- Batman: The Killing Joke HC, by Alan Moore & Brian Bolland (DC)
- The Brave and the Bold #11, by Mark Waid, Jerry Ordway & Bob Wiacek (DC)
- Countdown to Final Crisis #6 of 52 (backwards), by Paul Dini, Adam Beechen, Keith Giffen, Mike Norton & Jimmy Palmiotti (DC)
- The Death of the New Gods #7 of 8, by Jim Starlin & Art Thibert (DC)
- Ex Machina #35, by Brian K. Vaughan, Tony Harris & Jim Clark (DC/Wildstorm)
- Fables #71, by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham & Steve Leialoha (DC/Vertigo)
- Sandman Mystery Theatre: The Hourman and The Python vol 6 TPB, by Matt Wagner, Steven T. Seagle, Guy Davis & Warren Pleece (DC)
- Tangent: Superman’s Reign #1 of 12, by Dan Jurgens, Matthew Clark & Fernando Pasarin (DC)
- Marvel Masterworks: Captain America vol 93 HC, collecting Captain America #114-124, by Stan Lee, Gene Colan, John Romita, John Buscema, Sal Buscema & Joe Sinnott (Marvel)
- Thor #7, by J. Michael Straczynski, Mark Djurdjevic & Danny Miki (Marvel)
- Invincible #49, by Robert Kirkman & Ryan Ottley (Image)
Batman: The Killing Joke was arguably Alan Moore’s last really major contribution to comics, coming in 1988 which puts it right on the heels of Watchmen. Originally a “prestige format” graphic novel (which meant it was on nicer paper and was squarebound, but otherwise not much longer than your typical comic), it’s been reissued in a 20th-anniversary deluxe hardcover edition, recolored by artist Brian Bolland. It’s a very nice package.
It’s a pretty good story, a hard-hitting look at the Joker’s psyche and why he acts like he does. It provides an origin of sorts for the character – a twisted variant of his Silver Age “Red Hood” origin – without committing to it. In the story, the Joker kidnaps Commissioner Gordon and cripples his daughter Barbara in order to prove a point about his sanity (or lack thereof) to Batman. The ending is perhaps a little too cute for its own good, but all-in-all it’s a good story with terrific art by Bolland. It’s told in a manner very similar to that of Watchmen with clever scene transitions and a restrained, “realistic” layout. Moore also lets some of Batman’s heroism show through, which I appreciate since I can’t stand the psychopathic character he’s become since the publication of The Dark Knight Returns.
The crippling of Barbara Gordon – the Bronze Age Batgirl – has been controversial, since female characters often seem to get tortured to “prove a point” to or about the male heroes (c.f. Women in Refrigerators). Barbara’s character was rehabilitated by turning her into Oracle, the computer-savvy mastermind behind the Birds of Prey series (also providing tech support for Grant Morrison’s JLA). In isolation, the event is brutal and effective in this story; in a larger context it does feel rather cliché. It’s worth noting that it’s now been nearly as long (20 years) since Barbara was crippled than the time (22 years) that she served as Batgirl. Generations of comics fans (as comics generations are measured) have grown up knowing her only as Oracle (unless they watched the Batman animated series); at what point does her current persona become her defining one?
Anyway. It’s a good story, influential mainly in how it defined and changed several of its characters, less so than for its storytelling. And the art is beautiful.
Speaking of relatively brutal comic book series, Sandman Mystery Theatre was a noir-ish detective/superhero/thriller series set in 1930s New York which ran for 70 issues in the 1990s. I picked up the first 8 issues (the first 2 story arcs) and then dropped it, mainly because I wasn’t a fan of Guy Davis’ artwork in the first arc, and I liked his replacement in the second arc even less. DC has been collecting the series in paperback form, and I was moved to pick them up and try it again. Not only does it read much better in collected form than as individual issues, but I’ve warmed to Davis’ artwork (large noses on his characters and all) and it turns out he does most of the drawing in the series. With this volume, number 6, we reach the halfway point in the series.
Wesley Dodds is a rich man-about-town who is tortured by dreams of killers, and who at night puts on a gas mask and employs a gun of sleep gas of his own making and hunts down these killers, even though he’s often at odds with the police. Besides this adventure, SMT is also a romance, following Dodds and Dian Beaumont gradually falling in love and moving towards their lifelong relationship. Dian is a strong adventurous woman, a little out-of-place with the societal roles her position forces her to play. She’s also deeply conflicted about Wes’s nocturnal habits, which she’s well aware of by the time of this volume. The tentative dance the two engage in, two steps forward and one step back with each arc, is agonizing and yet delicately crafted.
The adventure ain’t bad, either. The first arc in this volume features Hourman, another golden age hero, who joins with Sandman to catch some jewel thieves. Hourman’s superhuman powers are cleverly portrayed, showing them obliquely to make their full impact greater when he does something truly remarkable. The second story, The Python, is one of the more routine tales in the series, regarding some mysterious stranglings around the city.
If you find run-of-the-mill superhero comics dull, but would be interested in some mystery and romance to go with the adventure, then I recommend this series.
(Incidentally, there was a sequel mini-series published a year or so go, which I didn’t care for at all. It bore very little resemblance to this one in style or theme, so I don’t recommend it. A better coda to the series is a story arc of James Robinson’s excellent Starman series, collected in the volume Sand and Stars.)
One of the more fun mini-series of the last 20 years was Tangent Comics. Tangent was created to fill a “skip week”; you see, most comics are published monthly, but comics ship every week. This means that four months each year there’s an extra week, so companies have the choice of spreading out their offerings across five weeks in those months, or producing some new material. For a little while, DC comics would publish some new material to fill the “skip week”, and the best of these was Tangent.
The premise was that an entirely new world was created under the oversight of Dan Jurgens, completely unrelated to any of DC’s other properties, except that the names of the characters and places and things would be re-used in completely new contexts. So in this world The Atom was a series of Superman-like figures who descended from a man who gained powers from early A-bomb tests. His presence caused Cuba to nuke the southeastern United States in 1962, resulting in even more super-beings, as well as New Atlantis, a futuristic city built on the site of Atlanta. The original set of comics were all snapshots of this world, with insight into its past and perhaps its ultimate future and doom. It was very clever and entertaining, well-written and well-drawn. The setting was re-used a year later in a second set of titles, which were considerably less enjoyable, re-imagining the “big three” heroes Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, in each case in a rather unimaginative manner (the Wonder Woman issue was especially noxious), and some redux issues of characters from the first series. Ultimately it felt like an attempt to “cash in” on the original concept, and predictably (and deservedly) the series disappeared after this second set of issues.
Now, ten years later, Tangent is back in Tangent Comics: Superman’s Reign, as one of the worlds in the new DC Multiverse (as Earth-9), and the Justice League is going to visit their world, which it turns out has been subjugated by their Superman figure, a superevolved human who I assume thinks he was doing the world a favor by taking it over and imposing his own order on it. A 12-issue series feels somehow like overkill, and integrating it with the Justice League sort of takes away some of what was special about Tangent, but it could still work out. The set-up here is pretty decent, and Matthew Clark’s got a clean line and pretty dynamic sense of layout. If writer Jurgens can get back to what made the first series fun and establish it once again as its own thing, not truly beholden to the main DC Universe, then this could be a good series. If it ends up being caught up in the Final Crisis muddle or falls apart storywise midway through, then it will probably be entirely forgettable.
But I’m going in with some optimism, because my memories of the first batch of Tangent Comics still burn brightly in my mind.
This month’s Thor wins the award for “hardest-to-spell creator names” for the month – maybe the year. Straczynski, Djurdjevic, Eliopoulos, Arbona, and even Danny Miki. Ye gads.
The story is still ridiculously slow, though. This issue is mostly a flashback one, in which Odin relates a tale from his youth while Thor is visiting him in the afterlife. That’s pretty much all you need to know, since nothing’s really happened in several issues.