Thursday, August 30, 2012

Streets of Gotham: Hush Money

Batman:  Streets of Gotham:  Hush Money

This, however, I could really sink my teeth into, not least because of the beautiful artwork by Dustin Nguyen and Derek Fridolfs.  And to be honest, I’ve never read a Paul Dini story I didn’t like.  

Hush Money takes place somewhat further along the storyline from R.I.P. (as illustrated by the fact it’s part of the “Batman Reborn” storyline, which replaces Bruce Wayne Batman with Nightwing/Dick Grayson Batman).  Hush (vol. 2, anyway) is one of my favorite Batman graphic novels, so I enjoyed getting into this one, which follows the villain Hush across the world.  And I didn’t even mind an occasional bevy (or several) of superhero entourages.  Catwoman is beautifully written and beautifully drawn.  And as I mentioned in R.I.P. review, Damian Wayne has become a lot more loveable.  

Back in Gotham, there’s a lovely cameo from Harleen Quinzel (that’s right, not Harley—Jokerless and for once, more or less, on the right side of the law).  Damian’s reaction to her—“She’s annoying.  May I cut out her tongue?”—is funny and painfully spot-on.  I don’t quite know how pre-teen hooker Katy fits into all of this, but I bet she will appear again.  Like R.I.P., there is a bit of foreshadowing in Hush Money in terms of how people attack Batman/Bruce Wayne in TDKR—Hush makes a daring, superficially-legitimate attempt to clear out the Wayne bank account.  

“Business” is a really enjoyable one-shot.  I’d definitely recommend you read Hush Money just for that.  

As I said, I like Nguyen’s style—it’s fluid, very modern-looking (which is for the best, I suppose, when you’re in a “Reborn” range!).   I absolutely adore his inkwash/watercolor covers as well.

Batman: R.I.P.

Whoooa boy.  Did I miss something?  I could make neither heads nor tails of this, even attempting as far as I could to dredge up memories of where this fitted in the whole scheme of things (as far as realizing I’d already read The Black Casebook and had felt similar feelings of being underwhelmed).  

This story begins at “Midnight at the House of Hurt,” where the reader is greeted by a spread depicting the Black Glove organization, headed by Dr Hurt, and frankly they are a bit less intimidating than Dan McDaid’s Crimson Hand.  You know me:  too many superheroes and supervillains in leagues rings alarm bell in my head, that I might be heading for snooze territory. Still, some of the non-hero/villain characters introduced—like Honor Jackson—make for entertaining reading (with Bruce not in quite the literal pit he found himself in in TDKR but figuratively the same).  Interestingly, R.I.P. anticipates The Dark Knight Rises in a few interesting and quirky ways.  For one thing, the Gotham that TDKR has reached, where crime is low and Camelot seems to have been achieved, represents the calm before the carefully orchestrated storm.   Bruce/Batman has also betrayed himself to a villainous woman who can’t be trusted; in this case, it’s Jezebel Jet[1], who he previously seems to have met in England.  Robin at the time is Tim Drake, who is a bit bemused by the Bat’s throbbing heart, and quite upset about the appearance on the scene of Damian Wayne[2] (Bruce’s son with Talia).  Like Bane’s expressed attitudes in TDKR, Dr Hurt’s desire is to make Bruce/Batman “nothing less than the complete and utter ruination of a noble human spirit.”  Dr Hurt also suggests that it will take only a little push to trigger the subliminal programming that will make Batman snap.  Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne’s reputation is about to be dragged through the mud, and the unthinkable is about to happen:  Alfred’s going to get beaten up.  As many a modern Batman character will tell you, “You could erase my country’s national debt with what it costs to maintain this place,” as Jezebel says of the Batcave.  “You could use your wealth and influence in other ways.”  For the ultra-modern Batman, philanthropy is not enough.  

However, despite the seemingly insurmountable odds stacked up against him, Bruce/Batman is triumphantly, eternally smarter than those who try to destroy him.  Maybe it’s cheesy, but to me it’s a punch-the-air moment.  

I’m not a huge fan of Morrison/Daniel’s Joker, but that’s personal taste (though acquiring the wardrobe of Jean-Paul Gaultier is an odd whim!).  On the other hand, I like the way Daniel has drawn Bruce.  I never thought I’d say I’d be glad to see Bat-Mite back, but in R.I.P. he works beautifully—in fact, he may be my favorite part of this whole whirlwind.  The Batman of Zur-en-Arrh uses a baseball bat (“a place you once saw in a flashback hallucination induced by Professor Milo’s gas weapon . . . a ‘planet’ with two Batmen, where you were super-strong, invulnerable and immortal with a technologically and mentally advanced ‘double’ called Tiano for a buddy”).   

“What the Butler Saw,” however, is an excellent story.  There should be more stories that feature Alfred as more than comic relief. 

[1] Surely the name would have given a clue.
[2] Damian is a total prick in this story but, having read Streets of Gotham, I know he turns out all right.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Autobiography of Mrs Tom Thumb

The Autobiography of Mrs Tom Thumb
By Melanie Benjamin

Anyone who has heard me read my short story “Dwarves without Giants” ( will immediately understand why I picked this book up; researching P.T. Barnum’s American Museum and its destruction by fire, one cannot help coming across his star performers, which Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump (billed as Mrs Tom Thumb; referred to in society as Mrs Charles Stratton; called “Vinnie” by friends) certainly was.  One likes to show a certain solidarity with those writing on similar topics, and even with a similar style; I recognize that any criticism of Benjamin is likely to be criticism of my own style of writing, for the two resemble each other greatly (it seems to me).  Therefore, with the greatest respect, I say it was enjoyable read that never quite kicked into its highest gear, for me at least.  

This is entirely my opinion, but I believe a story like Lavinia Warren’s (or, for that matter, Anna Swan’s) should be told in something other than a linear narrative, if it is going to be sustained over a long period of time (ie, novel-length) and if it is going to be told in first-person.  Why?  Otherwise, it risks a pace that ranges from sedate to plodding, with all the twists and turns signposted miles ahead of their appearance.  Never display the gun on the mantelpiece if you’re not going to use it; to that end, the early introduction of Carlotta’s “prevention powders” signalled the inevitable doom associated with sex, pregnancy, and rape, one of the novel’s obsessions. 

The Autobiography shies away from potential firestorms of conflict in some of the oddest moments.  When a very young Vinnie becomes a schoolteacher (successfully!) in her native New England, the experience is related and then dropped without much reflection.  I was bemused when the 1865 fire was so glossed over, but I understood the need for it when a much more emotionally damaging fire occurred for Charles and Lavinia in Chicago in 1883.  This was the highlight of the book, and unfortunately the narrative quickly sunk into torpor again after it was over. 

It’s impossible not to see the parallels between The Autobiography and “Dwarves without Giants”; the title of the latter seems to anticipate the friendship between Sylvia the giant and Vinnie the “fairy woman.”  As “Dwarves without Giants” contained an unrequited love affair between Anna and Barnum, Vinnie and Barnum in The Autobiography share an unspoken but reciprocated (almost screwball-esque) relationship.   I can only conclude that Benjamin, like me, found Barnum a magnetizing presence, despite the fact he could hardly appeal as a romantic hero, at least conventionally. 

One reviewer commented on how the book was able to deftly combine historical research and narrative, and while I don’t always agree (Benjamin, perhaps, has the opposite problem to me—I tend to flaunt my research, while in some cases I was never convinced by the authenticity of the voice) I think Vinnie is presented, mostly, as a person of her time:  that is, a Victorian from the other side of the Atlantic. 
“Very few people marry whom they truly want, do they?”  I looked at him levelly.  He did not contradict me. . .  .” We all have to settle for something—less eventually.  Don’t we?” 

The marriages in this book, particularly that between Charles Stratton and Vinnie, represent the almost decorative quality of a proper marriage of the period, where absorbing Vinnie’s unmarried sister Minnie into the bosom of the marriage wouldn’t cause a batted eyelid.   Vinnie’s restless pursuit of “something more” might occasionally seem too modern to be espoused, but I like it, for I can identify with it. 

The problem with The Autobiography, in my opinion, was that it was too safe.  How can that be possible, you wonder, when it deals with violence, travel, death, traumatic birthing scenes, and the constant spectre of rape?  Despite the fact that Benjamin thinks the real autobiography of Mrs Tom Thumb flitted over the tragedies of her life, the novel seems to flirt with big, searching scenes without properly delving into them.   

An Uncertain Place

An Uncertain Place
By Fred Vargas

I believe this is the latest Adamsberg book (or at least the most recent translation).  The Chalk Circle Man surprised and enthralled me; An Uncertain Place was a staggeringly good book.  But I fear I can say almost nothing about the book that would not unravel the carefully conceived and mysterious plot.  Let me say merely that I was looking for a mystery/thriller that would give me an atmospheric and authentic take on contemporary Paris.  This book did not really do this; we spent more time in suburban locales, in Highgate Cemetery, and in Eastern European climes (and in Adamsberg’s garden with a kitten named Charm).  Nevertheless, this matters not a jot, as the clever, hilarious, taut narrative wove its spell.  Vargas’ characters are so utterly real, you do not want the books to end as you want to keep following the inner thoughts of people like Adamsberg (even if you wouldn’t want to know them in real life).  Plog!

For the brave . . .
The delightful and utterly mad “secret”—that vampirism was at the heart of the killings—rocked my world.  Yet I couldn’t help a nagging suspicion that if Highgate really was haunted by an “entity” who was a Melmoth the Wanderer-type vampire, I would have heard about it by now.  Disappointingly (or perhaps not!) Vargas seems to have taken a few deluded attention seekers’ reports from the 1970s and made them into the fabric of truth, to the point that Danglard and Radstock can create a convincing mythos from them.  Okay, and do you know what I did when Charm the kitten was revealed not to be killed by the murderer?  I squee’d with delight, that’s what! 

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Batman: The Cat and the Bat

Batman:  The Cat and the Bat

I have to admit to you:  I loved The Cat and the Bat.  I don’t know Barbara Gordon as Batgirl very well—pretty much every title I’ve read before has seen her post-crippling and in a wheelchair as Oracle.  Perhaps the only stories of hers that I knew her as the insouciant, charming, rather innocent heroine from another era are Timm-type stories.  This one, on the other hand, is modern and retro (Catwoman in a suit very different from the one with goggles).  

It’s the uber-cheeky story of Barbara (Gordon’s daughter and, unbeknownst to him, newly appointed Batgirl) picking up her father’s secret police casebook, which gets stolen right out from under her nose by Catwoman.  Thus begins a craaaazy chase that makes the highly agile women rivals, enemies, allies, and eventually grudging acquaintances.  The interior monologuing from Barbara’s perspective as well as Catwoman’s is a great device and highly amusing.  The best part was easily the outrageous setting of Gotham City Hedonist Society, which is basically an excuse to cause Barbara excruciating embarrassment as she has to strip to just her mask in order to pursue Catwoman.  Perhaps with another team it would be exploitative, but it’s just so funny I really can’t hold that against it (besides, it’s equal opportunity nudity).  What would Batman do?  He would say infiltrate.  But would he do it naked?  I think I put on my Granny panties this morning . . . I’m sure it also took real inventiveness to draw all those naked people and not show anything non-PG.  It’s also amusing that Barbara apologizes for “waling on the help.”  

There’s an interlude with a cute puppy in a junkyard before Catwoman spills that she needs the notebook to help save the life of a friend.  The Russian mob gets involved, and Batman comes back from vacation (seriously!).  It’s a bit awkward for everyone:  Barbara is his ingénue but Catwoman is his “It’s complicated” status on Facebook.  The Riddler is even involved (I have a few odd ships of my own, and CatwomanxRiddler is one of them, ever since Catwoman:  When in Rome).  I won’t spoil the ending, but let me just congratulate them on a little cameo from sexy!Joker (something you don’t see too often in DC!universe—though I suppose it’s all about complicated considering he’s the one who reduces her to a cripple, at least in most versions).  

Barbara is drawn too maturely by Kevin Maguire to pass as a freckled kid, but I love the expressiveness on her features.  Allied to a funny, fast, and extremely witty script by Fabian Nicieza, I have to say this one’s a winner!

Gotham Central: The Quick and the Dead

Gotham Central:  The Quick and the Dead 

I’ve just re-read my review (from several years back) of Gotham Central:  Unresolved Targets.  I spent most of the review with a real snarky tone, saying how police procedural in a Batman comic was not my thing.  Despite what I was saying, the review seemed to have nothing but praise, and I suggest, if I read that particular title again, I miiiiight even decide it was a cut above some of the more outrageous Batman titles (Joker’s Last Laugh, I’m looking at you).  In any case, for Gotham Central: The Quick and the Dead (which won an Eisner in 2004), I have nothing but transparent praise.  I can think of three factors which may have created this reversal:  one is that which I just described, that I was stoopid previously, two is that perhaps this volume really is the better of the two, or three, perhaps, with the passage of time, my tastes have changed.  It doesn’t really matter; what matters is that you should pick this one up and read it, especially if you’re a fan of the slightly more realistic graphic novel.  

Michael Lark and Stefano Gaudiano’s art doesn’t necessarily draw a lot of attention to itself.  It isn’t usually showing superheroes in fantastic costumes or supervillains amid lots of gore; many of the panels show cops or everyday Gothamites in mundane situations.  For these reasons, you might be tempted to overlook it and forgot how it being a vehicle to tell the story is one of its strongest virtues.  The publication is printed on rough, grainy paper (“pulp”) and in some ways resembles the layout and lettering of a Fables comic.  It’s an impressive achievement in terms of no-nonsense panels and therefore, without hopefully sounding like too much of a schmuck, might be referred to as The Bill of Batman comics.

If, like me, your first exposure to Batman was The Animated Series, then you will cheer at Gotham Central’s depiction of Detective Renee Montoya.  I have to confess, her counterpart in the Nolan!verse (at least as far as we know) was the bent copper Ramirez—not really a good role model!  And perhaps I knew this already, but I’d definitely forgotten:  Montoya has a partner named Daria and Montoya’s conflict and separation with her (presumably) traditional Hispanic family is part of  the drama in this particular volume.  It can’t be tough being female, lesbian, and Hispanic in the G.C.P.D., which again, this volume shows.  Montoya’s partner (this time in the work sense!) is Crispus Allen, and I suppose, from a purely superficial standpoint, between the two, they “tick all the boxes” (Allen could be played by a young Samuel L. Jackson).  

The Quick and the Dead works like a traditional police procedural (with a tiny bit of CSI thrown in); the private eye and superhero elements of other popular comics genres are nonexistent and minimal, respectively.  When Batman makes his brief appearances, they are meaningful and nicely drawn, but it’s not as if you’re looking at your watch waiting for him to swoop down and save the storyline.  “Corrigan” gives a dose of Gotham “freaks,” and its themes of good cops blamed by thugs and disreputable CSIs making money on eBay from evidence feels very modern, quite in tune with the Nolan!verse; the fill-in between The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises.  There’s a great character called Jennifer Gordon-Hewitt, straight out of Faulkner, who collects criminal memorabilia. 

It is a given that many (male) artists who draw for DC love to give us impossibly-proportioned women (either villains or heroes)—it’s something readers have to get used to or stop reading.  Bruce Timm, for example, is one of my favorite Batman artists but his drawings of women border on objectification.  One thing I really liked in Quick and the Dead was that there was a locker room confrontation between Montoya and “Josie Mac” Macdonald and never once was it played for titillation.  Shortly after that, Montoya goes into a tough uniform bar where she is taunted as a “dyke” and then she beats up the man doing the taunting in a bit of gritty violence that, frankly, felt very satisfying.      
In “Lights Out,” the top brass decide (as it was at the end of TDK) to get rid of the bat-signal and to repulse Batman.  Montoya defends him to her colleagues; non-native Gothamites like Allen see him as a vigilante who inspires others to act in crazy ways (à la the beginning of TDK).  “Keystone Kops” starts out very promisingly, in Montoya’s old neighborhood where the kids speak Spanish and Montoya’s father runs the bodega (in which case, Gotham resembles New York rather than L.A.).  Things go a bit less realistic when an unlucky cop, rescuing some ignorant kids, starts to mutate due to the machinations of Dr Alchemy, who isn’t quite up there with the top tier of psycho/freak Gotham villains, but thinks he is.  It’s nice, for once, to see the good guys win, but at a heavy cost.  There might even be a reconciliation between Montoya and her family.  Clearly, I’m not the only one who likes her character; apparently after this volume she broke out into her own title, 52.