Monthly Archives: January 2013

Earth Two VI, VII, and VIII

Time to vainly attempt to get caught up on these. The fact that I’ve let these slide is really kind of unfortunate because despite Earth Two’s frustratingly up-and-down quality the last several issues have been getting better pretty steadily. I apologize if the voice of these individual reviews is hard to follow. I wrote them separately over the last couple of months and I can’t promise a whole lot of continuity.

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This issue seems to contain the actual resolution to the current story arc that I called a little prematurely a few months ago. It’s a better turn than the former scenario would have been, but given how good the last issue was I’m a little disappointed with the follow up. We get a decent spread of the fighting, and Grundy feels surprisingly apocalyptic as a villain, but the end still feels kind of rushed (despite now being six issues in) and a little deus ex machina. Alan Scott shakes off the apparition of his dead lover without much of the conflict I was hoping it would arouse. He then has an epiphany (somehow) about the way to defeat Grundy and blasts off with the beast in tow. After he does this, the Atom almost robotically reverts to trying to capture Flash and Hawkgirl (seriously it takes like two panels) despite the threat not yet being neutralized. It’s a turn that doesn’t really make sense. Scott deposits the avatar of death on the surface of the moon (an innovative yet kind of silver age solution that I’m actually okay with) and dismisses Terry Sloane’s incoming nuclear strike through his newly mastered use of energy constructs. Being disconnected with the planet drains his energy though and he plummets back to earth before being saved by Hawkgirl (another interesting setup i thought could have used a little more tension in the execution). On the ground, Scott further pushes the boundaries of his abilities and uses his connection with the earth to revitalize the planet, undoing Grundy’s damage. This also apparently turns him into a huge douchebag, because immediately afterward he tells Hawkgirl and Flash that he doesn’t need them and flies off to go be a jerk somewhere.

The issue just feels kind of uneven. There’s things to like, but more things to criticize than I prefer. Jay Garrick’s heartfelt polemics are slightly less saccharine, but still a little too “gee golly” for me. Again, maybe I’m still too attached to the older Jay’s more salty moralizing, but I remain undecided on the current incarnation. Also, the book’s use of the term “wonder” as a shorthand for super-powers is still awkward in conversation. It just feels artificial and breaks the flow of dialog whenever it appears. If nothing else, we’re on to a new story arc now, and with it hopefully new opportunities for growth.

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This issue is more or less a breather following the climax of the first big stretch. Its all about the aftermath. The world is registering some legitimate slack-jawed surprise at the recent clash of physics-defying titans in 80’s glam. It seems like its trying to bring things back down to earth, to let the reader get their bearings. A surprisingly good scene illustrates Alan Scott’s self-destructive grief in the wake of his fiance’s death. It’s nice (in a weird way) to see them going back to this, since the character had seemingly been solely introduced to promote the book and then be immediately fridged. It also, when considered in full, may give us some insight into Scott’s irrational behavior in the previous issue and continued reluctance to join forces with the other characters, as an extension of his desire not to catch any more innocent bystanders in his collateral damage. At least I hope that’s where its going (Robinson don’t let me down).

Contrary to the image above, there is no “fight to the death.” That is a fib. There isn’t even really a fight. Just some heated words and an isolated demonstration of violent intent to prove a rhetorical point. Then again, all that is a little wordy for a cover blurb. After Green Lantern gets his angst-beard and Hawkgirl goes and Batmans all over the place, we check in on Terry Sloan and Cmdr. Khan. Politics suffuses these scenes, the two each progressively trying to outmaneuver the other. Khan’s skulduggery allows us to see more of the one-and-only Wesley Dodds, Sandman. Literally any appearance he has in anything improves it immeasurably in my estimation, but I’m fanboying.

He isn’t the only cameo in this issue though. Dodds and his (now plural) Sandmen discover the long-suffering Mister Terrific, off the radar for quite a while now. Seemingly being mind-controlled by Sloan, Terrific begins taking apart the team sent to rescue him before being dropped by Wesley Dodds (like a boss). Exactly what role Micheal Holt is to play remains to be seen, but seeing more of him is always a good thing.

This issue finally does what I’ve been asking the series to do all along. Take a breath, let things unfold organically, and give the plot some room to get its feet under it. James Robinson has been giving flashes and glimmers of why I was excited to have him on this book, and its good to see him devote basically an entire issue to the character beats that really make his stuff work. Nikola Scott continues to deliver the goods as well, illustrating a talent for low-key scenes in addition to big action set pieces. For what is essentially an intermission, this is actually a great time to grab a seat for the second act.

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I’ve mentioned before how I like that Earth Two is separated from the main DC continuity. It allows it to play in its own sandbox however it really wants. It gets to make its own rules and its own history, without worrying about fitting neatly into the claustrophobic world of the mainstream universe. We’re beginning to see the payoff to that premise in this issue.

Its a side story, still simmering in the causatum of the first arc, and seemingly setting up for the second. The action follows the Apokoliptian warrior Steppenwolf, who had a brief appearance in the inaugural issue, taking refuge in Dherain, apparently the Earth Two stand-in for Markovia, itself a moderately obscure central European stand-in that ducks in and out of DC geo-politics. Steppenwolf, now stranded on earth after the defeat of his extraterrestrial invasion, appears to be building himself up as the main antagonist of the next arc. This is an interesting choice. Steppenwolf, though a visible character, has never really been a starring player in either the front line DCU or Jack Kirby’s New Gods mythos where he originated. He’s a bit of an unknown quantity, with more space for development than recycling one of the usual suspects. Also of interest is the introduction of new(ish) character Fury. The costumed identity of Fury is not unknown in prior iterations of Earth Two and its entourage, but here as with much else it has been reimagined somewhat. This version of Fury is actually the daughter of Wonder Woman (an angle that hasn’t really been explored in some time), an Amazon stolen by Steppenwolf to be raised on Apokalips (also a potentially interesting hook). Given, its pretty much foregone that Fury will eventually undergo a tormented and dramatic heel-face-turn, but with the set up in place I think it’ll be a lot of fun getting there.

There really isn’t a whole lot that happens in this issue besides Steppenwolf and Fury taking over Dherain in a two person coup de tat. That’s honestly less interesting than it sounds though, and it really only serves as a device to acquaint the reader with the two characters. It works, though. Robinson is taking time to case the stage before the next act starts, kicking the dust and checking sight lines. Yildiray Cinar subs in for Nicola Scott on pencils and brings us some interesting fare, juxtaposing the distinctive Kirby-inspired designs for Steppenwolf and Fury with the power-armor and mecha designs of the Dherain. The next installment teases the introduction of another new-old character and I have to say I’m looking forward to it.

Now, to maybe not wait two months between updates…

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Holiday Historiography

Two months is entirely too long to go without an update. I acknowledge that. I’m a bad person and I should feel bad. Combination of work, family obligations, and illness have just killed my motivation over the last few weeks. As of now though I’m going to do my best to return you faithful to your regularly scheduled programming.

So, good holidays for everyone? See any heartwarming Christmas movies? I did. Specifically the one starring Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz called Django Unchained.

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Discussing this movie in the same sentence as controversy isn’t exactly breaking news (my own fault for letting this go so long), but I think its worth looking at it in a slightly larger context. Django is actually the third major film released this year to deal with the Civil War and Antebellum time period. The others have ranged in tone from the rather serious, to the rather less-so. I’d say Django falls somewhere in between the two poles, but all three are bound together by a peculiar common thread. All three movies, Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, and Django Unchained are staunchly and stridently anti-revisionist. This is not to say that they don’t engage in a degree of their own revisionism, but rather that their version of events makes a statement about the dilution of history. Specifically, each constitutes and attack on the “Lost Cause” of Civil War cinema.

The “Lost Cause” broadly constitutes the school of pop history in literature and film which portrays the Civil War primarily as a contest for the preservation of Southern culture. The antebellum South and the Confederate States are treated as a kind of golden age of chivalry, gentility, and agrarian values destroyed after a valiant struggle by the aggressive industrial power of the North. This will sometimes co-opt related but distinct themes like national tragedy and reconciliation into its narrative, but always conspicuous in its absence or subdual is the question of slavery. The inherent racism of these narratives, invested as they are in the historical rehabilitation of racist institutions, is sometimes comparatively benign (though no less insidious), such as in Gone With the Wind or the more recent Gods and Generals. At other times though it has been startlingly overt, as in the prototype of Lost Cause film, D. W. Griffith’s (in)famous Birth of a Nation. Now in recent years there has been some progress against this strain of thought, Glory and Confederate States of America being excellent examples, but they are fighting against over a century of ingrained Lost Cause mythology in our culture.

To say that even today discussion can be complicated when it comes to the Civil War would be a titanic understatement. It is difficult to reconcile bravery with an unjust movement, and given the strong ties of place and ancestry we still attach to the War no one wants to have been “in the wrong.” At the end of the day though ignoring painful truths does a greater disservice to memory than acknowledging and engaging with them. Lincoln, ALVH, and Django all attack the underpinnings of Lost Cause revisionism, whether it be through satire, the forced discussion of uncomfortable facts, or a combination of both. Their refusal to buy into our accepted legends is what lends these films uncommon merit as works of entertainment.

In Django Unchained this attack is probably the most self-conscious, due to director Quentin Tarrantino’s particularly cinematic sensibility. The plantation scenes use the soft focus and saturated color palette of “classic” filmmaking to evoke Gone With the Wind‘s idyllic presentation of the antebellum. It then brings that silver lens to bear on the sickening foundations of that vision and splatters the screen with the technicolor blood of its perpetrators. The hooded outlaws who attempt to lynch the protagonists parallel the “heroic” Klansmen in Birth of a Nation, and are portrayed in this as ruffian morons. The character of the genteel southern aristocrat is here the film’s moral nadir, a walking ethical vacuum and distillation of everything loathsome about Lost Cause mythology. By contrast the black protagonist, so often a passive role in Civil War narratives, is here a participatory agent of rare energy and complexity.

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Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter is less self-aware in its mission, but it gets the job done. It’s preferred method of subversion is satire. Here the heroes of Lost Cause culture are cast as literal parasites, sucking the blood from the their black slaves to sustain their decadent old world lifestyles. Its a pretty blunt metaphor, but it drives the point home. Such a stark reflection in the form of insensate, supernatural evil calls into the question the supposed righteousness of the Lost Cause, albeit perhaps not as effectively as Django, which lets the horror of slavery stand on its own mortal basis. Turning Abraham Lincoln into an axe-wielding avenger of inhuman injustice is an appropriate call for our greatest president, though it does flirt with the aforementioned trap of making black characters passive agents in a story that is really about them.

Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln on the other hand takes the most down to earth approach to deconstructing and defeating the Lost Cause. While the least “action packed” of the three, it is probably the most heartfelt. The film’s title is appropriate in that Lincoln is the central protagonist, but its not really the biopic you might expect. Rather than act as a filmic telling of Lincoln’s life or a war film, it chooses to center on the constitutional elimination of slavery. This brings the story back around to the singularly important issue that the Lost Cause is determined to ignore: the abolition of human bondage and the removal of its stain from the American promise. This is not to say the issue is portrayed without nuance or complexity, but its moral casting is unambiguous and sets itself up to take on all challengers.

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As I mentioned previously, this is not to say that these films don’t have a form of revisionism in their narrative. Rather, they serve as a counter point against a school of revisionism which has steadily infiltrated and co-opted our understanding of this moment in American history. Chances are that if you really think on it, you know exactly what I’m talking about. The iconography of the Lost Cause is so pervasive that its almost invisible if you aren’t actively looking for it. This is important because most Americans are exposed to history through its expression in our popular culture. If one takes a hard look at the way that history has been written, it isn’t difficult to say that the South has already long since “risen again.” This isn’t accusing anyone personally of being racist if they happen to enjoy the films of the Lost Cause canon (except for Birth of a Nation, with it’s blackface and Klansman and all that, ’cause that’s pretty racist).  As a people we are loathe to part with the comforting fallacies of myth and memory, conflating them all too easily with truth, but the challenging of myths and memory is essential to the discovery of history. The myths of the Lost Cause are particularly poisonous in this respect, and are overdue indeed for a sweeping from our consciousness. That each of these movies should have been released so close to one another and done as well as they have may give one some glimmer of hope for the future. What has been must not necessarily always be, and the American desire for pop history may not be mutually exclusive with history that is both true and just.

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