Saturday, October 25, 2014

Comic Shop Comics: October 22

Arkham Manor #1 (DC Comics) There are two somewhat curious aspects of this book that will be quite apparent before one even starts reading, and discovers the rather curious premise: That Wayne Manor has become the new Arkham Asylum, so that Batman's greatest enemies are all now living in what used to be his house.

The first of those curious aspects is the title, which is just plain Arkham Manor rather than Batman: Arkham Manor; most comics featuring Batman in any way, shape or form generally put his name and a colon in the title, no matter how small his role in the proceedings may actually be (and, it's worth noting, Batman is the protagonist of this story, so it's not like it'd be a reach to have included his name in the title). This may reflect just how popular and pervasive those video games—Arkham Asylum, Arkham City, Arkham Origins—were. The word "Arkham" is, in and of itself, apparently now seen as enough to sell a comic book as well as the word "Batman" might sell a comic book.

The other curious aspect is the timing. This issue, the first of what is apparently meant to be an ongoing series (although surely this won't be a permanent change to mental health care in Gotham City), includes a little asterisk saying that "The events of this story take place after Batman Eternal #30," which doesn't actually ship until next week. And it's worth noting that the events of this story would seem to take place well after the events of Batman Eternal #30, as it sure seems like quite a bit of time has elapsed between the start of this issue and the events of the still-ongoing Batman Eternal series. Honestly, this seems like a comic book that could have waited until after the weekly it's spinning out of wrapped up...or at least started winding down.

As of the events of this week's issue of Batman Eternal, Arkham Asylum has become the demonic beachhead for an invasion of Earth from hell, its inmates transformed into half-human, half-animal monsters, and the embodiment of the wrath of God himself, The Spectre, is there to deal withe the problem. The opening pages of this issue spoils the results of The Spectre's methods for dealing with the problem, as it shows the Asylum collapsing while a beam of green light shoots up and out of it.

Oh, and Alfred Pennyworth has been committed to the asylum by Dr. Thomas "Hush" Elliot, who had previously mainlined Scarecrow'sfear toxin directly into Alfred's brain, rendering him completely insane with terror. Alfred's daughter, Julia, has been filling in for him in the Batcave. And as for Batman, he's busy trying to save the city from Hush's war-on-all-fronts attack on it.

But in this issue, the Asylum's already gone, Julia's MIA, Alfred is back to normal, Bruce Wayne has apparently somehow lost his fortune (?), he and Alfred have completely moved out of Wayne Manor and de-Batmanned the place, they found an apartment downtown and the city bought the Manor and its grounds and completely refurbished it into a state-of-the-art asylum for the criminally insane. And things in Gotham have calmed down sufficiently enough that Batman can launch himself into a long-term, undercover investigation of a pair of murders. That sounds like weeks, if not months, of activity.

For the most part, one doesn't need to know how writer Gerry Duggan got Batman from Point A (Batman Eternal) to Point B (this comic), although that bit about Bruce Wayne having "lost the family fortune" that gets mentioned in passing sounds like a big enough change in status quo that it bears some more detailing.

Taken on its own, divorced from the events of Batman Eternal—which might take some acceptance from and generosity on the part of the reader, given that the book is essentially a Batman Eternal spin-off—the comic's not a bad one, and is actually a pretty good first issue.

So yeah, Arkham Asylum was destroyed, the city doesn't know what to do with the dangerous lunatics kept there and ultimately the mayor seizes the abandoned Wayne Manor and turns it into "Arkham Manor." That's not sitting all that well for Batman and Alfred as is. But then an inmate gets brutally murdered. And then another inmate gets brutally murdered. So Batman takes the case, getting himself committed to Arkham (So yes, this is essentially the same plot as the "Last Arkham" story arc by Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle that opened the Batman: Shadow of The Bat ongoing back in 1992, only here Batman creates a new identity, rather than getting committed as Batman, as he did in the earlier story).

Duggan's plotting is pretty tight, and, as first issue's go, this one does everything it needs to, laying out the premise and dangling its hook, offering a reader enough information to know if this is something they want to read to see what happens next or if they want to quit while they're ahead.

I think there are a few missteps though, beyond the forces which Duggan likely couldn't control (Like what month they decided to put the damn thing on the schedule). The Joe Scarborough parody seemed pointlessly distracting, and the joke on page eight went too far, making Batman seem needlessly cruel to the point of being evil (I know Duggan is just trying to make a joke about Batman beating the hell out of street criminals, but the last two panels push a scene that worked perfectly well into the TOO FAR! territory, and Batman out of character, all for the sake of a joke that's not that funny, and could probably have been saved to use in different context somewhere down t he line; it was a rather Kevin Smith-y moment. UPDATE: See Chris Sims' review for more detail on the scene, discussed in a more efficient and entertaining manner than I discussed it here).
Seriously—I don't get it.
I can find no missteps at all with the artwork, however. That's provided by Shawn Crystal (with colors by Dave McCaig), and it's pretty much perfect: Crystal doesn't do anything wrong, he does everything right, and he's got a style that is completely unique to the Batman line. It reminds me here and there of the work of other artists, I got a slight sense of John McCrea here and there, and a bit of a Sean Murphy. There's the slightest touch of Greg Capullo to it...or at least enough that this book looks like one that's set in the same universe as Batman, something the other Bat-books generally don't have. I know I called Crystal's work "completely unique" and threw out some names, but I'm just using those names for reference points. His work isn't derivative of that of any of those guys; personally, I find myself more curious about who and what Crystal will get to draw in future issues, and how he'll get to draw it, rather than what happens in the plot. Obviously we'll see Batman, the only recurring Batman character aside from Alfred who gets any real panel-time this issue, facing familiar foes from Arkham in the near future (The Scarecrow, Misters Freeze and Zsasz and The Mad Hatter are on the cover, for whatever that's worth), and I look forward to seeing Crystal's versions of them.

Batman Eternal #29 (DC) Say, how long have Batwing and Jim Corrigan been in the caverns beneath Arkham Asylum now...? It's been weeks worth of story time, hasn't it? How is it that they haven't starved to death yet? Are all the ghosts and magic and hoodoo and whatnot going on down there keeping them alive somehow, even though they apparently haven't eaten, slept or gone to the bathroom for at least a couple of weeks? Or maybe time moves differently near open portals to hell? That would at least explain why the haunted Arkham sub-plot, like the nanotech virus/Red Robin and Harper Row sub-plot, seems to be moving much, much more slowly than those in which Batman himself is directly involved.

In this issue, Batman fights rioters and police officers, Batwing fights the possessed Arkhamites, the ghost of Deacon Blackfire does something, Hush does something too, The Joker's Daughter also does something, Corrigan erupts a column of green light and a clue The Riddler left a long time ago is finally deciphered and, despite it's solution serving as the cliffhanger moment at the very end of this issue, it's something very obvious and long-apparent.

The artwork this issue is provided by Simon Coleby, and while most of the individual panels look just fine, I had a very hard time telling just what the hell was going on during some pretty important-seeming junctures.

For example, I couldn't make heads or tails of Batwing's fight scene, which mostly involved him posing while surrounded by coloring effects and randomly, generically mutated monster zombie men; it wasn't until he gave a voice command recalling all of his pieces of armor that I realized he had spent the last few pages shooting bits of his Iron Man-like bat-suit at his opponents.
No idea what's going on here; I guess Batman is shooting a missile...out of...the palm of his hands...? The choreography in that scene is really confusing; a third reading, embarked upon as I write this, finally finds me understanding what's going on in the three panels after Batman apparently throws a self-propelled bat-missile like a spear. It's not very good, but I think I figured out what writer Ray Fawkes meant to have happen in those panels.

The last three panels on page four, involving Hush, a vial of blood, a cache of Bat-stuff and the sound effect "BIP"...? No idea. Hush has armed...something. Somewhere.

Batman '66 #16 (DC) Egghead is probably my favorite villain from the Batman '66 comics, if only because A) The fact that he was played by Vincent Price means he's the only villain's voice I can hear in my head, save for that of Burgess Meredith's Penguin, since my memories of watching the television show are so faded at this point (I can "hear" Batman and Robin and Commissioner Gordon just fine, but I can't really remember how many of the villains sounded), and B) I really like the constant egg puns. I think they're...what's the word?....eggcellent.

This issue, written as usual by Jeff Parker and illustrated by Brent Schoonover, features the sort of plot that might have appeared in the Batman comics of the late 1950s or maybe even early 1960s, but never would have made it into the show, given the expense it would take to actualize it for the screen. Egghead hyper-evolves himself to enlarge his brain (and thus his head), giving himself incredible mental powers. With those, he devolves Batman and Robin into cavemen...but "The Cavemen Crusaders" retain their mental faculties, despite their more bestial appearance.

You can probably guess how it all ends, but it's still engaging, despite the lack of suspense or tension.

Catwoman #35 (DC) Interesting book, this. Like this month's Batgirl #35, this issue comes with a completely new creative team, a completely new direction and a completely new costume (No costume!) for its protagonist, and that creative team is a very interesting one of the sort that wasn't working for DC Comics in the months leading up to the New 52-boot. In other words, like Batgirl #35, in many ways this book would appear to be like a better candidate for a rebooted Catwoman #1 than what DC actually launched as Catwoman #1 back in September of 2011.

Unlike Batgirl #35, however, this book gets its new direction from Batman Eternal, which it spins directly out of (It would probably have been possible to launch this as Catwoman #1 in 2011 still, but it would lack the relevance and, I suppose, popularity, of spinning directly out of a book co-masterminded by popular Batman writer Scott Snyder).

It has been revealed over the course of the weekly Batman series that Selina Kyle's mysterious real father was actually former Gotham crime lord Rex "The Lion" Calabrese (Catwoman's dad was The Lion get it?!?!?!) and, in last week's issue, Catwoman finally decided to take her old man's advice and inherit control of organized crime in Gotham City. It doesn't mean that Catwoman's made a heel turn—she's been portrayed as a pretty good bad guy, or a slightly bad good guy since at least the early 90s—as she came to that decision after watching the city tear itself apart when there was no one in control. In the pages of Batman Eternal, Catwoman apparently decided to become the benevolent dictator of the Gotham mob.

As with Arkham Manor, this issue seems to be set quite a few weeks after the most recent relevant events of Batman Eternal, but it's shipping date is more logical (Catwoman decided on this path in last week's issue), and there are no truly out-of-left-field developments like Arkham's mention of Bruce Wayne somehow going broke.

The change in direction, with writer Genevieve Valentine and artist Garry Brown doing the steering, is sharp enough that it's practically a change in drama, from street-level superheroics to a fairly straight crime comic (superhero Batman shows up for one scene, but other than that it's all criminals talking crime stuff). Crime comics set in the world of superheroics are nothing new, of course, and the book does in fact read a lot like something that Greg Rucka or Brian Azzarello might have written, but without any of their familiar and sometimes tiresome writing ticks, familiar after years and years of exposure to their writing. Valentine is a prose fiction writer and critic new to the writing of comics, and I don't see any of the obvious or expected weaknesses one generally finds in the work of new comics writer, particularly ones who come to the medium after working extensively in another written medium. There's an awful lot of narration, but only from the lead character, and it works just fine in this particular book, as it is tightly focused on that lead character, never leaving her for even a panel: It is, essentially, a first-person comic book, as far as the script and plot are concerned.

The book opens and returns to some quotes from Queen Elizabeth (the Cate Blanchett one, not the current one), which strikes me as a very 1990s DC thing, but as styles go, that's not a bad one to evoke at all.

Brown's art is similarly familiar to that of the superhero crime drama, with lee Lughridge giving it a rather subdued Vertigo-esque palette in which each scene only seems to have two or three different colors in it.

All in all, it doesn't look, read or feel like much of anything else DC is publishing right now, and I'm having difficulty matching it to any previous Catwoman runs or stories; given how old the character is and how many comics she's starred in at this point, that in an of itself is also something of an accomplishment.

Finally, the book read a lot longer than it's actual 20-page length. I'd certainly recommend it for anyone interested in checking the character out, or trying a new comic book-comic out this week or month.

As for the story, it seems set in the future, but the very near-ish future. Gotham City seems to be out of it's current horrible predicament—like, it's not all in flames, with ghosts and demons roaming its sewers and riots in the streets, at least—so I assume it takes place after the events of Batman Eternal...or, at least, closer to their conclusion.

Selina Kyle, dressed in the suit you see on the cover, with only her whip left over from her previous costume, has taken control of the Calabrese family, with her inner circle consisting of two very loyal young cousins and a second-in-command that doesn't seem to like or trust her and, in fact, is openly hostile and constantly questioning her. She seems to be the new Falcone-like figure, and is something of a civic-minded gang boss, re-investing in the city.

Meanwhile, Selina is trying to convince an Asian crime family to work with them, Batman doesn't like what Catwoman's up to and expresses his concerns during his eight-panel appearance, Black Mask would like to take over and someone other than Selina is wearing a Catwoman costume.

It seems like a very promising start; I hope it fulfills that promise.

The Multiversity: The Just #1 (DC) The latest issue #1 issue in the long-awaited, Grant Morrison-scripted, all #1 issues series comes with a cover evoking that of a J-14, Teen Beat-like magazine (shut up, I work in a library) and the eye-rolling title of "#earthme."

If you're worried about the prospect of an out-of-touch, middle-aged comic book writer spending the length of a coomic book clucking about the faults and foibles of the social media generation, well, I don't blame you; but you need not. This is, after all, still Grant Morrison, and it all works out pretty okay.

The title of the issue refers to the name of a fifth-generation super-team a pair of characters—one of whom is the original Green Arrow's granddaughter—are considering forming, before the book abruptly ends with a group of hacked-into Superman robots attacking a random city street (A sense of place is something unfortunately lacking from the artwork in this issue, and the final splash page seems at odds with the direction the script seemed to be going in).

The comic is, in actuality, more of an extended riff on Bob Haney and Dick Dillin's "Super-Sons" from 1973, with grown-up versions of Batman's biological son Damian Wayne and Superman's adopted son Chris Kent in the roles of Batman Jr. and Superman Jr. Set, as those identities reveal, in the pre-Flashpoint universe that seems to have allowed older generations of heroes to actually age and die.
I think I'd rather read about these guys then the New 52 Leagues.
So Kyle Rayner is Green Lantern (once again the last of the Green Lanterns), Connor Hawke is Green Arrow, Wally West is The Flash, Garth is Aquaman, Artemis is Wonder Woman and Ray Palmer, an outlier, is The Atom. The background is filled with pre-New 52 cameos (Chronos II, Max Mercury, Anima, Gunfire, Impulse, Kid Lobo, Mas y Menos, Wonder Girl Cassandra Sandmsark, Hourman III, Aqualad II, Aquagirl III, some Ravers, even The Protector), and there's an interesting assortment of now mostly lost characters with minor roles (Alpha Centurion, Argus, Gypsy, Bloodwynd, Dr. Mid-Nite II, Superboy Conner Kent, Steel Natasha Irons, Kingdom Come's The Joker's Daughter II/Harlequin II and The Kingdom's Offspring) and new characters (Metamorpho's daughter Megamorpho, Mister Miracle II's daughter Sister Miracle, the new Arrowette, etc).

In a world where Superman and his generation of heroes pretty much eradicated crime and solved all the world's problems, the greatest threats faced by the new generation of heroes are their own boredom and ennui. Before the late Lex Luthor managed to kill Superman, the Man of Steel was able to program his army of Superman robots to take care of pretty much everything (ala the "Superman: King of the World"/Dominus plotline from the early '00s). So now the heroes worry about things like who is and who isn't invited to parties and, for the World's Finest, the fact that Chris Kent doesn't like the fact that Damian is now dating Alexis Luthor.

That changes when one of the younger, newer heroes commits suicide, and a few characters begin to suspect it has something to do with this supposedly haunted comic book (Morrison features a nice, if weird, homage or reference to his own work, in choosing the character who dies, and the reaction of one of the characters, a fairly perfect echo of his own JLA #5).

Morrison includes some of his now probably to-be-expected commentary on the comics industry, with Offspring saying how he much he prefers Marvel (analogue) comics to DC (analogue) comics, and noting how dumb it is that they're killing off everyone in their Ultimate (analogue) line.

I wasn't quite sure what to make of this scene, although there is delight in the sheer surprise of a character in a DC comic book referring to The Sandman as "The Sandman? Neil Gaiman's Sandman?"...
A nice, almost throwaway three-panel exchange that still manages to help define the character of this Batman and his relationship to this Superman.

I have to say I really rather enjoyed this particular installment, perhaps moreso than the previous ones, and I suspect that has a lot to do with the simple fact that this one is set in a world that appears to simply be a future version of the DC Universe I grew up reading, and have spent the most time in and thus have the strongest feelings for.

I suppose it helps, too, that Grant Morrison is writing it, and that the designs on so many of the costumes are so sharp. I don't really like the look of the two new Super-Sons, but Green Lantern, Green Arrow, Aquaman? Yeah, I like those (Also? It's just kinda nice to see a character like Garth again and remember, "Oh yeah, he still exists...just not in version of their fictional universe that DC Comics' line is currently devoted to chronicling).

The art in this issue is provided by Ben Oliver, with Dan Brown assisting with colors. I don't care for his style, which looks a lot like the cover of a Marvel comic from the earlier '00s. The acting is fine, and the panel-to-panel reading experience okay, but, as I've already mentioned, there's no sense of place, thanks to the minimal backgrounds. Batman's apartment in Gotham City, the Nevada dessert, Sasha Norman's Malibu home, a Suicide Slum art gallery, the streets of Metropolis, everything looks the exact same, and its all overly-lit, like an old-fashioned TV that needs its dials adjusted, and colored in the same over-exposed palette.

It was the worst-looking of the Multiversity books so far, but then, the series has some of the best artists who work for DC lined-up to draw them. Overall, it was probably the best script Morrison's produced for the series so far, in that it is actually a complete story all its own (the previous issue, set on the pulp-inspired world, just sort of wandered off, as it was meant to feed into the series' conclusion. I expect this book will too, but Morrison doesn't structure the story around the mega-story of The Multiversity as blatantly here; the plot elements from the previous books are present, but are not the focus).

And I just kind of appreciate the fact that the book was strong enough that I went and checked the indica during a certain point, when Batman combs through a comic book collection of one of the characters, only to discover that the comics' publishing indica say they came from cities that don't exist...on that Earth.

The New 52: Future End #25 (DC) The new StormWatch fights Brainiac robots in space! Fifty-Sue's crew fights one another, verbally! Bearded, shirtless Superman fights the Brainiac robot that looks like Parasite! And Jason Rusch and Ronnie Raymond fight, also verbally! But there's a push, too. So, action-packed issue, I guess, drawn by Patrick Zircher, Jesus merino and Dan Green. I suspect the book will get more interesting when we next check in with StormWatch, as they escape Brainiac and his legion of robots by jumping into The Multiverse. Who knows where they'll land? (Hopefully anywhere but Earth 2, as I'm pretty sick of that place).

Scour the cover and you'll see such unlikely characters as pre-New 52, J'onn J'onnz, Plastic Man, Jim Balent's Catwoman, and Silver Age Krypto...but don't get too excited; they're likely just random characters cover artist Ryan Sook chose to illustrate the fact that the red stuff in the background is The Bleed between Earths in the Multiverse.

She-Hulk #9 (Marvel Entertainment) Do people stop reading a book once they hear it's been canceled? I hope not. Otherwise, they'll miss some really great Javier Pulido artwork in this issue, including a quite lovely two-page, landscape sequence in which Daredevil puckishly induces She-Hulk to chase him around the San Francisco skyline.

Also, there's a pretty good banana joke occurring in the background of one scene.

The story continues the one from the previous issue, without resolving it yet: Captain America is being sued for his pre-Captain America actions that led to the death of a young man. Is he really guilty? Cap himself seems interested in having the American legal system determine that for him, as he's asked his friend Matt Murdock to take the case and fight as hard as he can to get a guilty verdict, while Jen Walters defends him. That's such a Cap thing to do, isn't it?


Bram said...

Had to pass on Multiversity this week (though will get in the next one or two) — I take that exchange to somehow relate to the whole, meta, this-is-a-comic-about-the-nature-of-comics thing that's been teased in the series.

She-Hulk? Come onnnnnnnn.

David said...

So is Earth-Me like Windows Me? As in, designating that the timeline split was the turn of the millenium. Because the way it's described sounds like "What if Mark Waid became EIC instead of Dan Didio."