Comics Ate My Brain

July 15, 2004

New Comics for July 14, Part 2

Filed under: batman, elseworlds, gotham central, lotdk, supergirl, superman, weekly roundups — Tom Bondurant @ 5:06 pm
I forgot to mention that Part 1 featured all the “team” books, but you probably noticed the theme. Here are the rest.

Action Comics #817: Written by Chuck Austen; drawn by Ivan Reis and Marc Campos. A wounded Superman recovers at STAR Labs after the last few issues’ worth of fighting with Gog. However, several B-list villains who didn’t make the cut for Identity Crisis have learned Supes is vulnerable, and attack the facility. As it happens, Wonder Woman and Superboy are there to help, but the Weapons Master manages to get through and provide the cliffhanger. The art carries the book, maybe by design — it doesn’t seem too hard to write snappy dialogue for fight scenes, and since Austen took over in April, that’s primarily what Action has delivered. Still, Austen gives us satirical characters — Jack Ryder, a Jerry Springer/Morton Downey-like newscaster whose cameraman sacrifices himself for the story; and Mohlman, an annoying, nerdish doctor who in the movie would be played by a bleached-blond Jack Black. Both are fairly broad, and the cameraman comes off the best. It’s hard to take the whole thing too seriously when it begins and ends with somber announcements about Superman’s death.

DC Comics Presents Mystery In Space: The Julius Schwartz tribute continues this week with Adam Strange, an Earthman periodically teleported to the planet Rann via “Zeta-Beam” (and no, his Rannian wife is not named “Catherine Zeta-Beam”). The two stories herein are inspired by a cover where Adam must choose between stopping an atomic blast on Earth or a giant heat-beam on Rann. The first story, by veteran Superman writer Elliot S! Maggin and artist J.H. Williams, is a more literal interpretation of the cover. When Adam’s advanced Rannian technology falls into the hands of a corrupt Earth government, it creates a nuclear crisis which guest-star the Elongated Man must solve; since Adam himself must take out a rogue weather-control device on Rann. The resolution is a neat bit of dovetailing worthy of “Seinfeld.”

The second story, written by Grant Morrison with art by Jerry Ordway, is a more conceptual riff on “two worlds.” It juxtaposes an Army attempt to invade Rann with commentary on Adam’s editor Julius Schwartz, DC’s sci-fi heroes of the Space Age, and the readers of the original Mystery in Space. This unconventional approach argues that the children who read Adam’s fantastic adventures in their youth grew up to face the struggles of the 1960s, and hope for a better world. The message is somewhat more poignant given that DC’s comics of the 1960s sought to keep out those harsh realities — and Adam himself was literally able to escape Earth for a comparatively idyllic life on another planet. All in all, this was a fine installment in what hopefully will be a fitting tribute.

And now, the Batman books.

Gotham Central #21: Written by Ed Brubaker; art by Michael Lark and Stefano Gaudiano. This is the penultimate chapter of “Un(re)solved,” but just like last issue (and like the cop shows this book emulates) there’s a helpful “Previously in Gotham Central” recap page. Basically, the Mad Hatter is being questioned for his role in killing a high-school baseball team several years before. Also suspects are two former students, now adults but then ostracized for being nerds. There is some thought that the Penguin might have wanted the team dead as part of his gambling operations. Finally, the detective on the case was Harvey Bullock, now disgraced for killing a man who shot former Commissioner Gordon. Most of the issue follows detectives Driver and MacDonald questioning the Mad Hatter (who’s locked up), Bullock, the ex-nerds, and the Hatter’s former landlady about his involvement — but by the end of the issue, things have gone south and the investigation might be compromised. I really like this book — the characters all talk like real people (or at least real TV cops, which may well be a step up for comics) and the art is gloomy, almost photorealistic. When fantastic characters like Batman and his villains show up here, they still look natural. There is a Gotham Central paperback out, collecting the first 7 issues, which is a great way to get into this ambitious series.

Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #181: Written by Dylan Horrocks; art by Ramon Bachs and Jon Holredge. Barbara Gordon gets to slip into Batgirl’s skin again, at least in cyberspace, as she tries to find out who’s been killing hackers. Along the way, Batman gets to question a mob boss’s daughter, who Bruce Wayne knew from summer camp and who blames Batman for her father’s incapacity. The best part of the story involves one hacker’s attempt to take out another by hijacking a cruise missile. The revelation of the killer’s identity is both surprising and novel, and the art isn’t bad. It tries to blend different styles in the “cyberspace” segments, to reflect the different genres of characters in the computer universe. While the story doesn’t say anything new about Batman or Barbara, I’ve read worse, including in this series.

Superman/Batman #11: Written by Jeph Loeb; drawn by Michael Turner and Peter Steigerwald. Part 4 of “The Supergirl From Krypton” finds Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman invading Apokolips (with the help of former Apokoliptian Big Barda) to rescue Superman’s ostensible cousin Kara from the evil despot Darkseid. Even if I hadn’t seen the cover of the next issue, I wouldn’t have been surprised at the ending for this one — but I’m getting ahead of myself. Wonder Woman and Barda fight Barda’s old colleagues, the Female Furies. (This includes Barda’s admission that WW “inspired” her; never mind that these days, Barda was around for a few years before WW showed up.) Batman fights giant Demon Dogs. Superman finally catches up to Darkseid, but we don’t get to see him fight too much.

Along the way, dialogue and our heroes’ internal monologues drive home the point that 1) Batman doesn’t trust Kara, 2) Superman trusts her implicitly, 2a) this is no different than if Batman were going to rescue Robin, and 3) Kara’s stay on Paradise Island made her partly Wonder Woman’s responsibility. Ever since Jeph Loeb started writing this series, I have been annoyed with his use of dueling first-person narration for Supes and Batman; and here, when he actually stops using it (for the Wonder Woman scenes, naturally), the issue improves noticeably. To me this series has become an excuse for “big dumb fun,” and has turned out to be an overwrought exercise in — for lack of a better term — “stunt plotting.” There are probably a half-dozen better ways for these high-profile heroes to find out the truth about Kara, but apparently they are not as marketable as “Three Justice Leaguers Attack Apokolips!” Oh well; it’ll be over in two months.

Batman: The Order Of Beasts: Eddie Campbell’s one-shot is an “Elseworlds” tale of Bruce Wayne traveling to 1939 London and getting tangled in a murder mystery involving an animal-themed cult. Despite the monochromatic color palette and the unassuming artwork, the word that comes immediately to mind is “jaunty.” Campbell presents a Batman who isn’t quite as grim or driven as the current version. He’s just starting out and makes little mental notes as to how he can improve his crimefighting skills. He’s also accepted by local law enforcement without much question — just a transatlantic call to Commissioner Gordon to check his bona fides. Campbell’s Batman is depicted as a guy in a suit, almost as if he were drawing Adam West, but he never makes Batman a ridiculous figure. The mystery itself goes from plot point to plot point without much trouble, making for a light bit of entertainment that captures the spirit of the Darknight Detective.

New Comics for July 14, Part 1

Big week this week, including several good issues. Since I’m turning out to be long-winded, I’m breaking these up into two posts.

Identity Crisis #2: Written by Brad Meltzer, drawn by Rags Morales and Michael Bair. Two basic storylines this issue –- a flashback to the “Satellite Era” of the Justice League (judging from Zatanna’s costume and the dialogue about Iris Allen’s death, around 1979-80) and checking in with the B-list villains in the old Injustice Gang satellite. The murder mystery is still intriguing, although there are some rather unsavory images surrounding the hideous events of the flashback. (In this respect IC is closer in spirit to the old Squadron Supreme maxiseries than the current Supreme Power is.) I have to say that the hype is fairly accurate –- this was a shocking episode for the old League, and their reaction will probably color my perception of them and Dr. Light for a while to come. Anyway, while the Leaguers square off against Light in the present, Dr. Mid-Nite’s autopsy reveals a surprise about the murder. It’s nothing earth-shattering, and like I said the story is still pretty involving. One word about the art, not that it’s not good: Morales and Bair make Light look suitably creepy, and Hawkman (thanks mostly to the mask) looks menacing, driven, and in charge. Since they represent opposite sides in this story, their depictions are good shorthand for the villain’s mania and the heroes’ determination.

The Legion #35: Gail Simone, Dan Jurgens, and Andy Smith come aboard to wrap up this Legion series. (Mark Waid and Barry Kitson take over in the fall.) Obviously the first thing one notices is the fetishistic cover, with Dreamer and her prominent breasts held prisoner by our new villain. (It looks like Adam Hughes art, but I can’t find a credit.) Actually, while the exact image isn’t in the story itself, Dreamer’s captivity is an important part of the plot, so I can’t entirely fault DC. They sure are– I mean, the cover sure is eye-catching….

Ahem. The story itself is quite good, featuring an attack by mysterious villains reminiscent of familiar modern-day DC heroes. They plan to assassinate the United Planets’ President, but that’s only the beginning. I am of two minds about making allusions to modern DC characters — on one hand, it might indicate the series couldn’t stand on its own; but on the other, it takes advantage of “DC history.” Coming off a storyline which brought evil versions of those heroes into the future to fight the Legion, it seems redundant, but then again, these aren’t quite the same characters.

Simone gives the Legion a more accessible sense of humor (i.e., not as many in-jokes) and places them in a 31st Century Metropolis which feels more “real” than previous incarnations. (The opening pages show readers a floating prison which gives new meaning to the phrase “Not In My Backyard.”) Jurgens’ pencils are less stiff here than usual, perhaps because he’s only credited with breakdowns. Andy Smith’s finishes soften Jurgens’ lines and Sno-Cone’s colors give the figures depth and dimension. The color palette is particularly rich here, spread among the cool hues of the city, the harsh tones of the villain’s hideout, the darkness of the prison, and the vibrancy of the Legion uniforms. Legion is biweekly too for the duration of the story, so get this issue now and come back in two weeks!

Teen Titans #13: This is Part 1 of a story featuring Beast Boy’s powers “infecting” schoolchildren. Writer Geoff Johns also takes the opportunity to catch up with the Titans in general through a window-shopping interlude and a visit to the doctor. Penciller Tom Grummett has handled most of these characters before in his career –- the older Titans in the classic New Titans series, and Robin and Superboy in their respective solo series — so it’s nice to see him back. One panel of the Titans strolling downtown shows their relative heights (Cyborg and Starfire are tallest, Beast Boy is about a head shorter, and Raven, Kid Flash, and Wonder Girl are shorter still) and helps illustrate the characters’ age differences and the fact that the younger members are truly adolescent.

As the cover promises, Superboy confronts the new Robin, Stephanie Brown, and is none too happy to hear about Tim Drake’s absence. Again, Grummett drew both of these characters for many years in the Robin and Superboy books, so here he makes them both move with ease and fluidity. His take on Stephanie is a nice compromise between the stylization of Damion Scott and the more “realistic” approach of Pete Woods, and I hope Stephanie shows up in these pages again.

JSA #63: Apparently this is Old Home Week for artists. Penciller Jerry Ordway returns to the characters which helped make him famous in the 1980s (in All-Star Squadron and Infinity, Inc.). His clean, dynamic work, here inked by Wayne Faucher, is always welcome. Geoff Johns writes this book too, and unlike Titans, it is fairly continuity-heavy and seeks to pull together a few subplots imbedded throughout the book’s history. Let’s put it this way –- the Justice Society is “visited” by Sand, its former chairman, who was somehow lost in the bowels of the earth. At the same time, Hector Hall, the current Dr. Fate, seeks to rein in Nabu, the Lord of Order who lives in his magic amulet. It starts to get tangled when you realize that Hector was also a hero called Sandman, who had nothing to do with geology but lived in a dream realm. Thus, the JSA launches a two-pronged search for Sand, one underground and the other into the dream state. I have a feeling it also involves plot threads from DC’s revered horror/fantasy series Sandman, which only briefly touched on superheroics. Johns isn’t as slick in dealing with continuity here as he is in Teen Titans, but these are potentially confusing issues and he juggles them pretty well.

One thing about Ethan von Sciver’s cover -– apparently the Flash has a mouth that Jessica Simpson would envy….

JLA #101: Yet another Part 1, and a biweekly story too, as writer Chuck Austen and penciller Ron Garney begin a 6-issue arc called “The Pain of the Gods.” This installment features Superman second-guessing himself when he encounters a newly-minted superhero (whose name we never learn, by the way). In one way the story is one big plot hole, because one could argue that Superman should have been fast enough to handle all of the problems involved; but since Superman knows he could have done better, arguably that fixes the hole. It boils down to Superman being deliberately thick, so I guess your reaction to the story will depend on how thick you think Supes should be. Garney’s art is rough but expressive, and he does a good job both with the action of the story’s first part and the conversations of the second.

Challengers of the Unknown #2: Howard Chaykin’s all-new take on the venerable “living on borrowed time” team picks up after the disaster which brings the group together. No one should have survived the explosion in Long Beach harbor, but five people did, and for some reason they’re all wearing identical jumpsuits and rings and sporting identical head wounds. There’s a lot of indirect exposition from everyone, a brief fight, and a decent amount of scantily clad women — so if I wanted to be cute, I’d say it was a typical Chaykin outing. Chaykin approaches his villains with relish, drowning them in satirical dialogue that would make even their models at Fox News blush, but the purple prose of his narrative captions doesn’t work as well. On the whole, it’s not his best work (wait for the reprinting of his seminal American Flagg! for that) but so far it’s not his worst. It’s about on par with Midnight Men, a 4-issue series from about 10 years ago that seemed like a pale imitation of his Shadow reinterpretation. We’ll see.

Next up: Action, Batman, and the Schwartz is with us….

Robin Problems, Part Two

Filed under: batman, nightwing, robin — Tom Bondurant @ 12:46 am

Having taken care of Dick, Batman’s caretakers wouldn’t let the Robin identity retire. They had already created the young Jason Todd to take over as Robin. At first Jason was a fairly upbeat character, even written as a self-referential, pun-spouting echo of TV’s “Holy Underwear!” Robin. A few years later, though, he had become a sullen teen, with one story implying pretty heavily he’d disobeyed Batman and let a criminal fall to his death. In 1988, when DC let readers call a 1-900 number to determine Robin’s survival, a slim margin doomed Jason. (The fact that he was already dead in the bleak alternate future of the popular Dark Knight miniseries probably didn’t help.)

Following a few months of Batman venting his rage on the underworld, readers met the third Robin, Tim Drake. Tim was at Haly’s Circus when the Flying Graysons were killed, and from that experience deduced Batman and Robin’s secret identities. When he saw Batman becoming more violent without Robin, he wanted to help. Unlike his predecessors, Tim’s parents both survived for several months after he began his training (although eventually his mother was killed and his father crippled), and he soon had his own series. Tim was also not as integrated into Batman’s world as Dick or Jason had been. Although he spent months training in the Batcave before earning his costume, he and his dad lived in the mansion next door to Wayne Manor. This didn’t mean he told his dad about it — in fact, he spent the next 14 years fighting crime solo, with Batman, and with his own group of teens called Young Justice, without his dad being any the wiser.

Tim was not the first Robin to have solo adventures, but I believe he was the first one created to separate the Robin identity from Batman. Tim received his unique Robin costume in November 1990, and almost immediately had his own 5-issue series spotlighting his martial-arts training in Europe. Tim had two more Batman-free miniseries under his belt by the time his ongoing series began in 1993. To reinforce expressly Robin’s independence, in that issue the new Batman (filling in for an injured Bruce Wayne) locked Tim out of the Batcave. All of these developments are especially ironic considering Tim’s initial pitch to Batman that he “needed” a Robin to keep him balanced. Instead, Tim became arguably the most independent Robin in 50 years.

Herein lies the second problem — that Tim’s Robin career took on a life of its own. Honestly, I don’t want to advocate any kind of involuntary servitude, even for a fictional character, but for me Robin is a character who should always be connected to Batman. Having Dick literally mature into Nightwing was at the time a stroke of genius, but since then readers have seen Robin, and other heroes, replaced as marketing stunts. It would be possible in dramatic terms for Tim to craft his own Nightwing-type adult identity, or even take over as Batman, but it might be better dramatically for Tim to declare that his days of youthful crimefighting were over.

(This assumes that being Robin has an age limit. In the current comics, Batman first appeared at an indeterminate “10-12 years ago.” On the alternate world of Earth-2, when Dick’s adventures began in 1940, his Robin career lasted the rest of his life, some 45 years. I don’t rule out such a fate for Tim, but it would have to acknowledge at leats that Tim was entering his 20s.)

In fact, when his dad learned this spring that Tim was Robin, it compelled Tim to quit. However, for some mysterious reason, Batman already had a contingency plan in place. Some years before, Tim had met Stephanie Brown, the daughter of an old Batman villain (a Riddler knockoff called Cluemaster). Stephanie wanted to atone for her dad’s criminal ways and became a masked vigilante called Spoiler. She was never very good at it, and was invariably told by most masked adventurers she encountered to go home before she hurt herself. Nevertheless, she persisted, and received more advanced training from Batman and his cohorts. Accordingly, upon Tim’s resignation earlier this year, Stephanie was tapped as his replacement.

Readers could be forgiven for any cynicism at this development. After all, this was the third Robin in twenty years. Besides, DC would never let Robin stay a girl — they’d have to crank out a whole new set of action figures, for one thing. (Female Robins had shown up in The Dark Knight and other alternate-history stories, but never before in the “real” books.) For 64 years, in the comics, on TV, and in the movies, Robin has been a dark-haired boy, not a blonde. Changing the costume, as DC did with Tim in 1990, was one thing, but changing gender was something entirely different. Furthermore, DC is cranking up for a major storyline involving Gotham City gang wars, and promising carnage — and Stephanie would be a bigger casualty as Robin than as Spoiler. The whole thing smelled of marketing.

On the other hand, if handled properly, Stephanie could strengthen Robin’s ties to Batman. While her training continues, she’s not likely to stray far from his side. Batman is not encouraging her to strike out on her own. She already wants to prove herself to him, and so seems very eager to learn.

Unfortunately, the role of Robin may have evolved past simply being Batman’s assistant. Dick and Jason were both motivated by family tragedies. Tim wanted to help Batman cope with Jason’s death. Now Stephanie considers herself “promoted” to Robin, like a Triple-A outfielder putting on a major-league uniform.

From here Robin’s fate has three basic tracks: staying with Stephanie, returning to Tim, or becoming a sort of “rotating office” for Batman to train aspiring crimefighters. Personally, the last option is the least appealing, because it devalues the character. I don’t hate Stephanie, but I can’t see her staying Robin for very long; so it looks like the wait is on for Tim’s comeback.

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