Batman: As the Crow Flies

Batman: As the Crow Flies 

By Judd Winick, Dustin Nguyen & Richard Friend (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84023-914-X

Since he was one of the star villains of the film Batman Begins, the build-up of the Scarecrow started early, as DC tried to add some narrative credibility to a baddie who is almost as old as the Joker but has been woefully underused until recently – and mostly in the animation-inspired Batman Adventures titles at that.

In this most recent saga, collected from Batman issues #626-630, however, he’s portrayed as much an ineffectual lick-spittle of the Penguin as a truly evil and demented genius, and ends as little more than a staging device to introduce a monstrous new Female Fear-Foe “Fright” (sorry, my finger stuck on the Alliterator key).

The art is competent, but the characterisations are wooden, and slow paced doesn’t mean “moody” to me. Better luck next time, guys.

© 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Adventures in the Rifle Brigade

Adventures in the Rifle Brigade 

By Garth Ennis & Carlos Ezquerra
ISBN 1401-203-531

Garth Ennis is a huge fan of the British war comics he grew up reading. He’s also a writer with a distinct voice and two discrete senses of humour.

The black sardonic ironies of Preacher and True Faith are not present in this compilation of the two Rifle Brigade miniseries he produced with veteran combat illustrator Carlos Ezquerra. What you get here is the cruel, ultra-violent gross-out stuff that made Hitman or The Boys such guilty pleasures.

The Brigade are Blighty’s top combat unit, dealing death and destruction to the Hun in World War II. They’re also the worst congregation of deviants and psychopaths ever gathered under one roof, giving the creators the opportunity to lampoon every cliché you’ve ever seen in a war movie.

The plots (escaping from the Gestapo’s dungeon and beating the Germans to the mystical artefact that is Hitler’s missing testicle, respectively) are simply hangers to drape an avalanche of bad taste jokes on. The scripts, one-liners, and action sequences are all up to their usual high standards but whether it’s an enjoyable experience depends on what kind of humour you prefer. Not one for the easily offendable or retired Colonels.

© 2001, 2002, 2003 Garth Ennis & Carlos Ezquerra. All rights reserved.

Wonder Woman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told

Wonder Woman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told

By various (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-599-0

The Amazing Amazon finally gets her own volume in this generally excellent series, and although long-time fans may be disappointed that so much contained herein has been reprinted before – and often – it is a good sampling for casual and new readers to start their comic book addiction with.

The mandatory origin is taken from 2001’s graphic album Wonder Woman: Spirit of Truth, by Paul Dini and Alex Ross. Hidden from the eyes of man a race of immortal superwomen has prospered in all fields of science and art, secure in their isolation and the protection of their Hellenic Gods. This all ends when planetary war forces US air-force pilot Steve Trevor down on their secluded home. Nursing him, Diana, young daughter of the queen – I know there’s no men, but don’t ask, just read the book – falls in love, and determines to return with him to ‘Man’s World’ to fight evil and be near him.

Following from that is the character’s second ever appearance from Sensation Comics #1 (January 1942). Popular psychologist William Moulton Marston and artist Harry G. Peter tell the tale of how the Amazon Princess returns wounded aviator Trevor to the modern world and chooses to adopt a human identity to be near him in ‘Wonder Woman Comes to America’. ‘Villainy Incorporated!’ by the same team comes from 1948 (Wonder Woman #28), an epic-length tale of revenge as eight of her greatest enemies escape from Transformation Island where they were imprisoned, seeking the Amazons destruction.

Another team with long experience of our heroine is writer Robert Kanigher and artists Ross Andru and Mike Esposito. Their work is represented here by ‘Top Secret’ (Wonder Woman #99, 1958) as Steve tries to trick her into marriage – something the creep tried a lot back then – and ‘Wanted – Wonder Woman’ (issue #108, 1959), as flying Saucer aliens frame our heroine for heinous crimes as a precursor to a planetary invasion. In the mid 1960s attempts were made to boost the sales and profile of the heroine and Kanigher, Andru and Esposito began recycling the stories and style of Marston and Peter. From that period comes ‘Giganta – the Gorilla Girl’ (Wonder Woman #163, 1966), when an evolutionary experiment transforms a great Ape into a seven foot tall blonde with the hots for Steve.

Huge changes were in store for Princess Diana. With the arrival of Mike Sekowsky and young scripter Denny O’Neil the Amazon would lose her powers and become an Emma Peel/Modesty Blaise -like character fighting evil with nothing but her wits, martial arts and the latest Carnaby Street oufits. From Wonder Woman #178 (1968) comes ‘Wonder Woman’s Rival’ the prequel to that big change and the new team’s first work on the character in a tale of blackmail, murder – and fashion!

Eventually our heroine regained her powers and petitioned to rejoin the Justice League of America. She set herself twelve tasks to prove her worthiness and asked for a different JLA-er to monitor each one. Wonder Woman #212, 1974 featured her saving the world from nuclear Armageddon with Green Lantern along for the ride. ‘Wish Upon a Star’ is a relatively thrill-free romp courtesy of Elliot Maggin, but has lovely art from Curt Swan and Phil Zupa.

Robert Kanigher returns for the sentimental but endearing ‘Be Wonder Woman… And Die’ (Wonder Woman #286, 1981), illustrated by Jose Delbo and Dave Hunt, as much the tale of a dying actress as the mighty superheroine.

After the Crisis on Infinite Earths maxi-event of 1985, Wonder Woman was re-imagined for the post-crisis DC universe, and her comic series started again from #1. From the twentieth issue of that run comes ‘Who Killed Myndi Mayer’ (1988) by writer/artist George Perez, and inked by Bob McCloud, an intriguing, if heavy-handed, crime mystery surrounding the shooting of wonder woman’s publicist.

The volume ends with a pretty but slow day-in-the-life tale as Lois Lane interviews the heroine and cultural ambassador to Mans’s World during a typical day, providing readers with valuable insights into the heroine and the woman. ‘She’s a Wonder’ (Wonder Woman #170 – Second Series, 2001) is written and drawn by Phil Jimenez with inks from Andy Lanning and seems like a cosy way to wrap up this first volume.

Wonder Woman is a world figure of comic fiction, and looks set to remain one. This unchallenging collection might not be her best material but it is a solid representation of what gave her such fame.

© 1942, 1948, 1958, 1959, 1966, 1968, 1974, 1981, 1988, 2001, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Ultra: Seven Days

Ultra: Seven Days 

By The Luna Brothers (Image)
ISBN 1582404836

We live in an age of celebrity. It is ghastly, but it is true. It was, therefore, only a matter of time before the venerable old super-hero genre got the treatment. Ultra is the “Hello” of the super set, dishing the Goss on the paranormals who live among us, complete with their Agents, Managers, stylists, entourages, trade associations and parasitic tabloid paparazzi.

The concept isn’t exactly fresh but the creators take it to its considered extreme, by concentrating on a week in the lives of three “typical” heroines when they aren’t world-saving, striving to illuminate the human in “Super-human”. Sadly, for me at least, the same type of contrived romantic entanglements and stagy, forced comedic set-ups that made me quit Ally McBeal at the end of season one and makes me immune to soap-operas and reality TV, made this feel like laborious and stilted twinky-fodder.

Another problem is the overly mannered artwork. Perhaps the drab and stilted pictures are intended as a metaphor for the bland, inconsequential subject matter, but the conceit of using “actual pages from Ultra” as a staging device is overused and the text pages rather than adding insight finally became a chore to read.

There’s an odd quirk that makes us overly interested in how the famous live, who they’re shagging, what they wear (obviously very little in a book about super-heroines aimed at a comic-book audience) and I’m sure someone’s already bought the movie option for “I’m-A-Celebrity-Who-Can-Eat-Steel-So-You-Better-Get-Me-Out-Of Here-If-You-Know-What’s-Good-For-You”, so I’m sure I’m wasting time whining here, but that’s just me.

And as for that quirk? I resist it. If we all did, maybe all those celebrities would stop primping for us and get on with their lives, too.

™ & © 2005 The Luna Brothers. All Rights Reserved.

The Thing: Freak Show

The Thing: Freak Show

By Geoff Johns, Scott Kolins, Andy Lanning & Doug Hazlewood and various (Marvel)
ISBN 0-7851-KKKK-6

In super-hero iconography the Thing is the quintessential tragic hero. His simple origins as a slum kid made good by dint of hard work and a Football Scholarship, his selfless bravery as a pilot in defence of his country, the reckless loyalty that compelled him to pilot a rocket ship against his own better judgement all indicate a noble and hardy soul. To entrap that soul in the misshapen husk of an ambulatory boulder seems the harshest of judgements.

But as all fans know, that’s precisely the situation that has doomed Ben Grimm to a solitary life, even amidst his truest friends. How odd then that this beacon of noble misfortune is at his absolute best when he’s played against type, in stories of a lighter stripe.

Freak Show (collecting the miniseries of that name plus the Thing & She-Hulk: The Long Night one-shot) has ample slices of high tension, bombastic action and scurrilous villainy, but the basic everyman core of the character is the real attraction. The Thing is a man never too far from a hearty chuckle at adversity, which of course he’s seen more than his fair share of. The lead story, courtesy of Geoff Johns, Scott Kolins, Andy Lanning and Doug Hazlewood gives us a peek into Grimm’s childhood and specifically his reactions to a carnival of circus freaks ,and how years later the reappearance of those benighted creatures leads to some revelatory soul-searching. Comics form is sustained as these travails also involve two bands of rival alien invaders and a baby deity.

Although a much more traditional team-up, the Long Night (by Todd Dezago, Brian Hitch, Ivan Reis, Paul Neary and Randy Emberlin) also has these welcome touches of levity and humanity to leaven a rather dark tale of Subway Vampires and a big punch-up with the gigantic android Dragon Man.

The saddest thing about this volume, however, is simply that despite the popular films – and this is one of those rare super-hero books that isn’t mired in an impenetrable shield of nit-picking continuity – only the already converted are liable to read it.

© 2002, 2005 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Superman: That Healing Touch

Superman: That Healing Touch 

By Greg Rucka, Geoff Johns, Matthew Clark & Rags Morales (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-196-0

A character that has been continuously published for nearly seventy years can have some fairly extreme highs and lows. More often than not the lows are the real killer, as that’s when fans jump ship. Sometimes that’s nothing more than a portion of the audience being out of step with editorial thinking. Sometime the product is just not good enough. I’m not going to say which I think is the blame for my belief here, that after a woefully poor period recently, an element of reasonable quality is creeping back into Superman’s adventures.

That Healing Touch (reprinting Adventures of Superman #633-638 and Superman Secret Files 2004) moves once again towards an element of closer continuity between tales as it tells of an ongoing duel between our hero and the despicable villain Ruin who seems hell-bent on testing Superman by attacking all his friends.

Also welcome after so many months of testosterone drenched agony and angst are a few lighter – if somewhat portentous – moments signalled by the carefully handled appearances of the interdimensional sprite and long-time gadfly Mr Mxyzptlk (it’s a measure of my inherent Comic Guy Sadness that I typed that last word without having to look it up, and despite the sirens, steam and funny little croaking, pleading noises emanating from my spell-checker, I’m just not going to ‘Add To Dictionary’).

If the impetus continues to be “back” toward story and characterisation over torn S-shirts and snarling we could be in for a veritable reading renaissance.

© 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Steel Claw

The Steel Claw 

By Ken Bulmer & Jesús Blasco (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84576-156-1

One of the most fondly remembered British strips of all time is the startlingly beautiful Steel Claw. From 1962 to 1973 Jesús Blasco and his small studio of family members thrilled the nation’s children illustrating the breakneck adventures of scientist, adventurer, secret agent and even costumed superhero Louis Crandell. Initially written by science fiction novelist Ken Bulmer, the majority of the character’s career was scripted by comic veteran Tom Tully.

Our eventual hero began as the assistant to the venerable Professor Barringer working to create a germ destroying ray. Crandell is an embittered man, probably due to having lost his right hand, which has been replaced with a steel prosthetic. When the prof’s device explodes, Crandell receives a monumental electric shock which, rather than killing him, renders him invisible. This change is permanent. Electric shocks cause all but his steel hand to disappear. Kids, don’t try this at home!

Whether venal or simply deranged, Crandell goes on a rampage of terror against society culminating in an attempt to blow up New York City before coming to his senses. The second adventure pits the Claw against his therapist, who in an attempt to treat him is also exposed to Barringer’s ray, becoming a bestial ape-man who frames Crandell for a series of spectacular crimes. Bulmer’s final tale begins the character’s shift from outlaw to hero as the recuperating Crandell becomes involved in a modern day pirate’s scheme to hijack an undersea weapons system.

More than any other the Steel Claw was a barometer for reading fashion. Starting out as a Quatermass style science fiction cautionary tale the strip mimicked the trends of the greater world, becoming a James Bond-like super-spy complete with outrageous gadgets, and a masked and costumed super-doer when Bat-mania gripped the nation, before becoming a freelance adventurer combating eerie menaces and vicious criminals.

The thrills of the writing are engrossing enough, but the real star of this feature is the artwork. Blasco’s classicist drawing, his moody staging and the sheer beauty of his subjects make this an absolute pleasure to look at. Buy it for the kids and read it too; this is a glorious book.

© 2005 IPC Media Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

She Hulk 2: Superhuman Law

She Hulk 2: Superhuman Law 

By Dan Slott & various (Marvel Comics)
ISBN 0-7851-1570-6

The second volume of this incarnation of the Sexy Green Giant, Superhuman Law sees a sort of promotion for our heroine as she is seconded by the Universal Court known as the Magistrati.

Once there she is becomes a circuit judge for a sector of space that still uses a form of trial by combat as their legislative principle, which leaves plenty of room for both burly humour and hopefully a little self-examination among the progagonists and fans.

On returning to Earth she is called on to defend her fellow avenger Hercules from an Excessive Force suit brought by one of the many villains he’s thrashed in his career, showing even more thought for the consequences of a comic-book life-style.

The book concludes with an extended adventure as Jen’s old foe Titania gets hold of ultimate power and goes on a spree of destruction that eventually involves most of New York’s superhero community. The art is courtesy of Bobillo, Pelletier, Sasa, and Rick Magyar.

These volumes are a rare treat. A high concept that’s universally accessible to newcomer and fan alike, inconspicuous continuity, great gags, lots of action and great art. What more could you want?

© 2004 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

She Hulk 1: Single Green Female

She Hulk 1: Single Green Female 

By Dan Slott & various (Marvel Comics)
ISBN 0-7851-1443-2

She Hulk is the cousin of the Incredible Hulk. Her alter-ego, lawyer Jennifer Walters, got a blood transfusion from Bruce Banner and the inevitable result was a super-powerful, ample-bosomed, seven foot tall, green Valkyrie who is the poster-child for “As If…”

For most of her comics career she has been played slightly skewed to the rest of the Marvel Universe. For a good deal of it she has been the only character to know that her “life” is merely a comic-book, with all the fourth wall comedy that could be wrung out of that situation. This latest outing still concentrates on the humorous aspects, as with a huge tip of the hat to TV’s Ally McBeal, she leaves Avengers Mansion and joins New York’s most prestigious law-firm to specialise in the fledgling speciality and legal grey area known as Superhuman Law.

Single Green Female covers this transition with tongue-in-cheek aplomb, and all the gag prerequisites covered. Sexy rival, geeky lawyer who secretly prefers Jen to her Junoesque super-persona and slightly daffy boss are all in place and awaiting their cues, but the real secret to why this works is the fan-boy nit-picking that extrapolates the superhero world but isn’t ashamed to see the comedy potential. A shape-shifter is on staff because he can always get close enough to serve Writs. Sorcerer Dr. Strange is retained as a consultant for the more exotic cases. The law library contains every Marvel Comic ever published because they are considered pertinent legal documents…

Working on such cases as a man suing for compensation after a nuclear accident gives him super-powers, a murder trial where the victim is the key witness, a libel case where a certain wall-crawler sues a prominent publisher for defamation and a wrongful imprisonment case that involves an underage criminal provides plenty of action and laughs. The art is by Juan Bobillo, Paul Pelletier, Marcelo Sasa, Roland Paris, Tom Simmons and Dan Hillsman and although a little disconcerting in places in all of a high standard.

© 2004 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Monkey Subdues the White Bone Demon

Monkey Subdues the White Bone Demon 

Adapted by Wang Hsing-pei with drawings by Chao Hung-pen & Chien Hsiao-tai
(Foreign Languages Press, Peking 1976)

Although not strictly a graphic novel, this wonderful book is one of my favourite pieces of pictorial narrative. The Monkey King has been a popular figure in modern entertainment in the East and West almost since Wu Cheng-en’s epic mythological tale Pilgrimage to the West was first published, and he’s been given numerous celluloid and comic book outings too.

This particular version, from China itself, was first released in an English edition in 1964, with numerous reprintings since. I’m fairly certain that if I make any converts here, you could pick up a modern edition just by cruising your local Chinatown district. Stop off for a bite while you’re there, too, and impress the staff with your perspicacity by reading it at the table.

Told in beautiful, lavish black and white line drawings, in the manner of classical Chinese art, with one huge panel per page and a brief block of text underneath, much like Rupert Bear or Prince Valiant, the story involves Monkey, with his faithful companions Pigsy and Sandy, in an epic duel with the Queen of Demons as they escort their spiritual master, the Buddhist Monk Hsuan-tsang in a journey to discover lost Scriptures in the West.

This engrossing fantasy is spellbinding in its execution. The simplicity of the text allows the reader to be absorbed in the meticulous, yet airy line work, the magnificently stylish patterning and sheer expressionism of the characters, rendered familiar and exotic by the use of traditional Chinese operatic costuming and scene setting. This is a pretty, lovely, beautiful picture book. Go West, Young Fan, and see for yourself.

Presumably© 1964, 1973, 1976 – my computer can’t reproduce the Mandarin symbols, I’m sure they know who they are. If anyone can tell us we’ll happy correct this oversight. All Rights Reserved, I suspect.