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Scott Carney: The year’s most highly anticipated book–Batman #17–danced its way onto shop shelves, into our bags, and into our hands; and with every page turn, the story stumbles, trips and tumbles, and falls–along with the intolerably loquacious and ultimately uninspired Joker–from that lofty height of over-hyped expectations into a chasm of mediocrity–into a downright forgettable yawn. You know exactly what I mean. This stunningly inconsequential storyline–with a title that serves only to describe metaphorically what has befallen the Batfamily–delivers a punchline so impotent that I’m left wondering whether or not I will bother with the next arc; and, to be honest, the decision may not be very hard at all: the promise of more Harper Row has me thinking, No. What is it about this issue, in particular, that has left me even less than lukewarm about where’s Scott Snyder’s headed with Gotham’s grim guardian? Well, let’s start at the beginning. Snyder kicks things off by sloughing subtlety–because the Joker ain’t subtle, son–and serving up an overly vomitous villain, which may be a simple send-up of the blathering bad guy or may be a misstep, allowing the Joker’s words to speak much louder than his actions, which amount to pretty much nothing–unless, of course, you count the Joker’s failed attempts to kill the Batfamily as a success because the Batkids, after recovering from their harrowing ordeal (during a real gassy meal!), make transparent excuses not to meet with Batdad. Ugh! That’s right: in the end–which is also where it seems the Joker wanted it the whole time, if we’re to buy the unnecessary homoerotic insinuations, anyway, all implying, and insultingly so, that the psychotic killer’s insanity is somehow tied to his crush on the Caped Crusader–what’s the big change that was promised from the beginning? When all is said and, well, said, is the Joker any different? I guess we’ll find out when he makes his inevitable return, eh? Is Batman any different? Was he tested anew? Not really. Did he have to solve a mystery or do anything clever to overcome insurmountable odds? No. But one thing–one thing!–is different: Dick, Tim, Jason, and Barbara have been infected with an acute case of moroseness, perhaps a side effect of–ahem–hahnium poisoning. Yeah. Hilarious. Sure, the last page is cute, but it’s also pretty telling: as the story laughs its way to the final panel, it’s clear that the joke, friends, is on us.

Batman #17

Batman #17

Derek Mainhart: That’s a bold statement. My reaction was perhaps both less visceral and more at the same time. Less, because I didn’t hate this conclusion. This issue certainly had any number of cop-outs: after the Joker spent the previous few issues amping up the atrocities to truly absurd levels, why in the world wouldn’t he go the distance now? Twice? And good lord, how many times is this character going to fall off a high ledge? Having said that, even with the eventual cop-out, in those first few pages Snyder builds up a palpable tension. And then he delivers a genuine jolt. In a mainstream superhero comic, chronicling a multimillion dollar franchise no less, that’s no small thing. It was enough to remind me why I like Snyder to begin with. And enough to hope that he’ll rekindle the ol’ Bat-magic soon.

SC: All that said, I can’t wait for my American Vampire trades!

DM: Right. There actually were some good books this week so let’s get the rest of the dreck out of the way. My Book of the Weak: Uncanny X-Men #1 (Marvel NOW!). The plot: there’s a group of mutants with unheard of power levels posing a threat to humanity. Cyclops, a messianic zealot, is their leader. Someone very close to Cyclops is set to betray him. Sound familiar? It should. I’ve just described the plot of Avengers Vs. X-Men, easily the worst book of 2012. Looks like the powers that be aren’t done abusing Cyclops yet. But wait! Maybe this is about his redemption! Doubtful. And considering how Bendis and Co. have woefully mishandled the character up until now, I’m not sticking around to find out. Chris Bachalo’s art is great tho’.

Uncanny X-Men #1

Uncanny X-Men #1

SC: I’m not as down on it as you are. But that’s not saying much. I understand–and agree–with your point about its parallel to the abysmal AvX and Bendis’s epic mishandling of Cyclops. I also didn’t care for the fact that the first issue’s framed by this rather sudden betrayal angle. Why not build toward it a bit, for goodness sake? And the reveal at the end? That was an Ugh moment for me, not unlike–but not as apocalyptic as–the end of Superior Spider-Man #1. Hmm. An ironic turncoat? Whatever. That being said, I’m going to ignore all of that and pick up number two. Why? I don’t know. Well, I guess I know: I think, it’s, in part, because I can’t conceive of a world in which I’m not picking up a single X-book. (As it is, I’m already living in a world in which I’m picking up one–only one of the billion Avengers books; and it’s one without Captain America, for crying out loud!) Another part: this is called my not learning my lesson: I’m giving into the siren song that is Bachalo’s artwork. Yes, I remember what happened with Wolverine and the X-Men. He fell off the book after I got hooked; and it took me twenty-plus issues to realize I had been rooked. We’ll see what happens. But for now, I’m calling this a trial run.

DM: While we’re on the topic of “dangerous undesirables,” there is a book out this week that skillfully tackles one of our country’s most hot-button issues: illegal immigration. The threat of deportation, onerous paths to citizenship, official corruption, placing a greater value on certain immigrants over others; all these are handled with a deft hand therein. What’s that you say? Joe Sacco must have a new book? Or perhaps Gene Luen Yang? Nope, it’s Popeye #10 (IDW):

-Popeye #10

That’s right; Popeye. Here’s the scoop: Toar, a behemoth of a man and good friend of our favorite sailor-man, is being threatened by an unnamed government agency that strongly suggests the Dept. of Homeland Security. In order to stay in the good ol’ U.S. of A. Toar must prove he possesses a valuable skill that no other American has. Panicked, and none too bright, he blurts out “TOAR ONLY FELLA WHO KIN BEAT POPEYE IN FIGHT!!”. A rare gift indeed. The government agent in charge of his case fairly salivates over “the potential military applications” of Toar’s boast. Sound a little too heavy-handed (pun intended) for a Popeye comic? Fear not! Writer Roger Langridge has been working wonders with this title, and this installment has all the jokes, antics, roughhousing and romantic misunderstandings (via Olive Oyl) any Popeye fan could want, all in a scant fifteen pages. His light touch seamlessly interweaves the social with the shenanigans. And Vince Musacchia’s retro stylings keep the tone at a safe, 1930′s remove. Most satisfyingly, although Toar is clearly the sympathetic character here, Langridge refuses to be one-sided in the debate. In fact, it is ultimately the viewpoint of the government agent, unsavory though he most certainly is, that carries the day. There are some forces, it seems, even Popeye can’t vanquish.

A bunch of ruffians fighting against menacing global powers though they’re desperately outmatched? That’s Archer and Armstrong‘s bag baby!

Archer & Armstrong #7

Archer & Armstrong #7

Archer, a recently un-brainwashed religious militant, and Armstrong, an immortal lout, have teamed up to save the world from…nothing. That is, an ancient secret sect (aren’t they all) called the Null that has been working for centuries to return reality to the mathematical purity of nothingness. Issue 7 (Valiant) finds that our heroes have been joined (or thrown together more like) by the Eternal Warrior, who happens to be Armstrong’s straight-arrow (pun intended) killing machine of a brother, who’s also a bit of a pill. These two take sibling rivalry to mythic proportions. Rounding out our group is a Geomancer, a sort of earth-goddess-wizard-type. In a delicious twist, the latest incarnation of the Geomancer is a young corporate shill, the type that would be at home as a talking head on Fox News, who’s chosen by Mother Nature (a monkey, natch) for her excellent P.R. skills. Fred Van Lente’s whip-smart writing riffs on a wide swath of sources, both pop cultural and historical: the Anti-Life Equation from Jack Kirby’s New Gods, the Matrix films, ancient Roman history, Archimedean mathematics and World War II espionage, among others. For all its erudite underpinnings, the book maintains a breezy tone, ably abetted by the crisp artwork of Emanuela Lupacchino and Guillermo Ortego. Van Lente’s writing is the star here though, equal parts Grant Morrison, Larry Gonick and Mad Magazine, as he gleefully skirts the line between high adventure and high satire.

SC: Umm, I liked it, too. And, wouldn’t you know, for all of those exact same reasons.

DM: Interesting Factoid Dept.: Both Archer and Armstrong #7 and Comedian #5 make use of the old We, white man?” joke in the same week.

But there the similarities end. If you want to talk similarities however, it has been fascinating to concurrently read Comedian (DC) and Fury: My War Gone By (Marvel Max). Both books take firmly established characters and place them in the cross-hairs of war and the realpolitik considerations thereof. Comedian would seem the better fit, given Alan Moore’s deliberate infusion of 20th century history into Watchmen (does it need to be said that this was a watershed series at this point?). Nick Fury, on the other hand, carries decades of comic book baggage. And while his origins are tried-and-true war comics, his character has become so diluted and utilitarian over the years that I can’t even tell what he looks like in the Marvel U anymore (classic cigar-chomper or head-shaven Samuel Jackson?). Well, trust Garth Ennis to remedy that. Ennis, simply put, is the best writer of war comics around. (Hey there’s a reason this book was #9 on our Top Ten of 2012). This series, with appropriately visceral visuals by Goran Parlov, puts Nick right in the middle of some of the most nefarious military imbroglios of the last sixty-some years, from the Bay of Pigs to Vietnam. The intrigue abounds as Nick is placed in situation after impossible situation due to sordid behind-the-scenes machinations that he knows all too well, but has little influence over. As such, an appropriate fatalistic air hangs over the series. In fact in the latest issue, (in which our suspension of disbelief is unfortunately tested by the inclusion of the Punisher doing his best Rambo impression) Ennis suggests that Fury wouldn’t change things even if he could. As he descends upon his target, a Vietnamese commander, we’re left wondering who the “bad guy” really is. And if, in Fury’s world, such questions aren’t strictly academic.

SC: Wasn’t my favorite issue of Fury, probably because it was more of a shoot-’em-up this time around. Oh, and because of one of the more awkward time-collapse transitions–signaled more arrogantly than cleverly by Fury’s “No time to f___ around”–I’ve experienced of late. (Sneaky suspicion: a page or two had to be lost in the final edit, and chopping this scene seemed the safest bet.) I do appreciate, however, the fact that Ennis drives home the point–especially in the two scenes with the smug Pug McCuskey–that Fury’s true nemesis isn’t to be found on foreign shores at all. In those scenes specifically, the real war–a war of words reminiscent of Othello–is waged; and, for now, anyway, Shirley DeFabio and Fury are left on the losing side. No matter: as long as Ennis forges ahead with this book, we’re all winners.

DM: For the Comedian,¬†questions of morality don’t even exist. In issue 5 Brian Azzarello and J.G. Jones go straight into the Heart of Darkness. Again, the setting is the Vietnam War. As events spiral out of control, the Comedian takes matters into his own deadly hands. As he does, he bluntly explains the rationale behind his actions. It is a belief system that will support any violence, excuse any atrocity done in its name. It’s easy to imagine something similar going through the minds of soldiers of any stripe, in any conflict, as they perpetrate acts of gross inhumanity. It is simple and it is chilling. And the Comedian makes the Punisher look like a saint.

The whole Before Watchmen franchise has been largely, and justly, maligned. The titles suffer most from a quivering fealty to the source material (much as the movie did) that results in highlighting the most superficial aspects of the original, thus rendering the unique, cliche. But Comedian is the exception. Azzarello and Jones have crafted a book that can stand on its own. And a damn good one at that.

But the best war comic being produced these days is undoubtedly Battlefields¬†(Dynamite)- again, by Garth Ennis (surprise!). Issue 4 begins a new arc entitled The Fall and Rise of Anna Kharkova, in which Ennis returns to the title character, a WWII female Russian fighter pilot (from a previous arc, The Night Witches) and one of his most winning creations. This issue presents the Fall as Anna’s plane is brought down behind German lines. She is taken prisoner, but due to circumstances that Ennis skillfully explains, she is being cared for by Chris Cohen, a medic, a British officer, and a Jew. This issue is largely a character study of the two, taking place in a single room during Anna’s long convalescence. Ennis’ writing is wonderful as the characters get to know each other; one could almost imagine this as a one-act play. He suggests the passage of time merely through tonal shifts in the dialogue. His immense knowledge of history is on full display, but never overwhelms. And then there is the dialogue itself: natural, revealing, funny, angry, human. The tragic Russian and the reserved Brit do occasionally talk like avatars of their respective cultures and historical circumstance. But wouldn’t war naturally engender such conversations amongst its combatants? (Kudos must also be given to Russ Braun: no harder task in comics than drawing pages and pages of two characters talking to each other in the same room.) Given the ending, I suspect we’re going to see a bit more Fall for Anna next issue before her Rise.

Battlefields #4

Battlefields #4

Dare I Hope? Dept.: With Ennis, along with Azzarello, producing such stellar work, could we be witnessing a Renaissance of that classic genre, the war comic?

From Night Witches to real witches: Fatale #12¬†(Image). I’ve simply run out of superlatives to describe this book. Would you care to take a shot?

SC: A shot? Heh. You motif monger! In this case, how about a stab?

Fatale #12

Fatale #12

Of all the books this week, nothing stands out more than Fatale #12–and not just because of Sean Phillips’ gorgeous cover. Yeah, it’s becoming a bit of a routine now: read Fatale, write about Fatale and name Fatale Book of the Week and then, eventually, Book of the Month. You’d think we’ve been paid to praise it! (Disclaimer: we haven’t been paid to praise it–not that we’d be against such an arrangement.) This time around, Ed Brubaker and the aforementioned Mr. Phillips cement their status as the hands-down Masters of the One Shot. I mean, it’s no secret: #11 was our Book of the Month for January and a stunning example of single-issue storytelling. While that storytelling skill is on full display in this issue as well, the creators take a bit of a risk here: they break from Josephine’s journey and jump across the ocean and back in time to 1286 A.D. Our heroine, Mathilda’s got what Josephine’s got: a mojo she can’t quite explain and that men can’t resist. Bearing this cross, she’s branded a witch and suffers for it–suffers but never dies. She meets Ganix, a kindly old cyclops–one actually worth caring about!–who cares for her, who fights for her, and who ends up suffering for her. Mathilda races to save Ganix and embraces her power over men as she descends upon those who have “come to drag the demon witch away.” Sure, she takes them all down–just as we expected her to; but Brubaker’s better than that: he knows what we’re expecting–because he’s made us expect it! Instead, we’re left with a Wow!, which is exactly what we want to walk away with after the final panel–which is exactly what we expect from Brubaker, a writer at the very top of his game. So, to make it official: Book of the Week.

Turning pages,

Derek & Scott