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Infinite Crisis: Rann-Thanagar War (Review)

This month I’m taking a look at DC’s massive “Infinite Crisis” Event. Although it was all published in one massive omnibus, I’ll be breaking down the lead-in to the series to tackle each thread individually, culminating in a review of the event itself. Check back for more.

I’ve always been a fan of the “hokey science-fiction” corner of the DC Universe. Adam Strange is perhaps my second-favourite Silver Age DC hero (behind the Flash). I loved Alan Moore’s trip to the stars during his Swamp Thing run. While many thought that Stars my Destination, the penultimate mega-arc of James Robinson’s Starman, went on far too long, I loved every page. Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern is one of my favourite modern comic book runs. I confess all this so that my bias is upfront, when I admit that Rann-Thanagar War is one of my favourite Infinite Crisis tie-ins, even though it’s one of those least directly connected to the event itself.

All the Strange, Strange heroes…

Admittedly, Dave Gibbons’ Rann-Thanagar War has its flaws. It is, for example, an extremely dense piece of work that relies on a familiarity with a lot of the characters involved. The six-part miniseries is very much about constant action and drama, so there’s relatively little room to develop or expand character. Those without at least a passing familiarity with the character of Adam Strange, the whole messy Hawkman continuity or even the Green Lantern Corps might have a bit of a hard time making sense of it all. I consider myself a relatively nerdy comic book fan, but even I had a bit of difficulty keeping track of who each individual was and what they were doing.

For example, a new reader might have a hard time feeling any emotional connection to Shayara during her death sequence. She manages to assure Hawkman, “But I know that… we shall surely… meet again… in… in a… a future life, my lo–”This, of course, means nothing if the reader isn’t aware about the fact that Hawkman is a hero perpetually reincarnated. It also doesn’t carry a lot of weight because Shayare joins the plot relatively late in the game, and Hawkman doesn’t get too much time with her.

A lighter shade of hero…

This wouldn’t really be a problem in an on-going series, where a reader could “jump on” from one point and get a relatively complete story, but it is quite frustrating as part of a miniseries tying together various threads. While the odds of a new reader picking this series to start reading DC might seem unlikely, but it is a bit more probable that a reader might pick up the book with knowledge of one bunch of characters involved, but not the others. For example, I know much more about Green Lantern than modern Hawkman or modern Adam Strange.

The other Infinite Crisis miniseries actually do a good job of establishing their second-tier characters and little-known heroes. For example, Gail Simone perfectly characterises each member of her cast in Villains United, and Bill Willington does an excellent job introducing a roster of nobodies in Day of Vengeance. Admittedly, the cast of Rann-Thanagar War is just a little bit higher profile, but it’s still a shame that Dave Gibbons doesn’t do a slightly better job introducing them, because the rest of the series is quite impressive.

And they Rann… they Rann so far away…

As a side note, it is a bit of a shame that this gigantic Infinite Crisis omnibus doesn’t have room for Planet Heist, the Adam Strange story that led into this gigantic crossover. After all, they did include Sacrifice as part of The O.M.A.C. Project and Lightning Strikes Twice as the lead-in to Day of Vengeance. Still, those were three or four issues in length, as opposed to eight and Adam Strange does a decent job of providing “cliff notes” style exposition about the events of that miniseries.

Still, there’s quite a bit to like about Rann-Thanagar War. In many ways, it feels like the “odd one out” of the Infinite Crisis lead-in miniseries, in that it features a bunch of recognisable heroes being heroic. In fact, Kyle Rayner comes out of Rann-Thanagar War looking like the most heroic major league hero in the entire crossover. The O.M.A.C. Project saw Batman’s paranoia come back to bite him in a big way. Sacrificesaw Wonder Woman killing in cold blood and Superman almost killing Batman.

Dead to rites…

Most of the heroic roles in these adventures have been played by second-tier characters like Blue Beetle or Detective Chimp. Kyle Rayner feels like the most high profile hero who is permitted to be heroic in the lead-up to Infinite Crisis. I know he probably falls into the same generation as Blue Beetle or Booster Gold, but there’s a whole generation of fans who grew up with Kyle as the Green Lantern. And, to be fair, I think that DC did right by those fans by making sure that Kyle still had a vital place in the DC Universe even after his predecessor, Hal Jordan, returned to the title book Green Lantern.

Of course, there’s still room for the failure of institutions that should be heroic, the main theme of Infinite Crisis. Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman have all failed in their own ways, and here the Guardians of Oa are presented as indifferent and impotent galactic police officers. They dispatch Kyle to an intergalactic conflict where thousands of lives hang in the balance, but they give him strict instructions not to interfere. “The Guardians do not want Lanterns involved,”Kilowag advises the human. One wonders why not.

They’re a few Lanterns light…

After all, a massive war like this one is probably exactly the kind of situation that characters calling themselves “the Guardians of the Universe” should attempt to resolve. We never get any justification for their absence, and they don’t appear within the story itself. Instead, Kilowag and Kyle are shown to be heroic when they choose to bend the orders given to them in order to help those whose lives have been torn apart by this galactic conflict. When Kilowag confronts Kyle, he points out, “You got orders, remember?” However, when Kyle tries to explain, Kilowag cuts him off, citing more important concerns. “Talk later, poozers. First we save lives.”

It’s great to see Dave Gibbons writing these characters. Gibbons wrote Green Lantern Corps when the book was relaunched, and it’s a massive shame that his work wasn’t ever collected into hardcover volumes. (I’m personally hunting down library binding copies, but they seem to be pretty rare.) Gibbons, of course, worked with Alan Moore on some classic Tale of the Green Lantern Corps stories and – while not quite at Moore’s level as a writer – it seems the artist did pick up a bit. His storytelling is fluid and action-driven – perhaps tooaction driven, but the six-issue arc just flies by.

A ray(gun) of hope…

Gibbons also, rather astutely, anchors the miniseries in relatively topical themes. This might be science-fiction featuring some classic Silver Age staples of the DC universe, but that doesn’t mean that Gibbons can’t make the story timely. After all, science-fiction arguably works best as allegory.The villains of the piece are driven towards conflict by extremist religious belief – one feeding off terror and fear. As Hawkgirl comments on the war, “It is being driven by those who believe that murder on a cosmic scale buys eternal life.” We’re told, “Such fanatics draw strength from troubled times.” Well, there are never any times that were more troubled – certainly within the DC Universe and arguably outside it as well.

It’s hardly a subtle take on the War on Terror, but Gibbons portrays a conflict driven by an extremist religious viewpoint that seems in love with the concept of violence for its own sake. Gibbons knows that the metaphor won’t stretch too far (after all, there’s only so much you can really say about the realities of global politics in a comic book featuring hawkpeople), but it still gives the story a nice grounding. “Rann’s science caused this war,”Shayera accuses Adam Strange at one point, even setting up a conflict between religion and science similar to the one that has arguably been brewing within America for decades.

Birds of prey…

To be fair, Gibbons doesn’t take any of this too seriously, and he’s quite right not to. Just a hint of relevance is enough, after all. An early scene features a deliciously pulpy human (or Thanagarian) sacrifice in which the scream queen victim is fed to a hulking monster in a moment that could easily have been lifted from an old Hammer Horror film. There is something enjoyably pulpy about the notion of the cultish Thangarian religion and “the Seven Devils” that they worship, including the wonderfully (and appropriately named) “Eater of Souls.”

Gibbons is ably supported by Ivan Reis on art duties. Reis would go on to become something of a comic book superstar, and his work here is crisp and well-defined. He really was quite a find for DC, and I think it’s possible to argue that Rann-Thanagar War is perhaps the best looking of the Infinite Crisislead-in miniseries. It all looks crisp and stunning, with Reis revelling in the opportunity to render alien surroundings and characters in a manner that almost seems photo-realistic.

They don’t know him from Adam…

Rann-Thanagar War is a fun zippy science-fiction read, and an absolute pleasure. It’s wonderful to see a writer like Gibbons and an artist like Reis working on these characters and these shared world. I love the decidedly “retro” feel that DC’s cosmic character have to them, and it’s great to see them all thrown together like this. Even if it isn’t quite the crossover most directly linked to Infinite Crisis (in terms of plot, theme, location or characters), it’s still a damn good read.

You might be interested in our other reviews relating to Infinite Crisis:

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