Michael Holt, the current Mr. Terrific, is one of my favorite modern characters, so I was thrilled to see him getting a solo series in the New 52. I was wary of writer Eric Wallace, whose Titans: Villains for Hire was one of the more infamous comics of the last few years, but he did a lot in the first couple of pages to really gain my particular goodwill: starting the issue off with a big action sequence, dropping a Doctor Who reference. It’s a shame it goes so quickly off the rails.
I try not to let my science background interfere with my love of comics. I can roll with a Stan Lee script that treats transistors or radiation like magic; I can accept that evolution might have produced beings identical to humans except with photosynthesis that allows them to fly and shoot lasers from their eyes. But when a supposed scientific genius says something as meaningless as “I blasted your copper-lined Armani with positive and negative ions,” it’s hard to ignore. Let’s set aside the point that copper’s not very susceptible to magnetization; it’s clear from the context that Wallace is thinking about how an electromagnet can be made from wrapping a copper wire around steel, but the execution here eliminates just about every part of why that process works. I have a bigger problem with a scientist using “ions” in the same meaningless buzzword sense that’s tossed around by people hocking pseudoscientific magic silicone bracelets. An ion is a normal atom that’s become charged by gaining or losing electrons. So I wonder: what kinds of ions is Mr. Terrific blasting? If I shoot you with a squirt gun filled with salt water, I’m blasting you with billions of positive sodium ions and negative chloride ions. Try that at home with some copper, and let me know if it suddenly becomes magnetized. From Mr. Terrific’s explanation, it’s actually more likely that his foe would corrode — and that would have made for an equally dramatic defeat.
Is that nitpicky? Maybe, but in a world with Wikipedia and HowStuffWorks.com, in a comic book about a scientific genius, in an industry where a writer could get on Twitter or fire an e-mail off to Jim Kakalios and ask, it’s pretty close to unforgivable. This isn’t some arcane aspect of quantum physics; it’s high school science material. And it doesn’t speak well to the main character’s vaunted intellect or many degrees.
Of course, that’s the biggest problem with writing a super-genius character (as too many people who’ve written Peter Parker or Reed Richards have discovered): writers who may not be expert geniuses must write characters who believably are. And I have a hard time believing that the world’s third smartest man would think an awkward phrase like “it didn’t used to be that way.”
The whole issue is plagued with awkward dialogue. The Britishisms feel flat and forced. Paula Holt’s dying words are stilted and strange. Exposition comes exclusively in long spoken infodumps. After telling people that he’s the third smartest man in the world — which implies an obvious question that someone naturally asks — Mr. Terrific gives an unnecessarily snarky response that also notes his race for no discernable reason.
The topic of race pops up again later in the issue, in a similarly jarring and out-of-place fashion. I appreciate that Wallace is frankly addressing the issue and what it means to be a black person in the DCU — and especially in high levels of academia and industry in the DCU — but it’s approached with all the subtlety of a speeding bus, a bus that Wallace throws no-longer-Power-Girl Karen Starr under to make a point and set up a love triangle.
And while Wallace is making a point about racial diversity and privilege in one scene, he’s employing tired stereotypes in another. Michael Holt is one of the DCU’s two avowed atheist heroes. Rather than coming to that position through reasoned examination of the evidence, Wallace makes it clear that Holt’s atheism results from his wife and unborn son’s tragic deaths (which occurred in his old DCU origin as well), and that he replaced belief in God with belief in science. The idea that atheists reject gods due to some traumatic event is one of the more persistent and pernicious myths about nonbelievers. Imagine if Holt were instead a Mormon character, and a comic talked about his multiple wives, or if he were a Muslim who hoped his superheroics would mean a reward of 72 virgins in Heaven. It may be true for some people, but it’s by no means common or representative, and for most members of the minority — including the ones who will be reading the book — it feels like an ignorant generalization.
I feel bad that I haven’t touched on the main plot, which finds an otherwise normal person becoming a nihilistic psychopath when he experiences a sudden increase in intelligence. Mr. Terrific tasks himself with solving the mystery, but it’s not long before the strange effect makes him murderous and leads to the cliffhanger. It’s a straightforward enough superhero action/mystery, one particularly suited to Mr. Terrific’s talents, though I question the wisdom of doing the “hero turns evil” plot in the first issue.
I wasn’t familiar with artist Gianluca Gugliotta before this issue, so I didn’t have much expectation going in. There are times when the art looks great — characters are dynamic, swirly portal things look appropriately strange and majestic. But like the dialogue, it’s often just shy of feeling right. Mr. Terrific’s T-shaped face-mask-thing rarely looks like a letter so much as a somewhat-amorphous blob covering the bulk of his face. Characters’ appearances change noticeably from panel to panel, and it seems like the hero’s new “Fair Play” bicep tattoos were a bad move, as their placement and design are inconsistent. Then again, since they disappear altogether when he’s out of costume, that might not be an error — but it deserves some explanation, which is never given.
I really wanted to like Mister Terrific. I really wanted to like the book starring a double-minority superhero whose power was being a genius scientist, written by an African-American writer in a field that’s dominated by white guys. But between the stilted dialogue, the lack of fairly necessary research, the tone-deaf stereotyping played right alongside heavy-handed discussions of diversity and privilege, and the uneven art, I just couldn’t find enough here to enjoy.
Pull list verdict: DROP IT.
My Best of 2012 Playlist by Eric Garneau
After being inspired by some friends, for the past few years I’ve been really into documenting my musical exploration with year-end mixes. I realize this is not a particularly novel thing to do, but hey, who has original ideas any more? Anyway, this has gotten even easier to do thanks to new technology like Spotify. read more