Review – Batman, Vol. 4: Zero Year-Secret City [No Spoilers]

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So I’m getting tired of the Joker, I think.

I thought Death of the Family was a great Joker story–it was deep, and like Court of Owls before it, it shows Scott Snyder’s incredible knowledge and understanding of the character of Batman/Bruce Wayne. It was a welcome arc at the time, as New 52 hadn’t seen the Joker since Detective Comics #1, which was also quite good.

Batman V.4This time around, it gets a bit redundant. In Zero Year-Secret City, we get the story of the first days of Batman in Gotham City, which again, is a welcome story for a skilled writer to tell, but what we get comes off as strained, forced, and ultimately redundant. This is, I think, because we get not just Batman’s origin story, but also that of the Joker’s. And the problem that comes with that is the problem that has faced theBatman mythos since a certain movie came out in 2008:

Is this Batman’s story, or is this the Joker’s story?

I honestly can’t tell which anymore. There is so much focus on the Joker in this collection, in his numerous monologues, and Bruce Wayne and Alfred spend so much time talkingabout the Joker, that the development of the character of Batman really takes a backseat to the Joker’s grandstanding. The force ofThe Dark Knight, and what it did for the popularity of an already very popular character, has reached a break point, in that a talented, knowledgeable writer is now churning out issues that use Batman to develop the Joker. Death of the Family knocked it out of the park–especially in Batman #17–but all the revisiting of those ideas and the underscoring of how this story is structured makes Batman tired for the first time under Snyder’s supervision.

What results is the weakest collection of Batman comics of the New 52. Snyder made his point about the nature of the relationship between Batman and the Joker expertly , thoroughly, and finally in the previous arc, and to go backward at this point seems the wrong play. There’s a richness to the Bat-verse that seems to be left on the table with each of these huge-concept, Joker-centric story arcs, and while we get a look at the Riddler as a sort of up-and-comer, DC only packages four issues in this collection (#21-24), so that becomes a cliffhanger to a story that has only been marginally developed throughout this particular, scant, and story-redundant trade paperback.

The two strengths of this collection can’t go un-discussed: Greg Capullo is in top form again, lending incredible detail to both the characters (the Zero Year Batsuit is off-the-charts cool) and to Gotham City that this might be the best work he’s done since he took on penciling duties for the book. The other nice surprise was the three backup features included at the end of this collection, in which we get short vignettes about how Bruce learned to do the stone cold things that Batman can do: drive, invent, and fight. There are Russian madmen, South American criminals, and one-eyed Viking queens to help him along, and even though they’re relatively short, Tynion and Snyder make the most of the short pages they have for these shorts and really show us some interesting, new moments from Batman’s in-training years.

Batman will probably always be my favorite comic book character, but I hope to see more focus on Batmanhimself in future volumes after Convergence. Since Volume 5 focuses on finishing the Zero Year event, and Volume 7 will tell yet another six-issue Joker story in Endgame, it might be a while before we get some distance between Batman and his archenemy. But with the rich pool of villains who have gone ignored for the past three-and-a-half years, I hope to see DC’s top creative team take on some of those characters before their run ends. Their work is top-notch, but I think it’ll be more remembered for how it treats the Joker rather than the hero who will always defeat him.

–  Vandal

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Review! Justice League: Trinity War [No Spoilers]

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So here it is: the first major, Earth-Prime-wide crossover event of the New 52, and it did not disappoint. Trinity War is a huge story, and while it’s not quite a war, the conflict between the heroes–that’s pretty much all there is here–is very compelling storytelling, with Johns in control as usual and the characters moving toward something bigger still.Trinity War was everything I was hoping it would be, and stands tall as Johns’ best work as a writer since he became CCO of DC Comics. I could not have been more pleased.

Trinity WarFirst off, I’d like to address the characterization that the writers use in building this narrative, as there are some striking moments of interaction and dialogue that elevate this crossover in the way that big stories should. Most excellent in this vein are the dialogues that take place between Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman as they confront the danger that Pandora’s return brings to a world now under the protection of the Justice League. It’s a culmination of the experiences we’ve shared with them as readers, both in the stories (the adventures against Darkseid, Graves, and Atlantis) as well as the implicit battles that have taken place in the in-between times. They seem seasoned, mature, and serious about their responsibilities. The other figures that populate the story (and there are a LOT of them) all operate off of the leadership that DC’s trinity brings to the conflict, and the way in which Johns centers their decision-making on what the Justice League should and should not do really allows the War to reach full boil. The sense of teamwork, then of separation, and then the final meet-up when all of the hidden figures step out from behind their respective curtains could not have been more pronounced, measured, and in the end, effective. This conclusion–even though it’s not really a conclusion at all–I found extremely satisfying. In terms of storytelling, Trinity War is a masterful achievement.

The artwork is likewise terrific, but as multiple artists work to tell the graphic side of the story, the most stunning work goes to Ivan Reis in the work that he contributes to the story’s most dramatic moments (including one particularly serious conversation of the like I mention above). The final issue, however–the story’s best moment, as it should be–contains four splash pages that just arrested my page-turning tendencies and forced me to take stock of the artistic value of a high-concept, high-quality story like Trinity War. The detail, as it has been since he inherited Justice League from Jim Lee after issue #12, has never been sharper, and the manner in which he narrates the final showdown of the arc is the best and most breathtaking artwork that DC Comics has published since September of 2011. These pages worked together seamlessly to bringTrinity War to its close, and expectations and excitement could not be higher for where the Justice League is headed from here.

The whole story succeeds on so many levels that the weaknesses, absolutely present, seem an exercise in taking the story too seriously. I’ll not remember any of them when I think back on reading this collection, nor will I notice them when I consult this volume in preparation for reading the next big thing from DC Comics, Forever Evil , when it reaches trade paperback. Johns, Lemire, Reis, Finch, et al. have done such a terrific job with the first huge-concept story of the New 52 that I continue to make reading their and their co-workers’ publications with great enthusiasm.  Backlog Priority – 9.5/10

– Vandal

Review! Batman/Superman, Vol. 1: ‘Cross World’ [No Spoilers]

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I should really only give a five-issue trade three stars on principle–and, in this case, it’s only really four issues, as the fifth is a measly backup issue that offers very little by way of necessary information–but the work of Pak and Lee in terms of crafting a stylish, self-reflective story is far better than the publishing practices of DC. Batman/Superman, Vol. 1: Cross World is a great-looking piece of comic storytelling that sheds some light on a forgotten chapter of the New 52: the first meeting of Batman and Superman.

BvS V.1The story is fairly simple: during their first fight, Batman and Superman are teleported to Earth-2 where they participate in a battle that takes place prior to the events of Earth-2 #1 . They learn about the friendship, teamwork, and personal lives that in no way resembles the Earth-1 relationship; more accurately, it shows the presence of something that they both consider absent. It works as a sort of prequel to the events of both Justice League and Earth-2 , as well as an interesting, comic-familiar story that deals with themes such as choice, friendship, and time.

But where this volume really stands out is in the artwork of Jae Lee. The sharpness of the pencils are unlike anything that you’ll find anywhere else in comics. There need be no comparison, as none seems necessary–the style and symmetry of the artwork is breathtaking, engrossing, and tells the emotional story of the two most popular figures in modern mythology as well as the short, punctuated narrative style of Greg Pak does. It is impressive work, and a welcome, alternative voice to the widespread offerings centered on Batman and Superman.

BACKLOG PRIORITY
8/10 – 
Batman/Superman, Vol. 1: Cross World may not tell the most impressive story, but the manner in which it is told makes it a standout volume and a great place to launch a series that focuses on Clark and Bruce’s friendship. The manner in which it informs many other New 52 titles likewise makes this a book that the majority of comics readers will enjoy thoroughly.

– Vandal

Review! Batman, Incorporated, Vol. 2: “Gotham’s Most Wanted” [No Spoilers]

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This is the conclusion of a longsuffering, up-and-down trip with the Dark Knight, one that is long overdue to end. Grant Morrison has had his moments with this mega arc over the years, and strictly speaking, as a follow-up to the superb-in-every-way Batman: Son of the Demon story, it really does succeed. There’s a lot of chaff–a lot of chaff in the mix here–but as I was reading this last volume of the Batman, Inc. story, I found myself charmed at its ability to revisit almost all of the characters and stops on the way. It many ways, it reads a lot like Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern: Rise of the Third Army : a huge, final showdown between the titular hero and a longsuffering villain that reboots that hero’s corner of the New 52 retroactively. I suppose it’s not a coincidence that these two titles are the ones who enjoyed softer reboots when DC reset back in 2011.

Batman Inc. V.2Morrison gets credit here for elevating the most interesting part of this conflict to its highest point during the run: the clash between Talia and Batman over their son, their hearts, and the world itself gets all of the attention it needs, and it’s great attention. There’s violence, passion, heartbreak, and that genuinely sorrowful sense of lovers who cannot reconcile their differences for each other in this story. The attraction between Talia and Batman has always been one of the most robust, dynamic areas of the character, and since Mike Barr put it on the map of the DCU with Son of the Demon , it hasn’t been done better than in this conclusion. Talia is every part the dark mother of myth, part the Hetzerin inciter, and part jilted lover; as the final confrontation approaches Morrison balances all three and does what great storytellers do: brings a familiar story structure to light in a new way, this telling even more impressive as it’s with the Most Popular Character in the World. Morrison may be a writer that polarizes readers, but his management of this story, its huge number of elements, and the conclusion couldn’t have been more successful.

Burnham’s art is barely passable (the teeth still look like they’re rotting and falling out of people’s heads) but the only real contention I had with this collection was the overlong, two-issue wrap-up of Batman, Incorporated that featured very little substantive content and showcased a sort of string of vignettes of the international Batman community fighting crimes in various strange ways. It sort of emerged at the end of the book as a remainder to the experiment’s equation, and I found myself wondering what it added to the conclusion other than a series of short epilogues to characters that were, at best, supporting functionaries.

BACKLOG PRIORITY
8/10 – Morrison wraps up his work with Batman in grand fashion with a violent, heartbreaking finale that will finally release Batman to the New 52 fully and with more than enough fire to start things like they have been running under the superb direction of Snyder, Capullo, Tomasi, and Gleason.

– Vandal

Review! Gotham, Ep. 1.1: ‘Pilot’ [No Spoilers]

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So in the interest of fairness, Batman probably shouldn’t be allowed to have the best superhero movie, video game adaptation, and comic book series, AND the best television show, right?

Well, it’s too early to tell if that last one is true, but let me say this about the pilot of Gotham: there’s not much they didn’t get right, both as a police procedural and as a comic book adaptation.

1.1A

The show starts fast, dramatic, and memorable with a new interpretation of a scene as deeply embedded in the history of Batman as any there is.

It starts like it should, with a scene we’ve seen before and know rather well.  And it’s a scene that has been done so right by guys like Frank Miller and Christopher Nolan at different very important moments of Batman’s print and film history.  We see a theater, an alley, three well-dressed people and a string of pearls.  The scene comes up swiftly, almost like a surprise for its abrupt transition, but the version of the Wayne killings that Gotham gives us, and the way that it sets the stage for the pilot episode, is all-new and really, truly artful.

True to the title of this iteration of the Great Urban Myth, Gotham‘s pilot gives us a lot of long looks at the city itself: it’s dark (as it should be), backlit at night, but smoky and overcast during the day.  No worries, Bat-fans: the sun makes no intrusive appearances, and the wide, low alleys are filled with smoke and rotting trash.  Bad things are occurring in those selfsame alleys and, when we catch a vista of the city, we see old subway systems, Gothic architecture and searchlights scanning the low, humid cloud cover of the city.

And this city is bad.  Really bad.  The cops are crooked, mostly indistinguishable from criminals.  Both parties show up at odd hours, seem to be always working and seem to know that they’re only fueling Gotham’s bad-ness with every exchange they make.  The criminal element of Gotham City is very present in both the setting and the characterization of its principal figures.  There has to be a compelling reason as to why Batman eventually teams up with Jim Gordon, and the premise of Gotham seems very much interested in that: it’s a good cop/bad cop police show, with Gordon and Harvey Bullock as the odd-couple at the center of the moral storm.  There’s some great dialogue in that vein towards the end of the episode, and a lot of Easter Eggs and references to Bat-lore.

1.1B

Wanna fight?

I think that’s what really exceeded my expectations of this pilot: the characters are new interpretations, but familiar all the same.  Bullock’s belligerence and cynicism lose nothing in the absence of Batman, nor does Gordon’s idealism.  Each of the characters from the comics that you’ll encounter in this pilot–and there are quite a few of them–are given a moment or two that is all his or her own, with visual or dialogue references to cement their place in the world, or at least this version of it.  The characters are all really well-cast for their relative youth, especially the two leads.  And for your Easter Egg hunters out there, get ready–there are a bunch.

BACKLOG PRIORITY
9/10 – It’s hard to go higher than this for a pilot, as serial storytelling depends on a successfully-executed pattern that will only become clear in the next few weeks.  Still, it’s hard to imagine a better launch to yet another interpretation of Batman for the mass media.  The story is right, the characters are even better, and the city-world looks and feels every bit the depraved cesspool that will later be under the protection of the Dark Knight himself.

– Vandal

Discussion! Vandal’s September Backlog

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We have less than one month before every night of the week becomes flooded with TV that all looks so great.  What follows is how I’ll be filling the hours before premiere week:

John Jackson Miller, STAR WARS: A NEW DAWN
Disney/Lucasfilm kicks off their mega-reboot of the Star Wars universe begins not with a TV show or a movie, but with a book–the first book ever to be considered ‘canon’ in the ongoing battle between good and evil.  Star Wars: A New Dawn tells the story of the first team-up of Kanan Jarrus and Hera Syndulla and contains a nice foreword by Dave Filoni in which he explains the degree to which the creative teams, as well as the Lucasfilm Story Group, has changed their regard for the non-film media.

Destiny Is LiveBungie & Activision, DESTINY
I waited to buy an Xbox One for a game that was going to be worth it, and I’m betting my money and time on the game that has been at the center of the industry’s hype over the past year (sorry, Titanfall).  After playing the Beta in July, I can’t imagine the game won’t be a colossal hit, or a ton of fun.

Geoff Johns, JUSTICE LEAGUE, VOL. 4: THE GRID
As we readers of the trade paperback variety get closer to the day when we will finally read Trinity War in all its apparent glory, this collection from Johns and Reis will bring us right up to the brink of that huge crossover event.  As I maintain that this book has been the best of the New 52 across the board, I’ll be reading this one as soon as it comes out on September 16th.

Wes Ball & James Dashner, THE MAZE RUNNER
After being totally hypnotized by the trailer in August, and as there’s almost nothing else interesting coming to theaters in September, I’ll be stopping in to see how they bring another popular YA book franchise to the big screen

Teaser PosterBruno Heller et al., GOTHAM (FOX)
It’s an interesting take on the World’s Most Popular Thing, and I can’t tell if it’s going to be a big-concept police procedural or some kind of urbano-gothic Smallville.  What they’ve shown looks great, and as a Batman guy outright, I’ll not be hesitating to check in with my superhero’s new TV show (even if I have to admit that the other two guys over on The CW have shows that look more interesting right now).

October is going to be a crazy TV-heavy month for us here at the Backlog (we have some pretty ambitious plans for you readers), and things in the geekosphere are holding steady.  Thanks for a great first month!

– Vandal

Discussion! Mou’s Top Ten Comic Book Runs, Part One

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My name is Mou, and I am a comic book fan. (Hello, Mou!) A longtime comic fan. Longtime, like 43 years longtime. I read my first comic book, Justice League of America #92, when I was five years old, and what I couldn’t get from the words I doped out from the pictures. That was it: the bug had bitten me, and there would be no turning back—not even as a fully functioning adult. After all, when one can have regular access to myth and legend in glorious color on the printed page, why would s/he choose to avoid it?

That said, I have seen my heroes through a number of seasons—both scintillating and silly, and I have my favorite runs of certain titles—my “deserted island” must-haves, if you will. These are storylines I return to again and again, when I want to read something that will both engage me and take me back. As I said, I’m still a fan, but I am buying and reading fewer comic books than at any prior point in my collecting life. Some of it has to do with the expense of the hobby, but a good portion of it is that I’m not entirely pleased with the tendency toward decompressed storytelling and the current state of some of my favorite heroes. (Gosh, I hope that’s not too you-kids-get-off-my-lawn, but I would guess it does, indeed, have something to do with age and nostalgia.)

So, without further ado, here are—in no particular order—Mou’s Top Ten Comic Book Runs, Part One:

MNIM 1.2JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA’s #139-150 by Steve Englehart and Dick Dillin (with a two-part JLA/JSA crossover by Martin Pasko and Dillin)
Englehart was hired away from Marvel to essentially Marvel-ize the JLA, and, boy, did he ever! Suddenly, the World’s Greatest Super-Heroes don’t always see eye-to-eye—not just Green Arrow, but also Superman and Wonder Woman, and Mantis, one of his additions to the Avengers, starts hanging around the JLA as Willow. She comes “from a place that cannot be named” (Ha!) Further, Englehart’s run establishes the connection between the Green Lantern Corps and the Manhunters—something he will revisit later, in his Millenium series. Best of all, Englehart retells the JLA’s origin in a sprawling epic that brings together pretty much every DC hero from the 1950s. That issue, #144, remains one of my all-time favorite comics. A Justice League/Justice Society/Legion of Super-Heroes team-up interrupts Englehart’s run, but it is excellent—absolutely bursting with heroes.

Oddly, this run has yet to be collected in full, but #146 appears in the Justice League of America Hereby Elects… Trade paperback, and #’s 148 and 149 appear in Crisis on Multiple Earths Vol. 4.

Key Issue: Justice League of America #144 for the retelling of the team’s origin.

MNIM 1.1DETECTIVE COMICS #’s 469-476 by Steve Englehart, Walt Simonson, Marshall Rogers, Terry Austin, and Al Milgrom
While I’m on the subject of Steve Englehart, I may as well get his lauded Batman run on the list. His work here, most notably with  Marshall Rogers and Terry Austin, represents the best the Dark Knight can be—even better than Frank Miller’s interpretation, in my humble opinion. Batman is grim, but not completely obsessive and morose, he has a hot girlfriend—one Silver St. Cloud, and his foes are the psychotics, not him. Simply put, it’s a classic run by master craftsmen—among the best Batman stories ever told.

These issues are collected in the Batman: Strange Apparitions trade paperback, which is currently out of print—and a crying shame.

Key Issue: Detective Comics #476 for conclusion of one of the best Joker stories of all-time.

MNIM 1.5X-MEN #’s 94-143 and GIANT-SIZE X-MEN #1
It’s difficult for me to separate the Dave Cockrum’s first run as the penciller of X-Men from John Byrne’s stint because it’s during their eras—with writer and co-plotter Chris Claremont—that much of what made the X-Men great was established—heck, much of what made comics great from the mid-1970s-on. Of course, the “All-New, All-Different” X-Men first appeared as a team in Giant-Size X-Men #1 by Len Wein and Cockrum; then, Claremont took over the scripting chores with X-Men #94. Here, we see the concept of the super-hero team really change into something more…soap-operatic. There subplots, unexpressed thoughts and desires, supporting characters who come and go, and a good bit of everything-you-knew-before-is-wrong—very much early Marvel taken to even further heights. Of course, two of the X-Men’s best story arcs occur near the end of Byrne’s tenure: “The Dark Phoenix Saga” and “Days of Future Past”; nothing in these issues is to be missed.

All of these issues and a few more are reprinted in X-Men Omnibus Vols. 1 and 2, and specific storylines are available in the X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga and X-Men: Days of Future Past trade paperbacks. They are also collected in the Essential Uncanny X-Men black-and-white trade paperback series.

Key Issue: X-Men #137 for the “final” fate of the Phoenix and the conclusion of a true comic book saga.

MNIM 1.3NEW TEEN TITANS/TALES OF THE TEEN TITANS, Vol. 1 #’s 1-50 and annuals by Marv Wolfman, George Pérez, Romeo Tanghal, and others
Wolfman and Pérez created something very X-Men-like in New Teen Titans, which hit in 1980. Combining three established Titans (Robin, Kid Flash, and Wonder Girl) with one sort-of Titan (Changeling, formerly Beast Boy) and three newcomers (Starfire, Cyborg, and Raven) was a stroke of genius, and the chemistry quickly made this team-book DC’s biggest seller. Deathstroke the Terminator was introduced in #2, and he’s certainly had more than his share of staying power, even becoming a recurring figure on TV’s Arrow and in the various Batman video games. Beyond that, the series saw Dick Grayson step away from Batman and establish himself as Nightwing, provided insight into the origin of Wonder Girl, and made Starfire, Cyborg, and Raven mainstays of the DC pantheon of heroes. Wolfman and Perez also had fun with former Titans Speedy and Aqualad, but their crowning achievement remains the creation of Terra and “The Judas Contract” story arc, which is easily one of the series’ best.

This series is collected in New Teen Titans Omnibus Vols. 1-3, and parts of it are collected in the New Teen Titans Vol. 1 trade paperback, due out later this month, and the New Teen Titans: The Judas Contract trade paperback, which is, sadly, out of print.

Key Issue: Tales of the Teen Titans Annual #3 for the conclusion of “The Judas Contract,” likely one of the best-executed comic book stories ever.

MNIM 1.4FANTASTIC FOUR, Vol. 1 #’s 232-293 by John Byrne, Terry Austin, Bob Wiacek, and Jerry Ordway
I recall being disappointed when it was announced that penciller John Byrne’s final issue of X-Men would be #143, but I was over the moon when I found out he would be taking over the writing and the artwork on Fantastic Four. Interestingly, Byrne’s first issue, #232, began much like the first issue of the series with our heroes going about their days until they are called into action to take on foes whose powers are inspired the four ancient elements of earth, air, fire, and water, leading them eventually to the villainous alchemist, El Diablo. Things kick into high gear with #236, the FF’s 20th anniversary issue, which sees Byrne’s first Doctor Doom story. No lie: It’s an amazing story, and it’s only five issues into Byrne’s stellar run, which sees the Human Torch’s girlfriend become the Herald of Galactus, the Inhumans relocate to the moon, She-Hulk replace the Thing on the team’s roster, the Invisible Girl become the Invisible Woman, Reed Richards put on trial for saving Galactus—my gosh, the list goes on an on. It’s second only to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s run in terms of quality and energy. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Byrne’s run is collected in its entirety in Fantastic Four by John Byrne Omnibus Vols. 1 and 2 and the Fantastic Four Visionaries: John Byrne Vols. 0-8. Both of these titles collect Byrne’s FF work prior to his run as writer and artist.

Key Issue: Fantastic Four, Vol. 1 #236 because it’s an amazing Doctor Doom story, and it’s everything you ever need to know about the FF in one shot.

So, fellow enthusiasts, there you have the first five entries in my personal “essential comics” list. The rest will follow later this week, and, yes, I will break into the 21st century.

Mou