Posts Tagged ‘Frank Miller’

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Before we get rolling on our look back at 2016 in the world of comics, let’s take a brief moment to acknowledge the passing of two masters, shall we? Darwyn Cooke and Steve Dillon were  very different artists with very different visions and very different styles, no doubt about that, but both were among the very best at what they did, both entered this undeserving world in 1962, and both exited it, leaving it a decidedly poorer place for their passing, in 2016. Both gentleman turned the medium upside – down with their brilliance and created bodies of work that are more than guaranteed to stand the test of time, so I feel it’s only appropriate, prior to diving into our annual retrospective (which, you’ve officially been warned, will take a minute, so buckle in) to say “thank you” and “we miss you” one more time to this pair of undeniable greats. And now, onto the business at hand —

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Wow, it’s been quite a ride, hasn’t it? In a year when both of the “Big Two” decided to hit the “reset” button again, it’s probably fair to say that DC Universe : Rebirth #1 — and the entire Rebirth initiative in general — will go down as the major “event” of 2016, given that it essentially catapulted the publisher from a distant-second-place competitor to Marvel to “Top Dog” in the industry in the space of one month. That doesn’t mean that the comic itself was any good, of course — my feelings on it are well-known and I believe that Geoff Johns and his artistic collaborators Gary FrankEthan Van SciverIvan Reis and Phil Jimenez essentially churned out a stinkbomb here that will ultimately do both the DCU “proper” as well as the so-called “Watchmen Universe” no favors by setting them on a collision course with each other — but at this point, what’s done is done, and in the short run that means we’ve got a two-horse race for the top spot in the Diamond sales charts every month as DC’s decidedly mediocre twice-monthly efforts compete with yet fucking another round of “Marvel Now!” relaunched books that by and large are, in their own way, every bit as uninspired and predictable as their rivals’ four-color “floppies.” Honestly, this has been the most convoluted path back to the status quo that I’ve ever seen, and just goes to show that a bunch of hype is all that’s needed to sell readers on the same old crap. Of the two reboots, Marvel’s is the most promising, given that they’ve made an effort to carve out some space for genuinely interesting and off-beat titles, but you know most of ’em aren’t going to last, as the so-called “House Of Ideas” is putting far more promotional muscle behind crap like this —

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than they are behind intriguing and potentially subversive fare like this :

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So, yeah, on the whole, count me as being more or less completely uninspired by both major initiatives by both major publishers. Marvel’s in the awkward position (although it’s one they’re well used to after last year’s Secret Wars) of rolling out a raft of new books hot on the tail of a major crossover that hasn’t even ended yet, given that Civil War II was beset by the usual delays we’ve come to expect from these things, but I do give ’em credit for having about a half-dozen or so pretty good books stemming from “Marvel Now!” 2016 — and that’s roughly four more than post-Rebirth DC is giving us. For all that, though, once you move outside the Rebirth realm, DC is actually putting out a fair number of quite good books, which brings us to our main order of business here —

Ryan C.’s Top 10 Comics Series Of 2016

Same rules as always apply : these can be either “limited” or “ongoing” series — as long as they came out within the past 12 months in single-issue format (our preferred consumption method around these parts), we don’t discriminate. But it’s not a “real” Top 10 list without at least a couple of “honorable mentions,” though, is it? So let’s look at those first —

Honorable Mention #1 : American Monster (Aftershock)

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Brian Azzarello — whose name will be coming up again later for decidedly less complimentary reasons — is proving he’s “still got it” and then some with this decidedly sleazy, amoral small-town crime series that features a cast of pedophiles, gun-runners, neo-Nazis, corrupt preachers, and other fine, upstanding citizens. And Juan Doe‘s animation-cel inspired art is absolutely killer. Unfortunately, this book has seen so many publication delays that we only got three issues all year. If it was coming out on anything like an even remotely consistent basis, this would not only be “Top 10” material all the way, it might be “Top 2 Or 3.” I love this comic. Now feed me more of it.

Honorable Mention #2 : Power Man And Iron Fist (Marvel)

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David F. Walker is The Man. You could ask for no more perfect writer to chronicle the exploits of Luke Cage and Danny Rand. And Sanford Greene and frequent fill-in Flaviano Armentaro are doing a nice job on the art. Unfortunately, this title got sidetracked for no less than four months into the creative black hole that is Civil War II, and while these issues weren’t bad for tie-in nonsense, they were still — well, tie-in nonsense. Now that we’ve got the real story rolling again, all is right with the world, and you can blame this one narrowly missing out on the Top 10 squarely and solely on Marvel editorial, who steered the ship into “event” territory before it even had a chance to properly get its feet off the ground. It was a real momentum-killing decision, and I sincerely hope it won’t prove to be a fatal one, as well — but it may turn out to be just that given that sales on this series have been tanking in recent months. So much for the notion that cross-over “events” boost interest in a book.

Honorable Mention #3 : Love And Rockets (Fantagraphics)

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I’m not too proud to admit it — seeing the first issue of this new series from Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez on the shelves of my LCS, and back in its original magazine format at that, was enough to make me tear up just a little bit for a second. It was hardly an issue for the ages or anything, but everything about this just feels right. I love it when life comes full-circle, I love Los Bros., I love their characters, and I love this world. It’s a shoe-in for the Top 10 next year, but one issue is simply too small a sample size for me too include it in good conscience this time out. Not that I wasn’t tempted.

Honorable Mention #4 : The Fix (Image)

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Nobody does fuck-up criminal low-lifes like Nick Spencer and Steve Lieber, and in the pages of this book they up the ante by making their fuck-up criminal low-lifes cops, to boot. This comic is all kinds of perverse and depraved fun, and I’d dearly love to have found a spot for it in the Top 10, but there simply wasn’t room for more than — well, shit, ten titles. Nevertheless, it’s a series you absolutely should be pulling.

And now onto the main event —

10. Doom Patrol (DC’s Young Animal)

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The flagship title of Gerard Way‘s new “art comics” imprint, this book is proving a mere three issues in that it’s gonna push these characters in directions even Grant Morrison never dreamed of. Way and artist Nick Derington are doing the genuinely unthinkable here — producing a well and truly experimental comic with the full blessing of one of the “Big Two” publishers. All may not be lost, after all.

9. Deadly Class (Image)

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Rick Remender and Wes Craig gave us the “Holy Shit!” moment of the year in comics when they actually fucking killed their protagonist (doubly shocking when you consider he was an obvious stand-in for a youthful Remender himself) twenty-some issues in, but the new crop of students at King’s Dominion Atelier For The Deadly Arts is decidedly less interesting than was the last, hence the drop for this series from its loftier perch last year.

8. Southern Bastards (Image)

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Jasons Aaron and Latour just don’t let up. This deep-friend southern noir is loaded with so much gallows humor, spot-on characterization, and low-rent evil that not even a spotty publication schedule and a lackluster fill-in issue could keep it outta the Top 10. A legend in the making, even if it ends up taking a decade for it all to get made.

7. Jacked (Vertigo)

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As near as I can determine, nobody other than myself actually read Eric Kripke and John Higgins’ superb six-part tale of pharmaceutically-charged super-hero revisionism, and that’s a damn shame as it’s one of the single finest and most honest portrayals of mid-life crisis that this beleaguered medium has ever produced, and the art is simply sensational. Do yourself a favor and grab it in trade — you won’t be disappointed, and you won’t hate yourself for that beer gut and receding hairline anymore, either.

6. The Vision (Marvel)

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Enough ink — both physical and digital — has been spilled in praise of Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta‘s admittedly Philip K. Dick-inspired techno-Shakespearean tragedy that adding to it just feels like piling on against the rest of the industry at this point. Suffice to say all the superlatives you’ve heard are true and then some and yeah, this one has “destined to be talked about for years to come” written all over it.

5. Hip Hop Family Tree (Fantagraphics)

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Ed Piskor put the wraps on the 12-part single-issue reprintings of his cultural history milestone earlier this year, and while I’ll certainly continue to collect and enjoy his oversized hardcover volumes, there was just something about having these previously-told stories presented on cheap, pre-yellowed newsprint that was beyond awesome. And the last issue even came packaged with an old-school floppy record — that was actually a code for a free digital download, but whatever. This book was more satisfying than a 40 of Olde English on a hot summer day.

4. Glitterbomb (Image)

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Jim Zub and deliriously-talented newcomer Djibril Morissette-Pham came out of nowhere with this series about Lovecraftian horror intersecting with the seedier side of post-fame Tinseltown (with bloody results) and just blew me the fuck away. The surprise hit of the year for this armchair critic and a book I can’t stop thinking or talking about. The first trade should be out soon enough and collects the self-contained story presented in issues 1-4,  and they’re coming back in late 2017 with a new arc that — man, I just don’t even know where they go from here. But I’m dying to find out.

3. The Flintstones (DC)

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Believe it. Mark Russell and Steve Pugh are putting out the most socially- and politically-relevant comic on the stands, and the satire in this book is by turns hilarious and heartwarming. A truly “mature” take on characters we thought we already knew everything there was to know about, and consistently one of the smartest books you’ll have the pleasure of reading. I don’t know that I have words to adequately describe how unexpectedly awesome this series is — when I said that DC was actually putting out some damn good stuff outside its main Rebirth line, this is exactly what I was talking about. If you’d have told me a year ago that one of the books I was going to be most eagerly looking forward to month-in and month-out was going to be The Flintstones, I would have thought you’d lost it. In fact, I probably would have said that Donald effing Trump had a better chance of being elected president. And yet, here we are — ain’t life crazy? And shitty? But at least we have this comic, and as antidotes to a new age of right-wing anti-intellectual barbarism go, you won’t find much better.

2. The Sheriff Of Babylon (Vertigo)

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The Vision may have gotten all the attention, but Tom King‘s best series of 2016 — by a wide margin, in my view — was this Iraq-set murder mystery drawn heavily from his own experiences as a CIA case officer during that bloody boondoggle of a war. Every aspect of this comic is almost painfully authentic, and Mitch Gerads rounds the package out with artwork so gritty you can feel the sand underneath your fingertips. This. Shit. Was. Amazing. Or maybe that should be “is” amazing, since — well, more on that in a minute.

1. Providence (Avatar)

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I’m out of superlatives, honestly. I review each issue of this series as it comes out, and my mind is blown more completely every time. I said last year that Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows were potentially creating the comic of the young century with this volume of their “Lovecraft Cycle,” and with one installment left to go in this 12-parter, I think it’s safe to say we can take the “potentially” qualifier out of that statement :  Providence is, in fact, the best comic of the century so far.

Wait, though! We’re far from done —

On the graphic novel front, it’s gotta be said that 2016 was a banner year, as well, in many respects — but I’m always a bit perplexed on how best to assemble a “best-of” list when it comes to the GN format because it only seems fair to subdivide it down into wholly original works, trade collections, old-school vintage reprints, etc. Throw in the fact that may “original” graphic novels got their start as serialized installments on the web, and things get even dicier. What really constitutes “new” work anymore? Still, there is definitely plenty outside the realm of the single-issue “floppy” that deserves a mention, and so —

Original Graphic Novel Of The Year : Patience By Daniel Clowes (Fantagraphics)

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Five years in the making, and it shows in every panel on every page. Clowes outdoes himself with each new project, it seems, and this is jewel in his creative crown — until the next one, at any rate. Love, obsession, longing, time travel, regret, loneliness, desolation — even optimism? This work encompasses all of it and then some; a monumental achievement of staggering proportions.

Best Collected Edition Of Recent Work : American Blood By Benjamin Marra (Fantagraphics)

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Anyone who’s read Terror Assaulter : O.M.W.O.T. knows that Ben Marra exists on a planet of his own, and this collection of the self-published works issued under his awesomely-named Traditional Comics imprint runs the stylistic gamut from insanely exaggerated pseudo-“realism” to Gary Panter-esque primitive id-channeling. WaPo columnist Maureen Dowd as a sexy super-spy? Bloodthirsty barbarians from distant worlds? Gang-bangers who do nothing but fuck and kill? Freed slaves who can tear white men apart with their bare hands? It’s all here, in suitably gaudy purple-and-white.

Best Collected Edition Of Vintage WorkMarvel Masterworks : The Black Panther, Volume 2 By Jack Kirby (Marvel)

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In recent years, the awesome body of work produced by The King Of Comics during his second, late-’70s stint at Marvel has finally been given its due as the visionary output it so clearly was, but while books like Machine ManThe EternalsDevil Dinosaur and “Madbomb!”-era Captain America have now taken their rightful place among the rich pantheon of Kirby masterworks, Jack’s Black Panther run from that same period still doesn’t get anything like the love it deserves. Hopefully this handsome hardbound collection will finally start to clue readers in to what a magical and imaginative Wakanda Kirby created in this high-flying techno-fantasy epic.

It wasn’t all good news, though, and since we’re on the subject of T’Challa, we might as well segue into some of 2016’s lowlights —

Most Disappointing Series Of The Year #1 : Black Panther (Marvel)

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There’s no doubt that Ta-Nehisi Coates is a literary and journalistic genius, and his voice in this ugly new Trump-ian era is more necessary and urgent than ever. Unfortunately, he can’t write a comic to save his life, and his dour, humorless, self-absorbed, navel-gazing take on The Panther reads like a relic of the worst sort of over-wrought 1990s excesses. This is a genuinely lousy title, and it doesn’t help that neither of its usually-reliable artists, Brian Stelfreeze and Chris Sprouse, are delivering anything like their best work.

Most Disappointing Series Of The Year #2 : Batman (DC)

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Tom King giveth, and Tom King taketh away. We’ve already covered the great stuff he’s given readers in 2016, but he’s also taken one of the most consistently-good super-hero books and turned it into a massive fucking train wreck. Lots of people were jazzed when he was announced as Scott Snyder‘s replacement on the “main” Bat-book, but King has struggled to find a “voice” for Bruce Wayne either in or out of the cape and cowl, his two major storylines to date have featured ridiculous plots, and 13 issues in all we can really say is that he writes a pretty good Alfred. The illustration by David Finch on the first five-issue story arc was atrocious, and the only thing that saved this title from being dropped from my pull for the first time ever was when the magnificent Mikel Janin took over art chores with the second arc and delivered work of absolutely breathtaking scope and grandeur. Still, at this point, I have to say — when he goes, I go. And I think he’s gone after next issue. And yet, horseshit as this book has been, it’s nothing compared with our —

Worst Comic Of The Year : Dark Knight III : The Master Race (DC)

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Unmitigated garbage that plumbs new depths of hopelessness with every issue, Brian AzzarelloAndy Kubert and Klaus Janson (with nominal involvement from Frank Miller) are doing something here no one thought possible : making fans yearn for the days of The Dark Knight Strikes Again!  (which, admittedly, I’ve always liked, but no one else does). Also, they seem to be doing their level best to match that title’s glacial publication schedule. At this rate, we’re gonna wait three years to complete a story that’s been a total waste of time from the outset. This series is honestly starting to rival Before Watchmen  in the “artistically-bankrupt blatant cash-grab” category. I expected nothing from it, true — and yet somehow we’re getting even less than that.

I’m going to close on something of a high note for DC, though, if you can believe it, because they also get the award for —

Best Development Of 2016 DC’s Young Animal

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I’m still not sure what the hell a “pop-up imprint” is, but Gerard Way has one he can call his very own, and so far all four series released under this label’s auspices — Doom Patrol (as previously discussed), Shade, The Changing GirlCave Carson Has A Cybernetic Eye and Mother Panic — have been not just good, but great. While at first DCYA sounded like little more than a stylistic heir to vintage-era Veritgo to my mind, in fact its aims seem to be much different, while admittedly utilizing a number of characters and concepts from that fan-favorite period. This is an imprint where anything both goes and can happen, and we’ve sorely needed that for waaaaayyy too long. In short, this is the most exciting thing either of the “Big Two” have done in — shit, as long as I can remember. Long may it continue.

So — What About The Year To Come?

By the sound of it there’s plenty to be excited about, from Warren Ellis spearheading the re-launch of WildStorm to the debuts of much-publicized new series from Image such as God Country and The Few, but my most-anticipated events of 2017 (at least as far we know now) would have to be —

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March 31st (seriously, guys?) is slated as the provisional release date for Providence #12, and to say that I can’t wait to find out how it all ends would be an understatement of criminal proportions. It would also be an equally-proportionate understatement to say that I’ll simply “miss” this series when it’s over. So, ya know, maybe take your time with that last issue, after all.

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The so-called second “season” of The Sheriff Of Babylon is due to hit sometime in the latter part of the year and, simple as the “teaser” image shown above was, it was still enough to get me excited. And finally —

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January sees the release of the first installment of Kamandi Challenge, a “round-robin” 12-part series from DC starring The Last Boy On Earth that features a different creative team on each issue trying to solve the cliffhangers left by the folks the month before, as well setting up new messes for the next bunch to get themselves out of. This is the first of what I hope to be many releases commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jack Kirby that we can look forward to over the next 12 months — in fact, DC has just also announced an omnibus hardcover reprinting of Kirby’s entire original Kamandi run, so let’s hope that 2017 really will be a vintage year for fans of The King.

Whew! Okay! We’re done for the year! Enjoy your holidays — or what remains of them — and we’ll see you back here in January, when we get to start the whole thing all over again!

 

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Let’s be brutally honest — there’s always been something kind of fucked up about Batman, hasn’t there?

Mind you,  I say this as someone who loves that character and still reads both major “Bat-books” religiously every month, but come on — here’s a guy with all the money in the world and a deep desire to right all of society’s wrongs, and what does he do? Goes after common street criminals, most of whom are probably both poor and desperate. Meanwhile, the rich are robbing us all blind to a degree most of us can’t even conceive of, and when we complain about it even just a little bit, the wusses at the top of the economic food chain — the ones who own the entire media, the entire political system, and frankly the entire world — these lily-livered, gutless scumbags in $5,000 suits or even more expensive cocktail dresses accuse us lowly serfs of engaging in “class warfare.”

Never mind the largely- unremarked-upon, but very successful, class war that they have been waging against us for the past few decades by looting our pension funds, stripping away our collective bargaining rights, raising the cost of our educations through the roof, kicking the poorest of us off welfare while sticking their fat, disgusting snouts into the public trough and hogging up all the “corporate welfare” they can get, cutting their own taxes down to the bone, jacking our health care premiums up exponentially so they can pocket the extra cash — their rapacious greed knows no limits, and frankly if Batman had any balls whatsoever he’d be going after his own kind, because these sons of bitches make even The Joker look small-time by comparison.

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Fortunately, Kaare Kyle Andrews and his new (dammit, I’ll say it) hero, Renato Jones, are here to finally bring down the real villains of the world by any means necessary. Indeed, the front cover for issue one of Image Comics’ Renato Jones : The One % openly states “The Super Rich Are Super F***ed,” and the minute I saw that, I knew this title was going straight onto my pull list. It’s nice to see there might be some justice in the world, I suppose, even if it’s only on the comic book page.

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These aren’t just any old pages, though, as the double-splash reproduced above shows — they’re gorgeous pages. Andrews’ most recent series, Marvel’s Iron Fist : The Living Weapon, certainly showed that he was willing to step up and claim the mantle of the industry’s leading heir to Jim Steranko’s artistic legacy, but fortunately his Steranko stylistic appropriations were more homage than direct swipe. That trend continues here, as you’d no doubt expect, but Andrews also incorporates a fair number of elements from one of Steranko’s earlier (if largely unacknowledged) admirers/unofficial pupils, Frank Miller. Indeed, the B&W pages interspersed throughout this debut issue are torn right from the Sin City playbook, but they’re included to add variety and nuance to the proceedings and are hardly the “backbone” of the book. No, that distinction belongs to awesome-looking shit like this : Renato-2

What’d I tell you (or try to, at any rate)? Despite wearing his influences on his sleeve, Andrews’ style is uniquely his own. And uniquely kick-ass. As is his new creator-owned character, who was born into wealth and privilege, narrowly escaped death at the hands of his money-grubbing aunt at age three, lived on the streets, learned to survive by his own wits and fight like a man possessed, came back to take his revenge, and now is out to bring his, in the words of Warren Ellis, “Punisher from Occupy”- brand of vigilantism to all the rich, sadistic, evil bastards who have it coming. If, ya know, he’s even Renato Jones at all. Which he might not be. And you should really read the book to understand exactly what that means.

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And hey, how about the fake ads scattered here and there in this comic? They’re flat-out awesome, too! And so is the depraved villain that Jones despatches in this story! And so is Andrews’ razor-sharp dialogue and pump-your-fist-at-how-spot-on-it-is “voice-over” narration! And so is, well — everything, really. Look, anyone who’s read my reviews for any length of time knows that I’m not the easiest guy to please, but seriously — there was nothing about the story or art here that I felt to be lacking, and each successive page just cemented my opinion that this is a comic  that I’ve been waiting a long time for, even if I didn’t know it. Of course, I did used to have this poster hanging in my apartment back when I was in my twenties :

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So, yeah, me and the class was, we go back a long ways. And the future is finally starting to look kinda bright between the rise of movements like the aforementioned Occupy and the Bernie Sanders campaign and the emergence of pop culture characters like Renato Jones. My one bone to pick with this book — and it’s a small one — is that Andrews (who really is a one-man show here writing, drawing, coloring, designing, creating and, crucially, owning the whole thing), after 30-some pages of taking it to the rich bastards (did I mention this was an extra-sized issue that gives you great value for it’s $3.99 cover price?), loaded up his first letters column with missives from — his wealthy and famous friends like Sean Astin and Tegan And Sara? Seems a bit curious to me, to say the least, but I’m not gonna let it dampen my enthusiasm for this project one little bit, nor should you. In fact, you should go read Renato Jones : The One % #1 right now — I’ll meet you in the street with a pitchfork and a torch afterwards and we’ll go pay a visit to those assholes in the mansions who live behind the gates.

 

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

 

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What the hell, these reviews of titles in Warner Premiere’s “DC Universe” straight-to-video animation line seem to be getting a reasonably healthy response around these parts, so let’s plug away and do at least a couple more until I’m bored with the whole thing and feel like getting back to horror, exploitation, and all that other good stuff, shall we? And seeing as how our first entrants in this little sidebar series took a look at the two-part Dark Knight Returns, based on Frank Miller’s justifiably legendary take on the “omega” phase of Batman’s crime-fighting career,  it seems only right that we next turn our attentions to 2011’s animated adaptation of Batman : Year One, based on Miller and artist David Mazzuchelli’s take on the Caped Crusader’s “alpha” period.

Again, a little background for those not steeped in comic lore : hot on the heels of the success of The Dark Knight mini-series, Bat-books editor-at-the-time Denny O’Neil (a fairly accomplished author of numerous well-regarded Batman stories in his own right), approached said title’s creator, Frank Miller, with a proposal to essentially give him carte-blanche to retell the Gotham Guardian’s origin story as a way of “re-setting the table” on the regular monthly Batman series. Miller agreed, but only wanted to write it, bringing in as his artistic partner on the project one David Mazzuchelli, with whom he had collaborated on a recent run of stories for Marvel’s Daredevil book. Mazzuchelli bought a distinctly noir-ish and cinematic sensibility to the proceedings, and the end result , while admittedly a fairly basic, if extrapolated, take on events we already knew which sees Bruce Wayne return to Gotham to embark on his one-man war on crime, form an uneasy alliance with then-Lieutenant Jim Gordon (who seems to be one of the few honest cops in town), have his first series of encounters with a prostitute-turned-cat-burglar named Selina Kyle, and go after the beating heart of the city’s organized crime operation in the form of Carmine “The Roman” Falcone, is nonetheless a deeply resonant character-driven piece with a pleasing “pulp detective” artistic sensibility that feels both nostalgic and oddly contemporary at the same time. If the word timeless comes to mind from the brief run-down just provided, you wouldn’t be too far off the mark, as this brief-but-no-doubt historic four-issue Batman run, which has since been collected in near-innumerable paperback and hardcover iterations, feels as fresh and vital today as it did when first published way back in 1987.

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The real genius of what Miller chose to do story-wise,though,  is that, despite the fact that we are granted numerous takes on the events depicted from the vantage points of both Batman and Catwoman, this is more or less Gordon’s tale, and we see get to see both the cesspool of corruption and vice that is Gotham City, as well as witness the dawn of a new age of weirdos in costumes, through his eyes. Miler’s version of Gordon is hardly a flawless hero — he’s stepping out on his pregnant wife with one of his colleagues on the force (who long-time Bat-fans will know becomes the second Mrs. Gordon at some unspecified future point), for instance, but by and large this is a decent guy trying to make sense of circumstances, and a city, that he can’t quite get his head around.

The powers that be in the suits at Warner and DC wisely decided to retain this Gordon-centric narrative structure when they adapted the story for home video release in 2011, and even more wisely opted to cast Bryan Cranston as Jimbo’s voice ‘artist,” so needless to say — expect some great things here. Yeah, okay, again it would have been nice (and frankly pretty gutsy) for directors Sam Liu and Lauren Montgomery to have their animators hue a bit more closely to Mazzuchelli’s visual style, but the finished product probably would have been considered somewhat inaccessible for, at least, a non-comics audience (although I gotta wonder how much a “non-comics audience” would even care about this thing in the first place), but at least most of the characters in this one look like real people rather than the non-green Hulks of (the otherwise generally excellent ) The Dark Knight Returns.

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As far as the rest of the cast goes, Ben McKenzie positively nails it as Bruce Wayne/Batman, GreyDeLisle is pitch-perfect as the suffering-in-silence Barbara Gordon, Katee Sackhoff is suitably sultry as the object of Jim’s extra-curricular affections, Detective Sarah Essen, supposed “nerd culture” sex object Eliza Dushku inhabits Selina Kyle/Catwoman quite nicely, and it’s an out-and-out treat to hear the great Alex Rocco giving vocal “life” to Falcone. It’s Cranston’s show all the way, but these folks add plenty of spice to the stew.

On the technical specs front, Batman : Year One is available on three different home video formats : single-disc DVD, single-disc Blu-Ray, and a double-disc DVD “special edition.” All three feature superb widescreen picture and a genuinely dynamic 5.1 sound mix, as well as a rather risque but otherwise generally uninteresting Catwoman short, and a smattering of promo stuff for other entrants in the “DCU” line. The Blu-Ray and two-disc DVD also feature a pretty sold little mini-documentary on the genesis  of, and influences on,  Batman : Year One in its original comic book form, and a couple of episodes of the Batman animated TV series that are at least tangentially related to the main course on offer here (again with the food metaphors, sorry — haven’t eaten lunch yet).

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Final verdict, then : as with Miller’s Dark Knight, this is a seminal Bat-story that most definitely live up to all the hype, and its home video animated offspring is a faithful, exciting, well-constructed work that sticks to the character-driven narrative design of its printed-page progenitor for a highly-accessible translation that retains both the boldness and simplicity of Miller/Mazzuchelli while smoothing out its rough (but oh-so-lovely) edges just a bit.

Hell, just writing about it puts me in the mood to watch it again.

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Okay, this one’s probably going to be something of a “quickie” given that we’ve already covered all the relevant background info and what have you in our (alright, fair enough, my) review of the first film in this series — suffice to say that if you enjoyed Batman : The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 you’re absolutely gonna love part two (released in January of this year), because this is the one  where the shit really hits the fan.

Fresh out of a self-imposed 10-year retirement, and having already taken down both Two-Face and the leader of the vicious Mutant gang, a newly-reinvigorated Batman (Peter Weller), together with the latest version of teen sidekick Robin, an all-heart-but-no-training adolescent girl named Carrie Kelley (Ariel Winter),  find themselves tangling this time around not only with a crazier-than-ever Joker (fantastically voiced by Michael Emerson), but in the crosshairs of none other than Superman himself (Mark Valley), who has been dispatched by the highest powers imaginable to put a stop to his one-time friend’s self-decla vigilante war on crime in Gotham City.

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Things start out on a fairly absurd note as The Joker is invited onto the Letterman-in-all-but-last-name “David Endochrine Show” (Endochrine himself being voiced by none other than Conan O’Brien), but quickly turn quite deadly when he kills the entire studio audience and has his final, and decidedly gruesome, confrontation with Batman at, appropriately enough, a carnival. All this is realized at a thoroughly fun, breakneck pace by director Jay Oliva, but for my money it’s when the inevitable Batman/Superman confrontation occurs that this story really kicks into another gear, as the story invites us to take a hard look at the philosophical and attitudinal discrepancies that have always made for an uneasy-at-best alliance between DC’s two “flagship” characters. When the thin strand of mutual (perhaps) aims between the two finally breaks, it makes for one of the more thought-provoking and multi-textured psychological analyses ever presented in a mainstream superhero comic (or, by extension, a mainstream direct-to-video superhero animated flick).

Fans of Frank Miller’s original work will be pleased to see that Batman : The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2 doesn’t shy away from the book’s rather disturbing, even quasi-fascistic portrayal of the Caped Crusader, but likewise it isn’t afraid to ultimately portray him as a hero, either — a complex, deeply flawed hero, to be sure, but far from the heartless basket-case that so many subsequent writers have too easily pigeonholed him as. And in Miller’s world Superman is far from perfect, as well, so that’s a relief.

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Don’t let all my talk of the subtexts inherent in this movie’s source material scare you off, though, because above all this is a piece of fun, kick-ass entertainment — just one that has the added bonus of being open to a deeper and more considered reading should you choose to give it one. On the surface, it’s one well-realized action sequence after another, and that can be a plenty good time in and of itself. Old friends (David Selby’s Commissioner Gordon) exit the scene while other old friends (Robin Atkin Downes’ Oliver Queen/Green Arrow) enter it, every old score is finally settled, and by the time the end credits roll a thoroughly satisfying, heartfelt, and respectful conclusion ends things on, believe it or not, a note of optimism that the sunny-out-of-nowhere wrap-up to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy could learn a lot from.

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On the minus side, pretty much all of my criticisms from part one — the guys look like they’ve been gobbling ‘roids for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; Miller’s idiosyncratic, free-form art style is replaced by a more typical “house” animation look; Selby’s take on Gordon just doesn’t ring true; the script adaptation can be a bit too hyper-condensed at times; etc. — all hold here, but that’s all small potatoes compared to the number of things Oliva and his cohorts get resoundingly, joyously right here. A genuine treat for long-time fans of the book while being immediately accessible to those unfamiliar with it, Batman : The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2 is pretty much everything you could ever hope for in an animated superhero flick, and I guarantee it’s one you’ll enjoy again and again over the years should you go ahead and give it a purchase.

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Speaking of which — I went the cheap route again and opted to pick this up on DVD rather than Blu-Ray, given that I can’t see what the hell difference there’s gonna be in image quality for an animated feature between the two formats, and while the widescreen picture and 5.1 sound are plenty great (at least to my mind) on DVD, it is, once again, free of extras apart from promotional preview material for other titles in the “DC Universe” animated line. The Blu-Ray disc, on the other hand, does have a smattering of pretty cool bonus features from what I understand, but not having seen them I can’t fairly critique, or even summarize, them here, so I guess that’s a wrap as far as the technical specs are concerned.

Still, whatever format you choose to go with, the point remains — get out  there and buy, or at the very least rent or steal (whoops, did I just say that? ) this thing now. Too few “legendary” comic stories live up to their status on either the printed page or the screen (if they make it that far), but this is one that does. If you’re unsure as to what all the fuss is about, you owe it to yourself to find out, and if you’re already familiar with the work, you’ll be pleased as punch to see it translated into a new format with so much care and respect.

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Quick, what was the best Batman flick of 2012?

If you’re like most, your answer to that is simple : “what are you talking about, dumbass? There was only one Batman flick in 2012, it was called The Dark Knight Rises, and even if you didn’t like it much, it wins ‘best’ of the year award by default!”

If you’re a hard-core comic geek, though, you know that’s just not true, because there was another Bat-movie that came out last year. It was an animated, straight-to-video feature called Batman : The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1, part of Warner Brothers Animation’s “DC Universe” line, and it was a hell of a lot better than The Dark Knight Rises.

Or should I say — it was a hell of a lot better than The Dark Knight Rises provided you’re part of the admittedly-much-smaller audience it was aimed at. Not that “newbies” to this won’t find it a pretty sold thrill-ride, as well, but we’ll get to all that in due course.

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For those of you who don’t already have at least a passing knowledge of comic- nerd legend and lore, here’s a brief (and very specific) history lesson : in the mid-1980s, the tired old super-hero archetype was getting a bit stale, and a small handful of creators figured the time was right to do something about it by injecting a bit more realism and psychological complexity into the proceedings. For a brief moment there, these “revisionist” super-hero works became all the rage, even garnering the medium as a whole the kind of semi-respectable “mainstream” press attention that the art form’s partisans had always longed for given that, hard is may seem to believe now, up until that point comics weren’t even considered “cool,” much less potential springboards for billion-dollar Hollywood special effects boondoggles — err, epics.

Truth be told, this new “darker,” “more mature” take on crimefighters in tights got pretty old pretty fast, but that’s neither here nor there. The simple fact is that two standout works emerged from this revisionist craze that have pretty much hung over the superhero comics medium like a Sword of Damocles ever since : Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, or, as it was more commonly referred to until a movie of the same title came along, simply The Dark Knight. Nearly three decades down the line, these works have been constantly imitated, but frankly still never equaled.

Watchmen and its various  cinematic adaptations, comic prequels, etc. is old hat by now for long-time or even casual readers of this blog, so we’ll just pass right over that and talk Dark Knight, shall we? Again with the history lesson for those not in the know : essentially, this is the story of an aging and bored Bruce Wayne, who decided to hang up the cowl when his teenage sidekick, Robin, was killed (an event that was later mimicked in the “proper” DC Universe itself a few years down the road — except for the retirement part — and has just taken place again in DC’s current “New 52” line, continuing their less-than-proud track record of having no new ideas whatsoever since their much-hyped relaunch).  As you’d no doubt expect, Brucie-Boy has a tough time adjusting  to “civilian” life,  and  eventually a city-wide crime wave perpetrated by a street gang known as “The Mutants,” coupled with a plastic-surgically-altered Harvey “Two-Face” Dent reverting to his former outlaw ways, prompts Wayne to get his costume out of mothballs and take to the streets again. He vanquishes foes both old and new, picks up a new, female Robin in the form of teenager Carrie Kelley, finally settles his long-standing score with The Joker, and eventually comes to blows with the Man of Steel himself, who is sent to put Batman down by no less than then-President Ronald Reagan himself.

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It’s all pretty heady, exciting stuff, and for those who were sick to death of comics being metaphorically ghetto-ized basically ever since their inception, it was a watershed moment. Here, we figured, was finally proof that our beloved medium wasn’t just stupid kids’ stuff. This was a story that was so damn good you could show it to anyone and they’d have to agree that comics had come a long way.

Little did we realize the far-reaching implications this book would have — in fact, it’s fair to say that Miller’s take on the Caped Crusader has informed everything that’s been done with him since. There certainly would have been no Tim Burton Batman film without it, and without Burton there would have been no Nolan reboot, etc., but concurrent with the ever-darker Dark Knight of the movies has been an increasingly more somber and humorless take on the character in the comics — a trend that still continues to this day. I generally enjoy the work of current “lead” Bat-writer Scott Snyder, for instance, but let’s face it — Batman’s such a far-gone, morose, obsessive head-case now that once in awhile it’s nice to watch a few reruns of the old Adam West series just to relieve the pressure from what’s now a quarter-century-old parade of grimness.

I’m not sure that’s the end result Miller necessarily had in mind for the character once his book was finished, but that’s what we’ve gotten, and because of that — because this was the point at which “the change” began — it’s sometimes easy to forget just how much fun this comic itself actually was. Sure, this is a a wracked-with-guilt, consumed-by-anger iteration of Batman we’re talking about here, but it’s also a story in which punks in multi-colored visors speak their own goofy lingo and The Joker gets invited onto a Letterman-esque late-night talk show.

Granted, he kills everyone in the audience, but still —

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Fortunately, this new two-part animated feature (we’ll take a look at the second installment either later today or tomorrow, time permitting) is here to remind us, and it couldn’t have come at a better time, what with the unrelentingly bleak Nolan film series having just wrapped up and the tragedy in Aurora still weighing heavily on the public consciousness. It’s a good time, in short, to make the Batman property as a whole fun again, and sometimes you gotta look backwards to move forwards.

Yeah, okay — Batman as voiced by Peter Weller is pretty gruff and humorless, David Selby doesn’t strike me as the most effective vocal choice for Commissioner Gordon, all the male characters in the film are drawn like steroid-enhanced freaks, and Frank Miller’s distinctive, immediate, and sometimes very raw art style has been replaced with a more typically “clean” animated look, so the film has its flaws (perhaps the most notable of which is the fact that for long-time fans of the book the script  essentially comes off as  a Cliff Notes version of the story we know so well), but it’s still hard not to be taken in by director Jay Oliva’s fast-paced, dynamic take on things, Ariel Winter’s spot-on work as Carrie Kelley, and the genuine reverence for the material that more or less everyone who had a hand in this project seems to bring to the table. This was the “dream job” for a number of the principles involved on the DC side of things, and it shows.

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I’m not sure how well the obviously-to-be-continued non-ending will play with a non-comics audience, this being a pretty literal interpretation of the first two parts of Miller’s four-issue series, centering on Batman’s conflicts with Two-Face and The Mutants, and it probably would have played out better to just do the whole thing  in one take, but comics fans are used to being fleeced at every turn by the “Big Two” publishers, so the decision to divvy it up into two parts is hardly surprising, and is more than made up for by the out-and-out coolness of seeing so many of the comic’s most iconic moments come to life on the screen (although am I the only one who’s a little bummed that we never get to hear Weller say “in my gut the creature writhes and snarls and tells me what I need? “) in a way that even folks who are not familiar with the story will find terrifically exciting and entertaining.

A lot of nerd-gasms were had when this project was first announced, and I’m pleased to say that it by and large delivers on all that we had been hoping for, while at the same time being a highly accessible work for newcomers to the material.  I wish the DVD had a few more extras than it does (essentially just promo spots for other “DC Universe” stuff), but the widescreen picture and 5.1 sound are both superb and anyway, I understand the Blu-Ray has more by way of bonus features for those interested. Personally, I can’t see shelling out an extra five or six bucks for an animated movie on Blu (and one barely over 70 minutes long at that), but maybe that’s just me.

I’ve watched Batman : The Dark Knight Returns at least a dozen times since it came out last September, and it leaves me smiling from ear to ear each time. Best Batman flick of 2012? That’s a no-brainer.