Person of Interest: s04 e02 – Nautilus

The Number That Got Away

A few years ago, I blogged a short series Italian crime drama, Inspector DiLuca (I think it was called). It was set in Fascist Italy, under Mussollini and one of its aspects was the problem of solving crime in a criminal country. The second episode of season 4 took a similar turn: how can the helpers of the Machine protect Numbers in a society where honesty cannot exist?

‘Nautilus’ set out to show us a way in which it can be done. It made a first step to draw us back to normality by reinstating Finch’s opening monologue, unchanges, with the twist that the surveillance feeds are drawn now from Samaritan, not ur operating-in-secret Machine. And there is a new meaning to the key word Irrelevant, applying to each of our secret quartet who, each time they are identified as enemies are reclassed as Irrelevant.

Everyone is separate under different covers. At least they can talk on the phone on their private, secure network, and Detective Riley invites Professor Whistler for a late night coffee. Except a Detective’s paperwork is hell so Riley doesn’t turn up. But Clare Mahoney (Quinn Shephard) does. And Clare’s a Number.

She’s a Number vouxchsafed to Reese, not Finch, who wants nothing to do with her. They don’t do that any more. Well, he doesn’t. But Clare’s a brilliant Math student, a chess master, an asset of major proportions and not unlike Finch himself.

She’s also a thin-faced, not unattractive young woman with no concern for anything but a game she’s playing, or rather a competition she’s set on winning. A series of genius level mathematical puzzles laid out as a Treasure Hunt across New York, each clue marked with the sign of a Nautilus Shell, a shell whose chambers are a natural logorithmic progression (thank you, Root)

It’s a competition being played out in different cities at 27 day intervals, first to solve it wins. And Clare is determined on being the winner, for good or ill, and the intensity that Shephard brings to the part convinces us early on that tis is not going to be a good thing to win. It’s going to take a high level of genius not to mention a kind of desperation-fuelled ruthlessness, and people don’t set underground competitions for that kind of person to recruit staff to care for fluffy bunnies.

The episode tries to peg Clare’s fanaticism to the random death of both her parents a year before and her subsequent search for meaning, but that to me seemed entirely too facile, and rational. Shephard was, if anything, too good at embodying Clare’s utter obsession for it to have an external reason; this woman was screwed a long time before from within.

There was an added complication in the form of Silverpool, a private military company whose files Clare had hacked to win an earlier round without ever being bothered by their contents, which could bring the company down. Reese cwas following Clare to keep her safe, Silverpool were following her to kill her and retrieve the file and Finch was trying to reach her on a psychlogical level, because something was bad about all this, something seriously stunk and it was the puzzle’s creator: Samaritan.7

But Clare was lost before we first met her, driven by her obsession to win, intent on constructing a meaning around herself, the structure being her sole concern and the exact meaning… meaningless.

Clare walked away to Samaritan. Silverpool whent down. So too did its big project a surveillance system built to utilise and analyse Government feeds. A potential rival for Samaritan, shot down in flames; how convenient.

But Clare served yet another purpose, this time one not of Samaritan’s design. She brought Harold Finch back into play, the underground space he discovered last week being an abandoned subway service tunnel wired to be undetectable. It’s not the Library, but it’s a new base from which to fight back, and the mayhem twins are no longer working without back-up.

The game is once more afoot, even in an abnormal world.

Lou Grant: s02 e17 – Samaritan

This was a vastly better episode than the previous week, even despite the slightly trite ending. The subject this week was serial killers (though the term wasn’t used, this being before its public coining), but the idea was merely the underpinning of a well-written episode that avoided melodrama and sensation and let the effect of such a character play out through not only the Trib, but the general LA public.

It began with a letter bing written, that arrives at the City Desk. Lou thinks it’s a hoot but Donovan recognises it as the work of Samaritan, a serial killer active for six months, five years previously, who disappeared abruptly. Samaritan’s motif was to offer aid to stranded motorists or hitch-hikers, and then kill them.

The letter’s taken very seriously. There’s much debate about printing it, though the paper goes for not stirring matters up again for a mere letter. This decision is primarily Lou’s, though he’s supported by Jim McCrea (guest star Ben Piazza), the reporter who covered the Samaritan storry, who’s the paper’s expert.

That’s until theTrib’s star columnist, Jack Towne (guest star Richard B. Shull), blows the story in an overwritten, insensitive ‘personal appeal’ to Samaritan to give himself up, to Towne. This echoed the real-life Son of Sam case  in New York, a couple of years previously, and the involvement of columnist Jimmy Breslin.

Towne’s unrepentent of the damage he’s caused, the fear, the tension, the paranoia. One guy, stopping to help a stranded motorist, gets blasted by a shotgun.

The story escalates, as does the efforts to track down any clue. Jim McCrea is back in the swing of things. Jack Towne walks around smugly, with a near permanent paranoia. A guy walks into a Police Station to confess, but he’s not Samaritan, merely some poor schlub obseesed with confessing.

I liked the  way the episode, without even a single xplicit word, teased us with the idea that Samaration could have been McCrea himself, or possibly Lt. Bergen, the Homicide detective handling the case, who retired only a couple of months after Samaritan stopped, without explanation. Nothing was said to point the finger, just the facts combining to leave the possibility in the air.

Everythingwas moviing along. I was mentally preparing myself for some kind of non-ending, which I think may have been the better option, but the programme wanted some form of closure. Everybody’s accepted the letters as genuine, but Rossi tracks Bergen down and he takes one look and pronounces them fake. Samaritan’s letters always include a Bible quote, from Luke, chapter 10. Samaritan always used a King James Bible: the new letters use a modern language version.

So they’re fakes. So, who’s writing them? Here, the episode dipped from it’s high level of sustained quality. Lou has a wild hunch that tuns out to be true. It’s Jim McCrea, missing the excitement, the drama of the Samaritan era, the spotlight of his involvement, and trying to get that back by conjuring Samaritan up again.

It’s an ending. I found it a bit banal, but in all fairness, in 1978 it would have come as more of a shock. It even produces a good, sensitive column from Jack Towne, which is used to give the episode a melancholy pay-off, a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God flavour.

But this was still a strong episode, because it used its subject to create a genuinely strong story, rather than a didactic exposure of a subject-for-concern. More of these and less of last week’s episode, please!

A Universe in One Comic Book: Astro City Vol. 3, #24

Having celebrated Astro City‘s previous issue for demonstrating the series’ long overdue longevity, it fels incumbent to review the second half of the story, just to record how disappointing it was.

The set-up, if you don’t recall, was that Sticks, a soldier from the secretive Gorilla Mountain, had escaped and come to Astro City to pursue his dream of becoming a drummer in a band, but found this impossible due to the hassle of people wanting/expecting him to use his ‘powers’ as a superhero.

How does Busiek square this circle for his forlorn talking gorilla? Initially, Sticks succumbs to the inevitable and joins the hip, young team, Reflex 6, but after six months he leaves: it isn’t what he wants, it’s not what he is. He tries to go back to his human friends and their band, but it’s just the same as before. Moping on a rooftop, he meets Samaritan, who offers help: there is always a way. At which point, Sticks gets an idea.

This is a familiar moment in an Astro City comic, when this month’s central character is struck by inspiration and comes up with an ingenious plan, and mentally we sit back, waiting for Busiek to dazzle or amuse us with the lucidity of his idea. Except that the great idea of Sticks of how to live his life and pursue his dreams without everybody on his back, trying to force him to become a superhero and fight is… to become a superhero and fight.

Granted it’s as Tuxedo Gorilla, an immaculately dressed gorilla in a tuxedo, complete with anti-gravity spats, and Sticks is working solo, off his own beats, but it’s still a very disappointing conclusion if the only way you can prevent being a round peg stuffed into a square hole is to become a square peg. I mean, Martha Sullivan (who’s mentioned in passing) has superpowers but hasn’t had to take up superheroing.

As for the music side, that conclusion is also pretty banal: Sticks forms a band with other superhumans who are interested in music. I hope they’re happy.

What depresses me about this issue, whether Busiek intends it or not, is that it’s message is that being superhuman trumps everything, that all your choices in life are suborned into being a superhero, that all individuality is overridden. I’m not happy with that.


A Universe in One Comic Book: Astro City (Vol. 3) #15

Last month, I excoriated issue 14 of Astro City as being well below the standard of invention and innovation Kurt Busiek has displayed in the two decades it has existed. I also accused the issue of making its second part, issue 15, entirely predictable.

These were my exact words with regard to that:

“Yeesh, it’s an awful story, and so is issue 15, which anyone who has read more than half a dozen mainstream comics already knows will go like this: Fred and Ellie will be betrayed by whoever’s pulling Fred’s strings: Ellie’s ‘Friends’ will break her out of jail: they will release her from her conditioning that has concealed from her that she actually used to be a genius-type super-villain (almost certainly the ‘Vivi Viktor’ who, in the Seventies, was taken out by Mirage and The Point Man) and her robots actually buried those memories: that Ellie and her now potentially lethal ‘friends’ will wreak vengeance upon the manipulator, saving Fred into the bargain: and that Ellie’s conscience and her love for her mis-treated friends will win out, and she will not go back to her villainous past.”

So here’s the crunch: was I right or have I made a complete fool of myself?

And the answer is that I wasn’t right, not on every single point, and not on the major one, but then again I called so much of what appears in issue 15 that I think I’m entitled to call it a high-scoring draw.

What I definitely missed out on was that Ellie was never a supervillain, and wasn’t Vivi Viktor. No, Ellie was a scientific genius and every bit as much an idyllist as her modern persona suggests, but it’s her genius that has gone into all these robots, and it’s her robots what do break her out of jail so she can escape the programming she’s suffered under for decades, programming instilled in her by the aforementioned Vivi Viktor (a real name), who is the villain behind all this.

And once Ellie allows her memories to return – in a manner that suggests she could have let them return any time she wanted, which of itself raises moral complications that simply do not get considered in this story – she quickly and easily exposes Vivi because, as Ellie has been pointing out since the beginning, the Robots – ALL of them – are her friends (I may barf).

So where does Vivi Viktor come in to all of these? Why, she’s Ellie’s old room-mate, friend and scientific partner, except that where Ellie is open hearted and sunny and believes in everything being good and nice, and all fluffy bunnies, Vivi was insecure, defensive, self-directed and badly traumatised due to an horrific childhood incident. Which is why she nicked all Ellie’s designs, and Ellie’s brain.

So, I missed out on the major point, but got everything else right as filtered through the fact of Busiek having displaced the culprit into a rather thin and cliched technological villain, complete with cardboard dialogue. It’s still not good enough to live with Astro City‘s past. The whole point of Astro is and always has been that you don’t know how it’s going to work out, that you’re presented with the outline of a familiar scenario and then Busiek opens it up to show you glorious alternatives that you’d never imagined for yourself. That’s not what happened here.

There’s not much else in the story, and what there is is mostly echoes of existing stories. Ellie’s brainwashing into a dumber person has Identity Crisis and why-Dr-Light-became-a-moron smeared all over it, whilst the final scene, of heroes coming out of the woodwork to praise the genius Eleanor Jennerson and bring her into their world with a vengeance is a replay of Samaritan and Sully the ‘Sideliner’ in issue 4. The only original of itself element is Ellie telling nephew Fred not to be such a weak, easy way out nebbish any more.

And that really is it. As you may be able to tell, I can and do enjoy ripping the piss out of certain things that are crap dressed in tinfoil (like 24 – Live Another Day), but I don’t like doing it to something I respect and like, and which I desperately want to see doing well. So in future I’m going to keep my opinion of Astro City to myself. I’d like to think that at some point I’ll find the series restored to its proper glories and that I can honestly praise it in the way I want but, having regard to the preview of issue 16, I don’t think that will be happening in October of this year.

Thanks to to Astrozac, for his comments in recent months, which have enlivened this increasingly burdensome series of blogs: hope you stay enjoying this more than I do, buddy.

A Universe in One Comic Book: Astro City Volume 3, #10

I’m going to be very honest. I’ve loved Astro City for years now, re-read it a dozen times, and been frustrated through the long periods it’s been out of circulation. It’s now been back for ten issues from Vertigo, featuring worked that was planned and executed back in 2010 or so, when it was expected to be a more-or-less direct continuation from the last couple of Specials. This issue concludes the four-parter centring on Winged Victory, and it does so in a manner that’s typically Busiekian, where the climax lies not in the thundering blows of superhero/superficial battle, but rather in the insight and change of heart that is a consequence of the fight, or realisation of the deeper issues that underlie the present danger.

And I’m still not moved, still not thrilled, still not convinced the way I used to be and absolutely want to be. There’s something missing. I don’t know what it is – if I did I’d up and say it in front: this is a review, not a mystery – nor do I know whether it’s in Astro or in me.

As for the actual issue, it’s good, in its way, though one of the problems with this story is, I think, that throughout it has been too close to mainstream superheroics. This being the climactic issue, it begins with Victory, Samaritan and the Confessor charging into action together, though that point in the issue doesn’t come until over halfway through. It’s a splash page scene done to show the equivalent of DC’s Trinity in action, when the real meat of the story are the two scenes between Voctory and the Council of Nike, the women who collectively invest Vic with her power, over whether she is to remain Winged Victory.

(Look, I know Nike the Goddess, the feminist figure, came a long way first but that is not helping the overwhelming tendency whenever they come up to start thinking of sports shoes).

The above may be half a joke, but it is a real issue, and it dovetails with the other serious problem underpinning this story, which is exacerbated by that splash page. I’ve never had any problem before telling that Vic isn’t Wonder Woman, any more than Samaritan is Superman, but now that Batman’s been thrown into the mix – and the new Confessor is so Batman in exactly the way the old one wasn’t – the shadow of the Trinity hangs too heavy over the Astro City analogs and I cannot quite perform the essential trick of splitting my inner sight between them.

Anyway, the big bad is indeed Karnazon, of the Iron Legion, and a right muffin he looks,Anderson and Ross’s designs having, for once, toppled over into risibility when it comes to portrayimg a quasi-beast like masculine superiorist, and thankfuly Vic makes punching his lights out the perfunctory thing you want it to be the moment you see him, so the status quo can be (mostly) reset, with most people glad to hear it’s all been a frame, and those who welcomed it with open arms remaining unconvinced. So, what was it all for? (The Weather, or the battle of Agincourt? Excuse me, I’m just this minute listening to Billy Bragg).

What this four parter has been about has been defining Winged Victory. As I’ve had occasion to comment about earlier issues, she exists as a symbol. I won’t say ‘feminist’ since that is currently an excuse for deliberate misunderstanding and straw woman arguments, but Winged Victory is empowered by women, for women. To be on their side, to save and protect them, to be their specific hero but, far more important, to be their symbol. To show them, by teaching, training and sheer example that they can be strong, that they can rely upon themselves, that they do not need to depend on men to do things for them.

It’s a simple statement, in intention and symbolism, simplistic enough perhaps that it can only be effective in a superhero story (even if it’s one that comes with Astro‘s levels and shades). That simplicity is its power. William Moulton Marston saw Wonder Woman as a symbol of female power (with some dark undercurrents but we won’t go into those) and Winged Victory is, if anything, a more conscious/conscientious application of that theme.

But it’s during this last issue, when Vic stands in fear of losing her role, and thus her entire life, that she begins to see the limitations of that symbol. If she can only ever stand alone, not to have the love and comfort of a partner, not to have assistance from those who will help, yet still be supposed to give assistance to them, as a way of demonstrating women’s power, if anything except the pure symbol is disgrace, defeat and diminishment, is what she has been created worth it?

Vic expresses it very simply to herself: once, Karnazon did things. He was still just as evil, still just as violent, but he did it for selfish reasons, to knock over banks, take over countries. For far too long, he’s sunk back into being Winged Victory’s opposite,the masculinist to her feminist, seeing himself only in the symbolic light of the desire to prove men are better than women.

I find Victory’s realisations to be a fruitful source of thought, but then I’m a man, not a woman, and so is Busiek, so we are both of us open to charges of chauvinism, and failing to check our privilege, and I ain’t going there. I’m rather more impressed by the personal element of having the story end by Vic changing back to Lauren Freed and visiting the mother she’s avoided for years.

There’s obviously a lot in this issue, this four-parter, but I’m going to circle back to the beginning again and say that, despite all this material, I still find something missing in the current Astro City volume. In part it’s that there is insufficient of a transition from beginning to end: some staff don’t come back to the centre, the media get let in, Samothrace takes on its first male trainee (which, laudable as it is in this specific context, is just asking for trouble in anything resembling this world) and Lauren visits her Mum, but it doesn’t feel like anything has truly changed, which plonks us back in mainstream territory.

Nor am I any nearer to deciding what is different about volume 3, or about myself, that is standing in the way of that click that happens when I read even The Dark Ages.

It’s not going to stand in the way of buying the comic, but it does stand in the way of being comfortable with Astro City as I used to be, and I don’t like it. Does anyone else feel the same?

A Universe in one Comic Book: Astro City (vol. 3) #9

The third of the current Winged Victory four-parter is very good, though little happens that develops the plot. Vic fights off the Iron Legion with admirable ease, whilst Samaritan stands back, to be called upon if needed. Samothrace is closed down, and the mysterious teenage boy, unwilling to be set back to what he was running away from, escapes into hiding. Further ‘evidence’ causes a warrant to be issued on Vic, though Commander Flint lets her go before orders reach him to arrest her. The Confessor takes over the investigation from his ‘Bat-Cave’ at Grandenetti Cathedral (this is one place where the analog is just too thin: this one’s a steal), blythely telling Vic she needs to hide out in her other identity entirely – in short, drop out of the case and let everyone sort it out for fear – which she refuses to do. She’s then drawn to an aged Japanese woman, a member of the Council of Nike, the first she has met in person, who gives Vic a breather, and confidence in herself. At the end, the mysterious kid, having followed the Iron Legion through some mysterious portal, enters a compound and discovers…

But that’s for next month.

I’m not criticising this story, just saying that, for a four-parter, very little has happened overall, and very little space is left for an ending that’s being played up as monumental, with life-changing events. And very little time has passed within the story, perhaps 48 hours at most.

That alone distinguishes Astro City from every other title published for about two decades. Usually, multi-part series now have multiple viewpoints, a cascade of scenes happening simultaneously, shifts in viewpoint at least every other page, slivers of story designed to distract from the fact that the story’s probably crap to begin with: comics for the MTV, ADD generations, who are bored by lingering on any one thing for more than a couple of seconds.

The problem is that, when you get a series intent on developing its story in a more traditional manner, too much exposure to the hyper-busy, however reluctantly, can affect you to the point that you start to feel as if too little’s happening.

What does really impress me about this issue is Samaritan. He loves Winged Victory, and because he loves her, he wants to help. He also knows, with a calm certainty that is even more impressive, through being rare, that she doesn’t need help because she’s good enough without him. At the same time, he gets, where it is important to get, that the core of her being is not to want or receive help – that Winged Victory is more than a person, but rather a symbol, and that for her to cease to be that symbol is to cease to function.

All this is played out with very little direct reference to it, and in complete contrast to the Confessor, who focuses on the practical so blinkeredly as to do the very thing Winged Victory cannot allow: take over, do the job, help out the little lady who needs a man to do things for her. Sure it makes sense, and it’s completely Batman-esque, to do the job, first and foremost. No malice is intended, but the Confessor is as good as doing the hidden enemy’s job for them, and it points out Samaritan’s strength and gentility all the more.

We’re promised “two showdowns, some life decisions and a turning point or two” next issue, in the space of one issue. I have no idea where this is going: is Busiek suggesting that Lauren’s fear will be realised, that she will clear Winged Victory’s name yet still be stood down? Who is behind this? The thing about Astro City is that, once the status quo is undermined, it doesn’t go back: we have to have a new status quo. The only thing we can expect is change.

(And if it turns out to be the Confessor who’s behind this, I suspected it here first, ok?)

A Universe in one Comic Book: Astro City (volume 3), #8

The cover is quite an effective symbol for the second of this Winged Victory-focussed four-parter: Wonder Woman, her bracelets chained together, is in a symbolic pose, removed both physically and by Alex Ross’s pastel colours into the background, whilst the normally-lit men on the cover, Superman and Batman, do the actual fighting. That pretty much sums up what goes on inside this issue.

Oh, and I do know that that is actually Samaritan and the Confessor going at it, inside and outside, whilst that’s Winged Victory receding further and further into the background, but this is one of those cases where the analogue wears exceptionally thin. Though I have never read it, I am put very much in mind of Kurt Busiek’s weekly series, Trinity, devoted expressly to DC’s holy three. The cover, especially the chains, just screams of the original characters.

This second episode is devoted in large part to building up the Confessor as Batman-manque, which was not the primary aspect we witnessed in the Confessions graphic novel. But then that was the original Confessor, and this is a very-much-changed Brian Kinney: the disconnect is massive. The Confessor has broken in to Samothrace One, and Vic’s systems, to carry out his own investigation. Both Vic and Samaritan jump to the initial conclusion that he’s involved, but the Confessor is there to assist: he knows Winged Victory is being framed.

The encounter is very funny: Samaritan forces what, in normal circumstances, would be a Marvelesque unnecessary fight thatthe Confessor prolongs for a serious point, two, in fact. One he states, that at his end of the business you have to handle yourself against anyone, and the other being a demonstration that he can handle himself against Samaritan. It’s neatly done, and I laugh each time at Samaritan’s twice-pained acceptance, “Oh, don’t think t-twice about it — Just a little spot of exercise on a n-nice day –”

Even then, the banter, the exact relationship is too exact, too much Superman/Batman.

The fact that Busiek specifically acknowledges Winged Victory’s position in having to rely on assistance – upon an almost takeover – by men, highly competent, very fair men, but men nevertheless, plus the fact that this is only part two of four, keeps me from being negative about this aspect of the comic. I trust in Busiek, and in what he has planned,not to mention that whilst Vic has to slip away, her example devalued, her mission seemingly disrupted terminally, it’s only to bring her in contact with her foe. The man behind this is Karnazon, leading the Iron Legion, of whom we will learn more next month. But it’s Winged Victory who will go alone into the spotlight’s glare.

So let’s take it that Busiek knows what he’s doing and that whilst the male/female tightrope might seem to be balanced in stereotypical fashion just now, there is more ahead. We’ll return to this particular current after issue 10, when we have everything before us.

A Universe in One Comic Book: Astro City (Vol.3) #7

For the first time since Astro City‘s return this summer, Kurt Busiek and his partners are concentrating directly upon one of his Universe’s costumed characters, as opposed to the ‘ordinary’ folks living their lives in the light of a world in which suspended disbelief is a way of life. And after twenty years of the series, we come at last to the explaining of one of Astro‘s major, if perhaps remote, figures, Winged Victory who, from the outset, has been a very plain Wonder Woman-analogue.

It’s long overdue by my reckoning: Winged Victory was seen at close quarters in Volume 1, # 6 (see Life in the Big City), ostensibly as a possible girl-friend for Samaritan, but primarily in contrast to him in terms of their roles and how they approach what they do. Despite Busiek’s efforts to portray the two charactrs equally, Winged Victory still came off as subordinate, and she has remained very much a background figure ever since. Not so in this story.

“The Earth Below Us” being the first part of four, what we get this month is almost wholly set-up, fleshed out by the surprisingly early explanation of WV’s origin (I’m not sure how I feel about the revelation that her ‘boyfriend’ and closest supporters call her Vic…). It makes a welcome change: usually, such thing get revealed in episode 3, but the full nature of what WV is and how she is powered is essential to the various elements being brought forward.

First of these is Mike, a mysterious beaten-up kid crawling towards WV’s Astro City home, Samothrace, in search of the same kind of training, of mind and body WV has always provided to women, to enable them to stand up for themselves, be independent and strong, and masters (well, you know what i mean) of their own fates. Mike, however, is a man.

This cuts into a lovely, and lovingly nostalgic, scene of Winged Victory and Samaritan, both naked, flying together in the night sky: it’s a deliberate reflection of Samaritan’s dreams from the very first scene of Astro City, save that he was alone then but is accompanied now. It is but a dream, though a dream dreamt in WV’s arms and bed,and things haven’t changed that much, as Samaritan is woken and taken away by another disaster.

What follows is equally familiar. We have long been exposed to WV being a controversial figure, because of her overt feminism, and it is rearing its ugly head again: three super-villainesses suddenly claiming to be in WV’s pay, Vic being the puppet-master, their showdowns acted out fakes. The detractors who continually seek to tear her and her message down are immediately out in force, but this time it’s different. They’re too organised, too ready, and worryingly, too effective.

This is where WV’s origin comes in: as Lauren Freed, she was a nothing, a nobody, who let her life be dominated by a callous, self-centred man, who was broken down and left with nothing when he dumped her. But Lauren was chosen by the Council of Nike, to become Winged Victory, to become a symbol of strength, and a mentor/tutor for women. And what is most interesting is that her power comes from women the world over, strength that is chennelled into her, channelled by her. We’re not yet told on what basis this is, whether mystic or scientific – the outline we are given of this origin delicately avoids committing in either direction, thus far – but within twenty four hours of this latest scandal breaking, WV’s strength is already diminished, and she is summoned before the Council.

So, the threat is not just to the reputation and the example of Winged Victory but to the person of Lauren Freed within. The whole of the story makes it clear, throughout, that Winged Victory is Winged Victory on a permanent basis – the scenario established in her first appearance. Lauren Freed does not appear in this issue, outside her flashback: though Samaritan is Asa Martin in her bed, it is Winged Victory with whom he flies and makes love. After twenty years, we are led to believe that Lauren Freed is still the broken woman she once was, scared and helpless.

So: who is Mike, what is he running from, and what effect will he have? Who is behind this sudden undermining attack? Will Lauren be replaced as Winged Victory and how will she respond? And, as hinted on the cover, and made explicit on the final page, why is the Confessor sneaking around Samothrace, spying on her?

Good question, and remember, this is the second Confessor, the human one, Brian. Or shall we call him Busiek’s Batman-analogue? Between Winged Victory on the one hand, Samaritan on the other (agreeing to keep out of this, understanding how important it is for WV not to prevail with male help) and the Confessor’s undisclosed involvement, it’s a re-enactment of DC’s Trinity – and remember that Busiek wrote a 52 week series under that title, featuring the originals…

This one looks very interesting.

A Universe in one Comic Book: Astro City (volume 3) No. 4

I have to say that I’ve been disappointed with all the Alex Ross covers on the new Astro City series so far, and issue 4’s the same, showing central character Martha (“Sully”) Sullivan, enjoying a quiet coffee in a roadside cafe whilst a horde of superheroes race by, and she casually waves them away: idea brilliant, execution undistinguished. The colour palette’s too shallow, there’s a washed out look to it, Sully doesn’t really project enough from the background. There’s isn’t the kind of distinctive image to or in it to make it stand out.

Inside, the story’s another entertaining perspective on the super-powered in the manner that only Kurt Busiek seems able to portray. Long-term readers have met Sully before, in the penultimate issue of volume 2, the Crimson Cougar story (collected in Local Heroes). Sully’s a telekinetic, an experienced woman in her late forties/early fifties, squarely built but comfortable with herself. We met her doing special effects for the television soap that featured the Cougar, when she referenced having once thought of being a superhero (as “Mind-over-Mattie”) before realising it wasn’t for her.

Now we get to see her at more length. The story is ingenious, and Busiek makes sure there’s plenty of time in it for Sully to recount her life-history, showing how Sully discovered the simple fact that, despite her superhuman powers, she simply wasn’t cut out for the costumed life: too stressed and scared to be a hero scrapping with villains, too honest to be a villain, taking what she wants (and all she did was to gimmick a fruit machine to give her the jackpot!).

No, Sully found her niche in special effects, a sort of human CGI. And she found a whole bunch of others like her: super-powered in various ways, not the stuff of heroes (the story, in this aspect, is a gentle reminder to us, from the back, of the extreme personality required to do that), but useful and highly effective in the entertainment business.

Not that that stops idiots with grandiose ideas of conquest and power from trying to take over their lives, trying to make these people (who call themselves Sideliners) use their abilities as they ‘should’, and for the benefit of would-be criminal despots like – the Majordomo!

Yes, Sully turns down an approach along just such lines, tells her agent not to book any jobs for her for a week and settles down to the by-now expected kidnap and removal to a place of slavery where she and a dozen of her friends and fellow Sideliners will be coerced into feeding the Majordomo’s fantasies (Sully will be renamed Telecaster!). But they’ve all been through this before, and they’re ready for it (just because they don’t want to fight doesn’t mean that they can’t) and the hapless Majordomo is not only brought down with ease, but given a major ticking-off too.

All without the need to involve ‘real’ superheroes too.

There’s a neat little coda when Samaritan – who’s getting real exposure in this new series – drops in on Sully at her cafe to gently remind her that the heroes value the Sideliners and would have been eager to help, which ties the strings of Astro City‘s universe together that bit further, but it’s also a reminder of the differences between heroes and those who, for whatever reason, have not so much not got ‘it’, but who merely have something else that they use fulfillingly.

Overall, it’s another illustration of what I’ve long since described as Busiek’s ability to write a series consisting entirely of definitive stories. We know Martha Sullivan now, we have seen her world and her life, seen how distinct and differenmt, yet wholly logical, it is from yours or mine or any common or garden superhero. In the Universe of a comic book company, we would return over and again, seeing Sully doing endless versions of what she does here, and maybe in thoroughly entertaining fashion, but this single story defines her.

Every ongoing series has the defining stry(ies) and the ones that come out to fill a monthly schedule. Astro City has nothing but the defining stories, and doesn’t waste time of repetition. Like the title says, it’s a Universe in one Comic Book.

A Universe in one Comic: Astro City (Volume 3) No. 3

Issue 3 of the new Astro City series completes the story begun last month, in exactly the same way that Alex Ross’s still-fussy, still-crowded cover completes last month art: the two covers form a dyptich for a larger image that still doesn’t work,for the reasons I cited last time out.

Some parts of this issue are pretty much as I expected from the first half: Marella Cowper, a call centre operative for Honor Guard, whose  primary task is to filter incoming calls by their degree of seriousness, does indeed react with shame and self-disgust at her ‘failure’ to assess a call from a girl whose mother is being struck by a man as requiring more than Social Workers.

No matter that she has acted correctly, no matter that she is blaming herself for not seeing the unseeable, the outcome is death and destruction, the turning of a remote Ecuadorian village into a war zone as Honor Guard battle it out with “Slaughter” Shaw and the Skullcrushers. It’s Mrella’s failure in her own eyes, a failure made all the greater by the with-hindsight discovery of additional clues, clues that are only clues because of the retrospective significance they have gained.

The whole issue is about Marella’s obsession with doing something to appease her irrational guilt. Most of it is practical, thankfully, and the actually bemoaning of her poor judgement is actually kept to a thankful minimum. You have no idea how many comics I have read that have featured self-berating heroes, tearing their bleeding hearts out over what they have done or allowed to have done, and Marella doesn’t stint on that in the early part of this issue, but to my relief, after an initial bout of locking herself in her room and misery-surfing the news reports, Ms Cowper sneaks off to Ecuador, using her Honor Guard card to teleport her as close as possible to the disaster area, bringing supplies (especially toilet rolls) and, under the pretense of being a vacationing student, volunteering aid.

No-one knows where she is. She hasn’t told her family, she’s absent from her job, she’s going to get fired (which she’s convinced she deserves) and yet she can still teleport for more supplies anytime she wants and she’s shutting her mind to the implications of why her Honor Guard card hasn’t been shut down.

What Marella wants most of all is to find Esme, the girl she ignored, and her mother Maria. Only then can she, even in part, redeem herself. And in this she succeeds: a burned man, of whom she is suspicious, is brought into the makeshift hospital, a man who, with Toni’s clandestine help, she identifies as an uncaptured Skullcrusher. She follows him back to the mountain, discovering a hidden entrance, and the surviving Esme and Maria, but only at the cost of capture and imminent death.

Which is when the deus ex machina turns up, on cue: an Honor Guard quartet who’ve been carefully watching what employee Marella Cowper has been doing, via the tracker in her card. They clear up the last of the crooks, Marella gets the surviving mother and daughter to safety, and gets a shock as Cleopatra tells her to be back for duty on Monday.

For one thing, she did not make a mistake, except in her own mind. Everybody makes mistakes: Marella will make others. Some can’t handle it, crack and leave. Some shrug them off too easily. The ones that Honor Guard want the most are those who, like Marella, set out to try to fix mistakes. Though very few go to her length…

It’s a well-made story, though it is, in the end, something of a predictable one. Apart from the unnecessary melodrama of having Esme fall from a high gantry and Marella physically save her, which is a little too much of an indulgence of the latter’s guilty conscience, the story is smooth and enjoyable. Personally, I found the first half of the tale to be the more original and imaginative, even as it lacked a storyline. Once Marella goes into action, whilst the context is less cliched, the actual psychological journey and the redemption is a little too formulaic to completely satisfy me.

You’ll note that I’m not buying any other super-comics though.

As for future issues, Busiek confirms inside that issue 1’s the Broken Man reappears in issue 5, and Ben Pullam and the Ambassador in no 6, but for next month we have a non-hero, non-villain super-powered character named Mattie front and centre: undoubtedly the same Mattie as in the Crimson Cougar story in Family Album.

I’m looking forward to that.