Friday Double Feature Comics Show: The Bat-Man

Welcome to this week's edition of the Friday Double Feature Comics Show, The Long and Shortbox of It's tribute to that most abstract, underrated and misunderstood quality of comics- pulp. This week: The Bat-Man.

In some ways, Batman is the most pulpy figure in all of comics. He's the world's greatest detective, he's trained to physical perfection, he's rich enough to maintain all sorts of useful gadgets, and, as a matter of official policy, he doesn't exist. It's almost as if he's Sam Spade, Doc Savage and the Spirit all rolled into one cool bat-package, as if he was created to take some of the most popular features from all of the pulps and use them to complement each other.

In other ways, though, Batman has a sheen that makes attempts at adding a little grit to the character fall flat; this is, I suspect, a result of the campy television series featuring Adam West as the Caped Crusader. For a long time, this is the vision of the character that held sway. Then the 80's happened, and grime came back to Gotham, and, while sometimes the two visions of the character manage to coexist (notably in Tim Burton's movie), Batman's pulpier side has been winning ever since. Even the campier parts of the Batman mythos- like the Batman of Zur-Ehn-Arrh- have been pulped a little bit in the recent past, and, as a result, are both a little more serious and a little more wild than those elements were originally.

In this context, then, the presence of two very pulpy Batman-related miniseries makes a great deal of sense. Both Brian Azzarello's First Wave and Grant Morrison's The Return of Bruce Wayne are pulp rewritings of DC history, with the former combining the various worlds of characters like Doc Savage, The Spirit and the Blackhawks with that of the Caped Crusader, while the latter suggests that Batman is sort of an every-hero, at least as far as pulp standbys are concerned: cavemen, cowboys, puritans, detectives, pirates, etc. Both ideas are fascinating, and both series are pretty good, if also flawed, and last week's releases are pretty good examples why.

The Return of Bruce Wayne #4, which is officially titled "Dark Night, Dark Rider" but which everyone is calling "The One With Cowboy Batman", is, in terms of its self-contained story, the clearest entry in the mini-series yet. Everything about this issue, in and of itself, makes complete sense: there's a clear narrative arc, we understand each character's motivations, there's no difficult to understand sci-fi mumbo-jumbo that will prove unnecessary because of a much simpler explanation later and, most importantly, it all connects back into itself. The story is Grant Morrison at his absolute tightest, if not his absolute best (there's nothing mind-blowing here, just comics in a grand style); others have found the inclusion of Jonah Hex a mite superfluous, but in giving us Hex rather than some random bounty hunter, Morrison gives us a clear idea of his intentions for the part Hex has to play and of the story's stakes. This makes "The One With Cowboy Batman" an extremely satisfying single issue- it successfully tells its own story while also moving the larger picture along, giving us hints at what's to come and revealing just enough to make questions about what's in that box with the Bat Symbol just as intriguing as any possible answer. As this series goes on, the way Grant Morrison sees Batman becomes increasingly clear, and I suspect the revelation he's building towards is going to indicate, in a much more decisive way than I have above, that Batman is the ultimate pulp hero.

Georges Jeanty's art, although rushed, has its moments too- there's a particular image of smilin', batarang throwin' Batman that comes to mind, but there's nothing all that special about it, nor anything particularly pulpy. It's not like Jim Lee's art, for sure, but there's nothing grimy or ever slightly so gratuitous about it- it's just solid and business like.

Something similar could be said about Rags Morales' art in First Wave #3 although I'm curious how a color scheme without the same texture as Nei Ruffino's would affect the way the book is interpreted. Morales' pencils are appropriately grim and his characterizations are strong but, surprisingly given the way DC is selling the book, it doesn't seem to be particularly pulpy.

Azzarello, too, runs into some problems here- it's hard to distinguish between the different narrators, and the scenes, short and choppy as they are, sometimes make it difficult to follow the story in any real coherent way. Azz is just trying to do a little too much here, and the book's every other month schedule doesn't help matters. He is, however, letting his intentions for the book's tone show on his sleeve and, even if his story isn't great, the characterization is pretty good: Batman is skilled and dangerous but new to the life of a man of mystery, The Spirit (whom, of all the characters, Azzerello seems to have the best handle on) is goofy but ever so serious in just the right way, the Blackhawks are hellbent on completing there mission, Doc Savage is determined to figure out what's going on and there's a mystery afoot, one which is going to bring all of the characters into the vortex of a deeply scary group with utopian intentions. This book's headed deep, deep into pulp territory and, if Azzerello can reign himself in, it could end up a truly great comic, one that's proud of its influences- influences that are nothing but pulp.

These two books together make a good barometer for where the understanding of Batman is as at the moment, or at least of the understanding that DC is trying its hardest to push, and it is a pulpy vision indeed. I'm interested to see where these books go, and the ways in which they intersect and diverge in the future. Hopefully Morrison's ending lives up to its potential and Azzerello finds his way, because they are two comics that could go a long way to adding a little grit into superhero fare, into bringing a little pulp back into style.

A Sweet Year

Before Jeff Lemire had a DC exclusive contract, before he was writing the Atom, before he was handed Superboy, there was Sweet Tooth. Even before that there was The Nobody, and way back in the past (ancient history, by now) was the modern classic Essex County- a trilogy that received just as much press for its rural setting as it did for its moody inks and deeply beautiful characters- but those things are, right now, unimportant. All that matters right now is Sweet Tooth, because it seems that Vertigo is at something of a crossroads: several relatively popular and incredibly well-regarded titles from the imprint are about to disappear. There are no apparent replacements and, thus, Lemire's story about a deer boy named Gus in a post-apocalyptic world is one of the few young titles left in the imprint's stable.

Long time readers will remember that one of my first reviews for this site (almost a year ago, if you can believe that!) was the series' first issue. Yesterday, it completed the full circuit around the Sun with the release of issue #12. It's a mostly silent stand alone, punctuated only by supporting character Dr. Singh's narration at the bottom of each page, and it details the history of the plague, fills in some blanks, and suggests that Gus, good old Gus, is the cause of everything that has been wrought. It's a pretty effective technique, particularly because it allows Lemire to tie up some ends from the book's first year as well as remind us of exactly who Gus is, of what drives him. It's almost refreshing, after an arc that brought Jeppard's tragic past to the fore, to see that little glint of hope, tempered as it is by Singh's speculation. It's a little terrifying, too, because it doesn't really suggest anything about the book's future, and thus allows Lemire to be wildly unpredictable, inventive in a way he has not been, as of yet.

That's mostly been Sweet Tooth's problem, up until now- it hasn't blown anyone away. Month in and month out it's good, consistent comics, but it's never anything that you have to share, always sort of a private joy. Issue #12 is no different, but the experimentation with the form as well as the plot's ambiguities suggest that Lemire has something up his sleeve- and I have no idea what that thing might be, which might just be the kick the book needs. As long as he continues to play to his strengths, the book will be solid, month in and month out. He may need something more than that, though, to take his story to its conclusion and, because I believe in Jeff Lemire, because I was as taken by Essex County as I was by Blankets, because I know he has it in him, because of all that I believe in Sweet Tooth and I hope that it, unlike Air or Unknown Soldier, reaches its natural end.

Here's to more years of Gus.

A "Devil" You Probably Don't Know

"Devil Inside" -

Just this month a new webcomic premiered from two mainstream industry talents. But that's two different industries.

Writer/actor Todd Stashwick and comics artist Dennis Calero have joined forces to create a new webcomic on Stashwick's website.

(Calero himself told me about this new venture at a Midtown Comics signing a few weeks ago.)

Calero's art is professional and surprisingly well inked and colored considering that there is no credit for either, which probably means he's doing it all himself.

Honestly three strips is too early to tell what we have on our hands here, but so far I like it! Reminds me of Neil Gaiman's novel "American Gods" so far. The inventive manner in which the title is worked into each strip [Look at that above!] is worth the price of admission, which is of course... free.

The comic updates weekly.

~ @JonGorga

San Diego 2o1o Final News Round-Up!

So it's been over a week since the end of the San Diego Comic-Con but there were a few things Josh didn't cover in his previous post and that I think should be talked about. They are laid out below:

-"Concrete", Paul Chadwick's unique man-trapped-in-the-body-of-a-monster character returns after an absence of about five years! The unfortunate professor, the gal pal, the assistant (all of whom I cannot remember the names of, but fondly remember the existence of) will return with the series that was one of Dark Horse's first critical successes. The related and almost equally cool announcement is that Chadwick's characters will return in "Dark Horse Presents", the company's original anthology comic which is itself returning to a printed page existence (after several years in webcomics form as MySpace Dark Horse Presents) sometime soon!

-"Kirby: Genesis" is the (I hope, tentative) title of an unusual project from Dynamite Entertainment bringing old Jack Kirby characters and concepts (some of them long since lost from the public eye) back in what will probably be a comic-book mini-series written by Kurt Busiek, designed by Alex Ross, and drawn by some artists yet to be announced. As you may have gathered, the details are fuzzy.

-Although I'd be lying if I said it excited me personally, John Byrne's "Next Men" will be returning with IDW Publishing in December 2o1o after disappearing from shelves, on a cliffhanger ending, for fifteen years!

-"Ultimate Doom" will complete Marvel's trilogy of minis started with "Ultimate Enemy" years ago. They seem to be making a concerted effort to not reveal the 'ultimate' enemy but... they've titled the final mini "Ultimate DOOM". If you're any kind of fan of Marvel Comics I think you know who this'll be.

-I suspect this will mean nothing to many of our readers but: Marvel has acquired CrossGen's old characters. It probably wasn't too hard since Disney bought them years ago and then bought Marvel late last year, putting them both in the same 'house' so to speak. Now Josh mentioned in his post that "it can't be every year that Marvel buys Marvelman and promptly does nothing of note with the property" but in a way we do have a very similar announcement here. Marvel now owns a cadre of little known, but in some cases well-loved, series: "Sigil", "Scion", "Ruse", "Way of the Rat", "El Cazador", and J.M. DeMatteis' "Abadazad". The shared universe in which many of them live having been cut-short in the middle of its first crossover event by bankruptcy in 2oo4. Only in the past few months have we finally seen some actions utilizing the Marvelman family of characters that Marvel announced acquiring at the San Diego Comic-Con LAST year. Hopefully we won't have to wait as long to see an effect from this year's acquisition.

-And connected with the new direction for Spider-Man Josh mentioned there will be:
A. A new series featuring Arana re-branded as a new Spider-Girl.
B. A Norman Osborn mini-series.
C. A Carnage mini-series.

~ @JonGorga

P.S. ~ And well, of course, on the adaptation movie front there was this HUGE news. Awesome.

That and there's going to be an "A Contract With God" film. Exciting, but sad for me. I wrote an adaptation script for that classic comic by Will Eisner back in college... Probably never going to get that job now!

A Mightily Lost Avenger

Someone at Marvel had a crazy idea: take Thor, distill him down to his essentials, strip away his continuity, hire a killer creative team, and see what comes.

The result is Thor: The Mighty Avenger by Roger Landridge, Chris Samnee and Matt Wilson and their book (which has shipped both #1 and #2) is an example of through and through good comics. What they give us is Thor at his most basic, with Jane Foster, Mjolnir, and an Asgard that looms in the background. In this way, they can explore Thor and his mythos without the awful shackles of continuity, and they're explicitly clear about what they're doing: the titular character is something of an amnesiac. At the same time, though, there are some clever references to the Thor that we know and love that make it clear that this is a different aspect of the same character or, perhaps, the origin of the character if things had happened slightly differently, if Thor had started his adventures in Midgard in Broxton, Oklahoma rather than in a cave. What we've got here, then, is a retelling but not a retcon, a reinvention but without the specter of a bold new direction. What we've got here is an opportunity for some fun superhero stories, one that Landridge, Samnee and Wilson take full advantage of.

Landridge's writing in both issues is solid, solid enough that it's evident that plotting is his strength and that dialogue, while not exactly a weakness, isn't quite at the same level. This isn't really a very big deal, and he seems to have a pretty good grip on all of the characters' voices except for that of Thor. His characterizations elsewhere (particularly of Jane) are strong enough that they carry through some of the titular character's more awkward moments and this makes me wonder if Landridge was trying something funky with Thor's speech patterns, as a way to replicate the effect of the typical Olde English with something a little more modern but with similar effect. If that is what's going on, it doesn't quite work and Landridge needs to work on it a little bit.

Despite this, it's clear that he's very capable, firstly because his plot is very good but secondly, and more importantly, because he gives artist Chris Samnee and colorist Matt Wilson a lot of room in which to play. Whether it was intended as such or it just turned out this way Thor: The Mighty Avenger is, without a doubt, their book. Samnee's artwork, last seen in Siege: Embedded, is thick, bold, and stylized in a way that makes it feel like something Kirby would have drawn, that's just how dynamic it is. Samnee, though, often takes his art in a slightly more down-to-earth direction and his work lends itself to a kind of physical humor, almost slapstick, that makes the book an extra joy. His control of his character's expressions is priceless and this too helps Landridge's writing through some of its more awkward moments.

All these things together give the book something of a comic strip aesthetic, one that's made even more abundantly clear by Matt Wilson's colors, which are difficult to describe. Muted isn't right, and flat has too much of a negative connotation to be of any real help, so I'm going to settle for dynamic but textureless. Because they don't try to be overly realistic they emphasize the stylized and cartoony qualities of Samnee's work and they really make it shine. The coloring really could have destroyed this book if it was done wrong, but Wilson does a bang-up job, and the comic is all the better for it.

I really, really like The Mighty Avenger and I think it's going to go far as a series as long as it doesn't try to outdo itself. This book is great comics with a classic feel, but it's never going to break any new ground- not that I think it's trying to right now, but I think the creative team (and, more importantly, Marvel editorial) need to keep this in mind when planning for the future. Keep the stories simple, keep delivering great art, and this book is going to be a great success. I'm looking forward to it.