Posts Tagged ‘Villains Month’

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For those of you who haven’t been paying much attention to the so-called “Batman Universe” lately, the Court Of Owls are relative newcomers to the Caped Crusader’s newly-rewritten-backstory, created by writer Scott Synder and artist Greg Capullo, and represent, as far as I’m aware, the first “original” Bat-villains created specifically for “The New 52.” As a matter of fact, ol’ Bats has been battling them — and their undead assassin known as the Talon — pretty much non-stop for the past two years now. Which means we’re getting a pretty healthy and heavy dose of these guys, like it or not.

Who exactly are they, then, you’re probably wondering at this point? Well, no one knows — and everybody knows. They’re a shadowy organization composed of members of Gotham City’s ruling elite who wear Owl Masks when they they hobnob together in secret to set their city’s fate, so if they sound a lot like the Masons or Shriners — or at least like what the conspiracy crowd would have you believe the Masons or Shriners are like —that’s probably not too far off the mark. Of course, the whole assassin-employed-for-a-larger-purpose angle reeks of another — and frankly better — Bat-nemesis, namely Ra’s Al Ghul, but whatever. All in all the Court’s not a bad bunch of villains even if we don’t know exactly who they are. Which is probably part of their charm, I suppose.

In any case, the Waynes have apparently been bumping into these mysterious string-pullers for a couple centuries now, so there’s some bad blood that’s built up between them and Batman’s “real life” alter-ego, even if we’re only just now (well, now as in over the course of the past 24 months) hearing about it.

Naturally DC’s going to want to showcase this current “hot” property in the ongoing “Villains Month,” and give ’em the full works with a 3-D holographic cover and everything, and so it’s come to pass that Batman And Robin #23.2 has been purposely “hijacked” to become Court Of Owls #1 and author James Tynion IV and illustrator Jorge Lucas have been tasked with presenting something of a stand-alone story featuring these whoever-they-ares doing their thing with no Dark Knight Detective around to scuttle their plans.

I guess I found the whole thing reasonably involving enough as a reader, and Lucas’ rather somber and atmospheric art job is one of the better ones turned in on any of the “Villain” books, but it’s worth pointing out that Tynion is essentially following the same blueprint for this issue as he did for his Ra’s Al Ghul And The League Of Assassins #1 script (I won’t say which came first, since while the books themselves hit the store shelves one week apart, with this one getting a jump on its counterpart, chances are that Tynion probably wrote them at more or less the same time) — namely throw in a few flashback scenes of dubious (if any) import centering around the Court’s past and somehow tie those in with a present-day narrative that sees an emissary of the Forever Evil version of the Sinister Syndicate approaching the Owl-heads to jump on board with his masters’ plans for world domination, only to have his generous gesture of a slice of the action rebuked in rather stark and violent terms.

In short, the two books are the same thing, only drawn by different artists and featuring different bad guys. This one might be the (nominally) “better” of the two, I suppose, but neither feels all that necessary and both are far more competent than they are actually compelling. I didn’t feel the urge to punch a hole in the wall or slit my wrists or something a la the reaction I had to, say, Darkseid #1 or The Creeper #1, but I did feel like I could have done a lot better things with the four bucks and ten minutes’ time this comic cost me.

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This time out, the dreary road that is DC’s “Villains Month” leads us to Ra’s Al Ghul And The League Of Assassins  #1 (or as it’s known in more official quarters Batman And Robin #23.3 — even though Robin is, once again, dead), and I guess as far as these things go it’s actually not so terribly bad — but it’s certainly nothing special either, even though the 3-D holographic cover is out to convince you otherwise, of course.

The story for this issue, written by Scott Snyder’s frequent understudy (and probably heir-all-too-apparent) James Tynion IV starts off with some flashback material to Ra’s and the gang’s early days (think Crusade-era), then flashes forward to the present day where we find an emissary of the Earth-3 Sinister Syndicate group of far-less-than-heroes currently planning to take over “our” now-apparently-Justice-League-free world making his pitch to the immortal one to get him and his coterie of quasi-mystical killers to throw in with his dimension-hopping masters.

Ra’s declines the invitation, and that’s that. We get a few brief recap scenes of “The Ghoul”‘s earlier years thrown in, with special focus given to his first meeting with Batman, his arrangement of an heir between his house and that of Gotham’s Wayne clan (which resulted in that Robin death I just alluded to, of course), and that’s about it.

All in all it’s reasonably readable, if breezy and insubstantial,  stuff, the art by Jeremy Haun is, like the script, serviceable if unspectacular, and at least you walk away satisfied that DC found some way of involving the new readers they desperately need in these proceedings without resorting to a by-the-numbers (and bastardized — this is “The New 52,” after all) origin story.  Sure  you’d still definitely be better off with four bucks in your pocket rather than this book bagged n’ boxed in your collection,  but  in its (admittedly small) favor , the whole thing  isn’t quite as blatant a rip-off as most of the other titles in this still-unfolding travesty have been.

Are we still a long way from anything  giving off even the most faint and remote odor of greatness here? You bet we are. But Tynion and Haun at least seem semi-concerned with delivering a competent (enough) comic to their readers, and while it’s not “damn, I gotta read that again!” stuff by any means, it’s fair to say that the first read-through isn’t a goddamn ordeal like most of this “Villains Month” shit has been.

The final verdict here, then, is one of tired ambivalence. The book’s not actually worth liking by any means, but hey — the guys who wrote and drew it showed up for work. That makes it very nearly a masterpiece in comparison to, say, Scarecrow #1 or Desaad  #1 — but not when you line it up against much of anything else.

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So, we’re into week three of DC’s “Villains Month,” and at this point the best I can say for this whole naked cash-grab is that it’s starting to feel pretty damn relentless. And pretty damn tedious, as well.  Good characters are being sullied and trashed, bad characters are being “re-imagined” into even worse forms, and all in all the only thing the DiDio/Lee junta seems to have any concern with is making sure the various 3-D holographic covers look kinda neat.

Are you depressed yet? ‘Cuz I sure am.

Anyway, one of the new “Villain Books” that hit the racks earlier today was Scarecrow #1 (or Detective Comics #23.3 if you prefer) , and even by the amazingly low standard already set by its predecessors, this one is particularly dire : no origin recap of demented pscyhiatrist Dr. Jonathan Crane is on offer here (thank goodness for small favors), but what writer Peter J. Tomasi and artist Szymon Kurdanski have given us instead in an unintelligible mess of a story that utterly fails in its one obvious and overriding mission — namely to whet reader appetites for the forthcoming Forever Evil : Arkham War mini-series that’s designed to pit the escapees from Gotham’s infamous lunatic asylum against their counterparts from Blackgate Prison. Crane/Scarecrow spends the length of this issue going around warning his fellow former Arkhamites about the impending conflict with his trusty sidekick (and former Arkham staffer himself) Hudson in tow, none of them seem to care (neither will you, so hey, the feeling’s mutual), and then he kills hapless Hudson and rants and raves from a rooftop about how, soon enough, all of Gotham will be his.

No Batman appearance since the DC heroes have all supposedly been killed in the pages of Forever Evil, nothing at all to capture the casual reader’s interest or attention, and heck, Scarecrow never even dons his full “nightmare garb” even once, apart from on the cover. The story’s nondescript and utterly without merit, the same can be said for the art, and the “guest appearances” by Mr. Freeze, the Riddler, Killer Croc, and Poison Ivy are all both listless and pointless. Okay, everybody’s been told trouble’s brewing, end of story, go pick up the first issue of what’s sure to be a pointless mini-series spun off from another mini-series, and let’s call it a day, shall we? Thanks for shelling out four bucks for the obviously minimal amount of “effort” and “thought” we’ve put into things here, now prime your wallet to pump out even more of the green stuff if you want to know where the “story” goes from here.

The weird thing is — for a book that take all of ten minutes to read, Scarecrow #1 sure can leave ya feeling tired. Exhausted, even. It’s like the culmination of the race to the bottom of the barrel that “Villains Month” has been in general, and now that we’ve hit this apex of by-the-numbers drudgery at its most undisguised and obvious, who knows? Maybe there’s nowhere to go but up.

Don’t bet on it, though. If there’s one thing we’ve learned about “The New 52” two years in, it’s that things can — and, frankly, do — always get worse.

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Talk about yer diminished expectations — DC has succeeded in setting the bar so low for their various “Villains Month” books that a comic like Solomon Grundy #1 (or Earth 2 # #15.2 if you want to be pedantic about things) actually seems pretty good at at this point even if it’s not, in and of itself, any great shakes on its own terms.

To his credit, writer Matt Kindt (whose Mind Mgmt series for Dark Horse I actually enjoy quite a bit) lays out a decent enough, if unfathomably lazy, story here — back in the 1800s some poor swamp hick named, you guessed it, Solomon Grundy, has a pretty bad day : he catches his old lady screwing the boss-man at work, she hangs herself right then and there, and he then proceeds to  kill everybody at the mill (what kind of mill? Don’t ask, it’s never actually explained) before offing himself. Oh, and somehow his hellbent-on-vengeance spirit or soul or whatever manages to transfer itself at the moment of death into his infant son, who also shares his name, and now his boy’s all growed up and is some sort of immortal force of nature that brings instant death to everything he touches. And he’s somehow been propelled into the Earth 2 “universe.” I don’t know how or why, but I suppose (no, wait, I know) it doesn’t really matter.

Yeah, okay, it’s a confusing read. And it’s a quick one — Kindt’s entire script is probably less than 500 words in length. And unless you haven’t been paying attention to the news for the past, oh, decade or so, the idea of centering a character’s origin story around a workplace mass-murder/suicide is going to come off as being tone deaf in the extreme. But shit, at least the whole thing’s reasonably readable and the art, by the veteran pencil-and-ink team of Aaron Lopresti and Art Thibert, is generally well-executed.

It’s a grim book, to be sure, but at least it holds true to the spirit of ol’ Sol being an ultimately tragic figure, and while he never says “Born On Monday” once himself, it’s still a central part of the overall proceedings.

So — a good comic? I dunno. I guess Solomon Grundy #1 really isn’t. But it’s not completely atrocious — which, sadly, is more than enough to give it a leg up on the rest of its “Villains Month” counterparts right there. It’s pretty obvious that this book’s main selling point is still its 3-D holographic cover and that more work went into that than its actual contents, but at least I didn’t feel like a complete sucker for buying this one.

That is, until I looked at the $3.99 cover price again. Yup — turns out  I’m still a sucker after all.

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If you think I sounded like a pissed-off curmudgeon when I was ranting and raving about what DC did to Jack Kirby’s Darkseid and Desaad characters as part of the unfolding disaster that is their “Villains Month,” then you might want to skip what I have to say about what they’ve done to Steve Ditko’s Creeper, because at this point I’m positively livid.

We might as well be honest and admit that The Creeper’s origins as laid out by Ditko — ace TV reporter Jack Ryder goes to a Halloween costume party wearing some garish yellow-skinned, green-furred ensemble and ends up ingesting  a military super-secret formula designed to allow soldiers to stash their combat gear on a molecular level within their own bodies, thus bonding him with his crazy get-up and giving him the weirdest set of super powers ever devised at the same time (namely the ability to leap from building to building and laugh like a hyena that’s been hitting the nitrous tank) — but damn, at least it was a fun kind of nonsense.

The Creeper’s backstory circa 2013 is equally implausible, but damn, is it ever a drag. To sum things up quickly : he’s an ancient evil spirit from Japan that causes tornadoes and was banished to another dimension inside some mystical sword and got loose when tabloid TV journalist Jack Ryder got himself killed on the freighter ship the sword was being transported on. The “demon” (or whatever) then hitched a ride in Ryder’s animated corpse and now he goes around causing twisters and other natural disasters and then reports on ’em right away because he’s, naturally, the first member of the so-called “Fifth Estate” to be on the scene.

I suppose that comes in handy on slow news days, but damn, you’d think that it wouldn’t take too long for everybody to figure out that when Jack Ryder hits town, your best bet is to head for the hills pronto.

Anyway, that’s The Creeper #1 (or Justice League Dark #23.1 if we want to go by it’s quasi-official numbering) in a nutshell, and it’s even more excruciating to see played out over 20 pages than it is to read my slapdash plot recap, trust me. Veteran comics scribe Ann Nocenti does a competent enough job with the dialogue and pacing here, but the plot itself as laid out by — and here’s the problem — Dan DiDio is such a clusterfuck of bad ideas from start to finish that there’s not much anyone can do to save it, and the hastily-cobbled- together group of pencillers and inkers (the pencils being handled by something called ChrisCross with assistance from Fabrizio Fiorentino and Tom Derenick, with Derenick, Wayne Faucher, and Andy Owens providing the inks — don’t ask me who did which panels or pages specifically since I don’t know and don’t care, and neither will you should you ignore my advice and buy this thing anyway) are all uniformlyy non-descript and uninteresting, so that really doesn’t help matters much, either.

As with all this “Villains Month” crap so far, all The Creeper #1 manages to prove is that DC in its present creative death spiral can pretty much fuck up any given character, concept, or idea, and that a 3-D holographic cover is no substitute for even a halfway decent comic story.  Honestly, at this point I’m running out of  even semi-clever ways to say “avoid at all costs,” so I’ll just state it flat-out — avoid at all costs.

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Call me old-fashioned, but if I were putting together DC’s “Villains Month” line, here are two things that I would do:

1) I’d make sure each of these stand-alone “specials” made sense on its own, without being bogged down too heavily in continuity, so as to be welcoming to both new readers and old readers who have been enticed back into the fold by the whole 3-D holographic cover gimmick, and;

2)I’d see to it that each issue was actually good, so that said new and/or returning readers would be sufficiently intrigued to check back in next month with the “regular” DC titles.

Alas, I’m not in charge of “Villains Month,” and the Dan DiDio/Jim Lee co-captaincy at DC just doesn’t seem to see things my way. Having fleeced the gullible (myself included) out of four bucks for each of these issues, they’re happy to just say “see ya, suckers!,” pocket the cash, and laugh as they ride off over the ridge.

To be honest, each of the five “Villains Month” books I read was pretty damn underwhelming in its own way, but by far the worst of the bunch has got to be Desaad #1 (or Earth 2 #15.1 as far as “official” continuity goes), a comic that made absolutely no sense to me whatsoever.

At least we’re spared a “reimagined” version of the character’s origin here, but even that probably would have been preferable to the mess offered up by veteran writer (and former DC head honcho) Paul Levitz and artist Yildiray Cinar, who give new readers no explanation as to who Desaad is or why he does what he does, opting instead to just show him washing ashore (literally) on Earth 2 and start scaring the shit out of people in order to psychically “feed” on their pain and fear. In one particularly tasteless sequence, he even induces a security guard at a hospital to commit a mass shooting (although, hey, maybe Newtown never happened on Earth 2, in which case this lame contrivance is only offensive in the “real” world — which is still, last I checked, where all this book’s readers live) before going on to mess with the minds of a few of the patients there himself.

Next up he somehow hires a mercenary strike force to steal some equipment he needs from an outfit called Holt Industries, then he creates some irradiated super-soldier for reasons completely unknown, then gets bored and opens some kind of time-space portal to spy on his creator, Jack Kirby, only to opt to leave “The King” in peace at his drawing board and not kill him (although one suspects seeing what’s been done to his character in the pages of this magazine would, in fact, do Jack in if he weren’t, sadly, dead already). Then Desaad returns to his base of operations, kneels down before a statue of Darkseid, and we’re all finished.

Clearly, without detailed knowledge of current “New 52” continuity, Desaad #1 makes no sense whatsoever — but that’s okay, I guess, given that an acquaintance of mine who actually does keep up with most current DC goings-on reliably informs me that the book doesn’t make sense even to those who follow this stuff religiously.

I’m not going to lay too much of the blame for the mess here on Cinar — sure, his art is dull and lifeless, but he’s just a (cheap, I’m guessing) hired hand — it’s old pro Levitz who really ought to know better. Simply put, his script is an absolute shambles consisting of no clear plot progression, a tin-eared and insensitive (at best) attempt at being “topical,” and a clumsy attempt at tribute/homage to the greatest talent in the history of super-hero comics, all strung together for no readily apparent reason apart from the need to kill 20 pages with as little actual effort as possible.

Apparently rumors are swirling that DC intends to bring back all of the “Fourth World” in a big way sometime in the near future. If this is the kind of story we can look forward to should this come to pass, then all I can do is hope this scuttlebutt is wildly off-base. Genuinely imaginative characters and concepts clearly have no place at comics’ second-biggest publisher these days (or its first, but that’s another matter for another time), so please, DC, I’m begging you — leave New Genesis, Apokolips, and all of their denizens alone. Jack Kirby’s memory has been dragged through the dirt enough as it is.