Saturday, March 18, 2017

Comic Shop Comics: March 15th

All-Star Batman #8 (DC Comics) This is the third installment of Scott Snyder's "Ends of The Earth" story arc, and it is the third in a row to feature a new artist (here Giuseppi Camuncoli, penciled by Mark Morales) and a mad scientist-style villain who once had some business or other with Bruce Wayne's company (here The Mad Hatter).

I confess being somewhat surprised, even shocked, by how good the issue was; in fact, it may be the best Mad Hatter comic I've ever read (The Paul Dini-scripted Batman: The Animated Series episode "Mad as a Hatter" is probably the best Mad Hatter story ever told, though). I can certainly think of Mad Hatter stories with more interesting designs and artwork (1994's Legends of The Dark Knight Halloween special Batman: Madness by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale leaps immediately to mind), and there have certainly been a variety of wildly divergent takes on the character that are noteworthy (I'm thinking, for example, of Gail Simone's use of the character in her Villains United/Secret Six comics, in which she turned his hat obsession into an actual sexual fetish for hats), but I'm honestly coming up empty for a high-quality Mad Hatter comic book story here. (Any suggestions? I certainly wasn't a fan of that Gregg Hurwtiz/Ethan Van Sciver story arc in Batman: The Dark Knight, and most of the good Mad Hatter comics I can think of are ones that appeared in non-canonical comics adapted from various cartoon shows.)

After a few pages of connective tissue linking this particular issue to the storyline it is a part of (although, like the first two chapters, it reads relatively complete on its own, making it a good candidate for any sort of future "best of" collection of Mad Hatter comics), Batman confronts The Hatter in a specially-built headquarters, and recalls their very first meeting.

The diminutive villain, here dressed in a rather fancy, even classy-looking white suit, attempts to convince Batman/Bruce Wayne--he knows his secret identity, somehow--that upon their very first meeting, he had planted one of his mind-controlling microchips on Wayne, and that Batman's entire career has simply been an elaborate fantasy created by a combination of Wayne's own imagination and The Hatter's technology.

To Snyder's credit, while this proposal obviously isn't true, he has The Hatter present a fairly compelling case to Batman, and a good chunk of the issue is devoted to Batman questioning whether it is true or not. Snyder indulges in the villain's Lewis Carroll obsession, but in a rather unusual way: Sure, there are various allusions to elements of the two Alice novels, but Snyder goes a bit deeper than most Batman writers ever bother, connecting his plot to to thematic (or interpreted) aspects of the Alice books. That is, the questioning of reality, and whether one is dreaming or not.

While the quality, and some of Snyder's storytelling choices, might be surprising, the actual outcome won't surprise anyone: It turns out Batman wasn't just a dream of Bruce Wayne's, and the superhero manages to fight his way out of the elaborate mind trap the villain set for him and comes out on top of this particular conflict, through sheer force of will and a judicious application of violence (I guess one thing this story shares with "Mad," that aforementioned Hurwitz-scripted Mad Hatter arc from The Dark Knight, is that Batman comes off as a bit of a bully by so brutally fighting against such a diminutive foe--and here he even threatens The Hatter with drowning).

The particulars of the story give Camuncoli a whole bunch of cool stuff to draw. Not just Batman and the Mad Hatter (in various forms), but also Batman's allies Batwoman, Nightwing, Red Hood and Duke Thomas, plus villains The Joker, Bane, Catwoman, Harley Quinn and The Riddler.

Snyder again eschews dialogue balloons in favor of narration boxes, filled with Batman's first-person narration of the events, with The Hatter's dialogue appearing in a different font as quoted by Batman. Here it works better than it has previously, in large part because Batman finds himself struggling against a character who has taken his name from a work of prose fiction, a character trying to convince Batman that his 75+ years of comic book adventures never happened.

The Duke-starring back-up, still being drawn by Francesco Francavilla (who really ought to be hard at work on drawing Riverdale residents in the midst of a zombie apocalypse, if you as me), finds Duke ready to quit being Batman's partner, and visiting the community center where he and Bruce Wayne worked together during Wayne's bearded, amnesiac period. There he meets fellow former We Are Robin Robin Izzy, who discusses Duke's still non-existent code name: "Dre figured something like Lark? Dax, he thought you'd go for something with "Bat" in it, like Bat-Claw, Bat-16, Bat-Guano....Rama?"

They are all terrible.

Archie #18 (Archie Comics) Artist Pete Woods joins Mark Waid for this issue, in which the 19-page story (plus a pin-up; kind of a rip-off for a $3.99 book) deals mostly with the evolving romantic relationships of Archie, Veronica, Betty and...Dilton?!

Back from her forced exile, Veronica and Archie discover they can't quite pick up exactly where they left off. Meanwhile, Betty and Dilton hang out and aren't exactly hitting it off, until they discover their shared love of car mechanics (Cars being basically just science machines, as Dilton notes at one point). Meanwhile, the Blossoms try to enlist Jughead to do detective work for them, and Jughead enlists the Blossoms to buy him burgers.

Waid and Woods get off some good jokes here and there, but not nearly enough. Bring back the back-ups, dammit! (Or maybe hire Ryan North to write bonus jokes on the bottom of each page?) These things are expensive!

Batgirl Vol. 3: Point Blank (DC) This collects the final 12 issues of the Kelley Puckett/Scott Peterson/Damion Scott run on Batgirl, and thus concludes one of the strongest runs on book bearing the title "Batgirl." In retrospect, it's a damn shame that the run only lasted about 36 issues or three years (the book, and the character, would endure longer, of course), but I'm sure that at the time all involved found it a perfectly acceptable time to pass the metaphorical baton. The two-year Lady Shiva on-again, off-again arc and Batgirl's struggle against a death wish born of crushing guilt was resolved by the end of the last collection, and while the drama around her, as she is continually torn between two father figures and the lives they represent--assassin David Cain and superhero Batman--wasn't resolved, it was explored repeatedly in different ways, and was integrated into the character as a continuing aspect.

At this point, the character was pretty much established, so why not leave? The answer, again in retrospect, is because what would follow (for the title and for the character) would never be quite this good again, but hell, they didn't know that in 2003, did they?

The longest arc of this book is actually by guest writer Chuck Dixon, who sends then-Green Arrow Connor Hawke and his kinda/sorta sidekick Eddie Fyers to Gotham City, trailing an ancient Roman cult that has begun assassinating people...with arrows. Spotting Hawke on a rooftop with a bow, Batgirl attacks, and we get to see a Scott draw a martial arts battle between two of the DCU's best martial artists (While one could assume Batgirl would be the ultimate victor, Hawke is on defense, so it's actually pretty one-sided). The assassins' targets include Jack Drake, which then gets Robin and Spoiler involved, and they serve as bridge characters between the two somewhat out-of-it weirdo heroes, who were raised in various forms of isolation from society at large. This arc not only highlighted what was so damn likable about these characters--none of whom survived Flashpoint unmangled-beyond-all-recognition--but also gave Scott a great opportunity to demonstrate his dynamic action storytelling. It helps that we see his pencils and/or lay-outs drawn not by regular inker Robert Campanella, but by such a distinct stylist as Klaus Janson (in the first issue of this arc) and then Wade Von Grawbadger).

There are two more issues that tie in to the then-ongoing "Bruce Wayne: Fugitive?" storyline, as Cassandra uses her mastery of the fighting arts to try and determine whether or not Bruce Wayne actually killed Vesper Fairchild (first with just her budding gal pal Spoiler, later with Alfred, Nightwing and Oracle). There's exploration of her friendship with Stephanie Brown, which occurs throughout the course of a single issue, in which Cassandra Cain goes from refusing to train Steph because she is so beneath her level to looking forward to their sparring as pretty much her only contact with a human being outside of crime-fighting. There's also a few scenes starring the pair that suggested what I would have liked to see in a post-Infinite Crisis Batgirl comic: Cassandra and Stephanie sharing the mantle, while Oracle Barbara Gordon serves as their mentor (and the pair train each other; with Cass teaching Steph how to fight, and Steph teaching Cass how to read and act like a normal teenage girl).

The final story is a four-pager from Batgirl Secret Files & Origins #1 by Scott Peterson, pencil artist Giuseppe Camuncoli (whose issue of All-Star Batman saw release today; weird) and inker Cameron Stewart. It's obviously very short, but does a perfect job of illustrating the differences between the two Batgirls. Cassandra finds herself facing Batgirl Barbara Gordon in Oracle's "holo room," and can't understand why Babs was so terrible at fighting (it takes Cassandra less than two seconds to defeat her). Hologram Barbara eventually gets the upper-hand, though, demonstrating that what she might have lacked in invincible kung fu, she made up for in smarts and sneakiness.

If I did the math right, I think there are still three 12-issue collections worth of issues of this volume of DC's Batgirl ongoing, featuring runs by writer Dylan Horrocks (okay, but not as good as this one) and Andersen Gabrych (not very good). I'm not sure if DC will pursue collecting those or not, but I'd buy 'em if they did. Looking back, what is most memorable about the second half of this series are the covers, including a run of rather gorgeous covers by James Jean, and later one by Tim Sale, who is one of the very few artists who can draw that particular character and costume really well*.

Oh hey, fun fact! Not only was this the first Batgirl ongoing that DC ever published, it remains the longest-lived one, at 73-issues. The 2011, New 52 series starring a rebooted Barbara Gordon lasted 53 issues, before DC relaunched it with a new #1 as part of their "Rebirth" initiative. If they hadn't, Babs woulda caught Cass in another year or so. As is, it's gonna take a good six years or so...if they don't cancel it before then or, more likely, relaunch it.

Batman #19 (DC) The most classic Bane vs. Batman battle remains their first one of any real import, the 1993 storyline "Knightfall." In it, Bane attempts to exhaust Batman by staging a mass break-out of Arkham Asylum's inmates, essentially forcing Batman to run a gauntlet of many of his criminally insane foes before facing Bane in hand-to-hand combat.

Here, writer Tom King has Batman pulling the same stunt on Bane, as Batman holes up deep within Arkham, forcing Bane to fight his way through its inmates. The opponents vary though, with only The Scarecrow, Two-Face, The Riddler, The Mad Hatter, Mr. Zsasz, Firefly and Amygdala appearing in both the "Knightfall" gauntlet and this issue. King also has Bane going up against The Black Spider (in new All-Star Batman design), Calendar Man, Copperhead, Dr. Phosphorous, The Flamingo, Hush, Man-Bat, Maxie Zeus (Is this his post-Flashpoint introduction?), Mister Freeze and Solomon Grundy. Bane disposes of each within either a panel or a page, the most space being devoted to the first foe he faces, Two-Face. Most of the fights take place more-or-less off-panel, or between pages, as Bane delivers a pithy, '80s movie-style fight quip. "I don't have nightmares," he yells at The Scarecrow, for example, "I give nightmares!"

One could quibble with some of these villains appearing at all (Like, I'm not sure how Copperhead or Solomon Grundy got in there, and Man-Bat seems particularly out of place), and one could certainly wonder how one earth Bane actually defeats some of them (It should take more than venom and gumption to put him in Grundy's weight class, for example, and Dr. Phosphorous shouldn't be punch-able with a more-or-less bare fist).

What makes less sense is Batman's decision to a) release all of the inmates, even if only from their cells instead of the building and b) to arm them with their various weapons. Alfred mentions that doing so is kind of crazy, and King doesn't really cover why none of them immediately attack Batman, for example, or why Bane doesn't simply kill any of them (Since Bane has no compunction against killing his foes, and most of these guys are themselves serial killers, it seems like a near-certainty that someone would get killed during all the fights, and Batman's not exactly a fan of anyone killing anyone). I'm also not sure why Batman and Alfred just can't use the Psycho-Pirate on Bane or, again, why Batman doesn't just call Batman and Wonder Woman in to kick Bane's ass for him (There is a line of dialogue answering that last bit, but it didn't make much sense to me; as I noted a few issues ago, Batman literally flies up to Superman's Fortress of Solitude and asks him to do him a favor, and asking him to spend like five minutes flying down to Gotham and beating Bane up would have been a smaller ask, really).

My biggest concern with the story, which is actually kind of fun in its way, is the art. This is, remember, David Finch drawing, and so it's not very good looking. Finch gets the opportunity to draw a pretty huge swathe of Batman villains, and the results are predictably uninteresting, mostly just a whole bunch of panels of people posing and flexing in proximity to one another. The cover is a pretty good example of Finch's artwork within.

What's going on? Well, there's Bane, from the knees up, flexing. And he's surrounded by a bunch of heads of random sizes and placement, featuring some of the villains he faces, all of them in their costumes (Inside, they are just wearing white prison/asylum uniforms). The guy with the sideburns? That's Maxie Zeus. He's not wearing his costume, inside or out.

DC cruelly hired Tim Sale to draw the variant cover for this issue:
I'm kinda glad they did, because it means we get to see Sale's Scarecrow again, and, as I've said many times before, Sale's Scarecrow is my favorite Scarecrow. I find it amusing that Sale just draws his own versions of these characters, rather than bothering to stay on-model with the various New 52/Rebirth designs of the characters; with the exception of Bane, who wasn't in it, all the other villains on the cover look like the versions Sale drew in Long Halloween (Firefly doesn't look like he does in the pages of this comic, but like he did the last time Sale drew him, in that Showcase story in which the Arkham inmates played softball against the Blackgate inmates).

What makes it cruel, however, is that it reminds a reader that someone other than Finch could have been drawing the interiors of this book. Maybe someone like Sale. Man, this book would looks so different, so much better if it had Sale's artwork within...!

Anyway, this is a fun if kinda dumb script, drawn in such a way that the dumb is accentuated over the fun.

DC Comics Bombshells #23 (DC) This issue concludes the Bombshells' adventures in Vixen's kingdom of Zambesi, as writer Marguerite Bennettt ties Hawkgirl and Vixen's origins together just as tightly than she binds them romantically (maybe more so, as she has Vixen's amulet being forged forged from Thanagarian Nth Metal generations upon generations ago). The writing on this series remains far, far better than it needs to be, and certainly better than would be expected of it, as Bennett goes to the trouble of including characterization and themes to a plot that is basically a semi-silly romp. Thanagraian robot animals and a giant mech piloted by a Nazi dominatrix battle a bunch of scantily-clad versions of DC superheroines, and the climax involves Vixen invoking the powers of a gigantic sphinx, which is visible to everyone, in a way that doesn't seem like it would work with what we know about her powers. But whatever, there's also a dog wearing an army helmet that Vixen stole from Hitler after she raced a snakewoman in the Berlin Olympics so, you know, I probably shouldn't get overly hung-up on such things.

Richard Ortiz and Laura Braga draw this issue.

Nightwing #17 (DC) I confess complete befuddlement as to what the hell is going on with DC's more-mutable-than-ever continuity these days, as the fact that something is going on seems to be the new status quo, rather than a single cosmic crisis that violently (but efficiently) rejiggers everything within the space of six-to-twelve issues or so.

Nightwing's girlfriend, who may possibly be pregnant with his unborn child, has been captured by Deathwing, who by all indications seems like he may be the Dick Grayson from an alternate timeline or dimension or Earth or whatever. There's a weird scene where Dick sees a drop of his own blood, and temporarily glimpses the various Earths of the DC Multiverse, including different versions of himself looking at him (Robin Damian Wayne gets a similar vision shortly afterwards).

The mystery of Deathwing doesn't get resolved, but the villain behind her abduction and the one responsible for Deathwing's visage (and that of a Damian-sized Robin wearing Dick's pre-Flashpoint original costume who joins the fray) is revealed in the final scene. In keeping with writer Tim Seeley's use of this arc as a sort of Batman and Robin reunion, it is a new villain introduced during Grant Morrison's run on the Bat-books.

Javier Fernandez draws. He's not my favorite artist of the current Nightwing book, but he does a damn fine job, particularly in distinguishing the two 'Wings from one another and the two Robins from one another; not simply in the way they look, but in the way they are designed and moved. Also, he does a particularly creepy version of the villain, who is one of Batman's creepier villains.

Superman #19 (DC) If you've been reading Superman comics for very long, you've probably already solved at least one aspect of the Two Supermans mystery that has been going on since about the time Convergence ended, and heated up around the time of DC Universe: Rebirth and the accompanying relaunches, even if you don't have all the mechanics figured out yet. The cover for next week's Action Comics, which was released during DC's solicitations three months ago, makes it pretty explicit and, in retrospect, it explains why this Superman (who is the pre-Flashpoint one, who was spared being rebooted during Flashpoint because he was trapped by Brainiac in events that lead to Convergence, only to somehow prevent events from Crisis On Infinite Earths and land in The New 52-iverse, wears blue boots instead of red ones, and why his narration boxes are blue.

This is, of course, another extended homage to 1963 "Imaginary Story" "The Amazing Story of Superman-Red and Superman-Blue," with New 52 Superman playing the part of Superman-Red and the Convergence-ed post-Crisis Superman we've been reading about since Rebirth playing the part of Superman-Blue. The twist? Well, a twist? There were apparently a Lois Lane-Red and Lois Lane-Blue too...? I guess...?

This is only the penultimate issue of "Superman Reborn," so, like I said, the mechanics remain unrevealed. Co-writers Peter J. Tomasi and Patrick Gleason pick up Jon's story where it left off in the previous issue of the series, the first part of the four-part story, with Jon and the pictures from pre-Flashpoint continuity floating in a void. Mr. Mxyzptlk, who pencil artist Gleason and inker Mick Gray make look just as creepy in his classic design as Action pencil artist Doug Mahnke managed, challenges Superman and Lois to a game. If they win, they get Jon back; if they lose, Mxy keeps Jon as a playmate.

As the issue nears its climax, Jon encounters two red spheres of sentient lightning that communicate with him and feel like his parents, but different to him. Alighting on his fists, the orbs take him to Mxy and his parents and there's an explosion and Superman appears in his dumb, high-collared New 52 costume (though Gleason and Gray have seemingly done away with the armor plating element). Jon isn't really sure it's them, and Mxy simply shouts "Deja-New-52!"

So I guess the dead New 52 Superman and the dead New 52 Lois Lane have fused with their Convergence-ed, "Rebirth" era counterparts? What, exactly does that mean? What exactly happened to divider their essences in such a manner in the first place? And what does it have to do with the mysterious Mr. Oz, who appears on this cover but doesn't appear within the book at all, a being so powerful he had captured and trapped a 5th dimensional being?

Answers will presumably appear in Action Comics #976. I'm not sure about where this is going, but so far "Reborn" has had fantastic artwork, and I dig the weekly scheduling, which allows this story arc to build-up the sort of momentum that monthly comics, or even bi-monthly ones, can't quite achieve.

*Ironically, Vince Giarrano, who I mentioned in passing in the previous post, draws the first issue in this collection. He does such a good job of aping Scott's style on the title character and Spoiler, that the only place it is really apparent that it is Giarrano drawing is in the face of the antagonist, and probably then only if you've read other Giaarrano comics.

1 comment:

Michael Campochiaro said...

Detective Comics #573 from Mike W. Barr, Alan Davis, and Paul Neary is a tremendous Mad Hatter story. It's from the brief Barr-Davis run on "Tec, which in my opinion ranks with the best Batman runs. Ever. Period. So I'd recommend checking that out if you haven't or even if it's been years since you did.