Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Graphic Lit: Civil War and 52

Before we get to last Friday's column, a few quick items of note:

1) I wanted to put in a quick plug for the new blog, Graphic Language, which features interviews with comics creators, critics and other folks of note in the industry. Created by Chris Tamarri, Ed Cunard and Kevin Church, the site promises to be one of the few must-stop places on the Net for solid, insightful comics commentary. First interview is with Salon critic Douglas Wolk. If you haven't checked it out yet, you should go read it now.

2) Tom Spurgeon posted a rather neat preview of Dan Nadel's upcoming book, "Art Out of Time," here. The book promises to be a revealing look at cartoonists that have, for one reason, or another, been forgotten in the mists of time. The book comes out in July from Harry N. Abrams.

And now, last Friday's column:

It’s summer blockbuster time, and not just at your local cinema multiplex.

This is also the time of year when the two big comics publishers — DC and Marvel — unveil their huge, multilayered, universe-shattering crossover events.

Marvel kicked off things at the beginning of the month with the first issue of "Civil War," a seven-part miniseries that, according to the company’s Web site, will leave "no corner of the Marvel Universe unaffected."

The story begins when a C-list team of superheroes, currently filming their own reality TV show, attempt to take down dangerous villains. The ensuing brawl results in a 9/11-type catastrophe that leaves hundreds of innocent people dead.

The fallout from the tragedy has a lot of people asking whether superheroes should continue acting as independent vigilantes or become registered employees for the government.

When it looks as though federal legislation will force the issue, the Marvel heroes find themselves sharply divided, with the pragmatic Iron Man seeking acquiescence and Captain America leading the rebels.

With more than one obvious nod to current events, "Civil War" could easily fall into a state of unbearable over-earnestness, like an ABC Afterschool Special with capes.

Thankfully, Marvel manages to sidestep most of those problems, at least in the first issue. That’s in a large part due to the talents of writer Mark Millar and artist Steve McNiven. Millar’s clipped, to-the-point dialogue and McNiven’s slick, sharp layout keep the story moving at a nice pace.

To be sure, there are plenty of nits to pick. (I, for one, felt the disaster might have been a bit underplayed. Hundreds die, now let’s move on to the real story.) That said, "Civil War" turns out to be well done. Hopefully future issues will maintain that quality.

DC meanwhile, is ratcheting things up in its own superhero universe with the ambitious "52," the second issue of which came out this week.

A follow-up to its other, even more gi-normous crossover event, "Infinite Crisis," "52" will be a yearlong event, with a new issue coming out every week (hence the name of the series). Events in each issue will take place over the course of one week.

To keep up this "24"-like pace, DC is using the talents of no less than four writers (Geoff Johns, Greg Rucka, Grant Morrison and Mark Waid) and a bevy of artists, with artist Keith Giffen breaking down the issues so they have a uniform look and feel.

Picking up where "Crisis" left off, "52" follows the adventures of DC heroes as they try to clean up the mess and restore some sense of normalcy to their world.

Problem is, three of their most famous champions — Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman — have disappeared, seemingly without a trace. How can the world rebuild without the heroes it has come to rely on so dearly?

While it provided an interesting commentary on the current state of superhero comics, "Infinite Crisis" was something of a convoluted mess, understandable (or appreciable) only to the most devout DC fan.

"52," despite the lengthy list of creators, seems a bit more focused. That might be due to the fact that it mainly deals with a handful of minor characters like Booster Gold and The Question, showing events from their ground-level perspective.

Although it isn’t as topical as "Civil War," "52" is considerably more ambitious. That it doesn’t fall flat at the outset is a worthwhile achievement.

It’s off to a good start, but it’s too early to tell if it can evolve into a comic worthy of merit or dissolve into a plethora of fanboy minutiae.

Still, if either series can just create an entertaining yarn, they will be considerably better than crossover events that have come down the pike before them.

Copyright, The Patriot-News 2006


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