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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On the beat with Renee Montoya and Harvey Bullock

detective comics #691Detective Comics #691
Man-Bat (v3) #2Man-Bat (v3) #2
Detective Comics #702Detective Comics #702
Detective Comics 705Detective Comics #705
The Joker - Devil's AdvocateThe Joker – Devil’s Advocate
Detective Comics 708Detective Comics #708
Nightwing #23Nightwing #23
Batman 547Batman #547
Batman vs Predator III #1Batman vs Predator III #1


NEXT: Spy comics.

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Kelley Jones’ horrific Batman

haunted gotham

Kelley Jones is one of the most divisive Batman artists. His Dark Knight has absurdly long ears that look like devilish horns and fingers that look like claws. And it’s not just Batman who feels like a nightmarish hallucination: most characters in Kelley Jones’ comics tend to be downright grotesque (with the occasional cartoonishly voluptuous lady). As a result, many fans consider Jones’ art amazing horror, while many others consider it amazingly horrible.

Me, I’m mostly fascinated that such an eccentric artist, more than being given a chance to draw the odd one-shot or out-of-continuity mini-series, actually got to pencil the mainstream Batman title for four years! After all, we’re talking someone whose style often crosses the border into black metal album territory:

detective comics 651          detective comics 661

(You can hear those guitars getting goddamned shredded to death!)

Kelley Jones’ most blatant sources of inspiration range from Bosch’s hellscape paintings to Escher’s freaky litographs as well as classic horror films (especially German expressionism and those old Universal monster movies). The latter influence, in particular, is plastered all over his props and poses:

batman 493          batman 520

detective comics 671          batman unseen

(Yes, the last one probably owes more to 50s’ sci-fi schlock.)

Jones is cleary a fan of the horror genre. In Batman #541, he has the Spectre pull off a straight-up homage to Alien. In Batman #548, the design of one of the key players seems inspired by Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein monster. Outside of Gotham City, Jones was responsible for ‘Calliope,’ one of the creepiest issues of The Sandman (which is saying something).

Given this affinity, it’s no wonder Kelley Jones made his Batman debut with a Dracula story, back in 1991. It became the first of an Elseworlds trilogy in which the Caped Crusader eventually turned into a bloodthirsty vampire. This was followed by another special featuring a monstrous version of Batman: Dark Joker – The Wild, a gory sword & sorcery yarn that sounds like the kind of sick fairy tale people would tell each other in Westeros (it also established the team of penciller Kelley Jones, inker John Beatty, and writer Doug Moench, who became regular collaborators).

Dark Joker The WildDark Joker – The Wild

In the cannonical DCU line, Kelley Jones became a popular cover artist, illustrating several iconic covers in the early nineties, most notably during the Knightfall story-arc. Jones began to draw interiors with Batman #515 (cover-dated February 1995), where he was put in charge of revealing Batman’s post-Prodigal look… and, of course, it turned out to be the most demonic thing you could imagine:

Batman515Batman #515

(As if the horns and grim expression were not enough, his feet look like cloven hoofs…)

As you can see, even though he was no longer working under the Elseworlds banner, Kelley Jones continued to draw the Dark Knight like a muscular vampiric beast. It wasn’t a brief stunt either – Jones stuck around, pencilling most issues until Batman #552 (plus a handful of standalone tales afterwards), without ever softening his über-gothic aesthetics.

This choice would’ve felt bold by itself, but what made it even more extreme was the fact that Doug Moench’s scripts at the time were as over-the-top as Jones’ pencils, treating Batman’s world like a macabre comedy that filtered adult themes through the distorted fantasies of a traumatized child. For a while, the flagship Batman series seemed to take the spirit of the Tim Burton films and blow it up with the kind of flair for wild exaggeration you found in early Image Comics. Here was one of the weirdest pairings at one of the weirdest times in comic book history.

batman 516          batman 542

Complemented by John Beatty’s thick inks and Greg Wright’s psycho colors, the ensuing run kept treading a narrow line between seriously ugly comics and luscious-looking comics that happened to have ugly people in them.

Batman 521Batman #521

(Those purple pants have got to be a nod to the Hulk, right?)

Not only was Doug Moench writing specifically for Kelley Jones’ twisted sensibility, but you could tell his stories were essentially pretexts for Jones to have a go at all the main villains in Batman’s rogues’ gallery. Thus, in these issues, Jones put his unmistakable spin on the Joker, Black Mask, Killer Croc, Scarecrow, Mr. Freeze, Two-Face, Poison Ivy, Man-Bat, Penguin, and Clayface. It was an epic run, even if we never found out who the hell was the mysterious puppeteer that kept showing up in the background…

In order to make the most out of Jones’ knack for surreal, bone-chilling imagery, Moench packed the comics with supernatural creatures, including guest appearances by DC’s spookiest anti-heroes:

batman 522          batman 530

batman 540          batman 544

For example, in Batman #530-532, Jones got to revisit the skull-headed version of Deadman he had introduced a few years before. The poor ghost possessed a corpse that was visibly decomposing throughout the story – a crazy adventure in which the Dark Knight traveled to Peru to face evil mercenaries and restless Inca spirits…

Batman 531Batman #531

(Still, as Peru adventures go, it’s not as crazy as that comic Moench wrote back in the ‘70s, where he had Doc Savage fight the Peruvian version of Mothra before uncovering the radioactive ruins of a lost civilization in the Amazon and learning that the Mayans had actually descended from alien test tube babies!)

There is something malignant and disturbing about Kelley Jones’ linework – it isn’t always pleasant to look at, but it’s full of extravagant, interesting touches. Famously, as shown by the image above, one of the features of Jones’ gargoyle-looking Batman is that he has fantastically long capes.

Batman Red RainRed Rain
Gotham after Midnight 8Gotham After Midnight #8

As if this wasn’t enough to create a ridiculously goth vibe, Jones also has a thing for shadows, which he sometimes combines with his cape fetishism:

Batman 518Batman #518

It isn’t just the deformed bodies and impractical costumes that make Kelley Jones’ pencils so special. His buoyant art has a malleable feel, coming alive on the page. Plus, Jones’ drawings of everyday objects and architecture are a strange mishmash of medieval, Victorian, and retro-futuristic designs, which creates a quasi-mythical, out-of-time atmosphere, as if Gotham was one of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.

Hell, this is how Jones visualizes the Batcave:

gotham after midnight 3Gotham After Midnight #3

That said, what really gets me is the way Kelley Jones tends to playfully adorn his comics with all sorts of nifty ornaments. He sometimes draws the Dark Knight peeking from the corners of pages, beyond the panels, as if somehow outside the narrative, looking in. There are also small thematic drawings at the beginning of each issue, like the historiated initial of an ancient manuscript.

Take a look at these chapter headings:

Batman Unseen     Batman Unseen     Batman Unseen     Batman Unseen

Batman: Unseen #1

And what about these Next Issue previews:

batman 517Batman #517
Batman 522Batman #522
Batman #524Batman #524
Batman 528Batman #528

By framing the comics with these beautiful side illustrations instead of just the usual text title and final blurb, Kelley Jones blurs the line between the main action and outside elements commenting on it.

The 2008-2009 twelve-issue series Gotham After Midnight went even further, as letterer Pat Brosseau integrated the opening credits into the early images of most issues… It’s hardly a new technique, but it expands the effect Jones seems to be going for. And it’s always cool to see the credits list on newspapers blowing in the wind, restaurant menus, tombstones, party banners, balloons, and even written through fire flames:

batman unseen 12Gotham After Midnight #12

Visually, Gotham After Midnight is one of the high points of Kelley Jones’ ventures into Batman comics. For once, Jones inked himself and the colors were by Michelle Madsen, whose autumnal choices turned out to be a perfect fit for his Halooween-esque artwork. The story was penned by Steve Niles, an obvious partner in crime – after all, Steve Niles is also hugely into classic horror and, while I don’t think he’s particularly talented, in his best days Niles still manages to write slightly better than Doug Moench in his worst days.

Much like the nineties’ Batman run, Gotham After Midnight reads like a string of set pieces designed to let Kelley Jones unleash one remarkable image after another, reminiscient of every horror trope in the book. You’ll find yourself taking in precious little moments, like when Commissioner Gordon’s pipe smoke turns into a silhouette of the Caped Crusader or when the Batcave’s screens and lamps all turn into tiny versions of the Bat-Signal as a warning that the police is calling – and then you flip the page and you’re blasted away by the awesome sight of a gigantic Clayface attacking the city!

Notably, the drawings are full of F.W. Murnau riffs, culminating in what is possibly the most Kelley Jones Batman panel ever:

gotham after midnight 12Gotham After Midnight #12

NEXT: On the beat with the GCPD.

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Things you can learn from Barbara Gordon comics

Besides kicking ass as Batgirl, over the years Barbara Gordon has been a librarian, a member of Congress, and a first-rate hacker who – under the codename Oracle – supplied intelligence to the crime-fighting community of Gotham City. The combination of these traits has meant that comics featuring Babs tend to incorporate all kinds of interesting factoids and geeky tidbits of information, making them not only entertaining but also highly pedagogical.

For example, in ‘The Million Dollar Debut of Batgirl!’ you can learn about the market price of the Bay Psalm Book:

detective comics 359Detective Comics #359

And from ‘Batgirl’s Costume Cut-Ups!’ you can learn about Austrian sport habits:

detective comics 371Detective Comics #371

‘The Invader from Hell’ teaches us about Benedict Arnold, the American Revolutionary War colonel, through a story in which he seemingly comes back from the dead and kicks Barbara’s ass:

batman family 1batman family 1Batman Family #1

More recently, in ‘Son of Penguin – part 2,’ I learned that the reason I cannot understand kids today is because they are literally speaking another language…

Batgirl 8Batgirl (v3) #8

Finally, from ‘Nuclear Roulette’ (the climax of an arc in which the Joker launches a bunch of cruise missiles towards New York City), you can learn that writer Chuck Dixon, sixteen years before penning the anti-Bill & Hillary graphic novel Clinton Cash, already enjoyed taking digs at leaders of the Democratic Party…

Birds of Prey 17Birds of Prey #17

NEXT: The most gothic art ever.

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Scars of Vietnam in Gotham City

As an embodiment of changing fads and obsessions of US pop culture, Batman’s adventures could hardly stay immune to the social impact of the Vietnam War. And while the Caped Crusader’s TV incarnation could initially be seen advertising war bonds, the comic books went on to plaster Gotham City with several reminders of the physical and psychological toll of that conflict.

This goes back to the war era itself. In the classic ‘The Silent Night of the Batman’ (cover-dated February 1970, written by Mike Friedrich, with art by Neal Adams and Dick Giordano), we briefly meet a woman who seems desperate about her husband fighting abroad…

BATMAN 219Batman #219

While crying at the edge of a Gotham bridge, she looks at the water and appears to gain a new sense of hope as she notices the shape of the bridge’s shadow:

BATMAN 219Batman #219

It’s such a powerful image. Darn it if Adams doesn’t seamlessly pull off the parallel between the shadow and the bat-symbol… It reminds us that this symbol can be an inspiration for average citizens as much as it can be a source of terror for the foes of the Dark Knight.

Two issues later, Mike Friedrich briefly returned to the topic in ‘Hot Time in Gotham Town Tonight!,’ which revolved around an African-American soldier who brought back an idol from Vietnam with an evil demon trapped inside (subtle, I know). Friedrich was 20-years-old at the time and this problem was clearly on his mind. As I mentioned before, he also wrote ‘The Private War of Johnny Dune!,’ in which Batman and the rest of the Justice League of America faced a disgruntled vet who used his hypnotic voice to mobilize the youth to march against the power!

justice league of america 95

Frank Robbins, who was well into his fifties, engaged with the conflict’s impact in his own eccentric way by creating a couple of very different recurring characters: Jason Bard, a private detective who walked around with a cane because of a crippling injury sustained in Vietnam, and Philip Reardon, a blind villain who had his optic nerves reconnected into his fingertips and called himself the Ten-Eyed-Man.

The latter actually started out well enough… Before going blind, Reardon was established as an efficient veteran of the Special Forces who knew how to keep an eye out for danger by making use of unexpected angles:

Batman 226Batman 226Batman #226

In another neat bit of foreshadowing, we learned that during the war an enemy grenade fragment had lodged itself onto his forehead, earning him the nickname of ‘Three-Eye’ Reardon. Soon, however, Philip Reardon’s saga spiraled out of control… He lost his sight in a blast, blamed Batman for it, and – equipped with his freaky fingertip vision – set out for vengeance.

His most elaborate revenge scheme involved hijacking a goddamn airplane and convincing the White House to exchange the Caped Crusader for the hostages, so that Reardon could fight Batman on his turf, i.e. the Vietnamese DMZ:

BATMAN 231BATMAN 231Batman #231

As plans go, it is a particularly outlandish one, even for the standards of Batman’s rogues gallery. However, as a result, this issue – published in early 1971 – can be seen as somewhat demystifying the allure of combat in an era when kids were still being shipped out to the jungle… In a roundabout way, the comic called attention to the brutal violence of the weapons being used on the ground (like the ‘bouncing betty,’ described as “a devilish land-mine used by the Cong”).

It also heavily implied that the reason the Ten-Eyed-Man had come up with such a kooky scheme in the first place was because he had not returned from the war without a degree of PTSD…

Batman 231Batman #231

Now, there have been many great works written about the trauma and the challenges of coming back from the war and the soldiers’ difficulty in reintegrating into a society that would rather pretend they didn’t exist, but leave it to Batman comics to assign these problems to the oddest characters. When Mike W. Barr and Jim Aparo tackled the topic on the pages of Batman and the Outsiders, instead of the angst-ridden John Rambo of First Blood or even the desensitized Frank Castle of Marvel’s Punisher fame, we got this dude:

Batman and the Outsiders 03Batman and the Outsiders #3

(The best part is that he wasn’t really disfigured, just looking for a pretext to fight another war…)

In Legends of the Dark Knight #91-93, the king of war comics, Garth Ennis, gave us yet another goofy villain to come out of Vietnam in the form of Doctor Freak, a batshit crazy hippie who sought to get all of Gotham tripping on acid.

Rory Regan – also known as the Jewish superhero Ragman – is a (relatively) less obscure Gothamite veteran. The impact of Vietnam was not a big deal in his original series (1976-1977), but writers Keith Giffen and Robert Loren Fleming gave it more prominence in the 1991 reboot… This is how they introduced their protagonist on the very first couple of pages:

Ragman 1Ragman 1Ragman (v2) #1

This version of Rory Regan went on to star in the 1993 mini-series Ragman: Cry of the Dead, by Elaine Lee and Gabriel Morrissette. It was a gritty horror comic, set in New Orleans, which revolved around a demon who viciously avenged dead children… That series showed how the Vietnam War continued to haunt Rory’s dreams, drawing a parallel between the abusive parents in the story and the US government, who had drafted innocent kids and then put them through Hell.

That said, I don’t think any writer went farther than Alan Grant in terms of repeatedly conveying to readers that the legacy of this conflict was still around on the streets of Gotham. Always one to wear his politics on his sleeve, Grant kept bringing up the lingering brutality of war in his stories… In Detective Comics #590, a terrorist cell committed a massacre at the ‘Nam Vets’ Club (Commissioner Gordon: “It makes me sick to my gut! Those vets have had more than their share of suffering already!”). In Detective Comics #616, Batman tried to stop a demonic sacrifice at Gotham’s War Vet’s hospital. In Shadow of the Bat #6, an ultra-patriot violently lashed out at anti-Vietnam War protesters and ended up being recruited by the CIA, who then somehow amplified his patriotism to even more insane levels through judicious doses of LSD, deep hypnosis, and sensory deprivation. He became a super-jerk, under the codename ‘The Ugly American.’ (And yes, just in case you miss the point, there’s totally a moment when Batman tells a CIA agent: “You called him the Ugly American – but the truth is, you and your goons are the real ugly Americans!”)

Alan Grant’s most long-lasting contribution – co-created with the brilliant artist Norm Breyfogle – was Legs, an opinionated homeless alcoholic who lost his lower limbs due to an anti-personnel mine in Vietnam (or as he put it: “I didn’t lose ‘em… I know exactly where they are… Spread over twenty meters of the Mekong Delta!”). Legs made his debut in the awesome three-part arc ‘Night People’ (Detective Comics #587-589), back in 1988:

Detective Comics 587Detective Comics #587

Legs’ first big moment near the spotlight came up the following year, with ‘Anarky in Gotham City’ (Detective Comics #608-609). In this arc, Legs began supporting the vigilante Anarky after a bank bought the piece of land where he lived – also known as ‘Cardboard City’ – and kicked him and his buddies out.

Detective Comics 609Detective Comics #609

Anarky convinced the homeless crew to attack the construction site. When Batman took the side of the establishment, they attacked him and Legs actually managed to catch the Dark Knight by surprise:

Detective Comics 609Detective Comics #609

(You’ve got to love Batman’s expression in that final panel. Gods bless you, Norm Breyfogle!)

When Grant and Breyfogle moved from Detective Comics to Batman, they took the homeless crew with them. The crew showed up in ‘Identity Crisis’ (Batman #455), where they had a nice scene with photojournalist Vicki Vale, who was doing a piece about homelessness for the Gotham View magazine (it came out in Batman #460). They were also attacked by the city’s latest serial killer and Legs was one of the few survivors.

The cranky vet continued to work with Anarky. In ‘Tomorrow Belongs To Us’ (Batman Chronicles #1), he helped the iconoclastic vigilante break into the headquarters of a billionaire media owner. Grant and Breyfogle brought Legs back once again for their 1997 Anarky mini-series. Moreover, Batman saved him when he got trapped in the rubble following the earthquake of the depressing Cataclysm crossover (Shadow of the Bat #74).

I’ll wrap up with a comic in which we gained a deeper insight into Legs’ experience. In a short tale set in the aftermath of Knightfall, Legs (with a slightly different look, courtesy of Mike Vosburg, Ron McCain, and Dave Hornung) bumped into a homeless Jean-Paul Valley, then recently kicked out of a stint as AzBats. In this memorable sequence, Legs reminded the sad bastard that, as gritty and angsty as comic book heroes got in the early ‘90s, they should at least take some consolation over the fact that they lived outside of the real world:

Showcase ’94 #10Showcase ’94 #10Showcase ’94 #10

NEXT: What you can learn from Batgirl comics.

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Bombastic sci-fi comics

After the last couple of weeks in the fields of politics and technology, it’s beginning to feel like we’re at the verge of an era when the most farfetched science fiction will become true – not just Children of Men and Black Mirror, but also Idiocracy and They Live. (Or, to put it on a Ben Elton scale, not just Blind Faith, but This Other Eden.) Yet, even though it may seem increasingly hard to provide a sense of strangeness in such already strange times, I know I can count on this genre to continue to come up with marvelous, fascinating worlds and scenarios. For one thing, there is a truly long and proud tradition of imaginative yarns that have pulled it off on the big screen.

As immersive and exhilarating as films can be, though, today I want to draw your attention to a handful of sci-fi comics from the last decade or so that have pushed storytelling beyond cinematic effects and limitations in order to give you an experience you couldn’t get in any other medium:


the wake

“You tricked us into coming a mile beneath the ocean to be trapped in a tin can with a wild animal none of us know anything about. The one thing I do know is that the thing in that tank is saying something. It’s talking to us.”

While I’m not the biggest fan of Scott Snyder’s work on Batman, one thing I like about his writing is the ability to keep a pulse-pounding momentum by constantly throwing curveballs at the reader. The ten-issue series The Wake is a perfect example of this craft: after starting out with a Michael Crichton-like nail-biter about scientists studying an eerie merman, each issue keeps upping the ante, giving the story a larger and larger scope, jumping between the distant past and far into the future, so that before you notice it you’re reading about giant squids and post-apocalyptic pirates. Impressively, Snyder keeps you invested even as he radically shifts the settings, atmosphere, and protagonists.

I can think of no one better to illustrate this book than Sean Murphy, who can basically take anything a writer throws at him and make it look amazing, whether it’s an elaborate deep ocean oil rig (‘Yes, it’s a secret. No, it’s not legal. But, it has the potential to extract nearly two hundred thousand barrels a day, so there it is.’) or a pre-historic shark jumping over the corpse of a freaking mammoth. Murphy’s textured, expansive visuals – with stylish colors by Matt Hollingsworth – are a major asset to any tale looking to reimagine the world in a way that feels at once recognizable and vastly outlandish. (No wonder Mark Millar chose the same team for Chrononauts.) And if much of the art still recreates the devices and pacing of cinema, The Wake nevertheless shows how far one can go when unrestrained by budgets or special effects…

The Wake

From the early claustrophobic horror of the underwater rig sequences to the sorta New Age ending, this sprawling, ambitious ode to adventure and exploration takes you on a thrill-packed journey of the highest order.


pax romana

“Is this providence, a gift from God himself, or yet another in the long line of arrogant, Babel-like displays of humanity?”

What if the Vatican developed time travel technology and sent a bunch of mercenaries into the past to strengthen the rule of Emperor Constantine I? Such an off-the-wall high concept seems to beg for a wild and shamelessly ludicrous approach – and Jonathan Hickman is certainly no stranger to comics that are simultaneously clever, funny, and weird (such as Transhuman or The Manhattan Projects). Yet Pax Romana plays its preposterous premise completely straight.

Sidestepping anachronistic action scenes, Hickman focuses on the theological and technical discussions surrounding the mercenaries’ mission and – even when rendering these in the form of extended transcripts – manages to make them engrossing as hell. He has a knack for forceful, riveting lines: “We will do whatever it takes to destroy the past and create a greater future.”; “This will be a mission of enlightenment, not conquest or thuggery.”; “Your life of misdirected violence has come to an end – from here on out, there is pardon for your sins.” – there are just so many of these…

It also helps that Hickman’s unparalleled sense of design smoothly draws you in, shaping the narrative through footnotes, maps, and infographics that would look out of place on a more conventional book but which are perfectly integrated here. I especially love the way the first chapter drops hints about the strange future in which the original timeline begins.

Pax Romana

Underneath Pax Romana’s psychedelic colors, experimental layouts, and inventive approaches to infodumping, there is a terrific speculative tale about religion and imperialism, projecting their logical outcome if faced with the possibility of an extra-temporal crusade.



“Nuke them alphabetically. I think it displays a feeling of casual contempt.”

How can a series rock this hard and practically fade into obscurity? In a cyberpunk dystopia where the dead began drifting into cities all over the world, grazing off the electromagnetic waste of a billion wirelessly connected consumables, Detective Exorcist Alice Hotwire rides around in a motorcycle chasing ghosts (officially called ‘blue-lights’ or ‘transient ego-forms’).

Based on a story idea from Warren Ellis, phenomenally developed and brought to life by writer/artist Steve Pugh, Hotwire is such a kick-ass character: the brilliant, snarky daughter of a hippy hacktivist, she is both a tough cop (at the Necro-Forensics Department) and an idealist crusader against the abuses of the police force. What’s more, like the hero of Mike Carey’s very cool Felix Castor series, Hotwire is an exorcist who doesn’t believe in ghosts, which makes her all the more pissed off at the damned ‘blue-lights’ for apparently flying in the face of science.

That said, while Felix Castor combines noir mystery with occult horror, Hotwire is hardcore sci-fi all the way. Its futuristic world is fully fleshed out, with Pugh sprinkling clever details all over the art and dialogue.


There are two Hotwire mini-series and both have been collected, as ‘Requiem for the Dead’ and ‘Deep Cut.’ Much like Steve Pugh’s earlier cult-worthy masterwork, the fabulous Shark-Man – which, rather than just another superhero shark comic, is basically Batman-on-acid (and if you think Batman stories already feel like an acid trip, then imagine Batman-on-even-more-acid) – these comics may not be easy to find, but they’re damn well worth the effort to track down!


black science

“We call this construct “the onion.” Layer upon layer of parallel dimensions. The Pillar is a tool that pushes through these layers, allowing us to travel to these other worlds. Each layer represents an immeasurable number of realities, each created from the choices made by every living being in the universe. Once we map them, we can find the solution to every problem mankind faces.”

After the sabotage of a machine designed for interdimensional travel, Grant McKay and other ‘dimensionauts’ of the Anarchist League of Scientists become doomed to run throughout the Eververse, randomly skipping from one parallel planet to the next. The whole thing is pretty much style over substance, but what an entertaining style it is: always one to downplay scientific rigor in favor balls-to-the-wall excitement (“We have to go to the center of the onion”), writer Rick Remender never lets the series slow down for long, filling each issue with desperate chases and killing off regular characters – usually through laser decapitations – while quickly establishing a plethora of alternate realities, like the one in which Native Americans invaded Europe or the one in which Egyptian pharaohs evolved into gangsters. This is a viciously frantic and delirious comic, particularly suited for fans of the latest Guardians of the Galaxy.

And, above all, it looks great. Not only does Matteo Scalera populate the various worlds with all sorts of fantastical creatures and vegetation, he tends to sprinkle many of the panels with inkblots, giving the comic a punk look that enhances the overall unhinged, cartoony vibe. The result is pure eye candy, especially in the early issues, which were painted by Dean White:

Black ScienceBlack Science

On top of the sci-fi trappings, the dimension-hopping framework allows Black Science to merge different genres, from war stories to sword & sorcery, from retro-futuristic dystopias to dark fairy tales. There are quirky spins on tropes such as anthropomorphic animals and ultra-violent superheroes, not to mention obvious echoes of Remender’s beloved cosmic adventure series Fear Agent.


captain victory

“Let our Tiger batteries sing their fiery hymn of destruction!”

Speaking of pulpy cosmic adventure: originally created by the insanely prolific Jack Kirby in 1981, Captain Victory is the commander of the Dreadnaught Tiger, a spaceship used by the Galactic Rangers as they protect the galaxy from threats like the evil Insectons and Paranex, the Fighting Fetus. A key gimmick is that Captain Victory keeps bravely dying and his memories are then transferred to one of multiple contingency clones. Also – and even though this is not a DC comic – he is probably the grandson of Darkseid. Plus, the whole thing is ultimately a goofy allegory about tolerance and war and the future of mankind and the purpose of life. (Yep, Kirby was awesome.)

After a few unremarkable attempts to revive this property, Dynamite finally struck gold a couple of years ago with a six-issue mini-series by the wonder team of writer Joe Casey, artist Nathan Fox, colorist Brad Simpson, and letterer Simon Bowland (with additional art by Jim Rugg, Ulises Farinas, Michael Fiffe, and Jim Mahfood, among others). The story, told on overdrive, kicks off with an attack on Dreadnaught Tiger that destroys Captain Victory’s body bank, which leads to the jettisoning of two clones that haven’t finished downloading the captain’s identity yet (one is a teenager who ends up in late-70s’ New York City, the other is a reused corpse who becomes a space barbarian). The crew then tries to track down the lost clones, physically and telepathically.

Captain Victory and the Galactica Rangers

The series’ creative team does a stupendous job of channeling Jack Kirby at his best – rather than going for a straight-up pastiche of Kirby’s style, they capture the spirit of his most memorable comics, making each page an explosion of color and energy and mind-expanding ideas and weird-looking aliens shouting stuff like ‘Make room for the uber-evolved!’ Moreover, Joe Casey has a field day with the implied connection between Captain Victory and the New Gods, sneaking into the climax a number of nods to Kirby’s masterpiece, The Fourth World.

(It’s a shame Casey hasn’t given us a follow-up to this mini-series, but at least Fabian Rangel Jr and Alexis Ziritt have been cranking out what feels like a fucked up homage to Kirby’s Captain Victory in the form of their Space Riders comics.)



The being we call God is a deranged prisoner of war from another universe? Jailed on an asteroid? Itself the remnant of a lost world?

Grant Morrison’s return to twisted, esoteric science fiction – a la The Invisibles and The Filth – opens with a convoluted dream heist sequence before shaping up into a gory yarn about an occult consultant on a mission to prevent a brutalist-looking asteroid from colliding with Earth. However, Nameless gradually unravels layers upon layers, especially after multiple readings, so that what you think is the main plot may be a secondary dimension of the story, the obvious heroes turn out to be the villains, and a space action thriller becomes a mystical horror tale of epic proportions. (In other words, after oudoing Christopher Nolan’s Inception, it goes on to outdo Ridley Scott’s Prometheus.)

More than the abundance of brain-scratching concepts, what makes Nameless such an incredible ride is its non-linear narrative. The comic keeps bombarding you with scattered information, targeting your subconscious with cryptic lines of dialogue, disconnected images, obscure references, shifting color palettes (courtesy of Nathan Fairbairn), and recurring themes (so many keys and doors!). This makes for a confusing read at first, but once it clicks, you’ll find yourself rearranging all the elements in your mind.

Adding to this effect, Grant Morrison’s partner in crime is the wonderful Chris Burnham, whose art is full of disorienting angles and overwhelming visuals.


Morrison explained some of their approach in the book’s back matter: “From the expressionistic panel shapes and page layouts to the multi-levelled, entangled symbols and irrational, dreamlike cadence, Nameless was to be a work of nightmare logic, incorporating within its sticky web a number of horror story tropes: possession, home invasion, cosmic monsters, visceral gross-out scenes, existential nihilistic despair, a séance in a haunted house, serial killers, Hell and the breakdown of civilization into barbaric chaos, among other classics of the genre.” By fusing these tropes with Mayan and cabalistic mythology (along with other magical and philosophical traditions), Nameless gives us an unforgettable alien invasion saga where the alien is ultimately an idea that has already invaded us.


NEXT: Batman in Vietnam.

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An average week in the life of Robin


Robin 21Robin (v4) #21


Devil's AdvocateThe Joker: Devil’s Advocate


Robin 15Robin (v4) #15


Catwoman 25Catwoman (v2) #25


robin-annual 1Robin Annual #1


Batman vs Predator 3Batman vs Predator III #4


detective comics 685detective comics 685Detective Comics #685


NEXT: Science fiction.

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When Batman comics meet courtroom dramas

From Jimmy Stewart’s captivating performance in Anatomy of a Murder to the shocking reversals in Witness for the Prosecution, from the noirish colonial atmosphere of 1940’s The Letter to the underdog-getting-his-groove-back formula of 1982’s The Verdict, from the gripping climax of every episode of Law & Order to that twisted scene at the beginning of Better Call Saul, for decades we’ve been getting some of our best fiction in the form of courtroom drama. Trial cases are just ripe for this kind of exploitation, what with the clearly-defined conflict between (at least) two parties, the crime investigation angle, the psychological tricks that go with the questioning, the palpable tension in the room, all those rules and rituals, the emotional final speeches, and the suspenseful build-up until the verdict/resolution is announced.

Nevertheless, this is one genre that hasn’t found much of a place in Batman comics, perhaps because it revolves around characters pursuing justice by standing there (or sitting down) and talking to each other for a very long time, whereas stories about the Dark Knight tend to go more for masked vigilantes jumping off buildings and quickly kicking thugs in the face.

Sure, there have been a few exceptions… The Caped Crusader’s crazy world has spilled into the court system on more than one occasion:

Detective Comics 199          Detective Comics 281

‘Stepping Forward’ (Gotham Adventures #35) has Bruce Wayne assigned jury duty, which means he has to decide whether or not to convict a man Batman helped arrest. In a cool twist on the classic 12 Angry Men (another powerful trial movie), all the jury members think the defendant is not guilty, so it’s up to Bruce to convince them otherwise.

The brilliant graphic novel The Joker: Devil’s Advocate has a lot of fun showing us what happens when the Clown Prince of Crime is taken to court, after a killing spree over the fact that he was not included in a special stamp collection about comedians. I’ve always loved Chuck Dixon’s sick take on the Joker and this story is probably the best he’s done with the character (other strong contenders include Robin: The Joker’s Wild, The Demon Laughs, and ‘Fool’s Errand,’ from Detective Comics #726, plus that time the Joker tried to do a film about murdering AzBats). I really can’t recommend this book enough!

Moreover, in ‘The Outlaw Batman’ (Detective Comics #240), the Caped Crusader is arrested and trialed on the suspicion that he has been playing a double game for years, keeping part of the loot of the crimes he has stopped. This one is a typically delirious Silver Age tale that doesn’t make a lick of sense, but it is not entirely devoid of a sort of goofball charm. Plus, let’s face it, this wouldn’t be the oddest crime to happen in Gotham City anyway:

detective comics 240Detective Comics #240

There is also a small tradition of stories in which the rogues’ gallery organizes wacky mockeries of the judicial system, from the wonderful ‘Where Were You On the Night Batman Was Killed?’ (Batman #291-294) to the BTAS episode ‘Trial,’ from the Scarecrow’s infamous kangaroo court in The Dark Knight Rises to that time the Caped Crusader appeared before a judge in Jokersville:

Batman 163Batman 163Batman #163

(Hey, it’s still less silly than most of Ally McBeal.)

Of all the efforts to combine Batman comics and the conventions of courtroom drama, though, my all-time favorite has got to be ‘The Trial of Titus Keyes!,’ originally published in Batman #20 (cover-dated December 1943-January 1944), written by Bill Finger, drawn by Bob Kane, inked by Jerry Robinson, and lettered by George Roussos.

Batman 20Batman #20

Bill Finger was in top form here, crafting a neat courtroom procedural around an innocent-looking man being trialed as an arch-criminal. The comic features many staples of the genre, such as agitated examinations and cross-examinations, a last minute surprise witness, and a plot twist every couple of pages.

Finger cleverly figured out a strategy to weave in the action scenes and madcap excitement readers expected from a Batman comic: basically, although the main narrative thread takes place in court, the witnesses’ testimonies become flashbacks revealing parts of the case, namely the parts where Batman and Robin kick butt and take names.

This gimmick has the added benefit of showing the Dynamic Duo through multiple outside eyes, creating a Citizen Kane-like effect.

Batman 20Batman #20

What makes ‘The Trial of Titus Keyes!’ so great is that we don’t merely get boring, passive witnesses recounting the actions of Batman and Robin… Instead, Bill Finger’s script instills each character with a different voice and personality. According to the witnesses’ accounts, most of them even took some active role in helping out the Dynamic Duo (which may implicitly suggest that they are unreliable narrators taking the chance to brag).

This is such a packed little 12-page gem of a comic. Besides lighthearted jokes and a thrilling mystery, we get plenty of historical flavor through references to the 1929 stock market crash, war bonds, and Joe Dimaggio.  What’s more, even though the plot, when you get down to it, is a relatively conventional crime yarn, the creators managed to include one gloriously over-the-top set piece, as the Caped Crusader fights a guy underwater with an mechanized diving-bell!

Batman 20Batman #20

And if all this is not enough to convince you to track down ‘The Trial of Titus Keyes!’ (collected in Batman: The Dark Knight Archives, vol.5 as well as in The Batman Chronicles, vol.11), bear in mind that the same issue also contains a story in which the Joker apparently discovers a way to travel through time – and boy do things get out of control very fast…

NEXT: It’s not easy being Robin.

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10 covers with minimalistic symbolism

As much as I enjoy psychedelic, surreal covers, sometimes a realistic image can be just as powerful in its own way. With this in mind, this week I present to you a selection (although not any kind of close analysis) of impressive covers of Batman comics that effectively summarize what their issue’s story is about without resorting to overblown visuals.

Each of these ten examples outlines a clear high concept through simple symbols depicted in a straightforward, figurative style:


batman adventures 5Batman Adventures (v2) #5


batman annual 19Batman Annual #19


Gotham Knights 25Gotham Knights #25


JLA 32JLA #32


Batman 18Batman #18


batman 631Batman #631


JLA 90JLA #90


the hiketeiaWonder Woman: The Hiketeia


detective comics 717Detective Comics #717


Batman Widening Gyre 5Batman: The Widening Gyre #5


NEXT: Batman goes to court.

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