Kung Fu and Other Delights: FUNNYBOOKSINREVIEWAREGO!!!


Time is tight this week, so this’ll have to be quick. So let’s get right down to it. FUNNYBOOKSINREVIEWAREGO!!!

Deadly Hands of Criminal
by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips

Phillips Deadly Hands of Criminal

This is the second of these magazine-sized Criminal one-shots Brubaker and Phillips have put out, this one in celebration of the book’s 10th anniversary. And like the previous one (Savage Sword of Criminal), this one is also a celebration of the black & white comics magazines of the 1970s. Produced outside the realm of the Comics Code Authority, those mags were really the first “mature readers” comics, dealing in levels of sex and violence publishers couldn’t get away with in regular newsstand comics.

Exactly why they fell outside the purview of the CCA speaks to the arbitrariness the Code had taken on by that point: they were magazine-sized, not comics-sized, and thus not perceived as being aimed at impressionable youngsters. And to be fair, these books were aimed at a more adult audience. Though pioneered by horror mags like Creepy and Eerie, seeking to recapture the feel of pre-Code horror comics, the magazine format offered a freedom that eventually came to include the kind of pulpy sleaze you’d find in men’s adventure novels. Real blood and boobs kind of stuff, with plenty of on-screen murder and an endless supply of half-naked women. There was still a weird kid-appeal to some of these books, though. The Hulk had his own black-and-white magazine, for instance, and that lead to some uncomfortable moments, like that time he hooked up with a drug addict…

Rampaging Hulk

That sort of thing is the crux of this story, in which Teeg Lawless (star of the last Criminal magazine special) gives his son Tracy (himself a former Criminal protagonist) an issue of a mag called Deadly Hands. As you can see above, Deadly Hands stars a character called Fang the Kung Fu Werewolf, and Tracy tells us everything we need to know about it:

Phillips Criminal 10th Tracy

Like in the previous Criminal special, the comic is a metaphor for what’s happening in the real world. So here we have the 12-year-old Tracy, teetering on the brink of puberty and growing wise beyond his years, reading a comic that’s not quite for kids OR adults.

Phillips Criminal Fang

Also like Fang, Tracy has a secret: his dad’s dragging him cross country as part of his cover on a mission for the mob, leaving a trail of armed robbery and broken bones in their wake. So Tracy goes back and forth from being a normal kid, reading comics and having fun, to being an accomplice to all kinds of dark deeds, the worst of which he’s only vaguely aware of until it’s too late to do anything about it.

So it’s the usual well-crafted depressing noir excellence we’ve come to expect from Brubaker and Phillips. This one’s maybe even more heart-rending than usual, though, because it’s about a kid. Granted, those of us who’ve read Brubaker & Phillips’ The Sinners already know this particular kid turns out pretty messed up. But this story’s before all that. It’s about a formative experience that sends Tracy down the path we saw in that book, and foreknowledge doesn’t make his lot in life any easier to take.

It’s not all dire dreariness, though. The Fang story pages are funny stuff, reminding me more than a little of Seventies Spider-Man. It’s especially like the period when he was rooming with Harry Osborne. If, you know, Mary Jane Watson had been continually coming over to take showers. We even get a second Deadly Hands cover, from another issue Tracy unearths as the story unfolds.

Phillips Criminal Blind Fury
That second cover makes me wonder if Brubaker & Phillips have more of these magazine comic homage stories planned. This issue mentions two other titles from the publisher of Deadly Hands: the biker comic Wheels of Fire, and a blaxploitation book entitled simply BRICK! With those floating around, it strikes me that two more of these extra-length stories would round out a trade nicely, and give it a unifying theme to boot. Just a thought. But just for the record, I’d buy the hell out of both of them.

Grade: A-

Dept. H 1
by Matt and Sharlene Kindt

Kindt Dept H

Matt Kindt’s follow-up to the excellent Mind MGMT isn’t as ambitious as much of his previous work. It’s more traditional in structure and tone, and (thus far, anyway) not nearly as experimental. That’s a bit disappointing, honestly. Kindt’s adventures in storytelling have been a big part of his appeal for me, but that doesn’t seem to be what he’s after here.

This is not to say I didn’t enjoy the comic, though. For all the technical inventiveness and labyrinthine plotting it’s lacking, Dept. H is still a very cool little adventure comic, a sci-fi murder mystery set in a deep-sea exploration lab. It’s got a pulpy tone, and a colorful cast of characters who range from eccentric to sinister to quite possibly mad.

Kindt Dept H Scientist

Our main character, in contrast, is a very relatable sort of hero, a woman with strained family loyalties and other recognizable problems who gives the reader an easy entry point into this strange underwater world.

It’s all perfectly well-crafted stuff, straightforward genre fiction of a type that I’m sure is much more commercial than Kindt’s previous work. I could easily see it being adapted for the screen. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. It’s a well-done comic, and it hardly feels like Kindt selling out. But it’s less idiosyncratic than his previous work, and that makes it less interesting to me. Your mileage may vary.

Grade: B+

Karnak 3
by Warren Ellis and Roland Boschi

Karnak 3

I want to like this book more than I do. I think Warren Ellis is treading on interesting philosophical ground, and I like the idea of delving into the mind of a man who sees the flaw in everything. But something about it’s just not coming together. I’m sure the long delay between issues isn’t helping, but even taking that into account, the book’s not quite working.

Part of the problem, I think, is the way SHIELD’s been shoehorned into things here. They’re an uncomfortable fit. I don’t buy Karnak working for them the way he does, at least not as Ellis is developing him. Of course, another part of the problem is that our SHIELD representative in this book is Phil Coulson, a character whose appeal I do not understand at all. He’s a bland functionary, a guy whose personality is best described as “man in suit.” It’s a far cry from the half-crazy cigar-chomping eye-patched glory of Nick Fury, and I can’t help but feel like we traded down (WAY down) when Coulson became the face of comics’ greatest spy organization. Even Maria Hill is better; she’s second-rate in comparison to Fury, too, but at least she sometimes achieves “cast-iron bitch” status. Coulson’s just… dull. He bores me, and I resent him for that more and more, every time I see him.

But my personal hatred of Coulson is not the biggest problem with Karnak. No, my biggest issue with this book is that it’s starting to feel like Ellis is phoning it in. While the core concept has potential, he’s gone on auto-pilot, falling back on his familiar pattern of “outrageous character says outrageous things while the people around him react with exaggerated shock.” It’s worked for a great many of Ellis’ leading men in the past, but Karnak’s quiet bleakness just doesn’t carry it off. So I chuckled a bit when, at the end of this issue, some random SHIELD agent asks Our Hero, “Are you Satan?” But it was a weak laugh, one that I didn’t really think Ellis had earned.

I remain hopeful that something will gel here, but I’m not sure it’s going to. And in the meantime, my reaction increasingly becomes a shrug.

Grade: B-

Lazarus Sourcebook 01: Carlyle
by Greg Rucka, Michael Lark, and a Host of Others

Lazarus Sourcebook

My Local Funnybook Store under-ordered a bit on this book, and I initially didn’t get one. Another customer was leafing through his subscription copy, though, and gave it to me when he decided against buying it, saying something that I think may be the best possible review of the book:

“In an ideal world, I would read every page of this and love it. But I know that’s not going to happen.”

I should explain. This isn’t a new issue of Rucka and Lark’s excellent economic apocalypse comic Lazarus. Instead, it’s what old-school D&D dorks used to call a Gazetteer, a print guide to the territory ruled by the series’ central family, the Carlyles.

Lazarus Sourcebook Map

It features page after page of text, maps, and graphics, detailing everything about the Carlyles and their territory in exhausting detail. There are sections on government, economic policy, agriculture, military structure, history, art and culture… Pretty much everything except annual rainfall.

And honestly, that might be in there, too. Because I haven’t finished reading it yet, and some of the pages I have read… I kind of skimmed. Don’t get me wrong. This is interesting stuff on the whole. There’s just an awful lot of it.

Lazarus Sourcebook Commerce

So I’ve been reading the meaty bits and skimming everything in-between. I admire the book for its thoroughness, even as I know that I neither need nor want to know everything in it. I’m glad Rucka’s figured all this out. It helps inform the stories he tells in this future world he’s created. But I don’t think I need to be quite as steeped in the details as he does.

So, yes. In an ideal world, I would devour every word of this and love it all. But, yeah. Like my friend said…That’s not going to happen.

Grade: B+

Tales of Gods and Madness: FUNNYBOOKSINREVIEWAREGO!!


So there’ve been more good funnybooks out these past couple of weeks than I’ve really discussed. Too much time caught up in Amazons and Panthers and movie talk. Time to play a bit of catch-up, then, I suppose…

Moon Knight 1
by Jeff Lemire and Greg Smallwood

Moon Knight 1

The last time Moon Knight got a new #1 issue, it was…

Well, honestly, it wasn’t that long ago. A couple of years, maybe. That was when the book got relaunched with a cool new setup by Warren Ellis and Declan Shalvey, who gave us Moon Knight as a high-functioning super hero lunatic with slightly different personalities and costumes depending on what kind of case he was on. They did six issues of that marvelous craziness before moving on to the even-better Injection, and I pretty much followed them on their way out the door. The storylines that followed seemed less interested in taking advantage of Ellis’ new status quo than they did in dismantling it, which struck me as kind of a shame.

This new relaunch continues in that vein, with Marc Specter waking up in (as the cover might suggest) an insane asylum, where he’s routinely beaten by evil orderlies and is being told by his psychiatrist that he was never Moon Knight. So it’s an “everything you know is a lie” kind of story, an elaborate super hero gaslighting handled with aplomb by Jeff Lemire and Greg Smallwood.

It’s kind of a relief to me to see Lemire writing a work-for-hire book that’s actually good. I’ve long been a fan of his work on books like Essex County and Sweet Tooth, but every licensed comic I’ve ever picked up by him has been beyond horrible. Of course, all of those were done under the Bob Harras editorial regime at DC, which might say more about the creative direction of that company than it does about Lemire’s talent.

Not that this issue set my world on fire or anything. It’s well-done, but I’ve seen these tricks before. In movies, in comics, on TV… It’s an unusual, but still well-worn, story idea. Lemire and Smallwood’s take is still engaging, though. Cast members dating back to the original Doug Moench/Bill Sienkiewicz run make appearances, and Specter’s having some pretty great hallucinations along the way, too.

Greg Smallwood’s art is a nice draw, as well. His work strikes me as sort of a cross between Lee Weeks and Alex Maleev: solid realistic illustration chops paired with a penchant for photo-realist detail.

Smallwood Moon Knight

It was Smallwood’s art, in fact, that convinced me to shell out my five bucks to read this thing. It’s an extra-length story, too, so that didn’t hurt. But I was on the fence about it, and the pretty pretty pictures are what pushed me over the top.

So that’s the new Moon Knight: not the best funnybook ever, but interesting and entertaining enough that I didn’t feel like I’d completely wasted my money. I don’t know that I’ll be back for issue two, mind you. But while I was reading, I was reasonably entertained.

Grade: B

The Wicked + The Divine 18
by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie

McKelvie Wicked Divine 18

I think I may have been selling this book a bit short.

I mean, recent issues encouraged that. The “Commercial Suicide” arc, despite some nice guest art from the likes of Tula Lotay and Brandon Graham, mostly just served to prove once again something I’ve long thought: the team of writer Kieron Gillen and artist Jamie McKelvie is far greater than the sum of its parts. Put them together on a book, and magic happens. Take McKelvie out of the equation, and things go into decline. They declined so much on Commercial Suicide, in fact, that I’d started wondering if Wicked + Divine wasn’t just empty pop posturing posing as a story of greater depth.

Not that this issue is some kind of revelatory work of genius or anything. I mean, McKelvie’s back on art, so the series takes an immediate quantum leap in quality. But in point of fact, this issue reads like a super hero comic. Even more so than Gillen & McKelvie’s actual super hero comics. There’s more shouting and jumping and blowing things up in this issue than we got in maybe the entire run of Young Avengers. I mean, just look how exciting the montage is:

McKelvie WicDiv 18 Montage

Seriously, this thing is like an old Roy Thomas comic, just with less clear-cut heroes and villains, and better fashion sense.

McKelvie WicDiv Super Hero

So what makes me think I’ve been selling the book short? Well… It’s mostly because I improved myself as a reader. Which is to say, I finally got around to doing the research I’ve been meaning to do forever, and actually read up a bit on all the various gods and goddesses serving as archetypes for our cast here.

(I should probably mention that The Wicked + The Divine, if you’re not familiar, is about gods being reborn in human form. Every century gets a pantheon, who inspire and shape that century before dying off in just a few short years. It’s a metaphor, with this 21st Century pantheon, for pop stars and the influence they wield. Earlier centuries, presumably, got metaphors for different, more interesting, things. But anyway…)

We didn’t know who all the gods were at first, and I was familiar enough with enough of them that I was able to fake it as they were revealed one by one. I kept meaning to look deeper into things once we had the full pantheon in place, but I just didn’t.

This issue opens with a new rundown of the cast, though, a “JLA Roll Call” sort of page with everyone’s head shot in a little circle next to their name and a brief description.

WicDiv 18 Roll Call

And I thought, “Well, that’s convenient,” and went galloping off to Wikipedia. And that, specifically, is what’s got me thinking that I’ve sold the book short.

Like I said before, I knew enough to fake it. Most of the Western gods, I had at least a passing familiarity with, even if I wasn’t 100% clear on the exact roles of them all. I also knew who Amaterasu was (Japanese sun goddess), and that Sakhmet was Egyptian. But Inanna? I’d heard the name before, but didn’t know the first thing about her. And Baal? Wasn’t he a demon or something? Tara? No clue. And, embarrassingly, I thought that Ananke was another Japanese figure, when actually she’s Greek. About as Greek as they come, too, being one of the Protogenoi, the primordial deities who gave birth to the universe before even the Titans were born.

And that was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to things I didn’t know about the gods Gillen’s chosen to play with in this book. Getting it all straight makes better sense of the characters and their actions, and adds layers to the series that I didn’t realize were there. Baal, for instance, was indeed a name given to a demon. But before that, it was a name associated with the Semitic storm god Hadad. “Baal” just meant “lord,” though, and early Hebrew writings also use it in reference to Yahweh (the god of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims). The confusion over the name caused later scholars to identify Baal as some kind of false god, and eventually (like so many other pre-Christian deities) another name for the Devil.

Which is really interesting, because another member of the pantheon is Baphomet, another pagan deity turned demon by the Christians. And he’s even more messed up, because he is, in all likelihood, fictional, a figure created to frame the Knights Templar for heresy. Later, he was popularized as an inspirational demon in the writings of Aleister Crowley (which might explain by he’s such a cunty poseur asshole sometimes). But however he got there, he’s another name for the Devil, too. So when Baal and Baphomet fight…

McKelvie Baal vs Baphomet

…it’s kind of like one guy punching himself in the face. Or head-butting. Whatever.

Of course, Wicked + Divine also prominently featured Lucifer in its early issues, making that three different stand-ins for the Christian Devil. That idea of threes plays out again and again here, with three goddesses of fate, three gods of war, three sun gods, three gods of love and fertility, three gods of knowledge and wisdom, three lords of the underworld, and etc.

There are only 14 gods in the cast, I should add. But many of them have multiple aspects, so the crossover gets… complicated. Persephone, for example, was a goddess of plants and fertility, but she was also queen of the underworld. Which makes sense of her early affinity for Lucifer, as well as her flings with Baal and (as revealed in this issue) Baphomet. But I’m still making sense of some of these connections, as the pantheon breaks up into rival camps. I don’t quite get Dionysus’ loyalty to the Morrigan, for instance, and Gillen’s characterization of Woden as an abusive poseur…

McKelvie WicDiv Woden

…still strikes me as a singularly poor reading of that particular god.

Sounds like it’s time for a re-read, then. Going back, armed with my new knowledge of the gods, should prove interesting. Can’t wait to see what I’ve been missing. And considering how much I’ve doubted the book, it seems like the least I can do.

I suppose an argument could be made that Gillen should have spelled all this stuff out a bit more, so his readers didn’t have to do research to appreciate the finer points of the story. But that’s not an argument that holds much weight with me. I understood the story well enough before I spent an hour on Wikipedia (an hour, I might add, that I really enjoyed). And once I spent that hour, doing the work necessary to understand the book better, it started living up to my (admittedly high) expectations. That’s not a flaw to my way of thinking. It’s a bonus.

Grade: A-

House of Penance 1
by Peter J Tomasi and Ian Bertram

This one was a surprise. I honestly might not have bought it if I’d had more funnybooks to read. But it was a slow week, so I was poking around for stuff, and the art caught my eye.

Bertram House of Penance 1

I wouldn’t call Ian Bertram’s work “pretty,” exactly, but it is captivating. Weird. Fun to look at. And very much appropriate for this book.

Because this is a comic about one of my favorite historical edifices: the Winchester Mystery House. The story goes that, after the tragic deaths of her husband and daughter, Sarah Winchester, heir to the Winchester rifle fortune, went a bit mad. She imagined that she was haunted by the spirits of all those who were killed with her family’s guns. The only way to ward them off, she believed, was to confound them with endless passageways, and by keeping the hammers of her builders going, round the clock. So for 38 years the house slowly grew, filled with twisting halls, stairs leading only to blank walls, and doorways to nowhere. It’s a genuine curiosity, still standing today and open to tourists, a monument to one woman’s madness.

House of Penance is about the building of the Winchester House, about Sarah Winchester’s peculiar habits…

Bertram House of Penance Sarah

…and the men she hired to do the work. Peter Tomasi’s story is highly fictionalized, I’m sure, but he’s woven a compelling tale. This first issue is mostly set-up, introducing the situation as I’ve explained it above, and bringing a bad man into the mix: Warren Peck, fresh off the slaughter of a small Native American tribe and nursing a near-mortal wound of his own.

I have no idea where it’s going next, but I’ll definitely be back for more. The art, the madness, and the overall spooky tone are more than enough to guarantee that.

Grade: B+

Just Another White Guy Talking About Feminism and Race


What an embarrassment of funnybook riches last week: Grant Morrison’s long-awaited Wonder Woman: Earth One, the comics debut of journalist Ta-Nehesi Coates on Black Panther, and the latest issue of Alan Moore’s Providence. So… That’s a comic about a feminist icon, a comic about the first black super hero, and a comic about a massively influential horror author who never wrote about women and was a noted racist. Sometimes, these things just write themselves…

Wonder Woman: Earth One
by Grant Morrison and Yanick Paquette

Paquette Wonder Woman Earth 1

This book is just…

Wow.

I mean…

Wow.

What Morrison and Paquette have pulled off here is kind of astounding. Not only have they come up with the freshest modern take on Wonder Woman I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen most of them), they’ve done it by putting the character’s built-in feminism front and center, embracing her creator’s bondage fetish, and maybe most refreshingly by bringing a sense of fun to the whole thing that the character hasn’t enjoyed since William Moulton Marston died. But I think Etta Candy puts it best:

Paquette Wonder Woman Candy 1

Heh. I suppose I should properly call her BETH Candy, since that’s how Morrison has renamed this 21st Century version of Wonder Woman’s oldest supporting character. But (the obvious joke notwithstanding) Etta’s such a great name that I’m going to have a hard time remembering the change.

Anyway. Yes. Science fiction lesbians. With a side of bondage. That’s as good a description of the Amazons as you’re going to get. It’s a bit sensationalist, perhaps, and might seem at odds with Wonder Woman’s deeply feminist roots. To understand why Morrison would take that tack, you have to look back to the Golden Age of comics, and Wonder Woman’s creator, the aforementioned William Moulton Marston.

Marston was a fascinating figure, well-worth reading about in his own right (the Wikipedia is, as always, a good place to start: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Moulton_Marston). What you need to understand about him for our purposes here, though, is that he was heavily into bondage. But this wasn’t just some kind of fantasy kink for him. Domination and submission were central to his overall philosophy of life. Basically, he believed that the world would never know peace until everyone learned to enjoy submission as much as they enjoyed the domination that most people seek over their lives. He also believed that women were morally superior to men, and thus the proper masters of society.

Wonder Woman was a four-color expression of those ideas, a woman of such obvious moral and physical strength that any man who wasn’t completely deluded would have to admit to her superiority. She also expressed Marston’s philosophy directly, explaining it in a tone so matter-of-fact that it seemed like a commonly-held view, rather than a radical restructuring of traditional sexual dynamics.

Wonder Woman Good Mistress

Of course, Wonder Woman also got tied up a lot, and talked about how the Amazons tied each other up for fun, so yeah. It’s complicated. Morrison and Paquette embrace those complications, though, developing an Amazon society built on principles of love, truth, feminine superiority, and bondage without shame. Submitting to a “loving authority” is considered strength in Amazon society, an admission of truth that recognizes someone as a true superior when it’s warranted. And that superior, in turn, is bound by this trust to accept it, honor it, and not take advantage of it (thus the loving authority, rather than the cruel martinet).

This superior person must also, naturally, be a woman. The Amazons removed themselves from the corruption of “Man’s World” 3000 years ago, and for the most part haven’t looked back. Men are at best considered inferior, but mostly they’re just despised. Therefore, Amazon society is built on entirely feminine principles, reflected even in their architecture, with buildings constructed around curves and arches and breast-like domes.

Paquette Wonder Woman Paradise Island

Their technology is designed along similar, though slightly more gynecological, lines. The seats on the Amazon’s rocket bikes, for instance (because, yes, the Amazons have rocket bikes), have a sort of oblong, vaginal shape to them. Even Wonder Woman’s invisible jet is designed so that the central body of the plane is surrounded on either side by graceful flowing wings that look as much like labia as the swan’s wings they’re supposed to represent.

They’ve externalized the bondage stuff, too, making it a part of their relationships and sex play. We get hints of this in a few places, but the least spoilery of those is maybe the Festival of Diana. This is a giant Amazon party in honor of the goddess of the hunt (and Wonder Woman’s namesake), and it’s a wild time. There’s jousting and hunting and all manner of decadent stuff going on.

Paquette Amazon Orgy 1

Which brings us to the whole “sci-fi lesbians” thing. Morrison, while not making a big deal out of it, also doesn’t shy away from the idea that the Amazons have sex with each other. Because of course they do. They’ve isolated themselves from men completely, and three thousand years is a long time. People have needs. So, being a tribe of eternally youthful warrior women made into super model geniuses through advanced science, they fulfill those needs in style.

And with a certain fetishistic glee. Because in addition to all the fightin’ and lovin’, there are Amazons running around in deer costumes, who are presumably hunted and caught, then strung up to be “skinned” by having their costumes removed with what I can only assume is languorous care. Most of that takes place in the background, but a couple of the deer women are still bound and in costume the next morning, when they’re all lying around basking in the afterglow:

Paquette Amazon Orgy 2

But enough salacious details. This is an overwhelmingly positive updating of Marston’s vision for Wonder Woman, capturing the character’s original innocence, power, and fun. Because fun was always a huge part of Marston’s Wonder Woman tales. They’re simple stories for children, and often crudely-executed. But they’re also wildly entertaining, inventive, and anarchic. I can’t read many of them in a row, but taken in small doses, they’re great. There’s blood in them, a vitality that I don’t think the strip has had since.

Paquette Wonder Woman Carefree

Until now. This is definitely a vital Wonder Woman, a full-blooded Wonder Woman, and a Wonder Woman who is enormously fun to read about. She’s simultaneously feisty and loving, angry and hopeful. She loves Amazon society, but also chafes against her role in it. All great contradictions that render her human, on top of being an icon. We’ve had a bit too much of the icon in modern takes, I think, with writers putting her up on one pedestal or another, a lofty ideal that can’t be touched. Brian Azzarello’s take on her with the New 52 relaunch was an exception to that rule, certainly, but I liked his run more in concept than execution.

Morrison and Paquette pull it off better, giving her human foibles, like her well-meaning but utterly misjudged attempt to engage in a little Amazon play-time with Steve Trevor…

Paquette Wonder Woman Domination

(Who, yes, is black. Deal with it.)

…but also scattering stars across the page whenever she does something awesome:

Paquette Wonder Woman Lift

Such a fun detail. But the book is full of fun details. I mean, Etta Candy and the Holliday Girls are in this thing, for god’s sake! And Etta’s the best, a thoroughly modern body-positive plus-size young lady, full of sass and bisexual, to boot.

Paquette Etta Candy

Morrison’s even resurrected her Golden Age catch-phrase of “Woo Woo!” Which… Good lord. She absolutely shouldn’t work. Seriously, that character should get on my last nerve. But somehow, she doesn’t. Part of it’s the attitude, I think…

Paquette Wonder Woman Candy 2

…but part of it’s also the fact that Wonder Woman Earth One is such a great ride. It stumbles a bit in the early going, with some awkward storytelling in a few places. But somewhere along the way (I couldn’t tell you exactly when) all that smooths out, and this thing turns into a freight train of a reading experience. The more stuff I recognized from Marston, the more I realized how far Morrison was going to take the feminism and the kink, the more layers he added to what seemed far simpler characters and situations, the more I got into it. The what-the-fuckness of it all gave way to admiration and, yes, wonder, and somewhere in there I realized that I was along for the ride. Wherever it took me.

Whew. Even after all that, I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of the stuff going on in this book. Morrison has long had a knack for defining characters and situations with single lines of dialogue, and that skill is on display in full force here. To really unpack this thing and delve into all the interesting permutations of it would take far more space than I have room for here. And would spoil a good read, to boot. So we’ll leave it at this: Wonder Woman Earth One is the best Wonder Woman story I’ve ever read. It was the best comic released last week, and if your local funnybook store still has copies, you should pick one up for yourself. As a hardcover OGN, it’s a little expensive. But, seriously. This is the goods.

Grade: A

Well, that was a fun column this week, and– Oh, hell. I’ve still got the black hero and the racist to deal with…

Black Panther 1
by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze

Stelfreeze Black Panther 1

The Black Panther is, I think, a tough character to write, and for much the same reason Wonder Woman’s hard to write: he’s an icon. A character that means an awful lot to an awful lot of people. Because he’s not just the first black super hero. He’s also the king of an African nation. And Wakanda is not just any African nation, either. It’s an African nation that is the oldest and most technologically-advanced nation on Earth, a four-color Afrofuturist dream.

That’s a lot of weight to put on any character, even one as inherently cool as the Panther. And, holy crap, is he ever cool. I first ran across him as a kid, when he was a member of the Avengers, and dug him immediately. Cool name, cool mask, cool black-on-black costume… And he was as good a fighter as Captain America, but with claws built into his gloves! Freaking awesome! He made such an impression on me, in fact, that in later years, I remembered him being a permanent fixture on the Avengers team, even though he wasn’t actually in most of the Avengers stories I read as a child. That’s how large he loomed in my mind.

But for some reason, I’ve never really followed his solo series. I’ve sampled it, but never stuck with it. For one reason or another, it’s never quite grabbed me the way I wanted it to. The stories often seemed very focused on the importance of his role as king, and on the importance of Wakanda as a nation. Which is fine as an introduction, but… I’m a big “show me don’t tell me” guy. I’d rather have Wakanda’s importance proven to me in stories that were compelling in their own right. Make it an amazing place that anyone would want to live, instead of yelling at me about how amazing it is.

Which brings us, at last, to the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates, who is the primary reason I picked this comic up. Coates is a respected journalist and cultural commentator, a writer on the African-American experience whose work has seen print in some of the most prestigious publications in America. He is a Really Big Deal, the kind of guy you do not expect to see writing a funnybook. I’m not sure he’s ever even written fiction before. But he’s a comics fan. This is something he’s always wanted to do. And his reputation is such that I had to see how the book turned out.

“Pretty good,” is my initial impression. There is a little of the stuff about the importance of Wakanda, and the Panther’s role as king, but it works more as backdrop, important context for the story Coates wants to tell. And that story is, potentially, really interesting. Ever the journalist, Coates is placing Wakanda in a situation many real-world African nations face every day: the threat of insurgency, and civil war. That seems like an odd threat for an Afrofuturist utopia, but the groundwork for it was laid before Coates ever came on the scene. The last few years of Black Panther stories have involved war between kings, as the Panther, Namor, and Dr. Doom have battled to the ruination of their respective kingdoms.

Stelfreeze Black Panther Troubles

So Wakanda’s in bad shape, and a psychic insurgent is taking advantage of it. Coates has only just gotten the ball rolling in his first issue, but already we see unrest inside Wakanda, and an army massing at the border. He’s even broached the issue of why Wakanda needs a king at all, when so much of the world has embraced democracy. Interesting concepts to dig into with this character, concepts that allow Coates to concentrate on the Black Panther as an icon, but to also tell a compelling story with him.

Coates is ably assisted in that by Brian Stelfreeze, an experienced comics artist who is, reportedly, helping Coates learn the art of visual storytelling. Stelfreeze is also helping bring out the cool side of the Panther, subtly redesigning the mask to give it a more predatory profile, and having some fun with the character’s super-science side at the same time. He’s wisely left the suit’s simple elegance alone, but I particularly like how the mask forms around his head when activated…

Stelfreeze Black Panther Mask

…and the symbols that appear on him when he activates different powers are pretty cool, too:

Stelfreeze Black Panther Tech

So it’s a good start. But there are still some rough spots. The dialogue, for instance. Due to the character’s regal bearing, his language has always been a bit elevated. But everybody in this book talks like that, and after awhile it gets to be a bit much. And maybe because of that dialogue, I found that I didn’t connect to the characters as well as I think I was supposed to.

There’s a sequence with one of the Panther’s elite guard, who’s going to be put to death not because she did something bad, but because she over-stepped her authority in doing something good. It speaks to the rigid culture of Wakanda, and plays into the questions about the validity of having a king. But I don’t really feel for that character, even when her lover violates her own oath to rescue her, because they both talk like characters out of a bad fantasy novel. Not that I expect them to speak jive or anything (that would be far worse), but there’s got to be a balance in there somewhere, and Coates hasn’t found it yet.

The concepts are compelling, though, and I think he’s heading in the right direction. I’m still undecided if I’m going to stick with this incarnation of Black Panther, but I’m certainly tempted. Mind you, if every issue costs five dollars like this one did, I’ll be giving it a miss. It’s interesting, but it ain’t that interesting.

Grade: B+

Providence 9
by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows

Providence 8

It’s a rarity that I don’t lead a column off with this book. It’s so very good, and deals in subject matter I find so very fascinating, that I feel compelled to feature it front and center. But this week, for reasons that should be obvious by this point, it has to come last.

I’ve spoken often in the past of my love for the work of HP Lovecraft. I find his concepts of cosmic dread compelling and his devotion to the weird delightful. His uniquely strange creations speak to me in ways more conventional horror writing often doesn’t. He was a true original in a field that produces far too many imitators, and for that I will always love him.

His politics, however, I’m not so keen on.

To take the easier topic first, Lovecraft did not, near as I can tell, hate women. In fact, he seems to have thought rather highly of the ones he knew. But he wasn’t very good with women, it seems, and that lead him to believe that he couldn’t write one very convincingly. So he generally didn’t write about them at all. But there doesn’t seem to have been any sexism or hate behind it. More, it was an admission of a deficiency in himself. Something I’m sure Wonder Woman would approve of.

I can’t say the same for how the Black Panther might feel about his racism. This is an issue any fan of Lovecraft’s work has to wrestle with eventually: the man was a racist, plain and simple. It’s not a big part of his writing. I might even argue that if you read only his major works, the stuff that’s really worth reading for people who aren’t (like me) obsessed with him, you might not twig to it at all. But if you hit the right stories… hoo boy. There’s some pretty odious stuff in there. I won’t run down a litany of his offenses, but “The Horror at Red Hook” is probably your go-to for racist Lovecraft stories (hint: the horror of the title is really the horror of miscegenation!).

I don’t defend this stuff. It’s indefensible. I won’t even say that he was a product of his times. We have it on good authority from friends that Lovecraft’s racist tendencies were a bit extreme, even for the early 20th Century. And he didn’t just hate black people, oh no. He hated Asians, Italians, Arabs, Eskimos… He even hated other white people. He despised the Irish. He looked askance at the Russians. And he especially hated the Jews (even though he married one). He hated anyone, in short, who wasn’t a white Anglo-Saxon Person like himself.

This hatred was irrational, of course (most racism is), and was born primarily of xenophobia. That xenophobia informed his writing, but thankfully the racism that came with it mostly didn’t. Which is why I remain such a huge fan. Sometimes you have to separate the art from the artist, and that is something I do with Lovecraft. He had a great many good ideas, alongside the bad ones.

None of which has anything at all to do with this issue of Providence. No, this issue is devoted to Lovecraft’s least xenophobic piece of writing: The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, an extremely whimsical and metaphorical work in which (among a good many other strange happenings) a bunch of cats fly the protagonist to the moon. Alan Moore has, amazingly, recreated that scene here (though he stops short of Lovecraft’s detailing of cat military rankings).

It makes for an utterly charming issue for the most part, even though it does feature the fulfillment of the ominous prophesy surrounding Our Hero Mr. Black and HP Lovecraft himself. Moore writes Lovecraft marvelously, capturing both his formal, antiquated way of speaking and the wry humor that comes out in his correspondence. It’s a brief scene, and an ominous one in many ways. But I’m running extremely long here, so maybe I should save my analysis of that meeting for another time.

Grade: A

Batman vs Superman vs Audience Expectations: Spoiler Review is GO!


Batman vs Superman 2

So last week, I offered up my spoiler-free review of Batman vs Superman, discussing the film in broad strokes because it hadn’t been out long enough to drop a bunch of spoilers all over everything. Now, though? Now, it’s been out almost two weeks. So I’m going ALL-SPOILER, ALL THE TIME.

But first, a confession: Last week, I called Batman vs Superman the best super hero movie ever, and in doing that I am guilty of a bit of hyperbole. Of guilding the lily. Of saying something outrageous to get your attention. Because Batman vs Superman is not, in actuality, the best super hero movie ever. That honor must go to the Adam West Batman movie, to which Batman vs Superman can only ever be considered a distant second.

Batman Some Days

Ahem.

Actually, now that I’m thinking about it, Danger: Diabolik is probably better, too. It’s technically a super villain movie, of course, but it’s so clever and stylish that I might have to give it the nod. Which puts Batman vs Superman in third place, at best. If I thought really hard, I might come up with something else that beats it, too, but I dunno. Super hero movies are generally kind of weak.

I’ve found most of these films (the ones I’ve seen, anyway) to be glib and formulaic. They get by mostly on charm and special effects, and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, it’s also not the kind of stuff that endears them to me very much. Even the ones I like, I tend to like for very specific things: the way Sam Raimi captures the feel of the post-Ditko Spider-Man so perfectly, or Terence Stamp’s incredible imperiousness in Superman II, or Heath Ledger’s incendiary performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight. These things elevate otherwise-flawed films to something lovable and entertaining. That’s especially true of Robert Downey Jr.’s performance in Iron Man, which picks that movie up and carries it on its back. But even Downey can’t save the third act, when the movie falls apart in plodding, paint-by-numbers spandex tediousness.

So I guess what I’m saying here is that the bar isn’t set very high when it comes to super hero movies. The simple act of not being incredibly obvious launches Batman vs Superman over that bar, and into my own personal upper echelon of films in the genre. But I’m talking generalities here when I’m meant to be getting specific. So! ON TO THE SPOILERS!

I was going to start with Batman again…

(Because Batman)

(Because Batman)

…but a few articles I’ve read / arguments I’ve had on social media tell me that the best place to start is with Lex Luthor, and his master plan.

(Hint: it involves the painting behind him.)

(Hint: it involves the painting behind him.)

This is some convoluted shit, I’ll admit, and there are a couple of holes in it. But I’ve seen lists of thirty-some-odd plot holes, and smirking rundowns that assume the film doesn’t make sense while simultaneously demonstrating that the authors didn’t understand it. Mind you, I don’t think they’re stupid or anything. I just think they didn’t pay close enough attention. So, god help me, I think I need to respond to that.

Let’s start with Luthor’s motivations. Much like Ben Affleck’s Batman, Jesse Eisenberg’s Luthor is a control freak with deep-seated mental problems. Luthor tells Holly Hunter (I know I should look up her character’s name, but… she’s Holly Hunter. Senator Holly Hunter) something about his father’s struggles with an oppressive government in East Germany, but that’s only part of the truth. The part that he thinks will sound good to someone in the American government. Later, we learn the rest of it: Luthor Senior was an abusive bully, and that’s given Luthor the Younger some serious issues with authority. So he sees Superman as a threat to his (and, ultimately, mankind’s) autonomy. But that’s only part of the truth, as well. Underneath it all, he’s also a megalomaniac with a tenuous grasp on sanity. So he not only wants to destroy Superman and break the public’s growing faith in him, he also wants Superman to know that he’s responsible for it all.

To bring that about, he hatches a Gordian Knot of schemes that are admittedly a bit difficult to unravel, especially since Luthor has to stop and regroup and alter his plans as events move around him. But let’s try. His opening volley against the Man of Steel is the film’s opening scene in the fictional “Nairomi, Africa.” Luthor’s hired mercenaries out the CIA agent posing as Lois Lane’s photographer, the situation goes pear-shaped, and Superman flies in to save his girlfriend. He takes out the local warlord with the gun to Lois’ head, and Luthor’s mercenaries execute all of that warlord’s actual supporters before fleeing the scene.

There’s been some debate over whether or not Superman killed the warlord. I assumed not, others assumed so. I don’t think the film tells us enough to know for sure. But Lois does claim later on that Superman didn’t kill anyone in the incident, so I’m taking her word for it.

Regardless, Superman is blamed for the deaths, leading some critics to wonder why anyone would think that, when those men were shot. But that’s assuming the bodies were retrieved, which seems unlikely in light of the testimony given by a woman who survived the aftermath. She tells us that the incident destabilized the region, sending other wannabe warlords swooping in to fill the void, killing indiscriminately as they battled for power. The whole region descended swiftly into chaos. So all the authorities have to go on is this woman’s testimony, and she blames Superman. The Secretary of Defense isn’t very happy with him, either, criticizing him for playing boy scout without taking the larger picture into account, and causing far more deaths in the long run.

So regardless of what anyone believes, Superman’s taking the blame. Which means that Luthor’s plan works pretty well. It makes Superman a more controversial figure in the eyes of the public, and plants seeds of self-doubt that Luthor will help to bloom later. In the meantime, he’s got people retrieving a radioactive substance (Kryptonite) from the ruins of the Kryptonian ship that went down in the Indian Ocean in Man of Steel. He wants to import it to the United States, and get government support to make a Kryptonite weapon to use against Superman. Holly Hunter denies him the import, but another senator agrees to give him access to both the Kryptonian ship downed in Metropolis, and the corpse of General Zod.

That face!

(Like this, but less shouty.)

One of the genuine plot holes comes in here. Luthor shows the senators footage of the Kryptonite cutting Kryptonian skin. But if Zod and Superman are the only Kryptonians left on Earth, and he hasn’t been given access to Zod’s corpse yet… Where the hell did that footage come from? When I see the movie again, I’ll be looking for a line to explain that. But until I find it, I’ll have to assume it’s a mistake.

Now. Running alongside all this, we have Batman unearthing an entirely separate scheme connected to the rest only by Luthor’s paranoia: his investigations into the “Metahuman Theory.” This is the idea that, if Superman existed among us in secret all those years, there have to be others doing the same thing. This is a sideline to his “destroy Superman and everything he stands for” schemes, perhaps the place he’s going next once the Kryptonian threat is taken care of. But he’s at least started the ball rolling on it and, being an obsessive super-genius with near-limitless wealth and a network of operatives around the globe, he’s finding the evidence he’s looking for. This is what brings Wonder Woman into the story. Luthor invites her to the same fund-raising shindig he invites Bruce Wayne to, and (I think) for similar reasons: to get a closer look at them. I base this primarily on the way Luthor’s henchwoman Mercy seems to be staring at them from the edges of the screen.

Anyway. From a storytelling perspective, this Metahuman thing stops the movie dead in its tracks for a few minutes. Once Wonder Woman’s on-screen, it’s only important as set-up for the eventual Justice League movie, and director Zack Snyder spends way too much time on Wonder Woman watching found footage video of Aquaman, Cyborg, and the Flash. It’s fun to speculate about (which I’ll do later if there’s time), but it’s also a momentum-killer for this film.

Back over in the main plot, things get more complicated. Luthor imports the Kryptonite illegally, but Batman steals it from him. So Batman works on the Kryptonite weapon, and Luthor is forced to resort to whatever he can find in Zod’s ship.

In the meantime, though, another avenue of pursuit becomes available. A now-homeless former Waynetech employee who lost his legs in the battle with Zod makes the news when he tries to deface a Superman statue. Luthor posts bail for the man and contacts him afterwards, giving him a fancy new wheelchair and bringing him in on the plot against Superman. The homeless guy becomes a public anti-Superman activist, and is called to speak at the Senate hearings being called by Holly Hunter in the wake of the African incident. It’s not clear whether he knows that Luthor’s planted a bomb in his wheelchair, but I tend to think he does; his demeanor at the hearing is that of a man ready to die for a cause, and he gets his wish.

The bomb goes off, leaving Superman unharmed, but killing everyone else in the room. This nets Luthor a couple of things. First, it allows him to get revenge on Holly Hunter for refusing his influence. But more importantly, it further damages Superman’s public image, as many publicly wonder why he didn’t notice the bomb before it went off, and others (well, Nancy Grace, at least) proclaim that he may have been in on the bombing from the outset. Superman himself plays right into Luthor’s hands at this point, his guilt and self-doubt over the incident causing him to withdraw from society. So that’s another good move for Luthor.

Some have questioned, however, why he sacrifices Mercy here, sending her into the room to die when she doesn’t have to. My response to that is simple: she’s his excuse for not being there himself. When he’s talking to Holly Hunter before the hearing, he says that he’ll be a few minutes late. But he makes a point of telling Mercy, right in front of Hunter, to go in and “make sure nobody steals his seat.” Sending Mercy in makes his own absence less conspicuous. It’s cold and calculating, but it’s very much a super villain kind of thing to do.

A genuine plot hole actually may come in here, however. Later on, Luthor tells us that he’s responsible for the crazy notes the homeless guy was sending to Bruce Wayne. But those notes would have been coming in long before Luthor even knew who the homeless guy was. When I was watching the film, I assumed he meant that he was responsible for the last couple of notes, which cut more directly to Bruce’s neuroses as Batman. But a couple of critics have mentioned it, and it makes me wonder what Luthor actually said. I’ll clear that up for myself on a second viewing.

Those notes do bring us into the home stretch, though. With Superman’s public image ready to collapse, and knowing that Batman has the Kryptonite, Luthor starts priming Our Heroes to fight. He goads Bruce Wayne with the crazy notes, then sends Superman out to bring back Batman’s head under threat of death for Martha Kent. He seems to hope that Batman will win, but Luthor wins either way. If Batman takes out Superman, then Luthor’s problems are solved, and he’s also gotten the personal satisfaction of seeing Superman kneel before him. And if Superman wins, that gives Luthor his revenge against Batman for stealing the Kryptonite (as that jar of piss he sent Holly Hunter proves, Luthor is nothing if not a vindictive bastard). And he’s still got his final contingency plan, his ace in the hole, in place: Doomsday.
Doomsday

Some have asked why Luthor would be willing to unleash such an unstoppable monster on the world, and it’s a good question. When Doomsday immediately attacks Superman and ignores Luthor entirely, I wondered if he had control over it in some way. But I don’t think the movie gives us enough information to know for sure. If Luthor had actually given the order to attack, it would have cleared things up. As it is… That’s a flaw, for sure.

Unless, of course, Luthor has completely lost his mind by that point. His grasp on sanity is never strong, and in the last scene of the movie, he certainly seems to have snapped. There’s a pretty fair argument to be made here that he loses it sometime after he gets on-board Zod’s ship. The computer there offers to teach him about extraterrestrial life, and he’s eager to learn. We don’t know what he finds out, but in that last scene, it seems pretty obvious that he’s heard the Good News About Darkseid. So maybe he really has just flipped out. Given himself over to Anti-Life, and all that. Hmm.

That’s all feckless speculation, of course, based on my knowledge of the comics and the hints given about where these movies are going next. Darkseid is a natural bad guy for the eventual Justice League film, and that weird Batman post-apocalyptic dream sequence definitely gives us a glimpse of some Parademons flying around:

Parademons

A bit more speculation for you: that’s not a dream. It’s a glimpse of things to come. When Batman wakes up, after all, he’s immediately visited by the Flash, bringing him a message from the future that he was “right all along” about Superman. So does that mean we’ll eventually see the Man of Steel turn bad? Hmm. Considering the Parademons, I think it’s more likely that Darkseid’s involved in that somehow. Possessing Superman, maybe, or controlling him via Anti-Life. Or maybe it’s a dream, after all, and I’m just rambling. Time will tell.

But I digress. My point here is that I think Luthor’s schemes make a lot of sense. There are gaffs, and some grand silliness (like that bit when he wears Zod’s fingerprints to take control of the Kryptonian ship). But if you pay attention, and put the pieces together, it works. That may be more effort than some expect to make on a super hero film. It may even be more effort than anyone should be expected to make. But it’s effort I enjoyed making, effort that made the movie a lot more fun for me to watch. And that’s why I think it’s a cut above the average spandex movie effort.

And now I haven’t got much time left to talk about the other stuff I liked, but there were a few things I can’t leave without mentioning. All the “angels and demons” stuff, for instance, and how it resonates so well with Superman and Batman’s traditional roles. How all the Christ imagery Snyder built in around Superman…

Superman Christ Imagery

…actually managed to work as proper foreshadowing, rather than horrible obvious telegraphing of his death. And how he died to not only save Batman’s soul, but to restore Wonder Woman’s faith, and to ultimately bring justice back into the world.

(Admittedly, that last bit will have to happen in a later movie. But, still. It’s totally there.)

Then there’s all the little details that made this version of Batman so fascinating to me. Like the way his age and experience inform his fighting style, which is brutally efficient, with very little wasted movement. And how he uses Bruce Wayne almost as effectively as he uses the Bat. I especially liked the bit where he backs a fighter at an illegal bare-knuckle boxing event, and nobody seems surprised that he’s there. It put me in mind of some of the hints Grant Morrison dropped in his Batman run about Bruce Wayne’s “millionaire playboy” reputation including a slightly unsavory side. Now, I’m reading in a bit there; the scene’s too quick to address the subject at all. But as a modern take on the traditional debauched dilettante rep, it makes sense to me.

I also loved the very first Batman scene, in which Snyder goes out of his way to make Batman as terrifying as possible, even to the audience. Written from the perspective of two cops interrupting him in the act, the scene only gives us glimpses of Batman, who comes off like a horror movie monster. He leaps out of shadows, and the biggest impression he makes is the screaming of his victims.

Those screams are the introduction of the Bat Brand, maybe the biggest indication that something’s wrong with Our Hero. He’s got these bat-shaped brass knuckles that heat up with a built-in electrical coil, and he uses them to burn a bat into the flesh of criminals.

Bat-Brand

It’s incredibly cruel and fetishistic, an even bigger sign that he’s gone wrong than his later use of guns. There’s some attempt in one of the film’s numerous talking-head news sequences to establish that the brand is a “death sentence” in prison, that the other prisoners will kill anyone with the mark. But that idea doesn’t make a damn bit of sense, at least not without more explanation than it’s probably worth. The branding itself is enough evidence that Batman’s on the wrong path. It’s a sign that he’s starting to dehumanize criminals, and that’s no good.

It’s also key to how he’s viewing Superman. If Batman’s already dehumanizing actual human beings, blinding himself to the good in humanity, how can he see the alien Superman as anything but a threat? As far as he’s concerned, Superman showed his true colors in the destruction of Metropolis, and any supposed good deeds he’s done are merely a cover for something more sinister. It’s an irrational viewpoint, but as I said last week, the whole thing has made Batman feel helpless, and he doesn’t respond well to helplessness.

That’s why the climax of their final battle works so well for me. When Superman says “Martha,” it makes Batman pause. That name’s gotta be a pretty big trigger for him, after all. But it’s not what makes him stop. What makes him stop is the fact that Superman has a mother at all. It’s the fact that Superman spends his dying breath not begging for his own life, but begging Batman to save his mother’s life. That’s what snaps him out of it. Suddenly, Superman is human to him, and he sees exactly how wrong he’s been. In that moment, he pulls back from the brink. Superman has saved his soul.

This is proven a couple of times afterward, but nowhere more definitively than in the final scene. Batman confronts Luthor in prison, threatening him with the Bat-Brand. But he doesn’t use it. He punches the wall, instead, leaving his mark beside Luthor’s head rather than on it. So he’s still all about scaring some bad guys, but Superman has redeemed him from his excesses.

And… and… Whew. My fingers hurt from the typing, and if you’re still reading this at all, you’re probably getting pretty tired of me running off at the mouth about this damn movie. So I’ll stop here. Finally.

Damn. For a guy who hates funnybook movies, I sure have spilled a lot of pixels on this one…

Don’t Believe the Hype: Batman vs Superman is the Best Super Hero Movie Ever


Batman vs Superman

So, yeah… After a headline like that, I guess I got some ‘splainin’ ta do.

But I’m dead serious. Batman vs Superman is the best super hero movie I’ve ever seen. I understand that I’m largely alone in this opinion. Even the friends I saw it with were mostly luke-warm on the film, and think I understand why. It’s not perfect by any means, and if you don’t buy into it from the get-go, I’m sure its flaws loom large. That buy-in may be tough for some people, too, because it’s a slow builder, its first half primarily devoted to set-up, character development, and a mystery so complex that you don’t even quite realize it’s a mystery until you’re ankle-deep in it. “Labyrinthine” wouldn’t be an inaccurate word here. And when that kind of plot sneaks up on you, it can be hard to engage with.

Of course, that’s one of the big reasons I like it. It’s complex and a little difficult, a morally complicated film that asks questions for which there are no easy answers, and challenges the audience’s perspective on its iconic characters. It delves into mythic themes and operatic drama while still grounding itself firmly in the current American moment. It entertained and engaged me from the outset, and delivered on the hyperkinetic action I walked in expecting. In short, it’s everything I could hope for in a super hero movie. It’s awesome.

Now… I guess I should back up all that flowery talk. And I’ll try to do that in a relatively non-spoilery manner. No sense ruining the experience for anybody who hasn’t seen it yet, after all.

I suppose the place to start is with Batman.

Affleck Batman

This is a version of the character we haven’t seen on-screen before, and maybe not in comics, either. Not exactly. It’s a seasoned Batman, 20 years into his career and still going strong. But his methods aren’t as clean as we’re used to. He’s violent. Brutal. He still wades into fights with non-lethal force, but if the situation calls for him to kill, or even to turn his enemies’ own guns against them, he’ll do it without hesitation. He’s got guns mounted on the Batmobile now, too, and he opens fire on the vehicles of fleeing criminals without mercy, wrecking their cars with little concern for the lives of the men inside. Shocking, for many.

But I think that’s the point. We’re supposed to be shocked by this Batman. We’re supposed to be bothered by him. His idealism, jaded even at his most optimistic, has soured. He’s starting down a bad path. Alfred even warns him about it, in a discussion about the kinds of things that “make a good man cruel.” What made Batman cruel? The mass destruction at the end of Man of Steel. He was in the middle of it as Bruce Wayne, on business in Metropolis, saving lives but mostly forced to watch helplessly as the Kryptonians laid waste to everything around him. It made him feel helpless, and that’s not a feeling a guy like Batman’s going to deal with very well.

Someone else who’s not coping well with feelings of helplessness in the face of the alien menace is Lex Luthor, played with manic flair…

Eisenberg Luthor

(and a surprising amount of hair)

…by Jesse Eisenberg. Lex has all kinds of control issues, and he hatches a multi-layered scheme to not just destroy Superman, but to humble him, to bring him low in the eyes of his adoring public. It’s Luthor who gives voice to the film’s mythic themes, wondering aloud if Superman is angel or demon (he’s betting on the latter), and making numerous references to battles between man and god.

Which brings us, finally, to Superman.

Cavill Superman

In the 18 months since the last time we saw him (in the afore-mentioned Man of Steel), he’s largely gained the public trust. But an incident in which he rescues Lois Lane from a local warlord somewhere in Africa winds up destabilizing the region, and suddenly his simple ethic of altruism becomes a lot more complicated. This is the crack into which Luthor shoves his crowbar, and as he bears down on it, Superman is left questioning his place in the world, seeking answers that may not exist.

So that’s Batman vs Superman in a nutshell: one very bad man applies his considerable genius to destroying one very good man, while another good man pits himself against both of them even as he himself slips ever further into darkness. The conflict builds slowly, growing to involve mercenaries, senators, a homeless guy, and international shipping regulations (scintillating!) in a complex web of plots within plots.

Too complex, some have said. My favorite comment along these lines came from a friend who off-handedly dismissed it as having a “stupid plot” that’s nonetheless “pointlessly complicated.” Which is funny. But in response, I can only shrug. I mean… it’s a super hero story. Of course it’s stupid. Even Watchmen, generally regarded as the genre’s literary peak, hinges on a scheme that’s mind-bogglingly idiotic. But that’s part of the reason it’s considered the genre’s literary peak: the best super hero stories should always be a little stupid.

But that doesn’t mean they have to be obvious. As I said earlier, the complexity of Batman vs Superman is what I liked most about it. I enjoyed putting the pieces together. I wondered why that one Russian guy kept turning up, for instance, and what a Gotham City smuggling operation had to do with anything. Little lines of dialogue come back to resonate later, and things that seemed coincidental turn out to be anything but. So I didn’t find the complexity pointless at all. It was key to my enjoyment.

Also key, admittedly, is my love of these characters. When Superman goes through his dark night of the soul, I’m right there with him. And Batman… Good lord. As the film progresses, we start to understand better exactly how much he’s losing his way. So when his obsession reaches its peak, in this absurdly grand moment of operatic sturm und drang, I’m dying a little inside. Pulling for him to come to his senses before it’s too late, and not entirely sure if the movie’s going to let him. I’m actually afraid for him.

It’s silly, I know. The kind of reaction a child would have. But that’s how hard this film hit me. It drew me in, kept me engaged, and won me over. It made me, in the words of another friend of mine, a pure audience. My cynicism melted away, and I was having such a good time that the film’s flaws didn’t seem so important.

And it does have flaws. Moments of supreme ridiculousness and little things that hit a sour note. The ridiculousness, of course, I embrace. I’m particularly taken with The Batman Workout, which apparently involves hitting a tractor tire with a sledgehammer and tying chains around your waist. It’s completely ridiculous and brutal, precisely the sort of thing this gothic opera Batman would do, and I love it. The little sour notes, I don’t love. But I was having so much fun on the whole that I was predisposed to let them slide.

And, yes, I did have fun watching this movie. Much has been made of its somber tone (“Why doesn’t the sun ever shine?” one of my friends asked). And it is a very serious film for the most part. But I enjoy an active viewing experience like this. And I mean, you know… It’s super heroes. Much as I might have been worried about my old friend Batman, there’s still an element of big dumb fun here. There’s a monster to punch! Batman wears a freaking suit of armor! And Wonder Woman shows up to steal the show!

Gadot Wonder Woman

(An aside: some critics have said that Wonder Woman shows up, and it’s immediately a different, better movie. I cannot agree. It certainly turns into the sort of exciting, morally simple punch-em-up people have come to expect from super hero movies. And Gal Gadot, much as I doubted her casting, is phenomenal in the role. She’s exotic, mysterious, and no-nonsense. A total bad ass. But once the plot has unfolded and we’re down to the punching, the movie’s actually less interesting to me.)

At any rate. Batman vs Superman. Serious, yes. Devoid of fun, no. You want joyless and bleak, watch that Daredevil show on Netflix. Next to that, Batman vs Superman is like a freaking parade. At their hearts, this film, and Man of Steel before it, are essentially optimistic films about the triumph of the heroic ideal. The first one’s all about Superman overcoming fear, in both himself and others, to become the man he needs to be. And this one’s all about the redemption of Batman’s soul. Both films take a long trip through the darkness, but they come out the other side into the light.

And that is why Batman vs Superman is the best super hero movie ever.

Your mileage may (and undoubtedly will) vary.

Grade: Best Super Hero Movie Ever, Duh!

Now, then. There’s a lot more to my love of this film than I’ve said here, but I can’t explain that without spoiling it entirely. And since I’m kind of running out of time here tonight… and since the movie only opened a few days ago… I think I’ll save the spoiler review for next week.

A Big Ol’ Pile of Crap: Print vs Digital Revisited (Again)


“Man, if I didn’t love this place so much, I’d have gone digital years ago.”
– Me, on any number of occasions, speaking to my Local Funnybook Pusher

So I think I mentioned, in last week’s column about nothing, that I’m in the process of pulling some stuff out of my comics collection to sell. Here’s a picture of that:

(forgive our blurriness)

(Forgive our blurriness.)

Yep. It’s a big ol’ pile of crap.

Well… Not crap, really. There’s some good books in there. In fact, I’d argue that 75% of the stuff you see there qualifies as good funnybooks. I mean, there’s some crap in there, too. Not everything I buy is a winner. But for the most part, that’s good stuff.

So why am I selling it?

Not because I need the money (though the money wouldn’t suck). And not because I’m dumping my comics collection to devote myself to some kind of spare Buddhist asceticism. Trust me, even if I sold everything in that pile, I’d still have more funnybooks than I know what to do with.

And that, right there, is the real motivation: I have more funnybooks than I know what to do with. Even though I’m getting rid of stuff, I still have tons of books I just can’t bear to part with. Stories with depth. Stories inspired by powerful imagination. Stories that mean something to me. I love those comics, and I love having them. But when I look at the stack of boxes I keep them in… sometimes I despair.

I’m constantly running out of room for the things. I’ll do a purge like the one I’m doing now, and all it really does is get the collection back down to the maximum size I can allow it to take up in my house. Then the next week I go out and buy some more. And more, and more, and more, until one day I look around again and think, “Jesus Christ! These comics are taking over my life!”

Heh. Well, okay. I think they actually took over my life when I was, like, five. Now they’re just taking over my SPACE. Which, for me, is far worse. So I pare things down. There are a lot of comics that, while I very much enjoyed reading them as they came out, I know I’ll never read again. About half of Ed Brubaker’s work falls into that category, for instance. Not stuff like Fatale or the recently-completed Fade Out. That’s meaty work I’ll revisit one day. But most of his work-for-hire super hero stuff, like his Captain America run…

Epting Captain America Winter Soldier

…is not something I can imagine ever sitting down with again. It’s great pulpy fun. One of the best runs that character’s ever seen. I still love the audacity in how Brubaker resurrected the one super hero pretty much everyone agreed should stay dead, made everyone love it, then turned around and killed the title character to make the book into an ensemble piece just in time for the Red Skull run for president (!). But it’s all surface. I got it the first time through. There’s nothing to reward a re-read, so… why hold on to it?

About the only work-for-hire Brubaker I’d have a hard time parting with, in fact, is a single eight-issue story in the middle of his Catwoman run. In this one, rival villain Black Mask rounds up some of Catwoman’s friends and puts them in his torture dungeon.

Stewart Catwoman Black Mask

It’s brutally sensationalist stuff, hearkening back to the pulp magazine the bad guy takes his name from. But that’s not why I’m keeping it. No, I’m keeping it for the back half of the story, where Brubaker and artist Javier Pulido spend several issues dealing with the aftermath.

Pulido Catwoman 17 Cover

Suddenly, the book goes from lurid pulpy awfulness (which, don’t get me wrong, I totally dig) to painful, understated character study. In a series of short vignettes, only a few pages each, Brubaker and Pulido examine the cast, their relationships, and how the events of the first half of the story have simply, utterly, broken them.

Pulido Catwoman 17 Slam

It’s stunning work, written and illustrated in a minimalist style you just don’t see in a big super hero series from a major publisher. I love it, and didn’t even consider selling it when I came across it in the current purge. But you know what? I don’t own that story in single issues. I love it so much that I wanted it for my bookshelf. So I own it in its collected edition, under the title Relentless:

Catwoman Relentless

Which, finally, brings me to my point. These days, any comic I love enough to own will almost certainly be published as a trade paperback within a few months. If I want it, I can get it. And the monthly single issues… which are still one of my very favorite ways to read anything… are available digitally. Sometimes that’s even cheaper than print. Also, they don’t fill my house up with things I really don’t need to own. Which is really sounding good to me right about now. So, yes. There is absolutely no reason for me to buy print comics anymore. It’s dumb. I should just stop.

But of course, tomorrow I’ll be down at my local funnybook store, picking up my weekly haul, just like I have every week for the last quarter-century. Why? Well…

I like floppies. They’re fun. Sometimes the art’s really nice, and I like to have it full size in the real world, because it’s more enjoyable that way. The physical object connects me to the book in a way a digital copy never quite manages to do. I like the ritual of it, too, the weekly trip to the store, poring over the racks, the excitement of seeing the latest issue of a book I love, or the thrill of trying something new… It’s a quiet little highlight of my week. There’s also a sense of community about it, just spending some time with other people who like comics. I’ve made lots of friends down at the funnybook store, including the guys who work there.

And that, ultimately, is what keeps me going in this vicious circle of bibliographic binge and purge: I love my local funnybook store, and I want it to stay in business. So I keep going, and I keep buying, in spite of the inevitable annoyance all those books are going to cause me. That’s a price worth paying, I think, in return for… whatever it is I get down there. Comfort. Camaraderie. Fun.

And with that, I bid you adieu. That big pile of crap ain’t gonna price itself, after all…

A Whole Buncha Nothin’


So I’ve got nothing to write about this week. It happens sometimes. I mean, I read some funnybooks last week, but nothing I could fill a column with.

The only new book I picked up, for instance, was the third issue of Andrew MacLean’s excellent Head Lopper

(guest cover by James Stokoe)

(guest cover by James Stokoe)

…and all I’ve really got to say about it is that it’s more of the same crazily-inventive fantasy adventure nonsense he served up in the first two issues. The plot thickens a bit, certainly, with more intrigue and deceit than it initially seemed the book would have. But overall, it’s the same fun and exciting reading experience MacLean’s turned in before. And I’m not really much in the mood to repeat my earlier review of it.

I also picked up a few back issues last week, but I’m not in the mood for a retro review, either. I mean, I did read my first-ever issue of Don McGregor’s Sabre last week, and it was pretty jaw-dropping. But beyond saying that it’s like Ed Wood, Jim Morrison, and Roger Zelazny collaborated on a comic…

Wrightson Sabre 3

…I’m not sure how much else I have to say about it. I mean, I like the pulpy epic sweep of it (that would be the Zelazny part). And “Poet of Deceit” is an awesomely pretentious turn of phrase (the Morrison part). Plus, you get such glorious nonsense as this caption from page one: “He wanders like a hesitant tourist through steam redolent of burnt earth and danger.”

(HAH!)

(Ahem. Excuse me.)

(That would be the Ed Wood part.)

But that’s just not enough to squeeze a real review out of.

I also picked up a comic that I didn’t know existed until about a week ago: a Silver Surfer one-shot by Stan Lee and John Byrne.

Byrne Silver Surfer 1

Done in the early 80s, this book is fascinating, but utterly pointless. Seriously. Lee manages to turn the Surfer’s status quo upside-down, and then resets it completely, all in the space of one issue. That cosmic barrier Galactus erected to keep the Surfer on Earth? Reed Richards figures out a way around it. Zenn-La? Turns out Galactus ate it after the Surfer turned on him, leaving it a lifeless rock. Shalla Bal? She’s been living on Earth for ages, and is about to marry Doctor Doom (?!?!!). But by the end, that’s all undone, and the Surfer’s stuck back on Earth (because Reed’s barrier-weakening frammistat will, for reasons not explained, only work ONCE!).

Astounding. But not something I can really get a whole column out of. Neither is this weird red and black Tick ashcan comic I snagged:

Tick Ashcan

It’s neat, and it’s got that slightly disturbing Yogi’s Ark back-up strip Ben Edlund did for an early issue. Which, now that I think of it, might actually be worth a post in its own right. But my scanner’s on the fritz, and you’ve really gotta see this thing to believe it, so… No.

Even looking beyond comics doesn’t net me anything to write about. I finally got around to watching the American Splendor movie, for instance, and was shocked at how much I enjoyed it. I liked it more than I generally do Harvey Pekar’s comics, even. But that flick’s been out for ages, and I don’t know that I’ve got a lot to say about it, anyway. I caught Two-Lane Blacktop, too…

Two-Lane Blacktop

…but I think a 45-year-old movie about car racing (even one as good as this) is maybe a bit beyond the scope of the stuff I generally write about here on the nerd farm, as is the Stanley Kubrick documentary I watched. Nick Cave’s novel And the Ass Saw the Angel goes a little far off the farm, too. And besides, I haven’t even finished it yet.

I did finish getting caught up on Kelly Sue DeConnick & Emma Rios’ Pretty Deadly

Rios Pretty Deadly 8

…and at first I thought that was kind of promising. I came to a realization about the series, you see: I enjoy the experience of reading each individual issue, but it’s not focused enough to be really satisfying in the long run. This is not to say that it’s empty-minded or anything. Quite the contrary, it has a mythic resonance that appeals to me a great deal. But while it seems to be striving toward something profound, it never quite achieves it. What it’s actually good at is evoking a tone. Which is fine, as far as it goes. But it’s becoming increasingly obvious that it’s a book I’ll never want to re-read after soaking it in the first time, so I should probably shift to digital on it. No need to have floppies cluttering up my house for no reason.

And speaking of having floppies cluttering up the house…

Big Pile of Comics

…part of the reason I can’t settle on anything to write about this week is that I’m pulling some comics together to sell, and that always puts me in a weird mood. On the one hand, it feels good to get rid of stuff, to lift the burden of having all this crap lying around. It’s also fun to play with my comics. Because there is a certain joy in simply having them, in taking them out every so often and remembering why I love the things so much in the first place.

It’s that dichotomy, I think, that war between the desire to have and the desire to purge, that puts me off my feed. Whenever it comes time to thin the herd, I always feel a little bad about it. I know the industry (and my own tastes) well enough that I seldom buy a comic I totally hate anymore. So I retain at least a tiny bit of fondness for almost everything in my collection. And sometimes making that decision to get rid of something feels a little like telling one of your children that it’s not good enough for you.

Or… Maybe not a child. That’s pretty harsh. A friend? No. Still too wrong. A pet! Yes, a pet. But not, like, a really good pet. You know, a pet with a personality that you can get seriously attached to. It’s not like sending Sparky to the gas chamber. It’s more like… flushing a goldfish. While it’s still alive.

There’s a moment of regret, a moment when you wonder if you shouldn’t be doing better by the thing. But then you go ahead and do it anyway, and you know it’s for the best. And then you look at the next goldfish in the tank. And you do it again. And again. And again. Sure, you save that pretty beta fish over there. And you’re definitely not getting rid of… I dunno… Some other really cool fish that people who keep fish like a lot. But you’re flushing those dumb ol’ goldfish by the dozen.

After a while, that kind of slaughter starts to weigh on a man.

There’s also the personal nightmare that is figuring out a price. Now, luckily, this purge is a yard sale kind of deal. It’s all about dumping some comics in a box and unloading them at two for a dollar. So I’m not having to figure out the twisted logic of the modern-day funnybook speculator. Those guys have squeezed every penny they can out of genuinely significant books, and are now casting about for whatever stupid shit they can con someone into paying for.

But, I’m sorry. A story that was retconned 20 years after the fact into being part of the new Master Villain Flavor of the Month’s Evil Scheme That Was Really Part of Our Hero’s Life All Along… does NOT constitute a first appearance of said character “Behind the Scenes.” First Appearance Behind the Scenes is Thanos popping up as a silhouette on a video monitor months before Jim Starlin actually revealed him in full.

Or, if you wanna get nasty about it, the REAL first appearance of Thanos “behind the scenes” happened when Starlin read some Jimmy Olsen comics and decided to rip off Darkseid.

Jimmy Olsen 141

Not that it was necessarily… THIS Jimmy Olsen comic. Honestly, I’m not even sure Darkseid’s in that one. But if you’re gonna post a random Jack Kirby cover for Jimmy Olsen, it should always be the one with Don Rickles.

Anyway. What was I talking about?

Oh, yeah. The fact that I have nothing to talk about. I just… got nothin’. I mean, I couldn’t even discuss my current funnybook purge without going off on a tangent about speculator greed and creative theft.

So, yeah. No column this week, folks.

Sorry.

I’ll try to do better next time.