Sunday, May 22, 2022

On DC's 2009-2011 Red Robin

DC Comics launched a Robin ongoing series starring the third Robin Tim Drake in 1993, following a trio of successful miniseries, and it ran for 183 issues over 16 years, plus sundry annuals, spin-offs and specials. That meant the character was strong enough, and the narrative momentum intense enough, that the Tim Drake was able to survive the introduction of a fourth Robin, Damian Wayne, in 2006, his title surviving another three years before cancellation, when it became clear that Damian-as-Robin wasn't going to be a temporary state of affairs after all; indeed, when Batman "died" in 2008's Final Crisis (and/or during Grant Morrison's occasionally quite messy Batman run, depending on whether one read both books or one or the other), and Damian became the official Robin to Dick Grayson's new Batman, the move seemed as permanent as anything in super-comics.

 DC would have to find something else to do with Tim Drake.

They settled on making Tim take the Nightwing path of "graduating" from the role of Robin and taking on a new superhero identity of his own...sort of. Though the "Nightwing" name and costume were then  up for grabs, with Dick becoming Batman, they went with "Red Robin," a somewhat fraught name (it is the name of a fast food restaurant chain, after all) that came with a pretty cool grown-up version of the Robin-costume designed by Alex Ross in 1996's Kingdom Come (In that story, which, in DC Comics tradition, became a "world" in the reemergent Multiverse, Red Robin was the name Dick Grayson took on as an adult, donning a red and black costume that seemed to be a compromise between the original Robin costume and a Batman costume).

I remembered thinking this was a terrible idea. 

First, I'm more than okay with their being more than one character with the same name, something the two Green Arrows of Oliver Queen and Connor Hawke normalized for me (not to mention the 7200 Green Lanterns, including a bunch of Earthlings who could all wear rings and use the name at the same time). There's no reason that Tim Drake couldn't be a solo Robin and/or appear with the Teen Titans as Robin while Damian was Robin to Grayson's Batman, I thought at the time.

But if Tim had to take a new name, "Red Robin" seemed a lame one (I was and remain in favor of "Redwing" or "Redbird"). In addition to the fast food thing, the name and costume appeared in the comics before they became Tim's. 

First, resurrected second Robin Jason Todd wore the suit in the pages of Countdown and, in pre-New 52 continuity, Todd and Tim weren't exactly friends. Todd attacked him (wearing and Earth-2 Robin suit, for some reason) in the pages of Teen Titans, and later tried to kill him in the pages of 2009's Battle For The Cowl; Todd was at this time depicted as an unrepentant murderer, more of a Punisher-type vigilante than the tie-'em-up-and-leave-'em-for-the-cops sort represented by Batman and his family of followers.

The costume was also briefly adopted by Ulysses Hadrian Armstrong, AKA The General, a Chuck Dixon and Michael Netzer-created Batman villain that writer Fabian Nicieza used as Tim's archenemy during his run on Robin

So by the time Tim picked it up, it made about as much sense as him going by The Red Hood, Anarky or Blue Beetle, 2009 Caleb thought. 

It turns out, writer Christopher Yost, who launched the new Tim-starring Red Robin series in 2009, had an answer for that. "'Red Robin' isn't a hero," Tim narrates while fighting a trio of League of Assassins assassins on a Paris rooftop in the opening story arc, "The Grail." "I can cross lines that Robin can't." The identity, like the suit, came to him pre-sullied, providing some distance from the Batman brand (although not that much, I'd say, given that it just adds an adjective to "Robin") and the connotations of bad guy-ishness that Todd and Armstrong brought to the identity. 

I of course skipped the series when it was originally published, despite my affection for the Tim Drake character (I was only ever a sporadic reader of the Robin ongoing, something I'd rectify now if I could do so easily; I was awfully bummed when DC stopped reprinting Robin after just five volumes). The Batman line outside of Morrison's own titles—Batman, followed by Batman and Robin, followed by Batman Inc—at the time was a mess, with Morrison apparently telling the "official" Batman story, while all the other titles reacted to it the best they could, seemingly not knowing what exactly Morrison had planned more than a few issues ahead of what readers knew. 

Also, the Red Robin character in the DCU spun out of  the events of Countdown, and who on Earth wanted to read that

A decade and change later though, I was curious about my old friend Tim Drake, and it seemed like an okay time to revisit the era of Batman comics. Following Robin, which was canceled in April of 2009, Red Robin was launched in August of that year, with Yost attached as writer, Ramon Bachs as pencil artist, and Bachs, Art Thibert and Guy Major inking the first arc. The run lasted just two years and 26 issues, with one major creative overhaul about halfway through, when Fabian Nicieza returned to the Tim Drake character. 

Having now read the entire series in rapid succession, it's hard to guess what exactly went wrong, although it's pretty clear the DC Universe was quite messy throughout the book's publication, and much of its plotting seemed  captive to the events in other books. Even read in isolation like this, the series' four collections—The Grail, Collison, Hit List and 7 Days of Death—read like a tertiary title in a publishing line, rather than an ongoing concern with a star in some command of his own destiny.

While reading, I was constantly reminded of other stories and series—Infinite Crisis, "War Games",  Batman: RIP, Battle For The Cowl, Final Crisis, Darkest Night, Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne, Nicieza's own Robin run—and though these were usually alluded to in dialogue or narration in a way that was meant to ground the book in the overall, overarching narrative of the DC Universe, it simply reminded me of how much was happening at once and how much I had forgotten. Like Superboy and Bart Allen being dead, for example, or presumed dead, and then coming back to life. 

Yost begins the series with an arc entitled "The Grail," a five-part story that fills the first collection. Tim is separated from all of the now late Batman's other allies in his belief that Batman Bruce Wayne is really still alive somewhere. This is not an unreasonable belief in the DC Universe, although it's treated as such. 

"But this time...this time is different," Dick-as-Batman explains midway through the arc. "We're not like the others. We're not gods, or aliens, we don't have special powers. Bruce was just a man, Tim. Superman brought Bruce's body to us. We buried him. And now we have to let him go." 

It's one of the reasons given for why Tim takes off on his own, pointedly turning his back on allies like Dick, Alfred, Wonder Girl Cassandra Sandsmark and Spoiler Stephanie Brown, all of whom he meets with in one way or another before he leaves town. He's convinced he's right, and seeks proof, with an obsession that leads him to be darker and more violent than usual...that, or maybe it was hearing the Anti-Life Equation during Final Crisis, as he explains to Cassandra at one point. 

"But you know what? Before the equation took hold, I remember thinking..." he explained, "...I remember thinking that there wasn't much of it I disagreed with."

So yeah, whichever of the multiple reasons Yost gives, he wants us to know his Tim is in a dark place. 

For the first arc, Tim is travelling through Europe in his new Red Robin costume, fighting crimes as they are presented to him, while looking for something...vague. Proof that Batman's still alive, although we won't see that proof manifested until Tim finds it, and even then its never explained why Tim thought to look for it, why he thought to look there, or why he was convinced Batman was still alive (There's a retcon answer given in Red Robin #12, which flashes back to a scene in Red Robin #1 and fills in a blank: apparently while trashing a room in Wayne Manor in frustration, Tim came across a picture of one of Bruce Wayne's pilgrim ancestors, which looked so exactly like Bruce that he became convinced Bruce was lost in time. The evidence he finds to further support this is a cave painting of a bat apparently made by Bruce; this would all be in the pages of The Return of Bruce Wayne. Life would have been a lot easier for Tim if he just showed everyone that pilgrim picture and explained, but it seems like Yost didn't know about it at the time he wrote the earlier issues of the series. One gets the sense Yost didn't know to use this bit of evidence in the earlier issues of the series though, as perhaps he didn't yet know about the plot of Return of Bruce Wayne). 

Meanwhile, Lucius Fox's daughter Tam Fox is in Europe, trying to find Tim and bring him back to the United States for some ill-defined reasons (Tommy Elliot, AKA Hush is currently masquerading as Bruce Wayne, and everyone seems to be going along with it to protect Batman's dual identity), Vicki Vale is looking for Tim as she tries to put together the fact that Bruce and his sons may all be superheroes, and members of the League of Assassins are being hunted and killed on jobs by various other assassins with spider motifs.

The payoff to all of this occurs in the second trade, Collision, penciled by Marcus To and Talent Caldwell, the latter of whom draws the issue of Batgirl included (which is written by Bryan Q. Miller), and four inkers. The League of Assassins is being hunted by a superior group of assassins, the Council of Spiders, who regard fighting and killing as a game, and the League as the very best prey (As to why they are all named after and have various spider-themes and powers, that's a coincidence that Yost never explains). 

Ra's al Ghul takes Tim into his confidence, and gives him carte blanche to lead the League against the Council. The arch-fiend's interest in Tim began with his shared belief that Batman might still be alive, but it transformed into an alliance thanks to the pressure of the Spiders.

Tim, naturally, betrays Ra's and cripples the League through their computer systems, which he was given complete access to. This leads into a an immediate retaliatory plan by Ra's, in which he seeks to simultaneously assassinate everyone Bruce Wayne cared about while also going after the Wayne fortune. It's up to Tim to protect everyone and save the day, which he does by proving one way in which he is superior to even Batman.

This first half of the series is a bit shaggy, but is overall a pretty nice portrait of Tim as Batman's successor, coming into his own and proving himself worthy by taking on and defeating one of Batman's greatest enemies—twice. It also gets Tim out of Gotham and globe-hopping for the first half of it, keeping him out of the way of the Batman/Batman and Robin narrative, until ultimately bringing him back to Gotham to save everyone and best Ra's a second time there.

This leads to a pretty squicky ending, where Ra's reveals to Talia that this was all a test to prove Tim's worth, and now that he is sure of it, "He will produce a worthy heir." I...don't know. Not only is Tim a little young for Talia, but the whole use-my-archrival-to-produce-an-heir plan didn't really work out with Damian, so one might think Ra's would have abandoned it after Damian joined Batman's side in their ongoing war. 

This collection, and Yost's run, ends with Tim wearing a newly modified version of the Red Robin costume, one that brings it a little bit closer in line with his previous Robin costume. For all it's faults, this wouldn't have been a bad place to end the series but, it turns out, this is only the halfway point.

Nicieza takes over the title with The Hit List, and, to a degree, he seems to pick up plot-points where he left them during his Robin run, including the presence of a second character named Lynx, former Anarky Lonnie Manchin being in a coma but hooked up to computers to make him something of a living computer entity that can help Tim by acting as his own personal Oracle, and Armstrong acting as the new Anarky, one with a renewed obsession with killing Tim Drake based on events from Robin

There's an element to the record-scratching about this, mostly because these issues seem to follow older Robin issues more closely than they do the preceding Red Robin issues (and Nicieza doesn't seem to be entirely sure what to do with some plot points, like Tim's blossoming almost kinda sorta romance with Tam, which develops into a close working relationship, but never gets defined romantically, to the frustration of the characters seemingly as much as the readers). 

Nicieza's seeming uncertainty with what to do with the character and the book is mirrored in the story, the first arc or so of which has Tim settling uncomfortably into a working relationship with the new Batman and Robin, where Damian makes it quite clear he's not welcome (in fact, the two will come to blows overs Tim's keeping of a secret file on Damian). Tim makes a list of things he needs to figure out, including where to live, who to work with, what to do and so on, and then Nicieza has him answering that slowly through the course of his two volumes (it's not until the penultimate issue of the series that Tim gets a new headquarters of his own, in the theater that Bruce Wayne's parents were murdered outside of).

It's difficult to blame Nicieza too much for the uncertain nature of the back half of the book's run, however, as he doesn't seem to have a lot of control. Big moments that seem like they should be bigger in the book—the eventual return of Bruce Wayne to life, for example—are acknowledged, but not the focus. It reads weirdly now, given the book was set-up with Tim's search for Bruce being a major part of its original premise, but, when Tim finds the proof he's looking for, he simply turns it over to other heroes (off-panel) and has nothing to do with the search itself; Bruce just shows up alive in an issue of Red Robin and the pair take off their cowls and hug (To be fair, there was a Bruce Wayne: The Road Home: Red Robin #1 one-shot special by Nicieza and Bachs, which perhaps gives Tim a more central role in the story of Bruce fighting his way through time against the Omega Sanction to return to his life in the present, but it's not collected here and I haven't read it yet; it's collected with a whole suite of similar one-shots in Batman: Bruce Wayne—The Road Home).

Here too the feeling that this is a less-important title in a line of comics is evident; what seems like it should be a central part of the story, narratively, actually occurs elsewhere, and is only reacted to second- or third-hand here. 

Nicieza has Tim engaging in rematches with Scarab and Anarky, beginning a Batman/Catwoman-like dalliance with Lynx, fighting Damian, approaching Cassandra Cain, tackling a Russian oligarch referred to as a Lex Luthor wannabe and his interest in an evil version of the Internet and teaming up with the Teen Titans, with whom Damian is a current member. He also teams up with Red Star and Batgirl, and meets a mysterious immortal that's not Ra's al Ghul that seems to have some designs for him. 

Marcus To handles the pencils for Nicieza's run, while Ray McCarthy and MarkMcKenna ink it. 

The series ends with an issue that seems like it was written a long time ago to be used as a final issue, in which Tim orchestrates the death of Captain Boomerang, the man who killed his father in Identity Crisis. He sets up an elaborate plan in which Boomerang would escape from jail, find what he thinks is an incredible power source, and follow a bunch of predictable steps that will ultimately lead to his death, which Tim watches but doesn't actively cause, just passively sets up, allowing Boomerang multiple chances to make the right rather than the wrong choice, and thus sparing himself.

Tim ultimately doesn't go through with it, and ends up having to intervene to save Boomerang's life repeatedly. While Dick-as-Batman praises him, Bruce-as-Batman doesn't, as he figured out what Tim did. "You saved him tonight, Tim," Batman says, "But what about tomorrow...?"

The series ends with a panel of Tim staring off over the Gotham skyline and narrating dramatically:

It's my city now if I want it to be. 

Not Dick's. Not Bruce's. Mine. 

But to make it that way ...to make it right...what will I have to become? 

So many choices...

...but what will be my decision...? 
We'll never find out, that being the final panel of the series. 

Red Robin ended the same month that all DC comics being published in summer of 2011 ended, in order to make way for the new New 52 line of comics...and the new continuity that accompanied them. 

In that continuity,  ad hoc as it was, Tim would fare particularly poorly, as the timelineof the DC Universe was officially compressed down to just five years, in which time Batman still had four Robins, including Tim (Stephanie Brown was, at least initially, never a Robin in the new continuity). The result was that his time with each would have been extremely short, a year at the most, and that's if the time was divided evenly, as it probably wasn't, Dick's career as Robin lasting so much longer than those of Jason, Tim and Damian. 

In the new continuity—since abandoned, with Death Metal leading to a "new" continuity that seems to be the old one minus much of The New 52—Tim never went by just "Robin", but was always "Red Robin," a name he chose to distinguish himself from the late (but later resurrected) Jason Todd. Tim would have a new Red Robin costume and appear mostly in the pages of Teen Titans, with occasional appearances in the Batman books.

Eventually he got a new version of his original Robin costume back and played a central role in Detective Comics, where he spearheaded Batman's "Gotham Knights" initiative. Eventually, Tim got his old, original, pre-New 52 origin story back, as well as the name "Robin." 

As with most of the other characters, it seems like we're now pretending much of the New 52 continuity didn't happen, but it's, as ever, unclear how much of what we've read really "happened" or not; now, for example, I couldn't tell you if Tim was ever meant to have gone by the name "Red Robin" or not, and in the 2009-2011 series is now canon or if it's been excised. 

Sunday, May 01, 2022

A Month of Wednesdays: April 2022

 BOUGHT:

Challenge of The Super Sons (DC Comics) The Super Sons have gone through some stuff since their last adventure, Adventures of The Super Sons, the kind of stuff that characters tend to go through in shared superhero universes. 

Superboy Jon Kent went into space with his dead paternal grandfather, somehow hyper-aged through puberty, spent some time with the Legion of Superheroes and now fills his father's one-time role of Superman, protecting Earth while the other Superman is off in space somewhere.

 Robin Damian Wayne got a new costume. 

Okay, one changed more than the other, but the point is, the Super Sons team-ups that Peter Tomasi was writing for a while are a thing of the past...which makes Challenge of The Super Sons, which ignores all those changes for a story set well before they happened, so much fun. Beyond the normal pleasures that come from these two very different characters bouncing off one another, it also has the feeling of a sort of last hurrah, a one-more-time encore before we submit to the forces of change. And/or Brian Michael Bendis.

The story opens at the West-Reeve school, where the two are classmates—it's unfortunate that we didn't get to see more of the pair in school—and then has them suiting-up to go on patrol together, this time in Metropolis ("We have to patrol Metropolis tonight," Jon stipulates. "My mom is making chili!") There they eventually get wrapped up in a particularly weird case involving time travel.

They are shunted to the 16th century, where they encounter the immortal Vandal Savage and his new partner Felix Faust, as well as Faust's young apprentice, who they just met as an old lady in the present, mere panels before their leap back in time.

 When they return to the present, it's with the "doom scroll" in hand; this is a blank parchment which shows the symbol of a Justice Leaguer on it and the means of that Leaguer's death an hour before that death is ordained; they must then prevent that death from happening without letting the Leaguer know about it, as foreknowledge will activate the spell trap that Faust laid for the League in the past. 

That's the "challenge" part of the book.

While they're saving their dad's work friends in the present, they are trying to escape Savage and Faust in the past...of course, they will also have to deal with them in the future, given the villains' immortality.

As a plot goes, it's a bit on the complicated side, but as long as it keeps the two friends together and bickering, it will suffice. Oddly, each of the seven issues is broken into two chapters, with the second half of each issue marked "Chapter Two." When reading it in trade, these chapter notations are nonsensical, as there are seven chapter twos and no chapter ones, or chapter threes or any other chapters.

The artwork comes courtesy of Max Raynor, Jorge Corona and Evan Stanley, three different artists with three extremely different styles, particularly Stanley, whose work looks more appropriate for a kid-friendly DC original graphic novel—which, come to think of it, might be a better home for future Super Sons adventures—then the DC house style of Raynor and Corona.

At any rate, it's always fun to see Damian ranting and raving and the unflappable Jon, and as much as this feels like a last hurrah, I do hope it's not the last we've seen of Tomasi on the Super Sons 

Oh, and the Supermobile is in this comic. I love the Supermobile. 


Sensational Wonder Woman Special #1 (DC) This trade-like anthology includes a trio of stories featuring Wonder Woman...and nothing else that really binds them together as a unit. They very much read like a trio of inventory stories. 

In the first, by Paula Sevenbergen, Paul Pelletier and Norm Rapmund, Wonder Woman faces off against her Golden Age enemy The Blue Snowman. Beyond the hero vs. villain business, there's a bit about a little boy who dresses up like Wonder Woman for his school's hero day, and gets bullied for it...although he, naturally enough, proves to be a real hero. That's the reason I bought this, actually. I find the Blue Snowman fascinating, as I do most of Wonder Woman's Golden Age rogues gallery, although she's here little more than a generic freezing-stuff villain, in a robot snowman suit.

The second, by Scott Kollins, is a Doctor Fate team-up in which the two heroes must fight a giant monster while trying to stave off an invasion of Lovecraftian space monster gods. It's laid out in such a way to suggest it was intended for an online comic...in fact, these might have all appeared online first for all I know. I don't really pay attention to comics that aren't printed on paper.

The third, by Stephanie Phillips, Alitha Martinez, Dexter Vines and Vincente Cifuentes, is a Freaky Friday-inspired story and thus the most high-concept of the lot:  During a fight with Circe, the witch casts a spell which switches Wonder Woman's mind with that of a teenage girl who happened to be at the scene at the time, and Wonder Woman must try to make it through a day of high school in a teenager's body while a young, inexperienced girl pilots her body. Things end abruptly, given the strength of the concept, but it's pretty fun while it lasts.

The book naturally shipped with lots of covers. I got the "International Woman's Day" one by Maria Laura Sanapo, featuring a random assortment of five other superheroines rushing into action behind Wonder Woman. 


BORROWED:

Batman: Legacy Vols. 1-2 (DC Comics) Having just recently re-read  Batman event story "Contagion", I of course then felt the need to re-read its sequel story, "Legacy." I wasn't sure if I should include the trades collecting it in this column or in a separate, standalone post, but since I did borrow them from the library this month, then they technically qualify for inclusion in this feature, even if I am re-reading them. 

Or, as it turns out, mostly re-reading them. The two volumes, published in 2017 and 2018 respectively, contain a lot more comics aside from those marked with the demon's head "Legacy" logo.  In fact, it's not until the final issue collected within volume one that we get the official part one of the "Legacy" storyline; the rest is all build-up.

Obviously, this storyline was written to be read as it was published—serially, across multiple titles—rather than in this, its current collected format. People who complain about comics being "written for the trade" would have had no such complaints about this 1996 storyline.

Because stories that merely foreshadow or otherwise lead-in to "Legacy" are included, the first trade begins with a two-part storyline introducing the villain Lock-Up, included presumably because the story has a scene in which a character dies of "The Clench" disease introduced in "Contagion," and another in which Commissioner Gordon reacts ominously to that death (Incidentally, it also introduces readers to the "Dynamic Trio" team of Batman, Robin and Nighting, working together as a well-oiled machine; they'll continue as a team throughout "Legacy"). 

From there, there's a multi-issue Catwoman arc, in which the thief is press-ganged into raiding a tomb—and springing all its traps—that leads to the ancient "wheel of plagues" that has both the formula for creating The Clench plague and the formula for its cure. There's an issue of Robin included, a Wildcat team-up, presumably just for the last page, in which Batman and Alfred realize that if The Clench can come back in and kill those who were originally infected with it, Robin is still in danger, and then an issue of Shadow of The Bat and Batman leading to the first chapter of "Legacy," where it's finally revealed exactly who the shadowy character referred to as "The Immortal" who has been searching for the plague is: Ra's al Ghul, who, in a surprise, has teamed-up with Bane, who has taken the role once offered to Batman, as Talia's promised mate. (Of these many issues, I had only read maybe three issues total when they were originally published.)

There's a lot of great art in this volume, primarily from Graham Nolan, inked by Scott Hanna, as well as a few issues of Balent's Catwoman, Mike Wieringo on Robin, Dave Taylor on Shadow and, most interestingly Jim Aparo inked by Bill Sienkiewicz.

The second volume opens not with part two of "Legacy" but, rather, with the four-issue miniseries Batman: Bane of the Demon, by the prolific Chuck Dixon and Graham Nolan team (Nolan is here inked by Tom Palmer). This storyline, while something of a deviation from "Legacy", explains what Bane has been up to—seeking the identity of his father—and how he came into contact with Talia and Ra's, eventually coming to a tense detente with The Demon's Head that made them allies in the plot to wipe out a huge percentage of the population with the plague weapon and set themselves up as rulers of what's left.

From there, "Legacy" continues through the pages of Catwoman, Robin, Shadow, Batman and Detective Comics by the then-regular creative teams of those books, an epic storyline that features the heroes heading off Ra's terrorist cells in Paris, Edinburgh and Calcutta, before Batman, Robin, Nightwing and Huntress all unite in Gotham City to stop Bane, Ra's and Talia. This includes a rematch between Batman and Bane, for the first time since the villain broke Batman's back. 

This is followed immediately within the collection with Batman: Bane #1, a character-specific one-shot published in connection with the 1997 Batman movie Batman and Robin and that functions as an epilogue to "Legacy", picking up directly where the plot left Bane, and showing him immediately moving on to another plot to menace Gotham City and, after coming into conflict with the Dynamic Trio again, disappearing into the waves yet again.

This second volume of "Legacy" includes art from some of the same artists as the first, with Staz Johnson pencilling the issue of Robin rather than Wieringo, and the great Rick Burchett handling the pencil chores on the Bane one-shot/epilogue. 

It's interesting to read and/or re-read these comics today, as the Bat-family was then quite small (just Robin, Nightwing, sometimes Huntress and, behind the scenes, Alfred and Oracle) and Bane and Ra's were still new enough and/or used infrequently enough that their very appearances felt like quite big deals. It's a far cry from today, when membership in the Bat-family dwarfs that of the Justice League, and Bane and Ra's or more-or-less constant presences in the Bat-books, which have grown substantially in number, and thus rely on near-constant churn of name Batman villains.  


Chainsaw Man Vol. 10 (Viz Media) Denji is still reeling from the loss of Aki and unsure to live with all of the thoughts currently messing up his brain when the thinks he comes upon a solution: living in complete submission to Makima, who will do all the thinking for him. This...may not be the best plan, given that no sooner is that decision made than another member of the cast gets killed off. 

The book must be nearing its finale, as there are precious few members of its cast still alive, and the new ones introduced in this volume specifically to take on Chainsaw Man, don't seem like they will last too long either. I'm still holding out hope for a happy ending for Denji but, if it's coming, it looks like there's going to be a whole lot of misery for the character before he reaches it. 


Komi Can't Communicate Vol. 18 (Viz) The fallout from the cultural festival continues, as Komi and Manbagi openly compete for Tadano's affection...or as openly as they can, which, of course, isn't so openly that Tadano notices what they're doing, only that they are acting really weird. The volume ends with the biggest climax in the Komi/Tadano relationship so far, as Komi flat out asks Tadano what he thinks of her...and then...someone walks in and ruins the moment. 

This volume ends with the results of a character popularity poll, ranking the 100 most popular characters in the series. I was a little surprised by some of the results, like how high Nene Onemine placed (third!), given her relative place in the hierarchy of the cast (she's hardly in the top three most-seen characters...or even the top ten). 


The Masterful Cat is Depressed Again Today Vol. 1 (Seven Seas Entertainment) Something seems to have gotten confused somewhere in the translation of the title, as it doesn't seem to mean quite what it says in English. That is, Yukichi, the "masterful cat" of the title, isn't ever depressed so much as he is often disappointed in his master, Saku. 

See, Saku is loving and appreciative, but also something of a mess, and, try as she might, she can't seem to get or keep her act together for very long without the help of her house cat, who differs from most house cats in several respects. 

First and most noticeably, he's huge, towering over Saku as he goes about on his hindlegs, and he is often mistaken for a bear when he's seen in public (That, or a person in a cat suit). 

Secondly, while Yukichi can't talk, and his mind works a lot like that of an ordinary cat's, he takes care of all of the housework, functioning as something between a mom, a housewife and a butler for Saku. 

After the main manga, there's a five-page short story narrated by Yukichi which basically explains things from his point of view, including the how and why of his becoming a masterful cat. He realized that humans work in order to get money in order to buy cat food, or, "To put it another ways, if you don't get your human to work...YOU'LL STARVE!!" And so he took it upon himself to keep Saku functioning, "to make sure the cat food keeps coming in!!" He seems to have grown in proportion to his "masterfulness," having  been able to cook only the most simple of dishes when he was still a little kitten, but now being able to do the shopping (in an apron he made himself, no less), take out the garbage, cook and bake fancy meals and otherwise run Saku's apartment and life. 

It's a pretty compelling situation for a comedy series, I just don't think "depressed" is quite the right word to describe the typically temperamental cat's mood. 


 The lines between owner and pet are thus quite blurry, but it's an odd and funny situation with 


REVEIWED:

Avengers: Tech-On (Marvel Entertainment) Beyond being merely interesting in its unusual remit and execution—it's a sentai-inspired series created in collaboration with Bandai Namco, and there are three credited designers among the staff involved—I found Jim Zub and Jeffrey Cruz's Avengers series rather engaging. Remarkably enough, Zub manages to tell a story around the concept that fits more-or-less into the comics continuity, and he uses characters and their characterizations that are familiar-feeling whether your a fan of the Marvel Comics Universe or the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It's definitely far better than it has any reason to be. More here


Sir Ladybug (HarperCollins) Picture book author Corey R. Tabor turns to comics with this perfectly charming story of a ladybug who is also a knight, and his friends/herald and squire, and their adventures. In this initial installment of what is already a series, they have to save a caterpillar from a ravenous monster...a chickadee. More here

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Marvel's July previews reviewed

Writer Jason Aaron has given so much panel-space to the B.C. Avengers over so many years now I'm not even sure if it's fair to call that element of his Avengers run a sub-plot or just a plot-plot, but they're getting their own spin-off miniseries in Avengers 1,000,000 B.C. #1. Aaron's writing, with artist Kev Walker, whose work I like a lot, drawing. As ever, I hope the what-to-read-in-what-order chart on the inside covers of the Avengers trades tells me when I should read this eventual collection.


I already made fun of the dumb name of the next big crossover story, which begins in earnest with July's A.X.E.: Judgement Day #1, right? I feel like I did. 

I've read almost no X-Men comics since the Krakoa era began, and haven't read an Eternals comic since Neil Gaiman and John Romita Jr. did a miniseries (That's the "X" and the "E" in "A.X.E.", of course), so I'm not sure whether or not I'll be able to make heads or tails of this series. I guess we'll see in about nine months or so, when the trade collection is released...

Marvel finally starts to make some use of the Predator license with July's Predator #1 by Ed Brisson and Kev Walker, and it appears the only connection to the Marvel Universe is one of the variant covers featuring Iron Man's head (above). I suppose readers will have to wait a bit longer for Marvel to produce the comics they expected when we first heard Marvel was acquiring the Predator and Aliens licenses, and imagined Predators stalking various Marvel heroes through the pages of new crossover omics...


I doesn't speak well of the health of writer Gene Luen Yang's Shang-Chi comic that it is already being relaunched with a new title, Shang-Chi and The Ten Rings #1 at least has a title that brings it closer in line to the name of the Shang-Chi film. I suppose it will be curious to see how they introduce the filmic version of the titular rings into the comic, given that the film's rings were an extrapolation of the weapons of Iron Man villain The Mandarin, liked to Shang-Chi's father in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but not the comics universe, where there are already a set of very different ten rings...

Friday, April 15, 2022

DC's July previews reviewed

There's no cover image supplied for Black Adam—The Justice Society Files: Hakwman #1 by Cavan Scott, Bryan Q. Miller, Scot Eaton and company, but we do have a few paragraphs of solicitation copy and that long, strange title to go on, and, well, it sounds awfully weird. DC Comics disintegrated JSA continuity during the New 52 era , the very continuity that the upcoming Black Adam film that is inspiring this comic seems be based on, and so now I'm not so sure what the state of the JSA's history in the new, post-Death Metal DCU even is. Did everything just get restored and go back to the way it was prior to Flashpoint? If so, then there's still a weird, ten-year gap among the various JSA legacy heroes that needs back-filled in....which maybe this is an attempt to do so...? 

Ha ha, and I didn't think Hawkman continuity could get anymore weird and alienating! 


I'm honestly eagerly awaiting the Elseworlds-style DC: Mech #1, which looks to balance "awesome" and "stupid" in that way that certain superhero comics manage that I like (See also Jurassic League). I've read a couple of Marvel mech stories (Avengers Mech Strike, reviewed here), and DC tried something similar at least once, but it's been a while. 

Anyway, I am, as the kids say, here for it. 


I'm not sure I'm sold on the way DC has been managing its DC Vs. Vampires franchise, what with all the spin-offs like this month's DC Vs. Vampires: All Out War #1 being released as the main series is still ongoing and uncollected, but any excuse for James Stokoe drawing the DCU is worthwhile, if you ask me. 

The main series, meanwhile, will ship its seventh issue this month. 


The Franco-written, multi-artist book Deadman Tells The Spooky Tales has a pretty on-the-nose sounding title. I've no real idea what to expect beyond what that title says the book is about, of course, but Derek Charm is one of the "fiendish friends" of Franco providing art work, so I know that at least one story should be worth a look. Fingers crossed for a Kelley Jones chapter!

Dark Crisis: Young Justice #2 Wait, what? #2?! D'oh! I assumed June's Dark Crisis: Young Justice #1 was a one-shot, so I went ahead and ordered it. I didn't realize it was part of a six-issue miniseries tying into the Dark Crisis event series and that I, therefore, should have just waited for the trade. Dang.


Here's a title seemingly designed specifically to make readers feel old: Harley Quinn: 30 Years of The Maid of Mischief The Deluxe Edition. Has it really been 30 years already? Gee, I guess it has, hasn't it? Gah!


Having just recently fallen down a Gotham earthquake rabbit hole and purchased the titanic  $125, 1,000+-page Batman: No Man's Land Omnibus Vol. 1 and finding it incredibly difficult to read at all—it's quite unwieldly, and I am in constant fear of tearing the spine via a combination of clumsiness, gravity and its own weight—I have mixed feelings about this $100, 650-page collection of Gotham City Sirens, renamed as Harley Quinn and The Gotham City Sirens.  

A fan of Guillem March's work, I'd love to read it, given how little of it I saw when it was published serially, but I'd much rather buy, say, four to six trade paperbacks than something the size, weight and fragility of a family Bible. 

Does anyone know if this material is all already available in trade, or is there some of it that would be unique to this collection? 


Okay, that's a pretty great cover on Robin #16 by Dan Schoening.


Okay, how do you feel about Dreamer's costume? I mistook the hero, making her in-continuity debut in the pages of Superman: Son of Kal-El #13, as Huntress at first glance on the above cover. Upon closer inspection of the other two covers for the issue, it's pretty clear the ways in which her costume varies from the latest Huntress costume, but it still looks a little too...well, too CW to me. I wonder if there's a way to tweak it to make it look more organically part of the DCU, and less like a costume from a TV show based on a DC comic...? If that makes sense...?  Maybe it just depends on who is drawing it, and the level of realistic detail they bring to their style. 


I'm not sure how I feel about Mark Russell writing an official, canonical Superman after reading his Superman Stories and the Superman analogue-starring Second Coming series that came out of it so many years later, but I know Mike Allred was born to draw the Man of Steel, as his 1997 Superman/Madman Hullabaloo proved. At any rate, their collaboration Superman: Space Age #1 should be a book to keep an eye on. 


When I realized I didn't understand any of the words in the solicitation copy, I realized that Young Justice: Targets #1 must be related to the cartoon series, and not the long-running comic series I used to read. There's also yet another Batman Beyond-related comic, while the world cries out for nire comics based on Batman: The Brave and The Bold.

Sunday, April 10, 2022

Finally, a superhero comic book about a plague outbreak: Re-reading "Contagion" in the time of Covid

Comic books, like all forms of entertainment, offer consumers escapism, so it is therefore perhaps not too terribly surprising that neither of the two big superhero universe fictional settings, DC Comics' DC Universe and Marvel Entertainment's Marvel Universe, have reflected the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in their pages. People are living the pandemic in their every day lives, after all, does anyone really want to read about it in their superhero comics as well?

On the other hand, it's gone on long enough and been persistent enough that it's sort of odd that we never saw, say, civilian background characters in Amazing Spider-Man street scenes wearing masks, for example; the Marvel Universe is, after all, as a recent trade collection pointed out, supposed to be the world outside your window*. 

Interest in how superhero comics would portray the outbreak of a deadly disease is not what lead me to pickup Batman: Contagion, a 2016 collection of the 1996 crossover between the Batman family of books. Rather, I had come upon a complimentary collection of Batman: Cataclysm in my big, unwieldly, dust-covered To-Read pile, and I so enjoyed it that I sought out other, similar collection of late-'90s Batman epics. Still, it occurred to me "Contagion" is perhaps as close as we're going to get to pandemic-specific superhero comics, and, like 1995 film Outbreak or 2011's Contagion, it can be viewed in retrospect as a sort of fictive prediction for what might happen given an outbreak in a major city, and can now be sort of graded on its accuracy. 

The disease at the center of "Contagion" is a mutated strain of Ebola Gulf-A, referred to as "The Apocalypse Virus" or, colloquially, as "The Clench."

Early in the adventure, Batman infiltrates a military facility 50 miles from Gotham, dons a head-to-toe protective suit, and enters a cell where an infected general has isolated himself to await death. The military man gives a brief profile of the disease, one so dangerous he had the few samples they had destroyed:
Ebola Gulf-A...Incubation period, 48 hours. Flulike symptoms, when the virus spreads in airborne mucus. Blood leaks from the eyes.

Gulf-A dessicates the muscles, shrinking and deforming them...turning the victim into a gnarled, misshapen cripple. Eventually, the bones themselves splinter and break...under the incredible pressure.
A far nastier disease then the novel coronavirus currently circulating, then, in every respect. Because the disease mutates so fast, Batman is told, the U.S. government was never able to develop a cure for it. The only way to do so would be to find a survivor, and then use that survivor's blood to concoct a vaccine. 

This, then, gives our heroes something to do while they face the virus. The interesting aspect of the disease as a threat, from a super-comics standpoint, is that it's not a villain that can be confronted and defeated in the normal fashion. A disease is a faceless threat of the sort that's rather novel to the genre; DC's Batman writers would explore such threats later and to greater effect when Gotham City is struck by an earthquake in the aforementioned Cataclysm, leading to the year-long epic "No Man's Land." 

The Apocalypse Virus is concocted in a lab—so, either unlike COVID-19, or just like it, depending on whether you believe the conspiracy theories or not—by The Order of St. Dumas, a villainous organization in the background of the Batman comics for a few years in the '90s. A radical medieval Christian organization, their plan was to use it to purge the world of sinners and non-believers, i.e. anyone they didn't want to share the cure with, but one of their members jumped the gun, testing it in Scandinavia and then infecting an unwitting member on his way back go Gotham City, thus bringing one of the world's biggest (if fictional) cities to its knees with an incurable disease.

Batman sends Robin and Azrael to seek out the survivors of original outbreak,  a hunt Catwoman joins in, thanks to the reward being offered by wealthy infectees for a cure. Meanwhile, Batman joins Nightwing and Huntress in quelling a massive riot that broke out at Babylon Towers, an exclusive, fortress-like enclave for the city's ultra-rich that also happens to be ground-zero for the outbreak (As in Poe's "Masque of the Red Death," the city's princes sought to lock themselves in, safe from the plague, only to discover too late that it's locked in with them.)

Though the true threat, the disease, is not a villain that can be hunted down, punched out and tied to a lamppost for the police to collect, the writers—Chuck Dixon, Alan Grant and Doug Moench—have still managed to find reasons to keep the heroes running around and fighting. 

As the action reaches its climax, Robin Tim Drake is infected, and spends some time in a hospital bed within the bowels of the Batcave, dying...until a cure is miraculously found. The search for survivors ended up being a dead end—none of the three actually had the disease in the first place, they just miraculously managed to avoid catching it—but in the pages of an issue of Azrael, one of the supporting characters happens to find a cure for the disease in some books stolen from the Order off-panel (well, in a previous issue of Azrael not collected here, anyway), and simply faxes the formula for the cure to several institutions within Gotham. "One was Wayne Tech," Tim explains to a relived Nightwing, "Bruce cooked some up in the lab."

As is often the case with such sprawling storylines—"Contagion" featured 11 official chapters running through issues of Azrael, Batman, Batman: Shadow of The Bat, Detective Comics, Catwoman, Robin, and an unofficial tie-in chapter in the anthology title The Batman Chronicles—the art styles range dramatically from story to story.

The participating issue of Batman, drawn by Kelley Jones and John Beatty, is perhaps the most dramatic, hell, melodramatic work in the book. It's the cover of that issue that graces the cover of the collection, in which batman stands atop a pile of corpses, held back by the Grim Reaper himself—that's not a Batman villain like The Reaper, by the way, but the symbol of death, appearing metaphorically (Graham Nolan would draw a Grim Reaper on the cover of  one of  his issues of Detective Comics, while Vince Giarrano would also draw the Grim Reaper in a splash page of one of his contributions). Jones also provided the trade dress on the covers of the individual issues, a border full of skulls and insects, presided over by the skeleton of a bat just above the word "Contagion."

Jones is an excellent Batman artist, his conception of the character an always posing, dramatic figure that hunches, lurks and gestures operatically, a living gargoyle haunting pages filled with settings that seem inspired by silent films and Golden Age Hollywood horror movies. Batman's Batcave is filled with tech that wouldn't seem out of place in a mad scientist laboratory, for example, save, perhaps, for the fact that it is a little more elaborate than what might be expected in a B-movie, and his Gotham features piles of bricks rising from the ground, serving as stages and platforms for the vigilantes to pose upon.

Despite what a tremendous Batman artist he is, he's not really a superhero artist, which makes this particular issue of interest because in addition to Batman, who is almost always all cape, cowl and hands when ones draws him, Jones is also tasked with drawing villain Poison Ivy (whose depiction a college-aged Caleb wrote a letter to the editor about, as it reflected what he was then learning in art class)  as well as heroes Azrael, Nightwing, Robin and Huntress, some of whom are well outside his usual, exaggerative sweet spot, with little or nothing to accentuate (the streamlined Nightwing is a particular challenge for Jones, it seems, as he has nothing but his musculature to exaggerate; Huntress, at least, has a cape, and gets a nice entrance image with her cape swirling about her; neither holds a candle to his Batman, though, who perches on a pile of bricks just as Huntress did and commands a crowd to disperse, his massive, wing-like cape devouring his perch and much of the setting.)

The collection also features a few issues drawn by Vince Giarrano, an artist whose style I've always thought of as "sarcastic '90s." I don't know how sarcastic Giarrano was being in his art, of course, but I always got the sense that he looked around what was popular at the time and said to himself, "Is this what people like? I can do this" and then proceeding to draw, say, a huge Batman with devil horn-like ears and a spreading cape full of jagged points and a Poison Ivy with claw-like hands and a body like a female silhouette on a mud flap. 

There's a lot of other great art in the book, though none with the same confrontational energy as Jones and Giarrano's. Graham Nolan draws the cleanest, most realistic chapter in his work on Detective Comics. Jim Balent lays out the pages of Catwoman, but Dick Giordano finishes them. Barry Kitson pencils the Azrael pages. The Robin issues are drawn in the familiar, manga-inspired lines of Mike Wieringo (inked by Stan Woch). There's also art by John McCrea**, Frank Fosco and Woch, and Matt Haley and Mike Sellers, all of whom contribute to the Batman Chronicles issue (Interesting also for its cover, which has Jones finishing a Balent piece, bringing Jones' intense, apocalyptic linework to the more realistic Balent figure-work). 

As for the story's relation to our current contagion, it's interesting how little it reflects it.

Despite learning in the earliest chapters that the disease is spread through airborne mucous, Batman and his fellows continue to wear their cowls and domino masks, none of which cover their nostrils or mouths. Huntress does adopt a plastic mask that covers her eyes, nose and mouth in the Batman Chronicles short story "Exposure," written by Christopher Priest and drawn by the previously mentioned Haley and Sellers team. She also worries after tears in her costume, which is sort of interesting given that this story arc features a new costume for her, one that covers her neck to toe; previous to this arc, she was wearing what amounted to a long-sleeved bathing suit with boots and a cape, with a plunging neckline and lots of exposed flesh. The new suit is definitely better protection against catching a virus—and against just about everything else.

Robin, who is infected, is spit on during the riot, and, it would seem, might have been spared infection had he worn a mask similar to Huntress'. There seems to be a feeling of inevitability to infection among the characters, which is, perhaps, to be expected given the severity of the disease. One can't social distance and fight crime at the same time, after all, but it is still striking that there are no attempts at using any sort of personal protective equipment beyond that one short Huntress story, which only serves to underscore that the other heroes aren't doing it too (Given how much comics creators like giving their characters new costumes, it would seem a perfect time to debut a new, contagion-fighting Batman with a full-face mask; Catwoman does debut a new, all-white winter camouflage costume in this very story, but never something suited to avoiding airborne disease).

The National Guard is called in, by the governor of whatever state Gotham is in (New Jersey, I think, officially), but they are there to seal off the city, enforcing a stricter quarantine than any seen in the real world during the coronavirus, with no one getting in or out of the city. One exception? Refrigerated trucks come in near the end of the story; they're needed to store the bodies piling up, one of the apocalyptic details that we did see in the COVID-19 outbreak, as such trucks were needed in the real Gotham City of New York City at one, early point in the outbreak.

The end of the plague came about awfully quickly, far quicker than our own, as hospitals got the cure faxed to them and, in one case, hand-delivered by a blockade-breaking Azrael. And then the hospitals just went ahead and manufactured and distributed it ASAP, without any sort of testing period and certainly none of the vaccine hestitancy or outright resistance we saw in the real world.*** 

Oddly enough, once "Contagion" proper has ended, the collection just keeps going. The storyline did continue, as I recall, but not until after taking a bit of a break, and then picking up in the sequel crossover storyline, "Legacy."

 At first the collection's post-"Contagion" continuation might seem somewhat natural, as the final issue of the crossover Robin #28 ends with a cliffhanger, complete with a "To Be Continued" box, albeit a minor cliffhanger: Tim's girlfriend Ariana has just dyed her hair blonde.

So the collection includes the next two issues of Robin, in which the title character contends with Maxie Zeus. And then there's a three-issue story arc from Batman by the Moench/Jones/Beatty creative team, "The Deadman Connection," in which Batman and guest-star Deadman follow a trail of stolen Incan treasures and ghost-possession to South America. And then there's a three-issue Batman: Shadow of The Bat arc by Alan Grant, Dave Taylor and an assortment of guest-artists, the storyline that intoduced villain Narcosis and kicked off in SOTB #50.**** 

None of these stories have anything at all to do with "Contagion", and it is thus weird to see them here. Not that they are unwelcome, of course. All are good stories with their own virtues—I'm particularly fond of the Batman story, as Jones work on that series remains as remarkable today as it was in the mid-1990s—it's just strange to see them here. 



*The exception that proves the rule, however, is Zeb Wells and Gurihiru's 2020 Heroes At Home one-shot, a collection of short, funny strips in which various Marvel heroes must deal with the new realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, ranging from amusing themselves while stuck indoors, to trying to get a piece of cake while social distancing, to dealing with a shortage of toilet paper. 
This is, I believe, the only comic book in which I have seen any heroes wearing cloth masks to protect themselves from contracting the coronavirus. I reviewed the book upon its initial release here

**That McCrea-drawn story is, of course, "Hitman" and it is written by Garth Ennis. It serves as a sort of unofficial zero issue to their Hitman monthly, bridging the character's appearances in The Demon and his own new title. I'm not sure if it was collected in the most recent round of Hitman trades or not, but one would certainly hope so, as it is a direct lead-in, mentioning the plot of Hitman's first arc and Batman's desire to capture Tommy Monaghan no matter what. He is, of course, distracted by the plague to devote his full attention to that task at the end of this story. 

At this point, Ennis was still writing Monaghan more as a super-powered hitman than just a regular old hitman, so he uses his mind-reading abilities and X-ray vision to great effect, with a pretty fantastic introduction of Batman to the scene. I'd scan it if I could, but the trade I'm working from is too thick to allow for decent scans. 

***I find myself curious what the notoriously conservative Dixon thinks about the aspects of the pandemic that have become political—masking, vaccine, mandates—given how apolitical "The Clench" and its fighting was in the pages of the comic book he wrote some 15  years ago, and what so many of his fellow conservatives think of those elements of our current pandemic.  

****I mentioned this story briefly in my post about Pagan, as she has a cameo appearance in it.

Friday, April 01, 2022

A Month of Wednesdays: March 2022

BOUGHT:

Women of Marvel #1 (Marvel Entertainment) The Black Cat, The Scarlet Witch, Jessica Jones, Black Widow, Squirrel Girl, Shanna The She-Devil and Silver Sable are the female characters who star in this oversized one-shot special from the Marvel Voices line. 

As has come to be expected at this point in the line's life, the book is comprised of a series of short stories featuring characters all of a certain type (here, women) by up-and-coming creators of that same type, along with some text pieces (Here an introduction by Gail Simone, an interview with editor Bobbie Chase and a roundtable of 13 creators answering the same question,"What's a character or story that empowered you to create your own?").

While each of the five short comics is competently made, none really stood out to me as superior, must-read work. They are notable for their strange choices, however, like the decision to split up writer Preeti Chhibber's Black Cat story "Four Jobs That Felicia Hated and One She Didn't" into six one-page parts, each drawn by a different artist and inserted between other stories, almost like commercial breaks. 

The Mirka Andolfo-written, Sumeyye Kesgin-drawn Scarlet Witch story "Real Witches" was notable for starring a new, original character, and not featuring an appearance by the Marvel hero until the fifth page of an eight-page story, and even then she's very much the guest-star.

Pressed to pick a favorite, I'd probably be torn between the two team-up stories, the Black Widow/Squirrel Girl story by Charlie Jane Anders, Emma Kubert and Elisabetta D'Amico, in large part because I so miss Doreen, Tippy-Toes and Nancy so much, and the Shanna/Silver Sable story by Rhianna Pratchett and Alina Erofeeva, mostly because it remembered Shanna existed and had a nice, heavy-handed moral I can get behind (Scan your snacks ingredients to make sure they don't have any palm oil before you buy them!)


BORROWED:

Banana Fox and The Book-Eating Robot (Scholastic) I think villain Sour Grapes Jr. has some good ideas. 

For example, in this second volume of James Kochalka's new series about a bright yellow fox who is also a kinda sorta detective, Sour Grapes Jr., who now volunteers at a library, arrests Banana Fox for his excessive overdue fines and throws him in library jail.

"I'm pretty sure library jail isn't real," Banana Fox says from behind bars, and, when Sour Grapes Jr. insists that it is too real because he made it up himself, Banana Fox continues to argue "But...other libraries don't pub people in JAIL..." To which Sour Grapes Jr replies, "Well, maybe they SHOULD!"

As someone whose day job is in a public library, all I can think to say is ,"Right on, Sour Grapes Jr.! We should be able to arrest people and put them in jail!"

After a somewhat meandering, stream-of-conscious beginning involving Banana Fox, Flashlight, William and Tur-Tur, the action moves to the library, where Sour Grapes Jr. has enacted his weird plot that involves a book deposit  bin that transforms into a book-eating robot. As with the first volume, it is high-quality silliness for all-ages. 


Batman Vol. 5: Fear State (DC Comics) There's a moment in James Tynion IV's script for the fifth volume of his Batman run where the "anti-Oracle",  some sort of  apparently automated system blaring 24/7 misinformation about the state of Gotham City, states that Scarecrow's fear toxin is all over the city, and that one should disinfect everything until it shines in order to be sure they are safe.

That's the closest Tynion comes to a direct parallel between his story of a city gripped with fear and our own society in the time of Covid, a state of affairs no super-comics seem to have directly addressed at all yet. (Not that I've seen, anyway; has anyone in any superhero universe mentioned Covid yet? They seem to have skipped the shutdown and masking period completely.) 

Tynion seems to be dancing awfully closet to a statement of some kind, as Scarecrow's plans to drive the entire city crazy with fear involve misinformation, fear of a contagion, the scapegoating of activists and an overly militarized law enforcement. It's all nebulous and suggestive, unfortunately, and Tynion seems more focused on Batmanly concerns than making any kind of statement about the state of our own world. But he seems to be at least trying to say something, and that's not nothing; Batman's heroic vision of his world is one that can be translated to our own, although I don't think the parallels are made sharply enough. Superhero comics are not the place for subtlety, after all.

All that aside,  this is a rather familiar-feeling Gotham-faces-apocalyptic-ruin story akin to Tynion's own "Joker War" storyline, featuring some rather nice artwork from Jorge Jimenez. 

Batman: The Detective (DC) Okay, I have some questions. 

As you may recall, when this Tom Taylor-written, Andy Kubert-penciled six-issue miniseries was first solicited, it was called Batman: The Dark Knight, which I thought a terrible name, given how often that title has already been used (Not just in Frank Miller-related comics, one of which was actually even drawn by Kubert, or in the Dark Knight Detective collection series, but there was also a New 52 Batman ongoing called The Dark Knight for awhile as well that generated plenty of trades to mix this up with). 

DC later changed the title to the even more generic, but not as often used, The Detective. It's still not a great title, especially if the book isn't a traditional mystery or detective story, which it is not.

Having now read the book, it seems like it should pretty clearly be sub-titled Equilibrium, as that is the name of the villain of the piece, and the concept played with throughout. Equilibrium, to spoil it a bit, dresses in a white Batman costume, as do her hench-people, and they have devoted themselves to undoing what Batman has done by murdering everyone he's ever saved, thus achieving a balance to the world that his presence threatens.

Crazy, sure and perhaps a bit...much, but then, it's a Batman comic, and it is neither too crazy nor too a bit much for the villain in one of those. It's even exciting, given that Taylor and Kubert are introducing a new character with a new modus operandi, rather than throwing The Joker or Ra's al Ghul at us for the thousandth time. 

Aside from wondering how this thing got the title it did, and why the obvious one wasn't chosen by the writer or the editors, I was curious about the decision to change Batman's costume into what is essentially the outfit he was wearing in the desert freak-out dream scenes in Batman V. Superman and Justice League, a big coat and goggles rather than his traditional cape (He's also wearing regular pants instead of tights). 

Don't get me wrong, it's an okay look, and Kubert draws the hell out of it, it just seems...weird, as if since Batman is out-of-town throughout this book—after a brief four-page scene in Gotham at the beginning, the entirety of the adventure occurs in Europe—maybe those are his vacation clothes? (I briefly wondered if perhaps the book was out-of-continuity, given how old and burly and, well, how Dark Knight Kubert's Bruce Wayne looks in this, and the fact that Oracle appears in a wheel chair in a few panels.)

And then there's the obvious question, which just sort of buzzed around the back of my mind while I was reading this. Equilibrium's first attack in on a plane with 147 passengers, apparently all of whom had been saved by Batman at some point. Among them is Beryl Hutchinson, the former Squire, now The Knight, who will appear throughout the series, along with the new Squire, who is being introduced here for the first time. 

Equilibrium's other attacks will occur throughout Europe, and climax with an attack to wipe out all of London, given that, as we learn in a flashback, Batman once saved all of London by diffusing a nuclear bomb there.

So the question: If your goal was to kill everyone Batman ever saved, wouldn't you start with Gotham City? I mean he's saved the entire city multiple times now, and there are people living there he's probably saved multiple times, both individually, as victims of one crime or another, and collectively, from various plots to bomb, gas, drown, burn and poison the city, right? (I won't bring up his work with the Justice League, which resulted in the saving of all the world multiple times over).

It just seems strange to start in Europe, I guess, but then, maybe Equilibrium wants to start local, and work her way to Gotham City. I guess one shouldn't worry too much about the logic employed by murderous maniacs, huh? 

A couple of paragraphs of fannish questioning aside, I did really rather enjoy this story, which takes a newly lonelier Batman, still reeling from the loss of Alfred, out of Gotham and to England, where he meets up with the Squire and Knight, and then to France, where he reunites with one-time mentor Henri Ducard and, finally, to Belgium, in a "mobile Batcave." 

Taylor toys with some interesting ideas regarding Batman's role in the world, as well as reexamining some portions of his origin through Ducard flashbacks and, of course, the idea that all actions can have unforeseen consequences, even seemingly noble ones, like "saving" people. 

Additionally, it was nice to read a relatively "discreet" Batman story arc with a beginning, middle and end, given how many contemporary Batman books are devoted to altering the status quo of the character or his setting in some dramatic fashion. This wasn't a brand new era of Batman, it was just a really rather fun Batman comic.

Based on this and the handful of other times I've seen him write the character, I would not be at all adverse to Taylor taking over Batman or Detective some day or, better way, a new Batman Inc, where he could continue to write in this mode, with Batman working overseas with allies like Knight and Squire. 


Batman: Detective Comics Vol. 1: The Neighborhood (DC) The collection of writer Markio Tamaki's debut as Detective Comics writer serves her somewhat poorly, as the original, serially-published comic book issues all had back-up stories, and most of these were sorts of side stories related to the story arc that filled the bulk of each issue, a kinda sorta murder mystery entitled "The Neighborhood." Because of this, DC decided to collect all of the back-ups within the collection, somewhat awkwardly. So two chapters of "The Neighborhood" might pass, for example, and then there would be two chapters of a shorter-story starring The Huntress. Each of these have different artists, of course, and while some are written by Tamaki, some are not. 

One, a flashback to the earliest years of the Batman and Robin team by writer John Ridley and artist Dustin Nguyen, has nothing at all to do with "The Neighborhood", except in the absolute possible sense: It also features Batman in it. 

Visually then, the book is far from cohesive, something not entirely the fault of the back-ups, as the artist who started "The Neighborhood", the great Dan Mora, doesn't finish it, with Viktor Bogdanovic taking over midway...although it's hard to notice the shift at first, given the kaleidoscope of differing art styles and a degree of uncertainty about when one story begins and ends.

It's sort of too bad but, I'll be honest, I'm not sure a better way to handle it, either.  Basically DC could have opted to not collect the back-ups at all, a decent option complicated by the fact that so many of them tie so directly into the main story; they could have collected them as they appeared, so that each chapter of "The Neighborhood" would be followed by one, which would replicate the experience of reading the comic serially but break up the narratives in a way that's less-than-ideal; or they could have put all of the back-ups in the back of the collection, which wouldn't quite work, given the way most of them relate to the main story.

As for that story, it's a pretty good one. Bruce Wayne is getting used to living in a brownstone apartment in Gotham City now that his fortune has dwindled following the events of "The Joker War", which means he's getting used to having neighbors. When one of them disappears, both Bruce Wayne and Batman become suspects in the murder, a particularly perilous position to be in given that the woman's father is an insane old money giant—seriously, like Kingpin-sized—so set on vengeance that he's willing to take an RPG out onto the streets and blow up Wayne personally. 

The Huntress, Penguin and,m oddly, Lady Clayface are all also involved.

What starts as a compelling murder mystery with multiple suspects and no real motivations eventually deteriorates into a sort of sci-fi/horror monster story, but it's all fairly well-handled and still works within the Batman milieu.


Mao Vol.4 (Viz Media)
This volume's most spectacular monster is a man made of water and filled with fish, various species forming parts of his face and acting as enforcers within his body when Mao is trapped there. It's a typically imaginative, slightly horrifying creation of Rumiko Takahashi's. That man made of water and fish is trying to abduct Mao and drag him back to Kyoto, and is, in fact, the second of three attempts to bring Mao to Kyoto that occur in this volume. Takahashi also delves deeper into the origins of her lead character and the demon cat Byoki, and we meet several other people from Mao's past. 


Marvel Meow (Viz) There's some great art and not much else to Nao Fuji's collection of short, gentle, quiet comic strips featuring Captain Marvel's pet cat Chewie (Actually, Chewie is an alien Flerkin that just looks like and, for the purposes of this book, acts like, a cat). It's essentially a well-produced gift book for Marvel fans who also happen to be cat people.

Most strips are just a single page long, featuring a perfectly square nine-panel grid in which one light joke or another occurs featuring a Marvel character.

 In the first, for example, Carol Danvers is lifting weights, Chewie jumps on her dumbbell and grows bigger and bigger and heavier and heavier until the weight is too much for even Danvers, and she awakes in her bed with Chewie to find it was only a dream. 

In the next, Iron Man returns to his workshop to find Chewie sitting on his keyboard when he goes to type, and moving to a stack of papers when Iron Man goes to look at them. And so on. 

The art is really quite lovely, realistic in style and leaning toward the Cinematic Universe depictions of the characters where possible, as in the Avengers section of the book, which features six strips, each broken up by a drawing, and then a nice group shot spread over two-pages and featuring all of the characters. And Chewie. 

All of the art is delicately colored in a two-tone style. Following a particular section, there's a sort of glossary of character profiles, listing who starred in each strip and a sentence or two about who they are ("Iron Man", for example, is "Tony Stark, a genius inventor and a billionaire who fights in armor he created", and so on).

There are occasionally longer stories, like one which seems to feature the entirety of the X-Men. The Phoenix, which is here presented as a fat little Pokemon-looking creature, possesses Chewie, and he freaks out, running through the halls of the X-Mansion, while one group of X-Men after another try and fail to stop him. It's a nice run-down of a huge cast of characters—27 are listed on the character profiles for this section of the book—and it too terminates in a giant group shot of the whole franchise at a part together, including some 30 characters, some of whom aren't profiled (like Doop, Strong Guy and so on). 

Also included are such a random assortment of characters as Moon Knight, Taskmaster, Galactus and Galacta, Venom and Carnage, Thanos, Ghost Rider (who uses his penance stare on Chewie) and more. 

I didn't find most of the gags particularly strong ones—Jeffrey Brown's Cats Are Weird is probably a better, funnier gift book for people who think cats are funny, I think—but it's a very nice book with great art, and an okay introduction to many Marvels who aren't yet as famous as the Avengers are. 

I'm eager to see more work from Fuji, and would like to see her drawing within the Marvel Comics Universe proper, as she has apparently done with a couple of Black Cat comics before. 


Zom 100: Bucket List of the Dead Vol. 5 (Viz Media) Akira and his friends come into open conflict with their evil opposites in the volume, a quartet of malcontents who also have an apocalyptic bucket list their working on, although there's is a more cynical, all around more negative list. Items, for  example, include "Turn everyone I hate into zombies" and "Fuck up society."

Unfortunately, the society they target is the idyllic, pastoral community of Akira's home village, where his parents and neighbors have managed to escape the zombie apocalypse affecting the rest of Japan by sealing off the only entrance. The bad guys, lead by an anti-Akira NEET, unseal the the only tunnel leading into or out of the village by moving the construction equipment that blocking it, and then ride around in it, elevated out of reach of the zombie horde they've unleashed.

There's something of the superhero comic about this particular volume, with how neatly the villains are presented as the opposite number of our heroes, and the way they split up into four individual one-on-one conflicts.  

I suppose if the series is to go on, something had to happen to the village, as otherwise our heroes would just stay there and live happily ever after, but this is such a drastic and sudden something, it ratchets up the suspense for the next volume quite a bit, especially given the cliffhanger, wherein Akira is given the choice to either sacrifice himself to the zombies or have his father fed to them. 

Zom 100 continues to be an exciting and unusual entry in a well-trod genre. 


REVIEWED: 

The Flower Garden (Amulet Books) Artist and illustrator Renee Kurilla turns to comics with this charming graphic novel about a pair of friends who share a fantastic adventure in their own backyard, one they react to quite differently. More here