Sunday, October 14, 2018

A Month of Wednesdays: September 2018


BOUGHT:


Aquaman: The Legend of Aquaman (DC Comics) God damn, could Curt Swan draw! I guess I always knew, intellectually, what a great artist Swan was, but I didn't necessarily feel it like I did while reading the Aquaman stories contained within this 180-page collection of the 1989 Aquaman Special and the five-issue Aquaman miniseries that immediately followed it. I think that's because this was the first time I can remember seeing Swan's pencil art outside of the context I expected to see it in.

That is, I think almost every single time I have seen something that Swan had drawn, it was in the pages of a Superman comic of some sort, and his design, depiction and rendering of The Man of Steel and his friends at The Daily Planet were just so perfect and so frequent that--and this will sound stupid, I know--I guess I didn't really even consider them as art, or as drawings of those characters, as much as I just considered them them. Like, is this a great drawing of Superman? No, that's Superman. Period. That's what Superman looks like, so that's just Superman being Superman over there.

Does that make any sense at all?

Anyway, I don't think of Swan drawing Aquaman at all, so reading these issues for the first time was a real revelation of just how good Swan was.

There are two related stories in here. The one from the Special is basically just an Aquaman origin story. Swan's pencil art is guided by the layouts of plotter Keith Giffen, and it is inked by Eric Shanower. It is seriously great stuff. I'm not sure if I'd necessarily go so far as to say that this is the very best Aquaman art I've ever read, but, well, it's up there. It's certainly not often I find myself pausing while reading an Aquaman comic to drink in the line work. Robert Loren Fleming rounds out the creative team, and he handles the script.

As I said, it's basically an origin story, starting with Aquaman as a blonde baby abandoned to die on Mercy Reef, then wandering the seas alone as a youth, meeting lighthouse keeper Arthur Curry who gradually adopts him as a son, trying out the surface world beyond the lighthouse and ultimately finding Atlantis, which he came to as an outsider before rising to be its king.

This version of the origin--the post-Crisis, pre-Brightest Day one--is well told, and it keeps many of the important elements of the Silver Age version without committing to them. The one that shows up in Peter David's run on the monthly doesn't necessarily contradict this one in any way, either. The parts that jumped out at me as new were the explanations of where Aquaman's superhero name and his costume came from.

The miniseries is much longer, but its story more simple. The only change to the creative team is that Al Vey replaces Shanower as inker, and though the difference is marked, it doesn't diminish how impressive Swan's artwork is, nor the overall strength of the comic as a whole--the style is simply a bit different.

In this story, Aquaman returns to Atlantis only to find that it has been conquered by mysterious invaders that conceal their appearance, using an army of water-breathing mercenary soldiers that look no different from the Atlanteans to do the actual fighting, while they observe and give orders from mysterious vehicles. Aquaman is captured and taken prisoner, returning to the prison he spent time in during the Special, and he uses his leadership abilities and super-powers to rally his people, free the city and turn back the invaders, who turn out to be rather creepy-looking jellyfish with hideous humanoid death mask-like faces.

There's also a kind of weird sub-plot involving Mera, who was apparently thrown into an underwater asylum after having gone crazy over the death of Arthur Jr. She and Aquaman fight quite a bit, and he accidentally kills her, but she survives death, because of her alien nature. This probably made more sense in the 1980s, if one was up to date on what the hell was going on with the aqua-marriage.

Those jellyfish creatures are a pretty great design. I know this because when I saw them in here, I immediately recognized them. I had never read these comics before, but I did see a tiny image of those creatures before, as part of a house ad for this miniseries that ran in DC comics at the time, which I must have encountered a decade or two ago in something from a back issue bin. So they were striking enough that seeing them that one time impressed them upon my memory.

The collection ends with a four-page prose article by Mark Waid, the editor of these comics, recounting the publishing history of Aquaman. It's pretty fascinating reading for fans of a certain kind (my kind, basically), and I was particularly interested in the retelling of the original, Golden Age Aquaman, who was basically overwritten by the "real" Aquaman that followed. That Aquaman's story reminded me quite a bit of the new Aquaman who appeared in the Kurt Busiek-written Sword of Atlantis series from 2006-2007, and made me wonder if Busiek was inspired by those stories (or even just Waid's summary of them) when pitching for it.


Archie Meets Batman '66 #3 (Archie Comics) Wow, now that's a cover! Be sure to peruse it carefully...not just to ogle Betty, Veronica, Catwoman and Robin, of course, but to find The Joker... Oh, and note the flock of bats seemingly following Batman as he runs towards the water with his board, wearing shorts over the shorts he wears over his pants.

Sigh...the perfect cover...

There are just as many bathing suits inside, although these are drawn on the teens by Dan Parent and J.Bone, rather than cover artist Mike Allred. When the Riverdalians are unable to take transfer students Barbara Gordon and Dick Grayson to Pop's, which the villains have taken over and started using as their hideout, they opt for a pool party at Veronica Lodge's instead (Hiram is only too happy to host the ward of millionaire Bruce Wayne). Meanwhile, The Joker takes Jughead hostage, and, back in Gotham City, Batman closes in on Bookworm.

This is a pretty great comic book, a pretty much perfect crossover between two very different properties that nevertheless feels like a natural extension of them both.


Bane: Conquest (DC) So this is a Chuck Dixon comic. Like a lot of people my age, I have a somewhat problematic relationship with Dixon, the person. The fact that he was so incredibly prolific a writer and was writing for DC's Bat-office in the early '90s meant I spent a lot of time reading his work; in fact, without actually doing the math, I bet there's a pretty good chance that he's the comics writer whose work I read the most of most often for many years. Dixon didn't create Robin Tim Drake or Nightwing Dick Grayson, but he did popularize and define them for years. Spoiler Stephanie Brown, The Birds of Prey, cryptosexual multiethnic Buddhist vegetarian Green Arrow Connor Hawke? That was all Dixon for a long, long time. Ironically, he's given a lot of fans a lot of their favorite characters...or at least helped keep those characters in popular circulation for years.

He's also a really good comics writer. He's not great, and I can't think of anything he's ever written that has blown my mind, or that I would have enthusiastically tried to cajole someone else into reading, or would have made anyone's best-of-the-year list during the year it was produced, or that I would consider "literature," but for super-comics? Manly-man 1980s-style action adventure genre stuff? He has produced extremely solid work with clockwork regularity for as long as DC, Marvel or anyone else would give him the chance to do so.

On the other hand, his politics are kind of fucked-up. To his credit, you generally can't tell that he is, as he has said before, "to the right of Genghis Khan," simply from reading the majority of his mainstream super-comics work (at least, not his DC stuff; almost everyone seems like they might be a fascist when writing Marvel's Punisher, because that's basically who the character is).

Every once in a while I will see his name associated with something truly abhorrent online, and I'll swear him off. Then I will forget what it was, exactly. For example, I can remember reading an article on The Beat about Dixon adapting something truly awful into an original graphic novel, and I remember thinking that it's sad how far he's fallen--I mean, he's even writing for Zenescope, now!--but now I can't, for the life of me, remember what that book was.

So I bought and read this graphic novel, collecting the 12-part maxi-series Dixon wrote with artist Graham Nolan, his Bane co-creator and one-time Detective Comics partner, well aware that Dixon and I likely agree on very little, but between reading it and sitting down to write this, I again saw Dixon's name in a rather unsavory place.

See, the other day everyone on Twitter (and elsewhere on the Internet) was talking shit about that one terrible online comics gossip column-turned-website--like, much more than those same people usually do--and while it took awhile to figure out what they were reacting to, apparently that dumb website ran a 10 million-word interview with one of those weird garbage people who thinks the problem with the comics industry and the comics medium is that they just aren't racist and sexist enough. And while Dixon's name isn't associated with that movement in the same way that Ethan Van Sciver's is--at least not to my knowledge! I get all my info on this nonsense via subtweet!--my looking around to see what all the hubbub was about revealed that Dixon is working with that terrible interviewee with the fake name on a comics project.

So now I kinda regret buying this, as I'm just not in the mood to give Dixon some royalties at the moment, even if the fact that I spent so much time reading his work when I was a teenager makes me think of him as more of an uncouth, old-fashioned Great Uncle who spends too much time watching Fox News than, like, an actual monster.

On the other other hand, though, I guess it is cool that DC gave Dixon and, especially, Nolan a platform like this to do their own thing for a year. They aren't any less talented than they were in the 1990s--their 'Tec run* was really quite good, and worth seeking out in back issue bins if you missed any of it--even if their respective styles now seem somewhat out of fashion.

This is a somewhat strange book, as it is very long for a miniseries, and obviously not an ongoing--it reads a little like a pre-cancelled ongoing Bane series, if that makes sense. It's not exactly one long storyline with a complete beginning, middle and end--that is, it doesn't read like a graphic novel--but more like a comic book series with a built-in expiration. It's also strange in the way that it is basically a tangent diverging from the regular Batman comics. Bane has been appearing off and on in Tom King's Batman series, where it was recently revealed that he is the mastermind of some big, dumb plan to break Batman's heart, and yet the Bane in this comic is very different than that Bane.

That said, this Bane is the one from his original creators, and it is the one that reads the most like the one from the first few years of the character's existence.

Bane is working with his original henchmen introduced in Batman: Vengeance of Bane--Bird, Zombie and Trogg--who were more-or-less forgotten for decades after the events of Knightfall. They've all been redesigned...except Trogg. Bane has a new mask which reveals his nose and mouth, which I hated. He also has some sort of weird meal color, and a new pair of pants. Bird shaved his hair and started dressing much less fancy, and gave up real live birds for drones. Zombie now wears face paint, has his lips sewn shut and has a super-power.

The comic basically follows Bane and his henchmen as they attempt to expand their criminal empire beyond Gotham City to the world. They encounter a crimelord named Damocles, and the strange-looking super-genius that was Damocles' secret, behind-the-scenes patron. Capturing and using him, they expand their operations, eventually coming into conflict with Kobra. Bane has a plan to destroy Kobra, and much of the second half of the book deals with that particular conflict.

Batman comes in and out of the narrative, and much is made of the two rivals as more-or-less equals whose important places in their respective worlds mean their paths can't help but cross--at least twice in these 12 issues, they are forced to fight on the same side against shared enemies. Catwoman appears in one issue, and, as the Kobra storyline reaches its climax, Bane recruits a weird rag-tag group of operatives, including The KGBeast (also very different than his recent appearances in All-Star Batman), King Faraday, Gunhawk and Bunny and someone named Crow that I am completely unfamiliar with.

The plotting is of course tight, and this is the exact sort of comic book series that Dixon could write in his sleep.

It was great to see so much Nolan art in one place like this. He has a very clean, smooth line and is particularly adept at guiding the reader's eye without forcing it. I didn't much care for Bane's new look--the villain dons his original duds in the last few issues--and it was weird to see how bad Batman's current costume looked here, given how great Nolan was at drawing the old one. That was one of the problems with the post-Flashpoint designs: There was apparently very little thought put into how easy those costumes would be to be reproduced quickly, and how they might fit into the styles of other artists. It should really go without saying that simpler is better, and that the fussier, busier Batman costume therefore doesn't translate well to the work of artists whose style isn't necessarily fussy or busy.

It's also nice to see Bane's venom super-steroid treated as a steroid, something that makes him a little bigger, stronger, more motivated and more out-of-control, rather than something that increases his size by feet and hundreds of pounds, as it has gradually become in, like, every other book.

Osoito, Bane's teddy bear, is featured prominently in the first and last chapters of the series.

So this is a pretty good comic book, a very nicely-drawn genre comic by a writer working very much in his comfort zone. That writer associates with some spectacularly awful people though, so if that's a thing that matters to you, than you might want to steer clear.

Personally I wish I would have just borrowed it from the library...of course as much as I feel icky giving money to Chuck Dixon now, I have no reason not to want to give money to Nolan, and encourage DC to hire him for more work.


Batman #54 (DC) Okay yes I dropped Batman after issue #51, as that particular issue, the first in a new arc, was well-written but super-dumb in terms of its plot (not unlike "The War of Jokes and Riddles") and because it made pretty clear that the fall-out from Catwoman's decision to not marry Batman in #50 was going to continue to buttress the book for the foreseeable future, and none of the characters' decisions or motivations in that issue made any sense at all, so it was also pretty clear that no matter how well writer Tom King might script a particular issue, or how great the artist he might be working with on a particular issue is, the book is going to continue to be a disappointing failure for a while.

But of course I totally bought this because Matt Wagner drew it. Come on, it's Matt Wagner! Drawing Batman! How am I not going to buy it?

And the art? The art is great, as one might expect. We've seen plenty of Wagner's Batman before--not enough, of course, but plenty--but I don't recall seeing him draw Nightwing at any great length before, so it was fun to see him drawing that character, as well as just seeing him play with the modern Batman milieu after so much of his past Bat-work being relegated to "Year One"-era stories.

This is a more-or-less done-in-one story, in which Dick Grayson is just kind of hanging around. He's in costume and in character as Nightwing, helping Batman fight crime (Or "crime," as it's Crazy Quilt and The Condiment King they deal with here), and hanging around Wayne Manor in his street clothes, cajoling Bruce Wayne into watching the football game with him.

Throughout the time they have the pair spend together, King and Wagner have Batman completely closed off from Dick, borderline ignoring him. So why is Dick so aggressively being there for Batman? Because Catwoman ghosted him, and Batman is sad and Dick is worried about him. It's a nice sentiment, and King engages in some pretty showy transitions between the present and the past to show that Dick is just doing for Bruce what Bruce did for him all those years ago when he took him in, as the issue regularly flashes back to Dick as a little kid being gradually, reluctantly integrated in Bruce Wayne's life.

It's well done, but, again, the nonsensical nature of the Batman's current emotional hurt taints it all. I know this was a different series, but it's the same character, but remember James Tynion's Detective Comics run...? For a large part of that, Batman thought his third Robin Tim Drake was dead, and he wasn't nearly so broken up over the violent death of his teenage partner as he here is over his girlfriend leaving him with a Dear Bat letter.

More noteworthy, at least for me, was that this issue doesn't even pretend to honor the Flashpoint/New 52 reboot, making it Example #432 or so of DC Comics apparently deciding to just ignore the reboot and go back to post-Crisis continuity, without telling readers directly. In the New 52, Dick (and Jason and Tim and Damian) were all Robins within a five-year period, which is pretty much impossible, unless they were all Robin for somewhere between six months and a year or so, and they weren't much younger when they were Robin than they are now. And so when we saw Dick Grayson's origin being retold for the then-new continuity, he was already a teenager when his parents died and Batman took him in.

Here, he is quite clearly a grade school-age kid. Not simply in the way Wagner draws him, but all the details point to his having been a little kid: He has toys in his bedroom at Wayne Manor, he refuses to eat anything but potato chips (he tells Bruce that Alfred's cucumber sandwiches are gross and that "You're gross...everything is gross!") and he pulls a chandelier down when swinging on it. This young Dick Grayson reads a lot more like the one is Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's Batman: Dark Victory than the one in, say, 2014's Batman and Robin Annual #2.

I also didn't notice this myself when reading it, but it was pointed out to me later on Twitter: Check out Dick's Robin costume on the cover. That is, of course, the original Robin costume, but, in one of the many more perplexing changes of The New 52 continuity reboot, that costume never existed; rather, Dick's Robin costume was based on Tim Drake's, only, in keeping with New 52 aesthetic, it was redesigned to be more functional,  much busier and much, much uglier.
It also had a little red arrow, pointing to Dick's penis, for some reason.

I am, of course, totally okay with the publisher deciding to revert to the post-Crisis, pre-Flashpoint continuity and basically just integrating the good parts of the New 52 into current continuity, but man, I still wish they would have done it in some official capacity, as during Convergence or Multiversity or Dark Nights: Metal, when the fabric of time and space and thus continuity itself was under stress. Maybe that will happen at the end of Doomsday Clock, but given that Batman, Justice League and so many other DCU books publish twice a month and Doomsday Clock ships occasionally, it feels like this is going to be a problem for several hundred more pages worth of DCU adventures yet...


Batman: Kings of Fear #2 (DC) It has been an unusually emotional couple of weeks for me, in terms of thinking about my favorite Batman artists, and now that we have lost Norm Breyfogle, I am happier than ever that Kelley Jones is still here and still drawing Batman comics. He may no longer be the "regular" Batman artist, but, as a fan, I am heartened by the fact that Jones has been doing miniseries and special projects for DC on a fairly regular basis for a while now...especially considering how particular his style is and how different it is from the guys drawing the other 59 comics featuring Batman that have been published this month.

This second issue of the six-issue miniseries by Jones, writer Scott Peterson and colorist Michelle Madsen doesn't have anything in it quite as electrifying as the first issue, but that's not to say it is in anyway "bad" or anything. There are still several brilliantly staged moments, and all-around cool comic book moments, even if none of them rise to the levels of, say, that 25-panel page, or the page of Batman punching out his whole rogue's gallery at once in #1.

At the end of the first issue, Batman took a face full of The Scarecrow's fear gas. After a first splash page in which the two confront one another--and here Jones' Scarecrow is scarier than ever before, his tight-fitting, gnarly face mask looking like rotting brown skin falling off a skull--Scarecrow defeats Batman with some free association ("What's the first thing that pops into your head?"), leading to four pages of artfully constructed flashback freakouts before Batman comes to and finds The Scarecrow gone.

The rest of the issue is devoted to Batman's search for The Scarecrow, whom he doesn't find again until the very end, at which point he starts to lose control again. The plural "kings" in the title is readily apparent, given that we see Batman suffering from chemically-induced fear at the beginning and end and struggling to keep it together through the middle section, during which time he himself scares the bejeezus out of almost everyone he meets.

I know this is only quasi in continuity, as, like all of DC's comics seem to be these days, and maybe I'm the only one who notices and/or stresses out about this kind of thing, but it was interesting to me that this is quite clearly meant to be a pre-Flashpoint/New 52 story. Not just in the designs--Batman is wearing his old costume, Gordon has gone gray--but during a two-page spread in which Batman suffers a chain of memories of fighting his villains and other traumatic events, we see very specific moments like his checking the pulse of the dead Jason Todd, wearing the original Robin costume, Bane breaking his back over his knee and so on.

Now those moments, I mentioned? I suppose I should put them in their own post as this particular post is already going to be interminably long, but what the hell, let's do it here. Here are some of the coolest moments from Kings of Fear #2:

Commissioner James Gordon watches Batman drive away in the Batmobile. Note the color of Gordon's hair and mustache, which also signals this is a pre-Flashpoint series. I like the unusual amount of detail on Gordon there, and the way Jones presents both the character watching the Batmobile and the thing that he is seeing simultaneously by using the reflection in his glasses.


Batman stops searching for Scarecrow long enough to stop a group of carjackers. His first move? To strike a scary bat pose that stops the car and gets them into the street, where he can grit his teeth at them and knock 'em all out with a handful of little Batarangs. It's not often that Batman makes a full Dracula pose like that, but it's pretty cool, and a good example of Batman's theatricality, which I was talking about the other day--the idea of "Batman" being a performance by Batman.

I'm awfully fond of Jones' Gotham City, too. I like the timelessness that it has. Aside from the car, the rest of this panel looks like it could be set in any city anywhere from any time in the last few hundred years. Note the laundry hanging to dry on clotheslines stretched over the street.

Here's probably my favorite panel in this issue. A guy has just taken a shot at Batman and he clearly missed, but you can see how close he came, and how deadly the shot would have been had it hit Batman, from the huge hole in his cape...through which you can see the terrified face of the shooter, whose hand still holding the gun is now pinned against the wall, giving Batman an excuse to have his hand stretched out, allowing his cape to drape and the reader to see through the hole. That's so much information in a single image.

Batman later takes another break from his hunt for The Scarecrow to fight some street crime, warning a gang not to go through with their murderous plans ("I think you should reconsider.") They all fire at him, lined up like toy soldiers, and, as we see in the second panel where Batman was standing, they all miss him completely. He seems to have disappeared. But what shape have the shadows and the gun blasts made on the brick wall...? A scary-ass skull.

Finally, the fear gas takes effect again later in the issue, and Batman finds himself on a rooftop. How did he get there? Um, perhaps a building came to life and picked him up, as seen here...? The Scarecrow-made-of-buildings on the front is much cooler, of course, but I was glad to see that moment wasn't just for show, and was somewhat reflected by the content of the issue itself.


Bram Stoker's Dracula (IDW Productions) Or, as I like to think of it, Mike Mignola's Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula. This is IDW's well-timed 8-inch by 12-inch hardcover collection of Topps Comics' 1992-1993 adaptation of Coppola's 1992 film, a troubled favorite of young Teenage Caleb's, which he could have talked your ear off about had you asked him whether or not he liked it (He did, as does Middle-Aged Caleb, although he had a lot of problems with it, all of which could mostly be forgiven for the lush, fever dream art direction and the site of Winona Ryder in period costume).

One imagines it is back in print now because of pencil artist Mike Mignola's long-since risen star, rather than John Nyberg's inks or Roy Thomas' adaptation of Coppola's film (which, ironically and frustratingly, took an awful lot of liberties with Stoker's novel, despite the title). I didn't read the original miniseries as it was originally published--I'm not and never was a fan of direct comic book adaptations of films, unless an artist with a very particular style I am very interested in is involved, and I must confess I had no idea who Mignola was in 1992--so I can't speak to how well or how poorly it might have been colored back then, but IDW chose to present it in black and white. And it is presented in true black and white. No gradations, not re-colored with various shades of gray. It is just the white of the paper and the black of Nyberg's inks upon Mignola's pencils.

The effect is a quite stark visual narrative, filled with swathes of a black that seems to boast a peculiar brightness on the white surface. I honestly can't say if this is the best presentation of the comic in the service of the story, or if it is even a better presentation than the original, colored art was, but it is a fantastic presentation of Mignola and Nyberg's work, and maybe one of the better looks I've ever had of Mignola's art, unencumbered by color as it is, and presented at a larger size (Plus, there are many pages of scans of Mignola's original pencils sans ink at the back of the book).

And as to whether or not it serves the story best, well, that hardly matters at this point. It is a comics adaptation of a film, after all, and if one really wants to see the story of the film, one should just go watch that.

The approach does seem to point toward IDW's intentions though, and the focus of the project: It's Mignola, not Coppola or Stoker or Dracula.

It's been quite a while since I've rewatched the film--hell, maybe too long--but it was fun experiencing it like this, and it was a real blast to see Mignola-ized versions of a bad-ass Anthony Hopkins, a weirdo Gary Oldman and, of course, a particularly beautiful Winona Ryder.

As I mentioned, there's a substantial amount of back matter included here, some 15 pages of Mignola's un-inked pencils, and his original art for the series' covers. I found myself particularly amazed by these, as there are so many panels in which there are relatively few lines, and so goddam many little crosses to indicate where the blacks go. There are a few panels that consist of, say, just Ryder's Mina's face, drawn in extreme detail, floating in the middle of an empty panel, with the amorphous outline of her hair and clothing, and everything else a swarm of crosses or empty space, to be filled with black ink and background color. If you've ever tried--no matter how miserably--to fill a comics panel with readable art, it's kind of astounding how controlled Mignola's art is, and his incomprehensible-to-me ability to know how a panel will look after the next few, out-of-his-control steps, and just draw what seems to be fairly minimal lines to achieve a desired result.

Here Mignola's particular detailed minimalism style is more evident than it seems in colored pages of art.

They could have used some more back matter, though. For example, looking at the crowded-with-text covers for the original miniseries on comics.org, I see some of that text refers to trading cards included with each issue. Are those photo cards from the film, or panels from the comic, or...what? Perhaps the latter, which would explain why no images of them appear within. I'd also kinda like to see some images of the film side-by-side with panels of the comic, given how exact some of these look (which I guess I can do myself with a DVD and this book open in my lap while I watch), and I would have loved a prose piece of some kind explaining how the process worked. Like, if Thomas adapted from the script, or the finished film, and what Mignola had to work with when he drew this...he almost certainly had a cut of the film, but he had to be drawing while it was being finished and prepared for release.

Anyway, this was a great read, and I'm glad IDW was able to rescue the comic from obscurity.


Dinosaucers #2 (Lion Forge) Well there's something I didn't expect to find in a Michael Uslan, Andrew Pepoy and Jason Millet's comic book extrapolation of the Uslan-produced 1987 cartoon of the same name: Politics! That page immediately follows one in which the Tyrannos' armada of red, dinosaur-shaped space ships descend on the capital cities of the Earth, destroying recognizable monuments, Independence Day-style, if you need context.


Justice League #7 (DC) Justice League #1 pencil artist Jim Cheung, who sat out the last five issues, returns to draw the conclusion of Scott Snyder's first arc on the title, which is a less-than-ideal way to schedule artists (Ideally? Cheung and Jorge Jimenez would have alternated arcs, so that Cheung would have drawn all of this one save #5's break, and Jimenez the next arc, or vice versa. But ours is not an ideal world).

It will come as no surprise that the superheroes manage to successfully defeat the supervillains without any major change to the status quo that might upset future exploitation of the relevant IP--that is, Hawkgirl doesn't cave in Luthor's bald head with her wicked-looking mace or anything--and that the two sides in the conflict haven't resolved their core disagreement.

That disagreement has been presented as opposing views of the nature of the universe, whether existence is inherently good and devoted to the pursuit of justice, or whether it is inherently bad and devoted to inevitable doom. It is certainly an interesting extrapolation from the more-or-less random names assigned the two groups of characters long ago, and a different-ish spin on the good guys vs. bad guys engine that powers super-comics.

This may be reading too much into it, it may just be something in Martian Manhunter's phrasing jogging my memories of Catholic school education, but when J'onn wonders aloud whether the League's efforts to stave off doom and preserve the multiverse is actually against the wishes of whoever/whatever is behind creation (that is, God), and if they are therefore all inadvertently doing far more harm than good, I thought of how Catholic/Christian theologies long ago toyed with idea of a sub-god God (Probably named "Yahweh") that ruled over the world of matter, and was given charge of it by the real deal.

Snyder has Batman resolve the issue as pithily as possible, in another of Snyder's ongoing attempts to come up with a Batman line that could be the next "I'm the goddamned Batman".

Ready?
Yeah, that's worth my $3.99 right there.

I suppose the bigger moments are near the end of the issue, which I will now precede to spoil, since they are over a month old now anyway. The second is actually something I'm pretty sure DC spoiled itself months ago in the solicitations: The Batman Who Laughs from Snyder's own Dark Nights: Metal is hanging out with Lex Luthor.

The other was a complete surprise to me. A man with long gray hair wearing Starman Will Payton's costume and clutching Starman Jack Knight's staff appears, saying, "My name...is STARMAN... I come from the past. I have all the answers you seek! But to learn them... Three of you... must die!

Now don't worry. Just before he appears, we see that the League is all gathered and posing in the same room as the members of Justice League Dark and the other heroes who appeared alongside them in issue #1, so the three who must die--or, this being a DC superhero comic in 2018, "die"--will most likely be some of those extras. I volunteer New 52 Animal Man, New 52 Adam Strange and Swamp Thing's beard.


Justice League #8 (DC) Huh. Is it really time for another fill-in issue already? I guess so. At least this one, unlike Justice League #5, comes in a natural break in the narrative, as the new Justice League's first big battle against the new Legion of Doom reached a conclusion of sorts in #7.

As with the last issue to have the "Legion of Doom" logo overwrite the "Justice League" one on the cover, this is being written by James Tynion, only this time the guest-artist is on-again, off-again Batman artist Mikel Janin. Tynion's script allows Janin to draw every member of the cast at least once, thanks to a group shot of the League on a two-page spread, but this is otherwise a fairly talky issue, with a lot of headshots in it.

I suppose it's always interesting to see different artists present their takes on such a large swathe of iconic characters, but I really rather disliked Janin's Cheetah, which you can see on the cover. He seems to have just imported the head of a mountain lion and plopped it atop a fuzzy woman body. I also wasn't terribly impressed by his drawing of Poseidon; it is Poseidon disguised as a human being, of course, so it was basically just an old man with a wizard beard, but having just encountered Phil Jimenez's version of the character in Aquaman By Peter David Book 2, it was something of a disappointment.

This issue opens with the backstory of 1980s Starman Will Payton, who showed up quite unexpectedly at the climax of last issue. Having never read that Starman, and only really seen the character in crossovers and that one issue of Justice League America where he refused to join the League, I have no idea how different his story is here (How old is the Payton Starman? So old that it was before my time, and I'm 41 now). He shouldn't exist at all though, post-Flashpoint, as his appearance here is set at 1988, which would have made him the first superhero by over 40 years in the current continuity (again, I assume that Justice League is set after the conclusion of Doomsday Clock, which will re-reboot or de-reboot the Flashpoint-derived DC Universe, but since Doomsday Clock is just a little over halfway over, DC comics are just gonna read extra confusing as we wait for Gary Frank to fill all those nine-panel grids with Watchmen characters talking to Batman and Superman or whatever the fuck is going on there).

Meanwhile, J'onn J'onnz talks to the League about the stuff they learned from Payton between issues, we see that Batman is now riding around in a full-body cast and what appears to be a futuristic hover chair he borrowed from the Professor Charles Xavier of the '90s, Black Manta and Cheetah go on a mission to kill Poseidon and set-up a crossover event with Aquaman and Luthor has a plot-advancing conversation with The Batman Who Laughs.

I was pretty surprised to see Poseidon here, given how much we saw of him in Brian Azzarello and company's Wonder Woman, where he did not look at all human, but then, I haven't been reading Wonder Woman in a very long time, so I suppose the Olympians were rejiggered quite a bit since then.

The issue is fine, but it's just fine. There's nothing even approaching Batman's "We justice harder" moment from the previous issue.


Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Comic #1 (Dark Horse Comics) The review of this that I was writing in this very space started to stretch on for way too many paragraphs, so I decided to give it its own post, which you can read by clicking here. If you missed that post, and refuse to click the "here" in the previous sentence, I will briefly summarize: Overall, I liked this more than enough to read the rest of the series, and more likely than not any future MST3K comics that Dark Horse produces (MST3K comics being one of, like, three Holy Grail comics I used to wish existed in my teenage years), but I'm not sure this was the best of the three possible directions to go in with them, and if it is the best direction, the three-tiered levels of riffing engagement is definitely a drawback.

All that said though, I think the particular challenges of adapting this particular show into the comics medium are inherently fascinating (regardless of one's affection for the source material), and that the issue is therefore worth a look by anyone interested in comics and how they work compared to other media, just so consider those challenges and see how they are addressed.


Scooby-Doo Team-Up #40 (DC) Yes, this didn't actually come out this month. I somehow missed an issue of the DC comic I have been reading the longest at this particular point, and didn't even notice until I read Scooby-Doo Team-Up #41 and realized that the often imperiled Penelope Pitstop is not, in fact, Swamp Thing.

This might, at first, seem like a particularly strange team-up, given how much of Swamp Thing's publishing history has seen the heroic monster anchoring DC's mature reader imprint, and how so much of his history has been devoted to comics for adults, regardless of which side of the Vertigo/DC Universe line whichever publication he was appearing in may fall.

On the other hand, Swamp Thing is a regular on the current Justice League cartoon (which is, by the way, awesome), and then there was, of course, this, so perhaps they are not so different, Swamp Thing and Scooby-Doo. And then there is, of course, the fact that as a swamp monster, Swamp Thing is perhaps the DC character that Scooby-Doo and the gang would be most likely to run into during their regular mystery-solving adventures. In fact, some of them have already encountered a swamp thing named "Swampthing" (in 1988's Scooby-Doo and The Reluctant Werewolf).

The issue is a pretty perfect example of writer Sholly Fisch's ability to write pretty directly towards two audiences at once, so that there are references--some subtle, some anything but--to Alan Moore and company's seminal run on Swamp Thing, but the basic shape, beats and sense of humor of the book come from the original Scooby-Doo cartoons and are aimed pretty squarely at kids.

The first page is written in the style of Moore's scripts, with lots of colorful narration, a close up on a bird flying in the swamp, an extreme close-up of Shaggy's foot splashing into the mud as he runs, another extreme close-up of his sweaty brow, a panel of Swamp Thing sitting contemplatively at the foot of a tree, and then a long shot of Shaggy and Scooby running in silhouette, while the narration boxes talk of "a terrible exquisite symphony-- --A symphony of fear." (For the record, they heard a bullfrog and took off running in fright.)

On the second page, things return to normal, and we see that Scooby and the gang have come to the swamp to help Shaggy's "Uncle Chester," who appears to be an aging hippie. Now, going to visit relatives--usually aunts and uncles--was traditionally one of the major excuses used in the cartoon shows to explain why the gang was traveling to a remote or exotic location, so there's nothing remarkable about Shaggy having an uncle who lives near a swamp experiencing a wave of voodoo zombies, but Chester is actually a minor Swamp Thing supporting character (introduce by Alan Moore in 1985's Swamp Thing #43). Of course unchanging beatnik/hippie-esque teenager Shaggy would have an aging hippie for an uncle, and this is a neat little Easter Egg meant for...I don't know, maybe just for Mike Sterling...?

Mystery Inc is investigating the swamp's "Voodoo Queen," who has made many of the locals into zombies in order to do yard work and other menial tasks around her house in the swamp. One of the issue's running gags is Shaggy's confusion between the brain-eating, undead zombies of movies and the mindless, enslaved zombies of voodoo ("Or more precisely, 'Vouou'," Velma corrects him). Swampy tries to stay out of sight for a while, aiding them from afar, but when Solomon Grundy shows up, he finally shows himself, and demonstrates a bunch of his more exotic plant powers from Moore's run. Abigail makes a brief appearance, but that's it for anyone from Swamp Thing's supporting cast; maybe they can meet her uncle (who is just alluded to in a joke) and The Un-Men the next time they team-up.

Dario Brizuela draws this issue and does so in his usual style; it's actually pretty fun to see Swamp Thing filtered through it, and there's one neat panel where Brizuela swipes a pose in homage to the character's co-creator Bernie Wrightson (the no doubt familiar-looking pose from 1974's Swamp Thing #9, reused as the cover for several Swamp Thing collections).

This is one issue of the series I would like to return to it at some later point, maybe after re-reading Swamp Thing, as I imagine there may be still more references in it that I just didn't get, because I'm just not the Swamp Thing scholar that, you know, some people are...


Scooby-Doo Team-Up #42 (DC) This is a rather poor cover. Glancing at it, a reader would only see the Mystery Inc gang confronted by two scary gorillas. If the reader spent a few seconds on it, they might notice that the scary gorillas in question are Pryemaul, the rather obscure Nazi vampire gorilla, and the Brotherhood of Evil's Monsieur Mallah, who you might not recognize without his bandolier, but the beret should be a give away.

Now those are both fine gorilla guest-stars, but they are only two gorilla guest-stars. And this issue is chock-full of them, as once again Sholly Fisch has apparently combed DC's character catalog to find every example of a character around a particular theme for an issue of his team-up comic. Here the theme is gorillas--well, apes, as there are a few chimpanzees. And also a cameo by a monkey.

So despite the randomly chosen pair of bad guy gorillas on the cover, the Scooby gang are actually faced with Pryemaul, Monsieur Mallah, The Gorilla Boss of Gotham City, The Mod Gorilla Boss, Gorilla Grodd, The Ultra-Humanite and Titano The Super-Ape! Now normally, any one of them would be more than a match for a Great Dane and four teenagers, but Scooby-Doo has all the heroic apes in his corner. So there's Sam Simeon (of Angel and The Ape fame, who has previously appeared in SDTU), Congorilla and Detective Chimp.

It is, naturally, awesome. I'd give Fisch a high-five for including not one Gorilla Boss, but both, as well as the bit about Pryemaul and Mallah's differing views on World War II. And man, as much as I loved Congorilla being on the Justice League during James Robinson's troubled time on the title, I kind of forgot how awesome the character was and is, especially in his original incarnation, in which Congo Bill and the golden gorilla switch bodies back and forth, so that one has to be in a cage or otherwise occupied all the time.

The exact nature of SDTU generally switches from one of three different modes, depending on the issue, but my favorite of those modes are the ones like this, where in Fisch finds a theme and tries to fit as many DC characters that fit into it within the pages of a single comic.

I hope he does insect-themed characters or Red characters at some point, so we can get a comic featuring the Red Bee...


BORROWED:


All-New Wolverine Vol. 6: Old Woman Laura (Marvel Entertainment) Once again a collection of Tom Taylor's relatively long (but still too short-lived!) series about current Wolverine Laura Kinney borrows the sub-title from the adventures of the previous Wolverine, and as with Enemy of The State II, this has fuck all to do with the earlier story, aside from sharing that sub-title, and maybe the broadest possible overlap. For example, Mark Millar and Steve McNiven's Old Man Logan was set in the future, and Old Woman Laura is also set in the future.

Before "Old Woman Laura" starts, however, we get an almost Laura-less done-in-one starring Gabby Kinney/Honey Badger, Wade Wilson/Deadpool and Jonathan/An Actual Wolverine. Gabby is taking Jonathan, who is still wearing the translator that Rocket gave him that allows him to talk stunted English, for a walk one day when he smells the facility that he originally came from. Rather than calling in Laura, Gabby calls Deadpool, and together they storm the facility...which is apparently devoted to the manufacture of zombie animals. Laura eventually joins them and...well, zombie animals are killed, a mad scientist gets his just desserts, and they burn the place to the ground. This issue, drawn by Failla, would actually be a pretty great place to end the series. But there's two more stories yet to go, another done-in-one and the title arc.

The next done-in-one is drawn by Djibril Morissette-Phan, and is as glum and serious as the previous one was light and fun. This one seems to be an example of the direction the series might have gone in after "Orphans of X," as Laura teams-up with one of said orphans who she had terribly wronged as X-23 in order to bring justice and/or vengeance to the guy who hired the people who made Laura assassinate someone. I felt a little uncomfortable with the last page, which cuts off just as the girls have put on boots and prepare to kick the shit out of their bound and gagged target.

Taylor went out of his way to demonstrate that said target is an amoral monster of a human being throughout, and he's repeatedly referred to as a "Nazi" in the story, but I still feel a little icky watching a superhero torturing a now-helpless villain. I suppose if given the choice, I personally would rather be stomped on and kicked repeatedly and allowed to live rather than being stabbed to death with adamantium claws, but, as a reader, the former seems much, much worse to me than the latter. Of course, in the case of the latter, it would usually occur during some form of self-defense. Even if a bad guy couldn't shoot a Wolverine to death or whatever, if they're making the attempt when they get clawed, it feels more just.

And that brings us to "Old Woman Laura," a three-part arc drawn by the series' regular (if that word counts for anything any more in this context) artist, Ramon Rosanas. This one actually could have been another done-in-one, given that it is mostly superfluous, being the story of a possible future that will never actually come to pass, because possible futures never really arrive in ongoing superhero universes.

So it's sometime in the future, when today's teenagers are all grown-up. Laura now has a white streak in her hair, and has retired from Wolverine-ing, with Gabby now the All-New, All-Different Wolverine (she has a weird haircut, and a terrible Tron-like costume with light-up elements to it). The world is mostly perfect-ish now, from a super-crime perspective, as there is basically just one supervillain left in the whole world, Victor Von Doom. Oh, and Khamala Khan is now president of the United States, because why not?

Laura has found out she has a terminal disease, and wants to do one last thing before she goes: Kill Doctor Doom...and save her long-lost missing "sister" Bellona, who is almost certainly being held captive in Latveria. The plan is to go in alone, but Gabby and Old Woman Maria Hill (who, unlike Laura, seems to have actually aged beyond developing a sytlish white streak in her hair) insist on going along. And then, rather randomly, Captain Marvel and Hawkeye Kate Bishop show up. And another surprise female guest-star, too. Why they are all there is an open question. If Taylor wanted to give Laura a team to run with on this mission, you might expect him to choose characters who have previously appeared in the series and/or have much of anything at all to do with Laura, although perhaps he was purposely avoiding using X-people...? At any rate,  I guess it gives Rosanas the opportunity to draw redesigned versions of more characters (His Carol has gone from blonde to white, and her costume is now the green and white of her namesake, rather than the Superman-style primary colors she's been wearing).

Anyway, they storm Latveria, fight Doctor Doom, there are some twists, and things end completely differently than they usually do in "last" stories like this, which is itself enormously satisfying.

I really liked the Doombots here. They look like Doom, as per usual, but they are very large. Not giant, like Sentinels, but several times larger than your average human. Maybe 12-15-feet tall...?

And that ends All-New Wolverine, the surprisingly, consistently good series that has long been Marvel's best mutant title, and been one of their better ones that isn't Unbeatable Squirrel Girl throughout its 35-issue run, which is actually crazy-long for a Marvel comic these days. Like I feel like the teenage X-Men's book has relaunched two, maybe three times since All-New Wolverine #1...

I'm not particularly looking forward to X-Men Red, where Taylor will continue to write Laura and Gabby, nor to X-23, which will be the successor title to this one, only sans Taylor. I am somewhat curious about both though, particularly why on Earth Laura takes back that particular code name, so I suppose I'll sample both of them. Eventually.

Oh, and as always, don't listen to me when it comes to X-people books, listen to Paul O'Brien.


Batman and The Signal (DC) The other day I was thinking about a new and better code name for Batman's newest sidekick Duke Thomas, who began operating under the name "The Signal," which is just awful.

Despite the title of this trade paperback collection and the fact that the cover is taken from Batman and The Signal #1, that three-issue miniseries only accounts for the back half of the book. Presented before it are all of the Duke-starring back-ups from eight issues of Scott Snyder's short-lived All-Star Batman title--featuring incredible artwork by Declan Shalvey and Francesco Francavilla--and a short from writer Tony Patrick and artist Klaus Janson from DC New Talent Showcase 2017 #1 (one of the rare New Talent Showcase stories that seems to be in continuity). Duke doesn't officially take the name The Signal until the miniseries though, some 75 pages into the book. I think that offers a pretty decent clue that Snyder and DC, like me, were having a really rather hard time imagining what name Duke was going to go by after he was given his costume and began training with Batman in 2016's Batman: Rebirth #1. The back-up stories in this collection even include a few teases as to what on Earth Duke might pick for a superhero name.

The name he ultimately comes up with reflects two different things. First, it refers to the fact that he has recently gained some sort of superpower that allows him to see light in such a way that he can predict the very near future or see what just happened in an area he's looking at in the very recent past; that is, he catches signals (How exactly he got these powers is a little confused, and relates to the final arcs of Snyder's Batman run, as well as the super-metals of Dark Nights: Metal and another factor revealed in the miniseries; I suspect that second source is why this was originally branded as a Metal spin-off, despite seemingly have nothing at all to do with Metal).

And the other relates to the idea that he is supposed to be Gotham City's Batman of the day, working the day shift while all of Gotham's other vigilantes work the night shift. "Signal," he tells Batman, is another name for "The first knight on the battlefield." (It's not the first thing that comes to mind when one hears the word as related to Batman, but it does check out).

I spent some time thinking of the names of all of Batman's other sidekicks and allies over the years, and the most prevalent commonality is names that have something to do with bats and birds. So I found myself wondering if there wasn't a particular bird that is sort of the opposite of the bat, a bird associated with the day time instead of the night time, that presages the coming of the light after a period of darkness.

And then it hit me that yes, yes there is indeed such a bird: The robin.*

Duke is, of course, already somewhat committed to this costume, which gets a slight redesign between the pages of All-Star Batman and the New Talent Showcase short and the miniseries (slight enough that you may have to flip back and forth to see the differences, as I did). I do like the costume, but damn do all those bat design elements limit the character's potential names. If it were blue and black or red and black, Duke could have just gone the obvious route for superhero code names and used that color in his name, becoming The Blue Bat (which is already a thing, albeit an obscure thing) or The Red Bat. As part of the Snyder-written Duke stories from All-Star focused on Batman's color-coded training regime, there was even an opportunity to have Duke change from the yellow costume to a blue or red one, citing the results of his training (If he had gone with The Red Bat, his costume would have made for an interesting admixture of Batman and Robin in one).

Oh well. I have a feeling Duke Thomas is going to be around for a pretty long time, and a name change is more-or-less inevitable at some point.

So the first story here is "The Cursed Wheel," the Snyder-written back-up from the pages of All-Star. The title comes from Batman's training regime for Duke--and, apparently, his other, past sidekicks--and the in-story conflict revolves around first Mr. Zsasz and then The Riddler, working through an intermediary. Shalvey draws the first half, featuring Zsasz (as is now common, the character neither looks nor acts much like the one Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle created, but Shalvey does a nice job on making his skin look like it's almost all scar tissue, and making him a truly repellent-looking villain), while Francavilla draws the second half, where the threat from The Riddler comes to the fore.

While yet to have a superhero name, Snyder rather gradually walks us through how Duke comes to be the day-shift Batman, including questioning his role of being a Robin-in-all-but-name.

Then we pause for the Duke/Red Hood team-up from Patrick, Jung and Janson, in which the two basically just hang out and train together (Thus far, we haven't seen a whole lot of Duke interacting with the rest of the Bat Family since the conclusion of Robin War). Then the miniseries finally begins, with Snyder and Patrick sharing a story credit while Patrick is credited as writer. Cully Hamner draws all of these pages, colored by Laura Martin. So, to review, Declan Shalvey, Francesco Francavilla, Minkyu Jung, Klaus Janson and Cully Hamner--one could hardly ask for a better line up of artists on a Batman character.

I have mixed feelings about the title miniseries. There seem to be confused, conflicting ideas about who Duke is and what his place is going to be, exactly, and I'm not entirely sure it lines-up with the events of "The Cursed Wheel"...not in terms of plotting, but just in terms of resolving Duke's place on the incredibly crowded rooftops of Gotham. I also still don't quite understand his powers, which seems sort of unfortunate given the fact that I just read some 140 pages or so about the guy (or re-read, actually, as the first 100 pages of this I read as they were serially published).

I do think Patrick does a pretty decent job of picking up the baton where Snyder left it at the end of his Batman and All-Star Batman runs, and he seems to know his way around super-comic narration, dialogue and witty banter. There is enough effort put into setting the stage for a Signal series--the title of the mini seems to be mere marketing; it's more like The Signal...guest-starring Batman--that I'm mildly curious why we haven't had an ongoing or at least another miniseries announced yet (I blame the name "The Signal"). Duke's finally got his name, he gets his own personal satellite Bat-cave ("The Hatch," another dumb name, hidden at The Lucius Fox Center where he and the bearded, amnesiac Bruce Wayne used to volunteer), his own supporting cast (Izzy and Riko from We Are Robin, an older cousin who serves as his guardian while his parents are still Joker-ized, a friendly Gotham City police detective who can be his Commissioner Gordon) and even his own villain, who survives and escapes at the end of the comic to return again later.

Duke has recently shown up in the post-Tynion fill-in arc of Detective Comics, and will be part of the new team in Batman and The Outsiders, so perhaps he doesn't need his own ongoing or another miniseries, but the character has got potential, and Patrick and Snyder did a strong job of prepping him for future stories.

We just got to figure out that name situation...


Daredevil: Back In Black Vol. 6--Mayor Fisk (Marvel) Is it weird that writer Charles Soule's run on Daredevil is still bearing the sub-title "Back In Black"--on the spine and in the fine print, if not the covers--even though Daredevil has stopped wearing his black costume, and gone back to his red one...? I suppose Daredevil: Return-ed in Red doesn't flow quite the same way.

Actually, Daredevil does go back to black for a few pages of this collection, as the newly elected Mayor Wilson Fisk has outlawed crime-fighting vigilantes in New York City, and DD realizes that a mostly black costume makes him stand out less than an all-red one.

The parallels between current national politics and the Marvel Universe's NYC politics--in which our heroic point-of-view character can't believe the people of his city would actually vote to elevate a notoriously known criminal to a position of power over them--although I suppose Lex Luthor, Norman Osborn and J. Jonah Jameson have all played that role in similar stories before Trump's hijacking and subjugation of the Republican Party, so it's not like Soule is up to anything brand-new here.

What does seem new is that Matt Murdock is offered a job in the Fisk administration, and that leads to a very Age of Trump dilemma for him: Is it better to serve in a corrupt administration in the hopes of fighting the worst impulses of the executive from within, or to avoid taint that comes from associating with a morally flawed and dangerous administration? Of course, as an extra-legal vigilante superhero with super-hearing, Matt isn't just working with Fisk to be a so-called "adult in the room"; he's actively listening for dirt he can use to bring Fisk down.

It all becomes a rather moot point by the end of the collection though, which ends quite similarly to the way the last one did: The surprise elevation of a Daredevil character to the mayor's office.

Meanwhile, Muse returns, and Fisk and Daredevil both initiate contradictory plans that allow for the appearances of a whole bunch of guest-stars, and echoes the last story in Brian Michael Bendis' short Defenders run.

Stefano Landini draws the first three of the six issues collected herein, while the series' "regular" artist Ron Garney draws the last three. I like Garney's art a lot, particularly on this book, and it's a shame Marvel's publishing schedule makes writer/artists teams almost impossible these days. Landini's art is quite solid, of course, it's just stylistically so different than that of Garney that it feels out of place.

Mike Perkins also contributes a bit of art, drawing an eight-page short written by Christos Gage that appears at the end of this volume, having run as a back-up in Daredevil #600.


Detective Comics Vol. 7: Batmen Eternal (DC) This is the conclusion of writer James Tynion IV's two-year, 47-issue, seven-collection run on Detective Comics, partnered with pencil artist Eddy Barrows and, like, a good half-dozen or so other artists because that is a lot of pages to squeeze into such a short time. The focus of Tynion's run was on Red Robin Tim Drake's "Gotham Knights" program, in which Batman would have Tim and Batwoman Kate Kane lead a sometimes growing, sometimes contracting team of Gotham vigilantes as a sort of Justice League of Gotham (although some--too much?--inspiration seems to have been taken from X-Men comics as well).

The idea itself is solid, and as a long-time Batman fan I like the idea of the characters getting somewhat organized about what to do with the continually growing number of sidekicks and Batman allies, as well as the idea of a book or books that give readers a place to visit them all (This isn't what I would have come up with, of course, nor even the best idea that DC seemed to have on the table before green-lighting Tynion's run).

I was uncomfortable with a few elements of the series pretty much all the way though, and I mean on a conceptual level, not a craft level, as the book was never a good or even consistent-looking comic book.

First and foremost, Tynion's comic was such a love letter to the 1990 Batman comics that I (and, I assume, he) grew up with that it at times it edged up to and threatened to fall over the line of homage and into appropriation. That threat was compounded by the fact that there was so little acknowledgement that it was homaging the comics from the previous generation. Tynion's run owed so much to previous Batman writers Chuck Dixon, Alan Grant and, to a lesser extent, Denny O'Neil and even Geoff Johns, whose Teen Titans run provided a necessary ingredient, that it feels like the credit boxes should have included thank yous to those past creators.

Honestly, if you subtracted Dixon's Ulysses Hadrian Armstrong, Dixon and Tom Lyle's Spoiler, Johns and company's "Titans of Tomorrow" story arc and the dumb, Infinite Crisis lead-in The OMAC Project from Tynion's 'Tec, I'm not sure how much you'd really be left with that was original to Tynion. The Clayface redemption arc, I suppose, and The Victim Syndicate, and perhaps the power struggle over Batwoman Kate Kane's destiny waged by Batman and her father. What Tynion's run amounted to was a bunch of homages and nods to his favorite comics, from Batman: Sword of Azrael to "KnightQuest" to Grant and Norm Breyfogle's Anarky character, that it reads more like a remix of Tynion's comics collection than something new and original.

Secondly, and less importantly, I was uncomfortable with how much of a superhero comic it was, how much hard science fiction it was, compared to, well, compared to those very Batman comics that Tynion seems to have grown up with and enjoyed so much. The SHEILD-like paramilitary group The Colony has helicarriers, Batwing Luke Fox is basically Iron Man with bat-ears on his armor, brains can be hacked, time travel, The Multiverse and Rucka's version of Brother Eye and The OMAC Project come to the fore here. In fact, much of this last volume involves said super-comic, Justice League-like stuff like nano-tech and characters being inspired--for good and ill--by what they see from other dimensions and times. I suspect some of that--Armstrong seeing himself as The General in Dixon's comics, Spoiler and Orphan seeing themselves as Batgirls--is Tynion's way of trying to incorporate specifics he liked about the history of these characters while still attempting to technically adhere to the post-Flashpoint continuity he's stuck with.

Now that it's completed, though, Tynion deserves some credit for how well-plotted the whole thing was. There are relatively few loose threads from the entire run that don't come back into play for the climax--Ra's al Ghul, Zatanna, Anarky, The Victim Syndicate--which resolves the major relationship conflicts between Batman, Tim and Batwoman, and puts many of the characters either back where they were before the book started, or positioned them so that they could quite easily be picked up by whoever decides to write them next.

This volume offered what I would most like out of a book starring the extended Batman family, like the scenes of "Orphan" Cassandra Cain creeping around Wayne Manor or briefly engaging Damian, but too rarely got from 'Tec. Having read this shortly after the Batman and The Signal trade, I found the family meeting in which Batman gathers his closest allies--only one of whom is on the Gotham Knights/Detective Comics team--to help him decide what to do about Batwoman now that she's crossed a line and killed Clayface (don't worry; he lived, but the Bats don't seem to know that yet) ironic. The family includes Tim, Dick/Nightwing, Barbara/Batgirl, Jason/Red Hood and Damian/Robin. Who's missing? Well, poor Duke/Signal, who isn't part of the 'Tec team at all, but apparently not part of the "family" either (When DC's "Rebirth" initiative began, Duke was to be working one-on-one with Batman as his official sidekick, which is why he wasn't on Red Robin and Batwoman's team). In the pages of the Batman and The Signal miniseries, Duke has a recurring dream about sitting down at a dinner table with the extended Bat-family, including all these people, and not feeling like he belonged, nor there being enough room at the table for him.


Star Wars Vol. 8: Mutiny At Mon Cala (Marvel) Here's something I'm fairly certain that Disney, Marvel and IDW probably disagree with me on: There are just way too dang many Star Wars comics on the market. At least, there are far too many for a casual reader to keep up with, and while my interest levels vary widely on the various post-Dark Horse offerings, I do like to keep an eye on those comics as part of my (extremely part-time) job.

While I was unable to keep up with Marvel's stewardship of the license, and even lost track of the two main titles--Star Wars and the already-relaunched-at-least-once Darth Vader book--I suppose a virtue of these comics and their running-in-place narrative is that childhood viewings and re-viewings of the original movies provided me with all I really need to know to make sense of a random Star Wars graphic novel. That is, I know the characters, I know their relationships, I know where they came from (the first Star Wars movie) and where they are going (The Empire Strikes Back and Return of The Jedi).

This eighth volume--which is actually the tenth collection, according to the inside cover reading order guides, because of a couple of unnumbered crossover collections (or, put another way, "because Marvel")--contains Star Wars #44-#49, all written by Kieron Gillen and drawn by Salvador Larroca.

Our rebel heroes are currently engaged in trying to secure a fleet with which to fight against the Empire with (Whew! At least they're not still looking for a new base!), and to do so they turn to the people of Mon Cala, the googly-eyed fish people that Admiral Ackbar is the best-known example of. The book opens with Leia trying to convince the planet's regent ruler Urtya--who looks just like Ackbar, only he's a different color, and wearing fancier clothes and a robe--to join the Rebellion, but Urtya refuses, as he doesn't want his planet and people to have to sacrifice their continued existence for the greater good of the galaxy (To Gillen's credit, he gives both sides of the argument compelling weight; even given the cartoonish evil and goodness of the Star Wars mythos, both the Mon Cala leader and Leia seem about equally right, something crystallized when he asks Leia if she would have joined the rebellion if she knew ahead of time what would be done to her home planet Alderaan).

At an impasse with Urtya, Leia comes up with a different, crazier--but more fun to read!--plan. If the regent ruler won't allow his planet and people to join the Rebellion, maybe the king whose place he's ruling in will. That is one Raddus, a previous ally of the Rebellion's who the empire had previously taken prisoner and stashed in some super-secret top security prison somewhere in the Galaxy. Leia's radical plan is to kidnap the Empire's governor--okay, "Grand Moff"--of that sector, take him to the prison, force him to release Raddus, and have Raddus rally his people to the Rebellion.

From there on in, it is basically a heist narrative, which I am 100% a-ok with. One of the most remarkable attributes of those first Star Wars movies, and one of the reasons that the franchise continues to exist and prove as fascinating to generation after generation, is the way in which George Lucas and company subsumed so many other film genres into their space fantasy one, synthesizing it into something cohesive. Regardless of the roller coaster-ing quality levels, one of the film series' greatest achievements (and thus that of all its multimedia spin-offs) is that "Star Wars" itself became a genre of its own, and different, discrete stories could lean into other genres pretty heavily without ever feeling like they are straying too far away form first principles.

So sure: Star Wars heist.

To accomplish this mission, Leia and company first break out a shape-changing actor from prison, and hire him to play the Grand Moff they want to kidnap, so no one will know he's missing. That requires disguises, slipping the target a mickey to force him to go to the bathroom at a certain time (Hey, just like Ocean's 8!), distracting everyone at a fancy space opera party (I think the particular performance is of the same medium as whatever that dumb thing that Palpatine and Anakin attended on Coruscant was...?), speeding to the black site space prison, freeing Raddus and then getting back to the party in time to extract those there. Despite the relatively low stakes--that is, we know nothing too bad is going to happen to any of the main characters--and the fixed nature of the mega-plot, this is actually kind of exciting in the tense way that heist movies are.

The shape-changer is a fun character, and with C3-P0 at his side, the is forced into an extremely elaborate time-stalling action, giving Threepio a fairly sizable role in this story arc. Gillen actually does a pretty fair job of spreading the spotlight around here. Leis is definitely the main character in this one, as she's the one doing all the plotting, giving the orders and getting the most emotional scenes (if this were a film, she would get top billing), but Luke still gets a heroic action scene and Han gets some funny business with Chewie (The best bit involves him posing as a bathroom attendant; when an Imperial officer seems satisfied with his explanation and nods to Chewbacca, Han improvises: "It's a new thing, Sir. You--er--dry your hands on a Wookie. It's very fashionable.")

As I know I've said many times before, I'm not really a fan of Larroca's artwork, which is so heavily photo-referenced it can read like a poorly-choreographed film starring wax dummies. His previous Star Wars work on the initial Darth Vader title worked fairly well, given that the lead character's face was a frozen, expressionless mask, and the creepy soullessness of Larocca's style worked to the character's advantage (it was only when human beings interacted with Vader that the weakness was revealed, but, for the most part, those had the advantage of not being meant to be the faces of familiar actors).

Here though, Larrocca is drawing a late-seventies, early-eighties version of Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford and Mark Hammil on, like, every single page. And he's clearly drawing those actors from that time, not their characters, and the result is--to me at least--extremely unsettling. He does seem to have put some effort in finding film stills in which the actors are making particular faces that are appropriate for the scenes, but that isn't 100% successful, and even when it is, one finds oneself trying to match the source of the swipe to the film. There's just a weird, uncanny valley effect going on here that I hate; I think Larroca's Star Wars art would be fine for covers, but I really hate it for sequential scenes involving any one of those three and, as I said, Leia is the main protagonist here, which means we get a lot of Larroca's Fisher in heavy make-up, emoting like a glitching hologram for pages at a time.

That said, despite my personal distaste for Larroca's style, the script here is solid enough that I couldn't put this particular Star Wars collection down until I had finished it, and I felt more excited about these characters and their adventures while reading than I had in a fairly long time.


Venom & X-Men: Poison-X (Marvel) Pairing Venom, the street-level Spider-Man villain-turned-anti-hero with a sentient alien for a costume, and the time-lost original X-Men, the teenage mutant superhero team that founded a generation's worth of mutant strike forces, together for an adventure is so counter-intuitive that I actually spent some time trying to puzzle out why this particular comic even existed. The characters are, of course, completely different, and move in such completely different circles that, to my knowledge, they have never really ever intersected. And unlike, say, The Punisher and Doctor Strange, these characters aren't so different that their sharing a team-up book becomes appealing because of how they clash, but rather they just don't seem to connect in any way other than the fact that they are all Marvel Comics characters.

Eventually, the obvious answer as to why this crossover exists at all hit me: Cullen Bunn writes both X-Men: Blue, the X-Men book currently starring the teenage versions of the founding five, and the current Venom ongoing series. And that is what the characters have in common, they are being written by the same guy, and thus they are going to share a storyline, no matter how awkward and forced it might seem (In that respect, I guess it's a little like Greg Pak's Totally Awesome Hulk/Weapon X crossover, or Peter David's Supergirl appearing early in his Young Justice run, to grab the first two examples that came to mind, despite the fact that one is from 2017 and the other from, um, 1999).

And it is awkward and forced. Even if we've figured out why "Poison-X" was created behind the scenes, Bunn still has to figure out a way to make it happen and make it convincing in the book. He certainly accomplishes the former. Venom's symbiote costume is an alien from outer space--a Klyntar, to be exact--and one of the X-Men's dads lives in outer space, and that's apparently good enough for a 110-page crossover story that sprawled over two issues of X-Men: Blue and Venom, after kicking off in an X-Men: Blue Annual.

Cyclops Scott Summers is face-timing his dad Corsair and The Starjammers when they are attacked by bounty hunters outfitted with their own Venoms, er, Klyntar. Corsair has just enough time to shout coordinates before Scott gets a glimpse of the attacker hanging up the space phone, and it apparently looks just enough like Venom that Scott, Jean and their team head to New York City to ask current Venom-wearer Eddie Brock for his help on a space rescue mission.

Brock naturally refuses even after hearing them out, but his suit/symbiote/Venom is interested in helping its people out. The X-Men don't take no for an answer though, and so there's a perfunctory fight won by Jean's super-psychic powers, and so Venom is shanghaied and going into space with the founding five, riding a blackbird converted by Danger into a spaceship, I guess...? (It occurs to me that this crossover would have made a lot more sense if Flash Thompson was still Venom, as he was a Guardian of The Galaxy for a while, and space and rescue missions were really more his sort of thing than Eddie's).

The team makes straight for Mos Eisely, get attacked by the bounty hunters--these all wear differently-colored symbiotes, and thus don't really look like a team of space Venoms. Eventually the good guys find the arms dealer that's been supplying the bad guys and others with captive Kylntar to use as super-suits, and the five X-Men each get their own symbiotes and give chase to the fleeing bad guys in order to rescue the Starjammers.

And that's pretty much the whole story.

I'm sure I've mentioned before that I kinda like the idea of the Venom symbiote being passed around so we can see how different artists might draw particular Marvel characters "Venomized"--that was the sole reason I read Venomverse for example, which featured Venomized Rocket Raccoon, Captain America, Ant-Man and others on its covers--but the X-Men ones are a little on the disappointing side. They are all differently colored, which makes them easier to tell apart, but, well don't exactly lead to very Venomy designs. The Beast and Angel versions look the coolest, although Beast having fur seems weird, given that the symbiotes always give their wearers a slppery, oil slick-like look, but the others are kind of weird. Cyclops apparently shoots lasers from wherever in his symbiote, for example, and nothing at all seems different with Iceman or Jean, other than their look, when they are wearing super-parasites. Additionally, they all seem like themselves throughout, which makes me wonder if the Kylntar suit that Spider-Man and Eddie and others have worn was just an asshole of a Klyntar, rather than there being something inherent in the symbiotes that make humans (and mutants) crueler or more violent.

The other reason this crossover exists is to serve as a bridge between Bunn's Venomverse and the upcoming Venomized. The Poison's, the Venom-eating villains of Venomverse that were shown breaking into the 616 universe at the end of that series, appear about halfway through this series, looking to find all the Kylntar they can. By the climax, they fight Venom and the Klyntar-wearing X-Men, and one of the X-Men gets transformed into a Poison, which, we have previously learned, means death; said X-Men is then left floating in dead space. That's...kind of a big deal, really, except it happened in an issue of Venom, and I'm not sure anyone thought, even for a second, that a founding X-Men character would get killed off in an issue of Venom. (The fates of the time-lost X-Men are particularly no-stakes too, as they are all essentially "spares"; with dead Jean Grey back to life, Cyclops is now the only one of the teenage X-Men not co-existing in a world with an adult counterpart).

The art is, necessarily, by committee, with five different artists involved, and passing the drawing baton every 20-30 pages. It's mostly consistent-ish, and none of the artists are bad, but the story never manages to settle on a look, because it can't. The covers, by Arthur Adams, the Arthur Adams-ish Nick Bradshaw and Will Robson are all pretty great, though, and made me wish Bradshaw were drawing the whole story.

Aside from the cloud of pointlessness that hung over the story and the lack of consistent art, it didn't read all that poorly, but then, I read a collection I borrowed from the library. I imagine it might have proven much, much more irritating to readers of X-Men: Blue, who found themselves having to read two $3.99 issues of Venom, and more irritating still to readers of Venom, who found themselves having to read two $3.99 issues of X-Men: Blue and a $4.99 annual.


REVIEWED:


Demon Slayer: Kimetsu No Yaiba Vol. 1 (Viz Media) Here. This is a well-made, perfectly okay comic that I'd recommend to those who like these sorts of comics, but it's certainly not worth going out of one's way to read.


Marvel 2-in-One Vol. 1: The Fate of The Four (Marvel) Here. Okay, yes, the title of this series is fucking ridiculous, and one imagines only used at all to preserve a copyright or something, like to keep DC Comics to re-titling their Shazam book Marvel 2-in-One or to head off a revival of the M.F. Enterprises Captain Marvel in a new team-up title or something. But never mind that. Like all of Chip Zdarsky's previous Marvel writing, this is really rather good, so much so that one almost wonders why Marvel didn't just have him revive the The Fantastic Four book, although perhaps his resume isn't as appealing as Dan Slott's is to the largest amount of Marvel Comics readers at this point...? I don't know why Marvel makes the decisions it does.

Oh, this also has a panel in which Hercules fights Hydro-Man, shouting, "Fight me as a solid, you vainglorious puddle!" Not the kind of thing discerning super-comics readers will want to miss.


Ocean Renegades (Amulet Books) Here. This is the sequel to Howard's Dinosaur Empire book from last year. Or the next book in her "Earth Before Us" series. It is, like Dinosaur Empire, really great, and, if you liked that one, you will like this one...despite the relative lack of dinosaurs in it.


Trees: Kings of the Forest (First Second) Here.  This didn't blow my mind or make me look at trees in a completely different way like Peter Wohllenben's prose book The Hidden Life of Trees did--although Wohllenben's book was one of the sources that cartoonist Andy Hirsch cited in this comic--but, on the other hand, the images in Trees are much, much more charming than the few that appear in The Hidden Life of Trees, so there's that.


AND AS LONG AS I AM LINKING TO STUFF:


Archie Meets Batman '66 (Archie) I interviewed co-writers Jeff Parker and Michael Moreci and pencil artist Dan Parent about the best Batman crossover in a long time for Good Comics For Kids. You can read it here.



*It's hard to pick a beginning point and an ending point, as this was the era of big, Batman line-wide crossovers, but I'm going to say anywhere between 1993 and 1998 or so is pretty okay, with #682-#718 consisting mostly of Batman and Robin fighting crime in Gotham City together in shorter story arcs. That was from the "Prodigal" ending "Troika" through the start of "No Man's Land" or so. The Captain Fear arc one was my favorites, and looking back, I think I actually missed quite a few of these individual issues. 

*The other obvious choice is, of course, the rooster. Which doesn't lend itself to a superhero costume or code name, although it's been tried.