Review: Showcase Presents: House of Secrets Vol. 1 trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, October 29, 2009

[This review comes from Collected Editions contributor Derek Roper]

There is this house, see, and it has had its fair share of occupants; a drifter and more recently a group of six mercenaries. But before them, there was a man named Abel and his “imaginary friend” Goldie, they spent many nights alone in this house. Although old and rickety it held many strange tales hidden within its walls. This house--The House of Secrets--is back with its strange and gruesome tales in Showcase Presents: The House of Secrets Volume 1. Scream!

I have to play realtor for a minute. The house was built by Kentucky Sen. Sandsfield. As the tales goes; he built it by hand. Every inch of the place is made with 100 percent Kentuckian material. He claimed that if the house wasn’t built with pieces of Kentucky, it wasn’t a real Kentucky home. It should be noted that the senator’s wife went mad in the house--yup, mad as a hatter.

After that, the house went through four owners who weren’t pure Kentuckian and so the house set dormant for a little while until a man by the name of Mr. Barkus purchased it and decided to have it hauled away on a trailer. But he too did not last long, as it was told; the house detached itself and knocked Barkus off a cliff where he met a gruesome death. The next owner, Abel, who was a pitiful man, was talked into looking at a house by a creepy realtor who disappeared and filled Abel with the entire house’s tales. Next up was a girl--a drifter--by the name of Rain Harper. She moved in (in the Vertigo series) and found that a closet held the Juris, a group of spirits who judged people whether they liked it or not. Eventually, the house was said to be demolished after the girl left. The last guests to move into the house before the events of Infinite Crisis were a group of six mercenaries who called themselves the Secret Six.

Now that you have the history, the collection in question boasts over 500 pages of horror and suspense tales, and collects The House of Secrets #81-98 and even some stories from its sister book The House of Mystery.

Each issue has stand-alone stories but also an underlying arc featuring the narrator Abel (think Rod Serling) who gets acclimated with the house. He is very timid at first but after his spooky introduction via the realtor he learns the ropes of the house and becomes just as creepy as the stories that are hidden within the halls. He is frequently visited by his brother Cain who lives across the way at the House of Mystery. The two frequently fight over who has the scarier stories.

Being that this was written in the 1970s, don’t look for modern dialogue; it is very proper and uses slang from that era. It is easy to read but if one has come into comics in the 1980s on, words like “shnook” don’t really pack much of a punch.

For fans of horror literature, most of the surprises in the stories can be seen from a mile away. It is kind of disappointing because they seem like a rehash of stories from the Twilight Zone and The Dark Side. Nostalgia is the only thing that can get one through these stories, and they’re in black in white to boot.

The black and white pages are cheaper economically but sometimes detract from the story. In the stories that have a dark setting, the mood doesn’t come across as strong. In the story “The Little Old Winemaker,” the ending effect of the red wine was supposed to resemble blood, but given that it is black it doesn’t do much for the story. Lighting and the creatures in subsequent stories also need color and not just zebra colored pages. I’ve had the honor of seeing the color pages and they have a sort of color to them that is reminiscent of the old Scooby-Doo cartoons. Plus, art by Alex Toth, Neal Adams, and Jim Aparo deserves to have its artwork in color.

Still, plenty of highlights stand out in this book. “Trick or Treat,” featuring a theif who meets an unfortunate end, is downright scary. An early version of the modern Swamp Thing also appears in issue #92, 
with story and art by Len Wein and Bernie Wrighton respectively.

In between the stories are “Able’s Fables,” which are like a spooky version of Tony Millionaire’s Makkies. They feature eccentric and sometimes downright dangerous situations like a little boy on the other side of a “Peep Show” stand blowing a dart through a straw towards the cornea of a business man wanting a thrill.

The tales from the House are the perfect collection to read to the kiddies or ones suffering from horror nostalgia, but for horror aficionados, this is better left on the shelf.

The next volume, Showcase Presents: House of Secrets Vol. 2 will feature issues #99-119 and also promises 500 pages of on-the-edge-of-your-seat-tales.

Happy Halloween from Collected Editions!

Review: The Spectre: Tales of the Unexpected trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, October 26, 2009

Collected Editions is celebrating Halloween with not one, but two scary reviews this week! If you want a gory, gruesome comic book for your Halloween celebration, The Spectre: Tales of the Unexpected is a trade paperback for you (if not for me).

I face a reviewer's dilemma in writing about Tales of the Unexpected. I didn't like this book and would likely never read it again, and yet I fully realize it's not the book, it's me. Writer David Lapham, known for his crime fiction, presents a blood-soaked story in the spirit of the old EC horror comics and the well-known Michael Fleisher/Jim Aparo depictions of the Spectre. To that end, trying to judge this book on its own merits, I would have to say yes, it accomplishes successfully the goals it sets for itself and had a place as thoughtfully-written comic book literature. But personally -- I was done even before the scene of the sobbing man being forced to kill himself by devouring his own intestines.

Fool me twice, I guess. I picked up this book even though I had a similar reaction to the first volume, Crisis Aftermath: The Spectre, mainly because this book promised to involve Batman -- significant because this iteration of the Spectre is former Gotham Central cop Crispus Allen. Be not misled, however -- Batman appears for one issue only, and he doesn't discern Allen's identity as predicted (though Lapham does deal with Allen's identity, and a number of Gotham Central guest stars, later in the book). I did enjoy, however, Lapham's perspective that Batman sees the Spectre not as a fellow hero, but as a serial killer, one that we know Batman would just as soon see in Arkham if only he was able.

But better than Batman's appearance is one by the Phantom Stranger, in a chapter illustrated by former Spectre artist Tom Mandrake (whose great run, with John Ostrander, begs for a full series of collections). Here, Lapham lets the Stranger allude to all sorts of things regarding the murky relationship between Allen and the Spectre entity -- that Allen can control the Spectre instead of just going along for the ride, that Allen can choose the Spectre's victims or temper the Spectre's anger, and that Allen and the Spectre may not be two entities, but rather that Allen's in control and just can't accept the horrors he's committing.

This suggested a deeper plot thread for Tales of the Unexpected, more than just the Spectre revealing who committed the murder at Gotham's Granville apartments, but rather some story about Crispus Allen and the nature of his new "life" as the Spectre. Unfortunately, I felt this was one area Lapham didn't quite finish what he started; we get an inkling that Allen can save a victim or slow the Spectre's vengeance when he tries, but this was not so clear as to give the reader a good sense of the "rules" of the post-Infinite Crisis Spectre. Perhaps it's that I hoped for some happy or hopeful ending to this story, but true to form, Lapham leaves us with a gritty of Allen essentially cursed to follow morbidly along behind the Spectre's mayhem.

If you did enjoy the first volume, you'll find that Lapham took good care with the hints he dropped about Granville along the way, and ties all the clues into the denouement. No doubt it's clear from the outset that more than just one tenant participated in the murder of Granville's seedy landlord, but who did what -- and in the end, to what additional lengths they go to hide their secrets -- is satisfactorily explained, if you have the stomach for it. Me, I'll take my Spectre a little more superhero-y and a little less bloody, thanks.

[Contains full covers.]

More scary stuff coming up later in the week with Showcase Presents: House of Secrets. Don't miss it!

Review: Teen Titans: Changing of the Guard trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

[Contains spoilers for Teen Titans: Changing of the Guard]

In Teen Titans: Changing of the Guard, writer Sean McKeever improves on many of the difficulties found in his previous Teen Titan volumes, though unfortunately it all still falls way short of Geoff Johns' stories that began this book.

The structure of Changing of the Guard is rather ingenious, matter of fact. McKeever presents two four-chapter stories, "Pawns and Kings" and "The New Deal"; in each, the first two issues could essentially be read as individual stories. If mildly formulaic, it allows McKeever to break the "Teen Titans fight Team X" pattern that dragged down his previous volumes. Wonder Girl and Red Devil are the respective main players in the two stories, but the slow build gives McKeever time to focus on Robin, Bombshell, and a bevy of new new Titans at the same time. McKeever also improves this time around by keeping the Titans (few as they are) together as a team, instead of splitting them to face individual challenges.

Unfortunately, I couldn't help but think this time that McKeever went for both easy stories, and easy solutions. Since Titans East, Teen Titans has dealt with (1) Wonder Girl's transformation to a whiny basket case in the wake of Superboy's death, and (2) Red Devil's deal with the demon Neron to hand over his soul on his eighteenth birthday. McKeever builds these stories relatively well, but then resolves them with almost ridiculous ease -- a follower of Ares seemingly kills Wonder Girl, only to have her emerges to save the day with a new costume and unexplained powers; Red Devil apparently finds out he never signed his contract with Neron (yeah, like Neron's that careless) and *poof* no more soul-selling.

The stories are "explained away" rather than "resolved," and as such didn't leave me overly satisfied. I liked that Red Devil's storyline tied into the Keith Giffen miniseries Reign in Hell, though resolving Red Devil's issues with Neron ever even making an appearance was something of a letdown.

I also noticed that McKeever traded Ravager for Bombshell in this volume -- that is, one stereotypical tough talking, "so over it" character for another. As in Teen Titans: On the Clock, McKeever undercuts a number of supposedly poignant Titans moments with Bombshell's smart aleck remarks, and he does his writing a disservice -- the moments are corny enough that Bombshell's attitude only reinforces what the reader is already thinking, and Bombshell's comments aren't so clever as to make the reader like her. The Titans come off in these moments as kids, and not kids you'd especially want to hang out with; McKeever essentially takes the air out of his own stories.

After much back and forth (and some equally just-not-that-funny scenes with a potential Titan called The Face), the new Titans team resolves itself as Wonder Girl, Aquagirl, Kid Eternity, Red Devil, Static, Bombshell, Miss Martian, and Blue Beetle. It's a non-traditional lineup at Titans teams go (no clear legacies short of Wonder Girl and Aquagirl), but one with potential: Beetle, Devil, and Static could be a great trio if Static weren't acting uncharacteristically holier than thou; I've also enjoyed the Miss Martian character since Johns introduced her. Aquagirl seems the only weak spot, a character without a lot of personality previously established, and I wonder how McKeever intends her to function in the team.

Teen Titans -- like Nightwing, Robin, Birds of Prey, Justice League, and once upon a time, Supergirl -- is one of those DC Comics titles stuck in an awkward place where it can't quite seem to get a steady creative team or momentum under its storylines. Many times, as with the Bat-titles, this cycle ends with the title's cancellation; Supergirl, after a number of rotating creative teams, seems lucky enough to have found its footing with writer Sterling Gates. In a volume or so, McKeever will be replaced on Teen Titans by Felicia Henderson, who'll hopefully "pull a Sterling" on Teen Titans -- I don't think DC will cancel this book, but I don't think it could take another writer and another course correction.

[Contains full covers, "Origins & Omens" pages.]

Review: Robin: Search for a Hero trade paperback (DC Comics)

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Monday, October 19, 2009

[Contains spoilers for Robin: Search for a Hero and just about everything Batman-related these days, including the "Batman Reborn" storyline and the new Batgirl series.]

Writer Fabian Nicieza pinch-hits on Robin: Search for a Hero, charged with the unenviable task of both bringing this long and often troubled series to a close, and also pointing it in the direction that a whole committee of Bat-writers have decided it should go. What results is a story that serves as a fair retrospective of the Robin series, though evoking sometimes as much the bad as the good. It also defines Robin's future in a way seemingly incongruous with the rest of the Bat-titles, though I did wonder at points if it wasn't the other Bat-titles that were the ones out of step.

To read Peter Tomasi's Nightwing: The Great Leap, you'd think Batman spent his entire life praising the first Robin Dick Grayson and calling him "chum," so happily nostalgic is Dick about his upbringing. Indeed in the post-Infinite Crisis era of the kinder, gentler Batman, it's hard to imagine any of Batman's wards angry with the Dark Knight. Enter Nicieza's third Robin Tim Drake, however, who spends the entire story with a chip on his shoulder and even, it seems, feels partially gratified to be taking over from a dead Batman. Where does this attitude come from?

On one hand, Nicieza's Robin feels artificially angry. Tim's exact reasons for being suspicious of Batman and using a new, more violent approach come out in drips and vaguely-worded drabs, and it seems -- since Tim wasn't this mad at Batman only a few issues ago -- perhaps Nicieza needed Tim to be mad at Batman for the story, rather than this welling from any concrete story moments. Also, Tim's anger didn't impress me, if you will; he spends much of the book in an obsessive attempt to control every aspect of Gotham City, an attempt that the reader knows is ill-advised and as such, can only sit and wait for the character to wake up from what's by now a comic book cliche.

On the other hand, the more I thought about it, the more I considered a scenario where, while everyone else has basked in the glow of happy Batman, Tim Drake's become the forgotten son of the Bat-family. Nicieza makes the point -- backed up with scenes from Grant Morrison's Batman run and elsewhere -- that no sooner did Bruce Wayne adopt Tim Drake as his son did Talia al Ghul drop in Batman's lap his real son Damian. In addition, in a plot-necessitating throwback to Batman's bad old days, apparently Bruce suspected that Robin's girlfriend Spoiler wasn't really dead, without telling his partner -- all of which adds up to some friction between the Dynamic Duo.

It's all mildly silly. Given the momentus struggle other writers in other titles have undertaken to show the ways in which Batman has changed, that he's still portrayed as underhanded in Robin (to which I don't fault Nicieza, but the plotline he inherited) seems repetitive and tired. This is made worse by a storyline in Search for a Hero where Batman conspires with Spoiler to pit Robin's fiercest enemies against him -- a ridiculous redux of the Flash Wally West versus Zoom that falls flat here.

(And, for those keeping track, it's one -- count 'em, one -- trade since DC Comics resurrected Spoiler that not only does Spoiler screw up and help ignite a gang war [yes, just like in Batman: War Games], get told by Robin that he never, ever wants to see her out as Spoiler again [yes, just like Batman did in Robin before], but gets shot and taken captive by a villain in a creepy sexually suggestive scene [see again War Games]. Those fans who thought DC began cleaning up its depiction of women when they brought Spoiler back can commence head-shaking again. I'm eager to read the new Spoiler-lead Batgirl series, but I greatly hope someone will realize that bringing this character back from the dead is an excuse to begin writing her with brains -- no one wants to read about a screw-up for this long, and this depiction of Spoiler is well beyond repetitive.)

Nightwing: The Great Leap, I noted, puts too happy a face on Batman's history; we know Batman's relationship with his Robins has been tempestuous over the years. But Robin: Search for a Hero seems an angry kiss-off, a story that denigrates the time Tim Drake spent partnered with Batman. Considering this is the end of the Robin series, I'll take the Nightwing approach instead; just like you want to believe your favorite television characters live happily after the series finale, so too ought the final story of the almost 200-issue Robin series evoke something meaningful about the Robin character, even despite the fact that Tim Drake picks right up in a new title.

I did appreciate the wealth of Robin villains that Nicieza features here as part of the gang war storyline. Of late, given a bevy of writers and shifting status quos, Robin hasn't had a real rogues gallery to speak of, and it was fun to see Nicieza bring back a bunch of new and old heavy hitters -- Anarky, the General, Lynx, Lady Shiva, Scarab, and Jaeger. It reminds me, frankly, of just how good Chuck Dixon's original run on this series was, and how the title hasn't been the same since. It's proof positive why this "Batman Reborn" plot was necessary, as much for Batman as to clean house on the ancillary Batman titles.

[Contains full covers, Origins and Omens page]

Read another review of Robin: Search for a Hero at Oz and Ends.

Trade Perspectives: How would you collect Blackest Night?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Now that we know that the trade Blackest Night hardcover collection is on the horizon (though not, unfortunately, in a deluxe edition), it's time to start considering how YOU would want to see Blackest Night collected.

[If you enjoy this post, please share it with others.]

Even more than Final Crisis, it seems Blackest Night has a whole bunch of moving parts that need to be included in this. Let's take a look at them.

* Blackest Night: The Series

Final Crisis was seven issues; Blackest Night clocks in at eight issues, the first of which is an oversized 48-pages and the rest at least 40 pages (though likely issue #6 or #8 might be oversized, too). Right off the bat, that's 328 pages, whereas the Amazon listing for Blackest Night only cites 304 pages. Though a page count this early is usually just a placeholder and could change, it makes it very unlikely that the Green Lantern and Green Lantern Corps crossover issues will be included in this volume.

As discussed in the comments of our original post on this, there's some debate as to how the Green Lantern and Green Lantern Corps issues will read separate from Blackest Night (the former perhaps better than the latter, but basically, there doesn't seem to be room in the hardcover for any). Chances are we're looking at a Blackest Night hardcover, and then Green Lantern: Blackest Night and Green Lantern Corps: Blackest Night companion hardcover volumes, which'll make about as much sense on their own as the Final Crisis crossover "Last Rites" in Batman RIP, but such is the life of reading comics in collected format.

Another interesting suggestion in the previous post is that we might actually be looking at two volumes of the main Blackest Night hardcover, which could then include the Green Lantern titles. DC did this for The Sinestro Corps War, though that was a largely in-title event; a two-volume crossover collection would be a first for DC Comics.

* Blackest Night: Tie-in Miniseries

None of that takes into account, however, a whole slew of ancillary Blackest Night miniseries published in addition to the main title and the Green Lantern books. Not only is there the three-part Blackest Night: Tales of the Corps, there's also six three-issue miniseries starring DC Comics heroes -- Batman, Superman, Titans, Wonder Woman, Flash, and JSA -- and eight "resurrected" issues DC just announced for January. That's twenty-nine (!) more Blackest Night issues that must (of course), be collected.

This is where I venture we'll see a Blackest Night Companion like the Infinite Crisis and Final Crisis companions before it. And twenty-nine issues probably means Blackest NIght Companion volumes one, two, and maybe three -- as this moves farther from Blackest Night proper, I'd hope to see paperbacks of these.

* Crossover Titles

As of November, DC Comics has solicited a number of in-series Blackest Night crossovers -- Adventure Comics, Booster Gold, Doom Patrol, and more. And I say: Well played, DC, well played.

See, I wait for the trade, on one hand, and on the other hand, my budget isn't what it used to be. So when I'm faced with two new series, for instance, and I have to think, "Do I want to buy Power Girl: A New Beginning, given that I read the introductory Power Girl trade and I follow Justice Society, or do I want to pick up R.E.B.E.L.S.: The Coming of Starro?" R.E.B.E.L.S. is brand-new and I don't already follow the series ... BUT I know that the next R.E.B.E.L.S. trade is going to contain the Blackest Night crossover, and if I want to be up-to-date for that, I might pick up R.E.B.E.L.S. instead (or, frankly, in addition). The same is true of Doom Patrol, a title on which I might otherwise have passed for a while.

Kudos to DC, by the way, for including a bevy of the "Origins & Omens" pages in the requisite trades. They're included as far as I know in Nightwing: The Great Leap, Robin: Search for a Hero, Booster Gold: Reality Lost, and Teen Titans: Changing of the Guard, and I'm sure there's more. If I knew a trade that I otherwise might not pick up (few as they are) had the "Origins & Omens" pages in it, would the completist in me then want to pick it up ...? Probably. Well played, DC, well played.

* Conclusion

So that is, frankly, an almost dizzying amount of material due to land on our doorsteps in 2010 related to Blackest Night.

I open it up to you now: how do you want to see Blackest Night collected, what will you buy, what could you do without ... and will the final product be thick enough that you can beat zombies with it when the dead will rise? Chime in!

Blackest Night trade collection, Showcase Presents Suicide Squad solicited

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The various retail sites are now announcing the Blackest Night hardcover to be released in July 2010.

Given the increasing popularity of deluxe format editions (Batman: RIP, Batman & Robin, Superman: Secret Origins, I wouldn't have been surprised to see Blackest Night also in deluxe format -- but a hardcover will do just nicely!

We'll be back a little later to talk more about the Blackest Night collection. In the meantime, also forthcoming from DC Comics:

* Batman: Long Shadows

This hardcover collection by Judd Winick definitely includes the four part Batman story from #688-691, and potentially also the issue 687 Battle for the Cowl epilogue.

* Outsiders: The Hunting

Following The Deep, which collects Outsiders #15-20, this collection picks up with artist Tom Mandrake joining Peter Tomasi, and likely includes a Blackest Night tie-in issue.

* Batman: Streets of Gotham Vol. 1: Hush Money

The real question about this hardcover collection of Paul Dini's new series Streets of Gotham is whether it'll also contain Detective Comics #852 and Batman #685, which bridged Dini's Detective Comics and Streets of Gotham runs.

* DC Greatest Imaginary Stories Vol. 2: Batman & Robin

In 2005, DC published a volume of their "greatest imaginary stories," including Superman-Red and Superman-Blue. That volume contained a number of Superman stories; this new one, as you can see, focuses on Batman and Robin. If it's successful, might Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, and other volumes be on the way?

* Showcase Presents Suicide Squad Vol. 1

Suicide Squad was one of the Showcase volumes announced and then cancelled due to royalty issues a few years back. Maybe this is an erroneous entry, but I sure would be glad to see this back on the table.

* Icon Vol. 2: The Mothership Connection

Milestone title Icon formerly received only one collection of issues #1-8. A second collection of issues #9-14 would take this right up to the Worlds Collide crossover with the then-separate DC Universe.

* Green Arrow/Black Canary Vol. 5: Big Game

At this point, Green Arrow/Black Canary splits into a feature and co-feature, though interviews have suggested these two will be collected in the same volume.


* Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?

* Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow

These two books, released as deluxe hardcovers last year, now in paperback.

* JSA vs. Kobra

Very excited by the news that Greg Rucka and Eric Trautmann's final Checkmate story will appear in the Kobra: Resurrection trade paperback -- this trade by Trautmann continues that story.

* Batgirl Vol. 1: Batgirl Rising

* Azrael: Death's Dark Knight

Two more "Batman Reborn" titles, both in paperback.

So other than Blackest Night (naturally), what's on your to-buy list?

Collected Editions blog link browsing for 10/13/09

* If you're visiting the Collected Editions blog today, be sure to hop over to the Collected Comics Library. Chris Marshall celebrates ten years of his excellent blog and podcast -- go wish Chris well, and browse the site while you're there.

* At the Baltimore Retailer Summit, DC Comics announced that that they will release Wednesday Comics as a $49.99, 11 x 17 hardcover. The original series measured 14 x 20, so the hardcover is mildly smaller, but will be considerably more manageable to hold on your lap!

This is not a must-read for me, but I'm sure I'll pick it up eventually, maybe around the next holidays. It'll be interesting to see each characters' comic sequential, when before one would read them interspersed each week; I wonder how that might change the reading experience. [Via The Source, care of Robot 6.]

Review: Nightwing: The Great Leap trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, October 12, 2009

[Contains spoilers for Battle of the Cowl and the general new Batman direction]

Peter Tomasi offers an impressive end to a troubled book in Nightwing: The Great Leap. In many ways it seems the "Batman Reborn" storyline coming out of Batman: RIP is less about the popular Grant-Morrison-helmed Batman title itself than about the ancilliary Bat-titles, none of which were hitting the top of the charts given numerous rotating creative teams. Each must now bow out, and there are right and wrong ways to do so; Tomasi gets it right, and believably sets up Nightwing for the next phase in his life.

Nightwing, most readers know by now, becomes the new Batman in the wake of Battle for the Cowl; this trajectory is something I couldn't help but see in The Great Leap, and as well surely something that Tomasi intends. One of the winningest moments of this book is when Tomasi has Dick Grayson leave his home in New York and take the train in to Gotham City, much as a young Bruce Wayne, in Batman: Year One, took the train into Gotham after his travels abroad. (Correction: It was Gordon. Still a great moment by Tomasi).

In this, Tomasi suggests that all of Nightwing's past to this point is prologue, and his role now as Gotham's protector is where the real story begins. Tomasi ends the story clearing away much of the baggage that other writers created between Batman and Nightwing, leaving it that Bruce Wayne cared for Dick Grayson, and now Dick will care for Gotham in Bruce's stead. There's plenty of ways in which this is too easy or quick, but certainly it's the happy ending that the Nightwing title always needed to end with, and I very much admire Tomasi for delivering it.

In the wake of Batman's disappearance, the Harvey Dent aspect of Two-Face recruits Nightwing to help save an endangered trial witness from Two-Face himself. The encounter with Two-Face reminds Nightwing of their early defining battle when he was Robin, even as the Bat-family comes to grips with Batman's apparent death. Nightwing must later contend with Ra's al Ghul while deciding what his role will be in a Gotham without Batman.

Roundabouts Batman: Prodigal, another story that saw Nightwing considering life post-Batman, someone at DC noticed that Two-Face factored heavily into the origins of Robins Jason Todd and Tim Drake, and as such retroactively added a major fight between Dick Grayson and Two-Face. Viola; instant arch-enemy. Though not much has been done with that story since, Tomasi picks it up here, giving Nightwing and Two-Face a relationship somewhat akin to Wally West and Zoom in Flash -- Two-Face becomes like Nightwing's "other father," opposite of Batman, who introduced Dick to fear rather than hope from a young age.

Most notably, Tomasi offers an epilogue to "The Great Leap" storyline (with great art by Doug Mahnke) where Nightwing and Two-Face simply talk, and where Nightwing notes that he does not see the former Harvey Dent when he looks at Two-Face, only the villain. This is a startling difference between Nightwing and Batman, well-concieved by Tomasi, and it's part of Tomasi's characterization of Nightwing in this book that helps one see Nightwing not so much as his own man, but as a worthy successor to the Batman. Nightwing appears here as having learned the lessons of his mentor, enough such that as Batman he would do his mentor proud.

There's many such instances like that in this book. Deb, Tomasi's romantic complication du jour for Dick Grayson, breaks up with him in one of the most bloodless and amicable splits in comic book (and certainly Batman) history; Dick accepts that his life is now meant to be spent in service of Gotham City and he takes only that role without the angst we've seen before. When Nightwing assists the Justice League with the building of a heroes' memorial, we see in Nightwing the friendship with other heroes that Batman couldn't accomplish; when Dick Grayson jumps out of an airplance, breaking records only he will know about, we see his peace in an inner life that Bruce Wayne never had. This is a Nightwing, the reader understands, who has learned both from Batman's tutelage and mistakes, and as such his ascension to the cowl makes a perfect sense when at times it couldn't have seemed more unlikely.

For me, The Great Leap cements Peter Tomasi as a writer to watch. The climactic fight that he writes between Nightwing and Two-Face, with scarred acidic pennies raining from the sky and Nightwing jumping between flying dirigibles to reach Two-Face is nothing short of an astounding action scene (with credit, too, to Doug Kramer and Rags Morales for selling these concepts throughout the book). One of my favorite Batman stories is Marv Wolfman's A Lonely Place of Dying, which introduced Tim Drake but also pits Batman against Two-Face; Two-Face is in his hokey glory here with exploding death traps and "two"-related clues; it was that kind of widescreen, manic, Bat-action joy that I felt Tomasi captured. I've liked Tomasi's work on Green Lantern Corps, and the action and heart he brings to The Great Leap make me eager for what this writer might do next.

[Contains full and variant covers, Origins & Omens pages]

Read another review of Nightwing: The Great Leap at Oz and Ends.

Review: Secret Six: Unhinged trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, October 08, 2009

[This review comes from Collected Editions contributor Derek Roper]

When we last left the Six, they were in tatters in Birds of Prey. Knockout had been killed in the events leading up to Final Crisis, Harley Quinn left because it got too dangerous, and the rest were imprisoned on a planet in Salvation Run. What was a group of mercenaries to do? Get an ongoing series, that’s what.

Catman, Deadshot, Scandal, and Ragdoll return to the House of Secrets in Secret Six: Unhinged (collects issues #1-7). But they are not alone: a certain A-List Batman villain, Bane, and a wealthy casino owner, Jeanette, join the group as they try to deliver a package that has every villain in the DC Universe -- and some heroes -- scrambling after them.

Simone once said that the plan was to have a Secret Six and Catman revolving miniseries but in the end the monthly is what we got. This gives her plenty of room to flesh out the characters and give them the long story arcs that are set up in this trade.
 The plot begins when brothers Aaron and Tig escort a very nervous man down to a basement in a gay bar called the Bear Trap. The man has lost something that belongs to the mysterious crime boss Junior. Junior sits in the basement in a trunk with nothing but a rotary phone and a notepad, and with that little apparently runs all the West Coast action and gives direction to the 100 and Intergang.

I must detour for a moment and say how scary this “Junior” is. The only glimpse we see are two black hands with long fingers. There is something about an unseen villain that strikes fear in characters and readers alike. The buildup is very horror movie-ish, reminiscent of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, where one can just imagine how horrible it is going to be when the creature is unmasked. But unlike the buildup of The Village, Unhinged does not disappoint. The reveal on page 120 is so startling that it makes one wish someone would have prepared them.

OK, back to the plot. The Six are hired by a mysterious client (that pays in advance cash smelling of herring) to bust Tarantula Catalina Flores (of Nightwing fame) out of Alcatraz prison and escort her across the country to the eastern seaboard city of Gotham; along with Ms. Flores they have to stop and get a small card that was very precious to Junior. That is where the mayhem breaks out and the blood starts flying.
 A group of villains led by Cheshire and Lady Vic go after the item in question and manage to create some horrific moments. The best was a nod to the classic horror movies when the group goes to the house where the card is located and get surprised by Cheetah, who has such a serial killer presence it makes one glad that Bane is on the team—even if he does get smashed into a wall.

It was nice to see that the Origins and Omens story was included. It was rumored the upcoming volume DC Universe: Origins was going to house that material but it is nice to see them being collected with their respected story arcs. This O-and-O story was essential to the plot of the book because it gives background on who hired the Six.

Simone has a proclivity for character dialogue and each rogue has a unique voice, from Deadshot's colloquial “Go on, Killer. But do me a solid,” to Jeanette’s elitist “You look a proper shock.” Equally, Simone’s humor is dark and twisted. After the fight-fest on the Gotham Bridge, Jeanette had broken the top and bottom of King Shark’s mouth. She then proceeds to tell him “Why not send the silly little fish-man to swim about and find her?” To which the bandaged and wounded shark replies “Hmmf! Eye Ainff Noo Fiffmanff! Eye a Fark!” It is there that Simone shows how well she can poke fun at some of the most absurd characters of the DC Universe.

The art in Unhinged is superb. Nicola Scott’s introduction to the Six began during her tenure on the now cancelled Birds of Prey. Scott has a very good grasp on characters’ emotions. In the Secret Six: Six Degrees of Devastation trade, the art by Brad Walker wasn’t so clean. A lot of the lines that made up a characters' faces ran together and it was hard to tell if it was a wound or a frown line. The background art in this trade is so clean and crisp. The Gotham City skyline in issue two was absolutely breathtaking and shows that Scott has an eye for depth and scale.

However, I do have a quibble with one of the plot points in the story. Since the Six had to go to Alcatraz, they knew they had to keep the world’s greatest detective at bay. Catman confronts Batman to not only occupy him but to let him know that he is a force to be reckoned with. They fight each other and Catman manages to get a good shot. Batman has trained with Lady Shiva and trained Nightwing and Barbara Gordon and yet Catman gets a good shot at Batman? It makes sense that he has the gusto to fight the Bat, but Catman ought not stand a chance.

I also felt the ending was a bit of a bust in that characters that deserved some longevity were seemingly killed. Hopefully, since DC is a fan of characters coming back from the dead, said characters shouldn’t have too much of a wait. One of the Six walks away with Junior’s item and it will be interesting to see how it plays out in future collections.

Secret Six has always been a wild ride, from their days in Villains United to now. One never knows who is going to live and who is going to die, but they will be promised the three F’s; Filth, Fun, and Fiends.

Review: Final Crisis: Revelations hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, October 05, 2009

There's few things I like more than a comic by Greg Rucka, and especially a comic by Greg Rucka that includes Renee Montoya as the Question, and also references Renee's history with Gotham Central. By virtue of its Final Crisis ties, this story didn't strike me as quite at the level of its Question: Five Books of Blood predecessor, but Final Crisis: Revelations has got a lot going for it nonetheless.

Revelations tries its best to explore the spiritual side of Final Crisis. Thematically (if not completely on the page), Final Crisis looked at free will and how, in a world of tabloid news and Internet journalism, we daily cede ourselves to the real-life equivalent of Darkseid's Anti-Life equation. Revelations finds God's agents--the vengeful Spectre and the merciful Radiant--impotent against the Anti-Life equation precisely because, the Radiant explains, God imbued mankind with free will and it's mankind who has to take it back. Greg Rucka's voices of the people, the Question and the Huntress, battle the epitome of human evil, the biblical Cain, for mankind's ability to make their own choices.

It sounds riveting on paper, and the story does deliver plenty of what most fans bought the story for: the first meeting between former Gotham Central partners Renee Montoya and Crispus Allen in their new roles as the Question and the Spectre respectively. Rucka's dialogue shines here with Renee's sometimes snappy, sometimes self-effacing one liners, and I continue to enjoy the backdrop of his haunting Religion of Crime.

Rucka also makes the smart decision to separate Renee from the shadow of Batwoman a bit, and instead brings in the Huntress (whom he wrote to great success in the Huntress: Cry for Blood miniseries). Rucka doesn't spend too long on Huntress's religious background, but longtime fans knows she has one (as does Renee, for that matter), and it makes the character a perfect fit for this spiritual story. Much of Revelations brings to close plotlines begun around Infinite Crisis, and it's fitting to find Huntress in a church here just as she was during that earlier crossover.

Different from Final Crisis: Rogues' Revenge, which I thought made great use of the Final Crisis background, Revelations is a good story that feels hampered by Final Crisis. Despite that the Crime Bible mythology had its origins in Apokolips in 52, the role Darkseid plays here, and his relationship to the story's villain Cain, is never completely clear and seems largely tacked on. As with Countdown to Final Crisis and Death of the New Gods, the end of Revelations seemingly solves the Final Crisis on its own, and it's hard to see the necessity of Revelations as part of Final Crisis rather than its own entity.

In addition, the Final Crisis timeline severely hampers the story; Renee and the Spectre could've fought Cain any day of the week, but setting this during Final Crisis severely restricts the story's ability to breathe. Revelations ends up taking place only over a couple of hours, much of it spent with Renee and the Huntress running dizzyingly in and out of a church. Renee and the Spectre get a little time to chat, but there's not as much reflection as I would have liked; let's not forget Renee nearly drank herself to death, at one point, feeling guilty over the death of her former partner.

To be sure, however, I did appreciate some of the work Rucka tries to do on the Crispus Allen Spectre. Like Will Pfeifer and David Lapham before him, Rucka doesn't seem quite the rules and abilities of this new Spectre, but he does pick up on the rather quick death of Allen's son in Pfeifer's miniseries, and applies good story logic to why this death might have been so quick. Was Allen indeed meant to let the Spectre kill his son, the Radiant wonders. Was it a test that Allen failed, or did Allen's son's death prevent further deaths down the line?

They're good questions (as Renee is wont to say), though Rucka doesn't answer them so much as open Allen's eyes to new spectral abilities, such that everything's copacetic in the end. Not, perhaps, the explanations I was hoping for, but at least Rucka begins to distance the Spectre from the Lapham/Fleisher incarnation (not before he takes revenge for the murder of Martian Manhunter, however), seemingly moving the character toward a cosmic interpretation more comfortable with the Justice Society.

(I did wish, however, Rucka hadn't created this opposite number for the Spectre, the Radiant--equally undefined, I've some doubt we'll see her used much again in the DC Universe, and it frustrates me when an author creates a new character when there are so many in the DCU waiting to be used; Radiant might've been the 1990s Superman character Kismet, for instance, or someone else.)

[Contains full and sliver covers, Crime Bible page from Final Crisis Secret Files]

So--while Revelations didn't quite pack the punch of the Final Crisis crossover Rogues' Revenge, fans like me of Greg Rucka's new Question will surely be glad for this volume, and eagerly awaiting the next.

Review: Superman: New Krypton Vol. 1 hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, October 01, 2009

It's clear from the first volume of Superman: New Krypton that this story has all the makings of an epic. Though New Krypton still seems very much an effort on the writers' part to work out how to tell a Superman story, rather than a Superman story itself, there's such a fine mix of old and new elements here that I'll go happily along for the ride.

What I liked best about New Krypton -- summed up in a rainy late-night meeting between Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane at the Daily Planet, where they discuss Jimmy's leads on a shadowy government organization -- is the intrigue. Everyone in this story has an angle or a moral ambiguity, from the Guardian with blood on his hands to Lois's connection to the story's mystery villain, to Superman overly trusting a few thousand newly resurrected Kryptonians mainly due to his sorrow over the death of his father. It's one thing to tell a superhero story where superhero X battle villain Y; it's another to tell a story where this character used to fight alongside that character and this one is related to that one ... all this interconnectedness, frankly, is one of the clear signs writer Geoff Johns is involved.

With this intrigue, we're presented with the kind of fully-realized supporting cast for Superman that we haven't seen since the 1990s. Writers Johns, James Robinson, and Sterling Gates surely love the "triangle title" era, as they bring back both the Guardian and Agent Liberty; this, combined with important roles for Lois Lane, her sister Lucy, Jimmy Olsen, Ma Kent, Krypto, Lex Luthor, and a bevy of Kryptonians, combine to make the story feel real and textured. Even better, Superman remains at the forefront despite the large cast, with all their plotlines feeding into his larger struggle.

Admittedly, these elements help the New Krypton story that, on its own, remains a bit predictable. Ten thousand Kryptonians, now resurrected on Earth, immediately begin acting badly, as does a secret government cabal, with Superman stuck in the middle. Superman will undoubtedly emerge as a symbol of the best of both worlds, just before the Kryptonians' eventual demise. And yet, even as everyone acts to their stereotype -- optimistically naive Superman, haughty Kryptonians, xenophobic Earth military -- I'm a sucker for this kind of "trust no one," two-front war storyline, and I love Superman at the center of it with enemies on all sides.

Another problem (as we already begin to see in this volume) is that Superman hanging out with a couple thousand Kryptonians doesn't leave a lot of room for Clark Kent. For my money, a good Superman story involves both sides of Superman's life, both cosmic villainy and the Daily Planet (see, as a random example, "Going to Blazes," or [don't flame me] Superman Returns), while New Krypton seems to employ the guy with the powers only. It's easy, I think, to put Superman in the role of "generic superhero," and pitting him against other Kryptonians -- rather than, say, against the Toyman over Metropolis -- is to examine Superman rather than to write him. Geoff Johns' Green Lantern title has become much the same, exploring Green Lantern rather than writing him, and in a way I'm more eager for what comes after the Superman-rejuvinating New Krypton than I am for New Krypton itself.

James Robinson contributes the most to this book, and I took special note of his work because I had initially disliked (but on second reading, enjoyed a bit more) his first Superman foray, The Coming of Atlas. Some of Robinson's dialogue still lacks the zing I remember from Starman (especially a scene where Clark Kent essentially tells Jimmy Olsen to shut up), but I give him credit for writing a spunky, motorcycling-riding Jimmy whose flight from a pursuing assassin had me cheering. The Guardian story that Robinson contributes doesn't add much to the volume, but overall I liked what Robinson did here enough to assuage some of my previous concerns.

What I've gleaned from interviews is that New Krypton feeds into a 2010 Superman anniversary celebration (or is that a DC Comics anniversary? I'm not clear on this), and my expectation is that we'll see New Krypton at the center of DC Comics' next crossover after Blackest Night. If you're like me, and Hal Jordan out in front of the Justice League (instead of Superman) just looks wrong to you, then you'll share my excitement at a DC crossover with Superman at the center. Here's hoping.

[Contains full covers and variants.]