Saturday, September 16, 2017

Metallurgy #2: Metal #2 and Gotham Resistance Part 1

Welcome to Metallurgy my reading guide through he DC event Dark Nights: Metal, a DC Event. In this entry we have the second issue of Metal as well as the beginning of tie-in crossover "Gotham Resistance" Note: If you are going to read "Gotham Resistance Part 1" in Teen Titans, read Metal #2 first

Metal #2 Written by Scott Snyder Illustrated by Geg Capullo Inked by Jonathan Glapion Colored by FCO Plascencia

First issues to big events like Metal are easy, like a loud opening power chord, it just has to set the tone and announce itself. With issue #2 Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo, and the rest of the art tea now have to begin telling a story. With such an outsized tone, it would be easy to see Metal as a camp exercise. One gigantic riff on the DC lore while telling a blockbuster adventure. Metal is a gigantic riff on DC lore, and a blockbuster, but it’s one with heart.

Leading into Metal, Scott Snyder talked about how the series revolved around a mystery Batman didn’t want to solve. A mystery the Detective didn’t want solved!? That goes against nearly 50 years of obsessive storytelling what could cause that? He’s scared, more scared than he’s ever been. Showing fear in the Dark Knight is tricky for Greg Capullo. His costume is supposed to create the feeling of unease, to mask his humanity and project something greater. With white pupiless eyes, you could make them grow large but that connotes shock not fear.

The creative team smartly represent Batman’s fear to the reader by externalizing it, instead of internalizing it. Batman’s fear is represented by the fear in the moral heart of the DCU, Superman.

“We’ve been friends a long time, I know your heartbeat nearly as well as Lois.” That is a profound statement on the intimacy of their relationship. As the scene progresses and Superman realizes the ruse there is still an emotional truth to both Clayface’s performance and Superman’s instincts. Batman has been transmitting his heartbeat, he really is frightened and that makes Superman scared for everybody.

As touching, and emotionally grounding, that sequence is, this is still Metal. One of the things that makes this series not feel like false drama is how playful it is with the iconography of DC comics and Metal #2 reintroduces an old friend. The council of immortals led by Vandal Savage, first introduced in Dark Days: The Forge, official clubhouse is the layer of the Legion of Doom from Super Friends! The council has come together to implement their own plan to combat Barbatos. They want Kendra Saunders to fire the astral brain of the Anti-Monitor (what?!?) into the heart of the multiverse from The Wizard’s Rock of Eternity. That plan sounds like a bad idea, as the ones cooked up by any group of immortals tend to be, but man that could be an awesome splash page from the art team.
It isn’t like Batman has a better plan either. His plan is another indication of just how scared he is. Using Baby Darkseid’s omega beams to send him back in time to kill Barbatos and possibly erase himself form existence, is a tad extreme and desperate. He questions the incorporeal Dream if he’s doing the right thing as he wanders through the Valley of Kings. Desperate, and frightened he maybe, that is still a very Batman plan. And no one, not even the other members of the Trinity can talk him out of it.

By riffing on the DCU lore and iconography there was already an element of light reflexivity to the series. It’s part of the charm of speaking in reference, if the audience understands it they feel better. If they don’t, well, hopefully you’re telling a good story by itself.  How Scott Snyder and the letter use full reflexivity, by crossing out the location annotation of “Valley of Kings” with “Tomb of Hath Set,” read like the equivalent of Quentin Tarantino blaring the “Iron Side Siren” in Kill Bill. You just know it’s about to go down and the drama just got turned up to 11. In both cases these are not cheap triggers, they are both moments grounded in earned drama.

Of course, it all goes wrong, Batman is finally anointed with the fifth metal “Batmanium.” And the portal is opened, with Barbatos and his Dark Knights waiting to waltz right in. Back at SDCC ’17 DC released a teaser image of some of these evil Batmen, but getting to see Greg Capullo and companies rendering of the characters made them more fearsome. They aren’t abstract representations but now fit within the aesthetic of the series.

With the conclusion of Metal #2, the event and series hit an act break. Now the crossovers (“Gotham Resistance” and “Bats Out of Hell”) and various one shots can begin. And surprisingly, I’m kind of interested in all of it.

Teen Titans #12 “Gotham Resistance Part 1 – The Riddler’s Labyrinth”
Written by Benjamin Percy, Illustrated by Mirka Andolfo, Colored by Romulo Fajardo Jr. Lettered by Corey Breen

With the release of Metal #2 the event begins a 4 issue crossover between Teen Titans, Nightwing, Suicide Squad, and Green Arrow known as “Gotham Resistance.” As with any crossover of this type, I don’t expect “Resistance” to bring about some sort of profound character statement for the cast. Green Arrow and Teen Titans writer Ben Percy is pretty much writing the standard interpretation of all oft these characters. It is, however, a nice excuse to play in this new sandbox Metal has plunked down in the middle of the DCU.

Despite getting a splash page and some follow up dialogue about being able to hear the screams, Metal moved on pretty fast from the whole Challengers Mountain suddenly appearing, and wreaking destruction, all over Gotham City. Dealing with this new environmental hazard is what the cast of “Resistance” is up to. As Gotham has been transformed not just into a wrecked city but one cut off from the outside world. Making this perhaps decent justification for the bog-standard spectacle of mass destruction these types of event series create.

For its part, Teen Titans and Ben Percy do a fine job setting up and justifying the cast of this crossover. Damian is searching for Bruce. Nightwing wouldn’t let anything like this go unchecked. Harley Quinn and Killer Croc are on unspecified Task Force X “business” and have a good amount of city pride. The only one who stands out, because of his lack of direct Gotham ties, is Green Arrow. Ollie’s around because: people need help and something something I lost my city something something, you’ve heard the speech before.

Trying to bring Gotham back isn’t the only point of Metal tie in. Since this takes place after the events of Metal #2 the Dark Knights of Barbatos have been unleashed. Their leader, The Batman who Laughs(aka Judge Death if he wanted to run around as a leather daddy), is running around Gotham City and dealing in the cities most well-known rogues for a game of their choosing. With special metal playing cards each rogue gains dominion over a section of Gotham City and can reshape reality as they see fit, further transforming Gotham City into the post-apocalyptic Ba Sing Se of the Avatar universe.

The first rogue the group runs into is a powered up Riddler, who looks like he just went to a KISS concert, and his M. C. Escher inspired labyrinth. Mirka Andolfo does a good job laying into the Escher style on a few pages, but everything still reads a bit to safe. There isn’t anything extra asked of the reader to make sense of these page layouts. Everything about Teen Titans #12 is just a little too compact for how expansive and experimental the setup is. Worse there aren’t any really good Labyrinth deep cuts.

Saying that this crossover feels inconsequential the Event overall seems like the wrong message to take. According to Snyder the main “story” of Metal will be contained to his core series. This crossover and “Bats out of Hell” (in the pages of The Flash, Hal Jordan and the Green Lantern Corps, and Justice League) are supposed to be siloed away. Although the solicits for the “Bats out of Hell” books imply a closer connection. “Gotham Resistance” has thus far made a good accounting for itself, a fun little side adventure as part of the overall Metal tapestry. Seriously, some of the preview art looks pretty bonkers. It just doesn’t appear to be super important for putting together and understanding the finale in 4 months either.

Next Time in the pages of Metallurgy: Gotham Resistance Part 2 and Batman: The Red Death.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Metallurgy: Metal #1 - Crazy Train

Finally, after months of teases and confusing branding (Dark Days into Dark Nights … or is it Dark Knights?) Metal is here! Like an all-star band, writer Scott Snyder and artists Greg Capullo (pencils), Jonathan Glapion (inks) FCO Plascencia (colors) and Steve Wands (letters), come together, thrash about, and begin the capstone for Snyder and Capullo’s run with Batman.

Metal marks what should be considered the first proper ‘E’vent in the DC Rebirth era. While there have been ‘e’vent miniseries (Justice League vs Suicide Squad) with a couple of tie-ins, Metal boasts the excess – if not total – of tie-ins and specials that define ‘E’ comic events in post-Civil War (2006) Big Two publishing. Scott Snyder and family even released their own version of a reading list! This isn’t something we’ve seen from DC since, maybe, Convergence (2015) but more fittingly Forever Evil (2013).

Unlike previous Events this isn’t one I’m dreading; my hope is to cover everything in these ‘Metallurgy’ posts. Compared to Secret Empire, this seems so small. The overall event is comprised of: the main 6 issue Metal series, 2 separate 4 issue crossovers “Gotham Resistance” and “Justice League vs The Dark Knights”, 7 Dark Knight(evil Batmen) one-shots, and 2 other one shots Batman: Lost and Hawkman: Found. For 23 total issues of comics.

This sense of relief seems to be from how limited the tie-ins are, the majority of the “Gotham Resistance” and “League vs Dark Knights” titles ship twice monthly and in both cases, play out over the months of October and November respectively. Overall impact to DC’s publishing line is minimal. That feeling is also derived from the overall reader attitude towards DC’s current meta narrative with Rebirth. While Metal doesn’t have anything to do with the ongoing Rebirth meta-narrative, the environment it has created doesn’t seem like a weight on the line as a whole. Making me, someone who normally eschews mainstream cape books because of the ongoing crisis meta narratives for smaller of the beaten path stuff, more amenable to going on this comic book blockbuster.

None of these feelings, however, would last very long if the main Metal series wasn’t good. So far it is, issue 1 is a good start to things for people who didn’t read Dark Days: The Forge or Casting. While the issue doesn’t really complete a first act, it sets things up for Batman to make the fateful decision in issue 2. A good portion of this quality is derived from the vibe the book is given, so eloquently summed up by its name “Metal.” I now understand why Scott Snyder fought to have this book called Metal. While it is a nice reference to the series macguffin, Nth metal, it also acts as a statement of purpose in a way something like Crisis of the Dark Multiverse wouldn’t. Even if the latter has far more built in name recognition. Calling something like Crisis of ‘X’ builds in all these expectations and importance, while Metal is important – it’s launching the ‘Dark Matter’ imprint of comics– this book isn’t self-important. It is, however, self-aware.

Metal uses this awareness to show a sincere appreciation for the spectacle of Event Comics and DC mythology. If this team of creatives had a band equivalent it would be Elite Tauren Chieftan, the Blizzard-World of Warcraft group. They gleefully make metal music out of the lore and culture of World of Warcraft, an absurd concept that has actually made for some good songs.

In any other book, the Justice League fighting Mongul on a rebuilt Warworld (or I guess WarMoon technically), and coming together to form their own Voltron/Megazord would be the main event of a series. Here it’s the pre-title sequence. A title sequence that proudly proclaims Metal to be a ‘DC COMICS EVENT’ with credits featuring the creatives given very METAL nick names. The books reflexivity takes many forms, from the editor’s notes telling readers to “see the 90s” for a reference about Aquaman’s totally metal harpoon hand too Snydery punning Final Crisis in some of Hawkman’s journal. This knowing acknowledgement allows for an embrace of not just the absurd nature of their environment (even by cape comic standards) but their histories, and instead focus on the characters aka the things that make stories work. With a lead, up like The Casting and The Forge, you kind of have to embrace everything after they pulled together disparate aspects of the DCU like the Blackhawks, Metal Men, Challengers of the Unknown, and the eternal continuity kerfuffle that is the Hawks, and more in to a cohesive “Wold Newton Family” of sorts.

On the way back from dealing with Mongul, the League learn that a mysterious mountain suddenly appeared in the middle of Gotham City leaving massive devastation in its wake, as these stories are often wont to do. Greg Capullo situates the reveal in a beautiful spread that gives the reader a sense of scale. Superman recognizes and gives voice to the thousands of victims, but in typical blockbuster fashion they are an anonymous off panel presences; these types of stories can’t let the reader comprehend the scale of destruction in a realistic fashion lest the mollifying spectacle lose its potency. Before they can investigate what is revealed to be the disappeared Blackhawk Mountain, Kendra Saunders and the Black Hawks appear and whisk the League away on a warning of an even greater threat.

The threat: an invasion from the Dark Multiverse! In another example of a cheeky self awarness, Capullo literally uses the map of the multiverse from Grant Morrison’s Multiversity to explain the dark multiverse concept. The dark multiverse, inspired according to Snyder by recent discoveries around dark matter, is the other side of the map. A plane of existence that we cannot comprehend or locate but undergirds everything we do know. The news gets worse from there as Batman appears fated to unleash the dark multiverse and their dark god Barbatos (aka the Hyper-Adapter from Grant Morrison’s run and the demon from Peter Milligan’s “Dark Knight, Dark City.”) Scott Snyder is showing a surprising depth of DC lore and ideas and twisting them to tell a different story.

But what is the dark multiverse exactly? In an interview with CBR, Snyder described the realm thusly
The way the Dark Multiverse works is that your fears and your fantasies exist there. There are 52 known universes in the Multiverse as we know it, right? But the ocean of the Dark Multiverse is roiling, fluid place, where anything you fear or think becomes material and then bubbles back back. But, if something down there decided they pluck the things from your nightmares and bring them here, to our universe, they could.
You know, if that thing, whatever it might be, could actually get here.

Snyder has Kendra Saunders begin to say something similar while talking with the League.

This is the concept that has me so curious about the series, an entire realm where the Freudian unconscious gets to come out and play adds so much potential for more writing about this series beyond its reflexive qualities. Stylistically how Snyder will treat this realm was hinted at in  The Forge and Casting the prequel two-shot that operated in the style of cosmic horror. Cosmic horror generally features an unknowable entity or outside force slowly driving the cast to madness as they fail to comprehend or more freightingly begin to. These concepts sound like fertile ground for a story about Batman, the detective, and a mystery he slowly doesn’t want to solve but also can’t help himself from solving.

Metal has traded in a smorgasbord of DC mythology, the kind of references and tape together quality that make reading cape comics fun. The thing that sends this first issue truly over the top is an appearance by Dream of the Endless aka Sandman with a warning for Batman that “this nightmare … has only just begun.” The rare appearance by one of Neil Gaiman’s most well-known character is the ultimate cherry on top and warning that stuff is about to get real.

This is a proper Event form DC and with how infrequent these are compared to their competition and how easy it is to skip this, I’m more than willing to see where this crazy ride goes. 

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Spider-man: Homecoming - It's Fine

Add caption
Directed byJon Watts
Produced by Kevin Feige Amy Pascal
Screenplay by Jonathan Goldstein John Francis Daley Jon Watts Christopher Ford Chris McKenna Erik Sommers
Story by Jonathan Goldstein John Francis Daley
Cinematography by Salvatore Totino

Spider-Man: Homecoming is here, and it’s just fine. That is a profound and shocking statement for sure. Who knew, Marvel Studios knew how to make a good movie that (re)introduces their marquee character into the most popular section of the Marvel multiverse. That consistency of quality, is, however, part of what has made my reaction to this movie so puzzling. It’s not that I don’t like this movie, it’s that I don’t feel much about it. “Homecoming” isn’t a gross piece of product as film like previous Spidey film Amazing Spider-Man 2. It also isn’t a profound entry into the genre or provide a truly novel experience like Wonder Woman. Yes, it provides some interesting variations on Marvel’s bread and butter and genre as whole, but these aspects never culminate into something greater. More puzzling it isn’t boring; the worst sin a movie could commit. Homecoming is just fine. Maybe this reaction is just further cultural proof of the superhero subgenre’s actual maturity and standing.

Still there are some things worth considering when it comes to Homecoming. For the first time Marvel is introducing a character that has been culturally saturated well before principle photography began. The first Spider-Man franchise run by Sam Rami is the Marvel equivalent of Richard Donner’s Superman (both directors even follow similar trajectories with each franchise). When I think of Spider-man on film, it’s of Tobey Maguire the same way the first image of Superman is of Reeves. That isn’t to say Tom Holland is a poor fit for the role, he’s probably the best live action Peter Park and Spider-man we’ve ever had. I just want to illustrate the kind of cultural headwinds everyone faced when starting the third Spider-man film franchise in 15 years.

This cultural penetration provides for an interesting variation in the normal paces of a first film in one of these kinds of things. Homecoming is emotionally an origin movie without any of the cumbersome, repetitive, plot mechanics of a Spider-man origin film. And it’s emotionally where I think this film falls a little short. While the movie doesn’t utter the famous “with great power comes great responsibility” line it plays in that same register as Peter tries his best to prove himself to Tony Stark and become a full-fledged Avenger. When it comes time for the cathartic moment of Spidey lifting a big heavy thing that lack, an assumed emotional beat, created an unfulfilling result. Tony Stark’s admonishment that “If you're nothing without the suit, then you shouldn't have it,” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. The emotional journey of this movie is built around remixing one of the most well-known themes in all of American pop culture without any of the original notes. It’s not a bad remix, everything about this movie is coherent it just didn’t quite land.

That assumed knowledge on the part of the viewer explains Marvel Studio head Kevin Feige’s view of the movie more as an introduction, not an origin.

“Well, I didn’t think we were bringing him back, or redoing him – I thought about introducing, for the first time ever, a Spider-Man in the [Marvel] Cinematic Universe. That you didn’t know it before, but even during Iron Man 1, there was a little kid, somewhere in Queens, who was named Peter Parker.”

This notion of a secret or previously unexplored history is again one of the aspects of the movie that intrigue. As it relates to the villain of the piece, Adrian Toomes(Michael Keaton) and his crew of small but successful gunrunners and weapons manufactures. After the events of The Avengers, there was a lot of alien scrap left around and after being beaten out of a cleanup contract by a deal between Stark Industries and the Federal Government (creating Damage Control) Toomes and his men go into business for themselves. Operating for nearly a decade without any interference by the tin man or the Feds. Until the sudden appearance of that irksome menace Spider-man! It’s that kind of continuity that is a plus for these sorts of films, quickly establishing Toomes and his crew in about 5 minutes.
It also helps that Michael Keaton turns in one of the better villain in this vast franchise. While functionally a dark mirror, Keaton’s age and menace provide Holland a mirror not of himself at the present but of the future. And even while he thematically mirrors the lead, Toomes is an antagonist with his own understandable reasons that hide a Trumpian lie at the heart of his modus operandi. Toomes casts himself as this working-class hero, who turns to gun running after being stepped on by the elite Tony Stark. Except, he has a nice house in the suburbs of NYC, sends his daughter to the “rich” high school, and is a contractor. He’s just as white collar as Stark, but with less money. Now his crew, featuring a slew of good character actors like Bokeem Woodbine as the Shocker, they are working class.

You’d think with one of the most well-known aspects of Peter Parker, that he is a nerd, one of these movies would’ve already been a high school flick, but they haven’t. They’ve all actually been off camera college features. Until now, Homecoming really digs into the high school dynamic of things with an admirable and modern diverse cast. It’s here that Cop Car director Jon Watts really shines. Tony Revolori as Flash Thompson is reimagined as something of a rich alpha geek who mercilessly tortures Peter. Peter’s best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) gives things a fun buddy dynamic. I wish we could’ve gotten more of Laura Harrier as Liz Allen for a host of narrative reasons, but mostly because the character is an undercooked quasi love interest and that sort of deal went out of fashion decades ago. Peter referentially gazes at Liz putting up a sign at one point and wonders if she’s wearing a new shirt. That sequence epitomizes this films objective distance to that character.
As with all Marvel films, this is character focused. It’s also the first chance for Marvel Studios to make a big movie about a street level hero that isn’t relegated to the pretentious and unfulfilling Netflix side of things. There is an excellent smallness to this movie that once again shows that proper emotional priming and storytelling is worth 100x more than apocalyptic cgi blazen spectacle. That doesn’t stop this movie from reenacting the metaphoric 9/11 in one of the most literal ways possible, but it still works.

The biggest complaint with the movie is the decision to film most of its action sequences at night. Spider-man isn’t really a night time hero and the darkness obscures the action. That's the biggest dig you can really come up with. 

Homecoming is fine. In a summer season dominated by largely forgettable and bad films, the sheer unobtrusive quality of Homecoming automatically makes it one of that levels best. It’s also the least interesting superhero film you’re going to see all year. 

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Wonder Woman - Finally a Good DC Film in Theaters

Directed by Patty Jenkins Produced by Charles Roven Deborah Snyder Zack Snyder Richard Suckle Screenplay by Allan Heinberg Story by Zack Snyder Allan Heinberg Jason Fuchs Cinematography Matthew Jensen Edited by Martin Walsh

The first half of 2017 has been an overall excellent year for superhero films. Logan kicked things off with the genres first proper revisionist film. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2. for all of its rainbow space opera aestheticism bared its soul, revealing a familial melodrama more interested in showing the emotive range of its motley crew than the blockbuster spectacle one would expect from this kind of movie. Now comes Wonder Woman, which is by appearances the most traditional superhero feature of the lot. Appearances are deceiving, while still playing with certain conventions that have dominated this genre in the last decade, which make it feel in many ways similar to a Marvel Phase 1 film. It is the manner in which director Patty Jenkins and her crew go about portraying them is often novel and worth just as much examination as the films that have already come out this year. Calling Wonder Woman “fine” is true, and exactly what WB and the DCEU needed after a divisive and bruising 2016, but that undersells it. Sure, it has some rough edges but this movie is pretty great where it counts.

After all that, this is going to sound like fainter praise, but the fact that Wonder Woman isn’t a fundamentally broken piece of filmmaking like the theatrical cuts of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad is a huge relief. This is a base level of competency that should be a given for a major studio like Warner Bros. but those prior releases had such catastrophic failures (in particular the editing) that I was legitimately worried Wonder Woman would be similarly broken. It isn’t! It just has the normal issue most of these types of movies have: third act transition isn’t as smooth as you’d like, that climatic act overall is a bit soggy compared to previous ones, but at this point, I’d consider those generic features not bugs.

In a lot of ways, understandably, Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins with cinematography by Matthew Jensen, is formally akin to Zack Snyder’s prior DCEU films, Man of Steel in particular. There is the consistent use of speed ramping to hold iconographic or powerful moments. We see the hero’s early childhood, in mostly linear order. There is a surrealistic meeting of the mind between antag and protagonist. Thematically it continues to grapple with the nature of, and acts of, heroism by these outside actors. On humanity, their shortcomings, and if we are even worth Wonder Woman, or any heroes time. Wonder Woman’s end product is the kind of movie we thought, Man of Steel was going to be. All of these touchstones are focused through a different prism than Snyder’s prior features: the character of Diana Prince. Snyder’s movies are in many aspects exercises in stretching icons (and assumed levels of empathy) in a weary, doubting, world. In Wonder Woman, Jenkins and writer Allan Heinberg, play with those morally grey motifs, but because that grey is contrasted with the education of Diana the movie is able to have its morally grey icing and still be if not “upbeat,” emotionally sound and thoughtful in ways Man of Steel wasn’t. It’s in this regard that Jenkins talk of Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie rings through, along with a brief action piece that echoes the film.

While a recent rewatch of Man of Steel has lessened my read of Clark as aloof and uncaring, it’s still apparent the character doesn’t fully think through what “helping” or his mission, defined in idealistically vague terms by his ghostly fathers, really entails. This isn’t the case for Diana, who is raised alongside her fellow Amazons with cleanly defined moralities. Watching Diana grow up lets Jenkins make clear what Diana and the Amazons mission is and create a reference point once the film leaves the island.

Going into this film it was odd to see the consistent question of lead Gal Gadot’s acting ability. As if near unanimous praise from Batman v Superman, or a series of solid turns as Gisele in the Fast & Furious franchise and other action movies of the kind didn’t exist. Unsurprisingly she is spectacular in this movie. It feels restrictive to her as actress to compare turn as Wonder Woman with Christopher Reeve and Superman (or Hugh Jackman as Logan for that matter), it is however the simplest way to express the sheer level of “rightness” for all involved. Her Diana is fierce and independent, but not without empathy she is always looking to help. While her character is na├»ve to the outside world, the film don’t look down on her for that. It becomes a point of inspiration for those around her.
It is her clearly defined morality and mission, and how it conflicts with the parameters of Man’s World that forms the core drama, all beautifully encapsulated in the relationship between Diana and American-British spy Steve Trevor(Chris Pine). Trevor crashes to earth and literally bursts Paradise Islands bubble, bringing with it the horrors of Man and the revelation that it is 1918 and World War I has been waging for four years with millions dead. This makes Diana believe it can only be the work of Ares and even if her Mother forbids it, she must journey forth and defeat the Greek God. Pine is an excellent co-lead in this movie, Steve Trevor isn’t portrayed as a man looking for something to believe or a gender flipped damsel, he’s a fully formed character with a world-weary pragmatism. The pragmatism and weariness in Pines performance is neither overwrought or dourer. Amazingly this film manages to deal with the horrors of war and WWI in general while still being upbeat. It acts as a foil for Gadot’s earnesty, with one another pushing and pulling to realize new things.

 Once they reach London, a grey, polluted, industrialized city – it’s not for everyone Trevor dryly remarks – Wonder Woman gets to be its most outwardly feminist, beyond the idea of Strong Female Character. Diana’s presence reveals the constructed nature of gender and social norms, as Steve, and an enraptured Etta Candy (Lucy Davis), try to make her look less divine. At one point giving her Clark Kent-esque glasses that only seem to make her look better.

The movie doesn’t really dig into the more kink oriented aspects of Wonder Woman’s mythos or queer ones. Though, the latter is gestured towards more in so much as it recognizes Diana’s own sexual agency and leaves unsaid the obvious conclusions drawn from an island filled with only women.

When things reach the Front, it becomes clear that this may not be so much a quest for peace, but nuance and understanding as Diana’s ideals are put into action. It’s here where the spectacle driven third act rears its ugly head, eating up time that could’ve been redistributed here for further examination.  As it is the search for nuance, that people contain multitudes, is expressed in a series of small character moments from Steve’s motley crew of mercenaries: Sameer, Charlie and Chief. Who along with Steve show they are more than a Thief, Murderer, Smuggler, and Con Man based on Diana’s initial impressions. Everyone in this crew brings these largely stock characters to life with good enough performances that you want more from these not-Howling Commandos.

On its face placing this version of Wonder Woman’s first trip into Man’s World in WWI instead of WW2 (which birthed all these superheroes) seems like a choice meant to distance itself from comparisons to the WW2 set Captain America: The First Avengers. A film whose strengths and weaknesses are really mirrored in Wonder Woman. WWI is the perfect setting for this education of Diana, and that’s what this movie is an education. In a search for nuance, it’s kind of hard for the audience to buy into when the other side are Nazis. With history’s greatest monster’s decades away, the film is able to assert a universal humanity and make her question some of her high contrast beliefs.

The front brings out a tension in how Diana and Steve want to carry out their mission. Steve wants to stop Dr. Maru’s latest chemical weapon to save future lives and help force an armistice. Diana wants to save the people now and stab a God. That tension leads to a legitimately great set piece that echoes the “Angels of Mons” myth as Diana decides to save people now, help be damned. During that sequence, something even more extraordinary happens: a different kind of action is shown. Diana is there to destroy the corrupting Ares and his means of corruption, weapons, not men. As Diana charges through the trenches she takes out machine gun emplacements, at one point the film speed ramps her breaking a rifle across her back. Wonder Woman plays by normal action movie or Arkham rules: if they aren’t explicitly coded as dead (or buried under a church), they are just “knocked out” … and with many broken bones. The ones who kill in this sequence are all the men, with guns.

In an interview with IGN, Patty Jenkins noted “She is actually one of the superheroes, interestingly, who is not adverse to killing when necessary, which is fascinating. But she also is the least likely to do it, I think, because she will always try anything else before she will resort to killing anyone. That's an incredible balance of Wonder Woman.”

While on the front, it becomes clear that this may not be so much a quest for peace, but nuance and understanding as Diana’s ideals are put into action. It’s here where the spectacle driven third act rears its ugly head, eating up time that could’ve been redistributed here for further examination.  As it is the search for nuance, that people contain multitudes, is expressed in a series of small character moments from Steve’s motley crew of mercenaries: Sameer, Charlie and Chief. Who along with Steve show they are more than a Thief, Murderer, Smuggler, and Con Man based on Diana’s initial impressions. Everyone in this crew brings these largely stock characters to life with good enough performances that you want more from these not-Howling Commandos.

On its face placing this version of Wonder Woman’s first trip into Man’s World in WWI instead of WW2 (which birthed all these superheroes) seems like a choice meant to distance itself from comparisons to the WW2 set Captain America: The First Avengers. A film whose strengths and weaknesses are really mirrored in Wonder Woman. WWI is the perfect setting for this education of Diana, and that’s what this movie is an education. In a search for nuance, it’s kind of hard for the audience to buy into when the other side are Nazis. With history’s greatest monsters decades away, the film is able to assert a universal humanity and make her question some of her high contrast beliefs.

The spectacle driven third act is a familiar one. It’s a familiar template that offers up a big CGI driven set piece between divine figures, of course set at night. This one is however perhaps a bit better than the run of the mill CGI smackdown. The choreography doesn’t offer anything too interesting, it’s rock ‘em sock ‘em robots, but provides for thematically consistent symbolism. Most importantly how Wonder Woman executes this familiar beat, by transitioning into a Fifth Element and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix register of melodrama, with the blockbuster equivalent of Douglas Sirk style lighting. That may not be for everyone, but the overall structure of the set piece allowed for one last externalization of Diana and Steve’s methodology, with the resulting emotionally satisfying, sincere, synthesis.  

This movie is more than fine. The first female directed superhero film since Punisher: War Zone (Lexi Alexander) feels like a damn revelation. Yes, it packs in some tried and true beats, but the rhythms are different. How Jenkins and Matthew Jensen shoot the mostly athlete extras that make up the Amazons, as they jump off their horses in mindboggling and awesome ways, is not how Zack Snyder and Larry Fong or other men would’ve done it. These little tweaks to familiar beats both to the motifs of the DCEU and genre as a whole add up for something different: a DC Comics kind of movie. I’m a dude, I’m not going to get the kind emotional experiences female critics and movie goers have shared.  But I do get that this is a damn good movie, and one the world could honestly use more of at the moment.

Bits at The End

  • If there is one annoyance it’s the lack of screen time for Danny Houston and Elena Anaya. The former is given a spiffy officers uniform and a german accent and dosen’t get to chew as much scenery as you’d hope. Elena is just fantastic in general, her eyes do a lot with a little. But the film wasn’t about them, and they are there to support Gal. 

Friday, May 19, 2017

Batman/The Flash 'The Button' - Storytelling by Reference Point

‘The Button’, a crossover between Batman and The Flash #21-22, is the first real continuation of the ‘Rebirth’ storyline after hint and recognition that something is strange in the pages of Titans and Superman and Action Comics. Overall, it isn’t the most spectacular or immediately satisfying arc, and that is by design. ‘The Button’ is if not a middle chapter a middle step in the overall arc. It raises more questions and doesn’t really find answers or conclusions. If it didn’t land the moments of emotional impact or have an interesting way of telling them, it would feel thinner than it already is.

Batman #21 – We’re Bing Watched
The start of ‘Button’ takes the sense of surveillance and voyeurism embedded in a title like Watchmen literally, as writer Tom King and artist Jason Fabok build this issue around voyeurism within and without the comic.

Starting things off, we have Saturn Girl watching a hockey game with the rest of the Arkham inmates. The game serves as a unifying element as Batman is watching it as well in his cave, playing with the eponymous Button. In the cave things switch, as the next several pages are all done in a 9-panel grid, immediately evoking Watchmen. In ‘Rebirth’ Wally said, “We’re being watched,” and with that grid you, the reader, become one of the Watchmen. This reference, however, doesn’t exist merely for itself. It also serves a storytelling function: show the passage of time.

Batman #21 - Tom King, Jason Fabok, Brad Anderson

For all the Watchmen formalism, Batman #21 channels it into a pretty great execution of Hitchcockian suspense thriller. Suspense is about showing the bomb under the desk and cutting back and forth between the ticking clock and the innocent unawares around it. In the case of Batman we have the suspense of the hockey fight (is that guy going to die) and later on will the Flash show up in time. In each case the grid layout marks the slow, methodical passage of time, either by tracing the journey of the button across Batman’s knuckles or by the countdown too Flashs arrival.  Both taking dozens of panels and pages to build to a boiling point.

 As Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou notes on StripPanelNaked

It wouldn't work as strongly not in that many panels. If you did to in three panels each, for example, you'd lose the sense of time passing. That's one of the toughest things in comics, because sometimes to create the real effect of actually feeling time, you need to keep an action going for a really long time.

There is also a narrative echo to Watchmen with the overall frame of this story going forward and what happens. Watchmen for all of its high class plaudits is a pulpy murder mystery, and that’s what the ‘Rebirth’ storyline has become (ostensibly): Who Killed the Reverse Flash? Of course, in the original comic we don’t see the scuffle that led to Comedian’s death just flashes. But we do see that fight in the Watchmen film

Batman 22 – Flashpoint 2: Electric Boogaloo
I don’t really care for Flashpoint, it was a bloated event saved by an excellent final series of pages that showed the emotional truth of it all. Barry did it all to save his Mom and those final pages were an emotional gut punch, partially because it wasn’t setup that well. It was a melodramatic catharsis that relied upon assumed empathy related to the Mother.  

Batman #22 follows the Flashpoint’s emotional and plot climax, but placed on to Batman this time around as he gets to meet his father. This meeting twists its reference point, Flashpoint’s parent-son meeting was a life affirming moment here Thomas wants his son to give up the cowl and be a normal rich Dad to his son (he doesn’t know Damian’s unique origins).

Batman #22 - Joshua Williamson, Tom King, Jason Fabok, Brad Anderson

This isn’t as out of nowhere compared to Flashpoint, but at this point in the crossover it was also the kind of moments that needed to occur just because of how many pages we had left. It’s blunt emotional trauma, which isn’t to say these moments aren’t affecting, but later on when Bruce thinks this trip was meant to be a punishment it makes ‘sense’ but doesn’t land as hard. Theoretically, the story of two of DC’s greatest orphans going on an adventure getting a chance to reconnect with perished parents should be more emotionally gripping.

The Flash  22 – Rebirth All Over Again and an Epilogue
The Flash #22 concludes ‘The Button’ and contains three reference points DC Universe: Rebirth, Watchmen, and The Dark Knight Returns.

This redux of Rebirth replaces Wally for forgotten Golden Age speedster Jay Garrick and shows us what would’ve happened to Wally had Barry not remembered. Much like The Flash #21, the art is fine, but the chase after Reverse Flash through the speedforce wasn’t as impactful. Getting to see Jay Garrick in glorious action again was nice, but some oddness in the scripting where Jay’s name is repeated panels before Barry can’t get it out of his mouth, undercuts the sudden appearance and disappearance. This sort of sequence feels illustrative of 'The Button' overall dramatic failings: moments happen but they aren't scenes. 

A real moment and scene of impact comes when the layout reverts to a 9-panel grid and Bruce stares at the lit Bat Signal. Like in Batman #21, it’s a moment of comic storytelling synthesis where everything reinforces one another. The layout reintroduces the idea of spectatorship on multiple levels, while making you feel the moments passing as Bruce stares thinking about his father’s final wish from Wayne Manor before glumly bowing his head. It sells the idea that this adventure has been a punishment in the end.

Dr. Manhattan finally makes an appearance, recovering the button and sending it somewhere. With the continued discussion around the appropriateness of DC using Watchmen characters, it’s interesting to see them just directly lift from the comic. In Rebirth, they quoted from Manhattan’s final conversation with Ozymandias, here they quote from his time on Mars with Laurie and adds a wrinkle to our ideas of his motives. Mainly, that he has motives and manipulated time to create the New52 out of some sort of malevolence. He’s only a “puppet” that can see the strings, which is to say he is a tool. If he’s just a puppet, who is his master? The suggestion by Kieran Shiach that it’s Superboy Prime is a compelling theory and one that would add another meta layer to the overall story.

So far, these reference points have been derived from either Watchmen or work by Geoff Johns. The epilogue provides the most interesting reference point: The Dark Knight Returns. As the button falls through space the 9-panel grid goes in and out of magnification before pulling out to reveal a battered Superman crest and a teaser for the next chapter of the story Doomsday Clock. The transitions mirrors the introduction of Superman in Frank Miller’s seminal work. It’s an evocative if not entirely clear reference point. Overall these moments have served to communicate the emotional sense, or reinforce, the storytelling going. The pages of the epilogue right now seem to be reference for the sake of reference. Unless they somehow rope in TDKR/DK III into things.

The Dark Knight Returns - Frank Miller, Klaus Johnson, Lynn Varley

Considering the ‘how’ and ways in which these points of reference articulate emotional moments for the arc overall has been the most interesting thing to consider. The most successful issue overal would be Batman #21 and the use of the grid layout, it makes reference and uses it to tell its own story. Similarly, the epilogue uses a visual reference to give the reader ill portents of the future. The use of visual reference over narrative ones, worked best because it was channeling a easily understood point of reference, that still allowed them to tell a story. The remixing of previous narrative moments either carried with it excess baggage or didn’t match the execution of the original. The scene plays out again, and we know how it goes.  

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Quick Thoughts: Youngblood #1 - Well, it's all in the title.

Youngblood #1 "Youngblood Reborn Chapter One"
Written by Chad Bowers
Art by Jim Towe
Colors by Juan Manuel Rodriguez
Letters by Rus Wooton
“As is Should Be”
Written/Art by Rob Liefeld
Inks by Shelby Robertson
Colors by Juan Manuel Rodriguez
Letters by Rus Wooton
Cover by Jim Towe

Youngblood, like most 90s comics, is one I don’t have much experience with. Sure, I have something of a historical perspective on it and the first wave of Image titles due to writing and documentaries like The Image Revolution, but beyond them being at once very popular and something of a punchline for the ills of the 90s, I couldn’t tell you who any of these characters are or their desires. Still there is a decent amount of buzz surrounding this new edition of Youngblood and so here I am.

It’s almost a little freaky at how this books origin story and that of Rob Liefeld match. In the case of Liefeld, he was a 19-year-old kid with a portfolio at WonderCon ’87 and managed to impress Marvel’s Mark Grunwald into giving him a job. (A similar, if less artistically driven, series of events is how Matt Hawkins got into things.) Youngblood (2017) origin also features a young largely unknown artist, Jim Towe, showing off his work to a comic elder, all in the size of a tweet.  And now nearly a year later, the comic that kicked off Image comics 25 years ago is back again.  In a letter from Liefeld at the back of the book, the creator admits to some reticence to letting others play with his “toys”, but he’d let well known writers like Alan Moore and Kurt Busiek play with them, why not these (relatively) new kids on the block and pay it forward.

Jim Towe - The Image the Started it All

There is an admiration and sincerity to this book that only really comes from fans. This book technically isn’t a reboot. It’s more a late sequel akin to Star Wars: The Force Awakens or the current The Magdelna(2017) series. Bowers and Towe haven’t erased the continuity, instead use it and the intervening period of inactivity to setup a new generation of heroes for a new generation of readers. I wonder if this is what watching Force Awakens as your first only Star Wars experience was like, after growing up in a culture permeated with its oeuvre. Much like the new generation in Star Wars, the previous cast find themselves in circumstances they and fans likely didn’t imagine for themselves. Trump era aside, President Diehard wasn’t in the Youngblood year book. These new circumstances likely play better for more experienced readers since they would be able to project a deeper emotional continuity and subtext onto the settings. The sequences with the original crew weren’t entirely without affect, Bowers and Towe beautifully exposit the relationship between Shaft and Badrock in a single page. Bowers described these two as the “heart and soul” of the team and I get that feeling from that page.

For all the newness, Youngblood is true to the core idea of the original series: superhero as celebrity. Except, where Liefeld looked to the NBA Dream team and other athletes for inspiration, Bowers uses our current digitally fueled sensibilities to define a new more ephemeral brand of celebrity. With all the talk of the Gig Economy, having this new book powered by the Uber for vigilantisim, an app called Help!, just makes too much sense. How Bowers and Towe use that conceit to effectively update the world and point of view of the series is great comics making. The app and its usage is the macguffin for this first arc ‘Reborn’ as a new generation of heroes look to the past to find one of their own who has gone missing. Towe uses the conceit of ratings and social media feedback to show both the high-octane action and mundanity of Olympian Petra Gomez aka Gunner’s nightly routine. Thanked for her hard work, but never quite given a 5* report. It’s this world building that is the most effective aspect of Youngblood #1.

Towe’s art feels fresh and modern, with clean lines for colorist Juan Manuel Rodriguez to texture over. Layouts are efficiently organized, dynamic, and with purpose. It isn’t art for art’s sake. Liefeld and those early Image titles were so defined by their aesthetic that storytelling took a bit of a backseat. Here it works in consort, Towe uses one 15 panel grid to show the tedium of Gunner’s process and her emotional reaction to it. And later one during the action sequence when things get a little more bombastic they grow in scale and build.

The Secrets of Birds

Original creator Rob Liefeld appears to be penning a backup strip “As is Should Be”, featuring some time travel hijinks. There’s a slightly reflexive sensibility to it as Kirby (imagine Jack Kirby crossed with Cable), talks about the mission and the book. I’ve got no idea what any of it means, except to read it as part of a larger meta narrative justifying/toying with the fact that this is new start to the series.

I’m not sure I’ll be writing more Quick Thoughts on Youngblood going forward. I’ll continue checking this out and if anything, cool and worth recognizing happens it will be noted here. If not, look for something a bit longer when the first trade is released. Youngblood is off to a good start and has a novel pov for a cape book not in the Big Two.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Logan: The CBM First Revisionist Superhero Film

Directed by James Mangold Screenplay by Scott Frank James Mangold Michael Green Story by James Mangold Cinematography John Mathieson Edited by Michael McCusker

I’ve come to view the X-Men film franchise as the spine of the superhero film genre, a bit crooked in terms of quality. It kicked this modern era off July 2000, and has followed or created the trends these sorts of franchise follow. X3 (2006) showed that third movies tend to falter for reasons. X-Men: Origins: Wolverine (2009) was a real stab at spinning characters out into solo features. Days of Future Past (2014) was a brazen act to retroactively course correct itself into a a “proper” cinematic universe in a post-Avengers (2012) world (and is still the most comic book thing it or any of these franchises have done). Before throwing away whatever good will it generated with whatever X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) was. So it feels fitting that Logan (2017) is this genres first honest revisionist superhero film. Yes, postmodern themes inspired by the comic book source material have become more prevalent recently (BvS/Cap: Civil War), but those films are either too tied to the commercial apparatus that have made this genre the bed rock of 21st century Hollywood or reveal why playing with the postmodern before establishing a context when actualizing those themes is fraught. Inspired by revisionist westerns like Unforgiven (1992), and quoting Shane (1953) – itself pointing towards revisionist western – Logan reflects on the genre’s most well-known icon and actor pairing since Christopher Reeves and Superman.

Logan and the X-Men, but more specifically Hugh Jackman and his eponymous character have over 17 years and 8 appearances have developed that necessary historical context that allows this kind of revision and reflection to feel appropriate. Even as Logan takes place in a theoretical future removed from whatever jumbled mess the current X-Film continuity currently is, you can’t help but think of past experiences with Jackman and his character.  Like Clint Eastwood, he may be playing “William Munny”, but it comes on the back of numerous other outings in the genre. When mixed with the normally box office weakening, ‘R’ rating, the film is sufficiently positioned outside of the mainstream superhero industrial complex, and allowed to be a movie, not a $500+ million grosser meant to spinout half a decade’s worth of features. Sufficiently insulated, director James Mangold, co-writers Scott Frank and Michael Green, and Jackman get to reflect the myth of one of superhero cinemas most consistent and recognizable icons.

The year is 2029 and the future sucks. Not the Terminator inspired fantasy of Days of Future Past, but a more mundane near future dystopia of genetic engineering, human rights degradation, and general malaise. “Mutants … they’re gone now” the visibly aged, eternally cranky, Logan explains to an ailing Professor Charles Xavier early in the film. The pair along with Caliban (Stephen Merchant) are among the few adult mutants left, eking out a frustrating and deteriorating existence along the U.S.-Mexico border. Logan chauffeurs for annoying white people, and hustles for drugs to help Professor X. Logan dreams of buying a Sunseeker and living out at sea away from it all, until they inevitably die or kill one another. Whatever existence they maintained is disrupted by the appearance of Laura (Dafne Keen), a female clone of the Wolverine and, functionally, his unwanted daughter. She sparks a cross country road trip a la Stagecoach (1939) in search of Eden, a place straight out of a comic book. Pursuing them are the cybernetic Reavers led by Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) and their corporate masters.

Removed from the main continuity as it might be, that doesn’t stop audiences and Jackman from drawing on this ambiguous source of history to sketch out and define the weariness of the aged former hero. Jackman, and his character contend with their own myths. Jackman is covered in old age makeup, costumed in material meant to give him a flabbier appearance. A hollow shell of his ever-bulging-low-percent-body-fat self-from previous film entries. His character continually haunted by the costs of centuries of bloodletting and the brand of killing, no matter how righteous in appearance. He eventually runs into a group of young mutants who idolize The Wolverine, the commercialized folk lore that sprung up around he and the missing X-Men. With so much baggage from actor and viewer, and Mangolds restrained quiet approach overall, it’s hard to imagine a better performance Jackman has given.

This movie is dark and sad, but it is also immensely warm around this surly familial unit. There is humor and joy, largely a byproduct of Laura’s presence and a cantankerous Patrick Stewart. Laura reminds them what they were supposed to be fighting for as she ruthlessly and powerfully guts those who wish to control her. I don’t think Hollywood can provide this actress with more roles like this, but her largely mute and bilingual performance shows that she has “it.”

For all its revisionist posturing, the film never falls into the trap of postmodern irony. James Mangold, in a recent interview, thinks himself incapable of that kind of work and Logan is an example of why. As referential as this film is, stopping for several minutes to let Laura and Professor X watch the finale to Shane, it isn’t a wink and a nod joke. It’s an earnest drawing of thematic lines, on the nose it may be. While it presents the forum to argue for ambiguity, Logan, for all its depression can’t help but be hopeful in the end as everyone is slowly revitalized by the presence of this special little girl. It is, after all, an X-Men and superhero film. That X-Meness at its core unites this deeply human story of seemingly inhuman characters, who try to be their best selves and defy the hegemonic forces that attempt to define them. Mangold shifts the metaphoric emphasis from mutankind as LGBTQ+ analogues to a timely immigrant one. Lead Evil Scientist Zander Rice, speaks in a manner that sounds like the white nationalist policies of Richard Spencer.

Stripped of the requirements of the block busting, apocalyptic, oeuvre of the genre, Mangold is afforded to make a quite character piece. Well, as quite as a movie can get when it features two people who sprout indestructible metal claws, chased by cybernetic mercenaries. It’s still incredibly small, focused squarely on its trio of characters with everyone else giving able stock character performances. There are several moments of silence and more astonishingly stillness; as these beaten characters become emotionally vulnerable to one another for the first time in ages. It is a reminder that the popularity and best of these movies wrest on smart, engaging, character work not CGI driven fantasy spectacular.

The film more than earns its ‘R’ rating, with multiple expletives, a bit of nudity, and copious amounts of violence. By the end of action sequences, Logan and Laura are covered in the drying blood of their victims. Unlike prior ‘R’ rated comic book films like Deadpool (2016) or Kick Ass (2010), this one does not use its rating for ironic shock humor and gore. Those films made a mockery of the inherent violence beneath the surface of the genre and the audiences that clamored for that spectacle without thinking it through. Going in I was afraid that the film would produce the kind of bloody, consequence free, thoughtless, violence fans continually called for in regards to Wolverine. The CGI blood splatter of the uncut, The Wolverine(2013), worked counter to that films thematics, creating another fantasy that reinforced the spectacular masculinity of the lead not his vulnerability. There is one sequence, it’s mostly a tracking shot as Logan charges through to forest and dispatches several Reavers with berserker ferocity, it is spectacular. It is also a byproduct of a knowingly untenable position. While not without its moments of shocking bodily harm, violence is used to show the spiritual cost a lifetime of bloodletting achieves. At one point Laura dismisses the nightmares and any red on her young ledger as a byproduct of just killing “bad people”, but that doesn’t change the fact they are still people and she’s like 10. At the tail end of the film, a group of young mutants unleash their rage and powers on their tormentors. One gets turned to bloody mist, another much worse. The film cuts between these acts of violence with monstrous low angle shots of these enfant terrible. The movie ends on a somber but hopeful note, but I can’t help but wonder if the world has already infected this new generation.

Logan deserves to be placed next to The Dark Knight(2008) as a high watermark and sign post for this genre. Director James Mangold and his brand of diverse genre emphasis finally has a signature feature. Hugh Jackman is finally given the material that allows him to mine and show the depths of the character that made him a star when he first met Rogue. Finally, the X-Franchise have another good film to add to the roster. I hope FOX and others take the right ques from the critical praise and burgeoning financial success. This movie is good because it is well crafted, not because it is rated R and has blood and cursing. 

Thursday, April 6, 2017

DK: The Last Crusade — The Last Nights of Batman and Robin

Story by Frank Miller & Brian Azzarello Pencils by John Romita Jr. Inks and Colors by Peter Steigerwald Letters by Clem Robins

Frank Miller likes to thumb his nose, to take the piss out of, the fandom around him. Oh, love The Dark Knight Returns? Here’s Dark Knight Strikes Again! gone is all the restraint and methodology of its predecessor and replaced with a perpetual psychedelic trip into sheer grinning madness.  Still want more DC? Here’s DKIII: The Master Race, a comic Miller has all but disavowed creating and he threatens a fourth! Brining us to “The Last Crusade” a prestige one shot comic teaming Frank Miller and Brian Azzarello with Miller’s old partner in crime John Romita jr. along with inker-colorist Peter Steigerwald. The solicit sounds like the kind of corporate mandate that has given us DKIII. So how then dose “Last Crusade” subvert expectations? By being a surprisingly restrained, well crafted, and dare I say empathetic look at the Dark Knights final days.

The Miller-verse or whatever you want to call it, is a theoretical collection of Batman works written by Frank Miller. It isn’t exactly batting 1000 but there is a nice symmetry with Miller’s Year One and Dark Knight Returns, the beginning and end of a Batman. A pair of stories situated at the poles of Batman’s life. Ok, technically, not the polls with DK 2 and DKIII and all those bits in between existing, but I’ve head cannoned them out. The artistry and formal elements of “Last Crusade” give it a sense of continuity with Year One and Returns in ways those other works don’t. John Romita Jr. and Peter Steigerwald’s art is stylistically similar to Miller, Klaus Johnson, and Lynn Varley’s work in Returns. Steigerwald evokes the color pallet of Returns and Year One with solid but muted slowly washing out colors and sharp not scratchy inking over Romita’s pencils. Romita’s flat cartooned style renders everything in a degrading opulent manner, hinting at the fall into dystopia. The TV Talking Heads are back, helping to create the sense of a wider world in a matter of panels. 

I’ve always lived in a world where Jason Todd has died. It’s so common place that the uniqueness of Miller’s inference that it was his death that caused his Batman to retire was lost on me until it was pointed out. The Dark Knight Returns came out in 1986. “A Death in the Family” came out from 1988-89. Jason Todd’s impotence and affect was only hinted at in Returns, he was a “good soldier” and the Joker apprently killed him. That’s all we knew, it was all we need to know about Batman’s ultimate failure. Those looking for this book as a check list of information with some brutal Jason Todd death imagery will likely be disappointed. It’s there, but off panel. It isn’t an important part of the story everyone is telling. As a prequel “Last Crusade” is surprising in how it mostly dodges the oft prequel problem of acting as setup for the thing that came first. It tells its own self-contained story, that can act as a prequel to Returns.

This might sound hyperbolic or heretical but Miller’s Batman was never that great or dynamic a character. It’s Miller’s ability to place him in the spectrum of understanding and history of Batman that gives this rendition importance and weight. As an island, he is simply Bat-Shit-Insane. That’s what Miller wanted to play with that drive and eventual psychosis of a man who dressed up like a bat at night. “Last Crusade” deals with that existential crisis and transformative moment in Bruce Wayne’s life, that moment when good sense turns into sadism (with the requisite masochistic tendencies). This Batman isn’t as old as he will be a decade from now when he Returns but he feels older. Bumps and bruises are taking their toll, not an action sequence goes by where Bruce isn’t commenting on the weak and feeble nature his once proud body finds itself in. The only time Batman appears to be strong and able bodied is when his image is mediated by the TV Talking Head media. This isn’t a Bat-God, but a Bat-Man; a man who would really not want to be eaten by Killer Croc. Ideas of empathy and Frank Miller don’t really mix together, but you can’t help but feel bad for this Batman due to both the text of the comic and the knowledge of what fate has ordained for him.

Batman’s feebleness and failure as a mentor is contrasted with his eternal enemy, the Joker. While Batman battles an existential crisis that ends in bitterness and madness, Joker is confident in his madness. Batman wonders if he’s actually teaching Jason the right things, Joker gets inmates to mutilate themselves effortlessly. “Wolves, sheep…what’s the difference?” he wonders as he instigates as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest inspired plot in Arkham Asylum. Batman's body is breaking down, Joker's body is always broken but improbably resliant.

As previously stated, there is much ambiguity in regards to The Dark Knight Returns. How did Jason Todd die? What caused the Justice League to go their separate ways? Where is Dick Grayson? (Ok maybe don’t answer that one.) Miller and Azzarello lean into that ambiguity with their depiction of Jason Todd, using reader knowledge to fill in the blanks and subvert expectations. After Crisis on Infinite Earths, Jason Todd stopped being the milk toast Dick Grayson knock off and became the petulant brat fans loved to hate so much they killed him. “Last Crusade” doesn’t run counter to that petulant sadistic narrative so much as question its development. As with Year One and Returns readers are given the sole point of view of Batman and he may not be the most reliable type. This ambiguity posits Todd’s latent sadism was just as much a product of nurture as it was nature. Batman trained him to be an attack dog, to his own detriment.

“Last Crusade” feels like it belongs in the company of Year One and Returns, not as quality or influential as its compatriots but good enough with enough formal linkage that fans would should want to read this entry. It’s subtle yet brash depiction of Bruce’s giving into sadism as an effect of feeling helpless and victimized again is mature in a way I didn’t think possible given past efforts.