Sunday, April 25, 2010

Review: The Brave and the Bold #33

Written by J. Michael Straczynski; art by Cliff Chiang

(This review contains spoilers.)

This is a really weird issue, and although ultimately my response to it is mostly favourable, it took me a while to make up my mind about it. Some readers will probably feel that it's a bit too gimmicky, or perhaps emotionally manipulative. The premise is deceptively simple: Zatanna, Wonder Woman and Batgirl (Barbara Gordon) take some time off from busting villains and go out for a ladies' night. The three women dress up in high-heels and evening dresses, go out dancing at a posh nightclub, flirt with guys, sing karaoke, and finish the night at a 24-hour diner.

This may sound silly and pointless, but of course there's something more sinister happening underneath the surface. The story opens with Zatanna waking up from a nightmare, which she knows was no ordinary dream. This is what prompts her to organizes this ladies' night, but the reasons why only start to become obvious when Diana mentions oracles at the diner. "The greatest burden of all was to be an oracle of prophecy, when there was nothing you could do to alter the course of the future because you had just enough information to know that something was going to happen, but not enough information to stop it from happening." It becomes clear that the vision was of Barbara's future (specifically, the events depicted in The Killing Joke, where the Joker shot her in the spine and paralyzed her for life), and the point of all this was to give her a special night to remember.

As many people have pointed out on forums and blogs, there are plenty of continuity details that don't hold up to scrutiny very well, like the mention of an iPhone or the Beyoncé song lyrics, or the fact that Barbara had retired from her Batgirl role by the time of her encounter with the Joker, or (the most jarring to me) the way JMS sets that encounter at her apartment, when I always thought that it took place at Jim Gordon's place. But unless you're a continuity freak, these details are easily overlooked.

The last few pages of the book cut back and forth between an earlier scene between Diana and Zatanna, and the famous scene from Killing Joke. It's a simple but effective device that packs a strong emotional punch. The panels and the dialogue from Alan Moore's story are reproduced here pretty faithfully, which creates a real tension as the fateful moment approaches. The two-page spread when it finally arrives is nothing short of brilliant: again, it's an almost exact reproduction of the art and dialogue from the original story, but it's laid out in such a clever way that it manages to make the familiar scene shocking even though we knew exactly what was going to happen. The very last page mirrors the first, only this time it's present-day Barbara waking up from a dream, and unlike Zatanna's dream, hers wasn't a nightmare. "I was dancing," she says. "It was beautiful."

Given how strong the art is in those last few pages, it's really too bad that JMS overdoes it a little with the dialogue. At this point in the story, we already understand what is going on and why Zatanna organized this night for Barbara, so most of the conversation between her and Diana is redundant. This is a case where he should have let the art do the storytelling. And Cliff Chiang's art really shines throughout the issue.

Review: The Spirit #1

Written by Mark Schultz; art by Moritat / Co-feature written by Dennis O'Neil, art by Bill Sienkiewicz

(This review contains spoilers.)

It's always a bit baffling when you're immediate reaction to a work is mostly negative, but then you find out that the overwhelming majority of reviews were positive. This is what happened to me with the first issue of The Spirit. I came away from my first reading thinking it was poorly written and already considering dropping it from my pull list. Then over the next couple of days, I saw plenty of reviews online praising the book. Newsarama even called it "the best-written, best-drawn and best-packaged book out in the market this week." After a second read, my opinion of the book did improve, but I still have mixed feelings about it.

I was looking forward to this book for three reasons. First, although I've never read Will Eisner's celebrated original run on the title he created, I know it by reputation and was curious to see how DC would breathe new life into this character. Second, this book spins out of the First Wave mini-series and takes place in this alternate "pulp" universe, which sounds like a lot of fun and nice break from the continuity-heavy mainstream DC universe. And finally, there's the amazing cover by Ladrönn, which is dynamic and has an old-school Indiana-Jones-meets-Dick-Tracy kinda feel.

If only the issue had featured anything as exciting as the scene depicted on the cover. I know it's a long-standing tradition for comic book covers to feature scenes that are not even in the book, but I felt a bit cheated by this one, considering nothing comes even remotely close to it. I'm assuming the woman holding on for her life with The Spirit on the cover is Ellen, the police chief's daughter. She appears in four consecutive panels in the book, where she has an argument with her father in his office – that's it.

But let's forget about the cover and concentrate on what we do get in the book. The opening pages are by far the strongest, from the opening splash page that embeds the title into the shape of the buildings (a tradition apparently carried on from Will Eisner's classic series), to the brief but stylishly laid-out fight on page 3 (where the title is again embedded into the art, this time in the shape of the panels themselves), to the classic full reveal of our protagonist as he walks away from an explosion on page 4. It sets up place, character and mood remarkably well in a relatively short amount of space.

Unfortunately, the book doesn't keep up this pace. The next several pages deal with The Spirit collecting information throughout the day, first disguising himself as an old geezer and collecting notes from singing street urchins, and then paying a visit to police headquarters, where he eavesdrops on the aforementioned argument between Ellen and her dad, Dolan. The Spirit then goes for a walk with Dolan and they end up at a diner, where Spirit eats a hotdog (shown below in what is without a doubt the ugliest panel of the entire book - how does he talk with his mouth full like that?). The problem with this section is that although it's meant to establish the relationships our protagonist and his supporting cast, we learn almost nothing about any of these people. The conversation with Dolan goes on for three pages, but all we get are clichés about corruption and a rehash of things we already know. The art also starts to suffer at this point. Moritat's depictions of the cityscape are very good, but he sometimes seems to be struggling with the characters, especially their facial expressions and hands.

In the second half of the story, the crime families meet and express their frustrations with the Spirit. They've been trying to get rid of him for two years, so they've decided to hire a European assassin called Angel Smerti. No one seems to have met this guy, but they've all heard stories about how ruthless and deadly he is. This buildup takes us to the last scene, in which a hot woman arrives at the airport and convinces the customs officer that he neither needs to look at her passport nor check her luggage, simply by flashing her boobs at him and promising to make him "a very happy fellow." I guess this is supposed to be a convention of the pulp genre, but you could also simply call it a tired cliché. It's also extremely implausible and mildly offensive. And in case the readers haven't guessed it by now, the last page confirms it: Angel Smerti has arrived in Central City.

It's not a terrible issue, but it's not great either. Writer Mark Schultz has just two more issues before his run ends. Hard to say at this point whether that means the book is going to get better or worse, but a change of staff this early on certainly does not bode well for the longevity of the title. I've committed to buying the first few issues, so I'm going to keep reading until this first arc wraps up, but seeing as there are so many other titles I'm looking forward to this summer, I'm probably going to jump off after issue #3.

Bill Sienkiewicz's black and white art for the backup story is stylish and kinetic, and probably the best thing about the issue. Unfortunately, Denny O'Neil's writing doesn't live up to it. The story is a simple one, but that's not where the problem lies. It's the dialogue that is really cringe-inducing. Said during a gunfight: "The mask! Now I got him. Wotta target! Missed! I'll hit him next time, though!" Ugh.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Stuff I want to read

I'm picking up two new issues tomorrow: Brave and the Bold #33 and The Spirit #1. The former should deliver its usual awesomeness (here's a preview), while I really don't know what to expect from the latter. It's spinning off of the First Wave limited series, which I haven't read. And by "spinning off of," they mean "taking place in the same alternate pulp universe," which sounds like fun. (I wish I could find a copy of First Wave #1, but every store I've been to was sold out.) Mark Schultz is writing the first three issues of The Spirit, before being replaced by David Hine. I don't know much about either of these guys, so I'll just have to wait and see. The covers are all very nice, and there's a co-feature written by Dennis O'Neil, so it looks promising.

Last week I picked up a couple of issues of Jeff Lemire's Sweet Tooth, but haven't gotten around to reading them yet. There's a trade collecting the first five issues coming out next month, which I'm also planning to get, so it would make sense for me to wait until after the trade comes out and read everything in the proper order. But I don't think I can wait that long – I've been reading nothing but praise for this series as well as for Lemire's earlier works, and I'm eager to sink my teeth into it.

Speaking of Lemire, he's crossing over into the mainstream DC universe in July with a one-shot Atom special, followed by a co-feature about the same character in Adventure Comics. I'm very tempted to add that to my pull list as well, as the main feature will be written by Paul Levitz and deal with the origins of the Legion of Super-Heroes.

There's a few other Vertigo titles I want to check out. I've been reading amazingly positive reviews of The Unwritten, and in particular of issue #12 which came out last week. This sounds absolutely fantastic and if they have any copies left at the store I will surely pick it up. Interview with the artists, along with beautiful sample pages, on the Vertigo blog.

Then there's Grant Morrison's Joe the Barbarian, which I've wanted to check out ever since I read a hilariously clueless scathing review of the first issue. The review is one of the most ridiculous things I've ever read. It goes one seemingly forever and is about as insightful as the kind of stuff you read in YouTube comments. Unfortunately, the review of issue #2 on the blog was written by a different author, and while it is saner and better-written, it's nowhere near as entertaining. In any case, I've decided to wait for the trade on that one, but because I think it looks so good (and right up my alley) it's been really hard to resist picking up the single issues.

Finally, there's Daytripper, a 10-issue miniseries by the Brazilian team of Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba. Issue #5 came out last week and there's a 5-page preview here.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Review: Batman and Son

Written by Grant Morrison; art by Andy Kubert

When I started reading Batman and Robin, the idea was to jump right in and not get bogged down trying to catch up to current continuity. It's always a losing battle, because by the time you make your way through all the trades, more issues have come out and you're still not up to date, and before you know it everyone's halfway through a major crossover event and you've been left behind. That's exactly what happened to me when I was trying to catch up on Green Lantern so I could read Blackest Night. I ended up reading a shit-ton of Green Lantern trades and by the time I was done, Blackest Night was almost over and I was sick of Green Lantern (and Geoff Johns).

So I read the first 11 issues of Batman and Robin without having read any of Grant Morrison's previous Batman work. And for the most part, it's been fine – I'm enjoying the books and the mystery that Morrison is setting up. But the more I get into it, the more I realize that I'm missing some very important parts of the puzzle and it would probably be more rewarding to read the whole story.

So I got the Batman and Son collection and read it fairly quickly. It's a good read, although it's kind of jarring to see what an annoying little brat Damian was when he was first introduced. His character has changed so much since then – and I mean that in a good way, not in the sense that Grant Morrison is writing him differently, but in the sense that the character himself has grown and matured.

I don't know what it is with me and the batkids, but they always turn out to be my favourite characters. Dick Grayson, Tim Drake and even Jason Todd are all very interesting, multi-faceted characters that I care about deeply. And now Damian has taken his place in that lineage and he's no exception. It'll be interesting to see what DC does with him after Grant Morrison stops writing Batman. I hope they find a way to keep using him.

But back to this book: I love Grant Morrison's frenetic pacing in these stories, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the opening story. How crazy is it that he started his Batman run with a scene featuring Jim Gordon gone insane from the Joker's toxin, followed by Batman shooting the Joker in the face?! Fans must have lost their shit the first time they read those pages. And Andy Kubert's art is brilliant and dynamic, and it perfectly suits the wild pacing of the storytelling.

Unfortunately, I thought the "interlude" written in prose was absolutely unreadable. And when I say "unreadable," that's exactly what I mean. I was unable to finish it. It's the worst prose I've ever read in my life, and although I suspect that part of it is intentionally bad, it's inexcusable. (I've read other prose pieces by Grant Morrison and they didn't suck like this.) Fittingly, John Van Fleet's artwork is terribly ugly and amateurish. This chapter feels completely out of place in the collection and I had to skip it entirely. I don't care if it contains important story points that I'm missing. I just want to pretend it doesn't exist.

The final chapter in the book is from Batman #666 and features a hellish "possible future" where Batman has died (but is it Dick Grayson or Bruce Wayne?), and Damian has apparently made a deal with the devil and is now Batman. It's appropriately demented and it ends with what must be one of the best lines of dialogue that Grant Morrison has ever written. How this nightmare future fits into the big story is still unclear. Are we heading toward that possible future, or have things deviated enough that it has been averted by now?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Review: The Flash #1

Written by Geoff Johns; art by Francis Manapul

I have to confess that I've never really cared much about The Flash as a character. I'm pretty indifferent in the whole Wally West versus Barry Allen debate. My favourite speedster is probably Bart Allen, which may simply be because he's the only one I'm really familiar with, from having followed him in Teen Titans. Last week's Secret Files and Origins didn't do much to whet my appetite for this relaunch, so I picked up this issue almost reluctantly, half expecting to be bored with it.

The good news is that it was better than I expected. First, the art is really quite nice, as is the colouring, which establishes a nice contrast between warm sunset-like palette used for the exterior scenes in the city, and the colder purplish tones of the crime lab where Barry Allen works.

Although the story itself doesn't advance much in this first issue, it sets up all the major characters and relationships effectively. First, there's Barry and his wife Iris. They barely spend any time together in the issue, but Geoff Johns cleverly establishes a rapport between them with through the text messages they send each other throughout the story. Then there's Barry's coworkers at the forensics lab. We only meet a few of them briefly, but it looks like they're all going to be fleshed out over the course of the series.

And this is where I think The Flash has the potential to offer something really different from any other super-hero comic in the DC universe right now. I really hope that rather than just focusing on his adventures as The Flash, Johns will also give us some good police procedural type of action. I was immediately reminded of The Wire when the issue of department stats came up and how City Hall is pushing to have cases solved quickly. The Wire is my favourite TV series of all time, so Johns can rip it off as much as he wants and I'll eat it all up.

Another thing that reminded me of The Wire was the way that Central City (like Baltimore in the TV series) is being established almost as a character itself. It seems that a lot of effort went into painting a living portrait of "the city that's always on the run," both in terms of the art and the story.

As for the plot, we haven't really been given enough of it yet for me to have anything to say about it. Some kind of murder mystery with a time travel/Minority Report kinda twist. We'll see where it goes in the next issue.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Reviews: Batman and Robin #11, Flash: Secret Files and Origins 2010

(These reviews contain spoilers.)

Written by Grant Morrison; pencils by Andy Clarke; inks by Scott Hanna

I have a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to Grant Morrison's Batman and Robin, because I haven't read any of his Batman stories leading up to it, nor have I read a lot of stories (from other writers) featuring some of the key players, like Talia and Hurt. So I was a bit lost when I first read the opening scene of this new issue, which is the big reveal that the villain known as "El Penitente" is in fact Hurt, but after doing a bit of research online, the pieces are starting to fall into place. And things are getting really interesting. I'm looking forward to finding out where this is all headed.

I've enjoyed the series so far for the most part, although it can be a bit hit-and-miss at times. The first story arc was great, due in no small part to Frank Quitely's fantastic interior art, but the second and third arcs weren't quite as exciting, although they each had enough good moments to keep me reading. What I've been enjoying the most is the characterization of Damian. I'm a pretty big fan of all the Robins, and I think Damian is a remarkably well written and original addition to the lineage. His relationship with Dick and how it is evolving from a kind of insubordinate rivalry to growing respect and affection is great. And it wasn't really until issue #10 that this really started to pay off – with probably my favourite scene in the series so far, where Damian worries about whether he'll be able to continue as Robin once Bruce Wayne has returned. It was really sweet to see just how much this means to him, and it made the "betrayal" that followed all the more powerful.

In some ways, issue #11 is just the logical continuation of what was set into motion earlier, so there weren't any big revelations or moments that had the same kind of impact those last few pages of #10 did. Dick follows the clues in Wayne Manor a little further, discovering more hidden rooms, a statue of a bat demon, and a railway that leads back to the cemetery, where Damian and Sexton are fighting against the 99 fiends. The revelation that Talia's "executioner" is Deathstroke just kinda made me go, "M'eh." I don't really see what the big deal is whether it's him or Talia herself remote-controlling Damian to get at Batman. I think the best scenes were the ones where Damian questioned Sexton about his identity – although no answers are given, they hint at the big revelation coming next month when Sexton will finally remove his mask (as shown in the preview at the end of this book).

I'm willing to bet that this big reveal is going to coincide with the first issue of The Return of Bruce Wayne miniseries is no accident. Very exciting!

This arc also features the best art (care of Andy Clarke) in the series since Quitely's arc.


Written by Geoff Johns; art by Scott Kolins and Francis Manapul

I also picked up The Flash: Secret Files and Origins today. I've decided to take my chance with the new Flash series, which starts next week, so I figured this would be a good way to ease into it, since I haven't read Flash Rebirth. The preview on the DC blog made it seem like it would focus on Barry Allen's childhood, which I thought would be interesting.

For a $4 book, I have to say this was a huge disappointment. The story itself is only 17 pages and, aside from a few brief flashbacks to Barry's childhood, basically consist of him getting up in the middle of the night, making his way to the house he grew up in (where his mother was murdered when he was 11), meeting up with all the other speedsters in the DC universe who also felt drawn to that place due to their connection to the Speed Force – and the going back to bed. Nothing really happens. Then there's a brief epilogue that shows the rogues about to do something but the story ends before they do it.

The other 19 pages of the book (not counting advertisement) consist of a bunch of fact sheets with information on the different characters and concepts that will play a role in the series. Most of it is information I was either already familiar with or could have easily looked up on Wikipedia.

Seriously, if this book wasn't meant to be more than an advertisement for the upcoming series, it should have been much cheaper. The art was also pretty unremarkable (it's better in the character bios than in the story itself) and the writing seemed uninspired. I really hope Geoff Johns has something better planned for the ongoing series, or I'm going to be dropping it really fast.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Read in March 2010

Teen Titans: A Kids' Game (TPB)
Batman: Year 3 (Batman #436-439)
A Lonely Place of Dying (Batman # 440-442 and The New Titans #60-61)
Rite of Passage (Detective Comics #618-621)
All-Star Superman vol. 1-2 (TPB)
Robin: A Hero Reborn (TPB)
Batman and Robin #1-10
Batman Chronicles: The Gauntlet
Batman #465, 466
Fantastic Four #575, 576
Brave and the Bold #32
Superman 80-Page Giant #1
Batman #467-469
Batman: Streets of Gotham #1, 3-10
We3 (TPB)

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