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SPECTACULAR BATMAN

I said some weeks ago that I was “off” superhero comic books. The narratives have become increasingly banal. But I can be sucked in — f’instance, for the New 52's Detective Comics No.35. The art. The drawing on the cover pulled me in: corpses weren’t enough by themselves—in fact, they look so much like zombies that I’d have been turned off were it not for the tiny figure of Batman at the end of the converging perspective lines. Then comes the interior. Spectacular.

 From the first two panels on the first page, John Paul Leon has me hooked.

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The stunning use of a negative silhouette duplicating the near positive silhouette. Then the sheer pictorial detail in the third panel. Finally, the deeply shadowed face of Bruce Wayne. All promise so far, but Leon’s promise turns pictorially engaging as the story unfolds.             

An airliner lands and goes rolling on into airport buildings—which event Leon draws with painstaking attention to every detail. But that’s not all.

Throughout, his chiaroscuro plunges all the action into deep shadow — in the manner of famed Milton Caniff, but more so. Caniff never did black-soaked scenes like these.

 

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But, like Caniff, Leon often gives us a panel with no background at all for sheer contrast. Amid the shadows in the two-page spread nearby, detail still abounds: notice the oxygen masks dangling from the ceiling of the aircraft.

This issue, the first of a two-issue series entitled “Terminal,” is all set-up. The airplane’s crash goes on for pages, moving in slow motion across the “screen,” the disintegrating terminal building coming apart as we watch, almost step-by-step, while the giant aircraft noses its way through the debris as it creates it. Then when the authorities go inside the aircraft to see what happened, Batman joins them. All the passengers are dead. The pilot is dead. The co-pilot is dead. Batman thinks they all died at take-off, eight hours ago. That means, “We have eight hours,” he says cryptically. Eight hours “until we’re all dead.”

And the last page of this issue confirms his verdict: Magnus Magnuson, rogue NGO worker, shows up in a video delivered to the television news, and he pronounces that when Batman and the cops opened the door to the crashed airplane, they “opened a diseased coffin,” and “Gotham International Airport will soon become a cemetery.”

Spook stuff. Not usually my cup of tea. But I’ll be back for more Leon.

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

NEW TEAM ON BATGIRL

Batgirl, starting with No. 35, is more “hip,” saith David Betancourt at the Washington Post. New writers Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher focus equally on Barbara Gordon’s social life and her costumed crime-fighting life. And she’s moving to a new neighborhood — “a younger, hip part of the city where texting is the first option for communication; hook-ups are random and frequent; major crime includes tablet theft in coffee shops (and there’s lots of coffee in the issue). ...” And a new artist, Barb Tarr, with an “energetic art style, brings a new twist to classic designs” for wardrobe and the like.

The new Batgirl lives up to Betancourt’s hype persuasively. And it doesn’t take long to get us into the new ambiance: on page 3, Barbara (“Babs”), having awakened with a hangover from the previous night’s party in her new apartment, wanders into the living room in her sleeping costume — a t-shirt and panties — and, encountering a new, male, face among her female roommates, quickly tries to cover herself up (her lower self). Cute. And very natural. Then it develops that she and the bare-chested Adonis were “all over each other last night.” Did they hook up? Did they do the deed?

Apparently not, as it turns out. But this opening sequence certainly sets up a whole different atmosphere for Batgirl’s adventures.

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And from there, we get a short mystery with Batgirl defeating a taller, heavier male miscreant at hand-to-hand combat.

Then, just to get us to return for No.36, Babs learns that somehow the Internet has divulged her crime-fighting identity.

Tarr’s art is refreshingly crisp and clean, a nice bold flexing line. The girls’ (young women’s) faces are pert and cute (although lots of noses look alike), and together with Steward, who (it sez here) handles the breakdowns, Tarr constructs a two-page panorama of the party scene last night to show Babs wandering figuratively, imaginatively, through the crowd, as she tries to remember what happened and who was there, hoping thereby to figure out who might’ve swiped her computer. Excellent novelty. And a good storytelling device, too.

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Yes, I’ll be back.

But I’m not sure “hip” is the right word to use in describing Batgirl’s new life style. “Hip” derives from “hipster,” and the notion belongs to Norman Mailer who, a half-century ago,  conjured up the term while writing for the Village Voice (unless memory deceives me, which it sometimes does). All of which assigns “hip” to a generation much older than those depicted in this book.

“Millennial” might be better, lately defined as embracing anyone born between 1980 and 2000. Or maybe Net Generation, the mobile-dependent people.

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

FIRST ISSUE: THE OCTOBER FACTION

An admirable first issue must, above all else, contain such matter as will compel a reader to buy the second issue. At the same time, while provoking curiosity through mysteriousness, a good first issue must avoid being so mysterious as to be cryptic or incomprehensible. And, thirdly, it should introduce the title’s principals, preferably in a way that makes us care about them. Fourth, a first issue should include a complete “episode”—that is, something should happen, a crisis of some kind, which is resolved by the end of the issue, without, at the same time, detracting from the cliffhanger aspect of the effort that will compel us to buy the next issue.

The October Faction coverThe debut issue of Steve Niles’ The October Faction is another I won’t pick up again. And that’s too bad because I like a lot his Criminal Macabre series (much credit to the highly individual but engaging artwork styled by Christopher Mitten).  Although tantalizingly illustrated with a quirky but appealing line and colored by Damien Worm, The October Faction is almost an object lesson in how not to do a first issue. There are too many characters, for one thing—which is all right but not, as Niles does here, if their relationship to each other and to some overarching dilemma is not clearly indicated. We meet bickering Phil and Geoff in the first few pages; they may be brothers, but I can’t tell for sure. But the end of the book, I realize that Geoff has a sister named Vivian; and their father, Frederick, is a college professor, teaching a course in monsters.

In the longest segment (of three) in the book, Fred’s brother Lucas visits him, and the two reminisce about their past “business.” Neither is still active in it, and we don’t know what it is/was. Perhaps it has to do with monsters? Killing them? Hunting them down? And who are the Harlows? Victims of a “double homicide”?

At the end, Vivian visits Geoff, who has captured a ghoul by tracing one of those demon circles on the floor. Then we see Deloris, Fred’s wife (about whom Lucas came to warn him) as she drives up to what appears to be a storage shed and tries to awaken a corpse she finds there in a coffin. That’s the cliffhanger.

But as a device for creating suspense, this issue is merely a page-turner: it has no more imperative than a page waiting to be turned: we turn pages because books have pages that are to be turned. It’s structural. No inherent story content propels an interest in discovering what might be on the next page. Ditto here.

The only thing that might pass for a complete episode is the conversation between Fred and Lucas, but that’s so saturated with mystery and ambiguous allusions that we cannot make much sense of it. Consequently, it is of no use in acquainting us with the personalities of either of the characters.

Apparently — to piece together something from the spooky segments herein — the book is about monsters and monster hunting. This issue introduces us to the principal actors. But there is, as yet, no evidence of a plot. Apart from a sort of general curiosity about what might happen next, there’s no compulsion without a plot: a plot usually implies some sort of threat to the status quo. None appears here.

And we don’t like any of the characters — they’re simply mysteries. All mysteries demand solutions, but mystery alone is not enough to persuade me to read on. I must also have an interest in one of the characters shrouded in or engulfed by the mystery. And we don’t get to know any of this gaggle well enough to be interested in them.

Finally, the coloring by Worm is much too dark. Although his drawings are attractive, we can see almost nothing of them because he has shrouded the tale in shadow so deep it’s dark as a moonless night. What might spark our interest, the pleasure of seeing his art, is thereby spoiled, its purpose frustrated.

           

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

FIRST ISSUE: MEN OF WRATH

An admirable first issue must, above all else, contain such matter as will compel a reader to buy the second issue. At the same time, while provoking curiosity through mysteriousness, a good first issue must avoid being so mysterious as to be cryptic or incomprehensible. And, thirdly, it should introduce the title’s principals, preferably in a way that makes us care about them. Fourth, a first issue should include a complete “episode”—that is, something should happen, a crisis of some kind, which is resolved by the end of the issue, without, at the same time, detracting from the cliffhanger aspect of the effort that will compel us to buy the next issue.

Men of Wrath coverIn the first issue of Men of Wrath, we become acquainted with the brutal history of the Rath family, chiefly, that of Ira Rath, who is a professional killer who learns he has cancer. His next assignment is apparently to kill his own son, Reuben, who is a blunderer of a thief. Will he or won’t he? That’s the question that this issue poses, creating the suspense that presumably will nudge us into buying the second issue.

Me? Probably not. The opening incident in the book gives us a complete episode. My criteria include a complete episode because such maneuvers show us the personality of the title’s protagonist, and we like and/or care for him/her as a consequence. But our appreciation of Ira Rath is scarcely fostered by this episode, which depicts him killing several members of a family, including an infant child. I don’t think I want to know any more about this guy — or his fate or that of his son. It’ll all be about as gloomy as this book, meticulously drawn by Ron Garney with a fine and unerring line and colored into dim recesses by Matt Milla.

Writer Jason Aaron says the book is inspired by his own family history in a long bloody cycle of Southern violence, “one that’s been passed down from father to son over the course of a century ... [and] will only end when everyone dies.”

Grim stuff. Serious artistic vision. But too brutal for my taste, thanks.

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

ARCHIE DIES A HEROIC DEATH

Death of Archive Blam!The death of Archie was accomplished last summer in the three concluding issues of the mini-series Life with Archie, Nos.35-37. As repeatedly predicted and strenuously advertised, Archie dies a hero’s death in No.36: he throws himself in front of Senator Kevin Keller, the target of a gun nut who objects to Keller’s gun control stance. Taking the bullet meant for Kevin, Archie dies in minutes, lying on the ground in front of all his Riverdale friends, including Veronica and Betty, his erstwhile wives in the alternative universe created in the Life with Archie series.

The death lives up to the hype that heralded it, no question; but the manner of its accomplishment is a minor miracle of comic book writing by Paul Kupperberg ably assisted by cartoonists Pat and Tim Kennedy and Fernando Ruiz with bold inks by Jim Amash, Bob Smith and Gary Martin.

The three crucial issues of the series must accomplish three things: 1) the crises in Archie’s separate marriages to Veronica and Betty must be resolved in order to clear the narrative deck for his sacrificial death; 2) the two marital storylines must be melded into the one in which Archie is killed; and 3) Archie’s life and death must be given some meaning. All three are achieved in Kupperberg’s artful manipulation of narrative and medium.

Both marital storylines are combined into one narrative through the blindingly simple device of ignoring that they ever existed as separate stories. A steady strand of purposeful ambiguity threads its way through the issue. It begins with Archie jogging and reflecting on his life, thinking, “There I was, exactly where I needed to be with exactly who I always knew I wanted at my side.” The faces of Veronica and Betty hover over him as he thinks this, but he never tells us who, exactly, it is that he always knew he wanted at his side.

Jogging down Memory Lane, Archie reflects on his family: he has a son and daughter, and when he gets home, we meet them both, but when his wife shows up, we see her from the neck down — her face, her identity, out of our ken. And we don’t see her that evening at a fund-raiser Kevin Keller is sponsoring to get money to help support the survivors of a recent shooting at Southport Mall.

Archie Death of an IconThe shooter is still on the loose, so Senator Keller is accompanied by a couple FBI types, but as the issue’s tragic moment approaches, the agent closest to the shooter is distracted by a guy in a hoodie and overlooks the real threat. (An indicting aside to those days in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death when it was believed in some quarters that everyone in a hoodie was suspect.) The confusion of the moment is well-staged by Kupperberg and pencillers Pat and Tim Kennedy, who offer a jumble of panels, pictures mostly without words shifting focus rapidly from one aspect of the developing scene to another.

Apart from the personal tragedies represented in the story of Archie’s death, the episode is a ringing condemnation of gun violence, a surprisingly emphatic point of view for Archie Comics, which has historically avoided political issues and resolutely trod the middle road.

The next and final issue of the series, No.37, takes place, we are told, a year after Archie’s death. The publisher’s political agenda is on full view — gun control, gay and women’s rights, education, and minimum wage. But most of the issue is devoted to vignettes of Archie’s childhood and youth in which it is demonstrated that the eponymous hero — a classic all-American good guy — is “a product of a caring community.”

And then Riverdale High School is renamed Archie Andrews High School.

Archie has become an icon.

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

YESTERYEAR: PART ONE

As you might expect, I dote on old cartoons. And to find them, I periodically browse issues of old magazines. During one of those rituals, I found in a 1956 Collier’s the cartoon at hand, undoubtedly one of the earliest Gahan Wilson cartoons, published (as it sez there) in August 31, 1956, well over a year before Wilson became a regular at Playboy. (His first cartoon for Playboy was published in December 1957.)

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The cartoon on display here may not be the first Wilson cartoon in a mainstream magazine, but it’s in the neighborhood. And Collier’s has a particular significance for Wilson.

Wilson moved from his hometown Chicago to New York’s Greenwich Village in 1954 or 1955, and he began pounding the pavement, visiting magazine cartoon editors every week on “look day.” (It was Wednesday in those days that cartoonists in the vicinity brought their work in to submit and sell in person.) It was the heyday of magazine cartooning, and scores of magazines had offices in New York, so visiting all of them in one day was a genuine marathon. Wilson was able to sell enough cartoons to the “teeny, tacky crummy magazines” at the bottom of the pay scale to support himself. But he couldn’t seem to crack into any of the big glossy periodicals that paid well — Saturday Evening Post, Look, True, Collier’s.

The editors of those magazines, he told Fantagraphics’ Gary Groth in an interview published in Fantagraphics’ retrospective of Wilson’s Playboy cartoons, all laughed at his cartoons but wouldn’t buy any, saying, “They’re funny, but our readers wouldn’t understand them.”

Wilson’s big break came when the cartoon editor at Collier’s left, and another editor, not a cartoon specialist, took his place temporarily. This untutored temp, Wilson said, “didn’t realize that my stuff wouldn’t be understood by the readers out there. He laughed, thought this is great stuff and he bought bunches.” He was relying on his own taste and comedic sensibilities — not on some mythical concept of readership foisted off on every editor.

Once his cartoons started appearing in Collier’s, Wilson started selling elsewhere, too: when cartoonists got their work published in Collier’s, editors at other magazines realized that they were “acceptable” and so they start buying from those cartoonists. “And that’s how I got into the big time,” Wilson finished.

Meanwhile, in Chicago one of the editors of those other magazines was watching Wilson’s work in Collier’s. Hugh Hefner. And when Wilson during a Christmas visit to his parents in Chicago dropped in at Playboy, thinking he could sell something to Harvey Kurtzman for Trump — and finding out that Trump’s office was actually in New York — Hefner told him he’d been waiting for him. Soon, a Wilson cartoon was in every issue of Playboy.

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

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For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com