Saturday, September 16, 2017

Some Batman-related trades I've recently read:

Batgirl: Stephanie Brown Vol.1

It's unclear if DC is going to continue collecting the 73-issue, 2000-2006 volume of Batgirl after the third collection of Batgirl: Cassandra Cain (which ended the run by the original creators, and would be a fairly natural stopping point). The release of Batgirl: Stephanie Brown Vol. 1 at this point would seem to argue against it, though.

This collection includes the first 12 issues of the 24-issue, 2009-20011 Batgirl series, the one starring former Spoiler, former Robin Stephanie Brown as the new, third Batgirl. So yeah, with this collection released, the entire series is already half-collected; smart money says DC will definitely get around to collecting all of the issues of this particular volume of Batgirl.

This was actually kind of a fun read for me, as I skipped them the first time around, so it was all new to me.

As to the why, well DC basically "broke" Batgirl in a series of poorly considered moves starting with the "One Year Later" arc of Robin, and subsequent attempts to fix the damage they did there in comics like Teen Titans and a Batgirl miniseries. That Batgirl, Cassandra Cain, had essentially become so narratively toxic that she barely appears in this series; the moment in which she hands over her costume and her codename to her friend Stephanie Brown consists of her basically just stripping off her costume and then peacing out, disappearing into the Gotham night (in her underwear, I guess).

I additionally kind of hated the new costume, a purple, black and gold affair that had an Utlimate Marvel-like quality of "realism" to it, looking like something that might appear in a live-action movie starring Batgirl, rather than a tolerable costume design (the even gave her a utility garter belt, to echo the one she had in earlier Spoiler costumes). Of course, on the other side of The New 52, wherein everybody had terrible new costumes, this one doesn't look so bad at all.

Finally, the book just kind of looked poorly-drawn. That's one of the detrimental factors that repelled me from the monthly, serially published that time has not healed. Just looking at the credit page of this collection, there are 15 credited artists. That is a lot of artists for a 12-issue series. Lee Garbett and Trevor Scott are the "regular" penciler and inker, respectively, but by my count Garbett pencils seven issues solo, with four other of the other issues involving him splitting pencilling duties with another artist. Scott inks just four issues solo, two others with another inker, one with two other inkers, and then others ink the rest. While the book looks mediocre at best for these first 12 issues, the constant fluctuations of style and ability that comes with so many artists trying to draw a single book over the course of just one year certainly don't help matters at all.

It's really a shame, because writer Bryan Q. Miller seems to be on fairly solid footing here, once old Batgirl Cassandra Cain is waved off the stage. Stephanie Brown is about to start her freshman year in college, and just about everything has changed for her and the rest of the Bat-family of late. Batman dying will do that.

It took me a bit to orient myself exactly, but at this point in Bat-history Bruce Wayne was temporarily dead, Tim Drake had taken the name Red Robin and left Gotham City, Dick Grayson had assumed the role of Batman and was fighting alongside the new Robin Damian Wayne, Alfred apparently left town to lead The Outsiders (???) and, as previously noted, Batgirl randomly decides to quit being Batgirl, handing Steph her costume with a series of short, cryptic declarative sentences: "I fought for him. But no more. Now, the fight is yours..."

So Steph continues to scratch her vigilante crime-fighting itch as the new Batgirl, until original Batgirl Barbara Gordon busts her. Like everyone else, Babs doesn't really think Stephanie has the chops for this, and wants her to stop immediately. That's one charming difference between this Batgirl and the previous ones. She's not a genius like Barbara, and she's not an invincible, natural-born fighting machine like Cassandra: She's basically just got a good heart, a lot of pluck and the experience that comes with years of trying to run with the bats, screwing up and falling short, but getting back up again. In Batman comics, Stephanie Brown is the epitome of dusting yourself off and trying again.

Miller gets that, accentuates it and makes it integral to her characterization and the premise of the series. Like Kelley Puckett and Scott Peterson did on the previous Batgirl series, he pairs Stephanie with Barbara Gordon as a mother/mentor figure, giving Babs co-star status, but Miller's series takes it a step further. While the previous Batgirl starred a teenage vigilante who was torn between to "parents" with different ideas about who she should be in Barbara Gordon and Batman, this series essentially posits Batgirl as a collaboration between Stephanie Brown and Barbara Gordon, who supplies her with a new suit, Batman-level tech and weapons and constant Oracle-ing.

Within a matter of issues, it's Barbara Gordon and Stephanie Brown against the world. Meanwhile, Babs takes a job teaching at Stephanie's school, she develops a crush on a cute classmate whose father is tied to organized crime, and new Gotham City police detective Nick Gage is posited as the center of a potential love triangle involving the ladies of Team Batgirl. Gradually, Wendy Harris is introduced to the book and becomes a greater and greater part of the cast, eventually becoming another protegee of Oracle's; Wendy, if you have forgotten, blocked it out of your mind or were lucky enough to never read it, was the DCU version of the Superfriends character, who was paralyzed by a monster version of Wonder Dog, who killed and ate her brother Marvin. It was a stupid, stupid time at DC Comics; this follows not only the events of that series, but I'm assuming something that must have happened in Birds of Prey too, as Barbara apparently has history with Wendy and The Calculator, Wendy and Marvin's father.

Because of the particular make-up of the Batman line at the time, we get to see Oracle and the new Batgirl working with (and/or against) the Dick Grayson and Damian Wayne version of the Dynamic Duo. Damian and Stephanie play off one another delightfully, as Damian is 1000-times more forceful in his condemnation of Steph than Tim or even Batman ever were, and it was actually kind of fun to see the restoration of the old Batgirl/Robin dynamic, where in Robin looked down on Batgirl and she resented the fact that he and Batman didn't accept her as a full partner. It's also fun to see Dick-as-Batman having disagreements about how to train and manage kids in capes with Barbara instead of Bruce-as-Batman, given Dick and Babs' long, occasionally romantic history, and, of course, the fact that they themselves used to be Robin and Batgirl.

Despite the relatively poor and rather inconsistent art (particularly when compared to that of the Batgirl: Cassandra Cain collections), I rather enjoyed this, and especially appreciated how these first 12 issues of the series all read like single graphic novel in one sitting. There are multiple story arcs within, but they read like chapters in one big story arc. It is also particularly effective as the culmination of Stephanie Brown's life story, whereas after years of trying to work as Robin's partner, or Batgirl's sidekick, or as Robin, or solo, she's finally found where she truly belongs.

So of course DC would cancel the book 12 issues later and reboot the whole universe, so that Stephanie Browns' years-long mega-story arc never actually happened, and we would eventually get a weird, bowdlerized version of the character that lacked the history, relationships and personality traits that made the pre-Flashpoint version of the character appealing in the first place.

DC Comics/Dark Horse Comics: Batman Vs. Predator

The official title is a bit of a mouthful, but this $35*, 370-page trade paperback is a pretty great collection, including all three Batman/Predator miniseries: 1991's Batman Vs. Predator, 1995's Batman Vs. Predator II: Bloodmatch and 1997's Batman Vs. Predator III: Blood Ties. As is so often the case with sequels, each consecutive miniseries was less good than the one that preceded it, but all three are head-and-shoulders above the comics featuring Batman's last two encounters with the Predator species of alien hunters, 2001's JLA Vs. Predator and 2007's Superman and Batman Vs. Alien and Predator.

I read the first of these in single issues as they were released, but this time was my first time re-reading that story in a very long time. Bloodmatch I only read for the first time rather recently and I am fairly certain this was the first time I read the third series (or, if I had read it before, I had somehow managed to completely forget ever having done so).

That first was written by Davie Gibbons and featured art by the Kubert brothers, with Andy penciling, Adam inking (and lettering) and Sherilyn Van Valkenburgh coloring. I recall it having been a rather big deal at the time, being one of the relatively early inter-company crossovers of its kind. I liked it a lot back then, and it holds up remarkably well.

Gibbons wrote what was basically a Batman story featuring a Predator alien, as the Dark Knight uses his detective skills, fighting prowess and technological achievement to solve a series of spectacularly brutal murders that are eventually attributed to a so-called "See Through Slasher."

The Predator, this one bearing the one from Predator II's massive arsenal of sci-fi weaponry, arrives in Gotham City, finds a hiding spot, and then proceeds to watch the news to look for the city's best fighters and all-around tough guys, starting with a pair of championship boxers, and then their gangster patrons, ultimately going after crime-fighters like Commissioner Gordon and, of course, the Batman himself. The final fight involved Batman suiting up in a special costume of the sort a Batman action figure line might include, and ultimately beating on his foe with a baseball bat.

It's very much the work of a writer-writer, rather than a fan writer, as Gibbons is pretty intent on telling a complete standalone story--albeit it one set within Batman continuity--instead of what one might expect from a more modern writer who grew up on such comics. Like, I'd certainly want to see Predator take on Batman's rogues gallery, although that would necessarily have to be an Elseworlds kinda comic. Gotham City is, after all, something of a game preserve stocked with the worst killers in the world.

I remembered really liking the Kubert's art back then--when this would have been among the first comics I had read--and I'm genuinely surprised at how well that holds up. There's a touch of the '90s about it, aesthetically, but it more closely resembles, say, Jim Lee inked by Joe Kubert than the art of either Kubert brother today, one of whom has since drawn a fairly healthy number of comics featuring Batman since his collaboration with Grant Morrison on "Batman and Son."

The coloring of their art is pretty stylized, with an almost Vertigo-esque palate. It looks more like a Dark Horse Predator comic of that era, rather than a Batman comic of that era, alternating between dim and dark, with the most colorful pages being somewhat washed out in their look. The brightest color in the whole comic is the red of the blood.

Bloodmatch was written by Doug Moench and featured pencil art by Paul Gulacy and inks by Terry Austin. In that one, a rogue Predator makes a surprise comeback to Gotham--the end of the first crossover implied that Batman had hoped by proving how dangerous he was to hunt, he would have scared future visits from more of that particular kind of alien--and The Huntress, who was at that point a very unwelcome presence in Gotham City, trying to fight crime there using more violent methods that Batman was willing to condone.

Moench's plot is a lot more busy than Gibbons', but it still works as both a Predator narrative and a Batman one, and Gulacy's art is always a treat. There's a real weirdness to his character designs and acting that I find enormously appealing.

Finally, there's Blood Ties. This one feels so much like a regular Batman comic that it actually could have run in the pages of Batman or Detective Comics. Maybe that has something to do with the presence of writer Chuck Dixon, who was writing like at least half of all Batman comics during any given month back then. Batman and Robin Tim Drake are dealing with Mister Freeze and his gang, when two visitors appear to join the hunt (There's a neat moment where Mister Freeze's lack of discernable body temperature renders him invisible to the Predators, who can only seen heat-signatures).

Batman tries to keep Robin completely out of the loop, as he thinks the Predators are far too dangerous for his teenage sidekick, but that ultimately proves impossible, as it turns out these two Predators are a father and son pair, and each has chosen one of the Dynamic Duo as their quarry. Batman sets a trap for them, in which he wears another special Preadtor-fighting costume--this one with a Robocop-like visor that echoes the one worn by the special alien-hunters in Bloodmatch, while Robin and Alfred face off against the younger one in the Batcave.

Among the innovations of Dixon's script, drawn by pencil artist Rodolfo Damaggio and inker Robert Campanella, is a fleshing out of something implied in the Predator II film, that these Predators have been visiting Earth for a very, very long time, and we see flashback-like scenes where they encounter human foes in centuries past and acquire trophies for them (which suggests another DC Comics/Predator story, in which Predators visit various historical heroes like Jonah Hex and Enemy Ace and the Crimson Avenger and Sgt. Rock and The Sandman Wesley Dodds, although perhaps there aren't any such heroes with enough name recognition to justify ever publishing such a series. It would be more interesting than anything like Superman and Batman Versus Aliens and Predator, though!).

There are plenty of goodies beyond the comics themselves in here too. There's what appears to be a Dave Gibbons foreword to the original collection of the original series, and afterwords from co-editors Diana Schutz and Denny O'Neil. That last one is particularly interesting, as in it O'Neil admits he had next to nothing to do with the actual editing of the series, and his main contribution was deciding whether or not Predator and Batman belonged in the same comic, given their diverse milieus, and the justification he came up with (While there's an aura of the sci-fi about the Predator aliens, the way they are always presented, in film as well as in the comics, is so mysterious that they are essentially just strange, monstrous killers whose origins are secondary, and thus there's little difference between Batman fighting one of them and Batman fighting, say, a vampire or werewolf or suchlike).

That justification was even needed and considered shows how unusual the crossover was in 1991 and 1992, and how much more vigilantly Batman was policed for internal, aesthetic consistencies back then.

That's followed by what's called a "Pinup and Cover Gallery," although I could swear most of those pin-ups come from what Schutz refers to as the "fershlugginer trading cards." So in addition to covers by Christopher Warner, Arthur Suydam, Simon Bisley (artist for Batman Vs. Judge Dredd, another very early inter-company crossover), DaMaggio and Gibbons, there's a fairly fantastic gallery of images of Batman fighting Predator, many of them from artists who would go on to do some pretty damn notable Batman work in the future: Arthur Adams, John Byrne, Jackson Guice, John Higgins, Adam Hughes, Michael W. Kaluta, Sam Kieth, Joe Kubert, Mike Mignola (that's a re-colored version of his image that graces the cover of this collection), Steve Rude, Tim Sale, Walt Simonson (Damn, look at those Batman ears! We often talk about Batman ear-length, but Batman ear-width gets considerably less attention), Matt Wagner and Tom Yeats.

The Wagner image is a particular favorite, and one I quite clearly remember from first seeing it some 25 years ago. It featured Batman stalking through the sewers, a black blade in each hand, one of which is shaped like a bat, while what must be a 12-foot Predator looms behind him, the dripping water short-circuiting its light-bending camouflage technology, and its face hidden in shadow save for pupil-less red eyes and white teeth.

I'm in no hurry to read another, modern Batman/Predator comic, although I can think of at least two reasons why I'd love to see one. First, I'd like to see more of Matt Wagner's version of the Predator (and Wagner's a hell of a Batman writer as well, handling a memorable Legends of the Dark Knight arc entitled "Faces," a pretty great Batman crossover with his Grendel character and, more recently, a suite of "Year One" era miniseries) and, second, I haven't seen Kelley Jones draw a Predator yet.

So maybe if DC and Dark Horse hired Wagner to write and draw a Long Halloween/Dark Victory-style and -sized series, with Kelley Jones on covers, that would be pretty alright with me.

Robin Vol. 4: Turning Point

This latest collection of the early-nineties launched, Chuck Dixon-scripted Robin ongoing series contains eight issues of Robin, plus the lead stories from two issues of Showcase '94. The interesting thing about the collection, which isn't a very good read, is that every single issue in it is part of a crossover of one kind or another, and, with the exception of the Robin/Showcase '94 crossover, none of those crossover stories can be collected here in their entirety, given their size. They have been collected elsewhere, but after the first sixty pages or so, the rest of the book is devoted to the Robin chapters of "KnightQuest," "KnightsEnd," "Prodigal" (chapters 4, 8 and the conclusion) and Zero Hour (the tie-in as well as Robin #0, both of which I just recently re-read in the Batman: Zero Hour collection).

Given the apparent remit of the series of collections, there's no other way around this, really, but it makes for a particularly off-putting reading experience. I mean, I managed just fine, but then I read almost all of these comics once before, and I also read the missing chapters of stories like "KnightsEnd" and "Prodigal" and so on. Picking this up today and reading these stories for the first time might be difficult, although I guess most readers would be able to figure out what else they need to read to make sense of what's going on.

The one complete story in the volume is entitled "Benedictions," and it features pencil art by Phil Jimenez (who actually draws a fair amount of this collection) and inks from three different inkers, one per issue. A sequel of sorts to Dixon's third pre-monthly miniseries, Robin III: Cry of The Huntress (which had some downright goofy special covers), it re-teams Robin with the mafia-hunting black sheep of Gotham City vigilantes.

Like so many of Dixon's scripts, the basic plot was somewhat generic, and could have been used for just about any superhero character: An unlikely mob boss moves to seize control of organized crime in the city, and an even more unlikely deadly vigilante attempts to stop her, with Robin and Huntress caught in the middle. That said, I always dug--and still dig--the chemistry between Dixon's version of Tim Drake and The Huntress.

Whenever Batman and Huntress teamed up (like in Batman Vs. Predator II: Bloodmatch, above), there was a predictable, even tedious dynamic between the two, with the stern Batman lecturing her on her use of force, her lack of training and the fact that Gotham was his city and he was therefore boss of everyone wearing a cape in it (His objections to her brutality always felt a little off too, as it's not like she ever actually killed anyone, or hurt her criminal prey any worse than he did, you know? If you're arguing whether shooting someone in the leg with a crossbow bolt is crueler than beating them into unconsciousness with your bare hands or giving them concussions with pointy metal projectiles well, at that point it's getting pretty academic).

Robin, being a teenager, was more of an irritating little brother to her. Judging her and always rubbing in the fact that he had Batman's sanction and knew everything about her, while she knew next to nothing about the Dynamic Duo.

That's followed by the Tom Grummett-drawn conclusion to "KnightQuest," in which Jack Drake and Bruce Wayne both return to Gotham City and Bruce sees what Jean-Paul Valley has been up to in his absence. Then there are two issues of "KnightsEnd" tie-ins, in which Grummett and inker Ray Kryssing get to draw Nightwing, Lady Shiva and both Batmen. Then there are the two Zero Hour-related issues, also by Grumett, and three chapters of "Prodigal," two-and-a-half of which are penciled by Jimenez (the final issue is divided between a tense talk between Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson in the Batcave, as the former is ready to reclaim his mantle from the latter's stewardship, which is drawn by Jimenez, and Tim's battle against Steeljacket, penciled by a John Cleary).

It was nice to see such relatively early Jimenez art, which proved what a really great artist he was. His work is super-detailed, resulting in figures that were as close to photo-realistic as you were likely to get in those days (something achieved by hand, rather than with a computer), and his characters all had a George Perez-like range in their acting.

He draws a handful of great cityscapes that look like he must have labored over them forever, and I really liked the detail work he brought to the characters, the way his Tim looks like a 15-year-old kid, or his Azrael Batman's intricate costume looked realistic rather than the work of an overly fussy Jim Lee clone and, especially, the way he drew Dick Grayson Batman's  "shoulder spikes," so that they are a part of the costume, and not merely an artistic flourish.

That last issue is actually pretty great, because it contrasts the work of Jimenez with Cleary, whose work I am not familiar with, but draws here like a mix between a then-popular Todd MacFarlane/Rob Liefeld style artist and a Batman Adventures contributor, resulting in images that are ridiculously overblown but also kind of cartoony. (As I was writing this paragraph, I paused to send cellphone photos of his Renee Montoya to my friend Meredith, who likes Gotham Central's Montoya a lot; Cleary poses her in various crazy ways, my favorite panel probably being the one where she's posed at the bottom of a flight of stairs, her left foot on the floor, her right foot on the sixth step up. She looks like a giantess climbing the stairs sideways, like a crab.)

I also quite clearly remembered the end of the Grayson/Wayne conversation, which actually brought a tear to my eye.

The cliffhanger ending has Robin returning to the Batcave to find Dick back in his Nightwing costume, as Bruce Wayne was ready to go back to being Batman. Jimenez's final splash, shows Tim and Dick reacting to Batman's new costume, which is drawn so that all we can see is the whites of his eyes and the yellow of his bat-symbol and utility belt.

If you were reading back then, this was teasing the debut of his new all-black costume, which would be prominently featured on the covers for the next issues of Batman, Detective, Shadow of The Bat and Robin, including on embossed black covers.

I liked the Kelley Jones covers best. Here's the regular cover, which was awesome...
And here's the embossed one, which, um, obviously didn't photograph well, being all-black and all...

*Considerably less on Amazon, but you shouldn't buy comics from Amazon. You should totally support your local comic shop.

1 comment:

CalvinPitt said...

I like the first 12 issues of the Stephanie Brown Batgirl series alright, but I think the second half of the series is stronger. Miller's gotten the obligatory story where the hero everyone doubts proves she's got the chops, and gives us a lot of fun shorter stories. There's still a few different artists, but one of them is Dustin Nguyen (he draws four or five of the issues), which brings the average up a bit.