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World's (Not So) Finest

  The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol.2
Alan Moore, Kevin O'Neill
America's Best Comics, 2004
Rating: 3.7
    Superman/Batman: Public Enemies
Jeph Loeb, Ed McGuinness
DC, 2004
Rating: 3.4
 

Posted: September 23, 2004

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Believe it or not, there once was a time in comics history when brightly garbed heroes meeting and teaming up to vanquish a common foe was a momentous event. Of course, superhero team-ups are as routine as grocery shopping, online dating and election fraud nowadays, and unfortunately the majority of them reflect that fact with humdrum scenarios. Even when the creative teams strive to create a sense of import, presenting a dramatic situation that merits such a team-up, the stories that result often prove less than inspiring.

This is true even for the most respected creators, and those whose work usually promises a fresher perspective than those of many superhero writers and artists. Certainly, "less than inspiring" isn't a term one would automatically use to describe a work by Alan Moore, but the famous British writer's sequel to his and artist Kevin O'Neill's first League of Extraordinary Gentlemen tale falls curiously flat.

This second adventure of Moore's turn-of-the-20th-century proto-superheroes certainly turns on an appropriately earth-shattering event, namely the invasion of Earth by the Martians of H.G. Wells' classic The War of the Worlds. The mini-series kicks off with an epic bang, lavishly illustrated by O'Neill. The first issue takes place mainly on the planet Mars, as Edwin Arnold's Gullivar Jones and Wells' John Carter, both classic Mars adventurers, discuss strategy in a united war against Wells' famous Martians. The heroes' combined armies overtake a Martian compound, only to discover evidence that the creatures have learned about Earth and dispatched an armada to invade it.

The League doesn't make an appearance until the very end, when its members arrive at a crater created by the one of the Martians' ships. This sets the tone for the series: For all intents and purposes, the members of the titular league end up playing an at best indirect role in opposing the invasion. The bestial Mr. Hyde scores some points against the invaders, but his real contribution to the book is his particularly gruesome means of confronting a character who has sided with the Martians -- and brutalized Mina Harker. Likewise, Harker and Allan Quatermain are largely reduced to couriers, dispatched to retrieve a secret weapon from Dr. Alphonse Moreau (of The Island of Dr. Moreau fame). It's this weapon, not any decisive action or discovery on the part of the League, that turns the tide for the Earthlings. As a piece of gee-whiz comics showmanship, it's all well and good, and in keeping with Moore's and O'Neill's desire to ground everything in the League books in the world of already-published literature.

As storytelling, however, it's lazy. The stars of the book are as far removed from the book's central conflict as it's possible to get. Moore does offer arcs for most of his characters, after a fashion: Quatermain and Harker embark on a romantic relationship in which the latter's disgust with her vampiric scars is an issue; Hyde takes his revenge on the person who harms the closest thing he has to a friend, and ultimately makes himself useful by fending off some advancing aliens, buying the humans time to use their weapon. But these are subplots at best. In the main story, most of the Leaguers are all but useless. Only the traitor (and no, we're not telling who) directly affects events, but even then, not for very long. All of which renders Vol. 2 a distinctly disappointing follow-up to its grand predecessor.

(On a side note, mention must be made of the book's agreeably graphic feel. From the rather unflattering depiction of a decrepit Quatermain and bony Harker engaging in intercourse to Hyde's disturbing encounter with the traitor, O'Neill pulls no punches. And colorist Ben Dimagmaliw renders his set pieces, from Martian battlefields to gloomy London streets and a river Thames red with gore and Martian creatures, with striking, moody hues.)

The heroes of Public Enemies, which collects the first arc from DC's Superman/Batman title, don't have the same problem that Moore's League does. The titular protagonists are very much involved in the action, which writer Jeph Loeb endeavors mightily to make as epic as possible. Public Enemies is filled with dramatic moments: Superman is shot with a kryptonite bullet! He and Batman are attacked by a grim, salt-and-pepper-haired Superman from the future (bearing a distinct resemblance to the one from Mark Waid's Kingdom Come miniseries)! A kryptonite asteroid is heading toward Earth! President Lex Luthor accuses Superman of being involved with the asteroid, and charges him with crimes against humanity!

And that's just in the first two issues. There's much more: The duo battles a group of villains -- and, later, heroes -- sent by the government to bring them in. Tokyo is almost leveled. A group of heroes storms the White House. And eventually, the World's Finest duo does battle with the evil leader of the free world, now decked out in a suit of green-and-purple powered armor that will look familiar to longtime followers of Superman's exploits.

All of this is sufficiently entertaining in a popcorn-movie kind of way, although the cartoonish lantern jaws and bulky physiques of Ed McGuinness are glaringly distracting. It's just that the situation confronting the two DC stalwarts grows increasingly hard to swallow. Luthor's plan to discredit Superman is built on the flimsiest of pretexts: Does he expect the nation, much less the world, to simply buy his assertion that he has evidence linking the Man of Steel to the asteroid hurtling toward us? Does he really become so unhinged in his quest to destroy Superman that he throws away his presidency to engage in aerial combat, acting like a stereotypical mad supervillain in the process?

Jeph Loeb is certainly no Alan Moore, as his occasionally prosaic work on the regular Superman titles has proven. But like Moore, he allows crucial action to take place "off-camera," as it were: Superman and Batman are defeated and captured by Hawkman and Captain Marvel, but when next they appear, they have overcome their captors, a situation relayed to the reader via captions relaying Superman's internal thoughts. And like Moore, he piles on plenty of fanboy-friendly "Holy Shit!" moments. Both writers, unfortunately, seem confident that those pockets of spectacle are enough to keep their stories afloat, and both books, in their own ways, ultimately suffer for that arrogance.

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