Friday, August 28, 2020

Where is Kiki: A Mop & Monkus Caper

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This was a very strange, but a very interesting read. Basically, “Where is Kiki” amounts to having the acclaimed veteran writer/artist Blutch revamping a pair of old time Franco-Belgian private investigator characters for the current audience. It was published by Europe Comics with the two characters translated as Mop & Monkus.

It’s not easy finding information in English about the background of the book, and the two detectives even go by their French names in their Wikipedia entry. What I was able to suss out is that over a period of several years, Blutch and his brother Robber developed this story, along with an in-universe companion novel refered to at the beginning of the album.

Having no personal previous experience with the characters, I was able to follow their latest adventure by linking them to Spirou and Fantasio, the famous Franco-Belgian characters that operated in a similar mold. And sure enough, Mop and Monkus are a pair of best friends and colleagues, one more serious than the other, being dragged to solve a complicated caper revolving around the kidnapping of their friend.

Blutch and his brother seemingly bend the concept to introduce the idea of these two characters as being non-fiction authors who document their investigations into a popular series of crime novels. This fuels the very beginning of the book, with a promo event for the afore mentioned tie-in novel slowly turning into the beginning of a new case for the duo.

The comic pages are dense with dialogue, but the plot is relatively easy to follow and the mystery very compelling, especially as it starts relating more and more to Mop and Monkus themselves. They go through a series of conversations with all sorts of personalities, punctured by brief but very memorable action scenes featuring outsized villains and tropes that would be at home in the characters’ original post WW2 heydey. The really over the top props appear relatively late in the book and help propel it to its action packed conclusion, while not detracting too far from the relatively grounded tone that preceded them.

Despite the camp factor, the plotting is very solid and the action grounded enough to work with Blutch’ style. Blutch himself of course is a master storyteller, with a very dynamic intuitive penmanship. Thus, the reader is treated to gorgeous and expressive characters set against life-like backgrounds in such a way that none of the art looks stilted. Moreover, the artist’s expressionistic style makes the characters’ caricatural faces appear all the more pronounced in this specific context. On the other hand, the pages providing the look into the titular Kiki’s life in captivity provide the artist for a chance to feature a surreal break.

When viewed as a part of Blutch’s ouvre, it’s very easy to consider “Where is Kiki” as a passion project that touches upon his childhood favorites. Likewise, by all accounts, it seems that following this ablum, Blutch will be going back to avantgard projects like “So long silver screen” that he’s best associated with.

As for Mop and Monkus, this revitalization will surely bring them back into the current conversation and will potentially lead to a more traditional revamp by a stable creative team, that would hopefully adher to some of the stylings featured in this very entertaining album.

Monday, June 8, 2020

Marc Andreyko’s Batwoman ends #35-40

It wouldn’t be Marc Andreyko’s Batwoman if the last chapter didn’t start with a flashforward and ended in an Annual. At this point, Jeremy Haun is off the book, to be replaced by Georges Jeanty. The veteran artist illustrates another over the top adventure featuring Kate, her sister and the oddball team alluded to in the Future’s end special.

Thus, we are treated to a second flash forward issue in a row, only this time we  are flashing towards a skirmish around a sattelite. Kate and her friends, which the book still has to introduce in a proper way, battle Morgane Le Fay and her inhuman hordes over a mystical McGuffin.

Seeing Kate and her sister in space suits is an image that intentionally breaks from the more grounded tone. Yet, despite the raised stakes, the reader accepts that contrary to the "Future’s End" Special bloodletting, all this could actually happen at some point.

It’s another thing entirely to consider if this sort of action should be happening in the Batwoman title. On the face of it, it reads almost like a team book, with Kate being a clear lead, but there is certainly not enough context to go on past the intentional controversy.

The next three issues then go back to slowly build towards this epic confrontation. The reader is thus introduced to the new incarnations of Etrigan, Ragman and Clayface, which are all fairly accessible considering that most of them are somewhat less popular characters.

More importantly, Alice is also being slowly reintroduced to the title, with a more measured approach than before. Starting out as a Joker to Kate Kane’s Bat(wo)man, the character’s return has been carefully seeded since the introduction of the idea that the two characters are twin sisters. 

It then stands to reason that once Beth is reintroduced, she would become a more balanced character. In this guise, she is an anti-hero calling herself Red Alice, but her reckless streak is severely underplayed.

This time around, Kate is portrayed as the bloodthirsty sister, with flashes of the vampiric bloodlust taking over her while in the Batwoman guise. For once these don’t read like dream sequences and actually feel directly relevant to the plot at hand.

As for the broader story, it ties to Morgan Le Fay’s return and the cult involved with resurrecting her by using the philosopher’s stone.

There are actually some interesting bits to her return, but this is still largely a character building story. Morgan’s irredeemably evil so the writer doesn’t really deal with her motivations beyond the stereotypical supervillain megalomania. She is there to draw all of these disperate characters together, and she has enough presence to fulfill that role.

Juan Jose Ryp fills in for Jeanty in the issue featuring Morgan's return, and his highly detailed work calls attention to itself. Georges Jeanty has depicted these characters a bit looser and less imposing, which fit the book’s tone, but at this point the reader should be used to the fill ins.

With the sales being what they were, it’s probable that editorial was already considering ending the run, so the artistic shifts are to be expected. 

Andreyko still goes through the motions and uses #40 as the last regular issue to reunite Kate and Alice, proceeds to dismantle the former’s toxic association with Nocturna and finally brings the conflict with Morgan Le Fey to the boil.

The Nocturna subplot had a mild outcry with some of the fans considering the villain’s actions as veering towards rape. And while the implication is certainly there, it’s a shame that this is why this run ended up being an object of discussion. As the character based subplots draw to a close, Andreyko saves the explosive finale for an oversize Annual.

The weird symmetry of his run, which begins and ends with Annuals cannot be overstated. To make matters more complicated, once again, the action picks up not from where the series' last issue ended, but from #35, the flash forward issue which introduced the readers to Kate's battle in space.

Taking all this into consideration, what to make of the Annual itself? It features Jeanty working in concert with fill-in artists, but thankfully the result isn't jarring. On the other hand, a weird story with reality reshaped to have Gotham appear as a medieval hamlet lorded over by Morgana Le Fey certainly won't be to everyone's taste.

It does at least put all of this to rest and ends with Kate reconnecting with Maggie. The smoothening out of the sore point of Kate Kane and Maggie Sawyer's relationship at this late date has more or less fell on deaf ears of the reading public. 

Thus, in a way Andreyko has completed the circle by having to wrap up his own plots in an Annual. The entirety of this run, especially in such close proximity to the work of J. H. Williams III before it, certainly makes a case that the follow-up creative teams would benefit from a proper relaunch, with some distance in between. 

Being in the position to directly continue the acclaimed work seemed to have forced the new creatives to scramble and try to make deadlines and enforce editorial edicts without being given enough time to truly consider the task at hand and really leave their mark with the character.

DC would return to Kate again a year later in the Detective comics team-up title, which ultimately spun-off a new Batwoman series. The work of Andreyko, Haun and Jeanty and the others continues to live on in collected form, tracking the development of a superhero character that was eventually given her own TV series. 

It is only when looking back at these issues that the reader will be able to appreciate how truly weird they were and the lengths these publishers go through to keep their characters in circulation and development.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Mark Andreyko’s Batwoman #32-34

Having finished with his introductory arc on “Batwoman”, featuring a back to basis approach, Marc Andreyko opts to slowly return to Batwoman’s supernatural adventures.

This is done in a three part story that starts off grounded, with the fatal seductress Nocturna being released from Arkham Asylum only to become targeted by a daughter of one of her former husbands. This being Gotham city, each of these women comes with their supervillain henchman, with Batwoman finding herself quickly caught in the crosshairs.

Likewise, the story begins with the precise art of then ongoing penciller Jeremy Haun, before the fill-ins start. The second issue has the looser and more energetic Scott Kollins filling in on some pages, while Moritat and Pia Guerra help out with the opening fight of the third and concluding chapter.

The three-parter teases a darker vampiric direction for Kate, characterised by her being drawn toward the villainous Nocturna and away from Maggie Sawyer. This kind of story would be harder to tell with a married Kate Kane, so at least DC was quick to actually utilize the protagonist’s single status.

Yet, they way they ultimately went about it is anything but conventional. 

This issue was followed up by a Future’s end tie-in special, taking place “five years from now”. At this point, Kate is a full blown vampire, bent on destroying Maggie Sawyer. We are exploring all this from her sister’s point of view, as Alice and a group of supernatural vigilantes allied with her try to put a stop to Kate’s crazed rampage.

We are told that Batwoman herself was involved with the group, patterned on Shadowpact, but that she has since given in to the vampirism. Thus, the issue works basically as a dark future for Kate, teasing some further developments in her title by taking them to their most exciting conclusion.

I will what all this ultimately amounts to tomorrow, as we finally say goodbye to Marc Andreyko's Batwoman run.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Marc Andreyko’s Batwoman begins #25-31

Once he got ahold of Batwoman, Marc Andreyko was tasked with a difficult assignment. The acclaimed creative team was leaving mid-storyline and the editorial was aiming for a change of course. The way his run ultimately ended up was anything but conventional, as can be seen from its multiple beginnings, strange interludes and several endings.

It could stand to reason to consider the Batwoman Annual as the start of Andreyko’s work. It was published just as the writer’s first storyline was drawing to a close, but it acts as the belated conclusion to the J. H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman's run. 

The Annual was collected with the beginning of Mark Andreyko’s run and placed as the first story, no doubt to try not to confuse the readers who first experienced these stories in their collected form.

Finishing the other creators’ work is obviously not an ideal situation as J. H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman had a different endpoint in mind, but Andreyko does his best to draw a complicated plot concerning the D.E.O. to a close. Thus, in the space of one issue, Batwoman’s fight with Batman and the freeing of Alice are retroactively dealt with alongside other stray plot points.

DC was able to at least get Trevor McCarthy, who illustrated the latter parts of the Williams/Blackman run to provide the majority of pencils here, but it’s clear that most fans won’t be happy with the Annual for one way or another. 

On the other hand, one could also consider Batwoman #25 as the start of Andreyko’s work, being chronologically the first issue published with his name on it. Yet, it was a tie-in to the Zero Year Batman storyline, telling an adventure of Kate Kane before she became Batwoman. Curiously for such a young character, the extensive flashbacks to her beginnings have already been featured several times at that point.

The major difference here is that this one-off heavily utilizes the socialite cousin of Bruce Wayne part of her origin that was never really the focus of previous stories. So, looking at it as the foundation of Marc Andreyko’s Batwoman, we have a story of a military trained young woman turned vigilante in the city’s darkest hour. It notably features both Kate’s father and her future fiancee Meggy Sawyer in the supporting roles, so it provides for a nice primer on the character and her motiovation. 

It also works broadly as a Zero Year tie-in, but it uses the status quo of that story so generally that it could be substituted for any other kind of Gotham city-wide blackout.

Again, this is all perfectly passable for a oneshot story, albeit one marred by several artists and apparent style shifts, which have come to plague the rest of Andreyko’s run.

Getting through with the prologue, it is in the next issue that Andreyko’s run really starts. Paired with Jeremy Haun, the writer posits a familiar version of the Batwoman, but with several key changes. 

Most notably, the title leaves the rich psychedelic trappings of J.H.Williams III and the artists who tried to fit in with his style, to be replaced by a streamlined and more functional noir aesthetic.

On the plot level, gone are the supernatural trapping to be replaced by a story of an art thief on a crime spree with ties to Gotham’s past. The new focus on Kate Kane’s socialite background helps ease the transition, but the real change comes with the cliffhanger of the storyline’s second issue. 

By calling into point the wellfare of Maggie Sawyer’s child being in close proximity to Batwoman, Andreyko creates the dynamic that would ultimately split the lesbian couple.

The proposed and ultimately vetoed marriage between the two characters was the stated reason why the previous creative team ultimately left the title. Seeing their relationship thrown into dissaray in the first couple of regular issues and even straddling Kate with a psychiatrist to deal with all this certainly showcases the editorial sticking to their decision. 

And while it could still be debated whether the real reason for stepping away from the lesbian marriage was the restrictions marital bonds put on the storytelling possibilities in the superhero medium, this story certainly treats it as such.

Reaffirming Kate’s focus on being a Batwoman comes in a story that is otherwise a lighthearted romp with the new villain Wolf Spider collecting the paintings and successfully evading capture. Thus, “Webs” features both Kate and her cousin Bette repeatedly failing to stop the art thief, as his targets get nearer and nearer to them, thanks to their high class background.

On the way, the Wolf Spider visits the Arkham Asylum and lets loose several villains that would reappear in Andreyko’s run, most notably Nocturna. 

By this time, Bette herself is also out of her role as the costumed superhero Firehawk and relegated to being Kate’s computer helper. Having the character basically take over the role Kate’s father played as Alfred to her Batman leaves Batwoman without a Robin on her side.

This by itself is nothing unusual, as Robin himself is notably absent from many of the Batman stories, but it certainly provides another way that the title has changed in such a short while. 

What we are left with by the time “Webs” ends is a much better paced action adventure comic that focuses on the title character to the exclusion of most of her former supporting cast, albeit saddled with much more prosaic plots when compared to her iconic clashes with Alice and the Medusa.

We’ll go over where the editorial and Andreyko ultimately took Batwoman tomorrow.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Batman #626-630: As the Crow Flies

Reading this 2004 Batman story after all these years was an interesting experience. In many ways, it acts as the prelude to Judd Winick's landmark Batman run, but there are definitely insights to be gained from looking at it alone.

For a start, this is a Batman story and a good one at that. It showcases the strengths of the character by building on what so many previous creators have turned his adventures into, in the process posing some interesting questions. 

By utilizing his famous villains and a generic status quo, it almost seems like a more adult interpretation of the famous Batman: The Animated Series.

Interestingly, the character himself is largely relegated to the role of a detective opposing Penguin and Scarecrow, who receive most of the character development here. Penguin is by and large playing the role of a mob boss, in line with the modern interpretation of the character, while the Scarecrow is depicted as his subordinate, desperate to please him. The story introduces another character as his assistant, but she is mostly kept to the sidelines in order to further the mystery. 

As for the central premise, it deals with the men allied with the Penguin being terrorised by fear and eventually hounded by a horrible Scarebeast. The principal antagonists are astonished that their plan to better control the mobsters has somehow turned awry, but the Batman will be the one to truly put a stop to the carnage and get to the bottom of things. And while an attentive reader will be able to piece together the identity of the mystery villain, that only serves as a testament to the story logic at work.

Winick is very self-assured when writing this story, featuring a lot of action and pacing it to build upon and maintain the momentum. He is at every point aided by the art team of Dustin Nguyen and Richard Friend, who provide a very brash and impactful version of Gotham city.

It may seem that an over the top detective story will be par for the course for the Batman titles, but not many of them have this level of craft attached to them. While a longtime reader has seen this type of story many times before, rarely has it been as engaging. We have seen Batman face hideous monsters before, we have seen him dealing with the power struggles in Gotham's underworld, these are all standard Batman tropes, but they are rarely this propulsive and entertaining. 

As for the foreshadowings of Winick's Under the Hood mega-arc, they are subtle but effective. In a way, the whole of "As the crow flies" feels like a creator getting used to the character while preparing to tell a more daring storyline. And while acting as a forerunner to a more acclaimed story might appear to diminish the creators' efforts here, this isn't done in any way to the detriment of the readers.

Without making any grand statements to the character like the famous "Batman: Hush" storyline that preceded it and in many ways set the stage for the idea of returning Jason Todd to the Batman titles, this story took Winick and a fresh off the Wildcats 3.0 Dustin Nguyen to the task of crafting a solid superhero story. They have certainly achieved this and turned "As the Crow Flies" into a story that will help new fans fall in love with the character and his mileu, and remind older readers of what "Batman" is like when it works.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Top Cow Talent Hunt Submission

And here's the illustrated part of my Top Cow Talent Hunt submission I mentioned before. Hope you'll give it a look. Enjoy.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Elsewhen: X-Men fan fiction by John Byrne

1. What is this and how it came to be

This is a project that has made some waves a year or so ago when there was a possibility of Marvel actually publishing it. Since the negotiations have seemingly died down, John Byrne has turned it into a webcomic that now has eleven full issues (and formatted as such) of professional level craftmanship featuring a beloved creator working on his signature characters. Yet, I've failed to find a serious consideration of the work so far. For most readers that are aware of it, "Elsewhen" exists as a curio that they may or may not be aware of, something seemingly to be enjoyed only by the John Byrne faithful.

Still, disregarding this body of work is to be doing it a disservice, especially in view of the likeminded projects that Marvel and DC have actually published. Byrne alone has a string of very similar projects, with "X-Men: The Hidden Years" being perhaps the closest comparison. With Marvel celebrating the 80th year of their characters and their forerunners being published in comics, it would not be out of place to have "Elsewhen" stand alongside the works like Mark Waid's "History of Marvel Comics" and the like.

In any event, it's easy to forget the significance of Byrne's X-Men run when viewed in the context of his own diverse bibliography. When compared to his then collaborator Chris Claremont, it would appear that his X-Men work, which launched him into stardom, was something that he grew out of, seeing as he dedicated himself to a swathe of different projects since. And yet, the beloved run has remained something that he is perhaps most known for and when taking into account the way that he has quit the title, it would stand to reason that he was left with misgivings and things he wanted to do had he stayed on.

Such a project as "Elsewhen" is therefore an opportunity to continue the work on his own terms and to take into account the myriad scenarios he wanted to do with the characters since. 

What the editorial is asking these creators when working on projects like the X-Men is to treat these characters as something of their own for the time being. Yet, once they inevitably step away, it's rarely after having fully developed their vision as they wanted. 

Its is not uncommon to hear the creators speak that they have stayed away from following the later incarnations of the characters they previously worked on, as they just don't identify with others people's stories.

Thus, having John Byrne continue his X-Men run is a natural progression of the idea of considering the work as his own and willing to go about it as he would have wanted to. Looking at it like that, it's very interesting to see the new X-Men comics that he has produced so far.

2. How does it work and what it's like

The project starts with a one-off issue that was all Byrne originally envisioned “Elsewhen” as being. The first thing that strikes the reader is that these pages feature completely finished pencils, which have yet to be cleaned up and inked. They still exhibit a high level of cratfmanship synonymus with the veteran creator, though. With Byrne's stated goal of not intending to have these issues inked and colored, it looks more like a work in progress than a standard webcomic. Yet each issue is broken down to feature both a title page, an early in the story double-pager, standard subplots and of course a cliffhanger, basically lacking only in inks and colors.

As for the plot, it starts off as a Savage Land adventure starring the cast of the X-Men. For a fan of Byrne’s work, it even brings to mind his original run on "Next-Men" for Dark Horse that ended with his superhuman cast being stranded in prehistoric times. The X-Men themselves retain much of the character they had in Claremont and Byrne's run, with the instantly recognisible artwork exhibiting much of the Neil Adams like precision and impact that he is known for.

Byrne evidently found working on all this exciting enough that he quickly restructured the oneshot to add further subplots which ended up propeling an extended run on the series. Thus, in the next issue the reader is treated to the start of the main plot that has the X-Men dealing with being attacked by Sebastian Shaw's Sentinels. Meanwhile, a Dark Phoenix-related subplot simmers in the background only to gain prominence later on. 

It goes without saying that these are comics for readers who are fans of Bronze Age X-Men and are intimately familiar with all of these characters as they were back in 1980. It is particularly attuned to the fans of Byrne’s own mini Marvel canon, calling back to everything from his work on “Marvel Team-Up”’ to the previously mentioned “X-Men: Hidden Years”. 

Yet, despite the guest stars that grow in number issue by issue, at it’s core this is a classic X-Men story, dealing with these characters as if they were fresh off the “Dark Phoenix” storyline.

In its best moments, the result is a cast that feels both classic and new at the same time, with characters unencumbered by years of continuity and diverging takes. 

Seeing a slightly edgy Wolverine run through the forest in the latest issue, pondering what he feels for Jean Grey manages to remind us of a time when reading about Logan felt uncertain and he was not the veteran superhero that has been explored inside and out in decades since.

3. What will become of it?

While the story has yet to conclude, it’s pretty clear what we are dealing with here. In contrast to Marvel’s X-Men currently undergoing their biggest and arguably most successful relaunch in twenty years, Byrne’s stories feel like a throwback to a different time. Yet, they are something that fans of the classic take on these characters have every reason to enjoy. 

If Chris Claremont was allowed to have an official continuation of his own trunctated run with “X-Men Forever”, there is no reason why Byrne’s “Elsewhen” should be relegated to the status of a fan fiction webcomic.

Hopefully at some point all these pages will be cleaned up, inked and colored and allowed to stand side by side with their 1980 forefathers. Perhaps not as equal, but at least as equaly valid as countless prestige format series published with these characters since. 

Byrne himself deserves no less for his contribution to these characters’ enduring appeal, and there’s no reason to think that the fans enjoying the Jonathan Hickman’s current run wouldn’t be able to appreciate these old fashioned comics that still read as strong statements in the Bronze Age superhero idiom.