Monday, April 24, 2006

Top 10 Comics since 1979
8. Infinite Crisis #4: Homecoming

DC Comics
March 2006
Writer: Geoff Johns
Pencils: Phil Jimenez, George Perez, Ivan Reis

What in the hell is this issue doing on my list, you ask? Well, let me put it this way: I'm pretty discriminating when it comes to film (or a snob as some wags might say); but until I die The Empire Strikes Back will be on my all-time Top Ten Films list. Sometimes, you just need a little action and excitement.
Or one hell of a good fight.

Infinite Crisis, as detailed elsewhere on this site, has been up and down. I read the first issue and enjoyed some of it (Bizarro's bloody dispatching of the Human Bomb, for instance; Batman's scathing line to Superman: "The last time you inspired anyone was when you were dead."); but the ending, bringing back the Crisis on Infinite Earths alternate universe crew seemed oddly handled. I was left cold by issue two, the Power Girl origin crap and the continuing drone of how rotten the current DCU was, and how beautiful it had been in the Golden Age (otherwise known as Earth-2).
But Issue 3 was a tremendous turnaround: Alex Luthor ad Superboy-Prime revealed as the masterminds behind the Crisis; Earth-2 Superman's offer to Batman; and Themiscrya Island fading into oblivion as Wonder Woman looks on.
Also, the art was gorgeous. Something about the look of the first two books just felt off,the inking in particular. All the Crisis books have been inked 'by committee' to get the product out faster, and the first books were ugly and rushed as a result.
But the penciling has been solid: Phil Jimenez has proven himself, on his days penciling the Invisibles, as one of the tightest artists in comics today. His style is clean and bold, making him a perfect choice for a big event like this. The messy look of the first issue especially caught me off guard, but by Issues 3 and 4, the inks were better and as a result, the action hit harder.

We open on Alex and Luthor overseeing the destruction of Bludhaven, in a great opening sequence featuring Chemo, the evil green giant of the DCU and a gorilla in a bandolier (sweet Christ I love comics in moments like these).
"Do you think Chemo understands what we're gonna do?"
"I do not think he cares."
Chemo himself has very little to say on the subject.The whole sequence reminds me of Hitchiker's Guide when the Sperm Whale is brought into existence by the Probability Drive, only to be splattered blubber bits seconds later ("Hey, what's this thing suddenly coming towards me very fast? Very very fast. So big and flat and round, it needs a big wide-sounding name like...ow...ound...round...ground! That's it! That's a good name-ground! I wonder if it will be friends with me?")

Anyway, millions of people are vaporized, and Alex and Superboy-Prime have a typically James Bond villain moment with Power Girl, locked into her place on their tower. They explain to her, now that she's locked into Anti-Monitor corpse powered phallic symbol, just how they've manipulated both the heroes and villains of the DCU. All they need is Alex Luthor sitting in a chair stroking a fluffy white cat.

Geoff Johns is a fun writer, he has good ideas, but sometimes he gets cutesy, or maudlin. In this issue he strikes, most of the time, the right notes in his scenes. The focus of the emotion here is between Batman and Nightwing, Dick Grayson, former Robin. Bruce Wayne clearly views Dick with the stunned pride of a father realizing his son's grown into a decent and noble man and wondering: what did I possibly have to do with that?
Batman's raging self-doubt has become personified in Brother Eye, his superhero spy satellite, and here is a man who lived through the same trauma that Bruce did, who fought the same criminals, felt the same pain, joined the same cause.
But he is standing tall in the light while Batman cowers in the shadows.It's a nice moment, but a note that has not been maintained for the rest of the Crisis books. Dick Grayson made a choice to walk away from Batman, and become his own man, and take on another identity while still fighting crime. I had thought Infinite Crisis was going to make it clear just how hard that decision was, and just what kind of a man Dick was. But so far, it's fallen short of that promise.

But the main event, taking up over half of the book's length, and the reason that this book ranks on this list, is without a doubt the spectacular fight between the current DCU Superboy, Conner Kent and Superboy of Earth-Prime. Superboy-Prime is a bundle of raw, eternally pubescent nerves who's been huddled away in a heavenly prison for the past twenty years. He watches Conner live the life he never had a chance to, and grows to hate him for his inaction, for his self-doubt.
In a sense, Conner's doubt is a greater reflection on the fact that Superboy-Prime is forever frozen in time: he's never experienced the doubts that Conner has because he is forever young and hopeful, never feeling the heavy weight of responsibility that comes with age.
Superboy-Prime sees in Conner a reflection of his lost future: the cute girlfriend, the cool friends, the supportive family. Face to face with his doppelganger twenty years of pent up, homicidal rage come pouring out.The battle is intense, Jimenez is just great here. He perfectly captures Superboy-Prime's supreme indignation and growing insanity.
Going into this issue I knew nothing about either of the fighters, aside from the basics. I knew that Superboy-Prime was the silver age Superman-to-be; and that Conner came out of the whole Return of Superman mess and used to dress in leather and look like a complete tool. After this issue, and this fight, Superboy-Prime went down as the best villain in the DCU in years, and Conner Kent became somebody that I could really root for.
Conner is little match for the pure fury of Superboy-Prime's attack. What do you do against a guy who can fling a taxi at you like it's a Matchbox racer?You call in the Teen Titans, of course.This is where Superboy-Prime loses it forever, when everything truly goes to shit. Cornered and scared, and not understanding the unlimited depths of his powers, Superboy-Prime mows through C and D list Titans, in bloody and horrific fashion.
No, really:The moment is as heartbreaking as it is visceral, as Superboy-Prime pleads for understanding, but can't contain his impulses. He kills at will, tears streaming down his face.Again, I give Jimenez credit for the power of this scene. He creates a chaotic composition that mirrors Superboy-Prime's mental state. He is a little boy lost. He was a hero all his life but now he is beyond saving. What we are witnessing is the tragic origin of the most powerful villain in the DC Universe.
The Titans are bailed out by the Flashes (Jay Garrick the original, Wally West the Post-Crisis Flash, and Bart Allen, current Kid Flash), who come out of nowhere and drag Superboy-Prime along with them at supersonic speed.This is the great moment in Infinite Crisis. The moment that forever links it with its predecessor, Crisis on Infinite Earths. Jay's body gives out on him, and he falls behind. Wally disappears to who knows where (with his family in tow, a cheesy moment that almost stalls the momentum of the scene). Bart is left alone to pull Superboy into the speed zone, with Superboy taunting him all the way. Bart releases his anger and, out of the great shining oblivion beyond comes a hand:It's Barry Allen, the Silver Age Flash, whose death in Crisis on Infinite Earths was one of the all-time great moments in superhero books (creepy just to think about, his face receding until the Flash was nothing more than an empty costume). And, even better, it's George Perez, penciller of the first Crisis, supplying the art. Perez has improved with time. He could always draw a spectacular crowd scene, but this the level of surprise and emotion he brings to this scene is unmatched in his career.
It's the goose-bump moment that Ininite Crisis needed so badly.
With his grandfather's help, Bart pushes Superboy-Prime away into the Speed Zone. As as he fades into nothingness he cries, "When I grow up I'm going to be Superman! Don't any of you understand?! I'm going to be Superma..."
The Silver Age hero that sacrificed himself to save the world has returned to defeat the Silver Age hero that came to destroy it.

I'm a sucker for cross-overs. Well done cross-overs, that is. One of the things I love most about DC Comics is their rich, full Universe, and their ability to shift and play with their characters in ways that are far more meaningful than they're doing down the street at Marvel. Think about it: one of the most beloved icons of the Silver Age has been turned into a raving psycho killer. That takes a measure of guts, because although the kids buying this book don't care about the old Superboy, the collectors who grew up with him do. I hope to see Superboy-Prime stay, he's a great, great villain.
In the end, Infinite Crisis is like a typical summer blockbuster. Loud, corny, and at times obnoxious. But at its heights, it's an absolute blast.

1 comment:

uncle buck said...

All right, good effort, you nearly sold me. If only all the issues of Infinite Crisis had been that good -- we might have been able to save Earth-420!

The intelligent gorilla with a bandolier is none other than classic Doom Patrol nemesis Monsieur Mallah. (You can look him up; see also what Grant Morrison thought it would be fun to do with him.)

The thing with Superboy Prime is (& I had to Google this to be sure) he was originally shown to be from a planet like ours where superheroes existed only in comic books -- this "Earth Prime" had been used occasionally in DC comics as far back as the late 60s for stories where the writers and artists "met" their characters. So Superboy Prime isn't really the Silver Age Superman-to-be. Geek up!