So it’s a good week for funnybooks. We got Spider-Man’s Life Story, we got the return of Greg Rucka and Michael Lark’s Lazarus, and we got some Criminal proceedings from Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. But first, as is often the case, we got ourselves a little Batman to discuss…
Batman 66 & 67
by Tom King, Jorge Fornes, and Lee Weeks
My new reading pattern for Tom King’s Batman run is to pop in and out, depending on whether or not I like the art. Because what I’m finding is that if I don’t like the art, it’s usually something dealing, in a straight-up plot manner, with the over-arcing Bane story, which I actively dislike. But if I like the art, that’s usually something that can be enjoyed separately, on its own merits. And those stories, I generally like quite a bit. I’m sure this pattern will eventually break, but for now it’s serving me well. So I’m gonna stick with it for a while.
The two issues in question here feature artwork from Jorge Fornes, who I’d never heard of before this, but whose stuff has a simple rough-edged beauty that reminds me a bit of Michael Lark circa Gotham Central…
…and Lee Weeks, whose work is really quite exquisite.
Weeks’ Batman puts me in mind of David Mazucchelli’s, but trapped in a series of increasingly complicated backgrounds that few artists could have put on the page quite as effectively as Weeks does. The number of impossibly long staircases in this issue is exhausting, and I’m just reading the thing. I can only imagine how tiring it must have been to draw.
The reason for all those stairs is that these two issues are part of a series of stories depicting Batman’s dreams and nightmares. The last time we looked in on this particular strand of stories, Mitch Gerads drew the absolute hell out of an abattoir nightmare featuring Professor Pyg and Damian Wayne. Issue 66 has Jorge Fornes on an issue-long interrogation between the Question and Catwoman, in which Batman’s wounded subconscious tries to figure out why she really left him at the altar. The conversation is… not entirely fruitful.
But I do like the gag of Batman’s questioning subconscious being represented by… The Question. On the one hand, it’s an unsubtle joke (his QUESTIONS are represented by THE QUESTION! Eh? Eh? GET IT?!). But on the other… It’s interesting to me that he wasn’t interrogating her as himself. Guess the rejection still hurts too much for him to confront it personally. So that’s some nice character work, there.
Issue 67, meanwhile, is an issue-long chase scene, all but silent, in which Batman chases Green Arrow villain Onomatopoeia across rooftops, through windows, and up and down endless (ENDLESS!) stairs. They wind up in the water at the end, and (on a page that I think was drawn by Jorge Fornes) Onomatopoeia is unmasked as…
This issue winds up being an elaborate joke, too, but it’s a joke I won’t spoil, since I already spoiled the big reveal up there. But it’s another nice metaphor for how Batman must sometimes view his work: as meaningless, repetitive, never-ending conflict. There are stairs to climb and gaps to leap, but in the end, he just winds up drowning in it.
These two issues play off each other rather nicely, I think. Batman has been left utterly unprepared for the emotional impact of Catwoman’s rejection, something she (says she) did because he can’t be with her (which is to say, be happy) and also be a super hero. But without something to live for (which is to say, something to be happy about), his super hero life loses all meaning.
Now, all of this plays into Bane’s latest plan to break the Batman. This is exactly the sort of thought process he wants Our Hero to be going through. But you don’t need that story to appreciate this as good Batman writing. I mean, I don’t give a rat’s ass about what Bane’s doing (except insofar as I’m bored to tears by the issues that deal with what he’s doing). But as a life-long Batman fan, I’m digging these dream issues. They’re weird and cool, and they address the character’s doubts in a way that renders him more human than he’s seemed in a very long time. I don’t need a story where he’s being “broken” by some bullshit master plan to appreciate that. It just seems like something he should be dealing with, anyway.
And so I trip merrily along, pretending that the rest of this story doesn’t exist, and enjoying the hell out of some really very well-written Batman comics.
Lazarus: Risen 1
by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark
After a few months off to allow artist Michael Lark to recharge his creative batteries, my favorite dystopian near-future sci-fi comic has returned to the stands! And it’s good to have it back. They’ve relaunched with a new first issue, too, by way of introducing their new quarterly format. It’s pretty much what they used to call the Prestige Format: a square-bound comic on slick paper with cardstock covers, featuring 44 pages of story and various back-up bonus material. At eight bucks, the price is a bit steep. But the quality makes it worth the money for me.
Anyway. They’ve wisely fronted this issue with a three-page recap of the story so far. Because it’s been a while, quite frankly, and this series is too complex for readers to be expected to remember it all. I mean, I remembered most of it anyway, as it turns out, but it was nice to have the reminder for little details like how many clones of Forever Carlyle there have been to date.
(The most recent one is number eight, if you were wondering. But she’s only 14 at the moment, and we’ve only recently found out about her. The one we’ve been following from the beginning is number seven, who Rucka informs us is around 23 at this point in the story. And, no. I’m sure the fact that there are two Forever Carlyles running around at the same time will not have ANY negative repercussions down the line…)
And from there, we hit the ground running, right back into the webs of intrigue and warfare and family drama that make this book so good. Joanna Carlyle is still head of the family, and writer Greg Rucka’s done this amazing thing where she’s managed to manipulate Forever to her side by cutting her loose from the mind control drugs she’s been pumped full of since birth. I can’t decide if Joanna’s got an ulterior motive to that, or if she just thinks it’s the best thing for Forever, and/or for the family. She’s proven herself to be enough of a user, but also a good enough leader, that either could be true.
That’s the kind of queasy character dynamic that makes me love this series so much. I mean, sure. It’s also well-researched next-gen sci-fi, based in smart geo-political thinking. And it’s a good sci-fi war comic, to boot. But it’s the interplay of characters and politics that keeps me coming back.
Well, that, and the beautiful artwork. Michael Lark is one of the best realists in comics, and the extra time he’s had to devote to this issue really pays off. It’s just page after page of gorgeous character drawing, punctuated with action…
…and emotional fireworks…
…all of it natural and utterly convincing. It’s a book that calls for a range of storytelling talents that a lot of artists would have a difficult time pulling off, but Lark handles it with aplomb.
So, yeah. It’s good to have it back. Even if I do have to wait three months between issues now.
Spider-Man: Life Story 1
by Chip Zdarsky and Mark Bagley
Picked this one up based largely on the premise: it’s a mini-series that will follow the life of Spider-Man, as if he’d aged in real time since his debut. This first issue is set in 1966, and it picks things up at an interesting period in the character’s life. Peter Parker’s been Spider-Man since ’62, when he was 15 years old. He’s in college now, and just starting his relationship with Gwen Stacy in fits and starts. He’s buried the hatchet, more or less, with his old enemy Flash Thompson, who’s now shipping out to fight in Vietnam. And he’s made a new friend: Harry Osborn, son of Norman Osborn, a millionaire industrialist who also happens to be Spider-Man’s worst enemy: The Green Goblin.
So far, so good. That’s actually pretty close to where the book was in 1966. Steve Ditko had just left the series over contractual (and philosophical) disagreements. Stan Lee, for the first time, was left to chart the book’s course on his own, and John Romita was just coming on as artist. All of which makes it a good time for writer Chip Zdarsky to start making changes to Spider-History as we know it.
So he has Norman Osborn twig to Spider-Man’s secret identity before unmasking him, moving forward the fateful encounter that erases Norman’s memory of being the Goblin in the first place. He wrestles with the sticky issue of Vietnam, having Peter wonder if if his tremendous sense of responsibility calls for him to join Flash, fighting in a war he doesn’t believe in. He has Captain America struggling with similar questions, advising Spider-Man to follow his heart, and to keep doing good on the home front. And all that soul-searching leads this Peter Parker to do something I found rather shocking:
So… that’s actually very mature, and a lot more responsible than Pete was in the original stories. There, out of concern for Harry, he lets Norman go about his life, only for him to become the Goblin again later, eventually killing Gwen Stacy in one of the most memorable moments in comics history.
Zdarsky makes some other changes here, too, but I don’t want to spoil them all, so I’ll stop there. That anonymous tip is the thing that really won me over, anyway. The story is otherwise interesting, but not great. It reads like standard super heroes for the most part, right up until that moment. And after that, I’m very curious to see how he develops Peter’s life down the road. With Norman in jail, does Gwen survive? Do she and Pete wind up married? Does he change the way he operates as Spider-Man, working more carefully to let the cops take care of things in a more permanent way than he can do with his fists? The Vietnam stuff’s going to have some interesting consequences down the line, too, changing not only Spider-Man’s history, but maybe that of the Marvel Universe as a whole.
So, yeah. I’m in. This might not be the best comic I’ve ever read, but I really wanna see where Zdarsky takes this thing.
Criminal 2 & 3
by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
After starting the new Criminal series off with the first part of a story about Teeg Lawless, Brubaker and Phillips have jumped into an entirely different story about an aging comics artist, and his quest to retrieve some stolen original art. I found the switch off-putting at first, but this two-parter won me over with some hysterical and heart-breaking “inside comics” backstory, drawing heavily on real-world funnybook scandal, that brought its crotchety protagonist to life.
I knew some of the stories already. The car accident, for instance, is loosely based on a famous incident with Alex Raymond and Stan Drake. But the drinking, broken marriages and problematic treatment of women could come from any number of old-time comics pros, as could his bitterness at being ripped off by his publishers. Howard Chaykin recently mined similar material for his Hey Kids! Comics! series, but (Chaykin being Chaykin) his inherent cynicism didn’t wring the sort of noirish pathos Brubaker gets out of Hal Crane.
Assisting Crane in his criminal escapades is Jacob Kurtz, star of a previous Criminal story set about ten years after this one. And that’s where I get an inkling of what Brubaker may be up to with this current run of Criminal. Jacob’s a small-time crook when the story begins, but once upon a time he was Hal Crane’s assistant. And back before that, he was childhood friends with Ricky Lawless, son of Teeg Lawless, and the reason Teeg went off on the ill-fated heist we saw him planning back in issue one. Ricky shows up here to help with a little breaking and entering, because that’s not really Jacob’s thing. That’s when we find out that Jacob got into comics because of what happened to Teeg. And next issue’s about Ricky, so… Now I’m wondering if maybe we’ll weave in and out of Teeg’s last big score throughout the run, taking small side trips along the way to look at the people affected by his crash and burn life.
As structures go, it ain’t bad. I might be reading too much into it, of course. Maybe Brubaker just threw that little Teeg reference in there to appease everybody who was pissed off about the book switching gears in mid-story like that. We’ll see. But I could get behind a bunch of short stories loosely-gathered around Teeg’s Last Ride.
One thing I’m having a little more trouble getting behind is Sean Phillips’ art on this new run of Criminal stories. After the tight, impressive work he was doing on Kill Or Be Killed, his pages here seem a bit loose in comparison. I mean, don’t get me wrong. There are some killer individual drawings in these issues. He seems to enjoy drawing Crane, in particular.
But the overall feel is messier. Part of that may be an attempt to capture more of a raw, pulpy, monthly comics style, since that’s what this current Criminal run is all about. But the absence of Elizabeth Breitweiser on colors also has something to do with it. She’s one of the reasons Kill Or Be Killed was so pretty to look at, and the color work being done here by Phillips’ son Jacob isn’t as pleasing to me. Jacob’s going for a more expressionistic aesthetic, I’ll grant you. But there are places where his colors obscure his father’s lines more than they enhance them.
It’s hardly going to kill the book for me. But for an artist with as grounded a style as Phillips, it’s not the sort of coloring job I would prefer.
But I hate to end the review on a down note. I enjoyed this story an awful lot. No spoilers, but it’s got one of my favorite Criminal endings, the kind that makes you want to laugh and cry all at the same time. So I’m looking forward to seeing where the series goes next. I mean… It’s Brubaker and Phillips. They haven’t steered me too far wrong yet.