BOOK REVIEW: Batman: Gotham by Gaslight by Brian Augustyn

Batman: Gotham by Gaslight The Deluxe EditionBatman: Gotham by Gaslight The Deluxe Edition by Brian Augustyn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This volume collects five issues that [mostly] set Batman in a Victorian Era world. The issues do not present a serialized story arc, but rather four independent stories connected through world building.

The first two stories are the heart of the book, and the other two are of varying degrees of relevance and are used to round the volume out to book length. It should be pointed out that those first two issues make up about two-thirds of the book’s page count. The first, “Batman: Gotham by Gaslight,” imagines Jack the Ripper, having retired from London, moves to Gotham City, and Batman must end the serial killer’s reign of terror. The second, “Batman: Master of the Future,” depicts Gotham as it’s about to host a World’s Fair type event and is approached by a mysterious villain who warns them to cancel the event or face dire consequences. I thought the art and world-building were done nicely to create an interesting and unique conception of Batman. That said, neither story wowed me, and I particularly found the resolution of the Ripper story to be anti-climactic. [Though it was not so much a story problem as an insufficiently villainous Ripper — i.e. one who was a little too Scooby-Doo villain-like for my taste.] Usually, I would enjoy the dark, Ripper, line more, but – in this case – I think the Master of the Future edged it out. [The problem with that story had more to do with obscure motivations.]

The third issue is set in the Gotham by Gaslight domain, but is a much broader story, featuring a big team-up and a multiverse. It’s entitled, “Countdown Presents: The Search for Ray Palmer, Gotham by Gaslight, #1,” and – as that mammoth title suggests — the ensemble team is drawn to Victorian Gotham searching out a missing Ray Palmer. I liked this story even less than either of the first two. There was just too much going on in too tiny a space.

The final two issues are “Convergence: Shazam!, #1 and, #2.” Of these, #1 has nothing to do with the Gotham by Gaslight world, but it’s necessary to grasp #2 which does include both Batman and Victorian Gotham. Batman’s role in the second part is not inconsequential and we even see a little bit of his Victorian rogue’s gallery, but still the fit of this Shazam! comic in the collection is a bit questionable.

Being a fan of the Batman comics and not so much a fan of either DC team-ups or Shazam!, I liked the idea idea of the first two issues. That said, I wish more effort had been spent to make the climax and resolution satisfying, matching the level of the intriguing worldbuilding. Had those stories gripped me more, I don’t think I would have been dismayed by the other stories, chalking them up as bonus material.

I read the Deluxe Edition. It has some sketch art ancillary material, but not much else besides a story introduction by the author.

If you like stories in the Victorian Era, and are a super hero fan, you may find this intriguing — though you might also find it a bit disappointing, depending upon your tastes.


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BOOK REVIEW: Marvel’s Black Panther: Sins of the King by Ira Madison III, et. al.

Marvel's Black Panther: Sins of the KingMarvel’s Black Panther: Sins of the King by Ira Madison III
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: January 28, 2021

The edition that I’m reviewing includes episodes one through thirteen, covering an entire story arc that revolves around a present-day conflict with its origins in the policies of Wakanda’s previous king, T’Chaka – hence, the subtitle. I mention this because the single “issue” / episode-only books seem to be what are currently posted on Amazon and GoodReads (though the blurbs they display are consistent with the story under review.) While I try to avoid being too spoiler-y, it’s hard to talk about a thirteen-issue collection without spoiling something about the first issue. [If you are only getting 15pp, that’s just Ep.1.]

The story opens in media res with a fight against Graviton that takes place in Rudyarda, one of Wakanda’s neighboring countries. This battle includes not only Black Panther and other Wakandan warriors, but also a partial Avenger’s roster including Vision, War Machine (Col. Rhodes,) Ant-man, and The Wasp. This Avenger’s team will be “re-assembled” in the climactic battle – against another foe entirely. However, the heart of the story revolves around T’Challa / Black Panther (and also Shuri and Okoye (of the Dora Milaje)) operating more or less independently. The Graviton opening is mostly about getting off to an exciting start, but the most compelling parts of the story occur later when the characters are more isolated and vulnerable.

After the Graviton battle, there’s a bit of intrigue in New York that lets the reader know there’s more going on than meets the eye. However, the big shocker of the book comes upon T’Challa’s return to Wakanda when he finds his deceased father (T’Chaka) is inexplicably back from the grave. The strength of this story comes in the middle issues (Ep. 6 – 9) when the Black Panther is isolated from his resources and must rely on his mind and his capacity to endure adversity. While the Black Panther is away from Wakanda, the nation comes under a kind of Trojan horse attack, requiring others to hold the fort while T’Challa extracts himself and brings reinforcements.

There is a false climax in Ep. 11, in which it seems that the forces of good have won – only for the battle to be taken to an unexpected domain. I would say the conclusion of the Ep. 11 battle was the least satisfying part of the story; the pacing and explanation gave it a deus ex machina feel. However, the fact that the ultimate battle was more satisfactorily concluded made the Ep. 11 victory less problematic.

I found this story to be compelling and cleverly plotted. It keeps the reader engaged and – for the most part – satisfied. If you get a chance to read it, I’d highly recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Boys, Vol. 2: Get Some by Garth Ennis

The Boys, Volume 2: Get SomeThe Boys, Volume 2: Get Some by Garth Ennis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This volume continues the Garth Ennis series that takes as its premise that the superheroes are villains and the real heroes are anti-heroes. It consists of two different four-issue stories. The first half (issues 7 – 10 [of the comic series overall]) is the subtitular story “Get Some,” and the back half (issues 11 – 14) is entitled “Glorious Five Year Plan.”

“Get Some” pits the Boys against Tek Knight and SwingWing as the anti-supe team investigates the killing of a young gay man. Tek Knight is a sex-addicted cross between Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne (i.e. wealthy, intellectually-gifted, and without superpowers.) SwingWing was originally Tek Knight’s sidekick, Laddio, but became a marquee character in his own right (á la Dick Grayson’s Robin to Nightwing transformation.) Of course, Butcher and his team, “the Boys,” aren’t social justice warriors out to solve all societal ills, but – instead — are interested in the case mostly for the leverage it will give them over a couple of key members of the superhero group called Payback.

This is a simple story, and perhaps the most thought-provoking part of it is how the characters respond to homosexual individuals. On the one hand, there is Billy Butcher who talks in such un-PC terms that he would certainly be labeled homophobic by anyone hearing him talk, but yet he is both comfortable being around gay people and shows no disrespect in his behavior toward them. On the other hand, one has Hughie, who is very uncomfortable with Butcher’s politically incorrect speech, but is also subtly uncomfortable interacting with gays. As the movie “Get Out” considered whether “soft racism” can be at least as disconcerting as hardcore bigotry, this story considers whether “soft homophobia” isn’t something that presents a more serious long-run threat to better relations.

The second half of the book presents a more intriguing story. In “Glorious Five Year Plan,” the Boys go to Russia to get to the bottom of a case involving an exploding head. [FYI – this has nothing to do with the exploding heads from the second season of the Amazon Prime tv series.] The Boys team up with an old retired superhero from the Soviet days, “Love Sausage,” whose costume is way too tight. The story revolves around a nefarious plot and international intrigue that turns out to be much bigger than was first thought. When Butcher stumbles onto warehouse where about 150 superheroes are hanging out, he knows someone has big plans. The story features an intriguing villain, Little Nina, who is physically tiny but manages to have an outsized menace.

I enjoyed both these stories. It’s nice that each is self-contained. If you like the idea of superhero team-up parodies, this series is worth looking into. If you’ve been watching the tv series, don’t worry that the books will be spoiled, they are very different in many ways.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Boys, Vol. 1: The Name of the Game by Garth Ennis

The Boys, Volume 1: The Name of the GameThe Boys, Volume 1: The Name of the Game by Garth Ennis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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If you weren’t familiar with this comic book, you’ve probably at least seen promos for the streaming series adaptation available on Amazon Prime Video. After watched season one, and as season two is currently in release, I decided to give the source material a read. As with “Preacher,” this presents its own challenges in keeping the comic book and series straight. This is because (as with “Preacher”) there is a common cast of major characters, but significant differences in the story and details. That said, the book and series both open in a similar way with Hughie being drawn into the action by a tragic event involving a superhero (A-Train, this team’s version of the DC character, Flash) and Hughie’s girlfriend.

If the description of A-Train as – essentially – the same as the Flash makes the book sound derivative, it is intentionally so. In a nutshell, “The Boys” takes the Justice League and gives the characters nasty personality traits, ranging from pettiness to madness, and then centers the story not on the superheroes but on a group that works to check those “heroes’” power from the shadows (i.e. the titular “Boys.”) So, A-Train is fast like the Flash, but he lacks Barry Allen’s intellect and soft-spoken mannerism, and so – conversely – A-Train is a high school jock dialed up to his most vain and brash form. The other members similarly have unappealing personality traits, and even full-blown dark sides. This divergence between is most intensely seen in Homelander (the Superman of this series, but without the Man of Steel’s perfect moral compass and stoic Midwestern calm,) but even Noir (the Batman of the group) is intended to make Bruce Wayne seem like a well-adapted beacon of light by comparison.

The six issues contained in volume one both tell the tale of Hughie’s reluctant entrance into “The Boys,” and follows him through his first mission as the newly reassembled Boys take on “Teenage Kix.” (A youth superhero group which is to “The Seven” as the Teen Titans are to the Justice League.) Having Hughie in the role of the group’s “everyman” would be an odd choice in real life because it puts a rank amateur on a team of professionals who are already outgunned. From a narrative point of view, however, the appeal is clear. It creates emotional stakes within a group that is otherwise stone-cold killers (if with some positive personality traits to subvert expectations.) Hughie’s naivete and raw fear is particularly necessary in the book because the stakes are somewhat lessened by the fact that the Boys are not as severely outmatched as they are in the series (in the series “The Female” is the only superpowered member of the “Boys.”) The decision to recruit Hughie is explained both by the desperation of the team’s leader, Butcher, and his desire to include someone who is personally driven. There are not a lot of people willing to sign on to take on a two-faced lunatic with the powers of Superman (i.e. Homelander,) and Hughie is uniquely motivated by the tragedy of his girlfriend’s death to go after superheroes who’ve been corporately levered above the law.

The comic is a bit more sexually graphic than the series, though in some ways the series is more viscerally horrifying. (As I mentioned, in the series the Boys – excepting one – are in no way capable of going toe-to-toe with the enemy.)

The art is well drawn and colored and I didn’t have any problems following the happenings conveyed graphically.

I enjoyed this comic as I have with other Garth Ennis works. At least this volume was a bit more lighthearted and not as visceral as the series, but I don’t count that as a good or bad thing. Just different and just appealing to different states of mind. The comic is funny in places and action-packed in others. If you are interested in the concept of neurotic to psychotic superheroes and what it would take to keep them under control, it’s worth giving this book a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Amazing Spider-Man, Vol. 1 [Marvel Masterworks] by Stan Lee (+Ditko & Kirby)

Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man, Vol. 1Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man, Vol. 1 by Stan Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This collection includes the first ever appearance of Spider-Man in Amazing Fantasy #15, as well as the first ten issues of the original Amazing Spider-Man run from 1963. The story (told by Lee in the intro) is that “Amazing Fantasy” was about to be discontinued, and this gave Lee and team the opportunity to present a character that the powers-that-be found too ridiculous to merit consideration (but no one cared because the series was going under.) Lee’s instincts were right. Marvel got tons of love letters to the character, and Lee was able to sell the idea of a stand-alone comic.

This is a hard book to critique. It’s the dawn of a much beloved character – arguably Marvel’s flagship to this day, and there are many solid reasons for that love. That said, this ground-breaking collection of comic books that would launch a vast empire [or multi-verse] around one of the most popular characters ever, is in many ways fairly amateurish (e.g. in an early episode the lead’s alter-ego is called “Peter Palmer” for a whole issue, presumably because Lee forgot that “Parker” was the correct last name and there was no editorial oversight.)

So, this collection mixes tremendous strengths with some cringeworthy elements. I’ll start with the former for two reasons. First, I think they ultimately outweigh the weaknesses, and – judging from the immense popularity — most people seem to agree. Second, and probably far more important, is the realization that criticizing Lee almost 60 years later is a little like faulting Edison for the short filament life of incandescent lightbulbs. Lee, Ditko, and Kirby were on the sparse end of the learning curve. [I also realize that the lack of objective editorial oversight that made “the Palmer debacle” possible may have also made the series much better because of a lack of second-guessing by higher-ups.]

So, what are the strengths? First, Lee builds an extremely interesting and sympathetic character in Peter Parker / Spider-Man. Parker is beleaguered with problems (e.g. bullied at school, raised by a single aunt who is elderly and [in some issues] in poor health, and he’s constantly in need of cash to keep the household afloat.) Spider-Man is made tremendously powerful, but not invulnerable. He is presented with a steady stream of moral dilemmas in which he could easily solve a problem using his power if he weren’t compelled to act morally. Second, these early episodes did a tremendous amount of foundational heavy-lifting for the enterprise. It’s not just his origin story. Many of the members of Spider-Man’s rogue’s gallery that are most well-known and which have been drawn upon for the movies (e.g. The Vulture, Doc Ock, Sandman, and Electro) feature in these early issues. The bulk of Spider-Man’s world – minus his most well-known love interests and the Osborn’s [Norman, Harry, and the Corporation] – are presented in these pages.

The bulk of the weakness is in dialogue and internal monologue. First, there is a lot of “as-you-know-Bob” exposition. [If you’re not familiar with that term, it’s explanation of things that should be clear to the relevant characters (and to the reader,) but that are said anyhow.] Part of the reason for this is the serialization issue (i.e. one doesn’t want someone to be penalized for joining in the middle of the series, so one is constantly rehashing backstory – but there are more and less skillful ways to do this.) Beyond the serialization conundrum, there seemed to be a lack of faith that readers would understand the action from the drawings. [However, while the art might seem crude by today’s standards, I think it did a very clear job of conveying the dynamism of action.]

Second, there is sometimes flimsy psychology behind character motives. This is best exemplified by a soliloquy by J. Jonah Jameson at the end of the collection. He explains, to himself, why he hates Spider-Man, and it presents a man who is a villain in his own mind, as if he realizes his own faults but insists on moving forward with them. (As opposed to thinking that he is the hero of his own story and acting from that deluded belief.) I don’t know the backstory, but it reads as if someone said, “Why does Jameson continue to hate Spider-Man?” and the staff had no idea besides that it increased plot tension nicely. So, they wrote the kind of weak explanation that a person tends to engage in when one attributes nefarious motives to one’s employer or anyone else one doesn’t get along with. That is, they suggested that Jameson is just a jerk because he feels like being a jerk (not because he is operating from his own motives and worldview, which don’t necessarily align with Parker’s.) [Actually, a brief mention early in the collection hints that Jameson doesn’t like Spider-Man one-upping Jameson’s son, which is a much more interesting motivation than the others presented.] A possible third weakness is an excess of cornball. I suspect this tendency results from Lee trying to appeal to what he thought kids would find hip. (Which may or may not be the same as what they actually did find hip.) I’m not so sure about this one, as I think it’s something that people love about Lee’s work –e.g. alliterative naming schemes, strained metaphors, and narcissistic internal monologuing.

If you are a fan of comic books, you must read this as a piece of history and for some very entertaining superhero stories.

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BOOK REVIEW: Hellboy, Vol. 1: Seed of Destruction by Mike Mignola

Hellboy, Vol. 1: Seed of DestructionHellboy, Vol. 1: Seed of Destruction by Mike Mignola
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This four-part story presents Hellboy’s origin and then transitions to an account of how Rasputin attempts to co-opt an adult Hellboy in service to the Russian mystic’s demonic master. That sounds disjointed, but it’s not because Rasputin is integrally involved in Hellboy’s origin. Movie fans may notice that that description mirrors the plot of the first Ron Perlman “Hellboy” movie (2004.) It does, and this volume serves as an influence on that movie (also, the bound collection of the component issues was issued in conjunction with the movie debut.) That said, one shouldn’t be concerned that one will get a repeat of the same — the connection is largely limited to the broad-brush strokes of the story. The opening (Hellboy’s origin story) shares common visual and narrative elements with the movie, but beyond the origin story the two stories diverge. The middle act shares little in common other than a few Easter eggs. The conclusion has some visual and narrative similarity, but not nearly so much as the opening.

For those who have no idea what the blazes I’ve been going on about, Hellboy is a comic book superhero in the form of a demon-child who was summoned to Earth during World War II through the activities of Rasputin in conjunction with a Nazi agency dealing in the occult. [The Nazis hope it will allow them to turn the tides of the war, but Rasputin has his own plans.] The British-American scientist (Professor Bruttenholm) who finds Hellboy raises him. As a grown man, Hellboy becomes a “paranormal researcher” – i.e. he fights supernatural threats. He works as a team with Liz Sherman (a pyrokinetic woman) and Abe Sapien (a fish-man,) under the direction of Professor Bruttenholm. [Though, while Hellboy ages slowly – or stopped aging as an adult, the Professor is quite elderly by the time this story begins.

The central question of this series is nature versus nurture amped to eleven – i.e. whether someone born to such a bleak fate as demonhood can be redeemed by a good upbringing and positive role models. What is created is a character who is rough around the edges but abundantly aware that he has more to worry about than most with respect to tilting toward the dark-side [and that the fate of all who he loves does as well.]

If you’re interested in the character of Hellboy and his “band of misfits,” this volume is the perfect place to start. I think there is a reason the movie drew particularly heavily on the origin story panels – Mignola does a fantastic job of creating a unique and engaging character. If you’re a reader of comic books, I’d highly recommend this one.

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BOOK REVIEW: Doom Patrol, Vol. 1: Crawling from the Wreckage by Grant Morrison

Doom Patrol, Vol. 1: Crawling from the Wreckage (Doom Patrol, #1)Doom Patrol, Vol. 1: Crawling from the Wreckage by Grant Morrison
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I’d never heard of Doom Patrol until I recently saw a teaser for the television show (which have not seen.) That lack of familiarity made for a nice surprise. I was aware from said trailer that the team consisted of “broken” individuals, and that mental illness featured prominently in these characters’ makeup. What I didn’t know is the degree to which the Doom Patrol dealt in the strange and weird – and I do love tales of the weird. So, it’s a bizarre / dysfunctional team mashup (like “Guardians of the Galaxy” but less heroic and more mentally ill) that takes on the kind of psychedelic villains one might find in “Doctor Strange.” [I realize I’m crossing the DC – Marvel divide with my comparisons, but – owing to the movies – Marvel is much more broadly known at this point.]

I was familiar with Grant Morrison from one of my favorite Batman stories, “Batman: Arkham Asylum – Serious House on Serious Earth.” And this collection of seven “Doom Patrol” comics – while a little more brightly drawn and lighthearted – share the mind-bending surreality of that book. Though in this book the trippiness is supernatural.

The seven comics included in this volume include the four parts of the “Crawling from the Wreckage” story, plus: “The Butterfly Collector,” “The House Jack Built,” and “Imaginary Friends.” Robotman (Cliff,) Crazy Jane, and Rebis (an amalgam of Larry Trainor / Negative Man and Dr. Eleanor Poole) are the principal heroes of the “Crawling from the Wreckage story, though Joshua Clay (Tempest) and Dr. Niles Caulder play supporting roles. (Caulder is this team’s wheelchair-bound, genius leader. Yes, like in the X-men. While this team is less well known, it does go back to the early 60’s so I don’t know who copied who, but I know both sides seem to have snatched ideas on occasion – or maybe great minds do think alike.) The “…Wreckage” story involves the threat of an imaginary universe (Orqwith) spilling into the world as we know it. The team is established in the first two books, and we are introduced to the opposition in the form of “The Scissormen” (faceless villains that – literally – cut people out of this reality.) Then in the third and fourth installments Orqwith is introduced, and the heroes much go there to bring an end to the threat.

“The Butterfly Collector” and “The House that Jack Built” together present a story of Rhea Jone’s disappearance from the hospital. (Jone’s character is at times a member of the Doom Patrol known as Lodestone, but in this comic book she is mostly unconscious.) One of Crazy Janes’ personalities figures out how to open the portal that the kidnapper must have used. Crazy Jane and Robotman cross over to confront the villain, Red Jack. (Yes, sort of an “Alice in Wonderland” thing going on.)

In “The Butterfly Collector” we are also introduced to Dorothy, a hideous-looking little girl whose imaginings can come to life in the real world with disturbing consequences. The last book in the collection, “Imaginary Friends” imagines Joshua Clay watching Dorothy while everyone else is out. Joshua is a minor character in the other books in this collection, but in this one he is the hero of the hour. The story involves Dorothy’s imaginary friends who’ve come to exact vengeance. We learn that Dorothy developed these friends because she couldn’t make real friends owning to her appearance, but then she had to get rid of them when they got out of hand. Incidentally, tales of woe are a repeated refrain with this team. That’s what creates the team’s uniqueness. There’s an intriguing contradiction. Normally, a reader might envy a superhero, but with the Doom Patrol envy is not where the mind goes.

As I said, I love a good tale of the weird, and this was one strange tale after another. The book is both entertaining and also thought-provoking. If you enjoy comic books and graphic novels, this one is worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Incredible Hulk: Planet Hulk by Greg Pak

The Incredible Hulk: Planet HulkThe Incredible Hulk: Planet Hulk by Greg Pak
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I was pleasantly surprised by the story arc and character development in this volume – which is to say it had both and they were well crafted. I often have a problem with comic books — in particular (and on-going series of any kind, in general,) and that’s that they often fail to be satisfying as self-contained stories. So much effort is put into keeping one reading that the climax and resolution – such as they are – feel like minor speed-bumps on the way to somewhere else. That wasn’t the case here. While the ending leaves open a route of continued story (as one would expect,) one sees the Hulk undergo a transformation across the events of this story. He’s shot away from the Earth, lands on the wrong planet, is forced to fight as a gladiator, escapes, fights his way across a world teeming with harsh adversaries, all the while building the respect of those around him until he is elevated to kingship.

Tough guy characters are notorious for remaining unchanged across a story arc. Hulk, being the ultimate tough guy, seems particularly unlikely to grow or develop. However, the Hulk who begins this story jettisoned into deep space by his superhero colleagues to avoid him causing chaos on Earth, feels different from the Hulk who assumes leadership of the planet Saakar at the volume’s end. Amid monsters, the Hulk is in his element and can be a better version of himself. On Earth he is a bull in a china shop, on Sakaar not everyone he meets is so delicate. Overpowered heroes are often hard to make interesting. However, a couple countervailing features make it easier to make Hulk more interesting than say, Superman. First of all, Hulk is overpowered in one dimension, i.e. power, and might be considered underpowered in other dimensions (i.e. intellect, pettiness, control, etc.) Second, there is an interesting game theoretic condition in which the Hulk just gets stronger the angrier he gets, and so he always presents an object lesson — that is, one can’t just fight fire with fire and get the better of him. Thirdly, and most importantly, no matter who the Hulk is fighting, his story is essentially man versus self. The outward opposition is secondary. Because of his past mindless destructiveness, he is uniquely able to understand the need to let bygones be bygones. This is nicely shown, and eventually challenged.

Movie buffs may wonder what this book has in common with the “Thor: Ragnarok” movie that features common elements. The answer is: not a lot. The Sakaar of the movie seems to be just a huge trash heap and a gladiatorial arena. The Sakaar of the comics is more fleshed out with agrarian areas and various indigenous peoples / species. There are a couple of common characters, including Korg and Miek, but they are only superficially the same character. (Korg is much more serious and Miek is a much more substantially developed character in the comic book.) Also, there is no Thor. The only other familiar hero from other comics that we see on Sakaar is the Silver Surfer – and only early in the story.

Besides the main story, provided by “The Incredible Hulk, #92 – 105” there is a “Planet Hulk Gladiator Guide” for the hardcore nerds the provides all sorts of detail regarding the geography planet Sakaar, biographical sketches of key characters, and the culture of various species on the planet. There is also another issue “Amazing Fantasy #15” that shows Amadeus Cho (on Earth) investigating what happened with his friend, Bruce Banner.

I enjoyed “Planet Hulk” considerably, and I look forward to reading the “World War Hulk” collection that was also written by Pak. The art was generally clear and conveyed action effectively, and I found the story quite intriguing.

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BOOK REVIEW: Batman: A Death in the Family by Jim Starlin, et. al.

Batman: A Death in the FamilyBatman: A Death in the Family by Jim Starlin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This collection gathers comic books first published in the late 80’s, telling the story of the demise of Jason Todd (the second Robin) and the rise of the third Robin, Tim Drake. There is an intriguing interactive element to the story of Todd’s death as readers were allowed to vote on whether the character would be killed off or not by way of a phone hotline. The challenge for DC was that when readers did decide to ax Todd the publisher couldn’t tell whether the decision reflected a preference for a lone-wolf Batman, or whether they just didn’t like Todd.

The reason it might have been the latter is that Jason Todd was written as a much more sassy, impudent, and disobedient Robin than his predecessor, Dick Grayson (i.e. who’d shed sidekick status to become Nightwing.) Todd’s teenage insolence can be seen in this story when Batman puts him on probation after some rash action while crime-fighting. Having found a clue that puts him on the trail of his birth mother, Todd goes on a global walkabout searching for her. With comic book convenience, Todd’s pursuit of meeting his mother brings him back across the path of a Batman who is out to stop the Joker. When Robin is asked to maintain surveillance on the Joker while Batman sets off to interrupt a convoy of poisonous gas, the seeds of self-destruction are sown.

This isn’t a Gotham-centric Batman story, but reflects the geopolitics of the 1980’s. Batman and Robin reunite in the Middle East, and the story proceeds to the United Nations as the Dark Knight attempts to end the Joker’s reign of madness. When the Iranians make the Joker their Ambassador to the United Nations, Superman is brought in to make sure an enraged Batman doesn’t do something that will cause an international incident. Superman’s role is neither extensive nor, given his vast powers, particularly interesting.

When DC was putting together this collection, they apparently thought that leaving the story with a bitter, despondent, and angry Batman wasn’t the way forward, and so they include the story of how Tim Drake becomes the third Robin. (Even though it makes for an odd narrative kink and tone shift.) Drake is a boy Sherlock Holmes. Having deduced that Batman is Bruce Wayne and noticing that Batman has become more reckless in the wake of Todd’s / Robin’s death, Drake stalks Dick Grayson in an attempt to get him to return to being Batman’s sidekick. Grayson isn’t interested in the demotion, and the guilt-ridden Batman has no desire to partner up again, feeling that he got the last one killed.

I enjoyed this collection. The fact that it includes powerful consequences gives it some emotional resonance and narrative tension. (Of course, in comic book fashion, Todd doesn’t stay dead, but that doesn’t happen until long after this run.) I found the shift to the “Teen Titans” books (i.e. the part involving Drake and Dick Grayson) makes for an odd turn-about in the story. But it’s understandable as it’s a dark story line otherwise. (I would have preferred more on the front end to show why I should care that a rash and disrespectful twit got killed doing what he was told not to. Long time readers will have some sympathies for Todd [his execution by readers was of a narrow margin, after all], but just based on this book one may feel Todd got what was coming.)

This book presents a crucial moment in the Batman canon, and should be read by any one interested in the Dark Knight’s story.

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BOOK REVIEW: Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War Prelude by Will Corona Pilgrim

Marvel's Avengers: Infinity War PreludeMarvel’s Avengers: Infinity War Prelude by Will Corona Pilgrim
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This two issue comic book was released in advance of “Avengers: Infinity War.” It revisits the events of previous movies adding a few snippets of new material here and there. Of the new material, much of it elaborates upon events that are known to have happened behind the scenes of earlier movies. Not surprisingly, given Marvel’s penchant for secrecy, there are only a few frames that offer insight into activities that a fan who’d seen all the preceding films would be in the dark about.

I’m assuming that anyone considering reading a prelude to “Infinity War,” by this point, has already seen that movie and relevant preceding films such as “Captain America: Civil War,” the first two “Avengers” movies, “Guardians of the Galaxy 1,” and “Doctor Strange.” If that’s not the case, and you want to avoid potential spoilers, stop now.

The first issue recaps “Captain America: Civil War” while providing insight into what happens with Captain America’s team in the wake of that film, at the end of which they find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Much of the issue is verbatim repetition of the events of that movie. There’s also elaboration about the Black Panther’s assistance to Winter Soldier (Sgt. Barnes) via his genius sister Shuri, as well as a scene showing what Captain America, Black Widow, and other team members are up to in the aftermath of the breakup of the Avengers.

The second issue consists largely of Wong schooling Doctor Strange on the powers of the infinity stones and their current whereabouts. Those who’ve seen all the films know that five of the six stones were accounted for before the third Avengers movie. Only the whereabouts of the soul stone remains in doubt. This book doesn’t solve that mystery and merely offers a cryptic comment about the soul stone’s power. As Wong is describing events, the reader is shown flashback scenes from the movies and post-credit scenes that explain where each stone is and how they were used in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1,” “Thor: The Dark World,” “Avengers 1 & 2,” “Doctor Strange,” etc.

If you are an intense fan who craves every new bit of information, you may enjoy combing through this comic book. Otherwise, it’s mostly of use for those who are planning on seeing “Infinity War” but who haven’t seen “Captain America: Civil War,” “Guardians of the Galaxy 1” (which contains a brief piece of exposition that clarifies the nature of the stones), or the previous “Avengers” films. I don’t know how big that demographic is, but I suppose new fans are coming along all the time. I wouldn’t recommend you purchase the prelude expecting anything new and earth-shattering. The art and dialogue are all well done and inline with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films.

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