Sunday, January 17, 2021

Justice Vol 1

 Title: Justice Vol 1

ISBN: 9781401211035

Price: $14.99

Publisher/Year: DC, 2006

Artist:  Alex Ross, Doug Braithwaite

Writer: Jim Krueger, Alex Ross

Collects: Justice #1-4

Rating: 3.5/5

It has always been one of those great contradictions that, despite the potentially omnipotent powers of the various Justice Leagues combined, the DC Universe is still very much like ours. Poverty, famine and political corruption still persist, and the superhero populace appears content to accommodate the world’s atrocities rather than prevent them from repeating. Mark Gruenwald tackled the dilemma in the seminal Squadron Supreme, with a transparent JLA analogue deciding to use their combined power and intellects to force a utopia upon the world. Needles to say, the results were far from ideal.

Justice presents us a flipside to Squadron Supreme. The world’s greatest criminal minds, amongst other Lex Luthor, Brainiac, Black Manta and Gorilla Grodd, all experience a simultaneous vision of a fiery Armageddon even their moralistic nemeses are unable to prevent. Combining forces, they’ve decided to make the world a better place; woe betide anyone who tries to stop them.

Alex Ross’s art give the book a similar look to Kingdom Come, but here he paints over Doug Braithwaite’s pencils, which to be fair bear a style comparable to Ross’s. The result is a book is almost too pretty for comics, compromising none of it’s dynamism for photorealism. Departing from regular DC continuity, the book’s many villains are re-envisioned on a level that is both energizing and comfortingly familiar, amalgamated from various Golden and Silver age incarnations.

Just as Ross’s passion for the Silver Age ethos shines through in his work, Jim Krueger’s heroes are the humble, wholesome paragons of a time before a thousand Punisher inspired antiheroes waved their uzis about. But his villains are Justice‘s main attraction, intriguingly ambiguous – at least in this volume – that we almost want them to do good. But in that grand Shakespearian tradition, we know that pettiness and greed will ensure that Luthor’s ensemble will do more harm than good, regardless of the purity of their intentions.

It feels petty to criticize a book of such quality, but it does puzzle me why DC has seen fit to publish the entire 12-issue run across 3 volumes. As it stands volume 1 is but the introduction to a larger story that could easily be, and should be, read in its entirety.

Publishing strategies aside, Justice is an amazing series. More importantly, like Kingdom Come or Batman: Year One it stands as a work of superhero fiction that will be immediately accessible to all readers, due to both the immense talent involved, and one of the greatest line-ups in comic history.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Lex Luthor: The Unauthorized Biography

 Title: Lex Luthor: The Unauthorized Biography

Price: $3.95

Publisher/Year: DC, 1989

Artist:  Eduardo Barreto

Writer: James D. Hudnall

Rating: 3/5

The post-Crisis reinvention of Lex Luthor was one of the more drastic alterations in the new Earth order. Under the John Byrne-helmed relaunch of Superman, the evil genius of old exchanged his jumpsuits and war suits (oh, how I loved that old war suit) for boardroom power suits — the finely tailored attire of upper corporate echelons. The labs and beakers were out the window, as were the team-ups with the Joker to carry out ludicrous schemes, and this new Luthor — still bald, still driven to dominate — left the science to employees. He morphed into a fabulously wealthy string-puller, a type all-too familiar in the Gordon Geckko 1980s which spawned him.

The new Luthor arrived on the scene fully formed, introduced in the Man of Steel mini-series that offered up the fresh origin of his arch-foe. We understood immediately why he hated Superman — he was the one man who could outshine him and who couldn’t be bought — but where this new Lex got his start was still a mystery. If he didn’t lose his hair in a tragic Smallville accident, was it just plain old male-pattern baldness that savaged his ginger locks? What other dark secrets did he hold under those new fat layers?

Lex Luthor: The Unauthorized Biography sought to answer some of those questions, and delve into how Luthor built the business empire that made him the most dangerous member of Superman’s rogues gallery. Despite the title, it wasn’t actually structured like a biography (though the cover stole a typeface and design from Donald Trump’s autobiography, The Art of the Deal). Set several years after the character’s renovation (as indicated by the Luke Skywalker glove over Lex’s prosthetic hand — NEVER WEAR A CANCER-CAUSING KRYPTONITE RING, KIDS), the story is told mostly in flashback, with a framing story that has Clark Kent accused of murder:

The Peter Sands that apparently wrote out Clark’s name as his dying act was a down on his luck writer (which puts him in the company of roughly 98% of that profession), and was living in a rathole apartment with bills pounding him left and right. He got his deliverance (which turned out to be his death warrant) when a publisher called, asked if he was working on anything, and he randomly plucked a Lex Luthor bio out of the ether because that tycoon was in the newspaper headlines that day. Now he just had to write the damn thing. This being 1989, he couldn’t use a laptop to do all his research, so he slapped on a Mr. Rogers sweater, rolled down to the public library and *gasp* went through stacks of books and microfiche — remember microfiche?:

Self-serving autobiographies and old newspaper articles only go so far, so he had to go out and track down people from Lex’s past, most of whom weren’t all that willing to talk. There was the insurance salesman that sold Lex’s father a lucrative life insurance policy, despite the Luthors living in the downtrodden Suicide Slum. There was the mechanic that certified that it was just an accident days later when Luthor’s parents were killed in a car accident. And there’s one of Luthor’s teachers, who had  her own sepia-toned memories of young Lex.

But there was someone out there who could keep him safe. Sands turned to the one man who seemed to have Superman’s ear: Clark Kent. Though Sands’ ravings sounded like paranoid delusions, Mr. Kent had his own hidden reasons to listen closely. He promised that Superman would help, but events have a way of intervening:

Alas, it wasn’t Superman who knocked on Sands’ door next. But he did get an interview with his subject. So there’s that.

James D. Hudnall’s script is solid, and Sands’ trek through Luthor’s seedy past is enjoyable. The major flaw — or so it appears to me — is that he actually uses two layers of framing stories to tell the tale. The plot opens and closes on Luthor, who has a videotape of Kent’s interrogation delivered to his Aspen chalet. Then there’s Clark’s interrogation. Then there’s Sands’ story, narrated by Sands himself. There’s nothing wrong with any of these things on their own, but the way their arranged jumbles the narrative a bit. The transitions aren’t seamless, and they make the story clunkier than it needs to be. It’s like a multi-layer cake of flashback, and it creaks and groans under its own weight. Again — this might just be me. 

Luthor’s post-Crisis life story was fleshed out in a number of other places, but this book gave some indication of just how far he was willing to go to secure his future — and hide his past. It’s not on the short-list of must reads in the Superman mythos (and the big guy never even makes a costumed appearance in its pages), but it has its place in Luthorcana.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Batman: Son of the Demon

 Title: Batman: Son of the Demon

ISBN: 0930289250

Price: $8.95

Publisher/Year: DC, 1987

Artist:  Jerry Bingham

Writer: Mike W. Barr

Rating: 3/5

Son of the Demon was one of DC’s earliest original graphic novels featuring one of their superheroes. It was released to considerable fanfare in 1987, and was successful enough to prompt two sequels, albeit with changing creative teams. Here it’s Mike W. Barr and Jerry Bingham exploring the relationship between Ra’s Al Ghul, his daughter Talia, and Batman, her intended husband.

Since his introduction the near immortal Ra’s Al Ghul has always pursued a global ecological agenda. It’s been his methods rather than his cause putting him at odds with Batman, as he’s come to view humanity as a scourge, and the death of a few thousand here and there acceptable in pursuit of his ultimate aim of saving the planet. Talia frequently features in his stories, very combat capable, and often pitting herself against her father, which is the case with her chosen husband to be, Batman. First, however, there’s some background disclosures, as her mother has never been mentioned. We learn why, and about someone with the longevity and hatred to be a realistic threat to Ra’s Al Ghul’s plans.

Anyone re-reading this having left it on the shelf since 1987 may remember the plot, but the finer elements of the characterization will surprise. Batman is depicted as a human being beneath the costume, something that’s gradually been discarded since Son of the Demon’s publication. He wears the role well, grim and relentless when needed, but human enough to fall for Talia’s charms and to take his old foe at his word when all the evidence proves that to be the case. The present day Batman would obsessively review the information to locate the flaw in it he’s missed. Although presented in simplistic shorthand in places, in some ways this personality has a greater realism than the current iteration. Not everything, however, is rosy. Characters talking as if explaining to an audience is fundamental to Mike W. Barr’s script,

Bingham was a talent lost to comics somewhere along the way, and the shame of that is displayed by page after page of excellent naturalistic art. He uses a very delicate thin line, and his Batman is modelled on that of Neal Adams, whose graphic style he carries off far better than artists who’d draw the sequels this prompted. At times the page layouts leave something to be desired, and could be more striking, and the coloring is very much of its era, with the choice to intersperse black and white panels extremely eccentric, although they’re nicely drawn.

A further aspect also dates Son of the Demon considerably. A central plot device is a weather control satellite being controlled via computer hijacking, which was novel and new when published, but now… To counter that Barr offers two very good and surprising epilogue sections, the second very nicely recalibrating what was read earlier.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Batman: Bride of the Demon

Title: Batman: Bride of the Demon

ISBN: 093028979X

Price: $19.95

Publisher/Year: DC, 1990

Artist:  Tom Brindberg

Writer: Mike W. Barr

Rating: 3/5

Bride of the Demon feels like a leftover story from the seventies. The environmental issue was prominent in titles written by Denny O’Neil (creator of Ra’s Al Ghul) and the art feels a lot like a blend of Jim Aparo and Neal Adams (latter being the other creator of R’s Al Ghul). I believe all of this was intentional. But there are some clues that let us know this is the nineties. One being the presence of Tim Drake (although poorly characterized), the other one is the explanation of the climate crisis. It is definitively more polished than in the seventies. The way modern readers are already familiarized with the problem.

But the plot suffers. It is hard to find a theme here. At first I thought it was about leaving a better world to our children, even if it costs us our lives, but there seems to be maybe too many plots, concepts and characters. The idea of a better future for our children can be seen on both, Ra’s and Dr. Carmody. They are doing this mostly for their kids. Although, in the case of Ra’s… he needs to create an heir first.

But this leaves some characters without a purpose. Batman in particular. And what about Dr. Weltmann, why is she doing all these things?

Another sin in this story is Batman claiming he knows he is in the southern hemisphere because the water spun the other way. Come on Batman, you should know this is not exactly true!

To me, the biggest problem here is that… we always knew Ra’s was an advocate of staring over with humanity. But the way the environmental crisis is dealt here doesn’t really go anywhere. Once the story is over, there is no aftermath. No dread of the consequences. And if you are writing a story about climate change, you kind of need to put those there, otherwise it doesn’t seem like there is a consequence. To make things worse, Ra’s Al Ghul says at some point that “we don’t have years”, implying that the end is nigh. Well, I know that all the measures taken around this period of time actually helped save the ozone (we would be in a worse situation right now), but it wasn’t enough. So, while Mike W. Barr seemed informed about some things, he didn’t really go to the library on the rest of the matters he wrote about.

And now we have two heirs, Damian and Evelyn’s son. Wonder if that story will be revived at some point?

Sunday, December 20, 2020

The Walking Dead: Here's Negan!

Title: The Walking Dead: Here's Negan!

ISBN: 9781534303270
Price: $19.99
Publisher/Year: Image, 2017
Artist:  Charles Adlard
Writer: Robert Kirkman
Collects: Image+ #1-16

Rating: 3.5/5

Here's Negan is a stand-alone hardcover collected edition of the "Here's Negan!" comic from Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead comic book series. Here's Negan explores the backstory of the iconic The Walking Dead antagonist Negan during the early days of the zombie apocalypse. It was originally published and serialized monthly in IMAGE magazine in chapters consisting of four pages starting from April 2016. The hardback edition was published by Image Comics on 4 October 2017. It is 72 pages long and was written by Robert Kirkman with art by Charles Adlard, Cliff Rathburn and Dave Stewart.

Negan is such a well-written character and antagonist. In the comic, he is a loud, crass man, who has a juvenile sense of humor and isn't afraid to bully, harass and embarrass people by making offensive comments and using profane language. He is also a natural leader who is able to use his sharp wits, charming personality, sense of humor and logical mind to control and manipulate others.

In Here's Negan we see what Negan was like before the dead rose and how he reacted when the apocalypse unfolded around him. This was a great little book. It dives deep into Negan's past and explores is psyche and what makes this complicated, flawed man tick. I loved the revelation that his weapon of choice, a baseball bat covered in barbed wire called "Lucille" is named after his dead wife, who died at the beginning of the zombie apocalypse. Negan was devoted to his wife and struggled to cope with her death. Unable to deal with his grief, he hides his emotions under a cold exterior and adapts to the apocalypse by unleashing a violent and savage nature that had always been lurking inside him.

What makes Negan such an interesting character is that he has a set of ethics. He has no problem with bashing in people's head with Lucille if he thinks it is for the greater good but draws the line at rape. He also believes that the strong should defend the weak. He is a great example of a character that has shades of grey to him. He does a lot of reprehensible things, but is still strangely likable, and is a joy to read about.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Pretty Deadly Vol. 2: The Bear

Title: Pretty Deadly Vol. 2: The Bear

ISBN: 9781632156945
Price: $14.99
Publisher/Year: Image, 2016
Artist: Emma Rios
Writer: Kelly Sue DeConnick
Collects: Pretty Deadly #6-10

Rating: 3.5/5

The second volume of the Pretty Deadly series, The Bear doesn't follow on directly after The Shrike, but instead picks up several decades after the events of the previous book, deep in the heart of the horrors of World War I. DeConnick's writing is still terse and pointed, Rios' artwork is still beautiful and hypnotic, and the story is still epic in scale and intensely personal in nature. In short, this is an excellent follow-up to an excellent opening act that serves to deepen the background and carry forward the overall narrative.

The most crucial difference between this volume and the previous one is that of tone. The Bear takes the mythic and at times ethereal nature of Pretty Deadly and grounds it quite firmly in our world. While The Shrike took place in a time no more distinct than "sometime when revolvers where the height of firearm technology, and in a location no more specific than "the Old West", The Bear quite explicitly takes place during World War I, and many of the events of the book are quite clearly located in France, in the trenches of the Western Front. This grounding givens the entire volume a different feel than the previous volume: Grittier, more visceral, and more tragic. By carrying the fairy-tale like atmosphere forward from the first volume, and weaving it together with the all too real horrors of the Great War, DeConnick and Rios have revealed the true terror behind the magical and almost airily surreal supernatural elements of the story. This contrast drives the book forward, and gives the book weight and strength that could not be achieved without this mixture.

Despite the years between the previous volume and this one, almost all of the characters from The Shrike return in The Bear, which isn't really all that surprising given that most of them are nigh-immortal servants of Death itself. Both the Bunny and the Butterfly are present in this volume, serving their roles as a framing device to help narrate the story. Deathface Ginny and Fox are back, as are Big Alice and Johnny Coyote. Sissy, the current incarnation of Death, and an elderly Sarah Fields, at the very end of her life both return in this volume as well. Sarah's impending death provides the impetus for the story, as Fox comes to reap her into Death's domain, while Sarah's daughter Verine demands a reprieve so that her brother Cyrus can return home to bid their mother farewell. This is complicated by the fact that Cyrus is away in France, fighting on the Western Front and making friends with Frenchmen and cavalry horses.

To a certain extent, the plot of The Bear is not the point of the story. Instead, the real meat of the book is in how it develops the mythology that underpins the world that DeConnick and Rios have created. In this volume, the nature of the reapers is made more clear - especially where they come from and why. In these pages, we not only see a clash between two reapers over the course of the First World War, we also see the birth of a new reaper born in the shadow of that conflict. Since this is Pretty Deadly, this birth is accompanied by death, as nothing can happen in this series that is not paired with death. One interesting element is that the line between life and death in Pretty Deadly is so indistinct: Characters slip from life into death without even knowing it, and without the reader even noticing until later, when the fact that these characters are no longer living is brought to one's attention. In a very real sense, death sneaks up on both the characters and the reader, wrapped up in pretty riddles and parables that cloak its real nature until it is too late.

The mythology of the book also revolves around the symbolic stories that it uses, and in this volume the most notable such story revolves around the characters of Johnny Coyote and Molly, the Reapers of Luck. Which reaper represents good luck and which is bad luck is not clear, and as Johnny Coyote points out, that's more or less the point. Their story is told using a folksy tale involving a Chinese farmer, a runaway horse, the farmer's son, and the Emperor's soldiers, with the repeated refrain "Good luck, bad luck, who knows?" This piece of folklore is reflected in the path followed by Cyrus and his fellow soldiers, as they come across things that both hearten and dismay them, as they believe their fortunes have turned for the better, or turned for ill. The problem is that neither they, nor the reapers who circle around them invisibly, can know the ultimate meaning of these happenstances until they reach the end of their journey. In a related tale (which serves as the basis for the title of the volume), the bunny and the butterfly tell a story about a bear and a hive of bees, in which the hungry bear tries to get into the hive to eat the honey and larvae found within, but is driven off by the stings of the bees. The butterfly asserts that this is wonderful, which the bunny agrees with, provided one is a bee. Once again, the story highlights how whether something is good or bad depends entirely upon one's perspective - as the bunny says, "the needs of the bear are not the same as the needs of the bee". One might even say, what is good for death is not good for the living, and the needs of the reapers are not the same as the needs of their quarry.

Pretty Deadly, Vol. 2: The Bear is a maturation of the beautiful and affecting story begun in The Shrike. Taking the fable-driven story introduced in the first volume and melding it with the harsh reality of one of the most vicious and destructive events in real world history results in a final product that is both hauntingly stunning and horrifyingly brutal. This combination of the mundane and the supernatural makes the mythic elements seem more fairy-tale-like, but also roots them in a reality that grounds them at the same time, while it takes the bitter harshness of war and elevates it to the status of fable. With this volume, DeConnick and Rios have taken the strong story they launched with the first installment and raised it up to even greater heights of excellence.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

The Wicked + The Divine Vol. 4: Rising Action

Title: The Wicked + The Divine Vol. 4: Rising Action

ISBN: 9781632159137
Price: $14.99
Publisher/Year: Image, 2016
Artist: Clayton Cowles, Jamie Mckelvie, Matthew Wilson
Writer: Kieron Gillen
Collects: The Wicked + The Divine #1-22

Rating: 3/5

Volume 4 of The Wicked + The Divine continues the high standards of Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s pop-rock fantasy series. McKelvie returns from his sabbatical while he concentrated on the final volume of Phonogram, and between them they work on the most action-packed volume of the series so far, a volume which they themselves admit has strong echoes of their past work on Young Avengers. A character thought dead turns out not to be dead after all, and we find out why they’re not dead. The motivations of Ananke are revealed. Hints are dropped concerning what actually lies behind the Recurrence, hints which will undoubtedly be explored in future volumes. It all ends in what is, basically, a good, old-fashioned superhero fight, as different gods line up against each other. McKelvie clearly has great fun drawing this.

After four volumes, it’s hard to find much new to say about The Wicked + The Divine – superlatives are starting to expire. Gillen and McKelvie maintain a high standard, and it’s fair to say that McKelvie’s return lifts Gillen back up to the level of the first two volumes, after the slight coasting of Commercial Suicide. Gillen’s writing zings off the page; McKelvie’s art continues to look splendid. As ever, Matthew Wilson on colors and Clayton Cowles on letters enhance the experience considerably. If this isn’t quite as good as the very best of volumes 1 and 2, it’s only because the straightforward action-based nature of the story doesn’t leave as much room as previously for subtleties. And it’s necessary to remember how very high the standards set previously are. If you like The Wicked + The Divine, then you’ll love this, and in any case, it is an essential purchase, since the story remains a continuous one.

This collection is rounded out by various alternative covers, some of which are particularly memorable (David Aja’s stands out), and some script pages and early stages of the creation of the artwork that give an extremely useful input into Gillen and McKelvie’s creative process.