Review: Gotham City Sirens: Union hardcover/trade paperback (DC Comics)

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Monday, February 28, 2011

I thought the Gotham City Sirens series looked silly when DC Comics announced it. They'd canceled the long-running Catwoman series, which in its heyday was an astoundingly good crime noir series that transformed Selina Kyle from dismissible sex symbol to complex anti-hero. Consider that the Catwoman series prior to the Ed Brubaker incarnation sent Selina to women's prison so as to present a gratuitous shower fight, with steam dutifully covering everyone's naughty parts; Brubaker's stories, instead, dealt with alcoholism, guilt, and a grittier Gotham City than we'd seen before even in the Batman titles.

I'd long since stopped reading the previous Catwoman series before the women's prison storyline came around, but I knew that spelled the death knell of that book. There's something that seems to me rather tone-deaf about these kinds of "bad girl" books, a category in which I initially lumped Gotham City Sirens.

Despite the stereotype that comic book fans are male loners at home with their comic books while their peers are out on dates, we know that comic books fans are instead regular people, often adults, of both genders with social lives and a variety of interests. That is, art can be titillating, and so can comics, but when faced with something so ham-handed as Catwoman fighting naked women in the shower, or Hawkgirl wearing lingerie underneath her costume in The Maw, I wonder if the creators believe their audience to be that comic book fan stereotype. At times comics companies seem to think that books can survive on sexual innuendos that might titillate only the most basic of their readership, and I'm skeptical whether that strategy ever actually works.

But whereas indeed Gotham City Sirens has a naked Poison Ivy, a half-naked Zatanna, and for some reason Catwoman no longer ever seems to zip up her costume above her breasts, it also has one other aspect to sell it as more than just a "bad girl" book: writer Paul Dini.

[Contains spoilers]

We know from his years of work on animated Batman series that Paul Dini loves these characters. If Dini's depiction of Catwoman, Poison Ivy, and Harley Quinn, the so-called Sirens, is prurient, then it's prurient with the best of intentions, and he loves them for their minds as well as their bodies.

What I quickly found in Union is that this book is not Chuck Dixon or Gail Simone's Birds of Prey, nor is it Ed Brubaker's Catwoman. The twists in the story aren't terribly complex, nor is there much really gripping drama nor noir moodiness; in fact, the book has an overall air of comedic zaniness to it. I'd describe Sirens as a funny book about Batman's villains, perhaps unfortunately named since the characters in question include the Riddler and the Joker in addition to the three women. When one considers that Arkham Reborn is also a book about Batman's villains, positing this book as a comedy seems an unlikely fit; in essence, however, I'd say Sirens is about as close to the madcap tone Paul Dini achieved in some of his best Batman: The Animated Series episodes as we've seen so far in the DC Universe.

Union takes a while to get started. The purposefully-ridiculous villain that brings the Sirens together is perhaps a bit too silly. Guillem March's art, which is beautiful toward the end of the book, is too distorted here, and makes the whole first chapter feel hastily done. Then immediately Ivy and Harley turn on Catwoman to try to learn Batman's identity; then immediately after that, Hush captures Harley, and Catwoman and Ivy have to save her. It's all very obviously in the service of bringing the characters together, and in that way seems forced and predictable. Even the Sirens' initial fight with the Joker fails to distinguish itself from what we've seen before.

And then Paul Dini reveals the Joker in question as Gaggy Gagsworth.

It's not so much that I give Paul Dini credit for remembering and re-using a sidekick of the Joker who only appeared once at least fifty years ago, as much as how compelling Dini makes Gagsworth in this book's sixth chapter. The Joker is not the antithesis of Batman necessarily, but Gaggy turns out to be an altered version of Robin Dick Grayson, a circus performer who might've had a good life if the Flying Graysons hadn't replaced him in the circus, and then if the Joker hadn't later outgrown him. The irony is thick here in that Gaggy disguises himself as the Joker just as Dick has now taken on the cowl of Batman; even more moving is the way in which the Joker seems to have "put away childish things" by disowning his sidekick (after the death of Jason Todd, maybe?), while Batman's now working with Robin number four.

The book's concluding chapter is a single-issue story where the Sirens spend the holidays apart, and Dini steals the show with his depiction of the family we never knew Harley Quinn had. In a New York-style tenement building, Harley's mother takes care of Harley's lazy, no-good brother and his two kids. Like Oprah, perhaps, one never imagined Harley even had a mother, and then even more amazing is just how normal Harley and her mother's relationship is. Next, Harley visits her father, a con artist in prison, and Dini and March tell more about Harley in one panel than in years of comics -- a panel in whicih Harley's father displays a smile that's not exactly, but very much like, the ever-present smile of the Joker.

Gotham City Sirens: Union works, ultimately, when it's not trying to do too much -- throw the Sirens together, give them a whole bunch of villains to beat, pit them against one another. Rather, the single issue profiles -- of Gaggy, of Harley, writer Scott Lobdell on Riddler -- make this book, giving us unexpected insights into Batman's foes. I wouldn't necessarily put Gotham City Sirens at the top of my "to read" list, but the thought that Dini puts into these stories, especially at the end, satisfied my misgivings about what this book could have been.

[Contains full and variant covers. Printed on glossy paper.]

Timeline updates and more coming this week -- stay tuned!

Complete Green Lantern: Sinestro Corps War, paperback deluxe JLA in new DC 2011 solicitations

Friday, February 25, 2011

When DC Comics announced an Absolute Identity Crisis collection last week, I couldn't help but ask, where's our Absolute Green Lantern: Sinestro Corps War?

Well, we're not quite there yet, but I'm thrilled -- as DC's new collection solicitations start rolling out -- to see a single $30 paperback volume collecting the entire Green Lantern: Sinestro Corps War saga.

That this book is paperback is a little offputting -- I, for one, am not about to ditch my hardcovers for a paperback -- but it's probably necessary for both size and cost reasons, and to market as an easy buy for Green Lantern movie fans. What pleases me about this is that it shows DC is getting the fans' message that we don't like these multi-volume, flip-around-to-read collections; here's everything all at once, hopefully with the Tales of the Sinestro Corps War interspersed.

And not that it's a big surprise, but the Green Lantern train has most definitely left the station: DC already has a late 2011 release date for collecting the Green Lantern: The Movie prequels.

Trend to watch: The paperback editions of the Gotham Central omnibus volumes seems not to have been a fluke; October sees a paperback of the first deluxe JLA volume, with the other three certainly to follow. Makes one wonder if the Starman omnibuses are coming in paperback, too.

Speaking of hardcovers, early reports show Superman/Batman: Sorcerer Kings in hardcover -- returning that series to hardcover after a paperback deviation for Superman/Batman: Big Noise. I'm going to be annoyed if it turns out some of this series is going back and forth between paperback and hardcover without the equal volumes of each; not so great for the shelves.

Quick shots: The Spy vs. Spy Omnibus seems long overdue; has Warner Brothers ever released a Spy vs. Spy collection before? Also, I'd be pleased if Showcase Presents All Star Comics collects the 1970s series that leads into the new Infinity Inc. collections.

It also looks like JSA All-Stars gets another collection despite the series's cancellation with The Puzzle Men; this gives we Doom Patrol and REBELS fans that we'll see final collections of those as well. Series-wise, there's also Titans: Family Reunion and Zatanna: Shades of the Past in the offing.

Still, the most exciting thing for me remains the complete Green Lantern: Sinestro Corps War collection. It's no Legion Lost or Showcase Presents Trial of the Flash, but the season is still early ... stay tuned!

Review: Icon: A Hero's Welcome trade paperback (DC Comics/Milestone Media)

Thursday, February 24, 2011

[By coincidence, I had planned weeks ago for this review of Icon: A Hero's Welcome to run on the site today, before we learned this past Tuesday of writer and creator Dwayne McDuffie's passing, and I decided a discussion of this book would be an appropriate tribute. I enjoyed some of McDuffie's work more than I did others, true I think for all readers and creators, but I have gained a great respect over the years for his establishment of Milestone Media, and I thrilled to the announcement that those characters would return to the DC Universe a few years ago. At the writing of this review, I called for a collection of the "World's Collide" DC/Milestone crossover to which McDuffie contributed; I sincerely hope that DC gives that more thought now, maybe along with McDuffie's two-issue Milestone Forever, from which Bleeding Cool excerpted a lovely sequence the other day.]

Admittedly, I didn't purchase many Milestone Comics when DC published the line in 1993. Call it "licensed property fatigue" -- I'd followed Impact Comics into its demise just a few years earlier (even bought the Who's Who!) and another group of heroes outside the DC Universe didn't interest me.

I did have an opportunity to dip my toes into the so-called "Dakota-verse" a year later, though, when DC and Milestone crossed over in the "Worlds Collide" event (a story that, though it may be a bit hokey around the edges with Superman's long hair and such, strongly deserves to be collected for the first meeting of these characters). In reading those issues, the contrast between the DC and Milestone issues is striking -- whereas the art of Tom Grummett and such was appropriately cartoony for the DC chapters, the Milestone chapters had an almost watercolored painting to them; even as a brief glimpse, it was apparent to me the Milestone comics were something special.

As such, with the Milestone characters at least tentatively now in the DC Universe, I'm trying to go back on occasion and see what I missed, buffeted by DC beginning to release the Milestone titles in trade paperback (a trade-off, perhaps, for the fact that they're being not-so-featured in the DC Universe). I've started with Milestone co-founder Dwayne McDuffie's Icon: A Hero's Welcome, given Icon's surface similarities with Superman; while Icon is enjoyable, I did find that if your knowledge of Milestone is limited, you might take up some back issues before you read Icon so as to explain events a little better.

In his introduction to A Hero's Welcome, writer/director Reginald Hudlin clearly presents Icon as a deconstruction of the Superman mythos as told through the African American experience, and it's easy to walk away from Icon having gleaned only that -- still a strange visitor from another planet, only the police give him more grief because he's black. Having basically known Icon as the Superman of the Dakota-verse myself, what interested me more than this surface "opposite-ness" in reading this volume were the deeper aspects that surprised me about the character.

First, Icon Augustus Freeman is wealthy and a self-proclaimed conservative, and for someone seemingly presented as the "Milestone Superman," the other characters that Icon meets in this first volume consider him singularly, unusually, out of touch. In a confrontation with the Blood Syndicate gang, Icon espouses the gang trying to work their way out of poverty and make better lives, misunderstanding (perhaps because of his own wealth) that the social realities of poverty can't always be solved just by "working harder." Whereas Icon gains overall acceptance in Dakota over the course of the story, I was pleasantly surprised at McDuffie's twist here, that Icon isn't the immediate hero of the other Milestone characters, like Superman is in the DC Universe.

Second, McDuffie posits Icon and his sidekick Rocket on opposite sides of the classic Booker T. Washington/W. E. B. Du Bois debate; put very simply, Icon sees himself as hero for whites and blacks alike, whereas Rocket views Icon as a source to inspire Dakota's African American community to improve their situation. Interestingly, Icon is not black (just as Superman is not white); even as we learn that Icon has historically been part of a number of civil rights achievements in the Dakota-verse, we learn he came from an essentially race-blind utopian alien society, and McDuffie suggests to some extent that Icon doesn't understand the challenges facing modern African Americans -- it is too easy both to accept and dismiss Icon as the "black Superman," when McDuffie instead presents Icon's situation as much more complicated.

Instead, McDuffie (riffing on Batman and Robin now) has Rocket as the one who inspires Icon to become a hero (instead of vice-versa) and as the true authentic voice in the title. Understandably Icon gets top billing, but there's a way in which Icon and Rocket's relationship parallels that of Stargirl Courtney Whitmore and her father, where the junior is really the one in charge; this is another aspect of Icon I didn't expect. (Come to think, we're long, long overdue for a Rocket/Stargirl team up, and not just because both get their powers from forcefield belts.)

Like any number of good universe-building series (Tangent Comics is one, and Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers is another), the Milestone titles launch from a central mystery. Much of the book involves Icon's investigation of the "Big Bang," a gang riot gone wrong in downtown Dakota. Icon begins a little while after the Big Bang, however, and the event is as much a surprise to Icon as to the reader; as such, it's unclear in the beginning whether the Big Bang is a police raid or an astronomical event. The characters from Milestone's Blood Syndicate appear late in this volume, and if you can read a couple of Blood Syndicate issues before you start Icon, your reading experience will be the better for it.

My reader/creator relationship with Dwayne McDuffie has been a little rocky -- loved his work on the Justice League Unlimited cartoon, of course, but I was less thrilled with the stories in his Justice League of America comics run and the behind-the-scenes in-fighting during that time. Icon: A Hero's Welcome, however, is both a deep, interesting project, and an enjoyable superhero origin story with an unexpected Silver Age vibe (how does a belt give Rocket those powers? Where do Icon and Rocket's costumes come from? Who knows? Who cares?). I'm knee-deep in the DC Universe, of course, but this first book has encouraged me to revisit Milestone one of these days.

(Now where's my collection of the original "Worlds Collide"?)

[Condolences to Dwayne McDuffie's family and friends. I haven't seen anywhere to donate in memorial, but the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund is always a good place to start.]

Forbes India profiles comics collector Aalok Joshi

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

We were surprised and pleased to see this article in Forbes India on constant Collected Editions commenter Aalok Joshi, whom the article describes as one of Mumbai's three biggest comic book collectors.

The article describes Aalok's visit to a local comic book auction, and tells how he built up his collection:
The years through which Aalok nurtured that patch, from which the pile would eventually take over his entire house, saw him scavenge for good buys at second-hand book sellers along the pavements of Matunga’s King’s Circle or the innumerable scrap dealers he would haunt. “I got some of the Sandman issues at King’s Circle for less than Rs. 200 each three years ago. I had to bargain. That place is amazing. You just don’t know what you can get.” The pavements have thrown up some of his best buys, including Neil Gaimans and Alan Moores.

On the other end of the spectrum are wholesalers and comic book dealers around the world. His network, along which he is constantly exchanging notes, stretches within India from Mumbai to Kolkata.

Outside India, he has set up his contacts in the US, where he deals with wholesalers who are overstocked. The orders are mailed to a friend in the US who passes the books along with Indian friends visiting home. Some of Aalok’s best graphic novels have come from these wholesalers.

But buying comic books and graphic novels from Mumbai’s pavements is not as easy as it was three years ago. The number of people looking for the same issues is rising and it is tough to strike a deal when the demand is high. But this simply adds to Aalok’s edge: The value of his collection rises a little more.
You can read the full article at the Forbes India website (image courtesy Forbes India).

Congratulations to Aalok on this great profile. Happy collecting!

Review: Question: Pipeline trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, February 21, 2011

Overall I've been impressed with how DC Comics's "co-feature" backup stories have translated to trade paperbacks collection, but The Question: Pipeline is the first one to fall short of the mark. This is, I should say, much to my surprise, as constant readers know I'm both an ardent fan of Greg Rucka and his Renee Montoya iteration of the Question. Pipeline offers a bunch of nice moments, but they're scattered within a repetitive plot that lacks some of the nuance of earlier Question stories.

[Contains spoilers]

In both Teen Titans: Ravager: Fresh Hell and Blue Beetle: Black and Blue, the books' respective writers used the ten-page co-feature format to send the characters on mini-adventures with quick cliffhangers. This worked well; the Ravager story, especially, felt like a great action thriller, with the title character narrowly escaping one near miss only to be confronted by another.

Question: Pipeline, however, has a plot that's ultimately just not that strong. Question Renee Montoya tries to help a man find his sister who was kidnapped into slavery; Question saves the woman, and then proceeds to try to take down the criminal network basically by traveling from base to base and beating up the network's henchmen, with a well-armored Huntress in tow.

Greg Rucka writing Question and Huntress eating lunch would be considerably better than a number of other books on the market, but there's not enough plot growth in the center of the book; the heroes don't learn much that's new about their enemies, for instance, like Ravager and Blue Beetle do. What results, then, are a couple of pages of Question or Huntress beating up some guys outside a house, a page of banter, and then the heroes beating up some guys in a warehouse, and then the heroes beating up some guys on a ship. The reader begins to suspect the contents of the next page very quickly.

Alternatively, whereas segments of Question: Pipeline do tend to repeat one another, Rucka makes the transition between the individual segments quite seamless. Pipeline is formally split into two chapters, comprising about a third and two-thirds of the book respectively, like a single issue and an extended Question special, even as both are made up originally of ten-page segments. To write a co-feature series such that, once collected, it reads like a graphic novel is an achievement on Rucka's part. In this way, Question: Pipeline works better than other co-feature collections, even as in other ways it does not.

After the fantastic Question: Five Books of Blood, in which Renee has to discard her morals chapter by chapter until she enters the heart of the Religion of Crime, Pipeline paled in moral ambiguity. Rucka seems to give a half-hearted attempt at conflict when Question and Huntress pay off the assassin Zeiss for information, and Tot (Question Vic Sage's long-time mentor) chastises them for it -- but a hero buying money from a villain is hardly new or shocking, and we never see any bad result from the heroes actions, making the whole thing feel flat. In the end, Question sacrifices herself in a way that is indeed shocking, but this comes only in the book's final pages.

Still, as Question: Pipeline marks perhaps Greg Rucka's last DC Comics work for the time begin, there's some nice scenes here than can be read, to an extent, as Rucka's final victory lap. For one, Rucka reveals the identity of Oracle Barbara Gordon to Renee, and Renee's continual amazement that "Commissioner Gordon's daughter" is a superhero is priceless. Rucka dips into Doom Patrol territory with a cameo by Oolong Island president Veronica Cale, whom Rucka created in Wonder Woman, and it's nice to see him get one more crack at the sinister character.

And perhaps most welcome is a nicely muted scene, which I hoped for in my review of Huntress: Cry for Blood, in which Renee realizes that Huntress knew (and loved) the Question Vic Sage, and both acknowledge that Vic saved their lives. One of Rucka's overarching stories in the DC Universe (among many) has been about the end of Vic Sage's life and the legacy that the Question left behind, and this brief scene in Question: Pipeline brings to a good close that series of work.

[Contains sketchbook pages by artist Cully Hamner. Printed on glossy paper.]

Thanks for reading!

Absolute Identity Crisis and more from DC Comics May 2011 solicitations

Friday, February 18, 2011

I am a fan of Brad Meltzer's Identity Crisis.

I understand, to be sure, why that book is controversial, but Identity Crisis marked for me a distinct rebounding of the quality of DC Comics's crossover events, and the beginning of much greater line-wide cohesiveness. Say, again, what you will about Identity Crisis, but it was far greater than Millenium Giants, Genesis, or Day of Judgment, and DC's crossovers have been blockbusters ever since.

I do not, however, think it deserves a $100 oversized Absolute edition.

First, the book has a hardcover and a paperback edition that are both still in print. At the time that Batman: Hush and Superman For Tomorrow each came out in Absolute editions, neither had one single collection of the entire story; Batman: The Long Halloween has never had a hardcover printing except for the Absolute edition [hardcover is out of print], and Crisis on Infinite Earths was out of print in hardcover at the time of the Absolute edition.

While it does not necessarily follow that a book must lack an edition to deserve an Absolute edition -- it's perfectly reasonable with the Green Lantern movie coming out that Green Lantern: Rebirth should get an Absolute edition -- I feel it's not as though there was a dearth of ways to read Identity Crisis that an Absolute edition could solve.

Second, if we warrant (perhaps incorrectly) that the publication of one Absolute edition means a delay in the publication of another, there are potential Absolute editions out there that I think are more deserving than Identity Crisis. Numerous readers, in my opinion, would snatch up an Absolute Sinestro Corps War, especially re-ordered with the specials mixed in -- or Absolute Blackest Night presented in reading order, again to tie in to the upcoming Green Lantern movie. Rags Morales lovely art will certainly be lovelier in Absolute format, but a collection of just the Identity Crisis issues, no different than how they're already available, seems to me a waste of the format.

Third, $100? Really, DC Comics? When Absolute Green Lantern: Rebirth was $75, and historically Absolute editions have been $75, to price an Absolute Identity Crisis at $100, more than just being expensive, seems an overestimation of the value of the item they're selling. Indeed, Absolute All Star Superman is $100, but it doesn't have a full hardcover collection yet, and there's a movie based on it coming out. Identity Crisis is a seven-year-old miniseries that I enjoyed, but that I can hardly imagine someone now paying $100 to read.

For all of these reasons, I'm a bit stymied by this particular solicitation.

Hail and Farewell
The pre-crossover purge, in this case Flashpoint, begins here with the loss of Outsiders, JSA All-Stars, Freedom Fighters, Doom Patrol, and REBELS. I'm not altogether disappointed to lose the first two, which I felt needlessly expanded upon franchises that didn't need expanding (see Outsiders: Road to Hell), while I'm genuinely sorry to see the latter two go (Freedom Fighters I managed to entirely lose track of, even as I liked the initial miniseries). REBELS has been a lovely blast from the 1990s past, with writer Tony Bedard effectively capturing everything I used to love about the morally gray Vril Dox; Keith Giffen's Doom Patrol was in the first book a wonderfully madcap, self-destructive, psychologically thoughtful romp, and it played nice with continuity, too.

This happens all the time, I know -- it wasn't much before Final Crisis that we lost Blue Beetle, Manhunter, Checkmate, Mark Waid's Legion of Super-Heroes, and others too -- and the old adages still of course apply, that if a book doesn't star a member of the Justice League or have a Super- or Bat-character in it, much good luck wished to you. I'm rooting for Booster Gold, Power Girl, and especially Gail Simone's Secret Six that these "independents" in the DC Universe can keep on keeping on.

At the same time, I was struck that there seem to be thirteen new collections -- hardcovers, paperbacks, and Absolutes -- and five reprint collections solicited by DC Comics for May 2011. All of these, of course, won't actually come out in May, but that's a big host of collections to solicit. I won't make more of that right now than to say this obviously demonstrates the viability of and the fan interest in comics collections, as if there was still any doubt. A solicitation list that includes Showcase Presents Doc Savage, Absolute Identity Crisis, Tales of the Batman by Gene Colan, Power Girl: Bomb Squad, Aquaman: Death of the Prince, and Batman: The Road Home is quite a significant mix of new, old, high profile, standard collections, and so on, to suggest there's not a fan out there anymore who couldn't find something of interest to them in collected format.

What do you all see in DC's May 2011 offerings?

Review: Batman: Arkham Reborn trade paperback (DC Comics)

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Thursday, February 17, 2011

I am not usually a horror-genre fan, but David Hine's Batman: Arkham Reborn is just the right mix of "scary with a story." As opposed to David Lapham's Crisis Aftermath: The Spectre, which seemed to be just a random collection of gore, each of Hine's gruesome surprises serve to draw the reader deeper into the dark plot, in which it remains tantalizingly unclear even in the end who's really behind it all. I figured the Arkham Reborn miniseries for a silly one-off capitalizing on the "Batman Reborn" hubbub, but the story turns out to be surprisingly relevant and well-connected to events in the regular Batman titles.

[Contains spoilers. Big spoilers. Reading past this point will reveal a bunch of spoilers for the "Batman Reborn" storyline.]

I think it's interesting that Hine accomplishes much of Arkham Reborn's horror in retrospect, and not in fact. Some of the goriest scenes of the book (or, at least, the goriest left up to the reader's imagination) are in the childhood remembrances of Dr. Jeremiah Arkham's patient No Face, the criminal Raggedy Man, or Arkham's assistant Alyce Sinner. Hine creates suspense in that the reader knows something terrible has brought the character to this point, and then the reader relives the character's origins knowing that the terrible moment is inevitably imminent.

As the book progresses, the terror of the book moves from the abstract to the immediate. Clayface, Mr. Freeze, and Killer Croc all suffer attacks, but the Raggedy Man's is perhaps the most shocking, as Sinner forces Raggedy Man to kill himself by cutting himself open. The increase in actual violence mirrors Jeremiah's growing loss of control of the asylum, until, in the end, he himself becomes a perpetrator of violence against Mr. Zsasz. Here, surprisingly enough, Hine retreats from the horror, perhaps to demonstrate that the story is at its end; the reader is lead to believe for one moment by Zsasz's dialogue that Arkham has cut out the villain's eyes, but we find that Arkham has only delivered a minor cut instead.

If you've read Tony Daniel's Batman: Life After Death, you know that Jeremiah Arkham turns out to be the villain Black Mask. This creates an interesting dynamic in the second part of Arkham Reborn (which contains the Battle for the Cowl special, the three-part Arkham Reborn miniseries, and the two-issue Detective Comics follow-up by Hine). Black Mask would seem to be the villain here, opposing Jeremiah's efforts to rebuild the asylum via Alyce Sinner's mayhem; rather, we find in the third part that Arkham is Black Mask, and his enemy has been himself. I credit Hine in negotiating a difficult group of characters and balancing secrets kept in other titles, but still making each part of this book feel self-contained; one could easily leave the Arkham Reborn miniseries satisfied with the Jeremiah vs. Black Mask story, never missing the third part unless you knew it was there.

What Daniel and Hine establish here was perhaps inevitable; Arkham Asylum is such a large part of the Batman mythos that it seemed almost ridiculous that Arkham himself wasn't a villain, and now he is. Hine directly addresses one of the great conceits of the Batman stories -- that Arkham is supposed to be this vaunted asylum but yet they can never seen to rehabilitate nor even retain most of their prisoners -- by suggesting that Jeremiah Arkham has been under the mental control of either the Joker, Hugo Strange, or someone else almost since the beginning, and that the asylum fails on purpose. This is a fair theory, and other writers can likely build on the same in that Sinner, Black Mask's pawn, is now herself in charge of the asylum.

Daniel and Hine's stories work well together, and I imagine if one reads Life After Death, they'll want to read Arkham Reborn and vice-versa; I was pleasantly surprised, even, to find that the two books share a scene in common. The question that remained for me, however, was to who, if anyone, controlled Black Mask; Daniel has Batman considers the question in Life After Death, and Hine suggests it's either the Joker or Hugo Strange, but no mastermind actually steps forward. This made me wonder about how the two writers split this story's labor, so to speak; did Daniel pass to Hine to reveal the mystery villain, and that revelation is subtle, or is Hine purposefully playing fast and loose so that Daniel can pick it all up later? Who, dear reader, black-masked the Black Mask?

Regardless, Batman has a compelling new villain in Black Mask -- a villain easily recognizable on his own, with the added layer of being an Arkham in Arkham; I'm curious to see where the villain pops up next. Kudos to David Hine and artist Jeremy Haun for a compelling horror story I can get behind; I thought this would be light fare (and DC perhaps had to bill it as such to hide the book's secret), but I was pleasantly impressed with how it fit into the overall "Batman Reborn" storyline (the Daniel/Winick half, at least; the Grant Morrison side of things could just as soon be taking place in a different Bat-universe).

[Contains full covers]

More reviews on their way!

Review: Batman: Life After Death hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, February 14, 2011

I've been pleased to find lately that comics can still surprise me. Whereas Tony S. Daniel's Battle for the Cowl was over-narrated, with mis-presented characters and some dark, hasty artwork, his Batman: Life After Death is a near-perfect tour de force. Daniel offers a compelling protagonist in the new Batman Dick Grayson, a cogent mystery in the identity of the new Black Mask, and enough twists, turns, and continuity notes to keep me riveted throughout. After Bruce Wayne returns, I couldn't see much purpose in following any book but the Grant Morrison-written Batman Inc., but if Daniel keeps the quality on Batman that's found here, then that's another for my list.

[Contains spoilers]

Skeptical as I had once been about Dick Grayson's role as Batman, Grant Morrison and Judd Winick went a long way toward convincing me that the idea could work, and Tony Daniel cements it. Daniel's Grayson-Batman has not the edge of the Wayne-Batman; he falls into a number of different traps and doesn't seem necessarily surprised with himself for having done so. A young boy who helps Grayson gets killed, and Grayson's reaction is neither too emotionless nor too vengeful, as Bruce Wayne might have been; instead, in a small moment, one senses that Grayson mourns the child both for how the child reflects himself and how the child reflects his fallen mentor.

Grayson's battle against Black Mask in this story is a team effort, involving Alfred and Robin, but also to a large extent Huntress, Oracle, Catwoman, and Commissioner Gordon. The Bat-family shows a level of teamwork that we haven't seen previously -- a variety of heroes came to Bruce Wayne's aid during Batman RIP, but it was nothing to the extent of Catwoman as Grayson's informant or Huntress watching his back to foil a thief. Though it's not stated explicitly, I think Daniel even wants us to intuit that Gordon knows this isn't the original Batman and assists him accordingly. Dick Grayson is the Batman prince, essentially, being assisted by his forebear's couriers to accept rule of the kingdom. Helped immensely by Daniel's art -- which looks enough like Jim Lee's to give this entire whodunit airs of Hush -- Life After Death is swift and fresh and makes Bruce Wayne as Batman, frankly, feel a little stodgy.

I'll admit Tony Daniel had me guessing right up until the end as to the identity of Black Mask. (See how a bunch of nice Collected Editions readers discussed essential "Batman: Reborn" with me while tiptoeing around said spoiler.) Black Masks's identity in retrospect is fairly obvious (Brad Meltzer's theory of "who benefits" wins again), but I stuck for a long time with the answer being Arnold Wesker, the deceased Ventriloquist (despite that we just saw his corpse in Blackest Night) with a few quick detours into thinking it was Two-Face. Daniel writes a cogent Batman mystery, complete with viable clues and red herrings; at times it seems the Batman series has to be either a superhero title or a mystery one (Morrison's Batman and Robin being more the former, Paul Dini's wonderful run on Detective Comics being more the latter), so Daniel's good combination of both is a breath of fresh air. Here again, it's hard not to find good parallels between Life After Death and Hush, especially if you liked Hush as I did.

To that end, it's perhaps no coincidence that Daniel pays homage to Hush writer Jeph Loeb's Batman: The Long Halloween early in Life After Death, bringing that series firmly into continuity at least for the time being. Daniel returns the gangster Mario Falcone, balancing out Batman's often predictable rogues. Not only does Daniel leave unclear whose side Falcone is on, it also looks like he'll revisit the question of Catwoman's true parentage as presented in Loeb's Dark Victory. In fact, Daniel's story is full of these kinds of touches, from the villain Fright last seen in Winick's Batman: Under the Hood, to the Reaper from one 1971 Dennis O'Neil Batman issue (#237, also an unofficial DC/Marvel crossover). I did not expect this level of detail from the writer of Battle for the Cowl -- was shocked by it, frankly; Life After Death went a long way in building for me a new respect for Tony Daniel's work.

Daniel's final two chapters of Life After Death focus on the Riddler with art by Guillem March, reminiscent of Francis Manapul. The story is rather confusing; aside from a suggestion that the Riddler remembers that Batman is Bruce Wayne and senses the current Batman isn't Bruce, I couldn't exactly say what else we're supposed to take from it all. I trust, however, that the Riddler is someone Daniel intends to come back to; the Reaper doesn't have a truly important role in Life After Death either, but I'll spot Daniel some extra characters as he builds what's starting out as an impressive Batman run.

As Superman: New Krypton comes to an end, I can honestly say I'm ready to see the Man of Steel back to normal flying over the streets of Metropolis again (Grounded notwithstanding). As for Batman, I'm not so sure. Grant Morrison, Judd Winick, and especially Tony Daniel have all gone a long way toward making Dick Grayson, and perhaps Batman, more interesting than they've been in a while. Yes, I know that what Grant Morrison writes is where it's at, and so that means one more volume of Batman and Robin and then Batman, Inc. -- but, as the Bat-status quo turns once again, to an extent the Bat-title I'm most excited about is Tony Daniel's.

Contains full covers. Printed on glossy paper.

Not to mention, in these days of five or six-issue trades, or even hardcovers, Life After Death contains eight issues, and feels especially thick as compared to a five-issue Justice Society or six-issue Doom Patrol collection. One hardcover, eight issues, one writer and just two artists -- now this is what I want to see more of from DC.

Uncollected Editions #4: Batman: Vengeance of Bane (DC Comics)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

[Continuing our "Uncollected Editions" series by Paul Hicks]

With the recent buzz about the casting of Tom Hardy as Bane in the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, it’s timely to look back at the earliest of Bane’s greatest hits that have eluded collections (for now).

The first of these is Batman: Vengeance of Bane -- a 1993 64-page special that debuted the character. The Bat-office of the time had similarly introduced Azrael in the four-issue Batman: Sword of Azrael mini-series that appeared around the same time (with some “noob” called Quesada on art). This was cleverly done to get the major players on board in service of their starring roles in the imminent Knightfall epic.

Now let’s get one thing straight at the outset: Vengeance of Bane was an amazing debut adeptly handled by Chuck Dixon and artists Graham Nolan and Eduardo Barreto. Bane is often misremembered as a one-note muscle-headed character whose be-all-and-end-all was to snap Batman’s back. Reading this story it’s obvious that Bane had much more preplanned potential longevity than his fellow villain Doomsday (not that it hasn’t prevented “the big D” from coming back time and again).

Born in the ultimate version of underprivileged misery, Bane was a newborn sentenced to a South American prison, Pena Dura, for the insurgent crimes of his father. At the age of six his mother died and her body was thrown to the sharks that infest the waters of the desolate island prison. Without a mother, the boy was moved into general population, exposed to the thieves, murderers and other predators. The child quickly decides that he won’t be a victim and viciously takes his first life. His punishment is years in a cell that floods every evening, fighting to survive each day against rats and crabs. Bane uses the years productively, emerging from the cell as a beast of a man with a will as hard as his body.

Highly charismatic, Bane assembles a circle of operatives to educate him and assist him in his planning. Older inmates Trogg, Zombie and Bird are deadly criminals, each amusingly named after 1960s recording artists. They become devoted to him and his plans, recognizing someone who can lead them out of captivity.

Bane survives involuntary experiments with the Venom drug (introduced by Dennis O’Neil in the Legends of the Dark Knight story “Venom,” which is itself collected in trade paperback), escaping both mere humanity and the prison bars. Bane has heard tales of Gotham as the greatest city of the world and Batman as the man who stands against anyone wanting to control it; the imprisoned boy who has overcome every adversity in life sees overcoming Batman as the next stage of his fight for freedom.

To say Vengeance of Bane has aged well is unnecessary, because as a story it hasn’t aged a bit. It really is a pity that the appearance of Bane in the wrestler mask has led to many forgetting the mind behind the mask. Many depictions of Bane in both the comics and cartoons show a drug-frenzied rager, but the beauty of the Dixon/Moench/Nolan character is he would have been as big a threat even without the drug (something Gail Simone has explored through his membership in the Secret Six).

The second early book of note is (the imaginatively titled) Batman: Vengeance of Bane II: The Redemption from 1995 (I would have called it “Bane Again” myself). The story, produced by the exact same creative team, details Bane’s recovery from his defeat at the hands of Bat-understudy Azrael during Knightquest.

Again in prison (offshore Gotham locale – Blackgate), Bane must rebuild himself after his humiliation. The story parallels the earlier tale by showing the process of Bane building himself and refocusing his life. The Venom drug becomes symbolic of his weakness and he is motivated to destroy all his associations with it. Bane creates a network of minor Bat-villains to assist him in his plans, but this time they are mere pawns, unlike the acolytes he gathered in the first book.

After that first story, this is a more familiar tale, but no less enjoyable for it [indeed I think the parallels made the second book as good as it was -- ed.]. Nolan and Barreto’s art have gotten even better -- a splash page of Bane escaping the prison by diving off the cliff into the waters far below is utterly breath-taking.

There’s time for one more encounter with the Knightfall-recovered Batman, as Bane hunts drug-dealers who have been selling Venom to petty criminals. Batman fails to re-capture Bane, and Bane slips out of the city, alone and unbound, seeing himself as a truly free man for the first time in his life.

One of the most compelling things about Bane is the similarities and differences between him and Batman. Bruce Wayne was born into wealth and privilege -- Bane was born in poverty and oppression. Bruce’s parents were cruelly taken from him -- Bane never knew his father and his mother was a shell of a woman, waiting for death to end her misery. Bruce was cared for by Alfred in a mansion -- Bane was alone in a prison. Bruce travelled the world with endless resources at his disposal, learning all he could to prepare for his crusade-- Bane spent years alone, learning in his solitude about physical and mental strength.

Both rail against injustice, but Bruce is fighting against the indiscriminate injustice of crime while Bane’s crusade is about the discriminating injustice that targeted him personally. It’s heady stuff that’s hopefully going to be recognized in the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises movie.

[Great point. Let’s not forget we already saw the Bane stereotype in Batman and Robin. Here’s hoping Christopher Nolan recognizes the intricacies of the Bane character in the upcoming movie, rather than just casting the villain as a background thug. -- ed.]

As with all good characters, Bane’s story continues elsewhere. I’ll be looking at the next two major stories in an upcoming Uncollected Editions.

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

Monday, February 07, 2011

The two volumes of Superman: Last Stand of New Krypton, along with War of the Superman, will determine a large part of whether the Superman: New Krypton saga was a success or failure. Certainly it has offered ambitious storytelling, and I hope DC decides to return to the episodic multi-character approach that's breathed new life into the Super-books lately (if maybe with greater emphasis on Superman himself). At the same time, it seemed when writer Geoff Johns left the title, so too did the story's thematic elements; it's unclear if remaining writers Sterling Gates and James Robinson remember New Krypton's genesis in the death of Superman's father Pa Kent, and how the story examines hope, even false hope, in the face of tragedy.

There are glimmers of a satisfactory ending in Last Stand's first volume, but they're not quite enough yet for me to declare the New Krypton story's ultimate triumph.

[Contains spoilers]

What's good for the reader, if bad for the New Krypton planet, is that Brainiac returns and succeeds in getting his hooks back into the city of Kandor. Artist Pete Woods does a good job echoing Gary Frank's initally chilling sequences of Kandor's capture in Johns's Superman: Brainiac (easily the best unofficial chapter of New Krypton) and the latter brings the story full circle with the former. There's no question what the Kryptonians are fighting for or what horrors Brainiac offers as a villain; even if some of that stands on the shoulders of Johns's earlier story, Gates and Robinson create a convincing sense in Last Stand of impending doom.

I also liked the way in which this book posits the new Superman family. Supergirl Kara Zor-El dubs Superboy Conner Kent her unofficial cousin in these pages; Kara and Conner met prior to Infinite Crisis, but Conner died soon after and Kara was not as "nice" a version as she's become under Gates's writing, so this emerges in a way as their first team-up. The Legion of Super-Heroes's participation in New Krypton has always seemed somewhat unnecessary, despite my enjoyment of the newly-returned classic team, but their coming to Superman's aid feels very natural here. My long-standing qualm about the Legion has been their separation from the events of the rest of the DC Universe; if the Legion might continue to reappear at times such as these, especially as part of and integrating with the Superman supporting cast, that's a role I'd welcome for them.

The threads tied up in the first part of Last Stand, however, don't as yet make up a whole cloth. The hidden Legionnaires that reveal themselves as having been watching Superboy and Mon-El explain that they were sent to the past on instruction of Legion mentor RJ Brande to assure the creation of the Legion in the future; this is well and good, but no mention is made of other Legionnaires having come to the past for the events of Justice League: The Lightning Saga, nor is there recognition of Starman's part in resurrecting Superboy in Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds. One can fill in the gaps themselves, I'm sure -- and possibly what I'm looking for is collected in some other book (the New Krypton trades are considerably fractured at this point, especially when it comes to Adventure Comics), but the "Legion revelation" scenes didn't quite live up to what I'd hoped for.

Second, one ongoing thread of the World of New Krypton miniseries has been Superman's efforts to unite the guilds of Krypton split by prejudice. World of New Krypton ended, unfortunately, with no great resolution on this point. I appreciate very much that Gates and Robinson address this plotline, but they do so by having Supergirl with the Legionnaire Tellus mind-control the Kryptonians into getting along. I'm writing this, again, from the perspective of only having read volume one, so if in volume two or War of the Supermen, the Kryptonians elect to join together on their own, so much the better; if mind-controlling the Kryptonians is the last word on Kryptonian prejudice, however, it seems a rather easy patch on a far more complicated issue.

Both the Superman and Batman titles have been effectively telling the same respective story since just after Infinite Crisis four years ago. On the Batman side, the story that began in the lead-up to Batman RIP and continues in "Batman Reborn" has been wildly successful, and continues even now. On the Superman side, we already know that "New Krypton" has been less of a critical success, due at least in part from the Man of Steel's absence in his own titles. The first volume of Last Stand of New Krypton is no Star Wars, but if the second volume pulls off an Empire Strikes Back-quality performance, maybe things will turn around; maybe in the next volume the Legion gets a chance to explain themselves, the Kryptonians realize the error of their ways, and Superman remembers that all of this began with the death of his father. Certainly I hope so.

Contains full covers. Printed on glossy paper.

Thanks for reading!

Review: Doom Patrol: We Who Are about to Die trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, February 03, 2011

I can't help but compare Keith Giffen's Doom Patrol: We Who Are about to Die, his first trade of the series, to Bill Willingham and Matt Sturges' first Justice Society outing in The Bad Seed. Both are fresh starts for the titles, and the Justice Society story is passably good (and I hear the next volume is better). Giffen's Doom Patrol, however, is so edgy, so dynamic, and takes such great pains to acknowledge existing DC Comics history while forging new ground, as to put other such premieres completely to shame.

[Contains spoilers]

Giffen's Doom Patrol seems to me the direct descendant of Judd Winick's late Outsiders series (even though historically the former predates the latter), and not just because artist Matthew Clark drew the heck out of both. The members of Giffen's Doom Patrol are wonderfully dysfunctional, as Winick's Outsiders were; when a member of their team dies, they're barely able to feel bad about it, though they hate themselves later for their lack of emotion. Each is being obviously, even blithely manipulated by the "Chief" Niles Caulder, whose indifference to the Doom Patrol's emotional and physical well-being is simultaneously disturbing and riveting.

The real achievement of Giffen's Doom Patrol is to cut through all the chaff that's hung on this team over many years, and get right to the wheat -- the core, easily recognized group of four: Robotman, Elasti-Woman, Negative Man, and the Chief. Like the Tony Bedard/Dan Didio Outsiders series (in team, not in quality), reducing the Doom Patrol to the original members heightens the emotional quality of the story; these heroes don't care much if they live or die themselves, but they've known each other a long time and care about each other, and they becomes relatable to the reader in that way.

Of course, what's old is new again, too. Giffen only actually gets to pit the Doom Patrol against one enemy, and then an enemy that becomes an ally, before Blackest Night intrudes (well-illustrated by Justiniano); what we find in this volume, however, is that the Doom Patrol is now the police force for the mad scientist nation of Oolong Island, which became sovereign in 52 Aftermath: The Four Horsemen. Not only does this work to put the Doom Patrol just slightly on the wrong side of the law -- sometimes their goal is to save the experiment, not the scientist -- it also gives Giffen plenty of opportunity to introduce the trademark Doom Patrol weirdness, like their aforementioned fight with a human-bug hybrid and a living black hole. The moral grayness of the Doom Patrol's missions also reminds me of Winick's Outsiders, and nicely differentiates Doom Patrol from other superhero teams.

After three introductory issues and the two-part Blackest Night crossover, Giffen's piece de resistance in the book is his final one-issue focus on Negative Man. I'll admit I didn't even understand all that Giffen reveals about Negative Man in this issue, so steeped is it all in long-time Doom Patrol lore, but what Giffen does accomplish (and what an accomplishment it is) is to tie together and make valid all the disparate incarnations of the Doom Patrol over the years -- from the original Arnold Drake incarnation to Grant Morrison's Vertigo series, John Arcudi and even John Byrne's "imaginary" series (Matthew Clark does fantastic impressions in this sequence of Byrne and of artist Tan Eng Huat). If ever a team's history did not make sense, it was Doom Patrol's, and I love the way Giffen acknowledges and even makes more relevant your favorite incarnation, like Geoff Johns did with the Legion of Super-Heroes in Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds.

What this first volume of Doom Patrol accomplished for me, read right after Justice Society: The Bad Seed, was to remind me what good comics are. I liked Bad Seed, but I found the plot rather uninspired, whereas Doom Patrol had me surprised and interested and excited, rooting for the characters and cringing at their self-inflicted wounds. Giffen presents both the characters and the weirdness you'd expect from a Doom Patrol title, but with a sense of menace and moral uncertainty that raises the title well beyond just heroes fighting villains.

I'm so impressed by Doom Patrol: We Who Are about to Die, I'm willing to say this: Doom Patrol is the best series I wasn't reading, and now I am. You should be, too.

[Contains full and variant covers, Matthew Clark sketchbook]

All of this, and there's a trailer page at the end for the next Doom Patrol volume! I can't necessarily credit Giffen with that specifically, but how nice to see an advertisement for a series' next trade inside the volume before it. This is an acknowledgment, overdue I'd say, that if a reader is holding one trade in their hand, there's good reason to believe they might be looking for the next one. Rather than a publisher banking on all comics fans watching the interwebs to know when the next book comes out, it seems to me an in-volume affirmation that "yes, there will be another volume" should be standard practice; this is just one more reason this Doom Patrol volume left me very pleased with comics.