Monday, September 18, 2023

A Month of Wednesdays: August 2023


Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #8
(Remastered) (Waverly Press)
I absolutely did not need to buy this, having the original, Mirage TMNT #8 collected in the old Mirage Publishing trade paperback I have of the first eleven issues of the series (plus the four "micro-series"). That said, perusing the Kickstarter page for the issue, a "remastered" version of it so excited me that I ended up ordering a $25 copy of a comic I've already read at least a dozen times (and used to try to redraw pages of into a sketchpad). 

Much of that excitement came from seeing the various variant covers; I kinda wish they sold a "gallery" version that just collected all of these. You can see them yourself at the Kickstarter page. They include a Jim Lawson/Steve Lavigne image featuring Cerebus hanging out in the Turtles' sewer lair and a nice Michael Dooney image of Cerebus, the Turtles and Renet, as well as covers from EDILW-favorite artists Kyle Hotz and Simon Bisley and one-time favorite, now-problematic artist Brandon Graham. 

I just ordered one of the Dave Sim covers, however, which is a "cover" version of Kevin Eastman's original cover for the original comic, with a few minor changes (some unnecessary flashes of light on some of the metal, a new lightning effect on bad guy Savanti Romero, Cerebus is wearing a helmet instead of bare-headed). 

As for the remastering, I can't tell you how effective it is. I didn't pull out my old Mirage collection and lay the pages side-by-side, but everything looked familiar, perhaps more crisp and clear then I remember, and thee was definitely a starker contrast between black and white than then the yellowing pages of my collection.

In addition to a Cerebus crossover of sorts, this is actually a pretty significant issue in TMNT history, as it also introduces the apprentice Time Lord and henceforth recurring character Renet and recurring villain Savanti Romero, who I'm fairly certain logged more appearances in the original Mirage series than The Shredder did*. 

The story, by Kevin Eastman, Peter Laird, Dave Sim and Gerhard, finds Renet absconding with her master Lord Simultaneous' magic scepter to New York City, circa 1986 (which was, at the time of publication, "the present"). There she meets the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, who had just returned to Earth after the first real arc of their own book.  Lord Simultaneous tracks Renet down, prompting her to make another time jump to "anyplace on this Earth before humans recorded time!"

That, of course, means the setting of Cerebus comics (1406, according to an editorial box), and, in fact, Renet and the Turtles land right on top of Cerebus. As he and Leonardo cross swords, the master of the nearby fortress Cerebus had been planning on breaking into comes out with soldiers to retrieve the scepter; this is Savanti Romero, the goat-legged, horn-headed sorcerer. 

Cerebus then raises an army to invade the fortress, which Romero defends with an army of the risen dead. After some medieval adventure for our time-travelling heroes, it all works out, thanks to the timely, deus ex machina intervention of Lord Simultaneous, who easily out-matches Romero, even with his possession of the scepter, and returns everyone to their status quo, shunting Romero off to prehistoric times and chaining-up the rebellious Renet with a feather duster and list of chores.  

Read today, it's remarkable for how big a comic it is. It's just 45 pages, but it's a very full 45 pages, devoting to telling a big, rather epic story that introduces plenty new concepts and characters into the TMNT narrative and, because it tells a complete story with a beginning, middle and end in its pages, reads a bit more like an original graphic novel, or at least an oversized annual, compared to simply the next issue of an ongoing comic book series. 

It also boasts the pleasures of the series it is a part of, in which there's unusual alchemy regarding the who-did-what of the proceedings, as at that point with the Eastman and Laird partnership, they both seemed to have done a little bit of everything, but the inclusion of Sim and Gerhard among the creators mean that Cerebus and his dialogue look like they came out of the pages of the Cerebus comic, plopped down into the pages of Eastman and Laird's comic book. It's an unusual inter-property crossover, in large part because the creators of the characters are so involved with the making of the comic book. 

Growing up, I used to wonder why it was that Stan Sakai's Usagi Yojimbo character, who also had some early, if minor, crossovers with the TMNT (in 1987's Turtle Soup #1 and 1988's Usagi Yoimbo #10, became embraced by the franchise once it went mainstream and multimedia, while Cerebus, who had a bigger, more expansive comics crossover—actually appearing in an issue of the main TMNT series—did not. Now I realize that likely had much to do with Sim himself, but it's interesting to imagine an alternate world where in Cerebus appeared in the original toy line, in the original kids' cartoon and would later appear in video games like Usagi did.

I'm not sure what backmatter might have existed in the original TMNT #8, but this remastered edition includes a March 1986 letter from Eastman to Sim, a full-page ad featuring Cerebus and the Turtles in medieval fantasy gear, and a 2012 print by Sim and Eastman featuring "Matisse The Unknown Turtle", Cerebus with a shell and TMNT-style mask, surrounded by the four ninja turtles. 


Batgirls Vol. 2: Bat Girl Summer (DC Comics) This second volume of Becky Cloonan, Michael W. Conrad and company's new Batgirls title seems to be on much surer footing than the first one. This might be in part because it relies more heavily on pre-existing Batman villains (Killer Moth, The Riddler, The Penguin, The Mad Hatter and even the KGBeast all make appearances, and the identity of the Hill Ripper turns out to be an extant, if minor, villain) than the originals that filled the first volume (Seer, The Saints, Tutor, Spellbinder III, The Hill Ripper). 

It's...not a great argument for using original villains, unfortunately, but I think it may have something to do with the way they were used rather than the simple notion that existing Bat-villains are always preferable to original creations. In the first volume, Cloonan and Conrad threw all of them at the Batgirls at the same time in a way that felt confused, whereas here they deal with the threats in a more orderly fashion: After two issues wrapping up the Seer and the Saints storylines (which did seem awfully anti-climatic, given how many issues were spent building up Seer as some sort of evil anti-Oracle), the remaining issues of the volume are devoted to the hunt for The Hill Ripper. That, at least, felt like a normal Batman-adjacent comic, with a single, focused conflict occupying our heroes.

The first two-issue story, "Bad Reputation", finds Seer working with the Batgirls to take down The Saints, who turned on Seer after they realized she had tricked them into thinking Simon Saint was still alive (these villains hail from the ranks of the Peacekeepers from James Tynion IV and company's "Fear State" story arc/Bat-event...another problem with the first volume, I thought).  This takes them to Seer's secret hideout, in the basement of the Iceberg Lounge, which leads to a Penguin appearance. Barbara Gordon decides to enter through the front door, with date Dick Grayson, so Nightwing and all three Batgirls are there for the climax, which basically just fizzles, in regard to the threat Seer was built up as. Guest artist Robbi Rodriguez drew this storyline.

That's followed by the four-part title arc, "Bat Girl Summer," with chunkier, smoother art by Neil Googe, which, stylistically is more in keeping with that of original series artist Jorge Corona (who, for this volume at least, simply contributes covers, like the one that shows up on the collection). 

When grumpy neighbor Mr. Green turns up dead, Stephanie Brown lost her number one suspect in the Hill Ripper case, thanks to some Rear Window-like shenanigans. His death does lead to a new clue, though, a fake eyeball containing an elaborate, Riddler-like code clue. While Steph and Cass run that down, Barbara suits-up again to contact new Gotham City Police Commissioner Renee Montoya to talk about the possibility of an alliance; Babs is reluctant to hack the police department for their files on the Ripper without their permission. (Montoya, somewhat oddly for someone who has been a Gotham City vigilante, is opposed to working with vigilantes, and wants to do everything by the book; at least Cloonan and Conrad have Montoya mention her time as The Question.)

During their sleuthing at the library, Steph and Cass run into one Kyle Mizoguchi, from the pages of Cloonan and company's long-canceled Gotham Academy book. He helps the girls with their research, and gives Steph his number; they even make a date for the Gotham Zoo, where the clues point, and where Cass teams up with Maps Mizoguchi for some "Batman stuff" while Kyle and Steph talk. Based on the dialogue, it doesn't look like anything will come of Kyle and Steph, but I guess I'll have to read the next volume to be sure; it's an interesting pairing, and one with a lot of potential to bring Gotham Academy's favorite characters closer into the world of Batman (and back in the spotlight), although I confess I have lost track of how old Steph, Cass and the other Batman sidekicks are actually supposed to be now. (From the end of Tynion's 'Tec run, it seemed like Tim was ready to go off to college, and he and  he and Steph were together at that point, driving off together into the sunset, and were still together into the pages of  Brian Michael Bendis' rebooted Young Justice. If Steph is Tim's age, than I guess that would make her 18-ish, and ready for college...and thus an older woman to Kyle. She doesn't seem to be in any kind of school in the pages of Batgirls, though). 

The hunt brings in a few other Bat-villains, as traditional Batgirl foe Killer Moth is working with the Hill Ripper (and here he's got a web-gun as well as a pretty cool redesign; I guess moth caterpillars do secrete sticky stuff when they get ready to make cocoons, but this seems a bit of a stretch for Killer Moth, thematically),  and The Riddler, who is also trying to "solve" the Ripper case, apparently by leaving Riddler-style clues with the bodies for others to follow, since the Ripper himself does not (As for the Ripper, he is, spoiler alert now, Mr. Fun, who first appeared in 2002's—Gah! He's over 20 years old at this point!—Batman: Family by John Francis Moore, Rick Hoberg, Stefano Guadiano and Steve Lieber, an eight-issue miniseries that I mostly remember for introducing a bunch of new, minor villains for the Bat-Family to tangle with (I don't think it's been collected yet). 

It's still not the Batgirls comic book I thought I wanted, exactly, but, with this second volume, it seems to be getting there. I'm hopeful the third volume is even better, and then I guess that's it for the book, as it's already been cancelled. 

Batman Vs. Robin (DC) This Mark Waid-written event comic is actually the continuation of two different threads of recent Batman-related goings-on, only one of which evolves from Waid's own writings. One of these is the most recent Robin series, the one written by Joshua Williamson and finding Damian on a new costume entering a fighting tournament on Lazarus Island. The other is Waid's first arc of Batman/Superman: Worlds Finest (reviewed in this post), in which the pair encounter an ancient Chinese sorcerer/demon capable of possessing his foes. So foundational are these two stories to the Batman Vs. Robin miniseries, indeed, that the collection includes a six-page excerpt from the final issue of Robin and the nine-page finale of World's Finest #6; a reader is expected to be familiar with these stories, and the collection goes out of its way to make sure they are (Also of some import is probably the Batman story arc "City of Bane", in which Alfred was killed off, given that he here reappears alive for a time, although DC's editors don't weigh its importance as such that it needed excerpted before the beginning of this new story.)

Oddly, there's another comic of great importance that isn't included in this collection; that's "The Lazarus Planet Event", as an asterisk and editorial box refers to it. I'm not sure the exact issue title or number of books, but it apparently occurred between the fourth and fifth issues of this very series. The events are pretty important, even if the story sort of glides over them. I'm not sure how DC wants one to read them, exactly; based on this collection, it doesn't seem like one needs to, the narrative road just gets awfully bumpy between the penultimate and ultimate chapters of this story.

As for that story, Batman returns to the now disused Wayne Manor, where he finds a few surprise guests. The first is Alfred, seemingly himself and returned from the dead in some mysterious fashion that he himself is ignorant of. The second is the now semi-estranged Robin Damian Wayne, in the company of Tim Hunter and Jakeem Thunder and his thunderbolt (Hey, I like those characters! Just as I like Waid's ability to remember and willingness to use many cool characters from throughout DC's long history, minor and major). While Alfred isn't quite sure what he's doing there, Robin and friends are there to kill Batman.

Obviously, Damian is being controlled and, obvious to readers from the comics sampled before the start of that story, the being doing the controlling is the Devil Nezha, last seen being imprisoned by Batman on a mysterious island...and island that ended up being Lazarus Island.

Batman and Alfred escape to see Zatanna, only to find her trapped between death and life, and telling them that all of his magical allies are in similar straits. She tells him to use the magic key she gave him to seek answers, and this his does through a wild visit to past DC horror hosts like Cain and Able, here in their reimagined-by-Neil-Gaiman roles as caretakers or real estate in The Dreaming. After expositionary dreams, Batman and Alfred learn what they need to know about Damian and his recent history and his alliance with Nezha and a new-to-me character named Mother Soul.

Batman must then travel to Lazarus Island, where Damian and his new, bad guy masters are busily draining magic users and magical items into a single, powerful reliquary through the captured Black Alice's powers. 

Batman is forced to run a gauntlet of all his former Robins, each now armed with a powerful magical item of some sort, before facing Damian himself, with Nezha and Mother Soul looking on. Does Batman have a plan for dealing with this situation? Well, he is Batman.

It's a pretty straightforward but fun adventure in the mode of Waid's lore-heavy World's Finest storytelling, a Batman and Robin comic with global stakes. But then things get weird, climaxing in the fourth issue, then leading into the "Lazarus Planet " event/story/comic/whatever, and then picking up where some time and action has passed. 

Suddenly, Robin is the narrator and protagonist, and Nezha is bodily possessing Batman's fatally  wounded-and-dying body in Gotham City. With an assist from The Monkey Prince, Zatanna, Enchantress and the Bat-Family, Robin must find a way to beat Nezha, exorcise him from Batman's body and somehow replace him with the necessary soul energy to restore Batman to life. It's not surprising that Robin finds a way to do the impossible, of course, but, as ever, it's the how that's interesting. 

The structure is, obviously, a little weird; the miniseries is essentially a story with two different, distinct, consecutive climaxes, and I'm not sure to what degree it might be informed, and thus changed, by reading the missing Lazarus Planet piece. It's satisfying enough as is, though.

Mahmud Asrar provides the majority of the art, with Scott Godlewski drawing the final issue, the second climax. The art is all fine, if petty unremarkable. 

Fantastic Four By Ryan North Vol. 1: Whatever Happened to the Fantastic Four?
(Marvel Entertainment)
I consider writer Ryan North—who, in Marvel's current dunderheaded way of naming their graphic novel collections, sounds like he is a cartoonist entirely responsible for the creation of the books within—a genius in the field of comics-making and book-writing, and that's not a term I use lightly (Or, like, very often). If all he was responsible for was The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, I think that might be true, that comic being the best Marvel comic I've ever read (Granted, I've only started reading Marvel comics around the turn of the millennium). But that's not the only book to his credit, and what the works of his I've read have all shared is wild imagination, clever premises and, at times, an almost insane-seeming dedication to a bit (See Dinosaur Comics).

That said, I haven't read his handful of non-Squirrel Girl  Marvel comics, which tended to either not be up my alley (The Darkhold, Power Pack) or seem like all around bad ideas in general (a new Secret Invasion). But the Fantastic Four? That seemed right up the writer of Squirrel Girl's alley, what with the book's traditional focus on science-adventure as much as superheroics, its propensity for humor, and its family narrative.

And Ryan North does do a good job on the book, it's just...well, it's a weird book, feeling more like a fill-in arc than the start of a brand-new era for the Fantastic Four. Which it technically is, given the new #1 it launched with (Of course these days, every time there's a new writer it's supposedly a brand-new era, as the books relaunch to accommodate the change in creative teams).  It's basically a series of fun, clever, done-in-one adventures in which members of the FF are faced with a creative conundrum they must solve, but it finds the team unmoored from a particular place—not only do they have no home or headquarters, they're not even in their hometown of New York for much of it—and unmoored from one another, as the first three issues feature the various members of the isolated from the rest of their family.

Each issue is, in itself, a well-written, perfectly competently-drawn comic book (more on North's artistic collaborators Iban Coello and Ivan Fiorelli in a bit), but adding them all together only gets us a series of unrelated vignettes, kinda sorta explained via flashback at one point (Although, at another, the now solo, secret-identity having Johnny Storm seems to allude to events in  an unrelated Marvel crossover event: "So, yeah, being a hero's 'illegal' in New York now.") They're each substantial reads, something North has always seemed to deliver on, but they feel weightless and ungrounded, like they belong in another book, rather than the first volume of a new run on FF.

So the first issue of a new volume of Fantastic Four, for example, only features one member of that team, The Thing. Ben Grimm and his now-wife Alicia are on the road for some reason, and they check into a motel in 1947, and, were that weird enough, they soon discover the next day that it's still the same day of 1947—Indeed, they've stumbled into a town trapped in time, whose citizens have been unknowingly reliving the same day of 1947 for decades now, with no hope of escape. Until our heroes come around, of course, and then it's up to Ben and Alicia to figure out what the heck is going on and break the cycle to save the town. 

See? Perfectly fun, clever Fantastic Four story. It just doesn't seem like a Fantastic Four #1 does it? I mean, it's missing 3/4ths of the team. The art on this issue, and for the first four of the series, is by Iban Coello, a talented artist whose work I first read in Tom Taylor's Dark Ages series. He's a perfectly accomplished in what we could call the Marvel house style (and, of course, he's drawn books all over their house over his career), but I'm of two minds about his appropriateness on North's FF

On the one hand, it's so different a book from what one might expect from previous volumes of the series, that one might wish for an artist whose style is that different, whose very presence communicates that this is something off-beat, something quirky, something that's not your average superhero comic (As North's Squirrel Girl collaborators, Erica Henderson and Derek Charm did). 

On the other, Coello's style's very adherence to a basic, even generic superhero book so ground this in the modern Marvel Universe that it makes the difference between it and other books sharper and more subversive. It doesn't advertise what it is, but, visually at least, is your standard Marvel book.

The rest of the book basically follows the set-up of the first issue. After a last page hint that the FF did something to make New Yorkers hate them, the second issue finds Reed and Sue also on the road, stopping at a diner, where they discover another weird town with another interesting dilemma in need of solving: The entire population of the town appears to be Doombots, although they are Doombots programmed to imitate regular American townsfolk going about their normal, human lives (unless they see a member of the FF, of course). 

Next we check in with the solo Johnny Storm, currently dying his hair, rocking a mustache, working  a day job and going by the name of "Jonathan Fairweather." He's still in New York, and isn't faced with a weird town trapped in a weird form of peril. Rather, he has to deal with an evil businessman making life miserable for the put-upon employees at Johnny's super-store.

It's not until the fourth issue that we get the reveal of what exactly the FF did to split them up and send them out of New York City—Reed comes up with a very Reed, cold but scientifically sound solution to an alien invasion that shifted a chunk of NYC real estate, including the Baxter Building, through time, so that it will arrive safe and sound back where it was one year's time (relative to those who weren't shifted; for those that were, it will seem instantaneous).

I'm surprised an editor didn't push for this to be the first issue. I don't know, maybe they did. Even it occurs in flashback though, as Ben and Alicia are trapped in a crazy circumstance, and the others must reunite to save them.

The final two issues, for which writer Ian Fiorelli comes on board to take the artist reigns from Coello (and their styles are similar enough that there's no real aesthetic turbulence, although the same issues I have with Coello's presence on the book are operative with Fiorelli's), sees a brief appearance by Salem's Seven who attack the reunited Fantastic Four in a novel way: With extradimensional bacteria, which first just threatens to painfully kill them, but, in the next issue, threatens the world.

And that's the first volume of the Fantastic Four by Ryan North: Clever, imaginative, occasionally funny and featuring the familiar characters in well-written and drawn appearances, but in a weird format, something that's so episodic it feels a bit like a TV show more than a modern comic book. 

I don't know. I enjoyed it enough to read volume two, but it's a pretty weird read. 

The He-Man Effect: How American Toymakers Sold You Your Childhood (First Second) "I am not a hater of these toy properties at all," Brian "Box" Brown writes in the afterword of his latest non-fiction comic. "I, like many of my generation, have been hypnotized by Star Wars, He-Man, Transformers and G.I. Joe...The nostalgia for these toys is a strong and powerful emotion for me. This is what led me to make this book, to do the research. I just don't think that feeling I have now was put there by accident. It was done by force."

The He-Man Effect is his book-length exploration of how nostalgia for various toy brands was put in his head, and the heads of his entire generation (myself included) by force. 

Brown, in his infographic-simple art-style, starts his tale at the beginning of human history, noting the power of human imagination and jumping ahead to Julius Caesar, who created "one of the first recorded pieces of military propaganda, though it had surely existed as a concept as long as war has." 

He then spends some time on propaganda as a means of persuasion, moving quickly through the twentieth century from World War I to the selling of cigarettes to Disney and Mickey Mouse mania to the subject of hand, the selling of toys to kids, particularly in the period from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, when the franchises he mentioned were at their height. 

It's a smart, rhetorically sound book and a fascinating history, one with clever echoes I had never thought of, like, for example, that Orson Welles, the man who made Citizen Kane, a film about nostalgia as symbolized by a particular childhood toy, would, later in his life, play the voice of a toy in the original Transformers movie, featuring a franchise that could very well be full of other children's Rosebuds.

I didn't know most of this, despite being on the receiving end of a lot of the marketing for these properties, which, indeed, defined my childhood, from the toys I played with to the shows I watched to the things I imagined. I also never thought of the power of nostalgia, and the fact that I still like things like Star Wars or Transformers owes a deal to nostalgia, to the way I associate them with the happy, carefree days of childhood, and the fact that the marketing forces of my youth are still acting on me today (I will here pause to note that I was a fan of He-Man before the cartoon; I remember reading, and in fact still have the little storybooks that came with the first wave of He-Man guys in which He-Man and Eternia had different origins than those presented in the cartoon, stories that predated the introduction of the Prince Adam identity. [And I have them in multiple formats; both the original books and comics which I saved, and the Dark Horse collection of the same]. Apparently I didn't need interest in He-Man "burned" into my "little pea brain"; the toy sold itself to me...well, it sold itself to my grandmother and my parents, who bought me my first Masters of the Universe toys for one magical Christmas in the '80s...and how much is tied up in that! My interest in the franchise, sure, but it was also my first, non-newspaper introduction to comics, and I still think of my late grandmother when I think of He-Man...)

(What was I talking about...?)

As wonderful a read as it is, to relive my childhood while learning about the not-exactly-benign forces that shaped the world of my imagination, there's a great pleasure in seeing Brown's simplified style devoted to drawing the toys themselves, as well as famous scenes from the cartoons, from movies and things like the first Star Wars novels or Noelle Stevenson's She-Ra. This book is a pleasure not just to read, but also to look at.

I can't possibly recommend it enough, especially if you were a child in the 1980s. 

Komi Can't Communicate Vol 26 (Viz Comics) I can't tell you how relieved I am that this book didn't end when Tadano and Komi finally got together. Now I'm wondering if it won't instead end when they graduate high school, and/or Komi meets her goal of making 100 friends...and perhaps those two things will happen simultaneously. As it turns out, there is still plenty of room for awkward miscommunication problems involving the pair and those around them that has nothing to do with the unspoken of romantic tension that existed between them for so many volumes. Here, for example, Tadano invites Komi over and introduces her to his mom and sister as his girlfriend, and they are confused; why is Komi dating Tadano, who they thought liked boys...? 


Batman: Wayne Family Adventures Vol. 1 (DC Comics) So it turns out that this is what I wanted from the pages of Batgirls: Cassandra Cain, Stephanie Brown and Barbara Gordon hanging out with one another and the extended Bat-Family. In fact, that's the entire focus of this comic, which began as a Web Toon series of online comic strips. Despite being right up my alley, I didn't dig the experience of reading it online. Now it's been collected into book form, the individual strips edited to fit the format, and done so well enough that it seems like the strip was always meant to be read in comic book, rather than online. This is an ideal comic for fans of the extended Bat-Family, and a template for what more Batman comics could be, rather than a monthly beat 'em up of the same stable of recurring villains. More here

Paul Bunyan: The Invention of an American Legend (Toon Books) Cartoonist Noah Van Sciver retells the story of Paul Bunyan while providing necessary, rarely-discussed context in a fictionalized story of a lumber company ad man trying to entertain fellow passengers on a stalled train. Further context is provided in an introduction and generous back-matter, all coming from indigenous voices, which are heretofore always missing from the story of the manufactured myths of America's most famous lumberjack. More here

Team Trash: A Time Traveler's Guide To Sustainability (Holiday House) This is a message book, meant to teach young readers about recycling, its history, its present and its future. Despite its rather naked advocacy and educational nature, the premise is entertaining enough that it never seems preachy. More here

*I guess Shredder only actually appeared once; The Shredder who appeared in Leonardo #1 and "Return to New York" was one made of magic ninja worms, and thus not the "real" Shredder. 

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