Batman’s animated team-ups

I wish I had something more original to say about the latest hit in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but I’m with the crowd: Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is a masterpiece. Building on utopic alternate history to respond to Afro-pessimism, the film – like the earlier comics – is as viscerally thrilling as it is provocative. It not only puts a clever spin on enduring debates about isolacionism, imperialism, and racial oppression, but it also engages with topical questions about black activism and the military’s duty to an out-of-control leader… and it does this in an entertaining, inspirational way. If the first part of the movie is a twist on James Bond, the second part feels like a twist on The Spook Who Sat by the Door (and then the mid-credits scene gives us a twist on Trump’s speech at the UN). Black Panther even dodges the recurring criticisms hurled at the MCU – the climax doesn’t involve yet another portal to another world, the drama isn’t systematically undercut by jokes, and the villain is complex and memorable.

I particularly like the fact that the tension between T’Challa and Erik Killmonger isn’t a mere retread of the old ‘pacifist reformer Professor X vs violent revolutionary Magneto’ debate. Yes, that’s in there (with a ‘nationalist vs internationalist’ variation), but the film complicates the politics of the thing by adding extra layers – Killmonger may embody the real-world Black Panther Party on one level, yet he is also explicitly linked to US black ops, so his designs sound at once emancipatory and despotic (and his tragic fate has an effect on the hero, who doesn’t just stay in the opposite side, but ends up seeking a middle ground). Another way to look at it is that Erik provides an African-American perspective in a story about imagining Africa itself, thus highlighting the connections and the differences between the two contexts.

All this got me thinking again about how lame it is that DC/Warner haven’t been able to deliver a genuinely great superhero film since 2008’s The Dark Knight, a decade ago. Even their most watchable movies since then have been little more than OK riffs on Marvel flicks, only with a darker palette – Wonder Woman was basically their feminist version of Captain America: The First Avenger (with a bit of Thor thrown in) and Justice League was an uninspired remix of the Avengers blockbusters (with a lot of Civil War). Sure, there are some nice scenes in those two pictures (on the boat, at the cemetery), but so much of it is instantly forgettable – including the climaxes! – and so few of it feels worth revisiting. Seriously, even if Warner just wants to rule the realm of grim & gritty comic book adaptations, then they still have to beat Netflix’s The Punisher, which managed to be one hell of a hardboiled, politically-charged show.

I get it that that many DC fans accepted last year’s Justice League with goodwill (hey, at least it felt less botched than Suicide Squad!), but let’s face it: if this had been a comic, we would be accusing it of poor art and lazy writing, what with the ultra-generic villain, set pieces, and quips… After all, there are actually fantastic stories about this team already out there – most notably Grant Morrison’s and Frank Quitely’s Earth 2 – and the Zack Snyder/Joss Whedon film does not do them justice at all!

It’s not about the source material. Hell, it wasn’t even always this way – in 2005, the year Christopher Nolan successfully rebooted the Batman franchise, Marvel was still putting out the reviled Elektra and the embarrassingly trashy Man-Thing… The truth is that there isn’t anything inherent to the DCU that prevents it from fueling a satisfying picture franchise. In fact, the Dark Knight himself has starred in a number of TV shows that showcased how awesome it can be to see DC superheroes flying around on the screen…

justice league

After the acclaim of the incredibly noirish Batman: The Animated Series, the wonderful Max Fleischer-inspired, Kirbyesque Superman: The Animated Series, and the cyberpunk, anime-influenced Batman Beyond, in 2001 animator (and co-producer) Bruce Timm expanded his take on the DCU with the operatic Justice League.

Revolving around the titular team, this TV series – directed by Dan Riba and Butch Lukic – told accessible, old school superhero yarns with grandiose music, epic battles, and earth-shattering cliffhangers, all filtered through Timm’s distinctively angular, stylish designs… The whole thing felt archetypical and larger-than-life, as each tale was told over two or three episodes, nailing all the beats and tropes of the genre along the way. At a time when superhero comics were at their most cynical, the Justice League cartoon evoked the widescreen aesthetics of The Authority, but it also sought to conjure up the childlike sense of excitement and joy of reading the classics.

Besides the trio of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, the roster included the Martian Manhunter, Hawkgirl, Green Lantern (John Stewart), and the Flash (Wally West). They were all given chances to shine and slick character development, even though – as is usually the case – the writers clearly had a soft spot for the Caped Crusader. Voiced by the talented Kevin Conroy, Batman often got the most badass moments in each episode. A high point in this regard was ‘Injustice for All,’ where he managed to outsmart a whole gang of weird supervillains.

injustice league

(Still, my favorite Batman moments actually take place in the nifty two-parter ‘Maid of Honor.’)

The best tales were typically written by Stan Berkowitz or Dwayne McDuffie, who knew how to ride the wave between smart and schlocky. Berkowitz did ‘The Savage Time,’ where the team – sans Batman – straight-up fought in World War II (because pop culture will never get tired of watching Nazis get punched). McDuffie was responsible for ‘Hereafter,’ a pulpy saga that somehow merged Death of Superman with Conan the Barbarian and Planet of the Apes!

I think what made the series work was that JL – unlike the Zack Snyder films – didn’t try to turn the source material into something that didn’t fit, it just let the original appeal shine through the adaptation. After all, the beauty of superhero stories doesn’t come through when they are treated like narrow metaphors as much as when they are treated like magical adventures that speak to the imagination, engaging in abstract values. Marvel Studios seem to get this – a while back, Jonathan McCalmont wrote a good essay about the first Captain America movie, arguing that, even though the film may have had little to say about WWII itself (Cap isn’t even fighting actual Nazis most of the time), its fantastical elements still lend themselves to thought-provoking interpretations. (He also wrote an interesting piece on X-Men: First Class.)

After two successful seasons, in 2004 the show was upgraded to Justice League Unlimited, further enlarging the team’s roster to encompass most DC superheroes. The result – now directed by Dan Riba and Joaquim dos Santos – was even more of a geek feast: the headquarter scenes featured fan-pleasing cameos by lesser-known characters in the background and you got to see stuff like Vigilante and Shining Knight taking the elevator while discussing the subtext of Dirty Harry.

jlu

Not only did JLU expand the cast to a wider range of heroes, it was also less afraid to go for goofier-sounding ideas, such as temporarily turning Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern (plus an adorable Etrigan, the Demon) into children. Instead of multiple-part tales, we now got mostly one-and-done gems such as ‘The Greatest Story Never Told,’ in which we follow Booster Gold on crowd control while the Justice League battles Mordru in the background, or ‘This Little Piggy,’ in which Batman joins forces with the magician Zatanna after Wonder Woman gets transformed into a pig. The latter was written by Paul Dini, who always does a swell job with the banter between Batman and Zatanna, both in comics and on TV, so of course the episode is an absolute riot. (Plus, it becomes pretty clear that there is something going on between Bruce and Diana… as if Batman’s love life wasn’t interesting enough already!)

The show worked as a lively celebration of the kind of wild imagery and concepts that have driven superhero comics for decades. For instance, the episode ‘Chaos at the Earth’s Core’ – written by Matt Wayne – kept jumping from one kickass set piece to the next, as Stargirl and Supergirl fought a kaiju turtle and a reptilian army (armed with laser weapons and dinosaurs), eventually joining Warlord on a sword & sorcery quest to overthrow a ruthless dictator/wizard. There was also ‘Dark Heart,’ which was scripted by Warren Ellis and damn it if you couldn’t tell: it burst with witty zingers, cool action, nanotech sci-fi, and an insane amount of neat Easter Eggs.

That said, Justice League Unlimited still kept the overall style of its predecessor, mostly approaching these stories with a straight face and an imposing score as it delivered slugfests galore and powerful emotional payoffs. The second season had a loose overarching subplot, gradually pitting the Justice League against Amanda Waller’s Task Force X in a saga packed with high stakes and political intrigue. The third season subtly built up to the mother of all showdowns.

If Warner would simply take a string of JL or JLU episodes and translate their spirit to the big screen, I’m sure the outcome would be much more impressive than last year’s patchy Justice League movie… My vote goes to ‘Grudge Match,’ in which the gambling entrepreneur Roulette charges people to watch the female leaguers fight each other – it’s one of those amusing premises that simultaneously condemns and exploits our basic instincts, since the villain is basically giving us exactly what we want to see! Or maybe producers could look for inspiration in ‘Far From Home,’ in which Supergirl single-handedly battles the mind-controlled Legion of Super-Heroes in the 31st century, leading up to a touching denouement.

Or they could go in another direction altogether and fully embrace the most bonkers side of their properties, turning it up to eleven. There is a precedent for this as well, namely 2008’s reboot Batman: The Brave and the Bold.

brave and the bold

Directed by Ben Jones, Brandon Vietti, Michael Chang, and Michael Goguen, The Brave and the Bold took itself much less seriously while still delivering highly satisfying superhero stories, told at breakneck pace with the help of an unbelievably catchy soundtrack and some of the best one-liners of the Dark Knight’s career (“Madmen like you come in many forms, but liquid, gas, or solid they always wind up in the same state… inert!”). With little regard for previous continuity, this series featured team-ups with third-tier heroes, each with a different kind of relationship with Batman – based, for example, on admiration (Blue Beetle), camaraderie (Aquaman), or competitiveness (Green Arrow) – thus bringing out various sides of the Caped Crusader. The episodes were self-contained, except for the superb two-parters ‘Deep Cover for Batman!/Game Over for Owlman!’ (in which the Dark Knight infiltrated the Injustice Syndicate, in a parallel Earth) and ‘The Siege of Starro!’ (in which B&B proved that even a silly, politically incorrect character like B’wana Beast could be awesome).

It’s hard to overstate how much fun the show was: for three glorious seasons, Brave and the Bold drew on Bob Haney’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink attitude to plotting, Jack Kirby’s mad energy, and Adam West’s deadpan humor. One adventure had the Atom travelling inside Batman’s body, another one was a bizarre riff on Wacky Races. There were contributions by some great DC writers, with Gail Simone doing a tongue-in-cheek script about the Birds of Prey (‘The Mask of Matches Malone!’), J.M. DeMatteis doing a couple of comedic ones about the JLI (‘Shadow of the Bat!’ and ‘Time Out for Vengeance!’), and Paul Dini doing a trio of metafictional ones about Bat-Mite (‘Legends of the Dark Mite!,’ ‘Bat-Mite Presents: Batman’s Strangest Cases!,’ and ‘Mitefall!’).

B&B often recontextualized iconic Silver Age images, yet it also oozed a modern vibe, each episode filled with ‘hell yeah’ moments and exploding bat-grenades. Seriously, there was even a mecha-Batmobile:

brave bold

Brilliant episodes are too many to list, but among the standouts I would highlight ‘The Color of Revenge!’ (a sequel of sorts to the 1966 Batman TV series), ‘Chill of the Night!’ (which reimagined the classic Joe Chill tale from Batman #47), ‘The Knights of Tomorrow!’ (a new take on the future of the Dynamic Duo), ‘Joker: The Vile and the Villainous!’ (told from the Joker’s perspective, making Batman look like a villain), ‘Battle of the Superheroes!’ (a homage to pre-Crisis Superman comics), and, of course, the musical masterpiece ‘Mayhem of the Music Meyster!’

The comic book spinoffs – Batman: The Brave and the Bold and All-New Batman: The Brave and the Bold – were just as frantic. Warner should just pick a random issue and build on it, as pretty much all of them contain enough material for a summer blockbuster. Hell, look at these two frenetic opening pages and tell me they aren’t more fun than all of the recent movies featuring the Dark Knight and the Man of Steel:

batman brave and the bold 2batman brave and the bold 2Batman: The Brave and the Bold #2
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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.

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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
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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
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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

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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…)

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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

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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
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Have a Gotham 2018

world's finestWorld’s Finest #3
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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…

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