Even though this week’s Trade Pile isn’t quite as robust as others, I still wanted to get a few thoughts down on three books that I read this week that I thought were pretty darn spiffy. One set an established character out on his own in a way that really worked for me while the other two featured brand new characters, one set in an equally new world an one rooted in a far more familiar one!
As I mentioned when I reviewed the first Knightfall omnibus volume followed by the last two, that was a seminal comic crossover that brought me into the world of Batman full force. But, much like when I started reading Superman comics, there were all kinds of elements in play that I was learning about as I went.
When I started reading comics, I loved the fact that these stories had been going on for years before I came onboard. That meant I got to play detective while reading along, picking up clues and figuring things out as best I could. Sometimes I was wrong, sometimes I was right and sometimes retcons rendered my investigation moot, but it was fun trying to piece the puzzle together. At the time I figured there was a Platonic version of continuity out there that I could eventually understand. Oh, how naive I once was.
One of the many elements at play in KnightFall — the story that saw Bane breaking Batman and Jean-Paul Valley taking over — was a steroid type drug called Venom that Bane injected into himself. At some point, it was either hinted at or outright stated that Batman had a history with the stuff itself. That story was recently collected in a trade simply titled Batman: Venom that acts as a companion piece to the KnightFall books.
The story kicks off with Batman failing to save a girl trapped in a room with rising water. He’s not strong enough to save her and she dies. He then goes to her dad’s house where he’s working on Venom and doesn’t seem concerned about his kid whatsoever. After a series of failures and further injuries, Batman winds up taking the drug and gets hooked. After going a little crazy, getting strung along by the scientist and introduced to an evil general with his own schemes, Batman finally kicks Venom and goes after the bad guys who are building supersoldiers on the island of Santa Prisca (which O’Neill created in The Question and also designated as Bane’s home).
I think this is a really interesting story because, at the heart of it, it’s about Batman wanting to be the best he is at what he does and failing. He’s so torn up by this girl’s death that he does something you’d never expect him to: turn to drugs. It’s a dark time in his life, but being the kind of person he is, he stops taking them and has Alfred lock him in the Batcave for a month (the coolest idea in the whole book). He then goes on to stop the bad guys who have an army of nearly unbeatable soldiers at their beck and call.
But, the actual story doesn’t feel very dramatic and I think that’s because you know how it’s going to end. Even if you had no familiarity with the Bane story or were reading it when these issues came out, you know that Batman isn’t going to stay addicted to Venom. It doesn’t take too long for Batman to kick the habit and it’s sad to see him do the things he does while under the influence, but there’s still this surrounding idea that he’s obviously going to get better. Obviously, this is something that all Corporate Comics have to deal with. The key is to dress the story up with enough elements and characters that distract you from the fact that nothing is REALLY going to change, especially with a character as huge as Batman. Unfortunately, aside from Batman and Alfred, this book doesn’t have much of that distracting window dress. The scientist is emotionless from doing his own drugs. The general is the same basic evil military guy you’ve seen in everything. There’s an attempt to bring more emotion into it with the scientist’s son who gets tragically transformed into one of these mindless soldiers, but even that felt pretty been-there-done-that.
Still, this book has a nice little adventure that includes Batman fighting a shark on the cover that also fills in a big part of the KnightFall/Bane mythology that you might have missed. Plus, the artwork by Trevor Von Eeden and Russell Braun is very classic Batman, so it’s got that going on.
Batman Versus Bane is another trade that ties in to the KnightFall trades which in turn were most likely produced to grab some interest based on the villain’s appearance in The Dark Knight Rises. This one reprints Bane’s origin as seen in the Vengeance Of Bane one-shot as well as the post-KnightFall miniseries Bane Of The Demon.
I mentioned the one-shot in my review of the first KnightFall book, which it is also collected in. It would have been nice if they threw in the three or four issues that Bane and his crew appeared in between the one-shot and the KQ story proper, but oh well.
This time around I noticed that Bane’s origin is gilded with some really silly elements. When he’s a kid, living in the prison, he sees a vision of himself warning against a kind of bat demon. Later he decides he wants to go to Gotham because it connects to his dream. If you’ve already got a survivor who built up his body and mind while trapped in prison, do you really need to add on this silly element of the dream? Just make him a competitive guy who wants to test himself against another high quality physical specimen and skip all that other nonsense.
On the other hand, I really enjoyed the Bane Of The Demon miniseries which I’d never read before. I didn’t realize it going in, but this leads directly into a moment that blew my mind in Detective Comics #700 when it’s revealed that Bane is Ra’s al Ghul’s new Ubu. I’m glad I didn’t read this series at the time because that moment would not have had as much impact, but going back and checking it out now is a nice look at what was going on behind the scenes.
The gist here is that Bane wants to know about his past so he returns to the island of Santa Prsica. There he discovers that one of four men could have been his father. His search for one of the candidates not only involves the Order Of St. Dumas, but also Ra’s and Talia al Ghul who he winds up palling around with for a while, but never completely letting his guard down around.
This story not only leads into the Legacy crossover that plagued the Bat-books (that’s a semi-clever pun if you’re familiar with the story), but also leads into a later Gotham Knights arc that posits that Bane and Bruce Wayne might be half brothers! That’s not explored or mentioned in this book at all, but there is a nice little set up for it.
I’ll be keeping both of these books in my collection, not necessarily because they’re mind-blowingly awesome comic book stories, but because they’re important pieces of a story that I love going back to my early days as a comic reader.
THE QUESTION VOL. 3: EPITAPH FOR A HERO (DC)
Written by Dennis O’Neil and drawn by Denys Cowan
Collects Question #13-18
The Question’s one of those characters I never had much of an opinion about good, bad or indifferent. In the early 90s when I was coming up in comics, he wasn’t really around, which is surprising. You’d think he would have made some appearances in Batman or something, but I don’t really remember seeing him until years later. My first real exposure to him was in 52, which was fantastic and, of course, lead to his death. He was also really great in the JLU cartoon. The two of those were enough to get me interested in reading his series from the 80s. Luckily, DC started reprinting them a couple years back and now we’re up to six volumes at last count. I’ve read the first three and liked them all.
There’s an interesting subsection of DC comics from the 80s that were basically set in the real world or at least ignored the super hero aspects of the greater DCU. Mike Grell’s Green Arrow book was a lot like that and so was The Question. This volume includes the first meeting between those two versions of the characters. The stories are mostly one-offs with a political bent following the Question as he rights wrongs. What I like about the book is that it continually throws curve balls. The racist cop throws himself in front of a bullet. Green Arrow and Question don’t become buddy buddy right away. They’re not huge twists, but enough to keep the story flowing and interesting. Cowan’s art might be considered sloppy, but I think it’s got a strange energy that actually lends itself to the types of stories O’Neil tells. Personally, I’d rather see him using the style he did on Hardware, but, like I said, it works. I recommend giving the first installment of this series a look if you’re interested in more grounded mystery adventure comics with something to say without drowning you in it.
THE TRIALS OF SHAZAM VOL. 1 & 2 (DC)
Written by Judd Winick, drawn by Howard Porter and Mauro Cascioli
Collects Brave New World 1, The Trials Of Shazam #1-6 and 7-12
Captain Marvel’s another character I’ve known about, but never really felt one way or the other. He was used incredibly well in Kingdom Come, I liked him in JLI and JSA, plus a few appearances here and there. The character has gone through a lot of changes over the past few years. Infinite Crisis rewrote the laws of magic in the DCU, the Wizard died, Mary Marvel went absolutely crazy and Billy had to take over as the Wizard. That meant that someone had to take over and the mantle fell to former Captain Marvel Jr. (or CM3 as he was called for a while) Freddy Freeman, which is where this maxi-series picks up. See, Freddy has to meet up with a series of gods–the ones who make up the name SHAZAM–go through trials and get those abilities.
Winick puts on a good story with Freeman starting off nervous about the whole thing and turning into a dog gone hero by the end. The problem is that the story’s a little long. It could have been cut down to 7 or 8 issues and been a lot tighter. Another negative thing about the book isn’t really its fault but DC’s and that’s that the character of Captain Marvel hasn’t really been used since the end of this book. I know he’s shown up a few times, but his supposed inclusion in Cry For Justice turned out to be a ruse. So, you finish reading this pretty great story, which is basically an origin story. And what’s the first thing you want to do after reading a character get set up like this? Read more of his adventures. Too bad there’s no where to turn. I’d like to see Freddy as Captain Marvel leading some kind of magic oriented team like the Shadowpact or some other concoction.
Art-wise, it’s an interesting affair. Howard Porter, whose style I loved in JLA, changed things up and it looks…I don’t really know how to describe it. Less crisp? JLA had the sharpness to it that I really liked, but this is a little sketchier. It’s not bad by any means, just not what you might be expecting from a Porter comic. He was replaced by Mauro Cascioli whose art I like, but goes from looking really awesome to really wooden sometimes from panel to panel. Overall, I liked the story and the art, but I won’t be keeping these books on my shelf.
BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER OMNIBUS VOL. 4 (Dark Horse)
Written and drawn by a bunch of folks
Collects Buffy #9-11, 13-15, 17-20, 50, Annual 99, Angel #1-3, Wizard 1/2, Lover’s Walk & Dark Horse Presents #141
Buffy fans who weren’t reading the Dark Horse comics back in the day while the show was on have no idea how good they’ve got it. Now, the comics flow directly from the show with Joss Whedon heading things up (at least that’s what they say) and, for the most part, are damn good. Back in the day, though, the comics weren’t so good. They weren’t bad, but they were saddled with keeping their stories set in earlier seasons so as not to interfere with or contradict the show. I bought those comics for two years and actually quit reading because of the main story in this Omnibus. It took a long time to tell, I couldn’t remember all the details and I was sick of reading about Buffy in high school when she was going off to college and having completely different adventures. I actually sold those books on eBay in past year or so.
The thing about these Omnibi is that they collect the stories in chronological order by season. It’s actually really interesting editor Scott Allie’s forwards in these books as he explains the thinking behind that and how the stories inside came to be. All that being said, I was surprised to find that I enjoyed reading this volume and got through all 368 pages in one night. The main story is called Bad Blood and features am image-obsessed vamp from an earlier comic appearance coming back and forcing a doctor to use science and magic to create a new kind of blood that made super-vampires. Reading it all together was a much more satisfying experience, but I also found a nostalgia going back and reading adventures set in Buffy’s high school, as those have turned out to be my favorite seasons.
The rest of the book has short stories here and there. I probably shouldn’t have tried to read the whole thing in one setting because the stories have a definite rhythm that gets really repetitive when you read them in a row. If you’re a Buffy fan, these are good books to pick up, but I would imagine you already have. If you’re not a Buffy fan, well, I don’t think this book will make you one.
DOC SAVAGE: THE SILVER PYRAMID (DC)
Written by Dennis O’Neil, drawn by Andy & Adam Kubert
Collects Doc Savage 1-4 (1987-1988)
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m excited for DC’s First Wave books, so when I heard about the reprint of DC’s late 80s Doc Savage mini, I was hoping for a story that might tell me why Doc Savage is cool or at least show me. Unfortunately, that’s not really the case with this Silver Pyramid story, the reason? Doc Savage dies in the first issue. Well, kind of. So, what you really get throughout the rest of the three prestige format issues is Doc’s team of helpers–all geniuses in their own right–grousing about how poor his heirs are at replacing him. See, Doc’s son goes nuts and his grandson is a pacifist. But that doesn’t stop the old men charging into battle against the enemy that Doc seemingly died fighting. I won’t give away the twist in case you want to read it yourself, but things change in the end.
I’m not that big of a Andy or Adam Kubert fan nowadays (for my money, Joe’s still where it’s at) so the art isn’t a big draw for me as far as this book’s considered. So overall, this book isn’t really my cup of tea. Maybe if I was a well studied Doc Savage fan–and let’s be honest, there aren’t a ton of them out there–it would be interesting to see how the world responds without him, but as I’m a newbie, taking him out of the picture doesn’t really do anything for me.
GREEN ARROW AND BLACK CANARY: ENEMIES LIST (DC)
Written by Andrew Kreisberg, drawn by Mike Norton
Collects Green Arrow & Black Canary #15-20
Few comics have broken my heart like Green Arrow And Black Canary has. I didn’t really care about the character until Kevin Smith resurrected him and really liked the book through his run, then Brad Meltzer (Archer’s Quest is his absolute best comic book work as far as I’m concerned) and all the way through Judd Winick’s run which saw Green Arrow and Black Canary finally got back together and married! I wasn’t a big fan of how their first wedding ended (that whole story shouldn’t have been a shoe-horned event, but just a good story) but enjoyed his first few issues of GA & BC. But, seriously, what the hell is going on in this book anymore? Can you think of a more hack character than a woman who loves a hero so much that she wants him dead? Even worse? This Cupid broad is still kicking around in GA&BC. GAH! And now there’s all this nonsense with Roy Harper’s adorable daughter getting killed in Cry For Justice (which I still haven’t brought myself to read yet) and losing his arm. And now Ollie’s supposed to be going down another dark path. IT’S BEEN DONE! Check out Mike Grell’s fantastic run on Green Arrow (I went back and bought almost all the issues of Green Arrow’s previous volume). None of this grim and gritty shit is new, it’s just boring. You’re also ruining really fun and unique characters. As my buddy Ben pointed out, Roy Harper was one of the few single fathers in comics, a really good role model in his own way. Thank goodness they took that away from him for some stupid story trying to make Prometheus cool again. Also, the Green Arrow family used to actually be fun to read. They all seemed to get along well and didn’t have all the dark baggage of the Batfamily. Now they just seem even closer to their Gotham counterparts.
Anyway, I should probably talk about this volume. It’s not terrible, but it’s the beginning of the bad. There are references to Winicks’ run (by killing some of the new villains he introduced, way to go, I was hoping for more of Merlyn), but the whole thing just feels like filler. Kind of like just watching the second Pirates Of The Caribbean movie. It’s just filler. Boring filler. I’m sure what I’ve heard and seen of what has come after this collection of issues is tainting my review, but this volume didn’t blow me away and the lack of vision–of at least a truly interesting and progressive vision–is present here and continues to poison one of my favorite comic book families. Wow, I think that was my most negative trade review ever.
ECLIPSO: THE MUSIC OF THE SPHERES (DC)
Written by Matthew Sturges, drawn by Stephen Jorge Segovia & Chad Hardin
Collects the backup stories from Countdown To Mystery #1-8
I can’t take the title of this trade seriously because of Patton Oswalt’s bit about taking a science class at his liberal arts college aimed at English majors. Makes me chuckle every time, but it’s not as bad as Robin” Tales Of Fire And Madness, which I always say in a voice that sounds something like a cross between Will Ferrel’s James Lipton impresion and his Robert Goulet impression. Anyway, overall, I had a pretty good time with this story. It’s about Eclipso bouncing out of Jean Loring’s body and taking over his original possessed human Bruce Gordon. It does take place during the kind of mess of continuity that was Countdown (though I did kind of like the series when I read it in a few chunks). I thin a lot of these kinds of books benefit from reading them a few years after they came out because it’s easier to figure out where it all fits in. My buddy Jesse has been away from comics for a while, but is currently working his way through 52 which I read when it came out, so it’s easy for him to ask me questions and I can explain things. Unfortunately, I can’t remember every detail, so the incredibly abrupt change from Loring being the host to Gordon seemed to come out of nowhere. I was also concerned when Sturges had Plastic Man becoming a bad guy, but it turned out he was just under Eclipso’s sway, so it ended up being okay.
It’s kind of funny that the supporting characters in this book seem tailor made for me to be interested. I love Plastic Man, then Creeper shows up, the Spectre, Huntress and the latest Hawk and Dove (who I don’t know anything about and it really bothers me, it seems like Geof Johns just said they existed in Teen Titans without ever explaining where they came from, or maybe I just missed that story, but that’s a complaint for another post). Aside from showing how Eclipso went from Loring to Gordon, the book doesn’t really matter (in the sense that any comic matters), but there are a few interesting points. I really liked how Gordon thinks about becoming a kind of super scientist as he figures out how to atomically alter the Heart of Darkness in order to give himself some of Eclipso’s powers in the day time. Compared to Marvel, DC is seriously lacking in the big brain superheroes. The problem is that the Spectre seems to convince him not to do that so he can become yet another superhero (as if there’s not enough of those flying around). That seems like a gigantic missed opportunity. I also liked Eclipso’s new souped up costume he gets for a few pages, but the real draw for this book is Segovia’s art. Man, is it pretty. He’s got a great, ethereal style that would be perfect for any slightly off the beaten track comic, but I don’t think he’s doing much other work and he doesn’t even finish off this series of backup stories. Anyway, it’s a fun enough read, but probably only for the more die hard DC fan who’s interested int he smallest minutiae of what’s going on in the DCU.