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