comics, comics criticism, no context comics, writing

No Context Comics: A Look at 3 Books I Don’t Read for the Week of 9/21

The Flash #786

Writer: Jeremy Adams Artist: Amancay Nahuelpen Colors: Pete Pantazis & Jeromy Cox. Letters: Justin Birch. Editors: Chris Rosa, Paul Kaminski

By and large, I am enjoying DC’s event series of 2022, Dark Crisis, barring the latest issue which was an exhausting exposition-laden lecture on the fake science of the multiverse. Many of the most exhausting elements of DC crossovers reared their ugly heads. I’ve felt that the series has otherwise been focused on the characters and how they deal with a threat in the absence of the Justice League. It’s a dark but hopeful story. I wrote about it here.

Part of what can be exhausting with these big event stories is the tie-in issues that try to justify their connection to an ongoing event without adding anything to the main story and taking away from the ongoing series. A few event books have managed to  make it work. Infinite Crisis was largely successful, Final Night, back in the 90’s. Civil War’s tie-ins were better than the main book and the currently ongoing A.X.E. Judgment Day is exceptional. 

Unfortunately, this issue of Flash is not particularly successful. It’s a disjointed and relentless tie-in that sprints from moment to moment in an attempt to fill in gaps in story that don’t particularly need telling to make Dark Crisis any better. There’s barely a thread of story on its own here.  In one way it is friendly to new readers who might be following the events of Dark Crisis but on the other hand; what do Flash fans who want to follow Wally West really get out of this? I found this easy to follow because it is only dealing with things we see in that main series. But it doesn’t add anything. Even the cool ideas that could have been the focus of a better issue don’t get any time to have an impact. 

There is some fun stuff throughout this issue with Jai and Irey, particularly Jai learning how to do a Thunderclap from Power Girl. They are very likable. Adams has an excellent and clear voice for the West family and the script shines when it focuses on their family dynamics.

Unfortunately even those brief moments suffer from the shoddy and unappealing art.  It leans heavily on digital effects that clash with the characters and the layouts are flat and lifeless. Flash is a hard character to do well, a character defined by motion in a static medium. There needs to be more exaggerated movements and dynamism within the makeup of the page. This fails to give the character much life at all.

Ultimately this book flops because it tries to serve two masters and delivers nothing of substance for either one.

Rogues Gallery #3

Story: Declan Shalvey & Hannah Rose May. Script: Hannah Rose May. Artist: Justin Mason. Colors: Triona Farrell. Letters: Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou. Editor: Heather Antos

I like being confused but wanting to learn more. I have no idea what’s going on in this book, who the costumed characters are, or even what the general conceit of this book is. By the time the issue ends I have a pretty good sense of what this is about which is a testament to Hannah Rose May and Declan Shalvey’s storytelling talents. 

Through every action and line of dialogue we learn something about the characters, their background, and motivations. Nothing feels wasted or thrown in just to have people talking, and there is no drawn out monologue or explanation of the rogues’ plot. The cool looking crow bad guy is constantly questioned about what he is doing but never gives an answer but becomes increasingly violent and panicked, making his true intentions clear and threatening. 

There’s a confidence here in the story that is being told; it doesn’t feel the need to backtrack and reexplain things but keeps all the events grounded in a central and focused story. It’s a great example of how you can make a middle chapter of a serialized story focused and engaging without cramming it full of needless dialogue.

Justin Mason’s lineart is great. The heavy, splotchy blacks give the book a moody sense of dread and unpredictability that amps up the tension and uncertainty between the crosscutting scenes of the break-in and romantic evening. Triona Farrell’s colors smartly pepper the issue with red amidst an otherwise cool mix of nighttime blues. It makes the red pop ad subtly hints at the gruesome shock at the issue’s climax, where the red tint then overtakes the entire palette.

BRZRKR #10

Story: Keanu Reeves & Matt Kindt. Script: Matt Kindt. Artist: Ron Garnet. Colors: Bill Crabtree. Letters: Clem Robins. Editors: Ramiro Portnoy, Eric Harburn

I don’t know what to say about this book. Keanu Reeves has created a comic book where he is a Wolverine with lightning powers. And good for him.

Like Rogues Gallery, there’s no recap or catching us up with what has happened leading into this issue, no Claremontian announcing of what the Brsrkr’s powers are, and only a vague hint about why our hero is a charred mess. But so little happens in this issue none of that information even matters.

This is one of those superhero comic issues where people stand around and talk about fake science and mysteries they are trying to cover up without saying what the mystery is. It feels very by the numbers. It’s not a mess or even completely uninteresting but it offers little. Even if you’re following this book and enjoying it I would imagine you’re probably putting this one down and hoping the next one has more to it. There are a lot of words and people have plenty of conversations where they don’t say anything of substance. Unlike Rogues Gallery, there is a lot of excess that tells us nothing about the characters or the plot. The amount of dialogue here comes across as padding for an eventual collected edition. What little is actually discussed could have been covered in half the amount of pages.

There is a cool bit in the middle of the book where we draw closer and closer to the Keanu Reeves character as his skin grows back and he lies in repose, staring blankly out at the middle distance. It A: gives a sense of the time passing and B: helps to build up some tension for the Brskr getting back into the field.

Unfortunately, its purpose is lost on me–He doesn’t really do anything when he is back in the field. For all of the words in this issue, I did not have a clear grasp of what these scientists were trying to accomplish or why this man is zapping things or if it is good or bad that these things are happening. It seems like it is probably bad but the lead character appears to be willingly taking part in it s who knows.

The art is fine; a bit messy but fitting for the rough and tumble tone it is trying to evoke. There’s only so much you can do with a dialogue heavy issue like this and Garney does a serviceable job

comics, comics criticism, no context comics, writing

No Context Comics: A Look at 3 New Books I Don’t Read from the Week of September 7th

What do Flashpoint Beyond, Starhenge, and the Dead Lucky have in common? 

Nothing, really. And that’s the beauty of this series for me. The breadth of what I can read and get out of it changes week-to-week.  This week’s books cover quite a wide swath of what comics are in today’s market which makes for a fun feature even if I can’t say I enjoyed them all. Well there’s really just one I didn’t enjoy.

Continue reading “No Context Comics: A Look at 3 New Books I Don’t Read from the Week of September 7th”
comics, comics criticism, no context comics, writing

No Context Comics – A Look at 3 New Comics I Don’t Read – 8/31/22 NCBD

A nice mix of characters and ideas I am familiar with but not following and things completely new to me in this week’s picks. Any week where I get to read a book with Phil Noto art is a good week.

I am enjoying the big events at Marvel and DC right now, but it is nice to jump into these one-off issues and free myself from the compulsion to read every chapter to enjoy a comic book.

The Variants #3

Gail Simone, Phil Noto, Cory Petit

I appreciate that Marvel provides the summary pages for their comics. Even when I am reading a book month-to-month I often refer to the summary page as a quick refresher. I think it is a great practice that doesn’t really steal away anything from the issue in total. That said, the intro here doesn’t provide a full picture of just what is going on.

And I think that’s a good thing! Jessica Jones has just encountered alternate universe versions of herself and has reason to believe her mind control by the Purple Man is going to come back to haunt her and hurt her family. She is disoriented and confused. 

I think Jessica Jones is a great character that hasn’t had a lot of chances to shine within the Marvel Universe proper. Bendis had her as a pretty big supporting player in his Avengers run but after he left she didn’t get as much play as she deserved, despite a Netflix show whose first season was a critical darling. Gail Simone (who we really don’t see enough of anymore) channels what made the character special under Bendis’s pen, making Jess feel both gruff and compassionate. Her reaction to seeing a younger version of herself untouched by the Purple Man’s evil was a particularly powerful moment. 

I know we are going all-in on multiverse stuff in pop culture right now for some reason (existential dread of planetary collapse and a desire to imagine a different world maybe?) and it is occasionally groan-worthy when we get, particularly at Marvel, so many “What if this character had another character’s powers?” This book manages to make it work, however, because there is a real desire to explore how different choices color Jessica’s already complicated opinion of herself. How does seeing herself as the hopeful, optimistic hero she envisioned herself to be when she was younger impact her in the present? How does seeing herself as the leader of the Avengers make her feel about her choices to step away from superheroics? All of that is compelling, even if it is not fully dug into in this issue. The threads are there, though, and they work as a character study.

One thing that is often missing in modern superhero stories, particularly with the glut of them in various media, is how they can be used to powerfully grapple with real, personal issues on an exaggerated scale. Creators who do not really get superheroes often reduce them to action smashemups without much under the surface. Really, it’s the source of the “Superman isn’t an interesting character” argument. If you only view superhero stories in terms of power level and who is stronger, then you miss a key element of what made them so enduring and culturally powerful. 

Continue reading “No Context Comics – A Look at 3 New Comics I Don’t Read – 8/31/22 NCBD”
comics, comics criticism, no context comics, Uncategorized, writing

No Context Comics – A Look at 3 New Comics I Don’t Read

Welcome back to another edition of No Context Comics. A look at three new issues of comics this week that I do not read.

What will we learn this week? Anything? Is there a reason for doing this? Is there a reason for doing anything? I don’t know but I just had $10,000 of student loan debt forgiven which shaves about a week of payments off my very worthwhile loans that requires me to scramble for a way to make money with my writing to offset my low nonprofit salary (Which this website does not do. It’s a loss leader, baby. You can send me money here though if you like what I’m doing.) So I’m feeling pretty much the same as I did yesterday.


Let’s get to some COMICS.

GUNSLINGER SPAWN #11

By Todd McFarlane, Brett Booth, Adelso Corona, Ivan Nunes, Tom Orzechowski

Would you believe I’ve never read a Spawn before? Not any form of Spawn. I don’t know anyone who has ever read an issue of Spawn. And yet Spawn remains a comic book industry powerhouse. Jamie Foxx is going to make a new Spawn movie. I have only the vaguest understanding of the general conceit behind Spawn–He was a guy who died and is now possessed by a demon and maybe punishes evildoers? Am I close?

Continue reading “No Context Comics – A Look at 3 New Comics I Don’t Read”
comics, comics criticism, writing

You Are The Wall – Character Outshines Spectacle in Vault Comics’ We Ride Titans

“The first thing you need to understand is that it’s going to come at you fast, and you’re gonna freeze. You’re gonna feel fear–real fear, the kind that rattles your bones. Because there will be nothing else standing between it and all that you know. When that happens, I want you to remember this: You are the wall.”

This monologue opens Vault Comics’ We Ride Titans. With a disorienting cacophony of monster and mech, we are introduced to Dej Hobbs–the single protector of New Hyperion city against mindless kaiju monsters.

He is the wall.

He is also drunk. 

– – – – – – – – – – – – –

I love my family but I have to confess I am a terrible sibling and child. I rarely check in on my loved ones or express that love. I don’t even do a good job having casual conversations. I never figured out how to tear down the walls I put up as a kid when the world was tough on me. 

Family is at the heart of We Ride Titans. Somehow, writer Tres Dean manages something nearly impossible, making a story about giant robots fighting giant monsters where the main draw is its characters and their relationships, with the spectacle in service of their personal story.

Continue reading “You Are The Wall – Character Outshines Spectacle in Vault Comics’ We Ride Titans”
comics, comics criticism, dc comics, writing

Dark Crisis and the Looming Death of Everything


In the beginning, there was darkness. 

And then there was light. 

And everything came from the light.

So began Crisis on Infinite Earths. A single speck in the dark became many worlds expanding forever into infinity.

So begins Dark Crisis. A single tongue of flame flickers. Dick Grayson swore an oath to carry on in his parents’ memory and the legacy Batman created. From that single flickering candle came everything.

Robin was not the beginning. But he was a beginning. The beginning of the ever-expanding legacy of those original founding heroes. Robin was the spark. And the legacy grew and continues to grow into, perhaps, infinity.

Continue reading “Dark Crisis and the Looming Death of Everything”
comics, comics criticism, marvel, writing

Hank Pym, What is Your Legacy? Marvel’s ANT-MAN #1 Comic Review

I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that Al Ewing is one of the best writers active in comics today, and one of Marvel’s most gifted storytellers of all time. His work on Immortal Hulk alone, a deeply personal look at trauma, faith, and identity, through the elevated lens of the superheroic, cements his legacy at Marvel. His creator-owned series, We Only Find Them When They’re Dead tackles similar lofty themes in the search for the ineffable sublime.

Ant-Man #1 is neither of those books…And that’s good.

Because Ewing has also proven he can take all of these grand ideas, the many folds and hiccups of continuity, the nuanced understanding of what makes a superhero tick, and serve up books that are funny and character-driven, delivering set pieces and moments that celebrate the wonder and potential of superhero comics as a storytelling medium. Ant-Man is more in the school of Ewing’s work on Defenders, a rolicking adventure through the cosmic eons, with a tinge of his time on Mighty Avengers, which explored heroism through the lens of primarily street-level heroes while delivering depth of emotion and character.

Celebrating the character’s 60th anniversary, Ant-Man’s pitch is to explore the legacy of this founding member of the Avenger through the lens of the 3 men who have held the name and how that legacy inspires a fourth, new future version of the size-shifting superhero. Joining Ewing is artist Tom Reilly (most recently of the stupendously fun THE THING miniseries with novelist Walter Mosley), colorist extraordinaire Jordie Bellaire (who also colors the sensational THE NICE HOUSE ON THE LAKE), and letterer Cory Petit.

It seems strange to attach the word “legacy” to this character in particular, despite the fact that numerous people have taken the mantle, including thief-turned-hero Scott Lang and the amoral mercenary Eric O’Grady, now a super-villain-for hire named The Black Ant. Ant-Man’s profile has never been large (Giant though he may sometimes be), though it has grown recently thanks to Paul Rudd’s effortless charm in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But those movies primarily concern Scott Lang, the every-man and underdog out for redemption. For much of the culture at large, this is Ant-Man’s legacy: a tale of redemption and the potential for selflessness.

Paul Rudd as Scott Lang (Ant-Man #2)

But it is not Scott Lang’s legacy explored in this issue, or, really, the series at all. It is about Ant-Man’s legacy.

We are greeted in the first few pages by a robotic narrator welcoming us into a new Marvel Narrative Experience. The disembodied voice immediately invites us to ask a few choice questions:

“Who is the Ant-Man? What is the Ant-Man? Why is the Ant-Man?”

Hank Pym, the original Ant-Man, has a complicated legacy. He never recovered from the events of 1981’s Avengers #213, where he slapped his wife Janet Van Dyne, the superhero known as The Wasp, across the face. It was an unforgivable sin, one that came to define the character, rightly, for such violence need be reconciled with.

Avengers #213. Words: Jim Shooter. Pencils: Bob Hall. Inks: Dan Green. Colors: Don Warfield. Letters: Janice Chiangmai

The issue’s writer, Jim Shooter, has long held that this act of violence was never his intention but a construction by the artist, Bob Hall, who misunderstood Shooter’s direction to have Pym accidentally push Janet. Bob Hall has even expressed regret for how he portrayed the moment. Intentional or not, the damage to Hank Pym’s legacy was cemented.  

Pym became synonymous with hubris and violence. It was he, after all, who created the android menace Ultron, one of the Avengers’ most dangerous adversaries.

For decades, then, Hank Pym became a character desperate for the approval of his more successful peers. Tony Stark and Reed Richards outclassed him as scientists. Scott Lang became a new Ant-Man without the baggage. How could Hank Pym redeem himself in the eyes of the other superheroes, who in time passed him by? How could he make right the death and chaos brought by his creation Ultron?

No writer has ever managed to truly rehabilitate Pym, though there has been an effort in recent years to simply sweep the events of Avengers 217 under the rug, as a brief dark moment of comics that has aged poorly. But the shadow of it looms over every story, every panel Pym appears in.


Dan Slott’s brief time on the Mighty Avengers series in 2008, following the events of the alien Skrull’s Secret Invasion and the death of The Wasp, seemed like an attempt to wash Hank of any lingering guilt. Pym, having been absent from Earth and replaced by an alien Skrull imposter, returned to see his planet in shambles, his ex-wife dead, and the Green Goblin in charge of America’s security apparatus. He took on Janet’s superhero name and reconnected with the android Jocasta, who held Janet’s psychic imprint as part of her being.

By having him carry on Wasp’s name and forging a new relationship with Jocasta, Slott attempted to absolve Pym of any lasting harm. Instead it only furthered his descent into a pathetic also-ran. This brief stint as leader of a B-Team of Avengers gave us a Hank Pym preoccupied with the past and his own absolution.

Hank Pym, ultimately, is a man obsessed with his legacy and his public perception. And it has been there since even the earliest days, before all the mistakes and dramatic loss. In Tales to Astonish #44, Hank Pym wonders what would happen if he someday meets defeat and death. He wants someone to carry on his crimefighting campaign if he dies. He empowers The Wasp as an agent of his own legacy.

He is haunted by the death of his first wife. Stan Lee’s narration notes that Pym is feverishly obsessed with forgetting the past, subsuming himself in his work in his lab, forgoing sleep or food. It is vengeance for her death that spurs him to action.

Tales to Astonish #44 Words: Stan Lee & H.E. Huntley. Pencils: Jack Kirby. Inks: Don Heck. Letters: Art Simek

The obsession is baked into Pym’s very DNA from the outset.

Tales to Astonish #44 Words: Stan Lee & H.E. Huntley. Pencils: Jack Kirby. Inks: Don Heck. Letters: Art Simek

Ewing knows that. His mastery of Marvel continuity as illustrated in Immortal Hulk, Defenders, and X-Men Red all make that an unquestionable fact. As does this issue’s use of the “ANT-AGONISTS” , a collection of Ant-Man’s rogues’ gallery from those early issues of Tales to Astonish.

But Ant-Man is not about these dark corners of Pym’s history, or at least not yet. Though there are hints at his obsessive and petty nature in the way he torments a young Eric O’Grady.

Instead, the issue is on its surface a loving send-up of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s early adventures, where Pym is a mostly prototypical everyman Marvel hero and Janet is still his beloved partner in life and superheroics. It is a delightful romp through the Silver Age that simultaneously ties Pym’s early adventures to both Lang and O’Grady as if destiny itself set each of them on a shared path.

In the issue’s main plot, the Ant-Agonists gives Pym a “Sinister Six” of his own. It is simultaneously outlandishly goofy and thematically resonant. These villains are nobodies and goons. As Ewing’s opening splash-page, a perfectly rendered Tom Reilly homage to Kirby’s opening salvos, narrates for us: 

It is said that you can judge a man by the enemies he makes! How, then, to judge THE ANT-MAN, whose rogues’ gallery includes Egghead, The Scarlet Beetle and The Cyclops? And even the Miniature Marvel’s LESSER foes could pose a DEADLY THREAT—if the dark day ever came that they united as a single fiendish force!

Ant-Man (2022) #1 Words: Al Ewing. Pencils & Inks: Tom Reilly. Colors: Jordie Bellaire. Letters: Cory Petit.

If you can indeed judge a man by the enemies he makes, what better enemy for a man obsessed with how future generations will judge him than a man who controls time and aging? What better enemy for a petty man who feels that life has passed him by than a nameless thug with a paralyzing spray?  What better enemy for a man who lashes out in violence than a villainous head of a protection racket who intimidates others with brute force? What better enemy for a man who unleashed a monster upon the world than a villain who brings nightmares to life?

Not since the 60s has Ant-Man been a solo hero, his adventures subsumed by his role as a supporting character in The Avengers.

In this issue Ewing provides Pym a chance for heroism–a rogues gallery of his own that does not rely on the failures and hubris of Hank Pym, but men obsessed with him. It is a kind of superheroic glory that Ant-Man has long been robbed of. 

What good is a superhero without a nemesis, after all?

And in the backdrop of this Silver Age homage (which it must be said channels the bombastic energy of the best of a classic Lee/Kirby joint), the mysterious future Ant-Man looms. He sets Hank on his journey and plucks him out of the past, for what purpose? That’s still to be determined. But it seems unlikely that Pym will get to avoid reckoning with his own shortcomings and the darker remnants of his own legacy.

Ant-Man is a name that has only been given to men of questionable character. Scott Lang represents the best of that story, O’Grady its worst, and Pym sits alone somewhere between them, never fully forgiven nor fully giving into his worst whims.

After the future Ant-Man plucks Pym out of the past, he falls through time and sees visions of the man he will become in all of its ugliness and does not recognize them. “Who are these men?!” he asks as the timestream flashes by him.

Hank Pym, welcome to your life.

Tom Reilly’s graphic sensibility, with its economy of line and expressive characters, is perfectly suited for this issue’s celebration of Silver Age storytelling. Like Darwyn Cooke and Evan Shaner or Elsa Charretier, Reilly marries classic cartooning comics with modern sensibilities. He lovingly invokes Kirby’s tight close ups and dynamism but maintains a more contemporary approach to the characters’ interactions that relies on subtlety of movement and expression. They are not the stiff and stoic heroes of old. Reilly paints Hank Pym as a man of haggard frustration, who smiles only in the presence of Janet, alone and away from villains or movie theater hecklers.

Reilly flexes his range in the story’s framing sequence in the future, trading in the scratchy faint lines of Don Heck inks for a streamlined future of curves and minimal strokes. The empty color backgrounds of the 60s are replaced with floating cities and harsh shadows.

Reilly is an artistic dynamo, and his work crackles with life. The range he shows here, though the differences between eras and even from his work on The Thing are subtle, they make a significant difference in the tone of the story. Compare the scratchier inks of this issue to the bold lines of his work on The Thing. There is a distinctive difference in how even those seemingly minor shift give volume and weight to these characters. Ben Grimm is sturdy as a rock, a trustworthy and straightforward presence. Hank Pym is anything but.

As gifted a visual storyteller as Reilly is, it is the work of colorist Jordie Bellaire that brings the entire issue together. The subtle misaligned colors, the texture of yellowed paper, the use of benday dots and the limited silver age palette all give the issue an authentic feeling of a “lost issue” of Tales to Astonish. It is not a 1-for-1 reproduction, however, relying on a far more painterly sensibility and subtlety of shading not possible in the early years of Marvel. This is good because it keeps the issue from being a too-cute parody. But the muted and textured colors evoke a feeling of a time gone-by.

In that way, the art itself reflects Pym’s perception of his past. These were the glory days.

It is a far cry from the slick, high contrast flat colors and rimlights of the future sequences.

Ant-Man #1 does not revolutionize comics or the character of Hank Pym. It does not even directly intimate toward much of the history discussed here. But it is a superb issue of a superhero comic that plays on knowing who Hank Pym is as a man— failures and all. Because here we get to see Hank as he always wanted to be: the Main Character, the swashbuckling super science adventurer.

But that is not who Hank Pym really is, and it is that aching hunger for an idealized legacy that makes Hank Pym a fascinating character.

As the robotic narrator compels us to wait for the continuation of this Marvel Narrative Experience, we await the future of a 60 year old character, trapped in a purgatory of his own legacy, overshadowed by the better man who came after him, who successfully found the redemption Hank Pym so desperately craved. What is the legacy of the Ant-Man?

I look forward to seeing what Al Ewing and Tom Reilly have in store as an answer to that complicated question.

comics, comics criticism, dc comics, writing

The Lowest, Most Despicable, and Most Harmful Form of Trash: Batman’s Secret Identity in the Silver Age

The secret identity has been an indelible part of the superhero mythos since Superman first landed in 1938. Little more than children themselves, and writing for a primarily young audience, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster saw the inclusion of mild-mannered Clark Kent as part of the power fantasy of the Superman character. To the world at large, you might seem meek or mild, or bullied, but inside is an unlimited potential–a Superman waiting to break free. For most of the history of the superhero, the secret identity was an essential component of the concept with any masked hero having a hidden life outside of the capes and spandex. 

But as the comics have kept up with modern times and been adapted to the screen where the beautiful faces of the actors are a selling point, the masks and secret identities became less essential and creators began to see the story potential in either removing the component from their characters or putting less focus on it. Often the secret identity becomes a punch line. Indeed, many heroes have grown past the need for a secret identity and make more sense without it. Why should Steve Rogers hide he is Captain America? Or why would Tony Stark, with his massive ego, pretend not to be Iron Man? Even Superman, in the comics, recently revealed his identity to the public at large, no longer able to reconcile the truth and justice he stands for with living a lie.

Only a few superheroes still maintain a secret identity as an important element, and it is primarily because of their public perception as outsiders and vigilantes. Spider-Man went to the ends of the Earth–both on-page and on-screen–to recover his secret after it went public. Daredevil’s brand of justice puts his practice as a lawyer in jeopardy. And Batman, while no doubt a hero, works outside the law and is at odds with the police of his city. Unlike Superman, who often works alongside the authorities even as he criticizes them, Batman is fundamentally opposed to the authority of the state and his mission would be jeopardized if he could be held legally accountable for his actions.

Continue reading “The Lowest, Most Despicable, and Most Harmful Form of Trash: Batman’s Secret Identity in the Silver Age”
comics, comics criticism, Perspectives, writing

Urbane Turtle Year One: The Collected Works

Take Urbane Turtle on-the-go offline when you download the collected works of Urbane Turtle Year One.

The Collected Works includes some of my favorite pieces of comics criticism and analysis from the first year of Urbane Turtle, including the only place you can read my undergraduate thesis on Superman.

This features writing about House of X, Amazing Spider-Man, Strange Adventures, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles City at War, Nightwing, and All-Star Superman. This book seeks to be a source for scholarship and to elevate the conversation surrounding comics as a narrative art.

Available as a PDF and CBZ format. Pay what you like, as low as $0.

Lovingly designed, assembled, and laid out by yours truly.

Purchase here.

comics, comics criticism, dc comics, writing

Batman: Cold Days The God in the Cape

What must it be like to be Batman? To take on inhuman problems and battle the very idea of violence, to take on the darkness of an entire city, an entire world? A lonely thing, no doubt. Is it any wonder he has built an extended foster family for himself to share the load? But even an extended family of children and acolytes never truly fills the void. The hole at the center of Batman, the lonely boy who lost his family in a single moment of evil, is never filled. There is always another crime, another dark corner. 

In writer Tom King’s sometimes controversial run on Batman, he posited that the only thing that comes close to filling that empty, dark hole, is the kindred spirit he finds in Selina Kyle, Catwoman. The two have had nearly a century of back and forth tension, as enemies and lovers and everywhere in between. If there is a partner that can help Batman repair that hole at his center, Tom King argues, it is Catwoman. Like Batman, she lives between the shadow and the light, a stray who grew up on the streets of Gotham. Like Batman, Gotham is more than just a home, it is an extension of her identity and she will do anything to protect it and its people.

King brings Batman to the realization that the hole at the center is most filled with Catwoman at his side. Her cunning, her passion for her city, her wit and intelligence, these things make him better. Batman might study criminals, but Selina has been among them and knows what drives people to that life. Daring, for one of the first times, to embrace the happiness he feels beside her, they are engaged. But on the wedding day, coerced by the complex machinations of Bane, she leaves Batman jilted at the altar. For the first time, Batman allowed himself to dream of a full life, a real future of growing old with a loved one, of compromising on the fight and embracing the idea that more is possible for him and for Gotham. 

When Catwoman leaves him, he crashes back into the depths, hopeless and empty once again.

This is the context where Cold Days begins. Having tracked down Mr. Freeze for the death of three women, he brutally beats the villain and coerces a confession from him. The story begins with Freeze on trial and Bruce Wayne on the jury. Eleven of them believe Freeze to be guilty, cut and dry. With his history of crimes and violence, the evidence of this specific case is largely irrelevant to them. But there is a single hold out—Bruce Wayne himself. He has bribed his way onto the jury after realizing that Batman might have been wrong. Driven by fear and anger and sorrow, he let his emotions take over in a violent outburst that left Freeze traumatized and fearing for his life. When Bruce realizes it, he cannot let the doubt he feels about the case go unaddressed.

What must it be like to be Batman?

A perfect, impossibly competent, and flawless human being. Not super-powered, but a superhero still. Can you imagine what it could mean to never fail?

What is it about Batman that has made him so appealing to not just comic book fans but to mainstream movie audiences? He is a violent vigilante, a broken and lonely soul who takes justice into his own hands. 

Is it an aspiration? That with the commitment someone can become strong-willed enough, capable enough, to fight against injustice and criminality without being corrupted? Is it the escapist power fantasy of taking your fists to every injustice that has befallen you?

Perhaps it is the dream that a single person can attain the pinnacle of perfection. Batman, in the popular imagination, is not just a man, no mere mortal. He might not have super powers but he is Perfect. There is no mystery he can’t solve. No crime he can’t stop. No situation that he cannot plan or account for.

Over time Batman has become more than just a man. This idea of the perfect, unbeatable Batman has been affectionately referred to by comic fans and creators alike the Batgod. With prep time and a contingency for every possibility, Batman can solve everything. 

Tom King’s Cold Days is a counter to that limited and limiting conception of Batman as perfect and infallible. For King, Batman’s strength is not in his perfection but his flawed humanity. He fails, he loses, but he never gives up. 

Grant Morrison’s seminal run on Batman is the apotheosis of the Batgod, the purest example of Batman as myth, an archetypal good set against the archetypal evil in a metafictional conflict of living symbols. That Batman is prepared for everything, is unkillable, is incorruptible, and needs no support system, no love, nothing but the mission.

Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, arguably the defining take on Batman in pop culture for the 21st century, straddles the line between man and myth. Bruce Wayne might be human, but the symbol of Batman becomes a myth, his justice selfless and mission morally forthright. He might lose an individual battle but the war is an inevitable victory. As Bruce explains in Batman Begins, “As a man, I’m flesh and blood. I can be ignored. I can be destroyed. But as a symbol, as a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting.”

Zack Snyder’s Batman is the extreme end of the Batman as power fantasy, a one-man judge, jury, and executioner who is self-righteous enough to consider himself humanity’s protector against the incursion of alien forces. A brutal, vindictive executioner without remorse. It is a level of masculine power fantasy at a level beyond parody.

But Tom King’s Batman is painfully mortal, sunk to the depths of defeat and despair not purely physically but emotionally and mentally. Like Knightfall, it is a calculated effort by Bane to break the Bat at his very foundation. As Batman’s world gets swept out from under his feet, King deconstructs the Batgod concept reminding readers what truly makes Batman endure: his humanity.

Perhaps Batman has over time bought into his own myth—believed in his perfection. Indeed, Bruce Wayne admits as much. Toward the end of Cold Days, Bruce asks a fellow juror if she believes in God. In doing so he challenges the rest of the jury’s summary acceptance of Batman’s infallible judgment that citizens of Gotham take for granted.

It is logical the people of Gotham would accept Batman as perfect. Wouldn’t that be easier than to consider that he might just be a broken human being, like you and me,  dressed up like a bat? If Batman can be wrong, then the entire enterprise cannot be trusted. 

But Bruce is painfully aware of the truth, of the hole deep inside that keeps him moving forward. Gotham City needs Batman to be perfect and infallible because then there is no need to question his actions. In doing so, they have deified a mere mortal and placed him above themselves. Bruce Wayne needs Batman to be perfect to fill the hole inside. 

Biblically speaking, perfection is an attribute. A teleological end toward which humanity can only strive toward with God’s example. That is, perfection is the thing for which humans were created to achieve. 

It is ultimately unobtainable, however. God is the model of perfection, the completion of human potential for which we should ever strive. 

In Batman, the people of Gotham have created a perfect man.

What putting Batman on a pedestal and deifying him does is ultimately leave him burdened with expectations he cannot fulfill. As Bruce tries to express his reasonable doubt, it requires convincing the rest of the jury to put aside the question of super-competency and their assumption, taken for granted, that Batman is inherently just “better.”

It is a horrifying notion that Batman himself has had to grapple with as the heartbreak sinks him deeper into the darkness, stranded and alone again in the night. Bruce came to see Batman as the super-competent, infallible god who could save not just Gotham and the world but himself from the depths. As he saw the future he imagined crumble before him, there was nothing that the Batgod could do. 

Trying in vain to control his reality, he coerces Mr. Freeze into confessing to a crime by beating him brutally, unhinged, and without a clear case.

Bruce knows there is no perfect Batgod. No super-competence or iron-clad deduction. Just an angry man and a beating. 

He challenges the rest of the jury to try and see what placing a man in the place of God gets you, inevitably. The disappointment of being failed by the idol. 

In his heartfelt speech, Bruce speaks not only to his fellow jurors but to readers an earnest plea to see Batman not as something other, but as a human being like the rest of us. It does not take away from his accomplishments or the escapism. Rather, it is the heart of what makes him so enduring. The failures, the pain, the breakings, they don’t bounce off of him but he is able to overcome them and carry on.

 The incomparable Lee Weeks provides the art for this three issue story, and his subtle work is critical to the success of this story and the emotional punch. The way the imagery of Batman’s brutality smashes across the page in the quiet jury room scenes, the palpable rage emphasized by subtle lines of motion and spreads of blood, it is clear these are flashes of memories that haunt Bruce, that intrude on his day-to-day life. 

Weeks’ work contrasts the reserved and stoic Bruce Wayne with a Batman who screams in rage, his emotions unchecked. It’s a reversal for Batman, who is so often portrayed as unflappable and cold. 

By having Bruce admit his reliance on Batman as his higher power, King defies readers to challenge their presumptions of what they expect out of a Batman story and how they relate to the character. Bruce allowed himself to live in the fantasy that he was beyond human restraints, buying into the mythology he sold to the people of Gotham. In being willing to admit his own hubris and vulnerability, by challenging his fellow jurors to examine their assumptions of Batman’s perfection, he elevates their humanity in the process. 

Batman endures not because he is better than you or me but because he is like us. Cold Days celebrates that fundamental humanity at the heart of the character and in doing so it reminds us of what we are capable of as normal people. If Batman is not set apart from us, then he can inspire us to push our own limits and believe in what we could accomplish.

What must it be like to be Batman?

We already know. Because to be Batman is to be human, to fail and fall and break and continue on. 

Cold Days is a 3 issue story originally printed in Batman vol. 3 51-53. It is collected in a trade paperback of the same name. Written by Tom King with art by Lee Weeks, colors by Elizabeth Breitweiser, and letters by Clayton Cowles.