Stories that leap media almost always lose something in translation. We see comic books move to movies, novels move to comic books, movies, or TV shows, and TV shows inspire books. With Greg Cox’s Countdown, we see an awkward novelization of a storyline that probably should have remained in comic form.
Countdown is the novelization of the DC Countdown to Final Crisis comic series that ran in 2007. It features five unlikely heroes: Superman’s Best Pal Jimmy Olsen (who’s acquired strange powers of his own that he can’t explain), suddenly magic-less Mary Marvel, substitute Catwoman Holly Robinson, gun-toting ex-Robin Jason Todd, and Wonder Girl Donna Troy. A mysterious being is killing the New Gods, Darkseid is doing nefarious things, the Monitors that guard the different universes are getting fussy, and the Atom is missing—and is the key to everything.
The book succeeds in bringing in the uninitiated to the DC universe. Without laborious backstory and only a little bit of “as you know, Bob,” we learn about the events that brought everyone up to this time, including the deaths and resurrections of Jason and Donna, Mary Marvel’s return to magic-less humanity, why the Atom is in hiding, and the unfortunate events that bring Holly from Gotham to Metropolis. As someone who had not kept up with recent DC storylines, I found myself reading the book with little confusion.
Perhaps the two most interesting plotlines were one of the most prominent and one of the least important: Mary Marvel’s corruption and Harley Quinn’s story. Mary Marvel wakes up powerless from her injuries sustained in the fight against Black Adam. She seeks answers, but her family abandons and ignores her. She goes to a fortune teller who says, “Don’t go to Gotham.” So of course Mary has to head to Gotham. Her story is, essentially, “How to Act Like a Teenager, 101,” as she’s contrary, petulant, and believes she can do no wrong. Once she absorbs Black Adam’s power, she’s darker, more powerful, and more violent than ever, and takes any advice from magic users as mean, jealous ways to control her and keep her down. She falls not like Lucifer, with grand defiance, but with tantrums and the inability to trust anyone around her. While her portrayal is sometimes tiring and predictable, it is still one of the more interesting stories to follow.
The true tragedy in this story was casting Harley Quinn as a minor character. Claiming to be rehabilitiated from her stint as the Joker’s crazy girlfriend, she’s now a crazy woman trying to better herself at the women’s shelter that picks up Holly. She ends up serving as Holly’s sidekick (claiming that Holly is hers) and pushes Holly as they discover the women’s shelter is not as it was portrayed at all (which is an Amazon training camp), but instead a training ground for the Female Furies. Harley is fun, quirky, and her spontaneous actions prove to be a catalyst for most of what pushes Holly to act, but Harley herself is not a player in the story at large, which is a shame.
Cox did an admirable job in novelizing the storyline, as he had to cut and tweak it for the retelling. The original story was sprawling with many characters and separate adventures. Some characters were dropped from the original comic story and the plotlines were sheared to keep only the key adventures, and the book felt tighter for it. Some slight facts were changed, but overall it stayed true enough to the story to appease fans, even down to some key phrases (such as the slip of the tongue that allows our heroes to locate Atom). Losing the visual aspect allowed the story to contain more nudity and more violence than comics, as well, including a brutal beating Jason and Donna take. Unfortunately, the comic book format of separate adventures serialized in issues didn’t really change in the translation, and for a good part of the book we’re reading several separate stories that don’t seem to have anything to do with each other. Switching between the separate storylines was jarring; one would hope a novel’s chapters would flow together a bit more seamlessly.
There are two attempts at sexual/romantic tension here; first between the bickering Jason and Donna as they travel on their quest to find the Atom and the second between Jimmy and the alien Forager. Jason and Donna never convince us that their arguing masks deeper feelings, and Jimmy and Forager’s relationship seems built on the fact that she’s hot and he’s got a lot of weird powers.
Many comic book tropes don’t sit well in this novel. For example, we know that you’re not going to find a female hero with a uniform that doesn’t accentuate the positive, as it were. In comics, we see them drawn in their voluptuous glory. It becomes almost background noise; accepted without question. In the novel, we read about her gorgeous, perfect body every time a heroine is introduced (the men do not get such loving description). During the adventure, many heroines have their clothing soaked or ripped. “Gratuitous” is the best way to describe it.
Also, color is used to great effect in comics, symbolizing many things, but if it’s overused in prose, it’s heavy-handed. We see this as Mary Marvel takes on her dark powers: her eventual fall is laboriously foreshadowed by the description of her new dark costume, its comparison to her old, bright costume, and how she’s gotten more mature and voluptuous (again with the boobies). Later, after her redemption, it is pointed out more than once that her new costume has a gray lightning bolt now, see, gray means halfway between dark and light, not innocent anymore, get it? Cause she was good, then bad, now good again! Get it?
Countdown succeeds in the retelling of the Countdown to Final Crisis story, and I’m sure fans of the comic will get into it. It was refreshing to read a story about heroes other than the standard stars (although I did wonder why the hell didn’t Jimmy Olsen go to Superman with his, “OMG WTF where are these powers coming from?” questions, and two arrivals to help out during the climax felt like deus ex machina—but both of these were failings in the original story as I understand it). But even if people unfamiliar with the backstories are not lost, it’s unlikely they’ll want to continue with the heavy-handed symbolism, awkward switching between adventures, and unconvincing relationships.