Batman’s Junk

Batman: Damned #1
DC comics, $6.99, 48 pages
2018

Ok then. The arrival in DC’s new line of “mature” titles featuring their biggest characters starts with an expressionistic take on the dark, forbidden knowledge portion of the Batman mythos. Not that it’s a new idea, Bats has been something various writers have stretched as far as editorial will let them after what, 75(?) years of Batman stories. Where do you go from there? In it’s quest to reinvent itself for a new generation and relevance in today’s pop culture, DC has decided a more original, adult approach is supposedly an idea whose time has come.

After reading the story, which features a trio of DC mystical characters that cameo in Bats attempt to help with the books plot, facing an unknown part of his life, that provide the impetus here. Sadly, not much is really new or different. Lots of overly used metaphors abound, along with John Constantine’s new and annoying, mysterious
narrative dialogue that pretty much abandons his former accent and smart ass attitude.

Lee Bermejo’s art, while technically accomplished, seems odd in places, perhaps with a tad too much realism to get the viewer fully engaged, being more distracting than complimentary. The Elseworlds approach used to always display to the reader this was a different type of story, not necessarily bound to the established canon with the characters. This quite often was a successful approach, with an inner sense of logic that would satisfy, and got you from point a to b in a satisfying manner.

Not that there isn’t craft of some sort operating here. It’s just that it’s not particularly original or well serviced, with a slightly askew dc universe different from the others just because it can be. All the characters seem off, not really themselves, and by not knowing a purpose for this interpretation, keeps me at a distance to care. I’m not sure where the story aims after 48 pages, and other than an interesting take on Zatanna, I’ve still got nothing invested after reading it. Murky stories and hyper realistic art aren’t a substitute here for a story I can get enthusiastic about, or even keeping me curious enough to want to read the second issue.

Then there’s the “mature” part of the story, really the only “mature” part of it, and it doesn’t add to the proceedings at all. To give this new “Black Label” an edgy, adult look and feel, we’re forced to see Batman’s full frontal junk in three shots (that I can tell, anyway), that seem ridiculously gratuitous in their inclusion. I didn’t know Bruce walked around the Batcave naked, and not sure I needed to.

Why this even exists in a Batman story is totally beyond me. I’m not a puritan, and if you gave me a valid reason to see Batman’s John Thomas I’m sure I’d go along with it. Sadly, this isn’t it. The only reason I can guess is that it gives you a reason this week to buy the new Batman comic.

Adding fuel to the fire, the week the book came out, that’s really all folks could talk about, simply because it was the only thing that made this Batman comic different from the rest. Not better or even equal, just different. The cheesy mechanization that led to this editorial decision for attention and sales elude me, and it seems this just creates more questions and problems going forward.

This brings up imaginary scenarios of my former life as a comic book retailer, where more than once I’d be confronted by a parent whose child reads Batman and wonders why this comic wasn’t out on the racks for little Joey to peruse. Following would be me demonstrating the graphic content, with the inevitable hopeless defense of why they’d make Batman inaccessible to anyone under 21 in the first place.

After all, once you get to see Batman’s junk, what’s next? Selina’s stuff?

Pass, unless you’re investing in it for speculative purposes. Even then, sell quick, cause you know this won’t be the last time we’re going to see this new, mysterious, provocative portion of Batman’s life at 7 bucks a pop.

World’s Funnest (April 2016)

 worldsfunnestMr. Mxyzptlk and Bat-Mite are arguably DC’s greatest creations. As respective foils to Superman and Batman they’re perfect critiques of the characters: Mxy the childish trickster-god to a godlike man, and Bat-Mite a child playing god with the man he worships…who is still a child inside, at least emotionally. They’re both insanely powerful and also stand-ins for any precocious young comics readers, trying to imagine the most impossible situations to challenge these men who can do virtually anything. Bat-Mite’s version of the routine underscores the irony with an ill-fitting fan costume – he’s the original comicon cosplayer. World’s Funnest collects Evan Dorkin’s one-shot of the same name from 2000 along with the imps’ first Golden Age appearances and several other quality stories, and it’s a nearly perfect greatest-hits showcase for these uniquely irreverent characters.

The titular story alone is worth the price of admission. With a stunning list of guest artists doing either parodies of their own style (Frank Miller re-creating The Dark Knight Returns) or perfect imitations of classic styles from DC history (David Mazzucchelli doing Jack Kirby’s New Gods), Evan Dorkin sends Mxyzptlk on an apocalyptic death hunt for Bat-Mite across the DC Universe, offhandedly obliterating continuities and timelines with all the slapstick ferocity of Milk and Cheese filtered through an Eltingville Club level of inside-joke comics geekery. Arguably the only flaw is how some of his best jokes rely on the reader’s familiarity with obscure DC references like Captain Carrot and his Amazing Zoo Crew, but Dorkin goofs on so many other, better known targets like Superfriends and Kingdom Come that there’s something for everyone Like Eltingville Club, this is Dorkin spinning his fanboy self-hatred into comedy gold, subversively under the official DC banner – Batman and Superman are literally murdered within the first few pages, and then murdered several more times before the story is finished, as the Brian Bolland cover promises. It’s a breathtakingly hysterical, once-in-a-corporate-lifetime event that seems even more audacious sixteen years later.

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Note the early alternate spelling

This is followed up by the first appearances, with Siegel and Shuster’s “The Mysterious Mr. Mxyztplk” from 1944 and “Batman Meets Bat-Mite” from 1959, written by Bill Finger and drawn by Sheldon Moldoff. These stories have been reprinted a lot over the years but are obviously essential to an official Bat-Mite and Mxy compendium. Joe Shuster’s original design for Mxy is the most adorable he ever looked, as if a 1920s newspaper comic strip character came to visit Superman’s (slightly) more realistically-rendered world. Bat-Mite skirts the uncanny valley a little closer, resembling a midget in a Batman costume rather than a child – which is technically correct, since as he points out, he’s not an elf but comes from a dimension where all men are his size. This explanation is preceded by one of the greatest panels in comic book history:

batmite
HI!

Their debuts are followed by another oft-reprinted but essential landmark: Mxyzptlk and Bat-Mite’s first crossover story together from a 1960 issue of World’s Finest with art by Batman luminary Dick Sprang, by which point Mxyzptlk was redesigned to be an uglier imp, something more akin to Coiley the Spring Sprite. The story by Jerry Coleman is an inconsequential spectacle, but established the dynamic between the two pests for every subsequent meetup: Bat-Mite as the annoying goody-two-shoes to the more malevolent Mxy. Sightings of either character were pretty scarce afterwards, as the collection’s next story is plucked from nearly 20 years later – an odd six page back-up story from a 1979 Detective Comics entitled Bat-Mite’s New York Adventure! In what’s basically just an excuse for some DC staff to put themselves in a comic, Bat-Mite poofs into the offices of, yes, DC Comics and cajoles the vintage 1979 nerds (not a one without glasses, several with sideburns) to put him in Detective Comics. Which is the comic you just read. Get it? While the joke fails to have a punchline, at least the art by Michael Golden features a disgustingly cute version of Bat-Mite. And to give credit writer Rob Rozakis, while his story fails to be funny it may be the first to realize the self-referential, fourth-wall breaking possibilities of Bat-Mite as a fifth dimensional imp, and by corollary Mr. Mxyzptlk.

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Michael Golden’s Bat-Mite is just too adorbs

DC wasn’t yet ready to full dive into post-modernism, however, as Bat-Mite’s sole appearance in the 80s was a one-page cameo in a 1983 anniversary issue of The Brave and the Bold. Just as in his prior outing, he demands recognition from the corporate overlords (this time breaking the fourth wall outright by addressing the reader) only to be erased by a giant pencil a la Duck Amuck. The art is by Stephen DeStefano, although it’s such early work in his career that his personal style isn’t yet recognizable – unlike the page he contributed 16 years later to Dorkin’s World’s Funnest. While not quite a hidden gem, the inclusion of this forgotten rarity is definitely the kind of bonus indicating the volume’s organizers relished their task. The next two stories are Mxyzptlk tales from the late 80s era of Superman, first with writer/artist John Byrne’s re-introduction of the character and then a later appearance by writers Roger Stern and Tom Peyer, with art by Paris Cullins. Byrne’s story is as exemplary of high quality mainstream superhero comics as anything else he was doing during the 80s, while Stern & Peyer pit a fun novelty matchup of Mxy against Lex Luthor for a change. Cullins, whose art I wasn’t previously familiar with, has a style similar to John Byrne’s only more unhinged – he gets some wild expressions into his human characters, while Mxyzptlk often looks like a demonic gremlin. In other words, cool stuff.

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The gloriously gross 80s: Paris Cullins’ Mxyzptlk

The second best comic in the collection after Dorkin’s is Alan Grant & Kevin O’Neill’s post-Crisis reintroduction of Bat-Mite from 1992, Legend of the Dark Mite, which I cajoled Andrew into reading and reviewing here. Surprisingly, generously also included is Grant & O’Neill’s perennially unpopular follow-up from 1995, Mitefall (it’s great, but shops are still trying to get it out of their discount bins to this day) which continues the adventures of Bob Overdog and Bat-Mite in order to take the piss out of Knightfall storyline. Between this and Dorkin’s story, Bat-Mite really achieves his full potential as an avatar for writers seeking to mock DC from within. Sandwiched between these tales is a more sedate 1999 World’s Finest meeting of Bat-Mite and Mxy, which actually isn’t out of order thanks to an opening caption declaring it to take place “five years earlier” so the continuity commissars can’t complain. The Imp-Possible Dream has a humdrum plot but a surprisingly wry and snarky script by Karl Kesel – only Mxy could really get away with a Batman/Robin gay joke, right? Artist Peter Doherty’s versions of the imps kind of resemble Sylvester P. Smythe of Cracked magazine, while his human figures and faces are unfortunately stiff by comparison. Overall, it’s okay. Really, the book’s sole offensive inclusion is the concluding two-parter from 2008, Lil’ Leaguers, from the series Superman/Batman. In what Mxyzptlk admits to be a sales-generating gimmick (the most crass use of fourth wall breaking), superdeformed chibi versions of the DCU invade Batman and Superman’s world to run around being cuter, more marketable versions of them. Bat-Mite shows up for two pages at the conclusion to explain his collusion in the prank. It’s not a Mxy story, it’s not a Bat-Mite story and there’s a creepy lolicon vibe when lil’ Catwoman jumps on regular-size Batman. While not a bad comic – Rafael Albuquerque’s art is certainly appealing – it feels like unnecessary filler.

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Alan Grant & Kevin O’Neill’s Legend of the Dark Mite: comics in the 90s assumed you’d read the classics

Born of the era in comics when superheroes excelled at flights of fancy, Mxyzptlk and Bat-Mite’s history is almost as long as Superman and Batman’s. In 1986, the year of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns when superheroes were being put to bed, Alan Moore’s revelation of a malignant Mxy as Superman’s ultimate nemesis in Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow spoke slyly to the genre’s sea change; that powerful forces once joyful and innocent were degenerating into something sinister. Bat-Mite has enjoyed renewed popularity in recent years, with media such as the animated Batman: The Brave and the Bold employing him as a post-modern mouthpiece for multiple generations of Bat-fans, with the inspired casting of Paul Reubens. As superheroes are ultimately creatures of the comics medium no matter how many movies and cartoons are shoveled out for the illiterate masses, Bat-Mite and Mr. Mxyzptlk are creatures representing the medium’s unlimited possibilities for pure anarchic imagination. The talents who contributed to this book are many of the greatest in the industry. World’s Funnest  both the Evan Dorkin story and now the expanded collection bearing the same name, is an absolute must-have.

CREDITS

World’s Funnest; writers, Evan Dorkin, Jerry Siegel, Bill Finger, Jerry Coleman, Bob Rozakis, Stephen DeStefano, John Byrne, Roger Stern, Tom Peyer, Alan Grant, Karl Kesel, Michael Green, Mike Johnson; artists, Mike Allred, Frank Cho, Stephen DeStefano, Dave Gibbons, Jaime Hernandez, Stuart Immonen, Phil Jimenez, Doug Mahnke, David Mazzucchelli, Frank Miller, Sheldon Moldoff, Glen Murakami, Alex Ross, Scott Shaw, Jay Stephens, Ty Templeton, Jim Woodring, Joe Shuster, Dick Sprang, Michael Golden, John Byrne, Paris Cullins, Kevin O’Neill, Peter Doherty, Rafael Albuquerque; collection editor, Robin Wildman; publisher, DC Comics.

Dark Night: A True Batman Story (June 2016)

Dark_Night_A_True_Batman_Story_2016Superheroes appeal to children because, as Paul Dini points out in this memoir, they’re a child’s power fantasy. This book is about how he got brutally injured in a mugging while working as a writer on Batman: The Animated Series and his irrational shock that Batman wasn’t there to save him. Therefore the book is also about the fragile mental state of adults who still idolize superheroes beyond childhood, but Dini skims over that. He still idolizes funny underwear men for a living to this day, and that perceptual limitation is really the only thing keeping this very good comic from being great. Still, it’s probably the best Batman story of the year by far. They should’ve gone all out on promotion, instead of making it a Vertigo Book and arbitrarily consigning it to second-tier notice, for the sin of admitting Batman isn’t real.

A young man’s interest in fictional superheroes as objects of sincere admiration, rather than entertainment, grows inversely to their maturation, including the ability to physically defend themselves. This is the true stereotype of the 98 pound weakling who’d rather read Batman comics than play sports growing up – and now it’s worse, they’d rather play the Arkham Asylum games which Paul happened to write. Batman wins every millennial’s popularity contest for being the so-called “most realistic” superhero. His lack of superpowers suggests the illusion that if his geekiest admirers were sufficiently motivated by the most primal early trauma (premature loss of parents) and had access to unlimited time and money, they too could become strong enough to scare bullies. To step back and chart one’s enjoyment of Batman over time is to graph one’s personal growth or lack thereof. For those lucky enough to land a job writing the character, reality can get even more confused if you’re not sufficiently grounded. Paul Dini was vicariously living in Batman’s world for a living before reality kicked the living shit out of him.

Dark Night is about his rehabilitation and the wisdom garnered, only he didn’t seem to learn all that much in the final analysis. So he uses Batman, who has more moral authority than Jesus to people of my generation, as one of several licensed characters serving as an imaginary chorus whose words can convince us, and himself. It’s a very well done comic, but also a bit of a therapy session that’s overly self-congratulatory. Big questions about the power of myth or the actual danger of crime are sidestepped in favor of solipsism. At the conclusion he postures towards sharing some greater knowledge from the experience, but it winds up a fatuous “shit happens, dust yourself off and don’t be bitter” kind of message, after frequent avoidances of weightier aspects touched briefly and then ignored. The only one he devotes any attention to, since it figured most prominently into the difficulty of his recovery, is the low self-esteem of the average nerd. Even one whose dream of writing Batman cartoons came true.

I grew up on Batman: The Animated Series and as many fans will tell you, Dini wrote several of the most memorable episodes. What seems obvious in hindsight is how many of his episodes were either about bullied wimps or the lovesick: Joker’s Favor, The Man Who Killed Batman, Heart of Ice, and especially Mad as a Hatter – an effective origin tale for The Mad Hatter in which Jervis Tetch plays White Knight to his own workplace Alice and becomes a Dark Knight villain. At the episode’s climax, Alice is rendered comatose by mind control and Batman enrages the lovelorn geek by pointing out that what he truly wants is “a soulless little doll,” not an actual three-dimensional woman. Dini makes a big point of establishing his unsuccessful love life as the catalyst of fateful evening, albeit indirectly – it happened after he walked home from a bad date, rather than accepting a ride from the young would-be starlet who’d just given him the kiss-off. As Dini points out, the walk was through wealthy West Hollywood so it wasn’t an irrational assumption that he’d be safe. As he imagines various Batman villains anthropomorphizing his inner demons, the face of womanly torment is Poison Ivy rather the perhaps more apt choice of Mad Hatter. When narratively taking stock of his poor life decisions, chief among them is his pursuit of dating actress/model types whom he could brag about to his friends, rather than a woman he could someday marry. Soulless little dolls. As the adage goes, Hollywood is high school with money and a writer for Tiny Toons with ties to Steven Spielberg is like a dork whose rich parents are lending him their Bentley.

Dini puts so much weight into his lack of validation by beautiful women before getting jumped – and then, weirdly, the only follow-up is the unsurprising detail that one of these gold diggers barely cared about his situation when called up for sympathy. By this point we’ve already read the chilling page where, bloodied and beaten, he realizes upon staggering home that there will be no one inside to comfort him. Later in a flashback sequence during his hospitalization, he recalls being stood up by another pretty girl as his date to the Emmys. Despite winning and taking home one of the awards, his self-loathing apparently ran so deep he proceeded to cut himself in front of the mirror using the statuette, expressing disgust with his own chubby bespectacled nerd self. It’s a stunning and powerfully symbolic admission. He prefaces the night of his attack with all this fear of sexual inadequacy, but fails to draw any connection between the twin injuries to his masculinity: romantic rejection and getting your ass kicked. It doesn’t get any worse than that for the male ego, especially in the course of a single evening. His subsequent despair that he somehow deserved what happened, as karmic balance to his artistic success in life, is a crisis of manhood that he thinks himself too unique to grapple with. As his own narrator to this chapter in his life, he never lets on any understanding that the reader might have endured the same fears and sufferings, including his soon-to-be lowest point.

Recuperating from the horrific attack, holed up in his apartment and descending into depression, the principal question quickly becomes how Paul will find the will to continue writing Batman in a world where Batman doesn’t swoop in to save you IRL. The most striking passages of this comic aren’t Dini imagining Batman as a stern father figure, telling him to get up and stand tall after being knocked down. They are of The Joker insidiously urging him to wallow in self-pity and retreat into comforting overindulgence – fast food, video games, movies, et cetera – after the world has traumatized him. Joker even sells this retreat as a return to the “childhood bedroom” of Dini’s “invisible” youth, fleshed out in a few autobiographical pages at the start. This is particularly fascinating when taking into account how The Joker has equaled or eclipsed Batman’s popularity in mainstream culture by embodying narcissistic hedonism. (The 1989 film puts the sensitive creative person’s spin on this: The Joker as the dark power fantasy of the insensitive artist who “makes art until someone dies.”) Paul’s apartment is a den of toys, animation cells and “the trappings of geek nirvana.” Holy Target Audience, does he even realize he’s describing a large section of his readership? What’s disappointing is that he took what could have been a widely relatable true-life parable for every superhero fan about the limits of their escapism, and the soul death of arrested development, and instead portrays the restoration of his professional status quo – product output at the dream factory – as the crucial triumph.

Probably the most fascinating and telling scene is Dini’s anecdotal rebuttal to the traditional methods of manning up. As the wounds start to heal, Batman recommends that if he feels unattractive and physically vulnerable, he could lose weight, get in shape and start learning how to fight. In response to this completely reasonable proposal, Paul does a shock jump-forward to the day he almost bought a gun. Batman then mocks him for wanting to be like James Bond. In an evasive obfuscation, Paul retorts that he could never be like Batman. Now, Batman wasn’t implying that Paul become a real life Batman, just that he could regain confidence by dropping a few pounds and looking less of an easy target. Batman, who is of course Paul Dini writing a dialogue with himself, accuses Paul Dini of engaging in a power fantasy. It’s circular and manipulative; Paul is actually reassuring himself that there’s no middle ground between being totally defenseless and deluding yourself into thinking you can become James Bond by buying a gun, or Batman by taking karate lessons.

In the introspective wrap-up of the book’s conclusion, The Scarecrow taunts Paul with the potentiality of living his life in fear of future assailants, to which he retorts that he can’t live his life in fear of lightning strikes, either. He seems oblivious to the fact it is an extraordinarily privileged position to regard potentially fatal assault and battery as a statistical freak occurrence, no more predictable than natural disasters. For pity’s sake, one of the best scenes in the comic is the LAPD’s indifference to Paul’s plight after the incident, and his incredulousness that they’re not even going to dust for prints like The Dark Knight Detective™. He certainly admits to the hard-learned fact that the police aren’t always going to be there for him, let alone Batman, but he still won’t take any personal measures to feel safer in the future, still regarding violence as something unreal. Rationalizing to Batman that he’d have been murdered if he’d “tried anything physical,” he’s more or less alluding to the “one bad day” trope of The Killing Joke every Bat-fan knows by heart, telling The Joker that to “embrace anger and cruelty and try to use them to feel powerful” would be going down the path of Joker rather than Batman. Jeez, Paul, we get it, you didn’t want to start lifting weights. It’s a bit socially irresponsible to promote the idea that taking measures towards self-defense is tempting fate, just because you never thought you’d have your life threatened and don’t want to believe it could ever happen twice.

There’s an awkward racial component in Dark Night, injected but never acknowledged, which may help explain why Dini depicts himself as so guilty over his instinct to somehow toughen up after his bloody beating. Yes, the two guys who stomped him bore the curse of Ham and moments before their paths cross, Dini’s inner monologue chastises himself not to “be the dick who changes direction just because he sees a couple of black guys.” Later, Batman criticizes him for not thinking like Batman would upon seeing “two figures huddled close together, faces obscured, moving toward toward you in a predatory manner!” Hey, Bats, you don’t really need to profile when you live in a fictional city unstuck in time where all the criminals still wear fedoras. Batman then blames Paul for not changing direction from the two thug-lyfe looking gentlemen because he was “too worried about looking scared or judgmental.” It’s worth considering that at the time, it had only been a year since the Rodney King riots and Los Angeles was still on edge about black-on-white violence. One page later, a black colleague at the Warner Brothers Animation office bluntly asks Paul if the guys who did it were black. And he lies – he says only one of them was. “Damn it” the staffer says, and offers Paul a handshake, an implicit apology on behalf of all brothers. The matter is never brought up afterwards, and Dini doesn’t feel it incumbent on himself to explain to the reader what it says about him that he felt the need to lie. Later, there’s a suspicious glance cast at a black guy who approaches him in a music store, but whew – turns out he’s just a Tiny Toons fan. Again, as omniscient narrator, Dini never acknowledges any of this racial tension. I’d guess his reluctance to start seeing the world in a harsher light is at least somewhat tied to a fear of racially profiling which his conscience can’t allow. This fits right in to his self-absolving faith that the morally superior attitude towards violent crime is, as he literally states, to think of it as lightning which won’t strike him twice.

Dark Night promises more than it delivers in terms of thematic depth. However, the emotion is all there. The concept of a Batman writer, especially a talented one like Paul Dini, using the characters as invisible friends and enemies throughout his true story of surviving being the victim of a violent crime is such a solid, inspired basis for a graphic novel. It’s the kind of meta-story for which these characters are very well suited after 75 years of exhausting every possible straightforward comic book plot. They function best now as icons, which is why the comic is a clever and enjoyable read and The Lego Batman Movie will make more money than all the other Batman movies combined. It’s always preferable to see more poetic use of the characters than seeing them wedged into ill-fitting “realistic” stories. Dini does muddle around the big questions when he uses Batman for rhetorical stances on actual important matters like guns and criminal justice. What’s genuinely moving are the times when he sincerely exposes his vulnerability, holds his ego to account and examines how creative artistry shapes his worldview, in good times and bad.

Speaking of artistry, there’s really nothing to say about Eduardo Risso’s illustration except that it’s masterful. Dini’s career requires him to visually reference not only Batman: The Animated Series but other pop culture from Beany and Cecil to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and he’s always on-model. His own original designs for the Batman villains are simultaneously ugly and very appealing. He draws Paul past and present, in realistic and caricatured styles, sometimes changing from panel to panel depending on narrative needs, without ever misstepping. The color is also incredible, emphasizing every mood and blending human beings with Paul’s cartoon imaginings seamlessly.

This “True Batman Story” ends on a note of hope, with Harley Quinn welcoming Dini back to work. Harley Quinn is one of the worst Batman characters ever created, a supremely irritating Manic Pixie Dream Girl that could only have been invented by someone with issues around women.

Still, at least she only shows up in the last couple pages. Highly recommended!

CREDITS

Dark Night: A True Batman Story; story, Paul Dini; art, Eduardo Risso; letterer, Todd Klein; publisher, DC Comics.

The Dark Knight III: The Master Race 5 (August 2016)

DKTMR-Cv5-ds-aa40bAs the millennials like to say, I just can’t. Go on reading The Master Race any longer, that is. Maybe Miller and Azzarrello have something amazing planned for the conclusion, but anyone following this series bimonthly instead of waiting for the trade is throwing their money away. Half the issues so far have been mediocre, but this is the first to be a total waste of time. With the exception of a nice underwater Aquaman double splash page, and some cool panels of the Kandorians finally getting some of the wind knocked out of their sails, all of the imagery is recycled – not only from previous issues of the series; Miller actually swipes from himself by putting us in the cockpit of the Bat-Tank once again, and putting him back in his power suit. The only twist is that he’s now joined, in a lame pseudo-big moment cliffhanger, by Superman in his own powersuit – Superman, whose apparent death in a previous issue has now been revealed to have only been so much pointless padding for the already anemic storyline.

The mini-comic is a real stunner of a disappointment as well. There are almost no backgrounds whatsoever; Superman’s daughter and a Kandorian are flying around trading vacuous quips atop fluorescent gradients. Nothing remotely interesting happens.

The only reason I didn’t ask for my money back is that comic book shops are dying and need all the help they can get, but crap like this is exactly why they’re dying. Monthly comics probably shouldn’t be a thing any longer, unless publishers want to make a real effort towards content that justifies the price tag. Maybe they should focus on publishing “graphic novels” and transitioning the shops into full-on bookstores, while putting more effort into promoting work like Paul Dini’s Dark Night: A True Batman Story which could appeal to both casual and longtime Batman fans. Last month’s double-issue-length Dark Knight Returns: The Last Crusade was surprisingly entertaining – clearly Miller and Azzarello are capable of doing decent, serviceable Batman stories, which only makes a comic like this one so insulting. If the whole trifle were published all at once in one volume, it might be an overall enjoyable read. But at present, this series is a scam.

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.

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.

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.

The Dark Knight III: The Master Race 2 (December 2016)

4960053-dktmr_cv2_ds-1The only unpredictable turn of this comic is that DC actually does allow Miller & Azzarello to acknowledge the existence of The Dark Knight Strikes Again – which is looking better every day compared to The Master Race’s cowardly underwhelmingness. Issue two rehashes virtually everything from the previous one. The only addition is the introduction of a villain behind the bottled city of Kandor’s titular Übermenschen, in a twist everyone should have seen coming. What’s more disappointing is how Miller’s greatest hits are still being dusted off for what’s shaping up to be more of a soft reboot of the “Dark Knight” brand than anything singular. Ellen Yindel interrogates Carrie Kelly in a jail cell copied straight out of Sin City, and then the Bat-tank returns for an action scene. Bruce Wayne is revealed to still be alive, spoiler alert, though this revelation might be the only hope the series has for entertainment value as nobody writes Batman as batshit as Frank. But to tease Batman as being truly dead and then back away from the idea is fake boldness, as seeing Kelly carry on without Bruce would be intriguing. Alas.

Time is weirdly out of joint in the DKU. Bruce Wayne and Ellen Yindel look exactly the same as we saw them in ’86, which wouldn’t necessarily be distracting except for dialogue when she actually points to her face and calls herself old, despite Andy Kubert obviously not having aged her a day. His art is still nothing if not professional; the 1989-style Gotham City looks terrific and the double-page reveal of Kandor’s formerly teensy, newly enlarged inhabitants is worth a pause. Where he falters is character work. There’s not an iota of humanity in anyone’s closeups. In particular, an extreme closeup of The Atom’s face (how ironic) is unpleasantly mannequin-like. Again, one wishes for the raw muscle of Miller’s pencils over Kubert’s cold slickness. Maybe the worst thing about the second chapter of The Master Race is how Miller didn’t even pencil the inset comic, the conceptual highlight of issue one. Artist Eduardo Risso’s action scene between Wonder Woman and daughter Lara is adequately staged but stiffly posed, with flat detailing worsened by Trish Mulvihill’s flat colors.

I’m neither a fanboy of, nor a hater on Frank Miller. His contributions to Batman’s history are invaluable. But he and Azzarello need to justify this series, quick, because if someone as open-minded to the venture as me is already frustrated, I can only imagine how unimpressed the average young reader must be so far. Miller’s sentimentally terse flavor of writing barely registers, and with the broken promise of at least getting new art from him once per issue in a mini-comic, there may be no compelling reasons to ride this cash-in all the way through.

CREDITS

The Dark Knight III: The Master Race Book Two; story, Frank Miller & Brian Azzarello; pencils, Andy Kubert and Eduardo Risso; inks, Klaus Janson; colorists, Brad Anderson and Trish Mulvihill; letterer, Clem Robins; publisher, DC Comics.

The Dark Knight III: The Master Race 1 (November 2016)

1500x1500_f7053631fab02ddb09c3e5e2680f91c2a783acc3d0f517464c4f38b4In December 2001, a follow-up to The Dark Knight Returns was a momentous occasion. Batman fandom was in hibernation. The character had been in the mainstream spotlight for a solid ten year epoch, starting with The Dark Knight Returns, continuing through the Burton movies, the animated series and finally flaming out with Batman & Robin. In hindsight it was a time of limbo between disinterest from the general public and the oncoming renewal of interest from an unholy collusion of bros and manboys in the form of sadistic video games and Christopher Nolan movies: Batman reinvented for the torture porn set.

At the time, it had been two years since Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace and three months since September 11th. We not only needed the reassurance of our pop cultural icons, we needed reassurance that our pop cultural icons would not let us down again. Into this maelstrom returned Frank Miller, who’d made Batman grimdarknight forevermore in the pseudo-cyber, pseudo-punk decade of the 80s, that time which in 2001 hadn’t even yet been consummated (along with the 90s) as consumer pop culture’s halcyon era. Surely Frank would not, could not let us down. He would make – or rather, re-make (again) Bats and deliver the gut punch to the brain that The Dark Knight Returns had been to any young reader in 1986, or 1996, or even 2001.

Instead, The Dark Knight Strikes Again was a colorful, hyperkinetic pinball ride around the DCU. It’s “about” post-9/11 stuff, sure. The police state, terrorism, media schizophrenia – but in the abstract and without the specific real world references Miller used to address similar topics in 1986. Reagan, for example, was in The Dark Knight Returns, but Bush 2 was not in Dark Knight 2. The story was barely even about Batman: he and Carrie Kelly go around gathering up an all-star team-up of every retired superhero from The Atom to Plastic Man in a crusade against Lex Luthor and Brainiac. Meanwhile, Dick Grayson pretends to be the Joker to take revenge on Batman, a twist DC and Judd Winick obviously liked enough to rip off a few years later in Under the Red Hood. Caught up in the middle somewhere are Superman, Wonder Woman and their daughter Lara.

The story was a mess, but the art was pretty cool in a completely loose and crazy way, so jarringly different from The Dark Knight Returns that it was extremely difficult to appreciate at the time. Miller going wild with DC iconography, instead of telling a focused Batman story, was frustrating.

Another 15 years later we now have Dark Knight III. The phrase that became a franchise unto itself. The Dark Knight. The first Batman movie about something, for smart people. “‘The Dark Knight Returns’?” she asked me. “Don’t you mean ‘The Dark Knight Rises’?”. No, I began to explain, it’s a new animated movie based on a graphic novel from 1986…

Dark Knight III is still, at least, an event. An event for whomever so loves characters-appearing-in-publications-by-DC Comics enough to buy some of those publications, and perhaps be persuaded to shell out a little extra for some many dozens of variant covers. Really, it’s all a promotional expense to drum up enthusiasm for Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Per that unspoken edict, the comic already feels like Dark Knight 2 redesigned by committee. Gone is the unhinged Frank Miller art and Lynne Varley colors, replaced with the clean modern pencils of Andy Kubert, and colors by Brad Anderson which resemble Dark Knight ’86. Gotham City’s skyline resembles the 80s near-future of Anton Furst, and on the very next page is the return of Commissioner Ellen Yindel. Ellen Yindel!! She wasn’t even in The Dark Knight Strikes Again. While Superman and Wonder Woman’s daughter Lara is back from Strikes Again, the otherwise total lack of continuity from The Master Race’s predecessor strongly suggests that Miller and co-writer Brian Azzarello were instructed by DC to work from the supposition that Strikes Again never happened. I’m shocked they even titled it numerically.

While Wonder Woman and Superman (who, not coincidentally, are both in Batman v. Superman) show up along with their daughter and even The Atom, Miller & Azzarello are already making it clear that this is a Batman story. The opening, narrated with text messages, shows him save a black kid from murderous cops (ooh, topical!) and by the end of the issue he is revealed as a she (ditto) – Carrie Kelly taking over as Batman for an apparently dead Bruce Wayne is the paint-by-numbers sequel people wanted in 2001.

The provocative subtitle was seemingly chosen to troll liberal-progressive fanboys still sore about Miller’s “Islamaphobic” Holy Terror graphic novel (which originally starred Batman) and anti-Occupy Wall Street comments of recent years. The Black Lives Matter theme is something of a curveball for everyone, but considering Lara wants The Atom’s help to big-ify the bottled city of Kandor it’s not hard to predict that “The Master Race” probably refers to how the Kandor-ites will regard themselves upon attaining human size, in yet another humdrum routine of the essential Batman vs. Superman conflict about human/superhuman power/responsibility. But we’ll see.

The only really intriguing and positive aspect of The Dark Knight III’s debut is that 15 pages of it are a mini-comic-within-a-comic, drawn by Miller himself, covering the scene wherein Lara brings Kandor to The Atom. Playing with the medium’s format is always good. Miller reigns in his art style to a conventional look compatible with Kubert’s, and he must really love The Atom because Strikes Again opened with a near-identical sequence of Carrie Kelly rescuing him from prison. It’s his own little nod to his own private Dark Knight Universe, and anyone who’s kept up with it.

Which isn’t easy. And only intermittently rewarding. Topical or not, “Book One” doesn’t immediately grab you the way The Dark Knight Returns does to this day, or even the way The Dark Knight Strikes Again did with its expectation-defying audaciousness. But he’s still got seven more issues to do something with old Bats even as inadvertently iconic as “I’m the Goddamn Batman.”

CREDITS

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

Gotham by Midnight 5 (May 2015)

Gotham by Midnight #5

I asked for Templesmith Spectre and Templesmith Spectre I got. I shouldn’t have asked for so much. Giant Spectre deciding whether or not to judge Gotham City. It seems like it should be okay, but it’s not. Maybe because the giant monster is just a blob of ghosts or something. Maybe because Batman figures into it and Templesmith can’t bring the cinematic scale to a Batwing attack and it just doesn’t work.

Or maybe because the drama of the issue is whether or not the boss of the unit is going to shoot Corrigan in the head to stop the Spectre. Worse, Fawkes feels the need to go with a shock soft cliffhanger. There isn’t much personality to the issue either.

It’s a disaster issue by a couple guys who don’t seem to know how to scale one out.

The art’s nice, the writing’s okay enough; it just doesn’t connect.

CREDITS

Judgment on Gotham; writer, Ray Fawkes; artist, Ben Templesmith; letterer, Saida Temofonte; editors, Dave Wielgosz and Rachel Gluckstern; publisher, DC Comics.

Batman Arkham: The Riddler (May 2015)

rid.pngMost Bat-fans glorify and self-identify with The Joker, but in actuality the average DC Comics fanboy is closer to The Riddler: needy, nerdy, narcissistic and way too smug about the lifetime of meaningless trivia they’ve accumulated.

That said, I love the guy. His gimmick is basically self-sabotage disguised as grandiosity. He’s every overweight dork in jean shorts and a fedora who just spent six months in the gym and studying how to be a Pickup Artist, whose core of vicious insecurity is barely inches below his flamboyantly confident new exterior. There’s a neurotic underdog aspect to his criminal insanity, as opposed to the anarchist self-indulgence or melodramatic tragedy of so many other Batman villains.

Chuck Dixon’s 1995 origin story Questions Multiply the Mystery formally introduced this angle on Edward Nygma, and it’s a real pity it wasn’t included in this first official Riddler “greatest hits” trade paperback. Why not? Where also is the other key Riddler appearance of the modern era, Neil Gaiman’s deft little post-modern 1989 tale When is a Door? Essentially a monologue by an aged, wistful Riddler, he reflects on how everything in Gotham’s gotten so grim and gritty of late and there doesn’t seem to be a place anymore for super-criminals like him who just want to have some goofy fun – rather than rack up a body count. A simple observation, but the entire key to Riddler’s role in a post-Dark Knight Returns world: compared to the rest of Batman’s increasingly depraved Rogue’s Gallery, Eddie is relatively something of a gentleman.

Batman Arkham: The Riddler doesn’t include either of those gems, or even a single story from 1984 to 2006. As if there wasn’t a decent Riddler comic for 22 years! Absent any apparent legal reprinting issues, this yawning historical gap seems to have been caused simply by editorial ambivalence. The laziness is there at first glance, from the recycled New 52 cover art to the title – who’s “Batman Arkham”? I gather the idea that the collection is akin to a trip to the E. Nygma cell at Arkham Asylum, but there’s not even an introduction describing the character’s legacy, let alone some “Heh, heh, heh! Welcome to Arkham, kiddies!” kind of Cryptkeeper curtain-opener. Of the 14 compiled issues, the first 9 are from the Golden, Silver and Bronze ages of DC and that alone probably makes the book worthwhile overall, especially for Riddler’s 1948 debut by Bill Finger & Dick Sprang, and 1960s revival by Gardner Fox.

The Riddle-Less Robberies of the Riddler from 1966 is a particularly memorable bit of introspective villain psychoanalysis: Riddler decides to stop leaving riddles and just be a normal thief, only to discover his addictive obsession won’t let him quit. A definitive story, but its inclusion is probably chance. Why, for instance, if you’re only going to reprint two Riddler stories from the whole decade of the 1970s, wouldn’t you want to include the one that Neal Adams drew? It’s like they were picked at random. Even the modern age choices feel arbitrary – like an abysmal 2007 Paul Dini issue of Detective Comics which is primarily a Harley Quinn timewaster using Edward Nygma as mere supporting player. No respect. How appropriate.

The contemporary stuff isn’t all bad, however. Scott Snyder & Ray Fawkes’ 2013 Riddler one-shot Solitaire is the only Batman comic I’ve read since the Animated Series spinoffs to build thoughtfully on the conception of Edward Nygma as a conceited intellectual who doesn’t realize he’s also a lunatic.

Batman Arkham: The Riddler is far from the ideal compendium for one of Batman’s oldest, most unique and iconic adversaries, but asks a fair enough price for all his earliest classic battles of wits in one volume.

CREDITS

Writers, Bill Finger, Gardner Fox, David Vern Reed, Len Wein, Don Kraar, Doug Moench, Paul Dini, Peter Calloway, Scott Snyder, Ray Fawkes, Charles Soule; artists, Dick Sprang, Sheldon Moldoff, Frank Springer, John Calnan, Irv Novick, Carmine Infantino, Don Newton, Don Kramer, Andres Guinaldo, Jeremy Haun, Dennis Calero; editor, Rachel Pinnelas; publisher, DC Comics.

Gotham by Midnight 4 (April 2015)

Gotham by Midnight #4

Well, Templesmith gets to draw the Spectre and it mostly works out. He gets to draw big giant Spectre even, which I wasn’t expecting. And big giant Spectre is like a big giant monster, fighting another big giant monster. Gotham by Midnight is definitely distinct. Even if Templesmith’s Batwing looks like a Batarang. And his panel arrangement doesn’t change to accommodate a giant-size character.

As for Fawkes, he jumps around the cast but doesn’t give them anything important to do. Story arc is almost over, it’s time to hurry. There are a couple hints of character development, but nothing substantial.

There’s also some of the explanation for the arc’s supernatural events. It seems way too large scale for what Fawkes has been doing in the comic. I’m curious to see how he finishes it, but will keep coming back for the Templesmith art regardless. It’s always interesting to see.

CREDITS

We Fight What We Become; writer, Ray Fawkes; artist, Ben Templesmith; letterer, Saida Temofonte; editors, Dave Wielgosz and Rachel Gluckstern; publisher, DC Comics.

Gotham by Midnight 3 (March 2015)

Gotham by Midnight #3

On second thought, maybe seeing Templesmith fully realize the Spectre isn’t a good idea for Gotham by Midnight. He has to handle big supernatural action this issue and it doesn’t come off. It’s too constrained and his style is no good for discerning the action without narration.

Templesmith’s regular action–in this issue, it’s a flashback to a hostage crisis of sorts–works out fine. The personality carries it, makes it worth figuring it all out. But the big stuff? Not so much.

As for the story, it’s Fawkes still building the B plot. The A plot has Corrigan and Drake (the names are good enough to be memorable, which is no small compliment–though, of course, Corrigan doesn’t count) heading to a hospital for a possession or something. And Drake’s flashback.

It all ties together in time for a haunting soft cliffhanger.

It’s consistently entertaining, with mostly good art.

CREDITS

We Become What We Fight; writer, Ray Fawkes; artist, Ben Templesmith; letterer, Saida Temofonte; editors, Dave Wielgosz and Rachel Gluckstern; publisher, DC Comics.

Gotham by Midnight 2 (February 2015)

Gotham by Midnight #2

For a good fifth of this issue, which Templesmith paces out well, it seems like the Spectre might show up. He does, but Templesmith doesn’t show him. But for a while, it seems like Templesmith is going to show the Spectre. It’s really cool.

And Fawkes and Templesmith know what they’re doing with it. Fawkes constructs a whole flashback not just around the origin story of the nun, but also of the villains–and the Spectre gets to show up. Sort of.

The rest of the issue just isn’t long enough. Fawkes has the nun and another cop with a couple possessed kids at home, then Corrigan and the bean counter (who, surprisingly, isn’t regular cast yet) fighting the big bad of the issue. The action gets the emphasis, but one wants to see Templesmith do it all.

Fawkes has his bumpy moments, but Gotham by Midnight’s really compelling.

CREDITS

We Will Not Rest; writer, Ray Fawkes; artist, Ben Templesmith; letterer, Dezi Sienty; editors, Dave Wielgosz and Rachel Gluckstern; publisher, DC Comics.

Gotham by Midnight 1 (January 2015)

Gotham by Midnight #1

Thanks to Ben Templesmith’s art, Gotham by Midnight works a lot better than it should. A lot of Ray Fawkes’s dialogue is generic cop show stuff, but Templesmith has a way of visually rushing some of the conversations through how he positions the characters. In other words, he makes the problem spots shorter than they’d otherwise be… and it helps immensely.

Some of this first issue plays like Templesmith’s famous, mysterious (and unfinished) cop comic Fell. It does not seem unintentional. The story beats for the first few pages read like a remake.

Fawkes introduces a bunch of characters and a lot of story. The final investigation sequence is a little rushed–in the script, not the art–because Fawkes has an idea for an effective cliffhanger. It’s a little forced, but once the comic switches into full procedural mode, a lot of the seams start showing anyway.

Not bad.

CREDITS

We Do Not Sleep; writer, Ray Fawkes; artist, Ben Templesmith; letterer, Dezi Sienty; editors, Dave Wielgosz and Rachel Gluckstern; publisher, DC Comics.

Batman: The Deal (November 2013)

Batman: The Deal

Thanks to the Internet, unofficial, fan-made productions can get a lot of exposure. Why people haven’t been doing more unofficial superhero comics is beyond me. It makes great senses but you don’t hear about many.

I read about The Deal because of the artist, Daniel Bayliss, and tracked down the comic. Bayliss uses a finer line, Paul Pope type style. The story is just Batman and the Joker and he doesn’t do either of their faces well, but the movement of the bodies is fantastic. The detailed scenery is awesome.

As for Gerardo Preciado’s script… it’s predictable. Except maybe the lengthy quote at the end, which is a good quote, but doesn’t belong. Preciado tries to work out the problems between Batman and the Joker and flubs it. He goes way too far, way too obvious.

But the absurdity gives Bayliss the chance to show off his compositional skills.

D 

CREDITS

Writer, Gerardo Preciado; artist, Daniel Bayliss; publisher, Moonhead Press.

Detective Comics 567 (October 1986)

5672

The headline on the cover promises an "off-beat" story from Harlan Ellison. Off-beat can't have been an intentional euphemism for bad… Ellison writes Batman as an insensitive, ill-mannered, narcissist.

On patrol, Batman can't find anyone actually needing his help. Instead of thinking the best of people, Batman assumes the worst. Ellison might like the character, but apparently he thinks of him as a reactionary fascist.

Batman moves from one interaction from another, never learning from his propensity to prejudge. The art, from Colan and Smith, is occasionally too rough but often okay. There are some nice Colan establishing shots but also some very undercooked panels.

The Green Arrow backup is far superior. Not for the superhero content, which is competently illustrated by Woch and Dave Hunt, just poorly composed, but the finale. Cavalieri comes up with a great finish for the storyline.

As finale for a pre-Crisis Detective, it's dreadful.

D 

CREDITS

The Night of Thanks, But No Thanks!; writer, Harlan Ellison; penciller, Gene Colan; inker, Bob Smith; colorist, Adrienne Roy; letterer, John Costanza. Green Arrow, The Face of Barricade!; writer, Joey Cavalieri; penciller, Stan Woch; inker, Dave Hunt; colorist, Shelley Eiber; letterer, Todd Klein. Editor, Len Wein; publisher, DC Comics.

Batman 400 (October 1986)

830781

I hate this comic. I hate how DC used it, I hate how Moench writes it, even if it was an editorial decision.

There are nods to Moench’s run, but only so far as he gets to give each of his characters a page to sort of say goodbye. There’s no closure on any of the story lines, not a single one.

There’s also a lot of crappy art. It’s an anniversary issue with a lot of big names drawing either poorly or against their style. Rick Leonardi and Arthur Adams are some of the worst offenders, but not even Brian Bolland does particularly well. Ken Steacy is the only decent one.

Moench’s writing for a different audience than usual, the casual Batman reader, not the regular. Apparently he thinks the casual readers like endless exposition and incredible stupidity. It’s a distressing, long read; a terrible capstone to Moench’s run.

D- 

CREDITS

Resurrection Night!; writer, Doug Moench; pencillers, John Byrne, Steve Lightle, George Perez, Paris Cullins, Bill Sienkiewicz, Art Adams, Tom Sutton, Steve Leialoha, Joe Kubert, Ken Steacy, Rick Leonardi and Brian Bolland; inkers, Byrne, Bruce Patterson, Perez, Larry Mahlstedt, Sienkiewicz, Terry Austin, Ricardo Villagran, Leialoha, Kubert, Steacy, Karl Kesel and Bolland; colorist, Adrienne Roy; letterers, John Costanza and Andy Kubert; editor, Len Wein; publisher, DC Comics.

Batman 399 (September 1986)

844945

It’s a depressing issue, but Moench’s ambitious in that depression. He plays some of the thriller scenes like a melodrama–a guy storming over to have it out with the murderer of his girlfriend–while having Batman moon over Catwoman.

Most interesting is the scene where Bruce Wayne, cowl off, calls Catwoman on the phone and comes off desperate. Moench’s trying real hard at it.

He doesn’t make it. Not with that scene, not with the two or three breakup scenes in the rest of the issue, but he tries real hard. It’s too bad because it feels like Moench doing a course correction for the series, which had toyed with bringing a female compatriot in for the boys.

Sadly, no, Moench just wasted months hinting at it.

As his run winds down, there’s not much left for him to resolve. Batman’s going from pre to post-Crisis very quietly.

C+ 

CREDITS

Strike Two!; writer, Doug Moench; artist, Tom Mandrake; colorist, Adrienne Roy; letterer, Albert De Guzman; editor, Len Wein; publisher, DC Comics.

Detective Comics 565 (August 1986)

5670

Colan’s really slipping. His faces are getting lifeless and awkward. The scene where Jason is making out with his girlfriend, the girl looks like a mannequin.

Moench goes on and on about love this issue in the very close to Batman third person narration. He’s got a serial killer shrinking ex-girlfriends heads, all sorts of romance. Batman and Catwoman are fighting, she’s had enough of his lack of trust. On and on. But Moench hasn’t set up the series for this arc to have much impact. It definitely should, but it doesn’t. Maybe because the relationships–except Jason, who’s got game, apparently–are so chaste. I think Jane Austen would’ve gotten more indiscreet than Moench.

The story’s fine, it’s just meandering.

The Green Arrow backup has some nice Stan Woch art and a really dumb story from Cavalieri. It ends with some guy benevolently holding a woman hostage. Seriously.

C+ 

CREDITS

The Love Killing; writer, Doug Moench; penciller, Gene Colan; inker, Bob Smith; colorist, Adrienne Roy; letterer, John Costanza. Green Arrow, Death by Misadventure; writer, Joey Cavalieri; artist, Stan Woch; colorist, Shelley Eiber; letterer, Bob Lappan. Editor, Len Wein; publisher, DC Comics.

Batman 398 (August 1986)

2860

Moench finally starts dealing with some things this issue–Jason finally stops being such a little turd and Catwoman finally stops letting Batman treat her like half a partner. There’s a big showdown between Batman and Catwoman; what’s unspoken is how Bruce Wayne figures in. Batman gets to know Selina’s life, she doesn’t get to know (or share) his. It’s a good scene.

The Two-Face story comes to an end with an intricate plan from Batman to capture Harvey. Except, in this plan, there’s very little interaction between them during the majority of the issue. They have a showdown. Until then, it’s sort of goofy because Batman and Catwoman are following him through Gotham on motorcycles. Mandrake draws Batman’s figure odd, so it reminds a little too much of the TV show.

Speaking of Mandrake, some of his figures are really rough, but his Catwoman pages are absolutely phenomenal.

B 

CREDITS

About Faces!; writer, Doug Moench; artist, Tom Mandrake; colorist, Adrienne Roy; letterer, John Costanza; editor, Len Wein; publisher, DC Comics.

Detective Comics 564 (July 1986)

5669

Colan’s art seems to have stabilized quite a bit. In a lot of ways, it’s less ambitious and a waste of his talent, but at least there aren’t any awful Jason panels. Instead, Jason’s barely in the comic. Moench sends him out on a date because he’s so perturbed at Batman hanging out with Catwoman all the time.

Catwoman, in the meantime, is perturbed Batman doesn’t treat her as a full partner. Batman’s oblivious to all these things, of course. He’s too busy trying to work up a plan against Two-Face, which Moench hides from the reader to get a surprise (or two).

It’s an okay enough feature, but it feels padded. Moench’s either avoiding a lot–like Bruce Wayne–or he’s just bored.

The Green Arrow backup has a terrible story. Inker Steve Montano and Rodin Rodriguez give Moore’s a more static quality; it’s still good, but different.

C+ 

CREDITS

Double Crosses; writer, Doug Moench; penciller, Gene Colan; inker, Bob Smith; colorist, Adrienne Roy; letterer, John Costanza. Green Arrow, This Masquerade; writer, Joey Cavalieri; penciller, Jerome Moore; inkers, Steve Montano and Rodin Rodriguez; colorist, Shelley Eiber; letterer, Todd Klein. Editor, Len Wein; publisher, DC Comics.

Batman 397 (July 1986)

2859

Mandrake draws Two-Face’s head a little wide–probably to give himself room–but otherwise his art has gotten rather refined. There are some excellent panels this issue; Mandrake is able to do the more outlandish superhero ones too, which is nice. Moench doesn’t write many of them, but they’re there.

Speaking of Moench, he’s trying things again. While he’s again reduced Robin to whining about Catwoman, there is a whole subplot about Circe. She’s the model with the burned face; she’s stripping–in mask–to make ends meet. Catwoman has a reaction to it. Moench doesn’t seem to get having Catwoman, in scant garb, considered about the objectification of women is a little off, but it’s an honest response from her at least. Just problematic.

Moench’s focus on her in the supporting cast has reduced Gordon to background. Even Bullock gets a courting subplot.

Still, it’s perfectly serviceable stuff.

B- 

CREDITS

Binary Brains; writer, Doug Moench; artist, Tom Mandrake; colorist, Adrienne Roy; letterer, John Costanza; editor, Len Wein; publisher, DC Comics.

Detective Comics 563 (June 1986)

5668

Finally, a villain Moench can write–he does a great job with Two-Face this issue, just great. It makes up for Batman not really having a story. He and Catwoman are out on case, there’s something mysterious going on with Jerry Hall. Sorry, Circe.

Meanwhile, Jason is ready to tell some girl he goes to school with all about Robin. As disastrously bad as Moench writes this particular character arc–all the anti-drug messages really make me miss Jason and Nocturna’s awkward, but at least ambitious, doomed relationship. Anyway, as bad as Moench writes Jason in high school… it’s nothing compared to how Colan pencils him. Jason’s this fat little cherub. Maybe Smith was overextended and couldn’t ink properly.

Generally okay art otherwise. Not great Colan, but decent.

Cavalieri tells the Green Arrow backup through flashbacks to cut down on action. It’s lame but Moore’s pencils are breathtaking.

B 

CREDITS

Free Faces; writer, Doug Moench; penciller, Gene Colan; inker, Bob Smith; colorist, Adrienne Roy; letterer, John Costanza. Green Arrow, Winner and Still Champion; writer, Joey Cavalieri; penciller, Jerome Moore; inker, Dell Barras; colorist, Jeanine Casey; letterer, Bob Lappan. Editor, Len Wein; publisher, DC Comics.

Batman 396 (June 1986)

2858

Robin is such a little punk this issue Gordon finally yells at him. Moench has given up on Bruce Wayne and Jason Todd the past few issues–given up on any Robin characterization besides him being impertinent–but it doesn’t actually hurt the comic much. Moench wasn’t good at the regular people stuff anyway.

Mandrake’s art has a lot of energy. I love the work he puts in on expressions, whether they’re full panel or just a medium shot.

This issue finishes the “Film Freak” story–probably the worst of Moench’s villains and most of them are so terrible, being worst is an accomplishment (the Night-Slayer was a doozy). There’s a lot of action, a tight pace, a surprise third act… right after a surprise in the second. Moench’s on his plotting game at least.

It took him too long to find the partner dynamics he could write well.

B- 

CREDITS

Box-Office Smash; writer, Doug Moench; artist, Tom Mandrake; colorist, Adrienne Roy; letterer, John Costanza; editor, Len Wein; publisher, DC Comics.

Detective Comics 562 (May 1986)

5667

It’s hard to recall the feature story after the fantastic art on the Green Arrow backup. Moore does an amazing job. It’s packed with content too, so there’s a lot of variety. It’s not good content; since adding Black Canary, Cavalieri is struggling with a storyline and the basic characterizations. But great art. Just great.

On the feature, Colan continues his downward slide. There are occasionally good panels and often great composition in long shots and medium shots, but Colan and Smith aren’t bringing the detail anymore.

It’s a tense issue. Moench writes his villain to be more of a spree killer than a supervillain, which is a nice change. There’s a lot more talk about Robin’s jealousy over Catwoman, but no sign Moench knows where to take it. Not even Robin and Bullock are amusing together.

The feature has some moments; Batman and Catwoman do make a good team.

B- 

CREDITS

Reeling; writer, Doug Moench; penciller, Gene Colan; inker, Bob Smith; colorist, Adrienne Roy; letterer, John Workman. Green Arrow, The Criminal Element; writer, Joey Cavalieri; penciller, Jerome Moore; inker, Dell Barras; colorist, Jeanine Casey; letterer, Agustin Mas. Editor, Len Wein; publisher, DC Comics.

Batman 395 (May 1986)

2857

Moench tries for way too much this issue. First, he’s got a new villain for Batman to deal with, then he’s got Batman and Catwoman smooching at the Bat-signal. Robin’s jealous so he teams up with Harvey Bullock. So both teams are investigating, Robin’s being nasty to Catwoman, but then it all turns out it’s a Hitchcock homage with Vicki and Julia.

Any number of those items could fuel its own issue–or easily half issue–but Moench throws them all in here. Oh, I forgot his lame, film-quoting villain. Moench overstuffs the issue; it comes as a surprise even, which is a plus. At first, it seems like Julia and Vicki are around as filler for a scene, not the protagonists of the cliffhanger.

Another problem is Mandrake. He’s too loose this issue, his figures too exaggerated. Hurried might be all right, but the art seems rushed.

C+ 

CREDITS

The Film Freak; writer, Doug Moench; artist, Tom Mandrake; colorist, Adrienne Roy; letterers, John Workman and John Costanza; editor, Len Wein; publisher, DC Comics.

Detective Comics 561 (April 1986)

5666

Because the world needs more anti-drug messages. Jason really likes the new girl at school, but she wants to do drugs. Can Jason–and Robin–convince her to stay square?

It’s hard to say whether Moench wanted to tell a Jason story or wanted to do a drug prevention story. He hasn’t shown Jason at school before, so he has to introduce the bully as well as the girl. Jason’s such a poorly realized character, why would his school be any different. And why would he be in public school? And if he’s not in public school, why couldn’t the bully just steal his mom’s prescription drugs instead of robbing a pharmacy?

Worse, Colan is real lazy. Inkers Smith and Ricardo Villagran don’t do much to fix the problems either. The super-balding Bruce is a particular eyesore.

Beautiful pencils from Moore on Green Arrow. Shame about the story.

D 

CREDITS

Flying Hi; writer, Doug Moench; penciller, Gene Colan; inkers, Bob Smith and Ricardo Villagran; colorist, Adrienne Roy; letterer, John Workman. Green Arrow, In the Grip of Steelclaw!; writer, Joey Cavalieri; penciller, Jerome Moore; inker, Dell Barras; colorist, Jeanine Casey; letterer, Agustin Mas. Editor, Len Wein; publisher, DC Comics.

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