Batman: Under the Hood

Batman: Under the Hood 

By Judd Winick & various (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-199-5

This tale (from Batman #635 – 641) introduces a brand new force to the streets of Gotham City. The Red Hood, originally a prototype criminal alias for the man who would become the Joker, is back and making a name for himself among the criminal hierarchies. Is he just another super-thug or does he have a more sinister agenda? How does he know so much about the secrets and methods of the Batman?

I’m not going to tell you. This fast-paced puff piece is fairly predictable if you accept the twin principles of modern comic books that nobody stays dead and that all writers think they can double-bluff their readers. Nonetheless, there’s plenty of action and pathos as the new playing order in Gotham sorts itself out prior to the major events all DC editors would like us to start our anticipatory salivations over. Stay tuned, Bat-Fans!

© 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Catwoman: Nine Lives of a Feline Fatale

Catwoman: Nine Lives of a Feline Fatale 

By Various (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84023-833-X

It feels odd to plug a book that is so obviously a quick and cheap cash-cow tie-in to a movie (and a bad movie, at that), but the Catwoman volume has a great deal to recommend it. For a start it is quaintly cheap’n’cheerful. The references to the film are kept to an absolute minimum. The selection of reprints, purporting to signify nine distinct takes on the near seventy year old character, are well considered in terms of what the reader hasn’t seen as opposed to what they have. There are also some rare and stunning art pieces selected as chapter heads, too, from the likes of George Perez, Dave Stevens, Alan Davis and Bruce Timm.

The stories themselves obviously vary in quality by modern standards, but serve as an intriguing indicator of taste in the manner of a time capsule. From her first appearance as a mysterious thief (Batman #1 1940), through ‘The Crimes of the Catwoman’ (Detective #203 1954), the wonderfully absurdist ‘The Catwoman’s Black Magic’ (Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane #70-71 1966), to the cringingly painful ‘Catwoman Sets Her Claws For Batman’ (Batman #197 1967) one can trace a gradual decline from sexy object of pursuit to imbecilic Twinkie.

In the nonsensical ‘The Case of the Purr-Loined Pearl’ (Batman #210 1969), Frank Robbins slowly (and oh, so terribly gradually) begins her return to major villain status, ‘A Town on the Night’ (Batman #392 1986), shows one of her innumerable romantic excursions onto the right side of the law before ‘Object Relations’ (Catwoman #54 1998), shows us the ghastly Bad-girl version of the glamorous thief.

Mercifully, we then get to the absolutely enthralling ‘Claws’ (Batman: Gotham Adventures #4 1998), produced in the tie-in comic based on the television cartoon but probably the best piece of pure comic book escapism in the whole package. The volume closes with the new, current origin ‘The Many Lives of Selina Kyle’ (Catwoman Secret Files #1 2002), by Ed Brubaker and Michael Avon Oeming and Mike Manley.

Catwoman is possibly one of the few female comic characters that the real world has actually heard of, so it’s great that the whole deal is such a light, frothy outing, as well as having some rarity appeal for the dedicated fan. Go get her, Tiger!

©1940-1955, 1956-2002, 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved

Year One: Batman/Ra’s al Ghul

Year One: Batman/Ra’s al Ghul 

By Devin Grayson, Paul Gulacy & Jimmy Palmiotti (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-254-1

Produced to cash in on the movie Batman Begins this run of the mill adventure is set after the death of the immortal Eco-warrior and criminal mastermind. Batman is sent on a quest to restore a dubiously ‘New Age-y’ balance to the Earth, which he inadvertently disrupted when he destroyed all of Ras al Ghul’s life-restoring ‘Lazarus Pits’, mystical chemical baths which would now appear to be the planet’s way of voiding detrimental energies.

Galvanised into action by a posthumous letter from al Ghul, and the distressing fact that all over the planet dead things and people are coming back to a ghastly semblance of life, Batman goes on a very pretty, monotonously action-packed but terribly silly rampage of action before he restores the natural order. Why haven’t all the mystical busybodies that guard the planet noticed before now? Where are Superman and the Justice League?

Rushed and ill-considered, and with plot holes you could drive a fleet of hearses through, this disappointing jumble from the usually excellent Devin Grayson will hopefully be soon forgotten. Surely this is one graphic novel that only the most non-discriminating Bat-fan could love.

© 2005, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Death and the Maidens

Batman: Death and the Maidens 

By Greg Rucka and Klaus Janson (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84023-951-4

One of the biggest problems with the truly iconic characters is that once their periodical adventures are over there’s the inevitable rush to collect the tale as a book. Sadly, a lot of these tales just aren’t that good.

Death and the Maidens deals with the destruction of possibly the last great Bat villain – Ra’s Al Ghul – due to the machinations of his daughters Nyssa and Talia. The latter has been yet another villainess/love interest for Batman since the 1970’s but Nyssa is new and as the tale progresses through a series of flashbacks the reader discovers the hell that the immortal mastermind has subjected her to over the centuries, and how she has responded.

The conveniently dying villain appears to Batman and offers to put him in touch with his dead parents through an (al)chemical solution in return for a cessation of the hero’s campaign of destruction on the sources of Al Ghul’s immortality. How logical is that?

I don’t care how screwed up he is by their death. No one as calculating as Batman stops a ten year all-out war with a monster who intends to destroy the human race – particularly one with a history of using chemical and bacteriological weapons – on the promise of a pharmaceutical séance, especially when he’s on the verge of winning.

More importantly it serves no purpose in advancing the narrative, but seems there solely as a way injecting some heroic angst into the mix. Long story short, after loads of trauma and action the girls succeed and Nyssa replaces her father as head of his organization, and therefore as Batman’s implacable foe. Any bets on how long he stays dead? Creators Rucka and Janson can do so much better.

© 2003, 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Bolland Strips!

By Brian Bolland (Knockabout – Palmano Bennett)
ISBN 0861661508

Brian Bolland is probably one of the best artists in the comics biz, with a precise, almost super-real, photographic style that has won him many fans and probably just as many imitators. His work is meticulous and time-consuming, and indicative of a high degree of self-control. The man himself is gentle, quiet and self-effacing. If you’ve ever met him you probably came away thinking, “Wow! What a Nice, Quiet Guy,” and never for a moment thought that those are the sort of words most neighbours of serial killers use when rabid News-crews shove microphones under their noses during an interview scrum.

With this collection of strip work – not even blackmail or threat of physical force seems able to convince him to draw whole cartoon stories on a regular basis any more – we get a glimpse of the fevered mind locked behind all those ultra-fine lines and rock-solid visualisations. And what a mind it is.

Gathered together from such disparate sources as Escape, A1 and Vertigo comic anthologies, these strips are sly, clever and just plain witty inner explorations that have as much to do with Samuel Beckett, Alan Whicker, Viv Stanshall (for Mr Bolland too knows the sublime mystery of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band (“Look over Walls! Wrestle Poodles… and Win!”) and Freud as it does with x-ray vision, spandex, gloved fists and winged boots.

Fans will be delighted to know that there are plenty of knockout naked women on hand, although you will be asked in a positively Crumb-like manner why you want them, as the lavishly rendered tales of The Actress and the Bishop give way to the introspective, therapeutic yet oddly engaging Mr Mamoulian, a loose, experimental and quintessentially English series of short picture essays that explore inner myths, and creativity, rendered directly into ink in a free-form manner and oddly reminiscent of John Ryan’s wonderful Harris Tweed strips for the Eagle.

Mr Bolland’s dark brand of whimsy can be experienced in the latter portion of the book with reprints from Vertigo’s Heart Throbs and Strange Adventures, where even the chore of taking the readership – Americans at that! – into consideration doesn’t fully quell the idiosyncratic nature of his writing. This is a jolly good book of comics.

Beautiful pictures that make you think. What a splendid idea!

© 2004 Brian Bolland except The Princes & the Frog/The Prince and the Witch, The Kapas 1999 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Ark Angels

Ark Angels 

By Sang-Sun Park (Tokyopop)
ISBN 1-84576-452-8

This is the tale of Shem, Hamu and Japheth, three magical sisters from another dimension who have a mission to save the Earth. With their individual spirit totems they must rescue the last surviving members of endangered or nigh-extinct animal species and remove them to a wondrous and improbable Ark. The matter is complicated by the fact that they can communicate with the souls of all animals, and quite frankly, they’re often as screwed up and obnoxious as human beings.

Their omnipotent Lord has charged them with this mission, as each saved species will contribute to the overall salvation of the planet and the universe. To further this divine plan he has placed the sisters in an average Earth school so that they can better understand the world. Naturally this leads to lots of joy and embarrassment of the sort beloved by school-aged manga fans everywhere, but there is also an ever present danger from an unknown enemy, and the sisters’ mundane travails are compounded by sinister counter-agents from their home dimension intent on letting – or helping – Earth die!

This Shojo manga – or story for girls – is a breezy wheeze that is a blend of Powerpuff Girls and Charmed with lots of beautiful creatures, humanoid and otherwise, being clever and dramatic by turns. Although probably not to everyone’s taste the combination of slapstick and schooldays humour, plus the uplifting sentiment and ecological message of this magical romance is quite likely to carry the most cynical reader along for the ride.

© 2005 Sang-Sun Park and Tokyopop K.K. All Rights Reserved.

Villains United

Villains United

By Gail Simone, Dale Eaglesham & Val Semeiks (DC Comics/Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84576-232-0

One of the interlinked miniseries that form the protracted prologue to the Infinite Crisis publishing event, this book deals with a select band of super-criminals and their mysterious, anonymous leader who resist the mobilisation of the DC villains into an unstoppable organization.

Said Super-Mob, calling itself “The Society” determines to wipe out these independents and the result is an exceptionally cool caper tale where, since the Good Guys are Bad Guys, the best lines don’t get scooped up by the antagonists, and for once you can start your read genuinely not knowing who’s going to be breathing come the final curtain.

Gail Simone’s script is full of canny plot-twists and strong, credible characterisation, the art is smooth and dynamic, and the situation is refreshingly believable. Also invaluable are the “previously on” and “scorecard” sections that bring edited highlights and identifying cameos from other sources to the mix so that non-fanboys can keep the ninety or so characters in mind without suffering a debilitating embolism.

This is a great little book, and shows how modern, superhero comics can and should be done.

© 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman: Man of Steel 4

Superman: Man of Steel 4 

By various (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-128-6

I thought I’d give this compilation series a belated and much-deserved recommendation when the latest volume thumped onto my desk. If I have such a thing as a regular reader out there, he/she/it probably knows I’ve been a fan of the character since 1962 or thereabouts. All of which meant that when DC announced a fundamental reworking of the Man of Tomorrow in the wake of their 1986 Crisis on Infinite Earths project, I was more than a little alarmed.

Sure the big guy was in a bit of a slump, but he’d weathered those before. How could a root and branch retooling be anything but a pathetic marketing ploy that would alienate the real fans for a few fly-by-night Johnny-come-latelys who would jump ship as soon as the next fad surfaced? That new Superman was going to suck.

He didn’t. After the six part miniseries by John Byrne and Dick Giordano, the saga returned to monthly titles Superman, Adventures of Superman and Action Comics – which latter acted as a fan-pleasing team-up book guest-starring other stars of the DC Universe. Marv Wolfman and Jerry Ordway joined Byrne to create thrilling and visually exciting, contemporary and even socially aware slices of sheer exuberant, four-colour fantasy that were impossible to hate. Superman had always been great, but he was once again exciting. Rivetingly so.

This volume features not only the usual quota of Superman tales (Superman 7-8, Action 590-591 and Adventures of Superman 430-431) but also includes two issues of the Legion of Super-Heroes (#37-38) to reprint a classic back-writing exercise that solved an impossible post–Crisis paradox whilst giving us old geeks a chance to see a favourite character die in a way all heroes should. Paul Levitz, Greg LaRoque and Erik Larsen augment the regular creative teams in a classy, unrepentant super-feast.

As I’ve previously mentioned, a major problem that most non-fans have with super-hero comics (apart from them actually having super-heroes in them) is the insane convolutions of in-house continuity. This all-readers-start-here opportunity to show doubters how good this genre can be is one all comics missionaries should exploit to the fullest. So that’s your wife/girl-friend/mother’s next present sorted then, no?

© 1987, 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Transformers: Maximum Force

Transformers: Maximum Force 

By Bob Budiansky, Jose Delbo and Frank Springer (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84023-955-7

Following directly on from Trial by Fire (ISBN 1-84023-950-6), this volume reprints issues #40-42 and #44-45 US Marvel monthly comic of the 1980s. The beleaguered Autobots seek to resurrect their deceased leader whilst dealing with the twin debuts of new character – and of course, toys – The Pretenders and The Powermasters!

The histrionic hokum is superbly augmented by tantalising behind-the-scenes features which might be the spark that ignites future Kirbys, Moores or Millers. Nice thought, no?

There just aren’t enough entry level comics for kids these days and it’s always a pleasure to see solid tales competently told and delineated. It’s great that comics have “grown up”, but we must treasure the golden age of reading, which is of course, seven to ten years old. Buy for your kids but don’t forget to check them out yourself.

© 2004 Hasbro. All Rights Reserved.

Transformers: Trial by Fire

Transformers: Trial by Fire 

By Bob Budiansky, Jose Delbo and Frank Springer (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84023-950-6

The Titan Books collections of the Transformers tales which took America by storm more than twenty years ago are worth another look as the Major Motion Picture looms large. Since the mutable mechanoids are experiencing something of a revival the publisher’s recent collections of the best of the UK comic adventures are also sound reading choices for the younger reader, and I’ll get to those too.

Trial by Fire reprints the four issue miniseries that introduced the “Headmasters” line of toys to the reading universe and numbers #38-39 from their US Marvel monthly comic of the 1980s. Fortress Maximus brings his war-weary band of Autobots to the utopian world of Nebulos, tragically leading the marauding Decepticons of the evil Scorponok there too.

The cosmic civil war of the Evil Decepticons and benevolent Autobots was the entry level strip for many of today’s most dedicated comics fans – and some professionals – and hopefully they can work their simplistic magic for the next generation too!

© 2004 Hasbro. All Rights Reserved.