Thursday, October 31, 2013

Trick-or-Treating in Gotham- Batman: Haunted Knight

We hear at The Matt Signal (and by we, I mean, well, me) love October, and especially Halloween; candy, monsters, and something spooky around every corner. I imagine this is surprising to anyone who has never read this blog before and has no idea about my love of Batman and horror comics, but we're all old friends here, so let's gather round the fire and I'm going to tell you about some of my favorite Halloween themed Batman comics.

When most readers think about Batman related Halloween comics, the stories that spring to mind are Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's two maxi-series, The Long Halloween and Dark Victory. And can I blame them? Heck, no. Frankly, The Long Halloween is one of, if not my all time, favorite Batman stories, even if the ending isn't perfect. I remember reading the series as it came out, issue by issue, piecing together the mystery of who is Holiday. But Loeb and Sale had a history with Batman before that.

For three Halloweens before those series, Loeb and Sale created prestige format Halloween specials, under the banner of Legends of the Dark Knight, the title that was being released at the time that was a creator showcase for Batman stories that were out of continuity or tales set in the past. Over the course of the three specials, they touched on many of the great Batman villains, as well as his allies, and fleshed out the early years of Batman. These stories were collected in the trade, Haunted Knight, and I think they don't get as much credit as they're due. So here's a little discussion of each of them.

Choices (or alternately Fears) is a story featuring the perfect Batman villain for Halloween, the Scarecrow, the master of fear. On one of his early rampages, Batman is pursuing the Scarecrow, while Bruce Wayne has a new love interest. While Batman duels with Scarecrow, the slowly revealed revelation of the black widow planning to take everything from Bruce makes for a great parallel. There are some amazing visuals in this story, especially as Batman attempts to find his way through a maze of thorny hedges poisoned with Scarecrow's fear toxin. Fear is central in all Scarecrow stories, but this one really uses the idea that as terrifying as Scarecrow is, it's Batman who is the truly frightening one, and that Scarecrow has something to fear when he confronts Batman. Jillian Maxwell, the black widow killer, has her own fears, and the final page is a great moment showing exactly how far the fear of the Dark Knight can reach.

The second special, Madness, is my favorite of the three stories. A story of not only Batman, but of Jim and Barbara Gordon, this is set firmly in the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths continuity where Barbara was Jim's adopted daughter, the biological daughter of Jim's brother. Shortly after Barbara is adopted it's Halloween in Gotham, and the two fight over whether Barbara can go out on her own, and the teenage Barbara storms out, only to be abducted by the Mad Hatter, making her his most recent Alice. Batman pursues the Hatter, as does Jim, and the two rescue Barbara. I love how spunky and tough young Barbara is, foreshadowing her time as Batgirl. I also have to give Loeb credit for writing a creepy Mad Hatter story. The Hatter is often portrayed as just another villain with a weird fetish (I mean that in the obsession sense, not in the sexual one, although Gail Simone portrayed it as such to wonderfully disturbing effect in Secret Six) for hats. This is one of the first stories that really plays up the Alice in Wonderland themes and the creepy child abduction angle. It has a happy ending, naturally, but it probably the most spine-chilling of the stories here.

Ghosts, the final of the three Halloween specials, takes the classic A Christmas Carol and sets it instead at Halloween, with Batman in the Scrooge roll. It's a natural fit, and isn't the only Batman/A Christmas Carol mash up in the history of the character, but is my favorite. Thomas Wayne takes the roll of Jacob Marley, and Poisons Ivy, the Joker, and a skeletal Bruce in a Bat costume are the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come, respectively. I like the little redemptive moment at the end of the issue, where Bruce learns his lesson, like Scrooge, that one cannot be separate from people and cannot be just Batman, because that way lies despair and loneliness.

Loeb's stories are solid here, and are early work in his career, and while they're good reads, the star is often Tim Sale's art. His versions of Batman and his enemies are distinct and not realistic in a traditional sense, with his Mad Hatter and Penguin being oddly dwarfish, his Joker snaggle toothed with a strangely distended jaw, and his Scarecrow seeming to be more his namesake than a human being in a costume. Sale is one of my favorite artists in all of comics, and his Batman work is the best of that.

Haunted Knight is in print as a trade, with new cover dress a few years ago to make it fit with the current printings of The Long Halloween and Dark Victory. If you have read and enjoyed either of those stories, or just enjoy a good Batman story, this is a trade well worth picking up, and perfect for those long nights when the wind makes the eves creak and you might just be hearing the sound of a madman laugh somewhere out there...

Monday, October 28, 2013

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 10/23

Daredevil #32
Story: Mark Waid
Art: Chris Samnee

Now that it's been confirmed that Mark Waid's excellent run on Daredevil is wrapping up, every issue is a treasure. And this issue features appearances by the Legion of Monsters! Now the appearance is small, and at the end of the issue, setting up next issue, but I still love these characters, especially Werewolf by Night, also known as Jack Russell (yeah, for those unfamiliar with him, you heard that right). But that's just something that speaks to my inner fanboy, which would be enough to get me to write the issue up, but there's so much more great about the issue. The opening scene, where the villain, The Jester, has left a dummy of a hanged Foggy Nelson, is one of the cleverest examples of Waid's use of Daredevil's powers and the lack of understanding others have of it. The Jester's surety that the horrible site of Foggy hung up before him would cause a reaction from Daredevil, but draws none, is clever and Jester's reaction was amusing, and this is inverted when Matt assumes that a mob in the small southern town he heads to at the end of the issue is preparing a race based lynching, when instead they are hunting monsters, something he couldn't tell with no site. Waid has done a tremendous job of writing scenes that remind the reader that Daredevil is blind and that radar sense is not the same as sight. It's also nice to see Daredevil and Foggy working together to help find an answer to the problem with the Sons of the Serpent; Foggy's cancer hasn't removed him from the book, but it's nice to see him doing something other than sitting in a bed. Four issues left, and the wild ride of Waid and Samnee's Daredevil doesn't look like it's slowing down.

Kiss Me, Satan! #2
Story: Victor Gischler
Art: Juan Ferreyra

I know I just wrote about the first issue of this Dark Horse horror comic last week, but when a good second issue comes around, I might as well keep writing. Barnabus Black continues to protect the witches from a line of bounty hunters. Writer Victor Gischler uses this to continue to expand the world he has created, introducing vampires, necromancers, and ninja zombies. I feel like Gischler has a whole world in his head, with all sorts of supernatural craziness, and he's slowly rolling it out. We also get to see more of our villain, Cassian Steele, werewolf chieftain, and I have to say, this is one bad guy. Sure, kill another werewolf in cold blood to maintain your power base, that's pack infighting; tell your pregnant wife you're going to kill the baby and you can always try again until you get a werewolf baby? OK, he's an A-1 bastard. The story is great, but what pushes the comic over the top is the art from Juan Ferreyra. The main action piece of the issue, a battle between Barnabus and animated ninja corpses, that starts out on cars and moves to a graveyard, is a sight to behold. Ferreyra mixes action with great body language and facial expressions. October is the spookiest time of the year, and this is the perfect comic for a chilly October night.

The Unwritten #54
Story: Mike Carey & Bill Willingham
Art: Peter Gross, Mark Buckingham, & Dean Ormston

The first volume of The Unwritten wraps up with the conclusion of "The Unwritten Fables," the big crossover between The Unwritten and Fables. The final battle between Tom Taylor and Mr. Dark plays out with a lot of very interesting twists, involving Tom's connection to The Leviathan, the font of all stories. But while much of the story is thoughtful, with Frau Totenkinder trying to explain to Tom exactly what he is and how he fits into the grand scheme of things, the rest of the Fables cast fights with the revanant Boy Blue and Bigby Wolf faces down his wife and children. It's a blood soaked issue, with many favorite characters meeting a final fate. Artists Peter Gross, Mark Buckingham, and Dean Ormston each draw pages suited to their styles, with Gross focusing on Tom, Buckingham on the Fables, and Ormston on the final pages, with scenes of horror as Fran Totenkinder morphs into a monster to hold Mr. Dark off as Tom performs the endgame. It;s a very clever ending, having been set up many issues ago, playing off both the classic poem The Song of Roland and what the readers know about the Tommy Taylor books, the in universe series of children's books. The issues wraps with Tom seemingly ready to find his way back home in time for the final twelve issues of the series, the maxi-series "Apocalypse." It feels like so many of the series I really love are coming to their end. But I can hope the ending will live up to the high quality of the series so far.

Velvet #1
Story: Ed Brubaker
Art: Steve Epting

New work from Ed Brubaker is always something to look forward to, and when he's partnered with one of those artists he has a rapport with, guys like Michael Lark, Sean Phillips, or in this case Steve Epting, you know you're in for a great comic. Velvet is a spy comic in the classic mold; it has touches of James Bond, touches of Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy, and a whole lot of the action you expect when you have Brubaker and Epting together. Velvet Templeton, our lead, seems to be the secretary to one of the director's of Arc-7, a super secret black ops spy organization. But Velvet isn't Miss Moneypenny; Velvet clearly has a background that features plenty of spy training of her own. After an agent Velvet was fond of is killed, she begins investigating his death, and is quickly pulled into a case that features death and deception, and puts Velvet's life in danger. Brubaker wrote the best spy comic on the racks when he was writing Captain America, and he's bringing that same feel for the genre here. Velvet is a complex character, and after one issue you can already tell that she has a complex history. Like all spies, there are things that haunt her. The rest of the cats is sketched out, including Velvet's boss and some of  the other agents, and I'm sure we'll get to know them better, but this issue was the perfect introduction to our protagonist. Epting is an artist whose work has grown tremendously over the years, and this is easily the best work he has ever done. The shadow, the expressions, the action, all are second to none, and perfectly fit the grit of the 70s spy movie. Between Fatale and now Velvet, it's a good time to be a fan of Ed Brubaker.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 10/16

With apologies for the month plus without an update, this week will feature a few books that I picked up this past week from previous weeks, but can't really go back all the way to when I last updated. Sorry for that, folks, but I'm in the middle of buying a house, and that has been taking up a lot of my spare time. But that's enough about me. On to the comics.

Bloodhound: Crowbar Medicine #1
Story: Dan Jolley
Art: Leonard Kirk

I was one of the people who read Bloodhound when it was being published by DC (admittedly, I first picked up issue 8, since it had a D-List Batman villain, Zeiss, in it, but I then picked up the first six and was along for the ride for the last two), so when I saw that new Bloodhound stories were coming out from Dark Horse, I was excited. And that excitement paid off with the serial in Dark Horse Presents, and now in the first issue of this mini-series. If you didn't read either the DC adventures of the serial featuring Travis Clevenger, our title character, and his partner/handler Saffron Bell, that's ok. Everything you need to know is made perfectly clear early on: Clev (as he's called) is a guy who hunts people with special powers for the FBI on a sort of work release; it's kind of like the concept of the TV show White Collar, if Matt Bomer was nearly seven feet tall and indestructible, and they were hunting rogue metahumans, not crooked bankers. The first issue let's you meet Clev, see the kind of guy he is, and then see him go on a hunt. The guy who Clev is hunting turns out to not be a bad guy, just a desperate one, and the polive pursuing him seem to be far worse than he is, which gives a nice layer to the world and to the ending of the issue. The last couple pages set up the thrust of the story, when a mystery doctor named Bradley Morgenstern hijacks all TV channels and offers to give people superpowers to protect them from the menace of rogue powered people. It's an argument made for assault rifles in the hands of everyone, and it's a great example of using superpowers as a metaphor for the concerns of the modern world. The chemistry between Clev and Saffron is great, and helps push the book beyond a simple plot driven think piece and into something that readers can get invested in. There's a nice letter page at the back, where writer Dan Jolley talks about getting the entire original creative team back together to do this book, and asks for those of us digging the book to share it, and I am more than happy to oblige. Glad to see you back, Clev.

Fables #134
Story: Bill Willingham
Art: Mark Buckingham

Some of the best issues of Fables are the interlude issues that give the reader a little breather mid-arc before things invariably go completely off the rails. Bigby Wolf is dead and has found his way into an afterlife that is the apotheosis of all forests, where he hunts creatures and lives as the great beast he once was. The sound of a hunting horn calls Bigby to find Boy Blue, who is there to explain some of the ways the afterlife works before he moves on from the borderlands where Bigby's forest is to his personal reward. The two of them have a long conversation about life, death, and the choices that we make in life. Bigby comes to some realizations about his life and his fate, and Blue explains that he has no intention of ever returning to life. There are some fun labs at Stinky, the badger who started the religion around Boy Blue, and it will be interesting to see how he reacts when Bigby returns and tells him exactly what Blue said to him. It's a lovely send off to Boy Blue, and a wonderful final conversation between two of my favorite Fables characters. The final two pages are touching, so touching that they brought a tear to my eye, and brings a resolution to the quest that Bigby was on before his death. 

Kiss Me, Satan #1
Story: Victor Gischler
Art: Juan Ferreyra

I'm a sucker for horror comics, and have a strong preference for werewolves over either vampires or zombies, and when I saw the cover copy, "New Orleans is a Werewolf Town," I had to give this book a try. My only experience with writer Victor Gischler was the Spike mini-series he wrote and a couple short stories, and no familiarity with artist Juan Ferreyra, so I came in fresh. Barnabus is a fallen angel who is trying to earn his way back into the good graces of the almighty, so he's doing freelance work for heaven, all the while ducking squads of demons that want to bring him back to Hell to pay for making a runner. It's a solid core concept, but where are the werewolves? Well, it seems the packleader of the local werewolf clan, Cassian Steele, has a pregnant wife, and the witch who was summoned to test the fetus tells Steele the baby isn't a werewolf. This means that Steele will lose his standing within the pack. Steele kills the only werewolf who knew, and then sends his wolves after the witch and her apprentices. And this is where Barnabus crosses paths with the werewolves, as heaven has sent him to protect the witches. The whole series is set up to move from here, a quick, action based supernatural thriller. Gischler does a great job fleshing out the characters quickly, and Ferreyra's art is astounding. he has a dynamic style, and his werewolves are beautiful, or as beautiful as monsters can be. A perfect comic for this spooky time of year, the second issue hits this week, so grab both for a double dose of horror action on Wednesday.

Superior Spider-Man #17-19
Story: Dan Slott
Art: Ryan Stegman

Yes, these are the first Spider-Man comics I have reviewed on here. I don't have anything against Spidey, but I've never been a big fan either, and haven't had any real interest in the Superior incarnation. However, when Spider-Man 2099, a character I do love, came back for this arc, I couldn't resist it. I read all the Peter David issues of Miguel O'Hara's adventures from the 90s, and I was worried that he wouldn't ring true after all these years, but credit to Dan Slott for getting him exactly right. The story is a classic time travel yarn, with O'Hara going back in time to keep himself from being erased from the timeline by protecting his grandfather, Tiberius Stone, a sleazy scientist who has gotten on the bad side of Spidey, or Doctor Octopus in Spider-Man's body. Having not read a single issue of Superior Spider-Man, or any of Slott's Amazing Spider-Man for that matter, I was worried I would be lost, but Slott does a great job of giving the reader a good feeling of the status quo. The issues are action packed, with plenty of Spider-Man on Spider-Man action, and very cool tie-in to the history of the 2099 universe. This was a great self contained story that does have some payoff to what seem to be long running plotlines and set-ups for the future. And by stories end, there might just be two Spider-Men running around the Marvel Universe. If you remember the 2099 comics with any fondness, this is definitely an arc you'll enjoy.