Tell It To My Heart – Batman/The Shadow #4

Batman Shadow 4 coverWell, we’re half way through this pairing of two of popular fiction’s most famous vigilantes (or a quarter of the way through considering the recent announcement of this series’ follow-up mini) and things are heating up nicely. Last issue saw a couple of significant revelations about the nature of The Shadow’s relationship with Batman, and it also left Batman tied up in an underground cavern surrounded by a gathering of his most vicious enemies. (Well, most of them. Where’s Kite Man?) This means we’re probably due a huge fight in this issue, doesn’t it?

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A Reasonable Amount of Trouble – The Spirit: The Corpse Makers #3

The Spirit issue 3 coverAnother issue of Francesco Francavilla’s wonderful take on Will Eisner’s most famous creation, another classic hardboiled crime quote for the opening page. This one’s from Dashiell Hammett. “I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble.” Well, it’s that word ‘reasonable’ that’s the kicker, isn’t it? A ‘reasonable’ amount of trouble is trouble you can handle, trouble you can, with a little effort, take care of. How fitting or ironic this quotation is when applied to the situations The Spirit finds himself in this issue is up to you, but I’m going with irony, I think. Let me tell you why.

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Crom! It’s… Wonder Woman/Conan #1

Wonder Woman Conan 1I must admit I’ve been excited about this title ever since it was first announced. As a Wonder Woman fan of many years and a Conan fan for even longer, the prospect of these two iconic characters sharing the printed page was mouth-watering to say the least. That Gail Simone was to be responsible for the script only added to the anticipation. Simone’s understanding of everyone’s favourite Amazon princess is already well-established and her run on Red Sonja is compelling evidence that she can do sword and sorcery with enviable skill. In short, I expected this to be good. Even so, I wasn’t adequately prepared for just how enjoyable and satisfying this first issue was…

Engineering a crossover between two beloved franchises set in markedly different universes is not an easy thing to accomplish. There are, it seems, a couple of ways of doing it. The first, a la the recent Planet of the Apes/Green Lantern series, is to provide a clear in-story reason for the coming together of the different franchises; the second, a la the Snyder/Orlando/Rossmo Batman/Shadow series is to avoid addressing the issue, pretend that the two franchises have always been linked and hope no one cares enough to ask too many awkward questions. This series looks like it’s going to be opting for the former approach, although, by the end of the issue, we’ve still not got a full explanation for how Diana ends up in Aquilonia. What we have got, however, is an exceptionally engaging Conan-centric first half of the issue.

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Hmmm. Intriguing…

The issue starts with a single-page flashback to Conan’s youth, when, attending a meeting of clan leaders with his father, he encounters a warrior woman and Yanna, a younger warrior girl. The younger Conan is visibly struck by her… well, what exactly? She is very pretty, but it’s not her beauty that the narration focuses on but the notion that, to Conan at any rate, she “walk[s] in mystery”. What this means exactly is not clear. There is, perhaps, the hint of something supernatural going on here, but there’s not much time to dwell on this as the action shifts to focus on an older, more cynical Conan. He is about to ride past a group of three Aesir tribesmen who are preparing to burn off the jaw of Kian, a scrawny Aquilonian. Kian’s quick talking manages to persuade Conan to intervene and save him, but his promise of a gold reward for our barbarian hero proves to be a little more speculative than Conan was expecting. Despite finding out that his promised remuneration depends upon the favourable outcome of a bet on a match in the local arena, Conan is content to follow Kian and extract his reward after the fight is over.

It’s worth pointing out that both Simone’s dialogue and Lopresti and Ryan’s artwork are excellent here. Simone presents Conan with a dry sense of humour and a mercenary streak that is entirely in keeping with Howard’s original creation. The fight between Conan and the three Aesir is rendered clearly and the details of the action are appropriately bold and brutal. To cap the whole episode off, when Conan asks the final Aesir why they were preparing to torture Kian, the Aesir uses his dying breath to inform him that Kian had welched on a debt. Conan’s reaction of “Crom” is nicely wry. It seems that the chances of Conan receiving his payment are diminishing by the page.

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See, kids, you shouldn’t play with red hot tongs, should you?

As Conan and Kian head for Shamar, the Aquilonian city, we get our first look at a certain warrior princess. (No, not that one!) Somehow captured by Dellos the Slaver and compelled to fight in the arena, Diana is nameless and wearing a crude approximation of her normal outfit, including a star daubed (or tattooed) onto the middle of her forehead. While she can’t remember how she got there or who she is, she can remember how to fight and takes on three male opponents in a really rather impressive action sequence.

This, of course, is the match that Kian has bet on and he has, of course, bet on gender stereotypes and come up horribly short. It’s a good thing, then, that Conan, having seen Diana and been reminded of Yanna from his childhood, is too preoccupied with the Amazonian to be angry with Kian for not being able to fulfill his promise of gold.  There follows an interesting moment in which Conan and Diana meet and a cliffhanger ending that, given the nature of the story so far, is not especially surprising but nevertheless manages to round off the issue in a satisfying way.

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Even when suffering from amnesia, Diana is awesome.

This is an excellent issue for a variety of reasons. Firstly, Lopresti’s art, if perhaps a little too cartoony for some Conan fans’ tastes (he’s no John Buscema, after all), suits this kind of rollicking action yarn perfectly. There’s a wonderful gruesome clarity to the fight sequences and some interesting uses of perspective, too. Outshining the art by some distance is Simone’s script. Not only does she imbue each of the main characters with their own clearly-defined personalities, but also, through her narration and despite the odd misstep (“no amount of rusted valor would penetrate his thuggish cadre of guards” is not the best), she manages to convey a grandeur and insight that adds a welcome depth and complexity to the overall story. The moment when Conan recognizes (or thinks he recognizes Diana) wouldn’t have anywhere near the impact without the narrator repeating a key line from earlier in the book, for example.

As first issues go, this one does its job perfectly: the main characters have met and begun to form some sort of friendship; an antagonist has been clearly identified and an amusing supporting character introduced; key questions have been raised about just how Diana has come to be in the predicament in which we find her during this issue. Satisfyingly, Simone doesn’t seem to be in any particular hurry to explain things to us, instead preferring to concentrate on the exploring the emotional connection between our two leads and that, it seems to me, can only result in a more natural-seeming and involving narrative.

In short, this is a great start to the series. The odd bit of poor writing notwithstanding, this is a thoroughly engaging issue with great characterization that forms the basis of an already intriguing chemistry between our two lead characters. Lopestri and Ryan’s artwork is dynamic and entertaining and there are hooks galore in the form of unanswered questions about Diana and an ending that promises plenty of action next time around. Highly recommended.

Super Dog – Astro City #47

Astro City 47 CoverAstro City’s longevity is in part due to its creators’ willingness to take risks with its subject matter. In breathing new life into the superhero genre by looking at it from a series of strange, unusual or bizarre perspectives, its writer Kurt Busiek manages to make familiar concepts fresh and archetypal heroes touchingly human. The risk is not so much that Busiek will find himself re-treading old ground, but rather that he might end up looking a bit silly in the process. And nothing says ‘silly’ quite like an anthropomorphic superhero. In this 47th issue of the book’s Vertigo iteration, the focus is on G-Dog, a super-powered melding of human and corgi. So, do we get something akin to the sublime Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew or something closer to the decidedly less impressive Loony Toons/DC crossover specials? There’s only one way to find out…

Actually, we get neither. Busiek and guest artist Mike Norton present us with a tale whose protagonist is Andy, a small-time crook, who is shown doing some pretty morally dubious things, including confiscating someone’s dog in lieu of payment on a debt. That, of course, is how the whole dog-man hybrid thing starts.  It isn’t long before Andy is sneaking around in the house of an architect looking for stuff to steal and realizing that the owner of the house had some kind of connection to Honor Guard, Astro City’s version of the Justice League or Avengers. Stealing a nice-looking amulet on a whim, Andy goes back to his humdrum life, but Busiek and Norton make it clear that Andy is forming a bond with Hank, the aforementioned corgi, and that Hank is making Andy a better man as a consequence.

Astro City 47 1This reformation of Andy’s character undergoes a quantum shift when the amulet Andy had stolen and is now wearing touches Hank and, improbably, the pair undergo a startling canine-human hybridization. Andy is the senior partner in the relationship in that he gets to decide how to use his newfound abilities, while Hank is a disembodied head voicing ‘advice’ in the background, a canine Martin Stein to Andy’s Ronnie Raymond. Hank, however, is a far more powerful influence on Andy than Stein ever was to his Firestorm partner and the magical transformation hastens Andy’s change of character. While Andy initially wants to use his powers to enrich himself, he finds himself reluctant to do so, because the bond he’s already formed with Hank has intensified and he can’t face the corgi’s disappointment.

This is where the name G-Dog comes in. The ‘G’ stands for ‘good’, a call-back to a rather sweet page in which Andy housetrains Hank and plays with him at the park, using the phrases ‘good dog’ and ‘bad dog’ to reinforce his expectations of Hank’s behaviour. Now, it is Hank who is training Andy to fulfill his potential as a superhero. And he does. We see him take down the crime boss to which he owed money in a former life and we see him gaining the solemn approval of The Samaritan and his colleagues in Honor Guard after dispatching a huge monster whose lichen-based powers threaten to destroy much of the city.

Astro City 47 2It’s all rather heartwarming stuff, rich in pathos and the kind of gentle humour that is rarer than I’d like in comics these days. Just when you think we might drown in a sea of (admittedly well-written) sentimentality, though, Busiek reminds us just how good a comic book writer he is with a final page that threatens to upend everything we thought we knew about our characters and adds a shockingly sudden gravitas to the story. It’s one heck of a cliffhanger and provides a powerful incentive to buy the next issue.

Busiek has been writing comics since I was a kid in the 80s and it’s clear that, just like me, he loves them. I said earlier that this issue could easily have become quite silly, but Busiek adroitly sidesteps some of the more obvious clichés and instead gives us a story whose central relationship is, despite its fantastical nature, utterly believable and incredibly affecting. Norton’s art is clear and conveys both the warmth of that relationship and the dynamism of G-Dog’s heroism beautifully. The subject matter might be a little off-putting to some potential readers, but I found the issue an exceptionally satisfying read.

Winning and Losing – American Gods: Shadows #4

American Gods 4 coverWell, this is good. After two issues of slow burn and a third issue that was much more promising, it feels like this series is finally hitting its stride. Last issue, if you remember, ended with Shadow being invited to play checkers with a retired slaughterhouse worker who was really the Slavic god Czernobog. As issue endings go, it’s not exactly riproaring stuff, but if you’ve read enough fantasy – or folklore, to be fair – you won’t be at all surprised to find that wagers are made very early on in this game and that things turn out both well and badly for our main character. Nor is the game the only interesting thing to happen this issue. Throw in Colleen ‘A Distant Soil’ Doran into the mix for this issue’s back-up and you’ve got a pretty tasty proposition. Let’s taste and see what our creators have lined up for us…

 

Like, I would imagine, most people, I was first introduced to checkers as a kid. I used to play the game with my grandfather and, like, I would imagine, most grandfathers, he let me win with such a degree of regularity that I ended up failing to appreciate the game. Ah, well. At the start of this issue, Shadow is up against an opponent who is nowhere near as generous. In fact, with an obscene amount of relish, Czernobog proposes a wager. And things get tense. What has been, up to now, a somewhat flat, almost sedentary tale becomes suffused with a sense of danger that is rather compelling. Wednesday’s warning is the clincher here. If even he is worried about Czernobog’s wager (if Shadow loses, Czernobog gets to bash his brains out with his sledgehammer), then the reader should be, too. And this reader, at any rate, is.
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The creative team do a great job with this section. Czernobog, who had last issue been a forlorn, almost lugubrious, character, here becomes much more sinister and Hampton’s artwork successfully portrays the idea that, despite his declining status, this is still an extraordinarily powerful – and capricious – entity. Shadow comes across well here, though. He is cool but when, after losing the first game, he has to persuade Czernobog to play another, there seems to be an element of urgency underneath the unruffled exterior that only adds to the tension. It’s a very effective piece of storytelling.

 
After Shadow duly wins the second game by playing in a reckless, unpredictable manner (if this isn’t a recognised fantasy trope, it should be), everyone retires for a bland dinner which is followed by an enigmatic but rather affecting conversation between Shadow and Zorya, the third of the sister goddesses who, up to now, has been sleeping. Again, the creative team do a rather fine job here. Zorya is presented as a luminous, slivery character; her conversation is focused on the stars, a poetic, mythic explanation of her and her sisters’ function in Slavic mythology. It’s a beautiful, unhurried piece of writing and ends with Zorya giving Shadow the moon in the form of a coin. Awesome stuff.
This section of the issue ends with Wednesday bursting into Shadow’s room in the morning, grinning manically and announcing that the pair of them are going to rob a bank. Compared to the previous issues’ endings, this is almost a cliffhanger. But we’re not done yet. Oh, no…

 
American Gods 4 6Colleen Doran is exactly the kind of artist a Gaiman story about an 18th century Cornish immigrant’s life needs. In this issue’s ‘Coming To America’ story, she manages to combine a rich level of detail with clean lines that could have come out of an Edwardian book of fairy tales. Her heroine, Essie, is beautiful and capricious, tragic but scheming, and her men are, on the whole, coldly handsome as befits Gaiman’s incident-packed biography. For Essie is a girl for whom her youthfulness and femininity are both an asset and a curse. She is not above using both to get out of tricky situations; at the same time, though, she does find love when, eventually, she ends up in the new world, settles down and starts a family.

 
Gaiman offers no judgement here. Her life is what it is. At times, she is unjustly treated; at others, she turns situations to her advantage. Her ‘gods’ are the Cornish pixies (or ‘piskies’) for whom she leaves each night a saucer of creamy milk outside the kitchen door. The last two pages of the story deal with her finally coming face to face with a ‘pisky’ who she credits for both the good and bad fortune she’s experienced throughout her life. Finally at peace with what she’s experienced, she takes his hand and is found dead a few hours by her family.

 
As a way of ending this issue, this story is really rather beautiful. Perhaps even more powerfully than issue 3’s tale of Norse gods, it highlights that, in Gaiman’s world, gods can be immigrants, too. With Doran’s art, the tale assumes a stylised simplicity that belies its more profound implications. Essie’s ‘god’ has been forced, by her belief and observance of custom, to accompany her to a new world that, Essie aside, is not especially receptive to him. Despite the unpleasant things that happen to her, Essie maintains an equanimity that is almost noble. The question remains open, however, to what extent Essie’s superstition has affected her life. The function of ‘Jack’, the red-haired ‘pisky’ who shows up at the end of the story, would appear to be to add a supernatural gloss to a life of both tragedy and joy. The story’s final image – of the half-shelled peas – would seem to suggest that, while Essie has lived a long life, it is not a complete one, that she had more to do. But perhaps I’m misreading (always a possibility with writing like Gaiman’s). What does seem clear, though, is that America offers Essie a stability and security she never really knew in Cornwall. Whether it offers her accompanying ‘god’ the same remains to be seen.

 
This was an impressive issue on a couple of levels. The checkers game is appropriately tense; the meeting between Zorya and Shadow mysterious. The back-up, however, is simply beautiful and transforms the issue from being merely good to being excellent. Highly recommended.

Broken Chords – Astro City #46

Astro city 46 coverPierogies are, apparently, boiled dumplings with either sweet or savoury fillings, and Wikipedia helpfully tells me that they originated in central and eastern Europe. This is just one of the things I learned from reading Astro City #46, although by no means the most important. Or interesting. No. Perhaps the most significant thing to be gleaned from this issue is that, after 30+ years in the industry, Kurt Busiek remains a master storyteller and his ability to surprise, intrigue and delight remains highly impressive. In some respects, Astro City #46 is a less than ideal starting point for anyone wanting to read this title. It’s the second of a two-part story and, while not absolutely essential, it is highly recommended that you read the first part before attempting this one. That said, this comic is a lot of fun and is exceptionally thought-provoking, too. Allow me to explain…

 

Astro City has been around for a long while now. Debuting in 1995 on the now defunct Wildstorm imprint, Homage Comics, the series is an extended love letter to and exploration of the superhero genre. In fact, considering its initial on the nose riffing on already established superhero archetypes (The Samaritan is a Superman analogue; the First Family is a thinly disguised version of the Fantastic Four), it seemed that the banner under which it was printed was tailor-made for it and it is tempting to view that initial run of six issues as a straight homage to the comics Busiek grew up reading (and writing fan letters to!) as a teenager. But there was always something more going on in Astro City than simple affectionate pastiche. There was excavation and exploration, too – a generally sympathetic attempt to scratch beneath the surface of some of the more worn superhero themes and tropes, and breathe new life into them principally through a startling, almost Kirby-esque fecundity of ideas, and an exemplary skill with characterisation. Both of those are on display here.
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Issue 46 picks up where the previous issue left off. It is some unspecified time in the 1970s and famed chronicler of the counter-culture Tom O’Bedlam is hosting a special ‘coming out’ party for his lover, androgynous music-themed superhero Glamorax who, we found out last issue, changes his/her identity, persona and power-set in response to the changing rhythms of popular music. This in itself is a radical idea, and it’s one with which Busiek has considerable fun. It’s clear that the Bowie/Bolan-inspired Glamorax identity is going to give way to something much more visceral and angry and, indeed, he’s in the process of transforming into a punkier persona when the event is gatecrashed by knife-wielding cultists who want to stop the transformation.

 

A passing Jack-In-The-Box helps deal with the cultists but, even as their bodies dissipate, it’s clear that they’ve achieved what they set out to do and the entity formerly known as Glamorax is no longer to be seen. The story continues, though, with the narration of the Broken Man, a purple-skinned, green mullet-sporting chap in white tails and trousers with a NASA t-shirt underneath. This is a character who has been popping in and out of Astro City stories for a while now. His most remarkable characteristic is that, in the Astro City universe, he appears to be clinically insane, but in the Astro City comic he is a character who has a disconcerting habit of talking directly (and cogently) to the reader. (Think more Grant Morrison’s Ultra Comics than Deadpool.) This is, in fact, what the Broken Man does throughout this issue’s narration. Busiek’s writing here is really… heartfelt. There is an emerging critique of the corporatisation of culture, specifically music, in the Broken Man’s description of music executives’ talk of “market penetration” and “sales velocity” as something he “couldn’t make sense” of. But the tone is less satirical, and more a lament for lost potential, a suggestion that the commercialisation of music has led to a neutering of its power to shock, and both speak to and for the young people who should be its target audience.

 

The linking of music and superheroics is not exactly new (the Vertigo comic Greatest Hits is well worth a look if you like that sort of thing), but Busiek here manages to intertwine the two pop culture genres in a unique and interesting manner.
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I don’t want to spoil the issue’s ending, because it manages to be both clever and rather touching. Suffice it to say that, for all its superhero trappings, this issue is actually a commentary on the anaemic quality of much of popular culture and it’s one that ends on an optimistic, if somewhat uncertain, note. Add in a distinctly Lovecraftian monster, some clever metafictional touches (the page in which the Broken Man is staring out of a transparent comic panel is just phenomenal) and some very affecting characterisation and you have an extraordinarily enjoyable story.

 

In some respects, this issue is an atypical one, but it does demonstrate why Busiek’s world is well worth visiting. His protagonist is mysterious, sympathetic and very well-realised. While some readers might find the brief cameos of The First Family, The Irregulars and Honor Guard a little overwhelming, there is nevertheless a clear sense of the richness and scope of Busiek’s world despite the story’s much narrower focus. Brent Anderson’s art is perhaps a little less fine than it was in, say his run on Marvel’s Ka-Zar back in the early 80s, but it does the job here very well indeed. His facial expressions in particular – so important in a character-heavy issue like this one – are excellent. The Broken Man’s distraught features when considering the dangers of alerting other heroes to the dangers of the Oubor are a great example.

 

It is impossible to deny the very personal nature of this title – and issue – and it’s difficult for this comic fan, who can remember picking up Busiek’s first ever Justice League story in Justice League of America 224*, to be all that objective about it. For inventiveness, great characterization and a warmth that clearly comes from the creators’ genuine love of the genre, it’s hard to beat a visit to Astro City and this issue, despite its somewhat overly talky – and inconclusive – ending, is a stylish and enjoyable vehicle to take you there.

 

(This review first appeared on the Weird Science DC Comics website.)

 

*The original version of the review wrongly stated that this issue was Kurt Busiek’s first DC story. It wasn’t. That honour goes to Green Lantern #162. Thanks to Mr Busiek himself for the correction.

The Wild Storm #5

The Wild Storm 5 coverI am beginning to wonder if Warren Ellis is deliberately structuring this series on a three issue cycle in which we get two issues of conversation-heavy set-up and world-building followed by an issue of balls-to-the-wall full-blooded action. Last issue was impressive more for its art and dialogue than anything else. This issue is no less skilfully written but is less impressive and (say it quietly) just a little monochrome compared to the last couple of issues’ technicolour spectacle. That is not to say it’s poor. By no means. But it is a more cerebral talky instalment and, while this series continues to be one of the most intelligent and well-written comics currently on the market, there are nevertheless niggles here. Allow me to explain.
This issue is all about character interaction. There are four key conversations here and a promising fifth that gets interrupted by the story’s conclusion. The first one is between IO’s chief Miles Craven and Deathblow himself, Michael Cray who is still coming to terms with his brain tumour. With the promise of IO paying for his medical expenses as an enticement, Craven persuades Cray to go after and execute Angie ‘Engineer’ Spica. Although, at just two pages, this conversation is relatively short, it is nevertheless impressive for making Cray a fully three-dimensional and likeable character, despite his assignment pitting him against the one character in this series so far that we can say without too much quibbling is ‘good’. With Craven having just left him, Cray’s final two panels of dialogue (“Strange damn world. I love it. …I don’t want to die.”) are rather touching. I’ve waxed lyrical about Warren Ellis’ writing skills before, but this is worth noting as a powerful example of the dictum ‘less is more’.
The Wild Storm 5 2The second conversation is between Zealot and a ‘daemon’. I am assuming that this is an introduction to Ellis’ re-working of the Kherubim/Daemonite dynamic that formed the foundation of WildCATs’ initial run in the 90s before being so gloriously subverted by Alan Moore a few years later. Zealot has been charged with investigating Camp Hero in Montauk, the mothballed IO base that formed the setting for issue 3’s jaw-dropping action set-piece. I must confess that I’m slightly surprised that there’s that much of a base to investigate, but I’m willing to let that slide given how stylishly the Daemonite encounter is presented.
In the same vein as my regular praise for Ellis’ writing, this is as good a moment as any for my likewise regular acknowledgement that Jon Davis-Hunt’s artwork is glorious. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that he may well be one of the top five artists currently working in comics. He reminds me of a slightly more refined Liam Sharp (and there’s no slight intended to the inestimable Mr Sharp); he has the same ability to work in meticulous detail while sacrificing none of the dynamism required of an action comic artist. In fact, if anything, his line work is somewhat clearer and, while his panel layouts may be more restrained, his faces are a little more expressive. Page 5 is a great example. Zealot’s exploration of the wrecked IO base becomes a perfectly paced exercise in suspense, largely due to Steve Bucellato’s subtle colours and Davis-Hunt’s framing and perspective. When the Daemonite emerges from the shadows at the bottom of the page (a moment rather given away by the impressive cover), it is beautifully, spine-tinglingly disturbing.
That conversation between the Daemonite and Zealot represents a further opening up of the WildStorm universe and provides some subtle hints as to the nature of the relationship between Daemonites and Kherubim. Satisfyingly, it would appear that Ellis is not content merely to replicate the rather simplistic dynamic between the two races that first appears back in the original Image run. In that sense, the conversation is a prime example of what Ellis is doing with this series, balancing respect and innovation pretty much perfectly.
The Wild Storm 5 3The centre piece of the issue is the next conversation between Adrianna ‘Void’ Tereshkova and Angie. It’s here that we see Adrianna’s origin and get a better feel for her character. I’m not going to spoil that conversation here other than to point out that we get an explanation of the Bleed that is typical high concept sci-fi from Ellis and that, again, Davis-Hunt’s artwork is clear and appealing.
The final major conversation is the second one between Miles Craven and Michael Cray, in which the latter says he’s not going to eliminate Angie because she’s a “bad target”, a conclusion at which he’s arrived because he’s been able to review the raw footage from the Razor CAT’s attack and interpret it himself. This leads to a moment when (finally) Craven’s mask of oily politeness slips and we see a ruthlessness that is belied by what we have previously seen of his more human relationship with his boyfriend. The issue ends with the promise of (hopefully) some action next month, but that ending is resolutely low-key, entirely in keeping with the ongoing tone of this series.
Some random observations to finish with: we get more Voodoo (yay!), even if it’s only one page (boo!); Michael Cray’s had one hell of a life; Davis-Hunt draws cars, leaves, alien demon-creatures and Angie Spica extraordinarily well; speaking of Angie, I still love her and would like to give her the hug she so obviously needs.
Whether you will enjoy this issue depends almost entirely on your attitude to slow-burning stories that prioritise character interaction, a slow incremental exploration of an expansive universe, and a multi-layered plot over gratuitous action sequences. We’re five issues in and we’re getting a clearer idea of who’s doing what and why they’re doing it; we’re also getting a much better feel for what makes the various characters tick and how they got their powers. All of which is fine. Up to a point.
I mentioned niggles at the start of this review. I shall spell them out here. At the end of last issue, we left Angie alone and somewhat emotionally bereft. This issue we see her steal (quite a bit of) money from a cash machine (do AMTs really issue $100 bills???); it would arguably have been nice to see her try to cope on her own, to see her, actually, involve herself in a bit of superheroics. Instead, Adrianna locates her pretty easily and we get a conversation that, although interesting in its own right, moves the focus away from her. Now, it may seem a bit counter-intuitive to suggest that the plot slow down at this point, but Angie’s currently our most sympathetic viewpoint character and I think there’d have been some mileage in showing her coming to terms with her suit and also taking at least some steps to finding out who she is becoming. The Adrianna conversation is just a little too neat.
The Wild Storm 5 4As good as the dialogue is here, it’s neither as witty nor as awe-inspiring as what we had last issue. The stuff about the Bleed is interesting, but we don’t get anything near as impressive as the slow build-up to the double page spread of the Skywatch satellite last issue. The action quotient is down to pretty much 0 here. I don’t mind that so much myself, but I wouldn’t want to see it become too regular a thing. Neither would I want to see a book this self-evidently good lose readers because of its slow burn. That said…
I still trust Ellis. He continues to write engaging, interesting characters and continues to give us a masterclass in how to introduce a world in a layered, reasonably organic way. While this issue is not an especially ideal jumping on point, it is nevertheless entertaining, well-written and well-paced. And, it should go without saying, exceptionally well-drawn. Its ending suggests that we’ll have some action next time. We shall see. For now, this is still recommended reading. It’s comic book storytelling of a very high calibre and I’m still very interested to see where it’s going.

(This review first appeared on the Weird Science DC Comics website.)

Going Ape – Planet of the Apes/Green Lantern #4

 

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Feel the rage!

 
The issue starts with the kind of ‘Tales of the Green Lantern Corps’ story that used to appear as a back-up strip in the main comic back in the 80s. Except this one ends with neither a neat clever twist nor a moment of poignant heroism. The first three and a bit pages of this issue tell the story of an unnamed female Lantern, naïve and altruistic, who is recruited by the Guardians to take the Universal Ring to the Planet of the Apes Earth. On trying to return to her own space and time, she realises that she has essentially been shafted by the Guardians (why anyone ever thought they were suitable beings to run the universe’s police force, I really don’t know) and decides to do her best to save this Earth from its nuclear-powered self-destructive tendencies. Fairly obviously, she fails and you can’t help feeling sorry for her. In the few panels the writers and artist Barnaby Bagenda give her, she comes across as a noble character. In terms of her function in the story, however, it seems to be only to enable Sinestro to take her Green Lantern ring along with the device that enables it to function in this reality. This section ends with Sinestro becoming a Green Lantern once more (for some reason, the ring is at full charge), which, let’s face it, no one wants to see at this point.

 

 

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Hal looking heroic; Guy looking, well, like a man who’s trying to pretend he hasn’t transported Gorilla Grodd to an Earth ruled by apes.

Then, the focus moves to Hal, Zira and her ape friends who are looking for Cornelius and the strange ring that he’s been analysing. Their search is interrupted by the appearance of Ursus’ army, who, demoralized and dishevelled, are fleeing from their battle with Cornelius and his mutant ring-slingers and, thanks to some rather nice Bagenda artwork, look thoroughly traumatized by their experience. Hal eventually meets up with Guy and the other Lanterns who have (just about) survived their encounter with the Reds last issue. Guy gives Hal one of the ring-enabling devices and Hal gratefully ‘lanterns up’. During this conversation, however, it turns out that Zira has disappeared, taking Nova and a couple of other apes with her, to continue the search for Cornelius.

 
They cross into the Forbidden Zone, encountering exactly the same kind of psychic ‘warnings’ that appear in the second film, and are finally confronted by a red mutant-lantern who attacks them before being warned off by Cornelius.

 
What follows is kind of touching, although also a bit confusing. When Cornelius first appears to Zira, he is on what appears to be a yellow construct gurney, presumably an indication of the severity of the injuries inflicted on him last issue. When he turns into a Star Sapphire (because he loves Zira and, you know, is pleased to see her), the gurney disappears never to be seen again. There are, however, signs that he is hurting, not least the thin cracks that are appearing on his costume(s) and his hands. I suspect that wearing the universal ring may well have some unpleasant side effects.

 

 

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Bagenda does dramatic rather well.

There’s a nice bit of conversation between Zira and Cornelius, who grants a universal ring to his beloved. Against her better judgement, she takes it and turns her attention to Ursus who is held captive (and presumably has been prisoner all this time) floating above them. It is at this point that the issue ends with the revelation that Grodd has taken control of the remnants of Ursus’ army and the Red Lanterns have allied themselves with him. I would imagine that we’re all extraordinarily shocked by that. No? Oh, well.

 
This was a decent enough issue, but, to use a phrase beloved of Weird Science‘s Jim Werner, it’s a lot of set-up. There are props and characters moving all over the stage. They’re dancing around each other for the most part and have yet to interact in any meaningful way. There are, as I see it, four key factions developing here. There’s Hal and the other GLs, of course. Their job is to try and stop Sinestro and (pretty literally) put the Universal Ring back in its box. Then there’s Cornelius, the current wielder of the Universal Ring, intent on bringing about a peaceful utopia through dishing out as many rings as possible to those he deems worthy. There are hints that this is not entirely his own idea. The Universal Ring, remember, does have a desire to reproduce itself. The third faction is Grodd and the Reds, bolstered by Ursus’ army. The Reds want the Universal Ring, too. What Grodd wants is unclear, but I’m guessing that bananas are not as high on the list as Guy seemed to think last issue. I would imagine escape, power and revenge are a bit more prominent. Then, finally, there’s Sinestro who kickstarted this whole thing and, four issues in, still hasn’t got what he wanted but doesn’t seem remotely bothered by that. Next issue is the second to last one, so I’d imagine these different factions will start to come together in interesting and hopefully entertaining ways then. We shall see.

Taken on its own, this issue is a little disappointing. While Bagenda’s art remains very enjoyable and the story is easy enough to follow, its focus is almost entirely on characters meeting other characters and alliances forming and/or changing as a result. That said, I am looking forward to where we’re heading, not least because I want to see what Sinestro’s really up to. This meeting of the Planet of the Apes universe and the Green Lantern one remains intriguing and entertaining enough. I’m fully expecting things to pick up next issue.

No Laughing Matter – Batman/The Shadow #3

DBatman Shadow 3 coverepending on how things turn out with this limited series, it might well be that this issue is seen as a real step up in both impetus and overall quality. It might be that this issue turns out to have significant implications for both Batman and The Shadow for some time to come. At this point, I have no way of knowing for sure. What I do know is that I enjoyed this issue quite a bit more than I did the previous two. Allow me to explain.

 
In many ways, The Stag is the perfect partner for The Joker. As this issue’s opening couple of pages demonstrate, The Stag has nothing to say beyond his enigmatic catchphrase and The Joker is loquaciousness personified. I know I’ve expressed my disappointment with some of the dialogue in this series, but the introduction of The Joker has seen a marked improvement in its quality. There are still some problems but even the opening pun, weak though it is, is enjoyable. The Joker is, after all, a character you should have fun with if you’re a writer and the Snyder/Orlando combo go to town here and do a pretty decent job of conveying The Joker’s mercurial mania.

 

The Joker and The Stag, however, are not this issue’s only double act. While you might think that The Batman and The Shadow would be this issue’s other compelling partnership, you’d be mistaken. Batman has The Shadow in chains and imprisoned in an underwater base; he has a brief conversation with him in which The Shadow reveals some interesting information about The Stag (like the fact that he’s descended from Cain – a House of Mystery reference? Hmmm…) and that he’s been ritually murdering ‘good’ people for decades in an effort to get to Shamba-La, the same place in which The Shadow was ‘born’. But Batman doesn’t stick around much after that initial infodump, leaving the Unexpected But Surprisingly Interesting Conversation of The Issue award to go to… The Shadow and Alfred.

 
Batman Shadow 3 1Now, this just worked for me. While it is true that Alfred’s tale about his time as an MI6 agent chasing down a fugitive in the Canadian wastes could do with a bit of fleshing out, there is nevertheless a clear sense that Alfred is prepared to accept the more esoteric elements of The Shadow’s story in a way that Batman simply isn’t. Although there is still an occasional niggling problem with the dialogue (“I have never seen pitch as dark as in that place” – black; it really should be pitch as black), there is a gravitas to this section that serves to anchor the book a little more thoroughly in, if not the wider Batman universe, then certainly in the Alfred-Bruce relationship that forms an important pillar of it. That this rather serious conversation is contrasted with The Joker’s more flippant dialogue makes it all the more effective.

 
When Batman interrupts (almost as if on cue) that conversation, the resultant battle is rather satisfying. Rossmo’s artwork (which hasn’t always impressed this issue) is excellent here, particularly when The Joker starts choking Bats from behind and his vision starts blurring. That confrontation ends badly for Batman and he wakes up bound and surrounded by a rogues’ gallery of his villains.

 
All this is intercut with that Alfred-Shadow interaction and it is in these pages that the boldness of Snyder and Orlando’s vision for this series is made clear. Now, I know there’s a spoiler warning at the top of this review, and I know that I’ve just told you a fair bit about the plot of this issue, but in the next couple of paragraphs I’m going to get into some nitty-gritty including Easter eggs that have profound implications for the rest of the DC Universe. If you’d rather not read them being imperfectly explored by a raving Englishman, you might be better scrolling down to concluding paragraph, where you’ll find a more general summary of my thoughts. If you’re still here, let’s get stuck in…

 
During his conversation with Alfred, The Shadow makes clear a number of things that had previously only been hinted at. And goes quite a bit further than that, too. To Alfred’s consternation, The Shadow repeats his claim that he has mentored Batman before. Not only that, but he has done so in a variety of guises. In a way, that he is confiding in Alfred is entirely appropriate. Both of them, it would seem, have adopted a somewhat paternal role to Bruce. The Shadow, however, drops an intriguing and shocking revelation. Bruce is not the only hero whose development and training he has supervised. In a really rather impressive full page, it is revealed that he has trained many other heroes. These include heroes I don’t recognise, but some I do – Green Arrow, Catwoman and the Crimson Fox. Now, that is quite some claim. The notion that The Shadow has been training some of DC’s established heroes to fight against The Stag is, on the one hand, pretty bold and exciting; on the other hand, it does mess about with established continuity to a degree that may well be unacceptable for some.
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My own feelings are mixed. I’m prepared to go with it for now. It does raise the stakes for this series and that’s all to the good. I’m just not sure about how this works out in practice. The Shadow tells Alfred that his plan was to raise an “army” to combat The Stag; in the next breath, though, he reveals that each one of his soldiers has been cut down by The Stag before they could complete their training. With Catwoman and Green Arrow included, though, that claim is demonstrably false. It is, to this reader at any rate, a confusing moment in the comic.

 
The Shadow then reveals that Batman is his last student, before going on to say that Batman is, in fact, The Stag’s final target. There are, I suppose, objections that could be raised here, not least whether Batman qualifies as a ‘good’ man. Commissioner Gordon’s closing monologue in ‘The Dark Knight’ is echoing in my head at this point, though, and The Shadow makes a valid point that, in giving up a “human life to protect others”, Batman has certainly proven himself to be one of “Gotham’s best”.

 
But there’s one more revelation. And it’s one that ends the issue. Now normally, I don’t like spoiling issue endings, but I need to here. As The Shadow leaves to go and save Batman, he announces that he had been ‘training’ Batman to become the next Shadow, a claim that is so bold as to be almost ludicrous. Coming hot on the heels of all the other things the Shadow has supposedly done in the background of Batman’s history, this seems overly sensationalistic and almost disrespectful to the character. That said, it does suddenly make this series matter in a way that, say, the Planet of the Apes/Green Lantern series doesn’t.

 
Where we go from here is unclear. The Shadow will presumably find Batman and rescue him, but, beyond that, I’m not sure. My gut tells me we’re going to end up in Shamba-La by the time issue 6 rolls round and that The Stag’s true nature (and possibly identity) will be revealed at that point. What’s of greater interest now, though, is to what extent The Shadow’s interventions in Batman’s past (and, indeed, in the wider DC Universe) can be regarded as canonical and how exactly his plans for Bruce can be reconciled with what we already know about the character. Getting those answers is something of which I’m much less sure.

 

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Say what you like about Rossmo, but he knows how to lay out a page.

In the sense that it has dramatically raised the stakes for Batman and provides some clarity as to what this series is actually about, this issue is an improvement on the first two. That is not to say it is perfect. Rossmo’s art leans towards the sketchy side of things at times and the dialogue, although considerably better, still sometimes lapses into characters talking at rather than to one another with perfectly reasonable questions left unanswered by the people who have the answers but are too enamoured of their own verbal cleverness to give them. That said, some of the dialogue works rather well. The Shadow describing himself as “a glint in the peripheral vison of [Bruce’s] mind’s eye” is rather elegant, for example.

 
Whether you enjoy this issue will probably depend on how receptive you are to its rather bold central revelations. The plot is more sharply focused than in previous issues and dialogue is, for the most part, clear and accurate and, in some cases, memorable and emotionally engaging. The addition of The Joker is enough to mix things up in terms of plot and action and The Stag remains an enigmatic, interesting villain. In addition, this issue injects a sense of urgency into the narrative and, although the ‘surrounded by villains’ ending might be overkill, the prospect of seeing The Shadow and Batman take them on is appealing. In short, with this issue, this series might just have turned the corner.

 

(This review first appeared on the Weird Science DC Comics website.)

 

Eternal Empire #1

Eternal Empire coverMy experience of the Luna brothers’ work has to date been limited to Alex + Ada and a couple of issues of Girls. Eternal Empire, the latest collaboration between Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn, is a very different beast altogether, although it does share some thematic concerns, the challenges for women in oppressive societies being one of them. Set on a world which orbits three suns, this first issue primarily deals with the escape of an unnamed girl from a work camp and, along the way, gives us enough hints about the world in which the story takes place to make giving the next issue a look an attractive proposition.

 
With comics being such a visual medium, whether readers enjoy a story or not depends a great deal on their reaction to the art. I mention this, because Luna’s art style is one about which I am a little ambivalent. It is clear, clean and crisp – almost to the point of crudeness. At times, his characters appear to display an almost mechanical stiffness. His storytelling, however, is exemplary. There are moments in this issue that possess an almost filmic quality. The fight between our protagonist and a pair of burly male guards is told in an absorbing, almost uncomfortably unhurried way that reinforces the sheer physical effort of her struggle to escape. The subsequent journey through the snow-swept night is also impressive storytelling (the page is divided up into a regular 4×5 grid and the story is moved as much by the slow lightening of colour as it is by the minimalist dialogue), as are the images of the girl supporting walking through fields of livestock and catching fish in a river. Luna’s art may not be to everyone’s taste, but it does involve the reader in the story. And the story is very interesting indeed.

 

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A map on the title page means that we’re in serious second world fantasy territory. The essay about the three suns is interesting, too.

The issue opens with a ceremony in which a young woman divests herself of her robes and stands naked before a dragon-like creature and asks it to ‘join with her’ to create a new ‘one’, which seems to refer to ‘synnians’. The text is unclear on this point, but the ‘synnians’ appear to be a hybrid race who are currently rampaging through the continent and threatening Karabon, the nation where the ceremony is taking place. The woman, then, appears to be proposing that the dragon-creature help resist this invasion by creating a new hybrid to counter the old. This prologue is appropriately mysterious and just a little disturbing. The woman’s nakedness suggests the union will be a physical one; the dragon-creature’s chains suggest that it will not be entirely consensual. Throughout the scene, the three-sun motif is present – not just in the position of the suns in the sky (they are aligned in an inverted triangle pattern, equidistant from one another), but also in the cowls that the young woman and her fellow celebrants are wearing on the first page, as well as the fact that each line of the ceremony is spoken three times. All of which helps communicate the sense that this world has a culture and history that is at least in part influenced by its unusual relationship to its suns.

 

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Farming is hard in the world of Eternal Empire.

We then jump forward 141 years to a work camp in which ‘haam’ are forced to work the soil, pulling up root vegetables from the frozen ground with their bare hands and living on subsistence rations as they do so. We see orderly rows of plants and wooden walls and guard posts that suggest the sort of institutionalised farming more associated with 20th century totalitarian regimes than your stereotypical fantasy setting. The work is hard as is made clear by Luna’s art and the fact that we see a worker being beaten for stealing food. During this section, it is revealed that the work camp is run by the Eternal Empire which rose “to save the Eastern Three from the synnians of old”. This is a reference to the prologue. It would seem that the dream of liberation and survival has turned into something altogether more acquisitive and imperial. Hmmm. This announcement is made in the shadow of a large statue presumably meant to represent the Empress – a bronze-skinned woman with angelic wings and a neutral expression with arms by her sides palms outward in a gesture that is, perhaps, welcoming.

 
We are told that the Empress is immortal and that her armies have just conquered Kadei and will march on Nifaal to unite the continent (or perhaps the world) under her rule. All of this is interesting to the reader, but not especially helpful to our protagonist who keeps on getting visionary flashes of warmth and light that impinge upon her drab, gruelling and frozen existence and offer her a tantalising hope of something better – or at least different. When the opportunity to escape comes, she does – although it is a close-run thing – and ends the issue with a surprise meeting with a mysterious bronze-skinned man who, it seems, can shoot flames from his hands.

 
As introductory issues go, this is both intriguing and enjoyable. Much of the enjoyment comes from the undeniable sense that we are reading a story set in a world with a coherent history whose details have yet to be fully revealed to us. The main character is suffering, brave and resourceful – all of which are appealing, although she is presented to us with very little in the way of background or indication of any pre-existing family ties. She is, however, an immediately sympathetic character and an effective focus and vehicle for the issue’s main story. Her suffering is a key aspect of her appeal and Vaughn and Luna emphasise this through a number of encounters with authority. Her determination to escape through the blizzard is admirable, too.

 
I said at the start of this review that, in terms of setting, this was a departure from Alex + Ada, but there are thematic similarities nonetheless. Like Ada, our protagonist here deals with imprisonment and escape. More than that, she is determined to explore the wider world and to take risks in order to do so. The differences between this story and Vaughn and Luna’s previous outing, however, are, if anything, more interesting. Eternal Empire’s setting – with its three suns and clearly defined geography (the issue has a map on the title page – I do love me a good map on a title page), its history and religion – are, at the moment, as intriguing and involving as the story of its protagonist. In introducing both, this issue is a clear success and one that, if dystopian fantasies are your bag, I heartily recommend.

 

(This review first appeared on the Weird Science DC Comics website.)