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: Batman Vol. 1 – I Am Gotham (DC Rebirth) by Tom King & David Finch

batmanThe whole purpose of DC’s ongoing ‘Rebirth’ initiative is to relaunch the publisher’s well-loved core characters in their most iconic forms. In other words, make them accessible to new readers, but throw in some bones for the long-time fans, too. Tom King and David Finch’s first volume of their Batman run achieves this. It’s a fun, action-packed story-arc, which introduces two new superheroes into the lore, and leaves plenty of page space for Finch to showcase his artistic skill. It’s a fun romp; but it’s not much more than that. Which is enough, for some; but for readers such as myself, who dip in and out of mainstream comics, there’s not quite enough here to warrant a return for the second volume.

When a couple of masked metahumans with the powers of Superman arrive in Gotham City, Batman thinks they have the potential to be the kind of heroes he won’t ever be: he is only human, after all. With their super powers and impervious dedication to the protection of the city from its own sordid underbelly, Gotham and Gotham Girl are precisely the kind of guardians who can protect Gotham for decades to come. That is, until their perceptions are twisted by one of Batman’s villains, and suddenly Gotham’s most powerful heroes become a force for evil, and the Dark Knight becomes their target for termination.

Tom King is currently penning one of my favourite comic series, The Sheriff of Babylon, but his Batman run lacks the punch of that creator-owned series. It’s not that his writing here is of an inferior quality; just that, by necessity, and the fact this is a mainstream superhero comic book, it has been stripped of much of its nuance. His pairing with David Finch seems wasted, too; while the artist excels at the big moments, and the action-packed pages are wonderful to behold, the quieter moments lack any sort of pop and emotional gravitas.

I Am Gotham is a solid superhero yarn, which sets the board for King and Finch’s run on the title. I’ve read better superhero comics, and I’ve read worse. It is stuck in that annoying middle ground, where there’s not much to say about it, one way or the other. It’s a book I read, enjoyed, and won’t remember.

ISBN: 9781401267773
Format: Paperback  (252mm x 168mm x 15mm)
Imprint: DC Comics
Publisher: DC Comics
Publish Date: 24-Jan-2017
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: 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

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.

Review: Batman – The Long Halloween by Jeph Loeb & Tim Sale

The Long HalloweenBATMAN: THE LONG HALLOWEEN spans the Dark Knight’s year-long investigation into a serial killer striking at the heart of Gotham City’s organized crime families. Wielding a silenced .22 calibre pistol, the killer strikes only on holidays – Valentines Day, Mother’s Day, Christmas, and so forth – and is quickly dubbed ‘Holiday’ by the press. Of course, Gotham being a city infested with psychopaths, this new killer stirring the pot arouses the attention of several of Batman’s nemeses, including Joker, the Riddler,  Catwoman, Solomon Grundy, and more – all of whom play varyingly integral roles to the overall narrative. But at its core, THE LONG HALLOWEEN is a mobster saga about the lengths good men will go to in order to defend the values they hold dear; and easy it is to overstep the boundary between good and evil.

Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, now recognized as a true dynamic duo of comics, might’ve reached their apex with THE LONG HALLOWEEN. The two combine perfectly to deliver a dark, action-packed snapshot into a year in the life of Batman, centred on the Holiday killer. We see relationships develop and change over the course of the story; the seemingly unbreakable partnership between Jim Gordon, Harvey Dent and Batman begins to show signs of decay as the tale progresses, and the death toll rises; and Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle / Batman and Cat Woman flit between potential lovers and fighters. Tim Sale is one of the definitive Batman artists; his style is distinct and unparalleled, and he perfectly captures the break and moody atmosphere of Batman’s world. Loeb’s script is tight, and he encapsulates the various personalities with aplomb. The mystery – who is Holiday? – is unsolvable with the clues provided in Loeb’s script, which might be considered a fault, but doesn’t take anything away from the joy of watching it unravel.

THE LONG HALLOWEEN is hailed as one of the finest Batman stories of all times – high praise indeed, but deserved. Loeb and Sale strip the character down to his fundamental elements – a superhero detective – and weave a fascinating mystery with a satisfying ending.

Review: Batman Vol. 4 – Zero Year: Secret City by Scott Snyder & Greg Capullo

Zero YearFrank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s BATMAN: YEAR ONE was a seminal work in the Caped Crusader’s history, which still resonates today, and remains one of my favourite Batman stories. But YEAR ONE is almost 30 years old now, and comics continuity is fluid, punctuated with spasmodic rehashes of identical concepts for each supposed ‘new generation’ of fans. ZERO YEAR marks Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s shot at ‘redefining’ the Batman origin story – and this collection, subtitled SECRET CITY, is the first part of their magnum opus, which immediately stands apart from the multitude of origin stories that have littered the Dark Knight’s existence. Miller and Mazzucchelli’s YEAR ONE was dark, grimy and gritty –Snyder and Capullo’s is not as overwhelmingly bleak, and strives to be more epic in scope.

BATMAN: ZERO YEAR – SECRET CITY introduces us to a decimated Gotham City; overgrown, its subway system under water. Even Batman is feeling the effects; our first introduction to him is iconic, posed on his motorcycle in a battered costume; sleeves torn, cape replaced by a backpack stocked with survival gear. The story then immediately shifts backwards again, to five months earlier, where a vigilante Bruce Wayne – yet to adopt the cape and cowl, instead utilizing fundamental disguises – has confronted the Red Hood, the madman who has been terrorizing the city through random acts of violence. We learn that Bruce has only recently returned to Gotham, but hasn’t yet revealed himself: he’s still legally dead, and wants to keep it that way: he doesn’t believe Bruce Wayne has a role to play in Gotham’s resurgence; the city can’t be saved through the ideologies of a billionaire.

SECRET CITY spotlights Bruce’s skirmishes with the RED HOOD, and his gradual implementation of the Batman identity.  Writer Scott Snyder excels at capturing Bruce’s young, petulant voice – he’s not the confident veteran we read week in and out; he’s inexperienced and unprepared, but cocky. He’s a man on a mission, without the means or the mentality to accomplish his objective, and here we see him fail multiple times; one of those failures is particularly brutal, as the Red Hood and his crew tear into Bruce and vandalize his home. Snyder’s pitch perfect script is wonderfully rendered by Scott Capullo, who must now rank as one of Batman’s finest artists. He doesn’t just perfectly capture those iconic action set pieces – the quieter moments are rendered with equal expertise. Artist Rafael Albuquerque is also on hand for the shorter anecdotes at the end of this volume, which demonstrate a teenage and twenty-something Bruce Wayne learning essential lessons that’ll stick with him through his crime-fighting career.

BATMAN: ZERO YEAR – SECRET CITY is a fine start to start to Batman’s new origin, and ends, as you’d expect with a cliff-hanger, which potentially revitalizes one of the villain’s from Batman’s rogues gallery. It’s the perfect jumping-on point for newcomers, while long-time readers will find this origin tale explores a very different side of the Batman mythos. At this stage in my comics-reading life, I’ve read several origin tales, some of which live long in comics’ continuity, while others quickly fade. There is no chance of the latter in this case.