Sunday, July 03, 2005

This Comic Is Good - The Adventures of Superman Annual #4

So long as I am praising Robert Loren Fleming's work (as I was just recently doing right here), I would be remiss if I did not point out what I thought was one of the more impressive pieces of superhero comic book writing I have seen in the past ten years or so, which is namely, this Annual.

What makes it so impressive is that the comic was part of the big Eclipso the Darkness Within Annual Crossover by DC. And, let's be honest, annuals that make up part of company-wide Annual crossovers tend to be pretty lame.

Does anyone remember a standout issue of Atlantis Attacks?

And even when they occasionally ARE good, like the Demon Annual during Bloodlines (which introduced Hitman to the DCU), it is when the comic is able to separate itself from the continuity-soaked morass of the overall crossover.

Adventures of Superman Annual #4 is deeply entrenched in the overall crossover, yet still managed to pull off a new reader friendly GOOD fun story.

Which impressed the heck out of me THEN, and still impresses me NOW.

The Eclipso event was the brianchild of writers Robert Loren Fleming and Keith Giffen, and it basically involved the villain Eclipso possessing a whole pile of superheroes during each of their respective Annuals, all in a plot to take over the world...or something like that.

Not the deepest of plots.

Specifically, Adventures of Superman Annual #4 had to serve as a funnel for both the plot of the Superman Annuals that year as well as all the plots of all the other Annuals, to set up the finale in the bookend piece Eclipso: The Darknesss Within #2 (#1 began the whole shebang...and it featured a plastic black diamond on the cover. Ahhh...early 90s special cover brilliance, eh?).

The Superman plot was that Eclipso uses Lois Lane to possess Superman, and then Captain Marvel has to fight Superman to stop him.

Sound familar?

It should, as Judd Winick just did the exact same plot in his recent setup for Days of Vengeance in the Superman titles.

Anyhow, Dan Vado supplied the story for the previous issue, Action Comics Annual #4, and it was a decent enough Superman/Captain Marvel fight that ended with Superman escaping.

In this issue, Superman is still possessed by Eclipso, and a ragtag group of heroes has to free him from Eclipso's control. Meanwhile, various scientist characters have been vanishing in bursts of light in different Annuals, including Bruce Gordon, the man who once shared a body with Eclipso.

The heroes Fleming had to work with in this issue are as follows:

L.E.G.I.O.N. (Vril Dox, Lobo, Phase, Strata, Stealth, Garv and Telepath)
Hawkman (the Thanagar police version)
Black Canary
Elongated Man
Booster Gold
Crimson Fox
and eventually, Guy Gardner.

Not exactly a Murderer's Row of character, eh?

I don't think any writer is saying, "I have GOT to have Metamorpho and Booster Gold in my story, or else I'm out of here!"

Yet Fleming manages to do a great job using each character, and not only USING them, but using them to their fullest.

How many writers doing a crossover like this would actually take the time to say, "Hey, I wonder how Hawkman and Vril Dox would interact if they tried to run a team together?' It would be so easy to play "cookie-cutter" here, but Fleming does not. Instead, he stays true to the characters, and gives us interactions that are both interesting and in keeping with the characterizations of all the heroes (I remember being particularly pleased at this as, at the time, Dan Jurgens was writing JLA, and he was NOT keeping the characters in keeping with their characterizations, and he was mainly writing every non-Superman character in the JLA as an absolute moron).

The spotlight characterization, though, has to belong to how Fleming handles Guy Gardner.

Remember how I told you he had to coordinate the Superman plot from the other two Superman Annuals and also coordinate with all the OTHER Annuals (as each Annual generally ended with one or two members of the book being possessed by Eclipso. At this point, a lot of major heroes were under Eclipso's control, including Hal Jordan, Flash, Wonder Woman, the New Titans, Lady Quark, Hawkwoman and Power Girl)?

Well, he ALSO had to tie-in the changes made in Guy Gardner:Reborn, which brought Guy Gardner back as a non-Green Lantern affiliated, with Sinestro's old yellow ring. Fleming did not have anything to do with that project, but still managed to work it in beautifully.

Fleming was not afraid to actually make Guy sympathetic, which was rare for DC Comics of the time (when Guy's own writer, Gerry Jones, did not even seem to care for him all that much).

The action scenes in the book are handled well, as the heroes all team-up to try to bring Superman out of a hiding place in a Volcano before the sun sets. All the powers of the heroes are under full display (although Fleming probably makes an unintentional error with his handling of Bloodwynd, who was secretly Martian Manhunter).

There are little heroic moments for almost every hero, from Aquaman to Lobo.

The best, though, is saved for last, when the heroes FAIL to get Superman out before sunset, and the Eclipsed Superman is tearing through their ranks like they are gnats (including one terrific scene where he literally blows Metamorpho into a bunch of little pieces).

He is about to kill Ice when Guy Gardner returns, having travelled to the sun itself to bring solar matter to wipe Eclipso out of Superman's system.

Very cool scene.

Especially as Guy wrestles him into the volcano while reciting the Green Lantern oath (which he had earlier stated did not matter to him anymore).

Great scene.

The rest of the issue is tie-in to the conclusion of the crossover, and is pretty uneventful, except for the cool acknowledgement by Superman that, if Batman is not available, then Nightwing is his next choice (this was during the time when Nightwing really did not get much respect in the DC Universe).

The art for the issue was handled by Bob McLeod, and he did a really good job with each character, keeping everyone in line with how they are supposed to look, while drawing some cool scenes (particularly Lobo and Superman's fights in the issue) and Guy Gardner's scenes. McLeod's facial expressions reached almost Maguire-like levels in this issue, to good effect.

He managed to convey Vril Dox's intensity, Guy's pomposity and Ice's caring.

Under ordinary circumstances, this was a good comic.

Under the weight of continuity and tie-ins to other books?

This was a REALLY good comic.

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Blogger Tim O'Neil said...

Dude, when was the last time you actually READ Atlantis Attacks? It hold ups really well. Good, logical storyline through all the annuals that utilizes each character to their advantage. Lots of good one-off characater interactions throughout, like Iron Man and the Sub-Mariner worrking together at the Panama Canal, Spider-Man and She-Hulk cracking wise while fighting the Abomination, the gray Hulk rejoining the Avengers for an issue, the Beast fighting with the Avengers (always fun!) and the amazing quartet of Thor, the Thing, Doctor Strange and Quasar teaming up to save the world. Absolutely fantastic stuff. I have a feeling you might have just been pulling it out of a hat to mention it like that - if you haven't read it in a while, it's got pretty much all the cool kind of stuff you talk about loving in that Superman annual, only spread throughout the whole story. It's damn good fun comcis of the kind they do not make anymore!

Now, the Evolutionary War is still a mess no matter how you slice it.

7/04/2005 04:41:00 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

I dunno, I think the ALF issue holds up pretty well.

7/04/2005 09:56:00 AM  
Blogger Brian Cronin said...

Just to be fair, Tim, I dug up the first five Atlantis Attacka Annuals I could find lying around my collection.

They were from different points in the crossover, but as luck may have it, I managed to pick two pairs of connecting issues...namely, Parts 2 and 3, Parts 7 and 8 and Part 12.

Iron Man Annual #10 (Part 2) leads off the pack, and it is probably the strongest single issue of the five, and even then, it really is just a fill-in issue of Iron Man. Written by Michelinie, with art by Paul Smith and Mike Gustivich (who makes Smith's pencils look a little less cool), the story just ties into current events in Iron Man's book, while laying the groundwork for the whole crossover.

In that sense, Michelinie does a fine job - but the drama of Namor's death is fairly lame, as it comes down to a building blowing up on the last page of the story and Iron Man not sensing any life - so he automatically assums Namor is dead and then Iron Man takes off thinking of Namor's sacrifice - all in one page.

Seemed rushed.

But not a bad issue.

X-Men Annual #13 (Part 3), though, IS a bad issue.

It is a very bad issue.

Written by Terry Austin, it might have been THE worst X-Men story of the Chris Claremont era. It is that bad.

It involves the X-Men versus the Serpent Society as a bad guy Mr. Jip (who Austin has the guts to reuse from a previous appearance written by Austin. He had written, like, three issues period at the time, and 2/3 of them featured Mr. Jip) switches Dazzler and Diamondback's bodies.

Diamondback is not in character.

Mr. Jip is a terrible character.

Mike Vosburg's art isn't terrible, but it isn't great either.

And the story has basically nothing to do with the crossover. It literally ties in with ONE page at the end of the comic.

Daredevil Annual #5 (Part 7) ties in with a story by Gerry Conway and art by Mark Bagley (this crossover was Bagley's first big Marvel Universe exposure. He did the little "Saga of the Serpent Crown" stories in each Annual, plus the lead story here).

Once again, it is not a good story. It involves Viper turning people into Serpents via some drug. Spider-Man is under the thrall of the drug (and Tyranneus) in a not-exactly-well-explained sequence.

Daredevil, meanwhile, is heavily steeped in current DD continuity, but it doesn't really tell us much of what is happening with DD, except for ONE caption towards the end.

The art is nice, but the story is weak. Dr. Strange also shows up - with an eyepatch - and he was supposed to be dead (he now must apparently trade spots with Namor, who is the current "people think he is dead" character).

Avengers Annual #18 (part 8) is written by Michael Higgins with art by Ron Wilson.

This issue is a mess.

Wilson's pencils are rushed, and Higgins' story has almost zero depth to it.

It is like a bunch of cardboard cutouts are fighting the bad guys. It is at least tied in with the crossover.

Not a good story, though.

Avengers West Coast Annual #4 (Part 12) is written and drawn by John Byrne, and this was probably the best put together issue of the bunch. Byrne is not half-assing it here, but even then, while the story is fun, it is not THAT fun.

It is basically a chance for Byrne to draw seven notable female characters in one issue.

He DOES do a good job with that part, though.

Not a bad issue, but nor was it a great one.

I do not think it was a coincidence that Marvel dropped the "company-wide Annual crossover" with Atlantis Attacks (not that the smaller "related title Annual crossovers" were much better...hehe).

So yeah, I still stand by my Atlantis Attacks statements, but Evolutionary War Annuals were quite bad as well, so I would not mind changing my reference from Atlantis Attacks to Evolutionary War...hehe.

7/04/2005 11:37:00 AM  
Blogger Bill Reed said...

I have the Thor annual from Atlantis Attacks. It was a convoluted, hackneyed pile of poo. Thor was barely in it and did next-to-nothing, and the rest of the story was too steeped in itself to make any sense or enable me to care.

As for the actual part of this post, the Eclipso stuff... I have a Robin annual from that. It was good. I've also got the JLA annual, which wasn't bad, and shows how Blue Beetle should be written... as a fun, resourceful kinda guy. But they'd rather shoot him in the head, so...

And hey, who *wouldn't* want to use Metamorpho and Booster Gold? Unless they hate chemistry and the future, or something. Also: Guy Gardner is probably my favorite Green Lantern, after G'Nort. But neither of them get any respect. Elongated Man was in this, too? Awesome. He's my favorite comics character of all time. (Seriously. He is.)

But who the sod is Wildebeest? Hrmm.

7/04/2005 12:59:00 PM  
Blogger Brian Cronin said...

I was going to stress Wildebeest's appearance more, Bill, but then I felt I'd have to explain the Wildebeest more...and that would be hard...hehe.

Seriously, the Wildebeest was originally some run of the mill bad guy, but soon, it became this bigger villain organization that ended up almost destroying the New Titans.

At the end of the storyline, we learned that the Wildebeests (who were dudes in suits) were growing an ACTUAL Wildebeest...which the Titans rescued.

The baby Wildebeest was, well, a baby, so Marv Wolfman used it as comic relief "Bay-bee want bottle," that sort of stuff.

Eventually, the baby showed the power of growing to large size and was then shown to be able to do fairly simple tasks (like, "Baby! Hit that guy!").

When the Titans were possessed by Eclipso, Nightwing and Wildebeest were the only ones not possessed.

See why I avoided stressing him?


7/04/2005 01:05:00 PM  
Blogger Tim O'Neil said...

See, man, when you say those things it's like you come from some alternate universe where the sky is black and cobras are cute.

The X-Men annual was only tangentially connected, except for the fact that the whole point of Mister Jyp tracking down those artifacts was that Lord Ghaur needed 'em. Diamondback wasn't so much out of character, considering that this was a fair bit before her "redemption" arc in Captain America, she was still stuck being basically a generic badguy ho. But what about that scen where Wolverine faces off againt Rock CObra and Rock Cobra just shrugs and gives him the artifact because he doesn't want to get eviscerated? Classic.

The Daredevil wouldn't make much sense unless you read the Punisher and Spec Spidey annuals that came before, to which it was essentially the conclusion. Turning people into snake peple was part of a terrorist plot to blanket the world with the Children of Set before Set's return. I don't remember if that's mentioned or not but that's the whole idea. It's worth it to see the Punisher kill a bunch of snake people.

And anyone who doesn't love a sotry that basically has the Thing complaining of being sick to his stomach for the whole damn issue while Thor carries him around by his belt... well, that person doesn't love comics. And the story makes a lot better sense if you were able t oread all the Saga of the Serpent Crown backups leading up to it.

I still maintain that Atlantis Attacks, when read altogether, holds up well. I remember being really, really upset when they didn't do another big annual x-over the next year. I still carry that upset with me next to my heart.

7/04/2005 04:29:00 PM  
Blogger Brian Cronin said...

But remember, Tim, I stressed that what made Adventures of Superman Annual #4 so great was that it reads well BY ITSELF.

That is rare to do in such circumstances.

Which is why I think it is so notable.

7/04/2005 06:06:00 PM  
Anonymous Dizzy said...

Atlantis Attacks wasn't a great series, but I did like the X-men annual in it for one scene:
The X-men are transported to an island to find an artifact for Jip. Problem is the artifact is a regular stone and they are on a beach full with billions of stones. While the other X-men wonder how they are ever going to find it, Longshot just starts looking at the stones, one by one. The Serpent Society appears and unavoidable fight breaks out, which is ended when Longshot shouts that he found it.
Then again I'm an unapologetic Longshot-junkie.

And I have to disagree with the Demon annual being a good comic. Hitman was a great comic, Tommy Monaghan was a wonderful character in Hitman and in the Batman issues before it. He wasn't a good character in the Demon annual and the story wasn't good.

7/05/2005 07:20:00 AM  
Blogger Brian Cronin said...

So, Dizzy, we can officially write off all the Bloodlines Annuals then?

Cuz if I am misremembering the quality of that Demon Annual (and I haven't reread that one since, like, 1997), then the only other POSSIBLY good Bloodlines Annuals were:

-The Flash one that Waid wrote

-The Batman one that Dixon wrote

-The Robin one that Dixon wrote

-The Adventures of Superman one that Kesel wrote

7/05/2005 05:30:00 PM  
Anonymous Dizzy said...

I have no clue on the other bloodline annuals, I only read the Demon one because it was in the Hitman-trade. Maybe it wasn't that bad when compared to the others, but it was Ennis in full "kill people in uber-violent ways "-mode without the character interaction that he can do so well. Tommy himself hardly says anything in the book, though the scene in the hospital where he has his powers is good. Your mileage may vary though.

7/06/2005 08:52:00 AM  
Blogger Bill Reed said...

I also remember the Flash one being good, yes.

7/06/2005 01:55:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Funny, about the only time I like Ennis, is when he does his 'full kill'
hyper action type stuff, usually he writes like this for the 1st issue or 2 of a series then it all becomes boring dialogue and sphaghetti western references, also throw in some perverts with quirky habits.

Bad crossovers:
War of the Gods - yuck
Galactic Storm - more forced crap

Random Stuff:

Armageddon 2001, Darkness Within and
Bloodlines were rather good crossovers. L.E.G.I.O.N. Annual 1 was just incredible, Alan Grant's story was great, but Mike McKone produced possibly the most detailed comic artwork ever, just stunning stuff. Darkness within had many great Quesada covers.

How many of the Bloodlines introduced characters are still around? Hitman, anyone else?

7/24/2005 01:05:00 AM  

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