Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 in review, looking forward to 2014

2013 has been very good for me, as far as my life in comics. Another year of reviews, with 3/4 of next year already set to be posted. Some great comic book movies came out this year, and 2014 looks like it will be a bit epic. I was a little sad after reading that the Stumptown Comics Fest is going to be no more, but I'm excited to see what a local con can bring us in the form of Cherry City Comic Con. I was able to meet several great artists and started the Comic Book Covers 4 Cancer project (#CBC4C).

When I first started writing this blog, it was as a creative outlet. As long-time readers know, I've tried my hand at writing for comics, without much success. Some day, I may make another attempt. Perhaps 2014 is the year I make another foray. Only time will tell.

As much as I have posted lists of what I have yet to write reviews for, I realize that there is so much more that I have reviewed... and I do have a sense of pride for that. I just wish I could get the stack of "To Be Reviewed" trades off my chair-side table and on to the bookshelves where they belong. All in good time.

With movies like Iron Man 3, The Wolverine, Man of Steel and Thor: The Dark World, we had a generous offering of live-action comics. I know there are detractors for each of these movies, but I enjoyed each and every one of them.

Next year, we have the likes of Captain America: Winter SoldierThe Amazing Spider-Man 2X-Men: Days of Future PastGuardians of the Galaxy and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. Looks like another MARVELous years for comic book movies. We'll see how it pans out.

I don't do much in the way of travel, and therefore don't attend many comic cons. In 2013, I wasn't able to go to ECCC, but I'm planning for a return in 2014. I was hoping to have a fan table to help promote Comic Book Covers 4 Cancer at Wizard World Portland, but due to timing and tight budget constraints, I'm not going to be able to attend all 3 days. I'll be able to make it for 1 day, and I hope that Groupon helps with that like they did last year.

After my experiences at my first Stumptown, I was genuinely looking forward to attending again. Even though there was a large Dark Horse presence and there were many vendors selling their Marvel and DC comics and trades, it still felt like there was an indy atmosphere. I felt that it helps that there were some artists and writers who have worked for or are working for the bigger name publishers, but there were more that weren't. Granted, I don't have a better concept of what it was like before the inclusion of larger publishers, so my feelings on this are a bit skewed. I'll miss not being able to go to Stumptown in 2014, but I guess the $$ I would have spent there will go to help fund #CBC4C or my trip to Seattle.

And as much as I don't mind going to Portland to get my fix of the con, I'm looking forward to having one in my backyard: Cherry City Comic Con! I hope that it goes as well as RCCC did in its first year. Though I'm not getting a table, if this is successful in its first year, I'll be seriously considering a table for 2015. My worst fear is that Cherry City will turn into the old Portland Comic Book Show.

At the end of July, I was inspired by the idea of The Walking Dead 100 Project for the Heroes Initiative and I came up with the Comic Book Covers 4 Cancer project. I started reaching out to artists who contributed with time and effort to putting art to blank comic book covers which were then auctioned to raise money for cancer research.

After the first few rounds of auctions for #CBC4C, I was contacted by eBay that I needed to follow a certain listing procedure in order to promote these auctions as charity fundraisers. Since that time, I have sent the American Cancer Society emails about getting officially endorsed as a fundraiser and have had to put further auctions on hold until I receive word from them and the information I need for eBay.

Here's to putting another year behind me, and look toward the year ahead.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? (The Deluxe Edition)

Title: Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? (The Deluxe Edition)

ISBN: 9781401223038
Price: $24.99
Publisher/Year: DC, 2009
Artist: Andy Kubert, Simon Bisley, Mark Buckingham, Mike Hoffman, Bernie Mireault
Writer: Neil Gaiman
Collects: Secret Origins #1, Secret Origins Special #1, Batman Black and White #2, Batman #686, Detective Comics #853

Rating: 4/5

Back when DC Comics was overhauling and re-booting its fictional universe in the wake of its Crisis on Infinite Earths, they commissioned an imaginary "last Superman" story to say good-bye to the Silver Age Superman who was, essentially, being erased from continuity -- "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?", written by rising star, British writer Alan Moore.

Jump ahead two decades and DC has decided to do the same for Batman. In this case, there has been no reality altering event (or maybe there has -- I dunno), but in the comics Batman/Bruce Wayne had been supposedly killed off and DC was preparing to unveil a "new" Batman (Dick Grayson, the original Robin, assumed the pointy-eared cowl...though unlike some changes, no one is necessarily suggesting Bruce won't be back eventually). Giving the nod to Neil Gaiman, another British writer whose rise to fame occurred around the same time as Moore's, and serialized across Batman's two flagship series (Batman and Detective Comics -- just as the Superman story was serialized over Superman and Action Comics), we are presented with a "last Batman" story. And wisely, Gaiman keeps it isolated from continuity (even if Bruce Wayne does come back in a few months, this story has a timelessness about it).

This collection also includes a few short Batman pieces Gaiman has written over the years, only one of which I've read...but it was an amusing, self-reflective one from Batman Black and White.

The "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?" story is a surreal affair as Batman finds himself looking down upon a bizarre funeral for himself -- staged in back of a dingy bar, where all his old friends and foes have assembled to pay tribute. Batman isn't sure what's going on, whether he's dead or what -- and is further perplexed when the stories people tell about his life -- and death -- don't match up with each other. The first issue features two longer tales, relating the lives and deaths of two different Bruce Waynes/Batmen, but once we get into the second issue, they're shorthand snippets, generally focusing on different ways Batman died. It's a little as if we're seeing a bunch of unused story ideas for various Batman Elseworlds comics that Gaiman never got to write.

It's a moody, quirky affair, beautifully illustrated by Andy Kubert who eschews much of the sketchy lines or cartooniness I sometimes associate with the Kubert clan, for a richly detailed and modeled style, nicely embellished by the inks and colors. The faces are realistic, while also being expressive. After all these years, Batman doesn't have a signature artist that should've been tagged for the gig (the way Curt Swan was an obvious choice to pencil the Superman story), so Kubert proves a nice choice. He even quirks his style here and there for certain scenes and characters, to deliberately evoke the style of other key Bat-artists, or to present different variations on the Bat-costume, without the changes being too obvious or distracting.

And throughout, the dialogue and phrasing is quite good, the lines clever, quirky, yet not self-consciously so. And I say this as someone with no particular affinity for Gaiman in general.

It's interesting to contrast the Batman and Superman stories. With Moore's Superman -- involving a final showdown with all of Supes foes, in which many friends and enemies were dead by the end -- a violent, "big fight" tale wasn't exactly my idea of the appropriate cap for the Superman legend. Yet Gaiman takes Batman, the prowler of the mean streets and battler of killers and psychos...and presents a strangely gentle, lyrical tale that, in a way, is meant to present a sublime acceptance of mortality -- ala The Death of Captain Marvel -- rather than a bloody final battle with an arch foe. That might seem a strange thing to say in a story presenting multiple deaths of Batman...but it never feels gratuitous or graphic. In fact, given how many writers like to perceive Batman as the dark, grim, even brutal avenger, when Gaiman has Batman reflect on his self-imposed mission, it's: "I protect the city. I rescue people. I investigate crimes. I guard the innocent. I correct the guilty." Nothing about "vengeance" or "punishment".

The story itself may be intended to evoke a 1970s Batman multi-issue arc, in which various villains recounted conflicting tales of having killed Batman. And one of the reasons Gaiman may have avoided the "Batman vs. all his foes" plot is simply because it's already been done, often, and often quite effectively (albeit, with Batman surviving) -- in Detective Comics #526, Batman #400, and Batman: Hush among others. And of course, over the years there have probably been more than a few "imaginary" Last Batman stories, so it's hard for Gaiman to come up with anything that isn't just one more variation on a sub-sub-genre.

I have some mixed reactions to the story. As often happens, the intriguing hook of the beginning (what's happening? what is the explanation for this surreal scenario?) is inevitably kind of let down by the explanation. And the two longer "what if...?" stories told in the first issue are the more developed (even if Gaiman confuses the -- very good -- 1976 movie "Robin and Marion" with the actual Robin Hood legend). Once we get into the second half, the stories are brief snippets, before we segue into the final act of the story as Batman learns the answers and confronts a mysterious woman who had been accompanying him. It can seem a bit protracted. Ironically, I had remarked that in Moore's Superman tale he was maybe hamstrung by his limited amount of pages...Gaiman may have been hindered by having too many pages to fill.

But there is a genuine power to Gaiman's tale -- even flipping through the pages, I find myself curiously misty eyed. Gaiman walks a fine line between sentimentality and saccharine. And he gives one of comicdoms grimmest heroes a bittersweet sendoff that is hopeful and sad at the same time, providing the character something he rarely had in life...a sense of peace ~ "Home is the sailor, home from the sea...and the hunter, home from the hill". And in the end, the point of the various tales, the different versions and faces of the Batman with which we are presented, is to nonetheless expose a core truth of the man, and his character -- no matter the superficial changes in the legend.

It tells us why he is, and always was, THE Batman.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Batman: A Death in the Family

Title: Batman: A Death in the Family

Price: $3.95
Publisher/Year: DC, 1988
Artist: Jim Aparo
Writer: Jim Starlin
Collects: Batman #426-429

Rating: 4/5

There's a lot of baggage that comes with this story (which I hadn't read when it was originally published over a decade ago). It raised a lot of eyebrows among the general public as to just what sort of people were writing comics these days. This was not simply because those writers killed off a well-known supporting character (although the original -- better known -- Robin, Dick Grayson, remained unscathed) , or the fact that the character in question was a kid (entertainment in the murder of a minor?), or even the brutal manner in which he was killed. The controversy stemmed from the fact that DC left the decision as to whether Jason lived or died up to the fans who could phone in their votes. In other words, the Batman readership -- many, one assumes, kids -- were encouraged to decide whether a character lived or died. Not since the days of the Roman Coliseum had the world experienced such a questionable spectacle. And the fact that the person in question was a fictional character didn't tend to mute the disgust many felt toward DC Comics. Adding to the situation was the fact that the vote to kill Robin didn't pass by a huge margin -- a lot of fans actually voted to keep him alive.

As I said, there's a lot of ethical baggage that comes with this, but I'll put it aside (for the moment) and concentrate on the story as just that -- a story.

Surprisingly, this turns out to be a pretty decent read.

The first two issues of this four issue story were double-sized, meaning it's actually a solid, six-issue epic. Those double-sized issues are broken evenly into 22 page chapters and one can't help inferring that DC had originally planned it as six regular issues but, maybe feeling they couldn't sustain the publicity machine over six months (after all, the story was a publicity stunt) decided to make it four months.

The story has Jason Todd discovering that his birth mother is still alive and might be one of three women, all of who are currently living in various parts of the middle east and North Africa (absurd coincidences play a big part in the ensuing activities -- you either swallow them, or you might as well not read the book). Meanwhile, Batman is hot on the trail of the Joker who is also winging his way to the middle east (I warned you about coincidences). The story is, therefore, comprised of a few smaller stories -- their quests for the first two women lead Batman and Robin into adventure and intrigue involving terrorists, but also turn out to be wild goose chases. Ultimately, you know the third time will turn out to be the charm. But because all stories take place in, roughly, the same geographical area, and the Joker weaves in and out, the result is a story that has the feel of a single epic, while being comprised of three or four smaller stories. Along the way, Superman even crops up in a supporting part for an issue or two.

Part of the saga's strength is the removal from Batman's usual Gotham City stomping grounds. The middle eastern setting adds a fresh ambience to the saga, and there's a clear attempt to imbue the series with a grittier, real-world edge, as the Joker eschews his usual comic book activities of jewel heists and the like in favor of branching into the world of terrorism, or hijacking famine relief supplies he figures he can sell on the black market. As the saga moves into its climax, global politics become central to the story, leading to a showdown at the U.N. Though I wasn't as comfortable with the idea of Batman breaking up a kiddie porn ring at the beginning (nothing graphic, of course).

Writer Jim Starlin tells the story well, with a good blend of mood, introspection, and action. The only other Bat-tale I'd read by him from that period -- The Cult -- had left me disappointed, but this is decently written, with good characterization and dialogue. Jim Aparo, a guy who will no doubt go down in comic book history as one of the definitive Bat-artists, acquits himself quite nicely. Aparo is right at home, and his style is dynamic and comprehensible -- there's nary a picture or scene anywhere that you need to read twice to figure out what's going on. His teaming with inker Mike DeCarlo works very well. I had previously had my reservations about Aparo's looser style from the period, and felt DeCarlo's rigid, geometric inks weren't the most appropriate for him. I don't know if I've mellowed, or whether this is just better work, but the art is particularly strong -- curiously, DeCarlo's inks don't even look like DeCarlo's usual style. There's also a touch of the influence of comic strip legend, Milton Caniff, that I'd never recognized in Aparo's art before (though I realize it was there all along).

Of course, just because this is trying for an edgy realism doesn't mean it altogether succeeds. There's some simplistic plot progression and lapses in credibility -- even silliness (I mean, just what did the Iranians intend in the climax?). And one gets the feeling Starlin probably didn't do a whole lot of research on the region, or his topics. There's an intriguing plot twist late in the saga, involving Diplomatic Immunity, but it pushes credibility. But then, comics have also (I believe) misunderstood the legal definition of Insanity for many, many years, so legal technicalities are not something you should learn from a Batman comic. There I go, referring to "comics" again, as if it's the only medium with such problems, when in fact all of my above criticisms could be applied to many a respected movie or novel, as well.

Set in the Arab world, peopled by terrorists, it could slide into offensive clich├ęs, but (maybe because of innocent Arab taxi drivers and hotel clerks) you don't really come away feeling Starlin is trying to paint all Arabs as bad guys...any more than the Joker and his goons represent all Americans. At the same time, the portrayal of Iranians later in the story as just cardboard, illogical villains certainly seams xenophobic (whatever one may think about the Iranian government, then or now). And when Batman at one point refers to an Iranian generically as an Arab, Starlin seems to be blurring the distinction between a government...and a race.

Another qualm is that once Jason learns he has a "real" (read biological) mother, the way he just seems to forget about his dead mother -- the woman who raised him -- seems cold and insensitive.

Emotionally, the story doesn't really succeed as well as it should. Granted, I wasn't that familiar with Jason Todd, so his death didn't strike a personal chord with me. But although Jason's death, part way through, sends a vengeful Batman after the Joker, comic writers like Starlin seem more comfortable with emotions like anger or revenge, rather than the more powerful, and heart-wrenching emotion of...grief (O.K., now I do mean to single out comics writers). Neither Batman, nor Alfred, really act like they've lost a member of their family. Though, ironically, given that Jason was killed precisely because a lot of fans didn't like him, I didn't find him an unsympathetic character here.

But, despite its short comings, despite my moral qualms and my cynicism, A Death on the Family turns out to be a highly readable saga -- one that boasts some atypical, even complex plotting and plot turns. Compared to some other "stunt" stories (The Death of Superman, for one), this holds up as a story, regardless of its mythos shaking significance. I even thoroughly enjoyed the old fashioned, pre-computer, single tone coloring. I like modern comics with their rich, shaded palates, but sometimes they can be a bit cluttered and overwhelming.

That's the story considered apart from the ethical questions. Considered with the ethical question, it remains a highly questionable excercise, as does the excessively brutal manner in which Robin was killed -- comics, too often, have become a mediumm of excess. And it's made all the more distasteful by the way DC Comics (here represented by a closing editorial by Bat-editor Denny O'Neil) constantly refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of their detractors' views, and refuse to accept responsibility ("it wasn't our fault, blame the fans"). Though one can sympathize with O'Neil, who acted as front man on the whole enterprise, but has repeatedly claimed he voted to keep Robin alive! Adding insult to injury is a quote on the back from O'Neil saying it would be "sleazy" to bring back the character. Though Jason remains deceased, DC and O'Neil conjured up yet another Robin (Tim Drake) just a few issues later.

Originally published as one of those economical TPBs DC used to put out on conventional newsprint paper for a fantastically modest price, it has since been re-issued as a more conventional TPB...with an appropriately inflated price tag.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Serenity: Those Left Behind

Title: Serenity: Those Left Behind

ISBN: 9781593078461
Price: $19.95
Publisher/Year: Dark Horse, 2007
Artist: Brett Matthews
Writer: Joss Whedon
Collects: Serenity: Those Left Behind #1-3

Rating: 3/5

Joss Whedon's television series Firefly led into the movie Serenity, but that lead was over a broken and unlit path. Along the way, some characters vanished, others faded and a few loose ends tied themselves off without any explanation. Serenity: Those Left Behind sheds light on the path that brought the Firefly crew to the point of the movie's opening scenes.

Serenity: Those Left Behind is strictly a fill-in story, covering material that won't matter or make any sense to series newcomers. But for fans of the sadly abbreviated series, it's a treat, serving as something of a season finale. The art is straightforward and focused on the story.

Will Conrad does an excellent job of capturing not just the actors, but the characters, with every expression and gesture recognizable. The dialogue and story by Brett Matthews and series creator Joss Whedon are unsurprisingly faithful to the spirit and canon of everything that's gone before. And for those who've seen the movie, there's a nice nod towards what's coming next.

Firefly was clearly envisioned as a television series, and even the most faithful comic adaptation can't take the place of the actors, musicians and animation that were part of the series' feel. But Serenity: Those Left Behind is an entertaining chapter in the lives of the galaxy's most outclassed smugglers.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Batman: The Long Halloween

Title: Batman: The Long Halloween

ISBN: 9781563894695
Price: $19.99
Publisher/Year: DC, 1998
Artist: Tim Sale
Writer: Jeph Loeb
Collects: Batman: The Long Halloween #1-13

Rating: 4/5

There are a handful of iconic Batman stories, and The Long Halloween is counted proudly among them. This landmark tale written by Jeph Loeb and drawn by Tim Sale captures a side of Gotham that no other story has accomplished.

Taking its lead from Frank Miller's classic Year One story (which, while never so dramatic as The Dark Knight Returns, has far more staying power), The Long Halloween revolves around the untouchable Falcone crime family and the efforts of Gotham's justice triumvirate -- police Capt. James Gordon, crusading district attorney Harvey Dent and, of course, the Batman -- to bring crime lord Carmine "The Roman" Falcone to justice. Their task is hampered by the appearance of a serial killer, dubbed "Holiday" by the media for his propensity for killing on, you guessed it, holidays, who systematically takes apart the Falcone empire.

This dark and noirish story avoids the gimmicks employed by so many Batman writers, instead concentrating on the grim and often frustrating task of following leads, searching for clues and, at times, suspecting friends of terrible crimes. Besides a crackerjack murder-mystery, Loeb has written an exemplary Batman and has set a new high in his characterization of Gotham's peculiar population. Interactions between Batman, Gordon and Dent, as well as his trusty butler Alfred and a colorful array of villains from the Joker, Riddler and Scarecrow to Poison Ivy, Mad Hatter and Solomon Grundy, simply spark with energy and highly believable dialogue. Batman's relationship with Catwoman -- as well as Bruce Wayne's relationship with Selina Kyle -- are particularly well handled with a one-two combination of sensuality and menace.

Sale's art is sometimes not to my taste, and yet for this story it is dark and twisted perfection. (OK, I'm not sure what he's doing with the Joker's teeth, but I suppose he can slide on that one artistic quirk.)

Mystery lovers may squawk because the reader is never actually given enough clues to solve the crime, and the final twist seems to come out of nowhere. Still, The Long Halloween is a classic story that belongs in the permanent collection of every Batman fanatic and deserves to be read by anyone with even a passing interest in the Bat.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

My current "To Review" list

Though I'm nowhere near behind on having reviews ready... at the time of writing this, I have reviews scheduled to post at my regular Sunday timing up to June 15th... but I have a sizable stack of trades that I've read but haven't written the review for yet. I thought that if I had a list of what is in that stack, it might help to motivate me to get to work on them.

So, without further ado... the list (listed in the order they are stacked):
  • Ghost World
  • Fairest: The Hidden Kingdom
  • Venom vs. Carnage
  • Hellboy: The Midnight Circus
  • Azrael: Angel in the Dark
  • Harbor Moon
  • Ghost: Painful Music
  • Dark Reign: Accept Change
  • Dark Avengers: The End is the Beginning
  • Marvel Mangaverse Vol. 3: Spider-Man - Legends of the Spider-Clan
  • Wolverine: The Brotherhood
  • Spawn Origins Collection Vol. 1 & 2
  • Ghost/Batgirl: The Resurrection Engine
  • Cobra: Son of the Snake
  • Spider-Man's Tangled Web Vol. 4
  • Star Wars: General Grievous
  • Spider-Man vs. Venom
  • John Constantine, Hellblazer: Black Flowers
  • John Constantine, Hellblazer: Chas - The Knowledge
  • Constantine: The Hellblazer Collection
  • Classic G.I. Joe Vol. 15
  • G.I. Joe: The Best of Snake Eyes
  • G.I. Joe Vol. 4 & 5
  • G.I. Joe: Origins Vol. 3 & 4
  • G.I. Joe Dreadnoks: Declassified
  • G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero Vol. 2
  • G.I. Joe: Special Missions Vol. 3
  • G.I. Joe: Cobra Vol. 1-3
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 9 Volume 1: Freefall
  • Lady Death: The Reckoning
  • Lady Death: Origins Vol. 1
  • Witchblade Deluxe Collected Edition
  • Clerks
  • Spike Vol. 1: All Together Now
Mind you, this is only the list of the trade's I've already read. I still have a larger stack of those I have yet to read. Obviously, I'm going to have plenty of work ahead of me and I'm going to have this blog going for another year plus.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Zanziber's outlook for 2014

Here we are, coming to the end of another year. 2013 has been a huge year from me personally, with the addition of Twitter and the Comic Book Covers 4 Cancer (#CBC4C) project. Here's the outlook on the comic con's for 2014 thus far:

January 24-26
I submitted an application for a fan table to help promote Comic Book Covers 4 Cancer at Wizard World Portland. Due to my current funding capabilities, if I am denied for the table, I may only be able to attend for a single day. I already have a room booked, so now I play the waiting game. Last year, I was able to attend a single day because Groupon came through with a great deal. Either way, I'm looking forward to the chance of attending and connecting with some additional artists for CBC4C.

Nothing has been announced for this years Stumptown, but I wouldn't mind attending again. Hopefully I'll be able to fair better than this in 2013. Next time around, I'm going to be more open-minded about supporting the indie comic scene.

March 28-30
I already have my room booked and my train tickets purchased. I'm going to have to wait until after the holidays to buy my ticket. I missed Emerald City Comic Con 2013, but I don't want to miss 2014. Because of baggage restrictions, I'm debating about if I should bring blanks along for artist to help with CBC4C, but I'll have business cards and (hopefully) flyers/brochures.

May 10-11
2014 will bring a new convention into the Pacific Northwest in the form of Cherry City Comic Con right in my own back yard. I'm going to give as much support to this con as I can, though I won't have a table. I've already purchased my ticket for the weekend, and I'm looking forward to seeing what's going to be put on. With any luck, we can help make this as much of a success as 2012's inaugural Rose City Comic Con. Buy your tickets now!

September 20-21
I intend on attending Rose City Comic Con again in 2014. I wouldn't miss it for the world. I'm hoping that I'll also be able to get a fan table to help promote CBC4C. Even if I'm not able to get a table, I'll have business cards and flyers/brochures.

All year long!
I know it's not a comic con, but I thought I'd add a little something about the Comic Book Covers 4 Cancer project. As you can probably tell from above, I intend on promoting CBC4C wherever I go. I'm looking forward to making new connections with artists who can help support the cause, and I'd love to be able to meet some of the current artists face-to-face. I appreciate everyone who has helped this project become successful. What I'd like to ask from each person who reads this is to like our Facebook page if you haven't already and share it with at least 1 person.

To any vendors who will be attending any or all of these conventions, I have a simple request...

Bring lots of different TPB's and GN's and give us a good discount and you'll have my attention and my patronage.

Sunday, December 1, 2013


Title: Joker

ISBN: 9781401215811
Price: $19.99
Publisher/Year: DC, 2008
Artist: Lee Bermejo
Writer: Brian Azzarello

Rating: 3.5/5

Every superhero needs a nemesis and The Joker has served Batman well over the years. His white face, green hair, psychotic grin and manic laugh have remained something of a constant, making his visage almost as iconic as Batman’s cape and cowl. But he’s also prone to reinvention, with each generation making a darker, more disturbing Joker. Alan Moore’s crippling rapist in 1988′s The Killing Joke became a low water mark in his evil career though. And while Azzerello and Bermejo provide him with a nasty looking carved-in grin, and paint him as a murderous, psychotic bully, he doesn’t quite stoop so low in this violent reworking.

He is, however, a ruthless gangster. Finding himself freed from Arkham Asylum on the grounds that he’s cured (and thus falling into one of superhero comics’ eternal problems – why aren’t these guys just sent straight to the chair?), The Joker returns to Gotham to retake his position as king of crime. In his absence, characters like The Penguin and Two-Face have muscled in on his territory – foolish mistakes they’ll live to regret, as The Joker re-takes his slice of the action, along with a bit more for his trouble. In other words, The Joker isn’t cured – he’s as bad as ever. Now there’s a surprise. Someone at Arkham’s going to lose their job.

All this is seen through the perspective of one of The Joker’s henchmen, Jonny Frost, who quickly rises into position as his right-hand man, second only to silent and undoubtedly deeply disturbed lap-dancing girlfriend Harley Quinn. It’s Jonny’s voice we hear throughout the book, as he learns the ropes of dealing with The Joker and boasts that, through his close bond with the master criminal, he has finally become someone of note.

Azzerello’s take on The Joker deals far more with the politics of crime than we’re used to seeing. We see how he deals with his rivals and why there could never really be a collective union of super-villains, with so little honor amongst these thieves. Bermejo’s darker, grittier take on this pantheon of villains is a stunning job, taking the characteristics that make them who they are and grounding them with contemporary fashions and henchmen. His Gotham is dark, brooding and lawless.

The story is flawed only by its eventual and begrudgingly necessary adherence to the cycle of the superhero story which, while tempered with a different perspective, is necessarily still locked into this three act piece. If you can cope with this, however, we’re sure you’ll agree that the voice Azzerello gives The Joker is a definitive fit we’re likely to hear again. At least until the next time the character goes through a reinvention.