Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Comics: a feature on Infinite Crisis (part 2)

Now collected in a big hardcover book, Infinite Crisis stars big names in DC's universe, from the Flash to Lex Luthor to Power Girl to Mongul (an enemy of Superman and Green Lantern who destroyed a whole city in the past) to Animal Man to the Spectre (the spirit of God's vengeance which has recently gone out of control for some unknown reason). And that is not to mention the three characters who turn up from the original Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1986 – a huge, impressive (but longwinded) tale of how a war between two celestial beings known as the Monitor and the Anti-Monitor ended when, after the Monitor's death and plenty of battles with superheroes from DC's vast history, the Anti-Monitor succeeded in destroying hundreds of parallel universes, and was finally killed, apparently leaving only one universe of heroes. However, thankfully, all you need to know about that is explained within the pages of this current crisis.

In order to get the most out of the miniseries, it is best to read some of the excellent build-up to the it before diving straight in. The most essential prequel is the comic book collection titled The Omac Project, containing the Countdown to Infinite Crisis special. Not only is it a really fun read, the writers and artists really pulled out the stops to make it emotional, as we witness the death of one of the older Justice League members and a vicious battle between two of DC's Big Three. Also we are treated to some moments of Batman showing real emotion (something which DC realised had become too rare in the late 1990s and early 2000's) while trying to save the lives of those he has endangered. It's an excellent and dramatic story.

So The Omac Project is a must-read, and before that Identity Crisis is recommended. If you want to as well you could pick up Superman: Road to Ruin and Superman: Ruin's End – which tie in with The Omac Project and have one or two good moments.

But wait there's more – there were another three special short series that came after The Omac Project and led into Infinite Crisis and these were: Day of Vengeance, Villains United, and the Rann-Thanagar War. Although the last of these, a war set in space, has eye-popping art, the story is weak, it has no resolution and I'd recommend you give it a miss. The others are both entertaining reads, the best, Day of Vengeance (which deals with the problems with magic happening on Earth) being at times very thrilling and at times a little odd, with some deliberately “out-there” characters; Villains being a mediocre story about some anti-heroes against the world, with a lot of tension-building and a fun climax – this one has actually spawned a critically-acclaimed new team book that pops up every so often: the Sinister Six.

Finally I wanted to recommend Checkmate to the masses, a comic book which launched in the aftermath of Infinite Crisis and which sadly stopped running last year: It's basically a book about international politics and shady black ops manoeuvres with some super-heroics in there too. The discredited organisation Checkmate has supposedly reformed after the events of the Crisis, and has been supported by certain heroes, opposed by others. Previous members still feel it has a role in foreign policy, particularly in dealing with terrorism on an international scale. And they are then faced with impossible choices, considering their backgrounds, tense wars of words to pursue the best course of action, and operations where known spies are working alongside them.

Thus concludes my guide to this comic book event, hope you enjoyed it! Maybe some film updates will come before long....

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Comics: a feature on Infinite Crisis (2006-7)

Today I thought I'd talk a bit more about DC comics, including my own brief guide to the big comic book event DC ran in 2006-7: Infinite Crisis. I guess the problem with the DC Universe is that it's hard to know where to start. Major events aren't collected in subsequent volumes, like in Fables, which deals with the whole Fable world through telling stories chronologically. In DC a character introduced in Teen Titans might turn up in Superman or JSA with little or no introduction.

OK, so, you might ask, what does DC do well then? You might count big explosive cross-overs such as the four different “Crises”, for one. Also I think the DC heroes and villains (and those in-between) often cross over from title to title more seamlessly than those in Marvel's books, which is interesting and creates a world where the bizarre and incredible seems to be going on all the time. I think there are some great writers in there too from Geoff Johns (currently writing Green Lantern, Superman and Flash) to Greg Rucka (working away on things like Checkmate – more on this later) to novelist Brad Meltzer (whose recent work on JLA: The Tornado's Path was shocking, exciting and yet very introspective, dealing with the personal journeys a few characters on the team).

So Infinite Crisis then – basically it's a great seven-issue miniseries which deals with some major threats to the world – which are seen to have come about because of the failure of the heroes to be pure and to work hard enough to protect and uphold the good in the world. It builds on several shocking storylines in modern DC comics which have shown heroes making moral compromises in the face of battle. Batman has become more paranoid, and is facing some serious errors of judgement springing from his obsession with crime-fighting, Superman has been put through the wringer through fighting new villain Ruin and letting himself be caught out by Eclipso (a magical entity), warrior for peace Wonder Woman faces the suspicion of the whole world for killing a man, and usually unstoppable superhero team JLA has split up, because of a serious betrayal of trust within the team – which sprang from some skeletons in the closet that turned up during the carefully-plotted whodunit, Identity Crisis, from a year earlier (which, incidently, is a good place for newcomers to the DC universe to start following this crisis).

One of the JLA's oldest members is missing after an explosion on the moon base of the team, and so as the story opens the Big Three (Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman) meet to investigate – ending up criticising each other's actions and not seeing a way forward, while the world is being over-run by an artificial intelligence worse than HAL, by chaos in the world of magic, and by a society of villains, apparently more united and purposeful than our heroes.

So what did I like about it?
- A killer opening issue, which shows how bad things have got.
- The theme of disillusionment about how to improve the world seems really relevant, where we feel we are only being reactionary to the problems in the world. Is it really possible to do something great? To make a great world, when we can't even keep friendships and open up to the people that matter?
- A good focus on the younger generation of DC's characters, Nightwing and teen Superman-clone Connor particularly, whose personal journeys really impact the corresponding older heroes, Superman and Batman, who have sunken to new lows in the early stages of the story. Wonder Woman emerges from her own shadow too, proving herself a warrior of valour, and a defender of earth. Issues 3 and 4 are great at developing the main characters while providing killer action.
- The huge scale of it, with made the writer see the necessity of putting in a "temple" scene where even heroes stop and seek their god or gods. It nicely acknowledges what a real world crisis would lead to.
- A seemingly unstoppable villain, who returns for a shocking and violent climax.
- Incredible art throughout, spectacular and emotional.
- The fact that this led to the ambitious and multi-layered epic: 52. (I guess I'm introducing you to more and more DC comics - partly to point out that, clearly, Marvel comics are not the only good ones:)

What I struggled with a little was the sheer amount of characters included without explanation of who they are and how they got there. That's probably one reason why I just didn't care about the space parts much. Some of the superpowers I really don't understand (why does the “speed force” suddenly stop working, and what is it anyway?), and I'd like to know how Black Adam (proud prince of Middle East country Kahndaq) got involved. Why is Connor just moping around at the beginning? Does anyone understand Firestorm? And these are just some of my questions!

More tomorrow on the best way to read Infinite Crisis - what is essential and what I think you should skip.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

The next big thing to read in comics?

It’s been a while since I have been excited by the breadth and scope of a comic, but that is exactly where I find myself now. After reading some quite full novels like The Book Thief – and a short controversial novel perhaps unfairly critiquing America called The Reluctant Fundamentalist (which was a good quick read), I have been ready to read something more light-hearted. So I finally started on the seven-issue comic Final Crisis, a bizarre and huge story set in the world of Batman, Superman, the Question, the Flash and other DC characters, where the “new gods” take over the entire earth and usher in an era of oppression, mindlessness, submission, conformity and “anti-life”.

It all leads to a (perhaps culturally significant) moment, when Darkseid announces there is only one true god, him, the embodiment of evil sadism, the one who enslaves humanity (“all is one in him”) and inspires his loyal followers amongst the new gods to produce ever greater works of genetic horror and horrendous destruction.

Not exactly light-hearted then! But it is great as it daringly pushes each character to their limit. Green Arrow, who always gets great political lines, has a fun moment to stand up against a wave of brainwashed foes before falling. Also I liked the inclusion of the low-level villain the Tattooed Man, who, in an extra part of the story called Final Crisis: Submit, has to face his hatred of self-righteous superheroes and grudgingly accept their help. It’s nice to see a couple of characters from the horrific/fantastic Seven Soldiers of Victory series here too.

The best part I got to read was actually Superman Beyond which focused on Superman on a personal mission to rescue Lois, by going beyond the universe itself to the “bleed” which makes up the universes to carry out his role in what is described to be an inexorable story that the monitors who watch the universes may have set in motion. The story is like an immovable force, a bit like the way stories or ideas are described in Terry Pratchett. And Superman proves his “super” by knowing the secret of the story, it seems. Very weird, but pushes the boundaries.

Also connected, Batman: Last Rites builds on the previous adventures of the Dark Knight (such as The Black Casebook and Batman RIP), and while looking back at his whole life in just 2 issues, it presents a cool twist that shows the new gods a thing or two, before Bruce Wayne is vaporised and killed in the main story of Final Crisis. He really seems to be dead, by the way, and will be missing for quite a while (until the inevitable resurrection)!

Of course it does briefly reference the previous big Crisis, which seemed mainly to be about irresponsibility, both on the part of the world and its heroes - but also the irresponsibility of youth, as shown in the re-appearence of an immature and over-powered "Superboy". More thoughts on that "Infinite" Crisis are coming soon, as I've been meaning to post a kind of guide to the whole thing.

Monday, 7 December 2009

2 more book reviews & some big issues to chew on

I'm heading up a book stall at our Christmas carol service, and here are reviews of two of the books on that stall, exploring the God of Christianity, and hopefully providing answers which help people understand him and see his goodness.

What kind of God? (IVP)

Having seen Michael Ots on the front line, speaking at lunchtime talks at some of our universities, answering questions from the floor and debating with individuals afterwards, it is clear Michael is passionate at speaking to people where they are at and dealing with their questions about God. This book is based on the outcry of those he has met asking “What kind of God is it who authorises war, inspires fundamentalism in the US, punishes his own Son, represses sexuality, allows the environment to be destroyed, and condemns people to hell?”

He gives real answers to these accusations and, more than that, explains that there is a basis for saying God is good and that Jesus is 100% relevant today - in fact, that we ignore him at our peril. You don’t have to read the book in order, so if you or a friend would read even one chapter, consider picking this one up as a starting point for further discussion.

If I were God I’d end all the pain (Good Book Company)

In this book John Dickson wrestles with the question of suffering: If God is all-powerful and all-loving, why does he allow so much pain and difficulty in the world? Early on he tells us that, although the perspective of the Bible will not answer all of our questions on suffering, he thinks it is the only perspective on the world which is “not itself knocked-out by the force of this age-old question”.

Exploring the views of suffering taken by Buddhists, Muslims and then atheists, he notes their various insights and difficulties before going on to present the picture of this problem in the Bible. We are warmly encouraged to grapple with this problem and to question (or shout at) God along with the writer of Psalms in the Old Testament, and to learn of the way God has provided for us to bring us comfort and help, also promising to one day bring to an end the suffering of his people. The book gives us a glimpse of the plan of God for the world according to the Bible - then, it is up to the reader to decide whether this really does hold true or not. John Dickson “keeps it real” too with examples from films like The Truman Show and real-world tragedies he has spoken to people about, read in the news or those that have affected him personally.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Book reviews - and the real God worth knowing

As we start to think about filling in Christmas cards, and prepare for the Christmas period, here is the first of some books I've reviewed which should get you thinking about God at this time of year, - because I know He can get squeezed out of our thoughts all too easily but I believe it is actually immeasurably important to be moving towards a close, dependent relationship with Him. I hope these books we help you see more of this, and more of Him.

First up: But is it Real?

In this short book Amy Orr-Ewing tackles in quick succession 10 real objections people have to the Christian faith. Each objection has come from someone she has met (a student, a mechanic, a taxi-driver) and they include “What about the spiritual experience of people in other religions?” and “Your ‘experience of God’ is a delusion”.

She treats each statement carefully to get to the heart of the matter - using lots of real-life stories - before going on to claim that it is possible and desirable to have a relationship with the God of the Bible, and that it does not require us to throw our minds into the bin! For instance, she claims it is possible to have respect for people with other beliefs while disagreeing firmly with the content of those beliefs. She exposes the problems with atheism and points to the wealth of intelligent people (including Nobel-prize-winning scientists) who claim to have experienced a relationship with the true God as revealed in the Bible. Leading us through some of the claims of Christianity, she encourages us to approach God for ourselves, as the Bible promises that if we draw near to God, he will draw near to us.

More books coming soon, approaching the subjects of God, religion and life from some intriguing angles...

New Poem: Knowing

Here's a new poem - exploring the contradictory desires of the self, and also perhaps looking at things which are temporary and pass from our lives. Seems to be a theme I often come back to. Let me know what you think.

Quisling one paddles towards graceful swan
Just as my thoughts break waves, pressing on,
Slapping them back, travelling directly through.

As the echoes of a dream quake around
Conscious thoughts know where they are going,
You, only you.

Every step he makes is a fight,
But there’s no restraint, he’s not right,
Moments of knowing will leave.

Temper admiration for his stealth,
His victories, his health,
Work hard not to be fully like him.

As gusty winds suppress a shout,
Turning him outside, and about,
We search for wisdom stars forgot to tell.

Our attitudes to our thoughts
Become other thoughts and platitudes,
And soon it is all forgotten.