The Kalaz’an Conspiray – Prologue (Part 6)

Later, Marris would feel a sense of satisfaction that the first instinct of every member of her team had been to move toward the unnatural screaming darkness rather than away from it.

At the time, however, all she felt was surging adrenaline, cold terror and the fierce determination to keep both firmly under control.

It was difficult in the face of that howling void – a gaping blackness framed, almost incongruously, by the drably painted laboratory wall – but she kept her voice level, willing it to communicate a confidence and certainty she only dimly felt.  “Albright, Devereux, keep to the rear. Five metre gap. Coleridge, De Santos, Garrison with me. Coleridge, you’re on point. With me.”

Fortunately, the orders required little thought, as did the automatic flipping of her sidearm’s safety as she unholstered it. The pistol purred contentedly then settled into a barely perceptible hum. She paused for just a moment at the threshold of the corridor.

The screaming had been steadily rising in pitch since the blackness had first appeared. She couldn’t be certain, but she thought she heard distinct voices. Gomez and Hendrickson, perhaps? It was difficult to tell. She didn’t want to think about what might be happening to them to cause that agonising, desperate shrieking. She didn’t want to think about what waited for them beyond the threshold, the stark dividing line between light and…

The screaming stopped.

The silence that rushed to fill its place seemed almost obscene in comparison. There were no whimpers or sobs or moans. There was nothing. One moment their ears had been assaulted by sounds wrenched from the pain-wracked depths of somebody’s being. The next, a crawling silence flowed over them like a suffocating shroud, terrible in its implications.

She cleared her throat.

“Any readings, Garrison?”

It took a moment for the science officer to reply.

“My scanner is registering this section of the laboratory as perfectly normal. Matter consistent with the rest of this section of the ship. No unusual radiation waves. There’s a concentration of phased particles ahead of us, but it’s diminishing quite quickly. Almost as if they’re being absorbed into the fabric of the… whatever that is.”

Garrison sounded rattled. Marris didn’t blame him. She examined the darkness for a moment. It had substance, a troubling suggestion of solidity that scratched painfully on the blackboard of her mind. The light beams of her helmet seemed to sink into it, fading from her sight perhaps half a metre or so in.

She took a breath. And stepped over. Into the darkness.

She was aware of Coleridge beside her, aware of his breathing – controlled but louder than normal. Most of all, however, she was aware of the darkness, aware of the manner in which it clung to the walls, seeming to congeal upon them, seep through the fabric of them, leak out through them from some unfathomable reservoir of liquid night.

The sensation of envelopment, of incipient claustrophobia, threatened to take hold of her limbs. She made herself take the next step. And the next.

And then, like filthy suffocating curtains, the darkness parted.

In her ear, Coleridge swore; she couldn’t bring herself to reprimand him.

*

With awakening had come awareness.

With awareness had come a jumble of sensations, emotions and thoughts.

The voice continued to speak, its words soothing and reassuring, although there was an undercurrent of urgency to them that threatened to destabilise and disrupt its gentle crooning.

“Open your mind.”

It quivered, sensation rippling across its skin in soft undulations.

“You will be free…. Open your mind.”

What did the voice mean? How could a mind be opened? How could it be closed?

“Allow my thoughts to enfold yours. You will be free.”

Free?

Free of what?

“I will show you. It will hurt. Be prepared.”

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Stag Party – Batman/The Shadow #2

Batman Shadow 2 coverThe first issue of this DC/Dynamite crossover did a reasonable job of getting our two crime-fighting vigilantes together and presenting the reader with an intriguing if somewhat confusing mystery about just who The Shadow is and why he might have killed Lamont Cranston, a pleasant enough man who turned out to be a descendant of the original Shadow. That issue ended with the revelation that The Shadow is actually Bruce Wayne’s old mentor, Henry Ducard. How will Batman respond to this revelation? And what path will the story take, now that the initial mystery of The Shadow’s identity seems to have been cleared up? Well, there’s only one way to find out…

The first page of this issue poses a number of questions. Why does Bruce not respond to The Shadow telling him that he has been “living in” Ducard and has always “been here… behind [him]”, one of the more startling revisions of Bat-history this tale presents to us? Why does he instead choose to speak in simple accusatory statements? Why does he decide to put his mask on for the soon-coming fight? Protection? The comfort of the familiar? It can’t be either to hide his identity or to frighten The Shadow, can it? The Batman/Shadow fight is pretty engaging. Rossmo’s good at the kind of slightly warped perspectives that in another sort of book would be distracting but here feel appropriate. His Shadow is particularly impressive. Nevertheless, the fight feels a little strained and disjointed and this is due almost entirely to issues with dialogue.

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Rossmo is a good artist. His panel layouts, as here, can be exceptionally impressive.

The two characters have a curious conversation in which Batman tries to convince The Shadow (or himself?) that he is the killer of Lamont Cranston and The Shadow tries to convince him otherwise. When the dialogue is reasonably direct, it works pretty well. (The “Only a fool trusts his eyes.”/”I trust my mind.” exchange is particularly tasty, highlighting that, when dealing with a being with the power to ‘cloud men’s minds’, Batman’s mind might be a liability.) When it moves into the realms of more enigmatic pronouncements, it becomes decidedly less successful. “Reason softens you. Time slackens the mind.” is a particularly bemusing example. Even more mystifying is the fact that Batman has run “facial recognition” on The Shadow and found him a “perfect match”. How exactly, given that he is currently fighting a Shadow inhabiting Henry Ducard and the emergence of The Shadow, as far as I understand it, warps the facial features of Cranston anyway? When The Shadow actually tells Batman who’s really killed Cranston (no, not the original – the other one), Batman refuses to believe him, dismissing it as a “convenient alibi” which prompts The Shadow into launching into a potted personal history. This is fine up to a point and we do get the line that Bruce doesn’t really “know what evil lurks in the hearts of men”, a statement with which, given the various traumas that have happened to him in his life, Batman would be entitled to take issue. He doesn’t, though, instead opting to ask how The Shadow knows about him, a question that is really rather redundant given that he’s just watched his former mentor turn into The Shadow just before his eyes.

The conversation ends somewhat inconclusively with Batman vowing to investigate The Shadow’s claims that The Stag is operating in Gotham and killing “the best” of Gotham’s citizens. This is something that those who have read the recent Batman annual will already know. The Stag is a new Orlando/Rossmo creation and seems to have been devised mainly for this series. More of him in a moment. The Shadow disappears pretty much as he did last issue, leaving Batman having to high-tail it back to Gotham and the reader to ponder whether The Shadow’s claim that he “trained [Batman] for years, through Ducard, and [his] other faces” is merely a nice metatextual nod to The Shadow’s formative influence on the character or meant to be taken literally.

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There is something decidedly uncanny about the design of The Stag. He’s one of the best things about this series.

The action then moves to Margo Lane’s Long Island mansion where both she and Harry Vincent are being told by The Shadow that they could be on The Stag’s hit-list. Neither Lane nor Vincent are particularly impressed with this current iteration of The Shadow and Lane in particular is horrified at The Shadow’s decidedly utilitarian approach to his associates. The Shadow’s response (that “humanity is a luxury [he] can no longer afford”) is not especially reassuring. In the meantime, Batman, deciding to assume that The Shadow is telling the truth, delves further into Lamont Cranston’s murder and discovers that it might be connected to the mysterious death of Barry O’Neill who was murdered (by The Stag, not that Batman knows that) at the end of Orlando’s story in that aforementioned Batman annual. It seems that O’Neill and Cranston were both recipients of a Gotham ‘humane’ award which is given to three deserving recipients each year. The third surviving recipient is none other than… Leslie Thompkins, philanthropist physician and one-time surrogate parent of Bruce Wayne.

Needless to say, Batman hotfoots it to Thompkins’ clinic where he arrives just in time to prevent The Stag from killing her with the ancient dagger used to kill Cranston and O’Neill. The fight is brutal but Thompkins herself intervenes, shooting The Stag in the head. Batman is aghast, but finds out that Thompkins is actually The Shadow in disguise. Another verbal and physical altercation ensues and, when The Shadow reveals that The Stag is seeking Shamba-La, the mystical place where the original Cranston took on the mantle of The Shadow, and needs one more kill to find it, Batman reveals he knows where The Stag is heading. The final page sees The Stag in (presumably) Arkham meeting up with probably the one Batman villain you don’t want an immortal murderer teaming up with. (Hint: It isn’t Kite Man.)

In some respects, this is an improvement on last issue, although the same problems that bedevilled the story then persist here. The principal one is the dialogue. There are some interesting things happening in this story. The contrast between Batman – a victim turned vigilante – and The Shadow – a villain turned vigilante – is potentially very exciting and is rich in dramatic possibilities. The Stag looks phenomenal – a pale-masked killer, horned, androgynous and evidently mystical in origin. Arguably, he’s the most interesting thing about this issue and lends a distinct air of otherworldly menace to the proceedings. But the dialogue too frequently gets in the way.

I’m not going to pretend that writing portentous, symbolically significant dialogue is easy, but when it goes awry the effects can be rather jarring. When Vincent complains to The Shadow that he’s been serving him for eighty years and wants to know when his debt will be paid, The Shadow’s “Your suffering at the yoke of culpability is an instant next to mine” has numerous problems. Firstly, you suffer ‘under’ not ‘at’ a yoke. Secondly, ‘culpability’ means ‘blame’ and feels odd here. A more appropriate word might be ‘guilt’ or ‘penance’. Things would be improved with a ‘but’ between ‘is’ and ‘an’, too. It’s not that the idea behind the dialogue is not appropriate; it’s just that the language used to convey it is simply not precise enough. That said, there are a couple of dialogue triumphs in here, too. Margo Lane’s “You spent us like ammunition” is wonderful. The dialogue isn’t all bad.

There are other issues too, though. If ‘Thompkins’ is really The Shadow in disguise, why is she seen talking into a hand-held voice recorder as if she really is Thompkins when no one else is around? Why, during that conversation with her voice recorder, does she make a reference to The Shadow? What does a surgical assistant making “stubborn mistakes” entail?

That’s not to say that the issue is terrible. It really isn’t. There’s a sense of Batman being on the edge here. This situation has rattled him – to the extent of him objecting when Alfred calls him ‘master’. His desperation when ‘Thompkins’ is threatening to kill The Stag is convincing too. Thompkins shooting The Stag in a Crime Alley clinic is evidently too close to home for him. There are flashes here of that Batman/Shadow contrast I mentioned earlier; Batman certainly seems to be aware of it and desperate to prove that his less lethal methods are superior (both morally and functionally) to The Shadow’s. The problem is that it’s all just a little too melodramatic, a little too emotionally heightened. There was an opportunity for a more emotionally grounded Bruce to contrast with the (perhaps) rattled Batman during the Batcave scene with Alfred, but it just doesn’t quite come off. Batman is a driven, almost obsessive character, of course, but hitting that one note repeatedly is going to get old sooner rather than later.

This series, then, is still not quite the out and out triumph it could be, although there are signs we might get there soon. Rossmo’s art is, if anything, more impressive this time round. That final page is gorgeous, for a start, and The Stag is one of the creepier new characters I’ve seen in quite a while. The plot continues to intrigue and the Batman/Shadow contrast, although not as expertly set up as it could be, is strong enough that this reader is interested in seeing how it plays out. Next issue… well, next issue could be very special. We’ll have to see. For now, this is worth a look.

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

Update – Things You Might Like To Read IV

We’re deep into close of academic year territory at present, a bramble and thicket-infested jungle of time which lays snares for the unwary teacher who can find him or herself prematurely relaxing only to be reminded that they have 75 reports to write. And they were due in last Friday. For that reason, I’ve been a bit lax when it comes to this blog and I can only apologize. I am reading things, honest. It’s just I haven’t had much time to write about them. Even my output for the ever-wonderful Weird Science DC Comics site has slowed down a bit. The summer beckons, though, and with it there will be time. Time to read, time to write, time to do jobs around the house… Ah. Ah, well…

Well, never mind, eh?

What I have been reading recently includes…

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Bolland covers are generally awesome.

Dial H Vol 1: Into You. Comprising the first six issues and 0 issue of China Mieville’s New 52 run on one of the weirdest superhero comics you’ve ever (or, more likely, never) read, Into You chronicles the adventures of overweight schlub Nelson Jent as he encounters a mysterious telephone dial that unexpectedly turns him into a superhero. I’d read this before and I’ll probably do so again. Mateus Santolouco’s artwork takes a little getting used to (among other things, he’s heavy on inking and shading, giving the whole thing a dirty gritty feel – to be fair, this is entirely appropriate for the story), but the fecund imagination of Mieville is on full display and it is a wonderful, glorious thing.

Jent is a remarkably sympathetic protagonist, as is the other dial-wielder, Manteau, who wears a mask and cloak in an attempt to hold on to some semblance of her self-identity in defiance of the dizzying range of super-powered characters the dial turns her into. This first trade finds Nelson and Manteau trying to cope with being hunted by villains who know much more about the dials than Nelson does and are trying to summon an extra-dimensional entity to Earth. (And, coolly enough, the Abyss is an old Dial H for Hero villain from Adventure Comics.)

What’s truly impressive about this book is just how many heroes Mieville conjures up and how well thought-out and grounded their characters and power sets are. Each one has a quirky, quotidian quality (oh, I do love me some alliteration) to their abilities and identities. One of the best panels of the book is the moment Nelson ‘remembers’ his biggest ever fight against the Rake Dragon alongside Team House, a superhero combo whose members’ identities and powers are all based on architectural features: The Door-Pilot, Open-Window Man, Spiralstair and an unnamed character who appears to be an animated wash basin. As weird as it sounds, it just… works.

I could wax lyrical about Mieville’s playfulness, his exploration of themes of identity and heroism (the moment in which a de-powered Nelson rescues Manteau is just marvelous), his convincing mythologizing – but I wouldn’t be doing the book justice. You really do have to check it out for yourself.

Royals

Busy. Colourful. If that’s your thing, this is a comic for you…

I’ve also checked out the first couple of issues of Royals, a series which should probably just be called ‘Inhumans In Space’. Writer Al Ewing is someone I quite like and, although Jonboy Meyers is a pretty decent artist if you like a slightly angular, cartoony style, the whole thing feels just a little lightweight to me. Ewing does some pretty decent things with the characters he’s got. Medusa dying is an interesting touch and it’s always good to see Noh-Varr get some panel time, too. I’ll stick with it for now, but it probably needs to pick up soonish.

In terms of non-comics stuff, I’ve got some interesting books on the go. Houllebecq’s Submission probably needs a blog entry all of its own. I’ve almost finished it and it’s one of the most thought-provoking things I’ve read for a long, long time. I’m getting close to finishing Time of Contempt and it is just phenomenal. I can’t recommend Sapkowski enough and this is tremendously impressive stuff. Highly recommended if you like your fantasy middle-European-influenced instead of anglo-centric.

Anyway, that’s me done for now. Hopefully, I’ll be back to posting regularly soon. 🙂

The Wild Storm #4 – Review

The Wildstorm issue 4 coverI’m not sure whether I’ve pointed it out before, but The Wild Storm is what was in the old days called a maxi-series. Each issue’s cover features a strip of numbers below the title running from 1 to 24 with the current issue’s number picked out with an arrow of the kind I used to use when keeping score at snooker as a spotty youth. I mention this simply to remind everyone that we’re currently only a sixth of the way in to whatever Warren Ellis has planned for this reimagining of the Wildstorm universe. Or, to put it another way, don’t let last issue’s explosion of action, glorious though it was, fool you into expecting more of the same this time round. For some, there’ll inevitably be a bit of disappointment at this and I understand that. I don’t want you to think, however, that we’ve returned to an issue of people talking wittily at one another about things of which they’re already aware but about which the reader doesn’t have a clue. Oh, no. This time around, we begin to get… information.

 
This issue starts pretty much right where the last issue ended. Grifter makes short work of the remaining Razors in a couple of panels that constitute both economical and spectacular storytelling, only to be threatened with nuclear devastation by a bloodied but still operational Razor who has no compunction whatsoever about sacrificing his life in the service of IO. Kanesha pulls the pesky bit of glass out of Adrianna’s head and they escape in a weird snake-like flash of pink light just before the Razor goes off taking the disused IO facility with him. I suppose this is a little bit underwhelming, but I’m prepared to be somewhat forgiving of this resolution to a situation that positively bristled with drama last issue. For one thing, Kanesha later makes it clear that she had no idea that pulling the glass out would work. For another, I’m not convinced that Adrianna’s been entirely unaffected by the experience. As always with this series, we’ll have to wait and see what the ramifications of this moment are, but I’m willing to bet that there will be some.

 

Wildstorm 4 Gorgeous Art

This is a beautiful thing.

The rest of the issue is, for different reasons, really quite beautiful. There’s a nice scene between Miles Craven and his boyfriend that rather skilfully starts to fill in some background to Angie Spica, her suit and why her acquisition of it is so problematic for Craven. I can’t stress enough how very good Ellis’ dialogue is here. It is almost entirely naturalistic (the line about Henry Bendix looking at Craven’s black boyfriend “like he wanted to watch [him] hang from a tree that was also on fire” is a bit forced for my tastes) and it portrays both characters as very human with fully-functioning senses of humour. That both men possess the ability to talk to each other without spelling everything out all the time (which is something certain writers working on books whose titles feature the initials ‘J’ and ‘L’ could do with) is impressive, too. Given that Craven is, at the moment, meant to be our ‘bad guy’, I’d suggest this is nicely subtle and enjoyable characterisation.

 

 
There are some interesting things revealed in that conversation. IO and Bendix’s Skywatch have agreements in place to share technological breakthroughs, agreements that Craven has broken. Angie’s tech comes at least in part from something called a Breslau II which looks like a classic 50s flying saucer, although the one we see has a big ‘Skywatch’ logo on it, presumably a mark of ownership. While Ellis’ strategy of letting the reader in on interesting conversations between important characters remains essentially unchanged, in this issue readers will, I think, find that approach a bit more rewarding than they did in the first two.

 

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Ellis does this kind of thing very well indeed.

This continues with our first proper look at Henry Bendix. Bendix’s evolution as a character has been quite interesting. From Picard-like efficiency and cool authoritarianism in the first issues of Stormwatch to the master chessplayer and god complex-plagued manipulator of the 90s Ellis run, the character has always been morally suspect. Here, Ellis does something I honestly didn’t think was possible. He makes him hilarious. If the fight in the IO facility was the highlight of the previous issue, the conversation between Bendix and his PA, Ms Lauren ‘Fahrenheit’ Pennington, is undoubtedly the highlight of this one. Ellis portrays Bendix as a cantankerous old man whose aversion to Earth and clearly genuine love of and awe for space form the core of his personality. Pennington is more than just a comic foil too. She speaks to Bendix as equals and there is a sense of affection and playfulness between them that, for this reader at any rate, is totally unexpected. It’s fantastic scripting and it’s capped by a glorious two page spread of the Skywatch satellite.

 
It’s worth pointing out, incidentally, that, while the Skywatch satellite’s size is truly impressive, its technology is firmly rooted in the reality of our own NASA craft and entirely appropriate for a story whose protagonists tend to wander around in open-necked shirts and turtleneck sweaters.
The issue continues with a rather low-key conversation between Michael Cray and Miles Craven in which the pair discuss Cray’s brain tumour and ends with a simply beautiful page of Angie walking along a night time highway, having plunged into the sea earlier on. This provides a rather melancholy and downbeat ending to an issue that starts with Grifter shooting two IO Razors in the head!

 
This is an excellent comic. It’s beautifully written and sumptuously drawn by an art team who really are on top of their game. Given that so much of this story relies on dialogue, Davis-Hunt’s deft portrayal of facial expressions is invaluable in helping the reader grasp the nuances of the story its various characters. That said, when he needs to be, he can be spectacular. The panel in which Angie flies over a sea reflecting the light from the setting sun is just wonderful; the image of Angie staring pensively to one side against a backdrop of the star-studded night sky is similarly breath-taking. (I might be falling for Angie, you know. Just a little bit.) That Ellis refuses to hold the reader’s hand means that the characters feel grounded and their relationships feel real and this adds a greater sense of immersion to the story.

 
The one fly in the ointment is simply that that story is moving so very slowly. As entertaining as this issue is, we’re still not all that far on from where we were a couple of issues ago. All the action of last issue notwithstanding, Angie is still on the run. Marlowe’s ‘wild’ CAT has failed to make meaningful contact with her; IO has failed to apprehend her. Michael Cray still has a brain tumour and is still trying to work out the implications of that. We know a bit more about Bendix, true, but we’re still not entirely sure what he’s doing or about to do or even can do. And there will be some readers who are going to find that frustrating after four issues of storytelling. All I can say to that is… four out of twenty-four.

 
Ellis is building a world here. He’s weaving a grand narrative that is not going to be resolved in a few issues’ time. This issue continues the leisurely pace established in the first two instalments of this story. While the background we get here is important and very welcome, the lack of impetus moving forward is an issue. That said, I trust Ellis; if you can hang on, I suspect the eventual payoff will be worth your patience. And, in the meantime, you do get some gorgeous artwork and truly excellent dialogue.

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

Grodd’s Law – Planet of the Apes/Green Lantern #3

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The covers for this series continue to be rather fab.

Ah, that ripe, slightly pungent smell of plots thickening like some rustic stew when the turnips are thrown in! Alright, perhaps that analogy’s not the greatest, but if the inclusion of Gorilla Grodd in a Planet of the Apes/Green Lantern crossover isn’t at least just a little bit turnippy then I don’t know what possibly could be. Last issue’s big reveal was one of the most audaciously silly things I’ve seen in a mainstream comic for a while now. Guy Gardner is leading a crack team of Lanterns to a timelooped Earth ruled by sentient apes so of course he decides it would be a good idea to borrow Grodd from Belle Reve and take him with them. Because absolutely nothing could go wrong with a super-intelligent, monstrously powerful telepathic, ten-foot primate on the team against his will, could it? If, like me, you were left aghast at how wrong-headed that decision was – not only strategically, but also morally (they’re apes; he’s an ape – everything should be fine!) – then you’ll probably want to read on…

Before we get to Grodd, though, we return to Sinestro who’s having one of those almost-informative-but-not-quite conversations with a restrained (physically as well as emotionally) Zaius. Sinestro hints at a number of things here – his plans for the ring, how he got to Zaius – but nothing is really spelled out. The main reason for the conversation is to show Sinestro finding out where the universal ring is – the Forbidden Zone – and to remind us that he’s a bit of a sadist. A couple of his lines are drily amusing, particularly the one about ‘sacrifice’, but, given the rather dramatic way last issue ended, this opening is a little low key.

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Male apes have external genitalia, remember?

And that continues as we move to Hal getting out of the city, escorted by his friendly apes who, it turns out, are absolutely rubbish at subterfuge and physical activity, although, to be fair, it’s Hal who breaks their cover by recognising an ape who was unkind to him last issue. Is female characters kicking male ones in the groin a trope now? It would seem so as Zira takes care of the guard by unleashing a kick at this most sensitive of areas, although her “That hurt a bit more than I would have thought” is quite funny. Hal and friends reach the outskirts of the city where Nova is waiting for them with some spare horses. I wonder if Hal’s role as surrogate Taylor will extend to the romance department. Perhaps fortunately, we’ll have to wait to find out.

Because we’re back in the Forbidden Zone for an epic confrontation between General Ursus’ forces and Cornelius and his newly-minted army of mutant ring-wielders. What you might expect happens: a full-on bunfight that is thoroughly deserving of the two-page spread Bagenda gives it, although it’s portrayed very much as a free-for-all brawl with very little sense of strategy from either side.

The narrative shifts mid-battle to New York where Guy and his team of GLs are heading towards the spot where Hal disappeared with the intention of replicating his shift across the ‘chronoscape’, a neologism that is about as useful a plot concept as Doctor Who’s infamous ‘timey-wimey’ stuff and as well-explained. Guy is carrying Grodd in a construct cage and referring to him as a ‘monkey’ much to Grodd’s really rather understandable annoyance. This section is horrifyingly hilarious. No one thinks that taking Grodd with them to a planet of intelligent apes is a good idea. Not even Guy thinks it’s a good idea. He admits that he is not “really a good idea guy” which might qualify as the “you don’t say” moment of the century. Why Kilowog and Arisia are so content to go along with him is a complete mystery to me, but there is a kind of sick fun to be had in watching Guy’s complete lack of diplomatic skills sow seeds that you just know are going to reap a harvest of Grodd-shaped disaster later on in the series.

The GLs finally arrive in time for the second half of the ongoing battle between Cornelius and Ursus and there’s some pretty impressive stuff here. Grodd uses his telepathy to devastating effect (note that Kilowog is impervious to his mental powers; this will, I suspect, be important later), leaving only Cornelius standing. Guy’s about to attack him when… Atrocitus and a bunch of Red Lanterns show up. Now, given that we had a whole scene last issue explaining how ridiculously difficult it was to access this timelooped alternate Earth, the Red Lanterns showing up like this is a little bit too convenient. While it’s true that Arisia felt like she was being watched when in New York and there’s a line of Atrocitus’ dialogue that mentions him waiting for the “lanterns to open the way”, the implication that the Reds managed to avoid being detected by the Greens on Earth and then somehow slipped through the chronoscape in their wake is less than convincing to me. We’ve already seen green rings detect red activity in the first few issues of Green Lanterns. Why wouldn’t they do the same here?

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Bagenda’s art is always serviceable and, as here, sometimes it’s simply magnificent.

But… this is crossover stuff and I guess we’re expected just to go with the flow. The introduction of Atrocitus as yet another player who wants the universal ring mixes things up nicely. The issue ends, however, as it began – in a low-key way and with the focus on Sinestro. The revelation at the end of the issue is intriguing more for its implications than anything else and, my occasional misgivings about plotting convenience and Guy’s stupidity notwithstanding, this issue does leave me wanting to read more.

Overall, then, this is pretty enjoyable. Guy is written reasonably well and is always fun to read. The back and forth with Grodd is both excruciating and funny. Hal’s story is suffering a little because it’s already familiar to anyone who’s seen the first film, and the conflict between Ursus and Cornelius, though spectacular and exciting enough, doesn’t really seem to be leading anywhere, but the introduction of the Red Lanterns and Sinestro’s discovery at the end of the issue show that the creators still have the capacity to throw some real surprises at the reader. Bagenda’s artwork remains good but seems a little sketchy at times; his depiction of the Red Lanterns’ arrival is impressive, some of his facial expressions less so.  That aside, there’s a lot to like here and the story is, for the most part, fun which, surely, is what a crossover like this should be all about.

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

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.

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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.

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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 Malone 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.

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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.)