Superman Batman: Supergirl

Superman Batman: Supergirl 

By Jeph Loeb, Michael Turner & Peter Steigerwald (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-114-6

DC really can’t seem to make up their minds over Supergirl. I’ve actually lost count of the number of different versions that have been foisted on us over the years, and I can’t escape the queasy feeling that above all else she’s a concept created to ease young male readers over that bumpy patch between voices breaking and hiding things under your mattress where your mum never, never ever looks.

This latest version resets to the most popular concept and has a naked blonde chick arrive on a Kryptonite meteor claiming to be Superman’s cousin. The most intriguing aspect of this incarnation is Batman’s total distrust of the girl as she is hidden from the world while she assimilates. This leads to her training/babysitting by Wonder Woman’s amazons and her eventual kidnapping by evil space-god Darkseid.

All in all though, it’s woefully predictable stuff with oodles of lovingly rendered girl-flesh and fetish outfits jostling for attention amidst the lavish fight-scenes and interminable guest-cameos. Yet as much as I bitch about all this, I won’t disparage the popularity of the material, because any increase in sales of comics is a wonderful thing in this current climate, but I just know that the writer of The Long Halloween and A Superman for All Seasons is capable of producing better stuff for artists of this quality to draw.

© 2005 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.

Superman/Batman: Greatest Stories Ever Told

Superman/Batman: Greatest Stories Ever Told 

By various

(DC Comics)  ISBN 1-84576-433-1

This most inevitable of hero pairings first occurred on the Superman radio show in the 1940s, but for picture purposes that event happened in the pages of Superman’s own bi-monthly comic (issue #76, May/June 1952). Pulp science fiction writer Edmond Hamilton had the task of revealing how the Man of Steel and the Caped Crusader first met and accidentally discovered each other’s identities whilst sharing a cabin on an over-booked cruise liner. Although an average crime-stopper yarn in itself, it was the start of a phenomenon. The art for The Mightiest Team in the World was by the superb Curt Swan, with inking by John Fischetti.

As comic book page counts dwindled, World’s Finest Comics, which had featured solo adventures of the heroes, simply combined the two in one story per issue. Many were illustrated by the legendary and unique Dick Sprang. One particularly fine example is Superman and Batman’s Greatest Foes from World’s Finest Comics #88 (1957), with Hamilton again scripting and Stan Kaye inking a team-up of Lex Luthor and the Joker. The Composite Superman (WFC #142, 1964) and the The Cape and Cowl Crooks (WFC #159, 1966) both came courtesy of Hamilton, Swan and George Klein, and dealt with foes with far mightier powers than our heroes – a major concern for young readers of the times. To this day whenever fans gather the cry eventually echoes out, “Who’s stronger/faster/better dressed…?”

1968 brought radical changes to DC, and edgier stories of the Boy Scout heroes began to appear. From World’s Finest Comics #176, comes The Superman-Batman Split by Cary Bates and the iconoclastic Neal Adams. Ostensibly just another alien mystery story, this twisty little gem has a surprise ending for all and a guest stars Supergirl and Batgirl.

A Matter of Light and Death (WFC #207, 1971) is a fine action-mystery romp by Len Wein, Dick Dillin and Joe Giella, and the last of this volume’s tales to feature the long-standing partnership in its traditional form. After the Crisis on Infinite Earths series rewrote the DC universe in 1985, everything was shaken up and the retooling of Superman by John Byrne the following year in the Man of Steel miniseries re-examined all the Caped Kryptonian’s close relationships in a darker, more cynical light. From the third issue comes a new first meeting with Batman in One Night in Gotham City, written and drawn by Byrne, inked by Dick Giordano.

The venerated title “World’s Finest” has resurfaced a number of times since its cancellation during the 1980s. In 2000 a twelve issue maxi-series re-interpreted the growing friendship of the two characters. A Better World (Superman & Batman: World’s Finest #7) by Karl Kesel, Peter Doherty and Robert Campanella is an introspective and very human discourse of motivation and achievement from the pair. This is followed by a magnificent two-pager from Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale first seen in Superman/Batman Secret Files 2003. When Clark Met Bruce posits a road not taken with telling force and subtle wonder.

We come full circle with a retelling of The Mightiest Team in the World from Joe Kelly and a veritable army of artists (Ed McGuinness, Ryan Ottley, Sean Murphy, Carlo Barberi, Dexter Vines, Cliff Rathburn, Don Hillsman II, Bob Petracca, Andy Owens and Rodney Ramos – if you’re keeping score). Originally published in Superman/Batman Annual #1 (2006), Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One… is a retelling of that landmark tale in a thoroughly modern context, with super-villains replacing gangsters, and heavily slanted towards an audience accustomed to action/comedy movie blockbusters, which ends this volume on a very frenetic high note.

These ‘Greatest Stories’ volumes are a smart outreach idea for an industry desperately in need of new and returning consumers. If you accept the premise that everybody has read comics at some time in their life, and that new kids are being born quite a lot, then re-packaging good stories featuring characters that have ‘broken’ on the world stage can only bring new business. For us fanboy vets however, what defines ‘good’ is still a cause for debate. Good thing we’re not the target market then isn’t it?

© 1952, 1957, 1964, 1966, 1968, 1971, 1986, 2000, 2003, 2006, 2007 DC Comics.
All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Secrets

Batman: Secrets

By Sam Kieth

(DC Comics) ISBN 1-84576-425-0

Fan favourite Sam Kieth returns to the caped crusader for an exploration of media tactics and exploitation in this dark, daft and slightly overblown psycho-drama. Somehow the Joker has convinced a parole–board to release him (and no, there’s no explanation as to how such a body can rule on someone under psychiatric detention, so just let it go) and is doing the chat show rounds, plugging his new book.

He hasn’t actually reformed though: Having seduced and enthralled the truly disturbed assistant D.A. handling his case, Joker plans more mischief — beginning with the murder of her boss. When Batman intervenes, two bystanders photograph the fight and a picture that seems to show our hero torturing the villain gets picked up by all the news services.

This is the spark for a media-storm as the jackals of the fourth estate smell a scoop. One of the news-barons, a childhood friend of Bruce Wayne (they share a bloody youthful secret), is blackmailed by the Joker to lead a witch-hunt to harass Batman whilst the mad clown fuels the media frenzy with fraud and slaughter in semi-successful attempts to frame the Dark Knight.

Batman must conquer his own secret past, save lives, and turn the tables on his manic foe’s most insidious scheme under the corrupt glare of a biased media that no longer has the will to assess or the time to judge the facts and actions it purports to report…

This is an oddly dissatisfying concoction. Kieth is a talented creator, and has some good points to make regarding the “if it bleeds, it leads, one picture is worth a thousand thoughts” mentality behind modern news-gathering. He should also be admired for attempting a slightly different style of story, but hasn’t quite pulled it off here. There are plot holes you could drive the Batmobile through, far too many manic head shots and too few backgrounds, establishing shots or even mid-, medium- and full-body long-shots. Visually, it’s as if he’s fallen for the very philosophical and aesthetic trap he decries in newsmen. Is a dramatic picture more worthy than context or narrative? You decide, obviously, but I’ll stick to style AND substance, if you don’t mind.

© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved

Batman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told, Vol Two

Batman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told Vol Two 

By Bob Kane & various

(DC Comics)  ISBN 1-84576-427-7

If you buy into the myth, then there are actually many great Batman stories. Over the decades lots of very talented creators have excelled themselves within Gotham City. Often the real problem is one of context, as many adventures worry reprint editors in terms of Sell-By Date, as if nearly seven decades of creativity can avoid looking dated to some modern consumers. Guys, who cares? They’re the ones who want to remake The Ladykillers and never read any book written before 1989. If they can’t understand history unless it’s got an American accent then they’re not worth the effort.

This selection has opted for a more open-minded interpretation and there is probably something that will appeal to every disparate sub-section of Bat-fan, from Dark Knight to Alien-Busting Boy Scout, since one of the big secrets of the Caped Crusader’s success has been his adaptability. There really is a Batman-for-all-seasons, and I’m sure someone, somewhere has written a thesis on his social mirroring of each popular societal trend.

For us though, there’s a charming and rewarding blend of Dark and Light as we walk the streets of Gotham from the late 1930’s to today.

One smart move is opening with a modern(ish) retelling of the origin and first case by reprinting Roy Thomas and Marshall Rogers’ excellent tale of the Golden Age Batman from Secret Origins #6 (1986) and following with Hugo Strange and the Monsters (Batman #1, 1940), Bill Finger, Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson’s pulp masterpiece that was recently reworked by Matt Wagner as Batman and the Monstermen.

From the idyllic 1950s period comes The Career of Batman Jones (Batman #108, 1957), a tale of a boy who wants to be a crime-fighter, by Finger, Sheldon Moldoff and Charles Paris. And the same team produced Prisoners of Three Worlds, a trans-dimensional sci-fi drama featuring Batwoman and the very first of many Batgirls (Batman #153, 1963). How Many Ways can a Robin Die? (Batman #246, 1972) comes from that edgier period when Batman first regained his grim mystique, and has the hero hunting for his missing partner and an axe-wielding psycho-killer, courtesy of Frank Robbins, Irv Novick, Dick Dillin and Dick Giordano.

The Batman’s Last Christmas comes from Brave and the Bold #184 (1982), a potentially confusing tale for some, as the daughter of the deceased Earth II Batman crosses the dimensional divide to spend the holidays with our hero. Mike W. Barr and Jim Aparo keep the scorecards there. Detective #526 (1983) gave us All My Enemies Against Me! an anniversary tale featuring a huge punch-up against nearly two dozen bat-foes and the origin of a new Robin, written by Gerry Conway, drawn by the shamefully neglected and much missed Don Newton, and inked by Alfredo Alcala.

The more-or-less modern Batman is represented by Of Mice and Men (The Batman Chronicles #5, 1996) by Alan Grant, Scott McDaniel and Ray McCarthy and Cave Dwellers by Scott Beatty, Chuck Dixon, Marcos Martin and Alvaro Lopez (Batgirl: Year One #4, 2003), both reinterpreting the early days of the characters for a modern and ostensibly more sophisticated audience, and both doing a good job of it. The volume closes with a stylish pastiche of black and white movie classics with the decidedly odd but engaging Citizen Wayne by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos from The Batman Chronicles #21, 2000.

With judicious selection, there’s probably a good few more tales that could appear in successive volumes, but I’m still a little hesitant with that ‘Greatest Ever’ tag. Surely they can’t all be … No wait, I actually think they can.

© 1940, 1957, 1963, 1972, 1982, 1983, 1986, 1996, 2000, 2003, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Birds of Prey: The Battle Within

Birds of Prey: The Battle Within 

By Simone, & various

(DC Comics) ISBN 1-84576-352-1

Dyed-in-the-wool superhero fans and neophytes alike would be well advised to follow this series. It features a more-or-less rotating team of DC’s female crime-busters, led and co-ordinated by the mysterious ‘Oracle’ (wheelchair-bound Barbara Gordon, formerly known as Batgirl), as they target the less flashy and more insidious threats to the DC universe.

This volume (collecting issues #76-85 of the monthly comic series) begins with the Birds living in a hi-tech jetliner, proactively seeking out villains and vigilantes across America. First call is Dayton, Ohio, where a traumatised high school girl discovers she can pay everyone back using her ability to steal the powers of any magical force in the DC universe. Then they hit Peo Ridge, Kansas to stop a ghostly serial killer called Harvest who can literally suck the life out of her victims, usually men who abuse women. Metropolis gets a visit next, and a guest shot from the Thorn, whose one woman war on crime brings her to the attention of Oracle, Black Canary, Huntress and Co. A major sub-plot throughout these tales is Oracle’s increasing fascination with the virtual technology of the Brainiac computer that previously took her over.

The remainder of the volume is taken up with an extended storyline featuring Wildcat, a World War II hero who latterly trained most of the female fighters in the DCU. In a sting operation lead by Black Canary, the team tries to dry up the drug trade in Gotham by “buying” all the merchandise from the big boss supplier in Singapore. Naturally things don’t go quite according to plan, with spectacular results for not just crime buffs but any fan of martial arts mayhem.

Gail Simone once shows her mastery of action adventure and capable women, aided and abetted by a fine selection of very talented artists such as Joe Bennett, Ed Benes, Tom Derenick, Joe Prado, Eddy Barrows, Jack Jackson, Bob Petrecca and Robin Riggs. These romps are hard to beat and impossible to put down.

© 2004, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved

Batman:Year One Deluxe Edition

Batman:Year One Deluxe Edition 

By Frank Miller & David Mazzucchelli

(DC Comics) ISBN 1-84576-158-8

The latest repackaging of this classic tale is finally available as a paperback. Year One is a joy to read and its particular reinterpretation of the origin literally changed the way Batman was produced — much more so than the apocalyptic ‘Imaginary story’ The Dark Knight Returns. Its effects can still be seen echoing through the contemporary Bat titles.

This extras-added edition includes a wonderful four-page comic strip afterword by Mazzucchelli; lots of promotional art and a large selection of script pages, thumbnail sketches and layouts as a fascinating entrée into the artistic process.

Batman: Year One is a story every comic fan should own, and if you are and you don’t this is a pretty spiffy version to get, especially as its available now, Now, NOW!

© 1986, 1987, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Under the Hood, Vol 2

Batman: Under the Hood, Vol 2 

By Judd Winick & various

(DC Comics) ISBN 1-84576-277-0

The tale continues (as originally printed in Batman #645-650 and Batman Annual #25) and, no matter how I pitch it, forces me to contravene my self-imposed rule of not spoiling any surprise plot twists.

The Red Hood seems to be the adult version of Batman’s dead partner Jason Todd, who was the second Robin before being murdered by the Joker. What is his agenda? Is he just carrying as before his demise – albeit in a pretty harsh manner, or does he have a deeper game to play?

Despite the intrinsic silliness of the plot and the crushing, chronic comic book inability to let any character go, this still delivers plenty of angst-y action, melodrama and pathos. If you can suspend your narrative disbelief and just go with it, there’s guilty fun to be had here, especially if you think of this stuff as soap-opera, not literature. For that we’ve got Shakespeare and Stan Lee.

© 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved