Wednesday, July 12, 2023

On Batgirls Vol. 1: One Way or Another

Well this certainly sounded like a slam-dunk of an idea for a Batman-adjacent series. 

Batgirl Cassandra Cain starred in a solo series that lasted 73 issues between 2000 and 2006; in it, original, retired Batgirl Barbara Gordon served as her mentor. That was later followed by a new Batgirl series in which Stephanie Brown, aka Spoiler, took up the mantle from her friend Cassandra (this required some unconvincing hand-waving to get the costume off of Cass and forcing her into story limbo for awhile). In that volume of Batgirl, which lasted 24 issues between 2009 and 2011, original, retired Batgirl Barbara Gordon once again served as the new Batgirl's mentor. 

Then, when "The New 52" happened, Gordon returned to the Batgirl role for awhile, starring in a series that lasted 53 issues between 2011 and 2016, and then immediately relaunching for a new volume that lasted another 50 issues, into 2021. By that time, both Cassandra and Stephanie were both reintroduced into the Batman universe, with the latter resuming her Batgirl codename and costume after going by a new one for awhile. 

What to do with all these Batgirls? Why not put them all together in a new series, the premise of which would be the obvious one, of the older, original Batgirl Barbara—who had been gradually drifting back towards her pre-New 52 status quo as computer expert and information broker Oracle—serving as the mentor of the two teenage vigilantes? 

That was the idea behind the new series Batgirls,  which launched in 2022 after a few issue launch of the team-up concept in some back-up stories in the pages of Batman, during writer James Tynion IV's big "Fear State" crossover storyline. As I said, it sounds like a good one, and given the relative success of the three heroines in solo series throughout the 21st century, putting them all on a Birds of Prey-like team together seemed like an obvious move, one that would bring with it three different fandoms.

Oddly, it only lasted 19 issues, fewer than any Batgirl's solo series to date. 

What went wrong? I don't know, beyond the obvious fact that it's pretty hard to sell an ongoing comic book series these days.

 I was a faithful reader of the original Batgirl series, a big fan of the Cassandra Cain iteration of the character, and an advocate for this very premise for a book, and I wasn't reading it, for a variety of reasons (The New 52 essentially having broken the contract between me as a reader and the DCU as an ongoing setting, comics costing more than $3 a pop now, not reading enough titles to justify journeying to a comic shop each Wednesday any more, etc). I can't speak for the rest of the potential Batgirls readership. 

The title had officially been cancelled by the time I got around to reading the first volume of the series, Batgirls Vol. 1: One Way or Another, by the creative team of writers Becky Cloonan and Michael W. Conrad and artist Jorge Corona. Having done so, I suppose I can offer some guesses, the main one of which the title just wasn't very good. Extremely plot-heavy with little attention to character, characterization or ideas, it wasn't really a book about anything more than our heroes fighting some villains, the sort of comic of which there is and has always been dozens and dozens of similar books, many of which offer more than just fight scenes. 

(I wonder to what extent the series' launch being tied to "Fear State" might have been a factor. That was a fine storyline by Tynion and company, but it's credibility-straining villains weren't so great as to justify much in the way of tie-ins or the involvement of characters from the extended Bat-family. That said, Bat-events have long been used to introduced new Batman-adjacent titles, including the original Batgirl series, which came in the wake of "No Man's Land".)

After a few short stories in which The Magistrate from "Fear State" are hunting the Batgirls of Batgirl Cassandra Cain and Spoiler Stephanie Brown, who has apparently recently altered her costume so that he has a purple bat on her chest and is also going by "Batgirl" now (Should Stephanie have resumed wearing her own Batgirl costume if she was resuming the Batgirl name...? I don't know; I personally prefer her original Spoiler costume to this more ninja-like, detail-heavy version.), presumably because of doctored footage showing a Batgirl killing someone that was released to them.

This leads to The Magistrate, which you presumably already know all about because you were reading Batman—remember, the series started in the pages of Batman as back-ups, which, again, may or may not have been a factor in the series' failure to catch ontargeting sometimes-Batgirl, sometimes-Oracle Barbara Gordon's clocktower headquarters. At the same time, an anti-Oracle of sorts, known as Seer, targeted Babs, corrupting her information network.

This leads to the two teens having to lie low for a few days, while Barbara sets-up a new status-quo for them and, of course, the new series: The three of them move into a loft together in a new neighborhood, The Hill, and become something similar to a Bagirl-only version of the Birds of Prey, with Stephanie and Cass going out and doing the leg-work of Batgirling, while Babs stays behind-the-scenes, doing the Oracle-ing.

They're immediately set upon by a series of villains, none of whom, I'm afraid, are terribly engaging, which is sort of unfortunate, as Cloonan and Conrad focus on these and their conflict above characterization of the girls and their relationships with one another. (Where were Cass and Steph living before they moved in with Babs? What was their previous status quos? I have no idea; the book offers no clues). 

There's the aforementioned Seer, who can hack his or her way into Oracles networks, and seems to have an unexplained grudge against Babs and the Batgirls. There's Tutor, a prolific spray-paint artist with an anti-society bent and some sort of mind-control abilities that turn victims into mindless zombies that due his bidding. There's Tutor's patron, the latest villain to go by the name Spellbinder (the third, by my count). And there's The Saints, former, radicalized members of The Magistrate who resemble cartoonier versions of Peacekeeper-01 (you did read "Fear State", right?) and are each named after a saint, Tarsus, Valentine and Assisi. And there's the Hill Ripper, an unknown, unseen serial killer who seems to be stalking the girls' new turf, though they don't come into direct contact with him or her this volume, despite Steph suspecting a neighbor, based on some Rear Window-esque suspicions. 

If that seems like a lot of moving pieces for the first six issues of a new series, it's mostly just Tutor and Spellbinder who are involved. Seer makes an attack and some taunts, but is mainly a background player until they're surprise appearance at the cliff-hanging ending, and the Saints, seemingly manipulated by Seer, attack a couple of times, but they aren't the focus of the storyline either. 

It's all...fine, but it's also light on substance, and what I'd expect from the series, with, as I said, no real focus on the characters or their relationships with one another. 

The art by Corona is pretty great, and it's hard to imagine fans being turned off by it. His Cass highlights her visual characteristics, of being something of a creepy cross between Batman and Spider-Man, in a tight, little, slightly feminine package (there's one great splash panel, near the climax, where her arms blend into her cape, giving he appearance of a monstrous bat). The other two Batgirls are less visually interesting in conception, but nevertheless well-rendered, as are all three characters when they are out of costume. 

I'm curious about what went wrong with the tile, exactly, and interested enough in the characters  to follow the rest of the series in trade, but, with only the first third to go on, I would guess the low-calorie approach to comic book storytelling didn't retain enough eyeballs on the book to make it as successful as any of the girls' solo outings to date. 

Tuesday, July 04, 2023

A Month of Wednesday: June 2023


Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Reborn, Vol. 6—Game Changers (IDW Publishing) The roughest going volume of the Sophie Campbell-penned "Reborn" era of the title, this felt a lot like a Big Two super-comic tied to an event that one isn't reading, and is only dimly aware of—the feeling of interruption of an ongoing plot, the suspicion that something important is going on somewhere else that is impacting the story, the dependency on deep lore that pre-dates the run was a familiar, and not totally welcome feeling.

That said, it's still pretty good comics, even if I don't know what exactly "The Armageddon Game" is (this trade paperback is labeled "Road To The Armageddon Game") or why exactly former Shredder Oruku Saki is a helpful ghost (to be fair, he's appeared in this form throughout the "Reborn" run, and I've just kinda rolled with it, as it hasn't seemed to terribly important to the goings-on thus far). 

This volume opens with a pretty great done-in-one by cartoonist Juni Ba, who both writes and draws it. It's the sort of evergreen story that seems like it could have been an inventory one, or appeared at any point in most any continuity tied to any incarnation of the TMNT...even if it would have had to been set in "the future" of some of those continuities. 

The four original turtles, "wearing old gear" (i.e. not wearing clothes, as they've long since taken to doing), are going on a mission that narrator Leonardo doesn't feel terribly confident about, and, in fact, they all seem to be out of rhythm with one another, as evidenced by their bumping into one another while rooftop-hopping on their way to their destination.

This proves to be a somewhat simple mission, a visit to their old, original sewer home, where they are intent on leaving a flower and a photo of themselves with their late father, Splinter. On the way, however, they encounter a "leech spirit", that, according to Donatello, "haunts cemeteries and tracks the grief and despair of those who lost someone to war." It's a powerful monster, and Donatello theorizes that the mutagen bomb that made Mutant Town in the first place must have affected one of the slugs that follow the spirit, and the spirit possessed the slug. 

To complete their mysterious mission, which I've already spoiled, the team will have to get by the spirit, which will mean letting go of all the craziness that has driven them apart over the last several dozen issues of their series and get back to their roots (there have been over 130 issues of the main series so far, making this the longest-running of the various TMNT narratives by far, once all the miniseries and specials are factored in). The precise way they do this—relying on red paint to resume their matching, red bandanas of their origins, as well as sharing weapons—is a little silly, but cool-looking, and immediately effective as a visual story-telling tactic. 

According to the fine print, this volume contains two issues of the main series, plus a 2022 annual and last year's Free Comic Book Day offering; the standalone nature of this story, which seems like a Tales Of The... tale as much as a standard TMNT issue, makes it seems like it could be either of the latter, but I'm guessing it's the annual (Update: tells me I'm right).

Ba is a great artist, and has a nice, simple, stripped-down version of the characters; the depiction of action, through kinetic angles and shaky action line-defined poses, is devastatingly effective. The annual is a nice argument for IDW having a sister Tales Of The... title, giving artists like Ba an opportunity to tell Turtles story, regardless of what's going on in the main title.  

From there, we pick up with the Splinter Clan in conflict, over whether or not they should trust their one-time mortal enemy to help train them in preparation for some coming conflict (The "Armageddon Game," I presume). The five turtles all agree, and go off into the woods to train with the former Shredder, who proposes to teach them all secret, advanced ninja techniques, techniques that brush up against black magic, and thus leads to a difficult cost in terms of weird, nightmare visions for all of them...except Leonardo, who must meet, fight and master his own, dark self from earlier in the series. 

These issues are written by Campbell, and drawn by Pablo Tunica; I wasn't as fond of the art in this passage of the collection, as it seemed a little too realistic for my personal tastes (coming after the Ba-drawn section, it looked a little like a "live-action" version of the Turtles, versus a comic book or cartoon version, if that makes sense).

Finally, there's a 10-page story that I assume came from the FCBD special, as it features something weird going-on, and effectively teases the answer to that weirdness with a narration box, "Find out answers to this and much more soon in... Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles The Armageddon Game!" While I'd been assuming the storyline was something of an annoyance or inconvenience, a distraction to Campbell's Mutant Town story arc, I was sold on it by these ten pages, which tap into the dynamite-potent images and storytelling of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1....not the 2011 #1 that kicked off IDW's successful series, but the 198 #1 from Mirage that introduced the characters in the first place.

Written by long-time TMNT writer (and current story consultant) Tom Waltz and faithfully, exquisitely drawn by Sophie Campbell, it is essentially a cover story of Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird's original Turtles tale, or, at least, the fight against the Purple Dragons gang that introduced the characters. Waltz borrows snatches of narration and dialogue, and Campbell recreates the lay-outs and art within each panel to re-tell the story (these panels are all burned into my memory from reading, re-reading and re-re-re-re-reading the collection of the first dozen issues of the Mirage series I pored over in the early '90s).

There are some slight differences, drawn into sharper relief by how similar the compositions and poses are. First, rather than their regular masks—all red, back then, but appearing in black and white—the four turtles are here all wearing white masks that cover their noses, mouths and throats, but leave their yellow, pupil-less, triangle eyes exposed. Secondly, their weapons are all scrambled, so that they all have a different weapon than the one they are usually associated with (Campbell draws the same characters in the same poses, but their weapons are different; this is most evident in her recreation of the iconic cover). Finally, rather than fighting a generic comic book street gang, they are heer fighting soldiers of the "Earth Protection Force," and, when they disappear into a sewer to the words "...into the night," there is a long-shot of the city, and it features a huge wall that looks foreign to New York.

It is here, on the tenth page, that we see Venus, the new kinda-sorta turtle introduced in the previous collection of the series, asking aloud, "...what the hell is going on?!", only to be answered by a narration box teasing "The Armageddon Game."

Like I said, I wasn't exactly looking forward to that story, but after this teaser by Waltz and Campbell, I'm downright excited. 

As ever, the collection is full of the book's many covers, showing the Kevin Eastman-drawn variants and main cover for each issue as it appears in the volume (Eastman does a particularly trippy one for TMNT #131), and then a mini-gallery at the end. The one I was most intrigued by, and happiest to see, was a double-page spread by Jim Lawson and Steve Lavigne, two old Mirage hands who still obviously have a lot to offer. It depicts the five turtles fooling around atop a church steeple on a city street. I wish IDW could find a project for Lawson's talents, preferably of the letting-him-do-whatever-he-wants variety (Here again a Tales Of The TMNT anthology title would be welcome). 


Spider-Man: Fake Red (Viz Media) High-schooler Yu feels about as different from New York City's preeminent superhero and social media darling Spider-Man as he can be. He's falling behind at his elite school, he's not making any friends and lately he's taken to skipping classes. Worse, when he sees a classmate being bullied by others, he thinks of rushing in to help ("What would Spidey do?" he asks himself), but his courage fails him, and he instead stands by while the kid takes a beating in front of him.

The only time Yu feels at all like his hero is when he's on the climbing wall at his local gym, which is where he goes to escape his day-to-day travails (a better-than-average climber, he's still not as good as the gym's champion, his classmate and crush, Emma Pearson). 

Yu's life takes a dramatic and unexpected turn when he finds a Spider-Man suit in the garbage in an alley, Spider-Man having apparently discarded it during an Amazing Spider-Man #50, "Spider Man No More!" moment (an extended flashback sequence in which Spider-Man tries to get to the theater in time to see MJ's performance, but keeps getting side-tracked by crime-fighting, including an extended battle with The Scorpion, explains why he decided to trash his Spider-Man least temporarily). Taking it home and trying it on, Yu still might not be all that much like Spider-Man, he still might not feel like Spidey, but he at least looks the part.

"Guess I'll just go about my day and hope I miraculously bump into Spidey," Yu thinks, hoping to return the suit to its owner, while realizing that's pretty much impossible; how would he even recognize the real Spidey if he's not wearing his familiar suit? (This is actually a plot-point that will come up later). 

When he tries the costume on again on a rooftop, he sees smoke, and people start pointing and telling him to hurry. A building is on fire, and a small child is trapped on the third floor. It's up to this counterfeit Spider-Man to save him; luckily Yu's not a bad climber. 

Thus begins Yu's career as the new Spider-Man. He lacks super-strength and the other spider-powers, and, though he has the web-shooters, he can't exactly web-sling; there's apparently a lot more to it than simply pointing one's wrist and pushing the button. But now that he has the suit, he feels responsible to help people...especially when it becomes clear that the real Spider-Man is MIA, and not simply because he's missing his laundry (Manga-ka Yusuke Osawa shows us scenes of a worried MJ, who has been unable to contact Peter for days, and an unseen villain watching the real Peter wrestle with the Venom symbiote in the sewers, trying not to succumb to its monstrous influence).

After his second outting as Spider-Man, when he saves Emma from bank-robbers who kidnap her when they're taking the car she's in, the young woman discovers Yu's secret, or at least thinks she does: Yu is Spider-Man! Now he's got to keep the lie going, pretending to have a secret identity that's not really even his, or risk losing the new attention and friendship of his crush...and his first real friend at school.

This means engaging an actual, honest-to-God supervillain in the form of Screwball, and answering to Silk, who comes calling when she too can't find the real Spider-Man, and wants to know the imposter's story. 

Everything comes to a head when Silk faces off against the Venom-possessed Peter Parker, and Yu makes the scene in the Spider-Man costume, reminding Peter of who he really is and helping him get the symbiote under control, and into a new, cool-looking Spider-Man costume for Parker...just in time for the villain behind the plot to turn the real Spidey into a bad-guy arrives to challenge them both.

By giving us a "new" Spider-Man, Osawa manages to tell a Spider-Man story that feels both classic and completely fresh at the same time, meditating on the "with great power comes great responsibility" theme. Even though Yu lacks great power, he's obviously got an opportunity, and he uses it to do good, the costume giving him the push he needs to do the good he wanted to but lacked the courage to do earlier when he saw a classmate being bullied (echoing Spider-Man's own origin, which goes unrepeated in this volume, when he let a thief go because he thought it wasn't his problem). 

In addition to a well-told Spider-Man tale that feels both faithful to the original while also being original, Osawa gives a fresh coat of paint to a bunch of Spider-Man villains, including those already mentioned (Scorpion's costume becoming much more of a technological-feeling one), as well as The Sinister Six, who appear for the climax: Mysterio, Kraven, Electro, Doctor Octopus, The Vulture and The Sandman. Some of their updates are actually pretty radical, especially Mysterio's scary new look. Spidey himself is updated slightly, with an original costume (plus an updated all-black costume at the climax, and another new costume in the final pages). 

It's not a Peter Parker story—at least, not primarily and not all the way through—but it is a great Spider-Man story, one perfectly suited to those interested in the character but leery of the official Marvel version with all its decades worth of continuity baggage. I'd highly recommend it to the casual Spider-Man fan, or a reader who wants to read a Spider-Man comic but doesn't know where to start.

Zom-100: Bucket List of the Dead Vol. 10 (Viz) Haro Aso and Kotaro Takata certainly have a penchant for dramatic cliffhangers, with last volume's ending in which Akira's crew dare to play the 50/50 game of can or zombie, where you either double your amount of canned goods fall into a pit full of zombies, the most recent example (The earlier one? When the evil version of Akira's crew put him in the position of having to sacrifice himself to zombies in order to save his father).  The resolution doesn't always live up to the promised drama, of course, but then, wiggling out of a seemingly-impossible scenario is the easiest way of dealing with a big cliffhanger. 

Here, new cast-member and master of gambling Takeru takes the challenge, betting on Akira's remaining empathy to save him...and then breaking the system with such a huge bet and huge winnings that it becomes impossible not to win, as long as he keeps betting. 

That concludes the "Millionaire of The Dead" arc that began last volume, and once again our heroes have found an okay place to permanently settle and ride out the apocalypse with a relatively nice style of life, but there's their promise to look for a cure—and the premise of the series—to think of, so they take off again, now with canned good millionaire Takeru as part of the team.

The volume contains two more arcs. There the two-part "Geisha of the Dead," where the boys patronize the surviving geisha of Kyoto, who have moved their business to the upper-floors of the buildings, accessible to patrons by ladder (and not to zombies at all).  And the "Pilgrimage of the Dead, wherein Beatrix convinces the others to take on a traditional pilgrimage of 88 temples. 

Neither gets them any closer to finding a cure, of curse, but they do manage to scratch a few more items off of their bucket list which is, of course, the point of the series, and their post-apocalyptic adventures.


Spider-Man: Animals Assemble! (Amulet Books) Cartoonist Mike Maihack takes on the Marvel Universe in this delightful little tale of Spider-Man pet-sitting for his fellow superheroes—seemingly all of his fellow superheroes—as they investigate a super-villain threat. Predictably, the art is great, and the story is a fun one, geared towards young readers but perfectly satisfying for grown-ups too. More here

Squire & Knight (First Second) Scott Chantler's fantasy story about a bookish squire and a boisterous knight facing a rather standard knightly deed—dealing with a dragon—is full of surprises. It's no surprise, given i's creator, that it's great, though. More here

Tegan and Sara: Junior High (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) The Canadian pop duo (and, incidentally, one of my favorite bands) make their comics-writing debut in this wonderful collaboration with prolific cartoonist Tillie Walden. A rather fictionalized coming-of-age memoir that moves their childhood from the early '90s up into the present day and moves a few events around to make for a more narratively satisfying story, Junior High is a sharp, insightful and awfully dramatic look at maybe the hardest year of any kid's life, seventh grade. More here