Sunday Slugfest: Brave and the Bold #30

A comic review article by: Thom Young, Shawn Hill, Jason Sacks
As a man whose ring responds to the power of his will, headstrong Green Lantern Hal Jordan isn't a big believer in fate, but his life is saved due to Doctor Fate's acceptance of the concept of predestination.

Shawn Hill:
Jason Sacks:
Thom Young:

Shawn Hill

As a series, The Brave and the Bold has changed a lot from how it began--mostly as a chance for the Batman to team up with a full gallery of DC's elite characters, old and new. Or maybe it hasn't changed that much at all, as J. Michael Straczynski seems intent on boring through the iconic (rather than the current) versions of the major players--hoping to find some sort of object lesson or basic truth about each of the character's concepts as he does.

For this month's team-up between Green Lantern and Doctor Fate, those basic concepts pit free will against fate. They engage in a talky tableau as they each try to justify their actions and choices based on their personal beliefs, but it's not really a dull tableau.

In terms of character personalities, Brave and the Bold #30 really is like old home week. JMS certainly has Hal Jordan down--the impulsive hotshot who acts without thinking. He's gotten himself into a dire predicament on an alien world, due more to his own power and hubris than any inherent allure of the derelict world itself.

In his seemingly final moments, Jordan's principle concern isn't about his duty to his sector of space or his loyalty to the Corps. Instead, he's worried about the embarrassment of dying due to his own stupidity. Yep, that's Hal Jordan.

Kent Nelson's Doctor Fate is the other side of the coin--a man for whom self-sacrifice seems pre-ordained, and whose few moments of happiness are brief respites from the constant vigilance required of him by his gods. His recent witnessing of the final fate of an analog has him troubled.

It's not clear what exactly drew these two disparate souls together in the past (it can't simply be the cosmic level of their powers, can it? That both can float above the world looking down?), but they share a moment there where Hal senses Fate's troubled pondering of his own usefulness in the larger scheme of things.

That moment of empathy allows Fate the chance to set up an experiment that ultimately proves essential to Hal's survival, and that's the crux of this issue: Will Fate sacrifice himself to save Hal or will he abandon Hal in order to change his own fate?

The two heroes find themselves opposed over what is most heroic in either of their natures--or maybe Hal just hates to see another dude accept a prophecy of doom, as you know he never would.

The answer isn't all that satisfying (as it rings of simple platitudes), but that doesn't mar this tale of an introspective moment in a fallen hero's career--and Jesus Saiz does all he can to sell the grandeur and the other-worldliness of these two metaphysical masters. It may not be deep or radical, but it's a solid story that captures a bygone era--one with possibly bygone values.

Jason Sacks:

Say what you will about J. Michael Straczynski's work on The Brave and the Bold, but it's clear that he has lofty ambitions for this series. After spending much time at Marvel playing with moments that deeply altered the course of his characters' lives, Straczynski's work on Brave and the Bold is a step in an entirely different direction--focusing more on philosophy and emotional complexity than on specific actions.

Whether this exploration into philosophy works for you depends in part to how receptive you are to his ideas. Last month I praised the writer's work on the improbable team-up of Batman and Brother Power the Geek, in part because I have a very deep and abiding passion for the Geek. I honestly feel that the two issues of the Geek that DC published in 1968 are among the finest comics that DC printed in that era--real classics that present an individual point of view in a fascinatingly skewed manner.

However, I have no special passion for either the Hal Jordan Green Lantern or the Kent Nelson version of Doctor Fate--though I do highly recommend you check out the Golden Age Doctor Fate Archives for some of the most mind-boggling comics published in DC's Golden Age.

Thus, JMS's team-up of these two characters brings no special excitement to me, no deep thrill of seeing these disparate characters together. In some ways, the two men are so similar that they're not even especially distinct from each other. Both are mortal men at the service of a higher and ultimately mysterious power.

When JMS brought the Flash and the Blackhawks together, at least that team up had the promise of being intriguing. However, to bring two cosmic lawmen together could have been rather uninteresting--but I can't say this issue was uninteresting, though I also didn't really find it compelling.

There's shallowness to the emotional conflict at the center of this issue that I found jarring in comparison to the depth that JMS was trying to convey, or perhaps the problem is a lack of freshness in the themes--a sense that we've seen all this before, and seen it in a less awkward manner.

The centerpiece of the story is a debate between GL and Fate on whether the destiny of a man is based on will or fate, whether a man can influence the course of his own life or whether his course is predestined. This debate could be a compelling idea for a comic--especially for a satire on the vicissitudes of characters who have suffered from rotating or inconsistent creative teams (and no character exemplifies that crazy churn more than Hal Jordan).

Unfortunately, JMS presents this theme in a very stilted manner--one that causes the reader to neither empathize with either character nor really find himself involved in the philosophic debate. In other words, the treatment of the concept is neither deep enough to be thoroughly involving nor shallow enough to be fun.

It also betrays a bit of the problem with the iconic value of these characters. It was easier to use the holder of the Dial 'H' for Hero dial or Brother Power as philosophic tabula rasas because they have little or no history for most readers. However, both Hal Jordan and Kent Nelson have such long histories in comics that it's difficult to see either character as having the one-dimensionality necessary for a story like this to work effectively.

Doctor Fate especially doesn't sound like the character I've been reading for years. His final page soliloquy is wonderful, but doesn't really fit the character's history or his classic portrayal. The words on the last page don't read like they flow out of the character of Doctor Fate, but rather like JMS had some philosophic thoughts and happened upon a character upon whom he could graft his words.

In other words, this story is awkward and shallower than the writer would want it to be. Straczynski was probably looking to bring some wonderful thoughts to readers that are appropriate to the spirit of the holiday season; instead, they just feel slight and inappropriate for the characters--and somehow sophomoric.

Though I disliked JMS's work on this issue, I have nothing but praise for the work of Jesus Saiz, who is quickly developing some amazing artistic chops. It's frankly amazing to see how much emotion he can give Doctor Fate even though the character wears a full-face helmet.

There's an intelligence to Saiz's artwork that is uniquely well suited for this sort of wordy and philosophical story. It feels like we're watching a skilled actor bring a depth to a weak script through the use of great acting techniques.

Though it was wonderful to read a story featuring Green Lantern that doesn't involve resurrected corpses or giant space battles, this story fails in a completely different way from Blackest Night. J. Michael Straczynski tries valiantly to deliver a moving philosophic story but falls short of his lofty ambitions.

Thom Young:

Somehow I missed last month's issue of The Brave and the Bold that featured Batman with Brother Power the Geek. However, I've otherwise been buying each issue of this series ever since J. Michael Straczynski took over as writer because I've had high hopes that he would deliver stories that reminded me of the original Brave and the Bold series of my childhood.

To some extent, Straczynski is delivering those types of stories that Bob Haney wrote 30 to 40 years ago. At least he's been coming close enough that I've kept returning for more each month even though I haven't fully enjoyed any of his issues thus far. This latest story continues that trend of almost fulfilling my desire for nostalgia while frustrating me on other levels.

As I read the first page of the current issue, I was actually intrigued to see that Straczynski was beginning the story by picking up an apparent loose plot thread from a story that was published 22 years ago in Justice League #5-7 (Justice League International beginning with #7). I've not read that original story, but it apparently involved a character called The Gray Man who was a pawn of the Lords of Order (just as Doctor Fate was a pawn of the Lords of Order).

At the end of that story (which appeared near the beginning of Justice League International #7), Doctor Fate flew off "to attend to his duties" while the rest of the JLI crew had some sort of further adventure without him. Now, after 22 years and three months, we finally see where Fate flew off to and what "duties" he attended to.

After witnessing the destruction of that particular iteration of the Gray Man by the Lords of Order (did another iteration of the Gray Man ever appear?), Fate wondered about his own fate and set off to contemplate it about 238,000 miles out in space where he could look back at Earth in its entirety.

As fate would have it, Hal Jordan just happened to pass through that exact point in space at that exact moment. What are the odds?

Normally I hate it when stories rely on improbable coincidences to advance the plot—such as the improbability of Green Lantern and Doctor Fate bumping into each other 238,000 miles above the earth. However, since one of the characters is named "Fate," I was willing to let it go. As it turns out, the notion of fate is exactly what Straczynski's story is about.

Well, fate and free will--as my colleagues have already pointed out in their reviews.

Anyway, whether it was "fate" that caused Green Lantern and Fate to meet 238,000 miles above the earth or just a convenient coincidence by a writer taking an easy out, I recognized that it was just those types of "fateful coincidences" that many of Bob Haney's old Brave and the Bold stories relied on more than three decades ago. Additionally, I saw something else that reminded me of the comics of my childhood.

Straczynski's decision to develop his story from an apparent loose thread from Justice League International #7 reminded me of the approach Steve Englehart often took in developing several of his stories that have always been my favorites. Englehart had a knack for taking an obscure bit of trivia from a past story and developing a story as a way of explaining the earlier story's trivial plot point.

Thus, I thoroughly enjoyed the first four pages of this Green Lantern/Doctor Fate story—despite Jesus Saiz drawing Hal Jordan in the incorrect Green Lantern costume for that era. Justice League International #7 came out in 1987, but Saiz drew the Green Lantern costume that Hal Jordan wore from 1959 to 1965.

Of course, in "comic book time" 22 years had not passed between the time that Hal Jordan's costume was slightly altered in the shoulder and the time when Doctor Fate watched the Lords of Order dispense with the Gray Man. However, I would argue that there is at least four years that passed between Green Lantern second series #37 (the last issue of Hal's original costume) and Justice League International #7.

However, Saiz's work is so good, I really don't care that he got the costume wrong--and I don't know what version of Hal Jordan's costume he drew for the pages set in the "future" (Doctor Fate's future, that is). The costume looks familiar, but I don't recall Hal Jordan ever having all black tights in the crotch--rather than the green leotard that covers the crotch.

Again, though, Saiz's work is so good, I don't care if he got the other Hal Jordan costume wrong. After all, there are far worse errors in the "future" sequence than an incorrect Green Lantern costume. For instance, after he was attacked by robot defenses on the planet that lies in ruins due to a global suicidal conflict, why did he tell his ring to take him to "shelter" on that planet rather than to Oa where the Guardians could heal Jordan of the poison in his system?

The answer is obvious.

If the ring had taken Jordan to Oa, the rest of the story wouldn't have occurred--and it was predestined that Fate would show up to save Jordan after he regained consciousness nearly 24 hours later to find that his ring was nearly depleted.

Oh, and upon awakening in his "shelter," Jordan tells us in his narration that he had "No idea how long I was out . . . only that when I came to . . . the ring was nearly out of charge."

He has no idea how long he was out, but the ring that holds a charge for 24 hours was nearly depleted?

Uhm, simple math should tell him that he was nearly out for 24 hours--since it's well established in DC lore that it is standard operating procedure for Green Lanterns to recharge their rings before landing on an alien planet.

Even if Jordan didn't recharge his ring before landing on the planet, he should know when he last recharged it and be able to then figure out how long he was out based on how much charge the ring would have had when he was attacked by the robots.

It's little details like these that bother me when I read a story. Hal Jordan should be able to figure out how long he was out since he knows how long his ring holds a charge. The fact that the narrative claims that he had "no idea how long I was out" is not really indicative of Hal being an idiot who failed second-grade math; it's indicative of a writer who just throws out lines on the page without thinking them through--which is also why the ring took Jordan to "shelter" on the alien planet rather than to "sanctuary" on Oa.

Anyway, as to the main part of the story--the My Dinner with Andre moment in which Green Lantern argues for the concept of free will while Doctor Fate counters with an argument about predestination . . . well, the notion that these two characters represent those two sides in a long-standing religious debate is interesting.

When I was in my teens, I once pondered what Doctor Fate has to do with the actual concept of "fate." I came to the conclusion that Gardner Fox (Fate's creator) chose the name because it sounded cool. Still, it's an interesting concept for Straczynski to explore in this story.

Unfortunately, Straczynski isn't really up to the task of truly contemplating the debate between free will and predestination--at least not within the four or five comic book pages that he used for the discussion here. Instead, we get a superficial exchange that doesn't really make any sense within the context of Doctor Fate's actual history.

The superficial story masquerading as profundity is the type of story I might have embraced when I was 13 years old and didn't understand the theological issues any better than Straczynski seems to understand them now. However, I'm not 13 anymore--nor do I believe there are many (if any) 13-year-old boys (or girls) reading these issues of Brave and the Bold in 2009.

Still, this story did cause me to consider whether Kent Nelson (who would have been born in 1918, give or take a year or two) was raised as a Congregationalist. It would fit in with the idea of his headquarters being in Salem, Massachusetts. Even then, I would expect the knowledge of Nabu to have influenced Kent Nelson to have turned away from Congregationalism towards New England Transcendentalism--but I guess that's the story I wanted to see rather than it being the one that Straczynski wanted to write.

Instead of an exploration of the early 20th century Congregationalist view of predestination vs. Hal Jordan's obviously unenlightened view of free will, Straczynski gives us a superficial exchange that he seems to think is profound. On the final page of the story, he follows up with a banal monolog in which Doctor Fate tells us through his narration that the most profound choice in life is "to live in fullest flight of our passions in the service of those we love."

I don't necessarily disagree--though I'm not really certain what "fullest flight of our passions in the service" of someone means. Still, even if I sort of get what Straczynski meant it to mean in his overly flowery language, it didn't strike me as being either profound or emotionally charged.

The ending of James Joyce's "The Dead" has a similar theme--about personal passions and devotion to those we love--and I am overcome with tears every time I either read it or watch the John Huston film adaptation of Joyce's story. In all of his Brave and the Bold stories that I've read, Straczynski falls far short of achieving what James Joyce achieved in "The Dead." Yet, I think that's the sort of profundity and emotional intensity that Straczynski is attempting to achieve.

I think he might do better to aim for telling a good Bob Haney-styled Brave and the Bold tale--with a bit of Steve Englehart's interest in developing obscure plot points from the past into interesting stories.

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