"Born In the East"
Writer: Tad Williams
Artist: Phil Winslade
Publisher: DC Comics
Warning: This review summarizes the entire issue. In other words, spoilers abound.
I think I’m just about done reading most monthly comic books. I’m tired of reading books that aren’t bad but aren’t really very good either, especially when I have to pay for them. Of course, I doubt Tad Williams set out to write a book that’s not bad but not really very good either. The problem, though, is that I also doubt he set out to NOT write such a book.
Before I go any further, let me stop to comment on Phil Winslade’s great job at illustrating this story. His line work is pleasant to look at, and he’s able to convey a sense of movement from panel to panel, which is actually a rare accomplishment with many contemporary comic book illustrators. Aside from the ridiculous costume design for the All-New Ibis, I don’t have any problems with Winslade’s work. No, my problems lie with Williams’s writing.
The things I’m going to complain about are mostly minor, to be sure. However, when they’re added together, they total up to a major problem. Let’s start with the title of the story, “Born In the East.” What does it mean?
The story contains a lot of references to Egyptian mythology, legends, and history. However, Egypt is in Africa—and “the East” and “the Middle East” refer to areas of Asia. Of course, Egypt is an Arab country, and “Arabia” is usually considered “the Middle East,” so I guess the misinformed title should be “Born In the Middle East” in reference to the Egyptian heritage of both the Ibis legend and Danny Khalifa’s family. How about “Born In Egypt” as a better title?
Anyway, the plot involves the Golden Age Ibis, Amentep (in the role of Abin Sur), using his Ibistick (in the role of a power ring) to find his successor before he dies. Danny fills the role of Hal Jordan, not because he is without fear, but because he has “the blood of the Hekau” in him, and because “there was no one else within [. . . Amentep’s] dying reach.” (By the way, Danny’s a 17-year-old high school senior who routinely gets beat up by eighth graders).
Let me interrupt once more before I comment on Amentep’s search for a successor. In Seven Soldiers: Zatanna #1, Ibis and Taia died along with Doctor Thirteen and Timothy Ravenwind during a séance conducted by Zatanna. However, after that issue came out, Superboy Prime punched a wall and Dr. Thirteen has appeared in silly stories in the back of Tales of the Unexpected as an idiot who scoffs at empirical evidence of the supernatural while trying to have sex with his seventeen-year-old daughter. Isn’t the All-New DC fun?
Okay, back to the review. Now, you must understand this point: Amentep is dying in a house that looks to be in Egypt. If it is in Egypt, then I would think that there might be a lot of people close by who have “the blood of the Hekau” coursing through their veins.
However, perhaps Amentep’s Egytian house is actually in Danny’s city (presumably New York). If so, then I guess Danny might be the closest person with “the blood of the Hekau” in his veins. (Only because Danny’s dad is out of town at a conference, and I guess Amentep didn’t want Danny’s kid sister to be the All-New Ibis).
Amentep gives Danny the Ibistick so he can become the All-New Ibis. He then has Danny mummify his (Amentep’s) and Taia’s bodies (Taia was the romantic sidekick of the Golden Age Ibis). Before he “dies” though, Amentep explains that he and Taia aren’t actually dead. The mummification of their bodies will only allow them to be preserved so that they might reawaken someday if they are able to restore their life forces, which, of course, gives DC a way of going back to the Golden Age Ibis if the All-New Ibis isn’t as commercially successful as his predecessor.
To try to ensure that the All-New Ibis is a commercial success, the tiny Ibistick wand is transformed into a mighty Ibistick staff. Also, instead of wearing a blue, 1940s business suit and red necktie with matching red turban, the All-New Ibis is attired in purple tights, gold boots with shin guards, purple and gold forearm guards, purple and gold shoulder guards, a gold helmet, and a gold cape. You’ll notice that I didn’t refer to a leotard or shirt; that’s because the All-New Ibis follows in the tradition of Hawkman (another hero with Egyptian heritage) and is bare-chested save for the cross-chest straps that link to the ibis symbol centered on his chest (rather than linking to a hawk symbol).
Before he dies, Amentep warns Danny that Set (the Egyptian storm god who was also the god of chaos, evil, darkness, and war) intends to take possession of the Helmet of Fate. Fortunately, Amentep was able to buy Danny some time by putting a “spell of protection” on the helmet. However, the spell won’t keep Set at bay for long, so Danny is told to consult with the Egyptian god Thoth to learn how to be the All-New Ibis.
Danny then heads home to read his father’s books on Egyptian mythology so he can find out who Thoth is. This scene in which Danny reads is a fairly smooth way to provide exposition about Egyptian mythology by providing a brief summary of the Egyptian deities Ra, Osiris, Isis, Set, and Thoth.
After reading his summaries of Egyptian mythology, Danny gets on the Internet to learn how to summon Thoth, which he attempts to do in his family’s bathroom as his sister and mother knock on the door and demand to be allowed to use the bathroom as well. (Apparently, Danny’s dad, a professor of history at a local university, can’t afford a house with more than one bathroom.)
The bathroom ceremony transports Danny to Thoth, who was taking a 4,000-year nap and is wearing the face of a baboon with long, red hair. Danny is taken aback by Thoth’s appearance because the god is supposed to have the head of an ibis, not a baboon. Thoth acquiesces to Danny’s expectations but complains that “it’s very hard to drink beer with this beak.” Later, though, Thoth reverts back to his baboon head because “that long bird-neck gets stiff on cold nights.”
After becoming the All-New Ibis and being told by Thoth “when shadows are thickest, your best friend is the light,” Danny is transported directly into Set’s domain where he overcomes a pair of “serpopards” by commanding the Ibistick to “fly away?” (sic). He then proclaims, “Insane. This rocks!” as he runs toward a door that is guarded by large statues of a right hand and a left hand.
The statues of large hands then grab him as he tries to hurry through the doorway. However, he is then taken to exactly where he was heading anyway: to see Set, who is sitting on his throne next to the Helmet of Fate. The All-New Ibis then waves his mighty Ibistick staff and says, “Uh . . . retrievus helmetus,” which causes the Ibistick staff to make the sound, “paf.”
Set then calls the All-New Ibis a “pathetic monkey-boy” and turns him into a living statue whose heart is beating “like lifting a foot out of clinging mud” (whatever type of heartbeat that is) and whose thoughts “are growing sluggish.” And what, you ask, are the All-New Ibis’s thoughts as he stands like a statue with a heart that beats like a foot lifting out of clinging mud?
Well, he thinks, “Beat up again. Had to kiss a dead lady on the lips. My so-called magical Ibistick only went ‘paf’—and now I’m going to spend eternity looking like . . . the Statue of Liberty.”
In other words, his thoughts provide exposition for readers who might have forgotten the events of the previous eighteen pages. Undoubtedly, these thoughts are also meant to remind the readers of just how humorous those previous eighteen pages were.
However, the All-New Ibis then realizes that it’s “Getting so dark . . . in my head . . . can’t think.” Fortunately, though, the darkness in his head does make him remember Thoth’s sagely advice about how “when shadows get thick your best friend is the light.” Thus, the All-New Ibis (who is immobile as a statue) gives Set a look that causes Set to say “You have something you are desperate to say—I can see it. A plea for your life? A final curse? I cannot resist knowing—you may speak.”
And as soon as the All-New Ibis is free to speak, he tells Set that he (Set) is at war with Horus, the sun god. “You waste your last breaths lecturing me about my family history?,” Set replies.
“No. On this. Horus! Set has the Helmet of Fate! He’s going to destroy mankind! Save us!,” answers the All-New Ibis.
Eventually, Horus jumps out of the Ibistick staff to engage Set in a “smackdown.” Knowing that he doesn’t want to be around when two Egyptian gods are having a “smackdown,” the All-New Ibis calls on himself, Thoth, and anyone to get him out of there, “Ibis, if you can hear me, Thoth—anybody! Get me out of here!”
Instantly, he’s transported into space (along with the Helmet of Fate) and then plucked out of the ether by Thoth’s giant hands. When he is set down in Thoth’s domain, he has been transformed back to Danny but is still holding the Ibistick staff.
Next, Danny waves the staff at Fate’s helmet and says, “Helmet, go to somewhere that gods or evil men won’t get you!” (Apparently, readers of the next installment, The Helmet of Fate: Sargon the Sorcerer, will find out where that is in two weeks.)
I assume this story was intended to be silly, just as the previous installment, The Helmet of Fate: Detective Chimp, was intended to be silly. However, last week’s Detective Chimp issue referred to its own silliness in a knowing way. There were several times when the chimp mentioned that certain details didn’t make sense or were just plain silly, but he was sticking to the story as he knew it. While last week’s issue wasn’t great by any means, Bill Willingham obviously realized that every silly detail would be picked apart by reviewers (and by readers on Internet message boards) if he didn’t make reference to the silly elements himself.
However, in Ibis the Invincible, Williams doesn’t take the self-referential approach to the silly elements in his story, except when Danny thinks about the silly events in an obvious underscoring of their silliness by Williams. Unfortunately, the underscoring of the silly events doesn’t work because they aren’t necessarily funny (or even fun); they’re just silly in a stupid way.
Additionally, I’m not convinced that all of the silly elements are intentional. While I would hope that the All-New Ibis’s ridiculous costume is intended to be silly, I actually suspect that it’s supposed to be the “serious” look of the character going forward. It might have been better to have the All-New Ibis imitate his predecessor by having him wear a contemporary dark business suit minus the turban.
Additionally, I’m not sure that Set’s decision to release the All-New Ibis from his statuary state so that he could call on Horus was intended to be a silly use of the Deus Ex Machina concept. Instead, it seems likely that Williams was running out of pages and had to wrap up the story quickly.
Finally, I don’t understand the purpose of having Thoth prefer having a baboon head to the mythologically accurate ibis head. Beyond allowing Williams to use the joke about how difficult it is to drink beer with a long beak, I suppose the use of the baboon head also allowed this issue of The Helmet of Fate to connect to last week’s Detective Chimp issue by continuing the use of a non-human simian as a principle character. I’m mildly interested to see whether this motif continues in the Sargon the Sorcerer issue in two weeks. I wonder whether a gibbon, gorilla, orangutan, New World monkey, or other non-human higher primate might play a major role in the events.
In the end, this issue wasn’t bad. However, life is too short, and there are too many things to do for me to spend time and money on a comic book that “wasn’t bad but wasn’t really very good either.”
What did you think of this book?
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