Tag Archives: DC Comics

Review: Frank Miller’s “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns”

Title: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
Writer: Frank Miller
Artists: Frank Miller (pencils) & Klaus Janson (ink)
Series: Batman: The Dark Knight Saga Vol. I
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: DC Comics, 1986

Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns is a masterpiece, though an imperfect one. The book regularly appears on or even tops lists of the most influential comics of all time, and has strongly impacted the on-screen portrayal of the titular Dark Knight ever since its publication in 1986. Along with Alan Moore’s Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns helped usher in a new era of gritty, dark comics across the board, and helped distance the character of Batman from the lingering memories of Adam West.* It’s a seminal piece of comic book history, a must-read for any fan of the Dark Knight, and one of the best Batman stories ever written. All that said, it’s not perfect. While some elements of the story transcend the cultural milieu in which it was written or are even ahead of their time, others are incredibly dated. The plot is a bit unfocused and lacks a central antagonist, even while being an interesting character study of Batman and his supporting cast. The art…is a complicated issue I’ll get into more below.

The setting: 1986. It’s been ten years since the last sighting of the Batman, and the age of heroes is over. Superman has put away his cape and accepted a position working for the government in exchange for their ignoring his retired former compatriots as long as they keep their heads down and don’t draw attention to themselves. Martian Manhunter runs a bar. Oliver Queen turned communist and is presumed dead. Wonder Woman went back to Themyscira. Commissioner Gordon is about to retire, finally ending his never-ending battle against corruption in the GCPD. Crime across the city is rampant, and the Mutant gang rules the streets. On the world stage, the United States and the USSR are locked into the Mexican standoff of the Cold War, which is heating up as both players find themselves supporting opposing sides of a revolution on the island of Corto Maltese. Having hung up his cowl in the wake of Jason Todd’s gruesome end at the hands of the Joker, Bruce Wayne has been using alcohol to manage his emotional trauma and help him sleep, but the growing violence on the streets of his city grows to be too much to bear. He’s rusty, he’s not as young as he used to be, but he’s still the Batman. Nevertheless, he’s going to have his hands full with the likes of a not-so-reformed Harvey Dent, the Joker, and the Mutants gang…not to mention the U.S. government, which isn’t as tolerant of vigilantism as it once was, and now has the abilities of Agent Kent to deploy. Even in the face of all these obstacles, however, one thing remains true: the Batman is incapable of backing down from a challenge…even if it kills him.

First, the writing. As I mentioned, this is probably the single most influential Batman story ever written, and for one very good reason: Miller’s characterization of Batman. Miller took Batman back to his roots: a damaged man out to exorcise his demons and save his city at the same time, mostly by inflicting pain on those who would hurt the innocent. He’s older now and has to learn to fight smarter than when he was young, but he’s still Batman. Miller’s Batman is cold, relentless, a soldier fighting a war that he knows he can never win. His only goal is to hold the darkness at bay until a new generation can take up the fight – and he has a couple ideas about that, too. The characterization of Commissioner Gordon is also a strong point, painting a complex picture of a man who has faced an incredible dilemma his entire career in Gotham: to watch the city entrusted to his protection descend into (worsening) corruption and vice, becoming a haven for evil, or to endorse and enable a vigilante who operates outside the law, committing assault and battery left and right, punishing crime without even a hint of due process. Ellen Yindel, Gordon’s successor, will have to decide how to face that same dilemma. Miller also gives Gordon credit for being remotely observant: he’s only been pretending not to know Batman’s identity all these years. Fans of Superman will be less thrilled, however, as the Man of Steel’s characteristic optimism is here transfigured into fatalism regarding humanity’s view of heroes and naivety regarding his role on the world stage. It’s not exactly a negative portrayal, per se, but neither is it positive. Miller also interjects more animosity and disdain into the relationship between these two titans than do most of their incarnations. Superman believes Batman to be pigheaded and stubborn, and that his return will cause humanity to rise up and destroy those they once called heroes. Batman thinks Superman a fool who has allowed world events to reach a crisis point. Neither is entirely wrong, and that nuance is one of the strengths of the book. Other characters are not as strongly written. New Robin Carrie Kelly is not given much of a motivation for turning caped-hero, aside from the fact that Batman saves her life and she needs a father figure. The psychologist treating Harvey Dent and the Joker is a caricature of bleeding-heart liberals that blame everyone but the perpetrators for crimes, arguing at one point that Batman is the true perpetrator every crime committed by his enemies because he created them by his very existence. Contrasting this narrative is that of the various ultra-right-wing commentators that argue Batman isn’t going far enough and the gangs of reformed Mutants calling themselves the “Sons of Batman” and murdering criminals wherever they can be found. Neither characterization is subtle, but Miller uses both voices to discuss the issue of vigilantism with a level of nuance not often seen in the comics. Then you have Bruno**, a neo-Nazi thug who wears swastikas on her breasts in lieu of a shirt and where she has cut the rear out of her pants. You don’t get much more of a caricature than that. Former Robin Dick Grayson doesn’t feature here but is nevertheless mentioned briefly in a conversation between Gordon and Bruce where it is revealed that Wayne is not on speaking terms with his former protege. In contrast to the generally strong characterization, the plot is a bit unfocused. There’s no central antagonist, for one thing. Batman battles Harvey Dent and the Joker immediately after his return, fights the leader of the Mutant gang later in the story, and then battles Superman in the climax. There’s not much of an over-arching narrative, aside from Batman’s return and the powder keg that it ignites, and the book is arguably poorer for it. The social commentary is similarly all over the map. Miller explores the issue of vigilantism, and that’s a timeless debate, but a lot of his other political agenda is incredibly dated. His portrayal of Ronald Reagan is not flattering, though it can also be said that his portrayal of every politician, real or fictional, is equally negative. Miller’s Gotham has interesting hints of his future work with Sin City, minus (most of) the sex, and that’s an interesting take on things that you don’t typically see. Is Gotham an early form of Miller’s Basin City, or is Basin City what Gotham would turn into without the Batman? Given that Miller is (deservedly) in disfavor these days, due to his more modern output, I doubt this is a question that will be answered.

Finally, we have the art. A decade ago I would have told you that I simply didn’t like Frank Miller’s art across the board, but today I have to admit that it’s not that simple. Frank Miller has a specific style that serves him well in things like Sin City, where he can really lean into it and play with monotone and shadows, but when applied to a Batman comic falls a bit flat for me. It’s not that the art here is bad, but I also can’t say that it’s good. Sure, there are a few iconic moments that stand out – the image of Batman back in action for the first time in a decade, silhouetted against a bolt of lightning is iconic, and has been imitated countless times since – but on the whole the word that is best suggested by the art in this book is “mediocre.” I’m not a fan, but that is a minority opinion. Apparently, the “Millerness” of the artwork here is toned down by having Klaus Janson ink Miller’s pencils and moderate his stylization, a collaboration that, based on the sequel to this book where it was lacking, was sorely needed.

CONTENT: PG-grade language. Some fairly strong violence, PG-13 depicted “on-page,” with stronger instances happening just “off-panel.” Moderate sexual content, including the character of Bruno (mentioned above), Catwoman running an escort service (complete with politician customers), and a character clearly intended to be Dr. Ruth (though that might be lost on anyone too young to actually remember the 80s). While the book flirts with nudity in a couple places, saved from crossing that line by shadows*** or Bruno’s swastikas, the quality of the art keeps this from being at all appealing. This is not really a book for younger readers, even as the actual content may not prove traumatic, as most of what Miller is trying to do would be lost on them.

*Though I for one LOVE the zaniness of the 60s Batman television series, the effect it had on the comics was deeply unfortunate. Batman…is not supposed to be jolly. That’s all I’m saying.
**I swear that my younger, more innocent self didn’t get the significance of her name (or several of the comments made about her) when I first read this over a decade ago. Now I feel dumb.
***A common comic trick for keeping things PG, not unique to Frank Miller’s writing, though readers of Sin City will agree that he leans into it quite heavily.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Books

Review: “Red” by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner

Title: Red
Writer: Warren Ellis
Artist: Cully Hamner
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: WildStorm, 2009

This is one of those cases where your expectations will affect your experience. I first encountered Red, as did many, through the film starring Bruce Willis.

Honestly, I loved that movie. So when the library got a copy of the comic it was based on, I snapped it up. While the movie was more or less based on this comic, it was a very different animal. They added a LOT of material, for one thing. They’d have to, given how short this was. But they also completely changed the tone. The comic was entirely straightfaced about its over-the-top violence, and there was not a joke to be had. It was all rather grim. The film was an action comedy. Both were good, but they were very different. You need to be aware of what you’re in for, and temper your expectations accordingly.

The plot? The plot is simple. I can sum it up in two sentences. The new politically-appointed head of the CIA learns the scary truth about the agency he is now in charge of and orders the death of its greatest operative, the now-retired Paul Moses. The kill squad fails, leaving Moses bloodied and on a rampage to find the men who ended his solitude. That’s really all there is to this, but it’s very well executed. Small details like Moses standing in his kitchen during a storm, reliving the lives he’s ended with every crack of thunder, or the flashbacks he experiences when he takes up a sniper rifle once again, really lend some emotional weight to a character that is not entirely sympathetic even as they remind us that he is, in fact, a self-described monster. There’s some definite political commentary here, but its more generally aimed at American foreign policy (in the guise of the CIA) than it is any particular individual. I would recommend it, assuming you can stomach the violence.

CONTENT: Strong, gory violence throughout. PG-13-grade profanity. No sexual content.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Comics/Graphic Novels, Reviews

Review: “American Vampire, Volume V” by Scott Snyder, Rafael Albuquerque & Dustin Nguyen

Title: American Vampire, Volume V
Writer: Scott Snyder
Artists: Rafael Albuquerque & Dustin Nguyen
Series: American Vampire (Volume V, Issues #28-34 + Lord Of Nightmares miniseries)
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Vertigo, 2013

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, my library recently got a large infusion of graphic novels I’d been waiting on. Volume V of American Vampire was one such acquisition, and so I bring you the latest in this particular series of reviews. Given the nature of a series, this review will unavoidably contain some spoilers for volumes I-IV (See them here: Volume I/Volume II/Volume III/Volume IV). You’ve been warned.

Volume V consists of two stories happening simultaneously. Well, more like two stories and a teaser for the next one, but whatever. First off, we have Lord Of Nightmares (originally published as a miniseries under the same title) in which we catch up with Felicia Book. When we last saw Felicia she resigned from the Vassals of the Morning Star and went off the grid with Gus, Cash McCogan’s son. Gus was once a vampire, now cured by the serum his father gave his life to protect. Agent Hobbes was content to let them go…but now he has nowhere else to turn. The original Carpathian vampire, the originator of the Dracula story, has been freed by his followers and is amassing an army to destroy not only the VMS but every other race of vampire that refuse to bend their knee. The London VMS office has been wiped out, the coffin-prison containing Carpathian Prime has been stolen by the Soviets, and Felicia and her son are the only ones close enough to help Agent Hobbes close the books on the Carpathian before he engulfs the world in his fiery bloodlust….This miniseries featured guest artist Dustin Nguyen while Albuquerque worked on the main book, and I have to congratulate him on his ability to match his style to that of the book. He does a much better job of it than some that have filled in for past issues. The story started strong, and I’m always up to see new interpretations of Dracula, but the ending was a bit anticlimactic and rushed, I thought. It didn’t really work for me, and I’m not entirely convinced that Carpathian Prime won’t show up again later. We’ll see, I suppose.

While Hobbes and Felicia are battling Dracula, Pearl Jones is out for blood in The Blacklist. Years ago she faced down a cabal of ancient vampires based in Hollywood, and most of them didn’t get out alive. She and her husband Henry have been one step ahead of the wolves ever since, but now they’re done running. One of the cabal paid a visit to their house while Pearl wasn’t home, ripping out Henry’s throat and leaving him for dead. The only place he can receive care in safety is with the VMS, so Pearl reluctantly teams up with Skinner Sweet to take out the remnants of the cabal once and for all. But fate has some surprises in store for when the players are finally revealed….old friends, old enemies, and old grudges are all placed on the table, and when the dust settles not everyone will be left standing. We are then teased with a final brief tale setting up (I assume) the next big antagonist: the Gray Trader. This tale almost felt final, which is fitting I suppose since the book went on hiatus for a while following these stories. Snyder took us full circle, bringing back characters and resolving plot threads introduced in the first volume, all the while winking and telling us that this was not THE end, merely AN ending. Albuquerque’s art was perfect for the tone, as always, and I look forward to seeing what happens next in this universe….

CONTENT: Not for kiddies, folks! This is a Vertigo book. There’s strong, bloody violence, as you would expect from a strain of vampire mythology as brutal and vicious as this. We’re talking dismemberment, throats ripped out, point-blank gunfire, and a close encounter with a pride of lionesses. R-rated language, though not as gratuitous as some other Vertigo fare. A panel or two of sexual content, though no nudity unless you count a shot of Skinner Sweet’s ass. No occult content–these vampires aren’t spiritual, just monsters.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Comics/Graphic Novels, Reviews

Review: “John Constantine, Hellblazer: Original Sins” by Jamie Delano & John Ridgeway

Title: Original Sins
Writers: Jamie Delano & Rick Veitch
Artists: John Ridgeway, Alfredo Alcala, Rick Veitch, Tom Mandrake, Brett Ewins, & Jim McCarthy
Series: John Constantine, Hellblazer (Volume I, Issues #1-9 + Swamp Thing #76-78)
Rating: ***
Publisher/Copyright: Vertigo, 2011

I’m ashamed to say that my first real encounter with the character of John Constantine was the decidedly mediocre 2005 film. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hate the movie, but I was unaware at the time (the time being years later when I actually saw it, not when it came out) that it had very little to do with the actual character it was based on. Constantine is blonde and British, not brown-haired and living in LA. That’s Angel. I say my first real encounter, because he did feature in one of the early issues of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, but I had no idea who he was at the time. Anyway, I’ve been meaning to try this series for a while, so when I found the first volume at the library, I checked it out.

I can’t so much describe the plot to this collection, because there’s not much of an overarching plot to describe. The events described are loosely tied together, but at least for this first volume there’s no real resolution. (The library bought the first two volumes, so I’m hoping the overarching plot is resolved in the second one.) This is mostly about establishing the character and the world he inhabits. John Constantine is a powerful magician, but he doesn’t take much enjoyment in the fact. Magic and his own mistakes have cost him too many friends and loved ones, faces that literally haunt him both waking and sleeping. He’s a bit of a jerk–actually, more than a bit, and you could use stronger language if you wanted to–and has few moral qualms. About the only temptation he’s good at resisting is the temptation to walk away from a losing fight. Amateur magicians, the forces of Hell, the forces of Heaven, they all have a way of causing trouble. And Constantine just can’t help trying to stop them, whether it’s in defense of a friend or out of sheer curiosity. We’ve got a hunger demon, finance demons, a pedophiliac necromancer, time-slipped soldiers from the ‘Nam, the struggle between the Resurrection Crusade and the Damnation Army (the loose overarching plot that takes over halfway through), and a strange interlude featuring the Swamp Thing that I’m not really sure should have been included here. Constantine will take his licks and deal out some in return, even if it kills him. Or, more likely, even if it kills everyone he’s ever known….

I…had some issues with this. Some of these issues are clearly taste, while others are situational. Most frustrating for me, given my slight OCD over getting the whole story, is that this feels like you’re coming into the middle of the story despite it being the first volume. John Constantine was created as part of the Alan Moore run on Swamp Thing, and this spins out of that with Constantine reeling from the events of a particularly casualty-heavy story arc over there that is never really explained here. Also frustrating for me is the rather cynical view implicit to the events here that the forces of Heaven are no better than the forces of Hell. In fact, I would almost say that the Resurrection Crusade is more sinister than the Damnation Army! At least the forces of Hell are upfront about it–they’re demon’s! What do you expect? Look, I get that some televangelists are/were money-hungry frauds that give the rest of us Christians a bad name. That doesn’t mean you have to have to feature only the worst of the lot. Now, I do admit that it was not Heaven itself that was portrayed as sinister, but rather some of their earthly human agents, who don’t necessarily represent the will of God. It just rubbed me the wrong way, I suppose. I’m hoping this is handled better in the future. We’ll see. I could also do without the gratuitous commentary on ’80s British politics and social issues. I get it, there wasn’t a single British comic writer that approved of Margaret Thatcher! Can you stop slapping me in the face with it?

CONTENT: Quite a bit of language. No uses of the “F-Bomb” that I can recall/find, but everything else is used, including a heap of British profanity and slang. Harsh violence, occasionally torturous. Strong sexual content, including a rape and the implication of pedophilia (portrayed as horrific in both cases, not glorified), semi-explicit without going so far as outright nudity. Strong occult content, which should be obvious. Demons, spells, necromancy….it’s all here.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Comics/Graphic Novels, Reviews

Review: “Kingdom Come” by Mark Waid & Alex Ross

They called him the Man of Tomorrow, but for Superman tomorrow has come and gone. For all his physical superpowers, the most inspiring thing about the Man of Steel has always been his unflinching sense of right and wrong. No matter what, Superman will not kill or sanction the use of deadly force. Unfortunately, the world has moved on from these “quaint” and “outdated” ideals. Faced with a world that condoned the actions of “heroes” he considers to be murderers, Superman retired. Most of his compatriots followed suit, leaving the world to the protection of the next generation. The next generation has, however, grown out of control. Battles between so-called “heroes” rage through the streets, and collateral damage is of little concern. The humans once regarded the superhumans as gods, looked to them as saviors, but that trust has evaporated long ago. Now superhumans are mistrusted, even hated. And when a misguided battle gets out of hand with catastrophic consequences, pulling Superman and his old comrades out of retirement, events are set in motion that just may end the world as we know it….

With Kingdom Come (*****)Mark Waid writes an epic what-if tale here that asks a number of the most nagging questions that linger about a world of superheroes. Where is the line between hero and villain? Would the world be a better place if there were no superhumans? And most troubling to a man who has done nothing with his powers but try and make the Earth safe, is it possible that in saving them so often Superman has prevented mankind from reaching their full potential? Woven throughout the tale is a running commentary from the book of Revelation as The Spectre and a disenchanted preacher bear witness to the coming apocalypse. Paired with Mark Waid’s stellar writing is a visual feast painted by the inimitable Alex Ross. Ross’s style lends itself especially well to painting the DC Universe, as unlike his work on Marvels he doesn’t have as much Spandex to deal with and can focus on his strengths. I can honestly say that this is one of the most visually stunning works I have ever had the pleasure of reading.

Content: Appropriate for most readers, I think. Power Girl makes a brief appearance, but on the whole the costumes are pretty PG. Some violence, maybe mild language. Nothing too bad.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Comics/Graphic Novels, Reviews

Review: Bill Willingham’s “Fables,” Set I

Title: Fables
Writer: Bill Willingham
Artists: Various (See individual books on Goodreads for details)
Average Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: DC Comics, 2002-2005

What if all the characters from your beloved fairy tales lived here in our world, in New York City? Welcome to the world of Bill Willingham’s award-winning Vertigo series Fables. This review is for the first five collected volumes, or issues #1-33. (I decided against reviewing each individual volume on here due to spoilers and generally not having enough to say to justify a full-out write up. On the other hand, Willingham doesn’t play nicely with status quo, so my secondary plan to just blanket review the whole series fell through as well. Instead, I’m reviewing what I consider to be longer, mostly-contained story arcs–from one earthshaking change to the next. You can find links to my short reviews of the individual volumes below.)

The premise is simple. Centuries ago* all of the Fables were driven from their lands by The Adversary, winding up in our world. They congregated in the New World, setting up their own community among us where they have been living ever since in relative peace. As a founding principle of their community, all sins commited in the Homeland are forgiven–you start out in Fabletown with a clean slate. No one embodies this fact more than Bigby (Big Bad) Wolf, sheriff of Fabletown and one of the main protagonists of the series. There are others, of course–this is an ensemble book, and you will get stories featuring everyone from Snow White to Flycatcher and everyone in between. Willingham has created something truly awesome here, taking characters we all know, as well as less familiar ones like Bluebeard, and putting a different spin on them. I’ll avoid spoilers, for the most part here. Some memorable characters we are introduced to here include:

-Bigby “Big Bad” Wolf: Sheriff of Fabletown and a werewolf (or more accurately a werehuman, as a wolf is his original form.) In the Homelands he was a feared beast before the Adversary came, at which point he became a severe thorn in the enemy’s side.
-Snow White: Deputy Mayor of Fabletown, first ex-wife of Prince Charming. King Cole, the Mayor, handles the ceremony and gladhanding; Snow handles the dirty business of keeping things running.
-Prince Charming: A serial womanizer and ex-husband of a number of Fable princesses. He has been spending most of his time in Europe, mooching off of the royalty there, but seems to have outstayed his welcome….
-Jack: Rose Red’s feckless boyfriend, always up to one get-rich-quick scheme or another. Former owner of some magic beans, among other claims to fame.
-Bluebeard: The richest man in Fabletown. In the Homelands he had a habit of killing his wives on their wedding night. He can’t be charged for this given the General Amnesty that holds the Fables community together, but everyone can’t help but wonder if he has returned to old habits.
Other characters drop in and out, usually becoming important in later volumes. Beauty and the Beast make an appearance, still together although when Belle gets annoyed with him Beast’s curse will begin to reappear. Little Boy Blue shows up as Snow’s assistant, seemingly young but with a deep-seated tragedy in his past haunting him. Cinderella would seem to be nothing more than a local shop owner, but is in reality one of Fabletown’s most experienced black operatives. Assorted other fairy tale and nursery rhyme characters make up the supporting cast, from goblins to the Three Little Pigs. The tales in these first five volumes run the gamut, from a murder mystery to an attempted revolution, from an invasion to dealing with a Mundy who thinks he’s discovered their secret–the Fables are all vampires! I promise, you’ll have fun with this series. You can see the reviews for the individual collections below, but be forewarned that all but the first will have spoilers for the previous volumes….

Volume I: Fables In Exile (*****)
Volume II: Animal Farm (****)
Volume III: Storybook Love (*****)
Volume IV: March Of The Wooden Soldiers (*****)
Volume V: The Mean Seasons (****)

Content: This is a series from DC’s Vertigo line, intended for adults. Its firmly rated R, though maybe not so much as others from that house such as Preacher or anything written by Alan Moore. R-rated language, not on the level of a Tarantino flick, but assorted uses of the “F-bomb.” There’s not infrequent violence, and sometimes it can be a bit gory or disturbing. Sexual content also sometimes shows up, with occasional nudity. Some magic, but given the fairy tale setting I wouldn’t really describe it as “occult.”

*It would seem that the Fables are functionally immortal, though they can be killed.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Comics/Graphic Novels, Reviews