Breaking down "Event" comics, Part Six: <i>Rann-Thanagar War</i>; or, when spectacle triumphs over substance!

Part One: Identity Crisis.  Part Two: Countdown to Infinite Crisis.  Part Three: Day of Vengeance.  Part Four: The OMAC Project.  Part Five: Villains United. 

Gosh, do you think I liked this one?  With that title?

This is a mess of a series, isn't it?  I mean, really.  If you want to be generous, you can say it's the middle third of a trilogy, and we all know how difficult those are to pull off - you have to move the story along, but you can't give too much away because you have to leave something for the third installment.  I am not generous, so I will call this both a sequel and a prequel, and as we all know, neither sequels nor prequels are (usually) ever as good as the original.  It's a sequel to Planet Heist, which I hear is pretty good, and it's a prequel to Infinite Crisis, so it has to wrap some things up while presenting new stuff, and it doesn't do a particularly good job of either.  It's basically six issues of alien races we don't really care about that much shooting each other and ending up staring at some big lightning storm at the center of the galaxy.  I mean, the war doesn't even end.  It's a weird little tale, and it fails as a substantive story, but succeeds as spectacle, I suppose.  There are a lot of explosions!

As usual with these posts, we need to consider exactly what DC is doing with this mini-series.  With all of these titles (the exception being, possibly, Identity Crisis, which had a different reason for being but quickly morphed into a springboard for all of the rest of them), DC has a clear ending in mind.  With Day of Vengeance, it was the death of Shazam.  With The OMAC Project, it's the new self-awareness of Brother Eye.  With Villains United, it's the introduction of Pariah and the revelation that Luthor is not exactly who he seems.  With Rann-Thanagar War, the weakest of the four mini-series, the entire point seems to be to show that there's a big maelstrom in space.  And, in the context of the series, it has no connection to what's been going on in the previous six issues.  Bizarre.

So what is Gibbons trying to do in this series?  I like Gibbons - The Originals was a very good graphic novel, and I encourage you to track it down - but this feels like he was trying to do quite a bit that never really coalesced.  Gibbons picks up where Planet Heist, I believe, left off, with Thanagarians living on Rann because their planet's orbit took it too close to the sun and burned off the oxygen, leaving it inhospitable to life.  The Thanagarians and Rannians don't like each other, and it leads to a spark that ignites into a war.  Meanwhile, a death cult on Thanagar has revived the greatest of their demon gods, who stomps around a lot chomping hapless worshippers as if they're mints.  Adam Strange, Hawkman, and Hawkwoman fight against the death cult and Onimar Synn, the demon god, but the main war is still being fought.  When the leader of Thanagar escapes from his Rannian prison, he hooks up with Komand'r, the queen of Tamaran, who betrays pretty much everyone in this book, and the war continues, despite Onimar Synn's defeat.  For a six-issue mini-series, surprisingly little is wrapped up.  Thanagar gets their planet back, courtesy of Kyle Rayner and Kilowog, who terraform (Thanagar-form?) the environment back to its former state.  Good job, Kyle!  But that's almost treated incidentally in the series.  More than any other of these series, this is sound and fury, signifying nothing.  Again, bizarre.

All war comics these days can be seen as commentary on the war on terror/war in Iraq, and Gibbons does not appear to be the kind of person who would shy away from tackling that difficult subject.  Is Rann-Thanagar War some kind of allegory for the war?  It would actually be the perfect place for it - this is grand DC space opera, or aspires to be, and we don't have to read it that way at all, but Gibbons could slip things in if he wanted to.  It would also make it a more satisfying read, because at least then we could look beyond the spinning of wheels that this series does and look at it with a more discerning eye.  I'd like to treat it that way, but I don't think we can.  Who is the United States in this?  Is it Thanagar or Rann?  Who are the terrorists?  The death cult of Onimar Synn seems like the most obvious parallel, and perhaps this series can be read as wish-fulfillment - it would be nice to cut off the head of the terrorists and the rest would shrivel and die, like Synn's cult.  Rann certainly could be seen as the United States, and Hawkman and Hawkwoman as Iraqis helping the U.S. fight the terrorists.  Is Gibbons trying to say this?  Only if, like I said, we believe he's writing a fairy tale, in which the war on terror is this easy - except that the Grand Mor and Komand'r are still at large at the end, continuing the war.  It's not easy winning a war!  I don't think the war parallel holds up, although I want it to, because it's a disappointment otherwise.

The other thing that holds this series back is how DC wants us to view the main characters.  Ironically, with the other series, DC has no problem allowing their heroes to act in decidedly unheroic ways.  In this series, however, Adam Strange and Carter Hall (that's still his name, right?) have to be on the same side.  This is a problem, not because I believe they wouldn't team up, but it robs the mini-series of any kind of dramatic tension.  We know they are going to defeat Synn, with minimal loss - Shayera Thal's death is a shame; I only read about her in the Hawkworld mini-series years ago, but she was an interesting character - and therefore we aren't invested as much as we could be.  It would have been far more interesting to have a true war between Rann and Thanagar, because then Adam would have been on one side, and Carter and Kendra on the other.  Had these two planets fought in a "realistic" fashion, meaning they both have grievances and can't find their way with diplomacy, and Adam fought for Rann because he believed in its cause while Carter fought for Thanagar because he believed in its cause, then we might have something interesting.  In many wars we can understand both sides, and we understand that neither side is completely right or completely wrong.  At the risk of angering our super-patriotic readers out there, even the war on terror isn't completely a holy mission by the U.S. to rid the world of absolute evil.  We should punish the terrorists, sure, but unless you're willing yourself not to see it, they have some complaints, some even legitimate.  Again, that doesn't excuse killing innocent people, but they still exist.  In a Rann-Thanagar war in which characters we admire are fighting on both sides, there are a many opportunities that were missed here.  I haven't been reading Civil War, and it appears Marvel has given up trying to present a balanced view of it, but at least Iron Man and Spider-Man (who else is on the pro-Registration side?) are heroes, and we admire them.  DC missed the boat by having Adam and Carter ally so easily and early on in the series.

This is a strange failure in that Gibbons, as far as I know (and I plead ignorance once again if I'm wrong, as I am not a DC zombie), doesn't really mess with the characterization of the various principals.  Unless we've seen a serious change in the way these people have been written, he sticks to what has come before and fits them into a story.  In this way, Rann-Thanagar War is certainly not completely worthless - whereas Willingham had to make certain powerful magicians in the DCU look powerless and Rucka had to turn Batman into even more of a jerk and even Simone had to attempt to make her villains a little less villainous - the rehabilitation of Floyd Lawton that several of you pointed out in the comments notwithstanding - Gibbons is able to write a story in which the characters don't act, well, out of character.  It's refreshing to read this story in that way, but it's still just spectacle.

I certainly don't mind action movies, as I'm sure I'll be accused of.  However, this is a failed action movie because it doesn't embrace the insanity of action movies as well as it could.  For a real "action movie" comic, check out Mike Hawthorne's completely crazy Hysteria: One Man Gang.  In this series, Gibbons appears to want to do more, but whether he was not allowed by King Dan and his minions or whether he himself decided to rein it in is unclear.  It's obvious the big purple lightning storm is where DC wants this end up, but before we get there, it's unfortunate that this is so unfocused and confused.

By the way, that big purple lightning storm looks awfully familiar if you've read Crisis on Infinite Earths.  Am I right or what?

Next time: the Holy Grail, the Big Enchilada, the Grand Finale!  Infinite Crisis!!!!!  Will my eyes bleed????  Will my brain explode????  Will I (gasp!) like it????  Be here to find out!

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