Sunday, September 04, 2011

So it’s a week of reboots. This week, I read the first issue of the new Justice League of America, by Geoff Johns and Jim Lee. I read the first issue of the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, co-written by series creator Kevin Eastman. And I read Carte Blanche, the new James Bond novel by Jeffrey Deaver. Each one presents a new start to their respective series, giving new readers “start here” points without being concerned about what’s happened before. And each achieves its goal, with varying degrees of success.

Arguably, the most successful one would be the Bond novel, if only because it’s a complete unit, while the two comics are both just the first chapters in longer stories. Deaver presents a decent spy story, with the sort of larger than life villain and twisty plot one expects from a Bond story. (And, to be clear, when I say “Bond story,” I mean more than the Ian Fleming novels; I’m including all the later novels by other authors and the entire movie series.) It’s a fun, fast-paced read.

It’s not perfect; Deaver has some storytelling quirks that got annoying after a while. For example, on several occasions, he ends a scene or chapter cutting away from Bond making a phone call to an undisclosed recipient. In the next chapter, Bond finds himself in some sort of pickle, only to escape because of something he set up in the phone call he made previously. The first time, it was cute. After about five or six times, it felt like the cheats from old serials, where the resolution to the cliffhanger at the end of the previous chapter turned out to lie in scenes of the hero escaping that we just weren’t shown as part of the cliffhanger.

Overall, though, it was an entertaining story. But is it a good Bond story?

As someone who has read most of the Fleming books, as well as most of those by other authors, and seen almost every movie, I’d have to say it was. Deaver’s Bond felt like the guy I know. He’s not exactly the same person; he’s not as cold and distant and—most importantly—not as misogynistic. And that’s fine; this is a contemporary novel about a man who grew up in the 80s. We’re supposed to like him, and having him treat women they way he did in the Fleming novels would have just felt anachronistic.

And, ultimately, that’s the thing: this isn’t an Ian Fleming novel. If that’s what fans want, they need to reread the originals. If they want new Bond stories, they’re going to have to accept books like Carte Blanche. New Bond novels shouldn’t be period stories; that’s not what the originals were. They shouldn’t be by writers trying to imitate Fleming’s style, either. I think if new Bond stories need to be told—and I’m not entirely sure that they do—then this is probably the way to do it.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is probably the most honest of the reboots I read, since one of the original creators is involved. Part of the story is set in the present day, beginning in media res, with one of the turtles separated from the group for reasons unknown. The rest of the story begins retelling the origin of the turtles and their rat mentor, Splinter in flashback.

It’s a different origin than the original, replacing the accidental mutation of the turtles with deliberate experimentation. This may be a sign of the times; as we experiment with more and varied ways to kill each other, making the turtles a part of that experimentation process makes the story seem more contemporary. It’s also probably more logical than them just getting exposed to a mysterious chemical accidentally. Since this is only the first part of the story, it’s tough to judge where the revised origin might end up.

It’s a little easier to judge the contemporary part of the story. I thought starting off with a story about the group being broken up was a bit awkward, because we haven’t seen them together yet. I felt as if I were coming in on the middle of the story. I suppose that’s probably the writers’ intention, with the hope being that I’ll stick around to learn how things got to be this way. And I will, at least for the time being, but I would have preferred it to be because I cared more about the characters than the plot.

In a way, it’s a storytelling choice made because, while this is a new starting point, these aren’t new characters. We know that there are four ninja turtles, so we know that there must be something wrong if one of them is out on his own. But it feels like a storytelling choice made out of prior knowledge of the characters, rather than something that works with the fresh-start philosophy reflected in the new origin, or reintroduction of characters like April O’Neill or Casey Jones.

Ultimately, I’m intrigued enough by the story that I plan on keeping with it for the time being. I always wanted to jump onto the turtles in the past, but it seemed like there was too much continuity I didn’t know. So a fresh start, with one of the creators involved, still is something I’m interested in, even if it isn’t the cleanest start they could have provided.

Finally, the highest profile of the three would be the first issue of the new Justice League of America #1, by Jim Lee and Geoff Johns. I found a lot to like about this first issue. The art, by Jim Lee and Scott Williams, was gorgeous, as always. And I really enjoyed the new characterizations Johns gave Batman and Green Lantern. Their personalities were distinct and funny, and he managed to work a great deal of character information into the fight scenes.

I also liked the new world presented in this series. This is a world that hasn’t had superheroes around since World War II, and I like the notion that they aren’t immediately trusted or accepted. We live in a world where we no longer trust traditional institutions like big business or banks, the media, or the government. Some folks don’t even trust science or education. How likely is it we’d trust people with super powers who hide their faces?

Having said that, I don’t know if this issue was the best introduction to the new DC universe. Because we haven’t met these versions of Batman, Superman, or Green Lantern yet, it’s jarring to see their conflicts. In a perfect world, we would have been introduced to the characters as individuals first, before seeing how they work together. I think the same issues are in play here as with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: we know they’re going to end up together eventually anyway, so let’s just get on with it. Which pretty much sums up my problems with the Green Lantern movie, which also featured heavy involvement from Geoff Johns.

At the end of the day, I guess the main question with restarting series like this is whether or not it’s even something that should be done. Does the world really need new James Bond stories, or Ninja Turtles stories? Or should they be left in the past?

However, the question is academic; we are getting new stories with these characters. And if we’re getting those new stories, they need to be versions that are as relevant to readers today as the originals were to their original fans. And that means updating the concepts, especially in the case of James Bond. It may not be what long-term fans or purists want to see, but in the end, I don’t see any other way.