Tagged: reviews

No Laughing Matter – Batman/The Shadow #3

DBatman Shadow 3 coverepending on how things turn out with this limited series, it might well be that this issue is seen as a real step up in both impetus and overall quality. It might be that this issue turns out to have significant implications for both Batman and The Shadow for some time to come. At this point, I have no way of knowing for sure. What I do know is that I enjoyed this issue quite a bit more than I did the previous two. Allow me to explain.

 
In many ways, The Stag is the perfect partner for The Joker. As this issue’s opening couple of pages demonstrate, The Stag has nothing to say beyond his enigmatic catchphrase and The Joker is loquaciousness personified. I know I’ve expressed my disappointment with some of the dialogue in this series, but the introduction of The Joker has seen a marked improvement in its quality. There are still some problems but even the opening pun, weak though it is, is enjoyable. The Joker is, after all, a character you should have fun with if you’re a writer and the Snyder/Orlando combo go to town here and do a pretty decent job of conveying The Joker’s mercurial mania.

 

The Joker and The Stag, however, are not this issue’s only double act. While you might think that The Batman and The Shadow would be this issue’s other compelling partnership, you’d be mistaken. Batman has The Shadow in chains and imprisoned in an underwater base; he has a brief conversation with him in which The Shadow reveals some interesting information about The Stag (like the fact that he’s descended from Cain – a House of Mystery reference? Hmmm…) and that he’s been ritually murdering ‘good’ people for decades in an effort to get to Shamba-La, the same place in which The Shadow was ‘born’. But Batman doesn’t stick around much after that initial infodump, leaving the Unexpected But Surprisingly Interesting Conversation of The Issue award to go to… The Shadow and Alfred.

 
Batman Shadow 3 1Now, this just worked for me. While it is true that Alfred’s tale about his time as an MI6 agent chasing down a fugitive in the Canadian wastes could do with a bit of fleshing out, there is nevertheless a clear sense that Alfred is prepared to accept the more esoteric elements of The Shadow’s story in a way that Batman simply isn’t. Although there is still an occasional niggling problem with the dialogue (“I have never seen pitch as dark as in that place” – black; it really should be pitch as black), there is a gravitas to this section that serves to anchor the book a little more thoroughly in, if not the wider Batman universe, then certainly in the Alfred-Bruce relationship that forms an important pillar of it. That this rather serious conversation is contrasted with The Joker’s more flippant dialogue makes it all the more effective.

 
When Batman interrupts (almost as if on cue) that conversation, the resultant battle is rather satisfying. Rossmo’s artwork (which hasn’t always impressed this issue) is excellent here, particularly when The Joker starts choking Bats from behind and his vision starts blurring. That confrontation ends badly for Batman and he wakes up bound and surrounded by a rogues’ gallery of his villains.

 
All this is intercut with that Alfred-Shadow interaction and it is in these pages that the boldness of Snyder and Orlando’s vision for this series is made clear. Now, I know there’s a spoiler warning at the top of this review, and I know that I’ve just told you a fair bit about the plot of this issue, but in the next couple of paragraphs I’m going to get into some nitty-gritty including Easter eggs that have profound implications for the rest of the DC Universe. If you’d rather not read them being imperfectly explored by a raving Englishman, you might be better scrolling down to concluding paragraph, where you’ll find a more general summary of my thoughts. If you’re still here, let’s get stuck in…

 
During his conversation with Alfred, The Shadow makes clear a number of things that had previously only been hinted at. And goes quite a bit further than that, too. To Alfred’s consternation, The Shadow repeats his claim that he has mentored Batman before. Not only that, but he has done so in a variety of guises. In a way, that he is confiding in Alfred is entirely appropriate. Both of them, it would seem, have adopted a somewhat paternal role to Bruce. The Shadow, however, drops an intriguing and shocking revelation. Bruce is not the only hero whose development and training he has supervised. In a really rather impressive full page, it is revealed that he has trained many other heroes. These include heroes I don’t recognise, but some I do – Green Arrow, Catwoman and the Crimson Fox. Now, that is quite some claim. The notion that The Shadow has been training some of DC’s established heroes to fight against The Stag is, on the one hand, pretty bold and exciting; on the other hand, it does mess about with established continuity to a degree that may well be unacceptable for some.
Batman Shadow 3 4

My own feelings are mixed. I’m prepared to go with it for now. It does raise the stakes for this series and that’s all to the good. I’m just not sure about how this works out in practice. The Shadow tells Alfred that his plan was to raise an “army” to combat The Stag; in the next breath, though, he reveals that each one of his soldiers has been cut down by The Stag before they could complete their training. With Catwoman and Green Arrow included, though, that claim is demonstrably false. It is, to this reader at any rate, a confusing moment in the comic.

 
The Shadow then reveals that Batman is his last student, before going on to say that Batman is, in fact, The Stag’s final target. There are, I suppose, objections that could be raised here, not least whether Batman qualifies as a ‘good’ man. Commissioner Gordon’s closing monologue in ‘The Dark Knight’ is echoing in my head at this point, though, and The Shadow makes a valid point that, in giving up a “human life to protect others”, Batman has certainly proven himself to be one of “Gotham’s best”.

 
But there’s one more revelation. And it’s one that ends the issue. Now normally, I don’t like spoiling issue endings, but I need to here. As The Shadow leaves to go and save Batman, he announces that he had been ‘training’ Batman to become the next Shadow, a claim that is so bold as to be almost ludicrous. Coming hot on the heels of all the other things the Shadow has supposedly done in the background of Batman’s history, this seems overly sensationalistic and almost disrespectful to the character. That said, it does suddenly make this series matter in a way that, say, the Planet of the Apes/Green Lantern series doesn’t.

 
Where we go from here is unclear. The Shadow will presumably find Batman and rescue him, but, beyond that, I’m not sure. My gut tells me we’re going to end up in Shamba-La by the time issue 6 rolls round and that The Stag’s true nature (and possibly identity) will be revealed at that point. What’s of greater interest now, though, is to what extent The Shadow’s interventions in Batman’s past (and, indeed, in the wider DC Universe) can be regarded as canonical and how exactly his plans for Bruce can be reconciled with what we already know about the character. Getting those answers is something of which I’m much less sure.

 

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Say what you like about Rossmo, but he knows how to lay out a page.

In the sense that it has dramatically raised the stakes for Batman and provides some clarity as to what this series is actually about, this issue is an improvement on the first two. That is not to say it is perfect. Rossmo’s art leans towards the sketchy side of things at times and the dialogue, although considerably better, still sometimes lapses into characters talking at rather than to one another with perfectly reasonable questions left unanswered by the people who have the answers but are too enamoured of their own verbal cleverness to give them. That said, some of the dialogue works rather well. The Shadow describing himself as “a glint in the peripheral vison of [Bruce’s] mind’s eye” is rather elegant, for example.

 
Whether you enjoy this issue will probably depend on how receptive you are to its rather bold central revelations. The plot is more sharply focused than in previous issues and dialogue is, for the most part, clear and accurate and, in some cases, memorable and emotionally engaging. The addition of The Joker is enough to mix things up in terms of plot and action and The Stag remains an enigmatic, interesting villain. In addition, this issue injects a sense of urgency into the narrative and, although the ‘surrounded by villains’ ending might be overkill, the prospect of seeing The Shadow and Batman take them on is appealing. In short, with this issue, this series might just have turned the corner.

 

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

 

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Brief Encounter – American Gods: Shadows #3

American Gods 3 coverNot having read the novel on which it’s based, I can’t say for certain just how close to the book this comic adaptation of American Gods is, but I suspect it’s pretty faithful. The first two issues were something of a slow burn and, while this continues in this issue, at least what is smouldering slowly is interesting. This issue, while we still don’t know exactly what the enigmatic Mister Wednesday is up to, we do begin to get a clearer idea of the world in which our eponymous character, Shadow, has found himself. And it is pretty weird. And just a little bit scary.
This issue starts off exactly where the last issue left us. Shadow makes his way back to the motel, bumps into Mister Wednesday and tells him about his encounter with the strange fat kid in the limo. Wednesday says that he knows who the kid is and that “they don’t have a fucking clue”. I got the impression here that, at this point, Wednesday sees the fat kid as more of an irritant than a threat, but the narrative doesn’t give us time to dwell on that, as we see Shadow go back to his room and try to get to sleep and not think about his dead wife.
So, of course, she turns up. But not before Shadow has a satisfyingly weird, but oddly informative, dream. This is where Hampton’s understated art comes into its own. So realistic and grounded is his art normally that, when the narrative enters, as here, a dreamscape, the art feels just as ‘real’ despite its clearly fantastical subject matter – and it’s all the more disturbing for that. Shadow finds himself in a hall of statues, each statue representing a god who has been “forgotten” and “might as well be dead”. Then, he is shown a much larger collection of statues of gods whose names have been forgotten, too. These gods, presumably, have passed from the “might as well be dead” category into the “are actually dead” category. This is a useful – and memorable – bit of background provision. Gods can die. They have died in the past. Their deaths are connected with the process of being forgotten.

 

American Gods 3 pic 1

Hampton does uncannily weird and twisted very well indeed, it turns out.

This section raises a slight issue with the way the adapters have chosen to tell this story. Anyone who’s read enough of my reviews will know that I have an irrational nostalgia (all nostalgia is irrational, arguably) for the heady days of melodramatic third person narration. The third person narration here is more understated than that found in your average pre-90s comic; it does, nevertheless, remind the reader of both the good and bad aspects of the form. It is, for example, useful to know that Shadow is being spoken to in his dream by a “precise voice” that is “fussy” and “exact”. That kind of detail is difficult to hint at through relying on dialogue alone and I get the feeling it’s important detail, too. That said, being told that “there was something profoundly disturbing” about the statue in front of which Shadow finds himself is a piece of commentary we don’t really need. If you think there’s not something profoundly disturbing about a huge three-breasted, snake-headed statue with a massive vulva carved in the front of it, you might want to seek professional help.
Shadow wakes up from his vision in something of a state and goes to the loo. When he comes back, he finds his dead wife sitting on his bed. This section is astonishingly well-written and incredibly disturbing, mostly because of the jarring juxtaposition of the dead Laura’s matter-of-fact honesty and the fact that, well, she’s dead, something that, again, the third person narration helps communicate very effectively. That third person narration lets the reader down a little, though, by telling rather than showing us that Shadow cries himself to sleep. Given Shadow’s taciturnity up to now, that display of emotion might have been a useful way to cement the character’s relationship with the reader. A minor gripe? Probably. It’s more or less forgotten as the narrative is interrupted by a rather nice vignette with art by Walt Simonson and Laura Martin.
Given that this 4-page section deals with the establishing of the Nordic pantheon in the New World, the choice of Simonson as artist is a bit of a no-brainer. After all, if you want anyone to portray this story’s version of Odin, Thor and Tyr, who better than the writer/artist of probably the best non-Kirby run on Marvel’s Thor title as well as his own criminally ignored (seriously, am I the only person reading it?) take on Norse mythology, Ragnarok? This, however, is Simonson in much more restrained mood, which is appropriate given that this is not a tale of heroism, but of, to use a timeworn phrase, a clash of cultures, faith and, ultimately, betrayal. It’s grim stuff and makes the point fairly eloquently that most religions are rooted in blood, violence and self-interest.

American Gods 3 pic 2

The dead wife comes to call. A touch awkward, that.

The rest of the issue deals with Shadow and Wednesday’s trip to Chicago where they meet up with some odd characters who, my trusty googling tells me, are Slavic gods. The issue ends with Shadow sitting down to play a game of checkers with Czernobog, whose name literally means ‘black god’. Gaiman, Russell and Hampton portray these Slavic gods as old, decrepit and down on their luck. They are, perhaps, only one or two steps removed from those unmoving statues that Shadow encountered in his dream. What the significance of the checkers game might be is, at this point, unclear. As has been the case with the last two chapters, this issue ends on an anti-climactic, somewhat uncertain note. I don’t necessarily mind that, though. American Gods is perhaps a series to encourage reflection in the reader rather than the desire to read on straight away.

In conclusion, this issue delivers much more fantasy than the previous two and is all the better for it. As Shadow gets more and more entangled in Wednesday’s plans, the richness of Gaiman’s world is becoming clearer. Hampton’s art works well here and Simonson’s interlude is rather classy. This is entertaining, thought-provoking and, at times, disturbing storytelling. If you don’t mind the slow burn, it’s well worth your time.

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

Kirby Goes Savage – Uncanny X-Men #10

_20170711_095711This is going to be less a review and more an appreciation. It should go without saying that Kirby’s Marvel work is seminal, absolutely and fundamentally integral to the company’s success in the 60s. A lot of critical attention has focused (quite rightly) on his Fantastic Four run or his phenomenal sequence of stories featuring Thor. His work on Uncanny X-Men, though less successful, is still worth a look.

To me, Kirby’s work is remarkable for three things: character design, dynamism and the sheer, overwhelming fecundity of the artist’s imagination. All three are on display in this issue.

I’ll be honest with you. Uncanny X-Men plays second fiddle to Fantastic Four, The Mighty Thor and Amazing Spider-Man for a reason. Where FF and Thor manage to effortlessly conjure a pulpy sense of the sublime and Spider-Man is a wonderful character study of a young man growing up and trying to find his place in the world, Uncanny X-Men is burdened with an overly earnest approach to teenage alienation whose characters’ overly respectful attitude to the patriarchal Professor X ensures that adventures are too tightly structured for the characters to develop or be realised effectively. Even the characters’ uniforms suggest a kind of conformity. There’s definitely a sense of Kirby’s imagination being constrained here. Issue 10 is a bit of an exception.

Issue 10 introduces Ka-Zar and the Savage Land to the Marvel Universe. Evidently influenced by Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land That Time Forgot (but still over a decade before its big screen adaptation), the issue sees Professor X uncharacteristically grant his graduates’ (not students at this point) request to pop down to the Antarctic for no good reason whatsoever. Having seen footage of a man in a loincloth, alongside a sabre-toothed tiger, wreaking havoc on a research base and having already established that the main in the loincloth is not a mutant, Professor X lets them go because… well, why not? Whatever his reasons (or lack of them) may be, the reader – and presumably Kirby himself – can breathe a sigh of relief as the creative gloves are off this issue and Kirby gets to show what he can do.

_20170711_090537 (1)

The 60s tradition of having a character describe the action as it is happening is alive and well here.

The plot is pretty standard fare. The team arrive in the Antarctic, find a mysterious tunnel that leads them to a primeval world, get attacked by savage swamp-men, rescue the too-powerful-to-actually-do-anything Jean Grey, destroy the swamp-men’s habitat in the process and then go home. Ka-Zar has a few moments as you might expect, but really there’s nothing particularly amazing here. Apart from the art and the little weird details that make everything else so much better.

The descent through the Antarctic tunnel is well done for a start; the team encounter a graveyard of gigantic bones which hints at the strangeness to come. Then they emerge from a cave and are immediately attacked by pterodactyls. Once that threat is dealt with both they and the reader are given a breather to take in the world to which they’ve travelled, a world where an ankylosaurus lumbers along underneath an archway of stone, while miniature horses get under Iceman’s feet. The sheer vibrancy of this bizarre world is fantastic to see.

It isn’t long, however, before the X-Men are attacked again, this time by barbaric-looking humans riding giant carnivorous avian mounts. Here, Kirby’s imagination rises to the challenge. The swamp men are not just savages on big birds; they are armed with rocks filled with volcanic gas and weird-looking bows that can fire four arrows simultaneously. They’re tactically astute enough to keep the X-Men busy while one of their number picks up a curiously inactive Jean Grey and whisks her off for a spot of human sacrifice.

Uncanny X-Men 10

Not only is he a great fighter (and looks good in a loincloth), but apparently he’s really loud. Rock and roll!

The X-Men have to work with Ka-Zar to free her. The interesting thing is that there is no mention whatsoever of Ka-Zar’s Kevin Plunder identity. Indeed, Ka-Zar is barely able to string a sentence together at this point (although he nevertheless manages to make his feelings about his “no touch” rule very clear). Although Zabu is present, Shanna isn’t. This prototypical Savage Land is teeming with life, a good portion of which is unfriendly, but Ka-Zar cuts a rather lonely figure in his first appearance. This may explain why his social skills are so appalling. A misunderstanding leads to the obligatory fight between two groups of people who should really be working together (this issue comes right after the first X-Men v Avengers showdown, incidentally) and the fight is only stopped when “Maa-Gor, the Killer! Last of man-ape tribe!” makes an entrance and conveniently provides them with a common foe.

Once Maa-Gor is dispatched, there’s a really rather fantastic short journey to the swamp men’s sacrificial pyramid in which Angel’s encounter with a brontosaurus provides an impressive sense of the dinosaur’s sheer size. The Angel’s subsequent capture means that he’s added to the sacrificial running order, which adds to the sense of urgency and the feeling that the X-Men are really up against it. Particularly when the tyrannosaurus rex shows up.

Oh, come on, don’t even pretend that you’re surprised!

I’ve not done much research on this but I have the feeling that ritual sacrifice by dinosaur is one of the more inefficient methods of appeasing one’s dark, unknowable gods available to the aspiring acolyte. It certainly proves so here. Although Jean can’t manipulate her own bonds because they’re coated in pitch (really?!? Does this happen in any later X-Men books? It seems like the kind of thing Mr Sinister could do with knowing about), she can free Angel, although it is, to be fair, a close run thing. She has to mentally lob boulders at it to keep it away from the pair of them until she can turn her attention to Angel’s bonds. This sequence does raise the issue of why she can’t just lob an especially large boulder at the tyrannosaurus’ head and bash its brains out. There are, I suppose, a couple of answers to this. The first is that this is a kids’ comic and they might get upset at the sight of tyrannosaur brains in their favourite (well, second favourite, probably) comic. The second is that Jean’s a girl and has a specifically female damsel-in-distress role to fill. Don’t you worry, Jean. Emancipation (via becoming all-powerful, going mad, dying and being brought back to life, all while your former boyfriend marries someone who looks just like you) is on its way.

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Awesome. Just awesome.

The last we see of the tyrannosaurus rex is its backside, by the way. This is the kind of thing that’s worth knowing. Not that you really notice because the next two pages are a gloriously throbbing actionfest of Kirby craziness, which includes Cyclops being upstaged by a herd of mammoths and Iceman rolling at least four swamp men into a snowball that actually only looks big enough to hold one of them comfortably. Having destroyed the swamp men’s village, the heroes hug and…

Ah, who am I kidding?

Ka-Zar gives the X-Men the brush-off and tells them never to come back to the Savage Land again. Which is obviously something they take to heart.

But, at least in the Savage Land no one (at the moment) cares if you’re a mutant or not. The complete absence of noble angst here is remarkably refreshing. Sure, Ka-Zar and the X-Men fight, but this isn’t because he’s an unthinking bigot and they’re super-powered mutants in a world that fears them, but because he’s alone in a prehistoric jungle deep below the antarctic wastes and both his social skills and grasp of the English language are extremely poor. I can live with that.

And you do get lots of Kirby weirdness here. Gas-filled rocks? Bird-riding enemies? Sabre-toothed tigers leaping across chasms? Maa-Gor the Killer? It’s all here and it all pulses with a vitality that, even 50+ years later, is breathtaking. Uncanny X-Men #10. A fine example of comic book storytelling. Enjoy!

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.)

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.

 

The Wildstorm issue 4 2

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.)

Planet of the Apes/Green Lantern #2

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

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

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

POAGL - 2 - 20

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

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

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

POAGL -2 -7

So, no Charlton Heston in this story, then.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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