BY AARON BLOCK
[At the end of each month, Aaron surveys the comics he read, celebrates the best, considers the rest, and takes stock of what it means to be a contemporary comic fan.]
The title blurb on the cover of Detective Comics #878 reads “The Villainy of Tiger Shark,” but the issue is really about villainy of another sort—a less ostentatious form of evil that wears a face you wouldn’t necessarily pick out of a crowd. Batman’s world is unique in that it contains both theatrical criminals with outlandish costumes and realistic street crime. Some writers seem to choose one or the other to focus on (Bill Finger and Alan Grant the former, Frank Miller the latter) while others (Grant Morrison and Jeph Loeb) consider both sides, exploring the boundaries between the ordinary and the fantastic. Scott Snyder, whose run on Detective is coming to a close, is among that last group, though he has dispensed with classic Bat-villains like the Joker, Two-Face, or the Penguin, and instead created his own murderous eccentrics to juxtapose against the more mundane, but far more terrifying, “is he or isn’t he” evil of Commissioner Gordon’s estranged son, James. Jr.
Detective #878 opens with Dick Grayson’s Batman suspended from chains over a water tank that contains a monstrous killer whale, which takes big Shamu-like leaps at him, jaws open. Tiger Shark, the story’s nominal villain, is a pirate and drug/weapons trafficker who wears a red scarf over his eyes and a wardrobe derived entirely of ocean-dwelling animals. He speaks exclusively through his attendant thugs, any of whom he’s willing to kill on a whim. There’s some grandiose talk about Tiger Shark’s lineage and whether he may be part of an Illuminati-type ancient society, but all that is abandoned as soon as Batman escapes the trap. The action is gratifying and immaculately rendered by series penciller Jock, and ends on a nice moment of Dick clinging to a buoy, and narrating exactly what kind of physical trials he had to endure just to get there. The hero endures, as always.
Then Snyder articulates the end of the action sequence by jumping suddenly to Dick keeping his promise to Gordon by meeting with James Jr. It’s a satisfying move for anyone who’s been reading the title and knows this has been building for a few months. Beyond that, it also keys Dick back into the plot that seemed to float away unresolved in the previous sequence, and it sets up a Dashiell Hammett-style confrontation with Sonia Branch, with Dick solving the mystery while recognizing that he’d been played. That much layering and interconnectivity alone would be worthy of praise, but Snyder does triple duty, using the final two pages to introduce some incredibly gruesome violence, and evidence that Batman has been used as a pawn yet again. I won’t step on the reveal, but it’s definitely a turning point for this arc.
Snyder’s story is unfolding just like a year long story should – steadily, without dragging any plot points out unnecessarily, and without giving away too much up front. The James Jr. plot has been building since the first issue of the arc, but it’s always been interlaced with the other mysteries Batman is solving, with time given over (particularly issue 875) to explore the overarching plot in greater depth. Every plot point feeds into the others, and all are driving towards a conclusion that’s unknowable by design. With most superhero comics we can predict at least part of the ultimate outcome—good will win out over evil, even if sacrifices are made along the way. But Detective Comics #878 promises little outside of a grim, painful reckoning.
The Rocketeer Adventures #2 boasts another top-flight lineup of creators, including Mark Waid, Chris Weston, Darwyn Cooke, and Gene Ha. Cooke’s is the strongest entry—on the first page he establishes the story as a middle chapter of an old movie serial about the Rocketeer, slyly commenting on the character’s origin as an homage to exactly those kind of adventure stories. The first page uses eight panels simulating a theater screen (complete with silhouetted heads of enthusiastic audience members) and black and white coloring to recap the previous “episodes.” The story continues in full panels and superb color (provided by Dave Stewart, who colors ever page of the issue, including Geoff Darrow’s pin-up) with a light-hearted adventure that has Betty, Cliff’s girlfriend, donning his helmet, jacket, and rocketpack (and not much else) and learning to fly in order to save his life. Waid and Weston turn in a similarly fun tale that puts Cliff in the middle of a copyright dispute over a popular superhero character (a reference to Siegel & Shuster, Kirby, Simon, et al.) Waid’s WWII-era dialogue is a bit overdone, but his story works and Weston’s clean linework owes a clear debt to the Rocketeer’s creator, Dave Stevens. Gene Ha’s art in the final story makes the most of the nighttime setting, and writer Lowell Francis offers a take on the character that emphasizes adventure over comedy. All of that is rounded out by a gorgeous pin-up from Geoff Darrow. This is a step-up from last month’s issue; I’m eager to see what talent IDW has gathered for next month.
So it turns out that all this time Butcher Baker the Righteous Maker—the kinetic, hyperviolent, absurdist take on a patriotic superhero by way of Die Hard—is actually a meditation on aging and denial. Issue 4 sees Baker, having dispatched one of the cadre of villains out to avenge their attempted assassination, having what seems to be disengaged sex with a former ally when the villains attack once more. While sex leads Baker to recall his abandonment of superheroics and question his role in the world, violence brings him confidence and clarity of purpose—even better that the violence is meaningless, and predicated on his blind adherence to an authority he no longer truly believes in. The opening flashback, of Baker losing his faith during the first Gulf War, is spectacular if for no other reason than the image of a red, white, and blue semi-truck cab parked in the desert with oil fires raging in the background and a super-powered alligator wrestler in a wrestling outfit unconscious on the ground. That writer Joe Casey is able to capture both tones—utter absurdity and existential dread—is key to the title’s success. It’s not a pessimistic book; Baker shares his dilemma with mainstream comics as a whole, and Casey seems to be trying to clutch the heart of his medium and squeeze it back to life. That he has the versatile, graceful Mike Huddleston along to provide the visuals makes achieving that goal all the more likely.
Artist Mirco Pierfederici returns for the fourth and final issue of Ruse, his and Mark Waid’s Sherlock Holmes pastiche. Though I feel four issues is too abbreviated a space for Waid to have really built the compelling, intricate clockwork mystery that the characters deserve, his development of the two leads’ clashing personalities make this a satisfying mini nonetheless. Waid chooses to resolve the subplot of Simon’s refusal to acknowledge Emma as an equal in the midst of battle with his nemesis, rather than shunting it to the final pages, further proving the deep humanity of his writing. Pierfederici’s nuanced, figurative penciling is a perfect fit for a story that’s set in a kind of alternate Victorian era, not to mention his dark coloring palette that evokes our historical memory of that time. I did note that Waid missed a rather obvious opportunity to critique imperialism in the denoument, considering the crown offers up all of India as the villain’s ransom, but perhaps he’ll tackle that in a future installment of Ruse.
Batman, Incorpated #7 returns to the format established in the first two issues, dispatching Bruce Wayne to a reservation (its unclear where, exactly) to recruit Man-of-Bats and his son/sidekick Red Raven into the Batman, Inc. concept. Artist Chris Burnham digs into the Man-of-Bats character, his exaggerated musculature conveying not merely his physical strength, but the strength of his convictions as a kind of populist superhero, fighting for a better life for his people. Writer Grant Morrison returns to the kind of activist-hero he perfected in his run on Animal Man in the late 80s with this issue, juxtaposing the “local” hero against Batman’s now global presence. The two “Batman on a budget” heroes don’t formally join up with Bruce, who happily acknowledges the value of their particular battle, and how it relates to his own—once again, Morrison refuses to deal in either/or terms, preferring instead to see infinite variety in his superhero comics.
Though DC’s Flashpoint event officially began last month, with the first issue of the central mini-series, June saw the first wave of the various side minis and one-shots that flesh out the rest of the altered universe in which the story takes place. I like the idea of exploring interesting side-stories through other titles, but there are far too many titles for me to read all of them, not to mention I’m only really interested in a handful. Overall I’m enjoying the titles, though the main series still feels a bit slow to start. Here’s a quick rundown:
Flashpoint #2 – The ending was genuine surprise, and the Wonder Woman sequence build some tension, but this issue feels too much like a Flash miniseries that happens to involve someother characters. If this weren’t an “event” book that might not be a problem, but there isn’t enough happening, and the stakes feel inflated. Hopefully Geoff Johns and Andy Kubert will offer a change of scenery in next month’s issue.
The Canterbury Cricket #1 – A one-shot profiling a member of the Resistance fighters, who happens to be a brash English youth transformed into a mutant cricket by Saint Swithun. It’s as odd as it sounds, but only half as fun as it could’ve been. Rags Morales’ art is on par with his best work, which has me excited for his run on Action Comics with Grant Morrison in September.
Deadman and the Flying Graysons #1 – I like how writer J.T. Krul brings disparate DC characters together as a kind of odd circus family in this title. Mikel Janin’s art is a bit static, but his figures certainly look good in their poses.
Project Superman #1 – Scott Snyder and Lowell Francis turn in an odd tale of how the government responds to the combined Amazonian/Atlantean threat, and gives us an example to see how Superman’s power becomes a force of chaos when unmoored from his humanity. This is definitely the most unusual of the series I read, and the one with the most potential to grow into something greater than the event itself.
Frankenstein and the Creatures of the Unknown #1 – The most popular character to emerge from Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers maxi-series, Frankenstein makes a welcome appearance in the Flashpoint universe. Writer Jeff Lemire has a good handle on the steampunk-barbarian tone that makes the character so much fun to read, and penciller Ibrahim Roberson wedges in a lot of gory detail. The Creature Commandos are maybe a bit too jokey, but I’m curious to see if the tone shifts next month.
The Outsider #1 – This title seems to have the least connection back to the normal DC Universe, which suggests that James Robinson has a bit more room to maneuver in creating a compellingly nasty character who is supposed to be a hero. In fact, that freedom might be just what Robinson needs to really stretch the narrative muscles that he’s been slowly regaining in the pages of Justice League of America.
Lois Lane and the Resistance #1 – The only title I won’t be picking up next month. The concept is promising (surely there’s room for a solid Lois Lane book on the shelves) but the execution is flat. Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning are reliable writers, but the story is rushed and seems to be built on some major lapses in logic. And Eddie Nunez’s art is all wrong for this title—elastic and slick when it needs to be a bit shadowy and uneasy.
Secret Seven #1 – Writer Peter Milligan’s return to the character he’s most commonly associated with, Shade the Changing Man, is a strange mix of surrealism and exposition, which doesn’t entirely sit well together. The legendary George Perez is on hand to provide pencils (though Fernando Blanco fills in on the last four pages) and he acquits himself with some unusual framing, but it just doesn’t connect at the narrative level. Both of these creators are capable of producing interesting work so I’m looking for this title to find its voice next month.
Batman: Knight of Vengeance #1 – Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso, the writer-artist team behind 100 Bullets, Batman: Hungry City, and the upcoming Spaceman return to Batman with a moody tale of how an aging Thomas Wayne (father of Bruce, who was killed as a boy in this reality) blends his lives as a casino magnate and violent vigilante. The fight with Killer Croc is an effective bit of action, but this series is building to something deeper, and more unsettling. I’m enjoying this one the most, by far.
I’ve only read Scott Snyder’s American Vampire intermittently, but I picked up the first issue of spin-off miniseries American Vampire: Survival of the Fittest due to the gorgeous art from Sean Murphy.
Writer Judd Winick continues his Jason Todd/Red Hood story in Batman and Robin #24 with some solid characterization and a bizarre fight scene involving mercenary man-beast hybrids.
Batman: Gates of Gotham makes further use of the first issue’s seesawing narrative structure and delivers some nice character moments between Robin and Cassandra Cain, plus a twist ending that makes the central mystery all the more compelling.
Dark Horse Presents #2 offers excellent second chapters of “Concrete,” “Finder,” and “Snow Angel,” plus more of Neal Adams’s nonsensical “Blood” and a few new stories that were intriguing but don’t have me eager for the next episode.
Artist Shawn Crystal fills in for Kyle Baker on DeadpoolMAX #9, but Baker’s absence is felt in every panel—the story of Hydra Bob’s bachelor party is fun, but without Baker’s cartooning and comic timing it just feels flat, particularly in comparison to the earlier issues.
David Lapham, a favorite of this column, drops by House of Mystery #38 to lend his pencils to this issue’s short story, about Harry’s tumultuous relationship with Lotus Blossom—and in the main story we get a major reveal about the Conception’s identity, which really can’t have beeen a surprise to anyone at this point.
My favorite new character of 2011, Charlie Hustle, gets his ultra-violent moment in the spotlight in Incorruptible #19, which is quite grim. And in Irredeemable #26 the Plutonian continues to gather his makeshift posse as he treks to the center of the prison planet, even touching on an odd S&M beat with a female inmate who projects her physical pain onto others.
Justice League of America #58 takes an unusual turn as Batman reveals his master plan—writer James Robinson plays with time to interesting effect, but it strains the dialogue and gives the preparations a stilted tone.
Writer David Hine and artist Moritat return to The Spirit with issue fifteen, telling another immaculately crafted story of a fatal love, this time between The Spirit and a villainness who wants to kiss him as much as kill him.
Artists Mike Grell and Nick Dragota are back to render the flashback sequences (70s and 60s, respectively) in T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #8, which is reason to enough to celebrate without even mentioning the quiet, but surprisingly violent main story.
Venom’s first story arc comes to a close in issue four, which delivers round two of the big fight between Venom and Spider-Man in Tony Moore’s wonderfully detailed pencils.
Xombi #4 is an exposition bomb, but writer John Rozum and artist Frazer Irving handle it in the best possible way, using cleverly laid-out flashback sequences, floating talking heads, and some genuinely funny moments to make the back story visually exciting.
Zatanna #14 is of a piece with the rest of the series—easily digestible fun, with some clean pencil work courtesy of Jamal Igle.
Looking Ahead to July
More from the Flashpoint universe, of course, plus the final regular issue of The Spirit (sniff), Jonathan Hickman’s The Red Wing, and Mark Waid, Paolo Rivera, and Marcos Martin on Daredevil!