Monday, February 27, 2017

Comic Shop Comics: February 22nd

Batman '66 Meets Wonder Woman '77 #2 (DC Comics) Most of this issue is set during World War II, the setting of the first season of Wonder Woman '77, when the Bruce Wayne of Batman '66 was just a little boy. It works, though, because Wonder Woman is an immortal, as is her opponent in this issue, Ra's al Ghul (and also Nazis). The ending is set in the present of Batman '66, the year 1966, when Bruce Wayne finishes telling Dick Grayson his tale, pulls his cowl on and tells his chum that they are headed to Paradise Island, to find Wonder Woman before Ra's does.

The fun writers Marc Andreyko and Jeff Parker are having playing with the timelines, finding places where they would potentially intersect and how, exactly, is apparent, and slightly contagious.

Additionally, pencil artist David Hahn and inker Karl Kesel continue to do an amazing job of simplifying the characters down to the point where they look like the characters that Adam West, Linda Carter and Burt Ward were playing, rather than looking like West, Carter and Ward the actors (Artist Mike Allred, who provides the covers, doesn't really pull that trick off, but given that it's just a cover it's not a big deal; I do find his wax dummy Linda Carter kind of unsettling, though, and I say that as a huge fan of Allred's work who has been wanting him to do Batman '66 interiors since DC first started publishing this sereis)

There's one weird scene that struck me as weird in an unintentional way, rather than weird in a purposeful way, as when Wonder Woman talks to some bats, and she doesn't do it telepathically, but by actually speaking bat language out loud, with the words, "Sweekeek Eek!". There's a moment where Wonder Woman rescues little boy Bruce from a Nazi in the caverns beneath Wayne Manor, and the Nazi backs away from her, expositing...until he plunges backwards over the cliff, falling to his death. And Wondy just watches him fall. I know this is war, and war is hell, but man, I'm not used to this sort of Wonder Woman. Did she and Steve kill Nazis on the show...? (I was born in '77, and have only rewatched a few episodes since, so, um, I'm not exactly up on the inner workings of that particular superhero TV show).

Two Wonder Woman comics were released today. This was the all-around better of the two, in addition to being the more fun one to read.

Belfry (Image Comics) This was an impulse buy, based on the fact that I like Gabriel Hardman's artwork and the suggestive title and cover image showing a bat lady (which reminded me instantly of a sighting of a bat-winged woman in Vietnam that John Keel reported in The Mothman Prophecies).

It's a one-shot, horror comic written, drawn and everything-else-ed by Hardman, an artist whose work you may be familiar from his work for Image, Dark Horse, DC or Marvel (he first came to my attention for his work with Jeff Parker on Marvel's Agents of Atlas comics; I honestly can't tell what is keeping that movie adaptation from happening).

It's extremely straightforward in terms of plot, with the most complex bit being the sort of loop-de-loop stinger of an ending, which is almost expected in short horror comics. The 22-page comic opens in the middle of a terrible plane crash, in a series of off-kilter black panels filled with nothing by hand-drawn sound-effects.

From there, our co-pilot protagonist and the other survivors find themselves in a jungle, and almost immediately set upon by bat-winged humanoids that turn out to be some kind of vampires, albeit ones that don't try to pass for human and live in the wild, like particularly highly-evolved animals (they appear to be able to use tools, so their culture is of a level that would designate them as higher than animal, but not much higher, at least not from what little clues we're given here).

Then we see another thing they have in common with vampires, aside from the blood-sucking and their similarities to bats.

Like I said, the plot is pretty straightforward, but Hardman's art--the best of his I've ever seen, honestly--and the atmosphere it conjures makes it a compelling, moody, slightly scary affair. Horror fans, and those interested in different takes on the vampire story, should find this particularly enjoyable.

While I liked the title, after reading the book and seven pages of back matter, in which Hardman shares sketches and explains his thought process and even recommends some of his own favorite horror narratives, I think he would have been better off going with Bat People, which better describes the content (there are no belfries in the book, which is set entirely in a jungle, and even thinking of belfry as a metaphor for the human mind doesn't work all that well given the story) and has the added benefit of suggesting one of the films he suggests, the 1942Cat People. (Seconded! Cat People is fantastic; the 1982 remake not so much, although it does feature 1,000% more Natassja Kinski nudity than the original.)

Deathstroke #13 (DC) Wow, if you thought Slade Wilson was a shitty father before, just wait until you make it to the surprise last page of this issue.

Detective Comics #951 (DC) Between reading this issue and writing these words, I read a good chunk of Batgirl Vol. 1: Silent Knight, which collects the entire first year of the first Batgirl title, the one starring Cassandra Cain. While the Kelley Puckett, Scott Peterson, Damion Scott and Robert Campanella comic series has always colored the way I've seen the re-booted Cassandra (in the same way my reading of comics featuring New 52 Tim Drake and Stephanie Brown are colored by their Chuck Dixon-written adventures from the '90s), they are now so fresh in my head that I find writer James Tynion and artist Christian Duce's take on the character and Lady Shiva all the more disappointing.

While Tynion has devoted 'Tec (and, before it, Batman and Robin Eternal) to reestablishing supporting members of the Batman comics of the '90s and '00s in the new rebooted continuity, I find myself torn over whether that is a good thing or a bad thing to devote one's time to. I love these characters (Tim and Cass especially), and enjoyed and continue to enjoy the comics that originally featured them (the millennial Batgirl still holds up perfectly well in 2017), but maybe not so much that it's worth having messy, mangled-up versions of them appearing in mediocre comics.

And, unfortunately, that's what this is.

This version of Shiva is designed and drawn more like the one from later in her pre-Flasphoint career (which could be worse; do you remember what she wore in her New 52 debut?), and is the apparent leader of some weird-ass assassin group The League of Shadows, a secret society that Batman, The World's Greatest Detective, didn't believe really existed. Until they struck! (As I'm pretty sure I've noted before, coupled with his disbelief in The Court of Owls, that makes Batman 0-2 when it comes to detecting secret societies.) This is the threat that Batwoman's dad's splinter group of the U.S. military was formed specifically to fight.

Here we learn they are coming to Gotham and, after first framing Batman for the murder of the mayor, they stage what appears to be an attack by The Joker (Hey, remember how there are three Jokers? When do you think Batman will get on that? It seems like something that would be pretty high on his list of priorities). But when Batman and his current Detective Comics crew--Batwoman, Batgirl Orphan, Batwoman, Batwing, Azrael and Clayface--show up to subdue the crowd of apparent Joker venom victims, the rioters all whip out swords, spears and various ninja weapons from, um, somewhere. Batman is really being bad at detecting lately!

Duce's art is of the New 52 DC house style; it tells the story well enough, but is completely uninteresting and lacks anything in the way of style, and Alex Sinclair's coloring only buries the relative strengths of Duce's linework under the pall of moody darkness and lighting effects too common in current Bat-comics.

Eddy Barrows' cover art is nothing to get excited about, either, featuring as it does the figure of Shiva sandwiched between a pile of text and a pile of posed unconscious superheroes. I do like the little shuriken embedded harmlessly in Clayface's head, though. Clayface would be the on member of this team that would have a serious advantage over Shiva, as I'm not sure how you fight sentient, shape-changing clay with your bare hands; she's almost certainly gonna have to cheat and break out some kind of high-tech weaponry, right?

Jughead #13 (Archie Comics) Guys, this comic is so good that I am convinced it is actually too good, because it means I'm just going to be all depressed when current writer Ryan North leaves after this story arc, as I heard he will be doing. This arc, by the way, is the one in which Reggie Mantle wins a bet and is named "King For A Month" over all of his friends, and, lucky for them, he has decided to use his new powers to compel them to form a band with him, called--what else?--The Reggies. If you missed all that in the previous issue, don't worry--Dilton recaps everything for you (with an assist from Chuck).

There are an awful lot of jokes, and many of them are very, very funny. There's the names of other Josie and The Pussycats-adjacent bands, there's Jughead's song "The Things I Like To Eat, Including Burgers, Fried Chicken, Bone Marrow, Vegetables If There's Enough Butter On Them, And Sugar, Sugar Is Pretty Good Too" (I can't read music, so correct me if I'm wrong, but it appears as if North actually wrote this as an actual song, with, like, notes and everything; it doesn't seem to be to the tune of The Archies' "Sugar, Sugar"), the best possible way to present the absolute tedium of the studio recording process, more (and more specialized) hunks and a fantastic three-panel sequence in which Reggie and Veronica react to the news that they've gone viral, but not for anything that is good.

Artist Derek Charm continues to provide the best art I can remember reading in an Archie comic since Dan DeCarlo, and I can't tell you how much I love his constantly-squinting, Captain Marvel-eyed Reggie (And by Captain Marvel, I of course mean the male one in the red suit, currently owned by DC Comics, not the lady one in the red and blue suit, currently owned by Marvel Entertainment). (Oh hey, I half-watched part of this week's episode of Riverdale while visiting my sister's family, and while my 13-year-old niece heartily endorses it*, I was way too freaked out by everything I saw to form an opinion...But! The reason I mention this is that I see Reggie is apparently of Asian descent on the show, so I wonder if this particular character design would look offensive, if you picked up this comic with the expectation that Reggie is Asian-American, rather than a generic 1940s-created white comic book character?).

Anyway, North and Charm's Jughead is the best thing ever. If you haven't been reading it, go pick up Jughead Vol. 2 right now; it's a trade paperback collecting the two-issue Chip Zdarsky/Charm story where Jughead and Archie go camping and stumble upon the Mantle family reunion and the entire three-issue North/Charm Sabrina story, and, completely randomly, the first issue of the new Josie and The Pussycats, which is also fantastic.

Justice League of America #1 (DC) After four character-specific one-shots and a "Rebirth"-branded one-shot, the Steve Orlando-written Justice League comic finally kicks off for real, still featuring the pencil art of Ivan Reis (with a trio of inkers).

I still can't make heads-or-tails of the repeatedly stated premise of this series, that what will differentiate this Justice League from the other Justice League Batman is in is that it will be a Justice League of the people.

"People need to see heroes are human," Batman tells the supermodel with the magical amulet allowing her to access the ability of any animal, "Like them. That they can be heroes."

From there we check in with the various other team members: The former rockstar with a sonic scream and the kid kid who can turn his body into light, the alien super-biker and the blue-skinned, ice-powered heat vampire and the guy who can shrink to sub-atomic size. When a signal goes out from the Troubalert (one of the many call-backs to previous DC narratives Orlando fills his comics writing with), they all convene to pose in a double-page spread and face off against...The Extremists? Oh man...

So The Extremists are a group of thinly-veiled Marvel Comics villain analogues created by Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis and Bart Sears during the Giffen/DeMatteis era of the Justice League comics. They are exactly the sort of characters that would naturally attract Orlando, who puts The Ray in the city of Vanity (from the pages of Aztek) and pits Lobo against the fire trolls that Aquaman fought in the earliest issues of Erik Larsen's terrible run on Aquaman**). Thing is, the characters aren't terribly exciting by themselves, and whatever Orlando ends up doing with them, so far he seems to be presenting them with the same old goal they've had in past stories. Having failed to save their own Fake Marvel Universe, they've come to the DC Universe to conquer it, in order to save it from itself (This is also what Geoff Johns had his version of the Crime Syndicate up to in Forever Evil, now that I think of it).

So Orlando may have something new and interesting to do with these characters, but, if so, there's no indication of it apparent in this issue, the cliffhanger ending of which is Batman offering himself up to them as someone they can kill and make an example of. I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that Batman is not actually going to die, not even temporarily, next issue.

Under normal circumstances, I would probably drop this book at this point. And by "normal circumstances" I mean a DC Comics line where the Justice League franchise's A book is really good. But as I actively loathe the Bryan Hitch-written Justice League book, this book has the advantage of being better-written and better-drawn, so I'm not going anywhere.

That doesn't mean I won't still wish it was better, though...!

Scooby-Doo Team-Up #23 (DC) In this issue, Scooby and the gang meet Quick Draw McGraw (and El Kabong) and Baba well as slightly more obscure Hanna-Barbera Western funny animals Ricochet Rabbit and Droop-a-Long. As with a handful of other characters Scooby-Doo has teamed up with in the pages of Scooby-Doo Team-Up, this is a pretty awkward fit, both in terms of visual style and the degree of realism in each side of the team-up's home narratives.

I mean, yes, Scooby-Doo is an animal, and he does talk--sort of--but he's not a talking, funny animal character. He doesn't walk around on his hind-legs, speak clear English to everyone around him and hold down a job. At least, not usually, and not in the source of the Scooby-Doo characters that show up in Scooby-Doo Team-Up. Quick Draw, on the other hand, is a horse who is also a sheriff. (I do like seeing him threaten Fred and the others with a six-gun though; that's something you don't see every day.) So when Scooby and the gang do encounter characters like this, it, like Scooby and Shaggy's appearances in Laff-A-Lypmics (Say, if they did one of those weird Hanna-Barbereboot comics based on Laff-A-Lympics, what do you think that would be like? Gladitorial combat? The Hunger Games-ificication of Hanna-Barbera's cartoon all-stars?).

That doesn't mean such team-ups aren't worth doing and aren't worth reading, of course, it just means they feel really, really weird, even wrong to me. There weren't too many good gags in this issue, I thought, but it was a vast improvement over last issue-s strange, background-less adventure in a vacuum, and I did enjoy seeing Snuffles show up and join Scooby in the rapturous enjoyment of a Scooby Snack (I didn't realize it at the time, but in A Pup Named Scooby-Doo, Scooby's reaction to eating a Scooby Snack was at least in part borrowed from Snuffles, albeit more violent, as Scooby tended to turn into a rocketship and explode between his self-hugging and his floating back down to earth).

Suicide Squad #12 (DC) "Who Kiled Amanda Waller?" the text on the cover asks, and I'm willing to go on record right now and say "No one." No one killed Amanda Waller, because she's not really dead--she did, however, fake her own death for some reason, because Amanda Waller is a control freak who would fake her own death in a way that casts suspicion on her rivals and/or the criminally insane murderers she employs. But for now, she seems to die in this issue, shortly after having ceded control of the Squad to that Harcourt lady.

This issue is again split into two different stories, that are really the same story, drawn by different artists. John Romita Jr. and Richard Friend draws the first 12 pages (labeled "Burning Down The House Part 2: Those Left Behind"), while Eddy Barrows and Eber Ferreira draw the next ten pages (labeled, um, "Those Left Behind," for some reason).

In the JRJR section, the recently re-introduced Rustam takes on the Squad after rescuing his allies, The Jihad The Burning World. One of the most interesting/entertaining/weird parts of re-reading the original Suicide Squad comics from the 1980s and early 1990s, which DC has belatedly been collecting and publishing in trade paperback format, is seeing just how 1980s it all was, and trying to wrap one's head around how these comics might have appeared had they been published, say, this year, instead of a couple of decades ago. Certainly terrorism and Middle East geo-politics in American pop culture look very, very different pre- and post-9/11, and I pretty vividly recall reading the introduction of Rustam's super-team The Jihad and wondering how on Earth that would translate into today's comics, if anyone bothered attempting it.

Well, Suicide Squad writer Robbie Williams and one of his many artistic partners attempt it here! The Jihad is now The Burning World, and their line-up includes redesigned versions of Ravan, Manticore, Djinn and Jaculi. For the most part, they all look better, or at least less dated and less cultural insensitive than their 1980s designs. I was probably most struck by the Manticore design, as this version has a robot humanoid body and a lion's head, which makes him a bit of a reverse Manticore.

Basically, the Squad and World fight, the World wins and leaves, and JRJR gets another shot to draw the hell out of a bunch of characters, including a neat sequence in which the digital Djinn fights Hack as she tries to transport the team as digital information into Blackgate Prison, where Rustam's teammates were being kept for some reason (Is there no Slab in The New 52-iverse?).

In the back-up, Harcourt interrogates the various members of the Squad to see if they were the ones who might have shot Waller, and Hack and Harley both suspect Deadshot.

Sun Bakery #1 (Image) Despite being a fan of Corey S. Lewis' work, I neglected to pre-order a copy of his self-published one-man anthology series, Sun Bakery. I guess I wasn't the only one who missed out on it the first time around, as it's being republished by Image Comics. Having not read or seen the self-published version, I don't know what might have be different about this one, but I'm assuming the Image Comics 25th Anniversary logo on the front and the barcode with above it are new.

Otherwise, this looks like a top-to-bottom, cover-to-cover Corey S. Lewis joint. As he explains in an afterword of sorts, the idea was to bring "a Shonen Jump type flavor to Western comics." I don't know if he succeeded to find the exact flavor he was looking for--this didn't feel the same as the issues of Shonen Jump I read, anyway--but I sure like the idea of a Lewis-conceived attempt at a Shonen Jump for North American comics shops.

There are three stories of some length in here--13, 17 and nine pages, respectively--plus a back-up, bonus comic of three pages, which seems present mostly because there was some space left to fill. The inside front cover, the inside back cover and every other available space has words and doodles and little comics content by Lewis on them. It's an almost intimate reading experience, not unlike reading a homemade comic book drawn by a friend just for you.

As for those stories, they are all the first chapters. The first is "Arem," and stars Arem Lightstorm, a "space documentarian" who wears a big, familiar-looking battle-suit with a hand-cannon that She's basically part space-explorer, part photographer, seeking to fill her Instagram account with awesome pictures. In his afterword, Lewis refers to it as "a tribute/parody comic of a video game that is probably pretty obvious!" I didn't make the connection (it's Metroid) until I read that, but, yeah, imagine a Metroid where the goal is to take the best pictures to get a lot of likes on social media.

The pace is very casual, as we basically wake up with Arem and follow her as she starts her day. There's some action and a cliffhanger, but one of the great things about Lewis' art is that everything seems action-packed, even if it's just a person walking out of the shower and grabbing a slice of pizza. (You know what's weird, though? Arem showers, eats and then works out. I would have worked out, showered and then eaten. I mean, I guess the eating could take place either before or after the shower, but both showering and eating seem like definite after work out activities, not pre workout activities.

"Dream Skills" seems a little more ambitious. In this setting, guns are replaced by swords, and not by law or anything, but because all of a sudden human beings developed some kind of "aura circle" of energy that repels bullets. Now, guns are useless, but, it turns out, swords can penetrate the aura circle, and a dueling culture has arisen. Puff is our point-of-view character, and she's being introduced to this new sword-wielding world by Xasha, the lady on the cover. The story ends with a fantastic diagram of Xasha's swords man hidden blade features. When the narration refers to a sword as the ultimate life accessory, it wasn't kidding; the hidden compartments of her sword hilt and the features embedded in the blade make it something of a purse or utility belt and something of a cell phone in addition to being a cool-looking weapon.

The final story, Bat Rider, is about a mysterious skateboarder named Bat, his sentient, talking skateboard, and the ghost of his ex-girlfriend, who skates alongside him. The relationship between Bat and his board reminded me a little of that between D and his hand in Vampire Hunter D, but maybe that's just me. It's awesome.

While none of these are full-color stories, the first two are all pinks and purples and whites, while "Bat Rider" is a stark black and white that really pops compared to everything around it. The panels are the shape of a cell phone screen. Apparently that's because it started as a smart phone digital comic, but the upright, rectangular panels with rounded corners also suggest the shape of a skateboard, and thus look perfectly apporpirate.

There's a very brief little crime and sex story called "Dead Naked," too.

It's an all-around great comic. You should totally read it.

Teen Titans #5 (DC) This issue finishes up the first arc, and it's where I'll be jumping off. Not because I'm disappointed with the book, but just because it's about to get a dramatic price increase, and I can trade-wait it. It's a pretty good comic though, and as I think I mentioned last time, this is the most consecutive issues of a Teen Titans comic I've read since Geoff Johns was writing it. And that was a really, really long time ago now.

The arc ends almost exactly as one would expect it to end, with maybe one element being a bit of a surprise, but it works well enough, and establishes a new status quo for Damian and a reason for this iteration of Titans to exist. I like the new tower too, which honors the original while still looking fresh and new.

I'm not sure why Damian has Wolverine claws throughout the whole thing, though. That seems pretty random.

The last panel includes a next issue box reading "The Sixth Titan," which, according to future covers, will be a new Aqualad who looks like the one on the Young Justice cartoon. It occurred to me while reading this that Nobody should probably be the seventh Titan. I know she doesn't belong on a Titans team the way the rest of these people do, but given her relationship with Damian, and how she evolved to become his first real friend, it seems like he would want to include her here (Of course, the same could be said of the new Superboy...unless his parents won't let him join?).

Wonder Woman #17 (DC) Gross, huh? That's Barbara resuming the curse of The Cheetah in order to save her friends from Veronica Cale. I don't like looking at it.

As with writer Greg Rucka's previous run on Wonder Woman, this is rather slowly, gradually paced, and can even be a little boring read one chapter a month, and likely reads better in trade. That, or maybe this was a rather slow chapter, as the title character has sit this and the previous few chapters of this story out, only appearing in goofy vision sequences set at a sanitarium, while the supporting cast has come to the fore.

*I particularly enjoyed hearing my niece express exasperation that Archie can't make up his mind in terms of which girl to date after watching, like, three episodes of this show. He's had 75 years and ten million pages of comic books to make up his mind in terms of which girl to date, and he still hasn't; will he choose faster on the TV show?

**A run that did give us Lagoon Boy, so it wasn't all bad.

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