Today I’m going to go through the next batch of new number one issues from DC’s ‘new 52′. And like last time, I’m going to read each comic straight through once, then blog my immediate reaction, rather than a more considered one.
As always, I’m only buying those comics which I think have at least a chance of being decent, so if you want my opinion of the Rob Liefeld Hawk & Dove, or anything written by Judd Winick, you’ll have to pay me large amounts of money.
Today is my fifth day without caffeine, and the first of those days I’ve managed to make it as late as 1:30 PM without having a little nap. Will my caffeineless state make these comics seem like psychedelic, hallucinatory masterpieces? Or will their lack of Thrill Power force me into a coma? Read on, as I delve into…
Blue Beetle #1
Writer Tony Bedard
Pencils Ig Guara
Inks Ruy Jose
Colours Pete Pantazis
Letters Rob Leigh
Well, that was a whole lot of rubbish. The series that John Rogers and Keith Giffen did with this character, a few years back, was not the greatest comic ever or anything, but it was fun, funny, and a decent way to spend ten minutes a month.
This, on the other hand, tries to recap most of the background that was dribbled out over a year or two by Rogers et al in a single issue, turning it into foreground. And it does so charmlessly, with not a single memorable line or event.
And the incompetence makes it borderline racist. It’s certainly not *intended* that way – Bedard says in the back-matter that he’s Puerto Rican and so identifies with the hispanic immigrant experience – but having all the characters speak in perfect English *except* for a very few Spanish words, which we could be expected to guess from context (“N-no–! Por favor… we ran tests in Mexico City!– That is the real escarabajo azul in the backpack–! I swear it on the virgin…!”)
This tries to do too much in one issue, and ends up being a confused mess. I accidentally swallowed a filling while reading this, and it was far more dramatic than anything in the comic.
Writer Peter Milligan
Pencils Ed Benes
Inks Rob Hunter
Colours Nathan Eyring
Letters Carlos M Mangual
This is, in its own way, an equally bad comic – probably, on any objective scale, a worse one. Certainly, the art is as bad as one would expect from Benes, and Milligan clearly can’t be bothered at all. It’s just generally sloppy – as an example, an old man in the UK says he “fought a war for you”. The old man’s age is later given as 73.
Now, 73-year-olds in the UK actually lived their young adulthood in the most sustained period of peace in British history, so unless he fought in Suez when he’d just turned 18 (almost impossible, as only highly-trained troops were sent there, and British troops were only there for two months- only 16 British soldiers died in that war) he *might* have been a professional soldier in his mid-40s during the Falklands conflict, but in general people of that generation are the least likely to be able to say “I fought in the war for you” in the whole of history. And that level of can’t-be-arsedness seems to pervade the writing.
But at the same time… there’s an *energy* to this comic, a sense of over-the-top grand guignol ridiculousness, that’s totally missing from Blue Beetle. This seems to be aimed precisely at the hearts of 14-year-old boys, and is like listening to ten Iron Maiden albums in a row then watching a slasher film while drunk on a single pint of cider. There’s an energy, and an intensity, here, that make it worth reading despite being, frankly, terrible.
This is going to be the new All-Star Batman And Robin, with people making great claims for its subversive genius precisely because of its apparent incompetence. And given that Peter Milligan, one of the most intelligent and able of comics writers, is writing it, those people may well be right. I’ll certainly pick up at least the second issue.
Frankenstein: Agent Of S.H.A.D.E.
Writer Jeff Lemire
Line Art Alberto Ponticelli
Colours Jose Villarrubia
Letters Pat Brosseau
This is the kind of comic that should be the staple produce of the Big Two, but isn’t. Full of nice little touches and ideas, this is very much the Frankenstein ongoing series that we could have expected coming straight after Seven Soldiers.
If anything, the only problem is that Lemire might be slightly too in thrall to Morrison, but in an age when so many comics are about little more than mopey superheroes sitting around complaining, seeing Frankenstein’s monster, a werewolf, a vampire, a mummy and a black lagoon creature sent into a town overrun by monsters on a rescue mission is certainly refreshing.
Best of the bunch so far, by a long way, but little to say about it.
Writer Paul Cornell
Pencils Diogenes Neves
Inks Oclair Albert
Colours Marcelo Maiolo
Letters Jared H Fletcher
In many ways, this comic shows more potential than any of those I’ve read so far, but it’s not yet living up to it. Cornell is here very much just putting his pieces in place – moving Vandal Savage, Jason Blood, Madame Xanadu and Sir Ystin together, and planting a few seeds. This is clearly influenced both by Kirby’s original Demon comics and by Seven Soldiers, and like those starts with a fall of Camelot, and seems to be leading up to the creation of a team of seven.
Cornell’s a good writer when he wants to be, and these characters have a lot of potential, especially given that they appear to be mostly immortals. And the multiple falls of Camelot are obviously going to be a major plot point, given how heavily they’re referenced in this issue. But like many of these stories, it seems that this issue is all set-up and no pay-off – although the cliffhanger, dinosaurs crashing through a pub wall, promises something more for the next issue.
And last but, I presume, best…
Writers J.H. Williams III and W Haden Blackman
Line art J.H. Williams III
Colours Dave Stewart
Letters Todd Klein
Look at that list of people. You don’t really need to know anything else, do you?
This does have a script (one that actually has some of los mismos problemas as Blue Beetle, with people speaking Spanish only when it can be understood en el contexto), but is competent enough, setting up a new storyline while connecting it to the past – though this is clearly the story that was meant to happen months ago, straight after the Detective Comics run with the previous Batwoman stories in it.
But this isn’t a comic you read for the script. This is drawn by the single best artist working in mainstream comics, coloured by the best colourist, and lettered (though he doesn’t get much chance to show off) by the best letterer. Every single page is a masterclass in putting together a comics page. Every image is beautiful.
It has faults – Mr Williams is slightly too fond of objectifying the female form – but this is a beautiful, gorgeous piece of work from a master of the form, and is as far above the rest of the comics I’ve reviewed here as Pet Sounds is above Jan & Dean Meet Batman
Not another Morrison hero motivated by a dead Kat…
I’m very sorry
Morrison is definitely doing something interesting with the Kathy Kane backstory here. She made a film called “Ariadne’s sewing machine” – this is absolutely *FULL* of resonance for this story. Look at the ending – “the flies are in the web! The monster squats in its maze of death!” – well, Ariadne represents *both* the web *and* the way out. The Ariadne of Greek Myth gave Theseus the thread he used to find his way out of the labyrinth designed by Daedalus, but because she gave him a ball of thread, she’s also associated with spiders spinning a web (I’ve even found a claim that Ariadne in Celtic myth span the world into existence. This claim appears to be repeated on several different sites across the net in the same words, with no attribution to any reputable source). Freedom *and* entrapment.
(And spiders belong to the same
genus class (I do know the difference, honest!) as scorpions, don’t they? I wonder what Scorpiana has to say about this…)
We first see Kathy as a widow, dressed in black…her maiden name is Webb.
Of course, in the myth, Theseus deserts Ariadne, and she dies (either killed by her husband, or by hanging herself, depending on the version of the myth), but then her original husband goes to Hades and brings her back. Kathy Kane wrote a book, too, Inana Unbound.
Leaving that Unbound for a moment (but what an interesting word *that* is), let’s look at Inana. She, too, descended into the underworld (having first had to strip off all her clothing and tools of power, ending up naked) and returned from the dead.
What I didn’t know, until I double-checked her details in Wikipedia (having only a vague knowledge of Sumerian myth) was:
According to one story, Inanna tricked the god of culture, Enki, who was worshipped in the city of Eridu, into giving her the Mes. The Mes were documents/tablets which were blueprints to civilization. They represented everything from truth to weaving to prostitution, granting power over, or possibly existence to, all the aspects of civilization (both positive and negative)
Not only that, but two other associations that go along with the name Ariadne – one that is obvious to me, and one that is probably obvious to most people reading the story if they stop to think.
Christopher Nolan, the director of the recent Batman films, released Inception last year, in which the protagonist is haunted by the memory of his dead love, who may not really be dead. Guess the name of the architect who creates the unreal worlds through which our protagonist goes?
And I don’t know if Morrison ever read much Agatha Christie, but did you know she had a ‘fiction suit’ too? Guess what her name was? And of course there’s a fictional writer in here too (in fact a real fictional writer, even though this is a fiction). An Argentinian one.
And Argentina is where Nazi war criminals go when they’ve faked their own death, isn’t it?
Kathy Kane of course being biologically the daughter of a Nazi war criminal, but sharing her name (and I presume her family) with Kate Kane, who is Jewish.
Kate Kane’s gay of course, while Kathy Kane is straight. Except she uses ‘circus slang’ according to Dick. And we know what Dick’s circus slang is, don’t we?
But it is circus slang for Dick, because after all, he’s a carnie. And so’s Kate. She owns a carnival. Just like the one the Joker seems to hide out in a lot. And its initials are KKK. And she has a liking for ‘dance[s] with the devil’.
And another of her films is called Mirrorrim. In a story about a weapon called Oroboro.
“I don’t know what they gave us. I don’t know what it is… but I feel like I’m split in two” – Kathy Kane, while she and Batman are in an imaginary world.
Kathy is freedom
Kathy is entrapment
Kathy is a fiancee
Kathy is a (black) widow
Kathy is Bat(wo)man
Kathy is the Joker
Kathy is a Nazi
Kathy is Jewish
Kathy is dead…
There’s more to this, of course – why all the blindness (blind orphans, people shot with braille patterns, Borges) and does that have anything to do with the cyclopean single eyes we’re seeing everywhere (of course it does, but what?)
You can waste your time on the other rides, but this is the nearest to being alive.
So, we’re now a month through the Batman Reborn ‘event’, it might be time to take stock of what’s been going on in the bat-titles ( I have of course reviewed a few of these titles here and here earlier…)
I’ve read all the ‘Batman Reborn’ titles except ‘Red Robin’, and it’s very obvious that despite the branding there is really no overarching ‘event’ going on at all here. Dini’s two titles are just unpleasant – Gotham City Sirens I dealt with before, but Streets Of Gotham is just as nasty in its own way, managing to combine mass-murder, child prostitution and continuity-wank into one perfectly horrible story.
I do wonder what on Earth happened to Dini. A couple of years ago his work on Detective was fresh and entertaining – fun, done in one superhero stories. But since around the time he started working on the egregious Countdown he has instead written some of the worst dreck I’ve ever read, and developed an obsession with Hush, a character that has not one single point of interest.
Meanwhile, the remaining title, Batman, is clearly the remedial readers’ title, as one would expect from a comic by Judd Winick and Ed Benes, with DIck Grayson explaining very clearly in words of one or two syllables everything that was implied by Morrison’s script for Batman & Robin#1 – that Batman is dead, that Dick Grayson is the new Batman, that he is not very happy about these things, and so on.
One could almost think that the new Bat-status had been set up specifically to educate superhero comics fans – “Look, this is what we call a good comic. GOOD comics can be recognised by having interesting stories, pictures which are nice to look at, and not leaving you feeling slightly soiled afterwards. THIS, on the other hand, is what we call a bad comic. In a bad comic, nothing happens that anyone could possibly care about, the women all look like stick figures with two circles drawn randomly in the chest area, and it makes you despair for the human race that anyone could possibly produce anything with such a grotesquely twisted moral tone. No, you CAN’T have the variant cover! BAD fanboy!” (smacks round the nose with a rolled-up copy of Gotham City Sirens)
One could think that at least, if one didn’t look through the comments on comics blogs. The comments to this post (I can’t link the comments directly, unfortunately) seem pretty typical – J.H. Williams’ art is “stagnant as the Dead Sea”, “confuses more than it clarifies”, “too hyper-realistic and stiff”, “tiresome” and “flashy show-off stuff that just distracts from the visuals”…
(Yes, that’s the J.H. Williams who does pages like this:)
So apparently the reaction of many superhero comic ‘readers’ when confronted with anything that might be called ‘good’ is to be scared and confused, because it makes things happen in their brain and that’s never happened before.
What’s particularly interesting is how much the two titles that might be called ‘any good at all’ rely on the quality of the art. Detective is a competent story with the best artist working in comics providing the art, while Batman And Robin is a very good story with the second-best artist working in comics providing the art. This is especially shown in Batman & Robin 2. This issue, the middle part of a three-part story, has very little in the way of plot, being almost all action, and most of that a fight scene, which provides a problem to reviewers like myself who can talk all day about writing but whose vocabulary for describing art stretches about as far as ‘pretty’.
It’s especially telling to compare this issue to anything from Morrison’s Bat-run from the last few years (other than the Black Glove story with Williams’ art) – the writing on those issues was just as good, but sometimes it was almost entirely unreadable, due to the artists not bothering with trivialities such as ‘telling the story’ or ‘drawing characters who look different from each other’. Here, even in a fairly story-light issue, the whole thing works, because Quitely’s ‘acting’ of the characters’ body-language and expression, and his layouts, and his staging, allow everything to move smoothly.
My favourite moment in the comic though shows what can be done by a good writer working within a superhero continuity. It’s the bit where Alfred talks to Dick about Dick’s ‘showbusiness’ background and tells him to treat Batman as a role. Not only does this work within the story, which is based in his background in the circus, while also illuminating things about Dick’s character, it also points to deeper things about Dick and Alfred’s relationship. Before becoming a butler, Alfred was an actor (under the stage name ‘Alfred Beagle’) and that shared ‘showbusiness’ background would be something Dick and Alfred would have shared, even though I’ve never seen it mentioned before in that context. So not only does it make sense that that metaphor would be one Alfred would think of, it illuminates their relationship by using a continuity point – but the story and that moment also still make perfect sense if you don’t know that.
That’s how continuity should be used – as something that adds resonance if you know it, but doesn’t detract if you don’t. Now, if only this ‘good comics’ thing would catch on…
Sometimes there are comics that you can review before even reading them, and I was half tempted to do that with the two comics I’m going to review here. Going in, I knew exactly what I was going to get with these two comics, both part of the line-wide Batman revamp. Both feature female leads, in Gotham City, who have recently had serious heart injuries from which they bear both psychological and physical scars but manage to run round doing serious acrobatics and fighting in skin-tight leathers. One is extraordinarily good, the other is a meretricious piece of leering fanboyism.
Detective Comics, unsurprisingly, is the excellent one. It’s also quite difficult for me to review. I’m far more comfortable talking about writing than art, but the writing isn’t really the selling point of this comic for me.
Which is not to say the writing’s bad in any way – it’s Greg Rucka continuing the long story he started in 2005 in his parts of 52, and which has carried on through the Crime Bible mini and his Final Crisis tie-ins, while also reintroducing the characters for a new audience and adding a supporting cast and new villains to set up the Batwoman and Question stories as ongoing ones. Rucka does that competently and efficiently, (though I wonder how Batwoman’s father being a colonel works with her background as the daughter of an old-money family…) and fans of Rucka’s writing (like Debi ) will enjoy it. For me, though, Rucka is one of those writers whose work I’ll read if it’s there, and not seek out if it isn’t – on a level with Kurt Busiek or Mark Waid rather than Alan Moore or Dave Sim.
But Rucka is very much the weak link, relatively speaking, in the creative team here. The letterer is the great Todd Klein (actually not his best work – the font for Alice is very good but the rest is very standard) .
The colourist is Dave Stewart – the only current colourist (who doesn’t do anything else – I’m not here counting people like Jamie Grant who do other things as well) working in comics whose work I think actively improves the art – his work with Darwyn Cooke has been particularly impressive, and here his work is extraordinary. Most colourists for superhero comics tend to use flat colours, photoshop gradients or whatever to give a rather superficial set of colours that look more or less like the thing they’re meant to look like. I count three distinct palettes here, for different sections of the story, and a level of detail I’ve rarely seen – just look at the middle panel in the last page of the Batwoman story to see what I mean.
But the real star of the issue is J.H. Williams III. Williams is, without question, the best artist working in comics today. And this is where the problems come in, as I have less than no artistic vocabulary – all I can say is that I can look at even just his layouts all day, drinking in the sheer *design sense*, let alone his draughtsmanship, to say nothing of his storytelling ability. All I can say is that Williams tops himself with almost every page – he started out brilliant, and has only got better from there. Jog’s review makes a better fist of explaining the power of Williams’ work than I could, but still it’s fundamentally inexplicable – you just have to look at it.
In reviews, including this one, the backup feature – The Question – has been getting short shrift, and this isn’t really deserved. Rucka scripts this, too, and it will be tying in with the main storyline, and it’s a perfectly good story. Cully Hammer, the artist, is very good – he’s someone whose work I always enjoy – but he can’t help but suffer in comparison to Williams, and the colouring doesn’t help, being a similar enough palette to Stewart’s ‘superhero scene’ one to invite comparisons, but far less nuanced. Read on its own, it’s a decent little eight-page setup, but it’s just not as good as the main story.
Paul Dini’s Masturbation Fantasy Gotham City Sirens on the other hand, is just terrible, and a proof that the Bechdel test is a minimum, not a guarantee of a lack of sexism (and still less, of course, a guarantee of any kind of quality). (Incidentally, I didn’t deliberately buy this – the comic shop stuck it in my pull list because I read other batbooks, and my wife picked my comics up this week).
On paper, the idea of a supervillain team consisting of Catwoman, Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn seems like a reasonable one. You could make a decent mid-market series out of that, with a writer who could do character-based humour and action scenes – someone like Gail Simone or the Giffen/DeMatteis team. It wouldn’t be great, but it’d be readable.
However, the script for this is by Paul Dini, and despite his love for these characters (and for Zatanna, who *of course* makes an appearance) he doesn’t actually bother to distinguish them as people (apart from a couple of lines for Harley where she uses contractions). Instead, he just has them spout exposition at each other in interchangeable voices. While Rucka reveals character, motivation and background through dialogue – making Kate Kane talk differently from her girlfriend who talks differently from Batman who talks differently from Kane’s military father, thus letting us know what kind of people these are, Dini, however, has moved past such trivia as ‘characterisation’ and ‘depth’ (even of the minimal kind found in the Batwoman story), preferring instead to use dialogue to recap plot points from what I presume are his own later Batman stories (after I gave up bothering with his run on Detective) and the abysmal Countdown. There is precisely one exchange in this story that rings at all true as something a human being might say (the ‘Nigerian scam’ panel). – everything else is, at best, Claremontian.
But Dini’s writing here, bad as it is, is not the real problem. The problem’s with the art. Artist Guillem March actually displays some talent here. In fact in some ways he’s too good for the script – he has a facility for facial expressions, and manages to make the characters ‘act’ surprisingly well, and display recognisable characteristics – but this is working against the script rather than for it.
The problem is that he’s far more interested in drawing arses than actually telling the story. Now, I have no particular problem with mildly sexualised or titillating art in comics per se – it’s not something I have any especial interest in, but whatever. Some of Williams’ art in Detective has a definite sexual undercurrent, and that’s fine – it adds to the story.
But look at the bottom (in both senses) of page ten of Gotham City Sirens (I would scan this in, but I’ve not installed the drivers on my new laptop yet). A huge shot of Catwoman’s arse, for no particular reason. And Harley and Ivy’s heads *level* with it, even though all three are standing up, close to each other, and there is no suggestion of looking at them from an angle – no perspective distortion at all. The only way this panel makes sense is if Harley and Ivy are kneeling or Catwoman is standing on a box, but only for this panel. In the next panel, meanwhile, Harley and Ivy have swapped places for no explicable reason except that the artist was too busy drawing Catwoman’s arse to care about coherent storytelling.
These two comics, for all their surface similarities, serve as almost perfect examples of How To Do It and How Not To Do It – polar opposites, except for one unfortunate fact. Despite the fact that these comics have female main characters, and are apparently intended to appeal to the female comics-reading audience, only two of the twenty people credited with some creative or editorial role are women (the colourist on the backup feature in Detective and an assistant editor on GCS). Which is not to say that only women can write or draw or edit comics about or for women – that would be a ludicrous suggestion. But I *do* think that if the numbers were nearer parity (not just on these titles, but in the industry as a whole) we would have rather fewer comics where women are undifferentiated holders of tits and arse, and rather more where they’re people. But how do we get that parity when comics like Gotham City Sirens exist?
*(I won’t even mention that Catwoman says ‘blame it on sunshine’…. Damn.)