This Week’s Haul

Between the death of my beloved cat Jefferson last week, and before that a weeklong visit by my girlfriend’s family, I haven’t had much time for comics reviews. But I’ll get down a few comments on titles from the past week.

By-the-by, if you’re an insane fan of Planetary, as I am, the final 9 issues were collected in hardcover two weeks ago. The regular hardcovers are a really nice package, easily the equal of the large-and-unwieldy Absolute editions, and since John Cassaday’s skills lie primarily in his designs and not his detail work, the art doesn’t significantly benefit from the larger size of the Absolute version (not the way, say, George Pérez’s does).

Two Weeks Back:

  • Astro City: The Dark Age Book Four #2, by Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson & Alex Ross (DC/Wildstorm)
  • First Wave #1 of 6, by Brian Azzarello & Rags Morales (DC)
  • Planetary: Spacetime Archaeology vol 4 HC, by Warren Ellis & John Cassaday (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Age of Reptiles: The Journey #3 of 4, by Ricardo Delgado (Dark Horse)
  • The Boys #40, by Garth Ennis & Darick Robertson (Dynamite)

Last Week:

  • Batman and Robin #10, by Grant Morrison, Andy Clarke & Scott Hanna (DC)
  • Ex Machina #48, by Brian K. Vaughan & Tony Harris (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Secret Six #19, by Gail Simone & Jim Calafiore (DC)
  • The Unwritten #11, by Mike Carey, Peter Gross & Jimmy Broxton (DC/Vertigo)
  • Criminal: The Sinners #5 of 5, by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips (Marvel/Icon)
  • Powers #3, by Brian Michael Bendis & Michael Avon Oeming (Marvel/Icon)
  • B.P.R.D.: King of Fear #3 of 5, by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi & Guy Davis (Dark Horse)
  • Chew #9, by John Layman & Rob Guillory (Image)
Brian Azzarello’s First Wave is a mash-up of a number of 30s and 40s heroes, from Batman and Doc Savage to The Spirit and Rima the Jungle Girl. It takes place outside regular DC continuity, and it’s unclear whether it takes place in the 30s or in the present day; designs and fashions seem to evoke a little of both, but without a clear emphasis in either direction. One wonders whether Azzarello is making a subtle comment about how fundamentally the world hasn’t changed all that much in the last 80 years.

This first issue focuses on the Spirit investigating a smuggling operation, Doc Savage returning to New York after missing his father’s funeral, and Rima rescuing a man who was captured by savages and a giant robot. It’s just the hint of where the 6-issue series is going, so it’s way too soon to tell if it’s any good. But despite the artwork by the always-fantastic Rags Morales (who always seems to get stuck doing not-as-good-as-they-ought-to-be miniseries), First Wave doesn’t start off as particularly intriguing or stylized, indeed it feels a little generic, and definitely way too self-conscious in its handling of Will Eisner’s Spirit, a character who was unique in a way that defined his becoming an icon (the anti-Doc Savage, in a way), yet Azzarello seems to want to put the icon stamp on him here.

Given the breadth of material Azzarello is working with, though, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt after just one issue. But he’s got some work ahead of him.

(Incidentally, there will be both Spirit and Doc Savage spin-off series coming out in the next couple of months – yes, before the miniseries finishes – but I don’t plan to sign on for either of them.)

The latest Batman & Robin is so silly I almost like it. Robin has been programmed by his mother (leader of the League of Assassins) to take out Batman. Meanwhile, fresh from learning that the Bruce Wayne they tried to resurrect last story isn’t the real thing, they start looking for clues as to where Bruce has gone, and they conclude that he was thrown into the past and has been leaving hints in Wayne Manor to that effect, which leads Batman to a secret Batcave.

Little of this makes a lick of sense, of course: Why wouldn’t Bruce Wayne or Dick Grayson have noticed these hints in the last few decades? Morrison’s suggestion that they hadn’t been looking is of course absurd. Okay, Bruce may have noticed and realized that he would just have to deal with the issue when it arose, but you’d think he’d have confided in Dick at some point, advising him of the quest yet to come to the extent that he could. The set-up seems intended to evoke some of the sillier time travel stories of the 50s (like the “secret origin of the Batcave” one), and it’s a cute little conceit, but it’s also just outright silly.

Very nice art by Andy Clarke, but Morrison just doesn’t seem able to achieve a consistent level of quality in this series. Parts work, parts are so ludicrous that they clash badly with the realistic elements. Little of it feels much like Batman stories, and of course Morrison seems completely lost when it comes to characterization, which is a crying shame since the set-up was perfect for a great character drama.

Brubaker and Phillips’ Criminal, like their other work, bring pulp sensibilities to the table like First Wave does, but unlike the DC series, these guys put their own indelible stamp on everything they do, with Brubaker’s hard boiled writing and Phillips’ heavily shadowed figures. They do some of the most engaging comics around.

The fifth Criminal story is a sequel to the second one, featuring ex-soldier Tracy Lawless, effectively indentured to a crime lord, having an affair with the boss’ wife, and charged with investigating a series of murders of underworld figures. Lawless is a bent but not yet broken man, trying to do the honorable thing without getting himself killed, and he navigates a series of threats (getting beat up more than a little in the process, because that’s the sort of series this is) to clean up loose ends and settle some scores before meeting his own fate. Yet, I bet we’ll be seeing Tracy again in a future series. As always, though, if you like this kind of stuff, you can’t go wrong with Brubaker and Phillips’ take on it.

This Week’s Haul

  • Batman and Robin #9, by Grant Morrison & Cameron Stewart (DC)
  • Blackest Night #7 of 8, by Geoff Johns, Ivan Reis & Oclair Albert (DC)
  • The Flash: Rebirth #6 of 6, by Geoff Johns, Ethan Van Scyver & Scott Hanna (DC)
  • Justice Society of America #36, by Bill Willingham, Jesus Merino & Jesse Delperdang (DC)
  • Madame Xanadu #20, by Matt Wagner, Joëlle Jones & David Hahn (DC/Vertigo)
  • Victorian Undead #4 of 6, by Ian Edginton, Davide Fabbri & Tom Mandrake (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Avengers: The Korvac Saga HC, by Jim Shooter, Len Wein, Roger Stern, David Michelinie, George Pérez, Sal Buscema, David Wenzel, Klaus Janson, Pablo Marcos & others (Marvel)
  • Fantastic Four #576, by Jonathan Hickman & Dale Eaglesham (Marvel)
  • The Marvels Project #6 of 8, by Ed Brubaker & Steve Epting (Marvel)
  • Irredeemable #11, by Mark Waid, Peter Krause & Diego Barreto (Boom)
This month’s Batman and Robin is hands-down the best issue of the series so far. Overlooking the rather obvious solution to getting the critically-injured Batwoman out of the cave where the two Batmen fought last issue (ah, the joys of a readily-available deus ex machina), Morrison manages to pull off everything he tries here: The faux Batman returns to Gotham and faces off with Robin, who’s recovering from a spine transplant (!). The impostor speaks in broken English with a mix of old and new styles of Batman jargon, and is gradually decaying as the story goes on. Robin and Alfred put up a stiff fight (always nice to see Alfred show he’s more than just a butler), and then Batman and Batwoman show up to put things away. Robin gets a justified jab in at Batman’s behavior at the end. And Cameron Stewart’s art is outstanding, the finest the series has yet seen (I hate the hair style he and Frank Quitely have saddled Dick Grayson with, though). For a change, I liked this issue better than Greg Burgas did.

The series has been something of a mess so far, because Morrison spends too much time messing around with either peripheral elements, or with the “bigger picture” of what’s going on in the Batman universe, even though that bigger picture is rather silly. (Consider, after all, the Batman here doesn’t even wonder who might have put a fake body – which managed to fool Superman – in place of the original Batman.) If he could just focus on the relationship between Batman and Robin, this would be a much better series.

The delayed finale of The Flash: Rebirth shows up this week. Although Ethan Van Scyver’s artwork is always nice to see (though it seems much less detailed here than usual), this has been a rather pedestrian story all around, certainly not nearly as good as the last time Geoff Johns brought a hero back from the dead. Of course, Green Lantern: Rebirth had to explain why Hal Jordan went bad so he could return to being a hero, whereas Barry Allen has been sainted by DC heroes and fanboys for decades now, so this story was just about giving him a threat big enough to reinstate him among the DC pantheon. And Johns pulls in all the usual Flash tropes, most of them (naturally enough) from Mark Waid’s remarkable run on the title: The Reverse-Flash, the extended Flash family, and the Speed Force. He throws in a retcon where Barry’s father was arrested for the murder of his mother, and a bit of time travel involving the beginning of Barry’s career, but it’s otherwise a pretty routine modern-day Flash story, actually not up to the standards of Johns’ own run on Wally West’s series.

To be fair, a friend of mine described Johns’ Green Lantern relaunch shortly after it began as “the least necessary relaunch in comics”, and it ended up being considerably more interesting than that. With an ongoing Flash series on the way, Johns may be able to work similar magic there. But this isn’t a promising start.

Why do I get the feeling that we’re finally getting to the Justice Society of America story that Bill Willingham really wanted to tell? The last several issues have been nothing more than a fairly stupid way to split the JSA into two teams, getting (mostly) the marginal members into the JSA All-Stars series (where they can be safely ignored) and paring the core team down to manageable levels. Here we jump right into the story – 20 years in the future, where Mr. Terrific is imprisoned by a new regime which has captured and is executing the JSA members. He’s dictating his memoir, expecting his own end to come soon, explaining how the new regime came into power, with a group of Nazi-oriented villains attacking the JSA and killing Green Lantern.

It’s not like we haven’t seen set-ups like this before, but Willingham seems to enjoy and excel at telling war stories, so even if this ends up being resolved through the miracle of time travel, it could still be fun.

This Week’s Haul

  • Batman and Robin #8, by Grant Morrison & Cameron Stewart (DC)
  • Booster Gold #29, by Dan Jurgens & Norm Rapmund (DC)
  • Secret Six #18, by Gail Simone, John Ostrander & Jim Calafiore (DC)
  • The Unwritten #10, by Mike Carey, Peter Gross & Jimmy Broxton (DC/Vertigo)
  • Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. ultimate collection TPB, by Warren Ellis, Stuart Immonen & Wade Von Grawbadger (Marvel)
  • B.P.R.D.: King of Fear #2 of 5, by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi & Guy Davis (Dark Horse)
  • Phonogram: The Singles Club #7 of 7, by Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie (Image)
Grant Morrison does clear a few things up in the new Batman and Robin: Who the body left behind when Darkseid killed Batman in Final Crisis belongs to, and why Superman verified that it was Bruce Wayne’s (the explanation is fairly stupid, though), and how Batwoman ended up in England (though she’s basically superfluous to the story).

Either DC or Grant Morrison (maybe both) have really painted themselves into a corner here: Bruce Wayne is “dead”, but we know he’s not really dead. But Dick Grayson and Damian Wayne Al Ghul are now Batman and Robin – but we’re getting this story where Dick’s being a weenie and trying to resurrect Wayne using a Lazarus Pit. Which means the story can’t focus on Dick and Damian – plus Damian just had his spine replaced (!) so he’s been off the stage for a few issues anyway. The most promising part of Batman and Robin from the start was the relationship between Dick (a kinder, gentler Batman) and Damian (a nastier, crazier Robin), but that’s all fallen by the wayside in favor of plumbing the depths – yet again – of Batman’s convoluted mythos. And that’s just not as much fun as playing new games with new players. And Morrison’s writing style seems supremely unsuited to writing this series, inasmuch as characterization is his weak point.

At this point I’m basically assuming that Wayne will be back soon, and that this series will end with #12 or so. It’s shaping up to be completely forgettable, which is too bad, since there was some potential here.

From the beginning, The Unwritten felt like it was going to take a while to get going, and now it feels like it’s getting there: Our hero, Tom Taylor, has been confused for his fictional alter-ego written by his father in a series of Harry Potter-esque novels, and he’s been hunted by an assassin, whose victims’ murders Tom has been framed and imprisoned for. Now Tom has escaped prison with a reporter and a mysterious woman who sees to know more than she’s telling, and in this issue they end up in what seems like a giant hologram of late-1930s Germany. The only person they can talk to is Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, who is making the film Jud Süß, and who provides a little insight (if obliquely) into the nature of fiction in the world writer Mike Carey is creating.

I’m willing to go along with the sometimes-frustrating pace of the story because I can identify with Tom’s own frustrating that many things don’t make any sense. He’s a sympathetic character who has gotten caught up – apparently through no fault of his own – in something much larger than he is. Of course, there’s the implication that he actually is the fictional character and that the story is building towards revealing that to him and showing what it means. My expectation is that these early chapters are largely sowing the ground for where the story is ultimately going, and that they’re not being oblique and obscure just for the sake of being so. The success of The Unwritten is going to depend heavily on there being clear explanations and resolutions of the major story elements at some point.

But so far I’m happy to go along for the ride. While I wish the pace would pick up a little bit, The Unwritten is still an intriguing read.

Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E is all about superheroes blowing things up. It’s Warren Ellis writing about five heroes who barely achieve the level of has-been (Photon and Machine Man are the headliners), making smart remarks and blowing up everything that a terrorist organization that’s taken over their sponsor group can throw at the, with Stuart Immonen drawing in a cartoony style which completely submerges the lush realism he usually brings to the page.

It is, overall, a really, really bad idea, executed with a modicum of what I assume is supposed to be humor, and even less cleverness, never mind anything even resembling an understanding of the characters. ( I always wondered why Machine Man suddenly appeared in Ms. Marvel behaving completely unlike his past appearances, and apparently this piece of drek is the reason.) The one actual good idea is plundering Marvel’s 1960s humor comic, Not Brand Ecch, for a team to fight the Nextwave.

Apparently this series was something of a fan favorite when it first came out, and it’s completely beyond me why: It’s not funny, it’s not smart, it’s not exciting, it’s just a train wreck from beginning to end. In short, it is Brand Ecch. And that ain’t good.

Eight months ago, Phonogram was getting a fair amount of positive Internet press, so I picked up the collection of the first series, Rue Britannia. Although it had its rough edges – Jamie McKelvie’s art wasn’t very polished, and Kieron Gillen’s story’s structure was a fairly uninventive “hero’s journey” one – it won me over. The premise was that phonomancer David Kohl’s identity and power were bound up in an early-90s incarnation of the goddess Britannia, based around the music of Britpop, and that someone was trying to rewrite her role in history, which would completely change Kohl’s nature, so he sets out to save her, even though her obsolescence meant that no one was really willing to help him. No one really cared, except him. It worked as a story of identity and sense of self in the face of a changing world.

Gillen and McKelvie followed this up with the series – now in color – The Singles Club, which comes to a close this week. Greg Burgas loved this series, as he wrote about here and here, but the series has not done well commercially, and it sounds like there won’t be a third series. Unfortunately, I’m not very surprised, because The Singles Club had none of the strengths of Rue Britannia, and I found it very difficult to relate to.

The core problem is that The Singles Club is a collection of 7 vaguely-linked short stories, and none of them have the power of Rue Britannia. I guess they were emulating the Sandman model of a big story followed by some short stories, but that’s a terrible model for a struggling independent series, and none of the short stories here are anywhere near as good as Neil Gaiman’s typical short story in Sandman. Gillen tries awfully hard to evoke a sense of wonder through love of music, but the characters are mostly ciphers and there’s no deeper thematic underpinnings to the stories to give them force. The premise of the world of Phonograph is subtle and thus a difficult clay to work with anyway: Phonomancers are able to work magic through the focus of music, but the magic is very understated, which means the sense of the fantastic is subdued and rarely a selling point to the series. Rue Britannia did get to the payoff of big-effect magic in the climax, which is what it really needed. The Singles Club never reaches that level in any of its stories. There’s just not much oomph in these little character dramas – the characters were pretty thin anyway – and they needed some oomph to get readers to spread the word. While Rue Britannia is something I’d recommend to a certain set of readers, The Singles Club isn’t.

This is a real shame, because McKelvie’s artwork is leaps and bounds better than in the first series, and the colors are fantastic, making his art all the more vivid. Indeed, the best moments in The Singles Club are the visuals and panel-to-panel storytelling; this last issue has one of the most memorable scenes in which the main character taunts and is chased by gang of apparent street thugs.

Burgas has a response to one of the criticisms the series has received:

Some people here have said they don’t like Phonogram, and some have even said they don’t like it because of the music Gillen references. But the music is ultimately beside the point completely, because, as Kohl points out, any music will do. Gillen might be an elitist ass, Kohl might be an elitist ass, Seth Bingo might be an elitist ass, but who really cares about their taste in music? All that matters is how you make it magical.

But I think Burgas is not understanding the criticism, which is that Britpop is such an integral part of the setting of this series that the series has to bend over backwards to make it relevant to the readers. The story titles in The Singles Club come from a variety of songs, none of which I’m familiar with, and so they have no meaning for me. The music isn’t magical for me, and Rue Britannia went to great lengths to emphasize that music is very personal, very specific, from person to person (a sentiment I completely agree with), so using Britpop as a stand-in for “any music the reader finds magical” is a complete failure of approach, because it’s not that “music” is used to make magic, but that very specific music is used to make a very specific sort of magic. The magic of Pete Townshend‘s “Stardust in Action”, Yes‘ “Wonderous Stories” and Dream Theater‘s “Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence” are all very different from one another – and probably different for someone else than for me. So I can completely sympathize with readers who found it difficult to relate to the series because of the musical references (and the “liner notes” at the end aren’t really adequate): I thought Rue Britannia did a good job of making the story work even though the musical references were outside my understanding, but The Singles Club didn’t succeed in doing so at all.

On the one hand it’s sad that Phonogram didn’t make it because Gillen and McKelvie were clearly trying to hard, and they’re both so talented. But on the other hand, The Singles Club was really not a good vehicle to try to build an audience for the series, so I’m not surprised at the outcome. If they try again in a few years, I hope they’ll return to something in the Rue Britannia mold.

This Week’s Haul

  • Astro City: The Dark Age Book Four #1, by Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson & Alex Ross (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Batman and Robin #7, by Grant Morrison & Cameron Stewart (DC)
  • Green Lantern #50, by Geoff Johns, Doug Mahnke, Christian Alamy, Rebecca Buchman, Tom Nguyen & Mark Irwin (DC)
  • Justice Society of America #35, by Bill Willingham, Travis Moore & Dan Green (DC)
  • Madame Xanadu #19, by Matt Wagner, Joëlle Jones & David Hahn (DC/Vertigo)
  • Victorian Undead #3 of 6, by Ian Edginton & Davide Fabbri (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Fantastic Four #575, by Jonathan Hickman & Dale Eaglesham (Marvel)
  • Guardians of the Galaxy #22, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Brad Walker & Andrew Hennessy (Marvel)
  • Echo #19, by Terry Moore (Abstract)
  • Irredeemable #10, by Mark Waid & Peter Krause (Boom)
  • The Unknown: The Devil Made Flesh #4 of 4, by Mark Waid & Minck Oosterveer (Boom)
  • Chew #8, by John Layman & Rob Guillory (Image)
Batman and Robin #7 is the perfect example of the “average” Grant Morrison book:

  1. The story starts with the current Batman (Dick Grayson) carrying the body of the previous Batman (Bruce Wayne – or as far as everyone in the DC Universe knows it’s his body) out of its crypt. This page is a piece of the setup, but it then transitions to a seemingly-completely-unconnected scene in London, a gimmick Morrison often employs make his plots more cagey.
  2. Obscure guest stars, in this case Knight and Squire, the equivalent of Batman and Robin of England. (Morrison created the current versions of these characters, but their antecedents are from the Silver Age, and John Byrne also used them in his series Generations III.) Knight visually resembles another Morrison creation, Prometheus.
  3. The first two episodes of the story are essentially a blind for Batman’s real goal, which is the revive his predecessor with the help of a Lazarus Pit. This unfortunately tends to make many of Morrison’s stories hard to follow, especially as in this case, where it seems like Batman was well aware of where the pit was (the body preceded him there, after all), and Batwoman turns up for some reason, but the chain of events doesn’t really make much sense.
  4. The characterizations don’t quite ring true: Dick’s speech near the end about his drive to bring Bruce back belies both the rocky relationship between the two men as adults. Dick’s defeated tone of voice – even though he really had nothing to do with Bruce’s death – also feels out of character.

The story overall is intriguing despite its flaws, and Cameron Stewart draws the hell out of it, easily the best artwork the series has yet seen. The issue did have an unfortunate in word balloon placement flaw in one panel, and you might find a glossary of British terminology in the issue helpful, but neither is a detriment to the book.

What’s less encouraging is how the faux body of Batman is being handled, since we know from the end of Final Crisis that Bruce Wayne is still alive, apparently on a parallel world, but Dick says here that Superman confirmed that the body has Bruce’s DNA. Superman is by definition a reliable source in situations like this, so it has to be Bruce. Which severely limits how Morrison can explain that it’s not really Bruce: A clone would be so cliché that it would render the whole thing pointless. Bruce could have traded places with his double from the other Earth (which would be a bit draconian). But any solution which ends up with Superman being wrong or having been tricked means the whole thing fails. (This was a flaw in Mark Waid’s otherwise excellent The Return of Barry Allen, where Green Lantern’s ring verifies that Barry is really Barry, and that undercuts the whole story; this is a problem with having godlike characters running around your universe.) I’m curious to see whether Morrison can make it work.

Fantastic Four hits a mini-milestone this month, issue #575, but I thought the issue was a disappointment. It involves the FF going deep into the Earth to help the Mole Man with a problem he’s having, and they’re not able to help very much, but a highly-advanced underground city is raised to the surface within US territory, presumably to set up future storylines. There are some great visuals by Dale Eaglesham, but at the end my reaction was, “Wait, that’s it?” Something about this issue was just ill-conceived: Not a lot much action and not much of a climax, nor was it very thought-provoking. If it doesn’t end up setting up something big down the road, then I’ll wonder why they bothered with this issue at all.
The second series of The Unknown ends this week, and it’s been quite a bit better than the first series, which ended rather ambiguously and without a lot of satisfaction for the characters or the readers. It turns out that there were several things happening in the first series which were just not clear at the time, and writer Mark Waid reveals a lot of what was going on here: What Catherine Allingham was really after, and a the surprising nature of her former partner, Doyle.

At first, The Unknown seemed like it was going to be a Sherlock Holmes-like series (something Waid has done before in a more traditional manner with Ruse) with supernatural overtones, but in fact it’s turning out to be a fantasy/suspense/horror series which happens to have a detective as its protagonist, in particular, a detective interested in learning the truth about the afterlife because she’s under a death sentence herself.

Yet so much of the series’ status quo has been overturned in this second series that I wonder if Waid is going to send it off somewhere else again in the next series. I could easily see him wrapping up the whole story in one more series if that’s what he has in mind, or peeling back more layers from the onion. I could be happy with it either way, though I think making it a longer, more complex series will make it more likely that it will be a great story rather than an interesting diversion. Especially if he expands on the characters more, as they’re fairly one-dimensional so far.

The biggest surprise in independent comics last year was the series Chew by John Layman and Rob Guillory. I missed the boat on it, and picked up the first collection and the next two issues to catch up, so now I’m up-to-date.

The premise is that in the near future avian flu has caused the US and several other nations to outlaw poultry from the market, and the F.D.A. is charged with investigating poultry and food-related crimes. Tony Chu was a cop who has the ability – more of a curse, really – to be able to read the history of anything he tastes. Very useful, but also rather disgusting when what you need to get information about is a rancid corpse. Tony is recruited to work for the FDA, his boss hates him, and his partner has an agenda at odds with Tony’s sense of right and wrong.

The stories are mildly disgusting (and often quite violent), but rather witty. The art is cartoony and expressive, not entirely my kind of thing, but it fits the story well. Overall it’s a very offbeat package, a little bit fantasy, a little bit crime drama. Some people love Chew to bits, while I think it’s entertaining enough but I don’t want to read it while I’m eating dinner. But if quirk is something you appreciate in a comic book, then it might well be for you.

This Week’s Haul

  • Batman and Robin #6, by Grant Morrison, Philip Tan & Jonathan Glapion (DC)
  • Batman/Doc Savage Special, by Brian Azzarello & Phil Noto (DC)
  • Booster Gold #26, by Dan Jurgens, Mike Norton & Norm Rapmund (DC)
  • Fables #90, by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha & Andrew Pepoy (DC/Vertigo)
  • Green Lantern Corps #42, by Peter J. Tomasi, Patrick Gleason, Rebecca Buchman & Tom Nguyen (DC)
  • JSA vs. Kobra #6 of 6, by Eric S. Trautmann, Don Kramer & Michael Babinski (DC)
  • R.E.B.E.L.S. #10, by Tony Bedard & Andy Clarke (DC)
  • The Unwritten #7, by Mike Carey & Peter Gross (DC/Vertigo)
  • B.P.R.D.: 1947 #5 of 5, by Mike Mignola, Joshua Dysart, Gabriel Bá & Fábio Moon (Dark Horse)
  • Hellboy: The Wild Hunt #8 of 8, by Mike Mignola & Duncan Fegredo (Dark Horse)
Batman and Robin #6 The second arc of Batman and Robin has taken some criticism due to the fairly extreme stylistic change from Frank Quitely (on the first arc) to Philip Tan (on this one). It is an extreme change, but I thought Tan was fine in issue #4; the problem is his style got progressively looser to the point where it’s actually rather grotesque in this issue. It’s still serviceable, but yeah, I can see where the complaints are coming from.

Then again, the story’s not much, either. The main villain, the Red Hood (a.k.a. Jason Todd, formerly Robin) is portrayed as a vicious counterpoint to Batman, although as a despised character who died and came back to life, it’s hard to care about his motivations. Another villain, Flamingo, shows up here to take out the Red Hood, until Batman and Robin show up to stop them both. It’s a perfect example of how Morrison seems to pack just too much into his stories at times, and Flamingo’s arrival undercuts the drama between Batman and the Hood, which was underdeveloped to start with.

So far, Batman and Robin has been more style than substance, with Morrison unable to properly develop his themes or his characters. In fits and starts he’s pulled together some interesting pieces, but hasn’t really used them effectively so far.

Batman/Doc Savage Special The Batman/Doc Savage special appears to be an introduction to something called “The First Wave”, which from the back of this issue seems to be an upcoming series by Brian Azzarello taking a group of pulp and golden age heroes and introducing them in a new setting, apparently in the present day, but with a mix of styles dating from the 1920s to today. So here we have Batman (at the beginning of his career) and Doc Savage (an established hero), to be joined later by The Avenger, The Spirit, Black Canary and the Blackhawks. I’ve always liked the notion of relaunching established characters in a different milieu, but this is perhaps not the set I’d have chosen. But Azzarello seems to write a lot of pulp-influenced stuff, and it’s his show, so here we have it.

This story involves Batman suspected of murder and Doc Savage coming to Gotham to bring him in. Batman wields a pair of guns (but not to kill), Doc uses his muscle, and the two of course come to a meeting of the minds by the end. Chris Sims’ critique of the story is mostly spot-on, although I disagree about Batman using guns, a facet of his character here that doesn’t bother me, although his wishy-washy use of them is annoying, I agree. Batman has always been a character who could use guns, but mostly hasn’t for various reasons depending on his interpretation. But Sims hits the nail on the head as far as the plot goes: It’s obvious, and dragged out. Additionally, the characters just aren’t very likeable, and Bruce Wayne in particular is portrayed in a very annoying manner (honestly I think the occasional “Bruce Wayne, airhead playboy” schtick that some writers drag out is just plain stupid, and not in the least funny).

So overall this is a pretty weak introduction of a fairly interesting series. But The First Wave will have to be a lot better than this to be worth reading.

JSA vs. Kobra #6 JSA vs. Kobra was a 6-issue miniseries which sort-of spun off from the JSA’s battles with the fictional terrorist organization Kobra from their previous regular series, which doesn’t really explain why it’s being published now. It also relates to Mr. Terrific being one of the leaders of Kobra’s good-guy opposite number, the spy organization Checkmate.

Other than the JSA, none of these organizations matters one whit to me, and the series doesn’t relate to the team’s current adventures at all. So why bother publishing this? And heck, why did I bother buying it?

It’s also not much good. Its plot strives to be a games-within-games match in which Kobra is playing several different angles at once (although to what end, I can’t figure out; if Kobra’s angling for world domination, they’re doing a crappy job of it), while the JSA tries to outmaneuver them. There’s some ongoing tension between the JSA’s co-leaders, Power Girl and Mr. Terrific, mainly over whether Terrific owes his loyalties to the JSA or to Checkmate (the latter of which has been infiltrated by Kobra spies), but it never feels very suspenseful and is resolved almost offhandedly.

Eric S. Trautmann’s script (he’s an author I’ve never heard of before this series) is pretty mechanical, and Don Kramer’s pencils are pretty but not very dynamic. He does seem to meet one of the main criteria for a JSA penciller, though, that being an ability to put Power Girl’s chest front-and-center:

JSA vs. Kobra #6 page 12

At the end of the series, Kobra has been defeated, but obviously will come back in the future. The JSA hasn’t managed to eradicate the group, and none of the JSAers have really had any satisfying story arcs. The whole thing is played very low key despite the high stakes.

If you enjoy superhero pseudo-spy yarns, then this might be for you. Everyone else, give it a pass.

R.E.B.E.L.S. #10 R.E.B.E.L.S. #10 is one of two Blackest Night ring giveaway tie-ins this week (the other being Booster Gold #26, a series I already buy regularly). R.E.B.E.L.S. is a revival of the 90s series, which was the successor to L.E.G.I.O.N., itself a 20th century version of Legion of Super-Heroes that was launched in 1989 when the Legion was struggling to work out its continuity. If that doesn’t sound like one of the least-necessary revivals ever, then I don’t know what is.

Tony Bedard is a decent superhero writer, and Andy Clarke (whose name is misspelled on the cover – way to go DC) has an interesting style reminiscent of Steve Dillon. But issue #10 drops us ring-acquiring drive-by readers into the middle of an on-going story involving the nominal heroes (leader Vril Dox is more of an anti-hero) teaming up with some long-time DC villains to fight an even bigger long-time villain, Starro the Conqueror, who’s been transformed into a rather different entity than his already-chilling original form. (By the way, you can see an homage to the original Starro in the always-entertaining webcomic Plan B.)

The Black Lanterns are almost perfunctory to this story, which focuses on Starro enlisting the aid of Dox’s even-more-super-intelligent son, backing the R.E.B.E.L.S. into a corner, although it looks like next issue will involve a fight between Dox and the Black Lantern version of a former member of the team, as the issue ends on a cliffhanger.

Still, in a book headlined by a rather despicable character, mostly featuring other C-listers I don’t really care about, I might pick up the next issue but this isn’t enough to make me sign on for the long haul, especially since I lost interest in the original version of this team over 15 years ago. (Don McPherson liked it better than I do, though.)

B.P.R.D.: 1947 #5 B.P.R.D.: 1947 was one of the best recent stories of this long-running series, but unfortunately 1948 doesn’t follow it up as strongly. Trevor Bruttenholm mostly stays on the sidelines, and the ultimate point of the story is to drive home to “Broom” that the department’s mission means he’ll be sending a lot of people out to their deaths, and can he live with that? This last issue is pretty good in that regard, but the first four, which focus on the mission in question, were pretty tedious, hamstrung by the fact that Broom stays at home the whole time.

I guess there will be a 1949 at some point, but since I expect to bail on B.P.R.D. after the long-running “War on Frogs” storyline concludes, I may not be around to see it.

Hellboy: The Wild Hunt #8 Similarly, while Hellboy generally has been stronger than B.P.R.D. over the years, The Wild Hunt has been one of his weakest series. Not only does the mythical Wild Hunt only put in a token appearance across 8 issues, but the story involves examining Hellboy’s surprising lineage, and an equally surprising – and, honestly, rather silly – development which comes to a head in this issue. It had me shaking my head, as Hellboy has always done best by staying away from popular mythology, and bring King Arthur into the mix as happens here feels very out-of-place for the series.

Hellboy is at his best when he’s an ass-kicking, wise-cracking fighter of larger-than-life mythical monsters, but over the years Mignola has shrunk that side of his character and expanded him being pulled through various scenarios in scenes that are more talking that action, and that’s a lot less fun. It’s like Mignola’s fundamentally lost touch with the character, and that’s too bad, because he’s one of the most memorable comics creations of the last 30 years.

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.

This Week’s Haul

It seems like it’s one hefty week after another at the comics shop these days. This was largely a meat-and-potatoes haul, with one big series premiere, and a new Avengers collection, albeit of some fairly undistinguished stories:

  • Batman and Robin #1, by Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely (DC)
  • Astro City: The Dark Age Book 3 #2, by Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson & Alex Ross (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Marvel Masterworks: The Avengers HC vol 117, collecting The Avengers #80-88 and The Incredible Hulk #140, by Roy Thomas, Harlan Ellison, John Buscema, Herb Trimpe & Tom Palmer (Marvel)
  • War of Kings #4 of 6, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Paul Pelletier & Rick Magyar (Marvel)
  • Irredeemable #3, by Mark Waid & Peter Krause (Boom)
  • The Boys #31, by Garth Ennis & Carlos Ezquerra (Dynamite)
  • Star Trek: Crew #4 of 5, by John Byrne (IDW)
  • Atomic Robo: Shadow From Beyond Time #2 of 5, by Brian Clevinger & Scott Wegener (Red 5)
Batman and Robin #1 Recently, the twists and turns of the DC Universe have resulted in Batman being killed off. Well, not really, but you know how it goes. In any event, as far as the world is concerned, Bruce Wayne is dead, and as long as that’s the status quo it’s a good time to launch Batman and Robin, a new series by Grant Morrison (the writer who handled the dispatching of Bruce) and Frank Quitely, in which Dick Grayson – formerly Robin and then Nightwing – puts on the cowl, and Bruce’s son Damian (whose background I can barely understand) is Robin.

Although the blog Second Printing says “it feels so brand new, like discovering Batman and Robin for the first time”, it didn’t feel that way to me. Indeed, it took only a few pages for it to feel an awful lot like John Byrne’s Generations series, in which in the 1960s Dick Grayson becomes Batman and Bruce’s son BJ becomes Robin, which itself is an homage to an “imaginary story” published back in the 1950s. Presumably Morrison’s paying homage to the same story, having realized that the characters available in the current milieu happen to make such a scenario possible.

Comic history aside, the set-up only really feels “new” in some incidental ways, mainly by contrast with the traditional Batman: Dick is more of a teacher to Damian, with more empathy for others than Bruce has displayed in recent decades, while Damian – the grandson of the head of the League of Assassins – is apparently brilliant but callous, and only barely regards Dick as a mentor. But in the large the premise is the same as Batman’s been going back to the 40s. I wonder whether someone who’s not familiar with Batman lore would really find it all that different, either.

I’ve given Morrison’s writing a lot of flak recently – largely because Final Crisis was such a disaster at the writing end – but I continue to buy (most of) his work because he’s always been a solid ideas man, even though his characterizations and execution can be lacking. The story here is rather the reverse of what Morrison usually delivers: A little more characterization (as noted above), but the ideas content is pretty thin: Outre-looking villains, not much plot. But then, it’s only the first issue, and the story has a very “uncompressed” pace.

All-in-all, it’s an okay first issue. Quitely’s art seems a little more nuanced than usual, which is welcome since I find his art can get repetitive (and his women always look creepy and a little ghoulish). But the gosh-wow factor is low, and as I said, it feels like we’ve seen this before. Plus, Byrne did it better.

The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight is the sequel to 2005’s Batman Begins, which I enjoyed quite a bit. Remember when Batman came out in 1989 and everyone was wondering whether it would be a campy film like the 60s TV series which had influenced 1978’s Superman to its detriment? Fans lauded Tim Burton’s take on the caped crusader for being dark and serious.

Well, Burton ain’t got nuthin’ on Christopher Nolan, director of the current franchise.

Here, Batman (Christian Bale) and squeaky-clean district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) are on the verge of shutting down Gotham’s crime families, especially after Batman manages to haul in the crime lords’ “accountant” from Hong Kong. The crime lords get into bed with the maniacal Joker (Heath Ledger) to take out Batman, and the Joker sets out to do in all the big names who are maintaining law and order in Gotham, showing himself capable of intricate, seemingly-impossible crimes of murder and mass destruction.

Batman’s alter ego, Bruce Wayne, has high hopes that Dent can be the hero Gotham need and that he can put aside his double identity and marry his childhood sweetheart, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal). But, unable to wait for Bruce forever, Rachel is not only working with Harvey in his office, but dating his publicly. Which, of course, also puts her in the line of fire of the mob and the Joker.

The Dark Knight is a very dark film indeed, even though much of it takes place in the daytime: Harvey, Rachel, Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman), the commissioner, the mayor, all the good guys are constantly under siege by people who vanish in the shadows after striking. The Gotham police department is deeply corrupt, which bothers Dent to no end even though he knows that dirty cops are better than the only alternative, which is no cops at all. It makes the film feel constantly suspenseful, even in the daylight scenes, even in places we expect will be safe for the heroes. Only his secret identity gives Batman himself any safety. (Although one does wonder why Bruce Wayne isn’t a high-profile target for the criminals of Gotham.)

Ledger is quite good as the Joker. Jack Nicholson’s performance in the 1989 film also drew kudos, but I always thought he was just playing ‘nutty old Jack Nicholson’, and I thought his performance was a low point of that film. Ledger is dark and menacing and convincing in being “crazy like a fox”, the sort of crazy where he’s willing to do anything to get what he wants, and where his appearance makes others underestimate him, often for the last time. Is his performance worthy of an Oscar, as has been suggested? I didn’t think so, but he did do a good job.

The film is a fine suspense and action-adventure piece. What makes it really work is that there’s some real characterization behind the cape: Bruce isn’t as meaty a character here as he was in Batman Begins, but Harvey, Rachel and Lt. Gordon all pick up the slack and contribute to giving the film more heft than just a lot of chasing and fighting and lunacy, it gives the characters something to fight for.

Despite that, the film does have its flaws. First, it’s overlong, with perhaps one too many clever plans of the Joker’s that Batman has to stop, and one too many nifty gimmicks that Batman can employ – his little trick with Lucius Fox’s (Morgan Freeman) latest technological innovation was cool, but implausible and unnecessary. Second, while the resolution of the Bruce-Harvey-Rachel triangle works for the film (though it’s not a happy ending), the Batman-Harvey-Joker triangle ends rather anticlimactically, separating the Joker and Harvey into two separate threads when it would have been far more satisfying to have them all merge together in the final fight against the Joker. While the Joker’s character is rife with meaning, I thought Nolan missed a chance to imbue Harvey Dent’s fate with the same degree of meaning – or at least a demonstration that even the Joker should sometimes be careful what he wishes for.

Still, The Dark Knight is quite a good film, stylish and intense. Definitely not a kids’ film, as there are some pretty brutal scenes. But maybe the most serious superhero film ever made. Which shows how far we’ve come in 40 years.

A few more, spoiler-laden comments after the cut:

Continue reading “The Dark Knight”

This Week’s Haul

Comic books I bought the week of 19 March 2008.

  • 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 Deluxe Edition 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.

Sandman Mystery Theatre vol 6: The Hourman and The Python 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.)

Tangent: Superman's Reign #1 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.

Thor #7 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.

This Week’s Haul

Comic books purchased the week of 22 November 2006.

  • 52 #29 of 52 (DC)
  • Jack of Fables #5 (DC/Vertigo)
  • Superman/Batman: Absolute Power TPB
  • Wonder Woman #3
  • Red Menace #1 of 6(Wildstorm)
  • Fantastic Four: The End #2 of 6

This week’s 52 has the cover tag: “Last Days of the JSA”. To which I thought, “What, again?” Of course, a new JSA series is due to be launched in a few months, so the story within is about as exciting that that implies.

I’ve been reading the paperback collections of the Superman/Batman series even though they often don’t make a lot of sense. Jeph Loeb’s ideas are often pretty nifty, but he’s not very good at executing them. In Absolute Power, three super-villains from the future come back in time and adopt Superman and Batman as children, and together the five of them eliminate most other heroes and set up Supes and Bats as world dictators. Things then go horribly wrong, leading to a little romp through alternate timelines.

There are plenty of questions left unanswered: The villains have a blind spot where Wonder Woman is concerned, which is odd since she’s both famous and extremely powerful, and this helps lead to their undoing. Also, why would they bother to adopt Batman, who is not powerful and is unlikely to be a significant asset in world domination? And although Loeb tries, playing around with history and with the characters’ memories to the extent he does here is very hard to pull off, and the story doesn’t quite hang together. The art by Carlos Pacheco is very pretty, though, and is almost worth the price all by itself.

The book does end on a high note, though, with Loeb performing a neat connection between Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come and Alan Moore and Curt Swan’s Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?. So overall this volume gets a thumbs up (which is more than the last volume, Supergirl, got from me).

The re-relaunch of Wonder Woman is running terribly late. The art by Terry and Rachel Dodson is very pretty, but the story is a huge shrug, as Allan Heinberg doesn’t really have a new spin to put on DC’s prime superheroine.

Red Menace has Jerry Ordway’s always-wonderful artwork to recommend it. The story is by a trio – Danny Bilson, Paul DeMeo and Adam Brody (none of whom I’ve heard of before) – and it’s okay. It concerns a hero being accused by Joe McCarthy’s HUAC in the 1950s, and it’s a promising start, although so far it feels rather by-the-numbers. If the writers manage to pull it off, then this might slide in nicely alongside Astro City. We’ll see.