Monthly Archives: October 2013

Reading Comic Books Out of Order #4 — “Thor and the Warriors Four”

thor warriors 4This entry is slightly momentous in two ways—it’s the first time I’m writing about a Marvel comic in my Comic Books Out of Order collection, and it’s also the first time I’ve read an “all-ages adventure.”

When my comic-book-guru friend handed me this to read, I at first raised my eyebrows after looking at the cover. I stared at the four kids, who look like, well…kids. Superhero kids? Wouldn’t that be super annoying? And then I stared at Thor, looking somewhat like a manga character (not that I have anything against manga-inspired looks).

I quicky learned (via the handy intro) who the four kids I was about to get acquainted with were. They’re called the Power Pack, and each has a superpower. They’re also a family, and the opening scene shows their grandmother in a hospital, announcing that she’s dying and doesn’t have much time left. To console Julie (the redhead on the cover), a nurse gives her a tale of Norse myths. Julie quickly learns about the Golden Apples of Idunn, and then decides the Power Pack are going to try and retrieve them with the help of Thor.

The rest of the mini-series sees cameos by the Pet Avengers (something I didn’t realize was a thing), Loki turning all of Asgard into babies (a plot that somehow doesn’t reduce the series to juvenile crap) and a near-coming of Ragnarok. To add to the insanity, there’s a backup story which has Hercules, arriving as a babysitter for the Power Pack, retelling in short form the story of his Twelve Labours.

The story that surprised me in how good it is. The “all-ages” tag shouldn’t be looked at as a reason not to delve into it. There’s plenty of stuff that will fly over kids’ heads, like the scene where Thor and Beta Ray Bill come in, semi-quoting “I Will Survive” (something I didn’t notice until comic-book-guru-friend pointed it out to me). Or the simple visual gag when the Power Pack meet an old man at the gates of Asgard; Julie shows him the book called “Myths of the Norse” while the man shows her the book “Facts of the Norse.”

The various Power Pack team-ups (others include Spider-Man, Hulk, Iron Man and more) also allow a close-up, sometimes nearly fourth-wall-breaking, into what superheroes are and why the look the way they do. When Katie (the young blonde girl on the cover) first sees Beta Ray Bill, she immediately asks him if he’s Thor’s pet horse and then asks him if he wants a carrot. Because they’re kids, they have fewer filters, and will therefore question the hell out of something as strange as an alien dressed like Thor. I’ve learned that in other books, one of the members of the Power Pack asks a sea monster what it’s like being a sea monster.

Besides being able to see Beta Ray Bill as a tiny little kid, the art is enjoyable, and is always clean-looking even during scenes when something particularly huge is happening (a particular scene involving someone who isn’t Thor wielding Mjolnir is pretty incredible).

Despite its kid-friendliness, the humour and action are really enjoyable, certainly enjoyable enough for any body to pick up and enjoy.

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Reading Comic Books Out of Order #3 — “All-Star Batman and Robin”

1asbrI was warned ahead of time by my comic book guru friend that this would be bad. I agreed to read it, however, because a) she needed someone to talk about this thing with and b) I wanted to see how Batman, probably my favourite “big” superhero of all time, could be messed up. It turns out Batman doesn’t work so well when you turn him into a complete psychopath.

Batman/Bruce Wayne has always been a volatile character. Despite his vow not to kill, many times he’s almost driven to committing the deed. He will never fully get over his parents’ brutal deaths, probably because of how their deaths shaped his entire life from the minute the bullets felled them after the fateful viewing of The Mask of Zorro.

Frank Miller succeeds (if you can call it that) at pushing Batman to his most volatile in All-Star Batman and Robin. From my basic research into its history, I learned that this series was published between 2005 and 2008 in sporadic bursts, and initially sold really well. Here’s the problem, though; the series is awful.

There are numerous reasons why this is so, but the core reason is that Batman/Bruce Wayne is at his most crazed possibly ever. Over the course of this book (thankfully the only book in the series) Batman kidnaps Dick Grayson and forces him into the Robin role, makes out/mates with Black Canary and gets into a fight with Hal Jordan, the Green Lantern.

Let’s narrow in on Batman’s psycho personality here. When he kidnaps Dick, the just-orphaned boy repeatedly asks where he’s being taken and what’s going on. Batman often replies with variants of “shut up,” or “just watch this, kid” at one point uttering his most infamous line from the series “I’m the goddamn Batman.” The line cringeworthy, and is even used as the name of “Episode 5”: “I love being the goddamn BATMAN.” When Dick and Bruce finally arrive at the Batcave, Bruce basically leaves Dick to fend for himself. This means eating rats.

When Alfred rightfully clothes and feeds Dick, as should happen, he gives Bruce shit for the way he’s treating the kid. Bruce’s justification? He had to fend for himself that way, therefore so should Dick. If Bruce were anything like he’s been characterized in other series, he would never want another kid to have to live through his experience.

There is a shred of humanity that Miller attempts to write in, however. At a few moments, Batman wonders whether he’s doing the right thing, and more importantly, if he’s going to traumatize Dick worse than he himself was traumatized when his parents died.

Other characters suffer a lot too. For no particular reason, Black Canary is said to be Irish, a bit of heritage that adds nothing to her character other than for a chance for several characters to say “she’s Irish.” Wonder Woman is turned into a parody of a radical feminist, first shown skulking through an alley wearing a trench coat. Her thought bubbles have her griping about how awful the world of men is, and the first actual words that come out of her mouth are aimed at a man in her way: “Out of the way, sperm bank.”

Hell, the books opens with a scantily-clad Vicki Vale, basically presented as nothing but gratuitous near-nudity and not possessing much of a shred of a journalist’s mind. However, she gets a call that she’s to go on a date with Bruce Wayne and she flips the hell out. That’s about all there is to her character, other than the fact that she becomes someone Batman needs to save later when she’s badly injured.

The winding story features one chapter that is basically a buildup to Black Canary flipping out and knocking out a bunch of pervy drunk dudes in a bar and little else, a verbal argument (and partial fist fight) between Wonder Woman, Superman, Green Lantern and Plastic Man on what to do about Batman and Dick confronted with the choice of whether or not to kill the man who killed his parents. It’s very scattered, and in all fairness was probably meant to set up a grander story, but it’s probably for the best that it’s been retired.

There are a few bright spots, however. Frank Miller made Hal Jordan’s innate dumbness more apparent, and I couldn’t help but burst out laughing when Batman called Hal “as dumb as a post.” It’s even funnier when Batman begins talking circles around Hal, forcing Hal to verbalize how dumb he is when he tells Batman to sop confusing him.

The Joker only appears briefly, but his scene is pretty memorable as he brutally kills a woman he’s just slept with, then tells Bruno (a Frank Miller creation) to dispose of the body. It’s a pretty ridiculous cameo but well worth the nearly-whole-page spread.

Which leads to another bright spot, Jim Lee’s art. Miller has always had a rather unique drawing style, but I feel like it would have been an even worse series if Miller had drawn the thing too

I’m obliged to agree with Linkara’s theory as to how this happened; this Batman is actually a hobo named Crazy Steve who convinced himself he’s the Batman. It’s the only thing that makes sense, besides the idea that maybe Frank Miller just might have lost his edge here.

Reading Comic Books Out of Order #2 — “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns”

the dark knight returnsI’ve never been 100 per cent convinced that Batman always has to be a brooding, gritty and dark character. Of course, that’s his most popular characterization, made famous in recent years thanks to Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed film trilogy. What cast aside that brooding image for me was watching the wonderful Batman: The Brave and the Bold, which successfully explored the lighter side of the Dark Knight, pairing him up with a slew of DC heroes to create stories I would have never thought imaginable.

That being said, I don’t mean to come across as someone who hates Batman noir. When brooding Batman is done right, it can be spectacular. Such was the case with a graphic novel I knew of for many years but hadn’t read until earlier this week, The Dark Knight Returns, by the legendary Frank Miller, known for his work with 300 and Sin City.

The basic premise of The Dark Knight Returns features the return of Batman after 10 years of inactivity. As Bruce Wayne himself points out at the beginning of the book, in a conversation with Jim Gordon, Batman didn’t survive, but Wayne is alive and well.

Gotham is overrun by the Mutant Gang, led by a bloodthirsty leader who wants to tear the city apart. Miller makes an interesting choice in coming up with Bruce’s rationale for bring Batman out of retirement. He illustrates the metaphor of the bat as a literal thing—Bruce can’t escape its grip once it comes after him.

Naturally, Batman’s resurfacing ruffles feathers, and not just the criminals who suddenly have to deal with the re-emergence of evil’s greatest enemy. Jim Gordon is set to retire, and Gotham’s indecisive mayor elects Ellen Yindel, a woman whose stance on Batman is that he needs to be put in jail.

Soon after Batman hits the streets, he ends up rescuing a girl named Carrie Kelly, who ends up becoming the first full-time female Robin after she saves Batman from nearly being killed by the leader of the Mutants.

There’s one particular scene in the book that I would become aware of before reading it, courtesy of an episode of The New Batman Adventures called “Legends of the Dark Knight.” The story in that episode, and the story in the comic, are more or less the same—a much older Batman and a red-haired, female Robin take on a gang of mutants in the Batmobile, which has been reconfigured into a huge freaking tank. Some of the dialogue in the episode is also straight from the comics—at one point, Batman says “Young people these days…No respect for history.” Later, as Batman begins to shoot at the Mutants, he reassures Carrie by saying, with a grin: “Rubber bullets. Honest.”

Later on, the Joker is released from Arkham Asylum and plots to (and ends up succeeding in) killing hundreds of people, and soon after that the police, under Yindel, are fast closing in on the wanted Batman. As Batman physically hurts his enemies more than ever, the public begins to see Batman as more of a menace, especially when an anarchistic group called the Sons of Batman begin attacking criminals in the name of “justice.” Eventually, the US government sends their chief superhero to stop Batman; that government weapon is none other than the Man of Steel himself, Superman.

I don’t want to go into the plot too much, especially for those who want to be surprised by this saga’s ending, so I’ll leave the plot summary as is.

The art style is definitely something that will be loved or hated. Miller’s style is pretty unique, often making characters monstrous, perhaps as an outer manifestation of their monstrous thoughts. At certain points, Miller makes Superman look like the least perfect being in the universe. Batman looks occasionally liked a crazed savage. The Mutants are outright terrifying,

But at other times, his art style is striking. The first large panel where Batman is seen on a horse is nothing short of breathtaking, even more so when he appears with his “army” in tow.

Characterizations do suffer a little, however. When I read Year One, another Miller Batman story, I was not pleased with his turning Catwoman/Selina Kyle into a prostitute. He continues this characterization here, and Kyle in her old age seems to not be able to do anything but complain and yell at people. I miss the charming, unpredictable Selina of The Animated Series and beyond.

This world of Batman is certainly an absorbing one. As Batman became more brutal, I found a small part of me agreeing with the TV talking heads on why he was such a menace. On the other hand, Miller’s clear disdain for government officials (particularly his portrayal of the eternally-smiling president) is presented well, and his politicians made me (and probably most other readers) despise them greatly.

This is probably the pinnacle of Miller’s writing, at least as far as I see it. In the next edition of Reading Comic Books Out of Order, I’ll be taking on another Miller tale of Batman, and it’s probably Miller’s low point.

Reading Comic Books Out of Order #1— “Blue Beetle: Black and Blue”

Foreword: A few months ago, I finished playing the funny and great game Lego Batman: 2. Just as I got my Platinum Trophy in the game, it was as though I was overcome with a craving for Batman. I quickly found a way to satisfy that craving, starting by devouring Batman: The Brave and the Bold, a stellar and recent animated series that took the Dark Knight away from the grim figure he has become, partly due to Christopher Nolan’s celebrated film trilogy. Little did I know that The Brave and the Bold would become more or less a gateway drug for the world of DC Comics characters at large. I became more attached to heroes I already knew, like Green Arrow and Superman, while meeting and loving ones I was less familiar with like Booster Gold, Guy Gardner, B’Wana Beast and Firestorm. After devouring TBATB, i moved onto the seminal Batman: The Animated SeriesThe New Batman Adventures and Batman Beyond. I’m now on the last season of Justice League, a series that I might not have started had it not been for my good friend Robin recommending it. Since starting the series, my interest in the world of these heroes has gotten deeper and deeper, to the point where I’m now starting to read comic books. I’m no stranger to the medium of graphic novels; I’ve read “classics” like Maus, the important work of Joe Sacco and the addictive Y: The Last Man. But my main barrier to entry for the tales of the plethora of superheroes that now populate the world was that their stories are just so darned hard to start. And by that I mean find their “origin story,” which in itself becomes further complicated thanks to DC and Marvel’s propensity for retconning. Until I begin a serious quest to find these comics online, I have begun to buy comic books collected as graphic novels wherever I can find (and afford) them. I will then discuss the books in the context of my knowledge of the comic books or comic-book-related TV series I have read/watched. My hope is that with each passing post I’ll become more and more learned in all aspects of what makes a comic book good or not-so-good. I dedicate this (I hope) series of posts to Robin for gently nudging me towards the realm of comic books.

While at a BMV yesterday, I picked up two graphic novels. The first of the two I read was Blue Beetle: Black and Blue, which I quickly learned was actually the last volume of that particular series.

bluebeetleBlue Beetle is the story of Jaime Reyes, a high-schooler in El Paso, Texas. Jaime is actually the third Blue Beetle to exist; the first was Dan Garrett, and the second was Ted Kord. Jaime is the first Beetle to completely use the power of the Scarab, a mystical item that has seemingly limitless power. The scarab itself is sentient and often converses with Jaime, sometimes suggesting ways to escape a situation or getting feedback on whether to kill an enemy with nukes (Jaime’s answer to the latter is always an emphatic no). Jaime quickly learns that he almost became a killing machine; the scarab is in fact the technology of an alien race called the Reach. Their plan is simple; send a scarab to Earth, a human will find it, bond with it, and become an infiltrator that will allow the Reach to take over the planet. The scarab that Jaime finds, that Garrett and Kord previously possessed, turns out to be damaged, and therefore does not control Jaime’s mind to do the Reach’s bidding. Jaime is also blessed with a very understanding set of friends including Paco and Brenda (who end up dating) as well as a girlfriend named Traci 13 (who is magic, though I don’t know her backstory).

Black and Blue, as mentioned, is the finale of Matthew Sturges and Mike Norton’s run before Blue Beetle is rebooted in the New 52 series. Despite not being a thick volume, it runs through a gamut of stories, involving hopeless losers getting revenge on people who piss them off, android daughters and a time-traveling foe who pushes Jaime to the brink of madness. As a result, the end does feel a bit rushed—some readers have suggested that Sturges and Norton didn’t know the end was coming and so felt the need to tie everything up in a bow before their time ended.

An important plot point happens when Jaime is at a dance with his friends which is suddenly interrupted by a group of Reach who call themselves the Khaji-Dha. They are Reach revolutionaries, so to speak, and ask Jaime to lead them. Jaime refuses when they talk of “ridding the world of corruption” which involves killing, among others, the Justice League, and in turn they attack him. They turn out to be too strong for him, until the scarab suggests that he use a scarab function that will disable all of the others’ powers at the cost of a 27-day wait for his own scarab to reboot. Jaime accepts, saving the world at the cost of the life of one of his friends, in a moment that should end up being sad but somehow ends up devoid of emotion due to the book’s strange treatment. None of the other characters seem to be visibly pained, making the friend’s death ultimately meaningless and trivial.

When the scarab reboots, Jaime notices that it has become more bloodthirsty, and it’s even more apparent just how violent the scarab becomes when Jaime is attacked by the Black Beetle, a time traveler. When Black Beetle attacks Jaime’s younger sister, Jaime flips his lid and allows the scarab to disengage all safeties (meaning allow Jaime to kill). Jaime nearly does it, in turn morphing his Blue Beetle suit into something horrifying. Black Beetle reveals that he is Jaime from the future, and Jaime is horrified of what he might become.

The series’ final story is a portrait of “rushed.” The story begins with Jaime talking about how he almost took over the world and says that the story doesn’t paint him in a very good light. Jaime finds himself drawn to a pyramid, and when he goes with his friends, he finally figures out why his scarab has become more bloodthirsty; the reboot “fixed” it, paving the way for Jaime to become an agent of the Reach. This indeed happens, except his friend Peacemaker, who has the entire scarab database downloaded onto his brain, ends up being able to talk Jaime down. The end is anti-climactic; there’s no sense of anyone being in danger, and Jaime doesn’t even leave the pyramid while under the Reach’s “spell.”

Still, the book has a lot going for it. Jaime has clearly taken a page out of Peter Parker’s book, often cracking jokes. A particularly hilarious scene happens when he’s confronted by a slew of his enemies, including Catalyst, The Squids, The Mad Men, Firefist and the Masked Marauder. Jaime has “notes” on each one, making fun of Marauder’s beard and Catalyst’s being French.

The best exchange in the book was so good that I scanned it:

bluebeetlesnap

 

The dialogue in the book does vary, though, This collection came out in late 2010, but even by then a character saying “epic fail” is still cringeworthy. Later, Brenda mentions that Paco had been watching The A-Team on Hulu; why namedrop Hulu? There’s no real value added to namedropping a streaming service.

Along the way, there are nice tie-ins to other heroes. At the beginning of the book, Traci asks Jaime a slew of questions about working with Batman. At the end of the book, Jaime buys his sister a Booster Gold toy, apologizing that the store is out of Batgirls. (His sister ends up making a face but then decides that her Ted Kord doll will just have to marry Booster Gold instead). There’s a quick cameo by the Green Lantern Corps who are cleaning up after the Khadji-Dha fiasco.

This being an end, I do look forward to seeing what else Jaime gets up to before his scarab is rebooted.