Monday, February 2, 2015

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 1/28

Arkham Manor #4
Story: Gerry Duggan
Art: Shawn Crystal

The mystery murderer in Arkham takes a backseat to the menace of the Joker/Clayface monster "Clownface" in the new issue of Arkahm Manor. Batman is still in his identity as inmate Jack Shaw, and has to deal with the Clownface without burning this new identity and without any of his trademark gadgets. I like stories where Batman has to operate on wits alone, and so this speaks to something in me, and having him work with Mr. Freeze makes perfect sense. Gerry Duggan writes a good Freeze, one more in line with the more homicidal and emotional version in the New 52. The issue has much more action than the previous ones, less mystery and more punches, which is fine with me in this case. There are some nice character beats mixed in, with Batman finding one of the crooks he beat pretty badly in issue one, an emotional lapse I was uncomfortable with, and Batman feeling empathy and remorse for that beating this issue worked for me; a Batman who relishes beating on criminals is a step too close to the Punisher in my book. I still think Duggan's Batman could use a little work; as clever as he was in defeating Clownface, I can't picture him not being clever enough to find a way to keep Freeze from escaping, or just shrugging his shoulders and saying that is the lesser of two evils. Batman finds a way to stop both evils. It's what he does. We do get a nice character moment out of Freeze in that moment, though, so I guess it's a writer's choice moment. We also get the escape of Sybil Silverlock, a plot point I see playing out in future issue's of Gotham Academy, so I'm glad to see that plot moving forward, and more on Gotham Academy shortly. The issue ends with both a return to the over arching Arkham killer plot, and hints that Jeremiah Arkham is slipping again. Jeremiah has never been the most stable guy, and if this book was surviving the upcoming DC cull, which it isn't, I could see this playing out further. With only two issues and a special left, it's sad to see this book hitting it's stride, mixing black comedy, superheroics, and a touch of horror, just for it to end. But I'll enjoy it while it lasts.

Batman #38
Story: Scott Snyder & James Tynion IV
Art: Greg Capullo & Sam Keith

Is there any more I can say about "Endgame" that I haven't in the first few parts to indicate how exciting this story is for me? Well, I guess I'll try. Scott Snyder has built a very nice corner of the Batman universe for himself over the course of his run on this book, and he calls back to it in a story that if it were his last with Batman, would serve as a perfect coda. Joker's plan continues to roll out, and every new step makes it more macabre. Using Jim Gordon as a pawn in his attack on Batman is well within the Joker's usual psychosis, and it delivers the emotional gut punch to Batman, and makes for a perfectly eerie visual that Capullo runs with in a Jokerized Gordon. Getting Julia Pennyworth out of the Batcave and aiding Batman is something I hope we get more of in this story and the future of the Bat books; she's a capable, competent agent, and I like how she plays off Batman. Speaking of capable and competent agents, it was nice to see Batman getting in touch with Dick Grayson; Snyder writes their rapport perfectly, and how he clearly cares about Batman is something I miss. Dick's horror when Batman tells him Joker knows Batman's identity is tangible. Having Batman hunt down the doctor who helped Joker create the new Joker virus is a logical step, and I was a bit shocked to see it was Paul Dekker, better known as Crazy Quilt (OK, probably not better known as anything. Crazy Quilt is about as D-list a villain as you can get). The only connection to his pre-New 52 identity is the quilt he has wrapped around him, one matching the pattern as his old costume. This new version of Dekker is a scientist, one obsessed with immortality, and he continues to propagate the story Gordon discovered and that Julia reinforces with her own research, the the Joker is an immortal. I like how Snyder ties Vandal Savage and Ra's al Ghul together with Joker in this immortality, and creates a single mythological point in the DC Universe where all immortality springs from. Whether or not that's true, though, we'll have to wait and see. And speaking of waiting and seeing, that last page of the main story is a real kicker, and something that ties all of Snyder's run together. For a story where the Joker doesn't appear for more than a few panels, his presence and madness permeate the whole story; like Dracula in Stoker's novel, the Joker doesn't need to be present for him to cast a long shadow. This month's back up is a soldier who was part of the squad injured during "Zero Year" (another nice call back to earlier in the run), who believes Batman is actually a military program of numerous super soldier. As crazy ideas go, it's not the wildest, but the extent to which it's taken is what makes it nuts. And when you're drawing a story from the point of view of someone not quite in touch with reality, there are few artists better than Sam Keith, whose style always seems a bit out of line with reality.

Gotham Academy #4
Story: Becky Cloonan & Brenden Fletcher
Art: Karl Kerschel

The mysteries at Gotham Academy are starting to unfold, and Olive Silverlock is up to her neck in it. After the encounter with something in the North Hall last issue, we start the issue with a shell shocked Olive and her frenemy Pomeline, trying to figure out what they saw. But soon, Olive is called before the headmaster who delivers veiled threats, and we get another cameo from Olive's mysterious benefactor, Bruce Wayne. Olive and her friend/sidekick, Maps (who continues to be my favorite part of the book, this buzzing, energetic geek girl), continue their investigation into the school's mysteries, now focusing on the symbols etched into the stones around the school. Their good cop/bad cop interrogation of outsider kid Eric is charming and hilarious. And as the mystery of ghost of Millie Jane Cobblepot comes to a conclusion, new mysteries open as Olive discovers the secret passages throughout the school. The cast is an ensemble, and while Olive and Maps get the most face time this issue, we still get hints of others. The couple scenes with Pomeline continue to develop her beyond the stereotypical mean girl, and her hipster boyfriend Heathcliff gets a great scene with Olive. It's a testament to Karl Kerschel's skill that Kyle, Olive's sort of ex and Maps's brother, appears in one silent panel and we still get a good impression of what's going on in his head. There's also the matter of the mysterious blonde haired boy who seems to know far more about Olive's lost summer than she does, but we can't expect answers to everything in one issue. We also meet another member of the Academy staff, and it's another wonderful Easter egg for long time Batman fans. Along with Aunt Harriet and Bookworm from the classic 60s Batman series, the matron of the girl's dorm and librarian respectively, we now meet Simon Trent, drama teacher, who was the actor who played Batman's boyhood hero, the Grey Ghost, in Batman: The Animated Series. Speaking of B:TAS, we get an appearance from Killer Croc this issue, whose design is very much reminiscent of the design from the seminal series. It seems answers are coming about Olive's mother as well, but I'm sure that even with those answers, there will be plenty more questions coming up in Gotham Academy. With it's large and diverse cast, it's plots that feel like classic teen mysteries mixed in with Gotham's usual sense of dread, and love letters to classic Batman, this is a book that has all the charms to be a breakout hit.

Gotham by Midnight #3
Story: Ray Fawkes
Art: Ben Templesmith

While the first two issues of Gotham by Midnight were enjoyable, they felt like they suffered from a case of first-issue-itis, a condition where exposition abounds, although they did better about having stuff happen around the exposition, so that was a point in their favor. This third issue, though, feels like a home run, versus the solid grounds rule double of the previous two. With the mystery of what dark is rising in Gotham firmly established, we see Jim Corrigan and his partner called to a Gotham hospital to investigate a girl who seems to be demonstrating signs of smallpox. While this doesn't sound mystical, we soon see the girl has an autonomous shadow, like a very malignant version of Peter Pan's shadow, and that the shadow is what is carrying the disease. I like the new dynamic for Jim Corrigan. I didn't read his appearances in Phantom Stranger, so I don't know if this was established there, but this Corrigan seems much less inclined to let the Spectre, the angel of vengeance he houses, get full reign, something that is understandable if the Spectre is always like he is like when he was released in Batman: Eternal; collateral damage isn't something the Spectre seems to care about. We got some more time with Szandor Tarr, the team's resident scientist, who for some reason jumped out at me as one of those quirky characters I tend to like. The spotlight of this issue falls on Corrigan's partner, Lisa Drake. I liked the flashback's to Sister Justine's past last issue, and I'm glad to see Drake get hers this issue. It looks like we'll be getting flashbacks tied into each issue's A-Plot as a regular occurrence in the style of Lost and Arrow, which I like as a way to get backstory out there without tons of exposition. I didn't see the twist of what Drake is coming, and it's not something I want to spoil in this review, but I also like that she used her brain to defeat the shadow demon and didn't rely on her gift/curse. There are comics like Justice League Dark that are superhero comics with trappings of horror; my problem with early issues of Constantine was that they had that vibe as well, while I thought they should be different. Gotham by Midnight is a horror comic with some superhero aspects just sort of thrown in for flavor. Gotham is a city that lends itself to horror, and now those threatened by the mystical in Gotham have the hero's they deserve.

Harley Quinn #14
Story: Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti
Art: Chad Hardin

There are certain characters that would have an issue titled "A Day in the Life," and would give you exactly what you'd expect. Then there are characters like Harley Quinn, where any day in their life is so screwy you get nothing that you'd expect. Harley's been burning the candle at every end you can imagine between being landlady to a building of bizarre characters while holding down a job as a psychiatrist and one in an illegal roller derby, and this issue all that collides. Between one the exo-suits of the egg man who lives in her building running amok, a broken water heater, reports and patients, and a derby bout, there aren't enough hours in the day for Harley. Oh, and she has her first real date in ages lined up. If you've never read Harley Quinn, this issue does a great job of both throwing you in the deep end and letting you know everything you need to know to get the fullest experience out of this issue. We see Harley in and out of costume, and we see exactly what kind of person she is. The Harley we get from Conner and Palmiotti is much more akin to her classic personality, and less in line with the more deranged version from the recent Suicide Squad series. Harley will chase after muggers who steal from a little old lady, but will still tie up an annoying S&M enthusiast at the nursing home she works at, and then save the life of another old lady whose oxygen tank was stolen, the latest in a series of thefts at the nursing home that are a plot point that seems to be building towards something. And she is still haunted by her past with the Joker, as we see from her nightmares. By issue's end, everything has gone completely wrong: she missed her bout, lost her date, and still has problems at her homestead. This is all done with a ton of humor, something artist Chad Hardin captures beautifully. If Amanda Conner herself can't be drawing this comic, Hardin is an excellent choice. If you're looking for a madcap comedy that is deeply comedy driven, you should definitely be reading Harley Quinn, and this is a great jumping on point.

Multiversity Guidebook #1
Story: Grant Morrison
Art: Various

Grant Morrison is a writer who can take something simple and twist it around into something you don't expect. Here, he take the typical guidebook and crafts a narrative comic around it, creating stories within stories in the way the readers have come to expect out of Morrison. More akin to DCs Secret Files and Origins of the 90s, this isn't simply pages after page of each of the fifty two universes, although that's in here too. It mixes the narrative around Earths- 42, 51, and the comic books that tie the worlds together. Earth-42 is the home of the Little League, childlike versions of the DC heroes, and ones who are attacked by the legion of Sivanas from the previous Multiversity story, "Thunderworld," before the Batman of the radioactive Earth-17 arrives on his grail hunt. Morrison makes the Atomic Knights of that dystopian world more akin to the Knights of the Round Table, which is one of those Morrisonian tropes that seems perfectly logical when you read it. Pretty soon Li'l Batman has opened a comic that gives him a view of Earth-51, the Jack Kirby Earth created out of the end of Final Crisis, where Kamandi finds caves that have a history of the multiverse on them. This elegant bit of story lays out how all the Crises that have affected DC continuity exist in one continuum, a love letter to DC history. We do get the breakdown of the 52 Earths (or 45, as seven are mystery Earths), and the issue ends with the more details of the menace of the Gentry and the Empty Hand that they serve. The Empty Hand is something DC fans can recognize from the past, as nearly everything in this issue nods to past stories. Morrison loves DC Comics, loves it's history, and this series is him telling us why. Mix in Marcus To's art on the top level Batmans narrative, Paolo Siqueira's on the Kamandi narrative, and a murderers'  row of artists on the guidebook pages, you have a comic that speaks to everything we love about superhero comics.

The Unwritten: Apocalypse #12
Story: Mike Carey
Art: Peter Gross

Bidding goodbye to a long-running series you've been reading since the beginning is a part of being a comic book fan. I've done it before, and I'll do it again. But The Unwritten is a special case. It's a book I went into super psyched for, and came out of even more psyched for. There was never a lag, never a wasted moment. This final issue ties up the story in a neat bow without seeming pat. The way that all the worlds are saved, how Leviathan (the great beast of story, not the DC terrorist organization or the Marvel Cold War Soviet Hydra-analogue) is healed, it's all a perfect, elegant solution that stared you right in the face from issue one of the current volume but only on second reading. It's a tragic ending, like most endings to long term Vertigo series are, but every character gets the end they deserve, or have earned. A heroic death for a man who never viewed himself as a hero is a good death. And some characters have learned something about themselves. I will say the Pauly Bruckner gets to return to Willowbrook Wood, and Wilson Taylor, like Roland Deschain at the end of Stephen King's Dark Tower, sets out on a journey he's made before in a way he never would have before the last journey. Tommy does finally face down Pullman and Madame Rausch, the (pun intended) puppet master behind everything that has gone before. And we get to see the fates of pretty much every important character from the book's long history. More than any other comic, this final issue is appropriately meta, and if you've read the series, you know that is a high complement.  I'm planning a longer retrospective piece on The Unwritten timed to post around the time the final trade is released, and this isn't an issue new readers can just jump into, but take it from me, this is a comic that is well worth the time to read.

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