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.
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.