Sunday, May 24, 2020

Batman: Life After Death

Title: Batman: Life After Death

ISBN: 9781401229757
Price: $14.99
Publisher/Year: DC, 2010
Artist: Tony S. Daniel, Guillem March
Writer: Tony S. Daniel
Collects: Batman #692-699

Rating: 3/5

Skeptical as I had once been about Dick Grayson's role as Batman, Grant Morrison and Judd Winick went a long way toward convincing me that the idea could work, and Tony Daniel cements it. Daniel's Grayson-Batman has not the edge of the Wayne-Batman; he falls into a number of different traps and doesn't seem necessarily surprised with himself for having done so. A young boy who helps Grayson gets killed, and Grayson's reaction is neither too emotionless nor too vengeful, as Bruce Wayne might have been; instead, in a small moment, one senses that Grayson mourns the child both for how the child reflects himself and how the child reflects his fallen mentor.

Grayson's battle against Black Mask in this story is a team effort, involving Alfred and Robin, but also to a large extent Huntress, Oracle, Catwoman, and Commissioner Gordon. The Bat-family shows a level of teamwork that we haven't seen previously -- a variety of heroes came to Bruce Wayne's aid during Batman RIP, but it was nothing to the extent of Catwoman as Grayson's informant or Huntress watching his back to foil a thief. Though it's not stated explicitly, I think Daniel even wants us to intuit that Gordon knows this isn't the original Batman and assists him accordingly. Dick Grayson is the Batman prince, essentially, being assisted by his forebear's couriers to accept rule of the kingdom. Helped immensely by Daniel's art -- which looks enough like Jim Lee's to give this entire whodunit airs of Hush -- Life After Death is swift and fresh and makes Bruce Wayne as Batman, frankly, feel a little stodgy.

I'll admit Tony Daniel had me guessing right up until the end as to the identity of Black Mask. (See how a bunch of nice Collected Editions readers discussed essential "Batman: Reborn" with me while tiptoeing around said spoiler.) Black Masks's identity in retrospect is fairly obvious (Brad Meltzer's theory of "who benefits" wins again), but I stuck for a long time with the answer being Arnold Wesker, the deceased Ventriloquist (despite that we just saw his corpse in Blackest Night) with a few quick detours into thinking it was Two-Face. Daniel writes a cogent Batman mystery, complete with viable clues and red herrings; at times it seems the Batman series has to be either a superhero title or a mystery one (Morrison's Batman and Robin being more the former, Paul Dini's wonderful run on Detective Comics being more the latter), so Daniel's good combination of both is a breath of fresh air. Here again, it's hard not to find good parallels between Life After Death and Hush, especially if you liked Hush as I did.

To that end, it's perhaps no coincidence that Daniel pays homage to Hush writer Jeph Loeb's Batman: The Long Halloween early in Life After Death, bringing that series firmly into continuity at least for the time being. Daniel returns the gangster Mario Falcone, balancing out Batman's often predictable rogues. Not only does Daniel leave unclear whose side Falcone is on, it also looks like he'll revisit the question of Catwoman's true parentage as presented in Loeb's Dark Victory. In fact, Daniel's story is full of these kinds of touches, from the villain Fright last seen in Winick's Batman: Under the Hood, to the Reaper from one 1971 Dennis O'Neil Batman issue (#237, also an unofficial DC/Marvel crossover). I did not expect this level of detail from the writer of Battle for the Cowl -- was shocked by it, frankly; Life After Death went a long way in building for me a new respect for Tony Daniel's work.

Daniel's final two chapters of Life After Death focus on the Riddler with art by Guillem March, reminiscent of Francis Manapul. The story is rather confusing; aside from a suggestion that the Riddler remembers that Batman is Bruce Wayne and senses the current Batman isn't Bruce, I couldn't exactly say what else we're supposed to take from it all. I trust, however, that the Riddler is someone Daniel intends to come back to; the Reaper doesn't have a truly important role in Life After Death either, but I'll spot Daniel some extra characters as he builds what's starting out as an impressive Batman run.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Justice League Vol. 3: Throne of Atlantis

Title: Justice League Vol. 3: Throne of Atlantis

ISBN: 9781401242404
Price: $24.99
Publisher/Year: DC, 2013
Artist: Ivan Reis, Paul Pelletier, Tony S. Daniel
Writer: Geoff Johns
Collects: Justice League #13-17, Aquaman #15-16

Rating: 3/5

Writer Geoff Johns pares down the cast such to focus on a few very specific characters and relationships, and it brings some welcome depth to the book (not to mention the story's aquatic antagonists). With the most recent Aquaman collection, that title has been on an upswing, and it buoys Justice League along with it in this crossover.

Throne of Atlantis's first two issues explore the relationship between Wonder Woman and Superman, and the over-protectiveness Diana feels toward the League and her friends, including Steve Trevor. Johns's kiss between Superman and Wonder Woman in Justice League Vol. 2: The Villains Journey was wholly unconvincing, as it was meant to be; in Throne, Johns has the characters back up and get to know one another better, and what emerges is a believable basis for their attraction. Superman finds someone who understands his responsibilities; Wonder Woman learns how to have a private life amidst her superheroics. Johns's Wonder Woman is a wholly different character from Brian Azzarello's portrayal in the main series; while I like Azzarello's portrayal, I'm curious here for the first time what a Johns-written Wonder Woman series might be like.

Toward the end of Villain's Journey (and even in part since Justice League Vol. 1: Origin), Johns has built up to a confrontation between Batman and Aquaman over leadership of the League. We've seen League leadership fights before (most notably in Justice League International) and I worried this would devolve into a fistfight or a schism within the League, a story told already too many times. While Batman and Aquaman do come to blows, surprisingly they later each admit their own errors and reconcile.

It's perhaps a shame that Batman and Aquaman each accepting fault should be so surprising -- in our fiction and in the real world, we more commonly see factions schism than compromise -- and Johns's less angsty, more reasonable solution is welcome. Also, Batman and Aquaman is not a team-up we often saw in the entirety of the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths DC Universe, and Johns succeeds in giving them a conflict where both have a natural role and would logically work side-by-side.

Finally, Johns gives Cyborg a wrenching decision in these pages that, as much as I'm curious about a Johns-penned Wonder Woman series, makes me wonder what Johns could do with Vic Stone, too. Coming out of Villain's Journey, Vic is increasingly concerned about losing his humanity -- he wonders even if his consciousness might simply be a computer program that believes itself to have been human. Vic's scientist father offers him an "upgrade" that would allow Vic to survive harsh climates, but at the cost of his one remaining lung. Vic opposes the change initially, but as soon as he needs the upgrades to rescue the League, Vic agrees -- even as the audience stands shocked at his sacrifice. Vic has been a cypher in the first two League volumes, but here we understand his capacity for heroism. If the Justice League title lacked heart before, it has it now.

Following from the excellent Aquaman Vol. 2: The Others, in which Johns resurrected and defined Aquaman nemesis Black Manta for the ages, he gives the same treatment to Ocean Master here. As is Johns's wont, Ocean Master is no cookie-cutter foe, but actually a passionate ruler of Atlantis who legitimately believes his city has been attacked. Even better, Ocean Master turns out not to be the story's true villain; rather, Johns plays on our pre-Flashpoint sympathies, reintroducing a beloved character and then having him turn out to be the mastermind behind the Atlantis war. This was clever on Johns's part and caught me by surprise, and it's a stark reminder that while some names remain the same, the New 52 characters are not the same as their predecessors.

Jim Lee departs art duties on Justice League before this volume, replaced by Ivan Reis (coming over from Aquaman); Paul Pelletier replaces Reis on the other title. I've come to associate Reis's work with Aquaman now, and his presence here on Justice League helped make the story feel less like a crossover and more like the next issue of a Aquaman/Justice League title. I have enjoyed Pelletier's work on such titles as Superboy and the Ravers, though I'll need a bit longer before I agree he's right for Aquaman; Pelletier's sunnier, smoother style doesn't convey the seriousness of the Justice LEague or Aquaman the way Reis and Lee did, and I'm not convinced the Aquaman title is the better for it.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Flashpoint: World of Flashpoint Featuring Green Lantern

Title: Flashpoint: World of Flashpoint Featuring Green Lantern

ISBN: 9781401234065
Price: $17.99
Publisher/Year: DC, 2012
Artist: Ben Oliver, Cliff Richards, Felipe Massafera, Robson Rocha, Joe Prado, Ibraim Roberson, Alex Massacci, Andy Smith, Keith Champagne, Ig Guara, Marco Castiello, Ruy Jose, Vincenzo Acunzo
Writer: Adam Schlagman, Jeff Lemire, Pornsak Pichetshote
Collects: Flashpoint: Abin Sur - The Green Lantern #1-4, Flashpoint: Frankenstein and the Creatures of the Unknown #1-3, Flashpoint: Green Arrow Industries #1, Flashpoint: Hal Jordan #1-3

Rating: 3/5

World of Flashpoint Featuring Green Lantern offered some of the strongest Flashpoint tie-in miniseries so far, faltering only unexpectedly at the end. In addition to stories about Green Lantern characters Abin Sur and Hal Jordan, and Green Arrow, this World of Flashpoint volume also debuts writer Jeff Lemire on the Frankenstein character that he'll subsequently write in the DC New 52 (what ties all these stories together, perhaps, is that "it's not easy being green").

For the first few stories, for Lemire's Frankenstein, and for a brief nod to what the term "Flashpoint" might mean for the DC Universe going forward, Green Lantern ranks for me as the second-best Flashpoint tie-in collection, behind Batman but before Wonder Woman and Superman.

I thoroughly enjoyed Adam Schlagman's Abin Sur: The Green Lantern miniseries that started off this collection, perhaps because of all the Flashpoint tie-ins, it felt the most familiar -- like Abin Sur's back-story, instead of his alternate life. This is due largely because Schlagman mines the rich mythos Geoff Johns has created for the Green Lantern title of late; the Project Superman miniseries had nothing to do with ongoing events in the Superman titles, but Abin Sur is full of Atrocitus and White Lanterns and the untold romance between Sinestro and Abin Sur's sister, and on and on.

One gets the sense of things hinted at here later to be revealed in the Green Lantern title, rather than simply an "Elseworlds" tale that plays on Superman or Batman's tropes.

Not only is any story fun where the writer plays Sinestro as an anti-hero, but Schlagman also has Sinestro investigating "the prophecy of the Flashpoint." Other titles have addressed "the Flashpoint," mainly Legion of Super-Heroes, and popular wisdom has it that "Flashpoint" being a thing is a holdover from what the miniseries was meant to achieve prior to its use introducing the DC New 52.

Here, we learn a Flashpoint is "a moment in time that changes everything moving forward," which makes sense both in this context and that of the Legion's time travel. Possibly, DC could decide that all of their continuity-changing events so far have been "Flashpoints"; tied perhaps into the upcoming Pandora story will be some unification of Crisis on Infinite Earths, Zero Hour, Infinite Crisis and so on all as Flashpoints, a kind of unified continuity-changing theory similar to Hypertime; if so, this will make the Abin Sur miniseries very key indeed.

Abin Sur was good enough that it's surprising that Schlagman's Hal Jordan miniseries that ends this collection is so dull. Hal Jordan is a character with plenty of complexity, but Schlagman glosses over the fine details; Hal changes, seemingly (but not explicitly) because of Abin Sur's influence, but Hal's self-sacrifice in the end seems more about daredevil notoriety than an inspiration to save the world.

When Carol Ferris finds Hal's engagement ring in the end, I couldn't quite recognize it as a natural outgrowth of the character we'd been following for three issues. A lot of the miniseries is taken up with airplane battles; there's nothing wrong with that per se, but these were not so exciting, nor did the time in between reveal more about not-Green Lantern Hal Jordan's character than you would expect. Again, it's a disappointment mainly because of how well Schlagman brought Abin Sur to life in the beginning.

On the other hand, I would call Vertigo editor Pornsak Pichetshote's Green Arrow Industries one-shot one of the high points of the Flashpoint tie-ins. With a nice amount of humor, Pichetshote introduces a young Oliver Queen who's not an archer at all, but rather the CEO of a munitions corporation specializing in super-villain weaponry. I don't, as it is, object to a flashier take on Green Arrow that's more Justin Hartley than "old man with a goatee" (a look that has become even more improbable as time's gone on, even for comic books); adding to that the concept of a hero who takes weapons from super-villains is quite interesting to me.

Pichetshote goes a step further here, however, to take up the idea of corporations as entities, either for good or evil. Queen Industries, in the story, is doing kind of bad -- or at least poorly thought-out things -- but Pichetshote tries to differentiate between the institution and its actions; often a "big corporation" in comics turns out to be evil, but Pichetshote warns that's a stereotype, not a constant fact. The story never gets around to actually deciding what a "superheroic corporation" would consist of, but it's another reason I wouldn't mind reading more of Pichetshote's Green Arrow, to see how it all plays out.

I'm still overjoyed that Frankenstein received a DC New 52 series, so I'm almost inclined not to gripe at all about Jeff Lemire's Frankenstein and the Creature Commandos here. Any screen-time for Frankenstein is good, and Lemire makes this Frankenstein an agent of SHADE just like the DC New 52 and Seven Soldiers of Victory incarnation, so it's not hard to ignore the fine details and enjoy this story as a continuation of what came before and a lead-in to what's next.

Lemire can hardly be faulted for not living up to the truly weird Seven Soldiers miniseries by Grant Morrison and Doug Mahnke -- that's setting the bar rather high -- but there's neither the "Frankenstein fights a possessed town" nor "Frankenstein does battle on Mars" aesthetic that really puts a Frankenstein story over the top. There's more focus here on the Commandos than on Frankenstein, but I'll give Lemire the benefit of "just warming up" and look forward to the real show in the DC New 52.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Solomon Grundy

Title: Solomon Grundy

ISBN: 9781401225865
Price: $19.99
Publisher/Year: DC, 2010
Artist: Scott Kolins
Writer: Scott Kolins, Geoff Johns
Collects: Faces of Evil: Solomon Grundy, Solomon Grundy #1-7

Rating: 3/5

If someone had told me I'd be reading a story where Solomon Grundy, the alabaster-skinned, zombie-esque simpleton, was fighting Bizarro, that most backwards foe of Superman, I'd have run, not walked, to the comic store to see it. And, truth be told, that particular encounter and the use of Bizarro in this book was pretty fun; a Legion of Doom reunion, if you will. In fact, the fighting (vs. Poison Ivy, Amazo, the Demon Etrigan, and more) and characterizations are spot-on and enjoyable.

The problem with this Solomon Grundy story is twofold:

  1. It largely concerns Cyrus Gold, the man who was killed in a swamp, then brought back to life as the title character. And you just can't get me to care about Cyrus Gold that much (though Grant Morrison did in his epic Seven Soldiers series of books, but Gold was very much on the periphery). Watching Gold, now resurrected and serving as a sort of Bruce Banner to the Grundy/Hulk, was just not that interesting.
  2. James Robinson wrote the best Solomon Grundy stories in Starman, and anything else concerning the character necessarily gets juxtaposed.

So, in a sense, Kolins was dealing with a deck loaded against him. But, like I said, the fights and characterizations and situations were fun and well done. It's just the connecting threads concerning Gold that left me cold.

There's actually a third story-centric problem that screams of editorial mandate, and that's the appearance of a Black Lantern ring at the end, heralding the beginning of DC's recently completed Blackest Night event. This is a case where that end note took me out of a story I wasn't that invested in to begin with.

On another less than positive side, the coloring seems off to me—garish and off-putting, with too much orange. Whether or not that's by design, it made the book a little harder to read.

With the negatives out of the way, let's get into what's good. First and foremost, I love Kolins' art, and this book is no exception. He ably skirts a line between gravity and goofiness in his figures; his storytelling is kinetic, well-paced, and top notch.

Again, while some of the story beats where a little meh, the dialogue and characterization, especially of familiar DC icons, is well done. I do like this book, especially for DC Comics fans; but I'm not so sure about its appeal to random readers.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Batman: Earth One Vol. 1

Title: Batman: Earth One Vol. 1

ISBN: 9781401232085
Price: $22.99
Publisher/Year: DC, 2012
Artist: Gary Frank
Writer: Geoff Johns

Rating: 3.5/5

This retelling of the Batman mythos shows a universe where the Wayne family enters into the seedy world of Gotham politics, and when the opponent is Oswald Cobblepot, nothing is off limits, including murder, and that’s where this story gets really interesting.

Each version of the death of Bruce’s parents shows a child that is genuinely traumatized by the event, and this one is no different. Except in some portions of the story, he comes off as bratty, thinking he’s above everything, and that’s probably not the best thing to do when you’re rich and about to be robbed and/or your family is about to be murdered by a mugger.

The story shows Batgirl in her formative years, and I thought it was interesting how the writers portrayed her character. She’s definitely a free spirit, and it would have been nice to see her character progress beyond the two books. The character that probably intrigued me the most was the serial killer Birthday Boy. The character itself resembles probably one of the creepier elements that Gotham has to offer, and I was most fascinated by his appearance as he looked like a mashup of Bane and Scarecrow with a party hat with the modus operandi of Mad Hatter.

The story was an interesting retelling of the original Batman mythos. I was surprised how Alfred was depicted as a grizzled, ex British soldier. Aside from Sean Pertwee’s performance as Alfred in Gotham, the character has generally been depicted as more reserved and far from being physically imposing, so that was refreshing. The story was good, the artwork was impressive, and the flow was good as well. The only thing I did not like was how Harvey Bullock was depicted. Every depiction of Bullock was one of a cop that was down on his luck, and while this was no different, the writers could have done a better job of depicting a character who actually looks like he’s been around the block a few times. Bullock looked too much like how Hollywood would depict a police detective, and that turned me off to that particular character. He looked too much like an actor and less like a cop, which are not Harvey Bullock characteristics. Overall, a good story, and a must-have for any Batman fan.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

100 Bullets: The Hard Way

Title: 100 Bullets: The Hard Way

ISBN: 9781401204907
Price: $14.99
Publisher/Year: Vertigo, 2005
Artist: Eduardo Risso
Writer: Brian Azzarello
Collects: 100 Bullets #50-58

Rating: 4/5

To this point Wylie Times has been a pretty likable guy. There’s not much ambition to him, and he may drink a little too much, but he has a conscience and a sense of what’s wrong and what’s not. Despite Shepherd’s best efforts, though, Wylie is one former Minuteman who’s not yet fully thrown off his constructed life, and Dizzy, accompanying them since the excellent Mexico trip detailed in A Foregone Tomorrow, is finding it difficult to believe he was ever capable.

This is set in New Orelans, lovingly rendered by Eduardo Risso, even the sleazier parts of town, and much of the conversation occurs in a bar, lovingly rendered by Risso as he has every bar so far featured in the series.

The Hard Way opens by introducing a member of the Minutemen not previously seen, who delivers the origins of the Trust amid a heist gone seriously wrong. It’s slim, but more than balanced by the title story, the longest yet run in 100 Bullets. It’s an exceptional piece. Wylie and Dizzy are making some connection when they witness a gruesome murder across the bay, too far away to intervene. Wylie has friends in New Orleans, one of whom owes him in major fashion.

In the course of working out his present day problems, Wylie also considers his past. He loved a woman in New Orleans, and she died. This was in circumstances involving Shepherd, someone else stripped back a little here, and it’s still raw. This isn’t a linear narrative, even in the present day, so there may be some initial confusion, but that rapidly evaporates as Brian Azzarello delivers another crime noir masterpiece. There are several candidates to fill the role of the tragic victim, one excellent plot revelation, one even better bombshell, and the desperate tension is maintained from start to finish when a mantle is inherited. All in all it’s the finest story to date in an exceptional series, which continues with Strychnine Lives.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

100 Bullets: Samurai

Title: 100 Bullets: Samurai

ISBN: 9781401201890
Price: $12.99
Publisher/Year: Vertigo, 2004
Artist: Eduardo Risso
Writer: Brian Azzarello
Collects: 100 Bullets #43-49

Rating: 4/5

Samurai looks in on a couple of folk we’ve seen before. Hang Up on the Hang Low, was the best of 100 Bullets to that point, spotlighting Loop Hughes, the guy you’re pulling for who almost pulled it off. A Foregone Tomorrow was where we first met Jack Daw, a giant brute of a man with a seeming death wish who salves his sorrows with the needle.

The opening sequence is every episode of Oz that Brian Azzarello ever watched dropped into four gut-stabbing chapters of tension and brutality, with a very slight, but pivotal, element of The Shawshank Redemption thrown in. There’s no sentimentality here, though, and as with almost any 100 Bullets graphic novel, it’s magnificent. Loop’s now been imprisoned for a while, finding his place, his easy going character for the most part keeping him safe, but as Samurai opens he’s just back from solitary after putting someone extremely dangerous in the infirmary. The consensus is that Loop’s days are numbered.

A plot used more than once in The Punisher, is Frank Castle deliberately letting himself be caught into order to be jailed alongside plenty of his targets. He’ll then proceed to intimidate the intimidators and kill the killers. Azzarello works a variation on that plot here with someone presumed to be dead when last seen.

That was also the case for a component of the second story here, which further shares the thematic link of cages. Jack and friend turn up at a remote small zoo in New Jersey where there’s a lucrative sideline going on. Jack still can’t bring himself to use one of his hundred bullets on himself, but sure isn’t keen on seeing a drugged tiger becoming a status symbol for some minor league Philly gangsters. The sequence in which we first saw Jack was the only time the quality of 100 Bullets dipped slightly, but he makes a lot more sense here, and his final destination ensures we’ll be seeing him again.

Every successive volume has stunning artwork from Eduardo Risso, but in the jail sequences some of his characters cross the line from caricatured into not quite credible, particularly a postulating weapons dealer. This, though, is minor nitpicking in the face of near perfection in consistently creating credible environments for Azzarello’s compelling character studies. As good as the scripts are, Azzarello presumably thanked his lucky stars for Risso as there are plenty of artists with Vertigo pedigree who’d never have been able to interpret his cast as convincingly.