Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Best Comics of 2012: No. 12: Earth 2

Beginning my start of year countdown of the ended year's best.
As stated last year, I have mixed feelings about DC's "New 52" concept. I don't completely see the necessity in narrative terms of scrapping decades of stories just to start over. But I do understand the commercial necessity of attracting new readers, and I know on a practical level that you can't always do that with old stories. I also accept the notion that a mythos needs to be reinvented every generation, and New 52 factors into that.
That said, I've fallen away from most of the New 52 titles. Everything is urgent, fast, and full of so many gritted teeth that I suspect what the new heroes really need is one of the fine laxatives on the market. I also question the frequency of these "cataclysmic" epics. When every story is an Earth shattering new mythology that will change things forever, it rapidly becomes mundane.
There are a couple notable exceptions.
First of these is James Robinson's Earth 2.
This has many of the aforementioned elements I find tedious, but it uses them effectively and consistently rises above them.
This is in no small part due to James Robinson's storytelling. I've made no secret of my admiration for his work on Starman (though I have mixed feelings about his script for the film version of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). Robinson manages to effectively meld characterization and action with the space opera superheroics that charmed so many us relics in the 1960s.
In some ways this is reminiscent of DC's First Wave of a couple years back- reinventing heroes and their relationships with one another, all while on the move in a nonstop story owning as much to Republic serials as to more recent comic storytelling innovations.
But here we begin by doing away with the Big 3.
In issue 1,  we lose (or possibly just misplace- I'm a couple issues behind) Superman, Batman and Robin and Wonder Woman.

Then things pick up steam.
With no heroes (or as they're called in this narrative, "wonders") left, Earth seems helpless against the onslaught of dual forces. First is an elemental force, building on now decades old concepts in Alan Moore's Swamp Thing. Second comes a "save the world by destroying it" threat in the person of one Terry Sloan.
Robinson's playing with some great concepts here. He crosses some of the origins to create hybridized versions of the heroes with whom we're so familiar. The Atom is a military man with atomic powers, a la Captain Atom. The Flash is granted power by the god Mercury, making him something of a Wonder Woman pastiche. And Green Lantern builds on the Swamp Thing Earth elemental concept.
There was substantial ballyhoo concerning Alan Scott being reinvented as a gay man. It struck me as a tempest in a teaspoon. Robinson has written smart gay characters in the past (again, see Starman) and he handles Green Lantern's personal life with equal aplomb.

More significantly than the character being gay, there is a plot element that plays out involving a choice between Scott's sexuality and his new mission as a wonder.
When tempted by a false image (an echo? a simulacrum?) of his deceased lover, seen at right in his introduction (while still alive in the storyline), Scott chooses to abandon the illusion of contentment for the struggle to do right.
This is Orpheus, this is Christ in the desert, this is the temptation of Doctor Faustus, this is Jabez Stone fighting for his soul.
This is the stuff of myth and faith, dressed up in ecological superhero drag.

And it works.
Unlike Keith Giffen, Robinson knows how to temper the bickering between his protagonists to keep it from becoming tedious, though it does come close at times.
But the interaction of Hawkgirl and the Atom poses a challenging dynamic. Her "I don't have time to teach you this stuff" tutoring of the impulsive Flash is equally engaging.
The most recent issue I read was no. 6, so I'm about 50 pages behind on this story. But rest assured, I will catch up.
I'd be remiss if I failed to note the art of Nicola Scott. Team books tend to be overly busy and loud, but Scott brings subtlety and just the right measure of ornate design to her work.
She manages to maintain a high level of detail and accuracy, even when illustrating crowds and battle scenes.
She also never neglects to show emotion in her faces, and is quite adept at doing so. Others have compared to George Perez, which in turn evokes comparison to Phil Jiminez. I think those are valid analogies, but I'd go a step farther and say that her storytelling chops homage the man I consider the master of superhero art, Curt Swan.
I've enjoyed her past work on both Birds of Prey and Secret Six. Ideally, Earth 2 will increase her recognition and options for work. I'll be keeping up with this Australian artist!
Tomorrow: Number 11 of the Best of 2012,  another entry from the New 52.