Alan Grant’s in-yer-face Batman

I suppose it is possible to do subtlety in Batman comics. To do it well, even: from Greg Rucka’s nuanced characterization to Grant Morrison’s elliptic narratives; from Dan Slott’s skill at disguising plot points to Ed Brubaker’s occasional flirts with realism… Still, the notion doesn’t seem like a natural fit in a series about a guy for whom the best way to handle problems is dressing up like a humanoid bat and jumping from rooftop to rooftop in order to punch those problems in the mug – and by ‘problems’ I mean insane killers with flashy costumes and explicit themes running through their regular crime sprees.

One of the reasons I love Alan Grant’s work on Batman so much is that he unabashedly embraced the visceral appeal of this world, without attempting to soften or hide it. In the hands of this Scottish writer, Gotham City became a springboard for satisfyingly blunt, frantic, outraged, and outrageous stories. Grant’s Dark Knight was often furious, insulting criminal scumbags and the system that spawned them while burning with indignation. Grant’s villains were dangerously delusional or further pushing society off the edge…. or both, like in the case of Scarface, the ill-tempered gangster who was either a psychotic ventriloquist or a demonic wooden dummy with a speech impediment:

DetectiveComics583Detective Comics #583

After making a name for himself as one of the key voices of the irreverent British anthology series  2000 AD, Alan Grant arrived in Gotham City circa 1988. He penned a stupendous run on Detective Comics (#583-597, #601-621), at first co-written with his regular partner-in-crime, John Wagner, with hyperkinetic art by Norm Breyfogle. In late 1990, Grant moved to the more continuity-heavy Batman title, for which he did around twenty issues (mostly illustrated by Breyfogle) before being given a spin-off series (with various artists), Shadow of the Bat, entirely devoted to his brutal take on the Caped Crusader’s corner of the DC universe. Grant wrote that series until issue #82, in 1999, as well as a bunch of crossovers and specials throughout the nineties. The quality of his output became increasingly uneven, but there were odd gems right until the end.

Along the way, we got all sorts of deliriously tasteless comics, including disturbing tales of cannibalism and more dead kids than in Game of Thrones. From the onset, Alan Grant filled his scripts with macabre ideas and characters. Some of these caught on, like the serial killer Victor Zsasz or Jeremiah Arkham, the asylum director whose strategies for dealing with patients were dubious at best. Other characters remained mostly confined to Grant’s stories (perhaps because they were too eccentric to appeal to more reasonable writers), like the deranged debt collector Tally Man or the death-obsessed Mortimer Kadaver:

Detective Comics 589Detective Comics #589

As you can probably tell by now, there is a strain of dark humor running through these comics (particularly the ones set in Arkham Asylum, a recurring location), but it never fully takes over the material. While Grant’s most purely comedic series can be quite dumb and lowbrow (LoboRobo-Hunter, his final arcs on The Demon), in his Batman work the humor tends to match the overall tone, set somewhere on the border between amusingly silly and downright sinister.

Indeed, the flashes of comedy shouldn’t be mistaken for irony. Like I said, there is an earnestness and committed bluntness to Alan Grant’s writing, whose raw power sometimes approaches that of Scottish anarcho-punk. Himself a self-professed anarchist, who in the mid-90s became a follower of Neo-Tech, Grant often treated Batman comics as a vehicle for his takes on philosophy and politics (by ‘vehicle,’ I mean bulldozer).  This was especially the case in comics featuring his beloved creation, the vigilante Anarky.

Grant would often choose a specific theme and build the whole story around it, like an after school special. That month, every single character would end up engaging with the same topic, whether it was the notion of violence as entertainment (Detective Comics #596-597), the proliferation of garbage (Detective Comics #613), or hero worship (Batman #466). He occasionally came up with neat ways to frame the debate: in Shadow of the Bat #72, a writer goes around asking Gotham citizens about the meaning of life while Batman pursues a particularly grizzly case; in Shadow of the Bat #77, a teacher delivers a lecture about Darwin’s theory of evolution to the corpses of his dead students.

At his best, Alan Grant was able to blend his political and philosophical points into the series’ off-kilter vibe, but he didn’t always manage to avoid sounding preachy. One tale that bravely tried to walk that fine line was ‘An American Batman in London’ (one of several comics in which Grant took the Dark Knight to the UK).  This wall-to-wall action romp starts out just like so many other stories featuring cardboard jihadi terrorists, yet halfway through it confronts Batman and the readers with the other side’s perspective:

Detective Comics 590Detective Comics 590Detective Comics #590

The issue – cover-dated September 1988 – interestingly tries to offer a counterpoint to the many thrillers about Muslim villains coming out at the time (and still common today), with their one-sided, Islamophobic discourse… It also places this trend in a long tradition of simplistic public discourse about terrorism by setting the tale during Guy Fawkes Night. Yet the comic can be seen as becoming too much of a straightforward polemic, losing sight of what makes Batman stories so special.

The following issue, ‘Aborigine,’ was also pretty heavy-handed, although I would argue that it incorporated its critique of racism and colonialism in a more appealing way. In that swift-moving adventure, Batman faced a badass Indigenous Australian armed with spears and boomerangs on a bloody quest to recover an artifact from a Gotham exhibition. The result is goofy and weird and arguably offensive on many levels, but it’s also a lot of fun, even if Batman barely does anything significant in the story other than realize that not even he can stand in the way of historical justice…

Detective Comics 591Detective Comics #591

I’m also a fan of that 1995 one-shot in which Alfred and Nightwing travel to the United Kingdom to stop a group of Eurosceptic aristocrats from staging a coup – a comic that feels oddly prescient in the current Brexit era (even if the villains’ plan involved blowing up the Channel Tunnel, so that British insurance companies would get hammered, the stock market would collapse, the pound would nosedive, and they could then basically buy the country… a slightly riskier route than the one the UKIP ended up taking!).

One topic kept coming up more than any other one in these comics: drugs. You can pick any random issue written by Alan Grant and starring the Dark Knight and it is more than likely to feature illegal substances and psychotropic trips at some point, often at the core of the story. Perhaps it’s not so surprising, given that Grant was living in the Scottland that gave birth to Trainspotting, but in any case you can see this trait right from the start: Grant’s very first issue was about an outbreak of designer drugs called Fever (for feverol trinitrite), highly addictive pills that gave users a power rush. From there, Grant went on to write about every weed and opiate in the book. Detective Comics #611 even introduced a new cocaine derivative, called ‘super-crack.’

Seriously, Grant’s Gotham City was overflowing with narcotics…

DetectiveComics608Detective Comics #608

Even background characters couldn’t get enough of the stuff:

Detective Comics 589Detective Comics #589

We got to follow reporters Vicki Vale and Horten Spence around, as they were actually assigned a news story on this issue:

batman 475Batman #475

Alan Grant’s drug comics have that mix of grim outrage and shamelessly trashy entertainment you find in exploitation movies like Coffy and Class of 1984. It’s not just that the Caped Crusader spends much of his time beating up dope pushers and dealers, it’s the fact that they can be as hysterically over-the-top as everything else. In Detective Comics #608, punk rock star Johnny Vomit gets his ass kicked for smuggling smack in his guitar. In Shadow of the Bat #32, Scarface ruthlessly goes after a competing drug lord by cutting his heroin with strychnine, thus killing dozens of helpless junkies in order to ruin the guy’s reputation. Later, there was an unbelievably ridiculous storyline in which the Floronic Man, after having been beheaded at the climax of Mark Millar’s Swamp Thing run, came back as a grass-themed supervillain:

Shadow Of The Bat #57Shadow of the Bat #57

What else can I say? I wouldn’t want all my readings to feel like this, but Alan Grant’s works are the kind of pure, uncut stuff that gets me high on Batman comics (just to stick to Grant’s favorite imagery)… They can be hectic and gritty and borderline sadistic. They can feature a ham-fisted lecture or gloriously awful junk fiction. They can show the Dark Knight at his coolest, kicking butt and taking names, or just wrap up with Batman downtrodden by the cruel society around him, having let another villain get away or yet another kid die in vain. Or maybe you’ll get a corny final splash with the Caped Crusader framed between an eagle’s head and an US flag while thinking about the importance of making sure every child has a chance, regardless of background. In any case, you can be damn sure you’re in for a ride, with verve and panache to spare. It’s like every page is screaming: if you want subtlety, fuck off and go look for it somewhere else!

Detective Comics 614Detective Comics #614

NEXT: Slavery.

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Another year, another 50 kicks

Today is the third anniversary of Gotham Calling. As usual, I’m celebrating by posting fifty images of Batman kicking people and monsters in the head, accompanied by evocative sound effects as well as the occasional thoughtful, witty remark.

Have fun!

The Brave and the Bold #97The Brave and the Bold #97
Batman #292Batman #292
Swamp Thing #7Swamp Thing #7
The Brave and the Bold #167The Brave and the Bold #167
Detective Comics 604Detective Comics #604
Detective Comics #608Detective Comics #608
Legends #6Legends #6
Detective Comics #613Detective Comics #613
Detective Comics #615Detective Comics #615
Detective Comics #617Detective Comics #617
Legends of the Dark Knight #46Legends of the Dark Knight #46
Batman versus Predator II #1Batman versus Predator II #1
Batman #461Batman #461
Batman #470Batman #470
Batman #474Batman #474
Shadow of the Bat Annual #1Shadow of the Bat Annual #1
Batman #476Batman #476
The Batman Adventures #3The Batman Adventures #3
Batman #492Batman #492
Batman #495Batman #495
Batman 511Batman #511
Batman 00Batman #0
Shadow of the Bat 37Shadow of the Bat #37
Batman 515Batman #515
batman 517Batman #517
Legends of the Dark Knight 88Legends of the Dark Knight #88
Batman 518Batman #518
Batman 519Batman #519
Batman 520Batman #520
Batman 522Batman #522
Batman #524Batman #524
Shadow of the Bat 50Shadow of the Bat #50
Batman 526Batman #526
Batman 527Batman #527
Batman 80 Page Giant #1Batman 80-Page Giant #1
Batman 530Batman #530
Batman 532Batman #532
World’s Finest (v2) #4World’s Finest (v2) #4
Batman #534Batman #534
Batman #536Batman #536
Batman Annual #21Batman Annual #21
Batman #548Batman #548
Blackgate: Isle of MenBlackgate: Isle of Men
chase #7Chase #7
Batman #556Batman #556
Haunted Gotham #3Haunted Gotham #3
All Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder #7All Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder #7
Batman: The Brave and the Bold #11Batman: The Brave and the Bold #11
Legends of the Dark Knight (v2) #36Legends of the Dark Knight (v2) #36
Legends of the Dark Knight (v2) #68Legends of the Dark Knight (v2) #68


But of course, you know what they say… what goes around comes around:

Batman #427Batman #427


NEXT: Drugs.

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Len Wein (1948-2017)

In the same year, we lost Bernie Wrightson and Len Wein, the two creators of Swamp Thing. May you rest in peace and do not come back as a tragic vegetable creature or a patchwork Frankensteinian monster reanimated by Anton Arcane.

One day, Gotham Calling will look closely into Len Wein’s memorable and diverse work on Batman comics. Until then, I leave you with one of his most nightmarish contributions:

batman 327Batman #327
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Elseworlds tales of sword & sorcery

After another season of Game of Thrones, my mind has been on sword and sorcery. I still think the series’ most engaging contributions to this genre take place on the edges of the adventure stuff, as the characters count the dead bodies and figure out how to rule the cities they’ve conquered. Yet those aspects have increasingly taken a back seat to fan service: the last seasons gave us a clearer board game structure and a greater emphasis on epic battles, as well as the apparent introduction of widespread teleportation (with everyone now able to conveniently cross huge distances in a single day or night). To be fair, Game of Thrones was never about outright dismissing genre conventions as much as it was about expanding their horizons. If anything, this TV show has breathed new life into traditional fantasy elements from the start, embracing them with the straight-faced earnestness of Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood and a level of unabashed glee that seems almost reminiscent of Robert E. Howard’s prose, something I didn’t think was possible after Terry Pratchett spent decades brilliantly parodying those tropes to death.

Sure, Game of Thrones was quite deconstructionist compared to, say, the Lord of the Rings movies (not least because of the very different source material). At the end of the day, however, a large chunk of it still revolved around sandal-wearing, swashbuckling muscular knights and scantily clad babes fighting supernatural threats in a miscellaneous composite of past eras and legends. In part, the show pulled this off by taking itself extra seriously, raising the levels of grim psychological and physical violence, coming up with diverse ways of raping, castrating, and viciously slaughtering most of the cast (the same strategy used by the DC Extended Universe). Yet GoT also did it through intricate plotting, witty dialogue, nuanced characterization, and a handful of truly shocking anti-climaxes.

For those previously unfamiliar with the genre, Game of Thrones has proven that you can tell complex, thought-provoking stories using sword & sorcery tropes. For me, though, it has been a pleasant reminder of how much fun these tropes can be in the first place. After all, those backroom scenes with people forging new strategic alliances, petty betrayals, and power-hungry conspiracies are great precisely because they take place in a world of dragons and zombies, not in spite of it!

With that in mind, I decided to revisit the various Elseworlds comics in which Batman was reinvented as a hero of sword & sorcery adventure, going back to 1993’s Dark Joker – The Wild. Set in a mystical, proto-medieval land, that one-shot imagined the Clown Prince of Crime as an evil wizard and the Dark Knight as the feral, winged son of the deceased sorcerers Majister and Liandra, now on a brutal quest with the help of a mysterious woman with magical powers.

This wasn’t Doug Moench’s most inspired script: the setting and mythology were so abstract and convoluted that it was hard to engage with the story as anything more than a sequence of haunting images… Fortunately, Kelley Jones and John Beatty were in charge of the art, with Les Dorscheid doing the colors, so those images were pretty fucking impressive:

Dark Joker The WildDark Joker The WildDark Joker – The Wild

In terms of writing, I much prefer the following year’s ‘The Last Man’ (Catwoman Annual #1), penned by Christopher Priest, a smart author who a decade earlier had already sought to bring greater emotional complexity to the Conan comics. This issue, part of DC’s strand of Elseworlds annuals that year (which also gave us a pirate Batman and a samurai Robin), takes place in an alternate 1275 AD, after the emperor of Augustonia declared war on the House of Selene, accused of idolatry, witchcraft, murder, blasphemy against the church and state, consuming the flesh of infants, and drinking the blood of martyrs. The war is carried out by the emperor’s son, the Batman-looking Timon, Vicar of the House of Lords, determined to slay the wicked savages.

After facing the fierce leader of the House of Selene – Rä’s al Ghül, the Cat-Man – Timon is rescued by his foe’s fur-covered daughter, slowly coming to terms with the fact that perhaps you shouldn’t believe everything you hear about other cultures, nor should you pass harsh judgement before making an effort to understand them. In other words, after setting the stage for a formulaic confrontation, the comic shakes things up by exposing the manly hero as a bigoted brute and his righteous crusade as essentially rooted in blind obedience.

Like Game of Thrones, though, ‘The Last Man’ seems less interested in defying the genre than in crafting a satisfying yarn within its boundaries. Priest has fun with the pompous speeches (“May the Devil and his minions feast on your entrails.”) and fake religious logic (“Selenes are no higher than rats or carrion! They have no souls and no sure welcome in paradise! You should be grateful such lack of humanity bars you from eternal damnation as well!”). He also creates a fine character dynamic between these versions of Batman and Catwoman/Talia, as they grow innevitably closer while journeying together…

Catwoman Annual 1Catwoman Annual 1Catwoman Annual #1

In 1996, we got a batch of this kind of tales thanks to another conceptual link running through DC’s annuals – under the banner ‘Legends of the Dead Earth,’ each issue told a story from the point of view of a post-Earth future in which DC’s characters had become misremembered legends. In practice, the stunt just meant that we got a bunch of Elseworlds comics, yet this time around more creators chose to go with the sword & sorcery route for the Batman-related books…

Dennis O’Neil and Barry Kitson did it in ‘Night’s Fall’ (Azrael Annual #2), which included an interesting fantasy retelling of the ‘Knightfall’ crossover, but it was sadly lost among the series’ usual barrage of bulky art, groan-inducing dialogue, and nonsensical plotting. By contrast, at the time Alan Grant wrote two outstanding takes on the genre: ‘King Batman’ (Shadow of the Bat Annual #4) and ‘Executioner’ (Legends of the Dark Knight Annual #6).

The former, smoothly drawn by Brian Apthorp and Stan Woch, is narrated by a being at the end of the universe who is recording “thought-images” directly onto subatomic particles in the hope that one day, in a new universe, someone will somehow find his message and decipher it. He identifies himself as “the end result of a myriad of evil thoughts and countless evil deeds” – in other words, he was the one responsible for Evil’s triumph and the subsequent destruction of the universe… And now, as he relives the path that brought him here, he wonders if he can still change history by mentally pushing quantum node points.

This is just the framing device, though. The main story actually involves an army of lizard-people mounted on dinosaurs, led by the ruthless Ophos Arkayos, who has been conquering Earth:

Shadow of the Bat Annual 4Shadow of the Bat Annual #4

Arkayos’ army is about to invade Nu-Gotham, where the lizards can access launch pads and take their war into space. In his way stands the city’s king, who is also a hero inspired by and modelled on the Caped Crusader. At first, King Batman seems to be little more than a slight variation of the original, albeit one armed with a photonic flash that can disrupt villains’ memory, bringing all of their evil to the attention of their conscious mind at once. Alan Grant, however, has a few more tricks up his sleeve, so he manages to provide a number of neat twists.

‘Executioner’ has even more of a sci-fi vibe, yet with enough medievalism thrown in to justify its inclusion here. It concerns a society in which Batman is the hereditary title of the official executioner, killing in the name of the law and thus practically eradicating crime from this version of Gotham. In fact, the story takes place on another planet, five hundred years after humans crash-landed on it and founded this civilization (so the palace is decorated with allusions to other DC heroes, like the Flash, Green Lantern, and Superman). When the latest Batman kills himself, his daughter, Kathy Kane, takes over the mantle, but while looking into the motives behind her father’s suicide she uncovers a sinister conspiracy that sheds new light upon the city’s law enforcement strategy.

Alan Grant shares plot credits with Barry Kitson on this one, but the art is by Vince Giarrano, who – like Kitson – has a propensity for exaggerated costumes and female busts, encapsulating some of the worst excesses of the ‘90s. As a result, his Kathy Kane looks like a Huntress dominatrix role-playing game:

Legends of the Dark Knight 6

Grant returned to the idea of combining Batman iconography with fortress cities, old-fashioned cloaks, and contradictory time references in the one-shot Batman & Demon: A Tragedy. The book’s high concept is basically a fusion between the characters of Bruce Wayne and Jason Blood – Bruce believes he is allergic to moonlight (owing to an orbital eccentricity, the moon shines full every night in this Gotham), but he is in fact unknowingly hosting Etrigan, the rhyming bat-demon, who goes around slashing criminals during nighttime. It’s a violent gothic tale that lives up to its title, finishing on a poignantly tragic note.

This time around, the illustrations are by Jim Murray, who comes up with jaw-dropping designs for Poison Ivy as a sexy alchemist, Killer Croc as a scary gang boss, and Catwoman as a badass occult fighter. Murray seems to be suitably channeling Frank Frazzetta’s classic covers for pulpy paperbacks and hard rock albums:

batman demon a tragedyBatman & Demon: A Tragedy

Finally, a couple of Elseworlds specials reimagined Batman as a British knight in the Middle Ages, caught between wizardry and chivalry. Bob Layton’s and Dick Giordano’s two-part Dark Knight of the Round Table drew on Arthurian legend and featured some interesting characterization by showing Bruce of Waynesmoor driven by thirst for vengeance against both Mordred and Arthur Pendragon. However, burdened with pedestrian art and storytelling – including exposition-heavy dialogue – the resulting comic was pretty much a mess (and not even a fun mess, like Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword!).

More successfully, Mike W. Barr (the writer of Camelot 3000) penned the clever graphic novel Dark Knight Dynasty, in which three iterations of the Caped Crusader battled the immortal Vandal Savage in the past, present, and future. The past sequence, painted by Scott Hampton, follows the trial of the knight templar Joshua of Wainwrigth, who tells a fantastic story about a magical castle in 1222 AD… And, because this is a Batman comic by Mike Barr, you can bet there is at least one sequence with our hero ingeniously escaping from a deathtrap:

Dark Knight DynastyDark Knight DynastyDark Knight Dynasty

(Still, it doesn’t beat the final third of the book, in which Batman’s descendant fights Vandal Savage in outer space, with the aid of a monkey Robin!)

All in all, I guess the main lesson is that, no matter how much you twist Batman as a character, you know that sooner or later he is going to end up loudly kicking someone in the face:

Dark Joker The WildDark Joker – The Wild
Shadow Of The Bat Annual 4Shadow of the Bat Annual #4

NEXT: More kicks in the head.

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Taking a break…

solo 7Solo #7
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Kelley Jones’ technological Batman

When I did a post on Kelley Jones’ eccentric Batman art a couple of months ago, I talked about Jones’ flair for the grotesque, the gothic horror influences, the exaggerated capes and shadows, the neat chapter headings and preview blurbs.

One thing I forgot to mention, though, was the way Kelley Jones keeps drawing these ultra-elaborate gadgets… In his comics, the Dark Knight’s detective work often relies on a set of impractically intricate microphones, microscopes, binoculars, and computers adorned with anachronistic lightbulbs and multiple screens. They look futuristic, but from a future imagined by older science fiction, when illustrators and set designers still assumed technology was going to become larger and visibly complicated rather than compact and user-friendly. Together with the extravagant architecture, this gives Jones’ tales – both canon and Elseworlds – a time-displaced look, which I find quite appealing.

Here are my ten favorite gizmos:

Batman 522Batman #522
Batman 523Batman #523
Batman 529Batman #529
Batman 530Batman #530
Gotham After Midnight 7Gotham After Midnight #7
Haunted Gotham 3Haunted Gotham #3
Batman 527Batman #527
Batman Unseen 2Batman: Unseen #2
Gotham After Midnight 1Gotham After Midnight #1
Gotham After Midnight 10Gotham After Midnight #10


NEXT: Winter is here.

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Spy comics: revisiting World War I

If you read the last posts, you know that this month I’ve been discussing cool spy comics.

Petrograd Silas Corey Silas Corey

Historically associated with imperial rivalry and pointless carnage in the public imagination, World War I doesn’t seem to have inspired nearly as many works in the spy genre as World War II or the Cold War. Nevertheless, there are some solid films (The Spy in Black) and novels (The First Casualty) worth checking out.

There are also some very good comic books…



Set in its titular city during the snowy winter of 1916 and mixing fictional characters with historical figures and events, Philip Gelatt’s and Tyler Crook’s brilliant graphic novel Petrograd tells the story of the murder of Grigori Rasputin, the mystic advisor of the Romanovs, from the point of view of an exasperated British secret agent, Cleary, tasked with organizing the sordid affair.

The SIS are trying to keep the UK’s Russian allies in the war, since they suspect Rasputin has been advising the Tsarina to negotiate a separate peace with the German Kaiser (her cousin). The murky morality of this mission, coupled with the fact that from today’s vantage point we know how things turned out in Russia and in WWI, raises what could have been a merely enjoyable potboiler into an engrossing, thought-provoking read. Not only does Petrograd successfully combine elements of political thriller and period drama, it also features a touch of heartbreaking romance and deadpan humor (one running gag concerns the conspirators’ terrible plotting skills, with the aristocrats spending most of their time bickering about the symbolism of each gesture rather than considering the practical requirements).

There are three captivating characters at the heart of the book. With his sad eyes and mysterious Irish background, Cleary at first seems to be an outstanding agent, navigating through social classes, having befriended well-connected members of the aristocracy, of Bolshevik revolutionary cells, and of the Okhrana (the Tsar’s secret police). However, you gradually get the impression that what makes Cleary so adaptable may also be his greatest weakness, as he is harboring a deep-seated identity crisis. Then there is Grigori ‘Mad Monk’ Rasputin, who is such a legendary eccentric figure that he has popped up in many pulpy comics throughout the years, from The Shadow Strikes! to Firestorm, from Hellboy to the recent Rasputin series by Alex Grecian and Riley Rossmo. Finally, there is the cold city of Petrograd, who is arguably a character in its own right, evolving and constantly interacting with the rest of the cast.


That said, all the characters have their moments, from subtle gestures, like removing a hat near the statue of the old tsar, to inspired dialogue exchanges. Cleary’s contact at the Okhrana tells him that he clings to his words but actions make him sick, to which he replies: ‘I am afraid you’re confused. It’s the vodka I cling to and the borscht that makes me sick.’ Later, during a lovely scene in the city’s outskirts, someone describes a gypsy camp as Petrograd’s own ‘land of outcast dreams,’ where ‘one day goes to die and the next comes to be born, a feast for senses starved by a day’s doldrums.’

Despite Philip Gelatt’s ear for witty dialogue, most of the storytelling is visual, especially during the tour-de-force sequence that is Rasputin’s assassination attempt, which goes on for over thirty intense pages. Fortunately, the art couldn’t be in better hands: Tyler Crook draws with all the expressiveness and dynamism of Will Eisner, staying true to the script’s realistic tone and deliberately measured pace while crafting a melancholic atmosphere, enhanced by the sepia colors. I particularly like Petrograd’s scene transitions as the book moves from one social milieu to the next. Like Gelatt, Crooke is able to imbue every character with a sense of humanity, treating them with compassion, knowing that they are part of something much larger than they can perceive.


silas corey

I will finish with something a bit different. The French comic series Silas Corey reimagines World War I and its aftermath through the adventures of the titular hero, a snobbish private detective with an opium habit and a skilled Vietnamese assistant. Told at a breakneck pace and with undisputable zest, this is a wonderful cloak and dagger romp that, criminally, remains unpublished in English.

The first couple of books take place during the spring of 1917. In this version of history, the pacifist Joseph Caillaux is still prime minister, so the opposition leader, Georges Clemenceau, hires our hero to search for a missing journalist who appears to have found incriminating evidence linking Caillaux to the Germans. This is only the starting point for a maze-like yarn bursting with double-crosses and misdirection, in which Silas Corey manages to also be hired by the French secret services and by the ominous arms dealer Madame Zarkoff before a powerful climax at the trenches. The second arc, set immediately after the armistice, sees Corey searching for Zarkoff’s son among the communist uprising of Bavaria, getting entangled in the chilling politics of post-war Germany.

With its WWI spies frantically running around, its sudden touches of humor, and its willingness to play fast and loose with history, Silas Corey sometimes nears the lunacy of Alfred Hitchcock’s Secret Agent and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement (without ever reaching either the all-out comedy of Blackadder Goes Forth or the all-out fantasy of the recent Wonder Woman flick). Nevertheless, the comic doesn’t shy away from its grim background. In fact, the protagonist is not a mere post-Holmesian caricature – underneath his cynical posture, Corey is haunted by memories of the front…

silas corey

Pierre Alary’s art is cartoony yet vibrant, its POV constantly shifting from close-ups to wide angles. Alary fashions beautiful establishing shots and somber glances with the same panache as he delivers bloody fistfights, high-octane chases, and massive explosions. The colors are by Bruno Garcia, who gives each scene a distinctive tone, helping readers keep up as the stories quickly move from one setting to another.

As for writer Fabien Nury, suffice it to say that he is one of the strongest voices in French genre comics at the moment. He has a special flair for nifty period pieces, having written dozens of books inspired by various literary traditions. So far, my favorites are the hardboiled crime series Tyler Cross, set in the sixties, the darkly satirical The Death of Stalin, set in 1953, and the Kelly’s Heroes-esque graphic novel Comment Faire Fortune en Juin 40, set during the Second World War.


NEXT: Batman’s gadgets.

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Spy comics: black ops

As you’ve probably noticed by now, this month at Gotham Calling is all about spy fiction.

The Activity     checkmate 5     checkmate 12

The thing about spy yarns is that the tradecraft can be the real star of the story. Even when the leads aren’t particularly likable or you don’t fully support their actions, it can be satisfying enough to watch a complex operation enfold, to figure out who is playing whom, to appreciate the strategies and techniques of professionals, whether they’re German agents in WWII (like in The Eagle Has Landed) or the kind of tough American spooks David Mamet wrote about in Ronin, Spartan, and The Unit.

While a handful of suspenseful sequences, fake IDs, and double-crosses may suffice to carve out an entertaining thriller, however, some of the best works in the genre are the ones that reflect – intentionally or not – the moral ambiguity of espionage by drawing on current political issues to flesh out their narratives. This is usually the case, for example, with series about top secret government agencies that carry out special missions to serve their country’s interests.


The ActivityThe Activity

Nathan Edmondson’s and Mitch Gerads’ The Activity – which came out from 2011 to 2014 – followed a team of ‘problem solvers,’ i.e. a direct action unit within the ISA (Intelligence Support Activity) specialized in cleaning up what other outfits left behind after their missions and, occasionally, fixing their mistakes. Backed by bleeding edge technology, these operatives undertook assignments all over the world, from Mexico City to Amsterdam, from Thai prison cells to the Congolese jungle.

Although there is a military slant to several stories, most of The Activity goes for understated rather than explosive scenes. The tone is dry and realistic, with both Edmondson and Gerads clearly putting a lot of research into the comic – indeed, much like the ISA operatives in the series, the creators seem to have thoroughly thought out and carefully put together every sequence. Check out the nuanced color work on the pages above (Gerads did the coloring as well as the pencils and inks, with Kyle Latino and Jordan Gibson credited as ‘color assistants’).

The series has an episodic structure, with each issue focusing on a specific assignment, but it plays around with the format, so that it doesn’t become too repetitive. Apart from the changing goals and settings, stories zoom in on different stages of the agents’ work – its preparation, execution, or aftermath. For example, the third issue, ‘The Long Ride Home,’ takes place immediately after a failed mission in Afghanistan, with the characters comparing attitudes towards their job during their flight back (and discretely setting up future plot points).

The ActivityYou can tell Nathan Edmondson has a ball crafting the dialogue out of technical lingo and acronyms – there is even a glossary at the end of this issue (“BOHICA:  Bend Over Here It Comes Again”). The result is a smart comic with plenty of enjoyable banter, subtle characterization, and exciting spies-on-a-mission thrillers.

That said, I can see how some readers may find The Activity‘s Kathryn Bigelow-ish approach off-putting, as the series presents extrajudicial killings and torture with the same matter-of-factness it presents the many debriefing meetings (even if issue #10, ‘Out with the Trash,’ does powerfully address the question of local collateral damage). Me, I think this refusal to moralize works to the comic’s advantage, leaving it to each of us to engage with the agents’ methods on our own terms.


Checkmate 01Checkmate 01

While The Activity generally refrains from exploring the political implications of the characters’ actions, other series are more openly cynical about black ops, inviting readers to simultaneously root for the protagonists *and* question the ethics of what they are doing or who they are working for. This has been the high concept behind several team books (basically, every other WildStorm title in the ‘90s), but it was particularly prominent in comics of the late 1980s, in the aftermath of the Iran-Contra scandal and at a time when relations with the Soviet Union were improving.

It was during this period that writer Paul Kupperberg, having concluded – in the grittiest way possible – his run on the fucked up crime comic Vigilante, turned his sight on the world of espionage. At first, he combined international intrigue and superheroics in the nutzo mini-series Peacemaker (where the titular anti-hero tried to prevent Dr. Tzin-Tzin from toppling the USSR while being haunted by a projection of his dead Nazi father, who insulted him all the time) and the one-shot The Doom Patrol and Suicide Squad Special (where agents from both sides of the Iron Curtain went to Nicaragua after the jingoistic superhero Hawk got captured by the Sandinistas). Kupperberg then decided to do a more realistic take on the genre while building on the intricate intelligence community he had been developing, co-creating with artist Steve Erwin the cult series Checkmate! (with some costume designs by John Byrne).

Checkmate! followed a shadowy government agency organized around chess-related codenames (King, Bishops, Knights, etc). In true Reagan era spirit, the organization ran covert operations that sidestepped the judicial rulebook, the ends justifying the means. After a sneaky backdoor pilot in Action Comics #598, the series debuted in April 1988 with a taut three-part yarn about a secessionist plot by the American Supremacist Party (back when this kind of movement was an obvious villain, not part of the accepted White House inner circle). Later missions targeted all kinds of topical threats, from drug deals to terrorism and money counterfeit, with the comic making a point of showing us not only the field work, but also the fierce arguments and disputes taking place at the higher levels.

As you can see in the sequence above, Steve Erwin’s clean, naturalistic art, with its precise sense of geography, helped nail the down-to-earth feel of the comic while smoothly flowing from cloistered, wordy panels into knockout splashes. I really like Erwin’s double-page compositions in ‘Heat’ (Checkmate! #6), a story that keeps shifting between a Knight stuck in the Middle Eastern desert and flashbacks to his earlier operation against a smuggling network:

Checkmate 6

The protagonists kept changing from arc to arc, the focus rotating between different operatives throughout the series. The comic did suffer from too many bland agents and villains, but fortunately the supporting cast also included interesting characters that Kupperberg had introduced in Vigilante – like Checkmate’s King, Harry Stein, and the rogue Black Thorn – as well as characters from other series, like the Bishop Harvey Bullock (originally from the Batman books) and the Queen Amanda Waller (from Suicide Squad). This was a treat for DC fans, even if at first the series worked largely on its own, telling nail-biting, self-contained tales.

Indeed, like Gotham Central and Mike Grell’s Green Arrow, this was a comic that was firmly set in DC continuity yet had little interest in the kookier, supernatural side of the DC Universe. In contrast to Greg Rucka’s (excellent) take on Checkmate years later, Paul Kupperberg’s scripts and Steve Erwin’s pencils initially treated the series as a proper spy thriller rather than as a superhero book with spy elements in it. They even managed to pull off a trio of fabulous tie-ins with the mega-crossover Invasion that still felt like grounded action stories by never focusing on (or fully showing) the aliens who were attacking Earth at the time.

After a solid first year, however, Kupperberg gradually abandoned his pretension to realism, bringing in the deranged Peacemaker as a recurring character (“I love peace so much I’m willing to kill for it!”). There was also the obligatory crossover with other, more outlandish DC spy books – the 11-part ‘The Janus Directive,’ which ran across Checkmate!, Suicide Squad, Manhunter, Firestorm, and Captain Atom, pitting the US government’s various secret agencies against each other. This was a fun event, which not only ripped off the climax of Moonraker – the most amusingly over-the-top 007 film – but also included a face-off between Black Thorn and Captain Boomerang where they argued about who was the best Bond (she was into Dalton). By the final issues – with rougher art, by Gabriel Morrissette – Checkmate! had ventured into shamelessly schlocky territory, brimming with ninjas and cyborgs!


NEXT: WWI spy comics.

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Spy comics: badass thrillers

Secret     james bond     007 Eidolon

As I explained last week, throughout July I’m recommending various spy comics here at the blog, trying to show that stories of espionage can serve both as a way to expose hidden processes taking place around us and as a springboard for wild escapism.

Today, I want to focus on the subgenre of two-fisted tales revolving around fierce, stylish, ultra-competent agents – like Jason Bourne, only way more ruthless:



Secret (collected in paperback as Secret: Never Get Caught) tells the story of a group of agents from a private security company who uncover a massive conspiracy. It’s very much a post-Cold War thriller, not only in the sense that the comic is set in the information age where hackers can pull off a heist without leaving their seats, but also in the sense that the intricate plot leaves nationalist and ideological disputes behind – no one is out to destroy or defend capitalism, they just enact it in different ways.

The mini-series features byzantine intrigue, macho posturing, mutilation, chases, and shootouts, yet the bulk of it takes place in corporate settings, with characters spouting exposition while undertaking aggressive negotiations or discussing financial transactions. Fortunately, the whole thing is written by Jonathan Hickman, an expert in penning machine gun-paced dialogue with plenty of lively turns of phrase:


At the end of the day, Secret may be little more than a lean, mean genre exercise, but for fans of this type of twist-filled yarn it is a joy to see the creators play to their strengths. Jonathan Hickman (who did a much more comedic take on industrial espionage in Transhuman) brings in the usual élan and intelligence, including his signature conceptual games in the chapter titles and covers. This is matched by colorist Michael Garland, who gives each panel shades of only one or two colors, reinforcing specific moods and hinting at hidden symbols throughout the narrative. Meanwhile, Ryan Bodenheim absolutely kills on the art, conveying a constant state of tension, as if things are always on the verge of exploding – and when they finally do explode, he renders that in riveting fashion.


(Warren Ellis & Jason Masters run)

James Bond

Much of the hyper-stylized take on espionage goes back to James Bond, the swaggering, womanizing secret agent 007, of the MI6, with his license to kill and his blend of sex, sadism, and snobbery. James Bond came to life in 1953 on the pages of the novels of Ian Fleming and, since 1962, has found a popular home in a long-running movie franchise full of lavish sets, international vistas, killer sharks, sexy ‘Bond girls’ with ludicrous names, and megalomaniac villains threatening the world, often connected to the sinister organization SPECTRE. While it is easy to mock the series’ iconic formula and catchphrases (not to mention the misogyny and imperialist politics), I’m not immune to the pulpy thrills of the underwater fights in Thunderball, the ninja school in You Only Live Twice, the chase through the Indian marketplace in Octopussy, the gleeful media satire in Tomorrow Never Dies. Due to the franchise’s connotation with cheesy clichés and outrageous double entendres, when spy yarns want to be taken seriously they tend to distance themselves from Bond – but I also like it when creators try to have it both ways, presenting 007 as an old-school pro, albeit one operating in a slightly off-kilter universe.

There have been several comic books featuring James Bond and, a couple of years ago, some mad genius at Dynamite decided to let Warren Ellis have a go at the property. After all, who could be better suited to pen a series built around murderous violence, high-tech gadgets, British politics, and a dark sense of humor? Predictably, the result was a blast – easily the best Bond tales since Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale, with Ellis writing a modern 007 that is closer to the cruel-bastard-in-a-tux from the vintage novels than to the cartoonish horndog from most movies.

In ‘Vargr,’ James Bond investigates an insanely lethal drug being smuggled into the United Kingdom. In ‘Eidolon,’ a routine operation to extract a compromised agent at the LA Turkish consulate turns out to have much more far-reaching implications than expected. Along the way, you get gallons of bloody action and British wit, nastily brought to the page by Jason Masters.

James BondJames Bond

Although best known for his sci-fi and superhero comics, Warren Ellis has frequently ventured into spy fiction before, from the relatively straightforward mini-series Reload and Red to outlandish genre hybrids like Desolation Jones, Global Frequency, and Ultimate Human. He feels right at home here, returning James Bond to a world of trade jargon and technobabble while making a point of downplaying some of the franchise’s dated tropes by giving us a multicultural Britain as well as a number of strong female characters. Plus, the comic can be outright funny, especially the running gag about 007 no longer being allowed to carry a gun in the UK.

Since this relaunch, Dynamite has been putting out other James Bond series in the same vein as the Ellis/Masters run. In particular, Andy Diggle’s and Luca Casalanguida’s ‘Hammerhead’ is rather swell, with its relentless forward momentum and its jabs at the Brexit zeitgeist (luckily, it has nothing to do with the campy 1968 Bond rip-off of the same name).


NEXT: Even more spy comics.

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Spy comics: revisiting the Cold War

Every once in a while, I like to shift gears and spotlight comics or films set outside Gotham City. Once a year, I take this one step further and devote a whole month to non-Batman comics.

This time around, I want to focus on one of my all-time favorite genres: spy fiction.

coldest city     coldest winter     velvet

It’s not hard to see why espionage has become the source of so many gripping tales. Besides the thrill of being allowed into an exclusive club of people who secretly shape our collective destiny, there are all kinds of storytelling devices embedded into the genre’s premise – after all, you know there is always something underneath the surface and a plot twist waiting around the corner because the key characters, almost by definition, lie and deceive for a living, manipulating their audience while hiding who they are.

The Cold War gave a big boost to this genre, not only because every corner of the world seemed to be a potential target of intelligence networks and covert operations, but also because a number of outstanding works left a long-lasting mark on pop culture – movies like North by Northwest and Dr. No, television shows like Mission: Impossible and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the novels of Len Deighton and John le Carré.  Even though there is plenty of spy fiction being written today, much of it still goes back to those seminal texts and, in fact, much of it is still set during that era when agents had to rely more on their wits than on their computers.

With that in mind, this week I will spotlight a couple of recent comic series that revisited the underworld of Cold War cloak and dagger.



          The Coldest City

2012’s graphic novel The Coldest City, written by Antony Johnston and illustrated by Sam Hart, is a tight, labyrinthine mystery yarn set in Berlin during the days leading up to the fall of the wall. After the murder of an MI6 officer, London sends agent Lorraine Broughton to track down a Stasi list with the names and positions of every spy in town, but – as is usually the case in this kind of stories – nothing is entirely what it seems.

As a tale of espionage, The Coldest City falls into the John le Carré mold, with most of the action consisting of long, cryptic conversations between people who know the game and are slightly tired of playing it. The fun is not just figuring out what everyone is saying through their tradecraft talk, but also figuring out what they are *not* saying (yet probably implying). Despite the occasional shootout, this is more of a book of subtle clues and dead drops in dark alleys.

While Antony Johnston doesn’t go as far as le Carré in terms of characterization – the characters here are essentially chess pieces – he still provides neat little touches, as the local agents keep acting condescendingly towards Lorraine because a) she is a woman in a boys’ club, b) she has a less than perfect command of the German language, and c) she has never operated in Berlin. (In the tradition of classics like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Funeral in Berlin, the comic presents this German city as the beating heart of the Cold War, hence the title.)

The Coldest City

Between the codename-heavy dialogue, the realistic vibe, the likable British female lead, and Sam Hart’s high-contrast art, it’s hard not to compare The Coldest City to Greg Rucka’s masterful spy comic Queen & Country. That said, this book does get bonus points for the 1989 setting, exploring that Cold War stage when various members of the intelligence community were beginning to suspect the glory days were behind them and the world as they knew it was coming to an end.

Last year, Antony Johnston delivered another cynical noirish thriller set in Berlin, starring a few of the same characters, with even more snow and shadows thrown in. The Coldest Winter, with art by Steven Perkins, takes place in the winter of 1981/1982 and revolves around an attempt to help an ill Russian scientist defect to the West. One of the many challenges is that the city’s trains and planes are grounded because of the weather, so the MI6 must keep the old man hidden for a while and the whole thing turns into a clever game of cat-and-mouse.



With its gimmicky gadgets, stylish cars, and kinetic action scenes, Velvet falls more on the Ian Fleming end of the genre’s spectrum, albeit with some modern revisionist twists (the high concept is usually described as ‘What if Miss Moneypenny was James Bond?’). In the early 1970s, Velvet Templeton, a former secret agent turned secretary for ARC-7 (a remnant of an Allied espionage group from World War II), goes back in the game to investigate the murder of ‘the best field op in the world’ and ends up unraveling a conspiracy within her own organization.

The series is written by Ed Brubaker, who, in his typical more-tell-than-show approach, crafts a well-rounded, genuinely kickass protagonist. What makes this such a damn fine read though, is the luscious look courtesy of artist Steve Epting and colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser… Velvet may not have anything particularly deep to say about Cold War politics, but – much like Jean-Christophe Thibert’s Kaplan & Masson books or Alex de Campi’s, Tony Parker’s, and Blond’s Codename: Felix series (starting with Mayday) – it effectively draws on the era’s aesthetics and resonance in popular imagination to provide a cool background for globetrotting intrigue full of quasi-cinematic fights and chases.


Ed Brubaker had already proven his superior skill at plotting paranoid super-spy narratives with Sleeper and his run on Captain America (the latter also illustrated by Steve Epting). Here, however, he drops the goofy masks and magical elements as he embraces glamorous high adventure.

Fast-paced yet with an impeccable sense of mise-en-scène, sexy yet not quite sleazy, slick yet with close attention to period detail, Velvet is as moody and elegant as it is thrilling!

NEXT: More spy comics.

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