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Cosmic Odyssey
Jim Starlin and Mike Mignola
DC Comics / Titan graphic novel £17.99

J.L.A. Riddle Of The Beast
Alan Grant and Michael Wm Kaluta
DC Comics / Titan graphic novel £10.99

reviews by Christopher Geary

With famous Marvel comicbook heroes (Spider-Man, Daredevil, Hulk) currently all the rage at your local cinema and video shop, blockbuster movies X-Men and X2 doing good business at the box-office and on DVD, and continued speculation in comics' and screen fandom about tantalising possibilities for new Batman and Superman productions, it's an interesting time to reconsider the distinctive Marvel and DC universes and respective screen franchises, and compare the varied approaches of Hollywood productions based on these comics empires' genre material. Whereas major films may have to contend with fanbase-audience preconceptions or a general unfamiliarity with superhero characters, and filmmakers are often forced to make drastic compromises due to such problems as budgetary constraints, verisimilitude in a contemporary era, and even political or moral concerns (though apocalyptic themes and 'Judgement Day' scenarios have long been a staple of popular entertainment), comicbook serials themselves are limited only by the creativity and imagination of their writers and artists, irrespective of whether they are aimed at a juvenile or mature readership.
   Cosmic Odyssey dates from 1988, but was (apparently) first compiled from an original four-issue magazine run in 1992. A decade later, it's fascinating to revisit this grand, galaxy-shaking epic and contrast it with the lesser battles of recent movies about merely saving planet Earth from a wannabe tyrant. Cosmic Odyssey brings together many of the most powerful and dangerous characters in the DC pantheon of heroes and villains, and revolves around interstellar, pan-dimensional warfare and an evil plot to seize ultimate power over all life and conquer the entire cosmos. Yes, folks, Darkseid and his minions from Apokolips are up to their old tricks, again. Thankfully, Superman and his team of Justice Leaguers (Green Lantern, J'onn Jonzz, Batman) have joined forces with space gods of New Genesis (in a kind of pocket universe comprising just two warring planets and one star) to tackle the archvillain's latest scheme. But this time, it's evident that even mighty techno-fetishist Darkseid has bitten off more than he can chew. His pursuit of esoteric power from the "Anti-Life equations" (which had previously destroyed a vast 200-lightyears span of occupied space) stalls when he discovers that the Anti-Life force is actually a living, sentient (and somewhat Lovecraftian, it must be said) entity that wants to escape from its dimensional prison, and it has launched four 'aspects' of itself to four stars (including Sol and Alpha Centauri) from where it could destroy the whole Milky Way.
   Of course, this means that four different pairings of our superheroes must setoff on four missions to confront and combat the cosmic menaces, wherever they are hidden on four separate planets (including Earth, naturally). Apart from the gosh-wow factor of such an obviously big time threat to life, the universe and everything, veteran writer Jim Starlin manages to explore the ethics of scientific inquiry (parallels with Oppenheimer and the Bomb are clear), 'human' failings of superhumans (Green Lantern's arrogance, dumbly trusting Superman, High-Father's gullibility) and laudable attributes (Batman's bravery and humility wins the day), while the pivotal character of Etrigan the Demon, physical dualism and schizoid divisions hint at the common psychological truth that we all need our own dark side to make us whole. As long-time comics fans will guess, it is the down-to-earth quest by Batman and Forager in Arizona that's most fascinating here, and not Dr Fate's impromptu formation of a clique of industrial-grade magical light.

A quirky offering from DC's intriguing Elseworlds series, J.L.A. Riddle Of The Beast reinvents key characters from the Justice League of America super-team as fantasy icons in the Tolkien mould, with familiar home grounds like Krypton, Gotham and Center City redrawn on a far smaller map sharing quarters on a single landmass rising up from the surrounding abyss. The bug-like sage Riddler summons an elfin Robin from his doomed village of Haven, to receive instructions for a quest. Robin must unite all of the divided factions residing between the plateau and world's end to fight the good fight because the great Beast is rising from its abyss to threaten this peculiar alternative reality. Along his perilous journeying, Robin encounters the dying avian breed of hawkmen, a lion-faced peacekeeper called Green Arrow, a famed trio of merchant adjudicators - Fast man (the Flash), Wee Man ("though none dared call him that to his face" - he's Atom, of course), and the Green Man (of the Lantern Corps perhaps..?) - in the city, and becomes involved in warrior Luthor Rex's ongoing plans of conquest, a public execution of the sickly and imprisoned King Kal'El (who has mistakenly worn a certain green amulet all his life), and the hate-filled Brothers of the Night (led by a haunted Batman), driven mad by the lost souls of helpless victims.
   Robin plays out a role like 'Chicken Little', spreading the message of Riddler's prophesy about the Beast's impending return, but no-one wants to believe his rather gloomy story (anymore than that tale about the sky falling). Yet, as expected, Robin becomes a hero in spite of his failings, and even gets the girl too (feisty psychic heroine Zatanna), while the miraculously cured King of Kryptonia gets together with Princess Diana from Amazonia and, after a fierce battle against the Beast and its undead army of zombies, the future starts to look a bit brighter, and decidedly less medieval, too.
   A team of 16 artists use various mediums and techniques, including pastels, acrylics and digital rendering to give the colourful artwork a painterly style in keeping with the oddly compelling treatment, although it must be said that some pages are more vividly stylish and evocative than others, with Carl Critchlow, Alex Horley, Jim Murray, John Watson, and Saverio Tenuta contributing much of the best work here.
Cosmic Odyssey

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