Friday, July 09, 2021

A Month of Wednesdays: June 2021


Batman & Scooby-Doo Mysteries #3 (DC Comics) Writer Ivan Cohen and artist Dario Brizuela  return for "Double-Dog Dare," in which Two-Face targets the Gotham City Dog Show for reasons that are...well, they involve his obsession with the number two and doubles, anyway. Luckily, Batman has Ace, Scooby-Doo and Mystery, Inc in his corner and are able to save the day in this well-made but otherwise unremarkable kids comic. 

Batman: The Dark Knight Detective Vol. 5 (DC) This 280-book collects Detective Comics #613-614*, #616-621 and Detective Comics Annual #3, making for another substantial chunk of the Alan Grant/Norm Breyfogle/Steve Mitchell run on the character.

Much of the book consists of done-in-ones and shorter stories, as Grant would so often craft 22-page scripts around a particular subject—cats, garbage, symbolism—and riff on it with various bits of trivia and available Batman connections. 

And so the volume opens with a perfectly satisfying, somewhat complex story involving Catwoman, Catman and one of Catman's escaped tigers (this is the story  in which Catman debuts a new, Breyfogle-designed costume, which I think is my favorite Catman costume. He would get a new one in Villians United). There are also stories in which an eighth-grader doing an ecology project on garbage does a ride-along with his garbage truck driver father and gets mixed up with the mob; there's a Batman and Bruce Wayne team-up to save some kids from a life of crime offered by motorcycle gang The Street Demonz (ending with an unusual-looking splash page upon which Batman smiles broadly); there's Batman taking on a prehistoric horror that awoke from a mysterious ancient mound; and Batman reluctantly taking up a fortune teller's offer for help in tracking The Joker with a tarot deck (while flashing back to an earlier encounter between the two, in which Batman thwarts a museum heist).

These are all well-crafted superhero comics, and filled with dynamic art by Breyfogle and Mitchell, art which still counts among the best Batman art ever produced on a regular basis. But the story in this volume that would ultimately prove most important is the four-part "Rite of Passage," as it was a pretty key chapter in Tim Drake's development into the third Robin.

Tim had been staying with Batman and Alfred while his important business-people parents were flying around the world doing business stuff, and, in this story, their plane goes down in the Caribbean, where they are taken hostage by voodoo-powered villain The Obeah Man. Batman leaves Tim behind to try to rescue them, but it goes badly, with Tim's mother dying and his father left in a coma after the pair drink poisoned water (Tim, meanwhile, keeps himself busy crimefighting online, as he butts heads with Lonnie "Anarky" Manchin for the first time, the teenage villain using the alias "Moneyspider" to rob from the rich and give to the poor).

Rounding out the collection is 1990's Detective Comics Annual #3, by writer Archie Goodwin and the art team of Dan Jurgens and Dick Giordano. The only story in the collection not by the Grant/Breyfogle team, this over-sized story is something of a plot-heavy action movie of a comic book, involving Batman traveling to Japan, where after much intrigue he finds himself battling one of the men who trained a young Bruce Wayne. 

"Rite of Passage" was actually the conclusion of the Grant/Breyfogle team's run on Detective Comics—they would move on to a short stint of another dozen and change issues on Batman from there but I'm hopeful the Dark Knight Detective series continues for at least another volume, as some truly weird comics follow. There's a three-part John Ostrander/Flint Henry collaboration with crazy-looking covers by the Dick Sprang, some Marv Wolfman/Jim Aparo issues and then some Peter Milligan-scripted issues. The next volume would also presumably include Detective Comics #627, which reprints the very first Batman story, "The Case of The Criminal Syndicate," and then offers various teams doing their own "cover" versions of that story. 

All in all, Detective Comics gets pretty chaotic following Grant and Breyfogle's run, but it also gets very interesting, and I haven't read (and read and re-read and re-read) a lot of those stories, so I'm not as familiar with them as I am with what's filled the last few volumes of the series. I am therefore extremely interested in them.

DC Pride #1 (DC) My initial reaction to this book, as it was for last month's DC Festival of Heroes: The Asian Superhero Celebration (covered here), was one of cynicism—the cover was filled with characters that DC doesn't make much use of, with only the bisexual Harley Quinn appearing anywhere regularly (Midnighter appeared in some Future State back-ups, The Future State Flash obviously also appeared in some Future State books, and Alan Scott is set to be featured in the ensemble miniseries Infinite Frontier). But, as with Festival Heroes, the cover doesn't really reflect the interiors all that well, and I suppose that's why there's that saying about books and covers. 

I guess it's really Jim Lee's covers that I'm not overly fond of. Both specials were actually pretty good.

The similarities to Festival of Heroes don't stop there, of course. This is also $9.99, 80-page anthology featuring a particular sub-set of DC superhero characters—here, obviously, LGBTQIA+ characters—by creators who represent the same groups as the characters. 

The book includes nine short stories, plus seven pin-ups, a prose introduction by Marc Andreyko and six pages of "DCTV DC Pride Profiles", featuring interviews with the actors who play various LGBTQ characters on the various DC TV shows. 

Of the comics stories, I think the most interesting one was probably writer Sam Johns and artist Klaus Janson's "He's The Light of My Life" story featuring Alan Scott and his son Obsidian Todd Rice (who I would argue is probably the DC Universe's most prominent gay character, although I don't think I could convince many people of that, since he doesn't have a bat on his chest nor has he been in any movies). Alan, who just recently came out (and was thus was more-or-less retconned into being gay after about 80 years of being portrayed as straight), is meeting his son Todd's boyfriend at brunch for the very first time. They meet at a gay-owned restaurant that used to be a secret gay bar, back in Alan's day.

At one point the pair, who have had a particularly troubled relationship over the years, go to a back room and don their costumes, where Alan tries to explain what his decades of life in the closet were like, and how Todd being out gave him courage to eventually come out himself.

I think at this point, Alan Scott may be the single most interesting character in the DC Universe, as the revelation of his sexuality means he has been in the closet since at least 1940, during which time he was married, fathered two children and, of course, was one of the world's premiere superheroes. He's lived most of the twentieth century of American  history, and part of the 21st, as a closeted gay man, from the dawn of superheroes (in the real world as well as within the DCU) to now; the man has therefore seen some stuff, and could prove a fascinating prism through which to explore gay history, and pop culture's shifting attitudes about homosexuality. And I don't know, I think there's something interesting about someone as brave as Alan Scott—you know, an honest-to-God superhero, one of the heroes who was around early enough to provide a mold for most other superheroes—having the courage to fight wars and crime for decades, but still being reluctant to come out until 2021.

Beyond all of that, though, there's obviously a great deal of dramatic potential in his personal life, as one obviously wonders which if any of  his old JSA peers knew about it and how they felt about it (they're all close to being a hundred years old at this point, I have to assume at least some of them were assholes about it at some point, right? ), whether his wife Molly knew about it and, if he did, when she found out and why she stayed married to him so long and, of course, what it was like when his son came out to him and he didn't respond by coming out to him for  so many more years (and did Todd know? It seems like Todd suspected at some point before Alan made it official, according to the short story in Infinite Horizon). 

Johns and Janson's tale doesn't really get too deep into all of that—it's only a couple of pages long, of course—but it does touch on what it was like for Alan to be gay back in the mid-twentieth century versus today, and the story is well done enough that I would love to see this creative team tackle the character at greater length, and perhaps begin to address and answer some of the questions raised by Alan's coming out. 

Somewhat remarkably, this is perhaps the only story that wrestles with one might call "gay issues." Sure, there are a couple of stories in which characters go on dates (John Constantine tries to pick up Extrano in a bar in Steve Orlando and Stephen Byrne's "By The Victors," Future State Flash goes out with Future State Aquawoman in Danny Lore and Lisa Sterle's "Clothes Makeup Gift", the Supergirl TV show's Dreamer goes to the movies with Brainiac in Nicole Maines and Rachel Stott's "Date Night"), Mariko Tamaki and Amy Reeder have Poison Ivy all but force Harley Quinn into having a serious discussion about the state of their relationship in "Another Word For a Truck to Move Your Furniture"**, and Andrew Wheeler and Luciano Vecchio do a story set at a Pride parade, but all of these stories also involve typical superhero stuff, too.

So, for example, the Future State Flash and Dreamer don't angst about being trans; they fight Mirror Master and super-terrorists while trying not to keep their dates waiting. Aqualad goes to Pride with a young magician Raven introduced him to and the "JLQ" of all the gay character Vecchio can draw in a couple of panels show up, but that's to fight Eclipso. For the most part, these are stories about gay characters beings superheroes, not superheroes being gay, and I think that distinction is important, and, while I'm not the best-suited person to address the success or failures of such an endeavor in terms of representation, I think the book succeeds pretty wildly in this. 

Sina Grace writes a story featuring The Pied Piper entitled "Be Gay, Do Crime," repurposing an Internet phrase. "Be Gay, Fight Crime" could just as easily have been the title of this anthology, given the subject matter.(And even the villains who appear, like Piper, Harley and Ivy, act as heroes in their stories, rather than as villains).

I'd be remiss not to mention James Tynion IV and Trung Le Nguyen's Batwoman story, "The Wrong Side of The Looking Glass." Not only is it one of the stronger examples of a story in which the hero just happens to be gay, it's perhaps the most interesting looking story in the collection, thangs to Le Nguyen's strong style, so far removed from what one typically thinks of as superhero style, and the way in which he draws Kate's  hair and costume. It's one of the most distinct-looking Batwoman comics I've read, and that's a character whose relatively short history has been blessed with some incredible stylists portraying her adventures (Le Nguyen also contributed a short story to Festival of Heroes; I hope you've all read his The Magic Fish by now. I've certainly recommended it enough).

As with Festival, though, the real challenge isn't just to be able to let queer creators do stories with queer characters for a special, once-a-year issue, but to keep such talented creators working behind the scenes, and to keep queer characters like Extrano, Aqualad, Alan Scott and Obsidian front and center in the comics throughout the year. (I live-tweeted my reading of the book here, if you my most immediate thoughts, plus some scans of some of the great art in there).

Flash/Impulse: Runs in the Family (DC) If the title for this collection of the first year of the 1995-2002 Impulse series seems odd, it's because two of the issues of Impulse included are chapters of a six-part crossover storyline with The Flash, "Dead Heat", which is included in its entirety here. So in addition to Impulse #1-#12, the book includes Flash #108-#111; that was probably the best way to handle such a crossover when it comes to collections, although it does make it seem that a second Impulse collection collecting the next 12-16 issues is more unlikely (And perhaps it is; looking at Impulse's fellow teen heroes and Young Justice teammates, there were six collections devoted to the original Robin series from the nineties, but only one of the nineties Superboy series. There just might not be as much demand for reprints of these characters' adventures outside of my apartment as there in within my apartment).

As for what's under this particular cover, it's then-Flash writer Mark Waid's spin-off of the series, focused on the kinda-sorta teenage refugee from the 30th century, Silver Age Flash Barry Allen's grandson Bart Allen, who is living a millennium in his own past in order to train with his Flash-assigned mentor, Max Mercury, the so-called zen master of the Speed Force (Wally West doesn't have the patience for Bart, who, in addition to having the mind of a teenager, was raised in a VR simulation and has no concept of danger...and then there's also the fact that as much as Wally has matured from his own Kid Flash days, he's perhaps not quite yet mentor material himself). 

Humberto Ramos is the pencil artist for all 12 of the Impulse issues, and his work is particularly interesting at this point. In terms of character design, he's obviously heavily influenced by manga, his characters having outsized heads and eyes, but he also draws them with oversized hands and, especially, feet, giving everybody a somewhat awkward look that feels quite appropriate for high school freshmen like Bart and his peers (an awful lot of the book is set in and around Bart's high school, certainly far more so than other DC teen hero comics ever are). 

The Flash issues of "Dead Heat" are penciled by Oscar Jimenez and inked by Jose Marzan, Jr., and the shift in style is quite dramatic from that of Ramos; so much so that Bart and other characters like Xs seems to age years under a different artist's pencils. The tone also shifts pretty dramatically to deadly seriousness, as speedster and cult leader Savitar attempts to pierce the secrets of the Speed Force, and it's up to Wally and the extended Flash Family of speedsters—Max, Impulse, Xs, original Flash Jay Garrick, Johnny Quick and Jesse Quick—to stop him. 

Waid pretty impressively manages to keep the Impulse issues a bit lighter, but there's still a degree of whiplash involved in the crossover. As for the rest of the volume, it includes the debut of the villain White Lightning, a surpriosing story about child abuse, an Underworld Unleashed tie-in (pitting Impulse against the new and improved, big-headed Blockbuster) and Bart's brief, blossoming friendship with his cousin from the future, Xs, who is temporarily trapped in the past with him.

These are pretty great corporate super-comics, and they've aged pretty well, with only some of the slang really serving to mark their age. Another 16-issue collection—which I guess would have to be entitled Flash/Impulse Vol. 2 at this point?—would take us through the end of Waid's run, with the Tom Peyer-written Impulse #28 introducing Arrowette being the final issue (After that, William Messner-Loebs would take over as writer for some time). Fingers crossed DC deigns to do another one. 

Green Arrow 80th Anniversary 100-Page Super Spectacular #1 (DC) Chuck Dixon, Kevin Smith, Brad Meltzer, Judd Winick and Neal Adams are all missing from the credit pages of this special, which seems to have covered all eight decades of the Emerald Archer's career, and brought back many of the men who have worked on his adventures over the years, like Mike Grell, Phil Hester, Ande Parks, Jeff Lemire, Andrea Sorrentino, Tom Taylor, Benjamin Percy and Otto Schmidt (Adams does contribute one of the book's nine covers, predictably featuring Green Lantern Hal Jordan, but not an interior story; interestingly though, Chris Mooneyham draws a Satellite Era JLA story in what appears to be a decent approximation of Adams' style). 

There's a dozen stories in all, and the entire career of Green Arrow seems to be covered, including various takes on the character over the years, from his Golden Age Batman-with-a-bow time to his loud-mouthed Justice Leaguer, from Grell's gritty urban vigilante to Black Canary's lover/crime-fighting partner, from the legacy-heavy moments of the late 1990s and early '00s to two of the better-liked, post-New 52 takes. Heck, Taylor pairs with artist Nicola Scott for a story set during the character's "Year One" era, and Taylor's experience with the character has been limited to simply writing a fun version of him in the weird, non-canonical Injustice comics (a fun line of which this entire story is basically a riff on; that is, sometimes you need to punch someone but they are far away, hence the need for a boxing glove arrow).

Among my favorite stories were the first, a Golden Age homage by writer Mariko Tamaki and the incomparable artist Javier Rodriguez; former Titans writer (and apparent Roy Harper fan) Devin Grayson and Max Fiumara's Arsenal story, in which Roy tells his daughter Lian his biography as a bedtime story while babysitter Oliver Queen listens on; and Hester and Parks' "Star City Star," in which the post-resurrection Queen battles a psychic enemy who projects various villains and allies as opponents for him.

The Tamaki/Rodriguez story's charms are evident at a glance, with the artist providing his usually gorgeous and complex lay-outs in service of a cleverly-written if generic old-school adventure in which the very Batman and Robin-like Green Arrow and Speedy confront a minor hood with a good gimmick (Taylor's story, in which Ted Grant takes up training GA when he's not busy training Black Canary or Batman, has a neat acknowledgement of GA's early borrowing of Batman's thunder, when he has Batman ask Ollie how the Arrowcar and Arrow Cave are). This story also makes the most use of trick arrows, as we see the heroes' work bench, complete with various trick arrows (some of which are labeled, like the "black light arrow" [?] and the "mass hysteria arrow" [!!!!]).
Grayson and Fiumra's story is really a Roy Harper story, and it is one of several stories in this book—alright, all but two—that the Flashpoint/New 52 reboot knocked out of continuity, but Dark Nights: Death Metal seems to have implied are back in continuity. There are no great storytelling fireworks in it, but it's a nice, refreshing look at the way the characters used to be before James Robinson—also perhaps notable in his absence—got a hold of them and then the reboots and rejiggerings started coming fast and furious. I like these characters, so I enjoyed spending some time with them, and in forms I recognize (The characters without their histories aren't really "themselves", after all).

Finally the Hester and Parks story, which Hester writes as well as draws, recalls the Kevin Smith/Brad Meltzer revival of the character, both visually and in the story. That story is fairly simple, but it allows Hester to throw a lot at us, including Onomatopoeia (a genuinely great co-creation of Smith's, which he more-or-less undid himself later), Count Vertigo, Hal Jordan (who gets hit in the head, of course), Black Canary, Roy, Connor Hawke and Speedy II Mia Dearden. 
Connor, a favorite character of mine, stars in a story by Brandon Thomas and Jorge Corona which is basically Die Hard-starring-Connor Hawke (but not as fun as that sounds!), in which he must reuse the same blunt arrow over and over to take out all the bad guys. It's fine, but doesn't really showcase what's special about the character in anyway, and is perhaps the greatest outlier in the book, as it's a story that really seems like it should have been written by Chuck Dixon (although I'm not entirely surprised by Dixon's absence; he's very publicly taken some pretty extreme political views, to the point that I feel a little weird reading his work at all these days). 

The 11 Green Arrow stories are followed by a short, six-page story written by Denny O'Neil's son Larry O'Neil and drawn by the great Jorge Fornes, which is basically a silent biography of Denny. It's beyond fitting, not simply because Denny O'Neil is one of the greatest Green Arrow creators of all time, but because part of the reason Green Arrow made it to 80 years old is that O'Neil reinvented the character, investing so much of himself into Oliver Queen that the character became distinct from the Batman clone he began his fictional life as. Without Denny O'Neil, Green Arrow might not have made it to the other side of the 1950s as anything other than a footnote in the DC character catalog. 
Rounding out the collection are a couple of goofy illustrated prose pieces, like "Lessons In Friendship With Oliver Queen" in which various panels of Ollie being a jerk to other characters are paired with lessons (I'm particularly fond of the panel from the Smith/Hester/Parks run where he calls Aquaman a "five-fathom fascist" while Arthur just cradles his face in his palm), and Ollie's chili recipe reprinted from an old special or giant.

Marvel Voices: Pride #1
(Marvel Entertainment)
Like DC, Marvel too has a Pride-themed one-shot featuring various LGBTQ characters by LGBTQ creators, a $9.99 anthology featuring about 60 pages of new comics, a couple of prose features and a reprinting of about ten pages worth of 1992's Alpha Flight #106, an otherwise dumb comic notable for being the issue in which Northstar comes out (while fighting an overly-muscled, super-powered Mountie), making him the first canonically gay superhero.

I'm quite curious about how the book came together, as it is extremely mutant-heavy, to the point that one could almost wonder if there's an intentional implication that there is some connection between homo superior and homosexuality; of the book's 12 new comics, eight of them feature mutants (and two of the remaining four feature straight characters encountering LGBTQ civilians, or, as Titania memorably puts it in the Crystal Frasier-written "Totally Invulnerable," "the gender that how you say it?").

This struck me as even more curious when flipping through it again to write this, and pausing on the title page, on which Luciano Vecchio seems to have drawn an homage to Marvel's "frame" covers, featuring all of the universe's gay characters and, well, there's a lot of them, some of them who seem more prominent and/or at least more different from the X-Men adjacent characters that it might have been worthwhile to see, say, Giant-Man Raz Malhotra, Viv Vision, America Chavez, inspired-by-Thor: Ragnarok Valkyrie, Black Panther's Okoye or even cover characters Julie Power or Angela. 

"I had a lot of great mutant representation coming up, but not nearly enough queer rep," a worried-looking Prodigy confesses to his boyfriend Speed in one of the book's better stories, Kieron Gillen and Jen Hickman's "Colossus," in which the character explains how he came to realize he was bisexual (This being a comic set in the Marvel Universe, it, of course, involves a deeply stupid plot-point that accidentally trivializes the representation offered.)

"Hey, now you're both," Speed replies, and, indeed, the book offers a lot of mutant and queer representation, although it might be been better if there was less mutant representation and more queer representation in its pages.

Indeed, beyond "Colossus," there's the previously mentioned four-page "Introduction" in which Prodigy unspools the gay history of the Marvel Universe as drawn by Vecchio (a great talent who I hope to see more of in months other than June in the future); Daken asks Anole to dance at a party on Krakoa (nice art by Paulina Ganucheau); Magneto councils a distressed teenage Bobby Drake who half-comes out to the X-Men's archnemesis back in the day; Kyle Jinadu spends three-pages singing the praises of his husband Northstar; Mystique kills a dude who threatens to expose her relationship with someone named Irene in 1900; Karma asks Galura to dance at another mutant dance party (this story essentially repeats the Anole story, with different characters); and, finally, Daken reappears in a second story, this time bringing a very special one-night stand back to life using some Krakoan technology I don't understand because I don't read X-Men comics. 

As you can see, that's a lot of  mutant content. What else is there? Well, the original Young Avengers creative team of Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung collaborate on an illustrated prose piece revealing  Wiccan and Hulkling's vows, which lead Marvel to place a full-page house ad for the Empyre collection facing it. 

Karolina and Nico go on a three-page date courtesy Mariko Tamaki and Kris Anka, Current Daredevil Elektra Natchios runs into a transwoman and some extremely goofy villains in an equally short story by Lilah Sturgess and Derek Charm. Black Cat, who I guess has been revealed as bisexual since the last time I read a comic that discussed her romantic life in anyway, meets a minor trans character introduced way back in 1994's Marvel Comics Presents #151 in another three-pager by Leah Williams and Jan Bazaldua, And then there's the aforementioned Titania story, in which she attacks a transwoman cosplaying as She-Hulk, not realizing her mistake until she sees the green paint on her hand; she buy the Shulkie fan a coffee by way of apology and the two get to talking.

The other features in the book include a two-page interview with former associate editor Chris Cooper, a two-page "Big Gay Moments" history of various comings-out and on-panel kisses in Marvel Comics and a two-page pin-up of various Marvel characters marching in a Pride parade below the phrase "Love Is Love."

A day after first reading it, the stories that stay with me the most are the Titania one and the Prodigy one, and I feel somewhat conflicted by Anthony Oliverira and Javier Garron's Iceman story, which is at once heart-breaking in its depiction of the double-closeted gay mutant Bobby Drake and somewhat stupid in Magneto dropping his attack missiles, with which he was apparently ready to murder Bobby with, in order to comfort him. Conflicted, but it's still on my mind.

As I said about the DC Pride special, and I guess I'm repeating now in case a reader just skips around among these reviews, the real challenge isn't to put together a dynamite Pride annual, although it's good both publishers are devoting themselves to doing so, but to keep representation present in their books, both when it comes to the characters on the panels and the talent telling their stories.


The American Dream?:A Journey on Route 66 Discovering Dinosaur Statues, Muffler Men, and the Perfect Breakfast Burrito (Zest Books) I was so impressed by Shing Yin Khor's The Legend of Auntie Po (see below) that I wanted to see more of their work and learn more about them. This 2019 graphic memoir offered the opportunity to do both. 

Khor, an immigrant to the United States who grew up in Malaysia, had two visions of America imparted on her by various works of culture, the Los Angeles she saw in movies and television, and the America of  Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, both of which  connect to Route 66, so obviously a trip along the iconic roadway was one she would have to undertake at some point. 

She does so, but she does it in reverse, as she lives in LA; she starts at the end of Route 66 and travels East along it to Chicago, keeping notes and making sketches along the way so she could chronicle her adventures in what would become this book. 

I've never seen America from the outside the way Khor has, but my view of certain parts of America are probably just as remote as Khor's were growing up. That is, LA is, to me, still only a place I see on television and the movies, and I've never been further west than Chicago. As adverse as I am to travel, I find it fascinating, and Khor is a great traveling companion. Not merely because of the insight their personal background helps her bring to exploring the various aspects of the American myth Route 66 represents, but because they seem like a genuinely fun and funny person; Khor is fun to hang out with, in other words, and this comic allows one to do so. Khor, and their "tiny adventure dog," Bug, who is also along for the ride. 

It's a rather short, quick read, and it admittedly comes across as more of a project the author decided to undertake than a story that needed to be told, but no matter; sometimes simply being a fun read is more than enough to justify a work's existence.  

Batman Vol. 3: Ghost Stories
(DC Comics)
Robin. The other Robin. Nightwing. Batgirl. The other Batgirl. Red Hood. Spoiler. The Signal. Batwoman. Catwoman. The Huntress. Sometimes The Outsiders, The Birds of Prey and Harley Quinn. If there's one thing Batman seems to have a more than enough of at the moment, it's crime-fighting allies. Which is why the introduction of yet another one in the form of the unfortunately named Ghost-Maker is such a perplexing development.

Ghost-Maker's intro takes up the bulk of the third volume of writer James Tynion IV's Batman run, following Their Dark Designs and The Joker War. The lame name is apparently a reference to the fact that he actually kills his foes, one of the main differences between he and his fellow master crimefighter Batman, although Ghost or The Ghost both seem infinitely more appropriate (In fact, much is made of the fact that he's basically a ghost, using special technology to stay so far off of everyone's radar that few people beyond Batman know he even exists).

I'm not overly fond of his costume, either, which consists of a Moon Knight-like color scheme, baggy pants and a weird helmet that my eyes often read as duck-like (If the blue lights on the side read as eyes, as they do to me, then the chin looks like the blunt, rounded bill of a duck to me). (In one of the flashbacks to an earlier encounter with Bruce Wayne, he's wearing an earlier version of the costume which I liked much better, as it covered  just the top half of his face, not  unlike the eye-less mask that Daredevil wore in the first season of his TV show).

Despite all of that, Tynion has come up with an interesting angle of the character, if you can forgive the writer for revisiting and tweaking Batman's often visited and tweaked origin story. The youth who would grow up to be Ghost-Maker, like Bruce Wayne, traveled the world seeking out the masters of many disciplines to teach him to fight in general, and fight crime in particular. And, like Bruce Wayne, he dreamt of becoming a world-class crime-fighter when he grew up> He just has a few essential differences from Bruce. He wasn't doing so for revenge or because of an oath sworn to his dead parents, and he didn't necessarily care about other people at all; he was just in it for the purity of the art of crime-fighting. To this day, he looks down on Batman as a failure because of his methods.

Okay, he's not the most inspired character in the world, piggy-backing as he does on Batman's origin story, but he is new, and he presents an interesting contrast to Batman, one that I can't say I've seen explored at too great length before (as for an in-comic explanation as to why we've never heard of Ghost-Maker before, it's apparently because they made a deal: Ghost-Maker would never set foot in Gotham City, and, in turn, Batman would let him operate wherever he chose outside of Gotham City). And Tynion obviously intends to keep him around as, after his introduction here, Batman essentially offers him a partnership. Which means we get another Batman ally (There's also a new Batman waiting in the wings. And I've lost track of Batwing and Azrael; are they both still around? They haven't appeared in any of the Gotham-based comics I've read lately...). 

Something of a transition between big storylines, then, Ghost Stories opens with a Guillem March-drawn issue framed as a conversation between Batman and Catwoman about how things need to change, given the events of "The Joker War" (Bruce Wayne losing his fortune) and events in the previous run (Alfred's death), something reinforced during a conversation with Lucius Fox (which involves a three-page fight with WildCATS's Grifter, for some reason). 

Batman and Catwoman decide to give each other a year with their current status quos, and then try to get back together. It...makes more sense then whatever the hell Tom King was about with them during his run on Batman, really.

After that issue, the "Ghost Stories" arc begins, with Ghost-Maker coming to town, violating his long ago pact with Batman, and deciding he will succeed where Batman failed. This ultimately leads to an elaborate set-up in which Batman, Harley Quinn and Clownhunter are all captured and put in a room together; Ghost-Maker wants to let Clownhunter kill Harley in front of Batman, to demonstrate that the kid is a killer who should be killed or at least arrested, rather than coddled, as Batman has so far done (and dude's got a point; at some point in the collection, Clownhunter's body count is revealed to be somewhere over 20, which is a lot of people; Batman took Jean-Paul Valley down for being too brutal and reckless with the bad guys' lives, but Valley killed zero people, let alone twenty-some). 

Throughout the story, repeated flashbacks reveal elements of Ghost-Maker and Batman's long ago friendship, with Batman somewhat elegiac about the fact that he lost his friend to disagreements about crime-fighting all those years ago. One is told by Nightwing to Barbara Gordon, as Dick saw Ghost-Maker once a long time ago from the cockpit of the Batplane. 

In what is rather refreshing change of pace in the decades of past Batman comics, Batman not only defeats Ghost-Maker—in a shirtless sword fight, which I thought he reserved only for Ra's al Ghul—Batman then proposes a partnership with Ghost-Maker, setting a new, anti-killing rule for his frenemy turned, well, frally, I guess. 

March draws substantial portions of "Ghost Stories," but so too does pencil artist Carlo Pagulayan and more guests than seems necessary for a serial comic book, including Carlos D'Anda, Ryan Benjamin and Bengal (the last of whom gets a few pages drawing the Batgirls Barbara, Stephanie and Cassandra....and who would be a pretty great choice for an artist on a Batgirls comic, which DC should really get around to publishing). 

The end result is that it's a pretty average-looking Bat-book, never really being able to settle into a groove and stay there because the artists change too frequently. "Ghost Stories" and its prelude issue are both in sharp contrast to the James Stokoe-drawn Batman Annual #5, which is Clownhunter's origin story (which I previously wrote about here), and does have its own look, style, feel and groove, thanks to Stokoe's incredible work. That follows "Ghost Stories" in the collection.

Finally, and somewhat oddly, the book includes the Tynion-written, Riley Rossmo-drawn "Ghost Story" 12-pager from Detective Comics #1027, in which Batman and the original Robin team-up with Deadman (reviewed at some length already in this post). 

March, Rossmo, Stokoe—that's a lot of great artists, and two of my favorite Batman drawers of the moment. It's just somewhat unfortunate that "Ghost Stories" wasn't all March...or all someone

Justice League: Galaxy of Terrors (DC) There's a somewhat rich bit of dialogue in "The Garden of Mercy", the second story collected in Galaxy of Terrors, spoken by a character to Batman while the panels show the hero's parents being murdered in crime alley in yet one more repeat of the origin story:
I'm a little tired of it, aren't you?

The same old story.

Like it's the only one you know. 

The speaker? The Black Mercy flower, created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons in 1985 in the seminal "For The Man Who Has Everything" story in Superman Annual #11. By my count, writer Jeff Loveness is recycling Moore's plot device for the eighth time, following Geoff Johns (2006's Green Lantern #7), Gail Simone (2006's All-New Atom #20), Peter Tomasi (2008's Green Lantern Corps #23-#26), Jeff Lemire (2011's Superboy #7), Bryan Q. Miller (2011's Batgirl #23), Cullen Bunn (2015's Sinestro #9) and Phillip Kennedy Johnson (2018's Aquaman Annual #1).***

So speaking of the same old story...

Loveness' two-parter has the Justice League line-up pictured on Nick Derington's cover—as with the previous Justice League collection Vengeances Is Thine, this one contains issues from the time-killing period after writers Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV's run on the title ended, but before the story was resolved in Dark Nights: Death Metal—on their way back to Earth after the adventure in space that accounts for the book's first story arc. 

They mysteriously arrive at a spooky, haunted planet that turns out to be the home planet of the Black Mercy (although here presented somewhat differently than when Tomasi set a Green Lantern Corps story on the home planet of the Black Mercy in 2008). The Leaguers all rather quickly succumb, although the only one whose Mercy-induced fantasies we spend much time with are Batman's. Here the Mercy takes the form of his murdered mother, complete with a bloody eye from her fatal wounds, and it talks directly to Batman, without any sort of subterfuge regarding whether the visions being shown to him are really reality or not. Wonder Woman's lasso helps free her from the thrall of the Mercy, and she in turn frees the others.

The one thing that might have made this ninth cover version of an old Alan Moore story worthwhile would have been the art, but Robson Rocha and Daniel Henriques don't do anything particularly noteworthy on that front. It's mostly predictable DC house style art, which is a little too bad, as there are brief, one-panel allusions to various crisis stories (Final Crisis, Blackest Night, etc) and familiar alternate future stories (Kingdom Come, Batman Beyond, etc) that might have been fun to see a very distinctive art style applied to versions of. 

The other story in the collection is much more original and complex—how could it not be?—but unfortunately it's not very good, either. The three-part "The Rule" by writer Simon Spurrier and artists Aaron Lopresti and Matt Ryan finds the five heroes answering a distress signal from children set adrift on a derelict spaceship from their home planet. On that home planet, a civil war has erupted, and the League arrives just in time to save the tyrannical ruler from execution, but, since she was the only thing keeping peace between the two factions on the planet, the Leaguers find themselves forced into having to govern the planet.

It's an extremely awkward and uncomfortable story, and barely a page went by without my having to stop and ask myself, "Wait, would the League really do this? Would Superman say that?" and so on. The problem, as became readily apparent, is that the League never gets involved with governing because writers never—or almost never—intentionally write them into the sorts of corners that Spurrier does here. He has quite intentionally come up with a very unlikely Justice League story, and then had the characters struggle through it.

In one regard, he should be applauded for a degree of bravery, and, I suppose, doing something so incredibly divorced from, like, everything one knows about the characters. It almost works as a sort of a comics-as-commentary-on-comics story, but well, divorcing the story from the context of the characters' history is asking a lot for issues #48-#50 of an ongoing title...featuring a team that has been around since 1960...and multiple characters that are over eight decades old, you know?

But, ultimately, there's a reason Justice League writers don't do stories about the Justice League intervening in wars and taking over planets to manage themselves as a council of emperors. They don't really work and, if there was a way to make such a story work, Spurrier didn't find it here (The presence of a Green Lantern alone makes the whole story seem implausible, as it reminds readers that the setting has a built-in peace-keeping infrastructure, one attended by thousands of officers with magic rings that know everything on their fingers; there's no reason for the League to keep getting caught off-guard as they are throughout this story arc). 

Taking the two stories together, this is perhaps the single most skippable Justice League trade collection I've ever encountered...although I do like Deringston's renderings of the characters on some of the covers within, as generic as his covers might otherwise be (They very much look like stock ones, commissioned to feature the League without the artist really knowing what the League would be doing in the comics they would be placed atop). Luckily, this should be the last collection of post-Snyder run, pre-Death Metal fill-in issues; the next trade should collect a story arc's worth of tie-ins to Dark Nights: Death Metal, and then the one that follows that will be the first collection of Brian Michael Bendis' run on the title. 

Komi Can't Communicate Vol. 13 (Viz Media) The majority of the latest volume of the series is devoted to the Rei storyline, in which a super-cute but super-shy little girl, the daughter of a friend of Komi's mother, is staying with them. Suddenly, Komi finds herself the big sister of a little girl version of herself, one with her own communication problems. Komi eventually shares her life goal of making 100 friends with Rei, who decides to adopt that goal for her own when she goes overseas to school. In fact, the pair plan to race to see who can make 100 friends first. 

The remainder of the volume focuses on Tadano and Komi resuming their near-constant companionship after some time apart (during the Rei storyline), including a horror movie marathon and test of courage at Katai's house, which allows us to meet more of his family.

The series remains as good as always, although I'm somewhat relieved to see Rei go. I enjoy spending time with Komi's classmates much more, and am particularly interested in the Manbagi and Tadano romance, precisely because of Manbagi's reflexive anger with Tadano whenever she fees a tug of emotion towards him. 

Zom 100: Bucket List of the Dead Vol. 2
There's a scene set at an aquarium in this volume, where the characters encounter a particularly bizarre creature. It's a zombified great white shark, but it is no longer confined to water; because it's undead, it doesn't need to be underwater to survive. And it doesn't even need to be in water in order to move and pose a threat to our heroes, because it has apparently already swallowed several human beings more or less whole, and these are now zombies that are stuck inside the shark, their legs protruding from the bottom of its body, providing it with a clumsy but effective way to walk, run and scramble around on land. 

It's a pretty weird, awfully over-the-top iteration of the zombie threat, and one that threatens to break the narrative, as zombified animals so often do, as they raise some additional questions about the agency that is causing zombification and how it works that are, as ever, better left unaddressed in zombie narratives (and, indeed, Zom 100 hasn't yet addressed the issue of the origin of the plague). 

That a zombie shark that walks on the legs of its now zombified victims has appeared in the book at all, let alone in just the second volume, is rather remarkable; I mean, we are apparently at a very early point in writer Haro Aso and artist Kotaro Takata's story, and they've already moved from garden variety fast zombies to an extremely...creative form of exotic zombie. I suppose that says something about the nature of the book, huh?

Akira—who last issue found himself somewhat relieved by the invasion of zombies that arrived in the first volume, as it meant he no longer had to go to his soul-crushing, body-punishing office job—and his rescued best friend Kencho continue to work on Akira's apocalyptic bucket list, all of the things he wanted to do in his life but couldn't  (because of his job) and now might never live long enough to do (because of the zombies).

This volume includes a couple of what might seem like incredibly unlikely entries, like wining and dining a stewardess and becoming a superhero, but he manages them both. The first is a matter of dumb luck, as some women Akira and Kencho come across holed up in a convenience store happen to be flight attendants, and second requires some creative thinking—Akira visits the aquarium where he suits up in one of those chainmail-like bite-proof suits that divers use when they are swimming with sharks. This makes him completely invulnerable to zombies...well, at least, their teeth can't pierce his flesh. It still hurts like hell when they bite him.

Using his zombie invulnerability as a power of sorts, he risks his life to save others from the zombies, herding a group of survivors—which include Shizuka Mikazuki, the "Miss Risk Analysis" who gave him the cold shoulder in the previous volume—into the aquarium, where he meets the aforementioned zombie shark on legs. 

Last volume I mentioned the somewhat uncanny way in which the book echoed the feelings of quarantined life, and that seems less true during this volume, in which Akira is no longer alone and is spending more time out of his apartment. It's still an interestingly premised book using what is easily one of the most overdone settings in modern pop action adventure storytelling, and that the creators have found new things that haven't been seen dozens of times before is something of an achievement in and of itself. 


Batman: The Adventures Continue Season One (DC Comics) The majority of this trade paperback collection of the miniseries continuing the adventures of Batman: The Animated Series and The New Batman Adventures is devoted to introducing The Red Hood Jason Todd, which also means introducing second Robin Jason Todd, who was never on, nor even ever hinted at in, any of the cartoons.

This presents some challenges for cartoon producers-turned-writers Alan Burnett and Paul Dini (one of which was that they repurposed Jason's origin for Tim Drake in New Adventures). They manage it by presenting Jason's time as Robin as something of a "lost" story, akin to the time Dick Grayson transitioned from Robin to Nightwing between the shows (and was covered in a comic book series), and coming up with a new version of his origin, a new version of his death and a new version of his return, meaning the series adapts both "A Death In The Family" and "Under The Hood," but in very, very different ways (Surprisingly, Jason being beaten with a crowbar by The Joker is left in; overall, there's a bit more violence and blood in this comic than would have ever been allowed on the TV cartoons). 

I suppose one shouldn't be surprised that they creators manage to meet those challenges, given how well they took inspiration from various classic Batman story arcs over the characters' decades-long career in comics and adapted those to cartoon episodes.

Here Jason's short, troubled time as Robin is mostly told in flashback, while the modern, Red Hood version of the character stalks the heroes as they go about their adventures, including the introductions of Deathstroke and Jean-Paul Valley into the cartoon milieu. 

Jason watching Batman and company serves to give his return a sense of occasion and an arc of sorts, even though his actual interaction with the Bat-Family is mostly limited to the climax of the series, thus allowing for other stories within the story. 

It all ends, somewhat unexpectedly, with an over-sized Christmas special featuring  Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy, The Ventriloquist and The Joker. 

I know I went on about it kind of a lot there, but if you would like to read my formal review of the book, you can do so here

Girl From the Sea (Scholastic)  One can't really have a fairy tale romance and remain closeted at the same time, can one? Well, Morgan Kwon gives it a shot in The Girl From The Sea, Molly Knox Ostertag's pop YA Romance that updates the story of the animal bride as a modern summer romance. Review here

The Legend of Auntie Po (Penguin Random House) Cartoonist Shing Yin Khor tells the story of a young storyteller, Mei, a young, possibly queer Chinese woman who works with her father cooking for  a late 19th century labor camp. Among her favorite subjects is Auntie Po, a Jack Bunyan-like figure who may or may not be real—however one wants to interpret "real". It's a rather lovely comic, and well worth reading. More here

Pawcasso (Henry Holt and Company) This charming story of a little girl who accidentally adopts a local celebrity of a dog and has to try to keep the lie going that she's the real owner is a delight from start to finish. More here


I am not really among the target audience for either Gary Gardner's The Earth Cries Out: How Faith Communities Meet the Challenges of Sustainability (Orbis; 2021) or Matthew Sleeth's Reforesting Faith: What Trees Teach Us About the Nature of God and His Love For Us (WaterBrook; 2019). The former seems addressed toward active members of active faith communities, and the latter seems written for conservative Christians like Sleeth himself who may still need a bit of convincing that creation care is an important, perhaps even integral part of being a Christian in the 21st century. 

I read them both anyway. In the last few years I've become interested in the idea that Christianity offers a huge, untapped resource that could have an incredible, positive impact on the state of the health of the environment, if it only it could be awakened and inspired to do so (Indeed, Gardner lays out several reasons why faith communities are so well positioned to have such a positive impact early in his book). Because of that, I've found myself particularly drawn toward books on the intersection of faith and what's referred to as "creation care," although I suppose the more common word for it is simply "environmentalism." 

If you are among the audience for either of those books, are curious about reading more about them, or are just an obsessed Caleb completist who hates to miss me writing about anything on the Internet, I covered them both at somewhat greater length on my other blog here

"Song catchers" are people who journey to particular communities—like, for example, Appalachian communities—in order to learn, document and preserve their songs. H. Byron Ballard, author of Roots, Branches & Spirits: The Folkways & Witchery of Appalachia (Llewellyn Publications; 2021) considers herself something of a "spell catcher," doing the same for superstitions, folklore and the folk magic of the Appalachian community. She's not an outsider from that community, though, but something of an ambassador from it; the spells and other knowledge she "catches" in her book come from friends, family and the friends of family she knew growing up in Appalachia.

I was admittedly first drawn toward the book because I suspected it might have something to say about Ohio, which of course has its own Appalachian region, but that turned out not to be the case. It was still a pretty fascinating read.  

This month I also listened to the audiobook version of Richard Snow's Disney's Land: Walt Disney and The Invention of the Amusement Park That Changed the World (Scribner; 2019), my interest in amusement parks temporarily piqued by writing that story about Evan Ponstingle's King's Island: A Ride Through Time (as discussed in the previous installment of this feature). Snow's remarkably thorough—and surprisingly thrilling—book manages to weave something of a biography of Disney into a biography of the park, with a great deal of attention paid to the various intellectual and imaginative seeds that went into the park, like Disney's attendance of a railroad fair, his fascination with trains (which included building a smaller scale version of one on his own property for his own amusement), and early attempts to bring the worlds of his films into the real world, like a temporary display built to promote Snow White

Snow does a quite convincing job of arguing just how revolutionary Disney Land actually was, as it became something of a dividing line between what was generally thought of amusement parks—cheap, seedy, somewhat dangerous—and what became known as the modern, family-friendly "theme park". W

What makes the book such a fascinating read, though—and, again, I have no real interest in the subject matter, nor have I ever been to Disneyland, though the book did make me want to visit someday—is that it manages to position Disney, as hugely successful as he was, as dominant a force in 20th century pop culture as he was—into something of a underdog, pursuing a dream that everyone else thought was nuts, and proving all the naysayers wrong....eventually. 

*Detective Comics #615 was part of the three-part "The Penguin Affair" crossover with Batman, and was therefore already collected elsewhere. 

**This story taught me some new gay slang that I don't think I'm allowed to use.

***Did I miss any comic book appearances of the Black Mercy? I know there was an episode of the
Supergirl television show entitled "For The Girl Who Has Everything" which was a "For The Man Who Has Everything" homage/retread. 

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