Friday, March 29, 2013

Recommended Reading for 3/29: Hawkeye

If you had told me last year that I would be writing a recommendation for a book featuring Hawkeye, Marvel Comics avenging archer, I would have given you an incredulous look. Sure, Brian Michael Bendis had done some decent things with him in New Avengers, but my first and main exposure to Hawkeye was during the period when he was with Mockingbird a lot, and to a DC fan felt like a poor man's Green Arrow (who is often a poor man's Batman). But I had heard such good things about this series, and the last time Matt Fraction and David Aja worked together they had done an amazing job on Immortal Iron Fist, so I thought I'd try it out. And boy am I glad I did.

Hawkeye isn't a traditional superhero comic. Like Immortal Iron Fist was really a martial arts comic, Hawkeye is a crime comic. Sure, there are supervillains, but they seem to be street level villains, or at least non-powered ones, and Hawkeye is fighting them on his terms. The first issue is a street story, where Hawkeye is trying to get a bunch of Russian crooks to stop trying to force the people in a building they have bought, one where Hawkeye keeps an apartment, out on the street. Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor really don't fight a bunch of Russian mobsters in track suits who call them, "Bro," throughout the story.

Matt Fraction's writing has a wicked sense of humor. Clint Barton, Hawkeye, is the kind of guy who has a wiseass comment for every situation. He disarms his foes and his friends with them. There's a long line of heroes who do this, from Marvel's own Spider-Man, to wizard-for-hire Harry Dresden, to Vlad Taltos, Steven Brust's wizard/assassin. The stories are narrated by Barton, so it helps being in the heroes head to really get his irreverance.

What it feels to me Fraction is doing is really taking Hawkeye and turning him into a classic hardluck pulp hero when he's no with the Avengers. The series opens with Hawkeye taking a plunge out of a window and breaking enough bones to leave him in the hospital for six weeks. Over the course of the first trade's worth of issues, Hawkeye is mugged, shot, hit on the head with a bottle, and knocked out. Sure, superheroes usually take a beating, but rarely as constantly, and in such an embarrassing manner for them. The narrative of each issue actually has the repeated phrase, "Okay... This looks bad." This is not the heroic mantra of a hero; it's nobody's, "With great power comes great responsibility." This is something you'd expect to hear from Sam Spade, or a similar character in a noir as the mobster he's been tailing leads him down a blind alley and is waiting with a gun to rub him out for good. It's humanizing, and makes Hawkeye a more endearing character than simply the archer who never misses and makes smartmouth comments at Captain America.

So far, the supporting cast for Hawkeye seems to be made up of one character: Marvel's other Hawkeye, Young Avenger Kate Bishop. And let me say, that while she may be a member of the Avengers junior team, she sure doesn't act like it; she's a full fledged superhero, and woe unto Clint Barton if he should forget it. Kate is nobody's sidekick, but she is willing to be Clint's partner and be mentored by him. It's clear right from the get go that Clint respects Kate, both her mind and her skill with a bow. And she saves Clint as much (if not a little more) than he does her. The strength of their relationship is part of what drives the book, and giving someone Clint can trade zingers with one to one is an excellent choice by Fraction. Clint is still the senior partner, though, and Kate is still learning, but Clint is never the overbearing mentor, like Batman is to Robin. He tries to get Kate to learn, and doesn't scold when she disobeys orders, mostly because he knows in her place he would have done the same thing.

Fraction's particular use of Marvel's established supervillains is something I enjoyed a lot in the first volume of the series. Over the course of five issues, Hawkeye finds a way to royally tick off both the Kingpin and Madame Masque, neither of whom are people you want to be on the wrong side of. But its issue two that really impressed me, where Hawkeye runs afoul of the Ringmaster and the Circus of Crime. Evil circus is kind of an old trope, and there have been attempts to make Ringmaster and his crew edgy and modern before, and they usually fall flat. Fraction doesn't try to change the Circus, but first he plays with the modern circus atmosphere by cleverly changing the Ringmaster's schtick into a more Cirque du Soliel thing,and then he ties in Hawkeye's own background: Hawkeye was raised in a circus, trained by the man who would become the villain Swordsman. And with one of Swordsman's other students in Ringmaster's crew, the adventure had a more personal twist to it. Fraction finds a way to make what could have been the same old Ringmaster story much more interesting with just a couple nice additions.

David Aja's art perfectly suits the kind of stories that Fraction is telling in this book. His style falls in that same gritty family as guys like Michael Lark, Steve Epting, and Butch Guice, all artists who have worked on some of Marvel's more non-traditional superhero books in recent years. It has a gritty look, very much at home on the streets of New York or Madripoor. And while the idea of both being clean and gritty seems oxymoronic, Aja's style is. His line work is distinct and his continuity if marvelous, while still maintaining the street feel of the book. It seems like in between each Aja drawn arc, there will be one drawn by another artist, and that line up is equally impressive. The first two parter was by Javier Pulido, known for his beautiful work on Human Target and Daredevil, and the forthcoming arc is by Francesco Francavilla, whose Black Beetle is the best pure neo-pulp on the stands right now.

Hawkeye was definitely the sleeper hit of last year, and I'm glad it was a hit. A strong, character driven half super hero/half crime title is something that speaks to me. After only one trade, I've come to appreciate both Hawkeyes on an entirely new level, and I'm looking forward to reading more with them. I also think that this would be a great book to crossover with James Asmus's equally crime flavored Gambit. I can see a Gambit and Howkeye in the Big Easy story, where the run across ladies and thieves. Two more unlikely titles I can't think of, but there's something about it that I think wold work. Fortunately, for all his problems in the book, things don't look bad for the future of Hawkeye.

The first trade of Hawkeye, My Life as a Weapon, was released two weeks ago, containing issues 1-5 and an issue of Young Avengers Presents where the two Hawkeyes first met. The books is released monthly through Marvel, with its second trade to be released in May.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

My Top Ten Favorite Batman Stories.

Well, after one hundred posts, I think I am going to finally tackle the big one: my ten favorite Batman stories. As you might imagine if you've read, well, most of the things I've written on here, I have  read a lot of Batman stories, so narrowing it down to ten was hard. The main criteria for this list was that all of these stories had to feature Bruce Wayne as Batman, and that the story was a story about Batman, not one where he was incidental, or part of a team (unless you consider the Batman family of characters a team. In this case, I view them as supporting cast). As with my previous top ten, I again point out that these are my favorite stories, not necessarily the best, just the ones I like most. I am also going to list them in order of publication, since ranking them might just make my head explode.

The Joker's Five Way Revenge (Batman #251)
Story: Denny O'Neil
Art: Neal Adams

The Joker's Five Way Revenge is a perfect single issue. This is the story that redefined the Joker for the modern age, moving him away from the Cesar Romero era and into the truly scary killer that he was when first introduced and he has been ever since. The story is simple: last time he was out, one of Joker's henchmen sold him out to the cops, so now the Joker has decided the easiest way to get even was to kill them all, since that way he's bound to kill the traitor. Batman is in a race against time to save the Joker's proposed victims, and frankly many of them don't want his help. While there were other O'Neil/Adam stories before this one, earlier tale that helped return the dark to the Dark Knight, this is the story that really gels everything for me. Batman is a detective, a hero, and is at war with his opposite number in a game that mixes skill and cunning. This is the story that all future Batman/Joker battles are measured against, and stories like The Laughing Fish and The Killing Joke would never have worked without this one to pave the way.

Batman: Year One (Batman #404-407)
Story: Frank Miller
Art: David Mazzucchelli

This one sort of stretched the criteria of this being a BATMAN story, and not a Gotham City story, as most of this classic is narrated by Jim Gordon, redefined for a new era as a tough as nails, honest cop, and not just the guy who turns on the Bat Signal. But in the end, this story is about the friendship between the two men, about its roots, and about what made Bruce Wayne into Batman. It takes the bits and pieces of the origin as it is known and pulls them together into a cohesive whole. This is the beginning of the Batman that was the staple of the DCU until the New 52, and because of the strength of this story and many that came after, he is one of the characters changed the least. This story influenced Batman Begins in a lot of its visuals, and it features the most Batman scene ever, in which Batman makes his way onto the grounds of a mansion where Gotham's corrupt elite is dining, and he makes it clear to them that their reign over the city is over. It's a scene that sends chills down my spine to this day.

Gothic (Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #6-10)
Story: Grant Morrison
Art: Klaus Janson

While not Grant Morrison's first Batman story (that honor is reserved for Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth), and of course far from his last, as his five year run plus years of JLA stories attest, this one is quite possibly my favorite. A killer called Mr. Whisper is murdering mob bosses throughout Gotham, and Batman is dragged into the case, a case that winds going down all sorts of eerie and fascinating paths. By the end we have seen the intricate plot also pulls in an ancient Faustian pact between a mad monk and the devil, a mob murder decades earlier, and a hidden part of Bruce Wayne's past. When these issues first came out, when I was ten or eleven, I remember pouring over them, analyzing every page for clues, scribbling notes as I tried to figure out the mystery,having no idea that in not too many years, people would be doing this on the internet with pretty much everything Morrison writes.

A Clash of Symbols (Detective Comics #617)
Story: Alan Grant
Art: Norm Breyfogle

This is probably the most oddball choice on this list, the one that will leave most people scratching their heads about how it fits with so many classics. Frankly, this one is a sentimental favorite. This issue came out shortly after I started to really read comics, and was the first Batman/Joker story I ever read. It's a great story, no doubt, as Batman hunts the Joker for the first time since he seemingly died in A Death in the Family, and encounters a fortune teller whose tarot card reading brings to mind for Batman an earlier confrontation with the Joker. It's a quick, dynamic story that plays on all the symbolism inherent in the Batman/Joker relationship. It was also my introduction to the stunning work of Norm Breyfogle, one of my favorite Batman artists of all time, and one you haven't seen the last of on this list.

Blades (Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #32-34)
Story: James Robinson
Art: Time Sale

As a young Batman is haunted by the serial killer Mr. Lime, who is targeting senior citizens, a new vigilante enters the Gotham scene. The Cavalier, a name used by an obscure silver age Batman foe, here is a vigilante who is swashbuckling and charming, the opposite of the brooding and haunted Batman. But as the story progresses, Batman solves the mystery of Mr. Lime and moves out of the shadow that has haunted him, and the Cavalier makes continually dangerous choices that lead him down a path that he cannot be redeemed from. A story from Starman writer James Robinson, who uses his deft hand at character to make you really care about the Cavalier and his head for a good mystery to make the Mr. Lime plot work, and the first Batman art from Tim Sale, an artist who was born to draw Batman, this is a lost gem. It has been collected a couple of times, most recently in the Tales of the Dark Knight: Tim Sale hardcover. It also taught a fledgling mystery lover an important lesson: when looking at a mystery, look for the thing that doesn't fit the pattern. That's a lesson that has served me well over my many years reading Batman stories and mysteries in general, and if you keep it in mind when reading the story, it might just help you solve the case before Batman.

The Last Arkham (Batman: Shadow of the Bat #1-4)
Story: Alan Grant
Art: Norm Breyfogle

Grant and Breyfogle are one of the great unsung teams of Batman creators (up there with Chuck Dixon & Graham Nolan, who worked on Detective Comics is the same era as these early Shadow of the Bat issues came out), and even with all their great stories, The Last Arkham is my favorite. The story opens with Jeremiah Arkham, nephew of the Asylum founder, rebuilding Arkham into a state of the art facility, and getting a new inmate: Batman. The story is a tight psychological thriller, something Grant specialized in, as Arkham tries to break Batman while he does what he got himself committed to do: try to figure out how one of Arkham's inmates is escaping to kill and slipping back in. That inmate? Mr. Zsasz, making his debut in this story. Grant's Zsasz is a creepy, brilliant villain who has a twisted psychological edge, and has rarely been captured right by other writers since. The story is all about madness, and the walls we put up to keep it out, or the way we give in to it, with Batman, Zsasz, and Arkham each existing on a different part of that continuum, and one slipping closer to its edge.

Knightfall (Batman #491-500, Detective Comics #659-666, Showcase '93 #7-8, Batman:Shadow of the Bat #16-18)
Story: Doug Moench, Chuck Dixon, Alan Grant
Art: Norm Breyfogle, Jim Aparo, Graham Nolan, Klaus Janson, Bret Blevins

The 90s were a hard time for a lot of comics, with events bleeding into other events, rampant speculation, and comics that were shocking for shock's sake (that doesn't sound at all like the present...). But I have to admit, I think Knightfall stands the test of time pretty well. Bane is a great villain, one who stands up well against Batman, and the basic plot, that Batman has to recapture all his rogues, all the while fighting back a rising tide of exhaustion, is a classic hero's trial. And because he's Batman, he doesn't quit, he fights, even as it costs him more and more. The breaking of the Bat is a sequence that still resonates, seeing Batman lying broken in the Batcave was a scene that left me shocked. Even then I knew it wasn't permanent, but I was still shocked they did it. The story itself ends with the somewhat insane Azrael in the Batman costume, and the continuing epic affirms that Batman is a hero who doesn't kill, one who is a hero, as Bruce Wayne returns to once more take up the mantle of the Bat.

The Long Halloween (Batman: The Long Halloween #1-13)
Story: Jeph Loeb
Art: Tim Sale

Jeph Loeb gets a lot of flack nowadays, and a lot of it is deserved, but in the late 90s, he was moving from strength to strength, and he was never stronger than with The Long Halloween. Set shortly after the events of Year One, someone is killing mobsters (apparently, being a Gotham mobster is even more dangerous a profession than it is elsewhere) on holidays, and Batman is trying to stop the bloodshed. The story is really about the relationship between Batman, Jim Gordon, and Harvey Dent, and while watching Batman fight many of his greatest foes, getting a great mystery, and developing the Gotham mob families are all excellent points of the story, the highlight is watching Harvey Dent's descent into madness (granted, a lot of that was originally presented in the Two-Face origin from the excellent Batman Annual #14, but it's integrated seamlessly here). Sale's Batman, Joker, and Two-Face are all stunning, and this whole series is a visual feast, with allusions to The Godfather throughout. While part of the mystery is deduced easily, I admit the story doesn't play fair, as the final twist isn't telegraphed well enough in my opinion, but one flaw doesn't invalidate all the other strengths in this story.

No Man's Land (All Batman titles published in 1999)
Story: Various, including Greg Rucka, Denny O'Neil, Bob Gale, Devin Grayson, Chuck Dixon
Art: Various, including Dale Eaglesham, Alex Maleev, Damion Scott, Mike Deodata

No Man's Land was an ambitious story in scope. After an earthquake devastates much of Gotham, the federal government decides to cut its losses and abandon Gotham. The citizens who choose not to leave are left in a city now ruled by feudal lords made up of criminals who carve the city into petty fiefdoms. And Batman is nowhere in sight. But after three months, Batman returns and begins systematically taking the city back. As the series progresses, we see Batman fight most of his great foes and have to make peace with the allies he has abandoned, ignored, or been cold towards. This story felt to me like it was supposed to be the culmination of the Batman who was impersonal and cold, and moving towards a Batman who knew he needed people, but this development seemed to end shortly thereafter. It also introduced Harley Quinn into the DCU and featured the debut of Cassandra Cain, the new Batgirl. The story was riveting, with twists and turns, and a great final villain reveal and the Joker at his most insane. The entire epic has recently been collected in four giant trades, so it's never been easier to read it all.

Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? (Batman #686, Detective Comics #853)
Story: Neil Gaiman
Art: Andy Kubert

I almost left this off since I had just written a recommended reading for it, but I figured that this way I'd get to show the beautiful Alex Ross variant for the first issue and get to talk a little more. Neil Gaiman and Batman are an irresistible combo for me, and this "Last Batman Story" is a perfect synergy of the two. You get a story that digs into the center of Batman, of who he is and what it means to be Batman. Gaiman explores all facets of the character, and Kubert draws them beautifully. If you want to read more about this, check out the recommended reading from a few days ago, March 22nd.

I know that the minute I post this, I'm going to have another story or ten pop into my head that I should have written about, so I wouldn't be surprised if I made a post with another ten stories in the not too distant future. But as a question to you, readers, would you want to see a continuation with more classic Batman stories? Or would you want to see top tens dedicated to Batman's supporting cast and villains, like the top ten Joker, Dick Grayson, James Gordon stories? Sound off in the comments.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 3/20

Five Ghosts: The Haunting of Fabian Gray #1
Story: Frank J. Barbiere
Art: Chris Mooneyham

I love comics and movies influenced by pulps, that sort of story that is full of action and character, with a crime of supernatural edge. The high concept of Image's new series, Five Ghosts: The Haunting of Fabian Gray is that an Indiana Jones-esque treasure hunter has acquired the abilities of five literary characters: the detective, the archer, the wizard, the samurai, and the vampire. However, it seems that these powers are killing him. We see Fabian use his powers on one of his hunts (although it seems like he's as much a thief as he is a treasure hunter), and then bed his client. He is also on a quest to find a mystical artifact that he is hoping will awaken his sister from a mystically induced coma. The details are a bit sketchy, but it's only one issue in, so frankly we got more story than we do in a lot of issue ones.There's some great set up of a cult or evil society chasing after Fabian, and in the end Fabian and a man I assume is his brother-in-law, or at least his sister's significant other, run afoul of a tribe that may or may not have the stone they seek. It's a lot of classic pulp and serial tropes tossed together that work really well. The characters grab you right away, and you see there's more to Fabian than meets the eye. The art fits the book perfectly, with the grit that suits the period. Like a lot of pulp influenced stories, the series is set in the 40s, and seems to thoroughly researched. This is a very impressive first issue, and sets up a series that has a ton of potential.

Justice League #18
Story: Geoff Johns
Art: Jesus Saiz/ Gary Frank

While I have found Justice League a bit hit or miss since the New 52 began, the issues starting with "Throne of Atlantis" have been firing on all cylinders, and while this issue seemed like it was going to be a downtime sort of issue, we got a good amount of forward momentum, as well as expanding the team and really meeting the New 52 versions of some characters we either haven't seen or have gotten very little exposure to. After needing to call in the reserves during the attack by Atlantis, the League decides it's time to find some full time members. The most interesting of these characters is the New 52 Atom, a completely new character. While hints of Ryan Choi had been dropped, and Ray Palmer was a recurring character on the late, lamented Frankenstein Agent of SHADE series, it seems this Atom is Rhonda Pineda, a student at Ivy University, the school that both Palmer and Choi have been associated with, so it's possible her background will tie in more with them. I want to see more of this character, and how she is going to fit in with the new team. I also enjoyed seeing a completely new character, Goldrush. I've found a distinct lack of brand new characters in the New 52, so any chance to expand and try new things is welcomed by me. Johns ends the issue with something a mystery and cliffhanger, moving the series towards the upcoming Trinity War. I was also excited to see the art for this issue by the dramatically under-rated Jesus Saiz, who has been flying under the radar for too many years. I hope this issue raises his profile enough to get him on a major book soon. The Shazam back up story, which has been the highlight of the series for much of its run (which is not a slight at the main story. The back up is just that good), continues as well, setting up Billy's final confrontation with Black Adam and the Seven Sins. I like how Billy has grown from the seeming brat he was at the start into someone who clearly wants to do what's right but has baggage that is making it hard, and I like the further development of the other kids staying at the foster home with Billy. Artist Gary Frank also wins the award for creepiest designs of the week for the personifications of the Seven Deadly Sins. Those are some creepy monsters.

Saga #11
Story: Brian K Vaughan
Art: Fiona Staples

Every issue of Saga is a gift, a perfect comic. Picking up right after the events of last issue, we watch as Alana, Marko, Hazel and the rest of our protagonists flee the birth of the giant space creature, while The Will tries to keep his own ship together. We get very little of The Will and his crew, though, as this issue really focuses on Marko and his father, as Barr meets the end that he has been expecting for the past few issues. The really incredible scene is Marko's flashback to a memory of his father. The entire sequence is in their native language, so none of it was decipherable to me, but the art perfectly conveyed the story and the emotion of Marko's fond remembrance of a parent now lost. Vaughan finds a way to pack so much emotion into one issue, and Staples makes it so real; it's that kind of synergy that makes this medium work as well as it does. On the other end of the spectrum, the opening scene, the flashback to Alan and Marko's more... intimate moment before the birth of their daughter, is hilarious. It's bawdy and so real in how awkward it is. And even with all this personal stuff going on, Vaughan finds a way to mix in some new sci-fi/fantasy aspects to the story that continue to build the world. If every comic was half as good as Saga, the industry would be a wonderland of amazing work.

Star Wars: Legacy Vol.2 #1
Story: Corinna Bechko & Gabriel Hardman
Art: Gabriel Hardman

It's great to be back in the future of the Galaxy Far, Far Away. As excited as I was for new Star Wars: Legacy, I admit the lack of John Ostrander and Jan Duuresema had me a little nervous. Fortunately, new creators Corinna Cechko and Gabriel Hardman brought their A-game on this first issue. We're thrust right into a universe where the clean up from the last war is under way and the fallout from the Sith War is not entirely done. While it was nice to see the ruling triumvirate again, Empress Fel, Admiral Staazi, and Master K'Krukh are the only characters to return from the old series, and that's good; having a lot of teases of the old series would just make people expect to see all those characters again, while this feels like more of a fresh start. Ania Solo, the descendant of Han and Leia on what I assume is their son Jacen's side (versus on their daughter Jaina's side, who are the Fel dynasty), is our new hero, and takes after her great grandfather, Han. While Cade Skywalker was on the fringe of things, running away from his past as a Jedi Padawan and the loss of his father, it seems Ania has been living on the fringe for her whole life, is used to it, and is looking for a way to get out of it. She's tough, savvy, and smart, just like all the best Star Wars heroines. By the end of the issue, we have met Ania, her friend/sidekick Sauk, a Mon Calamari (Admiral Ackbar's people) engineer, an Imperial Knight imprisoned, and a Sith with an agenda of his own. All the pieces are in place for an exciting Star Wars series, familiar and still with some interesting new twists.

By the way, this is my 100th post, which is pretty exciting, and I'm hoping to do something midweek for post 101 that will celebrate hitting the milestone. Stay tuned!

Friday, March 22, 2013

Recommended Reading for 3/22: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?

There's next to nothing in comics that gets me more excited than new work from Neil Gaiman. And possibly the most excited I've ever been about new work from Neil Gaiman was when it was announced that he would be writing a two-part Batman story to sort of bridge the gap between the end of the old era of Grant Morrison's run and the new "Batman Reborn" era. Titled "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader," and written with one part in Batman #686 and one in Detective Comics #853, it was the spiritual successor to the legendary last Superman story by Alan Moore, "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow," (aside: the titles both hearken back to a series of back up stories from the 70s that revealed the fates of Golden Age heroes) but this story was something very different from Moore's action packed and still emotional Superman story. This was a Gaiman story through and through, touching on one of the chief themes of author's work: the nature and power of stories.

The plot of the story is a simple one, a riff of sorts on the classic Canterbury Tales model. In the back room of an inn in Gotham City, a group of people have gathered to mourn the loss of Batman, telling the tale of how he died. Quickly, though, we realize that each story is different, completely different, and many are derivative (Catwoman's story, for instance, is really the death of Robin Hood). All along, the spirit of Batman is watching, talking to an unseen female figure. At the end, as Batman walks into the light, he finds the female figure is the spirit of his mother, Martha Wayne, who tells him he will be going back to relive his life as Batman, something he has done many times before and do forever, because Batman never gives up. After saying goodbye to all the things that make him Batman, he is reborn, being able to live those few peaceful, happy years before the bullets of Joe Chill change his life forever.

So, that's the entire story right there. We're done right? You're now going to all go out and read it. Oh, I guess you need a little more. This is a story that grows in the telling. The plot is simple enough, but it's how it's told that makes it spectacular. One the art side of things, each of the stories is done in a slightly different style, each evoking a different era of Batman story. Andy Kubert does a spectacular job evoking classic Jerry Robinson, Neal Adams, Bob Kane, and pieces in his own style. The panels are littered with cameos by every possible Batman character from every possible era. It's a treasure trove for the Batman fan, placing each of the characters.

The thing that makes this more than just a simple story of Batman seeing his own funeral, or another alternate reality, or Elseworlds as DC called them, tale is Gaiman's writing, and the message underlying the story itself. Gaiman is a storyteller fascinated by stories. Sandman is really as much about the power of stories as it is about anything, and one of its arcs, "World's End," is also an homage to The Canterbury Tales. His novel Anansi Boys ends with their protagonists telling a story to stop his foe and to affirm reality. Stories have power, and a story believed is a story that is true on some level. Gaiman is saying that every interpretation of Batman is as valid as another, something similar to what Grant Morrison has been doing in his run, saying that every Batman story has happened on a continuum.

The different villains and heroes who go up and eulogize Batman are all telling something about the character: something about his nobility, about his heroism, about his inability to give in. Even the saddest, possibly darkest, from and Alfred who had hired actors to pretend to be the villains a broken and Bruce Wayne fought to allow him to play at being Batman, ends with that Batman performing a true act of heroism against one of the "villains" who has come to believe in his part a little too much. Bruce Wayne is destined to be Batman, no matter what.

In the end, Batman's conversation with his mother affirms all of this. He is told the reward for being Batman, for doing that good, is to be Batman. The mind that has never given up will never allow him to rest, but will always assure he is reborn as another Batman, another version of his life to be lived as the hero. As someone who believes that Batman is a true hero, someone who does for others and who will never rest until it can not happen to anyone else, loves this interpretation, loves that Batman will always be out there. Yes there is a sadness to it, knowing he will never rest, but he's Batman! He wouldn't want to rest, not until everyone was safe.

The final pages of the second issue are one final literary homage, this time to the children's classic Good Night, Moon, with Batman closing up his life, and to paraphrase Gaiman, putting the chairs up on the tables and turning off the lights on his way out. He says good night to his friends and to his enemies, to the cave, the car, and everything else, before there is darkness, only broken by the Bat Signal, and then more light, and then the light becomes a person's face, his mother greeting the newborn Bruce. The cycle begins again at the end, bringing a new Batman into the world.

This wasn't the story everyone expected. This wasn't a great final battle between Batman and the Joker, or him saving the world one last time from Ra's al Ghul's machinations. We have Dark Knight Returns or Dark Knight Rises for those stories. This is instead a story of theme, about what it means to be a hero, to be Batman. It's smart, lyrical, and pitch perfect. If there was ever a true last batman story, this is it. I'm just glad that the cycle always begins again, and we'll never have to have that last Batman story.

Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? has been collected, along with a few other short Batman pieces by Neil Gaiman in one trade paperback that is available at your local comic book shop.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 3/13

Batman #18
Story: Scott Snyder/ Scott Snyder & James Tynion IV
Art: Andy Kubert/ Alex Maleev

One of the two issues this week to deal with Batman's reaction to the death of Robin, this one is told through the lens of supporting character Harper Row, created at the beginning of Scott Snyder's run, and the star of Batman #12 as well. This, like the previous Harper Row issue, is a character piece, really focusing on Harper and her desire to help Batman, and to help all of Gotham. Harper sees the spiral Batman is going down, one similar to the one he went down after the death of Jason Todd, and she steps up to help him, to try to snap him out of it. It's actually pretty similar to the way Tim Drake was introduced, with one exception: Harper doesn't care who Batman is under the mask. She cares about what he means to Gotham. This seems to be one of the central themes that Snyder has been playing with since his run on Batman began: what Batman means to Gotham. It started with the first line of his first issue, asking what is Gotham to its people. There is a well done action sequence as well, with Batman fighting a group of Venom enhanced fighting dogs, and Harper proving herself to be capable of taking care of herself in the field with enough preparation. But what's really important are the character moments. The moments Harper spends with her brother, with their wonderfully written familial bond; the first time Batman confronts Harper in the issue, where he breaks her nose and tells her to leave him alone; the moment when Harper meets Bruce Wayne, and tells him the things he wouldn't listen to as Batman; and the moment when Batman actually apologizes to Harper (has Batman EVER apologized to anyone else?) and listens to her. We also get more about Harper's background, learning her father is a con now in Blackgate, and captured by Batman, and her mother was the victim of a high profile murder some years earlier. I wonder if that will play into Snyder's upcoming "Year Zero" story. The final page can either be read as Batman standing and looking at the giant R, feeling the weight of his loss and maybe coming to terms with it, or the hint that Harper will, indeed, be the next Robin. I'm not willing to way in on this yet, but one way or the other, I'm expecting more Harper Row and looking forward to it.

Batman and Robin #18
Story: Peter J. Tomasi
Art: Pat Gleason

The silent issue has been done quite often since the legendary Snake Eyes issue of G.I. Joe, which might not have been the first, but is probably the best known, and they sometimes work, and sometimes fall very flat. This issue is one of the amazing successes. The issue, the final of the series to be titles Batman and Robin for now, shows Batman, Alfred, and Titus (Damian's dog), and how they are dealing with the death of Damian. Alfred is sad, and seems to be going about his duty haunted by the loss of his young master. Batman, little surprise here, is angry, full of rage, and is taking it out on the criminals of Gotham. The action pages show him cutting a swath through the criminal underbelly of Gotham, leaving the bodies of a legion of criminals tied up and waiting for the Gotham police. The ending was a truly devastating moment, as Batman finds the note left behind by Damian before he left to meet his fate. The note is the only written words in the comic, and reading it sets Batman off in a new fit, smashing the case holding the costume of Damian, and finally collapsing, clutching his son's costume in his arms. I know there are some who believe Batman is this cold, emotionless robot of a man, but I have always believed he is driven by his emotions; rage, sadness, and a sense of compassion that runs deeper than either. I think his collapse at the end is perfectly in character, and it fits perfectly to see them take over as he mourns the death of his son.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Recommended Reading for 3/15: Runaways

Ever since Peter Parker donned that blue and red costume of his and went web slinging, teen angst has been part of superheroics. There are all sorts of critical theories that say that superheroics are at their core adolescent power fantasies (I can see that, but I feel the core of superheroes is the idea of a more fair world, but that's for another day). And when you're a teenager, your parents are evil, and you just want to tell them to shove it and go live with a bunch of other kids. We usually don't do that. But what if we did? And what if our parents really were evil? That's the story premise that starts off Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona's Runaways, published by Marvel Comics .

Runaways had an uphill battle when it was introduced. It was part of Marvel's short lived "Tsunami" line, dedicated to bringing a more manga vibe to Marvel comics in its art, and appealing to a hip, young audience. It featured a diverse cast, varied in race, age, species, and sexual orientation. And all of these characters were new, with no ties to the mainstream Marvel Universe. New characters are a very hard sell in the comic market today, and arguments over how diverse casts affect a book are still ongoing. And while Runaways was never a breakout sales sensation, it had a respectable run that never wavered in its quality, even after the original creators left.

Runaways opens with a group of teenagers, not friends but acquaintances, forced to hang out together as their parents get together for an annual charity meeting. The kids eventually sneak out of the area of the house they're supposed to stay in and find that their parents are performing the blood sacrifice of a teenage girl. Their parents are not the mildmannered families they seem, but are instead The Pride, the crime family that controls Los Angeles. The six children of The Pride, each with special skills and abilities derived from their parents, decide that what they need to do is stop their parents, setting up a classic parent vs. child dynamic.

The initial arc of the series has the kids learning exactly who and what their parents are, and finding out the legacies left them. Each member of The Pride, and thus each Runaway, comes from a typical sci-fi/comic book archetypal history. Alex Wilder, video gamer and bright kid, leader of the team, is a brilliant strategist, able to analyze situations and come up with quick plans to work for the benefit of his team. Nico Manaru, Goth but warm hearted, is a sorceress who wields the Staff of One, a magical implement that requires blood to activate, and can do anything its wielder wishes once. Gert Yorkes, tough and acerbic attitude hiding a sensitive side, has parents who were time travelers, and left a genetically altered Deinonychus with a psychic link to her as her protector, that she named Old Lace (who wouldn't want a dinosaur for a pet?). Karolina Dean, pretty miss popular who is hiding deep scars and issues, is a Majesdanian, an alien with energy and light controlling powers. Chase Stein's parents were mad scientists, with brilliant technological creations; Chase comes off as a jock, but turns out to be an able mechanic, and inherited a pair of powerful combat gauntlets, and the Leap Frog, a frog shaped transport. Molly Hayes, the youngest of the team, full of wonder and spunk, is a mutant with heightened strength and partial invulnerability, although using her power tends to leave her exhausted.

The initial team from right to left:
(front)Nico, Molly, Gert,
(2nd row) Karolina, Alex, Chase,
(back) Old Lace
The first volume of Runaways, eighteen issues, was one big arc dealing with the kids and their conflict with The Pride. What the reader knows, that the kids do not, is that one of them is feeding information to their parents. Over the course of that story, they prove a thorn in their parents' side, are framed for the death of the girl The Pride sacrificed, run into a vampire, fight and team up with Cloak & Dagger in classic superhero fashion, and then head out to finally confront The Pride. The stories are strongly character driven, painting each of the kids as fully realized characters after only a couple issues. In a time of decompression, this series crammed as much as they could into each issue. Karolina struggles with depression and feelings of suicide, Chase and Gert begin to grow close, despite being two people who seem to have nothing in common, Molly's sweet naivete is charming, Nico becomes a den mother, and Alex plots and plans, and tries to keep the team moving forward. They are all tremendously likable characters, interesting to read about, and you find yourself unable to picture any of them turning out to be a traitor loyal to their parents until the big reveal.
At the end of the fist volume, the kids, having learned about the Gibborim, the extrademinsional being their parents serve, and their plan to wipe out all life on Earth with the aid of The Pride, go to stop the ritual that will empower the Gibborim. They learn that The Pride had been promised six people could be saved from worldwide annihilation, and had each had a child so they could be the ones saved. But being a group of villains, different factions within The Pride had plans to save themselves and their kids and leave the others to die. As the kids make their move, the traitor is revealed: Alex, leader and most confident member, has been supplying his parents with knowledge of what the kids have been doing. He asks Nico to join him and his parents in safety, but she refuses, and the remaining Runaways are able to stop the ritual. Alex and the adults die, and the kids escape. After going with social services, they decide they are better off on their own, and once more become Runaways.
The second volume of Runaways began with a dying  Gert from the future, telling the kids that they have to find and stop Victor Mancha, a boy who will grow up to become the greatest threat that mankind has ever faced. Victor, it is revealed, is the cyborg creation of Ultron, making him the "son" of the Avengers villain, who was designed to be his infiltrator and secret weapon against the Avengers. But Victor doesn't want to, and the Runaways, instead of destroying/killing him, they take him in. He's the son of a supervillain who wants to be better, just like they are, and his energy powers and genius intellect make him a strong addition to the team.
Runaways volume one was about dealing with parents, while volume two is about establishing your own identity and making your own way in the world. Choosing to trust no adult, not even the adult version of one of their own, is part of the Runaways mission; they want to live in a world without the rules of adults. Karolina, haunted by her feelings of inadequacy and her own sexual identity, finds love with Xavin, a Skrull she was betrothed to by her parents, who chooses to take a prime female form so that Karolina, who is gay, can feel comfortable loving Xavin as much as Xavin does her. Gert and Chase try to have a normal relationship, despite not living in a normal world. Molly is nearly taken by the X-Men to go to Xavier's School, but stays with her friends (when the Runaways eventually meet the Avengers, she punches Wolverine through a wall. Love that Molly). But when a time displaced Geoffrey Wilder, father of Alex, tries to form a new Pride to resurrect his wife and son, the team is once more drawn into conflict with their pasts, and another of the young heroes, Gert (my favorite all along) doesn't make it out alive. The kids having lost another friend, must do what is probably the most adult thing anyone has to: come to terms with the death of a loved one. Chase has the hardest time, trying to trade himself to the Gibborim in exchange for them resurrecting Gert, but his plan falls apart, and nearly costs Nico her life. The kids come together once more at the end of this story, the final by creator Brian K. Vaughan, and are forced to flee L.A. to escape Iron Man in his post-Civil War position as top cop of the Marvel Universe.
The final arc of the second volume of Runaways was written by Joss Whedon, legendary creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and eventual director of a little movie called The Avengers. It was a fun time travel story, where the team goes back to New York in 1907, pick up a new team member, Klara, who can control plant life, and run into the Yorkes, Gert's time travelling parents. The story was plagued by delays, a common occurrence when dealing with writers from Hollywood (I'm looking at you Whedon, Allan Heinberg, Kevin Smith, Damon Lindelof, et. al.), and the loss of momentum caused a sputter in the series rising sales. The final volume so far of Runaways started out with arcs by Terry Moore and Hunberto Ramos, and wrapped with a final arc by Kathryn Immonen and Sara Pichelli, and while the stories were still great coming of age superhero stories, the sales were at a point where the powers that be could not keep publishing the book and it was placed on indefinite hiatus, a nice way to say cancelled.
Eventually, the Runaways started popping up again, first in an arc of Daken: Dark Wolverine, and then in Avengers Academy. Currently, Nico and Chase are in Avengers: Arena, the Hunger Games-as-hosted-by-Arcade Marvel Now! launch. Victor will actually be starring in an upcoming on-shot tying into Age of Ultron, which makes perfect sense being the son of Ultron. I'm hoping this raised profile will see an eventual return of the Runaways as a series, as there's a ton of potential, not to mention dangling plot threads, from the previous volumes.
Runaways is a title that I feel is a great gateway comic for people who think all mainstream comics are just Batman beating on the Joker for twenty or so pages. While light on connections to the rest of the Marvel Universe, the book clearly had both feet planted in the shared universe. Character heavy, and filled with distinct characters, its a great superhero book for people used to reading the other works by creator Brian K. Vaughan like Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina, and his current hit, Saga, or Strangers in Paradise, from later series writer Terry Moore. Anyone who enjoyed teen fantasy like Harry Potter or Buffy might also be a good bet to introduce to comics through Runaways, since we're looking at the same, "Magic/horror is a metaphor for growing up," themes, but presented in a superhero light.

Due to Marvel's confusing trade/hardcover program, I am unsure which volumes of Runaways, if any, are currently in print. But all three volumes, along with the team up mini-series between the Runaways and the Young Avengers that tied into Civil War and Secret Invasion,  have been collected in various forms, be it digest, standard trade, or deluxe hardcover, and they can be found at many comic stores. Hopefully, with the characters starting to appear again, and some rumblings of a big screen adaptation, we might see them all in print again in the not too distant future.


Thursday, March 14, 2013

Animated Discussions: Young Justice

In the 90s, Bruce Timm and his collaborators redefined not just DC animation, but superhero animation in general with the work they did in Batman: The Animated Series and its successors, Superman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, and Justice League/Justice League Unlimited. There have been some other great superhero cartoons since, both from DC and Marvel, but nothing that ever approached both the complexity of plot and character and the outstanding animation. That is until Young Justice debuted on Cartoon Network on Thanksgiving two years ago. With the series finale this weekend, I thought I'd look back at this series, and talk about what made it so great.

To start with, let's talk about the comic that loosely inspired the series. By 1998, the New Teen Titans (or New Titans at that juncture) comic that had once been DC's number one seller had seen better days. After its cancellation, DC decided they needed a teen superteam book, but the Titans name was toxic, so they took three of their teen heroes, each who were headlining their own comics, Robin (Tim Drake), Superboy, and Impluse, and put them together with the recently introduced new Wonder Girl and a new character, Secret, to for a new team, unofficially called Young Justice. Over the run of the book, new characters joined, including Arrowette, a young female archer, and Empress, a mystical character, as well as mentors including Red Tornado, Snapper Carr, and The Ray. The series ran fifty five issues, along with various one shots, tie ins, and a really fun fifth week event called "Sins of Youth" where the teen heroes were aged to adults, and their mentors were de-aged to teens. The majority of the issues were written by Peter David, who brought his usual sense of zany humor and strong characterization, and had great art from Todd Nauck. After five years and a relaunch of the classic book as just Titans featuring the original team as grow-ups, DC decided it was time to go back to the original name, cancelled both Young Justice and Titans, and launched the new Teen Titans series by then up and comer Geoff Johns.

The series premiere of the animated series was designed to draw clear parallels with the first appearance of the comic team, which took place in the one shot Young Justice: The Secret. In the comic, Robin, Superboy, and Impulse liberate a mysterious young woman with powers called only Secret from a government lab. The debut of the animated series saw the sidekicks, wanting to prove themselves to their mentors, invading Cadmus Labs and freeing Superboy, the clone of Superman, from his creators.

These sidekicks, though, are not the same characters from the comic. The Robin of the animated series is Dick Grayson, the original Robin, the youngest but most experienced member of the team, who has something of a chip on his shoulder about this at the beginning. Kid Flash, Wally West, replaces his cousin Impulse as team speedster; Waly has the patience of a speedster, always running off at the mouth and into danger. And the initial team is rounded out by Aqualad, but not Garth, the original sidekick of Aquaman. This Aqualad is a new character, Kaldur'ahm, with powers similar to Aquaman's wife, Mera, who controls water density. Versus the impetuous Kid Flash, and the overconfident Robin, Aqualad provides a voice of reason, and is a natural leader, taking command of The Team (as they are addressed by members of the Justice League). Superboy is recruited after he is freed from Cadmus, but has a hard time adjusting. He's spent his whole life being indoctrinated, doesn't trust anyone, and is prone to fits of rage.

Over the course of the first season of Young Justice, two additional characters were added to The Team. Miss Martian was introduced as Martian Manhunter's niece. She is friendly, warm, but not quite versed in human interactions. Artemis is introduced as Green Arrow's new sidekick after Speedy, his previous one, stormed off in the premiere, feeling he should be granted Justice League membership and not shuffled off to second string status. Artemis is quick witted and immediately begins shooting verbal barbs at Wally as accurate as her arrows. While other young heroes Zatanna, Red Arrow, and Rocket joined in the first season, these six were the principal cast, and the ones most fully developed by the creators.

The Team was assigned by Batman to be the covert ops arm of the Justice League, doing reconnaissance missions and attempting to ferret out a mysterious group that seemed to be manipulating various events to their benefit, and to do it in a way the more powerful and flashier Justice League cannot. But these secret missions reflected one of the core themes of the series: secrets, and the cost that they take on someone.

Throughout the first season, three of the principals each wrestled with a secret, ones that were used by The Light, the coalition of villains that were attempting to take control of Earth's destiny, to control the young heroes: Miss Martian is secretly a White Martian, Artemis is the daughter of supervillain Sportsmaster, and Superboy has been using chemical patches given to him by Lex Luthor to activate his full Kryptonian potential. Each of the heroes wrestles with how to reconcile these things, things that are true about them on a deep level, with who they want to be. This takes the typical issues teenagers have and writes them on a grand scale. In the end, only by trusting each other with their secrets, are the young heroes able to finally best The Light and save their mentors.

The creators of the show took a considerable gamble with the show's second season by jumping forward in time five years, and redubbing the show Young Justice: Invasion. Half of the original team are gone, and new members including Young Justice comic alums Wonder Girl and Tim Drake (now as Robin, since Dick Grayson has become Nightwing) have joined, along with other young heroes like Blue Beetle, Lagoon Boy, and Beast Boy. By the middle of the season, Impulse has appeared as well, and he's a great addition, proving just how patient Kid Flash was in comparison to the even more hyperactive speedster.

The second season dealt with the Light's alliance with a mysterious alien race. It starts out looking like they are at war with another race, the Kroloteans, for control of Earth, but the Krolotean subplot is resolved quickly, leaving The Team to deal with The Light and their allies, The Reach. The Reach, for those of you in the know, are the race that created the Blue Beetle scarab, so Blue Beetle becomes a central figure to this season's arc. The writers do an excellent job of writing Beetle, with Jaime Reyes being the newcomer/everyman figure who is still somewhat flabbergasted by the superhero world, and letting him be surprised by the same things the viewers are.

I don't want to give away too much about the second season, since it's really a big mystery story with tons of twists (heck, talking about The Reach was a pretty major spoiler), but the great pleasure of Young Justice is that I can talk about the characters, ones who are very well wrought, without spoiling too much plot. Another major arc of the season has to do with Miss Martian's expanding powers, and her use (and abuse) of them. This has driven a wedge in between her and Superboy, who were a couple in the first season. The abuse of power is a common theme in superhero comics, and it's explored really well in Miss Martian's story, as she has to learn that the ends don't always justify the means.

I also have to say that one of the great things about this show, and something that neither Justice League or Teen Titans were able to do due to licences, is to have The Team interact regularly with the Justice League, and even with members of the Justice Society a couple times. This not only gives the universe of the show a much more lived in feel, but it opens up avenues of plot that wouldn't be available otherwise. Seeing Robin interact with Batman, and how different that is than how he interacts with his teammates, makes him a more well rounded character. With Aquaman around, you can really open Atlantis up for plotlines. And Superboy's issues with being a clone of Superman are made more interesting by allowing him to interact with Superman.

This also means that a full slate of DC Universe villains are available. Not only is Deathstroke, enemy of Titans and pretty much all young heroes, able to appear, but The Light can include The Brain (Teen Titans), Lex Luthor (Superman), Ra's al Ghul (Batman), Vandal Savage (Flash), Queen Bee (Justice League), Black Manta (Aquaman), and Klarion (Etrigan the Demon). There can be an Injustice League with the Joker (voiced creepily by Brent Spiner) and hints of Intergang and the New Gods. Part of me would have loved a Justice League series set in the same world with the same sort of interconnectivity.

The thing that has made Young Justice as good a show as it is, aside from its stellar animation, is its strong writing. The plots never spoke down to their audience, and were intricate. Events that happened at the beginning of a season would pay off at the end. Some episodes were written by Peter David, including an intense Halloween episode featuring Secret and her evil brother, Harm, and the episode that introduced Impulse. I chalk a lot of this up to the fact that one of the show runners was Greg Weisman. Weisman is probably best known as creator of Gargoyles, probably my second favorite cartoon series of all time, right behind Batman: The Animated Series. Someday, I'll probably write something up on Gargoyles, as there have been a couple tie-in comics. Weisman's work is known for its intellect and its maturity, and, in my opinion, the fact that it ends prematurely. He's like the Bryan Fuller of the animated world (he was also exec producer on the under appreciated Spectacular Spider-Man series, also cancelled prematurely after two seasons).

And this weekend, it comes to an end. I know there's been a lot of fan uproar, with petitions and letter writing campaigns, and that's great, and it shows how many people loved the show, but the reason the show ended wasn't because no one liked it: it was because of money. The toy line for the series, the bread and butter for animation targeted at younger audiences, as a failure, and that is the death knell for shows like this. So, I plan on buying the most recent DVD set this Saturday on Amazon during the series finale. If anyone out there who is reading this loves Young Justice too, think about doing that. If the news of the past day or so about Veronica Mars (another show I loved) proves anything, it's that studios listen when there's money involved. And believe me, if you like DC Comics, teen heroes, or good animation, this is a show well worth trying out.

The entirety of the first season of Young Justice is available on DVD in two sets: Young Justice: Season One Volumes 1,2,& 3 (these were originally released as three single disks, now collected), and Young Justice: Dangerous Secrets. The first half of season two is also available as Young Justice: Invasion- Destiny Calling. There was also a tie-in comic, which I have reviewed in the past, written mostly by writers connected with the show. Currently there are three volumes available, with a fourth and final one due out later this year.


Monday, March 11, 2013

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 3/5

Detective Comics #18
Story: John Layman
Art: Jason Fabok/ Henrik Jonnson

Since John Layman took over Detective Comics, it has quickly risen to be one of the best Bat family titles on the stands, probably second only to Batman itself. After a brief diversion into "Death of the Family," despite using the crossover to forward some of the plot threads already established in the book, this issue returns the Emperor Penguin story to center stage. Having been released after his abduction by Joker, Penguin finds that his major domo, Ignatius Ogilvy, has taken over his empire and has styled himself Emperor Penguin. Layman has done a great job of really developing Penguin, a character who appeared as nothing more than a plot device for much of the early New 52. You almost feel sympathy for him when you see how Ogilvy has destroyed much of what he has tried to do to benefit Gotham, even if it was for his own self-aggrandizement. Meanwhile, Batman is hunting Zsasz, the homicidal slasher, who escaped Arkham during Joker's reign of terror. Zsasz is a favorite villain of mine, (his earliest appearance in Alan Grant's "The Last Arkham" is an excellent story) but one I feel isn't aways quite gotten right. Layman's take, while not initially as clever as the original Grant version, has the motivation right, the air of madness and belief that all people are mindless zombies that need to be freed of this existence. The backup story features Zsasz, and details his escape from Arkham and what his connection is to Ogilvy, which makes sense of why Zsasz, who tends to work alone, is working with Ogilvy, and ties nicely in with his origin, which has always had ties with Penguin. The issues does also feature a small tie in to the death of Robin, with Bruce visiting Damian's grave, and even tying back to a scene in an earlier issue. Layman has a lot of balls in the air, and keeps the flying nicely. He makes you want to know where Ogilvy's schemes are going, and I'm hoping for some payoff in next issue, the comic that would have been Detective Comics #900 if the renumbering hadn't occurred.

Hellboy in Hell #4
Story & Art: Mike Mignola

This issue concludes the first arc of Hellboy in Hell, and answers some questions about this new world that Hellboy inhabits. I don't think the fact that Hellboy's mysterious guide through Hell is Sir Edward Grey, the Witchfinder, is particularly shocking to anyone versed in the world that Mike Mignola created, but Mignola's tale of how Grey wound up in Hell is excellent. He and Hellboy's discussion about Hellboy's fate and the nature of freedom takes up one of the central themes of the Hellboy series, the question of Hellboy being able to make his own fate. While the mystery of when and how Hellboy killed Satan, and his memory of it, is glossed over, with Grey telling Hellboy some things are better not remembered, I believe there will be more to this down the line. In the end, Hellboy wanders through the abandoned Hell, feeling free, despite the quiet revelation by Grey that his freedom is not exactly what he thinks it is. Mignola's art is as stunning as ever; nobody draws Hellboy like his creator. The reveal of the form that Edward Grey is in sent a shiver down my spine, done in a perfect horror story manner. Mignola's return to writing and drawing Hellboy has just begun, and if you haven't given it a try yet, it's not too late to catch up. Trust me, it's worth it.

Swamp Thing #18
Story: Scott Snyder
Art: Yanick Paquette
Scott Snyder wraps up his run on Swamp Thing with an issue that also wraps up the "Rotworld" event that tied Swamp Thing, Animal Man, and Frankenstein together. While a good portion of the issue is the final battle between Swamp Thing and his archnemesis, the avatar of the Rot, Anton Arcane (or as much of a final battle as any superhero has against his archnemesis, especially one who has a history of cheating death like Arcane does), the highlight of the issue is the emotional side of the story. The farewell between Swamp Thing and his one true love, Abigail Arcane, niece of his nemesis, is stirring and beautifully executed. Snyder has been dealing with issues of choice since his run on the series began, choice and denying or excepting your destiny, and with this issue, both Alec Holland, the Swamp Thing, and Abigail Arcane accept their fate. Swamp Thing finally seems at piece with his place in the world in with The Green, the force of nature and plantlife, and Snyder leaves him in a place of peace that he has not been in for many years. Yanick Paquette returns for this final issue, and his work is at its best. His design for Abigail's new form, as well as his vision of the different incarnations of Arcane are stunning, but it's the beauty of the Swamp Thing's vision at the end, of the Parliament of Trees and his final conversation with Abigail that stir real emotion. The new creative team on this book will have a lot to live up to after a finale as grand as this one.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Recommended Reading for 3/8: Get Fuzzy

While many consider the newspaper comic strip a dying art form, there are still some great strips being published day in and day out. My personal favorite right now is Get Fuzzy written and drawn by Darby Conley. I've always thought of it as Garfield on PCP, where the jokes (and animals) fly fast and loose. It's funny, smart, and occasionally a bit heartwarming.

Get Fuzzy fits the classic set up of many a story: an apartment shared by a man, his dog, and his cat. One of the key differences is that these animals talk. They are very much intelligent... Well, maybe intelligent is the wrong word, but that is more to do with how bright they are than what they can do, but we'll get to that. They are not, however, completely anthropomorphic. You don't see animals going out to work, or of a size with people. Animals still act like animals, only they can talk about it.

Our human protagonist is Rob Wilco. Rob's a nice guy, works in advertising, politically liberal, and the one real thing I have against him is he's *shudder* a Red Sox fan. Hey, I'm from just outside New York. Yankees all the way. He's kind of geek, which redeems him mostly for his lousy taste in sports teams. He plays video games, and loves Star Wars. He's a guy that I'd like to go out and grab a drink with after work. But his life is made far more complicated by his pets.

Satchel Pooch is a Shar-Pei/Labrador Retriever mix, and is by nature very sweet, if kind of completely stupid. Satchel does a lot of the typical dog things, like chasing things and eating everything in sight. But he also helps out the other pets in the building when he can, and sends letters to his parents in Canada. But Satchel's eating often gets him in trouble, as he eats things he's not supposed to, and gets sick, behavior any dog owner understands. He's also pretty gullible, which makes him the ideal victim for the final member of the Get Fuzzy household.

Bucky Katt, named partially for his one buck tooth, is a Siamese, and the cat equivalent of evil incarnate. Lazy, selfish, and violent, Bucky is that cat that everyone who dislikes cats would use as an example of why they do. Bucky's always up to some harebrained scheme or another, usually involving either finding a monkey to eat or getting himself on TV or the movies. Needless to say, he has never achieved either of these goals. I had to choose an action shot of Bucky for the image above just because, while he's often laying down and sleeping, you don't understand the true Bucky unless he's performing some act of terror on his housemates. One of the most amusing traits about Bucky is he honestly believes he is the smartest creature in the apartment, but is clearly wrong, as his "intelligent" speeches are full of malapropism, and his arch conservativeness is really just an additional way to get under the skins of the much more liberal Rob and Satchel.
When I talked about Rob above, I mentioned some of his more geeky tendencies, and one of the great bits about Get Fuzzy is the way it's littered with pop culture references. At one point, Rob's vintage Star Wars action figures are destroyed, and Satchel tries to cobble together new ones from the pieces, creating horrible Frankenstein-esque creations. Bucky and Rob once had a great argument over whether or not Severus Snape of the Harry Potter series was evil or not. And when Rob told staunch Republican Bucky about who his party had selected for their Vice Presidential candidate for 2008, well, I'll let the strip speak for itself.
"Nobody expects the Alaskan politician!" still makes me laugh so hard I almost cry.
I have spent the past day or so attempting to find another favorite strip of mine, one that I feels sums up everything that is great about Get Fuzzy, but to no avail. Bucky attempts to pitch Rob (who he addresses as Ma'am) on the idea of Bucky Katt's Home for Monkeys, where they would be allowed to enjoy days of breaking rocks in the sun, so they would be exhausted and he could eat them. Naturally, Rob sees through the insanity, but it's the fact that Bucky really thinks this completely insane idea could fly that makes the strip sing. The dialogue is so pitch perfect that it doesn't necessarily need the usual format of many comedy strips of set up in panel one, action in panel two, punchline in panel three; the rapid fire insanity of the character interactions is humorous enough.
Get Fuzzy is more than willing to embrace the absurdity of its talking animal premise, and make Bucky and Satchel extreme examples of how people pictures cats and dogs without making them caricatures. There are also moments where Bucky and Satchel step out of their normal roles. Bucky has pushed Satchel to the point where he loses his affable attitude and Satchel smacks Bucky one, usually sending Bucky to hide in his closet. And once, when Satchel's prized possession, a watch, broke, Bucky had it fixed, although he did it in such a way he had plausible deniability to maintain his tough cat image.
Like all great comic strips, Get Fuzzy has a cast of minor characters to support its principals; I mean, what good would Charlie Brown be without Pigpen dirtying things up, or Garfield without Nermal to mail to Abu Dhabi? The supporting cast include include  Fungo Squiggly, the ferret who lives next door who is friends with Satchel and is Bucky's archenemy, although that is more in Bucky's head than anywhere, which is good for Bucky, since Fungo is a tough character. Mac Manc McManx (pictured above) is Bucky's British cousin who pops over to the States every so often, and speaks in British slang and with an accent so unintelligible that no one understands a third of what he says. My personal favorite is Chubby Huggs, a rotund cat who lives down the hall and believes that hugs solve all problems. And frankly, as he once broke up a near fight between Bucky and Fungo by hugging them both into submission, well, he might be right.
Get Fuzzy is a breath of fresh air for me. When I just need to settle in and read something that makes me laugh until I cry, I grab one of my collections off the shelf and visit that strange little Boston apartment. If you ever have that day where you feel like you can't think anymore and your brain is much, read a couple strips and you'll get a chuckle and realize that, well, at least you're smarter than Bucky.

There are currently twelve regular Get Fuzzy collections, volume one being The Dog is Not a Toy (House Rule #4), with a thirteenth due out in late Spring. They strips are also released in treasury editions, collecting two of the regular collections each. All of these are in print and  available at bookstores and comic shops. If you want to keep up with Satchel and Bucky's adventures daily, you can check your local paper or go here.


Monday, March 4, 2013

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 2/27

All Star Western #17
Story: Jimmy Palmiotti and Justi Gray
Art: Moritat/ Staz Johnson

A new story begins in this All Star Western, bringing Jonah Hex, still in Gotham City seemingly against his better judgement, up against another of DC Comics great characters, the villainous immortal, Vandal Savage. As a plague ravages a neighborhood called Death's Doorstep, Catherine Wayne, wife of current Wayne patriarch Alan, is kidnapped while trying to give the victims aide, and Hex, along with his current partner/sidekick Amadeus Arkham, and two other bounty hunters are sent in to retrieve her. Moritat does a beautiful job giving the creepy, near deserted and corpse strewn Death's Doorstep a horror movie feel, and when the plague victims attack, the scenes seem right out of a modern zombie thriller. The fights are brutal, and Hex shows his usual casual feelings about taking a human life. Meanwhile, Vandal Savage is presented somewhere in between the madcap barbarian warrior he is in Demon Knights, set in England in the Dark Ages, and the calculating serial killer from his appearance in DC Universe Presents, set in the present. Savage has the air of his more jovial self, filling himself with wine, women, song, and gambling, but does not charge in to immediately take what he wants, instead laying out an elaborate plan. Hex already is more than prepared to kill Savage for cheating at cards, so when he finds Catherine in Savage's clutches next issue, who knows exactly what's going to happen, but I know it's going to involve a hail of bullets. The back up story is also the first part of a new one this issue, introducing the Stormwatch of the 19th century. Specifically, this issue features Jenny Freedom, the embodiment of the century, who controls steam (as Jenny Sparks, of the 20th century, controlled electricity, and Jenny Quantum of the 21st manipulates the building blocks of existence, as scientific understanding grows), fighting a mad scientist/anarchist on a blimp who is controlling ancient, Mesoamerican mummies, and plans to kill Chester A. Arthur. It's a fun steampunk western, and with the appearance of Adam One, the leader of Stormwatch at the end, we know there's more to come. All Star Western has done a great job since the beginning of its run in balancing its lead and back ups, and tying them together after a time. I look forward to seeing what happens when and if Jenny and her teammates, who I hope we meet next issue, run across Hex.

Batman Incorporated #8
Story: Grant Morrison
Art: Chris Burnham & Jason Masters

Ok, I knew that this book was going to be the elephant in the room if I didn't review it, clearly indicating a severe dislike for what is the keystone Batbook of the week, if not the month or year (difficult to say, in a month with the excellent Batman #17, wrapping up "Death of the Family," a book that should reverberate through the Bat titles for a while as well). Fortunately, I wound up enjoying the issue a great deal. I admit, when Damian was first introduced, I hated him. He was replacing Tim Drake, my favorite Robin. He was obnoxious and arrogant. And he was homicidal. None of these thing endeared him to me. But slowly, over the course of the past few years, especially in the early issues of the Morrison Batman and Robin, he grew on me. And now, I admit, I'm going to miss him. The highlight of this issue for me had nothing to do with Damian's battle with his evil clone, or Batman breaking out of a deathtrap that would have done in Houdini. Hell, it wasn't even Red Robin, the aforementioned Tim Drake, fighting off a group of Talia's soldiers and acting like the Tim of yore, and not the current version, one I have various issues with. No, it was the scene where Damian and Nightwing, Dick Grayson, team up again, for what is currently the last time.The rapport Morrison built between them, the fact that Damian actually likes and respects Dick, came through, as Damian admits that Dick, who was Batman when Damian first officially became Robin, was his favorite partner. They work well together, and have an easy camaraderie. Knowing what was coming made this moment all the more poignant. Death in comics is more like the common cold than anything permanent, I admit, and when you come from a family who has access to boiling pits of chemicals that can raise the dead, well, it might be an even quicker turnaround. But still, Morrison and other writers have done a great job over time of making an unlikable character very likable, and I'll miss Damian as long as he's gone. Now, we just have to see how Bruce reacts, and what happens next.

Star Wars: Agent of the Empire- Hard Targets #5
Story: John Ostrander
Art: Davide Fabbri

Agent of the Empire has proven to be a fun series, with a perfect espionage, James Bond caper sort of feel. I've talked before, in a review of previous issues of this series and in my list of favorite Star Wars characters, about my affection for the "noble Imperial" as a character type, and I think Jahan Cross fits that bill very well. But what he is also is a spy, and his morals are greyer than even characters like Thrawn, Pellaeon, or Baron Fel. In this issue, Cross's plan to save the young Count Dooku, distant relation to the Prequel villain of the same name and current count of Serenno, comes to fruition. It's one of those spy plots, with wheels within wheels, but much of the issue is focused on Cross in combat with Boba Fett. Davide Fabbri is one of my favorite Star Wars artists, with a lively style that fits the pulpy worlds that populate the Galaxy Far, Far Away, and his backgrounds are nicely detailed. This adds to a big fight by making it feel more definite, less sketchy. Cross cleverly fights Fett, but knows that he can't beat him. His stalling action works, and his plan goes off without a hitch. But in the process, one good woman dies, and Cross has no problem seeing a villain killed in complete cold blood, and the Empire winds up with a pawn in place; Cross still doesn't quite see the evil in the Empire, but sees it as a necessary one. This is not a man who would settle in nicely with the Rebel Alliance. Cross is a hard man, one who fits into the world of double dealing and backstabbing perfectly. In the end, the fate of the young Count Dooku is placed in safety, but his fate is far from certain, as anyone with a passing familiarity with Star Wars knows that Alderaan isn't going to be safe for much longer. Also, for those of you out there who are fans of John Ostrander's Star Wars work, did you pick up on the name drop that now connects Agent with both Republic and Legacy? If you didn't, go back and try again. I've always loved how Ostrander ties together works that exist in a shared universe, and it's little nods like this that make the universe seem like a place that exists as a whole, and not isolated pockets.

The Answer #2
Story: Mike Norton & Dennis Hopeless
Art: Mike Norton

The Answer is a series that debuted during my brief hiatus, and is one of three books I feel bad not reviewing at the start to try to get it some more attention with issue one (the others are Kill Shakespeare: The Tide of Blood and, no one is more shocked than me, Justice League of America's Vibe). After last issue, where the quirky superhero calling himself The Answer saved librarian Devin Mackenzie from gun toting guys who tried to kidnap her, we open in a bus station, where Answer is trying to get Devin to safety. Unfortunately, more gun wielding thugs appear, this time with a creepy looking nurse and orderlies, and a madcap chase ensues. Devin is picked up in a limo by people claiming to represent the Brain Trust, an organization that is a think tank for the world's smartest people, of which Devin is one. I like Devin a lot as a character, this sort of smartass, take no crap from anyone, librarian, and she doesn't take any guff from the Brain Trust people. They provide evidence proving The Answer is an escaped lunatic, and in the end she goes off with them and Answer is carted away by the nurse. But Devin knows that something's up, and it becomes clear to the reader that the Brain Trust is tied to the mysterious self-help program, Apeiron (picture Tom Cruise from Magnolia meets Scientology, all wrapped up in a guy with one of those crappy little trianlges of hair under his lower lip). The Answer himself is a hectic, madcap sort of hero, in the style of The Creeper or Madman, quirky and probably not all there, but the good guy nonetheless. This is a fun, self contained series, and one I hope does well for Mike Norton and Dennis Hopeless, creators whose other work I also quite like, and hope that it ends as strongly as it began.