The Death-Ray (June 2004)

The Death-Ray

Here’s the thing about The Death-Ray–well, more specifically, here’s the thing about Daniel Clowes. He knows what he’s got. At some point during the comic, it becomes clear his ambition and his confidence are almost equal. The comic just gets better and better and it covers a lot of years and a lot of panels. Not so much pages, but panels. Clowes packs Death-Ray with panels. Never too big, but sometimes even tiny. There’s so much content. Clowes homages the experience of reading a sixties Marvel comic, but integrates everything. There’s no letters page because he knows how to get the reading experience of a letters page–at least any memorable parts–into his narrative. Sometimes through tiny panels. He’s excited and it feels extremely communal. Clowes is showing off something he’s figured out you can do with the comic book medium. He’s exuberant.

Clowes forces the reader to evaluate each narrator and balance their perspectives.
Clowes forces the reader to evaluate each narrator and balance their perspectives.

What’s so striking about the comic is how much Clowes is able to get in. He casts two comic nerds as the leads. There’s no real mention of comic books in the comic itself, but they come up with the idea for a superhero. Maybe there is some reference, the point is they’re standard characters. Only they aren’t. The protagonist, Andy, has a really messed up life. His sidekick, Louie, has a similarly messed up life, but far less tragic in the details. Even though the comic opens with Andy narrating as a mid-aged guy–and Clowes continues using him in the flashback–somehow it’s Louie who gets to have the story for a good while. Clowes wants the reader to examine Andy not from the perspective of first person narrator, but from Louie’s perspective. It’s how Clowes is able to encourage a lot of questioning. There’s a lot of text in The Death-Ray, a lot of first person, a lot of exposition–and shockingly little dialogue, Clowes just wants to hint at it, the interior mind is what’s important here–Clowes needs the reader to pay attention. Otherwise they won’t get it and he wants to see if he can pull it off.

Look at all these panels; Clowes goes even smaller to fit it all in.
Look at all these panels; Clowes goes even smaller to fit it all in.

Clowes’s style is gorgeous. He’s got a simple comic strip–detailed, but relatively simple as far as his panel compositions–for the majority of the story. It’s far from hostile. When he goes off on a comic book medium tangent, he’s got a little bit different of a style. The flashback is already in color–the present day varies between color for “reality” and monochrome for Old Man Andy’s interior monologue–but these formal tangents are somehow more vivid. Clowes wants to do an ad, he wants to do a recap, he doesn’t want to hide the entertainment from the reader. He wants you to enjoy The Death-Ray.

The romance comic homage.
The romance comic homage.

Because an entertained reader is one who pays attention and Clowes does look at a number of serious things. Louie’s misogyny, for example, and misogyny in general. A little with race. A lot with class. The Death-Ray is unpredictable. Clowes initially promises a riff on the original Stan Lee and Steve Ditko Amazing Spider-Man with annoying indie comic sidekick. He excels on his fulfillment of that promise and then he moves on. He takes the reader through various stages of expectation–whether it’s Andy imagining everything, Andy being some kind of superhero, Andy being some kind of monster. Old Man Andy is narrating and The Death-Ray is all about readers having no idea who is in their head. And Clowes navigates it beautifully. He guides the reader, occasionally a little hard but always with respect. He never gets impatient. There are no false starts in The Death-Ray’s plotting. Clowes paces it deliberately, sublimely.

Clowes does regular high school comic strip too.
Clowes does regular high school comic strip too.

When the comic ends, Clowes gives the reader a multiple choice question. He directly asks readers to reflect back on the comic they have just read. There is a test. You had to be paying attention to the details in those really tiny panels.

The Death-Ray is a great comic. It’s also a singular use of first person, with the consequences of the narrative distance being something the narrator himself gets to exploit. It’s really good.

CREDITS

Writer and artist, Daniel Clowes; publisher, Drawn & Quarterly.

The Dark Knight Returns: The Last Crusade (June 2016)

lastcrusadeIn their 2016 campaign to Make Batman Great Again, Miller and Azzarello have temporarily abandoned all pretense of progress – as indicated by the retro DC logo on the cover – and gone straight back to the source with this one-shot prequel to The Dark Knight Returns. Batman nerds know Miller predicted the death of Jason Todd in the first issue of that series, before DC made it official with the Death in the Family storyline. You know, the one where fans could dial a 1-800 number and cast their vote to not to let Jason survive The Joker’s beating. Thus does The Last Crusade have a weird circuitous purpose: retelling a story whose conclusion is foregone, as the prequel to a story which predicted the event…as a hypothetical aside. Retcon-Elseworlds-Rehashing at its most truly incestuous.

The pleasant surprise is that Miller and Azzarello actually outdo their recent efforts. The Last Crusade is a more enjoyable read than The Master Race has been so far, and a better value at $6.99 for 57 pages compared to Master Race’s $5.99 for 35. Unlike the shallow bombast of Batman and Superman saving the world from Kandorians, this story aims low and deep and hits its target. From the start, there’s a nicely quiet sense of dread on a personal, non-apocalyptic level, building suspense as The Joker orchestrates his escape from Arkham while the division between Jason and an aged Batman grows deeper. The thrust of the action is utterly perfunctory as they investigate the most routine of Poison Ivy schemes, with a little special guest muscle by Killer Croc. Joker is separate from all this to the point of practically being in another book, his portentous importance is telegraphed by the cover. Even for the Batman comics reader unfamiliar with Jason Todd’s death at Joker’s hands, their fatal crossing of paths carries the aura of grim inevitability although the final pages don’t make the actual fatality particularly apparent.

I didn’t grow up in the Jason Todd years of the comics but if his gimmick was being a “Dick” instead of a “Dick Grayson”, it does read slightly weird for the Batman of Frank Miller’s sovereign Dark Knight Universe to reprimand this Robin for being too sadistic or reckless, when he’s been far and away the most inglorious bastard Batman of all time. Under questioning, Miller and Azzarello would probably argue that since this is the near-retirement stage of that Batman, he’s a little more mature and less psychotic than he was in the All-Star Batman and Robin days. Everything about superhero continuity lore has become so cyclical since the 80s, yet Miller and Azzarello still kind of justify this rehash by returning to the idea of Batman as a prize fighter whom everyone knows is past his prime – exploring his shame, the fact he knows he’s slowing down, that his friends and enemies are noticing too. This focus on aging, and on flesh not keeping up with a willing spirit, creates a thematic through-line with Dark Knight Returns and inadvertently kind of points up the absurdity of the sequels, where Bruce never seems to get tired anymore although he’s older than ever. Batman’s internal monologues and narration aren’t as memorable as those of Dark Knight Returns but they absolutely flow from the same vein. Prequel or sequel, this slim volume is so much closer to the kind of follow-up fans wanted than The Dark Knight Strikes Again. Better late than never?

John Romita Jr.’s art provides the work a needed prequel continuity as well. His draftsmanship’s sketchy grittiness is much closer to Miller’s style than Andy Kubert, as is Peter Steigerwald’s pale and muted coloring. The script doesn’t make the insulting choices seen in The Master Race, of padding a thin plotline across pointlessly large action panels. Here the terse writing is thoughtfully staged at a steady pace without filler. As a comic the action feels alive, rather than looking like conceptual art for a film or storyboards for a cartoon.

A few words about The Joker: first of all, he sells comics. That’s why he’s on the cover. But as someone who’s thoroughly tired of the character’s overexposure and hype, I’d forgotten how much I like Frank Miller’s Joker and it’s kind of nice to spend time with him again. Given Frank’s politics, I’m shocked he’s not re-teamed with the Ayatollah Khomeini. Miller’s Joker was conceived pre-Killing Joke and was arguably (unfortunately) more the basis for the modern mainstream conception of Joker, the version who’s supposed to be scary and edgy and never actually funny. This take made the most sense when envisioning an older version of the character to fight an older version of Batman – sort of what the real life Bill Murray became; not so much a sad clown as a clown grown jaded and smug. Miller just writes him so well as a wistful queen, and unlike Heath Ledger Miller’s Joker is genuinely enigmatic and creepy because Miller is kind of crazy himself.

If you haven’t bothered picking up The Master Race yet, you should definitely wait for the trade. But if you’d like a swig of Frank Miller that actually tastes like The Dark Knight Returns, The Last Crusade is a satisfying little one-shot.

CREDITS

The Dark Knight Returns: The Last Crusade; story, Frank Miller & Brian Azzarello; pencils, John Romita Jr; inks and colors, Peter Steigerwald; letterer, Clem Robins; publisher, DC Comics.

Pretty Deadly 10 (June 2016)

Pretty Deadly #10

Pretty Deadly wraps up its second arc with the series’s standard mix of action and humanism. Standard isn’t a pejorative; creators DeConnick and Rios have always taken a singular approach to genre with the comic. They refuse to firmly foot in any–this arc is a WWI story and the story of a black family in 1918(?) America–they also refuse to rely on any genre tropes, yet there’s always a familiarity with them. Pretty Deadly is an intentionally tough comic to digest. The digestion process is where DeConnick and Rios are able to affect the reader the most.

About half this issue is resolution to the arc, which suggests a single sitting read of the arc might be in order, and the other half is mostly action. Except it’s Rios’s mystical, yet very physical, action. There’s a fluidity to the movement in the mystical action–the reader has to find their own entry point and then follow the movement across the page. Lots of full page spreads here–again, it’s the last issue in the arc, so there need to be money shots. Rios fills them with glorious dread.

While DeConnick wraps up for the arc’s new characters, she does make a few hints to Deadly’s future. But as Pretty Deadly moves across time periods–it started as a Western–DeConnick opens it up more. The implications of the mystical world of the Reapers aren’t just how it relates to the present action of the arc. DeConnick and Rios are gradually introducing a much bigger world.

Pretty Deadly is simultaneously loud and quiet, thrilling and reserved. It’s an excellent comic.

CREDITS

Writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick; artist, Emma Rios; colorist, Jordie Bellaire; letterer, Clayton Cowles; editor, Sigrid Ellis; publisher, Image Comics.

Scooby Apocalypse 2 (August 2016)

Scooby Apocalypse #2

It’s Aliens. Giffen and DeMatteis are doing “Serious Scooby-Doo Meets Aliens.” And it’s pretty good.

This issue has the gang trapped in an underground bunker where they have to crawl through the ceilings but avoid the monsters crawling through the ceilings. There’s a lot of emphasis on the humanity of the situation, but then there’s Porter’s art doing these exaggerated hero poses for the characters. What’s so strange is how little it has to do with Scooby-Doo. Giffen and DeMatteis have almost no interest in the dog (or his interactions with Shaggy). It’s not pop culture fulfillment, it’s a brand relaunch.

Hence the lack of Doo in the title?

It’s strongly plotted, great dialogue, excellent visual style. Scooby Apocalypse is great corporate product. It’s not sublime, but it’s great at what it’s trying to do. I just wonder how long Jim Lee, who’s credited with the concept, worked at it and whether or not he had help (or was filling a request from corporate).

CREDITS

Apocalypse Right Now!; writers, Keith Griffen and J.M. DeMatteis; artist, Howard Porter; colorist, Hi-Fi; letterer, Nick J. Napolitano; editors, Brittany Holzherr and Marie Javins; publisher, DC Comics.

Detective Comics 934 (August 2016)

Detective Comics #934

What a nice pilot for a new Detective Comics. Batman and Batwoman are partners–their mission is to train the vigilantes of Gotham to fight some new threat. This threat follows them around with little bat-drones, but Batman can’t figure out they’re still being followed. It’s a team book, but with familiar Bat-family members and a decidedly modern approach. Heavy on the one-liners, heavy on implied action, light on actual content.

Is the problem the art or the story? Well, Eddy Barrows’s art isn’t there but it might be with a better inker. Eber Ferreira doesn’t have a feel for the art. He rounds it, reduces it, instead of emboldening it. Would better art make a significant difference? No. Would great art make a significant difference? Sure. But it’s a monthly superhero book and Barrows delivers it.

So is it the writing? Yeah, sure? Sorry to be so noncommittal but Detective Comics feels pretty noncommittal. Writer James Tynion IV mostly gives everyone sound bites instead of dialogue. Spoiler and Robin have a conversation, Batman and Batwoman, Batman and Clayface, but these are quippy, fast conversations. It’s meant to entertain not tell a story, because Tynion doesn’t have a story to tell.

I suppose Detective Comics is better than I was expecting (though nowhere near what I was hoping for). But it’s just a mediocre superhero book (in desperate need of better editing).

CREDITS

Rise of the Batmen, Part One: The Young and the Brave; writer, James Tynion IV; penciller, Eddy Barrows; inker, Eber Ferreira; colorist, Adriano Honorato Lucas; letterer, Marilyn Patrizio; editors, Dave Wielgosz and Chris Conroy; publisher, DC Comics.

The Dark Knight III: The Master Race 4 (June 2016)

STK699760Once again Miller and Azzarello punish me for getting my hopes up with this series. Once again, too, I notice myself praising Miller alone for every good chapter and the two of them for every bad one. As the series lurches onward, the finality of The Dark Knight Returns and its pitch perfect “good enough” grace note of a conclusion to Batman’s adventures are only further diluted. The Master Race is in an alternating holding pattern, as I recall issue #2 was similarly lethargic. The plot progresses predictably with zero surprises to the reader. The spoilers are two sentences long. $5.99 for two sentences worth of plot development, stretched out by endless splash panels and another mini-comic of wonky Frank Miller art, which is sadly the only memorable part of the experience. For DC, not Detective Comics but the asset of Time Warner’s media empire, to charge $5.99 for this while an indy outfit like Avatar Press charges a buck less per new installment of Providence is utterly pitiful. On the plus side Miller does retain a consistently pessimistic, contemporary point of view – Obama and Trump are again invoked and this time disparaged as equally cowardly appeasers to the eponymous Master Race. He and Azzarello do know how to plot out their simple, cynical story. The insult to the reader, which ruins these positives, is how blatantly he’s elongating a four issue story across eight issues for what can only be a contractual obligation. Per Miller’s worst habits, they haven’t even been published in a timely manner.

Being a member of that tiny hipster elite who can find some value in The Dark Knight Strikes Back, it saddens me to realize every time I reach Miller’s mini-comic midway through a new Master Race that his late-period derangement, which Big Two fanboys consider his weakness, isn’t even present here. His art is still big and crazy, he just didn’t care about this project enough to contribute more than a few pages every couple months, leaving Andy Kubert to carry that load with competence that feels reliably adequate to the point of blandness. The new series has been dishearteningly lacking in any big or crazy ideas; the storyline is neither as jarringly off-kilter as Dark Knight 2 nor as fresh and original as Dark Knight 1. This is a book that goes out of its way not to take chances. Dark Knight 3 simply exists, as Dark Knight 4 could someday exist and make all thast came before just a little less special. Something like All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder was at least a beautiful disaster; a joyously irreverent prank. Master Race reads as though Azzarello came up with the uninspired story purely as a mechanical continuation of what is now a franchise (there’s a prequel coming) and Miller peppered in his stylized dialogue afterward.

Has anything really innovative actually been done with Bats or Supes since 1986 when Miller and Moore wrote their imaginary final adventures? Every other week DC relaunches their “universe” hoping someone will figure out how to make them relevant again, and it seems increasingly apparent that The Dark Knight Returns and Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow really were the ultimate showstoppers. If Batman is doomed like all superheroes of the current era to be merely an amorphous multimedia IP rather than a comics character, the best entertainment anyone can hope for are occasionally some good cartoons. Maybe when The Lego Batman Movie is the highest profiting Batman movie of all time DC will finally give up on self-serious, pointless cash grab comics for nostalgic manboy fanboys and grow a new comics readership where the real money is: actual children.

CREDITS

The Dark Knight III: The Master Race Book Four; story, Frank Miller & Brian Azzarello; pencils, Andy Kubert; inks, Klaus Janson; colorist, Brad Anderson; letterer, Clem Robins; publisher, DC Comics.

The Dark Knight III: The Master Race 3 (February 2016)

dk3After Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, The Dark Knight III: The Master Race suddenly seems a lot better. The film wasn’t as bad as everyone histrionically made it out to be – Zach Snyder at least understands how to use these characters to compose compelling imagery, unlike Christopher Nolan. What the film reconfirmed to me is how irrevocably superheroes are tied to the comics page. This is their medium, and ironically only the relentless march of superhero movies can make me appreciate the value of a superhero comic. Frank Miller and Zach Snyder do have several things in common: an unpopular public image, a uncomfortable fixation on rape as a dramatic device, and an ambivalence bordering on contempt for Superman. As many reviews have pointed out, Ben Affleck’s Batman is essentially Frank Miller’s Dark Knight brought to life; an older and surlier abstraction of grimly righteous vigilantism who, yes, will pull the trigger of a gun if it means saving a life because that’s a decision a so-called “realistic” superhero would have to make, you liberal fanboy wimps. It’s really too bad Snyder didn’t do The Dark Knight Returns instead of Watchmen or BvS, not that BvS didn’t just swipe DKR sequences left and right throughout. Miller is a simpleton but Snyder does a simpleton’s adaptation of a simpleton. All the hammering on about gods and man and superman feels like it has a bit more of a point in Miller’s hands.

Issue 3 finally brings Bruce Wayne and Batman out of the shadows and as I’d hoped, Frank Miller still writes those cranky internal monologues better than anyone. If anything he’s writing them better than ever, now that he’s aged within five years of his old-man-Batman. He also incorporates topical problems better than any Marvel superhero screenwriters, who tend to namecheck “the issues” while studiously avoiding alienating any potential section of their audience, or David S. Goyer’s various Batman scripts from the past decade which use a ponderous tone to mask their dull lack of imagination. Miller’s deftly sardonic usage of text message balloons and Tweets are as relevant and witty as his usage of cable news in the previous two volumes of the Dark Knight saga, and even pay off in a funny scene when various Gotham-ites are too busy with their phones to pay attention to the super-apocalypse. Miller actually puts some pretty harsh anti-consumerist stuff in the mouths of his characters, reminding that though the medium has been generally dumbed down by the death of print, it’s still beneath the mainstream radar enough to function as a gutter platform against sacred technophilia.

The story is dumb as can be, but the writing has a lot of wicked satirical flourishes besides making fun of these kids today and their social media addiction. There’s a Trump cameo that probably wasn’t originally planned when the series started back in November 2015, so it’s nice to know the series is alive and malleable. Thematically Miller seems to be developing a redemption of Superman – something Snyder insincerely made overtures towards. Having been a government stooge until now, Supes is at last poised to fight in the right alongside Carrie Kelly and Bats. All it took was betrayal of the titular Master Race to which he belongs, and to which the Earth’s governments have collectively surrendered. Unbound by Hollywood squeamishness, Miller is allowed the full effects of his cynicism towards both the genre and modern society: his superheroes obliterate millions of people and millions more respond with media-saturated apathy. The unfairly maligned The Dark Knight Strikes Again felt like a true reflection of recent post-9/11 discord compared to the moment-of-silence-now-back-to-tights-and-fights business acumen from the rest of DC and Marvel. Dark Knight III‘s story reads like Frank Miller screaming in your ear that things have only gotten worse, as the slicker Andy Kubert art suggests a world painted over with a shinier gloss of distraction in the interim.

Kubert’s art is growing on me though, aping Miller’s staging and character designs at the right moments, and well complimented by Klaus Janson’s inks. Brad Anderson’s coloring continues to impress, especially his use of muted colors in the Antarctic and underground locales. Miller indulges in a splash page or reveal practically every two pages, but Kubert’s art justifies them and his command of visual language is solid. Unfortunately it’s used as a crutch throughout the otherwise forgettable Miller-drawn mini-comic of this issue starring Green Lantern. Apparently DC has been printing some of these issues with the mini-comic scaled to full size at the issue’s end, which is a mistake because having a comic-within-a-comic is an artistic choice unique only to comics, and comics need the boosterism.

Against better taste, Miller’s misanthropic idiosyncrasies continue to intrigue as to what he’ll do in the DC toybox. The serial installments may not be worth the cover price but as a whole, the whole experience is improbably shaping into something worthwhile.

CREDITS

The Dark Knight III: The Master Race Book Three; story, Frank Miller & Brian Azzarello; pencils, Andy Kubert; inks, Klaus Janson; colorist, Brad Anderson; letterer, Clem Robins; publisher, DC Comics.

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