12 non-Batman covers by Ed Hannigan

A few years ago, I spotlighted a handful of brilliant Batman covers drawn by Ed Hannigan, who is a master at crafting memorable images that both pull you in and encapsulate the spirit of the story inside. As I pointed out at the time, Hannigan’s best covers – usually inked by Dick Giordano – often play with the series’ title, integrating it in quirky ways. They also tend to have skewed perspectives that create a stunning or amusing effect.

Fortunately, Ed Hannigan didn’t just do Batman comics – his pencils graced several other series, designing numerous iconic covers. Here are a dozen gems that definitely deserve to be remembered:

superman 406Just check out the incredible sense of depth.

 

tomb of dracula 34Ah, good old overconfidence…

 

flash 19So much joy!

supergirl 10Sure, the content is freaky by itself, but the eerie angle and the facial expressions make it even more so.

 

Team America 8It’s like it’s your own hand holding the stick, right?

 

what if 35This one could’ve used more breathing room, but the central image still works. (Also, I’m sure Hannigan realized that it would look like the tiny Daredevil in the logo was falling from the sky…)

 

atari force 17The trademark tilted title!

 

jonah hex 83Another great close-up and another cover that subtly messes with the series’ title… (Plus, I love that cheeky tagline.)

 

amazing spider-man 237The Stilt Man doesn’t just destroy the title and the company banner, he also blows away that annoying corner logo!

avengers 221

So conceptual…

spectacular spider-man 69It’s like Spider-Man, Cloak, and Dagger have jumped outside the comic.

 

jonah hex 91

Hell yeah.

Posted in BEYOND BATMAN COMICS | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Another busy week in the life of Batman

MONDAY

Legends #2
Legends #2

TUESDAY

BaneBane

WEDNESDAY

Detective Comics #687Detective Comics #687

THURSDAY

Batman #535Batman #535

FRIDAY

batman - black & white #4Batman: Black and White #4

SATURDAY

Shadow of the Bat #9Shadow of the Bat #9

SUNDAY

DC Challenge #8DC Challenge #8
Posted in GOTHAM CITIZENS | Leave a comment

COMICS CAN BE AWESOME (February)

Your monthly reminder that comics can be awesome…

2000AD #15772000 AD #1577
Black Science #19Black Science #19
Glory #28Glory #28
Posted in BEYOND BATMAN COMICS | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Great ‘No Man’s Land’ stories – part 2

If you read the last post, you know what’s going on. Here are some other great stories to come out of the 1999 crossover No Man’s Land:

 

‘Dead Man’s Land’

(Hitman #37-38)

Hitman #38

Besides the captivating character work, much of the appeal of Garth Ennis’ and John McCrea’s Hitman was the way that series took the piss out of the DC Universe – especially its most straight-faced side – so it’s no wonder they got a lot of mileage out of No Man’s Land. They first dived in with a two-parter where the titular contract-killer-with-a-heart-of-gold dealt with a vampire invasion in the Cauldron (one of Gotham City’s working class neighborhoods). It’s a neat little tale, full of jabs at the mechanics and loopholes of the succession of crossover events up to NML, imagining how puzzling all this would look to most people living in the DCU.

The main villain is a guy named Darius, who wants to be the new King of Vampires (the previous king was killed in Hellblazer #69). This being an Ennis comic, you know Darius has to go down, not so much because he’s a vampire, but because he’s a pompous poseur who thinks he’s above the crowd. Cue gallons of blood-soaked violence!

 

‘Way Dark/War Beneath the Streets!’

(Robin #67-70)

robin 69robin 69

Another comic that often went for chuckles – albeit of a much less caustic kind – was the teen hero series Robin, about Tim Drake’s attempts to conciliate violent crimefighting with the usual dramas of adolescence, written by Chuck Dixon (and, during NML, illustrated by Staz Johnson and Gordon Purcell). The three-part arc ‘War Beneath the Streets!’ (set up by the previous issue, ‘Way Dark,’ which showed how Robin and Nightwing managed to get back to Gotham) has Tim investigate the food black market in order to cut out the profiteering middle men. This leads the Boy Wonder underground, where he has to face a bunch of B-list villains hiding in the sewers and abandoned subway lines.

These issues really go for the Mad Max beyond Thunderdome vibe, giving us scavengers dressed in sports gear, a criminal team-up between the genius Gearhead and the brutish Tommy Mangles (obviously reminiscent of Master Blaster), and a gang of feral-looking kids hiding underneath the city while waiting to one day restore civilization. The joke is that the kids haven’t really turned into savages – they’re just into role-playing games, so they’ve decided to treat the present situation as an entertaining adventure. The comic thus becomes wonderfully ambiguous: on the one hand, it pokes gentle fun at the escapist fantasies of young nerds (presumably Robin’s main target audience) and creates a sense of danger by pitting the deluded kids against homicidal maniacs like the creepy Ratcatcher; on the other hand, the story itself is a stellar example of a wish-fulfillment romp, since the villains do end up being defeated by a couple of teenagers. (In other words, don’t expect a cruel punchline like in the first Crossed mini-series unlike Ennis, Dixon clearly has some fondness for the geekiest part of his audience.)

 

‘Face to Face/By Force of Arms’

(Nightwing #38-39)

nightwing 38

Besides penning Robin, at the time Chuck Dixon provided a monthly adrenaline shot in the form of Nightwing. This was one of the coolest action series of the late ‘90s comics scene – not least because of Scott McDaniel’s wild pencils – so it’s no surprise that it contributed two exhilarating tie-ins to No Man’s Land. The first was a three-issue arc (#35-37) in which Nightwing single-handedly struggled to take control of Blackgate prison. The second one was this two-parter set immediately afterwards, with Dick Grayson still recuperating at Oracle’s headquarters, which are attacked by a splinter group from the police force (with help from the Huntress).

Apart from the breathtaking kickass action, these comics are totally worth it because of the delightful chemistry between the former lovers Dick and Barbara.

 

‘Captain of Industry’

(Legends of the Dark Knight #124)

legends of the dark knight 124

Just one more Chuck Dixon gem – now with slick art by Rafael Kayanan, inked by Mark McKenna. This stand-alone issue tells the story of a dodgy entrepreneur who takes people’s money and other (now useless) valuables in exchange for a promise to get his clients out of Gotham City. We thus gain yet another look at the evolution of capitalism under No Man’s Land, beautifully highlighting the relative and contextual value of money and material goods.

 

‘Jurisprudence’

(Batman #572/Detective Comics #739)

Detective Comics #739

‘Jurisprudence’ is the tale where writer Greg Rucka found his bat-voice. It’s also a chance to see another supposedly civilized institution get the NML treatment, as Two-Face sets up a mock trial for Jim Gordon, charging the police commissioner with negligent homicide and dereliction of duty for his actions during No Man’s Land… including the fact that Jim struck (and then breached) an immoral deal with Two-Face himself. As if that wasn’t baffling enough, Two-Face acts as judge, jury, prosecutor, witness, and defense attorney, which means that at one point he cross-examines himself!

The whole thing is creepy and weird (Two-Face forces officer Renée Montoya to act as bailiff by kidnapping her family; also, he uses a handgun instead of a hammer to keep order in the court), successfully pulling off a goofy premise with a straight face. There have been some damn odd courtroom drama riffs in Batman comics over the years, but this is one of the best, even though Damion Scott’s exaggerated, energetic pencils are not ideally suited to Rucka’s subdued style.

 

‘Falling Back’

(Legends of the Dark Knight #125)

Legends of the Dark Knight #125

Following ‘Jurispridence,’ Rucka did an even more amazing job with ‘Falling Back,’ firmly establishing himself as one of the greatest Batman writers of this era (even if he did go on to co-write one of the worst stories ever). The issue is entirely devoted to a difficult conversation between Batman and James Gordon – where they address all their trust issues since the start, especially over the Knightfall debacle – except for a couple of exchanges between Robin and Oracle, who are watching from a distance (“Feels like my parents are having a fight, you know? And we’re upstairs, waiting to find out if the divorce is final.”). Little happens in terms of external action, but Rucka manages to get so much out of these characters… It’s just one of those near-perfect comics, where every sentence and every panel seem designed for maximum effect. And, of course, what really seals the deal is the art by the team of Rick Burchett, James Hodgkins, and Klaus Janson, which feels like a masterclass of subtle acting.

That said, my favorite NML moment is actually from Robin #73, in which there is this brief homage to the awesome writer Alan Grant, who unfortunately was kicked out of the bat-books just before the crossover…

Robin 73

Posted in BATMAN COMICS FOR BEGINNERS | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Great ‘No Man’s Land’ stories – part 1

No Man’s Land was an ambitious crossover that ran through the various Batman-related comic series throughout 1999. It took place after an earthquake had destroyed much of Gotham City, in Cataclysm, leading up to a strand of tasteless disaster-related stories (including a bunch of cannibalism tales). By January ‘99, the US government basically gave up on the place – instead of funding Gotham’s reconstruction, the federal authorities declared the city a ‘no man’s land’ and set up a military blockade isolating it from the rest of the country.

This was a somewhat contrived premise – surely the JLA could’ve rebuilt the city in no time! – but it did serve as a springboard for fascinating comics, as the ensuing chaotic Gotham City turned into a massive anthropological experiment that allowed creators to explore their views on social order (often by combining elements from Lord of the Flies and Mad Max). There was an inescapable allegorical dimension built into NML, which is no doubt why Christopher Nolan decided to use this crossover as such a major source of inspiration for The Dark Knight Rises.

No Man’s Land also served as the culmination of the work Doug Moench, Alan Grant, Chuck Dixon, and Denny O’Neil had done throughout the nineties. For years, these writers had copiously developed Batman’s supporting cast of sidekicks, villains, and all sorts of civilians, which allowed NML to feature the whole city as protagonist, from regular police officers to previously established business owners. (Sadly, of the four writers, only Dixon and O’Neil were involved in the actual crossover.)

The result was impressive, especially from an editorial point of view. Guided by group editor Denny O’Neil, for one year (close to one hundred issues) stories flowed from one series to the next, written and drawn by multiple creators. Sure, there were some inconsistencies – particularly in the art – but it was nevertheless amazing to see so many disparate series, spin-offs, and tie-ins gradually build a large narrative that involved dozens and dozens of different recognizable characters.

It’s still a lot to read, though. So for those who don’t feel like going through the whole saga, today Gotham Calling tells you which stories are definitely worth your time:

 

‘No Law and a New Order’

(No Man’s Land #1, Shadow of the Bat #83, Batman #563, Detective Comics #730)

Batman NMLBatman NML

‘No Law and a New Order’ is the story that kicked things off. It does a superb job of establishing the new status quo: starting out with a series of brief vignettes, we learn that there is no structured law enforcement in Gotham anymore (although some cops are still around, having claimed the Tricorner area, where they try to preserve a minimum of safety and justice), that the city is divided into sectors controlled by different gangs (we even get a map!), and that the economy has evolved into a barter system in which the Penguin occupies a privileged position (because he has a pipeline to the outside). The story shows us the initial positions of familiar characters – like Oracle, Scarface, and Jim Gordon – and it introduces a mysterious new Batgirl (whose identity was only revealed months later, in Legends of the Dark Knight #120).

Alex Maleev’s photorealistic art – enhanced by Wayne Faucher’s inks as well as by the coloring of Lovern Kindzierski, Matt Hollingsworth, and David Stewart – serves as a deadpan background for the quirky details that make up this new world. Bob Gale (who had previously written the fun Back to the Future film trilogy and would go on to write a terrible Daredevil run) is in great form as well, crafting a tasty slice of speculative fiction, as we see Gotham’s citizens organizing society according to new rules and the police force partly devolving into just another criminal gang. (Also, Gale can’t resist including an obvious callback to the cult gang movie The Warriors.)

 

‘Fear of Faith’

(Legends of the Dark Knight #116, Shadow of the Bat #84, Batman #564, Detective Comics #731)

Batman NMLBatman NML

The second arc of No Man’s Land was almost as strong as the first one, uncovering new corners of this quasi-apocalyptic setting. ‘Fear of Faith’ picks up some of the loose threads of ‘No Law and a New Order’ while focusing mostly on a refugee center run by a well-meaning priest stuck between various warring factions.

That said, writer Devin K. Grayson delivers more of a psychological horror story. We see the Scarecrow manipulate the different players, taking society’s collapse as a chance to study human behavior on a large scale. There are plenty of wonderfully macabre details, like when a splinter group from the former Black Mask gang breaks into a morgue and digs through the corpses in search of bullets… In fact, Devin Grayson probably did some of her best work throughout this crossover (including the really good ‘Stormy Weather,’ which is a sequel of sorts to JLA #32).

Although the art is not as solid as in the previous arc, it’s not without some fine moments.

 

‘Bread and Circuses’

(Legends of the Dark Knight #117, Shadow of the Bat #85)

Batman NML

In ‘Bread and Circuses,’ by Ian Edginton and D’Israeli (the team behind such cool comics as Stickleback, Scarlet Traces, and Leviathan), we get a closer look at the Penguin’s Casablanca-style black market den, at Commissioner Gordon’s increasing moral compromises in the cops’ turf war against the other gangs, and at Batman’s attempts to reassert himself as a feared crimefighter in such a lawless Gotham City. And not just a closer look: D’Israeli’s rubbery art and colors further the move away from Maleev’s realism, with everyone in Gotham progressively losing their humanity and physically becoming something else (as a thin Harvey Bullock puts it after almost getting shot: “Guess I’m half the man they thought I was.”).

Like most NML story-arcs, the whole thing revolves around what makes people accept order or not… If Bob Gale claimed some people just need to have any kind of authority – no matter how exploitative – take care of them and Devin Grayson stressed the role of fear and faith, Ian Edginton now seems to be arguing that mass entertainment can be a vehicle both for alienation and for conveying to the public who is really in charge.

 

‘Home Sweet Home’

(Shadow of the Bat #86)

Batman NMLBatman NML

Like I said in the introduction, one of the neatest aspects of No Man’s Land was how Gotham City itself became a character. We actually had entire issues without the Dark Knight, set on the peripheries of the adventures of the costumed heroes and villains.  For instance, ‘Home Sweet Home’ is just a nice character study about an old man who decides to stay in his house and resist the various gangs fighting in his neighborhood.

Lisa Klink’s script strikes the right tone: her protagonist is not super-tough or anything, just a determined and resourceful old man from the Greatest Generation. But it’s Guy Davis who ultimately sells the story, as he is the perfect artist for when you want a melancholic, nostalgia-tinged tale like this.

 

‘Shades of Grey’

(Detective Comics #733)

Batman NMLBatman NML

Bob Gale returned for this one issue about Gotham as an upside-down city in which the criminals want to go to prison and the police no longer welcomes Batman’s help. The issue is not just about Gotham, though – as the title suggests, ‘Shades of Grey’ is a comic about moral ambiguity in general, with each scene showing people engaging with dilemmas and paradoxes that fall within the grey area between black and white morals. Once again, NML tackles the kind of large questions – such as the nature of power or the role of barter, competition, and debt in a predatory economy – that continue to fuel ongoing academic discussion.

The result is amusing, provocative, and built on top of solid characterization. The luscious art is by Phil Winslade and Sal Buscema, with colors by Pamela Rambo.

 

‘Step Into the Light/Misery Dance’

(Azrael: Agent of the Bat #54-55)

azrael 54azrael 54

It’s not often I recommend Azrael comics in this blog, but this two-parter is worth the exception. While roaming around Gotham City looking for the Joker, the cannibal Calibax, and the supernaturally charismatic Nicholas Scratch (leftovers from failed missions in the previous issues), Azrael has a couple of ‘Shades of Grey’ encounters of his own, furthering this hero’s usual state of confusion. We also get a few nifty character moments as he visits Oracle’s headquarters and Dr. Leslie Thompkins’ free clinic (including a subtle callback to Leslie’s first story, way back in Detective Comics #457, also written by Dennis O’Neil).

The high point, of course, is the fact that Azrael faces a lunatic called Death Dancer, who goes around enforcing euthanasia through tapdancing! (Just in case you thought all these comics took themselves too seriously…)

Posted in BATMAN COMICS FOR BEGINNERS | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

More chopsocky covers

Last month, I did a post about Batman covers reminiscent of chopsocky movies, which got me thinking about my relationship with this subgenre… In particular, I was reminded that my interest in kung fu action has always been mostly connected with two overlapping areas of fiction I am much more passionate about. One of them is blaxploitation:

enter the dragon     tnt jackson     cleopatra jones and the casino of gold

From Jim Kelly’s supporting role in the classic Enter the Dragon to gleefully trashy entries like TNT Jackson or Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold, many of my earlier forays into chopsocky territory had a notable African American dimension. Hell, I even have a soft spot for the campy extravaganza The Last Dragon, whose protagonist is a black martial artist known as Bruce Leroy!

The fusion of these two worlds feels like a smooth extension of their original hybridity, as both trends heavily relied on putting a spin on familiar material, whether by beautifully cannibalizing Dr. No and The Lady from Shanghai at the climax of Enter the Dragon or by provocatively reimagining Victorian vampire tropes in an African American community through the tragicomic Blacula. Since these film styles emerged more or less at the same time and did a comparable gesture of imbuing popular Hollywood genres (crime, spy, adventure, mystery, horror) with cultural traditions outside of the WASP mainstream, their crossover just seemed to make sense, even before Marvel successful mined the combo with Power Man and Iron Fist.

Comic books, needless to say, are the other area that cemented the appeal of martial arts in my imagination. This includes, among others, Batman comics, as well as a number of spin-offs that drew even more heavily on chopsocky-style action (especially when they were written by Kelley Puckett or Chuck Dixon). Today, Gotham Calling tips its hat to those series by showcasing ten cool covers featuring characters from Batman’s cast that promise hardcore martial arts inside:

nightwing 23robin 4richard dragon 3robin 21batgirl 8robin 160batgirl 61nightwing 4batgirl 56birds of prey 6

And here are a couple of covers that go even further, paying a more direct homage to the aesthetics of chopsocky movie posters:

birds of prey 62grayson 8

Posted in WEBS OF FICTION | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

COMICS CAN BE AWESOME (January)

This year, each month will begin with three splash pages to remind everyone that comics can be awesome…

Sabertooth SwordsmanSabretooth Swordsman #4
Umbrella AcademyThe Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite #1
BloodstrikeBloodstrike #26
Posted in BEYOND BATMAN COMICS | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Have a Gotham 2018

world's finestWorld’s Finest #3
Posted in THE ART OF BATMAN COMICS | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

More sci-fi war comics

Another December, another Star Wars movie, another Gotham Calling post spotlighting sci-fi war comics…

Halo Jones     East of West     ignition city

To be honest, as far as the main Star Wars series is concerned, The Last Jedi may be the one that finally lost me. I rolled with the fact that The Force Awakens was more of a remake than a sequel because a) I could see the need to safely recapture the feel of the original movie in order to seek distance from George Lucas’ maligned prequel trilogy and b) at least the result was well-paced and fun. Yet I’m not willing to take such lack of creativity from Episode VIII, which mostly reshuffles the same limited stock of situations, settings, and character types, with little interest in exploring the untapped potential of its vast galaxy far far away.

Although I won’t join the small chorus chanting for the rehabilitation of the prequels, I’ll gladly concede that the eagerness to try out new landscapes and story ideas was one of their few redeeming features. For all the lame acting and plot holes, we still got the eerie rain-drenched planet of Kamino, the eye-popping city planet of Coruscant, the showdown at the Petranaki gladiator arena, the brutal climax by the lava river, and that crazy fight among the hovering seats of the Galactic Senate (a blatant metaphor for the destruction of democracy at a time when Bush seemed like the scariest conceivable president!). If only The Last Jedi had shared this desire to wow audiences with novelty instead of settling for the introduction of a handful of cute animals and a (poorly developed) rich version of Chalmun’s Cantina…

Sure, I liked the red visual motifs and some of the military strategy stuff and I’m certainly not adverse to a derivative component in genre fiction, but I expected Rian Johnson to bring much more style and wit to the table – if nothing else, I assumed the film might be an interesting failure rather than something this tiresome and uninspired. We are left with the same basic conflict around the same generic brand of proto-Nazi villains (though sidestepping the issue of antisemitism). Even the narrative twists and thematic shifts that have upset so many fans feel like little more than superficial variations on what came before. Hell, your average episode of Rick and Morty has more memorable sci-fi/fantasy set pieces than The Last Jedi’s 152 minutes!

In 2017 alone, Disney has proven twice that it can deliver enticing space operas full of weird worlds and aliens (namely Guardians of the Galaxy vol.2 and Thor: Ragnarok). Regardless of Episode VIII‘s awkward jokes, I suppose the idea here was to ground this franchise as a dark, self-important counterpoint to the colorful Marvel Cinematic Universe yet that’s no excuse to be so bland… Or maybe the studio actually did give Johnson more creative control than usual – in that case, it’s even more of a shame that he chose to let Star Wars remain stuck in the recycle bin.

Whether or not you share my disappointment, if you’re a fan of war-related science fiction, I’m sure you’ll have a more rewarding experience reading the following comic books:

THE BALLAD OF HALO JONES

2000AD 3792000AD 379

I grew up with the resourceful female leads of eighties’ sci-fi and horror – not just Princess Leia, Ellen Ripley, and Sarah Connor, but also Nancy Thompson (from A Nightmare on Elm Street) and Sarah Bowman (from Day of the Dead), among others. In comics, to a large degree this role was filled by Halo Jones, created by Alan Moore and Ian Gibson on the pages of the anthology 2000 AD, where her adventures ran from 1984 until 1986. Moore and Gibson only did three story-arcs – as opposed to the nine they had originally planned – yet there’s still a lot to enjoy here!

One of the cool things about Halo Jones is that she didn’t start off as a kickass hero – the initial point of the series was that she was an ordinary woman in an extraordinary world (i.e. in the 50th century). To quote one of the collection’s introductions, Halo Jones wasn’t meant to be either “a pretty scatterbrain who fainted a lot and had trouble keeping her clothes on” or another “Tough Bitch With A Disintegrator And An Extra ‘Y’ Chromosome”. In fact, she was a relatively passive protagonist most of the time, which made it even more striking when she finally took action.

You can see this ‘everywoman’ angle not only in Halo’s characterization, but also in the kind of challenges she had to face. Early tales revolved around walking in the street at night or undertaking a shopping expedition to the mall during a riot, as well as – more generally – around Halo’s dreams of leaving her miserable, claustrophobic borough, the Hoop (technically a huge floating hoop tethered off the point of Manhattan where the Allied Municipalities of America dumped their unemployed population). Believe it or not, all this makes for a stimulating read… Having conceived Halo Jones’ world in great detail, Moore and Gibson drop us in the middle of it without much explanation, so it takes readers time to fully work out her society’s slang and inner workings. The result is sort of a futuristic take on indie comix such as the Hernandez brothers’ Love and Rockets.

Not that there isn’t plenty of 2000 AD’s signature over-the-top social commentary. The first book – set when Halo Jones is eighteen – takes place in the Hoop, against the crime-infested background of teen gangs like the Different Drummers (a cult whose brain implants give them a persistent hypnotic drum-beat inside their heads) and racial tension between humans and the extraterrestrial migrant community. Halo’s best friend walks around armed with ‘zenades,’ which is a type of grenade that plunges its targets into a forced state of Zen meditation. In the second book, Halo becomes a hostess at a luxury liner spaceship, where she serves the privileged elites. There is a touching subplot about a transgender stowaway who has slipped beneath the threshold of human awareness and a longer storyline about a deranged robot dog. By the third book, Halo – now twenty-nine years old – finds herself in the middle of an intergalactic war in the resource-rich Tarantulan colonies:

2000AD 454

Alan Moore has always been a master of sneaking in hidden depths and planting seeds underneath a deceptively simple surface. For example, while the square-jawed lead of Moore’s retro series Tom Strong may read like a fairly one-dimensional upbeat science hero, that comic kept hinting at the profound emotional scars from his rigid upbringing (this paid off brilliantly in the story-arc ‘How Tom Stone Got Started’). More recently, in the novel Jerusalem, a lengthy series of vignettes about working class Northampton turned out to be an intricately woven set-up for the darkly whimsical escapades of a gang of ghost kids, which in turn led to an experimental, ultra-dense exploration of large metaphysical questions.

Similarly, having established its mundane protagonist over a couple of relatively lighthearted arcs, The Ballad of Halo Jones goes on to convey the psychological damage warfare can have on a regular person. The comic uses science fiction devices to powerfully conjure up the horror and inhumanity of imperialist conflicts – most notably through the planet Moab, whose enormous gravity and time dilation effect makes it hard to distinguish between five minutes and two months. My favorite tale, though, is the one that opens with Halo stating that she just saw someone continue to age after they were dead (2000 AD #455) yet instead of providing a sci-fi explanation for this phenomenon, the story ends up delivering a devastatingly realistic payoff.

EAST OF WEST

East Of West 01East Of West 01

East of West begins in the year 2064 of a counterfactual history where Native Americans joined forces to attack the Union during the Civil War, splitting the United States into seven nations. As if this wasn’t enough of a high concept, a top-secret cabal has made a pact with three of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to manufacture the end of the world. What we end up with is a manga-style fantasy saga that doubles-down as a surreal political allegory.

This is another one of those series where part of the thrill is figuring out what the hell is going on. At first, the closest thing to a hero is none other than Death himself, a literal pale rider who has fallen in love with a descendant of Mao Zedong. Yet the main cast becomes increasingly diverse as the narrative reaches for epic proportions. Each of the seven nations extrapolates elements of US history and society, from the slave-founded Kingdom of New Orleans to the shaman-ruled machine state known as the Endless Nation. What’s more, the geopolitical balance keeps shifting, as they conspire and wage war on each other, engaging in a form of supernatural game theory. We see this mostly at the elite level – even the occasional glimpses from below, like in the breakneck heist tale ‘Watch Us As We Rob Them Blind’ (issue #31), ultimately reflect the rulers’ amoral grand design, which I assume is one of the comic’s larger points.

Jonathan Hickman tends to really cut loose in his creator-owned projects, writing stylish comic books that are choked with ambition, violence, and satire. This ongoing series is no exception, as he populates East of West with his bitter views on the machinations of power (“Justice is what the strong do to the weak.”) as well as several moments of mind-bending science fiction, usually related to the subplot about a precocious little boy who may prove to be the Beast of the Apocalypse and who is being raised by a creepy AI:

East of West 05

It’s as if Sergio Leone was directing an anime version of Game of Thrones. Indeed, the title works both as a reference to a line in the story’s prophecy (“Born of the East, child of the West, the one true son of America.”) and as an allusion to the series’ multiple genre influences. There are gunslingers riding fire-spewing horses under the sunset. There is a magical desert between the waking world and other realms. There is body horror and bloody action (including a silent tour-de-force in issue #22). There are dystopic cities, massive battles, and telepathic mutants. And even if you find yourself struggling to pierce through Hickman’s cryptic, hyperbolic, cool-as-fuck dialogue, the superb art should push you along, what with Nick Dragotta’s expressive, cartoony line work and Frank Martin’s vivid color choices, not to mention Rus Wooton’s stellar lettering.

IGNITION CITY

Ignition City

Warren Ellis can crank these babies up in his sleep. He has written plenty of smart takes on sci-fi warfare, from telling a caustic reverse-Star Trek tale of space guerrilla in Switchblade Honey to playing with manga and kaiju tropes in Tokyo Storm Warning. Hell, he even did a solid job with the Starship Troopers prequel comics! For the mini-series Ignition City, he went in a different direction, imagining a dieselpunk timeline in which pulp heroes like Flash Gordon and Dan Dare spend their lives in the titular settlement, marked by the memory of a WWII-like war in the faraway planet of Khargu.

The whole thing is a masterclass of shorthand characterization and economic storytelling. Just look at the image above and see how much information the first couple of pages convey… We immediately learn that this tale is set in an odd version of 1956 in which Berlin is not a divided city, but rather a sprawling metropolis with rusty-looking flying machines. Plus, the dialogue indicates that a number of nations have already engaged in space travel, although Europe has now mostly abandoned it, except for Britain, where it is government-controlled (suggesting that in other places it was not). Moreover, we meet the series’ protagonist, Mary Raven, an emancipated woman who sounds upset at the prospect of humanity giving up on space exploration. We are thus thrown into a world that is both recognizable and markedly different from our own, a world full of questions and possibilities.

When Mary learns of the death of her father – a former intergalactic hero – she goes looking for answers in Ignition City, Earth’s last remaining spaceport (“an artificial island on the equator, ringed by launch gantries and landing pads”). Although initially set up like a mystery, what we get is closer to a western with laser pistols, as Mary finds herself in a fucked up quasi-lawless town populated by drunken spacemen, including the Russian cosmonaut Yuri (probably a version of Yuri Gagarin) and the depressed time-traveler Bronco (a Buck Rogers stand-in). The filthy language could even be seen as a nod to Deadwood!

That said, Mary soon proves to be your typical Ellis lead, i.e. a fierce yet frustrated romantic who wants to be an explorer – not necessarily because of faith in progress per se, but because of a desire to discover new things, to see new sights, to be awed by what is out there:

Ignition CityIgnition City

To be sure, mixing westerns and space adventure is not unique. In film, the most obvious examples are the charming Battle Beyond the Stars (which reworks The Magnificent Seven in another galaxy) and the gritty Outland (whose second half features a futuristic take on High Noon). In comics, Chuck Dixon and Judith Hunt did it in Evangeline. More recently, Jay Faerber, Scott Godlewski, and Drew Moss have pulled it off beautifully in Copperhead.

What makes Ignition City so special – besides its twisted humor – is Warren Ellis’ knack for worldbuilding. Together with artist Gianluca Pagliarani, he crafted a fascinating microcosm with a lively cast, history, practical rules, architecture, and geography. Moreover, the story’s resolution compellingly resonates with real-world politics. The result may feel a bit rushed, but overall this comic is damn funny, intelligent, moving, gorgeous, and thought-provoking.

I wish I could say the same for The Last Jedi…

Posted in BEYOND BATMAN COMICS | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Anatomy of Batman #285

When it comes to twisted-yet-amusing Christmas tales, forget Gremlins and Rare Exports or even Krampus. I cannot think of many examples that are as fascinating as ‘The Mystery of Christmas Lost!’ (Batman #285, cover-dated March 1977, but, according to Mike’s Amazing World of Comics, appropriately released on December 1976).

BATMAN 285

As you can tell from the splash page above, the most disturbing thing about this issue is that it stars Dr. Tzin-Tzin, a super-villain who comes across as a horrible orientalist stereotype (down to the onomatopoeic name, which sounds like a parody of oriental music).

Introduced ten years earlier, in Detective Comics #354, Dr. Tzin-Tzin looks like an obvious take on Dr. Fu Manchu, the criminal genius created by British writer Sax Rohmer in the early part of the twentieth century. In previous appearances, we were told that Tzin-Tzin was an American raised by Chinese bandits who “adopted their ways,” “spent years in Tibet steeping himself in their mystical teachings,” and “then entered the western world to rob and pillage in a grand style!” In other words, Tzin-Tzin fit into a long tradition of depictions of Asian culture as something utterly strange, irrational, and threatening. He essentially embodied enduring fears of the penetration and assimilation of said culture in the West.

Yellow Peril tropes weren’t just rooted in a prejudiced understanding of foreign customs as scary and exotic, but also in social phenomena within the United States, such as eugenic concerns about the purity of the white race, local workers’ competition with migrant labor, and the connotation of Asian communities with opium consumption and prostitution rings. Since the late 1940s, there was also a clear link to the widespread anti-communist paranoia, which looked at places like China, North Korea, and North Vietnam through a Cold War mindset. Along this line, Tzin-Tzin’s ability to absorb energy from those around him works as a metaphor for the rise of eastern power, while his mastery of hypnosis follows the obsession with brainwashing that had been all the rage at least since the release of The Manchurian Candidate.

Needless to say, this type of racist imagery has been used to justify the discrimination and oppression of Asians – and Asian Americans – for generations, which makes it pretty hard to accept a villain like Dr. Tzin-Tzin, even when enveloped by the fanciful art of Romeo Tanghal and Frank Springer…

Batman #285

It’s a shame, because as a character Dr. Tzin-Tzin is not completely hopeless. He is ultimately an evil version of Dr. Strange, a sorcerer with mysterious and outlandish powers so far beyond the reach of the Caped Crusader that Batman has no option but to somehow try to outsmart him. Conversely, the ‘diabolical wizard’ is not interested in tearing his opponent to bits (which he could easily do), but in having a victory of the ‘mind’ – breaking Batman’s heart and humbling him until he recognizes Dr. Tzin-Tzin as his master.

Tzin-Tzin’s heightened psychic force – which enables him to control almost anything, alive or inanimate – can be used in fun ways. Batman #285 opens with the ‘master of malice and mayhem’ in prison, where he ended up in the previous issue, after he had tried to literally steal the New Gotham Stadium (he had also replaced the Sphynx with an exact replica, for reasons that were never explained). In a quasi-meta touch, we first approach Tzin-Tzin’s cell via Batman’s private archives (anticipating the black casebook of Grant Morrison’s run, three decades later), which establishes straight away that, even for the Dark Knight, this is no ordinary foe:

Batman 285

Dr. Tzin-Tzin has been locked in a special prison cell, without TV surveillance (to keep him from manipulating the guards through the camera lenses) and with a random series of flashing lights and sounds (“stimuli just sufficient to prevent the complete concentration of mind from which he gathers the Tsal or energy for his magical prowess”). Tzin-Tzin manages to escape by hypnotizing an ant (yes, a yellow-golden ant), eventually taking control of a whole horde of omnivore ants, enough to eat the mortar between the stones of the wall and to dislodge a stone block, which allows him to levitate the hell out of there.

When the guards try to stop him, the escaped prisoner shows them – and the readers – the extent of his power through this cheeky gag:

Batman 285

This is merely one of several quirky moments throughout the issue, a product of the fertile – if often intriguing – mind of David Vern (writing as David V. Reed). Vern keeps coming up with cool little scenes… The mind-controlled ants form a mocking message for Batman in the abandoned prison cell, which turns into a threat through the sudden addition of a question mark. Later, the Dark Knight fights a bear hidden in a Christmas tree, whose branches seemingly come alive and start to choke him before Tzin-Tzin speaks to him through a bauble. In a neat instance of detective work, Batman deduces the villain’s hideout based on the amount of snow on top of a steam conduit.

The art is somewhat uneven, but it too is peppered with occasional gems, like this bit from the aforementioned bear-fighting sequence:

Batman #285

Between the close-up with the circular red border that looks like a tree ornament and the swinging thrust of the larger panel – which leads our eyes down and then up again towards the bear’s moving head – the image creates a disorienting vibe, perfectly suited for a scene in which Batman himself is confused as to where reality ends and illusion begins.

It’s not just the small moments. There is actually a good story here. Because Dr. Tzin-Tzin wants his triumph to take place in what he considers to be his realm (“the world of the substantial… the intangible!”), he explains to Batman that he plans to rob Gotham City of “something infinitely precious… irreplaceable… something you can never recover – because it exists only in the mind!”

Specifically, Dr. Tzin-Tzin uses the forgetfulness elixir of Nepenthe to rob Gotham of the notion of Christmas, taking away the awareness of that holiday from everyone except the Caped Crusader, who is condemned to live with the knowledge of a joyful celebration everyone else has forgotten (i.e. how Fox News pundits imagine they live every year, around December).

Batman 285

Following Tzin-Tzin’s spell, on Christmas Eve everyone becomes borderline incoherent (Dick Grayson, for example, doesn’t realize why he’s in town and keeps losing his train of thought when talking about it). The citizens’ inability to concentrate – psychataxia – mirrors the punishment Batman and the Gotham authorities had sought to impose on Dr. Tzin-Tzin, making this an inspired revenge plot. Then again, Tzin-Tzin doesn’t seem to care about anyone other than Batman, which suggests that he messed up the minds of millions of people just to get to one guy, which is even more vicious.

Moreover, even though the comic doesn’t mention it, presumably things would remain significantly bewildering for Gotham citizens in the future, since their brain had basically become unable to process an omnipresent reference in their country’s pop culture. Plus, you know, the economy would possibly take a plunge in the absence of the season’s consumerist binge!

None of this happens, though, because Batman defeats Dr. Tzin-Tzin by taking advantage of the villain’s obsession with him. Since Tzin-Tzin can only feel victorious if his opponent is aware of what happened, Batman pretends to have forgotten about Christmas as well. When Tzin-Tzin tries to double the dose of the spell’s antidote, he lets the Caped Crusader come within striking distance and destroy Nepenthe’s elixir, thus reinstating the memory of Christmas throughout the city. Cue The Vandals’ ‘Nothing’s Going to Ruin My Holiday.’

Although Batman’s main worry seemed to be the onset of mass confusion, he is clearly happy about having saved everyone’s holiday spirit. He even suggests to Dick and Alfred that they go outside and listen to the carillon concert from the cathedral. The final pages reinforce the feeling that the most important aspect of the story’s resolution is Gotham’s continuing ability to celebrate Christmas and its rituals, including the exchange of gifts between loved ones (such as Dick’s girlfriend, Lori, the only woman mentioned in the entire issue).

BATMAN 285

Like I said, the comic can leave a sour taste in your mouth, especially if you’re uncomfortable with narratives about Christianity being under attack by offensive orientalist caricatures. Unlike John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China, ‘The Mystery of Christmas Lost!’ doesn’t even counterbalance its stereotypical villain by subverting the role of the Caucasian hero (in Carpenter’s tongue-in-cheek adventure, Jack Burton isn’t just a bumbling fool, he is effectively Wang Chi’s sidekick without realizing it – but in Batman #285 there is no question about who the main hero is).

That said, there’s a different way to read this issue. After all, Dr. Tzin-Tzin is not supposed to be a purely sinister Asian madman – he is an American emulating the trope of the sinister Asian madman. We can choose to see him less as a racist caricature than as a caricature of racism: he’s not Fu Manchu so much as a guy who wishes to be Fu Manchu and deliberately tries to look and act like him. Tzin-Tzin therefore does not represent Asian culture, but the way the West has imagined that culture (which explains his silly choice of name). In fact, he acknowledges his hybrid influences in the comic itself, telling Batman how he implemented his evil scheme by “joining ancient Tibetan lore and western technology” (i.e. a steam plant).

If we look at Tzin-Tzin as an ugly case of cultural appropriation, it makes sense that he would seek to erase Christmas, since that’s what he envisions an eastern super-villain would do, perhaps as payback for all the forced Christian conversions imposed by western colonialism. That being the case, Batman’s actions can be seen as punishing not only an attack against his own cultural background, but also the defamation of another culture.

In all probability, this is not what David Vern or editor Julius Schwartz had in mind, but I like to think that, when the Dark Knight burns the skin of Dr. Tzin-Tzin, it’s his way of fighting the very notion of such a racial travesty. It also helps justify Batman’s particularly harsh words afterwards…

Batman #285

 

Posted in THE POLITICS OF BATMAN COMICS | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment