Sunday 17 January 2016

Earth-2: Society #8 Review

Title: Earth-2: Society #8
Story: One Nation Indivisible
Characters: Hawkgirl (Kendra Muñoz-Saunders), Huntress (Helena Wayne), Power Girl (Kara Zor-L), Green Lantern (Alan Scott), Flash (Jay Garrick), Captain Steel (Henry Heywood Jr), Doctor Fate (Khalid Ben-Hassin), Sonia Sato, Superman (Val-Zod), Batman (Dick Grayson)
Creators: Dan Abnett (writer), Jorge Jiménez (artist)
Publication Date: January 2016
Available In: Print | Digital

Summary: Starting a brand new era of Earth-2: Society, Dan Abnett begins his first issue with four main storylines that can be best grouped as the following: (1) Hawkgirl and Fury, (2) The World Army, (3) Huntress, Power Girl, Green Lantern, and the Flash, and (4) Dick Grayson in New Gotham.

Hawgirl, Fury, and the New Amazons

A year after planetfall, Kendra Muñoz-Saunders has been exploring her new planet for any traces of indigenous life, possibly even an ancient civilisation, even if that seems highly unlikely on a supposedly uninhabited planet. Kendra even starts to question whether or not her lack of human contact has been affecting her behaviour as of late. During one of her travels, Kendra comes across a canyon that does not appear to have formed naturally and speculates that it might be man-made.

Upon entering a perfectly symmetrical cave on one side of the canyon, Kendra quickly finds that the cave is inhabited by a technologically advanced group of women: the new Amazons. The new Amazons are quick to attack Kendra, and though she prefers not to fight, she also isn't the type to go down without a fight. Kendra gives it her all, but she is eventually outfought by the new Amazons and is only spared when Fury intervenes, having recognised her from the old Earth-2.

The World Army Cabinet

In Neotropolis, Alan Scott, Sonia Sato, Khalid Ben-Hassin, Henry Heywood Jr., Val-Zod, and Wesley Dodds are holding a World Army Cabinet meeting in the city's tallest skyscraper. They are gathered at a large round table and begin to discuss some issues that have been surfacing since restarting civilisation a year ago. Alan Scott reports that there is an overnight flood taking place in New Babylon, a crop blight in Europa, and a cholera breakout in New Gotham. He also reports that there is a dispute brewing between Erebus City and Ark Home Colony that could potentially breakout into an all out war. Alan also states that he's been consulted on the possibility of free elections.

Val-Zod and Henry Heywood Jr. report that energy reserves appear to be the source of the dispute and are becoming an ongoing concern for everyone. Wesley Dodds suggests sending out a team to diffuse the situation, but Alan is against the idea, preferring to initiate a more peaceful solution to the problem and find a way to distribute resources equally. Val-Zod additionally raises the concern of an Anti-Wonder Movement taking place with people blaming the loss of the original Earth-2 on their existence. Alan asks if they should probably address this issue as part of the free election promise and propose a way to help the surviving human population regain their trust. Before the cabinet can discuss the matter further, Alan quickly departs to attend to a dangerous situation taking place on another corner of the Earth.

Huntress, Power Girl, Flash and Green Lantern

Out in the wilderness, a raging monster appeared out of nowhere and started attacking some campers that were residing in the area. Helena Wayne, Kara Zor-L, and Jay Garrick arrive on the scene to contain the monster, but are quickly overpowered by the beast. Helena carries an unconscious Kara on her shoulder while Jay attempts to overpower the monster himself, but finds that even his speed is no match for the beast's strength. Alan Scott arrives in time to overpower the beast and knock it unconscious.

Together, the group analyses the creature and begin to speculate. Helena Wayne questions if the creature may be a bioweapon brought to this new Earth from the previous one, but then perishes the thought when she rationalises that no one would think of bringing a bioweapon when the world is ending. Instead they would take what's most important to them such as pictures of their loved ones, water, and a torch. Wesley Dodds then proposes that the creature may be a byproduct of the terraforming attempt that went out of control. Kara wakes up and proposes that they contact the leaders of Erebus City and Ark Home to find out if any of them is responsible for bioengineering the monster. Alan agrees with Kara's proposal, though both Jay and Helena acknowledge niether leader is going to want to participate since they claimed sovereignty and don't recognise the authority of the World Army.

Batman in New Gotham

In New Gotham, Dick Grayson is investigating the smuggling of power reserves, leading to the rise of organised crime in the city. A poor man gives all the money that he has for a power reserve, but his seller won't take it since he's short on the amount he wants. The seller is subsequently murdered by a man in a mask and attempts to take the power reserve the poor man attempted to buy.

The masked man attempts to kill the poor man as well, but he is quickly taken down by Dick Grayson when he intervenes. In his attempt to apprehend the rest of the masked man's gang, Dick accidentally blows a hole in one of the power reserves, which causes it to explode. What happens to Dick and the gang is left open-ended and reserved for the next issue.

Review: I will admit, my first reading of issue #8 left me feeling a bit underwhelmed. Not because of anything Dan Abnett did, but because the format of this comic doesn't really allow Dan to fully utilise the cast of characters the way he (or we) would like, and because he has to work with a premise that was created by the editorial umbrella responsible for ruining Earth-2 with Earth-2: World's End.

The good news is Abnett is a very versatile storyteller and can easily work with any project that is handed to him, regardless of the circumstances. The problem is the format he is utilising for his run works better for a weekly comic, or if the book itself was divided into three or four different comics that focused on a small group of characters to better flesh out their narratives. In this first issue, Abnett divides the heroes into three to four groups and develops separate narratives for them. He opens his narrative with Hawkgirl exploring her new world and finding Fury with a new group of Amazons. The story then transitions to the World Army holding a meeting about recurring problems on their new Earth, before shifting over to Huntress and Power Girl stopping a monster from rampaging through a camp site with help from Green Lantern and the Flash. He lastly creates a narrative for Dick Grayson investigating the smuggling of energy reserves in Helena Wayne's city of New Gotham.

On page count, Abnett spends eight pages on Hawkgirl and Fury's story, seven pages on the story centred on Huntress, Power Girl, and the World Army, and only four pages on Dick Grayson's story. This format might frustrate fans since it limits how much time Abnett can spend on each story arc before we get the next issue in four weeks time. Still, despite the limitations brought on by the 20 page single issue format, Abnett nonetheless does some solid character work here, which for me, was the best thing about his first issue.

In stark contrast with previous writer Daniel H. Wilson who had an affinity for writing characters completely out of character to do what his story demanded, Abnett brings the characters back to their fundamental core. His Hawkgirl, for example, is an explorer with a penchant for discovering ancient civilisations, and this has been a defining trait of the character James Robinson was developing four years ago during his Earth-2 run. It is also a development that alludes to the fact that the Earth-2 Hawks (originally Carter Hall and Shiera Sanders) were themselves archaeologists on the pre-Crisis Earth-2. Since Kendra has a whole new planet to explore that may have (at one point) been inhabited by an intelligent alien race, I hope that is a concept Abnett will exploit in future issues that can potentially lead to a future series with this character.

Though she appears very briefly, another character Abnett does justice to is Fury who has been consistently misused since her first appearance during Robinson's run. Unlike previous interpretations of the character for the current continuity, Abnett's Fury actually reads like a character who is Wonder Woman's daughter. Since Fury is mostly a clean slate, I hope Abnett develops her more closely to her pre-Crisis incarnation, Hippolyta Trevor. Better yet, I hope Abnett retcons that ridiculous 'Steppenwolf is her father' narrative that was established during Earth-2: World's End as her being brainwashed.

The fact that anyone at DC thought that was a good idea is repulsive and completely spits on the legacy of the Golden Age Wonder Woman. There's nothing wrong with Steve Trevor being Fury's father, and the concept of Diana having a daughter with a man she loves makes perfect sense for her character, as opposed to having her do something so completely out of character like sleeping with Steppenwolf of all people. It's just more wrong than Queen Hippolyta sleeping with Zeus in Brian Azzarello's run of Wonder Woman, as bad as that was. If Abnett has complete creative freedom with this new Earth-2, I hope he reinstates Fury as Hippolyta Trevor with Diana Prince and Steve Trevor as her biological parents.

Another character Abnett characterises well in this first issue is Alan Scott. Though he still reads like Doctor Manhattan from Alan Moore's Watchmen, at least Alan Scott is being written like someone who wants to join the human race and doesn't see himself as 'beyond human needs' like Wilson tried to characterise him as. In this issue, Alan is depicted as caring about the well being of Earth-2's survivors. He is kept busy by monitoring the new planet for any dangerous situations and works to keep people from going to war with each other. Abnett also brings back characters that were previously missing in action like Khalid Ben-Hassin (Doctor Fate) and Captain Steel as members of the World Army's cabinet. Val-Zod is also seen occupying a seat in the cabinet, and is depicted as demonstrating concern about the Anti-Wonder movement that's been growing over the past year. He also proposes a peaceful solution to the problem, which brings the character back to Tom Taylor's original vision of him as a pacifist. On the note of the World Army cabinet itself, the whole scene with the World Army at the round table actually alludes to how the Justice Society held meetings in past continuities.

One last thing I am grateful for with Abnett is giving Huntress and Power Girl more active roles in his story, and reinstating their partnership. While Wilson didn't dissolve the Huntress and Power Girl friendship in his previous run, he did characterise them in an incredibly antagonising way to force tension between them, and even split the two women up in order to pair them off with male characters they had zero chemistry with. Kara was criminally reduced to the status of Val-Zod's ex-girlfriend by Wilson because they're both Kryptonian, and because he couldn't think of a better way to use Kara's character without lazily falling into sexist stereotypes. When it came to writing Helena, he not only continued to dehumanise her character by deciding to leave a large and prominent scar on her face (after he had already subjected her to torture and body horror in Earth-2: World's End), but he also paired her off with Oliver Queen because they both shoot arrows. Her presence was also greatly reduced in favour of Dick Grayson.

Nothing about the way Wilson wrote Kara and Helena in his Earth-2 run did them any favours, and his depiction of their friendship was so far off the mark, it legitimately left me wondering if he has any understanding of human relationships at all. The fact that Abnett is very much ignoring that previous mischaracterisation of their characters and friendship is frankly a blessing. Nothing made me happier than to see Kara and Helena working together again. I really loved that panel where Helena caught Kara from falling and ran off with her on her shoulder, effectively showing that she's apparently strong enough to carry a fully charged Kryptonian when the yellow sun is in phase. I hope Abnett does more with their characters as he continues writing them, and I really do hope he develops their relationship further. Considering the strong absence of meaningful relationships between the Earth-2 characters these days, I very much don't want to see this one to go away.

One thing I would like to see happen with Power Girl in Abnett's run is to see her characterised more closely to her pre-Flashpoint incarnation, who possessed leadership skills and felt strongly about maintaining her own identity despite being the legacy of Superman. While I don't mind Kara being friends with Val-Zod, I do strongly feel that her story needs to be her own and she needs to be depicted in a way that honours Gerry Conway's original vision for her character. Basically, I want Power Girl's original personality back, as well as the removal of the 'S' shield from her chest. Symbolically, the latter betrays the concept of her character being the doppelgänger of Kara Zor-El, but not the Earth-2 version of Supergirl. One thing that made the original Earth-2 Kara standout is the fact that she didn't want to be seen as an extension of her cousin, which is why she went through all the trouble of wearing a different colour scheme and avoiding a variation of her cousin's symbol with the letter 'P.'  I think the original concept of Power Girl works perfectly for the character, and it needs to be respected, not fixed.

On the subject of reinstating original personalities, I also feel that Helena Wayne needs to be written like someone who was raised by Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle, and not like some weird pre-suit Darth Vader knock-off Wilson was going for in his run. At best, she's been established as the founder of New Gotham, but her story has been oddly usurped by a version of Dick Grayson who has no history with the Wayne family, which doesn't make sense to me. (More on that shortly). Additionally, I feel like she needs to be characterised more like the 'Detective Helena' we saw in the Huntress miniseries from 2011, and less like the 'Jerk Helena' that we saw in both Worlds' Finest and even Len Wein's depiction of her in Convergence.

The latter characterisation makes no sense for her character, especially since Helena Wayne is mostly known for her compassion, her charm, her intelligence, and her affinity for sarcasm (the last one especially in the presence of someone doing something genuinely stupid). I think Abnett attempted to depict Helena as snarky on the page where she talks to Wesley Dodds, but it didn't really work to good effect since she came off as rude in a situation that didn't call for it. Still, I hope Abnett brings back the 'Dark Knight Daughter' who is smart, stealthy, meticulous, and nuanced, but also charming and compassionate.

One last thing I'd like to see done with Helena is for Abnett to remove that bloody awful scar from her face. I don't care if it's done by having Doctor Fate work his magic to restore her face, or the water of new Earth-2 has healing properties that completely heals her face, as long as it goes away. Considering the idea to scar her face came from the same writer who stuffed her in the fridge in Earth-2: World's End, and on top of that didn't come up with a good justification for it, I see no reason to keep it. The development added nothing of value to her character, and I would like to see the character completely distanced from that dark, dehumanising period of her publication history by not keeping a permanent reminder of that previous writer. (In fact, the further away the Earth-2 characters are distanced from Daniel H. Wilson, the better off they'll all be).

On the whole, I feel there is greater visibility and better representation of Earth-2's diverse characters in Abnett's first issue than we've previously seen. I like the fact that the narrative doesn't focus on one single character at a time like in the previous run, and I especially like that "Batman" isn't dominating the narrative like before. Since Batman is not the character Justice Society fans are interested in reading about, I like that Abnett minimised his role in this issue and only complied with DC's weird obsession with needing to include him. I like that Abnett is prioritising the actual Justice Society characters and tries to give each character an active role in his story without centring the narrative on any one group of characters. The only thing that limits what Abnett can do with each character is the page space he has to work with.

On the subject of Batman, I admit, I am still not sold on this new "Dick Grayson" taking over this narrative, and be forewarned, this is going to be a LONG discussion. Aside from the obvious sexism that factored into his creation by DC editorial (because come on, kids, Helena Wayne exists), this new Grayson is very much a new character with no existing history with the Wayne family to justify the role that's been given to him by DC. I also don't consider 'doppelgängers of Dick having history with Bruce Wayne' sufficient justification for making him the latest placeholder for Bruce. Frankly, it's an insult to my intelligence as a reader that DC thinks slapping the name of a fan favourite character like "Dick Grayson" on a completely new and unestablished character is all that's needed to sell me on their new Earth-2 Batman. This is especially true when so much of what I loved about the original Earth-2 Grayson has been scrapped for a completely unoriginal narrative (one that involved the fridging of his wife), and the fact that I am far more interested in seeing Helena Wayne taking over her father's narrative as the Huntress.

Without his relationship with Bruce and Helena Wayne intact, Dick literally has no ties to the Batman legacy. He especially lacks the years of training and experience needed to succeed Bruce, which makes the rest of the problems with his new character that much more obvious. Without some semblance of his original history intact, this new Grayson comes off as nothing short of an usurper taking over an identity that isn't his to have, and magically learnt all of the skills that took both Bruce and Helena most of their lives to master within a year of Earth-2 rebuilding itself from scratch. The development gets especially ludicrous when you consider that this new Earth-2 Grayson became a paraplegic within that same timeframe (with limited technology), and there is no hint of an existing relationship with Helena Wayne. I can suspend my disbelief long enough to accept the idea of spaceships providing the resources needed to rebuild whole functioning cities within a year, but not enough to accept some random everyman knowing how to be Batman without any formal training, or even Helena Wayne being okay with this random lad taking over her father's identity. These are forced developments that easily suck me out of a story.

In addition to the conceptual problems described above, this new Earth-2 Grayson is also a father with a missing child he is not looking for, because for some reason, it's more important for him to be Batman, which makes him look like a bad parent. What loving parent prioritises taking over the superhero identity of a woman's deceased father over finding his own child? Especially when there are heroes like Helena Wayne, Kara Zor-L, Alan Scott, Michael Holt, and Red Tornado who can pool their skills, powers and resources together to find one missing child in a small population of people? Red Tornado single-handedly found a child's missing father in issue #3 of Earth-2: Society, so clearly there was no reason Dick couldn't have solicited the help of Earth-2's existing heroes to help him find his son. In fact, had DC chosen to centre Dick's story around finding his son instead of quickly forcing him into the cape and cowl to fulfil their Batman quota, they could've used that opportunity to build his relationship with Helena Wayne, who is very skilled at finding missing people herself.

If DC's goal is to develop this new Earth-2 Grayson from an everyman to a superhero, they need to take the time to tell that story. If they especially want him to be a part of the Batman legacy, reinstating his relationship with Helena Wayne is absolutely crucial, and his story should not be treated as more than important hers. She is the only child of Bruce Wayne that he taught all of his skills to, and she has at least ten years of experience doing what her father does. Half of those years were spent fighting alongside her mother and father in Gotham, and the remaining half of those years were spent fighting crime around the world on her own with Kara as her partner. More than anything, Helena Wayne (as the Huntress) should be the character fulfilling the 'Batman role' on Earth-2, and Dick should be working alongside her to learn the craft. He should really be fulfilling the role of her apprentice, because again, he does not realistically possess her skills or her level of experience to be operating independently of her.

Better yet, if DC is serious about diverse representation, instead of forcing this new Grayson to take over a role that isn't believable for his character and hiding his paraplegia with an exoskeleton that conveniently restores his mobility, he could easily function as Earth-2's Oracle. As Oracle, he is not required to have any of Batman's training and it can be easily established that he is skilled with computer systems. Batman is not the only superhero that matters, and being a legacy hero of Batman does not mean that someone has to occupy the name--a fundamental point about the pre-Crisis Earth-2 the current editors missed. Considering how poorly conceived and haphazardly developed this new Grayson is for the current continuity, Abnett has a mess of a character to work with. While I doubt I'll be able to accept this new character as "Batman," I still hope Abnett finds a way to fix many of the problems with his character soon. I still like the Oracle idea better, and perhaps in having an Earth-2 Oracle, there could be better unity between the Earth-2 heroes.

Other than the Dick Grayson as Batman problem and the fact that Abnett has to work with a large cast of characters within a 20-page limit, the rest of his first issue a pretty solid read. Abnett is more organised in his storytelling and developed individual narratives for each of the characters that are actually (for the most part) appropriate for the characters. His writing of the characters is handled with more respect, and there isn't that constant worry about which character is going to be mishandled each month that was present with the previous writer, Daniel H. Wilson. I also take comfort in the fact that unlike Wilson (who had to rely on a bad editor for guidance due to lacking sufficient knowledge of the Earth-2 mythology and its various character), Abnett is an experienced writer of comics who is well versed into the Earth-2 universe and actually understands the characters.

As for whether or not Abnett's first issue is a good starting point for Earth-2 fans to jump back in, on the front of narrative and characterisation, it very much is. Abnett acknowledges that World's End happened and that the characters did attempt to terraform their new Earth using Helena Wayne's source vault, but his story does not rely on the reader to have read those two previous stories to jump onboard. He does tell his own story independently of Wilson's run, and unlike Wilson, Abnett does actually address problems that are happening on the new Earth as a consequence of starting over and what that means for the Earth-2 heroes.

If you are a reader who was very put off by Wilson's storytelling like many of us were, you can in fact skip his run entirely and just treat issue #8 as a new #1. In my opinion, the story that we got in Abnett's first instalment established right away the new challenges the Earth-2 heroes have in store for them, and is the #1 issue we should've gotten back in June of last year. As I stated earlier in this review, Abnett started his story with Kendra exploring her new planet to learn as much about it as she can. It also began with the Earth-2 heroes gathering together to discuss the challenges they have in store for them, and what they need to do to successfully rebuild their world to make it better and more unified than the one they lost to Apokolips.

Abnett definitely has some solid ideas going for his run that could develop into a meaningful narrative about survival and what it means to be a human existing in a world in the process of rebuilding itself. He does explore very real human themes like people figuring out how to start over with the loss of civilisation as they know it, and how they feel about superheroes with extraordinary abilities living amongst them since they blame the destruction of their world to the New Gods on their existence. If you treat this comic as an independent sci-fi comic exploring alternate versions of the much beloved Earth-2 Justice Society characters in a different setting, there is a very good chance you might enjoy this narrative. That's basically what I'm doing at this point since I've long given up expecting this new Earth-2 to evolve into the more familiar Justice Society Earth I knew and loved. As for whether or not this new Earth-2 is a great new starting point for veteran Justice Society fans like myself? It's hard to say to be honest.

To start with, I completely understand fans who don't want to give this a chance because of how badly this franchise has been bastardised by editors Eddie Berganza and Michael Cotton. As a huge fan of the original pre-Crisis Earth-2 myself, I was not impressed with Berganza and Cotton's complete mishandling of this franchise either. As much as I have deep respect for Dan Abnett as a storyteller, and am interested in his story, I admit this new Earth-2 will never replace the original world I loved, and everything that it meant to me. Like many Earth-2 and Justice Society fans, I LONG for the mainstream return of original Earth-2 at some point in DC's future. Even if it's a case of the pre-Crisis originals returning to their world 30 years after the first Crisis was averted due to the events of Convergence, the fact is, I want the original Earth-2 to be reinstated as the mainstream version of this universe, and this version can be simply be treated as an alternate narrative, much in the same vein as Superman: American Alien.

Considering that the original Earth-2 heroes were stranded outside of time and space for a whole year, I don't think reinstating the original Earth-2 as 'the main one' will be difficult to accomplish. For example, writers can easily use the theory of relativity to establish that a year on Telos equals thirty years on (pre-Crisis) Earth-2, and when Telos sent them back to their world with their timeline restored, they landed in the (then) present 2015. Writers can easily use that as a new starting point, and explore how these heroes adjusted to that massive change in their lives, and from there, just move forward with telling newer stories with these characters taking place in 2016 with updated costumes. I know I would definitely be on board with that, especially with Dan Abnett, Jerry Ordway, and Justin Gray being invited to be a part of that development. They did superb work with these characters during Convergence and can certainly do more with them.

Anyway, getting back on track here, the above scenario would definitely be my wish come true, as it probably would be for many Justice Society fans. Since Earth-2: Society is what we have for the time being, the story--for what it's worth--is at least readable and being developed in a way that treats the characters with respect. It is definitely something better than what we've been getting these last three years, even if it isn't necessarily the story we want to see for these characters. I think the fact that the characters are being better utilised makes this story arc worth checking out. With Abnett working his magic on this title, I hope that my future reviews for this series can focus more on discussing his story, and less on the problems that he has to work with as a consequence of editorial interference. That's my goal anyway. With Berganza and Cotton unfortunately still attached to this title, you never know what to expect, but hopefully this comic will be 200% Abnett, and 0% editorial.


1 comment:

  1. The more I read about your profound understanding of Helena and the very nuts and bolts of these characters in general, the more I wish that you were writing a solo Huntress or a Birds of Prey, or any book. I would be guaranteed a book with strong character development, and characters that pop off the page and write themselves because you know what makes them tick, in and out. Your review was better than all of the previous writer's work, and I hope to see your talents on something soon:) You are dead on with this 'Dick' character and I'm sick of seeing the 'he's Batman because he's Dick, even with no experience,' when he's really a deadbeat dad.