Tuesday, February 26, 2019

A Month of Wednesdays: January 2019



BOUGHT:

Archie #701 (Archie Comics) It turns out that Archie secretly dating Sabrina isn't the biggest news in Riverdale, after all; rather, the whatever happened to Reggie's dad plot point seems to be the bigger deal, as that dominates the events of this second issue of Nick Spencer and Marguerite Sauvage's new run on the series.

While I appreciate the artist's takes on the girls, I'm still getting used to the idea of Archie and Jughead as hunks--I guess that's because I don't watch Riverdale, so the very idea of Archie or Jughead being attractive to anyone is still kind of bizarre to me? Riverdale does seem to be informing Spencer's Archie though, as there are crimes and secrets going on in this issue, which ends with one of those rooms full of clues and red string that serial killers, people chasing serial killers and intelligence agents set-up.


Archie Meets Batman '66 #6 (Archie) This is the first of two great Batman miniseries that I've loved every issue of that reach their final issues this month. In the concluding chapter of Jeff Parker, Michael Moreci, Dan Parent and J. Bone's pitch-perfect melding of the Batman '66 comics and 1960s-era Archie Comics, Archie and his friends don their Super Teen costumes, pile into the Bat-jalopy (which was referenced in issue #1; foreshadowing!) and race to the captured Batman's rescue. A bit of Dilton Doiley derived deus ex machina, and the adults of Riverdale are free from Underworld United's spell, putting the four formidable fiends that lead it in handcuffs. Is this the last we've seen of this particular team-up, not counting the collected edition, which I'm actually considering buying as well just because there have been so many great-looking variants attached to the series...?

Let's hope not. At the very least, Parker and Moreci provide a potential hook for a sequel, when Betty Cooper mentions that her great aunt lives in Gotham City, and she should really visit her some time soon. Her aunt's name? Harriet Cooper. As in--you guessed it--Aunt Harriet.


Batman: Kings of Fear #6 (DC Comics) Well, this is slightly depressing: Kelley Jones and Scott Peterson's six-issue miniseries pitting Batman against The Scarecrow, an exploration of the ways in which the two weaponize fear to meet their particular ends while also particularly interesting analysis of the psychology of the Batman character, has come to its end.

As expected, The Scarecrow does not get the last word on what makes Batman tick, and how Batman has impacted Gotham City and the world--well, actually, it was Batman's own psyche's conjuring of The Scarecrow, and not The Scarecrow himself, given that Jonathan Crane wasn't privy to whatever "breakthrough" Batman had last issue--no matter how convincing his argument was in Kings of Fear #5. After Batman shot his massively muscled thighs with syringes full of adrenaline last issue, The Dark Knight breaks from The Scarecrow's spell and punches him out. But he's still stuck thinking about the harm he does to himself, his city and those around him.

As he returns Crane to Arkham Asylum and then himself to his cave, a series of other characters provide counter-arguments, attesting to the good that Batman does. Commissioner Gordon and Alfred Pennyworth make the expected arguments, with Alfred's being the last and most convincing word on the matter, but it's a doctor he bumps into at Arkahm who makes the most unexpected and interesting argument. She thanks Batman not only for saving her life in an alley one night a long time ago, but also for scaring her husband straight back when he wasn't yet her husband, and was a criminal just starting to dabble in henching for a super-villain.
How terrifying is Batman? Well, that's what he looks like just causally rounding the corner of a hallway.
She rattles off some crime statistics, telling Batman that the rate of recidivism among criminals stopped by the Batman is under two percent in Gotham, far below the 30 percent rate of all other criminals. Basically, she tells him, that Batman is so damn scary that he manages to fight crime not just by stopping criminals in the act, but convincing them not to attempt to commit future ones (And it is here that it is a good thing that this is a Jones-drawn comic, as his Batman is scary-looking enough to convince a reader of this case; he's not just a buff dude in a cape and cowl, as in so many other Batman comics, he's this giant, pointy black object that blots out his surroundings).

"You didn't know that, did you?" she asks Batman. "I had a feeling you might not. Especially since you deal with the inmates here. I know how they can...sort of dominate your thinking, skew your point of view." Hey, good point! Batman's archenemies might continue to commit spectacular crimes every chance they get, and maybe, like The Scarecrow said in the previous issues, Batman even encourages it to an extent by paying so much attention to them, but those are, ultimately, just like 12 different criminals, and remember, they are criminally insane. The other criminals in Gotham City? Those who don't wear costumes and deal in poison gases, deadly trick umbrellas and mind-controlling top hats? They are all subject to Batman's brand of fear.

So look, given my affection for Jones' art, I'm sure any skeptics reading this will assume I am biased to like this, and they would be right. But I can honestly say that, thanks to Peterson's scripting, this was one of the most engaging comics about they psychology of Batman that I've read in a long, long time, certainly more interesting and convincing than Tom King's ongoing attempts to convince that Batman is being driven mad by heartbreak (Although the last chapter of "Cold Days," reviewed below in the "Borrowed" section of this post, featured a very eloquent passage in which Bruce Wayne explains how overwhelming fear can make those suffering from it do anything, which I unfortunately related to more than I wished I had, thanks to my own issues with anxiety).

If you missed this, do check out the trade paperback collection when it's available.


Batman: The Caped Cruader Vol. 1 (DC) This 320-page collection of 11 issues of Batman (plus the twelfth annual) didn't come out in January, but that's the month I bought it, as I so enjoyed the last volume of Batman: The Dark Knight Detective that I read I was really in the mood for some high-quality, peak era Batman comics. These are the post-Crisis issues of Batman from 1988-1989, skipping over the four issues that comprise the "A Death In The Family" story arc that has been collected elsewhere (There's a bit of an odd jump, as the last issue in here to feature Robin Jason Todd illustrates how troubled he is becoming, and then the last two issues are Robin-free, but don't really have Batman dwelling on Jason's death or absences either).

The bulk of these comics are written by Jim Starlin, with an issue from James Owsley (who we now know better as Christopher Priest), and the annual by Mike Baron and Robert Greenberger. Jim Aparo, a if not the definitive Batman artist, is the primary pencil artist, but Ross Andru, Dick Giordano and others also draw passages (there's even a little bit of Norm Breyfogle, in the form of the Robin back-up story he drew that has been collected elsewhere).

The cover repurposes the one that Todd McFarlane drew for Batman #423, although McFarlane only contributes a cover to the contents of the book. (While his drawing of the woman leaves a lot to be desired, that's a pretty good take on Batman, particularly as the living shadow or living cape version of the character. I've always particularly liked the fact that McFarlane drew Batman's right hand on the woman's shoulder, the only part of Batman that appears to be human in that image, because the fact that you can see his hand there means it is not holding his cape aloft in the action of wrapping around her. That is, the cape seems to be moving like wings without any manipulation, making Batman seem even weirder and less human. I always considered McFarlane a less-skilled practicioner of the sort of exaggerated style Breyfogle perfected on his Batman comics, and always wondered to what extent McFarlane was influenced by Breyfogle, or, perhaps more likely, which artists they must have both gained inspiration from, given how similar their art can be in some regards.)

An even better cover in here is that for the Owsley-written Batman #431, a George Pratt image that has been somewhere in the back of my skull ever since I first saw it:
Few things are creepier than an upside down Batman, you ask me.

The collection kicks off with the four-part "Ten Nights of The Beast," which introduced The KGBeast, back when he had two-hands, an astronomical body-count and no pants. It was pretty interesting revisiting the character's initial story arc after seeing his return in the last few years, first in Scott Snyder's All-Star Batman and, more recently, in Tom King's Batman run (again, see below), where he seems to have quite purposely echoed Starlin's ending to the storyline, in which Batman can't be bothered to care overmuch about whether the Beast lives or dies. The story is also interesting in the way that it demonstrates how unafraid 1980s comics were about grounding their superhero stories in the real world and referencing real politics; I mean, Ronald Reagan appears in this story, as the ultimate target of the Beast.

Also interesting? He's the last "supervillain" in this collection. One could argue whether or not he even qualifies as a supervillain, I suppose, but he has a costume, a code name and something in the neighborhood of powers (he's cybernetically enahnced). After that, it's all real-world criminals, including a serial rapist and killer, a sniper and lots of muggers, stick-up men and gangsters.

Batman and Robin tackle that serial rapist/killer--actually, a pair of them--for two issues, only to see justice dished out in a way the Caped Crusader doesn't necessarily agree with, continuing the volume-length meditation on whether or not it's right to kill killers (which I suppose climaxes with Batman's attempt to kill The Joker as "A Death In The Family" concludes).

In the Baron-written, Ross Andru-penciled annual, Bruce Wayne and a date attend a weird murder mystery party only to find the murder is real (and super-weird), while Jason Todd fights after school crime being committed by his school's AV geeks in the Greenberger-written, Breyfogle-drawn back-up. Dave Cockrum guest-pencils a night in the life story demonstrating all the good Batman does, in stories that a few Gotham police officers tell about their encounters with the Dark Knight. There's a two-issue storyline penciled by M.D. Bright demonstrating Jason's desire for tougher justice than Batman is comfortable with, in which the Boy Wonder may or may not have thrown a murderer off a balcony to his death, which concludes with that junkyard-set issue that apparently made Chris Sims a lifelong Batman fan.

Then, after "Death In The Family," there are two done-in-ones. The first features Batman tackling a sniper, and recalling the time Thomas Wayne slapped him...which I was surprised to read in a canonical (or maybe "once canonical" is more like it) Batman story, and the second, the Owsley/Priest-written issue, has Batman fighting ninjas while trying to crack a very difficult murder case involving one of his old teachers.

Rounding out the collection are some "Who's Who" pages, notable for containing a David Mazzuchelli-drawn Commissioner Gordon and a Kyle Baker-drawn Joker and Batman.


Decades: Marvel In The '40s--The Human Torch Vs. The Sub-Mariner (Marvel Entertainment) Marvel is celebrating their 80th anniversary this year, and part of that celebration is this interesting line of trade paperback collections entitled Decades. Each of the eight volumes is devoted to a different decade, obviously, and each is filled with a particular focus or group of characters that best summarizes what the publisher was up to in that decade.

So, for example, the 1970s volume is sub-titled The Legion of Monsters and the 1990s volume is The Mutant X-plosion. The first half-dozen seem particularly well-chosen, and I confess some curiosity about the final two volumes, those focused on "the '00s" and "the '10s", as they are sub-titled Hitting The Headlines and Legends and Legacies; those sub-titles are suggestive but rather vague compared to the others, and I'd have to get the books in my hands to see what Marvel filled them with. I imagine those were the hardest two to curate, as the closer we are to the decade in question, the harder it is to see it objectively.

The reverse, of course, is true, and that might explain why they knocked the first volume out of the park. There are four issues of Marvel Mystery Comics and four issues of Human Torch Comics included here, from, and these add up to four real stories or story arcs/cycles. Although Jack Kirby, Stan Lee and, to a lesser extent, Steve Ditko are thought of as the creators of what would become known as the Marvel Universe, none of them are involved in these comics, despite the fact that Kirby and Lee were already active in the field at the time. Rather, the bulk of these stories are written and drawn by Bill Everett and Carl Burgos, creators of Namor and The Human Torch respectively, with contributions coming from writer John H. Compton and about a half-dozen other artists, who drew parts of Human Torch Comics #10. Alex Schomburg, who was responsible for so many of the more busy and dynamic Golden Age super-comics covers, draws all of those collected here; they are all particularly spectacular.
This is one of the covers included, but, sadly, the incredible-looking Angel story isn't reprinted within, so we can only wonder what the fuck is going on there.
Despite featuring the work of neither Kirby nor Lee, and despite starring characters that are now seen as relatively minor in Marvel's superhero pantheon, these stories do contain the basic DNA of the Marvel Universe that would eventually form. There's the deeply flawed character who can seem as much a villain as a hero in Namor, the archetypal anti-hero. Thhere's the shared setting of multiple characters. And, most integrally, there's the two heroes who don't seem too terribly fond of one another, and who spend almost as much time fighting one another as they do their foes, but who, when the time comes, both recognize real, greater threats and dangers and are able to set aside their differences to ally with one another.

One has to imagine these stories left an impression on Lee and Kirby, too. After all, if the Marvel Universe officially began during their Fantastic Four run, they did re-purpose The Human Torch's name and powers for one of the four heroes on that team, and introduced Namor into the narrative by the fourth issue of that seminal series.

The first of the three story cycles is a pretty straightforward battle between the two heroes. It opens with that fantastic 10-page sequence of Namor being a dick and seemingly fighting all of New York City. He calls the police "stupid" and "nitwits"; he chucks a tourist out of a window of the Statue of Liberty; he slaps the mayor; he tears down an elevated train and then goes after famous landmarks. This is the comic that was reprinted in the 1965 Bonanza Books edition of Jules Feiffer's The Great Comic Book Heroes that I kind of freaked out about when I first saw it. Namor basically only relents because the lady cop he digs, Betty Dean, tells him to knock it off.

That's followed by a neat section in which Namor continues to go around town wrecking stuff, and The Human Torch tries to track him by his trail of destruction, but it's slow going as he stops to repair all of the damage Namor is doing. They finally face off in the final pages. That's followed by a 22-page fight scene--"The Battle of The Comic Century! Fire Vs. Water!"--that ultimately ends in a stalemate, with Namor able to capture the Torch, but unable to take his eyes off him. Ultimately, Betty again defuses the situation, promising Namor that if he just goes away, the Torch will leave him alone.

And he does...until the next storyline!

That storyline is completely fuckbonkers, and sprawls across sixty pages. How fuckbonkers is it? Well, here's the cover--
--and it doesn't even begin to capture the weirdness.

The title page features The Human Torch swooping towards the modern Four Horseman of the Apocalpse: Death, Hitler, Mussolini and...Namor?! It's true. Namor sees the destruction that World War II has wrought, littering the once peaceful ocean floor with sunken ships and human skulls and bones. He decides the best way to bring about world peace is to just conquer the world himself, so he calls together all the underwater kingdoms under his command and, egged on by a sexy Shape of Water version of Lady Macbeth, he goes to work with the fantastical weapons of Atlantis.

He interrupts a battle between the Nazis and Soviets in the Ukraine with a giant whirlpool generator that washes them all away. When The Human Torch and Toro try to talk some sense into Namor, who is already imagining himself in Napoleon's hat and coat, succeeding where that would-be conqueror failed, Torch flames on, and Namor washes them both away.
And things just get crazier and crazier from there. Torch tries to rally Hitler and Stalin to join forces against Namor, but they balk. He warns Kazar that he suspects all of Africa might be flooded at some point soon, so he should probably have his gorilla and elephant friends build a giant ark big enough to hold all of the animals in Africa in case they need it (And they will, before the story ends).

After a rematch, Namor drugs the Torch and makes him his slave, setting him against the allies. The Torch flies to the North Pole and sends gigantic glaciers racing towards Russia and the U.S. (coming to his senses in time to stop them). Meanwhile, Namor floods Berlin and attacks it with his battleships, which are disguised as whales, as well as his man-eating sharks and giant killer octopuses. Just look at this insanity!
By the time New York City gets the same treatment, things have gotten as out-of-control as they can get, and Everett and Burgos are almost out of pages, so with only six left to go, Namor realizes he's been duped by Fish Lady Macbeth, and asks the Torch "How can I square accounts?" Together they route the Atlanteans and the Torch tells Namor that the United States is going to treat his devastating attacks on world capitals with the same gravity as a parent might treat a misbehaving child.
After that fever dream, the final story arcs seem almost tame.

In the first of these, the two heroes--and Toro--are faced with a common foe, a serpentine supervillain called The Python, who is in league with Hitler. The Nazis spring him from Alcatraz in an elaborate attack that the heroes fight on in different fronts, and before things are over, The Python has turned the Human Torch into a Monster Torch under his control, and turned the FBI against Namor, Toro and Professor Horton, the man who created the Torch. After a bunch of fighting, everything gets settled--and Namor strangles The Python to death with his bare hands. These were the days before creators saw much value in recurring villains, I guess.

Finally, there's another tale of Namor and The Torch as frenemies. Namor decides to go undercover on a Nazi submarine and, later, breaks up a spy ring. Given his triangular head, permanently arched eye-brows, elf ears and the little wings on his heels, one wouldn't think Namor was too terribly suited for counter-espionage, but no one seems to see through his many unconvincing disguises. Because he was playing Nazi, Toro and The Torch think Namor has really allied himself with the Axis, and so they are at war with one another again...at least until the climax, where they team up to sink an invading Nazi fleet.

These comics are a blast. Marvel could probably decide to publish nothing but Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and reprints of their 1940s Namor and Human Torch comics, and I'd be A-OK with that publishing plan. There's a one-page prose introduction, about two paragraphs of which seem devoted to the Decades series in general, and the rest to discussing these comics and characters, and how they fit into the larger Marvel Universe story, from the perspective of...someone at Marvel. If the book is lacking something, I think it is probably in this area. Don't get me wrong, the presence of the introduction is great, and I was glad to get some context; I just would have liked more context still, and maybe to know who I was hearing it from.


Go-Bots #3 (IDW Publishing) This third issue of Tom Scioli's honestly incredible Go-Bots comic is a pretty great example of just how dense and packed with content his comics can be, with a single issue of his telling as much story as other comics might spend an entire story arc on. This issue goes in a completely different direction than the previous two in this miniseries, featuring a protagonist only seen in a panel or so of those issues, and a few of the characters from those previous issues with the biggest roles receding a bit into the background here. This is still quite connected, of course, but in terms of cast and setting, it feels like a completely different comic book (albeit still a Go-Bots comic), and its connection to the previous issues feeling rather tenuous until the surprise ending. At the risk of spoiling it here--and I assume you guys are already reading it, and thus can't be spoiled in this month-old review--Scioli riffs on one of the most famous surprise endings in film history in a way that is both delightful and shocking*.

Inside the Go-Bot space shuttle--named "Spay-C," with all the imagination and poetic flair that always made the Go-Bots feel like the cheap Transformers knock-offs they are--the crew is awakened from their cryogenic slumber by the sentient space shuttle when it finds itself orbiting an obviously inhabited world. The inhabitants of this world--which looks like the big metal apple core of the Go-Bot home planet...ummmm...just let me plug that in the search bar here...Gobotron--appear to be the more monstrous Gobots, including the giant, wheel-bound dragon Zod. Also on this planet is the transforming Gobot command center, which I actually completely forgot existed, until I saw it in its playset form and had an incredibly weird feeling of recalled nostalgia, as the comic jogged forgotten memories of my childhood.
Eventually Spay-C is rescued by some other Gobots, and then imprisoned by them, and then gradually seems to get in line with their program, to the extent that the human astronauts hiding inside her begin to question if she's betraying them to be with her own kind or what. In addition to dozens of new characters and some of the most dramatic visual elements of the long ago toy line and short-lived cartoon, the issue features some honestly suspenseful intrigue, a bizarre mystery, a chase through space, a dog fight featuring all of the flying Go-Bots, and I'll be damned if there aren't multiple 20+-panel pages.

Despite the dumb name, Spay-C is a pretty intriguing character who, like some of the Guardian characters in the first two issues, seems to be torn between serving humanity and being a self-actualized sentient robot, and her design is actually pretty cool as rendered by Scioli; it's difficult to tell from just the cover image, but the nosecone that her face peers out of in robot form is rendered a bit like an enormous afro.

For all the cool stuff in this issue, I have to confess that the bit that stuck with me is the gag about the combination lock on Spay-C's cell, which will look familiar:
That's pretty good, considering the 1980s origins of these characters and their milieu, but Scioli goes one further with it when the human astronauts attempt to open the cell for their imprisoned ally/ride:
Anyway, much like Transformers Vs. G.I. Joe, Scioli's Go-Bots isn't just great, nor much better than it has any reason to be, but it is a shockingly good comic book, and sets a new bar for based-on-old-toys comics that just makes everything not by Scioli look worse in comparison (I do have high hopes for that Michel Fiffe G.I. Joe series, and for more auteur '80s toy comics from IDW in general, though).


Ironheart #2 (Marvel) No, I did not read or buy issue #1. And yes, I do tend to buy and/or read Marvel comics exclusively in trade now. So how came I by the second issue of this new series starring Riri Williams, the one-time replacement for Iron Man in his own book? Well, while I don't remember the exact tweet that did it, there was a day a few months ago when I was ordering my comics where I read, like, the third or fifth incredibly ignorant, hateful, hypocritical thing about this comic starring a young black girl being written by Eve L. Ewing, a female poet new to the comics industry, a hire who was not the apparently expected middle-aged white guy whose been writing super-comics his whole adult life, that I actually ordered this issue out of spite. Like, my thought process was literally just fuck those guys; I'm going to buy this comic just to show them!

I...never do that, but that's just how insufferable those complaining about this comic book's existence was, and how infuriatingly transparent their hypocrisy was (The Big Two have been extremely welcoming to prose writers, filmmakers, TV writers, cartoon producers, comedians, professional wrestlers and musicians who hadn't spent years working their way up through the ranks of comics writers in order to get plum gigs, and sometimes those projects go very, very poorly, but a poet is where these "fans" were going to draw the line? And it's definitely the poetry, not anything else about this particular writer that was so enraging them?).

Anyway, this was really good, so yeah, fuck all those guys. Despite being a second issue, it was still incredibly accessible, and I got a good feel for the main character, her major conflicts, what her powers and status quo were and how they differed from that of Iron Man and even a sense of her wider supporting cast. This issue adhered quite well to Stan Lee's supposed maxim that every issue is someone's first (Fittingly, this issue is also one of those honoring Lee's passing, as you can see from the cover), and I found myself interested in what happened next.

I did not order issue #3 out of irritation with online assholes dragging on the writer and the book for spurious reasons, but I will catch-up on it in trade, as I had always intended to.

The art by Luciano Vecchio is quite strong. The individual character designs are varied and distinct from one another, and while I wasn't crazy about the Ironheart costume when I first saw it--I thought there was just one color too many and one heart too many on the armor--it worked quite fine in the context of an actual comic book (as opposed to the cover or three I had seen previously), and I was used to it, if not completely fond of it, by the time I reached the end of the issue.


Justice League #15 (DC) The "Escape From Hawkworld" storyline continues, with the same creative team of Scott Snyder, James Tynion IV, Jim Cheung, Stephen Segovia and Mark Morales, and the same basic division of labor as the previous issue, with Tynion handling the script and Cheung drawing just the framing sequence set on Earth--just 12 panels spread across three pages--while Segovia and Morales draw the bulk of the issue, set on the planet Thanagar Prime.

The plot is fairly simple. Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern John Stewart and Hawkgirl fight Shayera, "The Savage Hawkman" and some Hawkpeople for like a panel before they escape (For some reason, J'onn uses psychic subterfuge, when he could really take down a planet of Hawks solo, and with a Green Lantern fighting alongside him, he could do it without breaking a sweat, but then, J'onn is traditionally written to be as weak as he needs to be in order to fulfill his role in the story in question). They break into the vaults of Thanagar Prime, where J'onn talks to "The Martian Keep," the other last Green Martian who is colored white for some reason (and she's been that color for multiple issues now, so I'm assuming they are doing it on purpose), while they fight Shayera and company some more. Then Kilowog and a handful of other Green Lanterns show up to tell the Justice Leaguers to knock it off.

There's one weird point early in the issue where J'onn mentions his ability to "alter" a room, and Hawkgirl tells him to "save the illusions" as we see the three of them resuming their normal appearance after their Hawk disguises melt away. It's a weird moment because it seems to suggest that J'onn can change the shape of other things, rather than just himself (he can't), and it's compounded later when J'onn again puts disguises atop himself and Hawkgirl, but John builds one around himself using his ring.

I assumed originally that J'onn was just hijacking the minds of their antagonists, rewiring their senses so they would see what he wanted them to see, but I don't know if that is a glitch in the dialogue, or a result of how pencil artist Segovia decided to draw the dropping of their disguises, or a combination of two slightly awkward things suggesting something wrong in the way one of J'onn's most basic superpowers works.

As for the stuff on Earth, Starman-from-the-'80s awakes screaming and the Trinity manages to subdue him with Wonder Woman's lasso, at which point he reveals the name of the cosmic creator goddess that Luthor had previously learned: Perpetua.

It didn't strike me until just now that "Perpetua" isn't just a name that sounds like "perpetual" and thus seems to fit with a cosmic character in a superhero comic. It's also the name of a third century martyr and Catholic saint. She's a common enough hero of Christianity that I have to assume that's what Snyder named the character that on purpose, but so far, I don't see the reason why. We don't know her story here--a story that hasn't been told in billions of years," Starman says, "a story that could destroy the universe itself"--but so far this Perpetua would seem to share next-to-nothing with the saint.


Justice League #16 (DC) This month's second issue of Justice League concludes the three-part "Escape From Hawkworld" story, with the same creative team (see above), but this time artist Cheung's couple of pages are all at the end of the book. While Shayera's Hawkpeople and the Green Lantern Corps fight Hawkgirl and Green Lantern John Stewart, verbally and physically, The Martian Keep tells J'onn stories with her dying breaths, stories about the true origins of the universe, and some ancient alien business about the relationship between the Martians and the human beings of Earth (a connection between the two has been played out plenty before, notably in the John Ostrander/Tom Mandrake Martian Manhunter, and there's an element of the story that also reminded me of Joe Kelly's story about why Martians are vulnerable to fire from late in his JLA run).

Apparently, J'onn was abducted by Earthlings when he was a little boy, and this has something to do with how he survived the psychic fire plague that caused the Martian extinction. The cover of this issue features Lex Luthor prominently, and within the folds of J'onn's cape, Cheung has drawn two children; one of them is apparently J'onn, as that is how Cheung draws young J'onn inside, and the other is a red-haired little boy who could very well be young Lex Luthor. Beneath the image is the tag "Who Are The Children of Mars?" Why Luthor is on the cover--he doesn't appear within the pages of this issue at all--and why he might be tied to J'onn in some manner is't clear. I suppose we might find that out in the next issue, which also has the two of them on the cover.
There are a few bits of weirdness that didn't quite track with me in this issue. One is that The Martian Keep seems to be using the Absorbacon to create an idealized version of Thanagar Prime for Shayera Hol, complete with mentally projected people and buildings, but I don't quite understand how that works; as in the last issue, there seems to be at least a suggestion that Green Martians don't just have mind-reading abilities, but can somehow use their brains to create independent illusions or, here, make thoughts real...?

Later, all of the characters are "trapped" within a vault, although I have no idea why J'onn and/or any of the Lanterns couldn't force their way out, or, if force wouldn't work, why J'onn couldn't just pass through the walls or the Lanterns create portals. It's only an issue for a few panels, as Eighties Starman opens a star-shaped portal that allows him and the Trinity to arrive inside the vault and take everyone out through the same portal, so it's...just kind of odd, really.

Establishing sets of rules for the shared characters and shared universe and then abiding by them is part of what makes superhero comics work, and it is especially important in a team book like this, which unites characters from throughout DC Comics' publishing line and history. It's fine to introduce never before revealed secrets about characters' pasts--as is the case with J'onn's childhood in this issue--or even new applications for established super-powers, but there's a pretty important distinction between innovation and improvisation, and too much of this arc has felt like the latter, as I was occasionally thrown out of the narrative to question things that I should be pretty solid on.

The last panel has a weary and haggard-looking Starman telling Hawkgirl that "It's time to fix The Source Wall," which would address an event that kicked off Scott Snyder and Tynion's run on Justice League. That is slated to happen not in the next issue, but Justice League Annual #1.

Speaking of which...


Justice League Annual #1 (DC) In addition to the two 22-page, $3.99 regular issues of Justice League, this month also sees the release of a 38-page, $4.99 annual. That's a full 82 pages of Snyder and Tynion-written Justice League comics for $13. That's a lot of comics, which is cool if you like these comics, but it's also a lot of money to invest in a single comics title (and if you're reading the other Justice League books, Odyssey and Dark, well that's another $8; DC certainly isn't making it easy for Justice League fans to try out newer offerings like, say, Shazam or Naomi).

I confess to getting a nostalgic thrill on the first page, wherein artists Daniel Sampere and Juan Albarran draw the interior of a Javelin featuring much of the current Justice League line-up and some of their hangers-on standing around and among them is Green Lantern Kyle Rayner, back in his original costume after years of changing trying out different ones. Seeing that GL in that costume sharing a panel with Superman, Batman and (a) The Flash reminded me fondly of Grant Morrison, Howard Porter, John Dell and company's JLA, which remains one of my favorite super-comics of all time.
This story--co-written once more by Snyder and Tynion and scripted by Tynion--had me thinking of Morrison's version of the Justice League for another, less pleasing reason as well, however. Morrison had a tendency to write the characters as very remote. They were hyper-professional and hyper-competent, and while they exchanged meaningful lines and there were degrees of characterization in their adventures, in general the book always kept them at arms length. If you wanted to know what was going on in their heads or their personal lives, well, they all had their own books--or four books of their own, in two cases--for that kind of thing.

Tynion writes the characters with even greater distance from the reader here, to the point that they aren't characters so much as toys being moved about. With the exception of Hawkgirl and Martian Manhunter, there's little characterization at all in this particular issue. Not only are many of the characters completely interchangeable with one another, but some don't even have much in the way of dialogue to contribute.

Wonder Woman, for example, gets one line of dialogue ("Wait...you can't just leave..."). Mera, now apparently taking her fake dead husband Aquaman's spot on the team after the events of "Drowned Earth", also gets one ("My God...is that it?"). The Flash gets two, noting the change in the "vibrational quality" of the Multiverse. Those characters do even less than they say, to the extent one wonders why they didn't just get left at the Hall on monitor duty.

So this is a very plot-heavy issue, with guest-stars galore, with most of those guest-stars appearing in brief cameos, establishing the universal--or multiversal--importance of the events.

The League plans to repair The Source Wall broken at the climax of Dark Nights: Metal and the launch of Snyder's Justice League run, and the plan involves affixing the various Omega Titans from No Justice to the wall as a patch, with Hawkgirl Kendra Saunders filling in for the dead Titan. The whole universe seems to get together to pull this off. In addition to the League and some guests (Miss Martian, Kyle Rayner, Starman Will Payton), The New Gods of New Genesis, Ganthet and The Green Lantern Corps and Sayera Hol and the Thanagarians are all there.

And then things go wrong, as the Legion of Doom's new recruit Brainiac attacks with an armada of ships, the cosmic creator of an existence that pre-dates the current creation is awakened and the entire Source Wall ultimately goes KRAKADOOM, leaving the universe to drift, no longer contained by the shell that had previously surrounded it. The characters themselves all seem a little confused as to what exactly this means ("How can the multiverse be moving?" Miss Martian asks her uncle, "What's it moving in? What's it moving toward?"). But it's bad: "The Multiverse will die in a matter of months," Ganthet tells Wonder Woman before he and the GLC fuck off back to Oa.

In essence, things are basically where they were at the start of the series, but the stakes have gotten much higher, and some pains have been taken to show how momentous this will be, with a page devoted to skipping around locations of the DC Universe having various characters react, apparently setting up plotlines that will be explored in books like Justice League Odyssey (Adam Strange notices that New Genesis and Apokolips have suddenly disappeared, the Odyssey-redesigned Darkseid in The Ghost Zone telling himself "Now we can begin") and Dark ("All of nature is screaming", bearded Swamp Thing tells Detective Chimp) and who knows where else (There's a panel of a/The Spectre and another featuring the league of heroes from Multiversity's Hall of Heroes).

All of which is long way of saying that this comic is almost certainly an important one, but it's also a somewhat mediocre one. I am glad so much Justice League got published this month, however, as these cosmic secret elements of the storyline are starting to drag a bit, so getting them out of the way all at once is definitely preferable than having had these 80-some pages see publication over four months or so.

My favorite part of this issue, aside from that panel reminding me of what reading Justice League comics in 1998 or so felt like, was a later panel in which Brainiac disses Luthor's intelligence and calls humans a "base species," but the line comes from off-panel, and the focus is on super-gorilla Grodd and pink, elf-eared alien Sinestro grinning to themselves at someone making fun of humans.



Scooby-Doo Team Up #45 (DC) Well here's something I never thought I would see: The Mystery Machine on the streets of Apokolips.

In this issue of one of DC's best super-comics, Scooby and the gang meet Mister Miracle, Big Barda, Oberon and Shilo Norman backstage after one of Scott's shows, when suddenly Apokalyptian warriors pour out of a boom tube to take Barda back to Granny Goodness (along with Daphne and Velma). The guys pile into the Mystery Machine and drive through a Boom Tube to Darkseid's home world, where they battle The Female Furies before Scott ultimately allows himself to be tossed into a death trap in exchange for the release of Barda.

He, naturally, escapes, and Darkseid's court all take a pratfall.

The sight of Daphne and Velma transformed into Female Furies is another thing I never thought I would see, but it seemed a lot more likely than the Mystery Machine on Apokolips. I mean, type "Daphne" or "Velma" and almost any other word into Google and your going to gets lots of weird fan art.

Sadly, I was a little disappointed by their Fury fashions:
And the fact that they didn't get Fury codenames like Stompa, Bernadeth and the rest.

Anyway, this is yet another of Sholly Fisch and Dario Brizuela's great introductions into a particular corner of the DC Universe. If their Scooby-Do Team-Up isn't the ultimate gateway into DC Comics, I don't know what is.


Scooby-Doo Team-Up #46 (DC) And then this happened in the very next issue.


Transformers: Historia (IDW Publishing) My second favorite Transformers comic project of all time--with Tom Scioi and John Barber's Transformers Vs. G.I. Joe being the first, of course--was Dreamwave's 2003-launched Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye, a guidebook full of profiles of what must have been every single "G1" character, and some later characters as well (I recall an Armada issue, for example). As much nostalgia-derived affection as I have for The Transformers, more often than not I don't really enjoy their comic book adventures, certainly not as much as I would like to; the best, non-Scioli ones I've read generally have a few elements I really like, and a whole lot I don't (This tends to be true of G.I. Joe and He-Man comics too, and without going on a super-long tangent, I expect this has something to do with the amount of creative/imaginative energy I invested in them during my formative years, and how difficult it is for creators to live up to such fundamental, formative experiences in my mental life as the entire concept of play, was, you know?). But those guidebooks, being just portraits of the characters and profiles of each of them, provide the pleasure of spending time with the characters, of firing one's imagination, without subjecting one to sub-par storytelling or art. Additionally, I just kinda like reading encyclopedia-like books like that of subjects I'm interested in.

That was what drew me to IDW's Transformers: Historia, which summarizes the publisher's thirteen-years long saga, which I have read next to nothing of because my God did they not make it easy to jump on. Rather than a single Transformers series, they were constantly relaunching the book under slightly different titles and publishing many different miniseries, and it only seemed to get more complicated as the titles and issues stacked up, as IDW eventually launched some sort of Hasbroverse shared universe that also included G.I. Joe, Micronauts, M.A.S.K., Rom and even the fucking Visionaries.

So this looked like something that might be up my alley. And it is...sort of. It is in the form of a regular comic book with staples rather than a spine, and consists mostly of a 42-page prose history of the IDW's Transformers as summarized by Chris McFeely, heavily illustrated by context-free, uncredited images from covers and panels of the comics (all of the artists, colorists and writers these images were created by and the prose summarizes are credited collectively on a very full title page). It reads an awful lot like a Wikipedia entry, albeit one that takes the subject matter seriously and is more thorough than one could hope from Wikipedia.
It's honestly a bit of a slog, covering as it does millions--if not billions--of years, and offering greater, more exacting detail than one might find in a Wikipedia article. It took me about two or three sittings to get through. It's followed by profiles of Windblade, a new character original to IDW's Transformers saga and notable for being female, and Optimus Prime, whose name comes and goes throughout the Historia, but still remains the overall hero and closest thing to a protagonist the sweeping story had.

The final pages of the book is a pretty detailed flow chart of Transformers trade paperbacks from IDW. "Want to know more?" the text reads, "Catch up on the entire story, on sale now!" This is the kind of thing I wanted--and want for IDW's G.I. Joe offerings too--but I still can't entirely make sense of it, as there's just so much of it. There were bits of prose in the Historia summarizing what sounded like cool comics I would like to read, but then I couldn't tell from this chart which books those stories were published in. I guess maybe I would have preferred footnotes or endnotes...? That would have been more useful to me as a potential reader than Windblade and/or Optimus' profiles.


True Believers: Conan--Resurrection #1 (Marvel Entertainment) This reprint of 1986's Conan The Barbarian #187 is notable both for being a bit more recent than so many of the other Marvel Conan comics reprinted in this month's True Believers program, and for being written by someone who is not Roy Thomas (Bet patient here; I bought and read almost all of these things, so you're in for a lot of paragraphs about old Marvel Conan comics). In fact, this issue is written by one James C. Owsley, now better known as Christopher Priest. Were the credits somehow removed from the comic, you could probably tell this wasn't written by Thomas, but you probably wouldn't recognize Priest from the script either, despite the fact that this one does stand out as being funnier and a bit more clever in its jokes and dialogue than so many of the other reprints.

The cover by Ernie Chan isn't terribly representative of the interior art, which is drawn by John Buscema and finished by Chan. While Conan is in it, and does hold a sword in it, and there is a lady in it, she doesn't appear to be that lady, shown writhing in a pile of bones. Conan is shown warming a throne for a little prince who is destined for it, while he and a few confederates attempt to protect the boy from usurpers. To do this, they attempt to recruit a few good men, including one named "Kaleb", who is almost nothing at all like me (I did have blonde hair like him, though, back when I still had hair!). And the boy needs protection, as a creepy group of pupil-less old men in robes and golden crowns of thrones are resurrecting a scary demon monster thing called "THE DEVOURER OF SOULS!!!!" and a large group of remarkably easy to kill assassins come for the boy and his protectors.

Also unusual about this issue? It doesn't contain a complete story in the same way that the most of the other reprints below do.


True Believers: Conan--Swords In The Night! #1 (Marvel) The actual title of the story in this issue is "The Shadow of The Vulture!", but apparently Marvel is just pulling the titles for the True Believers reprints from the cover blurbs, which is cool, because it means they all sound sort of vague and extremely exciting. This is a Barry Smith-drawn issue, with Smith credited as "artist" while Buscema, Adkins and Stone--no first names, just last names--are credited as inkers. Roy Thomas is still writer/editor, and this one is "freely adapted from the story by Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan."

Our hero wades through a small army of palace guards in the city of Pah-Dishah, a collection of exotic, borderline offensive middle eastern and "oriental" stereotypes in the shape of a setting, where he is honor bound to deliver a message to the king, an overweight dandy lounging on a throne-like bean bag chair, surrounded by a harem full of ladies that dis Conan (When the king asks if Conan is really a barbarian, one of them makes a tee hee gesture and says "He needs a barber, at least... That much is certain.")

Conan then rides away to resume his adventures, unaware that a foe from a previous story and/or comic has hired the assassin The Vulture to deliver him Conan's head. The Vulture is a very good swordsman, and he has a tiny pair of fake wings on his back, in order to look as silly as possible. In fact, he looks slightly more ridiculous than Spider-Man villain The Vulture does, and, this being a Marvel comic, I can't help but wonder if this guy is perhaps the Hyborean age ancestor of Adrian Toomes...?

It's not The Vulture or even the great Smith art that likely got this particular issue of Conan reprinted though; instead it's probably that this issue is the introduction of a certain red-haired she-devil more beautiful than the flames of hell:
Look at how dressed she is! That is the most clothes I have ever seen her wear in a comic book, but then I wasn't reading these comics when they were originally published, having been -4-years-old when this was originally published, so I am used to seeing comic book Sonja in her chain mail bikini.

Though the girl's "savage cutting and slashing stirs Conan's blood--beyond all reason!", Sonja shoots the barbarian down immediately--so harshly that a dog laughs at him about it. She does rescue him later on and strangle some guys while he chops off The Vulture's head, though, so it's not like she hates him or anything.


True Believers: Conan The Barbarian #1 (Marvel) I'm really rather excited about this month's True Believers issues, as they are all Conan-focused (Note: I read this one first, and wrote this review first, although I arranged them all alphabetically in this post). Not that I'm a particular fan of Robert E. Howard's sword-and-sorcery character, but rather because that particular character and these old comics starring him seem pretty much perfect for $1, one-off reprints. More often than not I enjoy these True Believers books on some level, even if sometimes that level is just "Ha ha, Chris Claremont wrote so many words in his panels and people sure dressed funny in the 1980s," but Conan just seems particularly well-suited to 22-page chunks of more-or-less random issues from character's 23-year Marvel career.

This is the first, 1970 issue, by writer Roy Thomas, artist Barry Smith and "embellisher" Dan Adkins, but it is Stan Lee's editor credit that comes first.

Conan has hired himself out as a mercenary and is fighting some dudes in some very Jack Kirby-esque fight scenes, which are remarkably bloodless and tame--more tackling and stiff-arming than stabbing and chopping--when some weird demonic figures enter the fight. You can tell this is an old school Marvel comic because of the weird shorts the demons wear to hide their modesty; they seem to be from the same collection as those worn by Fin Fang Foom, Dragon Man, et al.

Conan is approached by a comely woman, there is a sorcerer and a magical jewel, and everyone trips balls together for a while until the end, at which point everyone's dead except Conan, who peaces out for more adventure.

It is a dollar not just well spent, but perfectly spent.


True Believers: Conan--Curse of The Golden Skull! #1 (Marvel) There is one of two reasons Marvel might have chosen Conan The Barbarian #37 for reprint, aside from the fact that, in broad strokes, it's a very good Conan story (Roy Thomas was apparently inspired by a Howard short story for this one). One is that it is drawn by Neal Adams. The other is that it introduces Juma, a character created by some of Howard's more prominent successors, L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter.

Juma is a black man. This is evident not just in the way Adams draws him and G. Wein colors him, but because the narrator and character never shut up about it. He introduces himself as "Juma The Black," saying to Conan, "We're all brothers, aren't we... ...under the skin?" Thomas' narration refers to him as "the giant black" twice. Conan calls him "black man" (or sometimes "Kushite") instead of by his name, and refers to his "ebon hide." The bad guy similarly calls Juma only "black man." Juma refers to himself as black repeatedly, of course, he calls Conan pale and others "lily-white", and he even makes a morbid joke about a carnivorous monster that chases them preferring "dark meat." Given that this comic is an all white-dude production, adapting prose stories featuring characters and settings that weren't exactly racially enlightened in the first place, it all comes across as quite cringey. So much so that I'm a little surprised Marvel chose this particular issue to reprint, given how embarrassing it likely is to Thomas in particular, but aside from that--provided you can see around it, of course--it's a pretty good story, featuring a unique curse, a battle, a nearly naked princess, a "unicorn", giant lizards, a titanic flesh and gold-eating slug, another evil sorcerer, a fantastic form of early elevator technology and a big baboon monster in a loin cloth.


True Believers: Conan--The Devil God of Bal-Sagoth! #1 (Marvel) Gil Kane draws this issue, with inks by Ralph Reese, and it is another issue adapted from a Robert E. Howard original story. Conan's killing dudes on a ship, like he does, where he meets giant ginger warrior Fafnir in a boat battle. They are the only survivors of a shipwreck, and wash up on an island inhabited only by a mostly naked lady--she wears saucers over her nipples and a see-through skirt that appears and disappears depending on the panel--and an anatomically incorrect, two-limbed, bug-eyed dinosaur creature.

After Fafnir chokes it out, the trio travel to a modern art castle where she used to be goddess, and instead of fighting all the dark-skinned people within, the lady arranges for Conan to fight the usurper's champion, an empty, magical suit of armor he controls with his mind. But then the sun gets in the bad guy's eyes, so he loses his concentration and the fight.

Oh, and Conan gets in a sword fight with a shark at one point, and the shark looks awfully confused.
Kane's art is great, and if the story is breathless and boneheaded, well, that's our Conan!


True Believers: Conan--Queen of The Black Coast! #1 (Marvel) Marvel has already announced an Age of Conan: Belit series for March, so it makes sense to reprint her first Marvel comic, Roy Thomas, John Buscema and Steve Gan's Conan The Barbarian #58 (Which, according to a starburst on the title page, is the beginning chapter of "the longest-awaited, most-requested Conan epic ever!"...pretty similar wording to the story in What If? covered below). Our black-haired, pink-skinned rogue of a hero hijacks a boat at sword-point and sets to sea, where the he eventually tells the captain--and the reader--why he commandeered the ship with such urgency. It involved him killing a dude who needed killing, and then beating up the court he was being tried in.

While at sea, they are attacked by the pirate queen Belit, whose African Kushite warriors slaughter everyone save Conan, whose manliness intrigues Belit. She says he is as "fierce and hard as a gray wolf," and forces him to prove himself against her champion warrior, saying "Let us see how a wolf does--against a coal tiger!"

Conan kills him. That turns Belit on. She dances around seductively, asks Conan to be her king, and then the comic ends when they start kissing.

Like so much from the world of Conan, aspects of this comic are...problematic. It's not just the phrase "giant black," which gets tossed about in this script too, but the implication that the African Kushite warriors regard Belit as a white goddess they worship as much as follow.


True Believers: Conan--The Secret of Skull River #1 (Marvel) This is by far the horniest page of a Conan comic I've yet read, and I imagine that has a lot to do with the fact that artists Jim Starlin and Al Milgrom and writer Roy Thomas were only allowed to go so far in the sexiness department (even though this story appeared in an issue of the black-and-white Savage Tales, which featured more adult content than most of the Marvel line of the time), and thus must resort to suggestive imagery, like that lady's hand on Conan's sword.

In this story, Conan fights some giants and Hyborean Age pollution, has sex with a lady and then bye Felicias her in about as cold a fashion as one could imagine. Starlin and Milgrom's art is among the best that we've seen in these reprints, which is saying something, considering all the talent involved. The black-and-white format, which spares it from the coloring practices of the day, helps immensely.



True Believers: Conan--The Tower of The Elephant #1 (Marvel) This one is adapted directly from one of Robert E. Howard's own prose stories, which I know because I pretty clearly remember the three-issue adaptation from Kurt Busiek, Cary Nord and company's quite excellent Dark Horse series from the mid-aughts. So this one was interesting to read to see what an entirely different creative team produced given the same source material. And this creative team is still that of editor Stan Lee (top billing again), writer Roy Thomas and artist Barry Smith, as this was originally published in the fourth issue of Marvel's Conan The Barbarian, the only difference between this team and that in the first issue is that now Sal Buscema is inking Smith's art.

It's also curious how much this story resembles that of the first issue. There's another sorcerer, another magical gem and another sequence of characters tripping balls, as they come into contact with cosmic truths too big for the faux-historic sword-and-sorcery world they live in. Howard's plot is pretty remarkable, really; all of the elements seem pretty standard-issue now, but his story was originally published in 1933. The well-guarded tower and its guardians seem like the stuff of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, and the strange alien Conan meets atop the tower that just so happens to resemble a being once worshiped as a god on Earth gets into the territory of ancient astronauts and fictive, reverse-engineered explanations for religion that are, again, commonplace nowadays, but would have been far rarer in the pre-TV, pre-superhero comic book pop culture of my grandfather's young adulthood.

This issue kind of made me want to dig up the Busiek/Nord comics from their long boxes, to better compare and contrast. I'm assuming Thomas did a lot more work with words in the narration than Busiek had to, given that the Dark Horse adaptation was three times as long as the Marvel one.

Is it worth noting that the exact scene on the cover, featuring a helpless, scantily-clad woman laying among the treasures at Conan's feet, doesn't appear within the story itself? This is just the second of these I've read, following the reprint of Conan #1, and already I see the beginnings of a pattern. Both feature a sexy lady at Conan's feet, which suggests one reason the comic was so popular at the time, or at least one way in which Marvel was attempting to sell it. At least there was a woman in Conan #1. The story within this doesn't even have the benefit of its insides matching its outsides in that regard.


True Believers: What If Conan The Barbarian Walked The Earth Today? #1 (Marvel) This reprints 1979's What If? #13, one of the very strong entries in that series that could rather easily have been the basis for an ongoing series or at some sort of event crossover, had Marvel decided to use it as such, back when they had the Conan license...of course, now that they have it again, I guess they could do it now; it appears Conan's joining The An Avengers, so I guess he is kinda sorta walking the Earth today these days, after all.

Roy Thomas writes, and John Buscema and Ernie Chan share an "illustrators" credit. The pair provide particularly excellent artwork. It's finely detailed, and both the the scenes set in the Hyborean Age and in Twentieth Century New York City look representational and lived-in, but also contrast sharply. The coloring, on the other hand, is, well, it's very much of it's day, I guess would be one way to say it; Conan's pink skin looks sunburned throughout the story.

As per usual with What If?, Uatu The Watcher narrates, and he, oddly enough, sounds a lot like Roy Thomas doing a Robert E. Howard pastiche in his narration; go figure. Under the pencils and pens of Buscema and Chan, Uatu is depicted in his dumpy, overweight middle-aged guy iteration, rather than his giant baby or huge-headed alien depictions. A full eight pages is spent getting Conan to modern times--and these were eight 1970s pages, not modern pages, meaning there were at least four-to-six panels per page--and these recount your rather typical Conan adventure: Drinking with a scantily-clad lady, getting konked on the head and taken to a temple, confronted by a sorcerer, mind-bending visions, etc.

This sorcerer is apparently a time-traveler from the future, who sacrifices people to a time well in order to get weapons and treasures from the future. Through the magic well, Conan falls into downtown Manhattan on July 13 of 1977, just in time to kinda sorta maybe cause the great blackout--the exact ins and outs aren't explained, but there is definitely some time travel lightning involved in the blackout.

Conan then basically just wanders around yelling "Crom!" at everyone and everything, being weirdly mistaken for Sylvester Stallone repeatedly, swinging his broadsword at cars, and being gawked at by Peter Parker, Mary Jane and some random Japanese business man who remarks that things like Conan are the reason the yen is gaining on the dollar. I guess you had to be there. In 1979.

If they ever make another Conan movie, and I assume they will, I hope this comic book is used as the template. More than anything else, I'd rather see Jason Momoa or whoever in a loin cloth wandering around New York City with a sword fighting cars and freaking out about everything he sees. Hell, they could probably just improvise the whole thing and use hidden cameras.

Anyway, Conan meets a scantily-clad cab driver when trying to kill her taxi, and she naturally takes him home, tells him how lonely she is and how much she misses her dad and then they do it. Then Conan beats up a bunch of looters. Then he stops a heist at the Guggenheim and magic lightning strikes his upraised sword and he's gone and the greatest Conan comic Marvel has ever published ends.

This is the one Jason Aaron and all the guys tackling new Conan comics for Marvel have to beat. I don't envy them their task.


Young Justice #1 (DC) The original 1998-2003 Young Justice series penciled by Todd Nauck and mostly written by Peter David (after some groundwork-laying specials and such by Todd DeZago) was about as perfectly focused toward my particular interests as a DC Comic could get: It featured Robin Tim Drake and the Superboy introduced in "Reign of The Supermen", two characters I had a lot of affection for, mostly due to the fact that they were introduced into DC comics just as I myself was being introduced to the DC Universe of the comics, and I was right about their age. Along with Impulse, the still new-ish Wonder Girl and a few brand new characters, they formed a JLA-style, "Why not just use all the most popular characters on one team?" super-team, a few years into Grant Morrison, Howard Porter and John Dell's seminal run on the Justice League book, which was then one of my favorite comics, blowing my mind on a monthly basis and setting my imagination and interest in the fictional DC universe ablaze.

In truth, I didn't always like it as much as I wanted to, and some of David's plot-points seemed off to me, and certainly some of his jokes fell flat; he is the type of fun writer who seems to be trying really hard to be funny most of the time, and sometimes the effort that goes into the jokes is apparent enough that it drains the humor. Even still, I never stopped reading the book, never dropped it, and was incredibly disappointed when DC decided to cancel both Young Justice and The Titans, relaunching them as Teen Titans and The Outsiders respectively, under new (and, in my opinion, inferior) creative teams.

I missed David's trying-too-hard-jokes almost immediately, as Teen Titans writer Geoff Johns took the popular members of the YJ cast and started pounding those square pegs into the round holes of how he thought they should be--their origins, their personalities, their relationships--and the book grew progressively darker and less joyous.

On the other hand, Teen Titans is a much better name than Young Justice for a team of DC super-teens. I am 90% sure that the main reason DC went with something other than Teen Titans was that Dan Jurgens' book by that name hadn't quite yet been cancelled (and also, perhaps, that Marv Wolfman and George Perez so owned the "Titans" brand after their long and influential run that it didn't seem to "fit" when applied to characters other than theirs; pretty much ever since shortly after Wolfman's association with the title ended with the post-Zero Hour team, the book has been relaunched with new line-ups and directions with sometimes alarming frequency. Johns' run was probably the last "stable" run after Wolfman's years-long one).

Because of that, I didn't really expect to see another Young Justice title--when DC lost its damn mind and decided to reboot the DCU into a faux-Ultimate Marvel New 52-iverse, they applied the "Teen Titans" title to the Young Justice line-up, remember--or, if I did, I expected something set in or related to the popular TV show, which is just now returning (I personally find it kinda weird that Batman Beyond survives to this day as a comic book, but the comic based on the Young Justice cartoon only lasted about two years; I mean, that series had a huge cast and thus endless story potential, compared to Batman Beyond...).

Maybe the fact that the show is returning was enough of a push to get DC to greenlight a new Young Justice book. Or maybe writer Brian Michael Bendis, who is writing the title and using it to launch a suite of teen hero-starring books being published under the sub-imprint/"pop-up label" of "Wonder Comics", is just a huge fan of David and Nauck's series and really wanted to bring it back. Or maybe Bendis, DC editors and plenty of fans, like me, just missed seeing Superboy, Impulse and recognizable versions of Wonder Girl and Tim Drake.

Whatever it was that lead to this relaunch, though, well, I'll let Bart say it:
So how is it?

Well, it's early. And Bendis is writing this, so it's very early. This is an over-sized issue, with 30-story pages, so Bendis is able to feature all seven members of the new line-up in at least one panel of the story. (The book is $4.99, so we're paying for those 10 extra pages, of course; lately both Marvel and DC have decided to launch new series with over-sized, more-expensive-than-usual first issues, which makes some business sense, since #1s tend to get ordered more heavily than #2s and #3s, but it also seems counter-intuitive in terms of trying to get people to try out new books. Wouldn't ten free "bonus" pages been a bigger draw?)

It's a very Marvel-feeling issue and, in fact, felt a bit like the first issue of a new Avengers comic--not a New Avengers comic, mind you, but a new Avengers comic. The plot, for this issue anyway, is basically this: Aliens invade a city known for boasting a high superhero population, and a bunch of characters who happen to be there unite to fight off the invaders. That's almost exactly how Jason Aaron kicked off the current Avengers book.

Tim Drake, last seen driving away from Wayne Manor with Stephanie Brown at the end of James Tynion IV's Detective Comics run, bumps into first Cassie Sandsmark and then one Jinny Hex in the streets of Metropolis. And then powerful warriors from Gemworld attack, demanding Superman show himself. Joining the three young heroes in battle are Impulse, who seems to pop out of nowhere--and this is Impulse, in his costume and going by that name, not a Kid Flash--as well as a giant, green energy construct. A voice within the construct introduces itself as "Teen Lantern;" you can see her on the cover there, but not inside the comic itself. She's not the de-aged Alan Scott from the "Sins of Youth" event series, obviously.
As for the remaining two, they appear on the other side of a portal that the Gemworld invaders retreat through. Tim finds himself held at glowing pink sword-point by Amethyst, and Impulse runs into "Conner! Superboy!", looking almost exactly like he did upon his introduction in "Reign," only with some stubble, a homemade-looking S-shield, a holster on his thigh (perhaps to justify all those straps?), and some spikes on his leather jacket.
And...that's it. That's the whole issue.

What exactly is going on isn't clear. Tim and Cassie recognize one another, but barely get a chance to talk, and the latter apparently has some secret that she's trying to keep from him and/or the world. Impulse and Superboy both seem to have popped out of various points in the fucked-up DC timeline/multiverse/continuity, although it's hard for me to tell, as I haven't really seen either of them since before Flashpoint (The New 52 Teen Titans looked so abysmal I couldn't even try to read it).

The title of the story arc is "Seven Crises," and it opens with a mysterious man telling another mysterious man the following:
My guesses are 1.) Crisis On Infinite Earths, 2.) Zero Hour, 3.) Infinite Crisis, 4.) Final Crisis, 5.) Flashpoint, 6.) Convergence and/or Multiversity and 7.) the in-progress Doomsday Clock...which I am assuming includes a continuity rejiggering along the lines of all those other crises, based on the fact that so many DC comics seem to be ignoring post-Flashpoint changes and reclaiming the events and years of the pre-Flashpoint continuity, but who knows. There's a pretty good chance that Dark Nights: Metal is one of the seven, and there are certainly other continuity rejiggerings that fall between those that are labeled as crises and/or are about changes in the Multiverse.

One imagines Bendis will name the seven during the course of the story, which is exciting...even though Bendis is not the writer I would want untangling and defining DC's meta-continuity, as he seems less well-equipped to the task than the folks who wrote many of the above-mentioned crises (Wolfman, Jurgens, Johns and Morrison). I remember Marvel fans griping about his poor command of Marvel continuity when he moved from the Ultimate Universe he helped created to the "616" universe but, having only started reading Marvel Comics around the same time Bendis started writing for the publisher, I never noticed.

In terms of the writing, the bit after the mention of the crises is generic enough that it's hard to judge. He writes Impulse like Spider-Man, but then, that's one of the most regular criticisms of Bendis, that too many of his characters sound too similar. I was glad the other common criticisms of the writer--the slow pace of his storytelling and the wordiness of his scripts--weren't apparent in this issue. Honestly, if DC had published this book without credits and marketing, I wouldn't have even known Bendis wrote it just by reading it (That's a compliment in that it means it's free of some of the writer's particular ticks, but something of a criticism in how generic it is--on the other hand, it's obviously the first chapter of a story arc, and so much matters on the payoff, not the set-up).

If we can't really judge where this is going--obviously, much will depend on how Bendis answers the questions he raises about the seven crises and how exactly he makes sense of Superboy, Impulse and Amethyst at this point (I didn't read the New52 Amethyst comic either, but she and Gemworld have been introduced since Flashpoint). The general idea that the worlds connected to DC's Earth get rejiggered and fucked up by all the continuity maintenance might be getting sick and tired of it and want to finally put a stop to it is interesting, though; one imagines the Gemworldians could find willing allies in Hawkman, Donna Troy and The Legion of Super-Heroes.

Visually, the book is great-looking, but then, of course it is--Patrick Gleason is drawing it, with Alejandro Sanchez coloring it. I've already noted that Superboy and Impulse look to be "classic" in their design, with only some minor, story-specific alterations in the case of the former (Impulse even looks to be the same age he was in the last volume of Young Justice, whereas Tim at least seems to be on the other end of puberty).
Cassie has a new costume, although given that she seems to be trying to stay on the DL and blend into the civilian crowds in Metropolis, I'm not sure if that's meant to be a costume, or just Wonder Woman-themed street clothes. I like the look a lot, though (It is in keeping with some of her past costumes, too, which looked like off-the-rack clothes). It has lots of layers, which evokes her original, probably least-popular costume, and I like the prominent blue, given how red she has been (and her last costume was WAY TOO RED).
I didn't really notice the specific changes in Tim's Robin costume--aside from the fact that it now has one "R" for "Robin" as opposed to the "RR" for "Red Robin" he was sporting in 'Tec, which was dumb--but on closer inspection it seems to be changed since last we saw him too.

His cape is scalloped and Batman-like, as was his post-Infinite Crisis/52 "One Year Later" cape, his pants seem something akin to footie pajamas, with the boots featuring toes that evoke those of his original boots, and his color scheme now has far more black than green in it. It's an improvement over his Detective costume, that's for sure, and infinitely better than his New 52 Teen Titans aesthetic atrocity, but I don't know...it's not quite there. I know his original doesn't look right anymore, and while this is awfully close to that without looking quite as '90s, it still seems to bear a little too much bulky armor plating in it. Tim's got shoulder pads, knee-pads and elbow-pads. He looks like he might be playing some kinda super-dangerous fictional sport in a movie set in the future.

I hope Gleason keeps refining it, and basically just keeps slimming it down and streamlining. If he lost the gauntlets and armor-plating, I think this would be one of Tim's better looking costumes.

Anyway, good start. I now kinda regret not ordering the next few issues, even though I'm trying to read most comics in trade collections now. This is one I was excited enough about to want to get a looksee before waiting until the first volume is published. It's gonna be a long wait, but that's a good thing.


BORROWED:


Batman Vol. 8: Cold Days (DC Comics) This collection includes the point where I finally dropped writer Tom King's popular run on the title, after beginning to waver during "The War of Jokes and Riddles" and the risible Batman #50, with its rather stock and, frankly, juvenile premise that Batman can only batman if he's romantically and/or sexually frustrated, coupled with the characters' completely arbitrary differentiation between being married and living together. The first issue following that wedding fake-out jam issue, where it became clear that Batman would be channeling his sadness into violent, brutal rage and that King was going to continue building on the poor foundation of #50 was when I decided I could certainly wait for the (library-borrowed) trade. Although I did come back for that Matt Wagner-drawn issue, because c'mon, what discerning Batman comic fan is going to pass on an issue of Batman drawn by Matt Wagner...?

This volume includes the three-issue title story, drawn by Lee Weeks, the Wagner-drawn issue, and two issues drawn by Tony S. Daniel.

Each have their problems, but of the three stories, "Cold Days" is probably the most emblematic of the curious nature of King's Batman writing. He's very enamored of the formal aspects of the comic book script, and puts a lot of energy into creative and, yes, showy structures for his comics, sometimes to the detriment of the overall package--King does not appear to be the sort of writer to just get out of the way and let the artists do their thing, nor the sort of writer who disappears into the story. Chances are you know you're reading a King-written issue of Batman as you're reading it, whether you've noticed the credits or not.

On these formal aspects, King's comics tend to be quite good. Where he fails is in the more important stuff that lies beneath the structure, the plotting and the character and causal elements--the guts of the stories. The reasons why the characters make the decisions they make, how they interact with one another and, more often than not, just some basic bits of logic. It's not merely a manner of King-doesn't-write-Batman-the-way-I-want-him-to or of King having some sort of ignorance of continuity, the sorts of things that can so often irritate super-comics readers. Rather, many of his stories just don't stand up to, like, a few seconds worth of questioning.

Here, for example, Bruce Wayne is serving jury duty, and the case before him and his fellow jurors is a murder trial for the recently paroled (Okay, we'll let that slide for now) Mister Freeze, who is accused of killing three women by lowering the temperature in their brains so slightly that no one even expected their deaths were actually murders. All of the evidence comes from Batman: Batman conducted a freelance autopsy, Batman captured Freeze and then Batman beat a confession out of him, which Freeze later recanted. All of the jurors are basically "Fuck Mister Freeze, that dude's a serial killer and a terrorist and a supervillain with a long body count who is constantly trying to murder everyone in the city and Batman's a superhero who is constantly saving everyone in the city." All of the jurors, that is, except Bruce Wayne. Twist!

The most immediate problem with the story, the fact that Wayne would even be seated on a jury for such a Batman-centric case considering Bruce Wayne funds Batman--which everyone in Gotham knows, even if they don't know Wayne is Batman--is addressed eventually, on one of the last pages of the third and final issue (You have to suspend your disbelief for about 60 pages on this point...and for months, if you read the series serially).

There's also the bit about the character. Batman has, essentially, gone fucking insane over the fact that Catwoman ghosted him so he could be a better Batman, and he is responding by being a worse Batman, which here means beating the living shit out of Freeze and forcing him to confess to a crime he may or may not have committed. King is basically writing Batman as the character was written after the death of Jason Todd in the late 1980s. Only here he's mad about being dumped. Whatever.

That never makes sense, and it appears to be a core problem of King's run from #50 on. Beyond that, though, the court case set-up just sort of falls apart upon scrutiny. Bruce Wayne argues that Batman was sloppy enough here that they can't be positive that Mister Freeze committed the crimes, not beyond a reasonable doubt, and therefore they can't find Freeze guilty of these three murders. Fair enough, but the reader never finds out for sure whether or not Freeze did commit them. Batman essentially went after Mister Freeze because "cold" was involved, which makes a certain amount of sense, but it's not like every time someone steals an umbrella in Gotham City it's definitely The Penguin behind it. But if we are to entertain the alternate theories Bruce Wayne introduces to the other members of the jury, we have to have another suspect, right? Or, at the very least, one would expect King to, at some point in the story, let us know that Freeze is guilty, but Bruce is advocating finding him not guilty here to punish Batman for fucking it up. But that's left unresolved.

Ultimately, though, it's a weird, academic matter of a trial, because Freeze is already guilty of so many murders and so many other spectacular crimes that three more deaths in one direction or another doesn't matter to anyone at all. If he didn't kill these three ladies, he was going to spend the rest of his life in a special cold cell in Arkham Asylum, having been given a life sentence of being held in an easily escapable prison for the criminally insane, which he will escape from about 4-6 times a year, and if he did kill those three ladies, well, same.

Lee Weeks' art is great, as it has been in his previous collaborations with King, and his skill with Wayne, the jurors, Commissioner Gordon and all the law enforcement stuff made me repeatedly yearn for a Weeks-drawn Gotham Central relaunch. While "Cold Days" is a discrete story arc, it contains the emotional fall-out of Batman's dumb mental breakdown over Catwoman's dumb-ass decision to dump him for crime-fighting related reasons, and sets up the fact that Batman is starting to go a little nuts again, and that Dick Grasyon is worried for him. He also ditches his new-ish "Rebirth" costume for a previous one he hasn't yet worn post-Flashpoint (it's basically his "No Man's Land" one), because he just can't stand to wear the one he was wearing when Catwoman broke his heart.

That arc is immediately followed by the one-issue, Matt Wagner-drawn "The Better Man," in which Nightwing pretty much just forces his companionship upon Batman for a night of crime-fighting, throughout which we continually flashback to how Bruce (and Alfred) were there for Dick right after the Graysons died (Again, King seems to be making a bit too much of the break-up, as the juxtaposition here seems to suggest that getting dumped is parallel to having your parents murdered before your eyes as a child, but that might be reading too much into the juxtaposition).

Aside from the great art, the story is noteworthy for one of the clearest cut examples of the post-Flashpoint/New 52-iverse's continuity having been undone to a great degree--not only is Dick back to being a little boy upon the time of his parents' death rather than a teenager, but he's wearing his original Robin costume on the cover, which was expunged from the universe during the events of Flashpoint.

Oh, and this is another issue in which King displays his fondness for Batman's odder, less-seen villains, including Crazy Quilt and The Condiment King, the latter of whom now has a body count, because of course he does.

Finally, the collection ends with the three-part "Beasts of Burden," drawn by Tony S. Daniel--yes, there's a real roller coaster of styles in this one volume. Batman and Nightwing are still hanging out, fighting crime together--in the first chapter, we meet The Phantom Pharaoh, who I think is King's first contribution to Batman's rogue's gallery (do correct me if I'm wrong in the comments, though). Meanwhile, The KGBeast, recently-ish re-introduced in Scott Snyder and John Romita JR's "My Own Worst Enemy" arc of All-Star Batman, has arrived in Gotham City and, at the end of the issue, he totally shoots Nightwing in the head with a bullet fired from a sniper rifle! Now that's something to go a little crazy about, Batman, even if all the other Robins you've seen die before all come back to life okay (We never learn Dick's fate in this story, by the way, but as Nightwing was never cancelled, I assume he's okay).

In the next chapter, Batman begins hunting for The Beast--a hunt that includes a brief team-up with The Bronze Tiger and an appearance by Kanto, back in his floppy hat and looking just like his creator Jack Kirby intended him too, rather than how he looked in "Darkseid War"--while the Beast retreats to some frozen patch of Russia to drink with his father and totally kill him.

And, finally, Batman arrives at the cabin and he and The Beast--who has yet to put on his costume or use any of his weaponry aside from rather mundane firearms--brutally fight one another for almost an entire issue, exchanging only grunts and yells, while their fight is occasionally interrupted by a page drawn by Mark Buckingham and Andrew Pepoy retelling a Russian folktale about beasts trapped in a pit.

Batman ends the fight by desperately breaking The Beast's neck--he fires his grappling gun at his face just as the Beast is about to finish him off--and, when his now paralyzed foe asks Batman to get him help in exchange for the name of the man who hired him to kill Nightwing (Bane, one imagines), Batman walks away, seemingly leaving him to die of exposure in the cold and snow with the words "You can get your own damn help."

This, of course, echoes the climax of the first time in which Batman met The KGBeast, in 1988's "Ten Nights of The Beast," by Jim Starlin, Jim Aparo and Mike DeCarlo. There, Batman entombed the Beast in the sewers and left him for dead--this was, I recall, repeatedly mentioned as one of the examples that Batman had gone too far after the death of Jason Todd, and was beginning to compromise his own morality (In a later story, Batman said he called the police after leaving the Beast trapped and, of course, he survived to return repeatedly until James Robinson randomly killed him off with a bunch of other minor Batman characters in "Face The Face").


The Punisher: War Machine Vol. 2 (Marvel Entertainment) This second and final volume of writer Matthew Rosenberg's The Punisher "run"--which simply amounts to two story arcs--fulfills the promise made at the end of the first volume. In that one, Nick Fury lead Frank Castle to the late James Rhodes' War Machine armor and overseas to declare war on a fictional nation's rogue regime. Then, in the final pages, Castle came back to New York City, newly empowered to war on crime like never before.

That ending might have been a decent place for Rosenberg to end his Punisher story, actually, as it leaves the what-happens-next to a reader's imagination. But instead Rosenberg tells us what happens, and it illustrates some of the fundamental problems of a character like The Punisher existing in a shared universe setting (the fact that Garth Ennis' Max version of The Punisher was divorced from the Marvel Universe is one of the reasons it was so creatively successful for so long).

If The Punisher is only hunting and killing regular, real-word criminals and villains, he's fine, but once he turns his attention to super-villains, then he can't actually succeed, as he starts cutting into Marvel's character catalog. So, for example, his first stop in this volume is The Bar With No Name, the super-villain drinking hole, and he kills everyone there, although none of them are "name" villains. Artist Stefano Landinijust draws the sorts of guys you might see at a normal bar, plus one or two guys with animal heads. When The Punisher asks the bartender where "the big guys" are, he's directed to a back room where some villains who might conceivably show up in future movies some day, or at least TV shows and cartoon series, are playing poker: Bullseye, Rhino and Grizzly. They all flee, but before The Punisher can catch them, he's attacked by Captain Marvel.

This, of course, is the other problem with The Punisher in the Marvel Universe: He's essentially the world's most successful serial killer, and even if he only murders "bad" guys, he should be Public Enemy Number One, and no superhero should rest until they've caught him and put him behind bars (It's funny Tony Stark and "The Illuminati" packed The Hulk into a space rocket and shot him off to an inhabitable planet as the set-up for "Planet Hulk," given that The Hulk never actually killed anyone, where as Castle has killed hundreds, if not thousands. Why didn't they pack him into a rocket? Where's our "Planet Frank" series, dammit?). But, if the heroes do capture Castle, well, that's the end of his story--until he breaks out, at which point they have to try to catch him again. And if they fail, well, the superheroes fail? Is Frank Castle really the only villain The Avengers can never stop?

And so whenever a writer does do a heroes-try-to-capture-The Punisher story, they essentially have to just forget about it in the next story arc, and have the heroes all move on to other things (Not that those stories aren't fun to read! Ennis and John McCrea's "A Confederacy of Dunces" was great, and I did enjoy that Marvel Knights collection I just wrote about last month, in which Daredevil assembles a super-team specifically to bust Frank).

So there's a tension to this story, as Frank's not just being pursued by Daredevil and other street-level or neighborhood Marvel heroes. He has the cosmic-powered Captain Marvel leading a small army of heavy-hitters like Hercules, The Thing, Luke Cage, and even, eventually, Iron Man... How long is that tenable?

Not long at all! The heroes are more motivated than usual here because The Punisher's not just gunning people down in the streets, he's doing so while wearing the super-armor of Carol's late ex-boyfriend and one of their allies. They are also pissed, we're told, because Castle joined Hydra during the events of Secret Empire--a story with its own drastic but extremely temporary status quo that I therefore assumed everyone was just going to ignore once it ended--and so there's that too.

So Punisher goes after villains, is stopped by superheroes for a battle, he flees. When Fury tells him why they're chasing him with so much vigor, Punisher goes after Hydra and the name villains working with Baron Zemo, and then superheroes arrive to stop him again for another battle. Despite a twist or two--including a couple of the heroes who are semi-sympathetic to Frank rescuing him and joining him as he goes after Zemo--the weight of the heroes eventually gets too much, and he ultimately surrenders the armor to...original War Machine James Rhodes, who I guess is no longer dead...? This was literally the first I had heard of it, so it was a real out-of-left-field moment. When the book began, Stark and Rhodes were both dead--or, in Stark's case, dead-ish--but were alive and well by the climax of this volume without any indication within the book that their resurrections might be a factor.

Castle surrendering one of the best weapons that's ever been in his arsenal to a fellow military man--and his superior officer--who he knows it "belongs" to is a pretty elegant way to change the temporary status quo back to its default setting, but if you're not following along with the Marvel universe meta-narrative, it just reads like pretty poor deus ex machina (I am assuming Rhodes' resurrection occurred in an Iron Man book, at the end of Brian Michael Bendis' run on that character, but I'm not entirely sure where; Marvel went to such lengths to make Bendis' Iron Man run hard to follow that I eventually just gave up on trying to keep it straight.)


REVIEWED:

Norroway Book 1: The Black Bull of Norroway (Image Comics) I reviewed this all-ages fantasy adventure here. I was pretty curious about the source material, particularly the story that this comic takes its name from, and I'll likely return to the book in a post about that story on the blog in the near-ish future.



*"Rosebud" turns out to be the name of his childhood sled...that transforms into a robot.

...

JK, obvs.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Seven Crises? Was not expecting a Richard Nixon reference.