Those shifts in artistic style are a hallmark of the series, as you can see in this next sequence from later in the issue:
A super-nice page that sees Kate wash off the Batwoman glamour on one side while her cousin (and just-pages-earlier rejected sidekick) Bette takes on the glamour of Flamebird. Everything from art style to panel orientation flips here. I like Bette’s flaming panel borders in particular. She hasn’t gotten her own page-defining special effect before now, to match Kate’s lightning bolts and jagged bats, and it’s significant that she comes into her own only after Kate gives her the boot. Of course, since water has a habit of dousing fire, I’m not so sure this little outing’s going to go very well at all for young Bette…
I’m also kind of impressed at how Williams manages to work in so many panels of attractive, athletic women changing clothes without making it seem like an exercise in sexploitation. Maybe it’s because, a couple of pages later, he also gives us sequences like this one between Kate and her love interest, Gotham police detective Maggie Sawyer:
Beautiful, romantic stuff. Simultaneously gut-wrenching, touching, and drawn with a delicacy you don’t often see in super hero comics.
It’s a masterfully-designed page, too. Check out how the background just fades out in the second panel, as Kate finally breaks down. Even the outer border of that inset shot of Maggie caressing her cheek fades out, the emotion of the moment bringing the world down to just the two of them. But even the faded outline of the stairs enhances the page structure, forming the top of a pyramid made up of the outer edges of their bodies in the two panels that follow.
It’s amazing work, only made moreso by the quality of the writing. Maggie quoting her father, just as Kate’s breaking down over her separation from her own dad, is the icing on the cake for this one. Why is it only just now occurring to me how similar Maggie and the Colonel are? Of course, I doubt that she’s going to be as supportive of Kate’s double life as he’s been, so let’s hope that Kate’s not looking for a replacement…
The Boys: Butcher, Baker, Candlestickmaker #5 (of 6), by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson
Normally, I buy this book in print. The Boys is one of my favorite on-going series, Garth Ennis at his long-form best, and this long-awaited origin story for Billy Butcher has been great stuff. But this issue didn’t show up in my subscription folder at my local funnybook store last week, and I don’t recall seeing it on the shelf, either. I bring this up not to chastise my funnybook dealer, but to make a point about my digital comics buying decisions. When I saw the issue up for digital sale, even at four dollars, I snatched it up without a second thought. That’s how much I like this book.
It’s a good issue, too. Ennis and Robertson use splash pages to devastating effect through the center of the story, cap it off with one of the series’ trademark ugly scenes, and punctuate the whole thing with one of the more terrifyingly funny lines in the book’s history. It doesn’t have the chilling quality of the recent “Why’d you kill my dog?” sequence, but even still… Gah!
Wonder Woman #3, by Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang
Though it’s not as good as DC’s OTHER major series with the word “Woman” in the title, I’ve really been enjoying this Wonder Woman reboot. The art’s nice, the logo’s cool, Brian Azzarello is taking a horror-tinged approach that I like, and his modern interpretations of Greek myth are spiffy. Plus, this issue revamps Wonder Woman’s origin story in a way that’s both shocking and utterly mundane at the same time (SPOILER alert: Hippolyta had sex!).
Diana’s reaction to this revelation is a bit over-blown, more like a petulant teenager than a grown woman. And her last-page declaration that she is only to be addressed as Wonder Woman…
…actually made me laugh out loud. Because, seriously? Of course (and I may be giving Azzarello too much credit here), I suppose it’s in keeping with the exaggerated passions of the myths she springs from. Hercules, for example, is a jerk not because he’s supposed to be a jerk, but because the Greeks valued passion above all else. And compared to some of the crap Hercules did, Diana’s (oh, excuse me… Wonder Woman’s) actions are downright rational. So I’ll cope, and see where things go from here.
As I was writing all that, I was trying to figure out why I’m buying this in print, and I’m not entirely sure. I don’t know that Azzarello’s writing is nuanced enough to reward re-readings, and while Chiang’s art is nice, he’s not really doing anything with his pages that makes me want to preserve them in print. And yet, I still want to keep buying print copies. I think it’s the total package, maybe, the cool and progressive feel of the book as a whole. I’m excited about it, and that excitement translates into wanting a copy to keep. And maybe to loan out, too…
The Conversation, vol. 1, by James Kochalka and Craig Thompson
A light-hearted discussion of art philosophy between the two greatest indie cartoonists of their generation. This came out a while ago, I think, but it only appeared on Comixology this week. I missed the print version completely, and since the digital was priced at two bucks (down from five) I picked it up. It’s fun. Over the course of 50 single-panel pages, the philosophical discussions get pretty deep. But Kochalka and Thompson wisely insert a mocking Greek chorus of cartoon animals that keep them from getting pretentious. Kochalka’s playful sense of the perverse helps on that front, too, as he (at least, I think it was him) presents rain as God peeing on the world before Thompson waxes rhapsodic about the glory of nature. I also like that the whole thing ends with the two of them crawling back into the womb, which is sort of what this kind of philosophical wank-fest is all about in the first place.
I notice that volume two is also available, and I may pick that up as well next week. Watching two cartoonists of this stature playing around together like this doesn’t happen all that often, and I feel like I should enjoy it while I’ve got the chance.
Fear Itself 7.2: Thor, by Matt Fraction and Adam Kubert
Big doings for the Thor series here, including another really nice bit of myth-shaping by Matt Fraction. From the ashes of Thor’s funeral pyre comes Tanarus, God of Thunder! Tanarus is the Celtic version of Thor, essentially the same character under a different name, and as he’s born…
…the funeral turns into a party! Because, hey! It’s Tanarus! Everybody loves Tanarus! All those boisterous adventures he had with the Avengers! The Lee/Kirby Tanarus! Walt Simonson’s more-true-to-the-Celts 80s revamp! You know! Tanarus! The life of the motherfucking party! Or, as Freya put it… What an ass.
Yes, the Ragnarok cycle’s turning over, and as the gods’ history is re-written, so is everybody else’s right along with it. Everything new is indeed old again. Fraction’s been playing around with this idea since he started writing Thor. We’ve seen the world as shaped by Odin the All-Father, and got a taste of what it might be like if the Serpent took that mantle. Now Odin’s abdicated, and we’re entering the world of the All-Mother. I’ll be curious to see where that goes over the next few months. Especially in light of what happens on the last page.
I buy this book in print, in part because I love big ideas like those. Of course, the conclusions to all of Fraction’s storylines thus far have fallen a bit flat, and big ideas are easily shrunken down to the digital reader screen. So the real reason I buy it in print is the art. Not that it’s necessarily great work, but Fraction and his artists are turning in big two-page spreads to best-capture all the big god-action, and two page spreads don’t shrink down to the screen very well. Single pages are readable, even though I’m losing roughly a square inch off the print version. But spreads are impossible, even on landscape view, and the full-page reading experience is still important to me.
Batman #1-2, by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo
Scott Snyder’s Batman is a perfect cheap bastard plan comic for me. I’m kinda luke-warm on Scott Snyder’s writing in general, and any run on any book that comes in too close a proximity to a Grant Morrison run is frankly going to suffer in comparison. But I was willing to give this one a shot, cheap-bastard-wise, which I finally remembered to do this week. I’m kinda glad I waited, too, because if I’d just picked up issue one last month, I might not have come back for issue two. Part of the problem was the book’s attempt to be new-reader-friendly. But I expected that; while I don’t need to be introduced to the three Robins, casual readers don’t know Damian Wayne or Tim Drake from Adam. So I was fine with that. I think I was primarily bothered by the way Snyder chose to have Bats take down so many arch-villains all at once in the issue’s opening sequence. It devalues some really fine bad guys, and that’s never a good thing. These guys get their asses handed to them all the time, of course, but taking even one of them out should at least make Batman break a sweat.
Beyond that, Snyder has introduced a mystery built around some Gotham folklore concerning something called The Council of Owls. Which would be a lot cooler if we hadn’t just gone through months of bat-centric Gotham folklore in Morrison’s run. Snyder’s Batman is also perhaps a little overly paranoid, but it’s a long way from the grim self-parody the character too often descends into, and I like that. On the whole, he’s weaving a neat little mystery here, and delivering a perfectly serviceable 21st Century Batman. It’s not great, but I’ll take even a decent Batman comic if it’s only two bucks. I mean… it’s Batman!
Supergirl #1-3, by Michael Green & Michael F. Johnson and Mahmud Asar
I’ve been buying this one same-day-digital since the reboot, but I think it’s time to move it onto the cheap bastard plan. Not that I’m not enjoying it; so far, it’s been a fun read. But it’s not so much fun that it won’t wait a month.
So what makes it good-not-great? Well, I like that Green and Johnson are taking their time establishing Supergirl as a very confused teenager dropped without warning into a world she knows nothing about. I won’t go so far as to say that she feels real, though. She feels like a character in a story, as does the “evil Steve Jobs” bad guy introduced as the villain in issue three. They’re entertaining characterizations, but they show no hints of depth beyond that characterization. And that’s the difference between good and great.
Likewise, Mahmud Asar’s artwork is nice to look at, but it’s not great. In spite of some moments of brilliance, it’s ultimately just imminently serviceable funnybook art that never goes the full cheesecake exploitation route. And considering what’s going on in some of DC’s other books with prominent female leads…
…that’s nice to see.
(An aside: how do people in the DC Universe keep having sex with their clothes on? I mean, maybe that catsuit unzips a lot further than I think, but there’s no way Harley’s getting any through Deadshot’s briefs and her Daisy Dukes. And what’s up with that clown car joke, anyway? Is she implying that Deadshot’s got multiple penises? That kind of makes the Starfire-as-sex-doll stuff from Red Hood not… seem so… bad… Okay, no, I was wrong. That’s still so freaking wrong I can’t believe it…)
But anyway! Supergirl! Refreshingly free of exploitative images of Kryptonian jailbait!
Fear Itself 7.3: Iron Man, by Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca
These extra epilogues to Fear Itself were originally just supposed to be the next issues of their title characters’ on-going series, but Marvel marketing decided that they’d sell better as Fear Itself epilogues. I bring this up because this issue, in particular, doesn’t flow out of the parent mini-series at all, but instead out of what’s been going on in the monthly Iron Man series. Which has been Fear Itself related, certainly. But if you’ve been reading the core series, and not the Iron Man monthly… It probably won’t mean a whole lot to you.
If you have, though, it’s kinda brilliant. It’s the culmination of everything Fraction’s been grappling with in his Iron Man Fear Itself arc, the things Tony Stark is really afraid of. His alcoholism has been the most obvious fear, of course, but (appropriately, I think) it’s really just an excuse, a destructive coping mechanism that allows him to escape the thing he’s really afraid of: the loss of control. That’s at the base of his adversarial relationship with Odin (who’s standing in for God, and simultaneously IS God), and it’s why the Grey Gargoyle’s mass murder of Paris shook him so deeply. The death was horrible, yes. But even more horrible for Stark was his complete inability to stop it.
And Odin, being, you know, GOD and stuff… Knows that better than Stark himself does. So here, in the aftermath of his son’s death, and before he abdicates the throne of the All-Father, he decides to give Stark a glimpse (just a glimpse) of his true place in the grand cosmic scheme of things. Why? Well, I think it’s a bit of tough love (which is, evidently, the only kind of love Odin ever shows anyone), a little something to show Stark that he’s nothing in the grand scheme of things, and that he has control over exactly jack. Maybe in the hope that the poor bastard can just relax a little, you know? Or maybe not. Who am I to try to comprehend the mind of God, after all?
I buy Iron Man in print, and I do that for two reasons: one, it’s four bucks for digital, and at that price I’ll take a physical copy over a digital one when I can. But also, it’s a book that rewards re-reading. In fact, it almost demands it. This book, in spite of its depth of character and Larroca’s talent for facial expression, sometimes has sort of a flat affect about it. The big moments aren’t presented any differently than the small ones. The dramatic cues we’re used to, the storytelling tricks that let us know something important is happening, just aren’t there.
And so on first reading it’s easy to feel like nothing’s happening (a common complaint about the series). On the re-read, though, once I’ve got the basic events of the plot in my head, all this… stuff just comes spilling out. Little things, actions, lines of dialogue that resonate with other lines of dialogue, often from earlier issues, that fill the stories with meaning. Some people consider that lack of immediacy bad writing. I consider it more bang for my buck. But to each his own.
Oh, one last thing: this issue (and Fear Itself as a whole) gets downgraded considerably because [SPOILER] they’ve now erased the one truly horrifying thing that happened in the entire series: the murder of Paris. As a final favor to Stark (or, you know, for whatever reason God does anything), Odin restores everyone to flesh. I’m assuming the ones who were crushed into dust didn’t make it (in part because it makes me less disappointed), but all the intact statues? Good as new. I half-expected it to happen, and it still pisses me off. Because between this, the arrival of Tanarus, and the double-fake death of Bucky, absolutely nothing happened in Fear Itself that doesn’t happen in every major super villain attack. Any aftermath they attempt to spin out of it at this point pretty much means nothing. Well-written as it may be, it’s a literal Deus ex Machina (what else do you call a team-up between Odin and Iron Man, after all?), and that sucks. [/SPOILER]
Grade: A for the Iron Man stuff / D for everything between the Spoiler tags
The Flash #1-2, by Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato
A same-day digital buy for me that I don’t think I’ll be switching over to the cheap bastard plan anytime soon. This one’s an unusual case, you see, in that the main attraction of it for me is the visual storytelling. Manapul’s doing some really neat stuff with his pages, using layout tricks to enhance Flash super-speed stunts and just generally bringing the thunder on page design. I also like the way he’s playing around with what it means to be super-fast, delving into what it might be like to have a high-speed consciousness. That’s cool sci-fi content, and it gets a dynamic visual, as well:
The book’s got a refreshingly contemporary feel, too. Barry Allen’s web of friendships, professional contacts, and romantic entanglements just scan right for a young man of the 21st Century, and feel much more like a real life than what you see of the personal lives of most spandex characters. Good as it is, though, it’s not complex or dramatically exciting enough to make me think that I’ll want to re-read it later. And Manapul’s visual tricks are of a type that translate just fine to the digital screen. So, much as I’m glad that there’s a visually-interesting super hero comic about the relatively pleasant life of a nice guy, I’m fine with only an ephemeral digital copy.
(EDIT: Forgot to insert the FlashMind image first time out. D’oh!)