Page 45 Review by Stephen
A4-sized reprint of all those huge, floppy Dini and Ross one-shot morality tales (SUPERMAN: PEACE ON EARTH, BATMAN: WAR ON CRIME, WONDER WOMAN: SPIRIT OF TRUTH, SHAZAM!: POWER OF HOPE) in one won't-droop-over-the-sides-of-your-bookcase volume. Pretty good value for money it is too.
Alex Ross (MARVELS, KINGDOM COME) has a unique take on DC superheroes in that his versions really do show their age. Batman's coming up to 50, Wonder Woman's approaching the same age and Superman's face and physique are those of someone at least 65, if in remarkably buff condition. Why
? I don't know but it does lend them a weight and a sense of authority - a seniority over their peers - that others' interpretations seldom convey. This also contains JLA: SECRET ORIGINS, JLA: LIBERTY & JUSTICE, one heck of a lot of sketchwork plus two enormous landscape paintings in the form of a double-sided, four-page fold-out
I've dug out some of my original reviews from when the floppies first appeared.
SUPERMAN: PEACE ON EARTH. A first-class seasonal story, convincingly narrated by the being called Superman, who finds that one man's seemingly limitless capabilities and the best will in the world cannot overcome the politics of men. So instead, you accept your limitations but you don't throw the towel in: you do what you can, each in her or his humble but determined way.
It's gorgeously painted, with an exquisite command of light, quiet, thoughtful and dignified.
Rarely for superhero comics, this is also recommended for all ages because it isn't about punching people.
That was the truncated version from an old Recommended Reading List because I know that originally I also mentioned Ross' African animals which would have fixated me as a young man. Dieter Braun's WILD ANIMALS OF THE NORTH and WILD ANIMALS OF THE SOUTH will have a similar effect upon you and your young ones.
BATMAN: WAR ON CRIME I found more problematic: Look, it's very beautiful. It's very, very beautiful. It's also rather disappointing.
What was I expecting? I don't know; perhaps I hadn't thought this through in advance. I think this is the first Alex Ross work which has taken superheroes away from an epic background and tried to pop them into contemporary grocery stores. Now, you tell me, how precisely is someone wearing latex and a cape going to 'sneak' silently between these pencil-thin aisles to ambush a thief (with what I believe is called a 'batarang') without knocking the Twinkies flying? Nor, parenthetically, have I ever seen a grocery store so fully stocked or beautifully arranged, before or after a masked crusader comes squeak-creaking past the chewing gum and prophylactics.
Of course, this doesn't matter in most superhero comics - design can take care of such silliness and create a dynamic spectacle - but Ross is a photo-realist and the 'real' Batman here is patently too bulky for the physical real aisle. Where Ross excels is in the majestic, the epic and indeed, conversely, in a boardroom filled with normal, underpants-on-the-inside, real-estate-dealing speculators. MARVELS worked so well because Kurt cleverly combined for Ross the street perspective of the photographer with the magnificent, other-worldly spectacle he was gazing at from below. So those scenes featuring Bruce are fine; Ross's interior and exterior scenes where Gotham's elite network are magnificent.
But, oh no, here we come to the story. It's an excellent introduction to those who have never encountered Batman before: it's an everything-you-need-to-know about Bruce, his loss, his tortured existence, the scars on his back (metaphorical and otherwise), his luxury lifestyle and his nightly excursions. For those of us who've read a single decent Batbook (I commend to you BATMAN: RULES OF ENGAGEMENT), it's superfluous. In fact it's a facile cliché: urban poverty, nasty gunmen, here comes an orphan; Bruce has a flashback, boy turns to crime (must involve drugs), Batman turns him round, then Bruce spends a few pennies and miraculously solves all the ghetto's problems.
The scene in which we first stumble across this particular orphan is genuinely arresting. The layout of the double-page spread is perfect, the model he chose for the boy can evidently act, and Ross evokes the mutual shock and horror with great pathos. And, if you've forgotten after this unexpectedly unfavourable review which I really didn't want to write, this book is beautiful. So enjoy the pictures. They're very big.
SHAZAM!: THE POWER OF HOPE. A return to form for Dini and Ross, who seem much more capable in the bright light of day and on a grander scale than on the streets of Gotham or dealing with everyday problems. For those of you unfamiliar with DC's acquisition, Billy Batson, now working at a radio station, is a young orphan able to swap himself when required with Captain Marvel; they share an innocent outlook on life, and Ross's triumph here is the evocation of Billy's features in the broad-set Captain whenever his naivety is exposed. If it's all a little nicer than nice, well, that works a good deal better for the creators than when they tried to introduce a darker element. When their heroes are setting standards to aspire to (occasionally a little clumsily, but more often than not gently), they're doing fine, especially when limitations are reached (which is why the Superman volume succeeded). Unfortunately there is one howler in this book which destroys both the subplot and, consequently, the finale. One of the lads in the hospital Batson visits was beaten up by his Father. So what does the Captain do? He threatens him. Physically. Not only is it entirely out of character, but you just don't bully a bully. It may be one's immediate, knee-jerk and quite natural instinct or desire (they must certainly be stood up to if at all possible, because a bully thrives in the knowledge that their actions will have no ramifications), but, hey, add to the cycle, why don't you? I never expected to say this, but even SPAWN handled this better, showing the nasty repercussions which aren't even suggested as a possibility here.
A tad irresponsible.
WONDERWOMAN: SPIRIT OF TRUTH. Fourth giant-sized annual from painter Alex Ross and, like SUPERMAN: PEACE ON EARTH, the premise is a good one, that there are limits to what the best intentions of a single person can achieve, howsoever good-hearted and empowered they may be. Wonder Woman can help in disasters, take down criminals, but when she ventures into foreign affairs, hoping to stop the practice of using human shields in a war zone, her involvement creates fear amongst those whom she seeks to help.
So she talks to Clark Kent, who has experienced such frustrations and who suggests that the view from street level is substantially different from the perspective of one who can fly; and she might perhaps try working with people rather than above them.
So she does. She goes on protest marches and averts an escalation by snapping a gun in two; she attends a peaceful demonstration against loggers operating in a rain forest which the country's government has already been paid substantial amounts of money to preserve and secretly sabotages their equipment with her super-strength. And she returns (in disguise) to the country where she met an impasse, joining the human shields as they're about to be moved to another area where the bombs will be falling... and blows up the truck, freeing the women.
Now, if the idea of the book is to educate young readers about some of the world's injustices, I think these are great vehicles. They're beautiful, awe-inspiring, and written with accessible language. I'd certainly recommend the Superman volume to any parent buying it for a youngster.
But more than most superhero stories the Wonder Woman and Shazam tales inadvertently support Dave CEREBUS Sim's contention that the entire genre is strictly male fantasy fodder. It is merely a flaw of this book that the solutions offered above are, even in this context, no such thing: there would be nothing to stop the dictatorship rounding up and replacing the women the second kindly Diana leaves the stage. But each one of Diana's little tricks also involves the use of a superpower, the private fantasy of the Mummy's Boy who'd love to just kick those bullies' asses if only he had cawwabungium claws. Which he doesn't.
And - maybe I just got out of the wrong side of the bed this morning - I think this is... distracting. Whenever important issues are brought 'realistically' into the superhero genre it is rare that they aren't trivialised partly because - superheroes not actually existing - the solutions are impossible. We don't have that magic wand. We've got to deal with things as they stand.
Mark Millar is quite often the exception. Initially fearing the worst, I found his treatment of Multiple Sclerosis in SUPERIOR to be surprisingly canny - the very antithesis of the pitfalls I point out above - while his two ULTIMATES books proved to be a lacerating diatribe on America's duplicitous, geo-political neo-imperialism, cleverly reconceived for the specific sub-genre that is superhero comics.