Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Golden Age Batman Review: Detective Comics #38

At the end of last month's story, we were promised Batman facing off against hideous Man Monsters. On the cover of this month's issue we are introduced to "the Sensational character find of 1940: ROBIN - the Boy Wonder"! Well, then. Okay.

Convince me.

"Introducing Robin, the Boy Wonder"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson
In a small town outside the big city, at the Haly Circus, the Flying Graysons are a family team of acrobats comprised of father John, mother Mary, and son Richard. One day, young Dick overhears a group of gangsters pushing Mr. Haly to pay them protection money against "accidents", which he refuses to do. The next night, Bruce Wayne is in the audience of onlookers as the Flying Graysons perform their act. The finale of the show is the two parents performing the death-defying Triple Spin. The trick comes off fine, until the ropes snap and both acrobats plummet to their death, right in front of their son. The gangsters revist Haly, and this time he agrees to pay them.
Young Dick deduces what has happened and decides to go to the police. He is stopped however, by the Batman, who tells Dick to come with him. The young boy gets in the costumed vigilante's car and they drive off (oh, the Golden Age!). Batman explains that Boss Zucco runs all the crime in town and controls the police. If Dick were to go to them he'd be killed. Batman offers to hide Dick in his home and to assist him in his war on crime, since he empathizes with Dick's plight, given that his own parents were killed by criminals.
Dick is eager to fight crime, but the Batman warns him that it is a perilous lifestlye. Dick replies that he is not afraid, and so the Batman has him swear an oath to fight crime and corruption and never swerve from the path of righteousness.
The Batman begins training Dick, realizing that the young boy's acrobatic training makes him more agile and adept than even himself in many aspects. After many months, he adopts a costumed identity as Robin, the Boy Wonder, an identity modeled as a modern-day Robin Hood.
Dick begins to press Bruce as to when they can make their move against Zucco. Bruce replies that they are ready to return to the small town and tighten the noose around Zucco. Bruce sets Dick up in the guise of a newspaper boy, and almost immediately Dick discovers that even a cut of his money from that goes to Zucco. Dick follows Zucco's enforcers to the gangster's home, and learns many of his plans. Over the next several days the Batman busts up Zucco's protection rackets and gambling operations with much glee. He sends Zucco and his men a note (by carrier bat, no less) saying that he knows Zucco is trying to squeeze money out of a local construction company and that the Batman will be waiting for him there.
Zucco and his men go to the unfinished skyscraper to cause an "accident" to convince the company to pay up, and are ambushed by Robin, who dispatches several of the men with his acrobatics and slingshot skills. Then the Batman shows up. He manages to beat a confession out of one of Zucco's men, Blade, that Zucco paid him to put acid on the ropes at the circus. Zucco murders his lieutenant but Robin gets it on camera and this, combined with the written confession, puts Zucco behind bars.
Afterwards, Bruce asks Dick if he wants to return to circus life now that Zucco is dealt with, but Dick replies that he wants to continue fighting crime as Robin alongside the Batman.
My Thoughts: What can I say? This is an all-time classic story. It's been repeated and retold many, many times - in the "Batman: Year 3" storyline from Batman #436-439, in Legends of the Dark Knight #100, in the Batman: Dark Victory series, in cartoons such as Batman: The Animated Series and The Batman, and in film in Batman Forever. It's most recent retelling has been in the much lambasted All-Star Batman & Robin series from Frank Miller and Jim Lee. And the many critics who have hated that series may be surprised to find, upon reading Detective Comics #38, that it is one of the more accurate retellings of the tale. For example, in the original tale it is the Batman who first confronts young Dick, taking him in his car back to his lair, training him to become his partner, and only later revealing himself as Bruce Wayne. In fact, there is never any mentioning of Bruce Wayne legally adopting Dick as his ward, rather the young boy merely chooses to stay with Wayne. These details are retained in Frank Miller's version. In later adaptations, Dick is sent to a Gotham orphanage after the murders, and adopted by Bruce (or alternatively immediately taken in by Bruce as part of a witness protection program, thanks to Bruce's friendship with police Commissioner Gordon). Only later does Dick discover Bruce is Batman and only with much reluctance from Batman does he join his crusade as Robin. These elements were added to improve realism and help ease the reader into the idea of the Batman allowing a ten-year-old boy to join his crusade. Because Miller retains the idea that it is Batman who recruits Robin, it keeps the Dark Knight in line with Miller's interpretation of him as a borderline-insane fanatic willing to do anything to further his goals - an interpretation that became very popular with writers in the late 90s.
Another detail from the original story that Miller retained was the Robin's identity is inspired by Robin Hood. Miller explains this by saying that Dick's father watched the old Errol Flynn version with him as a kid, which links Dick to Bruce in that Bruce's crime-fighting inspiration was the Tyrone Power Zorro film of the same era. Later retellings mostly associated the Robin identity with the flying bird, linking the Robin to the Bat as animal identities. This made reasons why Dick would adopt the name harder to explain -- with the Schumacher film conjuring up an elaborate back-story for the nickname and the Jeph Loeb version explaining that his mother always felt he was "bobbin' along", which is a pretty corny explanation for a superhero name.
As for why Robin was brought into the strip in the first place, the impetus seemed to come from writer Bill Finger. He found it frustrating getting development out of the Batman character when he had nobody to talk to. In order to get the hero's thought processes out, he wanted him to have a foil -- specifically, a Watson to his Sherlock Holmes. Bob Kane agreed, and came up with the idea of making him a young boy, so that the mainly young readers of the comic would have a character to identity with. And indeed it's a fantastic idea, as young boys might thrill to the adventures of the dark, crusading hero -- but then to be able to imagine themselves fighting alongside him? Fantastic! And it certainly proved successful, as the sales of Batman comics doubled within a year, and soon many other heroes gained kid sidekicks, such as Captain America and Bucky.
Jerry Robinson, the inker, also claims that Robin was his creation (similar to claims about the Joker). He ascribes Finger's Watson reasoning to himself (which makes little sense since Robinson wasn't even vaguely responsible for the writing of the strip). He also claims he came up with the name Robin (Jerry Robinson, right?) and designed the costume based on N.C. Wyeth's illustrations for The Adventures of Robin Hood. Now, maybe Robinson came up with the name, but the idea that he designed the costume is a laugh when you look at Robinson's solo artistic skill minus Kane's linework (the cover of Detective Comics #60, for example) or look at Wyeth's artwork, in which Robin Hood's look in no way resembles the Boy Wonder's. Frankly, as the only living member of the Golden Age Batman team, Robinson has it in his power to claim anything he wants - something he must of learned from Bob Kane, who claimed sole authorship of all Batman comics for the first thirty years of the character's existence.
The Art: Okay, so the art here is really great. I'm tempted to say it's the best art in the Batman feature so far. In fact I will say so. Kane and Robinson really put a ton of effort into this issue, with intricate line-work, shadows, and just a really gritty, urban, feel. Boss Zucco feels like something out of the Fleischer Studios (oh, a Fleischer Studios Batman would've been awesome, eh? Oh, man...) and the whole atmosphere is just lower to the ground and really helps the feel of the strip. Meanwhile, all the characters are given a lot more character and dimension here, like the puffs of smoke coming off from Zucco's face at all times. The depictions of Batman and Robin are purely fantastic and really just sell both characters. I'm phenomenally impressed.
The Story: Unlike the Batman, Robin debuts in an origin story. Bill Finger knew he would have to really sell the idea of a joking, smiling adolescent partner for his dark, driven avenger to make it work. To link Robin with Batman he makes young Dick also a victim of crime, which helps us believe the Batman would take such a youth under his wing. He makes Dick a circus acrobat in order to give a backing for why such a young boy would be able to keep pace with the highly-trained Batman. He specifies that Dick trains with Bruce for many months before going out, and still has Bruce scold Dick for being too impetuous in battle. Another great touch is to get the Batman fighting the world of true organized crime, with its hands in the pockets of the police and government. This sort've urban, avenging storytelling is perfect for Batman, a much better fit than jewel thieves or other small-time crooks. It's a classic story that's remained virtually untouched in its basic outlines for sixty-nine years. But what happened to that Monster Men story we were promised?
Notes and Trivia: First appearance of Dick Grayson - AKA Robin, the Boy Wonder; first and final Golden Age appearance of Boss Zucco; first battle on an unfinished skyscraper
Robin Body Count: 1!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Modern Age Batman Review: Batman and the Monster Men #6

With Hugo Strange's Monster Men closing in on Sal Maroni and Norman Madison under threat of execution from the same, we approach the thrilling climax of Matt Wagner's six-part series.

"Batman and the Monster Men, Part Six"
By: Matt Wagner
Colours: Dave Stewart
Letters: Rob Leigh
Synopsis: Maroni's execution of Norman is interrupted when one of his thugs is thrown through the window. And they're on the third floor. Three of the Monster Men easily climb over the outside wall and begin butchering Maroni's men, to the amusement of Hugo Strange. But Strange gets more than he bargains for when BATMAN smashes through the front gates in his proto-Batmobile. He deploys a steel net which traps the first Monster Man, and then proceeds on foot into the estate where the other two are already smashing up the place.
With one of the monsters trapped, the mobsters utterly rip through it with gunfire. This Monster was once Sanjay's brother, Rajan. Strange's assistant kills the mobsters who have murdered his brother, but is himself shot by one of Maroni's men.
Maroni knows there's an escape helicopter on the roof, and heads there with his lieutenants, leaving Madison to be killed by the creatures. Batman surveys the damage caused, as the interior of the estate is a bloody massacre. He takes down the second and third Monster Men with steel cable and mountaineering equipment, and heads for Maroni's location on the roof.
Along the way he runs into Norman, and tells him to get out of the house and to safety, referring to him by name. The paranoid and guilty-conscienced Madison is terrified by the caped crusader.
Maroni and his men are trapped on their way to the helicopter by the fourth and most developed Monster Man. Good thing Batman is there, as he jumps on the beast and injects it with a tranquilizer. Unfortunately, it only makes the Monster groggy, leaving Batman to finish the job by luring it into charging at the helicopter -- causing both to fall off the roof and collapse in a massive explosion. Batman confronts Maroni and threatens him until he agrees to absolve Norman Madison's debts.
The next morning, Julie Madison wakes up in Wayne Manor, and Bruce tells her that he's lent her father the money he needs to pay off his debts. Meanwhile, Hugo Strange managed to escape and has now become a television personality and psychological expert on the Batman, appearing on numerous talk shows. With no solid evidence, Bruce cannot go after Strange. Maroni and Falcone also escape unscathed. Bruce reflects that other than his relationship with Julie, he would feel that he had lost this conflict.
Meanwhile, Norman sees Strange's psychological report about Batman on TV, in which Strange classifies the Dark Knight as insane and relentless. Norman believes the Batman knew about his mob dealings, and his paranoid mind now has made him terrified that the Batman is going to come after him.
My Thoughts: Matt Wagner achieved a very special accomplishment with this series, turning an entertaining Golden Age Batman story into a fantastic exploration of the Dark Knight's early days. Other than the involvement of Hugo Strange and his Monster Men, however, this series is vastly different from the original story, which saves it from feelling like a simple rehashing. The numerous subplots, character examinations, and vast difference in exact plot events make this an entertaining and original effot on its own.
The Art: Wagner gives a great climax to this story, with several spectacular panels. The image of the proto-Batmobile smashing through the gates of the Roman's estate is memorable, as is the two-page spread of the bloody carnage inside the estate. The image of Batman threatening Maroni against a flaming background is also unforgettable. Great stuff. One thing I can say is that Matt Wagner draws a damned good Batman.
The Story: Wagner wraps up his threads really well here, managing to get all the main players in one location for an exciting, explosive finish. He impressively allows Batman to stop the Monster Men without outright murder, and gives all the characters good moments. He leaves Hugo Strange in a perfect place for another writer to pick up the character and run with it (namely Doug Moench's "Prey" arc in Legends of the Dark Knight) and of course leaves Norman Madison in an intriguing place that makes the reader wanted to pick up Wagner's sequel series, Batman and the Mad Monk.

Golden Age Batman Review: Detective Comics #37

"The Spies"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson

Synopsis: While driving in the country the Batman gets lost and pulls in at an old house to ask directions. Can you imagine that ever happening to modern-day Batman? Anyways, he hears screams from inside the house and goes to investigate. A gang of men are torturing a man named Joey because he was selling information about the dealings of a man named Turg. Batman beats up the gang and rescues Joey, but is rewarded for his trouble with a sock on the head. When he awakes the other men are dead.
Bruce Wayne looks in the phone book for a man named Turg (!) and finds three. The other two are respectable and the third runs a grocery store in a bad neighbourhood. The Batman pays them a visit and discovers it is a front for Turg and his men. He bursts in on them and the fight begins. Batman pulls a fast one by turning off the lights, rendering the crooks blind. Luckily, Batman has a pair of infrared goggles that enable him to see in the dark...LIKE A BAT! This is surprisingly high-tech for a 1940 Batman story -- especially since such devices were only five years old at that point. And German....
*Ahem* Anyways, Batman hands their asses to them on a platter, and then peaces. The crooks believe Joey led him there and they stab him to death and then leave to blow up a ship at the docks. However, Batman however was merely hiding, and from Joey's dying breathes he learns the crooks are foreign spies who are going to destroy a foreign shipping vessel, making it look the US commited the crime, drawing them into an international crisis (y'know, WWII).
So its off to the docks for Batman, and after a lot of fighting, ins and outs and close-calls, he manages to stop the spies and save the ship. Exciting stuff. Earlier, Batman got a phone number from dying Joey, which he tracks to a man named Count Grutt, a distinguished foreign dignitary. Turns out Count Grutt is actually Turg and therefore actually the leader if the spy ring! The Count (who's totally NOT from Germany or anything) attacks Batman with a sword but ends up getting stabbed and killed by Batman with his own sword.
And that's the end of that chapter, apparently. Batman kills a distinguished foreign personage with no real consequences. That's the Golden Age for you.
In the last panel Finger and Kane give us a special preview of next month's story -- Batman versus a group of hideous Monster Men!! Looks exciting! I'm sure it will make Detective Comics #38 a keeper! ;)
My Thoughts: Okay, so clearly the thing here is that WWII had already been going on in Europe for some time, and the Nazi scourge and it's frankly anti-Semite attitudes (to put it lightly) was weighting heavily on the minds of the largely Jewish comic-book industry. However, editorial edicts of the time meant that since America was not involved in the War, writers couldn't actually get their characters involved or mention the conflict. So Superman fought fictional Europeans in fictional European countries, and Batman smashes a totally not-German spy ring seeking to get America into a totally not-WWII international crisis. Although, why the Germans would want to get America in the War is beyond me.
The Art: After a pretty spectacular debut last issue, the Bob Kane/Jerry Robinson team gets sorta lazy this time around and really don't offer anything memorable. The sequence in the dark with Batman wearing the IR goggles isn't as well done as it could be, and the art in general looks like the strip's appearance a few months ago. One note is this is the last time Kane will draw Batman with tall, pointy, ears, as next month he'll begin shortening them and gradually moving Batman to what will become his standard 1940s appearance.
The Story: Besides Bill Finger bringing Batman into a political mileau that he has previously not been a part of, the story here is pretty standard of the kind of spy stories that were popping up in other comic books across the line. Batman's never really worked well in political stories, whether it's here in WWII or in the late eighties fighting Iran and the KGBeast. Maybe it's because we think of Batman as being a very local, Gotham-based hero as opposed to a more national-level character.
Batman Body Count: 12 at the least

Modern Age Batman Review: Batman and the Monster Men #5

Well, this cover is very spooky, atmospheric and evocative -- but it doesn't fit this series at all. Fits the follow-up, Batman and the Mad Monk, far better. Anyways, we're coming into the endgame of this great title.

"Batman and the Monster Men, Part Five"
By: Matt Wagner
Colours: Dave Stewart
Letters: Rob Leigh
Synopsis: We begin in the office of police Commissioner Edward Grogan, who has called in Captain James Gordon on suspicion of working with the vigilante Batman. Gordon denies everything, but Grogan makes his displeasure known. Unknown to Grogan, in his pocket Gordon carries a beeper which he uses to contact the Batman. He uses it after the meeting.
Batman has been investigating the lab of Hugo Strange, which has been destroyed in a fire the scientist has used to cover his trail. He meets Gordon on the rooftops of police headquarters, where the signal is strongest, and reveals to Gordon the existence of the Monster Men. This revelation stuns Gordon, who begins to question the sanity of the caped crusader.
In the pack of a freight truck, Hugo Strange and his assistant Sanjay complete the genetic manipulations of the last Monster Man. This one used the DNA of Batman as a base for the manipulations, and therefore is much less deformed than the previous subjects. It is revealed the original subject for this manipulation was Rajan, Sanjay's brother, who apparently suffered from some kind of debilitating illness, prompting Sanjay to bring him to Strange and work with the scientist.
Meanwhile, Julie discovers her father Norman Madison in the midst of an emotional breakdown. The drunk Norman reveals to her that he owes money to the mob and that they threatened Julie's life if he couldn't pay up. Hysterical, he orders her to go into hiding, while he insists on delivering the money he owes to mobster Sal Maroni personally, necessitating that Maroni's men take him to Carmine Falcone's country estate where Maroni is staying.
Julie goes to Bruce to tell him about her father. He has Alfred drug her and place her in the guest bedroom so that he can be free to follow Hugo Strange. Strange is going to storm Falcone's estate with his Monster Men and kill Maroni, so that the last evidence linking him to criminal activity will be destroyed.
Batman has deduced this plan, and for the purpose of storming the estate has built himself an armoured, high-powered, tank-like vehicle. Alfred jokes that he should've added winged tail-fins to make it a "bat-mobile" and is disturbed when Batman begins to consider it.
Norman is brought to Maroni, who is angry at his presumptious nature and pretentious attitude. As the two discuss their grievances, shots are heard outside, and Maroni assumes Madison has led the cops there, and pulls a gun on him.
My Thoughts: This issue is fairly weak, as it's only real pupose is to link the last installment with next month's explosive climax. There are no real incidents here to make this story stand-out, except for the introduction of the prototype of what will become the Batmobile. Wagner's design for it is perfect, looking like a mix of the Tumbler from Batman Begins, the vehicle from the Tim Burton Batman films, and the 40s comic book design, but in a more basic, tank-like form.
The Art: Wagner's art is still strong in this issue, but again the only thing really worth commenting on is the prototype Batmobile design. Other than that the work remains strongly character-based, including a fantastic double-take from Gordon when Batman explains the nature of Hugo Strange's Monster Men to him. Another note is that it's very, very weird to see Hugo Strange in a baseball cap.
The Story: Again, it's connect-the-dots month this issue, probably the worst case of that feeling in this particular series. Oddly enough, Norman Madison's transformation from principled businessman to paranoid hysteria seems rather sudden, brought on by a single, rather standard, threat from the mob and one good drinking session. I'm not sure if this is poor writing on Wagner's part, or just supposed to imply that Madison was really never that together in the first place.
Notes and Trivia: Batman gains his first prototype Batmobile.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Golden Age Batman Review: Detective Comics #36

On the cover, Batman battles the Mongols from last issue. Inside, he battles his first truly memorable (and long lasting) opponent.

"Professor Hugo Strange"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Jerry Robinson
Synopsis: On routine patrol, the Batman sees a man pushed out of a moving car and shot. He listens to the dying man's last words, "strange fog", but is chased by the police who arrive on the scene and assume the Batman was responsible.
Back at Wayne Manor, Bruce deduces that the man was not talking of a strange fog, but rather of a fog caused by a man named Strange, Professor Hugo Strange! If you want to know how he deduced it, it was basically as I just described. Apparently, Bruce already knows of Professor Strange as a "scientist, philosopher, criminal... and greatest organizer of crime in the world", to which he adds "little is known of him". Okaaay. Also, Bruce took a notebook off the dying man, which includes a list of locations and names him as an agent of the FBI. Bruce vows to clear Batman's name of the FBI agent's murder and solve the mystery of the fog.
Meanwhile, Professor Hugo Strange is ruminating evilly in his evil high chair in front of his evil fireplace when one of his minions reports on the death of the G-Man. Strange is worried about about the interference of the Batman, and decides to step up the timetable and begin tonight.
The next night the whole city is blanketed in a fog "such as one would find only in England", which results in numerous robberies taking place and the police being unable to pursue the criminals due to the thick fog.
At home, Bruce hears a radio report about the robberies, whose locations match those on the list, as well as a side story about the kidnapping of a prominent electrical engineer. Bruce begins to put the pieces together....
Strange's gang make a move to rob the Sterling Silver Company, but the night watchman turns out to be The Batman in disguise! The Batman explodes into a whirling dervish and pretty much destroys the gang before making a getaway. With the news of Batman's interference, Strange decides that he must concentrate on keeping the Batman out of his schemes, and decides to cut up his hand with glass to accentuate the point.
When Batman shows up to the next plae on the list, he is forced into a trap and cornered by several men. The next two pages are an epic battle as the Batman tries to take on all the men at once, but is finally overpowered.
At Strange's lair he ties Batman up and whips him with a lash he had hanging on the wall. Okay, Doc.... whatever floats your boat. The Batman escapes by flexing his muscles and snapping the bands holding him (hawt?) and then gassing his enemies with a pellet from his utility belt. However, Strange is crafty enough to avoid the gas and gets Batman in a chokehold. But Batman is stronger and socks Strange out and ties him up.
With the villain dealt with the Batman discovers the giant machine powering the artificial fog, and the kidnapped scientist who created it. The machine creates artificial lightning that causes condensation in the air, generating the fog. The two of them turn off the machine and save the city. The Batman is praised by the media and people of the city, while Hugo Strange is imprisoned at the State Penitentiary, vowing escape and vengeace.
My Thoughts: Wow! Now, that was a story! This is probably the first really spectacular, memorable, cohesive Batman story. Gardner Fox tried to reach great heights with his Monk and Dirigible stories but fell short due to bad plotting. Finger here keeps things down to earth while still creating a large scale, impressive foe for Batman to face and a devilishly clever criminal scheme for him to destroy. Professor Hugo Strange is the first Batman villain to really catch on -- he'll appear in two more Golden Age stories before being retired however, before being revived by Steve Engelhart in the Bronze Age, and becoming a popular alternative Modern Age Batman villain. In this tale, he is less of the quirky psychiatrist/geneticist he'll be in those stories and is basically presented as a modern age Professor Moriarty, which at this point was a great villain characterization for the Holmesian Batman.
The Art: Big news this issue is the arrival of inker Jerry Robinson. With this addition the basic Golden Age team of Kane/Finger/Robinson is formed and it is this team that will create and shape the most enduring Batman stories of the era. Robinson's inks provide a kind of gritty, sketchy, tactile quality to the art, and really gives Kane's art a boost into a great kind of pulp-art quality. It's a huge improvement over even Sheldon Moldoff's inks and makes the art almost a joy to look at rather than a chore. Another stand-out feature this issue is Kane's character design for Hugo Strange, with his bald, misshapen head, round spectacles and bad-guy goatee, I think that this unique design became part of why people remembered Hugo Strange over other Golden Age villains. There are some great panels in this issue, including a really cool one of Batman's silouhette in the fog.
The Story: Finger manages a great feat here, which is giving Batman a powerful and effective villain while avoiding plot holes and nonsensical plotting. His story is much better written and clearly stated than past efforts, and only contains two small holes -- the first of which is that if the fog prevents the cops from following crooks, would it not also stop the crooks from escaping? The other is that Batman vows to clear his name of the G-Man's murder, which he never does. On top of everything, there are subtle changes to the characterization of Batman in this story. The city begins to regard him as a legendary fighter of crime, rather than a weird creature of the night --- also, Batman's silent, grim-faced determination has been subtly replaced with a more jocular, devil-may-care attitude, as Batman mocks the criminals he fights and jokers with them -- a precursor of the "bad puns" that would characterize the Silver Age Batman. End decision: great story, great issue.
Notes and Trivia: First appearance of Professor Hugo Strange, beginning of the Finger/Kane/Robinson team,

Modern Age Batman Review: Batman and the Monster Men #4

Last time we saw Batman, he had been captured by Dr. Hugo Strange and placed in a dungeon-like cage, left to face the three hideous Monster Men that the mad scientist has created. And so, 71 pages into this story, we reach a point the original Golden Age version achieved in five.

"Batman and the Monster Men, Part 4"
By: Matt Wagner
Colours: Dave Stewart
Letters: Rob Leigh
Synopsis: Fearless and determined, Batman bravely confronts the three monsters he is faced with, while Hugo Strange evaluates his performance in admiration. While the Batman fights his way past enemies more powerful and fierce than anything his has ever faced, Strange is amazed by his prowess and abilities. During the fight, the monsters tear off his utility belt and accidentally set off the gas pellets contained therein. The Monsters will succumb slowly due to their large size, but Batman is in serious trouble unless he can get to the respirator in the belt.
Meawhile, Norman Madison has driven himself into a drunken depression, worrying about the safety of his daughter, who was threatened by the gangsters he owes money to last issue. She announces she's going out with some girlfriends, because Bruce is once again busy for the night, and Norman reiterates his mistrust of Wayne. He is becoming anxious and paranoid.
Back in Strange's lair, Batman improvises a method of escape. He uses a pair handcuffs to attach a length of chain to the sewer grate in the floor, and wraps the chain around the neck of one of the monsters. As it charges him, it rips the grating from the floor, enabling Batman to escape through the sewer system. Strange is frankly astounded by this and expresses a desire to use the Batman's DNA in his next experiment. (Which brings up an interesting nature vs. nurture debate, as Batman's physical prowess and skills were mostly learned during a long sabbatical from Gotham City studying in the East, so would the DNA of Batman contain any trace of his determination or skill? One of the primary tenents of the Batman legend is that it is the death of Bruce's parents that shaped him into the man he is -- seemingly a definite statement for nurture over nature)
Anyways, as Batman escapes he reflects on the fact that these Monster Men are phenomenally different from anything he has encountered and indeed anything he ever thought he would encounter. Strange, meanwhile, has accquired Batman's belt, gadgets and cape in the aftermath of the fight, and becomes enthralled with accquiring the secrets of this individual. There's an amusing moment when he puts on Batman's cape and begins running around the room.
The next day, Bruce is awakened by Julie, who's become worried about him. She discovers the massive injuries and wounds he is recovering from due to last night's fight, and he claims they are from a polo injury. She says he should see a doctor and he flips out on her. He apologizes and explains that since he's been largely alone since he was a child, he doesn't know how to be worried over. Julie accepts his apology and leaves, while Bruce wonders about his future with Julie now that the "war" has taken such a bizarre turn.
Strange, meanwhile, is trying to create a serum using Batman's DNA, when he is interrupted by Sal Maroni's thugs. They abuse his assistant, Sanjay, and destroy Strange's latest test subjects. When Strange protests, reminding them he's paid his debts, they tell him that while they can't prove he stole his last payment from them, they suspect it. They inform him that Maroni is out of town for the time being, and that they have their eyes on him. Strange announces to Sanjay that it is perhaps time they cancelled their business association with Maroni, unaware they are being bugged by the Batman.
My Thoughts: This was a fantastic issue and a great improvement over last month's paint-by-numbers installment. There were so many great touches, dramatic moments, and just overall good comics work here. In this part we really begin to see Wagner's themes coming out and turning this fairly enjoyable Golden Age retelling and "Year One" follow-up into something more substantial and memorable.
The Art: Great stuff in this issue. From Batman's fight with the Monster Men, to Strange running around in a cape, to Julie and Bruce's morning conversation, and a great series of panels of Batman emerging from the sewers, the art here is moody and evocative and really just fantastic Batman artwork. Batman should always look this good. Better than last issue. The only real nitpick I have is that the exact size of the Monster Men in relation to normal people appears to change from panel to panel.
The Story: Wagner's writing really shines in this issue, just exceptionally so. I love his Hugo Strange, and the way it perfectly reconciles and connects the Golden, Bronze, and Modern Age depictions of Strange from writers as diverse as Bill Finger, Steve Engelhart, and Doug Moench. A great touch in this issue is that Wagner makes the three Monster Men unique individuals, numbered from the earliest created to the latest, with #1 being the stupidest and least human looking and #3 the most refined and intelligent so far, reflecting Strange becoming more skillful with his genetic manipulations on each attempt. Other great things in this issue include Wanger's very, very "Year One" accurate characterization of Batman/Bruce Wayne, Julie's growing concern over Bruce, Bruce beginning to become less optimistic about the possibility of the war ending with the emergence of a kind of problem/opponent he never dreamt of before, and Norman Madison's descent into increased paranoia. Great, great, issue.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Golden Age Batman Review: Detective Comics #35

The Batman battles the Duc D'Orterre on the cover, but he won't appear in this month's story (or ever again), because Gardner Fox is out and original Batman co-creator is back in with a far more down to earth story.

"The Case of the Ruby Idol"
Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Sheldon Moldoff
Synopsis: While Bruce Wayne is visiting Commissioner Gordon (not seen since #28), a man named Weldon drops in. Weldon is a collector of curios and recently bought a ruby Hindu idol from a man named Sheldon Lenox. However, the idol is that of the (fictional) Hindu god of destruction, Kila, and Weldon receives several notes threatening his death and the death of Lenox.
Gordon decides that this needs investigating and heads off to see Lenox. Bruce decides to come along, because he might "write a story about it" (?). However, when they arrive, a car full of turban and loincloth wearing "Hindus". They shoot out Gordon's tire, preventing a pursuit. Then they stab Lenox and toss his body into the water before escaping. The police search the river for Lenox's body and fail to find it.
Meanwhile, a couple of hoods (Joe and Mike!) decide to rob the idol from Weldon, and it also attracts the attention of an oriental named Sin Fang. Both groups decide to make their move when Weldon asks the police to stop guarding the idol. Bruce figures that whoever wants the idol will make a play for it now, and heads out as Batman.
When he arrives he stops the two hoods easily, but is taken out by the suddenly arriving gang of Hindus. They swipe the idol and escape. At that moment a bunch of guards/police officers of the kind we were told two pages ago weren't protecting the idol burst in and try to arrest Batman for stealing it (despite the fact that he clearly doesn't have it). He beats them up and escapes out the window.
The Hindus are escaping, so the Batman gets in his high-powered roadster (now a dark blue one-seater sports car) and follows them to Chinatown where they sell the idol to the maliciously named Sin Fang, a dealer in curios. Hrmm.... To find out more about Sin Fang, Batman pays a visit to Wong, the "unofficial mayor of Chinatown. Wong is a good and honorable man and trusts Batman because he recognizes Batman is a hero. He dutifully informs the Batman that Sin Fang is in reality a fence for stolen goods.
When the Batman visits Sin Fang, the oriental appears to be surprised that the ruby idol was stolen, and offers to return it to Batman. It is, of course, a trap and our hero is attacked by giant Mongol guards. Of course, the Batman promptly dispacthes them, stabbing one through the heart with a sword. Sin Fang apologizes and explains that they thought the Batman was an intruder, given his masked face. He then gases the room with mustard gas. Luckily, Batman has a gas pellet on his belt that neutralizes the effects when mixed. Sin Fang apologizes for the bad plumbing in the house and then drops Batman down a trap door to his death!
Luckily, Batman grabs a hanging pipe and swings back up out of the trap door. Sin Fang thinks Batman is dead and gloats to himself that he can keep the Ruby Idol all to himself. He then removes make-up and other costuming accoutrements to reveal himself as... Sheldon Lenox!! Batman bursts in on him and explains that he figured out who Sin Fang was earlier.
Batman explains it thusly, "You needed money and made a deal with Sin Fang to cut up the ruby. You made use of the destruction legend it was supposed to have and wrote those notes. You hired those fake Hindus. Staged your death and then ahd the ruby stolen!" Lenox reveals he quarelled with Sin Fang over the money and killed him, assuming his identity because he could speak Chinese.
Lenox pulls a gun and the Batman throws the idol at him, knocking him out a high window to his death.
My Thoughts: With the return of Bill Finger we get a return to the gritter, more pulp-like Batman, with stories that seem like they could've come from The Shadow and the pen of Walter Gibson. This story is the first in a series Finger did in Detective Comics about Batman dealing with crime in Chinatown, with the assistance of Mayor Wong (and who says the Golden Age lacked continuity?). However, this particular story suffers from some pretty big plot holes, pointing to a somewhat rushed composition. If Lenox just wanted to sell the idol for money, why the elaborate plot? He already had sold it to Weldon at the start of the story. If he killed Sin Fang, who can he know sell the idol to so it can be cut up? It just doesn't hold up to examination. However, at least it explains the extremely ethnically inaccurate portrayal of the Hindus.
The Art: It's frankly amazing seeing Bob Kane's art here compared to a scant eight issues ago. His Batman character looks much different and the entire style and composition is far more dynamic and bold. The overall style is very pulp and very entertaining. In many ways Kane's art saves the reader from thinking about the holes in Finger's story by carrying the action in an exciting and fluid way.
The Story: As noted above, Finger brought Batman back down to earth with smaller, more realistic stories, but with an entertaining pulp sensibility. However, Finger's story has a bad plot hole and feels rushed. It's not as completely baffling as Gardner Fox's piece last month, but it could still use improvement. Also, Finger needs to find a way to make his Batman stories feel more unique and less like rip-offs of the Shadow if he wants the feature to continue successfully.
Notes and Trivia: Batman's car is now a dark blue roadster. First appearance of Wong, unofficial mayor of Chinatown. First time Batman battles oriental crime.
Batman Body Count: At least 11 by this point.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Modern Age Batman Review: Batman and the Monster Men #3

"Batman and the Monster Men, Part 3"
By: Matt Wagner
Colours: Dave Stewart
Rob Leigh
Synopsis: Batman investigates the aftermath of the mobster poker game that was interrupted at the end of last month's issue by one of Hugo Strange's Monster Men. The scene is a massacre, with blood and body parts everywhere. The Batman is horrified and baffled at the cause.
Strange, meanwhile, pays off his debts to mobster Sal Maroni, money Strange got from his raid on the poker game. Maroni is suspicious as to how Strange could've gotten the money so quickly, but the scientist brushes off his questions. After the police attention brought down by the attack on the poker game, Maroni's boss Carmine Falcone orders Maroni to hide out at Falcone's out-of-town estate for the foreseeable future.
Later that evening, Maroni is paid a nighttime visit by the Batman, who tries to find out why someone might've attacked Maroni's men. The two piece together that it was for the money, and that the likely culprit was Hugo Strange. Bruce does some research on Strange with the computer in his subterreanean hide out and discovers Strange was raised in an orphanage in a bad neighbourhood of Gotham, became a professor at Gotham University, but was fired due to the bad attention his unusual genetic engineering theories were getting.
The next day, Norman Madison is visited by Maroni's goons, who remind him of the money he owes, and indirectly threatnen his daughter, Julie. She's out on a date with Bruce, but he's cold and distant, and despite her efforts to cheer him up, he cuts the evening short and leaves.
Batman tracks Strange to a dockside warehouse and sneaks in. He discovers Strange's test subjects, awaiting transformation, and is momentarily stunned by the attack of Strange himself. The scientist is impressed with the Batman's physical prowess, and manages to stun him with the assistance of a drugged blowdart from his assistant, Sanjay.
The two drag the Batman over to the cages containing the Monster Men, leaving the Batman alone with the three hulking, brutish creatures...
My Thoughts: A pretty solid issue, as we finally get a meeting between our protagonist and antagonist, and draw the various storylines closer to intertwining. We end on a great cliffhanger for the first encounter of "Batman and the Monster Men", and the entire "hero investigates villain's lair, is captured and left to die" is a great Golden Age beat that is handled in a fashion here that is both entertaining and believable, without feeling old hat. A neat touch is the very, very, very beginning of Hugo Strange's obsession with Batman, which will become a key component of his later characterization.
The Art: Wagner's art continues to be efficient and evocative this issue. His Batman in particular is just fantastic, with at least three supreme, memorable images within the issue. On the other hand, his characters occasionally wander "off-model" and there's a jarring disconnect between the small, proportionate eyes he draws for medium "shots" and the rather large bug eyes he draws in close-ups.
The Story: This is a serviceable issue with a fairly standard A to B story. We need to get Batman and Strange to confront each other, we need to get Batman in there with the Monster Men. It's fairly routine, and while it's well-achieved, there's nothing really special to note here.

Golden Age Batman Review: Detective Comics #34

This month's cover is the last Detective Comics cover to feature a character other than Batman until #854 in 2009. (DC nerds can correct me on this if I'm wrong). And even then, Batman's still got a logo above the title. Also, this is the last Bat-tale written by Gardner Fox before the return of original scribe Bill Finger next issue, for reasons that will soon become apparent.

"Peril in Paris"
Writer: Gardner Fox
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Sheldon Moldoff
Synopsis: According to Fox, Bruce has just seen his fiancée Julie off from Paris after rescuing her from the Monk, meaning #34's story takes place before #33 (while the cover depicting #34's story will appear on #35 -- scheduling errors are a bitch, huh?) Anyways, Bruce is still wandering the streets of Paris, when he spots a man who resembles an old friend of his. However, he is mistaken when he finds it is in fact a MAN WITH NO FACE. So, in what way did he resemble Bruce's old friend?? Somehow, the FACELESS Man can talk and see, and apologizes to Bruce for startling him.
Meanwhile, a blonde woman in a hotel has been marked for death by the leader of the Apaches, the Duc D' Orterre. (The Apaches were a French gang in the 30s, not to be confused with the Native American tribe). The woman flees her room and jumps into a taxi also carrying Bruce Wayne! She gets a dagger thrown at her and the two of them flee back to the hotel (what?) where it turns out that the FACELESS Man is the woman's brother, Charles Maire. Turns out the Duc D' Orterre is after his sister, Karel, after she turned down his advances at a masked ball. As a retaliation, he burned Charles' face off with a ray.
Bruce regrets he cannot help them as himself, but he changes into Batman and announces he will stop the Duc - essentially revealing his secret identity to them.
The Batman drops into an open sewer and is promptly captured by the Apaches. The Duc places him on an elaborate death-trap called the Wheel of Chance -- the Batman is strapped to a big wheel and will either be flung off the wheel by inertia and killed, or driven mad by its unceasing spinning. Through sheer strength the Batman breaks through the straps but is flung through an open trap door into the Duc's garden!! (???)
The garden is full of flowers. Flowers with human, female faces. I'll repeat that one more time - human, female faces. The Batman wonders if he is going mad and frankly so am I. The Duc's men capture Charles and Karel, and Charles is strapped to the wheel. One of the flowers asks Batman to save them (?!?!) and tells the Batman how to escape the Garden.
The Batman rescues Charles from the wheel, who tells him that the Duc has escaped in a car with Karel. The Batman follows in his Batplane (again, still drawn as a Bat-gyro) and quickly overtakes them. The Batman leaps onto the moving car, beats up the Duc, this somehow incapacitates the driver and it careens off the road and crashes while the Batman leaps onto the Batplane's rope ladder and escapes.
Later, Charles and Karel thank the Batman despite the fact that we never saw the Batman rescue Karel from the car (she must've jumped out sometime during the struggle with the Duc but this was never stated or shown). Despite their gratitude, they express their wish to know the Batman's secret identity, but he declines. Even though he pretty much gave it away earlier. FLASHBACK: "As myself, I cannot help you", says Bruce Wayne, exiting the room. The Batman enters and offers his assistance. Face. Palm.
My Thoughts: What the fuck, Gardner Fox?? No, what. the. fuck? What is this story? What were you on this month? Where does this come from? The faceless man was weird enough, but where the hell did the human-faced flowers that can talk (and beg Batman to rescue them, but he never does) come from?? The first time I read this story I really had no idea what to make of it. This may possibly be the most bizarre Golden Age Bat-story of all time. Definitely Black Casebook material -- I wonder what Grant Morrison ever made of this one, if he ever read it? No, but seriously -- What the fuck?
The Art: Well, the art is certainly memorable, I guess. Kane's faceless man isn't on par with Chester Gould or Steve Ditko, but it's still a goddamn faceless man. The Duc D' Orterre looks unique, with a thin head, devil's peak hair, weird eyebrows, etc. The human/flowers are just bizarre and disturbing and... WHAT THE FUCK??
The Story
: I cannot repeat this enough times: what the fuck, Gardner Fox? Where is this coming from? This story is like the ultimate hodgepodge of all the weaknesses of the last five Gardner Fox stories -- a plot that runs all over the place with no real sense of direction, massive leaps of logic and numerous plot holes, unexplained weirdness, bad villain characterization, forgotten plot points and just pure what-the-fuckery. Seriously, it's like a Golden Age Grant Morrison story without the pretension, good writing, or sense. I just don't even know what to make of it. If it wasn't for the seriously weird human-faced flowers I would chalk it up as just a failed, badly written pulp pastiche and leave the faceless man as just a "don't think too hard" Golden Age quirk. But SERIOUSLY, Gardner Fox -- flowers with female, human faces, begging to be rescued (but who never get rescued). WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT???
Notes and Trivia: Last Batman story by Garnder Fox before the return of Bill Finger. Obviously someone realized that Fox's stories, while imaginative, where just poorly written and plain old too weird for Batman. When Finger returned, he would restore Batman to his more urban based settings, but retain Fox's innovations of larger-than-life villains.
Batman Body Count: At least 9 by this point

Modern Age Batman Review: Batman and the Monster Men #2

At the conclusion of last month's issue, Dr. Hugo Strange had fed a young woman who had insulted him to several large, monstrous, "test subjects", while Sal Maroni had lost a large shipment of heroin, and also loaned money out to Strange and Norman Madison, father of Julie Madison, who is dating Bruce Wayne, the Batman. Ahem, usually my sentences don't run on like that.

"Batman and the Monster Men, Part 2"
By: Matt Wagner
Colours: Dave Stewart
Letters: Rob Leigh
Synopsis: Various pieces of the body of the young lady from Part 1 are found in the sewer by Gotham Sanitation and brought to the attention of the GCPD. Captain Gordon is called in to examine the scene. He orders his men to patrol the perimeter, given him a chance to clandestinely meet with the Batman. He thinks to himself of how strange it is that he considers the masked vigilante a "friend", but that he owes him the life of Barbara and his son, at home. It is implied he is still with Barbara (meaning they have gotten back together since Turning Points #1), but is still having trouble forgetting Sarah. The Batman takes some hairs from under the fingernails of a severed arm, but admits to Gordon he has no clue what might be the cause. Gordon meanwhile, continues to have mixed feelings about his partnership.
Sal Maroni's thugs show up at Strange's laboratory to remind him about the money he owes, and let it drop that Maroni's men play a poker game every Friday. Strange recognizes such a game would be a good source of illicit cash, and begins to plan a raid with his assistant, Sanjay.
Bruce shows up late for a dinner with Julie, which happens often. Julie doesn't want to suspect Bruce of infidelity, but can't help it, based on his reputation. Bruce ducks out early after the dinner also.
As the Batman, he stops an armed robbery by ramming the getaway car with his own turbo-charged black Porsche (a reference to the early Golden Age comics where Batman drove a high-powered sedan, and to "Year One" where Bruce Wayne used a black Porsche on his ill-fated recon mission). He proceeds to take down all the robbers quickly, and while the cops on the scene think about pursuing him, they don't; they realize he does more good than harm.
We discover that Strange obtains the subjects for his experiments from Arkham Asylum, paying the guards under the counter and genetically manipulating the insane men. However, Strange's methods are crude and have so far all resulted in massive mutations, creating Monster Men.
Separately, Gordon and Bruce both find out the hair found on the dead woman was human. Bruce finds this difficult to believe, as the hairs were five times the size of an average human hair.
Meanwhile, Norman Madison's investments are all tanking and he finds himself forced to loan money once again from Sal Maroni. Afterwards, he talks to Julie about Bruce, stating that he doesn't trust the man's reputation.
Batman, meanwhile, is attempting to track the hairs through the sewers. He finds a ripped biohazard sticker, but no other clues. He admits the case baffles him and decides to concentrate on taking down Maroni.
Meanwhile, the mobster poker game gets interrupted by a very large, angry guest, and we get our first look at a Monster Man -- large, misshapen, hideous, strong, vicious, and bloodthirsty.
My Thoughts: Frankly, this series is fantastic. These are the sort of stories DC should've been telling and promoting in the months after "Year One", instead, this mini-series and its sequel got somewhat lost under the hype for (groan) Infinite Crisis, despite probably being the best Batman stories told in 2006. The characters are taut and believable, the story involves and engrosses, and the art is pleasurable to look at without being overcrowded or flamboyantly detailed. This second issue is great and keeps the reader looking forward to the remaining four. Who knew an expansion of a classic Golden Age tale could yield such good results?
The Art: More good work from Wagner and Stewart. Wagner's pencils occasionally misstep here (there's a panel of Bruce Wayne that looks very odd), but for the most part remain as enjoyable as last month. There are several Batman images that are just plain fantastic and Wagner must be ranked as one of the all-time best Batman artists along with Kane, Sprang, Infantino, Adams, Mazzuchelli, Aparo, Jones, Breyfogle, Sale, Lee, Mahnke, Kubert, etc. etc. even if he is one of the least-appreciated. I love his Hugo Strange especially. Also, the cinematic cut to black before the final page was a brilliant device.
The Story: I can't decide if Wagner is a better artist or writer, but he does both well enough that it puts people like Todd McFarlane to shame. Wagner especially has a great grip of characterization - his Gordon is the Gordon we've seen in "Year One" and prefaces the Gordon seen in Dark Knight Returns. He reads like Miller's Gordon, but from back when Miller could write. Wagner understands that characters go through arcs. You don't write "Year One" Batman like you write current-day Batman, and you don't write either like DKR Batman. I love the way Wagner's Batman is completely baffled by the extraordinary nature of these events -- this isn't the omniscient Batman of Grant Morrison's JLA run. This makes sense because Batman has yet to encounter anything but normal criminals at this point in his career. Wagner's Julie Madison is really loveable and believable and much better written than most of Wayne's girlfriends (if Golden Age Julie had been this interesting, she might have stuck around longer). I love Wagner's Hugo Strange - he has a fantastic hold on the character as a villain who has no idea he's the villain and in fact justifies everything he does with some kind of morality. Very believable and interesting.
Notes and Trivia: Batman loses his "night car" and realises he needs a better form of transportation.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Fail Comic Book Movies

CAPTAIN AMERICA (1944) -- Okay, this movie serial is actually pretty good, but it completely changes Captain America's backstory, origin and powers and features no Nazi villains at all, so it has to lose points. Fail.

SUPERMAN III (1983) -- Richard Pryor in a Superman movie was never a good idea. The villains are also lame. Fuck the Salkinds. Stupid fail.

SUPERGIRL (1984) -- This film has two good elements - Helen Slater's Supergirl, and seeing the inside of the Phantom Zone. And I suppose a few other things. But a lot of it is lame. Minor Fail.

RED SONJA (1985) -- Worst Schwarzenegger movie ever. And that's saying a lot. If Robert Rodriguez and Rose McGowan ever get off their asses and make the new version this character could be redeemed in the film world. Lousy fail.

HOWARD THE DUCK (1986) -- The comics were gritty, profane, and satirical. The movie is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles minus everything good and plus two tons of lame. George Lucas produced this movie and now officially disowns it. And when George Lucas, the man responsible for Star Wars: The Clone Wars, disowns a movie, you know there's a problem. EPIC FAIL.

SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE (1987) -- Cheap, cheap, cheap, cheap, cheap, cheap, bad movie. Sorry, Christopher Reeve. Sad, sad, sad, noble fail.

THE PUNISHER (1989) -- Low budget crap wherein the Punisher's origin is done wrong, he never wears his iconic outfit, and he fights a female Yakuza boss (btw, they don't let chicks in the Yakuza). Thank god they got this right in 2004 with the Thomas Jane movie. Embarassing Fail.

THE RETURN OF SWAMP THING (1989) -- My arch-nemesis, the campy comic book movie, rears its head yet again. No, you are not funny. No, you are not smarter than the material. You've never read the material, have you? It's by Alan Moore, who has more intelligence in his beard than your entire film crew put together. Aggravatingly stupid fail.

CAPTAIN AMERICA (1991) -- The first third of the movie, with Cap fighting Red Skull in WW2 is actually pretty cool. Then we're suddenly in the present day and everything turns to low-low-low budget suck. Cheesy Fail.

JUDGE DREDD (1995) -- "Okay, guys, let's take an iconic British comic character who never shows his face and delivers bad-ass monologues and have him be played by Sylvester Stallone!! And he'll wear his famous mask for all of five minutes!!!" Rule 1, Hollywood: Never cast Stallone in a role that requires talking. EPIC FAIL.

BATMAN & ROBIN (1997) -- Bad puns, bat-nipples, and overall heavy gay factors make this feature-length toy commercial an absolute death-trap to sit through. Holy Epic Fail, Batman!

SPAWN (1997) -- This movie was just lame, sorry. Especially once you've seen the HBO series. Also, bad CGI cape, not enough cape, lousy Spawn costume. Big budget fail.

STEEL (1997) -- A Superman spin-off minus the movie it was supposed to spin-off from starring Shaquille O'Neal! How could this not be good? Rofl. Retarded fail.

FROM HELL (2001) -- Only Hollywood could take one of the best pieces of graphic literature and fuck it up this much. Proof that Johnny Depp is not the best casting choice for every role. Aggravating Fail.

THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN (2003) -- There's a scene in this movie where a car (which has not been invented yet) has a chase on the streets of Venice (which don't exist). That's one of the many ways Hollywood f*cks a great comic in the bum in this awful movie. EPIC FAIL.

CATWOMAN (2004) -- Not even Halle Berry mostly naked can make this trial of a movie worthwhile. No relation to the comic except the name, this movie is considered torture in most civilized countries. UGLY, EPIC FAIL.

ELEKTRA (2005) -- GGGYYYYYAAARRRGHHH! is the sound you'll make sitting through this trash heap. Nothing is worthwhile here. Boring, Mind-Numbing Fail.

SON OF THE MASK (2005) -- Goes in the same pile with The Adventures of Pluto Nash and Super-Babies: Baby Geniuses 2. Absolutely disgustingly mind-wrenching, eyes-gouging FAIL.

CONSTANTINE (2005) -- When the main character's name is pronounced wrong, that's the first sign you're in trouble. The second is when a British character whose supposed to look like Sting is played by a very American Keanu Reeves. Fail.

V FOR VENDETTA (2006) -- Aka, Hollywood Rapes Alan Moore in the Bum Again. This is almost a good movie on its own merits (except the odious ending) but its so inferior to the Alan Moore graphic novel on so many levels, not the least of which is that it missed the point of the book. Oh, and I hate the Wachowski Brothers, for thinking they're smarter than everyone else when really they just like shiny lights and boom-booms. Facepalm-worthy fail.

SPIDER-MAN 3 (2007) -- I frankly can no longer trust Sam Raimi and have lost all enthusiasm for Spider-Man movies thanks to this film. Argh. Depressingly silly fail.

30 DAYS OF NIGHT (2007) -- Note to self: Never cast Josh Hartnett in anything.

GHOST RIDER (2007) -- Yes, Nicholas Cage is a comic book fan. BUT THAT DOES NOT MEAN HE CAN ACT!! At least he's playing Ghost Rider, a second-tier Marvel character, instead of Superman like he was going to in the late nineties. Lame, Boring, Fail.

WANTED (2008) -- Yes, because the best way to adapt a comic book is to subtract anything relating it to a comic book. Missed the point. Fail.

PUNISHER: WAR ZONE (2008) -- Ugly, cliche, pointless, mindless, annoying, depressing, fail.

THE SPIRIT (2008) -- Just WHAT THE FUCK, Frank Miller? Will Eisner is one of the most respected goddamn comic book creators of all goddamn time, and you completely SHAT all over his most prized creation and turned it into a cheap Sin City knock-off!! What happened to the days when you didn't suck Frank Miller? Like, pre-2000. Seriously, what the fuck. Absolutely disgusting, ugly, aggravating, mind-blowing, fucktarded, epic FAIL.

X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE (2009) -- 20th Century Fox has no concept of quality filmmaking. On the other hand, they're rolling in hookers and blow. Cheap, shallow, cash-in, fail.

Golden Age Batman Review: Detective Comics #33

Even though there's technically only one Batman story in this issue, the first two pages are completely removed from the main story and (according to DC) is written by a different scribe. This prologue is also vitally important to the Batman mythos, so I am going to discuss it separately.

"Legend: The Batman and How He Came to Be!!"
Writer: Bill Finger
Pencils: Bob Kane
Sheldon Moldoff
Synopsis: Thomas Wayne, his wife, and son, are walking home from a movie when a mugger holds them up for the wife's pearl necklace. He shoots Thomas Wayne when he tries to defend his wife, and shoots the wife when she tries to call for help. He does not shoot young Bruce Wayne, who vows to spend the rest of his life warring on all criminals. To this end he becomes a master scientist and athlete, but needs a disguise to strike fear into the hearts of criminals. At that instant, a bat flies through the window, and Bruce Wayne becomes the Batman!
My Thoughts: These two pages finally give an origin and reason for the Batman character. DC says they were written by Bill Finger, so they must've been scripted separately from Gardner Fox's main story and then inserted as a prologue once available. These two pages manage to set Batman completely apart from the rest of the growing number of costumed heroes in comic books at the time. Most heroes, such as Superman, fought criminals simply because it was the "right" thing to do with their powers, but as Batman had no powers, the revenge motivation became a powerful explanation for why an otherwise normal person would dress up like a bat and fight crime. The origin story is so strong, so tragic, dramatic, and iconic, that it has remained virtually unchanged for seventy years. Only the details are missing in this initial version -- Mrs. Wayne's name (Martha), the movie they were seeing (The Mark of Zorro), the name of the criminal (Joe Chill). These two monumental pages lay the foundation, tone, and inspiration for almost every incarnation of the character for the rest of his history, giving a near operatic backstory for comicdom's most determined crime fighter.
The Art: Frankly, as some of the most reprinted art in Batman territory, Bob Kane's art here is quite iconic and well-recognized. The frame of young Bruce crying, making his vow, lifting a massive dumbell over his head one-handed, sitting in his study in contemplation, and finally, silhouetted against the moon as the Batman, are all frequently copied and homaged. For these reasons and others, it has to be considered fairly spectacular art. Moody and perfect. Kane himself would revisit these panels in 1941's "The Origin of Batman" to frankly lesser results.
The Story: If indeed Bill Finger wrote these words, he's a genius. Even if he HADN'T written the first Batman story, or created the characters of Bruce Wayne and Commissioner Gordon, or helped design Batman's costume, the writing of Batman's origin alone would justify calling him the co-creator of the character, so essential has this story become to the character's psychology and history. This simple story and motivation is so powerful that it has been copied and re-used with variations for a variety of later superhero characters (such as the Punisher, whose origin is kind've a reversed Batman).
Notes and Trivia: The motherfucking Origin of Batman!!!

The second story in this issue is another large-scale, pulp-style epic by Gardner Fox, and his third attempt to create a memorable Batman villain (and most failed).

"The Batman Wars Against the Dirigible of Doom"
Writer: Gardner Fox
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Sheldon Moldoff
Synopsis: Bruce Wayne is strolling through downtown Manhatten (not yet Gotham) when a large futuristic dirigible is sighted in the sky. It emits a ray with proceeds to level most of the city. Thousands are killed. The perpetrators announce themselves as the Scarlet Horde.
Returning him, Bruce checks his files and concludes the madman in charge is one Professor Carl Kruger, who suffers from a Napoleon Complex and developed a new kind of "death-ray".
The Batman sneaks into Kruger's home, where the mad doctor is meeting with his lieutenants. His Napoleon complex is interpreted literally -- he is dressed and styled exactly as Napoleon, and his lieutenants wear Napoleonic uniforms. They announce that the Scarlet Horde has an army two thousand strong, but just as Kruger is announcing no one can stop him, in enters the Batman! Kruger escapes however, after rigging the house to explode. The Batman narrowly escapes, and trails one of Kruger's lieutenants to the docking bay of the dirigible.
The Batman sneaks inside the compound and destroys all but one of the death-ray machines. He is about to smash the last one when Kruger enters the room and shoots him. He instructs a guard to watch the body while he fetches the death-ray machine to use it to kill the Batman. He returns and explains the machine works by combining ozone gas and gamma rays. He then fires at the limp body, which disintegrates.
However! The Batman had switched places with the guard, and narrowly escapes yet again. At Wayne Manor, Bruce coats the Batplane (still drawn as a Bat-gyro) with a special chemical, and flies it at the dirigible in a suicide run. The two collide and explode, but the Batman parachutes away just in time (Phew! Losts of close calls this issue!) He is pursued by Kruger in a bi-plane but manages to get on the wing of the plane and hit Kruger with a gas pellet. Kruger is knocked out and crashes in the water, while Batman gets away.
The radio reports that the body of Kruger was recovered (implying his death) while the Batman remains at large...
My Thoughts: Ho-boy is Gardner Fox trying to get a lot out of this one. This issue is a cinematic spectacular, like some high-budget movie serial mixed with a fantastical pulp adventure. It's really over-the-top for Batman, and reminds me of the James Bond style adventures that Denny O'Neil would put the character in when he battled Ra's al Ghul in the seventies. In addition to delivering an over-the-top, action-packed, exciting adventure, Fox is clearly making a covert jab at Adolf Hitler, through the character of Carl Kruger, a German with a Napoleon complex who wishes to conquer the world. Before the US joined WWII in 1942, comic books couldn't actively attack or deal with Hitler or the Nazi party, even though the predominantly Jewish writers and artists very much wanted to have their heroic characters strike back at the facist anti-Semite. Therefore, a lot of super-hero stories from this era had their heroes punching out Hitler surrogates from fictional European countries.
The Art: Bob Kane improves with every issue and here his renderings of Wayne, Kruger, the Batman, and the destruction of Manhatten are quite dramatic and well-done. He takes to Gardner Fox's cinematic storytelling quite well and really helps lead the reader along in what is, to be blunt, a fairly ridiculous outing for the Batman. However, Sheldon Moldoff's inks are not as good as last month, perhaps because this story is less dark and moody than Batman's fight against the Monk. Luckily, Kane's linework has improved enough that he doesn't have to hide in Moldoff's inks as much.
The Story: Gardner Fox apparently likes his stories big -- he must've seen a good movie serial the weekend he wrote this. However, the fast pace of the story works to its detriment. Downtown Manhatten is leveled and thousands are killed, yet this really has no impact on the rest of the story. The Scarlet Horde suddenly has two thousand members -- there is a feeling they come out of nowhere. Additionally, the Batman takes down only the dirigible, Kruger, and the death-ray machines, doesn't that leave the rest of the army still out there? It feels like we're only reading the climax of a story, removed and tried to make stand on its own. If this story where given a Modern Age re-telling, it would probably be spread out over six issues and given more thought and depth. So I realize its somewhat beside the point to criticize a ten-page Golden Age story for feeling rushed and unexplored. Again, an example of how writers in the Golden Age produced more story on a regular basis than comic writers today. On another note, unlike his last two villains, Fox would not attempt to bring Kruger back next issue, instead leaving him dead. However, just like his last two villains, he would be brought back by Gerry Conway in 1982 (was this all Conway did on his Batman run???), renamed as Colonel Blimp (rofl).
Notes and Trivia: First and final Golden Age appearance of Dr. Carl Kruger, second time Batman uses a gun,
Batman Body Count: 7, plus however many may have been on the dirigible

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Modern Age Batman Review: Batman and the Monster Men #1

In 2006, DC Comics published two Batman mini-series from Matt Wagner, forming a complete storyline called "Dark Moon Rising". Both series were retellings of Golden Age stories within the Modern Age continuity of the character, set within the closing moments of the "Year One" story-arc. The purpose of the storyline was stated as showing the transition of Batman fighting organized crime and petty criminals to the emergence of the freaks and colourful maniacs he would later fight and be deemed his Rogues Gallery. As such, the "Dark Moon Rising" storyline is set between Miller's "Year One" and Ed Brubaker's "The Man Who Laughs" one-shot.
The first mini-series, Batman and the Monster Men, is a retelling of a story from Batman #1, originally the second appearance of Professor Hugo Strange, it is re-imagined in the Post-Crisis timeline as Batman's first encounter with the mad scientist. The original story, "Professor Hugo Strange and the Monsters", ran twelve pages and was one of five stories in that issue. The retelling runs 140 pages and was spread over six issues.

"Batman and the Monster Men, Part 1"
By: Matt Wagner
Colours: Dave Stewart
Letters: Rob Leigh
The story is set within the closing panels of "Year One", after Loeb has been ousted as Commissioner and replaced by Grogan, but before the appearance of the Joker. That would place it in November of Batman's first year in Gotham. We get a good continuity reference right off the bat with a newspaper reporting the battle between the Batman and a mysterious villain called The Red Hood, which references a Silver Age Batman story as well as provides foreshadowing and background for several very important Batman stories set after this one.
The man holding the newspaper is Norman Madison, the irascible owner of Madison Industries, who is having breakfast with his young daughter, Julie. We discover Norman dislikes the Batman, and also dislikes the state of corruption in Gotham City. He sees Batman as a product of the madness of the city, and as spreading that madness to others, inspiring even the criminals to dress up in costumes, such as the Red Hood. We learn Julie is a young law student, and that she is dating one Bruce Wayne. Norman reminds Julie to bring Bruce to an upcoming charity ball.
Then we are introduced to a dark and mysterious individual working out to train his body to perfection. This individual works for the betterment of all mankind. He is... Professor Hugo Strange. Turns out Strange is a geneticist working with some unusual subjects, and is running out of money for his experiments. He will have to attend the Gotham Science Institute's charity ball to drum up some funding.
Meanwhile, out at the docks, the Batman takes down the henchmen of Sal Maroni, a lieutenant of mob boss Carmine Falcone. He learns that Maroni has been importing heroin in vast amounts to the city, but has apparently misplaced the last shipment. He cuts his night short, however, so that he may attend the charity ball as Bruce Wayne.
At the ball, we learn that Sal Maroni is an investor in Madison Industries, and as such considers himself Norman's associate. Julie shows up wearing a beautiful dress and introduces her father to Bruce. Meanwhile, Hugo Strange is after making his pitch to fund his research, when a young woman at the party implies that Strange's motivation to improve human genetics is merely selfish based on Strange's own short stature, glasses, and baldness. Strange ends up having to beg for funds from Sal Maroni, who has apparently been loaning Strange money for some time. Maroni bullies Strange for a bit, but agrees to loan him two grand.
With the help of his Sikh assistant Sanjay, Strange kidnaps the young woman who taunted him, and after stealing her money and jewelry, throws her in a dungeon where she is left to be apparently eaten by a group of mysterious monsters...
My Thoughts: This first issue does a great job of introducing the elements and players who we'll see throughout the rest of the arc. Wagner carries on in both writing and art style from "Year One" quite well, and integrates and updates the Golden Age concepts to the modern continuity. He gives Hugo Strange a turbin-wearing assistant like the early Dr. Death, as well as giving him a more believeable back-story and motivation than his original Golden Age conception as a Moriarty type figure. He also ties Strange in with the Falcone crime organization from "Year One", specifically in the character of Sal Maroni, a Golden Age mobster who was considerably re-invented in the Modern Age series The Long Halloween. Of particular note is Wagner's portrayal of Batman -- after a year in Gotham, having put the fear into the criminal element, this Batman is confident and optimistic. He believes he will win his war on crime and therefore is romancing Julie in anticipation of one day having an ordinary life. This is an interesting place to put Bruce before introducing him to his first extraordinary enemies, and was a psychology seen somewhat in the early parts of The Dark Knight feature film. This first issue is primarily expository in nature, but leaves us with a good cliffhanger for issue two.
The Art: Wagner's art is quite superb here, giving us a style that is reminescent of "Year One" but not attempting to copy it. Indeed, the characters are more stylized here, somewhat half-way between the "Year One" realism and the look of Bruce Timm's animated Batman series. However, Wagner creates an iconic look for both Batman and Bruce Wayne. He knows how to pose Batman and how to move him, and two panels border on iconic. His Bruce Wayne is definitive and a great look for the early version of the character. Also, Wagner's Hugo Strange is THE Hugo Strange, beyond the look of Bill Finger, Marshall Rogers, or Bruce Timm's look for the character. An interesting change is that Wagner's Julie Madison is a redhead, while her Golden Age counterpart had dark hair. Dave Stewart, colorist extraordinaire, worked on this issue, and he brings Wagner's semi-stylized art down to earth with a gritty palette based primarily in earth tones - reminescent of both "Year One" and Batman Begins.
The Story: Wagner's only setting things up here, so there's not much to say, but he does do a very good job of defining all the characters and their positions in the story. There's no confusion over any of the main players, and we look forward to seeing how their storylines will intertwine over the next five issues. Of note is Wagner's choice to make Julie Madison a law student, as opposed to her Golden Age version who was an actress. Some claimed this was to move Julie closer to the character of Rachel Dawes from Batman Begins, but Wagner says he began writing the series before that film was released, and changed Julie's profession to make her a stronger character and more logical attraction to Bruce Wayne. Also of note is that while Wagner retains the journal style narration for Wayne and Gordon from "Year One", he also gives each character an internal narration, with the caption boxes coloured differently for each individual, similar to Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns series.
Notes and Trivia: First Appearance of the Post-Crisis Julie Madison.

Golden Age Batman Review: Detective Comics #32

Well, our cover isn't as memorable as last month, but it does feature Police Chief Hitler throttling a Tommy Gun wielding Clark Gable.
Bad jokes aside, we continue with the Batman's pursuit of the mysterious Monk in the wilds of Hungary...

"Batman Versus the Vampire, Part Two"
Writer: Gardner Fox
Pencils: Bob Kane
Inks: Sheldon Moldoff
Synopsis: We begin with a spectacular drawing of the Batman by Bob Kane. It's mysterious and brooding and memorable, sure to influence the look of Batman in the works of artists such as Neal Adams and Bruce Timm. The Batman is tracking a carriage through the wilds of Hungary. (Editor's Note: By the time this story was written, Transylvania was located in Romania, but for years the home of Dracula had been within Hungarian borders). The Batman gases the occupant of the carriage, only to find it is a mysterious woman. He brings her back to the hotel where he is keeping Julie Madison. He keeps both in the same room, standing watch, but in the middle of the night the woman, Dala, awakes, sleepwalking, and knocks the Batman out with an Academy Award before escaping. When he awakes the Batman examines Julie to find two small marks on her throat -- the sign of the vampire!! Luckily, Dala hasn't gotten far (the yard of the hotel) and the Batman swoops down and captures her. He comes to the conclusion that Dala and the Monk are vampires and must be destroyed, but Dala pleads with the Batman that she is but a pawn and will help him to destroy the Monk.
The Batman leaves Julie behind and departs with Dala for the Monk's lair in the Bat-gyro, which is now called the Batplane, although it is still drawn as an autogyro. However, the Batplane is caught by a large silver net and pulled to the ground, as Dala has betrayed our hero to the Monk. The mad Monk puts the Batman under his mind control and leads him to the castle seen on last month's cover. He also telepathically wills Julie to them (they must not have been far away because she walks the whole way!). Julie sees the Batman under the Monk's control and exclaims "His eyes are suffering, but he cannot move!", which is actually pretty horrifying. The Monk threatens to put Batman into the Den of Wolves, and exclaims that soon Julie will be a werewolf like him and Dala.
But... I thought they were vampires???
Nuts to that, because the Monk transforms into a wolf before the eyes of Batman and calls a pack of wolves to a pit that he has placed the Batman in. However, the Batman gases the wolves and escapes by attaching his silk cord to his Baterang and roping a column above the pit and climbing out.
He finds Julie safe asleep, and then makes himself silver bullets by melting down a silver statue. In most stories, silver bullets are what kills werewolves, but occasionaly they kill vampires as well. Here they are said to kill vampires, but then the story seems to be confused on which Dala and the Monk are.
The Batman finds the vampires' tombs and shoots them with the silver bullets, killing both. Julie declares herself forever grateful to the Batman and they fly back to America.
My Thoughts: Part two continues on from last month in similar fashion, although the structure is more linear and less confused than in part one. Things flow logically forward, and we get more and better interaction between Batman and the Monk, although there is still no direct confrontation between Batman and one of his enemies. The introduction of the Dala character allows for a nice betrayal moment, but like with the Dr. Death story the climax is much too fast and sudden. Still, it's a fine, neat wrap-up to Batman's first two-part tale.
The Art: Once again Kane and Moldoff deliver very good work. Kane's become very good at delivering the Batman in spectacular poses, using his cape for good dramatic effect, while Moldoff's inks create the spooky, moody atmosphere necessary for both the Batman and this story in particular. The page illustrating the Batman's fall into the wolf pit is particularly well done and a great example of sequential art.
The Story: Gardner Fox's writing is certainly a lot better than the last three months, but the main nitpick this time is that he can't seem to decide if the Monk is a vampire or a werewolf or if both are the same thing. Certainly there has always been some overlap in the legends -- sometimes silver bullets kill vampires, and Dracula was said to be able to transform into a wolf -- but the confusion really causes the story to lose harmony. At the end of the day its a pastiche of old horror movies with Batman added, and would've been more than exciting for the children reading, who would not have cared about such distinctions. Also, Fox is to be praised for delivering the first really memorable Batman villain, a large improvement over Dr. Death -- although like Dr. Death the Monk would not reappear until a 1982 Gerry Conway story.
Notes and Trivia: First time Batman is seen to use a gun, first mention of the "Batplane", final Golden Age appearance of the Mad Monk
Batman Body Count: 6, if you count the destruction of the undead as a kill

Modern Age Batman Review: Batman: Turning Points #1

Turning Points was a five issue limited series published in early 2001, detailing the ups and downs of the relationship between Batman and Commissioner Gordon, across the whole of the characters' histories in the Post-Crisis DC Universe. Part 1 is set shortly after the "Year One" story arc by Frank Miller.

"Turning Points, Chapter One:
Uneasy Allies"

Writer: Greg Rucka
Artist: Steve Lieber
Colours: Tom McGraw
Letters: Willie Schubert
Synopsis: Now-Captain James Gordon returns home late, having missed another session with his marriage counsellor. He enters his apartment to find it empty, save for divorce papers left by his wife, Barbara, who says she has taken their son James with her back to Chicago. Gordon isn't given too long to feel sorry for himself, as he's called in to solve a hostage crisis at a Gotham cathedral. A man named Dr. Hale Corbett of Gotham University has taken a wedding hostage, and is wielding deadly force. Hiding in the bushes is Batman, who has yet to take action because he seeks Gordon's approval and trust. Gordon ascertains that Corbett lost his wife and daughter in a car crash that morning, and is now lashing out at the world. Gordon tries to reason with Corbett based on their shared feelings of loss, but isn't getting through. He covertly meets with Batman and gives him permission to take action. Batman breaks into the cathedral, spooking Corbett who nearly becomes dangerous before Batman subdues him.
Gordon goes home, tired and depressed, to find the Batman waiting there for him. Batman offers his sympathy for Gordon's recent loss, but Gordon grows angry and rejects the Batman's sympathy, stating they are not friends and accusing the Batman of knowing nothing about loss. The Batman counters that he knows more than Gordon thinks, and that "everyone needs a friend", before leaving.
My Thoughts: This story is mainly meant as a pastiche of "Year One" and on that level works fairly well, though it comes nowhere near the level of excellence of that seminal story-arc. The parallels between Gordon, Corbett, and Batman are well handled, and the story's emotional content is far stronger than it's rather pedestrian plot -- but then I think that's the point. The connection between Batman and Gordon goes beyond the uneasy alliance forged by circumstance in "Year One" and towards a more amicable relationship and bond.
The Art: Steve Liber is intentionally working in the style of David Mazzuchelli here, and occasionally it works. His Gordon is dead-on right, and his Batman is often very good, though sometimes doesn't look quite right. Lieber shows considerable talent and skill as an inker, but his actual line-work isn't a hundred percent up to par. He still does a very good job of evoking the world and characters created by Mazzuchelli in "Year One" -- aside from Gordon and Batman there are also appearances by Merkel and Branden. Unfortunately, Lieber's valiant efforts are somewhat undone by colourist Tom McGraw. While McGraw's colouring choices would've been right in any other book, in the context of aping the "Year One" style, they appear flat, primary, and out of place beside the work of Richmond Lewis.
The Story: Greg Rucka's writing is probably the saving grace of this short tale. He has a strong command of the personalities of both the "Year One" Gordon and Batman, and does a good job of aping Frank Miller's style from that book. He continues Miller's dual narration from Gordon and Wayne, while letterer Willie Schubert copies Todd Klein's different journal/writing styles for the two characters. Rucka gives a good portrait of Gordon, especially, continuing the style of "Year One" wherein Gordon was a main character and Batman almost a supporting one. Rucka gives good references back to "Year One" as well as clever foreshadows to later series such as The Long Halloween.
Notes and Trivia: First time Gordon's wife Barbara leaves him.