Friday, December 30, 2016

Comic Shop Comics: December 28th

All-Star Batman #5 (DC Comics) Writer Scott Snyder, pencil artist John Romita Jr and inker Danny Miki (with assists from three other inkers) bring their epic, five-part Two-Face storyline to its conclusion in this over-sized, 31-page climax (No Declan Shalvey-drawn, Duke Thomas back-up this issue). This one is probably destined to be a classic Two-Face story, and with rather good reason.

Sure, Snyder has played around with the character's background, his modus operandi and the nature of his personalities quite a bit here, but it amounts to little more than tinkering. But he doesn't break or even damage the character, really; the retooling is no more significant than what we've previously seen in, say, The Long Halloween or "The Big Burn." In the process, he's also established Two-Face as one of Batman's preeminent foes, right up there with The Joker, and Snyder did so rather quickly, as this is just about the only time he's written Two-Face at all, whereas his Joker got several big story arcs already (and, indeed, plays a small but important role in this storyline).

I'd like to see if Snyder can rehab The Penguin, and make him Batman's second worst villain at some point, or see Snyder's take on The Scarecrow, Ra's al Ghul and Bane, all of whom we have seen plenty of (too much of, probably) in the last six years, but not so much from Snyder himself. They will have to get in line, of course, though, as I understand Mister Freeze and The Mad Hatter are among the next villains to be featured in this title.

But back to this issue. The thing I most enjoyed about the arc, Romita's redesigns of many minor villains, is almost non-existent here--save for a brief appearance by The Tweedles, who are now quite large indeed--but all of our questions are answered. Like, for example, the nature of the "cure" for Two-Face that Batman was seeking out, why exactly it was where it was, what Two-Face had on Alfred in order to make him betray Batman back in the first issue or so and what Commissioner Gordon and the GCPD would find when they rip that clock out of the wall in Wayne Manor and descend the secret passage.

It's a very satisfying conclusion to one of the most fun Batman stories I've read in years...and it all but promised a rematch with The KGBeast...Er, I mean, "The Beast."

I'm a little curious as to how this will be collected (The four-part back-up is too short for a trade of their own, but it doesn't really fit with the 100+ "My Own Worst Enemy" either), but if you sat this one out, do check it out in trade. I'm just bummed its over, and that JRJR is leaving for now. Hopefully he'll return at some point...

Deathstroke #9 (DC) Wow, is Deathstroke becoming a prestige project under its latest writer, Christopher Priest? Sure looks like, what with Cary Nord providing the (obviously excellent) art this issue. Entitled "Four Rooms," this is broken up into, um, four different narratives, focusing on the currently incarcerated Slade Wilson, his daughter Rose, his son Jericho and a flashback sequence to the the title character's origins, wherein we learn where he possibly got his name. Also, making a very surprising appearance is Priest's old Steel character, Dr. Villain ("It's pronounced 'Will-hain'").

Detective Comics #947 (DC) Guys, we need to talk about Stephanie Brown. I know DC rebooted their continuity in 2011, completely erasing everything we thought we knew about former Spoiler-turned Robin IV-turned Batgirl III Stephanie Brown, and that when she reappeared in the new, post-Flashpoint New 52-iverse, she was an entirely new character whose history was extremely different than that of the previous iteration of the character.

I can, reluctantly, accept that. What I am having trouble accepting is the idea that New 52 Stephanie Brown is, like, a computer genius and master tactician, not only able to do all kinds of Oracle-level computer business on the fly (as we've seen in previous issues) but, here, take out Batwoman, Batwing, Clayface and "Orphan" Cassandra Cain using a bunch of prepared tech-based attacks catered to each one of them, and then bluff her way into a stand-off with Batman, basically claiming to have orchestrated a big computer-related attack she will activate if he doesn't accede to her wishes. not the Stephanie Brown I know. Now, maybe it's just me, but one of the things I grew to like about Stephanie (a character I didn't much care for when I first encountered her, when she and I were the same age) is that Batman and Robin Tim Drake were basically right about her not being cut out for superheroing...but they were also simultaneously dead wrong about her, depending on the criteria being used.

That is, she's not that great a detective, she's not a terribly good fighter and she is woefully under-trained and un-prepared for a life of full-time crime-fighting. And yet what she lacks in smarts and skills she makes up for in heart and pure determination. She was never going to grow up to be Batman, but she could be a sidekick and maybe even partner to Batman, or at least to Robin; and hell, with the right teammates in her corner, she could be a Robin, or even a Batgirl.

When first introduced in Batman Eternal, she still had an element of the amateur about her, and Bluebird Harper Row kind of took her under her wing. Since then, we've seen her training with a Catwoman and hanging out with Harper, Batgirl Barbara Gordon and Cassandra, and for the most part all of through that she's been her cheerful, willfull, can-do self, but since the relaunch (and renumbering) of Detective she's been presented by writer James Tynion IV as uber-competent. That always felt wrong to me, but here the entire issue hinges on just how hyper-competent she is supposed to be: Enough that she can take down Batman's little Justice League of Gotham City all by herself.

In other Spoiler-related developments, she dons a mask like that she wore pre-Flashpoint, a sort of Spider-Man-like full-face mask with big, opaque, white eyes. I like that mask infinitely better than the current, bandit-like half-maks covering her mouth that she's been wearing in The New 52. That she (and Red Robin Tim Drake) seem to be gradually evolving back toward their cooler, original costumes gives me hope that someday soon Cass will abandon the Orphan name and costume and resume her Black Bat codename and costume.

And I already mentioned this on Twitter, but the worst part of this comic? When Steph gets sad about Tim having "died," and when the not dead Tim gets sad about being trapped in a mysterious prison and away from Steph, they both stare longingly at the same picture they had taken together before: One of the pair of them with the dumb dog filter from Snapchat.

And now I have lost all respect for either of these characters.

Harley's Little Black Book #5 (DC) The most elaborate issue of DC's Harley Quinn team-up book (or, as I like to call it, "the good Harley Quinn" book) so far, this is an extended homage/tribute to Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams' 1978 Superman Vs. Muhammad Ali...drawn by Adams himself. Had writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner not been able to get Adams himself to draw this, it probably wouldn't have been worth doing, as so much of the pleasure of the book is seeing Adams' art (he's drawn a few miniseries for DC lately, but they have ranged between not very good and bat-shit insane), and seeing him riff on his own, almost 40-year-old comic book work.

He packs in a lot of "chicken fat;" in fact, an early double-page spread of a beach scene has so many characters, so many little story-like moments and so much stuff in it that it puts most modern splash pages to shame. There are a couple of reasons to employ splash pages, but the good ones are to either highlight the importance of a scene through the space allotted to it, or simply to show a lot of stuff. This is the latter.

As for the story, it's basically quite similar to Superman Vs. Muhammad Ali, as the same race of aliens visits Earth to recruit a champion to fight their champion. This leads to a fight between Harley and Superman over who should fight for Earth--Harley, who is an actual Earthling, or Superman, who is the more qualified and experienced Earth-saver--and that conflict must be settled via boxing match before one of them can advance to fight the champ.

It's all pretty silly, harmless fun, and though it seems to go on a bit longer than the premise can really sustain, the best jokes being exhausted quite early, it's a nice vehicle for Adams. Ali makes a two-panel appearance, in the background over the shoulder of another character, and it's maybe a little nonsensical, but there it is.

As a vehicle for spreading Harley's wide spotlight around the DC character catalog, I think this book has a great deal of value. So far, it's concentrated almost exclusively on big name characters, but it's not hard to imagine it alternating characters like Green Lantern or Superman with characters that could use a little boost, at least in terms of drawing a Harley Quinn-sized audience to them by way of this series exposing them to more readers.

More valuable still, it provides an excuse for other artists to draw the character, giving someone like, say Neal Adams, what I imagine is a decent paycheck, and something to do besides for variant covers and his own little vanity projects like Batman: Odyssey and The Coming of The Supermen.

Say, I wonder if this might not be a bad place for Paul Dini to get to write his own Harley ongoing series...? That guy surely has as many or even more artists who would like to work with him than Palmiotti and Conner do, right...?

Lumberjanes #33 (Boom Studios) As the cover rather accurately indicates (a rarity for this series), this issue is all about Barney, the former Scouting Lad who was just recently made the very first male member to ever become a Lumberjane. While the main cast from Roanoke Cabin make an appearance near the end, this issue almost exclusively focuses on the members of Zodiac Cabin, home to Diane and Barney.

Two things of note from this issue. The first, I thought it was cute that Barney wore the official "Stripling" uniform of The Lumberjanes and, when asked why, since all the other 'janes just dress in casual clothes at all times (and always the exact same outfit), Barney says he just likes it. It's also almost identical to his Scouting Lad uniform, so I imagine that, like all the other Lumbrejanes characters, being drawn in a particular outfit is so integral to the character's design that messing with it that drastically just seemed either daunting, unrealistic, or out of place in this particular milieu.

The second thing, which bugged me enough that it niggled in my head the rest of the read, and still does a little, is when a cabin-mate is about to refer to him with a male pronoun, as he's been referred to throughout the series, and then she pauses and asks what pronouns he prefers now, and he answers that "they" and "them" are fine.

This threw me. I've just recently talked with a friend at length about the "they/them" pronouns that someone who may choose not to identify with the traditional gender binary, and while I get it (even if the use of a plural pronoun to refer to a singular unsettles the English major in me), it was the girl's usage of the word "now" in asking Barney that really confused me, as it implied some change of the way Barney thought about gender that I don't recall seeing reflected in previous issues (it may have been though, and I missed it, so please feel free to point it out to me if that's the case).

In the arc in which Barney decided he wanted to join the 'janes, I just assumed it was because they were so cool and he felt more comfortable and like it would be a lot more fun camping with his new friends, rather than with the Scouting Lads on the other side of the woods. This seems to imply something else, but I don't know. It's just two panels, and they read rather out-of-left-field to me.

Saga #41 (Image Comics) This issue includes a great acting scene for everyone's favorite Saga character, Lying Cat, which artist Fiona Staples executes quite nicely. It's only a few panels, but it's a great performance. Can very large lie-detecting space cats who are really just drawings in comic books be nominated for Oscars? If so, I hope the Academy nominates L.C. for Best Supporting Actress this year.

Scooby-Doo Team-Up #21 (DC) Here's another measure of how popular Harley Quinn is at the moment: She's the first non-Batman character to reappear in a starring role in the pages of Scooby-Doo Team-Up. I hesitate to say too much about the issue, as DC and creators Sholly Fisch and Dario Brizuela apparently hesitated to advertise too much about it on the cover, but there are multiple guest-stars that follow Harley's appearance, and it is as always fun to parse the specific iterations of them that Brizuela is drawing on for his depictions of them. His Harley, for example, is a highly Brizuela-ified version of the Batman: The Animated Series Harley.

It may also be worth noting that this is a Christmas story, as the ghosts haunting a department store that Mystery Inc is investigating when Harley appears asking to join their team are The Ghost of Christmas Past, The Ghost of Christmas Present and The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Past. Of course, these ghosts are quickly sidelined by the chaos that Harley brings with her.

Sixpack and Dogwelder: Hard Travelin' Heroz #5 (DC) The penultimate issue of Garth Ennis and Russ Braun's sequel to last year's Section Eight doesn't have a new guest-star, unless you count the one-panel appearance of the "Justice League" of The Flash, Hawkman and Green Lantern Hal Jordan dissembling in front of a TV camera regarding why they weren't going on a suicide mission to stop a galaxy-threatening cosmic event involving the star Sirius (that's the dog star, in case you're wondering what it might have to do with this particular group of characters, like the second one named in the title).

The late, great Steve Dillon's cover, which shows Section Eight doing an Armageddon homage, should clue you in as to what super-team is taking on this crazy suicide mission in the Justice League or Suicide Squad's place.

Suicide Squad #7 (DC) I missed this one a few weeks, as my shop had sold out by the time I got there after work. I guess people are really loving those 10-page, half-issues from Jim Lee...? In this installment, the force driving everyone in Belle Reve insane has made the previously criminally insane Harley Quinn sane (note: I don't think mental illness really works that way*), and the newly rational Harley must navigate a full-scale prion riot. Lucky for her, the only rioting supervillains Lee draws are El Diablo and Deadshot, so it's not as hard as it might otherwise be.

There's also (finally) and explanation of what the deal with Captain Boomerang is, and how he'll be coming back from the "dead."

This issue's back-up is an Enchantress solo story, which breaks with the majority of the other, previous ones a bit in terms of its format as well as its focus (It's not an origin, really, which is fine; I think her original origin is a perfectly fun and weird little comics story. It did make me think that if June ever wants to get "better," she should seek some counseling from Jason Blood. That, or Etrigan and Enchantress would make a cute couple.)

Super Powers #2 (DC) Art Baltazar and Franco sure are delivering a lot of superheroes per page in this book. You've got Wonder Woman rescuing Superman from Lex Luthor and then you've got The Composite Superman (one of the craziest, coolest of Superman's villains**) menacing Central City, drawing a response from The Flash, Batman, The Unknown Superman, Superman, Supergirl and Krypto the Superdog. Whew! Meanwhile, something unusual is happening on New Krypton, where Superman's not-dead mom Lara has just given birth to her second child, and her son looks nothing like her husband Jor-El, but identical to an infant version of Brainiac? What's going on?

Well, I suppose we'll have to keep reading in order to find out. In the meantime, it's a blast seeing Baltazar apply his style to the adult icons of the DC Universe after spending so long drawing kid versions of the Titans, and any comic in which The Composite Superman and The Unknown Superman trade blows, accompanied by the sound effects of "Fight! Fight!" is A-OK with me.

Teen Titans #3 (DC) Given how young Damian Wayne is--currently 13, but he left the Al Ghuls to join his father and become Robin at 10, writers keep packing more stuff into his very short back-story. First there was the "Year of Blood" that formed the premise of the recent Robin: Son of Batman series, and now we learn that Damian was also supposed to be the leader of a special squad of kid assassins there were under Ra's al Ghul's League of Assassins umbrella, these one's called "The Fist of The Demon."

These are, of course, the now super-powered super-ninjas that were attacking Damian's press-ganged iteration of Teen Titans in the previous issue. In this issue, writer Benjamin Percy spends some time on a flashback detailing Damian's history with the Fist and his grandfather, and then in the present has him fleeing with his new allies. They take a breather around a campfire bonding, and we learn that with the exception of Beast Boy, they all have horribly evil family members not unlike Ra's or Talia al Ghul (Raven would seem to win the evil family tree competition hands-down, though).

The art in this third issue--which is technically the fourth, as the series started with a Teen Titans: Rebirth #1 special, comes courtesy of Khoi Pham and inker Wade Von Grawbadger. That means every issue of the series so far has had a different set of art credits. So far, they seem to have been able to manage finding enough artists with similar enough styles that the issue-to-issue transitions haven't been jarring (although the trade reading experience will likely make the changing art teams more noticeable), but it's a problem, and one DC's going to want to eventually solve for the sake of the book's quality and, I imagine, its long-term viability (I read four issues in a row though! That's the most issues of Teen Titans I've managed to read in a row since...Geoff Johns was writing it, I think...?)

Wonder Woman #13 (DC) Back to the present in this issue, which would normally mean an issue drawn by Liam Sharp, but he's MIA, with the very able Renato Guedes filling in (That's an artist editors Chris Conroy and Mark Doyle may wanna keep in mind any time Sharp falls behind; if you do wanna see Sharp drawing Wonder Woman this week though, and the cover just isn't enough, he's got a one-page, three-panel story in this week's Love Is Love anthology, featuring George Perez-inspired artwork and Wonder Woman being defiantly, aggressively equivocal about her sexual orientation).

This issue is mostly a Steve Trevor issue, as Wonder Woman seems to have lost her mind a little bit due to how confusing her continuity has gotten (seriously; that's been bugging her this whole series). So Trevor must try to find a way to fight off an elite group of female mercenaries referred to as "Poison" (I suspect they are meant to be a new iteration of Golden Age Wonder Woman villain Dr. Poison; they are lead by a woman with the same surname of the original Dr. Poison, who, fun fact, was a Japanese woman who disguised herself as a man because that's Golden Age Wonder Woman for you).

Trevor and his boys take them all out and rescue Wondy, who is put in some sorta sanitarium under the name of "Diana Prince" while Trevor gets to the bottom of whatever is going on.

*Er, also: Killer Croc and Harley Quinn have both spent a great deal of time in Arkham Asylum, meaning they both meet whatever state Gotham City is in's criteria for "criminally insane" is, so shouldn't the insane-making force suddenly make them both rational...? Instead, it drives Killer Croc something else.

**This 1964 creation by Edmond Hamilton and Curt Swan looks like the right half of Superman fused with the left half of Batman, only with green skin. It's a striking image, but what makes his super-weird is that not only does he have all of Superman's powers, he also has all the powers of the Legion of Super-Heroes not what one might expect from a character with that name and that look, to say the least. Baltazar's clever little addition to the character's costume is that rather than simply fusing the right half of Superman's S-shield with the left half of Batman's Bat-symbol, he's given them a "composite" chest icon that looks just like a brighter version of the logo from the recent Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice movie.

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