Posts Tagged ‘Batman’

Odds are pretty good that the 50%- or- so of my regular readers (not that there’s anything “regular” about any of us, of course!) who speak fluent “comic book-ese” are well aware of the industry’s sorry ethical history, but for the other half who are blissfully unaware of how badly outfits like Marvel and DC have put the screws to the creative geniuses who dreamed up their billion-dollar properties, the reality can be shocking : Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster selling away the rights to Superman in perpetuity for the princely sum of $130 just before they were shipped off to war because they wanted to provide a little something for their families in case they didn’t come back home; Jack Kirby’s struggles just to get back the thousands of pages of original art he drew of the hundreds of characters he invented and his family’s subsequent legal battles after his passing; Steve Ditko living in a shabby apartment above a skid-row thrift store while Spider-Man raked in a fortune — these are just a few of the more obvious and egregious economic injustices that are all too common in comics history. But no list of ignominious funnybook rip-offs is complete without mentioning the saga of Bill Finger.

Who was Bill Finger? Well, according to pretty much every first-hand account of the situation, he was co-creator of arguably the most famous (and profitable) super-hero of them all : Batman. Not that you’d know it by reading the credits in every DC comic published over the last 75 years, though, because according to them, Batman was “created by Bob Kane.” And Bob Kane died a very wealthy man thanks to that little credit line, while Bill Finger passed away in 1974, an anonymous jobbing freelancer living in reduced circumstances who took a secret to his grave that almost no one wanted to hear.

Here’s the thing : almost everything you love about Batman was Finger’s idea. Kane’s original Batman sketch was of a dude in a red costume with stiff bird-like wings and a simple domino mask, but when he turned that sketch over to Finger one fateful weekend and asked him to see what he could do with it, the then-youthful pulp and comics writer let his imagination run wild and came up with the look of the Caped Crusader’s iconic costume, his origin story as a wealthy orphaned youth waging a one-man war on crime, his fictitious home of Gotham City, his world-famous “rogues’ gallery” of villains, his secret identity of Bruce Wayne, his butler Alfred, his sidekick Robin — all fingers point to Finger for pretty much all of that.

Kane was his boss, though, and so he was the guy who ultimately took the idea to National Periodical Publications (now DC), and who subsequently arranged the deal to give himself the sole “by-line” on all Batman comics for decades to come, even though all his scripting chores were “farmed out” to Finger, and in later years much of the art was handled by the likes of legendary illustrators such as Jerry Robinson and Dick Sprang. No matter. As far as the contracts with the publisher were concerned, Kane was doing it all. Even when he was doing almost none of it.

Hard-core fans knew the score, of course, as Finger’s story had been circling around the much-smaller-at-the-time convention and fanzine circuit for years, but the public at large was generally oblivious as to his silent contributions until quite recently. Author Marc Tyler Nobleman, who penned a children’s book entitled Bill : The Boy Wonder, can take a lot of credit for righting this historical wrong, since his dogged research was the “critical mass” ingredient that finally brought about the official recognition that Finger long deserved, but there were a lot of other folks, including Finger’s surviving family, who played a major part in it, as well, and all of their stories are finally given their due, as well, in the new made-for-Hulu documentary Batman & Bill, an intriguing “real-life detective story” from directors Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce that’s one of the more fascinating films of 2017 so far.

Nobleman is our suburban, middle-class, would-be Phillip Marlowe in this tale, but valuable context is provided by “expert witnesses” such as cult filmmaker/Bat-fanatic Kevin Smith, Hollywood producer/longtime fan Michael Uslan, Kane biographer Thomas Andrae, and my friend, noted comics historian Arlen Schumer, all of whom assist in laying out the basics of the “case” while our de facto “protagonist” does the legwork that eventually leads to the unearthing of a previously-unknown Bat-heir — Finger’s granddaughter, Athena, whose emergence onto the “scene” opens the legal floodgates that will eventually lead to “Batman created by Bob Kane withe Bill Finger” appearing on all comics, films, TV shows, cartoons, etc. featuring the Dark Knight.

If all of this sounds more than a little bit like a largely academic dispute among a marginal community of people with nothing better to do with their time, rest assured that Batman & Bill is constructed in such an engaging and accessible manner that even somebody who’s never seen a Bat-flick or a read a Bat-comic will find themselves inexorably drawn into the web of intrigue that Argott and Joyce expertly weave, and while Finger is long gone and obviously not able to speak for himself, the sincerity and earnestness with which others are able to speak for him paints a reasonably complete and consistently fascinating picture of the man who made Batman everything he ultimately became. If you like a good mystery, or a classic “underdog” story, or even a human-interest “docudrama,” then trust me when I say that you’ll find plenty to satisfy whet your cinematic whistle here.

Perhaps the best thing Batman & Bill has going for it, though, is that at the end of the day it’s that rarest of beasts : a truly inspirational tale of how one man’s sheer bloody-mindedness can galvanize others around him who have the power to effect change to do precisely that. Bill Finger may have been the unknown hero behind the hero everyone knows, but it took the work of a number of subsequent heroes to let the world know that. We should be thankful for each and every one of them, as well as the remarkable documentarians who recognized in their story so many essential human truths that we can all relate to.

cym_yo1w8aqqn_z

It may not be a “cool” thing to admit, but I’ll let you in on a little secret — it’s okay to just want to feel good once in awhile.

It is, after all, a hopelessly fucked-up world that we live in right now : our nuclear arsenal is in the hands of an unhinged, delusional madman who is clearly cracking under the strain of a job he probably didn’t even want and is in no way even mature enough to handle; a lunatic religious zealot is eagerly waiting in the wings to succeed him when he undoubtedly crashes and burns; our closest international allies seem to be inexorably lurking toward a barely-rebranded fascist nationalism themselves; rising global temperatures and sea levels probably threaten our future even more than the would-be despots do — if you think about too hard, it can all seem pretty hopeless.

Can these problems be solved? Shit, I dunno — the jury’s out on that one. But they certainly can be avoided for a couple of hours here and there, and there’s no shame in doing just that every once in awhile. For those of any age seeking temporary relief and solace, then, may I humbly direct your attention toward director Chris McKay’s borderline-astonishing The Lego Batman Movie.

lego-batman-main-0-0

I admit to never having seen The Lego Movie “proper,” but if it’s anything like this one, that’s my loss — and one I intend to rectify pretty quickly. I can’t pretend to know what it is about translating the grittiest and grimmest of costumed vigilantes into a CGI-animated toyworld that’s such a stroke of near-genius, but the truth is that it not only works, it does something that no live-action iteration of the character has been able to do on the silver screen for the last couple of decades : it makes him fun again.

Make no mistake — the increasingly Dark Knight as envisioned by Tim Burton, Christopher Nolan and, especially, Zack Snyder is the elephant in the room here, but rather than take inspiration from it, McKay and his army of screenwriters choose, instead, to offer a rebuttal to it. Sure, Batman as voiced (superbly, might I add) by Will Arnett is a brooding and dour figure — albeit one who loves, even needs, the gratification that comes from the limelight — but this film isn’t afraid to say that this is a problem. To that end, butler-cum-father-figure Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) is doing his best to get the closest thing he has to a child to let other people in, to move past the loss of his parents all those decades ago and find a new family.  Too many nights alone with microwaved lobster thermidor aren’t good for anybody, after all.

Batman “purists” probably won’t be too terribly happy with some of the liberties taken here : Robin (Michael Cera) isn’t just Bruce Wayne’s ward but his (accidentally — its a long story) adopted son; Barbara Gordon assumes the role of new Gotham City chief of police, replacing her just- retired father, before she dons the Batgirl costume more or less by default; Daleks and King Kong don’t exist in the DC Universe, etc. Well, grouse away, fan-boys — no one else cares.

maxresdefault

Perhaps the most daring and unexpected twist to the Bat-mythos offered here, though, is the refreshingly honest take offered on the relationship between Batman and The Joker (Zach Galifianakis). Freed form the constraints of continuity and editorial protectionism, The Lego Batman Movie admits what no other Bat-flick can — that these two arch-foes need each other, and that any enmity this deeply felt can only spring from a place at least vaguely approximating (strictly platonic, rest assured, nervous parents) love. You know it. I know it. And it’s high time someone said it.

If you never expected this much pathos-via-broad-brushstrokes in what is still, after all, a kids’ movie, don’t worry — it’s all couched in laugh-out-loud humor, obfuscated under mounds of “Easter Eggs” for the observant fan, and delivered with an entirely un-ironic earnestness that you just can’t help but love. This is a movie that has no qualms about admitting that it wants you to like it, and then dares you to find a reason not to.

thelegobatman_trailer4

I never did, of course, and neither will you. A world this colorful, this joyful, this smart, this optimistic, and this fun is probably one we’d all like to live in — but then we’d be made of plastic and lock onto sidewalks and streets with our feet. So, ya know, nothing’s perfect.

As the title for this review states plainly, though, this film really is about as close to it as you’re gonna get. The Lego Batman Movie is the best Batman movie ever, by far.

4923763-01

So — here it is. The conclusion (that’s no longer a conclusion) to Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns epic that, at least according to DC’s promotional blurbs, “you never saw coming.” Probably because after The Dark Knight Strikes Again! most people really didn’t want to see another installment in this saga coming, but hey — we’ve got one anyway. And now that we do, I’m honestly shocked at how little the finished product differs from the admittedly dim impression I had of it in my head back when it was first announced that they were going back to this well one more time.

Before we get to that, though, I have a few things to say about how we got here — and even where we’re going from here — so let’s take care of all that first, shall we?

DKTMR01_Miller_1200_56149fec3bbba7.03309975

The word “legendary” is, of course, a horribly overused one these days, but 1986’s Batman : The Dark Knight Returns was just that. I’m operating under the assumption that most readers of this review don’t need any sort of briefing on either what it was or the long-lasting effects it had on the superhero comic medium, but even if you do, sorry — you’re not going to get it here. All I’m going to say is that its reputation is well-deserved and that, yes, it really is at least as good as everyone’s always said it is.

Where I do part company with conventional wisdom, though, is in my absolute love for its 2001 sequel, the already-mentioned The Dark Knight Strikes Again! Yes, it’s every bit as haphazard, frenetic, tonally all-over-the-place, and gleefully sadistic as its detractors claim, but what of it? No less an authority than cartoonist extraordinaire James Kochalka has said that DK2, as its more commonly known, reads like it’s the creation of “a 12-year-old kid who knows he can make a better comic than Frank Miller,” and I can’t really think of higher praise than that. This book positively crackles with youthful recklessness and exuberance from the outset and never lets up, despite the fact that its author apparently suffered something of a guilt-related mental breakdown halfway through its creation due to the fact that in the second issue he showed Batman flying a plane into the LexCorp tower and, just a few months later, a handful of terrorists went and did much the same thing in the real world. Miller became a strident Islamophobic jackass after that, as evidenced not only by his decidedly racist and xenophobic graphic novel Holy Terror (which actually started out as a Batman comic until he decided to replace the Caped Crusader with a stand-in character of his own devising), but also by a good number of inflammatory statements he made about Muslims in various interviews at the time of the book’s release — but guess what? Those reactionary views don’t impinge on DK2‘s conclusion in any way and, if you go back and read the third and final issue of that series again, you’ll see that it’s actually one of the most bombastic critiques of the Bush administration and its then-newly-launched “War On Terrorism” to ever see print in any “entertainment” medium. The book had a “rap” for being a glorification of fascism and some of the ugly right-wing conceits at the heart of vigilantism in general, but you know what? The same is true of The Dark Knight Returns, only that takes itself waaaaaaayyyyy more fucking seriously. The entire Dark Knight series is politically and socially problematic, and actively relishes its own confrontationalism, but only the sequel seems to get accused of engaging in that sort of brusque artistic brow-beating, and this despite the fact that Miller’s worst excesses all came to light well after its release. I’m just gonna come right out and say it, and you can reserve my padded cell for me anytime, I guess : I’ll take DK2 over its more-celebrated predecessor any day of the week. To me, it’s the closest thing we’ll ever have to an “underground” Batman comic and yeah, while it’s definitely a much “uglier” and less “professional”-looking book in a visual sense, it’s absolutely bristling with righteous creative zeal that can’t be faked. Rumor has it that DC paid Miller a million dollars to do it, and he took their money, unzipped his fly, and pissed right in their face. Why do so many people have such a hard time respecting that?dkiii-p1-157314

Still, one thing I think we can all agree on is that a natural assumption was made at the end of DK2 that the story was over. If you liked the book, chances are that you figured Miller had said everything he had to say about the future “Batman Universe” he’d created, and if you’re among the majority who didn’t just dislike, but flat-out loathed it, you probably guessed that there was just no freaking way DC would even allow him anywhere near a Dark Knight project again.

As it turns out, everyone was wrong. Sort of.

dark-knight-3b

As you can see from the two pages reproduced above, the editorially-directed (by Miller and his publisher’s own admission) Dark Knight III : The Master Race looks as different to its two forebears as Strikes Again! did to Returns, and there’s a damn good reason for this — yes, DC’s gone back to the world he initially envisioned, but our guy Frank is only on hand as a ” story consultant” of sorts/very part-time artistic helping hand, and the art on this new eight-part series is being handled by penciller Andy Kubert, original Dark Knight inker Klaus Janson, and colorist Brad Anderson, with the scripting being entrusted to Brian Azzarello. Most folks have made the reasonable inference that this is due to Miller’s obviously-failing health, but with his recent announcement that there is, in fact, going to be a Dark Knight 4 that he intends to write and draw himself, I’m of the opinion that he’s actually sort of outfoxed his own bosses here.

Consider : Miller signs off on the idea of a Dark Knight III and even agrees to draw a couple of the near-infinite number of variant covers (his is reproduced as the second image in this review, while Jim Lee’s 500-to-1 variant is shown below) adorning the comics (as well as the first of the Dark Knight Universe Presents mini-comics being glued inside each issue, this one starring The Atom) in order to appear to give the project even more of his imprimatur. Why not? He knows damn well, from observing the Before Watchmen debacle, that DC’s gonna go ahead with this with or without his blessing, and he also knows that they really don’t want him doing it. They’re just too chickenshit. How, then, to make sure that he really does get to do another Dark Knight book, and to do it his way? Piggy-back onto this project, give it his full-throated blessing, deposit DC/Warner’s check,  and then announce that his involvement on it has actually been quite minimal and that he’s got his own fourth installment in the works. What’s DC gonna do at that point? Tell him “no”? They literally can’t. And so, by appearing to go along with their game, he actually got them right where he wanted them. Well played, Mr. Miller, well played.

4930414-01-variant

 

 

 

All of which relegates the provocatively-titled Dark Knight III : The Master Race (a name, it should be said, whose significance is in no way even hinted at, much less explained, in this first issue) to something of a stop-gap measure, or the story that takes place in between “real” Dark Knight stories. And maybe that’s just as well, because this seems to be a very un-ambitious comic that exists merely to fit into some dull editorial remit to create a book that picks up after DK2 while aping the feel of DK1. As far as the art goes, it appears that Kubert was given a bit more leeway to illustrate things in his own style, but the cover (as seen at the top of this review) certainly looks like it could have come right out of Miller’s Sin City, and the interior pages show a much sleeker, more noir-influenced look than we’ve seen from him in the past. It’s probably fair to suppose that the orders from on high were something along the lines of “don’t copy Frank’s style per se, but make sure that whatever you do fits in with the look of the first Dark Knight series.” And so it does.

As does Azzarello’s story, but here things get a bit dicier, because this really does read like a pale approximation of The Dark Knight Returns done by a lesser talent. We’ve got some nods to the current social media landscape thrown in from the outset,  and a few knowing glances are cast in the direction of mass movements like Black Lives Matter in that police brutality seems to be the issue that brings the once-again-retired-Dark Knight back to the streets of Gotham (a topic the same author explored in a recent fill-in issue on the main Batman title), but everything here really is piggybacking onto events in the 1986 original moreso than it’s taking its cues from the modern world. Azzarello tries to mimc some of the “Batman is back” excitement of the first issue of DK1, but it feels rushed and incomplete in terms of the buildup involved and so largely falls flat, and the same can certainly be said of the double-page spread of TV talking heads that you just knew was gonna be in here someplace. The subplots involving Wonder Woman and her infant son, and that of  her teenage daughter (with Superman, don’t forget!) Lara seem marginally more interesting, but no sooner do we get some brief exposure to them than we find ourselves thrust back into the “A” narrative and see the GCPD violently bringing Batman down after he proves to be a sensation on twitter and shit. His final (for this issue, at any rate) confrontation with the cops comes the closest of anything in this opening installment to delivering that old-school DK wallop, and no doubt the presence of Janson on inks helps to authenticate some of the more blatant, but successful, stylistic thievery that Kubert finally succumbs to in this penultimate sequence, but it still isn’t quite the “real deal,” nor is it clever and/or totally shameless enough to let you forget it. The unmasking of Batman provides for a doozy of a cliffhanger, sure, but even that’s not all that terribly surprising once the initial wave of “holy shit!”-ness subsides. Come to think of it, one could argue that it succeeds largely because you do, in fact, “see it coming,” but it’s so fucking cool that you’re willing to go along with it because it steers a story you never really wanted to see anyway into a direction that you could potentially be  happy to have it going. One brief heads-up, though : don’t read the mini-comic either first, or in the middle of the book as its presented, because it gives the ending of the main story away completely. DC probably should have glued the thing into the back rather than the center of the comic, just in case, but  given that they’ve sort of made lousy decision-making into an art form over there in recent years,  what else could you really expect?

DKIIIMini1200_560f23e66e7918.48458184

Speaking of the mini-comics — and the physical format of the series in general — Miller’s caught a lot of heat for showing “Superman’s junk” on the cover (shown above) for Dark Knight Universe Presents The Atom, and why not? It really is a lousy piece of illustration, any way you slice it. But his art on the interior pages — which sees him paired with Janson for the first time since DK1 — is actually surprisingly good in the strictest formal sense of the term, and when you combine that with the fact that the script for this little “side-step,” revolving as it does around a mystery of sorts developing within the Bottle City of Kandor, is actually fairly interesting, you could make a pretty strong case for the notion that the mini-comic is, in actuality, the best thing about Dark Knight III : The Master Race #1. In fact, I believe I did just that. I’ve gotta be honest, though — the old “Dark Knight format,” as it used to be called, gave you a lot more bang for your buck than the 32-pages-for-$5.99 thing that they’re putting this new series out in. Yeah, you get a glossy cover and there are no ads, but it’s still a standard stapled format rather than the squarebound binding of old, and while the paper’s good and all, it’s not nearly as good as we’re used to in a Dark Knight comic.

These problems, of course, will all be corrected in two weeks, when the so-called “deluxe edition” is released that consists of a hardcover version of the comic with the mini-comic “blown up” to full size, but the $12.99 price point for a re-packaged version of a comic that just came out 14 days previously shows what a naked cash-grab this whole enterprise really is. I mentioned DC’s other notorious naked cash-grab of recent vintage, Before Watchmen, previously, and I suppose it should come as no surprise that both the writer and artist on Dark Knight III : The Master Race are “alums,” if you will, of that cynical, year-long, slow-motion disaster. I’m not ready to say that their newest project is anywhere near as artistically worthless and morally deplorable as BW was — and despite the breezy, thowaway nature of the first 3/4 of this issue, the ending gives me at least a shred of hope that we might be in for an interesting, if hopelessly derivative, time here — but who knows? It’s early days yet, and they could still surprise me with the depth of their creative bankruptcy. Their publisher, however, no longer can, and the sad truth is that the mere existence of a Dark Knight III proves that DC not only has nothing left in the tank, but has given up altogether on even trying to convince us otherwise. Having spent 20-plus years trying — and failing — to find the “next Dark Knight” and the “next Watchmen,” they appear more than happy to simply snatch up the last few dollars an ever-dwindling readership is willing to fork over to watch them kick the corpses of their once-greatest triumphs.

 

4239565-1-c2f729496b

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.

4240106-2-a41ab2bef1

 

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.

4169930-arkham+manor+01

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?

4170544-arkham+manor+02

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.

4239200-arkham+01

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.

4240096-arkham+02

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.

 

 

4128868-gotham+academy+01

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?

4237173-$_57

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.

4129555-gotham+academy+02

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?

4198337-gotham+academy

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.

4199072-gothaccv2125varjpg-37b94c_960w

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.

 

They say the art of “good” criticism — be it film, literary, or what have you — is to never give away your opinion right off the bat. They also say that rules are made to be broken, and as I’m feeling a bit rebellious today, I’ll just come right out and say it — I’m not sure what the point of DC Comics’ new Batman : Earth One hardcover graphic novel really is.

I mean, I get that the whole Earth One line is supposed to be DC’s approximation of Marvel’s Ultimate “universe,” the goal of which is to prime the company’s economic gas pump by re-introducing familiar characters in new, “present-day” settings, thereby (theoretically) attracting new readers to Batman or whatever other franchise we might be talking about who would otherwise be frightened off — understandably so — by 50-plus years of continuity and backstory. But wasn’t that also, purportedly at least, the goal behind the entire “New 52” relaunch a few months back? I’ll grant you that the Earth One (and by the way, back in the ancient mists of time when I was actually young, “Earth One” was the “main” Earth on which all the DC “present-day” stories were happening, and “Earth Two” was where all the “old time” heroes of the Golden Age lived. There were any number of “multiple Earths,” and then DC imploded their whole “multiverse” in the Crisis On Infinite Earths mini-series and pared it all down to one single fictional “universe.” I understand that they brought the “multiverse” concept back a couple years ago in their Infinite Crisis book, but I guess the universe where the regular monthly DC books take place is not the “Earth One” universe, nor is it “Earth Two,” since there’s a specific DC title relating to that parallel reality. Maybe the “main universe” Earth is “Earth 3,” or “Earth Prime” or “Earth 27” — frankly, I have no idea) thing was already well into the pipeline by that point , but doesn’t that still make one or the other rather, you know — redundant? Besides, if one wants to jump into the Batman world fresh, there’s also been a fairly recent hardcover reissue of Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s superb Batman : Year One, in a so-called “deluxe edition,” no less, that’s still readily available. All of which leads me to believe that readers looking for a good “jumping-on” point for the Batman comics would actually walk away more confused than ever about exactly where to begin once they see the plethora of supposedly “good places to start” that are out there.

At any rate, for what it’s worth, DC are certainly marketing this new book, written by current “hot property” writer Geoff Johns, pencilled by current “hot property” penciller Gary Frank, and inked by current “hot property” inker Jonathan Sibal as, at the very least, one of the really good places for newcomers to begin exploring the adventures of the Caped Crusader on the printed page.  But it’s not where I’d choose to start off.

Don’t get me wrong — the art is absolutely gorgeous, apart from Frank apparently deciding to model Bruce Wayne’s facial features upon Tom Cruise. Frank has a hyper-realistic, highly-detailed style that does lend an air of “reality” to the proceedings, and Sibal’s inks are meticulous and quite rich. Colorist Brad Anderson deserves a nod here, as well, for his spot-on-perfect-in-most-instances color palette that provides a lot of welcome variation but maintains, by and large, a properly somber feel throughout. The art may be a little stiff at times, particularly during the action sequences,  the panels of which feel as if they’re designed to be viewed individually rather than in any type of flowing sequential order, but it’s all so damn painstakingly defined and flawlessly rendered that it’s hard to quibble.

The problem here, then, is most certainly not the art — it’s the story. Simply put, Johns shoots his entire creative wad with the tinkering he does around the edges of the Batman “legend,” none of which makes a damn bit of difference in the end, and some of which, like the idea of the villainous Penguin as mayor of Gotham City, have already been tried elsewhere ( inTim Burton’s Batman Returns, in case you’d forgotten, which you probably hadn’t. Yeah, okay, he was only running for the office in that film, but still — the idea was out there). Apart from that, we’ve got is a series of what are supposedly “nifty little touches,” like making Alfred some type of ex-Marine/mercenary, Jim Gordon being a crooked cop, Harvey Bullock being a suave “reality” TV star, etc. that are shoehorned into a limp story about how Mayor Cobblepot is keeping a stranglehold on the city by employing a psychotic, ‘roided-out serial killer called — I kid you not — “The Birthday Boy,” to whom he happily sacrifices the daughters of the rich and powerful if they ever threaten to get out of line. Hey, it’s that’s one way to keep the big-money campaign contributors on your side, I guess. There’s also a bit of a conspiracy theory angle uncomfortably forced into the story of the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents because the elder Wayne was running against Cobblepot for mayor, but don’t worry — it all comes to naught. As does the story itself, which just leaves us set up for a sequel at the end with a series of dangling plot threads littering the landscape, none of which are particularly interesting. If Johns had put half as much effort into constructing an involving piece of drama here as he did with tweaking the incidental details, then maybe the inevitable Earth One : Part Two would be something I’d be looking forward to, but as it is, I’m hardly holding my breath.

I guess it’s kinda cool, in a fan-geeky way, to see a book where Batman fucks up on the job a lot, wears combat boots, punches out (non-)Commissioner Gordon, and has a costume that actually shows his eyes, but if you’re not a hopeless devotee of Dark Knight minutiae, it’s hard to see how this thing could hold much appeal, apart from the gorgeously-rendered visuals. In short, Earth One is no Year One, and casual or completely “green” Batman readers would probably find Miller and Mazzuchelli’s seminal work a much more rewarding and, frankly, timeless take on the origins, motivations, and earliest exploits of everyone’s favorite masked billionaire vigilante.