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Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Comics Rainbow - Invasion!

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So, this Friday marks the premiere of Independence Day: Resurgence and the return of the seminal alien invasion film to the big screen.  It’s a pretty major event, both as a major summer blockbuster and as an indicator of the growing force of nostalgia for the ‘90s.  We’ll see if the Independence Day lightning can really strike twice but for right now let’s talk about alien invasions in comics.  

The alien invasion is the perfect set-up for the world of the superhero and while both DC and Marvel have thrown together an impressive array of alien takeovers, today we focus on those from DC comics.  There’s no real reason I’m emphasizing DC, they’re just the company I’m most familiar with.  DC has a vast history of alien invasions, some of them amazing, some mediocre, and some absolutely terrible and today we’re going to get the full spectrum on all of them.

Ah Bloodlines, the favorite event comic of no one.  Seriously, the mythos of comics is rife with forgotten and hated comic events but I’m hard pressed to think of one more universally despised than Bloodlines.  A lot of this has to do with timing, Bloodlines came out right smack in the midst of the ‘90s, one of the more fallow comic periods that has now become synonymous with bad stories and worse art so a terrible event like Bloodlines could easily end up the poster child for everyone’s ‘90s hate.

To be fair, Bloodlines is a legitimately terrible comic event.  The book revolves around an invasion by Lovecraftian old ones from beyond the pale of space.  That could make for an interesting story, focusing on the truly alien nature of the threat and the difficulty the heroes would face in fighting a menace that was so existential in nature.  Instead, the aliens are just big dumb tentacle monsters and the only thing they do is turn a bunch of random mooks on Earth into boring and clich├ęd new heroes. 

This happens sometimes with event comics, the company trying to use the vast, tie-in nature of the event to launch a crop of new characters.  It almost never works and Bloodlines is no exception, with virtually all of its new heroes ending up reviled and forgotten.  The heroes are really the reason why everyone hates this book as they’re the perfect straw men for everyone’s anti-‘90s comic hatred, a bubbling stew of the worst trends of the time backed up by some truly terrible art design. 

Hell yeah Final Crisis, if you don’t like this book that’s…perfectly understandable really as it even took me awhile to come around.  As I’ve pretty well established by now I am a massive Grant Morrison fan so of course I’d end up a big fan of his take on the classic DC invasion set-up.  Part of the reason DC has so many alien invasions is that they have, what’s widely considered, the perfect alien bad guy in Darkseid, God of Evil.  He’ll pop up again a number of times on this list but all you need to know is that he’s big, made of stone, and thoroughly evil, with the singular goal to enslave the entire universe to his will. 

What makes Final Crisis my favorite alien invasion story in the DCU is how much it plays against the standard alien invasion narrative.  Firstly the aliens actually succeed in their invasion and Darkseid manages to enslave most of the Earth’s populous to his deadly will.  That alone gives things a darker edge but what elevates it to a personal favorite is the way the invaders are personified. 

See, Darkseid’s race is called the New Gods.  They’re essentially deities like Thor or Wonder Woman but coming from outer space.  How that reality is realized tends to vary from writer to writer but Final Crisis opts to feature the New Gods as sentient platonic ideals manifesting into our reality.  It’s an incredibly screwy concept but works really well and makes Final Crisis unique as the heroes stand against sentient ideas that can enslave a culture and hide inside the minds of their own friends.  It’s all very big, mythic, and almost operatic in points but it makes for great spectacle combined with some truly visionary uses of old school comic concepts like Anthro and Kamandi and some neat hard sci-fi tying the whole thing to the Multiverse. 

And now, for the complete opposite of Final Crisis, we have the story I’ve come to call JLA: Year One.  There’s actually no official name for this story but it was the first Justice League adventure published under DC’s failed New 52 rebranding initiative.  The New 52 was a mixed bag, even at the best of times, but this Justice League story very nearly summed up everything wrong with the whole bloody affair.  

It was essentially a new origin story for the team, playing into this decades most obnoxious trend of obsessing with origin stories to a serious fault.  Now, rather than the League all gathering together individually to fight Starro or some tree aliens (a story for another day) the enemy is the most bone simple vision of Darkseid and the New Gods ever committed to ink. 

I’ll get back to the failure of Darkseid in a bit but in the meanwhile I’ve got to say how much this book just fails the idea of the Justice League.  The comic falls prey to that ever popular team book standard of having all the characters snipe and undermine each other as a failed attempt at “endearing bickering.”  

The big problem is that everyone’s jabs and cutting remarks are forced and strained, twisting the heroes out of character simply to make them hate each other so they can come together later.  It’s not as if the heroes are fighting over clashing ideologies or methodologies, they’re just being snarky arrogant jerks or ineffectual wet blankets.   

All of that would be enough to condemn this arc but there’s also how badly it mishandles Darkseid.  Darkseid is the prototypical vision of a big hulking alien despot, inspiring all future versions of this character like Thanos or Apocalypse, and he’s completely wasted here.  Rather than sending out lieutenants to do his bidding or corrupting the soul of man he just stomps in for the big final battle and starts a fistfight with the JLA.  He comes off more like Doomsday or the Hulk than he does the platonic idea of evil, incarnating into our universe through every act of cruelty and hatred.   I honestly don’t know why so many people love this story or the animated movie they made out of it except that it’s the most simple and serious vision of this story imaginable.

Invasion! is a 1988/1989 event comic by one of my favorite authors of all time Keith Giffen and it’s also the great alien invasion comic there might ever be.  The plot is simplicity itself; a collection of alien races decide that Earth is too much of a threat to intergalactic stability to be left unmolested so they band together to invade and destroy our planet.  

What was so groundbreaking about this set-up at the time was that the idea of multiple alien races persisting in continuity didn’t exist in DC comics.  Prior to Invasion there were only a few alien races in the DC universe that appeared more than once, leaving the universe relatively small and undeveloped.  So, when Giffen decided to write Invasion! he pulled together a big list of previous alien species who’d shown up briefly throughout DC continuity and revamped them into major civilizations, effectively inventing the DC cosmic mythos. 

The ideas and creations Giffen put forward in Invasion! still define DC’s space based storytelling to this day.  Species that were no-name one offs like the Citadel, the Dominators, or the Durlans became huge staples of the mythos in the wake of the comic.  What’s more, this is the book that invented the concept of Metahumans, DC’s all purpose explanation of superhuman ability that’s become so popular on The Flash.  

In addition to inventing huge swaths of the DC universe, Invasion! is just an excellently constructed story.  The simplistic global threat set-up allows the heroes of the entire Earth to get involved fighting the invaders and actually unites the Earth in a manner similar to Independence Day.  Throw in the incredibly detailed and well-realized designs of Spawn creator Todd McFarlane along with the vibrant colors of Carl Gafford and it’s hard to ask for a better alien invasion story than this one. 

I’ve already talked at length about the DC comic Legends but it’s a good enough series to bare repeating.  This is the third Darkseid invasion comic to make it into this Rainbow and by far the most underappreciated.  If you missed my previous review, Legends was an event in which Darkseid used his pawns and puppets to turn the people of Earth against their heroes.  It was a bizarre idea but one that actually fits Darkseid’s nature rather than turning him into a big dumb rock monster for the good guys to clobber.  However, I feel like that lack of huge invasion fleets and heavy action scenes is the major reason why so many fans have turned their backs on Legends. 

At the same time, I will admit that the book is pretty transparent about existing mainly to fit certain previous heroes into the new DC status quo after their big Universe reboot one year prior.  That’s why the comic tends to shirk folks like Superman and Batman in favor of a focus on Blue Beetle or Captain Marvel.  Still, those are good characters and the book wasn’t just setting them up to never be heard from again but rather getting ready to launch a whole new Justice League comic that emphasized the lower level heroes for a change. 

The big reason I’d choose this as a personal favorite, though, is the way it gets Darkseid as a villain of ideals rather than fisticuffs or armies.  Far too often writers will lean on Darkseid as just a pure evil guy to throw into an event comic as a villain you don’t need to think about.  He’s not like most alien threats who need some kind of logic or explanation, he’s just evil and that’s all there is to it, plus he’s already got a vast mythos of iconography to crib from meaning less work.  

This is the laziest way to use a character, completely missing the subtleties of why he works as a unique and memorable threat.  Darkseid isn’t menacing because he’s got monsters or because he can shoot lasers out of his eyes, he’s a menace of ideas and mythos, a threat to the very fabric of reality.  I mean, the DC universe runs off the idea that the natural state of reality is the triumph of goodness and fairness and with every move Darkseid makes he works to invert that simple defining truth, that’s the true menace he brings, which is something Legends actually gets. 

I’ve mentioned this story a couple times but if you don’t know it here’s the deal.  In the late 2000s DC launched a years long Superman mega-event in which 2 whole Kryptonian cities survived and were enlarged on Earth.  After tensions between the Earthers and the Kryptonians grew to a bowling point the Kryptonians took their cities and built themselves a whole new planet entitled New Krypton.  Superman spent a year on New Krypton helping the Kryptonian super society adjust and grow and trying to ease their fears about the Earth.  Unfortunately, the Kryptonians first act upon getting their own world was electing General Zod President so war ended up pretty inevitable and the whole thing ended in a big blow out called War of the Supermen.

As much as I loved everything in the lead up to War of the Supermen…boy is the main serious a disappointment.  Seriously, this was the capstone to years of story build up elaborating on both Earth and Krypton’s collected resources for war and we end up seeing maybe a fraction of resources go into play.  What was most disappointing was the way the Earth got dunked on by the Kryptonians for most of the war’s running time.  It all just felt so completely disproportionate, and like the time we spent seeing Earth’s vast miasma of anti-Kryptonian weaponry was just so much wasted time.  Despite all the kryptonite robots and magic arsenal and red sun machines and our army of superheroes the Kryptonians just cream everyone because drama is a foreign concept to this story. 

It also didn’t help that the War of the Supermen was a 4 issue mini-series, meaning they had to cram the entire conflict into a very tiny space.  In universe they even lamp shade this (I think) referring to the conflict as the 100 minute.  Additionally, the ending is a complete disappointment, with all the Kryptonians ending up dead or stuck in the Phantom Zone.  It all just felt like such a waste of a great premise.  Maybe somewhere down the line this idea of a Kryptonian invasion will be handled better but it could just be this is one case where the build up will forever doom the pay off. 

Back in 1996 DC had hit a major slump with its Justice League franchise.  The late ‘80s had been a time of free experimentation and great profits during the team’s Justice League International era but spin-offs and trend chasing had driven things pretty well into the ground.  
With Marvel already declaring bankruptcy they decided to take a major chance and let young, up and coming author Grant Morrison write a brand new JLA comic with a whole new roster that combined big names like Superman and Batman with obscure heroes like Huntress and Plastic Man.  The book was a massive hit that lasted nearly a decade of great stories and the one that kicked it off was the invasion of the white Martians. 

After Keith Giffen’s Invasion! the White Martians story is probably the most impactful and lasting alien invasion comic that DC’s ever put together.  See, the mythos surrounding the Martian Manhunter has always been pretty changeable at DC, with each new writer adding some unique spin on it.  
Most of those have faded away almost immediately but not the white Martians.  The idea that there was a second race of evil Martians, with all of J’onn J’onzz super powers but none of his humanity, has become a corner stone of DC and even got worked into the Supergirl show. 

What’s more, the White Martian invasion arc is a pretty great story.  The story revolved around the White Martians posing as superheroes inspired by a blend of Saturday Morning Cartoons and the trend of Image Comics heroes like Youngblood that so blighted the comics industry at the time.  
Stuff like Batman taking on 3 Martians at once, the revelation that they are in fact Martians, and the big League v. Martians smack down are classic superhero moments that helped cemented the 1996 JLA comic as one of the best runs the team ever enjoyed and made the White Martians into a key element of the DC universe. 

As the 2000s dwindled, a lot of DC’s previous lead creatives started moving off to creator owned projects while new writers and artists moved up to take their place.  Chief among this new crop was Geoff Johns, a seasoned veteran who had come up through The Flash and Justice Society before rebooting Green Lantern and turning into one of the biggest smash hit comics of the modern era.  Johns’ was the one who introduced multiple lantern corps as part of a big, multi-year build up for the event Blackest Night in which black lantern rings rained down across the universe and created hideous zombie minions. 

That basically makes Blackest Night an alien/zombie invasion hybrid, and it shows in a lot of the storytelling.  As much of the event is focused on big cosmic action, with the various Lantern corps struggling to team up and take on the Black Lanterns, there’s equal time devoted to the horror movie nature of the Black Lantern threat.  

It’s a dynamite combination of the two and a very enjoyable event comic on a pretty nuts and bolts level.  Though the event has deflated in appreciation over time it’s still ultimately very well regarded and is one of the truly great conclusions to such a huge amount of build up. 

A lot of the events problems were just issues with setting up future tie-in stuff that never really mattered because only a year later DC would reboot and negate most of the events actual effect.  That actually ended up a blessing as it made Blackest Night more willing to pull the trigger on some riskier aspects and stranger ideas in setting things up.  

The other issue is that you really need to read three different comics to get the full scope but if you can look past that this is a truly great comic that richly explores all the elements of its idea.  Also, this is the book that DC handed out a ton of free Lantern corp rings with so that was pretty awesome. 

Oh Millennium, I honestly have no clue when it comes to this comic what the folks behind it were thinking or even really why it happened.  Published in 1988, Millennium is, at best, a filler event comic, published entirely to give the year a big crossover series to try and boost sales.  The actual plot was a very weird amalgam of elements that never came together and ended up more or less excised from the collective comics consciousness.  

The set-up is that the Guardians of the Universe, creators of the Green Lantern Corp, are going off to reproduce with the Zamarons, their space Amazon female counterparts.  Before the Guardians take off, they announce that the Earth will be the seat of the next great leap in cosmic evolution.  This draws the interest of the Guardians failed robot police force the Manhunters and forces Earth’s heroes to engage them. 

From the outset that might sound like an interesting set-up but don’t be fooled: there’s nothing interesting about this.  They tried to play up the Manhunters being able to infect certain Earth folks but it was all just so much hot air to make the very boring villains appear more interesting.  What’s more, the whole evolution plot ended up a big, dumb set-up for a new comic called the New Guardians.  

The New Guardians were a team of new heroes whose sole mission in life was to impregnate people with their superior seed.  I kid you not, that was the entire thrust of their comic, I get the sense that not a lot of thought was put into this particular set-up but then again New Guardians also featured Snow Flame: super villain who was powered by and also worshipped cocaine so you can’t say that nothing good came out of all this. 
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