Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Redemption and the Bat

Today we’re going to be dealing with a reader question, from Friend Of The Blog and all around good guy @goblinpaladin: “Does Batman's abhorrence of firearms and imposed restriction of no killing mean he believes in the possibility of redemption?”

Good question! Let me begin by answering it quickly, and then going into a bit more detail: Batman believes THE HECK out of redemption. It’s basically his whole deal. It’s why he’s not the Punisher. It’s why he doesn’t kill, why he sends his villains to an asylum, a place of healing. You might also say, "but Alex, isn't Batman also kind of a suspicious guy? Can't he sometimes also be kind of an asshole?" And you'd be right, for the most part. Here's the thing: Batman accepts the capacity for redemption in all people as a concept, but he basically never believes in it when he sees it.

There are a few caveats that I want to get out of the way before we dig into the nuts and bolts, and the first one is that you can find a Batman story to prove anything you like. The guy has been in print for seventy five goddamn years now, often in as many as six books a month, all by different writers, all of whom have their own idea of how the ‘real’ Batman behaves. There's gonna be done variance, and at the end of the day he’s a fictional character, so getting at what  "really" believes is always going to be a problematic endeavour. That said, there are degrees. Let me put it this way – there’s a difference between a story where Batman lets Catwoman come hang out in the Batcave, which is out of character but not impossible, and a story where he teams up with the man who killed his parents, USING THE GUN THAT KILLED HIS PARENTS, which is totally goddamn insane. Both of these things happened (Hush and Year Two, respectively) and both of them are terrible, but the latter is a far greater deviation from the ‘proper' Batman, for lack of a better word. That concept is also pretty subjective, and if you have a different perspective, well it's not like you're paying for this.

Let's just move right along...
The second caveat is that, of course, nobody who prances around the Gotham rooftops in a fancy costume in Gotham is ever going to reform their ways, not even the ones who got stuck with terrible names like Sportsmaster or Killer Moth, no matter how long they spend in Arkham Asylum. This is for the same reason that none of them ever stay dead, not even when they get burned to ashes and have those ashes spread into space, as happened to Ra’s al Ghul in “Messiah of the Crimson Sun.” It’s just the nature of serialised storytelling – one writer might genuinely intend for a character to have a resolution, but the next guy in line is still free to tear all that down and bring them back to status quo. Batman doesn’t know this, though, just as he doesn’t know that his sweet cape is actually the work of artist, colourist and inker, so in analysing his behaviour we have to work under the assumption that it might be possible for one of his rogues gallery to properly and permanently give up the life of crime. There have been a few stories to dig deep into the workings of Arkham and look for an in-story explanation for why any actual healing or reform is impossible there – Arkham: A Serious House on Serious Earth and Cages (from Batman Annual #2) spring to mind, but they’re both a little outside today’s scope.

"Cages", by Scott Snyder and Marguerite Bennett
To work, my friends, and let’s keep this simple. We’re going to look at a single set of stories that cover the length and breadth of the Batman mythos, a series that is consistent enough to be considered a single text but broad enough to form a microcosm of the larger Batman universe. You know what I’m talking about. The greatest appearance of Batman on television, Batman: The Animated Series. We're going to use the series to look at how he puts criminals away, how he treats them when they're released, and even what he thinks about the nature of their incarceration.

To my mind, the clearest examples in The Animated Series that demonstrates Batman’s belief in redemption are “It’s Never Too Late” and “Paging the Crime Doctor”. There are a lot of common threads between the two episodes, though “Paging the Crime Doctor” comes later and builds a lot on the setup of the first. “It’s Never Too Late” is essentially a reworking of the A Christmas Carol / It’s a Wonderful Life setup, with Batman taking an aging crime boss named Arnold Stromwell around Gotham and showing him the fruits of his misdeeds, encouraging him to turn state’s witness and end a destructive mob war with rival Rupert Thorne. It’s powerful stuff, culminating in Stromwell flashing back to the childhood tragedy that set him on the path of destruction before breaking down and vowing to change his ways. “Paging The Crime Doctor” runs in a similar vein, with Batman seeking to save Thorne’s brother instead of his rival, a doctor named Matthew Thorne who has been compelled to operate an illegal practice for his Thorne’s henchmen. Not only does Batman rescue him from Rupert’s machinations, he also pays for a top defence lawyer for him and testifies as Bruce Wayne, all in the name of getting him a more lenient sentence. This is despite Matthew having endangered the life of one of Batman’s closest friends, Leslie Thompkins, something that would usually earn you a date with a rope and the underside of one of Gotham’s higher gargoyles.

"Paging The Crime Doctor"
What’s the common thread here? Batman can tell the difference between those who are completely consumed by evil – Rupert Thorne, in both cases – and those who have a chance to be better people. Arnold Stromwell and Matthew Thorne have both made bad choices and done bad things, but they still have good in them, and Batman can see that. That’s not to say that they don’t get punished, since both characters end up facing jail time for their crimes, but Batman understands that if someone just reaches out a hand to them, they may well walk a different path in the future. Within the confines of his mission to help the helpless and bring down the guilty, he also does what he can to be that hand. He’s here to make Gotham a better place to live, and reforming those who can be reformed is absolutely a part of that.

But what does Batman do with those who have reformed, or at least claim to have done so? After all, there are several episodes which open with an Arkham regular being released and announcing their intention to go straight. Does Batman believe them? Like hell he does. Let’s break it down, starting with “Riddler’s Reform.” It opens with the Riddler’s apparent cure and release from Arkham, something that should be good news, but of course Batman doesn’t trust him. A truck full of question mark crates seems to bear this out, and of course Bats breaks this up, only to discover that it’s part of a shipment of games. Not deterred, he keeps following Riddler around, threatening him, disrupting his activities and accusing him of all sorts of crimes. He turns out to be right, of course, because a Riddler who goes straight isn’t nearly as interesting as a master criminal, no matter whatever comics of late oughts might try to make you believe. The point is, a criminal tells the world that he’s going straight, and Bats just can’t accept it. He wants criminals to give up their ways, but when they try, he doesn’t believe that they have. He’s complicated.
"Riddler's Reform"

This isn’t the only time, either. Poison Ivy even gets married and adopts a couple of kids in “House and Garden”, but when there’s a string of plant-based murders Batman is right there, knocking on her door and trailing her all around town. Another instructive example appears in “Birds of a Feather”, in which it is the Penguin who is released and makes a try for the simple life, albeit in his own disgusting way. Batman once again gets involved, first accusing him of being involved in a mugging which he was actually breaking up, and later assuming that he was stealing a statuette which he was in fact returning to its owner. This time, Batman actually starts to come around, starting to believe that the Penguin is genuine in his desire to go straight before the cruelty of others drive him back to his criminal ways.

Then there’s Catwoman, and I’ll be honest with you folks, it’s hard to get a read on where she fits into the whole question of redemption. Yes, Batman looks out for her when she’s not actively involved in stealing enormous statues of Isis, and he even saves her from becoming a walking Deviantart at one point, but the fact that he’s so very attracted to her means that he’s got as much personal motivation in turning her around as he does a legitimate belief in her capacity for good. It’s also worth noting that when she is paroled from prison in “Cat Scratch Fever”, just as with the Riddler, Batman doesn’t believe that she could have possibly gone straight, and sets out to keep tabs on her. Unlike Ivy or the Riddler, though, she’s telling the truth, and when circumstances find her imprisoned once again, it’s Bruce Wayne who pops up with bail for her release.
"Tyger, Tyger" - not what you'd call a "good" episode

One last example of a reform story before we move on, that his is a more complex version that I want to pay particular attention to. “Harley’s Holiday” has Harley Quinn being released from prison and goes on a shopping spree, only to be caught up in a series of misadventures that begin with her walking her rabid hyenas down the street and end with her accidentally kidnapping a socialite. It’s worth noting that the whole thing stems from the people of Gotham assuming that they know that Harley must be up to no good, coupled with her complete inability to behave in public. She does end up causing quite a bit of wanton property damage, and Batman brings her down and sends her back to prison, but here’s the thing: he understands. He doesn’t condemn her as a no good criminal, and he doesn’t say that she shouldn’t have been released. What does he say, then? “I had a bad day once too.” Harley’s not a bad person here, she’s just poorly socialised and unable to fit in. Yeah, she’s done terrible things, but that’s not who she is. This episode is largely pitched towards humour, but the producers also have something to say about ex-convicts and recidivism, namely that those who struggle to escape from a life of crime could do with an understanding ear, even if it does come from a grim figure of the night.

"Harley's Holiday"
So we see how Batman goes about bringing down particular criminals, and how he behaves when they’re released, but what about the time in between? What’s his attitude towards those who are incarcerated? For that, we need to turn our attention to an excellent episode with a terrible villain, “Lock-Up. This episode is about Lyle Bolton, the brutal head of security at Arkham Asylum. When Batman discovers the lengths that he goes to in order to keep the Arkham inmates under control, including intimidation, beatings and torture, he’s horrified. Under the Bruce Wayne persona he sets up a hearing into Bolton’s behaviour which leads to his termination, whereupon he reacts like everybody in Gotham reacts to anything that happens to them and becomes a costumed vigilante.

Now, It’s never stated precisely why Batman is upset about the treatment of the inmates, especially since they’re all guilty of terrorism, murder and abuse of theming several times over, but the likely explanation is that he feels they’re capable of reforming. At the very least, it indicates a support for due process and for the humane treatment of prisoners, which would indicate a position that the prison system is there to reform, not to punish. That might be a stretch, but seen in combination with the previous examples, it seems to be clear proof of Batman’s commitment to reform and redemption among Gotham’s cowardly, superstitious lot.

So there we have it! Batman believes that people can reform, but when it comes to individual criminals actually trying to do so, he tends to be kind of a dick about it. Agree? Disagree? Let me know, and be sure to follow along on Twitter at @CrimeAlleyNotes

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Rockers, Thieves and Ghosts - THE INDIES ARE COMING

Finder: Sin Eater, Carla Speed McNeil

So I love superheroes as much as the next person, assuming that the next person also has a Batman tattoo on his arm and drinks his morning coffee from a Watchmen mug, but did you know that there are comics out there which do not feature people who dress up like lunatics and have an inappropriately close relationships with a bodysuit wearing minor? Some of them - and brace yourself for this - don't even feature heroes, villains and an eternal struggle between the two. Incredible, I know. It's almost as though comics are an entire medium, capable of telling any sort of story the writer might desire, that somehow got completely monopolised by a single sub-sub-sub genre due to a few fast talking hucksters who were around at just the right moment.

Joking aside, I want to take a moment to talk about a few indie comics that I love, creator owned joints that tell slightly more personal, intimate tales that the violent soap operas which usually grab my attention. I went through an extended phase of only reading this sort of comic - you may picture me with a beret and turtleneck, smoking an exotic clove cigarette, if that would please you - and it's only in the last few years that I've been drawn back into the colourful histrionics of the superhero world. I still retain a lot of love for the indie scene, though, and I want to take a bit of time to talk about them today. I'm going to run through a series of creators - not necessarily my favourites so much as the ones that I feel need more attention, and whom you would benefit from hearing about. To that end, I'm going to assume that you're already familar with the Chris Wares, Chester Browns, Luna Brothers and the Kate Beatons of the world - though if you're not, get on that - and move on to folk who are a little more obscure. I'll also be looking at them in the context of a single work, the piece that either defines them as an artist or the one that you would be best served by grabbing before diving into the rest of their output. I am, as ever, devoted to your service, o reader.

First cab off the rank is Faith Erin Hicks, someone who work I've just recently been getting into, who is nominated for not one but two Eisner awards this year. Those are both for her latest, The Adventures of Superhero Girl, a book that I haven't actually read as yet. What I have read is Friends With Boys, and it's great. It's a semi-autobiographical comic about a homeschooled girl who finds herself going to high school for the first time, facing off against all the usual pressures and dramas that come along with that, while also being haunted by a very unusual ghost.

All of the characters in Friends With Boys are enormously engaging, and the central relationship between protagonist Maggie and the ghost is compelling and real in a unique sort of way. Secondary characters like her father are immediately vivid and likable, and even though the story meanders from time to time, it's the readers engagement with the characters who make up this strange little world that keeps things interesting. Hicks has a great art style, scratchly and slightly cartoony but with an enormous range of emotion and expressiveness. There's obviously more than a little anime influence on her proportions and style, though her linework and blocking is much more western. The locations and characters in Friends With Boys are all extremely detailed, with a really engaging warmth.

Friends With Boys was originally published as a webcomic, which has since been taken down and replaced with a physical, book-like object which you can hold in your hands and give to friends and enemies alike. You can read the first 20 pages and order a copy from her website.

Kat Leyh's series Supercakes has been coming out in bits and pieces on her Tumblr since the beginning of the year, and I predict that she will be doing big things in the comics world before long. It's set in a world with superheroes - I know, I know, but just hear me out - however the comics themselves have virtually no fighting or explosions, and nothing that looks even remotely like any of the standard tropes of the genre. Instead, we spend our time with a superpower endowed couple, May and Molly, a pair of polar opposites who just happen to also fight crime from time to time. The best place to start is with the first story, Pancakes; it feels as though it was intended as a one off, but the characters are so immediately engaging and the style so delightful that readers clamoured for more, and Leyh has been providing. The most recent story deals with an awkward, chaotic, wonderful gathering in which Molly is finally introduced to May's sprawling family, all of whom have powers of one form or another. It's perfectly observed, delightfully illustrated and just plain lovely.

All of the Supercakes material, as well as a lot of other work from Leyh, is available at the above link.

Subatomic Party Girls is one of only a few series that I'll be covering here which has more than one person behind the wheel, since indie creators tend to like to throw themselves in and handle the writing and drawing themselves. It's by bloggers Chris Sims and Chad Bowers, and illustrated by Erica Henderson, and it's a crazy-fun adventure featuring an all girl power pop trio who, through the machinations of their evil manager, find themselves shot to the far side of the galaxy. It's like Farscape but with more guitar solos and feline space pirates. There are three issues out so far, and though the release schedule is somewhat haphazard the quality is improving dramatically with each issue. The art is vividly coloured, with an enormous amount of character given the economy of linework, and all three members of Berrilym Steel burst with personality. The same goes for the writing, which hurtles along at a breathless, witty pace as the girls lurch from one hilarious disaster to the next.

Subatomic Party Girls comes out through Monkeybrain Studios - they're a great little outfit that publish creator owned stuff of an enormous range and variety, eschewing traditional mediums and going straight to digital via the Comixology platform, and this isn't the only one of their books that you'll be hearing about on here. I could write a whole article about how great Comixology has been for indie books, and my gut-sucking terror at its upcoming acquisition by Amazon, but that too is a story for another day. Besides, my therapist tells me that I'm not supposed to fly into wild panics about things which are only happening in my head.

MOVING RIGHT ALONG, one of the most successful independent creators of recent years is Becky Cloonan, who has climbed to the dizzying heights of being the first woman to illustrate an issue of Batman.* She's put out an enormous body of work in recent years, but the one that I want to talk about is the series of self contained one-shot comics she's been self publishing under the Ink and Thunder imprint. Wolves, The Mire and now Demeter were originally available only at conventions, but can now be found on Comixology as well. They're very dark, poignant little fairy tales, as grimy and bloody and straight-up frightening as the original stories of Grimm and earlier. To my knowledge, none of them are direct adaptations of particular stories, but rather exist in that world and play with those tropes, in a way that is both loving and self aware, without ever being pretentious or deconstructionist in the least. Every one of these stories has a twist in the tail that renders them at once fascinating and unbearably tragic. To be honest, I want to talk a lot more about how beautfully and elegantly constructed the three stories are, but they're all short sharp shocks that I don't want to risk spoiling for you. Trust me on this. You trust me, right?

The amazing thing about Cloonan's art is how versatile it is. When drawing her issue of Batman it's only slightly sketchier than the usual artist on the book, while Demterer is deep and moody, saturated in shadow and fur and darkness. The Mire, a more horror-focussed story, is different once again, rendered in much more precise detail, the better to make out every gaping socket and writhing maggot. She is especially gifted when to comes to drawing faces and facial expressions - while these tales are narrated by the characters, all the better to give them an oral history, fairy tale feel, more often than not the reader needs only to look at the illustration to tell what's going on in the character's heart.

Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover both have quite a few professional credits to their name - he's written for several Marvel Adventures books as well as Age of the Sentry, and she's contributed art to X-Men: First Class and the Adventure Time comic - but here they're teamed for the bright, indie adventure Bandette, another series coming out through Monkeybrain Studios. Like all of their books, it's available exclusively through Comixology.

Now, I'm someone who takes his vocabulary pretty seriously, so I really do feel like there needs to be a word for something more 'charming' than 'charming', since this book has FAR too much charm to be encompassed by those two tiny syllables. ULTRACHARM 3000, perhaps. Anyhow, the premise of this ULTRACHARM 3000 story is great: taking inspiration from Tintin and the Scarlet Pimpernel alike, it's about Bandette, the most clever, dashing and talented thief in all of Paris. She leads a scrappy band of urchins and miscreants, fighting crime when called upon by the perpetually embattled Inspector Belgique, using her roguish wiles to break up a hostage situation or steal back and return a set of missing Rembrants. Well...return MOST of them. Bandette is a character who bursts with colour and personality, an irresistible prankster who loves life and never lets even the most dire situation get her down. When the title character is having this much fun, the reader can't help but do the same. In the age of maudlin, angst ridden superheroes perpetually rending their capes and long underwear with guilt and misery, it's a real delight to read about a character who uses her skills not because they're a terrible burden but because being the greatest thief of all time is awesome. The art is peppy and fun, and complements the story perfectly. Bandette looks slightly ridiculous in her costume, but that's sort of the point - she's a ridiculous person, and that's why we love her. The characters all pop with style and personality, Coover's art does a great job of contrasting the bold, simple action with lovingly painted backdrops that give the whole thing that Parisian je ne sais quoi.

Finally, we have someone who has been around for a while but definitely deserves a mention: Carla Speed McNeil. Not only does she have the coolest name of any person working in comics, at least until Jake Hammerslam finally finishes his twelve part epic about nurses in the the Spanish Civil War, but she also writes Finder, one of my favourite indie comics of all time. Finder is set in the distant future, a sprawing epic that weaves a dense, multilayered story set in the enormous, decaying city of Anvard and the surrounding desert. This is a collapsed city, the relic of a lost technological age, inhabited by dozens of different tribes who do their best to coexist and make this strange, fractured place their own.  It tells the story of Jaegar, a wanderer and troublemaker, and the various lives that he touches, for better or for worse. Along the way we're introduced to a vast array of troubled, broken characters all trying to do their best in this improvised, haphazardly constructed world.

It's dizzying stuff, dense and fast and smart in a way that most writers only dream of being, with aspects of mythology and cyberpunk and anthropology woven elegantly together. The sheer rate of ideas per minute is incredible, and the granular detail in the worldbuilding is spectacular - for example, the lighting dome that covers the city is breaking down, and nobody knows how to repair it, but there are festivals that kick off as soon as it goes dark. Hell, there are even godlike figures who embody that time of year. Questions of identity and gender play powerful roles as well - there are some clans in which all the members dress as women, some with strictly hierarchical gender roles, and some that bear virtually no resemblance to any human culture you can think of. Under all of these background details, the human story that rests at the heart of Finder is deeply powerful, with the first book detailing Jaegar's return to Anvard for the first time in years, whereupon he must deal with the complex social and moral requirements thrown up by a close friend and former commanding officer who has become violently unstable, and increasingly dangerous to his family.

This is one of the few books here that isn't online, so if  you're interested in getting your hands on some, I recommend the massive Finder Library editions. They're dauntingly doorstop-sized, but utterly gorgeous, and heavily annotated by McNeil - something which can be invaluable in some of the stranger, more ethereal sections of the tale.

Whew. That's a lot of comics! We've barely scratched the surface, though. Honourable mentions go to Jason Lutes, whose epic Berlin tells the story of the great city between the wars in rich and meticulously researched fashion, Brandon Graham, whose King City is one of the strangest and most original sci-fi metropolises out there and Jess Fink, whose Chester 5000 series is smarter and sexier than an erotic webcomic about a Victorian robot has any right to be.

Which indie comics do you love? Have I missed any of your favourites? Do you make one yourself, and want to let the world know? Direct your eyes downwards to the comments section, my friend, or hit me up at @CrimeAlleyNotes on your modern Twitter Social Media Device.

*Some might say that the fact that that didn't happen until 2013 indicates that there's, I don't know, some sort of gross, institutionalised cancer lurking at the heart of the industry we love, but who can tell. Maybe it's just that no women asked until now.

Friday, 11 April 2014

The Tragic Tale of Bill Mantlo

I don't know how much I can say about this, but I want to say something. Legendary comic book creator Bill Mantlo is in a hospital bed after a hit and run accident, and will almost definitely be there for the rest of his life. He requires constant care, has enormous medical bills and, like so many greats of the golden age of comics, no money. Mantlo is one of the largely unsung heroes of comics, someone who produced solid, quality work at a steady, reliable rate. His run on The Incredible Hulk is considered one of the definitive ones, and he was also behind the launch of underground favourite Rom: Spaceknight.

Mantlo has been injured for a long time now, and his condition has been common knowledge among fans as well. So why am I mentioning it now? Well, one of the characters that Mantlo created was Rocket Raccoon, star of the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy movie. In any other industry that would have him set for life, but this is comics, and he won't see a dime for it. Unfortunately, that's not an usual story in this industry. Joe Shuster, the co-creator of Superman, suffered terribly from poverty in his lifetime, despite being responsible for one of the most iconic character of all time.

If you want to know more, this heartbreaking article has the full story of Bill Mantlo's situation, and current Superman writer Greg Pak has a PayPal button for donations to his care here. Pak also wrote very powerfully about Mantlo's influence on his own writing here. If nothing else, when you go to see Guardians of the Galaxy with your friends, spare a thought for Mantlo, and maybe say something to somebody. These characters don't just appear, they're created by hardworking men and women, and we need to honour them as well.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Short reviews - 11 March, 2014

Welcome once again to Some Stuff I Got Recently And Feel Like Talking About, or as I like to call it, SSIGRAFLTA. Just like last time, this is going to be a quick rundown of some comics I picked up recently, what they're like, and whether or not I think that you should get them. The last time I did this it was pretty much the Image party, which isn't entirely surprising what with Image putting out some of the most unique and appealing books on the market right now, but I'm still going to cast the net a little wider this time. I'm also going to talk about a few less books this time around and go into each of them at greater length, partly because I'm still finding my "blogger voice" and mostly because this is my site and you can't actually stop me.

BLACK WIDOW #5 - Nathan Edmonson and Phil Noto, Marvel

First up, if you're one of the many people who walked out of The Avengers or Captain America: Winter Soldier wishing for a Black Widow movie, you really should be picking up this series. Why? Well, two reasons. Firstly, if it's a success it'll demonstrate interest in the character and make a big screen solo outing more of a possibility. Secondly, THIS IS BASICALLY THE THING YOU'RE ASKING FOR, only on paper instead of celluloid and coming out every month instead of once every four to five years.

Seriously, of all the characters in those films, Black Widow is the one whose comic has taken the most direct influence from the movie. That's mostly down to the the fact that Natasha Romanov has been pretty inconsistently characterised over the years, from the comedy Russian accent of her Hawkeye appearance to the untrustworthy seductress bitch that Mark Millar made her / every woman he's ever written. This series ditches most of the character's backstory and baggage, leaving us with a enigmatic but ultimately honourable ninja/assassin type with a Dark Mysterious Past, one who can function in the intelligence and espionage community when she has to but is much happier getting her hands dirty in the blackest of black ops. She's smart, bold and tough, though far from infallible - this issue in particular ends with her finding herself in very big trouble as a result of her lack of caution. That's something that we can all relate to, though in my case it's usually more a case of overfilling my Slurpee cup rather than breaking into a top secret facility without adequate backup.

The other major influence here is Fraction and Aja's Hawkeye, and that makes a lot of sense, both because of the connection between the two characters as established in the movie and the ridiculous amount of success that that book has had in promoting a minor character to the top tier of popularity. Black Widow isn't quite as good as Hawkeye, though that's not saying much since Hawkeye is consistently among the best on the stands. It definitely has the same sort of tone, though, placing the character into a mostly-self-contained setting that looks a little more like the real world than your average Iron Man or X-Men outing.

That's a lot of waffle, I know. What you really want to know is - is it good? For the most part, yes. The art is very cool, a sort of slightly airbrushed pen and ink combination that looks beautiful in conversation scenes and dynamic in movement and combat. There's a lot of the latter in this issue, with Natasha getting into an all-out beatdown with a massive Russian assassin on an airport runway with a downed 747 spiraling towards them. It's good stuff, and even when the plotting falls into superspy tropes it's all handled with wit and aplomb. Nathan Edmonson gives the character a very clear voice, giving her a great mix of sardonicism and sadness, and Phil Noto draws her with just the right combination of European elegance and scrappy charm. I'm definitely going to keep picking this up into the forseeable future, and if you want more Black Widow in your life then you should too.

LUMBERJANES #1 of 8 - Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis and Brooke A. Allen, Boom Studios

You've probably already heard a lot of the buzz surrounding Lumberjanes by now - it's easily one of the most highly anticipated indie comics of recent years, coming as it does from the enormously popular and incredibly talented Noelle Stevenson. If you don't know the basics, they are as follows - five badass girls in a log cabin, fighting monsters with the power of punk rock friendship - TO THE MAX. There's more, but that's everything that you really need to know going in, and if it doesn't hook you then I can't imagine what would.

This issue leaps straight into the action, with the girls getting into a brawl with a pack of evil three eyed foxes in the very first scene, which leads into a creepy prophecy which I suspect will drive the rest of the story. The rest of the issue is spent detailing their world and individual personalities, and it's actually quite impressive how quickly the five leads are sketched in and differentiated from one another. A lot of number one issues spend too much time setting things up and not enough time getting to the meat of the story, and the honest truth is that most writers just don't have time for that in the space of twenty-odd pages. This is a book that messes around as little as its characters, which is to say, not at all.

In this post-Buffy world, there have been plenty of attempts to capture that sassy-girl-fights-monsters feel, most of which have ranged from the creepy to the naff, but I really do feel like Lumberjanes nails it. The monsters are excellently strange (three eyed foxes, man), the girls are witty, engaging and immediately likeable the script pops ("what the Joan Jett are you doing!?") and the art is cartoony, expressive and utterly joyous. Pretty much everything else that I read this month was drawn in a strictly realistic style, so it made a great change to get my hands and eyeballs on something where the art was so unabashadly cartoonish and fun. The bottom line is this: it doesn't matter who you are or what your particular tastes are, just ignore the hype and buy this comic. You'll thank me later.

MAGNUS, ROBOT FIGHTER #1 - Fred Van Lente and Cory Smith, Dynamite

I made the joke on Twitter a while ago that the best thing about Magnus, Robot Fighter starting up again was that it meant that there was a comic called Magnus, Robot Fighter in the world again, and while that sounds like damning this series with faint praise, I stand by it. It's a heck of a title, and so far, this is shaping up to be a fun enough book to earn it.

Magnus has a bit of history on him, first appearing as a Gold Key character all the way back in 1963, and then again as part of the Valiant lineup in the nineties. He's been pretty unchanged throughout, since the premise "wears red tunic and karate chops robots" is pretty damn timeless. The latest version, this time from Dynamite, skips the macho skirt and keeps the robot beheading, which is disappointing to me but will almost definitely be good for sales. Dynamite have also managed to snag the rights for his old mate Turok, Dinosaur Hunter, so there's great potential for a Guys Whose Name Is What They Do crossover in the near future.

Anyway, the first issue gets things off to a pretty great start. The art is pretty solid, and Cory Smith has a great flair for drawing hyperdetailed robots and futuristic cityscapes, something the back half of the issue gives him plenty of chance to do. The story goes some way towards establishing a new status quo for the character that has a good combination of the modern and the classic, though it spends quite a bit longer than I would have liked on prologue before the story proper kicks off. I won't give too much away, but suffice to say if you gave this issue to someone in a decade they would definitely roll their eyes and say "gee, I guess those Matrix films were pretty popular back then, huh?"

Fred Van Lente has a lot of pedigree as a writer - I'm particularly enthusiastic about his Action Philosophers! -  and he has a great knack for combining action with comedy, something that's very much on display here. There are several funny gags to go along with the robot punching action, including Magnus being subjected to a Captcha by a robot to test if he's human or robot, and restrictive Laws of Humanity that seem to correspond with the classic Laws of Robotics. At the end of the day, this is a well made comic about a man who does karate to robots, or at least the setup for one, and if that's up your alley then you should check it out.

DETECTIVE COMICS #30 - Brian Buccellato and Francis Manapul, DC Comics

For a while, life was simple. The New 52 freed me from the awful burden of having to buy so many DC books every month by the simple measure of making most of them terrible, and I was left to do whatever I wanted with my free time and bank balance. With the number of readable Batman books stripped down to one (1), I could happily read along with Snyder's Bat-ventures and not have to worry about anything else. Now, DC have had the temerity to pull the hackish Tony Daniel away from the reigns of Detective, put a fresh, interesting team on the book and kick it off in a whole new direction, thus FORCING me to start picking it up again. What a pack of assholes.

This comic does a few things that I don't care for a lot that I do. The first three pages are basically nothing but people saying that they're getting fresh starts, or whole new beginnings, or that a new day is dawning, and yes, I get it, we're starting afresh here, jeez. Something I love, though? The cover is YELLOW AND PINK. This is a Batman book, and the background of the cover is bright, solid yellow. It's bold, it's attention getting and its fun. The story has Batman chasing down a motorcycle gang (awesome) and then doing a business deal (eh) at the Gotham X-Games (AWESOME), and while it all feels like setup for later events, the layout and delivery are all really interesting and fun to read. I also like the brief look at the good work that Batman does for Gotham out of the cowl as well as under it, though the first issue of a new run seems like a strange place to put such a focus on it.

Francis Manapul is an artist that I have a lot of respect for, and he does a really great job of combining his own slightly painterly style with the stodgy realism demanded by the DC House Style. He does great work with messy, complex images, and a sequence in which Batman tracks a pack of bikers over Gotham rooftops is perfectly suited to his talents, as are spunky teen girls doing dirtbike tricks. Batman's costume is the gross grey-with-piping thing that he's been kicking around in for a while, but that's probably contractually mandated, so while it makes me curl my lip I won't hold it against this book in particular. The rest of the story, though, is bright and appealing in a way that Batman stories rarely are. As someone who very much wants to be reading the original Batman series without rolling his eyes every five minutes, I have to say that this issue makes me optimistic. Dare we dream that DC might actually rid itself of the fixation with childishly serious antiheroes and make some more superhero books which!?

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Captain Marvel

Guys, can we talk about someone special for a moment? Someone bright and powerful and unique? Someone who has toiled in obscurity for a long time, and is finally getting their day in the sun?

No, I'm not talking about the Rock Lords, though god knows we're all praying for that glorious day. I'm talking about Captain Marvel. More specifically, I'm talking about this lady:

Captain Marvel, reporting for duty

I want to talk about the new Captain Marvel but in order to appreciate just HOW awesome she is, there are two bits of backstory that we need to scoot through,. If you're not a big continuity nerd, I promise to keep it quick and light.

Firstly, we have the schlub to my left. The original Captain Marvel. He was created by Stan Lee in 1967 with the sole purpose of messing with DC, who had their own character by the same name. This led to a copyright dispute that Marvel was pretty much guaranteed to win, on account of Marvel being the entire name of their goddamn company, and books starring DC's Captain Marvel have been called SHAZAM! ever since. I kind of think that they should have just taken Stan Lee's other proposal, where the entire DC editorial staff were tarred and feathered and dumped in the middle of Times Square - it would surely have been less humiliating. Anyway, Marvel's Captain Marvel is a Kree warrior named Mar-Vell and literally nobody has ever cared about him ever.

The other person that we need to talk about is Carol Danvers. Poor old Carol has been kicking around the Marvel world since 1968, usually as Captain Marvel's sidekick, originally using the superhero name Ms. Marvel. Terribly progressive for the time, even if her costume was garbage and her main plotline involved Rogue stealing her powers and wiping her mind. Comics! Anyway, she hangs out on a bunch of teams, gets brainwashed and impregnated by a guy named Marcus, gives birth to a child that RAPIDLY AGES INTO A CLONE OF MARCUS WHO SHE FALLS IN LOVE WITH, and makes a wide range of fashion choices that ranged from the dubious to the banal:

Seriously, though, that Marcus thing was terrible. See this Cracked article a breakdown of just how gross it was, though I wouldn't recommend it if you're somewhere where you can't take a shower immediately afterwards.

Anyhow. We're washing our mouths of that nastiness and fast forwarding to 2012. Captain Marvel dies, or goes to space, or just straight up pops out of existence because nobody gives a damn about him. And then something wonderful happens:

That's right, Ms Marvel steps up and becomes Captain Marvel. That costume design is by the great Jamie McKelvie, the artist behind Phonogram and Young Avengers and a great deal of other books in which beautiful women wear stylish clothes, usually along with too much eyeliner and blue streaks in their hair and a love of bands that you and I aren't cool enough to ever have heard of. He's one of the finest artists working today, and when it comes to the Captain Marvel costume he knocked it so far out of the park that we may as well not even HAVE parks any more.One part of Carol's backstory that had been neglected up until now was her military background, and he brings it back beautifully, incorporating the sash and the button up gloves while making the whole thing sleek, dynamic and powerful as hell. "Re-imagined costume" usually means "hideous, overdesigned piece of garbage," but this is the rare exception that takes an established, mid-range character and makes them amazing.

So. Ms. Marvel becomes Captain Marvel. She gets her own book, written by the stellar Kelly Sue Deconnick. She has a major storyline in Avengers, called "Enemy Within." She flies around, punches bad guys, overcomes hurdles and becomes a hero. And the fanbase - especially among women -  EXPLODES.
Lindsey Cepa, photographed by Geek News MTV
Seriously, I've been reading for two decades now, and never have I seen a new character be taken up with such speed and fervor. Less than a year after her appearance, comic book convention HeroesCon held a dedicated panel for fans of the character, a privilege usually reserved for established titans like Batman or Wolverine. Referred to as a meeting of the Carol Corps, it was a smash hit among fans, and even more so among cosplayers. The event had to be moved to an even bigger room, and even that one was packed out. Cosplayers in particular have taken ahold of the character with both hands, to the point where it became incredibly difficult to pick the right pictures for this post. One great thing about her current costume is that it's composed of several iconic elements that can easily be pulled apart and remixed to suit the individual wearing it, while still leaving no doubt as to who they're dressed as.
Multiversity Comics NYCC Party

These days, a major convention without a meeting of the Carol Corps is impossible to imagine. Heck, this year Emerald City Comic Con held one at the Museum of Flight, the location of which was chosen as a reference to the character's background as a pilot. All proceeds from that little gathering went to the Girls Leadership Institute, just another aspect of how great the Captain Marvel fandom is. Writer Kelly Sue Deconnick turns up to quite a few of them herself, to be mobbed and feted by her fans. That's the other key ingredient in the Captain Marvel explosion - creator engagement. Comics Alliance's Kate Leth has a breakdown of that event here. Deconnick is unabashedly a fan herself, as excited by fanart and cosplay as any of us. She's clearly just writing stories and characters that she would want to see as a reader, and it seems like the audience agrees.
ECCC 2013, photographed by Review2AKill

Something else wonderful about the Captain Marvel fandom? It's inclusive. It's so inclusive. There's a lot of talk about fake geek girls these days, a lot of ink spilled over the concept of nerd gatekeepers and who is and is not a real nerd or geek or whatever term you want to use. Maybe it's because this version of the character is new, meaning that there's no learning curve to diving in, or maybe it's because Deconnick has been such a great brand ambassador. Perhaps it's because women in geekdom get used to being excluded, so when they become the driving force of a fandom they become more accepting of others in response. Maybe Carol fans are just inherently awesome people! I don't know. All I know is that, looking at these pictures, it really seems as though anyone and everyone can dress as Carol. There are light and dark skinned cosplayers, fat and thin. You even see the occasional guy playing her, which is extremely rare.
ECCC 2014 Celebration

It's not just cosplay, though. Something that comes along with a female-led fandom is a wide range of nerdy, crafty goodness. Chief among them - and I'm going to admit to a touch of bias given that I live with the creator - are these gorgeous Captain Marvel pendants from The Reluctant Femme. For her perspective on what makes the character so wonderful, take a look at this great essay.

What's so different about Captain Marvel, though? New characters come along all the time, and existing ones get fancy new duds every month. What is is about this reboot that's sparked so much love? It's simple. It speaks to women. There's already a built-in fanbase for any well written female character, but if you want it to be a smash, you have to get the women in as well. Carol is a bold, powerful female character, the sort that female readers have been hankering for for decades now. She doesn't have her ass or her boobs hanging out, she doesn't wear ridiculous heels or twist around to face both boobs and butt at the viewer. Not that there is something inherently wrong with sexy characters - I like both Catwoman and Power Girl, and they both traditionally get given quite sexualised portrayals - but I think that there's a real exhaustion among female readers (and more importantly, potential readers) with the sexualised nature of female superheroes. They want someone whose boots they can place themselves in and feel powerful. Fearless. The way that make readers can with Batman, or Iron Man, or Wolverine, get the idea. Someone who is feminine without being weak, someone who can be funny without seeming silly, or being a 'ditz.' Someone badass. And that someone is Captain Marvel.
Kelly Sue Deconnick and friends at HeroesCon 2012, photographed by Comic Book Resources

Monday, 7 April 2014

Batman: Blades

I've talked about this in the past, but from 1989 to 2007, Legends of the Dark Knight provided readers with some of the best and most unique Batman stories on the market. No longer bound by the constraints of up-to-the-minute continuity, writers could run free with the Batman mythos, telling the tales they wanted to tell in ways that didn't always gel with the rest of mainstream superhero comics. I've already covered one of my favourite story arcs from the period, Snow, and today I want to tell you about another, from writer James Robinson and artist Tim Sale. Published in 1992 and running through issues 32, 33 and 34 of LotDK, Blades tells the tale of a new Gotham crimefighter who goes by the name of Cavalier, one who appears just as Batman becomes immersed in an obsessive hunt for a serial killer known only as Mr Lime, one who appears to target the elderly exclusively. Is this Cavalier all he all that he appears, though, and are he and Batman headed towards partnership or confrontation?

The story appears initially simple - tales of Batman becoming obsessed with this criminal or that are a dime a dozen, and there have been more than a few about new would-be protectors of his territory. What makes Blades unique is in how well these elements come together, and what they tell us about the man himself. It's never explicitly stated why Batman is so driven to catch Mr Lime - the hunt is already well underway when the first issue opens - but the time that the narrative takes to detail the grieving children left behind by his rampage says it all. This is deeply personal to the Dark Knight, so much so that when the Cavalier comes swinging in to take up some of the slack in Gotham, he is more than willing to give him free reign. As his name would imply, the Cavalier is rakish and charming rogue in the mould of Douglas Fairbanks or Erroll Flynn, always ready with a witty quip for the media and police. Batman himself wants to believe that this new, brighter brand of justice might have a place in his city, and as a result his guard is lowered substantially.

The moody inks and occasionally grandiose writing of Blades are very much in the vein of darker creators like Frank Miller, but with a core of moral humanity too often missing in modern Batman stories. Something especially striking about this story is how thoroughly human Batman is depicted as being. He plays at being the dark avenger, swirling his cape before him and posing in dramatic silhouette before a confrontation, but under the mask he is just as psychologically vulnerable as anybody else. He becomes enamoured with his swashbuckling new competition, or at least as enamoured as somebody like him can allow himself to be. After all, the film that he saw with his parents on the night of their murder was The Mask of Zorro, so this grinning swordsman with his pencil thin moustache strikes at something deep and primal within him. The fact that he spends much of the story ragged with sleep deprivation and trying to conceal an increasing number of injuries from those around him only underscores the duality of the face he presents and the man he truly is.

Sale is one of the most highly regarded artists ever to have worked on Batman, and his collaborations with Jeph Loeb on  The Long Halloween and its sequel Dark Victory have come to rightly be regarded as genuine classics, commonly listed as essential reading up there with Year One and The Dark Knight Returns. His intense, finely detailed lines and sweeping Gothic set-pieces are absolutely gorgeous, saturated with shadow and light in perfect balance. Blades also sees him using contrasting colours to powerful effect - a crime scene is rendered in pure white save for the jarring smear of bright red blood, and the Cavalier's colourful ensemble pops beautifully next to the Dark Knight's dour ensemble. The story unfolds in a huge series of splash pages soaked in dramatic shadows and dynamic composition, and the climactic swordfight is especially well staged, spilling out over two pages in one fluid, dizzying image. Sale's style is just baroque enough to suit a world like Gotham without slipping into the outright farce of that artists like Kelly Jones or Simon Bisely utilise from time to time. He isn't quite at his peak with this work - some faces are hastily sketched in, and most of the men in the story look a little too similar to one another -  but all the elements which would go towards his being considered one of the greatest in the business are definitely already present. 

Don't read the text if you can't stand a minor spoiler for a comic old enough to drink

The best Batman villains are those who draw out some aspect of the titular character - Ra's al Ghul reflects his hubris, Mr Freeze his motivating tragedy - and Blades demonstrates that this can be the case for characters who are not directly opposed to him as well. It's no spoiler to say that the Mr Lime storyline is little more than elaborate backdrop  here - the real meat of the tale is in the relationship between Batman and the Cavalier. I won't give away the final reveal, but suffice to say that the complex motivation behind the Cavalier's actions play into those of the Caped Crusader, and call into doubt his own murky motivations in his war on crime.  

Ultimately, though, this is a story about lines, and what happens to those who cross them - or don't. Batman's life is full of self-imposed rules, iron clad boundaries that he holds himself to despite the greatest of temptations. The Cavalier is more flexible in his morality, more likely to go with his heart than the coldly disciplined Dark Knight. In doing so, the two of them inevitably find themselves at cross purposes, but while Batman is ultimately the better crimefighter, it could be said that the Cavalier is the better man.

Blades is available in the now out-of-print collection Batman: Collected Legends of the Dark Knight, the Tim Sale collection Tales of the Batman, currently in stock at Book Depository, or of course via Comixology.  As always, you can follow @CrimeAlleyNotes on Twitter to find out about blog updates as they happen and read whatever other garbage crosses my mind.

Friday, 4 April 2014

"The Man Who Married Lois Lane"

It is a truth universally acknowledged that everybody in a Golden Age comic book is completely insane. Not a single decision is underpinned by reason as you or I might understand it, nor does anybody experience anything reconisable as human emotion. They lurch hysterically from one insane situation to the next, making increasingly baffling decisions and then suddenly shrugging and completely forgetting the whole thing when the allotted eight or ten pages are used up. By and large they resemble a lost work of Samuel Beckett, if he took a lot of really good mushrooms and had nothing but contempt for women.

Case in point: Superman #136 - "The Man Who Married Lois Lane"

Now, as I'm sure you're aware, comics of the period were pretty fond of wildly misleading covers. They would show Batman and Superman begging to be executed, Superman about to throw Batman off a building or grotesquely irresponsible medical practices,* which would turn out to be wild exaggerations of what actually took place within the pages.

This cover, though? The exact, unvarnished truth. Superman and Lois Lane are hanging out, talking about what a piece of dirt Clark Kent is and laughing to themselves when a UFO turns up and the green man with superpowers in it tells Lois that a) he's from the distant future and b) he has to marry her because he has tomorrow's newspaper and it shows them getting married.

On the front page, no less!
He then turns from a green monster into a normal man, a phenomenon which nobody looks at too closely because it is completely insane. Superman just says "welp I can't see any problem with this" and just FLIES THE EFF OFF AND LEAVES HER THERE. Lois's new suitor is named X-Plam, which seems fine, and Lois agrees to head off and become Mrs X-Plam in the distant future.

Let's break down the terrible decisions that have been made so far, shall we? Neither Superman nor Lois know the first thing about this guy, and literally EVERY alien race they've encountered has tried to destroy them in one way or the other. This guy waves a newspaper around, though, and they both just shrug and say things like "that's destiny" before surrendering Lois wholesale into his arms. On the other side of things, this X-Plam guy is acting on the same ridiculous information. His people have mastered time travel, but he sees one mouldy document from his distant past and that convinces him to just scoop up the woman whose name is on it and MARRY HER FOREVER.

Finally, Lois just shrugs off the question of his transformation, as well as what might happen to her when she's exposed to HIS atmosphere. YOU ARE A JOURNALIST LOIS. Think about these things for five seconds.

He still dresses like a lunatic, though
Anyway, they get to the future, and lo and behold, Lois becomes a gross green monster as well. Who could have predicted that? Also, I feel like I should point out - this comic is just SUPER space-racist. For all Lois knows, she's the hottest green girl in town, but all she does is freak out with her new superpowers and smash down his house. Nice going, Lois.

Please note that the fact that these green fuckers have superpowers NEVER ONCE plays a role in the story.

Turns out that X-Plam has a TV that shows the past in what's left of his house, and he plunks his hysterical new wife down in front of it to look in on the past. You know, like he could have done at ANY stage before launching into this ridiculous plan. Lois finds Superman in his Lois Mannequin Room, and instead of being horrified by the fact that literally every man in her life is dangerously deranged, she begins to pine for him.

They work at it, though. They go to couples counselling, they open up to one another, and bit by bit they learn to build a life together, based on mutual honesty and co-operation in the face of adversity. JUST KIDDING X-PLAM FLIES TO THE BOTTOM OF THE OCEAN AND KILLS HIMSELF TO RETURN LOIS TO THE PAST. This is a woman, I would remind you, that he met literally a few hours ago. Half a day, if we're being generous. He lives with his parents, by the way, so they get to see him die. That's nice. At least the racist bitch who tore down half their house gets to go home.

Anyhow, Lois gets back to the sixties, doesn't let Superman look at her until her face becomes normal again, and life goes on as usual. Not before Superman tells her that he was too busy to be worried about her, though. Real charmer, this guy.

*Robots, mind control and actually-a-dummy-that-Superman-had-on-hand-for-some-reason respectively