Last Week’s Comics 6/4/2014

Batman #31

(DC – writer: Scott Snyder; art: Greg Capullo)

Batman #31 is a comic where Batman has to fight lions in a death trap. Do I really need to say anything else about?

OK, fine.

The first Batman origin I remember reading was The Untold Legend of the Batman. The 1980 series was an attempt to weave together various elements of Batman’s origin into one coherent story. Condensing all the backstory revealed over a 41-year period was no small feat, but Len Wein, John Byrne and Jim Aparo made it make sense to me when I was a kid. To this day, I still think of that story as the definitive Batman origin, while I view Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One as the definitive Commissioner Gordon origin. Yes, I am fully aware neither story matches in terms of continuity. I am OK with that. Since I am OK with that, I am also OK with Batman: Zero Year as a new take on Batman’s early days.

Batman #31 begins with Lucius Fox leaving a final message for his son. Lucius is going off to challenge the Riddler, and he knows his chance of victory is slim. Still, he’s going to give it a shot – at least until Batman shows up. Up to this point, Batman has really only worked with Alfred. He and Gordon have had a tenuous relationship, but it isn’t until this issue that Batman starts to work with people (it’s funny that this issue comes out the same week as Nightwing #30 – where Batman can’t work with anybody, let alone his most trusted friend/surrogate son).

Regardless of the Nightwing #30 misstep, Batman #31’s focus is on the importance of Batman’s relationship with Jim Gordon and Lucius Fox as “Savage City” propels Zero Year forward. This issue leads readers towards Snyder and Capullo’s end game by bringing us a visual teased in the story’s very first issue – a no-frills Batman on a motorbike! I’ve been waiting for this since Batman #21. Gotham is powerless and overgrown with vegetation. The only man with any power is Edward Nygma, the Riddler. He’s taken control of the city and dares its citizens to take it back. If they fail, they die. Many have died trying to outsmart the Riddler, but Batman, Lucius Fox and Jim Gordon are on the case.

Together, they outsmart the Riddler by triggering his trap. Batman wasn’t precisely sure what was down there, but he kept Riddler broadcasting long enough so Jim Gordon could set up a tracker and Lucius could locate the source of Riddler’s broadcast signal (which would also be his secret hideout). Making the Riddler a threat is something that a lot of writer’s had a hard time with, but having him turn Gotham City into a giant death trap is master stroke. It levels him up as a villain while harkening back to Batman ’66.

Batman: Zero Year isn’t over yet, but this issue pushes it towards being a classic Batman tale. The thing I find most admirable is how Snyder, Capullo and company embrace Batman’s history in a way similar to how The Untold Legend of the Batman did. Batman wears purple gloves, Uncle Phillip is part of the story again, the Joker may not have been the Red Hood gang’s patsy and Commissioner Loeb is still an asshole. The continuity may be different, but there is a consistency to the story that makes Zero Year a Batman epic. Snyder is pulling stuff from all over Batman’s history, while adding new ideas and new spins on some Bat-favorites, and this issue builds on that philosophy. Batman is still the best and most consistent series of the New 52.

– Ian Gonzales

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The Star Wars #8

(Dark Horse – writer: J. W. Rinzler; art: Mike Mayhew)

Dark Horse is closing up their Star Wars shop, and a few titles are off my monthly buy list. This week, it’s the eighth and final issue of The Star Wars, Dark Horse’s rendering of George Lucas’ “original” rough draft (really, just one of many) that would go on to grow into the greater Star Wars universe. This is a tale truly for Star Wars super-fans.

Unconditional love for Star Wars is something inexplicable, like the old saying about professional wrestling (or maybe that’s religion?): “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one who does not, no explanation will do.” The tale is at times loose and ambitious, ponderous and awkward, and way too far-reaching for a single film (hence “rough draft”), but I’m happy to have seen and read it, if mostly to see the Wookies rage where the Ewoks only squealed.

Fans familiar with the Star Wars universe will notice things that pop up throughout most of the films. I expected this going in, but it did take some work to separate The Star Wars from the films (say, the alien Han Solo, the common use of light sabers or Vader’s costume.) Some distance and a future reading may provide readers with some clarity.

Issue #8 takes the adventure from the Return of the Jedi-like chapter of issue #7 back to A New Hope, with the rescue of Princess Leia from, and the ultimate destruction of, the “space fortress.” While we don’t get any backstory on Prince Valorum, his decision to aid Annikin Starkiller comes as a surprise, and he’s heralded as a fellow hero in the awards ceremony ending. Confused? This is where another reading might come in handy, depending on one’s devotion.

Artist Mike Mayhew and colorist Rain Beredo do a fantastic job putting ideas to paper (although Princess Leia resembles Natalie Portman more than Carrie Fisher.) The watercolor-esque visuals are my favorite part of each issue. Nick Runge’s covers are great and deserve to stand alongside Drew Struzan’s iconic poster art from the films.

Dark Horse announced they will be releasing several trade editions of The Star Wars, so if you missed out (or held out) on the individual issues, pick one of these up. If hardcore fans can sit through episodes IIII, they can survive The Star Wars.

– Sal Lucci

———

Giant-Size Spider-Man #1

(Marvel – writer: Joe Caramagna; art: Scott Koblish, Giancarlo Caracuzzo, Francesco Ciregia, Elena Casagrande, Tim Seeley)

Peter Parker has many powers, but the one that is utilized the most in the last couple of decades has been the creators’ ability to hit “reset” on him and start from scratch. I admit that I’ve had trouble following Spider-Man ever since the infamous “Clone Saga” debacle of the ’90s screwed up the old continuity for the character. That set him forth on this rollercoaster ride of being de-aged, having his marriage erased by the Mephisto, finding out his ex-girlfriend cheated on him with his arch nemesis (the Green Goblin), having his eye removed briefly and then given back, having his poor Aunt/mother figure on death’s door more times than a man who occasionally possesses six arms can count, and then most recently having Doctor Octopus possess his body and take over his brain for a while. All of this in the name of simplifying the character!

Well, here we are at square one once again. Amazing Spider-Man #1 has recently kicked off a new era for the Webslinger, and Giant-Size Spider-Man #1 is meant to serve as another retelling of Spidey’s early years. It begins with the origin and breezes through the first four issues of the original Lee/Ditko run, where Spidey fights the Vulture, Doctor Octopus and the Sandman. The fights are fun, as Spider-Man has one of the best rogues galleries in comics. On the other hand, I must have at least a dozen Spider-Man comic books where they attempt to modernize and streamline his origin story. If they continue to insist on retelling Spidey’s origin, I just want someone to start with Uncle Ben’s birth and have the series end with the poor guy taking that deadly bullet yet again, just so we can finally get his perspective and change things up a little bit.

Joe Caramagna does a fine job with writing duties on this issue, and artists Scott Koblish, Giancarlo Caracuzzo, Francesca Ciregia, Elena Casagrande and Tim Seeley excel at illustrating each story. There are many great retro details preserved here, like Doc Ock’s classic pea soup green and orange outfit, and Sandman’s classic Steve Ditko-designed wiggly hairdo. It’s a perfectly fine oversized issue, just one that we’ve seen many times. With the exception of a mention of the Internet, this could simply be another retelling of Spidey’s early years told whenever. Which leads to my problem.

Like many other comic book fans, the Spider-Man comics were the first superhero comics I read. He’s still my favorite superhero. When I started reading Spider-Man in the 1980s, he was a guy in his late 20s/early 30s who had been aging from his teens somewhat since the 1960s. He was married to Mary Jane Watson and worked for the Daily Bugle as a photographer. He still had plenty of problems, both as Peter Parker and as Spider-Man. For some reason, this wasn’t good enough for the powers that be at Marvel Comics, and they eventually uprooted the character beyond repair. We care about Peter Parker the character as much as, if not more than, Spider-Man. All we want to see is his story progress and not stutter along and go backwards like it has been doing for almost 20 years.

There will always be reboots and unnecessary comics priced at $4.99, telling us the same origin story over and over again. I would recommend this issue to newcomers, but for longtime fans, you’ve read all of this before and can find other uses for your money. Let’s hope this new era of Amazing Spider-Man will move the character forward and not look back.

– Michael Edwards

———

Nightwing #30

(DC – writer: Tim Seeley and Tom King; art: Javier Garron, Jorge Lucas, Mikel Janin, Guillermo Ortego)

I can’t remember the last time I hated a comic book this much.

Look, Nightwing #30 didn’t have an easy task laid out for it. The book needed to act as a coda to Forever Evil #7, as a sort of “zero issue” to Grayson and conclude the monthly Nightwing series. That means Nightwing #30 had to: explain why Batman should fake Dick’s death (because remember, only a handful of people saw Dick “die” in the first place, so it’s not like Batman is merely declining to tell people that Dick survived) and why Dick would go along with it; why the two would keep Dick’s survival from the rest of the Bat-Family (because it’s not like they can’t keep a secret); what Spyral is and why Dick should infiltrate it. Most of all, the book needed to allow Dick to say farewell to his former life.

None of this happened.

The book starts with a lead-up to Grayson concerning Spyral, Helena Bertinelli, Leslie Thompkins and a whole lot of grandstanding. But whatever, this is comics, I can even forgive no-nonsense Leslie Thompkins saying something as inane as “a red-and-black room that pulsed with twin veins of blood and oil.”

Then we get to the most sincere part of the comic: Alfred, crying over Dick’s death, finds himself locked out of the Batcave and out of what he presumes to be Bruce’s own grief at the loss of his son. Holy feels, Batman. Bruce must have a damn good reason for lying to Alfred, right?

Nope. This is where the comic takes a nose-dive into meaningless posturing disguised as dramatic violence. Bruce and Dick strip to just their pants, gloves and masks, and beat the shit out of each other. For almost half the comic.

If a story isn’t original (and what story is?), then it must be heartfelt. The fight scene in Nightwing #30 is neither. Everything that has meaning in the scene only does so because it has had significance in other, better stories: the Batmobile, dinosaur, giant penny and other Batman icons that the two combatants smash into as they fight in the cave. The characters themselves. Unconsidered shouts of “protecting your family” and “it hurts me more than it hurts you” and that “Why do we fall?” line from the Batman Begins movie. Even this fetishization of Bruce punching Dick has been done so many times that it’s become a meme even outside of fandom.

All of these tropes are thrown into Nightwing #30 because the writers apparently believe that they have significance in and of themselves. But here, without a heartfelt story to give them life, these tropes are just empty shadows, copied from better texts without any understanding of what made them meaningful in the first place, and all wrapped up in the violence that DC Comics seems to be routinely mistaking for actual drama these days.

It’s like I’m reading “hurt/comfort” fanfiction. (Don’t ever read “hurt/comfort” fanfiction.)

I thought DC wanted Dick Grayson to be more than just “Batman’s sidekick.” That’s why previous Nightwing writer Kyle Higgins moved Dick to Chicago not 10 issues ago in this same book – to get him out of Batman’s shadow. Yet now we see Dick exercising no agency and even less personality, as Batman beats him bloody, basically implies that he’s not “a man” if he refuses to take this mission and all but forces him into the plot of Grayson. That doesn’t sound like the makings of an independent character to me.

Look, here’s basically everything that we needed to happen between Dick and Bruce in six lines:

Bruce: “Hey Dick, I told everyone you’re dead and I need you to do this really dangerous mission for me.”

Dick: “Okay, but why can’t I tell the family that I’m still alive at least?”

Bruce: “It’s better this way.”

Dick: “Bullshit. That’s a terrible reason.”

Bruce: “It’s going to be dangerous, Dick. If you survive, they’ll be overjoyed. If you don’t…why make them lose you twice?”

Dick: “…That’s still a terrible reason, but after all we’ve been through, I trust you, Bruce.”

There, now this lets us talk about Batman’s well-intentioned but probably misguided sense of justice (and his emotional infantilism), as well as shows Dick being concerned about his friends and family but ultimately choosing to trust Bruce and take the mission of his own free will.

I haven’t even talked about the art. The art is fine. The depictions of Nightwing and Batman with blood streaming around their bulging biceps look straight out of the ’90s – yet another example of Nightwing #30 borrowing significance from elsewhere instead of creating it itself.

The final few pages of Nightwing #30 are a few action shots of plainclothes Dick Grayson giving a little monologue about his life, ending with, “Something terrible is coming. And I have to stop it.” Oh? What is that terrible thing, and why are you the one who’s stopping it? What personal stake do you have in the terrible thing? It might have been nice to hear more about this earlier on!

The last scene shows Helena Bertinelli appearing to pick Dick up and take him to Spyral. Helena has been reimagined for her New 52 debut, and she looks great. Here’s the one thing about Nightwing #30 that I will defend. If you made it through this hot mess and your biggest complaint is that Helena’s skin is “too dark,” then I have nothing more to say to you.

– Jill Scharr

———

Black Canary and Zatanna: Bloodspell

(DC – writer: Paul Dini; art: Joe Quinones)

Paul Dini has been working on this one-shot team-up between Black Canary and Zatanna for years. Now it’s come out, and it’s everything I hoped it would be, plus all of the Dinah Lance smirks I didn’t even know I needed.

The story goes that one year ago, Dinah Lance (a.k.a. Black Canary) went undercover to bust a casino heist, and was forced to take a blood oath in the process. The orchestrator, Tina Spettro, killed herself rather than be taken in, but now her ghost is possessing the others who participated in the blood oath, which turns out to be a bloodspell. Knowing she’s next, Dinah turns to sorceress and fellow Justice Leaguer Zatanna for help. Their present team-up also allows Dini to explore the women’s 15 years of friendship.

Bloodspell doesn’t appear to be in the New 52 continuity; the characters and the Justice League itself are too old, and some of the costumes aren’t right for the new continuity (I’m looking at you, Goateen Arrow). But the story is self-contained enough to exist just about anywhere in the DC Universe.

The art by Joe Quinones complements Dini’s script, obeying the comic book strictures of square panels and black outlines, yet establishing a unique look for its style and its characters. I love the distinct features Quinones gives Zatanna and Dinah and the consistency with which he draws them.

And I was not prepared for the irresistible charm that is Dinah Lance’s smirks. There are so many smirks. Almost as many smirks as fishnets, which, in a story starring Black Canary and Zatanna, is not easy to do.

My one quibble with Quinones’ art is that he illustrates Dinah’s Canary Cry as a simple line of bright orange capital “EEEEs” stretching across the page. It looks like WordArt from Microsoft 2003.

There’s something about this book’s fun and consistent art, coupled with Dini’s straightforward, balanced story and lighthearted characters, that reminds me of the Justice League cartoon from the early 2000s. Black Canary and Zatanna: Bloodspell’s main goal is to entertain you, as well as give two excellent DC characters some well-deserved time in the spotlight.

In that, I’d say it succeeds.

– Jill Scharr

———

C.O.W.L. #1

(Image – writer: Kyle Higgins and Alec Siegel; art: Rod Reis)

It was my initial intention to write about Warren Ellis’ Trees this week. The book has been on my radar for weeks and even the worst of Ellis’ stuff (Strange Kiss, anybody?) is still better than 75% of comics on the stands. Yet, while the first issue of Trees is the sort of the high quality, gritty speculative fiction I expected, it is also a slow burn made of multiple narrative threads. In other words, like East of West, not much to talk about until it gets collected and a larger picture forms.

Meanwhile, I can’t shut up about C.O.W.L.

Another creator-owned book out under the Image banner, this time from Kyle Higgins (Gates of Gotham, Nightwing), Alec Siegel (Captain America Theater of War: Prisoners of Duty) and Rod Reis, (a colorist for both Marvel and DC), C.O.W.L . (which stands for Chicago Organized Workers League) is about a superhero union defending the citizens of 1960s Chicago from super villains.

Based on a short film by Higgins, C.O.W.L. feels a little bit Mad Men, a little bit Watchmen and a little bit All the King’s Men. The first half of the book is a violent chase, as C.O.W.L. agents track an ex-KGB super villain called Skylancer. Things don’t go great – some civilians get caught in the crossfire – but they do get their man. In the second half of the book, with nary a costume in sight, things get more interesting as the team deals with the fallout from that incident. You can feel the history in the book, the politics and the long relationships between the characters as the deeper mystery begins to unfold.

Reis is the real star of the first issue. C.O.W.L. marks his debut as a sequential artist, but it is hard to understand why it has taken so long. His art bursts onto the page, the Noto-esque retro contours in a tense standoff with its loose Sienkiewicz-style emotiveness. A good deal of what we know about the characters comes directly from Reis – the shadows that gather around investigator John Pierce, patrolman Paul Samoski’s smile and boss man Geoffrey Warner’s furrowed glare tell us just as much about these men as the lines they deliver. That is an impressive testament to an artist’s skill, right out of the gate.

If the rest of this year’s run of C.O.W.L. is as good as the first issue, you can bet it’s going to be one of the best comics of the year.

– Stu Horvath
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