Monday, March 30, 2015

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 3/25

Abigail and the Snowman #4
Story & Art: Roger Langridge

Roger Langridge wraps up his story of a girl and her Yeti with an action packed double sized issue, as Abigail and Claude flee the government agents who have been chasing them, specifically the one-eyed monster hunter, who will stop at nothing to make sure if the British government can't have Claude, no one will. The issue has car chases, a helicopter with machine guns, and some mortal peril. The man from the government clearly has no problem hurting or killing Abigail to get at Claude, which leads to some pretty scary moments. But the violence never moves beyond something you'd see in a PG rated movie, and I think we underestimate kids: something can have some scares and some serious moments and still be all ages. Those are teachable moments, moments that can spur a discussion. But while there's more action in this issue, and a last minute reversal, as the other government agents decide they don't like the way this newcomer is willing to do anything to get what he wants, including hurting a little girl, the heart of this book is still the friendship between Abigail and Claude.  The concern they share for each other when in peril, the joy in the photo montage page as Abigail wants a few more pictures of memories with Claude before he leaves, and the wonderful scene of their reunion at issue's end will warm the coldest of hearts. Abigail and the Snowman is another charming delight from Roger Langridge, who is one of those creators whose work I always look forward to. With this series complete, I hope he has something else for us soon.

Batman and Robin #40
Story: Peter J. Tomasi
Art: Patrick Gleason

After forty issues (plus a zero issue, and a Futures End one), Pete Tomasi wraps up his run on Batman and Robin. Damian, still super powered, gets to go on a big adventure with the Justice League, fighting a giant robot attacking Japan. While this is a very cool action centerpiece to the issue, and shows off Patrick Gleason's skill at drawing big action, it isn't what the issue is really about. No, this issue is really about how much Damian has grown as a character, not just from the beginning of the series but from his introduction. This isn't the killing machine trained by the League of Assassins. No, as Batman points out, during the battle with the robot he works with the team and keeps his emotions in check. But more than that, when we return to Wayne Manor, we see that Damian has made a gift for Bruce and Alfred, something the haughty psychopath he once was never would have done. We get glimpses of everything that this book has done for the character over its run, including Damian's Bat-pet menagerie (Titus the dog, Alfred the cat, and Batcow). I don't think it's a major spoiler or surprise that Damian loses his powers by the end of the issue, since I doubt anyone thought them permanent. I liked that Batman created the situation with the robot to have Damian bleed off the last of his super energy, but did it in a way that allowed Damian to have a big adventure and not in a dictatorial way. Maybe Batman has learned as much about parenting along the way as Damian has learned about himself. While this Wednesday will see a final annual from Tomasi, this issue would serve as a perfect coda to everything this book has done to make Damian the character that he is now.

Django/Zorro #5
Story: Quentin Tarantino & Matt Wagner
Art: Esteve Polls

Now past the halfway point, Django/Zorro is starting to roll towards its inevitable, blood soaked, Tarantino-style conclusion. After Don Diego donned his Zorro costume last issue, the native slave labor of the self-styled Duke of Arizona is starting to stir. And the Duke has decided that Django, seen in proximity to them, is behind it and should be interrogated. After a brief fight between the Duke's guards and Don Diego and Django, Don Diego is able to arrange a meeting with the Duke, and needs Django to steal into the Duke's study to find evidence that he has concocted the whole dukedom plot as a land grab. And to allow Django to more easily slip into the mansion, Don Diego provides Django with a special outfit. So much of what has made this book great has been the interaction between Django and Don Diego, with Django continually perplexed by Diego's demeanor and attitudes, and Diego's completely charming and friendly demeanor. Despite all of this, the highlight of the issue was a flashback of Django's to his time travelling with his friend, the former dentist turned bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz. Schultz was a strong presence in Django Unchained, very similar to Don Diego, in that his urbane exterior masked a capacity for violence, but at his core he was a good man. It was a delightful scene to watch Scultz put a pair of racist thieves in their place while teaching Django an object lesson. It's a great scene, pitch perfect in its dialogue; I could actually here Christoph Waltz delivering the dialogue. Django/Zorro has been slow building, spending a lot of time with character, getting us to understand who these people are, with only brief flashes of violence. I think we're heading towards a climax worthy of the blood soaked conclusion of Django Unchained, and I wonder if there will be a new Zorro once the story is over.

The Valiant #4
Story: Jeff Lemire & Matt Kindt
Art: Paolo Rivera

The Valiant, the first event that touched every corner of the Valiant Universe concludes with an ending that is as bitter as it is sweet. The Immortal Enemy, the monstrous entity that seeks to kill the Geomancer, has defeated all the heroes who were set before it, and only Bloodshot stands as the last line of defense between it and Kay McHenry, the current Geomancer. As with the last issue, we really have two stories here, one with Bloodshot and Kay, and the other with Gilad Anni-Pada, the Eternal Warrior and guardian of the Geomancer, unlocking a mystery box sent from the future by himself that he is told will be the one thing that can stop the Enemy. The battle between the Enemy and Bloodshot is brutal, the kind of fight you can only have between two beings that can pretty much recover from any wound. I have to give writers Lemire and Kindt a lot of credit for seeding the fact that Bloodshot has no memories of who he once was throughout the series, making it an important part of his interactions with Kay, and paying it off in the big fight with an enemy who relies not just on physical might but on playing with the worst memories of his victims. The big moment of the issue was when Kay finally stands up to the Enemy. Still wearing the face of Mr. Flay, Kay's childhood boogeyman, Kay stood up to Flay to help save Bloodshot. One of the very cool tricks of the issue is once Gilad touches the mystery box with the weapon in it, we see a five minute countdown that continues to play out even when we move away from his scene, clicking off time in the lower right corner of each page. It adds to the tension of the already intense battle. I'm really loathe to talk about the last few pages, as they are really full of not only some major surprises, but events that completely toss the status quo of the Valiant universe on its ear, setting up Bloodshot Reborn, and hopefully another Eternal Warrior mini-series, since Gilad's final narration screams for a follow up of its own. I'm amazed how Valiant was able to have a crossover that was completely contained in one book, was of high quality, and really did affect its universe. This is great comics. And in a couple months, it will be out in trade for $9.99, so if all my words of praise have gotten you curious, then you'll have no excuse to not check it out when that happens.

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Night is Black: A History of Crossover Events in DC Comics Part 2

Welcome back to the second half of my survey of crossovers in DC Comics! If you missed the first part, check it out here. So let's not waste time and get right to the fall of 1999.

Day of Judgment was a magic based crossover, where in a plan by Etrigan to Demon to overthrow Neron (remember him, from earlier crossover Underworld Unleashed?) the Spectre Force, the literal wrath of God, left hostless after John Ostrander's run of the Spectre, was bonded with the rogue angel Asmodel, who wreaked havoc with his nigh unlimited power, while Hell literally froze over, and the heroes of the DC Universe had to fight a two fronted war to save Earth. It served a couple of purposes storywise. It first introduced the Sentinels of Magic, a new team of popular and classic magic-based heroes to fight magical threats. The Sentinels never really took off, and it wouldn't be until after another crossover a few years later that another team of magical heroes was formed that met with a bit more success. But we'll get there soon.

Secondly, Day of Judgment gave the Spectre Force a new host: Hal Jordan. This crossover is the third of the crossovers that deal in Hal's fall and redemption. After his bringing about the destruction of the universe in Zero Hour, and then dying to save Earth in Final Night, this is where Hal is given a chance to redeem himself by becoming the new Spectre. This led to a series by J.M. DeMatteis where Hal tried to change the Spectre into the Spirit of Redemption rather than Vengeance. Both Hal's attempt and the series met with mixed results. Of course, this set up led the eventual return of Hal Jordan to actual life and to his roll as Green Lantern in Green Lantern: Rebirth, a series written by DC's rising star at the time, Geoff Johns, who happened to write this series as well.

Yes, Day of Judgment is the first crossover written by Geoff Johns, making it far more important for the "who did it" factor than the "what happened" one. It's not as well known as the later ones we'll be getting to in this piece. Frankly, this era could be known as the Era of the Johns Crossover as you'll see shortly. But this series has all the hallmarks of a Johns story: it has nods to ton of obscure DC characters and continuity, a sprawling cast, and a lot of Hal Jordan. Matthew Dow Smith was the artist, and his blocky, shadowy style really works well with Hell and magic, and added to the mood Johns was shooting for.

After skipping a crossover in 2000, DC returned to the form in 2001 with Joker: Last Laugh. Written by Bat-Scribe Chuck Dixon and his sometimes writing partner Scott Beatty, with art by a different artist each issue including the likes of Pete Woods and Rick Burchett, the story begins with the Joker being given a diagnosis of terminal brain cancer. Deciding to pull one last joke, Joker, who at the time was locked up in DC's high security metahuman prison, the Slab, releases a gas that is a diluted form of his usual Joker Venom toxin, one that gives all the villains imprisoned a Joker smile and complexion, and a touch of his own madness. Joker goes to continually more extreme lengths to really put on one more show for the world before his death. Of course, it turns out the test results were faked by a doctor who hoped that Joker learning of his own mortality would make him rethink his ways, and in the end it comes down to Nightwing and other members of the Batman family confronting Joker in Gotham City.

From what I've read about the history of this series, it started out as a Batfamily event that grew too big for its own britches, with editorial thinking it would make a great line-wide crossover. Unfortunately, it felt very forced in the case of a lot of the crossovers, and really only had any effect on the titles that Dixon was writing at the time (Nightwing, Robin, Birds of Prey). Despite being kind of fun, it served no real purpose than to further overexpose the then very overexposed Joker, and a Joker based event that barely effected Batman can only be viewed as something of a failure.

After another period of no crossovers, 2004 saw the release of Identity Crisis, written by Brad Meltzer with art by Rags Morales. Calling this a crossover is a bit of a stretch. While a few books were bannered as tie-ins, they simply expanded on a couple of the events in the series, and the mini-series stood completely on its own. It did, however, have a drastic impact on the DC Universe at the time. When Sue Dibny , the wife of the Elongated Man, is murdered, the quest to find her killer is on. But as other family members of the Justice League and their allies are attacked, a secret from the League's past is revealed: for years a group within the League was erasing the memories of villains, and sometimes even changing their personalities by means of magic. In the end, the killer is revealed to be Jean Loring, the Atom's ex-wife, who had thought that by placing herself in seeming danger, the Atom would fall in love with her again, and it is revealed Batman had his memory altered to forget his finding out what his fellow Leaguers were doing, the gap in his memory causing his increasing paranoia.

Identity Crisis might be one of the most polarizing events in DC Comics history. While initially somewhat well regarded, the series has become reviled in some corners over the years. Accusations of misogyny due to it's handling of rape and female characters, and the fact that the mystery doesn't hold up on multiple readings, plus a somewhat strangely one sided between the Justice League and Deathstroke the Terminator, are often called out as its failings. I remember having heated discussions at the comic shop as it was coming out about who did it, and frankly I lost a bet as to who the initial victim would be (my money was on Connor Hawke, the son of Green Arrow), and I do feel the wonderful, light hearted characters of Ralph and Sue Dibny deserved a better and happier ending than this series gave them. Still, the art was gorgeous, and there are some great Batman moments throughout the series. Whether that redeems it on any level is up to the reader, and it did start setting the stage for the next, more ambitious, crossover.

Infinite Crisis, written by Geoff Johns with art by Phil Jiminez, Jerry Ordway, George Perez, and Ivan Reis, served as a sequel to and celebration of the 20th anniversary of Crisis on Infinite Earths. The previous seven months had a series of mini-series (The OMAC Project, Villains United, Day of Vengeance, and the Rann-Thanagar War) that moved various pieces into place for the series, bannered as "Countdown to Infinite Crisis." With the events of Identity Crisis and The OMAC Project having splintered the relationship between Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, the survivors the original Crisis, watching the universe from a crystal realm outside reality, decide to head back to the universe to set the world right, and rewrite reality to how they see fit. But while Kal-L, the original Superman of Earth 2, does his best to make the heroes of the one Earth understand and ally Batman with himself, Alexander Luthor has convinced the emotionally damage Superboy-Prime to serve him and create a world that will suit him. With a Secret Society of Supervillains at his beck and call, massive battles ensue and a new Multiverse is born at the end of the series.

Infinite Crisis served not just to restart the Multiverse, but to address the failings of how the current versions of DC's trinity were written: Batman's paranoia, Superman's indecision, and Wonder Woman's distance from humanity. Within all the cosmic happenings, these three characters have fairly distinct arcs. That massive cosmic story is elaborate, drawing on a lot of DC history, the history of the Crisis most specifically. All the moving pieces established in the countdown stories were addressed, if some perfunctorily. It also served as one of the first examples of something DC has become notorious for in recent years, the massive culling of low-tier characters, killing off former Teen Titans and other minor characters to add punch to the story.

DC tried something interesting after issue five of Infinite Crisis, where all its books jumped forward one year, leaving a lot of questions as to how the status quos had changed. When Infinite Crisis ended, DC spent a year telling the story of that year, a year where no member of the trinity were active, in a weekly series named 52. With no crossovers, 52 was a self contained story that featured a lot of B list characters in the spotlight, including a few of my favorites: Booster Gold, the Question, and Renee Montoya. It's a great story, one with a lot of character and depth, and while not a crossover, I wanted to mention it due to it being a major result of the fallout of this series.

After the end of 52, DC began another weekly, Countdown, which was renamed halfway through to Countdown to Final Crisis. This series was not the success that 52 was, mostly due to it being more loosely plotted, and crossing over into various titles that seemed to have events inconsistent with the events in the core series. That inconsistency was made even more clear when Final Crisis itself began, and it was clear the writers of Countdown had only the vaguest notion of what was going to happen; their ending stood in contradiction to much of where Final Crisis started in 2008. Final Crisis, written by Grant Morrison and with art from JG Jones, Carlos Pacheco, and Doug Mahnke, was the story of the day evil won. Darkseid, having "died" at the end of Countdown, rises with his Apokoliptian gods in human hosts, and unleashes the Anti-Life Equation, enslaving much of humanity. Meanwhile, the Monitors, the guardians of the Multiverse, are in disarray, and Darkseid's plans have begun to collapse the Multiverse. Only the return of Barry Allen from the dead, the seeming death of Batman, and an alliance of Supermen from across the Multiverse stop Darkseid, and the greater threat behind the scenes, Mandrakk the Dark Monitor.

Final Crisis was an ambitious story, possibly Morrison's most ambitious story told in the DCU. It's seven issues build an elaborate tale of a crisis of truly apocalyptic proportions. It suffered mostly from intense delays, worse than the ones often suffered by crossovers, and inconsistent art. The last issue was also told in an experimental style; time was broken at the time in the story, so events take place out of chronological order, requiring multiple readings to truly put it together, which is not uncommon in Morrison titles. Still, it's one of the greatest Darkseid stories ever told, and touches on many of Morrison's central themes, about reality and heroism.

Final Crisis crossed over into only one ongoing title, Batman, which Morrison was writing at the time. The other crossovers were mini-series and one-shots. The problem with these is that many were very tangential, while others were absolutely required reading. The two issue Superman Beyond by Morrison and Mahnke is the initial introduction of Mandrakk, and without having read them, he pops up out of nowhere in that last issue as some sort of diablus ex machina (that's devil in the machine) to serve as some sort of final video game boss. Meanwhile Rage of the Red Lanterns and Legion of 3 Worlds barely even acknowledge that Final Crisis is happening, seemingly only bannered this way to garner them attention. The others fall somewhere in between. On the one hand, this is unscrupulous marketing, but on the other all those crossovers were actually good stories, so I'm not complaining about having read them.

After a brief interlude, Geoff Johns returns in 2009 with Blackest Night, drawn by Ivan Reis, the culmination of everything he has been doing with Green Lantern since Rebirth. The dead are rising, brought back as undead Black Lanterns, feeding on the emotions of the living, killing their victims, many of them super-heroes. The monstrous Nekron, lord of death, and his servant, the Black Hand, plan to wipe out all life in the universe, and it's up to an alliance from the seven corps of light, one for each color of the rainbow to stand against them. The heroes win, naturally, but a group of dead characters are returned to life with mysterious purposes that would become key to the DC Universe over the course of the next year's stories.

Blackest Night does something similar to what happened with Last Laugh, taking an event that was initially going to be part of one family of titles and expanding it to encompass the entire DCU, but is much more successful in it. The risen dead loved ones and allies of heroes fighting them are a much more exciting plot thread than a bunch of knock off Jokers, for one. Also, Johns had been building this for so long, it felt like it needed all these heroes to confront the threat that he had been building. It spun out DC's next weekly, which was actually two biweekly series that were released on alternating weeks, Brightest Day and Justice League: Generation Lost. These, along with a handful of other titles, addressed the resurrected heroes and their missions from the mysterious entity of Life, Nekron's opposite number introduced at the end of the series.

As crossovers go, DC went with a model similar to that of Final Crisis, with mostly mini-series tin-ins, three issue ones representing many of the families of titles that take up the DCU. There were a few minor two-issue tie-ins as well. All of these were tangential to the main story. However, Green Lantern and Green Lantern Corps also tied in, and actually served as important parts of the story in between issues, so they are nearly essential reading for the series to make full sense.

With more changes on the horizon, 2011 saw Flashpoint, from Geoff Johns and Andy Kubert The story opens with Barry Allen waking up in a world that is not his own, a much darker one than the one he is used to. Barry spends the series trying to set the timeline right, trying to figure out exactly what caused this new world to be born. It's one of those fun alternate reality stories where creators can go to town because nothing is permanent. In the end, Barry restores the timeline, but with some major changes to it, changes that birthed the New 52.

Because of its nature as a story set in an alternate timeline, Flashpoint has the least impact on the DCU as it was, but some of the most on the DCU as it is. This story created the new timeline that the DCU has taken place in for the past few years, the universe of younger and more inexperienced versions of the established heroes, a world without a Justice Society, a world where many characters no longer existed. In that way it's similar to Crisis on Infinite Earths. However, since it was only five issues, it didn't sprawl in the same way Crisis did. It really stayed focused on Barry Allen and this new world's Batman trying to set things right. It used it's crossovers, a series of three issue mini-series, to give the world more depth.

The final crossover to date, and the first of the New 52 era, was Forever Evil, once again by Geoff Johns, this time with art by David Finch. Unprepared for their attack by inexperience, the Justice League is easily taken out by the Crime Syndicate, their evil alternate universe counterparts, and the only people left to save the world from them is a small coalition of villains led by Lex Luthor and Batman.

Forever Evil was a fun enough story, with darker and more twisted versions of the classic Crime Syndicate than have been presented before. However, there wasn't much to differentiate it from other Crime Syndicate stories; sure, they fought other villains and not the JLA, but that could have been done as an arc in Justice League. It also suffered sever delays that screwed up the scheduling on other books, as the debut of various new titles was dependent on the series ending. There was also a dependence on reading Justice League to get important backstory on the Syndicate and to see what Cyborg was doing, so his appearance at the end of the seventh issue was not completely out of left field.

I'm being a bit harsh because I expect amazing things from Geoff Johns, and this was only ok. He does write one of the best Lex Luthors in comics, and so getting a seven issue Lex Luthor and friends series was a treat. And as for how it effected the DC Universe, well it made Lex into a hero, as least as far as the people of the DCU Earth are concerned, and it "killed" Dick Grayson, setting up the excellent Grayson series. And with the upcoming "Darkseid War" story in Justice League spinning directly out of it, there is still potential for ramifications yet to be felt.

And that's where we are. Next Wednesday, Convergence #0 is released, a series combining different cities from different versions of the DCU Earth, giving glimpses of many of the time periods I've talked about over the course of these articles. Whether it's a it or miss, we'll just have to see. Next Friday, the final part of this little trip down memory lane, talking about the themes that played out over DC Comics annuals.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

5 Reasons You Should Care About … The Masters of Evil

On last week’s Agents of SHIELD, Cal (Kyle MacLachlan), whom nerds may know better from the comics as Mr. Hyde, assembled a team of random supervillains (Angar the Screamer!) in a revenge play against Director Coulson. It reminded me of Marvel’s best-known team of random rotating supervillains, the Masters of Evil. And with Daniel Bruhl (Inglourious Basterds) believed to be cast as Baron Zemo in Captain America: Civil War, now seems like a good time to familiarize oneself with the nasty brigade.

The basics: The Masters of Evil were created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Chic Stone and first appeared in 1964’s Avengers #6, during a time when villain teams kept some variation of evil in their name to let obtuse Silver Age readers know where they stood. See also the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants (X-Men) and DC’s Legion of Super-Villains.

1. Seemingly anyone can be a Master of Evil: Past Masters include both Barons Zemo (Heinrich and Helmut), two Black Knights, the Melter, Radioactive Man (the green Chinese scientist, not the Simpsons character), the Enchantress and her Executioner, Wonder Man, Ultron, Klaw, Whirlwind, Egghead, Moonstone, the Scorpion, Tiger Shark, the Beetle, the Shocker, the Absorbing Man, Blackout, Black Mamba, Fixer, Goliath, Grey Gargoyle, Mr. Hyde, Screaming Mimi, Titania, the Wrecking Crew, Yellowjacket, Doctor Octopus, Gargantua, Jackhammer, Powderkeg, Puff Adder, Justine Hammer, Cyclone, Flying Tiger, Man-Killer, Aqueduct, Bison, Blackwing, Boomerang, Cardinal, Constrictor, Dragonfly, Eel, Icemaster, Joystick, Lodestone, Man-Ape, Quicksand, Scorcher, Shatterfist, Shockwave, Slyde, Sunstroke, Supercharger, Gypsy Moth, Hydro-Man, Machinesmith, Max Fury, Princess Python, Vengeance, Black Talon, Brothers, Grimm, Carrion, Crossfire, Diablo, Firebrand, Griffin, Killer Shrike, Lady Stilt-Man, Pink Pearl, Squid, Taskmaster, Bi-Beast, Madcap, Ringer, Madame Masque, Daimon Hellstrom, Cullen Bloodstone and Lightmaster. Not gonna lie, I have no idea who half these people are, but I assure you they’re all evil. EVIL!

2. They once trashed Avengers Mansion: The fourth incarnation of the Masters, gathered by Helmut Zemo, was so large they managed to outnumber and overwhelm the Avengers, taking over their base of operations, torturing Jarvis the butler, beating Hercules into a coma, kidnapping Captain America and leaving Wasp the only Avenger left standing. The team inevitably crumbled due to clashing agendas and egos, especially between the younger Zemo and Moonstone.

3. They turn good guys bad: In his very first appearance in Avengers #9, Simon Williams, aka Wonder Man, was pitted against the Avengers as a pawn of Zemo. He originally died in that issue but was brought back nearly a decade later in 1972’s Avengers #102. Another Avenger who once joined the Masters was Dane Whitman, the Black Knight, who infiltrated the team to defeat them from the inside. Whitman is the nephew of the previous Black Knight, Nathan Garrett, who was one of the original Masters.

4. And bad guys good: After Onslaught, when the Fantastic Four and Avengers got sucked into a pocket dimension for a year, a new superhero team emerged called the Thunderbolts, who turned out to be the Masters of Evil in disguise. Some of the team’s members went native and ended up becoming legitimate good guys, including Songbird (formerly Screaming Mimi), and the Beetle. Beetle, aka Mach V, is used to hilarious effect as Boomerang’s parole officer in Nick Spencer and Steve Lieber’s much-missed Superior Foes of Spider-Man series. As the Thunderbolts, Zemo’s team ended up fighting a separate Masters of Evil organized by Justine Hammer, daughter of Justin Hammer, industrialist and foe of Tony Stark.

5. They made the Thunderbolts name stick: A book with the Thunderbolts title has been published fairly consistently since the original series by Kurt Busiek and Mark Bagley debuted in 1997, with slight tweaks to the concept along the way (and a rather dubious one in which the book became about an underground supervillain fight club). After Civil War, they became a team of unreformed supervillains on tight, Norman Osborn-controlled leashes. After Siege, they became Luke Cage’s team of reformed baddies. And after A vs. X, they became the Red Hulk’s team of anti-heroes.

Read this: “Avengers Under Siege” by Roger Stern and John Buscema (Avengers #270-276), the 1986 storyline in which the Masters trash Avengers Mansion. Also read Busiek and Bagley’s original run on Thunderbolts.

Watch that: Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, which adapted a number of Masters of Evil stories, including “Avengers Under Siege.”

Dan Grote’s new novel, Magic Pier, is available however you get your books online. He has been writing for The Matt Signal since 2014. He and Matt have been friends since the days when making it to issue 25 guaranteed you a foil cover.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 3/18

Batgirl: Endgame #1
Story: Cameron Stewart & Brenden Fletcher
Art: Bengal

The silent comic isn't easy to do. I've read quite a few of them over the years, and I have often found them confusing. The artist has to have a very strong sense of storytelling, and I can only imagine the writer has to provide a strong script, or have a strong relationship with the artist, so they know the style the writer is trying to convey. The Batgirl one shot tying into the big Joker story running in Batman right now, "Endgame" is one of those really strong silent comics. Batgirl, who has been living in Bristol, one of the outer boroughs of Gotham, stands defending the bridge from the main city as those not infected by the Joker's toxin flee before the bridge is blown. It's a taut, well paced story, with legions of grinning, Joker looking Gothamites try to kill those who remain uninfected; it's a zombie apocalypse with a really creepy laugh track. But if the Jokers aren't enough of a problem, Tiffany Fox, daughter of Lucius Fox, has been separated from her parents, and Batgirl has to rescue her form the sea of Jokers. The Foxes were featured supporting cast members in the last year of Batwing, but haven't shown up as a family since then, and if you know the hardships they went through there, a reader can only imagine the devastation of losing their surviving daughter. So Batgirl uses a combination of brains and skills to save the girl. She also has help from Frankie Charles, her roommate who in the most recent issue of Batgirl (#40, also on sale this week, and a fine comic in its own right), joined Batgirl's crusade, seemingly as a new Oracle of sorts. Bengal is an artist I'm not familiar with, but his art is perfect for this issue. His Jokers are creepy, grinning ghouls, and his Jker (the real one, not the infected people) who appears on a screen briefly has an air of menace and madness. But it's the scene where Batgirl has to communicate with Tiffany over a distance using hand signals that sold me. The facial expressions and hand gestures are more eloquent than many words balloons. This is a great comic to show how far Batgirl has come as a character, confident and strong in the face of the man who crippled her; if the New 52 Batgirl needed an issue where she proved she had moved beyond the trauma of the Joker, this was the one.

Invisible Republic #1
Story: Gabriel Hardman & Corinna Bechko
Art: Gabriel Hardman

The dystopian sci-fi is a genre unto itself, and Image comics has some great ones going right now, with LazarusEast of West, and the recently launched Descender. But I figured I'd give Invisible Republic a shot, on the strength of its creators alone. Hardman and Bechko did a tremendous job on the second volume of Star Wars: Legacy, exceeding all  my expectations, and another science fiction story seems right up their alley. And it did not disappoint. On Avalon, a distant world, reporter Croger Babb is getting nowhere asking people about how they felt when the Malory Regime fell. There's no explanation of what the Malory Regime was, but you don't need it. The look of the world, and the reaction people are giving Babb, makes it pretty clear things haven't been good on Avalon for quite sometime. And things for Babb aren't looking much better until he finds a bum burning stacks of paper. He buys the paper and settles in to read it, after we see that he is not exactly looked upon well by his fellow reporters, and we flash back to a time before Avalon was settled, when people had just arrived, before faster than light travel had been perfected, and to two people on the run: Maia Reveron, who wrote the memoir, and her cousin, Arthur McBride. Again, we enter in medias res, with Maia and Arthur camping alone on a beach, hungry and seemingly cast out. But an encounter with soldiers turns quickly brutal, as the soldiers attempt to talk them into joining the army of the Commonwealth, and when they are refused decide to simply conscript them. The fight scene is brutal, and it's clear that Arthur has a killer's instinct, while Maia has a softer heart, something that I can only imagine will come back to bite them, as she spares one of the soldiers after Arthur kills the other two. The final page reveal sets up the direction of the series, as it turns out Arthur eventually became the strongman and dictator of Avalon. It feels like we'll be watching the creation of a monster in one narrative, while Babb will be dealing with the fallout of Arthur's regime in the other. While this is a first issue, the world has a lived in feel; it's familiar without being derivative, like watching Alien for the first time. Hardman's art, with it's gritty textures, perfectly suits a world in decline. If Image keeps releasing new, smart, and interesting series like Invisible Republic, I might as well just hand my wallet over.

The Manhattan Projects: The Sun Beyond the Stars #1
Story: Jonathan Hickman
Art:Nick Pitarra

After returning from hiatus, it's nice to see that Manhattan Projects hasn't lost a step; it is still the craziest comic out there. This first issue of the new mini-series, The Sun Beyond the Stars, has a slightly tighter focus than the previous volume, with it's sprawling cast. The opening sequence, which feels like the teaser to a science fiction movie, introduces us to Primor, a mad alien scientist, and the Sionna Science Union, the government that he seems to have it out for. Primor's weapon of choice are spores that seem to sprout world killing monsters, and he has no problem obliterating planets and betraying allies to get them. Primor escapes at the end of the teaser, but if we've been taught anything by the first volume, is that nothing stops a mad scientist from attaining his goal, so I'm pretty sure we'll be seeing Primor again soon. The main story of the issue begins with finding Yuri Gagarin, cosmonaut, imprisoned on a space station, in a holding cell, hearing the story of an alien named Garru who apparently ate all the young of an entire species by accident, thus committing genocide. Yuri is apparently here for a parking violation, his ship wandering into the area as he looked for his lost dog, Laika, shot out into space during the last volume. We get a particularly funny court scene, when Yuri and Garru are brought before Ryleth the Hammer, and we learn Garru's full name, or at least his known alias. It's by no means safe for work, and I try to keep the swearing to a minimum on here, but it struck me as so funny I got an odd look from my wife as I laughed violently at it while sitting on the couch. The issue ends with Yuri and Ryleth heading to a bar, and a reunion, one that does not go exactly as expected. Jonathan Hickman is a writer who tends towards huge casts and crazy ideas flying every which way. But this issue, along with his recently launched The Dying and the Dead, are more intimate stories, focusing on one character. That doesn't mean the ideas are any less crazy or interesting, and that the books don't feel like Hickman stories. And Nick Pitarra is working at the top of his game, with wonderful and completely original alien designs. I'm curious to see where the rest of the cast of the Manhattan Projects are, or whether this will be a Yuri and Laika story exclusively, and exactly what Primor is up to. It's bad science all over again, and I couldn't be happier.

Dan Grote brings us a review of a Matt Signal favorite writer working with everyone's favorite Merc with a Mouth...

Deadpool’s Art of War TPB
Story: Peter David
Art: Scott Koblish

While Deadpool defies normal comic book conventions as a rule, he tends to defy the most rules in his miniseries. He’s killed alternate versions of himself, classic literary characters, and even the entire Marvel Universe.

In Deadpool’s Art of War, Marvel’s mirthful mercenary runs through Sun Tzu – the original author of the text from which this series takes its cues – changes Loki back to his classic look (while taking pot shots at J. Michael Straczynski and Matt Fraction in the process) and destroys Manhattan by pitting Earth’s Mightiest Heroes against the combined forces of the Nine Realms (That’s right, nine; Angela’s not in this one), in a battle that will never be spoken of again.

All this is so that Deadpool can publish his own version of The Art of War and make money. All he has to do is convince the Norse god of mischief to wage war on Midgard.

Peter David seems such a natural fit for Deadpool – a humor-driven character with occasional bouts of pathos – that it’s nearly unbelievable he hasn’t written him before, save, apparently, for an off-panel cameo in X-Factor. Artist Scott Koblish makes things fit even more like a glove, having penciled ’Pool in Gerry Duggan and Brian Posehn’s (nearly over) ongoing series. Koblish drew the flashback issues in the main title, such as when Deadpool teams up with Power Man and Iron Fist against the White Man or when he teams up with Iron Man against alcoholism. Koblish excels at drawing DP in when-in-Rome-style costumes, and he gives Wade a pretty sweet/ridiculous Asgardian helmet early on in the book, while he’s playing Loki against Thor.

Look for guest appearances from all your favorite Asgardians – except Angela – and pretty much all of Earth’s heroes, from the Avengers to the Fantastic Four to the X-Men. Also, because Loki is waging war on Manhattan and the Hulk makes an appearance, look for an easy nod to the Avengers movie.

(Please note: I wasn't able to find a good image of the cover to the trade paperback of this series, so that is the cover to issue #1.) 

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Skies are Red: A History of the Crossover Event in DC Comics Part 1

Convergence is coming. DC Comics new event starts in two weeks, a story that blends worlds from all across DC history into one massive story. And the beginning of that story has me thinking about all the crossovers that have come before. So today begins a multi-part article tracing the history of event comics at DC Comics. I'll be touching on the tent-pole events in parts one and two, and the events and themes of Annuals in the third. This is meant as an overview, but going back for a quick look at these made me want to do a deeper dive into some of them again, so there might be an upcoming longer piece or two spinning out of this.

In 1985, continuity for DC Comics had become muddled, with an infinite number of Earths and multiple versions of each hero interacting with each other through different stories. And so it was decided a stream-lining needed to occur. And Marv Wolfman and George Perez, creators of DC's biggest hit of the time, New Teen Titans, were the guys to do it. And so the stage was set for DC's first mega-crossover: Crisis on Infinite Earths. This is the crossover that all DC crossovers have been measured against since. Worlds lived, worlds died, and the DCU was quite literally never the same.

The Anti-Monitor, a godlike being from the anti-matter universe, decided that it was time to bring the curtain down on the positive matter universe, and the only thing standing between him and his goal was his opposite number, The Monitor, and the collective heroes of the DC Universe, gathered by the Monitor's herald, Harbinger. Groups of mismatched heroes were sent to stop different realities from collapsing... and they failed.

Yeah, the good guys basically lose in Crisis. Sure, they save the one remaining Earth, but their goal to save the Multiverse was a miserable failure. Along the way, countless heroes and villains die, most notably the Flash (Barry Allen) and the Silver Age Supergirl. The heroes do eventually stop the Anti-Monitor, and no one except D-lister Psycho-Pirate winds up remembering the history of the Multiverse, as the final heroes, Superman of Earth-2, Superboy-Prime, and Alexander Luthor of Earth-3, go off to their eternal reward. But more on them later.

Crisis works on a lot of the levels a crossover should. It's exciting, and brings in characters from across DC history. It presents unusual matches, and spotlights various heroes. It has a threat that logically would be something that would require all these heroes to team up. It even has legions of villains teaming up to stop Anti-Monitor. It's sweeping and epic. It also served the important purpose of unifying the continuity of DC Comics history into one Earth. There might be multiple Flashes, but they are three different guys from three different walks of life. There's only one Batman, one Superman, one Wonder Woman. There's one Hawkman. Or maybe two. No more than three! OK, so not everything was perfect. But the birth pains spawned a new universe with new potential. And the different generations of heroes set up the concept of legacy that was a key aspect of the DC Universe from Crisis up through Flashpoint.

The one real problem that Crisis has rests in its crossovers into other titles. I feel like a good crossover allows the universe to feel cohesive, to allow other books to tie into it without impeding their progress, but adding an important story element to their progress that shows a wider world. With Crisis, the element that tied most books into it were the Red Skies. As the Anti-Monitor's antimatter waves approached a world, the skies would turn red. Many Crisis crossovers were simply a mention of the Red Skies, and then business as usual. While it didn't impede the progress of the books, it certainly didn't do anything to explore the event as it effected a series lead. And since then, a "Red Skies Crossover" has been a book that ties into something in only the most tangential way.

Legends, written by Len Wein and John Ostrander with art by John Byrne, released in 1986, was the first crossover and test of the new DC Universe. It seemed to have two purposes. Purpose one was to set up various new and revised concepts that would springboard out of it and define this new DC Universe. The second purpose was to set-up Darkseid as the preeminent villain of not just a corner of the DC Universe, but of the Universe as a whole. And it succeeded on both fronts.

The main plot of the series had Glorious Godfrey, one of Darkseid's Elite, posing as a news pundit on Earth, to stir up anti-hero sentiment, allowing Earth to be an easy target for Darkseid's eventual conquest. But Dr. Fate gathers a new Justice League (including Captain Marvel, now a part of the main DCU), Amanda Waller secretly debuts the Suicide Squad to destroy Darkseid's monster, Brimstone, and a new heroine (new to this universe anyway) Wonder Woman, appears, all allowing the heroes to prevail.

Legends succeeds not only as a good story, but as the crossover springboard for three of the most successful DC titles of the late 80s/early 90s: Wally West's series as The Flash, the "Bwah-ha-ha" Giffen/DeMatteis Justice League, and John Ostrander's Suicide Squad, all have their seeds planted right in the midst of this event. If for not any other reason than that, Legends is a winner.

1988 saw Millennium debut, written by Steve Englehart and with art by Joe Staton. The Guardians of the Universe, the alien race that created the Green Lantern Corps, have decided to leave this plain of existence, and before leaving arrive on Earth, saying a new generation of Guardians will be come this world, and asking its heroes to gather these new Guardians. What should be an easy task is complicated by the Manhunters, the robots who served as the Guardians' first intergalactic police force, who have learned of this and wish to stop the creation. As part of this plan, the Manhunters revealed they knew the identities of Earth's heroes and had spent years planting sleeper agents, some robots, some mind-controlled humans, and some willing collaborators, in the personal lives of all the heroes. Even with this, the heroes bested the Manhunters and saved the New Guardians.

Millennium's structure was much more strict than previous crossovers. The series ran eight weekly issues, and each book was flagged with Week 1, Week 2, etc. The accompanying week's crossovers were flagged with the similar weeks, and the story depended on the reader buying many of the accompanying crossover. The main mini-series was littered with footnotes to that week's crossover, making reading just the event mini-series frustrating.

And while this couldn't be known at the time, it had no discernible long term effects on the DC Universe. The New Guardians series folded after twelve issues, and most of the characters faded into obscurity, and those who had established pasts returned to them. Many of the Manhunters puppets who were important characters (Lana Lang, Jim Gordon) never really mentioned it again, and while Wally West was broken up by his father being one of their willing agents, it was eventually ignored as well.

Invasion!, written by Bill Mantlo and Keith Giffen and with art from Todd McFarlane and Bart Sears, was a different form than any of DC's previous crossovers. Instead of longer monthly stories, six to twelve issues, or weekly stories, 1989's Invasion! was three months in three massive, 80-page issues with no ads. The plot of the series is pretty self-explanatory from the title. A coalition of alien races invades Earth. The reasoning is that humans have the metagene, allowing them to develop powers and possibly become a dominant species in the galaxy. One of the cool aspects of the story is that it takes many of the alien races that were prominent in the Legion of Super-Heroes lore of the 30th century, like the Khunds and the Dominators (who instigated the invasion as a pretense to examine metahumans so they could breed them as soldiers for galactic domination), and introduces them into the modern DCU.

While the well known heroes of the DC Universe do figure into this event, a lot of time is spent with minor characters and with establishing the new cosmic status quo of the DCU. We meet the characters who will form L.E.G.I.O.N., the cosmic police force for hire fronted by Vril Dox II, Brainiac's son, we get some time with Adam Strange, and we meet the Blasters, a team of metahumans captured by the Dominators, including Snapper Carr, former sidekick to the Justice League, DC's answer to Rick Jones.

One of the most important aspects of the series was the dropping of a Gene Bomb, a bomb meant to effect anyone with the metagene and eventually kill them. Alien and non-methuman heroes were able to find the Dominators cure, but not before the bomb effected many heroes. Animal Man and Fire both had their powers effected, and many new metahumans had their powers awakened, including Maxwell Lord, then the Justice League International's manager/leader/manipulator. This allowed for ramifications that spilled out of the series, and while many were the longest of term, did play a part in the canvas of the DC Universe.

Now, I have done my best to always keep to my creed about only writing about comics I like, and not bashing comics. But this is a historical piece, and I'm trying to not leave anything out. I already made it clear that I thought Millennium was lackluster, but it has nothing on War of the Gods. Published in 1991 as part of a celebration of Wonder Woman's 50th anniversary that never really materialized like Superman or Batman's, War of the Gods had a decent core concept: Circe instigates a war between the Greek and Roman gods, and encourages other pantheons to attack, so she can claim the powers of the gods and do something nebulous with it, partially kill the Earth goddess, Gaea, partially become the greatest goddess ever. It's not really clear. This is partially because of  arguments between editorial and series creator George Perez, and partially because of the format of the series.

War of the Gods actually was a more intense reading experience than Millennium because it wasn't just crossovers week by week, but all 20+ crossovers and the core mini were individually numbered, so you were supposed to read the whole crossover in specific order. Unfortunately, due to delays, the parts were often released out of order, and the mini-series stands poorly on its own, with no lasting ramifications at all, and remains only one of two of these events never collected in trade. Of course, it had one great crossover, Suicide Squad #58, where a Black Adam led Squad attacks Circe's fortress. Having recruited everyone who would join, the team includes The Writer, Grant Morrison's in comic avatar who became trapped in the comic world after writing himself in at the end of his Animal Man run, and who has a typewriter strapped to him that allows him to affect reality as he writes. Unfortunately, he suffers writers block during the invasion and is torn apart by Circe's beast men. It's pretty great.

DC took the first of its multi-year breaks in between crossovers after War of the Gods, and it wasn't for three years in 1994 until another happened. Zero Hour saw time collapsing, with nothingness moving from the beginning and end of time towards today. Dan Jurgens held the reigns as writer and artist, and put out some of the best art of his career in a sprawling tale that was designed to clean up some of the messes that were created by Crisis, problems like the Justice Society's age or the weird inconsistencies with Hawkman's background. It also established the new big bad of the DC Universe: Parallax, the corrupted and maddened version of Hal Jordan, the Silver Age Green Lantern, who had taken the powers of the Guardians after killing them and was trying to rewrite time to suit his will. He did wind up destroying everything (another big win for the heroes), but a new Big Bang was caused by the hero Damage and time restarted. This allowed streamlining of backstories again, and setting up a firm timeline that lasted for about as long as firm timelines in comics ever do.

Zero Hour was the first of these DC event minis I read as it came out, and I have some find recollections of it. It was a bit awkward at times, like any story involving time travel and similar things are, but it did flow. The crossovers featured heroes running into alternate timeline versions of themselves and versions from the past, and some of these crossovers were excellent. The issue of Batman had him meet a Batgirl never shot by the Joker, Kon-El Superboy met the pre-Crisis Clark Kent Superboy, and Tim Drake Robin met a young Dick Grayson Robin, for instance. The rewritten timeline did make some serious changes, including the first complete reboot of the Legion of Super-Heroes, which alienated some older Legion fans but streamlined some very very messy continuity involving multiple version of the Legion.

Spinning out of the end of Zero Hour was DC's first Zero Month, where all titles were numbered zero. Some of the books (Batman, Superman, Flash) retold origins with minor changes. Others (Hawkman, Green Lantern) established new status quos. Six new series launched with these zero issues, and while five didn't amount to much, the sixth, one with some of the most direct fallout from Zero Hour, was Starman, which I have written about at length, and was a resounding success. This also marks the first of three crossovers that form the spine of Hal Jordan's corruption and resurrection arc, and arc that would eventually lead to Geoff Johns's hit Green Lantern franchise.

Underworld Unleashed, from 1995 with writer Mark Waid and artist Howard Porter, was another story that was a great idea in theory. A new demonic character, Neron, appeared offering supervillains augmented and improved powers at the cost of their souls. Many took it, thus creating new versions of many B- and C-list villains. The heroes eventually travel to Hell to stop Neron, and it's only through the innocence and nobility of Captain Marvel, and the cleverness of the Trickster, James Jesse, who Neron had taken on as his adviser and who betrayed him, that Neron did not win,

Waid has said in interviews and the afterward to the trade of the series that he doesn't like Underworld. He thinks it was a hamfisted attempt to gussy up villains from an earlier time. Right or wrong, next to none of the augmented villains stayed augmented. With the exception of Blockbuster and Charaxes (who was once Killer Moth), all the Batman villains reverted shortly to classic forms. Neron, who seemed poised to become a major villain across the DCU, would pop up only occasionally, and never as more than a demonic footnote, never earning the cred of his Marvel counterpart, Mephisto. James Robinson did use the fallout of Underworld in Starman, not just the villain he revitalized in his crossover, Dr. Phosphorus,  but revealing a couple of deals undisclosed at the time that played a major part in the series' climax. But with that notable exception, Underworld remains one of the forgotten crossovers.

Final Night, from writer Karl Kesel and with art by Stuart Immonen in 1996, was the second of the crossovers featuring Hal Jordan.  The Sun Eater, this big traveling cloud of gas (picture any evil entity from the original Star Trek series and you’ll get the picture) comes along and, well, eats the sun.  With Earth dying, the heroes do their best to destroy the Sun Eater and reignite the sun.  In the end, it is Hal Jordan, in what was to be his last redemptive gesture, who sacrificed himself and brought the sun back.

The series would be worth it alone for Immonen's gorgeous art, and seeing him draw the entire DC Universe, along with the amazing climax, where Jordan ignites the sun while reciting the Green Lantern oath. The crossovers were mostly small, showing the heroes dealing with the effects of the missing sun. Some writers were able to even easily fit that aspect into their existing story, weaving the tapestry of the event into the series. An especially good one was Hitman #8, where hitman Tommy Monaghan and his fellow hitters gather at their local bar, Nonnan's, and reflect on their brushes with death. It's a very small story, and shows Garth Ennis's strength with those little character beats after a series of issues that were just tons of mindless, and fun, violence.

With the exception of Hal Jordan's death, the ramifications to the DCU were small on this one. A squad of Legionnaires, displaced in time, met the post-Zero Hour version of Ferro Lad, a longtime pre-Crisis member, who survived where his pre-Crisis counterpart died fighting a Sun Eater. The loss of the sun also caused the solar powered Superman to lose his powers, which led to a reconciliation with the currently estranged Lois Lane and their marriage, and the eventual debut of the electric blue Superman. So from that we see that not all crossover effects are good.

Back into confession mode: If War of the Gods was bad, it was at least not as bad as Genesis, the next year's (1997) crossover from writer John Byrne and artist Ron Wagner. In all truth, I have no idea what exactly was going on in Genesis.  I’ve read it twice now, and I still don’t quite get it.  The energy wave that created everything is collapsing back on itself and all the energy in the universe is stopping and everything is going to end.  And the New Gods are involved.  Maybe some of the issues it tied into made the totality of the story make more sense, but I guess I don’t have those, so it all seemed more than a bit of a muddle, and the less said about it, the better. By the end, Highfather died and was replaced by Takion as ruler of New Genesis, but he got better. Beside that, it had no ramifications and its crossovers effected no book aside from the New Gods related ones. genesis is the other of the event never released as a trade.

One Million, written by Grant Morrison and with art by Val Semeiks (1998),  is one of my favorites of all the crossovers. Heroes from the 853rd century (when, if they still are being published, DC comics will hit issue one million) arrive to celebrate the return of  the original Superman and the heroes old and new get caught up in the machinations of Vandal Savage and the sentient artificial sun, Solaris. 

It’s one of those crazy ideas that only Grant Morrison could come up with and execute, and as he was involved in plotting nearly every issue the series tied into (with the exception of the particularly funny issue of Hitman), it created a great cohesion of you read every issue.  Beautifully, though, you don’t feel like you have to read everything either, as seems to be a concern when EVERYTHING is written by the same guy.  There are some excellent moments in both the core mini and the tie-ins, these wild, high concept ideas that Grant Morrison is the master of. It ties in with a lot of the concepts he was exploring in Justice League at the time.

The Justice Legion A of the 853rd Century are characters that have popped up occasionally since then, including in Morrison's seminal All Star Superman, along with Solaris, who is a purely Morrison character. There's a great amount of design work, creating all these new versions of classic heroes and concepts. But it's really a story about heroism and inspiration, themes that Morrison loves, and are at the heart of superhero comics. It's also nice that, while the ramifications aren't major, it's such a good story that it doesn't matter. That love letter to the self-contained tales of the Silver Age stands on its own, and works best that way.

And that's it for this first part. Next Friday starts with a mostly forgotten crossover written by a guy who would later become the man who defined the DCU of the 00s, and the crossovers of the 21st century. See you then.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

5 Reasons You Should Care About … Gorilla Grodd

Contrary to what the show would have you believe, The Flash’s biggest long-game tease isn’t about the murder of Barry’s parents or time travel or Harrison Wells revealing himself as the Reverse Flash.

In the very first episode of the CW series, as the camera pans through the wreckage of STAR Labs after the particle accelerator explosion, we see an empty, open cage with a sign on it that says, simply, “Grodd.” That was when I knew I was going to like that show.

Since then, we’ve seen mostly brief glimpses – a hand here, a body cast in shadow there – until the most recent episode, when Wells sicced Grodd on Mr. Krabs General Eiling, revealing the 800-pound telepathic, talking gorilla in the room.

There’s a certain amount of ridiculous to the Flash’s rogues gallery. There’s nothing edgy about names like Captain Cold or Weather Wizard or Professor Zoom. The best thing to do is lean into it and accept them for what they are, little slivers of the Silver Age that, for whatever reason, stood the test of time. And it really doesn’t get more Silver Age Flash Villain than a talking gorilla who believes himself superior to man, uses a mind-control helmet and constantly tries to dominate the human race.

So here’s a love letter to comics’ greatest sinister simian.

The basics: Grodd was created by John Broome and Carmine Infantino and first appeared in The Flash #106 in 1959.

1. He’s from a city of gorillas: Gorilla Grodd is from a village in Africa called Gorilla City, which is inhabited by hyperintelligent gorillas. They got that way after a radioactive meteor alien spacecraft crash-landed into their village.

2. Did I mention he’s got mind-control powers? Though all the gorillas in Gorilla City were supersmart, only two, Grodd and Solivar, are telepathic and telekinetic. It was Solivar who alerted the Flash to Grodd’s villainy, leading to decades of speedster-on-simian matchups.

3. The Rogues are his fault: Grodd first caused some of the Flash’s other villains to team up, breaking them out of jail to distract the speedster during a story in which Grodd’s brain had been transferred to that of a zoo gorilla named Freddy.

4. “He’s made no fewer than 18 attempts to wipe humanity from the Earth.” This fact, I confess, is from Wikipedia, and could be outdated or completely made up. But I do like the idea that someone’s keeping count. Does pale in comparison to the number of times Pinky and the Brain have tried to take over the world, though.

5. He killed his father and ate his brain: According to Grodd’s New 52 origin, when Grodd came of age, he challenged his father for control of Gorilla City, impaled him on his horned helmet and celebrated by eating his brain to consume all his knowledge and memories, because, y’know, that’s how that works. He later leads an invasion of Central City and gains access to the Speed Force.

Read this: The New 52 Flash Vol. 3: Gorilla Warfare, by Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato

Watch that: It’s a tie. Justice League Unlimited sees Grodd set up the Legion of Doom as a supervillain co-op in which he gets a cut of the profits of any and all nefarious deeds and ends up fighting with Lex Luthor for control of the operation (and tacitly is sleeping with a human witch). For a more light-hearted take, check out Batman: The Brave and the Bold, which is the perfect example of a show leaning in to the ridiculousness of the Silver Age. Grodd first appears in episode 2 of the series, in which he turns Batman into a gorilla.

Dan Grote’s new novel, Magic Pier, is available however you get your books online. He has been writing for The Matt Signal since 2014. He and Matt have been friends since the days when making it to issue 25 guaranteed you a foil cover.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 3/11

Gronk, A Monster's Story Vol.1
Story & Art: Katie Cook

Gronk is a little monster who doesn't want to scare anyone, so she moves away from the other monsters and in with a person, and starts to learn about life among humans. It's a pretty simple set up, no? It is, and the beauty of the stories of Gronk are in that simplicity. An all-ages webcomic now being released in print from Action Lab, Katie Cook's Gronk has the feeling of some of the best comic strips I can think of. Gronk is unintentionally mischievous, sweet, and adorable. Add in her geeky new friend, Dale, a sweet natured geek lady, who takes Gronk in, along with Dale's pets, a huge Newfoundland named Harli and a cat named Kitty, and Gronk's stuffed animal cat, Kitteh, and you have the cast of this first collection of the strips. In it, we see Gronk exposed to movies and pop culture, and take to it. There are hints of Gronk wanting to see a bigger world, like wanting to see the new Harry Potter movie, but Dale being too nervous to take her out in public for people to see, which is the closest to conflict we get in the stories. What we get mostly are strips about discovery and friendship that will warm even the coldest of hearts. A favorite of mine is when Gronk tries to figure out why Kitty loves spending time in a box, and we get to see the difference between the imaginative Gronk, and what she pictures, and what the, well, catlike thoughts of Kitty are. There are some classic strip tropes as well in how Dale, who clearly had a simple, sedate life before, now has the chaos of a new houseguest who is as inquisitive as a small child. Bonus geek easter eggs in strips about boardgames, where you can read different game titles in Dale's closet of games, and the constant string of geek references on Dale's t-shirts. In the back of the book there is some great background on how Katie came up with Gronk, and some strips from other cartoonists featuring Gronk, including the wonderful Jay P. Fosgitt (oh, please, oh please, find some way for Gronk to meet Fosgitt's equally adorable troll, Bodie!). On a personal note, I met Katie Cook at NYCC this past year, where she was absolutely as sweet as can be, and drew a lovely mini-watercolor of my pet bunny, Smoakey, that was a birthday gift for my wife and now sits in a frame on our mantle. For that alone, the kindness and the sweetness, she's a creator to support, and her work, that hearkens back to so much of the best of Peanuts and Calvin & Hobbes, makes it a book to share with a younger family member, or just to enjoy to bring a smile to your face.

Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files: Down Town #2
Story: Jim Butcher and Mark Powers
Art: Carlos Gomez

After last issue, Harry Dresden is hot on the case of the monster that killed a pawnbroker, and so he's breaking out the magical big guns, in this case a skull. A skull named Bob. OK, so it's actually the spirit that lives in the skull that's named Bob, but still, Harry spends much of this issue talking to a skull. Harry and Bob make a great comedy duo; Bob is possibly the only character in the entire Dresden Files universe who is snarkier than Harry himself, and never fails to put Harry in his place. Harry also gets to fight the massive monster, and then gets to confront a consciousness possessing an entire pack of rats. I don't want to dwell on that, because I hate rats, but it made for a great visual in the issue. One of the things that makes these comic so different from the Dresden Files novels is that, while both have a first person narration from Harry, since comics are a more visual medium that doesn't depend on the narrator, we can cut away from Harry and see what the other members of the cast are doing. Thus we get to see Murphy staking out Gentleman John Marcone, Marcone revealing exactly why the crime boss and Baron of Chicago (according to The Unseelie Accords, the supernatural Geneva Convention) was interested in what looked like a simple magical muder. There's also a great moment where we see why Marcone is so clever a rival, with his knowledge that telling Harry to back off would just get Harry to dig his his heals harder. We also spend time with Molly, Harry's apprentice, as she trains, and the issue ends with both Molly and Harry in separate, but equally deadly, predicaments. Down Town is proving to be the widest in scope original Dresden Files comic, really feeling a part of Harry's life in his home town of Chicago. If you're going through withdrawal, waiting for the new novel, Peace Talks, then this is a great way to get your Dresden fix.

And Dan Grote reviews the first issue of the new series featuring Marvel's most famous fowl...

Howard the Duck #1
Story: Chip Zdarsky
Art: Joe Quinones

Steve Gerber takes ownership of Howard the Duck the way few other Marvel writers and artists have of their own creations. Certainly, there’s a tone and a meta-ness Gerber intended for the foul fowl that is hard to replicate. It’d be easy to write him as another fourth-wall-breaking character a la Deadpool or Harley Quinn. For Chip Zdarsky and Joe Quinones, the challenge is playing Howard straight, as a perpetually annoyed duck “trapped in a world he never made,” in what is still be a humor mag.

As such, Howard the Duck #1 is a tour of the Marvel Universe in three acts.

Act I is the She-Hulk act, and is written like a love letter to fans of Charles Soule and Javier Pulido’s just-canceled series. Howard has set up shop as a private eye in Jen Walters’ Brooklyn building. Angie Huang is there, as is Hei Hei the monkey. Howard grouses about why Jen, a character with whom he has a long history, won’t put him on the payroll as she does Hellcat. Jen refuses to bail Howard out of jail and otherwise looks for flimsy excuses to ignore him.

Act II is the Spider-Man act. Howard is hired to steal back something that was stolen by the Black Cat. Howard and his new sidekick, fellow cellmate Tara Tam, dress up as pizza deliverers and break into the Cat’s apartment and stumble around till they happen on the lifted jewelry, and the mistress of the house. The best part of this act – and of the book, quite frankly – is the splash page training montage, complete with lyrics to a fake ’80s training montage song.

Act III … sigh. So y’know how Howard had a pleasantly surprising bit part in the biggest movie of last year? Well, let’s just say that at the end of the issue, he ends up getting … Collected. And sharing a cell with a certain rodent-resembling rapscallion. And wearing the same G-D prison outfits from the movie.

But let’s not dwell on the Merry Marvel Marketing Mandates. I had high hopes for this book, given how much I’ve been enjoying Zdarsky and Matt Fraction’s Sex Criminals. This book definitely delivers the humor, and as of the first issue has a 66 percent success rate at illuminating the right parts of the Marvel Universe. Hopefully they find a way to boost that rate during and in spite of Secret Wars.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Terry Pratchett: A Rememberance

Yesterday, we lost one of literature's greatest satirists. Sir Terry Pratchett, author of the immensely popular and genuinely brilliant Discworld series, passed away. There were a few comic book adaptations of Discworld novels, but I'm breaking my rule of sticking to things directly related to comics on this blog because Sir Terry's work meant a heck of a lot to me, and I feel like I need to write about that today.

Like a lot of Americans, I first encountered the work of Terry Pratchett through Good Omens, a novel he co-wrote with Neil Gaiman (who I might have written about a bit on here at one point or another). I have strong recollections of reading Good Omens, since it was what I was reading when I left home for college. I remember sitting under a tree on campus, watching people go by, while I read it and chuckled to myself. I hadn't even finished reading Sandman at this point, but I had already fallen in love with Neil Gaiman's work, and if this was any indication of what Pratchett could do on his own, I knew he was another author whose books I needed to track down.

Unfortunately for me at the time, the first twelve novels in Pratchett's magnum opus, the Discworld series, were out of print. Thus began a years long hunt through used book stores, British imports from Borders, and eventually e-Bay to find those early books, because I had to read them in order. Naturally, by the way, the minute I had found them all, new editions started being published, because that's the way things work.

Discworld isn't so much a series as a setting. It is a flat planet that travels through space on the back of four gigantic elephants that travel on the back of an even more gigantic turtle, Great A'Tuin. It's a fantasy world, with all the typical tropes you'd expect (dwarfs, trolls, barbarians, vampires, fairies, etc.) but it's so much more than that. Pratchett was a genius writer, and each book was filled with humor and satire. The satire could be taking on literary conventions or society, but by the time of the last Discworld book he wrote, I think he touched on pretty much every topic between life and DEATH.

Rincewind and The Luggage

Within Discworld, there are four series and a whole set of more standalone novels. The novels of Rincewind, the most incompetent and cowardly wizard on all the Disc serve as a travelogue of all the places on the Disc. This is the series that starts with the first novel set on Discworld, The Colour of Magic. That and the second novel, Light Fantastic, are the only two parter in the series, and really should be read together. They are pretty much a fantasy parody, taking on a lot of the tropes of the genre. But as Rincewind's story continues, he travels all over Discworld, usually running from some horror or another. He is the Arthur Dent or Richard Mayhew of the series, that very British protagonist who is completely out of his depth in all things. Through him we get to see the workings of the Unseen University, Discworld's preeminent college of Wizardry, whose staff appear across many different series. Rincewind travels to the Counterweight Continent (Asia), Fourecks (Australia), and The Moon (the Moon), and usually finds something that is trying to kill him. Fortunately, he has The Luggage, a sentient trunk on hundreds of little feet that has infinite carrying capacity and a nasty temper, and the uncanny luck to get out of all these situations mostly unscathed, just to get into an even crazier one.

Magrat Garlick, Granny Weatherwax, and Nanny Ogg

The mountains of Lancre are a different place than the great city of Ank-Morpork, where the Unseen University is. It's more rural, naturally, and it doesn't have wizards or patricians. What it has is witches. And the first among equals is Granny Weatherwax. Granny is confident, intelligent, and will take none of what you're pushing, youngster. As powerful as she is, she rarely uses magic, instead using what she calls "headology," something that mixes psychology and folklore and remedies, because most people just need a good talking to, after all. And woe to the mystical creature, be it fairy, vampire, or fairy godmother, who endangers Lancre, because Granny will be having none of that either, and many a powerful creature has learned better than to mess with Granny Weatherwax.

While Granny appeared in the third Discworld novel, Equal Rites, which was the first to dip its toe into true social satire, Granny didn't come into her own until the next novel featuring her, Wyrd Sisters, when readers met her oldest friend, Nanny Ogg. As tall, thin, and straitlaced as Granny is, Nanny is short, round, and probably the most bawdy character in any of these books. She is nearly as powerful and tough as Granny, but goes about things differently, using a smile and a wink instead of a stern scowl when she can. And where Granny is a spinster, Nanny has a huge and boisterous family. While other witches come along and fill out the traditional trinity of maiden, mother, and crone, among the Witches of Lancre, it's the dyad of Granny and Nanny that drives the character beats of the story. While we see Magrat Garlick and Agnes Nitt grow, Granny and Nanny are more static, more set in their ways, and a perfect duo.

The Witches books serve as send ups of different literary and mythological traditions. Wyrd Sisters takes on Shakespeare, Witches Abroad skewers fairy tales, Lords and Ladies takes on fairies, and Carpe Jugulum sees vampires come to town. But as with all of Pratchett's work, it comes down to the people in these extraordinary situations, and Granny Weatherwax pitting her intelligence and strength against all comers. And winning every time.

In recent years, Pratchett spun off a young adult series from the Witches, featuring a young girl named Tiffany Aching, who starts out as planning to become a shepherdess, but soon learns that she was meant to be a witch. They're coming of age stories, showing Tiffany growing up, and gaining the air of confidence that a good witch needs. And Pratchett wrote a thirteen year old girl as realistically as he did a man of his own years because he never lost track of the fact that Tiffany was a person first and foremost.

DEATH and the Death of Rats

There are only two constants, death and taxes, said Ben Franklin, and in Discworld this is even more clear, as a whole series centers on DEATH. DEATH speaks in all caps and with no quotation marks, so I find it only appropriate that his name should be written in a similar manner. Pratchett's DEATH doesn't understand humans, but he can't help from being fascinated by them. Over time he adopts a daughter, takes on an apprentice, spends time as a farmer, and even takes over for the Hogfather (Discworld's answer to Father Christmas). I don't think he ever really gets people, no matter what he tries, but at least he keeps trying. The last few DEATH books also add Susan, DEATH's granddaughter into the mix, a stoic, tough as nails governess and teacher, who will literally look Death in the eye, and she provides a wonderfully human counterpoint to her Grandfather's confusion. He is also the only character to appear in every Discworld novel because, well, he's DEATH.

Sam Vimes

And last but not least are the stories of the City Watch of Ankh-Morpork and it's intrepid officers, most notably Sam Vimes. Sam Vimes is my favorite character of Pratchett's, a wonderful mix of cynicism and idealism, a man of so many contradictions he'll make your head spin. In the introduction to a collection of Pratchett's non-fiction, Neil Gaiman said that anger fuels Pratchett's writing, and that the underlying aspect that fuels the anger is a sense of fairness. And the voice of that anger and sense of fairness is Sam Vimes. Not fair play; Vimes wold kick a bad guy in the teeth while he's down and not think twice about it. No, Sam Vimes is a man with an intense conviction that everyone needs to be treated the same way under the law and justice. In Men at Arms, the second books about the guards, Vimes thinks to himself that he's a speciesist; he thinks he doesn't like dwarfs and trolls. But as you follow Vimes through the book, you realize he is one of the few people who treats everyone the same. He's just as anti-werewolf, anti-golem, anti-goblin, and anti-human as he is anti-anyone. For Vimes, it's about whether or not you're doing the right thing.

Vimes grows more than any other character over the course of the series. He starts out as a knock down alcoholic, who lives alone and barely functions as a copper, since the various guilds of Ankh-Morpork police themselves. But over time Vimes goes from Captain to Commander. He makes the Watch as important as any other part of the city. He dries out. He marries Lady Sybil Ramkin, and they have a son, young Sam, both of whom he dotes on. He learns to open himself up to a few people. He develops as Pratchett's books do.

The Watch books double as satires of police procedurals and politics in general. There's usually a mystery of some kind involved, but as Vimes's scope of responsibility grows, so do the events he gets involved in. Pretty soon he's an ambassador stopping wars. This way he meets all sorts of diverse characters and offends or confuses most of them with being so damn forthright and actually saying what he thinks.

My favorite of all of Pratchett's books is Night Watch, a story where Vimes, lost in time, must take the place of the sergeant who trained him and train his own younger self, while also keeping events humming along as they should. It becomes a book about liberty, about self-determination, but more about identity. By this point in the series, Vimes has been made commander of the Watch, he's been dubbed Duke of Ankh, and since his marriage to Sybil, is now the richest man in the city. But he still feels like just a beat cop. And throughout the book, while in the past, who he was struggles with who he has become. It's an exciting book, about revolution, with barricades, assassin's, and conflicts, but it's really about Sam's journey and about him accepting the changes in his life.

Night Watch

While Sam is my favorite, I'd be remiss without mentioning the other Watch members. Fred Colon is the traditional beat cop, overweight and joyfully corrupt, but not cruel, and would stand by Vimes to the last. Nobby Nobbs, Fred's partner, is the same way, a kleptomaniac of seemingly indeterminate species. Captain carrot Ironfoundersson is a human raised by dwarfs to be honest, forthright, and cheerful, and might just be the lost heir to the thrown of Ankh, but all he wants to be is the best cop out there. Angua is the first policewoman in Ankh as well as it's first werewolf officer. Cheery Littlebottom is the forensics specialist, a dwarf who breaks the dwarfish rules by actively identifying as female. Detritus is the muscle of the Watch, a massive troll who starts out on the wrong side of the law but winds up one of its staunchest defenders. And those are just the primary watchmen; there are all sorts of other minor ones who pop up along the way.

It seemed Pratchett was building a fifth series towards the end of the novels, with three books being published featuring Moist von Lipwig, a former confidence man who was turned to work for the city first as postmaster, then as head of the bank, and next as city representative to the new railroad. Moist's books were about him becoming respectable (or as respectable as a banker can be), and about the city of Ankh-Morpork, the city so nice they named it... Ankh-Morpork. More than any other location, Ankh-Morpork speaks to how Discworld grew as a series. What started as a parody of fantasy cities developed into something like an Italian city state, and then into an almost Victorian London.

The City of Ankh-Morpork provides the last main cluster of major characters. While there were no books that featured this lot as leads, they all appeared in lots of different books. Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler was the seller of sausage on a bun and pretty much any get rich quick scheme you could imagine. The Librarian of the Unseen University was turned into an orangutan early in the series and decided to stay that way, as prehensile feet made it easier to shelve books (he is second only to DEATH in appearances within Discworld). And there's the Patrician. The patrician is the title for ruler of the city, and while early on it's hard to tell who it is, by the beginning of the Watch books it is clearly Havelock Vetinari, who remains patrician until the end. Vetinari is second only to Vimes in my personal affections. He's a brilliant politician, ruler, and assassin, the last of which is the least despicable of his avocations. His wit is dry, and he always has more pieces in play than you could count until he's already closed them around you.

In all this writing about character and theme, I don't think I've said what is probably one of the  most important things about Pratchett's writing: It's funny as hell. So funny that if you read it in public, you will find people looking at you because you're laughing loudly in the train. Pratchett intersperses odd footnotes throughout the books, usually things that are bizarrely funny. One about the importance of spelling in Witches Abroad earned me some very odd looks indeed. Pratchett never lets the humor get in the way of the story, or vice versa; he was a master of the balancing act between plot and humor.

I could write about Pratchett all day, and still not scratch the surface of everything he has written, I didn't mention any of the stand alone novels, like Small Gods, a satire of religion, or Moving Pictures, when the movies come to Discworld. I could have spent much more time rhapsodizing about the fullness of his characters and the bizarre twists and turns of his plots. But more important than all of that is the humanity underpinning Pratchett's writing. He was a man who wrote to get people to understand themselves, ti understand the world around them. And while I can understand and see the anger Neil Gaiman talked about, it's that genuine feeling that people can learn, that there's a reason to keep writing, that fills me with real joy when I read a new Pratchett.

I hope if you've never tried to read a Discworld novel you'll give one a shot. You can start at Colour of Magic, the first Discworld book, or Guards, Guards, the first City Watch novel. Small Gods and The Truth are great stand alone novels.

I apologize if my tenses slipped throughout this writing. It's hard to address Terry Pratchett in the past tense. His writing was so vibrant, it's hard to think I won't see another novel that takes me to Discworld. But his books brought me so much happiness, that's what I'm going to focus on. I think I have some rereading to do. So I end this by simply thanking Sir Terry for all he did for me, for helping me understand people a bit better and getting plenty of good laughs. There are a legion of us who loved Discworld, and who will always hold it in a special place in our hearts.