The 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.
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.
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.)
Those 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.
Because 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.
And, 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.)
If 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.)
Last 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.
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.)
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.
DC fans are experiencing something of a crossover renaissance at the moment. Batman’s hanging out with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on what seems to be a semi-regular basis. The Justice League is currently teaming up with the Power Rangers. Heck, even He-Man and the Thundercats are getting in on the team-up fun. Already in the middle of a sequel to last year’s well-regarded adventure in the Star Trek universe, the Green Lantern gets yet another slice of the crossover pie – this time dipping his toe into the world of one of the most iconic sci-fi movie franchises of all time. Yes, it’s the Planet of the Apes/Green Lantern crossover. Is it a bright shiny ring of a series? Or more of a banana skin? Let’s find out…
Before we do, though, that cover… Ethan van Sciver has long been a fan favourite and it’s not hard to see why. There’s a raw power to the image of the ape hand thrusting towards the sky, the ring glowing on its finger, that is really impressive. The GL corps members hovering in the background look great too – even if their number appears to include a disco ball and a giant onion in a sweater. That the internal artwork doesn’t quite reach van Sciver’s level is a little disappointing but not deal-breakingly so. Barnaby Bagenda’s art is impressive enough, although it is, I would suggest, less polished than his work on Omega Men, although that may be down to colouring issues. On the whole, though, it’s dynamic when it matters and faces are expressive and consistently drawn.
The issue opens with a scene that manages to be dramatic and portentous, while simultaneously raising some troubling questions. On a barren planet, a mysterious hooded figure is engaged in some kind of ritual, apparently drawing on the power of a number of differently coloured Lanterns, each bound and gagged by glowing yellow-orange chains. Now, I’m not a massive Lantern fan, but even I recognise Munk, Saint Walker, Bleez, Gnort, Arkillo and Larfleeze along with a Star Sapphire who is probably Fatality, but it’s difficult to be sure. Whoever this hooded guy is, he must be wielding some pretty impressive power – particularly if he’s captured Larfleeze who, remember, wields the power of an entire corps in his orange ring. What happens to these captive lanterns at the ritual’s climax appears to be fatal and we later see their bodies with smoking holes in their chests. Are we in some kind of alternate reality for the Corps here? Hmmm…
The action shifts to the Planet of the Apes-era Earth where a silent Nova (there is no other kind, I suppose) stands at the edge of a huge crater caused by the impact of what turns out to be a mysterious glowing ring. She’s met by Cornelius who just happens to be out searching for Taylor. This, I think, means we’re somewhere between the first and second movies (the original ones, that is – not the recent remakes). Cornelius takes the ring back to Zira, but already the ring appears to be exerting an influence on him, briefly turning orange at precisely the moment Cornelius is expressing that he can’t leave something as “precious” as the ring lying in a hole in the ground. Aside from being a perhaps ill-advised call-out to The Lord of the Rings, it does hint at the nature of the ring, which seems to amplify (or instil?) the emotions of those near it. There are further hints in the conversation between Cornelius and Zira that follows. As Cornelius expresses his dismay at the warmongering of Zaius and his determination to prevent the general from acquiring the ring, the ring begins to glow a distinctly redder shade of orange.
Which is appropriate, because the next thing we see is the Red Lanterns attacking Oa (which, in itself, is a massive clue that this story does not take place in current continuity) because they believe the Greens have taken Bleez. The Green Lanterns respond as you would expect them to. There’s some nice action here as well as some entertaining banter between Guy Gardner and Hal. Bagenda’s artwork is pretty impressive here, particularly in the panel in which Dex-Starr attacks Arisia. The Green Lanterns deal with the threat of the Reds easily enough and then we’re back to our mysterious hooded figure who reveals himself to be… Sinestro. Of course he is, complete with evil chuckling. We find out that the ritual that started this issue was intended to lead Sinestro to the “universal ring”, presumably the object Cornelius is currently studying. Despite the fact that he still doesn’t possess the ring, he seems pretty happy with himself, the implication being that he knows where it is.
Back to Cornelius who wonders if the ring, now glowing a bright ruby red, is reacting to his voice, before deciding to put it on his finger. Dramatic things happen, including Cornelius crying out in pain and, back on Oa, Hal’s ring telling him that a “cross-chronal disruption” has been detected. The Guardians turn up to reassure Hal that it’s absolutely nothing to worry about, although they do refer to a “relic of an ancient security system”, something that sounds like it just might be worth worrying about. Hal, of course, isn’t satisfied with that and sets off to locate the disturbance and finds out that it’s coming from…. Earth.
On arriving at his homeworld, Hal gets attacked by Sinestro, who tells him that he has found a “true path to victory”. As their battle unfolds, Cornelius is out in the desert struggling with the ring’s energy that, in a rather nice double-page spread, leaps out of his ring and across universes to disrupt Hal’s fight with Sinestro. Things get weird as Hal’s ring loses power, he plunges into New York harbour and struggles to shore only to find himself on the desolate beach made so famous by the first film’s ending, complete with a half-buried Statue of Liberty. This would be a perfect moment to end the issue, but writers Robbie Thompson and Justin Jordan have one more sting in the tail. Cornelius encounters a group of the underground mutants from the second movie who have been drawn to the power of his ring and the issue ends ominously with the mutants bowing down to him in subservience.
Well, that was fun. There are a few issues with this story, but there’s enough going on here to persuade me that picking up the second issue would be a good idea. I suppose the main problems with the story are how it might fit into GL continuity and the overwhelming sense that we’re experiencing a “greatest hits” of the Green Lantern Corps. Oa? Check. Hal and Guy banter? Check. Guardians acting like tremendously unhelpful authoritarian dicks? Check. Hal fighting Sinestro? Check. While I’m not overly concerned about how this fits into GL continuity, I do feel that, on the GL side at least, we’re not really getting much new here. At the moment, it’s the Planet of the Apes elements that are hooking me. I was delighted to see the mutants from the second film make an appearance and I’m very intrigued to see where Cornelius’ meeting with them goes.
Another issue is that, for readers of the current Green Lanterns series, the concept of the ‘universal ring’ might be just a bit too close for comfort to the phantom ring encountered by Simon Baz and Jessica Cruz in recent issues of their book. How enjoyable you find the issue may ultimately boil down to how irritating you find this and/or the portrayal of the GL Corps.
Personally, I enjoyed the issue and think there’s enough impetus here to take the story forward into some interesting places. Bagenda’s art is dramatic when it needs to be and Jordan’s script is easy to follow and, on occasion, witty. The task of bringing two very different fictional universes together is not a straightforward one, and I think, on the whole, the story manages pretty well. Above all, it’s a fun, if not especially challenging, read. It’s worth checking out, particularly if cross-overs are your thing.
NB: This review first appeared in a slightly different form on the Weird Science DC Comics site. Check them out for a whole host of comic reviews.
Having only recently re-joined the JLA in order to lead it, Batman is about to face as stern a test as you could wish for outside of nine rounds with Darkseid.
It shouldn’t be quite this dangerous to go hunting in Maine, but, when you add in falling satellites to an area already made famous by writers like Stephen King and H P Lovecraft, I guess a few fatalities are only to be expected. We open the issue with a glorious splash page from Luke McDonnell and Bill Wray which is accompanied by the kind of portentous third person narration 80s comics are all about. Of particular note is the sentence “Unseen by the radar of two nations, molten at temperatures hot enough to vaporise flesh and blood, changing direction as if guided by some invisible force, it hurtles to ground in a remote wilderness: the once-elegant remains of the Justice League satellite.” A triumvirate of fronted adjectivals; powerful words like “molten”, “hurtles” and “vaporise”; a colon: this sentence is perhaps the epitome of dramatic comics narration. The art it refers to is luridly, gloriously straightforward; the glowing embers of the wrecked satellite (it’s been in that condition for about twenty issues at this point) smash into the ground sending, in the foreground, trees flying. A bolder opening to a comic it is hard to imagine.
It’s followed by a scene set the next morning in which a hunter (all double chin, moustache, bandana and lifesaver jacket) and his dog are transfixed by some sort of energy beam that renders them a pair of silhouetted skeletons loosely surrounded by a magenta glow. This beam, of course, comes from Despero and it is painful. At one point during his interrogation of the unnamed hunter, Despero bemoans the fact that the man’s “pain and fear” are blocking his thoughts. Best turn off the torture ray then, eh, Despero? You’d have thought so, but, no, it’s just the cue for Despero to take the information he wants (Justice League-specific information) from the man’s mind directly, dissolving his physical form in the process.
This is, to say the least… unsettling. Well, for the reader at least. Despero is just interested in the information and, having determined that the League that sentenced him to Takron-Galtos is gone and that a new League has taken its place, he decides to take his revenge on the newcomers. Because a somewhat unjust revenge is better than no revenge at all, obviously.
At this point, you might expect the narrative to shift to the unwitting objects of Despero’s ire, but you’d be mistaken. Gerry Conway’s got a number of plates a-spinning and, with one eye on a plotline that’s not going to reach its conclusion for another few issues, he teases us with a three page interlude featuring Zatanna, who we last saw naked and strapped to a device that was extracting her DNA in order to pass her powers on to the enigmatic ‘Adam’. In this section, Zatanna manages, despite the pain band around her head making it impossible to focus properly, to get out of bed and walk down a hallway towards a laboratory where Adam is undergoing some sort of process to make him more magically powerful. Zatanna is intercepted by her former tenant Sheri and some other acolytes of Adam, one of whom slams her against the wall thus rendering her, once again, unconscious. The sequence is nicely paced and does a good job of building up a sense of threat for Zatanna personally and the League more generally. Plus, charismatic cult leaders who experiment on themselves are always interesting.
We then get a rather pleasant bit of character interaction between the out-of-costume Batman and Vixen. They’re dining at a swanky restaurant in Gotham and, to be honest, look like a pretty good couple. Mari McCabe has one of the most unique and instantly recognisable hair dos in the whole of the DC universe, but the restaurant’s clientele seems to be rather relaxed about it. The conversation drifts towards Bruce Wayne’s love life and the not especially groundbreaking observation that Batman prevents Bruce from having any kind of stable relationship. When Bruce opines that sometimes he thinks “there’s no Bruce Wayne; only the Batman and his… shadow”, however, the script touches on something approaching profundity – or, at least, it asks interesting questions about the relationship between Wayne and his alter ego that arguably form the core of the character. As potentially interesting as this all is, it’s doomed to be interrupted by the arrival of Despero.
Now, I know I bang on a lot about the joys of third person narration, but there’s an example here of just how effective it can be. The bottom of page eight ends with “And they do forget, for a little while…” and, when we turn the page over, we get the grimly regretful “Such a little while…” over a panel of Mari and Bruce reacting to a sudden rumbling sound. Artists McDonnell and Wray then treat us to a huge explosion in the middle of Central Park (sorry, not Central Park – whatever Central Park is in Gotham. Gotham Park, probably. I don’t know…) which is rather impressive. Then things start to spiral out of control.
I must admit I like the fact that Conway and crew decide to show us Mari and Bruce changing into their costumes on the fly. I like too the inner narration from Mari, reflecting that, yes, the Batman is ‘real’ to Bruce in a way that Bruce Wayne can never be. It’s an effective bit of characterisation.
A quick word on the art – or, more specifically, the colouring by industry stalwart Gene D’Angelo. There’s a wonderfully hellish lurid quality to the art from the moment that Despero hits the park. It’s excellent and the images of Batman and Vixen heading into battle amidst a hail of glowing embers emphasise their heroism. That heroism is even more apparent when Despero emerges from the flames to swat the heroes aside. Batman’s fortunate enough to catch a nearby tree branch, but Vixen has to concentrate to summon the spirit of some kind of bird to carry her to safety. It’s a close run thing, too, as she still ends up in the park’s lake, which is admittedly better than hitting the ground.
The action becomes decidedly surreal at this point as Batman faces Despero alone only to see Despero’s face start to dissolve before his eyes and the familiar Gotham topography transform into a nightmarish world of hellfire-spewing fissures and a demonic mastodon-like creature that makes short work of the Bat. Despero picks up Batman and starts to gloat, gleaning from Batman’s mind that the rest of the League has been summoned before noticing that something else is happening in the detective’s head. He is far too slow to recognise it as an impulse to attack and Batman’s fist connects with Despero’s face in one of the highlight panels of the issue. For a split second, there really does seem to be the possibility that Batman might die, as a decidedly piqued Despero tosses Batman aside and declares he’ll “pluck out [his] eyes… and crush them like eggs beneath [his] feet”. Nice.
Vixen saves Batman by catching Despero off-balance and pushing him into the big column of energy behind him. Job done? Er no. Announcing that he is “no longer… flesh as you know flesh” but instead “energy and hate incarnate”, Despero strides from the light towards a grim-faced Vixen and Batman. The next panel is a full-page splash of a huge explosion over the New York (sorry, Gotham) skyline; the words “I am Despero the reborn!” emerge from the explosion lettered in such a way as to suggest that, wherever you are in the city, you will have heard them quite distinctly. Batman and Vixen are in a lot of trouble.
Where on earth is the rest of the league?
Well, as might be expected, they’ve gathered at the league’s cave-based headquarters, wondering who sent the emergency signal. (No one’s on monitor duty, it would seem.) Vibe thinks it’s all part of yet another training exercise set up by Batman, but the Martian Manhunter points out that Gotham is cut off and that the teleport link to the city is now dead. The league take a ride in a helicopter to find out what’s going on.
Once again, the artwork really comes through here. The panel showing the helicopter approaching a Gotham in flames is impressive: a cordon of ships blockades the harbour; the JLA’s helicopter is in the foreground heading towards the city; a further chopper hovers just ahead of it; the city beyond it is engulfed in flames and explosions. The chopper pilot helpfully explains to the Martian Manhunter that Despero has somehow transformed the citizens of Gotham into demonic creatures. The helicopter drops the League off close to the energy barrier that is keeping Gotham sealed off. The hazy outline of transformed Gothamites can just be seen through the flames.
Needless to say, flames are something of a problem for the Martian Manhunter, but he overcomes his initial trepidation and gets on with the job of analysing the barrier, determining that it is vibrating at a specific frequency that Vibe can consequently disrupt. The League makes its way through the barrier, fights past a few ‘demons’ and then, just as the Martian Manhunter is pointing out that it’s all been too easy, the heroes come face to face with… Despero.
Now, by the standards of 21st century comic book storytelling, it has arguably taken too long to get to this point, but the comic has been, I think, pretty enjoyable. There’s a lot going on in this issue and pretty much all of it is well-written. There’s a clear sense of building to a climax throughout the issue. Conway gets his Zatanna interlude out of the way quickly before concentrating on a rather affecting bit of character interaction between Batman and Vixen and then moving on to the main plot. The preliminary encounter between Despero, Batman and Vixen is pretty exciting (that punch is wonderful!) and the sight of the pair of Leaguers subdued and imprisoned behind Despero on the final page is chilling in a decidedly gothic manner.
That’s not to say that the issue is perfect. There are one or two minor issues with the art (McDonnell gets Mari and Bruce’s positions confused during the restaurant sequence, for example) and there’s just a little too much recap when the League get together prior to flying out. It’s worth remembering, though, that this is a monthly title and some of the dialogue serves as a useful reminder to some ongoing issues within the League – although they do seem to be way too relaxed about Zatanna not showing up for what could well be this version of the League’s biggest challenge.
On the whole, though, this is an engaging mix of character beats and all-out action. Despero is supremely worthy of the slow introduction he’s had over the last few issues; the ease with which he dispatches Batman and Vixen is thrilling, particularly given that both of them are presented as very proficient in the use of their abilities. That final splash page is mouth-wateringly good, too. All in all, this is an excellent issue from an oft-forgotten era of DC’s flagship team title.
Of the ‘big three’ DC superheroes, Wonder Woman’s origin is by far the most fluid, contentious and contradictory. Whereas Batman’s and Superman’s are both more or less set in stone and well known to even the most casual of comic reader, Wonder Woman’s is, it seems, perennially up for grabs, a prime target for the whims and agendas of a host of writers. So, when fan favourite Greg Rucka returns to the book after two (although for very different reasons) controversial New 52 runs from Brian Azzarello and Meredith Finch, is it too much to ask that he leaves the whole notion of Wonder Woman’s backstory alone?
What do you think?
The issue starts by highlighting the two main contradictory versions of Wonder Woman’s origin. Either she is made of clay – a gift of the gods to Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, given life by supernatural forces – or the result of a union between Hippolyta and a disguised Zeus and, in that sense, no different from any of the other many demi-gods of Greek mythology. The first origin reflects the Judaeo-Christian creation story and highlights how much Diana was wanted by her mother; the second is arguably rooted in deception and lust, and emphasises Diana’s heroic status, putting her on a par with Heracles, Perseus and a host of other heroes who claim Zeus’ paternity. The more perceptive of you will have noticed that I’m more a fan of the first origin, but I should point out that what I’ve read of the Azzarello run (about 20 issues) I’ve enjoyed immensely. Having made his choice about Diana’s origin, Azzarello explores it to its full potential, crafting a very entertaining set of stories out of the resulting collision of the world of 21st century (post)modernity and the world of ancient gods.
It’s clear, however, that Rucka has his own ideas about which origin should be favoured; arguably the very fact that he’s even asking the question in the first place indicates that he’s not especially enamoured of the New 52 run. Instead of resolving this fundamental contradiction immediately, however, Rucka chooses to make it the subject of his narrative. He has Wonder Woman question herself, question her memories, her origin, her past and her heritage. She questions how she is perceived by “man’s world” (a phrase that is problematic in its own right) and this culminates in her submitting herself to her own lasso of truth test in which she articulates what her subconscious had been telling her all this time. “You have been deceived.” This comes just after she has taken the ‘helmet of the God of War’ and crushed it in her hands, symbolically devaluing the Finch run in the process. While no one will shed too many tears about that, it is nevertheless a disconcerting moment, not only for Wonder Woman, but also for the reader. The question of just how much of what went on in the New 52 run is going to survive into this is raised and it seems the answer might well be “Not an awful lot.”
This section ends with Diana punching a mirror in a rather impressive (almost) double page spread, each shard reflecting a moment that has been called into question. These include the relationship with Superman (which I really won’t miss), a battle with the Cheetah, the JL fighting parademons and Diana cradling her mother in her arms. There then follows a page in which Diana questions where her story “went wrong” (a loaded question for any storyteller working in a shared universe to have a character ask, particularly when said storyteller has written the character before) and decides to ‘retrace her steps’ to find out. As she does so, she divests herself of key items of her costume – the tiara and the WW choker, both of which are associated closely with the New 52 run. She turns her attention back to the battered helmet of the god of war and…
Up until this point, we’ve been enjoying artwork from Matthew Clark and Sean Parsons and very nice it’s been, too. The lines have been light and clean and Wonder Woman herself has looked pretty impressive and dynamic. Now, we are treated to six pages from Liam Sharp who will be one of the regular artists on the book. The lines become heavier; the colouring darker. Her armour becomes more detailed. There is a muted sombre quality to the art now and it is gorgeous. Wonder Woman doesn’t waste any time and travels to Olympus using the battered helmet as a focus. What greets her there is an autumnal world of faded elegance and stately ruin. The sky is a sumptuous wine-red, and buildings and statues are wreathed in ancient vines. More worryingly for Diana, the gods are entirely absent. Only the statues remain who turn out to be mindless automatons left by Hephaestus to protect this faded Olympus. Wonder Woman dispatches them in a handful of stylish, beautifully rendered panels and is left with the conclusion that “this lie” is “afraid” of her and this is “not Olympus”. All very portentous. All very dramatic. All very vague.
As befits a Rebirth issue, the reader is left with plenty of questions. Where have the real gods gone? Who is powerful enough to erect a fake Olympus in place of the real one? Who is responsible for the deception that has been worked on Diana? Exactly what is true and what is false? How will this affect Diana going forward?
It’s too early for answers, but what we do know is that Rucka is confident enough in what he’s doing to play a long game and I suspect there’ll be many more questions before we start getting answers. Some would perhaps argue that the entire issue is simply an exercise in professional discourtesy. I’m not convinced myself. Personally, I’d contend that, as a writer whose first run on the book was both critically and commercially successful, Rucka’s earned the right to engage in a bit of revisionism. Whether he’s wise to do so remains to be seen. There’s enough here, however, to intrigue and impress this reader at least.
As Rebirth issues go, then, this is not bad at all. Even when he’s being elliptical, Rucka’s writing is very good (the line about the “first casualty of war” being the truth is nicely played). The artwork of both Clark and Sharp is also good, with Sharp’s being, at times, breathtakingly beautiful. I do have reservations, though. I care about the character of Wonder Woman a great deal and do worry that, if the book gets bogged down in a series of character ‘corrections’, the opportunity for Wonder Woman to reassert herself as a powerful superhero in her own right might be lost. I don’t especially want to see Diana constantly conflicted and unsure of her own identity. I want to see her saving the world, fighting evil and injustice, and generally being awesome. Hopefully that’s where Rucka is taking us. Time, as always, will tell…