Review: Outsiders: Five of a Kind trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, July 31, 2008

For an Outsiders fan like I am, I'll choose to believe that Outsiders ended with with the crossover Outsiders/Checkmate: Checkout. That trade ended on a subtly sweet note where Nightwing realizes he doesn't really want to lead a team he can't consider friends, and turns the team over to Batman instead. Outsiders: Five of a Kind picks up in that same place, but turns that subtle scene on its head, making Batman seem more like his stereotypical pre-Infinite Crisis controlling self than his more recent portrayal. Outsiders: Five of a Kind isn't all bad, but for a fan of the previous team, it's not quite the send-off I hoped for.

Outsiders: Five of a Kind is essentially a frame story by Tony Bedard wrapped around a collection of one-shots written by multiple writers--and it shows. The book starts with a Nightwing/Captain Boomerang team-up which not only mis-characterizes Batman, but turns Nightwing and Boomerang into enemies in a way completely out of line with the past year's worth of Outsiders stories. The Tony Bedard-written Martian Manhunter/Thunder team-up portrays Thunder as a slang-talking, attitude heavy cut-up instead of the pre-med Tulane graduate she's been; the Metamorpho/Aquaman story delves deep into Rex Mason's inscrutable history, and continues to have Batman act like an ass.

Those three poor stories are balanced by three better ones that keep me from counting out Outsiders entirely. Bedard's final story, where the Outsiders infiltrate a villains bar to battle the Suicide Squad, feels like a Judd Winick Outsiders story, and has nice art by Matthew Clark--and Bedard begins to redeem his earlier Thunder story by having the character rejoin the Outsiders, Batman or no. The Grace/Wonder Woman team-up offers another multi-layered portrayal of Grace, the character find of the twenty-first century. And the best of all is the return of 1980s Outsiders-writer Mike W. Barr, who pens a continuity-heavy but accessible Katana story; I sincerely hope, as Katana states later, that Batman indeed doesn't continue to have the character play the role of driver for the team.

This final volume of Outsiders isn't an indication of anything, really, given that Bedard was replaced on Batman and the Outsiders by Chuck Dixon even before the series got started, and we all know what happened after that. I think Judd Winick did a great job portraying a different kind of superhero team in Outsiders, and I doubt that magic is soon to be recaptured; I'll be interested to see how Batman and the Outsiders stacks up.

[Contains full covers, "What Came Before" text page.]

Going to the third volume of Checkmate now, and then maybe to some Booster Gold from there.

Review: The Dark Knight movie

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Hardly do I have to say it to confirm what you've already heard just about everywhere else: The Dark Knight is a good movie.

Generally I weigh comic book movies on one big criteria: is there anything in it that would make me embarrassed to be a comic book fan? Is there anything in it -- as with Catwoman, for instance -- that reinforces the negative stereotypes of comic books and comic book reading, rather than displaying the value of comic books to potential new readers? Well, let me tell you, if Hollywood didn't already know the sheer power that comic books have to translate to the big screen as thoughtful, action-packed blockbusters, The Dark Knight demonstrates this in spades.

And The Dark Knight does all this by being moody and smart and emotional and -- above all the others -- being true to the source material. The idea of the "surprise ending" in The Dark Knight -- that is, Harvey Dent becomes you-know-who -- is laughably amazing; comics fans have known for over fifty years that Harvey Dent is Two-Face, and yet I was with audience members who were shocked when Harvey went bad. It's like half the world's population knowing that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father going in to Empire Strikes Back and half of them not.

But it works, even if you already know the story, and I'd like to think it works because the story itself is just so good -- the hope for Gotham; the vigilante, the policeman, and the district attorney; and the tragedy you dare think might be avoided, even as the movie moves to its inevitable conclusion. With shades of both The Long Halloween and Batman: Year One, the story of the year that the freaks came to Gotham isn't a story that needed re-imagining, just telling well, and The Dark Knight delivers.

Collected Editions commenter Lord Worthington asks, after my review of the Watchmen motion comics, whether The Dark Knight has allayed my fears of the downfall of DC Comics' media division in the face of Marvel's recent successes. My answer: yes and no.

Yes, Dark Knight is fantastic, and the buzz for Watchmen equally so -- but Dark Knight and Watchmen still feel like "event" movies instead of commercial franchises, and for every one Dark Knight there's three X-Men, three Spider-Men, two Fantastic Fours, and assorted Hulks, Iron Men, Daredevils and so on. And it remains to be seen if audiences will get Watchmen when it turns out not to be just another superhero movie Babies - like Tim O'Shea at Newsarama, I can't help but fear "Watchmen Babies" cartoons and the like.

But lest you be distracted by all my fretting and thinking, let me be clear: The Dark Knight is a good movie, and something to be proud of. If you haven't seen it, all three of you, go. (And support your local X-Files sequel while you're there.)

More reviews coming soon. Thanks for listening.

Review: Thunderbolts: Justice, Like Lightning trade paperback (Marvel Comics)

Monday, July 28, 2008

[This review comes from Doug Glassman:]

I've been on a Kurt Busiek kick in recent months. It's not because of Trinity (though it's an excellent series that's making up for the mistakes that Countdown made), but rather because I've been finding more and more of his Marvel trades. In the period during and after Heroes Reborn, Busiek was simultaneously writing Avengers, Iron Man and Thunderbolts, and he also wrote the Avengers Forever maxi-series that was my first review for this site.

I'll be getting to some of those Avengers trades later on (unfortunately, his Iron Man run has no trades that I can find easily). But for now, let's examine a team that became one of my favorites, partly on the sheer brilliance of the concept: the Thunderbolts. Reviewed here is Justice, Like Lightning, which collects the first four issues of their title and a few other very early appearances.

Imagine it's 1997. The Fantastic Four and just about all of the Avengers are dead, and heroes such as Spider-Man, Daredevil, the X-Men and a very out-of-control Hulk are left behind to defend and rebuild. When the most trustworthy hero is the Black Widow, you know that the world has gone to pot. That's where the Thunderbolts come in: old-fashioned heroes who admire the Avengers and want to do some good. It's a neat scenario. Unfortunately, said heroes are also villains pulling the greatest scheme ever. In fact, only the addition of a new, naïve teenage member throws it off. The initial twist was wisely kept out of the solicitations, and only with great difficulty according to Busiek in the introduction. (Peter David even revised the solicit for the issue of Hulk that they first appear in to keep the secret.) While reading the first issue, try to forget for the moment that you most likely know the twist. It still works, even after all these years. Busiek's concept still shines.

It's partly because the Thunderbolts clearly emulate an Avengers team. Citizen V is a Captain America figure, and he even claims to be a legacy hero (when the real Citizen V shows up in a later comic, he's none too pleased either). Mach-1 is an armored hero in the fine Iron Man tradition. Atlas is a growing man, and there have been numerous Giant-Men and Goliaths on the team. Meteorite's energy projection powers and blonde hair are more than a little similar to Ms. Marvel/Warbird, who returns to the team in Busiek's Avengers run. Songbird's red energy blasts call to mind the Scarlet Witch's hex powers, both in color and in what they can do. Jolt and Techno are a bit too modern compared to the others and don't quite have analogues, but there are no outright anti-heroes that would ruin the illusion. Busiek aims for the icons, and his aim is true. (Were the Executioner alive, he would have made a brilliant fake Thor and would have rounded out the team, but that's just my opinion.)

Like any good heist story or villain scheme, much of the action comes from the plan falling apart. Kurt Busiek knows exactly what he's doing by forcing these ex-villains to confront their pasts. This is especially true when the Thunderbolts take on the Masters of Evil … except that they're the real Masters of Evil and the name has been co-opted by another criminal for her flunkies.

Citizen V is actually Baron Zemo, whose father founded the Masters and who led the team that stormed the Avengers Mansion, so you can imagine how he feels when he learns that the name has been appropriated. When the Bolts must either capture or exonerate Spider-Man for a crime he did not commit, Mach-1 has to stop himself from killing him. This is because Mach-1 was Abner Jenkins, the lowlife Beetle, whom Spider-Man has constantly defeated. With the good publicity the team has received, he's more of a hero than Spidey, a concept that has more than one Thunderbolt reconsider ever ending the illusion. Jolt's introduction and addition to the team forces Zemo to come up with a creative back story for how the Thunderbolts assembled. As he lies in narration, the truth comes out, drawn by numerous guest artists such as George Perez, Tom Grummet and the great Gene Colan.

I mentioned Trinity earlier, in part because the artist there is also the artist here. Mark Bagley may now be more widely known for his artwork on Ultimate Spider-Man, but his big break was on this book. He draws in a 1990s house style here, but considering the time period, when all of the companies had to ape Image's style to be profitable, it's acceptable. However, his anatomy and attention to detail are excellent. I'm taken out of the story if the heroes don't look like human beings, but that never happens here. Part of the trouble may also be the washed-out coloring in the first issue, which gets resolved later on.

Bagley gets to redesign villains into heroes, and all turn out well. Compare the Thunderbolts to their old Masters of Evil selves and most of them come out for the better. (This is especially true for Goliath and Screaming Mimi, who are now presentable as Atlas and Songbird.) I always give an artist a few issues to work out the kinks, and this is definitely true for Bagley, as the art style solidifies later on.

Some books have a brilliant premise but don't come close to delivering on it. This is not one of those books. From the reveal at the end of the first issue to Zemo's brilliant bailing-out at the end, Kurt Busiek puts these villains-not-really-turned-heroes through their paces. Aided by Bagley's clear (if slightly dated) penciling, one of Marvel's great teams gets its start. To tell the truth, I'm not reading Ellis' revamp of the team, in part because he discards much of the initial premise. But I'm also not leaving this as my last review of Thunderbolts. You'll soon be seeing reviews of the New Thunderbolts revamp by Fabian Nicieza (another Trinity staff member). Until then, I highly recommend Justice, Like Lightning.

[Contains cover images and introduction by Kurt Busiek. $19.95.]

Review: Outsiders/Checkmate: Checkout trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Constant Collected Editions readers know that two of my favorite series of recent years have been Checkmate and Outsiders. So, does the Checkmate/Outsiders: Checkout crossover trade paperback offer double the moral grayness and spy vs. spy action? Why yes, yes it does.

Writers Greg Rucka and Judd Winick clearly understand that a good crossover involves raising the story above just having the two teams beat the snot out of one another, to using the crossover to examine the two teams in opposition of one another. There's a fantasic scene early on where the gaudily-costumed Outsiders sit across the board room table from the dark uniformed Checkmate, as the Black Queen and White King rattle off their plans for invasion; Nightwing grows increasingly more agitated, until he shouts at the White King, "You're chairman of the JSA. You're Mr. Terrific."

Despite that the Outsiders are the uncontrolled vigilantes and Checkmate is the government-operated system, the writers make clear that Checkmate's codenames and doublespeak are just ruses to keep them emotionally detached from the situation, whereas the Outsiders suddenly become the saner alternative.

The writers also include plenty of great character bits in pairing the members of the two teams. Nightwing recognizes Bruce Wayne's former bodyguard and lover Sasha Bordeaux early on, and it's interesting how, instead of being jealous or wary, he slips easily into being able to talk to Sasha about Batman. Former Justice Leaguer Fire has always been a round peg fitting into Checkmate's lethal, sometimes bloodthirty square hole, and there's a great moment here where she confronts fellow past Leaguer Metamorpho about how much simpler the old days were; I appreciate the writers remembering these characters' shared history. And there's a wonderfully unexpected moment where Captain Boomerang innocently mentions having worked for Amanda Waller on the Suicide Squad during 52, not realizing the can of worms he's opening on Checkmate.

Indeed, another impressive thing about this crossover is that it foreshadows changes ahead for both teams, a relevance that was missing from Geoff Johns and Brad Meltzer's Justice League/Justice Society crossover The Lightning Saga, which mostly featured characterization over plot. Checkout potends a giant confrontation between the other Checkmate royalty and Amanda Waller, complicated by Black Queen Sasha Bordeaux's severe injuries during the story.

And the Outsiders, of course, are about to disband, though I was glad to see that Nightwing relinquished the team to Batman, for the team's greater good, rather than that Batman took the team away from Nightwing as some kind of punishment. Many people have strong opinions on Judd Winick's writing, but I think he's presented a fantastic Nightwing in Outsiders--showing Nightwing it's OK to care about your teammates--and I'm glad Winick's sticking with Nightwing into Titans.

There's plenty of good art in this story, but I want to single out specifically Matthew Clark. I wasn't sold on Clark's art when he drew Superman alongside Greg Rucka, but for me Clark draws the definitive post-Infinite Crisis Outsiders, and I look forward to his next project.

[Contains full covers, "Previously" page.]

We're going to finish out Outsiders now with Five of a Kind. Join us!

Review: Watchmen Motion Comics and still more on DC's media division

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

I watched Warner Bros. first "Motion Comics" episode of Watchmen earlier this week when it was available free on iTunes. Building on my earlier thoughts about DC Comics's misguided moves into the video realm, I can't help but see these Motion Comics as another nail in the coffin.

I'd feel a lot worse, of course, if it weren't for the fact that The Dark Knight is doing so amazingly well at the box office. No offense to our Marvel brethren (really I just want to see everyone do well), but hearing "The Dark Knight beat Spider-Man" all week really makes one feel fuzzy inside. But one successful movie this year, especially in the shadow of the X-Men, Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Hulk, and Spider-Man movie franchises, does not a turnaround make, and Motion Comics strike me as another step in the wrong direction.

What Warner Bros. has tried to create here is literally "motion" -- something that moves -- and "comics" -- that is, panels and word balloons -- and it's a hybrid that fails on both accounts. It's hard to get into the Watchmen episode as animation, given the word balloons repeating the spoken dialogue and the sparse character movement, and it's hard to get into it as a graphic novel because of how slowly it moves if you to turn off the sound and just watch the screen.

Today's audiences are remarkably fickle, and Warner Bros. has created something that only a die-hard comics fan is going to have the patience for -- and that's not the target market they need to be pursuing. A savvy consumer interested in checking out "this Watchmen thing they heard about at the beginning of The Dark Knight" is only going to last a few minutes watching the Watchmen episode before they give up on it -- and that's a potential new comics fan lost.

To each, of course, their own. The first Watchmen episode, encompassing the first issue of Watchmen, is a nice enough distraction, say, if you're watching your iPod while running on a treadmill or eating lunch while waiting in an airport (tough, as it is, to eat and read a trade at the same time). But it's hardly what I'd call quality; Jamie Trecker, in the Best Shots column at Newsarama, called the episode "simultaneously beguiling and repellant." Unlike Jamie, I thought the episode's score was pretty good, but I agree with him that the voice-overs, especially about the time a man voices Silk Spider in a terrible falsetto, make the episode more comical than engaging.

I struggled before to voice a suggestion for what Warner Bros./DC Comics should do to better their media (that is, video, or things other than actual paper comics) endeavors. Their direct-to-video DVDs have largely been unimpressive, their movies slow to arrive, and now comes these Motion Comics. DC and Warner -- stop trying to reinvent the wheel! Obviously, Marvel's making great strides with the X-Men movie franchise and its forthcoming spin-offs, with Iron Man and the hidden Avengers conspiracy -- let's start to see DC Comics movies that work. Green Lantern seems a perfectly viable option; so does Green Arrow, Flash, Blue Beetle, and others -- and then spin off them with movie sequels and Saturday morning cartoons.

No more mythos-light movies like Catwoman, no more hybrid comics or direct-to-DVD cartoons -- just do it right, as seems to be the case with Dark Knight. Marvel's already got it figured out; DC needs to get in the game.

Review: Teen Titans: Titans East trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, July 21, 2008

It's a testament to Geoff Johns' writing, assisted by Adam Beechen, that he's able to squeeze so much characterization into what's essentially just one big fight scene in Teen Titans: Titans East. At the same time, it's pretty inescapable that Titans East really is just one big fight scene, and for that reason Titans East is not nearly as strong as other Teen Titans trades past.

Where Titans East works is that it rises above being a story just about the Titans battling their dark opposites. Miss Martian fighting a fire-throwing villain is simple enough, but Johns adds an extra hint that the two have a conflict stretching out into the future. That Kid Devil fights the saintly Kid Crusader is also pretty straightforward, but it's complicated by the tragic elements Johns adds to Kid Devil's origin in this trade.

Indeed, Kid Devil steals the show in this book. We learn he's cursed by Neron, estranged from Blue Devil, and fated to be condemned to Hell as soon as he turns twenty. With this last facet, Johns reflects some of the themes of Teen Titans back on itself; whereas the other heroes are often in a hurry to grow up, Kid Devil is the one who wants to stay young forever. Devil becomes an interesting mix of the carefree Changeling and the burdened-with-a-secret Superboy, and he fits right in with Titans filling these roles.

In the absence of Superboy and Kid Flash, the Teen Titans don't at times feel like the Teen Titans anymore; it becomes something of a great relief, to that end, to have Jericho alive again. One of the themes of Titans East is that of family, and having Joey back around makes the Titans feel more familial. The character bridges the gap not just between the new young Titans and the older originals, but also between Robin and Wonder Girl and new member Ravager, and his presence gives me faith that the post-One Year Later Titans can work.

Of course, Johns quickly complicates this, too, by having Jericho take on the body of Match, the Bizarro clone of Superboy. The obvious drama ensues, with Wonder Girl unable to stand the sight of her undead former boyfriend. The situation works incredibly well in theory, though not quite in fact; Johns and Beechen write Wonder Girl increasingly melodramatic and whiny, in a way that I imagine is off-putting to many readers. We expect Wonder Girl to mourn Superboy for a while, but the writers should watch that they don't make Wonder Girl a one-note character in the process.

The trade includes a final chapter that picks up from the first issue of Countdown to Final Crisis. Titans, of course, has to acknowledge the death that takes place in that issue, though the crossover doesn't add much. The dialogue of the "shadowy figure" is wildly off from the same character in Countdown, and the timeline of Donna Troy and Red Hood Jason Todd doesn't quite mesh. I take these crossovers with a grain of salt, enjoying them warts and all, but I would hardly call Titans East an integral Countdown crossover.

It's important that all the subtext in Titans East is so rich, because the foreground isn't all that exciting. There's nothing shocking, really, in the fights that the Titans have with their counterparts; early on, Jericho gets in a good shot at Deathstroke the Terminator reminiscent of when Deathstroke stabbed Jericho the same, though one is never made to fear that either Jericho or Deathstroke might actually be in trouble. The glamour that Deathstroke had upon his revitalization in Identity Crisis is rapidly fading from overuse; that he attacks the Titans with Titans East for the purpose--once again--of secretly benefitting his estranged family, is starting to feel old hat.

The Titans, it would seem, fight more dark duplicates in the next trade, this time from the future. My hope is that we'll see a little more talking and a little less fighting, or at least a plot as rich in the foreground as in the background.

[Contains full covers, short Titans biographies.]

On now to pick up with two of Collected Editions' favorite series, Checkmate and Outsiders, in Checkout!

Review: Countdown to Final Crisis Vol. 1 trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, July 17, 2008

By setting DC Comics second recent weekly series, Countdown to Final Crisis, in the present DC Universe, rather than in a "lost year" as with their previous weekly 52, Countdown loses some of the character richness of 52 but at the same time gains far more relevance. In fact, Countdown to Final Crisis Volume One reminded me far less of 52 than of it's initial namesake, Countdown to Infinite Crisis, in that the latter Countdown seems to be more of a whirlwind tour through the DC Universe than a character-based story. It wouldn't be my cup of tea every day, but it's not a bad ride altogether.

Indeed, my two favorite storylines in this volume, that of Mary Marvel and of Trickster and the Pied Piper, were ones that seemed less focused on storyline than on a picaresque journey through the DC Universe. Case in point is the scene where Mary Marvel encounters the reformed Riddler and the two of them fight Clayface; the scene has nearly no relevance to Countdown overall, but instead simply reacquaints the reader with the current status of the Riddler and puts him on the page for a few minutes--as a continuity wonk, I don't mind that, especially as the story begins to move to lesser-spotlighted characters like Zatanna. And while Mary Marvel appears to be covering the supernatural side of the DC Universe, I liked the Fugitive-aspect of the Trickster/Piper storyline, and how they seem to be on a tour through the villains of the DCU.

I also enjoyed seeing Sleez again in the Jimmy Olsen story, which seems to take as it's part reintroducing the New Gods mythology in Countdown. The coolness of the New Gods balances out some of the roughness of Olsen's portrayal; the character screams out for a foil in his scenes, especially the one where he narrates to himself in hackneyed fashion his decision to become a super-hero. Olsen can work as a leading man--see, for instance, Chuck Austen's brilliant Superman: Metropolis--but only when he's cooled-up a bit; I fear the bowtie-Olsen may get annoying over fifty-two issues, porcupine powers aside.

In terms of continuity, Countdown flits in and out of the DC Universe well. It's easy to tell where Countdown connects, from Amazons Attack to the Lightning Saga and Flash: Full Throttle; the end of this volume also alludes to some goings on in Birds of Prey, as well. I'm shocked, frankly, at DC Comics' restraint in not alluding to other specific Countdown crossover volumes in this trade as they began to do in Amazons Attack; if one did want to learn a little more about Karate Kid's time with the Justice League or the Flash's battle with the Rogues, the Countdown trade offers no suggestions as to how to go about it.

To be sure, Countdown shows its seams at time, perhaps because of it's nature as a weekly series. Some scenes, including one between Mary Marvel and Black Adam, repeat over a number of chapters without establishing anything new, but this improves with both the Trickster/Piper and Holly Robinson/Harley Quinn stories later on. And to be sure, Countdown doesn't hold up under terribly close scrutiny--the Justice League/Karate Kid cut-scenes barely fit into The Lightning Saga, and the Donna Troy/Jason Todd friendship is nigh near ridiculous. But Countdown is the backbone of the DC Universe, as it were, not the actual meat itself, and for an overview, I'm willing to squint a little when I look at the details.

[Contains full covers.]

Now that we've read the first volume of Countdown, on to Teen Titans: Titans East, which picks up some of the plotlines from there. See you!

Batman: Gotham Knight DVD review and the state of DC's media division

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

I couldn't help but be embarrassed the other night as a DC Comics fan after an ABC News story that talked about the continuity between the various Marvel movies out now, leading to an eventual Avengers movie. The Dark Knight didn't even get a mention. Competing sales records for Secret Invasion and Final Crisis I can handle, but this made me feel like DC is behind the times.

Watching Batman: Gotham Knight the other night didn't help. Granted Gotham Knight is a breathtaking movie, and each story is more beautifully drawn than the last, but it's a movie for people who like animation, not Batman. The elements of Gotham Knight bridging the gap between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are fairly light, as is the plot in general; a few of the stories are nearly silent, and at times the action just stops altogether, without reason, giving the audience time to sit back and admire the art. Gotham Knight is exceptional -- but the casual fan who picks it up at the video store is likely to be bored silly.

This makes three times now that DC Comics's new direct to DVD project has missed its mark. Superman: Doomsday was fairly slow and methodical; Justice League: New Frontier was pretty, but moved too quick for anyone unfamiliar with the comics. Both movies, and Gotham Knight, use their PG-13 rating like a kid with a fake ID, trying to be more mature than they are; when Superman says "crap" or when a faux-Batman slices off a villain's head, it's so out-of-place it's laughable. It surprises me that this is the same DC Comics that produced the fantastic Justice League cartoons, which still hold up after numerous viewings.

The bright spot on the horizon is the preview in Gotham Knight for the upcoming direct to DVD Wonder Woman movie. It could turn out to be just as slow as Superman: Doomsday, but my hope is that the freshness of the material -- Wonder Woman's origin story being not nearly so overdone as Superman's or Batman's -- will make the movie feel fresh as well. Certainly a Wonder Woman origin story should be far more accessible than New Frontier or Gotham Knight, and maybe that will count for something.

As for Gotham Knight itself, I liked "Field Test" the best, a story of young Bruce Wayne's opportunity to be bulletproof, and the reason he chose against it. The end of this twelve-minute tale comes suddenly, and it's one that you understand more in retrospect, but I favored it over fare like Greg Rucka's "Crossfire" where the twists were more obvious (sorry, Greg!). David Goyer's "In Darkness Dwells" is creepy in all the right places, and I liked the dichotomy between Batman and the villain in "Deadshot."

It'll be a week or two, probably, before I see The Dark Knight, but already my sense is that this is a horror movie masquerading as a superhero movie, and not a superhero movie itself. At three hours, and with all the rave reviews Heath Ledger's getting for his portrayal of the Joker, my early guess is that The Dark Knight, too, will be art -- but I'm just not sure "art" is what DC Comics needs right now. In the long run, it's probably better to be smart than popular, but a little popularity wouldn't kill DC Comics's media division.

[Panels of Awesome has a more straightforward review of Batman: Gotham Knight at the link.]

Chris Marshall, Detroit Free Press on Superhero Movie Villains

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Detroit Free Press quoted Collected Comics Library's Chris Marshall on Sunday, in an article about the importance of good villains to successful superhero movies. Among the aspects that make a good movie villain, Chris advocated sticking to the source material, noting that this is what separated the successful Magneto in the X-Men films from the reconfigured Dr. Doom in the Fantastic Four films.

The article goes on to note that villain camp, which worked on the small screen in the Batman series, it often doesn't work in movies, as with Mr. Freeze in Batman and Robin or Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor. Though, the article notes, "some consider it heresy to bash Hackman," I think the campiness of Lex Luthor in the Superman movies is one (of many) reasons that Superman Returns wasn't as successful as it could have been.

When you compare Hackman or Kevin Spacey's Lex Luthor to Jack Nicholson or the clips we've seen of Heath Ledger's Joker, there's no question who's the scarier, more engaging villain -- and neither Nicholson nor Ledger play the Joker for laughs. The flaw is not with the Lex Luthor character -- witness Michael Rosenbaum playing an entirely compelling Lex Luthor on Smallville for seven seasons -- but rather with the portrayal.

This is one (also of many) reasons why I'm looking forward to a Superman sequel. If director Bryan Singer can bring in another, impressive villain -- Brainiac comes to mind -- that might help in the struggling franchise's troubles.

Read the full article at the Detroit Free Press. Congratulations, Chris!

Review: Catwoman: Catwoman Dies trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, July 14, 2008

With Catwoman: Catwoman Dies, writer Will Pfeifer hasn't quite overcome the villain-of-the-week feel of the earlier trade, Catwoman: It's Only a Movie, but the main story's relevance to Catwoman's own struggles is far stronger. The book moves swiftly--and at times with quite harrowing suspense--toward its conclusion, one that's been predictable ever since Selina Kyle had a baby, but is movingly-written nonetheless.

Just like DC Comics won't ever really let Bruce Wayne abandon the mantle of the Bat or let Superman grow out his hair, I think we all knew from the beginning that Catwoman would never remain the mother of baby Helena. It seemed, after Zatanna's involvement in Catwoman: The Replacements, that Pfeifer was telegraphing the inevitable end where Zatanna would make Selina forget her child; instead, what was most surprising here was that Selina ultimately retains her memories of Helena, even as Pfeifer writes the child out of the series. It's a small revelation in what was, in my opinion, kind of a silly path to take the Catwoman character down, but at least it means Pfeifer's run impacts the Catwoman mythos instead of being retconned away.

Indeed, Pfeifer offers a number of gripping scenes here that are quite reminiscent of Ed Brubaker's crime noir run on the Catwoman series. The villains Hammer and Sickle are shockingly violent, and I worried for both Helena and supporting character Karon during their rampage; Selina's fight with the Bana Amazon after the Bana tries to murder Helena is similarly gripping. If anything, Pfeifer's Catwoman plots are perhaps a bit too Brubaker-esque; every villain attacks Selina in her home, and every villain threatens Selina's child, with too much regularity, toward the inevitable conclusion.

Batman plays a larger part in this trade than in the two of Pfeifer's previously, and Pfeifer writes Bruce and Selina's relationship remarkably well. The introduction of Helena brings out the "knight" in the Dark Knight, and under Pfeifer's auspecies it's easy to see how Batman and Catwoman could love one another, both in costume and out. It's impossible to reconcile Batman's acceptance of Catwoman murdering Black Mask with his outrage over Wonder Woman killing Maxwell Lord, but for the purposes of this story, it works. I'm curious to see if Pfeifer will revisit the issue of Selina giving up Helena for adoption in another scene with Batman; I wonder if his role in it will ultimately cause tension between the two.

Pfeifer's portrayal of Selina Kyle remains quite cogent, and it would probably rank as the best Catwoman's been in years if it weren't for Ed Brubaker's stellar run before. It bears mentioning also that Pfeifer, David Lopez, and Alvaro Lopez have worked on every issue of all the Pfeifer-Catwoman trades, a rare thing these days. David Lopez's art, as with Fallen Angel, is a fantastic mix of the cartoony and the real, and I hope to continue to see him on projects as we go.

[Contains full covers]

Well, Holly Robinson's departure in this volume of Catwoman puts us just in the right place for ... Countdown! Join us next time for the first part of the build up to Final Crisis.

Review: Flash: The Fastest Man Alive: Full Throttle trade paperback (DC Comics)

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

[Contains spoilers for Flash: Full Throttle]

Obviously writer Marc Guggenheim got something of a tough assignment: kill Bart Allen, the youngest Flash and one that had only been wearing the Flash mantle less than ten issues. While Flash: The Fastest Man Alive: Full Throttle failed to convince me of the real necessity of Bart Allen's death (unlike, say, Blue Beetle's murder in The OMAC Project), I admire the bunch of nods Guggenheim included in this trade to make Bart's death true to the Flash legacy.

After a dismal start to this title in Lightning in a Bottle, Guggenheim and even the previous Flash team Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo begin to show the potential the Bart Allen character has as the Flash. Bilson and Demeo bow out gracefully, moving Bart Allen to Los Angeles and enrolling him in the police academy like his grandfather, Barry Allen. Guggenheim writes a slightly snappier, more confident Bart, his dialogue peppered with parenthetical asides, and it makes the character finally smack of leading man rather than supporting character. The trade gets big art assists toward the end from Tony Daniel, such that when Bart Allen fought Captain Cold in a great whodunit one-shot, I finally felt I was really looking at the Flash.

Second, in what's now become a Flash tradition, Guggenheim lets Bart Allen know his death is coming. In allowing Bart to choose his death for the good of Los Angeles ("run toward" his death, if you will), Bart's death becomes more of a noble sacrifice than a murder, much akin again to the death of Barry Allen. And I loved the homage to Crisis on Infinite Earths in the penultimate chapter; it really shows Guggenheim researched the character and tried to make Bart's death a lasting, rather than passing event (apparently Guggenheim tried to include even more bits like this).

In terms, however, of Bart's murder itself, there's an interesting bit of backtracking in the book. This collection also includes the Mark Waid-written All Flash #1, which bridged Guggenheim's Flash series and Waid's new/old one, and there's a marked difference between Guggenheim's depiction of the murder and Waid's. In Guggenheim's story, the Rogues are fairly bloodthirsty and seem intent on killing Bart; in Waid's, there's a suggestion Bart was killed inadvertently in "the heat of the moment." Had Guggenheim stopped with Captain Cold, Heat Wave, and Weather Wizard all firing on Bart at once, I might believe the murder was an accident, but the panel of the Rogues nearly stomping on Bart seems pretty clear. In comics, however, I think the adage that "he who speaks last, makes history" is probably true, so Waid's version stands; I also understand there's a bit in Countdown that might make this clearer, too.

I've been reading about Bart Allen since his inception in Flash around the time of Zero Hour, through his solo series and Young Justice and into Teen Titans, so his death does make me pretty nostalgic. At the same time, there's no question that turning Bart Allen into the Flash so soon after his having become Kid Flash was something of a misbegotten idea. My preference wasn't for Bart Allen to die, but having him be the new Flash hardly seemed viable either. It's up in the air whether Bart was "intended" by DC Editorial to die when he became the new Flash--if so, it might almost be preferable, as it would suggest that this is only the second, rather than the final, act in Bart's story. Personally, I don't 100 percent believe that Bart is dead--his Grandma Iris beat death once before herself, if you'll remember.

There are quite a bit of fans undeservedly ripping Guggenheim a new one at the ComicBloc link up above, though overall the outcry against Guggenheim for killing Bart didn't nearly equate the outcry Adam Beechen received over turning Batgirl rogue. Maybe the editorial hand was more obvious in Guggenheim's case, but it's interesting the somewhat fickle relationship fans have with writers--I can't help but think that a slow news cycle sometimes can make all the difference. Guggenheim certainly displayed his comics writing prowess in making Bart Allen's death palatable, and I do wonder what the writer would have achieved had Bart's death not been preordained, or what he might do with a series like Blue Beetle or Teen Titans.

[Contains full covers, variant covers.]

We're going to check back in with Catwoman for a bit, and then on to the first Countdown to Final Crisis trade paperback. Be there!

(Oh, and Marc? You had me at 3x2(9YZ)4A.)

Review: Justice League of America: The Lightning Saga collected hardcover (DC Comics)

Monday, July 07, 2008

Well, I think Geoff Johns and Brad Meltzer's Justice League of America: The Lightning Saga is something to be proud of. As with Meltzer's The Tornado's Path, the book blends a modern Justice League/Justice Society adventure with stories -- even panels -- from DC's Gold and Silver Ages. We've talked here before about how DC Comics in the post-Infinite Crisis era have a loosely-defined Johnsian aspect to them; the revitalizing of DC's history that Johns and Meltzer do here -- again, even down to the panels -- is one of the truest representations of this.

There's some punching and kicking to be found in The Lightning Saga, but largely this is a book far more concerned with the interactions between the characters than in fighting any specific villain. The Justice League and Justice Society split into teams early in the story, and these teams are anything-but random: the young Cyclone, for instance, meets her namesake Red Tornado, while Damage gets a tutoring offer from Black Lightning. And having Power Girl paired with Batman in the crowd scene, comparing rare books, was truly inspired.

Most interesting by far, however, is the awkward road trip to Thanagar taken by Power Girl, Hawkman, Hawkgirl, and Red Arrow. Meltzer talked in the Tornado's Path commentary pages about how he sees the Hawks and the Arrows as the Montegues and the Capulets; Red Arrow and Hawkman don't come to blows here -- in fact, they barely speak -- but the tension is wildly entertaining. It doesn't help Arrow and Hawkgirl's budding romance when Power Girl and Black Canary butt in -- but for the reader, I can't get enough of the dynamic that Melzter's built up.

The Lightning Saga serves as a somewhat indirect introduction to Superman's new history post-Infinite Crisis. We quickly learn that the Legion of Super-Heroes befriended Superman as a boy and shared adventures with him, though he hasn't seen them since Crisis on Infinite Earths. This negates the Legion's appearance in Final Night and any of a number of other crossovers up until this point, tying the modern era quite tightly to the original Crisis.

The effect is to leave a large chunk of DC Comics history unexplored -- history that, among other things, allows for Wonder Woman's return as a charter member of the League. These moves threaten to send the continuity wonk in me to the asylum, but I do appreciate how the writers tie this story to the original "Lightning Saga" in Adventure Comics #312, rather than just re-inventing the Justice League, Superman, and the Legion from scratch.

Of course, Lightning Saga is not at all a book for the DC Comics neophyte. Between the Legionnaires time-travelling double-speak; references to Crisis on Infinite Earths, Infinite Crisis, and the forthcoming Final Crisis; and the tie-ins to the Flash legacy, I would expect most casual readers to get very lost very quickly. There's probably something to be said for making a DC Comics flagship book like Justice League of America reader-friendly; at the same time, given the history that Johns and Meltzer are celebrating, I don't mind Justice League feeling like a cornerstone and letting the characters' individual titles be the more reader-friendly ones. These are arguable points; if nothing else, The Lightning Saga could certainly have used annotations.

The book ends with two one-off tales, "Walls" and "Monitor Duty," which focus strongly on the second- and third-tier members of the Justice League. I liked both of these stories, even as they were a little tough to figure out (Red Arrow is defying gravity how? J'onn and Arthur can see in the Watchtower through what?). Rather than tie up loose ends in his final issues, Meltzer actually raises more questions, and one does have to worry whether lesser writers will be able to give as much class and subtly to the plots of Red Arrow, Hawkgirl, Red Tornado, Vixen, Black Lightning, and the others as Melzter has. I've heard good things about Dwayne McDuffie's Justice League run to follow, but I do worry about these characters becoming caricatures in crossover issues or the like. We'll see.

[Contains full covers, brief biography page]

One Flash returns in The Lightning Saga, so that means another Flash must ... well, join us next time for Flash: The Fastest Man Alive: Full Throttle!

Review: Wonder Woman: Amazons Attack collected hardcover (DC Comics)

Thursday, July 03, 2008

It's something of an understatement that a lot of people didn't like Wonder Woman: Amazons Attack (and some of them even let writer Will Pfeifer know about it). I just read it, and I understand the outcry -- there's a lot wrong with this story. But if you ignore those shortfalls -- and I think Amazons Attack is a story where it's possible to ignore the drawbacks and enjoy it nonetheless -- Amazons Attack actually has a lot going for it on a cosmic, summer-blockbuster scale.

Before the naysayers jump on: I understand the Amazons would likely never act this way. I understand the violence here was considerably gratuitous. I understand Wonder Woman does a lot of standing around and being told what to do by Batman. But man alive, they decimate Washington, D.C. Air Force One goes crashing to the ground. Hippolyta stands in the ruins of the White House, one wall completely gone, and screams for her daughter. Sometimes when I read comic books, I'm looking for strong characterization and intellectual debate, but sometimes, I just want to see the Justice League fight bad guys and watch things blow up. And in the "things blow up" category, Amazons Attack is bar none.

Pfiefer does a good job with the plot he's dealt. Yes, the Amazons act out of character, and yes, never in a million years would they trust the witch Circe. But in terms of the plot, it makes sense -- the Amazons have been brainwashed. I especially liked the final sequence, where Batman, Supergirl and Wonder Girl, Hippolyta, even the Amazons Phillipus and Artemis who didn't intervene, are all called to task for their role in the battle. Amazons Attack is an ill-conceived lemon, no question, but it's obvious Pfeifer tries his best to make lemonade.

Amazons Attack is also a great Justice League story. Yes, Wonder Woman is largely ineffectual here, and yes, Red Tornado and Hawkgirl don't get speaking roles, and yes, Vixen only appears somewhere toward the end. But in a story that mainly consists of a lot of fighting, it's a thrill to see the Justice League fighting in the background together. Pfeifer also throws in a bunch of nice Superman and Superman/Batman scenes; with art by Pete Woods, Pfeifer's Superman looks like he came straight out of Superman Returns.

Admittedly, Amazons Attack represents some of the worst attributes of the crossover genre, and the collection only makes this more apparent. There were so many crossovers connected to Amazon Attacks that each of the six chapters of the hardcover requires a text page explaining what's happening elsewhere. Indeed, some of the more integral scenes, including Wonder Woman's confrontation with the goddess Athena, appear in a crossover issue instead of in this book. Though Amazons Attack has an ending of sorts, the epilogue serves to turn the story on its head in service of Final Crisis; this is hardly a story so much as an advertisement for another story.

The bottom line is, I understand all the negatives about this collection, and I just don't care. Final Crisis is in the air, and I've got crossover fever. The heroes of the DC Universe come together over the skies of Washington, D.C in a big, monstrous battle royale, and I couldn't be happier. It's Amazons Attack -- buy it, shut off your brain, and let it just wash all over you. The collected Final Crisis can't get here soon enough.

[Contains full covers, more text pages than you can shake a stick at, Pete Woods' sketchbook]

Speaking of the Justice League, we're on now to Justice League: The Lightning Saga, and then we'll check back in with Bart Allen just in time for ... oh, you know. Thanks for reading!

Top Wonder Woman Trade Paperbacks

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

It's been a while since we've done one of our lists of top essential trade paperbacks (see our Superman and Batman lists), so here's a guide to Wonder Woman trade paperbacks.

There's a good amount of modern Wonder Woman trade paperbacks out there, though they collect runs from just a couple of different creative teams. So, instead of offering a ranked list here, we're going to give an overview of the various modern Wonder Woman eras you can read in collected form.

* Wonder Woman: Gods and Mortals
The four volume collection of the modern-era Wonder Woman stories by comics legend George Perez kicks off with Gods and Mortals. Perez's stories are grandious in scope, with traditional representations of the Greek gods; the narration is wordy as befits the mythic tone. Perez's Wonder Woman is new to "Man's World" and sometimes seems naive, but readers wanting the full story will thrill to her first meetings with Superman and the villains Cheetah and Silver Swan. Also:
- Wonder Woman: Challenge of the Gods
- Wonder Woman: Beauty and the Beasts
- Wonder Woman: Destiny Calling

* Wonder Woman: The Contest
Jumping all the way from the first issues to Wonder Woman's hundredth-issue anniversary, this two-volume set collects stories by William Messner-Loebs. The Contest is DC Comics' Wonder Woman answer to the popular Death of Superman and Batman: Knightfall stories that were popular at the time; Diana loses the title of Wonder Woman and is replaced by a darker, more violent successor. Many of the overdrawn figures and gratuituous cheesecake of 1990s-era comics are present here, but Messner-Loebs also writes a deceptively deep conflict between Diana and her mother Hippolyta. The dark Wonder Woman, Artemis, later becomes a strong supporting character in the Wonder Woman series. Also:
- Wonder Woman: The Challenge of Artemis

* Wonder Woman: Second Genesis
John Byrne takes over the Wonder Woman series in this two-volume set following immediately after the Messner-Loebs run. These stories show Byrne establishing Wonder Woman's physical place among the DC pantheon, as she takes on and beats doppelgangers of the Doomsday creature that killed Superman and the Flash villain Professor Zoom; Darkseid's invasion of Paradise Island is referenced in Phil Jimenez's later stories. Byrne would go on to re-establish Wonder Woman's invisible jet and place Hippolyta with the Justice Society of America; Diana briefly dies and becomes the Goddess of Truth in Byrne's run, before she's resurected. Also:
- Wonder Woman: Lifelines

* Wonder Woman: Paradise Lost
Wonder Woman fans rejoiced to hear that long-time Wonder Woman fan Phil Jimenez, whose artwork is often compared to George Perez, would be taking over the title. In some of my favorite stories, Jimenez examines Diana's role as an ambassador of peace to Man's World, and the trials that come with it. Wonder Woman goes to war alongside a battalion of DC Comics heroes, and there's a special treat for Lynda Carter fans at the end of the second book. Also:
- Wonder Woman: Paradise Found

* Wonder Woman: Down to Earth
Wonder Woman meets The West Wing in this five-volume series by Greg Rucka (plus the Wonder Woman: The Hiketeia graphic novel). Rucka continues to examine Wonder Woman's life as the Amazonian ambassador, as her Amazonian values conflict with the laws of Man's World. Diana battles villains including Medusa, Circe, and Cheetah, at the same time she fights for her reputation with the world media. The stories cross-over with DC Comics' mega-event Infinite Crisis, and feature a shocking struggle for Superman's life. Also:
- Wonder Woman: Bitter Rivals
- Wonder Woman: Eyes of the Gorgon
- Wonder Woman: Land of the Dead
- Wonder Woman: Mission’s End
- Wonder Woman: The Hiketeia

* Wonder Woman: Who is Wonder Woman?
The newest era of Wonder Woman begins with a book by Grey's Anatomy writer Allan Heinberg, and continues with a story by novelist Jodi Picoult and then comics star Gail Simone. The quality of these stories is uneven at times, but Heinberg's tale gives Wonder Woman a new identity and makes a shocking change to her powers, and Simone's ongoing run has been widely well-received. Also:
- Wonder Woman: Love and Murder
- Wonder Woman: Amazons Attack
- Wonder Woman: The Circle
- Wonder Woman: Ends of the Earth

Find all of these books on sale at the new Collected Editions trade paperback store!

What's your favorite Wonder Woman story?