My review for the first issue of this Dynamite/DC series ended with a forlorn hope for better things. After an initial issue that attempted to hook me with action and mystery, but instead only managed to alienate me with a confusing in media res opening and dialogue from the Melodrama 101 handbook, I must confess my expectations for this issue were on the low side. Imagine my surprise, then, when this afternoon I read a comic book that not only was reasonably easy to follow but also delivered a bona fide emotional punch to the gut. Yeah, I know. Let me tell you all about it…
Having crash-landed on Parosia a planet ruled by religious fundamentalists who subsequently confiscated her reproductive organs, Barbarella is on the run, aided by an Earth agent, Jury Quire, whose cybernetic body holds a host of secrets. This issue promises to build on the first’s intriguing premise and expand on the creative team’s already impressive world-building. Barbarella and Jury just have to survive that life-threatening fall first…
Well, we’re half way through this pairing of two of popular fiction’s most famous vigilantes (or a quarter of the way through considering the recent announcement of this series’ follow-up mini) and things are heating up nicely. Last issue saw a couple of significant revelations about the nature of The Shadow’s relationship with Batman, and it also left Batman tied up in an underground cavern surrounded by a gathering of his most vicious enemies. (Well, most of them. Where’s Kite Man?) This means we’re probably due a huge fight in this issue, doesn’t it?
Another issue of Francesco Francavilla’s wonderful take on Will Eisner’s most famous creation, another classic hardboiled crime quote for the opening page. This one’s from Dashiell Hammett. “I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble.” Well, it’s that word ‘reasonable’ that’s the kicker, isn’t it? A ‘reasonable’ amount of trouble is trouble you can handle, trouble you can, with a little effort, take care of. How fitting or ironic this quotation is when applied to the situations The Spirit finds himself in this issue is up to you, but I’m going with irony, I think. Let me tell you why.
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.)
In 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.
Okay. Confession time. When I was a kid, I read a lot of stuff. Doctor Who novelisations were my main obsession, but there were a ton of popular children’s book series I was into in addition to the adventures of the man with the long scarf and the mop of curly hair and the floppy broad-brimmed hat. The Hardy Boys and, to a lesser extent, Nancy Drew were among them. Those stories offered a mix of atmosphere, mystery, incident and intrigue. The Hardy Boys and Nancy themselves were, well, a little dull – too clean cut, too earnest to be truly compelling protagonists, but the stories themselves were fun. In Dynamite’s re-imagining of the characters, that sense of fun and mystery is still there. To an extent.
We start this issue with a quick recap of issue 1. The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew have grown up and the boys are in trouble. Their father, detective Fenton Hardy, has been murdered and the boys are suspects. Nancy’s got troubles of her own. Her mother is dead and, we find out in this issue, Nancy has recently found out that her father was cheating on her before she died. While purists might decry this rather dramatic departure from the protagonists’ domestic situations, it does remove the cloying cosiness that was sometimes noticeable in the original stories. The stakes are raised here and there’s a clear sense of everyone being outside their comfort zone. Well, almost everyone.
The issue is narrated by Nancy and Del Col writes her as an exceptionally clever, driven and confident girl. The problem is that she also comes off as rather manipulative. She’s more than happy to play the Hardy boys off against one another, counting on their sibling rivalry to keep them invested in a plan about which she has not been entirely forthcoming. While this keeps the plot moving and adds a fair amount of tension to the book, it does run the risk of making Nancy feel far less sympathetic a character than she could – or should – be.
The book’s final third is where the story really takes off as Nancy’s plan to ingratiate herself and the boys with local criminals in an effort to gain information about who killed Fenton starts off smoothly but quickly unravels when she pushes the brothers too far and Joe seems to betray them. The issue ends on a pretty decent cliffhanger and I’m tempted to pick up the next one to see how things develop.
Overall, then, this is a pretty solid issue. To fans of the original stories – or, like me, those readers who have mostly fond memories of them – the updating of the characters may feel a little disrespectful, but del Col fuels his plot with it, making it an integral part of the story rather than merely a change for change’s sake. Werther dell’Edera’s art tells the story well and he’s adept at using perspective for dramatic or disconcerting effect. His style is a little too sparse for me, but it works well enough and communicates emotion and mood pretty effectively. Stefano Simeone’s colours are nicely muted for the present day and washed out for the flashbacks, with page 7 being particularly noteworthy in suggesting Nancy’s changing view of her father.
The issue as a whole is coherent and well-structured, with the final few panels of narration unexpectedly referencing those on the opening couple of pages. And, speaking of narration, del Col’s portrayal of Nancy is good throughout, even if she does come across as just a little smug at times. To sum up, then, while not exactly mind-blowing, this issue was engaging enough, featuring a well-told character-driven story and some clear artwork. If you’re even remotely interested in Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys, it’s worth a look.
After the intriguing and, at times, dramatic 0 issue, I was eager to have a look at issue 1 and see how some of the hints dropped in that self-contained prologue are developed in the series proper. Well, there’s only one way to find out…
Before I go any further, it’s perhaps worth pointing out that I am not what you would call a die hard Vampirella fan. I don’t particularly bear the character any ill-will, but my experience of her is confined to a few issues of the original Warren anthology mag and Grant Morrison’s gloriously over the top take on the character in the 90s. I may have an axe to grind, but not a Vampirella-shaped one. More seasoned fans of the lady from Drakulon may have a very different take on this and I’d be delighted to hear from any of them in the comments below. With that in mind, it’s onwards and, in this case quite literally, upwards as we see Vampi climbing her way out of her underground tomb pretty much exactly where we left off at the end of the 0 issue.
The red on black line of commentary which appeared towards the end of the previous issue is also present, offering a succinct insight into Vampirella’s thought processes as she emerges from the subterranean passages only to be confronted by the winged creatures who dispatched one of our rebels last time. These creatures turn out to be, on the surface, angelic in nature, although Vampirella can smell sulphur on them. Vampirella shakes them off, making spectacularly short work of one of them. (If you ever want to see someone being beaten up with their own recently removed arm, then this is the place to come.) Having ascertained that she can still sprout wings in this brave new world, she flies off and, using Mount Rushmore as a landmark, navigates her way to LA.
And this is no LA you have ever seen before. Not for the first time with this title, I am reminded of 70s sci-fi flicks – there’s a distinct Logan’s Run feel to the panels in which Vampirella explores a futuristic city that manages to be both brightly and cleanly gleaming, while at the same time revelling in a kind of loveless and crass hedonism. It would be an exaggeration to say that dildos are everywhere in the LA of the future, but they’re certainly more… ahem… prominent than in the present day city. Costumes are gauche and vulgar; architecture and ornamentation are blatantly phallic.
Vampirella’s choice of costume is clever, then. In marked contrast to the in-your-face crudeness of the locals, it’s a throwback to the late 60s and early 70s – sexy but stylish (I do love me a pair of arm-length gloves) and the short hair is a bold move that I think on the whole works very well. Even more attractive is Vampirella’s character. Cornell presents her as intelligent, inquisitive, self-assured and extremely likeable. And dangerous. Her encounter with a citizen whose look is part-Clockwork Orange, part Behind The Green Door does not end well for the young man concerned.
The issue ends with Vampirella smearing her iconic bat symbol on her red top, grinning wickedly and declaring that she’s here to “wreck” the shocked onlookers’ world. Which is, on the whole, pretty cool.
So, is this worth persevering with? Yes, I think so. Cornell writes a sexy, clever Vampirella with a new look that really works. The world she finds herself in is interesting both visually and thematically. Broxton’s artwork is inventive and clear and, when it needs to be, dramatically visceral. The mystery of what’s going on in this strange city, of what lies beneath its superficial perfection, is deftly developed through a series of well-scripted encounters. Vampirella’s meeting with the clothes shop clerk is beautifully written and the clerk’s plaintive “You don’t know what you just did to me” provides an intriguing clue to the emotional cost of this hedonist’s heaven.
That said, I have some reservations. I could be wrong, but I think we might be in anti-Trump political commentary territory here. Cornell’s a liberal chap and the presence of a decayed Mount Rushmore, a much diminished and explicitly whitewashed LA and the references to money suggest that the evil that is at work here is an analogue for, if not the tangerine one himself, then possibly a GOP who, liberals would argue, hides its venality and corruption between a veneer of morality, rather like the mono-syllabic ‘angels’ who attack Vampirella while reeking of sulphur. Does this worry me? Not at the moment, no. I have no problem with politically influenced and motivated art, provided it’s done well and doesn’t get in the way of good story-telling. The moment things get preachy, I step off. As I mentioned last time, I’ve been reading Cornell’s stuff for a long while and, the odd wrong step notwithstanding (yeah, Demon Knights, I’m looking at you), I have confidence in his ability to write exciting, memorable stories peopled with interesting, believable characters.
Although there are one or two slight niggles (why do the ‘angels’ not follow Vampirella to the city, for example?), this remains a very enjoyable issue. There’s enough here to keep me interested in the series, and there are (just) enough hints dropped to prompt some theorising about the nature of the situation in which Vampirella finds herself. Broxton’s art is very good; Cornell’s script is witty and fun. All in all, this is worth checking out.
After the first issue’s compellingly sinister scene-setting, the second issue of Francesco Francavilla’s pulp noir take on Will Eisner’s most famous creation features some vigilante action, a deepening mystery and the introduction of a couple of new characters. Will it all be enough to maintain the momentum established by last month’s issue?
There’s only one way to find out…
Once we take in the gloriously moody first page with its ominous Raymond Chandler quote, we’re confronted with a page comprising eight TV screens taking us through Central City’s top news stories. Last issue’s dead homeless man hasn’t managed to make it onto the news agenda; the bank robbery that ended last issue has, but even that takes second slot to the ongoing controversy over the ominously-named ‘crimson coal’, a potential source of energy that has yet to be properly tested by the city’s regulatory authorities. This is the second time the ‘crimson coal’ has been mentioned, although how it might tie in to the rest of the story’s events remains, as yet, unclear.
There’s not much time to ponder this, though, because the story quickly shifts into action mode and, once again, I find myself somewhat awed by just how dynamic Francesco Francavilla’s artwork can be. The double page of the Spirit bursting through the window of the bank robbers’ deserted factory hideout is spectacular enough, but the fight that follows it possesses a wonderful fluidity, at least partly because of Francavilla’s decision to dispense with traditional panel borders. It’s also worth noting that the action is made more dramatic by Francavilla’s use of colour, the Spirit’s red tie dramatically punctuating a fight that is otherwise rendered in blues and blacks.
While the Spirit deals with the implications that Eb recognises one of the captured robbers, the narrative shifts to introduce Lisa Marlowe (a nod to Chandler that’s just a little too on the nose for this reviewer), a down-on-her-luck PI who’s watching John Bartlett, a “famous entrepreneur” whose wife suspects him of cheating on her. This being a comic book, the subject of her surveillance turns out to be up to something considerably more nefarious than enjoying the charms of another woman. Arguably, this plot strand is the most interesting part of the story as we realise that Bartlett is the man behind the ‘crimson coal’ venture and something extremely fishy is going on involving the city crematorium and a mysterious, hooded man we last saw injecting Eb’s uncle with some unsavoury looking yellow fluid. The issue ends with yet another homeless man being injected, his scream echoing in the night as a train rattles along the railway tracks overhead.
As the second part of a five-issue series, this does a good job of moving the plot along while raising more questions about just exactly what’s going on in Central City. Francavilla’s keeping the Spirit and the main plot apart at the moment, which is, apart from the occasional bit of flat dialogue, the only thing that niggles me about the issue. We do get to see the Spirit in action – and very spectacular that is, too – but it’s Lisa who’s the vehicle for the plot at the moment and that makes the Spirit feel a bit removed from the main action, which seems a bit odd in a comic that bears his name.
That said, Francavilla is a phenomenal storyteller and the comic remains a seductive blend of stylish action and atmospheric scene-setting. There’s a delicious feeling of dread in the latter half of the issue when Bartlett and his fellow conspirators meet; their conversation is rich with euphemisms like “factory” and “merchandise” that hint at a horrible ‘processing’ of human life. And that final page is wonderfully chilling.
In many respects, this is a typical second issue. Threads are unravelling, but have yet to start tying together in any meaningful way. The sense of mystery is palpable, and the Spirit is given the chance to shine, not only in the fight with the bank robbers, but also in the interrogation scene that follows. The sense of menace, of something truly terrible happening that has yet to be fully revealed, is what makes this story particularly compelling and I’m looking forward to seeing how things play out in future issues. If you want a beautifully presented slice of pulp noir goodness with gorgeously atmospheric artwork and a really rather creepy plot, this is most definitely the book for you.
NB: This review first appeared on the Weird Science DC Comics website.
Paul Cornell and Jimmy Broxton take a fresh look at the scantily clad vampiress from Drakulon in this 0 issue of Dynamite’s new series, and offer intriguing hints about her future.
0 issues are odd things, really. They tend to be disposable: not connected closely enough to the first issue proper to be indispensable for understanding the main plot; not involving enough to be interesting as a story in their own right. Not having read the first issue of Vampirella yet, it’s impossible to say with any certainty just how important this issue is in terms of the new series’ overall narrative, but I can say that, in Vampirella #0, writer Paul Cornell and artist Jimmy Broxton have crafted a tale that is, indeed, engaging on its own terms – even as it acts as an intriguing teaser for the main series.
The first half of the story follows three characters (two men and a woman) who are trudging through a snowswept wilderness that, we are told, is one of the “vast empty places” of “paradise”, a word that here refers more to a physical locale than a transcendent mental, spiritual or emotional state. Our characters are nearing the end of a quest. They have a map and enough doubts about what they’re doing to necessitate an intriguing conversation that reveals a little more about the society against which, it would seem, they are rebelling. It would seem their “paradise” is not all it’s cracked up to be. Love, apparently, is not easy to find and, although their lives were “a luxury” back where they came from, there’s a grim fatalistic determination about them that suggests that, whatever they expect to find at the end of their journey, they’re prepared to sacrifice their lives in their pursuit of it. That goal is described by the group’s apparent leader as a “snake” that she wants to “plant” in paradise presumably to shake things up. Throw in a really quite intimidating flock of silhouetted flying creatures that could be either angels or demons as an impending threat and you have enough of a mystery and an immediate sense of danger to make for a pretty compelling story.
While one of the group stays behind to fend off the approaching threat, the other two press on, entering an underground vault that contains their prize: the tomb of Vampirella. In a desperate effort to wake our slumbering vampire princess, the two characters cut themselves and drip their blood onto her mouth, ultimately sacrificing themselves to wake her up.
And wake up she does. Rather spectacularly, if truth be told. I’ve not mentioned Jimmy Broxton’s art yet, but now’s a good time to do so. It’s excellent. In the opening pages the lines are reasonably thin and clear, faces are expressive and poses naturalistic; for the pages in which the two characters navigate the subterranean tunnels leading to Vampirella’s tomb his layouts and use of shadow are just superb. It’s very atmospheric – and unnerving – stuff. For the moment of Vampirella’s resurrection… well, I don’t think ‘visceral’ really cuts it. She awakens with a primal rage that is evoked magnificently and her vitality and determination as she climbs up and out towards the light is palpable. It really is exceptionally impressive stuff.
As for Cornell’s script, it’s very engaging and contains just enough hints about the world in which Vampirella has awoken to make this reader very intrigued to see how things pan out. My enjoyment of Cornell’s work goes way back to his Doctor Who New Adventures novels for Virgin in the 90s. Cornell was instrumental in infusing those novels with a post-modern playfulness while at the same time delivering the requisite cleverness and horror with which the show is traditionally associated. A similar mingling of gothic sensibilities and self-conscious storytelling is present here. Throughout the comic the artwork is accompanied by a strip of narration at the bottom of each page.
For the most part, that narration is in the kind of pink 60s balloonish font you might expect to see on a Beatles cover; it comments on the action in a lyrical, playful way. This changes once Vampirella wakes, however. The font becomes a more urgent red on black; the narration changes to first person and suggests a subtle (and, for this character, somewhat troubling) vulnerability.
Perhaps most intriguing of all is the book that Vampirella’s ‘rescuers’ have left for her – a confusingly comprehensive and contradictory collection of origin myths and stories, as well as prophecies about her future that Vampirella instinctively pushes against. This is a Vampirella who does not want to be pigeonholed or coerced into fulfilling some kind of destiny, even if that coercion comes from people to whom she owes her newfound active state.
On the whole, then, this issue does its job very well. As a prologue to the main series, it gives the reader enough detail about the new world in which Vampirella finds herself to encourage further reading. It also introduces the character clearly and sets her moving without too much pointless introspection. In short, it certainly is an involving story in its own right and, at only a quarter (or for nothing on Comixology!), is well worth a punt.
NB: This review first appeared on the Weird Science DC Comics website. Pop on over and give those awesome hard-working guys some love.