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

Review: Batman Volume 6 – Graveyard Shift

Batman Vol 6 Graveyard ShiftThe sixth volume of DC Comics’ Batman run features a collection of standalone issues and two-part storylines concocted by a variety of writers and artists. While previous volumes of Batman were seismic in their revelations and outstanding in their execution, Graveyard Shift isn’t as cohesive, and lacks the spark that made its predecessors essential purchases. Even so, it’s a fine prologue to Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s next blockbuster story-arc, Endgame, which is just now wrapping up in the comics.

Speaking of the acclaimed writer and artist pairing of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo, they are the glue that holds Graveyard Shift together. Their Clay Face epic is brilliant, revitalising a long-dormant character, and their ‘zero’ issue, which turns back the clock and serves as a prologue to ‘Zero Year,’ is a lot of fun. Volume 6 of Batman turns the spotlight on less-vaunted writers (which is not to dismiss their sizable talent, because most creators pale in comparison to the megastar Snyder) such as James Tynion IV, Marguerite Bennett, Gerry Duggan, partnering them with incredible artists such as Any Kubert, Matteo Scalera, Alex Maleev and Dustin Nguyen present their take on the Caped Crusader. Batman’s grief over the loss of his son, Damian, binds several of these tales – the Dark Knight has never been great at deaths in the families – but long-time readers will feel this is well-treaded territory, and there’s not much here that revitalises the narrative.

Graveyard Shift also accelerates the world of Batman forward, showcasing a glimpse of the future in which Batman teams up with a new ally, Bluebird, as he takes on Gotham’s newest crime kingpin. It’s a solid story, introducing readers to a fresh status quo, but the collection’s shift from the past, to the present, and then to the future, means the volume lacks consistency. So the standalone story, The Meek, is therefore one of the most effective: really, it could take place at any time, and sees Batman solving a fairly standard (for him, anyway) serial killer case. Duggan and Scalera form a potent partnership to deliver a brilliantly dark story, and I hope to see them collaborate again.

So Graveyard Shift isn’t the standout collection in the ‘New 52’ Batman, but its solid smattering of crime stories makes it altogether worthwhile.

3 Stars Good

ISBN: 9781401252304
Format: Hardback (266mm x 176mm x 15mm)
Pages: 224
Imprint: DC Comics
Publisher: DC Comics
Publish Date: 12-May-2015
Country of Publication: United States

Review: Superman – Earth One Volume 3 by Straczynski and Syaf

Superman Earth OneThe third volume of J. Michael Straczynski’s re-imagining of Superman is flawed, inconsistent, and ultimately brings into question the purpose of DC Comics’s entire line of ‘Earth One’ original graphic novels in a post-New 52 world. Look closely and you’ll see, this is a story full of good intentions, but inept execution means it’s filled with more valleys than peaks.

Superman: Earth One – Volume 3 immediately loses appeal because it’s yet another retelling of the General Zod storyline we recently saw come to life on the big screen in Man of Steel. Regular readers, such as myself, have seen Zod’s origin retold on innumerable occasions over the years, as the elastic band of modern day continuity twisted and tweaked the character to suit a particular moment in Superman’s history. Straczynski’s take is particularly uninspired; almost a cardboard cut-out of what we’ve seen before. A shame, as with supposed free reign, surely the writer could’ve thought outside the box, just to differentiate his Zod from countless others. Artist Adrian Syaf’s redesign of the character is similarly uninspired; a hood shrouds Zod’s eyes in darkness, making him look especially untrustworthy, which makes the United Nation’s decision to back him over Superman even more laughable.

As Volume 3 opens, Superman remains an enigmatic figure, a super-powered threat that must be taken very seriously. Considered a saviour by some, a menace by others, young Clark Kent’s alter-ego is suffering from a case of the Spider-Man’s – – hey, it could be worse, at least he doesn’t have J. Jonah. Jameson giving him grief. The US Military have employed Mr. and Mrs. Luthor – that’s Alexandra and Lex, by the way – to develop the means to harm, or ideally destroy, the Man of Tomorrow. And they choose the moment Superman is battling Zod to test the device; targeting only Supes, naturally, not the other Kryptonian, because the UN have granted him a free pass (for nonsensical reasons).

Amidst all the fighting, Clark Kent’s relationship with his neighbour takes a romantic turn, and Superman’s gradually developing an affiliation with Lois Lane, too (who uses a Superman-symbolled Bat-signal, yes, really) to get his attention. Straczynski’s most comfortable during these quieter moments, nailing Clark’s general unease with himself and his struggles to lead a successful double-life, but these fleeting moments aren’t enough to salvage this convoluted mess. The Luthor’s are underdeveloped, and the culminating battle, which has fatal consequences, lacks any sort of resonance. The artistic highlights, which include some wonderfully dynamic iconic shots of Superman doing battle, or taking to the skies, are let down by occasionally clunky layouts and shot selections.

Superman: Earth One – Volume 3 is undercooked, almost rushed; from its overall plot, to its dialogue, to its art. Plot contrivances abound; the art fluctuates between very good and average; Straczynski’s characterisations of his cast vacillates uncannily. It’s all a bit of a mixed mag, and severely disappointing.

Review: Superman Unchained by Scott Snyder & Jim Lee (DC Comics)

UnchainedOn paper the pairing of acclaimed writer Scott Snyder and legendary illustrator Jim Lee on a nine issue Superman series sounds incredible. Both are inarguably supremely talented men – over the past four years, Snyder has written some of the best comics being published, and Lee has long-established his pedigree; I wasn’t reading comics during his X-Men years, but I loved his work on Loeb’s epic Hush storyline in Batman, and Miller’s All Star Batman & Robin. But the tastiest ingredients don’t always mix; and that was my overwhelming response to Superman Unchained. It flirts with greatness, but doesn’t quite reach it. While it’s undoubtedly the best interpretation of the ‘New 52’ Superman we’ve seen (so far) it’s not the standout must-read Superman story fans of the Last Son of Krypton have been pining for. I would happily hand over a copy of Superman: For All Seasons in the hands on a newbie Superman reader; so too any storyline in Geoff John’s pre-New 52 run. Superman Unchained just doesn’t resonate like those.

The story opens with satellites falling from the sky, and Superman doing his thing, rescuing those endangered by the falling gargantuan chunks of metal. He misses one – even Superman’s prone to errors, y’know – but thanks to the intervention of a mysterious and powerful individual, nobody is harmed. But Clark Kent wants to know: who was the interloper? And so, he investigates, and is introduced to Wraith, who falls under the command of a certain General Sam Lane; and queries the veracity of Superman’s mission for “truth, justice and the American way.” Unchained utilizes the core members of Superman’s supporting cast – Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen all play vital roles, so too Lex Luthor and fellow Justice Leaguers Batman and Wonder Woman. The series is imbedded in continuity, but one needn’t be invested heavily in the DC Universe; Snyder is the master of streamlining his narratives to ensure maximum readability, veteran or newbie.

I’ve never considered Snyder an action-oriented writer – which isn’t to say his comics aren’t peppered with brilliant moments and set-pieces (Capullo’s renditions of his Batman scripts are a joy to behold), but he’s always been more focused on character. In Unchained he takes a different route; the pages are packed with action, presumably catering to Jim Lee’s strengths; there’s little nuance to Lee’s work, which, depending on the story, can be a blessing or a curse. In the case of Unchained, it’s a little of both. Superman’s battle scenes are dynamically drafted and a pack a lot of punch – but there’s something missing in the quieter moments. Having seen Snyder’s scripts executed to perfection thanks to artists such as Capullo and Jock, there’s an evident lack of true cohesion between these two. They make it work as best they can, but I can’t help but envision Unchained with a different artist. Indeed, Dustin Nguyen illustrates occasional flashbacks during the book, which are the artistic highlights: imagine the entirety of Unchained in his hands! If only…

Snyder gradually escalates the menaces facing Superman throughout Unchained, but its climax is satisfactory rather than astounding. It has a certain symmetry, which works, but I’d anticipated it, which lessened its impact. There’s a ton of fun to be had with Superman Unchained. It’s not the defining New 52 Superman tale I’d hoped for, but it shows Snyder has a firm grip on the character, and I’d love to see him given another opportunity to work with him. As for Jim Lee, who I feel I’ve been tremendously disdainful towards here, I’m excited to see where he lands next – his name connected to a project still excites me. But as we shift farther away from his ‘peak’ years during the nineties, I feel he has to pick and choose his projects carefully. His “big budget” style certainly has a place in comics.

Review: Aquaman Vol 1 – The Trench (The New 52) by Geoff Johns & Ivan Reis

The TrenchWhen I think of Aquaman, I think of Grant Morrison and Howard Porter’s JLA run from the 90s; the bearded Aquaman, gruff and abrasive, with a hook for a hand. Like the Batman of the sea, he didn’t take stick from anyone. But to the wider public, Aquaman is a punchline: the gold-vested fish-talking king of the sea, who rides seahorses and beds mermaids, right? Easy fodder for any two-bit comedian. Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis tackle this head-on in the first volume of the “New 52” series; but it’s a little too on the nose, very heavy-handed, and detracts from an otherwise superb new introduction to the character.

In AQUAMAN, VOL. 1: THE TRENCH, the King of Atlantis is widely disrespected; mocked and pitied, and laughed at by criminals, the police, and everyday citizens. When the story opens, Aquaman halts a bank heist – brutally, effectively, and wonderfully illustrated as he careens his trident into their vehicle and flips it over spectacularly – but moments before, the robbers are referring to him as “tuna-man,” and the chasing cops are wondering what he’s going to do: “we’re not in the ocean and I don’t see any fish around…” Later, a blogger refers to Aquaman as “nobody’s favorite superhero,” and ridicules Arthur. It’s all a bit much, and unnecessary. Want to demonstrate how cool Aquaman is? Show us Aquaman doing cool things. Which, thankfully, Johns and Reis eventually do, when a new threat arises from a trench at the bottom of the sea; flesh-eating monsters have surfaced, and have attacked the people of Beachrock, forcing Aquaman and Mera into action.

The Johns / Reis creative partnership came to life in the pages of Green Lantern, and they continue their fine work here. There aren’t enough superlatives for Ivan Reis, suffice to say he’s secured a position in the “Top 5” artists working in comics. He nails the underwater scenes, perfectly capturing the terrifying creatures from the trench, and his depiction of Aquaman and Mera is fantastic. There are some striking double-page spreads in AQUAMAN VOL. 1: THE TRENCH – the image of Aquaman standing tall in Boston when he stops the bank heist is appropriately iconic, and deserves to be a poster.

Johns is heavy-handed with the Aquaman-loathing, but otherwise his script is fine-tuned and perfectly paced. The creatures from the trench aren’t particularly memorable, but such opposition was the right choice, as it keeps the spotlight on Aquaman and Mera. Johns’s decision to flashback to moments between Arthur and his father are particularly nuanced, and add real emotion to a tale that’s otherwise void of it. I don’t say this as a slight; THE TRENCH is designed as a blockbuster comic to entice readers to its pages; heavy on the action, sparse on the exposition. Perfect for new readers, and the doubters.

Aquaman has always been cool. But in case you weren’t sure, Johns and Reis clarify the status quo with AQUAMAN VOL 1: THE TRENCH.

Review: Teen Titans – Earth One, Vol 1 by Jeff Lemire and Terry Dodson

Teen TitansThere’s a lot to like about TEEN TITANS: EARTH ONE, Vol. 1 by Jeff Lemire and Terry Dodson. This re-invention of the classic teenage super-team balances the requisite super-heroics with a good dose of teenage angst and soap opera. But it’s hindered by the need to rehash the origins of these characters – variations of their previous incarnations, but still tinged with an overwhelming resemblance to them – and a derivative plot, that bears an uncanny similarity to the core narrative of Marvel Comics’ THE RUNAWAYS.

The strength of the EARTH ONE line of graphic novels, at least in theory, is their continuity-free approach to DC Comics’ characters. There has clearly been a line drawn in the sand, however, in terms of how far creators can push these characters beyond their established origins. These ‘reinventions’ and ‘fresh takes’ aren’t overhauls; they’re merely contemporized reintroductions with slight twists; the equivalent of a fresh paint job. Which is disappointing, because given the esteemed talent on TEEN TITANS: EARTH ONE, had they been allowed total freedom, Lemire and Dodson might’ve produced something seminal rather than a fun, but ultimately unmemorable romp.

The strength of TEEN TITANS: EARTH ONE is the characters, and Lemire’s pitch-perfect depiction of the teenage cast. Victor, Gar and Tara aren’t typecast in the standard teenage roles: they’re genuine, obnoxious youngsters, who are undergoing a life-changing experience as their powers begin to surface. Their attitudes are infuriating at times, and their initial inability to work together encapsulates the adolescent mentality. But the great character work is undercut by the underwhelming plot; turns out, the people who claimed to love them – their parents – aren’t the protectors the teens assumed they were; they’re bad guys, liars, with nefarious agendas.

THE RUNAWAYS, the hit Marvel Comics series from almost a decade ago, presented a similar set-up, and while TEEN TITANS: EARTH ONE isn’t an exact replication, its resemblance is striking. The parents-are-secretly-scrum-bags card has been played umpteen times before, and it’s a unfortunately this story heads down that well-worn and trodden path. Separating the Teen Titans from their parents is fundamental to their character journeys, of course; but surely another route could’ve been taken.

Dodson’s illustrations are as slick as ever; the perfect super-hero artist. Lemire’s script allows room for various splash pages, and even a two-page spread, which are all dynamically rendered. Some of the new designs are questionable, but that’s potentially veteran-reader bias, and takes nothing away from the overall package.

TEEN TITANS: EARTH ONE is a fine addition to DC Comics’ line of graphic novels, and with a few alternate storytelling choices, it might’ve been something truly special. While it’s not quite A-Grade, there’s plenty to like: great characters, pitch-perfect dialog, and stunning visuals. Readers should look forward to the second volume.

(Thanks to DC Entertainment and NetGalley for providing a digital review copy)

Review: Batman Vol 5, Zero Year – Dark City

Year ZeroThe second volume of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s “Zero Year” underscores the drastic tonal shift away from the seminal Batman origin story by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli, “Year One.” It is the perfect example of how malleable the Dark Knight is: soak him in noir or drop him in a dystopian sprawling epic, it doesn’t matter – under the helm of a great creative team, the character will thrive.

BATMAN: ZERO YEAR – DARK CITY presents The Riddler as we’ve never seen him before; a truly formidable foe, who has decimated Gotham City and rendered it his playground. Although Gotham City was similarly destroyed almost two decades ago in “No Man’s Land,” that tale starred a veteran Batman, whereas Snyder and Capullo present us with a Caped Crusader at the very beginning of his career; without all the gadgets, without the know-how, without the allies; whose resilience is being tested for the first time in ways he could never have envisioned.

Long-time readers will enjoying bearing witness to the solidification of relationships between Batman, Jim Gordon and Lucius Fox – indeed, all three play a key role in fighting back against The Riddler’s nefarious schemes – but Alfred Pennyworth gets the best moment in DARK CITY’s final pages, in a moment that we’ve seen before, but has never been executed more potently; his vision for what Bruce Wayne’s life could – and possibly should – have been is incredibly heartfelt, underlining the importance of the character.

There are plenty of ‘cool’ moments in DARK CITY; our first glimpse at the inaugural Batmobile; Batman facing off against a pack of lions (seriously); Batman arriving in the nick of time on a motorcycle; a face-off with The Riddler, surrounded by lasers. By now we’ve run out of superlatives for Greg Capullo’s work – suffice to say, he’s now one of the defining contemporary Batman artists, not just of this generation, but of all time – and his work is a wonderful compliment to Snyder’s script, which flicks from heavy exposition to silent panels with aplomb. DARK CITY is further proof of two comics legends working in perfect harmony to create a storyline that will go down as one of the greatest Batman tales. Long may it continue.

My thanks to DC Entertainment & Net Galley for providing a review copy.