Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Gotham By Midnight: We Do Not Sleep (comics)

Writer: Ray Fawkes
Artist: Ben Templesmith
Collects: Gotham By Midnight #1-5

Gotham's a freaky place at best, built like a shrine to art deco, clad in stone gargoyles and replete with any number of psychotic criminals on any given night. Would anyone really be surprised to find that things go bump in the night around that city? I mean, hell, Slaughter Swamp is a stones throw away. Solomon Grundy pulled his dead ass out of that muck. Gotham and the supernatural have a long standing relationship. But Batman doesn't deal with that kind of thing, unless he can't help it. It's not his wheelhouse.

Good thing Gotham has a task force just for that, then. Well, good for the citizens. Not so much for the poor saps assigned there, even as weird as they are. Meet the Midnight Shift;  Detective Jim Corrigan - you might know him as the host of the Spectre - Doctor Tarr, Sister Justine, Detective Lisa Drake and Lieutenant Weaver. They're the ones protecting Gotham from the spooky, the biblical, the downright demonic. We're gonna be riding with them for a bit.

So, I've been slowly making my way through Rebirth and a quick glance at the past couple months of reviews will show I've loved it thus far. But if I have any qualms about it at all, it's that it plays things a little too safe. Every single title they put out was guaranteed to appeal to some kind of audience and likely hold down an okay readership. The downside is that there isn't a single risk in the bunch. It's pretty firm in its use of classic superheroes and longstanding properties, to the point that continuing Gotham Academy for another series is the closest it flirts with something different. That's great for the health of the line, I'm sure, and judging by the legs it has and that it went over a year without a cancellation, it's worked, but it's the safest the entire line has felt in a decade.

The New 52 is maligned for its visual masturbation to the nineties and uneven quality - and let's be honest, there were as many crap books as there were good, including a largely dismal five years of Superman comics and a controversial five years of Wonder Woman - but one thing it did well is cater to things outside of straight superheroics. I'm not convinced anything like I, Vampire or Xombi would get past the pitch stage right now, they still haven't done anything with Swamp Thing or Animal Man since their acclaimed New 52 runs and I kind of doubt Gotham Academy would have enjoyed a second series if it hadn't already established itself in the previous era.

I can't imagine we'll see anything like Gotham By Midnight again for a while yet, either.

Essentially a horror comic, Gotham By Midnight does well differentiating itself even among all of the other Gotham centric books. Most of them would choose the parts of Gotham that are more immediately familiar to readers. This book centers itself around spooky happenings surrounding Slaughter Swamp. How many people here even remember that's a part of Gotham City? It has its roots deep in the macabre, with nasty, demonic creatures terrorizing families and taxing the squad. The root cause of the disturbance ends up being the psychic remnants of genocide, of the people of settlements that were wiped out to make way for the founding of Gotham. That's crazy dark, in a good way.

But beyond the spooky imagery and ugly revelations lies heart. Jim Corrigan is the only cast member you're going to recognize, but that doesn't mean you won't get to like the rest of them by the end. Each has their quirks and backstory. Each is pretty likable in their own way. I'm not a religious sort of person and I don't much trust the people involved with organized religion, as I find many of them can't even seem to hold to the virtues they preach, but Sister Justine ends up a pristine reminder of the best of them. Late in the book, as Gotham faces judgement and the rest of the cast, scattered across Gotham and struggling to converge, freak out, she casts her gaze to heaven and prays, defending the people of Gotham through her words and asking for mercy, to take her instead. Whether her prayers are answered, I'll leave to you to find out, but it did make me a little misty eyed.

That said, the spooky imagery is still pretty important. I'm pretty familiar with Ben Templesmiths work, as I imagine a good number of people are. Most were probably introduced to it in 30 Days of Night. My first exposure came in the Dead Space comics he did art for. At the time, I have to admit I hated it. I don't know if that's because it's so far outside the norm I just instinctively recoiled or what, but it kind of repulsed me. Over time, I grew to appreciate it and realized that's kind of the point, given how well the style fits with horror. Everything he draws is vaguely ugly and wild, but the oddities grow on you after a while until you just get used to how he draws people.

Where it really works are the monsters. They look nasty without resorting to things like copious amounts of blood or spilled guts. That's the part that made me appreciate his work. A lot of artists would rely on that, while Templesmith can do wonders with simple use of a hue of red washed over everything, heavy inks or simple deformation of a monster. That takes skill.

Unfortunately, there are only two volumes of the book. Despite a lead-in by Batman Eternal and a really strong start, Gotham By Midnight only lasted a year. I guess I should be thankful for the fact that DC likes to give more rope to series, rather than just canceling them at five issues and making something a miniseries when pre-orders aren't amazing, but having now read and enjoyed it, it's still upsetting this book didn't last longer.

I don't know, maybe DC has the right idea after all with Rebirth. Apparently really good books like this that stray from immediate convention just don't sell. See also, the failure of the DC You initiative, which had a dumb name but carried some gems. I can't help being a little bitter about that.

Still, I recommend rolling with the Midnight Shift for a bit. It's a fun ride.

My Opinion: Read It

Friday, July 21, 2017

Nightwing: Better Than Batman (comics)

Writer: Tim Seeley
Artists: Javier Fernandez, Yanick Paquette
Collects: Nightwing Rebirth #1, Nightwing (2016) #1-4, 7-8

I don't really care about Nightwing.

Dick Grayson as a character is fine, serves an important role in the DCU and can fit wherever you need him, but his solo always made me roll my eyes. For all the bitching he's done over decades of comics about how he didn't want to be Batman, he was pretty content to be the Diet version ever since Chuck Dixon first brought him into his own ongoing. He had his own Gotham - which, at times, writers hilariously tried to sell as "worse than Gotham", as if that made Dick look good or something - went on the exact same type of adventures, took the same type of cases and fought the same kind of villains, though his were half as interesting and rarely stuck. Tim Drake has the exact same problem, arguably worse. What Dick had going for him was a slick costume and his character. Admittedly, that's probably more than enough for most people.

So, I wasn't exactly excited about the Rebirth series. It's basically reverting him to his "classic" role when, frankly, it wasn't that interesting to start with. Especially coming on the heels of a reinvention that seemed to suit him, namely as the DCU's James Bond. By the time I'd been looking to check Grayson out, this was on its way. Go figure. But DC won me over with just about everything it's put out under the Rebirth banner thus far, so Nightwing got a chance too.

It impressed me enough to continue, but it admittedly had a low bar to clear and I'm not sure just how much of that relates to hold-overs from Grayson.

The Rebirth issue is a good primer for the series. It catches us up nicely with where Dick is in his life, what happened in the last series and details what he has to deal with now. What it's supposed to do, basically. I haven't read a lick of Dick Graysons adventures in the New 52 era and felt like I knew more than enough to go on by the end, so I'd say it did its job well. I'm not wild about the way it seemingly dispatches a villain, but whatever; it's the cool thing to kill off minor guys these days and he's a member of a group whose whole deal is coming back to life anyway, so it's fine.

From there, the show is put on the road. The gist is that, near the end of Grayson, a global off-shoot of the Court of Owls - the Parliament of Owls - blackmailed Dick through his brother, Damian Wayne. They planted a bomb in his head, basically, and if Dick didn't do what they wanted, brain matter went flying. But Dick has flipped the script without their knowledge and is working to take them down from the inside. He's paired up with a new ally, Raptor, and made to do their bidding. Only Raptor likes the Owls exactly as much as Dick does and wants to take them down too.

There's no way this guy isn't trustworthy, right? This will end well.

The volume is as much about Raptor as it is Dick, setting up common ground, saving some personal revelations for the big moments and positioning him up as a top villain for Nightwing going forward, possibly the first good one he's had. The connection between the two is as convenient as all get out - nothing makes things personal as easily as involving parents - but that sort of reveal is a thing because it tends to work. They've also got a direct clash of ideals and methods stemming from their upbringing; Raptor believes Batman made Dick soft, while Dick has a far better perspective and outlook on the Bat taking him in.

Speaking of the relationship between Batman and Nightwing, it's as natural as its ever been. One of the things I've never liked about Dick Grayson since he became Nightwing is exactly how up his own ass he became about being his own man. While the child becoming resentful of their parents is a thing that does happen in real life, with these two it went to extremes. There were times he'd blame Batman for things that were outside of his control or seem almost bitter about being tied to Gotham in any way. Batman, for his part, seemed mostly supportive even during the dreaded 90's, when he was a raging asshole, leaving Dick to his own devices and trying to keep from dragging his ward back into Gotham as best he could.

Here, they're far warmer to each other and the dynamic feels real. Batman does his very best to let Dick do things his way, but even if they aren't related by blood, they're father and son, and it's never quite that easy. He messes up and Dick is agitated at Bruce saying one thing, but still not completely trusting him to make the right choice. Even that exchange doesn't feel overblown, despite Dick having some harsh words for Bruce. Later, there's a short conversation with Alfred right before he's kidnapped where Bruce laments the fact that for all his attempts, he still ended up blaming Dick for how hard it was to let him go. The words and his general demeanor suggest disappointment and regret. It feels very real, very honest, and far more impactful than most of the tension I've seen in countless Nightwing comics. Batman reacted as you might expect a father to and it created a small rift between them. But when push came to shove, Dick comes for his father figure, values the lessons taught and values Bruce.

It's a hell of a lot better than the pissing matches or angry "I don't want to be him" monologues.

If there's a downside to all this, it's that the book seems like it really wants to put the whole "Parliament of Owls" thing to bed. It started in Grayson, a book that is obviously over, but it's an interesting state of affairs and could easily have held up a full twelve issues worth of comics in Nightwing. Instead, it's mostly wrapped by the end of this first arc. I don't think for a moment that the Owls won't show up again, in Batman or even here, but still, it feels shuffled off too soon. They're not even the main antagonists by the close.

Yanick Paquette does the art for the Rebirth issue, but sadly it's kind of a guest star thing, because he's not the ongoing artist. I say sadly mainly because I could always go for more of his artwork. Javier Fernandez, however, is more than capable, and puts in some fine work, capably illustrating everything from fights to quieter moments. I really enjoyed how he showed Bruce Waynes subtle displeasure in the aforementioned scene, looking the slightest bit forlorn in the panel he put voice to his worries.

So far, Nightwings Rebirth era is a winner. But we'll see how well it holds, because most of the holdover from Grayson has probably been spent here. The next volume has him transition back to Bludhaven, so there's an unfortunate chance we're headed back into territory I've never particularly liked to begin with. I'll give it a chance, as Seeley and Fernandez earned that much with this volume, but it might be hard to keep me.

My Opinion: Read It

Heartwarming Batman Moments: There are a couple, mainly related to him acting as a father. He does his best to let Dick off the leash, but can't help but be concerned when Dick does something he wouldn't, which leaves things a bit tense. He's actually a bit dismayed at it even. At the end, when things look dire for him, Bruce seemingly falls towards his death, which Nightwing naturally saves him from. When Nightwing tries to beat himself up about it and apologize, Bruce explains that he didn't fall, he jumped, because he believed in Dick and knew Dick would be there to catch him.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Unbelievable Gwenpool: Believe It

Writer: Christopher Hastings
Artists: Gurihiru, Danilo Beyruth
Collects: Gwenpool Special #1, The Unbelievable Gwenpool #0-4

To say that Gwenpool is the stupidest idea I've ever heard in my life would be hyperbolic to an extreme, but I feel safe in saying that it's in the top thirty.

Let's examine it for a moment. The base equation is Gwen Stacy plus Deadpool equals profit. The question is why? They're two characters that do not go together, from completely different wheelhouses, and frankly we do not need a fiftieth Deadpool knockoff running through the Marvel universe. We have enough. At one point, there was a team of them.

From what I gather, the idea started as a variant cover, got a special, then some back-ups in Howard the Duck - reprinted as Gwenpool #0, included in this collection - on to a full series. I never understood why and kind of took a pass on the whole thing for a long while. What was it about this seemingly moronic idea that shot it to prominence?

Well, turns out that part of the appeal past the variant cover stage is that it's actually kind of amazingly funny.

Plot is a little sparse at times, but not nearly as much as I expected. The re-purposed Howard the Duck back-ups are just their own thing, as is the Gwenpool special. But the ongoing itself has Gwen looking to become a top shelf assassin, despite having no powers - don't let the name fool you, she doesn't have Deadpools healing factor or even any of her Spider counterparts abilities - no training and nothing going for her but a lifetime of reading Marvel comics. As such, she kind of bumbles her way through, eventually ending up a henchwoman by circumstance for MODOK.

I don't think I've laughed out loud as much as I have with this book in a while. Even comics that strive to be funny don't always hit the mark. After all, you need to understand visual comedy as well as witty dialogue, meaning a necessary synergy between writer and artist, even more than usual. Christopher Hastings and Gurihiru have that, apparently, because between the two, they've put out a book that's better than half the Deadpool material I've read.

But it isn't all about the laughs. There are bits of pathos to be found among the comedy. I quite enjoyed that her knowledge of everything Marvel wasn't just mined for jokes, but for self reflection as well. She knows, just by being in the Marvel universe, that she's probably in comic books now, and at first assumes she's naturally the star by the point the ongoing starts. But her knowledge isn't quite on the level of fourth wall breaking, either, so after MODOK kentucky fries her first friend because she laughed at him, she starts having moments of doubt.

After all, what if she isn't even in her own series? Maybe she's just in back-ups. Or a guest role in another ongoing, like Thors. At that point, she could die at any time, with no real plot armor. She doesn't even know what she's doing with a gun. There's even a serious discussion with Batroc ze Leaper about the nature of stories and fairy tales. Later, she even shows some self loathing, thinking she's better off if her parents from her home dimension forget her. It's compelling.

I also appreciate that the influence of Gwen Stacy and Deadpool begin and end at her costume and the name. She does not have the personality of any Gwen Stacy I've ever read, or even the last name. As for Deadpool, her fourth wall breaking isn't really on the same level as the original - he actively knows and reacts to contemporary stuff from our reality, while she just knows Marvel heroes and suspects she's in a comic because she's read them - and she has none of his abilities, meaning she lucks her way through mercenary work without any of his advantages. Frankly, they could have just switched the costume and altered the name, but they didn't, so eh.

Best of all, the artwork and coloring ticks all of my boxes. Clean linework, a lack of thick lines, plenty of detail without going overboard and, perhaps the part I love the most, a bright color palette. It all fits the fun vibe of the book perfectly. The art for the back-ups and prologue is jarringly different and not near as much to my liking, but it's still technically good. It just doesn't fit. A bit too "Alex Maleev" for the material, if you get what I mean. But it does make me appreciate Gurihiru more.

The concept is still dumb as hell, but its the funniest comics I've read in years and has more heart than I expected. I'll be continuing with it for sure. Highly recommended.

My Opinion: Buy It

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Jupiter's Legacy - Book One (comics)

Writer: Mark Millar
Artist: Frank Quitely
Collects: Jupiter's Legacy #1-5

Any of the three people who've read my blog for a long time know I'm not a fan of Mark Millar. I've had less than kind things to say about some of his comics in the past and I believe I've referred to him as a huckster. I started avoiding anything with his name over five years ago, in part because I got tired of his shock and schlock routine. Everything is crude, crass and disgusting to the point where it became a chore to read. It's like an ultraviolent version of Jerry Springer in comic form.

So, what brought me here? Well, Mark Millar comics sell big. As such, the guy attracts top level artists to whatever project he's working on. This time, he roped in Frank Quitely, which feels weird, given Quitely has worked primarily with Grant Morrison throughout his career. So it's the double surprise of seeing Quitely working away from a Morrison script for the first time in a decade and with a man Morrison once jokingly* said he wanted to run over with his car.

As expected, Mark Millar hucked it up going into this one, calling it his "Star Wars" and going so far as to say it's Lord of the Rings meeting a superhero crossover. Let it never be said that the dude doesn't know how to hustle his work. It's all overblown promotion, of course. The world is not nearly as intricately thought out as the latter and lacks both the scope and rollicking adventure of the former

But what it is happens to be pretty freaking good.

In 1932, in the wake of the stock market crash, Sheldon Sampson sets off with family and friends in search of an island he saw in a dream. They return with superpowers, ushering in a golden age of heroism. Cut to 2013, where they've all grown old and their children have taken their place. For the next generation, it's not exactly about heroics; it's all brand deals and putting your name out there, to the great shame of their fore-bearers. Sheldon - The Utopian - is struggling to uphold what he believes are the ideals of America in a world where it seems increasingly old fashioned and out of touch, even as the heroes around him actively resent him for keeping them from using their powers to "right" the world. His daughter is a drug addled mess, his son resents him for not being there enough and his brother is tired of playing by his rules.

Then the brother has had enough and whispers in the sons ear; if Sheldon were gone, everything would be better, they could make everything better.

As is clear from the general description, Jupiter's Legacy is a story about generational conflict and ego on both sides. It kind of brings Kingdom Come - the well regarded Mark Waid and Alex Ross Elseworlds miniseries - to mind, but without the overbearing biblical references or the immediate weight granted to an alternate universe of heroes millions around the world love. Grant Morrison even tackled similar themes before. The Golden Age of heroes is well and truly over, with the parents having done everything there is to do. As such, their children are left adrift, losing themselves to vices and cynicism that creep into their veins and take root in their lives. Much like real life, the young and the old have different ideas on how the world should be run and see each other as naive or out of touch. It's a fairly compelling conflict of ideals and to Millars credit, when the match meets gasoline, the impact is felt.

Part of what seems to set it apart is that Millar really reigns in his worst tendencies, to the stories benefit. I think this might actually be the first project I've read of his not involving a corporately owned superhero that didn't heavily rely on cursing. It's used sparingly, usually by regular people, and as such it feels a bit more natural. The ultraviolence and disgusting nonsense is at a low, too. The worst bit of it is the death of Sheldons wife, where we get a panel of her gored by numerous blades, but even that doesn't feel gratuitous. It works as an appropriately horrifying image without going too far, getting the point across without, like, showing her intestines or something.

But there's also a sense of hope and respect that feels absent in prior work. Things went off the rails somewhere in the past, but you really do get the feeling that, despite the problems of the modern day, even the villains of the piece stand for something. As much as the son may resent his father, Brandon still does what he does largely because he feels he can make things better and, despite his disillusionment, does want to help the world. He's distressed late in the book when things did not go near as well as he was promised by his uncle and in his frustration he's lashing out. It was all supposed to be so simple, right?

Then there's the daughter, Chloe, and her son. She's the more misguided of the two, losing herself to drugs and alcohol, but very clearly pulls herself together when things go bad, going into hiding with her child and the father. She tells the boy of her fathers adventures and her son, inspired and inheriting his grandfathers sense of both justice and inner heroism, covertly takes to saving people, despite the danger of discovery. By the end, the family comes together to save each other and their secret is blown, but whatever, right? They've hid long enough. The odds might be stacked against them, but when did the odds ever matter to superheroes?

All the more frustrating, then, to realize the guy could have been writing stuff like this all along. But hey, at least we got there. I'm into the book and ready for volume two, which promises to be where the push back against the new regime begins.

That said, there are some issues worth talking about.

Given that we're working with a new world and universe, we're obviously dealing with all new characters. So that leaves a lot in the way of set-up. Millar does a fine job of giving everyone differing viewpoints and personalities, but not every personal relationship is given the time it required. Chloe ends up looking like she'll be the hero of Jupiters Legacy, or at least one of the heroes, but she actually doesn't get nearly enough interaction with her parents before things go sour. We see plenty of the antagonism between Sheldon and his son, Brendan, but not so with Sheldon and Chloe. We get an idea what their relationship and thoughts are on each other through how they speak of each other, but they aren't even on panel together once, much less directly interacting. It's not much better with the mother, as they barely have a few sentences together before Chloe is attacked. It's a glaring oversight, and one reason I feel like this first volume could have used an extra issue slid in before the big plot point showed up.

The protagonists are also a little cavalier with loss of life at the end of the book, but it's in defense of their son, so you can at least sort of fudge the lines. Momma Bear and Papa Wolf aren't exactly new tropes. Still, I hope it's not the standard in the second half, as Chloes parents are old school heroes and wouldn't have approved.

Such a large time skip between issues three and four probably wasn't necessary either. Chloe has changed a great deal in the intervening years. It would have been nice to see some of that. Like I said, it could have used another issue. Half an issue showing moments from the nine years in succession all the way to where we end up would have done a lot for the book.

Frank Quitelys art is the same top notch work we usually get from him. As always, his style shows a lot of variety in body type, stature, body language and facials. The occasionally over-detailed eyes always get me. It's a thing in a fair number of Quitely projects that even good looking people will look just the slightest bit ugly without looking grotesque or unappealing to the eye. For example, Chloe has no eyebrows, making her look downright weird, but it also works, because she looks unique. Either you like Frank Quitelys art or you don't, but for my money, it's always great.

It's a good start and I'm invested in it enough not just to finish, but to check out the prequels, Jupiter's Circle, that Millar put out in the gaps after Legacy ran into its inevitable delays. We'll see where it goes, but for now, Jupiter's Legacy is a winner.

My Opinion: Read It

* I assume jokingly, but for all I know, he could have been serious. It's not exactly a big secret that Grant Morrison does not like Mark Millar anymore. The bad blood is known.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Superman Unchained (comics)

Writer: Scott Snyder
Artist: Jim Lee
Collects: Superman Unchained #1-9

Overall, I'd say I've read over half of the New 52 era of Superman. I've tried each creative team on Action and Superman both. On the whole, I've already kind of judged the whole endeavor - picture me as Ceasar giving the thumbs down - but there was one more piece of the puzzle to try.

That piece being Superman Unchained, a project celebrated at its announcement that feels as though it just came and went. I don't see much discussion of it, now or at the time. Strange, for a project teaming Scott Snyder, current comics golden boy, with Jim Lee, the standard bearer of DC art style for about a decade and a half. Now having read it, I can kind of understand why. Superman Unchained is perfectly fine, but doesn't really rise past that point, which is surprising given the talent involved.

A long time ago, American scientists sent an equation into space, asking for help from aliens, because I guess that's a thing you do. I don't know, maybe we've done it in real life. Regardless, something answered, an alien crash landed and America had its own "Superman", Wraith, who it's kept as a well guarded secret for over a hundred years. He was the second "bomb" dropped on Nagasaki in World War II and it turns out much of the worlds technology stemmed from this original alien visitor. In the present day, Superman is now forced to come face to face with Wraith, as well as the US army, led by Sam Lane, who if you cannot recall, is a dick.

There are other elements in play, including a terrorist group screwing things up, but they are the most after of thoughts. They blow themselves up halfway through the collection after they set off every nuke in the world and are just kind of swept under the rug after driving half the plot, just to get to the goods of Lane attacking the Fortress of Solitude with the Army and Wraith in a bid to kill Superman and take his technology.

That might even be the problem in itself. A lot of the threats end in a bit of a whimper, or don't have the gravity they probably should. As mentioned, the terrorist group Ascension just kind of blow themselves up. Wraith is beaten intelligently, but his change of heart has absolutely no build-up. The big alien menace ready to invade feels like a last minute hail mary of a plot point that is teased in the second to last issue, only to show up in the last issue, just to be dealt with. Even Luthor, who escapes mid-way through the book before enacting a plan - which involves Jimmy Olsen ending up in the Artic for no reason I can fathom - to get Superman to blow himself up to save us all, is re-captured by Superman off panel.

Wraith is a bit frustrating, because I don't feel like his conflict with Superman was mined like it could have been. He's very much a soldier, like Lane, who works for his country, believes in it and is upset that Superman doesn't directly tie himself to its cause, going so far as to ask why Superman doesn't turn over all the alien technology to the US. Lane has his own spiel about how Superman is a coward, because at least he and Wraith directly target threats and stop them, potentially saving lives, while Superman is, in Lanes view, a mass murderer because he's unwilling to get his hands dirty and concerned more with staying above the fray.

Superman never has a proper rebuttal that I can think of, or at least he doesn't directly confront the accusations in any meaningful way, which is disappointing because he could give any number of reasons as to why. It would not play well with the more "patriotic" among us - see the overblown, frankly dumb uproar over that one back-up where Superman renounced his American citizenry for an example - but there's a point to be made about how America is typically an aggressor, actively imposing our will and exerting influence in various regions of the world as it is, without even more advanced alien technology only they would have backing them up. There's the idea that it places too much importance and power in one place, too, an idea that resonates even more right now. Superman even passes up the opportunity to comment on how Sam Lane and Wraiths go-to option when he won't kneel and kiss the ring is to kill him, blow up the fortress and take it all. Would you really want people like that to have more power and tech?

The most we get is during the big fight with Wraith, when he's defeated and Superman starts in with a "Shut Up, Hannibal" speech. But instead of bringing up anything that illuminated his position or poked holes in any of the philosophical or metaphorical attacks on his character, he just verbally attacks Wraiths reliance on an army for back-up, while Supermans loner status left him learning how to fight out of necessity. It's the last we see of Wraith until he commits a heroic sacrifice in Supermans place, for no reason I can fathom. Superman didn't really say anything that might have caused him to "see the light" or make that choice, rather than let Superman die so he could live to keep fighting for his country.

Most of the problem seems to be in the back third of the book, where everything is racing toward the conclusion. It almost feels as though the series got cut short, which is why all these plot points and opportunities were resolved in an unsatisfactory way. Maybe it was. I think Unchained was supposed to be an ongoing, or was at least suggested to be such, before it ran into delays; as I recall, it took a year and a half to put out nine issues, so if that's what happened, it makes sense, but might have hurt the overall material.

Even Jim Lee's work doesn't help and might even actively hinder the material. Some of it might be personal preference; it has been a long decade and change since Batman: Hush and Jim Lee's style and sensibilities set the tone for DC for much of the time after, so it's been around a lot. I figured it might just be an issue with me falling out of love with Lee's style, which is thick with extraneous lines and not nearly as eye catching to me today as it was ten years ago. But the more I read, the more I thought that the problem might be elsewhere and not even relate entirely to Lee.

We don't think much about the inkers and colorists unless something goes very right or horribly wrong. After all, there's not a lot to talk about compared to things like the general style of the linework or the story, so they very much end up the unsung heroes of comic books. I could be wrong, but I think that Jim Lee has used the same inker and colorist for all of his work over the years. Having read the prior Jim Lee pencilled Superman story - the Brian Azzarello written For Tomorrow arc - as well as Unchained, I think that the usual choice of color, tone and use of shadow of this team might simply be unsuited for a solo Superman tale.

Coming off Son of Superman, I found I very much preferred the simple, brighter shades employed with Superman, a character who embodies light and hope. Keep in mind that I say this not intending to directly compare the two jobs or praise one over the other - they're both different styles, both are good and both could be superior for different projects - but I think of the difference in the details of how this book portrays something as simple as space compared to that story. In the opening pages of Unchained, where we kick off with an admittedly exciting, very Superman task of saving a falling space station, space is very black, almost oppressively dark in that sense, with only the stars breaking up that feeling. In Son of Supermans final issue, space is brighter, with the glow of the planet and the moon turning into gradients of blue, green and even purple.

Regardless, I should note that the work of Lee and his team is far stronger here than it was for the opening volumes of Geoff Johns run on Justice League. I remember that everything felt a bit more rushed and less detailed there than usual, likely owed to Lee being forced to let up to meet the then-ironclad monthly schedule the New 52 was determined to honor. Unchained was its own thing, divorced from the general goings on of the rest of the line, as opposed to Justice League, which was the first book of the New 52. Unchained could be delayed. It shows, because it's a marked improvement over Justice League. If you like Jim Lees art and have none of the issues I did, you'll enjoy looking at this book.

To loop back to writing, there are things to enjoy there, as well. One thing I noticed, and appreciated, is that Snyder portrays Superman and Batman as friends, with no large amount of tension or bull. Batman is prepared, just in case, but is ready to help Superman out when he needs it, does not seem particularly suspicious of him or his motives and is even appreciated by Superman, who remarks at one point that it's good to have paranoid friends. It's enough to make you want a Scott Snyder penned Batman/Superman title. Better still, while Batman is around and helps, he's a supplement to Superman and even when he has a standout moment, like when he holds the line against Wraith in the Batcave until Superman arrives, it doesn't feel like he's hogging page time. Superman has his friends and relies on them while still showing he's able to get the job done alone.

By the way, this thing apparently had an obscene amount of variant covers, because there's like a million of the things. Yeah, I know, that's hyperbolic. I'll clarify. Apparently, the nine issue run had fifty variant covers through its run. I counted. The cover gallery - with script pages for the first issue and raw Jim Lee pencils - are close to a third of the book. Not saying this is a bad thing, it just surprised me. Quite a few of them are nice to look at, with plenty of homages, so hey, it's a decent extra. I like being able to see the alternate covers in the trade anyway.

Thus far, this is Scott Snyders sole work with Superman. It's a shame, as I get the feeling that he does genuinely get the character and would do well with one of the two ongoings. His work with Batman seems to be winding down for now, so perhaps he'll follow Tomasi's lead over to the other half of the Worlds Finest team for a proper run in the future. I'd be willing to read it. But as for this, I can't give it a hearty recommendation. It might do more for you than me, so check your library system, I guess.

My Opinion: Try It

Friday, June 16, 2017

Superman: Son of Superman (comic)

Writer: Peter Tomasi, Patrick Gleason
Artists: Patrick Gleason, Doug Mahnke, Jorge Jimenez
Collects: Superman Rebirth #1, Superman (2016) #1-6

Of the trinity, Superman fared the worst in the New 52. The side books were a wash, but Batman itself was in the midst of another blockbuster run. Wonder Woman was divisive the whole way through, but even if they didn't like the tone or direction of the Azzarello run, most seem like they'll at least admit it was well put together. Superman had a year and a half with Grant Morrison on Action Comics and that was it. Nothing else really measured up*.

Worse still, for a majority of the time, the New 52 version did not really feel like Superman. It was like DC consciously decided to take a different tack with him. In some regards, it worked - Morrisons run starts off with a Superman that is more moral crusader for justice, both social and societal - but in others, it felt like we'd diverged too much from what made the character work to begin with. There's a real feeling, both in and out of his books, that the New 52 is a lot more concerned with his alien origins and feeling like an outsider than he typically is. It's the entire reason he hooks up with Wonder Woman - they both feel alone on an alien world, literal and metaphorical - which is just one part of why that felt like an awful idea from the moment they kissed. I feel like they realized they screwed up and were correcting course by the end, but it came late in the game.

I mean, I'd rather deal with that version than something closer to the Superman from the Zack Snyder films, for example, but it still feels like they missed the point of the character.

That's why the Rebirth Superman title was the one I anticipated reading the most. Just prior to Rebirth, the New 52 version died - if I'm being brutally honest, he died because he was a moron - and the classic version of Superman stepped in to take his place. With him came his wife, Lois Lane, and young son Jonathan Kent. Superman the family man is a status quo that just sounds right the first time you hear it, so the idea naturally agreed with me.

We start off with the Rebirth special, which is admittedly a mis-step. It's entirely about dealing with the fallout of the New 52 versions death and coming to terms with it. It does address an elephant in the room; Superman died once before, so of course he'd think the New 52 version could come back and would go looking for the same means he used to do it. It doesn't change the fact that we're leading off a new era dealing directly with the one we just left behind, one a reader coming back after an absence probably doesn't want to deal with anymore anyway. I know new readers are also mystical unicorns, but part of the reason why is we always see stuff like this, where before you recommend something you have to give a disclaimer or primer because of things that are, to a non comic reader, confusing stereotypical comic junk. That stuffs fine when you're deep in the numbers, but why would you ever lead off with it?

It should have been about a light recap of the life and times of the new-old Superman that glossed over some of the "from a parallel universe" stuff. Unfortunately, that's not what we got, so here we are. Admittedly, there's something sweet about Superman teaming with Lana Lang to retrieve his counterparts remains, then, upon realizing there's no bringing him back, burying him with his parents and carving a memorial to him in the Fortress of Solitude.

After that, we reach the first arc of the series, Son of Superman, and it's off at the races. Much like Tomasi and Gleasons Batman & Robin, this book is very much about the relationship between father and son. Jons powers are only just starting to manifest and he doesn't necessarily know how to control or properly use them. His start is a bit like his fathers in that regard. But unlike Clarks upbringing, he has the benefit of a father who has been through this before and is patient and understanding in dealing with it.

Which is not to say that Lois is a background character. She's just as important to the dynamic and brings her usual headstrong attitude to things. When things start going down, she even manages to get her licks in on the villain in a way I won't spoil, but calls back to the aforementioned Batman & Robin run.

Eventually, the Eradicator shows up. In case you're unfamiliar with him, he was one of the replacement Supermen in the 90's**, during the brief period after Death of Superman where the hole needed to be filled. Essentially a cyborg who thought he actually was Superman for a brief time, he stuck around in one form or another after that. This is a new version, whose history starts as a part of a small force that traps Kryptonian lawbreakers for General Zod. Now, having witnessed the death of Krypton and finding a living Kryptonian, his goal is the rebirth of the race. Unfortunately, he's none too fond of Jons human half and wants to wipe it out.

Naturally, Superman tells him to go screw and the fight begins.

Son of Superman is a fun start for the Rebirth era. We get to see both halves of Supermans life, the domestic and the heroic, how they intersect and how they're all a big part of his life. But we also get to see some scenes that are just downright cool. When the action spills into Metropolis and threatens to put innocent lives in danger, Superman retreats with his family to the friggin Moon, where the climax of the book takes place. Turns out Batman has a special cave there, because Batman, which comes in handy. It all leads to a page that feels like a classic Superman shot, where he rights the American flag and lunar module we left on the Moon and strikes a heroic pose for the cameras to see, to reassure the world that Superman is back and he's there to stay.

The book is full of bright Superman imagery. The way he's drawn by Patrick Gleason, he often comes off as a fatherly presence, larger than life without feeling out of reach. He smiles, shoots his son thumbs up, takes time out to receive keys to the city and proudly introduces his son to his colleagues in superheroics. It's hard to articulate the difference, but it comes down to the way the character carries himself compared to the one he's replaced. The body language feels as important in making him feel like the old school Superman as the dialogue and any of his actions.

There's a bit of fill-in art, unfortunately, but it's not too bad. Jorge Jimenez fits in well enough that I actually didn't even know what he'd drawn until I looked through the credits before writing this review. Doug Mahnke is the one that sticks out. He pencils the Rebirth issue - which is fine, as it's separate - as well as an issue late in the book. Doug Mahnke is a great artist, but his work is just different enough from Gleasons expressive, clean style that you'll notice the issue he illustrated. It's not helped by the fact that Mahnkes issue also uses a different inker and colorist; had he used Mick Gray and John Kalisz I imagine it would have helped smooth over the edges. But I don't know if that decision was in his hands or not. Regardless, Mahnke's a top flight talent and ably handles the material he's given.

Only a few things stuck out to me as a negative. The Rebirth issue being a sort of coda to the New 52 version being one, as I previously mentioned. Another is Supermans prickliness toward his new neighbor. Granted, Cobb kind of brushed off Clarks insistence that they had it under control, but it felt off to see Superman give him a stern look while he repeated himself. Perhaps he knows something we don't? I assume it will be addressed. Tomasi and Gleason seem to be setting Cobb and his granddaughter as recurring characters.

We also didn't need to see Jon accidentally fry the family cat in panic as he tries to save it from a hawk. It's appropriately heartbreaking, because of course the poor kid didn't mean to do it, much less understand how to even use this brand new power he's never had before, and ends up showing how supportive his family is, so it has its use. Superman knows immediately, but doesn't let on as such, instead taking his son with him on a distress call, using it as a teachable moment, helping Jon get control of his heat vision and gently encouraging his son to do the right thing and come clean. That said, did we really need to do that to get to this point? It's the one moment that felt a little bit too much like the kind of dumb, dark moments you'd get in that ugly post-Infinite Crisis period, but it doesn't hurt the book much and probably won't bother anyone else as much as it did me.

It could just be that I'm a cat person. Who knows.

Overall, Superman starts the Rebirth era off strong with the best material I've seen with the character in years. It's good enough that I'm optimistic about the future of the book. I'd go so far as to say it's the best of the Rebirth roll-out that I've read so far. Highly recommended.

My Opinion: Read It

* I say this as I have, at the time of this writing, not read Superman Unchained, which seems like the only thing left to try with a shot at being good to great.

** Eradicator isn't even the only callback to the 90's in here. I didn't expect to ever see Bibbo Bibowski again, but here we are. It's a nice surprise. Superman should have a recognizable fan or two we see from time to time.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Batman/Superman: Siege (comics)

Writer: Greg Pak
Artist: Ardian Syaf
Collects: Batman/Superman #16-20, Batman/Superman Annual #2, Batman/Superman: Futures End #1

So, now we're at volume four of Batman/Superman. Sadly, we lost Jae Lee along the way. The big Earth Two plotline that dipped in and out of the first three volumes has been scuttled off stage as well, without anything that really feels like a resolution. For better or worse, Siege is something different, holding us over in the time between the prior mission statement and the point where the book has to reflect radical status quo changes for the title characters, born from their solo titles.

Thankfully, it's pretty good. I'd go so far as to argue that it holds together better than anything since Cross World. It's amazing what having one artist draw an entire story or arc can do for you. The past couple of volumes felt patchwork at best, given that it swapped artists like you might change your underwear, sometimes in the middle of an issue. Ardian Syaf brings a stability to the visuals, one that was sorely needed. He has all of the same strengths he did in the third volume of Superman: Earth One, including the expressiveness of the characters.

The story itself is fine. I admit I cringed when I read the synopsis of Superman ending up with his own "Joker". I'm not sure what I expected, but in my head, I envisioned some bad attempt at conjuring an on the nose, Joker style character for Superman to be his new arch nemesis, even if the idea they'd try that seems almost silly. What it ends up referring to is the methodology; a sociopath who is simply out to hurt anyone connected to the hero, just because they can, possibly due to a strange fixation. That's fine, even if the idea of this character being Supermans Joker is directly expressed in dialogue a little too often to illicit anything more than an eyeroll.

Regardless, the danger is real, as this villain hits Superman where it hurts, several times, using what we learn is something directly connected to the Superman corner of the DCU to do it. Despite being heavily tied to the Superman half of the equation, Greg Pak does a fine job of keeping Batman in the mix, rather than letting him fade to the background a bit too much. In fact, at one point late in the volume, Superman impulsively activates his Solar Flare, leaving him powerless for twenty four hours just as a cadre of villains come looking to kill him. Batman has to keep Clark alive from that point on.

Also included is a Futures End tie-in issue. I'll admit I'm interested in the weekly and kind of looking forward to reading it. I also like the idea of an extra issue exploring the alternate world presented to us, much like DC One Million did in the late 90's. Unfortunately, this one is a bit of a wash. It's really just a Batman centric issue, with him dealing with a Superman villain and lamenting the breakdown of their friendship at some point in the history of this alternate future. The issue was kind of left between a rock and a hard place - from what I do know of Futures End, Superman is missing for the first half of it, possibly in a Kingdom Come-esque self exile - but it's still unfortunate. I don't feel like I really got anything out of it, aside from knowing why the Futures End Batmans back is quite possibly wrecked for good.

There's not a lot to say about Siege, otherwise. It's fine meat and potatoes team-up comics. I'd say it's an improvement over the past couple of volumes as well. It's unconnected to anything else, so you could just pick it up and read it if you felt like it. Siege is worth a shot if you're in the mood or don't have anything else to read, I'd say.

My Opinion: Try It