This coming together of Batman and one of his more influential antecedents reaches its climax in this issue and there is, in my mind, a fair amount of promise the series now needs to fulfill. So far, we’ve been introduced to the intriguing notion that The Shadow has woven himself into the tapestry of Batman’s personal history as a way of training him up to be his immortal replacement. In The Stag, we’ve also been given a villain whose costume design is genuinely unsettling and whose very nature seems to be up for grabs, a mystery whose answer must surely be revealed in these pages. Last issue left us with several important questions in urgent need of answering. Who is The Stag? Who or what exactly comprises his glowing ‘army’ currently in the process of tearing down Shamba-La, the mystical haven in which The Shadow was born? How will a fatally wounded Batman survive this encounter, much less triumph in it? Will The Shadow and Batman finally reconcile their differences? Which one of them was right about the nature of the universe? Will the Joker start doing something useful? Or meaningful? Will Orlando deploy another plant metaphor? Will the last five months of reading this title have been, after all, worth it?
There really is only one way to find out…
Aaaand… I was right. It doesn’t happen very often so allow me to bask in my own self-reflected glory just for a moment. As I guessed last month, this issue does indeed open with the kind of action sequence to make Michael Bay go weak at the knees. It’s been a long wait (since issue 1 actually), but we finally get to see Deathblow in action and, bloody hell, it is brutally, gorily glorious. But, this issue isn’t just about Michael Cray putting the beatdown on two hapless IO goons. There’s a lot more going on here and I suggest you buckle up. There’s a lot to take in.
Last month’s issue ended with the (not very) shocking revelation that Colonel Dick Atcherly’s one-time flying partner, Captain D. “Mutt” Muller, had somehow fused with his dog to become a mutt-faced dog-human hybrid and was now intent on ‘rescuing’ him from a military hospital. This is the hospital in which Atcherly had woken up and been interrogated by two intelligence agents, one of whom was acting very strangely indeed. Of course, Atcherly was only in hospital because his plane had encountered a rogue drone spraying reality-altering gas around the place and become partially cartoonified in the process. (‘Cartoonified’ is now a word. Just go with it.) This being a Garth Ennis comic based on a beloved Hanna-Barbera property, you might expect a somewhat light-hearted approach to things. What was as unexpected as it was welcome, however, was the thoroughly engaging portrayal of the titular characters. All in all, issue 1 was a very enjoyable introduction to the series. The question is… can issue 2 build on that strong start successfully?
Two titles featuring anthropomorphic dogs in one week? There must be something in the water. I have fond memories of Dastardly and Muttley. WWI aviators obsessed with ‘catching that pigeon’ and generally coming a cropper through a combination of bad luck, the pigeon’s ingenuity and their own ineptitude, the duo is popular enough that a DC Hanna-Barbera comic all of their own seems like an inevitability. Not that this is their first outing, mind you. They featured in the astonishingly ill-conceived Wacky Raceland, which, despite some rather tasty Leonardo Manco art, still managed to be a mostly incomprehensible mess. This is better. Much better…
Last month’s opening instalment of this series was big on action, a characterization of Conan that foregrounded his grim humour and mercenary streak, and a Wonder Woman who, divorced from her familiar milieu and suffering amnesia, was cloaked in mystery. There was much to enjoy and I must admit I liked it a great deal. Left with a number of issues to explore, not least the precise nature of this version of Wonder Woman and the intriguing question of how she would get on with a hero like Conan, I awaited the arrival of this second issue with a fair amount of anticipation – and impatience. Was it worth the wait? Let’s find out…
This crossover involving two of the most iconic vigilantes in the history of pulp fiction is drawing to a close and I must say I’ve found the series intriguing and interesting rather than downright exciting. Snyder and Orlando have woven a story that acknowledges Batman’s literary debt to The Shadow, while refusing to smooth over the differences between them. Indeed, their diametrically opposed views on the killing of criminals form the thematic tension at the heart of the story that somehow needs to be resolved if the pair are to succeed in their bid to stop the Stag (along with the Joker) entering Shamba-La, the mystical paradise in which The Shadow was ‘born’. Given how last issue ended, it’s difficult to see how they can complete this particular mission. After all, it’s hard to stop crazed criminals entering a pocket paradise when you’re bleeding out on a slab. Still, this is comics. And there is going to be an issue 6. Let’s keep an open mind, eh?
Well, 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?
Another 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.
I 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.
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.
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.
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.
Astro 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.
This 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.
It’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.