Thursday, May 30, 2013

Meanwhile, in Las Vegas...

Today at Las Vegas Weekly, I have a review of Supermag, a magazine-format anthology featuring illustations and various short-form comics work by Jim Rugg, whose work you're probably familiar with from Afrodisiac and Street Angel (the latter of which is maybe the best thing ever).

If you're unfamiliar with Rugg, you should correct that as soon as possible. Here's a good place to start. If you'd like to learn more about Supermag, here's a good place to do that.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Review: Avengers Assemble

I chuckled to myself reading the first page of Avengers Assemble, the hardcover collection containing the first eight issues of Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Bagley and Danny Miki's May 2012-launched ongoing monthly of the same name. The first page consists of nothing save a bald guy monologue-ing directly at the reader.
While it seemed like Bendis was maybe making fun of himself—that, or he simply has no sense of irony and didn't realize what he was doing—the book ended up reading like one of the least Brian Michael Bendis-y Brian Michael Bendis books I've ever read. Large sections of it seemed remarkably old-timey, a result, I thought, at least for the first half, of Bendis consciously reaching out to newer, younger readers, perhaps particularly ones lured to the book by it's obvious attempts to reel in fans of last summer's movie, or even of the cartoon series whose name it bears. I can't recall ever reading such a straightforward superhero comic, of the sort that could have come out in the 1990s or 1980s, by Bendis, even during the time when he and Bagley were collaborating on a comic with exactly that remit (Mighty Avengers).

Unexpectedly, the writer whose work it most reminded me of was that of Geoff Johns. It's big, action-packed and just dumb enough around the edges that certain elements can be perceived as either over-the-top awesome or ridiculously juvenile, depending on what angle you view them from and how generous to the writer you want to be. It's dependent on a pretty good working knowledge of the universe's continuity/history, so rather than reinventing the characters as he usually does (often willy-nilly, and to the annoyance of many long-time Marvel readers and fans), Bendis plays the characters all straight and plucks characters, objects and events straight from past Marvel comics, unaltered.

Most Johns-ian of all, however, is the tendency of Bendis throughout this story arc to build beats around big moments, generally the promise of a big fight to come on a last-page splash page, and/or the arrival of a new and perhaps unexpected player or turn of events on a cliffhanging splash page ending, one that will mean more to well-read fans than to newcomers. So the third issue ends with the arrival of Thanos, for example, the fourth with the arrival of the Guardians of The Galaxy.
I've read more of Johns' writing in single issues than in trades, so I'm used to the look and effect of these big, "Oh shit!" moments he tries to end most of his comics on. Bendis is generally bad at endings, moreso with story arcs and miniseries than single issues, but they rarely end with punctuation, let alone exclamation points. I imagine his Johns-like scripting of this series would have proven extremely annoying to readers reading this book as it was serially published, as they were paying $3.99 a pop for comics that were between 20 and 21 pages apiece, pages mostly filled with big, space-wasting splashes. I can't imagine any single chapter takes longer than five minutes to read, even if you read slowly, pausing to scrutinize the lines of Miki-on-Bagley artwork.

As a trade, it reads fine, however—those big, splashy chapter-ending moments like a regular beat of mini-climaxes, cymbal crashes or guitar solos. It was a fast, fleet, action-packed read, almost devoid of Bendis' normal tics, and the sort of comic even his harshest critics might like, in large part because it's so un-Bendisy.

In addition to reading differently serially and as a collection, the book's existence certainly looks different now, in the spring of 2013, than it did last year. Then it was the third Bendis-written Avengers title (following New Avengers and plain, old, adjective-less Avengers), and an obviously cynically produced attempt to cash in on the potential audience the just then debuting movie might entice.

The line-up is that of the movie, and one that doesn't really make much sense without a writer massaging a narrative around it (That is, the plot clearly starts with a particular line-up, and then works backwards to find excuses to get those six Avengers in the same room for eight issues). Ironically, the sheer number of Avengers titles extant at the time made that easier, as if you combined the line-ups from all of the Avengers titles, there was a pretty large pool to work from. Captain America, Iron Man and Thor were in The Avengers' Avengers, and Black Widow and Hawkeye were in Secret Avengers so only The Hulk needed shoe-horned in, and the prevalence of Avengers in the Marvel Universe at the time was sort of driven home by the fact that The Hulk is so often referred to in this comic not as The Hulk, but a Hulk.

Additionally, this was the debut of Hawkeye's movie-inspired new costume. The villain of the piece was Thanos, who starred in the teasing, stinger ending of the Avengers movie, which everyone would have seen and known by the time he shows up in this, and The Guardians of the Galaxy were to be the stars of the next big Marvel Comics-inspired movie, something that was first rumored and then confirmed during the months this book unfolded.

Apparently, the potential audience driven from the movie to this comic book, the most new-reader friendly of the many Avengers titles of spring and summer 2012, never really materialized (at least not in the direct market), and the direct market was loathe to embrace this title. It's initial sales were astronomical (goosed, no doubt, by variant cover schemes, including a few of those popular ones where particular shops could have their shop named on the cover of the comic if they ordered enough), but dropped steadily and quickly.

Looked back on today, the book looks an awful lot like a bridge one, between Bendis' long tenure on the Avengers titles and his work on the just-launched Guardians of the Galaxy title. Here we see Bendis writing the Guardians for the first time (after their relatively long-time association with writers Keith Giffen, Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning), and Iron Man Tony Stark flirting with the idea of joining them in outer space, something that would occur in Bendis' Guardians monthly.

It also reads more like a miniseries than an ongoing, and one wonders after the way Bendis constructed it; did he pitch a miniseries, while Marvel wanted to make it ongoing, and just decided to keep it going after Bendis arc ended? Because after the eighth issue, the last chapter of this collection, Avengers Assemble continued in the capable hands of writer Kelly Sue DeConnick and artist Stefano Caselli (I'm trade-waiting their run, so I haven't seen any of it yet, but I know sales have been fairly dismal, something I imagine is due both to their inheriting the perception of the book as a non-essential read directed toward newcomers rather than hardcore Marvel fans who have a half-dozen other, more relevant Avengers titles to follow every month, and the difficulty of continuing to sell this particular grouping of characters as a distinct unit deserving of its own book in the crowded Avengers pack).

So the bald guy Bendising at the reader on the first page is the leader of the latest new version of Marvel's Zodiac, this one a team of super-villains each of which is imbued with the power of a particular symbol of the zodiac (Taurus is a big strong minotaur-looking guy, Aquarius is made out of water, etc.) They are pursuing various artifacts of cosmic power on Earth, at the behest of their master, who gave them their extraordinary powers (It's Thanos, as you've already guessed).

One of those objects is being transported via an army caravan commanded by a General Whedon (Ha ha ha! Get it? Whedon? Like the guy who directed the movie?) that is passing by The Hulk, and thus The Hulk gets involved. The other quintent of Avengers are in two groups; Cap, Iron Man and Thor are Avengers-ing, while Black Widow and Hawkeye are Secret Avengers-ing.

Unsure of who he can trust, Captain America refuses to let them contact any more Avengers, which is the excuse for these six starring in this story arc (Later, most of the other active Avengers will appear, at least in cameos, when these Avengers join the Guardians of the Galaxy in outer space and leave everyone else in charge of defending Earth).

The first half of the story consists of The Avengers versus the new Zodiac, with Bendis writing them surprisingly movie-like, particularly Iron Man, who quips and wisecracks at Spider-Man levels and from Bendis' usual serious version of the character. Once Thanos arrives to collect his cosmic prize and the Guardians follow him, the Guardians and Avengers head out into space to fight aliens (The Badoon) and foil Thanos' plan, which involves...killing a bunch of cosmic Marvel entities that look familiar, but who I'm not all that up on.

It's probably the best Bendis-written Marvel Comic that doesn't have the words "Ultimate" and/or "Spider-Man" anywhere in the title, at least that I've read. It's also the sort of old-school superheroes posing, fighting and operatically emoting comic book story that Bagley excels at, making for a rather rare instance of Bendis using the artist he's working with extremely well, rather than, you know, just having him storyboard conversations.

I think this would work just fine as a comic book for younger readers (like, teens) and newer readers with a curiosity or casual interest in the Avengers inspired by that movie. And for fans of decent superhero comics in general who aren't too terribly concerned with the ongoing mega-plots of the Marvel Universe and the dark, serious espionage thriller style that has dominated so much of the publisher's superhero output since Bendis's purview expanded beyond the Ulimate imprint and into the main Marvel Universe over a decade ago.

Now, let's look at a few particular panels, shall we...?

Okay, so first: Can Hulk do this?
Is it do-able because Thor was touching the hammer when he grabbed it...? Because he lets go during the KRAKAKOOM panel, but maybe by that point it was all gravity?

Also, why didn't Hulk say, "Thor stop hitting Thor's self!" while doing that...?

Here's a page of Black Widow threatening to torture information out of a criminal exercising his constitutional right to remain silent:
That's not cool. I mean, I guess it shows some restraint in that she merely threatens to take a knife, a blowtorch and some tools to his flesh in order to get him to talk instead of actually doing it and all, but, I don't know. I don't have much tolerance for "heroes" torturing villains in comic books anymore. Not when there are fairly regular discussions and arguments about whether or not the United States should be suspending legal protection of suspected criminals or terrorists and whether or not it's permissible to torture certain groups of suspected, unconvicted criminals.

While hardened spy Black Widow is doing that, paragon of virtue Captain America, who represents America's ideals rather than her reality, is right outside the door, either tacitly condoning her behavior or simply ignorant of it. So too is Tony Stark, who is supposedly one of the smartest men in the whole world but doesn't ask any questions when Black Widow walks out of the interrogation room with a bag full of torture implements having broken the suspect who Cap had just failed to get to talk.

Here's Rocket Raccoon, pointing his gun at an alien soldier and threatening him to talk or be shot. The alien complies (I kinda like the way they handle alien language dialogue in this chapter, by the way, translating it like sub-titles in the lower right-hand corner of each panel):
As you can see, he sufficiently frightens the alien, and gets him to talk. But then he goes ahead and murders the then-helpless captive anyway:
As with Black Widow's threat of torture, that's more villain behavior than hero behavior.

Here's a scene Bendis and Bagley wished happened in the movie, so we could see Scarlett Johansson in a state of undress:

Oh hey, no wonder Cap didn't scold Black Widow about threatening to torture that guy:

Finally, here's a rare (for this book, anyway) instance of Tony Stark Bendis-swearing:
What does he call Thanos? What can an "@#$@#$" be...? Well, we know it's a six-letter word, and the the second three letters are the same as the first three letters. What's a three-letter swear word...? Ass, right? That's all I can think of. So Tony says that Thanos isn't a demigod, he's an assass...?

Wait, that can't be right. Because they use the word "ass" in an earlier chapter, when the bald villain mentions having the power to kick Thor's ass. (Also, they'd be using both the "#" and the "$" to stand in for the same letter if it was "ass," and that doesn't make sense).

Okay, I give up: What's a three-letter swear word that isn't ass...?

Anyway, other than those scenes in which Black Widow, Rocket and Cap act like total @#$@#$s, I rather liked this one.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Read any good books lately, Donald Duck?

I did. I just read Walt Disney's Donald Duck: The Old Castle's Secret, Fantagraphics' latest collection of Carl Bark's duck comics, from which the above two panels were taken. That sure was a good book. Maybe not as good as Ho and Hum, but it didn't put me to sleep like, say, Dis and Dat.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Review: Suicide Squad Vol. 1: Kicked in the Teeth

I previously talked at far too great length about Suicide Squad #1, the fist issue of the new, New 52 version of the title, and the redesigns of the various characters starring in it. But, having read that first issue and encountered all of those redesigns within a trade paperback collection of the first seven issues of the series, I kind of wanted to review the entire book at some point as well, and not just that first, terrible issue and all of those mostly terrible costumes. (If I suffered through the reading of those next six issues after suffering through that first one, I might at least get a blog post out of the experience, after all).

The series does improve after that first issue—how could it not, with that first issue being little more than 20 pages of torture scenes of unfamiliar characters, with a "twist" ending either lifted from or in homage to a scene from V For Vendetta? (An appropriation overshadowed by the radical redesign of Amanda Waller it presented.) But it never gets what one might call "good." The art does improve for a little while near the end of the volume, where the pages got easier to read and the characters looked okay for a while, but it was all still rather unimaginative, dreary, dull and juvenile.

Beyond the problems with the skills of the various creators, and the apparently too-short lead time that meant there were far too many artists with far too different styles working on far too short deadlines—there are six artists drawing these seven issues, four of whom provide pencils, sometimes two an issue—I think there are two essential flaws in the books conception.

The first is simply a problem with "The New 52" in general, as Suicide Squad worked best when it was part of a long-lived, shared universe superhero setting, where various minor name villains could be reclaimed, repurposed and given new life. The rebooted universe didn't really allow for anything in the way of history—readers were supposed to be meeting all of these characters for the first time, and they were duly tweaked in personality and appearance to reinforce that—and whatever history the characters did have, with one another or with various heroes in the DC Universe, was known only to the DC editors and whoever was writing the characters and making that history up for the first time. Suicide Squad, at least in its most popular version, was rather dependent on pre-existing, somewhat well-known (or at least recognized) characters given a new lease on life in their universe, exploring a darker, behind-the-scenes, shadowy side of the bright and shiny superhero universe. These characters though, this concept, was, if not brand new, then meant to be read as brand new.

There was therefore an uncomfortable tension in its conception, as the book asked readers to recognize and root for Deadshot and Harley Quinn and King Shark, even while changing their looks, their personalities and their histories, while also asking readers to meet them all for the first time.

That previous version of Suicide Squad, the one that first appeared in Legends and then starred in a now-storied 1987-1992 run, came out of an intra-company crossover event, and its longest-lived, most-popular characters were Captain Boomerang, a goofy Silver Age Flash villain played as straight as hardened criminal, and minor Batman villain Deadshot, whose pre-Suicide Squad past was briefly discussed in the previous post on the New 52 Suicide Squad. A sort of Dirty Dozen of the then decades-old DCU, the book was populated with minor villains that could come and go suddenly (a trait the new book keeps in tact, even if the characters going are generally brand-new ones to all readers), and unusually devoted to playing in the DCU sandbox.

Just scan the cover gallery, and you'll see that in addition to the initial grab-bag line-up—the aforementioned Batman and Flash villains, Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Fighter supporting character Bronze Tiger, a minor magical character from a 1960 short by Bob Haney and Howard Purcell—adventures included Jack Kirby's Fourth World characters, Batman, the "funny" Justice League of the time, Soviet state super-villains, a Middle Eastern super-terrorist cell, Steve Ditko's bizarre Shade, The Changing Man character and so on.

The new, New 52 Suicide Squad, by contrast, appeared the same month as the rest of its universe, so its characters had the same amount of history as every other character in the brand-new universe (none) and the setting was still being established. Rather than calling on a deep history, then, the closest the book could come was demonstrating ways in which the old history has been changed, some of it quite random (King Shark now looks like a different kind of shark then he looked like before, Deadshot doesn't have a mustache) and some of it more than a little problematic (Amanda Waller is young, shapely and scantily-clad instead of a middle-aged, wall-shaped woman; Harley Quinn is a scantily-clad, sexually-extroverted female Joker rather than the cartoon character with a slight edge and a Catwoman-like not-so-bad-for-a-villain morality; etc).

If the characters were reintroduced with enough in the way of character traits or even tics to be interesting in their own right, this wouldn't really be a problem, but none of them really develop beyond the sort of one-sentence character descriptions that were no doubt on writer Adam Glasses proposal: Deadshot is a stone-cold killer and natural leader, King Shark is a shark-guy who acts shark-like, El Diablo and Black Spider are trying to do the right thing and so on.

The other fundamental problem is another uncomfortable tension, between the book's apparent need to remain at least nominally all-ages and Glass' desire to write a book for adults with R-rated content, the confused result being a sort of poorly-executed, half-assed PG-13 comic, where that tension is made visible and impossible-to-ignore (The book, for what it's worth, is rated "T+" which, once again, means "Appropriate for readers age 16 and older. May contain moderate violence, mild profanity, graphic imagery and/or suggestive themes"; an "M" rating, which allows for nudity and "intense violence" might be better-suited, but DC only uses a mature rating for their Vertigo imprint publications).

The best example is probably the weird sex scene from the third issue, which involved a "joke" so weird that I don't get it, even after reading it in context (as opposed to reading Chris Sims discuss it on ComicsAlliance months ago; my reading is that Deadshot has at least 2-5 penises):
(Note: While I'm not the best scanner in the world, the tilting of the image above isn't me; that's how it appeared in the trade. It was a deliberate style choice of the artist's)

So in the third issue of the series, while the team is on the run and trying to hide out, they split up and adopt street clothes "disguises" (Harley Quinn naturally finds a costume that covers even less of her body, revealing more of her chemically bleached white skin). Deadshot (that's what Deadshot looks like in The New 52) is in the bathroom in his underwear, and Harley walks in and says "Didn't peg you as a tightie whitie guy," despite the fact that his underwear are clearly colored black, the opposite color of white (This is typical of the care with which the comic is made).

When she comes on to him, Deadshot says "I don't do clowns," this situation—clowns coming on to him—apparently being one that's happened to him so often he has developed a policy about it. Harley kisses him anyway, and then we get the above page, of them making out for four panels, which amounts to about thirty seconds or so of comics time (based on their dialogue, anyway).

They break their kiss in the very next panel, and see that Harley's top was open and her super-tight jean shorts are unbuttoned and partially un-zipped. Visually, it looks like they kissed for about half a minute, Deadshot pulled open her top and Harley unzipped her shorts and then the phone rang.

Later, however, the dialogue says they had sex (that, or Deadshot prematurely ejaculated in his underwear from the kissing and several seconds of dry-humping, I guess).

"Let me make something clear," Deadshot tells her after she slaps his ass and calls him "Puddin," her pet name for The Joker, "Whatever happened back there is done. Got my rocks off. That's all."

So basic failure to meet the baseline, first purpose of comics—to convey information with words and art, with the words and art giving different, contradictory information. The reason isn't just that the writer and artists aren't doing a very good job and/or aren't on the same page, however, but apparently because while Glass wants to write a sex scene, he's not allowed to show nudity, or even imply nudity (like, with long shots or shadowy figures) and no one thought that maybe they could just pan out to an exterior shot and then return to an image of the pair getting dressed in front of an unmade bed or something.

That's my general diagnosis, anyway. There are certainly lots of little problems.

While there are a half-dozen artists, Federico Dallocchio seems to do most of the drawing (I say, without counting pages to be certain). He works in a realistic, photo-referenced style that I'm not a fan of, and I don't think works particularly well for superheroes with fantastical powers, and is probably ill-suited for a comic book in which one of the main characters is a giant shark man.

Cliff Richards, an artist with an awful lot of range, works in a style similar to Dallocchio, although his images look a little more natural and less referenced.

They're not the only two artists, though. The first and second issues have (at least) two artists apiece, with Ransom Getty and/or Scott Hanna (the credits in the trade don't make it clear if Hanna is inking Getty or penciling and inking his own pages in addition to those penciled and inked by the other two) helping finish the first issue and Andrei Bressan helping out on the second. In either case, both artists have more highly-illustrative, more comic book-y styles than Dallocchio or Richards, so the "realism" of the book's artwork fades in and out, increases and decreases, as if someone were adjusting it with a knob, and they were turning that knob fast and hard and suddenly.
I think the book looks best in the sixth and seventh issues, #6 by Clayton Henry (inked by himself and Hanna) and then #7 by Henry and Ig Guara (both inked by Hanna), as it finally looks like drawn-by-hand, honest-to-God comic book art for more than half an issue, and the character designs finally seemed to have settled down.

That made for one of the more frustrating aspects of the book's poor artwork, as these are, remember, brand-new (versions) of characters we're either meeting for the first time or pretending we're meeting for the first time, and their visual identities take scores of pages to settle into something semi-consistent. It's not like these guys are Superman or Batman, with their initials or symbols on their chests to make 'em easy to spot in a crowd.

Deadshot and Black Spider both wear full face-masks with little eyeball lenses on 'em. Savant and mercenary assassin Mad Dog both wear metallic hockey masks. Everyone has lots of straps and pouches. The most readily identifiable characters are Harley Quinn, who is a woman and has a striking color scheme, and King Shark, who is a shark-man. Although, it should be noted, his size and shape are in near-constant flux. Sometimes he has a hulking, comic book monster physique, sometimes he just looks like a tall shirtless man with a funny head photoshopped on. Sometimes he looks like a hammerhead, sometimes like a generic, drawn-from-memory shark with googly eye-stalks.

As I said, the Henry issues are the strongest, as by that point King Shark looks like a monstrous shark man with the head of a hammerhead shark, the action is crisp and clear and Glass gives the artists weird imagery of note to draw, like a gang of physically deformed or vastly different-looking men cross-dressed as Harley Quinn, for example.

Let's talk plot.

The first issue I've already discussed at length. A half-dozen villains—Deadshot, Harley Quinn, King Shark, Black Spider, El Diablo and Voltiac—are tortured until they confess who they work for. When they all refuse to break, it's revealed the people they work for were the ones torturing them, as a test, and they are rewarded with the opportunity to go on insane suicide missions.

The first is a rather tasteless reference to the Katrina disaster in New Orleans. It's a story entitled "When The Levee Breaks," and our heroes protagonists are tasked with assaulting a stadium full of people awaiting help from the federal government—here the disaster isn't a flood, however, but a techno-zombie virus that turns the people into cyborg zombies. There are 60,000 of them. The Squad kills all of them.

They are attacked by a guy named Mad Dog, who looks like Savant, except for a target icon on his chest, which is actually a necklace, which I only know because later the dialog refers to it as such, even though it's not drawn like a necklace.

They adopt civilian disguises and that sex scene happens.

When Amanda Waller and her troops go to retrieve their agents, they immediately give them a new assignment, and two new recruits: A new character named Yo-Yo (whose size can change from supernaturally skinny to enormously obese; she doesn't grow tiny and gigantic like Marvel's Giant-Man or anything) and Captain Boomerang, which is presented as kind of a big deal—Boomerang and Deadshot together again!—but since this is the first time they've been in the same comic book together in the New 52, it doesn't really have any impact (similar to New 52 book Justice League International, there's an implied history between the characters that is apparently somewhat similar to that of their old DCU history, but only the characters seem to know it, and readers are out of the loop).

Captain Boomerang's look hasn't been changed at all from that of his post-Blackest Night look, and, oddly enough, he even has his super-power of being able to generate black energy exploding boomerangs (although he also apparently used to use plain old boomerangs as well...?). At any rate, he's introduced and gone before the end of this single mission, which involves capturing some scientist from a Hydra/Kobra-like cult called Basilisk, where the foot soldiers dress like what guys dress like in Halo videogames, I imagine (I've just seen some box art and comic book adaptation covers though).

Then they get back to Belle Reeve, for the first time in the book, and Harley Quinn escapes, triggering a huge prison riot in the process, which means the surviving Squad members must fight a prison full of super-villains, but these are all generic, no-name supervillains, as, again, the universe is brand-new and doesn't have name villains to spare yet.

Then the team, including new recruits Savant and new characters Lime and Light (ditzy identical young women in scanty green costumes with some sort of ill-defined light powers) hunt Harley back to Gotham, where she's gone to recover The Joker's face, which was flayed off in Detective Comics #1, and which the Gotham City Police Department is keeping in a sort of glass case. It's so well-preserved that at the book's climax, Harley takes it out of the case and lays it over a tied-up Deadshot's face so she can talk to it/him as if they were The Joker. She even makes out with him through it.

Then Deadshot shoots her in the stomach. The end.

During these last two issues, which comprise the story arc "The Hunt for Harley Quinn," we get Glass' new origin for Harley, which is for the most part a cover version of her original origin story by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm in the excellent Mad Love one-shot (and which was the basis for Dini and Yvel Guichett's later introduction of her to the DCU proper, in 1999's Batman: Harley Quinn).

Here she's still a psychologist with an unlikely name who works at Arkham, takes an interest in the incarcerated Joker, falls under his spell and becomes his partner in crime. Here The Joker tosses her in a vat of chemicals—the same vat that he fell into and made him The Joker—but instead of simply getting some bouncy, low-level gymnastic super-powers, she emerges with her skin bleached white like the Joker's and her hair dyed—but not green like his, but half black and half red. Not sure how the science of that vat of chemicals works exactly then (Also? No frozen grin). Oh, and when she emerges, her shirt and skirt and burned to shreds, so you can see her bra and panties better when she dives on top of The Joker to totally do him.

Those are some pretty substantial differences, really, but given the overhaul the characters, concept and universe got around it, it's not really a drastic change, and certainly not as troubling as, say, Waller's physical transformation or Harley's hyper-sexualized behavior (as compared to her DCU version, anyway). And with so many problems in the book, from the fundamental, existential tensions from DC's inability to find one or two good artists to draw the book on time and an editor capable of keeping the creative team on the same page and the colorist coloring things the right color, it's nothing approaching a problem.

The title certainly had potential. The Harley Quinn character works best as a foil or hench-person in groups, and her inclusion offered a newer, fresher hook to the Suicide Squad premise, which DC hasn't been able to keep going for long since the Ostrander version ended in 1992 (even having Ostrander come back to write the same characters never really went anywhere). Harly is, after all, a character who a generation of readers (or potential readers) would have grown up seeing in Batman cartoons and, as young adults, seen in those very popular Arkham video games.

This core line-up of characters, some less-terrible re-designs (or the old costumes), a better writer, having Clayton Henry and Ig Guara on board from the start and the old continuity (Marvel Now vs. New 52 cetainly illustrates its the creative approach to new reader-friendliness that matters, not the continuity itself)...? Suicide Squad might have been a readable, maybe even good book. This? This is not a good book.

I do like the logo, though.

There, that's one nice thing I said!

Friday, May 24, 2013

This week's comic book ads of note

Marvel comics are often full of ads for mind-boggling licensed products these days, and this one might be the most mind-bogglingest of all. At least that I can remember as I'm typing this (after your mind's been boggled a few times, the memory starts to slip).

It appears to be a line of zip-up hoodies in which the zipper extends to the hood itself, and the hood is something a bit like a bag you put over your entire head, so you can, uh, completely cover your head with a hood, as if you were wearing a fabric version of the helmet, torso and sleeves of the armor worn by Iron Man (or War Machine or Iron Patriot).

I'm not entirely sure why you'd want to do this, particularly if you can't see out of the hood (Can you see out of the hood? I'm not seeing any eye-holes there). And breathing can't be particularly easy, either. But there is a piece of officially licensed clothing that totally exists.

DC Comics, meanwhile, featured this ad for TV show Arrow:
I see that after a brief flirtation with not showing actor Steve Amell's naked torso in the ads, choosing instead to show a close-up of his face in a hood, the ad people have returned to the sensible choice of promoting their show with shirtless images of Amell. And for this one, they even get his crotch in there. And some phallic arrows. And an explosion! Just about any image can be improved upon by having an explosion like that in the background.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Comic shop comics: May 8-22

Daredevil #26 (Marvel Entertainment) Something seems like it went a little funny somewhere in the scheduling of this book, as the double-sized climax of writer Mark Waid's entire run on the series up until this point, in which the mastermind between all of DD's woes up until this point is revealed, comes not in issue #25, as tradition might dictate, but in issue #26. That's unusual, right?

But whatever. I love Chris Samnee's cover for this, with it's somewhat reserved Eisner homage, and, something I just now notice while I'm looking at this pile of Marvel, DC and Dark Horse Comics, I really rather like how Marvel's covers are currently designed, with all the visual clutter nonsense—UPC symbol, ad for a cartoon, credits, price, etc—all cordoned off in a red stripe along the bottom.

What makes this issue double-sized is a regular Daredevil issue, with a Foggy Nelson story at the back, both by Waid and Samnee. In the DD story, the mastermind is finally revealed (It wasn't my last guess, Mister Fear, but I did guess who it was before it was revealed...but only ten pages early). The Foggy story is a bit on the sappy side, involving a cancer patient, a bunch of little kid who are all cancer patients and the power of comics and heroes to instill hope, but well-made nonetheless (Iron Man appears in a few panels of it. Have any of you guys been reading Iron Man since the Marvel "NOW!" relaunch? How come he's wearing yellow and black now? Is that something they explained, or is it merely an aesthetic thing).

FF #7 (Marvel) I haven't read every single run on the Fantastic Four before, but I'm pretty sure there's a rule written somewhere saying that each new iteration of the team must fight an iteration of the Frightful Four at some point. In this issue, the Faux-tastic Four and the kids of the Future Foundation battle a new version of the Frightful Four consisting of The Wizard, Blastaar and reluctant recruits Medusa and The Wizard's own clone (and FF member) Bentley-23.

Also, it's written by Matt Fraction, drawn by Mike Allred and colored by Laura Allred, so it's pretty awesome.

I liked the Moleoid kids' battle-suit:

And I'm always up for some Lockjaw:

Green Lantern #20 (DC Comics) As Mark Antony once wrote on his blog about Julius Caesar, I've come here to bid farewell to Geoff Johns' run on Green Lantern, not to praise it.

I've read every single issue of Johns' Green Lantern run, from Green Lantern: Rebirth through this issue, and while I haven't loved every single page of it, I never dropped it, no matter how much more picky I've been in my comics purchases over the course of the last nine years. Sure, I've complained about it an awful lot—mainly regarding the violence and the over-usage of splash pages once the book became 20 rather than 22 pages for $2.99—but I never stopped reading.

And while I don't think Geoff Johns is the best mainstream comics writer, he is one of my favorite writers.

So I'm not going to bother with an overall assessment or appraisal of Johns' run in this space; clearly it's been incredibly successful by pretty much any definition. I've liked it well enough to pay attention to it. All of it.

This particular issue is a $7.99 behemoth, bearing a wrap-around cover and a spine, making it more trade paperback than comic book-comic. There are 66-story pages, by my count, although many of those story pages are simply splash spreads, including one massive, four-page fold-out at the end of the book. It's almost ad-free, with the only non-GL ads being an inside front cover ad for something Man of Steel and Walmart related, and an inside back cover ad for one of those direct-to-DVD cartoons DC occasionally releases. The rest of the ads are all house ads for the upcoming five-book Lantern franchise (Green Lantern, GL Corps, GL: New Guardians, Red Lanterns and Larfleeze. Then there's an editorial of sorts by Johns, and a multi-page ad listing all of the books collecting Johns' run on the title, rather more thorough than usual summaries of their events, and even the covers of past books whose continuity they draw on.

Then there's this weird thing they do, where every few pages or so there's a full-page ad-like "Congratulations Geoff Johns" featuring about a half-dozen quotes and blurbs from Johns' co-workers, collaborators, celebrity fans, "celebrity" fans, and even a few family members. It's nice, but it's so...much. I can't remember ever seeing anything remotely this...big done to celebrate any creator by either of the Big Two, even upon their deaths, let alone when they simply stop writing a series they've been writing for a long time (Not to dismiss the achievement of Johns' run; his stick-to-it-iveness is extremely admirable, although I suppose it must come in large part from it also being successful enough that DC never saw fit to kick him off the title either). The closest I can think of was that special collection of Brian Michael Bendis stories Marvel put out a few years ago to commemorate his 10th anniversary with the publisher, and that DC Comics Presents series of one-shots DC published in honor of Julius Schwartz.

Anyway, it's a nice thing DC did for Geoff Johns. I'm just standing back and whistling at it, as all.

My only real quibbles are these. First, the story is framed as a story being told by an older, wiser, veteran Green Lantern opening up a gigantic green book to share "the story every young Lantern comes to the archive hall to hear....the story of Hal Jordan." Near the end of that story, the elder Lantern refers to Jordan as "the spark" that started it all, which glosses over the fact that Hal Jordan was the second Green Lantern, a rebooted version of the old Golden Age hero in a way that, if not awkward, at least made me think, "Oh, hey, what about the actual spark, Alan Scott?" (I imagine Scott and probably Jade would have had some small role in this story, were it not for The New 52-boot).

Second, and related, in Johns' little editorial, he gives special thanks to Julius Schwartz, John Broome and Gil Kane "for creating such an incredible foundation to build on wiht Hal Jordan and the Green Lantern Corps."

"Without them," Johns writes, "there would be no Green Lantern."

Except for Green Lantern Alan Scott of course, the character Schwartz and company re-created into Hal Jordan. While their overhaul was fairly extensive, they did have the name Green Lantern, the magic ring and magic lantern, the green constructs and an oath to work with already, thanks to Green Lantern creators Martin Nodell and Bill Finger, who probably deserved a shout-out similar to the one Broome and company received.

I did say they were quibbles, right?

As for the story, I was a little more lost than I would have liked to have been, due largely to the last two story arcs having played out like "War of The Green Lanterns" had, with chapters of the story appearing in each of the books (of which I only read one of the three or four involved series). It resets the franchise to about where it was prior to the New 52 reboot, with only a few tweaks—Kyle Rayner is apparently still a White Lantern for some reason, Simon Baz exists. Most of the characters who played some role in in Johns' GL run make some appearance, including each Corps and the principals from each, and the climactic battle with First Lantern Volthoom plays out like most of the climactic battles in the series up until this point, with sudden transformations, unexpected players arriving and unusual power-ups.

Johns resolves the relationship between Hal and Sinestro (and Sinestro and the Corps, and Sinestro and the Guardians) quite nicely, as well as Hal's relationship with his father's death, a plot point Johns would keep coming back to in various ways throughout his years on the franchise. Johns even provides little glimpses of the various characters' far-flung futures, so each of the Earth Lanterns, for example, gets a sort of happy ending, even though their adventures will actually continue next month in the five Lantern books, the four pre-exising ones all with brand-new writers.

It sure looks like those books are going to continue the cosmic space opera approach Johns went in during most of hir run, but I kind of hope Green Lantern at least gets a little more earth-centric, and has Hal dealing with old rogues like The Shark, Goldface, The Invisible Destroyer and whoever—poor incoming GL writer Robert Venditti has to follow this after all, and the further he can take Green Lantern into a far different, un-Geoff Johnsian direction, the better for him. (Personally, I'm dropping the book; I dont' have strong feelings for Venditti one way or the other, but I do not care for the work of incoming artist Billy Tan one jot).

As for the art in this, it is surprisingly good and surprisingly consistent, despite the many hands involved. Doug Mahnke handles the bulk of it, and does his regular superlative job, and he's got six guys inking his work along with him, but that's not unusual for Green Lantern. Even the 20-page issues have that many inkers, sometimes.

There's guest art by Ethan Van Sciver, Patrick Gleason, Cully Hamner, Aaron Kuder, Ivan Reis and Jerry Ordway, but it's all pretty smoothly integrated, so shifts in style are usually rather logically signaled.

Green Team #1 (DC Comics) This is Art Baltazar, Franco and Ig Guara's New 52 revival of the least-likely-to-be-revived premise in the DC Comics reservoir of premises, one of those guaranteed pre-canceled comics they occasionally throw out into the market just to watch die. I believe it's currently racing The Movement to cancellation, which, in both cases, I assume will happen around issue #8.

I've reviewed this elsewhere this afternoon, but am noting it here as per the self-imposed rules of this column (That is, it was released on one of the dates in the post title, and I bought it at the comic shop). It wasn't the best comic I read today, but it wasn't the worst either. If I were ranking them all, I'd put it at #5.

Star Wars #5 (Dark Horse Comics) Maybe it's just the similarity in style of comic cover artist Alex Ross and movie poster artist Drew Struzan, but I kinda dug Ross' covers for the first four issues of this new series, while Rodolfo Migliari's cover for this issue just kinda creeps me out: It looks like wax statues of Han Solo and Chewbacca photographed and dropped into a painting of a still from one of the movies (Spoiler: The action depicted on the cover does not occur in this book at all).

I was similarly less enchanted with the contents. I found the first issue (and those that immediately followed) quite enjoyable to read (on top of being well-made), but like the next comic discussed in this post, the pacing is slow enough that the narrative's grown dull taken chunk-by-chunk on a monthly basis.

Han and Chewie are still doing whatever they're meant to be doing on Coruscant, and here they've ventured into a bar that happens to contain either many of the exact same characters as the ones that hung out in the Mos Eisley cantina, or else representatives of the same races that hung out there (Artist Carlos D'Anda draws nice versions of them all, though). Boba Fett and Bossk are even there, and while I like Boba Fett (who doesn't?), it's sorta weird to see him on-screen (well, on-panel) this early in the Star Wars story (just as seeing so much Yoda in the prequels drains the import and surprise out of his appearance in Empire).

The first half of the book is devoted to a dogfight between some of Leia's X-Wing pilots and some TIE fighters that read an awful lot like a more sober and reserved take on the fight scenes from the old Robotech cartoon that I used to watch before school as a child, only without the action packed pay-offs (anime does space dogfights better than comics, really).

I don't know; maybe this book isn't really for me after all. I thought a Star Wars comics set between installments of original trilogy, starring the characters I knew and liked best, by high-quality creators, would be the Star Wars comics for me, but maybe I'm just not a more Star Wars kinda reader after all, despite how much I enjoyed the Force Unleashed and Darth Vader comics I read recently, and how much I dig Dark Horse's repints of the old Marvel series (I'm currently on the third volume of those).

Wonder Woman #20 (DC Comics) In this issue various factions of Olympian gods have ominous conversations with one another and maneuver to get their hands on the baby of Zola and Zeus, who was prophesied to one day destroy the ruler of Olympus, while Wonder Woman and her running crew try to protect the baby. You know, the same thing that's been happening in the book for close to two years now. Brian Azzarello's plot does move forward, but very slowly, and on a circular path, as if he were walking it up a spiral staircase with far too many steps. In this issue, for example, Wonder Woman fights Moon. Again.

My hopes were raised when Orion and a DCU analogue of Wesley Willis showed up a few issues ago, as I thought maybe Azzarello was bringing the New Gods mythology into this story of the Old Gods, but, if he is, he's doing so as gradually and slowly as he's done everything else in this book (Orion's MIA in this ish, for example).

I'm pretty sure I'm going to drop the book. It's slow and repetitive, but I think it's probably still worth reading—but I don't see any reason to read it in 20-page installments once a month, which only accentuates the slow pace and glacial plotting. I don't see any reason to keep reading it as its serially published instead of borrowing a trade of it from a library every six months or so.

Even the main reason I was interested n the book—Cliff Chiang's artwork—has been less and less of an incentive, as he's been increasingly less of a presence. In this issue, for example, he provides breakdowns and draws six pages, while Goran Sudzuka, the second of the fill-in artists, draws the bulk of the issue.

Young Avengers #5 (Marvel) Great cover, huh?

The art in this issue, as in the previous four issues, is excellent, and among the best I can find in any superhero comics on the shelves at the moment. I found the script somewhat disappointing this time around, perhaps in large part because this is the conclusion of the first arc, and rather than winning, these half-dozen heroes fight their foes to a standstill, and then decide on a course of action that will keep them together as a superhero team for the forseeable future. In other words, with this issue it becomes clear that these first five issues were about why this is the Young Avengers line-up and that they are gong to be starring in this comic book series, which is something I knew before picking up the first issue. It felt a bit artificial, and therefore hollow, at least in its plotting and pacing, if not in the characterization, which writer Kieron Gillen continues to do a rather fine job of.

But man, this art's so nice even if the writing were terrible I'd probably still be picking this series up every month.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Review: Wolverine: Goodbye, Chinatown

Last night I talked a little bit about how difficult it can be to catch up on some series in trade when the publisher publishes particular stories in multiple titles, collects them under different names or does something weird with the number, like having two consecutive collections of Batman Inc both labeled "Volume 1."

Here's another series I've had trouble following: Writer Jason Aaron's Wolverine comics. He wrote an arc of a comic called Wolverine (Collected as Wolverine: Get Mystique. Then he got his own Wolverine series, a new book entitled Wolverine: Weapon X. That lasted 16 issues, and I want to say it generated about three trade collections. Then, after Weapon X was canceled, he wrote a brand-new volume of a series simply entitled Wolverine.

Figuring out what titles Jason Aaron wrote and what order to read them in can be a bit tricky; certainly more tricky than figuring out the reading order of, say, Eiichiro Oda's One Piece, which are all entitled One Piece and assigned volume numbers on the spine. I was trying to read Aaron's Wolverine comics in trade for a while, but eventually gave up, occasionally coming across one in a library and picking it up if it looks unfamiliar to me.

Like Wolverine: Goodbye, Chinatown, the small print of which tells me includes issues #17-#20 of the rebooted Wolverine series which, come to think of it, was just recently rebooted again.

As difficult as it may be to figure these books out—despite this being part of a run of story arcs written by Jason Aaron and despite the fact that it continues sub-plots from previous issues and leaves other unresolved for future issues, there is no volume number—I enjoyed this. Like most of the Wolverine comics by Aaron I've read, like most of the Marvel comics by Aaron I've read, it was fast-paced, quick-witted, snappily-dialogued and plotted on the ridiculous side, with Wolverine playing straight man to the lunatic world of the Marvel Universe.

It probably didn't hurt any that the title story, which accounts for three-fourths of the contents of this book, prominently featured characters and concepts familiar from Jeff Parker's Agents of Atlas comics.

Here's where I really started enjoying the trade:
That's the second panel on the very first page.

Wolvie is preparing to leave San Francisco, where he and the other X-Men have been based for a few years, to head back East and found a school (So this takes place after the events of Schism, but before the launch of Aaron's Wolverine and The X-Men series), and wants to bid farewell to his girlfriend and collect the money he has saved up.

But that money has been stolen, and to get it back he has to live up to his responsibilities as The Black Dragon, the secret kingpin of the Chinatown underworld ("Did I forget to mention that I'm secretly the kingpin of the Chinatown underworld?"), and that means investigating the kung fu crime wave that the local turf war has engendered.
Wolverine, a vaguely <a href = "">Short Round</a>-like kid and a white eyebrow master follow a trail that leads them to a dragon-carved tunnel that leads from San Francisco to China, The Jade Claw and a particularly silly section of Wolverine's rather silly rogue's gallery. Wolvie and his friend's aren't the only ones in the literal underworld beneath the figurative underworld though; Gorilla Man (seen most prominently in Parker's various Agents of Atlas comics) and Fat Cobra (from Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction and David Aja's Immortal Iron Fist run) are also knocking around and ally themselves with Wolvie (Gorilla Man does so only after the traditional Marvel fight and then team-up ritual).

It is, like so much of Aaron's Marvel writing, pretty insane, but it's also a lot of fun and very funny. Gorilla Man may be one of the last characters one would think to pair Wolverine up with, but Aaron finds an awful lot of similarities between the two so that they play off one another nicely, and artist Ron Garney even hammers those parallels home in his posing of the two hairy, teeth-gritting brawlers.

Garney's work is, as always, superb, and he does a pretty incredible job of marrying the wildly different characters and concepts—created in different eras by different artists—into something seemingly seamless. Chinese dragons, guy from '70s kung fu movie, Wolverine, a talking gorilla in a pair of pants and a white button-down shirt, Razorfist—all appear in the space of three panels, and all look perfectly natural doing so.

Garney doesn't draw the one issue that appears in this trade that isn't part of the title story. That's drawn by Renato Guedes, and finds Wolverine in New York City just in time to catch a whiff (literally; he smells it) of a meeting between a Japanese yakuza boss and Wilson "The Kingpin" Fisk, a meeting interrupted by some amusingly weird bounty hunter characters that apparently appeared in another Wolverine story I haven't run across yet (And who reminded me of the two guys who look sorta like Yosemite Sam in the old Looney Tunes short Along Came Daffy; it's watchable here, for the time being).
Guedes' art is fine, but it's so different from Garney's that it takes some getting used to, and is sort of a shock to see. His Wolvie is shorter, hairier and uglier, his hair more clown-like. There's a great deal more detail and texture to all of his art, so the more realistic style clashes with the flatter, more abstracted, more comic book-y look of Garney's art.

This particular story is a little straighter to, as it's more plot-driven and involves more familiar plot elements for Wolverine comics...and modern Marvel comics in general.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Some thoughts on Batman Incorporated Vol. 1: Demon Star

I've already discussed what may be the craziest aspect of this book, that it's entitled Batman Incorporated Vol. 1, even though it's actually the second volume of Batman Inc, and the previous volume was also labeled Batman Incorporated Vol. 1.

The reason for this is that Batman Inc existed prior to DC's September 2011 reboot of their DCU shared setting into The New 52, so the entire eight-issue series and its over-sized special are all collected in Batman Incorporated Vol. 1, while issues #0 through #7 of the second, New 52 version of the series are collected in this collection.

I don't think publishers realize how difficult it is to follow these books in trade if you don't stay on top of them, probably because the people assembling and marketing the trades are so deeply involved in the month-to-month world of comics they haven't tried catching up on a series in trade before.

I like to think I'm pretty engaged, but I got lost trying to follow the Greg Pak and Greg Van Lente Hercules storyline, which jumped form title to title, when I switched from reading the singles to trade-waiting it, and other multi-book storylines like Jeff Parker's Hulk comics have proven prohibitively confusing for me to catch up on. I can and will figure it out with a few minutes of online research and the help of Wikipedia, probably, but generally before I sit down to order some trades from an online retailer, I'll see something involving less research that I want to read just as badly, and will buy that instead (The most recent example I personally have is trying to read all of Matt Fraction's run on Invincible Iron Man in trades borrowed from various Ohio libraries through inter-library loan programs; there are about a dozen or so volumes, all of the labeled with a volume number, except for the Fear Itself tie-in arc, which not only has no volume number, but also isn't entitled Invincible Iron Man but, rather, Fear Itself: Invincible Iron Man.

So if in a few years someone wants to read Grant Morrison's Batman run, they're going to have to buy trades collecting arcs from Batman (which, if I remember correctly, don't have volume numbers, only sub-titles naming the story arcs collected), Batman and Robin, Final Crisis, the Return of Bruce Wayne miniseries, and then Batman Inc Vol. 1, another Batman Inc Vol. 1 and then maybe one or two more volumes.

I guess it's a good thing DC has an official Chronology now.

—This second volume of Batman Inc wasn't a first-wave New 52 book, but came along near the start of DC's second year's worth of New 52 releases.

The reading experience of the trade is much different than that of the way the books were originally published, as the trade begins with issue #0. When they were released as serially-published issues, the series began with issue #1 and was followed by issues #2 and #3 and then #0 was released, with #4 following it.

I thought Morrison did a pretty great job on the script for that #0 issue, as it essentially re-told the story of Batman Inc, recapping the events without repeating anything readers saw the first time around.

If any readers did start with this trade, they would probably be okay-ish, but they'd be missing a lot of rather fun-stuff.

The premise for the #0 issue, and thus the first chapter of the collection, is essentially that of showing Batman Bruce Wayne going around and recruiting his Batmen of Many Nations: Knight and Squire, Dark Ranger, The Batman of Russia seen in Batman and Robin Vol. 1: Born to Kill, Nightrunner (who gets an okay from previous Batman of France, the retiring Cavalier), Chief Man-of-Bats and Red Raven, The Batman of Japan and El Guacho. There's also a scene of Batman and Bruce Wayne explaining the concept, and a splash of his Batman robots being built.

It's a rather elegantly-constructed crash course in Morrison's Batman Inc concept, and having read it this way, I'm finding it hard to imagine how it might have read as originally released.

I don't think #1 offers anywhere near as clear an introduction of the concept, and now I wonder how many new readers decided to sit out the first volume of Batman Inc but pick up Batman Inc (volume 2) #1 and found themselves lost.

—While Chris Burnham draws almost all of issues #1-#7 (save a few pages toward the end, where deadlines apparently got the better of him), Frazier Irving drew the #0 issue.

I don't care for Frazier Irving's art here. I've enjoyed it immensely in the past, but I find the texture of it somewhat sickly, and the faces look overly photo-referenced in this story, with some of the masks not really seeming to quite fit the characters wearing them.

—The continuity on this volume is pretty wonky—mainly in that, like the main, Geoff Johns-written Green Lantern title, so little has changed that what has changed during the reboot stands out as glaring.

Basically, everything Morrison wrote in any of his Bat-titles is expressly still in play and referred back to, all the way back to Talia al Ghul's Man-Bat ninjas and Damian's origin in "Batman and Son."

And a great deal of that continuity isn't really explained at all. One will read it and discover Damian complaining that Grayson was a better partner than Batman (without detailing the fact that Grayson was Batman) or that Bruce Wayne returned from the dead after an absence, without explaining the circumstances of Batman's death and return, and so on.

All that really seems to have changed are Tim Drake's costume—he gets almost no lines, and is a barely-there presence—and no Batgirls are even mentioned.

Batgirl III Stephanie Brown was featured rather prominently in one story from the previous volume of Batman Inc, Batgirl II Cassandra Cain had a small role in her new identity as The Black Bat, and original Batgirl Barbara Gordon had a one-issue spotlight in her Oracle persona, which included a new Batgirl avatar for fighting crime online. None of them are even mentioned here, perhaps because those first two have been wiped out of continuity and Gordon has been de-aged and de-Oracled (Actually, Barbara Gordon does appear in a possible-future storyline, where she's in a wheelchair and is the acting police commissioner of the screwed up future where Damian is Batman, previously glimpsed in Batman #666).

Even more conspicuously absent is Batwoman, whose story doesn't seem to have changed much at all on account of the reboot.

Catwoman, who co-starred in the first issue of the previous volume of Batman Inc is also MIA without explanation.

The Outsiders appear in here too (odd, since DC's new five-year timeline and streamlined JLA history likely excised the bit where Batman quit to form his own team with The Outsiders), but only Freight Train and Halo and Looker (Metamorpho is name-checked, though).

—Speaking of The Outsiders, when Metamorpho is mentioned, it's in a reference to Morrison's first arc of JLA, a storyline which John's Justice League comics make clear never "happened." This is a book best-enjoyed without thinking much at all about the New 52 or the various continuity reboots, as it is quite clearly set in the old DCU, with nothing but minor cosmetic changes and casting choices alleging that it's set after Flashpoint at all.

—That said, this book at least acknowledges the existence of Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason's Batman and Robin title, as the Batman of Russia is included, the events of that book (in which Damian is forced into killing another villain after swearing to never do so again) are mentioned and the dog Damian acquires in it shows up in the Batcave. (I haven't read any other New 52 Bat-books yet, so I don't know how well it lines up with Batman, TEC or any of the secondary titles).

—It's hard for me to wrap my head around a DC Universe in which Wally West and Donna Troy do not exist, but Freight Train does.

—Chris Burnham is awesome.

There's a touch of Frank Quitely in his work, and he's given to flights of structural fancy, leading to many extremely inventive panels and lay-outs. Sometimes that invention doesn't really add anything and can look a bit show off-y, but I suppose when you're that good, there's nothing wrong with showing off. He's got all the basics mastered, and this works just like it's supposed to.

The image above is an extremely poorly cropped part of one of his pages. Look at the detail in that panel; it's a panel one can linger over if one wants to, sussing out each detail. Kids don't really buy comics from grocery stores with their allowances or anything anymore, but this is the kind of comic that would reward such a purchase by someone with a severely limited comics-buying budget, as there's so much more value in a panel like that then, you know, most panels in most other comic books.

I am now curious what Burnham will be up to when Morrison leaves and Batman Inc ends, but I sure hope it involves drawing Batman, and drawing good Batman comics by a good writer that I want to read.

I see that Burnham is writing as well as drawing one of the short stories in August's Batman Incorporated special, which Tom Bonudrant recently theorized might be a trail balloon to gauge interest in a Morrison-less iteration of Batman Inc. Maybe if Burnham writes as well as he draws—or even half as good as he draws—his next assignment might be continuing the Morrison-recreated Club of Heroes in some manner...?

—I have to call bullshit on a few instances of Batman disguises though.

Apparently this big-ass Batman, seen in this panel...
...somehow fit into that little old lady costume he's clutching in his right fist, and, when he was wearing it, he looked like this:
And, in another issue, while Batman's in his Matches Malone disguise/identity, Dick Grayson dresses up as Batman so Bats and Matches can appear in the same place at the same time, and Dick's Batman is this much bigger than Bruce's Matches?
Bullshit. Beautifully, beautifully drawn bullshit.

—I like the robot bat thing—a robat?—that the future Damian Batman had. I wish I had a copy of Dark Knight Returns here in my apartment with me at the moment, because it looks awfully similar to something I remember—or imagine—appeared in either DKR or maybe Dark Knight Strikes Again, but now I'm not sure. Morrison and Burnham do use Frank Miller's mutants as a group of street thugs that Batman and Robin beat up in one scene.

—The cliffhanger ending of this volume was a very powerful argument against trade-waiting. It ended with one of my favorite members of Batman Inc seemingly dying and, in the very last panel, a mysterious antagonist apparently throwing Batman to his death.

Now obviously Batman isn't going to die, and I'm pretty sure the guy they show actually dying really will die (cover solicitations for future issues seem to promise that he will), but I still want to see how Batman doesn't die, and learn who exactly this mysterious servant of Talia's actually is and how he got to be so bad-ass.

But, instead of having to wait 30 days or so, I now have to wait, like, six to eight months until the next volume of the comic comes out in collected form.

As frustrating as it is from a fan perspective, I suppose it served as a nice reminder that the single best way a publisher can combat trade-waiting and promote serial issue purchasing is to make really, really good comics that a reader can't wait for.

This is probably the only superhero comic book I currently feel that way about.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Some thoughts on DC's 25 most essential graphic novels list

If there were a thought bubble over Batman's head in that image, I imagine it would read, "Nice hoodie, Clark."

Part of me thinks I probably should have looked into getting my hands on one of those DC Entertainment Essential Graphic Novels and Chronology 2013 things, as it seems like the publication would make for a great source of blog-post subject matter (Another part of me thinks it better that I don't have one laying around the house, as everyone but me would likely get bored with EDILW becoming a daily analysis of the DCEEGNnC2013).

Tom Bondurant talked a bit about Wonder Woman's short-shrifting in the book last week, which prompted me to think about the most accessible and introductory Wonder Woman stories, and this week The Beat started a relatively interesting discussion of the publisher's top 25 "essential" graphic novels, a list that, intentionally or not, reveals a bit about the publisher, how they see themselves, how they want others to see them and where, in general, they're at right now.

I started to join that discussion, until I remembered I had my own blog, and that it probably makes for a better place for me to babble about comics than the comments section of someone else's blog. Before I commence with the babbling, though, here's that list:


BATMAN: The Dark Knight Returns

THE SANDMAN Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes

BATMAN: Year One



FABLES Vol. 1: Legends in Exile

BATMAN: The Killing Joke (the Deluxe Edition)

Y: THE LAST MAN Vol. 1: Unmanned



BATMAN: The Long Halloween


BATMAN: Earth One





JLA Vol. 1




THE FLASH: Rebirth

SUPERMAN: Earth One Vol. 1

PLANETARY Vol. 1: All over the World and Other Stories

What I found most interesting—and genuinely surprising—about that list is that in 2013, the year after DC burned down the bridge between themselves and Alan Moore (granted, after he has repeatedly stated his lack of interest in walking back across it) with their risible Before Watchmen project and after DC's company people said some deferential, defensive and slightly ignorant things about Moore and Watchmen (and some of the creators, like J. Michael Straczynski and Darwyn Cooke said some extremely broad, ignorant and depressing things about Moore, Watchmen and the natural state of the comics industry), Alan Moore is the most essential creative force at DC Entertainment (at least in terms of their graphic novel program, as they themselves see it).

A full 40% of that list are books written by Alan Moore. Several are based on characters and concepts he created out of whole cloth with his artist collaborators (Watchmen, V For Vendetta), another features public domain characters he re-created in unique ways (LOEG), another features a pre-existing DC character he so thoroughly re-invented that decades later his version is still the dominant one (Swamp Thing) and another features pre-existing DC characters (Killing Joke). (And if you want to get cute, you could also make an argument that Alex Ross and Mark Waid's Kingdom Come was at least heavily inspired by Moore's Twilight pitch, and the Geoff Johns-written Blackest Night and Green Lantern run in general owes quite a debt to minor work Moore did on the Green Lantern franchise long ago).

That Moore's work is so prominent in that list is remarkable not only of the apparent mutual enmity between he and the company, but also because of how much Moore dwarfs the other writers whose work appears on that list. Geoff Johns, DC's Chief Creative Officer and long-time most popular writer, has four titles on the list (and if one wants to evaluate comics based on the amount of creation that went in to them, it's probably well worth noting that Johns' books are all dependent on pre-existing characters).

Grant Morrison, DC's next most popular writer, has three books on the list (and, again, DC chose only Morrison-scripted stories of their superheroes). Frank Miller and Jeph Loeb have two books apiece, and all of the other writers represented—Brian Azzarello, Neil Gaiman, Warren Ellis, Brad Meltzer, Scott Snyder, J. Michael Straczynski, Brian K. Vaughan, Mark Waid, Bill Willingham have one book a piece.

DC's essential graphic novels, as DC sees it, are clearly writer-driven, rather than artist driven. While there are a couple of writers with more than one book on that list, there is only one artist who has more than one book on the list. Ethan Van Sciver is apparently DC's most essential artist, based on the fact that both his Flash: Rebirth and Green Lantern: Rebirth appear on the list.

All the other artists, for all their talent and popularity and influence over DC and comics in general, have one book apiece, even DC's current co-publisher Jim Lee.
Lee's Superman: For Tomorrow, All-Star Batman and Robin, The Boy Wonder and Justice League Vol. 1: Origin are actually rather odd omissions. The former two have bad reputations, and the latter is just awful, but still, they are all Jim Lee-drawn books, and thus popular books.

The All-Star book features a holy trinity of graphic novel sales generators—Frank Miller, Jim Lee and Batman—and the Justice League book is the publisher's flagship one, and the keystone of their current "New 52" publishing strategy.
Looking at the list, it seems apparent that it is mostly a list of what DC regards as its best-sellers, and the books they plan to keep in print and continue to push above other books. I think it's telling that so many of their recent original graphic novels make the list—Joker, the two Earth One books—and the only ones that don't make the list are easily excusable for having Batman in them (Batman: Noel, The Judas Coin and Batman: Death By Design). That may be the only reason the Grant Morrison-written Arkham Asylum original graphic novel, which has proven so influential, particularly in the video game adaptations of DC Comics, isn't on the list (That, or simply because it's so dated compared to the more time-less Batman trades on this list).

Is it worth noting that there are no "New 52" books on the list at all, and that the dominant source of DC's most "essential" graphic novels are set in the Crisis On Infinite Earths to Flashpoint continuity that the publisher recently discarded?

Of that list of 25 books, 12 of them are set in the old, post-Crisis DCU continuity, and an additional two are alternate future storylines that departed from specific points in that continuity (The Dark Knight Returns is set in a future after the death of Jason Todd in the "A Death in the Family" storyline; Kingdom Come includes a Flashback to the 1990s Daily Planet newsroom, when post-"Reign of the Supermen" Superman and Clark Kent had long hair; I of course am counting Sandman and Swamp Thing books as DC books, as they were both set in the DCU, quite heavily in these particular volumes).

There are two "Earth One" branded books (I'm not sure if it's been made clear whether those two books are set on the same world, or if "Earth One" is merely the way DC is branding the line of books), one from the All-Star line (of which there only ever ended up being two books anyway) and the remaining books all occur in their own "universes."

The emphasis on the old DCU continuity is somewhat curious in that DC has rather loudly trumpeted the irrelevance of these books: JLA, Identity Crisis, Final Crisis, the two Rebirths, these are books that are now well outside of DC continuity, featuring characters who never even existed and relationships that have been wiped out. Some of them apparently still "count", but only in altered, non-existent versions (I'm thinking of Blackest Night for example, and I suppose the jury is still out on Batman: Year One and Long Halloween, which the upcoming "Zero Year" storyline may or may not overwrite).

Of everything on the list, then, I find the Flash: Rebirth collection to be the most curious inclusion. That is, after all, the story of how the dead Flash II Barry Allen, who gave his life during the war against The Anti-Monitor in Crisis On Infinite Earths, came back to life, reclaiming the mantle of the main flash from his own successor, Flash III Wally West.

As of right now, there's only ever been one Flash in the New 52 DCU, with Flash I Barry Allen his entire generation of super-heroes now re-relegated to an alternate Earth and West apparently never having existed. Like GL: Rebirth, it was and is a very complicated—but fun, and well-crafted!—continuity patch of a story. But that continuity doesn't exist anymore, so who cares? Why is DC pushing that book instead of, I don't know, Preacher or Astro City or 100 Bullets or Superman: For Tomorrow or one of those Paul Dini/Alex Ross Justice League books or Starman or Wednesday Comics or anything featuring Wonder Woman or anything at all from The New 52...?

It may or may not be worth noting that much of this list includes some very old comics, which, in one light, doesn't speak well of DC's success in publishing great comics in recent years, but, in another, could simply be reflective of the list being comprised of best- or simply better-sellers.

But Watchmen, Dark Knight, Sandman, Swamp Thing, V For Vendetta, Killing Joke, Year One—these are comics from the 1980s. Kingdom Come, Long Halloween, Planetary, LOEG, JLA—'90s comics.

The rest of the list is of more recent vintage, so it's maybe half-classics, half-stuff from the current Dan DiDio era of DC Comics. Do keep in mind, however, that the most recent books on the list are among the absolute worst books DC has published—the two Earth Ones (but are probably there simply because DC plans to publish more of them, and because they were specifically commissioned as continuity-lite, outreach/gateway books).

Let's see...what else, what else...
Is it worth pointing out that none of the books are written by a woman, and, in fact, there's only one female artist who has work on that list—Y: The Last Man's Pia Guerra—although Lynn Varley's Dark Knight colors and Karen Berger's editing of some of the best books on that list are a good reminder that this list isn't quite as male as it may appear simply by looking at the writers, pencil artists and inkers (Any suggestions for something written or drawn by a woman that DC has done that belongs on this list? The down side of not hiring many women to write or draw for you means that few classic or essential comics have been generated by them in the past. The few women in DC's employ at the moment—Christie Marx, Gail Simone, Nicola Scott—are just working on continuity-heavy, unexceptional work).

Oh, and I was also struck by this list is. There's little to nothing in the list that is truly "all-ages" (JLA, I suppose; Kingdom Come, the Loeb-written Batman comics, All-Star Superman).

Most of it is probably teen appropriate, but these are certainly among the more adult of DC's backlist, including foundational adult-comics imprint titles like Swamp Thing and Sandman, sophisticated titles like those two and Planetary (I think you have to be an adult just to have read and watched enough popular culture to "get" that book's many allusions), Fables and Y.

The Geoff Johns stuff is, naturally, super-gory, especially Blackest Night, which is all about heart-eating zombies. American Vampire is a horror comic, like Sandman and Swamp Thing were at their outset. Watchmen, Killing Joke, LOEG, Joker and Identity Crisis have on-panel rape scenes; Final Crisis has repeated references made to rape (here's one).

If this can be looked at as a document of where DC needs to go as a publisher, then I'd say a) hire more women, b) give Wonder Woman a classic, Year One-like story (maybe Morrison's in-the-works Earth One will fulfill that gap), c) make more all-ages or at least less rapey and/or ultra-violent comics, d) either do away with The New 52 or start making those comics good enough to replace all the "old" DCU stuff on this list and e) either have Johns step up his game or get Morrison to stick around or find the next Alan Moore to start cranking out classics to replace some of the less-essential Moore on the list so DC don't look like such yutzes when they want to slag off Moore either in words or deeds despite being so dependent on his bibliography.


Hey, if this is a subject you're at all interested in, be sure to check out the very thorough review of DC's DCEEGNnC2013 at Collected Editions.