The Top 10 DC Villains List

The Top 10 DC Villains List will start next week. There won’t be any list entries this weeks, but there will be another Barely Retro Review up tomorrow. It may or may not be related to a certain Netflix series that will start this Friday. Sweet Christmas.

The DC Villains List will start next Monday. I deeply apologize for all the postponing and days I’ve taken off lately. This semester has been a killer, and I’ve been had to take a lot of editing and writing side jobs that keep taking up my time. As always, I will strive to do better and get my content out on time for you guys. I love working on this website, and I want to keep it regularly updated and scheduled.

Until next time, keep reading comics!

 

Barely Retro Review #5: Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters (2006)

Barely Retro Review #5: Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters (2006)

Collects DCU: Brave New World #1 and Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters #1-8

Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti (W), Daniel Acuna (A and C), Javi Montes (C)

Cover by Daniel Acuna

Published by DC Comics

          So, here’s another moment where I get to earn my B-List Defender cred. If you don’t know who Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters are, they are a super team that originally existed on a separate Earth from the regular DC Comics Universe called Earth X. They were acquired and retconned into this position from a failed comic company called Quality Comics. The team was a weird little band. They were led by Uncle Sam. The Uncle Sam, not some guy who just dressed up for the part. He was the actual physical embodiment of the spirit of America. The rest of the team were the Human Bomb (an actual walking bomb), Doll Man and Doll Lady (think of Ant-Man and the Wasp), Phantom Lady (intangible and opens portal), Black Condor (think the Falcon), the Ray (living light being), Miss America (star-spangled Supergirl), Red Bee (kind of like Iron Man), and Firebrand (Human Torch with a bow staff).

They were a fairly patriotic group, but they never got a proper audience. They were often pushed at random points only to be quickly canned shortly after. The series we are discussing is another one of those random instances. This kind of group is very attractive to me. They were weird, obscure, and fun.

This comic was trying to be the Freedom Fighters for the 21st Century. They were fighting the impending tyranny of a despotic government regime and preserving American freedom.

However, the comic starts with the Freedom Fighters working for said tyrannical regime. This follows the Infinite Crisis story and its aftermath, The Battle for Bludhaven. The Freedom Fighters just went toe-to-toe with a number of super heroes at Bludhaven. The team consists of Doll Man, Phantom Lady, the Ray, and the Human Bomb. They are working for a vicious politician by the name of Father Time whom is pushing a severe anti-vigilante agenda.

Elsewhere, a metahuman named Andre is being called out to Mississippi by a voice in his head. This leads him to the river where he found Uncle Sam himself calling him to a mission. Uncle Sam gives him the identity, Firebrand, and sends him to challenge the Freedom Fighters.

After a conflict between Sam and these Freedom Fighters, Sam manages to recruit them. They begin a crusade against Father Time, his own metahuman soldiers, and a robot named (no joke) Gonzo the Mechanical Bastard, the last of which manages to replace the president. During this, the Freedom Fighters are joined by Red Bee, Miss America, Black Condor, and an earlier incarnation of the Ray.

The adventure takes significant twists and turns, and their trail is very much coated in blood. This story is a mixture of pitch-black themes, anti-government sentiment, and completely bonkers plot points. The tone is all over the place, and it was a joy to read.

One thing that really carried the book for me was Uncle Sam himself. He has an altruism that rivals the likes of classic Kal-El and Steve Rogers. He believes that people are genuinely good at their core, but he doesn’t idealize America, its government, or its history. He only believes in the power of the people. The story doesn’t fall into the trap of whitewashing an imagined point of history to make it a representative of American purity.

Black Condor, Doll Man, and the Human Bomb were really compelling characters as well. Condor is the consummate badass, Doll Man is the grizzled army vet, and the Human Bomb is the sensitive man who is self-conscious of how frightening his powers are.

That being said, the comic is flawed. The wacky tone does leave some scenes feeling awkward, and some emotional moments fall flat consequently. Uncle Sam is against killing the enemy, but he’s very forgiving of the numerous moments where a Freedom Fighter does take a life. Phantom Lady and the Ray that is in the majority of the book are very unlikable characters, and a good portion of Phantom Lady’s given personality is a thin excuse for the skimpy costume. There’s also a last act plot twist where Father Time was, on some level, working with Uncle Sam. However, Father Time committed some horrific acts that would anger Uncle Sam, not the least of which was killing Phantom Lady’s father.

Acuna’s artwork has never worked particularly well for me. He loves giving scenes a ridiculous amount of shine, but he doesn’t so much love giving characters a defined outline. Scenes don’t often look too detailed due to the oil-painting style color art. It could be worse, but it could also look a lot better.

Those negatives having been mentioned, this comic did really work for me, and I highly recommend it. The wacky and changing tone kind of works for Uncle Sam’s golden hearted altruism clashing against the darkness of the world he inhabits. It also works for the comic’s message of fighting corrupt powers with idealism and the sacredness of equality. It, like good Captain America stories, never falls into the trap of jingoism or idealizing any point in American history. Also, it implies some crazy Lovecraftian stuff with Gonzo’s origins that are really cool.

The comic is weird, the characters are obscure, and you should read it. You’ll not likely ever read anything else like it, and you’ll have a lot of fun with it. Give it a read if you ever find it. Also, try to explain to me what Uncle Sam’s powers are exactly, because I never found it out myself.

Until next time, keep reading comics!

Next Slightly More Retro Review: Luke Cage: Second Chances

Previous Barely Retro Review: X-Men: The Magneto Testament

Barely Retro Reviews #4: X-Men: The Magneto Testament

Barely Retro Reviews #4: X-Men: The Magneto Testament

Greg Pak (W), Carmine Di Giandomenico (A), Matt Hollingsworth (C)

Cover by: Marko Djurdjevic

Publisher: Marvel Comics

“My name is Max Eisenhardt. To whoever finds this, I’m sorry, because I’m dead… and it’s up to you now. Tell everyone who will listen. Tell everyone who won’t. Please, let this ever happen again.”

          So, here we are talking about Magneto, the Master of Magnetism, once more.

If it’s not abundantly clear by now, I really like this character. I find him to be one of the most fascinating and compelling villains of either universe, only truly challenged by the likes of Sinestro, Deathstroke, and Baron Zemo.

Eric Lensherr is a man devoted to his people. He is a mutant, and he is proud of this fact. He wants the best for his kind. He wants them to thrive, and, if they should be subjugated and exterminated by homo sapiens, he wants them to rule.

He knows what it’s like to watch a people become subject to genocide.

He knows what it’s like to watch his people become subject to genocide.

This story, The Magneto Testament, tells of young Magneto, then named Max Eisenhardt, gaining this experience through surviving the Holocaust.

As a warning, this story is a very graphic and horrific tale of what real people went through some 73 years ago. It is not a light read, and it is not a story of heroics or saving the day. That being said, I highly recommend this comic book. I recommend you read it before you even read my review. It’s an incredible piece of storytelling. I found it so enthralling that I read all five issues of it in a single day in two sittings.

You, as the reader, follow Max and his family through the systematic degradation of the Jewish quality of life in Germany, from the beginning of the National Socialist Party’s rise to power to the concentration camp of Auschwitz.

It is a very emotional read. Much of the first three issues focuses on the struggle between Max’s father, Jakob, and his uncle, Erich. Jakob is focused on keeping his family safe. He believes the only way he can do this is by keeping their heads down, so they are not singled out by the Nazis. He often comforts Max, telling him that everything is okay and that they will get better, even when he knows it not to be true.

Erich believes in fighting back, and, the few times Max gets the opportunity to do so, he congratulates his nephew for struggling against the German oppression.

The pacing is phenomenal. It begins with the little ways Jewish Germans were being suppressed by the Nazis, such as Max’s schoolyard torment and his father losing his job for being a Jew. It escalates naturally and historically, moving up through the implementation of the Nuremberg Laws, Kristallnacht, and the concentration camps. Max and his family witness these historical events firsthand, but it never feels like a walking tour of history. The characters are made engaging and sympathetic, and it makes these horrific occurrences more real, more frightening, and more personal. They also serve as preset plot beats for the story to flow through. The fact that you know what is going to happen only makes the tale sadder and more unnerving.

I am avoiding discussing the plot too much. Well, I am now. My first draft discussed the full story point-by-point. However, I decided that would be a disservice to you. In part, because you already know a lot of the story. It is history, and it’s fairly recent history with survivors still alive who experienced it firsthand. Also, discussing a plot doesn’t often capture the emotion being expressed by the story. This is a lovingly crafted tale about one of the most notorious comic book antiheroes of all time living through one of the darkest moments in human history.

To give you something of a plot timeline, it begins with Max and his family watching their lives slowly, then quickly, crumble around them in late 1930s Germany. It proceeds to them running from Nazi control through Poland during the invasion. The last act takes place in Auschwitz, with Max doing whatever it takes to stay alive.

It’s an interesting companion piece to Red Skull: Incarnate, another Greg Pak-penned villain origin story and another comic I highly recommend. They both start off fairly similar. Young Max and young Johann both have very troubled childhoods. They are, in a way, two sides of the same coin. They were both poor, the only difference being Johann was born poor and Max was made poor by the government. The branching differences are purely determined by their birth. Max was born a part of an ethnic group that has been targeted by societies for millennia, and Johann was born a “normal” German. Max was forced to be prey, and Johann chose to be a predator. They both witness and experience some horrific events that show how they became the characters that they are in the present.

To this end, you can see many times where Max develops his need to fight back. It seems natural to him, and he’s not one to keep his head down. It’s also a neat detail that his uncle was named Erich, and Erich did actively fight back against oppression. This shows why Max would later take the name Eric on his path to becoming Magneto.

If you’re looking for a story of heroes or people fighting back, this is not one. There is no cathartic final act coup-de-tat against the Germans. There are two instances in which Max might have used his powers (you’ll see if you read it). Other than that, he is simply a normal Jewish boy caught in the horrific machinations of this system.

It is, as you could expect, very stomach-turning to witness these events transpire. The sequences in Auschwitz are horrific, and there is a scene where circumstances make a massive pile of spectacles very nauseating.

The art is also very strong in this book. It’s incredibly detailed. You can see every hair, every wrinkle, and every wound. Great attention is paid to the eyes throughout this book, and you can see a lot of haunting emotion in them. The color pallet is drab and dirty to fit the tale.

Read this comic. If I gave review scores on these, this would easily be a 10 out of 10. It is a phenomenal piece of storytelling by a skilled writer and a masterful artist. It is one of the best pieces of comic book literature I have ever read. It’s haunting, emotional, and beautiful. You need to read this.

As an interesting addendum, if you get the second edition printed in 2014, it comes with a cool and lesser-known piece of history attached. There is a short comic put together by Neal Adams, Joe Kubert, and a Holocaust historian named Dr. Rafael Medoff to tell the story of a Jewish artist named Dina Babbitt. She was a victim of the Holocaust. She made murals of princesses and cartoon characters on the sides of barracks to help comfort the children in the camp. When the Nazis saw her work, she was charged by Dr. Mengele to paint portraits of his test subjects. She took special care to paint slow to keep them alive as long as possible. This comic was made in 2006 as a part of an effort by the comic book and cartoonist community to get her portraits back for her, as a Polish museum was holding onto them and refused to return them. The comic is called The Last Outrage, and it’s put after the main story in the trade paperback. It’s definitely worth a read too.

And, on that note, we conclude for today. Until next time, keep reading comics!

A History and Discussion on Magneto

Previous Barely Retro Review: Magneto #17

Next Barely Retro Review: Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters (2006)

Barely Retro Reviews #3: Magneto #17

Barely Retro Reviews #3: Magneto #17

 

Cullen Bunn (W), Gabriel Hernandez Walta (A), Jordie Bellaire (C)

Cover by: David Yardin

Publisher: Marvel Comics

I’ve mentioned this comic many times sprinkled through my reviews. It is easily one of my favorite comic book series of all time. Number 17 is the single best issue of the series.

This was a gritty, slow character study that travels through the mind of Magneto. Each issue was a lot of Erik Lensherr contemplating the world around him and certain events that he witnessed. Then, in the last act, he would fix something that he didn’t perceive as right for mutantkind. It caught a lot of flak for this, but it was one of such comics I’ve seen since Ed Brubaker was on Captain America.

Another great thing about this book was that almost each story was self-contained. You could pick up an issue and easily follow the story and see it through to completion in the same book. This is immensely rare these days, as many of you probably know.

This comic displays a very covert Magneto. His powers were weakened in the X-Men story that preceded it, so he could not be as theatrical and high-profile in his actions as he once was. He has no Brotherhood, and Cyclops’ X-Men hated him for betraying them to Shield. He is in a moment in his life where he’s reevaluating his methods, yet, at the same time, those methods are the only ones he knows.

The art fits the comic perfectly. Walta draws a very gritty, dirty, and grimy world. This isn’t a happy story, and the art reflects it. It’s an unpleasant world to live in, and that’s exactly how Magneto sees it. The muted colors that Bellaire brought to it matches Walta’s art perfectly. The two of them together put Bunn’s story to life in a way that exemplifies why I love comic books as a storytelling medium.

At the point in the series where issue 17 takes place, Erik has managed to establish a small mutant settlement in the ruins of Genosha after Red Skull’s attempted coup from the Axis story.

The irony of this issue is that it’s actually finishing a story which began in the previous one. I know, I know, I praised it for its self-contained stories, but this arc earned its two issues.

Magneto is being haunted by ghosts of his refugee childhood. An S.S officer named Hitzig, who Erik had assassinated by Wolverine’s X-Force, has shown up on Genosha. This particular officer personally tormented Erik in during his childhood in Auschwitz. He unexplainably has powers that he could never have had, and he’s brutally killing mutants.

In this issue, Hitzig has left a message written in mutant blood on the mirror of Erik’s bathroom. Magneto manages to track him down right as he takes another mutant life. He impales Hitzig multiple times with iron rods, only to find out that he cannot be killed. Flesh tendrils erupt from Hitzig’s chest, he fights back against Erik, and then he escapes.

Erik puts the pieces together, and he remembers a mutant illusionist he met on Genosha before the events of Axis. He meets up with her, and she tells him that her illusions have become perverted ever since she was kidnapped by the Red Skull. She can’t control them, and some come to life. She can’t overcome the horrors she experienced at the Red Skull’s hands, and she doesn’t know any way to stop it other than dying. She has accepted this fate, and she tells Magneto to kill her. He carries this wish out, and Hitzig dissipates.

This issue was so stunning to me the first time I read it. It’s a rare comic that talks about personal demons that can never be overcome.

I know I usually champion the fun and upbeat titles, but I love a dark story when it’s told well and not simply trying to seem edgy.

This comic is so emotionally powerful, and it genuinely brought me to tears the first time I read it. The final scene with the illusionist mutant is heartbreaking, and the writing is so masterful that they never directly need to say that she has PTSD or that she’s asking Magneto to kill her. You can understand exactly what is happening here without it being told plainly to you.

The illusionist has been poisoned by her life experiences. She didn’t choose to be kidnapped or for her powers to turn on her. It just happened to her. Magneto can’t save her. He can only spare the other inhabitants of Genosha. Yet at the same time, it’s his demons that she’s accessing with her powers. Hitzig may be dead, but he’s never left Erik’s mind. Therefore, the illusion of Hitzig can never be killed.

Magneto may historically be arrogant, but, in this series, the reader sees that he has always had doubts. This experience has brought them to the forefront, as his horrific past had returned to take the lives of mutants whom had put their trust in him. He’s no longer sure he is fit to lead them.

This comic is incredible. The series as a whole is just as incredible, and it always amazed me that it never got wide acclaim. It’s been continued, more or less, in Cullen Bunn’s current Uncanny X-Men series. That book is worth checking out too. I definitely recommend it.

If my opinion is worth anything to you, dear reader, look for Bunn and Walta’s Magneto series in trades. It is amazing, and everyone who worked on it deserves recognition. It’s easily one of the best comic series I have ever read in my life.

And on that note, I’m signing off for now. Until next time, keep reading comics!

A History and Discussion on Magneto

Barely Retro Review #4: X-Men: The Magneto Testament

Barely Retro Review #2: Captain America and the Mighty Avengers #9

Barely Retro Review #1: Hulk of Arabia

Barely Retro Reviews #2: Captain America and the Mighty Avengers #9

Barely Retro Reviews #2: Captain America and the Mighty Avengers #9

 

Al Ewing (W), Luke Ross (A), Rachelle Rosenberg (CA)

Cover by: Luke Ross and Frank Martin

Publisher: Marvel Comics

Welcome to the second installment of “the B-List Defender talks about whatever,” where the opinions are random and the comics even more so. Today, we’re going to talk about Ewing and Ross’ Captain America and the Mighty Avengers.

This was a comic that was made up of two separate series, both iterations written by Al Ewing and focusing on the exact same characters. The first of which was just called the Mighty Avengers, the second was Captain America and the Mighty Avengers. The second was trying to spotlight the fact that Sam Wilson was on the team and now Captain America in the hopes of catching people’s eyes on the sales racks. It also succeeds at being a killer for anyone who has to type out the whole name in crummy internet reviews.

I loved both versions of this book. It starred Luke Cage and Sam Wilson, both of which are among my absolute favorite Marvel heroes. It got me more acquainted with and interested in Blue Marvel, Spectrum, Victor Alvarez, and White Tiger. All of these characters have become huge draws for me in a comic book.

The entire lineup consisted of Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, Sam Wilson, Blue Marvel, White Tiger, Power Man, Kaluu (a sorcerer that I was not privy to before this book), Spectrum, and She-Hulk. It also had Spider-Man and Blade for a time, but neither appeared in the later issues.

The writing was phenomenal, and the characters on the team had fantastic chemistry. The stories were always pretty weird, using villains as existential and Lovecraftian as The Beyond and Shuma-Gorath. It would also use very low-profile villains like Gideon Mace.

Greg Land was the first artist—and, well, if you know the controversy with him you’ll understand why he’s not exactly a popular artist. His art still mostly looks good, though. If you focus too hard, you’ll occasionally notice some odd things on the page.

From there, the art got a lot better with Valerio Schiti kicking things up a notch when he joined up, and his art was a definite improvement on the book. That being said, his art was also congruent enough with Land’s style that it didn’t cause a stylistic whiplash for anyone reading the book.

When Luke Ross took over though, the art became spectacular. He has a photorealistic style that is reminiscent of Mike Deodato Jr., another artist I thoroughly enjoy. He is very good at making distinct figures and expressive faces. His action scenes always look quite awesome.

The colors were always bright and eye-catching throughout. From D’Armata to Rosenberg, one could never be bored looking at the page. They did a solid job on this series, and it really helped the fun, upbeat feel of the book.

Fun and optimistic are the best words to describe this series. One of the main ideas of the comic was that anyone could be an Avengers. Simply helping out a neighbor could make one on par with heroes like Captain America and Spider-Man. The team had a hotline that would answer any distress calls, so the Mighty Avengers could help out the little guy while the other Avengers team fight massive threats. I always dig that kind of thing, I’m a huge fan of street-level heroes, and, despite heroes as powerful as Blue Marvel and Spectrum being on the team, it always felt like a street-level book.

The reason I specified the ninth issue in the title is because it was my favorite issue of the series. That’s saying a lot, because every issue in this book was phenomenal. This issue was definitely the one that surprised me the most, and it is the most memorable.

It was also the last issue of the book.

It was a Last Days tie-in to Marvel’s big Secret Wars event of that year. Of all of such tie-ins, it was the one that really captured the idea of the world ending. Every character knows, deep down, that it’s going to happen, but they try their best to keep moving. Everyone tries to stay positive, but it’s heartbreaking because, as a reader, you know that this is it. The two Earths are going to collide, and everything will end.

It opens with Luke Cage and Jessica Jones dealing with the fact that (Superior) Tony Stark is forcing them to stop using the Avengers title. They share a sweet moment with Danielle and Dave Griffith, one of their phone operators, where they in unison call Tony Stark a “poopy-head” to keep it G-rated for little Danielle Cage. It’s a nice little moment to bring some levity to the heavy events. Then Cage has to answer the call when all of the heroes have to face off against the forces of the Ultimate Earth.

From here, we see Spectrum mull over the idea of destroying the other Earth by flying at it at light speed in her hard light form. She concludes that there is no other way. However, when she is about to execute this plan, she hesitates when she sees children and how similar this Earth is to their own. This hesitation allows for Ultimate Reed Richards, aka the Maker, to subdue her in an opaque prison.

The funny thing is, the most memorable and emotionally resonant moments of the comic don’t even involve the heroes themselves. The following scene takes place at the Mighty Avengers hotline with Dave Griffith and another operator, Soraya. Soraya is about to leave to go be with her family, while Dave is continuing to on the phone. Dave is insistent on not accepting the end until it actually happens. Right as Soraya is about to go, her line rings again. She decides that she can’t let it ring, and answers. The caller is afraid of dying alone, and Soraya decides to stay on the line for as long as he needs.

Next, the comic goes through multiple scenes of the rest of the team: Sam fighting, Luke Cage and Iron Fist saving civilians, Power Man going home to his family, White Tiger protecting an old couple from thugs, Kaluu visiting Wong, Blue Marvel still trying to find a way to save everyone with his son, and Jessica Jones working at a disaster shelter.

The final scene is “you” waking up in a hospital. The attending doctor found a Mighty Avengers ID card on you and tells you that you were saved by the Avengers while you were helping kids evacuate a collapsing school. He shows you his own ID card and begins talking about how here, at the end, you and he counted. You both helped people. He then directs you to look at the coming end out the window, and the comic ends with the end of the world.

I gave you a point-by-point of this comic, but I know I didn’t capture just how moving this comic is to read. If I had been reviewing when this comic first came out, I would have easily given a 10 out of 10. It’s a beautiful read, and it shows the power of a good writer, good artists, and good characters.

I guess my point is, give this series a read if you find the TPB’s. It’s really good, and it gets my full recommendation.

Also, you should check out Al Ewing’s Ultimates title, which is running right now. It may actually be even better (despite its lack of Luke Cage).

So, I hope you enjoyed my sort-of review of this series and single issue. Until next time, keep reading comics!

Barely Retro Review #1: Hulk of Arabia

Barely Retro Review #3: Magneto #17

Review of Ultimates #7