Monday, August 31, 2009

the War that time forgot #1-12

"the War that time forgot" was a DC comics maxi-series, by writer Bruce Jones and penciler Al Barrionuevo. In the current market, 12-issue series are a rarity, so it's a bit perplexing trying to figure out why did the publisher choose to commission such a huge project. Even if the central idea was to produce a series that would renew the copyrights to a backlog of their non-superhero titles, devoting a year to it's publication seems a bit excessive.

The 12 issue limited-series format is in a lot of ways a throwback to the comics of 1980s, with some seminal works appearing in the format, such as "Watchmen", and "Camelot 3000", along with familiar superhero projects like "the Vision and Scarlet Witch". Still, in the current market where a lot of low-profile ongoing titles struggle to enter the second year of shelf-life, perhaps it's reasonable that the editorial saw fit to determine the right size for the project from the start.

It's interesting that Bruce Jones was chosen to be the writer for the story, as the veteran superhero writer's career has seen ups and downs during recent years. The former "Ka-Zar" writer has effectively re-entered the comics field in early 2000s with his work on "the Incredible Hulk". That was enough for DC to have Jones sign an exclusive contract with them, but his resulting output at the company was very polarizing. Starting with the run on "Nightwing", the company almost immediately turned their back to his ideas. After the "Man-Bat" mini-series, Jones has parted ways with Bat-office to try his hand on other properties, such as the "OMAC" and "Vigilante" mini-series. After DC cancelled "Warlord" and Vertigo stopped publishing "Deadman", two of his only ongoing series for the publisher, his work was seen in the closing issues of "Checkmate", once again to little acclaim. It was very strange then to see Bruce Jones listed as the writer of "War that time forgot".

Considering that DC comics has not solicited additional work from the writer, it may be that the maxi-series was chosen as a vehicle to round out his contractual obligations. In any event, it doubles as not only a Silver Age pastiche, but strangely a kind of a commentary to Jones' career so far. "War that time forgot" is a decades-old series that dealt with the bizarre premise of military fighting dinosaurs on a mysterious island. Perhaps due to the sheer oddity of the premise, it has actually resurfaced in 2004 in Darwyn Cooke's acclaimed "New frontier" mini-series. Still, Jones and Barrionuevo's iteration of the concept recalls another limited series, 1998's "Guns of the dragon". Interestingly, Tim Truman's 4-part tale also features Enemy Ace, a WW1 German pilot that serves as one of the many characters of Jones' epic. Thus, it perfectly brings into context the difference, as the latest "War that time forgot" series decides not to reinterpret the publisher's past, but also does it in a very old-fashioned storytelling style.

Namely, it brings to mind "Secret wars", one of the first 12-issue maxi-series ever published, and a superhero event classic. The 1984 crossover used a contrived way to bring all of the major Marvel characters in a cosmical locale, forcing them to battle against each other. The event is notable for pitting against each other various super humans for the first time, and presenting them to readers in a very succinct way. This is ultimately very similar to what DC comics decided upon regarding their new series, with "War that time forgot" serving as both an entry point to some of the publisher's lesser known characters, as well as featuring them in a complete adventure in it's own right.

It's notable that Marvel has revisited the concept recently with "the Beyond" mini-series, while the DC editor in chief declares himself a fan of "Secret wars", perhaps explaining why he finally green lighted the years old similar "Salvation run" idea as a tie-in to the "Countdown" event. Still, both of those works employed a modern approach, even if ultimately shying away from shocking consequences they teased at various points. This is in stark contrast to "the War that time forgot", which in every way evokes a more classical method of storytelling.

This is nowhere as clear as in putting a traditional heroic figure at the center of plot. By using WW2 pilot lieutenant Carson as their protagonist, Jones and the editorial have made a strange choice in the cast brimming with previously established characters, all of them soldiers from different wars. Thus, the one original and most-developed character in the cast is not really a reader's contemporary, but a period figure himself, and that much harder to identify with.

Still, having such a brave and morally superior protagonist doesn't excuse the rest of the players, who remain as stereotyped as they appear at first. It's very off-putting to be reading a 2009 comic whose characters are content to be time and again identified solely by their nation and battle rank, spouting cliches every time they open their mouth. It's perhaps to be understood that no real development could happen with the cast of literally dozens, but in the end only the very few develop any kind of relationship with one another, and those are as basic as taking a side, or showing affection. Most of the time, the series gives off a feeling of reading a boy's adventure comic, with the cast constantly arguing about rank and assuming control in an extremely over the top situation.

This kind of book was bound to be particularly heavy on the artist, but DC solves this problem by employing Al Barrionuevo, who lasted until the last quarter as the regular penciller. Even with a style as paired down as his, the sheer amount of clunky Silver Age designs he has to employ, couple with the density of the jungle and the constant array of dinosaurs would take toll on every artist. The script practically begs to be serialized in Sunday section of the newspaper, so that every panel would get as much flourish as possible. With Barrionuevo though, it's all about simplicity, which certainly helps with distinguishing the characters, but doesn't leave the intended impression. Backgrounds are sparse and non-existent, the figures rushed, but always in motion, giving the work a rushed feeling that matches some of the non-stop action, but doesn't call attention to itself. In this aspect, Mike Atiyeh's colors reinforce the strangely drab and stagnant feel of the story, leaving a feeling of competent work that is content with it's place as a generic genre comic.

It's telling then how the story opens up and shines when he starts coloring Scott ("the Flash") Kollins, the first fill-in artist, really manages to inject a lot of energy in the proceedings. After his run on the Flash, the artist has had a number of low-profile jobs at Marvel, pencilling the aforementioned "Beyond!" series, before getting back to DC. As a part of his workload the last couple of years, he has done everything from "Countdown" to pencilling "Final Crisis: Rogue's revenge story". Thus, by all accounts, "the War that time forgot"#9 should have been another fill-in job, that is all the more tedious, taking into account the huge number of references involved. Somehow, Kollins seems to find it all challenging, producing some of the most vibrant and steady art in his career, with colors that for his one fill-in issue interrupt the scheme to suit adopt the style that suits his work best. He seems to find the work so inspiring that for the first time, the anonymous figures in the background start developing a character of their own, with Jones appearing to follow suit and actually give them some dialogue for the first time.

Two other fill-in issues follow suit, with Barrionuevo returning only for the finale. Graham Nolan, that pencils #10 and #11 works in a style much closer to the series' regular artist, yet with a somewhat better more solid line work. His artwork really brings Ron ("Wolverine: Weapon X") Garney to mind, but otherwise gels much better with the rest of the issues than Kollins' work did. And yet, it's twelve other artists that really spoil the reader. Perhaps faced with the prospect of what the lack of marketing might do for the sales of such a niche book as "the War that time forgot", DC comics decided to spare no expenses when it comes to the covers.

Starting with Neil ("Batman") Adams and Brian ("Camelot 3000") Bolland, the publisher has went to great lengths to ensure the visibility of the copies on the stands. Walt ("Thor") Simonson, Michael Wm. Kaluta, Jose ("Elephantmen") Ladronn, Geoff ("Hardboiled") Darrow, are only the some of the artists that showcase their art, providing images that actually match the story content. Yet, opening the covers the reader finds a much different art style employed with the exotic locales, giant beasts and out of time warriors.

It's not that Barrionuevo is an amateur, he excels at dynamics and pacing the action, while clearly being an artist much more interested in how characters emote. It's just that the traditional art style associated with such wild flights of imagination calls for a more graphically detailed art-style, and the schedule that can afford it. Even with all the effort and the necessary shortcuts, the series has clearly proven to be too much of an effort for the artist to produce in a monthly fashion. Such as it is, the art contributes to the feeling of a project that seemed sound in the planning stages, but was rushed into the production without the necessary care for the final product.

The island, as envisioned by writer Bruce Jones is perhaps the best example of the book's problems. It seems inhabited by three species of dinosaurs only, making their presence known when all the other drama draws to a halt. What's more, it seems that the basic world building aspect is missing altogether to make way for mystery and the in-fighting, leaving the book with only the most basic of locations set up. Establishing distinctive locales and tying them together with local lore is much more essential for a fantasy setting, then all of the dinosaur attacks.

The characters don't seem to notice though, transfixed as they are on individual differences, while stumbling in the dark regarding the bigger mystery behind it all. When called in attention, such actions seldom maintain any kind of logic behind them. Thus, it seems hardly plausible that the time-displaced soldiers maintained any kind of life before Lt. Carson's arrival, which is when they start noticing the most obvious things, like using the exotic beasts as mounts. The same is with the local feud, that quickly resolves into an understanding, with seemingly no real casualties, despite all the fighting.

The whole comic is a throwback to an earlier age, with characters finding a way out of every danger, even when they appear dead. None of them seemingly make any kind of comments despite announcing themselves and wandering around the plot. Yet, it's even worse when they start developing feelings for one another, as the romance between two main characters seems forced, particularly in the way it starts out. Thus, the book places all of it's hope in the mystery behind the island and it's many particularities. This is revealed in stages, and revolves around the basic premise of time travel-inspired physics, that was hinted in the original version of the concept.

By itself, this is not a bad decision, it's just that it pulls the book too much toward science fiction, and feels like it somehow misses the point behind the concept of "the War that time forgot". In trying to apply a kind of morale and consequence to the characters' action, even by such outrageous concepts, Jones and Barrionuevo somehow betray the original premise of marines versus dinosaurs. It's difficult to explain, but it really feels that by detailing the advanced technology behind the possibility of the island that has trapped the war heroes, the comics wants to attain a loftier level of meaning, but ends up only saddled with a further mixing of the genres that actively works against the readers' expectation.

It's hard to escape the feeling that the whole project worked much better at the plotting stage, because none of it's major beats is so problematic as to ruin the whole experience. It's just that the scope of the twelve issues lead to a series of improvisations by the whole creative team, who seemingly wanted only to make a functional comic out of a very complicated assignment. Perhaps with the editorial support and somewhat loftier ambition than producing the DC universe variant of "Lord of flies", sprinkled with homages to "Lost" and "Jurassic Park", the final product could have ended up being more inspired. As it is, it betrays the work of two professionals, and their assistants, who struggle with time and energy to really find the emotional core of the whole thing.

At times, it really feels like Bruce Jones is the only one caring whether Viking Prince has already met Enemy Ace, and whether Lt. Carson's decisions will prove him a leader worthy of saving his band of new found comrades. Interestingly, even without the detailed flourish, and any kind of real ambition, the work almost subconsciously acts as a perspective of the creator's work. Just like with "the Hulk", he primarily works on creating a mystery that keeps the reader guessing along with the characters perpetually searching for an answer. And yet, it is exactly the kind of haphazard plotting that made both that run and all of "Man-Bat" such frantic and potentially confusing reads. Yet, the final shape of the project, and the ultimate answers behind the plot that teases both aliens and conspiracies, recalls a different and much older work.

It was in 1981 that Bruce Jones, coupled with strong art by Brent Anderson, began working on Marvel's "Ka-Zar", an early Direct Market book. Set in a prehistoric wilderness, their stories worked in an episodic format that was usually both self-contained, while teasing a bigger story-arc to tie the disparate elements. Eventually, after more then a year of writing essentially one larger continuing mystery, the writer gradually got to explaining some of the more otherworldly phenomena that his protagonist encountered, making heavy use of the patchwork of Marvel's continuity. Thus, perhaps some of the most innovative ideas became woven into his own corner of the company's universe, featuring Atlantis, robot-technology, and tying even into Dante's "Inferno".

It's exactly this kind of rampant imagination that runs throughout "the War that time forgot", that despite it's many flaws remains a throwback to an earlier age of pulp-inspired storytelling. Because, behind the over-expository dialogue and the meandering plot, hides a story that comics simply stopped telling over the years. And that's exactly the kind of story that should be found in a comic featuring a group of soldiers trying to escape from the dinosaur island. It's just a shame that the editorial didn't see that they have to try much harder to really make the most of such a scenario, especially if they want to introduce new readers to some of their most obscure characters in tow.

No comments: