When Words Collide

Mon, March 29th, 2010 at 1:58pm PDT | Updated: March 29th, 2010 at 3:37pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

RETCON REVIEWS

Sometimes a comic will come along - or an entire series will come along - that isn't as good as everyone wants it to be. And the critical response can be harsh. Fans will complain. Message boards, for decades, will fill with cries of great pain and sorrow.

In the world of superhero comics, in the universes where continuity reigns supreme, and what happened last week or last year supposedly matters to what happens now and forever, there's a way to get around the problem of the really, really bad comic. They can just ignore it, or they can pull the pin and lob forth a retcon. A beautiful glorious retcon that explains why Peter Parker may or may not have ever been married and/or been a clone the whole time. A retcon that explains that, no, Bucky wasn't really dead, you big silly. He was actually a Soviet assassin who spent his non-assassination days in suspended animation. Hal Jordan didn't become Parallax and destroy everything in his path - it was an ancient entity that possessed his body and made him do that. Obviously.

Well, if the comic book creators can do it, then it's time for the critics to do it as well. From that humble beginning, the Retcon Review is born.

In a Retcon Review, you write a review of a comic that should have been produced. It's not a review of a retcon, it's a retcon of a review. You see where I'm going with this?

Take, for example, Chuck Austen's X-Men run. Universally derided. Openly mocked. A Retcon Review would describe (through the power of the retcon, magically changing the past) how Chuck Austen came on to the X-Men series and not only built upon what Grant Morrison established, but he brought the series to a new level of greatness. He didn't for example, turn it into a soap opera in which the Juggernaut became an ol' softie and everyone fell in love with everyone else. He didn't turn it into a third-rate "Final Fantasy" remix. That never happened, or it no longer happened as far as I'm concerned, with the power of a Retcon Review.

This week, I'll give you a few Retcon Reviews. I will change the past. Forever.

RETCON REVIEW: SECRET WARS II, by Jim Shooter and Al Milgrom

The original "Secret Wars" may have a place in all our hearts for its merchandising charm and its simplistic core, with good guys vs. bad guys on a giant battle planet and nothing to do but fight or talk about fighting, but it's really "Secret Wars II" that reaches for the sublime. And it succeeds.

Though Jim Shooter's previous work has largely explored cosmic notions and massive ideas, in "Secret Wars II" he convincingly explores the essence of humanity. What it means to be human. How humanity is as profound as any cosmic idea.

While the first "Secret Wars" focused on the heroes and villains who battled because of the whim of the omnipotent being called "The Beyonder," the sequel brings the Beyonder to Earth, and it's magical to see. Al Milgrom's concept of the Beyonder-in-human-form is no caricature of a human being. He isn't a superman. He's a normal man, not someone with a ridiculous fashion sense or hair he'd seen in an episode of "Knight Rider." No, Shooter and Milgrom stay away from the cliché of the "stranger in a strange land," by giving the Beyonder a soulful presence and an intelligence that leads him to question the relationship between good and evil, between hero and villain. His presence in the story - the way he drives the story for all nine issues - makes him not an oblique cipher, but a strongly-developed character. That scene where he carries the Molecule Man across the graveyard and into the starry sky filled with constellations inspired by Marvel heroes? Heartbreaking.

The Beyonder calls into question the entirety of the Marvel Universe and challenges the heroes and villains and everyone in between to rethink their place within it. It also provokes the reader to reconsider how these parables of justice and revenge, these constant battles, and how they relate to the "real" world. To our world.

Shooter and Milgrom don't explicitly tread in metafictional territory, but they bump against the border between fiction and reality. This "god" of the Marvel Universe - not a god like Thor, not a god like Odin, both of whom are glorified superheroes in the house built by Lee and Kirby - challenges our preconceptions of the genre, and stretches the bounds of the medium. It's the logical conclusion of Alan Moore's early work on "Marvelman," and if Moore ever gets a chance to finish his work on that series, then he should take notes on what Shooter and Milgrom accomplished in "Secret Wars II."

This one's not a cash-grab. It's not a meaningless event that does nothing more than bolster sales in the short term. No, "Secret Wars II" is a work of literature. One that will stand the test of time.

RETCON REVIEW: DEATH OF THE NEW GODS, by Jim Starlin

The title of this series - when it was announced - seemed to bode poorly. Why do the New Gods need to die? Why put these excellent Kirby creations to rest, when all it takes is a good writer and a good artist to propel such characters to the top of the DC sales charts, to the top of the DC quality charts?

In Jim Starlin - as exemplified in "Death of the New Gods" - we get a great writer, a great artist.

One of the dangers with this series is that it could easily have become irrelevant. It could have failed to mesh with the powerful denouement of the surprisingly-strong "Countdown" series. It could have become irrelevant with the "Final Crisis" that followed. But, no. Starlin made each of those series even better by reinvigorating the Kirby Fourth World characters and giving them a tragic tale worthy of their Kingly origins. No one since Kirby has made Orion as fierce, as conflicted. No one has made Metron so cosmically divine. Even Mister Miracle, who has navigated the post-Kirby DCU with style (mostly when handled by Keith Giffen), has rarely looked as good as he does here, both in visual appearance and in depth of characterization.

This is the apotheosis of the New Gods, not their death.

The core mystery that drives this series is as compelling as anything we've seen in recent years. It's a page-turner, and it's substantial as well. Starlin explores the relationship between New Genesis and Apokalips, between the New Gods and the old, and shows how central Earth has always been in the Fourth World mythos.

This series adds so much to the Kirby legend, and it tells a compelling story along the way.

Ultimately, the final struggle between Orion and Darkseid, so long-ago prophecied, so long anticipated, reaches its climax here. And, man, is it worth the wait! During those final moments, it's as if we're listening to James Mason read from the Bible as a reunited Led Zepplin plays in the background. But better.

Starlin pulls it off, and he set the stage perfectly for the universe-changing events of "Final Crisis." Simply amazing.

RETCON REVIEW: SUPERGIRL, by Jeph Loeb and Ian Churchill

When this new, or newly-revamped, Supergirl first appeared in "Superman and Batman," she seemed like an embarrassingly pandering attempt to target a certain segment of the DC readership. More sexy Lolita space assassin than true Supergirl, the character who appeared in that series didn't seem to have much chance at longevity. She was the mid-2000s version of the Hypno-Hustler, a fashion victim of a specific time, already past the "sell by" date.

Luckily, Jeph Loeb saw the problem with the Supergirl he injected into "Superman and Batman," and when it came time to launch her into her own comic, he changed everything to give her some genuine substance. This Kara Zor-El matters.

It helps that Ian Churchill downplays the forbidden sexuality of the character and redesigns her costume to make her a hero that's worthy of the name. The original Supergirl of the Silver Age would be too prudish, too innocent for the contemporary world in which we live, and Churchill recognizes that in his redesign, but he also gives her a sense that she is a real girl of today. A real girl with amazing powers and a sense of wonder. It's not a cynical, sexed up version of the character. It's a genuinely inspirational one.

And Loeb simplifies the characters origin almost immediately. She's Superman's cousin, lost in space for years, and now a part of the Superman Family on Earth. In the first story arc in this volume, he gives her a major challenge in the form of the Female Furies, but he largely focuses on what makes her different from her cousin. She is more direct, less measured than the older Kal-El. She's impulsive in battle, but that doesn't make her thoughtless. Her confrontation with Lashina, in particular - defenseless child in one hand, clutching the Apokolyptian metal whips in the other - shows her courage and force of will. She has depths that Loeb only begins to explore in the first few issues, but he gives a sense that there's plenty to be explored here.

It's too late to worry about spoilers, I'm sure, since this series launched nearly half a decade ago, but I don't want to ruin the surprise with Comet the Super-Horse. Giggle if you will, but Loeb makes Comet one of the most valuable additions (or re-additions) to the DC Universe in years.

"Supergirl" has never looked as good as she does here - strong, confident, yet still bound in the conflicts of a real teenage girl - and this is a series that will be looked back upon for a long time. When writers and artists think about how best to bring back a seemingly-outdated character, they'll look to Loeb and Churchill's "Supergirl" and cry out, "yes, that is how it's done!"

RETCON REVIEW: ULTIMATUM, by Jeph Loeb and David Finch

When the Ultimate line launched, it was billed as a way to garner new readers, to bring in a younger generation by updating crusty old characters for today. "Ultimate Spider-Man" wasn't a teenager of the 1960s, he was a teenager of our world now. His dead uncle had a ponytail, and that changed everything.

And while the stated intent of the line may never have matched the reality of the comics - it became a kind of faux-nostalgia for the same 30+ year old fans who'd been reading all the other Marvel comics anyway - there was something fresh and lively about the Ultimate line, from Bendis' Spider-Man work to Millar's take on the Avengers in "The Ultimates." But after a decade, the Ultimate line needed a kick in the pants. And I can't imagine a more effective one than "Ultimatum."

Just as he did with his "Supergirl" revemp, Loeb cut away the foolishness and the excess and told a clear, emotionally-powerful tale here. "Ultimatum," like the great "Secret Wars II" before it, doesn't just tell a mega-event, it tells a story about the universe itself (if not the real universe, than at least the metaphysics of the comic book universe in which it takes place). There's not a single false moment in "Ultimatum." Nothing feels cheap or shocking-for-the-sake-of-shock-value. Every emotional moment - and we get plenty of them - is earned. And they are devastating.

From the noble sacrifice of Nightcrawler, who teleports into the tsunami not because he's a superhero but because he's a man, to the death of Professor X, who transfers his powers, and noble legacy, to his students before standing up to the immense, maniacal threat of Magneto, these are moments that will be remembered forever.

Characters die, elegantly rendered by David Finch, who doesn't let his compulsion to frame every page in millions of tiny lines overpower his clean imagery here, but their deaths mean something in the larger narrative. "Ultimatum" is an epic tragedy, but it’s a tragedy in the classical mold, where the power of fate and free will intertwine, and we're left with an immensely powerful catharsis.

"Ultimatum" was exactly what the Ultimate universe needed. Beautifully drawn, devastatingly effective and full of meaning beyond words, this is a comic that actually deserves the kind of fancy Omnibus edition that everything receives these days. And out of the ashes of the unbelievably glorious "Ultimatum," I can't wait to see what arises.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" (which explores "Zenith" in great detail) and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: gbfiremelon

Listen to Tim and CBR's Chad Nevett talk comics each week on The Splash Page Podcast.

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