Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Catwoman #35 review

Selina Kyle has claimed her inheritance. Daughter of crime boss Rex 'Leo' Calabrese, she's abandoned her costumed ways to rebuild a battered Gotham by uniting the city's crime families.

How that works, I don't know. And we're not told in this first issue of a new direction. We're just informed that Selina's new 'business interests' are so benefiting Gotham that she's getting invites to respectable parties and the police department is looking the other way.

Writer Genevieve Valentine does give us the new set-up; Selina's right-hands are previously unmentioned cousins Nick and Antonia Calabrese, the city's other mobs are willing to meet with her and the snake in the garden is longtime family member Ward. The respect granted by the other families seems to be more about her surname than her own reputation, with no one mentioning her Catwoman past, which surely is a matter of public record.

The lack of kitties is a headscratcher. OK, this revamped run sees Selina trying to play well with others rather than be the solo act, but I didn't spot a single cat until the final page (I'm not counting that scabby monstrosity that looks like a mini Man-Bat on Jae Lee's cover). Of course, it doesn't help her new role if she's seen as a crazy cat-lady, surrounded by moggies, but the odd puss to stroke sinisterly never did Blofeld any harm. At the very least, random cats in the background of street scenes would be a visual nod to who this book is meant to be about.

Right now, it's about the politics of crime and that's not very interesting to me. Valentine almost lost me for good by opening with an obscure, opaque quote from Elizabeth I - it's a big enough ask to accept that a jewel-thieving adventurer is, overnight, obsessed with civic matters, without having her suddenly be a pretentious history buff too. It seemed to be the novelist-turned-comic-writer trying to lend weight to a less respectable literary form with grand words. This notion may be doing Valentine a disservice, it could be that the Virgin Queen's words simply seemed the best way to lay down her theme that a dangerous balancing act for the good of the kingdom is worth attempting. But witty and smart as this Selina Kyle is - and I do like the internal monologue in general - the Elizabethan 'art of war' bit simply doesn't fit.

A good point is that Selina remains unwilling to kill, though her relaxation when it comes to gun-running makes her a hypocrite.

Several times I found myself distracted as I waded through this issue, looking out the window, or at the steam rising from my cup of tea. The instalment is exceedingly talky, with no engine pummelling us towards the end. The story comes alive, briefly, when the shadow of the Bat falls on Selina, but otherwise it's meetings and subtexts and not much fun at all. 

Well, it may be fun for Sopranos fans, or West Wing walk and talk devotees. And there's certainly skill in the script - bar Catwoman's odd assumption that someone saying a complicated tattoo isn't finished means they won't be going back for more work - with dialogue exchanges convincing. But, well ... Catwoman. I don't doubt that by the end of this sequence Selina will be leaping from rooftop to rooftop once more, baubles in her hands, cats by her side, but meanwhile, is there an audience for this approach? 

Garry Brown's art is worth a look, despite the surprisingly drab choices of colourist Leigh Loughridge. There's inevitably a lot of scowling, gangsters being what they are, but Brown gives good scowl and similarly impresses with sidelong looks (don't tell me Yakuza princess Eiko isn't out to stroke Selina's ... nah, too obvious). He does an excellent Batman, and hopefully he'll get to draw the costumed Catwoman too. For now, his Selina is sublime - strong, determined, intelligent. Brown's cityscapes look good too, as do the posh interiors. Mind, when a script calls for a 'beautiful tattoo' it'd be wise to draw it, rather than a blob that may be a big Japanese wave, but is more likely to be a tiger.

He does conjure up a great Black Mask. I don't know who the other guy in the scene with the fallen gang leader is, though - the script hints at Nick, but he's been drawn and coloured differently. I can't see myself rushing back to find out who this is - a comic with Catwoman not being Catwoman, in which the big stakes are the civic pride of Gotham and the question of which gang leader runs the show, just isn't for me. Elizabeth I would perhaps like it.

Arkham Manor #1 review

Arkham Asylum is no more, blown to smithereens. The authorities need to store the inmates somewhere while rebuilding goes on, but the citizenry aren't thrilled by the immediate solution, a sports stadium in the heart of the city.

The mayor looks at the options, out-of-the-way buildings that can be made secure enough for the worst Gotham has to offer. He settles on Wayne Manor, recently vacated by its owner and ripe for new residents. A compulsory purchase order gets the building into civic hands and it's soon filled to the brim with the criminally insane.

The Batman isn't delighted, and almost blows up the house to keep it unsullied by the people he spends his life fighting. In the end, though, he'd rather give the building a chance to do some good than see it meet the same fate as Arkham. 

He thinks: 'The inmates are secure. Gotham is quiet.'

For about a minute and a half, anyway. News of a death soon has Batman zooming back to the manor, where he finds the GCPD's Lt Harvey Bullock and a slew of investigators.

So, another week, another new Batman title. We've just had Gotham Academy and a revamped Batgirl, today also sees a new beginning for Catwoman, there's Gotham by Midnight to come ... so can Arkham Manor makes its mark?

On the basis of this first issue, it's a definite, mmm, dunno. Gerry Duggan's script is precise, wasting few words as it sets up the bare basics and a mystery. He gets major points for adding a little humour, via Batman's 'workout'. He remembers that Batman is a detective, includes a nod to TV's Criminal Minds and paces the book nicely. Alfred is the way I like him, more thoughtful manservant than action man. It's apparent that Duggan has the chops to be a good Bat-writer.  

And Shawn Crystal's art, as subtly coloured by Dave McCaig, is a pleasure on every page, with nicely composed panels that breathe or get claustrophobic as needed. He doesn't skimp on the detail that makes the manor seem real - have you ever seen a comic book artist take the time to give us a skirting board? I don't like his super-unshaven Batman, but that may be a first-issue thing as it does come in useful at the end of the book. 

And while I like the Kelley Jones style splodginess of Batman's cape, I'd rather he didn't foreground the ugliness of DC's current Batman costume (those boots!). Niggles aside, Crystal does well to give this series its own visual identity.

Duggan and Crystal work well together, with full-page scenes of Batman arriving by the front door, then remembering what the manor has meant to him, making for sharp, stylish visuals. And the cover by Crystal, McCaig and an excellent logo designer, is striking.

My problem with this as the debut issue of a new series is that it doesn't feel like anything other than an above average Batman book. I bought this comic wanting an Arkham Manor story. I don't actually know what that would mean, and that's what Duggan fails to show me. Events are viewed through the narration of Batman, with only one named player attached to Arkham on panel. To give Duggan his due, he gives us a snapshot of Eric Border in just a few lines, but who else is here? Gotham Academy and Batgirl filled their pages with new characters, and gave a sense of what the series might be, in terms of feel and stories. Here, we don't get that. It could be the opening issue of an arc in pretty much any Batman book of the past 20 years, given the regularity with which Arkham Asylum is crippled.  

The craft and style on display mean I'll give this book a couple of issues to show why it needs to exist in a world of a dozen Batman titles. But if it doesn't, Arkham Manor risks getting lost among the pack.

Friday, 17 October 2014

DC Digital - Sensation Comics featuring Wonder Woman #10

Wonder Woman is big in Gateway City. Literally. She's used the Atom's size-changing technology to take on a giant monster.

But not just any monster - Byth, shape-changing enemy of Hawkwoman and Hawkman. The winged wonders are on hand alongside the Tiny Titan, but this is Wonder Woman's show, because size isn't everything - Amazonian strength is the key to taking down the extraterrestrial menace.

And when the war is over, what's needed is Diana's wisdom and compassion, making for an ending that's logical while surprising, funny and entirely satisfactory.

Rob Williams writes a splendid one-off adventure with Attack of the 500ft Wonder Woman, giving us a story that stars the Amazing Amazon while being a mini-JLA adventure. His Diana is the pre-Flashpoint version, living in Gateway City while carrying Themyscira in her heart and channelling the power of truth in a brilliant new way that is pure Wonder Woman.

Visually, this is the pre-Crisis Wonder Woman, even before the eagle flew from Diana's chest to be replaced by the crass double-W bustier. It's a joy to see the Silver Age costume once again, but heavens, Diana is having a bad hair - do something about that fringe, girl! The art is by Tom Lyle, best-known for his runs on Robin and Starman, and I'm delighted to see him back on a DC product. The finish is different to how I recall Lyle's work looking, doubtless down to him working without an inker here, but it looks pretty good. There's a real vibrancy, an energy to the pages, and I hope DC grabs Lyle for more work soon. Heck, if DC plans to follow their Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman digital series with a Justice League book, Lyle should be tapped for that - at the very least, he draws an amazing Hawkman and Hawkwoman.

My only problem with the art is that the first page could be clearer - the story turns, in part, on something Diana saw as a young warrior on Themyscira. All the way through I was waiting for the reveal as to what it was. Turns out, it was right there, in our face, but the composition makes it look as if Diana's looking beyond it. Or is it just me?

Colourist Wendy Broome's ability to convey light sources is a big plus in a day-set book featuring massive opponents, while Saida Temofonte's lettering is sharp and effective.

I'm not sure if there's a policy of one story each so far as Sensation Comics goes, but I do hope not; I'd really like to see Williams, Lyle and co back for a longer adventure featuring Wonder Woman.

But fix the hair first...

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Supergirl #35 review

If they exist, Superman: Doomed completists might skip this issue, as the banner is a tad misleading - it's an aftermath only in that it takes place following that crossover, with the first page picking up where Supergirl's last issue left off. And the scene and copy is a tad misleading, but that's comics. The image by Guillem March works well, though, with some great cloth-work on the cape.

The Red Hood catches up with Supergirl in New York's Queens and suggests a team-up. The Hood, bad boy wonder Jason Todd, wants her help to take down aliens who have been selling ET tech to Earth scumbags. Kara isn't delighted to see him as she was enjoying a normal moment with potential boyfriend Michael and his parents. Still, they get onto the streets and stop the traffik in guns that can hurt even a Kryptonian.

Along the way there's a little tension, professional and personal, but by issue's end Kara is back with Michael, they're kissing and Red Hood, spying from across the street, is wishing her luck in a bittersweet way.

Writer Tony Bedard ties up a leftover plot from Scott Lobdell's Superman run, which is nice, though I can't believe anyone was actually clamouring for a resolution to the alien tech beat he brought in; it seemed nothing more than a maguffin to put Superman and Starfire on the same page. And that's just what it is here - an excuse for artist Jonboy Meyers to draw some big, splashy action while Bedard gives us the really fun stuff - the characterisation.

Kara and Jason recently met in the Batman/Superman annual and got along rather well. Here, Jason says he sought her out for her firepower - useful when you're a Batman Family member taking on extraterrestrials. This isn't hugely convincing, given one of his best pals and teammates is Starfire, an alien powerhouse who's already involved in the case. He also says that after their recent encounter he wondered how they'd do as a Superman/Batman style team. Really, though, it's all because he fancies Kara and wants to spend time with her. so when he tracks her down to the hospital and sees her interest in Michael, he feels a little flat. Never mind, there's superheroic work to be done and all that - and a chance to show Supergirl what she's missing.

Credit to Bedard for never having Jason refer to Michael's being a wheelchair user - it's obvious he sees a person, not a chair. Michael is a rival, and he has to prove he's better for her. And more credit to Bedard for having Kara acknowledge she's intrigued by Red Hood, while returning to Michael's side as soon as she can.

There's a subplot turning on why Jason is stronger than normal, something which isn't revealed here - if you really care, the solicitation for this week's Red Hood and the Outlaws #35 gives it away. I can't say I was bothered, being too distracted by the knowledge that this is Bedard's last issue as writer. Seeing the great personality he gives Kara via her narration, dialogue and actions while knowing it's not going to last, well, I could teach Jason a thing or three about bittersweet. 

Bedard keeps Kara confident, shows that she now has real empathy for Earth folk, has her understand the concept of property damage, realise she's attracted to rubbish men, call Jason on his apparent willingness to kill ... The coming Crucible space school direction may prove a great ride, but I'm annoyed that Supergirl's best writer since the DC Universe revamp occurred is leaving the book.

And does anyone reading this issue think Kara actually needs anyone else to teach her about being a hero? She's learned about herself from surviving a string of terrible experiences, and she's learned about friendship from her time with the Red Lanterns and Justice League United. Bedard is an excellent writer, well able to build on what's come before, and I wish he'd been given that chance.

Jonboy Meyers does a good job with his fill-in turn, keeping Kara and Jason on model, the settings convincing and the action realistic. 

There's a splash page shot of Jason which impresses with its use of forced perspective, and I love the way Michael's mother is looking at Kara here - try and convince me she's not wondering why this obviously nice girl is pretty much displaying her vitals. Funnily enough, Dad is grinning. 

If DC seriously wants to bring in a broader audience with the coming new direction, this ridiculous, offensive costume has to go - remember, Supergirl beat Batgirl to Doc Martens.

Meyers doesn't quite make a moment in which Jason shows off his Swiss army knife hands non-laughable, but who could? 

And I don't like a panel in which Supergirl has the shadowy, red-eyed face so common to modern depictions of Superman - in the old days, that was how we knew someone was going dark Phoenix. Overall, though, Meyers acquits himself well.

And that's that. Another mini-era of Supergirl over. I hope the school story proves as shortlived as the Red Lanterns arc, which came in, did its work and went away again. And then maybe Bedard can return for the longer engagement he deserves.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina #1 review

It's 1951 and baby Sabrina Spellman is taken from the arms of her human mother, Diana, to be raised by her warlock father, Edward, and aunts, Hilda and Zelda. Edward resists his sisters' entreaties to kill Diana, deciding that a lobotomy and a permanent stay in hospital is enough to stop her derailing their daughter's future. He loves his wife, but loyalty to his faith comes first.

Within a few years, Edward, too, is gone, sentenced to an awful fate. Was it the doing of his corpse-devouring sisters? Did hard-hearted Zelda persuade the softer Hilda to get the human-hating Witches' Council involved?

And that summation represents only the first few pages of this debut issue of the companion, complementary series to the hit Afterlife With Archie. Writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa presents Sabrina the Teenage Witch as never before, keeping the basics of the story - setting, characters, lore, cat - but excising the cutesiness. And that allows him to tell a very grim tale indeed. The retro setting evokes the eerie world of Rosemary's Baby, a place of covens and betrayals and evils both banal and otherworldy. 

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina recasts her cuddly aunts as outwardly normal, but possessive of withered souls and a quiet ruthlessness. The budding witch is a far more sympathetic character, relatively naive and holding onto the orphan's hope that her parents are alive and together, maybe even thinking of her; but nature and nurture are dragging her in only one direction. Cousin Ambrose shows up to befriend the lonely young woman, but his more worldly view of spellcasting leads Sabrina down that same dark path. 

The character nearest their regular persona is Salem the cat, sarcastic as ever and the voice of reason - the familiar is familiar.

The biggest shock comes with the cameos by a certain pair of rivals for a feckless ginger's affections. If you thought Betty and Veronica were minxes in their regular world ...

Smaller, but perfectly formed, shocks come every few pages, as Aguirre-Sacasa reveals more about this version of Greendale. He's perfectly partnered in satanic worldbuilding by Robert Hack, whose lyrical pencils, inks and colours never fail to find beauty amid the darkness. And when he gets a full-on horror scene to draw, you'd better run! 

British readers may, like me, be reminded of UK girls' weeklies from the Sixties and Seventies, Bunty and Mandy, say, or the shortlived but highly collectible Misty, whose spooky thrillers this Sabrina would likely enjoy. Every page, heck, every panel cries out for framing, while working as a building block for a hugely immersive look at Sabrina's early years. And while I normally dislike upper and lower case lettering in comics, Jack Morelli's choice here is perfect, speaking to a world of whispers and secrets.

As well as the 28pp lead story, this issue includes the 1962 debut of Sabrina, and it's fun to see that while she was always drawn as a sweetheart, she wasn't exactly a good girl back then. Add in a couple of text pages and a look at some of Hack's process art and you have a terrific bargain at $3.99. I bought this digitally but now I know the printed cover is a die-cut Flowers in the Attic homage, I'm heading for the comics shop tomorrow.

I don't know where Aguirre-Sacasa, Hack and co are going with this series. The obvious route is to have Sabrina tempted by the apparent convenience of witchcraft, but resisting, trying to be more Wendy than Wicked. So they're likely pointing their brooms in another direction entirely. Wherever they're off to, I'm flying right behind them, because this reimagining of a kids' favourite has everything I want in a horror comic - a compelling storyline, fascinating characters, dark wit and pitch black twists, conjured onto the page with imagination and intensity. Unmissable.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Justice League United #5 review

The new Justice League United team has scored its first victory, rescuing the space child, Ultra, from an intergalactic war. But a price was paid - Hawkman died.

So who's activated his transmitter from across space? The question has Animal Man, Stargirl, Supergirl and Green Arrow racing to a bounty hunter's den, courtesy of Sardath's zeta beam. And that's the last we see of them in an issue that focuses on new superhero Equinox, laying out her powers, heritage and responsibilities. She sorts out the whitago - a whitago is to a wendigo what a Marvel zuvembie was to a zombie - in no short order and takes her place on the JLA. Also signing up is Alanna Strange, aparently too excited at suddenly being a superhero to worry too much about being zillions of miles from husband Adam due to a peesky 'zeta-loop'.

Actually, it's rather wonderful to see Alanna, and indeed, Equinox - aka Canadian teenage Miiyabin - thrilled to bits at being with the JLU. After a couple of decades in which superhero books seemed embarrassed by themselves, it's great to see characters embracing the goodness and thinking more of the fun than the sacrifices. Hawkman's death - for however long it lasts - hasn't put anyone off, it's inspired; even the previously grumpy Supergirl is smiling at the prospect of a new adventure.

Jeff Lemire's script gets off to a cracking start with J'onn J'onn's hilarious Martian version of an old Earth proverb and things jog along nicely to the end. The whitago plotline is cleaned up a little too quickly, perhaps, but it does re-introduce us to Mii's grandmother in a new role - Supergran! 

It turns out that she's also a protector of Canada (or Canadia, as my chums on the Panel Culture podcast have it), and Lemire would be missing an opportunity were he not to have her fill in for Equinox on occasion. Senior superheroes are always fun.

The only off-moment is this reaction from starlet-turned-superhero Stargirl.

Yeah, right.

Oh, and is 'Ever cool' a Canadian thing? Both Mii and (apparently middle-aged) best pal Heather say it. And it's ever annoying.

Timothy Green II (there's a Freddie Williams II, too, is a II different somehow from a Jr?) draws this issue, and while I like the sense of heroic whimsy he conveys, some of the figurework is a tad goofy - Supergirl and Stargirl, for example, have pipecleaner legs, and many of the 'standing around' poses are awkward. it's a shame inker Joe Silver, who looks to have talent, didn't correct as he went along, as a hint to Green (whose work I generally enjoy a lot). 

If Green is officially replacing the tremendous Mike McKone - who's represented here by that beaut of a cover - I hope he gets to redesign Alanna's costume, which is bonkers similar to that of Equinox. The always excellent colour artist Jeromy Cox could at least change one of the colour schemes, 

Hey ho, these are minor things in a series that continues to delight. And next time, in the Annual, we get the Legion. What can I say but Long Live the Legion - and Justice League United.

Wytches #1 review

It's a new beginning for Lucy and Charlie Rooks and daughter Sailor. A horrific event has made Sailor an outcast, so the family have moved far away, to a house in the woods. Sailor's first day at school is marked by a potential friend asking the question she feared:

And things just get worse from there.

Hallowe'en comes early with this tale of dark enchantment for adults. It begins with a mother imprisoned in a tree and ends with a father in despair. In between, writer Scott Snyder and artist Jock begin spinning a web of dread, one with echoes of Shirley Jackson but fired by their own imagination and craft.

I've gone light on the recap because the pacing and atmosphere are integral to the success of Wytches, and the creators should be left to tell the story at their own pace. There are surprises. There are shocks. There's a school bully so scary she's almost a parody, but we're seeing her through the veil of Sailor's memory, so perhaps she wasn't actually a cavewoman.

Eerie events are all very well, but if we don't care about the people to whom they're happening, the work won't, well, work. Happily, Snyder's script evokes the warmth within the Rooks family with just a few exchanges, and Jock's figure and background work makes them, and their world, feel real; I especially like the look of parents Charlie (think the dad from Calvin and Hobbes) and Lucy (a wheelchair user, but don't call her 'bound'). Matt Hollingsworth's colours help scenes transition smoothly from nightmarish to pastoral and back again, while Clem Robins grounds events with his understated lettering. A shout-out, too, to editor David Brothers for solid wrangling of creatives and the no-doubt numerous ways in which he helped ensure this instalment is such an effective opener.

Wytches makes the woods scary in a way the Blair Witch Project, with its dependence on shakycam and shakier acting, never managed. I don't know how long the series is set to run, but I can't wait to see where the story of the Rooks goes. I hope they're OK.

But I doubt they will be.

Klarion #1 review

Created by Jack Kirby, Klarion is a young warlock from the other dimensional realm of Witch-World. This debut issue sees him travel to a multiversal New York where he gets a job as a cook at the Moody Museum, said to be a haven for wizards on the downlow. Soon he's befriended teenage oddballs Rasp and Zell and using his spells in a fight at the Necropolitan Club. Watching from the edges are competing pairs of manipulators: his bosses, Piper and Noah, and the club's owners, Coal and Necrot, who tempt the young with cyber-drugs.

Or something. I commend writer Ann Nocenti for the dreamlike ease with which her script propels Klarion through the issue, and the air of witty playfulness, but Klarion #1 did leave me rather bemused. Weird people are around every corner, odd things are accepted without question asked or explanation offered. There seems to be a war coming, with possibly neither side being the good guys, and both factions wishing to use Klarion, Rasp and Zell. We are told that Rasp is a descendant of Rasputin, making him difficult to kill, while (Rapun)Zell lives in a tower and has great hair ... subtle this isn't.

What it is, is intriguing. Sure, that's partly to do with the lack of information about a world Nocenti clearly has worked out, but it's also about the artwork. Trevor McCarthy's illustrations in Batwoman were gorgeous; here, they're astonishing, their work promising a world of mystery and wonder. 

Layouts, character designs, backgrounds, executions - 'feast for the eyes doesn't begin to describe it'. And Guy Major's wonderfully well-balanced colours only make things more edible. Check out those cute critters further up! Combine Nocenti's talent for the weird and opaque with McCarthy and Major's own conjuring tricks, add in Pat Brosseu's stylish calligraphy and we could have magic here. If Nocenti dials back the mannered dialogue just a tad, this will become more my kind of comic book. As it is, I'm intrigued enough to give it a few issues.

Oh, and there's a new take on Teekle, Klarion's feline familiar - still adorable, but somewhat, shall we say, changed...

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Batgirl #35 review

It's the first week of Barbara Gordon's new life as a postgrad in Gotham's buzzing Burnside area and it's not going too well. Her bank account is overdrawn, her research funding hasn't come through, she's fallen out with Black Canary and her computer has been stolen.

What's a Batgirl to do but investigate, and the combination of Barbara's eidetic memory and fighting skills has things sorted by page 20 of an issue that feels a lot longer.

The impression is due to the packed script by Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher, brought to visual life by Babs Tarr's art, after the breakdowns of Stewart. Maris Wicks applies appealing colours while the choices of letterer Jared K Fletcher are vital in selling the story. In short order we meet new roommates Frankie and Liz, learn that Barbara is to work on an urban geography project and see her create a new Batgirl costume. The fresh look is necessitated by her old gear going up in smoke in an explosion at Canary's building. 

The outfit is cute, and plausible, but if she's going to be rocking on-trend earrings, she may wish to cover her ears - that mask doesn't exactly hide her face as it is, then there's the red hair, the narrowed area of crimefighting activity and her openness as regards her memory skills. If the new roomies haven't figured things out by the close of this first revamp issue, well, it looks as if someone else has.

There's a fair bit to enjoy here - the detail in the art is tremendous, taking us through the exterior and interior locales of Burnside. Tarr is adept at telling facial expressions, a huge plus. The new characters are sketched in well enough for a first look. Bad guy Riot Black is a good mixture of believable and comic book nonsense, and the way he's taken down is ingenious. Dinah and her phone is a hoot. The pace is excellent, with Babs' low-key questioning of witnesses presented in a smart back and forth manner that adds interest. 

But for a comic that's meant to be a lighter take on Batgirl - just look at that fun cover by Stewart, complete with jaunty new logo - there's a surprisingly sour vibe. Mainly, it's Babs. OK, she's hungover for much of the issue, but my word, she's a grumpy mare, coming across more as a pouty teenager than a supposedly mature 21-year-old. For her, everything seems a chore.

The way she treats Dinah is appalling, Babs is incredibly selfish, moaning about her lost Batgirl gear when Dinah has lost everything she owns and could do with a little emotional support along with the couch.

She's only around for the first page, and pops up in a message later, but Alysia from Gail Simone's run is the only character in here I'd want to have a natter with in campus coffee shop Chiroptera (ha!). Everyone else comes across as a little too slacker, too studenty. And that could be a problem - I hope the emotionally  grounded Alysia is carried over as a regular, as implied by the final issue of Gail Simone's run.

Batgirl's established super-memory is brought into play well, but hopefully won't be as front and centre in future as it is here - when you can remember everything, crimefighting can get a little too easy. Equating this opener to a TV pilot, though, it's understandable that the creators would show us the most impressive trick in Babs' stripped-back armoury.

While the use of social media adds a feeling of modernity, I'm already ready for a break from the constant references to apps and websites, and the in-panel messaging. Then again, Stewart and Fletcher may be suggesting that the real bad guy here is social media - it's likely not an accident that the dating app is Hooq ... everyone is hooked on their phones, like a drug.

Overall, though, I'd say this debut issue works. It sets out its store speedily and with style, putting the new tone front and centre. While the problems I have could be tweaked, they may actually be massive pluses for other readers. Maybe sighing Babs is a perfect reader identification figure for the young American woman of today. Still, next issue will hopefully give us a less 'morning after the night before' Batgirl and things won't feel quite so achingly hip.

The big takeout from this issue is that DC are offering something a bit different, trying to extend the audience. I could easily see the big sisters of the kids loving last week's excellent Gotham Academy - which also had Fletcher co-writing - embracing this book. A more diverse Batman line has to be a good thing, so I hope this new take finds its audience.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Action Comics #35 review

It's two months since Superman defeated Brainiac in the far reaches of space, pushing him into a black hole. He's spent the time since flying back to Earth, the Doomsday virus vanishing as a beard appears. It's not a happy return as a Waynetech satellite on the outskirts of the atmosphere blasts him with a green kryptonite ray - Batman was wary of Superman returning in Doomsday mode.

The falling Superman is caught by his cousin Supergirl, who takes him to the Fortress of Solitude and brings him up to speed on what's happened since he was away. The picture is mixed: supervillains Non, Mongul and the Phantom King are back in the Phantom Zone courtesy of an imploding projector. Sadly, the incident also sucked in super-scientific ally Dr Shay Veritas and Kal's interplanetary zoo. The Bottle City of Kandor, containing thousands of mini-Kryptonians, is also gone.

And 13,612 ordinary people have died as a result of Brainiac's attack on Earth, which put the planet to sleep.

Focusing on the billions of people he, Supergirl and a handful of heroes saved is something of which he isn't capable right now: thousands are dead and his presence on Earth may be partly the cause, having painted a large target on the planet.

A trip to Smallville, the first community put to sleep by Brainiac, provides little reason to celebrate - Lana Lang's parents are among the dead and whatever her intellect tells her, in her heart she's having trouble not blaming Superman. There is some light in the picture, as Lana and John Henry Irons, the hero known as Steel, are an official item, and blossoming.

Superman stops off at Wayne Manor to discuss the green-K ray, and Bruce Wayne is reassured to see his friend is cleansed. It turns out he's been protecting Clark's identity, and he suggests Clark lay low for awhile. 

What Clark does, back in Metropolis, is compose a blog post for his news site entitled Who Needs Superman Anyway? This brings Lois Lane to his door post haste, all guns blazing - how dare he attack Superman publicly? Clark's delighted to see her, despite her anger - and relieved that after her recent bout of Brainiac mental powers, she's forgotten his secret identity.

At a delightfully buzzing Daily Planet, Lois writes a response to Clark's article, showing us that in his absence Metropolis has been well-served, superhero-wise, by Supergirl, Ghost Soldier, J'onn J'onnz, Baku, Krypto and even Metal Zero. We get her own take on the relationship Superman has with the world, and it's one I like.

Then we get a cliffhanger with Lana that's just wonderfully wacky and bodes well for next issue.

The excellent close is just what I needed after an issue that feels more down than up as writer Greg Pak plays fair with an issue labelled Superman: Doomsday [Aftermath]. Of course there would have been a huge death toll, and it makes sense that Superman has been gone awhile. But all that time alone with his thoughts, worrying about Earth, has scarred him mentally. He's happy to see that life goes on back home but is having problems focusing on the positives. And so, he turns against himself, as Clark wonders out loud if Superman should just go.

I wouldn't suggest he has a schizophrenic illness, as happened in the Nineties after he executed Kryptonian criminals and began bashing crooks as Gangbuster. I do think, though, that he needs some counselling; he needs his friends, he needs his family.

Currently said family numbers one: Supergirl. The role Pak assigns Kara is my favourite part of Action Comics #35 - she's stepped up to fill Superman's shoes, managing the post-Doomsday mess. She's pleased to see him, supportive physically and mentally ... it seems our Supergirl is growing up. If only he'd sit down and talk with her - as the last survivor of Argo City she knows about loss. And she likely has her own responses to process. Instead, he pushes her away, imperiously telling her he'll see her in 40 days after the Fortress reboots. Grateful much, Kal?

My second favourite aspect of this instalment is the removal of super-convenient know-all Shay Veritas. I reckon she should stay in the Phantom Zone for 1000 years, then go bother the Legion of Super-Heroes.

I hope Superman's mood lightens soon, because while tragedies are inevitable in a superhero universe, the prevailing mood in a Superman series should be optimism. I do not wish to read about a Superman and Lana who share Lex Luthor's opinion that the Man of Steel is A Bad Thing.

And could someone please, please (I may have said this previously) cutesify Krypto? Seeing this:

... reminded me of this:

If Superman is going to appear in public soon he needs to get rid of the beard, or Clark's friends will get suspicious. For now, the various cast members' reactions make for some much-needed lighter moments.

Mind, that's not the most disturbing image this issue...

Is Jimmy Olsen auditioning for Scooby-Doo Team-Up?

We have two guest artists, Scott Kolins and Vicente Cifuentes, and while their styles aren't especially close - Kolins likes delicacy, Cifuentes a bolder line - both provide strong figurework and intelligent storytelling. There are some great shots of Superman that recall the long-ago Gil Kane run and a Supergirl who truly seems to care as to whether she's living up to her cousin's legend. Clark's Smallville visit is a skilful mix of the bucolic and melancholic, while there's telling passion in the Lois scene. And as for the final page - whoa!   

Usual artist Aaron Kuder provides the classic cover, with colours by regular partner Wil Quintana, who helps maintain the visual continuity of the current run inside with typically sensitive hues. Note, for instance, the lighting in this sunny Smallville scene:

Letterer Carlos M Mangual also deserves a shout-out for sharp work.

Action Comics #35 informs and entertains, but can we have a cheery Superman soon? Please?