What’s up everybody? Twitter tells me that comic reviews are bad, folks. We don’t know how to write about art. So I guess you probably shouldn’t even be reading this.
But if you are reading, welcome to the regular column! We’re taking a look at 3 books I do not read! The only rules are that these books are something I don’t read every month, it’s not a number one, and (if I am aware of it before reading) it’s not an anthology.
Any comic I read right now has a lot to live up to…I’ve been reading Fullmetal Alchemist which is among the best comics I’ve ever read. I watched the original anime but this is my first time with the actual source material. Hiromu Arakawa can DRAW.
This might be the last No Context of the year. But here’s to many more! And more Urbane Turtle, in general. Viva la tortuga.
I Am Batman #16
DC Comics. John Ridley, Writer. Christian Duce, Artist. Rex Lokus, Colors. Troy Peteri, Letters.
I have not spent any time trying to understand what the deal is with I Am Batman or Jace Fox. It seems weird to me that there’s a mostly unrelated Batman in New York. I guess it isn’t unprecedented given Batman Inc. but seems weird. And after reading this issue I still don’t know how this fits in the larger world of the Batman mythos.
I see a rich kid who feels guilty, fighting some crooks. Ridley has plenty of words throughout this issue but it tells us very little about who Jace is or what he wants out of being Batman. There’s less Batman here and more Iron Man or, in DC terms, Green Arrow. Less justice and more atonement. Jace wants to make right having killed someone when he was young.Continue reading “No Context Comics – A Look at 3 Books I Don’t Read From the Week of 12/14”
Here we have a somewhat belated entry into the semi-weekly No Context Comics! I’ve been busy outside of Urbane Turtle dot com, lately. You can find my spotlight review for this week’s thrilling new series, ALL AGAINST ALL, over at The Comics Beat. I also had the chance to interview TMNT writer Tom Waltz and editor Charles Beacham about the super fun event series, THE ARMAGEDDON GAME.
I also had a couple days off from the day job, but spent them doing nothing productive whatsoever other than watching a few movies and the Rise of the TMNT series on Netflix. You see, I am teetering on the brink of ~*~ burn out ~*~ and some days of total vegging were paramount.
This week we’ve got a new superhero, fantasy misfits, and a longtime pro hero. So let’s get into it, shall we?
Monkey Prince #9
DC. Gene Luen Yang, Writer. Bernard Chang, Artist. Marcelo Maiolo, Colors. Janice Chiang. Letters. Jessica Chen. Editor.
Gene Yuen Lang has written some of my favorite superhero stories of the last few years, and DC has seen a dearth of new superhero creations in the last ten years. So I should be excited by the prospect of the Monkey King, which draws from Chinese mythology to introduce a new player into the fold! Yang’s authentic voice deserves to be heard above the din of the corporate cape books. And yet I have been remiss in even looking twice at Monkey Prince, Yang’s latest mainstream series.
Despite Marvel’s reputation as being more “grounded” or “street level,” it has no shortage of characters pulled right out of mythic pantheons. In that way, Monkey Prince as an idea feels more at home in the Marvel U. DC has plenty of godly beings but most of them are DC originals, not pantheons or public domain heroes. Marvel is much more willing to do that kind of thing, historically.
There’s a LOT going on in this issue, and it feels very disorienting as a new reader. There are general ideas that feel familiar–Metropolis, Lexcorp, Bizarro Clones, and even the “Journey to the West” iconography (thanks, Dragonball!), but a lot that took a bit to put together. But everything needed to get caught up is here on the page.
Marcus, the main character’s, parents are two-bit henchpeople, and Marcus has to deal with that while juggling being a normal kid and also learning how to be a hero. His encounter with Supergirl here gives the reader a firm idea of his character, impetuous, petulant, and frankly, kind of unlikable!
There’s a big twist on the last page that gave me a big laugh. The villain of this piece is genuinely creepy and his attack that starts the issue is unsettling.
I get the point of making a young male hero kind of a jerk but it does make it hard to root for him, even if he is trying to learn. I’m certainly willing to give Yang the benefit of the doubt that Marcus is growign and learning, after all, his parents are crooks. It’s not like he’s had a strong role model.
Crossovers can get exhausting but I did get a little bit of a thrill to see this tie-in to the Devil Nezha and Mark Waid’s work over on World’ Finest/Batman vs. Robin/Lazarus Planet. It’s not ridiculously intrusive (yet, anyway; the next issue seems to be a full tie-in) but it makes all of these new elements feel important and tied into the larger DCU. Something a lot of new ideas in superhero universes fail to do authentically.
The art is serviceable if unremarkable all around. There are flashes of inventiveness and humor, particularly toward the end when the hero is transformed, that play into the Monkey Prince’s irreverent personality. I also really liked to see that most of the creative team is of Asian descent and their names credited in script as well as English.
Overall–this felt like a standard issue of a monthly comic book. Neither particularly good nor particularly bad. A perfectly serviceable diversion, with the bonus of introducing new representation.
Least We Can Do #4
Image. Iolanda Zanfardino, Writer.Elisa Romboli, Artist.
A caveat that I think is important here: I have never played Dungeons and Dragons or other tabletop RPGs. I have passing familiarity with some of the concepts, which let me generally understand some of the ideas here. I don’t know that the extreme number of word balloons here are specifically referencing Tabletop games but they certainyl seem to be. And boyoboy are there so many words here. And references to concepts that are not explained. And explaining powers and how powers work like it’s a gosh darn encyclopedia.
I found this book so hard to get through that it was a wonder to me that it exists? There is no compelling character within these pages, or even a plot that I can decipher. These characters seem to exist to talk about going on quests and to research magic we mostly do not see. It’s a real slog.
The art is mostly okay with a few truly standout moments. There is a page in here where a character stops time and speeds past other characters that displayed the idea of superspeed or time manipulation better than almost anything else I’ve seen in comics. The first panel is a shot of three characters. That is then cut through by a second panel with another caracter’s face in profile. In the third panel, the one who interrupted is suddenly standing behind the others, far in the distance. The way Romboli depicts the character slicing through the gutter where we usually read the passage of time is shockingly effective. The fight scene on the train toward issue’s end is well-staged and easy to follow (a trait not to be undervalued in comics!) with a dynamic sense of movement.
But beyond that there was nothing much here to draw me in. Romboli does the best she can with some exhausting exposition, giving the characters plenty of emotion as they shout about things I didn’t understand.
By issue’s end I just can’t help but wonder who this is for. I would like to see more of Romboli with something more to work with, though.
Captain Marvel #44
Marvel. Kelly Thompson, Writer. Sergio Dávila, Artist. Arif Prianto, Colors. Clayton Cowles, Letters.
Kelly Thompson is a writer I have heard a lot of good things about that I always intend to look more into. But there’s always more books to read and I never get to it. She’s maintained an impressive run on this Captain Marvel series, which I am sure speaks to the quality of her work.
At 44 issues of a character older than me, I don’t expect to know all the ins-and-outs of what is going on. Particularly when it seems to be a spiritual sequel to an old Claremont X-Men story. I am sure X-Men fans are happy to see this (or maybe not, X-Men fans are never happy). Ever since becoming Captain Marvel it has seemed like Marvel has tried to distance her from the mutants, despite her having had significant relationships with them during Claremont’s tenure.
I’m not an X-Men aficionado, but I am familiar enough with the broad strokes to appreciate Carol’s opening monologue here, about enjoying getting to bust on Rogue and the Brood simultaneously, in another life. I’m also able to appreciate how Thompson effectively builds this grand space drama around decades of publishing history to effectively tell a story of growth and empowerment over past trauma.
In many ways, this issue is a stellar example of how to tell superhero comics in a long-running shared universe. Just enough mentions of the past to orient newer readers while spurring interest in the old stories. It doesn’t spend pages explaining those events in detail, boring die-hards. And it moves Carol forward as a character forward and illustrates how she has grown and changed since she was Binary and Ms. Marvel. She’s no longer the B-List side character in a team book. Now she’s a blockbuster headliner, and how does that change how she approaches the things that have harmed her?
I really enjoyed this, despite being years behind on Captain Marvel. Thompson has a clear vision for who Carol Danvers is and where she has come from. The art from Sergio Dávila is standard superhero fare. I particularly like how he illustrates Carol’s powers and the almost Super Saiyan way it blows her hair around.
Perhaps I need to stop overlooking Captain Marvel, and get down to finally reading more of Thompson’s work in full.
With this week’s release of the newest Blue Beetle series, featuring the most exciting character find of 2006, Jaime Reyes, it seemed like a good time to look back on Jaime’s original series and earliest days as a hero.
First introduced within the pages of the event crossover Infinite Crisis, Jaime is credited as a creation of Keith Giffen, John Rogers, and Cully Hamner, the creative team that launched Jaime’s series just a few short months after his debut. It’s a testament to the strong work on the character, starting with Hamner’s striking design, this third iteration of the Blue Beetle has existed largely unchanged in the 16 years since he first appeared.
Comics have been looking for the next Spider-Man for 60 years. Marvel had a few successes that never quite stuck, until; perhaps Ms. Marvel and the second Spider-Man, Miles Morales. DC has had an even tougher time making a version that fits into their world of larger-than-life heroes, despite the historical presence of teen hero sidekicks. Milestone’s Static had a long lasting appeal thanks to a groundbreaking animated series, even his endurance has been tested due to rights issues with Milestone. It can be argued whether his separation from the DCU proper is a benefit or hindrance to the character in the long run.
The closest DC Comics proper has gotten to capturing that youthful energy is Jaime Reyes, the third Blue Beetle. Although his publication history has been spotty since the cancellation of his nearly 40 issue original series, DC has tried on multiple occasions to make Jaime a fixture of their line. He was a significant supporting figure in two animated series, Batman: The Brave and the Bold, and Young Justice,though his footprint has been notably smaller since the initial push the company put behind him following his debut.
Many Spider-Man impersonators have failed because they fail to grasp what made Spidey such a landmark series. It wasn’t just his youth– It was that he provided a new storytelling perspective. That teen perspective brought a fresh spin on superhero stories, where the challenges of adolescence were given equal weight to saving the world. Titles that have come after that simply tried to replicate the exact formula never had staying power.
The most significant teen heroes to come after have hit because they provided similarly fresh perspectives. Static took that formula and provided the black teen experience. Ms. Marvel lifted up the experience and challenges of Muslim communities in the 21st century. They connected with an audience with a bold and clear voice and mission
Blue Beetle succeeds for the same reasons. Jaime is not simply a Peter Parker clone. He lives in Texas, not far from the Mexican border. He is not a science genius. He coasts along, putting in his minimal effort to survive high school without raising too much attention.
It is, obviously, questionable how well Giffen and Rogers, two white men, capture the experience of being Latino in Texas and America. Perhaps the lack of authentic voice with the lived experience has been the missing piece in making Blue Beetle ever fully break through in a lasting way. It is encouraging that Graduation Day sees someone of Latino descent writing the character for the first time (and is even being published concurrently in Spanish). As another white man, I am not equipped to speak to how authentic their perspective is. Certainly, Giffen and Rogers take great pains to honor Jaime’s origins and unique perspective.
The first arc of the series flashes back to the days immediately following Jaime discovering the Scarab that grants him his powers and to one year later, when he returns from the events of Infinite Crisis. The split story manages to establish the world Jaime has left behind while simultaneously illustrating how the emergence of his powers throws everything into chaos. As the book goes on for its first year and a half, Jaime discovers the truth of the Scarab, the potential of his power, and the crushing weight of responsibility and aging.
Though Jaime’s origin has been slightly revamped a few times already thanks to DC continuity shenanigans, the core elements of Jaime’s world are remarkably consistent and that is because the original series’ themes are so excellently developed and intertwined with the character.
Paramount among those themes is the importance of family and community. These ideas are threaded through every element of the story. From Jaime’s friend Paco’s involvement with the “Not-A-Gang” group of metahumans known as The Posse, Brenda’s abusive relationship with her father and complex machinations of her semi-villainous aunt, La Dama, to the Reyes family, community and its complexities play an important role.
It’s worth noting that, although it’s never mentioned overtly and is not a major element of his character, Jaime is clearly at least culturally Catholic, as many Latino communities in the Southern United States are. Having spent time in a largely Latino Catholic church, the fundamental importance of that community of faith to the culture of a town cannot be overstated. The Church is a central place of community gathering.
The centrality of a larger community is evidenced time and again throughout the run.
It’s that sense of community obligation that spurs Jaime into heroism. It is not any tragic inciting incident. We see in the first issues where that drive for service comes from. Immediately, Giffen establishes Jaime’s parents as hard working and compassionate. Jaime begs his dad to let him spend time after school working in their family autoshop, where Mr. Reyes spends long hours. But his father refuses. He works hard so that Jaime doesn’t have to, so that he can be a kid as long as possible and have a better future. His mother is a nurse, and our first introduction to Jaime is him taking care of his younger sister as both parents are away at work.
In the first issue, Jaime’s father is complaining about one of his employees, Luis, and about how unreliable he is. He admits that if it wasn’t for Luis’ wife and daughter and how they rely on Luis’ job at the shop, he would have let Luis go already. When Jaime disappears for a year and returns, he discovers his father was shot protecting Luis after someone came to collect on a debt that the man owed him.
This familial duty and compassion directly impact how Jaime approaches his new superpowers.
Almost immediately, Blue Beetle becomes an icon to the people of El Paso and the surrounding area, particularly its immigrant community. As Paco explains, Blue Beetle is important to the community. “We don’t get many heroes down here. Don’t underestimate how much that matters.”
Jaime is bolstered by his friends and family. He doesn’t hesitate to share his secret with them. It never even crosses his mind. He wants to be honest and open. It is that vulnerability, that compassion and love for his family that compels him to protect the people of El Paso as best he can.
One of the most emotional moments of the run comes when Jaime remembers the events that caused him to be lost in space. After the events of Infinite Crisis, he is left in the wreckage of a space satellite when his Scarab teleports him away from the Green Lantern. He begs for the heroes to save him, but no one can see or hear him.
When the memories come flooding back, he screams out in the present-day, surrounded by his family, “Don’t let me die alone!” Jaime’s greatest fear is not just death, but total isolation.
The enemies Jaime faces represent a threat to the larger community of El Paso and its people, or are in some way broken and isolated from their own.
La Dama, Brenda’s aunt and the criminal queen of the El Paso underworld, collects young people with magical talent and isolates them from their families and friends. She manipulates her charges to believe they are safe and cared for when in reality she uses them to build her own mystical army.
The monstrous and tortured Bottom Feeder believes he is cursed and forsaken by God. He lashes out on a deadly rampage to punish others and sees Blue Beetle as a herald of armageddon.
The Reach aliens pose as a benevolent species who seek to further the cause of humanity when in reality they plan to exploit and enslave.
The strength of a healthy community empowers us to be our true and fullest selves. La Dama’s involuntary detainment of mystical teens poises them to be weapons at her disposal. The Reach attempt to take over other humans as more fitting hosts who will do their bidding. They infect others with Scarab devices in an attempt to turn them into mindless weapons. But Blue Beetle is able to convince them to fight their programming, having already convinced his own Scarab to defy its killer instincts. Jaime’s heroic impulse to serve others is a constant battle that illustrates the strength of his will to do good for people against the Scarab’s call for vioence.
As any good coming-of-age superhero story, all of these struggles also teach Jaime something about growing up and reflect the inner turmoil of being a teenager. As a teen, every anxiety and fear and heartbreak feels like the end-of-the-world. Those emotional stakes become literal in the world of superheroes. That becomes particularly apparent when the alien race known as The Reach come on the scene.The Reach were the original creators of the Scarab that granted Jaime his power. When they arrive on Earth they convince society that they come in peace to usher in an enlightened age of peace and prosperity. Their true aims are known only to Jaime.
Only Blue Beetle can see their tech and nobody believes his warnings. It’s a potent allegory for the teenage experience. You know your experiences are valid, that you have a voice worth hearing, but no one believes you because you are a child.
Above all, there is a sense of vibrant fun throughout the series. Jaime is in over his head at every turn. He doesn’t know how to fight. He relies on his quick wits, his begrudging mentor Peacemaker, and the alien scarab fused to his spine to get him out of trouble.
That fun is encapsulated perfectly by the series’ premiere artist, Cully Hamner. Hamner eschews any traditional grid in favor of overlapping collage of panels.
It makes for a dynamic use of space that gives breathing room to scenes. Even a page with 9 panels, like this one from issue 1 doesn’t use a grid. The frenetic and unpredictable layouts make us feel the pain and panic.
Hamner’s iconic design presents a hero with a stunning silhouette and a slick and futuristic look that still manages to homage the previous versions of Blue Beetle. It is a testament to Hamner’s graphic sensibilities that no one has even attempted to make any major modifications or updates to the instantly classic look.
Rafael Albaquerque, who takes over as primary artist starting at the end of the first year, brings the same spirit with a more relaxed and fluid linework, as opposed to Hamner’s very deliberate use of space. It offers a similar level of excitement and unpredictable action.
The series’ primary colorist, Guy Major gives the book a bright and vibrant palette that set it apart from much of the grimmer stories that came out in the “One Year Later” period. The optimism and bright-eyed view of the world is perfectly captured by Major’s sunny, blue skies and verdant backgrounds.
Blue Beetle remains, almost 20 years later, a stellar example of the teen-superhero formula. As DC appears poised to once again make a push for Jaime Reyes as a banner character for their line across media (and they should!) they would do well to return to these original books as a guidepost on what made Jaime so instantly appealing. The foundations for an enduring and beloved character has been well laid.
You can buy Blue Beetle by Keith Giffen, John Rogers, Cully Hamner, Rafael Albuquerque, Guy Majors, and others from DC Comics in various collections, most recently Blue Beetle: Jaime Reyes Book 1, which collects the first year of stories.
The big releases this week were probably the final issue of Chris Cantwell’s Iron Man (which I just started this week), a new Immortal X-Men, World’s Finest, and Nightwing. Of course, I am not talking about any of those. Because I’m reading the latter 3 and I plan to do something more cohesive about Iron Man.
For a look at other books outside the big 2 this week, check out The Beat’s round-up of indie books that came out yesterday, featuring my first contribution to the site.
The biggest news in the comics-related world this week was probably the death of Kevin Conroy, the iconic voice of Batman for more than 30 years. I have toyed with eulogizing Mr. Conroy here on the site but ultimately, I find myself with a lack of words to describe his impact on me, his contributions to the world of animation. Here is what I posted on my personal Facebook page and on Twitter:
Heartbreaking to hear the news about Kevin Conroy’s passing. Because he was most connected to a superhero cartoon, the immensity of his talent as an actor is undervalued and underestimated. Conroy’s performance as Batman is immortal not because of Batman as a concept but because he made Batman so profoundly, painfully human. Kevin tapped into the loss and rage and sorrow that propels Batman. He became the indelible voice of Batman because he recontextualized the character into a complex man with emotional range. Conroy’s Batman could be frightening and intense. He could be soft and compassionate. He could be vulnerable and colder than ice. I have no doubt that Batman has become a cultural icon because of his seminal work. To understand the depth of that humanity I invite you to read Kevin Conroy’s short memoir and reflection on finding Batman in DC’s 2022 Pride Special. A painful, uplifting, and honest reflection. RIP, Batman.
If you’ve not read his contribution to the DC Pride special, DC made it free to read in his memory here.
Kevin’s death, from an aggressive and rapid cancer, hits especially hard given the recent loss in my own family under similar circumstances.
Obviously, my love for Batman and the Animated Series (and the DCAU it spawned) is well-documented. Kevin Conroy is to thank for so much of that. You can read my series of Batman essays from earlier this year at this link. And if you are interested in revisiting the DCAU, you can journey along with my watch-through from about ten years ago on my old tumblr (Which may become a replacement for my Twitter if that place keeps sinking).
Well, let’s get to the funny books.
Star Wars: Han Solo & Chewbacca #7
Marvel. Marc Guggenheim, Writer. Paul Fry, Artist. Alex Sinclair, Colors. Joe Caramagna, Letters. Mikey J Basso, Danny Khazen, Mark Paniccia, Editors.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with this book. But there’s also nothing particularly compelling to sink your teeth into. It does very little to justify its existence and fails to leverage the iconic characters at its center in any meaningful or interesting way. Oh there’s plenty of Easter eggs, we’ve got Ponda Baba and Greedo and Maz Kanata. But none of them do anything that gives us more information about them that fills out this universe.
It’s the worst type of Star Wars publishing. Playing with the old toys and adding nothing new.
This is a prison break issue, which can be a fun trope for a sci-fi story. There have been lots of good ones. God knows I loved the scenes in the Guardians of the Galaxy movie, and the prisonbreak is one of my favorite Outlaw Star episodes. But to make it compelling there needs to be some investment in the stakes. What are the characters going through in this jail? How is the Imperial system degrading the people it incarcerates?
We are set firmly in the darkest moment of the Galaxy’s history, a period being explored brilliantly by the television show Andor, but Han Solo and Chewbacca fails to grapple with any themes at all.Continue reading “No Context Comics – A Look at 3 Books I Don’t Read From the Week of 11/16”
Looking back on the books you loved as a kid can sometimes be a harrowing journey. Sometimes, you are pleasantly surprised to see that the work is as well-made and powerful a story as you remember it to be.
Initially created by Marv Wolfman and Pat Broderick, heavily developed by Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle, and with a costume design by Neal Adams, Tim Drake is the third character to take the identity of Robin.
But nearly everything that made Tim Drake such an indelible addition to Batman’s world was fleshed out in Tim’s first solo title. The 5-issue miniseries sees the new Robin on a globe-hopping adventure that challenges his detective skills and forces him to face up against the hard truths about fighting injustice–and growing up.
Written by Chuck Dixon and drawn by Tom Lyle with inks by Bob Smith and colors from the master of Batman colors, Adrienne Roy, Robin is a compelling parable about stepping into adulthood, draped in the intrigue of global conspiracy and action. There’s no question that Dixon himself is a troublesome figure to reckon with, but many of his harmful personal politics are absent in his work on Robin. Using the world travel as a trial-by-fire , Dixon not only cements Tim Drake as his own character outside of Dick Grayson’s shadow but cements the importance of Robin as a concept.
There is a school of thought on Batman that he is a lonewolf sociopath driven to brutality and near-madness. He operates alone in the shadows, a grim knight of justice.
But Batman existed for only a year before Robin was first introduced. It was the introduction of Dick Grayson, the young man who Batman teaches to channel his grief, to provide mentorship and compassion for someone who shared his loss, that fully rounded Batman. He fought for a future that Robin represented, a world where children like them could be saved before the worst happened. Robin pulled Batman out of the dark and forced him to step into humanity.
After proving his chops as a detective by discovering Batman’s identity, Tim Drake spent months as backup in the Batcave as Batman kept the boy at arm’s length and off the field. He was not ready to risk another young man’s life in the field after losing Jason Todd. But Tim was driven to prove himself–not out of revenge but a sense of justice and a desire to make a difference. While not as impetuous and angry as Jason Todd, he has the naive confidence of youth. In the stories included with the miniseries in the trade paperback collection, Tim jumps into action to save Batman from the Scarecrow despite warnings to stay out of the action. But Tim cannot let Batman come to harm and risks his life to save Batman–even if it means never getting to don the costume. He respects Batman’s wishes and the legacy of his predecessors by not dressing as Robin but Bruce rewards Tim in the end with a new costume.
As the miniseries opens, Tim is unsure of his own worthiness despite his relentless pursuit to become Batman’s partner. “I want this so bad,” he says, “But I can’t tell him how much it scares me.”
His fear is not for his own safety but for the legacy of Batman and Robin.
Tim’s journey in this miniseries and, indeed, much of his time as Robin and in particular Dixon’s work with the character, is about discovering himself and the world. I don’t believe for a second that Chuck Dixon ever intended Tim Drake to be anything but straight, but the character’s eventual journey of self-discovery and coming out as bisexual is a direct outgrowth of this theme. Being a teenager is a process of becoming and discovery. Tim, as Robin, becomes a vessel to explore that fundamental human experience.
When Batman suggests the new Robin train with a master martial artist in Paris, Robin is swept up in a global criminal conspiracy. But before he leaves, he holds his comatose father’s hands in his, realizing for the first time how human and frail his dad truly is.
It is only the first lesson Tim Drake will face.
In a misguided attempt to save a young woman he believes to be a victim, Tim learns a harsh lesson about his own biases and prejudices about women, when the mysterious Ling ends up being a leader of the gang he tried to save her from. By underestimating her he is captured and beaten, escaping only due to his quick thinking. In his final battle with King Snake, Robin is too late to save a new friend who was consumed by vengeance.
But despite these many harsh lessons, Tim also finds his own confidence and accepts his role as Robin thanks in large part to an unlikely source: the master assassin and the world’s deadliest woman, Lady Shiva. Shiva takes Robin under her wing and in one of the book’s most memorable scenes, gives Robin an important lesson in not underestimating himself.
“You are nothing. You are less than nothing. You are a child. This is how your opponents must see you. They will underestimate you because of your age and size. That is your advantage. But you must never see yourself that way. Draw them to attack. Feign weakness. Feign fear. And strike when they are close.”
Immediately after, Robin has his first real victory in the series after being consistently beaten up and put on the defensive. Using his now-signature whistling bo-staff, he momentarily distracts Shiva and lands a clean blow, knocking her down. It is brief. But he earns Shiva’s respect.
“So, the little bird has found his song,” she praises him.
Indeed, this is a book all about finding oneself. Through the harsh trials of his first solo outing, Robin discovers his worthiness to wear the cape and stands resolutely for his values against killing even as everyone around him calls for blood. There is no escaping the hard truths of the life of a crime fighter–or any life–and Tim Drake faces many of those truths for the first time. And he doesn’t look away.
Through it all, Tim defines his idea of what it means to be Robin. Just as he came to realize the harsh truth of his father’s humanity, he in the end realizes Batman’s as well. Every night is a choice to face the impossible weight and heartbreaks of life and injustice. In experiencing them first-hand, Tim realizes that there is more to being a superhero than solving puzzles. There is a human toll.
Tom Lyle’s pencils are perfection, with an added depth and moodiness courtesy of Bob Smith’s stark inks. And, of course, Adrienne Roy’s colors cast the entire story in a neon darkness of deep blues and vibrant purples that pulse with a pop-infused neo-noir life. You feel like you are right there in the seedy alleys, lit by the unsavory neon light of the worst dives in the world. There is an avant-garde use of color that is entirely unique to this era of comics, where printing technology had advanced to allow for more detail but was still limited in its palette. Roy takes full advantage, utilizing contrasting colors to accentuate the mood of a scene and pull his characters out from the background.
Lyle also does an exceptional job capturing the awkwardness of youth. Teen characters are often drawn as essentially adults but Lyle’s Robin is clearly young and inexperienced. His rounded facial features and his scrawny height provide a vivid contrast compared to his older and more experienced supporting cast and enemies. When up against the true villain of the story, King Snake, he is insignificant. Lyle’s art drives home Shiva’s words: this is a child. That youthfulness makes the heartbreak and failures all the more impactful.
His storytelling is likewise phenomenal, using full-page images sparingly to add dramatic weight and relying on wide and overlapping panels to give the book a cinematic flair long before the Bryan Hitch era of “widescreen” comics. With Smith’s assists on inks, the art is appropriately moody for the crime thriller tone. The shadows sit heavy on the page. Lyle also does something I’ve not seen used very often as a storytelling trick that proves incredibly effective. Throughout the series, particularly in dialogue heavy scenes but also during key moments of action, he frames his characters within a panel in a geometric shadow. It is completely nondiegetic and nonsensical if you consider it from a “cinematography” perspective but extremely effective as a storytelling tool in comics to draw the reader’s eye to the characters.
The miniseries defines not only Tim Drake but redefines Robin and his purpose in the Batman mythos. He is not just the lighthearted sidekick, but a vessel for the reader to view Batman’s world with fresh eyes. Batman, though he is without powers, is an unattainable perfection, a dark figure cloaked in mythologizing and larger-than-life mystique. But Robin is the all-too-human entry point. Fallable, uncertain, but committed to doing the right thing even when it is hard. Dixon’s script lays it out for the reader with great care, wrapping this coming of age story in international intrigue but always keeping Tim’s emotional journey at the center while the incredible art team renders Robin with a relatable and imperfect humanity.
In the final pages, Robin asks Batman if he ever gets tired, if he ever wonders if he is making a difference. Batman answers “It does to me. That’s all I ask.” He observes that Batman’s mission is not necessarily about saving the world, but saving himself.
“And why am I here?” he asks himself. “I don’t know the answer to that one. I guess my education is just beginning.”
That education continues even today, as Tim continues to learn about himself, and offers readers space to discover their own human imperfections and questions through him.
It’s been a light week for comics that I am actually reading. The only new issues to come out of note were the latest chapters of Marvel’s, frankly, incredible A.X.E. JUDGMENT DAY event. Which I might write about soon–or perhaps I’ll wait until it’s over. If you aren’t reading it because the Eternals don’t interest you (I do not blame you) you’re missing out. Gillen’s Eternals series essentially reinvents the characters and concepts and introduces just about everything you need to know. His new revelations make a clash with the X-Men inevitable and compelling. The Avengers are there for set dressing and the rare chance to dunk on Captain America. It’s a propulsive, dramatic story that asks philosophical questions through the vehicle of big superhero sci-fi action, and isn’t that what we read superhero books for? It’s why I do, anyway.
But we aren’t here to talk about A.X.E. Judgment Day.
My first draft of this week’s column included a review of Undiscovered Country #20 (which I did not like) before I discovered that it actually came out last month. I’m not sure how I got that release date so wrong. Anyway, Do A Power Bomb was a last-minute addition and saved this week from being a total wash, as I absolutely loved it.
Becky Cloonan, Michael Conrad: Writers. Neil Googe: Art. Rico Renzi: Colors. Becca Carey: Letters. Jessica Chen, Jessica Berbey, Ben Abernathy: Editors
I want to love this book. I love these characters. I like a lighthearted take on superheroes. This doesn’t work for me on any level. It’s not a disaster, I’m not sure it’s even that bad, all things considered. But it just doesn’t work as a story about Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown as I understand these characters. In this book, they come off as inexperienced and klutzy, not at all how they should operate. It works better for Steph than for Cass, with Steph’s character often being so much about proving herself and learning to be a hero. But Cassandra is too…Normal. Too light and talks way too much. There is a moment where they use an emoji in a word balloon for Cass to capture her nonverbal reaction and communication that is inspired. But it’s undercut by how much she talks in the rest of the book. That’s a common problem with writing Cassandra Cain and it can sometimes go the other direction and she is too nonverbal.
This book radiates chaotic energy that I believe is intentional but is at odds with the leads.
That chaotic energy comes through in the art and the writing. The pages are crowded. With characters. With dialogue. The art is light and fun and suits the tone of the series, with a cartoonish and playful style. The colors are dynamic and electric, leaning into the trademark Batgirl purple. It presents Gotham as a neon playground for the book’s young heroes.
The thing that I found strangest was the way the narrator was presented. It’s a winking, sarcastic omniscient narrator that pokes fun at the story itself. Instead of coming off charming, it took me out of the narrative and it was largely unnecessary. It felt less like winking at the fans and more like talking down to the reader. It doesn’t take its own story or characters seriously.
I like the general idea of this book– the three Batgirls working together with Barbara mentoring Steph and Cassandra. That’s a good hook and there are a few moments it works well. The scene toward the end, where they are all in the loft just hanging out gives the characters a sense of shared history and clearly illustrates how the three relate to one another. I also liked Steph cracking a cipher and solving a puzzle, using her dad’s Cluemaster skills for good.
Also–am I missing something with Renee Montoya being so anti-Batman? Was she always like that? It seemed a weird character beat to me but maybe I just don’t know Montoya well enough.
One more thing, since we’re talking about Stephanie Brown. The new costume is bad. She is not hiding her identity at all.
Maybe if I had been reading since issue 1 I’d have a better sense of this book’s point of view and the heart of its premise, and the tone would click better for me. Or maybe this one just isn’t for me. That’s OK.
I have no complaints about how Killer Moth is used here, though.
Godzilla vs Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers 5
Cullen Bunn: Writer. Freddie E. Williams III: Artist. Andrew Dalhouse: Colors. Johanna Nattalie: Letters & Design. Tom Waltz, Charles Beacham, Nicolas Niño: Editors
I expect only one thing from a book called Godzilla vs. Power Rangers, and it’s not high art. I expect Godzilla to fight the Power Rangers.
Well, we certainly get that. So in that sense, this issue delivered.
Williams does some impressive layouts to fit the giant monsters and giant robots in a page. Every page is visually compelling and it’s quite an accomplishment. He leans into the vertical axis, emphasizing the length of the figures. The judicious use of double-page spreads makes the most vicious moments of the battle have real visceral weight given how most of the pages emphasize the up-and-down. The addition of the left-to-right gives those two-pagers a real sense of the weight of these powers crashing into one another.
Unfortunately, the entire fight seems to take place in a desolate void. Without any objects to provide a sense of scale, you can’t appreciate the size of the Megazords or the monsters, which is half the fun. I wanted to see Dragonzord smash some buildings. It’s a bit disappointing though I am sure just drawing these pages full of monsters and robots was already a tough job. There’s already so much packed into these pages that adding much more may have also made the pages too crowded. But a few establishing shots would have helped—you can cheat background details in a comic in a way you can’t in other mediums. Just having them at least in rubble or even seeing Godzilla towering over the Green Ranger before he gets back in the Dragonzord.
Even though you don’t expect much in the way of a story in a book like this there doesn’t seem to be much here at all. Since this is the last issue I’d expect some kind of story resolution but instead, the fight just stops and the Rangers go home. What did they learn? What did Godzilla’s presence teach them?
This series is probably a fun diversion but seems to lack the spark that made Williams’ Batman/TMNT or the JLA/Power Rangers crossovers work so well.
DO A POWERBOMB #4
Danniel Warren Johnson: Writer, Artist. Mike Spacier: Colors. Rus Wooton: Letters.
I’m a big fan of Daniel Warren Johnson despite not having read his first major debut, Murder Falcon. He first caught my eye on Twitter when he began sharing his screen-tone-heavy, messy-inked con commissions of Star Wars fighters and dope action scenes. Few in the game are as capable of drawing dynamic action and filling a static page with a sense of motion as DWJ.
Despite my love for his artwork I was not super into the idea of this book. I read his Beta Ray Bill over at Marvel and while the fights and artwork were, predictably, incredible, I found the story not entirely compelling. And I have no interest in Professional Wrestling whatsoever. My understanding of this book was that it was about pro-wrestling so I passed on it completely. Opening this book and seeing that first page with a fantasy knight preparing for a universal cross-time wrestling match? Now THAT I can get into.
Do A Powerbomb is like Ultimate MUSCLE meets Rocky with a splash of Dragonforce. You can all but hear the killer guitar riffs and melodramatic fantasy lyrics. There is an earnestness to the story–an old man finding his fighting spirit again in the daughter of his deceased former partner–that gives the over the top action and intergalactic fantasy-sci-fi a human groundedness. Even the enemies, the medieval knight wrestlers, are given human motivation. It’s all wrapped up in a delightful sense of humor and Johnson’s incredible choreography and mastery of motion.
What I admire about Johnson’s work is his complete lack of fear in getting messy with his layouts and lines. Heavy blacks fade out into jagged brush strokes, sound effects spill over the panels, stray brush strokes break fall off the figures, and insert panels bust in with electric borders. His motion blurs are not just clean, fluid lines but weighted, idiosyncratic waves of black. Black splatters pepper the backgrounds. It feels handmade and adds to the underdog charm of (who I presume to be) the protagonists. There’s a clear manga influence in how he approaches his fights.
Rus Wooton’s letters are a great complement to Johnson’s inky art. The word balloons are imperfect and the actual words look hand scrawled. Once in a while you’ll get a book by a distinctive artist with letters that look obviously made in a vector art program and the dissonance pulls you out of the book completely. Here the whole package works together. The same goes for Mike Spicer’s colors. He doesn’t over render the colors with flashy effects or over-the-top shading.
We get enough here through dialogue, action, and body language to understand our characters, their background, and the stakes of winning–or losing– the tournament. And it’s done without laborious exposition or mystery box teasing which is an worn out storytelling trick particularly among creator owned books.
I’m looking forward to diving into the first 3 issues.
Welcome to what I hope is a new regular feature at Urbane Turtle! In this column, I’ll be diving into 3 books already in progress. There are very few rules here—they just have to be a comic I am not currently reading, not a number one, and if I can help it, not an anthology series.
There’s an old saying “every issue is somebody’s first” but that rarely applies in today’s insular comics market. Comics are for an existing audience of comics readers. Most coverage for comic series is around premiere issues without much discussion beyond that. I want to keep talking about books beyond their first issue. So that’s what I’m doing here.
I am curious how my impression of a work can change without the full runup of first-issue exposition, and what makes a good single-issue of an ongoing serialized narrative work. What does it need to be a successful chapter on its own?
I have no idea what to expect here. Will I discover something strange and unexpected about comics storytelling in the contemporary market? Or will I just be confused? Does it matter if I’m confused jumping into the third issue of a series? Will I go mad??
I don’t know! That’s part of the fun. Or I hope it will be.
Anyway, today we’re talking about 3 new books. Black Adam #3 from DC, Fire Power from Skybound, and Where Starships Go To Die from Aftershock.
Black Adam #3
Christopher Priest, Rafa Sandoval, Matt Herms, Troy Peteri
Is it fair to call an issue disjointed if you’re coming in with no pre-existing knowledge? This book does not hold together narratively—the jumping back and forth between Black Adam’s inner turmoil and the hospital scene is jarring. Black Adam himself jumps between illusions and worlds without clear differentiation between shifts. Characters speak in constantly interrupted or incomplete dialogue. It is fragmented and confounding. We have no context for where these characters physically are in either the story or the art. Is it a hospital? A jail? Kahndaq? Egypt? The US? No clue.
I imagine Priest chose this structure to capture Adam’s own disorientation with his deadly predicament. But instead, it makes the thing difficult to get pulled into. I am all for nonlinear storytelling but this doesn’t make me want to read and find out what is going on, it just annoyed me.
The story is titled “Theogony” which is a reference to the Greek epic that traces the origin of the Greek gods starting from before the birth of the universe. It translates literally to “generation of the gods” or history of the gods. But if there’s any thematic relevance to the title it is absent from vthese pages and seems more like an attempt to add a fancy-sounding word to elevate the middling story. An old superhero comics trick.
The story gives us no information on Black Adam’s history or what his internal struggle is. There is a flood of words on every page but none of them are particularly engaging. Characters speechify to one another without saying anything that moves either the story or the characters forward. What is Black Adam fighting for? There’s a passing reference to a quest for absolution and a debate over whether someone with such a villainous past is worth saving but both of these things feel more like set dressing than the core of the story and come quite near the end of the issue.
I can’t say I feel compelled to go back and find out what befell Black Adam. Something to do with a tea cup.
There is merit to experimenting with fragmented narrative but it requires a clear perspective and purpose. That perspective or purpose is absent.
Then there are just simple storytelling failures. At one point Malik (and it took me multiple rereads to catch his name) used Black Adam’s magic to call down some thunder to act as a defibrillator, but then is shocked later to find he is flying and says in amazement “the magic is real.” You didn’t figure that out when you called down lightning??
The art is fine but unremarkable. Sandoval shines during the action scenes which are quite visceral but his dialogue scenes (and there is soooooo much dialogue) are stagnant. Characters lack emotion or any sense of characterization. The shift between illusions (at least I think that’s what is going on with Adam) are unclear and muddied.
I don’t mind being confused and not knowing what is going on in a story. Often it inspires me to go back and find out how things got to the way they are. Here I get the distinct sense that the previous two issues offer very little to make Priest’s Black Adam compelling.
FIRE POWER #23
Robert Kirkman, Chris Samnee, Matt Wilson, Russ Wooton
I am not the biggest Robert Kirkman fan. I find Walking Dead dreadfully boring and after 3 volumes of Invincible did not quite understand what everyone was so worked up about with this series.
I am, however, an enormous fan of Chris Samnee. And perhaps that’s why I enjoyed this issue so much.
Opening with an epic battle between an ancient dragon and a clan of bat-winged ninja certainly doesn’t hurt, either.
Like the best of his collaboration with Mark Waid on their excellent Black Widow series, Kirkman sits back and lets Samnee do the heavy lifting. There is no dialogue for first 8 pages, just some killer mid-air kung-fu action. It’s thrillingly put together with dynamic layouts and dramatic scale. Samnee effectively emphasizes the dragon’s scale with careful staging. The first image is wide, the dragon taking up half of the panel, while dozens of ninja, tiny black specs, rain down from a blimp. The enxt image is another angle with the ninja in heavy perspective as they fall toward the dragon’s open maw. Even the largest and closest ninja to the viewer is smaller than the dragon.
The hopelessness of their fight is emphasized on the page turn, where the dragon snaps its jaw shut, no doubt eating a host of the bat-ninjas, as it barrels through the rest, knocking them out of the sky.
Later in the issue, there is a grounded fight between shadowy figures. I do not know what was going on here, and I found it hard to follow who was the good guy or bad guy, but it cleared itself up by the end when the villain stood victorious. I am not sure of the thematic or storytelling purpose of the shadows–are these the ancient unknown masters whose identity are shrouded in generations of secrecy?
Matt Wilson’s colors give the villainous Master Shaw (I think that’s his name, given the summary at the front–so helpful!) a bright green visual motif to make the villain stand out. His eyes glow in the silhouette battle, and his actions are punctuated with green impact lines that help make the shadowy combat more legible.
Rus Wooton’s letters have a handmade, imperfect feel. It gives it a sense of retro shonen manga styling or the feel of a classic underground comic. It really works well with Samnee’s cartooning to feel of a piece.
This issue of Firepower crackles with a kinetic life. I’m not sure it has convinced me to go back and read from the beginning just because of my past experience with Kirkman’s stuff but if he lets Samnee drive the storytelling like he does here, I might just need to dive in and see what other fun is in store.
WHERE STARSHIPS GO TO DIE #3
Mark Sable, Alberto Locatelli, Juancho!, Rob Steen
The place starships go to die must be the bottom of the ocean, but when I see a title with the word “starship” in it, I kind of expect to see ships in the stars. This is, uh, not that. It feels like a Hardy Boys mystery or Scooby-Doo. That’s not, exactly, a bad thing. There is a ghostly apparition haunting an abandoned boat who is picking off crew.
What I was able to pick up of the plot here is that this is a crew trying to reignite a dying Earth’s space race long after the world governments have abandoned the stars or the idea of doing anything to heal the Earth. A reluctant ragtag crew is plumbing the depths of the sea for a ship that works that can get them back into the air.
That is actually pretty intriguing once I got over the initial shock of not getting to see spaceships go zoom.
I don’t know how effective this issue is as a whole. It jumps across scenes without clear transition, at one point the characters are in different parts of the ship, lightning strikes, and the they are in the water on the next page. Why or how they got there is not clear. It’s especially surprising because earlier, write Mark Sable and artist Alberto Locatelli do some clever flipping back and forth between scenes, with visuals and dialogue offering both natural and funny transitions.
The mystery that is unfolding here is fairly by the numbers and, frankly, I think I watched this basic outline in an episode of Doctor Who. There’s an alien robot ghost and it sank the Russian spaceship. Now it’s going to kill the people trying to get it working again. There’s even a convenient recording where the crew discovers a secret nuclear warhead the Russian government tried to smuggle to Mars.
This one isn’t a terrible issue but I don’t know that it is particularly good, either. I feel like what has been attempted here has been done often and many times better. The art is not bad, but the colors are muddy and a mostly monochrome blue that makes sense given it takes place mostly underwater, but is not visually exciting.
With Black Adam, which I read first, I thought maybe I was being unfair calling it disorienting. But this book tries to do some similar storytelling tricks and I could get a clear sense of what was going on and what the conflict was. But after reading Firepower which managed to be immediately engaging and had some impressive set pieces with a joyful kinetic artstyle, this feels particularly lackluster in comparison. That might be an unfair comparison given how good Chris Samnee is and that issue was an action-heavy climax where this is more act 2 set-up, there is just something missing in the visuals to give this story the oomph it needs to be more than a Doctor Who or X-Files homage.
I think that’s 4 other properties I’ve used as a reference point for this book…Well, I think that emphasizes how derivative it feels.
– – – – –
What did we learn this week?
- You can throw people into a story and make them want to read it if you trust your artist to set the stage clearly.
- You need to set your scene in any given issue. Even if it’s an initial establishing shot or a caption box. Either of those would have helped with Black Adam. Both Where Starships Go to Die and Firepower give us a clear sense of where this is taking place, in different ways, and what the main conflict is.
I think point 2 is what I wasn’t sure of coming into this project. What does a comic book writer owe a reader in every issue? If I’m reading month-to-month or in a trade I don’t need a full recap at the start of every issue. But there needs to be a grounding. And that is true for any change in scene within an issue. Where Black Adam and Starship fail is in that lack of staging. And if I’m reading month-to-month, chances are I need a little bit of a reminder.
Got a book coming out in the next couple weeks you want me to dive into? Happy to hear your suggestions. If I’m not reading it, you might find it featured here!