Thursday, August 28, 2008

king edward potatoes

Sting of the Zygons

This is undoubtedly the best Stephen Cole book I’ve read. It is, if I’m not mistaken, the first historical Doctor Who he’s done (at the very least, for the new series) and I’m pleasantly surprised at how well he does in the genre. It helps, of course, that he’s working with Robert Banks Stewart’s cracking good idea, but to be absolutely fair, Cole writes the Tenth Doctor extremely well. Justin Richards didn’t quite capture him in The Resurrection Casket, and I don’t remember being particularly impressed with the Doctor in Feast of the Drowned. The story is good enough to keep the action going for the length of the madcap adventures, and there are a surprising number of interesting supporting characters. Jolly good show.

The Zygons are wonderful monsters, and planting them in the Lake District in 1909 is very droll indeed, even though Martha should have remarked in “Human Nature” at some point about getting to know the bloody Edwardians very well. Maybe she did, we weren’t privy to all of her thoughts. I love the matter-of-fact way Cole introduces our heroes: Skinny and dark-eyed, he looked to be in his thirties but was really far older. . . . then turned to the slim, attractive black girl who was hovering in the police box’s doorway. (Of course I do love the way Simon Guerrier keeps talking about the Doctor’s hair and eyes in The Pirate Loop . . .) The pacing for the first few chapters is excellent and includes the Doctor and Martha rip-roaring through the countryside with a “young buck” named Victor in his Opel. Victor is a lovely character, full of great (I assume) period vocabulary. He doesn’t fall in love with Martha but seems genuinely impressed by her smarts, eh what. I also like how Lord Haleston, our token naturalist, describes Martha, very much in contrast with the way the Doctor describes her on the same page: . . . a striking girl from the colonies . . . “she’s an expert in the very latest medical training.”

While Guerrier exploited Martha’s lovesickness for the Doctor at every opportunity—and hey, I would do the same—Stephen Cole prefers to ignore it altogether (he did that with Rose, too, in The Monsters Inside; methinks he’s not a touchy-feely kinda guy). Nevertheless, their partnership is great fun. There’s a hint of the irrepressible Martha from “The Shakespeare Code” (though at the time I remember that annoyed me about her) as she compares their experience to Gosford Park. She and the Doctor play stone-scissors-paper to get the biggest room in the inn (not sharing this time, oh no, and Cole’s lack of angst on this was barely noticeable) as well as to get the first bath. The Doctor taking a bath in a tin bath and a jug of hot water in a freezing cold room is an amusing image, and I mean that in the least dirty way possible.

I’m surprised that when the Doctor and Martha meet Claude Romand, the docu-dramatic journalist from Paris, he isn’t reminded of a similar Parisian named Ledoux he met in the Exposition in 1900—but then, it was a long time ago to him. There was a kid in The Clockwise Man, and one in Winner Takes All, I believe, but all quite boring in comparison to the rambunctious (and appropriately named) Ian. Somehow his relationship with Martha reminded me of Mary Lennox and her governness in the musical of The Secret Garden, which gave the atmosphere a buoyant, fun quality—though Cole can turn on the horror on a whim, and there are Zygons lurking in unexpected bodies. The bouncy, terribly witty Doctor almost makes talking to cows believable, but I smelled an Important Plot Point brewing, and I was right. (To be fair, the Doctor and Destrii walk off into the sunset talking to cows at the end of The Flood, so a precedent has been set.)

If you haven’t seen “Terror of the Zygons,” you might be at a bit of a loss to visualize the Skarasen pet/hench creatures/food banks of the Zygons. You might be at an advantage, though, as Tom Baker being chased by dinosaurs in Scotland was a visually memorable image from the TV serial but maybe not one that stands up very well to the test of time. The Zygons are formidable enemies because they can change shape, they look horrid and their eyes are always “full of hate,” their sting is deadly (indeed, one tries to get the Doctor’s shirt off in order to sting him), and in this story, they’re majorly pissed off. I like that Cole tries to bring real motivation to monster baddies because they’re desperate, starving, and using their own children to help them survive. ‘Please,’ it said. Lowering his arm, the Doctor stared in disbelief. ‘You what?’ ‘Please.’ The Zygon raised its huge, misshapen head. There was something raw, almost desperate in its feral eyes. ‘Oh.’ The Doctor felt a twinge of guilt for getting its hopes up.

I’ve never quite understood why the Doctor needs to tell Martha this over and over—‘Never waste time in a hug.’ While the Doctor is full of frenetic energy in Sting of the Zygons, the country is populated with twits with guns and cyborg dinosaurs, parts of it really are Martha’s show, and it reminds me just how much I love Martha. My favorite scene is the end when Martha is surprised by Romand and Victor both kissing her hands in a friendly farewell gesture. I almost thought she was going to kiss Victor like she did Riley in “42.” Ah well, she found her man anyway, didn’t she? I haven’t had as much fun since The Pirate Loop!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

doctor who: the world shapers

Didn’t John Ridgway’s hand get tired, drawing all of these Sixth Doctor comics unassisted? I really enjoyed this collection, and I’m not afraid to say I’m a Frobisher fan. He works really well with the Sixth Doctor and Peri.

The first story, Exodus/Revelation/Genesis, seems to have taken influence from The Grapes of Wrath and feels a bit like Justin Richards’ Dreams of Empire in its settings at least. In any case, Alan McKenzie writes 6 with a lot of affection and understanding, though he lets Peri be this Doctor’s conscience, much as Rose was for the Ninth Doctor originally. Unfortunately, the only thing I think Ridgway can’t draw very well is Peri! She improves as the collection goes along, but she never quite looks like Nicola Bryant. On the other hand, he’s superb at capturing Colin Baker’s expressions and body language. Peri and Frobisher being imprisoned during most of the story is a bit lame, but it does allow the Doctor to work on his own. There’s a great, huge, one-page panel of a half-human, half-Cyberman construct strangling someone as the cliffhanger to part two. The villain turns out to be someone who looks like Albert Einstein—“everyone laughs at a funny-looking little man!” to which the Doctor’s retort is, “Oh, it’s not so bad! I was one myself a few regenerations ago!” The comic ends adorably with the Doctor carrying the ailing Frobisher!

Nature of the Beast starts unpromisingly with Peri almost half-naked again. That, however, is followed by a very funny scene of the Doctor retelling a boring story to Frobisher and Peri. “I think I prefer him depressed . . .” Appearances are deceptive in many ways in this story, which includes a delightful sequence of the Doctor drawing on his experience from being Peter Davison and throwing a rock à la a cricket ball! I don’t know why the story reminds me of “Nightmare of Eden”; perhaps it’s the monster running amok, the misguided crew, the clandestine love affair with someone believed dead? Long before the Ninth Doctor told Rose about how humans are more flexible in the future with who they “dance” with, he chides Peri’s close-mindedness over an inter-species love affair.

Time Bomb is imaginatively drawn, Frobisher works out of his mono-morphia, there are humanoid-dinosaurs, but it’s uncharacteristically morbid when corpses launched from a time cannon start showing up all over prehistoric Earth. Salad Daze is entirely silly, and Peri has changed clothes and hair styles, which normally would be a good thing, but I kept thinking she was Nyssa! Her personality is certainly more like Mel’s, in any case, as she tries to get the rotund Sixth Doctor to eat his veg. Instead, she’s rather condescendingly tossed into an Alice in Wonderland dream-world and vows to go make the Doctor chips upon her return. The whole thing is validated because of a superb drawing of the Sixth Doctor in classic Colin Baker mode that forms the last panel.

Changes sees Peri borrowing Sarah Jane’s clothes (!) in another slightly “Nightmare in Eden”-esque tale. A shape shifter is lose in the TARDIS, and the Doctor and Frobisher have to find it before it gets Peri. There’s a wonderful insight into the Doctor’s character—he keeps a zoo, a “way station for endangered animals,” in a premonition of The Last Dodo. Some very cute drawings illustrate this. Frobisher has a wonderful sense of humor that echoes Peri’s as well—“Add to that information the fact that our intruder has been able to drain energy from the TARDIS, and what do you get?” “Hopelessly confused?” Another absolutely classic ending as the Doctor asks, “Tea, anyone?” (And a bit prescient of “The Christmas Invasion,” actually.)

Profits of Doom by Mike Collins is actually very, very funny due to slug-like aliens who are Ferengi with guns and a better vocabulary (“You cannot trust Gallifreyans—they’re zero tax rated!”). It actually reminds me a bit of Alistair Lock’s brilliant sci fi parody radio plays. Kara McAllista, “maintenance, third class,” on the ship that will eventually bring life to the future planet of Arcadia (remember “Fall of Arcadia” from the Time War?) is one of the better supporting characters I’ve read in comics. She’s funny, intelligent, and very confused. The storyline is something of a mishmash of ‘80s corporate culture and Colin Brake’s Colony of Lies, but it’s better than the average space opera.

I really liked Jamie Delano’s The Gift. I don’t know what it is, but the Sixth Doctor gets undressed a lot in these comics. He’s on the beach here with Peri (in a bikini—watch that drool, gentlemen) when they decide to take up Frobisher’s exhortation to go to a party. There’s something of Simon Guerrier’s “Categorial Imperative” in the atmosphere of a birthday party for the 21-year-old Lorduke of Zazz, which isn’t a bad thing. For once Peri gets a good costume—1920s flapper—and you can imagine the decor of Zazz is going to be semi-Jazz Age. Fantastic. The Lorduke himself is a fun character, perfectly capturing a 21-year-old’s combination of enthusiasm and ennui. The Doctor proves he can dance looooong before “Moonlight Serenade.” The Lorduke’s misfit but ultimately harmless brother wrecks the birthday party, and it’s up to Frobisher and the Doctor to stop his machinations. There’s a hilarious meta-fictional scene as a “Monektoni Shug faces oblivion.” The best part of this story, though, is that music comes out as the ultimate weapon in defeating mindless robots. This involves the Doctor writing a score—“It’s not Count Basie”—that a deranged band of Zazzian musicians have to play. It’s truly inventive.

Call me a pushover, but I also loved The World Shapers, even if it relies on fan wank continuity. The Doctor, Peri, and Frobisher land on Marinus (!) where a dying Time Lord’s TARDIS is represented as modern art in a breathtaking, purely Ridgway panel. The Doctor notes that two TARDIS gossip when they meet. They find out they have to go to Planet 14 and have to pick up Jamie McCrimmon on the way! “Mad Jamie” is old, still living in the Highlands in the 18th century, and doesn’t look a thing like the pushing-70 Frazer Hines does now! There’s a truly sweet panel as the Doctor embraces his old best friend and says, “I don’t care how old you are, Jamie. You’re still my friend and I’m counting on your help.” On Marinus, the Voord have evolved into Cybermen! The Doctor gets to kick @$$, and Jamie goes out in a hero’s death that brings a tear to this fan girl’s eye. “Just like the good old days?” “Aye, Doctor.” Now, you may be wondering, as I was, how Jamie could possibly remember the Doctor considering his mind was wiped by the Time Lords in “The War Games.” Well, Grant Morrison worked around this, brilliantly I might add—“That’s what they [the Time Lords] thought, too, Peri. Fortunately their understanding of the human mind is fairly limited.” Good news for fan fic writers everywhere!

Very, very good collection.

the man who laughs

When I saw Ed Brubaker’s Batman: The Man Who Laughs on the graphic novel shelf in the public library, I thought I had hit the jackpot because, along with Frank Miller’s vaunted Batman: Year One, Tim Sale’s The Long Halloween, and The Joker’s Last Laugh, it was on my list of Batman graphic novels I specifically wanted to read. At this point (like a stalker) I’ve done my research (on Wikipedia at least) and know that The Man Who Laughs replicates the original 1940 Joker introduction tale by Bob Kane and Bill Finger (who were looking to imitate a silent movie actor; life imitates art imitates life?). One thing I don’t quite get is the constant need for reinvention in Batman, as it makes keeping up with the comics, especially if you’ve got conflicting origin stories (which happened to some extent with Jonathan Crane in Scarecrow Tales but more so with the Joker), challenging to say the least. At the same time, I know it make sense—look at all the times the Cybermen have been revamped. The Doctor’s predicament was of course changed in “Rose” with the invention of the Time War.

The Joker started out in 1940 (as is faithfully represented in the Brubaker story) as a psychotic madman. Censorship laws in the ‘50s and ‘60s sanitized him into a harmless trickster and thief (which is more of what I’ve seen in the Harley Quinn stories). But by 1973 he was back to his insanely murderous self. No one has ever found out the Joker’s real identity—which, in the land of Batman where all the heroes and villains have alter egos, is quite unusual—though a Dini story (I think) postulated he was once a man named Jack Napier whose wife and unborn child were murdered. It’s in The Killing Joke that he claims to enjoy having a “multiple choice” history which Nolan exploited so brilliantly in The Dark Knight.

I had a friend on who wrote Joker-centric fic, and she completely threw out the Kane/Finger origin, claiming it was really lame. Lame or not, I suppose it would drive someone insane, and it’s slowly brought to life in Brubaker’s story, viscerally pencilled by Doug Mahnke. The Man Who Laughs is not cuddlesome. It starts out with really disturbing mutilation—akin to the Nolan!verse Joker who likes to share his Glasgow grin with people, this Joker kills by using a poison that turns people’s skin white, their hair green, their lips red, and they die with a “rictus grin” on their faces. It understandably disturbs Batman and Captain Gordon, both of them at the dawn of their careers here. Gordon in particular is drawn and written very well. It’s clear to me why he is one of the Bat-verse’s most beloved characters.

Batman shares his theory with us—at one point he was pursuing a gang of thieves at Ace Chemical Processing, whose leader wore a red hood—ergo, he was called Red Hood. While Batman was chasing him, he fell into a vat of chemicals. “Can it be this simple? Joker and the Red Hood are one and the same? . . . Problem is, there are big differences between them. The Red Hood never killed anyone and Joker kills with almost every breath he takes. . . . If his plunge into chemical waste did DISFIGURE him, then revenge would be a typically paranoid response. Blaming others for his own actions.” So because of this, Mahnke’s Joker is drawn very similarly to the 1940 Joker—though curiously he has displayed a penchant for painting his nails black, unless that’s from the chemical as well!

As in the Nolan!verse, the Joker has gangs of machine-gun wielding clowns, he uses TV to broadcast his victims’ fates, makes assassination attempts on individuals (usually ones with lots of money), though his final “trick” is a lot more like the Scarecrow’s attempted one in Batman Begins. Sometimes it’s scary how well Batman and the Joker understand each other—which of course the Joker never fails to emphasize. “His fall was into a vat of toxic poison that spilled out into what should have been a clean bay. So he poisons Gotham’s water supply, and everyone dies laughing. In his sick mind, we’re all to blame just for being alive. I understand that now. That paranoid anger and hate. He may be a genius, but that hate is all he knows.” Overall I have to accede that this Joker isn’t as witty and funny as the versions I’ve come to expect, but I suppose he is embryonic in a sense. The first hand-to-hand combat scene with Batman is just superb—Batman can’t knowingly kill even someone this evil—à la Tom Baker’s Doctor who can’t get rid of the Daleks even knowing what kind of harm they are going to cause for all time.

I should mention as well that Batman’s variety of disguises gets more and more Pimpernel-like by the minute (though I don’t suppose it would really work in the films), and the story “invents” the use of the Bat-signal.

Again, another of the puzzling things about Batman comic collections is how they tend to thrown in early stories with ones that clearly take place much, much later—and expect you to catch on right away just because one character’s hair has turned white! Ed Brubaker writes and Patrick Zircher draws (with delightfully atmospheric covers by Tim Sale) Made of Wood, a very continuity-heavy story that has absolutely nothing to do with the one before it. It’s quite interesting, and again drawn by a master, but I had to read it a couple of times to understand it. In addition to Zorro who, according to James Robinson in Blades, the young Bruce Wayne idolized, he was also a fan of the Green Lantern, a Superman-ish hero from the 1940s. Hold on, you say, wasn’t Batman fighting crime in 1940? Well, that’s where it gets confusing.

In Made of Wood, Batman has to team up with the Green Lantern (who apparently doesn’t age) to rescue the aging Commissioner Gordon (who is retired, with daughter Barbara in a wheelchair) from a four (?) decade-old case where the victims are mutilated with the words “made of wood.” It’s an intriguing set-up, but Green Lantern is a bit stiff for a superhero, and the villain at the end must have crawled out of the “Countrycide” episode of Torchwood. The high point of this tale is definitely the art. There are some great close ups of Bruce Wayne and the action shots are also impressive. It’s interesting to see all these tales trying to take up what the effect of real superheroes on real communities would be.

All in all, a good collection, though.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

batman: death and the city

At last, I’m beginning to get a sense of chronology in these things. Death and the City must take place after Detective, as that begins the twisted magician Loxias thread, as well as “Slayride” which figures heavily continuity-wise in the last story. And it must take place before Gotham Central, as the character Bullock appears here without all the baggage from “Unresolved.” This is, of course, another thread supervised by Paul Dini, whom as you know is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers for Batman.

The cover features a really striking painterly/charcoal-y drawing by Simone Bianchi, who may or may not be a woman. His or her art throughout giving the series’ individual covers is very striking, and while not always to my taste, does the series proud by looking somewhat like art by Felicien Rops. In particular, the cover to “Sharkbite” gives a beautiful Bruce Wayne half in, half out of costume (I mean he has the mask removed; gawd, I’m not that dirty!). Most of the interior pencilling is by Don Kramer, who works well with the expositional Dini style. “Double Talk” introduces a new villain. One of the more creepy villains I remember from the animated series was Scarface, a ventriloquist’s puppet so eerily lifelike he could be a chilling counterpart to Mr. Sin, or at home in Phantom of the Opera, the list goes on. Let’s just say he’s really creepy. His first “dummy” was a retiring older man named Wesker with a split personality disorder. “Double Talk” introduces Scarface’s new owner, a Jessica Rabbit-style “broad” with superb ventriloquism skills, deadly aim with a tommy gun, and who’s nuttier than a fruitcake. Creepy, creepy, creepy. It also establishes that Bruce Wayne is a rather Scarlet Pimpernel-like master of disguise. He even knows how to throw his voice.

“Sharkbite” could easily belong in the Detective book as it introduces a cunning plot by one of Bruce’s high society friends to steal artefacts from the Gotham Natural History Museum. E. Nigma is back, written very wittily. “So, you save my hide, I save yours. Somewhere the Joker’s laughing his pasty ass off.” I rather like the uneasy partnership ex-super villain and superhero have going on. “Siege” is drawn by Andy Clarke and written by Stuart Moore, and it does seem that little bit different from everything else around it. It’s quite interesting, though, ultra-modern as it acknowledges modern terrorism, which Batman has been fighting in his way for over 60 years, but this is the more currently relevant type—with suicide bombers. I love the design of the villain Vox, a bit like the aliens in “The Doctor’s Daughter,” and his style is certainly lifted, with affection, from V for Vendetta. It’s hard for me to tell in the Bat-verse when Robin is supposed to be dead and when he’s resurrected or not dead yet. But anyway, he’s alive in some form in this story, with amusing writing again: “I could use a martini.” “Don’t make me lock you in the Batcave.” Gordon, interestingly, in particular, looks very much like Gary Oldman! I’m starting to give up, however, on Bruce Wayne ever looking like anything other than a Superman knock-off.

You’ve got to love Dini—always returning to Harley Quinn. As usual, his writing for her is outstanding. I could do without Don Kramer’s interpretation of her drawing-wise—why is it all comic book women suddenly have breasts that look like helium balloons?—but at least she’s possessed with superb gymnastic skills (with springs on her shoes!). Predictable—I really like “Kind of Like Family.” Harley’s up for parole from Arkham. It seems the Joker has left her for good, and without his influence she might be abandoning her criminal streak—she argues that it was the Stockholm Syndrome, an argument Bruce Wayne finds hard to swallow. When Harley is broken out of prison, I wonder how much of her hopes it’s due to the Joker’s influence. It isn’t. It’s the new female ventriloquist, who appeals to Harley’s sense of “a woman scorned.” It’s written fast and furious, with most of the good lines going to Harley. As they cut her in a scheme, Harley does the unthinkable—she tips off Gordon! She successfully beats the ventriloquist and her posse at their own game. “Wow! Those insane rationalizations, those desperate denials! Now where have I heard them before? Oh, I remember! From me!” Harley also reveals that Wesker, the original ventriloquist, was the only person in Arkham to be kind to her when she was stuck there by herself. Dini writes this stuff so well! And for her sincerity in wanting to make good, Harley is granted parole. There—a Harley story that ends happily, and she’s proven she’s not an idiot, nor is she just the Joker’s stooge. We’ll see how long she keeps it that way.

“Triage” is bizarre and gruesome. At least we get to see that figuratively at least, Batman is a member of the RSPCA. “Trust,” meanwhile, is a doozy. At first I was annoyed because it was bringing back a magician named Zatanna, from Detective, and I found the literal way she used magic—I mean, very much Harry Potter with the spells and such—to be completely out of synch with the rest of the Bat-verse. Nevertheless, in “Trust” Bruce spells out her back story, how her father was a friend of his parents, they “should be closer than” they are, but she betrayed him at some point. Slowly I began to like Zatanna and her attitude, even if all she does is say words backward and somehow magically escape and turn people into vampire bats, etc (she taught Bruce some of his mad skillz back in the day). The Loxias thread, as I say, comes to an end in this story after many of the magician’s assistants have been killed on stage. With Zatanna and Batman investigating, it’s only a matter of time before they unmask Loxias’ true identity. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it’s, shall we say, fitting. This story in particular features some great, action-packed art. There’s a lot more I could say about it, but I’ll leave you curious—that way, you might actually want to read it for yourself!

Monday, August 18, 2008

gotham central: unresolved targets

My sister doesn’t like things with fantasist elements. That’s one reason she liked Batman Begins, because it seemed much more realistic to her than most superhero movies. (She claims that she liked The Dark Knight less because it got more out of control.) If comic writers were catering to an audience like her, they no doubt would have churned out Gotham Central, a complete 180 from Harley and Ivy. If Gotham were a real city, it would have its own CSI, and that would be quite a lot like Gotham Central (especially considering Captain Maggie Sawyer looks just like a character in CSI: SVU). All that said, I found it rather boring. It’s got the requisite kooky Gotham-linked supervillains, but Batman barely figures and all that real world detective stuff is, quite frankly, not what I’m reading a comic for. The art hasn’t got frills or fancy stuff, it’s the vehicle to tell the story. It’s great, though, it’s how I would illustrate a comic, and hooray for Michael Lark and Stefano Gaudiano.

Apparently Jim Gordon (who in the Nolan!verse has just been promoted to Commissioner) has been shot and has since retired from G.C.P.D., leaving a hole filled by a cast of hard-boiled, well-rounded, tick-every-box motley crew of detectives and police men and women (and even a secretary named Stacy). To be frank again, I know Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka are writing their buns off here, but it’s hard to get much depth into characters like this, especially in such limited exposure. Despite “Soft Targets” being a Joker story, I found “Unresolved” to be vastly more intriguing. The story was clever and interesting, the two main detectives on the case more than adequately appealing, and it brought out the Mad Hatter, who I don’t even remember from the animated series. Rough, old skool cop Harvey Bullock is a delightful throwback to Batman’s heyday, and my favorite part was probably his conversation with his former partner Renee Montoya. Alas, I found the conclusion a bit contrived.

I think by osmosis at least Nolan owes something to “Soft Targets” for some of the elements in The Dark Knight. The Bat Signal gets smashed—the Joker uses live web cam feeds and countdowns to alert Batman and G.C.P.D. to hostage situations before blowing things up—a cop goes in to beat up the Joker, who’s let himself be captured, in a holding cell, which backfires—and certainly his humor and charisma are reminiscent of the film. It’s a dark story, though, and certainly your sympathies lie with the frustrated cops. Batman comes off as rather a lazy-arse! Kudos, I suppose, for making the rather unworldly world of Gotham more like CSI: New York, and the back-and-forth nature of Batman’s conflicts with the supervillains have real-life consequences for the harried police force. Buuuut it just isn’t my thing.

One more question: why is always snowing in Gotham?

batman: black and white / cancer vixen

This anthology collection of short, eight-page black and white stories featuring luminaries of the art and writing world in comics is the brainchild of Mark Chiarello and Scott Peterson, and while Chiarello claims everyone at DC Comics told him “no one likes anthologies,” I propose it’s an excellent place for the Batman comics rookie to start. There’s such a range of styles and material, you’re really spoiled for choice. The writing is less varied in tone, owing to the inherent grittiness in black and white stories, but there were several stories that really knocked me out with their inventiveness.

In a way, the whole thing reminds me of fan fiction contests. Sometimes you can end up with authors who have an axe to grind, but usually you find spectacular self-contained stories in the niches you never even saw in the mythos of your particular fan hang-up (see the Phantom of the Opera Morbidity Contests at these links:
The Midnight Run
The Nacken's Song
The Perfect Gift
Her Wedding
Let No Man Put Asunder
The truth is, all of these stories have fabulous, amazing art. How you rate the artists is more your personal preference rather than their level of skill. The writing is a bit more uneven. Sometimes you get the sense the writers are just letting loose in order that the artists can do their thang (sometimes artist and writer is one and the same) which, well, fair enough. But the most striking stories are a perfect marriage between strong story and art.

Neil Gaiman’s name has been mentioned up there with God’s and “A Black and White World” is the first thing by him I’ve ever read. It doesn’t really matter who does the art (though for the record it’s Simon Bisley, whose edgy, frenetic style is not really my cup of tea but works fine for this narrative) because Gaiman’s writing is so far out of the box, it will really revise your way of looking at comics. I love meta-fiction, and the clever, humorous, ultimately grim conceit at the heart of this is like Beckett, but better. I don’t want to ruin it for you, but it does include this exchange: “Is that a joke? I’m the Joker, for Chrissakes. Roseanne’s funnier than me.” “I think her writer’s are better paid.” I think even Nolan!verse fan girls will like this Joker, and he even gets to do a crossword!

I have a feeling that, left to my own devices, my comics might look something like Bill Sienkiewicz’s. He doesn’t seem too bothered about straight lines, neatly delineated panels, and though his art is scratchy, jumpy, cartoonish and yet strikingly humanistic, his characters do a lot of talking. He does his own lettering, and he writes this story, “Bent Twigs,” which is beautifully conceived from beginning to end. It’s compassionate and keening and its characterization of Batman rich, overwhelmingly sympathetic, and I ache for him. Amazingly, this is all done in one setting, with four characters: Batman, a boy, his father, and a dead cat. “Blaming others for our ills is easy. Pulling a trigger is easy. Victimizing ourselves and others is easy . . .”

Many of the stories in Black and White deal with children. Another one is the retro “Heroes” written by legend Archie Goodwin and drawn by Gary Gianni. Gianni is a perfect choice for this story set somewhere on the cusp of the 1930s and ‘40s, steeped in comic book heroes, Errol Flynn, and Joe Louis. It’s about respect for a distant but ultimately heroic father. There are Nazis, a giant blimp, and any minute the Daleks are going to slide down that Art Deco elevator. Gianni’s art is on par with Charles Dana Gibson’s, which really completes this story.

There are two stories having to do with Black city gang kids dying young and trying to cap Batman, but the more enjoyable is Jan Strand’s “Monster Maker.” I keep reading in Batman over and over how the best intentions can create monsters, which is the price the Doctor of course has to pay, but “Monster Maker” is chillingly relevant. Harvey “Two Face” Dent’s story is filled with pathos, but it is, forgive the pun, child’s play compared to the eleven-year-olds mowing each other down in Richard Corben’s fantastic art, which makes use of white and negative space in a way I’ve never seen before. “Get ‘em young—give them a ‘family,’ and attitude, and permission to kill—that’s how you make a monster.”

“In Dreams” by Andrew Helfer leaves you with a warm feeling inside; you feel Batman has just hugged you instead of Karen, a woman with a buried past who keeps having nightmares about Batman. The art by Tanino Liberatore is beautifully realistic—oh, this one is just lovely. I love Bruce Timm, of course, because he co-created Harley—but I was curious as to how his drawing would come across in black and white. He goes for a really retro style, almost akin to Darwyn Cooke’s but more designed, more like animation (duh). Timm (and Harley co-creator Paul Dini) seem hung up on twisted love, and Timm returns to it in this story about Two-Face. It’s a bit Phantom-y, and I really like Timm’s approach, stylistically and character-wise. But imagine Phantom-izing yourself twice!!

I found Klaus Janson’s “Good Evening, Midnight” a big confusing at first, but by the end I was amazed at the simplicity of it, with no dialogue, three parallel storylines, and futuristic art that’s also as much in debt to Gibson’s as Gary Gianni’s. It’s sad and very sweet, with an emphasis on Alfred and, à propos of the whole collection, a father/son relationship.

“Petty Crimes” has a wonderful ‘50s feel to it though it does seem to be set modern day. A vigilante called Civic Virtue is as engaging and fabulous an adversary as the Cavalier from Tales of the Batman. It’s another wonderful excuse to re-examine Batman’s motives and methods, as Civic Virtue punishes those who don’t follow the Golden Rule, capping two hoods in a movie theatre, slamming a bank guard for closing early, etc. Howard Chaykin’s art is also wonderfully expressive. “Your self-righteousness get in the way of a simple fact of life—the world turns, and life changes. The god old days are fantasies—just screened memories.”

Archie Goodwin also wrote “The Devil’s Trumpet,” which takes us back to the Jazz Era of the 1920s. It’s a delightfully circumlocutious story, but really, it could belong to any universe—there isn’t much to pin it to Gotham, though José Muñoz’s art is just right. The rest of the art, by the likes of Tim McKeener, Joe Kubert, Walter Simonson, Kent Williams, Matt Wagner, Teddy Kristiansen, Brian Bolland, Kevin Noland, Brian Stelfreeze, and Katsuhiro Otomo, is spectacular, but I find the writing somewhat pedestrian, if not downright confusing (“The Third Mask” and “Slaying Song Tonight” both left me scratching my head). There is no doubt, though, that the book is a tour-de-force effort.

There are two women involved in this project of over 40 participants. One is a translator (Jo Duffy), one is a letterist (Ellie Deville). Before I put on my broken record spiel, let me tell you about Cancer Vixen, a graphic memoir by Marisa Acocella Marchetto I read in one sitting. Missouri Review had it up there with Persepolis and Maus as one of the greatest graphic memoirs. Marchetto proves that not only can a woman write and draw her own comics, she can sell them to the New Yorker, she can marry the man of her dreams at 43, and she can successfully foil cancer. Don’t be put off by the fact Marchetto seems somewhat Sex and the City, she is a funny, inventive, tough chica and artist. Her art and writing move fluidly, and her unique vision of the world is both appealing and realistic. If anyone has to face more rejection than a writer, it’s a cartoonist. Marchetto is no-nonsense about the lack of women in her field and she is quick to admit to her own irresponsible behavior when she allows her insurance with the Writers Guild to lapse. But she is extremely sympathetic, and I can relate to her in so many ways. I don’t know if a man would read Cancer Vixen in the same way, but for me it’s one of the most powerful books I’ve read all year.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

tomato soup cake, by request

I am now motivated to make this again--I will report back with results. From Ann Byrn's The Cake Mix Doctor (as opposed to THE Doctor . . . now have visions of DT in apron with cake batter in hair. Ha.)

Tomato Soup Spice Cake with Cinnamon Buttercream Frosting
1 spice cake mix (NB not sure they have this in UK, will investigate)
1 stick butter

1 can condensed
tomato soup
3 large eggs
1 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1/4 cup water
1 stick butter
3 cups confectioners sugar
3 Tablespoons milk
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla

Set Oven on 350 Degrees. Place the cake mix, undiluted tomato soup, eggs, oil and water in a large bowl and mix until well blended.
Fold in raisins and chopped pecans until well blended in the batter. Pour into two 9 inch cake pans or 13 x 9 pan.
Bake the cakes 28 to 31 minutes. Take cake out of oven to cool.
Meantime, prepare the frosting. Place butter in mixing bowl and mix until fluffy. Add powdered sugar, add 3 tablespoon of milk and vanilla and mix until fluffy. Then add the ground cinnamon and mix well.
When the cake is completely cooled, frost the cake. Let set in the fridge for 20 minutes before serving.

Friday, August 15, 2008

why so surprised?

Batman: Scarecrow Tales

We’ll take a break from the Joker-centric to my original Batman baddie, Jonathan Crane, the Scarecrow. This is a wonderful collection as it spans 8 Scarecrow tales, including the very first one from 1941, written and drawn by legends Bill Finger and Bob Kane. The comics from 1941 are, er, more comic-like. You couldn’t call “Riddle of the Human Scarecrow” a graphic novel by any means. It’s fascinating to look at Batman in the same context one might look at Doctor Who—still relevant after 45 years (over 60 in Batman’s case) because it constantly reinvents itself. The university where Professor Jonathan Crane teaches in 1941 is populated by male professors and male students. The illustrations of people in this world are rather stylized and caricatures, á la Beano. The criminal psychology of the era pins sociopath behaviour on Crane because he liked to frighten birds as a boy. As a professor, he is mocked because he spends all his money on books rather than clothes. He decides that if he turns to crime, he can finance all of his worldly needs. Natch.

He believes that the Scarecrow is the perfect symbol of poverty and fear. The writing is quite overwrought and dated, but that’s part of the fun. Batman’s constant companion is the adolescent Robin, who I’ve always found incredibly lame—but then again, he belongs to another era. On the other hand, though Batman Begins is based quite heavily on the graphic novels Batman: Year One, Scarecrow: Year One, and The Long Halloween, you can find seeds of the 2003 Scarecrow story all the way back in 1941. The Scarecrow causes a riot in a department store in order to ensure that his client, the rival store owner, is satisfied. The riot looks like the one in the Narrows in the 2003 film. “Stupid pack! Pushing, crowding against each other! Like frightened animals!” the Scarecrow exclaims with disdain reminiscent of his movie persona. It’s claimed that the Scarecrow has little skill in hand-to-hand combat, but he licks Batman pretty good through most of the comic. There’s a really wonderful double-double bluff before the Scarecrow is defeated by . . . a swing set?

“Fright of the Scarecrow” from 1967 shows little change in art design—another Bob Kane effort—as Crane’s backstory is summarized. The university still teaches just boys, and Robin spends his time on the jungle gym as “a playground instructor.” According to this story, not only do Batman and Robin have “lightweight summer costumes,” they can don them post-haste in an ice cream truck! The Scarecrow has a mini-submarine (!) , and somehow since it’s the ‘60s, I’m not surprised that the Scarecrow possesses hallucinogens that scare Batman and Robin (again, another component that worked its way into Batman Begins). Since it’s the ‘60s, there’s also the “Bat-Computer,” which is, as you guessed, it large enough to fit a room around. This is a punch- card computer, such as the ones used by the Doctor in The Key to Time. Ha. It is rather fun that the latter half of this one takes place on a floating prop called the Ark. The Scarecrow arranges for Batman and Robin to be torn to pieces by big cats while forcing their neuro-chemicals to make them think they’re blind. Is this the first time they’ve been referred to as “the dynamic duo”? (And “the Boy Wonder has been in his own slam-bang action”?!)

The Batman of Ernie Chua and Dick Giordano’s 1975 story is particularly statuesque. It earns a vote of “Cor blimey” as it’s set in an amusement park! The Scarecrow has killed a man using fear pheromones, and the script is actually quite articulate in places. Though it continues to use overblown phrases such as “His superbly trained body reacted instantly...” The end has the Scarecrow begging for his life—it’s quite a nice little story, self-contained.

“The Scarecrow’s Fearsome Face-Off” from 1976 pits the Joker against the Scarecrow—certainly a pairing rich for exploiting. The art, by Irv Novick, may be extremely cartoony, but the script, by Elliott S. Maggin, is very witty. The idea is that just by invoking the idea of the Scarecrow, the Joker—by donning a disguise as the Scarecrow—can easily scare his way into enraging both the Scarecrow and the police and Batman. “Fear’s almost as good as laughs,” the Joker notes. The Scarecrow gets a sidekick raven and a mini-helicopter (?!) as his fear-gas competes with the Joker’s laughing-gas. Unfortunately both have struck Metropolis rather than Gotham, so Batman doesn’t actually appear in this story. The Joker, though artistically bearing no resemblance to his Heath Ledger counterpart, nevertheless has the wonderful, dastardly character traits that wowed me—er, audiences. “Shut up, or I’ll miss hearing my name over the radio!” He spends half the comic trying to seize a hyena mural from the local zoo (!). “You aren’t kidding, kiddies!” Meanwhile, the Scarecrow is up to the challenge—“Your men are deserting you, Joker! Am I bad company?” And, “You’re a crazy man who tries to make everyone else crazy!” The most laugh-out-loud funny bit, though, is when the Joker says, “Two points for the guy with the retarded tailor.” Kettle? Pot?? When the Scarecrow’s pet raven attacks the Joker’s face, he whips out, “You’ve ruined my classic facial features!” The best bit is seeing the Scarecrow succumb to laughing gas at the end!

“The Six Days of the Scarecrow” by Gerry Conway from 1981 is perhaps closest in tone to Batman Begins. Lucius Fox features, as does Batman’s illicit love for Selina Kyle aka Catwoman. Batman gets shot with a dart that makes everyone afraid of him, even Alfred, Robin, and Batgirl (again, Barbara, Gordon’s daughter). It’s actually quite sad, really, as poor Batman gets angsty about the whole thing. “Has Batman become so fearful a figure—he terrorizes even the innocent? Am I to become a prisoner of my own mystique?” The art here is still a bit old-fashioned but it’s rather nice—Robin has gone from innocent adolescent to bodybuilding, fast car driver! “Never underestimate the Scarecrow!” Mature baddie Betty Lunden is a bit like Miss Winters in “Robot”—and Batgirl kicks her butt! Wonderfully creepy panel of a Batman-scarecrow rigged up to scare crows—again, Doctor Who in the form of “Mark of the Rani” this time. Gordon gets to take a swipe at the Scarecrow—only to find he’s a cunning double. If he only had a brain, indeed! “Power over another human being is a very intimate experience . . .” The story ends with what Crane really deserves . . . locked up in Gotham, “even afraid of himself.”

By 1987, in “Fear for Sale” by Mike W. Barr, we can see the styles become more like that of the modern graphic novel—the story’s an interesting one, though again Robin looks prepubescent for some reason. We go to the racetrack, that is, the speed-racing automobile racetrack, as a famous race car driver nearly careens to his death. Bruce Wayne rightfully suspects something’s tipped the balance on the driver’s judgment. That something would be another chemical compound of the Scarecrow’s. To remind new readers of Crane’s background, we go through the familiar story—though by this time, it’s Crane’s female students who deride his old-fashioned, shabby appearance (much more like the world I unconsciously evoked in my Crane-fics). Even Robin, the ever-empathetic, feels sorry for Crane. Crane’s chemical compound makes the artificially fearless race car driver jump out the window. That is soooo Crane. It makes very amusing and deadly spectacle when Batman gets hit with the same compound, making him so reckless he nearly gets himself killed.

My favorite story, though, is unsurprisingly “Mistress of Fear” by Peter Milligan. The art by Duncan Fredego is gritty and in a palette of Halloween brown, with some of the dirt and smudges of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. There’s a fantastic teaser-opener, and I guess what I like best about it is that Becky Albright, the only person brave enough to testify against the Scarecrow and get him behind bars, looks exactly like a mish-mash of how I imagined my two female characters in the first Crane-fic I wrote, “Cold Shower,” Susannah from Crane’s high school, and Colleen, one of his patients. The opening sequence in the Gotham suburb of Greenvale, which Crane reduces to chaos as ordinary citizens fight each other, is both reminiscent of Batman Begins and some of the Joker’s antics in The Dark Knight. Although the Scarecrow has employed the Blues Brothers for some reason, the rest of the comic is dark and stylish. There’s been a redesign of the scarecrow outfit as well as Crane himself who, while getting younger, is nowhere near the cool gorgeousness of Cillian Murphy. In fact, he is believably weird and grotesque-looking. The Scarecrow sequences are suitably freaky, but obviously what I like best is that it isn’t colleagues tormenting Crane, it’s an abusive, cruel childhood. Sharing with Becky a background of pain, Crane actually cries—and wants to make Becky his “mistress of fear.” He even constructs a rather Sally the Rag-Doll-esque costume for her (and this is 1998, so I can actually make the comparison!). But of course she rejects him, saying she’d rather die. Fortunately Batman is there to rescue her from the Scarecrow’s rage, but seriously, is it any wonder he’s so messed up? We’ve definitely moved toward the origin story he’s given in Scarecrow: Year One.

The art in Devin Grayson’s “Fear of Success” is gorgeous and bold, and the story is trippy and rather amusing—Crane is taken out of Arkham in order to give a corporate lecture on the fear of success, rather like those team and character-building sessions big businesses give. Crane is starting to look like Adrien Brody, so it’s not too far to go to Cillian Murphy. J In any case, the story is more about Batman’s fears anyway. I really, really enjoyed this collection.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

batman: harley and ivy

Perhaps I should explain. Back in 1992, a villainess was created for the Gotham universe. Her name was Dr. Harleen Quinzel, she was a psychologist, and she fell for the Joker after being hired to study him in Arkham Asylum. She became Harley Quinn, a rather lightweight criminal dressed in a sexy black and red jumpsuit, who was pretty much around to provide some comic relief and indulge in her messed-up love for the Joker. This was in the animated series I watched as a kid on TV. She proved so popular a creation she was written into the Batman canon in 1994 in the graphic novel Mad Love. There aren’t many villainesses in that canon, so it’s not surprising that I much preferred her, as a kid, to any other female character in the animated series. I know much less about Poison Ivy.

Paul Dini and Bruce Timm were Harley’s creators, so I was really excited to check out this volume. It’s much, much lighter stuff than I’ve been reading, and it would never jive with the Nolan version of Batman. Still, I loved this collection. “The Bet” is purely for amusement purposes—neither Harley nor Poison Ivy (who Harley calls “Red” because of her red hair) even don their costumes. They’re both stuck in Arkham, Harley is boy-crazy, and Ivy bets Harley she can kiss every single man in Arkham. When you’re a green skinned sex-kitten with poisoned blood and aphrodisiac gas, this isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. Both of the villainesses are appealingly drawn, and the whole thing is just fun. The punchline is really sweet.

I have a new favourite comic artist: Joe Chiodo. Gorgeous, gorgeous watercolours, this is high art. I can’t imagine how long this took him to draw. I don’t really know that it makes a lot of sense, the story, as it involves somewhat useless disguises, but it’s got those Phantom-y elements—mirrors and Two-Face!—and the Joker’s got two-toned shoes. Coo-el. It’s modern and funny, but poor Harley gets the boot at the end of her robbery, despite preventing a shoot-out and a nitro explosion! Ivy only appears at the end to take in the rather pitiful Harley and help her with a heist. Chiodo makes Bruce Wayne and even the Robin kid look hubba-hubba, quite a feat (and only fair, IMHO, since Ivy’s like sex on legs). Robin and Harley even work together (you see how cuddly-feely this volume is compared to the others!).

The second half is what happens when Harley decides to be serious about teaming up with Ivy. It looks like the animated series because it’s from the same team, and it moves fluidly. It’s hilarious. It’s amazing that Harley ever gets anywhere considering she’s a bit of a ditz. Ivy and Harvey both escape to South America (!), though not Santa Maria de la Loma. The kookiest story ever is “Hooray for Harleywood.” It begins with Harley kicking the crap out of the Joker. We all know this would never happen in real life, which is kind of sick since he sometimes kicks the emotional crap out of her. So we quickly learn it’s all in the world of filmmaking, as Harley and Ivy have gone to Hollywood to make a movie . . . about themselves. Silly as this is, it’s a great opportunity for skewering the film industry, all the way from an Animaniacs pastiche to marketing toys being “the bread and butter” of filmmaking. Dozens of actors playing Batman in their film are hurt before the real Batman puts a stop to their movie. (I like Harley because sometimes she reminds me of myself—or maybe the part of me that’s cooped up except on the page. “Whoa, daddy! Feed me some candy!” Harley screams when she sees the actors trying out for the role of Batman.) The end is the ultimate irony, a bit like The Producers in that respect.

I’ve noticed that invariably all these comics are written and drawn by men. A few of the colorists are women, but I have yet to see a comic written or drawn by a woman (graphic novels are slightly more female-friendly). Why is that? Since Doctor Who Magazine has just had its first comic written and drawn by the same person, what’s stopping me from being the first woman to write and draw a comic? Somehow I don’t think it will happen, but someone should do it. I say all this because, brilliant and funny as I find Harley and Ivy, it’s got Ivy and Harley in the shower twice, in their underwear most of the time, etc, etc. Whatever—you’re the artist, you have the prerogative (and if I’m honest, the stuff I draw isn’t completely PG either). Still, it makes me a bit annoyed, as if only boys read this stuff. Clearly, they don’t.

I want this book.

doctor who: the flood

At this rate, I’m going to go through all the graphic novels in the library before the month is out and then I’ll be forced to buy some from the comic store (who won’t hire me for some reason). Now, I’ve read one Eighth Doctor comic collection (The Glorious Dead) and I’ve skipped to the end, the very last of the Eighth Doctor’s strips from the pages of Doctor Who Magazine. As usual it’s beautiful stuff. My favourite story is “Bad Blood” written by Scott Gray and illustrated by Martin Geraghty. As the author asserts, Doctor Who has tried to do Westerns over the years—but never before has it come through so effectively, plus with a minimum of embarrassing stereotypes. The art is superb, with enough inks to have made Darwyn Cooke happy. As it focuses on the Lakota of South Dakota in 1875, the costumes are accurate, the Native Americans believable characters with believable dialogue rather than caricatures, and Sitting Bull makes a formidable ally for the Doctor. (There’s only one section that makes me wince, and that’s when the Doctor holds up his hand to Sitting Bull—aka Tanaka Yotanka—and says “How.” Oi, the Doctor’s not that stupid!)

The Doctor gets to wear a hat and some killer boots, but otherwise he fits in quite nicely, for obvious reasons! There’s always a tendency in Doctor Who to talk down native “superstition,” and while the Doctor is guilty of it to an extent, at least by the end he’s acknowledged that there is more than one way of looking at things. Custer makes an appearance, and he’s neither a monster nor a hero (though I learned that he was a teetotaller!). As if all this wasn’t enough to throw into a story, some cat-like creature named Jodafra (who’s apparently the Doctor’s nemesis) and a fish-like creature named Destrii who the Doctor met before, apparently. There are beautiful atmospherics caused by long, snowy scenes, and an ending I didn’t see coming. Excellent story.

“Where Nobody Knows Your Name” is sweet story to kick off the volume, written, again, by Scott Gray, and with wonderfully distinctive art by the accomplished Roger Langridge (who draws the Eighth Doctor so winningly). I could hear Paul McGann’s voice as soon as his Doctor started processing dialogue bubbles (and that’s a good thing, of course!). The story is sweet, warm, and life-affirming, despite the Doctor having just lost Izzy (“It’s a terrible shame when you lose someone special, isn’t it? When they die . . . When they leave . . . When they change”). It ends with the Doctor regaining his confidence with the unwitting help of . . . Frobisher! Neither of them recognize each other, but it’s a lovely idea.

I guess it’s high time Doctor Who did something in the realm of football, though Gareth Roberts is the last person I’d expect to be writing about it! (How many Doctor Who fans are football fans, I wonder?) “The Nightmare Game” is also an homage to the north in the ‘70s (much as Life on Mars would later be). It’s very funny, features a kid named Billy who keeps thinking the Doctor should pump the aliens full of lead, and gives the Doctor the chance to complain about socks and drive a bus. Mike Collins is all about the epic art, which is quite suited to this story. And his drawings of Eight are just gorgeous, rowr. (But why did he dispense with the cravat and Belle Époque costume?) The Doctor tries to convince his alien captors that he’s a chef who travels the Earth looking for recipes!

Silly me, I thought the first comic Adrian Salmon had drawn was the fab one he did for the Tenth Doctor and Martha. His distinctive style makes him one of my favourite comic artists of all time, and the light-hearted script by Scott Gray, “The Power of Thoueris,” made me laugh and laugh. And hey, the Doc’s in swimming trunks and the Panama hat, cha-king! The Doctor gets the last pun, as usual, “That’s what you get for living in denial.”

“The Curious Tale of Spring-Heeled Jack” is also dear to my heart—Anthony Williams brings 1840 London to life beautifully, and the Doctor looks quite good in a top hat! There’s a feisty, blonde, beautiful Londoner companion, with a crush on the Doctor, with a secret, named Penny (!). Spring-Heeled Jack makes about as much sense as Astrolabus in Voyager, and his pouncing around groping ladies (while he actually has a motive, which is more than you can say for the “real” Spring-Heeled Jack) looks a bit like the Green Goblin in Spider-Man! Even with all this drama, there’s a fair bit of humor (“And here I stand, giving a lecture to a walnut muffin”). Susan makes an appearance, and the ending is not quite what you’d expect. Fab.

“The Land of Happy Endings” is illustrated in a rather ugly style, but I can see why this story made people cry. “Sins of the Fathers” is beautifully illustrated by John Ross, shows off the fish-lady Destrii in a bikini before she transforms into a beautiful premonition of Martha, and gives us reason to believe the hellion would make a good companion (which she in fact does, a bit of Ace running through her fish-veins). She also gives the Doctor a big snog! “And you’ll stop doing that, too!” he snaps.

“The Flood” is a bit more approachable than “The Glorious Dead.” It’s set in Camden and starts out with some really funny attempts by Destrii to fit in on Earth. Martin Geraghty does a complete 180 with his art, which is suddenly modern and illustration-quality. It tries to reinvent the Cybermen, and as you know, I’m not a very receptive audience to that. They look rather androgynous and weak, even more laughable than the current version we have tromping around on TV. Whatever. There’s a presentiment of Torchwood, Dr. Flowers from The Monsters Inside, and in some ways the feel is already that of the new series. I’m not quite sure how they achieved that, but it’s there. Destrii in her human form is on the cover of this book looking like a Jedi warrior, and in this story she gets to justify that grandiose picture. The Doctor stakes it all on saving humanity: he offers to regenerate by radiation poisoning so the Cybermen can analyze that data. Scott Gray, I think, loves to get the Eighth Doctor into mind-bending, near-sublime situations, and this is his last chance to do it. The Doctor resists being a god, for cows and companions. There’s a nice tribute to Izzy, that other guy from Stockport, and Dr. Grace. The story was meant to end with a regeneration into Eccles, and there’s even a lovely sketch of Eccles in McGann’s costume. But it makes much more sense to have the regeneration take place, presumably, in the Time War and off screen at least. (However, Destrii does suggest the Doctor wear a leather jacket!)

Doctor Who continuity is hard to deal with, as this collection shows. Had the Doctor regenerated in the comic, it would have nullified The Infinity Doctors as well as any possible plans Moffat may have to revisit the Time War. It’s a case of you take what you want and ignore the rest. It’s a shame we most likely will never see McGann on TV again, but in the comics he was quite the action hero, in the books, quite cerebral. With all that tunnelled into the character, he feels like one of the most multi-faceted of the Doctors.

Friday, August 8, 2008

turning point / tales

Swansea Library, bless it, is full of Batman graphic novels. So every time I see one I haven’t read, I grab it. (I do the same for Doctor Who collections; no fears, they are coming up.)

Batman: Turning Points really has only one thing to bind its contents together, the relationship between Jim Gordon and Batman. The cover is a beautiful one by Tim Sale, but he’s not even an artist in the book! To be frank, the art is generally less revelatory, than what I have encountered so far—it’s more functional, a bit old-fashioned, it tells a story. Therefore, the writing takes center stage. My favourite of the stories, then, is Greg Rucka’s “Uneasy Allies.” This takes a (comparatively) young Jim Gordon, whose wife has just left him, and a somewhat newish Batman to a rather straightforward hostage situation. The art is classic, though the inks seem a little garish to me; it’s a simple story, with its tagline being “Everyone needs a friend.” Gary Oldman in the films just plays Gordon so appealingly, when he’s written halfway decent in the comics, I can feel that mentality coming through, and I like it.

Ed Brubaker and Joe Giella’s “And Then There Were Three?” is okay—the story doesn’t grab me, nor does the art, but it’s heartfelt. Gordon looks much older and smokes a pipe instead of cigarettes—pick your poison, I guess. “Casualties of War” by Ed Brubaker and Dick Giordano is grim—suddenly Gordon’s wife Barbara has become his daughter Barbara, apparently she’s Batgirl, and apparently the Joker broke her legs (which is ironic since she’s wearing green and purple in the comic!). Bruce again looks totally like Superman with his bulked-up physique. Please forego these kind of muscled hunks covered in hair and give me Christian Bale any day.

“The Ultimate Betrayal” has beautiful art by Brent Anderson, but it isn’t my cup of tea. One of its virtues is that it manages to make Robin look somewhat threatening, which in my humble opinion is hard to do. “Comrades in Arms” is a beautiful symmetry to Greg Rucka’s first story, picking up some five or so years after that story ended. It’s a wonderfully uplifting note to end on, with totally distinctive art from Paul Pope. There are some humorous touches, and it feels ultra-modern—all the way down to Batman rescuing two young lesbian lovers (MasterBlaster?) in an alley from homophobic thugs.

Now, I know I said I didn’t care for Tim Sale’s art in “Date Knight” by Darwyn Cooke, but I have to say I like practically everything else in the artist’s own collection, Tales of the Batman. As Richard Starkings points out, Sale’s cluttered world feels lived in and his style is painterly, distinctive. His first story, the very amusing “Madmen Across the Water,” really has nothing to do with Batman. As written by Alan Grant, it’s the story of the Arkham Asylum internees being transferred elsewhere because one of them blew up Arkham. It’s told from the point of view of Dr. Jeremiah Arkham, descendent of the asylum’s founder, and a wonderfully human character in his own right. I daresay if you don’t know the Batman universe very well, you’ll miss out a bit on some of the characters in the story—the criminally insane—including Two-Face, Poison Ivy, the Riddler, the Mad Hatter, the Scarecrow, and even some I’d never heard of before. (The Joker, the Penguin, and Harley Quinn are notable by their absence.) Sale has confessed he loves ink, and it shows in his drawings—they’re both good and approachable. The climax is a farcical softball game between the “loonies” and the more mundane criminals. The palette is as colourful as the story—some really lovely close ups—but my favourite part is Scarecrow! Very otherworldly and cool.

“Blades” is a truly unique story by James Robinson, perfectly suited to Sale’s palette. There’s a fabulous character called the Cavalier, Douglas Fairbanks with Cary Elwes’ voice. The story is grim and romantic all at once; the Cavalier’s Zorro-like attributes endear him at first to Batman, who worshipped Zorro as a child, but I think The Dark Knight’s Batman would have been quite grateful to have an assistant like the Cavalier! The art really is outstanding, and Bruce is even a little less Superman-like than usual, thanks to Sale’s unique style. There’s a wonderfully designed villain, too, named Randolph Salt (who could have come from the pages of Wodehouse).

“The Misfits” is likewise a really different take; as it’s crawling with supervillains, it feels a bit like X-Men. Batman’s palette is blue once more, and there are such crazy characters as a villain named Calendar Man and the punning Cat-Man (“Calendar Man said in a daze. A days . . .? Calendar man said weakly. Weekly—get it?”). I’m afraid the panel of Bruce in the shower fails to move me! On the other hand, Sale’s design of Robin goes a long way in making the rather cheesy character more attractive! Last but not least is “Night After Night,” which lacks substance, but man, does it look cool! It’s another for the black and white Batman series, and there’s ink wash for the main action and beautiful pen and ink for flashback. Golly. There’s a really funny panel where Batman looks over at the tied up Joker, who says, “You know you’re insane, don’t you?” (Though I find Sale’s Joker design a bit too cartoonish for my tastes, but . . .) No, I would definitely buy this book.

Now, there’s a reason Sale’s art looks just a bit familiar. He was the artist for Heroes—that’s right, he did all of Isaac Mendez’s paintings. How cool is that?!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

voyager / ego

Voyager, drawn by John Ridway

My first loan from the new Swansea Library was the Sixth Doctor comic collection, Voyager. Though I very much enjoyed all the Doctor comics I’ve read, I think I have to say the Eighth Doctor stories are the most complex and visually arresting. Never mind—in Voyager we meet Frobisher, a companion about whom I had long heard, who looks like a penguin but isn’t. Indeed, Frobisher’s introduction story, “The Shape Shifter,” is the most charming. The whole thing channels Dick Tracy-style potboilers with a dose of humor and ingenuity. There’s also a funny section where the Doctor is attacked by a sandwich and is naked in the bath (!). In close-ups, John Ridway demonstrates his absolute prowess, and to think he was pursuing a full-time job as an egineer while he drew the strip in his spare time—insanity!

Steve Parkhouse writes most of these: and he introduces the bizarre character of Astrolabus, a renegade Time Lord (sound familiar?)who has the most delightful curse phrases—“Gare du Nord!” is my favorite. Parkhouse loves to enter the realm of dreams, and the title story is a perfect example of that. There’s some cracking good art from Ridway, but overall these visionary, very weird stories bore me. This is true for “Once Upon a Time-Lord,” though it is a fantastic fairy tale sequence of which Steven Moffat himself would be proud, which pushes storytelling boundaries and definitely goes beyond the plain “comics” realm into the graphic novel.

Though Peri is on the cover, she’s only featured in one story, by Alan Mackenzie, and then only briefly. There’s a distinct lack of the feminine in Voyager, with the only woman of real consequence being Kara the Draconian in “War-Game.” It’s the first time I’ve seen a female Draconian, and it’s wonderful that that race is used in two of the stories. The only thing “Fun-House” contributes, in my opinion, besides some more fabulous art by Ridway, is a fun (almost obligatory) backtrack through all six Doctors.

The Sixth Doctor is well on his way to becoming the rehabilitated hero of Big Finish’s triumphs in Voyager. He isn’t nearly as grating as on TV though he can be a bit tough on Frobisher. He spouts Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, even channels a bit of V for Vendetta. His best quip, is, however, one that would make Colin Baker proud, “I’ve been threatened by experts. You know. Cybermen, Ice Warriors, Daleks, BBC Producers . . .”

Batman: Ego and Other Tails by Darwyn Cooke

Darwyn Cooke worked on the animated series of Batman, which I watched as a kid, and his style in that is clearly echoed in the title tale. Part of the trickness of the Nolan films is that they have to feel modern while at the same time paying homage to the 1930s/40s style of Gotham. “Ego” fits in very easily into this latter category—character design is very much like what I saw in Road to Perdition. Cooke is clearly a talented artist with an excellent mind for storytelling—thus his work flows beautifully with cinematic scope.

Cooke says “Ego” is “an earnest but flawed first effort,” but I disagree—I think it’s quite well-done. The pre-titles sequence is a bit wordy, maybe, with a dramatic monologue from Batman, but it’s backed up by stunning artwork. The moral backbone is purely Batman—I know some of you are Spider-Man fans, but Batman clearly wrote the book on angst. In that way, I was (somehow) surprised to see Batman’s original design, so close to Superman—the square jaw, the impossibly ripped physique, the crew-cut hair. I expected something more svelte.

The story is partially flashback, partially current action, (a suicide for which Batman feels responsible) and partially a trippy Jekyll and Hyde-esque confrontation between Batman the effigy and Bruce Wayne the man. Appropriately enough considering the Nolan movie, the question Batman asks Bruce is why doesn’t he just kill the Joker because he always breaks free and always kills more people. Bruce is committed to his “code of honor,” while Batman accuses Bruce of needing an archnemesis for his own wholeness (something the Joker actually brings up in the film). Batman also accuses Bruce/Batman of fostering the environments that created monsters—Two-Face as well as the Joker. Wordy it may be; dumb “Ego” is not.

Speaking of monsters, the strip “Here There Be Monsters” is written by Paul Grist and illustrated in pencil and ink by Cooke. The story is slight but the art is striking. Another black-and-white strip is the amusing but inconsequential “The Monument,” written by Cooke, drawn by Bill Wray. Another short strip is the romantic (?) “Date Knight,” written by Cooke, illustrated by Tim Sale, whose only saving grace is a panel of Batman hanging upside down with Catwoman’s lipstick all over him. Frankly the art is not my cup of tea—Catwoman looks like a man.

Speaking of Catwoman, Cooke’s strip “Catwoman: Selina’s Big Score”won the Best Graphic Novel of 2002—and it’s easy to see why. It’s fast-moving, beautifully drawn, brutal, and populated with fascinating—if amoral—characters. Heist stories seem to fascinate people, and this is one of the best I’ve seen. An intimate knowledge of Selina Kyle—aka Catwoman—is not required, as Cooke draws and writes her beautifully. She is made to look like a cat-eyed pin up of the ‘50s—yet she is clearly a bad-ass, modern (anti?)heroine.

Her ex-lover/partner Stark is a great character, as is Jeff, Cooke’s self-proclaimed “Chow Yun Fat” of Hong Kong crime. The locales are suitably picturesque—Las Vegas, Morocco, Miami, and of course Gotham (though I was a bit weirded out by the fact the heist took place in Canada, not far down-river from where my latest Batverse fan fiction took place). The heist itself has the exuberance of Firefly’s “The Train Job.” It ends in tragedy, however, with Selina as lonely and angsty as Batman. I’m not quite sure what the point of “Deja Vu” was, other than thrown in as another Stark story—nevertheless, I will be on the lookout for Darwyn Cooke’s work now.