BY AARON BLOCK

[At the end of every 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.]


Spotlight

Batman Incorporated #1

Leading up to the publication of last month’s Batman Incorporated #1, written by Grant Morrison and drawn by Chris Burnham, I read a lot of speculation about how accessible the title would be to new readers. Morrison has been writing his Batman story for six years, and this is the first issue (though not exactly, it’s just the beginning of the latest story arc, and DC opted to renumber the title to avoid confusion with the rest of the relaunched New 52 titles. Interested readers can browse the State of My Pull List archives for my write-up of the first Batman Incorporated #1, from less than two years ago) so I understand the hesitation from uninitiated readers not eager to spend $3 on something they wouldn’t understand to begin with.

And while I appreciate accessibility, in the current reading climate it’s come to stand for purity and honesty, the golden mean for a good comic. Anything that could possibly stand in the way of a new (read: young) reader picking it up and becoming a fan is destructive to the medium, an example of an industry that caters to a dwindling base of aging fans and ignores everyone else. In one breath, these voices demand complex, “literary” storytelling and deride the simplicity of the meet-and-fight model.

There’s room for both, obviously, but not always all at once. To those readers concerned that the reputed difficulty of Grant Morrison’s scripts would prevent them from jumping on at this late stage, I can only recommend that they go back to the beginning and catch up via the various trade paperbacks, hardcovers, and digital collections of the run. DC does new readers a disservice by putting a #1 on the cover of this issue – not because it’s hostile to new readers (it isn’t – the writing is lucid and the plot straightforward) but because it suggests that the third act is a starting point. Serialized storytelling in any medium is vulnerable to latecomer confusion, but AMC is decent enough not to rename Man Men after each season to lure in a wave of new viewers who are going to be confounded when they discover several plot lines already in play. Complex stories deserve to be read in whole, and there are few superhero stories more involving and recursive than Morrison’s Bat epic.

The issue itself begins with a provocation – Bruce Wayne, standing at his parents’ gravesite telling Alfred that “it’s over. Batman. All of it. This madness is over” before surrendering to Commissioner Gordon and a small army of police. A page turn later and we’ve moved back to a month before, with business as usual – Batman and Robin in pursuit of a masked criminal. The juxtaposition of the reliable superhero chase scene and the Gothic drama of the opening scene lends the rest of the comic an edge of instability. Morrison is essentially telling the reader that the incident is less important than how the incident fits into the story he’s been developing all along. That the first scene is an inverted call back to the opening panel of the “Batman R.I.P.” arc (shadow-encased Batman and Robin figures shouting “Batman and Robin will never die!”) confirms how much each new plot point relies on everything that’s come before.

Despite the ominous opening and an ending that leaves one character presumed dead, the issue is full of light moments, the most celebrated being Robin’s sudden (but understandable) turn to vegetarianism following a fight in a slaughterhouse, and his adoption of “Bat-cow.” Another scene with English Batman, Inc. member The Hood picking up his costume (“perv suit” as he calls it) and accessing the secret headquarters of the team in a San Francisco fetish-wear shop underscores the affectionate humor that Morrison brings to his best superhero work.

Chris Burnham returns for art duties, and once more proves he’s the perfect artist for this book. His Batman is a wrecking ball, hulking and heavy as he moves through panels; meanwhile, his Robin is a child, not the tiny adult that some artists draw, and is appropriately light and fluid. In one panel, the bottom of page 18, Burnham has Robin flipping and flying in a circle, attacking twelve gang members at once in a complete, continuous Moebius strip of action. And his panels are packed with detail, which suits Morrison’s storytelling and compels close second and third reads of the issue that reveal gags, like the blood splatter in the shape of a bat symbol or the bat-shaped patch of dark fur around Bat-Cow’s eyes, or scene details that could become crucial plot points in subsequent issues.

Burnham is often compared to Frank Quitely, Morrison’s uber collaborator and one of Burnham’s obvious influences, but his contribution to this title is far more than being the go-to when Quitely is too busy. He brings a brutal weight to the comic that is particularly crucial to the final act of the story, the escalation of Leviathan’s war on Batman, Inc.

To return for a moment to the issue of accessibility – if I’d picked up Batman Incorporated #1 as a younger reader, barely initiated into comics and mostly familiar with Batman from cartoons and rerurns of the 60’s show, what would I find in those 20 pages? Bruce Wayne giving up as Batman, a fight in a meat packing facility, Bat-Cow, an underground team of heroes who faked their deaths in order to work in secret, another fight scene, and a villain with a skeleton face. I might not understand it all, but that’s more than enough to bring me back next month, and inspire me to track down as much of what came before as I could. An “accessible” comic, no matter how simple or complex, is a comic that makes you want to keep reading; by that metric, Batman Incorporated #1 is as accessible as it gets.


Solid Reads

Grant Morrison fans had a good May. Not only did Batman Incorporated return after a lengthy hiatus, but the writer also delivered maybe his best issue of Action Comics yet. The gap between story arcs is an opportunity to elaborate on some ideas from earlier in the series and have a little fun at the same time, and Morrison uses Action Comics #9 to broach the idea of the multiverse and introduce the Superman of Earth-23 to the new continuity. Last seen in Morrison’s crossover event Final Crisis, this Superman, a black man named Calvin Ellis, is also the President of the United States who fights super-villains in between Cabinet meetings. It’s interesting to read the Obama-analogue Superman now, after almost a full term of the real Obama’s presidency. The initial rush of turnover and optimism of Obama’s election in 2009 made the character’s sudden appearance in Final Crisis feel triumphant, but in this issue he is embattled, confronted not with a physical threat but a rampaging idea that he can only defeat with the help of his nemesis, Lex Luthor. On top of all that, the story is also a parable about corporate-owned comics and the plight of creators. It’s a dense issue, a quintessential Morrison comic, and a nice change of pace for the title.

A far different Superman story begins this month in Superman Family Adventures #1 by Art Baltazar and Franco. Aimed more clearly at a younger audience, the issue follows Superman and friends (Supergirl, Superboy, Krypto, plus Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen) fighting a trio of Lex Luthor’s robotic minions. It’s light, and full of comic details like Lex Luthor’s pet mouse Fuzzy (who betrays the villain in the end and joins the Super-Pets) and a side story about Jimmy running out to get coffee for Perry White in the middle of a super-robot attack. Baltazar’s art is simple but endlessly expressive, perfectly suited for kids comics but intricate and charming enough for all readers. And his repartee with co-writer Franco (also on display every week in the Aw Yeah! Podcast, which I wrote about in a recent C4 Recommends) gives it a distinct voice, nestled between a fan’s fondness for the past and a kid’s open-minded embrace of the Superman concept. Superman Family Adventures seem to be self-contained stories, so it doesn’t need to be a monthly read but it’s nice to add some bright colors and exclamation points to the pull list every once in a while.

Superman also features heavily in Earth 2 #1, one of the “Second Wave” titles of the new DC publishing slate. Written by James Robinson and drawn by Nicola Scott, Earth 2 brings the multiverse concept into the relaunched continuity, positing an alternate Earth where the heroes we’re familiar with are slightly altered. Gardner Fox created the Earth-2 concept in the early 60s to explain the existence of two different Flashes (Barry Allen, the Silver Age Flash, and Jay Garrick, the Flash of the Golden Age) in the publisher’s history. All of the Golden Age heroes, including the original Flash and Green Lantern, not to mention Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, were said to live on an Earth in an alternate reality that vibrated at a slightly different frequency than “our” Earth, populated by the then-contemporary heroes. What started as an excuse for continuity-building eventually became a fan-favorite concept, and so Robinson, who has shown a particular predilection for writing the Golden Age characters in titles like Starman and The Golden Age, is given an entire universe to populate with stories and characters not beholden to any established continuity. And he starts with the boldest move of all – the first issue features Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman sacrificing themselves to stop an alien invasion (the same invasion depicted in the first six issues of the Justice League). By removing those three characters from the board with so little ceremony and build up Robinson violates the ultimate taboo and significantly expands the story potential. And Scott’s brisk, detailed pencils are perfectly suited to this kind of world-destroying superhero action. Comics that claim “no rules, no expectations” are a dime a dozen; here’s hoping Robinson and Scott deliver on the promise of this issue.

Matt Kindt’s MIND MGMT #1, from Dark Horse Comics, is a “pure” comic, in the sense that the comic itself is a kind of artifact of the story, and every element of its production has an echo in the narrative. Kindt has worked on the fringe of mainstream comics for over a decade, publishing the graphic novels Pistolwhip and Super Spy with Top Shelf, and doing guest work and mini-series gigs with DC and other publishers. His sensibility is a little off-beat, evident in every aspect of this book, including the paper quality and the “advertisement” on the back cover. The issue introduces us to MIND MGMT, a clandestine espionage agency that somehow makes use of psychic and clairvoyant abilities to do…something. Kindt reveals some of the back story in a black and white strip that runs on the inside front and back covers, and in light blue text that runs along the side of the pages that, at first blush, looks like the instructional language you’d see on a Scantron form, or something equally mundane. The story contained in the pages follows Meru, an author desperate to follow-up on the success of her first novel, but lacking inspiration until she hears a news report about the anniversary of a mysterious mass amnesia incident. It’s clear the threads are somehow related, but Kindt is clearly playing a formal game with his readers, asking us to digest the entire text, including the conventions we’re accustomed to ignoring, in order to complete the picture. The back cover features a gum advertisement, done up with the typical graphic excess of the late 90s, but the text tells you more about MIND MGMT than anything else in the comic. It’s also apparently only the first piece of a puzzle composed of the back covers of all six issues, which unlocks a code to access a website, where more story presumably waits. This is reader-participation comics on a level few other books attempt.

Among those “few other books” is The Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred #4 by David Hine and Shaky Kane. So far in Disinterred, the second volume of Bulletproof Coffin stories, the creators have explored their fractured world via different storytelling genres (horror anthology, superhero team-up, etc.) but issue four sees them break free from the physical medium. Rather than a linear narrative, the issue features 84 independent panels that the reader is meant to read in any order. An “editorial” written by Destroyevski in the back matter encourages the reader to cut the panels out and arrange them like cards, moving the story away from the comic grid and into a Dada-influenced party game. Beyond commenting on the flexibility of comics as a medium, Hine and Kane also seem to be playing on the collector mentality, the fetishism of the comic itself. Bulletproof Coffin comics celebrate the somewhat seedy history of comic books, so it only makes sense that Hine and Kane want to revise the expectation that comics are meant to be preserved. I admit that taking scissors to the pages was initially difficult, but soon I understood that paper is paper, and the fun shuffling and juxtaposition of images is ultimately more significant than the object.

Finally, we bid farewell to Mark Waid’s Irredeemable with issue 37. Throughout it’s three-year run Irredeemable offered a consistent window into the more disturbing corners of writer Waid’s psyche, so it’s somewhat surprising (thought not inappropriate) that he chose to end his story of a Superman gone wrong on a positive note. Qubit’s final plan to rid the world of the Plutonian is based on the character’s nature (it’s a long explanation, but in short, the Plutonian is an idea given physical form) and works as commentary on the potential for superhero comics to be a tool for good. And even if the ending is strikingly similar to the ending of All-Star Superman #10 (Grant Morrison, the author of that comic, worked with Mark Waid, along with Tom Peyer and Mark Millar, on a Superman pitch that DC eventually rejected – it’s not impossible to imagine that the writers developed the idea together and simply found different means of expressing it) it feels coherent with the rest of the series. From the get-go Irredeemable has been about how people, superpowered or otherwise, cope with trauma and sadness; in this final issue Waid suggests that a particularly effective solution is to channel that sadness into the creation of something new. I’ll miss seeing Irredeemable in my stack every month (not to mention it’s sister title, Incorruptible, which wraps next month) but I am looking forward to re-reading the entire run as a whole, with the ending in mind, look for new resonances and connections.


One-Shots

The “Night of the Owls” tie-in in All-Star Western #9 is efficient and doesn’t disrupt the story, but it feels like a missed opportunity to explore the origin of the Court that’s plaguing Batman in his solo title – fair enough, though, if writers Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti didn’t want to temporarily annex their book to the Bat-office.

Animal Man #9 is a slower issue of the title, but not unimportant – Buddy learns more about the Red, and writer Jeff Lemire introduces an entertaining new character, a goat-like ferryman who ushers Buddy through the Red. Meanwhile, Animal Man Annual #1, written by Jeff Lemire and drawn by Timothy Green II, looks to the past to tell a grim, but satisfying story of a different Animal Man, a Manitoban farmer from the late 19th century, who teamed up with his era’s Swamp Thing to combat the Rot.

In Batman #9 writer Scott Snyder breaks the pace of the past few issues and lets Batman dispatch the invading Owls quickly, but I was a bit disappointed that in the end it was mayoral candidate Lincoln March who did the detective work to uncover names linked to the Court, rather than Batman. Batman Annual #1 makes only a tangential link to the Court of Owls story, and instead spends time developing Mr. Freeze for the new DC continuity by combining aspects of various incarnations (most notably the Batman: the Animated Series version) and giving them a slightly darker twist.

Batman and Robin #9 is writer Peter J. Tomasi’s showcase for Damian Wayne, who takes charge of an army battalion to battle an assassin from the Court of Owls; the story is paced well, but suffers a bit from the absence of regular series artist Pat Gleason (Lee Garbett makes for a fine fill-in, but isn’t quite up to Gleason’s usual excellence.)

Captain Atom #9 takes a rather dark turn, as the hero discovers that his future is to become a force that destroys the Earth, and is quite compelling for a superhero comic that regularly features a god-like being indulging in a little navel gazing.

Another “Night of the Owls” tie-in, Catwoman #9 sees writer Judd Winick humanize both the assassin and the title character, who identifies with the villain’s obsessive quest and tries to do some substitute parenting while still preventing the Penguin’s murder.

Having established their run with a story based on a Robert E. Howard story, Brian Wood begins his first original Conan story with artist James Harren in Conan the Barbarian #4 – the change in story isn’t particularly noticeable, but the switch from previous artist Becky Cloonan to Harren is evident in his harder, earthier line work, which seems more appropriate for what looks to be a dark, bloody story.

Marvel double shipped Daredevil again this month, and Mark Waid avoids the pacing problems that might come with that tactic by taking issue twelve, with guest artist Chris Samnee, to tell a tight, funny story from Matt Murdoch’s past that illuminates his relationship with Foggy Nelson, and then wrapping up the Omega Drive storyline with the action-packed issue thirteen, drawn by Khoi Pham. Samnee’s issue is, on the whole, more satisfying, but Pham is no slouch and Waid dovetails the resolution of that plot with two cliffhanger moments, which set up a new status quo for the next few issues.

Demon Knights #9 offers some quiet moments for the heroes and establishes the parameters of their journey to bring Merlin back to life (and discover who killed him in the first place) but writer Paul Cornell includes a betrayal, a talking horse with secrets about one of the characters, and a pro same-sex marriage message to keep things interesting.

I was disappointed by Dial H #1, novelist China Mieville’s foray into comics – Mieville has fun with the Hero Dial concept, but the new, short-lived superhero concepts don’t make up for the overcooked narration and yet another mafia plot, nor Mateus Santolouco’s dreary pencils.

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips bring the first arc of Fatale to a gruesome close in issue five, and do so without resorting to the “big reveal” tactics that I’ve come to expect from mystery comics; all the information has been on the table from the first issue, but Brubaker is canny enough to keep the story moving in a way that the reader can’t really understand or comprehend the significance of that information until characters collide and, in this case, gouge out a monster’s eyeballs.

The Flash #9’s introduction of Gorilla Grodd to the new DC continuity was a nice change of pace from last month’s issue – more super-speed action and less exposition about the Speed Force – and the return of Barry Allen to the present hopefully indicates that co-writers Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato are going their attention back to the hero’s personal life and away from the tech talk for at least a few issues.

Max Damage tours the damage his poor decision making has wrought in Incorruptible #29, and though the issue is fine it’s remarkable how much the end of sister series Irredeemable affects this title – now that I know that the Plutonian saves the world from impending nuclear disaster, it saps much of Incorruptible’s urgency.

The further Justice League moves from the events of its initial arc the better it gets, though it still doesn’t feel like a Justice League book – in issue nine Geoff Johns gives each character a moment (except for perennial loser Aquaman) and fleshes out the emerging friendships while setting up a new villain for the next long story arc.

I wasn’t crazy about the first issue of Justice League Dark, but with Jeff Lemire taking over writing duties with issue nine I decided to give it another shot – Lemire doesn’t quite have a hold on John Constantine’s voice, but the interplay among the characters is strong and I’m curious enough about the story to return next month.

In The Manhattan Projects #3 we learn that Harry Truman was a Mason who led ritual sacrifices, FDR’s brain was replaced by a computer after he died, and the radiation that killed Harry Daghlian also made him immortal; if you need further convincing, then The Manhattan Projects probably isn’t the book for you.

Mondo #2 doesn’t offer much of an explanation for anything that happened in the first issue, but offers 40 more pages of exquisitely rendered, muscle-bound violence and social commentary.

I expect anthology titles to be uneven, but Vertigo’s sci-fi collection Mystery In Space #1 is particularly inconsistent; the only standouts are Ming Doyle’s time travel love story and Kevin McCarthy and Kyle Baker’s tale of a jaded anthropologist’s culture clash.

The gang experiences real tragedy in Peter Panzerfaust #4, and the loss is made more significant by how much time writer Kurtis J. Wiebe spends with the characters in quiet moments beforehand.

Every story in The Rocketeer Adventures 2 #3 is strong, but Kyle Baker’s story of Betty and Cliff teaming up to save Butch the bulldog from his rocket-powered adventure is the centerpiece.

Writer Brian K. Vaughan spends most of Saga #3 introducing a new character, Izabel, the ghost of a teenager who guides Alana through the dark forest, but my favorite part was Prince Robot IV’s interrogation, which goes horribly wrong and reveals an instability only hinted at in previous issues.

I’m still enjoying Saucer Country, but with issue three I’m beginning to wonder if Ryan Kelly’s art is too clean for a book about alien conspiracies and mental instability – then again, maybe grounding the visuals in a recognizable reality is what allows writer Paul Cornell to play with our expectations about abduction experiences and the mythology of UFOs.

Another “Times Past” issue, The Shade #8 features Jill Thompson art and a slight story that’s entirely redeemed by a pleasantly sentimental turn in the final two pages.

There’s lots of action in The Shadow #2 but I’m hoping the story picks up soon; if not I’ll finish this story arc and be done with the title.

I promised to give Stormwatch one last chance, but new series writer Peter Milligan’s first issue was more of the same, which isn’t at all bad, but just not compelling enough to make it a must-read. Dropped.

Scott Snyder brings his first Swamp Thing arc to a close with issue nine, reuniting Alec and Abbey in victory over the Rot, but with a cliffhanger tailor-made for longtime Swamp Thing fans.

Tony Akins returns as guest artist with Wonder Woman #9, which begins with a suicide bombing and heaps on the disturbing imagery from there as Diana prepares for her wedding to Hades.


Looking Ahead to June

Scott Snyder offers another American Vampire mini-series, this time drawn by Dustin Nguyen, plus Brian Wood’s The Massive. And the controversial Before Watchmen, which I will conspicuously avoid.

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