Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Some Great Reward

Hey! ForcesofGood.com is finally up, and with it the inaugeral edition of my new column, Rock and/or Roll. It's ginchy neato-keen, if you ask me.

The DC Comics Encyclopedia

Now of course, every time a book like this is released, there are countless gripes and bitches from the peanut gallery. Innumerable nit-picks and criticisms are rattled off across the internet. I can certainly relate to this type of anal-retentive mentality, but honestly, people: get a life.

This isn’t Who’s Who. This makes no pretence of being a definitive look at DC’s convoluted and complex history. If you want power rankings or any of that nerdy stuff, that’s not here either. There are some mistakes, there are some errors and there are some omissions. But honestly, there are many fewer of all the above than the people who would want to buy this book have any right to expect. It’s obviously a labor of love from all parties involved, from the four contributors (Scott Beatty, Bob Greenberger, Phil Jimenez and Daniel Wallace), down through the marketing dept. I’m not going to lie to you and tell you that this is anything other than what it is: a vast compendium of geek lore. If you like that sort of thing, this is the kind of book you will love unreservedly, warts and all. If not, well, you probably already know that this type of thing isn’t your cup of tea.

If I could have given the authors any piece of advice, it would have been to hold off on releasing the book for another six months. The fact is that so much has happened in the DC Universe the past six months or so in terms of continuity, this book can’t help but seem slightly dated before it even hits the dock. The events of Identity Crisis, and of the Doom Patrol and Legion of Super-Heroes relaunch/retcons are left untouched. Grant Morrison's contributions to the Doom Patrol mythos are especially accentuated, with entries for the Brotherhood of Dada, Dorothy Spinner and more. Oddly, however, the recent Supergirl resurrection in Superman/Batman is mentioned, and that story has yet to conclude as of this writing.

The Legion, in all its hoary incarnations, is probably the book’s biggest blind spot. Considering that book’s spotty and convoluted history, they could have devoted an entire encyclopedia simply to the 30th century. As it is, there are some definite problems: most members of the MK 2 (post-Zero Hour) Legion get entries, but there are a few anomalous entries for pre-Zero Hour characters such as Celeste McCauly and Dark Opal. There’s a small bit at the end of a short paragraph on Zero Hour about the fact that the Legion’s continuity was restarted, but there’s no mention of it in the Legion’s actual entry. I pity anyone who picks this book up and gets excited about plunging into the Legion books, because as I said before, all this information is going to be out of date as soon as Mark Waid’s Legion revamp hits shelves.

With that in mind, I think that perhaps the most useful thing they could have added would have been an explanation of Hypertime mechanics. I understand, for instance, that the three extant Legions are all merely different possible futures in Hypertime (or, as most people would say, the multiverse), but I know a hell of a lot more comic book trivia than any sane person should. How does Crisis relate to Hypertime? Again, I have a pretty good working knowledge of this based simply on the sheer number of comics and bad science fiction novels I’ve read, but the fact is that there are people who are confused by these things, and the compilers should have made a clearer effort to elucidate the concept, considering how many characters and concepts (the multiple Supergirls, the Monitors, the Legion, Elseworlds) are inextricably tied to it.

There is no entry for John Constantine. It’s not as if the Vertigo corner of the DCU has been ignored, because there are entries for the Endless, the third Sandman and Death, and the entries for "crossover" characters such as Swamp Thing and Animal Man make clear references to the continuity of those characters’ Vertigo incarnations. So why no Constantine? Seems like a major omission.

Likewise, there were no entries for the Time Trapper, the Ma Hunkel Red Tornado (a personal favorite of mine - she is mentioned in the modern Red Tornado's bio but there's no picture, dammit!), or Hush. Considering the latter villain’s recent prominence, I was a bit surprised by the absence. Jim Lee’s art from the Hush storyline is used throughout the book, however.

Art credits are another problem. Although the names of all the artists excerpted through the book are listed alphabetically in the back of the book, it wouldn’t have been that difficult to attribute the art on the actual pages where it was used. They could have just ran a small blurb on the bottom of the page with the credits. Or two pages of tiny print at the end of the book. There’s just something about ripping the art away from any connection to the people who drew it that can’t help but rub me the wrong way . . .

Alex Ross, however, who provides the book's wraparound cover, gets billed directly on the dust jacket. Since Marvels I’ve had a lukewarm relationship with his art: so much of it is just so very stolid that there doesn’t seem to be any life left in the characters. Again, the cover of this book seems to suffer from that, as the prominent superheroes and villains are assembled to face off against the reader in an extremely unexciting fashion. This looks like the kind of thing Ross has drawn ten thousands times on ten thousands different covers and posters and commemorative plates. And what the hell is up with Wonder Woman’s jaw? She looks a bit . . . masculine?

It may seem as if I’ve been negative for this review, but take these criticisms in context: this is a massive 350 page coffee table book with, literally, thousands of characters and events referenced within. Again, I must stress that its not really an official Who’s Who type book. It’s obviously not so much a reference book as a fan compendium, and at that it succeeds admirably. The fact that I could only find a handful of these omissions in such a voluminous volume says a lot about the work that went into producing this thing.

It’s hard to put this book down once you pick it up. I am reminded of another favorite of mine, Marvel’s big 50th anniversary hardcover from the early 90s. That book wasn’t much for a warts-and-all history of the company (which is supposedly what Les Daniels initially wanted to write) but it is a wonderfully colorful look at a huge cross-section of art and photos from Marvel’s long history. It’s a great book for flipping: you pick it up to reference something, and you get sidetracked by twelve eye-catching things that distract you until you forget why the hell you picked the damn thing up in the first place. Similarly, this book is impossibly attractive, with loads of great art throughout. There are many images I recognize from the first incarnation of DC’s Who’s Who, and they were probably picked for the simple reason that no-one has had any reason to draw, say, Captain Fear or Merry, the Girl of 1,000 gimmicks in the intervening decades.

(Holy shit – it says here that Merry actually appeared in Young Justice - will wonders never cease!).

I saw some complaints online about the reproductive fidelity of some of the pieces in this book, but I honestly don’t know how the hell people can complain. The more recent art is reproduced better, because I am certain the images were available digitally, but almost all the older art is well-scanned. Considering the thousands of different images used throughout the book, it looks pretty swell.

DK has been producing these large coffee-table books for both Marvel and DC for many years now. I’ve stayed away from them because, honestly, they haven’t looked like anything that would slightly interest me. Most books like this are aimed at kids – I don’t really need Aquaman’s Guide to the Oceans or whatever (although I’m sure some people wouldn’t mind that one). But this book is obviously aimed squarely at the fan contingent, and everyone who loves superhero comics should find something to like about this book. If they produce more books in this vein, I think they’d probably be worth checking out. There are some gaps and qualms, but aren’t finding those part of the fun for all the fanboys?

I don’t read as many super-hero comics as I used to by a long shot – I don’t have a lot of money for one, and for another, there aren’t that many books that really interest me these days. But I will never quite outgrow an affection for the spandex set, and a book like this reminds me of just how enjoyable they can be.

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