Review: Kingdom Come by Mark Waid & Alex Ross

81tnmidlshlIt has been many, many years since I last read Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come, but after watching the enjoyable (but heavily flawed) Justice League, I was in the mood to indulge my love of all things DC Comics. Kingdom Come was the closest collected edition at hand, but to be frank, I was a little wary about returning to it after more than a decade. I last read it in High School, and have held it to such a high standard since that inaugural reading, I feared the scrutiny of my “adult eye.”

This “Elseworlds” tale —  a story that takes place outside the DC Universe canon — occurs in a future where a vigilante segment of the super hero population, emboldened by public sentiment, have broken the established “code” set by the traditional heroes, and have started killing villains rather than incarcerating them. Disturbed by this brave new world, Superman has “retired” and his Justice League peers have gone into various states of hibernation or eccentricity. Superman has isolated himself and no longer dons his heroic garb, essentially retired. Batman, addled by an accumulation of injuries during his decades of crime-fighting, now patrols Gotham City with a fleet of cyborgs.

After the extermination of super-villainy, these new breed of heroes are left with no one to combat but themselves; it’s a wild west with super powers rather than six-shooters. When a catastrophic incident wipes out Kansas, it forces Superman and his fellow Justice Leaguers to return order to a world in disarray; to remind them of the importance of a moral code, of fighting for truth and justice… and to foil the evil machinations of Lex Luthor and co.

The story is narrated by an elderly pastor named Norman McCay, who is approached by The Spectre to be the supreme being’s guide through these upcoming potentially apocalyptic events. As a kid, I disliked these scenes because I thought they detracted from the action, but presently, I really appreciated this human perspective. It is unfathomable to imagine living in a world populated by God-like beings with the power to obliterate us with the blink of an eye; imagine being  a person of faith. And while I have always been a great fan of Alex Ross’s art — his painterly style is often mimicked but never matched — I’ve never liked his sequential work, and find his panels rather static. Of course, whether Kingdom Come would’ve had such resonance without his illustrations is unanswerable, and his work certainly isn’t flawed; it just lacks velocity.

Kingdom Come is one of those collections non-comic-reading people can enjoy. Unrestrained by continuity, it is that rare thing in comics: a story that has a beginning and an end. A decade after I last read it, I’m thrilled it still holds up, and serves as a demonstration that tales involving costumed heroes don’t just have to involve punch-outs and explosions. The best stories have heart.

ISBN: 9780606340083
Format: Hardback (257mm x 170mm x 15mm)
Imprint: Turtleback Books
Publisher: Turtleback Books
Publish Date: 30-Sep-2008

Review: Superman, Vol. 1 – Before Truth by Gene Luen Yang & John Romita Jr

Before-Truth-Cover-201x300The Superman titles have undergone a renaissance recently, sparked by the arrival of Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder on ACTION COMICS, and followed by Geoff Johns’ and John Romita Jr.’s brief stint on SUPERMAN. Now Gene Luen Yang steps up to the plate – the acclaimed writer of American Born Chinese – with Before Truth, the first volume in his run on SUPERMAN. And with Romita Jr. by his side, he’s redefining Clark Kent for the ‘New 52’ generation. Fans rejoice: we’ve finally got a Superman who’s emblematic of the character we know and love, who stands for Truth, Justice and the American Way; but also renewed and rejuvenated under this new stewardship.

Before Truth picks up where Johns’ The Men of Tomorrow arc ended. Superman has discovered a new power – a solar flare that obliterates everything in its radius, but leaves him powerless for up to 24 hours. Why introduce a new power into Superman’s mythology, you might ask? Well, this version of Superman is de-powered; he’s not quite the God-like being readers have become accustomed too, so the solar flare ability is effectively a ‘last resort’ option. When all else fails, when Superman has got to lay it all on the line, he ignites. This allows Yang and Romita Jr. the opportunity to showcase Clark Kent’s misapprehension of the human condition; a few sips of alcohol leave him inebriated, and he’s developed a newfound appreciation for food. These are small touches, but they add layers to a Clark Kent who has been fairly uninteresting since DC relaunched with the New 52.

Before Truth introduces the villain Hordr, who has learned Superman’s secret identity and threatens to expose him to the world unless he does precisely what’s demanded of him. Aided by Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen, Superman deliberates between his desire to maintain a normal life as Clark Kent and refusal to bow down to the villain’s command. But ultimately, it might be a decision that’s taken out of his hands . . .

Gene Luen Yang and John Romita Jr.’s SUPERMAN is, simply, a rip-roaring superhero tale. They haven’t aspired to redefine Superman’s character or continuity; rather, they’re focused on telling a good story and implores readers to pick up the subsequent volume. There’s no doubt about that. Solid characterisation, rapid pacing, great Romita Jr. art –  it’s all here. A Superman story for readers, old and new, to enjoy.

ISBN: 9781401259815
Format: Hardback
Pages: 224
Imprint: DC Comics
Publisher: DC Comics
Publish Date: 12-Apr-2016
Country of Publication: United States

Review: Secret Hero Society – Study Hall of Justice by Derek Fridolfs and Dustin Nguyen

9781760276539.jpgThe cynic in me wanted to view Derek Fridolfs’ and Dustin Nguyen’s Secret Hero Society: Study Hall of Justice as a perfunctory vehicle to spotlight younger versions of DC comics heroes and villains ahead of the release of the blockbuster film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. But I’m a sucker for the DC’s ‘trinity’ – Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman – and I’m a long-time admirer of Dustin Nguyen’s art. So despite my hesitations, I pulled a copy from the shelf and dived in… and I was more than pleasantly surprised. I was delighted. This is a book that’ll have both adults and kids in stitches, scouring pages for inside jokes and references, and enraptured by the core mystery. In other words, it’s a winner.

Young Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent and Diana Prince form their own Junior Detective Agency in the halls of Ducard Academy in Gotham City when they realise there’s more to their new boarding school for ‘gifted’ children than meets the eye. They’re an oddball triumvirate, each displaying the divisive characteristics that’ve been portrayed in the comics for decades. Together, they unravel the mystery behind the school’s secret headmaster, overcoming the villainous obstacles in their way including fellow students Lex Luthor, Harley Quinn and the Joker, as well as dastardly school staff including General Zod, Hugo Strange, Vandal Savage, and so forth.

Secret Hero Society: Study Hall of Justice is layered with references that young fans and older will enjoy – but every element is explicated well enough to ensure the layman won’t be left lost and confused. This is fundamentally a story about friendship – how different personalities, regardless of upbringing, can be moulded into an effective team – with a good amount of super-heroics thrown in. It’s told through traditional comic book pages, journal entries, pamphlets, text messages, and report cards, and the variation enhances the tale’s readability. The only flaw I identified was the novel’s pacing. The story takes its time to get going – it’s not plodding, but necessarily measured in order to establish the characters and their world – but in contrast the climax feels rushed, like suddenly the storytellers realised they were running out of pages. It’s not a major issue, and it certainly doesn’t take away from the novel’s successes, but it’s a noticeable stumble.

This is the kind of book I wish had been around when I was a kid. It’s fun and quirky, but doesn’t talk down to readers. I’d love to see further adventures in this universe, and there’s certainly a ton more characters to explore from the DC Universe.

ISBN: 9781760276539
Format: Paperback
Pages: 176
Imprint: Scholastic Australia
Publisher: Scholastic Australia
Publish Date: 1-Feb-2016
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: Batman by Ed Brubaker, Vol. 1 by Ed Brubaker, Scott McDaniel & Karl Story

Batman-Brubaker-cover.jpgEd Brubaker’s BATMAN run in the early 2000’s, alongside Greg Rucka’s stint on DETECTIVE COMICS, rank as my favourite period in Batman comics history. Yes, in my mind, it even eclipses the brilliant work being done by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo right now — and that stuff is great. Some of my adoration is nostalgia, sure — I was fourteen when the issues first landed at my local newsagency — but make no mistake, Brubaker’s BATMAN comics are unmissable. Full of hardboiled narration, the perfect blend of super-heroics and dark, gritty crime, Batman by Ed Brubaker features all the ingredients the award-winning writer has plucked for his legendary Marvel Comics work and his brilliant creator-owned comics.

Batman by Ed Brubaker introduces the killer Zeiss who, with his specially-designed goggles, has the capability of memorising the Caped Crusader’s many fighting styles, thereby giving him the edge in combat.  His arrival in Gotham City ignites a chain of events that weigh heavily on Batman. First, Jeremy Samuels —Bruce Wayne’s chief of security before the death of his family drove him over the edge — is paroled from prison, but quickly finds himself back amongst the criminal element, a pawn in Zeiss’s game, which is itself tied to the Penguin; then Mallory Moxon and her father, Lew — once a Gotham mob boss – return to the city, and quickly find themselves the target of the master-assassin Deadshot.

The trouble with this collection is that – because of the nature of comics – there are a variety of plot holes and sudden divergences in its focus. The Zeiss plot takes a backseat when the company-wide crossover event Our Worlds at Waroccurred, and the collection doesn’t adequately explain when / why Jim Gordon retires from the GCPD (he was shot) or when Sasha (Bruce’s bodyguard) learns his secret identity. This isn’t Brubaker’s fault – at the time, BATMAN and DETECTIVE COMICS (in fact, the whole line of ‘Bat-Family’ titles) were linked, so the universe was cohesive; but read like this, in standalone form, more than a decade later these holes are gaping. Veteran comics readers will power through undaunted; new readers might be slightly perturbed.

Scott McDaniel’s dynamic artwork is just as memorable as Brubaker’s writing; I can’t think of one without the other. McDaniel is, simply, an eminent storyteller, and excels when gifted whole pages or large panels to demonstrate his style. The combat scenes are spectacularly choreographed, and he’s just as skilled at the quieter moments. Batman in the shadows, crouched above Gotham in the rain, has never looked so menacing.

When I reminisce on my ‘golden years’ of comic book reading, I think of Ed Brubaker’s BATMAN. This collection served as a wonderful trip down memory lane, but besides that, I was thrilled it has stood the test of time.

ISBN: 9781401260651
Format: Paperback
Pages: 144
Imprint: DC Comics
Publisher: DC Comics
Publish Date: 9-Feb-2016
Country of Publication: United States

Review: Superman – The Men of Tomorrow by Geoff Johns & John Romita Jr.

Men of TomorrowJohn Romita Jr. is synonymous with Marvel Comics – his runs on Spider-Man, Iron Man andDaredevil are legendary (and for this reviewer especially, his stint on Peter Parker: Spider-Man, in the nineties, was seminal), so the 2014 announcement that he’d be coming to DC to work on Superman garnered waves of attention. That he’d be united for the first time with DC’s superstar writer (and Chief Creative Officer) Geoff Johns, was icing on the cake.

Up to this point, Superman’s adventures in the ‘New 52’ universe have been a mixed bag. There’s been some great stuff – Grant Morrison and Rag Morales’s initial issues in Action Comics, and latterly the work by Greg Pak (also in Action), and Scott Snyder’s Unchained – but there’ve been troughs, too. Years back, Geoff Johns and Gary Frank combined to create some of the best Superman comics of the past decade – in fact, possibly of all time – so the outlook following the Johns / Romita Jr. announcement looked positive; Superman fans were being rewarded for their patience with a kick-ass creative team. The Men of Tomorrow is the result.

The story revolves around Ulysses; a strange visitor from another dimension, who shares many of Superman’s experiences. Like the Man of Steel, in order to survive impending doom, he was rocketed into the unknown as a baby, to a place where he developed incredible abilities, and matured into adulthood with the belief his home planet had been destroyed; that he too, like Superman, was the last son of a dead world. When a being from Ulysses’s adopted home attacks Metropolis, Ulysses aids Superman in stopping the threat, and the two form a friendship.  Ulysses is stunned his home planet survived, and with Superman’s help, he seems destined to become another of Earth’s mighty protectors. As the story unfolds, Clark Kent is reunited with his old crew at the Daily Planet – Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane, and Perry White – and begins to manifest a new superpower; one he can’t control, and with possibly devastating consequences. Bad timing; because Ulysses’s intentions mightn’t be as pure as they’d seemed…

John Romita Jr.’s art is exemplary, but won’t be to everyone’s tastes. He is a masterful storyteller, but perhaps not an artist you’d select for a pinup. There’s a workmanlike quality to his style that is admirable; his focus is on the story, and ensuring it’s laid out as functionally as possible. Thankfully, Johns gives him plenty of space to dynamically render the blockbuster scenes; our first sighting of Superman is spectacular, as he careens his fist into the giant-sized Titano.

Johns is on point here, too; though his depiction of Superman and his supporting cast is more reminiscent of the pre-New-52 world. Not a bad thing; it’s nice having Clark Kent back as newshound for the Daily Planet, and interfacing with his pals liked he used to. Still, in terms on continuity, The Men of Tomorrow doesn’t quite fit with recently scheduled programming; perhaps that’s why DC Comics chose not to number this volume.

The Men of Tomorrow isn’t quite vintage Superman, but it’s up there with the best of the character’s offerings from the New 52. It’s great seeing Romita Jr. stretch his wings and play with characters, and a world, he’s never touched before. For the art alone, this collection is worthy of a place on your shelf.

Review: Arkham Manor by Gerry Duggan & Shawn Crystal

Ark Manor CoverArkham Asylum has fallen. I don’t know why, exactly – – due to the fact I’m out of the Batman continuity loop, and Gerry Duggan’s wise decision to not bog his narrative down in those ultimately superfluous details – – but its collapse has left Gotham City in desperate need of a home for its mentally unstable criminal population. There are few options available to the authorities; and each idea is swiftly knocked down by the city’s citizens. After all, who wants to live next door to psychopaths like Mister Freeze or the Joker? But there is one place that fits the bill; situated outside Gotham’s city limits, its large, spacious rooms – – with a few adjustments, of course – – would make for the perfect penitentiary.

That place is Wayne Manor.

ARKHAM MANOR was a six-issue limited series published earlier this year from the creative talent of Gerry Duggan and Shawn Crystal. It couples an innovative plot with stunning artwork; two ingredients that make for a fantastic reading experience. It’s a rare example, too, of a series that earned a longer run than what we’ve got; 6 issues just aren’t enough. Not that Duggan and Crystal don’t successfully tell their story – – they do – – I just wanted more.

As Wayne Manor transitions from homely manor to asylum for the insane, there are growing pains. A killer is on the loose inside the walls, targeting patients; and Arkham isn’t a place Batman can walk around freely and ask questions. So he comes up with a secret identity – – much like he has in the past, with his thug persona Matches Malone – – and plans himself in Arkham Manor as one of the patients. Along the way he has interactions with several villains – – Mister Freeze is used remarkably well as comic relief – – and investigates the murders.

Shawn Crystal’s artwork is superb. Wonderfully dynamic, his style isn’t the type I’d normally associate with Batman, which is part of the reason why it works so well. It’s a breath of fresh air, and it’s nice to see a lither Batman as opposed to the bulkier version we’ve become accustomed to in Greg Capullo’s Batman run. He’s as adept with the comedic beats as he is with the horrific moments, which are graphic, yes, but never gratuitous; it’s a fine line. As for writer Gerry Duggan, I’m not familiar with his work, though I am aware of the acclaim he has received through his work on Deadpool. He keeps his story on point, his narrative taut, and finds humour in a tale other writers would struggle to.

ARKHAM MANOR is part mystery, part horror story, and all great. My biggest disappointment is that I don’t have more to look forward to. Unless…

ISBN: 9781401254582
Format: Paperback
Pages: 144
Imprint: DC Comics
Publisher: DC Comics
Publish Date: 4-Aug-2015
Country of Publication: United States

Review: Batman – Earth One, Volume 2 by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank

Batman Earth One Volume 2As readers grow increasingly accustomed to vacillating continuities, DC’s Earth One universe offers some consistency. Launched in 2010 with Superman: Earth One attempted to contemporize and streamline the Man of Steel’s origin; to parallel the original mandate of Marvel’s Ultimate universe in a graphic novel format. Two successive Superman volumes followed; the Teen Titans, too. By far the most successful, in terms of both revolutionizing its central character and pure entertainment value, was Batman: Earth One. And its second volume maintains that momentum.

Bruce Wayne is less than a year into his vigilante career. After the events of Volume 1, Batman has becoming a menacing presence to those who stalk Gotham’s streets; but his reputation is still solidifying, just as his skill set is still in desperate need of refinement. He’s not the capable costumed crusader we are familiar with; he’s lacking much of the equipment (including the car) and he lacks the forensic expertise we take for granted. He faces a steep learning curve in Volume 2, as the Riddler makes his presence known – in this universe, a sadistic killer with deathly punchlines – and faces up against Killer Croc.

Gotham is as corrupt as ever. If it’s to earn salvation, it needs its citizens to make a stand; to become tangible beacons of light. Jim Gordon, still a lowly officer in the PD, is struggling to claw his way through the bile of his department; his alcoholic and increasingly-inept partner isn’t much of an ally. Only the mayor, Jessica Dent, and her brother, D.A. Harvey, are willing to face up against the city’s oppressive forces. But when you stand up for what’s right, you inevitably paint a target on your back.

It’s not exactly rocket science: when you partner two superstar creators, with a proven track record of producing fantastic work together, something special will develop. Geoff Johns and Gary Frank produced a seminal run on Superman in the mid-2000’s, and have quickly hit their stride with this graphic novel format. When blessed with more pages, some writers will pack more plot into their story; more twists, more turns, thus diluting its core. But Johns is a pro. He leaves Frank plenty of breathing room to choreograph a variety of action scenes, as well as the quieter moments. Batman: Earth One, Volume 2 is jam-packed with characters, but it never feels overstuffed. It weaves multiple storylines, but never tangles.

We are not short of great Batman stories; Frank Miller’s Year One and The Dark Knight Returns; Loeb and Sale’s The Long Halloween; more recently, Snyder and Capullo’s Court of Owls. Johns and Frank’s Batman: Earth One graphic novels are among that echelon. It’ll be a long wait for the third volume.

4 Stars Excellent

ISBN: 9781401241858
Format: Hardback (266mm x 174mm x 14mm)
Pages: 160
Imprint: DC Comics
Publisher: DC Comics
Publish Date: 19-May-2015
Country of Publication: United States