Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Weekly Haul: February 11th

Action Comics #874 (DC Comics) Hmm, apparently the “New Krypton” goings-on have already started to jumble up the Super-books in unexpected ways. For example, this is the Geoff Johns-written monthly, but it’s scripted instead by Superman writer James Robinson. Where will the madness end?!

This particular issue is a not terribly eventful or innovative move-the-plots-a-few-steps-forward sort of issue, as Superman argues with his fellow Kryptonians and they invite him to move to New Krypton, Steve Lombard helps Jimmy Olsen with his cryptography (Psst, Jimmy! Steve didn’t mention it, but try 58,008! It’s the best one!), and Superman pulls Mon-El out of the Phantom Zone, where Superman has forced him to live while he works on a cure for his fatal lead-poisoning with the same speed and urgency that Reed Richards has been working on a cure for Ben Grimm’s mutation into The Thing, which is mysteriously evaporating. The Phantom Zone that is, not the cure.

The art this issue comes from penciller/inker Pablo Raimondi and co-inker Walden Wong, and they do a very nice job on it. Hooray for art that doesn’t make me sad just to look at!

If the proceedings seem a little breezy this issue, I suppose that’s because the story is only 18-pages long, to help make room for a six-page “Origins & Omens” back-up (Which adds up to 24 pages! That’s two extra pages…free! Marvel would have charged $6.99 for this very book).

This back up is by Robinson and artists Renato Guedes and Jose Wilson Magalhaes, and it couches the entirely unnecessary origin recap of the new Guardian (whose origin story was just told a couple of months ago) in a story about his day at work today.

And that sequence is framed by the Guardian of the Galaxy who has taken the name Scar crying black tears onto the blank pages of something called The Black Book, which I believe is actually just a copy of Kramer’s Ergot 7.

Avengers/Invaders #8 (Marvel Comics) About midway through, this book gets so wrapped up in Marvel continuity that it completely loses me: Something about the original Vision (whom I know nothing about other than that his costume design is 1,000 less terrible looking than the crying android version I’m more familiar with) getting somehow swallowed whole by the despair-driven demon thing with the stupid name of D’Spayre (Who once fought Man-Thing, I recently learned—thanks Essential Man-Thing Vol. 2!) on his way to watch over the Cosmic Cube, which is apparently something Vision’s people do, whoever they are. It was basically a pile-up of like six things I didn’t understand in the space of a few pages.

It doesn’t really matter.

Sure, Spider-Man’s Gollum impression is terrible, the events don’t really line-up with the rest of the Marvel Universe’s goings on (Luke Cage and Hawkeye/Ronin make a Secret Invasion joke, although this is well before Secret Invasion), Dr. Strange’s voice seems off and some of the dialogue is downright laughable. I don’t care.

This is still a comic book where the original Human Torch’s android blood is being siphoned off by Ultrons like vampires, until he realizes that Ultron is basically just a robot Hitler and rallies—robot vampires are one thing, but robot Nazis? Not on the Human Torch’s watch!

Also, Namor’s in it.

Only four more issues to go, at which point I will cry manfully at the loss of this limited series from my pull list.

Batman #686 (DC) This is the fourth two-part epilogue of Grant Morrison’s “Batman R.I.P.” story in a row, following Morrison’s own “R.I.P” to Final Crisis bridge story, Denny O'Neil's Nightwing filling-in on a case story and Paul Dini’s Hush vs. Catwoman story. This is certainly the most special of the three, being written by Neil Gaiman, whose comic work is increasingly welcome as it gets increasingly rare.

Entitled “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?”, it’s a very conscious evocation of Alan Moore’s “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” story, which served as a fake last Superman story to finish up the pre-Crisis Superman story. The title is the main similarity; this isn’t a possible last Batman story along the lines of The Dark Knight Returns (and heck, even that last Batman story got a sequel) so much as a very Neil Gaiman-y story about the possible death of Batman as a fictional character, and various other fictional characters coming to his wake (including, interestingly, Batman himself).

In fact, it seems to have a lot more to do with Morrison’s own “everything really happened” take on Batman comics that Morrison explored throughout his run and Morrison’s never-ending metafictional meditations in Final Crisis than it does Moore’s old Superman story. (Whether this is a coincidence or if Morrison and Gaiman talked about their stories is unclear; certainly Gaiman’s comics work has similarly dealt with characters as embodiments of fiction just as strongly as Morrison’s has, albeit in mystical rather than science-fiction terms).

So: Batman is dead. His body is in a coffin in the back room of the Dew Drop Inn in Gotham’s Crime Alley, and guests arrive to view his body, talk to one another, and tell the story of how he died. Conflicting stories, naturally.

It may remind you of Gaiman’s “The Wake” story in The Sandman, which is understandable, as both feature wakes for the title characters of their comics, attended by the supporting casts. It may also remind you of Sandman's “World’s End” arc, but only in so much as it deals with characters coming together to tell stories, which isn’t a Gaiman thing so much as a Canterbury Tales and the fifteen thousand works it inspired thing.

The attendees don’t seem to come from any set continuity. The Catwoman who arrives looks to be the Silver Age Catwoman, but the one who tells her story looks like Earth-2 Catwoman (and is wearing a completely different dress than the first one we see), and in the story entitled “The Cat-Woman’s Tale”, she begins as the Golden Age, first appearance Catwoman and moves through several different incarnations. The original Joker pulls up in his Joker mobile, yet inside it’s the Batman: The Animated Series Joker.

It doesn’t seem right, as Batman himself remarks. He’s present throughout, as a voice talking to someone, and, finally, as a shadow in the story, talking to a female shadow, who may or may not be a familiar Gaiman character.

The conceit is cute, and it’s interesting that while Catwoman’s story is built from “real” stories, Alfred’s is a completely different one than we’ve ever been told (at least, than one I’ve ever heard), and has the makings of an interesting Elseworlds sort of story. But those are the only stories, which seems a little odd—that leaves space for only two, possibly three more, and, well, there are a lot of Batman characters, aren’t there?

The art is by pencil artist Andy Kubert and inker Scott Williams and it’s extremely frustrating. Not because of any inadequacy—a weird figure of Damian al Ghul is the only real deficiency in the whole book I noticed—but precisely because it is so good.

Kubert, you’ll recall, was at one time the regular, “monthly” artist on Batman, partnered with Morrison, but he only managed about two story arcs before falling hopelessly behind, even with fill-ins by other artists—and at least two months worth of issues by an entirely different creative team—built in to the schedule.

He’s a really quite skilled artist and, unlike the pencil artist hired to follow him, he can actually keep up with Morrison. Not only was his art nice looking, but it was full of the sorts of things that his replacement’s Tony Daniel’s was missing, he managed to pull off some nice scenes I can’t imagine Daniel even attempting (the fight in the art gallery during the pop art exhibit, for example).

It’s somewhat frustrating then to see his work here, as Gaiman’s story, like the one Morrison was telling throughout his Batman run, is full of call backs to the work of past Batman artists, only Kubert is actually able to pull off art work that looks like Bob Kane’s or Dick Sprang’s or Neal Adams’ or Jim Aparo’s or Bruce Timm’s or Jack Burnley’s or David Mazzucchelli’s. Imagine what he would have been able to do on “Batman R.I.P.”…if only he could draw on a monthly schedule (Which he can’t; even given all the lead time he had on this two 32-page issue project, he’s apparently already behind schedule on the second installment) .

Ah well. This is a very nice project, and he does a great job. Easy to read lay out with more than four panels per page, logical mis en scene, backgrounds, feet, facial expressions, variation in character design…it’s like there’s a real comic book artist drawing Batman again, just like in the good old days!

I suppose in the grand scheme of things, this is more of a pretty damn good Batman story than The Greatest Batman Story Ever Told, and I wonder if it will ever even become a classic comparable to “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” But I was just as impressed with Gaiman’s work as I was with Kubert’s. He has a very naturalistic, very novelistic way of telling a story in comic book form; not by writing comics like novels shoved into panels, but by simply telling a story through dialogue. You don’t need things explained to you in a Gaiman comic; exposition, info dumping, an intrusive narrator…no need for any of that. The characters simply talking to one another is what tells the story. That is, Gaiman shows rather than tells, which make his comics such a pleasure to read.

Great script, great art, great comic book. It’s so simple really, that it’s amazing reading experiences like this are as rare as they are.

Batman Confidential #26 (DC) In a rather odd synchronicity, I just reread a twenty-year-old Batman story that Neil Gaiman wrote to prepare a post about Gaiman’s previous Batman comics, and in one of those stories he has The Riddler lamenting the bygone days of the ‘60s, as epitomized by the Adam West-starring TV show.

“And there were these guys you never see anymore…” Riddler says, before rattling off a list: “Book Worm. King Tut. Marsha, Queen of Diamonds. Egg Head.”

And yet the cover of this issue, the first in a story arc introducing the TV show villain King Tut into the comics, bears the tag “First Time Ever In Gotham!”

Which is it DC?!

Okay, so it doesn’t really matter. I think it’s kind of (well, mildly) exciting that they’re introducing a TV show villain into the comics, and am surprised it took so long. In general, such pre-existing characters tend to fit in pretty well with the comics their home medium adapted them from. Some do so perfectly (Batman: The Animated Series’ Harley Quinn), others find a way to make something exciting and interesting out of them (Isis in 52), but even those that are just sort of there (Superfriends’s Wonder Twins and Wendy and Marvin in Extreme Justice and Teen Titans, Superman: The Animated Series’s Livewire in the Superman comics) don’t exactly not work either, you know?

So shipping in some villains from the Batman live action show? Why not? They’ll be fresh and new to the comics and will likely at least feel like appropriate Bat-villains, whereas creating new rogues from scratch can be a much dicier proposal (Whatever the relative virtues of, say, Bane or Hush, they’re not exactly The Joker and Catwoman, you know?).

The writing team of Nunzio DeFilippis and Chrstina Weir are the ones writing this new story arc, “A New Dawn,” and their King Tut is a lot different than the one on the TV show. For one thing, he’s definitely not tubby—he’s actually super-buff—and his skin is dark. He’s a mysterious presence throughout the issue, we only seem him appearing before folks connected to a museum, reciting a riddle, and then murdering them in a fashion that evokes the answer to the riddle.

He has only one conversation with Batman, in which he talks about the arrival of the sun god in Gotham and that sort of crazy talk.

So there’s nothing exactly revolutionary going on here. Thematic psycho villain shows up, starts killing folks. Batman immediately expects The Riddler is involved since, you know, riddles, and while The Riddler doesn’t appear to be, he seems miffed that someone else is stealing his schtick, so he joins the hunt. I’m almost positive I’ve seen this exact same thing happen between The Riddler and Cluemaster at least once before, but now I can’t think of where exactly.

If the scripting isn’t great, it’s not at all bad either—it’s pretty much your mean average Batman comic. The art, however, is head and shoulders above a majority of your mean average Batman comics (particularly of late), as it’s penciled by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez and inked by Kevin Nowlan. Even David Baron’s coloring is pretty nice, depicting the dawn and dusk times of the killings very well.

Black Lightning: Year One #3 (DC) When I started contributing to Blog@, I started doing a weekly run-down of new releases that look good/bad/somehow funny to me (basically, a more superhero-focused version of Jog and Brady’s superior versions, with bad jokes and drawings). That means a couple times a week now, I pore over the Diamond shipping lists, listings and publisher websites, thinking intently about what comics and graphic novels are coming out that week. You would think that would mean I’m less likely to completely forget about what comics are coming out that week when I got to the store the next morning—or at least I would think that—but no dice: I still inevitably forget a book or so each week.

Last week it was this issue of BL:Y1, which was perfectly fine. Jen Van Meter has gone past the necessary part of the story—it only took two issues to tell us who Jefferson Pierce is and how and why he came to be Black Lightning—and she’s now moved into the less necessary two-thirds of the series, which will revolve around his fight with Tobias Whale and The 100. That makes it slightly less interesting to me, as I was most interested in how this 1970s character would be updated to the 21st century, but its all done pretty well.

This week I forgot to get Super Friends #12, which is the one with Pirate Starro on the cover. Man, I suck

Booster Gold #17 (DC) Speaking of unnecessary origin retellings in the backs of DC Comics—as I was, er, a couple hundred words ago—the “O&O” back-up in this issue is a longer, less efficient version of the two-page version Mark Waid did with Dan Jurgens for 52, updated to include what’s gone on in the title, clumsily revealed in forced dialogue between Booster and Rip Tyler (“I’m proud of you, Booster. You’ve done well. Your turnaround began when you faked your death, masqueraded as Supernova—and ended up saving the Multiverse”) and a couple pictures of Scar and KE7. As Jurgens draws it, Scar seems to be shooting the ink/black tears out of her left eye in projectile fashion, rather than crying them. I’m not sure about the mechanics of the whole eye liquid/image-creation process, to tell the truth.

There is a panel of Booster unmasking Black Beetle in either prehistoric times or the Batcave, and an image of the Wolfman/Perez Titans, which I assume are the “Omens” part of the “Origins & Omens” feature. Those might be kind of exciting.

Captain Britain and MI13 #10 (Marvel) There’s a scene in this issue wherein Dracula enters his secret vampire laboratory staffed with vampire scientists on the moon, and then launches a secret weapon, which shoots super-vampires like torpedoes out of moon craters in geysers of blood at his enemies on earth that made me think of Mike Mignola’s zanier elements in his Hellboy-iverse books. And it was really just a scene, one part of several well done ones that take advantage of the rich texture of the Marvel Universe—locales, characters, past story lines—to tell something that feels fresh and exciting by the way it synthesizes all these elements.

So Dr. Doom and Dracula hammer out a non-aggression treaty, The Black Knight and Faiza visit Storm in Wakanda to pick up the Ebony Blade that got left there in the first arc of Hudlin’s Black Pantehr run and flirt with one another on the trip back, Pete Wisdom and Captain Britain meet some girls in a bar, Blade and Spitfire go on a date, and bloody Nosferatu-looking vampire rockets rain down on Britain, which Dracula seeks to conquer to found a vampire nation, from which he promises to fight Islam for Dr. Doom. (Like Dracula’s recent appearance in the Buffy comics, this Dracula is a racist Dracula).

That’s…that’s just a whole lot of good stuff for 22 pages, and it’s just the broad strokes. It’s all the little details that really make the book fun.

Comic Book Comics #3 (Evil Twin Comics) So does the fact that this issue features an “Approved By The Comics Code Authority” stamp with arms and legs threatening Roy Lichtenstein and Fredrick Wertham with a red hot CCA brand mean that it is approved by the Comics Code Authority or not…?

In the third issue of Fred “Writes Incredible Hercules” Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey’s comic book about the history of comics, they cover Frederic Wertham (kinda like Ten-Cent Plague, but with pictures!) and the rise of pop artists and their affection for comics (Warhol, Lichtenstein and the Batman TV show) and what these things meant for comic books as an industry. Starring Wertham, Julius Schwartz, Harvey Kurtzman, William Gaines, Jack Kirby, Stan Lee and the Crumb Brothers.

I learned a lot, some of which I wish I didn’t (Particularly that Adam West and Frank Gorshin once attended a Hollywood orgy), I laughed out loud a couple of times and I found myself filled with a desire for Van Lente and Dunlavey to someday do a comic book about Stan Lee and Jack Kirby being forced to share an apartment or being assigned as partners on the police force.

The Darkness #75 (Top Cow/Image Comics) This is the $4.99, 11th/“75th overall” anniversary jam issue of The Darkness, written by Phil Hester and drawn by a platoon of different artists of various sill levels (Joe Benitez, Michael Broussard, Lee Carter, Jorge Lucas, Marc Silvestri, Frazer Irving, Ryan Sook etc).

I would not and did not buy it, but my local comic shop gave it to me for free. Not because I’m so special or because they like me so much; they gave it to everyone for free, at Top Cow’s request. Apparently different shops are giving away different Top Cow comics for free, as part of a promotion plan of the company’s. I don’t know much about it really, I just know that they offered me a copy of this extra-length, $5 comic that shipped with five different covers, one of which is called “The All Beef Edition” for some reason. (Oh wait, hold up; I guess there are actually six covers if you count the “New York Comic-Con 2009 Variant Cover” by Broussard). Mine was Cover D, one of the three versions drawn by Broussard. It’s just a picture of The Darkness posing so that you can’t see his feet atop a fountain of scary monster faces that drool lava.

I probably would have turned them down, as I have no interest at all in The Darkness, one of those characters who, like Witchblade, I can’t even look at the design of. I don’t mean that in a This Character Is Awful and You Should Be Punched If You Like Him kinda way, just that I’ve always found the character design so repellent to my own personal aesthetics that I’ve never been the least bit attracted to the thought of reading a story about the character. (Not even one in which he fights Batman, and generally anyone vs. Batman is at least worth a glance, right?) But this was meant as a good jumping on point, and I knew I liked at least some of the artists involved (Irving, Sook) and you can’t beat the price.

So, I accepted it, read it and now I am going to tell you about it.

It was a good jumping on point, which is why I’m sure Top Cow thought this one would be a good one to try promoting with some complimentary copies. Between the text paragraph on the title page, the coda scene set in the present, and the bulk of the issue, which seems to be set in a post-apocalyptic future, I felt like I got a pretty good grasp of who Jackie Estacado was, what his powers are, how good or bad a guy he is, and the types of conflicts he’d have to deal with. Despite some call backs to other characters, it also functioned well enough as a standalone unit, with a beginning, middle and end.

If you’re at all curious about The Darkness, this does seem like an okay place to start.

As for that story, it’s sometime in the future, and the world is enshrouded in lower-case-d darkness, and haunted by purple narration boxes (“And the clever animals that built them—the humans—scurry through the ruins like the vermin they once reviled. Dying beasts on a dying world. Whatever made them human spilled out of them and into the cracked earth long ago.” And like that).

The ruined streets are patrolled by warrior nuns, most of whom are built like superheroes (Joe Benitez draws these pages), and are trying to usher a boy prophet to one of their headquarters, while The Darkness (with a capital D) and his darkling demons try to stop them. In the future, The Darkness’ hair will be white, and it will vary in length from very long to mane-like to cape-like, depending on the artists. Sometimes he will have strange facial musculature, too.

There are allusions to past struggles between these nuns and The Darkness, and dissension in D.’s ranks of demons, who are all aspects of him, and there will be a lot of fighting and then the world will end, and we learn this was just a possible future, and future issues presumably take place back in the past, our present.

The specifics of the nun vs. Darkness war seemed overly familiar to me, as the warrior nuns are of the order of Magdalena, who apparently had a prophecy at one point, and it reminded me of Chrono Crusade, which also had warrior nuns of the order of Magdalena who fought demons and lived according to Maggie’s prophecies. That, in turn, reminded me how superior Chrono Crusade was. Thirty-seven pages of that, all with consistent art that is better than the best art here, offers a reader a flurry of interesting designs, a more unique setting, more developed characters and extremely well executed action.

So if you would like to read a good comic about warrior nuns fighting demons, well, you could certainly do better.

The artwork isn’t too terrible, and the artists change frequently enough to make the patchwork line-up seem more like the intentional celebration it is, rather than a we-need-37-pages-of-art-at-the-end-of-the-month!!!! kind of thing. Some of its really good, some of it really plain and ordinary, but none of it offensive to the eyes or anything—even Benitez, who drew probably the worst issue of a Justice League comic ever printed, is on sure footing here. The only part that bugged me is the sequence where Estacado tells a follower to hold out his hands (plural) repeatedly, and yet the art shows the follower holding out a single hand.

Maybe I will look for that Batman crossover now, or that totally nutty crossover with Witchblade, Predator and Aliens.

Trinity #37 (DC) So, have you been wondering where The Joker has been, and what his life would be like in a DCU where there was never a Batman? Me neither, but the back-up in this week’s issue of Trinity, penciled by Scott McDaniel, deals with that, as the Bad Trinity recruits The Joker, whom they first glimpse sitting upon a pile of dead puppies (“Happiness is a warmp puppy! If only they’d stop cooling off!”). That would probably be pretty gross, if it weren’t drawn in McDaniel’s elastic, abstract style.

The front half of the book continues (and hopefully concludes?) the Trinity’s flashback to their war on Egg World. The three of them have a big, huge fight that lays waste to much of this world, a fight so fierce that it costs Wonder Woman and Superman their loincloths. The half-man, half-bat version of Batman, a big scary furry, sees his friends turned foes’ unclothed genitals, and the fighting stops, the trio of gods deciding that they should all be married in a three-way, two-grooms-and-one-bride ceremony (Or, as writer Kurt Busiek puts it, “They were bound together in a great ceremony. As the three who had been three became the three who were one”) and all live happily together in the same apartment. At least, that was my reading.

I may have mentioned this about 30 other times, but I haven’t been crazy about the covers on this series, which has been a series of twelve different triptychs so far, which has gotten a little old over time. This one, by Jesus Merino, is yet another, but at least it’s on a black cover instead of a mostly white one, differentiating it rather strongly from the ones that came before.


Person of Consequence said...

I liked the Generation X story in which Chamber beats D'Spayre through sheer force of his pessimism. The idea that you can defeat the personification of despair through eye-rolling and disdainful glances cheers me so much it brings me all the way around to optimism again.

Anonymous said...

It seems only fitting that Dracula would be racist, particularly Islamophobic, seeing as Vlad the Impaler was pretty famous for his cruelty in dealing with his Ottoman enemies. And I guess when vampires are just not evil enough, there's always racist vampires.

Michael Hoskin said...

"That, in turn, reminded me how superior Chrono Crusade was."

Oh, WOW. Darkness must be *bad.*