Wednesday, January 09, 2019

A Month of Wednesdays: December 2018


Archie Meets Batman '66 #5 (Archie Comics) Archie finally meets Batman in this, the penultimate issue of the miniseries. Together The Caped Crusader, Archie, Betty, Veronica and Reggie rescue Jughead, Robin and Batgirl, only for the villains and their new army of hypnotized adults to capture Batman himself at the climax.

Sadly, there's just one more issue to go.

Please note that nothing like what happens on Mike Allred's cover occurs within this issue, which is a pity. As perfect as Dan Parent and J. Bone's art has been throughout these five issues, I sure wouldn't mind if Allred took over art chores on a sequel miniseries.

Batman: Kings of Fear #5 (DC Comics) The Scarecrow picks up right where he left off with Batman at the end of the previous issue, when he showed Batman what Gotham City without its Dark Knight might be like. It's perhaps appropriate that this issue was released in December, as there's definitely an element of It's A Wonderful Life about it, as Scarecrow shows Batman a Gotham City in which Batman was never born--not Bruce Wayne, but Batman, or, as The Scarecrow puts it, "This is what Gotham could have been if you'd devoted your life to her, instead of to being the Dark Knight."

It is a pretty interesting take because, of course, The Scarecrow is right. There are many more effective ways for a billionaire of seemingly bottomless wealth, a genius intellect and an indomitable will to fight a war on crime and generally improve the well-being of his city and its citizens than dressing up in a bat-costume and personally fighting all crime himself (With the occasional assistance from one to eight sidekicks). In fact, this is hardly the first Batman story to point that out, but it's done quite effectively here, particularly because writer Scott Peterson's script is being illustrated by Kelley Jones.
He creates an amazing four-page sequence in which we see Batman pushing a boulder uphill like Sisyphus--this boulder being many times larger than Batman, and the hill being so steep that it is almost vertical--and then holding another  boulder by a chain, trying to keep it from sliding down the other side of the hill.

That transitions into an image of Batman holding a huge metal cage filled with his rogues like Atlas holding the globe, and then to an image of Batman hanging onto the very edge of a cliff with his fingertips, his free hand something heavy connected to a chain, and a turn of the page reveals what he is holding there. We're shown a two-page spread in which Batman is holding all of Gotham City by that chain, trying to keep it from falling into the open mouth of a giant skull.

On this page, as in some of the others, we see repeating images of Batman from different angles and degrees of closeness as he struggles, making for a disorienting, strobe-like effect to the pictures on the page.

One of Scarecrow's other criticisms is that by lowering himself to the level of his villains, the personal attention Batman pays them only encourages them to act out. This too is a familiar criticism sometimes leveled at Batman by various characters and writers, the idea that Batman draws such spectacular villains to himself and to Gotham City, but here it is leveled directly, elegantly and somewhat in reverse.

If Batman wasn't Batman, Scarecrow says, then many of his villains would have chosen alternate paths in life, and ended up doing more good than bad themselves (It's debatable whether what Scarecrow tells Batman is even true or not, of course; certainly Bane would never have come to Gotham had there not been a Batman, and Batman does seem to encourage The Joker and Catwoman with the attention he grants them, but some of the other villains-who-would-be-saints-in-a-Batmanless world have an iffier causality; I did, however, like Scarecrow's reply to the question of The Penguin: "Still a mobster. Not everything's about you, you know.")

Again, while Scarecrow's argument sounds perfectly compelling, and his take on the best path for Bruce Wayne/Batman to affect positive change on a city is more realistic than the one he chose in-comic, it's worth remembering that this is a Batman comic, and Batman is the hero, while The Scarecrow is the villain, so, more likely than not, in the final chapter of the series, Batman is going to come up with a counter-argument that is at least as compelling.

I'm going to miss getting a new Kelley Jones Batman comic once a month when this series wraps up. I hope DC has him and Scott Peterson working on their next project already...

Go-Bots #2 (IDW Productions) It's actually quite amazing how much Tom Scioli gets done in each issue of this series. The pages are incredibly dense with content, and, so far at least, each of the two issues has contained about as much action, conversation, character development and big ideas as an entire story arc of most of the competing pop comics. It's like every 20-page installment is an old-school "novel length adventure."

So in the first issue, Scioli introduced us to a world in which human and Go-Bot lived in harmony, and we met most of the major Go-Bot characters--Leader-1, Scooter, Turbo and the villainous Cy-Kill--and their human companions. We also saw an emerging dark side to Go-Bots, and Cy-Kill's plan for a revolution, which lead to a protracted and fairly epic hand-to-hand battle against Leader-1.

In this issue, Cy-Kill's plans are enacted, and the vast majority of the Go-Bots rise up and slaughter their human masters, with our heroes resisting and, by the climax, lining up against Cy-Kill and his renegades, with Scooter, Turbo and finally Leader-1 all battling Cy-Kill. By issue's end, the revolution seems to be over, and all of Go-Bot-kind seems to be looking to Leader-1, as they and the world that we were just introduced to seems to be at a crossroads.

Maybe it's not actually moving that fast, but it seems like in this second issue we're already at the second act, perhaps even the climax; if this were a movie, we'd be at the end of the movie, and issue #3 would be the start of the sequel. It's just so much comics, and it's not like Scioli is leaving a great deal to the imagination or anything. It's all on the page, he just gets so much onto each page, through lots of small panels and story-telling economy, with his images and relatively few words doing the work (The "talkiest" pages of this issue, for example, still contain less verbiage than some Brian Michael Bendis panels do).

I mentioned this a bit on Twitter, but the robot revolution sequence is pretty genuinely terrifying. There's a two-panel, silent sequence featuring Cy-Kill that is as scary and makes him look as evil as anything I've ever seen any version of Megatron do in any media.

In the first, the giant robot is just standing there, a crowd of humans running away from him. In the next panel, his leg is raised in a high kick, and there's a crowd of tiny human bodies flailing like rag dolls, dark blue spots of what one imagines must be blood forming a cloud around them.

The next page has a three-panel, cinematic sequence in which we see the interior of a darkened diner filled with silhouettes, then a car crashing through the wall, and then the "car" is a robot, its hand-mounted guns glowing with muzzle flare and bullet casings filling the bottom half of the tiny panel.
There are other apocalyptic images, like a human dangling from power lines like a pair of old sneakers that were thrown there, and even some rather upsetting imagery, like Cy-Kill having forcibly transformed Scooter into his vehicle form, and then riding upon him. "We all have a choice," the evil Go-Bot says, "To ride or be ridden," while Scooter begs him for mercy.
If you would have told me a few months ago that a Go-Bot comic would make me feel anything--hell, if you would have told me I would read a Go-Bot comic--I probably wouldn't have believed you. But that a Go-Bot comic would make me feel horror? No way.

But here we are; this comic is fucking great. Looking back over this list of comics, which include some really all-around awesome work, I think--as unbelievable as it might seem to some readers--this is probably the single best comic book I read this month, and the one I would most wholeheartedly recommend as the one you have to read. Like, this might not be for everyone--like, you're going to have to be someone who has the capability to give a shit about transforming robots--but in terms of craft, in terms of story-telling, in terms of overall quality? This is the comic book among all these others that demands to be read.

If one thing is missing, I think it's the endnotes that Scioli and his collaborator John Barber provided at the end of every issue of Transformers Vs. G.I. Joe. There are panels in here that look like something I've seen in movies, but I don't know which ones. I recognize the weird X-Men homage Scioli provides, in which Turbo poses in rushing sewer water and looks defiantly up in the direction of the reader, saying "You've had your shot. Now it's my turn!" But I wonder why Scioli decided to do that here.

With Scioli's previous based-on-an-1980s toyline series for IDW, it was fun to hear what was going through his head as he was putting those scenes together. Here I think it would be especially helpful because while I recognized the vast majority of the Transformers and G.I. Joe characters, the Go-Bots aren't so well known to me. Aside from the ones I've mentioned here and maybe a few others seen throughout the issues--Cop-Tur, Crasher, Screw Head--most of these Go-Bots were either brand-new to me or I had simply forgotten they even existed in the decades since I have given a single thought to the toyline (Like, is that a fucking golf cart a pre-existing Go-Bot, or was it created specifically for that scene? I don't know!)

Hopefully the eventual collected edition will contain some sort of annotations for the curious, and perhaps a commentary section similar to those two-pages of Scioli and Barber talking about the characters, the toys and their influences in each issue of the preceding series.

Harley Loves Joker By Paul Dini (DC) There's no mystery as to who DC considers the star of this particular creative team, as co-writer (and Harley Quinn co-creator) Paul Dini gets his name added to the title for the graphic novel collection of the "Harley Loves Joker" back-up storyline that ran in nine issues of Harley Quinn (and then a two-issue miniseries to wrap it up, Harley Quinn: Harley Loves Joker). Dini's co-writer is Jimmy Palmiotti who, with his wife Amanda Conner, helped reinvent the New 52's reinvention of the character into what she has become: Basically DC's answer to Deadpool, but sexy. In fact, Palmiotti and Conner were writing the feature stories in the Harley Quinn issues this ran in, while he and Dini were writing the back-ups.

These were set in the nebulous "earliest days" of the Harley/Joker romance, which, in terms of the comic book universe would have been a particularly squishy point in the timeline anyway, even before DC went reboot crazy about a decade ago.

 For all intents and purposes, this is basically set in the world of Batman: The Animated Series--right down to the specifics of all of the character designs--with few if any real indications that it's meant to be DCU canon (if that matters at all), like the presence of The Wonderland Gang (the characters Dini introduced in his Detective Comics run, not the real-world gang with that name).

Artist Bret Blevins draws the whole thing, and he's expertly inked by J. Bone--when he's not inking himself. Blevins' style might not immediately suggest itself to the Bruce Timm designs of the seminal cartoon series, but he draws his versions of those designs quite expertly, and quite effortlessly adapts them into a bigger, wider, more three-dimensional-looking world that a comic book can allow for. (The one area in which the visuals clearly distance themselves from the cartoons is in the cheesecake; Harley spends a lot of time in that peculiarly-sheer nightie from the Mad Love one-shot, the one that allows Blevins to basically draw her naked, only sans nipples and genitals.)
The characterizations of The Joker and Harley will also feel familiar to anyone who has spent much time with the cartoon. Here they are more Bonnie and Clyde than Natural Born Killers, with The Joker more of a quick-to-anger, narcissistic but zany master criminal, rather than the outright insane serial killer he's been pretty consistently depicted as in the comics since, I don't know, the 1980s, I guess...? Harley is madly, delusionally in love with him, not seeming to realize she never seems to rate higher than a distant fourth with him, after Batman, The Joker himself and Crime (There's at least one scene late in the story where Harley does seem to realize she has a post-Joker future, and she even sees a vision of her Suicide Squad-inspired, Palmiotti-and-Connder-written self).

After the first of several crimes is spoiled by a new super-thief in Gotham City, The Joker and Harley retreat to their hideout...which Batman is able to track them to, thanks to Harley. The Joker blows the Ha-Hacienda and they manage to escape in the Jokermobile, but hiding out with his gang and her hyenas in a dingy motel is a hardly ideal solution for either of them (the close quarters and mundane setting contributing to their portrayal as less supervillains in love than hen-pecked husband and put-upon wife trapped in domestic hell).

To make it up to The Joker, and get the hell out of the motel, Harley hires The Wonderland Gang's Carpenter to build her the best secret lair ever, but when the bill comes due, Harley has to scramble to make millions all on her own, without tipping The Joker off and thus ruining the surprise.

Meanwhile, that new villain--a super-weird, shapely weasel woman named "The Grison" whose origins are tied to a villain who only appeared in the "Tyger, Tyger" episode of The Animated Series--continues to frustrate The Joker by out crime-ing him. She is ultimately revealed to have a past with Harley, having first met long before either of them had turned to crime, and she is playing a long game to avenger herself.

Batman plays a relatively minor role in the whole narrative, and his few appearances are relegated to actions which move the plot along. The Penguin gets a few scenes, and there are some brief cameos from the likes of Jervis Tetch, Alfred, Bullock and Montoya and Commissioner Gordon, all drawn and colored as they would have been on the cartoon. But this is all Harley's story and, to a lesser extent, that of The Joker--or, at least, a Joker.

I tend to find the New Harley kinda tiresome, but this was a nice reminder of what was originally so likable about the character, and even if her ongoing pairing with The Joker isn't really something sustainable for a popular, serially-published narrative that DC would like to continue selling forever, they are nevertheless a double-act, and setting a new story in that "phase" of their relationship seems the best way to go.

Jingle Belle: The Homemades' Tale (IDW Productions) IDW is the apparent new home of Paul Dini's Jingle Belle character, who first appeared in a 1999 issue of Oni Double Feature and since regularly reappeared in one-shots, specials and miniseries from Oni, Dark Horse and Top Cow. For this 22-page, $4.99 special ($5 for 22-pages?! Sheesh; it's a good thing I didn't count the pages until just now!) Dini teams with artist Nicoletta Baldari, whose story board-meets-picture book style is perfectly compatible with that of cover artist Stephanie Buscema, and seems to tone down on pin-up nature of the character simply by its nature, rather than any conscious effort on anyone's part.

I didn't make the connection to the Margaret Atwood book-turned-streaming service TV show until I had the book in my hand, but that connection is merely a matter of a gag title; if the story has anything to do with The Handmaid's Tale, it's awfully dang subtle and I didn't notice it (Of course, it's been about 15 years since I read the book, so...)

As is usually the case with these comics, the core concept and character is rock-solid--and Dini could probably have angled this in such a way to be a bigger, perennial hit in the all-ages market if he was interested in doing so--and the relative strength depends upon the particular storyline and the skill of the artist involved. Baldari is a fine artist, although I inevitably end up comparing whoever the latest person to draw Jing is to her first artist Stephen DeStefano and thus finding them wanting; everyone tends to come up wanting when compared to DeStefano, though).

That leaves the storyline to determine how good a holiday outing this one turns out to be, and it's not the best of the lot.
After a half-dozen panels re-stating the premise--Jingle Belle is the teenage daughter of Santa Claus and destined heir to his Christmas gift-giving duties, but is resentful and rebellious, as teenagers usually are whoever their father is--we learn of another mysterious figure who comes the night after Christmas. This is The Queen of Toys, and she seeks out discarded or unappreciated homemade toys--hence the title!--and instills them with life, adding them to her posse of living homemade toys, with which she confronts the Clause family and we learn her connection to them.

That gags are all  strong enough, and if the conflict lacks any real tension or resonance, it is at least a serviceable vehicle for all the bits that work.

It's good stuff. Not great, but good. And sometimes that's good enough.

Justice League #13 (DC) With the Aquaman-centric "Drowned Earth" storyline over, it's apparently time for another break to focus on James Tynion IV's origin-of-the-current-Legion of Doom, the third such issue since the title launched. This installment focuses on Lex Luthor's recruitment of The Joker, which occurs in a four-page sequence set in a vague"Before" time, and continues into the "Now," wherein Joker attempts to kill Luthor.

The Joker and Luthor's curious relationship is something I have an awful lot of thoughts about, as The Joker is generally written by everyone in such a way to suggest there's no way he would ever work with, let alone for, someone for very long, and his long-time portrayal as an agent of complete nihilism and chaos makes it somewhat difficult to give him real goals that could temporarily align with just about any other villain. And yet he teams up with Luthor on a rather regular basis, like, constantly.

In general, I like the pair as unlikely friends, necessary allies who respect one another's respective talents and find a kinship in one another that they don't see in anyone else in the world...certainly I like to think of them that way a lot more than I do as characters at one another's throats, as any conflict between the two of them must have a winner and a loser, with one being diminished.

A Joker who is always trying to kill Luthor seems more "realistic," I guess, or at least more consistent than a Joker who is BFFs with Luthor, but those stories pitting them against one another don't seem to work as well as the ones where they are presented as allies.

I guess the way I see their relationship is that The Joker treats Luthor not unlike the way he treats Batman; he doesn't really want to kill him, he just wants to perpetuate his relationship with him because he enjoys it. Only whereas The Joker's relationship with Batman is a special one of archenemies, his relationship with Luthor is a special one of allies.
The Joker attacks Luthor, in the panel before the panel where he--and we--learn that Luthor is wearing a powerful force field.
Tynion, on the other hand, sees them as allies of convenience here, which doesn't not work, particularly in the context of Scott Snyder's ongoing mega-plot about The Totality, and Justice and Doom as two opposing fundamental forces of the universe.

Luthor explains here that having recently seen the true nature of humankind, he realizes that Joker is "its pinnacle." After they've tried to kill one another and gone their separate ways, he explains his interest in The Joker to one of his remaining allies: "I brought Joker in for his mind...Knowing the universe's pull toward doom, I thought he was the most advanced form of human intelligence. Purely amoral and predatory..."

It just doesn't work in the way I see the characters. But then, one of the nice innovations Grant Morrison brought to the Joker character during his Batman run was the idea of a Joker that is constantly reinventing himself ("I change personalities three times before breakfast," Tynon has The Joker tell Luthor at one point in this issue).

As for why The Joker joins Luthor in this endeavor, it is basically because he finds a really good joke in it, and is gradually working towards it, until Luthor breaks a promise to him: He agreed to join the Legion on the sole condition that Luthor not also recruit The Batman Who Laughs--that's the Batman-who-is-also-The Joker from Snyder's Dark Nights: Metal event series--but we've already seen Luthor has him held prisoner.*

Here, The Joker finds out that Luthor has The Batman Who Laughs stashed away, and thus turns on Luthor and the rest of the Legion, just as they are attempting a sort of recruitment drive to replace Black Manta. Super Friends' Legion of Doom alums The Scarecrow, The Riddler, Solomon Grundy, Toyman and Giganta are among the guest-villains, along with Chronos, The Parasite, Mister Freeze, the JLA version of Queen Bee and...I want to say Felix Faust...? None end up sticking around after The Joker gases them into becoming pawns of his, but the book ends with a Luthor recruiting the other villain he historically teams-up with regularly, a villain who was also a member of the cartoon Legion.

This issue's guest artist is Guillem March, whose work I am a fan of. He's drawn The Joker before, and his Clown Prince of Crime owes something to creator Jerry Robinson's portrayal and, even more so, Jim Aparo and Brian Bolland's more definitive takes, his long-limbed, lanky Joker having a long, pointy chin, a longer, pointier chin, big, bushy black eyebrows, and a tendency to pout and frown melodramatically as often as he smiles. There's something crescent moon-like about his face, which darkens, stretches and wrinkles as he frowns--Luthor apparently bums The Joker out quite a bit.

March gets to draw a lot of villains--Luthor and/or The Joker is on every page--but no Leaguers appear, which is actually a bit of a shame. March's Batman is amazing, and I would like to see his versions of the rest of the League line-up, having only previously seen his Trinity. Perhaps--hopefully?--March will be back for future issues of the title, given that the more-than-monthly publishing schedule seems to demand a steady stream of guest-artists.

Justice League #14 (DC) Although he gets top billing, cover artist Jim Cheung only contributes three pages of art to this issue, drawing an earth-bound framing sequence involving the Trinity, Jarro and unconscious Starman, while pencil artist Stephen Segovia draws the other 17 pages of the comic, those set on "Hawkworld," or Thanagar Prime, the planet introduced during writer Scott Snyder's Dark Nights: Metal series.

It's a particularly talky, dialogue-heavy issue, for which Snyder is joined by his frequent collaborator James Tynion IV, who shares a story credit with Snyder and gets a "Words" credit to himself, so I feel comfortable blaming him for how stuffed with words this issue is. Beyond all the talking--and there's enough of it that several pages include Bendis chains of dialogue balloons stretching across the frozen imagery of characters seemingly standing still with their mouths open for longer than the dialogue would seem to merit--there's also narration. None of it's bad, of course, it's just not the ideal way to tell a comic book story (Not that anyone reads Justice League comics for the ideal comics-reading experience, but, you know, that's no reason to cut these highly-paid professionals all that much slack; I might rarely get perfection, but I'm always going to want it).

This story, "Escape From Hawkworld," picks up on the "away" team of Martian Manhunter, Hawkgirl Kendra Saunders and Green Lantern John Stewart and their investigation on Thanagar Prime, which was happening at about the same time the "Drowned Earth" story was unfolding. Because it involves the Hawks, it is of course confusing. Tynion has Kendra acknowledge how fucked up Hawk continuity has been for about 30 years now (and it's only gotten worse, with each successive reboot! I don't think I've had a handle on it since around the time Geoff Johns was writing JSA and Hawkman), saying at one point, "Look...I know my history is complicated. That you practically need a degree in quantum physics to track it properly..."

Still, Shayera Hol shows up (That's the Silver Age Hawkgirl/Hawkwoman), as Thanagar Prime's empress, even though, as Kendra notes, Kendra is actually a reincarnated version of Shayera, and, near the climax, we're introduced to a character whose presence is supposed to come as a big moment, given that a whole splash page is devoted to it, but, again, I've lost track of the character since the New 52, so I can't tell.

Is this really a big deal?
That's the version Rob Liefeld did for a while there, right? Is he the same one from Futures End? And The Death of Hawkman? Is he different than the guy starring in the current Hawkman series...? Carter Hall was the Hawkman in Metal, but then, isn't Katar a reincarnation of Carter...?

I don't know.

Personally, I would propose a generational moratorium on the Hawks in DC comics. At the very least, I wasn't looking forward to having to untangle Hawk-continuity until after whatever Geoff Johns is doing in Doomsday Clock finishes happening and DC decides on a status quo for the shared universe's current timeline...

Anyway, I guess that was supposed to be the big moment of the issue, although it was muted by the confusion that hangs like a pall over the characters and, of course, the fact that the issue contains a half-dozen guys who look exactly like Hawkman. If Shayera didn't say his name in bold letters and add a "The Savage" before the "Hawkman", he would have just seemed like one of the many other Hawkmen on this, the planet of the Hawkpeople.

No, the really big moment of the issue, at least for me, was the revelation that Jarro refers to Batman as "Pop":
I expect big things from Jarro in the future, in both the pages of Justice League and maybe even some Batman comics...

The Merry X-Men Holiday Special #1 (Marvel Entertainment) A holiday one-shot inspired by an Advent calendar, this cleverly conceived comic book is broken down into roughly 25 one-page stories, each by a different creative team and focusing on a different member of Marvel's massive mutant cast.

The exception is the framing story, by writers Chris Sims and Chad Bowers and artist Marco Failla. The premise for that is that Jubilee is about to take baby Shogo to Hawaii for the holidays, but the pair are kidnapped on December 1. There are a few periodic check-ins with Jubes throughout the month, as she tries to survive a mall-shaped Murder World constructed by you-know-who for an amusing purpose, and there's a six-page resolution to that story on Christmas Day.

It's a pretty fun idea for a story, and one that is kind of wasted here and somewhat hobbled by the format, but, on the other hand, I suppose it's possible that Sims and Bowers didn't actually have enough jokes to keep it going too long anyway, so the abbreviated page-count lets them tell their premise without having to worry if it could sustain a full story or not (Although based on what I've seen from the pair in the past, I'm pretty confident they could have done a fun, funny Jubilee-trapped-in-Murdermall-for-a-month 20-pager just fine).

The remaining shorts are, naturally, all over the place. The writers range from the expected (Chris Claremont, Cullen Bunn, Matthew Rosenberg, Kelly Thompson, Charles Soule, Sina Grace) to musicians and/or people I have never heard of (Charlamagne Tha God, Jean Grae, "Styles P & Poobs"). Most of the current X-people starring in the books or in solo titles get a day/strip to themselves, and we seem to stray somewhat farther afield too, checking in with Dr. Nemesis, Cannonball and The Braddocks.

Not a lot really stood out to me--although it certainly reminded me how easy it is to get lost in the X-Men, as I sat out a run or two and the landscape is vastly different than the last time I checked in on the merry mutants!--and with only about a half-dozen panels per story, there's not a lot of room for much more than a scene.

The Nature Girl and Glob Herman stories were both clever, and on opposite sides of the tonal spectrum, and sure, there's something satisfying about Jean Grae writing a Jean Grey story. Charlamagne Tha God's Storm story was funny in its chutzpah, as it has Storm listening to Charlamagne Tha God and quoting him.**  I liked Al Ewing and P.J. Holden's Cannonball story, which was pretty broad and obvious, but in a Futurama kind of way.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Comic #3 (Dark Horse Comics) This issue seems to wrap up Jonah's adventure with The Black Cat, while Tom Servo, Teen Reporter continues, and we get another short story in which Crow plays the role of horror host...and also gallivants throughout almost every panel of the story.

Max gives voice to one of my concerns about the set-up of the comic, the fact that the other robots--Gypsy, M. Waverly and Growler--can appear in which ever comic they want. Max says he still doesn't get why they can do that, while adding "Couldn't that start screwing things up for us?" Kinga replies by slapping him and telling him not to rain on her parade.

I assume that is foreshadowing, and as weird as it might seem--I know, I know, "just relax"--perhaps it will end up being a feature of the story, rather than a bug. I suppose if the other robots do end up saving the day, that would be in keeping with Gypsy doing all the important work, while Crow, Tom and the guy in the jumpsuit watch movies and do silly skits.


Batman: Detective Comics Vol. 8--On The Outside (DC Comics) Read in trade, it seems clear that writer Bryan Hill's short run on Detective Comics--a story arc, really--was positioned to accomplish two things. First, to kill some time between the end of James Tynion's IV long-ish run, which filled seven volumes worth of trade collections, and the start of the next regular writer's run, Peter J. Tomasi (James Robinson would similarly fill some issues with an arc or so before Tomasi's run began). And, second, to help set up his upcoming Batman and The Outsiders book, which has since been delayed because of events in other books--perhaps Tom King decided to kill off Cassandra Cain and Duke Thomas in the pages of his weird snuff book Heroes In Crisis, or perhaps because one of the highers-up at DC decided Orphan and The Signal are the worst superhero names, and is having the creative team re-do the first few issues so that Cassandra and Duke now go by The Black Bat and Sonar or Echo.*** I don't know.

Anyway, On The Outside includes five-issue arc by that name, 3/5ths of which was drawn by Miguel Mendonca and Diana Egea and the remainder of which was drawn by Philippe Briones, and then a done-in-one by writer Michael Moreci and artist Sebastian Fiumara, which is basically a follow-up to the elements of Batman Eternal which acted as a sequel to Batman: The Cult. It wasn't for me, as if I want to read Deacon Blackfire comics I'll read The Cult, but at least Blackfire creators James Starlin and Bernie Wrightson got a "created by" credit there (and Fiumara's creepy style allowed for a coupla noteworthy images).

Hill's storyline is kind of problematic, though, particularly in the context of the ongoing Batman narrative, which it pretty much has to be read in, because, removed from that context, it will just read like complete gobbledygook.

Batman wants to recruit Black Lightning Jefferson Pierce to help him with the training of all his goddam sidekicks, a whole team of which starred in the last seven volumes of Detective. That Pierce's day job is a teacher and that he is also a long-time superhero with a history of working with Batman would seem to make him ideally suited to training Batman's bat-talion. Of course, Flashpoint and "The New 52," so don't these two barely know each other? (I assume the relatively few who read Black Lightning's intro into The New 52 have already forgotten it, but surely more remember his appearances early on in Geoff Johns' Justice League run, right...?) Batman certainly never quit the Justice League to form his own super-team The Outsiders alongside Pierce, a team that would periodically be revived, sometimes with Batman sometimes without, and Pierce was never on the short-lived Meltzer League alongside Batman. Dark Days: The Forge did allude to Black Lightning working on a black-ops Batman team so super-secret that not even DC readers had ever heard of it, but, um, come on.

Even reducing their history to a cast-off line of dialogue in a prequel to a crossover event series, Jeff's resume as a teacher/superhero makes him pretty suited to the role of super-coach to the young bats (a role I used to think Huntress would/could play, since the post-Crisis, pre-Flashpoint version was a Gotham City high school teacher by day, unsanctioned Gotham City vigilante by night), the role that Tynion had Batman recruit Batwoman to play during his run, the thinking being her military background would make her a good person to run bat-talion boot camp.

Here's the thing, though. The selection of young heroes seems...random, at best. Tynion's Gotham Knights team included Red Robin/Tim Drake, Spoiler/Stephanie Brown, Orphan/Cassandra Cain, Azrael/Jean-Paul Valley and Batwing/Luke Fox. Batman had taken The Signal/Duke Thomas under his wing. Batgirl Barbara Gordon and Robin Damian were running around out there, but weren't part of the "Gotham Knights," and it was assumed that they were just sort of fully-trained free agents, like Nightwing/Dick Grayson and Red Hood/Jason Todd.

Here, though, Batman wants Jefferson involved in the training of Orphan and Signal. Sure, the ending of Tynion's run temporarily removed Tim and Steph from the field, which is fine, and the other Knights are grown-ups, but picking those two characters out of all the others feels a bit random, as does the fact that as the arc continues and Batman begins to fear that someone is targeting his protegees, he sidelines Duke, Cass and...Barbara? Babs' inclusion in the story is pretty weird, as she's the most experienced of Batman's sidekicks, next to Dick, as she started Batgir-ling around the same time Dick started Robin-ing. She also hasn't really had any role in Tyinon's Detective run, so it seems particularly out of left-field to just snag another Bat-person because three examples is better than two, generally.

Now, I might be into a comic book series that is just all about Batman's young partners training and going to school and having relationships and just, like, living their lives, but I am not in charge of DC Comics, and so five issues cannot pass without a villain to fight. That villain is the guy on the cover with the sword, and his name is Karma. He wears a special high-tech mask of alien origin that he bought from a Markovian arms dealer--that's right, Markovia! See, this is all set-up for the new Outsiders comic--that allows him to read minds when near someone.

That ability allows him to counteract Cass' ability to predict an opponent's moves and Duke's metahuman ability to do pretty much the same, and makes him a match for Batman. He wants revenge on Batman, as he was once a Markovian gunrunner and Batman did something particularly brutal, at least for Batman, to him. After Batman stops him, rather than, like, arresting him or tying him up for the authorities with a picture of a bat pinned to his shirt, Batman doses him with The Scarecrow's fear gas and then, when he's paralyzed by fear, Batman drops a little bat-homing beacon device on him (not unlike the one from "Year One," I guess), and a flock of bats descends on him, and appear to have tried to eat him, as his face is super-scarred at the end of the arc when he's unmasked (Although the mask damages his mind and maybe face too, so I guess we can't distinguish which precise disfigurement came from Batman's horrible attack on a then-helpless criminal,**** and which are from his abuse of alien technology).

But Karma wants more than revenge. Specifically, he wants to kill off Batman's hangers-on like The Signal and Orphan, who he attacks, because he thinks Batman's Bat-family makes him soft and weak, diluting his brand. If that sounds familiar, that is literally The Joker's scheme in "The Death of The Family" (minus the Joker's "jokes"), and Johns had one of the Reverse Flash's attempting to do something similar with The Flash Wally West, way back; fighting him in the name of improving him as a hero.

In this, though, Karma's targets also seem sort of random, as he chooses two characters just barely associated with Batman at this particular point in time--Really, one would think Robin, Catwoman, Batgirl and maybe Nightwing would be the characters someone in the DC Universe would most closely associate with Batman and think of as his partners, not Duke, who he hasn't been hanging out with much since the beginning of Metal and Orphan, who really has only ever appeared in the pages of 'Tec along with, like, five other bat-sidekicks.

Anyway, Batman convinces Black Lightning to help lead a super-team, despite the concerns of his fellow Justice Leaguers Martian Manhunter and Superman, some fights are had with Karma, Katana arrives with important intel gathered from Amanda Waller (but mostly because Katana was on various Outsiders teams in the past) and the Markovian arms dealer who sold Karma his mask appears at the end, implying she will be one of the first problems the new Outsiders team tackles, whenever that book does end up launching.

The Immortal Hulk Vol. 1: Or Is He Both? (Marvel Entertainment) This was surprisingly good. It seems like forever since Marvel has just done a straight Hulk comic, featuring Bruce Banner's green Hulk, and while this one still has a bit of a twist, it's as close to a "true" or "pure" Hulk comics as we've gotten since...Hell, I can't really even remember. I bet it's been at least ten years now. Perhaps closer to 15.

Writer Al Ewing, who kinda sorta brought Bruce Banner back to life in the pages of Avengers: No Surrender after the rather random killing of the character in Civil War II, is the writer here, and the formula he employs for the essential premise is familiar, especially in the first of the five issues included in this collection. Bruce Banner wanders from town to town, trying to stay out of trouble and off the authorities' radars, and hoping that nothing triggers his transformation into his monstrous persona.

The twist here is that while in the past it seemed that Bruce Banner was functionally immortal in that any attempt to kill him--or for him to kill himself--resulted in a sort of self-defense transformation of The Hulk, now Bruce Banner can be killed. But The Hulk can't. So should Banner catch bullet between his eyes, drop dead and get taken to the morgue, that night it's The Hulk who will climb up off the slab.

That's demonstrated in the first issue, which is a pretty great done-in-one Hulk story, the sort that would be a good candidate for any greatest-Hulk-stories-ever-told anthologies. It's a true horror comic, with something particularly tragic happening in the early pages, Banner being murdered, the shooter being something of a victim himself, and then The Hulk showing up as a righteous monster to punish the more venal, more wicked, more realistic human monsters, who are no match for him (If you cut off the last five pages, I think this would have been even more effective, and scary, but then those last five pages are used to assure us that The Hulk only broke every bone in a bad guy's body, rather than, you know, killing him, and to set up future issues).

Ewing keeps up the TV show-like format for a bit, with Banner moving on and encountering a villain-of-the-issue, while an overarching plot involving a reporter with a past connection to The Hulk trying to track him down, but eventually another, similar super-monster enters the picture: Doctor Walter Langkowski, aka Sasquatch of Alpha Flight.

I...didn't know anything about Sasquatch, or his connection to The Hulk, prior to reading this. He seems pretty out-of-character here--he's a villain here, after all--although the whys of that characterization are part of the story, wherein things get even more supernatural than suggested. His Sasquatch form is a really great redesign by artist Joe Bennett, making him look far less like an affable Bigfoot-type and more like a sharp-toothed, baboon-headed Kirby monster.

Bennett's art throughout the book is really quite remarkable. I've seen his work in a lot of books over recent years, and while I don't dislike it, it's the sort of art that the word "serviceable" is often applied to. Here though, inked by Ruy Jose and colored by Paul Mounts, I think Bennett does the work of his career. His style still isn't one that appeals to me in the way that many of my favorite artists' styles do, but this is really great work. Whether his collaborators, the character, the project or simply having been doing this so long--or, more likely, some combination of all those factors--Immortal Hulk is Bennett's best.

I'm not entirely sure about the direction that Ewing is ultimately going to go with this, as there is both an element of the supernatural and what seem like plot point call-backs to Peter David's long but long-ago run on the character, but, for now at least, this is a really good Hulk comic, one that feels true to the original spirit of the character while also smart and somewhat innovative. It pulls off a difficult trick for a superhero comic featuring a character that's been around almost 60 years now--feeling faithful to the original character while also feeling fresh at the same time.

Marvel Knights By Dixon & Barreto: Defenders of The Streets (Marvel) This is one of the (surprisingly numerous!) Marvel trade paperbacks in which the apparently official title of the book differs from the one on the cover and the spine. Online, and in the fine print, you'll find this book listed as Marvel Knights By Dixon & Barreto: Defenders of The Streets. But the spine and cover simply call it Marvel Knights: Defenders of The Streets or, perhaps if this was the only one of the Marvel Knights 20th anniversary reprint editions you had seen, you might think it was actually called Marvel Knights: Marvel Knights: Defenders of The Streets, as that's what the cover and spine say.

The new sub-title is telling though. When Netflix first announced that it would be doing five shows, one a piece starring featuring Daredevil, Luke Cage, Iron Fist and Jessica Jones, and then a team-up between them all under the title "The Defenders," I thought it was a curious decision, as that line-up sounded a lot more like the New Avengers, or, perhaps, the street-focused Marvel Knights team, rather than any Defenders team (on the other hand, The Hulk was already starring in Marvel Studios' Avengers movies, a Doctor Strange flick was in development, and the Silver Surfer and Namor were unavailable to the studio, so it's not like the studio would have an easy time of doing a series or movie with the traditional Defenders anyway).

Not that this team is called "The Marvel Knights," at least, not in-story. At their most established--shortly after Moon Knight Marc Spector sets them up with a headquarters and budget in the sixth issue--Dagger asks aloud what they should call themselves, after which the scene jumps elsewhere. Rather, the team is named after the imprint of Marvel Comics that their book was published under, during its relatively short 2000-2001, 15-issue run.

Writer Chuck Dixon explains his idea for the series in a letters-page afterword that appeared in the first issue, saying that as a young reader he was really excited about the first issues of The Avengers, but found the series dull once the team became established and found its feet, with a steady line-up, headquarters, meetings and rules. I didn't read this book serially, so this was my first time reading any of these issues, but, having read Dixon's statement of intent, its clear the degree to which he followed it.

Daredevil, Black Widow and Dagger are the only characters on the "team" in both the first issue and the last. Throughout the run, The Punisher, Shang-Chi, Moon Knight, Doctor Strange and Luke Cage all come and go, which makes for a somewhat chaotic cast, I suppose, but actually works pretty well in a Marvel Comics series, given that the vast majority of their most popular superheroes all live in the same city, and thus can hardly help but run into one another any time any of them gets into a big enough fight. (Reading this book in 2019, it's interesting to see where these characters all ended up in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Shang-Chi and Moon Knight are the only ones who haven't appeared in a movie or TV show...yet. Daredevil, Luke Cage and The Punisher did indeed end up in the street-level Defenders series on Netflix. Traditional Defender Doctor Strange got his own movie and then appeared in an Avengers one--although I don't know if that makes him an official Avenger yet or not--while Black Widow ended up on the Avengers, fighting aliens, gods and killer robots.)

The first issue has The Punisher stumbling upon the sort of super-powered nonsense that's adjacent to his genre--which he first notices in the form of a giant, bottomless pit dug in a warehouse, which made me think of Netflix's Daredevil season two and Defenders. He tries to take that info to the superhero he's closest to, in the hopes that Daredevil will kick it up to The Avengers, but Daredevil decides instead to keep on The Punisher. Black Widow, Dagger--missing Cloak and apparently at a loss--and Shang-Chi all pretty much just bump into one another, and the five characters end up fighting different fronts in a battle against a Thor villain.

While Black Widow essentially adopts Dagger--and, in a weird scene, kinda slutshames her for her costume, which is only marginally more revealing than what Widow herself wears, depending on who is drawing her and how far they decide to unzip her suit--and they agree to team-up with Daredevil to hunt down The Punisher and bring him to justice once and for all, the characters' various personal problems keep embroiling them in one another's business.

Shang-Chi's always unnamed father sends assassins after him, for example, and eventually The Punisher, Moon Knight, Daredevil and the others fight them alongside Shang-Chi. The on-again, off-again search for Cloak eventually leads half of the characters into the weird hell-dimension within the folds of his cloak, where the astral form of Doctor Strange is needed to help them defeat Nightmare. A life model decoy of Nick Fury goes after Black Widow. And so on.

Dixon can write this sort of superhero stuff in his sleep, and each conflict is fairly engaging, even if there's nothing here that ever really transcends the genre. This is for run-of-the-mill pure millennial super-comics thrills only, really, although I suppose it's also an interesting snapshot of where these characters were at this particular point in time, not only in comparison to where they would end up in the next decade's mass media, but also within Marvel comics themselves (This Luke Cage, for example, is then-dressing as he was in the 1970s, and is new to this whole super-team thing, although a few years later Brian Michael Bendis would make him a central figure of his long tenure on the Avengers franchise).

The one innovative--or at least interesting--aspect is the way that Dixon writes this super-team as a non-team, and in that respect, I suppose Marvel Knights really is a Defenders comic, as that was the core aspect of the original Defenders that differentiated them from The Avengers (and, of course, The Justice League). They were the non-team team. So, too, are these guys; hell, The Punisher fights alongside them at several key points in these few story arcs, although the team-up's raison d'etre is to bust The Punisher.

Barreto, as the title of the book (if not the cover or spine) indicates, is one of the main selling points here. He pencils all but one issue--Mike Lilly draws #14--while Klaus Janson inks the first six issues, and Nelson DeCastro the rest of the series. The cover image is, of course, by Marvel Knights co-founder (and eventual Marvel editor-in-chief) Joe Quesada, whose art was supposedly "hotter" and thus more likely to move copies than Barreto's far superior work, I guess. Today, it looks really out of place juxtaposed with Barreto's interiors. About the only thing I really appreciate about these Quesada pieces--all of which are simply a figure or group of figures posing--is the way he draws the impossibly tangled wire in Daredevil's weird cane/nunchucks device. I like to pick a point on that rope and just follow along with my lines for as long as I can. I find it meditative.

Barreto's art is as weighty, stately and beautiful as always, and it proceeds with perfect pacing. One nice thing about the book's chaotic cast is that it allows him to draw so many different characters, some of whom one might not expect to see--The Fantastic Four, for example, show up for a few pages at the climax of one issue, after a great deal of fireworks alert them to the alien invader that The Punisher was battling--although it's perhaps unfortunate that many of these characters are stuck in their original costumes, or some variation of them, and so Barreto seemed to be somewhat limited in what he had to draw them in (Interestingly, Shang-Chi spends about as much time in this series shirtless as wearing that weird red vest thing he wears all the time).

I wasn't paying enough attention in 2001 to know why this series might not have lasted. I guess that once Bendis took over New Avengers, it would have been superfluous, and/or would have prevented him from using some of the characters he used during his run in the ways he used them, but, if the sales were there, it would seem that Dixon and Barreto could have kept this going a few more arcs.


Batman and The Justice League Vol. 1 (DC Comics) Here. Jiro Kuwata drew Batman manga in the 1960s, hundreds of pages of comics which DC released in three collections beginning in 2014. Katsuhiro Otomo contributed a short story to the final issue of 1996's Batman: Black and White miniseries. And Kia Asamiya's two-volume Batman manga Child of Dreams was released as a hardcover in the U.S. in 2003. So Batman comics created by a manga creator--even ones created specifically for a Japanese audience--aren't entirely unique, but they are fairly rare. This one, by Shiori Teshirogi, is even rarer in that it was created by a manga creator specifically for a Japanese audience, and features not just Batman, but also the entire Justice League (Specifically, the New 52 iteration).

I kind of loved it, but, more importantly, Teshirogi managed to reinvigorate some of the oldest and most familiar characters in pop culture, making them seem new and exciting again, in a way that I didn't think was possible (I know it's rare for me to find, say, Batman swooping in to stop a mugging particularly compelling these days, given that I see it a few times a week and have for most of my life, but I'll be damned if it wasn't like I was seeing Batman for the first time while reading this).I talked more about it here on EDILW, too, if you missed it and/or just want to see some more images from the series.

Lumberjanes: The Infernal Compass (Boom Studios) Here. Having long ago tired of Lumberjanes monthly comic book series--if not the premise of the series or the characters themselves--I really enjoyed this new delivery mechanism for Lumberjanes comics, an original graphic novel.

Shazam! #1 (DC Comics) Here. And if that review isn't enough Caleb-yapping-about-DC's-newest-Captain Marvel/Shazam-comic for you, I followed it up with an image-heavy post here, because there are relatively few things I enjoy yapping about quite as much as the original Captain Marvel.

Transformers: Bumblebee--Win If You Dare (IDW Productions) Here. This was a very good idea, given the fact that Transformers continuity has become every bit as complicated as that of any superhero line, perhaps more so, as it includes so many different cartoons, toy lines and movies in addition to the comics. This is just a standalone, all-ages, original graphic novel starring Bumblebee and set in a continuity that is similar enough to the (surprisingly great!) new live-action movie that it should be easy enough to follow, while also being close enough to the original "G1" continuity that pretty much anyone who has any experience with any Transformers iteration can follow along fairly easily. It's not the best Transformers comic--that is, it's not Tom Scioli's Transformers Vs. G.I. Joe--but it's probably the best place for most readers to start.

*Revisiting Shiori Teshirogi's Batman and The Justice League Vol. 1 in order to review it, I took special note of her Joker/Luthor alliance, which here also includes a moment where it seems like The Joker is poised to kill Luthor. As the two villains review their plan at one point, The Joker marches toward, Luthor, saying:

Hohohoo! I'm onto you, Luthor!! I'm insane, but I'm not stupid!!

I know you're moving in on Gotham. You want a piece of my action. And yet I'm still working with you!
He then presses the barrel of his gun into Luthor's forehead and asks, "Why, Lexy? Why do you think that is?" The answer, it turns out, is "because it's fun!"

I can certainly buy that as The Joker's rationale for teaming with Luthor. As to why Luthor works with The Joker in this particular team-up, the one in
Batman and The Justice League, the first volume of the series doesn't offer any clues.

**Artist Alitha E. Martinez and colorist Jay David Ramos have the douchebag who recognizes Storm as the ex-wife of the "king of that &%$@ country", makes fun of her name and calls her a "gene joke" wearing a black baseball cap. Storm responds by summoning a tiny storm cloud that blasts his hat with a tiny lightning bolt, setting fire to the bill and forcing him to throw it off onto the sidewalk. For the life of me, I don't know why they didn't have "Make America Great Again" drawn on the cap, or at least have colored it red. I mean, I can guess why they might not have done so, not wanting to offend people who are always going on about how too many people in our modern society are too easily offended, but it's another of those occasional examples of someone at Marvel apparently wanting to do some sort of political criticism or commentary, and someone else at Marvel preventing them from doing it, which has the effect of drawing attention to the fact that the publisher is afraid of offending Trump's most ardent, hat-wearing supporters.

***Also dumb names for Duke, I know, but they are at least in keeping with his vague signal-catching powers and is still bat-related. The fact that his costume is full of bat-designs makes going with something vaguely knight-related like "Signal" sort of squishy, conceptually.

****Which isn't to say "Karma" wasn't a horrible villain, or anything. During the flashback in which Batman defeats him, Batman says: "The children call you the The Man of Fear. You make them watch you torture their parents." So yeah, sounds like a super-horrible villain. But torture isn't really Batman's bag, particularly in comics not written by Frank Miller.

1 comment:

Kevin McHugh said...

I think I've been reading this blog for 8 or 9 years, and this entry featured one of my favorite sentences I've ever seen here: "About the only thing I really appreciate about these Quesada pieces--all of which are simply a figure or group of figures posing--is the way he draws the impossibly tangled wire in Daredevil's weird cane/nunchucks device. I like to pick a point on that rope and just follow along with my lines for as long as I can. I find it meditative. "