Mr. Vertigo Reviews 27: Red Handed: The Fine Art of Strange Crimes; Justice League Dark Vol. 3: The Death of Magic; The Manhattan Projects, Vol. 3

Red HandedRed Handed: The Fine Art of Strange Crimes

Matt Kindt continues his fascination with classic detective fiction in this original graphic novel for First Second. Detective Gould has never met a crime he couldn’t solve. But he is confronted with a series of crimes that seem both eccentric and random. A compulsive chair thief, an art thief who cuts masterpieces into small pieces and sells them, a novelist who creates a novel using stolen street signs: what can they have in common? Each short chapter is devoted to the story of one of these criminals, ending with the dialog of their interview with Gould.

The interviews are deeper than a simple discussion of the crime. They all involve questions about the meaning of crime, the law, and justice. Sometimes Gould is interviewing a third person, someone facilitating the criminals. Right from the beginning we see signs of outside involvement in the crimes. At the halfway point it already appears that there may be connections between them all.

There’s a woman named Carol Hixon who starts out re-purposing hidden camera pornography, which ties her to Brighton Diggs. When Diggs goes to jail she begins arranging photos of couples in conflict, by faking infidelity photographs, sending them to the wronged spouse, then photographing the resulting arguments. But Tess takes the cake when it comes to pulling other peoples’ strings. She arranges a series of events–going back to the defacing of a stop sign near the beginning of the book–which culminates in the apparently accidental death of Detective Gould’s wife. All of the other crimes have connections as well, even the theft of the town’s electric chair.

Tess points out that she hasn’t technically committed a crime. Gould is confronted with the difference between justice and the law…and makes a surprising decision. Ironically, his departure from the police department leaves the first unsolved murder in 10 years. We see Gould as a P.I., now proactively trying to prevent crimes from happening instead of coming up with brilliant solutions after the crime has been committed.

The book ends with one final enigmatic image. An old man is seen removing dirt from a construction site (with a red wheel barrow, which is also the name of the town). He brings it to his back yard, adding it to a huge pile which he must have been working on for a long time. Is it a symbol of Red Wheel Barrow’s crimes, all of the crimes Gould could have prevented?

For me Kindt’s art has been an acquired taste–a necessary evil in his creator-owned work, where he is a writer/artist–but he did a cool thing with the covers on this one. The front cover is a view into a diner. There are two people at a table in front, with the book’s title above them on the front window, like a decal or painting of the restaurant’s name on the glass. On the back cover we are looking out to the street from that table, and the title appears in mirror image, as it would look from the inside of the diner. Both covers show some of the “strange crimes” being committed, which of course you wouldn’t know until after reading the book. Clever!

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Justice League Dark 3Justice League Dark Vol. 3: The Death of Magic

When we last left the JLD, Zatanna and Timothy Hunter had just disappeared through a dimensional portal, to places unknown. In the first issue here (“Enter the House of Mystery”) the group discovers that the so-called Books of Magic that triggered the portal are in fact entirely scientific artifacts, not magical at all. This is according to a new character, the appropriately-named Dr. John Peril. While he and Constantine work out a way to reactivate the books for a rescue attempt, other members of the team get themselves into trouble exploring the House of Mystery. Regular artist Mikel Janin gets a break for this issue, and the fill-in team of Graham Nolan and Victor Drujiniu do a good job illustrating in a compatible style.

As the title arc begins, Zatanna and Timothy find themselves in the “Wild Area” of a place called Epoch, about to be arrested for the crime of teleportation. When Zatanna uses some magic, she quickly discovers that the place is overflowing with magic: everything she does is much more powerful than usual. As she uses the power to fight off the police officer in a power suit, the pair are pulled beneath the earth into a faerie realm. Quite a blast from the past for longtime Vertigo readers! Meanwhile, Constantine, Madame Xanadu, Deadman, Black Orchid and Frankenstein teleport in for the rescue. They immediately start to notice dramatic changes in themselves. The immortal Xanadu begins to age rapidly; Boston Brand (Deadman) regains life; Constantine finds himself unable to lie; plant being Black Orchid becomes some kind of animal; only Frankenstein appears unchanged. No explanation for why neither Zatanna or Timothy Hunter noticed any affect, which I consider an odd narrative omission.

Meanwhile, Z and Tim hear the history of the place. When science became dominant and banished magic, the lone surviving mage was named Hunter. Which explains why Tim was able to trigger the portal, and why he was greeted as savior. He once again bears the mantle of “destined great mage” which he bridled under during his earlier appearances.

As the rescuers escape, Tim prepares to lead an attack on the science fortress. All of the magical activity has triggered a literal cataclysm, threatening to consume both Epoch and the Earth. You can’t tell a Justice League story without having them face a world-threatening crisis, can you?

Part Four of “The Death of Magic” features the expected fireworks, as the forces of magic and science clash. Things are looking dire; the JLD has run out of options. Then a deus ex machina appears, in the form of Tim Hunter’s father Jack. Turns out that Jack, like Tim, was a great mage who gave up magic to live a normal life: I don’t remember this even being hinted at before. The Hunters send a tremendous amount of mystic energy off into space, restoring the balance on both planets. They choose to stay behind to rebuild, and the JLD heads back to Earth to restore Xanadu’s immortality before the rapid aging claims her. The rest of the group follows Constantine into the House of Mystery, rejecting an alliance with A.R.G.U.S.

The three-part “Horror City” concludes the collection. It brings Constantine’s current nemesis The Cult of the Cold Flame into this title. They manage to distract Constantine long enough to steal the House of Mystery. John summons the Swamp Thing to help find it (he can do that because the House is made of wood, and is therefore accessible via the Green). The House has already begun turning New York City into a nightmare zone, and it turns out that Doctor Destiny is behind it. The Flash enters the picture to help out (which Flash would this be, anyway? I’m not up with the current continuity), which would make him a representative of…Justice League Light, maybe. Turns out Madam Xanadu is especially pivotal to this arc, because Doctor Destiny is her son. Another New 52 construct, I believe.

Xanadu cuts the Dreamstone out of Destiny’s chest, which ends the immediate crisis. But she has seen some portents of a bad future. She refuses to reveal the identity of Doctor Destiny’s father, and the story ends with her walking off alone: the fate of the world depends on it.

I’m happy to see some love for this book, because I’m very fond of these characters. But as the series progresses it feels more and more like a typical DCU superhero title. When you have characters like Batman and the Flash showing up, isn’t it close to just being a Justice League story? I recognize that the roots of DC’s mystical characters lie strongly in the DCU. It’s where they started, and the years where many of them appeared only in Vertigo titles may very well be only a blip in the long term. But I love the kind of stories that were told there. They moved more slowly, with fewer world-threatening crises and far less interaction between the characters, even ones with close ties like John Constantine had with Zatanna and the Swamp Thing. Constantine lost friends, but years apart: he had time to consider the consequences of his actions. And when he fell in love and lost, the pain was earned, not put there by writer’s fiat.

I guess I’m saying that I’m really not the target audience for Justice League Dark, even more than related New 52 titles like ConstantineAnimal Man and Swamp Thing. However good a superhero title it might be, it’s still making superheroes out of characters that I don’t think of in that way.

One further observation: when Timothy Hunter appeared at the end of the previous collection–only to be whisked away into another dimension almost immediately–there was some question about how well the character was being used in this title. He had previously starred in several long-running books on his own, after all. He and his father do wind up being central to the title arc here, so their presence is well justified. But then their story appears to be over, as they remain in the alternate universe. So I’d say the jury is still out. If the series returns to them periodically, the character’s use would be appropriate for his past DC history. But if Tim’s story is truly over, I’d have to call it a trivialization of a formerly rich character.

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Manhattan Projects 3The Manhattan Projects, Vol. 3

Back again with the Bad Boys of Science. The main focus in the first few issues here is on Harry Daghlian (the guy in the containment suit who looks like a radioactive skeleton) and his friend Enrico Fermi. Their relationship is far more complex than it appears. Like so many things in this series, there are secrets involved. Fermi is not a man at all, but a shape-shifting alien (which I’m pretty sure we already knew, but we get a full flashback explanation here). Fermi was actually a drone, serving unknown masters. A flashback to the teleportation mission to another world earlier in the series shows Fermi being given orders to stop the humans from developing extraplanetary space travel. Here we see his attempt to act on those orders, which does not come out well for him. The scientists have continually demonstrated an ability to overcome any obstacles to their rule, and this is no exception.

Daghlian suspects there is more to the story, but the only other surviving member of the mission is Einstein. Einstein has his own agenda as he pursues the perfection of humanity via genetic means. And of course there’s Oppenheimer, who has huge plans to match his multiple personalities. He reveals many of them to the group, but the biggest one remains his secret…for now.

Oppenheimer has been talking to President Kennedy about the Manhattan Projects scientists, playing on paranoia about communists (apparently ex-Nazis are OK). Next thing you know, an invasion force led by General Westmoreland shows up, and all of the scientists wind up in chains in a prison cell. This takes out the external opposition to his grand plan, the secret Project Charon.

But there’s still the war within among his fractured personalities. The final issue in this collection (another episode of “Finite Oppenheimers”) revisits the Oppenheimer Civil War taking place in Oppenheimer’s psyche, as Joseph faces off against his brother Robert. It remains to be seen what the effect will be in the real world. This issue was illustrated by guest artist Ryan Browne, who does a good job, and keeps the look compatible with regular series artist Nick Pitarra.

While all of these events are unfolding on the moon base, Laika the cosmonaut dog is out in space, about to encounter something unexpected and unknown. Still lots of balls in the air.

Hickman is known for his long-term planning on his superhero projects. But when this series started he said in interviews that he was going to let it grow more organically. I can believe that, in the sense that I don’t detect any Big Plan in the action so far. But he has certainly been willing to make big changes. The fall of the Illuminati in the previous volume was a shock, as was the death of Enrico Fermi in this one. I hope he does have a plan for the Oppenheimer Civil War subplot, because there have already been two issues devoted to it without much plot movement. It could get tedious if it doesn’t start going somewhere, and soon.

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About marksullivan5

Librarian, Jazz musician, comic book fan
This entry was posted in DC Comics, graphic novels, Image Comics and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Mr. Vertigo Reviews 27: Red Handed: The Fine Art of Strange Crimes; Justice League Dark Vol. 3: The Death of Magic; The Manhattan Projects, Vol. 3

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