Tuesday, May 19, 2015

"The Anatomy Of Zur-En-Arrh: Understanding Grant Morrison's Batman" by Cody Walker

It's the CliffsNotes to Grant Morrison's take on Batman, everyone...and it's a very useful book. It answers a lot of questions as to what it was all about and digs around for ingenious insights into the imagery given. Morrison's Batman tenure was ground-breaking and ambitious - every story mattered - which meant stories about Batman chasing drug dealers down alleyways and through warehouses simply wouldn't do; the Dark Knight Detective became acutely self-aware - 70+ years of incarnations were now meant to represent a single decade & a 1/2 in the crazy life of a very busy tycoon, the wealthiest man on Earth, a playboy/philanthropist/detective who beats up people dressed in a costume vaguely resembling a bat...and how he achieved godhood on the whim of the most-powerful embodiment of evil in the DC Comics Universe..

Cody Walker, to his credit, doesn't shy away from the weaknesses of Morrison's storylines. In my opinion, there were many concepts and story elements throughout that read as though Morrison was in a deadline crunch and lacked time to present his ideas with better care and organization. His plot twists also required skill at writing detective stories, which turned out to not be his strong suit. His characterization of the villain Darkseid and his Earth avatar, the "Bat-God" Barbatos/Dr. Simon Hurt might be more varied and colorful than any incarnation we've seen before or after, but this was lost by woefully underdeveloped scripting. At the time, only the main points of each issue registered, not the themes or characters, which may explain why it was so easy for fans to embrace Scott Snyder's back-to-basics approach.

And yet, this book came to the rescue. I have a newfound appreciation for what Morrison was doing and would like to go back and revisit those storylines again, particularly The Return of Bruce Wayne arc, with Batman hopping through different time periods. The section covering Batman Inc. was kind of dull, though..perhaps reflecting that Morrison's run was winding up and had fewer points to make about Batman, aside from the power of the character's totem-like symbolism as a corporate brand..which reminds me of a non-fiction book of criticism about Batman from 2000 titled Batman Unmasked, which was the first I had read argue the same points that Morrison was making throughout..It may have been a source of inspiration for what he would do...I need to look for that book..

Not all questions were answered, however. I remember searching for answers about that goblin creature looming behind Bat-Mite in Batman R.I.P. and finding it in a transcript of a Q&A, where Morrison revealed his take on the imp ( that the creature was the imp's true form, a kindly-yet-grotesque-to-us being, offering what he believed to be a pleasing avatar to appear in his stead , kind of the opposite number to Darkseid appearing by proxy as Barbatos/Dr. Hurt ), so now you know, and can thank me...but we'll never know if there was any significance in Alfred the butler reading a copy of Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl: The Eternity Code...

..maybe Walker has a Volume 2 planned...

Thursday, May 14, 2015

"007: Solo" - A James Bond Novel by William Boyd

Solo is a good enough title for a 007 novel..Africa is a nice location for a James Bond adventure...but is busting a drug trafficking ring within Bond's bailiwick? For the most part, the book reads like Doctor No without Doctor No.

Another brickbat is that the Bond featured here doesn't seem like the 007..he reads more like Roger Moore as Simon Templar ( The Saint ) or Patrick McGoohan as John Drake ( Secret Agent / Danger Man / The Prisoner ) in an adventure fitting those characters better than 007. With Bond...even if you want to show him mellow out with age - his OCD-like fussy particularity, immortalized by his request for a dry martini - shaken, not stirred in the films, is mostly absent - he has to be in a casino, playing a round of Texas Hold 'em/Bridge/Baccarat/Candy Crush/golf/Go Fish with a meglomanic, and drive a more luxurious car than a Jensen - sorry, William, but I thought we all learned after John Gardner put Bond behind the wheel of a Saab, that any car replacing the Aston Martin has to rival the Aston Martin...Although I couldn't resist using that fanmade variant cover to headline this post..as opposed to the real covers used for Solo, which resemble a sequel to Norton Juster's The Hole Book ( the UK edition ) or the title sequence in Dynasty/The Colbys.

At least we get a scene with Q, who is clearly meant to be Ben Whishaw's Q, which is kind of confusing, because the novel is supposed to be set in 1969, which means we do get to choose between picturing the George Lazenby Bond of On Her Majesty's Secret Service or the Sean Connery of Diamonds Are Forever as Bond in Solo (I was picturing Connery), or, judging by the cozy gadgets offered, David Niven as Sir James Bond ( from the pseudo-psychedelic adaptation of Casino Royale ), but certainly not Daniel Craig, so why couldn't Q be written like Desmond Llewellyn if you're going pseudo-retro?

So the book isn't really bad..but it's more frog than prince.

And Simon Templar drove a Volvo in the TV series, so the Jensen would be an upgrade for him...better let The Saint Step In...

Bah, da-da, da-da-daaaa, daaahhh...

Monday, May 4, 2015

Catching Up: #FourComics...That I Read In The 2000s

"None of these people have anything interesting to say and none of them can write, not even Mr. Kerouac...it isn't writing at all - it's typing." - Truman Capote, attacking "Beat Generation" writers, circa 1959.

There's some overlap from the late-90s through that first decade beginning with 2000. I recall being willing to give anything a try. I wasn't just looking at what was on the racks now, but going backwards...I was interested in the early-80s Batman villainess, Nocturna...I still can't figure out what her deal was..what did she want?..I checked out the "Clone Saga" in Spider-Man comics, old Marvel Comics' Further Adventures of Indiana Jones...then there's Ebay - before PayPal butted in, that site was the place for stuff - I remember buying a lot of 50 Jughead comics, simply because I was interested in Trula Twyst and the comic shops never really have a good supply of Archie-related back issues...even with the spike from the Afterlife With Archie books.

And "Bendis!" - we can't reminisce about the early-2000s without mentioning Brian Michael Bendis...he wasn't the first writer to use what's now referred to as decompressed scripting, which is really just trimming the purple prose narration and thought balloons in favor of dialogue conveying suspense & tension, then stretching out plotlines over the course of multiple issues what would've once only taken 2 to tell. His approach would make multitasking on scripts a snap, allowing any writer following his lead to write "X" amount of pages for multiple titles...the books were becoming faster reads, but the price point was getting higher..as the trade paperback reprints were being cranked out, faster than ever before, you can't help staring and comparing: I could save money and buy a different comic, then read the trade when it's available to borrow at the public library, or buy the trade if I liked it after reading the library copy, or read the library copy to decide which issues from the storyline it collected I would go back and buy from the shop's back issues and save money that way..new options present themselves..

But is any of this stuff good? - that's why I copied that quote and posted it at the top of this post. The decompressed approach feels more like a change of format than a storytelling style; if you feel like you've read the book while briefly flipping through it, standing in front of the rack at the shop, then it's not something you're reading..it's something that's been cranked out, building to a moment / event...then setting up another moment / event.

So I start getting picky...I become familiar with the concept of walking out empty-handed...that's not fun, but it is what it is.

My favorite issue of Savage Dragon has the titular character mulling over an offer to have a comic book spun-off from his memoir. It gives Erik Larsen a chance to go meta and comment on superhero comics, circa 2003. At the time, Captain Underpants was a very popular children's book series, outselling the superhero comics...and Larsen was toying with the idea of offering a syndicated "Savage Dragon" newspaper comic strip which would have a lighter tone and crossover with the regular series. This experiment lasted 2 or 3 issues (of which this was one of them). The one lasting element was Mr. Glum, the pint-sized villain of the arc - a combination of The Brain from Pinky and The Brain and Stewie Griffin from Family Guy - he's become a recurring foe ever since.

Justice League Adventures was the tie-in to Cartoon Network's Justice League, then in it's first season. The show wasn't popular until it was retooled in it's 3rd season as Justice League Unlimited, but this issue, featuring a menagerie of DC Comics supervillians unwittingly invited to a sting operation organized by the League, is incredibly clever and a lot of fun. This is the comic book script that put Dan Slott on the fast track to writing more material on the 1st tier for Marvel and DC.

I'm one of those fans rooting for Ted Kord to officially be "back" as the Blue Beetle. That current Convergence tie-in is a good read, so Scott Lobdell has my vote for a new ongoing series starring Ted...

..and now I'll write about the book that killed him off. 80 pages of comics for one dollar is a steal, and the mystery of whose corpse Batman was cradling in his arms on that Alex Ross & Jim Lee cover had people guessing for months. Countdown To Infinite Crisis became the definitive Ted Kord tale in showcasing his perseverance in the face of all his friends and allies behaving out of character in order to hype an upcoming crossover that was overshadowed by the events that set it up. We had just seen Sue Dibney get raped by Dr. Light in Identity Crisis, Jason Todd back from the dead in Batman and Ted Kord get shot in the head by Maxwell Lord...we were too shell-shocked to care what Lex Luthor was up to.

And that cover, more than any image I've seen since, encapsulates Batman's eclipsing popularity over Superman in the new decade perfectly.

Spider-Girl had lasted for a decade in spite of it being anachronistic to Marvel Comics then-editor-in-chief, Joe Quesada. Let's not be naive: he co-wrote and illustrated "Spider-Man: One More Day" and wrote "Spider-Man: One Moment In Time"; if a married Spider-Man wasn't his cup of tea, why would he like a book about his daughter? It may have helped prolong the life of the book when it was retooled with a new title, The Amazing Spider-Girl, but it's future in the face of a Brand New Day was unlikely. This issue, #28, has May Parker take stock of her existence amidst storylines wrapping up, like the penultimate episode of an adventure series that's going to leave it's audience wanting more. It was a class act from beginning to end.

And in 2025 my " #FourComics..That I Read In The 2010s" should be all sorted out...

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Catching Up: #FourComics...That I Read In The 90s

Moreso than any decade before or after, the 1990s led comic book fans astray, left in the lurch, or feeling like they'd been had...did we want comic books with covers that looked like decorative notebook stickers designed by Lisa Frank? They sure looked pretty, especially with a big " #1" stamped in bold on the cover. It was hard to tell if anybody was actually thinking about reading this stuff, more preoccupied with hoping they could flip it. But the comic shops and publishers aren't hoping you get rich, are they? It felt like a Hobson's choice: read the stuff you like that the others don't care about, or collect the stuff you don't care about because that's what everyone else is talking about...and assume you can flip it in the near future.

And the cover prices were going up. This "hobby" - a word not often used anymore to describe comic collecting/reading - will no longer be casual spending.

I was still following the Disney Comics. The Disney company took back the character license from Bruce Hamilton to try self-publishing, which seemed logical, until they crashed and burned, too dependant on questionable marketing research. The survivor was Disney Adventures Magazine, a small digest that lasted the early-2000s like a little engine that could, running on moss-covered track. Hamilton got the license back in 1993, in time to serialize Don Rosa's magnum opus, The Life And Times Of Scrooge McDuck, in issues of Uncle Scrooge. To date, the Disney ducks  ( and mice ) have been carried by six different publishers within the last 25 years  and endured.

Other surprises that survived the 90s were Bongo Comics, founded by Simpsons creator Matt Groening to publish Simpsons ( and later, Futurama ) comic books. Upon acquiring the Hanna-Barbara characters, DC Comics' Scooby-Doo comic remains in print, alongside Looney Tunes as part of their "kid-friendly" line.

Marvel's Ren and Stimpy was "kid-friendly" because it's writer, Dan Slott, wasn't allowed to write fart and booger jokes...so, in my humble opinion, the book required actual, disciplined comedic wit (for the time that Slott was writing it, anyway) that outclassed the cartoons. The issue guest-starring Spider-Man  ( Slott's first time writing the character ) is a classic farce. I still remember the scene where Spidey suggests substituting powdered toast flakes with spider-silk on Ren and Stimpy's toast for breakfast...I imagine that would taste better than the Spider-Man tie-in breakfast cereals offered in the real world.

Speaking of an incarnation from a different medium outclassing the source material, Batman: The Animated Series was the best take on Batman offered, and a tie-in comic book series, The Batman Adventures, didn't lose anything in translation. Mad Love was a one-shot "special" issue, featuring story and art by the best-known of the TV series' creators, Paul Dini and Bruce Timm. I didn't get a chance to read it until around 1998, when it was reprinted with that magnificent painted cover as a "prestige format" trade paperback graphic novel. Mad Love was the best Batman comic of the 90s.

What would eventually be referred to as "The Timmverse" could also be found in Superman Adventures. The best issues were when Mark Miller was writing the book, offering an uncharacteristicly light approach compared to his better-known efforts on The Authority, Wanted and Kick-Ass. This issue featured a team-up with Batgirl to save a kidnapped Bruce Wayne from The Mad Hatter, in a plot reminiscent of the Superman: The Animated Series episode, "Knight Time". Cool art by Mike Manley.

I had no knowledge of what transpired in Spider-Man comics between his meeting Ren & Stimpy and his wife Mary Jane's miscarriage  ( a low down, nasty moment that would foreshadow other, cheap and nasty moments in the future of Spider-Man comics ), but I was enjoyed the Saban-produced, Spider-Man cartoon on FOX saturday mornings, so I picked up this particular issue of Spectacular Spider-Man, part 1 of  the 3-part "Goblins At The Gate", which featured the original Green Goblin against the original Hobgoblin, who was my favorite of the 90s cartoon villains featured on the show, thanks to the inspired notion of casting Mark Hamill as the voice of the character and using his Joker voice from Batman: The Animated Series. The arc was also plotted by Roger Stern, who is considered one of the top 2 best Spider-Man writers ( the other being Stan Lee, of course ), so the those 3 issues had more snap than a lot of Spider-Man comics offered in the late-90s.  At the time, my knowledge of Goblin continuity/history could fill the back of one or two trading cards, so I was surprised to see that Norman Osborn was back from the dead, or that there was more than one Hobgoblin, but I caught the reference to a once-trendy obscure 90's TV movie called Barbarians At The Gate. This arc was also a follow-up to Stern's Hobgoblin Lives mini-series, so I read that next, then continued reading more until I was up to date...the goblins are the Yosemite Sam and Elmer Fudd of Spidey's rogues gallery, anyway ( with Wile E. Coyote as Doctor Octopus ) to Spidey's Bugs Bunny...and realizing that it felt like nobody at Marvel particularly liked Spider-Man as a character in his present incarnation, as a married man; they were nostalgic for when he was a teenager, which amounts to the first 2 or 3 years of the character's history...

Goblins At The Gate had an anticlimactic ending, but it was a good page-turner. It had great covers by John Romita Sr., so it looked like classic, iconic Spider-Man. After this, it felt like everyone working on Spider-Man was trying too hard to achieve what they felt should be "classic" Spider-Man..but the #FourComics I posted on Twitter representing what I read in the 2000s were not one of Spider-Man's...

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Catching Up: #FourComics...that I read in the 80s

Nostalgia for comics begats hashtags...when I posted the following four images on Twitter months ago, I was surprised at how easy it came to choosing them - and the exact issues...there were other comics I recall reading as a kid...at the end of the day, you pick the ones that become hashtag worthy.

Alf's potential was better-realized when he became a comic book character. I always liked the character, but Alf the sitcom had weary jobbing actor Max Wright's inappropriately taciturn and melancholy Willie Tanner giving the series a kind of gloom that shouldn't be there. The comic book, however, was free of these murky waters and Alf's world opened up.

That issue of Uncle Scrooge was the first one I ever read. I was already a fan of the character as he appeared in cartoons, but the comics  ( particularly the comics published by Bruce Hamilton under the imprint 'Gladstone Comics' ) made it clear that there was a whole lot more to discover.

Legends of The Dark Knight was trending in the late-80s, with it's higher quality paper, variant covers for the premiere issue and stories written by in the vein of Batman: Year One. I still recall reading the conclusion to Dennis O'Neill's "Shaman" arc...the beginning of it, anyway, with Bruce Wayne getting the drop on an intruder at Wayne Manor by swinging down from a chandelier..a good 25 years before that song by Sia made it cool, rather than a reckless act usually performed by swashbuckling Musketeers.

I realize what these four comics had in common was they were world-opening. You may have heard of the term, "World Building" used by comic book writers and artists. World-Opening is my way of explaining how a writer and artist show that there's a lot more to what you believed you knew about your favorite characters and there is more to see. There is a fine line between the two terms, but it is there. In world-building, you're going back to basics, or arguing that "Everything you know is wrong," but in world-opening, you're introducing new avenues and vistas for characters to encounter and engage in. We got to see what Alf's spaceship looked like ( kind of like a 50's Studebaker with fins supporting booster rockets), we got to see what a Ducktales episode would look like if Donald Duck was part of the regular cast, and we got to see the Ninja Turtles experiment with alternate costumes within the context of their adventures, and not as action figures in toy stores.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures #13 from Archie Comics was an excellent example of world-opening. I didn't know why Raphael was wearing a purple spandex suit, or why the turtles were engaged in a battle royal against an army of bug soldiers in a deserted amphitheater, or why it seemed like writer Dean Clarrion ( the pen name of Mirage Studios' go-to writer Steve Murphy ) was depicting the seemingly final fates of Krang, Bebop, Rocksteady and the Shredder when they were still featured in the cartoons, but it was an incredible issue and I wanted to keep following it. IDW recently reprinted most of issues from that run, so I was able to fill in the blanks on some long-unanswered questions.

I also remember reading Wally the Wizard and Asterix, but the hashtag said " #FourComics "...I don't make up the rules..

Next time: #FourComics...that I read in the 90s.

Monday, April 27, 2015

"Star Wars: Kenobi" by John Jackson Miller

I wish John Jackson Miller had not pegged Kenobi as a Western from the get-go with his introduction at the start of the novel. The tale works incredibly well simply as a Star Wars story and needed no added novelty to draw readers in. It is a well-written epic in minature about Obi Wan Kenobi's early days living in exile as a hermit on Tattooine, encountering more danger than he thought he would. So if you paid no mind to Miller's words, you have a good chance of enjoying a new adventure that didn't echo any Clint Eastwood/Jimmy Stewart westerns...or episodes of Samurai Jack, for that matter.

This is also the first Star Wars novel I saw with the "Legends" tag when it debuted on paperback, which notes the decision by Disney-Lucasfilm to create a new, official continuity that will ignore the novels published before A New Dawn and let them slowly go out of print once the new line is established. I had commented on this development in an earlier post titled, "Luke Skywalker's Nightmare..Or Ours?"..so I can keep this post from going off on a tangent and reccomend you check that out first or continue reading my review of Kenobi. Or continue onward. :)

In retrospect, the most interesting part of Kenobi is how Miller reconciles the two different portrayals of the character with this new adventure. The 1st half of the novel depicts an Obi Wan not unlike the relatively aloof, Merlin-esque "wizard" Ben Kenobi, played by Sir Alec Guinness, as well as recreating the atmosphere of Tunisa shown in A New Hope. The 2nd half, with it's busy spaceports and alien creatures and floating anti-gravity hovercraft speeding across the desert, recall the manic energy of better moments offered by the prequel film trilogy.

So, yes, this is a good book, but I probably had more fun imagining the casting if it was adapted into a film. I imagined Charlize Theron as the heroine, Annileen Calwell, alongside Gerard Butler as the shady Orrin Gault ( a character who resembles a darker take on Owen Lars, Luke's Uncle, from A New Hope )...And why stop there? If this story had been adapted by George Lucas in the 80s, I could imagine Audrey Hepburn as Annileen ( inspired by her playing Maid Marion in Robin & Marion ...and a photo of her in a cowboy hat from 1958 ), Gregory Peck as Orrin  ( while best-known and beloved today for playing Atticus Finch in "To Kill A Mockingbird", Peck was more convincing at playing bastards , as he did in the camp western, "Duel In The Sun" ) , and, if Alec Guinness should refuse, Nicol Williamson as Ben.

Onto the highlight reel! :)