Current Reviews


Red Circle: The Web #1

Posted: Saturday, August 22, 2009
By: Thom Young

J. Michael Straczynski
Roger Robinson (p) & Hilary Barta (i)
DC Comics
"We've gone back to the original incarnations of the characters, which were introduced in the '40s and '60s and such. . . ." --Dan Didio explaining what DC's latest version of the MLJ/Archie characters would be during an interview posted on Newsarama on July 29, 2008.

"I think itís a tone more than anything else, and the nature of their origins and characterizations. Any time you return to the mouth of the river with classic characters, thereís a certain purity of intent that comes into the picture thatís hard to quantify, but itís definitely there." --J. Michael Straczynski answering the question "What separates Red Circle heroes from traditional DCU heroes?" in an interview posted on Comic Book Resources on May 26, 2009.
MLJ's (Archie's) The Web was created in 1942 and first appeared in Zip Comics #27.

(Hey! Didn't another character first appear in the 27th issue of a comic book series back in the Golden Age? I think it was in Detective Comics #27, if I remember correctly.)

In his first appearance, it was revealed that The Web is John Raymond--a professor of criminology, which would mean he would have either a PhD or a Master's degree in behavioral sciences with a specialty (most likely) in quantitative methods in criminology. Of course, those Golden Age stories didn't actually go into the fundamentals of John Raymond being a university professor in behavioral sciences with a specialty in quantitative methods in criminology.

Calling the character a "criminologist" was just something that sounded cool and made it seem that John "The Web" Raymond knew what he was doing at night when he hit the streets in his green and yellow costume--but having him be a university professor who studied crime gave the character a background that was different from that of other non-superpowered crime fighters of the time (such as that playboy millionaire who ran around in Detective Comics or that gold shield-carrying rookie police officer who was made the guardian of four newsboys over in Star Spangled Comics).

In that first issue, John "The Web" Raymond had to save the life of one of his students, Rose Wayne (Wayne? Hmmm.) from a Japanese saboteur known as The Black Dragon of Death! At the end of the story, Rose Wayne stayed after class the next day to let her professor know that she knows he's The Web--but she wouldn't give away his secret if he promised to tell her how he became The Web.

Thus, The Web's origin story was revealed in the next issue, in Zip Comics #28. Rose is over at her professor's house (presumably they went there after leaving the university at the end of the first story) and he tells her how he became The Web. It's all because his kid brother, Tom, was a petty criminal and juvenile delinquent who was sent to reform school (and later prison) when they were kids, and so John Raymond became interested in criminology as a way of understanding his brother's behavior.

He battles crime mentally as a university professor who writes books about criminal behavior, and he battles crime physically as The Web--all because of his brother's criminal past. It's not necessarily a believable motivation for becoming a masked mystery man crime fighter, but it was good enough for 10-year-old boys in 1942--and with some tweaking, it should (and could) be good enough for 40-year-old comic book fans in 2009.

Thus, in keeping with Didio's claim that DC would present "the original incarnation of the [MLJ] characters," as well as with Straczynski's claim of "return[ing] to the mouth of the river with [these] classic characters [. . . in which] thereís a certain purity of intent," DC's latest version has kept John Raymond as The Web. However, everything else has changed.

Rather than a university professor of criminology, the All-New John Raymond is a billionaire playboy who seems to decide for no apparent reason at all to wear a gaudy green and yellow costume and start a life as a . . . not a "crimefighter" . . . not exactly. He's more of a costumed altruistic philanthropist who responds to people who write to him on the Internet (the Web) with their problems--and he then feeds the inquiries into his Web-Computer (his "advanced artificial intelligence matrix") that tells him which people-in-need he should help.

Just as the first appearance of The Web in Zip Comics #27 didn't reveal his origin (saving it for Zip Comics #28), the first appearance of this "original incarnation" of the character in Red Circle: The Web #1 doesn't reveal his origin either--not exactly.

There's no "Rose Wayne" here for him to save from foreign saboteurs--though there is a report of him saving an unnamed, blonde Hollywood actress from her abusive boyfriend (perhaps the boyfriend has a tattoo of a Black Dragon on his chest), and there is also an unnamed female television news reporter whom he brings to his Web-Cave (err, his Web-Web?).

Either of those women could be named "Rose Wayne"--but the TV reporter seems to be the likely candidate for being a potential love interest, which is what Rose Raymond became as she started dating her professor back in 1943. After bringing the nameless, but attractive, female TV reporter to his Web-Cave, he says he trusts her--though not enough to not have placed a blindfold on her to protect the secret location of the Web-Cave.

He trusts her enough, though, to show her the Web-Cave, and he even says, "Perhaps you'd like to see the Web-Mobile."

"Certainly," she replies.

Anyway . . . the All-New John Raymond seems to decide out of the blue to stop being a billionaire playboy who jet sets around the world so that he can start being an altruistic philanthropist who helps people in need--albeit while dressed in a gaudy green and yellow costume that has a design that sort of looks like a spider's web (in the interior pages of this issue) but that can also look like very erratic lightning bolts (on the cover by Jesus Saiz). There is also a large yellow "W" on his chest so that we won't forget that he's actually Webman . . . er, The Web.

For the record, the original 1942 costume was also a gaudy green and yellow, but it didn't have the elaborate spider's web (or erratic lightning bolt) design. Except for the web-like collar and net-like cape, the original costume looked more like a green and yellow version of the black and red Golden Age Daredevil costume--and it did not have a large "W" on the chest either. I suppose the cape could be removed and used as a net--which would come in very handy since the Golden Age Web didn't have a utility belt (though The All-New Web has one now).

One more compare/contrast point between the Golden Age version and Straczynski's new version: On the cover of Zip Comics #27, The Web had black hair, but on the inside John Raymond (and The Web) had blond hair that turned red by the end of the story. However, he then had blond hair on the cover of the next issue, but he had black hair in the story. Finally, he had red hair on the cover of issue #29, and red hair in the story as well.

Oddly, though, Rose Wayne had black hair in the first story, but blonde hair in all subsequent stories. Obviously, The Web and his student/girlfriend were masters of disguise--or else they just liked to dye their hair a lot. They were New Wave before New Wave was new!

In Red Circle: The Web #1, the title character has blond hair. It will be interesting to see if his hair color changes every few months when DC releases The Web ongoing series in September.

Anyway, by making John Raymond a billionaire playboy, Straczynski is obviously patterning his new version of the character after Batman even more than the original version was already patterned after Batman. The question that nagged at me while I was reading this issue was: Why?

Why make John Raymond a billionaire playboy rather than keep his original back story as a university professor of criminology?
In the original version, John Raymond became a criminologist as a way of understanding his brother, and he fought crime as The Web as an extension of that motivation. However, in the new version, John Raymond was never a criminologist, and he became The Web for no apparent reason at all.

Initially, John Raymond's life has no connection to crime (aside from his father and uncle perhaps having some unethical business deals in the past). Later, after he already made his debut as The Web, John Raymond's brother, David (not Tom in this version), was killed by a criminal--apparently because David borrowed money from the Mafia, or something like that (it's not very clear).
Why change the Web's back story of his brother, Tom, having been a criminal in favor of his brother, David, being an altruistic social worker who somehow got caught up with the Mafia?

However, if that's the back story Straczynski wants for The All-New Web (David as the altruistic brother ensnared in the Mafia's web), then why have John Raymond become The Web before his brother is killed rather than after?
However, if his brother's death had been the reason for John Raymond to become The Web, then his origin story would have been very similar to the origin story for the Golden Age Hangman--which Straczynski also changed drastically by eliminating the Hangman's brother and making the character a supernatural force of vengeance that dates back to the American Civil War.
Finally, why even license this character from Archie Comics when DC already has the exact same character in their own history?
In Star Spangled Comics #1, DC debuted "Tarantula" a year before MLJ debuted The Web. In fact, the two characters are so similar that it seems likely that MLJ ripped off DC's Tarantula rather than Batman. Not only is there the spider theme, but both characters studied crime in their day jobs (and published books about crime).

Sure DC later introduced a villainess as the second Tarantula--a woman who stole the first Tarantula's kit and became a nemesis of Dick "Nightwing" Grayson. However, I think Straczynski would have been allowed to bring back a heroic (and male) version of Tarantula.

He could have made the All-New Tarantula the grandson (or great grandson) of the original. This All-New Tarantula, John Law III, could have inherited his grandfather's superhero identity as well as his fortune (from writing best-selling crime novels).

Straczynski's story could have otherwise been the same as it is now by simply changing the names from "John Raymond and The Web" to "John Law III and The Tarantula"--along with a change in the costume design, of course.
That question continues to be the most obvious as I read these Red Circle issues--why did DC even bother to license these MLJ characters if they (1) aren't going to actually maintain the original MLJ origins and back stories, and (2) already have nearly identical characters in their own stable?

Perhaps we can eventually get a time travel team-up story in which the all-new versions of Hangman, Inferno, Web, and Shield meet the 1940s-era versions of DC's Spectre, Firebrand, Tarantula, and Steel (aka, Commander Steel). It would be as if the two teams would be looking at parallel universe versions of themselves--even though they are all on DC's All-New Earth-Zero (or whatever the main DC universe Earth is called nowadays).

In the end, Red Circle: The Web is an adequately written story that is adequately illustrated by Roger Robinson. Neither the writer nor the illustrator do anything to make his work distinct here. It's simply a well-done average superhero comic book that is rather generic in its execution.

As I read it, I had the impression, though, of reading an early 1970s-era generic Batman story--possibly written by Denny O'Neil or Frank Robbins, but definitely not illustrated by Neal Adams.

Red Circle: The Web reads more like a Bob Brown-illustrated issue of Detective or Batman from 1972--but one in which Bruce Wayne's parents weren't killed by Joe Chill when he was a child, and so Bruce Wayne decided to suddenly become Batman (or The Web) as an adult in order to overcome the ennui of being a billionaire playboy.

One last point about this four-issue Red Circle series as a whole:

As I noted in my review of Red Circle: Inferno, the series is set up in a circular pattern. The first issue, The Hangman, ended with the character who becomes Inferno being brought into the emergency room of the hospital where the Hangman works as Dr. Robert Dickering in his civilian identity. Dickering is the attending physician in the ER, and he treats the amnesiac man's injuries.

In the second issue, Inferno, the title character is still in the hospital as an amnesiac patient, and Dr. Dickering is still his attending physician. The man then becomes Inferno later in the story, and the issue ends with him meeting John Raymond.

I assumed that this third issue, The Web, would begin where the second issue left off--in the same way that the second issue began where the first issue left off--perhaps with the altruistic playboy billionaire philanthropist, John Raymond, deciding to investigate the amnesiac homeless man who is secretly Inferno. I expected The Web to then get caught up in the terrorism plot that informed The Inferno issue.

However, my expectations weren't met at all. In this issue, we don't ever see the man who becomes Inferno--though there is a Daily Planet headline that might refer him: Search for Missing Survivor Continues. I'm assuming that the headline refers to the amnesiac man who becomes Inferno rather than to a lost TV reality show.

However, there's no explanation why the Daily Planet (an east coast newspaper) would run a huge banner headline above the fold about a man who survived a ship explosion in San Francisco and then disappeared from the hospital. Perhaps the Daily Planet would have run the story at the bottom of page one with a small headline, but not as a huge one-quarter-page headline above the fold! I guess it was a slow news day and Perry White must have been on vacation.

Anyway, instead of The Web beginning where Inferno left off, it begins with John Raymond on board his private jet flying from San Francisco to Long Island (specifically the Hamptons) for a Fourth of July reunion of the Raymond clan. I guess I was incorrect in thinking that Straczynski was planning to make these four issues form a circular plot that would involve all four characters either directly or indirectly becoming involved with the terrorist plot of two ships being blown up in San Francisco Bay in Inferno--though it's possible for Straczynski to still pull off that circular plot in the final issue next week.

I also thought this series would somehow culminate with the supernatural entity who gave the Hangman his powers traveling back in time to the point where Robert Dickering was writing the letter to his wife (or girlfriend), Helen, in the first issue. After all, it would make sense for Straczynski to structure these four issues in an interlocked circular pattern so that the Red Circle in the title doesn't just refer to the baton handoff of one character and illustration team to the next character and illustration team at the end of the first, second, and third issues.

It would make sense to have a circular plot that would interconnect the four issues in a manner that is similar (but not identical) to the way in which Grant Morrison interconnected the seven miniseries of his Seven Soldiers project from a few years ago. However, an interconnected circular plot doesn't appear to be what Straczynski is doing since nothing in this issue seems even remotely connected to the story in Inferno from last week--though it still could all be tied together next week if it's revealed that the apparent mobster who murdered David Raymond in this issue is somehow connected to the ship explosions from last week.

As it is, this issue ends with Lt. Joseph Higgins (the man who will become The Shield) watching The Web on a DVD that he is playing on a computer while stationed in Afghanistan. As he watches The Web's DVD, Lt. Higgins is typing a request on The Web's Web site: (which actually takes you to DC's listing of Red Circle: The Web #1).

In my original assumption about this series, I would expect next week's Red Circle: The Shield to pick up the story at this point--possibly with The Web's "advanced artificial intelligence matrix" rejecting Lt. Higgins's request for The Web's help. Thus forcing Higgins to become The Shield in some way that completely breaks from the origin of the MLJ version of the character in Pep Comics.

Actually, the original version of The Shield has Joe Higgins as an FBI agent and the son of a scientist who invented a super soldier formula that Joe then used on himself to become The Shield after his father was killed by "foreign agents" (see Nazi Fifth Columnists). Straczynski might actually be setting up The All-New Shield as the one character whose origin is closest to the Golden Age MLJ version.

After all, this issue ends with Lt. Joe Higgins asking "Mr. Web" to find his missing father who vanished five years ago--and who may have been murdered.

Perhaps the senior Higgins was killed by the same terrorists who blew up the ships in San Francisco Bay in Inferno.

Perhaps Lt. Joe Higgins will discover his father created a super soldier formula, and that it is the reason the terrorists killed him.

Perhaps he'll find the formula and use it on himself to become The Shield.

However, it's anyone's guess how the next issue might connect the circle back to the Civil War with Robert Dickering becoming The All-New Hangman. Anyway, here is what Straczynski said when he was asked if the four-issue Red Circle series tells one large story:
Each issue tells the origin of that character, then sets the stage for the next character, which tees off what happens in the book that precedes it. In other words, in the first issue, we are introduced to the Hangman. We track his origins from the Civil War to the present, and in the last part of the book, something happens that ties directly into the origin of Inferno. Further adding to this, the last page of each book is drawn by the artist of the next book in the cycle, helping to reinforce both the transition, and the sense of connection. Thereís a loose sense of almost karmic linkages that future writers can explore or not as they see fit.
That "future writers can explore or not as they see fit"?

That doesn't sound as if there is a definite circular plot that runs through the four issues, but I guess we'll know for certain next week.

What did you think of this book?
Have your say at the Line of Fire Forum!