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Subj: Review: Earth-2 Annual
Posted: Sat Jun 01, 2013 at 11:13:11 am EDT (Viewed 1154 times)
Annuals are always a risky buisiness today, solicits usually offer such a sketchy outline of what to expect for your buck the question of whether to buy or not to buy is often an easy one.
Earth-2 is no exception, for the last few months all that we know about this release is that it will introduce us to a new Batman, Batman (aka Bruce Wayne) died along with Wonder Woman and Superman of course back in issue #1 as they delivered a decisive defeat to Steppenwolf's armies and ended the Apopolips war. That was five years ago. That original trinity of heroes had been around for a fair few years before that however and so a secret chapter in the Earth 2 story exists there, but now out of reach, today we are told is the rebirth of superheroes on earth 2 in the form of "wonders" as the public calls them, a world hungry for new heroes and protectors to replace the legendary trinity who ended the War.
So with Hawkgirl, The Green Lantern, Doctor Fate, and Flash only just establishing themselves why a new Batman? Where does he fit into this new heroic post-war landscape without a Gotham City to patrol?
I had no idea what to expect from this annual beyond Batman's introduction, it might have been pure filler for all I knew but in the event I am happy to report this is a very solid globetrotting chapter in James Robinson's unfolding odyssey of the soon to be Justice Society's world. This is another worldbuilding story dedicated to filling in gaps, introducing new characters. and exploring more of what society is like after the Apokolips war. We know earth was ravaged by the invasion and the detonation of the four firepits that consumed Pakistan, South Africa, Italy and Brazil, we know that entire cities were razed and that monsters roam the wastes therein. What Robinson goes on to show in this annual though is that despite the devastation and mass genocide the world does go on in the aftermath of it, changed, adapting, but still with shifting functioning societies and moral boundaries. The result of these changes and adaptions though produce a world environment with wildly differing countries and settings, thanks to the war effort and the remaining Apokoliptian technology that permeates government and black markets this world is a much more technologically advanced place than the main DCU earth. As early as issue #1 this was obvious in the cityscape and it's almost Bladerunner futurism, here in this annual though we go into Cambodia and a setting that comes from Judge Dredd or Mad Max. In a clever and shrewd bit of forethought the outcome of the war appears to have been the catalyst used for giving earth 2 what is essentially a wide range of genre settings for the writer to choose from.
The plot for this annual doesn't actually revolve around the Batman at all, though he does makes his precense felt as we get to the halfway mark. No, for the first half at least this story uses Al Pratt, The Atom, as its narrative focus. We already know some of Al Pratt's story from Issue #1 and a glimpse during the Grundy arc, but here we flash back in more depth to the mission he undertook to shut down an Apokolips transit tower and the Atomic explosion that should have killed him. Al is army through & through, the world army is a global peace keeping force and Al in his superpowered guise is its prime specialist operator, used to tackle the threats conventional soldiers cannot. Here he's sent to Cambodia to infiltrate the operations of one Henri Roy, it's not made clear what it is Roy is doing but we do get the picture of a serious war criminal and black market racketeer. Making his way to the Phnom Penh's centre we get an impressive double page introduction to this dystopian post-war marketplace, part shanty town/part black market. Drugs, ex-war technology, Sex, it's all presnt here, and if you look in the distance silhouetted on the skyline you can see our first glimpse of Batman!
Is he following Atom? It looks like it. Al makes contact and is grabbed off the streets almost as soon as he starts asking questions, taken to an abandoned warehouse he is tied down for interrogation...
Meantime back at the World army intelligence hub we catch up with Director Singh, in case you are new here Singh is nominally the good guy controller of Army operations, but he is just one part of this global machine and currently caught in a cold war with his newly appointed Co-Director Terry Sloane, the man who detonated the firepits and therefore a war criminal.... now given a pardon. Singh introduces us to another old name made new Captain Steel. Steel has a history in the DCU stretching back to the late 70s, and here Singh gives us an insight into the nature of the firepits that still burn on the surface of the earth. It appears they each radiate a power that either kills or mutates, and Singh enigmatically tells Steel he wants him to go into the one located near Rio De Janeiro!
James Robinson has always insisted the scope of Earth 2 was always going to be global, it's characters would be multi-national and the book would build and explore a world that is familar in some ways but radically different in others. It's a huge remit. One that has bogged the flow of the narrative down at regular points. But as we have passed the one year mark with the book the layers Robinson has introduced are starting to knit together and reward the reader, although the writer has announced his departure will occur soon his work will pay dividends to whoever replaces him.
The Atom meantime is in gangsterland, tied & beaten he still demands to see Henri. If I were to be supercritical I would say It's all been too convenient, predictable even, as one of the thugs steps forward and turns off an image distorter - here is Henri Roy. And up in the rafters we glimpse Batman watching.
Henri's presence is Al had asked for, announcing his true identity he turns off his own image distorter and tears free to smash this operation and bring in this fugitive. Heris is heavily protected though and even has his own armoured suit to fend off the Atom, spilling out into the streets their struggle endangers civilians and finally this is where the Batman announces himself!
It's a great double page spread and we see Batman launch into action firing grenades, the costume is that which we saw of the original Batman but now with red trim and crimson inner lining for his cloak, perhaps this is significant? For all intents and purposes his methods and style are exactly what we expect from Batman, calculating and mysterious. His intervention gives Atom an opening to finish Henri though, and as he brings his quarry to ground his Army back-up finally arrives with Sonia Sato in charge. James Robinson certainly likes to recycle ideas as Sonia Sato was originally Judomaster in the old continuity and had a brief romance with Damage, who was Al Pratt's son. Here history is repeating itself to an extent. But no time for chat ups, Sato is here to deliver the Atom his next mission - Steppenwolf has moved Dehrain to a war footing and Al's going in to stop him! A mission he accepts with pleasure, Steppenwolf is directly responsible for the Apokolips war after all.
In another move to deepen the background of this world we are told that the World Army have reactivated the 'Heroes initiative', it seems this is a covert and lowkey gathering of operatives and heroes of which Atom may have been part of. By relation It begs the question as to whether Kendra was as well... when she gained those wings it seems almost certain the army would have tried strongarming her for duty. But this proposed initiative as also under the aegeis of Terry Sloan, not something Al is comfortable with. In retrospect we can see Sloan hinting at this Initiative in the 'zero' issue as he tours the research department of World Army HQ and we see a glimpse of the Red Tornado project. So are we seeing the first moves of Sloan's controlling agenda in the World council with this move? A team of metahuman operators under his control which will have the effect of influencing Commander Singh to gather Flash/Hawkgirl etc as a counterforce, and therefore the creation of a Justice Society?
Back in Phnom Penh we see who informed the World Army on Henri Ray, and it is none other than his own son, which is where the penny drops if you're familiar with Justice Society history - the boy turned in his father out of shame for his actions during the War and after, but it also transpires the boy has possible superhuman abilities, migranes and the like. He's also a redhead. He and his father are almost certainly the modern updates of vintage JSA villain Henry King, a.k.a the Brainwave, and latterly his son who served with Infinity Inc and subsequent teams. Henri Roy junior is to be taken back to be assessed by Terry Sloan, and across the street the Batman watches...
Here then we get to meet this Batman proper, from what little he 'tells' us we can discern he is new to this, an interesting fact to consider given his obvious professionalism and ability. As we skip ahead in time we watch him clinically take down villain Mister Icicle in Spain, his intelligence is impressive as he considers the role of New God Kanto in creating these villains. This is a new reveal to the backstory of the Apokolips war as so far we were led to believe Steppenwolf was the sole mastermind directing it, but we have since learned Desaad may have had a role so it isn't too far a stretch Kanto had his part to play in Steppenwolfs plan too. The strong inference from the Batmans thoughts though is that Kanto is operational on earth again and if so that does seem to contradict what we were led to believe from James Robinson's story so far. Then again we had no idea Mister Miracle and Big Barda were players here either... The Batman finishes interrogating Mister Icicle and one of the few things he learns is that Hawkgirl is considered a particular threat to Kanto's plans. Steppenwolf, Kanto, and Mr Miracle with Barda, three New God parties all working to seperate agendas. That's a lot to get through, but it does make one wonder why it is Earth 2 is such a hotspot for the New Gods.
As the book closes we look in on Miracle and Barda, we first/last caught a glimpse of them racing through the ruins of Gotham City, here we learn that along with the rest of earth Gotham was attacked by something called The Agonists and that mad science and lawlessness has ruled ever since. These are now referred to the Lost lands, populated by giant monsters and overrun by nature, a savage land humanity has no place in and hence is an abandoned and forbidden place to be. Perfect though if you are a pair of New Gods who have escaped Steppenwolf and need to lay low. Though how one captures and imprisons Scott Free for years is a question that needs answering with some urgency. It does seem these two are faithful to the characters we already know but there is a rawness to their relationship, clearly they are not married. They are here looking for the Batman who has recently appeared, why they're looking for him of all people is a mystery, as too is why they are so reluctant to be spotted by the World Army. But fugitives they are, and now Steppenwolf's attack dog Fury has found them... Continued... Next Week!
This is a very strong release for an Annual, if you're a reader of Earth-2 this is required reading, though if you're a casual reader it might prove somewhat puzzling given its reliance of previous knowledge of the plotlines and events occuring within. The decision to create a new Batman, now, is something that's hard to rationalise. It is known that Mister Miracle and Big Barda were forced on Robinson, so perhaps this new Batman was something else he was required to fit into his narrative. For the most part it works very well, it could easily have been Doctor Mid-Nite in his stead but Batman is a character well suited to the format this book operates by but with other strong leader types out there a definite role will have to be found for him in order to maintain the books balance and dynamic. The Batman seen here is very much archetypical, he operates as you expect Batman to and doesn't offer and particular surprises or differences to the template default interpretation of the character concept. Is he a solo operating vigilante? The clues support as much yes. I had wondered if he might be World Army, a secret clandestine operator, why he was following Al Pratt is a mystery upon the first reading but looking to his later appearance in Spain following clues that might lead to Kanto it seems very likely he is globetrotting, following a personal manhunt for the New God super-assasin Kanto. Beyond that we learn from Mister Miracle that he haunts Gotham - even though there's nothing and no one left there to protect or watch over?
So who is he? Why now - what's his motivation? And how did he get so good?! It does seem clear he has a link to the original Batman, and he may well be using whatever is left of Wayne Manor and its secret caves. Possibly even Wayne's finances come to that. Beyond that though he is a wildcard in the book, unknowable.
There is a developing theme in Earth-2 of this being the dawn of a new heroic age, of a more optimistic age, but after the war this world is so political and fragile any superhumans are immediate targets of interest for various factions. We learned last issue that Wotan was working for an agency interested in gathering magic, we have followed the slow assembly of a nascent Justice Society, this issue we learn of the Hero Initiative, Kanto is calling in every villain and mercenary he supplied or engineered during the War, and in Dehrain Steppenwolf is leading the country to war... this then is a highly politicised environment for a superhero to be born into. If the team Alan Scott and friends are developing is to be a Justice Society can it fulfill that name and promise if shackled to the World Army or Commander Singh? Singh seems a very honorable man, but he is still a cog within a highly fractious and duplicious machine. Given Hawkgirl and Flash have had firsthand experiences with the World Army's strongarm tactics though I think it safe to assume the eventual Justice Society will stand more or less independently. It HAS to given the politics.
We get quite an insight into what makes Al Pratt tick, a carreer soldier Pratt is a man who strikes as being in denial. The Atomic explosion which gave him his power should have killed him instantly, as it did his platoon. Here Robinson recycles again as this is a very similar event to his 1999 Atom story that reintroduced the JSA to a new audience. There too Al survives a nuclear explosion in unfathomable circumstances. Here though he is left with survivors guilt and is quite possibly bottling up his feelings, as he reveals later in the issue to Sato following orders is what keeps him sane, and follow orders he does, to the letter. As we saw in his first appearance in the Grundy storyline his inflexibility to anything but following his orders is so absolute it leads him to terrorising even the innocents who get mixed up in these events. Even assaulting the home and person of the Flash's mom is a matter of pragmatism for him, and yet the way the political landscape that underpins the World Army is heading it seems quite possible Al is heading for a moral crossroads that will force him to finally look inwards and question what he really feels. Is conscience truly secondary and irrelevant to following any order he is given?
Art this issue if from CAFU & Julius Lopez, and it is excellent. The attention to detail, particularly architecture, is stunning. The sequences in the Phnom Penh streets and rooftops are spectacular and the colors are suitably dark. Looking at the Penh marketplace where Pratt seeks out information on Henri Roy and you will see new details every time you look at it - men with artificial limbs, exotic arms for sale, a Batman hidden in plain sight... The more I digest this book the more I like it. There's such a lot to recommend it, and above all it offers you good value for your money.
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