Sunday, May 22, 2011

I totally did not get the point of "Time Masters: Vanishing Point" (also: "Tales of the GL Corps Vol. 3")

En route to Florida and then in Florida, I read a few trades I'd had stacked up.  I purchased last year's Time Masters: Vanishing Point as solicitation copy suggested it filled in some gaps from Grant Morrison's Batman opus from Final Crisis to The Return of Bruce Wayne.  Moreover, it featured Booster Gold, Green Lantern, and Superman, and that's like DC insisting I give them money.

Ostensibly, this is a series about Superman and Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) teaming up with known time-traveler Rip Hunter and unknown-time-traveler Booster Gold to find Batman, whom they have realized isn't dead as believed, but lost in time.  Except that...  absolutely no Batman searching occurs after the first few pages of the series, and the rest is an odd-mish-mash of updating copyright placeholders on unpopular DC characters and reminding you that you're not reading other, better comics, including Booster Gold

Forward!  To utter nonsense and disappointment!

I didn't read much of DC's superheroic output in the 1990's, and whenever I want to fill in a gap in my DC knowledge, I still cringe when I find out the event was printed in the 1990's. DC has always had a problem with mistaking wild plot development for character advancement (and Geoff Johns himself falls into this trap more than occasionally), and the 1990's became the nadir for DC in this regard. Stories like Zero Hour are almost unreadable by today's standards, and it was this sort of thing that drove me from superheroes to Vertigo in the 1990's.  However, there's a certain very loyal audience out there that still loves the 1990's work of folks like Dan Jurgens, who both wrote and drew this series.

Jurgens is a great artist in the Jerry-Ordway, John Byrne school of comic design, but I struggle with about half of the stuff he writes.  Its me and my tastes, surely...  but in my opinion Jurgens is a bit too married to the idea that characters must state the obvious in every panel, including these oddly expository ways in which they declare their thoughts.  Often with these odd bits of "look, we're relevant" nods to pop culture. 

Here's a pretty typical example of Jurgen's dialog:

Hal is clearly just irritated he's not making a buck off his own gig
This scene, by the way, takes place more or less in the middle of a fight.  This is one of about five scenes Jurgens gives Green Lantern and Booster where Green Lantern is giving Booster a hard time about his public identity as a self-promoting schmuck joke-of-a-superhero (GL is unaware of Booster's secret mission as a sort of time-cop).  But I'd argue that Jurgens is so married to the idea of promoting Booster's time-cop secret ID (the concept of his title) that he lets Hal Jordan act more or less out of character for the duration of the series, putting plot over character and creating a false dilemma for the pair.  It just feels awkward and manufactured, and relies too much on Jurgen's sometimes limited ability to just let a story flow naturally.

Most odd about the series is that Jurgens or editorial seem very insistent on making this series into some sort of retro-fan-service for not-terribly well-loved ideas.  I always wonder if this sort of thing isn't driven by copyright lawyers at DC who insist all trademarked characters get an appearance every few years, thus we get series like 2008's The War That Time Forgot, featuring locations and characters from DC's old school roster.

As stated above, this series abandons any quest for Batman* and instead almost immediately launches our heroes into two separate eras (or possibly dimensions, its never made clear) presenting a team-up with Conan rip-off "Claw the Unconquered" and 70's-tastic fantasy character (whom I'd only seen referenced once or twice elsewhere), Starfire. What should have amounted to a cameo becomes a rather lengthy (and uninteresting)...  you know what?  Its not even worth getting into.

I don't get it.  You can ALMOST get what Jurgens was doing with a return to the Vanishing Point stuff in the second half of the series, bringing in the mostly-uncared about Linear Men from the 90's heyday, but...  aside from people already reading Booster and with a vested memory of 1990's DC... did anyone care?

Something very puzzling about this comic (and DC winds up doing this quite a bit) is that the series barely, barely sets up its premise, and seems spun out of ongoing conversations that, frankly, I don't remember or didn't read, and absolutely assumes the readership is either going to Google characters as they appear or just not care.  I know the name "The Linear Men", but I don't honestly remember much about them, so a spot of exposition would have been welcome.  The last time they were a force in comics was almost 20 years ago, if its even who I was thinking of (I've not read "Superman: Time and Time Again", which is where I think they get a lot of play).

"Claw the Unconquered" I recognize from a few random solicits, but only by recognizing the outdated design on "Starfire" and when, a few issues in they namedrop, did I put together who she was supposed to be.   And, oddest of all, I'm not sure they ever actually name Claw in order to help out the reader.  So, while Jurgens will beat you over the head with certain plotpoints issue after issue to ensure you're up to speed (ie: GL has it in for Booster), he won't give up some basic story details because he's assuming you read and loved three different DC properties spread over a few decades.

Most of the time I'm able to bypass these series, but given the opportunity to explore a bit more of Morrison's Batman story, and the chance to see the team-up of some favorite characters, I took the bait.  Maybe it will fill in a gap or two when I re-read Morrison's Batman, but that's hard to believe.

Now, the reason I'm talking about all of this is that its difficult to decipher what, exactly, DC was thinking.  Its not a story that needed to be told, if there's a story here at all and not just a heap of random things occurring. Its a distraction from the actual Return of Bruce Wayne story, and seriously off-tone from what Morrison was doing over in his work.  Yes, there's money to be made by publishing a comic with big name characters (I bought it, right?), and I don't doubt Jurgens has some pull as a creator.  Likely there's an audience out there who reads things a bit differently from myself, and based on the fact that DC made it out of the 1990's, they actually really don't care too much about if the story holds, as long as it keeps moving.**

Its just hard not to feel that something went wrong here, like Jurgens didn't quite grok Morrison's story, and that maybe Jurgens just wanted to go off and do his own thing and draw things he likes to draw and relive the glory days of the 1970's at DC and a pit-stop in the 90's.  I'm at a bit of a loss.

And then Tales of the GL Corps Volume 3

I also picked up Tales of the GL Corps Volume 3, which takes place shortly after Crisis on Infinite Earths, and demonstrates a lot of DC's thinking during that era (roughly 25 years ago).  The series begins as the Corps has been abandoned by the Guardians and the GL Corps are instructed to self-organize.  Writer Englehart uses this as an excuse to send a team of Guardians to Earth and enable a sort of "alien outsiders on Earth" concept, which is the inverse of the traditional idea of sending a human into the unknown cosmos.

The writing is a bit hard to take in a collected format as its intended for a monthly comic (thus, people repeat themselves quite a bit, which I think informs much of my commentary about Jurgens. above), and from an era when DC's superheroes were being written like 37 year-old dads or cartoonish goofs from sitcoms (see: all of Kilowog's dialog in the book).

Truthfully, I always thought the idea of Ch'p was kind of cute, and I didn't get why people had it in for Ch'p... until now.  Oh, lord.

While the introduction of Kilowog is definitely worth reading, I don't think the assimilation of a "funny animal character" into the GL Corps worked quite as well as DC was hoping.  In prior DC comics when Ch'p appeared, he had definitely looked like a squirrel, and that was always an interesting idea (not all aliens need to be pink with weird heads), but the leap from "squirrel" to "refugee from a Captain Carrot comic" feels unsatisfying, especially as Englehart goes for cute over comedy.

This comic had the unnatural power of making me hate small, cute characters
Also, its not too hard to get skeeved out by whatever DC was trying to do with Arisia and Hal.  The whole "she's a teen, and he calls her 'honey' all the time" thing just reads strangely.  And in order to keep anyone at DC from having to talk to the authorities, they magically age Arisia (but don't really draw her any differently)?  Its an odd, odd thing to see, but then-again, this isn't too far removed from the Donna Troy/ Terry Long romance in Teen Titans.

Englehart clearly has a mission to give us a small Corps to worry about, an Earth-bound ragtag lot, but the set-up doesn't make much sense given the importance of sectors as established in other GL comics, and it seems like an editorial push to force an 80's "team-book" sensibility onto the GL Corps concept.  I imagine this actually went over quite well with readers at the time, despite the major break from the set-up of the Corps and the iffy "oh, yeah, its totally cool to ask one GL to cover 3 sectors while we all hang out here in this one sector" spin.  It sort of feels like when you work a minimum wage job and all the smokers take their smoke break together and leave you alone in the store to deal with the crazy Saturday crowds.***

There's also an odd de-powering of the GLs that doesn't quite work its way in directly with the story, but by today's standards, and those in the previous volumes, its mind-boggling that GLs were written in a way at any time that a single, bank robbing super-villain was ever a problem for them.  But I kind of liked the characterization of Black Hand as a villain who compulsively works in cliches.  Its like comic writers asking to work in their natural element.

The "GL Corps Deal with the Press" storyline may be a product of a less-media-savvy culture of the time, but it just feels more like naivety on the part of writer Englehart than true to character or anyone who would spend a few minutes in discussion with their colleagues about how to handle a PR situation.  Then again, in 1986, likely this book was aimed at 14 year-olds who didn't really know or care, and it may have read fine back then.

Still, its interesting to see this era of the Corps which I've seen alluded to, but never read myself.  And parts of it are still kind of fun, like..  this Truk fellow.

in the world of half-assed comic character ideas, there should be an award for "Truk"
The prior collected volumes may take themselves a bit too seriously (I guess, maybe), but there's a certain poetry to the space opera ideal that it seems the previous stories I'd read carried off.  It seemed far more embedded in a style of short-story sci-fi writing and exploring big ideas across the cosmos.  Bringing home the GL Corps to just be a team of superheroes on Earth acting like a bunch of kids at summer camp only managed to reduce the concept, not build upon it.

It seems it took 20 long years for someone to get the Corps back up and running as they'd been, and it makes me all the more impressed with what Johns, Tomasi and others accomplished with the past few years of GL comics.

*In fact, a lack of finding Batman only serves to make our time-traveling heroes appear a bit inept.
**Frankly, a lot of DC's events are guilty of this to the point that its what I expect out of an event at DC.  For the event that set the groundwork for "lets just keep moving and hope nobody notices only a third of this is the actual story", please see Crisis on Infinite Earths
***that was a total dick move, smokers

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