Birds of Prey: Between Dark and Dawn

Birds of Prey: Between Dark and Dawn 

By Gail Simone & various (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-240-1

Dyed-in-the-wool super-hero fans and neophytes alike would be well advised to follow this series, featuring a more-or-less rotating team of DC’s female crime-busters, led and co-ordinated by the mysterious ‘Oracle’ (wheelchair-bound Barbara Gordon, daughter of Batman’s buddy Commissioner Gordon and an ex-super-hero herself) as they target the less flashy and more insidious threats to the DC universe.

This volume (collecting issues #69-75 of the monthly comic series) features a turning point in the fortunes of this idiosyncratic team, as, following the infiltration and eventual destruction of a religious cult that seems to be inducing teenagers to worship costumed heroes and commit suicide, they have to save their own leader from an insidious and overwhelming form of technological possession. Also included are a edgily hilarious change of pace as the girls invade a secret meeting where all the super-criminals’ hench-persons get together to form a union, plus an epilogue to the Batman publishing event War-Games where, following the loss of their secret headquarters in Gotham City, the Birds transfer their base of operations to a airliner and take their mission ‘on the road’, looking for evil pro-actively.

Gail Simone has cornered the market on smart, savvy and capable women who can square off with the best that the testosterone-charged heroes and villains of comics can produce, and yet still keep all the protagonists recognisably female – in word and action instead of merely in shape – although if you do like to look at pretty girls drawn well, a selection of more than capable artists have that well in hand. Indisputably, this is one of the top super-hero series being published today.

© 2004, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved

Birds of Prey: Sensei & Student

Birds of Prey: Sensei & Student

By Gail Simone & various (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-027-1

The Birds of Prey concept has always been hugely enjoyable. Whether it’s the kick-ass hotties or the strong ties to the Batman universe, or perhaps simply the higher than average standard of the writing, these tales never fail to entertain. After being crippled by the Joker, the wheelchair-bound Batgirl recreated herself to fight evil as a knowledge resource for super-heroes before eventually forming her own strike force comprised of a fluctuating roster of women crime-fighters. An apparent similarity to Charlie’s Angels doesn’t seem to hurt either.

This volume (reprinting issues 62-68 of the regular monthly comic book) focuses on the early days of Black Canary, who is summoned to Hong Kong and the bedside of her dying kung fu teacher. There she meets fellow student and rival Shiva, universally acclaimed as the deadliest woman alive. Never friends, they find themselves thrown together to foil a murder-revenge scheme. As if all the martial arts brouhaha were not enough, the rest of her fellow crime fighters are embroiled in thwarting a contiguous plot to steal the near omniscient database of team leader Oracle (nee Batgirl).

This is a good old-fashioned rollercoaster that’s not afraid to be fun as well as a clear rival to the best of blockbuster action movies, and well worth your attention.

© 2004 DC Comics. All rights reserved.

Gotham Central: Half a Life

Gotham Central: Half a Life 

By Greg Rucka & Michael Lark (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-091-3

The second collection of this procedural cop thriller set in the urban hell of Gotham City is another superb study in genre-crossing. The action centres around the framing and persecution of long-time supporting character Renee Montoya, a detective in good standing who suddenly finds herself utterly alone, in the un-friendliest job in the world, in the nastiest town on Earth. As part of the Major Crimes Unit she’s seen how bad Batman’s enemies can get, but this time she’s the target, not the hunter, and not just her life is at stake.

This engrossing drama never steps outside of human bounds irrespective of the nature of crime in Gotham, and the original comic presentation (from issues #6-10) won Eisner, Harvey, Eagle and Prism awards for Best Story. Also included in this volume are two earlier tales from Montoya’s past (Batman Chronicles #16 – Two Down, by Rucka and Jason Pearson & Cam Smith, and Detective Comics #747 – Happy Birthday Two You, by Rucka, William Rosado and Steve Mitchell) that, although stand alone tales at time of publication, lead directly into the tragic events collected here.

It’s always difficult to recommend stuff to comics virgins. This is something even your girlfriend won’t laugh at. Go on, see for yourself.

© 1999, 2000, 2003, 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Gotham Central: In the Line of Duty

Gotham Central: In the Line of Duty 

By Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka and Michael Lark (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84023-828-3

One of the great joys of the legendary comics characters is the potential for innovation and reinterpretation. There always seems to be another facet or corner to develop. Such a case is Gotham Central, wherein modern television sensibilities combine with the long suffering boys in blue of the world’s most famous four colour city. Owing as much to shows such as Hill Street Blues, Homicide: Life on the Streets and Law & Order as it does to the continuity of Batman, the series combines gritty authentic police action with a soft-underbelly look at what real peacekeepers have to put up with in a world psychotic clowns, flying aliens and scumbag hairballs who just don’t stay dead.

This volume kicks off with Ed Brubaker’s introduction of the cast, and first tale wherein superfreak Mr Freeze intersects a kidnap investigation by detectives Driver and Fields leading to the latter’s hideous demise. The ensuing noir classic theme of the hunt for a cop-killer is edgy and fast paced while still delivering pithy characterisations. Greg Rucka handles the second story arc as the now fit for duty Driver and his new partner use solid police work to solve the kidnap case, all the while under the gun as Batman villain The Firebug dances on the horizon threatening to destroy the city.

The appropriate quota of human drama, tension, stress and machismo play well under Michael Lark’s deft illustrations, adding a grimy patina of pseudo-reality to good old fashioned cops ‘n’ robbers stories, playing out in what can only be described as the urban city of the damned.

© 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Year 100

Batman: Year 100 

By Paul Pope (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-424-2

Paul Pope is one of the most individualistic comics creators to emerge in the last decade, both in his writing and the superbly moody drawing. He’s worked on a few Batman projects in that time but none quite as high profile as last year’s prestige mini-series Batman: Year 100.

In Gotham City 2039AD there’s a conspiracy brewing. In a dystopian, authoritarian world where the Federal Government is oppressive, ruthless and corrupt, a long-vanished threat to that iron control has resurfaced. In spite of all odds a masked vigilante is once again taking the law into his own hands.

Eschewing the contemporary obsession with spoon-fed explanations, Pope leaps head-first into the action in this dark political thriller. We don’t need a backstory. There’s a ‘Bat-Man of Gotham’ dispensing justice with grim effectiveness. There’s a good but world-wearied cop named Gordon helpless but undaunted in the face of a bloated bureaucracy. There’s a plot to frame this mysterious vigilante for the murder of a federal agent. Ready, steady, Go!

Fast paced, gripping, eerie and passionate, this version of the iconic Batman taps into the primal energy of the character seldom seen since those early days of Bob Kane, Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson. Once more a special man, fights for good against all obstacles, and uncaring of any objections – especially the police.

Guys with suits and a Plan have always scared me more than nutters in spandex and it’s clear that I’m not alone in that anxiety, as Pope’s civil servant antagonists cut a swathe of destruction through the City they’re apparently protecting. Like so many previous Administrations in US history, the objectives seem to have obscured the intentions in Gotham 2039. With such sound-bite gems as “To save the village, we had to destroy the village” echoing in your head, follow the newest Caped Crusader as he cleans house in a dirty city in a dirty world.

Also included in the book are ancillary text pages to supplement the story, notes and design sketches, and as a bonus, Berlin Batman Pope’s first ever Bat tale from 1997. In this alternative yarn (originally published in Batman Chronicles #11) Pope and Ted McKeever depict the career the nature of a Jewish super-hero who plagued the Nazis through the darkest days of the Third Reich.

All science fiction is commentary on the present, not prognostication of tomorrows. The Heroic Ideal is about wish-fulfilment as much as aspiration and escapism. Batman: Year 100 is a moody yet gloriously thrilling story that honours the history and conventions of the Batman by speaking to modern audiences in the same terms as the original did in 1939. This is a book for the generations.

© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Identity Crisis

Identity Crisis 

By Brad Meltzer, Rags Morales & Michael Bair

(DC Comics)  ISBN 1-34576-126-X

For such an impressive and far-reaching comics event, this collection is quite a slim and swift read. Whilst the comic drove the narrative forward in the manner of a whodunit, most of the character by-play and the ripples of the bare events related could only be experienced in the (inter-linked) individual issues of the involved titles. When this is all absorbed week-by-week, month-by-month, the cumulative effect is both bewildering and engrossing, but such an experience could not be duplicated in traditional publishing.

The plot involves DC heroes re-assessing their careers whilst hunting down the murderer of the wife of second-string hero/detective, Elongated Man. As the investigation proceeds, heroes and villains confront many of their bedrock principles such as tactics, allegiances and even the modern validity of that genre staple, the Secret Identity. The dialogue is memorable and the artwork magnificent and the aftershocks of revelation did indeed live up to their hype. How sad then than this “core” book feels like a rushed “Readers Digest” edition, whilst many of the key moments are scattered in a dozen other (unrelated) collections.

© 2004, 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Teen Titans: The Future is Now

Teen Titans: The Future is Now 

By Geoff Johns, Mike McKone, Ivan Reis & Tom Grummet

(DC Comics)  ISBN 1-84576-166-9

This compilation reprints issues #15-23 of the monthly comic and the Teen Titans/ Legion of Super Heroes special which saw our eponymous heroes catapulted into the thirty-first century for a huge punch up with the Fatal Five – who had teamed up with their counterparts from 495 alternate Earths – to wipe out the future heroes. And in a way they succeed as the special is a prologue to yet another refit and re-restart of the fan favourites. But we’ll deal with that if DC ever produce a Legion graphic compilation.

The bulk of this volume concerns the time-displaced Titans fighting adult versions of themselves when they fetch up a decade into their own future – a dystopian America where the Titans have taken over the reins of government. When they finally get back to where they belong, but not before lots of running, fighting and trenchant prophetic musing, and thus forewarned if not forearmed, they promptly add a new member just in time to fight Dr Light, fresh from his pivotal role in the Identity Crisis publishing event. The conclusion neatly leads directly into the books that comprise the Infinite Crisis publishing event.

As a stand-alone read this is all a bit of a mess, with no real cohesive narrative thread and a bunch of done-to-death plot devices that were old even before I was. Fans won’t complain, I’m sure, but this won’t work with all those new readers the coverage of Infinite Crisis is intended to pull in.

© 2004, 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Teen Titans: Beast Boys & Girls

Teen Titans: Beast Boys & Girls

By various

(DC Comics)  ISBN 1-84576-166-9

Beast Boys and Girls starts by reprinting the Beast Boy mini-series from 2000, which, although a competent and readable outing by Ben Raab and Geoff Johns, illustrated by Justiniano and Chris Ivy, seems rather at odds thematically with the character’s treatment and portrayal in the Teen Titans regular series.

The effective and determined young man of this tale – whose shape-changing powers are by the way cool side-effects of a rare African disease and a subsequent experimental cure – thwarts a murder/frame plot by a shape-shifting psychopath whilst re-launching his movie career, but is curiously at odds with the meandering fifth-wheel of a character in the second half of the book. Originally from the Teen Titans monthly comic #13-15, the follow-up tale shows him as a whiny disease vector that attacks children. This seemingly causes his animal morphing powers to destabilise, subsequently infecting every child in the city. Johns is joined with Tom Grummett and Larry Stucker for this laborious mini-epic.

Teen Titans is one of DC’s strongest brands but the lack of cohesion in its various incarnations is a real hindrance if the publishers want to expand the base of readership beyond the limited confines of the already converted.

© 2000, 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Teen Titans: Family Lost

Teen Titans: Family Lost 

By various

(DC Comics)  ISBN 1-84023-998-0

Family Lost sees penciller Ivan Reis, inkers Kevin Conrad, Marc Campos and Norm Rapmund, plus colourist Sno Cone, join the burgeoning creative brigade with issues #8-12 of the monthly comic, plus the premium Teen Titans #½, collected under one cover.

Deathstroke the terminator has a wild-child daughter called Rose who is a borderline psychotic and these adventures recount how she joins the team, co-opting her dead brothers code-name ‘Ravager’. Our hormone raddled heroes must keep a wary eye on their newest member whilst fighting the menace of a vampiric incarnation of their old foe, Brother Blood.

These are all very competent superhero tales with lots of action and – I presume – the kind of dialogue that today’s kids are hip to, but that really shouldn’t be all there is to them, surely? Doesn’t it seem that you should concentrate on storytelling and entertainment fundamentals rather than depend on the opinion that old fans just want to name-check favourite characters and plots on their fan-boy score-cards?

© 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Teen Titans: A Kid’s Game

Teen Titans: A Kid’s Game 

By various

(DC Comics)  ISBN 1-84023-839-9

This series has as its theme the idea that super-hero kids need somewhere to go to be away from their mentors and partners. Practically speaking that means that Robin, Superboy, Kid Flash and Wonder Girl hang out every weekend with the survivors of previous incarnations of the 1980s teen team such as Starfire, Beast Boy, Cyborg and latterly, Raven.

A Kid’s Game details the coming together of the newest team in the aftermath of a tremendous battle that led to the death (yeah, right!) of long-time Titan Donna Troy. It also ties up some long hanging plot threads regarding ex-Titan Jericho (he wasn’t really dead after all, you see) whilst positioning Deathstroke the Terminator as the title’s major villain.

The creative team is the ubiquitous Geoff Johns with pencils by Mike McKone and Tom Grummett. Inkers Marlo Alquiza and Nelson provide the finishes and Jeremy Cox the colours. The stories were originally printed as Teen Titans #1-7 and Teen Titans/Outsiders Secret Files 2003, and as super-hero comics go it’s not a bad use of your cash. Readers of a less insular persuasion might be a bit baffled though, and fans coming to the volume because of the Warner Brothers cartoon show will be, frankly, baffled and somewhat disappointed at the lack of charm and humour.

© 2003, 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.