Sunday, August 31, 2008

Review: Batman: The Man Who Laughs

What a strange book this is. If one squints and tilts one’s head just right, it’s easy to see the rationale behind 2008 hardcover Batman: The Man Who Laughs.

The contents deal, in part, with the first time The Joker met the Batman; it’s a tale that’s been told and retold in DCU comics, even post-Crisis, but with The Dark Knight telling it to a very, very wide audience, it makes sense to get as many Joker vs. Batman stories on the shelves as possible (And this one has the benefit of sharing some of the same bits of inspiration as the blockbuster film).

It’s also written by Ed Brubaker, who did quite a bit of work in and around Gotham City at the beginning of the decade, and who’s star has continued to rise at Marvel, thanks in large part to his success with killing off Captain America and sustaining the quality of Captain America without its deceased star.

Why DC chose to collect the stories they did under this cover and this title, however, is pretty perplexing. More than half of the contents of Batman: The Man Who Laughs consist of something other than Batman: The Man Who Laughs, and the Joker only appears in one of the two stories. Even the artists and settings differ (The Joker story is set in the Batman: Year One era, the later story is set in the modern “Year Now” era).

In fact, the only things they have in common is that Brubaker wrote both of ‘em, and that Batman’s in them.

The title story originally appeared as a 64-page prestige format one-shot in 2005. It was bound with a bit of a spine, and would therefore definitely fit most people’s perceptions of a “graphic novel” if it were simply reprinted in 2008 to take advantage of Joker-vs.-Batmania. That is, it would stand up on a bookstore or library shelf on it’s own, even if the name on the spine would be a little hard to make out.

The desire to reprint it as a slightly larger hardcover was certainly to make it more appealing to the library and book store audience, but that left the problem of what to fill up the rest of the book with—64 pages is far too slim for a hardcover.

There are certainly no shortage of Batman/Joker stories out there; they could have even used different versions of this story, like Legend of the Dark Knight #50, featuring a story by Denny O’Neil and Bret Blevins, with a pretty creepy cover by definitive Joker artist Brian Bolland, or perhaps the first Joker story from Batman #1 or 1978’s “The Sign of the Joker” by Steve Englehart and Marshall Robers, the last two of which inspired certain aspects of Brubaker’s story (and Nolan’s movie).

Instead they chose “Made of Wood,” a three-part Detective Comics story in which Batman teams up with the original Green Lantern and the retired Commissioner Gordon to solve a decades old mystery.

Both are fairly strong stories; “Made of Wood” moreso than Man That Laughs, in large part because Brubaker was telling a story that hasn’t been told dozens of times before.

But they don’t really seem to go together. “Made of Wood” seems like filler, but since it’s actually longer than the title story—66 pages—it makes the title story seem like the real filler. A new reader reaching it would likely be surprised to find it there. Surprised, and perhaps disappointed.

Grafting it onto The Man That Laughs also makes it more difficult for DC to do some sort of complete-ish collection of Brubaker’s work, which would fit quite nicely into a several volume series.

As a writer equally adept at superhero adventure, crime and police procedurals and even martial arts fantasy (as Brubaker’s gone on to prove himself in recent years), he’s pretty much an ideal Batman writer. He got to help redefine Catwoman (a book that was just re-cancelled this week), worked with Greg Rucka on brilliant but cancelled Gotham Central, and contributed chapters to a few of the last Batman crossovers before the last DCU reboot (“Bruce Wayne: Fugitive,” “War Games”).

He also got his chance on the two flagship Bat-titles, and he excelled at them, but editorial rejiggerings seemed to have kept him from ever getting too comfortable.

He wrote Batman for a stint between 2001 and 2002, from Batman #591-#598, plus #604 and #606 and #607 (those last two issues with some guy named Geoff Johns, who’s kinda marketable these days). All of these were drawn by Scott McDaneil, who’s somewhat abstracted, highly energetic style wasn’t the best of fits with Brubaker’s particular skill set, but still, that’s about a dozen issues of Brubaker on Batman just sitting around, not being in a grapic novel.

And in addition to “Made of Wood,” Brubaker wrote a six-part arc for TEC #777-#783 entitled “Dead Reckoning.” This was penciled by Tommy Castillo, and would probably make for a decent trade by itself; it features name villains Penguin, The Riddler, Catwoman, Joker and Two-Face.

If you count 64-page Man Who Laughs like three 22-page comic books, that all adds up to about 24 issues of Rather Popular Writer Brubaker on Perpetually Popular Batman, or two or three good-sized trades featuring almost all of Brubaker’s Batman that doesn’t already appear elsewhere.

As to the contents, they’re both pretty solid efforts. Man Who Laughs, named for the silent movie version of Dumas’ novel that inspired The Joker’s look, is presented like a continuation of Year One, right down to the Batman and Gordon tag-team narration and fonts.

Some new villain calling himself The Joker predicts killings ahead of time, his victims dramatically dropping dead at the designated time, despite the best efforts of Batman and the police. His ultimate plan to is to poison Gotham City’s water supply with his Joker venom; Batman stops him.

The main strength of the story is just how straightforward it is; Brubaker really writes the encounter as if The Joker really were a new character, with no heavy-handed foreshadowing that this more colorful than usual crook is going to go on to someday star in “A Death in the Family” or The Killing Joke.

The art is by Doug Mahnke, penciling and inking, and while Mahnke is a master compared to some of the guys DC has drawing Batman these days, his muscular, dynamic Batman and highly idiosyncratic character visages seem somewhat contrary to the by-now well established look and aesthetic to “Year One” Gotham. There’s a great difference between the art of David Mazzucchelli, Tim Sale and Matt Wagner, but the differences between those three aren’t anywhere as near the difference between Mahnke and the three of them. (That’s quite a cover image though; my face hurts jut looking at Joker’s smile).

“Made of Wood” is penciled by Patrick Zircher and inked by Aaron Sowd. Their art shares a level of detail with Mahnkes—particularly for backgrounds and settings—but the characters are more realistic; Batman looks more like a costumed man than a he-man superhero, and the bit players look more like people you might pass on the street, rather than caricatured characters. (I like both artists a great deal; Zircher and Sowd just seem better suited to Brubaker’s Batman stories).

This story more than any other Brubaker one I’ve read demonstrates how perfectly suited he is for the character. The two superheroes are more or less incidental to large parts of the story, in which retired James Gordon stumbles upon a mystery and tries to solve it. It’s your typical murder mystery novel, but with extremely colorful protagonists.

Gordon is out for a morning walk when he finds a dead man with the words “Made of Wood” carved into his chest and dumped at the foot of a statue of Green Lantern Alan Scott, who operated in Gotham during the Golden Age (Wood, by the way, is Scott’s only weakness). Back during that Golden Age, we learn there was a serial killer with the same MO, but the crimes just stopped and their perpetrator was never brought to justice.

Gordon and Batman each try to crack the case, with Scott eventually visiting and lending a hand, the narrative flashing back to period stories featuring Scott, his villain Sportsmaster and his sidekick Doiby Dickles (sadly, no Streak). It’s a great little superhero mystery story, somewhat evocative of James Robinson’s Starman in the way it jumps between the decades, but it sure doesn’t have much of anything to do with the story that precedes it.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Just in case you've ever wondered what it looks like when The Spectre has an orgasm:

(A detail from a story written by Jerry Siegel and drawn by Bernard Baily that originally appeared in 1940's More Fun Comics #60, but I found it in The Golden Age of DC Comics: 365 Days, which I promise I'm almost done using as blog-post fuel. Just one more and then I'm done with it forever. I swear.)

Quite possibly the dirtiest line I've ever read in a Marvel comic:

Depending, of course, on why the steam train will never get into the tunnel.

(From Fantastic Four: True Story #2 by Paul Cornell and Horacio Domingues)

Friday, August 29, 2008

Two more Golden Age super-pets

Alan Scott's canine companion Streak the Wonder Dog wasn't the only Golden Age superhero animal sidekick that Les Daniels, Chip Kidd and copany highlighted in The Golden Age of DC Comics: 365 Days, that book I keep posting scans from. Space is also allotted to Ace the Bat-Hound and two much less-familiar super-pets, one of whom I'd heard of but never seen, and another I'd never even heard of.

The former is Robbie the Robot Dog, the unimaginatively named robot dog of the Golden Age Robotman (not to be confused with The Doom Patrol's Robotman, Cliff Steele, although their origins are quite similar). The original Robotman was scientist Dr. Robert Crane, who had developed a robot for use as a full-body prosthetic. When he was fatally wounded by crooks, he had his assistant stick his brain in the robot body, and thus became an automaton avenger.

He first appeared in Star-Spangled Comics, and later in Detective Comics. (More recently, he was in 1981-87 series All-Star Squadron, James Robinson and Paul Smith's dark 1993 Elseworlds series The Golden Age and (extremely) briefly in Geoff Johns and Lee Moder's short-lived Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E. series and Robinson's Starman (though in non-Robotman bodies).

Robbie hasn't gotten around quite as much since the close of the Golden Age.

Here's a 1944 image by Jimmy Thompson:

And here's another Thompson image, from 1947:

More than fifty years before the AIBO! I don't suppose there's much hope in DC reprinting any old Robotman stories, but the art in those panels really is quite charming.

The other super-pet is Airwave's parrot, Static. Or, as Daniels refers to him, "Static the Proverb Parrot." Daniels also goes on to say he was "essentially a pest whose only talent was squawking homilies mixed with wise-cracks. (Having lived with a parrot for two years, I can attest that "essentially a pest" is a good description of any pet parrot).

While I have never read a single Golden Age Airwave story, I've long wanted to, as he seems like such a delightfully weird character.

Law clerk Larry Jordan fought crime using the cutting technology of radio, building himself a costume with dials and antennae on the ears which allowed him to intercept police radios and phone calls. To get around town, he would roller-skate atop the telephone wires. (His grandson is the current Airwave, who had actual superpowers instead of radio-based gadgets. He was a JSA reservist who's been MIA since Infinite Crisis).

The original doesn't pop up very often, although Brad Meltzer did just namedrop him in DC Universe: Last Will and Testament. An Airwave Chronicles or Airwave Archive repring project eems even less likely than a Robotman one; maybe DC could put together some kind of Golden Age sampler someday to include the likes of these guys...?

Here's a 1945 George Roussos image of Static lookng on at Airwave's radio-ears in action:

And here's a 1946 image by Harris Levy, demonstrating how color-coordinated this duo was:

Hmm. Alan Scott's dog Streak, Robotman's robot dog Robbie the Robot Dog, Airwave's parrot Static, Batman's canine crusader Ace the Bat-Hound, Dr. Midnight's owl Hooty, The Shining Knight's pegasus steed Winged Victory, Red Bee's prize bee Michael, Manhunter's dog Thor...that's more than enough for a Golden Age version of the Legion of Super-Pets.

Is the world ready for All-Star Squadron of Super-Pets? I know I am.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Poorly organized thoughts on Virgin Comics, the decadence of DC and some links

So, Virgin Comics, huh? Word on the street (and by “street” I mean “Internet”) is that the company’s calling it quits. Here’s a Publishers Weekly story. Here’s retailer and Savage Critic Brian Hibbs on the collapse from his perspective. Here’s Dirk Deppey. And here’s Dirk Deppey again.

From my perspective, I thought Virgin did a very good job of selling their comics, and if they failed to be sell enough of ‘em to keep doing it, it seems to be simply because not enough people wanted to buy them vs. some fault of the publisher’s staff.

When I was writing weekly comics reviews for Las Vegas Weekly, the PR folks at Virgin were all extremely easy to work with, and were always volunteering review copies of all their new series and offering whatever assistance I might need.

The books had the benefit of being extremely easy to write about for a mainstream, outside-of-comics medium, too. There was the initial novelty—Richard Branson, Deepak Chopra, Indian mythology, blah blah blah—and then the matter of the names tied to them. A book “created by” Nicolas Cage or Guy Richie or John Woo might not be any good at all, but it’s something that your average, civilian reader might care to hear more about. “John Woo? Doing a comic with John Woo fan Garth Ennis? Tell me more…”

The production values and the art were also extremely high. The books looked good as serial comics; certainly better than, say, Boom or Dynamite books (just in terms of trade dress and production value). The art was in many cases extraordinary, certainly better than the bulk of DC’s output over the last two years, and in a more comic book-y style than a lot of Marvel’s MU content over that same period of time.

That said, the comics tended to not be very good. I tried the first issues of the bulk of the series Virgin put out, and would usually lose interest by the second or third issue. I lasted maybe five issues of Snake Woman and Seven Brothers, and four of Dan Dare; those were the books I stuck with longest. I liked those series, but I’d inevitably miss an issue or two, realize that I’d forgotten to buy them and didn’t really miss-miss them, and thus never put in the effort to catch back up.

Most of them, however, were just pretty straightforward; nothing I wasn’t already getting from DC or Marvel or Dark Horse or Image or Tokyopop or Viz, with the exception of featuring characters I was less interested in than Batman or Spider-Man or Conan or Empowered, or with less visual snap and aesthetic appeal than in whatever manga series I happened to be reading.

Additionally, I think there was something noticeably “wrong” about a lot of the comics, which was apparent by their peculiar branding. John Woo and Garth Ennis collaborating on a comic sounds like a dream come true, but it wasn’t clear how much Woo was contributing (Seven Brothers sure read like any other Ennis comic, of which there were quite a few available concurrently). What exactly did Nic Cage and his son contribute to Voodoo Child if Mike Carey was credited as the writer?
And so on.

I’m still curious how some of these celebrity-branded comics were created exactly, and if that process had anything to do with Virgin’s overhead. Like, were each of the Cages getting paid as much as Carey for each issue of the book?

I’m also curious why Virgin went down so fast, but Boom and Dynamite Entertainment are both still around; both of those companies did pretty good jobs of getting their books in front of critics, and offering books that folks outside the Direct Market would conceivably be interested in hearing about as well. I think Virgin’s production values tend to be higher, however, the art more polished, and they had bigger name creators—not just the Hollywood folks, but the comic folks as well. Did Virgin just start out bigger than Boom and Dynamite, with a line that wasn’t sustainable unless the comics started doing big numbers right away? (I only single out Boom and Dynamite because they seemed to occupy about the same place in the publisher hierarchy as Virgin, and started making noise around the same time).

I think Deppey’s original sarcastic remark about “the Wednesday Crowd” (hey, that’s me!) not being interested in books not featuring Batman and Wolverine is true to a certain extent; if I’m going to read a book about a caped, masked vigilante crime fighter, I’m definitely going to choose Batman over a brand new Indian Batman (probably a bad example, as I don’t think Virgin had a Batman-like character; a couple of Witchblade-like characters and at least one Constantine-like character, yes, but not really a Batman). I do tend to follow Batman in the same way that my dad follows the Cleveland Browns or grandfather followed Jesses James and Wyatt Earp in Western movies.

Hibbs also had a good point in his original reaction, noting that it was somewhat unclear what exactly Virgin was doing and what the Virgin brand meant. Call it the Wildstorm problem.

But I think there’s a simple explanation for why Virgin Comics has failed that I haven’t heard anyone else suggest yet: Divine retribution for having published Jenna Jameson’s Shadow Huner.

—Speaking of virgins, Nina Stone’s Virgin Read column attempts to explain Achewood, a big chunk of which is now available in hard copy thanks to Dark Horse’s publication of The Great Outdoor Fight.

As someone who’s tried very, very hard to articulate how great a comic Achewood is, I appreciated Stone’s review attempt. By most objective criteria, Achewood doesn’t appear to be good at all, but there’s…something ineffable about it, some weird alchemy that makes it click at a certain point, a line a reader has to cross to get from “What the fuck is up with that cat in the Speedo blogging about his day while wearing a crown?” to laughing one’s ass off and embarking on the seemingly impossible task of explaining the series to others.

I didn’t pick up the trade yet, although I’m anxious to see what Achewood is like on paper rather than on my computer screen. I do plan on getting it though, despite having already read it for free. The book should make Achewood evangelism much easier, as its easier to lend someone a book and say, “Here read this, you’ll love it” than to ask them to go to and read 10-30 strips.

Here’s Jog reviewing Final Crisis: Superman Beyond. It’s a sharply written, dead-on review, which also happens to be full of some pretty funny imagery of the author in his car in a parking lot reading his comic with 3-D glasses.

I just used my 3-D glasses from the League of Extraordinary Gentleman: The Black Dossier graphic novel; is that cheating? Did I miss something by using those instead of the “4-D Overvoid Viewers?” I imagine I would have been more disappointed in Superman Beyond if I had devoted five to ten minutes cutting out and assembling a pair of 3-D glasses just to be able to read it…

—Today was Jack Kirby’s birthday. Several folks have nice tributes up; I really like Tom Spurgeon’s, which is simply a collection of Kirby covers, panels and details, showing the man’s unparalleled visual power and versatility.

—At Eye On Comics, Don MacPherson reviews DC Universe: Last Will and Testament, and posts both of the covers. They’re identical save for one difference; the one on the right has a foreground image of Geo-Force posing behind a giant rock hand. The one on the left is the one that was originally solicited, and it has a big, fat lighting bolt occupying the center of the image. When it was originally solicited, I assumed that space would be filled in with something later; that it was intentionally left empty to keep a surprise a surprise.

Was the surprise simply that this is a Geo-Force-centric comic, and DC didn’t want to tip their hand on its contents too early, assuming it would hurt orders for the issue since no one likes Geo-Force?

I don’t know; that’s what I was thinking when I saw the Geo-Force variant though. They’re both pretty terrible covers; the one with the empty lightning bolt seems too lightning bolt-centric, and the one with Geo-Force crams his figure on top of the other image, which also features Geo-Force.

What a weird cover…

Colleen Coover draws a naked lady for Eric Reynolds. (Via Blog@Newsarama)

—Tuesday night I mentioned Sean McKeever and company’s introduction of Super Friends’ Wonderdog into DCU comics continuity, as a springboard into a brief discussion about Alan Scott’s wonder dog Streak, and in the comments section for that post, and for yesterday’s weekly haul, several of you mentioned how awful the issue introducing the new Wonderdog actually was.

Well today at Johanna Draper Carlson has a brief discussion of the issue (in a post entitled “Teen Titans #62—Wonderdog Did What?!?”) that links to scans of the issue’s climax. Between those scans and those at, you can read 16 of the issue’s 22 pages, including the what the fuck is wrong with you people?! ending.

And man, it is awful. I dropped the book somewhere in the middle of the “Titans Tomorrow” arc because it wasn’t very good then, but it’s gotten much, much worse. On top of just how juvenile and nasty the Wonderdog bit is, it’s also extremely poorly assembled—the dialogue is mostly just references to other books, Eddy Barrows anatomy and costuming are a series of bad choices, and characters appear and disappear from panel to panel, with no sense of visual continuity.

It really makes the blurb in Teen Titans: Year One encouraging readers to check out Titans and Teen Titans for more Titans stories that I made fun of yesterday seem even more tragic. The only things Teen Titans: Year One and Teen Titans seem to have in common is two words in the title; in every other respect, they are completely antithetical to one another.

Anyway, if you didn’t read this week’s Teen Titans but are interested in the state of DC’s animal sidekicks, check out Carlson’s post to see just how far into superhero decadence DC continues to descend. At the rate they’re going, I’m predicting Robin turning tricks on the street for the sheer thrill of it, Wonder Girl joining the pornography industry and Blue Beetle coming out as a cannibal by the 75th issue.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Weekly Haul: The Week Dan DiDio and Joe Quesada Conspired To Make Sure I Didn't Have Any Money Left Over For Food

Avengers: The Initiative #16 (Marvel Comics) If the war between the Skrull Empire and Earth’s superheroes has seemed a little claustrophobic in the pages of Secret Invasion—confined, for the most part, to the usual battleground of Manhattan, plus a skirmish in the Savage Land—Dan Slott and Christos N. Gage have certainly opened up the conflict in the pages of this title. This time out they reveal just how deeply the Skrulls have infiltrated The Initiative (at least one on all 50 teams), meet another of the state teams in Arizona’s Maverick and are promised to meet Nevada’s team next issue (When oh when will it be Ohio’s turn?)

As the cover promises, this issue sees the new 3-D Man joining forces with the Skrull Kill Krew to, um, kill Skrulls. We also check in with Crusader in Manhattan, and Skrullowjacket and Ant-Man back at Camp Hammond.

It’s hardly essential reading, but the title continues to do what it’s done best—focus on the Marvel Universe’s lesser-known lights while introducing new characters—while also making the Skrull’s invasion of earth actually seem like a global rather than neighborhood threat.

Batman: Gotham After Midnight #4 (DC Comics) When we last left Batman, he was in some crazy robot battlesuit preparing to duke it out with a giant Clayface. In this, the “freaky 4th issue” of Steve Niles and Kelley Jones’ year-long series, we get to the actual duking it out.

This issue was an awful lot of fun, although it’s probably safe to say that if you don’t have any affection for Jones’ exaggerated style, you’re not going to be won over here. In fact, this issue contains a scene of Bruce Wayne in his civilian clothes, going to a fundraiser where everyone’s supposedly dressed up, and it’s devoid of monstrous villains, masked people, gargoyles, graves, caves and church steeples. That is, it plays to Jones’s weaknesses rather than his strengths. For example, character Lieutenant Clarkson shows up and is supposed to be dynamite looking, but she’s proportioned like Jessica Rabbit*, and is wearing the same sort of red, sequined dress as Ms. Rabbit, only skimpier, so she looks pretty damn ridiculous. Almost as ridiculous as Midnight does when he enters the room, with such velocity he seems to have been shot out of a cannon positioned right outside the door.

But the most important thing is that Batman pilots a giant robot battlesuit to fight a giant-sized Clayface. Batman’s giant robot suit is a very weird kind of contraption, all torso and arms, mounted on a long, telescoping, snake-like trunk atop what looks to be a single wheel. I really like Jones’ designs for Batman’s various gadgets and vehicles, as there tends to be a bit of zaniness to them, and this is one zany giant robot.

DC Universe: Last Will and Testament #1 (DC) Well, this certainly is a comic written by Brad Meltzer.

The marks of the Identity Crisis/JLoA writer’s works are all here:

—Every scene is given first-person narration, which appears in a color-coded narration box; however, some spoken dialogue also appears in color-coded narration boxes, with nothing to distinguish what’s said out loud or in a character’s head aside from the context.

—The DC Universe is a really, really small place, about the size of your average high school, wherein everyone seems to know everyone. For example, Challenger of the Unknown Rocky and Outsider Grace Choi both know “Gar Logan,” and both know that the other knows Gar Logan. Or Geo-Force knows the state of Golden Age Air Wave’s radio equipment, because some birds that Black Canary asked Hawkman to send to him mentioned it.

—The events are laughably, practically Grand Guignol gory (at one point, Geo-Force attempts suicide by slitting his own throat).

—The story is obsessed with a very particular point in history of DC Comics—the early ‘80s period in which Brad Meltzer was apparently a devoted DC comics reader—to the exclusion of all else.

And, of course, there are continuity problems. And I mean “continuity problems” in every sense of the word: matching up with the other contemporary comics this story references, adhering to the established history of the characters, and even, thanks to pencil artist Adam Kubert, visual continuity problems in the panel-to-panel action.

The gist of the story is that it’s the end of the world—no, for real this time!—and the characters of the DC Universe are spending it telling their loved one’s goodbye (kind of like the bulk of the Final Night tie-ins, actually). Most of these vignettes don’t make any sense in the context of Final Crisis, which is delivering the apocalypse the characters here are reacting too. Batman and Wonder Woman were already taken by the dark gods before it was clear the world might be ending, Superman was unable to leave Lois’ side in the hospital because his heat vision was keeping her alive, Hal Jordan was taken for trial on Oa, Wally West was racing Death with Barry Allen—and yet they’re all here, spending time with their loved ones.

The timing of the apocalypse seems off as well, as in Final Crisis #3, it seemed to happen all at once: a mass e-mail containing the Anti-Life Equation was sent out, and then the next thing you know, Darkseid had conquered earth off-panel (Final Crisis actually skips that moment, with the Flashes running into the future to see the already conquered world).

The end of the world, and the heroes saying goodbye to it, are only part of the story, however. The main thrust deals with how Geo-Force wants to spend his last day on earth: killing Deathstroke, The Terminator for corrupting and killing his little sister Terra.

That happened waaaayyyyy back in 1984, by the way. Twenty-four years ago. Why Geo-Force wants to tackle Deathstroke now, instead of all those other times it was even more clear the world was definitely ending for real this time (Infinite Crisis, JLA: World War III, Final Night, Zero Hour, etc.) isn’t exactly clear. Nor is it clear why Geo-Force thinks it was Deathstroke who killed Terra. After all, another girl named Terra who looked like, acted like, and had the same powers as his sister appeared in the DCU after Zero Hour (She debuted in 1992’s Team Titans, and Zero Hour re-ordered reality in 1994, and she then joined the regular Titans team) and Geo-Force learned via DNA test that she was in fact his sister Terra somehow resurrected (in 2000’s The Titans Secret Files & Origins Special #2, in a story co-written by occasional Meltzer collaborator Geoff Johns), and then she was killed in last year’s World War III, by Black Adam, not Deathstroke (whom, by the way, has a Wolverine-like healing factor that can bring him back to life after he’s been clinically dead anyway, as revealed in his own series, although maybe Geo-Force doesn’t know that).

But hell, if they’re not even going to bother making sure this thing makes sense when lined up against book’s published this month (FC #3), or even this week (Final Crisis: Superman Beyond #1) then why worry about if it makes sense when lined up against past stories? It is one of those things that just boggles my mind about the stories Meltzer wants to tell and DC apparently wants him to tell: I’m sure “Judas Contract” was a big deal and is fondly remembered, but it was 24 years ago—Who gives a shit now? Certainly (hopefully?) far fewer people then are reading Final Crisis. Because if more of your readers are interested in a 24-year-old comic than what you’ve published since and are currently trying to sell them, well then, maybe you’re not doing such a hot job of selling comics.

While there are some obvious problems with this as both a piece of comics-scripting and as a piece of DC’s current line-wide storyline, it certainly plays to Meltzer’s strengths. If Final Crisis really is the story of “the day evil won,” then who better to write a tie-in than the guy who wrote the only story in which evil actually won one in the DCU? (As has been repeatedly pointed out, every day in DC comics is the day that evil wins—right up until good turns the tide. Stopping to think about it, the only time evil really seems to have won out over good in a DC comic was Identity Crisis.) It’s dark and depressing, with Geo-Force spending part of the issue contemplating murder, part of it contemplating suicide, and then attempting both (and failing at both).

Most of the narration and dialogue was maudlin and predictably purple, like the work of a slightly less verbose Chris Claremont (“My name is Brion Markov. I am the prince of Markovia. Here are several more short descriptive sentences about myself and my powers and my motivations.”), but it also had its moments, particularly in big ending battle, and, thanks to the art team, this was head and shoulders above Metlzer’s last DC work, on JLoA, where he had the lead weights of Ed Benes’ poorly rendered, cheesecake-filled, background-free art dragging his every panel down.

Much of the art here is by Adam Kubert and, because he draws so damn slow, Kubert gets a fill-in artist to help out, and it’s the best damn fill-in artist a Kubert boy could hope for—father Joe Kubert.

The junior Kubert pulls off at least one really great sequence (perhaps thanks in part to Meltzer’s script), when Deathstroke first pins Geo-Force against the dumpster without even seeming to move. But it’s the senior Kubert that makes this thing truly worthwhile. He pencils (and inks? And lays-out?) several scenes featuring some of the superhero icons of the DCU, in their modern appearances, giving a too-rare look at one of the medium’s masters tackling the big characters: Wonder Woman and Donna Troy on their knees in a cemetery; Batman, Robin and Nightwing striking Batman #1-style poses, Green Lantern taking off in flight and Captain Cold being forced into doing a good deed.

But that’s just me. You might want to check out colleague Troy Brownfield’s review, as it’s far less bitter and rambling than mine.

The Family Dynamic #1 (DC) Oh look, it’s J. Torres and Tim Levins’ DOA new DC series, an all-ages adventure featuring original characters (and, by “original,” I mean “various analogues to already existent Marvel and DC superheroes”), which is apparently a Johnny DC comic, meaning it will be lucky to move 15K in the direct market.

I find this series’ existence a little baffling, to be honest; there’s absolutely no way this could turn into a hit, even if it turned out to be the greatest comic ever created, and it really just seems like a waste of the very talented creators’ time. I imagine a project like this would be much easier to turn a profit on with a smaller publishing company, or even self-published, then to have DC pump it out to die and disappear (Of course, having DC handle the production and publishing is obviously a lot easier on the creators, allowing them to focus on creation instead of production, publishing and marketing).

Anyway, this is not the best comic ever created.

It’s in no way a bad comic either, really. Levins’ pencils, inked by Dan Davis, are crisp and clear; the storytelling is easy to follow, and the character designs are strong (the superhero costumes are on the generic side, however). Batman, Teen Titans, Titans, JLoA—any of these books would be in much better shape under Levins and Davis.

The first few pages worth of story are kind of fun, with a few of the teenage characters needling each other, but then things get awfully bogged down by an extremely complicated story (I wonder if this is all on Torres, or if he was simply given too few issues to tell his story; I thought this was originally solicited to be longer, but I may be mistaken. Either way, three issues is an odd number for a miniseries, particularly one featuring new characters no one’s ever heard of).

Two generations of the title superhero group are introduced—they’re family foursomes with magic rings that give each of them a different elemental powers. There’s also a Wu Xing Clan referred to that I guess maybe one of the teens belongs to or something, some relatives of the title super-group who aren’t actually in the supergroup, Batman and Robin analogues (Blackbird and Littlewing) and a Superman analogue (The Defender). It’s a lot of explaining, really, so much so that the issue was ending before it seemed like any sort of story even ever started.

I’ll probably try at least one more issue, but the main thing I took away from this first one was simple confusion as to why anyone was even bothering with it—myself included. Pretty great art though, and it’s only $2.25 and it’s set in Canada, a place with few heroes who aren’t called Alpha Flight.

Fantastic Four: True Story #2 (DC) Paul Cornell and Horacio Domingues’ second issue isn’t quite as fun and funny as their first, perhaps in large part because the FF are out of their own element (which Cornell had some clever and inspired takes on), and now thoroughly immersed in the “Fictoverse.” In this issue, the FF, Dante, and the Dashwood sisters of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility head for Ivanhoe to start rallying allies to make a stand against the mysterious evil forces ravaging the world of fiction. These include William Tell, Kubla Khan, Frankenstein’s Monster, Natty Bumppo, Dr. Faustus and…Othello? Meanwhile, the Marvel Universe-born Big Bad is assembling League of Extraordinary Gentlemen of his own: Dracula and his concubines! The Sherriff of Nottingham! Long John Silver! Some unnamed guys I didn’t recognize!

Oh, and this issue also features what has to be the dirtiest thing I’ve ever read in a Marvel comic (Page eight, panel two). I’ll scan and share it on Saturday, when I plan to have another super-sexy post.

Final Crisis: Superman Beyond #1 (DC) Hey, it’s the only Final Crisis tie-in actually written by the writer of Final Crisis, so no surprise that this one both actually ties in to the events of the main series, it also does so in a logical way that doesn’t contradict anything. Huzzah!

This is Grant Morrison and the superb Final Crisis: Requiem art team of Doug Mahnke and Christian Alamy picking up from the Superman-at-Lois’-bedside scene in FC #3.

This is at least the second time Mahnke and Alamy have shown up the main series artist J.G. Jones; in Requiem they delivered impressive splash pages that made Martian Manhunter’s funeral look like an event instead of a half-dozen mannequins set-up near one another, and here they clearly present and introduce the mysterious lady who appeared to Clark Kent in the hospital. In Jones’ FC #3, I thought she was supposed to be a Kryptonian, but here she is clearly a Monitor in her very first appearance.

The story is very Morrisonian, almost to the point of cliché; how awesome this is will likely depend on how big a fan of Morrison’s you are, particularly when he’s working in his apocalyptic superheroes-as-super-myths mode. The monitor lady freezes time, and then asks Superman to join her and her crew of alternate universe Superman on a voyage through the Multiverse in exchange for his heart’s desire. These others include Captain Marvel (Earth-5’s Superman), Ubermensch/Overman (from Earth-10), Ultraman (from wherever the Crime Syndicate’s from now), and a Doctor Manhattan-like quantum-powered Captain Atom (Earth-4). After crashing through several univeres, they end up in the Limbo of Morrison’s old Animal Man run, and Superman and Captain Marvel must try to “lift a book with an infinite number of pages.”

There’s a lot of screaming about the true nature of the universe/DCU/multiverse/reality, a vast cosmology of monitors and their monitor gods and evil winning, most of it hard to make sense out of. I assume, like a lot of Morrison’s work in this mode (JLA, Seven Soldiers) it will make a lot more sense once the story is finally all told.

In the meantime, there are always the inspired little touches to enjoy, like Superman’s “4-D Vision,” which is portrayed with one of his eyes glowing red, and the other green, like with 3-D glasses and hey, funny thing, portions of this book are in 3-D (a kind of irritating gimmick which doesn’t really add anything but novelty), Overman’s oath of “Grosse Krypton!”, and the current denizens of Limbo (I see New bloods Nightblade, Geist and maybe Gunfire, plus the good guy version of Chronos and…that’s all I got. A whole lot of shoulder pads there, though).

Justice Society of America #18 (DC) The never-ending story of Gog walking around continues, as the self-proclaimed god of the Third World takes on war in a way that Hawkman likes, which of course pretty much no one else does because Hawkman is a total asshole (Although I’m sure he has his fans who are fine, upstanding people. Even if their hero is a total jerk). Also, FDR’s descendent somehow gets killed right in front of KC-Superman (Ha ha, you suck KC-Superman!), and resurrected as the new Magog. This new Magog is totally nude, save for his helmet and left pectoral/arm sheathe. Will he put on a pair of pants, or serve Gog with his pee-pee visible to all? We’ll find out next issue!

Meanwhile, on Earth-2, cell phones are like a foot-and-a-half-long. Jesus, Earth-2 Michael Holt; if you were really so smart, you’d invent a cell phone that was smaller than your own head.

Marvel Adventures Avengers #27 (Marvel) Because despite their decades and decades in the business, Marvel apparently hasn’t quite gotten the hang of publishing comics just yet, every Marvel comic with the word “Avengers” in the title was released on a single Wednesday—New, Mighty, Avengers: The Initiative andMarvel Adventures. I’m surprised they didn’t have an issue of The Ultimates too.

I read three of those four Avengers books, and this was, in my personal opinion, by far the best, based on the fact that a) there were actual Avengers in it, b) there was something fun on every single page and c) it was exceptionally well-illustrated, by Ig Guara and Jacopo Camagni.

The book is actually divided into two short stories this time, both occurring at the same time, but involving different characters. In the opening, by Jeff Parker and Guara, Ant-Man, Storm, Spider-Man, Giant-Girl and Hulk are at a county fair acting as judges, but a Pym particle accident shrinks them all down to Ant-Man size. The only way to return to normal is to catch a pig.

In the back half, by writer Paul Tobin and penciler Camagni, Captain America and Iron Man are on a date (apparently, they’re in love in every continuitiverse) when the proceedings are interrupted by an evil spam ring lead by a trio of Marvel’s most awesome villains.

That’s right, the stories involve ham and spam. Thematic!

Marvel Adventures Super Heroes(Marvel) Remember that Robert Kirkman video manifesto from a few weeks back, in which he said a bunch of funny things? (Hey, wait a minute, shouldn’t a writer have to have a written manifesto?) One of those funny things was about how Marvel’s all-ages MA books talk down to kids to a certain extent. In an interview with Comic Book Resources, Fred Van Lente pointed out that Kirkman must not have read many MA books if he thinks that, and I’m inclined to agree. In general, the only thing that separates these as “kids” books is that they have brighter, less murky coloring, are usually complete stories that don’t require you to read other books to mentally process, and are fun and funny instead of laughably serious. (Unless Kirkman is of the rather immature school of thought that drama is automatically more adult and mature than comedy, but he’s done enough work in both genres that I doubt he actually believes that).

That said, I think this new series by writer Paul Tobin and pencil artist Alvin Lee actually does skew younger than the rest of the line, something thrown into somewhat sharper relief by the fact that we got to read two Tobin-written MA stories back to back this week, and while his Avengers story was differentiated from a “616” one only by the fact that Brian Michael Bendis didn’t write it, this story has a more child-like innocence to it.

The Hulk, Iron Man and Spider-Man are hanging out as Avengers or teammates or fellow supeheroes so much as pals; the Hulk isn’t even angry here.

Of course, that doesn’t make the proceedings too juvenile for adults to enjoy, because, like revisiting Golden and Silver Age stories clearly written for eight-year-old boys, this simplicity takes on a sort of surreal comedy factor for grown-ups.

Anyway, in this issue, our trio go up into space to defeat some asteroids, who turn out to actually be Meteor Men, who are basically irritating frat boys made out of space-rock that are traveling the universe doing various space-extreme sports. Rather than fight them off, our heroes dissuade them from destroying earth by agreeing to go on a week-long extreme sports tour with them. Ultimately, however, they solve their problems with violence, beating on the Meteor Men until they promise to stay off earth.

I don’t know why, but I don’t really like the way Lee draws the Hulk’s face. I think it’s the nose, maybe?

The New Avengers #44 (Marvel) So, did you pick up this week’s issue of the flagship Avengers title expecting to read a story about the Avengers? Or maybe a single Avenger? Or, if the story’s not really about any actual Avengers, maybe at least see a cameo appearance by at least one of them?


This issue is nothing but Skrulls, on their Skrull planet, doing Skrull things. Another of those terrible, interminable flashback stories in which Brian Michael Bendis explains some minor aspect of Secret Invasion, this story is devoted to explaining the process by which the Skrulls figured out how to make themselves undetectable to Reed Richards’ science (and which Reed found away around anyway in the last issue of Secret Invasion. So we’ll probably get another full issue of an Avengers comic in which we learn how Reed counteracted this. Sigh…). Shouldn’t this have maybe been a line or two of dialogue in SI, or, if it had to be 22-pages long, maybe stuck in Secret Invasion: Frontline or something?

Billy Tan pencils, Matt Banning inks and Justin Ponsor colors, and while the art isn’t horrible, it’s not so great that it elevates a completely pointless over-examination of a minor plot point to the level of “worth $2.99.”

This week I actually remembered to tell my shop proprietors to kindly remove New Avengers from my pull-list. I guess I’ll check back if and when the crossover’s over…?

Runaways #1 (Marvel) Marvel’s teen team gets its third number one issue in just five years, this time coinciding with the debut of a brand-new creative team (The third creative team. But oddly, the original creative team had two #1’s, while the second creative team didn’t get one at all).

That new team is Terry Moore (Strangers in Paradise, Echo, the post-Sean McKeever Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane) and Humberto Ramos (a whole bunch of comics). They’re apparently picking up right where Joss Whedon’s oft-delayed run ended, although I suppose the still-ongoing Secret Invasion: Runaways/Young Avengers actually falls between the end of the last volume and this particular issue.

The Runaways, complete with their time-lost new recruit, are returning to L.A. and looking for new digs and a source of money. Meanwhile, some aliens are looking for Karolina.

Moore does okay. The characters all seem like themselves, although none of them actually get much in the way of extensive panel-time, on account of everyone getting a few lines. I don’t know how this would actually read for a newcomer, as there’s little in the way of introduction to who everyone is, what their powers and relationships are, and what’s up with their parents.

What struck me about the issue though was how The Runaways have really lost their high-concept over the last few years. They began as the children of super-villains on the run from their parents and their legacies, sort of incidental superheroes in a post-Starman sense (no costumes, no codenames), and the series had a real generational conflict feel to it, something even Whedon was able to keep going.

With this issue, however, they seem like just any other random group of teenage superheroes. They still eschew codenames and costumes, but there’s nothing really special about them or their comic anymore; their story just continues here because that’s what happens to characters with powers in the Marvel Universe—their stories continue.

Ramos’ pencil art, inked by Danny Meikis and colored by Christina Strain, is a pretty big departure from the previous artists to work on the series. Ramos’ work is heavily anime/manga influenced, and more explosively cartoony in character design and acing. I think the style works quite well here though.

Confidential to Nico: While I’m no expert on California labor law, I’m pretty sure you don’t think you have to actually be 18 to secure some form of employment.

Confidential to Chase: Damn man, isn’t that coat hot in L.A. in the summer?

Superman #679 (DC) Krypto is probably the scariest character in the DCU—all the powers of Superman, in a dog!—and here he gets a pretty bad-ass, Geoff Johns-style, “Holy shit!” cliffhanger moment, as he comes in to take on Atlas after three other guys with S-shields on their chests have failed. Also, Lana Lang gets fired by Lex Luthor’s hologram, and Lois Lane jumps her husbands bones. I’m enjoying the new-ish James Robinson/Renato Guedes creative team’s run on the book, but it definitely seems like a book that is probably better experienced in a collected, trade format than serially.

Teen Titans: Year One #6 (DC) The somewhat delayed final issue of the best Teen Titans comic of the year, in which Amy Wolfram, Karl Kerschl and company reimagine some of the early adventures of the first four, moving elements and characters from their original first comics further up in time.

As a story set in the first year of Teen Titans history, this was great stuff—it was a lot of fun, the characters were sharply defined and, in some cases, given personalities they had previously lacked, and it was by far the best-looking Titans book in memory—but as a story with the words “Year One” in the title, it didn’t seem to do all that great a job of telling an origin story. That is, this wasn’t to the Titans what Batman: Year One was to Batman or anything.

This final issue was a rather slight story, with Robin facing an extremely predictable villain in a series of mostly silent sequences that made the 22 pages simply fly by. The ending was rather sweet, but the next issue box was depressing as all hell: “Follow their continuing adventures in Titans and read Teen Titans for a new group of adventurers.”

Yes, by all means, if you like the cartoony but emotive character designs and crisp artwork of this series, if you like the fun, humor-infused all-ages adventures of this series, you’re sure to not be completely appalled by the grotesque, juvenile, “sexy” art of whatever terrible artist can draw an issue or two of Titans, featuring the grown-up, badly continuity damaged characters you just got done reading about as indistinguishable paper cut-outs stuck in a cycle of fighting Trigon over and over again. Nor will you be completely disappointed in the next generation of Titans, and their dark, violent, “sexy” adventures stuck in an endless cycle of fighting various evil versions of themselves in Teen Titans, all drawn as human grotesqueries in a mid-‘90s WildStorm style, right down to improbably skimpy and out-of-touch teenage girl fashions.

No, actually, if you really enjoyed Teen Titans: Year One, you will be appalled and disappointed by the two “Year Now” titles. You might like Showcase Presents: Teen Titans and Tiny Titans though.

Now maybe if this creative team were allowed to take over one of those titles…

Trinity #13 (DC) Today in my shop, as I was counting how many goddam comics I had to make sure I could actually afford this many (and cursing DC and Marvel for each releasing 900 books on the same Wednesday), one customer was asking everyone else in the shop if they were still reading Trinity, and they had all dropped it.

That made me kind of sad. I could see why they might have dropped it after the third or fourth issue, when the slow nature of the plot became apparent—as with Kurt Busiek’s “Syndicate Rules” story during his extremely brief run as the “regular” writer on JLA, Trinity does seem to suffer a bit from spending too much time on the villains talking about their motivations; in the former, it was the bug-eyed space aliens talking politics and military strategy for 1/3 of each issue, here it’s the anti-Trinity going on and on about their plans—but I think it’s really picked up the last few issues. What makes me sad is the thought that DC editorial types might find that Trinity is selling worse than Countdown, and decide that the numbers mean readers would prefer a weekly that ties-in to a bunch of shit, no matter how horribly incompetently it’s produced, than a single, self-contained story by a single, quality creative team that is quite competently produced (if never exactly incandescent).

See, I’m sure DC’s going to do a fourth weekly, and I sure hope it looks more like Trinity than Countdown (I kinda hope they’ll go with an Amazing Spider-Man model, in which a “brain trust” of creators brainstorm a year-long story, the way the Superman and Batman offices used to do, and then have weekly story arcs rotating a couple different creative teams.)

Anyway, I like this book an awful lot. Over the past few issues, it’s been a bit like half an issue of JLoA (only by Busiek and Bagley instead of McDuffie and Benes), followed by half-an-issue of Birds of Prey or a Hawkman comic.

This week, Superman just wrecks Ultraman and Superwoman, Ray Palmer and Ryan “The Atom” Choi team-up with the Leaguers, and Superman makes a neat little speech enumerating another good reason not to kill your enemies. And, in the back-up, Oracle sends a small army of cameos against that foursome of silly villains that includes the gal gorilla with a crush on Nightwing.

Wolverine: First Class #6 (Marvel) Okay, stop me if you’ve heard this one before: “I’m the best at what I do. And what I do is-- WATCH HOCKEY! WHEN I feel like it! For as LONG as I feel like it! It’s my moral right as a Canadian.” If not, then you really oughta check out this issue of Wolverine: First Class, the very best of the 61 Wolverine comics Marvel publishes each month.

The cover here’s a little misleading, although Wolverine does east a snack off a popped claw in front a television set in one scene. Moira MacTaggart and the Muir Island mutants are visiting Chuck and the gang, but rather than go out with them, Wolvie opts to stay in and watch the Stanley Cup finals. Also staying in are Kitty, Siryn, Illyana and a mutant named Amp, whom I think is original to the series. Calamity and hilarity both ensue.

Writer Fred Van Lente’s set-up is a little more old-school and clunky than usual—“I wouldn’t worry, Peter, Kitty and Siryn—Banshee’s niece—and Amp, the girl from West Virgina who’s staying at Muir--” Chuck explains to the readers more than the characters—but by the third page thing start moving quite efficiently, with the girls getting into trouble and Wolvie having berserker rages triggered by unusual circumstances.

Quick question to old-school X-Men readers: It says here Kitty is 13-years-old, but she also already has a crush on Colossus, and I know they eventually have a relationship in comics. Was the Kitty/Colossus relationship creepy in the original comics, from the era that WFC is set in?

Oh man, I didn’t even notice there was a monkey variant of this issue available until I just went to to find a cover image to post. Damn; it was one of the good monkey variants, too.

Ultimate Spider-Man #125 (Marvel) Ultimate Spider-Man, Ultimate Venom and Ultimate Beetle all fight each other, some evil doctor types (including Ultimate Vulture?) and Ultimate Silver Sable and Ultimate Wild Pack do some evil stuff in an evil lab, Stuart Immonen remains awesome.

*Helpful hint: Don’t every google-image “Jessica Rabbit.” No good will come of it.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The other other wonder dog

In tomorrow’s Teen Titans #62, writer Sean McKeever and artist Eddy Barrows will be introducing Wonderdog into mainstream DCU continuity. (You can read five pages of the issue, during which Wonderdog appears and gets his name and cape, here).

This Wonderdog is, of course, the one from the early ‘70s iteration of Super Friends, the green-caped anthropomorphic dog who hung out with his fellow “junior Super Friends” Wendy and Marvin (whom Geoff Johns added to the Teen Titans line-up after the “One Year Later” jump.)

When McKeever and Teen Titans editor/DC muckety-muck Dan DiDio first started teasing about a wonder dog joining the team, I was initially worried they might have been talking about the DC Universe’s greatest hero, Rex the Wonder Dog, who had previously been hanging out with teenage hero Hero in the pages of Superboy and The Ravers, and Hero subsequently joined a Titans West team that never appeared after their origin story, which Johns co-wrote. So you see, Rex is practically a member already.

(Well, “worried” is probably too strong a word, but I really rather like Rex the Wonder Dog, and would prefer to see him stay in limbo for now rather than suffer the indignities of having to hang around Wendy while she’s dressed like this, or be forced by Clock King II to fight to the death against Ace the Bat-hound in a prelude to Final Crisis or any of the other horrible things that could befall such a character in one of DC's team books).

So last week when I was reading through The Golden Age of DC Comics: 365 Days by Les Daniels, Chip Kidd and Geoff Spear (i.e. That Book I Keep Posting Scans From), I was surprised—no, shocked—to find that there was apparently another wonder dog in DC’s character catalogue, and this original DC wonder dog was actually the pet of one of its Golden Age superheroes, Green Lantern Alan Scott.

Ladies and gentleman, are you familiar with Streak the Wonder Dog?

(Above: Page from 1948's All-American Comics #99; scan lifted from Sleestak)

Debuting in the late ‘40s as the superhero slump was beginning, Streak was the creation of Robert Kanigher, and was introduced in the pages of Green Lantern as GL’s dog.

Here’s the cover of 1948’s Green Lantern #30, which featured “The Saga of Streak”:
(I’m not sure who the curvy dame on the other side of Scott is, but I bet she helped sell just as many issues as the dog trying to deposit his bone at the bank did).

Four issues later, Streak is back on the cover, and what’s this? Green Lantern is not:

Streak also got the cover to himself on 1949’s Green Lantern #36 and #38, the very last issue of this volume of the comic.

Oh man, poor Alan Scott. Hal Jordan fans might have thought they had it bad in the '90s when their Green Lantern lost his book to a brand-new young upstart character like Kyle Rayner, but at least he didn't lose the book to his dog.

Now, if that last cover, featuring a German shepherd perched atop a car full of escaping crooks, reminds you of the sort of thing Rex the Wonder Dog might have done in one of his adventures, there’s probably a good reason for that. According to a 2006 installment of Comic Book Urban Legends, Streak stories continued in Sensation Comics for a while, until Kanigher redeveloped the crime-fighting canine wonder dog concept and launched The Adventures of Rex The Wonder Dog. So does that mean Streak and Rex are related? Has Roy Thomas written a story about this?

Here are two interior images of Streak, culled from The Golden Age of DC Comics. First, despite being leashed and tied up, Alan Scott’s dog wins again, convincing Alan Scott’s secretary to stay on the train they're riding on:

And here’s Streak thinking human thoughts:

All of the above images, by the way, are drawn by Alex Toth. No wonder Streak the Wonder Dog look so wonderful...

Monday, August 25, 2008

Review: Rapunzel's Revenge

The basics of the well-known Rapunzel story are all here: the pregnant wife with taste for the titular leafy green, the forbidden wall the husband scales, the wicked witch, the girl trapped in a tower with hair long enough for a prince to climb up. But they’re just points on a plane in Rapunzel’s Revenge (Bloombury; 2008), a graphic novel that tells a sweeping adventure story starring a young girl with really long hair by connecting those story points with an elaborate and fully-realized world and characters.

The work of three people named Hale—married writing team Shannon and Dean Hale and an unrelated artist named Nathan Hale—Rapunzel’s Revenge updates the Brothers Grimm fairytale to the point that it’s barely recognizable, but, at the same time, doesn’t make it wholly contradictory of it either. This is all the stuff that could have happened around the details we’re familiar with. Maybe.

Twelve-year-old Rapunzel lives in a large villa with her stern mother Gothel and servants and soldiers dressed like extras in a Zorro movie. The closest thing she has to a friend there is one of the guards named Mason, who teaches her rope tricks in his spare time. Rapunzel’s never allowed to leave the villa and, in fact, has never seen the outside world, thanks to a gigantic, impenetrable wall that completely blocks her view.

Eventually she manages to scale it and see the horrible state of the world beyond and, worse still, meet her real mother, who is forced to work in Gothel’s miserable mines, in a desert world under dreary, polluted-looking skies.

See, Gothel is a witch who has mastered “growth magic,” giving her the ability to make things grow or not grow to suit her whims; that makes her the de facto ruler of her world—which seems to be roughly a mid-to-late 18th century version of the American southwest—as everyone must pay her whatever taxes and fealty she demands if they want to be able to ever grow crops or livestock.

To punish Rapunzel for her rebellion, Gothel has her taken out deep into the woods and imprisoned in a huge tree tower for years; food magically grows from the tree to keep her fed, and the magic effects her hair, so that it grows at an incredible rate while she’s there. To while away the years, Rapunzel braids her hair into ten-foot long braids, and practices knots and rope tricks with them, until she can use them as lassos or bullwhips, depending on her need.

Finally her hair is long enough that she can begin to rappel down the tower (The prince in this version never manages to climb up). From there the story shifts to an episodic adventure story, as Rapunzel meets a young thief named Jack (apparently of And The Beanstalk fame) and they decide to rescue Rapunzel’s real mother and somehow vanquish her fake mother, whose negative impact on the world they constantly encounter on their journey.

The unnamed land is decidedly western, and yet the Hales eschew any sort of one-to-one adaptation between the original Rapunzel story and a wild west setting; this isn’t really the Grimms’ Rapunzel retold as a western as much as it’s the story of a naïve but heroic teenage girl with battle braids and her clever, occasionally cross-dressing sidekick fighting their way through a fantasy world, encountering wild boars, outlaws, posses, coyotes, a jackalope and a giant water-going snake along the way, with every new threat conquered by a novel application of a really long braid.

Shannon Hale is the author of Princess Academy, River Secrets and other young adult novels I’ve never read, and just plain adult novel Austenland, which I’ve also never read. Whether it’s the influence of her co-writer husband, or simply a strong aptitude for the medium, she’s surprisingly deft at comics scripting for a prose writer, having mastered the dual narratives of the words and pictures and, more importantly, the way they relate. The Hales use that relationship for descriptive effect (“That’s me there,” narrator Rapunzel says in a panel depicting her) and for ironic juxtaposition, as when she explains how she was able to “swing gracefully from my prison…climb down the tree’s branches…and land triumphantly on the forest floor,” while the art shows her crashing awkwardly through tree branches and splash-landing into a heap in a shallow pond.

The target audience here is likely a younger one then 31-year-old male comics geeks, but I found this to be an appealing all-ages adventure story that is actually for all ages. I never felt like I was reading something beneath me, so I imagine kids won’t feel talked down to at all.

I also appreciated the way the Hales were able to present an ass-kicking (my word, not theirs) heroine without blowing a trumpet and banging a drum to announce that “She may be a girl, but she fights better than any boy!” They have a similarly organic approach to diversity; I don’t know if Jack is supposed to be a different ethnicity than pale-skinned, red-headed Rapunzel or not, but his skin, hair and eyes are much darker, and people with various complexions show up through out the story, with no one forced into magical negro or sacred Native American roles or plot points revolving around their differing backgrounds.

But mostly I enjoyed it because it was an imaginative story about a character visiting whip-braiding violence upon the wicked, using her tremendous tresses to bridle and bronco-bust rampaging beasts, and getting involved in a cute teenage love story.

Its looks don’t hurt any either. Nathan Hale’s background seems to be in children’s picture books (The Devil You Know, which I’eve never read, and Yellowbelly and Plum Go To School, which I just read and didn’t much care for), but his sequential art is, like the other Hales’ comics writing, remarkably accomplished. If this is really his first comics work, then this is a hell of a debut.

The cover gives you a sense of his character design for the heroine (although that’s but one of the half-dozen outfits she wears during the proceedings). While that image is apparently fully painted and given some dramatic lighting, the interiors look drawn and colored in a more traditional comic book fashion (i.e. they look like illustrations rather than the insides of Invincible Iron Man).

These interiors are awfully evocative of the work of P. Craig Russell; the characters don’t necessarily look over much like Russell’s, and they move in a more loose, animated, newspaper comic strip-like fashion than Russell’s more stately figures, but the pages and panels taken as wholes give off a vibe similar to some of his work.

According to the creators’ bios on the back flaps, Mr. and Mrs. Hale are already working on a sequel. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not, as the book is so completely complete, that it would be a shame to un-end it and risk an addition that may not be as satisfying. But on the other hand, this was a pretty great comic, particularly for folks whose primary focus hasn’t before now been making comics, and I’m eager to see more work from all three of them in the field.

Review: Goddess of War Volume One

(Note: This review is already posted in this week's Best Shots @ column, where it is nestled among many other reviews of new and recent-ish releases by the Best Shots team. I'm posting it here as well so I can add links and images. For preview pages, click here)

You wouldn’t know it from the state of the headlines, but the goddess of war is getting awfully sick of her job. At least according to her biographer, art teacher, rock and roller and cartoonist Lauren R. Weinstein, who recently launched an ambitious new series about the titular goddess deciding to take her first personal day in 175 years.

If you’ve never heard of the goddess of war, and thought the war deities tended to be male like Ares and Mars, don’t worry; she’s an original invention of Weinstein’s, a character she sometimes sings about with her band Flaming Fire.

Her goddess is named Valerie, and she used to be a valkyrie in Norse myth, until she worked her way up the divine ladder by devoting herself to her work, while her sisters Brunhilde and Gudrun got distracted by messing around with humans (see Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen for more on that sordid affair).

Despite the nod to classical mythology, Weinstein’s cosmology is decidedly postmodern. Valerie lives in The Headcave on her own planet, a castle shaped like a monster head, with an interior somewhat resembling Barbarella’s spaceship. She answers to Brainstein, a large bespectacled brain that works for god-like being No. 2 and tells her which appointments she needs to keep. Her best friends are her dog Fafnir and Nebulon, a giant tentacled blob “universe eater” that she only calls when she’s drunk. Among her past lovers is 19th century Apache chief Cochise.

Val’s dissatisfaction with her job seems to come from how messy and indistinct war-fighting is in the 21st century, as she considered World War I a high-point of her career, and the meeting she misses is with a suicide bomber named Faheed with designs on detonating himself in New York City.

Opting to stay in and get drunk on a bottle of sacrificed virgin blood Mayan supplicants once gave her, Valerie gets nostalgic and eventually determines to visit Cochise in the past. The back half of the book shifts to a pretty straightforward historical account of Cochise and Geronimo’s conflicts with the Americans, and the role the goddess played in its escalation.
Weinstein’s artwork is on the rough and primitive punk side of the spectrum, with a somewhat shaky line and scratchy human figures that help her achieve the surprisingly difficult aesthetic of polished, professional quality work under an amateurish looking veneer (It’s rather evocative of the work of underground comix luminary Gary Panter, who shares a publisher with Weinstein in PictureBox Inc.).

That art style is made especially easy to appreciate given the attention-demanding format of Goddess of War Vol. 1. It’s a good old-fashioned folded, spine-less comic book rather than a graphic novel, but it’s a giant comic book. Fifteen inches high and ten inches wide, it’s almost newspaper sized, with plenty of room for 25 panels per page, and huge, highly detailed and delicately rendered black and white etchings, devoted to maps of the universe and poster-like splash pages calling special attention to certain events, like Valerie and Cochise’s first meeting.

The huge size makes for a highly immersive reading experience, transforming readers to little kids with the funnies page spread out before them, but does present some problems once the book is finished: Just where the hell do readers store a spine-less comic that’s a good 50% larger than the rest of their comics?

Sunday, August 24, 2008