Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Rise, My Pets: Peter David

Some comics writers have characters they keep coming back to, over and over again, whether they had a hand in creating them or not. Sometimes they even pluck a character from obscurity and make them matter.
With that in mind, I give you, the pets of Peter David. I won’t promise they’re not all from X-Factor.


Aquaman: (Aquaman #1-46, Aquaman: Time and Tide #1-4, Atlantis Chronicles 1-7) Though David is a writer who jokes often, he made the king of Atlantis no joke. I mean, come on, he gave the dude a hook for a hand! David turned Aquaman into a Thor of the seas, helped give Atlantis itself a rich history and boosted the quality of his supporting cast. During David’s run, artist Jim Calafiore gave the character perhaps his second most-famous look: shirtless, long hair, beard, hook hand. Your move, Flash.


Doc Samson: While Hulk and X-Factor are largely two different books, they both featured memorable appearances from resident Marvel headshrinker Leonard “Doc” Samson, the man with the long, green hair and the Ph.D. Samson helped David’s Hulk work through his mental issues, and he also analyzed X-Factor in the “X-Aminations” stories, two of David’s best standalone works (the first one is perhaps most memorable both for Quicksilver’s speech about how slowly the world moves to him and a dated, but still funny to people in their 30s, Ren and Stimpy reference).


Hulk: (Incredible Hulk Vol. 1 #328-467, Vol. 2 #67-77, various mini-series & specials including Future Imperfect) David is to Hulk what Chris Claremont is to the X-Men, spending 12 years giving the character depth and breadth, control over his personality, intelligence, gray skin, green skin and a beard. David gave us such memorable Hulk concepts as Joe Fixit, the gray Hulk-as-Vegas bouncer, and the Maestro, the Hulk that ruled a dystopian future. He picked up and fleshed out Banner’s childhood of abuse at the hands of his father, a holdover from the Bill Mantlo years. And he synthesized the many shades of Hulk into one intelligent, green smashing machine. He also worked with a series of well-known artists, from Todd McFarlane to Dale Keown to Gary Frank. David wrote a great little essay on his time with the Jade Giant – including getting canned for refusing to re-savage the Hullk – for Entertainment Weekly, which you can read here.


Jamie Madrox: (X-Factor Vol. 1 #70-90, MadroX #1-5, X-Factor Vol. 3 #1-50, 200-262) Madrox the Multiple Man began his membership in X-Factor as one-half of the team’s comic relief, alongside Guido “Strong Guy” Carosella. A subsequent writer, J.M. DeMatteis, killed off Madrox via Legacy Virus, but like any character worth his dupes, he got better. David wrote a 2004 Madrox mini that saw Jamie send his dupes out into the world to accrue knowledge and then be reabsorbed, or join the priesthood or S.H.I.E.L.D. or become a future assassin or any number of things. This formed the basis for a new X-Factor series, in which Madrox, Guido, Wolfsbane and a whole bunch of other second-string free agents formed a mutant detective agency occasionally dedicated to solving the mystery of M-Day.


Polaris: (X-Factor Vol. 1 #70-90, X-Factor Vol. 3 #230-262, All-New X-Factor #1-present) The first time Peter David spent with Polaris was in an epilogue issue of X-Factor, before David’s all-new, all-different team. In it, Strong Guy talks her into striking sexy poses for his enjoyment. You’ve come a long way, baby, despite Chuck Austen’s best efforts to turn you into a jilted crazy witch woman. Polaris returned to David’s X-Factor fold late in his second round with the book and took on the painstaking task of decluttering her origin, which saw her go from Magneto’s third kid to not and back again. Polaris is now leading her own, corporate-sponsored X-Factor team in the book’s third iteration, a team that includes the next person on this list.


Quicksilver: (X-Factor Vol. 1 #70-90, X-Factor Vol. 3 various issues, All-New X-Factor #1-present) If “X-aminations” (X-Factor Vol. 1 #87) and “Re-X-aminations” (X-Factor Vol. 3 #13) are two of David’s best standalone issues, Quicksilver was one of the best parts of both those issues. In the first X-am, Quicksilver complains about how slowly the world moves relative to his superspeed. In the second X-am, Quicky is a Terrigen Mist drug pusher on the cusp of igniting a Silent War with the Inhumans, who wanted their supply back. Essentially, post House of M, Pietro had become Chang from Community, mentally unbalanced and ready to doublecross at a moment’s notice. In the current X-Factor series, Quicksilver spies on teammate Polaris on behalf of her ex, Havok, who leads the Avengers’ Unity Squad.


Rick Jones: David loved the Hulk’s human buddy Jones – arguably the Marvel Universe’s answer to Sherman of Mr. Peabody and Sherman – so much that he took him into space with him, making him part of the cast during his Captain Marvel runs in the late ’90s and early 2000s, during which Mar-Vell’s son Genis-Vell carried the mantle Marvel and DC shared/fought over for decades.


Spider-Man 1962: (Spectacular Spider-Man #103-136) David’s first work for Marvel, who had originally hired him to work in sales. David wrote what is often considered one of the best Spider-Man stories, "The Death of Jean DeWolff." Spider-Man is, in many ways, the perfect character for David, who can do funny without letting it overwhelm an entire book. Spider-Man quips, but he also experiences heart-wrenching tragedies. That’s prime David wheelhouse.


Spider-Man 2099: If you’re looking for a sign that the wave of 90s nostalgia is on and knows no bounds, look no further. Miguel O’Hara is likely the most memorable relic of the 2099 universe (quick: name one X-Man 2099!). Writer Dan Slott gave David the alley-oop by bringing future Spidey into the present and setting up David’s current series.


Strong Guy: Just kidding. Seriously though, X-Factor is awesome.

Dan Grote has been a Matt Signal contributor since 2014 and friends with Matt since there were four Supermen and two Psylockes. His two novels, My Evil Twin and I and Of Robots, God and Government, are available on Amazon.

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 7/23


Batman #33
Story: Scott Snyder
Art: Greg Capullo

"Zero Year" wraps up with a metaphorical bang, as Batman stops the Riddler from causing a literal one. There's been a lot written about this issue because of the ending, and the mission statement of sorts that Snyder establishes for the New 52 Batman. And I'll get to that. But I want to talk about the center of the issue, the final confrontation with the Riddler. Riddler stories are hard to write, various Bat writers have said, and I see why; they're very cerebral. It's really a battle of wits, and so it's hard to make visually interesting. But Batman having to walk a booby trapped path that only shuts down when riddles are answered is a great visual representation of the dynamic between these two characters. The final riddle, and Batman's answer versus the one that Riddler expected, is a clever moment, and one I don't want to spoil. It does prove that Batman is Riddler's intellectual equal, and the final part of Riddler's plan, and Batman overcoming how Riddler expected to defeat him, is very much Batman; he is someone who will do whatever it takes to fulfill his crusade. There are also great moments for each of Batman's principal supporting cast from this story, Alfred, Jim Gordon, and Lucius Fox. I was trying to decide if working the origins of so many aspects of Batman mythology (the Bat Signal, the giant penny from the Batcave, Arkham Asylum as the home for Gotham's villains) was too pat and twee, but I think it worked. None of those bits seemed out of place, and would have worked as origins to those pieces even if they weren't sly hints of things to come.

Now for that ending, where Bruce declares that he is going to be the lightning rod that draws the madness and violence in Gotham, and that this is what makes him happy. I like it. I like it a lot. This is a Batman who isn't a madman, who isn't split in two. This is one man, Bruce Wayne, who wears the costume of Batman do do the right thing, the thing that allows him to live a life as a relatively stable adult after the greatest tragedy a child can face. The pre-New 52 Batman was a man who was Batman, wearing a mask of Bruce Wayne. I think this new version is more balanced. Batman isn't a mask anymore than Bruce Wayne is. There's a difference in voice and posture, but they both have the same intentions. I think it's why Bruce is less of a goof in the New 52, and more of a crusader for Gotham, and why the Batman Inc. stuff works even better with this characterization; it would be expected for this Bruce Wayne to back Batman, to help make Gotham a better place. I don't think this characterization invalidates any of the old stories, it's a new layer, and it might give us a Batman who, while dark, has some of the light left in him.



Batman Beyond Universe #12
Story: Kyle Higgins and Christos Gage
Art: Dexter Soy and Thony Silas

The Batman Beyond titles (the original mini-series and ongoing series, Unlimited, and now Universe) have told all sorts of huge stories, stories like a giant serpent coming to eat Earth, a convention of Jokerz, and Brainiac invading. But this current arc, "Justice Lords Beyond," feels like the biggest, and has the biggest payoff. Partially, this is because it's the first crossover between the two halves of the book, Batman Beyond and Justice League Beyond; that gives the story a little extra heft, as it took up four full issues of the series. It's not like superhero on alternate universe dark superhero violence is anything new. But this story has a couple of emotional beats that make it work, and that really make this conclusion payoff. There are great action pieces as well, with first Superman and Wonder Woman battling Lord Superman, Batman returning from the Justice Lords timeline to turn the tide, and the coup de grace on Lord Superman delivered in a most unexpected way. But what really hits is how well Higgins and Gage know these characters. Seeing young Zod, the boy who thought he was the child of Phantom Zone criminals, but is instead the son of Lord Superman and our Wonder Woman, learn the truths of his origins, and how it affects him is brutal. And the strange interactions between Flash Beyond and Lord Flash Beyond, both thinking that the other is crazy, is a weird trip through the looking glass, especially when it's pointed out how similar they really are. But it's Terry McGinnis, Batman Beyond, who has the truly heart wrenching moment, as his alternate world doppelganger, who calls himself just T, and who never had the influence of Bruce Wayne to lead him away from a criminal life, leads Terry to the one person Terry didn't expect to meet: the alternate version of his father, whose death led him down the trail to become Batman. This moment of catharsis is beautifully played, not overdone and tearjerking, but sad and melancholy, yet filled with a certain amount of promise for Terry. It's a great end of an era for these future tales of the DCU, with next issue promising a fresh start as the book becomes Batman Beyond only for now. So that is going to be a great jumping on point, but if you love any of the DC Animated Universe series, you might want to track down the four issues of this story.


Good Night Darth Vader
Story & Art: Jeffrey Brown

This isn't a full review, as it's hard to really review a picture book, but I had to mention it because it's so much fun. I did a recommended reading on the Star Wars books of Jeffrey Brown not too long ago, and this is the newest book in the series. It's a Goodnight, Moon riff with characters from across a Galaxy Far, Far Away, as Darth Vader attempts to get his kids to sleep ("You don't know the power of sleep.") It's a charming combination of classic trilogy and prequel trilogy characters, with scenes at Dexter's Diner on Coruscant, the Emperor snuggling a stuffed animal, and Jango Fett having his own problems getting young Boba to bed. If you're a Star Wars fan of any age, or have a little one who is, this is a great book for before bed.



Kill Shakespeare: The Mask of Night #2
Story: Conor McCreery & Anthony Del Col
Art: Andy Belanger

The seven seas are full of pirates and action as the third Kill Shakespeare mini-series gets its sea legs firmly beneath it. Our remaining heroes are on the ship of the pirate Cesario and his first mate Viola (characters and names from Twelfth Night) as the ship is pursued by the dread ship Lavinia, part of the fleet of Titus Andronicus (of the eponymous play). The issue spends more time with Cesario and Viola than it does with the previous series' characters, establishing their relationship further. Last issue introduced us to them, but this issue really establishes the pain that Viola feels as she must stop Cesario from following his plan to join with the Prodigals, Juliet's forces, and she makes a fateful decision to save the crew from the cannibals aboard the Lavinia. I'm curious to see if we get some answers about the curious history between the two, as in the play Cesario and Viola are one and the same. The comic doesn't stick directly to the text of the plays, I feel like there's more going on here. While I was hoping to deal more with the growing rift between Hamlet and Juliet, there's plenty in this issue to like, as it is an issue full of pirate action, with the beginnings of ship-to-ship combat as well as some on-deck fighting. A particular scene, as Cesario's ship slowly attempts to slip past Lavinia through fog, is beautifully paced; Andy Belanger puts together a scene where you can feel the tension radiating from each character, the high of thinking that they have escaped, and the crushing feeling as the tides turn against them. The ending is a big cliffhanger, once again putting out heroes near the grasp of their foes. Ceasrio and Viola are great additions to the cast of Shakespeare's greats, and with members of the cast of Titus Andronicus making their first actual appearance next issue, the world of Kill Shakespeare continues to expand.

Monday, July 28, 2014

All the News That Excited Me From San Diego Comic Con

So, like all comic fans, I spent this weekend waiting on bated breath for announcements from Geek Mardi Gras, better known as San Diego Comic Con. And, like most comic fans, I wasn't able to attend. So I relied on sources from around the internet to give me all sorts of cool announcements. And if you aren't one of those people who kept refreshing their browser all weekend, well, here are a handful of announcements that got me excited.



-Ok, I'm going to get one of the biggest reveals out of the way first. The first official image of Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman from Superman v. Batman: Dawn of Justice. At first blush, I wasn't sure if I was impressed. The muted color palette isn't something I'm a big fan of, and is something that I wasn't in love with when it came to Superman's costume in Man of Steel. But since the whole image seems muted and sepia toned, I moved past that and looked at the costume and the image itself, and she looks wonderful (pun intended). She's regal and tough, but not masculine, which is exactly how I picture Wonder Woman. I can't say anything beyond that about the movie, but at this point, my excitement is increasing for DC's big universe builder.

- And while on the subject of DC on film, the announcement that Ra's al Ghul will be the big bad for season three of Arrow is big news for me. Ra's is a villain with a lot of possibility for interpretation, and the producers of Arrow have said they don't want to compete with the vision from Batman Begins, so they're going at him from another angle. Arrow has been consistently enjoyable since the beginning of the series, and has been slowly building a mythology, with the League of Assassins a large part of that. That slow build will hopefully pay off with Ra's making an appearance. Oh, and Brandon Routh appearing as Ray Palmer, better known as the Atom, is exciting too. From appearances in other genre shows like Chuck, it's clear Routh is a stronger actor than Superman Returns showed, and I think he'll be a great addition to the world of Arrow.


- Marvel has been making a lot of announcements the past few weeks that, in a bygone era, would have been Comic Con announcements, things like the new female Thor and Falcon becoming Captain America. And while the announcement of a new series that brings the characters from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. into the Marvel Universe isn't on par, PR-wise, with that one, the series being written by modern comics legend Mark Waid, whose Daredevil is still in my top three current Marvel titles, and drawn by a big name artist doing series of done-in-one-issue storieis pretty darn exciting. I think I've made it clear in the past how much I like one off stories, both as a fan and as someone who likes being able to hand any issue of a series to a customer and say, "Here, try this," so if this has the same feel as Warren Ellis's similarly formatted short run on Secret Avengers, than I'm in for it.


- Now, onto another Marvel announcement that I've been mulling over since it came out. As a Star Wars fan, I've been waiting to see what Marvel is going to do now that they have the comics license. And with the announcement of three Star Wars series, it's pretty sweet; Jason Aaron and John Cassaday on Star Wars (set in between episodes 4 & 5), a Darth Vader series from Kieron Gillen and Salvador Larroca, and a Princess Leia mini-series from Mark Waid and Terry Dodson. While I'm a little disappointed and not surprised that all these books are clustered around the classic trilogy (disappointed because there's a ton of other times to play with that won't impinge on the new trilogy, not surprised because this is the most profitable era for Star Wars publishing), I can't argue with the creators. I've already talked about Mark Waid, and Jason Aaron is a writer I've written about plenty. It's the Vader series that has me most curious. Larroca drew some great space stories during his tenure on the X-Men books, and drew plenty of high tech and armor during his time on Invincible Iron Man, so I think he's a good fit. But it's Kieron Gillen that has me very excited. A writer who does great character work as well as high concept sci-fi (see his short lived S.W.O.R.D. series), he was one of Marvels' stable of writers I thought would best fit Star Wars, so I'm pleased to see that he's getting a spot right out of the gate.


- On a note that is tangentially comic related, the Star Wars book panel announced a novel based on an unproduced Star Wars: The Clone Wars script featuring two characters who had a very heavy presence in Star Wars comics. Asajj Ventress was created for the initial Clone Wars short cartoons and was defined during Dark Horse's Clone Wars comics. Quinaln Vos was created by John Ostrander for his run on the prequel set comics, and is my favorite EU comics character (and second favorite EU character of all, right behind Grand Admiral Thrawn). These are two characters of mixed morality who are haunted by their past. They're an interesting pairing that has minimal interactions in their past (and none in the new official canon). I'm happy that these two great characters aren't being forgotten with the focus on the new future.


- DC didn't make many announcements this year, instead focusing on creators expounding on the upcoming work we've already heard about. There was one really cool bit of art shown, the map of the Multiverse devised by Grant Morrison for his Multiversity series (track it down somewhere where you can get better resolution than I can provide). And after I recently talked about Batman '66, I would have had to mention the digital publication of an adaptation of a lost episode, even if it wasn't written by legend in the annals of the bookstore, the comic shop, the Hollywood studio, and the courtroom, Harlan Ellison, and feature the first '66 appearance of my second favorite (pun not intended this time, but willingly accepted) Bat villain, Two-Face.

-Finally,  Image Comics and Dark Horse Comics announced twelve new series each, and there are some from both companies that I'm looking forward to, but two really jumped out at me. As a big fan of the B.P.R.D. and the whole Hellboy universe, it's cool to see the creators that Mike Mignola has brought to work on those books do other work, and two of these series feature that talent. John Arcudi, regular co-writer on B.P.R.D.: Hell on Earth, and James Harren, who has worked on his share of arcs on that title, give us Rumble from Image, featuring a scarecrow barbarian. And Tyler Crook, previous regular artist on B.P.R.D. and who drew the excellent Bad Blood mini-series from Dark Horse earlier this year, returns to that publisher, this time teaming with Sixth Gun and Helheim writer Cullen Bunn for Harrow County, a spooky tale of a girl with strange powers in a haunted wood and a town that seems to want her dead. I like Bunn's superhero work for Marvel, but when he's doing his creator owned horror books he dazzles, and Crook is the perfect artist for something like this.

And as one final, non-Comic Con related note, friend of the blog Michael Calia, one of the guys at the Shut Up Kids podcast (celebrating fifty episodes this week), who writes for the Wall Street Journal, wrote a piece for their Speakeasy blog about what to do if you're a first time shopper in a comic shop, and yours truly is quoted, so go check that out too!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

How to Relate to Your Batkid



Before I had a child, I had this irrational fear that, if it were a boy, he would be a jock and I wouldn't be able to relate to him. Mostly because I was a nerd and my dad didn't know what to do with me sometimes, despite many a good-faith effort.

And while he's only 3 years old and therefore far from having a fully formed personality, my son has gone down at least one path that differs from mine.

He's a DC kid.

Y'know, you try to teach a kid right, tell him about Spider-Man and Captain America and NFL Super-Pro, but one day the cool orphan with the gravelly voice comes along and just undoes everything.

Next thing you know, he's got all the Fisher Price ImagiNext figures (the Clayface I my personal favorite) and the Batcave playset and the Batmobile and the Batman fleece blanket and the T-shirt with the velcro cape and he's doing his own Christian Bale voice because that's how Dad reads Batman to him. I blame his godfather, the proprietor of this blog, who gave my son the plush Batman you see drinking black coffee in the photo at top for his third birthday.

In all seriousness, the great thing about Batman is that there's enough versions of him to appeal to every kind of fan. Grant Morrison touched on this, in his own perverse somewhere-between-Allen Moore-and-Warren Ellis-on-the-crazy-scale way during his time with the character. So in the New 52 comics, the Joker can cut off his own face and some lunachick claiming to be his daughter can wear it, while elsewhere, in else worlds, Adam West and Burt Ward can dance the Batusi with Catwoman while onomonopaeic word balloons fill the screen around them, and still elsewhere,
Kevin Conroy and Tim Daly can slug it out while reciting lines from The Dark Knight Returns.

To my son, though, there are mainly three versions of Batman: Blue Batman (the Brave and the Bold cartoon), Black Batman (Batman Beyond) and Lego Batman (Darkness! No parents!)



Now, I grew up in the age of Batman: The Animated Series, a very no-frills, mostly serious (Mark Hammill's clown prince of crime notwithstanding) take on Gotham, perfect for a decade that took itself more seriously than it had a right to. Brave and the Bold is, in every way possible, the opposite of that. This Batman, voiced by Diedrich Bader, spends most of his time outside Gotham, teaming up with Blue Beetle, Green Arrow and Aquaman against crazy silver-age villains like the Clock King and Gorilla Grodd. And while my favorite BTAS episode is the minimalist "Almost Got Him," in which Batman's main villains sit around a table telling stories of their encounters with the Bat, my favorite Brave and the Bold episode is a musical in which the Music Meister, voiced by none other than Neil Patrick Harris, enslaves hero and villain alike through song. If you ever wanted to see Black Manta do high kicks, this episode is for you. If the show had a message, it's this: Hey, adults who grew up in the ’90s, Batman existed before “Year One,” and he was a lot of big, goofy, dumb fun. Deal with it!

Batman Beyond, on the other hand, is the future continuation of BTAS. The same mood and atmosphere (and Kevin Conroy as Bruce Wayne) are given a coat of cyberpunk aesthetic and an electronica score, with stories about getting addicted to virtual reality and picked-on kids using giant robots to exact revenge. It's exactly what we feared the future would be like 15 years ago, which of course means now it looks like a slightly cooler version of The Jetsons. I didn't really watch the show when it originally aired, and now I just wonder when Will Friedle, who voiced future Batman Terry McGinnis, is gonna guest star on Girl Meets World, reprising his role as Eric Matthews.

And then there's Lego Batman. I've probably watched The Lego Movie Blu-ray about 30 times since it came out, and Will Arnett's jerk-boyfriend, speaker-obsessed Batman is one of the best parts of a great movie.

But hey, there's Lego Marvel characters, too. How come Lego Iron Man didn't get to help Emmet and Wyldstyle fight Lord Business. He's a Master Builder! But I digress.

So while I probably wouldn’t let my son read Snyder and Capullo’s Batman or watch the Nolan films for at least 10 years, he’s still got plenty of time to enjoy, say, Justice League Unlimited or the Tim Burton Batman movies or the Batman ’66 comics or any Art Baltazar book or Teen Titans Go! So thanks a lot, Uncle Matt! (That’s actually not sarcastic)

P.S.: I’m totally cool with the fact that my son’s first live-action Batman is probably going to be Ben Affleck. That said, I’d like a do-over on his first live-action Green Lantern.





Dan Grote has been a Matt Signal contributor since 2014 and friends with Matt since there were four Supermen and two Psylockes. His two novels, My Evil Twin and I and Of Robots, God and Government, are available on Amazon.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Batman Day: Happy 75th Anniversary, Batman!



DC Comics has declared today Batman Day, a day to celebrate the Caped Crusader on his 75th Anniversary. I've been trying to come up with something to write for this particular anniversary pretty much all year, something that isn't covering the same space that the big comics news outlets can and have. So I didn't want to do "favorite Batman writers/artists/stories" lists (although I have done a ten best Batman stories, and might touch on my favorite creators before the year is out). And today being the day, I felt like I had to post something, even if it's just for me. Oh, and I'll be peppering this post with some of my favorite Batman covers. Not the really well known ones, so no "Year One" covers, as great as they are, but lesser known covers that I think really capture an aspect of Batman or just look cool.

So, first and foremost, I'm going to put in some links to what are my three personal favorite Batman pieces I've written over the past few years. They're all general topic stuff, not storyline or review specific, so if you haven't read them and want to get into my head about what I feel is important about Batman, this is a good place to start.:

What Batman Means to Me. - A discussion of whether or not Batman is driven by Justice or Vengeance.
My Top Ten Favorite Batman Stories - The name kind of says it all.
My Batman Isn't Your Batman, and That's OK - Post the Ben Affleck announcement, a discussion of how malleable a character Batman is, and how everyone's favorite might be different.


So, with that out of the way, I think I need to reflect on a simple question: Why Batman? Is it just that I started reading comics when Batman was a big cultural thing, and that's why I'm drawn to him? I'm sure that's part of it. We all have touchstones of our childhood we never grow out of, and if that were the only answer, it would be fine. But if I dig deeper, I think there's a reason why the Superman films, which all existed when I was a kid, never spoke to me the same way, or why the animated X-Men series didn't turn me into someone with massive runs of X-Men comics (although I do have quite a few).

One of the common answers to why Batman speaks to people is that he has no powers. You could never be Superman, or Spider-Man, or Hellboy. But, with the right amount of money and time, you could theoretically become Batman. And that's true. And that's great. I don't think anyone who grew up a nerdy kid doesn't have the power fantasy of growing up to be the biggest and the toughest and to bring justice down on the heads of the bullies of the world. And if I grew out of Batman when I finally came into my own as an adult, that might have been it too. But I didn't. I'm still a geek, probably a bigger geek than I even was as a kid, or at least more vocal about it, but I'm also married, with a good job, and I own my house. I don't need to think about beating up kids who bullied me when I was twelve.

Part of what I love about Batman is he's smart. And not abstractly Reed Richards/Tony Stark smart, although I think he is that too; this guy does build and upgrade all the crazy toys that Wayne Tech provides him, after all. But he's clever. He's a detective, and I've loved detective fiction for as long as I've loved Batman in various formats. You get me outside Batman, and I was reading Sherlock Holmes at the same time as I was reading comics (and inside Batman it's too dark to read. Thanks, Groucho). To this day, I still value intellect and cleverness far more than physical strength and acumen in my fictional characters. And that's partially because of Batman. But he fits that archetype so well.

I also think that Batman is less of a wish fulfillment character than many superheroes when you approach him from a mature level, but an aspirational one. After all, I don't think any rational person wants to be a brooding vigilante who watched his parents gunned down. But you can want to be the best you that you can be, and you can want to do right by the people around you. You can live up to the example without wanting to be that character, which is really how good fictional characters should be.


And there's that rogue's gallery! I know, when Newsarama has done they're top ten rogue's galleries, Batman has come in second to Spider-Man, but I have to disagree. Not only are Batman's rogue's more recognizable, but they're all wonderfully complex characters. The best of them have incredible designs, interesting motivations, and serve as cracked mirror versions of the hero they stand against. The Joker alone would make a hero, but when you think he might be the crown jewel, but there are a dozen other villains within steps of his brilliance, it's

The supporting cast is just as intriguing. No one character has a supporting cast that pretty much any member could headline their own book. Any of the Robins or Batgirls, Azrael, Catwoman, Batwoman, Huntress, Jim Gordon, Alfred, all are great characters in their own right, most of whom have supported at least mini-series is not ongoings. Even the lesser characters, like Leslie Thompkins, Lucius Fox, and the various GCPD officers create a fascinating tapestry around Batman. And Gotham itself is one of the best realized fictional cities in literature, with its dark alleys and gothic landscape.


And I guess, in the long run, it's all of that. Batman is a great character, in a great world, with seventy five years of amazing stories. From Bill Finger and Gardner Fox's golden age tales, Julie Schwartz's "New Look" era, the Dark Knight of Denny O'Neil and then Frank Miller, the 90s Bat family of Dixon, Grant, and Moench, into the 00s with the dark detective of Rucka and Brubaker, and Snyder's New 52 Batman, they've all provided great stories. Movies and TV, with actors Adam West, Michael Keaton, Kevin Conroy, Diedrich Bader and Christian Bale, plus directors and writers like Tim Burton, Paul Dini, Bruce Timm, and Christopher Nolan, have all left an indelible mark. That infinite malleability is something that I can't see any other costumed hero having. A dark Spider-Man or Superman story is forced, and a light Punisher or Ghost Rider story is laughable. But Batman seems to exist in all worlds at once.

And I guess, at it's deepest level, Batman was my gateway to a larger world. I talked about this when I talked about the Burton Batman movie as well, but hat movie introduced me to comics, and those comics introduced me to a passion. And that shared passion has changed my life. My best friend and I bonded over both of us bringing comics on a school trip. I met my wife when someone said, "Oh, you should meet my friend Amber, she loves Neil Gaiman too," a writer I encountered through comics. I've worked at a comic shop for over a decade, where I have made many good friends. I have something to look forward to each week, something I can discuss vehemently and passionately.

So for all those reasons, for the countless hours of reading and watching enjoyment, and for all the years to come, I say happy anniversary, Batman. Let's get another good seventy five in there, huh?


Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 7/16


B.P.R.D.: Hell on Earth #121
Story: Mike Mignola & John Arcudi
Art: Laurence Campbell

So many of the B.P.R.D. stories have been so big lately, that I forget what wonderful creepy little stories the book can do as well. That's not a complaint about the big stories, as "Reign of the Black Flame," the last five -parter, was one of my fvaorite action/horror stories the series has ever done. This issue wraps up a two part story that takes place both in the present and flashbacks to 1949, and features four of my favorite characters in the who Mignola-verse; in the present, it's Kate Corrigan and Professor J.H. O'Donnell, and in the past it's Professor Bruttenholm and Hellboy. Instead of ancient Lovecraftian horrors and men with flaming heads, this is really a haunted house story, or a haunted artifact story, with some possession tossed in for good measure. The daffy professor has accidentally unleashed an evil force that has possessed Kate, and now it's up to Liz Sherman, Panya, Fenix, and Carla Giarocco to figure out what is going on and to save Kate. In the past, Bruttenholm and a young Hellboy, who insisted on going on his first field mission, confront the necromancer whose spirit is wreaking havoc in the present, and that confrontation ends with Hellboy making a decision that I hope is going to play into the events in the upcoming Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. mini-series. It's also nice to see the good guys get an unqualified win; so much of Hell on Earth has seen our heroes fighting a rearguard action to stop the world from slipping deeper into the abyss, so even if it's a small one, a real victory is nice to see. I also want to give a real shout out to Laurence Campbell, whose moody, shadowy art worked beautifully in this story. B.P.R.D. has featured art form some of my favorite artists in comics, including Guy Davis, Tyler Crook, Ryan Sook, and of course Mike Mignola himself, and Campbell looks to be another artist in a long line who is going to burn up these pages with some really terrifying art.



Fables #142
Story: Bill Willingham
Art: Mark Buckingham & Eric Shanower

First things first: SPOILERS ahead for anyone who doesn't read Fables in singles. Trust me, you don't want to be spoiled. Move along to the next review, nothing to see here. It seems like Bill Willingham has been building to this last, mega-arc of Fables for quite some time, and now that the events have started to unfold, they're unfolding rapidly. Bigby Wolf, a broken monster thanks to the machinations of Miss Douglas, has drawn the attention of the mundies, the normal humans of New York, and is killing unrepentantly.  Grimble, the troll turned sparrow, has finally found someone who understands him. Winter, Snow and Bigby's daughter who is now the embodiment of the North Wind, is gathering her vassals for the final battle. And Snow White and Rose Red's fates seem to be moving on a bullet train to confrontation. All of these disparate plot elements are balanced, so none of them feel particularly rushed or forced. It's an intricate piece of work, similar to the finals major arcs of Sandman and Starman. The part that has me most curious is the mundy reaction to Bigby's monstrous attacks; the Fabletown community has done its best to keep out of the limelight for centuries, but this looks like their downfall in that respect, and I'm curious to see how that plays into the series climax. It's great to have Mark Buckingham going full steam ahead for this final arc, and especially his monster Bigby is something to behold. This arc also includes back-ups featuring, "The Last _____ Story." Last issue's Flycatcher story was a cute one page story, but this issue's is far more sinister. Featuring art from legendary Eric Shanower, it features Sinbad and shows that, even though the Empire of old has fallen, that is not the end of Empires, and Willingham hints that he might finally be able to use the grand villain he originally planned to be the Adversary. And if he doesn't, well, it's still a great nod for those of us wrapped up in Fables history.



Robin Rising: Omega
Story: Peter J. Tomasi
Art: Andy Kubert

Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's Batman has been the crown jewel of the New 52 Batman family, and rightly so; it's a gorgeous roller-coaster ride of a Batman title, with new ideas and amazing art. But the absolute heart of the Batman family has been Peter Tomasi's Batman & Robin. Tomasi, more than any other current writer of Batman, understands the emotional weight that Batman is under, and has done beautiful things with Batman's relationship not just with his currently deceased son, Damian, but with the rest of the Batman family. It's a book that has dealt with doubt, grief, and love better than most mainstream superhero comics could dream of. And now, after the quest to find the bodies of Damian and his mother, Talia al Ghul, stolen by her father, Ra's al Ghul, Batman finds himself trapped into an alliance with Ra's against the forces of Apokolips. The issue, which begins the "Robin Rising" story is mostly an action issue, with Batman, Ra's al Ghul, Batman's dog Titus, and Frankenstein battling Parademons and other minions of Darkseid lead by Glorious Godfrey to retrieve a Chaos Shard, a mystical artifact desired by Darkseid. Andy Kubert is an artist at home with massive amounts of kinetic action, and this issue gives him that in spades. And when the Justice League shows up, it's even more exciting. While all of that makes for a great comic, the first few pages, where Batman recounts his time with Damian, is the highlight of the issue. It's heartbreaking to see Batman go through everything he did, and then to lose the son that he had come to love and who had come to love and respect his father. The end of this issue sees Batman beginning a quest to retrieve Damian's body from Apokolips and to see him returned to life. I'm excited to see if he can pull it off.


And that's it for this week's reviews. This actually marks the 200th post here on The Matt Signal, so I want to thank you all for reading so far. Wednesday marks Batman Day, the day DC has set aside for celebrating Batman's 75th Anniversary, so expect a post about the things I love about Batman, and some more Batman goodness over the next couple weeks. I look forward to 200 more posts!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Recommended Reading for 7/18: The Dumbest Idea Ever!


I wrote about Amelia Rules!, one of my favorite all ages comics some time ago. The series creator, Jimmy Gownley, released a new book earlier this year, called The Dumbest Idea Ever!, a graphic autobiography about how he became a cartoonist. I picked it up immediately when it came out, but it's sat on my shelf for a few months, despite an intention to review it for the blog. Firstly, at over two hundred pages, I felt it was going to take time to read, and I wanted a day I could dedicate to that, so I could go through it in one sitting, something I rarely have the time for. But more than that, I feel there's a trepidation that many have when it comes to exploring new work from a creator (be it a comic creator, a film director, or a musician) whose work you love, especially when that work is tied to one series in the case of comics. I love Amelia and her gang. While I was sure the book would be of the highest caliber quality wise, I wasn't sure if it would touch me in the same way. And let's be frank; many autobiographies are simply an excuse for either self-aggrandizement or pity parties. But this Monday, after writing my reviews, I looked at my shelf for something to read, saw the book there, and squared my shoulders to settle in with it.

I should have known better. I should have known someone who, as an grown man, not only remember what it's like to be a ten year old well enough to craft Amelia Rules!, but know character well enough to write a full realized ten year old girl, would be self-aware enough to pull this off. And he does brilliantly. It's a story not just about learning about his passion and his craft, but about first love, friendship, and growing up. Gownley touched me in a different way than he has with Amelia, but in a way that is no less affecting.

The book traces Jimmy's life from eighth grade to going out into the big world, and all the accompanying triumphs and tragedies. Jimmy lives in a small town in the Pennsylvania coal country. The Jimmy at the start is a big fish in a small pond, popular, top of his class, a star basketball player. But after a losing a month at school from a combination of chicken pox and pneumonia, he finds it hard to catch back up. And while he's sick, he finds out there is a shop that sells comic books, and only comic books in nearby Wilkes-Barre. And when his dad brings him there, Jimmy's whole world changes.

As someone who grew up in the 80s and 90s in urban and suburban New Jersey, it's almost quaint to me to see the excitement of finding out there are comic shops; comic shops have been a fact of life for me as long as I can remember. But Gownley fills those pages with an exuberance that makes me understand what a revelation it must have been to find this whole world exists. It's one of my favorite sequences, as he buys, "one of everything I never heard of." This new exposure to comics and graphic novels opens up Jimmy's world, as he learns that people can self-publish comics. There begins his journey.

Jimmy enters high school, and while he isn't the academic superstar that he was before that, he begins to experiment with his creative side, As the book progresses, we see Jimmy's first failed attempt at a comic, and then his first successful one, after a friend makes the suggestion, the eponymous dumbest idea ever, to write a comic about them, about Jimmy and his friends. Shades of Gray made Jimmy something of a local celebrity, with his friends and classmates buying copies, the teachers at the high school acknowledging his talent, the local video store selling copies, and even getting a feature on the local news.

Here is where Gownley impresses me. He could have left it at that, then having a reversal at the end where he realizes his big fish in a small pond status, but instead he shows exactly what this does to him, and how big it makes his head. That kind of self-awareness is impressive, and I think we'd all be better off if we all realized, in retrospect, that we can be egotistical. You never dislike Jimmy, he's never a bad guy, but he's a teenager who got a little too big for his britches.

Another aspect of the book that is really wonderful, and something that has clearly affected Gownley's work in Amelia Rules!,  is how Gownley shows the developing friendships he has. Amelia moves to a new town in the first volume of her story, and so must make new friends. The timeline on this book has Jimmy going to high school after the first quarter of the book, and a much bigger high school than the school he was in before. While some of the friends he had before show up in the later part of the book, the three characters who are most important to the story are people who he becomes close to after he graduates middle school.

Mark Olson, and his younger brother Tracy, are public school kids (Jimmy goes to Catholic School) Jimmy meets the summer between middle school and high school. Mark is one of the characters who helps Jimmy when he's about to give up when the first issue of Shades of Gray doesn't quite work out. Tony Graziano was on the basketball team of one of Jimmy's rival middle schools, and when they go to high school, they are now in the same school. Jimmy harbors that intense dislike that we can only have when you're a kid or a grown idiot, until Tony comes to his rescue in class, and then a friendship begins. It's Tony who tells Jimmy that his first comic, a story that is clearly just Lord of the Rings meets Star Wars, isn't very good, and who states the dumb idea, the one that will lead to Shades of Gray, Amelia Rules!, and now this book. He also is the person who is willing to put Jimmy in his place when he finally becomes too insufferable; that's what a good friend is there for.

And then there's Ellen O'Toole. Ellen is cute, sweet, and smart. She is the girl who is going to become Jimmy's girlfriend and first love. The story follows them from when they meet to when they break up. I'm not too old to remember those feelings myself, and Gownley puts it all onto the page in a way that is tender, clever and, when need be, bittersweet. Ellen is as supportive as others, and she is the one who makes Jimmy promise never to give up on being an artist, in a scene that is one of the book's strongest.

The art on the book is definitely Gownley; there's no missing his signature style. But it feels a little different from Amelia Rules!, more... I don't know if I have the vocabulary to come up with the word. Realistic doesn't exactly fit. Amelia and her friends aren't cartoon characters, they are very well realized and their faces are beautifully expressive. But I think it's the fact that the setting is more realistic, based in real life, that makes the book seem different. There aren't kids in superhero costumes and ninja tracksuits running around, so the work seems more grounded. Although there are a couple of great scenes where Jimmy talks to the angel and devil on his shoulders and the Grim Reaper that move out of the realistic and into the fantastic that work perfectly.

There is also a sequence where Jimmy tells Ellen about his childhood best friend, Marnie Marquardt, which becomes the story of how Jimmy crafted what was really his first comic, one he made for Marnie to say goodbye when she moved away called Marnie Rules!. This section feels likes it's right out of Amelia Rules!, and is intentionally different from the rest of the book, even to the pages themselves being colored a browner tone to make them stand out. It's a sweet little short story that exists within the larger book, and while it can stand on its own, it directly impacts much of the story around it.

While the book is not divided into numbered chapters, Gownley uses a device to divide the parts of the story that is beautiful for a book that is about art and finding your way. Art boards and drawings serve to divide the book and take up full pages when a major event has just happened. The book starts with a page that is simply a blank piece of art board on a drawing board, and ends with the same page with something happening on the board. It's an excellent narrative device, and the symmetry works to show you the changes that Jimmy has gone through.

Jimmy Gownley's work is all about growing up, and this story is his own coming of age. It's a story about a kid who loves comics, who grows up to make them himself. And let's be fair, even if you can't draw, or can't come up with a story, if you've ever loved a comic, you've thought about making them yourself; I know I have. So, thank you for putting your story out there, Mr. Gownley, to inspire the next generation of creators. I look forward to seeing their work, and more of yours.

The Dumbest Idea Ever! is available at your better comic retailers, along with most bookstores, both physical and virtual.