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Pipeline, Issue #471

ETERNALS PREVIEW

I know nothing of the Eternals. I've never read the original Kirby comic or any of the ones that followed it. I've paid precious little attention to any of the press the book is getting leading up to it, save listening to Neil Gaiman on the Marvel Podcast. I'm going into this book blind, in other words.

In the 39 pages of THE ETERNALS #1, Neil Gaiman does what Neil Gaiman does best: He creates a world and gives us both the ground-level look at it and the mythological angle on the whole thing. We're introduced to a series of characters, who may or may not be millions of years old. (Well, we all know it's going to be real, but Gaiman leaves the doubt in the viewpoint character's mind, so let's just play along.) You can guess that a character named "Sersi" might have a mythological bent, but Gaiman carefully tip toes around all of it. He gives us a quick tour through human "evolution," but never cements it. It's all a magic show, really. But it's the kind of story that grabs the reader, captures his imagination, and gives enough of a show to drag him to the next issue. At least, that's what it did for me.

Along the way, Gaiman firmly grounds the book in the Marvel Universe. We see the impact of the Superhuman Registration Act, as well as an appearance by Tony Stark and, in a way, even Stan Lee. In a world filled with superpowered humans, are the Celestials and the Eternals really so far fetched? That's one of the main questions in the series so far.

Major credit for the success of this issue has to go to John Romita Jr. In the hands of a lesser artist, the suspense and mystery of the issue might have been boring. With Romita's art, though, there are plenty of vibrant pages to suck you right into the book. Any page featuring the Celestials, for example, is a real keeper, whether they're amassing out in space or stomping through the animal-filled lands on earth. It's breathtaking work.

The issue I reviewed didn't have a credits page in it. While it looks like Todd Klein is back to letter the book, I don't know who's coloring it. Richard Isanove, possibly? It's good work. It's colorful and bright when it needs to be, but never murky and muddy when the scene calls for darker hues. At a time when so many books fall apart because the colorist tries to color everything so literally, the coloring in this book conveys the feel of the scene without hiding any of Romita's fine line work. (I believe Danny Miki is the inker.)

Right now, the biggest doubt about the series in my mind is that it's a cosmic series. I haven't had too much luck with those in the past. Aside from the Starlin/Marz/Lim-era SILVER SURFER and the accompanying INFINITY mini-series, I've never been able to get into that style of storytelling too much. It's too broad for me, much in the same vein that stories centered on magical characters often lose me. Gaiman has done the smart thing by grounding this cosmic series with a character who's loath to believe any of it. That's a perfect mirror for this reader, and gives me hope that he's working me slowly into the meat of the story.

It is early, though. The players are in place now and you can see them starting to move where Gaiman needs them to be. There's plenty of material to dig into there, but Gaiman is just starting to paint the picture. We'll see if the rest of the mini-series pays off as well as this issue sets it up. I'm holding out hope, but I might just be waiting for the inevitable hardcover when it's done, instead of reading it month by month.

THE ETERNALS #1 is due out this week.

CHECKMATE

Finally, I've found a post-INFINITE CRISIS book that I not only like, but am excited about. Twenty years after the debut of John Ostrander's SUICIDE SQUAD, DC is publishing its worthy successor with Greg Rucka's new version of CHECKMATE.

Ostrander's series was a solid action book with spy and political bits seen under the cover of the Cold War. The very first storyline, as I recall, sent some of DC's third-string super powered characters into the heart of the USSR. Back then, it was a book composed of bad guys looking to go on suicide missions in exchange for their freedom. Today, CHECKMATE exists in a slightly more complicated world of faux international intrigue, composed of characters who are good, at best, but mostly various shades of gray. The constant tension that results is what really sparks the book. Rucka is a fearless writer to attempt the amount of juggling required to make this book work, and not just seem like a bunch of petty squabblers.

The team is led by Amanda Waller, the stern leader from the original SUICIDE SQUAD, and Alan Scott, a Green Lantern. They are, in ways, flip sides of the same coin. They both want the same thing -- ultimately, world peace -- but their methods are wildly different. Scott tries to be more heroic and compassionate, while Waller just wants to get the job done no matter what it takes or who gets in the way. Her tactics are often more in line with her personal best interests -- like many in management in government, the first priority is to keep one's job or climb the corporate ladder. Rucka exploits these differences and exemplifies them to the reader multiple times in the first three issues.

Those are just the leaders of the "White" side of the chess board analogy that CHECKMATE stretches so thin. They are the planners, not the doers. They move the pieces on the board, but don't get their hands directly dirty, unless forced to. (See the third issue.) The other half of the chess board is the "Black" side, which ventures forth into other countries to blow things up, kill people, gather intel, etc. Like the "White" side of the board, they have conflicts and differences of opinion. They're led by Sasha Bordeaux (fondly remembered from Rucka's DETECTIVE COMICS run) and Colonel Taleb Beni Khalid. I have no idea if he's a pre-existing DC character or not. In fact, my relative DC ignorance might be coloring much of my opinion of the book. I'm sure I might take more out of it if I knew the characters' backgrounds. As it is, I'm at the mercy of the writer and how much information he chooses to impart to me. Sasha, for example, has a very cutting one-liner to Fire at one point, but I have no idea what it's referring to. That kind of stuff is slightly frustrating, and it makes me wish there were footnotes in the book, or perhaps a text page in the back to explain the broad outlines of the previous events the book occasionally refers to. It's just tough to take seriously a character who paints a giant "T" across his face, goes by the name "Mr. Terrific," and wears a leather jacket with "Fair Play" written up his sleeve.

And, yes, that's right, the Giffen-era JUSTICE LEAGUE's Fire is in this book. I didn't even know she was still alive. Or maybe Superboy punched a wall and brought her back. It doesn't matter. She's a fitting conflicted moral light for this book. She's a good little soldier, but not one without moral compunction and internal conflict. She'll do as Sasha asks of her, but she might have regrets about it. She's mostly sullen throughout the series so far, which makes her that much more of an interesting character. I hope Rucka has the chance to delve more deeply into her story at some point.

As it is right now, this is a very plot-oriented book. Thankfully, the characters are seen in the light of the plot, so they aren't just doing what they're doing for the sake of the writer's ease. Rather, they are guided carefully by their own decisions, which help to drive the plot along. It's a thin line, but Rucka's walking it well. I hope that he gets the chance to do what Ostrander used to do with SUICIDE SQUAD -- once or twice a year, I'd love to see an issue devoted strictly to the characters, without the distraction of a spy plot driving them along. This book is rife with possibilities.

The art is by Jesus Saiz, who came off MANHUNTER to work on this series. You might also remember him from 21 DOWN a couple of years before that. He's very solid here. It's not terribly flashy work, but that's what this book needs. Some camera angles that might seem at first to be distracted or busy, are revealed to be chosen directly for the plot and the actions happening around the character. Scenes with crowded controls or large tables filled with people are not cheated. Saiz draws it all. And when it comes down to drawing the emotions of the characters in action, he's very subtle. I love the understated looks on the faces of the characters, which gives you all the info you need while not shoving it in your face.

There is one sign of trouble so far with the book. The third issue had guest artist Cliff Richards. Let me restate that for you: the THIRD issue featured a GUEST ARTIST. How log jammed is DC right now that their NEW SERIES can't hold an artist for longer than two issues at the start? If I had to guess, I'd say this isn't a failing of the artist, but of a cramped schedule. EVERYTHING at DC is happening right now on a tight leash, with CRISIS playing into 52 and everything else happening around it. I get the feeling this book needed to debut when it did for a reason, creator scheduled be darned. I could, of course, be completely wrong, but it is a bad sign.

The good news is that the guest artist was Cliff Richards, whose art style blends in very well with Saiz's. His facial expressions aren't quite as strong, and are too often hidden in dark shadows that cover up too many faces unnecessarily, but the pen line works and the storytelling fits.

CHECKMATE is the highlight of DC's current lineup for me. If you want to see QUEEN AND COUNTRY on a more regular basis, but set in a fictional superpowered universe, this is the book for you. Rucka plays to his strengths here, cloaking things under a thin veil. In some ways, it's an imaginative new take on the DC Universe, looking at it as a political entity, rather than just a playground for meta-powered people to kill people and break things. It's also slightly more grown up. You need to pay careful attention to this book while you're reading it. It demands your attention, and it well deserves it.

The first three issues of the series are out now. DC hasn't scheduled a trade paperback for the series yet, which I think will be the optimal way to read it. With everything going on in this book, I imagine the monthly wait will be distracting. But if you can find it on the shelves still, each issue is cover priced at $2.99 and is well worth the price. These are not decompressed stories.

Two last quick notes:

  • I might just be a podcast junkie, but I think there are times when the audio works so much better than the text. Reading e-mail interviews or transcriptions of phone interviews can be terribly dry at times. Everything is too perfect, and the emotion that comes out of the interviewee needs to be staged by the writer. You may need to listen to Greg Rucka's passion for this project to be provoked into buying into it, as I was. John Siuntres' Wordballoon podcast interview with Rucka provided just what I needed. Heck, after listening to it, I also wanted to pick up the rest of Rucka's WONDER WOMAN run that I had ignored. I managed to hold back on that, though.

  • It's one of my favorite columns of all the 600 I've written. Read my original overview of Ostrander's SUICIDE SQUAD, from March 2001.

NOT CIVIL, BUT A WAR, NONETHELESS

Political Warning: The following review includes political comments. It's just not possible to review this book without delving into the hoopla that surrounded it. If this threatens you or raises your blood pressure, please feel free to skip past this review and come back next week. I'll understand, and it'll save me a few irate e-mails.

I read Marvel's COMBAT ZONE: TRUE TALES OF GIs IN IRAQ a couple weeks ago. It's a curious book, as it came to fame for being a whitewashing of the Iraq War by a Bush administration crony and noted conservative think tank writer who was no doubt going to lie to us all and try to glorify the war and --

-- well, you know, the typical knee jerk reaction you'd expect from an industry populated with those on the political left and consumed with denigrating books before they're published. Seriously, how many reviews of this book did you see from people who had actually read it? I can remember one blog posting, and that was about it. Between the time the book was originally solicited and it actually appeared in stores, it fell off everyone's radar. They had already moved to the Next Big Upsetting Thing. I'm sure it had something to do with Gwen Stacy's sex life, or DC's Infinite events.

Here's a bit from Rich Johnston's initial writeup on the book:

While a number of Marvel's previous titles involving war and terrorism have tried to explore issues from different perspectives, reports I've had are that this is not the case here. America is the One True Hope, all who oppose her or disagree with her current thinking are evil scum, and the world would be better off without them. And thank the Lord we have these plucky brave soldiers to do her bidding.

Like I said, it was hysteria from the get-go on this one. Of course, these wingnuts weren't going to be happy with the book unless it portrayed U.S. soldiers torturing pregnant Iraqi women and putting bullets into the foreheads of twitching terrorists on camera. (Not, mind you, that I have any problem with the latter, but you know how some embedded journalists can be. . . )

Marvel originally scheduled COMBAT ZONE to be a five part monthly series. For whatever reason, it ended up as an original graphic novel. I suspect Marvel read the tea leaves in the direct market and realized their best chance at selling the book was in the bookstore and library markets. When it did finally hit the direct market, it landed with a silent thud, left only as a little remembered straw man for the left.

As one who's actually read the book now, I can tell you this: It's not a very good comic book, but it's not the political tract the left was expecting and opposing, sight unseen. I've seen harsher political polemics from the left in superhero titles than I found in this book. COMBAT ZONE is, in fact, focused completely on the soldiers and their day-to-day lives, with some brief glimpses at the command just above them. About the closest the book comes to taking a political opinion is the possible frustration a reader might be left at when the soldiers are forced to risk their lives unnecessarily because the rules of engagement say they're not allowed to bomb an enclave of terrorists/Saddam loyalists/evildoers because that hive has chosen to hide in a mosque. And I love the way I have to so carefully qualify my description of the people who want to bomb our military men, so as not to cast judgment on them. UGH.

First, the good: Dan Jurgens' art is beautiful in this book. Some of his figure work comes off a little stiff, but the overall impact of the storytelling and all the details overcomes that. Jurgens has the unenviable task of drawing a lot of tanks, planes, and other military machines. I can't be the final judge of their authenticity, but they sure look good and heavily referenced. I believe the sand storms he shows, the still nights in Iraq, the unending desert landscape, and the dirty accommodations the soldiers live in.

The inks are from Sandu Florea, who doesn't try to do too much with Jurgens' art. Many inkers use Jurgens' pencil lines as a basis from which to draw their own comics. Florea is more restrained, adding some extra sketchiness for texture on the uniforms and faces of the soldiers, but not overpowering the work.

Raul Trevino handles the colors. The palette is dominated by browns and greens, as fits the environment of the book. The warm morning sun drenches things in a more orange light, but the overall effect is natural and dirty. I think it's perfectly fitting for the work.

That leaves us with the weakest part of the story, and that is (sadly) Karl Zinsmeister's script. Just as a reminder: Zinsmeister was an embedded reporter. He wrote two books about his trips with soldiers during the current Iraq War. He's been in the trenches and in the tanks and on the ground with these guys, so he knows what he's talking about. His major offense in the minds of, say, Rich Johnston, is that he also has been known to work for a conservative think tank, a definite no-no in this industry so obsessed with its liberal feel-good image.

The sad thing is, the opponents of Zinsmeister could have just waited to read the book to be released to savage his writing. Zinsmeister violates some basic rules of storytelling very early on in the volume. The first two chapters are boring. The dialogue is all very bland and uninflected. Everyone talks alike, from the Generals to the grunts. I don't expect dialogue with lots of swearing in it. Sure, that might be more natural given the situation, but this is a war comic produced by Marvel Comics. Nobody ever complained that Sergeant Rock wasn't realistic because he didn't use the "f" word every third sentence. The unfortunate fact is, the dialogue in this book doesn't have any character, nor does it show much. Even worse, it's totally expository. Especially in the first couple chapters, characters talk to each other about things they already know in the most flowery of ways. Editor's notes take care of some of the military jargon, but the book is otherwise overrun with dialogue balloons that come off as didactic, rather than dramatic. Too many balloons read like paragraphs from a prose book being stuffed into comic panels.

The first two chapters also don't tell much story. We're being introduced to the characters and the situation on the ground. There's lots of talk about what's going on in the desert and what the tactics and tools of warfare are, but there's very little dramatic tension, aside from whatever tension the reader brings to the book to begin with. When something does happen, it's all very matter of fact. It happens and we move on. In the end, the first half of the book is a meandering mess.

The good news is that Zinsmeister gets better as the book progresses. The final two chapters comprise one large story, and you can feel an actual plot developing, largely building on the things the reader learned earlier in the book. Characters we've come to learn and like are put in real danger, and not all of them make it through. Knowing this book is based on real life (however loosely), I feel a little guilty about getting the most pleasure out of reading the parts of the book that are, in real life, the most traumatic. But after being lulled nearly to sleep in the first half, it was nice to see some actual structured storytelling and drama unfolding.

There were also a couple of howlers of bad storytelling. In one, an Iraqi atop a building just out of firing range launches a rocket at our intrepid troops. They duck and cover, minus one who stays with their rocket launcher to counterattack at the last possible minute. Then, a fighter jet comes in and bombs the bad guys back to hell. Yay. But we never find out what happened to the rocket the bad guys launched. It just -- disappears.

A little later, there's a scene where a Sergeant plows his Jeep into a ravine and launches an assault on a hundred yards of Iraqi soldiers. We see him run out of bullets, take a gun off a dead man, and start firing that. A page later, we're told that he got hit by a bullet and he's been taken away in critical condition. That's just bad storytelling. There's no hint that he's in trouble. We just cut from him firing away fine one minute straight to other soldiers wondering what's happening with him straight to a casualty report in the General's tent to tell us the Sergeant was injured. I don't want to glorify anyone's injury, but it's bad storytelling. Something happened, but we never saw it, directly or indirectly. It's the worst example I've ever seen of a writer violating "show, don't tell." Like so much in the book, the events unfold only in the dialogue stuffed into overly-large balloons over characters' mouths.

The book is seriously flawed, but it's hardly a piece of propaganda. If you really want to see it for yourself, it's $20 and available today.

The NEW X-MEN review promised for this week has been rescheduled for next week, time and space permitting. I also plan on taking an early look at Oni's THE LEADING MAN, which debuts next week.

The Pipeline Podcast has its own homepage now. It's updated every Tuesday night with a fresh look at the top ten comic releases of the week. I even added a new segment with last week's podcast that should be a recurring one. It'll give me the chance to comment on books I've read that I haven't written up in this column.

My blog, Various and Sundry, continues to pump out the Nintendo links, tech and geek link dumps, funny YouTube videos, and more reality TV news. It's quite the curious mix.

You can e-mail me your comments on this column, or post them for all the world to see and respond to over on the Pipeline Message Board.

More than 600 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically.

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