“Syndicate Rules” (Part 3)
Writer: Kurt Busiek
Artists: Ron Garney (p), Dan Green (i)
Publisher: DC Comics
Plot: As the Crime Syndicate discover that their universe has been destroyed and re-created, and that the new universe isn't quite the same as the one before, they decide further investigation is needed, and when the answers they are looking for appear to be located in the JLA’s universe, they decide to pay the DCU proper a visit. Meanwhile the warlike Qwardians have taken on a more aggressive leader, and he’s determined to track down and destroy the Crime Syndicate, wherever they may be.
Comments: To be perfectly honest, this doesn’t really feel like a Kurt Busiek written story, as frankly, the pacing is far slower than I’ve come to expect, and rather enjoy when it comes to his work. Now I realize that he’s got a fair bit of groundwork to lay out, and chances are pretty good that this extra attention to detail in the opening chapters is going to make for a stronger story. However, the simple fact of the matter is that this is the arc that is supposed to convince JLA fans that Kurt Busiek is an ideal fit for this title, and he’s not exactly raising the roof. Now I will concede that he’s doing a solid job of playing with the Crime Syndicate, as the characters are emerging as genuine personalities, rather than simply “evil” versions of the JLA. For example, one has to love the way that the characters bring out the worst in each other, with the team’s love triangle being a delightfully twisted display of how Superwoman delights in the tensions she's able to bring out in both men. I’ll also mention the Qwardians, as while I’m still finding it difficult to get overly invested in this plot, I will say the scenes have a greater focus in this issue, and by the end of the issue it was far easier to understand why Kurt Busiek had spent so much time on this plot. We also pay a visit with the JLA, and while it’s a rather inconsequential bit of action, it’s nice to see they are going to be paying a role in the action. The second to last page development also took the story in an engaging direction.
Ron Garney’s work reminds me quite strongly of John Byrne’s current work, and while part of this could be Dan Green’s inks, the panel layouts, and the simple storytelling tricks that are used are quite similar. Of course, the truth of the matter is that I’m not overly fond of John Byrne’s current work, so Ron Garney isn’t exactly in good company, as while the material tells the story in a clear enough manner, it lacks the sense of visual excitement that is needed to grab and hold my attention. I mean the characters have a rather limited range of expressions, and even the one big action shot of the issue struck me as less than impressive, as it’s more a pinup than an engaging display of action. I will concede that the page where we see the aftermath of the various hit and run attacks that the Crime Syndicate have made was a solid little sequence though, as was the look of delight on the faces of the villains as Johnny Quick reveals his plan.
Continuing from last issue, the Crime Syndicate of Amerika, criminal overlords of the Anti-Matter Earth, discover their universe has been destroyed and remade. There are some minor changes, though. Most noticeable is the black guy wielding the Power Ring. The CSA learn the cause of this recreation came from the positive matter universe. They immediately think the JLA is behind it, and invade their Earth. One quick crime spree later, the CSA gets the idea to disguise themselves as the JLA.
Meanwhile, Qward, home of the greatest weapon makers and warriors of the Anti-Matter Universe, also learns of the universal change. One warrior claims the mantle of Highlord and leads his people to war against the Positive Universe.
To understand what’s going on, you do need to read the last issue. You don’t need to read JLA #107. Although that’s called part one of this story, it really doesn’t have anything to do with anything that’s happened so far. You really need to read the JLA/Avengers crossover to learn how the universes were reformed. But if you haven’t, you’re probably not reading this. It also helps to read the graphic novel JLA: Earth 2 to understand why they’re destined to lose an open battle with the JLA. Okay, so this isn’t exactly a jump-on issue; it’s still a darn good comic.
Busiek writes the CSA as cruel, greedy, and selfish. But most importantly, they are smart. They work around the nature of the universe that demands villains like them ultimately fail. They set-up a failsafe that will send the JLA to their Earth. In short, they think ahead and strategize as well as their heroic counterparts. This is what made the CSA so dangerous in the Silver Age.
Garney’s and Green’s art reminds me of Scott McDaniel’s work, only good. The villains do indeed look sinister, what with the heavy inks and shadows everywhere. The two-page splash with the League fighting a giant monster manages to convey action in a single image. Nicely done.
I’m halfway through Busiek’s initial story arc, and I am liking it. He seems to be setting up a JLA smear campaign orchestrated by the CSA, followed by a three-sided trans-dimensional war.
And then there’s that whole universe realigning itself in subtle ways. What’s THAT gonna do?
Plot: Annoyed when they detect alterations in their reality, the Anti-Matter Crime Syndicate heads to Earth for retribution against the hated JLA. Meanwhile, on Qward, a warrior race fallen on hard times gets a renewed sense of purpose.
What’s Interesting: Busiek is having fun with this title. While the art doesn’t compare to the recent Claremont/Byrne run, the storytelling is much more lively. It’s clever of Busiek to use aspects of his recent JLA/Avengers crossover (yet another reality-resetting crisis for the DCU) to spark this story of alternate versions of our heroes, and he proves how good his handle is on the JLA by his inspired portrayal of their corrupt counterparts.
Most Interesting: The other big influence on this story is Morrison’s take on the Anti-JLA from the quite kinky but potent Earth 2 graphic novel. Busiek may be one of the few writers of today actually capable of understanding Morrison’s ideas and working with them without debasement. He doesn’t try too hard to ape Grant’s high concept gloss; he just zeroes in on the characters Morrison updated for current readers, and has a lot of fun playing them off each other.
Because, in a strange way, they’re not all that different from their doppelgangers. Like the JLA, the CS provides a sense of order on their world. Sure, they do it by intimidation and murder, but on a world overrun by the criminal element, that’s hardly surprising. Owlman is more ruthless than Batman, but just as clever. Power Ring is hampered only slightly by his ring’s basic morality, while Ultraman is a sniveling creep. So is Johnny Quick, it seems, while Super Woman uses her sexuality as just one means of getting what she wants, from anyone and everyone.
In fact, it matters very little that we’ve hardly seen the JLA proper in these two issues, because the CS are natural camera hogs. Plus, the worse they behave, the bigger the JLA putdown will ultimately be.
Less interesting: The Qwardian stuff is rather formulaic, and as yet not clearly tied into the main plot. And while this is Garney’s best issue yet on the title, he’s not turning in his best work. There’s a lack of detail to the art that one senses doesn’t quite live up to Busiek’s vision. Still, the new Power Ring design is good, and “Lois” is quite the memorable vamp.
After last issue’s reality-warping wave hit the Anti-matter universe of the Crime Syndicate of Amerika, the Justice League’s evil counterparts are on the offensive. With Power Ring, the anti-Green Lantern, removed from reality and replaced with an alternate, the Syndicate is wary that the same could befall any more of their number. As Ultraman, Superwoman, Owl Man, Johnny Quick, and the new Power Ring cross over into the positive matter universe, the Justice League discovers that a similar wave may have rewritten their reality, as well. Meanwhile, big things are happening on Qward, as leaders fall and others rise to power.
Prior to writer Kurt Busiek’s arrival on the title, JLA had been stuck in the mire for the last fifty issues or so, beginning with otherwise-talented Mark Waid’s uninspired run and spiraling down from there. If there’s anything that could pump a little life into this series, it would have to be an alternate-reality tale with everybody’s favorite super-villain team, the Crime Syndicate of Amerika. So what went wrong?
The appeal of alternate reality stories has always been the similarity of the doppelgangers to characters we’ve grown to love. In his Earth-2 graphic novel, which introduced the post-Crisis Crime Syndicate, Grant Morrison understood this implicitly. With artist Frank Quitely, Morrison showed a world much like our own–with the exception that evil always won. Owl Man was the anti-Batman not so much because he was a villain, but because his motivations and circumstances were exactly opposed to Batman. He was a crime lord. He enhanced his body with technology. There was also a sense of history. Owl Man was the brother of Bruce Wayne, who was murdered as a child. Owl Man’s father lived, and was the chief of police; when he discovered that the Thomas Wayne of the positive-matter universe was dead, Owl Man felt he had “nothing to fight for.” This is what makes an excellent alternate reality tale, the familiar turned on its head. While not every appearance of the CSA can contain an elaborate rundown of who these characters are and how they came to be, reducing them to an “evil JLA” strips them of all intrigue.
That said, there are some fun things happening in this arc. The promise of a stronger presence for Qward, a long-neglected staple of Silver Age DC, could play out in a number of interesting ways. Krona’s Space Egg, an artifact of JLA/Avengers, is another exciting prospect. With DC’s new “Crisis” on the horizon, the reappearance of so many factors that made the original epic so expansive in its scope is quite notable.
A brief list of ingredients: JLA. Crime Syndicate. Qward. Krona. Reality-warping. Busiek. Garney. So why isn’t this more fun to read? Perhaps the spices were not added in proper proportions. Maybe the meat is over-cooked. While there are some savory bits in the current Justice League story, for the most part readers will find this arc alternately spongy and dry.
As promised, Busiek provides a glimpse of the JLA for their title issue, but readers really will not miss their presence. The Crime Syndicate and the Weaponers of Quard are so utterly hilarious.
The Syndicate’s exploits provide such a pleasurable read. They only just get along, and their entire goal seems to be to humiliate the League and have as much felonious fun in the process. As for the Weaponers, they're an alien culture of loonies that make the Klingons by comparison positively rational.
In this issue, the Syndicate arrive in the positive matter universe, which our League calls home. They have a strong motivation for this excursion. One of their members has been reimagined--thanks to the events in JLA/Avengers literally into a new man. Despite having a rationale for their latest vacation, they do not squander this opportunity. Busiek's drawing the media into their tangled web is inspired. What good is it ruling a world if nobody knows you're doing it?
What follows in JLA is an almost nostalgic plundering of the DC cityscapes. Because the Syndicate intend to keep a low profile--or as low as they can--nobody dies during their crime spree, and they don’t think about raping the Sue Dibneys of the world. In fact, they keep their lewd thoughts to themselves, and this just heightens the sense of fun.
Ron Garney has a ball with the near over-the-top antics of the Crime Syndicate. Their design alone brings a smile to one’s lips. Superwoman throughout looks like a depraved villainess. There’s absolutely no attempt to hide her sadism. He gives her arched eyebrows and a nasty smirk. Her smile is full of contempt, and the scene where she’s wallowing in her ill-gotten booty portrays her as even more outrageous than already she is. The inks by Dan Green are perfectly aligned with Garney's style, and the colors by Baron bring out the striking atmosphere of each scene: from a powerful greenish opening splash page to an illicit sensual warmth.
Synopsis: The antimatter universe has been destroyed. The antimatter universe has been created anew. But there are glitches, revisions; it's a reintegration that breaks with the continuity of reality as the antimatter denizens know it. And they are not happy to have their existence erased and rebooted at the whim of some cosmic power. Unwilling to let such an occurrence be repeated, they seek out the source, which leads them to the Positive-matter universe, the reality of the JLA.
One threat, the Crime Syndicate of Amerika, journeys across universes, initiating a sinister plan against the League. The other threat, the warrior world of Qward, gears up for an epic battle to restore the honor of their decadent empire and to crush all who oppose the will of the mighty Thunderers. Meanwhile, the JLA is occupied by strange emergencies, “hiccups” in the fabric of reality, totally unaware of the two dangers that converge upon their universe.
Critique: "Then I'm not…me? I'm a revision?”
As serialized literature, super hero comics have a malleable narrative reality, wherein history may be altered at the whim of the author. Retcons, reboots, and flagrant continuity gaffes are common within the genre. But what if the characters became aware of the gross manipulation of their reality? What would they do? This is the thematic core around which the “Syndicate Rules” story arc is structured. Through intricate plot arrangement, savvy character delineation, and a visual style that enhances the story's dramatic weight, “Aftershocks” is an entertaining and aesthetically stimulating issue.
This issue has vivid pacing and smooth scene changes, which intensify the narrative priority of the story arc. Busiek is renowned for his love of complex plot formation; this issue is true to form. On the surface, the plot is deceptively simple. Both the Crime Syndicate and the Qwardians are aware of the universal “reboot” that has just occurred to them. They are now taking action to ensure that this will not happen again. It's a self-contained plot structure; character goals are stated, and conflict is initiated. But the complexity comes in the analysis of the thematic subtext.
I'll use the terms of classical music composition to elucidate my points. In part one, “Maintenance Day,” we have an allegro, an upbeat and quick piece that establishes motif. This is exemplified by the JLA’s conflict with the Construct, a hostile AI that needs periodic “rebooting” before it grows out of control. Part two, “Favor Bank,” begins with an andante that leisurely establishes the counterpoint voices, the CSA and the Qwardians, but it ends with a sharp presto, when the antimatter universe is destroyed and rebuilt over the course of two panels. Part three, “Aftershocks,” is a rondo, a reprise of the allegro’s motif but using the voices of the andante. The ending sets up the next part, probably a menuetto, as the principal characters “dance around” each other in order to attain their respective goals.
However, the complex artistry is not merely in the plot; the characterization has rich expressiveness as well. The dysfunctional dynamics within the Syndicate are made accessible to the reader. We can empathize with their outrage and confusion at having been cosmologically disassembled and unfaithfully reassembled. Likewise, the Qwardians use this brush with oblivion to step up to their potential. No longer content to be a cosmic goon squad, the “reboot” is an opportunity to “do the job right” this time around. The frustrated squabbling, on one hand, and the dramatic posturing, on the other, creates a strong dichotomy that resonates with the underlying theme. Deft characterization conveys the narrative priority of the theme.
Visually, the compositions are solid. Panel arrangement is adroitly matched to the narrative pace. Figures transcend the panel at dramatically appropriate scenes. Fletcher’s lettering is especially noteworthy for its role as a dramatic punctuation. Sometimes the words transcend the captions. Sometimes the bold text overpowers the normal text. The words are given intensity through the lettering and, in turn, enhance the characterization and dramatic weight of the scene.
Appraisal: "We make fetishes of them, display them as a reminder of what we were…"
The thing that really wins me over is the powerful subtext. While the exploration of a character’s feelings towards being “rebooted” makes for an engaging story, what excites me is the question that this story asks the reader. What does the reader do when a company decides to alter the continuity of the comic’s reality? Whatever the reason, be it though editorial design, authorial exploration, or sheer incompetence on the part of the creative team, alterations to continuity disrupt the shared experience that the reader has built through long and personal interaction with the text.
So what is the reader to do? Do we passively stare with mouths agape while are heroes are disassembled? Do we rant and spit bile when changes occur to our beloved characters? When a revision drifts away from a character’s thematic priorities, does the narrative lose its potency, depending on a character’s name or accoutrements, like fetishes, to lend it dramatic weight?
Serious literature doesn’t just entertain; it inspires the reader to think and ask questions. In a culture that prefers the pop pablum of Ashlee to the masterpieces of Amadeus, it doesn’t surprise me that Busiek’s talent for profound storytelling goes relatively unappreciated compared to the over-hyped garbage that dominates the charts. But discerning readers still exist, and for them I give this issue a high recommendation. Bravo, Maestro Busiek!
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