Review: The Invisibles Vol. 4: Bloody Hell in America (Vertigo/DC Comics)

Thursday, June 30, 2011

[The fourth in our series of guest reviews on Grant Morrison's The Invisibles by Zach King, who blogs about movies as The Cinema King]

In the interest of full disclosure, I'll state that I believe Bloody Hell in America, the fourth volume of The Invisibles, is among the best work Grant Morrison has done in comics, right up there with Final Crisis, his run on Batman, and All-Star Superman (which I believe is his all-time pièce de résistance). Unfortunately that doesn't bode well for the rest of the series when it peaks at the midway point, but that's a matter for subsequent reviews.

"And so we return and begin again." It's been a year since the Invisibles rescued King Mob and Lord Fanny from the torture chamber of Sir Miles Delacourt, and the team has been recharging in America on the estate of Invisibles financier Bruce Wayne Mason Lang. After a ritual shaking up of the team hierarchy -- Ragged Robin is now the leader -- our heroes are off to Dulce, New Mexico, to retrieve a secret AIDS vaccine from a covert government base. They're unaware that they're walking into a trap laid by Mister Quimper and that their newest ally Jolly Roger may already be compromised ...

Bloody Hell in America wisely does not pick up where Entropy in the U.K. left off, applying rather than merely continuing the energy and momentum from the last few issues. Rather than show us the rest of the escape from the torture chambers (we can infer, since King Mob's last action in Entropy in the U.K. was reloading his gun, that there must have been a firefight to leave the building), Morrison jumps forward a year and focuses on glamorizing the Invisibles, unapologetically turning them into full-blown rock stars. Now that we know who all these people are (well, save Ragged Robin, whose mysterious background is practically valid characterization at this point) and have reasons to care for them, Morrison wants our interest in the characters to be felt as much as understood. "Nice and smooth" becomes the mood of the series, heretofore nice but somewhat less than smooth. It's the kind of move that would be indulgent if it weren't so successful.

It's slightly ironic, then, that artist Phil Jimenez -- who (I've said it once, I'll say it again) is undoubtedly the definitive artist for The Invisibles - doesn't slather on the Day-Glo and go for excessive visual glamor. The body language becomes increasingly dramatic -- Lord Fanny and Jack, particularly, strike poses very reminiscent of rock stars -- but Jimenez's detailed line work brings out all the grittiness and at times violent ugliness of the world these characters inhabit. When Quimper removes his mask, for example, it's a prime opportunity for a vividly impressionistic image, but Jimenez grounds his Quimper unmasked in heavy shadows which don't entirely obscure meticulously charred flesh and distinct dental disfigurements. (Caveat: Jimenez is the best artist on The Invisibles, but that may be only because Brian Bolland never did interiors. His cover work, which begins in this volume, is incredible, better even than Sean Phillips's work in the last one.)

The revelation of Quimper raises an interesting point about The Invisibles -- now that the series is at its halfway point (looking, of course, retrospectively), there are no signs of stopping. This isn't a bad thing in itself, but it becomes slightly problematic when the series continues to expand as it does. The introduction of Jolly Roger and Mason Lang are difficult because Jolly Roger feels extraneous now that we've gotten full senses of characterization for the Invisibles proper and because Mason Lang isn't really given anything to do except be a kind of Bruce Wayne stand-in (which makes it obvious that Morrison has never really stopped writing Batman since Arkham Asylum in 1989). Additionally, as compelling as Quimper is, it's unfortunate that (for now) he has replaced Sir Miles, just when the latter was starting to get interesting. Fortunately, these are mistakes the remainder of the series corrects, and taken in isolation the volume never truly suffers from these flaws.

Bloody Hell in America is such a fun read in part because it's the most pop-savvy, most accessible, most exhilarating volume of The Invisibles, but it's helped by the fact that Morrison clearly knows he's writing a four-issue action film. King Mob complains to Mason, "You've just turned the last ten minutes of our lives into a Tarantino scene. I'd call that a triumph for post-modernism any day of the week." Bloody Hell in America is indeed a triumph, the most digestible of the seven volumes and, at $12.99, a good trial-sized dose of Morrison's magnum opus. Although after that last frame cliffhanger, I can't imagine anyone not coming back for another helping.

[Contains full covers and a recap/character page. The collection is, however, missing one less-than-crucial page (the last of issue #4), which introduces Takashi, a scientist who becomes pivotal in the next volumes. Printed on non-glossy paper.]

That's volume four under wraps, loyal readers. Stay tuned for the fifth of seven reviews, Counting to None, in which the end begins and we meet the Hand of Fate -- but fortunately there's still time to dance like there's no millennium approaching.

Read Zach's full Invisibles review series. Next week, not one but two Time Masters reviews, starting Monday -- you'll remember to stop by, won't you?

DC Relaunch: 52 Words on 52 Titles (Part 2)

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Continuing our look at DC Comics's fifty-two titles to be relaunched in September, with no more than fifty-two words (sometimes less!) on each title. Check out part one of this post at the link.

Which titles look good to you?

27) Swamp Thing by Scott Snyder, Yanick Paquette & Francesco Francavilla
I’m not very familiar with Swamp Thing, but file him under “characters I’ve always wanted to learn more about.” I’m pretty excited about the entire new “Dark” area of the DC Universe; Scott Snyder’s Detective is getting good reviews, so I’m optimistic for this.

28) Animal Man by Jeff Lemire, Travel Foreman & Dan Green
This one also seems like a “can’t miss.” Though I’m not sure Travel Foreman’s solicitation cover was the right choice by DC to attract new readers, Jeff Lemire’s also getting rave reviews on Superboy, and in interviews he’s talking up the “family” aspects of Animal Man. High hopes here, too.

29) Justice League Dark by Peter Milligan & Mikel Janin
Peter Milligan wrote the well-regarded Shade, the Changing Man for Vertigo and currently writes Hellblazer; there’s no more authentic “horror” voice you could get to write the same characters in the DC Universe. List this among the DC relaunch books I’m most looking forward to.

30) Demon Knights by Paul Cornell, Diogenes Neves & Oclair Albert
A book set in the past and not affecting the DC Universe isn’t to my particular tastes, but writer Paul Cornell has hinted there’s a twist or two that might rectify that. Add to it the overall coolness of a new series for the Demon, and I’ll be giving this a look.

31) Frankenstein, Agent of SHADE by Jeff Lemire & Alberto Ponticelli
By far Frankenstein was my favorite of the Seven Soldiers, and I’m thrilled he’s getting a series of his own. I’m not familiar with Alberto Ponticelli’s work; my first choice would have been to see Doug Mahnke as the artist, but I’m happy to give Ponticelli a shot.

32) Resurrection Man by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning & Fernando Dagnino
I loved Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning’s Legion, but their previous Resurrection Man series never grabbed my attention. I’ll check this out partially because I think it’s funny DC is trying the series again; maybe with better integration into the “Dark” corner, this will hold my interest more.

33) I, Vampire by Josh Fialkov & Andrea Sorrentino
I’m less interested in this; in contrast to Justice League Dark, this looks too far out on its own. About the only thing that would bring me in would be vampires actually attacking DCU heroes (or, Josh Fialkov cameoing DC’s vampire-based Scarlett character).

34) Voodoo by Ron Marz & Sami Basri
I’m glad DC’s taking on a supernatural comic with a kind of CrossGen ethos (judging by first glance) and by Ron Marz, to boot. That said, like I, Vampire this just seems too “off on its own” for me, and I might skip it unless I hear really good things.

35) Legion Lost by Fabian Nicieza & Pete Woods
I have found Fabian Nicieza’s writing a tad light, but his work on young Red Robin should lend itself to Legion. Pete Woods is a great choice here though, reminiscent of Legionnaires’s Jeff Moy; overall I’m excited for this (especially the inclusion of Gates!).

36) Legion of Superheroes by Paul Levitz & Francis Portela
One of my greatest concerns for the DC Relaunch was whether Paul Levitz would keep writing Legion or if we’d have yet another Legion reboot. Levitz’s continuation did a lot to make me feel better about the DC Relaunch; I’ll pick this up most certainly.

37) Teen Titans by Scott Lobdell, Brett Booth, & Norm Rapmund
Everything’s controversial about this one, from characters to costumes to writer. To be sure, however, Teen Titans hasn’t had the luster of the original Geoff Johns launch in a good long time, and I’ll be giving this book a chance with high hopes for a return to greatness.

38) Static Shock by John Rozum, Scott McDaniel & Jonathan Glapion
It’s a great relief to find one of the original Milestone writers, John Rozum, writing this new iteration of Static -- just a shame they’re still calling it Static Shock! Scott McDaniel’s art has been hit-or-miss for me lately as well, but I’m excited for what looks like Static done right.

39) Hawk & Dove by Sterling Gates & Rob Liefeld
Yes, Rob Liefeld’s role gives some people pause, but the fact that he helped create the characters makes this feel rather right to me. Not to mention, like Gail Simone on Batgirl, if anyone can make this work, it’s Sterling Gates. I’ll give this a chance.

40) Stormwatch by Paul Cornell & Miguel Sepulveda
This is one of the books that brought me around to the DC Relaunch. Stormwatch (read: the Authority), Martian Manhunter, and Paul Cornell. After Superman: The Black Ring, I have no question Cornell can pull off a thought-provoking series, and Martian Manhunter in a superhero intrigue title? I’m sold.

41) Blackhawks by Mike Costa & Ken Lashley
As strong as DC’s Stormwatch solicitation is, the Blackhawk solicitation is too vague to move me. What I’m hoping for here of course is something in line with Greg Rucka and Eric Trautmann’s Checkmate, but so far I’m on the fence about this one.

42) Sgt. Rock and the Men of War by Ivan Brandon & Tom Derenick
Again, as excited as I am for Stormwatch, I’m uncertain about Men of War. I didn’t like Tom Derenick’s art on Shadowpact, and Ivan Brandon’s Final Crisis Aftermath: Escape was brilliant or absurd depending on your perspective. I’ll wait for the reviews here.

43) All-Star Western by Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray & Moritat
I’ve heard good things about Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray’s Jonah Hex, and I’m glad it’s continuing into All-Star Western. There’s enough else out there that I probably won’t pick this up, but I’m glad DC is giving it a second launch.

44) Deathstroke by Kyle Higgins, Joe Bennett, & Art Thibert
If this Deathstroke series follows in the footsteps of Marv Wolfman’s early Deathstroke series, I’ll be along for the ride, though I think that’s a big “if.” I’m glad to see Joe Bennett on a new series, however; I loved his art on Checkmate and elsewhere.

45) Grifter by Nathan Edmundson, Cafu, & Bit
I don’t have a real attachment to the Grifter character nor to this creative team. I’m curious about how the Wildstorm Universe will be folded into the DC Universe, however, and I’ll probably pick this up to see how the combination works.

46) Omac by Dan DiDio, Keith Giffen, & Scott Koblish
Dan DiDio’s Outsiders has been at times interesting and at times downright unreadable. What sells me here is the sense that this is not just an OMAC title, but a title encompassing all the DC Universe’s Jack Kirby concepts. With Keith Giffen assisting, I’d like to see this work.

47) Blue Beetle by Tony Bedard, Ig Guara & Ruy Jose
I’m glad to see Blue Beetle Jaime Reyes getting his own title again, though admittedly I’d have liked to see John Rogers as writer. I’m skeptical Tony Bedard can bring something new to the title -- I predict cancellation, actually -- but I’d be more than pleased to see this book succeed.

48) Suicide Squad by Adam Glass & Marco Rudy
Solicitation-wise, this is my biggest disappointment. I’m a fan of John Ostrander’s espionage team, and this funny-looking Harley Quinn team seems a far cry from that. In deference to this title’s legacy, I hope for good things, but I’m on the fence about picking this one up.

49) Action Comics by Grant Morrison, Rags Morales
I’m unsure about Superman’s new costume, but Grant Morrison proved with All Star Superman that he can do great things with the Man of Steel (not to mention Morrison’s astronomical success of late with Batman). The Superman titles have flagged of late; things can only get better, right?

50) Superman by George Perez, Jesus Merino
Further, I’m not sure if I really dislike Superman’s new costume, or if it’s just that George Perez’s new Superman resembles Superboy Prime here; granted Perez is drawing the covers only. I’m also worried whether Perez can bring a modern voice to Superman; I have more concerns about this than Action Comics.

51) Superboy by Scott Lobdell, RB Silva, Rob Lean
That Scott Lobdell is writing Superboy and Teen Titans should at least bring some continuity between the titles. Superboy’s new origin seems an unnecessary revision, but I’m willing to give this a shot and see how it goes.

52) Supergirl by Michael Green, Mike Johnson, Mahmud Asrar
I absolutely loved Michael Green and Mike Johnson’s Superman/Batman: Search for Kryptonite, but an “angsty” Supergirl seems an unnecessary regression for the character. I’ll give this a chance, but this could be the title I have the most concerns about.

Tomorrow, the next in Zach King's series on The Invisibles. See you then!

DC Relaunch: 52 Words on 52 Titles (Part 1)

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Just about every website out there has featured one of these posts where they run down the list of the fifty-two new titles in the DC Comics's relaunch with a yea or nay on the offerings. Well, I thought I'd make mine really quick; in the first of a two-part series, here's no more than fifty-two words (sometimes less!) on DC's first twenty-six offerings -- tomorrow's second part will cover the second twenty-six.

What looks good to you?

1) Justice League by Geoff Johns & Jim Lee
One of the titles for which I’m most excited. Been waiting for the iconic Justice League to return since Barry’s resurrection and Blackest Night; plus, one imagines a Geoff Johns/Jim Lee title should be a Hush-level bestseller.

2) Wonder Woman by Brian Azzarello & Cliff Chiang
You all know I’m a fan of Greg Rucka’s Wonder Woman; the character faltered a bit after that, before Gail Simone started, and then again after she left. Hoping Azzarello’s run is a long-term take on Wonder Woman, and he won’t be gone after the first few issues like Allan Heinberg.

3) Aquaman by Geoff Johns & Ivan Reis
Aquaman deserves his due respect after a number of not quite on-the-nose attempts, and if anyone can give him that, it’s Geoff Johns. I wonder what Johns’s “in” will be for his brand of character-driven story using Aquaman.

4) The Flash by Francis Manapul & Brian Buccallato
In terms of the DC Relaunch overall, I am somewhat hesitant about the number of new artist-writers, simply in that they’re unknown quantities. I’m glad Manapul is still drawing Flash, but this is one that worries me. Also that Wally West might be the villain.

5) The Fury of Firestorm by Gail Simone, Ethan Van Sciver & Yildiray Cinar
Of all the DC characters, I haven’t previously been much of a Firestorm fan, mainly due to lack of access. I’ll sample this -- especially with Gail Simone writing, and I’m curious to see Ethan Van Sciver draw her words [edit: Van Sciver is co-writing Firestorm; art is by Yildiray Cinar, whose work I really liked on Teen Titans: Ravager. No, this edit doesn't count for the fifty-two words]. My hope is this still has a tie to Brightest Day.

6) Green Arrow by J.T. Krul & Dan Jurgens
This is a seemingly “dark” book, but with Dan Jurgens drawing; usually I don’t equate Jurgens with “dark.” J.T. Krul continues from the previous Green Arrow series, and this is one where it’ll just depend on the story for me. Also curious whether Black Canary relationship is still in continuity.

7) Justice League International by Dan Jurgens & Aaron Lopresti
One of my top picks for the DC Relaunch. I have a soft spot for Jurgens’s Justice League in the early 1990s that featured many of these characters, and I’m excited for Jurgens to use them again with a more serious take.

8) Mister Terrific by Eric Wallace & Robert Robinson
I liked Eric Wallace’s Final Crisis: Ink a whole lot, and then was nothing but disappointed with his Titans: Villains for Hire. This could go either way -- either Wallace writes the Mr. Terrific we know and love, or Titans’s blandness creeps in. Checking this out with fingers crossed.

9) Captain Atom by J.T. Krul & Freddie Williams III
I don’t mind a new spin on Captain Atom; he’s one of those characters that pretty desperately needed a definitive relaunch. Freddie Williams’s art doesn’t always appeal to me personally, and I’ll be curious whether J.T. Krul can make the series interesting to me irrespective.

10) DC Universe Presents by Paul Jenkins & Bernard Chang
Notably we don’t know much about this series, really, but solicitations promise to follow Deadman’s story from Brightest Day, so I’m in for the first collection, at least.

11) The Savage Hawkman by Tony Daniel & Philip Tan
Here’s another artist-writer I worry about; Tony Daniel did great work on Batman: Life After Death, but not so much on Battle for the Cowl, and I have not enjoyed Philip Tan’s art previously. I’ll try the first book in part to see how DC works out Carter Hall’s new origin.

12) Green Lantern by Geoff Johns & Doug Mahnke
Of course I’m in for this one. DC seems to be trying to suggest Hal Jordan might not be the Green Lantern of the book, but we all know better. Hope there’s minimal interruption between this and the previous series.

13) Green Lantern Corps by Peter Tomasi, Fernando Pasarin & Scott Hanna
Peter Tomasi has been knocking Green Lantern Corps out of the park, at times even better than Geoff Johns (see Emerald Eclipse). No question I’m in for this one, either.

14) Green Lantern: The New Guardians by Tony Bedard, Tyler Kirkham & Batt
In considering former DC editors-turned-writers, I have not been as high on Tony Bedard’s work as I have Peter Tomasi’s. There’s a right and wrong way to write Kyle Rayner -- one is strong and sensitive, and the other is just sensitive, to a whiny fault. Hopeful Bedard gets it right.

15) Red Lanterns by Peter Milligan, Ed Benes & Rob Hunter
I liked Peter Milligan’s work on Infinity Inc., I know his reputation as a Vertigo contributor, and I’m excited for his “Dark” books. Red Lanterns seems an unlikely series, but I’m curious what Milligan will do. Ed Benes art often garners criticism, but it doesn’t give me pause for trying this.

16) Batman by Scott Snyder & Greg Capullo
Overall I’m least excited for the Batman titles. Moving Scott Snyder from Detective to Batman doesn’t shout “new” to me, nor am I familiar enough with Snyder to appreciate his writing Batman #1 (as opposed to Grant Morrison or George Perez re-starting the Super titles). I’ll see how it goes.

17) Detective Comics by Tony Daniel
I feel the same here. Tony Daniel’s writing has been hit-or-miss for me, and I don’t feel he’s distinguished himself enough to be writing Detective Comics #1. Grant Morrison has made plain Batman-fighting-villains in Gotham stories seem too small for Bruce Wayne, and that’s what this seems like.

18) Batman & Robin by Peter Tomasi & Patrick Gleeson
This is the former Green Lantern Corps team, so I know they can produce eye-popping comics; according to solicitations, this book also reflects events of Batman Inc. I’m not excited about a book where Bruce Wayne is a dick to his son for twenty pages, but I’m more optimistic about this.

19) Batman: The Dark Knight by David Finch & Jay Fabok
A fourth Batman title, especially without the distinction of being the team-up book or such, seems wholly unnecessary to me, as does restarting David Finch’s title after only five issues. Just the fact that this, too, ties to Batman Inc. raises it above Batman and Detective in my opinion.

20) Batwoman by J.H. Williams III, Haden Blackman & Amy Reeder
I’m glad, as I’m sure many are, that this book finally sees the light of day. That the solicitations mention Kate Kane’s cousin Bette make me hopeful that, when collected, the first collection will also include Greg Rucka’s Bette Kane-centered three-part story “Cutter.” Of course I’m getting this one.

21) Batgirl by Gail Simone, Ardian Syaf & Vicente Cifuentes
I’m getting this one, too. I know the controversy and I’m sympathetic to all sides -- torn, really -- but it comes down to this: if there’s anyone out there who can make this work, it’s Gail Simone. I’ll pick this up at least in part to support Simone taking the risk.

22) Birds of Prey by Duane Swierczynski & Jesus Saiz
I like Jesus Saiz’s art, but writer Duane Swierczynski is an unknown quantity, and I don’t love the idea of a rebooted Black Canary with some unknown partner (it also looks like Poison Ivy and maybe new character Voodoo here). I’ll sample this, but I’m not sure I’ll keep up with it.

23) Catwoman by Judd Winick & Guillem March
Certainly I wish it were Ed Brubaker writing this, and Guillem March’s always-unzipped costumes seem the wrong direction to take this title. I like Judd Winick’s work, however, and that gives me some peace of mind here; I’m rooting for Winick to deliver something that respects the Catwoman character.

24) Nightwing by Kyle Higgins & Eddy Barrows
I don’t know Kyle Higgin’s writing; Eddy Barrows’s art has not been my favorite, though he did well recently on War of the Supermen. The red costume with blue highlights concerns me, too. Lots of eyes will be watching the Nightwing title when DC relaunches; here’s hoping for good things.

25) Red Hood and The Outlaws by Scott Lobdell & Kenneth Rocafort
This is such an outrageous concept that I’m very excited to see how it manifests itself. In interviews, Scott Lobdell seems solid in his description of this book as one about the redemption of Red Hood and the other characters, so I’ve heard nothing to cause concern so far.

26) Batwing by Judd Winick & Ben Oliver
Again, I like Judd Winick’s work. He handled international issues and locales well in Outsiders. And I’m not an advocate that writers must have personal experience to write convincingly. But Winick writing the adventures of the first black Batman, set in Africa? I’ll have to see how this turns out.

Tune in for part two, tomorrow!

Review: Hawk and Dove (Kesel) trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, June 27, 2011

I'm not sure why I didn't read Karl and Barbara Kesel's Hawk and Dove miniseries and series when it first came out. Ultimately, however, my first introduction to Hawk and Dove was at their apparent end, in Armageddon 2001, when the future villain Monarch killed Dove so that Hawk would become Monarch in turn.

I was not up on the comics industry scuttlebutt at the time, and it wasn't until later that I learned that Captain Atom was meant to be Monarch and not Hawk. In my initial read, the suggestion that Captain Atom was Monarch at the end of Justice League Europe Annual #2 seemed an obvious red herring, and Hawk progression to Monarch made sense -- Monarch being the seemingly totalitarian despot hiding seething anger underneath, the perfect combination of Hawk's chaos under a misguided attempt at Dove's order.

Given my overall nostalgia for Armageddon 2001, the subsequent use of the Hawk and Dove characters have therefore held a special place for me -- when Monarch became Extant in Zero Hour, the JSA's revenge against Extant and the return of Dove in Geoff Johns's JSA series, and then the introduction of the new Hawk in Teen Titans (another reason why, even if the quality is so-so, I'd have liked to see the uncollected Hawk and Dove issues of Teen Titans appear somewhere other than the DC Comics Presents book).

[Contains spoilers]

With the first Hawk resurrected as of Blackest Night, my growing understanding through the DC Trade Paperback Timeline of Hawk's appearances in Booster Gold and Suicide Squad after Crisis on Infinite Earths but before the initial Hawk and Dove miniseries, and especially the announcement that Supergirl's Sterling Gates would team with original series artist Rob Liefeld for a new Hawk and Dove title in the DC Relaunch, I thought it was more than past time to check that original book out.

Hawk and Dove is most certainly rough in all the ways one might expect a collection from 1993 to be rough. The printing is done such that most shading and color is made up of fine dots, giving every panel a wavy pattern to it; the colors routinely bleed over the lines and even cover over intended white space if the details are too small. The clothes and especially hairstyles of the characters are ridiculously dated, but I think that's a sign of the times and not necessarily something for which one can blame Liefeld. To Liefeld's credit, this story at the beginning of his career offers suitable superheroic art without much of the exaggeration his work would take on later.

And in the book's introduction, Karl Kesel himself notes some awkwardness to the book's writing. Most egregious to me is that between the first issue, where Hawk Hank Hall and his friends meet Dawn Granger (Dove, unbeknownst to them), Dawn never gets a chance to introduce herself, but by the next issue Hank knows her name and she's become an established part of their circle of friends. Also the story's main villain, Kestrel, bestows some of his power to a street tough that takes on the name "Shadowblade" -- a better example I don't think you could find of the kind of ridiculous throwaway character one could expect from early 1990s comics.

One should forgive Hawk and Dove's flaws, however, coming from a creative team new to comics, especially given how the concept of this Hawk and Dove would continue to stir in comics' imaginations a good twenty years later. One thing I like about the Kesels' structure of the miniseries is that, even as Dove's secret identity is perfectly obvious to the reader from the first issue, the writers keep Hawk in the dark until almost the end, and tell the story to the reader from Hawk's perspective. As such, the story is very much Hawk's -- deservingly so, since Hawk has been a DC character since at least the 1970s -- and charts Hawk's emotional journey to the acceptance of the death of his brother, the original Dove. That the Kesels tell the story in this unusual way, from the perspective of only one side of the team, may reflect their early writing inexperience, but it's a choice that I think distinguishes the book overall.

Second, in the few original Hawk and Dove issues that I read and also here, I like what the Kesels build in terms of Hank and Dawn's supporting cast. In contrast to today's Green Lantern or Flash, which have little "normal" supporting cast to speak of, the Kesels portray Hank and Dawn as ongoing college students, with a group of slightly loopy friends who tease one another, go on dates, and get together for coffee. It's remarkably normal, a throwback to the Seinfeld and Friends era of things. I applaud the miniseries for being convincingly youthful, something Titans of late has failed to achieve. There's a good tone here, and despite lacking a little polish, that alone made the book worth the read when I finished.

In following the DC Universe, what has fascinated me are the little unexplored eras -- that after Crisis, Hawk-sans-Dove did a stint in Nicaragua with the Suicide Squad, referenced in the Hawk and Dove book, before the new Dove showed up. Hawk and Dove may not deserve a firm place on your bookshelf, but with the pair making appearances in Birds of Prey and soon to headline their own series once again, I recommend giving the collected miniseries a glance. It's a fair enough introduction to these two characters, enjoyable despite the rough spots.

[Contains full covers (with logos, no less!), introductions by both Karl and Barbara Kesel]

More on the DC Relaunch coming up, plus Zach King's next in our series of Invisibles reviews, and next week ... Time Masters!

Thursday Talkback for 6-23-11

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Because apparently sometimes I don't know what day it is, you got to enjoy this week's Batgirl: The Flood review a little early. It follows a thought from our Birds of Prey: End Run review earlier this week, and I encourage you to read both and share your thoughts.

Not to let a Thursday go to waste, however, I thought I might open the floor to another "talkback" post like we did back in April -- no set topic, necessarily, though since that time the DC Comics landscape has near turned on its head, plus we have the recent release of the Green Lantern movie. So have at it and share what's on your mind in the trade paperback and comic book world, and I'll be following along as we go. Thanks!

Review: Batgirl: The Flood trade paperback (DC Comics)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Bryan Q. Miller's Batgirl: The Flood and Gail Simone's Birds of Prey: End Run take place concurrently, and both make use of the Oracle Barbara Gordon character. I faulted Simone's End Run recently for what I felt was a side-lining of Barbara (albeit uncharacteristic for Simone and Birds); except for one issue, Barbara mostly spends the book in the background fretting about her friends.

Enter Miller's Batgirl, which is a breath of fresh air in general and in regards to this particular issue. Though the main action of Flood has Barbara kidnapped by the Calculator -- a foe and plot repeated too often -- the preamble involves Barbara actually on the street fighting side-by-side with Batgirl Stephanie Brown against the zombified citizens of Gotham.

Though Simone, let's not be mistaken, has also taken Barbara out from behind her desk more than once, when you read the two books together it's clear that what End Run lacks is abundantly present in Flood -- a Barbara Gordon just as tough and capable as she was in her own Batgirl days.

[Contains spoilers]

In the kind of expansive, organic story that perhaps one can only find in comics, the conflict between Oracle and the Calculator spans at least five years and a considerable number of comics, including Birds of Prey, Teen Titans, the Oracle miniseries, and now Batgirl. Perhaps because of the vagueness of Calculator's "enhanced computing" skills, his stories of late involve a repetitive series of subpar threats, as when characters are attacked by electronic appliances or through their social networking avatars.

Miller deviates from this well at the beginning of Flood in his depiction of Gotham's cyber-zombies, which do indeed seem like a threat to Batgirl and Oracle. The story ends, however, in the all-too-familiar ground of Barbara fighting Calculator in a digital dreamspace, something I like far less than Barbara actually engaging in physical combat in the "real" world. The former seems a too-easy loophole by the writers to let Barbara fight as Batgirl would, instead of how Oracle would.

The joy in Miller's twice-told tale is the same as in Batgirl Rising, and what's made this series an instant hit despite controversies over Stephanie as Batgirl -- how much fun Miller has with the characters. Only scratching the surface is Batgirl and Oracle battling back-to-back against zombies, for gosh sake, and the running gag where Batgirl and Oracle accidentally speak their inner monologues aloud, to hilarious embarrassment.

That Stephanie is overjoyed at a thumb's up from Commissioner Gordon is markedly refreshing. At the point where Tim Drake's been doing this for over twenty-years "our" time and Damian Wayne couldn't care less, I like reading about a Bat-character still in training, with shades of Chuck Dixon's early Robin series. And, Calculator aside, Miller succeeds making established Batman villains seem not-so-staid, between Scarecrow last time and Man-Bat and Clayface here.

Flood ends with two stand-alone tales, a cute team-up with Supergirl, and a deceptively complex spotlight on Batgirl's Detective Nick Gage. The chapter's main issue focuses on Batgirl foiling Clayface's bank robbery, but in just two panels, Miller strongly implies that Gage has come to Gotham after suffering the death of his wife. The character never says such, and all the information is brilliantly conveyed instead in silence and reactions (kudos also to issue artist Pere Perez and to series artist Lee Garbett in general).

The revelation is sad, of course, but Miller has made these characters all so loveable that there's a sweetness too in learning more about them, good or tragic. Miller's writing also shines in a great scene where Gage commiserates with Stephanie over a victim he and Batgirl couldn't save, not knowing all the while that it's Batgirl in front of him.

Were Batgirl to be continuing, I'd highly approve of the introduction of former Teen Titan Wendy Harris as "Proxy," a young apprentice to Oracle. This would not only free Oracle to appear exclusively in Birds of Prey, but contributes to the youthful vibe of the entire book by introducing an "Oracle Jr."; it would also pull the new Batgirl farther out of the former Batgirl's shadow. That said, I'd like to think Barbara Gordon won't be taking orders from Proxy-as-Oracle in the new DC Relaunch Batgirl series. I've heard (and am glad) that Barbara will still remember her Oracle-time as Batgirl, but I'd rather see her charting her own way than taking orders in a diminutive way from someone else; it works for Batgirl-in-training Stephanie, but not for someone with as long a history (even rebooted) as Batgirl-the-first.

[Contains full covers]

Some of the funny in Batgirl: The Flood seems more on purpose and less natural than in Batgirl Rising. Nonetheless, this second Batgirl volume is smart and entertaining, fun and thoughtful, and a good model for what superhero comics should be (what a lot of readers liked about the Power Girl series is what I think I like in Batgirl). Flood hit the New York Times bestseller list, and the accolade is well-deserved; my strong hope is that DC finds something else for Bryan Miller to work on in the new DC Universe (a stint on Blue Beetle, maybe?), because he's a writer too good to let go.

Review: Birds of Prey: End Run hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, June 20, 2011

It is a delight to have the band back together again in Birds of Prey: End Run, both characters and creators, though the book feels more like a two-hour reunion movie than the start of an ongoing series. In contrast to Birds of Prey launches previous, the focus is less on the Birds saving others than saving themselves, which gives the story a one-off, personal feel. I'm glad the Birds are back together, though in the end their new mission isn't quite clear to me.

[Contains spoilers]

DC's been rather mum on the exact date and time the idea for the new relaunch came about; if I had to guess based on what I can intuit from interviews and such, I'd bet writer Gail Simone did not know about Oracle's return to Batgirl at the start of the new Birds of Prey series. And yet, with Simone's new Batgirl on the horizon, her portrayal of Oracle here makes it not such an outlandish concept.

Oracle gets her own story in End Run involving sometime-allies Savant and Creote while Black Canary and Huntress are off battling the mysterious White Canary, so it's not as though Oracle is idle in the book. Until Savant and Creote kidnap her, however, Oracle mostly worries about her teammates through their audio receivers; after the titular "End Run" story, she's mostly absent through the two-part concluding "Two Nights in Bankok." When Savant dangles Oracle's wheelchair off the end of a dam, Oracle thinks about how she would previously run along the edge "in heels" as Batgirl; though she's strong enough to catch Savant when he jumps off the bridge himself, she still needs Creote to help pull Savant up.

There's nothing wrong with Oracle considering her past life nor having to ask for help, but there's a certain wistfulness here in Simone's portrayal of Oracle, not to mention the character's general impotence in the story. Even if I didn't know that a change was on its way, chances are I'd still be advocating for Oracle to be in the field more -- questioning suspects, sneaking around, getting into fights -- something that's hopefully on its way in the next volume's ominously titled Death of Oracle.

End Run rests heavily on three other of writer Simone's Birds of Prey stories -- Of Like Minds, The Battle Within, and Perfect Pitch -- with so much detail in fact that I had to pull the three to remind myself about some of the characters interactions. Less notable, I thought, than the conflict with White Canary was the aforementioned return of Savant and Creote, and how their kidnapping of Oracle evokes their kidnapping of Black Canary in Of Like Minds, Simone's first Birds book, reinforcing the feeling of new beginnings giving deference to the old.

In an excellent twist, Savant and Creote seem the villains of the piece, though they don't actually end up as such. Instead, Savant's mental breakdown reminds Oracle of her tendency toward arrogant self-reliance, and her habit of taking her associates for granted that she thought she'd curtailed. That End Run recasts several stories relating to Savant and Creote is good -- showing what Oracle thought was rehabilitation to instead be considerable harm -- because it sets volume two apart as a clean break distinct from what came before.

Ultimately, though the beginning and middle of End Run pertain mostly to Oracle and Black Canary, "Two Nights in Bangkok" largely the Huntress's. In fact, if I had to characterize End Run succinctly, I'd say this is Huntress's Battle Within and Perfect Pitch, compressed. The White Canary means to pit super-martial artist Lady Shiva against Black Canary, but Huntress steps in instead, and manages to hold her own against Shiva, if not exactly cleanly.

Defeating Shiva has been a rite of passage for Bat-characters. For Simone to pit Huntress against Shiva is to continue Birds's process of giving Huntress the recognition she deserves, just the same as this title did for Black Canary. That Huntress does it "her way" is perfect, splattering blood in Shiva's face rather than developing some outrageous fighting skills and becoming essentially a second Canary; I also appreciated Simone's reminder more than once that Huntress is willing to kill while Black Canary isn't, further defining the two characters as individuals.

End Run is enjoyably action-packed, with a number of successful surprises, and again it's great to have Simone and artist Ed Benes back together with these characters. I did worry whether familiarity breeds a certain amount of ennui, however; when the Birds reunite, the ordinarily stoic Huntress bursts into tears, and there's more than one scene given to the Birds telling each other how much they feel for one another. Sure, it might be nice if Superman and Batman were so open for a change, but the echoes in End Run of earlier Birds stories reminds me things were not always so rosy between the Birds -- and maybe it was better that way. That the Birds know each other so well and care about each other so much borders on the melodramatic, and there's little drama when Canary abandons the Birds for a stint, for instance, because we know she'll be back and because we've seen a lot of this before, even if we enjoyed it both times.

Indeed, as End Run comes to a rather sudden conclusion, there is no talk here of how the Birds will continue as a team, nor as to whether or why the heroes Hawk and Dove will be joining the group (the duo do a lot of just standing around throughout). There's some implication in the book that the Birds will now be outlaws in Gotham City (unless that's cleared up by White Canary's defeat), but it's not specifically addressed in the end. I don't object to a super-team that fights crime together just because they like one another, but End Run lacks Of Like Minds's sunrise-set forward-looking ending. Likely much of this will be addressed in Death of Oracle, but the end of End Run leaves the story feeling not quite concluded.

End Run's story, at least, lends itself fairly well to the collected format, in that even despite there being two titled stories here, they're essentially of a piece. Ed Benes leads a number of fill-in artists whose style is sufficiently close to his own, and End Run's first issue especially is quite beautiful, with Benes's definitive take on the Birds and some advanced coloring highlighting the tones in the characters' hair and costumes. But unfortunately Benes gets a couple of inkers who aren't quite the right fit, and from the second issue on really nice pages sit side-by-side with ones that look dark and rushed (see page two and three of the second chapter, where the characters seem especially frozen in position); in the third issue, an artist draws a conversation between Canary, Huntress, and Lady Blackhawk in which they're all in the same room but Blackhawk is entirely off panel, and there's a shot of White Canary pummeling Black Canary toward the end of that issue in which Black Canary's leg seems to begin halfway up her body. Someone also saw fit to give the character's descriptive boxes explaining their powers at the start of every single issue; this might've been useful for the monthly comic, but it's repetitive and distracting and the trade, and should have been taken out.

Given End Run's loose ties to Brightest Day, DC included a Hawk-and-Dove-centric Brightest Day excerpt at the end of this book. This is a great touch, as was the Green Arrow preview at the end of Justice League: Rise and Fall. Not only does it offer a few more story pages for the purchase price, but it acknowledges that trade readers are just as much a part of the DC Universe as monthly buyers, and want to be pitched to and teased about new storylines as well. Two thumbs up and here's hoping for more of the same.

[Contains original and variant covers, Brightest Day Hawk and Dove preview]

The DC Relaunch announcement is just two weeks past, and already we're in this kind of awkward position where there's one if not two more collections of this Birds of Prey series still to come, and yet we already know the book is cancelled and the characters on the cusp of being radically changed. I'd have bought Birds of Prey: End Run anyway, I'm pretty sure, if only to see the classic Simone/Benes team back together again, but it's hard not to intuit shades of things to come in what I'm reading now, even if those connections might just be coincidental.

That said ... coming up next is our review of the New York Times bestselling Batgirl: The Flood -- don't miss it!

Uncollected Editions #8: Mark Millar and Grant Morrison’s Swamp Thing: Bad Gumbo (Vertigo/DC Comics)

Thursday, June 16, 2011

[With Swamp Thing rejoining the DC Universe, a timely "Uncollected Editions" feature by Paul Hicks]

When Mark Millar and Grant Morrison took over Swamp Thing in 1994, they must have been faced with several dilemmas. Alan Moore had broken all types of new ground in making the book a cutting edge mature readers title and that had been successfully been continued under the pen of Rick Veitch. Somewhere between issue #87 and #88 the book stumbled dreadfully. Veitch left, editorially prevented from completing his long-planned finale to a time travel arc and his stoey where Swamp Thing meets Jesus Christ. In a show of solidarity, the series's already-lined-up and promising new young writer, named Neil Gaiman, decided to walk as well. After several months of nothing, issue #88 finally appeared with writer Doug Wheeler at the helm to hastily wrap up the time travel arc in a less controversial, more workmanlike manner.

The book continued for another seven years with Wheeler, followed by horror novelist Nancy A. Collins. The stories became very safe, status-quo-maintaining adventures split between the Louisiana bayous and the plant spiritual dimension known as the Green. Between Veitch's last issue and issue #140, there's nothing truly memorable or compelling. Swamp Thing was a title now mired in mediocrity and desperately needing to be dragged out of its rut. Millar and Morrison had the antidote, but it was a brutal process that started with the decimation of the supporting cast.

The four-part "Bad Gumbo" story in Swamp Thing #140-144 begins with an incoherent Swamp Thing howls through the Louisiana bayou, murdering the local populace. For a long-time reader, this is the equivalent of watching Superman tear apart everyone at the Daily Planet (except for Lois and Jimmy or in this case his wife Abby and the hippie Chester). Meanwhile, botanist Dr Alec Holland awakes in the Peruvian forest from a drug-induced coma. The plant who dreamed that he was a man is now a man who dreamed he was a plant. This is Millar and Morrison sweeping the pieces off the board and making sure we can’t play the game the same familiar way anymore.

Abby no longer lives in the bayou, shacked up instead with a regular man. She gets an ominous phone call from the mysteriously absent Tefé, the half-human, half-elemental daughter she had with Swamp Thing. Tefé warns that Swamp Thing is coming to kill Abby and she should run for her life. Abby runs, but she’s already being tracked through the flora in her intestines.

Wearing his artist hat, Phil Hester works with inker Kim DeMulder to superbly return the darkness to this title. There is wildness to the art that meshes brilliantly with the plot as the familiar world of Swamp Thing falls apart. Real locations give way to nightmare-scapes. Simple things like a black bird or ivy on the side of a house become ominous and threatening. Peruvian forests give way to jungles of machinery eating the forests. Alec is guided to board the horrific Soul Train to journey from Peru to Louisiana. It’s fantastic to look at and it works so well to convey the dislocation as Alec begins his physical and spiritual journey to find what he lost, or may have never had.

Millar and Morrison introduce a number of new characters to nudge Alec to learn what he needs, including Don Roberto, El Seńor Blake and the mysterious Traveller. I’ve heard the writers wanted to use established characters like the Phantom Stranger and John Constantine, but they were unavailable; this is better, I think, because the reader can't as easily predict the motives of Alec's new mentors as we could with familiar faces. The writers (maybe one in particular) deliver many well-informed explanations about the effect of plant-based drugs on human physiology, but it’s all a smokescreen. Alec isn’t a victim of hallucinogenics, rather Swamp Thing is under attack by his elemental forefathers, the Parliament of Trees. He’s a disappointment, failing to reach his true potential and held back by his connection to humanity. Their solution is to sever the human part from the plant, and the rampaging remains are trying to destroy every human connection Alec has.

Alec must race to save Abby and recover his power. The climax is a very physical confrontation with guns and explosions, not the usual fodder for this title. Alec does attain a victory, but it is bittersweet; Abby can no longer live in the world of monsters. While she isn’t killed off like the bayou-dwellers, her relationship with Alec has been destroyed. I thought this a travesty at the time, but looking at where the story went to from there, the writers offered wide-open possibilities. Abby was Alec’s center, his last true connection to humanity; she grounded him, but isn't that another way to say she held him back?

You may have noticed I’ve always placed Millar’s name ahead of Morrison’s. That’s deliberate. This isn’t Grant Morrison’s book with a novice writer hanging on his coattails, but rather this is the start of Millar’s run and beyond these four issues he was on his own. Millar's twenty-eight issue solo run on Swamp Thing after this arc surpassed these beginnings. It was marvelously inventive, deliciously dark and ultimately became a thoughtful exploration of the plant elemental with the safeties off. It carries the book to a (sadly all too rare) fully satisfying conclusion.

To get there, the authors needed a dose of "Bad Gumbo" to clear their collective heads and make way for something new and stranger. And isn't that just what Alan Moore did, too?

[DC may be rebooting, but we've still got trades to read! Reviews of Birds of Prey and more coming next week -- see you then!]

DC Relaunch: Three Arguments For and Against

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

I mentioned before that I've been struggling in writing about the DC Comics relaunch, at least in part because we don't know all that much. The fate of numerous characters still remain unspoken, not to mention exactly what shape this new DC Universe will take and what its heroes relationship will be to its public, and I'm keenly aware of that lack of information as I write.

I've also struggled because, if my perception of what DC Comics is trying to accomplish with their reboot is accurate, I've come around in large part to favoring the relaunch. This, as numerous commentators and bloggers whom I respect are still struggling with the relaunch, and while I also appreciate and share some of their concerns.

To that end, the following list of three "issues" regarding the DC relaunch, with "for" and "against" arguments following, reflect my own indecision about DC's endeavor -- how I think it can benefit DC overall, but how I think it could be perceived as slighting loyal fans in the process. My hope is that you'll share your own thoughts on the relaunch below, positive and negative, not in the least to help me clarify my own take on the matter.

ISSUE: Flash Wally West has been written out or somehow removed from the post-Flashpoint DC Universe.

FOR: As the new DC Entertainment positions itself as not just a serial storyteller, but an incubator for viable multimedia properties, their characters must become streamlined and more readily understandable. A telling of Wally West's origin must necessarily include the death of his uncle, former Flash Barry Allen, and this story within a story is too complicated to translate to other medias. Barry Allen, Green Lantern Hal Jordan, Green Arrow Oliver Queen, and others are the definitive versions of the characters and the ones DC should spotlight going forward.

AGAINST: Wally West has been the Flash for over the past twenty years, and remains vastly more popular than Barry Allen. DC had no problem translating Wally to other media in the Justice League cartoon, so the same ought be true for a Flash movie or other endeavors. Comic books are not just the breeding ground for movies and TV, and the characters' histories ought not be dumbed down just for those purposes.

ISSUE: DC is giving the Justice Society concept a "rest," so says Dan DiDio's Facebook page, returning Superman to his status as the DC Universe's first superhero.

FOR: Most of the wider audience that DC Comics wants to reach correctly understand that Superman was one of the first comic book superheroes. They also associate him with DC Comics's most enduring team, the Justice League, and likely believe those heroes were the first of their ilk, too. When DC combined their Golden and Silver Age continuities after Crisis on Infinite Earths, they gave up Superman's "first" status, letting the Justice Society heroes predate him, in favor of Superman's Justice League membership. This creates an ongoing disconnect between what we understand as comic book fans and what the larger world knows to be true -- and both groups are a little bit right. This is a sticky continuity issue created over years of reboots, and simplifying it restores some of Superman's grandeur and removes an inevitable confusion for new readers -- where confusion, as with derivative origins, threatens to scare away new readership.

AGAINST: The Justice Society was DC Comics's first and one of their most enduring superhero teams. The team and its characters, including Green Lantern Alan Scott and Flash Jay Garrick, remain popular still today, letting alone that the Justice Society lead to such successful modern franchises as James Robinson's Starman. One of the cornerstones of the DC Universe is its legacy heroes, and to believe the concept is too complicated for new readers is not to give those readers enough credit.

ISSUE: DC will return Barbara Gordon to the guise of Batgirl with the September relaunch.

FOR: As with Superman, public perception is that Barbara Gordon is Batgirl, and the time it takes to disabuse a new reader of that notion risks losing the new reader entirely. Further, the origin of the now third Batgirl Stephanie Brown rests on understanding the origin of the second Batgirl Cassandra Cain and then also the original Batgirl Barbara Gordon. Barbara as Batgirl remains the simplest and most translatable origin for the Batgirl concept, with the greatest ties to the Batman mythos as a whole.

AGAINST: As Oracle, Barbara Gordon remains one of DC's most popular characters, aside from and including her enduring role as a symbol of strength and diversity (written about eloquently in Jill Pantozzi's Newsarama column). We've already seen that the Oracle character can translate to other media without problem, as in the short-lived Bird of Prey TV series. Again, old and new readers are more than capable of understanding the concept of legacy heroes; in Batgirl's case, the latest collection of the third Batgirl's adventures made the New York Times Bestsellers list. What readers lose in Barbara Gordon's return to Batgirl is far outweighed by anything they might gain.

Your thoughts?

Review: Dark Reign: Sinister Spider-Man trade paperback (Marvel Comics)

Monday, June 13, 2011

[Guest-blogger Doug Glassman brings us a little relief from the DC Reboot mania today ...]

The “Dark Reign” era was an interesting time to be reading Marvel books. After the Secret Invasion event, Norman Osborn has become a national hero and his Thunderbolts have taken the place of the Avengers. For quite some time, evil reigned in the Marvel Universe. My biggest qualm is the gigantic "Idiot Ball" carried by the residents of the Marvel Universe, especially the government, to allow all of this to happen. However, the overall concept produced some excellent stories, such as the year-long Invincible Iron Man story “World’s Most Wanted” and the entirety of the wonderfully over-the-top War Machine series. Another of these great stories is Sinister Spider-Man.

With Peter Parker going through hell (One More Day pun intended), the Spider-Man here is Venom, a.k.a. Mac Gargan, formerly the Scorpion. He hides his nature as Venom well ... at least, until his hunger and base urges take over. Yes, Venom still eats people, but it seems less for sustenance and more for the sheer thrill of cannibalism. This is one of those rare books where the title character is gleefully and criminally insane. There are no moral qualms as with many anti-heroes, and no ruminations about death, like the kind you might find in a Punisher story. No, Mac Gargan is drunk with power and wants nothing to do with responsibility.

Much of the story is based in Gargan’s origin as the Scorpion. J. Jonah Jameson hired him and gave him his powers to take on Spider-Man. Now that JJJ is the mayor of New York, Mac is envious of his success and wants to take his old employer down a notch. It doesn't all make complete sense, but then again, Venom isn't really all there, and as he points out later on, he could just eat JJJ at any point; this is about torturing the man for fun. Along the way, Venom’s victims form a support group in order to redeem this Sinister Spider-Man. The “real” Spider-Man does not make an appearance here except in flashback, busy as he was with "The List" and other storylines.

This is my first time reading a book by Brian Reed, and he has instantly become a new favorite, demonstrating in Sinister Spider-Man a particularly dark sense of humor. Someone gets partially eaten every five pages or so, and in many cases, it's played for laughs. It helps that those who are attacked are super-villains. The absolute best joke of the series comes from Venom's hunger, and I cannot say any more lest I ruin it, other than it addresses some of the more horrifying aspects of being eaten by a symbiote. There is also a great throwaway joke about a potential rendezvous between Gargan and Squirrel Girl ... which leads to him having an appetite for squirrels, which he calls “squirmy popcorn.” A less grotesque but still brilliant moment reveals that Venom has gained a fortune from selling Norman Osborne's Iron Patriot prototype and replacement parts.

Reed gives the Sinister Spider-Man a wonderfully lame rogue’s gallery led by the Redeemer, a nebbish psychologist with a skull mask who wants to bring the Sinister Spider-Man to the good side. Amongst his cohorts are General Wolfram, a man who thinks he is genetically engineered from a wolf; the Hippo, an actual semi-evolved hippo created by the High Evolutionary; and Doctor Everything, a parody of Watchmen’s Doctor Manhattan, complete with an ever-present “CENSORED” bar over his crotch. Bullseye and Daken (Wolverine’s son) of the Dark Avengers make a great set of cameos in the fourth issue. Since he is a major character, it is fitting that J. Jonah Jameson is very well represented; J.K. Simmons' voice rings through in every line. There are no combustible lemons here, unfortunately.

Chris Bachalo lends a unique style of art to this story. The cover is the first indication of the weirdly sketchy and cartoony style, including Venom’s multi-sectioned tongue. In fact, while the rest of the series has an animated feel, Venom is comprised of sketched shapes and ingrained lines, making him stand out. Occasionally, panels will be seen in only black and white inks, representing Venom’s vision, which is a creepy and very dehumanizing touch. Like Reed, Bachalo has taken advantage of this opportunity to let loose and try something new, which is something I think writers and artists should try more often, even if it is just for a limited series. A prologue story illustrated by Rob DiSalvo reinforces just how important Bachalo's art style is to this story. DiSalvo’s traditional art is perfectly fine for a traditional superhero book, but it would not convey Reed’s dark humor.

Overall, in an era of increasingly violent comic books and anti-heroes constantly inching towards the side of darkness, having an unrepentantly psychotic hero is a nice change of pace. The book is satisfyingly brief. Mac Gargan’s Venom would be hard to take as an ongoing lead, but for four issues, he is a lot of fun to follow.

Sinister Spider-Man does not require any additional reading; all of the required back story (which is fairly negligible) is provided. The book is dark, gory, and absolutely hilarious. The art is unique, and you may want to flip through the book in person to decide if it will really put you off. My one qualm is the price: $16.99, which is a bit much for four issues and a short prologue. I admittedly got mine at a sale at Tate’s Comics in Florida. Still, if you want to wait for a sale, check it out of the library, or if you have been waiting to see if it is worth it, then definitely take a look.

Review: Batman and Robin: Batman Must Die Vol. 3 deluxe hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

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Thursday, June 09, 2011

In the strange trilogy of books that make up the end of Grant Morrison's "Batman Reborn" saga, Batman and Robin: Batman Must Die is the most straightforward superheroic, after the philosophic Time and the Batman and the meta-interpretive Return of Bruce Wayne. As a matter of fact, perhaps the biggest surprise in Batman Must Die is the great lack of Grant Morrison's trademark metaphysical weirdness, so prevalent of late in Morrison's other Batman work. There are references to the "hole in things" and Bat-gods, but not nearly to the extent we've seen recently elsewhere.

Even, then, as Batman Must Die is not the extreme brain-puzzle of the kind Morrison often presents us, it's still a gripping story -- a reminder that Morrison writes "basic" superheroic action just as well as he writes grandiose mythology. In fact, I'll say the only point at which I felt Batman Must Die took a turn for the worse was when a certain Dark Knight shows up -- I left this book, as new Robin Damian Wayne does, thinking I might've liked things a lot better before Batman Must Die upsets the apple cart.

[Contains spoilers]

Batman Must Die is a disaster story of the best kind, where almost right out of the gate the citizens of Gotham are rioting and Batman, Robin, and Commissioner Gordon are caught in the destructive middle. I had some concerns as to whether artist Frazer Irving's wide, painted style might distract from the story, but he's the perfect choice; Irving's grim characters, combined with dark, moody colors, perfectly depict both the Joker and the crazed Gothamites. Even as each chapter has its own title, Morrison drops in on occasion a large, jarring date ("DAY 2"), which underscores the totality of Gotham's chaos. Crashing Bat-planes, our heroes in jeopardy, the Joker on the loose ... Batman Must Die is a nail-biter.

That said, there is not quite the resolution to events in Batman Must Die that I was expecting. True, Batman Bruce Wayne finally returns and squares off against Simon Hurt (nee the ancestral Thomas Wayne), and indeed Morrison flashes the reader back to Hurt's first encounter with the demon Barbatos (Darkseid's Hunter-Adapter), filling in that final story gap. We don't learn as such, however, what Batman Dick Grayson fought in the Batcave just a few issues before (ostensibly Barbatos, though that's not really explained as such, nor why Barbatos is hanging around the Batcave), nor is it ever quite clear what Hurt expects to find in the Bat-casket that Bruce Wayne tricked out in the past.

Some of this obfuscation is intentional on Morrison's part, I know, preserving the mystery of Hurt's identity up to and through the end. Ultimately I like the idea that Simon Hurt is an insane, immortal Wayne ancestor with a Hush-esque grudge against Batman, and maybe the rest doesn't matter. There is, of course, plenty going on just under the surface of this tale, but story's lack of an overt direction to the reader to look deeper (the absence, for instance, of a Kirby-eseque page the likes of Return of Bruce Wayne contains) lends itself to the surface, blithe superheroic tone of the book (similar, I guess, to the first Batman & Robin volume). The least seasoned reader can still approach Batman Must Die, I believe, as a basic tale of Batman versus a villain, even as the experienced reader will find undertones of the Bat-god versus the Devil.

So Batman Must Die hums along -- Dick and Damian get in and out of scrapes, Commissioner Gordon cures himself of a virus-induced addiction (Darkseid's Anti-Life, anyone?) solely by the force of will, and the Joker shows up to drive some chaos into Dick and Simon Hurt's battle. Great story, completely enthralling ... and then Bruce Wayne shows up to spoil the party completely.

I chuckled when Bruce Wayne, newly returned to the present, quips to Dick about the new Robin, "Is that Damian?" I'm thinking, "OK, that's funny, Bruce Wayne's back in the swing of things." But then, as Dick wards off the effects of a gunshot wound to the skull, Bruce demands, "On your feet, soldier," later chides the gathered Bat-family to "pay attention," and calls them his "closest crimefighting associates." Real warm, Bruce. And this is not even including the scene where Bruce takes his son Damian out on a mission, and within a couple of pages is so frustrated by Damian that he shouts at him and determines that Damian will be better off with Dick while Bruce fights a global war on crime -- Bruce abandons his own son, essentially, within pages of his resurrection.

This chapter, the Batman: The Return special, was actually published after a bunch of Bruce Wayne: The Road Home one-shots in which Bruce encounters the members of the Bat-family individually, so maybe there's room for more niceties there. In the first showing of Bruce Wayne by "Batman Reborn" mastermind Grant Morrison, however, the Batman Bruce Wayne comes off as pretty well a jerk. Commissioner Gordon remarks to Dick that he and the police seem to like Dick better, and I don't blame them.

Morrison suggests toward the end that Bruce's standoffishness may have to do with some knowledge of the future that he's brought back from the past, which I imagine Morrison will address later on. But for me, this just brought back memories of the late 1990s Bruce-as-jerk portrayals that Morrison himself had started to peel away post-Infinite Crisis. I'm still following Morrison and Bruce Wayne into Batman Inc., to be sure, but I've yet to really have that celebratory moment that one might expect to have for Bruce Wayne's return to the present.

[Contains original and variant covers; sketchbook and commentary section by Grant Morrison]

Must Batman die? Grant Morrison has been especially literal (if not sometimes metaphorical) in his story titles; over in Return of Bruce Wayne, we found that Batman Bruce Wayne did indeed need to die (and be quickly resuscitated) to foil Darkseid's plans. At the end of this book, contradictorily, Bruce Wayne affirms that Batman and Robin will never die, but to this reader it does feel like a minor setback -- the cessation, at least, of Grant Morrison writing the Batman Dick Grayson. The beginning of Batman and Robin: Batman Must Die is so good, it only reinforces to me what we're losing; for my tastes, I'd be happy to read Grant Morrison writing Dick Grayson again any day. [EDIT: Sadly, with recent Nightwing #1 news, I know Morrison isn't returning to Dick Grayson any time soon, though I am curious to see Nightwing's new place in the DC Universe.]

DC Relaunch: Trade-Waiting at the End of the Universe

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Yeah, yeah, DC Comics relaunch, new #1s, nothing will ever be the same ... but what about the trades?!

The post-Flashpoint reboot, like the "One Year Later" break after Infinite Crisis, is a simultaneous event affecting all DC titles; as just about all DC titles will reach a story conclusion just before the new #1s, this must necessarily affect how they're collected. And I'd be pretty surprised if DC wants to collect pre-Flashpoint stories with post-Flashpoint stories (though they did collect pre- and post-"One Year Later" stories together).

So we're in for a tidy bunch of trades that end the ongoing DC Comics plotlines before the new books emerge, right?


Before I started researching, my guess was that things were probably pretty clean. All the ongoing DC stories are wrapping up in August, so chances are August is a precise stopping point for DC's trades, too, right?

Unfortunately, no. Not to spread panic, but things on the collections front look very messy, worrisomely so. I have significant concerns about certain books and issues never seeing collections to wrap up their storylines.

Let's jump in to it. The list below reflects the book's title, the most recently solicited collection, and the book's collection status, Dancing With the Stars-style -- safe, or still in jeopardy. I'll say right now, of the thirty-eight books I'm profiling, only a handful of them seem safe to me, including Action Comics, Superman, Green Lantern, and Flash. That's a lot of collections unaccounted for.

Action Comics (Superman: Reign of Doomsday)

The "Reign of Doomsday" storyline concludes in Action Comics #904, and indications are that all the Action Comics issues of this will be collected together (if not Superboy, Outsiders, Justice League, and others).

Adventure Comics
In Jeopardy

Adventure Comics ends its "Legion Academy" storyline with issue #529. The Legion of Super-Heroes: Consequences trade collects up to Adventure Comics #522; no collection is yet solicited for Adventure Comics #523-529.

Batgirl (Batgirl: The Lesson)
In Jeopardy

Batgirl: The Flood collected through issue #14 of that series. Batgirl ends with issue #24, leaving ten issues (from #15-24) still to be collected; that's just on the high end of what DC tends to collect, and I'd be surprised if two more Batgirl Stephanie Brown trades are in the offing since this series gets a Barbara Gordon reboot post-Flashpoint. One to watch, with the concern being that DC might not finish collecting this Batgirl series at all.

Batman (Batman: Eye of the Beholder)
In Jeopardy

Issue #703 appears in the Batman: Time and the Batman collection; afterward, Tony Daniel writes and draws this series from issue #704 to 712, and then Fabian Nicieza finishes it off with issue #713 in August. There is a Batman: Eye of the Beholder collection solicited that will collect some of these issues, but again, ten issues in a collection is a lot. Do we risk DC might not collected issue #713, or more? I'm skeptical that DC would include these issues in a collection of Tony Daniel's new Detective Comics, so this one's got me worried.

Batman and Robin (Batman and Robin: Batman Must Die)
In Jeopardy

The last-solicited Batman and Robin collection was Grant Morrison's Batman Must Die (collecting up to issue #16); the book concludes in August after stories by Peter Tomasi, Judd Winick, and David Hine. It's unlikely DC will collect all eleven remaining issues into one book -- might they skip them all entirely, and just start collecting the series with the new #1?

Batman Beyond (Batman Beyond: Hush Beyond)
In Jeopardy

I have not seen a collection of the regular issues of the Adam Beechen series solicited since the Hush Beyond miniseries. DC's publication of a Superman Beyond #0 special suggested that the Batman Beyond universe was here to stay, but we don't have confirmation yet that Batman Beyond survives the DC relaunch. Until we see such, I think there's a danger that the eight issues of Batman Beyond leading up to August might not be collected.

Batman Inc. (Batman Inc. Vol. 1 Deluxe)

There's a deluxe Batman Inc. collection solicited, but no word yet on whether it collects all ten issues of Batman Inc.'s first "season," as Grant Morrison recently called it. Of all the series, I think this is the safest bet that we'll see all the issues collected, especially with Batman Inc. returning in 2012.

Batman: The Dark Knight
In Jeopardy

The Dark Knight will only reach five issues before it's relaunched with a new issue #1 in September. I think there's a good chance this will all be collected, but I'm less certain about it than, say, Batman Inc.

Birds of Prey (Birds of Prey: The Death of Oracle)
In Jeopardy

Solicitations suggest Birds of Prey: The Death of Oracle collects through issue #13 of this series, which marks writer Gail Simone's last issue before Marc Andreyko writes a two-part fill-in in issues #14-15, and then the title's rebooted in September. I think chances are high we won't see issues #14-15 collected at all.

Booster Gold (Booster Gold: Past Imperfect)
In Jeopardy

Past Imperfect collects the Keith Giffen/JM DeMattis run on Booster Gold to issue #38, though their stories continue until issue #43. Dan Jurgens writes the Booster Gold Flashpoint tie-in from #44 to August's #47. Though not yet solicited, I'm fairly sure we'll see a collection of the Dan Jurgens stories; whether the other issues will be collected or not is up in the air.

Detective Comics (Batman: The Black Mirror)
In Jeopardy

Of all the Bat-titles since Final Crisis, Detective Comics has had the most uneven collection route. Batwoman: Elegy collects Detective up to issue #860; then the three-part "Cutter" story by Greg Rucka from #861-#863 remains uncollected. Detective #864-865 appear in David Hine's Arkham Reborn collection; #866, an anniversary story coinciding with Batman #700, is uncollected; #867-880 is Hine's Batman: Imposters; and then #871-873, at least, is Scott Snyder's "Black Mirror" story. How much of #874 to August's Detective Comics #881 will be collected in the Black Mirror hardcover, I'm not sure, but all eleven issues is unlikely. Whether that means some stories will be uncollected, or whether some will appear with the collection of Snyder's new Batman stories remains to be seen.

Doom Patrol (Doom Patrol: Fire Away)
In Jeopardy

I'm about ninety-nine percent positive that Fire Away will include the final issues of the most recent Doom Patrol series (in the same general category as REBELS and Outsiders), else it's unlikely we'll see those collected.

Flash (Flash: The Road to Flashpoint)

One of our sure things, Flash: Road to Flashpoint collects Flash #8-12, ending just before the reboot.

Freedom Fighters
In Jeopardy

With no Freedom Fighters collections currently solicited for the newest iteration of the Jimmy Palmiotti/Justin Gray series, my guess is this will remain uncollected altogether.

Gotham City Sirens (Gotham City Sirens: Strange Fruit)
In Jeopardy

Strange Fruit collects Gotham City Sirens #14-20; August's last issue of Sirens is #26. Right now there's no final six-issue collection of Gotham City Sirens solicited, but for completion's sake, here's hoping.

Green Arrow (Green Arrow: Into the Woods)
In Jeopardy

So far DC has only solicited Green Arrow: Into the Woods, collecting the first six issues of JT Krul's new Green Arrow series. Which leaves #7-13 by Krul and #14-15 by James Patrick. With Green Arrow seemingly starting from scratch in the DC relaunch, is there any chance of those latter comics being collected? They're Brightest Day tie-ins, and guest star Swamp Thing, rumored to have his own DC relaunch series coming up; DC couldn't very well skip these, could they?!

Green Lantern (Green Lantern: War of the Green Lanterns)

War of the Green Lanterns stretches to August's issue #67 of the Green Lantern proper series, and I can't very well see DC not collecting all the issues of Green Lantern, so I think this one is safe.

Green Lantern Corps (Green Lantern Corps: The Weaponer)
In Jeopardy

The Weaponer predates War of the Green Lanterns, and that latter hardcover will no doubt include the Green Lantern Corps issues. Corps has three issues after War of the Green Lanterns leading up to the September relaunch however; maybe we'll see a War of the Green Lanterns Aftermath trade with the Aftermath miniseries and issues of Green Lantern Corps and Green Lantern: Emerald Warriors.

Green Lantern: Emerald Warriors (Green Lantern: Emerald Warriors Vol. 1)
In Jeopardy

The first Emerald Warriors trade is said to collect issues #1-6. If it were to collect #7 as well, that would lead right in to War of the Green Lanterns, and then #11-13 would remain to be collected, maybe with the War of the Green Lanterns Aftermath miniseries.

JSA All-Stars (JSA All-Stars: The Puzzle Men)

JSA All-Stars: Glory Days ends with issue #13; chances are Puzzle Men collects issues #14-18, finishing out this series.

Justice League of America (Justice League of America: Omega)
In Jeopardy

The Justice League: Dark Things hardcover collected this series through #48, leaving issues #48 through August's #60 currently uncollected; that's twelve issues, too much for one trade. Justice League: Omega likely collects at least the five part "Omega" storyline from #49-53; surely DC wouldn't leave issue #54-60's "Rise of Eclipso" storyline uncollected in favor of the new Justice League ... would they?

Justice Society of America (Justice Society of America: Supertown)
In Jeopardy

James Robinson wrote an epilogue to the JLA/JSA crossover in Justice Society #43; after that, Marc Guggenheim wrote issues #44 through to August's #54. We don't yet know how many issues Justice Society of America: Supertown collects, but chances are it's not all eleven of Guggenheim's issues -- will some of these go uncollected?

Legion of Super-Heroes (Legion of Super-Heroes: Consequences)
In Jeopardy

Legion of Super-Heroes concludes in August with issue #16. The Consequences trade collects through issue 10; there's no solicitation so far of a collection of issues #11-16.

Outsiders (Outsiders: The Great Divide)
In Jeopardy

Outsiders: The Great Divide is said to collect issues #32-37, the last of which is a "Reign of Doomsday" crossover issue. Outsiders ends at #40, however; will we find more issues in the trade, or will #38-40 remain uncollected?

Power Girl (Power Girl: Bomb Squad)
In Jeopardy

Power Girl: Bomb Squad collects writer Judd Winick's stories to issue #18, but Winick remains on the book until issue #25, and Matt Sturges finishes off the series with #26 and August's #27. Here's another where it remains to be seen whether there's another Power Girl trade in the offing, or if DC will just let it go with this one ahead of the relaunch.

REBELS (REBELS: Starstruck)
In Jeopardy

REBELS: Sons of Brainiac collects to issue #20. The great hope is that Starstruck collects #21-28, giving every issue of this series a collection.

Red Robin (Red Robin: Hit List)
In Jeopardy

Red Robin: Hit List ends with issue #17, taking place before Batman: Time and the Batman/The Return of Bruce Wayne. There's nine issues between this and August's #26; no guarantees if DC will collect those (despite that they include fan favorite Cassandra Cain) or just let this series drift away.

Secret Six (Secret Six: The Reptile Brain)
In Jeopardy

Secret Six: The Reptile Brain collects to issue #29; August's final issue before the reboot is #36. There's no trade of the last seven issues solicited so far.

Superboy (Superboy: Smallville Attacks)
In Jeopardy

There's a Superboy: Smallville Attacks collection solicited right now, though no word on the issues involved. If we omit #10, the "Reign of Doomsday" crossover, that leaves #1-5 and #7-11, ten issues ... the listings have this as 256 pages, so it's possible, though that's more issues than we usually find in a DC trade.

Supergirl (Supergirl: Good Looking Corpse)
In Jeopardy

The Supergirl: Bizarrogirl trade ends at issue #59; August's final issue before the reboot is #67. James Peaty's "Good Looking Corpse" storyline ends with issue #64; it remains to be seen whether we'll see Kelly Sue Deconnick's issues #65-67 collected, or whether they'll be skipped.

Superman (Superman: Grounded Vol. 2)

August's Superman #714 finishes the "Grounded" storyline; no doubt the second Grounded hardcover will take care of this.

Superman/Batman (Superman/Batman: Sorcerer Kings)
In Jeopardy

The solicited Superman/Batman: Sorcerer Kings will of course collect issues #81-84 by Cullen Bunn, though it remains to be seen whether this will also include Joshua Hale's "The Secret" from #85 to August's #87, or Chris Roberson's DC One Million story "World's Finest" from issues #79-80.

Teen Titans (Teen Titans: Team Building)
In Jeopardy

Teen Titans: The Hunt for Raven collects Teen Titans to issue #87; that leaves thirteen issues, of JT Krul's run, to August's #100. Chances are Team Building doesn't collect all thirteen issues, so either we'll see more than one trade or some issues will remain uncollected.

THUNDER Agents (THUNDER Agents Vol. 1)
In Jeopardy

There's ten issues of Nick Spencer's THUNDER Agents between the launch and August's reboot, more than are usually included in most DC collections.

Titans (Titans: Family Reunion)
In Jeopardy

Family Reunion collects Titans #28-32; the "Methuselah Imperative" storyline that follows goes to issue #38. Though not yet solicited, a Methuselah Imperative would collect those six issues plus the Titans Annual.

Weird Worlds (Weird Worlds)

Most likely collects the six issue miniseries.

Wonder Woman (Wonder Woman: Odyssey Vol. 2)
In Jeopardy

The Wonder Woman: Odyssey storyline is fifteen issues long; only one volume has been collected so far, but it's doubtful it'll contain the whole thing. A second Odyssey volume must be on the way, despite the character's relaunch.

In Jeopardy

With no collections solicited so far, and the series ending in August with issue #6, my guess is this one will remain uncollected.

Zatanna (Zatanna: Shades of the Past)
In Jeopardy

Zatanna: Mistress of Magic collects issues #1-6, and the series ends before the relaunch with issue #16. There's a Zatanna: Shades of the Past series solicited, but it's unlikely it will collect the remaining ten issues; another risk these might remain uncollected.

So that's the outlook -- from my perspective, there's a lot more material from DC's current titles left to collect, or for collections thereof to be solicited, than I had thought was the case. With all signs pointing toward at least some of DC's continuity remaining in tact post-Flashpoint, I hope that means a good portion of these books will be collected. There were collection holes just before "One Year Later," so I'm guessing there will be some here, too.

Our friend Chris Marshall at the Collected Comics Library has a good overview of the state of DC's collections department pre-Flashpoint, too.

So, what do you think DC will collect? How's the DC Relaunch going for you? Chime in and let's discuss.