Thursday, February 14, 2013

Jim's Comics Reviews: Thoughts On DEATH OF THE FAMILY


Okay, now that's out of the way, so I can get to the meat of the discussion.  Yesterday, comics shops across the land released DC Comics' Batman #17, the concluding issue of the Death Of The Family crossover event.  The event was helmed by writer Scott Snyder, with the help of several talented artists, most notably Greg Capullo.  The crossover tied in most of the Bat-titles in DC's current lineup, and if you need a complete list, you can find one here:  (Reading Order)  However, for the purpose of the review, I'm going to assume the reader has read the story and understands a little of how it relates to previous cannon.

The Good:  Scott Snyder's writing was good throughout, with exceptions that can (possibly) be explained away by the interfering hand of editorial.  He managed several intertwining plot threads deftly, and gave us a clear story with an awareness of pacing, especially during the clear build-up to the climax across Batman issues 16-17.  There were several nail-biting moments, especially the reveals in later issues, that got the adrenaline going and held the reader on a plateau of excitement across multiple pages.

True to his word, Snyder delivered a story one could navigate reading only the core title (Batman). There were certain issues of other titles I consider an enhancement to the story, or indeed essential for overall effect, but the narrative core of issues 14-17 did not suffer greatly, if at all, for being part of the event, nor would the reader of only the core title be unduly upset by omission of key events.  I can only imagine the task of having to thread together such a sprawling tie-in involving various writers, artists, and books, each with their own stories to tell and their own schedules to adhere to, but the resulting story arc has a very clear shape and direction.  The story did, at the least, convey the change in relationship between Batman and his lieutenants, and the reasons for it, which might be enough justification for a crossover for some readers (more on that in the next section).

Greg Capulo's art was no hindrance to story either. His style isn't necessarily one everyone agrees with: He likes fluid forms and line-driven textures in the vein of Marc Silvestri, but with a better sense of dimensionality to faces. He uses exaggerated anatomy and perspective that is mood-driven and, at times, cartoon-like. I like it. At the very least, he "got" the scene and conveyed it well throughout. Colors were okay on the core title, but at times a little to exaggerated for my taste, and a little too inconsistent on light sourcing (yeah, the Joker looks spookier with an under-lit face, but sometimes you can't explain where the hell it comes from).

The Bad:  The size of the thing.  I'm a big fan of sprawling, epic stories, so long as the plot pieces fit and are necessary to story.  I'm also no stranger to larger publishers' yen to expand stories to dollar-maximizing proportions.  But there were several issues included in the crossover that didn't merit the DoTF marquis.  Don't get me wrong, this isn't R.I.P. all over again.  However, I came away from several of the tie-ins, including early issues of Batgirl and Detective Comics, thinking DC editorial was definitely lending "suggestions" concerning their inclusion in the event.  Lest you think I missed the inclusion of several of Batman's rogue's gallery in the final few issues, and forgot how their machinations early on led into Joker's plot  through those seemingly tenuous story links, I will say this:  The vast majority of the villains present for Joker's big gathering simply didn't need to be there, as illustrated by both Batman and Joker dismissing them handily in issue #16 before the real conflagration in #17.  Some of the best villains in Batman's rogues' gallery were built into the story via a small aside in an earlier issue, only to be ushered stage left so quickly it made my head spin.  This cheapened both those characters and the story that contained them.  If one conjectures simply that they were there to illustrate the gravitas of the event, well, then I say there had better be some earth-shaking consequences to said event to justify their presence.

Which brings me to my next concern:   There were no earth-shaking consequences to this event. True, the story convincingly delivers the reasons for the wedge between Batman and the other members of the Bat-Family, but the wedge itself is seemingly nothing a group with a strong, almost familial, bond couldn't get past.  It's illustrated at the last by (gasp!) various excuses for the sidekicks not to show up at Bruce's planned victory dinner.  True, some of the lead-in to the conclusion such as the "face supper" was unnerving, but nothing the reader wouldn't dismiss as trickery after a moment's thought as to the far-reaching consequences to characters in multiple series.  Perhaps we've grown too complacent in the status quo, but I don't think anyone believed Nightwing, Robin, Red Robin, Red Hood, and Batgirl were going back to their respective series sans mug.

As an indulgence, about halfway through the event, I came up with a possible motivation for the Joker's actions, and said as much on the From The Booth podcast:   The Joker was goading the various sidekicks to attempted murder, and would subject Batman to the possibility that any one of his trainees could become another Red Hood.  The evidence seemed to support it:  Each death trap resulted in the decision by each sidekick to either attempt murder (in two separate instances with a gun), or be complacent while murder took place. Imagine Batman faced with the notion that his greatest failure (Jason) could be exploited and repeated!  At the very least, the wedge would have been driven more deeply, and maybe we'd have gotten a more worthy ending than the "we're still facebook friends, but don't expect a card on your birthday" moments we got at the end.

Overall, though, I have to say the story was enjoyable.  While it didn't have the payoff I had hoped for, and it suffered, in my opinion, from crossover-itis, I did think the story was well-handled logistically, it was cohesive, and it had several edge-of-your-seat moments that made it worthwhile on a more visceral level.

Let me know what you think!

Jim's Comic Reviews: Mind The Gap

This time, I published the review over at Captain Blue Hen's website:

Jim's Comic Reviews:  The Elle Word

I said as much on Jim McCann's G+ page, but I think it was in issue #3, the scene where Jo is dancing on the bed after receiving a psychic tweet from Elle in a dream, where it hit home for me how human and believable the characters are as written.  Those types of reactions are not things that occur to every writer of comics, especially in the superhero-centric genres, but McCann really inhabits and empathizes with his characters.  I know Mind The Gap was originally envisioned for television, and this seems to come through in the settings and scenery...which leads me to wonder about comparisons with McCann's more comic-oriented efforts.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Jim's Comic Reviews: Fatale (collected trades, Book One: Death Chases Me and Book 2: The Devil's Business)

Many reading this are already familiar with Ed Brubaker's work at the big two publishing houses, and were dismayed (perhaps only momentarily) by his announcement mid-year to part ways with Marvel.  His iconic runs on Captain America and Winter Soldier stand out in recent memory, the latter of which continued until just last month.  Rumors surrounded various possible creative paths Brubaker could take, but comics fans were assuaged in November, when he announced his intention to turn Image Comics' Fatale into an ongoing series The title,  another collaborative effort between Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips, was originally intended for three parts in perhaps fourteen issues.  

I'm late to the party on this title, but here to review the first two trades:  Book One:  Death Chases Me, and Book 2:  The Devil's Business, collecting issues 1-5 and 6-10, respectively.

Book One introduces us to the character of Josephine, central figure of the story and a woman of some mystery.  It's gradually revealed that she's been around this world longer than your average human is entitled, and sinister supernatural forces are both her strength and her nemeses.  She exhibits an almost hypnotic power over men, who are drawn to her like moths to a flame.  Three such men, Nick, Dominick, and Walter, form chapters in her long life, each coming to know her romantically, finding himself in her thrall, and falling prey in some way to the strange and evil figures who pursue her through the decades.  Book Two delves further into Josephine's history, giving snippets and clues as to her nature and that of her pursuers, a midst a more urgent tone.

Brubaker's storytelling, at the onset, seems eerily disjointed.  As the plot thickens, however, the episodic and out-of-sync narrative falls into a skittish rhythm that lends to the air of noir and mystery.  It's absolutely thick with inter-twining fates and plot threads spanning the years, and paced expertly to deliver in every chapter.  Part of the richness is delivered through the settings, from the 50's detective noir that dominates Book One, to a drug-centric, post-hippie view of the 70's in Book Two. It's in Book Two, particularly, where I took note of just how much the period was in evidence in the tale. Here, the cult-spawning pop culture fascination with figures like the Manson family, and the drug-fueled orgies that belie the cultural innocence lost in the previous decade, are the backdrop for something even more sinister.  It's amazing how the tone of the story is tweaked carefully from one decade to the next, and how Brubaker's conscious use of verbal idioms and other indicators in the dialogue and character actions plant the story firmly in those periods.

Phillips' art lends well to this story.  Although I wouldn't like him for some of the more flashy super-hero types, I think he's well suited for period pieces, horror and noir, with his thick shadows, carefully selected essential details, and expressive faces, all telling no more and no less than that which is useful to story and mood.  This guy moves faces masterfully, and each simple line is crafted to belie tone, emotion, ethnicity, lighting, and even the uncanny madness of the Lovecraftian villains.  He's got that indispensable skill of an artist that allows you to almost see the photo-realism he imagined beneath the simple, stylized lines he delivers.  Panel sizes are small and lean towards a more dense narrative than most modern comics.  At times I wished for more novel layouts, but when the story is this thick, the art must follow.

Finally, the careful, often muted color tones delivered by Dave Stewart are perfect for this story.  There were one or two instances where I wished I was seeing more widely ranged use of color, but I'd hesitate to recommend him anything in that regard lest the story suffer for more detail than is necessary.  The eye is drawn to the right places, and the color composition all lends to story flow, and, well, it's just wonderful.

Lest I gush further, let me just say that I'm thoroughly loving this tale: It has the best elements of a pulp novel mixed in with some awesome imagery and epic plot.  I'm hopeful for any way the work might continue into at least another year, as I feel the story has the legs (no pun intended) to do it.  It's a definite recommended read from me.