Monday, April 13, 2015

Batgirl #35-40 "The Batgirl of Burnside"

Last month saw the completion of the first storyarc of the "Batgirl" revamp, which has since been lauded as both a commercial and critical success. The revamp has attracted significant attention from the debut of the character's costume redesign and was eagerly anticipated by an audience looking for something new in DC's output. The publisher has repeatedly faced criticism for failing to bring enough innovation in its line wide 2011 makeover. When contacted to follow up Gail Simone's "Batgirl" run, the new creative team was finally given a chance to do just that, create a modern superhero title that tried to reach out to current urban audience, consisting mainly of younger people.

By specifically targeting teenage girls, the publisher has seemingly given an unprecedented amount of freedom to artist Cameron Stewart and writer Branden Fletcher. And while Stewart's other commitments relegated him to a role of breakdown penciller and co-writer, they also allowed Babs Tarr to add her own touch on the pencils. The colorist Maris Wick's completes the creative team that has cemented the image of Batgirl for a new generation of fans.

The first issue starts slowly, asking the reader to trust the creative team as it exposes them to a new cast of characters and a change in the setting. Batgirl has moved to Burnside, a Gotham suburbia that for all intents and purposes functions as an extension to a college campus. Thus, most of the characters that populate the book tend to be young, trendy people, obsessing over self image and social media. This perfectly compliments the creative team's vision of Barbara Gordon as an overachieving post graduate that is trying to find a new place in the world for herself and her crime-fighting alter ego.

The creative team's debut calls back to the character's superhero past but in a way that provides a clear break from who she was. The in-story explanation goes on to add her longtime ally Black Canary to the supporting cast and introduces the conflict between the two that they try to resolve over these six issues. It naturally deals with the changes Barbara has been going through and the new ways she uses to battle the fashion conscious, off the moment threats that begin plaguing the lives of herself and her new circle of friends.

These pages show that everyone in Burnside is taken with the Internet culture and are thus easily manipulated by dating websites, tech savvy multimedia artists and reality TV stars, which are certainly a far cry from the serial killers and Batman rogues that the character has been dealing with in the past. Nevertheless, the creative team is careful to maintain a through-line between the episodic stories, dealing with a genuine threat behind the seemingly unconnected attacks at Burnside. It strikes right at the heart of Batgirl and once again calls into question her new way of life.

Every chapter of the wider story is similarly paced, starting dense with a wide variety of characters all feeding into the eventual conflict that resolves in well staged fights and ending on a cliffhanger that maintains the reader's interest in this new creative direction. There is a variety of well dressed, wispy new characters, but Stewart and Fletcher wisely choose to spotlight the few key people in Barbara's life, while purposefully leaving out return appearances from her father and Batman.

Both are repeatedly referenced, but it seems that the creative team has deemed their presence as something that would only distract from the story they were telling. It was imperative to make sure that the new tone of the book had more to do with "Scott Pilgrim" than Scott Snyder's "Batman" and in this respect, the book completely succeeds. Yet, the Bryan Lee O'Malley's young adult sensation already feels outdated when compared to the lifestyle trends depicted on these pages.

There's no doubt that "Batgirl"'s modern hipsters will feel dated in a decade or two, but as of now, they are presented in such a way that the new, and more importantly, teen audience can sympathize with them. Thereby, it makes sense that the larger threat uniting the individual enemies would come from the character's past. The creative team themselves seem to be confronting their own vision of Batgirl with the conservative past of the well trod Batman spin-off story model.

On one side, there is Black Canary questioning Barbara's every move and criticizing her media friendly new role as the Burnside's protector. Dinah is presented as a slightly older version of the female superhero that nevertheless ultimately embraces a new role for herself. What's preventing Batgirl from doing the same is Burnside itself, which continually reshapes to fit the latest social trends, the locale's relationship to its new suburban protector as fickle as the latest Internet sensation and easily manipulated by the unseen mastermind.

That the protagonist nevertheless manages to triumph and in every way that counts leaves her past behind is inspiring in all the right ways. Despite the hardships, Barbara Gordon still manages to establish new friendships, starts her academic career and finds herself entering a romantic relationship. None of these start off perfectly for the slim, long-haired heroine, and at one point near the end she seems like she will break from the outside pressure, but with the help of her friends, she find a new strength in herself to overcome the adversities and continues on with her life, stronger for the experience.

It's strange that such a female positive, life affirming story with a diverse cast was at one point painted as ignorant to the issues dealing with the transgender experience. The creative team had clearly contrasted the problematic depiction of a villain with a positive image of a well adapted cast member carried over from Simone's run, but it was apparently deemed too subtle by some of the more sensitive audience members.

Despite the controversy, the revamp can be deemed a success in every aspect, and has already lead to the establishment of the Black Canary spinoff. In fact, it will debut as part of the company's line wide makeover, inspired chiefly by "Batgirl"'s success. It has been announced that the series will continue with Babs Tarr providing full art, sans Cameron Stewart's breakdowns and there is every reason to think that it will grow even stronger. Now that the title has successfully established itself as an entity distinct from its dark roots, and has in fact crafted the narrative around the protagonist embracing her newfound freedom, the creative team should be set to likewise continue forward with their storyline. Their audience will only grow as books like "Batgirl" and "Ms Marvel" stop being exceptions and the industry starts providing entertainment for fans of all backgrounds, having finally found a way to market beyond their existing demographic.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Best of comics in 2014

Due to some other commitments, I have been unable to properly focus on the blog for the past two years. Hence the lack of posting, which also lead to me skipping this feature last year. I have tried to keep up with the reading which shapes the following, using the categories for my previous list.

Best Event Series

With both Secret Wars and Converge looming over their respective superhero universes, their 2014 event series already feel distant and fading into insignificance. This is particularly true when it comes to Marvel, who have managed to produce back to back two large event stories, the latter of which has by all means under-performed. Yet, despite its many faults, "Original Sin" felt like the better structured of the two.

Billed as a murder mystery pairing unlikely groups of heroes investigating the death of the Watcher, the series quickly dissolved into a prolonged treatise meant to excise Nick Fury from the Marvel universe in spite of his movie-like namesake. Jason Aaron has nevertheless found a way to make it reasonably entertaining, along with setting up a series of interesting tie-in stories in the company's superhero titles, based around a theme of secrets uncovered.

Mike Deodato Jr., on the other hand, used the series as a platform to experiment with interesting layouts, all while providing a solid foundation for the events taking place. Whether it was dealing with a large cast of Marvel's heroes or obscure Grant Morrison creations, the penciller never wavered and has produced a body of work that has brought him back to favor with readers who have since dismissed him as a solid house style professional. The company has seen its share of better executed events, but there have also been so many lackluster ones that a solid, if not unspectacular series certainly deserves to be praised.

Best Weekly Series

DC's increased focus on weekly series has made it logical to spotlight one of the company's efforts in that vein. Compared to "New 52: Future's End" and "Earth 2: World's End", "Batman Eternal" seemed the most logical choice. Spotlighting a rich corner of DC's line and exploiting it to the fullest makes the weekly stand out from its continuity heavy contenders.

Choosing just the right mysteries to spotlight and utilizing the Bat-Family to its fullest, the creative team has managed to maintain suspension for the entirety of the series. And while utilizing dozens of pencillers was always going to make for some jarring issues, the editorial has maintained a strong grip on the story department, effectively transforming the weekly to a main Batman title.

While the core "Batman" series has spent much of the year detailing the hero's new origin, "Batman Eternal" has used the central mystery of a multipronged attack on Gotham and Batman himself to introduce new characters into this corner of the DC universe, setting up the remainder of the line for the future. It remains to be seen if the editorial will be able to make the follow-up as exciting as this major entry in their line.

Best Storyline

Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples' "Saga" has spent most of 2014 trying to live up to the challenge set up by bringing the series into its second larger chapter. Following the conclusion of the introductory storyline contained in the first 18 issues (since collected in the hardcover), the creators have advanced the timeline to start again with a much slower paced affair.

The fourth volume of Saga mainly concerned itself with the growing strife between Marko and Alana as the relative calm has threatened to bring the new parents apart by introducing large challenges to their marriage. The added focus on the protagonists has meant the lack of space for many of the book's interesting supporting characters, at least until Dengo of the Robot Kingdom arrives to spin the series in a new orbit.

Fiona Staples' art remains the center that holds the colorful elements together, as her character designs and strong characterization continue to define "Saga". The creative team's decision to interrupt the publication between storylines to give the artist time to complete the digital artwork on her own schedule has prevented the title from digressions and one-offs and has since become a model that many of Images' series have tried to emulate.

Best Ongoing Title

Matt ("Hawkeye") Fraction and Chip ("Howard the Duck") Zdarsky's "Sex Criminals" has debuted in late 2013 and has since produced two storylines worth of character based comics, concerned with the topics of relationships and sexuality. Both Suzie and John are made into compelling multifaceted characters by the creative team that has managed to find a way to keep a test heavy comic well paced and informative.

Keeping the focus on indie flavored storytelling and away from the high concept premise of sexual superpowers, Fraction and Zdarsky have built an online community around the series, which speaks to the honesty of their work. Despite Zdarsky using models for his characters, the series seems vibrant and playful and open to explore such difficult questions as depression and anxiety, all the while portraying the couple as adults in a real relationship.

It remains to be seen if the genre trappings and the growing mythology will take the series away from its strengths, but as of now, it presents a completely accessible comic book title ready to be embraced by a wide audience.

Best Mini-Series

"Auteuer" was a high energy postmodern romp that presented a surreal look into a Holywood producer's nervous breakdown. Rick ("Black Metal") Spears writes a delightfully offensive series of events designed to keep the reader interested in the protagonist as he tries his best to restore his reputation and produce a horror movie in line with his aspirations. James Callahan produces highly original psychedelic artwork filled to the brim with homages and excellent cartooning.

What starts out as a gonzo comedy ends up turning into an over the top love story, with the promise of more to come. Judging by the quality of this debut mini-series, Spears and Callahan are welcome to continue to work with Oni press on any and all follow ups.

Best Webcomic

2014 was a year that Simon Hanselmann's "Megg, Mogg and the Owl" strip has found a home on the Vice website. The stoner comedy has been brought to a wider attention with last year's Fantagraphics edition of "Megahex" and for most of the fans, the weekly installments have been a way to continue following the characters.

The webstrip started with sketches and one offs before embarking on a longer narrative, involving the witch Megg and her cat Mogg flying off to Amsterdam. Following an encounter with the insatiable Werewolf Jones, their roommate the Owl follows suite and joins them in Netherlands. So far, this is not Hanselmann's best work, but the strips are uniformly well paced and diverting, allowing the reader to stay with the writer/artist as he prepares to work on "Megg's coven", the long form follow up to "Megahex".

Best Single Issue

2014 was also the year that finally debuted Grant Morrison's long awaited "Multiversity" project, consisting of a series of specials illustrated by different artists and bookended by oneshots featuring the current threat to the multiverse. And while a strange sense of nostalgia has found its way through most of the project, the "Pax Americana" special has remained a definite highlight.

Announced almost as soon as the end of "Final Crisis", the project has promised a Morrison/Quitely collaboration. The creative team bring the best out of each other, as evidenced repeatably through projects like "New X-Men" and "All-Star Superman" and their decision to produce a tribute to landmark "Watchmen" seemed like an interesting goal to aspire to.

Grant Morrison has maintained a controversial relationship with Alan Moore, the writer who has inspired his earlier works. It's interesting then to note that his take on Moore and Gibbons' classic is a success by all merits. In "Pax Americana", the creators produce a very ambitious work that boils down "Watchmen" and updates them to comment upon the new political realities and superhero stylings. Quitely patiently brings to life complicated layouts and character designs echoing both "Watchmen" and the Charlton superheroes that inspire them, making for what is without doubt the genre highpoint in 2014, a dense story that merits rereading and serious consideration.

Best Graphic Novel

For the five years, Farel ("Omega the Unknown") Dalrymple has been working on a strange story involving gangs of kid superheroes facing an apocalyptic dystopia. With a highly personal style, the writer/artist turns his first mainstream success into a teenage version of "Invisibles".

The story is told in several different time zones, featuring a large cast of characters and utilizing both science and magic to make sense of the many twists and turns. Yet, where Grant Morrison stepped away from giving concrete answers, Dalrymple is adamant to provide the readers with everything they need to understand the strange journey his characters take.

It would be easy to dismiss the book as well designed and masterfully rendered genre exercise, but the writer/artist injects so much of his own hopes and fears, that "The Wrenchies" becomes a truly singular experience. It's easy to spot a number of flaws inside such a sprawling story, but none of them keep it from being less than a sum of its parts. The graphic novel deserves all the accolades it is getting and hopefully it will find a way to a large audience prepared to fall under its spell.

Best Writer

2014 was also a year where Charles Soule begun working in earnest for Marvel. The prolific scribe has written the "Death of Wolverine" event for the company and has continued to be involved with its followup weekly series, but it was his work on "She-Hulk" that did the most to endear him to fans.

As a practicing lawyer, Soule 's job was to marry his own legal experience with a take on She-Hulk most recently seen in Dan Slott's run. Debuting as one of the books inspired by the success of "Hawkeye", "She-Hulk" paired Soule with Javier Pullido who has even worked as a replacement artist on the Fraction and Aja's quirky hit.

And while the creative team never managed to secure similar attention, they nevertheless produced a strong book. Compared to Soule's work on "Inhuman", She-Hulk never had the same editorial attention but it also provided for a much more authentic reading experience.

For those who have kept up with the book, it was apparent that the creative team had a high command of the form and approached it as a true labor of love. Pullido was adept in bringing the most out of the wordy dialogues and brought a definite retro flavor to the proceedings. The readers can only hope that Marvel will be able to re-team the two, or at least to try to pair him with another artists with such fluid layouts and a strong sense of character design, which bring out the best in his scripts.

Best Artist

A longtime webcomic author, Emily Carrol has collected some of her previous work, which was paired with new stories and published last year as "Through the woods". Working in Edgar Allan Poe, the writer/artist presents her dark fairy tales with minimal dialogue, perfectly integrating the prose captions into artwork that is fully realized in blacks, blues, browns and reds.

And while all of the stories present capable examples of strong storytelling, "A Lady's hands are cold" stands out as particularly effective. The reworking of the tale of Bluebeard is a very strong piece of comics, working assuredly to its grisly end by utilizing a series of techniques that could easily have confounded a lesser artist.

The inventive compositions, coupled with repetitive poetic narration are by no means relegated just to this story. The book opens with "Our neighbor's house", a chilling gothic fairy tale, while "His face all red" works with same potency even when reformatted from its original webcomics format. The two longer pieces that make up the latter part of the book feel slightly less accomplished, with "The nesting place" particularly seeming overlong and unnecessarily cruel. Yet, it's hard to complain about a short story collection that is concludes with an epilogue as strong as Carroll's.

Seeing the writer/artist's take on Red riding hood work so splendidly in such a short space alloted for it, serves as one final reminder of Carroll's superior command of the comics form and bodes well for her career in her chosen field, as well as the readers who can expect much from her in the years ahead.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Men of wrath #1-5

2014 saw the debut of long-time Marvel exclusive creator Jason ("Scalped", "Wolverine and the X-Men") Aaron's first creator owned project. Released by the publisher's Icon imprint, reserved for the rare few talents that have previously produced a large body of work for the company, "Men of Wrath" reunites the writer with his frequent collaborator, artist Ron ("Captain America") Garney. The mini-series is the veteran artist's first creator owned project, while Aaron is concurrently publishing "Southern bastards" for Image.

"Men of wrath" is reportedly the first project the writer has begun following his long run on Vertigo's "Scalped", drawing somewhat on his own family history. A murder at the dawn of the 20th century introduces a bloody and pessimistic generational saga of a family of killers. The readers are introduced to Ira Rath as he dispatches his latest targets in a way that makes it challenging to sympathize with him. Yet, by beginning each issue with a flashback to a member of the family, the writer nevertheless tries to inform the reader of the events that have lead to the creation of the seemingly unrepentant murderer. The plot involves the terminally ill man deciding to take one last job - a hit on his own estranged son.

In many ways, this is not the book the readers could have expected from Jason Aaron. The writer has presented a much more nuanced way in his neo-noir offerings and even his escapades into mainstream superheroes have been over the top in their grindhouse influences. "Men of wrath" hues much closer to the excess of Frank Miller's "Sin City", cutting a large swathe of blood all over its five short issues.

Most interestingly, the reader is denied the filter that usually accompanies stories starring anti heroes. In Aaron and Garney's hands, the violence is not in the least sanitized, nor is it restrained to the typical dramatic moments. Both the protagonist and the antagonists are quick to eliminate anyone who inconveniences them, even when it comes to police officers and the clergy. Human lives are very cheap on these pages, but the book still retains something of a moral center in the form of Ira's son.

At first, Ruben seems like a small time criminal, but his care for his pregnant wife quickly provides the impetus for the central conflict. Contrasting with his father's towering physique, the young Rath is depicted in regular clothes, sweaty and always on the run. Unfortunately, their final confrontation is one of the book's weaker scenes, even as it covers the necessary narrative beats.

Despite this, the book maintains a frantic pacing and succeeds in most of the longer set pieces, providing several interesting twists and turns and ultimately manages to wring a modicum of sympathy for its lead character. Garney's layouts are always clear and staged well, yet the second part of a story adds to the rushed feeling of the proceedings. The pages gain a more kinetic tone, but when read together, they provide a noticeable shift, no doubt due to the scheduling limitations.

The final issue calls back to Frank Miller once again in featuring several black pages punctuated only by narrative captions. In many ways, "Men of wrath" seems an outlier in the current comic book landscape, harkening back to a style that has never left action cinema.

Taken as a whole, the book is a thematically sound, yet very aggressive work that sternly pushes the reader through a hideously bleak moral landscape before making its point. While not wholly successful, it is still an interesting mini-series that provides a different sort of story contrasted to its creators usual offerings. It may lack the style of "Sin city", yet it is likely that the readers would enjoy what it has to say about family and the manner in which it is told more than some of Miller's latter works in the series.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Hulk #5-10 "The Omega Hulk"

"The Hulk" has been having a weird time lately at Marvel. Following a successful run featuring the "Planet Hulk" storyline, the character had a sustained period of growth during the previous decade, bringing the company to expanding the franchise into several sister books. Despite the efforts of the editorial, the last few years have seen a bevy of takes and relaunches, with the acclaimed writer Mark ("Daredevil") Waid leaving the series shortly after the launch of his second successive take on the character.

Following the crossover with "Iron Man", capitalizing on the two characters' appearance in "The Avengers" movie, the company had decided to allow Gerry ("Deadpool") Duggan to take over as the writer, while Mark ("Ultimate Spider-Man") Bagley stayed on as the penciller. The new writer debuted with a clear statement of intent, albeit one that harkens back to a previous era in superhero storytelling.

Using Waid's set-up involving a bullet wound in the brain of the Hulk's alter ego Bruce Banner, and Iron Man's subsequent cure, the creative team have paved the way for Doc Green. Debuting as a supremely confident mad genius in the mold of Doc Savage, this Hulk has gotten ready to cut a swathe through the Marvel universe, effectively undoing a series of creative decisions made in the last ten years. The character's immediate plan seems to consist of depowering various other characters that have been imbued with Hulk-like abilities. Considering that most of the book's original cast has recently been remade into monsters, the decision has to do with the character bringing back his status as unique in the Marvel universe. On the dramatic level, Doc Green's confrontations with close friends and family members carry the additional charge requisite to making the scenes interesting.

Yet, most interestingly, the book itself seems transported back into yet another superhero era, that of the post "Authority" mature take on superhero power fantasies. Following Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch's groundbreaking superhero epic, a number of then-current mainstream books have tried to embrace the darker elements and the more nuanced portrayal. Most pertinently, Dan Jurgen's "Thor" was transformed from a modern day Kirby pastiche into a graphic novel detailing the character's descent into megalomania.

What makes "Omega Hulk" a call back to different era starts with the titular character's personality makeup. Presented as a calculating super genius, the character nevertheless maintains a sharp focus that coupled with a dark sense of humor makes reading his adventures interesting. Just like the unrepentant protagonists of books like "Planetary" and "Wildcats v3", Doc Green acts above the ordinary tropes of superhero comics, to enact his own mark on the world. The book truly feels like anything could happen in it, leaving the reader at the mercy of the Machiavellian monster that has taken over the body of the Marvel universe mainstay.

Doc Green feels no obligation to rationalize his actions to anybody, with the character's strength allowing him to simply go where his pleases and let his intelligence take control of the situation. In the most direct nod to "The Authority", the character even uses the same teleporting technology of the Ellis/Hitch superhero team, which is at one point identified by name by one of the supporting characters. Mirroring the Wildstorm flagship's debut, Duggan's story begins with the character's retaliation against a North Korea stand in. Yet, for the remainder of this opening arc, the Hulk seems poised to clean his own corner of the Marvel universe, before returning to take an active role in the Earth's politics.

All this is realized by Mark Bagley's clear and energetic layouts which bring a welcome sense of consistency that is rarely seen in superhero books of today. In a book filled with a large cast of characters meant to emulate the Hulk, there is never a sense of confusion when it comes to the inevitable fights. Following Duggan's debut, the creators structure each issue to have a strong fight sequence with a different member of the extended Hulk family. Aided by the inks of Andy Hennessy, the penciller manages to instill a sense of danger in each of these sequences, while never relying on gore or shock tactics. At this point in his career, the veteran artist is a consummate professional managing to bring a strong sense of storytelling to his pages and except for some Doc Green's attire, succeeds in realizing the story.

The reader is lead to see the awe in bystanders' reactions to the mohawk-wearing protagonist, but by the end of the first of the promised two storylines, the reader is lead to discover that even the haircut foreshadows future events. Redefining the invulnerable anti-hero as the "smartest one there is" has brought back a measured approach that makes the conflicts in the book that much more interesting. Doc Green engages all the other characters as inferior and delights in cruel taunts, but his central conflict is that with himself. Following Waid's cue, this Hulk's relationship with Bruce Banner is another of the many reversals that the readers have been treated to previously, much like the character's previous smarter incarnations the writers have made him exhibit.

Yet, with the upcoming "Secret Wars" wholesale redefinition of the Marvel Universe, the creative team genuinely seems to have their hands free to produce a year's worth of stories that are free to severely alter the status quo. At this point, it doesn't matter in what way the company will reconfigure one of their perennial favorites following the event, as long as they leave Duggan and Bagley to complete their story on their own terms. On the face of it, "The Omega Hulk" seems to be yet another in a long line of divergent takes on the character, but with the adequate follow through, the creative team could well leave the readers with the story on par with "Planet Hulk", but with a sophistication and charm all of its own.