a methodical, foreign syntax to randomly switching into a more modern, young adult tone. The writing is sub-par, and what the characters say rarely makes any sense. Katana monologues...a lot, and it's rarely interesting or even relevant. The story shifts around, from showing Katana's visit to Japantown, to her training, to her dead husband, to her visiting the tattoo girl for some reason, to her being the park for some other reason, and there's absolutely no flow.

The art is the one decent aspect of this issue; it's inconsistent with the writing, and the faces are pretty distracting and often inappropriate for the situation, but overall it's not particularly bad, and captures the vibe of the setting rather well. Sanchez isn't really to blame for this issue's shortcomings. Nocenti's writing is, unsurprisingly, average at best, to downright awful at worst, but even she might not be the one to ultimately blame.

The blame lies with whoever thought this series was a good idea. I don't know why they felt the need to advertise Katana as such an important character. Maybe it was for diversity. Maybe it was because they genuinely thought she was an interesting character. Whatever the case, it's obvious that this entire series should never have made it past the storyboard portion of its development, if even that.

Writing and Dialogue: 1/5 - Katana's monologues are a bore, the flow of the story is all but nonexistant, and the characters are poorly written.

Art: 3/5 - The art does a decent job capturing the japanese inspirations, but fails to complement the writing, and the fight scenes are visually uninteresting.

Fan service: 1/5 - Does little to really focus on Katana's character or history, and honestly even if it did, Katana herself is unfortunately not enough to carry this series.

Overall: 1/5 - This first issue of Katana confirms our worst fears: it was completely unnecessary. This particular outing does not bode well for the series at all.

 Also, can someone explain how the lower half of her face turns grey!?