Tuesday, May 31, 2005

BATMAN #640

Ya know, it's getting to the point where I don't really care if it's really Jason Todd or not. (And, unlike what Brubaker is doing over in Captain America, we have no real reason to doubt here.) This was a lot of fun.

The Red Hood-and-Onyx interaction felt a lot like some of the better Nightwing-and-partner teamups, Red Hood's being so reckless and confident that it comes across as planned action and his enjoying himself so thoroughly is completely out of the Dick Grayson playbook. (Actually, considering where Dick has been for the last year or so, it is far superior.) Onyx's reaction played well, too -- she's completely at sea with regards to her position with Batman and not really a part of his cult of personality, so she might as well tag along.

Judd Winick does not have the strongest reputation when it comes to concocting villains -- or, in the case of Green Arrow, rescuing villains from a richly deserved obscurity. But Red Hood, thus far, is cheerfully, giddily morally ambiguous and is setting up to present a complicated network of problems for Batman. Is in fact already presenting problems both tactical and epistemological.

Is Red Hood a criminal looking to make his job easier by eliminating the competition? Or is he a Punisher-like vigilante who sees no DO NOT CROSS line on the way to wreaking justice?

Either answer is only part of the solution. If Red Hood is indeed Jason, how did he get undead? Why is he back now? And what will Bruce do if his personal martyr is not only not dead, but is also operating by a code of ethics Batman cannot accept?

Jason Todd was a selfish, annoying, arrogant, and troubled young man whose redemption and value came only after his death. Bruce doesn't remember him as the kid who tried to steal hubcaps off the Batmobile or who possibly killed a criminal -- he is the Good Soldier and the glass case with his costume is a reliquary as much as a reminder. The dissonance between who Jason really was (and who he looks to be now) and who Batman remembers him as is not a little one; it is a chasm that cannot be bridged easily.

If Winick pulls this off, I may forgive him a bit for Outsiders. (He's gonna have to trudge around in the snow at Canossa a lot longer for what he's done in GA.)

ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN #640

We've known for a while who Ruin is (or at least we've had a pretty strong and unrefuted suspicion), so the point of this issue is less about the shock value than how the suspicion is made fact.

Lois Lane -- as investigative journalist, as Clark Kent's wife, as Superman's girlfriend -- is a natural vehicle. She is close enough personally that she has all the pieces, but her professionalism gives her a little bit of distance so that she can assess the facts even as she holds back on reporting the results for his sake.

Lois guides this issue, her thoughts and assessments taking up the greater half of an issue carefully and cleverly running along parallel tracks. The single sequential panels along the bottom of the page are the linear narrative of events -- Clark visiting Lana, talking to Pete, then visiting Jimmy and finding out about Ruin's attack on Steel; Lois's day in the newsroom; Jimmy's return to action. That's the actual story.

The top register gives us a multimedia presentation, Lois's monologue boxes commenting on what we can see through photographs, scrapbooks, cameraphones, video, newsprint, television, and magazines. Lois is explaining what the events depicted mean, but in the story below, Clark is reacting to them. The top register shows us taped video footage of Ruin attacking Steel and the bottom has Clark at the hospital talking to Jimmy when he hears that confrontation and runs off to meet it.

And then you realize (if you hadn't already) that the top register is not strictly contemporary with the events in the linear story below; it is not (just) a cute narrative trick or a Brother I sort of comment on the possibility of omniscience through technology, nor is it the sort of literal parallelism that goes on over in Superman/Batman. Clark's storyline on the bottom register is of events as they happen; Lois's storyline up top is an ex post facto analysis as she tries to make sense of why and how her husband's best buddy from childhood could turn into his nemesis. The multiformatted evidence may have coincided with the events of the linear story (Clark's story), but that was a well-constructed coincidence by Greg Rucka abetted by Karl Kerschl, whose last-page depiction of Superman's reaction shot (on the cover of the Daily Planet) makes the issue work -- we knew Ruin was Pete Ross, but Clark Kent didn't.

Rumors going around about the nature of the Infinite Crisis say that this is not the end of the story, but the very beginning. And certain parts of Lois's monologue present themselves as pointed and ironic harbingers to bear those rumors out. I like the ideas and, so far, how they've been put into motion. My initial comparison point to the Ruin-is-Pete Ross storyline was the sadly disappointing Hush arc over in Batman, but this is so far quite superior (if not as pretty) and if Pete Ross's evil turn is just as obviously manufactured as Tommy Elliot's, then Rucka and company are doing the smart thing and not focusing on it.

Monday, May 30, 2005

DC SPECIAL: THE RETURN OF DONNA TROY

Back during Graduation Day, when Donna Troy and Lilith were killed off, the predominant emotional response was annoyance and not sadness. Not only because it was a weak story, but also because Judd Winick didn't even bother to really "kill" Donna -- she was reborn before the book even ended. Getting her back was a "when", not an "if", and it seemed like a pointless exercise even within the context of the hamster wheel of superhero rebirths. It certainly didn't help that Outsiders, the book that replaced Titans, turned out to be so unimpressive.

To this genealogy we now add DC Special: the Return of Donna Troy and ask the same question for the third time: She died for this?

OMAC PROJECT #2

If it weren't for one niggling detail, I'd probably have burbled happily and without complaint at this issue. As it is, Greg Rucka will just have to settle for the happy burbling. OMAC Project #2 works not only as an explanation and exploration of the story begun in Countdown to Infinite Crisis, but also as a logical consequence of Identity Crisis, which is far more rare and appreciated.

Back when IdC came out, readers were probably more up in arms over the mind wiping of Batman than the murders of Sue Dibny and Jack Drake. Sure, you can knock off a few secondary characters and lobotomize a bad guy, but screw with Batman's memories? How could the JLA do it and how could Batman not know about it? Or if he did know about it, how could he let the League continue in the face of such a breach of hero ethics? It was the retcon that didn't convince, far more so than the rape of Sue or anything else that came out of that story.

In this issue, however, Rucka gives Brad Meltzer's story a helping hand by building directly upon that weak link and thereby making it solid. He explains that Batman did know about the mental tampering and he did respond. The world still needed the JLA, but that didn't mean he wasn't going to let them slide on their reprehensible actions. The JLA had proven itself incapable of acting without supervision, so Batman himself would provide it. This is how to make a retcon work: Batman been the epitome of paranoia and arrogance as well as eerily omniscient the last several years (as a writerly convention, usually a sign of laziness on the scribe's part) and now we know why. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Brother I.

OUTSIDERS #24

I pity the folks who thought that the Insiders was actually a four-part crossover.

The crossing over has been somewhere between cursory and cameo and we're halfway done. And while the end of this issue looked like it might be the start of something, anyone who bought Outsiders #24 on the pretense of it tying in to Teen Titans should feel mildly cheated. Because it really wasn't worth the $2.50 for three pages of the Outsiders embarrassing themselves in front of their younger colleagues at Titans Tower.

This installment was pretty much a mirror image of what happened in Teen Titans #24, except that by following its predecessor, it ends up showing off precisely why Outsiders has been a failure as a title.

Last week, Superboy's beatdown of the Teen Titans was emotionally charged because he was assaulting the people who meant the most to him. His attacks on his mentors, his girlfriend, and his best friend were brutal not only for the pure damage he was inflicting, but also because they were a betrayal on both the personal and professional level. Cassie, Bart, and Tim knew Superboy from Young Justice, Vic had been an understanding ear in the 'whose body is this anyway' identity crisis, and they were so badly hurt in part because they trusted Kon-El.

The issue-long beatdown of the Outsiders, on the other hand, was not personal. It was the antithesis of personal. It was a group of strangers trapped in a room getting the stuffing knocked out of them by an entity they did not trust or understand. This was not a team -- they did not work together and, in fact, the first thing that they did was turn on each other.

The Outsiders were supposed to be a contrast to the old Titans -- a business relationship instead of a personal one. But they haven't got a glimmer of professionalism about them and they don't have the personal to sustain them in that absence. They were supposed to be the proactive team, the edgy team. They're not edgy (except in that nails-on-a-chalkboard way) and they've been a reactive force for their entire existence.

The Outsiders were founded as a part of a ruse by Deathstroke, have failed in most of their missions, don't get along, don't work well together, and have at least one traitor (sure, I was giddily wrong about Shift, but if you take Indigo's transformation as sudden and unplanned, that's still someone else sabotaging the team unless she had two sleeper programs running simultaneously)... why are they still a team? If their driving impetus was the death of Donna, well Donna's coming back. We can stop now.

Friday, May 27, 2005

JLA CLASSIFIED #7

Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, this would have been a review basking in the power of the last third of the issue.

But it's not. Instead, it's life imitating art imitating life imitating art and my brain short-circuited somewhere between my optic nerves and the part that processes emotional response.

This story has been more complicated reading than it was ever intended to be because it's beer-and-giggles with some very recently deceased characters and involves a running gag that coincides painfully with a plot point from the story of one of those characters' murder. Laughing along at the Sue-Dibny's-not-pregnant routine may give some an uncomfortableness, although I've never been troubled after that initial wince and double-take. Watching Booster Gold and Blue Beetle do their Two Stooges routine is still bittersweet and will be moreso once they get back and Max Lord is back in the picture. But, again, it's not really that hard to forget that Beetle's just been killed. The story hasn't been quite as good as its predecessor, but it's still been very, very funny and you can laugh hard enough to stay in this alternate world without too much effort.

The dissonance kicks in when we're asked to cry for a character. We've seen Ralph fall apart after Sue's death and, if you've read OMAC Project #2, you've seen Booster react to Beetle's, but we've had to put those deaths out of our minds to enjoy I Can't Believe It's Not the Justice League. That delicate balance gets upset with the introduction of the Ice-as-Eurydice theme. I can't pretend two other deaths didn't happen so I can feel fresh sadness for this one.

It's difficult to watch Guy's (really, really well done) sudden transformation from supremely smug jerk to achingly vulnerable man, to see him clutching Tora and begging for her to come back to him, and not see Ralph with Sue's body. Or to watch Bea's reactions and not imagine that that's how Booster would behave. And that bleed between the 'real' DCU and this special little place of light and happiness lessens the impact of what happens. Although it's still powerful, it should have been a gut-punch hard enough to bring up your last meal and it wasn't. At least not for me; I knew Tora wasn't coming back and it was a matter of when, not if she was lost to them again.

I've never really hidden my dislike of Guy Gardner, but I have enjoyed his role in this series and especially in this issue. Even before Ice showed up, Guy was so smug and bullying in really clever ways -- not a dumb ox, but one of those rare, despicable intelligent bullies who knows precisely where to stick the needle in and just how far to jab and how far away to stand so that you can't hit back. He's walked the talk in perfect step and you're just in awe of how such intelligence is getting wasted by concentrating on picking on lesser minds.

BIRDS OF PREY #82

Bottom line right at the top: A far cry better than last issue, but still draggy.

We're still following two separate storylines, both set an unspecified amount of time after Helena stormed off the Bird of Prey (does the plane have a name?). On the one, Dinah and Ted Grant are reenacting some of Hong Kong's finest action flicks and on the other, Helena is essaying Robert DiNiro. There's the minor echo of the Brainiac!Babs storyline, about which I now have great fear that it ties in to the Outsiders/Teen Titans crossover the Insiders.

The Cat & Canary storyline was the more successful of the two main arcs, although not as successful as the animated version that Simone wrote for Justice League Unlimited. The stylized Then-and-Now repeating of Dinah's narrative concerning Ted was elegantly done and Simone didn't hammer home the Dinah-as-Ted's-Favorite-Niece angle as hard as she last issue. While the respect remained, the awe got toned down a bit because it was restricted to the circular narrative trick and the end result was that Ted was companion and colleague this time. Overall, Dinah was quick in thought as well as fists and came across as both clever and impulsive -- much more like she was once the young woman who frustrated her mother and ran off on adventures with Ollie Queen and less like she was once the little girl who idolized the JSA. Obviously she was both, but too much focus on the latter makes it easy to forget how accomplished Dinah is in her own right.

I was not wild about the Helena storyline. Reunited with Savant and Creote, the former of whom has yet to really show me anything other than Marty Stu potential, Helena is pulling a corporate takeover of Gotham's crime families. The dialogue felt a little stilted, like perhaps Simone was trying to work the 'respect for your elders' echo from the other story a little too hard, and Joe Bennett's art was no help whatsoever. Helena is a Barbie doll, her cute little outfit perfect and her facial expressions unchanged throughout. She's not serious or nervous or intense or angry or anything noticeable. I griped about Ed Benes's cheesecake art on what is supposed to be a grrrl power title, but at least Benes didn't have plastic people.

GREEN LANTERN #1

Well, we always knew Hal liked 'em young, blonde, and eager to fly.

Between the Coast City: the Land that Time Forgot setting somewhere in central California on one side and the blandly perfect Hal on the other, I come away with the belief that while Geoff Johns has an interesting and richly developed sense of who Hal Jordan was, he does not have a very good idea of who Hal is today or who he will be in the future. Hal hasn't been assimilated into the contemporary DCU; he's been defrosted from his suspended animation and dropped into a DCU that is apparently calling out for a hero of his qualifications. *cue Bonnie Tyler*

Thursday, May 26, 2005

CAPTAIN AMERICA #6

And thus concludes Out of Time, Ed Brubaker's first arc of Captain America.

I ran hot and cold on this arc as it came out, not really liking how Steve Rogers was developing as a man or how Captain America was coming along as a hero. But it was a lot stronger -- not to mention smoother -- on the re-read.

The first time around, the scope and magnitude of Cap's troubles weren't immediately discernable because it was the start of the series and the parameters weren't defined; we were not quite sure what qualified as 'normal', so anything out of the ordinary didn't register as such. Steve Rogers started this series in a new home, in a new situation, in new relationships with old acquiantances and Brubaker's take on the character wasn't established. There is so much baggage to choose from, it took time for the memories of events from World War II to start feeling different to us than, say, anything that came out of the Avengers Disassembled story or the end of the previous volume of Captain America.

Now, six issues in, we have a better sense of what's off-kilter in Cap's head because we have a better idea of what Brubaker sees as his world. And it's not a terribly cheerful place. We started the series with Rogers getting a talking-to from Sharon Carter about his recent activities, including the deaths of terrorists he'd foiled, and a peek into a very lonely existence. The issues have been absolutely action-packed and you almost get the sense that it's a relief for the man behind the shield because it means that he doesn't have to go home and hang out in a converted warehouse protected by holograms and space-age tech security. And be alone with those thoughts and those memories, even with the ones that are real. Brubaker has given us a Captain America who is haunted and a man who is not much more than a repository of memories and the inhuman flesh behind an institution that cannot falter or fail. There's a Batman quality to him, intentionally or not -- Steve Rogers has been largely sacrificed to feed Captain America.

Other characters... rereading the arc gave me time to appreciate just how lovely Brubaker's Nick Fury is. Fury at his best is a bastard with a soul, a man who will make the hard choice without hesitation but with a conscience (that he'll keep bound and gagged until it's not a problem). It's hard to nail that balance, to capture Fury's rightful confidence without veering into boastful arrogance or cold diffidence. Brubaker's got it just right. Sharon Carter has never done anything for me -- she's a generic tough blonde with a heart of gold underneath -- and Brubaker's not given her much to do other than listen to Fury and Cap talk, cluck at Cap, and get clocked on the head.

Sharon's still girl-hostage in this issue, but the rest was more exciting. The use of the cosmic cube by Alex Luzin to maneuver Cap into bearing witness to the destruction in Philly would have had a stronger impact with me if I understood the cube better than as some god-level toy vaguely analogous to a Green Lantern ring, but it was certainly properly clever villain activity. Especially with the jealous Neal Tapper as the trigger. The realizations on Cap's part of his having been manipulated -- both currently by the cube and in the past because he'd forgotten what he now believed to be true -- was also kinda neat and foreboding.

And, finally, the matter of a certain dead sidekick. Apparently I'm the only one not getting my knickers in a twist about Maybe-Bucky. Because I don't think it's him and I'm not quite sure why everyone else does. My reaction to the 'revelation' of the Winter Soldier as Bucky was pretty much the same as when Jeph Loeb tried to convince us Jason Todd was back from the dead during the Hush storyline: yeah, right. [And, yes, I know what Judd Winick is writing over in Batman.] Now I may end up having to confess to being wrong later on, but here's my reasoning:

(1) This is the Marvel Universe, which specializes in clones of various stripes. Most everyone knows of Maddie Pryor as Jean Grey's clone, of Ben Reilly as Peter Parker's, and some of us remember Lorna Dane thinking the robotic clone of Magneto was her father. Heck, at the end of the previous volume of Captain America, Steve Rogers bedded a life model decoy of Diamondback without realizing that it wasn't the real thing and this volume started with the reminder that Red Skull was basically a clone of Cap himself.

In a universe with LMDs, every X-Man having an evil twin somewhere, and an oversupply of mad geneticists, when someone shows up looking like someone else... why does anyone assume they're the genuine article? If this were the DCU, I'd say get worried because where Marvel does clones, DC does re-animation. But this is Marvel.

(2) There was this interview Brubaker did way back when we were all still going "Brubaker at Marvel?" and this was the part I remembered (enough to go back and dig up the interview):
NEWSARAMA: And you’ve promised a twist ending…

EB: Yeah – there’s something coming up that will – I hope – catch people off guard. But – something that’s almost funny is that I’ve seen some speculation that, thanks to the cover that Steve drew, that Bucky coming back is the big twist.

NRAMA: So it’s not…?

EB: Would I be telling you if it was? No – that’s not the twist. Why bring Bucky back and ruin everything I said earlier about the tragedy of the character? Bucky’s dead, sorry.

But still, there’s a twist at the end. Trust me, there’s a twist.
Whether Brubaker was yanking our chain then or he's yanking it now, somewhere out on the loony side of the country there's a funnybook writer who is mirthfully watching the fanboys explode.

Postscript, because it would be a shame not to mention it at all: Steve Epting's art. No flashbacks, so no Michael Lark, but Epting did (and has done) a great job.

Out of Time has been solicited as a hardback for late July. I don't know when the trade paperback will be released.

Monday, May 23, 2005

ULTIMATE X-MEN #59

The story itself isn't much. Logan's off in Canada brawling for fun and profit and perhaps to find out some more about his past while Ororo, on her own journey to find the peace within herself that has been missing since Henry's death, has gone to look for him. Weapon X is out to retrieve Logan and their agent turns out to have a past with Ororo. Pretty straightforward and straight out of several core-universe X-books. Nonetheless, it's cheerfully entertaining in the way all unoriginally-plotted buddy road flicks are and the second half of the arc promises to be the same. Who needs angst when most of the combatants have retractable claws?

TEEN TITANS #24

The problem with crossovers is that the story rarely matches up with the time and space in which it's supposed to be told. If there's too much story, you end up with an abrupt ending so that each title can go back to its own microverse. If there's not enough story, you get stretches of painfully decompressed storytelling.

The first part of The Insiders falls into the latter category. It's six pages of story spread over twenty-two pages of funnybook. What saves the issue is that the six pages of story are largely worth it.

Ever since Geoff Johns warmed the cockles of a certain segment of the Smallville-watching population by revealing that Superboy's genetic template is comprised of equal parts Superman and Lex Luthor, we've known that this storyline was coming. Nature versus nurture isn't as simple when you're a former lab experiment.

HAWKMAN #40

I'm not sure what annoyed me most about this issue.

Was it the way Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray managed to lose all but the most dedicated Hawkphiles with their continued muddled exploration of (even more muddled) Hawk continuity while they simultaneously ignored all of present-time DCU goings on? (Except for a pointless reference to Identity Crisis.)

Was it the way this decision to ignore contemporary DCU happenings utterly failed to take advantage of the fact that the best thing to happen to this title's sagging sales -- Rann/Thanagar War -- started up last week?

Or was it just that it was predictable and unoriginal... the way, sadly, that most of the P&G run has been?

Sunday, May 22, 2005

EX MACHINA #11

Fortune favors the bold, but randomness certainly favors Ex Machina this month.

For better or for worse, this felt like a filler issue. Mostly for worse and that, for this title, is saying a lot. Gone is the tightness and brisk pace, nowhere is the complicated network of plot threads, and the Mayor Hundred who shows up has a moment of... extreme emotional diarrhea, which on the one hand is completely understandable considering the context, but on the other hand seemed too histrionic for who Brian Vaughan has established Hundred to be, too rehearsed and too wordy. Mitchell Hundred has won countless verbal battles, even on close-cutting issues, and to see him lose it in front of a fortune teller? I know Vaughan prefers the didn't-see-it-coming approach, but... *shrugs* Not to my taste.

Part of my dislike of the issue is that not only does it feel divorced from all that has come before it, but that it also feels separated from Vaughan's sense of Mitchell Hundred's governance. Is fortune telling illegal? Yes, it is -- by the very statute referenced (and dollars to knishes that Vaughan cut out this article and saved it for reference). But it's such a non-issue that building a story around it feels especially pointless. And I say this as someone who twice a workday passes a woman parked on the sidewalk in a lawn chair with a crystal ball on a TV tray while her assistant hands out flyers.

Quality-of-life law enforcement, a part of the Broken Windows policy of the Rudolf Giuliani administration, annoyed everyone until it started working. But there was a purpose to it that everyone could see -- getting rid of squeegee guys, nailing drivers for triple-parking, rousting the homeless out of the subway, curtailing jaywalking (okay, so that failed miserably) and fining folks for drinking booze in public all had an effect because they were all actually things we knew shouldn't be going on anyway. Fortune telling is not in the same class. Persecuting it is too rinky-dink to pass the believability test and Vaughan's (Hundred's) logic fails to convince me -- as it should fail to convince anyone, even those who have never been to New York. It may have been acceptable story-making as far as getting Hundred to a place where he could angst, but it was poor governing and that is a fatal flaw in this title because Vaughan has put so much effort and interest into getting it right.

Tony Harris's art is ever lovely, though.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

NIGHTWING #108

Right. So obviously my cautiously accepting reaction last month was just residual numbness from Chuck Dixon's run. Because this issue hurt my brain.

Specifically, particulars of the plot. Like, say, Dick Grayson going undercover as Dick Grayson.

Everyone has been calling this the "Nightwing does Donnie Brasco" arc, for fairly obvious reasons. But Donnie Brasco was a lot cleverer than this -- not to mention not being charged with keeping a second set of identities secret.

Tommy Tevis's crew managed to open a newspaper and realize that Dick was Bruce Wayne's adopted son (something that the background check by the Bludhaven PD missed) and Devin Grayson gets credit for acknowledging the improbability of them not knowing. Dick's story of falling out with family and employer worked well enough, too -- he's not even faking the all-at-sea confusion.

But my ability to roll with the scene is being tested by her decision to go with his real name. Even Donnie Brasco wasn't really Donnie Brasco -- that was a fake name. You don't double-cross the mafia and leave your family exposed like that. Especially when part of your descent into depression was caused by the bad guy who knew your civilian identity systematically destroying every element of your personal life. Devin Grayson was anything but subtle in foreshadowing that, having Babs Gordon chastise Dick for being extraordinarily cavalier with his identity, which he was being. (At the time, it had the stretchy feeling of someone going out of character to set up a plot point.)

It doesn't matter that Dick's surviving family pretty much is restricted to Bruce and Bruce can protect himself. Going to work for the mob in order to destroy it puts everyone who was on Blockbuster's list back in danger -- and that list was the justification Dick used to let Tarantula murder Blockbuster. Grayson has always written a Nightwing with self-destructive tendencies -- at his most distraught, his recklessness borders on the suicidal (e.g., Gotham Knights: Transference) but he's never careless with others' safety. This is being extremely careless and, if nothing else, Blockbuster should have taught him that lesson.

Dick using his own name is bad enough in terms of endangering his remaining circle, folks like Amy Rohrbach and her family. But what about the risk of someone drawing the line between Dick Grayson and Nightwing?

In the aforementioned Transference arc (GK 9-12, I believe), Grayson has Dick explain to Tim what sort of repercussions there would be if Bruce were to suddenly up and announce that he was Batman. He details the arrests of not only the costumed crew, but also folks like Leslie and Alfred as well as other consequences. Grayson's Dick knows that one domino sets off dozens more. I'm not sure I can swallow his convenient amnesia here just so that Grayson can drag him through the angst bog some more and then have Batman swoop down and save him.

I can be extremely gracious and say that between his police training and his status as the adopted son of a wealthy eccentric, Dick could have learned martial arts for completely above-board reasons and that's his excuse for the displays of prowess. Dick can lie his way out of that. But. Why on earth would Dick tote along the Nightwing costume? Forget about the obvious concern about it being stored in an insecure place -- and no, I don't think that the costume is what is in the suitcase on the last page. This whole arc is about him not being Nightwing and not feeling worthy of being a hero. If this is supposed to be Dick's search for redemption -- to earn the right to be a good guy and to live up to Batman's expectations of him, why bring along the kevlar-nomex underwear? Even if Devin Grayson wants to forget Dixon's Nightwing: The Target story, where Bruce forbade Dick to use the Nightwing costume while trying to clear himself (as Officer Dick Grayson) of murder, it muddles her storyline.

Monday, May 16, 2005

JSA #73

With Geoff Johns becoming on of DC's busiest writers, JSA has read like the red-headed stepchild, the title he has the least interest in writing when compared to the shiny newness of Teen Titans, Flash, Green Lantern, and everything to do with the Infinite Crisis shebang.

This month, Johns was definitely distracted. The parts of the story that involved the actual JSA were short, illogical, and mean. The bulk of the issue was spent with secondary characters whose real function was to move plots that lead into the Infinite Crisis prequels. If I were the JSA, I'd feel dirty and used right about now. Not to mention cranky at the paucity of good storylines.

FABLES #37

The second part of what is promising to be the best Fables arc since Bigby and Snow woke up in the woods and Goldilocks was running around with a shotgun.

I give Bill Willingham a lot of grief. A lot. And he deserves most of it -- what he's doing to the Robin title defies description. But as execrable as that book is, Fables has been consistently great, frequently venturing into the realm of wonderful.

These two issues, this month and last, are set-up issues. Considering that the story is always in motion and there's plenty of action, not much happens on a greater scale -- Blue has left Fabletown to find Little Red Riding Hood (we knew that) and hasn't found her yet, nor does he know where she is or if she's alive or where (or who) the Adversary is. Last issue was the adjustment period -- from the Mundy world to the Fables' -- and this one we got a bit of a glimpse at what Blue is up against. This has to be the first step of an acceleration; this isn't the sort of plot where Willingham can mosey toward the denouement or pull one of his "oh, you thought I was going to tell you this month? Ha!" tricks by bringing the readers up to the precipice of discovery and then going back to Fabletown for an issue.

ASTONISHING X-MEN #10

I'm still going to be disappointed if the Danger Room's avatar doesn't sing "Daisy" at the end of it all....

The fight between the X-Men and the Danger Room was properly lopsided and brutal. It wasn't just a group against a superior being; it was an un-winnable conflict for Our Heroes. The X-Men, as individuals and as a team, are among the best at what they are, but they were so hopelessly outclassed it was a wonder that the fight lasted as long as it did. And Logan, officially the best at what he does, was probably the least help. John Cassaday's lovely-as-always art kept things clear and dynamic even during the puppy-pile panels.
Entire Review Here

Sunday, May 15, 2005

GREEN LANTERN: REBIRTH #6

Hal Jordan's worthiness to step right back in to his old role should not a foregone conclusion. His goodness and heroism is not axiomatic, not after all that he's done, possession or no possession. And Geoff Johns's decision to make Hal's return to virtue a matter of faith -- like transubstantiation, either you believe it or you don't and doubters aren't welcome -- is either poor storytelling or a conscious decision to exclude certain GL fans from the flock. Or both.

Ultimately my greatest problem with Rebirth is that demand of faith, without which the story is far less of a story. It was written by a Hal Jordan fan for Hal Jordan fans and the rest of the reading population is just ancillary because Restored-Hal is not given any useful character development to convince the doubters. Either you remember what Hal used to be like or you hope that Johns will elaborate on Hal's personality once the ongoing series begins because here, within these six issues, we get nothing but a cocky sense of humor and some old jokes. He simply is.

... this review is excerpted because it is featured over at Buzzscope. Click here to read the full review.


Starting this week, a few reviews per week will be appearing on Buzzscope. The Shrew is either selling out or moving up, depending on how you look at it. Buzzscope reviews will be excerpted (no registration is required to read the full versions there), but the rest of the reviews will be here, in full, as always. This week's Buzzscope pile: JSA #73, Fables #37, and Astonishing X-Men #10.

Friday, May 13, 2005

ADAM STRANGE #8

This was probably my least favorite issue of the miniseries, but I'm not going to let the occasionally painful dialogue sour me on what has been a fun ride. Andy Diggle and Pascal Ferry have put together an old-school pulp fiction treat that stands up quite well without being even the slightest part of the PtIC.

Adam Strange started off as a sort of noir in the worst parts of Gotham, Our Hero unshaven and distraught in his grief over Rann's seeming destruction and getting into trouble with the local fuzz as he tries to investigate what nobody else but him believed possible -- that Rann survived. It ended up with interplanetary battles complete with all of the sci-fi grandeur Ferry could produce (and that's a lot; Ferry's art was a definite hightlight of this series). In between, we got cameoes famous and obscure -- including the brave and fierce last stand of the Darkstars -- and some plot twists that kept this from ever sliding into the predictable. In this post-Identity Crisis world, Rann's continued existence couldn't be taken for granted until Rann/Thanagar War was solicited.

Really, my only problem with this final issue was the clunky dialogue -- considering the space setting, it felt like George Lucas had stepped in and guest-authored a few pages. But despite the occasional full stops the dialogue caused, it didn't completely disrupt the momentum any more than did the fact that the final battle was spread over two issues and it took a page or two to get back up to speed once this last installment began. The space fight itself reminded me a bit of Black Hawk Down (the movie, not the book) with the furiousity of the fighting making the individuals characters blur together and the Darkstars standing in for the mortally brave Delta sergeants.

The post-fight action was true to its pulp roots, right down to Adam's inability to hit a dame and Alanna's lack of such qualms after "her man" got dissed. The whole planetary gravitation thing was saved from the silly by the fact that Valkyr's actions doomed Thanagar and the irony worked. All told, Adam Strange emerged out of this series as a far richer character than the odd dude who randomly materialized in DCU books wearing a funny uniform and usually begging for help on Rann's behalf.

So now that we've judged Adam Strange on its own merits and found it worthy, how did it stand up for its real purpose -- i.e., as a lead-in to the Rann/Thanagar War mini? Quite well, for reasons that I will partly keep in reserve until I get to talking about that title. Diggle and Ferry accomplished what had to be their primary goal, which was getting the more casual fan to care about Rann in general and Adam Strange and his family in particular. Some of us were interested at the first mention of Rann and Thanagar having it out, but we're in the most spare minority and tend toward the Hawk fetishists. But now, I think, there is a better appreciation for both sides. And that gives Dave Gibbons a leg up.

OUTSIDERS #23

The problem with this issue wasn't with the issue itself (okay, so mostly not with this issue). It was with the fact that we are two years into Outsiders and Judd Winick has done next to nothing in the way of character development and this is the story arc where it's coming back to bite him in the tuchus.

This should be a tense, fun, fast-paced arc -- last issue we saw proof that the team is build upon a house of cards and that house has been blown down. But it's hard to empathize with the team members as they react to the news of the betrayal when we haven't been given reason to care about them (as people or as part of a team) in the first place. Who out of this bunch do we have enough affection for that we would mourn their deception? Who out of this bunch has Winick allowed us to become vested in? The Outsiders are half veterans and half Winick's creations and the first group has been largely unrecognizable and the latter undeveloped except for stock situations and cheap comic relief. And tentacle porn in the workplace.

Emphasizing this opacity were the interrogation scenes. They were, by far, the weakest points in this issue -- those pages were where Winick could have and should have given us some character development, but none was delivered. Anissa is her usual Daddy's Girl Is All I Am self, while Grace snarls, Dick supports, Jen mopes, and Kory seethes... and neither the reader nor Roy learned anything new about any of them. Winick was lazy here. Grace is his own Mary Sue Sobstory creation and all she did was bully, he wrote Jen for years over in Green Lantern and he didn't even grant her that personality, and Dick and Kory have had teammates betray them enough times before that Roy referencing Terra or Jericho instead of being apologetic wouldn't have looked geekish, certainly not with Deathstroke back in the game. Instead, they were all bland reaction shots of predictable ranges of dismay.

Roy's himself is not much better. In the course of this 'Lockdown', Mister Harper's veering between hard-ass Arsenal, pissed at the betrayal, and everyone's buddy Roy, vaguely embarrassed at accusing his friends, felt off-kilter to me. He wasn't as hard as he needed to be in places and he was too easy in others. Why did he find a special polygraph for Kory, one that he knew would cause problems, but let Dick use a standard one that they both knew he could fool? Why did Grace get the last word in (again) -- Winick has consistently portrayed their interactions as Roy unable to be anything but Grace's toy, but this was one time and place where Roy's experience and anger should have carried the day. He's had a miserable year -- getting shot, having his daughter kidnapped, branded, and possibly assaulted, and then the professional and physical tuchus-kicking by Deathstroke last issue... He shouldn't have felt the need to apologize or negotiate with Grace or anyone else.

As for Roy's actions.. on the one hand, he's not only a lifetime vigilante-type, but he's also a trained federal agent, so doing investigative work and getting access to outside information and toys is not out of the realm of possibility. On the other... Shift has been deemed guilty by circumstantial evidence instead of positive evidence. He could have done any of these things, but there's no evidence that he did except that nobody else could have. Which is not enough to get a conviction in most places.

In hindsight, the revelation of Shift as the traitor wasn't really a surprise. Firstly because this issue is leading into a crossover with Teen Titans featuring bad things coming out of laboratories and the Outsiders needed their rogue bald dude, too. Secondly because there were no other serious candidates but Shift. We knew it wasn't Roy, Kory, or Dick; Anissa has no other function other than to be her father's daughter and they've done enough bad stuff to Black Lightning in the last year-plus; Indigo did the sum total of her evil back in Graduation Day and is still on probation; Grace ending up evil would have been either too trite after her recent revelations... or it would have been too cynical than what we'd expect from Sensitive Man Winick to have her faking her trauma and playing the Outsiders as the gullible saps that they are. But that's in hindsight, so I can't really accuse Winick of being predictable here.

Outsiders has generally been somewhere between meh and turbo-nuclear-Dark Shrew, so even rising to the range of a very flawed okay is something of an achievement to be celebrated. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't great. What was great was fill-in art team Shawn Moll and Kevin Conrad, who are responsible for a solid issue on a title that has gone through pencilers the way Spinal Tap goes through drummers. They also give us probably the sexiest Kory that has been seen in years.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Y - THE LAST MAN #33

Vaughan was obviously trying to get a double word score for referencing Star Trek slash.

The intrigue onboard the barky was entertaining and perhaps more surprising than it should have been considering Vaughan just used the same plot over in Ultimate X-Men (although I suffer through inessential technical details about ships much better in Patrick O'Brian novels than I do in 22-page funnybooks) and Yorick's spectacularly unfortunate taste in women looks to be continuing. Especially if that's who I think it is on the Australian submarine.

The high point of the issue was the human interaction. On one side, the awkward and random pairing of Alison and 355 came to its necessarily miserable end. They came together for wrong reasons and, like the rest of us, will end up making it worse even if they could have made it better. Yorick's reaction was complicated and visceral -- his shock came out initially as wisecracking humor, then settled into confusion and a sense of betrayal and loss and recklessness. In the course of his adventures, Yorick has rarely had a lot of time (or any inclination) to reflect upon his life and the changes in it, which is why his anguish at recollecting his dead friends -- companions by choice instead of necessity -- is all the more real. This overturning of his apple cart is going to take a while to fix and couldn't have come at a worse time -- he trusts the possibly duplicitous captain far more than Alison right now.

By the way, DC is offering several first issues for free (Preacher, Starman, Sandman, etc.) and if you haven't started this series yet, you can start the story here. (PDF file)

SUPERMAN #216

... And here's where the fact that I'm not a huge Superman fan comes into play. There wasn't anything really fatally or frustratingly wrong with this issue apart from a TKO by the Exposition Fairy regarding PtIC, but I found myself unable to read it very closely. I have a fairly long-standing lack of interest in anything to do with the Marvel Family, so a knock-down, drag-out fight between Supes and Captain Marvel really wasn't going to do much for me. Nor, under the circumstances -- that it came out after Day of Vengeance #1 -- should it do much for anyone else. We know the two caped boy scouts can't really hurt each other and we know Eclipso isn't going to stay in Superman very long or jump to Billy Batson -- because we already know Jean Loring is the next Eclipso. So this was a lot of airborne infodumping (look out below!) and a cameo by Shazam and the Spectre, who has been fantastically petty and cranky since losing Hal Jordan.

One bit of exposition that I did like was the Spectre saying that he doesn't have any long-term memory without a host, although I'm not sure it follows that the Spectre will remember that Shazam interrupted him but will forget that it was for a good reason. If you've seen Memento, you know that there's a lot of potential in a character who can't remember who his allies and enemies are. I'm still hoping they make the Spectre go away, but if they keep him around, that aspect could be fun...

FALLEN ANGEL #20

Sic Transit Gloria... for now.

Peter David is apparently hunting around for a new place to park Fallen Angel and I wish him the best of luck. While the series never was made a place either in the DCU or, really, at DC itself, this was a fun ride. It was clever, a little rude, sardonic, slippery, and never quite fitting into any particular box. And that was probably what killed it because most people like to know in advance what they're getting.

Fallen Angel started slowly, enigmatic as its protagonist, Miss Lee. There was a was-she-or-wasn't-she thing going on with whether Lee was in fact Linda Lee Danvers, aka Supergirl. (Between the arrival of the Loeb/Churchill Supergirl series later this year and FA possibly changing companies, I guess we know that answer.) An avenger with a code of ethics pretty much known only to her, Lee assured that she really was the last resort for people who came looking for the Fallen Angel... all while having the best of intentions in her 'day job' as a coach at a high school. She was unpredictable to both friend and foe, angry at the world but furious at God and most hateful to herself. PAD supported her with wonderfully realized cast of characters whose shifting alliances and hidden motives made them entertaining in their own rights.

This final issue, the second part of a two-part story, has most of what made FA fun and featured most of the Bete Noir's most notorious citizens. Sachs and Violens were somewhat gratuitous, but they probably would have been less so if their story arc was greater than two issues. Otherwise, there was Juris's betrayal of his ex-lover Lee, Mariah's touching loyalty to Boxer, the typically goofy ending to the eye-crossing partnership of Lee and Bumper Ruggs, and in the midst of all of Lee's workings with the enemy, the sad dissolution of her 'friendship' with 'Dolph. It wasn't really written as the end of the series, although PAD probably knew by the time it was put together, so there's no concluding tonic chord and plenty of open questions left. Lee knows how to bring Juris down and she also knows that it's possible -- courtesy of what she left at the convent. And, if PAD can finagle it, we'll get to find out if she can pull it off.

The first six issues of FA were put together in a trade paperback, but 7-20 will have to be collected in floppies.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

BATMAN: DARK DETECTIVE #1

There's a trite old maxim: You Can't Go Home Again. And, with most trite old maxims, it's got a germ of truth to it.

I wasn't reading funnybooks when Steve Englehart had his run on Detective Comics. My knowledge of Englehart came much later and from a stack of old Green Lantern Corps issues that featured Kilowog's tour of communist countries and Hal Jordan's no-no-she's-really-legal-now fling with Arisia and plenty of other cracktastic moments of a kind that you just don't see anymore and not just because the editors are a little more sensitive to implications of statutory rape.

Silver St. Cloud is thus a name I knew only by reputation -- an intelligent, passionate woman who knew Bruce's secret and didn't want to live with it. She was the One Who Got Away. And now, courtesy of Englehart and Marshall Rogers, she's back, along with a Batman and a sensibility that haven't been seen since the Reagan administration.

The results are... mixed. It's not nearly as successful as Giffen and DeMatteis's reunion over in Formerly Known as-/I Can't Believe It's Not the Justice League because those two undertook a complete overhaul and updating. But on the other hand, it's nowhere near as dreadful as Chris Claremont's attempts to return to glory days over in the X-Men franchise.

Dark Detective is a throwback story that doesn't throw back far enough. It's unevenly retro, a glossy repainting of a very old house that is being sold as good-as-new even though nobody's updated the plumbing in fifty years. The story feels off because the world -- both ours and Batman's -- has changed in the decades since Strange Apparition but the writing hasn't. Englehart is working from an outdated and outmoded weltanschauung and trying to pass it off as current. You can't simply update the period references and have everything else sit as easily as it did before. Namedropping American Idol doesn't make this a contemporary story any more than throwing a cuirass on Orlando Bloom makes him a Crusader. This still feels more informed by the Cold War than the War on Terror in a way that doesn't seem intentional, just as this is a Gotham curiously untouched by No Man's Land or any of the other disasters.

Nowhere is this dissonance more evident than with Batman himself. Once upon a time, Batman smiling was not common, but also nonthreatening; in 1999's JLA/Titans: The Technis Imperative, Batman's broad grin was a dead giveway that he was an imposter. Englehart is pretending that this isn't the case and that would have been fine if he'd stuck to a slightly AU universe or simply made this a flashback story. You can argue all you want about how Batman has become too grim-and-gritty -- and that's before he got lobotomized in Identity Crisis -- but if you're writing a current-continuity story, you can't ignore the darkening of the character that has gone on post-Crisis. There's still an acceptably broad spectrum of Obsessed and Dour within which writers can work and not end up with a Batman either inhumanly cold or suicidally driven. (Heck, Jeph Loeb finds it all vaguely amusing.) Englehart is outside that spectrum and this Bruce is so comparatively unburdened, I thought he might float away. We all miss pre-Crisis Batman sometimes, but that doesn't mean we're not going to blink when he shows up in what is being billed as an in-continuity tale.

As for the story itself? Once you look past all of the references to modern day, it read like an homage to the original stories of that time. A good copy, but not the real thing. Silver St. Cloud, after all this build-up, is nothing remarkable. We are told, in word and picture, that she and Bruce had a history and that she knows who Batman is. But there's no remembered electricity between them, no old ember, and no real feeling for the storm raging on beneath their calm facades. Bruce disappearing and Batman appearing to save Silver's fiance should have played like a cruel joke for both of them, but instead Silver's a non-entity and Batman's tasting ketchup. The Joker's appearance didn't do much for me because I didn't get half of the in-jokes and because his threats were similar to those in February's Batman: The Man Who Laughs, where they felt more more wickedly done. As I said when I reviewed that story, you really have to do something with the Joker to make his showing up worthwhile. (A similarly time-displaced) Harvey's around, so perhaps the focus will shift. Englehart promised overstuffing and pulp and I'm sure he'll oblige.

Bottom line: If you can ignore the fact that this is supposed to be in continuity, then it's not bad, but, like the presentation of the new DC logo, the fuss is disproportionate to the actual thing. The original Englehart run has been collected in trade and that may end up a better read.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Free Comic Book Day 2005

I had vague intentions of compiling a list of preferred choices of books based on Dorian's and others' suggestions, but, well, I forgot. Thankfully, my choices ended up all matching with his "Get it" ratings.

My initial plan was to go to Midtown Comics because I have an account there and wanted to pick up a few items anyway. But there was a lengthy queue outside on 40th Street when I got there and the fellow I asked about how fast the line was moving was one of those horribly embarrassed types who insisted he wasn't really there for himself, but was waiting for friends already inside. (Which is why he was standing on line to get in....) So I circled around down to Jim Hanley's Universe, which is never quite the pleasant experience it should be because every time I'm there, I have to exchange money with a clerk who refuses to make eye contact with me. The staff at JHU is universally helpful and generally friendly and I have had wonderful transactions with them at other locales. But when I'm at the store, I always seem to wind up with this cashier, who can never be bothered to stop her conversation with her co-worker long enough to pay full attention to me, dropping change or credit card receipt/pen in my general direction without pausing for breath. It's... offputting. (I was at the cashier's station in the first place because I was a good little shrew and did buy something extra on Free Comic Book Day.)

JHU had a station in the back very similar to a carnival booth where you could look, but not touch, the books on display. You got to choose four by pointing them out to the clerk, who wrapped them up for you in plastic and stapled it shut. The Shrew chose...

Superior Showcase: Joel Priddy's Onion Jack story warmed the cockles of my cranky little heart. First, because it was good-humored, clever mockery of everything that is superhero comics without the least trace of bitterness. Second, because it was funny as heck even if you didn't get the jokes about the superhero comics. Third, because the art was so... minimalist. As someone who spent the three years of required art classes in high school spatter-painting and otherwise unintentionally satirizing modern art, this pleased me inordinately. The second story, featuring J Chris Campbell's hero Apple Dumpler, was moderately amusing but was weakened by coming right after the brilliant Onion Jack. The third story, by Zack Soto, I bounced completely off of -- it was sort of Charmed meets Wizard of Oz meets D&D and it didn't appeal... or seem to make much sense.

Owly: Charming kid-friendly story, all pictures and no words and much more effective handling that conceit than most of Marvel's 'Nuff Said issues. Surprisingly intelligent and touching considering the it's about a flightless owl and his worm buddy building a birdbath. I'd have no problem (and decent pride) in handing over an Owly book to friends of mine who have produced ankle-biters; it's something parents can share with their kiddies without going brain-dead from the pap. Sort of how Disney stuff used to be before they got agendas.

Bone Sharps, Cowboys and Thunder Lizards: As someone with a science-type background, I've been meaning to give Jim Ottaviani's stuff a try for a long while; Two-Fisted Science has been on my Amazon wishlist forever. Here I got a chance and I have to say that I'm intrigued, but not completely sold. There are a lot of elements that appeal -- the period detail, the eccentric-not-quirky characters, and that what little science there was (not much) was commensurate with the time and not influenced by our CSI-affected world. The whole package didn't blow me over, but I did like it quite a bit. I strongly suspect that it's the sort of book that I'll look at a few times in the store and then end up buying. (The full book comes out in the fall.)

Adventures of Paul: Autobiographical comics tend not to appeal to me overmuch with the self-absorbed nature of the genre, but this is certainly the high end of the spectrum. Michel Rabagliati is not telling stories of a tortured youth full of angst, but instead he presents vignettes of moments that formed him with a subtler, gentler hand -- parental love, mischief, and loss are portrayed without any sort of self-consciousness or the omniscient narratorial voiceover that explains precisely why this scene is important. The result is that the story is accessible and becomes much broader than one boy growing up in 1970's Montreal.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

VILLAINS UNITED #1

Bottom line right at the top: I liked the concept more than I liked the execution. More precisely, I like the promise of the concept more than I liked how that promise was made.

Villains United requires you to swallow some pretty big bits of gristle to get to the meat. Some of these bits are unavoidable because they come from the DCU-wide drive toward Infinite Crisis and quibbling with them requires taking on the entire house of cards. It's like No Man's Land -- it's a ridiculous concept, but either you suspend belief and accept it or you spend the entire rest of the massive storyline arguing that the basic premise is ridiculous and everything else that follows is therefore impossible.

The purpose of VU is simple: in the wake of the revelations in Identity Crisis (this is what I mean about lying back, thinking of England, and getting on with things), the Secret Society of Supervillains has been recreated. But some folks don't want to play along. The Six are a half-dozen bad guys who have turned down the Society's offer and lived to tell the tale; under the management of the mysterious Mockingbird, they will turn the upcoming fight between good and evil into... something else. Either a triangle or a two-front war -- for the good guys or the bad guys TBD. (*cough*Thunderbolts*cough*)

[Pausing here to provide source material on the Secret Six (go visit Myke's DC Cosmic Teams) for readers.]

The unifying of villains is a great concept in and of itself. Both Ed Brubaker (Sleeper) and Mark Millar (Wanted) are authors who have recently shown how effective bad guys working together can be, far more so than the old Brotherhood of Mutants (because, let's face it, Magneto's teams never got very far). Villains by definition are working without social restraints and, given the same advantages as the hero team, should be more successful because they're not worried about things like collateral damage or oaths not to take human lives. Get someone creative and dangerous to coordinate their efforts -- such supremely selfish individuals would need a firmer guiding hand than the voluntary cooperatives that are the hero teams -- and they should be very close to unstoppable.

The problem is finding someone to play taskmaster. Because no matter how powerful the components are -- and the Society's executive board is extremely powerful -- they're failures on their own and Simone's take on Dr. Psycho is a perfectly good example of why. He's not quite as Hannibel Lecter creepy as he was in his recent appearance in Wonder Woman, but you can certainly get an appreciation of both his power and his madness and therefore see how dangerous he is as well as how easily he can be undone by those very same elements. For all of his intelligence and ability, he is really rather easily distracted -- the rambling rants are funny and ghastly, but they're also proof of why he'd never succeed. He needs others around him to keep him on track.

If the Society has the feel of an employee-owned corporation, the Six isn't quite so cheerful in its sales pitch. More Suicide Squad than Charlie's Angels, while the Society gets its heft from quantity, the Six are allegedly together because they have 'potential' to be far greater than the sum of their parts. And that gets scare quotes because while Deadshot and Cheshire are known quantities, I know practically nil about Scandal, can accept Parademon as the archtype he is, and look at this new Ragdoll and think both and neither of Ragged Robin or the Ragdoll from Starman, but, well... Catman.

The last time we saw Catman was during Brad Meltzer's run on Green Arrow and he was used wonderfully -- a third-rate bad guy who could put up a marginally better fight against Arsenal and GA than an unarmed civilian could have, but not by much. Catman was depicted as a loser too clever for his own good, a guy with a lot of ideas and no ability to carry them out successfully. Meltzer had a jolly time with the badinage on both sides and then Catman went away and all was well.

Here, we have a Catman who has been... transformed. In no way that could possibly be described as unique or interesting or logical. He is now part of the DCU's Doctor Dolittle Brigade and that he's got cats instead of, say, rats or birds or bugs... color me unexcited.

We know we're supposed to pay attention to Catman, but apart from the fact that everyone in the issue is fixated on him like a prized NCAA recruit, there's no compelling reason to do so. The Six are interested becuse the Society is obsessed and the Society is obsessed because he turned them down. But we don't know why he turned them down -- in all the slinging of insults with Talia and Dr. Psycho, we never get a reason -- so it's all a lot of fuss over nothing.

Most of this first issue was, directly or indirectly, about Catman and we still have no sense of who he is or what his motivations are. He's joining the Six to take revenge on the Society for killing his feline friends and he's possibly going to be the key to the heroes figuring out what's up. He doesn't register as either reluctant bad guy drawn back into a world he left behind or reborn nature freak who will destroy the Society's plans out of vengeance for his lost lions or much of anything at all besides a couple of cliches propped up by Dale Eaglesham's strong jawlines. Like Savant over in Simone's Birds of Prey, he's yet another hunky blond independently-minded bad guy blackmailed into working for someone else. I found Savant painfully boring, so I'm not holding my breath here. And that's a problem if Catman is our entry point into the Six.

If you want to throw together a team of heavy hitters and unknowns, that's one thing. A team of known quantities and blank slates works perfectly well. But as I said when talking about turning Maxwell Lord evil -- if you want to sell me a retcon, you have to ground it somewhere in canon. You can't present me with a fait accomplit and not expect me to wonder how it came about. Certainly not when characters in the story are doing the same. Truly obscure characters who haven't appeared anywhere recently or at all -- most of the Six -- don't matter so much. But Catman is still in my memory banks from Archer's Quest. By the end of the issue, I was fairly convinced that not only was the retcon uninteresting, but it was also completely unnecessary. The Catman written by Meltzer would have been perfectly suitable for this storyline and Simone wouldn't have wasted so much time and space trying to turn Prince Adam into He-Man without the power of Grayskull.

Catman's lack of clarity and motivation is a reflection of the book at large. Like Day of Vengeance, VU is a good read and the story hangs together just fine until you start to expect it to make sense under examination. Simone didn't lose a fight to the Exposition Fairy -- given initial velocity from the books and storylines that came before, she dodged it completely. The origin and purpose of the Six is supposed to be opaque, but this would have been a perfect chance to shine some light on the Society. We've now seen countless appearances of the Society across the DCU, but nobody's bothered to tell us why Lex Luthor's joining up with Talia (or where Nyssa is) after she double-crossed him out of LexCorps and Dr. Psycho and Teth Adam -- Deathstroke's becoming the Wolverine of the DCU where he has to be in everyone's book, so he's excused. The why is as important as the what and how and it was nowhere to be found and this is where it should have been found. Even Wanted managed to get a bit more motive worked in and that was an isolated series and not a universe-shifter.

Extra ammo left over:

* There's been some criticism for similarities between this and Millar's Wanted, but I honestly wasn't as reminded of that as I was by Powers with that opening recruitment montage of cameos. There's nothing to screw up here, but I would have been a little happier if Simone had emphasized some of the other benefits of joining the Society other than revenge for/protection from what happened to Dr. Light. If the whole point of the Society is that it's an unprecedented collaboration, its benefit is undercut by the fact that so many bad guys know and care about what happened to Dr. Light at the hands of the JLA. The Teen Titans didn't know about Dr. Light and Batman didn't remember it until recently, so why does every sixth-rate larcenist in spandex know the whole tune? If part of the sales pitch was telling the bad guys, then that would have been perfect and should have been shown. Otherwise, the recruitment scene has a sort of Knute Rockne 'Win One for the Gipper' feel that is just wrong.

* More wrong was the use of Lian Harper as Cheshire's blackmail material. And this is disappointing because Simone did such a fantastic job handling Cheshire with this matter over in BoP. Chesh and Dinah's verbal catfight was fantastic because Simone made Cheshire human. Cheshire is jealous of Dinah's constant contact with Lian, so she aimed her blows low by aiming them at Dinah's relationship with Roy. You want to make Cheshire squirm and earn points for novelty? You don't poison Lian (again) -- you threaten to kill Roy, whom Cheshire still loves. Cheshire knows she's not a fit mother, so she lets Roy raise their daughter because it's safer for Lian; kill Roy and you not only scar Lian and break Cheshire's heart, but you also probably leave the kid in Dinah's custody because Cheshire is still the woman who nuked Quarac and there are plenty of people out to kill her. Also and additionally, the choice of Lian smacks of poor timing -- it's too soon after the execrable arc in Outsiders that saw Lian kidnapped, branded, and left open the possibility of sexual abuse. It was a pointless, worthless storyline, but it was also only a few months ago and so this becomes yet another impugning of Arsenal's ability to protect his daughter and Judd Winick's doing that well enough on his own to not need support.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

LEX LUTHOR: MAN OF STEEL #3

There's a problem when you read the best book of the week first. There's no place to go but downhill.

Now, I haven't actually read anything else from this week's pile yet. So it's technically premature to award a title, but... I really, really liked this. And not just because it contains the best cameo of a comic book creator in a story that I've seen in a long time. (Missed it? Read the rest of the review.)

I was no great fan of Brian Azzarello's Batman. As with his John Constantine, the foundation was solid but something just wasn't quite right and the result was a little off. His Superman was better, at least until the pocket universe plot kicked in. This... this is Azzarello getting it all right the second time around.

I've waxed happily about Azzarello's Lex Luthor -- the brilliant man whose vision is so very much greater than everyone else's, but who still can't see what's right in front of him. Luthor is a dreamer in the most pragmatic ways, a believer instead of a fantasist, a strategist whose building materials are ambition and intellect. He is fearless when it comes to following his ideas to their completion, suffering neither fools nor obstacles and unafraid of the consequences not because he's Lex Luthor and rich men get away with anything, but because he simply doesn't think he will fail. Last issue, we saw him at work at both the Science Spire and his mysterious mermaid. This issue, the project is still protecting the world against Superman -- both intellectually and literally -- and the site of the project's next step is Gotham City.

During his guest stint on Batman, Azzarello thrilled a little too much to the ugliness -- Batman isn't a Vertigo title and it felt like he was writing it as one. This Batman is a far better version, one less inclined to derive joy out of criminals pissing themselves. Lex speaks of the fire in Bruce and you can see it yourself, both in the furious wordless fight between Batman and Superman as well as in the way Bruce handles Lex over lunch. This is no giggly Brucie playing impossibly dumb, this is a Bruce so carefully constructed by Batman that he can pull one over on a man as intelligent as Lex. He is charismatic and ferociously intelligent and yet it doesn't cross Lex's mind that this tangible, overwhelming intensity is focused on something so selfless and selfish all at once. Lex is fascinated by and attracted to Bruce's flame, but he doesn't see where the fire really is. Lex knows he's seeing a mask, but completely misjudges where the pretense ends and the substance begins. And it's almost funny because Lex really does understand Bruce -- he's just hearing the song in the wrong key.

Lex is just as tone-deaf with Superman, too. And this issue just reinforces that. He doesn't quite understand what the lumpen proletariat sees in the Man of Steel and doesn't appreciate that while myths themselves are beyond humanity's grasp, we are usually happy to try asymptotically approaching it just the same. As with Bruce, he sees what he wants to see -- not what everyone else sees. Everything he says to Bruce about Superman regarding how to control the powerful works for himself, too... something Bruce is more likely to recognize than Lex is. Which is why I'm not going to be surprised if what we've got here is an homage to the Jeph Loeb/Greg Rucka (who appears as Chef Gregory on page five) Superman #168/Detective Comics #756 story that had Batman, Superman, and Lois Lane combining to hoodwink President Luthor out of his kryptonite ring.

I've gone the entire review without commenting on Lee Bermejo's stunning artwork. All of you who are going to trample to the store on Saturday for free funnybooks should take a moment to flip through this book to see just how gorgeous it is. (And then buy it, along with its two predecessors.) To revert from all-powerful Shrew to human female for a moment: Bermejo's Bruce Wayne, with his floppy hair and trendy shades and just-too-big nose? Guh! The fight scene radiates strain and effort and those final two pages, with the ravaged face of the unmasked Batman and then Lex's reaction shot, pack a wallop.

LEGION OF SUPER HEROES #5

This latest reboot of the Legion has thus far been a joyous ride, full of sharp dialogue and novel tweaks on characters with almost no missteps and very few "I kinda wish Waid hadn't gone that route" moments.

If there has been a fault, it has been an unnecessary emphasis on the Adults Just Don't Understand theme. Waid's been painting with a very broad brush here and as someone who is now probably closer to the age of the Legionnaire's parents than I am to the Legionnaires themselves, I have an instinctive resentment of the implication that I became rigidly uncreative and conformist once I turned twenty-five. Freedom is not a perquisite of youth and we don't lose our joie de vivre once we start having to pay utility bills and taxes (okay, maybe we do, but you know what I mean). You can write a story about teenagers coming of age and learning responsibility without alienating the grown-up readers and Waid, for all of his clearly adult cleverness in this title, isn't quite pulling it off.

There has to be more to justify yet another reboot of the Legion than just too many viewings of Children of the Corn and perhaps what is frustrating is that Waid has in fact laid the groundwork for it -- the United Planets network is a utopia with a very high price. That the only ones who are mindful of that cost are teenagers bothers me because Big Brother scares grown-ups, too. But instead of as a center of resistance or a collection of concerned parties, Waid has been looking at the Legion headquarters and its everpresent gathering of followers as a sort of Woodstock (1969 version), full of youth hungry for new experiences and the Legionnaires themselves as rock stars -- through Jimi and Janis, we shall see a brighter future. It feels so very... oversimplified. And not just because Jimi and Janis didn't end up actually shaping the future.

There should be a far more sinister overtone to this systemic lassitude created by a necessarily false sense of security -- certainly if all it takes is one bored Coluan to disable the universal tracking system and one enterprising teenaged hacker to piggyback the central database. Waid has given us tastes, but only if you know to read into things. Those panels back in LSH #2 (what's going to be the acronym for this volume?) that had everyone so confused with the two people talking to each other over the network even though they were within arm's reach -- very few readers grasped the significance even after Waid explained things in an interview. Our Legionnaires are protected from the pervasive, invasive Network by Brainy's machinations and it's too easy to forget to appreciate how oppressive such a system is when it is so easy to avoid.

I realize that I have spent the last three paragraphs teeing off on a series that has largely brought me nothing but giddy joy -- I'll take an entire issue of Brainy and Cos snarking at each other. Or Brainy with anyone, really. And I suspect the reason for the outburst is that this issue was the first that didn't knock my socks off. Which isn't to say that I didn't like the issue, but that after four fantastic books, this one... wasn't at that level.

As I've mentioned, I came to the Legion through the Levitz-era material (and largely skipped the post-boot stuff), so I'm not really surprised that the issue to first take the edge off my enthusiasm features Garth and Imra -- nothing slowed a Levitz story like a focus on Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl. While Waid has given them a bit more character (Okay, so Levitz's Garth was so flat he only had a dimension and a half), they still lack the animating spark some of the other characters have gotten -- after what Waid did to (bland, whiny) Cosmic Boy, I had higher hopes.

Instead, after a laughably stock conflict between the well-intentioned-but-slow-and-naive UP Representitives and the reactionary-and-moustache-twirlingly-evil Science Police head and then the Sympathetic Undercover UP Rep, we get further evidence for why Saturn Girl and Lightning Lad will never be as interesting as Phoenix and Cyclops. Mostly because Garth, no matter who writes him, is apparently never going to be an equal partner in that relationship, let alone get to wear the pants once or twice a week. Also, Cyke knows more field commands than "take point!".

There was a lot that made me uncomfy here, hypocrisy that seemed to go unnoticed. The ethical quicksand of Imra's mental manipulation of the little band of fighters got flagged, but never addressed -- and now that the ends seem to have justified the means, I'm not sure it will be. And then came the "do as we say, not as we do" moment. Imra brought up the Legion's own "error" in judgment in not properly serving as a role model; they know at what point sacrificing pragmatism to idealism becomes suicide, but not everyone who follows them does. So, until they correct that failing and send out the proper message, they should do the critical thinking for others without even giving their audience a chance to prove themselves capable of understanding. Before the telepathic tweaking, Garth and Imra lied and withheld information from their followers. Which, if I recall correctly, is precisely what they are rebelling against the UP for doing and what they went to Dream Girl's homeworld of Naltor to undo. The only character within the story to have any qualms about any of this is Brin Londo, whose objections are somewhat undercut by his lone wolf status -- and quick disappearance into the portal while saying something about Projectra.

This issue wasn't all raised hackles, however. The B-plot, featuring Jo (Ultra Boy) and Tasmia (Shadow Lass) -- and is this the first issue where Waid is actually using real names? -- was fun. Jo, introduced in unforgettable fashion back in the Triplicate Girl issue, has his tomcat ways further established (why was he near Tasmia's bed to set it on fire?) but gets a real shot of complexity added with not only his rivalry with Val (Karate Kid), but his fear of vulnerability. And this Tasmia is just grand.

Bottom line: a good, but not great issue so long as you don't look too closely.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

SUPREME POWER #16

Supreme Power frustrates me because it often feels like it's shooting itself in the foot. I love the themes, the delivery, the new take on old archtypes; the dialogue is teeth-crackingly dry and Gary Frank's art is better for the story than anyone Straczynski had working on Rising Stars. (The two worked together on the brilliant Midnight Nation.) So why the lingering bad taste?

As far as I can narrow it down, it's a matter of focus. Each issue of Supreme Power is discrete: there is a beginning, a middle, a climax, an end. But each issue is also part of a larger story that serves to build up the world in which this iteration of Squadron Supreme will eventually stand. And while the individual issues are handling some aspects of that universe-building with great results, the overall picture is harder to grasp than it should be. All trees, no forest. The end result is that you can be happy reading month-to-month, but then you can go pick up the trade paperback, read it through, and wonder how the heck you missed so much of the story. There's a sense of incompleteness at the end of each issue, like music not ending on a tonic chord. (Warren Ellis does this with Planetary, but I'm mostly convinced it's intentional and the rest is the ridiculous delays between issues and, ultimately, Ellis isn't charged with building the Wildstorm universe with one title.)

Complicating matters is Straczynski's terrible habit of relying on spin-off miniseries to flesh out characters important to the plots of the main series. First, this is annoying because any series should be self-contained; related mini-series should be icing, not cake, and we shouldn't have to have read six issues of miniseries to understand a character's motivation for an action in the main series. Second, JMS has consistently chosen poorly when it comes to the writers of these minis. Rising Stars was not helped by Fiona Avery's appallingly bland Rising Stars: Bright mini (that she's also been granted minis for Laurel Darkhaven and Lionel Zerb boggles the mind). For Supreme Power, Samm Barnes' Doctor Spectrum was an awe-inspiring waste of paper and time, having neither a plot nor a point nor any real similarity to the Joe Ledger who appears in Supreme Power. There are upcoming mini-series for both Hyperion and Nighthawk, both scheduled as the Doctor Spectrum mini was to run during a hiatus, and I can't imagine them proving worthwhile.

This month's issue is hobbled by the fact that it came out three months after the previous one, which means four months since most of the events under discussion -- the fight with Redstone took place in SP #14. That's a lifetime ago. And so while there are some clever manipulations here, they all went completely over my head the first time I read this, before I went back and re-read half the series. Is Ledger helping Kingsley or just following his orders to bring her in? We know Nighthawk is perfectly happy to do nothing and let Hyperion be destroyed, but will Stanley, whose arc is parallel to Ledger's in the 'with great power comes great responsibility' department, do the same? What havoc has Zanda wreaked and what does her reappearance mean?

The feature matchup on the fight card is General Alexander versus Hyperion himself. As the series has progressed, JMS has consistently upped the ante -- while Mark was docile and ignorant, he had simple opponents and interactions; once he was made aware, his challenges grew accordingly. General Alexander explains the new direction, albeit to his granddaughter who doesn't realize he's not talking about watches. Hyperion is not quite ready to handle an associate like Nighthawk, which means he's not quite ready to handle an opponent like Alexander. And that's the key -- superpowered good guys are not much fun if their ultimate success is not in doubt.

And, speaking of doubt... this week's announcement that Supreme Power will be ending with #18 and then re-launching as a Marvel Knights title after the aforementioned miniseries. Many folks are looking at the shift Alias made, becoming The Pulse, and wondering if this isn't the end of the good times. I understand the concern. The problem with Alias becoming The Pulse wasn't the loss of profanity or anal sex; it was the total loss of purpose and soul -- Jessica Jones has been an unrecognizable pod person in her own book, appearing as herself only in Daredevil and Young Avengers. But if Supreme Power is to remain completely outside the Marvel Universe, then I really don't see the same thing happening here. Jessica Jones suddenly had the freedom to go anywhere and ended up going nowhere; The Squadron Supreme should be fine so long as they get to stay in their own sealed universe.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

ATOMIKA #2

When reviews don't come out the week of the book, it's usually because I didn't have the book or because I haven't come up with anything interesting to say. This one is a first, however. Purchased the day it came out, Atomika #2 came home in a plain white paper bag and somehow got filed away with a stack of tax-related documents and printouts. Considering what this story is about, I am hesitant to say it was a coincidence.

Atomika continues to get it mostly right. They have pulled off another striking cover -- last month's was by Alex Ross, this month's is from Glenn Fabry -- and a worthwhile story. The art's got a sort of melting wax feel that isn't really my thing, but seems to suit the story and is appealing in its own way. However, the book continues to get... not quite sabotaged, but at least undercut by layout choices.

Some writers are fanatics about where the word bubbles go -- Bendis, for instance. Some... perhaps need to be a little more thoughtful. Atomika is as much illustrated tale as sequential art and the speech bubbles and narrative boxes carry the entire weight of the story. Placement is crucial, especially in crowded scenes where it could be one of many speaking and the voice must be determined from context. Last month, apart from some unintentional funnies, the layout and placement weren't so bad. This month they interrupted the flow because I had to pause and figure out who was saying what and in what order.

The story itself is enjoyable and while it doesn't have the rhythmic lyricism of the last issue, it's still a cut above. This is a fight between gods and their creators and it isn't light or fluffy or full of action. It's quasi-historical, specifically ethnic, and trades in themes more common with classical myths than, say, the latest issue of Uncanny X-Men. I think it's a lot of fun, if not necessarily a quick read.

SUPERMAN/BATMAN #19

I knew better than to start this. When Supes is on the cover giving me a vaguely apologetic smirk that says "It's crap and I know you're going to read it anyway"... Actually, it wasn't Big Blue who was the giveaway. It was Supergirl. At least in terms of this title, she's my kryptonite -- she shows up and my attention span completely evaporates. Needless to say, I won't be picking up Supergirl when it starts up this summer.

Attention span aside, I needn't have worried. As has been increasingly the case with the DC books, this wasn't an actual story. It was instead a 22-page advertisement for other books -- passive crossovers that the completists will have to buy and the rest of us will feel vaguely duped for reading.

Jeph Loeb, aided by Ian Churchill's best Michael Turner impressions, manages to shill and pander all in one neat package. We got the Dini/Timm subtext-what-subtext of Harley and Ivy in a story lifted fairly intact from the animated episode with Kara and Babs taking on the bad gals. We got Loeb doing his Clayface-as-someone-who-shouldn't-be-there routine -- although considering the last two people Loeb had Clayface impersonate were Tommy Elliot (Hush) and Jason Todd (Red Hood), maybe this is a sekrit message that Babs Gordon will be walking again soon. And we got it all wrapped up with a bundle of harbingers of Path to Infinite Crisis. (hrmm... I like PtIC as an acronym. Consider yourselves warned.) Coming out of the Absolute Power arc, there is no possible other reason to have Calculator and Lex Luthor taking Supergirl for a test drive. And in case we didn't get it, we have both Clark and Bruce reinforcing the point in their color-coded thought bubbles.

The real trouble with this book is that it's not bad enough to drop out of annoyance. It's never throw-across-the-room awful, even if I did come close during that arc that had Power Girl, Major Force, and Green Lantern teaming up to take the boys down. It's also never awesome, no matter how many fanboy references Loeb crammed into Absolute Power. It's a book that is consistently wacky in both good and really-not-good ways -- Lex planting a big, wet one on Amanda Waller, anyone? -- and that finds a way to import that wacky into mainstream canon. Which makes it hard to ignore.

SLEEPER SEASON TWO: #11

Wow.

I've spent the past few days trying to come up with something constructive and useful to say, but it ain't coming. This was a kicker of an issue, re-orienting the picture so many times in twenty-two pages that a reader could get vertigo. Everyone's on top of the heap for a page or two, but the falls from that height are long and hard and bloody and, unsurprisingly, Tao gets the last laugh. Literally.

The interrogation session with Tao was brilliant -- Holden's embittered conflation of optimism and desperation is perfectly sensible all considering, but Tao doesn't buy it and with good reason, albeit the wrong reason. As frustrated as Holden is by being the rope in the Tao-Lynch tug-of-war, he hasn't quite hit the point of no return. I've said before that Holden Carver is a peculiar kind of Pandora's Box -- all he's got left is hope. But what sort of hope can he possibly expect to have once all of this shakes out? We know Lynch is screwing with Holden about a cure, but considering that we didn't know that Holden was working with Lynch, does that knowledge matter? And how does the fact that the first two bodies to fall are Veronica's and Gretchen's change things? Does a Pyrrhic victory still count as a win?

One more issue to go and countless more double-/triple-/quadruple-crosses left.

I repeat this part every month:
(1) Sleeper is the biggest reason I regret Ed Brubaker's exclusive contract with Marvel (Gotham Central getting honorable mention)
(2) Read the damned series:

BATGIRL #62-63

Andersen Gabrych continues his reboot of Cassandra Cain's story, building up her associates, enemies, daily routine, environment, and everything else a costumed vigilante needs. Gabrych is working out who 'his' Cass is: struggling with a verbal world but eloquent in the physical, she is finally seriously attempting to create a human being to be the alter ego to Batgirl.

They both have a lot of work to do. Cass has been alternately overwritten and underwritten, the only teenaged hero-type to steer clear of any of the teams (Young Justice, Teen Titans, Outsiders) and the only Batperson without a lead role in a second book. The end result is that Cass has had very little breadth of social interaction on the page and very little depth of writerly imagination off of it. Her development has been slow and, in the case of Dylan Horrocks's run, occasionally unfathomable (and unreadable). We know who and what she is, but beyond that, Cass remains very much a cipher. Changing that has been Gabrych's aim.

There's no graceful way to construct an entire world for Batgirl in a short amount of time -- Nureyev would have trouble dancing around with this mess. And, as has been Gabrych's lot ever since he stepped in on Detective Comics last year, he's been handed the sour dregs of everyone else's bad plot ideas and told to make good beer out of it.

Courtesy of the train wreck that was Batman: War Games, Cass is not building a life in Gotham, but instead in Bludhaven, a place that has seen shockingly little environmental development considering that we're more than a hundred issues into Nightwing. It's crooked, it's corrupt, it's Newark to Gotham's New York and it used to be a whaling town back in the day. But beyond that, it's completely blank.

As such, reading Batgirl occasionally feels like those Daffy Duck cartoons where they break the fourth wall and we see the pencil coming in to create a tree or a costume -- there's a gang here? Okay, so there's a gang here. This is a nice part of town? Okay, so it is. It's all so convenient and plastic-y and so totally devoid of backstory that it might as well be a movie set. Brenda the Quirky Coffee Shop Girl and her story arc are straight out of central casting, even with the slyly done continued misperception that has Brenda thinking (with good reason) that Cass makes her living working rough trade. If Gabrych stays the course, eventually, hopefully, this will all seem like a real place. But right now, it doesn't and there's not much to be done about it.

Unsurprisingly, the particulars of these issues reflect Gabrych's need to create a dynamic story while dragging around a steamer trunk full of worldbuilding and simultaneously being hobbled by the upcoming Path to Infinite Crisis. Cass doesn't get to hang out with Wonder Girl or even Robin, who also living alone in the same strange city but isn't allowed to team up with her because he's got his own book (even though taking Robin away from Bill Willingham might be the best thing DC could do this year). Instead of logical connections, Cass has been granted the wacky -- sure, there's Penguin also in exile in Bludhaven, but Penguin has brought in the big guns.

Forget the local hoods -- Oswald Cobblepot has hired the Brotherhood of Evil and the Secret Society of Super Villains (or whatever they're calling themselves). I'd love to say that this is what happens when your title character can beat up Lady Shiva, but the truth of it is that it was probably least inconvenient to have the Villains United portion of Oblique References to Future Crossover Events parked in Batgirl than anywhere else. And while the showdown with Deathstroke was great, it was fairly undone by the appearance of Ravager. Actually, almost anything is spoiled by the appearance of Ravager, one of Geoff Johns's less-than-bright ideas. Here, though, there ain't no way Rose gets a shot in unless Slade holds Cass down and even then, it'd be a hard sell. Gabrych loses all cred, however, if this becomes a Spidey II-type community revolt.

BATMAN #639

Judd Winick is having entirely too much fun here. And so while I'm still enjoying what has been Winick's most readable work since Green Lantern, I have to wonder if he's about to fall into the same trap he fell into there -- falling a little too deeply in love with his own banter and sacrificing other necessities to feed the beast. Perhaps the rigors of keeping pace with the Path to Infinite Crisis will keep him from that Dorian Gray routine.

As for the issue at hand...

On the one hand, seeing this amazingly abrasive Batman is fun and appropriate. Considering the events of Identity Crisis and the fact that he obviously suspects who Red Hood is, Bruce is perfectly justified to act like a royal bastard to pretty much everyone he interacts with in this issue. (Except for Jason Blood, who deserves and receives nothing but pity for being trapped in a book written by John Byrne.) Zatanna and Ollie have betrayed him and, without Nightwing's mitigating presence, it's no surprise he snarked at Onyx.

On the other, it does feel like it's a little too much. Yes, Batman is always like this and this is why nobody likes to deal with him and why you pretty much have to be Superman to put up with him for any amount of time. But writers have generally acknowledged that spending this much uninterrupted time with someone so unpleasant isn't fun and structured stories so that we get a little break between the bouts of momserism. In the course of almost any story Batman usually gets some alone time, or starts working on the case at hand, or punches someone out, or does something that distracts him from interacting with people we're supposed to like so that we get a chance to forget he's so nasty for a panel or three. Here we get none of that -- every Batman appearance is pure BastardBats and the Onyx/Red Hood/Black Mask panels weren't the right sort of counterweight. Nightwing on his own would have been better because he would have engaged our sympathies a bit. We needed a morsel of a protagonist we could empathize with and we didn't get it. Nor did we get any explanation for why Nightwing is totally absent. He was standing right next to Batman at the end of the last issue.

Since I've not been reiterating it every month: usual complaints about Doug Mahnke's utter lack of dynamism apply.