Category: Comics

Swirling Shadows, Mystifying Mysteries – Batman/The Shadow #1

Batman Shadow coverThe idea of a crossover series featuring Batman and The Shadow is, on the surface, a no-brainer. The two characters are both alter egos of extraordinarily rich men who deploy an array of resources – both technological and human – to fight crime. Both operate in the shadows, both routinely break the law, and both struggle with their pasts. And both are multi-media properties who have their roots in the pulp era. While Batman has undoubtedly eclipsed The Shadow in popularity, it’s worth remembering that, in the late 30s, The Shadow was appearing in a range of media (including a radio serial starring Orson Welles) and that Batman co-creator Bill Finger has readily acknowledged The Shadow’s influence on the development of the ‘dark knight’. Batman’s debut story, Finger has also admitted, was heavily influenced by a Shadow tale. With all this in mind, seeing The Shadow and Batman work side by side is an intriguing – if not outright mouth-watering – prospect. But that isn’t what we get…

We start the issue with a short one-page scene featuring a meeting between Bruce Wayne and Henri Ducard which takes place at Ducard’s retreat in the French Alps. This turns out to be a framing sequence as we return to their conversation at the issue’s close. Now, Ducard is an interesting character not least because he has a certain history with Bruce/Batman. Perhaps most famous for being played by Liam Neeson in Batman Begins, Ducard is a decidedly murky figure who had a hand in training Bruce in his pre-Batman days. Whatever his background, it seems Bruce needs his help in unravelling a particularly difficult mystery. The narrative takes us back a week to show us just what that mystery is.

Batman Shadow capture 0

This is some nice art. Very atmospheric. And dramatic, too.

The next page is mostly a very impressive depiction of Arkham Asylum, leaves swirling atmospherically in front of its wrought iron gates. We are shown an unidentified porter doing his rounds handing out food to some of the more famous inmates, although I’m fairly sure he’s going way beyond asylum regulations in giving, for example, Poison Ivy “deep fried tarantula”. As bizarre as this sequence is, it’s entertaining enough and I must confess I did chuckle at Riley Rossmo’s depiction of Maxi Zeus lighting up a light bulb held between his teeth, presumably in an attempt to exercise (and prove) his ‘divinity’. We follow the porter home where he has a promising phone conversation with the man with whom he had a date the previous night. His ability to acquire exotic meals for homicidal lunatics notwithstanding, our nameless porter seems like a nice guy. He has a cute dog in some kind of wheeled harness, he likes Chinese take-out and he might be about to take the next step in a relationship with someone who obviously finds him pretty great. So, of course, he’s going to die on the next page.

And die he does. Again, the art is impressive with a particular focus on the dropped take-out (some kind of prawn dish, it would seem) which is spattered with blood. The statement “I am an honest signal” appears at the bottom of the page, we turn over and now the apartment is a crime scene crawling with cops, who engage in the kind of banter fictional policemen always seem to use when confronted with violent death. Batman shows up; Renee Montoya gives him the room. And I experience the first jolt of uncertainty. Our dead man is Lamont Cranston. Not only is he the first murder victim in this apartment block (that Batman notes this is a bit weird – does he have a scorebook for this kind of thing?), but he’s bearing the name of The Shadow’s real identity. Which can’t be right, can it? Hmmm.

Then Cranston’s killer (or certainly the man whom Batman believes is Cranston’s killer) turns up, a… ahem… ‘shadowy’ figure in a broad-brimmed hat, and he turns out to be, of course… The Shadow. Oh, there are one or two things to say here. The page in which The Shadow is revealed is awesome. Rossmo’s art is poster-worthy here and Batman’s befuddled expression is a perfect reflection of my own when I read this. The pages leading up to that revelation are less wonderful. It is unusual for me to be quite so conflicted about an artist, but in Riley Rossmo’s case it’s impossible not to be. While some of his art is gloriously atmospheric, some of his more mundane panels are too ragged, too impressionistic to follow clearly. There is, to be fair, a very kinetic feel to the fight between Batman and The Shadow, but Rossmo’s decision to draw The Shadow mostly in silhouette in order to delay the revelation of his identity (and, presumably, highlight the character’s supernatural nature) is undermined, not only by the fact that The Shadow possesses one of the most easily identifiable silhouettes in the whole of pulp fiction, but also because it makes the fight too difficult to follow. I’m still not entirely sure if Batman punched The Shadow in the groin. It kind of looks like he did, but who knows? He’s laughing about it afterwards anyway.

Then… there’s the dialogue.

I must admit I had a mixed reaction on seeing this issue’s cover. On the one hand, it is really rather striking. Perhaps that red is a bit too bright, but seeing two tough and resourceful characters together – and particularly The Shadow with both guns blazing – is, well, pretty cool. On the other hand, there are names on that cover that, perhaps a little unfairly, give me pause, chief among them that of Steve Orlando who shares the writing duties with Scott Snyder. I’m not party to the inner workings of DC’s creative processes, but I strongly suspect that this is Snyder’s overall story and Orlando is mostly responsible for dialogue. It certainly reads like it.

Batman Shadow capture 2

And there goes the moustache!

Now, I understand that it’s probably foolish to expect entirely naturalistic dialogue from people who go around at night dressed in capes and cowls, but there’s a trend of heroes speaking about themselves in pompous overblown ways that thoroughly annoys me and Orlando indulges in it here. When The Shadow disappears at the end of his inclusive fight, Batman cries out, “Whoever you are, I hope you’re listening. Bats live in the shadows. I’m coming for you.” This all makes Batman seem remarkably weak – and just a little unhinged. I’d much rather have him realise he’s just been confused by The Shadow’s supernatural ability to cloud men’s minds, but I’m perhaps expecting too much here.

That said, some of the dialogue works considerably better. Renee Montoya’s feels very realistic and the writing team are good at evoking character and background very economically at times. At others, though, characters do speak like they’re refugees from a Victorian melodrama with a tendency to pontificate that is both jarring and faintly ludicrous. This includes a very weird-looking bellhop who reads far too much into a disguised Bruce Wayne’s small talk. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

The rest of the issue is taken up with Batman – in a variety of guises, including a version of Matches Balone whose moustache amusingly flies off in the middle of a fight – tracking down members of The Shadow’s network of informants and assistants or, in a couple of cases, their descendants. The Shadow, it seems, operated out of Gotham in the 30s (oddly enough, so did Bat… oh, hang on) but there’s no clue as to how he’s still around now. Batman does manage to penetrate The Shadow’s inner sanctum, however, and finds evidence of his grandfather’s involvement with Cranston in the 30s as well as a clue that leads him back to… Ducard. And we end the issue as we began – with a conversation between Ducard and Bruce Wayne which ends in a manner that I suspect the creative team meant to be shocking and dramatic but I found abrupt, confusing and a little anti-climactic.

So, what to make of all this? I’m honestly not sure. In one sense, this is a better story than I might have expected. Rather than a straightforward team-up between the two characters, Snyder and Orlando have chosen to make The Shadow himself the mystery that Batman is determined to solve. That’s a decision whose boldness I can’t help but admire. The problems I have with this issue lie in its execution. While linking The Shadow to an already established character like Ducard is an interesting move, Orlando’s dialogue and Rossmo’s art are both inconsistent and the plotting is a bit lax at times. We never do see Renee Montoya come back from her cigarette break and, once he’s encountered The Shadow, Batman’s investigation of Cranston’s death seems to exclude co-operation with the GCPD entirely. While it’s nice to see Cranston’s love interest Margo Lane again, she yields up important information surprisingly easily. Perhaps she’s hoping that Batman can save him, but that’s by no means clear from the writing.

While I like the central idea, it’s far too early to tell if this will turn out to be a great story. At this early stage, there’s certainly a lot of potential, although I’m not as confident as I’d like to be that the potential will be fulfilled. The mystery around The Shadow’s identity and his links with Henri Ducard are enough to make me interested in reading the next issue, but some of the inconsistencies in both art and writing make me unsure whether I’ll enjoy it all that much when I do.

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

Vampirella #2 (Dynamite Comics)

Vampi201702CovATanIn which our pretty young shop girl and the otherworldly object of her fascination pluckily pursue the truth. And face the zombie custard pie hurlers of Los Angeles-on-Sea.

After her subterranean resurrection (mind you, aren’t they all?) in the 0 issue and her wanderings through a Los Angeles that seems to be a weird mix of Christian mythology and A Clockwork Orange stylings in issue 1, this issue sees the plot thicken as, instead of merely encountering the denizens of this strangely passionless hedonistic paradise, Vampirella and her new sidekick come up against the forces of the order Vampi is dedicated to destroying. The result is somewhat baffling, reasonably exciting and never less than entertaining.

After her rather violent actions at the end of the last issue, Vampi returns to the shop girl she fascinated earlier and throws some money at her as payment for her outfit, the money coming from a ‘bank vault’ that Vampi entered when ‘nobody’ was ‘around’. As you would expect when confronted with the object of her (barely sublimated) desire, the aforementioned shop girl is rather disconcerted to see Vampi out and about and sitting on her window sill. In her discombobulated state, the girl blurts out more snippets of info about the story’s setting, the most pertinent being that ‘real money’ seems to be rare or unusual and nobody steals because, if they do, they ‘lose the afterlife’, a fate about which, largely due to her immortal state, Vampi is remarkably sanguine.

VampiV4002Int2Needless to say, Vampi’s venture into the world of bank robbery has attracted the attention of the police, although in this case the police are clowns and are intent on making sure everyone has a ‘good time’. Well, that’s okay, then.  A surreal series of events ensue involving a clown police car that’s bigger on the inside than the outside, a custard pie that seems to contain a dimensional vortex and a mention of Charlie Caroli, which appears to be a misspelled reference to Charlie Cairoli, the Italian-English clown and variety artist who once performed for Adolf Hitler and, when World War II broke out, took the watch the dictator had presented him and threw it into the Irish Sea. The clowns pile on Vampirella who is saved by the quick thinking and bravery of her shop girl sidekick who eventually introduces herself as Vicki Vincent.

It’s safe to say that Cornell and Broxton are wearing their influences none too lightly here, but more of that in a moment. The issue continues with our first look at this story’s antagonist, a distinctly sinister angelic figure who removes and then imbibes the brains of one of his undead clown cops in order to understand more fully what’s going on in his domain. He is particularly exercised by the fact that Vampirella is acting like she “remembers”. It’s unclear what the figure means by this, as Vampi is most assuredly winging it at this point and doesn’t ‘remember’ much of anything at all. Anyhow, we end the issue with a conversation between Vicki and Vampi which is interrupted by the arrival of two of the winged ‘angels’ similar to the ones we saw in the first issue. They ensnare the pair of women in a net and take them away to, if the ‘Next Issue’ tag is anything to go by, the ‘camps’.

So, this remains a bizarre, almost surreal, take on the Vampirella character, but it’s hard not to be carried along by its chutzpah. There are all sorts of influences swirling psychedelically around in this story, and it’s hard to identify them all. Certainly the clown police are evidence of Cornell’s Doctor Who pedigree, an unsettling combination of the function of the titular ‘Happiness Patrol’ and the creepy aesthetic of the robotic clowns of Greatest Show In The Galaxy, both from season 25 of the original series. Cornell’s interest in faith and its relationship with society comes into play here, too. He’s playing it fairly coy in terms of revealing what’s going on, but you don’t have to be a genius to work out that there’s a lot more hell than heaven involved in this strange, disturbing ‘paradise’ into which Vampirella has stumbled.

VampiV4002Int5

The word ‘Splat’ has appeared in a Vampirella comic.

In Vicki, Cornell and Broxton have created an eminently likeable guide to this world and a character with whom it is ridiculously easy to sympathise. Throughout, Broxton’s art is excellent, adept at portraying Vicki’s touchingly trusting nature and Vampi’s more hardened, experienced and shrewd facial expressions. His action stuff is suitably visceral too and, well, he knows how to draw a Nero-esque angel-figure drinking brains from a wine glass. Cornell’s dialogue is always readable (even if, at times, Vampirella talks like she’s attended a cultural studies course at some point in her long life – “societal norms”? Really?) and displays flashes of memorable wit, too.

This title continues to intrigue, entertain and disturb in more or less equal measure. The plot is rollicking along nicely and the art is generally very impressive. The pseudo-60s vibe is distinctly British, too. At times the book is extraordinarily reminiscent of Alan Moore-era Captain Britain and there is nothing whatsoever wrong with that. The insertion of a revamped Vampirella into a dystopian future is a great idea and, at the moment, it appears as if Cornell and Broxton are fully prepared to take advantage of the creative opportunities that collision of character and setting provides. In short, this is good stuff. Roll on, issue 3!

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

 

Aaaand… Action! (The Wild Storm #3)

TWS_Cv3_dsThose of you who remember the brash 90s version of the WildStorm universe (or even its noughties iteration) might well be rather bemused with Warren Ellis’ character-driven intrigue-heavy take on it so far. Up to now, we’ve had two issues in which, while there has been some incident (the most important being Angie ‘Engineer’ Spica saving Jacob ‘Emp’ Marlowe’s life), much of the panel space has been devoted to groups of people sitting around talking to one another, all presented rather beautifully in Jon Davis-Hunt’s immaculate art. Well, if you were worried that this series was going to become a cerebral, over-talkative snoozefest (albeit a smartly scripted one), you can breathe a sigh of relief. All that talking was necessary to give this issue’s action context and emotional impact. And, dammit, it is good.

The issue opens with the kind of sequence that reminds you just how good a writer Warren Ellis is. In IO’s headquarters, important people are talking about the developments of the last couple of issues, while a rather attractive young Asian woman, whose casual dress comes complete with a tastefully understated union jack tee-shirt, moves from screen to screen taking in the conversation as she goes. All the while, the IO employees are completely oblivious to her presence.

As a way of introducing readers to a new character while reminding readers of the ongoing fall-out from the last two issues, it’s both economical storytelling and wildly imaginative. Not only that, but Ellis uses this opening as a way to tie the book into the (or at least a) wider DC Universe with references to Commander Steel, Martian Manhunter and Ted Kord before showing us the enigmatic young lady back in her apartment. It is here that she has a notice board on which post-it notes with the names of the major players we’ve encountered so far are stuck with thread linking them to each other and intriguing labels like “Hyperstitional Warfare”, “Nine Treaties” and “Human Property Schism”. While her identity is not entirely clear, it seems likely that this is either Jenny Sparks or Jenny Quantum. She appears to have the attitude, idiom and memorabilia (including a lighter engraved with the words “Mars Expedition 1955”) of the former and the ethnicity of the latter. In any  case, this is all we get of her this issue.

The CAT appearsBecause we’re back to Angie who’s holed up in her disused IO facility, tinkering with her flight equipment, when she’s visited by our rogue three-person CAT (Covert Action Team) of Void, Grifter and Kenesha who complete the teleportation they began last issue. They start a conversation with Angie but are rudely interrupted by the IO CAT we saw Miles Craven deploy last issue, too. Things kick off.

Look, if you’ve been a comic fan for any length of time, you’ve seen this kind of thing hundreds – if not thousands – of times before. A team of bad guys take on a team of good guys while the big bad guy watches remotely from somewhere far away. This is done so very well, though. For one thing, there’s no posturing or trash-talking. There is just an exchange of fire between two highly professional groups of killers, rendered beautifully by an artist who is at the very top of his game. Important details are shown without interrupting the ongoing flow of the fight. Craven’s commentary draws attention to one or two of these details, but, again, the brief interruptions reinforce the sense of excitement and tension rather than disrupting it. In short, this fight is well worth the two and a half issues we’ve been made to wait for it. Ellis absolutely knows what he’s doing here.

Cole CashAnd, to top it all off, there’s a gut-wrenching development at the end (which I won’t spoil) that suggests that not all the characters Ellis has introduced us to are destined to last the full twenty-four issues. The sense of jeopardy in that final page is powerful and I’m rather miffed I’m going to have to wait another month to find out what happens next. All of which is a sign of a very assured, accomplished bit of writing.

This issue was a remarkably quick read, particularly in comparison to its wordier predecessors. That is not to say, though, that the story is in any way slight or superficial. The art is not just beautiful (although it most assuredly is that); it is an integral part of the storytelling – important details are highlighted clearly and faces are both consistently and pleasingly expressive. In terms of pacing and development, the Ellis’ plotting is spot on; his dialogue is naturalistic but never superfluous. In short, this is comic book storytelling right out of the top drawer. I’ve been re-reading Ellis’ initial run on StormWatch and, as good as that is, this blows it away. It’s mature – both in its portrayal of super-powered characters and the moral universe they inhabit. If that interests you at all – or you have even a passing interest in the fate of characters you may have enjoyed a couple of decades ago – this book is a must-buy. It is effortlessly involving, dramatic, witty and intriguing stuff.

(This review first appeared on the Weird Science DC Comics website. Check it out for reviews, comment, podcasts and fun.)

 

Podcast Fun

Ep 124If listening to my dulcet tones as I discuss in a rambling but (I hope) entertaining way the new issue of The Wild Storm is something you think might be worthwhile, you can do so by downloading or listening to the latest Weird Science DC Comics Podcast here. My section starts at 6 hours and 19 minutes.

Incidentally, if you’ve never experienced the nonsense-fest that is a Weird Science DC Comics Podcast, you probably owe it to yourself to listen to the whole thing. All 12 hours of it. Seriously. I was going to put a nice handy summary of just what you get in 12 hours of DC Comics-focused podcasting, but I’m not sure I can do it justice. Obviously you get in-depth comment on all the main DC titles of the week, but… there’s an awful lot more than that. Including a great deal of… nonsense, a word that here encompasses Dancing Mike’s introductory songs, Jim and Eric’s tales of the cardboard box factory, rants and raves, the Get Fresh Crew, emails, Reggie’s songs, wafflings, diversions, distractions, invective, banter, excoriation and meanderings. And a fair amount of… ahem… fruity language. (You have been warned.)

Planet of the Apes/Green Lantern #2

POAGL - 2 - coverLast issue’s introduction to this crossover series gave us some familiar elements from both franchises and enough hints as to the unfolding plotline to persuade me that reading issue 2 would be worth my while. One of the most sympathetic ape characters of the original movie franchise, Cornelius made a good viewpoint character and his transformation during that first issue (culminating in him wearing a Red Lantern uniform and killing a mutant) was both interesting and more than a little disturbing. Add in a de-powered Hal Jordan washing up on the shores of a ruined New York and there’s certainly potential for a good story here. Is that potential developed in issue 2? Let’s find out…

Issue 2 opens with Hal waking up on the aforementioned beach with the help of some less than tender prodding from one of Zaius’ apes. Hal reacts pretty much as you might expect and, without the power of his ring, is eventually subdued. What happens to Hal through the rest of this issue is almost identical to what happens to Taylor, Charlton Heston’s character, in the original film: the hosing with water, the beatings, the discussing him as if he’s a lesser animal. The differences are telling, though. Hal gets to keep his clothes on and, oddly, he gets to keep his ring, too – a concession whose justification (that removing it was too much effort) is less than convincing given the brutality and single-mindedness we’ve seen from the ruling apes so far.

The idea of Hal as surrogate Taylor is only reinforced when we realise very early on in this issue that Taylor is dead, killed by the mutants in an attempt to retrieve information from his mind. This confirms that the book is indeed set in an alternative timeline for both Lanterns and apes. With no Taylor to blow it up at the end of the second movie, maybe this Earth has a shot at survival after all. The sequence in which Cornelius finds the dead Taylor and manages to restrain himself from killing the mutants responsible is really rather affecting. The creative team take Cornelius through the gamut of emotions – from anger at what the mutants have done to Taylor, to the willpower necessary to keep himself from killing them, to compassion (although the colours wrongly show him as a blue lantern at this point, the insignia is that of the Indigo Tribe) for his dead friend. It’s a powerful moment in the book and leads to the next big departure from established Planet of the Apes continuity – Cornelius’ effortless dismantling of the nuclear bomb the mutants had been worshipping. For the best of intentions, Cornelius determines that he is going to make the mutants gods themselves and somehow conjures up additional universal rings to give to them.

POAGL - 2 - 20

Well, I’ve got that first film on DVD if you like…

Confused? Mystified? It’s a good job we’ve got a big massive infodump coming up then, isn’t it? Not a man to take ‘mind your own business’ for an answer, particularly when one of his friends has mysteriously disappeared, Guy Gardner pays the Guardians a visit and, after some initial wrangling, finds them in a considerably chattier mood than in the last issue. If, like me, you were wondering about the universal ring’s apparent similarity to the phantom ring, you’ll be happy (or slightly disappointed, depending on how you view the revelation) to know that the universal ring is, in fact, a cheap knock-off of the phantom ring, an attempt by guardians less skilled than renegade guardian Rami to replicate his creation. (And, presumably, sell them at street markets and car boot sales all over the galaxy.) This ring, however, is “alive” and has a desire to reproduce itself as well as “pacify”, although what exactly is to be pacified remains unclear. Apparently, the guardians decided this ring wasn’t going to pan out so they exiled it to an Earth that exists in its own time loop separate from the rest of “hypertime”. This is what is known as a ‘technobabble’ explanation and it raises as many questions as it answers, not least of which is the not unreasonably one of why can the Guardians not dispose of their crap properly? Surely, chucking the ring into the heart of a nearby star or black hole would be a better option? Then again, if the ring is, in some sense, ‘alive’ that would be tantamount to murder, wouldn’t it? Perhaps they could have just stuck it in the same vault as Volthoom? Hmmm. Maybe not.

The writers do at least attempt to answer the question of why the universal ring was banished to Ape-Earth and, while I don’t find it all that satisfying myself, it does lead Guy Gardner to do something very odd at the end of the issue, which we’ll get to in a moment. After explaining that Sinestro has used some kind of “sorcery” to locate and activate the universal ring, the Guardians helpfully  provide Arisia, Guy and Kilowog with devices that will take them through the ‘chronoscape’ (no, I have no idea either) and will protect them from the universal ring’s “endless hunger”. Okay, then. (There’s a spare one for Hal, too.)

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So, no Charlton Heston in this story, then.

Meanwhile, Hal escapes with some help from some nice apes, Sinestro shows up unexpectedly (he doesn’t twirl his moustache evilly, sadly) and Guy and his two fellow Lanterns go to Belle Reve to pick up this issue’s surprise guest star… which doesn’t really make a lot of sense except in the most broad thematic way. For one thing, if Guy and his fellow Lanterns are successful in rescuing Hal, they have no way of getting the guest star back home. For another, the guest star is not someone I would trust as far as I could throw him. Which is not very far at all. But, this is Guy, this is comic books and crossover comic books at that. We’ll see what happens.

All in all, this is a decent issue. Bagenda’s art remains good. His depictions of Cornelius are particularly impressive, although his Hal looks just a little on the young side at times. The script is generally good, too. We needed some background on the universal ring and that’s what we got, but the revelation that it’s a variation of a superweapon only introduced in the regular Green Lanterns book a few months ago is kind of disappointing. In a way, though, it’s entirely consistent with the approach of the writers so far. We’ve been presented with a quick whirl through some of the more familiar elements, moments and tropes of both series, and this does imbue the story with a rather unfortunate sense of déjà vu. That said, there are indications that we’re about to veer off into more unfamiliar territory and that alone suggests that the series is worth sticking with.

NB: This review first appeared on the Weird Science DC Comics website.

 

Caravaggio Vol 1: The Palette and the Sword (Dark Horse)

Caravaggio coverIf you’re an English-speaking comics fan, the chances are, if you have heard of Milo Manara before, it’s most likely in connection with a certain Spider-woman variant cover or his work with Chris Claremont on X-Women. In Europe, however, Manara is a comics legend, mentioned in the same breath as Moebius or Jodorowsky. Caravaggio is perhaps his most personal work. Described in Dark Horse’s promotional material as a ‘love letter’ to the 17th century artist, its first volume chronicles the young artist’s arrival in Rome, his rise to prominence and his escape from the city after a swordfight ends messily. At times erudite and crammed with historical detail, at others bawdy and passionate, this opening volume is utterly engrossing and, as you might expect from an artist of Manara’s skill, at times breathtakingly beautiful.

The book opens with a young Caravaggio, having hitched a ride on the back of a farmer’s vegetable cart, approaching Rome via the Salario Bridge. We’re about to be treated to a typically Manaran moment of cheeky bawdiness, but before we get too carried away it’s worth taking in that opening panel. If, like me, you know Manara mainly through his superhero covers or his erotica, you may be excused for having exactly the same reaction I did – open-mouthed wonder. It really is an amazing piece of art in its own right. The stonework of the bridge and its low tower; the curving roadway leading up to the wooden barrier that obstructs it; the luminous ochres of the early evening sky: all are rendered in exquisite detail, as bold a statement of intent as it is possible to imagine. This tale is going to be beautiful.

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Beautiful stuff.

What follows is an amusing introduction to the mores and manners of the time. The cart on which Caravaggio is travelling is almost overtaken by a coach and horses and both arrive at the bridge’s gate at the same time. This is bad news for the farmer, because the captain in charge of the bridge only allows one vehicle to pass each day and the farmer’s vegetables will spoil if he has to wait. An altercation between farmer and coach driver inevitably ensues with Caravaggio intervening on behalf of the farmer because, as he later says, he hates “bullies” – a characteristic which will come into play later in the volume. When the captain agrees to see the rather attractive woman from the carriage in his rooms in order to ‘inspect her papers’, things look bleak for the farmer. But Manara has a sly twist in store, as the captain, emerging from the tower wearing only his shirt, announces that it is the farmer – and not the carriage – that can go through. It would seem that the lady’s papers are so interesting the captain wants to look at them again tomorrow morning.

Capture 2And so we are introduced to Manara’s version of early 17th century Rome, a world of lechery and power, albeit in this case of a relatively benign and playful nature. The artist – and the reader following his journey – will face considerably darker and more tragic moments as the story progresses.

On arriving in Rome, Caravaggio has little difficulty in finding work and space in a studio whose maestro is honest and humble enough to recognise the newcomer’s talent. In no time at all, he is working for the finest painter in Rome who, perhaps inevitably, turns out to be something of a stuck-up twit. In these early pages, Manara gives us a very engaging introduction to not only Caravaggio the artist but also Caravaggio the man; the hints from that opening sequence of pages are developed further. He is confident in his own abilities but falls short of displaying the sort of vanity that makes so many creative types profoundly unlikeable. Indeed, while he is single-minded in his pursuit of beauty (the early scene in which, incensed at having wine tipped on his head from the balcony above him, he confronts the culprit only to be captivated by the way the light highlights the curves of her bare bottom is a good example), that pursuit leads to him being contemptuous of social norms. For Caravaggio, the whore can be a madonna; it is not an either/or issue, despite what the Church might (and here does) say.

Caravaggio’s other defining characteristic is that aforementioned hatred of bullies. I wouldn’t even say that this is a desire for justice per se. It is, rather, an impulsive desire to defend people against cruelty when he sees it. This defines his rather unusual relationship with Annucia, a beautiful redheaded harlot who he first encounters on that bridge in the opening few pages and meets again in one of his not infrequent stays in prison. Initially he paints her as the madonna, an honour that matters a great deal to Anna, but her unwillingness to leave her pimp (and it is portrayed as unwillingness, despite his undeniably tyrannical attitude towards her) prevents her from doing so again, once the Cardinal who is Caravaggio’s patron finds out about her rather dubious background. Caravaggio begs her to join him, but he is unwilling to coerce her in the same way her pimp Ranuccio does.

Caravaggio 3In the end, what happens to Anna is tragic and it is a tragedy that inspires Caravaggio to produce a painting that confers to Anna in death an honour he was not able to give her in life – portraying her as Mary in his painting ‘The Death of the Virgin’, although the painting is ultimately deemed too scandalous to be displayed in Rome. The final few pages of the book see Caravaggio seek to avenge Anna’s death in a sword fight with Ranuccio that, again, highlights his sheer bloody-mindedness. Despite suffering a pretty unpleasant head wound, Caravaggio refuses to withdraw eventually killing his opponent. He then flees the city never, my history books tell me, to return again.

In Caravaggio: The Palette and the Sword, Manara has embellished and woven the details of history into a compelling narrative that illuminates the intensity, irrationality and inspirations of an exceptional artist. My one (very minor) gripe is that sometimes the historical detail overwhelms the narrative (even Manara cannot resist the occasional venture into the Renaissance equivalent of a training montage), but never for very long. Manara’s skill as an artist is unquestioned here, but his storytelling is impeccable too and there are moments of drama and revelation where this reader at least really felt as if he was being given an insight into just how differently artists see the world and a sense of how determined they are to reveal the truth about it in their art.

Big Lie; Big Idea – Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, issue 2

Okay. Confession time. When I was a kid, I read a lot of stuff. Doctor Who novelisations were my main obsession, but there were a ton of popular children’s book series I was into in addition to the adventures of the man with the long scarf and the mop of curly hair and the floppy broad-brimmed hat. The Hardy Boys and, to a lesser extent, Nancy Drew were among them. Those stories offered a mix of atmosphere, mystery, incident and intrigue. The Hardy Boys and Nancy themselves were, well, a little dull – too clean cut, too earnest to be truly compelling protagonists, but the stories themselves were fun. In Dynamite’s re-imagining of the characters, that sense of fun and mystery is still there. To an extent.

NancyHardy002CovATILTDaltonWe start this issue with a quick recap of issue 1. The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew have grown up and the boys are in trouble. Their father, detective Fenton Hardy, has been murdered and the boys are suspects. Nancy’s got troubles of her own. Her mother is dead and, we find out in this issue, Nancy has recently found out that her father was cheating on her before she died. While purists might decry this rather dramatic departure from the protagonists’ domestic situations, it does remove the cloying cosiness that was sometimes noticeable in the original stories. The stakes are raised here and there’s a clear sense of everyone being outside their comfort zone. Well, almost everyone.

The issue is narrated by Nancy and Del Col writes her as an exceptionally clever, driven and confident girl. The problem is that she also comes off as rather manipulative. She’s more than happy to play the Hardy boys off against one another, counting on their sibling rivalry to keep them invested in a plan about which she has not been entirely forthcoming. While this keeps the plot moving and adds a fair amount of tension to the book, it does run the risk of making Nancy feel far less sympathetic a character than she could – or should – be.

The book’s final third is where the story really takes off as Nancy’s plan to ingratiate herself and the boys with local criminals in an effort to gain information about who killed Fenton starts off smoothly but quickly unravels when she pushes the brothers too far and Joe seems to betray them. The issue ends on a pretty decent cliffhanger and I’m tempted to pick up the next one to see how things develop.

Overall, then, this is a pretty solid issue. To fans of the original stories – or, like me, those readers who have mostly fond memories of them – the updating of the characters may feel a little disrespectful, but del Col fuels his plot with it, making it an integral part of the story rather than merely a change for change’s sake. Werther dell’Edera’s art tells the story well and he’s adept at using perspective for dramatic or disconcerting effect. His style is a little too sparse for me, but it works well enough and communicates emotion and mood pretty effectively. Stefano Simeone’s colours are nicely muted for the present day and washed out for the flashbacks, with page 7 being particularly noteworthy in suggesting Nancy’s changing view of her father.

The issue as a whole is coherent and well-structured, with the final few panels of narration unexpectedly referencing those on the opening couple of pages. And, speaking of narration, del Col’s portrayal of Nancy is good throughout, even if she does come across as just a little smug at times. To sum up, then, while not exactly mind-blowing, this issue was engaging enough, featuring a well-told character-driven story and some clear artwork. If you’re even remotely interested in Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys, it’s worth a look.