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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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

 

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A year of sci-fi movies and shows

The Last Jedi hits the screens this week and we’ll see what comes out of it. So far, Rian Johnson is OK in my book. He did Brick, so I know he’s into film noir. He did The Brothers Bloom, so he’s into zany comedy. And he did Looper, so he’s into schlocky sci-fi action. When you bring all these together, what do you get? Well, technically, you get Trancersbut hopefully you can also get a kick-ass Star Wars movie!

I am cautious, though. In 2017, most major sci-fi adventure franchises got new installments and, while all of them were visually stunning, story-wise we got some very mixed results.

ghost in the shell          blade runner 2049

Carrying on a tradition that stretches at least as far back as Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot collection, androids continued to be efficient metaphors for class, race, slavery, the automation of labor, and the free will vs predetermination debate. Case in point: Michael Fassbender’s characterization was pretty much the only engaging thing about the otherwise forgettable Alien: Covenant, a picture that mostly – and clumsily – rehashed old tricks, crushed by the law of diminishing returns…

In turn, Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 surprisingly proved to be quite a worthy sequel to Ridley Scott’s heady, beautifully noirish original, despite a few plot contrivances and a glacial pace (if anything, that only helps bring the two films closer together!). Sure, Blade Runner seemed like a self-contained work with little to gain from a follow-up. Then again, fans have always had a blast comparing various versions of the story – from Philip K. Dick’s mind-bending novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to the uneven comic book adaptation by Archie Goodwin, Al Williamson, and Carlos Garzon, not to mention the multiple cuts of the movie – so now we have one more toy to play with! Between a programmer literally designing recollections, a post-apocalyptic Vegas with fuzzy hologram projections of old stars, and the film’s own echoes of its predecessor, 2049 expanded questions surrounding memory and identity: Can fake memories produce a real identity? Can real memories produce a fake identity? What is memory? What is identity? What is real? And do our memories of the first picture provide or deprive the sequel of its own identity?

Covering much of the same ground, Rupert Sander’s live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell dumbed down the plot of Mamoru Oshii’s cyberpunk anime classic, disregarding that film’s most intriguing ideas (can an artificial intelligence request political asylum?) while making its themes of technology redefining the concept of ‘human’ even more explicit. The casting of Scarlett Johansson was charged with whitewashing, although the choice does work in terms of futuristic extrapolation: if manga characters are often designed with a ‘western’ physiognomy, is it too much of a stretch to assume the same could apply to Japanese cyborgs? (In fact, the suggestion of highly globalized, post-national cities that blend cultural, linguistic, and ethnic divides is just one more concept the movie borrows from Blade Runner.)

There were less techno-centric visions of the future as well. In particular, I had high hopes for the final chapter of the new Planet of the Apes trilogy. Instead of further developing Dawn’s thoughtful take on security dilemmas and power politics, though, Matt Reeves’ War for the Planet of the Apes gave us a clichéd, contrived collage of scenes from westerns and war movies, only with apes in them. This future doesn’t appear to have grown from our present era (no women in the military?) – it grew directly from classic cinema about WWI, WWII, and Vietnam. The result feels like a waste of technical wizardry and eerie potential: even with armed chimps and gorillas, the battle scenes never manage to be as creative or impressive as the ones in Game of Thrones

guardians of the galaxy v2          valerian and the city of a thousand planets

By contrast, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 kept up the first volume’s weird mix of exhilarating space opera and Futurama-like humor. Building up on the earlier character work, the film used the various members of the ensemble cast to drive home the point that family doesn’t have to be something you inherit, but rather the people you choose to be with. This amped up sequel even gets away with all kinds of stuff that shouldn’t work but somehow does – like Rocket Racoon consciously setting up a killer soundtrack (Baby Driver style), the countless pop culture references and cameos riding the ‘80s nostalgia wave, or the alien riff on North by Northwest that I hadn’t realized I needed until I saw it.

And speaking of intergalactic sagas: regardless of some mean reviews, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets compellingly reworked Pierre Christin’s and Jean-Claude Mézières’ psychedelic comics (especially Ambassador of the Shadows), downplaying the source material’s Cold War anxieties and pushing to the forefront more topical concerns about historical memory and reparations. Say what you will about the lackluster leads, but each minute of Luc Besson’s dazzling 3D extravaganza contained more inventive concepts and visuals than all of the recent Star Wars movies combined!

stranger things 2          handmaid's tale

Still, if you want insightful, politically charged sci-fi, I suppose you’ll be happier with less spectacle-driven productions. Michael Almereyda‘s adaptation of the play Marjorie Prime is probably 2017’s most touching slice of low-key speculative fiction about the evolution of everyday technology, at least until the release of the next batch of Black Mirror episodes (in two weeks!). While Jordan Peele’s Get Out may verge closer to horror, its loose use of weird science as an allegorical/satirical device feels reminiscent of old EC comics, albeit with a focus on contemporary race relations (especially the question of cultural appropriation). And if Get Out served as a perfect bookend to the Obama presidency, The Handmaid’s Tale recontextualized Margaret Atwood’s awesome novel from three decades ago as an intense series about some of the grimmest tendencies of the Trump era (and it felt even more relevant in light of the post-Weinstein wave of revelations).

On the more escapist end of audiovisual serialized fiction, the second season of Stranger Things once again delivered a thrilling adventure – with a heart – in the form of a pastiche of eighties’ sci-fi/horror. That said, I still wish the show would try harder to be as wild and imaginative as its sources of inspiration (you’ll have more fun watching the original A Nightmare on Elm Street or Prince of Darkness). The same thing cannot be said for the brilliant cartoon series Rick and Morty. This absurdist sitcom about the frantic interdimensional exploits of an alcoholic mad scientist and his impressionable grandson remains packed to the max with geeky riffs and off-color gags. If anything, this year’s season was even more hilariously anarchic!

the bad batch          okja

Longtime readers know I have a soft spot for tasteless, trashy entertainment of the bonkers variety. Set in a dystopic wasteland where the US dumps its undesirables – themselves divided between cannibal families and a hippie gated community – Ana Lily Amirpour’s The Bad Batch is a trippy black comedy with a slow-burn spaghetti western vibe that keeps zigging when you expect it to zag. (It’s basically everything that Escape from L.A. should have been.) In Tommy Wirkola’s twisted thriller What Happened to Monday, Noomi Rapace plays seven different sisters fighting for their lives in an overpopulated Europe with a strict one-child policy. As for the oddball eco-parable Okja (about giant transgenic animals), its satire is pretty on-the-nose and the tonal shifts can be jarring – but hey, when it comes to director Bong Joon-Ho, that’s not a bug, it’s a feature!

(I didn’t delve into literature on this post, as my genre readings aren’t as up-to-date… Nevertheless, I am aware that in recent years sci-fi novels have continued to push the boundaries on issues such as our relationship with gender and climate change, including plenty of promising works for my bottomless to-read pile.)

Overall, apart from the noticeable trend of drawing on the past to imagine the future, most of these films and shows used science fiction as a vehicle to explore notions of social control, political resistance, and armed conflict. Those are all topics we can find in comic books, old and new. In a couple of weeks, I’ll zoom in on a few comic series that addressed the same themes in particularly cool ways!

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12 chopsocky Batman covers

The chopsocky boom of the 1970s gave us lots of memorable action movies and TV shows bursting with thrillingly choreographed martial arts, over-the-top sound effects, outrageous villains, and plenty of terrible dubbing. Cult classics like Fist of Fury and Drunken Master may feel patchy and cheesy in places, but at their best they can still be genuinely exciting and fun, which I guess made this subgenre a perfect fit for the world of comic books…

richard dragon 1    master of kung fu 39    deadly hands of kung fu 4

Needless to say, the genre left its mark on Batman stories, always eager to pillage the zeitgeist and, later, to indulge in shameless nostalgia. Throughout the years, karate kicks, kung fu fighters, and other chopsocky-influenced tropes (including some troubling orientalist stereotypes) continued to occasionally pop up in the Dark Knight’s adventures, often through recurring characters such as Sensei, Lady Shiva, Lynx, King Snake, Bronze Tiger, and Silver Monkey.

Following a reader’s request, today Gotham Calling presents a dozen covers that bring to mind those old films produced by the Shaw Brothers studios and their many copycats:

brave and the bold 132batman 243batman 274detective comics 485detective comics 490batman 671legends of the dark knight 123shadow of the bat 90batman annual 21detective comics 686batman 509detective comics 685

NEXT: I have a bad feeling about this.

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Batman and Commissioner Gordon’s morbid bromance

Batman 240Batman #240
Batman #418Batman #418
Brave And The Bold 98The Brave and the Bold #98
Legends of the dark knight 71Legends of the Dark Knight #71
Shadow Of The Bat 11Shadow of the Bat #11

 

NEXT: Everybody was kung fu fighting.

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Imaginary Batman crossovers with Joe Casey comics – part 2

If you read the last post, you know what’s going on. Here are another five possible crossovers between Batman comics and some oddball series written by Joe Casey:

GODLAND

godland

“Face the facts, true disbeliever… The human mind isn’t big enough to comprehend its titanic totality! But that bigness is what it’s all about! The Earth is just a tiny piece of the bigger puzzle. And as it sometimes happens on our little blue world… the cosmos can come a-knocking!” (opening narration)

Running from 2005 to 2013, Gødland was a groovy, cheerful pastiche of old-school cosmic epics like the ones Jack Kirby used to do in the ‘70s (The Fourth World, Eternals, 2001: A Space Odyssey), with further echoes of Jim Starlin (Warlock, Captain Marvel, Dreadstar). It starred Commander Adam Archer, an astronaut who turned into a misunderstood superhero with a golden glow after an encounter with ancient alien technology on Mars. While Archer proved to be an emissary designed for human evolution, unlocking the mysteries of the universe, throughout much of the series he remained stuck with idiosyncratic villains and family issues back on Earth… Though he more than made up for lost time in the transcendent/apocalyptic final issues!

Tom Scioli provided the Kirbyesque art, complete with tight grids and explosive splash pages (as well as vibrant colors by Bill Crabtree and Nick Filardi). Joe Casey nailed the rhythm and hyperbole of those classic comics, filling the thing with the kind of wacky concepts that used to show up all the time, like King Janus’ hovering pyramid ship or the Tormentor’s army of super-mice. Even the modern references in the dialogue resembled Kirby’s awkward attempts to make younger characters sound hip (“You’re so punk, Angie, the rest of us just aren’t worthy. Unfortunately, you’re about twenty-five years too late. Now you’re just a beer commercial.”).

Part of the fun comes from Gødland’s tongue-in-cheek self-awareness. When Commander Archer fights a weird extraterrestrial dog-looking monster, he not only comments on the action – a staple of the genre – but he also comments on his own comments (“Why am I verbally taunting this thing? Am I such a poseur that I can’t help myself?!”). When Basil Cronus – a scientist addicted to mind expansion whose detached floating skull you see above – first meets Archer, he buries him deep underground, later explaining to another super-villain that he deliberately wished to avoid a recurring hero/arch-nemesis relationship (“I have no intention of falling into some ridiculously antiquated paradigm with that glowing do-gooder…”).

But even beyond the nostalgia and intertextual winks, this remains a brilliant sci-fi romp. The action is delightfully cartoony and the characterization is a joy to read, including some of the most engaging female characters created by Casey. There is a hilarious issue where we get a close look at the court trial of the sadistic villain Discordia, with non-stop media coverage. Plus, the philosophical punch-ups between the gods at the edge of reason are nothing short of completely bonkers!

Godland 1

There are precedents for Batman’s involvement in intergalactic sagas, most notably the prestige mini-series Cosmic Odyssey (by Jim Starlin and Mike Mignola). But most of all I want to see the Caped Crusader work his way out of pulpy traps such as the Psychotronic Wheel of Influence, the Infinity Tower lockdown, or the Null Field Cube (“Anti-particles that form an empty tesseract. Hypercubic geometry at its finest.”), not to mention the twisted jail in Dimension Z.

Or, hell, have the rogues’ gallery escape from Arkham Asylum and get rooms at Friedrich Nickelhead’s criminal-exclusive hotel. Perhaps they can join his activist movement for super-villain rights (which at one point in the series took over Congress and demanded to meet with Barack Obama). I’m sure that could be a riot!

THE INTIMATES

the intimates

“We don’t restrict the use of technology in the classroom. Not in the slightest… None of us are worried about claiming a monopoly on raw data… Since machines can now supply endless information, we as teachers have inherited the responsibility to partner with you and nurture your collective ability to judge the integrity of the info that’s delivered to you…” (Miss Klanbaid)

In the early 2000s, the most exciting and innovative takes on the superhero genre could be found in the WildStorm Universe, which underwent a creative boom comparable to the late-80s DCU. Mark Millar and Frank Quitely had superheroes brutally revolutionize international politics in The Authority, Warren Ellis and John Cassaday approached them as metafictional archeologists in Planetary, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips gave us noirish super-spies in Sleeper, Gail Simone and Neil Googe created a retirement community for masked heroes and villains in Welcome to Tranquility. Not content with engendering a super-corporation in Wildcats Version 3.0, throughout 2005 Joe Casey penned an inventive superhero high school series called The Intimates, which lasted for twelve issues.

Part teen drama, part absurdist comedy, part science fiction, The Intimates is my favorite Casey comic. It wonderfully imagines how a school for superheroes would operate in terms of technology and pedagogy, with classes such as NuPhysics 101 (“It’s in your best interest to begin thinking in multiple dimensions early in life.”), Secret Identity 101 (“For goodness sake, don’t get chummy with any investigative reporters”), Morality 101 (“Your search for mercy even during the most heinous of confrontations will define your morality.”), and Perception Technology 101 (“Your life has already happened somewhere else. Parallel realities can lead to parallel emotions…”). The series also manages to develop engrossing – and at times quite moving – character dynamics despite being packed to the max with surreal gags, quick flashbacks, WildStorm cameos, a comic-within-the-comic (drawn by Jim Lee), fake ads, and plenty of in-jokes (including an implied crossover with Automatic Kafka).

“Packed” doesn’t do it justice. The whole comic is an experiment in information overload, reflecting the hyperactive mind and media saturation of teenage life. Most pages feature a scroll with all sorts of data, including background information on the cast and even some important foreshadowing buried underneath lifestyle tips, fun facts, pointless statistics, and, towards the end, jabs at the comics industry. The interior art by the talented Giuseppe Camuncoli (pencils), Sandra Hope (inks), and Randy Mayor (colors) – working with letterers Richard Starkings and Comicraft’s Rob Steen – appropriately emulates the style and pace of internet pop-ups, while the covers (designed by Rian Hughes) look like a parody of teen magazines. It’s awesome.

intimates 1

The obvious Batman-related crossover would be between The Intimates and Gotham Academy, which also revolves around kids in a school with eccentric teachers and mysterious goings-on. Although the latter is not as densely packed, it too is full of obscure cameos and references, including callbacks to old comics, to Batman ’66, and to the various Animated shows (“…and then I threw a rock at him!”). Plus, it wouldn’t be first intercompany project for Gotham Academy, which has already crossed over with Boom’s Lumberjanes.

We don’t even need a plot, just have an exchange program between schools and let chaos ensue. I want to see Olive Silverlock and Maps Mizoguchi taking Secret Identity classes with Mr. Hyde (a divorcee who always seems to be talking from bitter experience) or receive counselling from the former Dashman (a speedster who tends to get carried away and speak too fast to be understood). I want to see Headmaster Hammer put up with troubled students like Punchy (a wigga with anger issues and kinetic alien puppet powers), Empty Vee (who starts out as an invisible girl with low self-esteem, before proving to be more mischievous than anyone assumed), or Dead Kid Fred (a suicidal zombie).

MIAMI VICE: REMIX

miami vice remix

“Guess somebody’s gotta put the “show” in “show biz”.” (Rico Tubbs)

Licensed properties used to have a (not always deserved) reputation for encouraging creators to play it safe, sticking close to the tone of the original material without great leaps of fancy. Miami Vice: Remix sends all that straight to hell. Instead of merely aping the sleazy, proto-hardboiled style of the Miami Vice TV series (or even the ultra-moody, maze-like feel of Michael Mann’s feature film), Joe Casey and Jim Mahfood amped everything up to eleven, as they decided to channel the overall pop culture of the time when the show first hit the screens, from video games to electronic dance music to straight-to-VHS schlockbusters.

In recent years, pastiches of the over-the-top aesthetics of 80s’ actioners have become a fad in itself, both in cinema (Turbo Kid, Manborg) and in comics (Sexcastle, Vandroid), yet this blood-splattered 2015 mini-series is a particularly delirious ride. It starts out like a typical episode, with vice detectives Sonny Crockett and Rico Tubbs going undercover in order to catch a major league drug lord but – even before the story abruptly shifts gears by introducing voodoo zombie gangbangers – readers’ minds will quickly be blown by Mahfood’s furious art and letters, with trippy colors by Justin Stewart and Steven Chunn:

miami vice remixmiami-vice remix

Miami Vice: Remix wrapped up the main storyline, but it blatantly left the door open for a sequel. With its high-octane action-packed pace, in-yer-face attitude, aggressively dark humor, and drugs-related plot, the highest crossover potential here would be with a retroactive take on the Batman books from the late eighties, especially Alan Grant’s and Norm Breyfogle’s run in Detective Comics.

SEX

sex

“I’ve never had a problem with complexity myself. You think the world’s not black and white anymore. Point of fact… it never was.” (Annabelle Lagravenese, aka Shadow Lynx)

After years as the masked protector of Saturn City, Simon Cooke retires his costumed crime-fighting persona and decides to focus on his mega-corporation instead. Depressed and repressed, he also starts exploring his city’s underground sex scene, from the sleazier joints to the upper-class orgies…

There is some Eyes Wide Shut in this ongoing series – as well as a dash of Peter Milligan’s and Ted McKeever’s The Extremist – but mostly there is a lot of Batman, only with more hardcore fucking (explicitly stated and graphically depicted). Built around thinly veiled stand-ins for Gotham City, the Dark Knight, the Joker, Alfred, Robin, and Catwoman, Sex explores the notion of stoicism attached to the Batman archetype and crafts a kinky take on what could be a possible future for Bruce Wayne, if he ever abandons the cape and cowl. The date with the ersatz-Selina Kyle (issue #20), in particular, is a beautiful slice of comics.

Unlike what the double-entendres in the solicits suggest, the result is not a raunchy black comedy about debauched superheroes having sex (you know, like The Boys). The series is actually an interesting and – thanks to artist Piotr Kowalski, colorist Brad Simpson, letterer Rus Wooton, and graphic designer Sonia Harris – incredibly atmospheric new addition to the subgenre of superhero deconstruction, including the post-Watchmen emphasis on mature themes and psychological depth. As for the decompressed pace, I can only assume it’s Casey’s way of somewhat emulating a sexual experience, with teasing and foreplay, fits and starts, tenderness and violence, quite a bit of dirty talk and a tantric commitment to delayed gratification.

Sex 02

Like I said, the parallels and contrasts between Bruce Wayne and Simon Cooke are pretty clear (they’re both rich orphans with vigilante alter egos devoted to their crime-infested cities, although as Sex nears its climax the differences between the Caped Crusader and the Armored Saint become more noticeable), so it’s not hard to imagine how well these two heroes would play off each other.

In any case, Sex is a tightly woven tapestry of subplots and conspiracies within conspiracies, which means that – from the spunky Larry Baines (a female Lucius Fox) to the incestuous gangsters known as the Alpha Brothers – it has one of the largest casts on the stands, with plenty of other great characters to play with.

VALHALLA MAD

valhalla mad

Stand ye fast! The Irritator’s thirst must be addressed! Another round, barkeep! (Jhago the Irritator)

Although wasting incredible actors in supporting roles, the first couple of Thor movies were serviceable schlock – the first one burst with kitsch and tilted angles, the second one was a run-of-the-mill cornball adventure. Yet the most recent instalment, Ragnarok, is actually a balls-out funny thrill ride (and because it’s directed by Taika Waititi, I don’t mean fake funny like the Doctor Strange film, where you merely recognize the attempts at humor, I mean laugh-out-loud funny, like Spider-Man: Homecoming and the Guardians of the Galaxy flicks). With his anachronistic speech pattern and deluded sense of entitlement, the Norse god/superhero Thor has always been ripe for chuckles and, indeed, there have been a number of comedic takes on the character before (Garth Ennis’ and Glenn Fabry’s über-gory Vikings springs to mind).

You may be forgiven for assuming that Joe Casey and Paul Maybury are out to join this tradition with Valhalla Mad, a mini-series about a trio of immortals from Viken (a magic realm “where gods are spawned”) who, having saved Earth decades ago, now return for a drinking binge called ‘Gluttonalia,’ recruiting a hapless old man to come along with them. Like Sex, though, the title may give a wrong impression… While Valhalla Mad is not without some amusing touches, the overall tone is fairly subdued, especially for Casey’s caustic standards. In fact, this charming homage to Kirby’s Journey into Mystery and Thor comics is much closer to a bittersweet fantasy yarn than to a full-on spoof.

That said, your level of enjoyment will still depend on how entertaining you find Olde English twang, as there sure is a lot of it. Regardless, you can’t deny the whole thing looks lovely, not least – once again – because of the contributions of graphic designer Sonia Harris (who did the logo, covers, and the book’s interstitial pages) and Casey’s regular letterer, Rus Wooton.

Valhalla Mad 01Valhalla Mad 01

Just make the gods’ next Gluttonalia take place in Gotham City and have them end up at Noonan’s. You can’t go wrong with that.

 

NEXT: The Gordon/Batman bromance.

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Imaginary Batman crossovers with Joe Casey comics – part 1

In recent years, the Dark Knight has found himself in a number of surprising team-ups, crossing over with all sorts of odd properties, from Elmer Fudd to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Since nothing appears to be out of bounds anymore, I for one would get a kick out of seeing the Bat-books cross over with some of the craziest series written by Joe Casey.

Joe Casey’s comics can be truly something special. They often have a clear metafictional edge, playing with traditional tropes, pushing the boundaries of the format, and/or drawing on the styles of other creators (especially Jack Kirby) in a self-reflexive way. Plus, they usually overflow with foul language, sex, drugs, and gory violence.

For all his transgressive attitude, you can feel Casey’s genuine enthusiasm and the desire to explore the medium’s potential. As he put it on the backmatter of Butcher Baker, the Righteous Maker, the ‘comicbook’ (one word) is “the perfect bullet delivery system for your entertainment-hungry lizard brain.” Embracing the superhero genre in particular – both at its best (the bold zaniness and energy) and at its worst (typically narrow gender roles) – Casey tries to capture a childlike sense of unbridled imagination and exaggeration, even while filling the stories with R-rated content.

Although the main running motif of Casey’s work is rubbing in our faces how utterly cool comics can be, his books also tend to be sharp satires of celebrity culture and corporate power. The latter theme crops up, for example, in his Batman tales: the uneven two-parter ‘Tenses’ (in which Bruce Wayne restructures the business model of his company) and the neat Superman/Batman arc ‘Big Noise’ (in which we briefly see the contractor disputes to rebuild Metropolis and Gotham City after the ‘Our Worlds at War’ event). Neither of them is as bonkers as the greatest Casey comics, though, even if ‘Big Noise’ turns out to be particularly clever, using recognizable superhero story beats to address the War on Terror, with the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight embodying different perspectives in the end.

If Joe Casey was allowed to bring together his most outlandish creations and the world of the Caped Crusader, I’m sure the results would be epic. Here are some suggestions:

AUTOMATIC KAFKA

automatic kafka

“I’m running a marathon, my friend. I’ve seen a lot of spectacle in my years on this earth… And I plan to see a lot more. The nature of our work demands that we conjure up the most fantastic, absurd solutions to the moral dilemmas that we’re lucky enough to wrestle with.” (The Warning)

One of Joe Casey’s earliest masterpieces, this 2002 series followed a depressed robotic superhero as he sought stimulation through dope and fame. Along the way, he bumped into washed-up villains from his heyday, in the eighties, as well as into the eccentric members of his former team, The $tranger$. The series – which lasted for nine mind-bending issues – was as meandering as its titular protagonist, but it kept throwing memorable ideas and visuals at us (like an evil scientist who had his own head replaced with a miniature spiral galaxy). The most bizarre tangent took place after Kafka reinvented himself as a sadistic game show host and we spent one whole issue focusing on the heartbreaking life of one contestant and his childhood friends (a grown-up Charlie Brown and the cast of Peanuts).

Published by WildStorm’s mature readers line Eye of the Storm, Automatic Kafka was an ‘adult’ superhero comic, not just in the sense of being full of tits and cursing (although there was plenty of that), but also in the sense of being an intellectually demanding, complex reading experience. In a way, the series could be seen as Casey’s homage to Grant Morrison, with riffs on Doom Patrol, a layered narrative carefully constructed like a mosaic with clues to a larger picture (thus rewarding multiple re-reads), and a metafictional conclusion that explicitly brought to mind Morrison’s work on Animal Man.

Just to make things even more experimental, the art was painted by Ashley Wood in a style that ranged from rough sketches to surrealist collages, as if ushering the reader to imagine a reality beyond the drawings, many of which seemed to be translating or suggesting the story rather than simply depicting it. Wood got a chance to shine from the get-go, as the comic kicked off with a trippy near-death hallucination after Kafka apparently overdosed on a drug designed specifically for androids, called ‘nanotecheroin’ (“Finally, all your artificial intelligence systems can get their buzz on just like the fleshies do!”).

Automatic Kafka

It’s not that farfetched to imagine Batman crossing paths with a character like Automatic Kafka, who already looks like the version of Robotman you’d find in Frank Miller’s Dark Knight universe. Since DC seems desperate to continue to milk Miller’s cash cow – including through sequels written or drawn by other creators – they might as well have the Goddamn Batman, in all his messed up excess, clash with The $tranger$, including The Constitution of the United States (an ultra-violent-patriot-turned-porn-star) and Helen of Troy (who is supernaturally sexy). Casey and Wood could finally resolve Automatic Kafka’s subplot about exploding babies, perhaps by tying it to the sentient dolls of DKR!

THE BOUNCE

the bounce

“Gentlemen, we find ourselves standing at the crossroads of faith and fact.” (The Darling)

At first sight, this 12-issue series revolving around Jasper Jenkins, a stoner with the power to move around like a bouncing ball, may seem like one of Casey’s most conventional superhero sagas. The action is clear and exciting, the dialogue is peppered with amusing pop culture references, the hero is a likable, well-meaning loser with echoes of Spider-Man, and the main villain sounds like your average megalomaniac out to destroy the world (at one point, he looks at the White House and says that it’s like “driving past a museum piece”). David Messina’s art is effective without being particularly flashy – you could easily imagine his slick style in a mainstream book from the Big Two (he went on to draw Catwoman). Even the tonal shifts between escapist fare and edgier material aren’t that far removed from numerous other comics and, more recently, shows like Netflix’s The Defenders.

That said, the mysteries soon pile up, taking the narrative into unexpected places. Rest assured, The Bounce is not immune to Joe Casey’s flair for quirky concepts, whether it’s a dealer who is also the drug he’s dealing or “an entire sub-culture of secret quasi-religious corporations” funding an inter-dimensional portal in order to weaponize a Lovecraftian entity.

The Bounce

Pre-Crisis Batman has fought – and was even killed by – a villain called The Bouncer, whose look and powers resembled the Bounce and who hasn’t been seen since 1981. In a possible crossover, perhaps the Caped Crusader would be searching for a rebooted version of that villain and bump into Jasper Jenkins instead. Since it has been established that Jenkins’ world possesses the technology to reach parallel dimensions, the crossover wouldn’t be much of a stretch!

Alternatively, given the metafictional dimension of the Bouncer’s debut story (‘The Strange Death of Batman!,’ Detective Comics #347), I can also picture Joe Casey writing a sort of remake that’d combine the two characters into one.

BUTCHER BAKER, THE RIGHTEOUS MAKER

butcher baker the righteous maker

“Here’s to the good ol’ days – the days where collateral damage was rebranded “acceptable losses” – the days of evil empires and femme fatales – the days of methodized mayhem – the days where middle management fuckheads like these two ate the peanuts out of my shit.” (Butcher Baker)

The depraved 2011 series Butcher Baker, the Righteous Maker followed a super-soldier secretly tasked by the government with killing villains held at a special state prison (the Bertrand Institute for Meta-Criminal Containment) in order to cynically cut costs. The result was a brash, cacophonous extravaganza consisting mostly of no-holds-barred chases and slugfests, as Baker fought a rogues’ gallery that included such cartoonish super-villains as the fat luchador El Sushi, the bearded mass murderer (and mash-up of orientalist stereotypes) Jihad Jones, and the shapely mysterious cosmic being known as The Absolutely.

Even though the series only lasted eight issues, Butcher Baker made quite an impression with his bushy mustache, his gung-ho attitude, and his star-spangled truck (called Liberty Belle). More than a spoof of Captain America, Baker was basically Watchmen’s Comedian on steroids – a hyper-macho psychopath who lived for fucking and slaughtering (he used to do it in the name of god and country, but ever since he saved the President of Reality at the Pan-Dimensional Affirmation Parade he stopped caring about that bullshit). You may wish to see the whole thing as a parody of US chauvinism, with the titular jock as the country’s unbound military id whose intended victims came back for vengeance, but the comic feels more invested in the entertainment value of watching these crude caricatures clash against each other rather than in making any meaningful statement about it.

Gorgeously illustrated by Mike Huddleston (who imbued the lively art with intoxicating colors), there wasn’t a single page on this series that wasn’t bombastic in some way. Hell, the first issue opened with Dick Cheney and Jay Leno walking in on Baker in the middle of an orgy and it barely lost momentum after that…

Butcher Baker, the Righteous Maker

I guess the Batman series that most closely approached the manic, electrifying energy and gonzo villains of Butcher Baker, the Righteous Maker was The All-New Batman: The Brave and the Bold, which was coming out at the same time. Yet this is a tricky one… On the one hand, yes, the whole point of the latter comic was to see the Caped Crusader in goofy team-ups with other characters, no matter how strange. On the other hand, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Brave and the Bold sought to offer madcap romps that were suited for all ages, while the world and cast of Butcher Baker are very, very far from kid-friendly.

CODEFLESH

codeflesh

“A woman I know once told me that, even out of the joint, I had a doin’ time-kind of personality… a prisoner in my own mind. Maybe.” (Rotor)

There are many ways you can approach the concept of a bounty hunter specialized in super-villains who skip bail. In Codeflesh, Joe Casey did it as a relatively straight crime book, complete with a self-destructive anti-hero and a solid balance between dirty fights and touching character moments (it’s just that some of the criminals were telepaths or low-grade cyborgs). Charlie Adlard ran with this, giving the art a grounded, gritty look reminiscent of hardboiled ‘70s thrillers. Moreover, like The Bounce and Butcher Baker, the comic was elevated by the amazing letterer Rus Wooton, whose contribution always makes works feel groovier (he’s also a frequent collaborator of Jonathan Hickman, Rick Remender, and Robert Kirkman).

While overall the book is not as formally daring as some of the others on this list, the eighth chapter definitely stands out, as Casey, Adlard, and Wooton employ a highly original technique to convey how much the protagonist’s failing relationship is taking over his life. And even when they’re not reinventing the language of comics, the creative team delivers one moody, hard-hitting scene after another…

Codeflesh

This crossover practically writes itself. Either Codeflesh’s masked bondsman follows a villain into Gotham City, teaming up with Batman in the process, or – better yet – he writes up the bond for someone like the Ratcatcher or the Mad Hatter, who jumps bail and runs out of town. Noirish hijinks ensue.

DANCE

Dance

“The world doesn’t need superheroes. We’re the ones who need a world to protect… otherwise, we’re just an outmoded concept that’s way past its sell date.” (Shiny Happy Aquazon)

The Japanese teen group Super Young Team was created by Grant Morrison and J.G. Jones for the massive DC event Final Crisis, in 2008, as a kind of 21st century version of Kirby’s The Forever People. The following year, Joe Casey and artists ChrisCross and Eduardo Pansica ran wild with the concept in the awesome mini-series Final Crisis Aftermath: Dance, in which an eager P.R. promoter led Super Young Team on an international tour in order to push their brand on a global scale… and to distract the masses (and the superheroes themselves) from what was going on in Japan at the time.

Sure, the series benefited from the groundwork laid by Jones and Morrison, who originally designed the heroes’ looks and personalities, including their over-the-top names: Most Excellent Superbat, Big Atomic Lantern Boy, Shiny Happy Aquazon, Crazy Shy Lolita Canary, and Well-Spoken Sonic Lightning Flash. But Dance not only expanded their corner of the world, it also tapped further into the millennial zeitgeist, indulging in Japanese pop culture and youth trends more generally – in a groundbreaking move at the time, the comic was peppered with Superbat’s snarky tweets (“These clubbers don’t even have superpowers. Worthless.”), a device that still doesn’t feel dated a decade later. Much to the team’s occasional frustration, their adventures became as much about fads and marketing campaigns as about fighting monsters or saving the multiverse.

Even if you set aside the hip satire of media, consumerism, and corporate sponsorship, Dance still reads like a kickass superhero fantasy ride, including a delirious set-piece where a cosplay competition in Dubai is attacked by an army of Nazi preppies called The Parasitic Teutons of Assimilation (almost all villains in Dance are against individual identity in some way). The whole series is just so damn smart and nifty-looking, not least because of Snakebite’s ultra-bright colors:

final crisis aftermath dance

Since the members of Super Young Team live in the DCU, it’s easy to imagine them crossing paths with the Caped Crusader or one of his many sidekicks. Indeed, they had a couple of cameos in Batman Incorporated and there was even a fun special – written by Chris Burnham, with art by Jorge Lucas – about a date between Japan’s own Batman (Jiro Osamu) and Crazy Shy Lolita Canary.

But I want more. Let me see Grayson or Red Robin join the action during the Super Young Team’s inevitable, post-truth era rematch against the Brain Drain, the mind-controlling bacteria who infiltrated people’s consciousness through bottled oxygen (one of the team’s product endorsements), instilling a literal mob mentality!

 

NEXT: More ambitious crossover ideas.

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