Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Animated Discussions- Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2

After enjoying part one of the adaptation of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, I was very excited to see the second part.The second half of the story is the part that really excited me when I read it, and I'm glad to say I was not disappointed.

As with the first part, I'm not going to discuss too much about the plot, since it's well known and discussing a faithful adaptation is more about the style of the film than the plot. Stylistically, the movie is from the same director and animators as the previous film, so it flows seamlessly with the look of the first. It animates Miller's story, and keeps some aspects of his style, especially in the faces and hair, but makes it fluid.

The animation seems particularly suited to some of the especially creepy sequences of the comic. The Joker's flying dolls of death are even more grotesque than in the book, making me think of Jonathan Coulton's song, Creepy Doll. Superman's post nuclear explosion near death experience animates frighteningly well, the field around him withering as he sucks the life from it. And the panel that gave me nightmares as a kid, of the Joker's corpse on fire, is actually translated right to the screen, and still makes my skin crawl.

One thing with this part of the movie that I was very curious to see was how the movie worked with the narration, or without it. Miller's work is littered with purple prose in general, and especially within its captions/thoughts. While Batman: Year One used that narration to good effect, it is far less verbose in Dark Knight Returns; it is more akin to the narration in Sin City. The removal of it works really well here, and the big scenes that have a lot of that narration (the final fights with Joker and Superman) have even more gravity. The silence as Batman just pounds on the Joker, and as his plan to take down Superman reaches fruition makes you watch the animation closer, focus on the action.

While most of the voice cast are returning from the previous part, there are two major cast additions. Mark Valley's Superman is suited perfectly to this interpretation of the character. He's the boy scout, deep voiced and deferential to those he sees in authority. You can hear the almost beaten note in his voice as he speaks to the president, and yet he presents himself to Batman in the most confident way possible.

Michael Emerson's Joker is different from pretty much any Joker I've ever heard. Mark Hamill's Joker is the definitive animated Joker voice, and I've always found it interesting that while many voice actors have modeled their Batman after Kevin Conroy's Batman, Jokers tend to be wildly divergent. Emerson's Joker has much more of a controlled malice to his voice, keeping with the source material. he isn't manic, at least not until the very end, when he finally lets out a gale of laughter that is perfectly Joker. The lines he delivers while on the David Endochrine talk show, and in the scene where he confronts Selina Kyle are done in this very matter of fact, chilling way that is creepier than if he was cackling madly.

So, with the Dark Knight Returns adaptation now complete, I have to give it an unreserved recommendation. It's been many years since I read the source material, and it has made me curious to go back and read the original story again. This story was written as the last Batman story, but I hope that we see more of them from the DC direct-to-dvd animation if they can all be this good.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 1/23

Fables #125
Story: Bill Willingham
Art: Mark Buckingham

One hundred and twenty five issues in, and Bill Willingham is still finding new twists and turns to make Fables still feel fresh. While one of the leads in the series since issue one, this issue begins the arc named after Snow White, former deputy mayor of Fabletown, and now mother and occasional fixer of Fabletown problems. Snow is at the new Fabletown, seeing off her husband on the journey to try to find their two missing cubs. The story ties in with the end of the first arc of the Fables spinoff, Fairest, as Briar Rose returns to Fabletown and lets Bigby take her magical car on his quest. The issue spends as much time with Snow and Briar Rose as it does with Bigby and and his companion, the badger Brock Blueheart (or Stinky). The comedy of watching Bigby learn to drive is balanced by Snow's intense worry about her lost children. Meanwhile, Mrs. Sprat continues to move her plan to bring down Fabletown forward, with the aid of Brandish, who shows his true power and makes the big revelation at the end of the issue that will be the inciting incident of the action in the arc. Willingham makes a tapestry of this issue, as he does with many of his Fables stories, weaving seemingly disconnected story elements into something much grander. The narrative is from the histories written by Ambrose Wolf, son of Bigby and Snow, who we know will grow up to be the chronicler of the Fables community, and I'm curious to see if this is going to be the narrative device used for the remainder of the series. I'm hoping to see the disparate elements we've seen of Snow's history in the Homelands tied together into a single narrative in this arc, and the end of the issue's big twist is leading me to believe that's where we're going. But the past always informs the present and future, especially in Fables, so I'm sure things in the new Fabletown are going to be just as exciting and dangerous.

Hell Yeah #6
Story: Joe Keatinge
Art: Andre Szymanowicz

After a break, Hell Yeah is back with a new arc, "The Lost Super-Villains of Mars!" Five years after the previous arc, Ben Day, or protagonist, has become something very different. Instead of being the slacker who avoids everything to do with superheroes, he is now their "fixer," the guy who goes in and cleans up the loose ends left behind by their battles across all dimensions. Ben seems to have grown a little, and is trying to be more responsible, but he's still got some of the jerk about him, as evidenced by waking up in bed with a random super woman from a random dimension who he hopes he hasn't told about what he really is. There are tantalizing hints of what went on in the five missing years, and while it isn't necessary to know, I am curious to know more about those events. A new mission from The Old Man, the mysterious figure seen enforcing the laws of dimensional travel in the previous arc, send Ben to do recon in his home dimension on Mars. The title of the arc pretty much tells you what he's looking for, and since it's Ben Day, recon quickly turns into a brawl. As with the previous arc of Hell Yeah, we're getting a bunch of ideas thrown at us, learning bits and pieces about the world the series is set in, and specifically about the place of supervillains, or their lack of a place. With Ben again seemingly in mortal peril, it looks like the second arc of Hell Yeah will be as action packed and intense as the first.

Wolverine and the X-Men #24
Story: Jason Aaron
Art: David Lopez

Over the years of reading X-Men comics, some of my favorite issues have been the quiet ones where the X-Men play sports, go out and try to live normal lives, or deal with their own internal problems. "Date Night," the new issue of Jason Aaron's Wolverine and the X-Men, is one of those issues. Various X-Men and enemies spend time together in couples, some romantically and some platonically. The centerpiece story is Iceman and Kitty Pryde trying to go out on their first real date. They reflect on what its like to be the youngest X-Men of their generations now trying to teach this new generation of young mutants, and more about how trying to have a normal date feels wrong for people who don't live normal lives. This reflects on the mission of the Jean Grey School, to give their students as normal a childhood as they can in a world that hates and fears them. But Bobby and Kitty are both warm characters, and what starts out as a serious conversation becomes the two of them on a wild adventure to have fun and help people. Meanwhile, Storm is dealing with her divorce from Black Panther by having a Danger Room session with Wolverine that turns into something more. There are a few smaller scenes, though, that really piqued my curiosity. Aaron spends some time with Quentin Quire as he encounters the time displaced Jean Grey of Bendis's All New X-Men. Aaron has been using Quire quite a bit, playing on his role as teen rebel and bad boy of the school, but going beneath that surface in the way he interacts with some of the students, specifically the broken Idie. Quire seems stunned by Jean, and while he does keep up his usual brash attitude, it's interesting to see him interacting with someone he seems to view as an equal, and someone he feels can understand him. And Idie's time sitting beside the comatose Broo, the young Brood who was shot by Kade Kilgore, leader of the Hellfire Club (who shows up briefly with Sabretooth, in a great scene where they hunt the most dangerous game for sport and talk about women), is touching, and ends the issue with a major cliffhanger. Wolverine and the X-Men is the best of the comics with X-Men in its name right now, mixing character and action to come up with a title that feels like the heyday of the X-Titles.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Recommended Reading for 1/26: Invincible

One of the great arguments about superhero comic book fandom is whether or not fans want change, or simply the illusion of change. There are complaints that superhero titles just rehash the same ideas over and over, but the trouble new characters and ideas have of gaining a foothold in the market indicates that no matter what many say, new isn't what they're actually seeking. This is, due to the nature of the beast that is writing for a corporate entity, mainly a problem in comics from DC and Marvel, since the characters are as much brands as they are characters. So to get superhero comics where characters grow beyond who they were when they were crystallized in public consciousness for more than six months, or to see real change in your superheroes, you have to look to other publishers. And Image Comics, despite now being more a boutique publisher than a traditional superhero comic company, still has a stable of superhero comics, and first and foremost among those is Invincible.

Invincible  was created by Robert Kirkman and Cory Walker at about the same time Kirkman created another little comic called The Walking Dead. The series is the story of Mark Grayson, the teen superhero called Invincible, as Mark grows up and learns what it means to be both a hero and an adult. I've said this before in previous recommended readings, but while I do try to steer clear of spoiling important plot elements of series that I'm writing about, certain twists are integral to the structure of Invincible, and not discussing them would make for a particularly shallow discussion. I'm going to try to stick to spoiling only events early in the series, but if you really are completely spoilerphobic and have any interest in reading a great superhero comic, then stop right now and go and buy volume one in trade. Otherwise, keep reading.

The first six issues of Invincible seem to be nothing more than your typical, if very well written, teen superhero comic. Mark Grayson is the son of Nolan Grayson, known the world over as Omni-Man, an alien who came to Earth to help all mankind. Mark had been waiting for years for his powers to appear, and finally they do. Mark gets a costume and join his father as a hero under the name of Invincible. Mark meets other young heroes of the Teen Team, including Atom Eve, Rex Splode, and Robot, goes on adventures with them, and works with his father. But issue seven changes everything. That issue introduces the Guardians of the Globe, a team of Justice League analogues, who are called together at their meeting place and, over the last couple pages of the issue are brutally massacred. By Omni-Man.

 Mark learns that his father's race, the Viltrumites, are not a peaceful race who want to bring enlightenment to the galaxy. They are instead a race of brutal conquerors who send an advance agent to prepare a world for conquest by the Viltrumite Empire. Omni-Man tells Mark all of this, and asks him to join him, Mark refuses, and the two fight. Omni-Man beats Invincible to within an inch of his life, but can't deliver the killing blow. He leaves Earth, and his family, behind.

Before that twist, this could be just another comic that was trying to be the new Spider-Man. But now Mark is thrust into a world that knows his father was a monster and he is now one of its most important heroes. Beyond all the trappings of the superheroic, Invincible really is about a young man growing up and learning that there's very little in the world that is black and white, especially when it comes to right and wrong. The fight with his father is one of the last simple choices Mark makes. After that, each story gives him more and more complex moral decisions.

The complexity of Mark's character is one of the things that makes Invincible a great read. He's a fully realized character in a fully realized world. When Mark's work as Invincible starts interfering with his school work, he doesn't have a magic out. He fails. The only reason he and his mother are able to stay above water financially once his father is gone is money provided by the government for his services as a superhero. He has girl trouble, his friends get annoyed with his constantly having to run off and be a superhero. And since the series is a continuing epic, a cape opera (like a soap opera, but with superpowers. That's my new description for books like this and I'm sticking to it), these events can be played out over months, if not years.

But beyond the character complexity, I have to return to the moral complexity. When Mark is next confronted by his father, it is on an alien world where he has to work with the man who hurt and betrayed him to protect this world from the coming Vilturmites. It seems his father has really changed, and Mark needs to learn to reconcile the man he knew with the man he has come to fear.

The most interesting example of Kirkman's examination of Mark learning about the facts of life has to do with his interactions with Cecil Stedman, the head of the Global Defense Agency. Cecil is the person in the government who calls in Mark when the government needs help. Mark learned that Cecil had taken one of the mad scientists that Mark had captured and was employing him. Mark didn't see the good that the scientist could do, but instead attacked Cecil and threatened him. Over the course of the next couple years of the series, Mark goes to war with the Viltrumites, fights other villains, and begins to see shades of grey. Mark eventually meets with Cecil again, tells him he understands what he is doing, and begins working with the government again. But Mark takes things even further. He eventually frees Dinosaurus, a supergenius man/dinosaur hybrid (love that concept!) who believes his duty is to save the planet no matter how many lives it might cost, and begins working with him, trying to temper the monster's more homicidal urges so they can do good. Whether this compromise will be the world's salvation or Mark's undoing remains to be seen.

The world of Invincible is filled with a wide variety of interesting superheroes and villains. Atom Eve, Mark's sometimes love interest, can control non-living things on a molecular level, is herself torn by a difficult home life and feelings for Mark that never seem to happen at the right time. Allen the Alien is an intergalactic champion trained and bred to fight Viltrumites. but who has developed a friendship with Mark and his father. Robot is the seemingly robotic leader of the Teen Team who has secrets of his own. And Kid Omni-Man, Mark's half-brother Oliver, the son of Nolan and an alien bride, who was not raised among humanity and has a difficult time understanding them and very little sympathy for most. Oliver is what Mark would be if raised in a very different culture, one where life is not held quite as precious as it is in America on Earth. Mark has many of his own assumptions about morality questioned by Oliver, and Oliver is key to Mark's moral evolution.

While Invincible is a traditional superhero comic, I should warn new readers that it is by no means an all ages comic. Violence is portrayed graphically, and fountains of blood and gore are not uncommon. Sex is discussed, never graphically, but in the way it would be between teenagers and their parents and among each other. And as I've discussed throughout, the world of greys that Invincible exists in is close to reality, and might be a very good place for adults to talk with teenagers (or to consider themselves) about being a person in a world where no decision is as simple as it might seem, it's not something that would be easy to discuss with younger readers who are used to Batman locking up the Joker at the end of the story and good triumphing over evil. In the worlds of Robert Kirkman, it's often the lesser of evils that wins the day, and not necessarily the good.

The first issues of Invincible were drawn by cocreator Cory Walker, who does reappear to do the occasional story, the series has been drawn principally by Ryan Ottley. Ottley has a great superhero style, with big bold panels and a great feel for action scenes. He also can do justice to Kirkman's more intimate bits, the character moments that make Mark and his cast so engaging. I admit that I am always amused at the faces of Ottley's characters when they are embarrassed; the expressions are both hilarious and painful, the perfect comedic look of a character who just stuck their foot in their mouth or walked in at exactly the wrong moment.

Kirkman has a lot of pop culture references in the series, and Mark is a comic fan, so Kirkman talks about comics a lot through his characters. But my favorite pop culture reference is not in the series itself. On a particularly fun note each of the Invincible trades, save one, are named after sitcoms, so classic (All in the Family) and some less so (Out of This World).

Being a hero isn't easy, and I think that is what is really central to Invincible. Mark does his best to do the right thing in every situation, and meets with mixed results. But despite his failures, despite the wounds he might have taken, Mark keeps getting back up and fighting the good fight again. And that's what makes him a hero and a compelling character, his quest to do right. As we near the hundredth issue of the series, though, things looks pretty bleak for Mark. I can't wait to see what Kirkman has lined up for the next hundred issues.

There are currently seventeen Invincible trade paperbacks, but since this is a series by Robert Kirkman, there are numerous ways to read it aside from single issues and trades. There are currently eight hardcovers, called Ultimate Collections, each collecting twelve to thirteen issues, and the first of the omnibus editions, collecting the first forty eight issues of the series. Invincible #100 comes out this Wednesday.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 1/16 Part 2

Daredevil #22
Story: Mark Waid
Art: Chris Samnee

The hero fighting the hero in a misunderstanding is probably the oldest chestnut in the superhero writers toolkit. So when that story is done well, or done with a nice twist, it makes the story all the more interesting. This new issue of Daredevil features what seems a normal hero vs. hero brawl, in this case Daredevil and Spider-Man. Of course, if you've been reading Amazing or Superior Spider-Man, or been anywhere near the internet, you know that Spider-Man isn't exactly himself lately. This confrontation is my first real exposure to this new Spider-Man, and I like how Waid handles him, and how Daredevil recognizes something wrong with him. The hero battle is interrupted by the c-list villain, Stilt Man, who Waid has used before as a non-threat, and while Stilt Man has upgraded here, he's still not exactly a threat. his use of Doctor Octopus tech is mostly to draw the reaction of Spider-Man who is really *SPOILER IN CASE YOU'VE BEEN IN A CAVE* Dr. Octopus. Spider-Man's reaction to Daredevil making comments about Octopus is classic, and his arrogance coming off as Spider-Man's trademark humor is amusing. Framing the action are scenes of Matt Murdock living his life. I enjoy how Waid deals with Matt Murdock's blindness, addressing it in real world terms. And the ending, with a reconciliation between Matt and his best friend/partner Foggy Nelson, and the revelation of what is going on with Foggy, continues proving that for every good thing that happens to Matt, something has to go wrong in his world. It will be interesting to see how Matt is going to take this particular curveball.

Demon Knights #16
Story: Robert Venditti
Art: Bernard Chang

New writer Robert Venditti comes on board as the series jumps thirty years ahead of where the last issue ended. A new scourge is invading the lands, this one the scourge of vampirism. Cain, the first vampire and one of the main antagonists of I, Vampire is preparing an army of vampires, slaughtering his way across Europe. The Demon Knights, who have not worked together as a full group in all these years, are called together by al Jabr, former Knight and now ruler of Al-Wadi, a city of science, to help combat the coming onslaught. Al Jabr shares insight with the Knights he has been able to gather about the details of Cain's plan, and at the end of the issue we see exactly where a couple of the other Knights are, ones who will have to join the rest before this is done. Venditti has the voices of all these characters down pat, and their relationships perfectly as well. It's interesting to see how al Jabr, the only one of the Knights who ages normally, reacts to seeing his former comrades who have not aged a day in thirty years. The thirty year gap has left all sorts of questions about what happened, such as what caused the falling out between many of our Knights, and it will be a matter of time to see if they can put all this aside to stop another catastrophe from ripping apart the medieval world. Demon Knights has been a book that has balanced action, comedy, and character, and it seems Venditti has all the notes lined up.

Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E. #16
Story: Matt Kindt
Art: Alberto Ponticelli

The final issue of Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. is not part of a world shattering crossover, or a story that will change the DC Universe forever. It is, however, a great little story about Frankenstein and his Creature Commandos fighting a terrorist cell with a plague bomb that turns people into monsters. While the issue doesn't tie up all the threads from the series, it places the Creature Commandos in a place to appear around the DC Universe. The story gives readers an insight into Frankenstein, what he is and what he can do. The philosophy and quotes he  spouts, and his willingness to sacrifice himself are on display. I enjoy a good one off story, and this is one of those; frankly, it would have made as good a first issue as it does a final one. It was an interesting choice to use this as the final issue, since the previous ones were part of the "Rotworld" crossover between Swamp Thing, Animal Man, and Frankenstein, but since the event isn't over, I understand that it would be impossible to address the ramifications of it here. Still, the series ends on a high note, and I hope to keep seeing Frankenstein in Justice League Dark, and I hope the rest of his team will join him there for a story or two.

Saga #9
Story: Brian K. Vaughan
Art: Fiona Staples

 Brian K Vaughan has had to do a lot of world building in Saga. Building a whole sci-fi/fantasy world takes a lot of time, and doing it while having to make a well rounded cast isn't easy. It's a testament to his skill as a writer that it's all come off so well. This issue focuses on the freelance bounty hunter known as The Will. I really like The Will; he's the classic, "Bad guy with his own code of ethics," which is a favorite archetype of mine. Still depressed over the death of his fellow bounty hunter and lover, The Stalk, The Will is confronted by Gwendolyn, jilted fiancee of Marko, one of our protagonists, who The Will has been hired to capture. With Gwendolyn's help, The Will is able to save the young slave girl he encountered on the pleasure planet of Sextillion, and sets off again after Marko and Alana with the surprising aid of Slave Girl (they really need to find a name for her...). The issue is a good example of how to tell a story that does a lot to forward or introduce character. Gwendolyn was only a name before this issue, but I feel like Vaughan now has given us a good view into who she is, and has made the character of The Will even better defined. And while he can't really reference Earth culture, there's a line that is a clearly a sort of reference to one of the greatest hitman movies of all time, Leon the Professional. If you know the movie, you can see where the reference comes from, and if you haven't, well go watch the movie! Fiona Staples's art is some of the best in comics right now, and the thing I find fascinating is the way she can make monsters look either horrible or beautiful. The Stalk is a half-woman/half-spider, and should be repugnant, but Staples draws her in a way that makes her alluring. With the hunt for Marko, Alana, and baby Hazel now in full swing, I look forward to seeing what happens when all the parties inevitably come crashing together.

X-Factor #250
Story: Peter David
Art: Leonard Kirk

The Hell on Earth War has begun! A story that has been building in X-Factor for years now, and even with hints of events from his run on Incredible Hulk. This is not the first time Peter David has dealt with the age old quandary of, "If you could kill Hitler before he was HITLER, would you do it?" but the extra wrinkle of the child being the child of one of our protagonists, in this case Wolfsbane's son, Tier, adds emotional resonance. The opening sequence, of Jezebel the demoness sitting and asking God to intercede to stop what is about to happen, and getting no response, is also one of Peter David's recurring themes, especially in his work on Fallen Angel. The issue is fast paced, narrated by Tier who is being hunted by Darwin, his mother's former teammate, and does a good job of fleshing out Tier, a character who we haven't spent much time with since his birth. The high concepts of the issue lead to a good old fashioned superhero slugfest, which shows off one of Peter David's strengths: balancing talk with action. A great issue, which seems to be setting up a strong storytelling, I am left with one question: As the lords of the various Underworlds come together, I admit to not recognizing them all. I know Hela, Pluto, and Mephisto, but the others have me at something of a loss. Any help out there in Internet land?


Chu's Day
Story: Neil Gaiman
Art: Adam Rex

Most people know Neil Gaiman for his work in comics on Sandman or his novels like American Gods and Stardust. A growing legion of kids and young adult readers know him for his work for that age group, including Coraline and the Newberry Medal-winning The Graveyard Book. But Gaiman also has written more than a few picture books for very young readers, often with his comic collaborators Dave McKean and Charles Vess. The Wolves in the Walls, one of these, was a favorite of mine to read to kids the few times I had to do storytime while working at Borders. His newest picture book, released at comic shops this past Wednesday, is Chu's Day, the story of a little panda named Chu with a powerful sneeze. The story is a simple one, simpler than Gaiman's earlier forays into this genre, but is no less endearing for its simplicity. The age group this seems to be targeted for is the crowd that still needs to be read to or those just starting to read. The art by Adam Rex is beautiful and highly detailed, with well presented  anthropomorphic animals, with a favorite scene of mine being in the library; his work seems reminiscent of legendary children's author/artist Graham Base in the best possible ways.  So, if you have a little one who likes stories of little pandas, or just a quick, amusing story, you should try out Chu's Day.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 1/16 Part 1

I have had weeks where I've struggled to get three to five comics to review on here, but this past week there were so many good comics I actually am going to divide the reviews over two days. So check out today and stay tuned for more reviews tomorrow.

Archer & Armstrong #6
Story: Fred Van Lente
Art: Emanuela Lupacchino

In the original Valiant days, my favorite title/character was the Eternal Warrior, so I was glad to see him back in the title of his brother, the warrior/poet Armstrong, and the story has been as well paced and fun as this title has proven to be in its six issue run. Last issue established the conflict between the brothers (and Armstrong's companion, the naive young assassin Archer) and the character of the Gilad, the Eternal Warrior. This issue spends little time with our protagonists, but instead focuses on Kay McHenry, the spokeswoman for Zorn Capital. Kay is having a problem: the dying houseplant in her office is talking to her. It's not hard to figure out from there that Kay is the new Geomancer, the voice of the Earth that our heroes are searching for. Over the course of just one issue, Van Lente gives the reader a good view inside Kay's head, making her a sympathetic and interesting character. Van Lente ties Kay's origin in with The 99%, a group of villains established in the first arc, and The Null, a new faction of The Sect. With her life in danger, Archer, Armstrong, and the Eternal Warrior come on the scene, but Kay saves herself, showing our first glimpse of the power of a Geomancer. Van Lente doesn't slow down in this issue, packing a ton of great story and character in it. I like that it seems Kay has accepted her mantle of Geomancer without a lot of hemming and hawing, but instead embraces it, although we'll have to see how that works out next issue when she's out of mortal peril. And if none of that has convinced you to check this issue out, how about this: Monkey dressed as Mother Nature. Resist that.

Story: Gail Simone
Art: Ed Benes & Daniel Sampere

What could have been Gail Simone's final issue of Batgirl instead simply becomes the final issue of the series crossing over into "Death of the Family"  and would have been a great issue one way or the other. Joker has brought Batgirl to a church so he can marry her, and take her off the chessboard of Gotham so she is no longer a hindrance to Batman. And he is holding her mother hostage to insure her cooperation. But a factor Joker had hot planned for comes into play: James Gordon Jr., Batgirl's psychopathic little brother. James comes in telling Batgirl he has saved their mother, and allowing Batgirl to move against the Joker and her men. The opening scene of the issue is a flashback to a Barbara shortly after she was shot and crippled by the Joker, and we see her recurring dream of killing the fiend, and throughout the issue she comes close to embracing this homicidal urge. Simone has a wonderful handle on Batgirl, giving her so many layers, and more rage than she has ever been presented with. I don't want to say anything about the end of the issue, about the final confrontation between James Jr. and the Joker, because I have to say I can see James becoming the next Joker, a character without remorse and with a gamesman's mind. When James Jr. was reinvented by Scott Snyder, I wasn't sure if any other writer could handle him just right. I'm happy to say Simone hits all the right notes to make him a character who is equally as creepy as the Joker.

Batman #16
Story: Scott Snyder/ Scott Snyder & James Tynion IV
Art: Greg Capullo/ Jock

The end game begins here. Everything Scott Snyder has been building to in "Death of the Family" starts to play out as Batman enters Arkham Asylum to confront the Joker on turf both of them seem to view as a place where they have an advantage. The issue is a tense trip through Arkham, with Batman's narration adding to the tension. He address himself as Bruce the whole time, speaking to himself in the third person. He seems more worried than he ever has, moving through the Asylum, working his way through the Joker's traps, and using everything he has to keep edging forward. He uses his brain to save Arkham guards Joker has had dancing non-stop for days and he uses his brawn to defeat a legion of armed maniacs. Joker has Dollmaker imprint images on the skin of a group of tied up men, showing scenes from Batman and Joker's history in a creepy living tapestry. After facing down some of Arkahm's more famous rogues, in the end, Joker is waiting in a room. Within that room, Joker waits with three of Batman's other greatest rogues, Penguin, Riddler, and Two-Face, and although Batman seems to be able to stop Joker from killing his victims, Joker has one final scheme. He shows Batman his family, all waiting for Joker to kill, and this proves Joker right: the allies and family Batman has made make him weak, make him susceptible to Joker's scheme. In the end  save his allies, and seems to be dead, although we all know there's more to come from that. Still, the final moment sends shivers up my spine. The back-up this month mainly features Joker dealing with the one rogue in his court not spotlighted yet: Two-Face. When Two-Face wants Batman just killed after the final scene of the main story, Joker stands him down. He addresses Two-Face as Harvey, showing contempt for Two-Face. He points out to Two-Face that his coin, his view of justice, is pointless, which he views as perfect for Gotham. Joker leaves even the greatest rogues behind, and is left alone with Batman holding the mysterious covered dish that he holds on the last page of each of these final "Death of the Family" tie-ins. With one part to go, the stakes have never been higher, and I have never been more excited.

Batman and Robin #16
Story: Peter J. Tomasi
Art: Pat Gleason

Damian is a character who has been evolving and growing since he was first introduced. This issue seems to be a turning point for the young Robin. Facing down a man who he believes is Batman, controlled by a psychotropic Joker venom to kill him, Damian does his best to not kill his father. The verbal abuse and taunting from the Joker continues, trying to convince Damian to cross the line. Damian leads "Batman" on a merry chase through the Gotham Zoo on another of Joker's little merry chases. In the end, when Joker tells Damian it is either Damian's life or Batman's, Damian is willing to sacrifice himself. Joker is disappointed, naturally, and a little surprised. And while Damian does let his temper slip when he faces down Joker, he still is acting more controlled, and has come to understand self-sacrifice. While the story is impressive, what really blew me away with this issue, as with the last, was the art from pat Gleason. His Joker is equally as creepy as those from Greg Capullo and Jock, but his use of the flies that surround Joker's rotting face is extra disturbing. His Joker is bizarrely gangly, moving like a marionette on strings controlled by a mad puppeteer. And the look on Damian's face as he thinks Batman has died is heartbreaking. To be able to do that with a character who is wearing a mask and has no visible eyes shows a mastery of his craft. Tomasi and Gleason are a team that have worked together for some time, and at this point they are one of those teams whose work blends together to form a whole even stronger than the sum of their parts.

The Black Beetle: No Way Out #1
Story & Art: Francesco Francavilla

In my recommended reading for Dark Horse Presents I talked about the serial I was most excited about, The Black Beetle: Night Shift, and how I was looking forward to the mini-series featuring Francesco Francavilla's pulp inspired crimebuster. And now that the first issue has come out, I can say that anticipation was well deserved. What seems to be a simple mob meet up turns into something more when the location blows up, killing all inside and nearly taking Black Beetle with them. As Beetle digs into the explosion and who might be behind it, he finds the killer, although who (or what) he is remains a mystery. The beauty of the pulps and stories inspired by them is that they are seemingly simple formula stories that are made distinct by atmosphere and style. Francavilla's use of page layout is jawdropping. The double page spreads flow beautifully. The setting is lovingly researched, with all the touches and the characters looking perfectly 30s. I like the fact that we never see the Beetle unmasked, adding to his air of mystery. This is an excellent first issue, with no baggage to draw it down, no continuity to hamper it. If you like crime and mystery comics, this should be at the top of your buy pile.

Creator-Owned Heroes #8
Story and Art by Various

And sadly ends the experiment that was Creator-Owned Heroes. The combination comics anthology and comics magazine was an admirable attempt, and I have enjoyed all the issues and all the stories. This issue does nicely wrap up the two serials that have been running. Steve Niles and Scott Morse's "Meatbag" is a sci-fi/horror/noir mashup, where the PI finds out what happened to his agent, and faces down the people who hired him, and as happens to many noir detectives, winds up on the wrong end of the story. Palmiotti and Gray's "Killswitch" has been my favorite serial, and this conclusion leaves the character with room to appear, as the game of death among hitmen is resolved and Killswitch proves to be as brilliant a manipulator as he is a killer. "The Spirits of the Harbour" is the final piece for the series by Matt Signal favorite Darwyn Cooke, a peice he originally crated as a gift to guests at his wedding. It is a touching story about a man, a talking dog, and finding love. Wrapping the series up with profiles of some of today's hottest creators and a couple of legends of the industry, I'm sad to see Creator-Owned Heroes go. I can only hope that Palmiotti & Gray come back with more in this vein soon.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Recommended Reading for 1/18: X-Factor by Peter David

Comic creators don't stay with books like they did in the old days. With very few exceptions (Brian Michael Bendis on the Avengers franchise, Geoff Johns on Green Lantern. Ed Brubaker on Captain America, and Grant Morrison on the Batman titles), writers are usually on a title for one, maybe two years and then are off to different pastures. And most of those runs are big, high profile runs. But flying under the radar, in comparison anyway, is the longest run on any Marvel title right now, and possibly one of the longest in mainstream comics: Peter David's 100+ issues on X-Factor. I'll be discussing just the current run on X-Factor, by the by, not the early 90s run, not to say that wasn't a good run, but I want to stay focused, or as focused as I can be on such a sprawling series.

Peter David is one of the first comic book writers I remember recognizing by name. His over ten year run on the Incredible Hulk is one of the seminal runs of the 90s, and still the defining run on that character. His Supergirl and Young Justice were great runs, and his creator owned Fallen Angel is a title I miss. I've read most of his novels, and despite not being a huge Star Trek person, I really enjoy his New Frontier series. This is a way of saying I have a predisposition to Peter David as a writer. I will say that, with the exception of the Hulk run, X-Factor is my favorite comic series Peter David has written.

X-Factor is a team of mutants that people who aren't big X-Men fans might not know. You're not getting Wolverine, Cyclops, and Storm on the team. What this means is that these are characters who aren't necessarily safe, characters who can change, and who can die (or die as much as anyone in comics can). One of the themes I realize I touch on often is character, and how comics I really love are ones that are character driven. X-Factor is the poster child for the character driven superhero book.

While many other characters have come and gone over the course of the series, the constant has been Jaime Madrox, the Multiple Man, who mutant power is to create doubles of himself. A character Peter David wrote in his original run on X-Factor, the series that served as a prequel to this volume of X-Factor was a Madrox mini-series. In that miniseries, we see that Madrox has set himself up as a private detective, and has also sent out his dupes to learn skills and return to him, where he absorbs them and picks up these new skills and the knowledge these dupes have picked up. As a man who can create countless duplicates of himself, Madrox is a person who can be in more than one place at a time and see things from multiple points of view, both literally and figuratively. And there's where Madrox's problem is: he is so torn by all those points of view that he is often moved to complete inaction. Madrox's journey to become a bit more decisive is one of the key themes that is explored in X-Factor.

The roster of X-Factor Investigations has fluctuated between as few as six and as many as twelve members over the course of the series. The initial cast included Strong Guy and Wolfsbane, Madrox's old friends and teammates from the original X-Factor team; M, Monet St. Croix, the beautiful and conceited young mutant; Siryn, one of Madrox's exes and former member of X-Force; and Rictor, who lost his powers on M-Day, the day most mutants were depowered by Scarlet Witch,, and who starts the series off preparing to jump off a roof and kill himself. Over the years, additional people have come and gone, including Longshot, the extradimensional freedom fighter from Mojoworld; Shatterstar, another native of Mojoworld, warrior, and Rictor's lover; Darwin, the mutant who can evolve to protect himself from any situation; and briefly Havok and Polaris, two classic X-Men and members of the old X-Factor who returned from a long trip in space to be asked to ride herd on the team by Wolverine. And one other member...

The character who has proven absolutely fascinating to me is Layla Miller. Created as a sort of Mcguffin during the House of M crossover, Peter David has taken a mysterious little girl with no personality and made her an interesting woman with real pathos. Layla starts out as the girl who, "knows stuff," seemingly a precognitive ability. but when Layla is displaced into the future, and eventually calls Madrox there to help her, we learn what the nature of her knowledge and what her real power is: she knows stuff because future Layla has told past Layla all of the things that she has learned. And her power is that she can raise the dead. However, in monkey's paw fashion, there is a catch: those resurrected are brought back with no souls. Layla knows what this means, knows that people she resurrects aren't who they were before their resurrection, and must struggle with the decision of what to do with this ability when someone she cares about is lost. Her stories also play with the idea of the butterfly effect (hence her eventual codename of Butterfly), that every time she changes something she knows was destined to happen it changes the flow of events. Issue #240, "Run, Layla, Run," is a phenomenal issue that shows Layla trying to make sure the future flows as she knows it should, despite the changes that have occurred, and gives great insight into the way Layla sees every day.

While Madrox and Layla are the two characters who I find the most compelling, it's the sign of a great comic that I enjoy issues that focus on the others as well. Since this is a long term series, where these characters have had plenty of time to grow, plot threads are laid down that take long periods of time to bear fruit. And with those kind of long, character based arcs, you get a lot of time to build on the interplay between characters and see how they come together and break apart. The relationship between Rictor and Shatterstar is hilarious, as Shatterstar does not always get the way things work on Earth, but is also very real; they're not a "gay couple," they're a couple period; they go through what a lot of couples do and interact is a true manner.

Wolfsbane left the group briefly to be a member of X-Force, and came back broken by the deeds she had done and pregnant. She is shown going through a whole cycle of grief and acceptance, in a heartbreaking series of stories. When Siryn also gets pregnant after a drunken night with Madrox, well I don't want to give away the twist if you've not read the issues, and I know Peter David wouldn't want me to either, but the result is something that leaves you with your jaw on the floor and your heart broken for this fictional character.

I mention those two story arcs together not just because of the obvious similar pregnancy content, but because their resolutions involved a favorite occasional X-Factor supporting character: the Reverend John Maddox. Maddox is one of Madrox's wayward dupes, one who was sent to learn about faith and religion. But Maddox met a woman, fell in love with her and with his role as an Episcopal minister, and decided to not return. When Madrox went to reclaim him, the two fought and eventually Madrox let him go to live his life. He meets with both Siryn and Wolfsbane at their darkest hours, as well as Madrox when he is near the end of his own rope, and serves as the voice of a higher power, a voice of reason and compassion. Peter David never preaches through Maddox, but he speaks with a faith and a belief in the good of humanity, and a worldwise knowledge that makes him both confessor and confidant.

X-Factor is also a great example of a series that makes lemonade out of the lemons of major crossovers. The series was originally pitched as a crime/detective story set in the New York neighborhood of Mutant Town, where the city's mutant population was moving, but right before the series was supposed to launch, those mutants lost their powers. OK, instead the team will work to help depowered mutants in Mutant Town. "Civil War" comes along and the series uses it to make Madrox a hero of the people. "Messiah Complex" tosses all the mutant teams together and Layla Miller disappears for a while into the future to come back as an adult. "Secret Invasion" introduces Longshot and Darwin to the team. While many comics take those crossovers and does the crossover as a story removed from the daily flow of the book, Peter David uses them to help forward his own plans and get some more exposure for the comic, all while not losing the fact that this is an X-Factor story.

While X-Factor has moved through various arcs and eras, it always seems like Peter David is moving towards something that he has had planned all along. Characters who haven't appeared in dozens of issues pop back up and it seems perfectly logical. Damian Tryp, a time traveling mutant with a variety of powers, was the team's initial nemesis; he returns and it fits the story perfectly. Agamemnon, a supporting character from the Hulk, enters into the hunt for Wolsbane's baby and it doesn't seem out of left field. Pip the Troll, a cosmic character, former member of the Infinity Watch and supporting character to Adam Warlock, becomes the team's receptionist and you don't blink. Peter David is a writer who knows what he's doing, knows how to craft a story, and that craftsmanship shows. Not every arc is world shattering, and there are plenty of simple fun one off stories, but every issue counts and advances a plot. The new story that just began, "Hell on Earth War," is something that all these disparate elements have seemingly been building towards for years, and it all fits together like a perfect jigsaw puzzle.

I usually spend a little time at the end of these recommendations talking about art, which is not my strong suit I admit, and it's much harder to do with this title. X-Factor has had a lot of artists over the course of the years, and few have stuck around for a long time. Currently, Leonard Kirk, Peter David's collaborator from Supergirl, is the mostly regular penciler, and I'm a big fan of his work. Other artists have included Ryan Sook, Larry Stroman, Pablo Raimondi, Valentine de Landro, and Paul Davidson. All are good artists, some are great, and you'll be happy to see any of those names on the artist's credits.

Now two final notes. First, the thing I think I haven't really mentioned is just how funny X-Factor is. Peter David is a master of the pun that's so bad it's good, the pop culture zinger in the same style as Joss Whedon, and the situation comedy joke in the superhero world.There's always a bit of tongue planted in cheek, and the tension is often broken by one member or another of the team cracking wise.

On a far more serious not, I mentioned once earlier that Peter David recently suffered a stroke. He is recovering well, according to updates on his website from his wife, Kathleen, but as I'm sure any American knows, health care ain't cheap. If you want to help him out, check out this post on peterdavid.net to see what you can do. As I said, I've read a lot of Peter David's novels, both Star Trek and his fantasy and sci-fi ones, and they're great. I bought the whole slew of e-books available to help out. It only cost me about seventeen bucks, and having skimmed the first one that grabbed my eye, trust me it was money well spent, and it's for a good cause. Let's help out a writer who has brought a lot of great comics and books out by doing what we'd do anyway: reading More of his work.

There are a whopping seventeen X-Factor trades out there now, with two more already solicited. There are also issues collected in the trade of the X-title crossover Messiah Complex. The Madrox mini-series is also available in trade. The issues from Peter David's original run on X-Factor were collected in four trades under the banner X-Factor Visionaries: Peter David, but are currently out of print. Issue #250, the first part of The Hell on Earth War, was released this past Wednesday.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 1/9

Dark Tower: The Gunslinger- Sheemie's Tale #1
Story: Robin Furth
Art: Richard Isanove

After four mini-series directly adapting the novella "The Little Sisters of Eluria" and the majority of the first of the Dark Tower novels, The Gunslinger, Marvel has returned to the world of Stephen King's magnum opus with the oft delayed tale of young Sheemie Ruiz, the sweet but simple boy with the amazing psychic powers. While I've enjoyed many of the new tales of the Dark Tower world that Marvel has released, I feel like this mini-series, as well as the earlier one shot, Sorcerer, are stories better suited to this format than additional stories of young Roland; stories that fill in the backstory of some of the myriad supporting characters King introduced over the course of the now eight books and one novella of the Dark Tower series. There's a large gap in the narrative about young Sheemie, the boy who become squire of sorts to Roland, the titular gunslinger of the series, and who was eventually met again in the Devar Toi, the prison at the heart of End World. This issue fills in some of those lost years, showing Sheemie's time in the prison, seeing how sweet he is, and how, when he learns the evils that he and his fellow Breakers, the psychics used by the servants of the evil Crimson King to destroy the beams holding up The Dark Tower, he does his best to stop it. Sheemie is an innocent abroad, trapped in a world he doesn't fully understand, and is at odds with the demonic world he is in. King's word tends to be one of relative light and dark, where good and evil blend together; Roland is a hero who is far from pure. But Sheemie is one of the few purely good characters we meet in the course of the series, and seeing him trapped in this prison is painful, and seeing the faith he has in Roland hurts, knowing that Roland thinks rarely of Sheemie, driven as he is by his quest for the Tower. Yet still, his hope is something that also stirs warmer feelings, ones of amusement and happiness. There are appearances by some of King's other characters, including Sheemie's fellow Breaker Ted Brautigan, who first appeared in Hearts in Atlantis, and Marten Broadcloak, King's most recurring villain, also known as Randall Flagg of The Stand and by many other names. Richard Isanove's art is perfect for this series, mixing the horrors of the mutants creatures of End World and the taheen, the human/animal hybrid guards, with some of Sheemie's visions of great beauty. There is a second issue of this series next month, and I hope more issues series follow it focusing on Sheemie and the other minor characters of The Dark Tower before Marvel dives into more adaptations.

Detective Comics #16
Story: John Layman
Art: Jason Fabok/ Andy Clarke

In Friday's recommended reading for Gotham Central, I commented that one of the best parts of the Joker story in that series, "Soft Targets," is to see how the police and the common people of Gotham react when the Joker appears. This issue takes a similar concept, but one twisted into a much stranger shape. This issue shows how Gotham's lunatic fringe reacts when the Joker returns. The idea of Joker inspired gangs isn't a new one; The Jokerz in Batman Beyond popped up in the first episode and are featured in the current arc of the series featuring that branch of the DC Universe. But John Layman gives them a very creepy air, not making them just Joker fanboys, but a psychotic, if inept, threat. These aren't just muggers and vandals who put on makeup, they're actual killers who give into their baser instincts. As Batman takes out each of the pathetic gangs, each whose name is a worse humor based pun than the one before it, we cut to scenes of another group of Joker imitators, these ones far better organized and far closer in style to their purported idol. One such Joker, Rodney the Torch, an arsonist, has teamed up with a group of others and are preparing to massacre the gathered families of some Joker victims. Rodney's fate is tragic, after he has a bout of conscience, but the rest of his group, who he tells Batman are called the League of Smiles, escape to their leader, the Merrymaker, who dresses as a plague doctor, a costume that I've always found particularly creepy. The backup once again features Ignatius Ogilvy, the man calling himself Emperor Penguin. Layman has done a great job of tying the backups in with the main feature, and after seeing Ogilvy leave corpses of his enemies looking like they had been killed by Joker in the main story, we see him explain his reasoning to some of Penguin's allies in the backup. Ogilvy is proving clever, and I'm curious to see what happens when (if?) the Penguin makes it out of Joker's party in Arkham how he will react to his former assistant taking over his rackets.

Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files: Ghoul Goblin #1
Story: Jim Butcher and Mark Powers
Art: Joseph Cooper

The second original mini-series set in the world of Jim Butcher's best selling Dresden Files novels kicks off with a very solid first issue. Back in October, I recommended the first original Harry Dresden comic series, Welcome to the Jungle, and while this series takes place deeper into the novels, in between book 2 (Fool Moon) and book 3 (Grave Peril), it is still remarkably continuity light, making it a perfect entry point for new readers. Harry Dresden, wizard/p.i. for hire, has been called to a small town to help save a family who are seemingly cursed by mysterious deaths, many of them perpetrated by things that could only be monsters. New readers will get a good introduction to who Harry is and how he operates, both his mind and his magic, and will get to meet one of Harry's regular support staff, Bob the talking skull. There's some great action to start, with harry fighting the Creature from the Black Lagoon's steroid using cousin, and then the story moves into more of the private eye mode, which is how a Dresden story works. While the plot of the mini-series comes from series creator Jim Butcher, the script is by Mark Powers, who has been adapting the Dresden novels for Dynamite, and I'm happy to say that Powers has Harry's voice down pat. I could have read this issue with no knowledge of the scripter and thought it was coming right out of Butcher himself. One interesting difference between the novels and the comics is that the series opens to a flashback set in 1917. The Dresden stories are all written first person, so these scenes are something we don't get in the books, and while I found it an odd choice, it's one I'm willing to accept as part of a different medium where having a long sequence of exposition about an event is tedious when you can show, not tell. Since Adrian Syaf, who drew the first original miniseries and the first half of the adaptation of the first Dresden Files novel, Storm Front, left for the greener pastures of DC Comics, the art for the second half of that novel and the adaptation of the second has been inconsistent, but I feel Joseph Cooper, new artists for this series, has a good feel for the character and has a good visual sense. If you've heard of the Dresden Files series from me or from its ever growing legion of fans, this is a great place to give it a shot and see if you want to try some of the novels. Trust me, once you start, you won't be able to stop.

Star Wars #1
Story: Brian Wood
Art: Carlos D'Anda

The time in between Star Wars: A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back is one of the most thoroughly mined of any span of time in the Star Wars universe. It's probably also the span of time that most non-hardcore Star Wars fans want to see, since all the classic characters are in play. Dark Horse's idea for the new, ongoing series being a continuity light series seemed like a good idea to entice in new readers, but I wanted to see how it felt to me, a die hard fan. And I have to say, this first issue was a resounding success. Brian Wood, best known for gritty dystopian sci-fi and vikings, slips right into the galaxy far, far away with ease. The issue starts out with Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Wedge Antilles on a mission to find a new home for the Rebel base after the events of the original movie, and quickly turns into an action packed dogfight between their X-Wings and a TIE Fighter wing. By the issue's end, we've seen Han Solo and Chewbacca on a mission for the rebellion, and Darth Vader confronted by the Emperor about his continued failure to stop the rebels. All the elements that are easily recognizable to the public are there for a good Star Wars story. Wood does toss in some nods for those of us who know the lore well, including appearances by less well known movie characters like Wedge and Mon Mothma, as well as pilot slang from the X-Wing series of novels, but its all so minor that there's no way it could alienate a new reader. Carlos D'Anda does a great job on art as well, capturing the looks of characters that are a major part of the public consciousness while still making them dynamic. While I'm still concerned about the future of the Star Wars license, I'm going to enjoy this series while it's here. May the run be long and the Force be with them.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Recommended Reading for 1/11: Gotham Central

I don't think there's a world, real or fictional, where being a police officer is an easy job. Imagine how much worse it is in a world where you could get called in for a domestic disturbance between a deranged clown and his harlequin girlfriend, where an umbrella left at the train station could be a machine gun, or where your patrolman's cap could have mind control circuitry sewn into it. And after a hard day's work, making sure the people of your city are safe, you see the evening news or newspaper, and some freak who dresses like a bat gets the credit for making sure the city is safe. These are the stories of the men and women who protect the streets of Gotham City. This is Gotham Central.

Published by DC Comics starting in 2003, Gotham Central was the brainchild of writers Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker, neither of them strangers to Batman and the Gotham City Police Department (from here abbreviated GCPD). Rucka has already written Detective Comics for a celebrated run, introducing new officers like Detective Crispus Allen, bringing Maggie Sawyer over from the Superman titles, and spending time redefining classic characters like Renee Montoya and Harvey Bullock; Brubaker had just finished a substantial run on the flagship Batman title, and was still the ongoing writer on Catwoman. Now, the two respected crime writers, partnering with artist Michael Lark, would be writing stories focusing on the police of Gotham City, both new and old.

Gotham Central took place during an odd time during the history of the GCPD. Legendary Commissioner James Gordon had retired after being shot down by a corrupt officer, and his right hand man Harvey Bullock had quit the force after being responsible, indirectly at least, for the attempted assassin's death. New commissioner Michael Akins had a less cordial relationship with Batman than Gordon, and this attitude was reflected in many of the officers appointed by, or serving closely with, the new commissioner. This tension was part of what made the series different from other Batman stories focusing on the GCPD. Batman was neither menace to be hunted nor well regarded ally, but something to be mistrusted by permitted, although this would change as the series progressed.

The series focused on the two "shifts" of the GCPD; the day shift, stories featuring nearly all new characters, was written Ed Brubaker, while the night shift, featuring mostly established characters Rucka had written in Detective Comics, was written by Rucka. Series tent-pole arcs featuring both casts were cowritten by the two. Despite there being two writers involved in the series, the voice was consistent. The two writers worked together well, and a Montoya scene written by Brubaker was almost indistinguishable from one written by Rucka.

Brubaker's stories mostly focused on Marcus Driver, a recently promoted detective who believed in by the book investigation and who actively resented the GCPD's need for Batman. Exacerbated by the loss of his partner in the first issue of the series at the hands of Mr. Freeze, Driver would never be a fan of Batman. Along with Driver, the night shift is headed by Lieutenant Probson, another by the book cop, Driver's partner, Josephine "Josie Mac" McDonald, appeared in a series of backups before, but was fully fleshed out here. Romy Chandler, another second shift detective, was romantically linked with Driver, which added an element of interpersonal dynamic we didn't see in the first shift.

As I said, Rucka's night shift featured the better known characters. Renee Montoya dated back to the early 90s, having been created for Batman: The Animated Series. When Rucka started on Detective, he introduced Crispus Allen as his audience proxy, the new man on the force who could have things explained to him. By the point of Gotham Central, he had been partnered with Montoya for some time and was an established part of the GCPD. In charge of the Major Crimes Unit night shoft was maggie Sawyer, a character who moved to Gotham from Metropolis after the "No Man's Land" storyline. As one of comics' first out lesbian characters, her presence would be important when the stories most celebrated stories happened.

That story is the Eisner Award winning "Half a Life." In it, Renee Montoya begins receiving photos that would out her as a lesbian. Eventually she is outed, and it is revealed that Two-Face is behind the whole thing, having fallen in love with Montoya during earlier encounters. The story is the perfect example of what Gotham Central does best: character. Firstly, it takes a supervillain, a character who is by his nature somewhat unrealistic, and places them in a realistic context. Two-Face is played as a character with many levels here, and one who is tragic, a lost soul who can't understand why Montoya simply won't love him. It's Montoya's characterization, though, that won the story an Eisner. The agony that she goes through, the snide comments and alienation from many of her fellow members of the GCPD, and her being disowned by her parents, reflected the experiences of so many people who had gone through similar trials. It was a beautifully rendered and deeply human story, something that doesn't often happen in capes and tights comics.

My favorite story over the course of the series was not "Half a Life," despite it being excellent. No, my favorite was "Soft Targets," a crossover between the two shifts, and features the villain that fans had been waiting a year to see in the book: The Joker. This is one of my favorite Joker stories ever, partially because the Joker's plan, one that begins with an uncharacteristically mundane and low body count spree with a sniper rifle, ends with the Joker delivering a particularly chilling coup de grace to his scheme. Rucka and Brubaker's Joker has a wicked sense of humor, one founded more on irony than on typical punchlines, and that is wonderfully creepy. But beyond a great Joker plot, what's interesting about the story is seeing how the people who aren't Batman and his family deal with the Joker popping up. Batman takes the Joker seriously, but the people of Gotham are, not unexpectedly, terrified of him. The police go immediately on high alert and the civilians just hide in their homes until they know he's off the streets. Showing this ups the stakes; Joker is always a threat, but seeing him as an object of terror is a different reaction than what we're used to as readers.

As serious as much of the series is, there were also some light moments. Issue eleven was a one off called, "Daydreams and Believers," about Stacy, the Major Crimes Unit temp whose job it is to turn on the Batsignal, since as long as a civilian is doing it the police are not technically calling an unlawful vigilante themselves. Aside from that fun fact, the issue is a great piece to see inside the head of a "normal" person exposed to all the terror of Gotham. Also, she has a crush in Batman and regularly daydreams about him unmasking for her and the two beginning a relationship. It's a nice break between all the intensity of the other arcs.

But, in the end, the series comes around the Montoya's journey. In an early issue, we see Jim Corrigan, a corrupt member of the Gotham CSI squad. The name is familiar to any major DC fan, but by the end of the series, the reader knows it's nothing but a red herring. As Montoya's life slowly continues to fall apart, she butts heads with Corrigan, at one point beating him badly to get him to hand over evidence he stole that might exonerate Cris Allen from a charge of unnecessary force. As Allen tries to finally prove Corrigan's corruption, the rivalry reaches its climax with Corrigan killing Allen. This pushes Montoya beyond her limits, and the series ends with Montoya having given up her badge and moving toward the place she will be at the beginning of 52.

While various artists worked on the series, the principal artist was Michael Lark. Lark's gritty style was  perfectly suited for this series. A bleak pall hangs over everything, and rightly so in a city that seems to be cursed with violence and madness. His characters can be attractive, even beautiful, but they all seem real; proportions are perfectly within reality. His Joker is a personal favorite of mine, and I have a special spot in my sketchbook to someday get either a Lark Joker or Cris Allen.

There are plenty of other arcs in Gotham Central. Brubaker's "Unresolved" is one of  the best Mad Hatter story ever, and features the return of Harvey Bullock. "Keystone Kops" has one of Flash's Rogues appearing in Gotham, and Montoya on a clock to save one of the GCPD's own. And "Dead Robin", the final arc shared by Brubaker and Rucka, poses an interesting question: What would the GCPD do if they found Robin's corpse? Every issue is a page turner, a solid crime story, and a tale of the hard life of a cop in Gotham.

While originally collected in a series of shorter trades with issues missing, all of Gotham Central has now been collected in four substantial trades. All are in print and available at good comic shops everywhere.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Things to Look Forward to in 2013

It seems I have failed as a comic book blogger, since I am probably the only one to not do a, "Best of 2012" post. That doesn't mean I can't do a, "looking good in 2013," post, so that's what I'm going to do. So, in no particular order, here are some of the comics and comic media related projects that I am very excited about in the coming year.

The return of Sandman by Neil Gaiman

Ok, this is the gimme of gimmes among many comic book fans. I haven't walked much about Sandman or my love of Neil Gaiman on this blog simply because very few people need to be told that they should read it; it's a major part of the comic book landscape, up there with Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns. But the idea of new Sandman, of Sandman with art by J.H. Williams III, whose work on Batwoman has been nothing less then stunning, well this is something that should be cried to the heavens with joy. Set before the original series starts, I'd think this would be a good place for people who have never read Sandman to start and see exactly what all the hullabaloo is about. As someone who has all of Sandman in single, trade, absolute, and annotated, the idea of a new story featuring Dream of the Endless is the closest to complete comics nirvana as I can imagine.

Lazarus by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark

Gotham Central is one of the great gems that DC Comics has produced in the past decade (boy, sounds like something you might be getting a recommended reading about shortly...). Greg Rucka (and co-writer Ed Brubaker) is a master of crime stories, whose work on the Bat titles had me excited for this gritty cops in Gotham story, and artist Michael Lark, whose work on an arc of Sandman: Mystery Theatre had grabbed my attention, seemed a perfect fit. And I was right. Since then, Rucka and Lark have worked together a few times, including winning an Eisner for best Short Story, this is their first creator owned project together. Lazarus will be coming from Image Comics, and is a science fiction series set in a dystopian future where the wealthy families rule. Endeavor Carlyle, the lead, is the enforcer/strategist/security chief for her family, but learns a truth that puts her at odds with her family and society as a whole. In interviews, Rucka and Lark have said they are building a whole world from scratch, really designing everything. Combining my love of Greg Rucka's strong characterization, Michael Lark's gritty art, and world building? Sold.

The Wake by Scott Snyder and Sean Murphy

While details about this project remains pretty sketchy, new Scott Snyder horror is always something I look forward to. Combine an element of sci-fi, and you have my curiosity more than piqued. The only details that I've found are that the story begins with, "single, terrifying discovery at the bottom of the ocean." Include art from Sean Murphy, whose work on Joe the Barbarian I loved, whose Punk Rock Jesus is a book that slipped under my radar and a trade I'm dying for, and who teamed up with Snyder for one of the excellent American Vampire mini-series, and you have a book that should appeal to all horror and sci-fi comic fans.

Scott Snyder's Riddler in Batman

In my review of Batman #15, I spoke about how impressed I was about Scott Snyder's take on the Riddler. His Riddler struck me as someone smart enough to actually challenge Batman. And I'm hoping the next major arc on Batman after "Death of the Family" will prove me right. Snyder has done a great job creating new villains and presenting old villains in new ways in his work on Batman and Detective Comics; the Court of Owls and new Owlman are the breakout villains of the New 52, and James Gordon Jr. is a tremendously creepy character, and his vision of the Joker is unique and frightening. For years now, Riddler has either been a non-threat, the kind of villain who is trotted out just because he's a name, been made "edgy," as in "Hush," or been reformed, as in the great stories of Riddler, Private Eye during Paul Dini's run on Detective. I'm hoping this new vision of the Riddler finds a way to make Riddler a marquee Bat villain again. If anyone can do it, I think Snyder can.

New Star Wars: Legacy

The Legacy era of Star Wars, set over a century after the original trilogy, is a favorite era of mine. It's a little darker, but still has great characters, and builds off of all the Expanded Universe works that have come before it. I wrote a recommended reading for the original series of Star Wars: Legacy and while this new series is not from original creators John Ostrander and Jan Duursema, I see a lot of potential. From Corinna Bechko and Gabriel Hardman, the creators of some recent well received Planet of the Apes comics, Star Wars: Legacy - Prisoner of the Floating World follows a new character, Ania Solo, the great great granddaughter of Han and Leia. She get herself into trouble, and is marked for death, so basically is following along in the family business. The story is set after the final adventures of Cade Skywalker in the original Legacy series, so we'll see the galaxy move further away from the Sith-Imperial War, but that's not to say we won't see any Sith or Jedi. Bechko and Hardman have some pretty big shoes to fill here, but I'm more than willing to try out some new characters making their way through the Star Wars universe.

The Man of Steel

I will always admit a pro-DC bias, and I am also definitely looking forward to Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, but the superhero film I'm most curious about is The Man of Steel, the reboot of the Superman franchise. After the lackluster Superman Returns, the world's first superhero has been away from the big screen. I will admit to being worried after seeing the initial teaser, as there was no Superman in a Superman movie teaser, but the first real trailer was much more interesting. Some great flying scenes, some cool looking Kryptonian vehicles, action, and no hide nor -lack-of-hair of Lex Luthor. I swear, not every Batman movie needs Joker; the same should be with Lex and Superman. I do admit that I feel we could skip the origin of Superman as it is so well known, but I do like the idea of watching Clark Kent make the decision to become Superman; it worked in Batman Begins for Batman, why not for Superman?

Young Justice Returns and Young Justice: Legacy

So, this one has already started, but I'm still including it here. After the unceremonious disappearance from the airwaves of DC Nation in October, I was worried I'd never see more Young Justice, no matter what Cartoon Network said. But as of this past Saturday, the series was back, and in as fine form as ever. There's an Animated Discussions post about Young Justice upcoming, about how it serves as the inheritor to many of the themes of the pre-New 52 DC Universe, but beyond that, it is just the best looking, best paced, and best characterized action cartoon on TV right now. And not only will we get the last half of season two, and I'm holding out hope for the announcement of a season three, but next month we get Young Justice: Legacy, a video game written by the show's writers taking place in the five year gap between the two seasons. I'm not a big video game person, but I'll be picking this one up right away for a little more story from this particular version of the DC Universe.

Year of Atomic Robo

A post on Comic Book Resource's Robot Six blog detailing the 2013 plans for Atomic Robo got me very excited. First and foremost, this year's mini-series is Atomic Robo and the Savage Sword of Dr. Dinosaur! So, while Dr. D won't be in this year's Free Comic Book Day issue, he'll be in an entire mini! And he'll probably be bringing crystals! Also, the next arc of Real Science Adventures focuses on the Centurions of Science, Tesla's team of scientists and luminaries, similar to the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but with real people, like Harry Houdini and Annie Oakley. I love that sort of revisionist history, and Tesla just lends himself to it. And to top it all off, we'll also see the debut of the Atomic Robo Roleplaying Game from Evil Hat Productions, creators of the award winning and awesome Dresden Files Roleplaying Game. Now you too can live the dream of being a member of Atomic Robo's Tesladyne team, and who wouldn't want to do that?

Monday, January 7, 2013

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 1/2

Batman Incorporated #6
Story: Grant Morrison
Art: Chris Burnham

The end of the first half of Grant Morrison's final act on the Batman titles centers around a conversation between Batman and Talia over radio, while Batman makes his way through one of Leviathan's houses of horror. As much as we've heard of Leviathan, Talia's evil organization, we haven't really seen them in play beyond a few small instances before now, but it seems that is about to change as the endgame begins. The whole series has always been really about the relationship between Batman, Talia, and Damian, and the family dynamic, and this is becoming more clear as Batman and Talia discuss Damian while he fights through an army of her minions. Talia gives Batman and ultimatum: save Gotham or save Damian. And Bruce freezes. He isn't sure which he would save, which for Batman is a big deal. It indicates just how important his son has become to him, and how central to his life Damian has become. The scenes taking place away from this confrontation are no less riveting. Members of Batman Inc, wounded and trapped on the top floor of the building that Batman is fighting through, and the scenes of Knight attempting to resuscitate the wounded Squire are heartrending. When The Heretic, Talia's lumbering bodyguard (who I still believe to be a possibly malformed and imperfect product of the same science that gave birth to Damian), arrives, he brutally seems to kill one member of Batman Inc., an event that will resonate further down the series. And in the Batcave, Batman's four sons (Nightwing, Wingman aka Red Hood, Red Robin, and Robin) discuss what they have to do, with Alfred attempting to referee. Damian's pain at possibly being sent back to his mother is apparent, and he has surrounded himself with his pets, Titus the dog and Batcow. And Alfred presents him with a new one: a kitten whose demeanor is as prickly as Damian's own, something that seems to please him. With an army of Leviathan's converts marching the streets of Gotham, and a last minute revelation by Talia about Heretic and the vision Batman saw of the future, this issue moves the series into its highest gear, speeding towards a conclusion that will no doubt leave the lives of Batman and his son changed forever.

Fatale #11
Story: Ed Brubaker
Art: Sean Phillips

"The Case of Alfred Ravenscroft" is the first of a series of one off flashback issues of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips horror noir series, Fatale. The issue, set in the 30s, features a younger Josephine then we've seen before. Josephine, one of the protagonists of the series, a seeming immortal with the ability to make men fall madly in love with her whether she wants them to or not, hunts down pulp author Alfred Ravenscroft to find out why the stories she read by him are so similar to the nightmares she has been having. Ravenscroft is a thinly veiled analogue for legendary horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, right down to the diary of his lingering illness, something Lovecraft did in the last years of his life. When Jo asks him where the ideas come from, Ravenscroft spins her a tale of his youth, traveling through Mexico with his mother and a cult that she joined. In the end, the young Ravenscroft sneaks into the leader's tent, and there sees a book that grants him a vision of a many eyed thing, a certainly Lovecraftian monster, something similar to the demonic things that have been plaguing Jo in the arcs set in the present. In the letters page, Brubaker comments that this story is one he's had in his head a long time, one that helped spawn the idea for Fatale, and has been reinvigorated by reading the Dark Horse Comics reprints of classic Creepy and Eerie. While I haven't read any of those, there is also a distinctly EC feel as well to this story, especially at the end when Ravenscroft introduces Jo to his mother, or the thing that was his mother. All Brubaker and Phillips works are atmospheric, and I enjoy how Fatale is taking both of it's literary ancestors, the classic horror and crime noir, and twisting them into a chilling mix. This is the first of four one off issues, and is a great point to give the series a try if you haven't yet.

Hellboy in Hell #2
Story & Art: Mike Mignola

Boy howdy, I can't get over just how gorgeous this book looks! I think I said pretty much the same thing with issue number one, but Mignola has only gotten better during his hiatus away from drawing Hellboy. This issue, Hellboy begins a Dickensian travel through his past, seeing his own birth and how exactly he received the fabled Right Hand of Doom, and then takes a trip to Pandemonium, the great city of Hell. There is no one who draws demons like Mignola in comics, creating things that look close to classic demons, with their cloven, goat like appearance, but still something very much in the vein of the universe that has been created. The dusty, twisted architecture of the abandoned Pandemonium adds to the overwhelmingly eerie feel of the issue. Even trapped in Hell, Hellboy maintains his usual cool and sarcastic demeanor, still refusing to take up the crown that has waited for him his entire life. The issue ends on a cliffhanger, with Hellboy about the confront the last demon in the city of the damned. This series is a great extension of Mignola's already fascinating Hellboy mythos, and it will be interesting to see more and more of what will happen as Hellboy tries to maintain his good spirit in a realm where good spirit is something distinctly lacking

The Manhattan Projects #8
Story: Jonathan Hickman
Art: Nick Pitarra

The Manhattan Projects is one of the most interesting comics on the market for its discussions of science and its relative morality, but this issue, there's nothing relative going on. President Harry Truman and his fellow Mason leaders have decided that the alliance between the Manhattan Projects and their Soviet counterparts in Star City to create science outside the control of their governments is not to be tolerated, and so AI Franklin Roosevelt has taken over all robots and tech that he can and has begun to kill anyone at the sites. And even in all of this chaos, Hickman finds a way to get in some very interesting character moments. The issue is mostly narrated by Wernher Von Braun, and we get a good view inside the head of the former Nazi scientist. I won't say he's made sympathetic, I don't think any of the cast of this series is ever going to be terribly sympathetic, but the reader is given a view into what drives Von Braun, and his passion to reach the stars and make advancements in science. Also, what other comic has an evil alternate dimension Einstein and Robert Feynman shooting robots with their computer screens filled with the image of our 32nd President? While the issue wraps up with the combined Soviet/American scientists winning a victory, the question remains how long can they maintain it?  The issue title, "They Rule," is spoken about the Masons, but with a victory for the Projects, has the balance of power shifted? Or is it just a matter of time before Truman and his crew attack again?