Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Gotham By Midnight #1 review

The revolutionary rethinking of the Batman line continues with another new series, following on from the likes of Arkham Manor, Grayson and Gotham Academy, and the revamp of Batgirl. So after the villain comic, the spy comic and the school comic, line editor Mark Doyle brings on the spooky comic.


And very spooky Gotham by Midnight is, with its tale of little girls lost, found and lost again. Julie and Francine Attwood, kidnapped from Gotham Heights, are home, but strange ... distant, speaking in an unknown language. Detectives Jim Corrigan and Lisa Drake investigate, taking along Internal Affairs guy Sgt. Peyton Rook, who's planning to shut down the GCPD Detailed Task force. Will demonstrating what the cops and consultants of Precinct 13 actually do persuade him to change his mind? Maybe ... if he survives.

Gotham by Midnight immediately justifies its slot on the shelves with a Gotham story like no other. The mood is eerie, but not vague - there's a sharpness to the characters and scenario. Ray Fawkes' script sketches them in so efficiently that new players such as Lisa and Rook, forensics man Dr Szandor Tarr, expert '... in these things' Sister Justine and chief Lt Sam Weaver grab the attention as much as the rather more established - 75 years more - Jim Corrigan. The latter's other self, The Spectre, doesn't appear here, but there is darkly amusing evidence of his presence in the shape of a pillar of salt propped up in the squad room. I hope the Spirit of Vengeance doesn't appear often, as a glowing green god makes everyone else pretty redundant - happily, it looks as if Fawkes will play it so Corrigan bids to keep the unpredictable Spectre at bay.

The book's structure is pretty traditional, with the new guy's first day motivating introductions to characters and set-up, and it works well - a straightforward entry into the world before the weirdness really kicks off. And there's a page one 'trailer' pitching the set-up to any TV producers out there wondering if Constantine was the best idea. I'd buy it.

Ben Templesmith's art is a massive boost for this series, making it look like no other Gotham-set book. His full-colour illustrations bring that round-midnight tone; figures are exaggerated just enough to be off - check out the sisters' stick-thin arms - while even suburban homes become as threatening as swamp cabins. One issue in and I can barely imagine anyone else drawing this series, though I fully expect Doyle to have some eminently suitable subs in his Rolodex (Frazer Irving, for example, whose work on the much-missed Xombi has a similar feel).

Gotham By Midnight, while merely skirting the edges of the Batman's world - so far as appearances by the man himself go, a page worth of panels is pretty much it - will hopefully be sampled by the legion of bat-fans. And by anyone else who wants something different from DC Comics, an engrossing drama starring the people who see the world at its scariest, but fight to hang on to their greatest weapons - faith, idealism and a belief in redemption.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Supergirl #36 review

Having recently decided to make the best of life on Earth, Kara is making real efforts to integrate. She's taken a job in a coffee shop, doing her own laundry, getting the shopping and basically trying to fit in. A tough day at work - why are coffee steamers sooo delicate? - isn't helped when cousin Clark drops by with a lecture about getting more training.

Kara, politely, tells him where to get off - after all, she's been mastering her powers, and it's not like he hasn't had control problems of late, what with turning into a death-irradiating Doomsday creature and all. Later, she's wandering home, missing her old friend Siobhan, when she's teleported to another world. There she's ambushed by three superbeings in turn, before being told she's worthy of being trained at the Crucible Academy, school for young heroes.

Well, I know what I'd tell 'em - if a school wants to recruit me, let them do the selling, not the attacking. But, Kara's a calmer, smarter soul than when she first arrived on Earth, as proven when she quickly overcomes her surprise, assesses the situation and thoroughly whomps each assailant, then listens to the headmistress, Preceptor Lys Amata. We readers know Kara's going to be with the school for several issues, but I wouldn't be surprised if she lays down her own terms for staying.

Because returning writer Mike Johnson and new co-writer K Perkins continue the great work of recent author Tony Bedard in giving us a more centred Kara. She's hugely likeable this issue, dealing with Clark firmly and, despite their rather heavy way of introducing themselves, listening to Crucible's eventual sales pitch. She's the adult in her own book, and I like that. I also like that Perkins and Johnson aren't forgetting Silver Banshee Siobhan (who may need Kara, as last we saw there was a demon stalking her). I could do without Clark being an oaf, not giving Kara credit for her growth, but there's nevertheless an understated warmth between the cousins from Krypton - this is how family is, sometimes. I love seeing them hang out outside the coffee shop.

Heck, I heart the cafe full stop. Anyone for a Supergirl: Coffee Adventures in the Eighth Grade book? No? Oh well, at least there's likely something of the flavour of Landry Q Walker and Eric Jones' superb series coming in this run, as Kara mingles with the likes of Maxima, Comet and Tsavo, the senior students who razz her here (they apparently learned their recruitment techniques from Adventure Comics #247).

While the writing team is new, recent regular artist Emanuela Lupacchino sticks around, drawing a wonderful Kara and co. She's tweaked Supergirl slightly, softening her facial expressions and lengthening her hair to match the character Kara has become. The harsh edges are going, replaced by a sophistication. Sharpness, though, is the stock in trade of inker Ray McCarthy, who works well with Lupacchino - whether it's the cutely bearded Clark, the New York scenes, the otherworldly vistas, the character designs for the Academy crew or the refreshingly modest Kryptonian armour - the artists produce inspired work that reflects the inspired script. Letterer Dezi Sienty and colourists Hi-fi similarly acquit themselves rather well.

And I really appreciate Lupacchino's nicely composed cover, strikingly coloured by Dan Brown - too many of this run's covers have seen Kara scowling, or half dead, or bleeding, but here she is, smiling, enjoying the adventure. More please.

I was nervous at the idea of yet another new direction for this series, but quality craft and a smattering of style combined with respect for what's gone before has me very happy indeed. This run is going to be good.

Wonder Woman #36 review

The Justice League gathers when water of tidal wave proportions kills thousands of people in Thailand and Ecuador. Wonder Woman finds Swamp Thing at one of the scenes of devastation and attacks, accusing him of mass murder. When Aquaman counsels calm, Diana explains that she just doesn't know where her head is at...

The new creative team of Meredith and David Finch certainly makes an impression with their first issue. Most immediately, it's the art of penciller David Finch - working with inker Richard Friend and
colourist Sonia Oback - which grabs the attention: the sturdy, not super-sexy Diana established by previous mainstay artist Cliff Chiang is replaced by a mega-curvy, doll-faced creature. The action sequences are confident, reflecting the immense anger of Wonder Woman. And the team gives us fantastic hands and the best Amazon crone ever.


Sadly, Diana comes across as a moron, attacking Swamp Thing when nearby teammates Aquaman and Superman know the man monster, know that he's not going to have committed genocide. Sure, she comes out with the 'so many responsibilities' speech - which does act as a bit of a recap for any new readers - but she may as well have said 'the first issue needed a big fight' for all the sense the encounter makes.

I do like Meredith Finch's handling of Swamp Thing, a patient presence amid a sea of melodrama - he'll take some crap, but only so much, and he's every bit as powerful as Diana. Aquaman, too, comes across as a mature hero.

But Diana? She's regressed from where previous writer Brian Azzarello left her; yes, she had a sea of responsibilities, but she had the solidity of character to deal with them. Here she's worrying about juggling priorities like some wannabe domestic goddess and using them as an excuse to get hysterical, taking out her anger on those who don't deserve it. I can see what Meredith Finch is likely going for - a Diana who eventually shows just how much she can handle - but editors David Pīna and Matt Idelson might have taken the inexperienced comics writer in hand and advised a more subtle approach.

And never mind 'might', they certainly should have taken the proverbial blue pencil to the opening pages, a cod-poetic meditation on water and what it means to us. The idea of showing the devastation of floods and transitioning to Diana isn't terrible, but the narration is obvious and cringeworthy.

The same can be said for some of the dialogue, with the phrase 'vegetative injustice' set to become a meme any moment now. As for Diana clutching the teddy bear found at the scene of tragedy, it's cliched to say the least.

If Diana has too much on her plate, the same can be said of Meredith Finch. Dealing with Wonder Woman's status as a Leaguer, goddess, leader ... it may be too much. One of these areas would be enough to make for an intriguing first issue. I give credit for not simply throwing out the Azzarello/Chiang plotlines, such as the integration of the new male Amazons onto Paradise Island, but going their own way for awhile might have been best for the Finches and the book alike.

Still, it's just the first issue. There are bound to be teething problems. Let's hope they're quickly worked through and this new Wonder Woman run becomes a creative success.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

GUEST POST Constantine #18 review by Colin Smith Part 2

In which the guest blogger continues a look - begun here - at how John Constantine, Hellblazer, is faring in his transition from DC's Vertigo line to the New 52 range.

If Ray Fawkes' script is patently not ready for prime-time, then Jeremy Haun's art is a baffling mix of surface gloss and structural confusion. A creator with a substantial history in the industry, Haun seems inexplicably prone to choices that work directly against the meaning of the story at hand. His unfortunate tendency towards the generic isn't the problem, although the parade of stereotypical body types and, with the exception of Constantine himself, facial expressions is anything but compelling. Even the fact that Haun at times seems to be wilfully ignoring Fawkes' script need not have been entirely fatal to the comic's success, though it can hardly be said to help matters. 

That said, the distance between Fawkes' descriptions and Haun's art can be laughably distracting. Though the text might declare that 'the London skyline ... and all the towers are sitting wrong', the art itself shows no sign of any city whatsoever. (Whatever it might mean to have a skyline that's 'sitting wrong' thereby passes without explanation.) Indeed, Haun's work shows nothing of any of the surrounding environment at all during the fight scenes that make up the majority of the book. Similarly, the artist often seems determined to avoid depicting Constantine's emotions as the text describes. Though the captions on the comic's splash page insist that 'pain' is 'rippling' through Constantine's frame, the art shows the book's title character with an expression that fuses impassiveness with intimidation. It's a degree of confusion that suggests the book was created Marvel-style, or that DC's now infamous process of editorial rewriting is to blame.

But whatever the situation, the fact is that Haun's art often seems to be carrying but a fraction of the weight that it should.

Most bafflingly, Haun constantly chooses the least appropriate page and panel designs. There are more than a few examples of this, and they're often linked to his apparently compulsive use of the page-wide horizontal panel. If the comic's opening and profoundly uninteresting scene of four beer glasses seems particularly poorly drawn, the choice of a letterbox frame to host the lack of action is equally problematic. Squeezing what's essentially a still life featuring tall pint glasses into a narrow close-up using a letterbox frame almost inevitably inspires confusion and tedium. It's a problem made all the worse by the demands of battle scenes. 

On page 3, the same choice of panel is used to depict Constantine's arm being grabbed and crushed by a mysterious, never-explained and soon-to-be-destroyed monstrous attacker. In order to accommodate the action in such a constrained form, Haun's forced to have the top of Constantine's head facing the reader and dominating the eye. The result is that the character's agony is effectively obscured, while the conflict itself is only obtusely shown. (Far more effective to show the creature towering over Constantine, but there's no space to show anything but its arm.) Elsewhere, major events are confined to relatively small frames while secondary matters are given far more space. Haun even seems blithe about ignoring the conventions of camera angles, as where characters suffering terrible pain are inexplicably shown from a low angle, a preference that, confusingly, accentuates their size and strength.

The artist even conspires against himself to unwittingly ensure that the book's climactic scene makes little sense at all. In it, Wotan is to be shown being ripped apart while attempting to use Constantine's body as an escape portal from Earth-2. Inexplicably failing to realise that there might now be several John Constantines on the planet, the fiendish and yet obviously none-too-bright Wotan ends up passing through two bodies instead of one and being torn 'right down the middle'. Confusing in itself, and with more than just the single flaw in its logic, it's a scene that would surely pose a considerable challenge to even the most experienced and able illustrator. Dividing the page vertically into a pair of highly irregular rectangles allows Haun to present two simultaneously occurring events side-by-side, but the page-long frames threaten to leave too little width and far too much depth for clarity. Lost for an angle that would allow him to show characters, action and context clearly, Haun opts for spectacular, yet bewildering, mid-shots. 

For all the dynamic potential of the page's layout, the result is a design that almost entirely obscures the intended cathartic dismemberment of Wotan. Even with the exposition in the captions, the scene lacks the immediacy that a satisfying shock demands. It's a confusion made all the worse by the decision to show the supervillain's undivided head at the bottom of the second frame. What a strange way of being torn in two that must have been, to leave the face so perfectly intact. With effort, the scene can be made to make some kind of sense. But by then, its potential for grim pleasure has long since been exhausted. This ongoing clash between Haun's obvious potential and his persistently counterproductive storytelling leaves the book feeling both perversely underwhelming and exhausting. Combined with Fawkes' script, it makes for a quietly bewildering and thoroughly disappointing experience.

Surely Hellblazer's John Constantine would look upon 'Half A Chance' with as much favour as an all-ages, anger-burying, retro-Balearic dance medley of Anarchy In The UK, White Riot and Smells Like Teen Spirit. If Fawkes and Haun's tale is in any way typical of the book, then Constantine as a Nu52 product was put together with the stupidest of intentions; to skim off a safely insipid simulacrum of Hellblazer's cool while stripping out everything that was edgy, uncomfortable and thought-provoking about the title. At the very least, such a grubbing high concept would require far more competent storytelling in order to mask its fundamental flaws than is on display here. The possibility that John Constantine might be made to work as a grumpy, hipster-for-the-kids take on Doctor Strange hasn't been disproved by Fawkes and Haun's work. But it will take a far smarter reframing of the character than this to truly prosper in today's market, let alone break out to the wider audience that Constantine was seemingly designed to entice.

For four years, Colin Smith's Too Busy Thinking About My Comics provided some of the most thought-provoking and enjoyable writing about comics on the internet, taking in everything from the fundamentals of the Fantastic Four to the question of aliens as second class citizens.  Colin is busy with other projects - a book on Mark Millar due next year and regular writings at Sequart - but the archive remains. Devour it. Wondering what he's making of DC's New 52, I suggested Colin review a random title, and Constantine #18 is it.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

GUEST POST Constantine #18 review by Colin Smith

Why can't the cool be distilled from the challenging, the attitude from the provocation, the pleasurable shiver from the unnervingly taboo, the comfortingly lad-thrilling from the tragic and the confounding? 

Why not John Constantine, super-magician? Skill, a cunning change of genre and a clear sense of purpose can transform even the most unsettling of characters into intrinsically comforting figures. From Cyrano de Bergerac comes Fire Chief CD Bales, from the ruthlessness of pulp-era Batman comes Adam West's joyous interpretation, and even Granny-shocking Johnny Strabler eventually morphs into The Fonz. So, what if John Constantine wasn't, for all his dubiously good intentions and crass charm, a poisonous mess of irresponsibility, faithlessness, self-loathing, impulsiveness and hubris? Why not a heroically tarnished, cursed-but-indomitable hero rather than a repeatedly toxic everybloke? What if we were to ultimately sympathise far more with Constantine than his cannon-fodder victims, and what if his unsettling physical vulnerability was homoeopathically diluted by the clear implication of a superhero's might? 

Taken on its own terms, there's no reason an all-ages Constantine can't be at the very least interesting. He couldn't be the fabulously dangerous and profoundly damaged anti-hero of Moore and Delano and Ennis and their peers, but why can't a kid-friendly, don't-scare-the-horses Constantine be entertaining, and even challenging, in its own right? More has been achieved with a great deal less.

On the evidence of writer Ray Fawkes and artist Jeremy Haun's 'Half A Chance', the problem's not that Constantine's been reframed so much as that he's been bowdlerised. Though the work seems anxious to insist that this Constantine is compellingly tragic and rebellious, he's been stripped of many of his most distinctive and unsettling characteristics. Boy-thrilling self-pity has replaced the conviction of irredeemable guilt, while PC-quips and one-note braggadocio have supplanted the threat of a truly dangerous outlier. Instead of a profoundly unsettling and somewhat contemptible social refusenik, Fawkes and Haun's Constantine has all the carefully emasculated cool of a boy band aimed at the early teen market. 

As such, 'Half A Life' fetishises power and arrogance rather than dissecting their appeal and consequences, flirting with the pretence of defiance and a suggestion of uncomfortable emotions while delivering a securely banal experience. It's a circle that can't be squared. Much of the surface of the old Hellblazer remains, but Constantine's been drained of his old capacity to challenge, amuse and upset.

'Half A Life' is nothing but a by-the-numbers, humourless, issue-long set-to between Constantine and his mystical enemies, and the more the comic tries in its over-serious, dead-hearted and wisecracking way to pretend otherwise, the more obvious it becomes.

For all that Constantine remains positioned as a sneering counterweight to the superheroes of the DCU, he's clearly now little more than a costumed crimefighter himself. With his deflection charms, duelling magik and defensive chants, he's far more the heroic brawler than the would-be-Machiavellian, out-of-his-depth troublemaker. So clearly does Constantine now fit with the superhero tradition that his once-defining contempt for "costumes" appears ludicrous. (As absurd, in fact, as his Eighties costume of red tie and trenchcoat, which is surely as irrelevant to today's culture as Sherlock Holmes' deerstalker and churchwarden pipe.
 But then, surely a rebooted Constantine for today should be associated with something more daringly contemporary than Seventies English punk?) With little but the lack of Lycra and a remarkably unconvincing English accent to clearly distinguish Constantine from the Nu52's default Dark Age product, the comic's insistence that it really is brave and dark and disconcerting strikes as both pretentious and embarrassing. In truth, its ethics are nothing more nuanced than kill-or-be-killed, while its intellectual ambition extends no further than the mechanics of ripping a super-baddie's body in half. No matter how tastefully dingy the colours of Richard and Tanya Horie, 'Half A Chance' is entirely free from the suspense that it aspires to project. Too glibly grim to escape the memory of Hellblazer's fundamental spirit and purpose, Constantine seems to be constantly drawing attention to its own inadequacies.

Yet if the premise of the strip is barely baked, its execution is frequently woeful. Trying not to offend while striving to maintain Constantine's belligerent cool results in some truly appalling, if undeniably treasurable, dialogue from Fawkes. Amongst a number of jostling examples, perhaps the most remarkable involves Constantine's attempted putdown of the one-note supervillain Wotan:

'It's like listening to a goose caught in a car engine. Honk honk bloody honk all day and all night.'

Honk honk bloody honk indeed.

Displaying a similar aptitude for accents, Fawkes channels the laughable faux-Cockney of Dick Van Dyke's Bert from Mary Poppins with a splutter of inexplicably dropped 'H's and cries of 'Oi!' from his supposedly British cast. That he sets his bar scenes in Liverpool only underlines how Fawkes' version of the London accent is as inappropriate as it's inept. (My favourite stab at working class speech from Fawkes is 'rounding the bend over thirty', a fantastically unconvincing way of expressing the aging process in cod-proletarian.) 

That exclusively tin ear for character and speech shouldn't, however, be allowed to obscure the more fundamental problems with Fawkes' work. With whatever passes as foreshadowing proving thin and obtuse, the comic's conflict depends on the piling up of one deus ex māchinā after another. Since the reader can't possibly predict how Constantine will eventually thwart Wotan's assault, it's impossible to care about a sequence of plot beats that appear largely without warning and pass without impressing. It's as if the fact that Wotan will end up torn in two, as DC's obsession with asinine body-horror appears to insist, can compensate for the longueurs of the interminable preceding face-off.

Regrettably, neither Constantine nor Wotan are lent anything of depth to complement their desire to do away with one another. This is all about pontificating blokes fighting to the death and little else at all. (An attempt to introduce a sprinkling of emotion in the scenes featuring Constantine's alt-Earth doppelganger flounders in excruciating dialogue and confusing scripting.) With his taste for would-be poetic captions - 'The air is screaming. It seems to relinquish itself to the ground in whirling heat...' - penchant for enervatingly decompressed pacing, and habit of failing to explain key plot points such as the end of Earth 2 and Constantine's grotesque attackers, Fawkes' script defies involvement. Bad things happen, and then more bad things happen, and then the badder bad guy meets a terrible end before the story, as it has to, judders to a close.

To be concluded ... here

For four years, Colin Smith's Too Busy Thinking About My Comics provided some of the most thought-provoking and enjoyable writing about comics on the internet, taking in everything from the fundamentals of the Fantastic Four to the question of aliens as second class citizens.  Colin is busy with other projects - a book on Mark Millar due next year and regular writings at Sequart - but the archive remains. Devour it. Wondering what he's making of DC's New 52, I suggested Colin review a random title, and Constantine #18 is it.

Captain America and the Mighty Avengers #1 review

There's a new Captain America in town. The Falcon has assumed the role and while Steve Rogers grapples with unexpected old age, Sam Wilson grapples with his shield, working out the best way to use it against New York's criminals.

What he isn't grappling with is his morality; he's sure that treating the bad guys badly is justified. If someone gets crippled along the way, well, they'll think twice before acting against society again.

At the Gem Theatre, the Mighty Avengers are transforming themselves into a regular Hero Hotline, ready to battle supervillains but just as ready to help someone change a tyre or fill in a job application. What leader Luke Cage isn't ready to do is forgive Spider-Man, when he comes to apologise for the things 'he' did when Doctor Octopus was in control. Luke's perspective is that, evicted from his own body or not, Spidey let Ock in, allowing him to threaten Luke's baby daughter Danielle.

Flamboyant not-especially-super-villain The Plunderer turns up at the offices of shady businessman Jason Quantrell just as he's trying to persuade his board that bedding down with bad guys is good for business. The Plunderer isn't in Quantrell's Rolodex, but he is in his face, determined to steal lots of money - to help orphans. Thing is, though, he's been spotted by a pigeon, which brings master of birds FalCap running, sorry, flying in through the window. He kicks the crap out Plunderer's henchmen, gives their leader a good, hard slap, and leaves, advising Quantrell not to bother getting them medical help.

The only help Quantrell plans to get, though, is from Luke Cage - has the former Power Man been tempted by big bucks when he's supposedly committed to helping the little guy?

And at Avengers Tower, we learn that FalCap has a vision for the Mighty Avengers.

Well, there has to be some in-story reason for him to get top billing in this relaunch. In our world, this second volume of Al Ewing's entertainingly excellent, sadly overlooked Mighty Avengers is getting a new name and first issue to tie in with the publicity around Sam's 'promotion' - quote marks because I'd rather the Falcon be his own good self than the latest in a long line of faux Caps.

Still, if the move sees Mighty Avengers get an upward sales blip, I'm all for it. Certainly the tie-in to the Avengers/X-Men Axis series, with the lines between some of the good and bad guys suddenly iffy, generates an interesting new direction that might grab some new punters. I'd love more people to try this book and see what an Avengers series can be - a tremendous blend of individuated players, imaginative action and continuity that enhances rather than strangles. If the last run is the exemplar, there'll be no 200-part stories kicking off, rather, it'll be individually satisfying one, two and three-parters that build to a very satisfying whole.

Every bit as good as Ewing's character work is his plotting, with events beautifully paced. The page with Spidey begging Luke for forgiveness, for example, is a classic Peter Parker moment, all the more treasurable for being outside his own series.

That sequence is also a fine showcase for new regular artist Luke Ross, who makes every page look mighty good. It's funny that while FalCap (is that irritating yet? I expect so, sorry) is the purported star, the Plunderer steals the show and that's down to Ross's art as much as Ewing's bonhomie-filled dialogue. Heck, the Plunderer actually looks sexy! Maybe after the Axis business is done he'll join the side of the angels properly and sign up with the Mighty Avengers - at the very least, Luke's movie theatre-owning pal DW Griffith will appreciate the swashbuckling.

Every page is impressive, as Ross give us a great-looking Big Apple populated by real-seeming people. His compositions make FalCap's flying scenes soar, while the more down to earth angles ground the quieter moments nicely. He even populates the Gem Theatre with film posters. I can't wait to see how he draws the Avengers not properly seen this time - White Tiger, Power Man, She Hulk, Kaluu, Blue Marvel and Spectrum. Superbly, I expect.

'Superb' is also the word to describe the colour art of Rachelle Rosenberg, who models people as well as anyone I've seen. She blends tones with real intelligence and style throughout, and I hope she's signed to this series.

Ross looks to have coloured his own cover art and it is, to say the least, a strong design, well executed. More please. But less of that logo, which is a monumental stinker, the big 'A' splitting viewer focus and inviting us to read the words in the wrong order.

There's a new character in this issue (either that, or my memory of her has vanished with the Reality Reboot of the Week), Soraya Khorasani. I'm thinking she's a neighbourhood woman rather than a hero-in-waiting, but either way I'm thrilled by the diversity she represents...

... she's wearing glasses! When was the last time an Avenger actually needed specs for vision correction? Never. So keep her around, Ewing.

If you like solid superheroics with 21st-century bite, try this book. You won't regret it.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Batman #36 review

The Justice League members have been Jokerised. Ingenuity and gadgets have seen Batman take out Wonder Woman, the Flash and Aquaman, and there's a plan in place for Cyborg, but Superman, he's another matter. As this second part of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's Endgame story opens, Batman is fighting for his life. Under the thrall of the Joker, Superman's self-imposed limits are turned off - he could easily kill his best friend.

But Batman has a thing or two tucked up his utility belt. I won't spoil the surprises, but it's safe to say that both main weapons play into DC continuity - and one of them is fun. I'm not sure of the wisdom of announcing what he has, and how it works, but this Superman is more than a tad addled of head, so perhaps Batman is trying to get him in closer for his closing gambit.

And it's a good thing Batman evacuated this area of the city last issue, otherwise ... oops.

With the Leaguers recovering in hospital, it's up to Batman and aides Alfred and Julia Pennyworth to work out how the Joker got to the League, and what his next move might be. Soon, Batman is treading the corridors of the recently ruined Arkham Asylum, where he meets a man who only wants to help ...

Snyder and Capullo really are cooking with Joker gas here, delivering a big, daft, wonderful Batman vs Superman scene, followed by a warm, family war council and closing with a creepy bit of business that ratchets things up several notches. They reconcile the haunted Batman of their run with the balls-busting Bat God of the Justice League, making it apparent they really are the same guy. And they continue to show that a Batman who is as much man as bat - in the internal narration it's always 'Bruce' - is far more interesting than a perpetual motion Batman machine. 

Plus, Best. Alfred. Ever. And if Julia doesn't continue hanging around the cave, I'll be sorely disappointed - she's capable, questioning and is that rare thing, a woman in Gotham who manages not to desire Bruce without (ahem) batting for the other side.

The art, as ever, is gorgeous. Capullo's storytelling is exemplary, always complementing the script rather than repeating it. His compositions simply work, and whether he's going in for close-ups, or showing us something from a distance, the craft is the same; there's no skimping. Danny Miki sharpens and focuses the linework, while whether it's dark or daytime, FCO Plascencia dazzles with his box of colours - shadowed shapes for a scary Superman, murky greens for an underwater scene, reds for an especially intense exchange and natural tones when Superman takes Batman up, up in the sky. I know some people loved the monochrome Batman tales of the early 2000s, but I prefer a changing palette to echo the story beats. There's art, too, in the fontwork of Steve Wands, one of the finest letterers around - giving the best example, though, would mean spoiling something, so I shall pass.

As well as the 22-page Endgame chapter, this issue features an 8pp supplementary strip in which an escaped Arkham patient tells her story. Housewife Cordelia had it all, until the day she realised something was wrong with her perfect husband. Onetime Batman penciller Graham Nolan declares himself well and truly back from the wilds of newspaper stripping with a stylish, intelligent piece that mines all the drama in James Tynion IV's cracking script. 

The Joker - or rather, a Joker - appears and it's one of the best depictions I've seen this side of the New 52, honouring the great Dick Sprang and splendidly in context. There's nice work, too, from colour man Gregory Wright and letterer Taylor Esposito.

Superman is frightening and formidable on the cover by Capullo, Miki and Plascencia. Take away the blood - which is gross and unnecessary, and a modern cliche where the Superman Family is concerned - and it'd be perfect.

DC had planned to charge $4.99 for this issue, and the series going forward; Snyder persuaded the bigwigs to keep the book at its regular dollar-lighter price point. And for my money, that makes this issue of absorbing Gotham drama the bargain on the week.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore (Scribe, £20)

I knew Dr William Moulton Marston, creator of Wonder Woman, was one of the men whose researches led to the lie detector. I knew he had an interesting domestic arrangement. I knew he had a definite thing for tying up women. What could this book teach me, a lifelong fan of DC Comics' Amazing Amazon?

A huge amount, as it happens - and so much of it fascinating. Jill Lepore has spent years poring over not just the published history of the superheroine, but the private papers of Marston, his family, colleagues and rivals. She tracked down survivors and interviewed them for their memories, leading to a decidedly academic (70 pages of footnotes!), yet hugely readable, book. 

While Wonder Woman made her comics debut in 1941's All-Star Comics #8, her origins can be traced back three decades earlier, to the beginnings of America's Women's Movement and the battle for equal civil and reproductive rights, when Marston was an impressionable young man at Harvard. He loved the Classics, psychology, the law and women - smart, beautiful, women. Is it any wonder that when invited to come up with a female counterpart to the super-successful Superman, Wonder Woman should embody his interests?

Forget Lynda Carter's admittedly excellent Seventies TV version, the Wonder Woman of comics' Golden Age was a very different beast, her strips packed with deception, mind games, gender wars and the notion that women should rule the world ('Women have twice the emotional development, the ability for love, than man has,' Marston argued). Oh, and bondage. 

The incredible volume of chains and shackles artist HG Peter was required to draw echoed the imagery of the proto-Women's Movement, but also spoke to Marston's kinkiness. And his stubborn refusal to tone things down eventually got the strip into trouble with society's censors. 

Lepore lays out just how much Marston was influenced by wife Elizabeth Holloway, legally trained but unable to find a decent law job due to contemporary attitudes, and Marston's former psychology student and polygamous wife Olive Byrne, whose mother and aunt were huge figures in the women's movement. He had two children by each woman and everyone lived together happily, though Olive's sons grew up being told their father had died, and Olive was usually introduced to strangers as the sister-in-law. 

It's ironic that a man who loved to attach party guests to his personal polygraph should have a family life built on lies. And they didn't advertise the Age of Aquarius love cult whose acolytes included Marston, Margaret, Olive and one Marjorie Wilkes Huntley, occasional houseguest and mistress. 

More than a treat for comic fans, Lepore's superb book is for anyone interested in the social history of America in the early 20th century. It's a secret history that deserves to be known. 

Friday, 7 November 2014

Patricia Briggs' Mercy Thompson: Hopcross Jilly #1 review

When were-coyote Mercy Thompson and the wolf pack led by husband Adam find human remains in the desert, they summon the police. These aren't night dwellers who hide in the shadows - the were-community is out to their friends and neighbours. The sheriff is suspicious, wondering if it's a case of the beast people hiding their crime in plain sight, but soon realises he's barking up the proverbial wrong tree, and his officers get on with searching the site. More skeletons are found, filling everyone with horror. 

Are the bodies linked to the reclusive elderly lady/'mean old crone' who lived nearby, who supposedly died a year back?

While Mercy - a mechanic by day - wrestles with the mystery, stepdaughter Jesse is thrilled to have made a new friend at school, her status as the local werewolves' kid having hit her chances of popularity. 

Jesse's prominence gives this comic instant Young Adult appeal, but Mercy and Adam are in their thirties, widening the potential audience for Dynamite's mini-series based on Patricia Briggs' fantasy novel series. Characters and basic situations are skilfully laid out by co-writer Rik Hoskin, allowing us to quickly settle into the mystery. And as a fan of Criminal Minds and other grisly, smart procedurals, it's one with immediate appeal to me. The dialogue is naturalistic (well, as naturalistic as you can hope for in a world of supernatural beings) without being dull, and the situations intriguing. I want to know more about Mercy and her family, and while I admit to a quick Wiki session, I know I'm going to enjoy learning much more by simply following the series. 

Tom Garcia draws convincing critters, I'd not want to meet his were-creatures on a moonlit night, even if Mercy is more likely to cuddle than savage me. I like looking at 'em, though, despite their habit of chasing cute wee animals. His people are great, too - characters don't simply display the immediate emotion of the text, there's nuance in the expressions. And the all-important landscapes, both rural and suburban, similarly convince, with the colours of Mohan helping hugely. As for 'Hopcross Jilly' ... brrrrrrr. 

I cannot wait to meet her properly. 

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Superman Unchained #9 review

An alien armada is fast approaching Earth, one so powerful there may be only thing that could stop them - the death of Superman. Lex Luthor has given the Man of Steel a vial of solar fuel which, when injected in the vicinity of the invasion force, will make him explode with unimaginable power.

Batman and Wonder Woman are desperate to help, but there's no time. Lois Lane wants Superman to not rush off, there may be another way.

But there isn't.

Scott Snyder wraps up his Superman Unchained novel with great style as we see that this isn't simply a Superman story, it's his statement on the character. We view Superman through the eyes of Lois, of Lex, of his friends, and while all have insight, it's what the man himself does that shows who he is. No one wants to lose their own life, but worse for Superman is the prospect of killing others - even enemies. We see how deep his reverence for life goes with a staggered flashback to his Smallville childhood and an incident with odious neighbour Jed Colder. But to save Earth's billions, Superman will face that terrible choice, even if it betrays the man he wishes to be, the man he's always been.

This issue is all about light, both as tool and metaphor. It's light that is key to beating the extraterrestrials. It's light that gives Lex an insight into who Superman is at heart. And it's light that is the best parallel for what Superman is, a beacon of inspiration. The exchanges between Lex and Lois sizzle as perhaps the two most important characters in the mythos - the defining love and the defining foe - discuss the man each believes they know best.

Great as the Lois/Lex interaction is, the absolute best moment in this book is the page preceding Superman's suicide mission.

Just beautiful. The New 52 revamp may have seen Superman and Lois dating other people, but if this issue isn't a statement by DC that the romance remains core to the characters, and will reassert itself, nothing is.

Heck, not only is this scene written by the writer of DC's biggest-selling book, Batman, it's pencilled by the co-publisher. Jim Lee turns in some excellent pages, shining both in the big, splashy action scenes and the more focused drama of the character moments. And a full-page illo of Superman flying off towards space - with a clever narrative juxtaposition - is simply gorgeous, for which we should also thank inker Scott Williams and colourist Alex Sinclair.

We're also treated to some very different, but differently superb and equally appropriate, art in the flashback scenes. Illustrator Dustin Nguyen and colourist John Kalisz eschew the superheroic clarity of Lee and Williams for a more impressionistic approach, a place where memory meets nightmare. Perfect.

The book ends with another wonderful conversation between Superman and Lois, though this time he's in Clark mode. Snyder gets playful with one of the accusations thrown at Superman, without over-egging the pudding. And then there's the final page, which will have every Superman fan grinning inanely, as the John Williams theme wells up in their head.

I realise this was a special project, but I shall be truly disappointed if Snyder doesn't eventually take on an ongoing Superman title; he has a fine handle on the character, and is unashamed in his love and admiration for him. And I cannot wait to see more of his take on Lois, Lex, Jimmy and Perry, and how he'd approach the likes of Lana and Krypto (someone needs to save that so-called-dog from his current status as weird sabre-toothed tiger thing).

For now, though, I have a terrific tale of Superman to enjoy again and again.