August 2009
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This Week’s Haul

  • Batman & Robin #3, by Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely (DC)
  • The Flash: Rebirth #4 of 5, by Geoff Johns & Ethan Van Scyver (DC)
  • Green Lantern #45, by Geoff Johns, Doug Mahnke & Christian Alamy (DC)
  • Justice Society of America #30, by Bill Willingham, Matthew Sturges & Jesús Merino (DC)
  • Madame Xanadu #14, by Matt Wagner & Michael Wm. Kaluta (DC/Vertigo)
  • Secret Six: Unhinged vol 2 TPB, by Gail Simone, Nicola Scott & Doug Hazlewood (DC)
  • Wednesday Comics #8 of 12, by many hands (DC)
  • Guardians of the Galaxy #17, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Brad Walker, Victor Olazaba & Scott Hanna (Marvel)
  • The Incredible Hercules #133, by Greg Pak, Fred Van Lente & Rodney Buchemi (Marvel)
  • Nova #28, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning & Andrea DiVito (Marvel)
  • The Unknown #4 of 4, by Mark Waid & Minck Oosterveer (Boom)
  • Boneyard #28, by Richard Moore (NBM)
Batman and Robin #3 Reading the effusive praise heaped on writer Grant Morrison by folks like Greg Burgas (who calls him the “God of All Comics”) or Chris Sims often makes me blink in surprise. Over his long career, I’ve always seen Morrison as a fine idea man, but only a pretty good writer, with haphazard plotting and characterizations that lean towards being thin and heavy-handed. Many of his stories are very good, but over the last few years his facility as an idea man seems to have declined sharply, and his ability to play out the interesting ideas he does have seems to be dwindling away even faster. In every respect, I’d say Morrison’s been lapped by Warren Ellis at this point. (I’d say Ellis’ peak is higher, too, with Planetary and Transmetropolitan being better than Morrison’s best work, JLA and The Invisibles.)

All of which is a lead-in to my disappointment with Batman and Robin #3, which wraps up the series’ initial story arc in a decidedly unsatisfying manner. The villain, Pyg, has a master plan to extort Gotham City, and he also performs some exotic surgery on his captives by fixing a grotesque read-haired mask over their actual faces and drugs them into becoming his henchmen, a fate which he threatens to inflict on the captured Robin. But Pyg is a nonentity as a villain, just another overstylized grotesque, a less-comprehensible Joker. His plan, such as it is, is explained after he’s been defeated, with little real threat of it ever coming to pass. A circus is involved, for some reason, but as a backdrop it’s irrelevant.

The best part of the series so far has been the two main characters: Dick Grayson is clearly still crushed by the apparent death of Bruce Wayne, and is not entirely comfortable going to the lengths that Wayne would go in pursuit of justice, as you’d expect since Dick was the original happy-go-lucky boy wonder, the counterpoint to the darknight detective. The new Robin is a vicious and opinionated boy who barely has any respect for his mentor, yet who is highly skilled, even if occasionally over his head and lacking in good judgment. Bringing him up should be a real challenge for Dick. Morrison only really brushes the fringe of his characters, suggesting a great deal but leaving it unexplored, being more interested in the mechanics of propelling his plot. I also suspect Bruce Wayne will be back well before the potential of this set-up could be realized even in the hands of a writer more skilled in characterization, so it may end up being a non-starter anyway. Which would be too bad, but that’s life for a comic driven more by marketing and branding than by serving the interests of the story.

I think I’ve gone into Quitely’s art before: I like his approach to drawing figures, the solidity he gives then, but I often find his characters’ faces to be grotesquely ugly (whether or not they’re supposed to be), and the skimpy backgrounds often drives me (uh) batty – it really sucks the life out of the extended fight scene here. I generally find that what I like about Quitely’s artwork I find in a more attractive package in Gary Frank’s work (although Frank also has a problem with a lack of backgrounds).

Batman and Robin is an okay comic. It’s a pretty shallow story, grotesque for no good reason, but with some good character bits. But what it really wants to be – a strong character drama focusing on the title characters – is not Morrison’s forte, and so I think it’s never really going to reach its potential. And the praise I’ve seen it receive seems far out-of-proportion compared to what the series has actually delivered. But, you know, diff’rent strokes.

Secret Six vol 1: Unhinged I’m sure I’ve read something by Gail Simone before, but nothing comes to mind. I haven’t been avoiding her writing, it just seems like she’s largely been working in areas that don’t much interest me. For example, I dropped Birds of Prey around the time she started, because I felt the concept had been largely played out, having drifted considerably from the early issues I enjoyed. And the current Wonder Woman series was a total disaster for its first year and I bailed before she signed on to the title. Her other current series, Secret Six flew under my radar, since it spun out from a spin-off of another stupid DC event series, and the name comes from an old series that I never had much interest in (honestly, I find DC and Marvel’s tendency to reclaim old names for new premises to be rather distasteful; it’s an example of branding at its worst). Nonetheless, the series has been getting good word-of-mouth in the blogosphere, so with a new paperback collection out this week (which turns out to be the second collection, although the first was of a mini-series) I figured I’d give it a try.

The premise is sort of the mercenary version of the Suicide Squad: A bunch of B-grade (and lower) villains work together to make money. Rather than engaging in the traditional criminal activities – knocking over banks, etc. – they’re for hire for shady and difficult jobs. The team is led by Scandal Savage, daughter of the immortal Vandal Savage (and saddled with an unfortunate name), and includes: Rag Doll, eccentric son of the original; Cat Man, a vicious hunter in a garish orange outfit; Deadshot, the psychopathic marksman late of the Suicide Squad; and Bane, the nutjob who once defeated Batman, who’s trying to stay off the drugs that make him immensely powerful, yet also an unreasoning brute. The sixth member of the team apparently died shortly before the volume begins, and they gain a new member for this story.

The story itself has the team head to California to break a woman out of Alcatraz (which in the DC Universe is a prison for superhumans), since she knows where to find a card which holds great and mysterious value to those in the know. A mysterious crime lord named Junior hires every Z-grade villain he can to bring them down and bring the card back to him, so the team has to run a gauntlet to get back to Gotham to get their payoff. But the card itself is only of use to one person at a time, and once they learn what it is, it sets the team at each others’ throats.

With my references to Suicide Squad, it isn’t a surprise that the story feels like it could be a Suicide Squad story, only with selfish rather than nominally noble motivations behind the team’s actions. Both series are marked by the interactions among the strong personalities – with a few weaker personalities thrown in as followers – and with the characters’ loyalties shifting (or seeming to) as they have to make difficult decisions. Their opponent, Junior, is an unusually extreme and grotesque villain, perhaps a little too over-the-top for my tastes, since we don’t really get a good feel for what makes him tick (although there may be clues in the earlier stories that I haven’t read yet). Simone also knows how to write a climax, as the volume ends with a big one with a couple exclamation points at the end.

Nicola Scott’s a solid superhero artist, whose work I haven’t seen before. I like her work here better than Frank Quitely’s in Batman and Robin, for instance, as she has most of his strengths but draws more intricate panels with nicely-rendered backgrounds. Her style is on the generic side, though, not terribly different from artists like Dale Eaglesham or Jesus Merino or Dan Jurgens.

This collection is entertaining enough that I think I’ll try the regular series for a while.

Wednesday Comics #8 This week’s Wednesday Comics round-up: In Metamorpho, Gaiman and Allred are clearly just having fun playing with the graphic construction of the story, as this week the hero and Urania the Element Girl spent a page imitating half of the periodic table of the elements – the other half will be next week. The creators’ contortions to fit into their self-imposed structures is cute, but it doesn’t leave much space for actual story, which means the thing as a whole has been pretty disappointing.

While Flash is overall the most intriguing and entertaining story in the package, I worry that it’s playing around with overlapping timelines a little too much; I’m having a hard time untangling exactly what’s going on. Although at the end of this page, it appears that Flash may be having the same problem, and it’s coming back to bite him, so that may be the point.

Most of the stories should be having their climaxes over the next 2 weeks (with their denouements in the last 2 weeks), which will determine how good the adventure strips like Strange Adventures and Supergirl end up being.

The Unknown #4 Mark Waid’s series The Unknown finishes its first story arc this week, to be continued in a new mini-series next month. The first story involved Catherine Allingham, the world’s greatest detective (a broad premise Waid also played with in his earlier series Ruse) hiring a new assistant, James Doyle (not the Governor of Wisconsin), to whom she reveals that she’s dying of a brain tumor. The pair investigate the theft of a casket which may hold the clue to proving the existence of human souls, and they follow it to a remote castle where they apparently find the door to the afterlife, to which Catherine is strongly attracted, being curious as to what she’s going to face when she dies.

Despite all this neat stuff, the story felt weirdly disjointed and unsatisfying. The mystery of the disappearing casket is resolved off-panel, and it’s not clear to me what happened to Catherine in the final encounter at the doorway: Was her brain tumor cured? Sent into recession? Or does she still just have a little more time left? Strange.

The best parts of the comic were Catherine’s presence as the ultimate representation of rationalism, yet one whose situation makes her attracted to the fantastic, and James’ presence trying to ground her in the real, even though they really do find supernatural phenomena. It’s a dynamic familiar from The X-Files, only James isn’t a skeptic, he’s just firmly grounded in our world and is not so much skeptical of the existence of the fantastic, as suspicious of the motivations behind and goals of those phenomena. Minck Oosterveer’s art is also pretty nifty, sketchy at times but remarkably solid at others, especially the EC-Comics-like creature who haunts Catherine’s visions. I suspect Oosterveer could benefit from a strong inker rather than inking his own work, though.

Waid is usually much stronger in his plotting, and not so fuzzy in his themes, so I wonder whether he’s got some master plan for pulling the pieces together and giving them more emotional resonance, or if this is an experimental series for him. Tthe series is titled The Unknown, so I guess I could see it go either way. I’m certainly interested enough to stick around for a bit, but if it ends up being one enigma after another, then I’m likely to run out of curiosity much as I did with The X-Files.

Boneyard #28 Think some nice thoughts about one of the best independent comics of the decade, whose final issue was published this week. Richard Moore apparently hadn’t intended to end Boneyard with this issue, but I guess it just isn’t selling well enough for him to devote the time to it anymore. The tale of Michael Paris, the graveyard he inherited, and all the spooks and ghouls that live therein has been part comedy, part drama, and part soap opera for some years now, but it’s always been entertaining. I enjoyed it most when it focused on the interplay of the main characters, and thus this final issue wraps up perhaps my least-favorite storyline in the series, Paris trying to save a childhood friend from an unhappy marriage and getting his fat pulled out of the fire by his vampire friend Abby. Not to my mind the most fitting end to the series, although the last couple of pages between Paris and Abby are sweet.

I’d still recommend going out and reading the earlier volumes of the series (start with the first collection and see what you think), but sadly it’s come to a premature end. A real shame.

3 comments to This Week’s Haul

  • As much as I do like Grant Morrison (and I would argue his best work is Doom Patrol), I do use the name “God of All Comics” rather facetiously, as it seems that bloggers are no longer able to dislike something Morrison writes, and if they do, they’re called “stupid” because they just “don’t get him.” I still like a lot of what he writes, but not everything.

  • Hi Greg – it certainly flew right past me that you’re using the term facetiously (and I’ve been reading CMBG for a while). It seems like the whole CMBG gang are huge Morrison fans, so your use of the term seemed pretty straight to me. (I wouldn’t say you seemed to think he’s the greatest writer in comics history or anything like that, but perhaps one of the 2 or 3 best writers active in comics today.) I’ll keep that in mind for your future reviews!

    Aside: I enjoyed the first two stories in Morrison’s Doom Patrol, but then I thought it flew off the rails. I think DP is an excellent example of Morrison’s strengths and weaknesses: An unending flow of wild ideas, a couple of strong personalities (Robotman and Crazy Jane), but erratic plotting, stakes that were often difficult to relate to, and no real character development. By the middle of his run, I didn’t care much about the characters, didn’t understand why I should care about the threats, and found the whole milieu essentially puzzling. In the end, I own the collection of those first two stories, and don’t really miss not owning the rest of them. (By contrast I own all of JLA and The Invisibles; The Invisibles I think is essentially similar to Doom Patrol, but a more enjoyable read, especially the middle volumes.)

    But, as I said, diff’rent strokes! :)

  • Michael: Yeah, we’re all big fans, but some much more than others. I would say the Morrison is probably my favorite writer, but I also think he screws up more often than others who love him unquestioningly. Part of why he bugs me when I think he’s phoning it in is because when he doesn’t it’s so very, very good.

    We’ll have to agree to disagree on Doom Patrol. I think his characterization is better on it than pretty much anything he’s done, which is why the ideas don’t overwhelm it. That’s one of his biggest problems, and on DP he has a nice balance. But that’s just what I think!

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