Reading Comic Books Out of Order #8 — “Suicide Squad: From the Ashes”

suicide squad from the ashes_0001I apologize again for the gaps between these posts, which are gradually growing larger as I try and keep up with my life.

I first became familiar with the Suicide Squad not through comics, but through the Justice League cartoon. It being a show aimed at children first and foremost, a name like “Suicide Squad” wouldn’t work too well. Instead, the team was called “Task Force X,” which also served as the title of a brilliant episode. In it, Deadshot, Plastique, Captain Boomerang and Clock King team up with Rick Flag to steal the destructive Annihilator armour from the Justice League home base.

Despite the episode being focused on a team of villains, it was there where I found myself really liking Deadshot, the smug bastard.

When browsing for a few new graphic novels, I ended up picking up Suicide Squad: From the Ashes partly because Deadshot referenced his time in the Squad during the excellent Secret Six comic I read previously, but mostly just because I knew Deadshot would be in it (sadly in a more diminished role, but the reasoning behind that will be clearer later in this post).

To dig into the plot of this limited series (if I’m correctly recalling that it was a limited series) is to dig into so many plotlines that it would take several posts to unravel them all. We’ll start with Amanda Waller. She figures prominently into this book, and her zero tolerance for bullshit makes her a great new head of the Suicide Squad, as she collects a series of villains including Deadshot, Bronze Tiger and Nightshade, to start.

The reason she’s doing this? The former leader of the Squad, Rick Flag, dies while fighting Rustam, who is working for Qurac (I couldn’t believe that was the name of the country). Except Flag didn’t die (much to the chagrin of fans, apparently), instead taken to Skartaris thanks to Rustam’s magic sword. The two men call a truce to escape the place, only Flag and Rustam fight again before they can leave, and Flag ends up killing Rustam and using his sword to escape solo.

Once back on Earth, Flag re-joins the Suicide Squad along with countless others, including White Dragon, Marauder, Multiplex, Blackguard, Plastique, Twister, Windfall and more. Oh yeah, and Waller can with the help of a device control the radioactive monster Chemo.

The new Squad’s first mission is to kill all the board members of Haake-Bruton, a pharmaceutical company that plans on releasing a virus that could wipe out large portions of the world population.

Except the mission doesn’t turn out as easily as it should, thanks to another Squad member, Wade Eiling, a giant, hulking monster who also has some suggestive control over Flag. Eiling wants to profit from the endeavour, offering to kill all the Squad members in exchange for Haake-Bruton board membership.

Oh, and Rick Flag might not even be Rick Flag,

If that all sounds like a lot to take in, that’s because it is. A ton happens in this book, and it involves more characters than I count. It makes for a crammed experience, to be sure, and thus it’s hard to get a grasp on many characters’ personalities when we’re constantly switching points of view. Later in the story several villains die, but they’re given such little “screentime” that it’s hard to feel upset about their loss. The characters themselves don’t even feel the loss—Waller cheerfully welcomes a new Squad member at the end, a face that comic book fans will most definitely recognize.

Still, despite its drawbacks, I did enjoy going through this thing, because I’ve found that more than anything I enjoy reading about B-list and C-list characters as the stars of the show. Deadshot’s limited appearances are still fairly memorable, especially with his interactions with the son of Captain Boomerang. Eiling, despite being possibly the mos repulsive character in the book (and that says a lot) is enjoyable to watch as he schemes and plots. And as mentioned, Waller is incredible, so it made me a little sad when I heard that she is rebooted as a younger, thinner woman in the DC comics New 52 line of stories. (I’ve read one book in the New 52 and since reading all of the old stuff I’ve been steering clear away).

Reading Comic Books Out of Order #7 — “Haunted Tank” (2008)

haunted tank_0001It was important to put a year of release after this title, because it’s a mini-series that re-imagines J.E.B. Stuart, a ghost of a general from the Civil War era of the United States. Old J.E.B. used to appear in GI Combat, from what I’ve read, and from the reactions of some long-time fans of that series, it appears Stuart’s character went under a bit of a “re-imagining” as well.

In this five-issue miniseries, collected in this one book, we meet a group of US soldiers fighting in the Iraq war. Each has a distinct nationality, from the “French” soldier Beauregard “Babe” Johnson, to the Southern American “Hot Rocks” Diaz, to the Korean “Chop Chop” Kim, to Jamal Stuart, their leader and a black man. I’m not usually one to draw on people’s races to distinguish them from one another, but this series is about race more than anything.

Anyways, Jamal and his crew are suddenly ambushed by a squad of Iraqis and might have been in serious trouble, too, had it not been for the arrival of James Ewell Brown Stuart, who arrives in true ghostly fashion and slaughters the Iraqi squad. J.E.B. quickly tells his backstory to Jamal and Babe and reveals that his purpose is to aid all of his descendants in battle.

If you were paying attention, yep, that’s right—Jamal is J.E.B.’s ancestor. J.E.B., who was a plantation owner during the Civil-War era.

Cue the outrage from Jamal, who doesn’t normally bring up his background until he realizes that J.E.B. is almost literally the spirit of racism. J.E.B. quickly shows himself to be absolutely clueless at how to be respectful to Jamal, first calling him a “nigrah” and then later a “darkie,” thinking the latter is less offensive.

Jamal, in short, develops a giant chip on his shoulder, but J.E.B. is far from the only racist among the crew. All the soldiers in Jamal’s group show nothing but utter contempt for Iraqis, referring to them by a slew of offensive names, including “diaper heads.” The only member of the crew who shows some sensitivity for the place they’re stationed in is Chop Chop, who succinctly describes that Iraq is actually the birthplace of modern civilization as we know it.

The comic, as becomes quickly apparent, is a huge satire, a send-up of war and what it does to people. The number of epithets uttered by the main cast alone is mind-boggling, and the violence is absolutely over the top. Every time someone is killed, huge gushes of blood that look like sheets come out.

With the increased violence there’s also an increased dose of foul language, something I had never seen in a comic book aside from literary graphic novels I’ve read in the past. Hell, on the first page the word “fuck” appears three times. This actually helps to ground the story in reality, as I don’t think there are many people on Earth who doesn’t have a few “bad words” in their regular vocabulary.

Despite it being an only five-issue series, by about the second or third issue it already feels like the story has been told, save for a rather shocking battle in the last volume. That being said, the conversations these characters have are potent and the backstory of J.E.B. becomes the series’ strongest material, especially as it leads up to an explanation as to how Jamal and J.E.B. could be related.

As I referred to earlier, some fans of the original series might not enjoy the “racist” incarnation of J.E.B., but if you (like me) are going into this with no prior knowledge, you will probably get a kick out of this.

Reading Comic Books Out of Order #6 — “Secret Six: Unhinged”

secret sixI’m going to come right out and preface this post by saying that this might be my favourite series since beginning “Comic Books Out of Order.”

The series itself revolves around a group of mercenaries who will do whatever, so long as they’re paid handsomely. In the beginning of the book we are introduced first to Junior, a villain who we don’t see in full until much later. All we know right away is that Junior is horribly fearsome and apparently even scares criminals in Arkham Asylum. Then we switch to Thomas Blake (Catman) and Floyd Lawton (Deadshot), as Blake talks about the possibility of him “going straight.”

The scene is actually pretty hilarious—they’re talking casually as armed men come into the convenience store they’re in and try to rob it. For several panels, they continue the course of their conversation until Floyd finally chides the would-be robbers on their poor skills and kicks the ever-loving crap out of them. This convenience store scene alternates with a scene involving Scandal Savage (the bastard child of Vandal Savage) stressing out over the death of her girlfriend and member of the Secret Six, who I eventually learn went by the name Knockout. Ragdoll (a very fitting name when you look at the guy) tries to console her, as does Bane, to little avail.

Floyd and Thomas return to their base, which seems to be either a mansion or a castle, and Scandal tells them about the mission they’ve just accepted. They’re to break a villain named Tarantula out of prison and return her and a card she’s carrying to their benefactor, whose identity they don’t know.

It seems like a simple enough mission, but we get some early foreshadowing when Huntress calls Thomas, telling him to not take the mission, or they’ll all be killed. Batman agrees, and Blake and he end up in quite the fistfight.

As it turns out, the card is nothing ordinary. It’s a “get out of hell free card,” and it does exactly what is says. Every person in the world would want to get their hands on that. It doesn’t help that Junior wants the card, and puts a $10 million bounty on the head of every member of the Secret Six.

There are plenty of twists and turns along the way. but I don’t want to give everything away, because this book is incredible.

Mostly what I love are the characters themselves. The introduction to the book is helpful, as Paul Cornell touches on the moral grayness of these characters—they’re not presented explicitly as heroes or villains, just a group of people who (begrudgingly) care about each other. I first realized who much I love Floyd Lawton as a character when I watched “Task Force X,” an excellent episode of Justice League Unlimited. Floyd is a smug bastard, but beneath the mask he cares about his teammates. Ragdoll’s perverse and shameless personality adds hilarity to nearly every scene he’s in. Bane, believe it or not, is the kindest of the bunch and starts to act like a father figure for Scandal.

And then there’s the writing itself. Cornell alludes to this divine panel as one of his favourite panels ever (please forgive my horrible scanning skills):

secret six panelThe pure look of betrayal on the shark’s face is pretty priceless, particularly because there were so many other villains to take out, and Catman chose the most predatory-looking.

My comic-book-guru-friend said that this series is a crap shoot to recommend, because it’s a series about very, very messed-up and damaged people, But it’s for precisely this reason that Secret Six is so compelling. Give me this over the 50,000th iteration of Batman.

 

Reading Comic Books Out of Order #5 — “Young Avengers: Sidekicks”

young avengersSince entry #3 of this series I’ve been fortunate enough to be reading first issues of numerous series, so for a short while I had been wondering if continuing to call the series “Reading Comic Books Out of Order” was an accurate reflection of what I was writing about. Young Avengers: Sidekick is an origin story of four new superheroes, but it takes place at some point later in the Marvel continuity. So I’m still reading things out of order.

The story takes place directly after the Avengers disband. A cursory Internet search has revealed that trying to understand the intricacies of that storyline wouldn’t be in my best interest unless I actually read the thing. Anyways, we find out fairly early on, via our favourite lovable grouch Jonah Jameson, that a group the paper has dubbed “the Young Avengers” has appeared. The guys even resemble the original four; there are Thor, Hulk, Iron Man and Captain America look-alikes. Their powers are even the same, to some degree, with the “Iron Man” possessing even more powerful tech than Iron Man himself.

Jessica Jones, apparently an employee of the paper, as well as the civilian identity of Knightress and Jewel, is tasked with finding out more about them, since she’s also apparently Luke Cage’s girlfriend and has some connection to the Avengers themselves.

It doesn’t take too long for Captain America and Iron Man to find Jessica, and it takes even less time for them to meet up with the “Young Avengers” after the “super fanboys” help to stop a robbery. Steve Rogers and Tony Stark soon get a hold of Iron Lad, who reveals that he is none other than a past version of Kang the Conqueror. I understood quickly from the reactions of Jones, Rogers and Stark that he’s a pretty bad dude, and a lot of his shenanigans seem to revolve around time travel.

“Is this a time travel thing? ‘Cause I hate time travel things,” Jones says.

“With Kang, it’s always a time travel thing,” Stark responds.

“See, that’s why I hate Kang,” Jones says, in a rare moment of humour followed not too much later by the unraveling of time and history. It turns out all the Young Avengers have some kind of history with the Avengers, including Cassie Lang, the daughter of Hank Pym (Ant-Man), who later ends up joining the group. Patriot is the grandson of the Isaiah Bradley, the Black Captain America.

The main threat the Young Avengers face is the arrival of villainous Kang, because good Kang (Iron Lad) escaped to the present to avoid becoming the villain he was destined to be. Predictably, by avoiding that fate, things start to change; Jones loses her pregnancy and her Jewel outfit changes, other members start disappearing.

This book has plenty of twists along the way, and while the ending is probably pretty predictable, it’s an excellent origin story, and the end of the book paves the way for the current (?) Young Avengers lineup with some redesigned costumes.

Despite an influx of new characters, plenty get their time to shine. The relationship between Patriot and Kate Bishop (the first female Hawkeye) is pretty funny, since the two are both so strong-willed that they inevitably (and continually) butt heads. Kate also seems to treat Cassie like a sister, particularly when Cassie discovers her powers she didn’t know she had.

Some of the art is a little weird, in particular some later panels when villain Kang is attacking or is attacked. Facial expressions suddenly become a little blocky and emotionless. But it’s mostly fun to look at.

When I first glanced at the cover I thought “Oh no, not a story about the Avengers when they were teenagers!” but it’s not that at all, and ends up working really well as a self-supporting series.

Reading Comic Books Out of Order #4 — “Thor and the Warriors Four”

thor warriors 4This entry is slightly momentous in two ways—it’s the first time I’m writing about a Marvel comic in my Comic Books Out of Order collection, and it’s also the first time I’ve read an “all-ages adventure.”

When my comic-book-guru friend handed me this to read, I at first raised my eyebrows after looking at the cover. I stared at the four kids, who look like, well…kids. Superhero kids? Wouldn’t that be super annoying? And then I stared at Thor, looking somewhat like a manga character (not that I have anything against manga-inspired looks).

I quicky learned (via the handy intro) who the four kids I was about to get acquainted with were. They’re called the Power Pack, and each has a superpower. They’re also a family, and the opening scene shows their grandmother in a hospital, announcing that she’s dying and doesn’t have much time left. To console Julie (the redhead on the cover), a nurse gives her a tale of Norse myths. Julie quickly learns about the Golden Apples of Idunn, and then decides the Power Pack are going to try and retrieve them with the help of Thor.

The rest of the mini-series sees cameos by the Pet Avengers (something I didn’t realize was a thing), Loki turning all of Asgard into babies (a plot that somehow doesn’t reduce the series to juvenile crap) and a near-coming of Ragnarok. To add to the insanity, there’s a backup story which has Hercules, arriving as a babysitter for the Power Pack, retelling in short form the story of his Twelve Labours.

The story that surprised me in how good it is. The “all-ages” tag shouldn’t be looked at as a reason not to delve into it. There’s plenty of stuff that will fly over kids’ heads, like the scene where Thor and Beta Ray Bill come in, semi-quoting “I Will Survive” (something I didn’t notice until comic-book-guru-friend pointed it out to me). Or the simple visual gag when the Power Pack meet an old man at the gates of Asgard; Julie shows him the book called “Myths of the Norse” while the man shows her the book “Facts of the Norse.”

The various Power Pack team-ups (others include Spider-Man, Hulk, Iron Man and more) also allow a close-up, sometimes nearly fourth-wall-breaking, into what superheroes are and why the look the way they do. When Katie (the young blonde girl on the cover) first sees Beta Ray Bill, she immediately asks him if he’s Thor’s pet horse and then asks him if he wants a carrot. Because they’re kids, they have fewer filters, and will therefore question the hell out of something as strange as an alien dressed like Thor. I’ve learned that in other books, one of the members of the Power Pack asks a sea monster what it’s like being a sea monster.

Besides being able to see Beta Ray Bill as a tiny little kid, the art is enjoyable, and is always clean-looking even during scenes when something particularly huge is happening (a particular scene involving someone who isn’t Thor wielding Mjolnir is pretty incredible).

Despite its kid-friendliness, the humour and action are really enjoyable, certainly enjoyable enough for any body to pick up and enjoy.

Reading Comic Books Out of Order #3 — “All-Star Batman and Robin”

1asbrI was warned ahead of time by my comic book guru friend that this would be bad. I agreed to read it, however, because a) she needed someone to talk about this thing with and b) I wanted to see how Batman, probably my favourite “big” superhero of all time, could be messed up. It turns out Batman doesn’t work so well when you turn him into a complete psychopath.

Batman/Bruce Wayne has always been a volatile character. Despite his vow not to kill, many times he’s almost driven to committing the deed. He will never fully get over his parents’ brutal deaths, probably because of how their deaths shaped his entire life from the minute the bullets felled them after the fateful viewing of The Mask of Zorro.

Frank Miller succeeds (if you can call it that) at pushing Batman to his most volatile in All-Star Batman and Robin. From my basic research into its history, I learned that this series was published between 2005 and 2008 in sporadic bursts, and initially sold really well. Here’s the problem, though; the series is awful.

There are numerous reasons why this is so, but the core reason is that Batman/Bruce Wayne is at his most crazed possibly ever. Over the course of this book (thankfully the only book in the series) Batman kidnaps Dick Grayson and forces him into the Robin role, makes out/mates with Black Canary and gets into a fight with Hal Jordan, the Green Lantern.

Let’s narrow in on Batman’s psycho personality here. When he kidnaps Dick, the just-orphaned boy repeatedly asks where he’s being taken and what’s going on. Batman often replies with variants of “shut up,” or “just watch this, kid” at one point uttering his most infamous line from the series “I’m the goddamn Batman.” The line cringeworthy, and is even used as the name of “Episode 5″: “I love being the goddamn BATMAN.” When Dick and Bruce finally arrive at the Batcave, Bruce basically leaves Dick to fend for himself. This means eating rats.

When Alfred rightfully clothes and feeds Dick, as should happen, he gives Bruce shit for the way he’s treating the kid. Bruce’s justification? He had to fend for himself that way, therefore so should Dick. If Bruce were anything like he’s been characterized in other series, he would never want another kid to have to live through his experience.

There is a shred of humanity that Miller attempts to write in, however. At a few moments, Batman wonders whether he’s doing the right thing, and more importantly, if he’s going to traumatize Dick worse than he himself was traumatized when his parents died.

Other characters suffer a lot too. For no particular reason, Black Canary is said to be Irish, a bit of heritage that adds nothing to her character other than for a chance for several characters to say “she’s Irish.” Wonder Woman is turned into a parody of a radical feminist, first shown skulking through an alley wearing a trench coat. Her thought bubbles have her griping about how awful the world of men is, and the first actual words that come out of her mouth are aimed at a man in her way: “Out of the way, sperm bank.”

Hell, the books opens with a scantily-clad Vicki Vale, basically presented as nothing but gratuitous near-nudity and not possessing much of a shred of a journalist’s mind. However, she gets a call that she’s to go on a date with Bruce Wayne and she flips the hell out. That’s about all there is to her character, other than the fact that she becomes someone Batman needs to save later when she’s badly injured.

The winding story features one chapter that is basically a buildup to Black Canary flipping out and knocking out a bunch of pervy drunk dudes in a bar and little else, a verbal argument (and partial fist fight) between Wonder Woman, Superman, Green Lantern and Plastic Man on what to do about Batman and Dick confronted with the choice of whether or not to kill the man who killed his parents. It’s very scattered, and in all fairness was probably meant to set up a grander story, but it’s probably for the best that it’s been retired.

There are a few bright spots, however. Frank Miller made Hal Jordan’s innate dumbness more apparent, and I couldn’t help but burst out laughing when Batman called Hal “as dumb as a post.” It’s even funnier when Batman begins talking circles around Hal, forcing Hal to verbalize how dumb he is when he tells Batman to sop confusing him.

The Joker only appears briefly, but his scene is pretty memorable as he brutally kills a woman he’s just slept with, then tells Bruno (a Frank Miller creation) to dispose of the body. It’s a pretty ridiculous cameo but well worth the nearly-whole-page spread.

Which leads to another bright spot, Jim Lee’s art. Miller has always had a rather unique drawing style, but I feel like it would have been an even worse series if Miller had drawn the thing too

I’m obliged to agree with Linkara’s theory as to how this happened; this Batman is actually a hobo named Crazy Steve who convinced himself he’s the Batman. It’s the only thing that makes sense, besides the idea that maybe Frank Miller just might have lost his edge here.

Reading Comic Books Out of Order #2 — “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns”

the dark knight returnsI’ve never been 100 per cent convinced that Batman always has to be a brooding, gritty and dark character. Of course, that’s his most popular characterization, made famous in recent years thanks to Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed film trilogy. What cast aside that brooding image for me was watching the wonderful Batman: The Brave and the Bold, which successfully explored the lighter side of the Dark Knight, pairing him up with a slew of DC heroes to create stories I would have never thought imaginable.

That being said, I don’t mean to come across as someone who hates Batman noir. When brooding Batman is done right, it can be spectacular. Such was the case with a graphic novel I knew of for many years but hadn’t read until earlier this week, The Dark Knight Returns, by the legendary Frank Miller, known for his work with 300 and Sin City.

The basic premise of The Dark Knight Returns features the return of Batman after 10 years of inactivity. As Bruce Wayne himself points out at the beginning of the book, in a conversation with Jim Gordon, Batman didn’t survive, but Wayne is alive and well.

Gotham is overrun by the Mutant Gang, led by a bloodthirsty leader who wants to tear the city apart. Miller makes an interesting choice in coming up with Bruce’s rationale for bring Batman out of retirement. He illustrates the metaphor of the bat as a literal thing—Bruce can’t escape its grip once it comes after him.

Naturally, Batman’s resurfacing ruffles feathers, and not just the criminals who suddenly have to deal with the re-emergence of evil’s greatest enemy. Jim Gordon is set to retire, and Gotham’s indecisive mayor elects Ellen Yindel, a woman whose stance on Batman is that he needs to be put in jail.

Soon after Batman hits the streets, he ends up rescuing a girl named Carrie Kelly, who ends up becoming the first full-time female Robin after she saves Batman from nearly being killed by the leader of the Mutants.

There’s one particular scene in the book that I would become aware of before reading it, courtesy of an episode of The New Batman Adventures called “Legends of the Dark Knight.” The story in that episode, and the story in the comic, are more or less the same—a much older Batman and a red-haired, female Robin take on a gang of mutants in the Batmobile, which has been reconfigured into a huge freaking tank. Some of the dialogue in the episode is also straight from the comics—at one point, Batman says “Young people these days…No respect for history.” Later, as Batman begins to shoot at the Mutants, he reassures Carrie by saying, with a grin: “Rubber bullets. Honest.”

Later on, the Joker is released from Arkham Asylum and plots to (and ends up succeeding in) killing hundreds of people, and soon after that the police, under Yindel, are fast closing in on the wanted Batman. As Batman physically hurts his enemies more than ever, the public begins to see Batman as more of a menace, especially when an anarchistic group called the Sons of Batman begin attacking criminals in the name of “justice.” Eventually, the US government sends their chief superhero to stop Batman; that government weapon is none other than the Man of Steel himself, Superman.

I don’t want to go into the plot too much, especially for those who want to be surprised by this saga’s ending, so I’ll leave the plot summary as is.

The art style is definitely something that will be loved or hated. Miller’s style is pretty unique, often making characters monstrous, perhaps as an outer manifestation of their monstrous thoughts. At certain points, Miller makes Superman look like the least perfect being in the universe. Batman looks occasionally liked a crazed savage. The Mutants are outright terrifying,

But at other times, his art style is striking. The first large panel where Batman is seen on a horse is nothing short of breathtaking, even more so when he appears with his “army” in tow.

Characterizations do suffer a little, however. When I read Year One, another Miller Batman story, I was not pleased with his turning Catwoman/Selina Kyle into a prostitute. He continues this characterization here, and Kyle in her old age seems to not be able to do anything but complain and yell at people. I miss the charming, unpredictable Selina of The Animated Series and beyond.

This world of Batman is certainly an absorbing one. As Batman became more brutal, I found a small part of me agreeing with the TV talking heads on why he was such a menace. On the other hand, Miller’s clear disdain for government officials (particularly his portrayal of the eternally-smiling president) is presented well, and his politicians made me (and probably most other readers) despise them greatly.

This is probably the pinnacle of Miller’s writing, at least as far as I see it. In the next edition of Reading Comic Books Out of Order, I’ll be taking on another Miller tale of Batman, and it’s probably Miller’s low point.