Review: Booster Gold: Day of Death trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, May 31, 2010

Dan Jurgens has been one of my favorite artists for a long time -- Death of Superman has nothing on how long I've enjoyed Jurgens' work. To borrow a phrase, I could likely read Jurgens illustrating the phone book, and to that end I'm likely to be more forgiving of a book by Jurgens just for the enjoyment of his art. Indeed, Booster Gold: Day of Death, Jurgens' second volume both writing and drawing the series, is a great sampling of his work, and delves back in an enjoyable way to DC Comics history. But at the same time, Day of Death mines ground already well-trod by the Booster Gold series, and it suggests a need for the creative team change that's already on its way in a few volumes.

The story Jurgens tells in Day of Death is essentially "Batman Reborn" by way of Booster Gold; that is, Batman was the only one who knew Booster's real time-travelling mission, Batman is dead, and now Booster has to deal with it. This is a great conceit that ties well into Booster's own loneliness and frustration over his reputation as a buffoon; before, he could only talk to Batman, and now he can't talk to anyone. Jurgens' stories, especially this volume, suggest a more serious tension between Booster and Rip Hunter that wasn't in Geoff Johns' earlier run, and I'm curious to see where Jurgens goes with that (meanwhile, Booster's ancestor Daniel Carter, introduced in 52, has all but disappeared from the series).

Enter new Batman Dick Grayson, himself struggling with the loneliness that Batman's cowl brings. The machinations of the evil Black Beetle force Booster into Dick's past -- specifically, the Teen Titans' classic first battle with the demon Trigon -- and in the resolution of the resulting conflict, both Booster and Dick have a better understanding of one another and a new ally. It's simple, perhaps, but the Booster's-loss-of-Batman story needed to be told, and Jurgens' story hits the right notes. The scenes set right between the pages of Marv Wolfman and George Perez's New Teen Titans #2 are especially fun.

My qualm is that Jurgens extends the story by sending Booster, Rip Hunter, and the Titans' Raven into an apocalyptic alternate future where Trigon rules -- a future not remarkably different from the apocalyptic future where Max Lord ruled into which Geoff Johns sent Booster and friends in Booster Gold: Blue and Gold. In fact, Jurgens even makes the mistake of positing Green Arrow as the future's underground rebel leader, just like Johns did.

There are cute moments here in Jurgens' use of Kyle Rayner and his romance with Zatanna, but the future doesn't have the same pop as when Johns used Pantha and Wild Dog. The story yawns a bit, and it seems to have something of a quandary -- Booster Gold is a time-traveller, yes, but how many times can he fight for his life in an alternate future or a revised past before it begins to run together? The book begs to be treated to a Quantum Leap-like approach: Booster fixes time anomalies, sure, but other times he's just in time, taking an identity alongside the JSA one week and crossing over with Legion of Super-Heroes the next.

Day of Death starts with two one-issue stories, a Brave and the Bold issue with Magog and "1952 Pickup" by upcoming Booster writer Keith Giffen, and both are interesting in their own way. The Brave and the Bold team-up ends very suddenly without the expected understanding between Booster and Magog; instead, Magog comes off rather violent and unlikeable, and it's hard to imagine the character supporting his own title (which, it was recently announced, he no longer will -- Magog is cancelled, but the final story suggests some time travel aspect and as such, maybe an additional tie to Booster). Giffen's "1952 Pickup" is a detailed story written in chapters, much like a 1950s comic, that teams Booster with the original Task Force X "Suicide Squad" -- it's this kind of story with which I think Booster Gold could do well, and Giffen makes an effective contribution here.

[Contains full covers]

The next volume of Booster Gold promises a conclusion to the Black Beetle storyline, almost as old as this title itself, and that, combined with the Blackest Night crossover and presumably Dan Jurgens' getting to draw a wider swath of the DC Universe, makes this a sure thing for me; and I liked Giffen's one-shot enough that I should be here for his debut, too. If I thought that Jurgens was leaving the DC Universe altogether after Booster Gold, I'd be the loudest advocating his staying, but Jurgens moving to Time Masters and Giffen coming on this title seems exactly the right solution; maybe sometimes things work out after all.

Review: Superman: Codename: Patriot hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The next New Krypton collection, Superman: Codename: Patriot, will be a good story one of these days. To its merits, writers Greg Rucka, James Robinson, and Sterling Gates deliver -- or at least tease -- a number of major moments that New Krypton readers have been waiting for; but at the same time Codename: Patriot feels terribly short, and much of the setup in this book only pays off in a subsequent volume. In this way, Codename: Patriot is definitely an important part of the New Krypton story, but these five-issue, $25 hardcovers are beginning to grate.

[Contains spoilers for the New Krypton series]

A big source of the suspense of New Krypton thus far has come from the characters in the various titles and plotlines not knowing about one another. The identity of Superwoman was one; that Superman and Supergirl don't know that Nightwing and Flamebird are Superman's foster son Chris and Supergirl's old friend Thara respectively is another; that the source of all their recent troubles is Lois Lane's father General Sam Lane, thought dead, is a third. Codename: Patriot detonates this, bringing everyone out into the open, and this makes it a major storyline. Of them all, I'm most interested in what Lois will do when she finds out about her father; she has blamed Supergirl so far for Superwoman's death, but learning about her father should go a long way toward revealing the real culprit.

Unfortunately, I'll have to wait until the next Supergirl collection, Friends and Fugitives, to learn Lois's reaction, and also to see many of the reunions promised in Patriot. Because Same Lane employs a shapeshifter, even though Supergirl learns about Thara, the "Thara" that she actually meets is a fake; similarly, even though Lois tells Superman about Chris, Sam Lane captures Chris before he and Superman ever meet on-screen. There's a lot of information passed around in Patriot, but ultimately it boils down to a story of the bad guys capturing the good guys; that there's so much build up and no resolution found in Patriot feels terribly unsatisfactory.

Also, with this book I begin to feel the presence of the yet un-collected New Krypton co-features and tie-ins. Codename: Patriot hints at the presence of Captain Atom, but his co-feature is nowhere to be found, and so elements like Atom and the magic Mirabai go unexplained -- it's as if I've missed a part of the story, even though I haven't. (I've heard good things about this Captain Atom co-feature, and I hope it gets collected eventually.) There's also the suddenly-important, out-of-nowhere presence of Outsider Geo-Force's homeland of Markovia; I know Outsiders will eventually tie-in with New Krypton, but again I wasn't sure if Markovia's role was meant to be new or if I'd missed something here, too.

Still, what is in Codename: Patriot is very good. I enjoyed Superman and Lois's reunion and Lois's revelation about Chris; it was also fun to see Superman, Supergirl, Mon-El, and the Guardian all together (and there's some nostalgia to a Supergirl/Mon-El team up since, some retcons ago, the Matrix-Supergirl played a big part in getting the Valor-Mon-El on his way). Sam Lane is a wonderfully malevolent bad guy here, playing all sides against each other, and I liked the out-of-the-blue revelation that he's got an entire magic dimension on his side. The writers do a nice job (and I sense Rucka's hand here specifically) playing with the identity of the Patriot; we think at first that it's the Kryptonian assassin Ran-Dar, but learn finally that Lane is the Patriot, able now to emerge from the shadows.

As well, the book closes with another Jimmy Olsen special by James Robinson, which reminds us once again why we loved Robinson's writing so much all those years ago. I started out disappointed in this issue, as Robinson and artist Matt Camp offer one too many needless, large paneled pages of Jimmy rescuing a mystery person from a fire ... but then that mystery person turns out to be Erik Storn, nee Erika, from Peter Milligan's short-lived Infinity Inc. series. What follows is a wildly wacky series-bending sequence in which fellow-Infinitor Natasha Irons reveals she was hired by Tim Zanetti, Jr., son of the title character in the equally short-lived Breach series, to inflitrate Sam Lane's operation to try to find Breach, when in fact what Irons finds is Captain Atom.

Robinson has no good reason to use and give closure to Infinity Inc. and Breach, but it's a boon for continuity wonks and I found it delightful; I'd argue it's this attention to randomness that was part of what I enjoyed in Starman, and it brightens the end of Patriot somewhat.

[Contains full and variant covers, text pages, Secret Files entries]

So, when New Krypton is done, Superman: Codename: Patriot will be a turning point for the series, but I wish DC had included a couple more issues to round out the book. New Krypton gives the Superman titles a life I think they'd been missing for a while, but I'm convinced the hardcover format necessitates more than just five issues collected.

Review: Green Lantern Corps: Emerald Eclipse hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, May 24, 2010

Admittedly, in the long wait for the Blackest Night collections and uncharacteristically lackluster Green Lantern: Agent Orange, I'd begun to feel just the slightest bit of event fatigue for Blackest Night before I'd even read the series. However, as the next in a string of great collections, writer Peter Tomasi's Green Lantern Corps: Emerald Eclipse is nothing short of outstanding, possibly the best trade paperback I've read all year, and if this book reflects the quality of Blackest Night to come, I'm excited all over again.

[Contains spoilers]

From the beginning of the second chapter, when Daxamite Green Lantern Sodam Yat confronts the xenophobic mother who nearly exiled him from his home planet, Tomasi places Emerald Eclipse a cut above the rest. There's plenty of cosmic action in this book (and that's great, too) but largely the conflicts are between individual characters, and it brings a unique richness to the story. Yat, for instance, has been so far something of a cypher for me, but when Tomasi lets Yat's pent-up anger boil up to the surface in the face of his mother's racism, it's so powerful as to forever define the character. The Daxamites brainwashed Yat and murdered his alien friend, but they're now asking him to save their lives, and the moments when Yat weighs his rage versus his duty as a Green Lantern are simply electric.

Similarly, at the end of the book we find Green Lanterns Kyle Rayner and Guy Gardner planting themselves squarely between some of their worst enemies and a firing squad, trying to prevent the Guardians and Alpha Lanterns from committing mass murder. This scene brings to a head some of the most interesting aspects of the new Green Lantern mythos -- the Lanterns have had to consider if they can still be effective without using lethal force in the face of murderous enemies, and now the Guardians have taken this to the extreme, executing even captured foes. Tomasi does well tying this to real-world issues -- if we murder our prisoners, Kyle asks, what will our enemies do to us? -- and creates palpable tension as the Alpha Lanterns pick off well-known bad guys one-by-one before the reader.

There's a number of these great moments in Emerald Eclipse, whether quiet ones like the verbal sparring between Lantern Soranik Natu and Sinestro, Natu's burgeoning relationship with Kyle Rayner, and the interactions between Rayner and Gardner or Natu and her Lantern partner Princess Iolande; or giant, loud ones like the knock-down fight between Mongul and Arkillo for control of the Sinestro Corps; or the massive, I-can't-believe-this-wasn't-its-own-crossover jailbreak of the Sinestro Corps from the Oan Sciencells, and kudos to artist Patrick Gleason for clear cosmic art in scenes of both type. That Sciencell battle, too, helped define the Red Lantern Corps for me; I wasn't entirely clear on their powers from Green Lantern: Rage of the Red Lanterns, but now I see the threat they pose (especially, that their spit can melt Green Lantern constructs!).

I remain only mildly confused by the end of Emerald Eclipse, but I suspect that confusion is on purpose. Yat released the power of Ion to turn Daxam's sun yellow -- did this kill Yat, or does he now exist for some reason, as the last scene suggests, in the sun (or is Yat's image meant to be Arisia's fond remembrance)? And with all the pushing and pulling that the Guardian Scar did to make the shield over the planet Oa explode (yet another fantastic, could-have-been-its-own-event moment), I was surprised to see all the Black Lantern Corps rings explode out of ... a little meteor. This final page felt anti-climactic to me after a book full of wonders, but I can most certainly forgive this after everything else in this book.

Constant Collected Editions readers will remember I was none too pleased that DC Comics switched Green Lantern Corps from paperback to hardcover with this volume, in a way that suggested to me trying to unfairly capitalize on the excitement over Blackest Night. Green Lantern Corps has only been in paperback before, but now if a reader wants to be caught up for Blackest Night, they have to read the Emerald Eclipse hardcover or else wait until November to get the paperback. Well, I didn't want to wait and delay reading Blackest Night, and was lucky enough to find someone willing to lend me their Emerald Eclipse hardcover, but it doesn't change my feelings on the situation -- I think this was a bad time for Green Lantern Corps to go hardcover, and if it remains that way after Blackest Night, I'll be waiting for the paperback then, too.

That said ... Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason have done themselves remarkably proud with Green Lantern: Emerald Eclipse. It's a shame Tomasi won't be staying on this book much longer, but he's won himself a fan and I'll be eager for his other Green Lantern work.

[Contains full and variant covers]

Up next ... more Superman. See you there!

Review: Red Robin: The Grail trade paperback (DC Comics)

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Thursday, May 20, 2010

I've been a fan of Tim Drake as Robin since his inception. DC Comics presented Tim Drake, at least as I always understood it, as the one true Robin; the original Robin Dick Grayson may have graduated to Nightwing, but Tim was Robin, such that there would always be a Robin in the DC Universe. As such, I don't necessarily favor Tim's transformation to Red Robin, if indeed it will even last past the end DC's current "Batman Reborn" storyline; Dick Grayson was Robin for forty years before he became Nightwing, such that Tim's new guise of Red Robin after only about twenty years seems sudden and strange.

That being said, however, aspects of writer Christopher Yost and artist Ramon Bachs first outing on this new title, Red Robin: The Grail, hearken wonderfully back to the early days of the last Robin series. It'll take a lot to get me to accept an older, lone Red Robin out on his own when his friends on the Teen Titans remain younger and together, but Red Robin is a good substitute for a genuine Robin fix.

[Contains spoilers]

I'll note to start off that Red Robin isn't perfect. Despite the premise of the book is that Tim is now the loose cannon of the Bat-family, working "over the line" (as the narrative continually reminds us) in his search for Bruce Wayne, Tim never comes off as that extreme aside from a well-advised team-up with villain Ra's al Ghul. The few times he breaks a bad guy's bones aren't anything you wouldn't put past the Dark Knight himself; Yost more tells than shows us that Tim's gone rogue.

And whereas Yost creates some interesting characters in Ra's al Ghul's team of assassins, I couldn't care much for Tim's supposed love interest of the book, Wayne Enterprises' Lucius Fox's daughter Tam. Yost means to demonstrate how out of her element she is, kidnapped by Ra's, through all the "ums" peppered in her speech, but it only makes her seem a vapid damsel in distress, not someone we root for Tim to love. (Letting alone the gratuitous scene where Tim [accidentally] kicks former girlfriend Spoiler in the face, the kind of violence between couples we're meant to wave away in comic books but that would be "not all right" in the real world.)

But given those quibbles, overall Yost delivers a book much in line with Robin stories past. I absolutely love that Tim's mission takes him all over the globe, much like the first Robin miniseries found Tim in Paris rather than Gotham. Yost has obviously done his homework, including shout outs to moments both as early as that first Robin miniseries to as late as the end of the regular series (and a nod to Tim's long-time pseudonym, Alvin Draper). Tim's entire quest is predicated on his skills as a detective, true to the beginnings of the character; and Tim's penchant for working with villains and obsessing about the wisdom of it also, as I noted, has precedent.

I also appreciated that Yost very quickly established that the main character's name is Tim Drake, not Tim Wayne. I liked that Bruce Wayne adopted Tim, creating a real father-son dynamic between the Dynamic Duo that hadn't been explored before, but one could argue to also lessened Tim as a character. Another interesting dynamic was that Tim became Robin while his father still lived, causing Tim both outward obstacles and inner conflict; returning Tim to Drake (a perfectly fearsome-sounding Bat-character last name) not only returns the character's independence, but some of the punch that perhaps the character has lost over the years.

In short, Yost's book feels like Robin, even if it isn't. Some time after Chuck Dixon originally left the Robin title, Adam Beechen delivered a handful of stories that felt like the old days, but in total the book never had its original aesthetic. Red Robin returns that through tone, plot, and locale, even through artist Ramon Bachs channeling early Robin artist Tom Grummett on at least two occasions (Damian Wayne in the Batcave in the beginning, and Tim as he talks to Wonder Girl toward the end) -- all of it ought evoke considerable nostalgia for long-time Robin fans.

[Contains "What came before" page, full and variant covers]

DC Comics seems to me now a little stuck -- Damian Wayne isn't the Robin that DC can put on lunchboxes, so I expect Tim to one day retake the mantle; but having been Red Robin, returning to regular Robin would seem for Tim Drake something of a devolution. How that'll play out, I'm not sure -- I do applaud DC for taking chances, and I'm curious to see where all of this will go.

What's that green glow on the horizon? Be here next time to find out!

Review: Batman and Robin: Batman Reborn deluxe hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, May 17, 2010

The clever thing about Grant Morrison's Batman and Robin: Batman Reborn is that unlike Morrison's Batman RIP, which dragged the disparate sci-fi elements of the Batman mythos kicking and screaming into a cohesive Batman narrative, Batman and Robin's study of the Batman mythos is all in the background. Whereas RIP holds such far-flung adventures as "The Superman of Planet X" directly up to the reader's face in the form of a half-crazed Batman, Reborn is far less self-referential, masking all its deconstruction as character elements. Batman and Robin presents itself with a healthy dose of twenty-first century irreverence, but it's no less thoughtful than the books that came before.

[Contains spoilers]

Batman and Robin offers Batman reinvented, but with nothing so dramatic as an elderly Bruce Wayne directing a young new Batman from afar, nor Batman-gone-underground leading an army of street toughs. There's still a Batman, still a Robin; they still get cases from Commissioner Gordon; heck, there's still even a Batmobile and a Batcave. But these latter elements have a small new shine in that the former flies and the other is now a 1970s-style playboy penthouse. And there's other subtle changes: Robin Damian Wayne -- always one moment from crippling his opponent -- takes the grim and gritty role; Damian is so like his father that even when he tears off his "R" patch and momentarily quits the partnership, he keeps his mask on -- like Bruce Wayne before him, there's no real difference between Damian and his superheroic alter ego. Batman Dick Grayson approaches his cowl with more hesitancy; he is moreover one of the few masked characters in Batman Reborn to actually take off his mask.

This gets to the core of the story; Morrison is playing with masks this time around. It's not just a new Batman and Robin (nor that, alongside the new Dynamic Duo's own struggle, they're each also pretending to be the same Batman and Robin that Gotham and Comissioner Gordon knew before, when obviously they're not), but also their new villains. Professor Pyg makes his mark by welding mind-control masks to his victims, ones that rip off the victim's very face if removed; Morrison never shows Pyg's own face, even when the heroes knock off his mask. We're introduced to the book's second villain, Flamingo, as he literally devours the faces of a plane-full of unsuspecting prostitutes. Pyg and Flamingo are each entirely their killer identities, and each seem the happier for it; even Robin very rarely second-guesses himself. Morrison suggests great power in the mask here, but also with it a necessary evil that Batman rejects.

Also rejecting his mask is former Robin Jason Todd. Even as Jason becomes more fully the Red Hood -- eschewing his nondescript leather jacket for a full-blown superhero costume -- he's also stopped dying his hair to look like Dick Grayson, and seems to have emerged on the other side of the superhero craze; Jason seeks justice, but in the guise of creating the Red Hood as a marketing brand to replace Batman in Gotham's consciousness.

While Dick sees Batman's cowl as a character he must play for others and the villains see their masks as their true selves, Jason recognizes his mask as something he can sell, something to cause others to do for him. Jason speaks in advertising slogans, he threatens to reveal Batman's identity through a social networking-type popularity contest, and, when faced with the deadly end of the Flamingo's gun, goads the villain to shoot him because "I'll come back!" Far from being insane, Jason's the only one in the book who really knows what the score is -- death, Jason suggests, is obviously just temporary to people like them -- and in the end Commissioner Gordon ships Jason off to Arkham; indeed, as we learned in Morrison's Batman RIP, it's the "Zorros" who end up in Arkham.

All of this takes place under the surface, however; Morrison spares us the whys and wherefores of the new Batman and Robin, with nary a prolonged flashback as in Batman RIP. Batman and Robin, especially the first three chapters with art by Frank Quitely, pretends to be (as Jason Todd describes himself) "smarter, faster, hotter" -- full of irreverence, as in the comic book sound effects that appear here in blood spatters and cracks in the walls.

But while there's some pep and refreshment to the boldness colors and slick art of Batman and Robin, the reader intuits a certain falseness when Jason exhorts his sidekick Scarlet that it's time her generation stood for something; what Jason stands for isn't good or real, and if what Batman Dick Grayson stands for is uncertain or outdated, at least it's true. Scarlet, perhaps, finds the only answer of all; as she leaves Gotham City and the whole mess of superheroics behind her, her mask melts off, leaving normalcy underneath. Jason thinks he's found the answer in meta-superheroics, but the real solution may just be quitting the game.

(Unless, of course, what's under Scarlet's mask is actually an arthritic Joker grin, and the real intent of Professor Pyg's quickly-glossed-over contagion was to spread slow-moving Joker gas. Morrison's staging Batman and Robin's climactic fight with Pyg at the circus where the Joker tortured the Commissioner after shooting Barbara Gordon brings a perfect bit of understated horror to the chapter -- indeed, though it's not addressed directly, that location ought affect the Commissioner and Dick more than anyone, not to mention the Joker's past history with Robins. It's also possible this is meant to be a clue of the Joker's future involvement -- given all the masks and faces in the story -- but either way it certainly worked here to enhance Pyg's grotesqueness.)

Batman and Robin means itself to be the next big thing, and succeeds -- it's splashy and trashy and a fantastic reinvention of the titular characters that could serve as a model for other, less-subtle reinventions. I'm eager to read the next volume mostly because of this book's cliffhanger ending; I would put more stock in the series itself however if I believed it to be an actual reinvention of Batman, rather than a miniseries wrapped up as an ongoing.

Maybe Batman and Robin will go on, and maybe Damian Wayne will remain as Robin, but Bruce Wayne will most certainly return as Batman, creating a far less interesting partnership than Dick Grayson and Damian have. In this way, I loved my first outing of Batman and Robin, but Batman RIP had for me more cache -- the latter is a series, and the former, an (entertaining) experiment.

[Contains full and variant covers, sketchbook section]

As a side note, I'm used to buying DC Comics hardcovers wrapped in plastic; when I found all the copies of Batman and Robin on the shelves unwrapped, I asked at the counter of my LCS and they told me all the books came that way. It's interesting -- the deluxe Batman RIP came wrapped, so it's not an issue of the deluxe size; it could of course be a production issue, but I wonder if this was intentional on DC's part so browsers in the bookstores might flip through and pick this book up. I don't think comics stores will have trouble moving these books, but maybe there was a question about the bookstores?

Review: Oracle: The Cure trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, May 13, 2010

If I wrote this review a few weeks ago, before DC Comics announced Gail Simone's return to a new Birds of Prey series, this would have been a much different review. Oracle: The Cure collects the final issues of the the original Birds of Prey series, closing it out in a manner far removed from what Birds of Prey deserved; the Oracle miniseries that's also included has its high points and low points and just plain weird points, but fails in my opinion to offer anything conclusive about Oracle Barbara Gordon in the end. If that were it for Oracle and the Birds of Prey, I'd lament that a series that began with such promise ended like this; since I know there are better things to come, I can consider this just an unfortunate bump in the road.

[Contains spoilers]

It's hard to say here whether Birds of Prey writer Tony Bedard would have broken up the Birds team in the last issue -- if the series had ended at all -- if not for Batman events taking place in any of a number of other titles. The difficulty is that Oracle disbanding the team makes no sense in light of plenty of other earlier vows that she'd always keep the team together; as I discussed in my review of Birds of Prey: Platinum Flats, Bedard has seemed to ignore Oracle's earlier growth in exchange for creating drama in his run.

It's easier to accept Oracle's explanation that she's breaking up the team because she feels she's lost her edge because, frankly, it does seem that way, but again that seems due more to poor writerly choices (some botched Metropolis operations in Sean McKeever's Metropolis or Dust, the rather boring move to Platinum Flats) than a natural outgrowth of Oracle's character. So, though Manhunter quite naturally steals the show in the last issue, Birds of Prey ends overall with a whimper instead of a bang.

The Oracle miniseries that follows by Kevin VanHook's begins strongly. Barbara Gordon is back in gritty Gotham instead of sunny Platinum Flats, which makes an immediate difference; VanHook's Oracle is still technology-minded, but also angry and fallible (that genius Gordon loses track of time and is late for a dinner with her father is a gigantic understated moment), and this makes her more interesting than she's been in a while.

VanHook and the art team (not sure if it's Fernando Pasarin, Julian Lopez, or another here) go out of their way to "sex up" Oracle in the first pages; the shower scene (seriously) may be gratuitous, but perhaps counterintuitively I appreciated the team treating Oracle with the same cheesecake they might treat any other comic book character and not holding back because Oracle's a techno-geek or because she's disabled. There was a freshness to this first issue that the last Birds of Prey issues lacked, and this drew me in right away.

Unfortunately, The Cure doesn't progress much from that strong start. The Internet-based murder that Oracle's nemesis Calculator commits in the first issue is surprising; it loses its suspense when he tries it again in the second and third issue. As well, given that the reader knows that Calculator is to blame, Oracle's hunt for Calculator and the pseudo-science she employs just seems to slow down the action. And while I recognize that it's tough to write an action sequence about two characters at their computers, I just hate watching Oracle take on a virtual avatar to fight the Calculator superhero-style in cyberspace; for a character whose greatest asset is her brains, putting her in a typical action sequence seems something of a waste.

As well, it seems throughout The Cure that VanHook very strongly wants to say something about the Joker crippling Gordon in The Killing Joke, but his meaning is never quite clear. Throughout the story, Oracle talks about the phantom pain in her paralyzed legs, the night the Joker shot her, and even that the Joker took naked pictures of her after he shot her -- something many other writers gloss over. But, a story called "The Cure" never faces the question of whether Oracle wants to use the Calculator's Anti-Life Equation to restore her legs -- where, by denying this, she might be shown, in territory that other writers have mined before, her acceptance of her condition. Nor does VanHook hearken back to the Joker's recent appearance in Birds of Prey or anything else to explain why, after all this time and supposed healing, the Joker is back on Oracle's mind.

There's one nice moment where VanHook has Oracle assisted by a stranger who turns out to have been a child that Oracle introduced to computers when she was a librarian; it's a sign of Oracle's journey from past to present and an indicator that Oracle was the person Gordon was always becoming, not Batgirl. At the same time, the story ends, literally, with Calculator's daughter Wendy emerging from a coma to find herself paralyzed; on the same page, she's screaming that she can't feel her legs while Oracle berates a semi-conscious Calculator for his murders. Granted, murder equals bad, but the reader knows Calculator worked on behalf of his daughter, and the fact that Oracle shows no emotion about Wendy's plight beyond a brief "I will help you" was startling to say the least.

The final scene of Oracle: The Cure needed a moment more. As it is, its a rather horrifying end that makes Oracle's own paralysis seem torturous rather than putting any focus on the way in which Oracle subsequently empowered herself (Oracle is talking to Calculator about his murder, but still says in dialogue parallel to Wendy's screams, "I like the idea of an eye for an eye.") I'd like to believe the sudden end came because of editorial changes in the ongoing Batman Reborn storyline, but it's hard to say for sure; certainly, I couldn't have been happier than on this last page that Birds of Prey will continue in Gail Simone's hands, where it belongs.

[Contains full covers, "Origins and Omens" pages]

More "Batman Reborn" reviews coming up. See you then!

Review: Superman: New Krypton Vol. 3 hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, May 10, 2010

Of the three storylines that spin out of New Krypton -- those of Mon-El, Nightwing and Flamebird, and Superman on New Krypton -- I looked forward to the "New Krypton" thread least of all. I should have had more faith. Writers James Robinson and Greg Rucka, two of my favorites, may have taken the Man of Steel out of his own titles and into World of New Krypton in New Krypton, Volume 3, but our hero remains no less super. In fact, this volume is a wildly effective treatise on what makes Superman the greatest of all heroes, as well as marking one of the first times I feel I've understood General Zod as a worthy opponent for the Man of Steel.

[Contains spoilers]

Robinson and Rucka don't cover new ground in a story where an adopted alien (Superman, in our case), returns to his people to show them a better way of life, and even the social problems that stem from New Krypton's paranoia and caste system aren't necessarily original. But, rather than lose something as I expected in removing Superman from Metropolis and placing him on New Krypton, they're able to distill Superman to his core elements -- there's no Lois or Lex or even the benefit of a unique set of powers; instead, Superman differs from his fellow Kryptonians by his values.

I had hoped, and it seems likely at one point in this story, that Superman might not throw a punch the entire time; this is not to be, but most certainly Superman comes across as a pacifist. On three occasions, Superman resists Kryptonian orders to use lethal force to stop criminals or rampaging beats; on two of those occasions, he handles the conflict through creative use of his powers or simply by talking out the situation, without ever having to resort to violence. In this way, Superman is not Batman, and Superman is not Wonder Woman, and it has nothing to do with rocketing to Earth in a spaceship; Robinson and Rucka demonstrate clearly here that Clark Kent is Superman because he's the world's greatest example of the right choices.

The Superman character has been accused at times of, for such a powerful character, having relatively mundane mortal enemies who fight him mentally rather than physically; James Robinson's Atlas was an answer to this, as was Doomsday, though the later's challenge was mostly only physical. General Zod might once have been an adequate Superman villain, but post-Crisis on Infinite Earths Superman had to execute Zod twenty-two issues into the series; a real long-standing Zod wasn't seen again in the Super-titles for about twenty years. I enjoyed Geoff Johns' Superman: Last Son, a precursor to New Krypton that introduced this Zod; but, even despite Johns' revelation that this Zod tried to save Krypton from destruction, Zod still came off as stereotypically world-conquering and one-sided; a physical challenge for Superman rather than an intellectual one.

However, when I pick up a book by Greg Rucka, I expect a certain amount of politics and intrigue, and the third New Krypton book doesn't disappoint. Here not only do Zod and his Kryptonian military have all of Superman's powers, but Zod possesses a keen Machiavellian intellect, and he and Superman match wits throughout the book; indeed Zod here reminds me of the best of John Byrne's businessman Lex Luthor, striking at Superman through almost invisible machinations.

Robinson and Rucka use no narration boxes (what used to be called "thought balloons") in the story, so the reader is constantly, pleasantly challenged to intuit -- as when Zod puts Superman on trial for treason -- what example Superman might try to set when he accepts his punishment, or what evil reason lies behind Zod's supposed leniancy. In removing some of the world-conquering aspect from Zod (at least for now), the writers reveal a wise and worthy villain, representing vengeance in the face of Superman's calm; it makes the scenes where Superman and Zod fight, and also those rare moments they find themselves in agreement, all the more chilling.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the art in this volume by Pete Woods. I first encountered Woods' art on Robin, and it was sufficiently cartoon-y for the teen hero's adventures; ditto for the widescreen madcap superheroics in Joker's Last Laugh. I had already noticed a sharpening to Woods' art in Amazons Attack, but in this third volume of New Krypton there's an extra level of sophistication. It's not just his striking images of the various castes on Krypton (reflecting, cleverly on the writers' part, various incarnations of Krypton we've seen over the years), but also the moody, shadowy drama of the aforementioned trial scene. It's a shame DC Comics insists on sticking cover images between the chapters of its collections; not only does interrupt the reading experience in the way a trade-waiter doesn't want, but spoils the illusion of a beautiful, well-deserved graphic novel by Woods.

I have on one hand enjoyed how complicated the New Krypton storyline has been, with all the different warring factions, and on the other hand felt some aspects -- like General Lane's constant posturing -- have become a tad worn out. In taking Superman out of Metropolis, the third New Krypton volume can focus solely on Superman's conflict with General Zod, without (much) interruption from the other plotlines. This creates a far clearer and straightforward story (though still with plenty of twists and turns) than New Krypton has seen so far, and to some extent a reader could pick up this book without having read the other parts of New Krypton and still get an enjoyable story (though, that this is dubbed "volume three" makes that occurance somewhat unlikely). I had thought that New Krypton, Volume Three, would be the weakest of the New Krypton books, despite Superman's presence; in fact, it's turned out to be one of the strongest.

[Contains text page, full and variant covers]

We'll start to delve into the "Batman Reborn" storyline coming up next. Don't miss it!

War of the Supermen, Flash hardcovers solicited

Friday, May 07, 2010

This past Monday, DC Comics' Source blog released solicitations for two hardcover collections coming out in Spring 2011 (that is, first half of the year) -- Superman: War of the Supermen and Flash: The Dastardly Death of the Rogues, collecting the event and first issues of the series respectively.

Here's the actual solicitations, and then my comments:

Writers: Sterling Gates and James Robinson
Artists: Eddy Barrows, Aaron Lopresti, Jamal Igle, Eduardo Pansica, CAFU, Bernard Chang and others
In stores: January
$24.99 US, 144 pages

Writer: Geoff Johns
Artists: Francis Manapul and Francis Manapul
In stores: February
Collects THE FLASH #1-7 and material from THE FLASH SECRET FILES AND ORIGINS 2010
$19.99 US, 208 pages

I'm always happy for collected edition news, but I find this announcement a little curious. First, did anyone doubt these two storylines would be collected? The Source's announcement of the remaining 2010 collections in February had some surprises in it, but there's no real headline here.

Second, this announcement comes between the first and second issues of Flash, and just after the Free Comic Book Day issue of War of the Supermen but before issue #1 of that series comes out. At this point, I think (and hope DC realizes) there's no connection between trade solicitations and buying habits -- someone who was going to buy the issues will buy the issues, and someone who was going to wait for the trade will wait -- and this announcement didn't make a difference. If someone's buying choice was specifically influenced by this, I'd be curious to hear about it.

So why announce these two books which are not really a surprise, at a time that seems less than ideal (these books don't arrive until next year; War of the Supermen will be over in a month)? My guess is that it has to do with when DC has to put information on their books into their Random House catalog, etc.; War of the Supermen, at least, has already begun showing up on retailer sites, and as long as that was about to happen, why not have DC make their own announcement? That's my guess.

What's disappointing is that it looks like we'll see Supermen no earlier than January 2011, a good eight months after the series itself debuts. The Superman trades these days are paced pretty well, about one a month, but trade releases still remain frustratingly long behind the single issues. And woe be it to anyone waiting for the paperback, as New Krypton will have only just started up for them by 2011.

Some good and some bad here, but certainly something is better than nothing.

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

Thursday, May 06, 2010

[This review comes from Derek Roper]

I really, really like that Secret Six has always been a book with a great amount of action, sick humor, and easy-on-the-eyes-characters. Secret Six: Depths (collecting issues #8-14) has to be their quintessential story arc and takes the chains off of the characters. Unhinged was great, no doubt about it, in Depths, they actually come out lower than when they went in.

The book starts out with two issues that break from the larger story arc. The stripper from Scandal’s birthday in Unhinged pursues her for a "Double Date" (a nice nod to Simone’s Justice League Unlimited episode) with the Six’s newest member Jeanette and Deadshot. The four embark on a night of fighting and beating people to a pulp.

There is a treat for religious Simone followers: Simone connected friend Amanda Gould to DC after Simone saw Gould’s drawings of the Six in the style of Tiny Titans. This lead to a disturbingly cute back-up story, "Ragdoll Dreams," which follows the twisted and air-deprived mind of Peter Merkel.

The second self-contained issue ties in to Batman: Battle for the Cowl and finds Catman, Ragdoll, and Bane in the midst of Batman’s disappearance. It seems that Catman and Bane feel it is their duty to take care of Gotham (any way they please). They fail miserably (with Ragdoll hilariously in the role of Robin) and in an interesting conversation, Bane and Catman discuss how much they have in common with the Bat. It is interesting to see these two Batman villains behave this way and not try to burn the city or start a massive gang war.

The best part, however, is the "Depths" story itself, which has to be the bloodiest of all the Secret Six stories and shows new sides to the characters. As the saying goes, "You think you know, but you have no idea." Apparently Villains United’s Mockingbird is back and uses a wealthy man, Smyth, to hire the Six to watch over slaves that are building a massive prison on Devil’s Island. Automatically, the Six are in turmoil because half of them agree with the job and half think they should refuse it. The slaves, it turns out, are Amazons held captive after the events of Amazons Attack, bringing the Six not only in conflict with Wonder Woman character Artemis, but also Wonder Woman herself.

It’s at this point the characters cut loose, and we learn more about them as they do. Jeannette has appeared to be proper and elitist, but the reader learns she’s a banshee with power on par with Bane, having died by a tortuous beheading in the Victorian era (those familiar with John Byrne’s Silver Banshee will appreciate Jeannette’s transformation). We learn more about Scandal’s childhood, presented in flashbacks, and how she received the Lamentation Blades that she uses, in the present, to decapitate and rip the guards apart. (In another horrific scene, Ragdoll bashes in the man’s skull in with a monkey wrench. One of the things about Ragdoll is that he is always there for comedic relief and people can’t wait to see what he says next, but he is the most unstable of the group.)

As well, Catman has another in a string of changes of heart and decides to free the captive Amazons; he becomes more heroic every time he is given a choice. He only screws up when he is with the Six, leading me to believe that when he chooses his side, there will be great drama involved. As much as I like Catman, I’m starting to wonder how long before he and Deadshot actually try to kill one another; their bro-mance is funny, but I notice that they never stay on the same side for long.

The story aside, I appreciated all the background and allusions to classic literature that Simone includes. Smyth’s vision for the universal gulag is that of the nine circles of hell from Dante’s Inferno, and those familiar with it will see that Simone puts the characters through all the rings, from the slaves in the first circle to the Six betraying their employer in the ninth. The devil in the ninth circle turns out to be a version of Beowulf’s Grendel, whom Simone also used (in different form) in Wonder Woman: Ends of the Earth.

Artist Nicola Scott, as usual, provides great art and draws sexy characters (except Ragdoll—he’s just creepy). Simone’s writing requires the characters to have detailed facial expression, as when one of the slave drivers says "You can’t kill every criminal, we lack that will these days," and the wordless dialogue that follows is just Scandal looking at Jeanette, and Jeanette raising one eyebrow (Sounds like Kevin Maguire on early Justice League International -- ed.). As well, Scott does a great job on a page where Wonder Woman and the Six are juxtaposed to show both the Six’s weapons and Wonder Woman’s defense.

Finally, Daniel Luvisi is the cover artist for Secret Six, and for someone who apparently never went to art school, he seems a prodigy. His renditions of the Six on the cover of the graphic novel look like real life actors. His covers are included with the book and the cover for issue #13 features Catman looking a whole lot like Brody Jenner. His realistic style gives the book a different and gritty appearance.

The ending of Secret Six: Depths is a major cliff hanger; one of the members is pushed off the team by another of the Six. This makes me wish that Danse Macabre, the next Secret Six trade, would be released that much sooner.

Review: Blue Beetle: Boundaries trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, May 03, 2010

Writer Matt Sturges brings the regular adventures of a paramount post-Infinite Crisis series to a close in Blue Beetle: Boundaries (not counting the Blue Beetle co-feature and a handful of uncollected issues still to come). Sturges take on Blue Beetle Jaime Reyes must necessarily differ from that of co-creators John Rogers and Keith Giffen, but Sturges manages for the most part to keep the humor and quick dialogue that's made Blue Beetle so great, and also mine some territory that Rogers and Giffen never explored. After Blue Beetle: Endgame, Boundaries is a considerably more earthbound Blue Beetle story, and it works to set a new tone for the book (shortly, unfortunately, before the book would be cancelled).

[Contains spoilers for Blue Beetle: Boundaries]

It is perhaps a credit to the rich characters with which Rogers and Giffen populated this book that one of the most striking things about Sturges' story is not Jaime getting involved with immigration politics or the legacy of the story's secret villain, but rather that Sturges, for the first time, shows us Jaime's friend Paco's home life. Said home life is wildly uncontroversial, but given how deeply Rogers and Giffen explored Jaime and his other friend Brenda's families, it's amazing we never saw Paco's family until after twenty-five issues of this series. In this seemingly small -- but really rather large -- way, Sturges can put his own mark on the title, and indeed Paco's mother and sisters function very organically in the story, shielding a seemingly lost immigrant/super-villain's daughter.

Sturges centers his Blue Beetle story on the immigration debate, sending Jaime after Intergang-sters smuggling drugs over the border on one hand and getting roped into patrolling the border on the other, earning him the ire of his own community. For one of the few diverse superheroes in the DC Universe, it's appropriate that Sturges addresses as social issue, and he does well not to let it overwhelm the story (it turns out that the immigration issue is only a feint for the villain's real plan). Given that Jaime lives in El Paso and comes from Hispanic heritage, I found it surprising that Sturges portrays him rather ignorant about the issue, enough so that he gets roped in to an unpopular stance by a politician, but I appreciate Sturges' use of the superhero trope where Blue Beetle must support something that his secret identity might not. Sturges' opinion on the issue is clear, as he portrays most of the anti-immigration opponents as gun-toting nuts, but likely most of his audience will be sympathetic.

I was struck that Dr. Polaris, the story's mystery villain, appears here as he did fifteen years ago in another of DC's late, lamented teen titles, Damage. Polaris has always straddled the line for me between an A-list and D-list DC Comics villain; he doesn't have any of the personality of Sinestro, for instance, but at the same time there have been some big moments with Polaris over the years -- his fights with Green Lantern Kyle Rayner and his inclusion in Underworld Unleashed, to name a few. Rayner and Damage's fights with Polaris were big doings, and despite a somewhat silly origin that Sturges gives this new Polaris iteration, I tried to view Jaime's battle with Polaris as the rite of passage, undergone by teen heroes before, that it somewhat represents.

Let me wax nostalgic a moment at the passing of the Blue Beetle title (short of the co-features), much as we noted the end of fellow post-Infinite Crisis title Checkmate and, though it began much earlier, Manhunter. For me, these titles have represented intelligence and diversity in the DC Universe; Blue Beetle, for sure, has shined when Teen Titans has not. There are still some series outside the pale of the DC Universe -- Booster Gold, Secret Six, REBELS, for instance -- but I'm sorry to see more of the promise of the DC Universe after Infinite Crisis fall away. I'll be eager to pick up the collection of the Blue Beetle co-feature (including, hopefully, issues #27-28 and #35-36 of this series, too) and look forward to seeing Blue Beetle elsewhere in the DC Universe.

[Contains full covers]

Thanks for reading!