Saturday, June 13, 2009

FanBoyWonder Audio Book Report—52, Parts 1 and 2

A funny thing happened while FanBoyWonder was at our local public library not too long ago—while scanning the “latest selections” section of the audio books, lo and behold what did we see but 52 Parts 1 and 2, by Greg Cox, based on the DC Comics maxi-series of the same name.

As regular FanBoyWonder readers may remember (assuming there are many of you left following our prolonged absences of late), last year we reviewed The Last Days of Krypton by Kevin J. Anderson—a novel chronicling the history (at least the tail end) of Superman’s home planet.

We’ve always had mixed feelings about novelizations of comic book stories. The comic book (or “graphic novel” for those high falutin folk) is a storytelling medium like no other as it’s a unique and seamless blend of words and pictures.

Yet there is no denying that a novel, with its much, much higher word count, is the best forum to expand the breadth and depth of a character where comic books can only scratch the surface.

The audio book takes that relationship yet another step farther. Graphic Audio has produced a number of DC Comics novelizations including the adaptation of 52.

That said…here’s the Upshot of 52 from Graphic Audio: A year without Superman. A year without Batman. A year without Wonder Woman. But not a year without heroes... Earth’s most revered heroes have vanished. In their absence, the cities of Metropolis and Gotham have fallen prey to the machinations of super-villains and the criminal activities of Intergang.

Booster Gold, a hero from the future, has stepped into Superman’s boots only to find them too big to fill, especially when rival hero Supernova arrives on the scene. Recruited by the mysterious crime fighter known as the Question, detective Renee Montoya investigates an even more mysterious vigilante prowling the streets: Batwoman. These and other veteran and rookie heroes around the world must unite against a vast conspiracy of evil about to usurp control of the Earth once and for all.

We have to admit that we enjoyed this audio novelization of 52 a lot more than we enjoyed the original weekly, year-long (i.e. 52 weeks) maxi-series.

First and foremost, the Graphic Audio presentation was First Class. There slogan is “A movie in your mind,” and they delivered. We really did feel like we were listening to a comic book.

This is in stark contrast to the Kingdom Come audio book from a decade ago. The KC audio was an adaptation of the Kingdom Come novel by Elliot S. Maggin which in turn was an adaptation from the now classic Kingdom Come graphic novel by Mark Waid and Alex Ross.

The KC audio was professionally produced but it was voiced by commercial and voice-over actors. The pronunciations were right but the inflections were all wrong. A decade later, Graphic Audio has gotten it pitch perfect.

Secondly, author Greg Cox has done the 52 story a great service by streamlining the year-long story into a coherent narrative—partly by inserting some badly needed exposition and partly by trimming down the story to the three strongest character arcs—1) Black Adam and “The Black Marvel Family; 2) Booster Gold, Supernova and Rip Hunter and 3) Renee Montoya, The Question and Batwoman.

Thankfully omitted and barely remembered by this reader was the “Cult of Connor” dead-end story line; the Steel/Luthor/Everymen story, the Ralph Dibny time killing “investigation” and the cosmically bad Adam Strange/Animal Man/Starfire lost-in-space saga.

At the time it was launched in May 2006, directly following the screw up that was Infinite Crisis, 52 was a groundbreaking experiment as DC Comics sought to produce a weekly comic book. The premise of 52 was to tell the story of the DC Universe during the lost years between Infinite Crisis and One Year Later.

To this end, 52 had its big gun scribes—Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka, and Mark Waid—on the project working hand in glove…or trying to. Despite their best efforts and we have no doubt it they tried very hard to make it work, 52 was a jumbled mess as the storytellers were writing by the seat of their pants and it showed.

With some time and with the benefit of unfolding his story to the reader in one sitting rather than 52 weekly bites, the 52 audio novel works. We found ourselves hanging on details of the audio book that we barely paid notice to during the weekly comics series.

The Renee Montoya character is the emotional heart and soul of the story here in the novel version. The former Gotham City police detective is a well into a self-hating binge of booze and broads (she’s gay) after her cop partner and best friend was murdered and she couldn’t bring herself to murder the murderer.

Vic Sage/ “Charlie”/The Question finds Renee and saves her by making her his (crime busting) partner and eventual successor as Sage is dying of lung cancer. With the Batman out of town during this missing year, Intergang is moving into Gotham, but a new, unrelated Batwoman has appeared to step into the void left by the Dark Knight.

It turns out that the mysterious Batwoman is Kate Kane, a billionaire socialite, a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point…oh yeah and a lesbian…but not just any lesbian but Renee’s old flame from way back. Given that in the original comic book series, Batwoman was defined pretty much only by her sexual identity peppered by a couple thin slices of background detail, Cox does his admirable best to flesh out this one-dimensional character.

While Renee Montoya is the heart of the book, Black Adam is the muscle…in every which way. Cox builds upon and expands the impressive job the committee of writers did in the comic book of making the reader feel both compassion and contempt for Adam.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, the very best kind of villain is the one that doesn’t think he’s a villain but just trying to do good…and Gods help who gets in the way.

The Booster Gold story line is the weakest of the trinity. While Cox captures the shallowness of the character who time traveled back 400 years to become the success that he wasn’t in his own time, Booster’s voice actor made him sound too much like Jeff Spicoli (“Hey Bud, let’s party”).

The Booster Gold character is as shallow as any Hollywood “It” guy but he’s at least a little brighter than the three-watt bulb that Cox portrays him in the novel.

Cox does the best job of it by seamlessly meshing the “World War III” story line into 52. In the comics, WWIII was a slap dash affair where the committee of writers—realizing they had utterly failed to fill in the storytelling blanks of the missing year between Infinite Crisis and One Year Later, scotch taped their solution—Black Adam going insane after the murder of his wife Isis and taking a magic-powered rampage across the globe.

What was Gods-awful in the comic series, Cox has managed to make the battle action of WWIII highlight of the book.

Greg Cox and Graphic Audio has actually made us like a story that we hated reading the first time around.

If 52 is supposed to be “A movie in your mind” then FanBoyWonder gives it a thumbs up.

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