Wednesday, August 31, 2011

"Let's Kill Hitler"

Moffat's series arc is really starting to show its flabbiness by this point. What could have been quite an interesting sci-fi adventure based on the title premise ends up being a rather unfortunately sentimental romp laden with magic thinking and somewhat ineffectual drama. It's relatively amusing and sufficiently obvious considering time travel to see the crop circle being an effective means of summoning the Doctor and while the point at which Mels intrudes and threatens the Doctor is rather shocking before the admittedly rather obvious "Mels is River" revelation she is incredibly annoying and tiresome to watch. Pre-River Mels reeks of an RTD style filler character and performed with the most by-the-numbers modern British young person acting imaginable. Obviously we're seeing River early on with conditioning and brainwashing enabling her behaviour but there's a lot of kookiness involving sizing up her new appearance, wanting to buy clothes and weigh herself and a lot of stereotypical female behaviour which is a little out of character for the rather strong River but I suppose that's the point. Then again the problem is that the driving force of this episode is the characterisation of River Song and the nature of this initial meeting and the character drama between her, her parents and the Doctor which certainly makes it feel kind of soapy and daft.
I've said countless times that Doctor Who should strive to do more than character drama but it's the order of the day at the moment and while it doesn't feel very Doctor Who I suppose at least it's something new. This whole arc has been an interesting experiment but in my opinion it's not playing to the strengths of the program. I realise it was a massive tease to call the episode "Let's Kill Hitler", to set it in Berlin in 1938 and to set up the Tesselecta and Justice Department Crew and then reduce these elements to backdrop features rather than the main dramatic force of the show but you can't help but feel like these might have been the cleverer ideas and that while it was very "clever" in a different way for Moffat to establish these preconceptions over the break and then dash them it doesn't mean that what we got instead was somehow superior. The poisoning of the Doctor in particular seems pointless - we know, much like the Tesselecta crew, that the Doctor is going to die in Utah in 2011 and I don't see why Moffat bothered with this poisoning plot when he could have had the Doctor busy doing something more interesting than staggering around in pain. It seems like an excuse to get River to use up her remaining regenerations to explain why she didn't survive in the Library, although I believe River herself stated in "Forest of the Dead" that the uplink would overpower regeneration anyway.
Regardless, I believe the idea that we could have explored the consequences of interfering in time might have been explored more. Certainly Mels goes on in the flashback section about how the Doctor is responsible for all these atrocities of history due to not intervening and it might have been an interesting idea to develop. I realise killing Hitler in time travel stories is somewhat trite but I think the Tesselecta was an interesting concept and it could have been used for a greater purpose than to provide pointless danger through the antibodies and to act as an information dump about River and the Silence. Speaking of which, how do the Tesselcta crew get all the way into Hitler's office and freeze him before realising that they're seven years early? It seems like a pretty stupid plot hole. Hitler's just there for a big gag about Rory punching him and putting him in a cupboard and the entire Third Reich is treated in a very trivial way which is somewhat disappointing for Doctor Who. We really could have done with a nice juicy speculative episode where the Doctor had to engage with the Tesselecta crew about the rights and wrongs of killing Hitler, perhaps with observed consequences like the post-Sutekh 1980 in "Pyramids of Mars" and a dark and edgy view of the Third Reich but I think Moffat probably considers that sort of thing unsuitable for Who's "family show" status because the scariness for him these days derives from more overt horror archetypes. I just think it's a missed opportunity.
While I think Rory got a lot of good moments and Amy was serviceable, psychotic conditioned River was too cheeky, flirty and excitable to be anything more than cringe-inducing and for some reason Moffat decided to poison the Doctor so that instead of letting the Smith do the energetic performance at which he excels we have to see him gasping and moaning. It's quite powerful to see the Doctor so vulnerable but at the same time it's Doctor Who, and we want to see the Doctor in action. His dressing in the tuxedo is a pointless visual gag and the sequence with the TARDIS voice interface is an incredibly weak excuse to show rather cardboardy publicity shots of Eccly/Tennant's companions for the sake of nothing more than some stupid continuity showing what were mostly crap characters anyway for the benefit of New Series fanboys. Even young Amelia is poorly used in this sequence and pointless. The whole "poisoned Doctor" thing is just a waste of time. They must spend at least twenty minutes effectively just having a big chin wag in that Berlin restaurant, virtually half the episode, and it makes the narrative seem stretched and static. They give a slight change with the Tesselecta interior but it's underused and weakened by the insultingly arbitrary "antibodies" which exist only for the sake of a pointless threat of violence.
The problem is while the "first meeting with River" plot is all well and good it needed a substantial parallel plot to maintain its integrity and since the Hitler/Justice Department stuff gets railroaded so early it makes the River plot seem long-winded, self-indulgent and clunky. The magic Time Lord golden light of plot solving is also incredibly frustrating to see again and I hope Moffat is careful about how much of this kind of magic thinking he puts into these episodes. There's nothing wrong with the performances, per se. It's just that the story isn't interesting and it feels like arc-building which can only be useful within an extremely specific context. It doesn't have enough sticking power to work on its own, and what makes this unfortunate is that the pre-war Nazi Germany and time-travelling Justice were such good ideas so needlessly squandered. As I say, it's been an interesting experiment, but if it's proved anything I think it's that character-focused arcs really aren't the show's strength. It feels like a let-down after the break and rather than the plot hooks encouraging further watching for me it's the fervent hope that the show is going to become noticeably good again.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

"Superman/Batman: Public Enemies"

Out of Superman and Batman, which hero better embodies the world of superheroes? I apologise to Marvel, but these two DC champions are simply more prolific. The only Marvel hero I could imagine might be equally well-known and representational of the superhero world is Spider-Man, and even that is a bit of a stretch. When people talk about superheroes, in the most general sense, the immediate examples which spring to mind are Superman and Batman, and I can see why having them team up for regular comic adventures makes a lot of sense in both artistic and business terms.
These days Batman is probably the most recognisable. His animated adventures have been on TV in one form or another pretty much constantly since the early Nineties and he's also never been too far from the big screen, becoming accustomed to success therein especially with the acclaimed Christopher Nolan Batman films. Superman, on the other hand, is more of a traditional icon. The first two Superman films from the Seventies are classics, he too got animated attention in his own series and alongside Batman in Justice League, and to your average person he generally represents "superheroes" in the popular consciousness. His many above-human abilities embody what we consider to be "superheroic" physically. Superman and Batman embody the two big ideas of superheroics: one, a protector who averts catastrophes and solves disasters beyond human means, and the other a detective and crime fighter who upholds the law where normal authority can't. My personal preference is for Batman, because I find him more interesting and his relative plausibility requires less suspension of disbelief, but I'm not averse to Superman either. They both have their place.
In "Public Enemies", the first storyline of the 2000s Superman/Batman line, Jeph Loeb gives a very effective examination of how these two most distinctive of superheroes function together. We're constantly shown how they're both eerily similar yet strikingly different. Their parallel narration of events permits us to see insights which, while on one hand coloured by Superman's optimism and faith, and on the other by Batman's cynicism and ruthless pragmatism, reveal to us how they're characters who function naturally as friends and allies despite their vast differences, because between the two of them what they achieve is balance. This balance gives them what they need for victory.
This gets us onto the plot. It's a bit silly, I admit. A huge Kryptonite asteroid is heading for Earth and Lex Luthor, currently President of the United States, blames Superman, putting out a billion dollar bounty on his head. Unfortunately, no explanation is given for why anyone believes Luthor's claim and although in an interview Lois mentions how there's absolutely no logic behind suggesting that the presence of this asteroid somehow makes Superman a criminal it seems a little implausible that Captain Atom and his team would be okay on just rushing out based on so little evidence. There is also some weirdness such as when a heavily Kingdom Come-inspired Superman from a post-asteroid future shows up in the Batcave and beats up Superman and Batman. While it's interesting to see Superman driven to such lows it comes across as rather odd. Similarly the young Toyman's giant Composite Superman-Batman spaceship is kind of absurd, although this is of course lampshaded for our benefit. There are some other odd moments too, like when the two heroes get the drop on Captain Marvel and Hawkman completely off-page and show up in their uniforms to trick Luthor with only a hasty explanation from Superman as to how it was achieved. It doesn't even seem to be for a particularly noteworthy reason either, mostly just for the sake of a visual gag. In the same segment a whole bunch of both Batman and Superman's young sidekicks show up and while I can recognise Nightwing, Robin, Batgirl and Superboy I didn't have a clue who the rest of them were. Apparently they're one of like four Supergirls and Steel's daughter. Whaddya know.
Nonetheless there's lots of chunky action and the characterisation of Superman and Batman is good. The art style, while rather exaggerated, is easy on the eye without being difficult to take seriously and the characters are all distinctive with the action quite simple to follow. I enjoyed the role given to Captain Atom, one of the more interesting second-stringers of the DC Universe, and while Luthor was very crazy his battle with Superman at the end where he is asked "When will you stop believing your own lies?" is rather disturbing. It's a rather harsh indictment of the state the US was perceived to be in at the start of the 2000s and of using scapegoats for aggressive and selfish policy. Despite the fact that it featured Luthor as the primary villain you never feel like Batman is sidelined and he and Superman work very well together as a team. It's all entirely plausible and you can see how, despite everything, writers like to depict these two as best friends. I wonder if, considering the perceived "trinity" of top DC heroes, how a Superman/Batman/Wonder Woman combined title would work. Anyway, it's a good little read although it's short length can seem somewhat unsatisfying. The plot similarly is a little rushed and can feel a bit confusing at times but regardless it's worth it for the Superman/Batman interaction and it's a good way to enjoy these two top notch heroes in a manner which is not only a good experience for the two characters but also a refreshing take on their distinctive personalities for the reader. Batman's still better, though.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

"Justice League International" Volume 1

Recently I was exposed to the notion in DC Comics of the camaraderie of Blue Beetle and Booster Gold, two second-tier heroes who have recently become very popular among the fans for their strong friendship and humorous interactions. Not wishing to read about Ted Kord's relatively recent demise which ended his time as the Blue Beetle yet elevated both himself and Booster to legendary status, I investigated where I could view the beginnings of their activities and got wind of their Justice League escapades, particularly those beginning in 1987.
Obviously we're facing a very recently post-Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns era in the late eighties where the influence of serious, gritty, deconstructionist comics were definitely in vogue, and DC was attempting to restart a lot of their major franchises, so Justice League International is an interesting response. Believe me when I say that Watchmen is one of my favourite comics and that, although I think it's a little dull at times, The Dark Knight Returns also has its place in shaping conceptions of the superhero genre. Nonetheless, I found Justice League International to be in its own way a very intriguing work.
Keith Giffen presents to us a newly-formed Justice League in the aftermath of what I understand was a rather embarrassing Aquaman-led era known by the title, smirk-inducing even out of context, "Justice League Detroit". Superman's not in the league and barely appears. Wonder Woman is absent. The creators were given Batman largely as an act of charity, and of the rest of the "Big Seven" who originally founded the League, Martian Manhunter is the only other member present. Our resident Green Lantern is the unimaginably annoying Guy Gardner, and the other spots are occupied from the outside by amusingly lower-exposure heroes Blue Beetle, Mister Miracle, Doctor Light, Black Canary, Captain Marvel, Doctor Fate and, a little later, Booster Gold.
It's an interesting conflation of the more modern comic style and earlier Silver and Bronze Age modes, with the thoughts of certain characters often represented in bubbles, coupled with relatively simple-seeming plots and a fairly minimalist but distinctive art style. Blue Beetle, Mister Miracle and Captain Marvel in particular all provide chortle-worthy internal insights into the action, as does Booster Gold in the issue in which he receives particular focus, and seeing Batman show up and instantly take complete control of the League is both completely predictable and fitting and yet also somewhat disturbing, just as it should be. Even Batman doesn't escape the humour though, making some very funny Star Trek jokes with Blue Beetle and utterly trouncing Guy Gardner who is satisfyingly put in his place. If I had any major quibble with the characters it would be that Doctor Fate is introduced and then almost immediately disappears, and while he was important for the Grey Man plot I personally find Doctor Fate a very interesting character and would have liked to have seen him as more of a serious support for Batman compared to the general humour and silliness. We do have Martian Manhunter, however, who is nicely utilised in a similar regard and is fittingly elected leader of the League at the conclusion of the first volume.
Humour in a late Cold War setting is such a nice contrast to the grittiness of those two aforementioned groundbreakers that I can't help but feel affection for Justice League International. The idea of US-Soviet cooperation with Captain Atom and Rocket Red both joining the League as well as the three aliens who show up to destroy the earth's nuclear weapons are all bizarrely optimistic and intriguing contrasts to the typical doom and gloom of the era. Seeing Superman talk to Regan, having Gorbachev giving the League access to Soviet airspace and even seeing "Timothy Dalton in The Living Daylights" up on the sign at the cinema in Stone Ridge all convey a sense of real engagement with the actual climate that weren't dealt with by the alternate universes of either of the two giants of the era and they provide a completely different examination even in obvious conversation with the way comics had changed. Who could see the League zooming around the place in Blue Beetle's bug ship, for instance, and not instantly be reminded of Nite-Owl and Rorschach in Archie? It's especially evident considering Dan Dreiberg and his Owlship are inspired by Ted Kord and the Bug, not the other way around. It's clearly poking a bit of fun at the serious turn comics had taken and suggesting that good will and humour could have a place in the superheroics of the era.
My one complaint about the compilation is that I wish it had more. It's quite short, and I know Justice League International has been split into numerous volumes, which is a little disappointing. It's also a shame to see Captain Marvel leave the group, because he was a funny presence as well as adding some useful muscle. Some people have complained that rather than being on glossy pages it's printed on the rough 'phone book paper' in which trade paperbacks are usually bound but honestly I can't see cause to complain, it doesn't make any difference to reading the books and they're very cheap. If you want a change from the dark and angsty world of modern comics but understandably wish to avoid the outright stupidity and condescension of the Silver Age, I doubt I could recommend anything better. Not only does it make a whole bunch of supporting heroes into a lovable and well-developed team, it reinvigorates a sense of fun and companionship into the comic superhero setting. There's something satisfying about seeing heroes who are doing work no less dangerous or significant than Superman cast into a realistic eighties political backdrop yet realised in an exciting and humorous fashion and while other books may reinforce what's great about comics now it refreshes for us what's always been great about them.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

"Flashpoint: Citizen Cold"

It seems like I've been reading a lot of comics lately so I'm afraid it's another comic review. If you come here to read me complaining about Doctor Who or lamenting the vacuousness of modern culture you might want to go back to surfing TV Tropes or whatever.
Anyway, if you're tuned into the comic book world you're probably aware that DC Comics are currently running what they call a "crossover event" where a bunch of comic book storylines get mashed together in a cack-handed and dramatically inept fashion so that the company can squeeze more money out of overpayed people like me desperate for imaginative stimulation. I believe Marvel are doing one as well called "Fear Itself" but as I'm only dipping my toes into the ravenous waters of Marvel comics at the moment I don't have a damn clue what it's about. DC's crossover, on the other hand, is called "Flashpoint" and as you may be able to guess it takes its cues from The Flash, who in my mind jostles Batman for top place among my comic book heroes of choice.
Basically The Flash's enemy the Reverse-Flash aka Professor Zoom has mucked around with the timeline and everything's different. This gives DC the opportunity to release a bucketload of limited series', each focusing around the lives of different characters in this crossover parallel universe. The Flash is busy hanging around with Batman not achieving much in terms of saving the world or indeed entertaining the reader and the only Flashpoint series of which I've now read all the issues is the three-part "Citizen Cold" line so here we are.
If you're not a humungous comic book nerd like me you may need to be informed about Captain Cold, or Citizen Cold as he is called in the world of Flashpoint. To get to brass tacks, the Flash is the super speedy guy in the DC Universe and his main enemies, apart from the aforementioned Reverse-Flash, are the Rogues, a coalition of bad guys with various abilities who almost universally work together to take down the Flash and cause crime and mischief rather than try to take him on one at a time the way most villains do. It's one of the more unique elements of the Flash storyline which I find interesting. Since time immemorial these Rogues have been led by Captain Cold, a dastardly criminal with a peculiar sort of ethical code.
I realise from his name he sounds like a kind of Poor Man's Mister Freeze but he has radically different motivations. Unlike Freeze, driven to crime and desperation by his wife's terminal illness and a botched cryogenics experiment which rendered him in a permanent sub-zero state, Captain Cold is a relatively straight-laced and stable crook who had an abusive upbringing and turned to crime as a way to rebel against the cruelty of his father. His cold gun was made specifically to slow down the Flash; the ice is just a side effect. In addition, he doesn't have any weird mutations or powers or anything. He's just a guy who dresses in snow gear including a parka and anti-flash specs and has a cold gun. He's the undisputed leader of the Rogues but also one of the better ones, for a crook. He doesn't engage in drug dealing and discourages murder without good reason. He's mostly out these days for profit but has a strong sense of loyalty. As I say, he's a complex character.
In the world of Flashpoint, writer and artist Scott Kolins reimagines Cold as Citizen Cold, the "Hero of Central City". In a world without the Flash, it's Cold who hunts down the villains and gets the public affection. He's the one who's after Iris West, the Flash's wife in the normal timeline. The Rogues are his enemies. Yet he's murderous and vengeful, and he has the same crooked past as his Captain equivalent. While it's interesting to have Cold as the replacement for the Flash in this world and to see how much he profits from the adoration of a chanting crowd who cheers him on with cries of "Cold Snap! Cold Snap!" as he murders villains, I think there was also potential here for Cold to have a good past and for that to be explored. Nonetheless it's a rather hearty condemnation of that brutal style of heroism which fluctuates in and out of vogue these days and the strange fascination he holds for Iris West conveys a similar level of intrigue. She finds him compelling despite his abhorrent nature, and I suppose that's part of the nature of super-heroes, and also super-villains. Here we have one who is effectively both and it creates an uneasy tension which I think is portrayed effectively.
The other Rogues aren't changed much. One thing I found tedious was the portrayal of Mirror Master. He's trapped in his mirrors in a "near death state" which prevents him from leaving. I've always found Mirror Master's powers to be kind of ludicruous because they seem to let him get away with a ridiculous amount of stuff with virtually no explanation apart from, perhaps, that he can connect reflexive surfaces to some kind of alternate dimension. The idea that his near-death has "tainted the mirror-verse", however, is pretty stupid. Weather Wizard wants revenge, not much change there. Trickster II is a dull caricature as ever. The Rogue I enjoyed seeing the most was Fallout. Fallout is a tragic character who I've always found engaging because rather than malevolent or criminally-minded he's just unfortunate and desperate to find peace and I enjoyed the revelation at the end that he was in a pact with Mister Freeze to find a cure. Personally I would have enjoyed seeing this interaction which could have been developed a lot more, especially since Mister Freeze is another DC villain I find compelling. I would have ideally liked the notions surrounding the friendship between Fallout and Mister Freeze, two men driven away from society and the law by immense personal tragedy and disfigurement, depicted as developing a strong relationship or bond of some kind, although I guess in the end what we were given was at least a satisfying teaser considering the space limitations and the need to tell the story of Citizen Cold.
I would have liked to have seen some more Flashpoint Wally West as well, who was killed in the first issue, and some more exploration of his friendship with the Pied Piper, but again clearly space limitations were an issue. That being said, Citizen Cold constructs a more effectively self-contained and certainly more narratively structured story tham some of the Flashpoint tie-ins I've been reading and its questioning of the traditional role of heroes and public support was, I believe, a strong one. It would even have been impressive if Snart and Iris had ended up running off to Dubai together but nonetheless it did its job. My one quibble would be that the fight with the Rogues in issue 2 and the fight with them in issue 3 at times felt very similar but I realise that's a more or less inevitable consequence of the genre. Nonetheless it's the Flashpoint series which has impressed me the most, perhaps matched only by "Flashpoint: Batman Knight of Vengeance" of which I am still missing the middle issue, and while Scott Kolins' writing is occasionally perhaps a little unspectacular it gets the job done and his art is understated while still being engrossing to examine. I think it's if anything impressive that he both wrote and drew this series and managed to maintain what I consider to be a respectably high level of quality for a crossover tie-in, so many of which have been continuity-riddled penny-dreadful ideas relying on twists and shock value. If you're sceptical about Flashpoint I can at least recommend "Citizen Cold" and suggest that if more comic series were written with this kind of structure and pacing the genre might be taken a little more seriously.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

"Green Lantern"

Let's continue the comic trend. Green Lantern has received some pretty bad press lately. Green Lantern is by no means my favourite comic character; I prefer Batman and the Flash, because I like a little detective mystery in my comic stories and there's just something about long action sequences involving dudes beating each other up in space which I don't find amazingly appealling. Green Lantern has his place but the scale and scope and the aliens often come across as a bit ludicrous to me. You may be surprised to know that the film does the balance reasonably well between the more grounded stuff and the action. Is it any good, though? That's a more difficult question to answer.
Green Lantern is an average superhero film. There hasn't been a theatrically released DC film which features a major non-Batman superhero since 2006's Superman Returns, another underrated picture, and I feel like they and Warner Bros. are maybe lacking the practice which Marvel has been getting by releasing spades of superhero films on a semi-regular basis featuring pretty much all of their major characters. I believe this makes it understandable, then, that Green Lantern is a slightly awkward offering.
I think the main problem is that they bit off more than they could chew in terms of storyline. Here we have three major plot strands: Hal Jordan becoming the first human Green Lantern, the Green Lantern Corps fighting Parallax, and the rise of classic Green Lantern villain Hector Hammond. They try to merge the Parallax and Hector Hammond storylines but I'm not sure how effectively it's done and I think all three stories suffer from not being able to get enough individual attention.
Ryan Reynolds does a good job as Hal and he's one of the strong points of the film. His comedy side occasionally contributes to the difficulty with which the film can be taken seriously but he makes the jokes work and he also does his best bringing across the idea of Hal as more of an insecure compensating jerk who needs to get his life together as well as become a hero. Frankly he's a little let down by supporting characters; while Blake Lively's clearly very pretty her Carol Ferris is performed in what I could only find to be a wooden and unconvincing way. The story would have benefited from more involvement with Tom Kalmaku. Perhaps Hal's daddy issues are overplayed but his rise from laurel-riding slacker to Green Lantern is paced effectively.
What, then, of the Corps? On the plus side we're not given the routine Sinestro betrayal story but again I feel like we either saw too much or not enough of the Corps. Their storyline becomes part of an awkward middle ground and I feel like it would have been more effective if we'd focused more on Hal and had the storyline of the Corps as more a piece of backstory. I assume they wanted to ground the story strongly in the real world so the space scenes could have easily been toned done just to explain Hal's powers, perhaps not even introduced until the end or in a sequel. Otherwise the narrative can seem abstracted between the Corps' activity and Hal's own story. If they'd cut Parallax, they could have focused more on Hammond and the Earth-based plot which might have improved things. It feels like Hammond is introduced a bit late and turning him at the end into a stooge for Parallax is a little disappointing.
Honestly I'm not sure what else to say about it. It didn't blow me away but it didn't inspire the great loathing and antipathy it seems to have aroused in professional critics either. Maybe as neither a Green Lantern fan nor a serious film buff I never had as much at stake in Green Lantern but as far as I'm concerned it's an adequate but unspectacular piece of pulp cinema.

Friday, August 12, 2011

"Captain America Omnibus" by Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting et al

I feel a little weird doing another Captain America-related review right after the film review but I was a little lost for other content upon which I could meaningfully comment. What's more, I've never reviewed a comic. I've done TV, film, video game and even a novel now but the comic medium has so far escaped my scrutiny.
As I mentioned in my last review, I have an inconsistent relationship with comics: on one hand I find them engaging and compelling as a unique storytelling medium and on the other I lament their tendency towards trashiness and pulp. I've been a reader of DC comics for a while now and it's easy to see the disparity when from one moment to another you can have Batman solving hardboiled detective cases in a seamy criminal underworld rife with interesting psychology and social critique and then he's teleporting up to the Justice League space station to hang out with various aliens, robots and wizards from beyond the plausibility event horizon. I'm not saying the speculative elements are inherently lowbrow, just that you can see the world of comics has a somewhat fragmented narrative perspective which can easily become silly and meaningless.
However before I picked up the herein reviewed Captain America Omnibus I had never read a Marvel comic apart from a few unappealing scraps from Free Comic Book Day 2010 featuring Iron Man and Thor flying to the moon and smashing up some lunar holiday resort apparently just to be dicks or something. The Captain America Omnibus, however, had received a lot of good press, and intrigued by its appealingly large size and colourful cover I grabbed it and read it over a couple of days.
I've got to say I'm fairly impressed. The Omnibus contains the first 25 issues of Ed Brubaker's run as writer, the fifth volume, and while it's by no means some kind of masterpiece it constitutes a solid, thoroughly entertaining and intriguing piece of work. The characterisation is good, the plot is cleverly interwoven without becoming too lost in continuity, and it's all brought to life by Steve Epting's artwork, which has a robust and distinct quality which makes every page very enjoyable to view. It really just feels like a well-rounded package. Of course here in Australia it's a little on the expensive side, coming in at eighty-five dollars, and that may seem like a bit much to some people. I'm inclined to agree but at the same time I don't begrudge it the expense because it's so weighty and solid and the quality of the comics is such that it feels valuable and worthwhile. I'm trying to be positive here without using too many superlatives because that's the kind of work the Captain America Omnibus is: a really well-put-together comic and a good read.
It makes some nice statements about the problems of letting private corporations wield too much influence over the government and it has an interesting argument to make about the viability and meaning of heroism in our modern world of implication, liability, blame-shifting and media scandal. One unfortunate aspect is that the storyline, while relatively self-contained, is at the end fairly interrupted by the Marvel "Civil War" and, to a lesser extent, "House of M" crossover events so you feel like Cap's adventures are mostly happening in another story and he's only occasionally reappearing in his own stuff. It makes the end where he is apparently killed feel a bit fragmented and like the really important plot which is meant to make these later events really meaningful happened elsewhere. This is a similar problem in earlier chapters where Nick Fury's gone AWOL in another comic line and now he's a hologram and stuff and because none of it is explained in the Captain America storyline it can seem jarring and a little like we've missed part of the action, especially considering how important Fury is as a character earlier on. At least, however, they provide a quick synopsis before the chapter when any major plot developments have taken place for Cap in other publications and I think Brubaker does his best keeping it together in what must be one of the more frustrating elements of the corporate nature of the medium where your character sometimes may have to been commandeered by another writer for a different story. Nonetheless I almost feel like "Civil War" should have been included if it wasn't for the fact that it was by a different author and apparently was kind of crap.
Besides the Death of Steve Rogers, which is more the focus of the next omnibus, this storyline is also famous for resurrecting the original Bucky Barnes, Cap's wartime sidekick whose death had been a long-standing untouchable scenario in a comic book environment where usually death is more just like being asleep for a long time and woken up in a contrived manner. Bucky's return as the mysterious "Winter Soldier" is done pretty well, and along with the other spy thriller type narratives present in the omnibus it's a compelling tale of Soviet intrigue and mental conditioning. Brubaker does a good job of forming unsettling parallels between Bucky's role in the Second World War as a saboteur and bloody-handed assassin against the Nazis and his use by the Soviets in the Cold War against their old allies. It gives us a nice sense of ambiguity. Cap's anxiety over dealing with this reborn Bucky encapsulates the notion of how things have changed since the apparently black-and-white days, in the moral as well as filmic sense of the Second World War, and also how they may have stayed the same.
It's also good to see the excessively villainous Red Skull, about whom I complained at length in my last review, get shot and killed early on even if it's possibly just all apart of some dastardly plan to avoid being implicated. That being said, the moments I probably enjoyed the least were the ones featuring Red Skull's two cronies: his daughter Sin and Crossbones. While Crossbones was quite good earlier in the piece once he teams up with the deconditioned Sin and goes on a rampage he loses some of his interest value. Sin is a dull cackling sadist much like Red Skull and the earlier teases of ambiguity from Crossbones unfortunately become much harder to sympathise with later on. That's why the ex-Soviet corporate villain Lukin functions well as the antagonist because he's not of the same breed of unambiguous monster as Red Skull and his henchmen, and his consternation surrounding the use of the Cosmic Cube is actually played for sympathy and the fact that he tries to rid himself of the cube is a nice aversion of the typical 'bad guy controlled by their McGuffin' scenario. The fact that he becomes somehow 'possessed' by Red Skull though suggests that maybe Power does always corrupt. It is, again, somewhat ambiguous. Where do we draw the line between the meaning and the narrative? Can we distinguish between Lukin's actions and Red Skull's? I guess the point is the answers aren't always clear, especially with the twist towards the end where a brainwashed Sharon Carter is the one to pull the trigger on Steve.
It's also worth mentioning the added material apart from the main Brubaker storyline. There's the 65th Anniversary special, which does tie into the plot and is a nice rendering of a 40s style strip with simplistic retro artwork while maintaing a mature manner. The Winter Soldier special isn't bad either, with a nice spotlight on Bucky, but it's perhaps hampered a little by the silly New Avengers or whoever they are who fight with him. This is similar to incidents with Cap in other chapters where Falcon, who flies and talks to birds, or Spitfire who has flight and super-speed, invade the otherwise relatively sane and plausible world of S.H.I.E.L.D. operations. I know flying aircraft carriers and hovercars aren't super-realistic but they fit with the spy-fi feel while the incursion of some of the weirder Marvel heroes and mutants seems a bit off. The team up with Iron Man, alternately, seems reasonable. I guess that's just a consequence of a shared universe. The "House of M" special, included for completeness, is a good little one-shot too and its inclusion is doubly effective in how well it contrasts with the main storyline. Returning to the weirdness, we also have bits where the Doctors Doom, Faustus and Armin Zola turn up which can also seem a bit silly. Overall though they mostly just grant the impression of a wider world and broader palette of characters.
Anyway to avoid waffling further I'd say that the Captain America Omnibus deserves a reputation for quality. I'm not saying it's flawless or a work of artistic genius, but it's well-told, pleasingly visualised and compelling to read. It maintains a good balance between action and ideas and it has a strong and consistent storyline. I found it to be a very effective entry point into the world of Marvel comics and worthy piece of evidence that the medium does have the potential for satisfaction.