Monday, December 31, 2018

On Shiori Teshirogi's designs in Batman and The Justice League Vol. 1

The first superhero that young, Japanese point-of-view character Rui Aramiya meets in manga-ka Shiori Teshirogi's Batman and The Justice League is, of course, Batman. Rui takes a cab to Gotham City, which he thinks to himself has "always been the crime capital of America...But lately, something has happened there...The city's even more dangerous than it used to be."

His friendly driver tells Rui that you couldn't pay him enough to drive into that hellhole, and he drops him off on the other side of the bridge that leads into Gotham City, "Sorry, but this is as far as I go." After walking across the lonely, empty bridge, the first person Rui encounters is a Gotham City police officer, and he momentarily feels least until the officer asks him to pay a toll. When Rui refuses, the officer's partner grabs him. There's a brief struggle--Rui has trained in martial arts, and has several weapons on him--but he takes a grazing shot to the arm, and the first officer levels his gun at the back of his head.

On the next page, a huge image of Batman fills about two-thirds of the space allotted by the two-page spread, as he seemingly appears behind the officer, accompanied by a small flock of bats. "It's true," Batman says, smiling, one staring pupil visible through the usually opaque white lens of his cowl, the other obscured. "Death comes for everyone."

He kicks the officer so hard he goes flying across the bridge, denting the metal railing. His partner sees what's happening: "Bat-Man! He-- --He just took out Joey!" Batman then grabs the insides of his cape and launches himself up into the air, briefly seeming to transform into the silhouette of a giant bat, and then lands near the second, bigger corrupt officer, who tries to grab Batman. But there's nothing there but black speed lines. Batman seems to move at super-speed. He's just a black streak of motion and cape, a cloud encircling his prey, who continues to grab out at him, wrestling with the cape in confusion.
All the while, Batman keeps making his speech: "Rich or poor man, woman or child... ..saint or sinner...everyone dies eventually."

Then Batman grabs the huge man by the throat and leaps to the top of the police car, in another large image that fills a page and a half of a two-page spread. "But not today. Not while I'm here. Not while I'm breathing." The thug blusters, "G-- Go to hell....You freak!" And then Batman slams the man so hard into the roof of the car that it leaves a dent roughly the size and shape of the man in it, and he falls into unconsciousness.

I've been reading comic book since 1990 or so, and Batman comics were among the first I started reading regularly, and I never really stopped reading Batman comics. So I have seen Batman make a lot of entrances over the years, but I can honestly say I have never seen him make one exactly like this. While I was reading this scene, it was like I was seeing Batman intervene in a street crime for the first time, rather than the 500th time.

Part of that is likely simply the style of the Teshirogi's artwork and Japanese-focused manga storytelling; I've of course read manga Batman before (from Jiro Kuwata, from Kia Asamiya and, briefly, from Katsuhiro Otomo), and elements of his introduction here are familiar from other scenes in other comics (and films and cartoons), but it still felt brand new here.

As I mentioned in my review of the first volume of the manga, Batman and The Justice League makes a pretty strong argument for entrusting characters to new creators chosen from far outside the normal talent pool. Say what you will about the strengths and weaknesses of Geoff Johns, Jim Lee and company's 2011-2012 Justice League #1-#6 (and I was not a fan), it didn't look, read or feel all that different from all the other Johns-written and Lee-drawn DC super-comics we've read over the decades. If anything, it only drew attention to how similar the "New" 52 was to the old comics, therefore emphasizing the more minor differences for readers to focus on (costume design and continuity, mostly).
This manga can't help but cause a certain kind of reader--the kind like me, I guess--to compare and contrast it to that first New 52 Justice League arc, as Teshirogi is so clearly using it as a starting point. The character line-up is that of the New 52. The basics of the costume designs are the same, as well.

It's most telling in her Aquaman, who still wears the necklaces and has the sideburns that Lee gave him in that first, "year one" arc, but which disappeared afterwards, but Superman is still trunk-less, Wonder Woman hasn't yet adopted her "Rebirth" war-skirt, and the heavily-armored Batman still has knee-high boots with bat-shaped kneepads (the interiors are all black and white, but as you can see on the cover, this Batman wears shiny, metallic gauntlets and boots, rather than the muted black ones he wore before his first post-Flashpoint costume change).
There are a few images of the League, including a brief montage of all seven of them in different panels in their home environments on page three, a splash page of the team posing followed by a sequence of panels featuring each of them as Commissioner Gordon talks about the League to Rui and an image of the team battling Parademons in the ruins of a city during a sequence in which Lex Luthor talks to Rui about how easily his fellow human beings can be distracted by "those cocky, bizarre 'superheroes'."

That last image, of course, is a direct allusion to the events of Justice League #1-#6.
I wanted to take a few moments to look more closely at what Teshrogi did with the familiar characters, keeping in mind that the broad strokes of their costumes are all apparently Lee-derived.

Aside from those few brief glances of the whole team, the characters featured in this volume are Batman (and Bruce Wayne), Superman (and Clark Kent), The Joker, Lex Luthor and Ocean Master.

Alfred Pennyworth, Commissioner Gordon and Lois Lane all also make appearances, although Lois is only seen briefly in two panels, getting about five lines of dialogue and being seen only from behind and in profile. All three of these supporting characters look about as one would expect them to. Lois has dark hair and seems dressed appropriately for the office, something American artists sometimes don't bother to do in order to draw a sexy lady in sexy clothes; Gordon looks exactly like one would expect Gordon to loo, and Alfred has a fairly full head of gray or white hair pushed back, and no mustache. I don't care for a mustache-less Alfred, personally.
The hero we see the most of is Batman. There are a couple of panels in which we see him wrapped in his cape and standing tall and erect, in which the figure suggests that of Norm Breyfogle, or perhaps Neal Adams (who so inspired Breyfogle's own work), maybe even Jim Aparo or Bernie Wrightson. Again, these are just a few panels; standing atop the bridge leading into Gotham on the page three montage, or standing at the entrance to The Joker's hide-out.

The American artists whose work Teshirogi's Batman reminded me most of, however, was that of Tom Mandrake or Bret Blevins (the latter from his Shadow of The Bat run), in terms of the ear length, and the general shape of the figure, when it's unobscured by the cape (for example, on pages 27 and 28, and we see him atop the police car, clutching one of the police officers by the throat.

I was particularly struck by how Teshirogi handled Batman's eyes. Traditionally, the eyes on Batman's mask are just white shapes, usually triangles, because he's often making an angry face. I think this was just a visual quirk of his original creators and artists, but by the 1990s, when comics creators became increasingly concerned with realism, scripts would mention the lenses in Batman's cowl, usually in the context of Batman switching to night-vision or infrared or whatever. Then the opaque white shapes of his eyes must be white lenses.

Whatever, Batman is almost always depicted with pupil-less white eyes, so much so that it can be strange to see him with pupils, with only Alex Ross and Sean Murphy coming to mind as artists who draw Batman with pupils staring out of his mask (and, of course, movie Batman usually has pupils). Some of the most famous and influential Batman artists generally draw Batman pupil-less unless there's a need or reason to see his pupil, in which case they appear for the necessary length of time.

Teshirogi generally draws Batman has pupil-less, as in this image, from when he confronts The Joker:
But sometimes she does draw his pupils, and when she does they seem to be semi-obscured by the lens of his mask, giving them a color-less look. We generally see them appear in close-up, or when he is projecting a motion other than his default emotional setting of, you know, Batman:
And, as I mentioned previously, upon his first appearance, Teshirogi draws him both ways, simultaneously, which has the effect of introducing her Batman as capable of switching back and forth between the two depictions and, more importantly, looking really weird.
And Batman should be, above all else, weird looking. That is how his first origin story referred to him, after all, as "this weird figure of the dark...this avenger of evil, 'The Batman'."

As noted, Teshirogi's Batman has shiny, metallic gauntlets, with blade-like scallops and built in "brass" knuckles, as well as metallic boots. They look lighter and shinier within the pages of the comic itself, but are not so strikingly different from the rest of his costume on the black and white pages as they appear on the full-color cover. I guess that shining armor does visually contribute to the idea of Batman as a dark knight...?

He appears to have a wrist-mounted grappling hook in them, as when he leaves Rui on the bridge after checking on his wound and calling Gordon, he swings away on a metal cord that projects from underneath the metal arm guard.

We--and Rui--don't meet Batman's alter ego for some time, but when we do, we see this Bruce Wayne looks about as one would expect: Thick black hair, mostly pushed back upon his head, with stray strands here and there, prominent eye brows, something of the scowl about his expression, even when smiling.

Rui has come to town in search of his scientist parents, who went missing in a mysterious power plant explosion in Gotham City a year ago, and are believed to be dead. Their background--and Rui's--are presented as something of a mystery, but we learn early on that Rui has been trained by his father to fight, he carries a valuable sword with him (along with his other ninja weapons), and that Batman reminds him of his father.

As for what has gone wrong in Gotham City to make it worse than usual, that appears to be The Joker's latest plot. He's been bottling and distributing something called Gaia Juice, which "brings out primeval human instincts" in those that drink it (The cops who attacked Rui were drinking it). After telling Rui to go home, Batman tracks it to its source, which doesn't seem like something that would require the World's Greatest Detective to do: A line of trucks marked "Gaia Juice" leads to a glittering, circus-themed factory with the words "Joker Palace" and "Gaia Juice" on it.

The Joker and Batman battle, Teshirogi sketching out the nature of their relationship in their dialogue exchange, with Joker trying to goad Batman into killing him, and Batman refusing to cross that line, no matter what Joker does to push him, including, here, reminding him that he killed Robin and, just afterward, dousing him with Gaia Juice. ("You know what that means?" The Joker asks. "It means we can play cat and mouse forever.")

The specifics of this Batman's Robin aren't really gone into, but we do get to see Teshirogi's design for the character:
There are a couple of notable things here. First and foremost, is Robin's costume. It is not based on the designs for New 52 Robin (Damian) or Red Robin (Tim Drake, from The New 52's Teen Titans) or the original New 52 Robin (Dick Grayson, who was retroactively revealed to have worn a busier version of Tim Drake's Robin costume from the 1990s during his tenure as Robin). Instead, Teshirogi seems to have based her design on the original Robin costume--which Flashpoint apparently removed from existence--adding a pair of pants, Damian-like boots (which could just as easily have been inspired from those worn by Robin on Teen Titans and the Teen Titans Go! cartoons, I guess) and a bigger utility belt and  bigger, billowing cape, which appears to scallop at the end a bit.

Joker only mentions him in passing, saying that he used "a big wipe the smile off that face forever!", and there's an image of Batman cradling the body of Robin that was pretty clearly referenced off of death of Jason Todd-related images. Later, Alfred refers in passing to the death of "Master Jason," telling Batman he just hasn't seemed the same since.

This would seem to be a break from the New 52 continuity, of course, as The Joker did kill Jason Todd in the current continuity, but Todd came back to life almost immediately, and should have/would have been alive around the time this story would be set were it operating in the New 52 continuity that inspired its costuming.

Anyway, this is where we meet Teshirogi's Joker:

He gets two big scenes in this volume. The first is his battle with Batman, which takes up much of the 54-page second chapter, and he returns near the climax of the book, where he and Lex Luthor talk about their shared plans for the city and the world.

Teshirogi's Joker seems to owe the most to the Heath Ledger version from The Dark Knight. His smile appears to be painted on with lipstick around the mouth, and his eyes are similarly surrounded in messy make-up. He doesn't seem to have scars, but otherwise seems to be made-up more than mutated. His hair is long-ish and slicked back.

In terms of fashion, his costume is fairly basic for a Joker costume, in that it is extravagant formal wear, topped off with a long coat featuring exaggerated lapels and tails, and the most notable alterations being the big symbols representing the four suits of the playing cards on his lapels, and his boots, which you can see in the second panel above.

It's black and white, so we can only assume he's wearing his customary purple, but given the presence of the suits, I wonder if maybe he could be wearing a white suit, or perhaps a red one. I like when The Joker changes the color of his suits every now and then.

The Joker gets to monologuing, telling Batman that he a woman imprisoned in a vat of Gaia Juice is a Japanese goddess who is able to bridge the power of ley lines and the liquid he's been bottling, giving the juice its strange ability to so affect the human mind. When Batman has The Joker on the ropes, he's attacked by The Joker's new partner, a mask-wearing, sword-wielding Japanese demon introduced as Akurou. When The Joker sets off an explosion, Batman manages to escape with the woman, who he brings back to Wayne Manor.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Gordon has taken Rui back to the police station, and Rui explains his search for his parents, and Gordon tells him how unlikely it is that either survived (Funny, we just saw a mysterious Japanese woman and a mysterious Japanese man in The Joker scene!). Rui investigates the site  of the accident anyway, and there he encounters Lex Luthor, who tells him of his plans to improve the human race.

Meanwhile, Batman meets with his partner as well. We first meets Superman as Clark Kent at The Daily Planet, perusing an article about the explosion in Gotham. He asks Lois to cover for him, goes up to the roof, opens his shirt in the traditional Superman way, and then flies up to space to look at the Earth with his various vision powers.

Teshirogi's Clark looks younger and, well, cuter than usual, with no real hint of his super-physique in evidence--even when he's appear as Superman, he is more defined in his musculature than big and swollen looking. His hair is tousled and almost unkempt looking. I like the pattern of his dress shirt, too, which looks younger and more Smallville than the sorts of business wear we usually see him drawn in.

Here's one of the only action shots of her Superman in this volume:
After using his various perception-related powers to examine the Earth and events in Gotham from space, he plunges back down, to float god-like through a huge window in Wayne Manor.

He is basically wearing his New 52 costume, although Teshirogi doesn't bother drawing the "sections" of it that Lee first drew, which made it look like Superman was wearing some sort of armor (Is it also significant that she drew him wearing the costume under his work clothes? I recall for a while there they were going with the idea that Superman's costume appeared and disappeared through some sort of of molecular process).

She doesn't draw him with his spitcurl either; the only real difference between Superman's hair and Clark's is the former's looks to be worn slicked back, which seems to be the style in Gotham City.

As the first volume reaches its climax, and we see The Joker and Luthor plotting together, Ocean Master escapes from Belle Reeve Penitentiary, and, after killing a guard, makes straight for Gotham. Luthor says he is following the power of the ley lines, and that Ocean Master will be the first of many to do so; others like him will there engage the Justice League, and while they fight each other, Luthor will use the Arimayas to manipulate the ley lines and bring about a new era of the human race.

One imagines the League will stop him, of course, but this first volume ends with the very unlikely match-up of Ocean Master and Batman, who tells Ocean Master, "This I vow.. will not set foot in Gotham." Maybe, maybe not. If not, I imagine Aquaman will have something to do with it, as he's on the cover for the next volume.
I'm obviously pretty eager to see what Teshirogi does with these other characters in the coming volumes, and to see if she does indeed work in the archenemy of each Justice Leaguer as she goes.

Were Scott Snyder's Justice League so good so far, I would say this was my favorite Justice League comic of the year. It's definitely the second best one, and is perhaps tied with Scott Peterson and Kelley Jones' Kings of Fear for best Batman comic, in terms of making the character seem new and interesting and fresh again.

This volume also includes a 14-page character design gallery--that's where the Aquaman image earlier in the post is taken from--during which we see her designs for various characters, including a Harley Quinn who doesn't appear within these pages at all, and two different Wonder Womans, one in her New 52 costume, and another in her "Rebirth" costume.

No comments: