Saturday, July 06, 2019

A Month of Wednesdays: May 2019


DC's Year of The Villain Special #1 (DC Comics) At just 25 cents for an original 24-page story, this is one of those occasional so-cheaply-priced super-comics that seem like one would be foolish not to buy a copy, and so I but it I did--although I suppose I would have paid as much as $3.99 for it, given that it is basically a chapter of Scott Snyder and company's Justice League series, interrupted by a preview chapter of Brian Michael Bendis's story that will be playing out in Event Leviathan.

There's a lot of DC's better-selling talent involved in this--in addition to Snyder and Bendis, there's a sequence written by James Tynion IV, and the artists include Justice League's Jim Cheung and Francis Manapul and Event Leviathan's Alex Maleev--and I imagine it will be quite effective at getting people to try out the books it's essentially advertising (or, more likely, to get the people who were always planning on buying those books to be more excited about doing so).

Set up as three "chapters," it opens with an eight-page sequence by Snyder and Cheung entitled "Doom." The Legion of Doom attack Amanda Waller in the Oval Office, Brainiac sucks information out of her brain, Luthor and Brainiac go back to the former's skyscraper and, after previewing his plan to Brainiac, Luthor kills himself by detonating the building.

This is the first time I really stopped and thought about Brainiac's Christmas-colored dialogue balloons and I've decided I don't like them and don't really get them. I have no idea what they are meant to indicate that his voice would sound like, other than "different from everyone else's".

A full page of this story seems to be devoted to previewing whatever Tom King is up to in Batman, as there's a splash page break in the Luthor/Brainiac conversation depicting a swollen Bane hunched uncomfortably on a throne--it's probably his scuba tank full of neon green steroids making it hard to sit--with Flashpoint Bat-Dad and Psycho Pirate on either side of him. Luthor's dialogue is imposed over the image: "See how even those who have grand plans of their own, like our 'friends' in Gotham, are helping build to the same end."

That Snyder/Cheung story is followed by an eight-page chapter two, by Bendis and his old Daredevil partner Maleev. Teasing Event Leviathan, it features Green Arrow and Batgirl Barbara Gordon cornering a panicky Merlyn in Seattle, after which point something happens--a building blows up? Or implodes? Or gets sucked into a portal?--and someone in a mask makes Barbara Gordon an offer, referencing her out-of-continuity continuity, like the fact that she hacked her way into the Suicide Squad back in the '80s, and was even a member of an ad hoc Seven Soldiers of Victory for all of one adventure during the Mark Waid-lead 2000 Silver Age event series* (that team appeared in the Geoff Johns-written, Dick Giordano-drawn Silver Age: Showcase issue). He/she/it makes Babs an offer, but it is a different offer than the offer that Luthor is making supervillains as part of "Year of The Villain", and then there's a page set in the Batcave, where Damian tells Batman he needs to help disproving a theory, that "this new Leviathan threat... ...isn't The RED HOOD of Gotham. Your old partner... ...Jason Todd."

That isn't just phrased extremely oddly, but it's almost certainly not true, given the exchange we just witnessed between the Leviathan person and Batgirl.

This chapter/story left a lot to be desired. Bendis' Leviathan arc and Snyder's Justice vs. Doom war storyline don't really seem compatible with one another, or at least they don't really seem like they should be running at the same time. Both represent big threats, but Bendis' is very much in the smaller, more grounded analogous-to-the-real world part of the DCU setting, seemingly involving various espionage and law enforcement and intelligence agencies and crime syndicates, while Snyder's story is at a cosmic scale involving the multiverse, gods, creation and the end of all things. Both are all-hands-on-deck kind of stories, but the Leviathan thing so far seems like relatively extremely small potatoes, something Batman doesn't have time to deal with when he and the Justice League are consumed by trying to keep all of existence in existence.

It doesn't help that the thing which apparently convinced DC that the two storylines are thematically similar enough to tease in the same special, that they both involve villains, are maybe too similar, and that both Luthor and the mysterious, masked Leviathan character are simultaneously making offers to various players in the DCU.

I also just found the storytelling in this sequence irritatingly familiar. Perhaps it is just because Bendis is here once again working with a long-time partner from his Marvel days, but this all felt like the same old tired Bendis scripting I've read a million times, rather than the more exciting "new" Bendis I've seen of late, as he's been paired with new-to-him artists on new-to-him characters in a new-to-him setting. Maleevs's art is realistic to a fault, the action all vaguely implied by fairly static poses in the art (or, in the case of Meryln blocking Green Arrow's arrow by shooting it out of the air with his own arrow, the sound effects). There's one three-panel sequence that that makes no visual sense at all. A ship appears in the sky, it either shines a spotlight or shoots some sort of weapon at the rooftop the three are standing on, and then there's either an explosion or a blast of electricity or a flash of light, and then part of the building is missing...or maybe not, since we never got an establishing shot of the building, there's no way of knowing if the top few floors blew up or teleported or collapsed or if they were never even there, and the lighting effect was just so big that it obscured the space above the building, rather than the building itself.

Anyway. Lots of dialogue, Barbara and Ollie bantering like Stock Bendis Hero Character #1 and Stock Bendis Hero Character #2, and lots of repeating panels of tight head shots, with Maleev barely altering the images or repeating them at different levels of closeness to spare himself drawing too much (in an eight-page story!). This is basically what I most feared we would be getting when Bendis' move to DC was first announced. I was rather pleasantly surprised that we didn't get least, not until now.

After that interlude, it's back to the Justice League for chapter three, only now Justice League fill-in writer Tynion is scripting, as is obvious from the over-narration of a couple of sequences that don't really need words, let alone 500 words in little boxes. The long and the short of it is basically that the Justice League is back from the future, and they are still dealing with the repercussions of the breaking of the Source Wall, evacuating planets and stuff like that. At one point, the League has one of their psychic meetings, at the end of which Batman dramatically declares, "We call everyone. And then we go to war." He says this on a two-page spread over which Manapul draws what looks like most of the DC Universe that is currently starring in comic book series, including the teams from the pages of Teen Titans, The Titans, Justice League Dark, and The Terrifics, plus a handful of the currently book-less, like Firestorm, Animal Man, Captain Atom and Metamorpho. There's also a bit featuring Perpetua, a reminder that The Batman Who Laughs is still around and then an indication that, shock of shocks, maybe, just maybe Lex Luthor isn't really totally dead forever after all.

After those three eight-page stories, there's another eight-pages of advertorial type material, basically prose pieces with images from other comics inserted into them. These include a checklist of sorts of the 20 July comics tied into "The Offer" portion of the "Year of The Villain" branding event/mega-story/crossover.

DCeased #1 (DC) I really liked the title of this comic; it is a really solid clever/dumb gag. Unfortunately, that was the sole part of this first issue I liked, and I stopped enjoying it immediately as I read past the title and got to the cover image, a pretty uninspired image of Batman fighting off a SWAT team; you'll even have to look somewhat closely to see that they lack pupils and a couple are tearing at their own scalps; the blood stains aren't from Batman beating on them. They are, instead, DCeased's version of zombies.

Writer Tom Taylor is a pretty great super-comic writer, and one who has consistently managed to surprise me with his ability to turn even dross like, say, a years-long adaptation of that dumb-looking Injustice video game into...well, if not gold, than at least not-dross. And this is a real lay-up of a comic book premise: An out-of-continuity DC Universe vs. Zombies comic, DC's belated answer to Marvel Zombies, only less inspired (That is, this is just straight up heroes fighting a zombie pandemic of the sort that has been in 500,000 different movies since 28 Days Later reignited zombie interest in the mainstream, rather than Marvel's What If...All Our Heroes Had Been Turned Into Zombies? take).

I am sure it has crossed the minds of, like, everyone who writes super-comics and/or reads them; hell, it generally crosses my mind every time I watch a zombie movie, because, um, Batman, Superman and The Justice League are, like, always in the back of my mind. And because I have given some thought to this before, I do think there are some pretty interesting directions one could go in with this, like how the World's Finest's complete and total refusal to ever kill would apply to fighting a horde of the they just capture them and transfer them to giant zombie prisons while trying to figure out a cure? Do they come to blows with Wonder Woman and Hawkman or whoever over whether or not it's "okay" to kill the undead? Does Batman find himself at a disadvantage when it comes to killing his foes, because he's trained his whole life to fight without killing?

Taylor, at least in this first issue, doesn't seem to do much but fill in the blanks necessary to buttress the pitch though, and so the main points of interest are seeing the writer solve relatively easy problems like, for example, how a zombie apocalypse scenario might come about in the DCU, and how zombies might even prove a threat to the DC heroes, considering their abilities (Plop Superman down in pretty much any zombie movie you've ever seen, for example, and he would solve the problem before Patient Zero manages to bite three victims; and even if the pandemic does manage to spread to a few thousand people before he gets involved, if Superman did have no qualms about killing zombies, then, dang, it would take about five minutes for him to save the day).

An unseen, never identified narrator who is apparently one of the superheroes--or at least on speaking terms with Cyborg--tells us that the Justice League has just staved off Darkseid's latest invasion of Earth, a week-long battle between the heroes and the forces of Apokolips. (Here, the League means The Trinity, The Flash, Hawkgirl, Green Lantern Hal Jordan, Black Lightning, Green Arrow, Black Canary and Nightwing, all costumed as they are in current DCU continuity).

As Darkseid retreats into a Boom Tube and tells the heroes he got what he came for, they suddenly notice that Cyborg is missing. That's because Desaad--as with the other New Gods characters featured, he appears in his New 52 incarnation--already has Cyborg nailed down to a table. Apparently, Darkseid has found the other half of the Anti-Life Equation inside of Cyborg, and as the dark gods prepare to unleash it, they pump a bit of extract from The Black Racer into Cyborg in order to control how quickly he dies, introducing an x-factor that instead turns the Anti-Life Equation into some kind of modern zombie movie disease that makes those afflicted try to rip open their own heads to get it out before they turn into ravenous, flesh-eating fast zombies.

To save himself, Desaad Boom Tube's Cyborg back to Earth, and there the equation/disease starts to leap through the Internet onto people's screens, turning them (similar to the Stephen King novel Cell, and the movie adaptation of the same name). Superman manages to save Lois, his son Jon and Jon's friend Damian Wayne, who is visiting, but things don't go so well over at Wayne Manor. Batman is immediately confronted by the already equated Dick Grayson and Tim Drake, both in Wayne Manor and in costume for some reason, who attack him; the last image is of Nightwing biting deep into Batman's neck and Tim's gloved fingers somehow scooping right through Batman's costume and deep into his flesh.

And that's the premise, really. DC Universe vs. Zombies by way of Darkseid and Cell.

There's some clever-ish dialogue in here, mostly in the passage where Cyborg tries to trash talk his captors and a few lines from Green Arrow in his traditional questioning-authority role on the League, but it's mostly a Point A-to-Point B sort of plot, and one that brings nothing fresh or original to the zombie genre, and, given how violent DC Comics have gotten in the last few decades, nothing particularly noteworthy to the DCU setting, either.

The apparent loss of Batman right at the start of the story--after some panel-time is spent demonstrating once again how he is a few steps ahead of all of his peers and plans for absolutely everything--is somewhat subversive, I suppose, but it too is disappointing, as Batman vs. Nightwing and Robin fight to the former's death should be a lot more intense and emotional than the six panels it gets here (Maybe if DCeased was an ongoing like Injustice was, Taylor could have fleshed this stuff out more).

It obviously doesn't help that Taylor doesn't really have an artistic partner in the endeavor, but there are instead two art teams on the very first issue. Trevor Hairsine and Stefano Gaudiano draw 18 pages, while James Harren draws an eight-page passage that separates the Hairsine/Gaudiano passages. The separation of the art teams is somewhat organic in that the former draws the stuff set on Earth, while the latter draws the part set on Apokolips, but their styles don't really mesh, and it's not a great sign that a six-issue miniseries couldn't go even one issue with a single art team.

I suppose there is still plenty of time for Taylor and company to turn the book around, but the issue certainly failed the baseline test of the first issue of any comic book series. That is, it didn't make me the least bit interested in picking up the next issue.

Drawing Blood #1 (Kevin Eastman Studios) Okay, I've read this comic a couple times now, and am writing about it almost a full month after I read it for the first time, and I'm still not entirely sure what to think of it. This is the latest work from Kevin Eastman, and while he's been productive to the point of prolific contributing covers and artwork to IDW, DC Comics and even Marvel comics of late, this is his first self-published work in a while, and his most ambitious.

It stars a rather Keven Eastman-like character, Shane Bookman, who co-created a comic book property that became successful beyond his wildest imagination, and then fell on hard times. Now Eastman and his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles co-creator Peter Laird have maybe the most interesting real-life stories in all of comics to tell. Through hard work, perseverance and a bit of eureka, bolt from the blue inspiration, they were joking around one day and came up with a weird concept, and a four-word title for a comic book that was practically a magical spell.

Together they managed to create a comic book that fused their various influences and passions into something entirely new, a work that took the best of both of them to succeed (I don't think it's too controversial an opinion to state that the very best Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics were those by Eastman and Laird, and that the Eastman-without-Laird and Laird-without-Eastman TMNT comics were inferior to those they did together). Mindful of how their comics creator heroes were often screwed over by their publishers, and how those creators suffered by virtue of not owning their own work, Eastman and Laird did pretty much everything themselves, even as their creations swelled to global phenomenon status, and eventually the amount of work necessary and the time spent together destroyed their working relationship--although the exact details seem to be known only by the two men themselves, and those around them. I certainly don't know the specifics, but it seems somewhat tragic that Eastman eventually sold his part of the property to Laird, and then Laird eventually sold it all to Nickelodeon, and the creations they labored so hard to protect eventually ended up being owned by a big entertainment corporation anyway, and, somewhat sadly, Eastman is now working on TMNT comics for IDW, who has the license from Nickelodeon.

I mean, I say "somewhat sadly," but I don't know how sad Eastman really is about it. Nor am I sad about it, as it means we get to see the characters' co-creator working on them rather regularly. Just, seen from a distance, there's an element of a cosmic tragedy in the Eastman and Laird story.

So Eastman doing a semi-autobiographical comic book about an Eastman-like cartoonist's life after his TMNT-like creation? That sounds amazing. I'd love to read that (Not as much as I'd love to read a straight Eastman biography, though, or a straight Laird one. I hope both of those men are writing or co-writing their own biographies, preferably in prose format, although I guess comics memoirs would be interesting, too. I also hope some enterprising comics journalist with my level of interest in the subject, but with far more social skills, far more interviewing and writing talent and far fewer anxiety disorders is busting his or her ass interviewing the hell out of Eastman and/or Laird and trying to write the definitive book on what is maybe the most interesting comic book industry story of all time. Seriously, I assume there will be a prestige Eastman and Laird biopic released in some award season in our life time...maybe a decade or so after the Stan Lee and Jack Kirby biopics).

Anyway, this is not that. This is...I don't know what it is. I knew more after I finished reading it, when I got to the back matter, and I didn't like that at all.

But first, the comic. Eastman shares a "Created By" and "Story By" credit with David Avallone, a writer whose name I had never heard before, but who, according to, has written a sizable number of books for Dynamite and American Mythology, mostly Bettie Page comics. There's a David Avallone on, but I'm not sure it's the same guy; in any case, that David Avallone's credits are mostly as editor, and there are only two writing credits, both from the '90s.

The artwork is where it gets really interesting. That isn't by Eastman either...or, at least, most of it isn't. Instead, a Ben Bishop draws the bulk of the book. All of it save for the flashbacks, which are laid out by Bishop but finished by Eastman, and the "hallucinations", which are finished by artist Troy Little.
Ben Bishop
My mind started to boggle on the very first page, in which we see our narrator and protagonist, the Eastman-like artist character, sitting in a parked car on a dock, snorting cocaine with his best friend Nigel "Beastly" Boswell, who hands him a pistol. On the second page, some gangsters show up in a second car and, well,it becomes quickly apparent that this is just another fucking crime comic. That...that is extremely disappointing. As the meet goes south, as ten out of ten such meets go in crime comics, TV shows and movies, Shane "Books" Bookman's narration resumes with "I guess the first thing I should have told you is... I'm a cartoonist. "

And then we get a flashback leading us to this point. Shane is trying to get a Broadway show going when an artist friend tells him that his publishing partner Frank Forrest has just killed himself. Shane then flashes back--yeah, a flashback within a flashback--to a 1986 New England comic con, where Shane and his brother Paul first met Frank. They were kids, he was a successful cartoonist. When young Shane tells his hero he wants to grow up to be a comics artist some day and wants to know what it's like, he responds, "Honestly? If I'd known what the life of a professional cartoonist was like, I'd have cut my drawing hand clean off." After he reviews Shane's art, he gives him his condolences: "The is good. That means someday you're going to feel exactly the same way I do about it. Sorry, kid."
Bishop and Eastman
Shane soon discovers that Frank had embezzled a lot of money from their company, leaving Shane with a great deal of debt, some of which is owed to organized crime. Hence the opening sequence.

There are hints from Shane's life that seem to reflect Eastman's own life. For example, when his lawyer tells him exactly how dire his financial straits are and he asks what he should do, she responds, "Can you create another beloved billion dollar worldwide franchise by next week? I did it once, right?" Later, when he's trying to process his feelings at the drawing board, one of his creations--the Raphael-like member of the Radically Rearranged Ronin Ragdolls, a mutant cat analogue to Eastman's TMNT--appears to him in a hallucination, berates him, beats him and accuses him: "You betrayed us! You sold us like slaves and gave up!"
Bishop and Troy Little
How reflective this is of the real Eastman's real feelings--certainly the former bit with the lawyer has occurred to him repeatedly in his life time--is anyone's guess, but it makes a reader curious. Of course, that's one of the problems with this book...or, at least, this initial issue. Sorting out what's real and what's not, and what's meant to be real and what's not is kind of troubling. Honestly, if Eastman cast himself as the star of the book, and then went off in a crime direction with his own life, that would be one thing, but because Shane is an analogue character, and a transparent one, it's hard for a reader to get swept up in the story and stop wondering if other characters are meant to correspond to real people. For example, is Frank supposed to be Peter Laird (no), Jack Kirby (no), Frank Miller (nope), some real-life business partner of Eastman's, a complete fabrication pulled form the ether, or some sort of composite...? I don't know. But I wondered, and would tick off the various way the character might have corresponded to real people from Eastman's career I might know of, and other ways that eliminated them. I don't think this is a good way to read a comic, and yet with each new character I found myself doing the same (For what it's worth, if there's a Laird analogue in here, I have to assume it's going to be Shane's brother Paul, as that was his co-creator on his analogue TMNT).

I was still puzzling over why Eastman and Avallone decided to go in such an uninspired, generic crime story direction given how much more interesting, unusual and compelling the behind the scenes stuff of a cartoonist who lost control of his greatest creation and was now struggling to find something else as creatively fulfilling and financially successful really is (That is a story only Eastman could tell, while anyone who's watched four episodes of Law and Order coulda come up with these crime comic scenes).

I got the disappointing answer in the back matter. There's a two-page prose piece from Avallone dated "July 2018, Hollywood" explaining how the book came about. The pair were talking and drinking at a hotel bar at a comic con when Eastman told Avallone about his idea for a movie called On The Shoulders of Giants about "a comic book creator facing a personal crisis...a man with a biography similar to Kevin's, but not identical."

After Avallone gave him the better, more Hollywood-friendly title of Drawing Blood, he told him "This isn't a movie. It's a TV show. Like a 'quality TV' cable show." And, ugh, that's where this Kickstarter-funded series really came from. Avallone explains that this is planned as a nine-issue series that would cover the first season of the TV show.

Given that ambition, I suppose the fact that there's a faux-Eastman in it makes more sense, as Nickelodeon certainly wouldn't let an animated Raphael appear to punch out the actor playing Kevin Eastman, but there's something...sad about the whole thing. Comics-as-Hollywood pitches seems like a very '00s phenomenon, back when publishers were flooding the market with high-concept miniseries that were transparently the work of wannabe screen writers adapting their pitches into comics with the end goal of getting a trade paperback collection to bring with them to pitch meetings. Most of those comics not only weren't very good--it's not easy to take a film script and turn it into a compelling comic, particularly when compelling comics aren't even the goal--and all of them were depressing, making the comics industry seem like a stepping stone overly-ambitious writers would try to slum in, even though they were the only ones who thought they were actually slumming.

It's quite depressing to see Eastman, one of the most successful comics creators of all time by many metrics, engaged in that now, even though I know some of his past comics projects were created with an eye towards mass media adaptation (Fistful of Blood, for example). On the other hand, because Eastman has made comics for so goddam long, and to have made them pretty much from scratch back in the 1980s, he knows a thing or two thousand about putting quality comics together, and Drawing Blood is therefore much, much more compelling than pretty much every comics miniseries-as-Hollywood pitch comic that has preceded since the turn of the century. Even something simple, like the three artists for different types of scenes, isn't something one would have seen from similar projects from the publishers who specialized in this sort of thing (most of whom are no longer around, and those that are still around seem to have minimized those sorts of books in their overall output).

I...don't really need to or want to watch Drawing Blood on Netflix in a few years. I do want to read the rest of this comic book series though. And, someday, read that Eastman biography...

Radically Rearranged Ronin Ragdolls #1 (Kevin Eastman Studios) This comic is pure gimmick, but it's straightforward and unapologetic in its gimmickry, and it's a pretty clever gimmick, really. This is a real one-shot by Kevin Eastman and company that is meant to be read as the comic within the comic Drawing Blood; that is, this is the comic book that Drawing Blood's protagonist Shane Bookman supposedly created with his brother Paul, the book that became a runaway media sensation and global phenomenon he's been unable to top. It is also, obviously, a pretty transparent stand-in for Eastman's own Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic with Peter Laird, making this a rather heady, meta-comic. This is the co-creator of Eastman and Laird's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, an indie comics juggernaut that spawned a half-dozen barely-veiled imitators, analogue and parodies, first in comics and later in cartoons, doing his own TMNT imitations/analogue/parody.

That, in and of itself, is pretty remarkable, and justifies this issue's existence.

In addition to providing the rather Frank Miller-esque cover, complete with TMNT-style lettering, Eastman handled the lay-outs, and gets credits for creation, character designs and story. His Drawing Blood co-creator Daivd Avallone handles the script, and gets story and created by credits, while Troy Little is credited with "final artwork"; Little is one of the three artists who drew portions of Drawing Blood, handling the "hallucination" sequences featuring the in-story TMNT-knock offs.

These particular knock-offs are cats--I eventually realized that it may be intentional that Eastman's own TMNT copycat characters are actual cats, and they are three rather than four in number. They are also sisters, rather than brothers. But much of their story will sound familiar, although I suppose it's worth noting that Avalone and Eastman didn't follow the TMNT template as closely as they could have; the book echoes the original, first issue of the Mirage TMNT comic quite directly at points, but not so zealously that it's a point-for-point pastiche (In the storytelling, I thought the most direct echo was the two-page spread on pages two and three, when the RRRR are introduced leaping towards the reader in the same way the TMNT did in pages two and three of their first issue.

Tezuka, Otomo and Miyazaki are sword-wielding mutant cats who are busting up the designer drug operation of a villain named Overdog. On their way back to Tiger Sushi, where they live with their adopted parents, they save a young boy from bullies and, their existence revealed, take him into the restaurant. They tell him their story, of how they were once orginally kittens who were taken to a secret laboratory and exposed to a serum that made them smarter. When the lab is attacked, they flee gunfire, running through the gamma ray lab, the cosmic ray lab and the genetic mutagen lab. Thoroughly mutated--or "radically rearranged," I guess--they run into the city, eventually finding an old man and his wife being threatened at gunpoint by a protection racket. They intervene, and are rewarded by being adopted. Their new father trains them in martial arts, but he is later killed, and the three of them have sworn vengeance on the an responsible, Overdog.

I don't know that I would want to read a whole series featuring these characters or anything, but for 36-pages it was fun. Eastman is really good at action lay-outs, and while I probably would have preferred to see him draw the whole book, Little is a pretty great artist; his cat-women reminded me a bit of Jeff Smith's art, while his human beings reminded me a bit of Judd Winick's character designs. No one gets a lettering credit, but those look a bit like those of Steve Lavigne or Eastman's in the old Mirage comics, so even those looked a bit familiar to me. It's in full-color, but other than that, this is a very TMNT-y homage/parody to the one of the guys who did TMNT, given the excuse to do so by the fact that although this comic is a comic, it's meant to be read as the comic within a comic.

There are no less than eight covers for the issue--so it's really a product of its time, rather than trying too hard to imitate the original TMNT #1--and some of these are pretty interesting. Eastman provides two of teh covers; one of which is sort of similar to the general lay-out and poses of the Turtles on TMNT #1. Two of the covers are by artist Alan Quah, and those are even more closely modeled on TMNT #1. Among the other covers are one by Batman/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles artist Freddie Williams II and one by Stan Sakai, featuring Usagi Yojimbo fighting side-by-side with the Ragdolls.

Hamlet Starring Donald Duck (Dark Horse Books) Hamlet, perhaps the best-known drama to feature a conflict between an uncle and nephew in the entire Western canon, is perfectly suited for an adaptation casting Donald Duck, Uncle Scrooge and the various Disney ducks as the principals. After all, the the cast of Disney's duck comics are almost exclusively uncles and nephews, and almost always in some state of conflict with one another.

Sadly, this book by writer Giorgio Salati and artist Paolo De Lorenzi isn't at all what I originally expected when I originally ordered it, nor is it precisely what I wanted it to be. It is not an adaptation of Hamlet in the way that Mickey's Christmas Carol was an adaptation of Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol, wherein the various Disney characters are playing the parts of characters from the original work, with character-specific jokes and parodic elements thrown in.

Instead, it is akin to Disney Don Quixote, in which Disney's cartoon characters find themselves in a highly fictionalized plot that parallels the plot of a work of classic literature, rather than any sort of direct adaptation. As with the Don Quixote comic, the only one of these I've previously read, if one weren't pretty familiar with the work being adapted already, one might not necessarily be able to recognize it from the resultant comic.

It is worth noting, however, that the Hamlet adaptation lacks a layer of complexity that the Don Quixote comic had, as the latter featured Mickey, Goofy and their supporting cast playing different versions of themselves who then enacted the Cervantes-inspired plot. Here, the action begins with Uncle Scrooge taking his nephews Donald, Huey, Dewey and Louie to Denmark to inspect his smoked kipper supplier, and there the nephews sneak off to read William Duckspeare's tragedy "Ducklet," the bulk of the comic being the dramatization of "Ducklet", starring Donald, Scrooge and their supporting cast.

While Donald obviously stars as the Hamlet analog, Scrooge doesn't play his antagonist uncle Claudius, but, instead, the ghost of "King Scrooge" (I suppose casting the heroic Scrooge as a murderous, wife-stealing Shakespeare villain was a bit too far for the creators and/or Disney). The Claudius role instead goes to John D. Rockerduck, who plays Rocklaudius (all of the character names are basically clumsy portmanteaus smooshing the ducks' original names into those of the Shakespeare characters).

The Ophelia and Laertes roles are obviously filled by Daisy and Gladstone, while Ludwig Von Drake plays their father, Polonius/Drakonius. Rounding out the cast are Gyro as Horatio, Brigitta MacBridge as Queen Gertrude and Gus Goose and Fethry as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The boys play multiple roles, appearing first as the traveling players who Ducklet enlists to perform a play to prove Rocklaudius' guilt, and, later, as the gravediggers who appear in the scene with Yorrick's skull, which is now played by a pumpkin.

Perhaps because this is a Disney comic book, all of the death, madness and allusions to sex are taken out of the play...which means there is a lot that needs to be sanitized. Because Hamlet is a tragedy and pretty much the entire cast is dead by the end of it, that means writer Giorgio Salati had to go to some pretty absurd lengths to make a death-free version of Hamlet and, luckily, it's absurd enough that the changes all play like gags.

So the "ghost" of Scrooge isn't really a ghost at all. Rather than pouring poison in a sleeping Scrooge's ear, Rocklaudius poured "nonsense juice" in his ear, rendering him "transparent and incorporeal... a ghost", so that only a very close relative like Donald--er, Ducklet could see him.

Rocklaudius wasn't interested in the queen as much as the crown...and Scrooge's wealth. In fact, neither Scrooge nor Rocklaudius seem to have any real interest in the queen, whom they regard as if she has cooties. Ducklet doesn't stab Draklonius through the curtain, but instead steps on his foot; this sends him hopping about on his other foot until he konks his head with Ophelia/Duckphelia, knocking him unconscious and rendering her...silly, I guess. It is for these injustices that Gladertes wants revenge on Ducklet rather than, you know, killing his dad and driving his sister to suicide.

And as for Yorrick's skull in the graveyard, it has been replaced by a "Yorick-O'-Lantern" in the pumpkin patch.

Some of these changes are obviously greater reaches than others, but even the least elegant solutions are at least funny in the great lengths to which the creators have gone. Additionally, while some of the relationships are somewhat mangled by being run through a Hamlet-ization process, others work extremely well, like Scrooge haranguing Donald (albeit it here in a ghostly form no one else can see or hear) and Donald and Gladstone coming to blows with one another over Daisy (here with maces dipped in nonsense juice).

While I didn't much care for Don Quixote, and was disappointed by the premise of this one--and likely will be by all those that will follow, if the pattern of these two holds for the Dracula and Frankenstein books I've already ordered--I liked this one a lot more. I'm not sure if it was because there were fewer hoops involved with the adaption process, or my preference for Donald and Scrooge over Mickey and Goofy, or my greater familiarity with the source material, or if it was just plain better made, but I suspect all of those factors played some role.

Justice League #23 (DC) This is only chapter four of "The Sixth Dimension," but it feels more like chapter fourteen to me. There's not much forward progression, at least not any more than one could assume from having read the last issue. Superman is stuck in an inescapable trap of sorts (although I guess his flashback to hanging out with his son was unexpected and interesting, particularly as I worry that that Superboy might be in the process of going away), Batman is still talking with the World Forger, and the imps are still battling on fourth-dimensional Earth. Most of the action of this issue is concerned with the rest of the League's attempts to escape the future's Apokalyptian prison, and the unexpected help they get from the future's remaining Legion of Doom members. It's all perfectly okay, and aside from the somewhat slow and stalled-out pacing of the arc, the only thing that really bugged me was the continued misunderstanding of Martian Manhunter's powers. This issue seems to suggest, for example, that he is a powerful telekenitic not the case. Or at least wasn't the case. Who can keep up with things like character, consistency or continuity in a constantly rebooting shared universe setting, anyway...?

The best part was probably a riff on a the "Darkseid Is" slogan from Grant Morrison, Howard Porter and company's "Rock of Ages" arc from JLA; the moment is actually kind of dumb, but just the right sort of dumb to make the gag work.

I got the variant cover, which I liked better than the regular cover...
...despite the fact that it features two characters who haven't been in the book for a while now--Aquaman and Cyborg--and that it has John Stewart using the most powerful weapon in the universe to wish for a coupla guns yet again, once more demonstrating a lack of imagination and/or cultural awareness on the part of the character and/or his creators.

Justice League #24 (DC) The bit where the Legion of the Doom of the future prepare to stay behind and fight to the death while sending the League back to fix this whole fucked up timeline for them gave us the above bit with Grodd--who appears to have had an Ultrahumanite make-over at some point, which artist Jorge Jimenez uses to illustrate his having gotten old. That's actually just the first and weaker of the jokes that Scott Snyder has Grodd tell on that very page, though.

The sequences in this issue are pretty much identical to those in the last: Superman remembers time spent with Jon as he seeks to escape the prison he's in, the League attempts to escape the Apokalyptian prison with the help of the Legion, Batman talks to the World Forger. At least it ends with a couple of big splashes indicating a League vs. League climactic battle...which I just realize will occur in the 25th issue of the series. Perhaps that explains why this arc seemed to drag a bit (Well, the fill-in issue scripted by James Tynion IV didn't help, obviously). Perhaps Snyder and Jimenez were trying to time it so that the arc would end in issues #25 because that's a number that serially-published comic books generally treat as a big deal.

Marvel's Greatest Creators: Invaders #1 (Marvel Entertainment) Given that this is a one dollar reprint of an old Marvel comic, I'm not entirely sure how Marvel's Greatest Creators varies from True Believers, but, as a reader, I guess it doesn't really matter. This is a reprint of 1975's Invaders #1 by writer/editor Roy Thomas, artist Frank Robbins and inker Vince Colletta.

It is apparently not just the start of a new series, but of a story arc, as the first page is a splash page featuring the words "The Ring of The Nebulas!" as a title, and the last panel features the appearance of a trio of Axis-aligned Teutonic gods challenging our heroes to battle ("Continued in Invaders Classic: The Complete Collection Vol. 1 TPB", the slug on the bottom of the page informs us). So while this doesn't provide a whole story, it does provide some World War II-era adventuring starring the unlikely team of Namor, The Human Torch, Captain America and sidekicks Toro and Bucky. There's plenty of Nazi-fighting--in the air over Britain, no less!--and plenty of in-fighting, as Toro and Bucky bicker with each other, and Namor is a sassy, sarcastic bitch to everyone.

There's a bit on the second page where Cap and The Torch discuss their dislike of the team name Churchill gave them, and Torch says "I'd like a name like the Revenge Squadron, or the American Avengers, or--" and then Namor cuts him off.
"My name means "Avenging Son"-- and I prefer to keep it to myself!", he says while literally giving Torch side-eye. Which makes me wonder, when Namor came out of his amnesia or whatever in the 1960s, did he have words with The Avengers about using that name? Because he seems like he considers the word "Avenge" and all derivations of it to be proprietary here.

Actually, all the best parts of this issue are just those of Namor piloting his special bat-winged Atlantean submarine airplane with the rest of The Invaders irritating him from the backseat, like a grumpy dad driving his restless children on a road trip. I half expected him to snap at them, "Settle down back there, or I'll turn this submarine plane around and no one will get to invade Nazi Germany!"

Scooby-Doo Team-Up #48 (DC) While not as great as Batman's rogues gallery, there's no denying that The Flash has one of the better sets of adversaries in the all of super-comics, maybe falling third or so, after Batman's and Spider-Man's, but before Superman's. This issue, by the regular creative team of Sholly Fisch and Dario Brizuela, offers some supporting evidence of just how compelling The Flash's villains are--compelling enough that they are the characters that Scooby-Doo and the gang are teaming up with in this issue, rather than The Flash (Of course, Scooby-Doo had previously teamed-up with The Flash in 2016's #15).

The gang answer a summons from The Flash to meet him at the outskirts of Central City, but instead of the Scarlet Speedster waiting for them they find The Rogues. It turns out it was they who sent the message, in the hopes of engaging Mystery Inc's services. Our teenage heroes are reluctant to help The Rogues--here, Captains Cold and Boomerang, Heatwave, The Trickster, Mirror Master and Golden Glider--who want them to catch The Top, who has been stealing all of their ill-gotten gains as soon as they complete a heist. Among the excuses they offer the armed villains is that they specialize in supernatural mysteries, at which point The Rogues reveal that this is precisely why they've contacted them. See, "The Top hasn't been alive for a long time!" Mirror Master announces, just as the ghost of The Top makes a timely entrance.

The kids are eventually cajoled into helping, and suggest that the Rogues try to pull off an even bigger heist to attract The Ghost of The Top. So they all visit The Flash Museum, where Fred, Daphne and Velma attempt to use the various weapons on display there to fight the bad guys, in the process summoning The Top and "unmasking" the ghost as another Flash villain. In their usual thoroughness, Fisch and Brizuela manage to catalog a pretty huge swathe of characters. In addition to the seven or so Rogues with speaking parts, another handful of Flash bad guys get name-dropped or make cameos, and, spoiler alert, Kid Flash Wally West and original Flash Jay Garrick both appear for a couple of panels.

As is usually the case, Fisch gets an amazing amount of content into such a short, relatively simple story, with enough Easter eggs and gags to please older fans like me, and Brizuela takes advantage of the opportunity to draw as many DC Comics characters as he can get away with. There are a lot of neat details in the art, like several sequences in which Brizuela draws homages to famous covers and images from Flash history, and I particularly liked the way he drew some of the Rogues, with Captain Boomerang looking a bit like a compromise between his Bruce Timm-derived Justice League design and Brizuela's own style, or Captain Cold looking a bit like a compromise between his Super Friends design and Brizuela's style. Oh, and Brizuela also draws Trickster as considerably younger-looking than his fellow rogues, even though his costume is that of classic Trickster rather than the later one, a detail long-time Flash readers might notice, even if many in the all-ages target audience don't.

I know I say this almost every month, but Scooby-Doo Team-Up is honestly one of the best comics featuring the best versions of DC's superhero stable, and I'm pretty bummed to hear that it's not going to be around much longer. Hopefully DC finds a home for Fisch's particular abilities to tell short, sharp stories distilling various corners of the DCU into their most compelling elements.


Birding Is My Favorite Video Game: Cartoons about the Natural World From Bird and Moon (Andrews McMeel) I picked this one up solely for its clever title and cover image, completely unaware of cartoonist Rosemary Mosco's online presence, although now that I am looking still more closely at the cover I see Bird and Moon, her website, is quite prominently featured in the sub-title for the book. So you could theoretically begin reading her comics right this very second, without having to buy her book or borrow it from your local library or wasted another second of your life reading a these sentences of me writing about it.

Mosco's subject matter is the nature, which is really a broad enough subject so as to be boundless. Her approach varies form strip to strip. Some of them are more or less straight informational, just colorful charts or diagrams with animal facts in them, like one entitled "Relatives Sizes of Some Animal Relatives, which shows silhouettes of, say, the meter-long Hyacinth Macaw next to the teeny tiny Buff-faced Pygmy Parrot. Some are just plain silliness, like one entitled "Top Ten Posts," which is a drawing of ten different fence posts in various natural settings. Most blend such educational content with a degree of silliness, making for strips that pair dumb jokes with smart content.

Maybe the best example of this element of her work is the strip entitled "Foraging Patterns." Four-panels long, the first three show the different foraging patterns of three different birds and they move about the trunk of a tree. So panel one shows the Brown Creeper moving diagonally up around the trunk of a tree. Panel two depicts the White-breasted Nuthatch moving diagonally down. Panel three shows the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker as it moves horizontally around the trunk. And, in the climactic panel four, they all collide into one another, complete with a little yellow explosion symbol and a "BONK" sound effect.

And those are the kinds of comics Mosco excels at, marrying basic slapstick gags to the lives of plants and animals, or having animals and plants give voice comment on their behaviors in very human-sounding dialogue. (A good example of this might be a strip on the "Threat Displays of Non-threatening Animals," in which the animals announce their defense mechanisms, like the Red Cornsnake saying, "I am shaking my tail vigorously!")

Mosco is even able to tell jokes about maybe the scariest, least funny subject in all of human history: Climate change. They're obviously not exactly knee-slappers, but she tackles that subject, and the general fragility of some animal species' very existence, bravely and repeatedly.

Her artwork has a very pristine, almost diagram-like preciseness, with relatively little variation--only the humans generally look "cartoony," while the animals mostly look as if they could have come straight out of a science textbook, albeit a very brightly-colored one.

Anyway, if you don't check the book itself out, do give Bird and Moon a few clicks to sample Mosco's unusual, particular approach to her subject matter.

PTSD (First Second) This is First Second's translated and re-published edition of artist Guillaume Singelin's graphic novel about a veteran's struggle with the post-traumatic stress disorder, drug addiction and homelessness after she returns home from a brutal jungle war, where the government and too many citizens refuse to engage with veterans and their problems. As an American reader, the particulars of the war and the general experience of protagonist Jun reminded me of the Vietnam War--or, at least, what I learned of it in school and read about later--but Singelin's story isn't meant to be specific to any single conflict or even setting.

The nameless city the the graphic novel takes place in is apparently an Asian one, although of the sort seen in anime movies set in the near-term future. It is huge, crowded and colorful, a riot of urban details and signifiers piled atop of one another to create a megatropolis that is every city, all cities and no city in particular. Singelin's plot meanders a bit, focusing on Jun's initial suffering and flashbacks to her time in the service as she rebuffs offers of help from a kindly single mother who runs a noodle shop...before Jun starts to get her life in order and becames a vengeful vigilante striking back against the drug-dealing gangs that prey on her fellow veterans, and then becomes something of a freelance doctor, aided in her path toward recovery by a loyal dog and an older veteran who seems to have gone through much of what she did.

It's a bit shaggy, but it all hangs together, and the great pleasure of the book isn't necessarily tight-plotting, so much as the detailed and compelling world-building of Singelin's art, and the the time spent living in that world with that character. The Japanese popular art influence extends far beyond the anime dystopia-inspired city, as his big-headed, cute-faced, large-eyed characters also have a distinctly Japanese feel to them. He gives his characters four digits per hand instead of five, with each of the three fingers being the same size. I know cartoon characters having four fingers per hand is a thing, but I don't like it, and it felt particularly off-putting here. But that's just me.

I'm sure this book won't be to everyone's taste, but it is certainly fun to look at and spend time with.

Return of Wolverine (Marvel Entertainment) It doesn't seem like Marvel and writer Charles Soule were quite on the same page regarding the resurrection of Wolverine, which makes this follow-up to 2014's Death of Wolverine rather fitting, as they didn't quite seem to agree on how big a deal his death was, how absent he would really be from the Marvel Universe during all that time, and how big a deal his return would be--Hell, even when, where and how he returned seemed to be something of a work in progress, as he started "returning" in other books before this, something that needed hand-waved away when someone somewhere on the upper floors of the House of Ideas changed their minds.

So just as Death of Wolverine read like a rather small story, like writer Charles Soule's response to an assignment by Marvel, so too does Return. The five-issue miniseries has no connection to the Death, despite the fact that Soule wrote it, and doesn't really act as any sort of payoff to that story or the years of Wolverine's absence (an absence blunted, of course, by the fact that another Wolverine from another dimension immediately replaced Logan upon his death). Despite the character's long-time centrality to the Marvel Universe (and Marvel's publishing plans), this is more-or-less a solo Wolverine story; the X-Men guest-star in the third issue, in which they go looking for Wolverine, find him and fight him, and then retreat.

Let me tell you the plot. Wolverine awakens in a surreal and violent scene, having apparently regained consciousness after having participated in a terrible battle. He has no memory, though; it's like his brain just suddenly turned on. This is, in fact, exactly what happened. Soule introduces a new mutant villain with the very convenient plot-specific mutant ability of being able to resurrect the dead. Or at least semi-resurrect them. She can bring the dead back to life and control them as more-or-less mindless drones, but they lack consciousness. Given Wolverine's abilities, he was an attractive drone (As to how he got out of the adamantium shell he was left in at the end of Death Of, that's not covered or even mentioned here; that happened in a different comic).

This new mutant villain's long-term plan is to kill off everyone on the planet--save for the scientist and other special people she has secured on a base orbiting Earth to help her with the annihilation and management of the world to come--and then use her powers to bring them all back, under her control. What she didn't plan for was Wolverine's healing factor, which apparently restarted when she raised him, as it allowed him to break her control. And that's basically it: An amnesiac Wolverine, urged on by his memories and aspects of his personality, must save the world while gradually remembering who he really is.

Oh, and he has "hot" claws now, for some reason.

It's a fine story on its own terms, and would likely have seemed excellent had it been published in, say, issues #146-150 of a Wolverine ongoing series, but it feels oddly small and flat given the build-up to the event. Because not only did Marvel put this storyline in its own special miniseries--there being no Wolverine comic it could have run in--but it was preceded by a Hunt For Wolverine one-shot (written by Soule himself, despite barely connecting to Return of) and five separate mini-series sharing the "Hunt For Wolverine" branding, in which large swathes of the Marvel Universe try to find out where Wolverine ended up after his grave was discovered to be empty (Oh yeah, Hunt For is the comic that explains how his corpse got out of the adamantium shell).

I didn't read any of those comics yet, but if they somehow tied into this story, it wasn't apparent from reading it. As I mentioned, the only other Marvel characters to appear is a handful of X-Men, who are only present for about one-fifth of the story. That's fine, of course; Wolverine should be the star of a Wolverine story, but how can such a tight focus on a single character not feel disappointing after 20+ issues of half the Marvel Universe looking for the guy in a manhunt marketed as the lead-in to this very story...?

The artwork leaves something to be desired, too. Soule reunited with Steve McNiven, who drew the entirety of Death Of...but only temporarily. McNiven pencils the first and fifth issues of the series, while Declan Shalvey draws the three issues in-between. Both are solid superhero artists, although I personally prefer Shalvey's style, but regardless of their talents and skills, their styles are quite far apart, and thus the book looks pretty inconsistent (and not just in the style or level of detail; there's a pretty weird and glaring costume change that apparently took place between the last scene Shalvey drew and the first scene of the last issue that McNiven drew). It's easy to see why Marvel would want to have McNiven attached to this book, keeping the Death Of team together, but if McNiven didn't have time to draw all of it, they probably would have been better off just having Shalvey draw the whole thing.

Read in a vacuum, it's a really rather solid Wolverine story that stands pretty well on its own. Read as part of the ongoing Marvel shared-universe story, it's a disappointingly inconsequential story incapable of justifying the build up to it.


Disney Princess: Ariel and the Sea Wolf (Dark Horse Books) Sea Wolf is the name of an aquatic Nazi supervillain introduced in Roy Thomas' Young All-Stars, although I first saw the character in a late-in-the-run issue of Peter David's 1990s Aquaman. He was basically a sea-going werewolf. A Seawolf--one word--is also the name of a Dungeons & Dragons monster; a lycanthrope whose monster form is basically just a seal with a scary wolf's head on it. These two facts lead me to believe that there is probably some folkloric antecedent to aquatic werewolves called sea wolves, probably from Germany, but now that I am actively searching on Wikipedia for some confirmation, I can't find it. The term's gotta come from somewhere though; the Pennsylvania town I went to college in had a baseball team called the Sea Wolves, and there's a rock band and and all sorts of military stuff named "Sea Wolf."

Anyway, I mention this all here because I--not unreasonably, I'd say!--assumed from the title that this was an original graphic novel for young readers in which The Little Mermaid fights an underwater werewolf and, on that point at least, I was sorely disappointed.

This is still a pretty good first graphic novel for young readers, of course.

Spidey: Freshman Year and Unstoppable Wasp: GIRL Power (Marvel Entertainment) What's that you say? Didn't I already discuss these books at some length in last month's installment of "A Month of Wednesdays"...? Yes. Yes I did. Those were just my just-finished-reading-them reactions; basically first drafts for later, more focused reviews in which I would think about things like, who my audience was, rather than just babbling at whoever still reads this blog, like I generally do in these posts. Look, you don't have to go read the reviews at Good Comics For Kids just because I'm linking to them here, okay?

The Worst Book Ever (Drawn & Quarterly) Another cute, funny, rather silly comic book/picture book from Elise Gravel, The Worst Book Ever provides a nice, thorough list of all the "don'ts" a young person just beginning to think about writing should keep in mind. Don't believe the title though; it's nowhere near actually unseating the champ.

*Have they really still not collected this series? I know I've said this before, but it's a Justice League comic featuring the writing of some of the most popular writers in the market, including Waid, Johns, Kurt Busiek and Mark fucking Millar! There are also a bunch of other talented writers and a murderers' row of great artists involved, but it seems like any comic with Waid, Johns and Millar's names on it should probably be an easy-ish sell in today's market, no matter how intentionally retro it is.

No comments: