Archive for November 27, 2014

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Oh yeahhhhh — here we go, of the trio of new Bat-centric comics DC has unleashed in the wake of the debut of the Gotham TV series, this was the one I was looking forward to most, and for one simple reason : Ben Templesmith.

No offense intended to writer Ray Fawkes, mind you, but it’s the art that’s had me jazzed for this one since the time it was announced, and why not? Anyone who’s followed Templesmith’s singular style for any amount of time ( and I  sincerely hope you’ve read his just-completed IDW four-part series The Squidder — it seemed to fly under the radar a bit, publicity-wise, which is a bummer since it’s an absolutely magnificent comic) knows that this guy can flat-out bring it, and frankly, I can’t think of anyone better to illustrate the shadowy recesses of Gotham City that go bump in the night.

As is his custom, our guy Ben is turning in his pages in full color here, layering on his rich and atmospheric hues over the stylish, well-controlled chaos of his highly individualistic line art, and, as you’d expect, the results are gorgeous. If I had time to take a break from “ooh”ing and “aah”ing over his panels I’d probably take a moment to stop and be surprised by the fact  that DC, a publisher best known in recent years for the uniformity (and, let’s be honest, dullness) of the overall look of all its books even took this guy on board at all, but, as we’ve already established, they seem to have come around to the idea that their little “Bat-universe” is a large enough place to allow for a handful of unique-looking books to wedge their way into its far corners. Like Gotham Academy and Arkham Manor, one gets the sense right from the jump that Gotham By Midnight is arriving in our laps with a very definite sell-by date in the back of its editors’ and probably even creators’ minds — and Templesmith has never stuck with any given project for all that long — but here’s to hoping that we can count on a solid run of a couple of years or so here, at least, with only occasional “fill-in” issues along the way. My fingers are certainly crossed.

Again, though, DC is guilty of putting the cart before the horse a bit here by setting events in this series after those that are currently taking place in Batman Eternal (as is also the case with Arkham Manor and Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s “Endgame” storyline currently playing out in the pages of Batman itself), but in this particular case it’s really not such a big deal since the fact that somewhere along the way Commissioner Gordon (who we all know is destined to get his job back anyway),  for reasons as yet unknown,  decides to put together a special police task force to deal with supernatural threats to the city ins’t exactly a development that “spoils” any as-yet-unseen story revelations.

The lineup for Gordon’s pet project made flesh,  Precinct 13 ( also known as the GCPD’s “Midnight Shift”),  is composed primarily of new characters, with one notable exception : a lieutenant named Weaver runs the show, assisted by detective Lisa Drake, forensic doctor Szandor Tarr, demon-hunting nun Sister Justine, and, casting a long shadow over all, as he tends to do, is the only “established” DCU character (besides Batman, who puts in an appearance, of course) of the bunch, detective Jim Corrigan, a.k.a. The Spectre.

Fawkes has been the primary writer on the sporadic Batman Eternal issues where Corrigan features prominently, and while it’s probably fair to say that the long, drawn-out reveal of his ghostly alter-ego in that series is down to choices made by James Tynion IV and the previously-mentioned Snyder, given that they’re co-plotting the entire weekly enterprise,  the same approach seems to be unfolding here given that The Spectre is mentioned, but never shown, in the first issue of Gotham By Midnight, as well.

Maybe that’s for the best — he’s certainly one of the most powerful characters in the entire DCU, so when he makes an appearance it probably should be a big deal, but I must confess that I’m already chomping at the bit to see how Templesmith draws him. I have a feeling that’s gonna be some epic shit right there.

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Look, who are we fooling? It’s probably no secret by now that I’d be all over this comic even if the writing absolutely sucked, but fortunately for us that doesn’t seem to be the case so far. Fawkes — whose work on the ongoing Constantine monthly has been bog-standard stuff at best, downright wretchedly mundane at worst — cooks up a pacy little yarn here that manages to hit all the notes it needs to in terms of character introductions by sticking a ball-busting IA sergeant named Rooks,  who explicitly states that his goal with Precinct 13 is to shutter their operation completely,  into the proceedings right off the bat, thus allowing him and us to meet everyone at the same time, before plunging down into a real rabbit hole of an investigation that centers on two young girls who went missing for a short time before coming home covered in mud and speaking a language no one can understand. Gee, do ya think something weird might have happened to them?

Where it goes from here is anybody’s guess, but it’s strongly hinted that the first issue’s cliffhanger has landed our protagonists right at the doorstep of hell itself, so I think we’re probably in for a fairly exciting ride, and you can rest assured that, in Templesmith’s uber-capable hands, hell is gonna look like hell oughtta look.

I could have picked up Andrea Sorrentino’s admittedly good-looking variant cover (shown above) at the shop today, but Templesmith’s who I’m buying this series for, so I opted for his main one, as I’m sure I’ll continue to do month in and month out. As long as he sticks with this title, I will, too, even if the story goes to — oh, wait, it’s already there, But damn, so far I really like it anyway.

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So here’s the set-up — in the pages of the ongoing weekly series Batman Eternal, Arkham Asylum was blown sky high in some kind of supernatural explosion, and the city fathers of Gotham have consequently found themselves at loose ends in terms of where they’re going to warehouse their rogues’ gallery of “criminally insane” patients/inmates. After much discussion ,debate, and deliberation, the answer they come up with is — Wayne Manor?

I guess if you can swallow the notion that one of the richest guys in the world actually cares about other people, and expresses his warped notion of “concern”  by dressing up as a goddamn bat and fighting crime at all hours of the night, then the aforementioned- premise of the new monthly  series  Arkham Manor shouldn’t prove to be a bridge too far. I just find it very curious — to put it mildly — that DC would choose to put this out before the events that lead up to it had even happened yet (the destruction of Arkham and Bruce Wayne losing his home, and his company, are only now unfolding in Batman Eternal, yet Arkham Manor  is already on its second its second issue), but whatever. In this day and age of several-months-in-advance Diamond previews and solicits, I guess there are no such thing as “spoilers” in comics anymore.

To make things even more convoluted, though , the first story arc of this series involves Bruce Wayne, sans Batman garb, going undercover as a patient in his former home in order to track down a murderer who’s offing the other inmates. You know you’ve got it rough, I guess, when you have to pretend to be someone else in order to get back into your old house, which is now both a psychiatric prison and an active crime scene.

Obviously, at some point, Brucie boy is gonna get his family estate back — but  the question you have to ask is, after all this shit, why would he even want it?

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Okay,  it’s called “suspension of disbelief,” and it’s a notion we already discussed pretty thoroughly right at the outset here, so I’ll just leave that little query to play itself out at some inevitable point in the future. And I’m sure that point will come right around the time  at which Arhham Manor is scheduled to be concluded/cancelled, since, like its two other new Bat-brethren, this is a title that’s clearly designed for the short (or at best semi-long) haul. The thing that it needs to prove to us now is — will it be worth seeing through to the end?

As of this moment, I’d have to say that my honest answer is “I’m not sure.” Writer Gerry Duggan and artist Shawn Crystal (both of whom cut their teeth on Marvel’s Deadpool, among other projects) definitely give the proceedings here a unique flavor, and it’s wise that for a book this outlandish they don’t appear to be taking themselves too seriously, but this is no out-and-out comedy a la the just-finished (and already sorely missed) Superior Foes Of Spider-Man. Earlier today I  finished up reading the second issue, and while I enjoyed it quite a bit (just as I did the first), I’m still not completely clear on what it is they’re “going for” here. One moment we’re in a group therapy session that’s clearly being played for laughs, the next we’re hunting for stone-cold killer Victor Zsasz in the bowels of a creepy old mansion full of evil crazy people. I’m tempted to say something about the whole thing feeling as schizophrenic as one of the manor/asylum’s inmates, but that would probably be both in poor taste and a bit too obvious.

Whoops.

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All misgivings aside, though, this book at least shows both some potential and, crucially, individuality. Crystal’s style (which can be seen on the main covers reproduced with this review, with the variants, also shown, coming our way courtesy of Eric Canete and Rico Renzi, respectively) is a lot more free-flowing and naturalistic than most of the bog-standard product DC is clogging the racks with, and lends itself to both “lighter” and “darker” scenes with equal ease, so that’s a big plus, as is Duggan’s solid grasp of dialogue and characterization. In short, plain language, then, it’s fair to say I like both the art and the writing here. I just don’t know if I like the comic — yet.

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How’s this for a conundrum, though? I don’t have any solid reason to drop it from my pull list, either. So far it’s been intriguing, even if it’s been hard to pin down. In fact, we might even be in the early stages of a very solid, long-form Batman story. The potential is there, and these guys (along with colorist Dave McCaig, here employing a decidedly more traditional and subdued palette than he’s using in the pages of Gotham Academy) seem talented enough to pull it off.  There are so many borderline- tantalizing glimpses of what might be on our way that I’m willing to take a “wait-and-see” approach for the time being. Unfortunately, the book’s initial struggles to find its “voice” also ensure that I can’t say anything more for it than “wait-and-see,” either.

Lock me up in Arkham Manor for now, then, I guess — but please,  don’t go throwing away the key just yet. I may yet decide that my stay here is better off being a short one.

 

 

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In case you haven’t been paying attention — can’t say I blame you for that — DC axed a slew of low-selling comics fairly recently and, rather than have the “New 52” become the “New 47” or whatever, quickly supplemented the ranks with several new monthly books, a staggering three of which are set in/spun out of (take your pick) the Batman corner of their corporate universe — even though the word “Batman” doesn’t feature in the titles of any of these series at all.

But is it really Batman per se that these new additions to the former National Periodical Publications’ line-up are tying into, or is it the new Batman-based TV show, Gotham?

Okay, fair enough, the latter wouldn’t exist without the former, but when you notice that two of these books — Gotham By Midnight and Gotham Academy — have the Gotham name, quite obviously, front and center, it seems like the powers that be at DC have, to borrow some nauseating business lingo, decided to “position” these titles in such a way that readers will associate them more with the Gotham City “brand” than the Batman “brand.”

Certainly, there are stories to be told in Gotham that don’t involve its most famous masked vigilante, and characters as far apart conceptually as Jack Kirby’s Demon and Metamorpho have called the city their home over the years, but dumping a trio of new books based there out on the market within the space of a couple of months of the TV show making its debut is, obviously, no mere coincidence.

What the hell, though, right? When was the last time either of “The Big Two” did anything that wasn’t  all about marketing and cashing in on a perceived “hot” property?

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In addition, strange as it sounds to hear — and believe me, it’s doubly strange to be saying it — DC appears to be willing to allow all three new comics to “break the mold” somewhat in terms of eschewing the dull “house style” of art so prevalent throughout much, if not all,  of the “New 52” line (think mid-’90s Wildstorm comics only with more established characters) and to also take a different approach tonally with the scripts for each series. I guess when you’ve got something like 20 “Bat-books” coming out every month, at least a few  of them can afford to be somewhat unique.

The best of the bunch, at least so far, was also the first one to hit the stands — Gotham Academy, a suitable-for-all-ages title that comes our way courtesy of co-writers Becky Cloonan (who also provides the variant covers for each issue) and Brenden Fletcher and artist Karl Kerschl (who is on main cover chores, as well). Also a key contributor to the overall aesthetic of the series in colorist Dave McCaig, whose computerized palette is being put to work here giving the panels a rather pleasing animation cel-type look.

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I’ve seen this comic described by other reviewers as being a “Hogwarts in Gotham,” and while that’s an understandable enough comparison, rest assured that the kids aren’t learning to fly on broomsticks or conjure rabbits out of hats. The curriculum, in fact, seems to be pretty standard stuff, if a bit overly-obsessed with local history, but rest assured, if such things are your cup of tea, that there is a dose of the supernatural to be found in the school’s infamous North Hall building, which appears to have a ghost in residence.

That’s only one of several mysteries to whet readers’ appetites, though, given that our main protagonist, a young girl named Olive Silverlock who’s attending the titular school thanks to a Wayne Foundation scholarship, seems to be rather full of secrets herself. Who is her oft-referred-to-but-never-seen mother (my money is on Silver St. Cloud)? Why is she so hesitant to talk about what she got up to over the summer? Why does Bruce Wayne (who speaks at a school assembly in the first issue and apparently was a student there at one time himself) know so darn much about her? Why is she trying to quietly break things off with her boyfriend, Kyle, even though she still seems to like him as much as ever? And, most importantly (and annoyingly) to her, why does Kyle’s kid sister — nicknamed Maps due to her love of and proficiency with, well, maps — follow her around like a shadow at all times?

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I won’t kid you — it’s been a long time since I was a teenager, and quite obviously I was never a teenage girl, but  Cloonan and Fletcher seem to nail it in terms of capturing Olive’s “inner voice” and matching it seamlessly with her outward actions. She’s a likable, interesting, and respectfully-portrayed young lady who, granted, looks to have a bit more “on her plate” than most kids her age, but in the end  istills mostly concerned/consumed with the same stuff we all were at that point in our lives — namely, finding out who she is and what sort of niche she’ll find in both her present environment and the world at large. We’re only two issues into things, but I already find myself looking forward to seeing what her creators have in store for her every month.

Frankly, for a fresh-out-of-the-gate series like this, that’s about the most you can ask for, along with nice art, which Gotham Academy certainly has, provided you don’t mind its somewhat “cartoony” look, which I find to be a breath of fresh air in comparison to the heavily formulaic, “cookie-cutter” look of most of its DC contemporaries.

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All in all, then, I think we’ve got ourselves a winner here. I’m fairly sure this book is designed from the outset to have a finite run, and that when Cloonan, Fletcher, and Kerschl have finished telling the story they’re looking to tell — however long that may take — it most likely won’t be handed over to another creative team to continue on ad infinitum. That’s cool with me, especially since the overall “vibe”  of this series, which feels very “contemporary teen-ager,” will no doubt date itself in a certain amount of time given how fast youth culture changes these days. For now, though, Gotham Academy seems well-realized indeed, and with a clear direction, purpose, and trajectory, so count me in for the forseeable future.