So you all have my apologies for the technical difficulties last week. Truth be told, they were less “technical” difficulties than they were “fatigue” difficulties. Busy times at my work and a nagging foot injury have simply left me with little energy to write of late. Such is life.
But let’s face it: I’m way behind on reviews. At this point, there’s no way to catch up on everything I’ve read, and still say something substantial about any of it. So I think I’ll just hit the highlights and try to clear the decks a bit. And speaking of highlights, I can’t believe I haven’t talked about this book yet…
The Black Monday Murders 1
by Jonathan Hickman and Tomm Coker
So this was one of the more interesting books of the last few weeks. It’s a Jonathan Hickman project, which means that it’s fascinating in concept. It’s complicated, steeped in esoteric knowledge, and built around central mysteries that he reveals just enough of in the first issue to leave you wanting more. He pushes all the right buttons for me as a reader, in other words. So of course this is going to be a glowing review.
Still, though… This book feels a little different from Hickman’s usual fare. It’s more… grounded may be the word. The characters feel more real, like there’s more potential for depth. Not that Hickman characters are usually shallow. But he’s very adept at writing types. Recognizable characters that he’s able to define in a few deft strokes in the early parts of a story. They don’t grow so much as they surprise, taking actions that you wouldn’t expect, but that make sense in context, and reveal hidden depths. He plays with types, in other words, confounding expectations in an entertaining way. And always in service to plot and theme.
There’s some of that here. Our Hero is The Good Cop Whose Methods Aren’t Understood By His Peers.
Also among the cast are The Teacher and The Prodigal. And etc. But they’re a bit more layered than what Hickman usually delivers. The Teacher was once something else, for example, and the book’s core premise seems predicated upon people taking on different roles over time. So maybe this is just a more complicated version of his usual handling of character. Or maybe it’s the reverse: an exploration of how the roles we play change us, how we become types based on our circumstances. Which is both messier, and maybe more interesting. But we’ll see as things develop.
It occurs to me that I haven’t told you what the book is about yet. In short, it’s about money. Money, and the acquisition thereof. It’s about the manipulation and control of the global financial markets via black magic, and the secret cabals that, through those manipulations, rule the world. It’s also, as the title would suggest, a murder mystery set among that ruling class, and a detective with a talent for the supernatural, tasked with solving it.
Yeah. The only way Hickman could have come up with an idea I’d like more would be if he’d tossed in some Lovecraft and maybe a David Lynch reference or two…
At any rate. Another standard feature of Jonathan Hickman comics given an interesting twist here is his love of graphic design elements. Well-designed divider pages that transition out of one scene and into the next. Here, those pages are given over to world-building. Background information on the premise and characters, rendered mostly in a grimy, official, typewritten report sort of aesthetic. The above file page on Theo Dumas is a good example, but this issue is chock-full of the stuff. Diagrams, flow charts, lists, explanations… All great stuff, and all essential information that saves Hickman from having to resort to the incredibly artificial trick of turning all that crap into dialogue. That’s an approach I appreciate, and it allows Hickman the freedom to have his cast discuss things as if everybody knows what’s going on (which they do). Again, writing that seems designed specifically to appeal to me.
But I especially like how he uses one of them to establish how magic really works here, and in the process offer the reader an unsettling idea. Though the story is set in the present-day, it starts with an account of Black Thursday, the Stock Market Crash of 1929. We see how it affects the ruling council of our black magic stockbrokers, and how they must sacrifice one of their own to survive.
But that sacrifice isn’t enough to off-set the enormity of the crash. So they also sacrifice some of their employees, albeit in a much less esoteric fashion.
And Hickman follows that up with this lovely piece of work:
So, damn. DAMN. It’s not like the idea hadn’t occurred to me before. But to see it laid out that way, as a freaking business plan… Guh. That shit stuck with me. And no, that’s not a real website. I know, because I checked. Because I HAD TO check. Because Hickman had planted just enough doubt in my head that I had to know. I suppose, if they’d really wanted to fuck with people, they could have slapped up a dummy site. But they didn’t, thank god, and so I was given some small amount of reassurance that Snopes isn’t a complete fraud. Very small. Very.
Anyway. That’s what we’re dealing with here: magic and illusion, and how they work together to change reality by making miracles that seem to have rational explanations. Which is as good a way as any, I suppose, to think of the global economy: a house of cards held together primarily by people’s belief in it.
This sense of magic realism I’ve been talking about is cemented in the work of series artist Tomm Coker. His style prevents the supernatural elements from coming off as too fantastical. It lets them hide, as is appropriate for this book, in plain sight. But more, Coker gives the whole thing the feel of a 1970s horror film. It’s a sort of cinema verite in comics form.
On a less grounded level, he also bridges the gap between Hickman’s text pages and the art, allowing, at times, the grime of the ink spots and xerox lines to intrude on the panels, letting it seep in around the edges. I can’t tell, yet, if his placement has any thematic or plot significance. But even if it doesn’t, Coker uses it well, focusing the reader’s eye…
…or even just adding texture to a blank space.
Most importantly, though, it makes this a book with coherent visual design, and that really adds to its overall effectiveness. It’s not an instant five-star classic, but it is damn fine funnybooks, and one of my favorite new comics of recent vintage.
Well, now. That went on a bit longer than I’d intended. So let’s talk about a few books in more of a capsule form. Sticking with Jonathan Hickman’s stuff, I notice that he’s released two issues of his apocalypse western East of West since I last wrote about it. This book’s got a lot of interesting ideas behind it, too, but mostly I continue to be impressed by the spectacle of it, the sheer Kirbyesque creative power behind its array of bizarre characters. So bizarre, at times, that these most recent two issues edge over into broad comedy. I mean, there’s still a horrifying character concept on-hand, a religious fanatic made into a killing machine who remembers more of his previous life than he was promised he would…
…but the overall tone has been almost too comic, too broad, for my taste. Almost.
Another book that’s been pleasing with spectacle of late is Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s The Wicked + The Divine. In this case, though, that’s been a welcome change to a book that’s sometimes kept its best concepts just out of reach. Shit goes down in the two most recent issues, though, turning the whole series upside-down. A climax is reached that would signal the end of most comics, but here mostly serves to make me wonder if I’ve been pulling for the wrong side this whole time.
Greg Rucka and Michael Lark’s Lazarus, meanwhile, has been far more about subtlety than spectacle of late. While Rucka’s almost always kept the book compelling, I’m starting to feel like the first 20 issues were mostly set-up for the character and plot movements he’s making now. It’s fine testament to the time and care he’s taken with this book that the war that’s going on in the wider world, while offering up some really great action scenes…
…is actually less interesting to me than the inner machinations of the Carlyle family.
I can’t remember if I’ve reviewed any of Peter J. Tomasi and Ian Bertram’s House of Penance before, but it’s a book I’ve been enjoying more with each passing issue. It’s a horror story set during the building of one of my favorite things: the Winchester Mystery House, an architectural curiosity built by Sarah Winchester, the widow of the Winchester Rifle Company’s founder. She believed that the house was haunted by the ghosts of all those killed with Winchester rifles, and kept construction going for almost 40 years, without a building plan, until the day she died. Tomasi and Bertram’s tale is a claustrophobic story of madness and obsession, with visuals that become increasingly bizarre as the tension mounts. I left this one extra-embiggenable for you, so make sure you give it a click, just so you can see all the tiny details.
Set as it is only a few years into the construction, I don’t know how this book’s going to end…
…but I can’t wait to find out.
I’m also looking forward with dreadful anticipation to the end of Tom King and Gabriel Walta’s Vision. With just two issues left to go, everything’s coming to a head with a sense of dreadful inevitability. The most recent issue is a nicely-handled study of a family grieving over a dead child, and it ends in pretty much the only way it can. I don’t see this situation ending well for anyone, and it’s left me in that horrible wonderful place as a reader where I simultaneously don’t want the book to end, but also want to know how it all wraps up. Which is a nice place to be.
Conversely, I’ve become considerably less interested in the ending of King’s run on Batman, even though I enjoyed the most recent issue quite a bit. But I think this may call for a full review…
by Tom King and Ivan Reis
First, the stuff I liked. This issue concerns Gotham Girl’s descent into madness, plowing through a series of great z-grade Batman villains while carrying on an endless conversation with her dead brother. It’s both entertaining and affecting, the story zooming from the shock of actually seeing Colonel Blimp in a 21st Century Batman story…
…to the genuine pathos of Gotham Girl’s grief.
I even, for the first time ever, enjoyed the art of Ivan Reis. I mean, just look at this shit:
So, yes. A very effective story that both entertained me and made me care about a character I had, before now, been mostly indifferent to. I even see now that Gotham Girl was the character King wanted to write all along. Gotham himself was a sacrificial lamb, a well-intentioned lump of a character with a really bad super hero name. Gotham Girl is more interesting. The costume looks better on her. And her name (now that it’s been unmoored from his) has a cool retro appeal. Especially in a comic that’s giving me appearances from Captain Stingaree.
So that’s all good. I really enjoyed this issue, and was thinking that I was wise to give King one more chance to get his shit together on Batman. But then I turned to the last page, and suddenly…
Suddenly, I was yanked back to the larger meta-plot of King’s Batman run. Reminded that we can’t just have a funnybook with a simple story about human grief and awesomely goofy super villains. Because just writing a good comic obviously isn’t enough to make me come back for more. No, there’s also got to be a poorly-developed and massively unconvincing conspiracy going on.
I’m not sure why King shot himself in the foot here, but that’s exactly what he’s done. He took the time to plant seeds for this plot over the course of five whole issues. Everything was pointing toward Hugo Strange pulling the strings, masterminding chaos toward the larger goal of giving Gotham City the super villain equivalent of primal scream therapy. He conned Amanda Waller into releasing the Psycho Pirate into his custody for that express purpose, and all the while we, the readers, knew he had his Monster Men waiting in the wings. That plot wasn’t given enough room to properly develop, but it was there, and I could get behind it.
Along the way, there had been a hint that someone else, a larger mastermind, might be out there, too. But it was just a hint, and in the meantime… HUGO STRANGE! Hugo! Fucking! Strange! Was being positioned as a major Batman villain again, for the first time in god knows how long. If there WAS another villain behind him, I thought, we’d get more hints dropped, increasing in frequency as Strange’s story developed, so that Strange himself could take his time in the spotlight and be rehabilitated into the fan-favorite major threat he probably ought to be. I was kind of looking forward to it, honestly: Hugo Strange running wild, and in the meantime seeing this greater mystery develop, trying to figure it out, waiting with bated breath for the reveal… These are the joys of genre fiction.
But now, out of nowhere, before the Hugo Strange story even really begins… BAM! Strange has been made to seem like an unimportant side issue, another hokey villain on the level of Colonel Blimp, because now we know that both of them have been working for Bane the whole time. And that, inadvertently, has also made Gotham Girl’s madness seem less important, because it was caused by a villain who’s just been narratively castrated. Which in turn makes the entire Tom King run to date seem like a waste of time.
But that’s not even the worst thing about that page! Because the way the Bane revelation plays out, it’s a perfunctory moment of matter-of-fact exposition coming three panels into a seven-panel page. It reduces Bane to a narrative after-thought, as the story then moves past him, and Amanda Waller takes center stage, sending Batman on a suicide mission to clean up the mess she’s made, AND copping an attitude about it. The way it plays out, it’s like SHE’S being established as the real villain of the story. But because she’s previously been revealed as an incompetent bureaucrat out to save her own ass… She also seems incredibly petty, and thus not great master villain material.
So the last page of Batman #6 is not just a tone-deaf coda to a fun and affecting story. It’s an ill-timed and poorly-constructed damp squib of a revelation that’s completely killed my enthusiasm for the book going forward, and made me regret spending time and money on the issues I already bought. If writing were sex, this would be a case of premature ejaculation.
And now I’m left with a dilemma. I liked the bulk of this issue. But it’s very much a case of King winning the battle but losing the war. So…
Grade for all but one page of Issue Six:
Grade for the last page of Issue Six:
Zero Stars. Seriously. It’s that bad.
Grade for Tom King’s Batman as a whole:
And that’s it for this week. I’ve still got a couple of books to catch up on, like Tom King’s much better work on Sheriff of Babylon, and the second issue of Brubaker and Philips’ Kill or Be Killed. But those will have to wait. My computer tells me that I’m well over 2500 words on this column, so I think I’ve kept you long enough.