Review: BATMAN AND ROBIN #4

Batman and Robin #4

You are warned, here be spoilers.

How can I review this issue? Batman and Robin #4 was a terrible read, but a pretty good re-read. On the first read-through I was confused by Philip Tan’s busy, confusing art; on the reread I was fascinated. Initially, I was disappointed by how little screen time Batman and Robin got; re-reading, I was fascinated by the villains, glad of their coverage.

Seriously, Philip Tan’s art. On first read, it made me want Quitely back. Quitely. Sure, Quitely’s characters are ugly, scribbly deformities, but with his work you can tell what’s going on in a shot. With Tan, many panels are more like those online colour-blindness tests, except with him it’s hard to pick out shapes because there are too many colours, not too few. On re-read, I’m appreciating the art – because I’m not still figuring out what the Hell is going on.

And there is a lot to appreciate about the art. Take the two-page spread that comprises pages 2 and 3. A villain, the Lightning Bug, is fleeing Batman and Robin. He darts through an alley, up a fire escape, leaps across from one building to another, crashes into an apartment, then flees out into the hall.

This two-page spread is a masterpiece of construction. The panels are all small, oddly-sized, and jumbled together, like cards dropped on a table. However, the pre-jump panels are all clustered on the left, and the post-jump panels are all on the right; the background behind them – most clearly visible through the gap down the middle of the page – is a distant shot of the Lightning Bug in mid-air, making the jump, money streaming from his loot-bag like down from a shredded pillow. The image is both graceful and frantic.

Tan’s character work is good, but uneven. There’s a shot of a villainess – one of Gran Morrison’s new creations – running toward the camera, and the angles at which her body tilts and twists as she runs hints at a bit of Liefelding of the spine. And there’s a shot of Batman looking like he has a tremendous gut. But on the whole, it works. Characters are chiseled and strong without being ridiculously bulky.

I mentioned Batman and Robin don’t get much screen time in this issue – most of it the attention is on the Red Hood and Scarlett, the villains of the piece. The Red Hood is an interesting piece of work. He talks about being a “grown up” form a crime-fighting – which, near as I can tell, involves doing the Batman thing but also killing his villains at the end. When he first shows up, he and his sidekick Scarlett are shown executing a criminal in the street, then making a point of advertising their actions. The Red Hood photographs the crook’s death throes with what appears to be an iPhone, and posts the pictures on Twitter. He leaves calling cards. When Scarlett debates risking removing the doll-mask that’s fused to her face, the Red Hood talks about the pros and cons in terms of what’s cool and edgy. It all appears to be about image.

And Batman – Dick Grayson Batman – has a guess at who the Red Hood really is.

This issue was off-putting at first, but became more satisfying once I got a sense of what Morrison was about. I’m intensely curious as to where he’s going with this, though. I most definitely want to know what happens next.

“OH, YEAH!”

Linkara reviewed a Marvel Kool-Aid Man tie-in comic.

You know who could write an insanely awesome Kool-Aid Man comic?

Grant Morrison.

Seriously; you’d just need to hand him the base idea, and tell him to “Go do that thing you do.”

The Kool-Aid Man would wander through time and space and other planes of existence. The evolution of the Thirsties would be explored. There would be reference to the Jonestown massacre, and it would be pointed out that they didn’t drink Kool-Aid there. The comic would acknowledge that the Kool-Aid Man is an irredeemable slayer of Thirsties. And Ruining Fun would be explicitly treated as the Thirsties’ religion.

Grant Morrison, man. I’m telling you.

Review: IRREDEEMABLE #6 and THE MIGHTY #8

You are warned, here be spoilers.

Irredeemable, from Boom! Studios, and The Mighty, from DC, both came to my attention via an episode of the iFanboy.com podcast. The iFanboy guys talked about the two series together, and their approach makes sense. For me, I was encountering both at the same time – on the same shopping trip – and they have similar premises; to present them side by side for comparison is only logical.

Both center around Superman-esque superheroes, and both make them menacing to some degree or other.

Irredeemable #6

Dan Anderson is better known as the Plutonian. He’s a standard flying brick hero, and a member of the Paradigm – this setting’s all-star superhero team. He is, according to this issue, “Earth’s most powerful and beloved hero.”

He has gone berserk.

Though we don’t see much of his violence in this issue, the recap material on the inside cover does as superb job of bringing us up to speed. It says “tens of millions have died thanks to his wanton acts of destruction,” and talks about the Paradigm’s desperate efforts to stop him. There’s a visual dramatis personae, with portraits of the Paradigm’s twelve members and their names, with four of those members crossed out – because they’re dead. Discounting the Plutonian himself, this image says to me, “Four down, seven to go.” It sets up a mood of dread and desperation, which is, I hope, integral to the story. This inside cover is a fantastic response to the old comics adage, “every issue is someone’s first.”

The story is uneven and chaotic, but it feels deliberately so – the Paradigm are disorganized, and they’re working frantically. When we first encounter them, they’re fighting robot duplicates of Modeus, the Plutonian’s archenemy, who are running loose inside the Paradigm’s own secret base. The robots were constructed in the first place because they might yield some insight on defeating the Plutonian. This was a bad idea from the start, but not a surprising one from a team that’s running scared. When one of the team members accidentally triggers one of the Plutonian’s own panic alarms – the sort Lois Lane might carry in her pocket to summon Superman – they evacuate through a teleportation device. One of them stays behind to buy time, and no one has any illusions about his chances.

This feels like a horror story – a daylight horror story, like Jeepers Creepers or The Devil’s Rejects. There’s a genuine, even oppressive sense that the Paradigm’s members all need to go, go now, and never stop, because one wrong footfall will mean their deaths. I’m fascinated by the Plutonian’s appearance. With the cut of his costume and his blond crew-cut, he reminds me eerily of Miracleman, a similarity I refuse to believe is accidental.

I like that this tale is coming from Mark Waid, who wrote the magnificent Kingdom Come. Kingdom Come was a furious indictment of the directions comics went in the ’90s, and a cry for a return to the high ideals and heroic optimism extolled in the comics of yesteryear. Though Irredeemable is, at least on the strength of this issue, a much lesser work, it’s still an interesting contrast.

The art is maddening. On the one hand, it does its job well – the fear, the desperation, the sloppiness born of panic, all come through in the characters’ expressions and body language. At the same time, the art alternates between awkward and ugly; it feels like it’s drawn by a talented but woefully-unpracticed beginner. Body proportions don’t quite add up, and postures are awkward – not in a Liefeldian contortionist sort of way, but with a general sense of a lack of planning. The same character seems to wear different faces from panel to panel.

I’m torn. I’m delighted by the sense of urgency, of tension and, from it, excitement. Much as I’m bothered by the art, I absolutely must know what happens next.

The Mighty #8

The opening of this issue is brilliantly conceived and brilliantly executed – if you know the story and characters, which I didn’t. This book did a terrible job of handling the first time reader, not really settling into something I could follow comfortably until page 8.

Going back and re-reading the opening, it’s breathtaking. The first page is nothing special – a predictable overhead shot of a coffin being lowered into a grave, while a minister reads out an equally predictable 1 Corinthians 13 (though he cites it as “Corinthians 1:13”, which is wrong). The second page is much more memorable – a close-up of the face of one Gabriel Cole, which, with succeeding panels, pulls back to reveal him standing at the center of a crowd of mourners. Most of them fade into the background, until we’re left with only three vsual elements in front of a distant, muddled-pink background – Gabriel Cole at the center, the superhero Alpha One off to the right, and Gabriel’s shadow, which falls over the grave to form an “A”. Utterly meaningless to someone who doesn’t know Alpha One or his “A” logo, but quite arresting now that I’ve read the issue that follows.

Eventually, I did get a sense of what was going on – Gabriel Cole had once been close to Alpha One (initially I thought he was he was a former sidekick of Alpha One’s, but now I’m not sure), but now there’s some bad blood between them. Gabriel mopes – he’s lost a few loved ones recently, including the subject of the funeral at the start of the issue – and Alpha One makes gentle attempts to smooth things over with him.

Two story elements jump out – they’re what grabs and intrigues me. The first is a scene about halfway through the issue. After a spat at Gabriel’s apartment, Alpha One flies away to a baseball field. Under cover of night, he buries a nuclear bomb under (I think) home plate, first setting it for 72 hours. The second is a conversation, wherein Alpha One casually reveals that the public version of his origin (something about an accident with a hydrogen bomb) is a cover story, and that his real origin will soon be revealed(“I only hope they can accept it.”).

Alpha One isn’t as clearly, simply malevolent as the Plutonian, but there’s something Going On with with him.

I love the art in this issue. Chris Samnee’s linework and John Kalisz’s colours strongly remind me of the work of Darwyn Cooke, an artist I love, or the animation in any of those wonderful ’90s DC animated series. There’s terrific control of pacing through panel-work, and the art perfectly reflects the story’s ambiguity – the characters all have lantern jaws and chiseled features, yet they’re forever in heavy shadow, lit by monitors and fridge-lights and the like.

While not quite as gripping as Irredeemable #6, The Mighty #8 is a more satisfying read, and I most definitely want to know what happens next.

Review: THE WALKING DEAD #65


The Walking Dead #65

You are warned, here be spoilers.

The intent of Robert Kirkman’s wonderful The Walking Dead is to show the long-term consequences of a zombie apocalypse – a zombie movie that doesn’t stop, doesn’t wrap up neatly, and doesn’t let you out of the theater. A classic ending for a zombie movie is for some subset of the characters to survive a particular encounter – usually a zombie-siege on a particular building – and then escape. Kirkman asks where they escape to, and what happens then. Because the zombie apocalypse isn’t undone by the successful defense of a particular farmhouse.

By The Walking Dead #65, our ragtag band of survivors have been making their way in the post-zombie wilds for a few years. I know they’ve been through at least one Christmas, possibly two, and it’s currently summer-ish. They’ve been through a fair amount of turnover, and a number of home-bases with varying degrees of comfort and security. At this point they’re on the move again.

The problem you sometimes run into with this series is slow, stagnant navel-gazing – whole issues of characters spouting backstories, and arguing about what to do next. It’s a very talky series. This can work well – it lets us get close to these characters, even if we always maintain that certain distance inherent in an anyone-can-die series. But when Kirkman’s not careful, the story drags. (It occurs to me that it’s the antithesis of his Invincible.)

This issue is a bold and satisfying break from that – we see awesome committed. I think I’m ready for a new change in the status quo – a new settlement, or a meeting with a new group, or something – but this was damn cool.

Charlie Adlard’s art is the same in this issue as it has been all along. It’s rich and detailed, yet light and flexible, and gives us a sense we’re looking at real people, rather than superhero-extras. My perpetual complaint with this series – and I know I’m not alone – is that some of the characters are hard to tell apart. This has been partly alleviated over time by cast turnover and by having certain characters mutilated in various ways, but I’d still dearly love a dramatic personae.

There’s no question of stopping now, of course – although the series isn’t at its most exciting at the moment, it’s still wonderful, and I still want to know what happens next.

Ostou: 1.1.3 Phoney Bone

This post is part of an ongoing series.

Bone
Part I: The Valley
Book One: Out from Boneville
Chapter III: Phoney Bone

You are warned, here be spoilers.

Thus far in Bone, the setting and story feels like it’s about midway between a Disney fairy tale and The Lord of the Rings. Chapter 3 introduces a bit of structure borrowed from the brothers Grimm – didactic parallelism.

I’m thinking in particular of the tale of Mother Holle. (That link is part of the Internet Sacred Text Archive, which is an invaluable resource for all sorts of classical and mythological texts.) “Mother Holle” tells the story of two stepsisters, an industrious one and a lazy one. The industrious one falls down a well, finds herself in a magical world, and encounters a series of tests – characters needing help, and chores required by Mother Holle. She responds to these tests diligently and and altruistically, and is rewarded. Her stepsister, meanwhile, encounters the same tests, fails them, and is punished.

This structure appears again and again in fairy tales, and here, with chapter 3, we see it introduced into Bone, as the narrative comes around again to visit Phoney Bone. Phoney Bone is Fone Bone’s greedier and more arrogant cousin; he stalks about in the forest, fuming at his cousins for abandoning him, and at the world for abusing him (“Oh, cruel, cruel, fate! Why have you abandoned your most beloved son?!”) – when, of course, his situation is his own damn fault. He then has something very much like the encounters Fone Bone had in the first chapter.

He runs into the dragon, and comes within a hairsbreadth of being incinerated. He meets Ted, the talking bug, who offers to help him – and walks around insulting Ted. And, worst of all, he insults Gran’ma Ben’s cows.

Gran’ma Ben’s cows is one test Phoney actually runs into before Fone does. At the beginning of this chapter, Thorn explains to Fone that Gran’ma Ben is incredibly proud of her cows, which she takes to the nearby town of Barrelhaven every spring to race them. “If you want to make a good impression,” Thorn warns Fone, “be sure to compliment her on her cows! She’s real proud of her cows!” Fone says, “I’ll try to remember that.”

Phoney lacks both Fone’s general good disposition, and lacks Thorn’s warning. His encounter with Gran’ma Ben runs thusly:

GB: Oh, he looks like such a nice young man. Would he like to ride one of my racing cows?
PB: NO, I don’t wanna ride one of yer stupid cows!
GB: Ted, dear, I think you’d better leave. I’m gonna have to tear this little fella apart from the inside out.

Gran’ma Ben is badass. She rolls up her sleeve and clenches a fist, looking like something between Popeye and Rosie the Riveter.

Phoney, unfortunately, pre-fails the Gran’ma Ben’s cows test for both himself and Fone, and so the Bone cousins are allowed to stay, but only in the barn – and that only after Thorn’s pleading.

This chapter also gives a few intriguing hints of the series’s overplot. Fone shows Thorn his map – one Smiley Bone found back in chapter 1 – and she’s fascinated. She says it reminds her of a dream she used to have, then changes the subject.

This point brings me back to the pacing. I think if I were reading this story in issues, I’d go nuts. The plot is introduced slowly, in unintended hints and in slowly- gathering shadows. With the whole volume in front of me, though, to read at my own pace, it feels suitably epic. My copy has about the same physical dimensions as my one-volume copy of The Lord of the Rings.

A Year of Thor: THOR #1

This post is part of an ongoing series.

Thor #1

You are warned, here be spoilers.

The first issue is mostly preamble. The preamble is competent and effective, but it’s not until the last few pages that it becomes clear this series is something special.

Both versions of the cover are absolutely gorgeous. Olivier Coipel has a tendency to fall back on the image of Thor merely posing, looking majestic and menacing with his hammer, and I’ve no complaints. I know Linkara tends to dismiss these sorts of covers as bland, but Coipel – and Thor – make it work.

The current design for Thor’s costume is awesome. I’m not sure how far back it extends, whether it’s Coipel’s innovation or not, but wow. It maintains all the key elements of Jack Kirby’s original design, but turns the leotard into a belted tunic, and gives Thor an undersuit of chain armour – with, y’know, sleeves. It’s at once more modern and more mythic, and I heartily approve.

The issue itself begins with a few pages of images of Thor’s life, including a gorgeous full-page panel of Thor’s stern, heavy features superimposed on starry space. Then we get Mjolnir crashing to earth, erupting flame as a human hand reaches down to grasp its handle, and giving way to Thor, in white burial robe, stepping forth from the void. Apparently he’s been dead. His human aspect/host, Dr. Donald Blake, meets him, and the two square off in some swirling vortex of night.

In a long debate of D&D-level philosophy, Blake convinces Thor to return from death, and to go out and find the other Asgardians, who are apparently trapped in human bodies. (I was delighted to see Thor address Blake as “you” in this debate. Thor’s atrocious mis-use of “thou” has grated on me for years.)

This opening sequence fills most of the issue. It’s mythic and evocative, but it’s only half a step above every other fantasy attempt at mythic and evocative. It’s the last six pages of the issue that really grab my attention:

After Thor is convinced to return to the world, we see Donald Blake arriving in a tiny, sleepy little town in Oklahoma. Here, Coipel’s art and JMS’s writing absolutely sing together. With every outdoor panel, Coipel shows us the endless expanse of the prairies, and with every indoor panel, he shows us the authentic, busy details that are clamouring proof of human life.

Blake rents a room at the Sooner Hotel (with “free TV”!), operated (and presumably owned) by Beth Sooner. Beth Sooner is short, friendly, woefully overweight, and completely failing to hide the grey roots that peek out from under the red dye in her hair. She has the sort of glasses that make her eyes look as big as saucers, and she makes the sorts of lame jokes that Stephen King absolutely loves.

None of this is to say that a quaint, folksy small town is automatically wonderful. But seeing a god living in one has a fighting shot at it.

A Year of Thor: Introduction

This post began its life as a retrospective of the first year of the revived Thor series, but as I started to type out my impressions, I realised there was way, way too much I wanted to say. So instead this is going to be a series of posts, one about each of the first thirteen issues of the series. I’m going to run them on Fridays – a nice, relaxing cap on the week, as it were.

So. Just as the furor of Civil War was fading from our collective attention, Marvel revived Thor, restarting the issue numbering. I can’t recall what spurred me to pick up the first issue, but I’m glad I did. It’s gotten astonishingly little attention – Chris Neseman of Around Comics, when looking back at 2008, murmured, “And didn’t Thor restart this year?”, like he wasn’t sure, and I think the iFanboy hosts called issue 600 (which is secretly issue 13 – more on that later) “disappointing”. And I have to wonder if these people are reading the same book as I did. I fell madly in love with it from issue 1.

Issues 1-13/600 form a solid, cohesive arc, and I’d like to look back at it, and show it some love.

The whole run is written by J. Michael Straczynski, and drawn initially by Olivier Coipel, then later by Marko Djurdjevic. They – and everyone involved – are in top form throughout, and I want to take a closer look at that form..

There will, of course, be spoilers.

Review: SWEET TOOTH #1

Sweet Tooth #1

You are warned, here be spoilers.

Vertigo‘s been doing something neat lately with their first issues – they’ve been selling them for $1 each. I picked up the first issue of Jeff Lemire’s Sweet Tooth on those grounds, and on the strength of a glowing review by the iFanboy guys.

Lemire’s most famous works, prior to Sweet Tooth, are the Essex County Trilogy, and a graphic novel called The Nobody, both unread by me.

Sweet Tooth, from what we can tell so far, is the story of Gus, a boy with deer antlers and ears. He lives with his father, in a cabin deep in the woods. Gus is dominated by his overbearing, Bible-thumping father, who forces Gus to hide whenever there’s a chance he might run into other people. The issue depicts the beginnings of the intrusion of the outside world into Gus’s little sphere.

I’m fascinated by the premise. There are strong hints that it’s post-apocalyptic (“My Dad says so few kids was born after the accident, that God decided to make ’em special. So we got fur, or tails, or antlers.” – and even as I type that, I’m suddenly reminded of John Wyndham‘s The Chrysalids.), and I love me some post-apocalyptic – most especially when it’s less about rip-roaring mutant-fighting action (i.e. the second half of Def Con 4), and more about how life is different After The End (i.e. the first half of Def Con 4). In that sense, the story is spot on. It’s also, I gather, very much in line with Lemire’s other work – it’s a surprisingly quiet story, more about the awkward pauses than the events that separate them.

That said, there seems to be a particular spell Lemire is trying to cast, and a single issue isn’t enough room to do it in. I have a strong suspicion this story will read better in trade than in single issues.

My response to the art seems to be precisely the reverse of how I’ve been responding to Quitely and some of the other artists. Here, I’m finding that if I open the issue and look at the artwork, it’s only vaguely interesting. The linework is rough, jagged, and raw, and the colour palette is quite dull. And yet, when I’m actually reading the story, it works. The ugly, rough artwork is expressive in a way Quitely’s isn’t.

In the end, I’m at once intrigued and underwhelmed, which I gather is Lemire’s stock in trade. I’m going to keep reading, because I want to know what happens next.

Censoring Shakespeare: HAMLET

Ah, the Comics Code. We all remember that, right? The comic book equivalent of the Hays Code, except kept in place until a much more recent decade (partly, I expect, because comics are “for kids”, and films aren’t necessarily), the Comics Code limited what could be shown in comic books. It came about as a result of a moral panic concerning comic books. This panic had, at its center, the publication of Fredric Wertham‘s anti-comics polemic, Seduction of the Innocent.

(Fun aside: I was thinking of reading Seduction of the Innocent, since I suspect most modern-day comics fans know it only by reputation. However, the cheapest I can find it online is $200, and that’s on eBay.)

I gather modern MPAA ratings for films allow a certain amount of room for context and interpretation – not much, but some. The Comics Code Authority, however, did not. If you read down in the Wikipedia entry on the CCA, there’s a story that happened in 1971 – Stan Lee, by request of the United States government, wrote a Spider-Man story depicting the negative effects of drugs. The CCA refused to certify the issues in which that story ran.

And so it goes. The first time I sat down and read the code (it’s not long – the text of the Code comprises 41 points, all stated in brief, plain English; the Wikipedia entry condenses it down to 18 highlights), it struck me that a lot of great works of literature would violate it – Beowulf, 1984, literary horror including Dracula

… much of Shakespeare…

It’s the Shakespeare that really got me thinking. Would the nigh-universally-acknowledged greatest writer of the English language… run afoul of the CCA?

Hamlet vs. the CCA

Part A (1) Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal, to promote distrust of the forces of law and justice, or to inspire others with a desire to imitate criminals.

The biggest and most obvious criminal in Hamlet is Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle. Well, right away we have a problem – Claudius is the king – he is the forces of law and justice. And sympathy? Well, near the beginning of Act 3, Scene 3, Claudius gives a soliloquy. The whole thing is worth reading (well, okay, the whole play is worth reading – this is Shakespeare), but a relevant highlight includes:

Try what repentance can: what can it not?
Yet what can it when one can not repent?
O wretched state! O bosom black as death!
O limed soul, that, struggling to be free,
Art more engaged! Help, angels! Make assay!
Bow, stubborn knees; and, heart with strings of steel,
Be soft as sinews of the newborn babe!

Claudius wants to pray, to repent his crimes, but finds he cannot – he still possesses the benefits of those crimes, and can’t bring himself to give them up. And the scene before this one is the play-within-the-play, wherein Claudius is confronted with a depiction of his own foul crime (though only Hamlet knows it’s deliberate; everyone else thinks it just a play). Claudius is overcome; he storms out.

None of this makes Claudius a good person, but it shows his crime is clearly eating at him.

Part A (2) No comics shall explicitly present the unique details and methods of a crime.

Oh man; Hamlet is screwed on this one. The aforementioned play-within-the-play is precisely about depicting the unique details and methods of the crime. Hamlet’s arranged to show Claudius (and the whole royal court) a play that depicts Claudius’s murder of his own brother, Hamlet’s father.

Part A (3) Policemen, judges, Government officials and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.

There is, of course, King Claudius, murderer and usurper. Apart from him, there’s Polonius, the king’s trusted adviser, who’s a buffoon. He wanders around sputtering nonsense and missing the point of everything that happens around him.

Part A (5) Criminals shall not be presented so as to be rendered glamorous or to occupy a position which creates a desire for emulation.

One could argue that Claudius’s ultimate downfall, and his gnawing guilt, negates any “desire for emulation”, but then they did refuse to approve that Spider-Man drug story… So all we’re left with is the criminal as the king, which is to many “glamorous” and worth emulating.

Part A (6) In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds.

Ergh. Maybe. The criminal was punished for his misdeeds but… so was half the cast. There were varying degrees of guilt to be found among them, but what of poor manipulated Laertes, or poor, horribly-used Ophelia?

Part B (5) Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism are prohibited.

Do ghosts count? It doesn’t specifically name ghosts, but Hamlet’s father is generally depicted as walking, and he is most certainly dead.

Part C – Dialogue (1) Profanity, obscenity, smut, vulgarity, or words or symbols which have acquired undesirable meanings are forbidden.

I feel like I’m missing an obvious one here. I know Shakespeare wasn’t shy about dirty or vulgar humour, but I can’t recall any specific instances from Hamlet.

Part C – Marriage and sex (2) Illicit sex relations are neither to be hinted at nor portrayed. Violent love scenes as well as sexual abnormalities are unacceptable.

What constitutes illicit? There’s a fair bit made of Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s relationship, and it’s implied there’s been sex involved (despite the fact that they’re – horrors – not married).

Is there anything obvious I’ve missed?