Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Schrodinger's Cat and the Men Who Feed Her

Possibility, identity, and the merits of multitasking are celebrated in a trio of comics released today, August 22, 2012. I'll start with the first issue of Before Watchmen: Dr. Manhattan, because Adam Hughes' art is both impossibly refined and ecstatically delivered. Known today mainly for his sensual Catwoman and Wonder Woman covers, Hughes' sequential interior work is rather rare. He had notable runs years ago on Justice League America and Ghost, but the privilege is entirely ours to see him telling stories again.

Dr. Manhattan, of course, is the blue naked guy from Watchmen, DC's bestselling 1986 graphic novel. After a lab accident atomized his human body, Dr. Jon Osterman reconstituted himself by manipulating his own "intrinsic field." This brought him awareness of himself at every age, throughout time, simultaneously. Don't fret. This isn't a physics lesson delivered by the Blue Man Group. Writer Alan Moore's eery take on the subject makes Watchmen one of the most engaging reads comics can offer.

Here, Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski impeccably mimics Dr. Manhattan's chilly, present-tense narrative, established by Moore. With the place and time being Germany, August 14, 1938, Manhattan says, "I am nine years old. I am unwrapping a birthday present from my father. Quantum Physics," he continues, envisioning a kitten, a baseball mitt, a teddy bear, "says that as long as the box is closed, it could contain anything, in any state of existence."

Hughes' remarkable page layouts (sepia tinted by colorist Laura Martin) answer the age-old question, "Should Norman Rockwell have tried working with spray paint?" Absolutely, he should have. "The present is wrapped," Dr. Manhattan later says, watching his human self enter the intrinsic field chamber. The door then closes and locks, before destroying him. "What's inside the box?"

A question for next month. Right now, "Who is Matches Malone?" is a puzzle we can tackle by reading the third issue of Batman Incorporated. By writer Grant Morrison and artist Chris Burnham, this title pits Batman and Robin (three different Robins, actually) against a worldwide criminal syndicate called Leviathan.

The concept plays deftly to Morrison's strengths, which typically involve freakish disguises, bloody rituals, and just about anything else the cerebral Scotsman dreams up. Here, we get Bruce Wayne undercover in mob territory as Matches Malone, an info-trading weasel who dresses like something washed up from the dismal shores of 1974 (the era, in fact, of his creation). Burnham, a relative newcomer with a full-bodied, kinetic style, is the perfect artist to enliven the lunacy lurking in Morrison's mind.

Morrison himself dazzles in this issue, serving up playful slang in one crisp course after another. "I've heard a few things about you," says torch singer Lumina Lux to Malone, "but nobody prepared me for Sir Galahad." He answers, "I'm like true love and nuclear war- there's no way to prepare for Matches."

Similarly, there's little preparing for how incredible The Flash is, considering that most comics revitalized by the brilliant Geoff Johns end up shriveled on the vine (I'm looking at you, Hawkman and Justice Society). But this version of the fastest man alive, co-written by artist Francis Manapul and colorist Brian Buccellato, is an issue-for-issue masterpiece.

Manapul, once criticized publicly by writing partner Jim Shooter for weak cover art, now generates routine brilliance. Once establishing that the Flash should think as fast he moves, his writer/artists have sprinkled micro-panels throughout his world, illustrating our hero's quick moments of insight. Consistently iconic paneling also highlights the Flash's many Rogues, who frequently gang up against him (and each other). The cherry atop all of this is Buccellato's coloring, which is almost too beautiful for comics. Using subtle watercolor hues for the backgrounds, his boldly painted figures race through the Twin Cities of Keystone and Central.

This issue sees the Rogues Captain Cold and Heatwave under arrest and in armored transit. Cold's sister, the ethereal Glider, uses her phasing power to dump the police escorts and free Heatwave. Cold himself is rescued by the vigilante Pied Piper- in short, The Flash is never a dull read. Especially when Glider and Mirror Master steal a runaway monorail. I just have to wonder if Manapul would be so incredible if not made a fool of by an industry vet who should have had more class. Or maybe Shooter should run his mouth more often.

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