Reviews: Anna Mercury (1st miniseries, part of second) and Astro City (Various)

August 19, 2010

Anna Mercury:

I’ve read the first first 5-issue miniseries and a little of the second miniseries. Codename Anna Mercury (aka Anna Britton) is a cat-suited, red-headed, thigh-high-booted top operative for the British government, indulging in spying, espionage and outright heroing. Which would have me banging my forehead against the keyboard in annoyance right there. Ridiculous costumes and impractical premises are, to my mind, the author’s way of saying that, when engaging a female lead, their readers have a mental age of about twelve – that, either this is the only thing I could imagine a female character being and doing, or I simply wouldn’t read one who didn’t. It isn’t even just a gender issue – though it is a significant one at that – but also a simple rule of thumb of how good, or bad, the rest of the book is going to be.

So, uphill struggle there. And yet, Ellis delivers.

Partly, it is the rest of the premise: In the middle of the twentieth century, nine imaginary worlds were discovered in ‘orbit’ around the Earth – invisible to external observation, yet the pocket universes they exist in (some only 500 miles across) could be reached by electromagnetically ‘shunting’ agents into them. All persons and things moved from the Earth to an orbiting world, or vice versa, return – it varies, but the maximum is two hours – and while inorganic matter returns harmlessly, organics explode on return. By ‘crash-loading’ power into a compact ‘anchor’ system on the moment of transit, the agent can stay fourteen hours maximum – but the power for all their superhuman feats comes off of the same system, so the more they do, the less time they have. With no power at all, the agent will inevitably return and die.

Also, all of these imaginary worlds are diverse in design and imagery – impossible blends of history, invention and cultural blending. Of the two worlds we’ve seen so far, one is where the ship from the Philadelphia Experiment crash-landed, simultaneously the first discovery of the imaginary worlds by the Earth and creation of the religion of the electro-magnetic miracle on that imaginary world, totally warping the society around electro-magnetic principles (Ellis has a thing about electromagnetism as religion – see the religious isue of Transmetropolitan), and one with equal parts lineage from a specific Asian, African and Caucasian historical group, blending into something that is one part all of the above and one part Krypton from the old Superman comics. Also – the Viking motif of the second series invaders is cool.

Lastly, though, it is Mercury’s character. She is crazy. And hilarious. And has the idiosyncratic swearing vocabulary of cockney sailor who read Heinlein. And it is true to her universe. This is a British sci fi spy comic – they have to tap the national grid to power her anchor device, and her mission is all a matter of how much power she has and what she can get done before it runs out. At the same time, she is believeable in the spy world of Atraxia, with everything having changed in just the week she was away, and with her death-defying stunts & impossible costume inspiring people, by sheer audacity, against the extremely dictatorial society they’re stuck in – and doing it because that world was warped by the intrusion from Earth, and because if that world creates and weaponises shifting technology, Earth’ll nuke it.

And, while it is still early on, and may be explained, there are still major problems.

First off are the twists. First issue is presented with a cold open in alien-looking Atraxia, with no indications of the modern day. On the last page we learn about Mercury being an agent from Earth. And pretty much every issue ends with some class of twist in this vein – the supergun is the size of a city, Anna actually looks fairly ordinary out of her costume, etc. While interesting, I already knew most of them from just trying to find out enough about the book to get a copy. Therefore, maybe these didn’t have the proper effect on me, but I felt as if I was going ‘okay’ where I was supposed to being ‘omg’. The pacing overall reads a little like crash-loading itself – there is a lot being set up here and that is good, but, given that it is going to be probably a year between volumes, it seems off-beat for something this slow.

In particular, there is one agent who survived returning without an anchor, one world where the agency’s cover isn’t partially blown. Yet, there doesn’t seem to be that much general knowledge about the worlds in orbit. The second series is set in ‘one of the constellation worlds we haven’t mapped yet’. How many of the nine are unmapped? True, Ellis makes the point that they’ve being perfecting the technology since the forties to this point – still, though, they’ve UAVs, and each of the G8 nations has a group of agents. Yes, the world that got screwed up by the Philadelphia Experiment did need attention – but this just seems like mystery for mystery’s sake. Also, in the second series, the African-Asian-Caucasian world finds a way to send things permanently to Earth – breaking an early rule already, and for what seems like shock-change’s sake.

Then, there is Anna’s costume. Yes, I know – as bad as Sigourney Weaver’s character on Galaxy Quest getting asked, essentially, about her boobs and how they fit in her costume – but as it would have been what turned me off the book, I think it is important. Initially I assumed the costume had a utilitarian use – that it was related to her stunts & powers. That it was half her madness, half her attempt at inspiration was charming – but the thing doesn’t seem particularly tough or insulated. Sending an agent out in it seems to make the agency oddly informal. The powers themselves are even more confusing – through the all purpose magic of electromagnetism, Anna can defy gravity, induce electro-magnetic pulses, become superstrong, control minds, teleport – mall of which have traces of relation to unified field theory but are never explained. I expect better from Ellis.

So: fun read, but if you read it now with an eye to the long-term functions of the series, it may be painful.

 

Astro City:

Somewhat shorter than the Mercury review, because I’ve already gushed in this blog about the essential thing I love about Astro City; It isn’t that the A-plot is the superheroes, B-plot is the drama, as it is in maney comics, or vice versa, as it is in some comics, but that superheroes are the context of a wonderful world-set of stories. Particular reminders of this I’ve been reading recently are:

Volume 1; 1-6

1:

So, this was the opening to Astro City Universe. And it is good. My dear heavens yes. First story is a day in life of the Samaritan, the Superman analogue. Sure, we’ve seen a day-in-the-life stuff with Superman. Old Supes goes into work as Clark Kent, has to step out of his office occassionally as Supes, does stuff we don’t usually see. We feel for the fellow, cause he doesn’t get the slack due him-

Yeah, this isn’t that. Or it is, but turned up to eleven. Samaritan wakes up – its his emergency warning system. His alarm clock has never woken him up, because he is ALWAYS called early. Stops a tsunami before breakfast, gets into work just on time. He isn’t a time-consuming reporter – he is a fact-checker, a task his warning-computer can take care of as every second – literally – is taken up by his daily duties. Remember that scene in the first Superman film where he gets the cat out of tree for the little girl, after foiling all those robbries and saving that airplane? Exact same scene happens here – ending with the Samaritan resolving never to slow down, enough for someone to see him, like that again; the extra seconds almost cost a man his life in Boston. The important thing is he will rescue the cat again – he just won’t slow down enough for the girl to understand what has happened, or for him to be thanked. Indeed, he only goes to the award ceremonies in his honour because people thought he was cold – and always leaves early.

And as for Asa Martin, the fact checker alter ego? Nonentity. Busiek notes in a later story – Dinner At Eight – that information technology has progressed far beyond the point where the Samaritan needs a job at a major newspaper to stay informed. The Martin-side is the Samaritan gripping at a human connection by his fingernails. The Samaritan knows – categorically – that in the time it would take for him to crack a joke with ‘Jimmy Olsen’ or flirt with ‘Lois Lane’, people will die. There is nothing more that the Samaritan likes than to fly – and at the end of the day his many super-speed flights total up to a few seconds – which is a ‘good’ day because that is the most time he has flown in a day all year. Still, he gets to fly longer – in his dreams.

2:

The Scoop is the story of what actually be like to be a reporter in a world filled with superheroes; nothing can be confirmed because they have no publicists, no evidence can be got because their fights can happen in other universes, in other times, can have never happened at all. The young reporter in the story sees a group of heroes save the world against an apocalyptic being – and the only thing he can prove was that when was dumped back into the universe in a subway station, the shark that landed there with him stopped a train in its tracks. Perhaps this inadequately conveys how much I love this story, but let me say – for a comic that is ostensibly about a mild-mannered reporter, Superman has, in the admmittedly very little I’ve read, often used the newspaper as a framing device rather than a legitimate, consistent mindset. Maybe not all that troubling when Supes is duking it out with Brainiac – but when Superman is agonizing about how his superpowers can’t stop Luthor becoming president, when two American presidents have been impeached by the work of reporters, not superhumans, it is really annoying. Apart from instances in ‘Birthright’, I find this angle lacking in DC – and dealt well with here.

5:

Skipping on – Mister Bridwell, that nice old codger-lodger upstairs? Alien shapechanger. Sent here to assess Earth’s superhumans. True, he has been dragging his feet in sending off his final report – Yes, the old bit about our alien assessor interested enough in us enough to not report us – but not necessarily in a good way. Decides to stake the whole thing on one superhero’s day – and unluckily for the Earth, it is Crackerjack, the most self-serving, obnoxious, rude, idiot hero on offer. And, rather than discovering some hidden charitable streak in Crackerjack, we find only low-grade narcissm. Crackerjack is still a hero – just one who loves himself so much he lies even to himself about how idiotic his stunts & preening are. Still Bridwell realises why he paused; his race were once the scum of the galaxy – a species-wide Crackerjack if you will, as a shapeshifter race might well be – and became great. Perhaps they should be spared- except, when one of Crackerjack’s civilian identities is exposed, people start praising that identity, and pretending they always did – angering Bridwell to call on the invasion of the Earth. Particularly favourite due to the setup for the ‘Confession’ arc, from the alien invaders, to Crackerjack, to the Confessor himself.

6:

Dinner at Eight is, basically, Superman & Wonderwoman actually trying to date. This involves pretty much every other hero in the series picking up the saving-slack that night. Remember the bit in the first issue about the Samaritan? Multiply by two. And such repetition would kill this piece, except with what Busiek chooses to do with it. Basically, we find out the Samaritan’s origin – emigre from a far-flung future of a dessicated Earth that he stopes from ever being by completing his mission (Lily’s fake back story from Soon I Will Be Invincible). We find out about ‘Wonderwoman’s’ (Winged Victory) daily life, running a series of once-shelters, now schools, for the empowerment of women, which she gets labelled as a ‘lesbian-terrorist/cult-leader’ for promoting. This storytelling is then used in a very natural way to expose two types of superhero perspective – there is Samaritan, who has lost everything he identified with as normal before getting his powers, desperately trying to keep otherwise-needless connections with the world alive – and there is Winged Victory, surrounded with the world as it was before she got her powers, who has connections with her old life that she never revisits, staying in her Winged Victory almost all the time, with no alter ego. And yeah, they fight about that when it is presented to each other by each other. But they’re also smart characters. When they do work it out, on the stroke of midnight, all the distractions end, just for a moment – his warning system has no news, her transformative-amulet has no images – and they kiss, in a rare quiet moment. And then they’re called away. But it is very sweet.

Yeah, I’d like a little more about Winged Victory’s backstory. I can see that her daily life is far more appropriate to contrast against Samaritan’s past in this story – but I’d really like to see a story of her own. This is in no small part because of the Wonderwoman equivalency, and I would love to see the internal consistency Busiek brings to the Superman mythos brought to the Wonderwoman mythos – particularly given how inconsistent it is, even compared to other comics and given how major the character is. Oh, I want to find out about the N-forcer, MPH, Cleopatra, Quarrel II, etc – but the concept of a hero independant of the major organisation – the Honour Guard – making a systematic political, cultural and gendered contribution to society is a mindset I prefer over punch-out-the-lava-monster.

Local Heroes;

1:

Newcomers is a story told from the perspective of a hotel doorman who moved to Astro City a couple of decades ago. Originally when he got there, Pete couldn’t wait to get out – it was a crazy place. Still is, as we follow three groups Pete gives advice to on how to survive the city – a television exec who wants to pitch a tv series to Samaritan, and is swelled on self-importance on how this will go, a crime lord who wants to negotiate with some Astro City villains for turf in the town, and a small family who’d like to see the sights, and maybe a hero or two. Well, the exec gets embarassed -a real Lois Lane would never wear a skirt, even though the one in the animated series always did-, the crimelord gets terrified -supervillains and superheroes fighting are way out of the league of a guy just in from quiet little Chicago- and the family gets to help save some trapped visitors in the midst of an attack on the museum they were. Pete knows as soon as he sees them which of the three sets will be back, one day. And why not? It is why he stayed. We get treated to the time when, many years ago, just before Pete would have had enough money to leave this crazy place, an extremely crazy superbattle happened outside his hotel. And when a large stone hand was about to crush a little girl, Pete gets her top safety. The look on his face as he hands the kid back to her mother, then looks up at the heroes desperately trying to save the day above, and the smile he gets then, that is all I really have to say about the superb art for this story. And as for the superb story for this story, all I can say is: we learn that the teenage girl that Pete looked upon appraisingly at the start of the story (new boyfriend, but better than the last one) is the one saved. She walks past there every day. He doesn’t know her name – their little bit never made the papers. He doesn’t know her – never talked to her, never will. But remembers that day – he remembers it. He lives in Astro City – and he wears a uniform too. Stupid book! Only UP is allowed to make me feel like that.

 

2:

Shining Armour is: remember in the old days when Lois Lane would try to expose Superman’s secret identity, and Superman would screw around with the means of exposure, to make her look silly/crazy/wrong? This is that, only with an internal consistency with the fact that both of these people are persons we should greatly admire. In this frame are placed Irene and Atomicus – she the 1960s era of up-and-coming mayoral aide, he the newborn fully-grown atomic superhero with knowledge, but no memory of who or what he was before the accident gave him life. I think the greatest compliment I can pay to Irene’s character is that rather tag on spunky-girl-politician and be done with it, Irene’s story of how she got into the mayor’s office was not only one of the best backstories I’ve read of female civilian character, but also one of my favourite parts of te story – and this important later. Anyway; set on getting the perfect man along with the perfect job (and that is the core of Irene’s character flaw here) she pursues the then-recent hero Atomicus. She works out what is happening, he beats the bad guys up – but he can’t quite propose.

Suddenly, Adam Peterson (‘Atom’ and ‘son of Petrov’, as Irene works out early on, and good on her!) starts working at the mayor’s office. Irene takes this as the task Atomicus has set her – prove my secret identity, prove your worth and I’ll marry you. And so start the antics, with the ‘this-only-weakens-Atomicus!’ device and the ‘arrange-for-Adam-and-Atomicus-to-be-in-the-same-place’. And he seems to play back – he diddles the anti-Atomicus device to affect everyone a little bit, and uses ‘Atomic-duplicates’ to be in two places at once. Except he isn’t playing. He is running. He wants an alter ego to learn how to be human because he isn’t. He wants her to teach how to be human – and given how smarmy he can be in outwitting her latest attempt to expose him, he really does need the education. But, in the end, he flies off into space, forever, in frustration, and she gets fired for losing the world a superhero.

The whole story is told by Irene in her older years, to her daughter. We agree with the daughter – the tragedy isn’t what happened, it is that Irene thought she needed a guy to shore her up, when she was so obviously awesome so early on in the story. Both Irene and Atomicus were crazy – one due to the imposition of social mores, one due to the total lack of them. The daughter, Samantha, is a lesbian – a part of her life she is open about with her mother – is ironically having to hide the fact that she is the new Flying Fox. Irene was pretty much all the intellectual & investigative hard-working parts of a superhero team in her day – only her daughter realises that that means not waiting around for someone else. As with The Scoop, I’ve been waiting for this story. The thing that gets on my nerves is the idea that Superman and Lex Luthor are analogues to one another – Superman greatest among superhumans, Lex greatest among humans – Not how I see it.

To my mind, Lex Luthor is the villainous analogue to Lois Lane. They are the smartest humans on the planet (and I like it when Lois is smart), and they are both well-informed enough to be cynical. Lex never believes Superman is as good as he claims to be, or is deluded if he actually is. Lois, despite being systematically cynical about everything in life, can still hope, and believe – such as that a man with unparalleled superhuman powers would use them for good – and yet is still smart enough to realise what an exceptional person that superhuman would have to be. Way I see it, Lois Lane and Lex Luthor are warring patiently for no less than Superman’s immortal soul, representing both the best and worst ways of humanity. So, yeah, I’d it known that she’s someone we’d write stories about even if there weren’t a Superman. This idea has been touched on before – in Hancock, the villain has chosen to use his great powers of charisma for evil, and Ray, the PR guy of the superhero, has dedicated his life to using his charisma and vision for good. Explicitly so. Hancock has no PR powers. It is why Ray is the one to cut the villain’s other hand off in the climax.

Also, I like it when the female leads work out the secret identity – being the intelligent, incisive people they are, with the ability to believe in the male lead’s to actually step up to the hero’ing plate, if they’d the chance. Y’know, healthy relationships that aren’t perpetuated on tension. My favourite recent representations of this were in Justice League, New Frontier (also set around the same period) with the different reactions of the partners of Superman, Flash & Green Lantern to their lives. Whether Lois knows if Superman is Clark Kent is unclear, because the Clark persona isn’t in the film, but the implication is clear – she knows who Superman is because, in this take on the character, Kent is the mask, Superman is the real person, and that is who she is in love with. And they can both both care about each other and allow each other to get on with each other’s careers – all of which we succinctly see in the scenes where Supes thinks Lois is in danger, and in the one where Lois thinks Supes is dead.

This is differently true with Barry & Iris – Barry is the real personality, and Iris sees this, working out who he is (she is a reporter after all!). And at the start he talks up her career when she’s feeling blue, and in the last scene together, she convinces the guy who stops jewel-thieves and talking gorrillas that he can save the world. As for Carol and Hal – the Green Lantern is just something Jordan’s character lets him do at the end. The secret identity in that relationship is the person most people think Hal is and who he actually is. Carol knows – and as for how awesome she is as an independant woman, just see the scene where they kiss, and she clutches her pillbox hat to her head, while standing in the blowback from the space-age rocket her multi-million dollar company designed and built. Superman Doomsday was probably the most in parallel Shining Armour – Lois knows Clark is Superman, but waits until he is ready to admit rather forcing him.

Wow, way longer than I meant and rabbiting on about representations of women and Superman again. Also, all my comparisons being drawn from the animated universe, for all I know this angle has been totally hashed out in the comics. If you know of any mainstream DC comics that go this deep with the issue, please tell me about them. Skipping on-

 

5-6:

Knock Wood is what life would be like for a lawyer in a superhero world. The lawyer-protagonist exploits unheard of defences based in the facts of a superhuman world. Afterall, if a superhero can get a pardon for crimes committed while under mind control, or possesed by an ethereal energy being, or by a shape-changing alien, or brainwashed clone-duplicate, or an evil double from another universe, why can’t someone else claim that? If heroes can be declared dead by accredited coroners, then get off the slab themselves, or if evidence of superhuman events can be wiped by temporal distortion – how reliable is forensic science. The lawyer gets a cold-blooded murder off – and is going to be recruited permanently as the mob’s lawyer. He flees, of course, and the mob pursues him in great number.

Also, up to this point, the lawyer has been having dreams about the vigilante criminal-killer called the Blue Knight. Particularly, he dreams the crimes as they happen. And this stuff annoys the hell out of me. I disliked it when Supergirl dreamed from Galatea’s POV view in Justice League Unlimited. I disliked it when Bryan ‘the Ninja’ Klauser dreamed from his Family’s POV in Scott Sigler’s Nocturnals. I didn’t hate them because they didn’t come up after they were used. They didn’t come up after they were used because in those continuities neither character had proper psychic powers – but apparently could get telepathic dreams for no better reason than a POV take and an exposition. I generally genuinely hate ‘magic-dreams’ as much as I hate ‘weather=emotions’ and ‘incompetent=endearing’.

As with the two above examples, this dream-viewing was vaguely hand-waved with the semi-mystical nature of the Blue Knight – but it is cheap cover. I like dream-viewing when it conforms, even expands the internal rules of that universe – such as how Harry’s glimpses into Voldemort’s mind were slowly built into a major plot point. While the fact that the lawyer knew the cop in the Blue Knight mask, and the cop’s dead son whose soul may or may not be posssessing the cop father is a slight gesture to reality, it felt very weak, and I would have preferred if Busiek had tried something else. The supersticious imagery Busiek used to portray the dance between the letter and the spirit of the law was far more engaging. I much preferred the Blue Knight as a product of law and society being out of sync than the dream-weaver.

Most of all, I liked the portrayal of the lawyer who gets the murderer off as being sympathetic. He does it for selfish, reasons, but he does give the client the best defence he can – and that that is his job. The police and prosecution drop the ball in assuming the case is open and shut, not getting all the evidence they could, not devising the necessary counter-arguments – and naturally so, because they had never come up before. The lawyer makes the point that the law soon adapted to his arguments, sealing shut a way out, making the system work better. So I liked this portrayal of the law in comic books as much as I did politics in Shining Armour or reporting in The Scoop. I also liked the setup for both the Dark Age miniseries and the Silver Agent series. Busiek really uses this framed-flashback format in a thoughtful, clever way, reflecting those times through pulp print as he does today.

 

Tarnished Angel;

Marv, from Sin City. Pretty much. The Steel-Jacketed Man, aka Steeljack, aka Carlie Donewicz, is on parole after serving twenty years in Biro Island Penitentiary. He could’ve busted out in all that time, but chose to stay, to not be who he’d been because who he’d been was someone who fought with heroes -angels- to pay off his body mods. He can’t be a dishwasher because dishwashers with steel hands don’t last long. He can’t be anything else because his steel face is the most recognisable in the city. He doesn’t want to be thug anymore. What he gets is hired to figure out who is killing the Black Masks from that part of town. He isn’t a detective. He isn’t particularly smart, or informed, or subtle. He really just won’t stop. And he is doing it for the money, and he goes on long after the money. To the end in fact.

Busiek looks at the shadow economy in superhero story – who are these desperate mad scientists, superhuman goons and oddly dressed minions? They all try to reinvest their ill-gotten gains in improving their gear, setting up bigger schemes, or just blow it, and get caught before hey can make something to retire on. It is the same story every time and it is supposed. Steeljack is surrounded by cycles he can’t stop, even for himself. Even the rich heroes at this level have it bad – El Hombre paid Assemblyman to make a robot El Hombre could fight so he could re-win the fame he once had – it killed innocents, was out of Hombre’s control and Assemblyman squealed the scheme upon capture. The steady tragedy and fall from grace gives that Sin City feel – except with forces instead of faces keeping the protagonists down.

And yeah, Jack isn’t all that smart. Except he organises the low-level bad guys to save Mock Turtle (a nerdy Iron Man) from a rival gang of powered-armour chessmen. And Jack works out who Conquistador and Bravo are, just by tone of tragic voice. And where a teenager burgular is going to break into. And how to escape a prison cruiser designed to suppress his strength, but not his weight. And how to walk along the floor of a bay. And how to get a jetpack on the promise of a non-existant 10% cut and some connections. And how to break into the Honour Guard’s flying saucer, to warn them about the Conquistador’s plan. And, when the Honour Guard don’t look like they’re going to look into the mask-killer case, breaking out again by first working out that the HG, whom he’s never fought, don’t know how strong he is, and then ferociously powering through their defence. And comandeering a crop duster to get back inside the city. And working out where the Conquistador’s base was. Like Marv, Steeljack just works things out solidly, thinking about he was beat and working out a simple solution, getting recruited by the guy who recruited all the murdered men, and simply not getting killed by not being a threat.

Then at the end, powering through a fight a guy who thinks Steeljack, not being an innocent, is worthless, Steeljack is as much a hero as anything I’ve burbled on about above. True, it is a hero of and for his neighbourhood, but he just won’t give up. When he realises Conquistador is going to kill the villains he recruited, Steeljack utters the least ridiculously long Noooo I’ve read in comics. Then the Honour Guard arrive the moment Steeljacks wins, falling with a busted rib. His face as he watches the heroes he has always admired descending around his prone form like angels … then landing around the other guy. ‘Cause he used to be a hero. And when they’re telling Steeljack that there was an ambulance on the way, then as they all pick up Conquistador and bearing him away to the clouds. Like Pete’s face from Newcomers, in slow, sad reverse, with that beautiful steel-reflection effect to show us what he sees as he watches it. The cops drop the charges, Steeljack is respected in his neighbourhood & finally puts an angel on his mother’s gravestone. I’ll be frank – so far, Steeljack is right up there with Junkman in my favourite Astro City technically-villains and, despite how long I wax on about the heroes, I love the villains.

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