Friday 16 December 2016

Earth-2: Society 19 Review

Title: Earth-2: Society #19
Story: After the End: The Final Fate of Earth-2
Characters: Huntress (Helena Wayne), Power Girl (Kara Zor-L), Fury (Donna Troy), Hawkgirl (Kendra Muñoz-Saunders), Flash (Jay Garrick), Superman (Val-Zod), Commander Steel (Henry Heywood III)
Creators: Dan Abnett (writer), Bruno Redondo (artist)
Publication Date: December 2016
Available In: Print | Digital

Summary: The heroes of Earth-2 find themselves on a whole new world, but aren't sure of its authenticity. The new world looks real, feels real, and nothing appears out of the ordinary, but it also appears "too good to be true." Is the new Earth the world the heroes remember, or is it some kind of mutated rebirth of their original Earth? If the latter, who's the architect behind it? Did the heroes create this new world with their hopes, dreams, and memories, or is there a more sinister force lurking underneath the surface? While Power Girl, Fury, Hawkgirl, Flash, and Val-Zod try to make sense of their new world, Huntress and her team of two may have stumbled upon the first answer to that important question.

Having met Sergeant Steel in the last issue, Team Huntress learns that superheroes don't actually exist on this new world and the the world is instead governed by a "Central Control." At best, people "theorised" the existence of superheroes, but have never seen any of them in action, effectively confirming some erased history. Either the original Trinity of Bruce Wayne, Diana Prince, and Clark Kent never existed on this new world or the world simply "forgot" them. Team Huntress additionally learns that Sergeant Steal used to be an "original" wonder until he went rogue and Central Control replaced him with the Sandmen. John Grayson soon starts hearing a voice inside his head and warns the Huntress, his father, and Sargeant Steel that Central Control is looking for them. John's warning is confirmed as soon as Sergeant Steel's hideout and security are compromised. He then suspects Team Huntress to be spies, prompting him to attack them.

At the new world's Central Control, the newly resurrected Wesley Dodds confirms to his new leader that the presence of nine superheroes have been detected: six of them are present in Metropolis and the other three disappeared off the grid. He also confirms the identity of one of the heroes as Power Girl. The mysterious leader orders Dodds to eliminate the six heroes in Metropolis and to find and and eliminate the missing three. Dodds reluctantly proceeds with his mission by first attacking Team Power Girl. When he reports back to his leader, his leader is revealed to be the Ultra-Humanite.

Review: With this new world completely shrouded in mystery, there are some interesting developments happening in this third act that almost make me want to theorise these characters' possible connection to the Rebirth Justice Society on Prime Earth. (I think I will). Amongst the developments being teased here is the possibility that the characters travelled the multiverse when Fury opened the Pandora vessel, and the characters landed on a parallel Earth where the Ultra-Humanite (the villain from the previous story arc) is in control. The fact that the new world recognises them as "extrinsics" (defined here as "exotic entities or energies from parallel dimensions") provides the strongest evidence for this development.

Another development Abnett seems to "confirm" here is that the Pandora vessel did create a whole new reality entirely by triggering a "Big Bang." Although the new world has a new established history, the Ultra-Humanite is also aware that the new universe is only hours old, which also plays up to Einstein's Theory of Relativity with regards to the time-space continuum. Although Fury believes the world was created with the memories of the heroes themselves, exactly what kind of world did they create, and is it real?

That's yet another question Abnett brings into the fold. Is this an authentic new world, and if so, why does everyone appear to be "programmed?" There is evidence that points to the artificiality of this new world as well, beginning with the fact that the Ultra-Humanite is once again aware of the fact that this world is only a few hours old. He also establishes that he is in complete control of this new world. He establishes that he actively created this new world and everyone in it. He even recreated two of the heroes--Wesley Dodds and Henry Heywood--as his servants. The fact that he specifically created a world without heroes and programmed this world to recognise the heroes of the previous world as foreign entities comparable to viruses that he even created an "immune system" to fight them off suggests virtual reality.

I really like how Abnett avoids confirming the status quo for this new world by teasing different possibilities about the nature of this new world. Despite calling this world "Earth-2" on the page and even "confirming" that this Earth-2 is separate from Prime Earth in interviews, there's still a little wiggle room in here for DC to establish these characters as the Prime Earth Justice Society if they so choose. Knowing DC's tendency to make abrupt, last minute changes to the overall direction of their books (as they consistently did with Earth-2 in the last five years), DC deciding to eventually establish these characters as the Prime Earth Justice Society for Rebirth wouldn't be out of the ordinary for them. They could easily work these characters in and have them eventually meet the other members of the Justice Society on this new Earth. There are at least three outcomes that can come out of this story arc if DC decides not to do another reboot of Earth-2.

By teasing these heroes as "exotic entities from a parallel dimension," DC could easily use that development to establish these characters as the Prime Earth Justice Society who arrived to this universe from their own with the Pandora casket, but arrived at an earlier time period. Maybe these heroes landed in the 1940s that somehow entered the digital age, effectively creating an anachronistic mystery. If they arrived in 1940 (the year the Justice Society originally formed), why are smart phones, flat screens, and holograms (technology from the 21st century) appearing in this time period?

A development such as this could easily lead to the first Per Degaton story, especially since his first appearance in comics established him as a time traveller who actively changes history, sometimes anachronistically. His entire modus operandi centres on travelling to the past and altering one crucial moment in the past to facilitate his goal of world dictatorship. He's even known to travel between dimensions to borrow weapons and technology that haven't been invented on his Earth to facilitate that same goal, as a pre-Crisis Justice League and Justice Society crossover once explored.

In fact, the new world that the Earth-2 heroes landed on very much appears to be a "silent" dictatorship. So already the seeds for a Per Degaton story are present here. Maybe the Ultra-Humanite did not create this new world as he believes. Maybe be also travelled with the Earth-2 heroes to this parallel Earth and Per Degaton confiscated them in their transition for his own use. Maybe the Ultra-Humanite thinks he created this new world, but it's really Per Degaton who is pulling the strings. Maybe they did end up on Prime Earth and Per Degaton is the first villain these heroes encounter after they defeat the Ultra-Humanite, leading to the formation of the Justice Society on Prime Earth.

Another way DC could still reinstate these characters as the classic Justice Society on Prime Earth is if they go with the second idea Abnett is more openly exploring in this story arc, which is the possibility that the Pandora casket created a completely new reality. This new reality could still turn out to be Prime Earth and the fact that it is hours old could still leave this world vulnerable for outside meddling. Since DC is already looking to blame the existence of Prime Earth on Doctor Manhattan, creating a whole new reality that he could easily mould would certainly facilitate that. If DC is already looking to explain how the aftermath of Crisis on Infinite Earths still happened despite Convergence retconning that event out of existence, a whole new reality being born shortly after that original convergence would still facilitate that, and it would still explore themes related to the Theory of Relativity.

The final way DC could reinstate these characters as the classic Justice Society on Prime Earth is if they go with the virtual reality idea that Abnett also teases in this story by highlighting the artificiality or "programmed nature" of this world. What if these characters have been on Prime Earth the whole time and whoever has them captive is the one responsible for their disappearance and the world forgetting them? Are they in fact the pre-Crisis Earth-2 originals we saw in Convergence who got placed on Prime Earth by an unknown entity? Who has them captive and where are they being kept? Is it Doctor Manhattan? Mr. Oz? The Ultra-Humanite? The Injustice Society?

Where are the Justice Society heroes being held? Are they in a real limbo somewhere that keeps trying to replicate the original Earth-2 from the pre-Crisis era, but keeps failing to sustain it? Is that "inability to sustain it" the real reason Justice Society fans have been experiencing all of these apocalyptic storylines and constant resets with Earth-2 for five years? Are they in some kind of Matrix that created whole new virtual lives for each of these characters like in the Keanu Reeves movies? If so, for what purpose?

Though it may not seem likely that DC will make these Earth-2 characters the Prime Earth Justice given that both Rebirth and Earth-2 seem to be moving in opposite directions of each other in terms of direction, we also can't forget that executives at DC change their minds a lot. Case in point: do you remember that the original Earth-2 series by James Robinson and Nicola Scott was supposed to be a modern retelling of the classic Earth-2 and the Justice Society? Do you remember the part where James Robinson was driven off the title and the original goal was never realised because DC editorial--in very abrupt fashion--decided to take the book in a completely different direction?

While it may appear at the moment that Dan Abnett is looking to reboot Earth-2 entirely from scratch, there are also three possible storylines being teased here that DC could still use to retcon these characters as having been the classic Justice Society this whole time on Prime Earth. Or maybe I am hoping something meaningful will come out of the conclusion of this series so that Justice Society fans don't feel as though we've all wasted our time with this comic for five years. Maybe the baggage that the New 52 Earth-2 is currently carrying isn't making me feel too optimistic that a third reboot will be successful after DC botched the last two for incredibly stupid reasons. There's also the part about sales existing at below cancellation levels and not enough people care anymore. That's literally where we're at right now.

On the art front, this honestly continues to be my favourite thing about this story arc. Bruno Redondo continues to excel at bringing Abnett's script to life with his pencils. His work is significantly augmented by Rex Lokus' colours and the inks by Juan Albarran and Vicente Cifuentes. With each page, Redondo continues to demonstrate tremendous skill as a visual storyteller and Lokus' use of colour in particular helps to create that more hopeful tone and "Golden Age" atmosphere of this new Earth. That's really all I have left say about this story arc that's actually good.

The only weakness that I can identify with this issue is the same weakness I identify with every issue, and that is with the "Batman family" side of the story. A lot of the complaints I have on this front are the same as before. Beginning with the fact that Helena Wayne is not fronting her own family legacy despite having all of the right character developments to take on that role, and the fact that we have the most artificial Dick Grayson occupying that space without having actually earned it. From a narrative standpoint, it is outstandingly bad storytelling that also comes from a place of institutional sexism.

The heart of the question here remains the same. Why is the woman who is the only authentic Batman legacy character and the most experienced hero of the group existing on the sidelines in favour of the white man who is not a legitimate Batman and is literally new to her lifestyle? Of course, I know the answer to that question, but the way Abnett uses both characters in this issue really brings those problems to the forefront in ways you can't overlook. When you especially see these two characters juxtaposed, their interaction with each feels obtrusively inorganic due to a lack of chemistry, and the incredibly forced way these two characters are being made to work together.

It's obvious that Abnett is trying to recapture the original chemistry of the pre-Crisis Helena Wayne and Dick Grayson with the characters he is working with, but it doesn't work for two main reasons: the Dick Grayson we have now is not the man who started out as the Golden Age Robin who was mentored by Helena's father, effectively creating a natural sibling relationship between the two characters. The other reason it doesn't work is because DC skipped showing the reader how Dick and Helena met in the current continuity, how they built their new relationship, how Dick approached Helena about becoming the new Batman, and why Helena agreed to let him take on that role at all. This is a problem I addressed in my review for the Earth-2: Society Annual as well.

Showing all of those developments was important for creating an authentic Dick Grayson character who has an authentic relationship with the last surviving member of the Wayne family. In DC skipping the journey, as a reader, I have no feel for this new Dick Grayson as an authentic addition to Helena's story. He just exists as the usurper who undeservingly took that story away from her, and who magically acquired Helena's years of experience in the one year that the world was rebuilding itself. That kind of forceful, inorganic storytelling immediately takes me out of the story, and that is exactly what happened--again--with this month's issue.

In a more logical Batman family story, Helena would be the character leading her group as they try to figure out how they came upon their new Earth. She is the daughter of Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle, and she is the child Bruce and Selina taught all of their skills to and mentored during their outings as Batman and Catwoman. Helena is the member of her group who has at least ten years of experience as a detective and as a fighter of dangerous villains. She first acquired experience as a young child working alongside her parents as Robin, then later augmented those skills as the Huntress as an adult. That is her story in the established continuity. By definition, she is the natural leader of the group and the character who should be doing all the talking, asking all of the questions, and being in control of the situation. She should be fulfilling her father's role here.

Dick and John Grayson who are completely new to Helena's lifestyle and have far less experience than she does are better suited for the sidekick role. They should be the characters following Helena's lead. But that is exactly what's wrong with this part of the story: the more experienced hero who should be leading the team is doing the following (Helena) and the rookie character who should be doing the following is doing the leading (Dick). Again, it stands out as bad storytelling and I know Abnett can do better than that.

If Abnett's goal here (as stated in his latest interview) is to show that this "Dick Grayson isn't the best Batman ever, but has tremendous courage," he needs to not write him like he's Bruce Wayne who knows what he's doing and needs to transfer those "Bruce Wayne" qualities to Bruce's actual daughter. He needs to actually write this Dick Grayson like someone who is completely new to this lifestyle and has little experience in handling these types of situations. He is literally not at Helena's level here, which is why the latter needs to be written more appropriately as the more experienced leader of the group. Helena has actually earned that. This Dick Grayson did not.

I don't know how much of this development was Dan Abnett and how much of it was editorial, but this was definitely not the direction the "Batman family" side of the story should've gone, especially given the troubling gendered message that it is sending. If another Earth-2 comic gets launched or these characters' stories continue in Justice Society Rebirth, this troubling episode of sexism surrounding the Earth-2 Batman legacy better be one of the things that gets dropped next year. We need Helena Wayne reinstated into the role that she was created for as her father's successor. If this new Dick Grayson is going to be her trainee, he needs to be written like someone who is actually learning. He needs to be the "Agent 37" to Helena Wayne's "Helena Bertinelli" in terms of having a mentor-apprentice relationship.


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