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

Blackmark — 30th Anniversary Edition

Blackmark

By Gil Kane

(Fantagraphics Books)  ISBN 1-56097-456-7

Gil Kane was one of the pivotal players in the development of the American comics industry, and indeed of the art form itself. Working as an artist, and an increasingly more effective and influential one, he drew for many companies since the 1940s, on superheroes, action, war, mystery, romance, movie adaptations and most importantly perhaps, Westerns and Science-Fiction tales. In the late 1950s he became one of editor Julius Schwartz’s key artists in regenerating the super-hero. Yet by 1968, at the top of his profession, this relentlessly revolutionary and creative man felt so confined by the juvenile strictures of the industry, that he struck out on bold new ventures that jettisoned the editorial and format bondage of comic books for new visions and media.

His Name Is Savage was an adult oriented black and white magazine about a cold and ruthless super-spy in the James Bond/Matt Helm/Man Called Flint mould, a precursor in tone, treatment and subject matter of many of today’s adventure titles. The other venture, Blackmark, not only ushered in the comic book age of Sword and Sorcery, but also became one of the first Graphic Novels. Technically, as the series was commissioned by fantasy publisher Ballantine as eight volumes, it was also envisioned as America’s first comic Limited Series.

Volume 1 was released in 1971, and volume 2 just completed when the publisher cancelled the project. Long term collaborator Roy Thomas reprinted the tales in Marvel’s black and white magazines Savage sword of Conan and Marvel Preview, with the artwork rejigged to accommodate the different page format.

Enough background. Blackmark tells the tale of a boy born into a war-ravaged and primitive future where atomic holocaust has resulted in a superstitious society that has shunned technology and science. Feudal lords rule by might and terror, whilst rebel technophiles are hunted like dogs. Whilst fleeing persecution a married couple encounter a dying scientist king who pays the woman to impregnate her with a son pre-programmed to be a messiah of science.

Blackmark is born into a life of poverty and toil. When his parents are killed by a wandering warlord he devotes his life to vengeance, and learns the physical skills necessary when he is taken for a gladiator slave. It is sadly very familiar to us today, simply because it was so influential at the time – albeit with those few original purchasers who seem to have been the next generation of comic and literary creators.

Although the tale may seem old-hat the beauty on power of the illustration has never been matched. Kane designed the pages with blocks of text as part of the whole, rather than with willy-nilly blurb and balloons to distract the eye, and his evocative figure drawing has never been as taut, tense and passionate. The script, over Kane’s story is provided by the incomparable Archie Goodwin, as much a master as Kane himself.

This compilation collects the original volumes 1 and 2 and presents them in a size much larger than the original standard paperback. As well as a fantasy masterpiece, and a spectacular comic romp, it preserves and presents a literal breakthrough in comic story-telling that should be on every fan’s must-read list.

© 2002 Fantagraphics Books & the estate of Gil Kane. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: War Crimes

Batman: War Crimes

By various

(DC Comics) ISBN 1-84576-246-0

One last hurrah from the braided mega-event that occupied all the Batman titles during 2005, and as collected in War Drums and War Games: Outbreak, Tides and Endgame. As the dust settles Batman needs to find out how his own hypothetical training scenario led to the catastrophic gang war in Gotham and the death of two of his crime-fighting team. More moody and introspective, this dark tale of repercussions leads to the loss of yet another long-time Bat-ally.

Written by Andersen Gabrych, Devin Grayson, Bill Willingham, Bruce Jones and Will Pfeifer and no less than eleven artists, this slim volume reprints Batman #643-644, Batman Allies Secret Files & Origins 2005, Batman Villains Secret Files & Origins 2005, and Detective Comics #809-810.

© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman Returns: The Movie and Other Tales

Superman Returns: The Movie and Other Tales 

By various

(DC Comics) ISBN 1-84576-282-7

This movie tie-in volume reprints the comic adaptation of Superman Returns and pads out with an eclectic collection of tales from the more recent portion of the Man of Steel’s nigh seven decades of fun and thrills.

The Origin of Superman comes courtesy of The Amazing World of Superman Treasury Edition from 1973. The much-told tale gets another outing via E. Nelson Bridwell, Carmine Infantino, Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson, whilst the Luthor, Lois, Superman dynamic is re-examined by Stuart Immonen, Mark Millar and Yanick Paquette in A Night at the Opera originally seen in Adventures of Superman #575 (2000).

Geoff Johns, Brent Anderson and Ray Snyder show a lighter side in The Second Landing from Superman #185 (2002), Action Comics #810 (2004) provides a Christmas and New year’s fable by Joe Kelly and a fistful of guest artists, and the book ends with the delightful tale of Lois Lane’s fight to break the story of that brand new hero Superman, in Lois and the Big One from Superman Secret Files and Origins (2005) by Jami Bernard, Renato Guedes and Nick J. Napolitano.

© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman/Shazam!: First Thunder

Superman/Shazam!: First Thunder

By Judd Winick & Joshua Middleton

(DC Comics) ISBN 1-84576-296-7

Good, old fashioned comic book romp as the Man of Steel meets up with neophyte superhero Captain Marvel, who is in fact a little boy with a tremendous gift. Full of big fights, dastardly villains, giant monsters and robots, all rendered in a painterly style very reminiscent of the old Fleischer Studio Superman cartoons.

This is a great read for all ages and serves as a solid introduction for anyone unfamiliar with some of the major players of the Infinite Crisis volumes.

© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Tom Strong, Book Six

Tom Strong, Book Six 

By various

(America’s Best Comics) ISBN 1-84576-385-8

Alan Moore once again surrenders his writer’s role to a selection of top creators for an intriguing medley of tales from his own private universe in this the final collection of Tom Strong adventures.

First is The Black Blade of the Barbary Coast by Michael Moorcock and Jerry Ordway, wherein The Man of Science goes both trans-temporal and trans-dimensional in a quest to save the multiverse, with pirates, dinosaurs and the odd guest star from Moorcock’s own formidable pantheon of fantasy characters.

The Journey Within from Joe Casey and Ben Oliver features Strong’s steam-powered associate Pneuman, whose increasingly erratic behaviour proves to be less decrepitude and malfunction, and more infection and civilisation. Steve Moore and Paul Gulacy provide a dark oriental fantasy that examines the nature of fiction and reality in The Spires of Samakhara, and we see the final fate of a Science-Villain in Cold Calling from Peter Hogan, Chris Sprouse and Karl Story.

The volume — and indeed the series — ends with the appropriately apocalyptic-sounding Tom Strong at the End of the World, written by Alan Moore, who ties in the event with the ending of the Promethea series. In an introspective and contemplative turnabout the characters all transmigrate to a typically different Valhalla beautifully rendered by Sprouse, Story and colourist Jose Villarrubia.

All in all this collection (reprinting issues #31-36) is a fine end to a genuinely different take on the conventions of super-heroics, and a sad loss to the breadth and variety of the comic medium. I suspect we shan’t see its like for many a year.

© 2005, 2006 America’s Best Comics, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Superman-Batman: Vengeance

By Jeph Loeb, Ed McGuinness & Dexter Vines

(DC Comics) ISBN 1-4012-0921-1

Here’s another triumph of style over substance as our heroes are targeted by a strangely familiar – not to say almost dangerously copyright-infringing – team of super heroes from another reality – another? again? – bent on obtaining vengeance for the murder of a team-mate at the hands of – surely not? – Superman and Batman!

This further interdimensional foofaraw follows on from Superman-Batman: Absolute Power with a graphically astounding package of rollercoaster twaddle with lots of branded guest-stars but very little sense. Ooh, Shiny!

© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved

Batman: Gotham County Line

Batman:Gotham County Line

By Steve Niles & Scott Hampton, with Jose Villarrubia

(DC Comics) ISBN 1-84576-401-3

Eerie and evocative thriller as Batman investigates a serial killing spree in the sleepy suburbs of the big, bad city that only really kicks into high gear after the death of the perpetrator. Batman is one of the few heroic icons who has always been equally at home with super-science and the supernatural and the Dark Knight’s arena is here extended to beyond the veil of tears and deep into nightmare territory.

Rife with zombies, ritual killers, early life revelations and the odd guest-star, this still manages to be a crime thriller and a detective mystery that Bat-fans will enjoy and cross-over readers – especially horror aficionados – will revel in.

© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman-Batman: Absolute Power

Superman-Batman: Absolute Power

By Jeph Loeb, Carlos Pacheco & Jesus Merino

(DC Comics)

Hardcover ISBN 1-4012-0447-3 Paperback ISBN 1-84576-144-8

This most reductionist, iconic version of the World’s Finest team returns in a bewildering romp that is an aging fan-boy’s dream, as the time-travelling Legion of Super Villains co-opt history by raising Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne to be the conquerors of Earth, thus provoking universal doom and a plethora of DC guest stars from all histories and genres dying heroically before our consensus of reality is restored.

Although there is a vast amount of razzle-dazzle from Jeph Loeb and spectacular art from Pacheco and Merino, it still fails to really satisfy, and even the most desperate of continuity freaks know that everything’s going to come out right eventually.

© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved